BY DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI
AMBER LOVE 05-JAN-2015 I never hide the fact that sometimes the books I review are written by my friends. However, I’d like to think that I can still be honest with the material. In fact, I’ve met a lot of my writer pals because of my reviews. Some old advice is: Surround yourself with talented people. I do that. DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI and I met years ago because I reviewed one of his comics. I don’t always love his work and his first email to me was that my honesty was refreshing. I hope it still is because I gut the hell out of CANARY, stuff it and mount it on my wall.
Keep reading, please. I do point out the good things but they are woefully outweighed by an important imbalance. Since there is some possibly triggering feedback, I put the details of under the accordion to be expanded. I give it 3 out of 5 stars because of technical merit.
(Useless fact: I love the song of the canary. Not all birds have a pretty song but the canary does.)
CANARY is a stand alone crime novel about a teenage* college freshman named Sarie “Canary” Holland who is trying so hard to impress a boy that she ends up committing crimes for him which in turn leads her to becoming a confidential informant for the Philadelphia Police narcotics unit. (
*I couldn’t find exact reference to her age; sometimes she’s called 17, other times 18-19 by people trying to guess and a very important distinction that should have been made because of some issues).[EDIT 06-JAN: Confirming through Swierczynski’s Canary blog that Sarie is only 17-years-old.)
Despite the lead character, I don’t think this is a YA book though there’s no reason teens wouldn’t find it entertaining too; It’s straight-up crime fiction. I was kind of surprised in the acknowledgements that Swierczynski says his kids are allowed to read it. It’s not something I would have read as a teenager or feel comfortable recommending to anyone under 16. The drug content would have turned me off immediately. As a young virginal teen the parts about the sex work, I know I would have seen as glamorous and a great way to pay for college. (*tons more about that below.) But I know that there are kids reading torture porn and horror and watching all that on film so I’m not one to parent them. Just my two cents there.
As always, my favorite thing that Swierczynski does is take a huge cast of characters that seemingly would never interact and laces them together CRASH style with less than six degrees of separation between them. This is where his writing astounds me all the time. It’s what I look forward to when I hear there’s a new book coming out. The more stories I read that pull this plotting off well, the more I believe it’s what I want to learn most about writing fiction.
The relationship between the protagonist Sarie “Canary” Holland and her police handler Officer Ben Wildey is the best camaraderie out of the relationships/connections presented in CANARY. There’s only one part where I balked about them. Mostly, they played off each other well with witty banter and vocalized frustrations. Wildey feels a great deal of compassion and trust with Sarie. He doesn’t seem to have partners on his specialized beta-testing NFU-CS narco squad. Sarie brings out everything appealing about him. He’s obviously much older. He chooses to live in the shittiest part of Philly. There is no evidence of him having a personal life except for a great aunt that is too senile to recognize him. If he was ten years younger, he’d certainly make for a better romantic interest than the guy Sarie is chasing after, Drew.
Another great quality of CANARY is the richness of the imagery. The sights, sounds, smells, and textures come through in every scene. The settings jump within Philadelphia from houses to colleges to those dark scary underworld places where people get whacked and bodies get dumped. The feeling a character has of being freezing cold out on the streets while trying to find safety – hair a mess, clothes ruined, carrying a gun (no mention of a purse to put it in) – all of the shivering and fear comes through.
Swierczynski is also my favorite writer to handle changing points of view. He’s honestly the best at this. The book constantly switches between Sarie writing letters to her deceased mother, to the other living characters: her dad, her brother, the cops, even one of the hitmen.
I don’t know why the book isn’t broken into chapters every time the POV changes. I prefer short chapters because I feel like I’m getting somewhere and making progress. It’s only a preference thing but having empty spaces when changing POV form one person’s head to another could use more demarcation like a firm chapter break. These are looooong chapters. I read it on a Kindle so all I had to go by was the task bar at the bottom. That task bar did not make me happy until I was at 81%.
At 81% that’s when CANARY became the book I enjoyed. It had plenty of ludicrous moments and I even made some notes about key parts that I didn’t see fitting together; yet that last 19% of the book was the best. That was the fun ride of action, fight scenes, and pure desperation by every character that I knew Swierczynski normally provides.
TREATMENT OF FEMALE CHARACTERS
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare CANARY to Swierczynski’s other works. I believe each title can and should be critically analyzed on its own. However, there’s no overcoming that I know what Swierczynski is capable of writing in terms of female characters, like in BIRDS OF PREY and even GODZILLA. That’s why certain things couldn’t get out of my head as much as I wanted them to. If you follow my Twitter @elizabethamber, you probably saw me posting things like this:
FEMALE CHARACTER #1:
Sarie Holland has more purpose than the female sidekicks of the Charlie Hardie series, but there are so many pitfalls with her in CANARY. I think it’s noble that Swierczynski tried to make a young female protagonist after such a “manly” DIE HARD-esque trilogy, but not only did the character disappoint, so did every female character, of which there aren’t many, and some of the female-related subject matter that could have been easily researched. And I mean in disappoint big ugly ways.
SHE GETS SEXUALLY ASSAULTED A LOT
It never fails that the women of Swierczynski’s books “need” to lose their clothes; it’s expected in the action genre like movies that cast women in tank tops in the Arctic (see: Alien v Predator). I’ll remind you that Sarie is a teenager right out of high school cramming for her first semester of final exams at college. I thought the predictable clothing loss was funny when it happened in books like SEVERANCE PACKAGE (a book I thoroughly enjoyed) because those times played into the trope that Hollywood has been presenting, like a doting secretary turned badass. It felt like it was poking fun at it and being parody more than adding to the trope. Likewise, I embraced the topless scene of his assassin character Mann in the Charlie Hardie trilogy because she was a completely amazing character; I even did a little backyard cosplay of her. (I only wish my memory of her personal character bible was still in my head.)
In CANARY, Sarie Holland goes through a story arc utterly lacking in strong sexual independence or exploration. She’s not owning her body; she’s allowing men to use it at every turn even when their hands are absent (PLEASE for the love of God look up what coercion and manipulation mean!) For a character that was initially unfolding as having superior intelligence, this fell apart. She’s a teenager working for the police without parental guidance or permission. And she’s a complete idiot being taken advantage of by men page after infuriating page. At the end, her police partner and father drone on about how intelligent and resourceful she is – I wanted to throw them off a building for that too after eyerolling a million times.
The worst moment for Sarie, in her ever present mission to achieve her goals of catching drug dealers, comes when she meets yet another asshole. She finds Douche #2 in a bar (with her illegal ID). He leads her to a disgustingly creepy octogenarian OB-GYN to score some pills which is her plan to lead the police away from Douchey Drug Dealer #1, the object of her desire. To show her cop handler Wildey, Douche #1 and Douche #2 that she will do anything it takes, she submits to a vaginal exam by a drug-pedaling [REDACTED] doctor! With her naked and feet in stirrups, the doctor proceeds to let his fingers linger a bit too long. The doctor’s story goes on to get even more gross.
Here’s where I point out the obvious mistake in this subplot: the doctor’s side story could be deleted from the chapter and you wouldn’t know the difference. It adds nothing to the main plot. This was done with no other purpose than gratuitous objectification of the female “hero.” This doctor could have, and in my opinion, would have been better played out as a dentist – someone in the medical profession more universally feared than a gynecologist.
Paying cash for this privilege and submitting to this violation are some of the lengths of Sarie’s actions to further the goals of male characters. Being forced into a situation is still a sexual violation even if she wasn’t being held down by a man. This is rape culture and it’s why it’s so hard to get people to understand it. This wasn’t a stranger in an alley holding her down, but it was a guy looking to score drugs forcing her to see a known criminal and get violated in the most intimate way possible.
This might be the sort of thing that people who don’t undergo vaginal exams can’t understand. It’s invasive. Think of every “bend over, drop your pants” prostate joke and exponentially multiply the humiliation and fear knowing that one in four (or one in five depending on source) women are sexually assaulted. This one scene in CANARY triggered all my rage and fear about the ongoing battles women all over the world face every single day with suffocating laws that don’t allow for body autonomy. And here, readers are supposed to accept that this young woman paid to put herself through a situation where she uses words like “creepy” to describe how unsettling and alarming it is – all to impress three men with her “criminal drug buying skills.”
Moving on to more: Sarie ends up tearing off her shirt in a room of scary biker type gangster drug dealers. It’s only meant to throw the men off their guard while searching for a wire, but that’s where the toplessness fails. Instead, it comes through as yet one more unnecessary scene in a story where a (young) woman is coerced, scared, and terrified in a situation and her only course of action is being titillating. If Swierczynski wanted to present Sarie as a girl comfortable in her tall, thin Latina body, this was not the way to do it.
There’s one more rapey scene about three-quarters of the way through. It’s a pivotal turning point because as soon as a man is done putting his hands all over Sarie, that’s when the book takes off and redeems itself from Rape-adelphia. After that it’s a first-rate action thriller. Of the sexual assault scenes, this was the only that could have been considered appropriate for the tension of the hero vs. villain.
I should not need to exclusively read YA novels in order to find female characters that aren’t components of rape culture!
Male characters that go through torture scenes (the aforementioned Hardie series) should not be the writer’s equivalent to rape tropes. None of Swierczynski’s male characters that I’ve read end up in sexually violent (implied or graphically spelled out) situations. If you don’t subject your male characters to sexual assault in every book, why do all female characters need to end up naked and giving up control of their bodies for the sake of the men’s goals?
This doesn’t even get into the male character known as Partyman. He’s YET ANOTHER man that she does everything for. That’s a minimum of FOUR male characters that Sarie puts herself in harms way to please.
The only romance in this book is one that’s depressing where she abandons all of who she is in order to win the affections of this college senior/criminal who disregards her safety constantly. The guy is a first rate dick. The goal seems to have been to make Sarie a hero, but she comes through weak. She’s pathetically changing everything about herself to impress this one dude and her cop handler (who also has a creepy moment of sewing a button-microphone onto her shirt while she’s still in it). Her decisions to make all the plans, even if they override the cop, do not make her a leader. She’s strong-willed, yes. She insists her way is the only way. But no cop would put an underage and untrained girl through any of this no less allow her to make the playbook (sure, that’s what adds to this being in the fiction section).
Sarie even ends up with an acute form of Stockholm Syndrome with one of the hitmen. Her forgiveness and kindness to him after what he’s done is unbelievable. It’s another example of how the female protagonist is so weak when it comes to interacting with any men at all. I would have accepted the attachment to the hitman a lot better if her other pathetic deficiencies weren’t so abundant. Of all Sarie’s fucked up connections to people, this was the one that should have taken second or third place behind her handler and her father; but after the string of leaping head-first into scenes with assholes, this became just another one.
FEMALE CHARACTER #2:
Of the three women in CANARY, Lt. Kaz Mahoney is handled the best (or rather least worst). The Lieutenant’s ex-husband Rem is still on the police force in Internal Affairs. His frightening stalker behavior with her seemed unnecessary (as gross as spying on her in the bathroom), but there needed to be some way of him getting information on her department’s activities. Personally, I think that if Rem could use his skills and resources to interfere with Sarie’s technology, then the stalking was only there to remove the power of a woman yet again. This time a woman with a gun, badge, and command of the police squad.
It was great that the person in charge of the squad was a woman. She has an interesting backstory of her own about being Russian and having family members on the wrong side of the law. At least there’s that.
FEMALE CHARACTER #3:
The third female character, Tammy, had more naiveté than even Sarie. Tammy is just stupid. She’s stupid in that dumb selfish blonde but adorable kind of way like Penny on The Big Bang Theory. Plenty of girls really do go through these phases in their teens. She is a bad friend to Sarie. She doesn’t return her texts unless there’s something in it for her. She pulls Sarie into yet more bad situations which is done to connect the dots of the characters (as I said that plotting is done well) all the while Tammy stays blissfully ignorant that she’s in the den of major criminal activity. She tries to redeem herself by the end. She’s not a terrible character, but she’s not a meaningful one either.
There is a fourth female character and, in a way, a fifth. The fourth is the Italian Mafia Hit-person(?) Lisa Lisa. You don’t get to know much about her. She’s not a developed, core character. She’s female for the sake of adding a token into the hitman pool. She’s a male character with a vagina and boobs.
There’s also, Laura, the unseen mother of Sarie Holland who is dead through the entire thing but plays an important role as the “audience” of Sarie’s story. That’s not a spoiler – you get that figured out on page one. You learn about her in the last quarter of the book, particularly the last chapter. Like I said, that last chapter is gold.
RESEARCH: THE GOOD & THE BAD
THE GOOD RESEARCH:
Swierczynski comes through with believable drug trade use and operations – not that I’d have a real clue since it’s not my thing. I’ll confess every mention of “pancakes and syrup” only served to make me hungry because I don’t know what that means in the drug culture. I just really want pancakes.
Police corruption was another laudable element of CANARY. You only need to watch the news for a day to see how that’s been going in major cities and even small towns. The police officers that readers get to know have individual personalities and styles. Rem is nothing like Wildey; Kaz is a ball buster but secretly has no power because of Rem. There’s an air of suspicion about the Police Commissioner too even though he’s barely given a page. Obviously someone on the inside must be a dirty cop. Readers don’t know who for a long time and that makes the tension within the department palpable.
Philly’s rich history is pulled into the story throughout. Those dirty cops were based on real events like the organized crime at the docks. I loved seeing mentions of real places where I’ve traveled like the Grey Lodge and Port Richmond Bookstore. Characters get defensive about their sports teams and one insists on using the old names of streets and neighborhoods before gentrification updated them. The city is either an ingrained part of these characters or not, as with Sarie who wants to be in California. Swierczynski uses his city so well in his stories that I wonder how he’d survive if he ever moved away. Details about Philly help bring this to life. If the cat and mouse games were set on an alien planet, they wouldn’t have this kind of tangible embrace. The research about the rat collection centers is similar to real history of New Jersey where it’s probably still on the books that you could drop off rats at the city clerk’s office for a few cents, just like recycling.
THE BAD RESEARCH:
There was also some exceptionally bad research and unsurprisingly, it centers on women’s roles. This is not a huge part of the book but it irritated me enough to spell out how wrong it is. Some of the characters are connected through the Sugar Daddy/Baby relationship. Like escort agencies and “massage parlors” – they have terms of service where users swear to the Gods of the Internet that they are not using the technology, software development or anything about the company to engage in illegal activity like prostitution.
These services are sex work.
It’s not rocket science to read between the lines of the TOS of them. I’ve seen one of the developers and founders on a Good Morning, America interview where he, of course, insisted it’s about “mutually beneficial arrangements.” Oh, it sounds dee-fucking-lightful. But it’s a crock of shit.
Here’s how I know better: the main source for my own book about webcamming was my ex. During our years together, we experimented in a few interesting things. Finances sucked for both of us. And one of the times she was about to become homeless, we talked about the Sugar Daddy websites. We had seen them at Exxxotica as vendors. Manning the booths were men over 40 with olive skin and greased back black hair wearing shiny suits. She signed up on the site and lasted a weekend. Every single email she got was asking her point blank, how much for ____; and the blank was either clearly worded sexual acts or sexualized fetish acts. Every. Single. Email.
As I said, after a few days of being inundated and grossed out, she deleted her profile.
It’s not a judgment on them at all, because I advocate for decriminalization. I also advocate for people educating themselves on a subject if you’re going to have plenty of pages devoted to it. The constant message that “they’re just friendly girls that are going to hang out with us” presented in CANARY is laughable. They are sex workers. And having one of three female characters a sex worker in your book that promised to divert from the testosterone of past books, is a failure when that sex worker has no agency. She’s dumber than dumb. This isn’t a sex worker who took control of her financial situation and her body and made conscious decisions to enjoy her body, regardless of what the character spews. She’s a dumb (possibly underage) teenage girl that tries to talk her best friend into joining her on this escapade to get a “boyfriend,” whose last name she doesn’t even know, to pay off her credit card every month. Besides the glaring statutory rape implications if the character is underage, there are things wrong with how sex work was disguised in CANARY.