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Robert Pobi

Robert Pobi dealt in fine Georgian antiques for thirteen years before turning to writing full-time. He writes every day — at a desk once owned by Roberto Calvi.

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"Fair warning: expect to sleep with the lights on after you turn the final page."

– Wes Lukowsky

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American Woman

Layers of Violence, Professionalism, Paranoia, and General Distrust

07/19/14

I like strong women. I like strong female protagonists in my fiction. Robert Pobi does not disappoint with his third novel, American Woman. Alexandra “Hemi” Hemingway is a lot of things: brilliant NYC police detective, Ivy League educated daughter of wealthy parents, brutally protective of herself and those she holds close, deeply troubled, prone to violent outbursts, pregnant.

That, in and of itself, could have been the basis for a wonderful, but less exciting novel. Pobi chooses instead to move quickly away from Hemi’s internal struggles and focus on her latest case. There’s a sadistic serial killer on the loose, and he’s targeting New York’s children, cutting them up, and leaving the pieces for the police to find, taunting them with his ability to move about unseen and always be two steps ahead of them.

Hemi’s internal struggles are sharply contrasted with the need to find this killer. Not only does she have a huge decision to make regarding the life growing inside of her, one that she knows would forever alter the life she’s spent fifteen years working her ass off to build in the face of often brutal sexism, but she’s still reeling from the violent death of her boyfriend a few years earlier. A death that she avenged in a hail of bullets and blood that left six men dead and her with a few new dental implants, a reconstructed cheekbone and shoulder blade, and a partially collapsed lung. Like I said: brutally protective, deeply troubled, and prone to violence.

It would be easy to say that Hemi is an over-the-top, Hollywood rendition of a New York City detective. And it would also be accurate. The things that she gets away with, never mind survives, would be grounds for immediate dismissal of any actual police officer. She is, in the parlance of the clichéd police drama, a "loose cannon”. But I can forgive Pobi for drawing her outline in such stark and simple terms, because he is also able, amid the frustration, gore, and quickly climbing body count, to fill in that outline and make her something more than Die Hard’s John McClane with breasts. She is full of conflicting drives and self-doubts, frustration at how much harder she’s had to work for acceptance in a historically male-dominated field; she has a family that will never understand the decisions she makes, and that she is therefore estranged from. She spends what little down-time she has worrying herself sick about what it would mean for her to become a mother, to bring a child into a world that she knows all too well is working hard to take you out of it. She is human. And it is Hemi’s humanity — admittedly hidden deep below the layers of violence, professionalism, paranoia, and general distrust — that make her a compelling character.

The main plot of the novel — the finding of the killer — is pure Hollywood crime thriller. The sheer number of unexpected twists makes it improbable in reality, but Pobi builds a fictional version of the city through Hemi’s eyes that makes it believable. I admit that this was often a book I had to put down and walk away from for a while. Not because I found it hard to suspend my disbelief, but because I found myself becoming overly-affected by the violence and brutality of the killer. There were nights I lost sleep over it. Nights I found myself double and triple-checking that I had locked my doors against the night and the invisible terrors lurking in it. And I know from first-hand experience how difficult it is to write in a way that elicits that kind of instinctual response.

Speaking of Hollywood, I found myself imagining the novel projected onto the big screen as I was reading it. Mostly this was not a problem, and spoke to the author’s ability to conjure images fully-formed on the page. However, there are several times when the narrative point-of-view shifts to a different character for a chapter to show what the killer is thinking, or what one of his future victims is doing right before being abducted. In a movie, this technique can be used to great effect, building tension and offering relief from staring at the same couple of actors who are up on the screen for 95% of the film. In a novel, I personally find it distracting, and even jarring at times to be suddenly yanked out of the protagonist’s head and dropped suddenly into someone else’s. Pobi does scores extra points for being able to shift his narrative style to indicate this change in point-of-view, however.

In the end, I found myself unsurprised by the shocking revelations as to the killer’s identity and connection to his victims. But that was only because I had figured it out a hundred pages earlier from the clues that Pobi dropped throughout the story, clues that might be less obvious to a reader less familiar with the genre (or less obsessively detail-oriented) than I am. Despite this, I still found myself tensing up as I reached that final confrontation, as Hemi puts together the pieces and realizes just how terrifying this case truly is. And that’s a skill that I envy in Robert Pobi. Even though I knew the answers, I was still on the edge of my seat to see what would happen next.

And I can’t wait to see what does happen next. If this novel gets optioned for a movie, I will gladly pay $15 to go see it, despite already knowing the plot. And, if it’s made well and sticks to the source material (no guarantee in this day and age), I will be both happy and deeply disturbed by that movie. But you know what I want even more than to see this up on that screen? I want more of Hemi on the page. I want to learn more about her, to see her face new challenges with the same dogged, often self-destructive, determination that made me love her in this book. Get on that, Mr. Pobi.

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