Book review: Gilded Needles

Gilded Needles.Gilded Needles by Michael McDowell.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

A while ago, I read my first Michael McDowell novel, and was pleasantly surprised. The plaudits heaped upon the (now deceased) novelist (and Beetlejuice scriptwriter) were truthful, and his strain of subdued horror enchanted me.

So it’s interesting that the second title I’ve read features none of the author’s  signature supernatural forces at all. The evil and machination within Gilded Needles are all resolutely human, and are knotted around a basic drive: for revenge.

The novel, set in Gilded Age New York, is a tale of haves and have-nots. It’s rooted in reality, where corruption and graft are part of political ambition, and families are either dirt-poor or Masters of the Universe. Set in ritzy enclaves and the squalid Black Triangle, the story that’s told is one of what happens when the ruling class (the Stallworths) bring judicial authority to bear on the criminal class (the Shankses).

What happens is a story of revenge served cold: how one woman can rise from failure and poverty to a position of influence, gathering an army. It’s a commentary on class difference – on tenacity versus the laxity that comes with privilege. It’s about how the apparent rulers of the city can be undone by criminals; those who are assumed to be lower than low. And importantly, it’s about how failings, however small, can be taken and turned to advantage by the observant.

It would be churlish to spoil any more of the story than that. The many parts of the plot are clockwork: they snap together with a most pleasing thunk as the pages pass. There’s a lot to be said for McDowell’s portraiture, too: between sapphic pugilists, pawn-shop geniuses and judicial curmudgeons, it’s hard to pick which character is best drawn.

How this thing hasn’t been turned into a film yet is absolutely beyond me. The novels has a distinctly cinematic feel, and offers the reader plenty of “wait, what?” and “no you didn’t!” moments. It’s a story which had me fully invested from the outset, and one which comes to an excellently satisfying crescendo.

McDowell referred to himself as someone who wrote for next month, not for the ages. His outlook was distinctly commercial, yet within Gilded Needles (and, I suspect, much of his other work) there’s a surehandedness that will ensure his creations live far beyond the pulp cycle of their genesis. This is a masterly novel of period revenge, and is very much worth your time.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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