The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford Review

For 2005, THE GIRL IN THE GLASS won the Edgar award for Best Paperback Original from the Mystery Writers of America. You might think a crime-writing award a strange one for Jeffrey Ford to receive if you’ve principally considered him an author of the fantastic, but this tale, overlayed with fantastic illusion, is about the darkest acts of human arrogance.

Jeffrey Ford

You can also read an interview with Jeffrey Ford.

In 1932, many of the wealthy on Long Island have managed to stay rich or even grow richer. For fifty years, the movement of spiritualism has seduced many, even the recently departed Arthur Conan Doyle, and those desperate enough will pay any price to communicate directly with their absent beloved. This circumstance works an irresistible allure upon grifters, too, in this case, the king of the flimflam, Thomas Schell. A highly-paid medium with an act designed to bamboozle while satisfying his clients just enough to book their next appointment, Schell employs a crew which includes the services of a Mexican immigrant he’s raised and educated from childhood. Diego, the novel’s teenaged narrator, accompanies Schell as an Indian mystic named Ondoo, and Schell’s bare-knuckled brawler of a chauffeur and major domo, Anthony, assists in whatever other action the scam du jour requires. Despite the universal inconveniences of Prohibition, things are going well for the crew and its enigmatic, entomologically-inclined leader.

The world was on the skids, soup lines and Dust Bowls, but you would never have known it from the polished brass banisters and chandeliers of Mrs. Morrison’s Gold Coast palace. The Depression wasn’t our concern either as the three of us sat in Schell’s Bugatorium (Anthony’s name for it), sipping champagne in celebration of a job well done. The air was alive around us with the flutter of tiny wings, a hundred colors floating by, like living confetti, to mark our success.

However, everything changes after Schell’s next séance for the deep-pocketed, because he sees a vision of a scared little girl through the window, and surprises his fellow cons by committing them to help find the child who’s recently gone missing. In the search, they will discover a plot people have killed to protect, one stranger than any sideshow freak and involving crimes more heinous and intricately planned than their own. For this novel, Jeffrey Ford did not invent this era or its happenings, but has discovered an amazing and plausible historical confluence of agendas that he brings into dramatic collision with sensitivity and skill. So read it, read it, definitely read it. But if you haven’t yet, you may not wish to venture much farther here.

At the time of this review’s writing, the book’s been out for a year. Due to Ford’s well-deserved popularity and the Edgar, it’s already received lots of attention and discussion. I myself have heard much gushing and many raves. And I liked it very much, too, but felt at the end a lingering dissatisfaction quite at odds with what other readers reported. It took me some time to figure it out, but I did, and it’s a fundamental issue. Though I’ll try to share my reasoning without bald-faced spoilers, if you’re intuitive enough to ruin your own surprise parties regularly, please read the book first to avoid any diminution of suspense. After which, I invite you to dismantle my following misconceptions in the comments section.

The source of dissatisfaction for me was the universal stasis of character, despite the prodigiously swirling amounts of action. There is a liberally-applied leitmotif of caterpillars to cocoons to winged beauties, once caged now free, but that doesn’t substitute for tangible change. Their enigmatic owner and the fulcrum of the story remains a puzzle as Ford seems perpetually unwilling to declare whether the past events were initiated by happenstance or Schell’s calculation and what they finally meant to the man. No matter how grim the peril, Schell is admired for his emotional restraint, as if one who’s been raised by him or shared his bed ought to know better than to ever want otherwise. But as a reader, I wanted to see a rip in that veneer, something more substantive than the merely suggestive Bugatorium. Even what we concretely learn about his past comes via someone else’s mouth, and doesn’t make it any easier to grasp his slippery essence. Schell’s response to his upbringing might have ranged from serene acceptance to banked rage without reflecting a difference in his cool demeanor. Under emotional duress, he tends to leave the room and the stage of the novel.

If Schell isn’t exposed or moved, what about the other characters? Well, whatever horrors are learned about their pasts certainly don’t seem to affect their leader’s assessments of them. Another important character, whose origin contains hitherto unknown deformations and damage, isn’t allowed to be affected in sight of the reader in any wrenching way when those are uncovered. I thought it a lost opportunity, especially in terms of that character’s relationship to Schell, not to mention an unlikely outcome. But here, history seems to serve mainly as an accelerant to action, not a cause for reflection or change. It’s as if Schell and his odd company of outsiders so implacably reflect the position that a person is more than his unfortunate past or circumstances that even the most shocking revelations lose the power to transform.

Also given is the impression of a bildungsroman through Diego’s manly evolution and assumption of more independent responsibility. However, what’s witnessed is far more an acknowledgement of his maturation than any catharsis, and he will not respond with anything but continuity of personality. The book’s vantage is sixty-seven years after the events he’s recalling, and by the end, I’ll admit to feeling surprised, but mainly by evidence of the uncommonly lasting nature of this seventeen year-old’s feelings and predilections. Comrade Anthony remains stalwart in his conviction and personality as well. These, too, were cast in stone from the start.

Compounding this lack of internal character dynamism, the Us versus Them teams are never transgressed, and though upside-down compared to the stereotypical identification of heroes and villains, the anti-heroes and evil privileged folks are just as firmly pigeon-holed. There are no important reversals or betrayals on either side, though I hoped at least one of those who routinely lie for money might prove untrustworthy, and at least one member of the “respected citizenry” might be compassionate and honorable, not credulous and cruel. If all remain as they begin, despite heaps of action and metaphorical references and amazing historical convergences and bombshells, some potential of this tale is dead from the beginning, and the substitution of a surrounding whirlwind strikes this reader as an undoubtedly skilled, but less fulfilling sleight-of-hand.