Book of the Day
Three very different women, linked by very similar trauma. Protectors by Kris Nelscott tells the story of how these women collide in 1969 Berkeley, California, in an area torn apart by politics, violence and the ever-present debate of the Counterculture vs. The Establishment. None of the women wanted to get involved with the stories of disappearing college students and violent attacks against women in the dead of night, but each were drawn in because of their own demons whispering in the background.
The story begins the day of the Moon Landing. We learn that Pammy, owner of A Gym of Her Own, always has the best of intentions but is usually in over her head. We also meet Eagle, a former combat nurse who medicates her own demons with alcohol and marijuana while working as the unofficial medic for the gym; and Val, who fled Chicago after a heartbreaking loss. After a late-night incident leaves Eagle shaken to the core, the three women are reluctantly drawn together to investigate rumors of missing college students that the police are studiously unconcerned with. As the women delve deeper into the mystery, each piece of the puzzle they uncover pushes the stakes higher and makes them realize that they have no one to rely on but themselves. The story starts slowly, plodding through the sometimes mundane but absolutely necessary steps of real detective work, but builds to a fast-paced climax that will leave the reader reeling.
Nelscott is a good storyteller, and conveys a strong sense of voice for each of her characters. The plot weaves deftly between the voices of the three main protagonists and the reader is able to piece together an interesting outline of the crimes at the same time as each of the characters, all the while wondering what the next step might be. Protectors is a detective story about characters who would never call themselves detectives. While the overarching plot is one of mystery and murder; there’s also a strong subtext that deals with second-wave feminist issues like domestic violence and rape, sexuality, and women moving out of the home and into the workplace.
Atmosphere is seamlessly woven into the story. The tale is rich with descriptions and details that make the zeitgeist palpable. The reader is left wanting to know more about the real-life historical events that color the story, such as the People’s Park Riot. Casual mentions of ubiquitous cigarette machines and mistrust of the “new” concept of zip codes, to the blatant fear and distrust people feel for the police and the government in general helps set the stage for the conflict the women encounter, which is as much the general attitude of the day as it is anything physical. Yet as much as Nelscott strives to remind the reader that the time and place is 1969 Berkeley, it’s startling how many parallels to present day there are to be found. Characters struggling with their own opinions of politics and war, issues arising due to racism and misogyny, and the overall feminist undertones that permeate the story draw eerie parallels to present day, making the reader wonder just how far we’ve come in nearly 40 years.
While not quite a hard-boiled novel, the tone of the writing is similar. But instead of a gritty male P.I., Nelscott mixes it up with three female voices that are refreshing in their independence. These women never require male assistance; indeed the only male voices present in the story are decidedly unhelpful, either by choice or due to confines in the system. The term “feminist” isn’t directly mentioned but readers will be pleased with Nelscott’s handling of this story, where even women who play minor roles in the story are shown to be strong and capable. The story works great as a standalone detective novel, but seems to be poised as the beginning of a promising series featuring these characters. While not an edge-of-your-seat-thriller, Protectors is a solid piece of fiction that blends history and detective work with a feminist edge.