Author Douglas Kennedy is an artist. Like a painter who uses brush strokes to flesh out a person’s individuality on canvas, author Kennedy uses skillful dialogue. A reader cannot help but learn about a person’s character merely by the amount of dialogue in his latest novel, The Woman in the Fifth. In my mind, this is skillful writing, not mere story-telling.
Sucked down the societal drainpipe from a scandal in his American hometown where he had been a dignified professor, Harry Ricks empties into the dregs of the Parisian scene. Is such a sewer place possible? Well, in The Woman in the Fifth it is. With only the money he’s succored from a bank account where he left at least half to his beloved daughter, Harry rents a gutter-like room in Paris’ noir element.
Suffocating in self pity, meaninglessness, and hopelessness, Harry merely tries to pass away his life in bars, salons, and movie theaters, convincing himself he is writing a good salable novel. Realizing his bank account will run out, Harry begins working for a shady man who pays him daily to sit through the night in a second floor “office” to buzz in undesirables into the vault-like room below him. Harry knows something illicit is going on but is afraid to get involved even after he hears horrific agonized shrieks through the floor — so badly does he need money.
At a strange salon, Harry meets and then falls in love with an odd woman who likes his body and sexual prowess, but she can only see him at definite times on certain days of the week. This lovely but bizarre woman spills out her guts to Harry. She reveals that she lost both her husband and daughter in an automobile accident. Harry has lost his wife and daughter in a somewhat contrived, unfair scandal.
After patrons leave her tavern, a barmaid locks the tavern door, and in my mind, she forces Harry to rape her. All the while, this lurid lust-filled woman knows her jealous husband will murder Harry when he learns of their frenzied copulation. Well, of course he finds out! He is on the rampage to knife off Harry’s testicles and to slit his throat as well.
But the opposite occurs. This man is found dead; so is Harry’s sleazy neighbor in the next room; so are people involved in whatever-is-going-on in the room beneath Harry’s “office.” Harry becomes a chief suspect in <I>all</i> the murders. He is questioned, but discloses no damaging information.
At rock bottom, Harry revisits the apartment of the loving woman whom he had met and confided in at the timeless salon. To his complete chimera, her apartment is dusty — cobweb covered. This beloved woman died many years ago. What? Does this make sense to the reader? Does it make sense to Harry? The scene is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations where jilted Miss Havisham’s room sits amidst the ruinous remains of her wedding day.
How are these incongruous events to make sense? Can they make sense? Is Harry succumbing to the same fever that kept him sheltered for many days upon his arrival in beautiful Paris? Has time somehow passed him by or is he living in an even grander deceit than he first thought.
The Woman in the Fifth is a read that could easily leave you engrossed till its final pages. The ending is odd, strange, peculiar, different, bizarre, outlandish, weird — I haven’t enough adjectives to describe it. It may leave you intrigued like the move Ghost, or it may leave you disappointed that a more sensational realistic ending did not occur.
Needless to say, readers will find The Woman in the Fifth hard to put down hoping for a climax befitting its dangerous story. I would recommend it to readers who love the mysterious, the mystifying, the baffling, the unearthly. In the end, whatever judgment you pass upon this book, you will have to admit it was entertaining and well written.