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by Valerie Wilson Wesley
Kensington, January 2021
ISBN: 1496727789

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Since 1994, Valerie Wilson Wesley's award-winning Tamara Hayle mystery series and her editorial work for Essence Magazine have told African-American women's stories via popular media. Her mysteries are informed by her journalist's eye for life detail, social problems, and structural causes. A GLIMMER OF DEATH, the first novel in a new series, is no exception. Dessa Jones of Grovesville, New Jersey is an intriguing protagonist, a widowed middle-aged African-American culinary artist who, having lost her beloved husband and their bakery business, turns to that staple of the suburban woman in need of immediate work: real estate agenting.

Dessa's new-ish boss, Charlie Risko, is a garden-variety real estate schmuck, and that's putting it politely. Dessa hasn't sold enough houses, so Charlie is threatening to fire her, but that's not what she finds upsetting.

No, she is unnerved by nutmeg, or, rather, the smell of nutmeg, which should not permeate a real estate office, not even in the era of elaborately flavored corporate chain coffee. For the allegedly clairvoyant Dessa, nutmeg smells like death.

The book opens with this inauspicious smell, evocatively described by Dessa in a manner that reminded this reviewer of the spice-laden, memory-invoking stream-of-consciousness opening of Audre Lorde's powerful "biomythography" Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983). Like Lorde's autobiographical protagonist, Dessa senses and reasons well beyond the surface of things. She notes that many of her colleagues and neighbors have hidden complexities, multiple identities or self-fashioned surfaces. One coworker, Juda Baker, talks up a Swedish grandmother while her "nappy black roots peek[ed] defiantly through her golden mane." The marriage of the smarmy Risko and his very young wife involves equally sad layers of deception and self-deception. When Risko is shot in his office and the cops uncritically nab a bad-boy type (hint: he shares his first name with an iconic motorcycle and his last name with a visionary imprisoned by bigotry) with whom Dessa sympathizes, she decides to solve the murder for them. In so doing, she rips open secrets and hypocrisies that aren't far-fetched—and, in fact, will strike some readers as strongly reminiscent of stories from extremely current events.

The nagging "glimmers" of intuition that Dessa experiences might sound magical, but they also come across as a sane response to the magical thinking in which so much of her society engages on a daily basis. This reviewer also appreciates Wesley's relegation of the "glimmer" to hunches. Her book is not a supernatural street, To actually solve Charlie's murder, Dessa uses observation and reason. In other words, the feeling sets her on her quest, but it isn't what carries her to its object. Her next outing should be equally luminescent and incisive.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, November 2020

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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