Following Dana Leoni’s debut appearance, in Pat Capponi’s Last Stop Sunnyside, is a tough act. The series launched the reader into a world that’s quite likely unfamiliar to the majority of readers, though certainly familiar to its author, whose years of activist work and five non-fiction books reveal a familiarity with poverty and homelessness, crime and policing, and mental-illness and health care issues.
Pat Capponi knows this world well, but most readers would only want to meet the members of this wide cast of characters after dark if already safely snugged into bed, the addicts and patients and petty thieves carefully confined to the pages of the novel. But you might feel differently after you’ve gotten to know them, which you do in Last Stop Sunnyside, and most of the characters reappear in this sequel.
In speaking of writing the first novel, Pat Capponi discusses how much she loved reading mystery novels that took her to another place, like Venice or Eastern Europe. ““I’ve never travelled,” explains Capponi, “and I love those kinds of books. They open up a whole other world, and through the mysteries you can see how the societies work. [Likewise,] Parkdale is not a world many people know. My challenge was to make them want to know it.” (This is from an interview in Quill & Quire, 2006, as are the two quotes below.) And she does indeed.
But it’s one thing to believe that a marginalized-rooming-house-border-with-a-history-of-depression in Parkdale could stumble upon a mystery that needed to be solved to protect a member of her community, but is it believable that Dana will shift from accidental-crime-fighter-on-the-defensive to I-solve-crimes-all-the-time-Private-Investigator?
Well, no, it might not be, unless you’ve read Last Stop Sunnyside, which introduces Dana as a marginalized-rooming-house-border-with-a-history-of-depression but then develops her into a multi-faceted character, a human being whose class and mental state are but single aspects of her identity.
In that context, and with the assistance of a police officer who plays a major role in the first novel, and with a bit of luck (a fellow she went to university with saw the media splash surrounding the successful resolution of the mystery in Last Stop Sunnyside and is now a successful business man with a need for discretion so he can resolve a problematic situation), Dana and her friends and roomies cement the success of their burgeoning Private Investigation service and the series takes hold.
Still, the roomies don’t have the resources that most mystery novel characters do. “They can’t co-ordinate watches because they only have one watch between them; they can’t tail people because they can’t drive; they can’t even tail someone on the bus because they have no bus tickets.”
But where they’re short on money, there’s intelligence and creativity in abundance, and their survival skills are remarkable indeed, honed by everyday life not self-defense instructors. They also have a keen desire to restore a sense of justice to those who have been mistreated and abused: the strong motivation to set things right is evident in characters and author alike.
This could easily cross the line into preachy fiction but it never does. Both appealing and unappealing characters inhabit each side of the class lines drawn in the novel and although there is sometimes a spot of good luck that might seem a bit contrived (like the sudden reappearance of an “old friend” who saves the day by needing not-just-any-PI but only Dana-Leoni-will-do) there is also sometimes a spot of bad luck (sometimes bad things do happen to good people even in fiction).
But overall the series manages a relatively optimistic tone, so don’t pick them up if you’re looking for a cozy (hard to get cozy in an Out-of-the-Cold shelter) but do pick them up if you like mysteries with characters who are out-of-the-ordinary even when they aren’t Out-of-the-Cold.
The author’s activist and journalistic spirit is clearly a boon for the series, but overall the Dana Leoni stories are captivating and entertaining, even if they do end up informing the reader along the way (did you know that stuffing your coat with newspaper is a cheap way to stay warmer in the winter?).
As Pat Capponi says: “the greatest thing is that in fiction you can have people win. I really love that.”