Review: The Lady Upstairs by Halley Sutton
Publication Date: November 17, 2020
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, neo-noir but about women
Tags: feminist revenge not-so-fantasy, fucked-up sapphic ladies, lots of crimes, racier than your average book
This is a mean tale about cruel women. It's billed as a “feminist novel,” but as the author herself mentions, it's less that the characters themselves are feminists (probably not) and more that the book explores the interiority of the noir genre's hardened femme fatales.
It's a little bit Ocean's 8 meets Hustlers, but with on-the-page queerness. Personally, I think I wanted more Ocean's 8, but that's a different book. This is definitely more Hustlers. It's interested in depicting a cruel world, and exploring what drives people to enter and escape it, and what social mechanisms allow all the badness to continue.
Readers looking for more books about queer women making terrible, tragic choices to survive will enjoy this one. A lot of it is unpleasant, and a bit too true to life. But it hasn't left my head since I finished it, so I suppose that's an endorsement of its craft.
It's not fun – it's too depressing for that. But it flips crime thriller/noir standards, and it follows a twisty crime-driven plot through to the bitter end. Along the way, it interrogates sex, consent, power, and abuse, particularly ways people exploit the concept of “empowerment” to control people.
(It's worth noting that this book borrows a lot of the tropes of rape revenge tales, BUT there's no sexual assault plotlines. There are lots of terrible men who are cruel and creepy to women, though. Content warnings for bad consent practices in the form of women manipulating other women into having bad sex with other men, and a man who hurts women without permission during sex off the page. Also content warnings for alcohol abuse and self-destructive sexual behaviors.)
It takes the POV of Jo, who recruits girls to seduce powerful bad men, then blackmails them, on the orders of the mysterious Lady Upstairs. Jo works with Lou, who brought her into the fold while she was vulnerable after a breakup. Jo's got a thing for the terrifying Lou, but she's fucking Jackal, the sleazy blackmailer/photographer who works for them.
Jo is self-destructive. She drinks too much and pursues men she hates instead of admitting her terrifying feelings for the woman she actually likes. Every action Jo takes is filtered through stress, trauma, alcohol, self-denial, avoidance... (There's probably a whole essay in the meta-level of how the book handles Jo's fear of intimacy, and how it cross-pollinates with her bisexuality.)
Due to a job gone wrong years ago, Jo owes the Lady a lot of money. When Jackal skips out on the latest job, it jeopardizes Jo's ability to pay off. Things escalate from there, and go poorly. The series of disasters brings Jo to the terrible truth of her boss, the Lady Upstairs, and poises her to decide whether to stay in her prison, escape with her life, or something else altogether.
This book both loves and hates its femme fatales, and it's not really interested in reconciling that. Instead the book worries at that problem, like it's tonguing a wound in its mouth.
While the plot is essentially about honeypots and blackmail and punishing bad men, the story is really more about the women. Thematically, Jo's tale circles around empowerment and abuse: Lou makes Jo feel like she's taking power back from men who hurt her, and others, but Lou is herself controlling Jo. Jo uses the same tactics to bring in young girls; one manipulated girl muses that as much as she hates Jo and her manipulation, she still wants to be her.
There's all sorts of nasty circles of lies and abuse, here, and no easy solutions – just escalation. If the book has an argument, it's probably that some forms of freedom are traps.
In all, a provocative read, and one that's more interested in raising questions than answering them. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't dissuade someone from reading it, and it'll definitely hit the spot for readers who want a revenge noir more willing to explore the nastier implications of the genre.
I'm a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow what I'm reading live on Storygraph. You can subscribe to this blog via email or via the Fediverse @email@example.com. Find me at @petrinkae on Twitter or on Mastodon.