Authors whose names alone won't sell a book are often forced to write category fiction (the notion spoofed so utterly by the No Frills line whose titles were "Romance," "Mystery" and so on). Most authors, though, and newcomers especially, aim to transcend these slots.
The irony is that many readers buy by category ("Get me a thriller while you're at the drugstore, hon."). When a writer gives a whole lot more than the genre requires, such readers are apt not to notice, particularly when that writer sticks very closely to the "rules" of the category selected.
A lot of what a friend of mine calls "actual books" are lost this way. Let's not let that happen here.
And it could, oddly, because Kathryn Kilgore has so fully mastered the demands of the caper (a sub-category, really). As a caper, this book is wonderfully conceived. The heroine, Molly Stone, is scamming to earn the $40,000 that'll keep the farm on which she was raised from being sold for back taxes. The lesser crimes that she's been practicing just won't do. This time out, she steals some already-stolen paintings from a mobster and attempts to wheel and deal with the company that insured the art.
Feminists will love the way Molly comes by the esoteric knowledge she needs to rework her scheme when it goes awry:
"David once introduced me to a petty thief who'd met a fellow who knew an art dealer who knew a story, to which I listened. Sometimes in bars people will tell you things they wouldn't say under natural lighting. Sometimes they tell you things they don't believe themselves. But after all, I'm always just a girl in everybody's eyes, especially after a few drinks. The fellow assumed as usual that the odds were against my being interested in crime instead of in him."
The ins and outs and near-misses of her plan keep Molly on the move: New York, Canada, the Cayman Islands. Because she's talking to us all the time, we're right with her. Accomplices, if you will. And she's charming company. She can quote Voltaire or Al Capone, depending on her mood. "Something for Nothing" is worth reading for the adventure alone.
But Molly involves us in more than the plot, and never steps outside the plot to do so. Molly's past propels her and she reveals it to us movingly -- her brother Terry's wreck, her father's suicide, her mother's remarriage, her mother's death. Only her alcoholic stepbrother, David, is left, and once she gets the farm back, she'll rehabilitate him there. Or will she? "He's a broken toy, David," she tells us. "Why do I keep trying to fix him?"
At the same time, she withholds herself from even her best friend and occasional lover, Georgia:
"Last night over shrimp and snow peas I tried to tell her about finding David, but she didn't want to hear. They never got along. So I started to talk about the farm, although I became a bit evasive. We cannot, as a rule, talk about our adventures without the same old ideological arguments, so we rarely do."
Molly does the same with Jim, her partner in the heist. She jokingly excuses herself for holding him at arm's length. "It's so hard," she explains, "to interest a dealer in other realities besides drugs." Molly is a person whose caring has always come to naught. She spends her caring where naught is guaranteed. It's safer that way. But the risks of the caper she masterminds make her risk in other ways. Molly learns and we do, too. At the close of the book, her oxymoronic appeal is more than intact, it's increased: She is a little tougher, and a lot more tender. And still full of wisecracking wisdom: "Well," she says, "as Calamity Jane put it, one day I have chicken for dinner and the next day I have the feathers."
There's an "actual book" here, a book with characters and concerns that matter, a book with writing that's always right, a book in which everything doesn't just work, but fuses. The category aspect, the caper, is crucial to Molly's development and our involvement in it. That's a writer's caper, not easy to pull off, especially in a first novel.