Trouble the Saints

Written by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Review by Kristen McDermott

Best known for her YA science fiction and fantasy, Johnson returns to adult fiction in this alternate-reality noir adventure set in New York in 1940. Phyllis LeBlanc is an assassin for a vicious mob boss, possessing a supernatural gift for throwing knives with deadly accuracy. In this imaginative setting, certain people of color are blessed (or cursed) with “saint’s hands” that manifest various uncanny skills. They are both feared and coveted by whites who crave power, and symbolize the ambiguous status enjoyed in Depression-era America by mixed-race individuals who could “pass” as white. Phyllis, is one of these, has enjoyed a decade-long, glamorous existence as a paid assassin, but longs to leave her soul-staining profession to reunite with her former lover, Devajyoti Patil, an undercover agent who has powers and tragic secrets of his own. They share a deep friendship with Tamara Anderson, a dancer/hostess and card-reading Oracle, able to see the patterns of power and resistance that drive their entwined fates.

Johnson captures the conversational rhythms of the hard-boiled denizens of the New York crime scene beautifully, allowing readers a new perspective on the power struggles between crime bosses and corrupt law enforcers jockeying for power at the end of Prohibition. People of color were often collateral damage in these struggles, and Phyllis and Dev’s desperate efforts to escape several kinds of war zones are complicated by the racism they encounter from both allies and enemies, even after the scene shifts from Manhattan to the bucolic Hudson Valley. Johnson’s three narrators offer, in turn, fascinating case studies of how oppressed people have resisted white supremacy: with violence, with subterfuge, and ultimately, with a deep connection to the past that is the only path to reconciliation. Graphic violence and sexual encounters are rendered explicitly but in exquisite prose, contributing to the dreamlike atmosphere but definitely intended for adult readers.