Dodging and Burning
By John Copenhaver
A lurid crime scene photo of a beautiful woman arrives on mystery writer Bunny Prescott's doorstep with no return address―and it's not the first time she's seen it. The reemergence of the photo, taken fifty-five years earlier, sets her on a journey to reconstruct the vicious summer that changed her life.
In the summer of 1945, Ceola Bliss is a lonely twelve-year-old tomboy, mourning the loss of her brother, Robbie, who was declared missing in the Pacific. She tries to piece together his life by rereading his favorite pulp detective story “A Date with Death” and spending time with his best friend, Jay Greenwood, in Royal Oak, VA. One unforgettable August day, Jay leads Ceola and Bunny to a stretch of woods where he found a dead woman, but when they arrive, the body is gone. They soon discover a local woman named Lily Vellum is missing and begin to piece together the threads of her murder, starting with the photograph Jay took of her abandoned body.
As Ceola gets swept up playing girl detective, Bunny becomes increasingly skeptical of Jay’s story about the photograph and begins her own investigation into Lily’s murder. A series of clues lead her to Washington, DC, where she must confront the truth about her dear friend—a revelation that triggers a brutal confrontation that will change all of them forever.
Inspired by the turmoil abroad and nationalistic unity at home that encapsulated post-World War II America, Copenhaver’s debut sheds light on the lives of those who were largely overlooked during this historically over-documented era: the LGBTQ community.
Bunny Prescott, one of the two primary narrators, is coming over to Jay’s house to look at photos that he has taken of her 18th birthday party. She has a crush on him. He has just handed her the photos.
I sipped my water, which he then gingerly lifted from my hands and placed on the tile floor beside his seat. I slipped my finger under the flap of the envelope and, being careful not to bend the photographs, slid them out. The first few were panoramic shots of the party before dusk. They were well composed, but not especially remarkable. We noted some of the bad dresses and laughed at the unfortunate facial expressions on several of the guests—eyes half shut, double chins, that sort of thing. There was a photograph of my mother and father dancing; my father’s eyes were a bit dim and my mother’s arms were loose around his neck. Her chestnut hair was pulled back carelessly, and her silver half-moon earrings reflected light onto her face, warming the hollow under her high cheeks and softening her jawline. They appeared tipsy, and their posture was a little inappropriate.
“I don’t like this one,” I said.
Jay removed the photo and flipped it face down beside him. He didn’t seem offended.
The photographs of me were at the bottom of the stack.
This is what I expected to see: A lovely young woman with rich, dark hair in a clean white cotton dress, posing playfully in front of the camera. There would be equal amounts of carelessness and caution to the image. The right arm stretched out, the left hand planted firmly on a hip, leaning forward a little, inviting the viewer, but gently, with grace—the same poise I had always admired in my mother. This young lady would be bright about the eyes, might even be thought flirtatious, but not indiscreet. She would approximate the perky Carole King dress models in Ladies’ Home Journal, or an elegant fashion model juxtaposed with a handsome military man in Life magazine.
Oh, what vanity.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a retrospective of Weegee’s work. His photographs of the underbelly of New York City during the 1940s—the winos, the prostitutes, the exotic dancers, the transvestites, the crooks, the dead bodies, his obsessive love for sensational grit—reminded me of these photographs.
These images were phantasmagoric, a sort of nightmare of myself. The background of each was inky darkness, and in the foreground, I glowed so white that the folds of my dress had disappeared and my skin shone pale gray, almost two-dimensional. My face, however, was distinct in each photograph. In one, the expression was exceedingly desperate, almost angry. In another, slack-jawed and empty-eyed, arms straight at my sides—graceless, even absurd. The last image had me bending forward, my cleavage luridly, if carelessly, accentuated. I looked to be folding in on myself, white enveloping white, a phantom preparing to vanish in a ripple of cold vapor.
I touched the surface of that final photo, leaving my fingerprint over my face. Jay caught my hand, gently moved it away, and said, “I dodged it in the darkroom to make that effect.”
I liked that he was touching me. “What does that mean?” I asked.
“I covered you with a piece of cardboard for a few seconds during exposure to create more contrast between you and the night sky. I wanted you to float in the darkness, like a white bird.”
I thought he was telling me my photos were beautiful, that the real me, the absurd, frightened, desperate me, was something extraordinary and desirable. If I had stripped down in front of him, I thought, it wouldn’t have been more intimate than those photographs.
Of course, that wasn’t the case. But I didn’t know it at the time, so I kissed him.
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John Copenhaver’s historical crime novel, Dodging and Burning, won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel and garnered Anthony, Strand Critics, Barry, and Lambda Literary Award nominations. Copenhaver writes a crime fiction review column for Lambda Literary called “Blacklight,” and he is the six-time recipient of Artist Fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His work has appeared in CrimeReads, Electric Lit, Glitterwolf, PANK, New York Journal of Books, Washington Independent Review of Books, and others. He grew up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia and currently lives in Washington, DC with his husband, artist Jeffery Paul (Herrity).
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Publication Date: 10th September 2019
Print Length: 288 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction