Nikki Baker, In The Game

I’m prepping a Detective Fiction class for this fall, and came across Nikki Baker’s In The Game (Naiad Press, 1991), when I was doing my research. I read it in a few days and would definitely recommend it for readers looking for good DF, stories about crime, stories that feature Black lesbian protagonists, and/or stories about American financial culture. 

Our main character and first-person narrator, Virginia Kelly, is an amateur sleuth who works in a white and mostly male financial services company in Chicago. The story takes place in the eighties or shortly thereafter, a time when “you were what you owned” and “Donald Trump and Mike Milken” were “on everybody’s pop culture A list” (2). The decadence and financial speculations of this era are clear from the work culture at Virginia’s office, where a skeezy, drunken boss challenges his employees to drinking binges and where getting richer is the order of the day. Virginia is isolated and discriminated against as a Black woman in this work environment (she is not out at work, as it is an obviously hostile setting).

At home, she has a strained relationship to her girlfriend, Em, a white accountant who handles Virginia’s finances. She also has a close friend, Beverly, a fellow graduate of her business school, also a Black woman and a lesbian who has recently started to date a materialistic woman named Kelsey. The mystery plot begins with Kelsey goes missing, and is eventually found dead in an alley behind a lesbian bar in a suspected hate crime. Virginia embarks on a journey to find out who killed Kelsey and to clear Bev of any possible suspicion. In so doing, she begins to uncover hidden secrets about Kelsey’s life and finances, and is spurred on to a confrontation with a mysterious and savvy woman from Kelsey’s Boston past.

Virginia is a crisp and propulsive narrator who reads, at times, like a hardboiled detective, with her drinking, her infidelity, her big-city nonchalance, and her dispassionate gaze on America’s culture of materialism and financial corruption. At other times, her language flashes out in bursts of lyric intimacy and deep, silent empathy for others, as in this passage:

“I smiled back at her larceny because in that moment I loved her for her willingness to share with me the punch line to the running joke of my life, knowing it had not been taught to me at my private schools and my fancy universities, suspecting that my parents fruitlessly pulling at the leather of their own bootstraps had tried to shield me from it in the hope that it might not be true” (136).

Baker deftly blends an absorbing detective plot with a critique of America’s greediness, racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s accessible and smart, and I’m looking forward to teaching it.

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