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The Woman from Prague
New Noir Novel Subverts Genre & Gender Norms for a Thrilling Twist on a Familiar Formula
The noir and spy novel genres are famously known for their formulaic tropes. Part of the reason we love reading these kinds of books as “summer beach reads” is that we kind of know what’s coming, but get a big burst of anticipation on the journey to get there. The consequence for this formulaic approach, though, is that a lot of spy novels and noir stories end up blending together—especially ones within the same long-running series.
One of the go-to tropes for this kind of story is the killing-machine protagonist. From James Bond to Jason Bourne to Jack Reacher, novels in these genres are characterized by strong male characters who are rarely outsmarted and almost never outmatched. If the protagonist ends up in mortal peril, it’s because he was tricked or betrayed. It’s never because he was sloppy, weak, or just downright stupid. He’s too invincible for that.
Therein lies a lot of the charm behind The Woman from Prague, a modern noir novel from author Rob Hart, and our Indie Groundbreaking Book for June. Hart’s protagonist is named Ashley McKenna—Ash for short—who frequently gets told that he has a girl’s name. In earlier stages of his life, he’s worked as an amateur private detective, but he’s not awesome at it. Within the first few chapters of this book, he tails a woman through the streets of the titular city and quickly gets made. He’s also got skeletons in his closet that make him an easy target for blackmailing, and nearly gets himself killed several times—both for being an insolent jerk and for drastically misjudging his situation. He is, in short, a screw-up—flawed, vulnerable, and distinctly not invincible, all qualities that separate him from other lead characters in these types of stories.
Ash isn’t the only factor that sets The Woman from Prague apart from other noir and spy novels. (The book draws influence heavily from both genres.) The setup of the novel finds Ash living a self-imposed exile in Prague, working as a handy man/jack-of-all-trades for a local apartment manager. We get small details of what he’s running away from, but most of that information is covered in Hart’s earlier Ash McKenna albums (of which there are three) and not strictly relevant to the story at hand. One day, Ash gets spotted on the street by a shady fellow who follows him home, busts in with a pair of enforcers, and claims to be working with a secret American intelligence agency. He threatens to kill Ash’s mother unless Ash does a job for him. The job? Intercepting a package set to be received by a woman named Samantha.
Promptly, Ash underestimates the situation, which is where things get fun. First, he charges headfirst into a fight with an assassin about to kill Samantha—an assassin who is both far his physical superior and a female. After diving into an ice-cold river and seeking refuge with a friend, Ash finds himself with a concussion, several bruised ribs, and hypothermia. He’s also failed to complete his mission—the mission upon which his mother’s life may rest. And then Samantha tracks him down and everything he thought he knew gets turned upside down.
Here, Hart cleverly and gleefully subverts many of the gender norms we’ve seen in spy and noir stories over the past 60 years. Though Ash initially mistakes Samantha for a damsel in distress, she proves to be anything but. Indeed, Ash often ends up playing the damsel role in his own story, caught between two women who are more cunning and more dangerous than he is. It’s a refreshing twist for a thriller such as this, and it serves to make The Woman from Prague both unique and unpredictable.
It’s tough to write groundbreaking fiction in such a well-trodden and oft-formulaic genre. But Hart, whose writing style is direct, atmospheric, and suspenseful, pulls it off by creating characters that zig when you expect them to zag. The result, with The Woman from Prague, is a book exciting enough to be your “summer beach read,” but subversive enough to make you think about all the ways in which Hart is rewriting the rules of the modern spy novel. Though Hart is currently published on Polis Books (an indie), it seems like it will only be a matter of time before he gets scooped up by one of the major publishing houses—especially with strong notices for The Woman from Prague from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. (Hart is also set to be featured in James Patterson’s BookShots program this fall.)
The Woman from Prague is set to be released on July 11. You can preorder the title via Amazon.com or directly from Polis Books.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at email@example.com.