Book Review: The Lady Upstairs by Halley Sutton

The Lady Upstairs by Halley Sutton is a dark debut thriller and modern-day noir that tells the story of a woman who makes a living taking down terrible men and the final con she must pull for her freedom. 

Jo is a professional blackmailer. She studies, entraps, and extorts the richest and most powerful men of Los Angeles: Hollywood directors, aspiring politicians, lecherous actors. It’s a very lucrative job—or it would be if she wasn’t still paying off a monstrous debt to her mysterious boss, the Lady Upstairs.

Despite the frequently questionable morality of her work and that debt that hangs so heavily over her head, Jo still finds satisfaction in knowing she has a hand in bringing down awful men who have always escaped punishment before. And through it all, she has her devoted friendship with coworker Lou to keep her going.

And now, Jo is inches away from freedom. One last job will wipe her slate clean with the Lady Upstairs. A new, brighter chapter awaits on her horizon.

As I waited, I piled my fleshless lime rinds into dimpled green pyramids. Keeping the trash to mark time, how many drinks I’d had, keeping my fingers busy so I wouldn’t start doing algebra about Klein’s net work on the bar top. Three hundred twenty-six million meant he’d pay how much for photographs of his nasty predilections? What about for a video? Six blockbusters scheduled to come out in the next year meant a reputation was worth how much exactly? Fifty grand? More? My 20 percent of fifty grand would just about do it.

 

Calm down, I told myself. In less than an hour, you’ll have the prints. And this time tomorrow, or the day after, say, you’ll have what you owe for the Lady Upstairs.

But everything goes sideways. With a dead target on her hands and the LAPD on her heels, Jo suddenly finds her last chance for freedom slipping through her fingers. She’ll have to think fast and come up with several thousand dollars in a hurry, or else both she and Lou may lose everything.

An obvious solution presents itself: take down the city’s wealthiest mayoral candidate. Run a high-stakes con off the books and pocket the full payday. And unmask the Lady Upstairs as well. Jo thinks it’s time she knows just who she’s been working for—and maybe it’s time the police know too.

The Lady Upstairs is Sutton’s debut, and she’s come out swinging for the ropes. This is a gritty, boozy, neon-drenched neo-noir sure to appeal to fans of L.A. Confidential and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, rich with that seedy artificiality Hollywood is so well known for.

When I’d first moved to Los Angeles, I’d hated everything about the city, the traffic, the people. Everything. Los Angeles was an endless appetite, ninety-two smaller cities stapled together and bulldozing everything in its path. Even with my doors locked tight, I could feel the city trying to make its way in—the Santa Anas sweeping through freshly soldered seams, pale afternoon light spilling through blinds zipped shut, the sight of beautiful people on every corner turning you inside out against yourself. In the beginning, living in Los Angeles was like having a constant spotlight shining on you and at the same time like being invisible.

 

It had taken Lou, and the Lady, and even Jackal, for me to understand that the best part of the city was its artifice. Use the spotlight as a weapon. Wear the con like a coat.

 

That’s when Los Angeles became my city.

Nobody is innocent here—not Jo, not Lou, not the girls they train to con the marks. The cops are dirty, love is always brutal, and everyone has a price and a value. If they don’t, they’re easily discarded. In true noir fashion, there are no shades of gray at play here, only varying levels of black.

Yet we connect with Jo, a wronged woman who began her slippery slide out of pure necessity and desperation. Sutton does a marvelous job of making us root for her very broken narrator, a sharp, queer woman with a self-destructive thirst and an ax to grind.

Part of that is due to the comparative rarity of having a complex female voice as our guide through the story’s bloody underworld. Too often, noir is a male domain of grizzled PIs, manipulated saps, and dirty cops. The women are either femme fatales or damsels in need of rescue and almost never the primary character.

And while Jo is most certainly a femme fatale, she’s also the lead of her own story. She’s certainly not a true crusader—she cons and blackmails for money above all else and achieves her ends by putting other women into dangerous situations—but there’s a nugget of feminist justice in what she does. “Make him pay,” she tells one of her girls; it’s one of her most treasured mantras. Jo and Lou are manipulating an already oppressive system, flipping the script and exploiting men’s natures, vices, and pride for their own benefit.

Lou had asked me once, early, whether I thought what we did was evil. Testing me, maybe, when I was green and tender-fresh. “Not evil,” I’d said, surprising myself by how much I meant it. “Everything is currency.” And it was true: everything was currency of a sort. A smile applied at the right time like a crowbar — that was currency, a kind word the same. My body was mine to spend as I wanted. It wasn’t evil to not have good intentions with sex. I didn’t owe men pure motives. It wasn’t kind, what we were doing, it might not have even been right, but it wasn’t evil. Not then.

 

And some part of me still believed it. We’d done evil things. But that didn’t mean the game was flawed from the ground up. Not when men who shot their wives in the face got to plaster their names all over the city, not when men’s potential was considered more important than women’s bodies, not when the game was so rigged against us.

From the first page, The Lady Upstairs pulses with menace and tension. Vice and violence permeate everything. This is a story about bad people doing bad things, a noir that would absolutely not pass the Hays Code. If you’re looking for honorable heroes or a soul-uplifting plot, look elsewhere.

But for those craving some danger and depravity, Sutton has delivered a helluva ride through Los Angeles’s dark underbelly. You’ll smell the money and gin; when you surface for air, don’t be surprised if you feel more than a little hungover. Like all the best noirs, this is a story that will cling like cigarette smoke long after you put it down.

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