Though its subject may sound familiar, journalist and talk-show host Tamron Hall's debut novel As the Wicked Watch is a singular thriller that brings the vulnerability and systemic neglect of Black girls as victims of violent crime into vivid relief.
That's an ambitious agenda, and fiction is a distinctly different mode of storytelling from news reporting, even if taking big issues and making them personal is second nature for the Emmy Award-winner. But the novel's storyline proves perfectly tailored to Hall's experience and skill set.
Unlike the media frenzy that ensues when middle-class white women like Gabby Petito go missing, Black girls often disappear without fanfare. Yet when a thriving 15-year-old Black girl who's the pride of her family vanishes in Chicago and the police are eager to dismiss the event as just another "case of a potential runaway," the explanation does not sit well with intrepid local TV reporter Jordan Manning. She's determined that this time will be different.
As this ambitious Black journalist explores what happened to young Masey James, it becomes clear to her — if not to others, who are quick to point a finger at Black boys — that Masey's disappearance may be part of a larger, sinister pattern. The novel, co-written with T. Shawn Taylor, is told in the first person, so we're seeing the situation unfold through a reporter's eyes and we're privy to every thought in Jordan's kinetic mind as she probes deeper than the police and forces attention to a story few others take seriously.
Though Jordan's musings sometimes slow the action, Hall's story makes up in verisimilitude and insight what it lacks in pacing. The novel draws from two tragic events during Hall's own time as a reporter in Texas and Chicago — deaths that haunted her for decades. Along with larger social forces, she deftly illuminates the individual and group agendas that can surround a case like this — the police, politicians, the family, lawyers, spokespersons, community activists and justice advocates. The cohesiveness and sheer scope of the narrative Hall has woven together is impressive.
Beyond those constituencies, the cast of characters includes Masey's friends and neighbors plus Jordan's colleagues and rival journalists, her friends and family and a potential love interest. It's a lot. But Hall has a knack for showing how different people think and how human behavior works in a wide variety of circumstances. Friends conceal things and dissemble, then crack. Small clues accumulate bit by bit, and no one is a criminal or investigative mastermind. Readers interested in the gritty details of crime reporting and investigation will be intrigued.
The book is also unflinchingly candid about Jordan's human quirks and fallibility — she's committed to making a difference and simultaneously controlling the flow of information to best suit her career. Hall endows Jordan with competitive, sharklike tendencies that people frequently object to in women (whether on the pages of their latest thriller or at the ballot box).
Those character choices are especially impressive given the acknowledged commonalities between Hall and her fictional heroine/literary doppelganger. Jordan shares much of Hall's profile, from her professional background as a general assignment reporter, starting in Texas and Chicago, and her interest in crime reporting, to her style, shoe habits and even her hair cut. Plus, as with The Morning Show on Apple+ and Katie Couric's new memoir Going There, the novel dishes the dirt on the behind the scenes shenanigans endemic to the TV news biz.
One of the bedrock truths that Hall spotlights is that all lives do not matter equally to the media or in the (predominantly white) court of public opinion. As the Wicked Watch convincingly shows why empathy and identification are central to justice, and that it's not just outsiders who single Masey out as worthy of attention because she's somehow different. Jordan knows she's paying more attention than usual because Masey reminds her of herself and because she knows the young woman can be framed as special.
"The more I learned about Masey James, the more I saw myself in her," Jordan thinks. "Young, gifted, and Black." That's a cliché with significance: Hall invokes it — and more pointed thoughts — as the case progresses, not as platitudes but cultural touchstones with resonance. Jordan's long-running inner monologue is especially interesting when she's unpacking the social and political context she's operating in and how cultural images and assumptions shape social reality. Of "the girl next door," Jordan thinks, "I've always resented that ideal ... because mainstream society had always portrayed her as White, blond, and upper middle class, but in reality, she is Masey." With that feeling of kinship comes greater interest and protectiveness. And when victims don't fit that ideal, fewer resources are invested in finding them.
As the Wicked Watch also spends considerable time on more personal issues, from the pitfalls of dating when powerful, driven and female to the fact that Jordan takes pleasure in good wine, weekend brunch and well-muscled men. Though an accumulation of these asides, detours and the behind the scenes jockeying slows early momentum, the novel grows more focused in the back half. Ultimately, As the Wicked Watch is an impressive debut — a moving take on familiar but urgent problems and society's indifference.
A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.