How author Ivy Pochoda replaced the dead girl trope with the song of female rage

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 28: American author Ivy Pochoda, who's new novel, "Three Women," based on the true story of a serial killer in the 70s in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA, is photographed in the north end of West Adams, Tuesday, April 28, 2020. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Consider the dead girl. Young, virginal (or so she may appear) and often white. The dead girl trope has sparked many a crime novel, giving the protagonist (often a male detective or private investigator) the opportunity to both tell his story and act as a savior for the next woman at risk of becoming prey. As for the dead girl herself, she’s usually just a device, an afterthought in someone else’s story.

L.A.-based novelist Ivy Pochoda has been turning the dead girl trope on its silken-haired head, most notably in 2020’s “These Women.” By giving voice to a diverse group of women (in this case the victims and survivors of the so-called Grim Sleeper), Pochoda shifted the narrative to the people most directly impacted by violence rather than a glamorized killer. But in illuminating their lives she also prompted new questions about where women might fit into crime fiction. What about those who perpetrate crimes? Are women even capable of violent crimes or is it just not in their nature?

Pochoda’s answer is the incendiary “Sing Her Down,” a narcocorrido-infused crime tale that nods to westerns, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and Joan Didion, among others. The new novel centers on two adversaries, inmates at an Arizona women’s prison in the spring of 2020 who appear to be polar opposites. At one pole is Florence “Florida” Baum, a wealthy blond from Hancock Park who claims she was framed as an accessory to a drug dealer’s murder because she was driving the getaway car. Her counterpart is Diana Diosmary Sandoval, a smart, beautiful mixed-race Latina, a scholarship kid who was convicted of aggravated assault against a male classmate after the victim’s wealthy mother egged the prosecutors on.

Kace, Florida’s cellmate, introduces the combatants and serves as the novel’s rambling Greek chorus. Summoning the library of voices in her head, Kace paints a picture of an epic battle that began in the prison and foreshadows their showdown at a mural-adorned corner of Olympic and Western in L.A.’s Koreatown. “Their mistake was in thinking they burned with their own unique rage,” Kace declares. “Something deeper, darker than what the rest of us feel.”

For Florida, whom Diosmary accuses of singing the “white-girl blues,” that rage is something she consciously tries to tamp down, to distance herself from the violent women surrounding her. Meanwhile Diosmary has fully embraced and amplified her violent tendencies, uttering Lady Macbeth’s battle cry, “Unsex me!” as she comes for Florida in a cafeteria, then brutally turns on a placid and defenseless inmate to demonstrate her power, urging Florida to join in.

Readers may be tempted to take sides in this cat-and-mouse game, but as the novel provides more context for these women’s crimes, the lines between victim and perpetrator blur. And the function of class and race throughout the penal system comes into stark relief, as when a group of correctional officers watch Diosmary’s violent attack: “They can’t hide that they love it when the women throw down — especially when it's a woman like Dios — someone who outclasses them on the outside but whose status here forces her to bite her tongue at their rude talk.”

Florida’s reprieve comes via a compassionate early release from prison due to the COVID pandemic. She dreams of shedding her old prison life and returning to Los Angeles and her ’68 Jaguar, which in happier days had helped her escape to smaller cities ignored by her well-heeled neighbors. But she gets a nasty surprise when she learns that Diosmary has been released too. When Florida breaks her parole by escaping on a migrant bus bound for Los Angeles. Diosmary, both goddess and demon in Florida’s eyes, is right behind her, seducing her to seize the moment, to make her bloody mark on the world.

As palpably immersive as Pochoda makes prison life in the first part of the novel, her writing deepens when the action shifts to COVID-ravaged Los Angeles. There Florida’s and Diosmary’s trail is picked up by LAPD Det. Lobos (no first name given), a woman whose work life is marred by a history of violence at home. Her estranged ex-husband, suffering from mental illness exacerbated by COVID-related isolation, is somewhere on the streets, and Lobos shifts her attention between tracking down the fugitives and trying to find him among Skid Row’s undomiciled population. The detective considers this more personal quest for closure and safety not a distraction but a precondition for her professional calling: “How can she keep the peace on the streets when she couldn’t in her own home?”

Lobos is a worthy adversary to the outlaws, one who recognizes that capturing them will be a matter of not only retracing their lives to find the incidents that incited them but also overcoming the tendency to “soften their crimes” by calling them cutesy nameslady killers, femme fatales, Thelma & Louise — “to make a sport or light of what they did, to make men able to consider that women can kill.” Still, what of Lobos’ rage? What will she do with her own repressed fury at a man who’s torn her life apart?

Pochoda writes with insight and empathy about women pushing back on the violence perpetrated against them — and also, conversely, their shame at their inability to act. She’s also a keen observer of life among the city’s undomiciled citizens (to use Pochoda’s preferred term), whether through the eyes of Lobos, looking for her ex, or Florida, who finds refuge and wisdom among them while on the run from the law and the relentless Diosmary.

Even more importantly, she continues to grow in her power to engage readers far beyond the overused tropes of the crime genre, rising to the heights of other writers whose work does not shy away from evil or bloodshed — writers like Cormac McCarthy, whose “No Country for Old Men” provides a telling epigraph. While the first part of the novel, depicting prison violence, may be tough going for some readers, “Sing Her Down’s” acknowledgment and dissection of women’s rage — how it can overwhelm or be tempered — makes it a watershed achievement in Pochoda’s expanding body of work.

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of the Charlotte Justice mysteries.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.