This is the foreword that the uber-talented Jenn Frank wrote for Triple Threat, the collection of the first three Lexy Cooper novels. I post it here for those readers who bought and read Schooled, Pwned, and Griefed one at a time as they released. Or for anyone curious about the books and wondering if they’re worth a read.
I’m not wholly sure why Christa Charter asked me to write the foreword to her Lexy Cooper series of books. Is it because we both enjoy reading pulpy mystery paperbacks? Is it because we both have, like the fictitious Lexy Cooper, worked as Community Managers for big, moneyed videogame corporations? Is it because we both successfully escaped?
Is it because Christa replied to my King’s Quest fan letter when I was 12, got me hooked on the Gabriel Knight computer games, and is inadvertently the reason I majored in fiction writing?
Okay, I’m starting to get it.
I agreed to write this foreword while still under the comical misconception that the Lexy Cooper novels were girl-detective youth fiction. Oh, my Lord, Christa was right. These books are NOT for kids.
For one, the words that come out of Lexy’s mouth will curl your hair. For another, Lexy spends most of her off-hours—not to mention some of her work hours—in various stages of undress. She’s sassy, she’s smart (it’s likely her coworkers underestimate her, to their own detriment), and she uses her sex appeal as a weapon. Lexy Cooper always gets her man… in one sense or another.
In this way, the Lexy Cooper books don’t stray far from mid-century noir fiction. Lexy herself isn’t necessarily a likable heroine. Oh, she’s funny and charming, to be sure, and she’s sincere and caring, but she’s also self-destructive, and her motives aren’t always pure. She habitually suffers ethical dilemmas, usually romantic ones. She might wear pigtails and short skirts, and she may casually use words like “noob” and “pwn,” but she’s cut from the same cloth as any flawed noir hero. She shares as much in common with Sam Spade as she does with Nancy Drew.
Like Nancy, though, Lexy does have her own Carson Drew in the form of Malick, her gruff police-detective uncle. He’s impressed by his niece almost as often as he’s annoyed with her. But—and this is indicative of some seriously dexterous writing—he functions, not as a paternalistic role model, but as Lexy’s archetypically-competent hand-me-your-gun-and-badge buzzkill police chief. As the sole “real adult” character, Malick further grounds the books’ noir narrative, employing a lot of the vocabulary and tropes that make the genre so recognizable. His presence is also important because he contextualizes Lexy’s: his niece is primarily a P.I., but she acts, too, as a “girl detective,” as well as a seductive dame-in-distress, all simultaneously. In other words, Lexy Cooper is complicated.
Lexy is also an employee of Xenon and—although this is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to real-world establishments is ENTIRELY coincidental—it might be obvious to some readers exactly what a company like “Xenon” represents. Xenon isn’t just a triple-A game publisher: it’s also a type of videogame console, an online community, and an entire lifestyle brand. It’s a cultural monolith. To many videogame aficionados, “Xenon” probably seems very glamorous, but all that glitz is illusory. The videogame industry embodies, here, something very much like noir fiction’s Old Hollywood, and Lexy and Malick are tasked with exploring its seedy underbelly.
No, I know. The premise of the Lexy Cooper series is admittedly funny in theory (what videogame insider has ever been murdered? None, I hope) but in practice, the intersection of videogames and genre-mystery works surprisingly well. To my mind, the books lend keen insight into the industry’s darkest goings-on: Lexy spends a lot of time actually working, which is never romanticized in the text because, let’s face it, the industry itself isn’t especially romantic. Lexy and her coworkers are regularly described as performing chores and grunt work; all talent, after all, is undervalued, expendable. (The burn-out rate for industry underlings, especially game programmers, is something like seven years, or so I’ve read.)
The series’ first dead body, a “Barbie,” is discovered in a wooded area near the Xenon campus. “Barbie” is used here as a pejorative, describing those seemingly-interchangeable marketing and PR girls you may have met in your own company’s women’s restroom, the women with whom you are friendly but not intimate, who work in an office two floors up but might as well hail from the moon. Our particular dead Barbie is a sort of noir-fiction redshirt, disposable in the precise way most videogame employees are “disposable”—except that most of us get laid off, not murdered.
But this first crime scene establishes a stark and deliberate disconnect between glossy, man-made Xenon and the wildlife estuary just beyond it, where dead bodies get dumped. We, humankind, have always sought to control our environments; this is, in part, what videogames themselves are fundamentally all about, but it’s also what noir fiction is about. Sex, violence, crime, transgressive behaviors and taboo lifestyles: these are always simmering just beneath the polite surface. Any good detective novel pits man against nature, and human nature—our basest instincts—always wins.
You can probably tell I’ve internalized these books; Lexy Cooper’s exploits gave me a lot of flashbacks to my own secret past as a Community Manager. I didn’t witness too much murder and mayhem, of course, and the rare “secret office romance” was about as salacious as a warm cup of milk, but the mundane stuff—exploitive late hours, a prevailing laissez-faire attitude in the workplace, barely-veiled alcoholism, Lexy receiving the occasional death threat, shrugging, then dashing off a quick email to the legal department—accurately represents my own memory of the mainstream videogame industry. That, I think, is the REAL “seedy underbelly” here.
I’ll be honest. I’m 32 now—which isn’t exactly old, no—but I frequently forget that I was only 23 when I started working in the industry, 24 when I entered videogames proper, and my bosses were seldom much older. (At the series start, Lexy herself is 28 and, presumably, already a veteran.) Businesses like Xenon are often populated with, and run by, children: not metaphorical children, but actual ones, who are out on their own for the first time and essentially “playing house” with a multi-billion dollar industry. Lexy Cooper’s coworkers are similarly youthful, and that is hardly fiction. In the real world, that’s dangerous—not dead-body dangerous, but dangerous nonetheless.
If all this sounds bleak, it should. Noir fiction IS bleak, and it’s cynical, and they don’t call it “hardboiled” for nothing, sister. This is exactly why it’s imperative that noir fiction also be funny. A humorous turn of phrase, a slapstick moment, the respite of levity: Raymond Chandler, for instance, is an unsung master of comedy, impossible to parody because his prose is already so funny and self-effacing.
Christa’s writing excels at the same—she isn’t self-serious, isn’t scared of being funny—and her novels are a total blast to read. Lexy Cooper and her fellow employees are, like all the best noir-fiction characters, part-time comedians who resort to humor in their darkest hours, absolute masters of wordplay. Some of the most raucous dialogue occurs, hilariously, in chat logs, campus cafeterias, and gray-beige conference rooms. Fellow cogs in the industry will enjoy Lexy’s misadventures, while also finding these tall tales cathartic; fainthearted enthusiasts will probably balk and yell for smelling salts. Either way, the books are incredibly fun to read.
Lexy Cooper isn’t just “fun,” though. Her voice—Christa Charter’s voice is necessary, inimitable. Lexy herself is never altogether one thing or the other: she’s as human as a fictional character can be. And Christa, the writer behind the curtain, is not only inarguably talented, but a wise veteran of the industry she conscientiously describes.
In short, we are absolutely in able hands: I can’t wait to see what trouble Lexy Cooper gets into next.
October 3, 2014 (or so)