Back in 1998, it seemed like female crime novelists were everywhere, and more were just around the corner. Laura Lippman had just begun, while SJ Rozan was just about to hit her stride. Val McDermid was breaking out, and Carol O’Connell hadn’t gone on hiatus yet. Janet Evanovich had just topped the bestseller list, while Katy Munger showed early on how humor and mystery should really be combined. Sparkle Hayter was examining manly men, while Lauren Henderson was eating them—fictionally—for breakfast.
That year also ushered in several intriguing debut efforts, voices so different from each other—and different from what had been seen before—that they seemed destined to stick around. Interestingly, all shared the same name, but didn’t share the same fate.
Jenny Siler’s Easy Money was pure hardboiled thriller, the story of a disillusioned drug courier who stumbles across a mystery stretching back to Vietnam. The writing was so good that at times it seemed almost poetic; a turn of phrase could reach out and grab you by the scruff of your neck, forcing you to pay attention and of course, to keep on reading. Because Siler had the thriller elements down cold, too. It’s been a long time since I read Easy Money, but I still remember my reaction: flat-out awe.
Jen Banbury’s Like a Hole in the Head was often gleefully anarchic, occasionally demented, and at times disturbing—but then, any book featuring a smartass bookseller, dwarves, psychos in search of rare first edition, hijacked water delivery trucks, and many many car chases is not your typical whodunit. Anything could happen in this book, and often did, because Banbury knew and studied the rules of the genre, and then cheerfully broke them one by one. There’s no easy way to categorize the novel, except to say that it’s incredibly good.
Then there’s Jen Sacks’ Nice. Nominated for an Edgar, and deservedly so. Because it’s a nice little book, featuring a nice heroine. Who can’t bear to break up with any of her boyfriends so she kills them. Who attracts the attention of a professional hitman who’s so impressed with her technique that he can’t help but fall in love. Can a couple of killers get together? More importantly, can they actually manage not to kill each other? The fun of the novel is how all these questions get resolved, and how Sacks manages to pull the tricky feat of making her characters appealing.
Siler followed up her debut with two more standalones, Iced and Shot, before starting a series set in North Africa with Flashback (2004). But she’s the only Jennifer still writing novels. Sacks and Banbury haven’t been heard from since.
When voices disappear from the fiction landscape, it’s more than a shame; it’s almost tragic, because you hope and fervently wish for another dose, another chance to experience that first-time magic. But for differing reasons, The Two Jens didn’t do that. So what happened?
Banbury hasn’t written another novel, but she’s still very much in the public eye as the Iraqi correspondent for Salon. Starting in October 2003, she posted her “Baghdad Diary,” making reference to what was really happening in the War on Iraq. She reported on Abu Ghraib in March—a full two months before the story broke nationally. She returned to the States and was based in New York, where she spoke on panels and radio shows like NPR’s Counterspin about her time there. Her original diary, which was then taken over by Salon, is archived at .
A few years ago, she wrote a short story, “Take, For Example, Meatpie” for the Tart Noir anthology, which fuelled speculation that she was working on another novel. As it happens, she is, and explains in this interview with QRD what the current status of the book is at the moment:
I had a bit of a false start with my second novel and had to abandon it. It was a tough choice but the right one to make. I’m working on another novel, but it will be a little while before I’m finished.
Considering she has since returned to Iraq, I should think so. But when she’s done, I’ve no doubt that second effort will be worth the wait.
Sacks, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. She seems to have dropped off the face of the earth, at least in the writing and publishing world. A couple of years ago, I ran into her at Lee Child’s launch party (she’s the one signing books) for his then-current book, Without Fail. Naturally, I asked if she was working on a new book. She laughed and said, “It’s very slow, but I’m working on something.” Perhaps someday soon we’ll hear about what that project is. Or if it was junked, then whatever else is next.
Surely I can’t be the only one who misses her.