The Auckland hospo scene in the mid 1990’s – late nights in smoke-clogged cocktail bars after shifts are done, drinking high-end high-alcohol drinks, trying to save enough tips from the night’s work to pay the rent. Betty Asphalt often fails at the latter, and she is in danger of losing her place in the flat she shares with Faith and Alabama. She would not miss Laverne the cat pissing in her room, but she would miss Alabama, her best friend. Also, there is a serial killer on the loose – so best to stick with the familiar.
Truman, an ex, and still very significant to Betty, turns up out of nowhere when she is out on the town one night with Alabama, and ends up in her bed – but not in a good way – and nothing is familiar or sane ever again. Betty and Alabama continue their frenzied existence, Betty an extremely competent waitress at a swanky restaurant, Alabama working in a bar and singing one night a week. Faith takes off to get over the shock that Betty woke up to – leaving Betty and Alabama to ride out the trauma and sort out Laverne.
Two cops are assigned to find out who left Truman in Betty’s bed, a man and a woman, neither of whom seem all that trustworthy. In fact, nobody seems trustworthy – Betty’s world is comprised of bar staff, bouncers, cooks, hospo managers, and dodgy taxi drivers. One taxi driver in particular is acting oddly – but then Betty did hurl in his cab. Even Faith seems a bit suspicious, as does the owner of the house where they flat – who suddenly races back from Australia. As Betty’s memories are coming back like developing polaroids, she and Alabama decide they themselves need to investigate what happened that Truman night.
Betty’s world is hyper, events coming into and out of focus. Every time things start coming clear, another drink seems in order – the reader recognises she is experiencing PTSD, and she has found out that the serial killer targeting women has visited their flat, and he has yet to be caught. As part of the amateur sleuths’ scattergun approach, they visit their old flat, after which it goes up in flames. The attention Betty and Alabama attract from the police unnerves associates who are covering up their own crimes, some of which are on an amazing scale.
Betty and Alabama both have colourful backstories, Betty was orphaned at fifteen, and Alabama is the product of hippie-era free love, with her having two siblings, all three half-sisters to each other. Their colourful mother is still around and plays a part in the story. This background adds credibility to the behaviour of the women, as does the fact that all men are a potential risk to women – and always have been. Reference is made to real cases (disguised) where trusted men become nightmares. The reader fears for Betty but applauds her stubborn refusal to be cowered, even when she suffers physically. Even when the police say the cases are solved, she refuses to believe it. She trusts Laverne’s cat-messages, and Alabama, and that is about it.
Polaroid nights is a hectic and colourful read, you can taste the alcohol, smell the cigarette smoke, feel the grit under rigid contact lenses. You do not want Betty or Alabama to come to harm, and you often change your mind about who may be guilty, or even how many perps there are. There is resolution at the end, but for me that wasn’t the crux of the novel – it was the dangers that surround Betty and Alabama, making them vulnerable but also as strong as steel. After all “sometimes men do these things and you never get the why out of them”. A great read.