In the afterword to Frog Music (2014), Emma Donoghue gives a shoutout to one of her friends “for convincing me that I could write a crime novel.” While the finished product is certainly a crime novel for all intents and purposes, it marches to the beat of its own amphibious drum and veers slightly from the genre’s conventional path. That’s no knock on the book—Donoghue’s a crafty writer who deserves credit for plotting out a unique, loaded story. Unfortunately, it’s just a tedious story that never quite hits its stride.
Everything takes place in the Bay Area ca. 1876, a harsh period in San Francisco’s history where ‘The City’ was plagued by rampant smallpox and a Do the Right Thing-level heat wave. The crime in question is the murder of Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dressing professional frog catcher (yes, you read that right) who is shot down in the novel’s opening pages by an unidentified killer. Even though Jenny departs early on, we get plenty of time to meet her while she’s alive and kicking, since the narrative is delivered through a mixture of pre and post-death timelines.
Both of those revolve around our protagonist Blanche Beunon, who is hunched over on a bed beside Jenny as the fatal bullets are fired. Blanche works in San Fran as an exotic dancer after migrating from Paris (hence the ‘Frog’ double entendre) and leaving behind the circus she performed in with her lover Arthur Deneve and his ‘clingy’ friend Ernest Girard (more than just a third wheel if you catch my drift), who now lives in an apartment with the couple. Jenny only comes into her life a few short weeks before the murder, thanks to a chance encounter in the streets.
Although Jenny remains somewhat of an enigma to Blanche over the limited number of days they spend together, the suit-clad woman also represents the closest thing she’s had to a female friend in a long time. However, as far as the male contingent of the apartment is concerned, Jenny is an unwelcome presence who brings nothing of merit to the table.
Unraveling the details of Jenny’s murder is a primary focus in the text, but Donoghue also adds a second main plotline in which Blanche goes about reclaiming and protecting her baby son P’tit, who she was persuaded to give up temporarily after some health-related issues interfered with nursing him. When shit hits the fan following the killing, Blanche needs to juggle her quest to preserve P’tit’s welfare with the complications that come from being a primary witness in a scandalous crime.
On a more macro level Frog Music is also tasked with juggling these elements, and for me at least, it didn’t make for the smoothest read. The pace of the book is inconsistent, and not just because it’s working within two timelines. Donoghue devotes a lot of text to detailing Blanche’s inner thought processes and working systematically through her decisions. This can be beneficial sometimes, but too often there are repetitive stretches that leave the story meandering and detract from the more pressing plot; or Donoghue will feature important characters like Arthur and Ernest in a long scene, and by the end of it, we won’t have seen anything new and worthwhile from them.
In fairness, this is a story about Blanche, and it’s good that she’s given the type of meticulous attention that makes her steady growth worthwhile. Jenny’s influence proves to be enormously liberating for Blanche, and the latter uses that momentum to empower herself in a number of ways by the end of the book. Blanche isn’t always the most dynamic character (unlike Jenny), but she’s definitely a strong female protagonist that gets fleshed out nicely (pun very much intended, as Blanche is one of the most openly horny characters I’ve ever come across in literature).
Even though I never really got engrossed in Frog Music for an extended period of time, I could admire a lot of what Donoghue was doing. The novel is incredibly well-researched—not to mention loosely based on real characters—and she sets an authentically sordid scene that’s littered with sleazy business owners, struggling simpletons, and misogynistic jerks. I just didn’t find the execution up to par.