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A Wickedly Wild West In Opium-Fueled 'Missy'

'Missy' book cover

Everything about Dol McQueen, the rowdy broad tramping through Missy, is vaguely onomatopoetic. Her name: she's both a doll and a tough cookie. Her occupation: she's a flash-girl, which is Old West slang for hooker. And her addiction to "missy," the liquid opium upon which she's habitually "gonged."

In fact, almost every word of Chris Hannan's debut novel is a toothy treat — understandably so, given he's a playwright and a Scot. Dol's rollicking tale is so festooned with 1862-era Wildly Western jargon, it's tempting to read the whole thing aloud — in a brogue.

Missy is primarily a road saga — a real wagon-burner crossed with a good ol' fashioned shoot 'em up. Dol, heading to Virginia City, Nev., to ply her trade to freshly moneyed miners and to chase down her unscrupulous gin-soaked mother, has the mixed fortune to stumble onto the malevolent pimp Pontius and his crate of stolen opium. The ensuing heist-jinks involve a one-armed police chief with a love for the ladies, a gang of possibly sociopathic children and, of course, a Colt pistol with a mighty kick.

Sure, Dol is outrageous, but despite her occupation and her heart of gold, she never becomes a caricature, and it's easy to root for her even as she drags her cohorts (and the reader) from California to Utah. But it's hard to watch her continually shoot herself in the foot — and come close to nailing her loved ones, too.

It's a lot of riotous fun (a "jollification," as Dol would put it) that's also about addiction, codependency and, ultimately, Dol's confrontation with her own extraordinary selfishness. No matter how much mud she's got on her face, she's always willing to look in the mirror. Even at her worst, that's what makes her such an irresistible bedtime companion.

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Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the senior editor for NPR's Investigations team. In 2020 she was the editorial lead for election coverage and ran NPR's pop-up talk show during the early days of the coronavirus called The National Conversation from All Things Considered. Before that she was senior editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear Hardymon on the radio talking about everything from Middlemarch to middle-grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars, which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, D.C.