You don’t usually think of stealing six million dollars as an add-on item, like picking up milk at the store because you’re already there to pick up chips, but that’s exactly what it’s like for Carole, Taffy, and Ana when their plans to flee the country coincide with six suitcases filled with cash sitting in a parked car outside.
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1958 in Cuba. Historically, a lot more is happening than that, but it’s a night that personally brings everything to a head for these three women at El Eden Casino. Carole is the pregnant girlfriend of the casino’s owner, Joe. Taffy is a talented jazz singer with a gambling problem. Ana is a mambo dancer and single mother. All three need to get out of dodge fast for different, overlapping, reasons but try to work together so they can each leave Cuba two million dollars richer. Having different agendas makes their already improvised scheme more impossible but for over nine hours you get to watch them race against the clock and the odds in Alex de Campi, and Victor Santos‘ glorious Bad Girls.
Bad Girls takes place over a short span of time, and the characters tend to stay in the same vicinity, so you only see a small slice of Havana, yet there’s an amazing sense of place to Santos’ artwork. You have all these disparate activities going on at once, with people mulling about, while insets remind us of the musicians and entertainers performing at the casino.
Combined with de Campi’s affinity, as letterer and writer, for attaching sound to a scene (see her cold war series, Mayday), you have song lyrics connecting and synchronizing moments. This happens a few times but most effectively with “Fever,” a song universal enough to get stuck in your head so the book is as good as scored. Even scenes without dialogue aren’t silent, as de Campi acknowledges the presence of white noise.
Sound also becomes a way of indicating violence without Santos needing to show it. The same shot from behind is used to show Joe, and later Carole, walking through the casino. With Joe, all eyes are on him. With Carole, nobody glances her way. In this way the noises let customers know what’s going on, yet be able to deny it. It’s easier to look away than it is to stop overhearing. This is also when we first encounter the staircase to the back rooms. By contrast to the rest of the casino, it’s deserted and, for a few hours much of the action culminates around a single, unremarkable back room. Santos uses that claustrophobia to push in on the characters, for whom the tightness of the space is well known.
There’s a fourth female character the book devotes time to, Kitty. While she allows de Campi and Santos to extend their concerns outside the casino and address current events, she’s not the most endearing of characters, partly because she can act as a mirror for readers. I’d like to think I’d be able to read a room better than Kitty, but I know as little about Cuban politics as she does, and while Bad Girls gives you places to start, it’s not meant to be a crash course.
Language, race, and class all come up in de Campi and Santos’ vivid story. I was able to receive an advance galley of Bad Girls from Gallery 13 and it wasn’t completely printed in color, but what pages were previewed, showed color lighting up the inks that threatened to consume the page.
A book that’s a full-on, sensory experience, Bad Girls went on sale July 17th from Gallery 13.