"The Photographer" By: Mary Dixie Carter
Author: Mary Dixie Carter
Publisher: St. Martin’s, Minotaur Books
Thought-Provoking Thriller Asks, Is Seeing Believing?
As everyone knows, in this space I usually review books with a strong Alabama connection, or at least books that are set in the South.
This novel, “The Photographer,” takes place almost entirely in an elegant townhouse in Manhattan, but when it was pointed out to me that the author, Mary Dixie Carter, is the daughter of Dixie Carter, star of "Designing Women,” and the step-daughter of Hal Holbrook, who channeled Mark Twain so brilliantly, and that the protagonist’s mother named her Delta Dawn, in “tribute” to Tanya Tucker, I was in.
Delta, the protagonist and narrator of this novel, is a professional photographer, VERY good at her craft.
Specializing in children’s birthday parties, Delta knows all the regular tricks. She takes pictures posed and unposed. She understands lighting and angles. Dawn can “disappear into the woodwork” and take candid photos, but she prefers to “create” the moment. She sees herself, she tells us, as a “director.” Delta can bring vitality into a gathering using various tricks, like balloon animals.
And if the children in the photos still don’t look happy enough or pretty enough, there is Photoshop, where the children will get unblemished skin and wonderful smiles. She can not only remove the red dots; she can make the child’s eyes blue.
Delta has been hired to photograph the eleventh birthday of Natalie, daughter of Amelia and Fritz Straub, successful, high-end architects, specializing in town houses and renovation. Their place is beyond beautiful; the entire home is filled with light.
Delta knows she should live there, she deserves to, she intends to.
We learn that Delta, damaged as a child, is more than obsessed; she creates her own biography complete with divorce and six-year-old son Jasper, in California.
We are sure she means to seduce the handsome Fritz, but is in love also with the beautiful Amelia.
Insinuating herself into the household, she makes herself indispensable, does the Straubs little favors, then a really big one which cannot be mentioned here.
She will become family—not LIKE family—for after all family is just an arbitrary idea, a construct, not dependent on blood or law.
Delta becomes Natalie’s babysitter and late at night we watch her examine every inch of the house, every book on the shelf; she gets into the bed, bathes in the tub, reads the mail, replacing everything perfectly.
She takes pictures of every bit of the house and over time we see her not merely retouching photos but creating distressing “deep fakes” from other images.
Delta intends to move into the Straubs’ home and their lives, no matter what, and convinces herself that she physically needs to live there, for her health.
We slowly come to realize that, as narrator, Delta seems an objective reporter, but she’s more than unreliable, she is a real sociopath.
Fritz and Amelia are bamboozled but Natalie, working on childhood instinct, is not fooled, and Itzhac, the old family dog, bites Delta in the ankle.
Tension and complications rise and we really fear how all this craziness will end.
“The Photographer” is a compelling, creepy tale of a madwoman who invents reality as she goes along. In addition, Carter raises some important contemporary issues. What can we believe? Obviously, not photographs, not our eyes.
Is there any truth, objective reality, or is it all perception, self-delusion, what we choose to believe?
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.