Few of the current trends in crime- and mystery-fiction are salutary ones. The ascendancy of the thriller has tipped the balance toward violence and hyped-up suspense—and away from intellectual challenge and the interplay of characters. Flirtations with the supernatural may be refreshing as one-shot oddities, but ghost detectives, psychic private eyes, and vampire investigators grow sickly as they bloat into their own subgenres. Serial killers, once a novelty among fictional murderers, now bring forth groans and yawns.
And then there are all the specialized backgrounds—a welcome plus until every conceivable occupation had its own amateur-sleuth series: hairdresser, caterer, landscape gardener, librarian, astrologer, housecleaner, professional golfer, tea salesman, antique dealer, and on and on. Historical conspiracies and religious cabals proliferate to a tiresome degree. The major publishers of mysteries are as wed to the safe and familiar and potentially moneymaking as the major film companies, while the more adventurous minor publishers scarcely pay enough to raise novel-writing beyond a hobbyist’s pursuit.
Many writers seem to value shock above all else. Series detectives once were unchanged from book to book, but now they are expected to undergo repeated physical and psychological trauma while being battered by unexpected revelations: an unknown twin, a forgotten child, a repressed memory. The soap-opera complications of their lives make their investigations even more unbelievable.
Even the titles of crime novels reflect a lack of freshness and originality. One-word explosions had a certain visceral impact until they became tired through overuse (recent examples from my swaying review-copy piles: Evidence, Frame-Up, Silencer, Skin, Crawlspace, Overkill, Foolproof, Risk, Alone, Deadline, Pariah,
Grinder, Pix, Peepshow, Choker, Jump, Floodgates, Capture, Illegal, Fire, Fugitive,
Nightshade, Boulevard). International thrillers perpetuate what you might call the Ludlum Regurgitation (The Venona Cable, The Hadrian Memorandum). The homespun genre known as “cozies” delivers unrelenting punishment (Huckleberry Finished, Antiques Bizarre, Knitting Bones,Dropped Dead Stitch, Dyer Consequences).
All this is not to say there weren’t any readable mysteries published in 2009. But, if you’re looking for some good ones to give this year as Christmas presents, you are better off choosing the books that tried to swim against the tide.
Mystery fiction used to be defined by ingenious detective work and amazing deductions from physical, verbal, and psychological evidence—the sort of thing Sherlock Holmes did. This is a fact of which the countless Sherlockian pastiches published every year remind us. The recent writer who best combines Dr. Watson’s style, a firm knowledge of the Victorian and Edwardian period, and intricate, original detection is Donald Thomas, whose latest volume, Sherlock Holmes and the King’s Evil, covers, in five longish stories, cryptography, manuscript forgery, murder by lighthouse, and in the lead story, a fresh slant on fingerprints. There is more in this book of what the traditional detective-story reader is seeking than in a shelf or two of contemporary mysteries.
Few writers today attempt the kind of multilayered puzzle common in the Golden Age of Detection of the 1920s and 1930s. Writers of cozies may like to be compared to Agatha Christie, but they rarely even try to duplicate her deftly deceptive plotting. Gyles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile, the third in a series, rather unpromisingly follows an overworked current trend in making a historical figure into a fictional sleuth. But it does go against the contemporary grain in challenging the reader with impossible murders and fairly given clues, all of which lead to a final summation of which Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen might have been proud.
The number of lawyers writing crime fiction has grown for several decades now, spurred by the success of such legal-thriller specialists as Scott Turow and John Grisham. Trials are inherently dramatic, and the combination of an interesting case and a knowledgeable depiction of procedure should guarantee a stimulating reading experience. But too many writers, either bored by or untrusting of the courtroom, feel the need to tart up their stories with contrived cinematic action sequences. One of the most successful of all big trial novels, Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, presented the events realistically, eschewing gratuitous dramatics. A new writer in that tradition, laboring in the comparative obscurity of paperback originals, is Joseph Teller, whose two 2009 novels Bronx Justice and Depraved Indifference take the reader step by step through the trial process. The first, about a postal employee wrongly accused of rape, was closely based on one of lawyer Teller’s real-life cases. The second, concerning the defense of a highly unsympathetic drunk-driving suspect, has a trickier structure but is just as strong in depicting how the system works. Defending both cases is New York lawyer Harrison J. Walker, whose nickname, Jaywalker, is the most gimmicky element of either book.
The best paperback crime novels of the 1950s and 1960s, as published by Gold Medal and produced by writers like John D. MacDonald and Vin Packer, were relatively brief, crisply written, socially observant, and often focused on ordinary people in unremarkable settings. They were neither self-consciously tough nor unrealistically optimistic. A deliberate throwback to that style this year is Ed Gorman’s The Midnight Room, set in a small Midwestern city, about a couple of cop brothers and a solid citizen with a secret life as a rapist and killer. The plot is excellent, but the writing and the characters are what make it work.
Indeed, it’s the prose, more than anything else, that offers a mystery a good chance to succeed. Though long-winded in the current manner, John Hart’s The Last Child, about a thirteen-year-old in rural North Carolina who is obsessed with the disappearance of his sister, is redeemed by a strong plot, well-developed characters, and vivid writing.
A traditional thriller in the modern manner that provides genuine suspense and character interplay is Kenneth Abel’s Hurricane Katrina novel Down in the Flood. The book is rich in quotable lines, as when New Orleans lawyer Danny Chaisson visits a developer’s home: “He never got used to the smell of rich men’s houses, like a life you could pour into a jar and screw the lid tightly on.”
In Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie, expectant mother Ivy Rose’s life is turned around when an old acquaintance (also pregnant) turns up at a garage sale, enters the Roses’ house on the arm of Ivy’s husband, and disappears. The plot is as cleverly structured as one of Mary Higgins Clark’s, but Ephron’s writing is vastly better.
In literary homage to Dashiell Hammett, Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer covers the 1920s in the life of San Francisco private eye Sam Spade, right up to the appearance of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the outer office at the beginning of The Maltese Falcon. The book succeeds because of Gores’ ability to duplicate Hammett’s objective third-person style, which, as many writers have discovered, is not as easy to write as it may look.
The growth of historical fiction, greater every year, is, on the whole, a positive thing—but it is close to becoming tiresome. Of the many attempts to match Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, the best may well be this year’s Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye, a book true in style and spirit to Holmes and Doyle and meticulous about the known facts of the Whitechapel murders. Martin Edwards’ superb Dancing for the Hangman allows the notorious Hawley Harvey Crippen, hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910, to tell his own story, which incorporates an interesting alternate explanation for the known events. Margaret Lawrence’s Roanoke, set in Elizabethan England and colonial America during the late sixteenth century, posits a possible explanation for what happened to the vanished settlers on Roanoke Island.
A couple of first-rate historicals not tied to true-crime cases but certainly informative about social and political events are Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square, set in 1934 London and partly concerned with Oswald Mosley’s British Fascist movement, and Anne Perry’s Execution Dock, which examines child pornography and the ethics of criminal defense in the context of Victorian England.
Another happy trend has been the increase in mystery fiction in translation. Besides providing comparatively exotic backgrounds, imports are often more adventurous and varied in approach, subject matter, and (no small matter) length than American and British products. One of the best foreign writers to crack the English-language market is the Cuban Leonardo Padura, whose Havana Fever is the most recent novel about Mario Conde, a Havana cop turned book scout. The Conde series presents tantalizing mysteries, a continuing paean to friendship, and a colorful picture of Cuban society and culture—including sports, religion, literature, cuisine, and, inevitably, politics, which is neither emphasized nor avoided. The one drawback to the series—for American readers, anyway—is the British translator’s failure to render baseball lingo accurately.
Scandinavians get most of the attention among Europeans in translation, and some of them are excellent—the Norwegian Karin Fossum, the Swedes Åsa Larsson and Karin Alvtegen—but not, in my view, the overhyped Henning Mankell. Italy has arguably provided the most challenging and original recent crime fiction, from such writers as Andrea Camilleri, Carlo Lucarelli, and Gianrico Carofiglio. Domenico Starnone’s brief and offbeat First Execution belongs to a subcategory popular with independent filmmakers and literary writers playing with genre conventions. As with such films asMemento and Swimming Pool, the question in First Execution is less whodunit? thanwhat’sgoingon?—and one time through may not provide the answers. The ostensible subject is an ex-student’s attempts to recruit a retired teacher as a terrorist, and readers who don’t mind being confused will find great cultural insight.
Michael Connelly is rightly regarded as one of the best contemporary crime writers, equally adept at writing about lawyers, journalists, and (most often) police. The early pages of his 2009 entry, Nine Dragons, crackle with procedural detail as Los Angeles cop Harry Bosch and his colleagues investigate the murder of a Chinese liquor-store owner. The story combines old-fashioned detective work with cutting-edge technology.
As a proponent of mysteries that are more about the case than about the cop, and as one who grows impatient with the intrusion of family entanglements and personal trauma into the narrative, I suppressed a groan when it appeared that the abduction in Hong Kong of Bosch’s thirteen-year-old daughter was going to reduce the book to a child-in-jeopardy travelogue, including the inevitable reappearance of irritating ex-wife Eleanor Wish, FBI agent turned professional gambler. The novel, however, proved masterfully done, vividly capturing Hong Kong and finishing with a fine series of surprises when the scene returns to Los Angeles. Connelly’s other 2009 novel, The Scarecrow, although not as successful, was notable for its documentation of the sad decline of American newspapers.
The mystery world recently said goodbye to one of the most prolific and versatile crime writers of recent years. Stuart M. Kaminsky, who died at age seventy-five, will be remembered for his comic series about 1940s Hollywood private eye Toby Peters and for his more serious novels about Russian policeman Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, who will have at least one final case, A Whisper to the Living, in early 2010. But for me the Kaminsky sleuth who will outlive them both is Chicago cop Abe Lieberman. He and his Catholic partner address each other as Rabbi and Father. I’ve written over and over again that large continuing casts of family and friends tend to be a drag on a mystery series, but the Lieberman books are an exception to that rule.
Which proves, of course, that rules were made to be broken—especially the rules that seem to have dominated mystery fiction in recent years. The sooner we break them, the better.
Jon L. Breen, author of eight novels and over a hundred short stories, is two-time winner of the Edgar Award for his critical writings. His most recent books are A Shot Rang Out: Selected Mystery Criticism and the comic Christmas courtroom novel Probable Claus.