The crime of my life

Election and recession getting you down? Check out the mystery novels that got me through a very tough year.

Published January 3, 2001 6:03PM (EST)

"I tend to lean toward mysteries these days, and English mysteries," says an elderly retired schoolteacher in Philip Roth's "The Human Stain." Having endured a period of family turmoil, she finds in mysteries both order and the consolations of a closed narrative. I can relate. Last spring, after my own life developed a few unexpected leaks, I too turned to mysteries, primarily because they were the only things on which I could focus my scattered concentration. Since then, my diversion has become a habit, and I've added several contemporary authors (Dennis Lehane, Reginald Hill, James Lee Burke, Thomas Perry, Sarah Shankman, the indescribable Marc Behm) to the ones whose new books I snap up (Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Kinky Friedman). After a presidential election that was divisive without being decisive and in an economy that's looking wobbly, I suspect I'm not the only one who's taking comfort in mystery novels.

Much of that comfort derives from how mysteries remind us of why we first began reading novels: the pleasure of a solid, involving story. Of course, language is important in all fiction. Clumsy writing can kill even the cleverest premise, and in good genre writing a clichéd passage can stop you cold. But no matter how sophisticated we get as readers, I don't think those of us who are drawn to novels ever outgrow the voice inside us that eagerly asks, "And then what happened?"

The trouble is, I often get the feeling that people who write novels have outgrown it. Too often as I pick my way through the stack of "literary" fiction that sits like an undone chore below my night table, I get the impression that authors consider storytelling superfluous, perhaps even a vulgarity that fiction would be well rid of. I'm not just talking about obviously bad writing but about the careful, well-crafted prose (what you find in Claire Messud's "The Other Life" or Tony Earley's "Jim the Boy") that gives you no reason to care about anyone or anything in it. Writers should be able to bend all sorts of rules and conventions, but even fiction that chooses observation over incident has to give its readers some stake in turning the pages.

Of course, mystery novels' reputation as the poor cousins of literary fiction isn't altogether unwarranted. They deal with a narrow scope of human experience, and since they have to follow certain genre conventions to be satisfying, mysteries tend to be less open to taking chances and less rich in form, characterization and psychology.

Then there are the clichés of national character that crop up in the two schools of the mystery genre -- English and hard-boiled. English mysteries remind me of the scene in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" when the Grim Reaper bursts in on a bourgeois dinner party to inform the hostess that the tinned salmon mousse she served was poisonous. "I'm most dreadfully embarrassed," the abashed woman tells her guests. There's something absurdly British about believing that manners and proper conduct should always remain paramount. The brutal intrusion of murder into everyday life proves that any restoration of order can only be tenuous at best. On the other hand, the American hard-boiled school is prey to its own follies. Hard-boiled writing offers another sort of consolation: the simplicity of its cynical belief that everything is rotten and corrupt and the best we can do is wise up to that dirty fact.

Both schools are still going strong, but the scads of mysteries I've read in the past year have made it clear to me that the work of the genre's best talents can't be easily slotted into either one. To take one recent example, Val McDermid's "A Place of Execution," possibly the most ingenious mystery I've read, starts out as a classic English police procedural, then ventures, in the last 100 pages, into something like pop metafiction, providing a startling new angle on everything that has gone before. It knocked the wind out of me.

What follows is a highly personal list of what I love about the cream of the crop, with some suggestions for readers seeking the same.

Coziness with an edge: Josephine Tey's precious few Inspector Alan Grant novels and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion mysteries make much of the atmosphere you see in British movies of the '30s -- fogbound London streets inhabited by toughs lurking under gaslit lamps, or English villages where the gentry and eccentric locals come into uneasy contact. The pleasures are familiar and genteel, to be sure, but not stodgy. They make you feel pampered.

Tey and Allingham were economical writers, and their books are shot through with the sort of dry wit that led Jacques Barzun to describe the classic English mysteries of the period as entertainment for highbrows. (Bertrand Russell was another devotee.) On occasion, the books even poke fun at the genre's already well-established conventions. When Bertie Wooster announces to Jeeves that he's whiling away an evening with the latest thriller, Allingham is what you imagine him reading, but Allingham's greatest book, "The Tiger in the Smoke," is a different matter. It deals with the malevolent discontents of postwar England in a way that suggests a weird kinship with Angus Wilson's "The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot" and "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes." Recommended: By Allingham, "The Fear Sign" or "The Black Dudley Murder"; by Tey, "The Daughter of Time," "The Franchise Affair" and "A Shilling for Candles."

Familiarity breeds content: It's easy to understand why writers who make their living from genre fiction can come to view it as a trap. If you're writing a series, you're stuck with the same key character and with finding a way to keep his or her quirks and crises from sounding like the familiar problems of a friend you've learned to avoid. Series that manage to keep going, and keep attracting readers, over a long period of time (like Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series, now in its 30th year) require unimaginable discipline.

But a great mystery series can be something akin to a 19th century novel -- a luxuriant experience that allows readers to live with a character over years. It's tempting to view James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries, Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro novels and Thomas Perry's marvelous Jane Whitefield series (at five entries, relatively young) as if each were one vast novel with installments still to come, a way to grant the reader's wish that a favorite book never end. It may even be that the further readers venture into a series, the less they care about the plots of each new adventure; the stories become an excuse to spend more time with the characters they love. And of course the tension of a good series lies in the terrifying and thrilling possibility that everything established will be destroyed in the blink of an eye. Recommended: More books by Lehane, Burke and Perry are listed below. But starters should begin with the first in each series, Lehane's "A Drink Before the War," Burke's "The Neon Rain" and Perry's "Vanishing Act." Many of the Reginald Hill mysteries are out of print here. "The Wood Beyond," a more recent title that's still available, is as good a place to start as any. Robert B. Parker's Spenser series is still going strong. Two of the earliest, "Looking for Rachel Wallace" and "The Judas Goat," slide you into the series nicely. They're also crack entertainments.

Better halves: Some dismiss crime fiction as the literary (or not so literary) equivalent of action movies: reactionary vigilante fantasies for a largely male audience. But this attitude doesn't account for the large numbers of female mystery readers and authors, or the increasing number of women sleuths (or, for that matter, why so many mystery bookstores are owned and operated by women). Most of all, it ignores what for me is one of the most delightful surprises in British mysteries: the strong presence of women even in books dominated by male characters.

British crime fiction abounds in smart, capable, forceful women characters, most of them married to cops (or detective inspectors, I should say). These women may be secondary characters, but they're hardly second bananas. They offer a valuable perspective from outside the largely male world of police work and stand for aspects of life that can get lost in their spouses' determination to get the job done. Perhaps their presence has to do with the fact that the golden era of British mysteries, the '30s, was dominated by women (Tey, Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh). Allingham's Albert Campion meets his future wife, Amanda, in "The Fear Sign" when she's just a teenager. Recognizing her as his soul mate, he immediately agrees when, very businesslike, she says, "Look here. I shan't be ready for about six years yet. But then -- well, I'd like to put you on the top of my list." Male British mysterians have continued the tradition of strong spouses. Recommended: Reginald Hill has given his sleuth, Peter Pascoe, a wife, Ellie, who's an academic, a feminist, a staunch liberal; I first encountered her in "On Beulah Height" and was immediately smitten. If you're not, you're a tougher nut to crack than I. Inspector John Madden in Rennie Airth's "River of Darkness" (the first entry in what promises to be a superb new series) is betrothed to a sharp, no-nonsense doctor, Helen Blackwell.

Rough justice: For all the comfort that mysteries provide, their secret appeal is the way they give voice to our shared discomfort about the inadequacies of our bedrock institutions and the potential for violence that hangs over modern life. In his perceptive New York Review of Books essay on Richard Price's "Freedomland," Luc Sante wrote that one of the oddities of contemporary fiction is that it has abandoned to television subjects such as the police, the courts, the prison system and the government -- once magnets for fiction writers. Of our major institutions, only academia remains a frequent subject of literary fiction. Apart from crime novelists, I can't think of any major American writer who deals with the justice system or the government.

There's a vigilante streak in American crime fiction, where the heroes are usually detectives who get things done because they work outside the law or renegade cops who chafe constantly under the restrictions imposed on them. (British crime fiction, in which policemen make up the majority of sleuths, shows a greater faith in the system.) Mysteries tap into our fear that certain bad people will manage to elude the law, and crime fiction usually makes a sharp distinction between law and justice. That doesn't mean that mysteries pander to a conservative fetish for law and order; questioning how our institutions work, who holds power in them and what kinds of people they fail can be a basis for liberal thinking. But at their best, mysteries operate outside the constrictions of conservative and liberal thought, balancing a sense of justice, compassion for victims and an awareness of how corruption and convenience pervert the aims of the police and the courts with skepticism about the humanist impulse to attribute all crime to societal ills rather than the ugly aspects of human nature.

Information anxiety: Mysteries often tackle social change and social problems more readily than literary fiction does. Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series -- in which information, essentially what every detective offers for sale, becomes a threat as well as a prize -- illustrates this perfectly. Jane is a half-Seneca "guide" who helps people in trouble disappear and establish new identities. Her clients range from abusive spouses to innocent pawns in the dirty dealings of their employers to genuinely unsavory characters -- if not as unsavory as the people out to kill them. Jane operates wholly outside the law. She has rented mail delivery boxes all over the country, immaculate phony identity papers and a store of cash in a heating duct in her basement and credit cards and licenses in dozens of different names for both herself and her clients. She doesn't hate the law, but she's aware of its limitations.

Technology keeps setting the bar higher for Jane. The increasing availability of information and the mounting demand that we identify ourselves (such as having to provide an I.D. before boarding a plane) make Jane's job a little harder in each book and add excitement to the series. Perry, whether by luck or inspiration, has conceived of a series that explores the diminishment of our privacy and the ways we square who we are with the information compiled about us. As Perry depicts it, technology challenges the promise of America as a place where people can create themselves as they want to be. That Perry's characters, aided by an Indian, use their manufactured identities to hide suggests an America constantly tempted to close down its frontiers and to betray its promise. Recommended: There are five Jane Whitefield novels so far and all are good. "The Face-Changers" and the latest, "Blood Money," both demonstrations that nobody writes his characters into a tight spot better than Perry, are highlights.

Shrinking violence: The most interesting male heroes in the novels that continue the tradition of American hard-boiled crime fiction are often deeply ambivalent about the violence they resort to. No writers better illustrate the limitations and pleasures of hard-boiled writing than James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane. The disgust their heroes express sometimes rings false because it doesn't square with the way Burke and Lehane use violence for its visceral thrill (especially Lehane, who can go right over the top and keep on going). It's striking, though, that even when it feels necessary, the violence in their books almost never brings a feeling of triumph. That's because Burke and Lehane don't stint on what it means to have brutality intrude on your life. We may be grateful that someone is slaying the dragon, but it never seems like attractive work.

At the end of Lehane's "A Drink Before the War," his heroes, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, execute a drug dealer who has abused and maimed and murdered with the complicity of powerful allies, and will continue doing so if he isn't stopped. Angie says, "Some people, you either kill them or leave them be, because you'll never change their minds." That may sound flip or cold, but it poses a question for which there may be no answer: How do you deal with people who only understand force? Sure, it's a pulp moment of retribution. It's also an honest account of an untenable choice: Allow others to be killed or take an action that will leave you sleepless and feeling unclean. Recommended: By Lehane, "Darkness, Take My Hand" (the most extreme of the series; it should be called "Darkness, Grab Me by the Throat and Pummel Me Until I Cry Uncle"), "Prayers for Rain" and "Gone, Baby, Gone." By Burke: "Black Cherry Blues," "Heaven's Prisoners" (his take on Byron de la Beckwith's 30-years-late prosecution for the murder of Medgar Evers), "Cadillac Jukebox" and the latest, "Purple Cane Road," which features a character modeled on both Jimmy Swaggart and President Clinton. Other hard-boiled mysteries and writers worth reading are James Crumley's great "The Last Good Kiss," the first two novels by newcomer Ace Atkins, "Crossroad Blues" and "Leavin' Trunk Blues," and everything by the great Ross Macdonald, a better writer than either Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler and creator of Lew Archer, the most gentlemanly of all American gumshoes. Macdonald's best books include "The Chill," the out-of-print "The Doomsters" (you might find it in a used-book store) and "The Zebra-Striped Hearse."

Funny business: It's a tribute to Burke and Lehane's ability to involve us that they get away with being mostly humorless. (Burke's Dave Robicheaux in particular is the most moralistic, conscience-tormented, pain-in-the-ass hero that a reader will still care about.) But the sodden romanticism that has always lurked within the hard-boiled school of crime fiction just makes the comedy of writers like Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and especially the late Ross Thomas (one of the greatest and least-known American mystery writers, and perhaps the most entertaining writer I've ever read) seem that much more sophisticated.

World-class wiseasses, these writers are nonetheless American to the core. They radiate a cheerful cynicism, one that accepts deceit and venality as givens and yet still retains enough native can-do optimism to believe that the bastards can be beaten at their own game. Their books are comedies of American corruption in which the laughs come from how the scoundrels can't help giving themselves away. All three men are narrative whizzes, twirling their plot strands like a juggler who's confident enough to keep the balls aloft while he relaxes with a cocktail. But Thomas (all of whose books save "Briarpatch" are shamefully out of print) remains the absolute master. Recommended: Thomas is close to his peak in the WuDu trilogy -- "Chinaman's Chance," "Out on the Rim" and "Voodoo, Ltd." "Missionary Stew" lives up to its title and the Edgar-winning "Briarpatch" is aces. Hiaasen's "Stormy Weather" is as heartlessly hilarious as the best of W.C. Fields. His two-fingered "salute" to Disney World, "Skin Tight," is particularly scabrous, and his latest, "Sick Puppy," is pissed off, a total hoot and romantic to boot. The humor in Leonard's early hard-boiled books is sardonic and grim. "Split Images" and the out-of-print "Unknown Man #89" are the best. Of his more recent stuff, "Rum Punch" (the basis for Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown") and "Out of Sight" are pure pleasure. Kinky Friedman is almost always wet-your-Levi's funny, especially in "The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover" and "Armadillos and Old Lace," which reads like "Home on the Range" sung by a pervert. Sarah Shankman's Samantha Adams books are smooth examples of Southern storytelling at its best, especially "Digging Up Momma" and "Then Hang All the Liars."

Partners in crime: One of the joys of being a mystery fan is feeling like you belong to a community of readers. A lot of the credit for that goes to mystery bookstores, which tend to be small and independently owned. I love the convenience of the big book superstores, but browsing in them can be an overwhelming experience. They make me feel like one of the zombies from "Night of the Living Dead," making my way sluggishly through the aisles, desperate to take a bite out of something that always manages to elude me. The more modest size of mystery bookstores allows their proprietors to get to know their customers, make recommendations, steer them toward things they might have missed. And customers often do the same for one another. (I can't remember the last time I fell into a conversation with a stranger at one of the book barns.) It's possible to walk into a mystery bookstore (like Black Orchid, my favorite New York shop) without a specific book in mind, tell somebody working there what type of books you dig and leave with three of four things that you wouldn't have found otherwise. It's a very comradely experience.

When someone tries to make a case for the validity of popular writers, a comparison to Charles Dickens is almost inevitable. He seems a perfect corollary: wildly popular, writing in installments. But comparing him to mystery authors leaves out one crucial thing: Dickens was a genius possessed of a scope and force that allowed him to transcend the contrivances of his plots and his sentimentality -- crippling defects in writers of lesser gifts. The apt comparison may be to writers who aren't "literary" but whose works are still widely read: Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and, on a more sophisticated level, P.G. Wodehouse. (If they weren't forgotten, I'd add names like John Meade Falkner and Thorne Smith.) That's the league in which to place Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. It's an honorable lineage. For all their determinations to flout macho clichés, the best mystery writing is about making a last stand. In contemporary fiction, mysteries are the last refuge of the born entertainers.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Mysteries