Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Watching the Detectives, Bang Bang, Shoot Shoot!

Continuing some examinations 
of contemporary detective series

Detail of Jacket Cover from The Cat, the Quilt and the Corpse
Illustration by Jennifer Taylor
     The Mystery/Thriller genre has been split into ‘Cozy’ and ‘Hard-boiled’ for over thirty years.  Cozies usually feature murders in a non-violent manner, focus on one or two related murders, and are set in towns or rural areas.  Their general forebears are the British Golden Age of the 1930s, specifically
Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham.  Hard-boiled novels feature multiple, violent murders, not always related, and the authors generally become cultural ethnographers for a specific city.  Although most closely associated with Americans Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, another significant forebear was Georges Simenon.

     Louise Penny’s Still Life (2005) was the début of her Inspector Armand Gamache series that has yielded her a number of Agatha awards (specifically given to cozies) as well as other citations and nominations.  Penny had a big signing last summer at Joseph-Beth, but I hadn’t read her books so I didn’t think to go.  

Louise Penny on the Set of Still Life
     In retrospect, I wish I had.  Penny’s series is set in Three Pines, a small town outside of Montréal.  The Québécois background, while intriguing, doesn’t play as important an element in this installment as I presumed it would.  The Three Pines setting is the best element and looks like it may be the major focus in following books.  The friends that seem to comprise the major suspects compel interest as characters, rather than the somewhat desultory plot.  Gamache is ultra-competent and sensitive – some female writers over-idealize the male detective such as Elizabeth George with Inspector Lynley, P.D. James with Dalgliesh, which started with Dorothy Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey – and this is Penny’s Achilles’ heel.  Gamache has to deal with a surly newcomer to his team and I couldn’t have cared less.  

     No bang bang occurs since the victim is killed by a bow and arrow – she could be a variation on Christie’s Jane Marple and Three Pines a version of St. Mary Mead – yet that’s part of the point since this is a cozy.  Penny’s a sensitive writer, but not the spiritual one that some reviewers seem to believe she is.  Would I check out another one?  Maybe.  

     Mo Hayder’s Gone (2011) won the Edgar so that was a hook right off the bat.  It’s the third or fourth in her Detective Jack Caffery series.  He had a tough case in London and has relocated to Bristol.  So, he has bad memories of bureaucratic screw-ups, I suppose.  It’s a little like David Tennant’s character on BBC America’s Broadchurch last year.  The electrifying element is Sergeant Flea Marley, who leads a police diving team.  She’s hiding a devastating secret that affects both her and Caffery adversely, though the plot of this installment does not depend upon it.

Mo Hayder
     The book tells of a number of child kidnappings.  I had a minor issue with the timing of the first kidnapping that’s shown and the aftermath of events in the first couple of chapters because the details don’t seem to be consistent.  However, everything else works about the plot.  It focuses on two connected cases and doesn’t overburden the reader with three or four initially random ones.  This places it in the more simply plotted police procedural tradition that concentrates on character psychology instead.  Hayder does this with verve and she drops hints very well.  Actually, she does so a little too well since I figured out the kidnapper’s identity about fifty pages before it was revealed.  

     It’s a major page-turner that I didn’t want to end because of what was happening to Flea.  She’s pushed into unimaginably desperate circumstances and, fortunately, the children aren’t treated as sadistically as I’d presumed.  Hayder isn’t as grim as some other writers might choose to be, though I’d type her as hard-boiled.  This is a worthy successor to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series (high praise from me) and I’ll certainly read another of Hayder’s works soon. 

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