Saturday, January 10, 2004

Who cares whodunit? Read crime novels just for the fun of it

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

"For years I have been hearing about detective stories. Almost everybody I know seems to read them, and they have long conversations about them in which I am unable to take part," wrote critic Edmund Wilson in 1944 in The New Yorker.

To bring himself up to speed, he decided that he "ought to take a look at some specimens of this kind of fiction which has grown so tremendously popular and which is now being produced on such a scale that the book departments of magazines have had to employ special editors to cope with it."

His findings raised such a stink (and this was during World War II) that they drew responses from no less than Jacques Barzun, Somerset Maugham, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wood Krutch and Bernard DeVoto.

Clearly, "Bunny," as his friends called him, was not a fan.

His conclusion about detective stories was that they are "simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmlessness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles."

People don't smoke as much as they did in the 1940s, but the popularity of the mystery just goes on. I know this firsthand from the unbroken stream of them flowing month after month into the office.

Up to my knees in crime, I decided to retrace Bunny's steps to deal with four highly touted titles by using his comments as a map.

"No Second Chance" By Harlen Coben. Dutton ($24.95)

"Lost Light" By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown ($25.95)

"Shutter Island" By Dennis Lehane. Morrow ($25.95)

"Good Morning, Killer" By April Smith. Knopf ($24)

Wilson was careful to distinguish the English puzzle-style works of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie -- works he despised -- with the hard-boiled school of Chandler, to whom he was more charitable but still not impressed.

My selections are drawn mostly from the progeny of Chandler, although "Shutter Island" takes a turn toward Christie.

Wilson calls such books novels "of adventure. It is not simply a question here of a puzzle that has been put together, but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms."

Wilson's real complaint, I believe, although he doesn't come out and say it, is that the crime novel is artificial in both character and story, hence not real literature at all, but entertainment.

I have no objection to entertainment. I go to adventure movies and watch a certain TV cliffhanger regularly. I also enjoy a skillfully crafted suspense story, and my quartet provides plenty.

The difficulty arises when the books are marketed with the "literature" label; for instance, April Smith "illuminates the human condition through the pain and complex lives -- and deaths -- of her compelling characters."

These creations -- chiefly, FBI agent Ana Grey, her bulked-up police officer boyfriend Andrew Berringer and wacko villain Ray Brennan (most fictional bad guys today are sired by Hannibal Lecter) -- are not real people.

The characters shed no light on genuine lives but are designed to keep the plot plodding along to its predictably gruesome conclusion. The relationship between Ana and Andrew is, well, boring, and clearly designed to go south at the appropriate time.

The supporting cast is a collection of stereotypes found in law enforcement and in rich Los Angeles neighborhoods. Even a transient who might "illuminate the human condition" of the homeless is just a plot device.

The L.A. setting is really a character as well, providing Smith with the opportunity to display her inside knowledge of its sprawling excess.

It's a city made for dirty deeds, portrayed so often in books and film that all a writer needs to do is invoke its name, and you can almost hear the notes from a lonely trumpet player hanging moodily in the smog.

Michael Connelly's publisher guarantees you'll hear that West Coast jazz with his new book by offering a companion CD heavy on Art Pepper, a favorite of his hero, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch.

Now retired from the LAPD, Bosch spends his days listening to Pepper while he tries to reopen an unsolved murder case. Plus, he takes sax lessons from an elderly jazz man.

There are plenty of Wilson's malaise and conspiracy in Connelly, especially when he places Bosch in conflict with a Gestapo-like unit of the FBI that uses the excuse of Sept. 11 to trample on constitutional rights.

Connelly labels it the BAM (By Any Means) Squad.

Beaten, bound and held illegally, Bosch sees men of Middle Eastern appearance held under the same conditions in a secret jail.

"It used to be a free country. That used to be enough standing," Bosch lectures a particularly odious "special agent."

However, Connelly has other, more touchy-feely plans for his aggrieved crusader, causing the book to take a sharp turn toward domestic bliss. Before Bosch has his epiphany, Connelly does allow him to hurt a few bad guys along the way.

Malaise and conspiracy fuel Dennis Lehane's follow-up to the popular "Mystic River," a murder tale with a literary flair and realistic surroundings.

This time, Lehane drops the realism for a creepy tale at a hospital for the criminally insane on an island near Boston.

Setting it in the 1950s, he tries to invoke the paranoia of the Cold War, with its history of mind games, brainwashing and drug treatments.

This is no adventure novel but a variation on the technique of "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." In other words, a gimmick that knocks the air out of a promising story and lets the reader down.

Of course, I can't tell you how. One difficulty with crime fiction is reviewing it. It's against an unwritten rule to reveal the plot, but that's like leaving your shot of bourbon half finished.

Lately, Harlan Coben has been using young, idealistic doctors rather than world-weary cops as his heroes, but the effect is the same: The bad guys get theirs.

The struggle for the reader is to accept that a physician can have the same skills of detecting and toughness that are standard equipment for a detective.

Critically wounded, his wife dead and their daughter missing, plastic surgeon Marc Seidman must solve the crimes himself when kidnappers demand that no police be involved in getting the girl back. His foes are a pair of those Lecter offspring, the kind of pathological and sadistic folks found only in crime novels.

Coben's a skilled writer with a knack for a twist here and a turn there that impels his readers to cover the 338 pages to find the solution -- which, of course, I can't divulge.

But, for my summation, I turn to partner Edmund Wilson:

"The explanation of the mysteries ... is neither interesting nor plausible enough. It fails to justify the excitement produced by the elaborate build-up of picturesque and sinister happenings, and one cannot help feeling cheated."

I rest my case.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

Who cares whodunit? Read crime novels just for the fun of it

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