Thursday, April 17, 2003

April 17, 2003
Murder, They Wrote, and Wrote

We are in the midst of a reader's dream, a publicist's nightmare and a best-seller logjam.

In the realm of high-profile mystery writing, an amazing convergence happens to be under way. Virtually all of that genre's big guns — which is to say its most celebrated and popular male practitioners — have managed to bring out new crime novels in the same season. Only so-called retirement and a sudden interest in the Crusades, respectively, have kept two big exceptions, Stephen King and James Patterson (whose 11th-century latest is "The Jester"), out of this all-star swarm.

Why now? Call it a mystery. For those who write like clockwork (i.e., Stuart Woods, the Nora Roberts of mystery best-sellerdom), a new book every few months is no surprise. For others, seasonal publication is as dependable as migrating geese. (If it's February, it's John Grisham time.)

Then there are those like Dennis Lehane, whose last book was so good that his new one seems long-awaited, even if "Mystic River" established his stature only two years ago. Now suddenly there is Dan Brown's dazzling "Da Vinci Code," the erudition-laced wild card that arrived out of nowhere and went straight to the head of the class.

The mystery field is broad enough to accommodate writers from Mr. Brown, who can hinge a plot on the difference between matter and antimatter, to Robert Crais ("The Last Detective"), who cranks out the printed equivalent of formulaic Hollywood thrillers. It can feature stand-alone protagonists or serial detectives as familiar as old friends. "As I walked through the room, the men stared at me," observes Robert B. Parker's Spenser in "Back Story," the 30th book in Mr. Parker's unflaggingly congenial Boston-based series. "Probably sick with envy."

The violence quotient varies greatly. Mr. Patterson and Jeffery Deaver get much of their mileage by exploiting tastes for the grisly. "He straightened up, considering what he might do to the still form in front of him," Mr. Deaver writes at the start of his latest Lincoln Rhyme book, "The Vanished Man," describing a homicidal sadist and his first female victim. This is a far cry from Daniel Silva, whose best-selling "Confessor" features the elite art restorer Gabriel Allon as its protagonist. Like Mr. Brown, Mr. Silva deals in characters who know art, roam Europe and might just say something in Latin.

Others, like Harlan Coben ("No Second Chance") and Jonathan Kellerman ("A Cold Heart"), whose new books arrive later this month, are much more insightful, sensitive and mild. "Bear with me," remarks Mr. Kellerman's Dr. Alex Delaware, a psychologist, with his typical patience. "I need to get some context." Then there is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch (back in "Lost Light"), who has never unearthed an injustice that didn't make him moody.

Mr. Connelly, like George P. Pelecanos ("Soul Circus"), has been pivotal in reinventing the traditional gumshoe story for streetwise settings and more socially conscious times, without losing that genre's entertainment value. Mr. Pelecanos's Washington-based Derek Strange, in particular, has become a charismatic figure in this landscape, a sharp, affectionately drawn private investigator. Strange, whose shingle reads "Strange Investigations," digs thoughtfully into each case. Mr. Pelecanos, whose work gets better and better, continues to ascribe motives more wrenching than random ugliness to perpetrators whose lives have gone wrong.

But the single best example of this neo-noir crime writing has been "Mystic River," Mr. Lehane's deep, sorrowful story of a murder near Boston. While devising a classic crime story, Mr. Lehane escaped the limitations of the form to write a serious, ultimately devastating novel. It was clear from "Mystic River" that this writer, who began with more traditional detective fiction, had emerged from the whodunit ghetto as a broader and more substantial talent. Now he returns to the mystery format with the mind-bending twists of an eerie, startlingly original story.

"Shutter Island" unfolds in 1954. Its setting — a forbidding hospital for the criminally insane in Boston Harbor — is not automatically alluring unless you appreciate the classic constraints of an Agatha Christie puzzle; in that case it's irresistible. Shutter Island can be reached only by ferry. The doors of the institution are either locked or watched. The book's main character, United States Marshal Teddy Daniels, has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient, a barefoot woman who vanished from a locked cell and left behind an encrypted message no one understands.

Writing with a crisp clarity that makes the layout of Shutter Island instantly cinematic, Mr. Lehane unfolds this story unfold straightforwardly at first. Then the tricks begin. The missing patient, Rachel Solando, seems to have been involved with a doctor who also disappeared. The doctors at the hospital seem a strange bunch. ("Men of violence fascinate me," one says insinuatingly to Teddy. The possibility of illicit drug experiments on human guinea pigs, also recently raised by Mr. Grisham in "The King of Torts," begins to loom. In this atmosphere, with a cast of certifiably deranged characters, it grows harder and harder to know what is true.

Teddy is increasingly haunted by the allure of his wife, Dolores, who has died but speaks to him in his thoughts as the investigation proceeds. When Teddy learns that the man he blames for Dolores's death may be a Shutter Island inmate, he hears Dolores telling him, "You've known."

The primary force of this book comes from Teddy's grief and his anguished memories of World War II, when he helped liberate inmates at Dachau. (Mr. Lehane can be elegantly succinct: "Charm had never come easily to Teddy. After the war, it had come harder still. After Dolores, not at all.")

But its hidden power has a different source: Mr. Lehane's insight into his book's most disturbed figures. Suffice it to say that this is a deft, suspenseful thriller that unfolds with increasing urgency until it delivers a visceral shock in its final moments. When it comes to keeping readers exactly where he wants them, Mr. Lehane offers a bravura demonstration of how it's done.

By comparison, Mr. Connelly's "Lost Light" and Mr. Woods's "Dirty Work" are enjoyable, but much more conventional. Each is part of a series, and each marks the return of the author's signature character. In the case of Mr. Woods (whose book is dedicated to Charlton and Lydia Heston), it is Stone Barrington, lounge lizard extraordinaire. Mr. Woods has become so invested in incorporating Elaine's, the Manhattan restaurant, into his fiction that he gives Elaine herself dialogue and informs us that she has stopped smoking.

Once he stops playing barfly and gets down to detecting, Stone is as disarming as ever, even if the plotting of "Dirty Work" is relatively subdued. Stone once cut a hedonistic swath through London, Hollywood and Palm Beach; this time he doesn't get far from Elaine's. This book involves an international hit woman and is set mostly in New York. Stone remains affable if not incendiary company. And he is the kind of detective who has a favorite brand of Champagne.

Mr. Connelly's Harry Bosch, who threatened to chuck his career in disgust four years ago and left the Los Angeles Police Department, is back to silence cries of "say it ain't so" from loyal readers. Now, in "Lost Light," the world-weary Harry is a former cop doing freelance work. He is summoned by a movie producer who prompts him to reopen an old investigation.

"The cases keep coming, Mr. Taylor," Harry tells him. "It's not like in your movies. I wish it was." (Harry's detecting skills are better than his grammar.)

While in career limbo, Harry sounded the quintessential blue note that endears him to noir-loving readers: "I was living like a jazz musician waiting for a gig. I was staying up late, staring at the walls and drinking too much red wine. I needed to either pawn my instrument or find a place to play it." But once Harry picks up his saxophone, figuratively speaking, he gets returns to well-worn, familiar Connelly territory. Thinking of the murder that draws him back, Harry experiences "a small tug toward the darkness I one time knew so well."

"Lost Light" is B-level Bosch, but it has been an instant hit. Almost all the books mentioned here have turned up on at least one best-seller list, just as Mr. Coben's and Mr. Kellerman's latest are apt to do. In cases like Mr. Parker's, this is merely the writerly equivalent of having a hit television series (which he already has, via Spenser). For Mr. Brown, the more relevant model may just be "Titanic." And for Mr. Lehane "Shutter Island" is liable to have the staying power of "The Sixth Sense."

No matter how huge the deluge of mysteries, they have a tireless, eager readership. Escapism is not going out of style.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company |

No comments:

Search This Blog