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L.R. WRIGHT. Prized Possessions (1993).

Where does one draw the line between the mystery novel and the work of serious fiction? In some instances, that line blurs to the point of nonexistence. Those who write about crime often work to attain—and often do attain—the depths of psychological insight and the lofty reaches of social observation that great novelists have traditionally claimed as their exclusive literary domain. Mainstream writers, meanwhile, often descend into the precincts of genre fiction, if only because a work presented as “A Mystery” will sometimes garner more readers than one marketed as “A Novel.” PrizedPossession.jpg

Somewhere between those publishing trends falls this tale. Issued as a “crime” novel, it has a good deal in common with a straight novel that came out in roughly the same era: Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter. Like that work, it traces the process by which a handful of characters converge—slowly, tortuously, inexorably—upon acts of horrific violence. At no point is there any doubt as to “who” or even as to “what.” In the fictive world that Wright has built, only the question of “how” appears to matter. How will the perpetrators find their victims (or vice versa)? How will the murderous impulses foreshadowed in the novel’s earliest scenes finally be unleashed? Nothing beyond the presence of a professional detective, one Karl Alberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, signals that we are reading a genre piece rather than a “literary” product.

Alberg, in fact, performs no detection. He merely goes about his business, most of it personal, while just over the horizon of his life in staid, orderly Vancouver, two stories of conflict between the sexes unfold—stories of desire thwarted and transposed into hate. In one, a drugstore clerk of subnormal intelligence, believing that a haughty college girl has snubbed him, sets forth to demand an apology from her. Not really knowing why, he takes a gun along with him. In the other, a woman has invested every resource at her disposal into being the perfect wife, only to discover that she has failed. When she goes in search of the husband who has left her, she too carries a gun. The two dramas proceed separately, in parallel fashion, for most of the novel. Then they intersect with one another, and with Alberg, in a concluding sequence that is none the less explosive for being perfectly predictable.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

This foray into the realm of serial murder stands out for being a departure for an author who typically focused on less anonymous forms of killing. In a postwar New York that feels grittier and more prosaic than the stylized metropolis of the early Queen books, a series of people are found slain by the same method—strangulation with a cord of Indian tussah silk—over the span of just a few weeks. CatManyTails.jpgNo apparent link exists between one victim and another, and the dead hail from every corner of Manhattan and from every rank in society. Tabloid newspapers, eager to exploit popular fear, dub the murderer “the Cat” and liken each victim to a cat’s tail; the escalating number of figurative feline appendages yields a sinister image that captures and discombobulates the collective mind of the city. Gotham authorities enlist Ellery Queen to apprehend the killer and to quell the frenzy, and he succeeds on both fronts, but not before the Cat has grown its ninth tail.

For both Queen the detective and Queen the author, serial murder poses an all-too-obvious challenge: Where motive appear to be absent, as it does here, everyone is a suspect. Or no one is. The author handles that problem ably, in part by deploying well-disguised clues that ultimately point to the motive and hence the identity of the Cat. Equally important, Queen in this outing tilts the narrative emphasis away from the genteel matching of wits between reader and detective—the hallmark of most earlier tales in the Queen cycle—and toward the careful depiction of a world shadowed by the specter of total war. (It’s intriguing to pair this work with another that appeared in the same era: “Here Is New York,” E.B. White’s famous ode to the city. As Queen does in this novel, White celebrates New York in all its quotidian glory, but an acute sense of dread colors his otherwise loving portrait of the place and its people.) Like others who had lived through the 1940s, the men who wrote the Queen books reached the end of that decade with a diminished faith in human rationality. One result of that change of perspective, not just in their work but across the entire genre, was a move toward telling stories in which the mechanics of crime and crime-solving give way to the dynamics of mental and social chaos.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

RICHARD ALEAS. Little Girl Lost (2004).

The Aleas name is an alias—a nice touch, that. It belongs to Charles Ardai, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, a line of neo-retro paperback originals. (The pseudonym is also an anagram of Ardai’s real name.) This début novel is a product of that line, but it’s hardly a vanity publication. Paying homage to the wise-guy style and grim worldview of mid-20th-century noir fiction, Ardai shrewdly updates an old noir story: A private eye, bent on avenging the murder of a former lover, plunges into a grimy underworld that slowly reveals itself to be a hall of mirrors.LittleGirlLost.jpg The setting is New York City, circa 2003, a place where the hum of cell-phone talk and cable-news chatter threatens to drown out the sweet melody of doom that provides noir characters everywhere with their theme music. In Ardai’s arrangement, though, both the hum and the melody are perfectly audible.

The PI in this rendition of the story, a fresh-faced NYU lit major named John Blake, reads in the Daily News one morning about the killing of a stripper at her place of business, an East Village joint called the Sin Factory. He recognizes her face as well as her name: Miranda Sugerman. Miranda was his high-school sweetheart, and he hasn’t seen her since she went away to college as a pre-med student about ten years ago. How, in one short decade, did she go from such an innocent start to such a squalid end? To retrace her journey, Blake delves into the silicone-inflated stripper subculture, befriends a Sin Factory “professional” who develops a soft spot for him (in a heart that might or might not be of gold), and lands a client in the form of an Armenian-American drug dealer who wants him to find $500,000 in cash that Miranda might have helped to steal. Along the way, as he asks what became of Miranda, Blake ends up wondering what has become of himself.

Sure-handed plotting, clever but not too clever writing, and a classic twist ending—hidden from view by an equally classic diversionary move—make this Hard Case title easy to like.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

MAJ SJÖWALL and PER WAHLÖÖ. The Laughing Policeman (1968).

One thing that Inspector Martin Beck and the policemen who serve with him on the Stockholm homicide squad rarely do is laugh. The emotions that they express, or that Sjöwall and Wahlöö express for them, generally align with the kind of gloom and dyspepsia that have come to define the Scandinavian soul (for non-Scandinavians, at any rate). The disappointments of married and family life, the unfulfilled promise of the welfare state, the dank and dreary skies that hover perpetually over the Swedish capital—these are the topics that typically preoccupy Beck and his comrades, who therefore come across as a dour and serious lot. The title of this novel, the fourth of the ten books that make up the Beck saga, thus contains a strong element of irony. And right away that irony takes on a dark hue, for The Laughing Policeman essentially begins with a dead policeman. Late on an evening in 1967, when the Stockholm police are focusing most of their energies on an anti–Vietnam War protest being held at the U.S. Embassy, an assailant guns down nine people on the 47 Bus as it nears its terminus in the city’s Vasastan neighborhood. Among the dead is an off-duty cop named Ake Stenstrom. Was his killing a mere byproduct of a senseless mass murder? Or was he the intended target of an assassin?

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In the now-classic manner of the modern procedural, the investigation of that crime proceeds by fits and starts, with different investigators pursuing different leads with varying degrees of success and (more often) failure. Over time, usable clues—a hidden sheaf of sexually charged photos, a scrap of memory shared by a surviving bus passenger—do accumulate. Then comes a moment, understated but nonetheless climactic, when readers learn the source of the book’s title. Many weeks have passed since the murder spree, and it’s Christmastime. As a present from his daughter, Beck receives a recording of an old song called “The Laughing Policeman.” It’s actually a gag gift of sorts, but it triggers the stroke of insight that Beck needs to arrange an apparently ragtag set of clues in their proper order.

The resolution of the case carries no great surprise, yet it packs a real punch. In large part, that’s because it arises organically from its milieu. Stockholm is a city of islands, populated by residents who skillfully make islands of themselves, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö excel at depicting particular Stockholmers as they inhabit particular locations within that metropolis. The result is a somber, documentary effect that resembles the feel of mid-century noir film and fiction. Still, the noir scene that these authors evoke is a far cry from the prototypical American version. Life in Sweden might breed despair, but social breakdown is a problem that has limited salience in that well-ordered clime. The authors concede as much when they refer—in a glancing albeit telling way—to the day earlier in 1967 when motorists throughout the country miraculously switched from left-hand to right-hand driving.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

AARON MARC STEIN. Days of Misfortune (1949).

DaysMisfortune.jpgA lack of basic literary art characterizes this modestly sized but long-seeming episode from the casebook of archeologists Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt. During a pause in their excavation of Mayan ruins near the secluded town of Mérida, on the Yucatan Peninsula, the pair dig up the recently slain body of an unidentified norteamericano. Because the dig happens to be located alongside the home of their friend and pilot Pablo, and because Pablo happens to have gone missing in the meantime, Mulligan and Hunt decide to embark on a more contemporary sort of excavation. They dig into the peculiar activities of several other American visitors to the area, and buried within the hodgepodge of gringo scheming that they turn up are the rudiments of a solid mystery plot. Likewise, the Mexican scenery and the aura of ancient evil that surrounds the so-called Days of Misfortune—five accursed, monthless days that lie stranded at the end of the Mayan calendar—afford a colorful backdrop that Stein (who also wrote prolifically and somewhat more famously under the name George Bagby) uses effectively at one or two points. Overall, though, he leaves the reader to sort through shards of clumsy exposition, flat characterization, and missed narrative opportunity.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

DAVID FULMER. Chasing the Devil’s Tail (2001).

Someone is murdering the “sporting women” who make the Storyville section of New Orleans what it is. Or, rather, what it was—for the year is 1907. Storyville, a 14-block area that became a district of legally sanctioned vice in 1897, is a thriving hub of morally dubious activity. The fabled “oldest profession in the world” flourishes there, and so does the world’s newest art form, a style of music known as “jass” or “jazz.” (The heyday of the District, as it was known, lasted until 1917. That year, the U.S. Navy deemed it to be a threat to wartime discipline and shut it down.) This tale opens with the killing of one prostitute. Then comes another. And another. And so on. Each homicide takes place in a different Storyville brothel, and the method of murder differs each time as well. The only element that unites these crimes, other than the victim’s mode of employment, is the placement (by the killer, presumably) of a black rose on or near the corpse.

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For writers today, especially those who deal in tales of historical crime, the serial murder of fallen women is an evergreen trope. A string of dead whores calls forth the cultural memory of Jack the Ripper, and it makes for a powerful, readymade theme. Yet it’s a theme that, all too often, allows writers and their readers to keep a certain distance from the dark material at hand: The poor “unfortunates” who become murder victims loom as faceless emblems of a benighted time gone by. Fulmer, to his credit, deploys this trope in a nuanced and credible way. Shrewdly, he abandons the common genre practice of using first-person narration, and thus he’s able to offer a sympathetic, God’s-eye view of the women who plied their trade in the mansions of Basin Street and vicinity. He observes, for instance, that they frequently (and understandably) sought comfort and intimacy not from men, but from each other. More generally, Fulmer excels at delivering incisive pen sketches of lived experience. In his authorial care, we come to know—or believe that we know—what it felt like, and sounded like, and smelled like, to stroll the banquettes of the Vieux Carré in the early years of a new century.

Writerly flair also gives Fulmer an edge when it comes to populating the tale with actual personages of that time and place. That standard technique of historical fiction can result in awkward efforts to blend historical truth with fictional truth. (It can be especially problematic in a detective story: Readers know that such “real” characters aren’t plausible murder suspects.) But Fulmer has a deft way of bringing into his narrative such people as Tom Anderson, the so-called King of Storyville; E.J. Bellocq, a photographer whose portraits of Storyville prostitutes form a powerful, haunting record of those women and their milieu; the fabled whorehouse madams Lulu White and “French” Emma Johnson; and, most centrally, the cornet player Buddy Bolden—a titanic presence in the early history of jazz and also, in Fulmer’s telling, a tragic figure who was essentially driven insane by his own talent.

Another emissary from the history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, offers the bit of aphoristic wisdom that provides a title for the book: “You best be careful if you go chasin’ the devil’s tail, ’cause you just might catch it.” Fulmer has Morton spout that line to Valentin St. Cyr, the fictional sleuth who has star billing here. BellocqPhoto.jpgSt. Cyr, half African and half Italian by descent, functions ably in the half-lit, half-legal world of the District. Employed as an enforcer and problem solver by Anderson, and by some of the savvier Storyville madams, he is just the right fellow to launch a hunt for the “devil” who’s terrorizing the Crescent City.

That hunt, unfortunately, isn’t as compelling as it might be. Readers have scant opportunity to follow St. Cyr in working through a set of clues, because real clues are thin on the ground. (That black-rose motif? It never amounts to much.) There’s a big, stinky red herring: Each of the slain women had a clear connection to Bolden, and Bolden conspicuously lacks an alibi for each murder. There’s a long, anguished, but essentially empty quest by St. Cyr to find an alternative explanation for the killings. (St. Cyr, a boyhood friend of cornet player, never harbors any doubt as to Bolden’s innocence.) Finally, there’s a flash of insight that leads the detective to discern the unlikely suspect who is, in fact, the culprit. Fulmer, though, does little to set the stage for that epiphany. Some readers will be able to guess at least part of the solution, but only because there are only a few directions in which the story can go. Chasing the Devil’s Tail, in short, is a tale in which the chase has far greater resonance than the moment of capture.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

AGATHA CHRISTIE. Black Coffee (1930).

The thirst among publishers for titles to which they can attach the “Agatha Christie” brand remains as unquenchable as ever. To serve that thirst, a writer named Charles Osbourne took the raw material of a play that Christie wrote during her heyday and subjected it to a bit of benign violence; in other words, he novelized it.BlackCoffee.jpg The result, published in 1998, has a few charms and curiosities, but ultimately it’s devoid of the rich, world-building magic that Christie brought to her prose fiction. Try as Osbourne might to invest this treatment with light ironic touches and other writerly grace notes, he succeeds mainly in revealing the creaky, old-fashioned stagecraft that undergirds the original work. In a bid to “open up” the play, he launches his novel with a scene that features sleuth-hero Hercule Poirot in his Mayfair flat. Even so, most of the action here takes place in a single setting—the library of Sir Claud Amory, the victim of the piece. Stock characters, such as Sir Claud’s debt-ridden son and the son’s mysterious foreign-born wife, flit in and out of the room, uttering cliché-laced speeches that move the plot forward across an all-too-visible three-act structure. The murder puzzle hinges on several well-deployed clues (one of which, unfortunately, involves a bit of outdated household terminology), and Osbourne does capture some of the antic flair that marked Christie’s writing at its best. All the same, he fails to close the gap that yawns wide between a well-made play and a well-turned novel.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2014 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 
 
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