Sunday, September 17, 2006

Are there rules that crime fiction is supposed to follow?

Who's asking: Claire, a couple of weeks ago

Claire asked this as she was starting to read George Pelecanos' The Night Gardener. I thought it was a fascinating question, and most appropriate for that book in particular. Without giving anything away, I'd say that The Night Gardener is a good example of a crime novel that breaks almost all the theoretical "rules" of the genre.

A traditional mystery has a crime, of course, with a victim, a motive, and a villain. The hero of the traditional mystery tracks the villain down, explains the crime, and brings the villain to justice. Order, disrupted by crime, is restored.

More and more crime fiction, however -- and much of the best crime fiction being written today -- plays with these conventions, ignores them, or contradicts them. While I did read one traditional mystery this week, I also read three crime novels that don't fit the mold -- and one true-crime book that had a more convincing and dramatic villain than I've seen in fiction in quite some time.

What I Read This Week

Linda Barnes, The Heart of the World. Private detective Carlotta Carlyle has been going strong for more than 20 years; remarkably, Barnes has managed to keep the series strong and fresh, and this book's particularly good. Carlyle's young "little sister," Paolina, is kidnapped by strangers who take her back to her father's homeland, Colombia, as part of a long-brewing revenge plot. The crime is serious and compelling, but the villains are people with understandable motives, pushed too far, and the "good guys" are not exactly saints.

Rhys Bowen, Evan Blessed. Rhys Bowen writes traditional mysteries as well as any author working today, and her series featuring Welsh policeman Evan Evans are a consistent pleasure. In this outing, Evan prepares for his wedding to Bronwen while he searches for a young woman who's gone missing on Mount Snowdon.

Joseph Hilldorfer and Robert Dugoni, The Cyanide Canary. This true story of about an environmental accident and its aftermath is as gripping as any fictional thriller. Scott Dominguez went to work one morning, and his boss, Allan Elias, sent him into a holding tank filled with cyanide-laden sludge -- with no breathing apparatus and no safety gear. Elias is now serving a prison sentence on multiple criminal convictions, thanks to the dogged pursuit of EPA investigator Hilldorfer and his colleagues.

Laura Lippman, No Good Deeds. Last night at a New England Booksellers' Association cocktail party, I said I thought women authors were often better at keeping long-running series going than their male counterparts, and I gave this book as an example. Ex-reporter Tess Monaghan investigates the mysterious death of an assistant US attorney, but the central character in this book is actually Tess's boyfriend, Crow, who gets them involved in the mystery and struggles with secrets of his own. I love this series, and am always glad to hang out in Tess's world.

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Like most active readers, I always have more than one book going at once. At the moment, I believe I'm in the process of reading four or five books, depending on whether I count the history of the Catholic Church I started reading two years ago and never got into. (It's still on the pile, though. I'll get back to it. Someday.) Anyway, I started this book last summer, and set it down halfway through because I couldn't give the attention I felt it deserved -- and I finally finished it this week. I think I will have to go back and reread the whole thing, because it's much more than it seems to be. On the surface, it's the story of Llewelyn Moss, who discovers a satchel of money among several dead bodies, and decides to try to keep it for himself; it's also the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, an old-time Texas lawman who suffers because he's not the man he's trying to be. Beneath that, it's a fable of good and evil that says some pretty bleak things about the human condition, and I need to read it again to see whether it really is as bleak as it seems.

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