Friday, March 27, 2009

At play among the bodies and gore

I wish I liked mysteries more. My Mom was quite the reader of light mysteries, both of the Agatha Christie variety and the adventures of the smug and nebbish Rabbi Small (written by Harry Kemelman) and the dapper, fastidious Mexican cardsharp Detective Luis Mendoza. (By Elizabeth Linington, writing as Dell Shannon.)I read them too, mostly around the ages of 9-13, and liked them. Later as an adult, I tried to reread them and found them simplistic, stereotypical, loosely plotted and much too heavily reliant on surprise revelations and character habits disguised as personality details.

Today Rabbi Small seems hopelessly under-educated and offensively sexist; I know people who could run him around the block in Talmudic logic, and they ain't rabbis. Plus, his eternal battles with an ever-changing Temple president seem petty and often stunningly dim when compared to what was happening in the Jewish community at the time, and what has happened since.

Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot hardly need me to detail my dislikes; let's just say I'd like to plant a nice garden in the one tiny vicarage that didn't suffer the murder of the town's gossip and fertilize it with buckets of tiny gray cells.

I didn't like 'em as a grown up.

But I keep trying, occasionally on the multiple recommendations of friends, but they always seem to disappoint. I don't know what it is; maybe it's that I get annoyed both when I solve the mystery first and when I don't, even though re-reading reveals the clues. Yet, I enjoy the Harry Potter books very much and each one contains classic examples of mysteries; at first it's a "Where in the world is Lord Voldemort?" sort of thing and later on, it's where are his goodies?

But I do find I enjoy police procedurals; thus my fetish for the Kellerman duo and they combined 4, 5 dozen books. And thanks to Paperback Swap, I have also been enjoying some of the books by James Patterson, although I fear that won't last long.

First; what I like. I like forensics. This goes back a long way. I have always admired the science of finding things where a lesser trained person wouldn't see them. And most importantly, I enjoy finding them alongside the hero. If Sherlock waits until the very end of the story to reveal he deduced the amount of time passed by how the parsley had sunk into the butter, it's grandstanding. If the story tells me as he figures it out, it's more information for me to use to follow the story along.

I loved Quincy. I love CSI:TOS. And now, I love Bones. I enjoy books which show me how the good guys discover things, not just when.

I also like gruntwork. I like stories when they go out and interview 80 people *knowing* it's highly unlikely it will help, but they do it because sometimes it does actually work. And because you can't rely on nothing but good ideas in isolation.

I like partnerships; I like teams. A squad, a department, a pair will almost always work better for me than a solo artist. Even if there is one "star," I like to know they have friends, resources, buddies, fellow professionals, most of whom are people, not duct tape characters.

I like really, really bad bad guys. Serial killers, kidnappers, ritual murderers, assassins, thrill killers, mutilators. And I am not afraid of graphic descriptions. I will not stop reading because a sympathetic or innocent character dies. I want to know anyone is at risk.

So far? Patterson delivers a lot, except for details on forensics. And with the rest, I am content. Why do I feel it won't last? Because on the way back from SF, I bought a more recent Alex Cross novel and the whole damn thing is written in chapters of, like, three pages. It drove me insane. Like some of the more recent Mr. Kellerman books, that one seemed stripped of characters, dialog, background stories and anything which wasn't dramatic, shocking, or supposedly exciting.

However, three Alex Cross books I enjoyed were Kiss the Girls, Cat & Mouse, and Jack & Jill.

Kiss the Girls had the fun of two killers working together in different areas, Cat and Mouse had the return of a psycho from a previous book, and Jack and Jill had, er, two killers working together. OK, more than two. Patterson loves to imagine these wackos are really good at calling each other up and asking for favors. "Dude! The feds are on my case. Would you mind committing a depraved murder in a public place and pretending to be me? No way! You are totally my BFF. I will definitely kill you last. Joke! Joke!"

They were good; I like the character of Alex Cross, I like his family, I like his best friend, and I fear for his girlfriends. (Oh, dear, yet another book where the object of his affection is killed, threatened OR a villain...) But at least I will have a few more books to add to the shelves before I reach a cut off point. I do not think I will need to have a complete set.

1 comment:

Mad said...

I was about the same age when I stole all the Agatha Christies off the shelves and devoured them. (among other things: it was at 12 that I completely unsuspectingly borrowed the Story of O off my parents' bookshelves as well- silly to have a plain white spoiler-free cover!) My sister still adores Christies and eats them like candy so I borrowed one from her and felt like a bit of my childhood died when it did nothing for me. Gawd, was Poirot always such a dick?

There *are* still two authors whose books I snap off the Mystery shelves when they publish new stuff: Minette Walters and John Dunning . You would think that Walters' gimmick of constantly making you fall in love with one of her characters, then to make it seem that they are the ones who committed whatever ghastly crime is the flavour of the month, only to have it turn out just fine in the end would get tiresome, but I still can't get enough of them. I really like her style of starting each chapter with a newspaper cutting of the book's current big plot point: it leaves her more freedom to use dialogue as character development instead of plot revelation.

Dunning is just a damn good businessman. Obviously, readers are the biggest target audience for mainstream fiction writers. So why not have the protagonist of your series be a man who loves books so much that he quits fighting crime to open a rare book store? (Obviously it doesn't work and the crime comes to meet him, or else there wouldn't be any adventures to read about!)

Police procedurals and I have a love/hate relationship. Gunfight scenes bore me to tears. This was the reason that for an awfully long time I only read books of this genre that came from across the pond: mostly Ian Rankin and Reginald Hill . But my god Rankin is whiny after a while, and although I *do* adore Dalziel in Hill's books, it seems that Pasoe's insuffrable family is the one that we have to read about constantly. Which is absolutely not fair because the women that Dalziel dates are delightful, Wieldy's husband and he could make a dashing crimefighting duo all to themselves if given half an chance, and Hat has a habit of dating schizophrenic serial killers. And yet, Hill insists on writing instead about Pascoe's wife Ellie. I hate Ellie.

And so, I went sifting through American crime novels to find some that I like instead. I do like Jonathan Kellerman (you already have most of his, I know) but I haven't been able to enjoy a book of his wife's enough to ever finish one. I like Jeffery Deaver's books which almost always feature forensics superstar Lincoln Rhyme, but in small doses. In fact, much as I really enjoy the forensic nature of the ones that have Rhyme as a central character, I usually enjoy the storytelling more in the books in which his role is more supporting.

I think my favourite series of crime type books though has to be Michael Connolley's. Yes, Harry Bosch is a cowboy, but he's got just enough of that indescribable 'noir' factor in his cowboy-itude to make it entertaining. Connolly gets a ton of mileage out of Harry's favourite saying: "everybody counts, or nobody counts" as he pounds the pavement in an almost always thankless and neverending task of solving the crimes that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Plus, Mickey Haller, the sleasebag defense lawyer that he's added to his newer books who is desperately trying to make good on his life is terribly entertaining, too!