13 June 2010

More from the fox of an author

A couple weeks ago, Bird Loomis recommended Silence by Thomas Perry. Perry was a new author to me, so I went to the Northfield Library and looked for books by him. Silence wasn't on the shelf, but Death Benefits was and I checked it out.

Perry [right] may indeed be a fox compared to other mystery writers. I can't tell yet. I've only read one of his books. I can tell you that I thought Death Benefits was outstanding. It was a delight to read. One sign that Bird is right about Perry's approach to mystery fiction was that this plot didn't follow the conventions of mystery stories. This author does indeed know more than one way to structure a mystery.

He also knows good elements to use. One of the main characters is a private investigator whose skills and connections are nearly magical. Max Stillman lets nothing stand in his way, and he always wins the brawls. He can find out anything through his connections. I began to wonder why this mystery was so difficult for him to sort out because it was hard to see a shortcoming in his panoply of abilities. But without some shortcomings, the book would be pretty short and not very interesting.

When on an assignment for an old-fashioned insurance company, Stillman drafts a young analyst, John Walker, out of the company's cube farm to help him find anomalies in suspect claims. Thus begins a cross-country adventure without any limitation of a budget (thanks to the scale of the fraud). Walker is dragged into late night surveillance, back alley fist fights, attempts to dodge bullets, and unexpected romance. (See what I mean about Perry's awareness of the traditional building blocks of mystery fiction?)

The romance comes for Walker in the form of a seductive computer hacker who works for one of Stillman's contract researchers. If Death Benefits hadn't been published several years before Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I could easily have been convinced that the relationship between Walker and the mysterious "Serena" had been copied from the relationship between Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander in Larsson's books.

If you've read many of my reactions here, you know that I have trouble with contrived situations and things that don't make sense. Well, Perry's story includes some real whoppers, but I didn't notice them until I was done with the book. I credit that to Perry's story telling: it's like being on a fast-moving train that goes through an implausible landscape that doesn't seem implausible until the train stops. (e.g. What's with a New England town of 3,500 people where the police department has 16 patrol cars? Come on, why didn't the magical investigator or his statistical wizard sidekick notice that obvious anomaly? Even the city of 15,000+ I live in doesn't have that many squad cars lined up in the parking lot behind the "Safety Center.") The final scene was rather like the mob scene from a Transylvanian horror movie, but it was only the arrival of the cavalry that made me realize what a ridiculous ride I'd been taken on.

I'm encouraged enough that when I take this book back to the library, I'll look for Silence or another of Perry's books. Have you read Death Benefits or another of Perry's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

Thomas Perry's web site

"Putting the "Fun" in Dysfunctional," Patrick A. Smith's review of Death Benefits in January Magazine

Andy Plonka's review at The Mystery Reader

01 June 2010

Mature Mystery Writers: The Hedgehog and the Fox

Bird Loomis wrote from Lawrence, Kansas about the delightful results of forgetting to take a book he'd begun on a quick trip to DC.

By happenstance, over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading simultaneously two separate mysteries, by two of my favorite authors. I started Lee Child's Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow, but neglected to take it on a quick trip to D.C. Coming home, I browsed Hudson News for a good choice, and happened upon Thomas Perry's Silence, which I snarfed up and began to read on the trip home.

So there I was, smack in the middle of two page-turners (trust me). Now I often have two or three books going at any given time, but I can't think of a time that I had a pair of compelling mysteries. In the end, for no good reason, I finished Silence, then returned to Gone Tomorrow and zipped through it to its predictably violent conclusion. Social scientist that I am, I had the makings of a study: two books, each quite good, and yet very different. So how were they different in what they delivered?

The metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, made modern in a 1953 essay on Tolstoy by Isaiah Berlin, divides people into two sorts: the hedgehog, who knows one very big thing, and the fox, who knows many things. In politics, FDR was the classic fox, while George W. Bush looks like a major hedgehog to me. Reading Silence and Gone Tomorrow at the same time made me consider what makes writers - and especially mystery authors - so interesting that we come back to them, time and again.

Most obviously, Lee Child, through Jack Reacher, is a classic hedgehog. Child had created a protagonist who strains our sense of disbelief, with his stripped-down style of life, and unworldly skills. Time after time, Child places Reacher in a setting (often a small town, but New York City for Gone Tomorrow), creates a challenge that the stubborn ex-major cannot ignore, and allows us to observe him solve the puzzle with an admirable mix of brain and brawn. Jack Reacher, more than most series heroes, is an impossible character, and I, for one, continue to be drawn to him, as he works through a maze of difficulties, often coming to terms with a powerful background figure (the terrorist Lila Hoth in Tomorrow's Child). Child has written 17 Reacher novels, and they usually work well. It's a testimony to his writing and to the character he's created that his books have grown in popularity over time. Still, he's a one-trick pony with a great trick.

Thomas Perry, to mix my metaphors, is a different kettle of fish. Although he has created a popular series and protagonist (Jane Whitefield), he usually writes one-off thrillers. Perry is not the blockbuster author that Child has become, but he has had great critical success from the get go. His first two books, The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog won substantial acclaim. I happened on them, and have been a great fan, ever since, although I've missed a book here and there, in part because each new novel does not become an event (I was lucky to find Silence at the airport). Still, I always look forward to a Perry book, because I know I'm likely to be surprised, by characters, plot, motivations, and even locale. Perry writes hedgehog novels, where plot and personality intersect to take the reader on unsuspected journeys.

In Silence, we get Jack Till, a jaded ex-cop, but with a twist. He has a Down syndrome daughter, now grown, to whom he's devoted. He's not a drunk or a fool, but he's damaged goods, something of a first cousin to Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's complicated cop. Till turns out to be reasonably interesting and pretty damned competent, which is a good thing, in that he has to match wits with Paul and Sylvie Turner, a married team of hit artists, whose job it is to kill someone Till is protecting. The growing tensions between the highly intelligent, highly lethal Turners (which escalate up to the novel's final page) and between them and their employer combine to keep the reader thoroughly entertained. And that's without them directly dealing with Jack Till. Perry takes us on a great trip, actually a series of actual travels across California and Nevada. He also creates a terrific bad guy, the ultimate employer of the deadly Turners.

Lee Child places us on Jack Reacher's side - indeed, we often feel as if we are at his side - while he embarks upon his quest. Thomas Perry allows us to get close to Jack Gill and the Turners, and strangely, we're rooting for all of them, another fox-like move. Both Child and Perry provide real entertainment, yet it may be that neither is pure fox or pure hedgehog. For example, in the next Reacher book, it 's reported that he has a burgeoning relationship with a woman who aggressively questions his bizarre life style of traveling with nothing but a toothbrush. Maybe we'll get a little exploration of Reacher's psyche; in fact, the best Reacher novels do move in this direction.

On the other hand, Thomas Perry has created some memorable characters in Silence. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Turners return, or Jack Gill begin to work on a renewed relationship with the woman he has successfully protected. As he's demonstrated with Jane Whitefield previously, maybe this fox has more than a bit of hedgehog in his literary genes. I hope so. Paul and Sylvie Turner, dangerous to others and to each other, deserve another go-round.

Lee Child's web site

Kenneth Turan's review of Gone Tomorrow in the Los Angeles Times

Perry's publisher's web site

Eleanor Bukowsky's review of Silence at Mostly Fiction

Supervillains and brave guys

When I think of supervillains, I think of fantasy characters like Lex Luthor and Dr. No. Usually I think of them in association with fantasy heroes like Superman and James Bond.

So, recently I read books with supervillains as primary characters. But opposite them there were no superheroes. There were brave people (not necessarily wise, but brave), but not super heroes.

Over the recent long weekend at the wonderful cabin called Sidetrack, I read William Kent Krueger's Mercy Falls and C. J. Box's Nowhere to Run (or Now Here to Run?). Both books are centered on long-running characters: Krueger's Cork O'Connor and Box's Joe Pickett. Both of these brave guys are nearly overwhelmed by supervillains. In fact, it's not entirely clear why either of them survived past the middle of the book about them.

Both plots involve behind-the-scenes machinations of the rich and powerful, which is one of the sources of the villains' super powers, and something no mere mortal can overcome. I'm put off by stories where such imbalance is vital.

I don't doubt that there are people with money and connections who can make "impossible" things happen and get away with it. I doubt that mere motrals can be such a threat as to attract the wrath of those supervillains.

I also doubt that mere mortals, or records of their existence, would survive the wrath of such supervillains. (It's not just the Chilean or Argentine militaries, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the CIA that can make people disappear.)

Both of these books are packed with action, suspense, blood, and gore. Krueger even cheats by previewing a bloody scene from late in the book as a preface. Box cheats a bit by replaying a "find the bad guys in the wilderness" scenario three times.

In the end, Krueger's hero slinks off into the night in an attempt to protect his family. Box's hero faces years of post-traumatic stress therapy in order to learn to live with himself. (Although I'd guess that Box will resurrect his hero to fight another day with his sanity and identity intact evern without therapy.)

So, I didn't like the imbalance between the bad guys and the good guys. The violence and mayhem was more than I'd prefer in a mystery. The logic of the plots are stretched thinner than I'd like. But I read both of them. They were diversions from the preparations I was doing for an upcoming teaching gig. And they kept me out of the sun during our first really hot summer weekend.

And, one more thing. When I was about half way through Krueger's Mercy Falls, I mentioned to wonderful Nancy that I liked it more than I'd remembered liking the last Krueger novel I'd read. It went down hill in the second half. Then I finished the story, but there were still 50 pages left in the book. What was up with that? It turns out that the anti-climax was the launching of Krueger's next book -- a continuation of the supervillain-brave guy story. BOO! Sorry, I won't be looking for it.

Have you read Mercy Falls or Nowhere to Run? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

William Kent Krueger's web site for Mercy Falls

C. J. Box's web site for Nowhere to Run

Mystery set in China

Way back when, Chip Hauss recommended the mysteries written by Qiu Xiaolong. He's a comparative literature professor in St. Louis who has lived in the US since 1989. (Do you remember why that date is significant?)

Qiu's novels are good. They are also filled with poetic references, most of which I miss. In A Loyal Character Dancer, the only one I caught for sure was on the last page. It was a reference to one of my favorite lines from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. No matter. The story is good even if the telling seems slow because of all the poetic references, quotations, and descriptions.

The story has its origins in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when just about everything was turned upside down and inside out. It was a time for true believers, like the woman who is the focus of the story. She was a dedicated Red Guard who gladly went to learn from the peasants. As a "loyal character dancer," she held aloft symbols of her dedication to Chairman Mao while heading for life among the poorest of peasants. It was also a time for opportunistic characters like the man who raped and later married her.

The contemporary story involves Chinese organized crime, the triads that have recreated themselves in the economic chaos of "socialism with Chinese characteristics." These guys are the opportunistic characters of today.

The plot involves the police work of Qiu's Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau and U.S. Marshall Catherine Rohn who are assigned the task of finding the former Red Guard and sending her safely to the U. S. Interestingly, like Qiu, both Inspector Chen and Marshall Rohn "majored" in literature as undergraduates. Rohn speaks some Chinese and knows some Chinese literature; Chen has studied Western and Chinese poetry. That sets the stage for insider quips and quotes most of which meant nothing to me.

In spite of the poetic interruptions, the story is well told. The main characters are intriguing, and if the forbidden romance of the priest and the lawyer in Margaret Coel's novels is interesting, the forbidden romance between the Chinese Inspector and the American Marshall is, I think, more interesting. So, I recommend A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong. If you read or have read it, write and tell this little bit of the world what you think (thought) of it. And in the poetic reference contest, you can point out those references I missed.

Profile of Qiu Xiaolong at January Magazine

Sudheer Apte's review of A Loyal Character Dancer at Mostly Fiction

Charles Foran's review at Asian Review of Books