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Books: Blood, Blonds and Badinage

7 minute read
William A. Henry III

Like the blues, slapstick comedy and the .400 hitter, the murder mystery enjoyed its golden age in the 1920s. That was the epoch of Agatha Christie and Ronald Knox, of G.K. Chesterton and S.S. Van Dine. The mystery craze gripped every age, sex and temperament; it spread so wide that it was parodized by P.G. Wodehouse. Back then it seemed possible to believe, as Playwright Anthony Shaffer later joshed in Sleuth, that mysteries were “the normal recreation of noble minds.”

The present state of mystery writing does not foretoken a renaissance. By the customary criteria applied to genre fiction–the number of active practitioners whose works have graduated to mainstream best-seller lists or to critical appraisal as “serious” literature–the mystery can offer only Elmore Leonard, John D. MacDonald and perhaps Julian Symons. Dozens of purported successors to Christie have been proclaimed, largely on the basis of gender, but none has sustained anything like her productivity or cunning. Every publishing season brings a promising debut, but the vast majority of these writers never again produce a book with the freshness of the original. Instead, they go on repeating themselves in ever more pallid imitations. Writers are encouraged in this timidity by their publishers, who find that the most profitable form of mystery is the series featuring a continuing character. This detective may have been organic to the first story but usually obtrudes in the sequels.

Still, the best mysteries being published today offer considerably more sophisticated pleasures than creaking doors, cracks on the head or the discovery of a nude, blond and comely corpse on page 32. This year has already seen hard-boiled volumes by Leonard, MacDonald and Robert B. Parker at the peak of their form, and cunning British psychological thrillers by Robert Barnard, Simon Brett, Ruth Rendell and the American would-be Briton Martha Grimes. The fall has brought a fresh crop, mostly from other hands. The styles range from taut police procedurals to literary romps, from old-fashioned puzzles to breezily constructed thrillers. These days the detective may be a policeman, a private eye or a blueblood amateur, as of old. The detective may also be a prying journalist, a homosexual, a woman or an eight-year-old boy. Among the best now on bookstore shelves:

Safekeeping (Penzler; 202 pages; $15.95) and Fletch Won (Warner; 265 pages; $14.95) display the astonishing range of Gregory Mcdonald. After winning two Edgar Allan Poe awards (1975 and 1977) for the first books featuring the raffish investigative reporter Irwin Maurice Fletcher, Mcdonald declined into extended archness of phrase and plot. He found his way again in last year’s Flynn’s In, featuring his other series character, Boston Police Official Francis X. Flynn. The film of Fletch, starring Chevy Chase, was a summer comedy hit, and Fletch Won continues the upbeat pace. Here the brash young man is observed in what Hollywood calls a “prequel,” an adventure that takes place at the start of his career. Mcdonald has a discerning ear for the cocky conversation of youth and an eye for its pratfall bravado.

In Safekeeping, a witty, Wodehousian gavotte from the confines of an English boys’ school to the streets of Harlem, with several beguiling stops between, Mcdonald records the travails of a small boy, heir to a dukedom, who is orphaned during the London blitz and sent off to the uncertain care of a sodden New York City tabloid reporter. Within weeks the boy becomes the target of a Mafia hit man, thereby allowing the author to mix sociology and satire, goofy narrative and authentic terror.

An Unkindness of Ravens (Pantheon; 245 pages; $15.95) by Ruth Rendell marries the two disparate strains in her writing: the slow psychological disintegration of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and conventional detection by kindly Chief Inspector Reg Wexford and his younger deputy Mike Burden. The plot involves bigamy and incest and probes the links between feminism and lesbianism. As is almost always true in a Rendell narrative, things are considerably simpler than they at first seem. Her portrait of the killer is a classic Christie-style evocation of narcissistic ego.

Steps Going Down (Countryman Press; 307 pages; $14.95) omits Author Joseph Hansen’s recurring sleuth, Insurance Investigator Dave Brandstetter, but unfolds in his usual seedy gay Southern California milieu. The central character, Darryl Cutler, is a rogue undone by his few fleeting moments of trust and devotion. A former male prostitute, he becomes infatuated with a blond boy as pretty and venal as he used to be. Cutler knows that he is being used. Even so, his sexual itch drives him to theft, fraud and murder. Each crime makes him more subject to blackmail. The tale moves toward its climax with a mounting sense of catastrophe, but who will destroy whom, and how, remains uncertain until the final pages. Hansen writes as ably as anyone in the genre about the consequences of lust and yearning. For the nonprurient, the descriptive passages of lovemaking are kept brief.

An Advancement of Learning (Countryman Press; 254 pages; $14.95) was written by Briton Reginald Hill in 1971 as the second book featuring his police duo Dalziel and Pascoe, but this is its first appearance in the U.S. Hill has written better books since, including this year’s Exit Lines and the chilling 1984 portrait of a psychopath, Deadheads. Nonetheless, this volume is a skillful reworking of a standard routine in mystery fiction: the discovery of a long-buried skeleton and the consequent unraveling of a skein of past concealment and deceit. The setting is a mediocre British college, recently converted from all girls to coeducation, and the fierce possessiveness of the female Old Guard gives the story depth and humor.

Tickled to Death (Scribners; 231 pages; $13.95) is a collection of short stories, only one of them featuring Author Simon Brett’s delightful amateur detective, the hammy and frequently out-of-work actor Charles Paris. Brett’s ten Paris novels thrive on their bitchy wit and backstage authenticity. Outside those environs his writing can become fey and whimsical. But Brett is a specialist at sketching protagonists who are at once charming and palpably rotten, so that their ultimate escape or exposure remains a matter of genuine suspense.

In Eight Black Horses (Arbor House; 250 pages; $15.95), the multinamed novelist who signs his police procedurals Ed McBain displays shrewd plotting, deadpan humor and understated, unnerving violence. The story pits the cops of his fictional 87th precinct against a cunning, twisted and slightly cartoonish villain, the Deaf Man. The action shuttles from screwball comedy to revenge tragedy and seems amoral even when the good guys triumph. The writer, who also publishes fiction under the name Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle), retains the measured pace and discerning, descriptive eye of the serious novelist.

The Man from Internal Affairs (Mysterious Press; 215 pages; $15.95) by Jazz Writer and Village Voice Columnist Nat Hentoff achieves what is often attempted but rarely attained, a comic mystery that is both funny and scary. Hentoff’s convoluted story involves the drug trade, male and female prostitution, antagonism verging on race war between Irish and Jewish police officers, the plight of the forcibly retired, and the purported pervasive corruption of New York City. All this is set against the backdrop of a gruesome series of murders: the top halves of three corpses are found crammed into garbage cans. The “man” of the title is an investigator for the department’s own secret self-policing unit, and he, like the reader, is trying to determine whether the novel’s apparent hero is in fact a crook. In the largest sense, Internal Affairs is about the deceptive nature of facts and evidence, and the ways in which incomplete knowledge can lead to disastrously wrong conclusions. Not just a splendidly chilling entertainment, it is also a journalist’s mea culpa for his craft’s prevailing sin of undue certitude. –By William A. Henry III

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