February 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Bullets & Broken Men

“Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive,” writes Josephine Hart in her malignant little novel, Damage. Although the context is the destructive love affair in her book, the quote always comes back to me in thinking about the busted anti-heroes that populate the mystery section.

Tragically, like a lot of genre fiction, there are a great many books out there on supermarket shelves that simply aren’t any good. It should have been a great wash of authors living up to Hammett and Spillane and we’re talking here about the bloody side, not the tea cozy Agatha Christie end of the ocean. Instead, so many crime novelists wander into whitewashed tough guy mediocrity and for every rich storyteller James Lee Burke or Dennis Lehane you end up with a half-assed paperback about a serial killer wasting space in my bookstores.

It’s a great day, then to find a whole bunch of bad guys giving us their worst this spring. Some of the best writers around are bringing back their signature characters and shoving them back out into the deep end. Going beyond even the old school tradition of Chandler, these are the children of Jim Thompson and John D. MacDonald, with an elegant style gripped by bone-crushing violence and infinite sadness.

Out on the cutting edge is Lawrence Block’s return to his Matt Scudder series with All The Flowers Are Dying in mid-February. Block’s recovering alcoholic PI has continually been one of the most honestly drawn characters in hard-boiled fiction and he’s suffered some setbacks along the way. In just the last two books, his best friend was shot in the head in a case of mistaken identity and his wife died of a heart attack, so we know no one is safe. Even more tantalizing, Block has promised it’s the darkest book yet and has managed to stop proofs from circulating so there’s something juicy to come.

In the same month and a similar vein, Robert Crais has brought back his wisecracking PI Elvis Cole in The Forgotten Man. While Crais’s early books saw Elvis in a much lighter mood, the last couple of books have brought him down as well. He lost his girlfriend and her son in The Last Detective and now teams up with his partner Joe Pike to look into Elvis’s wayward father, unwittingly falling into a vicious ambush. Crais nearly achieved action-movie perfection with Demolition Angel and has become one of the more satisfying series authors, lending a new depth to his writing while still keeping up the books’ frenetic pace.

Another series regular, Edinburgh inspector John Rebus, is also back already in Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Alley (another witless attempt to Americanize the original title, Fleshmarket Close). If Matt Scudder is struggling to stay afloat, detective Rebus is jumping into the abyss with both feet. He’s one of the most absolutely unapologetic characters in modern fiction, perpetually with a pint and a fag staving off Scotland’s chill, while at the same time carrying this indelible weight of being the lonesome man, the failure, the lost soul. Rebus inhabits an Edinburgh that is resolutely blacker than reality, drawing him further and further into its underbelly. It couldn’t be truer about Fleshmarket Alley, which thoughtfully explores the UK’s immigrant crisis. When an illegal is found stabbed to death in one of the city’s treacherous council flats, Rebus has to come face to face with other outsiders more wretched than him. This is another series that could have easily disintegrated into a typical PI adventure but Rebus’s disillusion and particularly Rankin’s rich writing elevates it immensely.

On the lighter side of series fiction, the unstoppable behemoth that is Robert B. Parker has cranked out another Spenser novel, Cold Service, out in early March. Publishing two and sometimes three books a year, one would think he pulls these books out of the air. While not nearly as deep as his contemporaries, Parker is nonetheless one of the most readable authors in the genre. Anyone who only knows the cheap but popular television series or A&E movies would do well to dip a toe in Spenser’s Boston on the beach or an airplane. Parker’s been known to stretch a bit, especially with the superior Sunny Randall novels, but Spenser and his hetero lifemate Hawk are his bread-and-butter. This one even looks a little darker as Hawk is left for dead and Spenser bangs up against a Ukrainian mob moving into the city. It ain’t Steinbeck but there’s definitely more than a little Hemingway in Parker’s machismo world.

For a change of pace, two other authors have abandoned their series characters for the moment to stretch their talents with new novels. George Pelecanos rightfully garnered a lot of praise for last year’s Derek Strange novel, Hard Revolution, and takes a breather in March with Drama City, released in March. The book follows the odd collision of dogcatcher Lorenzo Brown and his damaged parole officer Rachel Lopez. Pelecanos has owned the literary landscape of Washington, DC for years with his insightful and hard-bitten look at race relations so it will be interesting to see how this look at Brown’s second chance turns out.

Finally, it’s hard to get more hard-boiled than Andrew Vachss. James Ellroy plays at it with cops and gangsters that verge on parody but Vachss is downright mean at heart and he is outright stone cold focused on child protection. His normal beat tells the story of Burke, a renegade criminal reminiscent of Richard Stark’s cold-blooded Parker but all of Vachss’ novels are what he calls his “Trojan horses,” popular books designed to put ideas about social change into the collective consciousness. Vachss was remarkably straightforward in 2003’s car theft caper, The Getaway Man, and brings his dark voice to bear on the American small town in Two Trains Running in June. In 1959, Altonville’s crime boss, his killer, a reporter, a cocktail waitress, the good cop and the madam are locked together in a gang war story fueled by vice and touched off with a lynching. It’s an ambitious movement for Vachss and should hold up nicely in his hard-boiled history.

But wait, there’s more. If that weren’t enough, in June there’s a new Jack Reacher novel, One Shot, from Lee Child and a new Jeffrey Deaver novel, The Twelfth Card, starring the quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme. James Lee Burke sweats out July with a new Dave Robicheaux book, Crusader’s Cross. Top it all off with a new book from the man himself, Elmore Leonard, who releases The Hot Kid in May. It’s enough blood that all the sand on the beach may not be able to soak it up. Happy hunting.