Power and Responsibility
God, it’s hard to get worked up to compose a contemplative column this time of year, especially this year. Especially this week. As I scribble, there are seven lousy days until the election and I can turn on the television again, or read a newspaper, or go outside, for that matter. Living in a swing state now, particularly this particularly sought-after western one, is something akin to being perpetually pestered for your vote by that kid in Better Off Dead who wants his two dollars.
Not that I’m completely adverse to the democratic process. I took the time this weekend to listen to a candidate along with 100,000 others (and if you don’t know who the candidate was simply from the sheer numbers, you don’t deserve to vote. I hate stupid people almost as much as I despise undecided voters. Unless you’re Jack Harkness, pick a side, rube). But all this noise and drama is distracting so it’s hard to get down to brass tacks and write something cohesive. Do I try to strain through the archives in order to dig up enough politically-themed mysteries to fill a couple of pages? Hell, no. I’ll just end up microwaving a bunch of geopolitical thrillers and old Margaret Truman novels or trying to pass off All The King’s Men as a crime novel.
So let’s not go there. Instead, I’ll give you the lowdown on a pair of very somber heavy hitters left over from the summer that you should probably have read already, and maybe as an encore, I’ll tease you with a couple of rock-em-sock-em books to look forward to next year. Then maybe we’ll all get through this week in one piece.
Speaking of waiting an interminable amount of time for a colossal event, Ian Rankin’s last Rebus novel finally hit American shelves this fall and as always, is well worth anyone’s time but is a treasure for anyone who’s read more than a single novel about the tetchy Scottish inspector. Though John Rebus has long been psychically put out to pasture by his superiors, there are still a few surprises left in the old man.
Exit Music, in typically intense Rankin fashion, starts with a scream, and ends with a plea for a man’s life. It’s the end of November, 2006, and Rebus is heading rapidly towards forced retirement. The plot revolves around the beating death of a dissident Russian poet and although there are more bumps in the road this time around, Inspector Rebus and his partner Siobhan Clarke are as keen to solve the murder as ever. It’s Clarke who has to take center stage when Rebus is suspended in his last three days on the job for his unconventional investigatory techniques (read: pissing off the wrong people). But it’s still an elegant ending for one of modern literature’s greatest characters, one who goes to clean out his desk and can’t even find anything personal to carry out with him. “Ah, the fun we’ve had,” sighs Rebus. And that’s even before we find Rebus staring intently at the seemingly lifeless body of his greatest foil.
Rankin is one of those authors whose grasp of human nature is one of his greatest strengths, and it’s an aspect he shares with one of Ireland’s most promising and celebrated young writers, Tana French. This Dublin-based vagabond and professional actress won the Edgar Award right out of the gate for her debut novel, In The Woods, an unsettling psychological thriller narrated by Rob Ryan, a detective on Dublin’s “Murder Squad.”
Its more lively but equally whipsmart sequel, The Likeness, was released this summer to rave reviews and finds French delving even deeper into the particulars of police procedure and the abyss of human nature. The book finds Ryan’s partner Cassie Maddox bumped off the Murder Squad at her own request, trying to recover from the events of In The Woods. Already on shaky psychological ground, the world slips even further from underneath Cassandra’s feet when she’s called out to the village of Glenskehy only to find that the murder victim is a doppelganger for Cassie herself. It transpires that our dead girl was making her way through the world under the name Alexandra Madison, a long-discarded undercover identity from Cassie’s past. To unravel the circumstances of the mystery girl’s death and flush out her killer, Cassie agrees to become Lexie Madison once more, embedding herself among a group of five Trinity University students.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with the author this morning after she was listed among the best books of the year for another publication for which I scribble tirelessly. For her part, French was incredibly forthcoming about both the larger questions and technical minutiae that go into crafting a sequel like The Likeness.
“We’ve all had moments when we wanted to leave our lives,” she explained. “Put it down, walk away and start over fresh. That’s very much what I was thinking about during the writing of the book; this crux between identity, the past, the present and the future. We’re already starting off with the idea of the double. If someone is wearing your face, how much are they you, or not you? There are also aspects like these five housemates who have made a pact to have no past. Can you make a future with no past? Can you create yourself from scratch. And of course, the murder victim, AKA Lexie, is the queen of recreating herself but she has given herself an identity that is self-created with no past. In that case, is the identity tenable or will it fraction under any strain at all because it has no roots?”
Huge questions, all, and French tackles them, if not answering them, with gusto. In the process, she occupies Cassie Maddox as surely and as thoroughly as she did Rob Ryan in her remarkable debut. It’s a neat trick, one that French aims to repeat in a third novel to be written from the POV of Cassie’s former undercover boss, Frank Mackey.
“I had finished In The Woods and was thinking about a sequel,” French recalled. “I figured I could keep dumping this poor guy into huge life-changing situations year after year and by the end of three books, his head’s going to be so fried that he won’t be able to get out from under his desk. Or, I could have taken it down a notch and done the traditional series thing of following the narrator through the ups and downs of his life, through the quieter moments. I just wasn’t that interested. I like the high-stakes moments in one’s life. So the only option left was to switch narrators. I wanted to write about the crucial moments in these people’s lives.”
It was a gutsy move by anyone’s standards and a testament to French’s talents that she’s been able to sustain these disparate voices. I noted that she could have written just about anything from memoir to literary novels but French says she never had a doubt about her chosen direction.
“I love mysteries,” she said. “Real ones, or fictional ones. I love the process that people go through to solve them. It’s human instinct to disentangle, thread by thread, a mystery. It’s one of the things that make us human. Most animals see something mysterious, establish whether it’s edible or dangerous, and move on. There’s not this need to understand it. Mysteries cut, in some ways, closer to what it means to be human than almost any other genre because they are about this need to understand and about how the human mind operates.”
I’m so tempted to end on that beautiful thought but I’ve promised you something to look forward to (now I sound like a politician, don’t I?) so I suppose I better deliver.
Here’s my preemptive confession, though. I’m normally about as attracted to serious literature as I was to early-morning lectures in college. It’s a tough call just to find material every month that merits the attention of the readers who frequent this site. So what does your humble host look forward to in the coming year? Profane shoot-em-ups, naturally.
So here’s your two titles for January. First, grab your stocking money and run, don’t walk, to pick up Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper. It may not be as resonant as a hundred other titles that I’ve absorbed this year but the damn thing was as much fun to read as anything that’s crossed my desk in months. The book opens close on ER doc Peter Brown as he suffers an attempted mugging on his way to work in a Manhattan hospital. He establishes his worldview early on: “I barely have enough drugs and money to get me though the day,” says Brown, beating the crap out of said mugger. “And the only oath I took, as I recall, was to first do no harm. I’m thinking we’re past that point.” What follows is an easily digested but wildly readable action comedy about a hit man who leaves the past behind to become a healer of men, only to find that sometimes when you walk away from your past, the dead bastard gets up and follows you home. This is first rate entertainment, and a satisfying fantasy for all you Clooney fans who wish Doug Ross had a bit more Seth Gecko in him.
Finally, I’ll break a rule and recommend a book I haven’t even laid hands on myself yet. Why not? Because I buy his books in the stores. That’s how much I believe in Charlie Huston (a man who recently described his place in the publishing pool of Random House books thusly, “I, by the by, am a little fish. Wee and agile, perhaps, but neither mighty nor long of tooth. Leeetle fishy.”). But I’m promised his latest carries the decidedly Doctor Strange-like title The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death, and concerns one Webster Goodhue, an L.A. slacker and former high-school teacher who’s making his way in our new economy as a member of a crime-scene cleanup crew dubbed “Team Clean.” Carnage ensues. So now I have something to look forward to, too.
That’s it. No big finish. Trust me, you’ll feel the same way on the first Wednesday in November. No matter how things come out, I trust that you’ll be wondering what’s next. So Marvin, what do we do now?