August Can Be Murder
'Watch your back!' is the jittery message of American detective fiction.
By Maureen Corrigan
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page BW08
Detective fiction, our nation's greatest homegrown literary genre, is obsessed with the impossibility of escaping the past. Although we Americans embrace the stereotype of ourselves as a forward-looking people unencumbered by a long history, our detective novels, from the works of Poe to those of Paretsky, consistently preach the doomsday message that the past has a stranglehold on the present. As so many mystery titles suggest, anxiety about old crimes and resilient criminals who refuse to stay locked away haunts these tales: Think, for example, of Raymond Chandler's Playback, Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," Sara Paretsky's Total Recall and Lawrence Block's The Sins of the Fathers. While American musical theater typically warbles upbeat paeans to "Tomorrow" and a better world "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the jittery message of American detective fiction is "Watch your back."
A Hairy Assignment
Some folks might consider Sweeney St. George's fascination with the past a bit morbid. Sweeney, the heroine of Sarah Stewart Taylor's second mystery, Mansions of the Dead (St. Martin's, $23.95), is a visiting assistant professor of art history at Harvard; her academic specialty is antique American gravestones, graveyards, "mourning" jewelry and other tributes to the dead. In her debut outing, O' Artful Death, Sweeney found herself drawn into a murder case that reached back to a 19th-century rural New England artists' colony whose paintings and freewheeling love affairs were modeled after the English Pre-Raphaelites. The art of murder -- and its gruesome reality -- lurks much closer to home in Mansions of the Dead.
This mystery finds Sweeney hard at work, teaching a seminar in the history of "mourning objects" (jet and "hair-work" brooches and necklaces) at Harvard. When Brad, one of her students, turns up dead, trussed to his bed and covered with a fine collection of such melancholy trinkets, both Sweeney and the Cambridge police suspect that the unfortunate young man could not have arranged this grisly tableau on his own. To complicate matters, the victim is a scion of the Kennedy-esque Putnam family whose tragedies, political adventures and personal excesses have enthralled the American public for decades. As Sweeney gets more and more drawn into Brad's background, she simultaneously noses deeper into the family skeletons hanging in her own closet.
Taylor's is one of those mystery series where readers are educated as well as entertained: In this case, we learn a lot about the aforementioned Victorian art of "hair-work." Nineteenth-century ladies wound and braided strands of their deceased loved ones' hair into bracelets and pins so that something of the dead would always be close. Twenty-first-century genetic science helps Sweeney determine whether or not there's something foul about the follicles adorning Brad's corpse. Mansions of the Dead is agreeably tricked out with red herrings and jarring switches in mood: Just as readers settle in for an academic cozy, the atmosphere changes, and disaster that has the coarse feel of reality intrudes.
The Alphabet Murders
Sue Grafton's alphabet series began to have the locked-in feel of inevitability somewhere around J or K. Just as in classic film noir, in which characters are always riding in too-fast sedans down dark roads and uttering ominous statements about driving "straight down the line," so too Grafton's series now feels fated -- for better or worse -- to follow all the letters of the alphabet until "Z is for Zilch." Sometimes her mysteries featuring private eye Kinsey Milhone speed along and even take inventive detours along unmarked roads; other times, as in her latest installment, R Is for Ricochet (Marion Wood/Putnam, $26.95), the stories just run out of gas.
Grafton herself seems to be aware of the constraint of the fictional possibilities she's created for herself and for her detective heroine. The opening paragraph of the novel poses this philosophical conundrum:
"The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change? The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious. Our own are tougher to recognize. In most cases, our path through life reflects a fundamental truth about who we are now and who we've been since birth. . . . in the main we do what we do because we've always done it that way, even when the outcome is bad . . . perhaps especially when the outcome is bad." That rumination ushers in a tale in which Kinsey is hired by a rich old man to keep an eye on his wild daughter, a just-released prisoner named Reba Lafferty. Reba has been inside the Big House for four years, convicted of stealing funds from her employer, a charming land developer with whom she was also having an affair. Kinsey comes to suspect, however, that Reba, romantically, has been a sucker, and she devotes much of her detective energy in this tale to trying to ensure that neither she nor Reba will be a fool for love ever again.
R Is for Ricochet has its moments: There's an amusing shopping sequence where Reba teaches Kinsey how to buy flattering clothes (at last!) and a tense chase scene in a cooped-up office building. The plot, however, lacks the invention and zest of some of its predecessors. Oh well, on to S.
Nightmare on the Loose
Being fixated on the past is a birthright of the Brits: After all, they've got so much recorded history to be mired in. John Harvey, whose Charlie Resnick police procedurals are immortals of the genre, has written a new non-Resnick mystery set on England's wild western coast and absolutely drenched in memory and twisted desire.
Flesh & Blood (Carroll & Graf, $25) finds Detective Inspector Frank Elder ensconced in a lonely retirement cottage in Cornwall, mulling over the ruin of his long marriage and terrorized almost nightly by a nightmare involving vicious cats and a decaying corpse. Elder is also plagued, by day, by misgivings about the cases he didn't solve, particularly the disappearance back in 1988 of a 16-year-old girl named Susan Blacklock. Other girls had also gone missing in England around that time, and two young men -- a psycho named Alan McKeirnan and his puppyish follower, Shane Donald -- were convicted of abducting and murdering one of them. Now Donald is about to be released from prison, and that regrettable event goads Elder into reinvestigating Susan's disappearance. When Donald breaks parole and another young girl is murdered, Elder's detective work takes on an urgent meaning beyond the absolution of his own guilt.
Flesh and Blood is a superb mystery -- excruciatingly suspenseful, rich in character and all too real in its depiction of the horrific possibilities lurking at the margins of the mundane. The bloodless betrayal revealed at the very end of this story is more shocking in its cool malevolence than any of the gruesome acts of violence that preceded it.
Like the Brits -- but even more so -- the Chinese have a whole lotta past to be burdened by. But in When Red Is Black(Soho, $25), the sublime third mystery by Qiu Xiaolong to feature Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau, the more recent history of the Cultural Revolution preoccupies the (mostly) good detective and his assistant, Detective Yu.
This tale particularly belongs to Detective Yu, since Inspector Chen is officially on vacation and (unofficially) moonlighting on a lucrative English translation of a friend's business proposal to build a shopping, residential and office complex in a downtown section of Shanghai. The kicker is that this complex would replicate the architectural styles of Shanghai in its 1930s glory, which is now all the rage among the Westernized elite of that city. Meanwhile, poor Detective Yu has been denied the government apartment he had been assigned at the end of the previous novel in this series. Yu, along with his wife and teenage son, will have to continue sharing a couple of rooms with his father.
In the midst of this disappointment, Yu is assigned to investigate the murder of a dissident writer, Yin Lige, author of a popular novel called "Death of a Chinese Professor," about her love affair with a scholar when both were exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Yin has been found suffocated in the tiny room she occupied in a shikumen house, an architectural style featuring gray brick walls, winding staircases and small courtyards peculiar to Shanghai.
One of the many brilliant strokes Xiaolong executes in this mystery is to treat that shikumen house like a Golden Age manor house out of Agatha Christie. The house is occupied by a range of eccentric murder suspects: a sneaky shrimp seller, a penniless former member of Chairman Mao's prestigious Thought Propaganda Worker Teams, a resentful gourmand who tries to drown "his memories [of the Cultural Revolution] in a bowl of steaming noodles." Much more than the solution to the murder here, however. When Red Is Black offers a complex and riveting portrait of Shanghai, a city in transition from a proletarian dictatorship to a capitalist playground where "nostalgia sells." The larger and more disquieting mystery -- what will happen to dutiful workers like Detective Yu, and even Chief Inspector Chen, as Chinese society continues to change -- is necessarily left unsolved. •
Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the National Public Radio program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company