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Diary Case

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page C02


By Denise Mina

Little, Brown. 311 pp. $23.95

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The early masters of crime fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, mostly approached their stories as intellectual puzzles. Locked-room murders and unbreakable alibis abounded. Sherlock Holmes unscrambled mysteries the police couldn't solve because he was smarter than anyone else.

Then in the late 1920s along came Dashiell Hammett, who had been a detective and who believed that crimes were more often solved with fists, guns and shoe leather than with sky-high IQs. He gave us Sam Spade and the modern American crime novel, which was influenced by Hemingway's prose as well as by Prohibition-era crime and corruption. Raymond Chandler, whose novels built upon what Hammett had done, in 1944 wrote a manifesto called "The Simple Art of Murder" in which he scorned the classic detective novel for offering only "problems in logic and deduction" written by "grim logicians" who were ignorant of the mean streets of the real world.

Since then, crime fiction has mostly followed the Hammett-Chandler hard-boiled, noir route, as crafted by writers from Ed McBain and John D. MacDonald to Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos. But the crime novel as intellectual puzzle is still with us. One good example was Dennis Lehane's recent "Shutter Island," and another is Denise Mina's bizarre, fascinating "Deception."

Mina, along with Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, has helped make Scotland a leading exporter of world-class crime fiction. Her "Garnethill," published five years ago, won the John Creasey Memorial Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association for best first crime novel, and her "Exile" and "Resolution" were also well received. Now she has a new U.S. publisher who is betting that "Deception" will win her a bigger audience in this country, and perhaps it will, for it is a skillful piece of work.

Mina's story is told through the computer diary of one Lachlan Harriot, whose wife, Susie, has been sent to prison for murdering a serial killer named Andrew Gow. The basic facts of the case slowly emerge from Lachlan's feverish narrative: His wife, a psychiatrist, examined Gow in the mental hospital where he was confined. She also interviewed Donna McGovern, a young woman who wrote, visited and eventually married Gow. Unfortunately, Gow was released. Murders of women carried out in his signature manner -- he cut out their tongues -- resumed, and various celebrities took up his cause. Soon after his release, Susie received a call from Donna saying she feared that Gow would kill her, whereupon Susie drove to an isolated spot in northern Scotland. Susie later claimed that she found Gow already dead, but various incriminating facts caused her to be charged with his murder and convicted.

All this is narrated in Lachlan's diary, but we don't know whether to believe all or any of it. He starts out proclaiming his love for his wife and his determination to prove her innocence. Soon, however, he begins to reveal resentment and even hatred for her. She was a brilliant psychiatrist; he, although he holds a medical degree, has declined to practice, apparently because he dislikes people, and stays home pretending to write. He is obsessed with the idea that Susie humiliated him by having an affair with Gow and perhaps with Donna too. He reveals himself to be callow, snobbish, greedy, vain, angry, violent, delusional, crude, paranoid, self-pitying and given to lurid sexual fantasies. The reader soon thinks that, yes, marriage to this creep might have driven poor Susie into the arms of a serial killer. At best Lachlan is an awful human being, and at worst he may be homicidal. The reader, confronting his venomous monologue, becomes the detective, searching for clues that he has somehow framed his wife, who appears to be an admirable woman who is the victim of a massive miscarriage of justice.

The writer faces two challenges in a novel like this: to hold our interest as the story unfolds, and to provide a surprise ending that will live up to our expectations. (Could Susie be guilty as charged? Will the husband confess? Did the butler do it?) Mina meets the first challenge. Lachlan's diary is car-crash irresistible. It encompasses not only his "investigation" of the crime, but semi-comic visits from his parents and Susie's aunt that only make him crazier, as well as his affair with the fat Spanish babysitter who cares for his and Susie's toddler. But Mina's ending is, I think, problematic. Her explanation of who killed the serial killer is certainly a surprise, but it struck me as more tacked-on than intrinsic to the story.

For my money, Lehane's "Shutter Island," which also features an unreliable narrator of inscrutable events, provides the kind of satisfying, indeed stunning ending that "Deception" lacks. Still, Mina's novel is a smart example of the crime novel as postmodern puzzle, a work that coolly offers to match wits with the unwary reader and is not likely to lose the game.

Note: Last week I questioned whether it is truly possible for someone, using only his or her tongue and teeth, to tie a cherry-stem into a knot. Readers were quick to assure me this feat is no urban legend. "I am one of the rare ones who possess this dubious talent," one woman confessed. Parents told of teenage sons and daughters who have mastered the art. One man was nostalgic about an ex-girlfriend "who possessed remarkable glossal dexterity." And a Sherlock Holmes fan in Nashville reports that "a nationally recognized Sherlockian scholar" once demonstrated her cherry-stem skills at a Sherlockian gathering in St. Louis. My thanks to all those who cast light on this important matter.

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