Mysteries

By Paul Skenazy
Sunday, September 25, 2005

Cops and criminals. That intimate relationship is what the detective novel has always been about, since Edgar Allan Poe used the real-life model of a villain turned Paris police chief to create C. Auguste Dupin in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841. While the whodunit element of mystery dominated, writers kept our attention away from the bad guys' inner lives. But with the shift from whodunit to why, more and more pages are being devoted to the perpetrator's motives, however much they lead to self-destructive violence. It's as if Raymond Chandler's tarnished knight has been replaced by James M. Cain's lurid conspirators as a literary model.

Squarely in the Cain mold is Drive , by James Sallis (Poisoned Pen, $19.95). Sallis, best known for the Lew Griffin mysteries ( The Long-Legged Fly , Moth , Ghost of a Flea and others), this time offers a taut page-turner about a movie stunt driver -- "Driver" is all the name we get -- who moonlights as a getaway man. "I drive" he tells us early on. "That's all I do. . . . I don't take part, I don't know anyone, I don't carry weapons. I drive." But he does much more than that when a bungled job turns into a double cross and Driver finds himself in a motel room surrounded by dead bodies and a lot of money.

In a genre more and more notable for overstuffed 300- and 400-page novels, Sallis's lean tale (158 pages) and flat-voiced prose are refreshing, even startling. Though the pace never lags, Sallis faultlessly throws in references to Borges, Paul Celan and old TV shows and films ("The Rockford Files," "Thunder Road") to make sure we know he's reheating a lot of old conventions in this potboiler. And by cutting back and forth in time, he even manages to provide the backstory of Driver's childhood and first film jobs as well as the lives of the criminals out to kill him and get back the heist money. It's a lovely piece of work that makes you wish some other writers would take lessons from him.

Good Cop, Over-Eager Cop

Writers like Steven Sidor, for example, who could use some training in how to keep a plot from wandering. His latest, Bone Factory (St. Martin's Minotaur, $23.95), works the ugly side of crime fiction in a tale of a transsexual found dead in a riverside park who has left a baggie containing someone else's flesh in her bathtub. Sidor's cops, Eliza Ochoa and Ike Horner, represent some nice turns on classic types: the tough, over-eager one -- in this case, a Chicana who returns to mom's restaurant for love and a good enchilada; and the weary and phlegmatic one -- a black veteran with a young second family who's afraid to admit he's aging. But by isolating his two heroes from the rest of the police force and shifting wildly among locations and points of view, Sidor confuses his story, makes a hash of motive and undermines his sometimes tart and seductive language. There's a complex story here about who pulls whose strings in a small town drained of hope, and how two cops doggedly try to make sense of a creepy series of crimes, but little besides the mangy violence sticks in the mind at the anticlimactic and obvious conclusion. The kind of propulsive narrative energy that Sallis maintains despite his asides is sacrificed here to reveal too many points of view and past events.

The Eyes of Texas

A better if still awkward balance of cop and criminal points of view is offered in Michael Simon's Body Scissors (Viking, $23.95), featuring Austin, Tex., detective Dan Reles. It's late January 1991, news of the war against Iraq drones on in the background, and there are peace marchers and efforts to commemorate Martin Luther King day in a city as notable for its racism and drugs as for its university. When someone tries to kill an ambitious black attorney and instead guns down her two young children, and seemingly healthy college students suddenly show up dead in ERs, Reles (the only Jew on the Austin police force) is teamed with James Torbett (the only black on the force) to find a killer, keep the peace marches peaceful and figure out what's causing all the youthful deaths.

As in Dirty Sally , his debut novel, Simon is eager to use Austin the way Walter Mosley serves up Los Angeles history in his Easy Rawlins books or Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo examined Stockholm in their Martin Beck series. And Simon does manage to expose the ills of a nation gone amok, disguising its corruption behind patriotic rhetoric, asking its cops and soldiers "to keep America exactly the way it was before" -- a profitable venue for the rich, a threatening nightmare for the down-and-out. But his ambitions are more or less hijacked by his jagged and overstylized moves among settings and points of view, his over-the-top drug kingpin, and his too obvious efforts to make political points and knit up the baggy plot in the last pages.

One Nation, Divisible

Martin Limón's The Door to Bitterness (Soho, $23) is a more successful effort at late 20th-century historical recreation, this time of Seoul, Korea, circa 1974. The fourth novel in Limón's series ( Jade Lady Burning , Slicky Boys and Buddha's Money ) about George Sueño and Ernie Bascom of the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division offers another glimpse of the uneasy tensions inside a country still dealing with resident American troops two decades after the end of the war. A mixture of drink and leering desire leads Sueño into an alley where a beautiful miguk (child of an American GI and a Korean woman) steals his identification and his army pistol. When the pistol is used in a brutal robbery involving two men who resemble them, Sueño and Bascom work overtime trying to figure out who's behind the crimes.

This story makes up in atmosphere and cultural revelation for what it occasionally lacks in pacing and motive. The plot all but crumbles into incoherence by the end, but Limón takes full advantage of the mystery novel's ability to evoke a place in bad straits, in this case Korea, where the haunted back alleys provide an apt image of how Cold War politics have divided a culture against itself.

That Rare Phenomenon, Murder

A far more traditional police procedural is A. C. Baantjer's DeKok and Murder by Melody (Speck; paperback, $13; translated from the Dutch by H.G. Smittenaar), another in a series of first American publications of the 60 crime novels featuring Inspector Detective DeKok of the Amsterdam police. Though populated by drug addicts and con men, the streets of Baantjer's Amsterdam seem almost pastoral compared to their American counterparts: "The homicide detail for the entire city of Amsterdam was smaller than that in a single New York police station," we're told.

Still, what one newspaper dubs the "boardinghouse murders" (two men and their landlady killed within a matter of days) takes DeKok and his investigative sidekick, Vledder, an inordinately long time to solve. As they plod along, suspects saunter almost casually into their office to tell their stories, prompting the impulsive Vledder to invent one wrongheaded scenario after another of how and why these crimes occurred. The more sagacious DeKok, convinced that "death was entitled to a certain dignity," patiently waits for the full picture to emerge, which it eventually does in a scene about as unconvincing as you'll find in anything outside an Agatha Christie plot. ยท

Paul Skenazy teaches writing and literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the author of critical works on Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.


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