Book review: Chelsea Cain's 'The Night Season'

By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, March 21, 2011; 12:25 AM


By Chelsea Cain

Minotaur. 322 pp. $24.99

The problem with reviewing mysteries is that one can't talk about who-(or what)-dun-it, yet sometimes the story's ultimate value rests on that revelation. Take Dorothy Sayers's 1934 classic, "The Nine Tailors." If you've read it, you know what I'm talking about; if you haven't read it, do so. Now. The atmosphere of the English fen country in the novel is haunting, and the character of Lord Peter Wimsey is, as always, blandly erudite. The ending, however, in which the murderer is unmasked, is so brilliant that it boosts Sayers's creeper into the Golden Age of Mystery Hall of Fame.

Then there's the opposite situation. I am talking about middling crime stories that creak along agreeably enough until a killer so preposterous is revealed that readers feel ashamed for ever having lost themselves for one nanosecond in that fictional world. Unfortunately, I meandered into Chelsea Cain's "The Night Season" and didn't have the good sense to quit reading before the most inane murderer I've ever encountered in mystery fiction was exposed. If I told you who-(or what)-dun-it, you would know how ludicrous this story is. But I can't tell you. I can only say that my 12-year-old daughter asked me why I was snorting, rolling my eyes and shaking my head as I read the end of Cain's book. I then told her the identity of the killer. She wisely commented, "It sounds like a 12-year-old boy who's read too much manga wrote that book." Yup.

So what else is there to say about "The Night Season," which is the fourth in Cain's series starring Portland, Ore., police detective Archie Sheridan? Well, Cain gives a nice sense of foreboding with her many weather descriptions. When the novel begins, a monsoon is hitting Portland, the city dikes are about to crumble, and ferocious flooding is about to ensue. To add to this misery, a serial crazy is at work amid all the rain and wind. A female corpse is discovered in a deserted city amusement park. Since Archie has already had a prolonged, close encounter with a different serial killer earlier in this series, he eventually figures out the absurd modus operandi of this latest maniac. In between, a lot of splashing around on the soggy streets of Portland takes place.

As so often happens in mystery-land, a contemporary natural disaster stirs up remnants of the past. In this case, the flood disturbs a skeleton left over from the real-life Vanport City Flood that occurred on May 30, 1948. That flood, according to historical accounts, killed 15 people and destroyed the city when a dike holding back the Columbia River crumbled. Archie's love interest, reporter Susan Ward, who writes the "quirky crime roundup column" for the local, barely breathing newspaper, pounds out a story about the disinterred skeleton, thus ensuring that she, too, will soon be a target of the crazed evildoer who has ties to the sins of the past. Those ties seemed pretty murky to me and, thus, not credible as a motive to make this person dive off the deep end, so to speak. But, then, my mind was already weakened by the aforesaid loony revelation about the identity of the killer, so maybe I was no longer capable of judgment.

"The Night Season" is a silly mystery that will be enjoyed only by readers who don't think the genre is capable of better. In 1930, the Detection Club, of which Dorothy Sayers (along with other immortals like Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton) was a member, approved a set of famous rules for mystery writers, known as "The Decalogue." Though somewhat in jest, the Decalogue, among other things, banned the reliance on "hitherto undiscovered poisons; supernatural agencies; and more than one secret room or passage" in mystery novels. I think it's safe to say that had Cain's "The Night Season" been written early in the last century, her dopey culprit would have been immediately added to "The Decalogue's'' list of don'ts.

Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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