Like an ophthalmologist with an eye tic, the mystery scene has developed some bad-for-business habits of late. A continuing avalanche of serial killer books threatens to bury the genre, raising the question of what's worse, copycat killers or copycat writers?
At the other end of the spectrum, enough sassy female sleuths now exist to populate their own country (I'm thinking Spandex border patrol uniforms). Perhaps most annoying of all, many writers today consider a child-abuse theme to be an acceptable substitute for solid writing. Moral indignation is admirable, but it does not obviate the need for decent plotting.
Yes, good books with these elements do exist -- if you can find them among the mountain of heavily hyped bestseller impersonators currently being offered up by publishers who are too busy chasing the market to pay attention to substance and style. What's a reader who is seeking absorbing writing and originality supposed to do? My survival techniques can be boiled down to three pieces of advice. First, ignore the jacket descriptions. They ought to be passing out Valium with every junior copywriter paycheck these days.
Second, look beyond the bestsellers for those rare writers who are going out on a limb with distinct voices, unusual writing styles or contemporary themes. It's not what you say so much as how you say it that separates the good, the bad and the ugly today. Finally, expand your horizons. Look to the U.K., in particular, for some of the finest crime fiction now being written. For proof that originality still exists for those willing to search for it, here's a sampling of the best out this month.
Making Character Count
T. Jefferson Parker pulls off a rare juggling act in The Blue Hour (Little Brown, $24). He combines the fast pacing and titillating elements of a bestseller with the more meaningful searchings of a John Updike novel. Parker is often compared to Michael Connelly because both men write tautly crafted police procedurals. But Parker has only one rival -- Thomas Harris -- when it comes to averting the cliches of the serial killer book by characterization. Harris can do a villain better than anyone else, but it is Parker who excels at multi-faceted portraits of imperfect modern-day heroes.
Yes, The Blue Hour features a serial killer, one with a penchant for Western wear and ritualistic torture. But the strength of Parker's latest story comes in the way he has chosen to depict the two detectives who are tracking the man dubbed The Purse Snatcher. Tim Hess is a career investigator whose real foe is rapidly advancing cancer. His partner, Merci Rayborn, is an abrasive, capable female cop whose ambition masks a deep self-hatred that emerges when she is at her most vulnerable. The story of their personal bravery and their complex relationship forms the heart of The Blue Hour. If you're seeking a thinking man's bestseller, T. Jefferson Parker is the writer for you.
One Size Fits All
British author Robert Goddard's Caught in the Light (Henry Holt, $26) is an irresistible combination of mystery, history, suspense and romantic intrigue. Goddard has expertly juxtaposed a contemporary story of a soulmate unexpectedly found and then promptly lost with an equally compelling Daphne du Maurier-like time-travel plot. How can you put down a book that entertains while simultaneously informing you about the origins of photography, hemophilia within the British royal family and the elements of good sex? The writing is deft, the pacing bestseller-swift and the plot twists believable enough to withstand the scrutiny of purists.
The result is a fast-moving tale that draws its substance from weighty subjects without ever bogging down in rhetoric or losing sight of just how much the main character has at risk. This is a book to be read carefully on an evening when distractions are at a minimum so that you can savor Goddard's sophisticated approach and his ability to treat readers like intelligent human beings.
A Melancholy Farewell
In his respectful and, regrettably, final Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick novel, Last Rites (Henry Holt, $25), John Harvey writes with a rarely seen, truly omniscient viewpoint. This choice is what makes Last Rites so powerful. He graces nearly every character -- no matter how minor -- with his or her moment in the spotlight. Motivations, yearnings, weaknesses and fears all bubble to the surface in this dual tale of an escaped murderer and a seemingly unrelated drug war. The setting is present-day Nottingham, and Harvey makes no attempts to smooth the rough edges of Britain's social strata with cute Cockney characters. His people are real, sometimes ugly, and often very moving in their anger and isolation.
Fans of his main character have a more personal and deeply satisfying resolution awaiting them, as well as Harvey's inimitable combination of British police procedural and American noir. There's a lovely strain of classic hardboiled that wafts through the book like faintly heard jazz, imbuing the tale with a fitting melancholy that balances the grittiness of the characters. Fans of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell who crave more contemporary themes than either master has provided of late should look no further than John Harvey or his peer, Peter Robinson, whose richly layered In A Dry Season (Twilight, $24) was released last month.
A Unique New Voice Debuts
What are they putting in the oatmeal over in Scotland these days? Between Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, the country has already produced more than its fair share of crime talent. Add newcomer Denise Mina to the mix, and Scotland is beating the kilts off the rest of the mystery world. Mina's award-winning first novel, Garnethill (Carroll & Graf, $24), is a groundbreaking book that should help finally establish women writers as a credible faction within the hardboiled genre. Garnethill is not physically violent, but its emotional rawness and visceral honesty pack a punch far more potent than any boxer-turned-PI could provide.
A schizophrenic with a family history of abuse awakens from a drunken stupor to discover her therapist lover dead in her living room, his throat slashed. She is, of course, a suspect, but the book moves immediately away from any expected direction after that. From page one onward, the internal dialogue, character development, and interaction of the police with laymen all break with tradition -- jangling the reader and imparting a sense of urgency to find out what happens to these people who are trying so desperately to hang on to their version of normalcy. Mina's portrait of a dysfunctional family is as chilling as it is believable. Despite a widely diversified cast, every word and every motivation in Garnethill seems perfectly chosen according to each character's uniquely imperfect inner makeup.
There are no victims in this book, however. Ultimately, Garnethill illustrates how anger can empower and sometimes even unexpectedly heal.
Power Along the Potomac
I confess that the thought of a husband-and-wife writing team makes me cringe. In my opinion, the lowest common denominator can sink mighty low in such partnerships. Fortunately, Diane Henry and Nicholas Horrock prove me wrong in their newest novel, Potomac Fever (Little Brown, $24). Penned under the name of Henry Horrock, Potomac Fever begins with the brutal beating of an experienced D.C.-area investigator, perpetrators unknown. As he clings to life in a hospital bed, Lt. Cal Terrell's mind flashes back to a series of recent crimes, especially the brutal branding and death of an attractive restaurant hostess. Are these crimes the key to his attack or simply a sign of the escalating violence plaguing Washington today?
Expertly weaving together glimpses of different cases, Henry and Horrock build a fast-paced story chock full of modern-day red flags: sex, race, lobbyists, drive-by shootings, political operatives, foreign contributors, real estate development, athlete worship, media manipulation and more. But the authors temper their obvious enthusiasm for headline themes with a very real appreciation for the complexities of human character. Consequently, the people they portray are real, not cartoonish, and that raises the stakes in the outcome of this all-too-believable story. The result is a deeply satisfying thriller that examines what constitutes power and happiness these days while raising the question of whether or not human beings will ever learn to reconcile their often conflicting lures.
A Final Heads Up
This month, the long-awaited third book by Thomas Harris officially arrives in bookstores. Don't let this momentous event overshadow two other fine June releases. L.A. Requiem, by Robert Crais (Doubleday, $24), is a milestone in the career of a very fine writer and a must read for contemporary hardboiled fans. The Final Detail, by Harlan Coben (Delacorte, $23), features the author's trademark humor, but don't let Coben's wry observations fool you: They giftwrap keen insights into our society, particularly America's obsession with sports figures and how this need to create demigods can bring out the worst in us all. Both the Crais and the Coben deserve a spot in your book bag alongside the new Harris. Happy reading!
Katy Munger's most recent mysteries include "Legwork" and "Out of Time." Her forthcoming book, "Money to Burn," will be published in July.