The Magazine

Thrilled to Death

Three new titles on the crime fiction list.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By JON L. BREEN
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Red Cat

by Peter Spiegelman

Knopf, 304 pp., $22.95

The War Against Miss Winter

by Kathryn Miller Haines

Harper, 317 pp., $13.95

Chain of Evidence

by Garry Disher

Soho, 375 pp., $24

"Thriller" is the label du jour for commercial crime fiction, favored over "mystery" or "novel of suspense." There is absolutely nothing new in the novels being advanced as thrillers, though some would have you believe otherwise.

Promotional copy for a Manhattan bookstore event during the ThrillerFest convention in July included the following absurdity: "In the wake of the runaway success of such titles as The Da Vinci Code, a new genre of popular fiction was embraced by millions of Americans." In fact, Dan Brown's novel works best as an old-fashioned clued detective puzzle, albeit an unusually badly written one.

Far from being a new genre, thrillers can trace their lineage at least as far as 19th-century dime novels, which offered fast pace, physical action, danger, pursuit, and clear good guy/bad guy demarcations. In the 20th century, the term was used in Britain to denote the whole broad field of crime fiction; but more pointedly, it was usually applied to intrigue and espionage fiction and given added literary credibility by writers like Eric Ambler and John le Carré.

The rather vague definition of thriller today has been expanded to include serial-killer novels, some police procedural and private-eye sagas, romantic suspense, tales of medical menace and legal maneuvering, and supernatural horror.

The only 21st-century thriller elements that could be counted as remotely innovative are the least salutary ones: increasingly higher page counts, cruelly severe and repeated trauma and soap-opera travails visited on series characters, increasingly explicit violence, cinematically choreographed action scenes, and hyped-up suspense designed to artificially elevate reader anxiety. All the worthwhile elements contained in contemporary thrillers have been present in crime or espionage or detective fiction for a very long time with varying degrees of emphasis.

Many excellent writers produce books that are called thrillers by publishers or critics. But the celebration of the thriller--and its implicit denigration of the mystery, though essentially a matter of commercial labeling--should concern anyone who takes crime fiction seriously as a literary genre. Very few of the classics of the past emphasize the kind of "thrills" that seem to activate the present market. Their most important attributes always lay elsewhere: in the evocation of time and place, in the illumination of character and society, in the challenge of problem solving, in the sheer joy of language, in all the other literary values that characterize good fiction, whatever the genre.

To put it even more baldly, the whole idea of thriller centrality serves to trivialize crime fiction, whether hard, uncompromising, mean-streets noir or sophisticated intellectual puzzle.

In 2004, some thriller writers who felt their vital genre needed differentiating from the tired old mystery--including, of course, a new set of annual awards--formed the International Thriller Writers, Inc. Their ranks include many talented and distinguished writers, and the effort to advance the careers of their members is laudable. But the organization put its commitment to quality in doubt when, out of all the distinguished veteran writers to whom they could have given lifetime achievement awards, they chose two of the most literarily undistinguished denizens of the bestseller lists, writers who, for all their page-turning prowess, studious research, and other sterling qualities, turn out numbingly flavorless prose and dialogue: Clive Cussler and James Patterson.

Three recent books--a private eye novel, an amateur-detective historical, and a police procedural set in Australia--demonstrate the attributes of first-rate mystery fiction that are sometimes overlooked in today's rush for thrills.

Peter Spiegelman's Red Cat is the third novel about New York private detective John March. His brother and client, David, so abrasive and annoying that only ties of blood could explain March taking his case, is being stalked by a woman he knows only as Wren, a meant-to-be-casual sex partner he met online. March is an old-style private eye in a present-day setting. He uses the Internet as a prime investigative tool, and the plot concerns a sick variation on the video art that has so many contemporary galleries in its thrall.

Spiegelman demands to be read for the same qualities that marked his hardboiled predecessors. In questioning a witness, March paraphrases a line from Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon: "I wasn't sure if it was my story he believed, or my fifty dollars." Like Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, he excels at descriptions of people, weather, rooms, and atmosphere, including a strong evocation of Manhattan in a snowstorm.

Lines of metaphorical prose establish the scene and the character's frame of mind simultaneously: "An icy wind was blowing off the East River and it bullied me along in its rush to Jersey." "A jaundiced sunset was seeping through the clouds as I drove into Tarrytown, and it tinted the Hudson in the colors of a faded bruise."

March's interaction with lawyers and cops doing their jobs rings true. The unlikelihood and inadvisability of a PI treading on police turf to investigate murder is motivated reasonably. The characters come to life, and the mystery is genuinely puzzling and satisfactorily resolved. All that's missing are the fairly placed clues that Hammett or Macdonald would have provided to enable the canny reader to anticipate the surprise solution. Among the attributes that make Spiegelman worth recommending--style, characters, sense of time and place, specialized background, procedural details, mystery--thrills are well down the list.

Some crime novels show the reader how things work in a particular line of business or profession, how people live in another time or place. Serving both these informative functions is Kathryn Miller Haines's first novel, The War Against Miss Winter, which in current mystery parlance must be designated a cozy. After all, it has a cat for a character (albeit an unpleasant one) and is told by a wisecracking female narrator whose romantic conflicts and longings are important to the narrative.

In 1943 New York, unemployed actress Rosie Winter is working as a receptionist for a private eye. The discovery of her boss hanging in the office closet begins her involvement in a tantalizing mystery involving the rumored lost play of an admired experimental playwright. In order to stay a resident of a women's theatrical boarding house--recalling the setting of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Stage Door--Rosie must get an acting job. She and her now-soldier boyfriend parted on bad terms, and various possible (if mostly unlikely) substitute romantic interests present themselves.

It may be that the most accurate period fiction takes place within the last half- to three-quarters of a century before it is written, a time within memory of living people (if not the author): close enough to understand the mores and attitudes, easier to get the language and cultural details right (though more likely to be called out if you get them wrong), a sense of the reality without rose-colored nostalgia or sentimentality, a better chance at capturing how people talked, thought, and lived with a few years of perspective.

Haines is nearly note-perfect most of the way in capturing the home-front mood and lifestyle, but trips up on pronouns that are politically correct by current standards but off-base historically. No proper writer in 1943 would have written "a participant places their ego" rather than "his ego," and I doubt a theatrical woman of the time would have said, "You don't drag an actor through hell without her ass getting singed" (all italics mine).

Still, the prose is lively, the characters well drawn, and despite the general unbelievability of the plot and its payoff, the novel should have no trouble drawing readers to its projected sequel. The brief segments trying to generate thriller-type suspense are disposably perfunctory.

Australian Garry Disher's Chain of Evidence begins with a situation more in the thriller line than either of the other two novels: A 10-year-old girl is abducted by the operator of a children's modeling agency scam. What one foresees--alternating chapters from the viewpoint of the villainous captor, the child in jeopardy, the worried parents, and the law--happily does not materialize. What we have instead is a Down Under equivalent of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, with several cops, various in their personalities and relationships, working on numerous cases, some related but most not.

Male/female police teams are almost de rigueur in current procedural fiction, with real or potential sexual tension an optional add-on. Here the two leads are separated by circumstance but deal with the novel's two principal cases. In Waterloo on the Mornington Peninsula, Sergeant Ellen Destry is holding the fort for her boss, Inspector Hal Challis, who has traveled to his South Australia home to spend a month with his dying father. While Destry spearheads the investigation of the abduction, Challis unofficially looks into his brother-in-law's unsolved disappearance five years before.

Based on the back story, particularly regarding Challis's late wife, both are apparently among those series characters with excessively eventful and harrowing personal lives. Other cop activities touched on include a detective training course, the dubious police shooting of a career burglar, and the breaking-in of a new private forensics lab. Disher is clearly an expert at this sort of thing, and the distinctive setting is an added benefit.

These are three very good crime novels of three diverse types. Though they could have gone in the direction of elongated action scenes and overwrought anxiety generation, they are better books for choosing another direction.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.