The Magazine

Murder Most Foul

A trio of approaches to the mystery novel.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By JON L. BREEN
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The Man Who Smiled
by Henning Mankell
Translated by Laurie Thompson
New Press, 336 pp., $24.95

Promise Me
by Harlan Coben
Dutton, 384 pp., $26.95

The Protégé
by Stephen Frey
Ballantine, 313 pp., $24.95

Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander, on medical leave for over a year because of depression after killing a man in the line of duty, is on the point of resigning from the Ystad force. But he is moved to shake off his stereotypically Scandinavian gloom and return to action when a friend, lawyer Sten Torstensson, asks him to look into the death of his father and law partner in an apparent road accident, then is himself murdered.

As the reader knows, and the cops gradually find out, the elder Torstensson was on his way back from Farnholm Castle, the lair of a wealthy international businessman whose shady affairs become the focus of the investigation.

Of all the foreign writers coming on the English-language publishing scene in the comparative bull market for translated crime fiction, Henning Mankell may be the most commercially and critically successful. Certainly he is the most popular Swedish crime writer in translation since the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in the 1960s and '70s. My own first meeting with Mankell's work, Before the Frost (2005), was a major disappointment, especially in light of his reputation: overlong, repetitious, and soap operatic, in common with too much contemporary British and American crime fiction, and with none of the liveliness and humor of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But the latest Mankell in English translation is an earlier book, originally published in Sweden in 1994. Were Mankell's bad habits a more recent development? Afraid not.

The fashion in crime fiction is for long books--not a bad thing if the extra pages provide more depth of character, richness of background, and complexity of plot. Unfortunately, what usually comes is recapping of the same plot points over and over, irrelevant details of the protagonist's daily activities, and extra scenes and exchanges of dialogue that add nothing necessary or useful. If the dialogue has the bite and wit of an Ed McBain, the latter form of padding can be tolerable or even welcome. But the exchanges between Mankell's characters are bland and flavorless, for which I don't blame the translator: Given the mundane content, they could hardly be any livelier in Swedish.

The novel is not a total waste of time. Mankell's plot is intriguing enough, though lacking in surprises, and the detective work is often interesting. The sense of a nation in the grip of unwelcome change--in crime, police work, public administration--is nicely conveyed. The interrelationships of the police characters, including the city's first woman detective, are believably sketched. As for Wallander himself, he's a well-realized character, albeit a drag to be around when off the scent, and too much given to leaps of intuition and lapses of common sense. This could have been a reasonably diverting police procedural at half the length, but Mankell's inflated reputation remains a mystery.

In Promise Me, Myron Bolitar, college basketball star turned sports and entertainment agent, is throwing a neighborhood party in his suburban New Jersey home when he overhears a troubling conversation between two teenage girls, one the daughter of an old high school flame, the other of a 9/11 widow who is Myron's current romantic interest. Alarmed by one girl's account of being driven by a drunken boyfriend, Myron makes an ill-advised pledge: They can call him any hour of the day or night.

"I'll come get you wherever you are," he promises. "I won't ask any questions. I won't tell your parents."

When one of the girls goes missing after Myron has driven her in the small hours from Manhattan to the alleged home of a friend, the parents make clear what an inappropriate promise that was. Racked with guilt, he promises to bring her home. The case may be connected to the earlier disappearance of another girl from the same suburban New Jersey high school.

Since Bolitar--a heart-on-his-sleeve do-gooder and righter of wrongs, an incessant wisecracker with a core of true-believer altruism and conventionality--last appeared in Darkest Fear (2000), his creator has been climbing the bestseller charts with stand-alone thrillers, and there is no denying his narrative impetus and skillful reader manipulation. The complex plot provides one well-managed shock after another, the ultimate one both surprising and believable.

Drawbacks include Harlan Coben's overuse of one trendy but annoying locution (e.g., "The building had that decrepit thing going on . . ."), his impulse to valid-but-obtrusive mini-sermons on such topics as smoking and the stereotyping of fat women, and an inconsistency of tone that works against the moral issues raised and the reality of some of the characters. Is this a soap opera, or a situation comedy, or a superhero comic book?

The novel would have been better without Myron's psychopathic friend Win, a rich Caucasian variation on the over-the-top loose-cannon extralegal sidekick pioneered by Hawk in Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, and Mouse in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. Also blue-pencil-worthy are several comically exaggerated villains and obligatory walk-ons by series regulars who have nothing to do with the story.

On balance, though, this is a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

The Protégé, a sequel to the 2005 bestseller The Chairman, belongs to the glitz-and-glamour school of thriller writing, financial division. In an S-and-M session gone awry, title character David Wright accidentally kills his bondage subject by hanging, and acts to cover it up. As the most vocal, obnoxious, and promising managing director of Everest Capital, a multibillion-dollar Manhattan equity firm whose many interests include a new NFL franchise for Las Vegas and a Wal-Mart-like discount chain, Wright is so aggressive and tightly wound that his new stress is barely apparent to his boss. Chairman Christian Gillette is not a likable character, but since he turns into an action figure at every threat of violence, it's clear he's supposed to be the hero.

Stephen Frey knows the cutthroat financial world intimately, and deal-making is a feature throughout. But like pornography, the wow factor of very big numbers gets numbing after awhile, and more complications must be provided. A book with such perfunctory characterization has to be plot-driven, but this driver weaves all over the road. Among the elements: Gillette's search for his birth mother; the mystery of his senator-father's death in a plane crash years before; a wealthy femme fatale's threat to his romance with a world-famous singer; menacing killers apparently hanging over from the previous book, dealings with the Mafia families that still run Las Vegas; a storm at sea; a super-secret U.S. spy organization; hints of al Qaeda; and the science of nanotechnology with its far-future promise of extending life.

The reader may believe the numbers, but the scenes and the people constantly seem unreal. Gillette's meeting with the puppet NFL commissioner, an ex-player way out of his depth, is a case in point: Prose and dialogue are flat and undistinguished without being gratingly (or amusingly) bad. Early on, Frey depends on the by-the-numbers novelist's favorite trick: massive amounts of exposition in dialogue, with information clearly already known to the recipient passed along for the reader's benefit.

The final surprise may astonish somebody who's never read a mystery before. Frey has enough command of pace and story structure to divert you on your next long plane ride between billion-dollar deals, but only if there's nothing better at hand.

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