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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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.