Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beware the Back Cover

I’m about halfway through Scott Phillips’s excellent novel, Cottonwood. I’ve liked everything about the book from Page 1, but for one thing: the back cover.

I rarely look at the back covers or jacket notes on books I’ve already decided I want to read. I don’t need any teasers or endorsements; I already know I want to read the book, either because of author recognition or through a trusted recommendation. All the back cover can do is give something away, like it does for Cottonwood.

To wit:
In 1872, Cottonwood, Kansas, is a one-horse speck on the map. Self-educated saloon owner Bill Ogden is looking to make a profit or get out. His ambition brings him to the attention of Marc Leval, a wealthy Chicago developer who plans to turn Cottonwood into a boom town. But as Ogden becomes dangerously obsessed with Leval’s wife, an apparently ordinary local family plies its sinister trade unnoticed, quietly butchering traveling salesmen and other weary wanderers.

Maliciously fun and full of surprises, Cottonwood brings to life actual crimes, carried out by a strange clan known as the Bloody Benders, that befell Kansas in the late 1800s…

The book is maliciously fun, but not quite as full of surprises as it was before I read the damn back cover. I didn’t read it until after Bill showed his attraction to Leval’s wife, so Phillips’s deft easing me into it wasn’t ruined.

The Bender reveal was seriously compromised. Phillips foreshadowed it well; I knew something was wrong, but not exactly what. It would have been nice to feel the scales fall from my eyes along with the townspeople’s when they realize what’s been going on.

I understand marketing people want to sell the book. They should be aware that’s only half the transaction. We read them to see what happens. There’s no need to tell us, except in the most vague terms. Maybe the marketing types could devote more of their time to determining which marketing techniques they increasingly leave to their authors actually work, and less to giving away large chunks of the story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Are You Going to Believe Me, or Your Private Eyes?

I’ve been lucky over the past few weeks to have read three books that reminded me why I got interested in crime fiction and writing in the first place: first person private investigator stories.

Libby Fischer Hellmann’s Easy Innocence takes the attitudes of an affluent suburb and shows consequences not often considered. Her detective, Georgia Davis, avoids the pitfalls of many female protagonists. She is not a man in a skirt, ready and willing to kick ass as necessary; neither is she dependent on either a big, strong man or divine intervention to get her out of tough spots. Best of all, she’s smart enough to know the difference and act accordingly.

The Silent Hour, by Michael Koryta, is a cold-case story. Lincoln Perry has many of the characteristics of a stereotypical PI—former cop who left under a cloud, bends and breaks his own rules, trouble maintaining relationships—though Koryta never lets him fall off that edge. His problems are the problems anyone in his situation could have, and he’s anything but omnipotent. Perry takes a beating and keeps on ticking, learning about himself as the books progress.

Declan Hughes’s detective, Ed Loy, takes beatings that make what Perry endures seem like air kisses from a friendly but distant aunt. In All the Dead Voices, Ed inadvertently finds himself cleaning up leftovers from the Irish Troubles, caught between republican terror groups, drug gangs, and government agencies whose interests do not include what most would call a classic sense of justice.

What all three have in common—aside from tight plots and uniformly exceptional writing—is what makes the PI series the highest form of crime fiction; they’re primarily character studies of the hero. (Or heroine, in Georgia’s case.) A good series—as all of these are—works even better, allowing the character to evolve. Attitudes change, as do relationships. Physical and emotional trauma accumulates. The character may grow emotionally, or become embittered. What he deems worthy of description, and how it is described, matures.

For all the talk of the decline of PI fiction, the quantity of expert practitioners isn’t hurting. James Lee Burke and Robert Crais still have hop on their fastballs after twenty years. (Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is actually a cop, but the length of leash he is provided in New Iberia and his personal journey through the series make his stories read more like PI fiction than police procedurals.) Relative newcomers like Sean Chercover and Reed Farrell Coleman prove the talent pool is deep as ever. Dennis Lehane’s upcoming Kenzie-Gennaro novel is much anticipated.

The fictional PI can look into things the average cop never touches. Could Ross Macdonald have explored the rotting foundations of crumbling families with a cop, or did Lew Archer have to be a PI? A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure.

PI stories are also better suited for ambivalent endings. A cop’s job is to catch the bad guy. The PI can appreciate the bittersweet nature of all cases, balancing the satisfaction of solving the mystery with the knowledge of his pre-ordained failure: no matter what he discovers, things can never be put right. The dead are still gone. The cop can catch the killer and exact a measure of justice; the PI may be brought in to clean up the mess that doesn’t quite meet the necessary standard of illegality.

It’s no surprise so many of the “genre” writers who receive acclaim from the “literary” community come from detective fiction. Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Burke are all accepted as great writers, not subject to the backhanded acclaim of “great genre writer.” No one thought Lehane presumptuous when The Given Day looked into issues well beyond crime; he’d been doing it for years. Gone, Baby, Gone is as thought-provoking a book as one is likely to read.

Declan Hughes may be the foremost advocate of the virtues of detective fiction, not just in his novels, but in his public statements. If I had a transcript of his comments from Bouchercon 2008, I would have printed them here and saved you the trouble of reading my interpretation; his is clearer and more impassioned. Few books—of any genre, or of no genre—are more likely to make you wonder, “What would I do here?” or, more hauntingly, “What would I have done differently?” When done well, what more can anyone ask from a book?

Friday, September 4, 2009

August Reads

August was a slow month for reading recommendations. Part of this was because my schedule was full and didn’t allow for as much reading time as I like. Another part was because I read several crappy books in August. Here are two worth following up on.

Crime Always Pays, by Declan Burke. Not available to the public yet, I was lucky enough to score an advance electronic copy. The sequel to last year’s acclaimed The Big O, Crime Always Pays picks up just a few hours later, while things are still getting sorted out. The cast is back but the scene changes to Europe, as Karen King tries to find a safe haven for her wolf-dog mix, Anna. Oh, and €200,000 she picked up at the end of The Big O. Reading as though Elmore Leonard worked from a Carl Hiaasen outline, this book isn’t for those who like cozies or by-the-number procedurals, but it’s a hell of a fun ride.

Easy Innocence
, by Libby Fischer Hellmann. A high school hazing incident gone bad and its too quick cover-up launches PI Georgia Davis into complications far afield from any scholastic issues. Hellmann writes a convincing female protagonist who can take care of herself without becoming a man in a skirt. The balance of Georgia’s cop experience and feminine nature is organic and works well, and all the plot twists are satisfying.