Roundup April 2006

Touch of Evil

A selective investigation of recent mysteries and thrillers
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The popularity of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, who is said to make female fans want to mother him, has been a mixed blessing for readers of detective fiction. The good thing is that more foreign novels are being translated into English. The bad thing is that much the same Wallander type is now on duty from Reykjavik to Rio: a downbeat but lovable man in his forties or fifties, out of tune with the age—though hardly eccentric—and trying heroically to live without a woman. Poignant scenes of microwave cooking abound.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer, for example, is a lanky widower “dragging on alone for the ninth year.” In He Who Fears the Wolf (Harcourt), the latest installment of this Norwegian series to be published in America, a young schizophrenic escapes from a mental institution and heads for the forest, where an old recluse is later found murdered. It’s a setup worthy of the novel’s menacing cover, but in a farcical twist the schizophrenic is taken hostage by a bank robber on the lam. We soon learn that both fugitives are as lovable as Sejer himself. Like all men I have a maternal instinct, but I can clutch only so many characters to my breast at one time, and when the odd couple crosses paths with a little bird-hunting brat, I couldn’t help hoping he would set the schizophrenic off. Old Sejer putters about on the periphery of the narrative, solving a murder that no longer seems to matter. This is the problem with these sad-sack sleuths: their own creators get bored of them. Mankell recently took a long break from Inspector Wallander, and Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, the Brazilian writer, plans to give his Inspector Espinosa a rest after only the fifth novel in the series.

That fifth novel is Pursuit (Holt), in which a Copacabana psychiatrist commits to a mental institution a patient who has been stalking him. The patient disappears soon after his release, as does one of the psychiatrist’s daughters. Like Espinosa, who mulls things over every night while waiting for his microwave to beep, we find our suspicion shifting back and forth from the psychiatrist to the missing man. Having been written for Brazilian readers, Pursuit does little to evoke the sights and sounds of the place, though repeated references to street crime did take me back to the chilly August night I was mugged at knife-point in Sao Paulo. Benjamin Moser’s translation from the Portuguese is superb, the only infelicity—the American expression “going south” in the sense of “going bad”—appearing on the first page.

I should make clear that Garcia-Roza likes to leave loose ends. Here too the detective’s resolution of the case is so brief, sketchy, and uncorroborated by evidence that one wonders if it is to be believed at all. The author has told interviewers that the endings of his novels are “really determined by the reader,” but that probably doesn’t happen very often. A few readers will relish the open-endedness for its own sake, while the rest will feel a bit cheated. Most of us, I think, read whodunits for the pleasure of following a ratiocinative process, not to be left wondering which fictional character did what to whom; the real world offers far more interesting imponderables than that. Ian McEwan has recently remarked that magic realism can come off as a cop-out, a flight from the hard writing that a more straightforward approach demands. The same can be said of the vague denouement in detective fiction. Pursuit merits reading all the same. Memorably eerie are the scenes chronicling the emotional collapse of the psychiatrist and his family.

More conventional is Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City (Minotaur), the first of the Icelandic novelist’s mysteries to be translated into English. How conventional? Let’s just say that Inspector Erlendur (divorced, “tasteless microwave dinners”) is moved by wet weather to wonder whether rain “was necessary to wash people’s sins away every now and then.” And the killer leaves a cryptic note near the corpse, as killers do. Fortunately, the strangeness of the locale helps Jar City transcend its clichés. Lava fields threaten to swallow up the careless driver, a man’s apartment is strewn with half-eaten sheep’s heads, and everyone in the country is literally on a first-name basis with everyone else. (Half of the names in Jar City seem to start with “E,” which makes for confusion.) When an aging rapist with a hereditary disorder is bludgeoned to death decades after his crime, the identity of the killer is not all that hard to figure out, but the novel’s social dimension makes Jar City a rewarding read. Iceland’s real-life genetic database, a work in controversial progress, is central both to the murder and to the detective’s efforts to find the killer.

Jar City and He Who Fears the Wolf belong to the increasingly common form known as the “cozy procedural,” a hybrid of the traditional detective novel and the police procedural. Those who prefer the latter subgenre in all its urban grittiness will enjoy Fiddlers (Harcourt), the latest of Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels. Detective Carella and his colleagues are reluctant to assume that a serial killer is to blame for the deaths of a blind violinist, a cosmetics sales representative, and other seemingly unconnected individuals. Why reluctant? Because the victims are all over fifty years old, and thus part of a demographic that is evidently no more interesting to serial killers than to the entertainment industry. Ah, but it turns out that violinists aren’t the only “fiddlers,” to use a word that holds part of the solution to the case.

This is a fast and engrossing book. Some writers lazily presume on our familiarity with their characters, but the characterization of Carella and the other cops is rich enough that readers new to the 87th Precinct will quickly find their footing. McBain is one of those utterly unracist writers whose depictions of minorities can strike wrong notes, and here I could have done without the Korean pedicure customer “with her skirt pulled up almost to Seoul.” On the other hand, a story line about the romance between the killer and a call girl is surprisingly involving. Their conversations offer additional evidence that McBain (or Evan Hunter, to use the novelist’s other pseudonym) is the true king of American dialogue. Salvatore Lombino died last year at the age of seventy-eight, but I don’t want to talk about him in the past tense. He is at work whenever we open his books.

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