Roundup September 2006

Dark Passage

A selective investigation of recent mysteries and thrillers

Then again, this is just the sort of narrative loose end that might have been welcome in Mary Higgins Clark’s Two Little Girls in Blue (Simon & Schuster). Awesomely proficient after twenty-five suspense novels, Clark has crafted a tight thriller around the abduction and botched ransoming of twin girls from Connecticut, and her use of coincidence, near misses, investigative breaks, and criminal double crossing is nothing short of masterly—so much so that it feels a bit too schematic, as technically precise as the workings of a clock. True, Clark throws off little shavings of useless biographical information—we are told of one character, who appears in no more than a single paragraph, that she’s a third-year college student, and of another that he quit smoking at nineteen. But these naturalistic touches (and there are many) go only so far toward distracting attention from the gears and sprockets driving the plot toward its chiming conclusion—in which even those suspects who actually had nothing to do with the crime are reassuringly found guilty of other crimes, for which they pay. Although it’s nice when suspicions are confirmed and justice is served, there’s ultimately something unthrilling about closure so neat and clean.

George Pelecanos spares us such neatness in The Night Gardener (Little, Brown), wherein an investigation into the murder of a black youth grinds through numerous shifts. Though set in Washington, D.C., Pelecanos’s mysteries are decidedly unpolitical. (Bureaucrats and politicians play a far larger role—which is to say any—in L.A. crime classics like Chinatown and Devil in a Blue Dress than they do in Pelecanos’s hardboiled take on the nation’s capital.) Building his story around an uneasy alliance of three cops—one still on the force, one an aged and obsessed retiree, and one an embittered dead-ender driven from the ranks some years before by an IAD investigation—Pelecanos manages to avoid the cheap conventions of the buddy formula, and to evoke Chandler himself, without being at all retro or self-conscious about it. A host of supporting characters—family members, barflies, prostitutes, precinct mates, thugs big-time and small—help flesh out this deeply human tale, which doesn’t shy from the unexpected discoveries and laudably unsatisfying resolutions of all great noir.

Talk about unexpected discoveries, the Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura’s Havana Black (Bitter Lemon Press), part of a tetralogy coming out in English in apparently random order, is a revelation. Trafficking in political incorrectness of the euphemistic and not-so-euphemistic sort, Padura is unabashedly sensual about everything from food, women, death, and weather to ideological disillusionment. He wastes no time with the literary peekaboo of magical realism, nor with the aesthetic excess of more-overt political metaphor—two modes sometimes favored by those writing in or about precarious social climates. (The former requires a coyness Padura seems congenitally deficient in, and the latter a dogmatic earnestness he’s probably had his fill of.) Which is to say that this is simply a lush, frank, captivating murder mystery set against the backdrop of an approaching hurricane and the crumbling dreams of an entire generation of Cubans, at home and in exile. With a nod to Key Largo and a virtual bow to The Maltese Falcon, this novel is ultimately about the redemptive nature of undying friendship and the potentially destructive nature of undying love. Perhaps most bracing is the open struggle its hero wages against his own well-earned cynicism.

It’s the sort of struggle that the characters in John Gregory Dunne’s re-released True Confessions (Thunder’s Mouth Press) have abandoned entirely, if they ever waged it in the first place. Those who know this work only through its 1981 film adaptation—starring Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro, and bizarrely unavailable on DVD—may dimly recall lots of coded dialogue and shady dealings between the Catholic archdiocese and the L.A. business community, and that it all somehow overlapped with a fictionalized Black Dahlia murder. In fact, that crime is a MacGuffin, setting off the slow unraveling of a web of venality in which two Irish Catholic brothers—Tom, a petulant, compromised policeman, and Des, a slick, upstart monsignor—find themselves inextricably and not unwittingly tangled. Tom’s murder investigation, undertaken with blasé resentfulness, becomes, by the end, “the trail of an intention gone haywire” (to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, who helped write the screenplay).

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Jon Zobenica is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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