Roundup September 2006

Dark Passage

A selective investigation of recent mysteries and thrillers
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The word sleazy shows up several times in Andrew Klavan’s Damnation Street (Harcourt), and it certainly has the right address. In this third installment of his Weiss and Bishop series, a prostitute is on the run from both the woebegone obsessive who would be her savior and the artful degenerate bent on loving her quickly to death. The hunt winds through motor hotels on the edge of town, a desert bordello, Reno, and other unwholesome stopping points, and through a family history of drug addiction, blackmail, and parricide. Klavan’s confidently wry style keeps things punched up throughout, not least in his fight sequences, which are deliberately as ludicrous as they are violent (here with martial-arts noises):

There was the Fu Manchu guy rushing at him, going hwa hwoo hwee and so on—and also wielding that goddamned Chinese broadsword Bishop had noticed on the wall … Gripping the broadsword’s handle in one hand, he made the wide, curved silver blade spin and twirl through blurring crisscrosses and figure eights. “Hwa! Hwoo! Hwee!” he remarked again. And all the while, the black-and-red scarf flying from the sword’s pommel flapped and spiraled, adding to Bishop’s distraction.

If having this much fun with a tale of assassination and romantic melancholy is wrong, who wants to be right?

It takes a whole different kind of confidence to write a somewhat decorous whodunit like Robert Goddard’s Hand in Glove (reissued by Delta). Goddard sets in motion a transcontinental free-for-all over the legacy of a dreamy dead poet, and barely halfway through the who gets done in, leaving readers to 200 pages of subplot. But what subplot: rising like a menacing crescendo above the noisy, crowded orchestra pit of the narrative’s first half, it reveals the discord and treacheries therein to be mere noodling. The scope and seriousness of the situation dawn slowly, on both the characters and the reader, making everyone’s belated awareness all the more gripping. On a sentence level, Goddard’s writing is determinedly unshowy, but any author who can manage so complex an array of characters (themselves admirably complex), who builds suspense around a hidden map to buried treasure, and who casts moustache-twirling Spanish fascists in the role of über-baddies, knows how to have a good time.

As for baddies, this one’s new to me: a pitiful old woman with a colostomy bag. And yet Karin Fossum’s latest, When the Devil Holds the Candle (Harcourt), finds such a character practicing passive evil—in what is basically a heartsickening tale of mothers and sons. Combining the deadly ennui of Camus’s Stranger with elements of Stephen King’s Misery and Hitchcock’s Psycho, this is an engagingly repulsive book. Never mind that Inspector Sejer, the ostensible star, spends most of his time fretting about his new girlfriend’s taste for hashish.

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).

The stench of careerism—both rewarded and punished—exudes from every corner of this novel, which is populated by those who “deplored the appearance of opportunism, although not opportunism itself.” It’s an achievement of Robert Townean proportion that so bleak and beautiful a drama could—essentially—hinge on the selection of a new chairman for the archdiocese’s building fund. And it’s almost madly heroic that Dunne and Didion would attempt a screenplay from a novel in which key characters’ dialogue “was ritual, a search for meanings among the monosyllables. Like smoke blown into the wind, it left no traces if the interpretation was wrong.” The book is a masterpiece. That the movie is even good (which it is) says as much as anything about this labor of love.

For a visual foray into the morally smoggy mid-century L.A. depicted in True Confessions, there’s Scene of the Crime: Photographs From the LAPD Archive (Harry N. Abrams; released in 2004 but still available), with an introduction by Black Dahlia author James Ellroy. This is an inescapably gruesome book, showing Jackson Pollock–style blood splatters leading away from an emptied rocking chair; a stained meat cleaver sitting on a counter next to a windup race car and a little toy speedboat, below which lies the adult victim, hair matted, facedown in a puddle. Many of the scenes involve crimes of passion, and it’s partly the quotidian settings that make these photos so disturbing. In boardinghouse rooms and dingy bungalows, one finds pinups and Hollywood publicity shots adorning the walls, a game of solitaire laid out on a kitchen table, and here or there a slumped and bloodied victim, with maybe a look of mute confusion still on the face, or a leg stuck in an immodest position.

Every bit as grisly but less disturbing are the book’s numerous mob hits. There’s something crudely charming about a couple of heavies like “the two Tonys,” sitting in their Oldsmobile, smartly attired with neckties and pocket kerchiefs, one arm draped casually over the seat back, another out the open driver’s-side window. But for the dark streaks running down their faces, you might think they were tossing their heads back in a last laugh. Which maybe they were.

Jon Zobenica is a senior editor of The Atlantic.
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