Monday, May 2, 2011

Razor-Sharp Character Mysteries


I like mystery novels driven, not by a body as a puzzle to solve, but by characters facing challenges and their own inner demons.  Philip Marlow and Sam Spade reach me in was that, sadly, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes do not.  That’s why I like novels like Charles Todd’s A Lonely Death.  If Christie wrote psychological police procedurals, they might look like this.

A Lonely Death: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery (Ian Rutledge Mysteries)Three rural workers have been killed in quick succession.  But all three served in the same unit in World War I, a war that still plagues Inspector Ian Rutledge.  As Rutledge unpacks the murder, hampered by his era’s rudimentary technology and his culture’s haughty attitudes, he also encounters his lingering guilt from the war.  We feel Rutledge may not survive this case, because his own sanity hangs by a thread.

To modern readers, Rutledge appears admirable for his dedication to justice, despite aristocratic intransigence.  He appears psychologically complex, with his conflicted loyalties to the past (embodied in “Hamish,” the dead underling whose voice lingers in his head) and his struggles in the present.  But to peers and superiors, Rutledge is a peon, damaged goods.  And they obstruct every attempt to exact justice because he doesn’t fit in.

Inspector Rutledge earns our trust because he perseveres against all odds.  PI Ray Quinn doesn’t face such intransigence in Mark Mynheir’s The Corruptible; his struggles begin inside himself.  But they’re compounded when a client hires Quinn to recover missing data, and hands him a check so large that it’s clearly hush money.  He asks himself questions about honor, professionalism, and why he’s in this business at all.

The Corruptible: A Ray Quinn MysteryLike Rutledge, Quinn is damaged, but from an act of private violence that stole everything he thought he loved.  Now he struggles with the same wracking cynicism that pinioned Sam Spade.  But unlike Spade, he doesn’t fight alone.  His apprentice, Crevis Creighton, gives him something to fight for, while Pam Winters preaches hope in hopeless situations.  Ray Quinn doesn’t want to be on the outside anymore.  But moving back into the human race proves harder than he anticipated.

When Brigid O’Shaughnessy crossed Sam Spade, Spade hung the femme fatale out to dry.  But when Quinn meets his seductress, he keeps his head, steps back from his preconceptions, and puts together the loose ends.  That’s what makes him a good detective.  He doesn’t just question his world; he questions himself.  And more importantly, he trusts.  Not for him Bogart’s camera-friendly misanthropy.  Quinn’s greatest victory is over himself.

That same doggedness makes me care about Cici McNair.  Unlike Ian Rutledge or Ray Quinn, McNair is a very real person who has learned detective work the hard way, deep in the trenches.  And her memoir, Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts, reveals a character as complex as any fictional heroine, but far more real.

Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts: True Adventures of a Female P.I.McNair’s greatest enemy is the Old Boy Network.  Even after years in the game, she still struggles with the idea that women can’t really hack the private dick world.  She admits making some rash choices, starting with getting into the PI business without first learning the ropes.  Yet through persistence, skill, and old-fashioned brass, she made her way into the field, and completely changed the game for the men around her.

When her mentor sent her on her first assignment, he expected her to quit and not return.  But by using a journalist’s fact-gathering skills, a historian’s ability to make connections, and a novelist’s tenacity, she found the person no one else could find.  She closed the case no one could close.  She brought back the trophies the men in her office had given up on.

McNair’s keen eye for detail makes this memoir as lively and dramatic as any detective novel.  She draws readers into the sweaty tedium of tracking an adulteress through hot Mississippi nights.  She makes us believe in how she busted Chinatown counterfeiters by sauntering into warehouses wearing a wire.  She persuades us of how a Southern girl, making a midlife career change, did what nobody else thought she could do.

Yet she’s probably the most problematic character in this bunch.  She makes her own mythology and sells it to us by the fistful.  She gives up her secrets less easily than some fictional PI ever would.  And that’s what makes her gripping.  She doesn’t just solve puzzles.  She doesn’t just prove her quick wit.  She tells us a story with a compelling character.  And we drink every inch of her up because we love that character.

1 comment:

  1. "Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts" sounds especially interesting, as I've always enjoyed mysteries that took me places or taught me things I didn't already know... One of the reasons I always loved the work of Dick Frances.