Friday, September 7, 2012

How Not To Write Mystery In One Easy Step

Vincent Zandri, The Innocent (Keeper Marconi, Book One)

So I’m reading Vincent Zandri’s first mystery novel, first published in 1999 and now making its mass market debut, and I can’t say why it doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, Zandri’s first-person narrator talks like Al Pacino, and his story has the familiarity of a bedtime story, but so what? If I hated every derivative novel to cross my desk, I’d run out of anything to read in a hurry. Then suddenly, and way too early in the book, it hits me.

In the spring of 1997, the story goes, convicted cop killer Eduard Vasquez stages a daring daylight escape from upstate New York’s Green Haven maximum security prison. Jack “Keeper” Marconi, warden of said monkey house, knows his job and his life’s work are on the line, and goes off the radar. The conspiracies and cover-ups he finds shake his faith in the criminal justice system he has worked in for nearly thirty years.

I persevered through Marconi’s wiseacre narration, self-consciously reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s noir heyday. I refused to feel put off by the cops, so blatantly borrowed from the Raymond Chandler milieu that even Marconi feels the need to comment on it. I did everything I could to not let the obvious borrowings put me off the book, and read it as a genre fan would. After all, genre fiction tends to repeat past successes to give readers what they want.

Readers want a hard-bitten hero with a history, so Zandri writes a narrator who was a teen starting his corrections career when he was taken hostage at Attica (“Attica! Attica!”). They want a character wrapped in mourning, so Zandri gives Marconi a drinking problem to compensate for his wife’s violent death. They want a character with a hard fight he might not win, so Zandri forces Marconi to battle the shoddiest police work since the Coen brothers’ Fargo.

But around page sixty, Zandri introduces a new ensemble character, a state bull who carries a Glock. New York State police have carried Glocks since 1989, yet Marconi complains about how all the cops carry Glocks “now” (remember, this is 1997), though he refuses to bend to the trend. And he launches into a description of Glocks that is not only factually inaccurate, but repeats specific inaccuracies spoken by Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.

That, I’m sorry, was one borrowing too many, too early. Though I tried to keep reading, I could no longer ignore the lack of story elements originating with Zandri himself. You could practically make a drinking game from spotting bits stolen from action films and noir classics. This obsessive mentioning makes readers do the hard work of creating characters and situations, which should be the author’s responsibility.

Some years ago, I sat in on a Q&A with mystery author Alex Kava. She described the painstaking process of cultivating relationships with local homicide investigators, whom she later mined for knowledge, a process she also details in her excellent novel One False Move. Though such first-person research requires a massive investment of time and energy, it has paid off in helping make Kava one of America’s best-selling female mystery novelists.

Instead of making such a personal investment, Zandri trades on our ability to recognize his trail of stereotypes and in-group nods. You don’t so much read this novel as assemble it like a jigsaw puzzle. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want authors to lead me through the story by the hand like a slow child. But instead of making me into an active reader, Zandri goes to the other extreme, practically making me write his book for him.

I suspect someone like Maxwell Perkins could coach Vincent Zandri into crafting a winning thriller. What I see here suggests Zandri at least has the enthusiasm that genre writing takes. But Perkins would have started by asking Zandri to go through his manuscript, finding any nugget with a visible pedigree, and killing it. Until he does, Zandri will keep producing work that fobs his authorial job off on you and me.

This is my third experience with’s recent publishing ventures, after Blues Highway Blues and Containment. Though the latter had a worthwhile payoff, all three books could have benefited from an aggressive editor. All three were previously self-published in print or digital form, and selected for reprint by customer enthusiasm. They do not inspire much hope in a publishing model that bypasses the slush pile. The old ways survive for a reason.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for your review.
    Actually, THE INNOCENT was first published by Delecorte Press in 1999 (It was then called, As Catch Can) and then again by StoneGate Ink in 2010 and now the third edition is published by T&M...To be truthful, I've never self-published anything (other than a novella called Permanence, which was previously published by a small press in the 1990s)...Hope this clears some stuff up.
    Thanks again