by Bruce TierneyApril 2009
Re-igniting a century-old debate
The creationists and the evolutionists are at it again, this time in the pages of Jane Haddam’s latest Gregor Demarkian novel, Living Witness. Demarkian is an Armenian-American private investigator based in Philadelphia, the retired head of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, and wealthy enough to pick and choose his cases. Summoned by the police chief of rural Snow Hill, Pennsylvania, to investigate the brutal beating of an elderly woman, he is only too happy to oblige—the case will give him a good reason to escape the flurry of activity surrounding his upcoming nuptials. Arriving in Snow Hill, he finds the town split into two camps: a) the liberal, newly arrived, college-educated and well-heeled evolutionists, and b) the insular, conservative and blue-collar creationist “townies.” A short time back, the creationists managed to insert a disclaimer into the curriculum suggesting that evolution is just a theory; the evolutionists, urged on by 91-year-old firebrand Annie Victoria Hadley, who now lies battered in a hospital bed, have filed suit to have the offending disclaimer stricken. The news sharks are circling, sensing a modern-day replay of the infamous Scopes trial. Haddam plays the two sides off one another brilliantly; so well, in fact, that it is difficult to tell where her own creation/evolution sentiments lie. If, after reading Living Witness, you find yourself a fan of Haddam, you’re in luck: there are 23 more Demarkian novels, and not a clinker in the bunch.
Breaking all the rules
Barbara Vine is the nom-de-plume of British mystery doyenne Ruth Rendell. The pseudonym was never intended to obscure her true identity, but it allowed her to write using a different voice, or at least a different inflection. The characters are perhaps deeper, and not so overtly diabolical; quite often they are caught up in circumstances beyond their control, and their reactions precipitate dire consequences. Such is the case with Ivor Tesham, a debonair young Member of Parliament, whose clandestine involvement with a married woman spells disaster in Vine’s latest novel, The Birthday Present. It starts out as an erotic game: Ivor’s girlfriend is to dress suggestively and go for a walk down a certain street at a certain time. She will be abducted and spirited away to Ivor’s den of iniquity for a night of bawdy revelry. That’s the plan, anyway. Before the night is over, though, two people will die needlessly and a third will suffer severe injuries. At first, it appears that Ivor’s involvement will escape notice. No such luck. As witnesses start to come out of the proverbial woodwork, Ivor can sense the imminent crash-and-burn of his well-ordered career, and indeed, his life as he knows it. The Birthday Present is something of a morality tale, a fable about the dangers of playing fast and loose with the social taboos that bring order to our lives. As always, Vine has given us a superbly crafted, elegantly written tale of suspense, the screws tightening with each passing page.
For being the largest mystery reading market in the world, the U.S. can get short shrift when it comes to international authors: often we have to wait for writers to become successful in their home countries before we see their work on our bookstore shelves. Such is the case with British author Susan Hill, whose Simon Serrailler series took more than three years to cross the pond. The third Serrallier mystery, The Risk of Darkness, has lost nothing of its immediacy despite the wait; it is, as I wrote about the first in the series, The Various Haunts of Men, “a cracking good yarn.” Protagonist Serrailler is a police inspector by profession and a successful artist by avocation. Something of an introvert, he makes a vivid impression on the women in his life, but he is very enigmatic in his responses. All that is about to change when Serrailler is strongly drawn to a feisty red-haired Anglican priest (no, Serrailler has not gone to bat for the opposing team; the Anglican church has female priests), the victim of a crazed widower’s obsession with his recently deceased wife. Although action and plot twists abound, The Risk of Darkness remains a character-driven novel. Serrailler is a complicated and not always sympathetic protagonist who struggles with his peccadilloes along with the reader. I summed up my last review of a Hill novel by saying “Fans of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell can rest easy, knowing that those authors’ tradition of fine storytelling will move forward at least one more generation.” The Risk of Darkness does nothing to betray that sentiment.
Mystery of the month
Veteran mystery readers, among whose ranks I count myself, devour each new Walter Mosley book within days of its release. Protagonist Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins took us on a first-person tour of the black communities of South Central L.A. in Devil With a Blue Dress, which begat A Red Death, which begat White Butterfly and Black Betty, and so on, until 2007’s Blonde Faith effectively drew the series to a close. Fast-forward to 2008, and head east until you run out of country, and you will meet Walter Mosley’s new P.I., New Yorker Leonid McGill, in his first outing, The Long Fall. Leonid McGill—it’s a hard name to wrap your brain around, especially when it is attached to a middle-aged black man, but he will elucidate if you corner him on it: “My father was a Communist. He tried to cut me from the same red cloth.”
Once something of a shady character, McGill is in the process of trying to turn over a new leaf. The key word there is “trying”—unfortunately his past seems to dog him at every turn. There is no respite on the home front, either: McGill’s 16-year-old son is in the throes of a very troubling relationship with a borderline suicidal teenage girl, and her difficult circumstances provoke a violent side of his son that McGill has never seen before. The situation is complicated by the fact McGill would never have known about it had he not been cyber-eavesdropping on his son’s email account. How then to confront the boy without ’fessing up to his own sins?
There are similarities between Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill, to be sure: both are black, both are of a similar age (albeit displaced in time), both have families with underlying tensions and issues. Past that, however, the tracks diverge, and McGill has a very different sense of the world, and a very different voice as a storyteller. I haven’t chewed on this long enough to say definitively which one I like better, but I am definitely looking forward to the next installment of the Leonid McGill series.