Monday, October 25, 2010

(No.121) American crime fiction

Three of my favourite American wrtiers have recently come out with new novels.

Carl Hiaasen, Florida-born and a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald, has built a huge following for his novels set in Florida. They incorporate sharp and effective commentary about the destruction of Florida's natural habitat by developers and their political allies. Star Island (Knopf, 2010) follows Cherry Pye, a young female pop star on her way to being a 'has been', trying to make a comeback. She has a double who appears in public for her when she is too wasted to function. A problem arises when Cherry's double is mistakenly kidnapped by an obsessed celebrity paparazzi. She gets help from a half-crazed ex-governor of Florida.

This latest novel is not Hiaasen's best but it is better than many of the bestsellers out there and well worth reading for pleasure.

Archer Mayor lives in Vermont and works as an investigator for the state's chief medical officer as well as being a deputy sheriff. He has written more than 20 novels. His series featuring a cast of Vermont police characters led by Joe Gunther are often referred to as 'police procedurals'. I think that makes a novel sound formulaic, even dull. Mayor's novels are not. His latest, Red Herring (Minotaur, 2010), again features Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation.

It places more emphasis on cutting edge forensic technology than some readers like me may care for but he knows how to use Gunther to advance an interesting plot. While Mayor is not in the same league of crime novelists as the Scot Ian Rankin, most who write in this genre are not. I have followed the Joe Gunther novels for years with considerable enjoyment.

Michael Connelly has for some years written novels featuring L.A. police detective Harry Bosch. More recently he created another series character: criminal defence lawyer Mickey Haller. In his latest novel, The Reversal (Little Brown,2010), Connelly has the two working together on the retrial of a convicted child murderer for which Haller has been persuaded by the LA district attorney to act as an independent prosecutor. The novel has an interesting plot and several surprises.

Donald Westlake died nearly 2 years ago at the age of 75, one of the most highly regarded of American crime/mystery writers with output and longevity combined with quality perhaps rivaled in the American crime genre only by Elmore Leonard. He was an even more prolific novelist than many of his readers knew since he also wrote under pseudonyms (at least 16) including Richard Stark. It was as Stark that he created as the central character of a series of novels a professional criminal named Parker, an unsympathetic individual but a sociopath not a psychopath. In other words he was violent when he saw a reason to be but not gratuitously.

From 1962 until 1974 Stark [Westlake] wrote 16 Parker novels. For years thereafter there were no more and then in 1997 he returned to writing Parker stories. The Parker novels are spare noir crime fiction and well plotted. If you like them you like them quite a bit. And I do. All the Parker novels by Richard Stark are being republished in softcover format by the University of Chicago Press (2010) and are in bookstores now. Try Deadly Edge, The Green Eagle Score, The Sour Lemon Score or The Black Ice Score.

Another long series of excellent American crime novels featured private detective Lew Archer. The series was written over several decades by Kenneth Millar from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario who, living in the U.S. where he had been born, wrote under the name of Ross Macdonald. His California location provided apt settings for his novels written beginning in the mid-1940s; he died in 1983.

Some critics regard Macdonald as the literary successor in crime fiction to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I can see why although I am not sure that it is an appropriate category for him. His two dozen novels have been republished in soft cover by Vantage and provide the reader with many hours of reading pleasure. Taste this crime fiction flavour by reading The Goodbye Look or The Way Some People Die or The Barbarous Coast.


Alastair Rickard