Many a late night, with my waning energy, I’ve eased into day’s end with crime fiction under my lamp. Once a friend challenged, “You read so much of the genre, why don’t you write one?” What a great idea. So I did, called it Arrival, set it in Atlanta.
Raymond Chandler, the dean of the detective story, once remarked that, in order to advance the plot or produce some drama, mystery writers more often than not, wander into a territory where credibility is thin and shaky. The cop agrees to meet in an abandoned factory without backup, leaving his or her gun in the glove compartment. The normally perceptive interrogator believes everything the obviously lying suspect says. A critically important phone call is allowed to shift over to voicemail and the cell phone turned off… and variations. Some of my preferred detectives are Jazz or Rock-listening, classic-book reading intellectuals, like Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson or John Harvey‘s, interests I suspect aimed more at readers than at reality.
Another characteristic of the genre I’ve noticed is that sooner or later the writer tires of the character and limitations imposed by the who-dunnit form. The reader and publisher however is now in love, respectively, with the character and increasing sales figures so one-a-year is the insistent demand. Sometimes the writer ventures, for relief, into a “serious” novel which predictably disappoints on both counts. More often the yearly novel is produced but with noticeably enhanced credibility problems. The author too has grown accustomed to that bestseller income but enthusiasm is lacking, not a boon for creativity. Some addicts like Ed McBain and Donald Westlake can’t get enough and put out two or three a year, even using pseudonyms. McBain’s lifetime sales were well over $500 million.
Authors I have witnessed undergo this metamorphosis include James Lee Burke, Robert Tanenbaum, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham and even lately I see hints of it in Michael Connelly. I stop reading them when this goes too far (though in Cornwell’s case it was because she dedicated a book to Barbara Bush). Henning Mankell gave his loveable hero an irreversible case of Alzheimers, thus ending that, and now produces infrequent “serious” novels. Leave it to a Swede to recognize when one has enough money. The immensely successful Steig Larsson series ended with his untimely death, transforming his oeuvre into a trilogy. Lisa Marklund has picked up, sort of, where Steig left off and so far is holding up. Her endings though, they tend to slip into that credibility gap. Larsson and Marklund both parlay feminist issues with their strong female leads. Which brings us to Karin Slaughter. That last name has got to be a pseudonym but in any case it’s apropos to the level of violence typical of her books, though in a footnote she apologizes to a fan for lowering the level on this one. She’s got to be joking.
What was Atlanta like in 1974? Slaughter’s latest shoot’em-up, Cop Town: A Novel, will give you a glimpse. I somehow doubt, though, that a woman couldn’t rent an apartment or open a bank account without a male household member co-signing but maybe that was needed to make credible the behavior of one of the book’s characters. The city’s first black mayor was in office, shaking things up, especially in the police department. Slaughter portrays a brutal racism there though that seems from a much earlier era. I hope she exaggerates but I don’t know. She fills APD’s ranks with crude white men right out of the KKK, augmented by a few who are slightly more empathetic and, ah… gay (closeted of course).
To whatever extent she exaggerates, she creates a setting where one cannot but sympathize with her heroines (unless of course one identifies with the lunatic Right, but those folks don’t read do they?). Her heroines are a group navigating a similar gauntlet to the new mayor, the early women recruits to the APD. One is a relative veteran who’s been through the toughening up initiation and now “welcomes” the newest graduate of the academy, a Buckhead yuppie, with little more empathy than the men. She and a small group of women cops have survived the daily and continuing harassment of a fierce sexism the Taliban would sagely approve. They fully expect the Buckhead princess to dropout in short order and the reader can be forgiven for expecting the same, given the outrageous challenges she faces in her first week. But like Larsson’s character, she rises to the occasion after initial humiliations and provides a nice vicarious ride for the reader, who nearly by definition will stand with the values attributed to our heroines, well some of ’em… they are cops. I do believe this is Slaughter’s strongest effort, some of the writing is downright poetry-ish, without the flimsy mystical pretensions of James Lee Burke.