Being on vacation, I wandered into the local library and grabbed a couple of whodunits — Kate Wilhelm’s A Wrongful Death and Aimee & David Thurlo’s Red Mesa. I was up ’til 1:30 this morning finishing A Wrongful Death, and then I sat down after lunch and read all of Red Mesa.
The fact that I now have a headache is probably only coincidental.
Wilhelm’s Barbara Holloway mysteries are low-key, and involve frequent discussion of what the lawyer and her friends are having for dinner. (At a guess, Wilhelm is a foodie.) Red Mesa is a police procedural, and ramps up the violence a little further, though not to a gruesome extent.
About 50 years ago, the mystery novel genre was cross-bred with the soap opera. If you read series mysteries, you know what I’m talking about. In one novel, the sleuth develops a new romantic interest. In the next volume you pick up, the two of them are ex-lovers, and there’s heartbreak. It’s amazingly tedious.
The Thurlos spend page after page detailing policewoman Ella Clah’s care and concern for her infant daughter. The tribal gossip on the Navajo Reservation also gets a workout, even though its connection to the plot is strictly tangential. Wilhelm crams in a tedious subplot about her sleuth’s love life, and makes sure we know a great deal about what winters are like in Eugene, Oregon.
This makes the books faster to read, because you can skim those bits without losing anything essential. But it also leaves me with the suspicion that the authors were padding because their stories were on the thin side. Raymond Chandler’s and Ross MacDonald’s detectives didn’t have nosy downstairs neighbors (Sara Paretsky), gay sidekicks and a fishpond (Jonathan Kellerman), a friend who bathes dogs for a living (Lawrence Block), or orchid farms on the roof (Rex Stout). They just waded in and solved the case. And I say that as an admirer of all four of those writers.
The climax in which the sleuth faces down the villain in single-handed combat is an awful but apparently unavoidable cliche. It can be amusing to watch the contortions the author goes through to prevent a sleuth who is also a police officer from getting on the radio and calling for backup. Sometimes the radio malfunctions, or is stolen; sometimes the cop who gets the radio call turns out to be one of the villains; sometimes the cop is simply in too much of a hurry to rescue Little Nell to have time to grab the radio. It’s always some damn thing.
Other plot elements are slightly less predictable. In a curious coincidence (SPOILER ALERT!), in both of the books named above, the supposedly murdered person later turns up very much alive. The corpse turns out to be someone else.
Writing mysteries is probably fun, but I’m such a stickler for accuracy that the need to understand every detail of police and legal procedure would drive me nuts. I admire writers who can pull it off, though. Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, for instance — brilliant book.