Elmore Leonard has said that when writing his novels, he tries not to write the parts that people skip.
Yesterday the mystery novel at the top of my stack was Faye Kellerman’s The Burnt House. I found myself skipping large chunks of it.
It’s a police procedural, but not all police procedurals are so strikingly devoid of action and suspense. Reginald Hill, for instance, is capable of turning out a stylish procedural whodunit. I expect I’ll try another Faye Kellerman novel, but maybe not this week.
The Burnt House starts with a bang, literally — a commuter flight from L.A. to San Jose loses its hydraulics (or something — the details hardly matter, except that it’s not terrorists) within 30 seconds after takeoff and slams into an apartment building. But that’s the only real excitement that Kellerman deploys, and of course it’s over and done with on page 2. The rest of the book sees the cops plodding through a couple of convoluted investigations, a process leavened (if that’s the right word) by lengthy and pointless family scenes in which we visit homicide lieutenant Peter Decker at home. The family scenes are not only lengthy, they’re also happy in a sort of Ozzie & Harriet way, which doesn’t cause sparks to fly off the page. And they generally include food details, as do a couple of the interviews with witnesses; Kellerman goes onto my rapidly growing list of mystery authors who seem obsessed with food.
These writers couldn’t all have grown up reading Rex Stout, could they?
Kellerman is unusual among modern mystery authors in at least one respect: All of her cops are nice, intelligent, conscientious people doing a thoroughly professional job. The reason most authors write about cops who are chronically pissed off, bungling, overworked, or downright crooked is simple: It adds tension to the story. It also makes for more memorable characters. I’m sure the portrayal of police in most mysteries offends real police officers, most of whom are intelligent, conscientious, and thoroughly professional (though perhaps not especially nice). But that’s not the way the mystery genre works.
Peter Decker is not only nice, he’s boring. Harry Bosch would kick Peter Decker’s nuts across the room.
Without giving away too many details of the plot, I can tell you that the foundation of The Burnt House is a coincidence so whopping that it made my head spin. The police, as noted earlier, are investigating two main cases, both stemming from the plane crash but having, otherwise, no relation to one another whatever. One is a fresh homicide, the other is 30 years old, and neither took place on the plane. At the end, a man who is a major suspect in one of the murders turns out to be guilty of the other murder. This is a rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick.
One other niggle, and then I’ll stop. Decker and his wife are observant Jews, but evidently she is more observant than he. At one point they’re having a discussion about fate and such things, and in the course of the dialog Decker uses the word “God,” but when his wife uses the word it’s spelled “G-d.” Now, we know that observant Jews don’t like to say or write the word “God.” That part is okay. The problem I’m having is, this is spoken dialog. So how do you pronounce the word “G-d”? And is this a word that observant Jews would actually use in their conversation, or would they prefer euphemisms such as, perhaps, “the big guy upstairs” or “he who must not be named”? I don’t know. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this point. How do you pronounce “G-d”?