More About Mysteries

In my ongoing search for new mystery authors, I picked up The Vanished Man, by Jeffery Deaver. It’s a New York police procedural — a bit more gritty than I prefer, but not too gruesome. The chief sleuth, Lincoln Rhyme, is sort of like Nero Wolfe on steroids, or reverse steroids. He never leaves the house because he’s a quadriplegic. That’s weird, but every modern mystery series needs a gimmick, right? A quadriplegic is far preferable to cats.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but as I ponder the plot, it occurs to me that the main bad guy is using a convoluted method that only makes sense because he knows he’s a character in a murder mystery. If his goal were to kill the guy he has been hired to kill, he wouldn’t have engaged in all of the convoluted nonsense (several other murders) that preceded the hit. But if he had just gone ahead and done the job he was hired to do, there would have been no novel.

His motivation doesn’t even rise to the level of the killer’s scheme in Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders. The murderer in that story intended to mislead the police by means of a couple of preliminary murders, but in that story there was a pattern that the police were intended to see as simple and linear. In The Vanished Man, the killer’s preliminary killings are not intended ever to be seen as part of a pattern with the intended killing. Quite the contrary.

It makes no sense. It’s a literary conceit that, if you pause to think about it, brings the story crashing to the ground.

I’m liking Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther mysteries better. They’re police procedurals too, but set in Vermont, a state that seems (if we can trust Mayor) to consist entirely of small towns. I like the small-town ambience — it’s a lot more realistic than Cabot Cove — and the characters are okay.

But here again, the story premise may not bear close scrutiny. The Marble Mask begins with a frozen corpse found high on a snow-covered Vermont mountain in mid-winter. The police quickly find that the corpse has been dead (and frozen, intact) for more than 50 years. That’s a dandy hook to get you into the story, but in the end, the explanation makes no sense whatever. The corpse is on the mountain because it has been dropped from a plane (though we never learn who piloted the plane, a detail that Mayor deftly glosses over). Why has it been hauled out of cold storage at this particular moment? Because of a gangland power struggle up in Canada. Except … if the people who brought the corpse into the game wanted to use it to tilt the balance in a gangland power struggle, why drop it from an airplane onto the top of a mountain, where it might never have been found, and almost certainly wouldn’t have been found until spring, if a wandering cross-country skier hadn’t accidentally blundered onto it? And why wouldn’t it occur to the bad guys that the police would soon zero in on a restaurant owner with gangland ties and a large walk-in freezer?

I’m starting to get the impression that today’s mystery writers have entirely run out of plausible ideas. They keep peddling fantastic nonsense because that will keep their readers buying books. The more fantastic the nonsense, the more eagerly readers will lap it up. Those who are inclined to use critical thinking, however (and admittedly, we’re in the minority) are bound to be disappointed.

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