At some point fifty or sixty years ago, the murder mystery was invaded and colonized by the Soap Opera virus. I’ll leave literary historians to work out when that happened. All I know for sure is that the books by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are solidly about the crimes being investigated by the detectives. The detectives barely have any personal lives. But today, the crime that is the ostensible mainspring of the action has trouble pushing its way past the writer’s dedicated chronicling of the detective’s personal life.

As Nero Wolfe liked to say, “Pfui.”

In the last Sue Grafton mystery I tried to read, detective Kinsey Milhone (that is to say, Grafton, writing in the first person) devoted page after page to a loving description of, I kid you not, the canapes at a buffet. That was perhaps an extreme case, but it’s not an isolated incident.

This week I tried a new author, Tana French. Her novel Broken Harbor is set in Ireland, and it’s a police procedural whodunit. Aside from one rather glaring unexplained plot problem, the crime part of the story unfolds fairly well. But along the way the reader is expected to wade through page after page about the detective’s kid sister, who is possibly schizophrenic or something — the diagnosis is never clear. There’s also a slab of flashback about how their mother committed suicide. I didn’t even skim-read that part, I just hopped right past it.

Right now I’m about halfway into Jonathan Kellerman’s True Detectives. Kellerman is occasionally good and usually readable. Skimming past the bedroom scenes with amateur sleuth Alex Delaware and his girlfriend is not difficult. But True Detectives is something else again. The main detectives are Moses Reed, a cop on the homicide squad, and Aaron Fox, a black (well, sort of light-skinned black) private eye. They’re half-brothers, and they don’t get along at all. While working on the same case, they aren’t even grown-up enough to share information. We get page after page of family background, including a grade-school playground scene when Moses beat up another boy for making racist insults about Aaron.

And as if that weren’t enough, the book opens with an entire chapter in which Aaron’s father, a cop, is gunned down while Moses’s father, his partner, stands by helplessly.

My theory is that mystery writers peddle this kind of crap because murder is not actually very interesting. Most of the good murder plots were used up by Hammett and Chandler sixty or eighty years ago, leaving only the dregs.

So far, True Detectives is not only larded with thick slices of soap, it’s extraordinarily short on mystery plot. I’m halfway through the book, and all that has been happening so far is that Moses and Aaron are tailing various interesting people around Hollywood and interviewing peripheral characters who probably know nothing of any value. There has been no action at all. Also, no dead bodies.

Two women went missing a couple of years before. Gradually some connections between them are becoming visible, but the connections are, frankly, not very interesting. There’s a Hollywood producer who probably beats his wife, the producer’s creepy son, a movie star who’s a drug addict, a sleazy guy who’s probably a pimp or a drug dealer, one of the missing women’s boyfriends, who seems to be the movie star’s hired gofer — and if you can’t figure out by this point in the book that there was a Hollywood party where bad things happened, you’re not paying attention. Yet after 150 pages, neither detective has even spoken to any of these people! The substance of the mystery, using the word “substance” loosely, finds the detectives tailing these creeps around Hollywood and Malibu and wherever. Also bits of domestic bliss in which Moses hangs out with his girlfriend or Aaron decides what suit to wear today. (Not kidding about that. Aaron is the ultimate clothes horse.)

There is, as yet, not the slightest evidence implicating any of the creeps in either of the disappearances of the young women. And as I said, no bodies. The missing women could saunter into the police station on the very next page (though of course they won’t), and the story would be over. No bodies, but there’s sure a lot of soap.

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2 thoughts on “All the Soap That Fits

  1. I believe that the reason for the most disturbing phenomenon you describe is that they try to “develop the character”. It definitely makes for a dull crime thriller. And btw, the best books of this niche have the criminal as the protagonist. Detectives are much harder to make astonishing.

  2. There are some fine crime novels in which the criminal is the protagonist, but that can be tricky too, because readers are sometimes reluctant to identify with an evil person. Some of my favorite crime novels are Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books. Dortmunder and his buddies are burglars — they’re criminals. But they’re the _good_ bad guys, and they typically find themselves needing to outwit the _bad_ bad guys.

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