Light Reading

Bingeing on reading mysteries. Not quite ready yet to think seriously about starting to write a new book of my own, and even if I were thinking about it I wouldn’t be spilling the details here. So I’m filling time. Maybe priming the pump. Maybe.

Spoiler alert: I will be mentioning plot details about mysteries.

I’ve complained before in this space about P. D. James. She writes beautifully, and the plot of A Taste for Death is pretty good, though I’m still not sure why Berowne went back to the vestry a second time, the business of the new will is a rabbit pulled out of a hat, and the motive for Diane’s death was super-flabby. To get that far, I had to skim past great wodges of irrelevant stuff. James is fascinated by architecture. The word “balustrade” is flung at the reader more than twice, and there are whole pages of lovingly detailed room description, none of which advances the story by a millimeter.

Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl is pretty good. Hiaasen has a wry sense of humor and a sharp eye for contemporary American culture. I could never write like that, but it’s fine entertainment. Sometimes his bad guys reform (this happens to Buck in Razor Girl), but more often they meet terrible ends. Within Hiaasen’s framework of absurdity, the terrible ends are always fun, and they do make sense. No more need be said about that.

Jonathan Kellerman I gave up on a number of years ago. He wrote a novel (I forget which one) in which he displayed a huge moral blind spot with respect to some extra-judicial murders by the Israeli Secret Police. I found that offensive.

But this week I wanted something to read, and my local library lends ebooks, so I can borrow books and read them on my iPad without venturing out of the house — a perfect pandemic pastime. Not knowing offhand what other author to search for, I thought I’d give Kellerman a fresh try.

He writes well. Police procedural whodunits, much tighter writing than Michael Connelly. Characters shallow but entertaining. The trouble is, his murder plots are whiffy. The endings make no sense!

The Museum of Desire opens with a brutal crime scene in which four murder victims have been arranged in a sort of tableau in a limousine. After a lot of back-and-forth, it is discovered that the tableau mirrors an obscure 16th-century Italian painting. (I have no idea whether the painting is genuine or whether he made it up.) Turns out the killers have some connection with paintings pilfered by the Nazis. That was 75 years ago, but Kellerman is still milking the Nazis as villains. Anyway, the killers charitably commit suicide before they can be questioned. As a result, the question of why they should have gone to such elaborate trouble to stage the gruesome limousine tableau is never explained. It was a revenge killing, but surely they could have gotten revenge on the important guy much more safely without involving the other three victims, who were innocent of any wrongdoing or indeed any connection with the killers, in order to make an artistic reference that nobody, least of all the police, was ever going to notice. Also, the guy that they were getting the revenge on — the killers are a married couple, and what pissed the woman off was something to do with the guy’s sexual habits. Why her husband should have cooperated in helping kill the guy when the guy’s transgression had to do with fucking the wife, we will never know, because they committed suicide before they could be asked.

Kellerman plainly hopes you won’t notice any of that. The killers have been identified — and conveniently, there is no messy trial to go through. (The messy trials are, by the way, what makes Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer books so good.)

Today I checked out Kellerman’s The Wedding Guest. In the opening, a high-budget wedding reception comes crashing to a halt when one of the bride’s-maids finds a dead woman in a restroom stall. It’s a shocking opening; Kellerman does shocking openings very nicely. The woman has evidently crashed the reception. Nobody in either the bride’s or the groom’s family has a clue who she is. Following a trail of breadcrumb clues, Kellerman’s sleuths Milo and Alex are led to a large student dormitory, where a maintenance man has just OD’d in the basement. Perusing the wedding photos, they find one photo that includes both the dead woman and the maintenance man. The plot thickens!

When they finally figure out who owns the student housing, they bust into a Hollywood penthouse barely in time to save the life of the psycho killer spoiled rich guy’s next victim. And of course the killer falls over a balcony railing and plummets 24 floors to his death. Again, there’s no messy trial to be trudged through. The difficulty, which again is likely to escape many of Kellerman’s readers, is that we are never given a word of explanation about why the guy chose to kill the woman in a restroom stall at a wedding reception. We don’t even know why the woman was there! The maintenance man was in the photo, but he wasn’t the killer. There’s no explanation of what he was doing at the reception, and we’re never told about any photos of the actual killer appearing at the reception. In fact, we’re told that he was invited to the reception but turned down the invitation. Doing a murder there would have been so risky that even an intelligent and arrogant psychopath would certainly have hesitated. And the dead woman’s old connection to the location of the reception (a venue that was rented for the occasion) meant, in the end, absolutely nothing. It was a coincidence.

In sum, Kellerman is just a sloppy writer. He has, I’m sure, a huge fan base and a happy publisher. Neither the publisher nor his agent is going to pull him aside and say, “Jon, we need to talk.”

Don’t be like Jon. If you’re going to write a novel, please — make sure your plot actually makes sense, and that you trouble to explain it to your readers.

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