Vladimir's list of the greatest mysteries ever written (or that he's read, anyway). Additionally, we'll be posting a few short stories and serializations by Vladimir and other authors! Weigh in with your comments, agreements, and disagreements!
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on October 3, 2019 at 9:35 PM|
Arthur Maling, the author of 1980’s winner, The Rheingold Route, is a difficult author for whom to collect biographical background. Various sources I consulted agreed in giving the following information: he was born into a famous shoe family, Maling Brothers, he went to Harvard, he served in the Navy during World War II, and went back to running Maling Brothers after (or at the same time as) writing his books. I finally found a source with more interesting information about him, but that turned out to be a different mystery blog that is also reviewing the Edgar winners, but faster. I’ll have more to say about that column in my next posting, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to benefit from their research.
The book was equally obscure – like some other past winners, such as The Lingala Code, I could only get my hands on a used copy, which again turned out to be an old library’s copy. The Fairfax County Public Library, to be specific. Patrick Henry Branch.
What the Rheingold Route is, is a particular route from London to Switzerland through the Netherlands using a train called the Rheingold Express. A shady lawyer in London named Garwood simultaneously sets two men in motion along this route. He hires a man named John Cochrane to smuggle three hundred thousand pounds from London to Switzerland; he tells Cochrane that these funds belong to a woman who is soon to die and whose son (Garwood’s nephew) hopes to get the funds early and avoid estate taxes. Garwood also hires another shady character named Kenneth O’Rourke to intercept Cochrane and recover the money before Cochrane gets there. To keep things tidy, he coerces Cochrane to using the Rheingold Route and it becomes obvious to us that this is to make things easy for O’Rourke. Why Garwood is setting two contradictory schemes in motion is part of the mystery, though most readers won’t be very surprised at the reason.
John Cochrane is an expert smuggler who joined the smuggling game after a personal tragedy that saps his will to live. You might wonder if it was just an unfortunate coincidence that Maling’s hero has the same name as O. J. Simpson’s lawyer – after all, the O. J. trial was in the 90s and The Rheingold Route was published in 1979. But the real-world Johnny Cochran had already defended Lenny Bruce by 1979 so presumably was in the news. What bothers me more about Maling’s Cochran is that he is another in a recurring series of “troubled” protagonists who the reader is supposed to find intriguing because of their flaws and then their flaws are strenuously explained away to return their character to perfect plainness. Cochrane’s quickly vanishing flaw is first hinted at on p. 20, when we learn that the death of someone named Stephanie sent Cochrane into a spiral that left him unemployable and unable to love – and thus susceptible to join the high-risk and ethics-free world of smuggling. By p. 80 (of 276) he has blurted out to a date with whom he has been set up that Stephanie was his daughter and he killed her. Four pages later, it is revealed that Cochrane blames himself for Stephanie’s death because he kidnapped her while he had custody and she died of meningitis because they couldn’t get to a hospital in time. Then he’s over it and can fall in love and has something to live for. Kidnapping your own child is a real crime but Maling toils tirelessly to make it clear to the reader that this didn’t really cause Stephanie’s death and Cochrane is really a swell guy. The crime does serve the purpose of seemingly preventing Cochrane from returning to anything like his old life.
Meanwhile, his antagonist O’Rourke is quite amoral and has been reassured by Garwood that the death of his quarry is not a deal-breaker. O’Rourke is comically racist, vain, and xenophobic. A big deal is also made of the fact that he is bisexual – to me 1979 is very late in the history of mystery for sexual orientation to still be part of a villain’s profile. Maybe Maling was only trying to demonstrate that O’Rourke is so vain that he can not imagine anyone of any sex or orientation not finding him irresistible.
So a cat and mouse ensues between Cochrane and O’Rourke which actually I started to find more interesting when it got into the technicalities of travel. The European scenery and milieu was also surprisingly interesting and partly made up for the unconvincing characters.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on August 5, 2019 at 10:00 PM|
Since I’ve stated that I consider Eye of the Needle to surpass most of the other Edgar winners, you can guess that the bar for another work to beat it is a very high bar. A very popular mystery work published the same year as Eye of the Needle (1978) is John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey. I have not read that one yet but I have read a different anthology with some of the same stories and one of the stand-alone novels. They are enjoyable but I did not feel magic. In their Top 100 Mystery vote, the Mystery Writers of America rated Rumpole of the Bailey #26 – and Eye of the Needle #25. They also voted for another 1978 mystery, Ross Thomas’ Chinaman’s Chance (#85). Thomas will win an Edgar years later for Briar Patch.
I did read John D MacDonald’s The Empty Copper Sea, which was excellent, but again not excellent enough to beat Eye of the Needle. Elmore Leonard and Tony Hillerman are also represented that year, by The Switch (which I have read and enjoyed) and Listening Woman (I haven’t read that one). Not a bad supporting cast for the year but as far as I’m concerned, Eye of the Needle is still your winner.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on July 17, 2019 at 11:50 AM|
So, the major twist in The Eye of the Needle is very well done. Faber, the Nazi assassin, is busy following his orders (the orders he received from the colleague he then murdered) to gather intelligence about an alarming Allied troop buildup in Kent and environs. What he discovers to his astonishment is that the military buildup is fake, mostly featuring plywood cutouts of planes designed to fool Nazi spy planes flying overhead. The region in question is convenient to the nearest part of France, Calais, so Faber realizes that if there is not really a buildup to attack Calais, that the Allies must have a serious attack force somewhere else. Faber knows that if he doesn’t alert Nazi high command, the Nazi army will be wasting at least some of its defensive strength at the wrong place.
Most readers in 1978 probably knew that we did have a different attack site planned – Normandy, about a four hour drive from Calais. What is somewhat better known now but few people knew in 1978 was that the fake army across from Calais really existed, and was part of an extensive and brilliant network of tricks to try to attain an element of surprise when Nazi-occupied Europe was to be attacked. Normandy was known to the Nazis to be another plausible attack site, but the Allies successfully induced the Nazi High Command to dilute their defensive forces among several suspected targets, including Calais, and to consider the Normandy attack to be a possible distraction from the real event. This web of trickery included double agents, fake radio chatter, convincing the Nazis that Patton was in charge of the Calais invading force, and dead bodies planted with bogus papers. I had somehow gotten the impression that Ian Fleming had been involved in some of this planning but I can’t find confirmation of that. But actor David Niven, star of Around the World in 80 Days, was involved in recruiting another British actor who resembled General Montgomery to hang around different locations in an attempt to convince the Nazis that no invasion could be imminent (since the faux-Montgomery was nowhere near France).
So, if someone had gotten the news to Berlin that there was no possibility of attack from Kent, and had managed to convince them, D-Day could have gone very differently. And Faber has a roll of pictures. He heads to the rendezvous point where he is to meet his submarine. And that landing point is near the remote Scottish island where Lucy and David Rose and their toddler have taken shelter from the war and David’s bitter disappointment at not being involved. During a ridiculously cinematic storm, Faber ingratiates himself with the family, and before long he and Lucy are lovers. Not much longer after that, Lucy realizes who he is and that he must be stopped. In one of the most successful endless chase sequences in the history of literature, they basically chase each other around the island to stop Faber from meeting the submarine. From afar, Godliman and his team do surprisingly well at figuring out where Faber it is, but since Follett is pulling the strings, there isn’t much Godliman can do to help Lucy for most of her plight.
In a previous installment, I gave my top 10 Edgar-winning novels from the first 25 years. The Eye of the Needle was the 26th Edgar winner and at this point I would put it somewhere between 3rd and 6th. It is a terrific read, outstanding research and plausibility, and despite Lucy being written by a man basically creating the woman of his dreams, she comes alive as a real person, as does Faber. Godliman is somewhat less generously characterized, and the rest are just props.
Two flaws. The first is a recurring one. Once again, an author wants his principle protagonist to be perceived as a flawed character, to whom the readers with their own flaws can relate and root for them to overcome their past. Lucy has a torrid affair with Faber with her paralyzed husband basically in the next room. This does make their later quest to kill each other even more interesting. But Follett, like many other authors before and after (and one director of sci-fi blockbusters that you may be able to think of), can’t leave his creation alone and goes back to provide so many justifications for her behavior that it is hard to see the flaws again. He goes to great pains to describe how her paralyzed husband is capable to marital relations, but he is just too bitter and resentful and treats Lucy cruelly. Every reader and author may have a different view on marital fidelity and if there is ever a justification for breaking it. But from an authorial standpoint, it is inexcusable. Either make the character flawed or don’t. It was your decision to make her flawed so don’t then change your mind – it’s a bait and switch and another sign of an author who is dangerously in love with his character. I see this issue so often that it needs a name – I am going to call it the “Shameless Shame” problem.
Next is the “Good Nazi” problem. As I said, Follett seems to have as much of a bromantic crush on Faber as the Pygmalionic crush he has on Lucy. He repeatedly emphasizes that Faber doesn’t believe in the Nazi cause or persecution of Jews and that he finds Hitler and most of his circle disgusting. Faber is fighting for the Fatherland. When we are treated to glimpses of Hitler’s circle strategizing over the War (which is usually done to create excuses for highly-placed historical characters to praise Faber), likewise there seem to be “good Nazis” and “bad Nazis”. Whether it makes sense morally to say that someone can be a good soldier in a bad cause is clearly a moral question of the highest importance, and literature should definitely explore it. But Follett doesn’t explore it – the book just assumes it. Then there is a coda set in 1970 when the biggest conflict between England and Germany is a soccer game and everyone is allies again. The first time I read The Eye of the Needle, and the most recent time, I was baffled and betrayed by this coda, which basically seems to cut the rug out of the stakes that engaged the reader through the book. This finale also shows that Lucy was married off to one of her rescuers, which is nice, but I didn’t and don’t see the point of hooking the reader on a tiny concentrated conflict, convincing us that the entire War depends on it, and then seemingly emphasizing that it was just a blip. After all, England and France were mortal enemies for hundreds of years but then teamed up to defeat Hitler (and the Kaiser before them), but that isn’t a good thing to cheer up Joan of Arc as she approaches the stake.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on June 21, 2019 at 8:50 AM|
I’ve mentioned that Dick Francis’ Forfeit is the earliest Edgar winner I am sure I had already read before the current exercise of reading them all in order. 1979’s The Eye of the Needle is the first Edgar Winner that I read when it was new. It was a bestseller and a phenomenon in 1978 and very quickly became a hit movie with Donald Sutherland as the title character, the enigmatic Nazi assassin nicknamed “The Needle.” (As mentioned previously, Sutherland named his son, Kiefer, after the screenwriter friend of his who coincidentally wrote 1973’s Edgar Winner, The Lingala Code).
While to thriller fans in the late 70s Ken Follett seemed to come out of nowhere (the back cover even describes him as "bursting on the scene"), and Follett was only 30 when his most successful book was published, he had actually “labored in the vineyard” for a long time since graduating from University College, London in 1970. He wrote 11 novels under 4 different pseudonyms before The Eye of the Needle, including one that probably represents a particularly galling assignment for an inspiring novelist – writing a novelization of someone else’s movie. Once he hit big, he kept his own name and has churned out a fairly consistent string of best-sellers, including historical novels as well as thrillers and mysteries.
The Eye of the Needle seems to owe something to The Day of the Jackal. Like that earlier Edgar winner, it shifts perspective regularly between an expert assassin and the seemingly-overmatched authorities trying to stop him. We first get to know the assassin as Faber – the quest to determine his real name is a major goal of the authorities. Percival Godliman is a widowed Oxford scholar pulled out of his contented life as a Don to return to his past as a spy catcher. There is a third side of the triangle – Lucy Rose is a young Briton who lives on a remote Scottish island with her bitter husband, who has been paralyzed by a car accident before he could start his career in the RAF. Lucy is meant to be an empowered female figure, which can be challenging for a male writer. The fact that it is extremely difficult to figure out her last name is one signal – Faber had already had three names by the time you know Lucy’s full name. Follett also delights in describing her in situations that would seem gratuitous to modern sensibilities and were certainly signs of poor writing even in 1979. Nonetheless, Lucy Rose has an extremely important role to play when Faber washes up on her island.
As with The Day of the Jackal, the author seems a little bit too in love with his assassin. Faber is just too cool – at one point the Nazis promote him twice in absentia, and even cooler, he doesn’t care! He has no interest in hatred of Jews or other persecuted groups and he finds Nazi leadership disgusting and ridiculous – he does what he does for love of the Fatherland. Also, all women find him irresistible, including his landlady, whom he murders in the memorable first chapter when she ruins his deep cover as an English drifter. He receives some orders from a Nazi colleague who he also murders, assuming he will spill secrets to the British if captured, and we certainly have abundant reason to want Faber caught before he acquires some information that triples the stakes.
As with the weakness of the Day of the Jackal, so the strengths. The historical research seems impeccable or if it isn’t, it is certainly convincing, and a slice of World War II is vividly portrayed. The mixing of fictional and historical events is seamless and brilliantly accomplished. And boy do the pages turn.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on May 16, 2019 at 7:00 AM|
I previously recapped and ranked after reviewing the first dozen Edgar Winners, as of 1965, coming up with The Spy who Came in from the Cold as #1. It still is the best so far of the first 25. But we have a new #2, as far as I am concerned, with the classic translated from the Swedish, The Laughing Policeman. The year refers to the year of the award, not the year of publication. Tell me if you disagree.
#1. The Spy who Came in from the Cold – John LeCarre (1965)
#2. The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1971)
#3. Beat not the Bones – Margaret Jay (1954)
#4. The Light of Day – Eric Ambler (1964)
#5. Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsyth (1972)
#6. The Quiller Memorandum – Adam Hall (1966)
#7. Catch me, Kill me – William Hallahan (1978)
#8. The Eighth Circle – Stanley Ellin (1959)
#9. Gideon’s Fire – J. J. Marric (1961)
#10. Beast in View – Margaret Millar (1956)
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on April 19, 2019 at 4:45 PM|
I hereby pose a philosophical question about well-plotted mysteries. If on your first read you were bowled over by the fiendishness of the plotting, but thinking back can’t reconstruct the machinery of the plot, is it really fiendishly constructed? Nobody really knows their own memory, but it sure seems to me that I have a good memory for some plots. I never had to re-read Murder on the Orient Express or The Hound of the Baskervilles to remind myself what was going on, or The Name of the Rose. I did get a little vague on the Spy who Came in from the Cold, though, and had to refresh my memory about the various crosses and double-crosses. Does this prove that the Spy was a more complex plot than And Then There were None? As I may have said before, perhaps this is part of being entertained, that the reader is swept up in a sort of impressionistic work of art that does not hold together if analyzed scientifically.
For Catch me: Kill me, I re-read a good chunk of the book to try to sort out the twists but had particular trouble with one. I mentioned in the spoiler-free version that the seeming core of the mystery is a Russian poet, Boris Kotlikoff, defecting but then being kidnapped on the streets of New York by the KGB. Immigrations authority Ben Leary wants to figure out why. CIA heavy Gus Geller wants the poet back, and hires a down-and-out ex-agent named Charlie Brewer to figure out where Kotlikoff is and get him back. Brewer is given no team and scarcely any resources, so he ends up working with an ex-acrobat who happens to live in his building and also happens to be an unreliable drunk.
Despite seemingly being on the same side, nationally and in terms of Kotlikoff’s welfare, Geller doesn’t want Leary involved and in fact threatens his life. So Geller wants Kotlikoff out without anyone besides him knowing why Kotlikoff, a seemingly harmless and barely political poet, was even in.
Leary manages to foil Geller’s thugs once on his own and later once on a tip that comes just in time and also costs his informant his life. Using every clue he can in Kotlikoff’s writings, he pieces together Kotlikoff’s role in a sort of defector pipeline that has as its next target the Soviet Union’s top nuclear scientist, an old friend. The Soviets apparently believe that the scientist will be willing to trade himself for the poet once he comes to light, or that the Americans will be willing to make the trade. I couldn’t reconstruct why the reader is then conflicted by the plan to rescue Kotlikoff – on re-reading, it seems like we would be happy with both. But it was convincing at the time. There are hints that the Soviets will be tempted to engage in nuclear threats to get the scientist back – but they don’t get the scientist back and there is no nuclear war in 1977.
Certainly, the Geller angle leads us to regard Brewer’s rescue suspiciously, because Leary learns that his CIA colleague has created an assassins ring that murders defectors from the inside to spare the KGB the trouble – for a fee. Presumably, if the Soviets lose Kotlikoff, they will have to become customers again. Leary gets close enough to the scientist to talk to him and turn him in if he wants to, but the scientist successfully convinces him not to do so. But Leary does manage to break the Geller ring with a few pages left and from that point we can root for Brewer with a clear conscience – and the part where they get the guy out of his place of captivity is boffo.
Other than the slow start and the not-fully-coherent (or at least not-fully-memorable) plot, another of my criticisms would be gratuitous torture. I can think of some thrillers where torture was an element with a point to the plot (such as Quiller’s resisting interrogation by his encyclopedic knowledge of truth sera) and others where it seems a little masochistic (such as some of the Dick Francis mysteries). Usually torture as a plot device demonstrates the ruthlessness and inhumanity of the villains or the extremely high stakes, which are both very well established by the time the torture appears in Catch me: Kill me. It seems that it may exist to create a little bit more suspense: if the informant cracked and tells Geller’s thugs what he knows, they are going to get the scientist anyway. But if that was the purpose of it, Hallahan didn’t effectively sell it.
Minor flaws aside, this was a very good one that deserves more readers.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on April 3, 2019 at 11:15 PM|
Another entry in the increasingly trite category of spy novels that also make points about the corruption of the spy game, where there are no good guys, only sides. Ben Leary works for Immigration and becomes involved in the case of a Soviet poet kidnapped off the streets of New York, ostensibly by the KGB. While Leary tries to figure out why, his chapters alternate with ones featuring Charlie Brewer, a retired CIA agent living in a place akin to a YMCA and reduced to hustling pool with drunks as his only friends. Someone wanting Leary off the case hires Brewer to get the poet back, an impossible task that needs to start with the equally impossible task of determining where he is.
They are both interesting characters and the alternating viewpoints is done well. The whole alternating viewpoints tactic does turn into a bit of a cliché as spy novels progress through the 70s and 80s – among Edgar winners, it works successfully in The Eye of the Needle and less so in The Rheingold Route, a couple more in the genre that are coming our way. Though the investigation on Leary’s part and the plotting on Brewer’s part progress at a slow pace, there are some hints that this will be a tighter tale than it might seem. For example, one of my least favorite clichés is the troubled hero with a dark secret in his past that the author then proceeds to explain away so strenuously as to make it pointless. Charlie, for his part, has killed in the line of duty with uncertain authorization. But Hallahan resists the temptation to justify it or even revisit it in a flashback.
The other thing that sustains the interest is that the mystery element, though at first seeming to be a technicality, builds to real suspense. The kidnapped defector is not a protestor or agitator; his poems do not insult the Politburo or encourage overthrow of the Soviet Union. There appears to be no sensible reason why the KGB would be determined to get him back. It seems like a simple loose end but the more Leary investigates, the stranger it comes to seem, and it becomes very clear that some elements seemingly on the same side don’t want it clarified.
Then suddenly, after the protracted setup, it becomes a page-turner. There is a very funny comedy relief scene with a fence who really likes his Italian food, and on the other side of this scene Brewer and Leary have breakthroughs in their respective pursuits and we suddenly see that they can’t both succeed – for the one to accomplish his task will (it appears) ruin the other. Hallahan has so successfully made both characters likeable that I was caught up in how this dilemma will resolve.
William H. Hallahan was relatively obscure for an Edgar winner –he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (as of this writing). A little more research reveals that we just lost him a few months ago – he joins Jane Langton and Brian Garfield as mystery greats lost in 2018. Turns out Hallahan was his real name – he was a WWII veteran and ad executive who got all of his degrees from Temple University in Philadelphia (even his high school diploma, seemingly after dropping out of High School to join the Navy.) He published his first novel at 45 and crafted nine novels altogether as well as some well-received nonfiction.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on March 12, 2019 at 10:10 PM|
1976 was not as strong a year for mysteries as 1975, but it wasn’t weak enough for me to endorse the award to the disappointing and overrated Promised Land. Other notable mysteries of 1975 include one of Agatha Christie’s very last novels, Sleeping Murder, and Dick Francis’ In the Frame. I read both and about all that I can remember is that Miss Marple was in one and a guy who painted horses was in the other. Neither would go in my Top 10 for that author. William F Buckley’s Saving the Queen launched a whole series that is fairly popular, though I prefer the works of the next generation by William’s son Christopher. Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil is worthy of consideration as well.
As of 1976, the great Elmore Leonard was 12 books into his career with Swag, a tragicomic tale of a car salesman who falls into a life of crime and finds that he is good at it. We are seven years before the incredible run that Elmore Leonard enjoyed between 1982’s Cat Chaser and 2000’s Pagan Babies, including masterpieces such as LaBrava (which won the Edgar), Pronto, Get Shorty and Maximum Bob. I know I think Pagan Babies is the best and it is hard to put the rest of Leonard’s greatest in order. But in some ways, it is Swag that shows Leonard starting to turn in a new direction, from the cowboy genre and the relatively linear crime novels like City Primeval or the ones with one moral twist like 52 Pickup to the classic Elmore Leonard with multiple colorful villains, complex and unsaintly heroes, meticulously described violence and downbeat twists. Some of Elmore’s greats came out in years with far more competition. For example, Maximum Bob came out in 1991, as did The Firm, The Secret Pilgrim, American Psycho, and Time’s Arrow. Swag is a strong book in a weak year and is my mystery of the year for 1976.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on February 10, 2019 at 10:50 PM|
Promised Land, the 1977 Edgar winner, is one of the most baffling mysteries I have ever encountered. I don’t mean the events of the book itself, which almost entirely lacked mystery, suspense, or even interest. A man contacts a Boston detective who is so preoccupied with what he is going to eat and drink and what machines he is going to use on his next workout that he can barely pay attention to the case. When the detective follows up with the client at his house, he recognizes a heavy who was a boxer back when he, the detective, was a boxer, because, after all, Boston is a small town and everyone knows everyone. This tells the detective that the client has worse problems than a missing wife, but the client won’t say anything about that. So the detective looks through the wife’s phone bills, discovers she had called a number in New Bedford several times, goes there, and finds her immediately. Then the detective deals with the trouble that the client didn’t want to tell him about.
The baffling part is why this novel won an Edgar award, or even why it sold any copies. In fact, more than that, it helped make Spenser into one of the most beloved American detective characters, and as I noted in the previous post, because the basis of the pilot for the Spenser TV series with Robert Urich and Avery Brooks (which itself engendered at least one spinoff). If you go to the mystery section of the bookstore, you will see that Spenser for Hire is one of the rare series where, after the creator’s death, other writers feel compelled to continue his adventures (“Robert B Parker’s Spenser for Hire in Joe Johnston’s Deadly Chowder.”) Yet, I have now read two of the Spenser books and found them both to be disappointments.
As with the Joe Leaphorn series by Tony Hillerman, I had read one entry in the series already, disliked it, and would probably never tried it again if I wasn’t reading every Edgar winner. The first time this happened, it was a lucky second chance, because Dance Hall for the Dead was far better than The Thief of Time and I was happy to be led to a better entry in Tony Hillerman’s work. I disliked Mortal Stakes, the first Spenser book I read, but this time around the second one simply confirmed my dislike of the writing and detecting style.
Certainly, I want to like them. The late Robert B Parker seemed like a likeable author and I wished him well. He became a best-selling author while he was a literature professor, and knowing a lot of professors who would like to publish best-selling novels, I will always wish them well. I will admit that Spenser’s wisecracks are often funny, and he does sometimes make amusing observations about culture and drop off-kilter allusions to literary figures (Bartleby the Scrivener is amusingly name-checked in this one).
Yet, the mystery is nothing. As you can see from my synopsis, essentially no detection takes place. The surface mystery is solved by looking at phone bills and the secondary mystery is solved by coincidence. Technically, there really isn’t any mystery – it is more of a suspense situation where Spenser tries to help his client and the client’s wife, both of whom find themselves in terrible fixes. To really explain why this book leaves me cold, I will need to go into what I hate about the ending and that will have to await the spoiler-full entry.
But before going there, let me say a little about the annoying tics in Parker’s writing, where he feels compelled to tell us everything that Spenser eats, drinks, the roads he takes to his destinations, and how he works out. I wondered if my memory was playing tricks on me so I went back through the book and counted – there are genuinely at least 11 spots in the book where we are told what Spenser is eating and/or cooking. I’m not counting when he just mentions donuts; usually it is in great detail. At least at one point when the reader should be getting nervous about the characters, Parker goes 55 pages between describing what Spenser is cooking. Three different times, he mentions the roads Spenser takes to get to a destination. I forgot to count the number of times we are told what Spenser’s girlfriend is reading, but it’s a lot.
To mention one more irritating trope that doesn’t involve a spoiler – almost all of Spenser’s successes involve his skill at fighting. The enforcer that he sees with his client who used to box with him is the famous Hawk, the one who gets the spinoff TV show. Hawk could simply intimidate Spenser and Spenser admits that Hawk is the one person he knows who is tougher than him, but Hawk never does so because he knows from experience that Spenser is so tough that it would be pointless. Spenser does beat up a young punk half his age, one of Hawk’s under-goons, and a radical woman friend of the runaway wife who thought she could beat him because of her martial arts skills. As with the food and the books and the routes, the fights are described in loving detail. This is an annoying trope in the Travis McGee and Lew Archer novels, too, but the Spenser books seem to take it to another extreme, and in most of the Travis McGee and Lew Archer books the detective also runs into someone tougher. Travis McGee and Lew Archer always end up solving the case by doggedly pursuing a flimsy lead that was too desperate-looking for someone else to care about, and by making connections between obscure clues. These qualities make the recurring near-invincibility of fighting less annoying. In Promised Land, it is as though someone wanted the invincible tough guy material in its purest form, without any impurities introduced by suspense, actual detection, or time taken to reflect on any actual moral ambiguities.
And that is all what I can tell you without a spoiler, as to why I found Promised Land to be extremely overrated.
|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on January 19, 2019 at 10:55 AM|
So, I basically consider Hopscotch to be a fun and skillful read, but is it a worthy entry in the same gallery of masterpieces as The Light of Day and The Spy who came in from the Cold? I have never once recommended it to a friend, for example, as I do repetitively with An Instance of the Fingerpost and Polar Star. But a look at the field in its year of publication, 1975, shows a crowded field of solid mysteries with not quite a case to overturn the actual winner.
In their Top 100, The Mystery Writers of America flagged four of 1975’s mysteries. Three I haven’t read and know little about: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, and Where are the Children, by Mary Higgins Clark. The estimable Ms Clark is almost definitely the only author who will be mentioned in this column whom I have personally met, so I should give her extra points, but I just don’t know enough about these novels. The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh has certainly had a great influence in the depiction of complex police lives and careers. The fourth Top 100 is the one I have read and would designate as the “should have won” Edgar if I was truly taking each year and each novel independently. This is John D MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky. But I already chose a John D over the official winner in a past year.
Other strong contenders are Agatha Christie’s Curtain, Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, and Thomas Harris’ Black Sunday. Crichton has had one already, Curtain isn’t one of Dame Agatha’s best, and I think we will need to look hard at Thomas Harris in a few years for his novel, which I have read (like most of you) involving a certain brilliant but difficult psychologist with eccentric culinary tastes…
So 1975 was a strong year in crime fiction, but in honor of the ongoing NFL playoffs, I will use a football expression: The ruling on the field stands. Hopscotch is the deserved Edgar winner.