Roger Holland looks at three new paperbacks from crime lit's biggest names -- Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and Linda Fairstein.
The best crime writing is as good as anything else in the literary canon, and right now crime writers around the world are confronting society's deepest problems, worries and uncertainties in a way the 'literary' novel sometimes avoids e in the literary canon, and right now crime writers around the world are confronting society's deepest problems, worries and uncertainties in a way the 'literary' novel sometimes avoids
-- Ian Rankin
Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin have been two of the very best writers working in (or out of) their chosen genre of crime for many years, and they have both built outstanding bodies of work based primarily around a single captivating lead character. The Closers is the 11th outing for Connelly's Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, while Rankin has been even more prolific: Fleshmarket Alley is his 16th tale of Edinburgh-based Inspector John Rebus.
Unfortunately, both for the writers themselves and for their readership, it seems as if both men are now beginning to lose their form. At the very least, it seems likely that they're nearing the end of the road with their signature characters.
In The Closers, Connelly ends Bosch's three-year retirement from the LAPD, and slips him painlessly into the department's cold case squad where, to nobody's surprise, he is immediately paired with his old partner and occasional romantic interest, Kizmin Rider. Although The Closers is mechanically sound, it's a sad pale shadow of the best of Harry Bosch. Returning his protagonist to the politics and procedures of the LAPD strongly suggests that Connelly is running out of ideas for Bosch. While largely ignoring the complex depths of Harry's psyche implies he has forgotten just what made Bosch such a popular character in the first place.
Fortunately for Connelly fans, when he has strayed away from his staple series, the writer has delivered a set of compelling and dark novels, including The Poet, Void Moon and Blood Work, which was adapted as movie by Clint Eastwood in 2002. His new novel, The Lincoln Lawyer, is his first legal thriller. However, Bosch has a habit of haunting and infiltrating most of Michael Connelly's work. In The Narrows, he becomes involved in the FBI's hunt for The Poet, the serial killer who first appeared in a non-Bosch novel. In A Darkness More Than Night, Bosch links up with the hero of Blood Work. And in The Lincoln Lawyer, criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller is none other than Harry Bosch's half-brother. For the sake of his writing, and his readers, I think it might be time for Connelly to cut Harry Bosch loose.
Ian Rankin's Rebus is suffering similarly. Clearly, Rankin is intrigued by the big themes, and Fleshmarket Alley takes on subjects that include illegal immigration, a modern-day slave trade, political asylum, and racism, casts a heavily jaundiced eye towards the way bureaucracy deals with these issues, and comes close to suggesting that society's treatment of the tired, the poor and the huddled is scarcely less criminal than the way in which they are exploited by organized crime.
It's unclear whether it's Rankin's focus on the issues rather then his story line that causes Fleshmarket Alley ultimately to disappoint, but disappoint it does, His engaging characters are somehow suffocated beneath the complexity of his narrative and in the end the fact that even the nasty little side street of title comes to resonate with meaning and morality is just a little too overbearing. Given that Rankin says his next Rebus story will take place against the backdrop of 2005's G8 meeting in Scotland, it seems possible that he too is now on a slippery downwards slope.
If indeed Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin are beginning their inevitable falls from grace, they can at least take one consolation. There will be plenty of soft warm flesh waiting at the bottom to break their fall. Personally I hope they both land on Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs.
Linda Fairstein's Entombed fairs better. Taking full advantage of Cornwell's complete inability to recognise the plot and Reichs' positively Cornwellesque self-love, Fairstein is currently taking her heroine, sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, to the forensic heights that Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta once dominated. Entombed is something of a big bad gothic concept album of a story dominated by the shade of Edgar Allen Poe. And for all the unfeasibility this implies, Entombed works. The relationships between the three lead characters, and their relationship with the history and geography of New York City, make for an enjoyable and frequently good-humored ride. The detective process seems authentic and methodical. And the twists and turns are never too labyrinthine for credulity.
But will Fairstein continue to do such good work in future? There is one black bird of ill portent lurking in the background. Cooper and the highly likeable detective Mike Chapman have long enjoyed a sexual chemistry made safe by their involvements with others. During Entombed, Fairstein seems to be clearing the decks for the pair. If so, I fear for her future work too.