November Crime Round-Up

N.J. Cooper

Identical by Scott Turow published by Mantle UK, Grand Central US

Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, Putnam US

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin published by Orion UK, Little Brown US


Carrying on a long career as a crime writer is a challenge, not least because readers who were moved and excited by one of your early novels will often use that emotional response as the test by which they judge all your subsequent work, but you change with every year and every book, and so do they.

Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent remains one of my favourite crime novels and I have waited over the years, perhaps unfairly, for him to match it.  In Identical he works with many of the same themes:  the terrible and terrifying father, the weak but fundamentally decent son who struggles to free himself, the morally compromised suspect searching for the truth and determined to keep it hidden in order to protect a damaged woman, and so on.  A specialist in unravelling the darkest threads in the fabric of family life, Turow returns here to the source of dark family stories (and much Freudian psychoanalysis) – the Greek myths.  But for me Identical does not work as well as the first novel.  The suspects and investigators in this new one have none of Rusty Sabitch’s appeal, the twists and turns of the plot are laid out with too much exposition and too little display, and, above all, the language presents a problem to this English reader.  While it may well be the local demotic, it takes so much energy to decode that little is left for identification with the characters.  Paragraphs such as this one do not inspire affection:  ‘They gabbed a good twenty minutes, laughing about old cases.  Like a lot of people, Rosin remembered Tim from Delbert Rooker.  Delbert had killed six schoolteachers…. Except for being a homicidal maniac, Delbert could otherwise have been Mr Peepers, right down to the pocket protector.’

Sara Paretsky is another favourite from decades ago.  V. I. Warshawski, who takes no nonsense from anyone and will fight vested interests and mad psychopaths with her mind as well as her muscles, was a huge refreshment to the genre in novels such as Toxic Shock and Bitter Medicine.  All the old characters are here again in Critical Mass.  Dr Lotty Herschel is older, of course.  How could she not be?  And both more fragile and less protective of V.I.  Max is still elegant and refined and determined to act as Lotty’s knight protector for as long as he can.  And V.I. herself is still fighting to protect the weak.  Mr Contreras comes in for less bullying and more gratitude from her, and she is even more devoted to animals than usual.  This time, she rescues a tortured and potentially violent dog from a crime scene and, in spite of being perennially short of cash, forks out thousands of dollars to put it in the hands of a vet.

The plot concerns the familiar greed of people who think themselves too important to abide by either law or morality, shocking injustice done to women in a patriarchal society, and the appalling effects of the Holocaust.  With so much to arouse fury, the novel sweeps the reader on.

And so we come to Ian Rankin, who reached bestseller status with Black & Blue, his ninth novel, which was published in the late 1990s.  His hero, John Rebus, is still a warm-hearted but angry, ill-disciplined, lonely drinker, with a deep knowledge of human nature and a refusal ever to be beaten.  His original nemesis was the organised crime boss, Cafferty, but in recent novels Rankin’s second hero, Malcolm Fox, has taken that role in his capacity as a complaints investigator.  In many ways the two men are opposite sides of the same character:  Fox is obsessed with rules and has learned to manage his own alcoholism, while Rebus doesn’t even try.  But Fox has been presented as much less attractive – until now, in Saints of the Shadow Bible, when the two men are drawn so closely together that they show signs of coalescing around the interesting figure of Siobhan Clarke.  Once Rebus’s eager, wide-eyed assistant, Siobhan is technically his superior, now that he has been brought back into the force as a sergeant.  But he still talks as though he is her boss and hates the men with whom she sleeps.

The trio are a very interesting demonstration of the relationship that seems to me to be at the heart of crime fiction and the reason why it remains the most popular genre:  the ego, the id, and the superego. 

Rankin’s world of crime and detection remains one of the most accessible, with the smoothest of intelligent prose describing every sort of human wickedness and misery.  There are many readers for whom his running account of Scottish history as it is made is the most appealing aspect.  For me it is the relationships he creates for his characters and for the readers, who want more with every novel he completes.

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