Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blood and Guts

While I was visiting my family, I finished one book (Kathy Reichs's Cross Bones) and was in search of another. My mother offered a book she'd recently read. "Is it," I asked, "a story of a personal journey through which the main character comes to understand herself or her family better?" "The main character's a he," my mother said. "But yes." I replied, "No, then. I'm only interested in murder right now."

This got me the hairy eyeball from my mother, who is wonderful and loves me but thinks I'm a little strange. (And probably a little snotty) But it's true. Every summer, I dive head first into a mystery novel after mystery novel. My mother would specify that they are murder mysteries, and she's mostly right. I eat them up, slurp down the gory details, sit satisfied with a head full of an increasingly large catalog of ways to die. (And with all doors and windows in my house firmly locked.) I strongly prefer female detectives. Even as a child I didn't like books that were all about boys. I do like it if the detective undergoes some kind of personal crisis or growth, though a lot isn't necessary. It's just boring if a main character repeatedly makes the same mistakes over several books in a series. New mistakes are good. I get bored with a series if it brings back the same villain over and over again, as well. Dispatch one enemy please, and move on to the next. We all know life is full of plenty of evil and a dizzying number of ways to do each other harm. I'd like to believe that it's possible to get the bad guy and move on.

In almost every mystery novel, (Laurie King's are often a wonderful exception) the main character does something blindingly stupid. Kathy Reich's Temperance Brennan, who I enjoy in both book and televisual forms, always makes her dumbest move in the last 75 pages. It's the bad decision, the wrong turn, the ignored clue that you can see a mile away and which always brings about some kind of confrontation with the killer or his lackeys. I find this irritating, because far too often the author spends 400 pages convincing you her detective is brilliant in the extreme, (though often personally troubled) and then in the last moments of the book tosses that brilliance to the wind in favor of an easy denouement. Surely we all know that if your sister is trapped in the basement with a homicidal cult leader with a batch of suspicious kool-aid and several guns, the best move is to take your boyfriend the cop with you to try to free her. Or call the local sheriff. Whatever. Heading into the basement without telling anyone where you've gone will never end well. Or actually, it will always end well, but often not before you have a moment in which you are more sure you will die than you have been in any of the books in which you were stupid before.

And yet? I love this stuff. If I can find novels in which the main character isn't given to moments of idiocy (again, thank goodness for Laurie King's Mary Russell), all the better. But I just want to see a woman look at a really messy situation and decide she can think her way to its solution. I mean, she might have to kick a little ass along the way, but that's ok. I don't want to spend my summer thinking about the personal journeys I should be on. I do not want to contemplate how lucky I am that I was not raised in foster care or how charming it might be to live in a town where everyone protects the local abusive sheriff. (Someday I'll write a blog post about how much I hate the charming abuse tales. Sisterhood my ass.) Mysteries are usually pretty fucking bleak, and the best mystery novels don't make that glamorous or cute. They do make puzzles solvable, justice findable, people savable. In the summers, I don't want to look for the silver lining. I want to believe there's solutions right down in the blood and guts.


Blogger O'Donovan said...

You should pick up Kelley Armstrong's latest ... it's not exactly a mystery, except it is, and the protagonist is a hitwoman. Exit Strategy; I just finished it this morning and it was completely delicious.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Acre said...

Oh, excellent. I'll look for it. The one I'm reading now isn't, um, bloody enough.

10:39 PM  
Blogger RevJen said...

I listened to Mary Russell books all the way from Wisconsin to Connecticut to Toronto to Wisconsin. I got all the way through Justice Hall and most of the way through Locked Rooms. I need to go fill in the gap between Beekeeper's Apprentice and Justice Hall now.

I love S. J. Rozan's Bill Smith and Lydia Chin series. SJ alternates POV between Lydia and Bill so that in the Lydia novels, Bill is a secondary character, and vice versa in the Bill novels. She's great at establishing a completely different narrative voice for each main character. Her two most recent mysteries have been standalones, but you can backtrack easily to the Lydia and Bill ones.

8:55 PM  

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