Friday, 15 August 2008

Crime file
I love a good crime novel. I've enjoyed a great variety in my time, from Agatha Christie (I can remember my grandmother reading her books in the 1960s and eagerly pouncing on the latest editions in the library), the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters, and the upper-class adventures of Dorothy L Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, to more gritty contemporary stuff by writers like Minette Walters and Ian Rankin.
And recently I discovered Andrea Camilleri's laconic Sicilian detective, Inspector Salvo Montalbano — so funny and urbane, so very stylish.

So when I was generously offered a couple of detective/crime novels to read and blog about, I didn't hesitate.
Being a terrestrial with no desire for or understanding of sea legs, I was immediately in very unfamiliar waters with Linda Greenlaw's opening words in Fisherman's Bend: 'I stood at the stern facing aft ...' I had to get out of bed, go downstairs and consult the Big Mac so I could work out where I was standing on the boat and which way I was looking (at the back, looking backwards, right?).
But thereafter I was spellbound, as much by the story as by the depth and breadth of this writer's sea knowledge. She writes non-fiction about the sea, and on top of all that she's a lobster boat captain and a former swordfishing boat captain. So well-known and admired is she at the helm of a fishing boat that she was made an actual character in that amazing film, The Perfect Storm, and was played by Mary-Elizabeth Mastrantonio. NB: It's a truly wonderful film, but you may need anti-seasickness pills ...
Anyway, Fisherman's Bend (Hyperion) is set around tiny fishing towns in Maine, a setting just as intriguing as all the nautical elements in the story.
Our heroine is Jane Bunker, a no-nonsense, sensible, hard-working young woman who is perfectly at home on a boat. The book is written in Jane's first person, and she's a very likeable cool-headed woman who (thank the lord) doesn't have tickets on herself, or tell us what she's wearing, or what her hair looks like, or if her make-up is all mussed up — yee ha! In fact, you can make up your own mind about how she looks — it's not important. I liked her vulnerability and self-deprecating commentary. Refreshing.
Jane is a former Miami homicide detective (introduced in an earlier novel, Slipknot) who is now living in Maine and working as an insurance investigator and deputy sheriff of Green Haven.
While investigating some vandalised equipment on a hi-tech survey boat which had been commissioned by a big corporation to determine if the area's seabed is suitable for oyster farming, Jane comes upon an abandoned lobster boat, engine still running, turning circles out in the bay.
The plot soon thickens — sorry. Green Haven is a seething mass of tension, with lobster families who have feuded for generations, oil companies, drug dealers and Native Americans — the Passamaquoddy and the Maliseet tribes — who feel oyster farming will impinge on their ancestral fishing rights.
Greenlaw paints some great characters among the small-town eccentrics, and for a non-boat person, I really enjoyed all the seafaring stuff. I also liked her matter-of-fact writing style and humour, suspecting that Jane Bunker may be ever so slightly styled on Greenlaw herself.
I was genuinely intrigued by the crime, but have to say the denouement came far too neatly and too quickly at the end, which was a little disappointing after so much cleverly built tension. Perhaps Greenlaw's publishers could have given her another 100 pages so she could have let it all unwind itself at a more appropriate pace. And what a shocking, cheap, old-fashioned, unappealing dust jacket they gave this neat little book — spot the nautical cliches! With embossed type to boot. Yuck. Looks like something from the 1950s.
Still, I enjoyed it enough to look out for more Jane Bunker mysteries when the multi-tasking multi-skilled Greenlaw gets around to them.
:: Mariah Stewart's Mercy Street (Ballantine Books) is less impressive. The story has potential — especially the secondary plot, which was way more interesting than the main one but was dealt with too hastily and simply in a 'Oh and by the way, the sniper turned out to be ...' sort of a way.
Four teenagers meet in a park in a Pennsylvania town. Next day, two of them are found shot dead and the others are missing, presumed to have been the killers.
Our detective is Mallory Russo, a former cop who was bullied out of the force and is now hired by a reclusive billionaire to solve this case, prompted by the billionaire's brother, a priest (could not stop envisaging him as Spencer Tracy meets Karl Malden — very irritating) who knows the grandmother of one of the missing youths. She's helped, unofficially, by cop-with-a-past Charlie, and, of course, he's kind, caring, considerate and compassionate, and there's the hint of romance in the air. Which sucks.
Also very sucky is the infuriatingly convenient way the local cops just happen to haul in one of the key characters on a minor charge. Along the lines of 'Hey Mallory? You know that really nasty guy you really wanted to talk to but simply couldn't find? Well, you'll never guess! He had a broken tail light and we've got him downtown! Come on in — and bring donuts!' The plot needs to be a whole lot more complex.
Add to that the way all Malory's hunches about the crime are all instantly spot on, a hooker with a heart of gold, and the totally unbelievable character who's lived out in the sticks for yonks and knows everything about everybody and just happens to be crucial to solving this crime, and you end up with a very antiseptic sort of crime story. No grit, no realism, no real people — not even much bad language.
This is the start of a series, it seems, and the title of the book has very little bearing on this story, being all about the billionaire's decision, in the very last pages, to fund a private crime solving foundation to find missing persons ... like the billionaire's own wife and child, for instance.
If you like cleanish crime laced with cleanish romance, you'd probably like this and the series that's bound to follow.

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