PUBLISHING

Sleuths and criminals

JACK BATTEN June 20 1988
PUBLISHING

Sleuths and criminals

JACK BATTEN June 20 1988

Sleuths and criminals

PUBLISHING

For most readers of crime fiction, plot often plays second fiddle to the sleuth. While the story’s intricacies may be temporarily dazzling, the details rapidly fade. What sticks in the memory and brings the reader back for more is the appeal of the main player-characters such as Agatha Christie’s eccentric Hercule Poirot, Robert B. Parker’s macho Spenser and Eric Wright’s humane Charlie Salter. And in this season’s crop of crime novels, an astonishingly vivid group of gumshoes and police investigators from England’s Yorkshire Dales to Toronto’s business district join the ranks of established crime-fiction heroes.

Toronto writer John Brady’s first novel, A Stone of the Heart (Collins), is a masterfully crafted work of plot, atmosphere and, especially, characterization. His protagonist, Matt Minogue, is a Dublin police sergeant whose sensitivity keeps getting in his way. When a student is found dead on the grounds of Dublin’s ancient Trinity College, Minogue investigates several possibilities: suicide, drugs and a prank gone

wrong. His inquiries eventually lead him deep into an IRA plot that almost claims his own life. Minogue’s police colleagues—hardened men—use brutal methods to deal with terrorists, but the sergeant takes a more balanced and reasoned approach. He solves the

This season's crop of crime novels introduces an astonishingly vivid group of gumshoes and police investigators

crime, but, for all his care and concern, another innocent victim dies.

Brady, born in Dublin and a graduate of Trinity, evokes the city and college in all their Old World charm and contemporary dinginess. But his finest achievement is the creation of his central character. In style and temperament, Minogue—thoughtful, clear-eyed and perhaps too sensitive—resembles

Insp. Adam Dalgliesh, the hero created by British crime writer P. D. James. Clearly, Minogue is a full-blooded character built for the long haul of a series.

Like Brady, Peter Robinson is a Torontonian who uses his birthplace—in his case, Yorkshire—for the settings of his mysteries. A Dedicated Man (Penguin) is Robinson’s second novel featuring Det. Insp. Adam Banks, a wiry little man who makes up in brains and pushiness what he lacks in brawn. The victim in Banks’s latest adventure is a wealthy academic, whose body turns up on the Yorkshire Dales. To sort out the puzzle, Banks must uncover a decade’s worth of clues from the dead man’s eclectic group of friends. The book is flawed by its garrulousness: too few ideas are thrashed over too many conversations. Still, Banks emerges as an engaging character. And even if his methods are sometimes tediously painstaking, they lead to a satisfying wrap-up.

In Murder Behind Locked Doors (Penguin), British Columbia author Ellen Godfrey has created an appealingly klutzy heroine. Jane Tregar is a headhunter for a Toronto employment agency whose current assignment is to find a replacement for a software executive found murdered in his company’s locked computer room. Instead, Tregar finds

herself in the role of sleuth, trying to determine which of the top bosses killed him.

Godfrey keeps the plot moving at a lively pace, but the strongest element of the story is the heroine herself. Tregar is a winning bundle of selfdo u b t s — b e m o a n i n g her wretched skills in the kitchen, fretting about her looks and her inactive sex life. And while her investigative methods may be unorthodox, she is more nervy than her police counterparts and just as resourceful at fingering the killer.

Freaky Deaky (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) exhibits all the trademarks that have helped to make its author, Elmore Leonard, America’s latest master of crime fiction: a spiralling plot, a dead-on ear for dialogue and an assortment of off-the-wall characters. The locale is Detroit, although the story takes place in a weird territory that his readers recognize as Elmoreland.

Robin and Skip are a pair of 1960s student radicals who have served time in prison for blowing up government buildings. Now, they are back on the street and keen to turn their talents with bombs to an extortion plot. Their

target is Woody Ricks, a Detroit citizen who is rich, often drunk and certifiably crazy. But two other characters with an eye on Woody’s millions get in the way of the bomb plot. One is Donnell, an exBlack Panther who serves as Woody’s

assistant, and the other is Chris, who may or may not be on suspension from his job on the police department’s bomb squad.

Leonard unleashes those five characters, along with assorted other petty criminals, in a story that seems largely driven by their sheer eccentricity. No one character emerges as the good guy who pulls events into focus—a departure for Leonard— and the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted. Robin and Skip, Donnell, Chris and the rest differ mainly in the degree of their desire to cut a shady deal. Still, if the characters are loose morally, Leonard makes them highly entertaining company. No one writes dialogue with Leonard’s ear for the quirks of street language, and ± the book spins along with the a same wild and crazy moves as I the 1960s dance of its title. Like 1 the best of this summer’s crime fiction, Freaky Deaky offers an escape to a world where old places wear new faces—and the inhabitants, whether engagingly oddball or reassuringly familiar, make it worth the trip.

JACK BATTEN