Successful writers of crime fiction share something with their subjects: to get away with murder, they need special skills. The number of potboilers featuring wiseacre, head-busting private dicks is almost enough to make readers root for the bad guys—just to escape predictability. That’s one reason why the best of the genre is Elmore Leonard: in his fast-paced, morally ambiguous novels, the ending isn’t always happy, and the hero’s sterling qualities aren’t always apparent. He mirrors real life. Then there’s Kathy Reichs, whose strength is that she is one of about 50 forensic anthropologists in North America. That gives her alter ego and recurring heroine, Dr. Tempe Brennan, immediate credibility.
Now, crime fiction fans can look to new books by those two best-selling authors—with vastly different results. Pagan Babies, the 36th novel by the 75-year-old Leonard, shows that the old master is still learning new tricks. With a plot line that begins in Africa and ends with a twist of the tale, Leonard makes readers root for a con artist who earns credibility and cash by posing as a priest. Meanwhile, Deadly Décisions, Reichs’s third novel featuring
Brennan—who, like the author, divides her time between Montreal and the southern United States—tills familiar ground, disappointingly.
Leonard’s hit and Reichs’s miss stem from their different approaches. Leonard, unlike many suspense writers, seldom features the same character in more than one novel—and thus reinvents himself in each book. When Pagan Babies opens, imposter priest Terry Dunn is drinking scotch whisky,
Leonard reconfirms his mastery; Reichs loses her wnterly grip
saying Hail Marys and reliving the memory of a massacre in a Rwandan village. Then Dunn leaves the country to return to Detroit and to underworld life, a comely fellow con artist named Debbie Dewey and a sting operation directed at some low-grade mobsters.
In a Macleans interview last year, Leonard outlined his rules of fiction— they include avoiding adverbs, which “slow the story,” and writing a tale “through the lead’s eyes [without] a lot
of analysis and thoughts.” Dunn is a I smart, moral guy who’s done dumb, immoral things in an attempt to meet the expectations of a loving brother and I deceased uncle. And as is common with I Leonard’s characters, they seem stock at first but always offer surprises. While i Dewey appears to be the typical badi girl-with-a-heart-of-gold, she is more Í complicated than that. Similarly a conii tract killer who seems both comical and inept turns out to be neither.
Pagan Babies lacks the laugh-outy loud exchanges and richly textured i characters of Leonards very best work, like 1990 s Get Shorty or 1985 s Glitz. This book, despite shifting continents, is claustrophobic and sometimes sombre in tone, and it occasionally drags. But overall, it offers more proof that no one better patrols the outskirts of everyday life than Leonard.
By contrast, Reichs, after the runaway success of her first book, Déjà Dead, and follow-up, Death du Jour, is regressing rather than improving. Though the author speaks fluent French in real life and knows her way around Quebec, her cartoonish characters and dialogue seem to put the lie to that. Her cops run around saying things like “sacré bleu—an expression once popular in France that Quebec francophones never use—and there are frequent references to life in “Quebec province,” which no one in Canada says in either official language. The plot line—revolving around Quebec’s real-life biker wars—offers potential, but to get from beginning to resolution, Reichs relies on visits from bumbling relatives, improbable coincidences and turncoat characters whose evil intent is telegraphed from their first appearance. Add to that a superhuman aboriginal cop named Martin Quickwater and Brennans sometime lover Andrew Ryan —who by this book has morphed into a dead-eye shot who looks like “a cross between Cal Ripkin [sic] and Indiana Jones”—and the whole thing reads like a bicultural make-nice soap opera sponsored by the CBC. As whodunits go, Reichs’s latest is deadly all right—but not in the way she intended.
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