CRIME FICTION of the past usually followed a formula that still provides the skeletal structure for more than one literary genre. We are first given a setting that we must accept as a norm for the time, place, and people of the story. This norm (let us say a small and quiet Canadian town) is then disrupted by an unusual, perhaps startling, event (let us say a gang of youths raiding the town bait-and-tackle store). The perpetrators and the causes of this disruption must be discovered, and the remainder of the story is devoted to this investigation, which concludes with the re-establishment of the norm with which the tale began, or with the creation of another norm that takes into account all these events.
This is the basic pattern of much literature; King Lear is an obvious example. It is also the pattern of Ted Wood's Flashback (Maxwell Macmillan, 256 pages, $24.95 cloth), Peter Robinson's Wednesday's Child (Viking Canada, 300 pages, $16.99 paper), and Gail Bowen's The Wandering Soul Murders (Douglas & McIntyre, 224 pages, $24.95 cloth). In all these books the initial disruption is followed by others that at first appear to be unconnected to it, but later are seen to form part of an overall pattern. In all three of these novels the investigator is driven onwards not
only by a passionate curiosity but also by compassion and by a strong sense of responsibility to the community, which are presented to us in such a fashion as to make us aware of subtleties and implications of behaviour that anyone other than ourselves and the investigator would miss.
In Wood's Flashback, which begins with the bait-and-tackle store raid already mentioned, Reid Bennett, back in place as the police chief of Murphy's Harbour, Ontario, is awaiting the birth of his first child when the trouble starts. The gang of youths raids more than one store, and a young woman is found dead in the trunk of a car submerged in the lake. The gang has vanished; the woman is identified as the wife of a visitor to the area; connections between the youths, the woman's supposed husband, and another woman slowly emerge; and Reid is kept on the move from place to place to person to person, visiting his wife in hospital whenever he can. This is a busy book, with not a page that does not contribute to the story, though we are entertained by many conversational asides, and by subsidiary encounters with people who belong so firmly to this territory that they could not be imagined living elsewhere. The plot itself is complicated and has many twists and turns; we are kept guessing. The denouement and the explanation of it all is sufficiently improbable to be surprising and sufficiently possible to be acceptable, which is just as it should be.
With Wednesday's Child, Peter Robinson shows himself to be one of the very best crime novelists alive, and much more in control of his material and disturbing in his vision than certain much lauded composers of "psychological" crime fiction whose names I need not mention. We are once more in the Yorkshire Dales with Inspector Alan Banks, and Robinson's Yorkshire is as authentic and convincing as Ted Wood's Murphy's Harbour: the speech has the exact intonation of the place without the sometimes baffling dialect words; the people move, speak, gesture in a fashion that makes us completely at home, although, like Banks, a part of us stands aside and watches what once we would have thought odd. The story opens graphically and with an unforgettable image that yet is commonplace:
The room was a tip, the woman a slattern. On the floor, near the door to the kitchen, a child's doll with one eye missing lay naked on its back, right arm raised above its head. The carpet around it was so stained with ground-in mud and food, it was hard to tell what shade of brown it had been originally.
The woman's seven-year-old daughter has been kidnapped by two well-spoken strangers, a man and a woman, pretending to be social workers. The woman's life is as confused and hard to comprehend as the colour of the carpet. We are launched upon a story that is tense with speculation as to the child's fate. Is she dead or alive? A psychic visits the mother and says "alive," and the TV gives the story prominence. Banks talks to the local pagan, who is suspected of being a satanist, and makes no progress. A corpse is discovered in the hills outside the town. Is there a connection? Throughout this whole process Banks retains his common sense as well as his agonized concern for the child. He never steps out of character to become more or less shrewd than is usual with him. The other characters are equally consistent, and the whole narrative is played out against a background of ordinary people, their pubs, their gossip, their shiftiness, and their solidity. This is a superb book, and disturbing. The denouement is moving, and the explanation of the whole is, again, possible but somewhat improbable, though no more improbable than a number of true life stories that Banks recalls while on the search. What, after all, could be more improbable than the Moors Murders or the career of the Yorkshire Ripper?
Improbability has an important part to play in crime fiction; without a touch of it we cannot be adequately entertained or surprised. Gail Bowen's The Wandering Soul Murders opens with the stomach-turning discovery of a corpse in a garbage can; the body has been mutilated and there is a tattoo of a teddy bear on its leg. The dead woman was once a prostitute. Joanne Kilbourn, whom we last saw in Murder at the Mendel, spends a lot of time coping with her young adopted daughter, her son, and his unlikeable girlfriend, who appears to be a congenital liar and fantasist, while getting drawn further and further into a plot involving more murders, victimized prostitutes, and corruption in high places. It has, perhaps, just a little more improbability than is advisable, but it moves at a steady pace, and Joanne Kilbourn's concern for others and her agonies of conscience are both convincing and moving, This is certainly a good story and vividly written, but the denouement is somewhat melodramatic.
Carsten Stroud's Lizardskin (Bantam, 374 pages, $24 cloth) begins with a violent killing of a Native by a white man in a small town in Montana, and from that point onwards Sergeant Beau McAllister of the state highway patrol is entangled in an ever increasing number of violent incidents, all of which are described graphically, and in solving a complex plot involving the theft of newborn babies from hospitals, Native activist groups, a mysterious Hollywood stuntman, a crooked lawyer, and his asp-tongued ex-wife, This book is notable for the speed of its narrative, the almost breathtaking tension of some of the action, the vivid conviction of its slaughters and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most lucid descriptions of the process of birth from conception to full term that one could hope to read. The question of when a foetus actually becomes a person is important to the story; Stroud manages to avoid a dogmatic answer, but there is a passionate concern for the helpless newborn that gives this continuously gripping novel some of its intensity.
Stroud's book is more a thriller than a detective story perhaps, for we proceed from danger to danger rather than from deduction to deduction. The same might be said of John Mills's Runner in the Dark (Oberon, 201 pages, $15.95 paper), in which Robert Foster, an unemployed man left by his wife, comes across a coded message that is important to some extremely ruthless people. Foster suffers a good deal in many ways, is perpetually in danger and perpetually confused; the book is most notable for a cliffhanging (literally) sequence that has one gripping the arms of one's chair. The denouement, however, is too cleverly ambiguous to be tolerated; one feels that this book has no interest in anything other than sensation. There is no driving impulse save Foster's desire to survive.
The impulse that drives Nora Kelly's My Sister's Keeper (HarperCollins, 256 pages, $22.95 cloth) is feminism. At a university that sounds remarkably like UBC, dreadful engineering students are making mock of women, insulting them, and committing mayhem. A small group of faculty women who are lobbying for the creation of a women's studies department are outraged, especially when a very bright woman student is not given the scholarship she clearly deserves, her prize being given to a male student. The cheated woman is hanged in effigy by some awful person. Discussion of the way women are mistreated continues for chapter upon chapter. There are threatening phone calls, and eventually a death; and a totally predictable villain is discovered. This is not a detective story but a feminist tract; its truths and its assertions are wearisomely familar.
The scene of Howard Engel's Murder in Montparnasse (Viking Canada, 300 pages, $16.99 paper) is also familiar; it is the Paris of 1925, and we are in the company of the Paris intelligentsia of the period. We meet Gertrude Stein, we observe Joyce, we hear about Picasso, and our central characters are very like a number of others, including most obviously Hemingway. There is a multiple murderer abroad, and our narrator, Mike, is interested in the situation, but not so interested that he misses out on the continual partying, drinking, and lovemaking, and the "gay conversation" that fills the book. The crime is unimportant. It gets solved after another killing. The drinking goes on. This is a mildly amusing tour of 1925 Paris, but the real memoirs of the time are more fun. Benny Cooperman, come back!
Happily, another familiar figure has come back to please us. In Eric Wright's A Fine Italian Hand (Doubleday, 190 pages, $22.50 cloth), Charlie Salter investigates the murder of an actor in a somewhat sleazy hotel; he has been stabbed and garotted and the Mafia is suspected, unjustly as it turns out. As usual in Salter's adventures, other problems occur: a policeman has been accused of taking bribes; Salter's wife is away looking after her sick father and her mother is being a nuisance; his sons are giving him anxieties. It is all deliciously relaxing as Charlie ambles through to a not wholly surprising denouement, with his usual accompanying thoughts of possible retirement balanced against his lively and humorous enjoyment of the world around him and his stoic approach to death.
When writers die, especially crime novelists, they are often resuscitated these days. Uncompleted novels are completed by other hands and new novels may be written to continue the careers of popular detectives. It is rare for these books to be wholly successful, but Paul Stuewe has collaborated with the late Hugh Garner in such a fashion that the whole is seamless and authentic; there is no telling whether the original is speaking or his follower. Don't Deal Five Deuces (Stoddart, 213 pages, $16.95 paper) is a splendidly crafted example of the police procedural, a genre almost totally ignored by other Canadian crime writers. It is set in the Toronto of 1977, and Inspector McDumont, now nearing retirement, is not only totally familiar with the city of that time but reminisces with fascinating nostalgia about its past. The book opens with a triple murder, and two of the corpses are police officers blown apart by a double-barrelled shotgun blast when investigating a domestic dispute. The force is outraged, and the full-scale hunt is on. Many policemen are involved, but all are as clearly delineated as the many shifty and evasive witnesses and neighbours in the run-down street. Some police procedurals become bogged down in detail or become speciously tidy; this book manages to be convincing in detail, satisfactorily confused in places, and both humorous and compassionate without ever losing its narrative drive. It is, indeed, an outstanding contribution to the genre, and we return to the norm with feelings of deeds well done and at least a portion of the grubby city cleansed.