by Robin Skelton
The evils done by most of the season`s mysteries
aren`t likely to live after them
SPRING IS usually a time when crime flourishes, at least between the covers of books. Sadly, most of the season`s new crime novels reveal, if not a desire to downplay evil, at least a diminished interest in it. The most extreme instance of this is John Brady`s All Souls (HarperCollins, 219 pages, $24.95 cloth). In this rambling tale a Dublin detective returns to his country roots and pokes his nose into local confusions involving the death of an eccentric recently freed from prison, where he had been serving a sentence for a murder he probably didn`t commit. Minogue, the detective, does very little. He has personal problems. He worries about his companion, a fellow detective who is gradually recovering from a nervous breakdown. He has a few run-ins with the local police, and that`s almost all. The novel spends its time giving us a dark and rainy picture of whisky-drinking Ireland, in which nothing is happy, all is twisted, and violence is expected. It is a grim and partial portrait of a damaged society.
Margaret Haffner`s Snowblind (HarperCollins, 224 pages, $26.95 cloth) also presents us with a territory that is more interesting than its inhabitants. This is the far and snowy North, where a group of scientists are engaged in important research. All but one of them were in this area the previous year, when a member of the group disappeared and was never found. The odd one out is our protagonist, Simon Hollingford, a policeman assigned to be the group`s radio operator in order to get him out of the way while his behaviour is being investigated back home by sympathetic colleagues. It is he, Of course, who discovers the body of the missing man, frozen and so well preserved that Hollingford is able to deduce murder; but which of his companions did the deed? The interrelation of the people in the group is adequately managed and the account of the research work, the terrain, and the privations all undergo is fascinating. Unfortunately, however, one can`t get too excited about the corpse. The story is not one of investigation, deduction, and discovery; it is more of a National Geographic article, with trimmings.
Unfortunately, much the same may be said of Paul Grescoe`s second mystery, Blood Vessel (Douglas & McIntyre, 224 pages, $24.95 cloth). Our protagonist, the delightful Ukrainian private eye Dan Rudnicki, is having a working holiday on a cruise ship taking tourists from Vancouver on the Alaska circuit. He is accompanied by his two motherless teenage daughters, who are portrayed with a compassionate and humorous accuracy that is quite enchanting. Dan himself is less quick with the Ukrainian sayings and epithets than in his earlier adventure, which is a pity, but what the Ukraine loses Japan gains, since the ship is Japanese and we do learn something of Japanese culture. We also receive a guided tour of the Alaskan scenery and are impressed by glaciers. All this means that we are a little annoyed at the ship`s owner for getting himself murdered by poison; it is a disgraceful interruption of our pleasure. We`re also cross with a very large tattooed man who is certainty a villainous creature, and who threatens Dan; his presence is, however, balanced by that of a most charming young woman who is (rather fashionably) recovering from having been the victim of sexual abuse, but who, with Dan`s assistance, is making excellent progress. It is all very enjoyable, but lacks urgency, even though there are episodes of tension and danger. But Dan deserves our continued attention; he is a real and pleasing human being.
The setting also dominates the story in David Laing Dawson`s Essondale (Macmillan, 219 pages, $17.95 paper) There is an almost intolerable amount of psychological analysis and gossip, and the novel`s descriptions of a mental hospital are revolting: the doctors are corrupt and incompetent; the staff is often careless; and the patients are alternately abused and ignored. Our protagonist is Dr. Robert Snow, an alcoholic who has fallen heavily off the wagon, developed a suicidal depression, and become a patient. The story rambles along, paying more attention to Snow`s mental and emotional condition than to anything else, and introducing other patients, among them an "intellectual" who can supposedly speak several languages, but whose quotation-ridden conversation places him at the level of a moderately bright grade 13 student. There is, Of course, a murder, a peculiarly unpleasant one. And there is an escape from the hospital. But the murder is not of central significance; it is just another instance of the general sickness that is the hospital. Essondale is a depressing book that lacks the compassion and concern one imagines it was intended to arouse.
The murder in Lesley Choyce`s The Ecstasy Conspiracy (Nuage Editions, 182 pages, $13.95 paper) is the centre of a whole maelstrom of obsessions, hallucinations, and (Choyce being the artist that he is) sly jokes, small parodies, and absurdities. Richard de Mille is a writer with writer`s block. He cannot continue his current project, a novel called The Ecstasy Conspiracy; and his publisher, whom he has known since his student days, who stole his first girlfriend and was once his agent, dislikes it. He demands a novel with a murder in it. Then he is murdered, and Richard discovers the body and becomes the main suspect. His lost love turns up and his obsession with her returns, and what follows is a fantastic gallimaufty of novelist`s tricks; he is drugged, imprisoned, made to question reality and his sanity, faced with people who are deft caricatures of standard characters of fiction, and ultimately returned to actuality in a somewhat bruised condition. This is a marvellously entertaining book by one of our finest writers, but the crime is of less concern than the character; nevertheless we do get that novel with a murder in it that the publisher desired.
Roch Carrier`s The Man in the Closet (Viking, 177 pages, $22.99 cloth) is another tricky tale by a wonderful writer. The plot is simple. A young actress, who is spending a week in a country cottage with her woman friend, is scared almost out of her wits by the opening of a closet door in the middle of the night and the sense of an untoward male presence in her bedroom. She screams loudly, breaks a window, and escapes into the woods. Her friend, in another bedroom, appears to have heard nothing. Investigation follows, and we are given the thoughts and impressions of many people, not only the policeman of the village, but also the wife of the cottage`s owner and others, and the whole incident becomes more and more mystenous. Each chapter is a small gem in itself, and together with other gems forms a dazzling whole, and one that is curiously simple, hard, clear. This is not really a crime novel; it is a story, or a fable, with a crime in it - perhaps. The Man in the Closet is a masterpiece, and Sheila Fischman`s translation is, predictably, superb.
Not every crime writer is backing off from the conventional demands of the genre. David Parry and Patrick Withrow have, indeed, gone to a lot of trouble to give us a highly unlikely tale crammed with violence, sex, betrayal, espionage, torture, and coarse language. The Last Cuckoo (Macmillan, 311 pages, $24-95 cloth), has Harry Bracken, our fast-talking, highly intelligent, and stereotypical investigator, pursuing a beautiful female spy all over the place, and there are complications concerning other spies, investigators, and police, not to mention highly amenable young women. This is a novel filled with action and superficiality; none of the characters are more than cartoon figures and the prose style is that of the language in one of the less bearable beer parlours. In earlier years this would have been issued as pulp fiction and forgotten.
None of L. R. Wright`s crime novels are forgettable. They have the understanding compassion, the real humour, and the quick intelligence that is so notably lacking in The Last Cuckoo. Prized Possessions (Doubleday, 298 pages, $23.95 cloth) is well UP to standard, and combines a further instalment of the life and difficulties of Sergeant Karl Alberg of the Sechelt RCMP with the stories of two other people. The first of these is a wife so perfect in every respect that she sets one`s teeth on edge, and it is clear that she has driven her husband of six years into a state of distraction. She is, however, surprised when he disappears, and reflects upon the oddity of it all. Marriage has been her plan all along; it is her sacred vocation; why his flight, therefore? Karl Alberg, on leave to recover from the death of his father, troubled about the future of his mother, beset by anxiety over his own aging and the nature of his relationship with his long-time lover Cassandra, takes on the task of finding what has happened to the absent husband. It is not too difficult a task.
Meanwhile, a young man in Vancouver who we are now obliged to call "mentally challenged" gets himself into trouble by being rude to a slightly uppity college girl, to whom he delivers merchandise from the pharmacy where he works. His sister, who tries to prevent his frustrated emotions getting the better of him and leading him into outbursts of rage, tries to make him apologize, but things get out of hand and the consequence is that he runs the college girl down in his car and kills her. Then he runs away to Sechelt, where the girl`s friends are staying, and with all the inevitability of classic tragedy the three strands of the whole story come together.
This is a fine novel, rich with humour, pathos, and human understanding. And yet, like most of these new novels, it lacks that "game is afoot "feeling; Holmes would not have bothered.