Stephen Paul Cohen | Thomas Chastain | Michael Collins | Marcia Muller | Earl W. Emerson | Robert J. Randisi | Rob Kantner | S. J. Rozan | Benjamin M. Schutz | Stuart M. Kaminsky | Sara Paretsky | Patrick Irelan | Dan A. Sproul | Terence Faherty | Meredith S. Cole | Bill Crider | Bill Crenshaw | Ruth Dwyer | Dick Francis | John Grisham

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

Contemporary Private Eyes

Michael Collins

A Dark Power (1968)

Crime, Punishment and Resurrection

Thomas Chastain

Vital Statistics (1977)

Robert J. Randisi

Miles Jacoby stories

Linda Barnes

"Lucky Penny" (1985)

Stephen Paul Cohen

Heartless (1986)

Island of Steel (1988)

Earl W. Emerson

Black Hearts and Slow Dancing (1988)

Robert Sampson

"Rain in Pinton County" (1986)

Rob Kantner

Trouble Is What I Do (Collected Ben Perkins stories)

Uncollected Ben Perkins stories

Loren D. Estleman

Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection Valentino: Film Detective

Marcia Muller

The McCone Files McCone and Friends

Sara Peretsky

Windy City Blues "Dealer's Choice" (1988)

Sue Grafton

"Falling Off the Roof" (1989)

S. J. Rozan

Lydia Chin stories

Benjamin M. Schutz

Max Kincaid tales

Stuart M. Kaminsky

Lew Fonesca stories

Porfiry Petrovich Rostikov stories

Patrick Irelan

Michael Scofield tales

Dan A. Sproul

Joe Standard stories

Terence Faherty

The Confessions of Owen Keane The Hollywood Op: Private Eye Scott Elliott in Tinseltown Star Republic reporter tales

Meredith S. Cole

Lydia McKenzie tales

Suspense

John Grisham

The Firm (1991; written 1987-1989)

The Pelican Brief (1992)

The Client (1993)

Ted Wood

"Pit Bull" (1987)

Bill Crenshaw

"Flicks" (1988)

Bill Crider

Carl Burns / Boss Napier stories "Code Red: Terror on the Mall!" (1993)

Vincent Banville

"Body Count" (2000)

Ruth Dwyer

"Bird of Paradise" (2003)

Stephen Paul Cohen

Cohen's two mystery novels, Heartless (1986) and Island of Steel (1988), make him one of the best young mystery writers. Cohen has "the storytelling skill", that mysterious quality that makes the reader want to turn the page.

Cohen's work often climaxes with height or depth. The scenes upstairs at his friend, in the penthouse, in the New York public library, or in the tree at Southampton in Heartless are all memorable examples of scenes set at heights, not to mention the final rooftop chase. Similarly, the chthonic burrowings into the maze of basements under Avenue A form one of the best images in that book. These images of ascent run rampant in Island of Steel, which is set in the real estate business in New York City and focuses on high rise skyscrapers. Memorable trips to the depths of Grand Central Station, and into a men's room in Florida form descending counterparts to the burrowings in the previous book.

Cohen has considerable poetic skills of description. Both novels seem to be epic poems, an Iliad and Odyssey set in modern New York City. Cohen's technique seems closer to that of such narrative poets as Spenser and Keats than to those of conventional fiction. Cohen imagines things, imagines them in elaborate systems with many specific details, and then describes them, in well-constructed, architecturally interesting prose. The unfolding of these descriptions, fascinates the reader in the same way that the descriptions in narrative poetry do. Buildings and neighborhoods are especial strengths of Cohen's technique, but weather, dreams, musical club life and sex also flow through his work.

Cohen's work contains considerable sociological detail, both about the drug trade (Heartless) and real estate tax law (Island of Steel). Cohen used to be in real estate tax law in New York, so these descriptions are presumably authentic. It is less clear whether Heartless' picture of the drug industry is real, or just a literary fantasy. Certainly Heartless is far more cliched and derived from other crime novels - there are echoes of The Maltese Falcon and Farewell, My Lovely. Some of the crime elements seem to be, as a first novel, an attempt to meet the expectations of the genre. By contrast, Island of Steel seems far more original in its criminal and sociological depictions. The characters cohere more, and it is the more successful of the two books. But both works have many poetic and imaginative elements.


Thomas Chastain

Thomas Chastain's Vital Statistics (1977) is very beautifully written. While it tells an entertaining story, it is worth reading just for the style alone. It and Stephen Paul Cohen's Island of Steel are examples of successful attempts by writers to put the complex literary style of poetry into the novel. This is an approach to writing that seems to be more common in the science fiction field, than in the contemporary mystery. Such sf writers as Ray Bradbury, Cordwainer Smith, J. G. Ballard, R. A. Lafferty, and Ursula K. Le Guin, are all important prose stylists. (They are named in the chronological order of their debuts.) Chastain and Cohen demonstrate that this is a kind of literary excellence that is highly compatible with the mystery field. Chastain's stylistic skill here earned a rave review from John Dickson Carr, a writer not otherwise noted for his enthusiasm for the private eye novel.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins is a prolific creator of mystery fiction, from the 1960's to the present. His highly informative personal web site has a complete bibliography of his work. And Ed Lynskey's article and interview is at Mystery*File.

A Dark Power

A Dark Power (1968) is the first of five mystery novels he wrote about industrial spy Kane Jackson. They were published under the pseudonym William Arden. A Dark Power is notable for its excellent plot construction and mystery structure, with a wealth of imaginative plot detail sustained throughout. The book shows rigorously conceived detective work, with all aspects of the plot emerging through the hero's sleuthing. The book also contains gripping storytelling.

Although A Dark Power has a privately employed hero who does detective work, it is not really clear that it is a "hard-boiled" novel, in any strict sense of the term. Collins' approach is fresh throughout, and it largely avoids the clichés of private eye fiction. There are no underworld characters, no settings in sleazy night clubs, and no mean streets.

Collins also employs some of the structural ideas of traditional, Golden Age style mystery fiction. There is a closed circle of suspects, for one: it becomes clear right away that only a well-defined group of people had enough business information to plan the crime. While these suspects are hardly all guests at a British country house, the way they might be in a Golden Age novel, the structural effect is still the same. Collins employs the form of traditional mystery fiction, even if his content is different here. There are also moments in the finale in which Collins comes tantalizingly close to the deductive methods of identifying the killer used by Ellery Queen, although Queen's use of logic is more rigorous and elaborate: see chapter 25.

Jackson interviews suspects in groups, and shows their interaction as characters. These interactions are usually interesting, both from a characterization and mystery plot point of view. Such group interactions are a typical and welcome feature of Golden Age mystery fiction. They form a contrast with the convention introduced by Raymond Chandler and followed by many private eye writer successors, of the detective talking to each suspect individually and in turn. Such interviews tend to reduce a novel to a series of character sketches. They are frequently a major weakness of private eye fiction.

Collins also sticks to a pure detection approach for his hero. Kane Jackson never jumps to a conclusion, but rather discovers everything through systematic detective work. Such strict concern with detection is perhaps more prestigious in the many non-private eye schools of mystery fiction, although one hastens to add that some private eye writers also emphasize detection, e.g., Marcia Muller. Much of Jackson's detective work techniques seem freshly imagined, especially his use of technology in sleuthing.

A Dark Power belongs to a whole 1950's and 1960's subgenre of big business mysteries. This genre has a history. During the early and middle 1950's, mainstream authors started writing books, movies and TV shows about the exciting clash of big businessmen and top executives within large corporations. These tales mixed business intrigue, big money deals, cutthroat rivalry among top executives, insides looks at the operations of corporations with sexy looks at the personal lives of the executives and their wives and girl friends. Such works include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Executive Suite, Patterns and Room at the Top. These works were not by the most serious literary writers among mainstream authors; they tended to be by popular storytellers and scriptwriters. It was inevitable that crime and mystery writers would start using such a background, too. Fritz Lang's film, While the City Sleeps (1956), mixed a favorite plot of the mainstream works, the hunt for the successor to the big boss, with a crime thriller plot.

Prose mystery writers tended to take a different approach. Such works as Richard Martin Stern's novella "The Jet Plane Murders" (1954) and John B. Ethan's The Black Gold Murders (1959) looked at the research and development wing of large corporations, in aerospace and the oil industry respectively. These R&D divisions had secrets worth millions. Such stories showed top executives battling for control, R&D scientists making dramatic discoveries, and outside crooks and private eyes getting involved in the intrigue. Ethan's novel, like Collins', is about a stolen secret discovery. Both books also feature detectives who specialize in industrial work. Collins' hero Jackson Kane is not a pure detective however. Instead, he is a full fledged industrial spy. Collins' book takes on the whole spy ethos of the 1960's, at a time when spy fiction was the dominant branch of crime writing.

Blue Death

Subject matter and imagery from A Dark Power will recur in Collins' Dan Fortune mystery, Blue Death (1975). These include the New Jersey setting; a fancy New Jersey suburb called Short Hills, where corporate types live; very handsome executives of genius ability, whose virility has a negative effect on the women around them; corporate crime; research labs working on very valuable secrets; the killing of scientists involved with same; trips to Western locations, including Collins' own home area of Santa Barbara, California; corporate wives, and also career women; sinister male assistants to top executives; the widows of murder victims; security set-ups around industrial locations, including badge making equipment; rival professional investigators who cross the hero's path and who give him trouble.

However, the two books are very different in feel. Blue Death is much gloomier, with most of the characters far more evil than those in A Dark Power. The most interesting aspect of Blue Death is the character Franklin Weaver, the handsome, gifted but sinister executive. The other characters in the book, and probably their author, too, both admire and despise Weaver. Collins here shows the same ambiguous attitudes as the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni: loathing capitalism, but fascinated by glamorous capitalists. This complex attitude is widely shared in Western culture: most of us are both impressed and appalled by the success culture around us.

The Dan Fortune Short Stories

Many of the short stories about Collins' private eye Dan Fortune are available in two books: Crime, Punishment and Resurrection (collected 1992) and Fortune's World (collected 2000).

"Who?" (1972) resembles the world of such early Collins novels as A Dark Power in its subject matter. Like them, it concentrates strongly on the mystery plot. It has a structural resemblance to such Ellery Queen "minimalist" works as The Murder Is a Fox (1945). Like them, it features a crime that seems to have no cause and no possible solution. The detective has to look for tiny cracks in the situation and the evidence, to get any idea of how the crime was possible at all.

"The Woman Who Ruined John Ireland" (1983) is a markedly original avant-garde or experimental work, and well done. It does not resemble just about anything else in crime fiction. It is perhaps closest to Alain Resnais' avant-garde film Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980), in which every character has a favorite film star, and clips from them dot the movie, illuminating their thoughts. Collins manages to get in many unusual ideas about film noir. It also shows his comic gifts, sustained over a whole story, rather than as brief flashes of comic relief.

"Crime and Punishment" (1988) is one of the most scathing of Collins' social consciousness tales. It is also one of the most realistic. Other stories in this vein include "The Motive" (1987). "The Motive" looks at problems among ordinary Americans, and how they live and think. It too eventually builds up to a horrifying portrait of real problems.


Marcia Muller

At the root of several of Marcia Muller's mystery plots is a criminal enterprise. This is a whole scale business, run on criminal lines. At first, even the existence of the enterprise is a secret. The detective and the reader only see the far, ultimate effects of the enterprise on some victim, who has disappeared or is threatened or dead. Gradually, sleuthing by the detective uncovers the existence and character of the enterprise. This is only revealed gradually, through a step by step process of detection. The nature of the criminal business, its secretive methods of operation, the people involved slowly come out. Only then can the final identity and motive of the murder be understood and revealed.

Muller's detective stories follow a paradigm that ultimately derives from the work of Freeman Wills Crofts. As in Crofts, detection is a step by step activity, with the detective's thoughts and ideas being fully revealed to the reader at all stages. As in Crofts, Muller's detection often uses scientific techniques, as well as a great deal of routine but important investigation. In Muller, such scientific detective work includes the systematic use of computer searches. As in Crofts, a secret criminal enterprise is often at the heart of the mystery. As in Crofts, the criminal enterprise often shows considerable ingenuity. Both writers stress realism in both their detectives and criminals; both detectives and criminals tend to be lower middle class people in both authors, neither rich nor poor; both tend to run their enterprises on sound business lines. Most of Muller's characters are deeply involved with their work. Her stories also show the Crofts school's fascination with means of transportation: cars, motorcycles and planes; McCone eventually becomes a licensed pilot in the series.

Muller's conception of detective work is far removed from the loner detectives that followed in the wake of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Instead, she tends to show detective work as the collaborative output of an entire agency. Her tales are clearly influenced in this regard by Joe Gores' DKA file stories. Gores' DKA stories, closely based on his real life experiences at an actual California detective agency, were widely hailed in the 1960's as bringing a new realism to the private detective story. Both the business organization of Gores' DKA, and the kinds of investigative techniques it uses, are echoed throughout Muller's tales.

McCone and Friends is a collection of tales largely narrated by the subsidiary characters in the McCone saga. The two best stories in the collection, "The Wall" (1993) and "The Holes in the System" (1996), are both narrated by Rae Kelleher, McCone's assistant sleuth. Both are vigorously told; "The Holes in the System" is one of the most rousing of contemporary crime tales. Both of Muller's short story collections, The McCone Files and McCone and Friends, are available from their publisher Crippen & Landru.


Earl W. Emerson

Earl W. Emerson's best book to date, Black Hearts and Slow Dancing (1988), is a genuinely surrealistic tale mixing the mystery story and firefighting. The author, a Seattle firefighter and prolific novelist, has come up with a book packed with strange, unusual incident. Emerson is not a good developer of puzzle plots, although he is getting better, especially in Yellow Dog Party. If his form is disjointed, his content is here overflowing with originality. Much of the book reads like an exploration of the unconscious, complete with dream sequences, strange dialogue and chapter titles, and journeys into the realms of both fire and ice. Some of the material is creative, some is somewhat "sick", all of it breathes surrealism. The hostility factor is high; the murder victim's job feuds with his bosses are especially fierce. His is a portrait of the type A personality in extremis. The hero's sex scenes develop in all seriousness the testosterone clichés spoofed by K.K. Beck as typical of modern male mystery writers. Despite these flaws, it remains an unusual and creative book.

Robert J. Randisi

Robert J. Randisi's short stories about private detective Miles Jacoby, "The Steinway Collection" (1977) and "Deathlist" (1984), have some common formal properties. Both have a common central situation - a collection threatened by theft in "The Steinway Collection", social relationships in "Deathlist". The stories then proceed to a series of variations on this central theme. Each character in the tale has some different pattern of relationships to the central subject. There are both echoes and contrasts in each character's pattern of variation. The different relationships build up a beautiful overall pattern. The formal structure of plot that is created is beautiful and striking. All of this is embedded in a story telling flow that is musical and most pleasant to read and follow.

Rob Kantner

Rob Kantner wrote nine novels and many short stories about his Detroit-based private eye, Ben Perkins. Kantner's personal web site has a complete bibliography of his mysteries.

Trouble Is What I Do

Trouble Is What I Do (2005) collects 18 short stories starring Ben Perkins. It is around twice the size of an ordinary short story collection.

"C Is for Cookie" (1982) is the first story about Ben Perkins. It is also what is known in comic books as an "origin story": it gives a life history of the hero, showing his evolution as a character. The tale is a lot of fun. The story is a little more light hearted than many private eye stories, and shows a refreshing escapist quality.

Much of it (and the later Ben Perkins tales) are set at real Detroit area buildings, giving pleasure to people who know the area. Kantner especially likes major roads (Telegraph Road is a favorite) and the public buildings they contain. These roadscapes light up his stories, as well as sometimes giving them actual plot backbone. The fictional elements in the stories seem to arise out of a poetic meditation on these buildings and roads: what sort of mystery events might happen in them, and what sort of people might they contain? It would be interesting to see these tales published in a multi-media version, perhaps on the Internet or CD-ROM, illustrated with photographs or videos of the real places they depict.

"Duck Work" (1988) shows that Kantner is interested in the interiors of buildings, as well. This story looks at the infrastructure of a modern building, recalling C. Daly King's fascination with this subject during the Golden Age. "Left for Dead" (1988) shows a Golden Age style interest in landscape architecture.

Such stories as "C Is for Cookie" and "Something Simple" (1999) show Kantner's gift at coming up with surprising solutions to his puzzle plots. These plots often suggest that his characters' lives are richer and more positive than they first appear. This optimistic approach runs against the often dismal private eye tradition, which focused on the misanthropic view that people were no good and that their lives were filed with hidden evil. Kantner's approach is far more humane, and also realistic I believe.

In addition to real puzzle plots, Kantner's best stories also contain real detection. Like Marcia Muller, Kantner's detection often involves tracing people through today's electronic information net. Kantner is also fascinated by the plot possibilities of communications media: telephones, electronic funds transfers, billboards, photographs, the mail system. Like the streets of Detroit, these devices too are part of the real world "landscape" around us, and they too give rise to plot situations in Kantner's stories.


S. J. Rozan

S. J. Rozan's "Prosperity Restaurant" (1991) is a fascinating work with a Background in New York's Chinese community. Rozan is a practicing architect, and her tale is especially good at evoking a sense of place: what buildings look, sound, feel like: all the senses are evoked in Rozan's writing. Rozan's sense of puzzle plotting is creative. There is a real mystery in the tale. But its solution concentrates not so much on whodunit, but rather on the processes, sociological and criminal, that underlie and explain the mysterious situation.

Benjamin M. Schutz

"Open and Shut" (2001) has a genuine puzzle plot mystery. It also has strong characterization of its policeman detective Max Kincaid, a man trying to rebuild his ruined life, a perennial Schutz theme.

I much prefer real mystery tales like "Open and Shut" to suspense stories. Real detective tales like "Open and Shut", if well done, have more substance, both in their plot and in the detective work done by their heroes.


Stuart M. Kaminsky

Kaminsky loads his story "Find Miriam" (1997) with intriguing detail on the personal life of his detective, and of the missing woman just before her disappearance. An odd series of parallels begins to emerge. Both are living non-standard lives. Both are in flight from a previous life crisis. Both have marginalized themselves within the "normal" world of modern day America. Kaminsky shows considerable imagination in working out all the aspects of these two characters' lives.

The story also builds up a surrealistic charge in being set in Sarasota. Sarasota is an upper crust resort and retirement community in Florida; it is the last place where one would expect a private eye tale to be set. This refined town is definitely not the "mean streets" of Raymond Chandler's famous quotation. Kaminsky has long been resident in Sarasota, and he makes the events of the tale be set in as realistic a series of places as possible. I've visited Sarasota, and can virtually "see" the entire story unrolling on its streets, thanks to Kaminsky's vividly detailed narration. The whole effect is very strange. It is like an eruption of the private eye melodrama onto the streets of middle class America, right into our daily lives.

Kaminsky's tale shows alternatives emerging to middle class lives. Both the detective and missing women are living such alternatives. And the private eye melodrama affecting ordinary daily life also suggests that such changes are possible, that mysterious forces could roil and change all our lives. One of the main goals of Surrealism as a movement is to suggest such hidden possibilities emerging.

Kaminsky's poverty stricken hero lives a financially simple life: no car, a bicycle for transportation, living where he works, in a small suite. Today, these are exactly the prescription for avoiding Global Warming. In 1997, this was considered a lifestyle that reflected extreme poverty. Now it is recommended to save the planet. Just as old mysteries that mocked a vegetarian diet now seem prophetic of a more vegetarian future, so does this "simple lifestyle" mystery also seem to evoke the future. The Siberians in A Cold Red Sunrise also lead simple lives. This is a Kaminsky theme.

A Cold Red Sunrise has an interesting disquisition on Russians' love of ice cream. Meanwhile, the hero of "Find Miriam" gets most of his meals at an ice cream stand nearby.

Kaminsky has written a long series of novels about Russian policeman Porfiry Petrovich Rostikov. Recently, he wrote an origin story about Rostikov, "Snow" (1999), showing his first major case. "Snow" is a brief tale, but it is loaded with fascinating detail about Russian society. As in "Find Miriam", this tale too is balanced between the lives of its detective and its criminal; and once again, both are alienated from the society around them in original ways, Rostikov by being an honest cop in a sea of police corruption. Like "Find Miriam", this tale builds up a Surrealist charge. It depicts a world that is full of vivid detail, yet has a dream-like strangeness.


Sara Paretsky

Paretsky's tale "Dealer's Choice" (1988) is a delightful pastiche of Raymond Chandler. It has well plotted, complex detective story, with features that resemble Chandler's tales, such as lying clients sending Marlowe into traps. It is also full of Paretsky's political concerns. They show up unexpectedly in the story, and are integrated with the surprises of the mystery plot. This is an excellent way to construct a political mystery tale.

"Three Dot Po" is a vividly told adventure story. It is hardly a detective story in any strict sense - the detective just happens to encounter the killer by coincidence when he returns to the scene of the crime, and there is no genuine detection. Still it is a well written tale.


Patrick Irelan

"High Water" (1995) marked the short story debut of private eye Michael Scofield. It appeared in the September 1995 EQMM. The tale is most interesting for Scofield's lively narrative voice. He often makes clever wry observations, rather than wisecracks strictly speaking. The story also has an interesting setting: Davenport, Iowa, during a flood of the Mississippi.

Dan A. Sproul

Sproul's short tales about private eye Joe Standard form a pleasant throwback to pulp magazine traditions. "Oh, Mona" (2001) resembles pulp magazine tales of mystery-adventure, in which a private eye hero has some fun experiences while on a case. Like some of his pulp adventure predecessors, such as T. T. Flynn, "Oh, Mona" lacks a puzzle plot mystery. But it does stick to logical, straightforward detection, and shows some ingenuity in its final capture of the villain.

Terence Faherty

Terence Faherty has a personal web site.

Scott Elliott in Hollywood

The Hollywood Op: Private Eye Scott Elliott in Tinseltown collects eight short stories about Scott Elliott.

"The Second Coming" (2002) is a story about Terence Faherty's series character, Hollywood private eye Scott Elliott. The tale has a logically constructed mystery plot, without actually containing a puzzle plot in the traditional sense. It has a knowledgeable background about three eras in Hollywood - the teens, the forties and the sixties - giving the tale a nice, and unusual, historical perspective. The tone of the story is carefully balanced. It is rightly critical of, and mournful about, Hollywood's huge waste of talent. Yet it does not suggest, as too many Hollywood mysteries do, that everyone in the film industry is a depraved monster.

The story has the poetical mood of classic hard-boiled fiction. A subplot set in a lonely canyon recalls Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and the relationship between the detective hero and the agency that employs him recalls Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op. This is not necessarily a bad thing - it is good to see a private eye tale evoke classic traditions.

"Unruly Jade" (2009) is a nice story, in the full pulp-magazine tradition of robbery and trailing suspects at glamorous nightclubs full of crooks. One could imagine 1930's private eye writers like Frederick Nebel coming up with a tale like this. Faherty eventually develops a mystery with a logical solution, and some good plot twists along the way.

The Star Republic short stories

Faherty has written a series about a reporter for the Star Republic newspaper in Indianapolis, Indiana. The series runs in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. "Where Is He Now?" (February 2005), and "Forget Me Never" (June 2008) involve the reporter investigating, and trying to explain, events for which rational explanations seem difficult. "Where Is He Now?" has a borderline-impossible situation, while "Forget Me Never" deals with an off-trail premise that seems physically possible, but whose motivations seem completely obscure. Both stories benefit from the freshness of their mystery situations, and both develop ingenious explanations for their mystery puzzles.

Other stories in the Star Republic series include "Rise Up" (August 1998), and the more minor tale "The Vigil" (June 2006).


Meredith S. Cole

Meredith S. Cole writes about sleuth Lydia McKenzie, a secretary to private eyes in Brooklyn.

"Exercise Is Murder" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, June 2008) is a nicely done pure detective story. It is what is known as a howdunit: a death occurs, without a clear cause, and the detective has to figure out how it happened. Howdunits, almost by definition, offer a mystery puzzle to the reader: something that is most welcome.

"Exercise Is Murder" also has a background: an institution observed in detail, that serves as both setting for the story, and a subject in its own right. Here the background is of a public swimming pool. The use of a public institution is pleasant, reminding one of how rich the USA is in public places. There is a bit of an echo, perhaps, of Marcia Muller, who occasionally sets her tales in public locales in the San Francisco area. The tone also recalls Muller: a sober realism, but without gore, sleaze or bitterness, and with a sympathy for people's aspirations.

"Exercise Is Murder" follows the private eye structural convention, in which the sleuth visits various suspects on their home turf.


Bill Crider

Bill Crider's recent mystery comedy pieces are laugh out loud funny. They include considerable spoofing of contemporary mores, including such cultural institutions as Tom Clancy thrillers and Christmas celebrations. Crider shows imagination in his zany tableaux, and it is refreshing to read stories that are not set in the same old same old.

Bill Crenshaw

Bill Crenshaw's "Flicks" (1988) is more like a suspense tale or even a horror story than a real mystery tale. It builds up creepy atmosphere from its look at horror films and the people who go see them. This is not my favorite subject matter - I never go to horror films, which repulse me and give me nightmares - but Crenshaw's tale shows considerable literary skill. It also has an originality of approach.

Ted Wood

Ted Wood's "Pit Bull" (1987) is not strictly speaking a mystery, but is more properly a thriller. But it has elements in common with the mystery. The hero is faced with a mysterious situation, and he has to do a lot of detective work to get to the bottom of it. The story is also filled with vivid characterization.

Vincent Banville

"Body Count" (2000) is an amusing vignette of underworld life in Dublin.

Ruth Dwyer

"Bird of Paradise" (2003) is a colorfully written crime story, with some elements of mystery. It appeared as a First Story in the April 2003 EQMM. It has links with the Rogue tradition, starring a clever criminal who moves through an elegant upper crust world. As in Rogue stories, there is danger, but no actual killings.

Dick Francis

Dick Francis is a prolific author of thrillers, often with a horse racing background.

Risk (1977) shows echoes of the Realist School of detective fiction, especially of Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers:

Risk is mainly a thriller, and has charm as such, especially in its first half (Chapters 1- 9). It has a mystery puzzle, but it is skimpy and uncreative.

John Grisham

John Grisham is the only best-selling author whose works I have ever liked. (Well admittedly, a few of Agatha Christie's books hit the best seller lists late in her life, and such writers I love as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Roberts Rinehart made it early in the century.) Still, most writers on the best seller lists leave me cold. Not Mr. Grisham. He is a genuinely good storyteller, whose books leave me wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens next. Grisham also violates all my preconceptions about literary technique. Normally I prefer precision and economy to expansiveness, and often prefer short stories to novels, as far less padded. When I do read novels, I prefer the densely plotted, every-sentence-advances-the-plot works of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. This is basically a short story technique, and in many ways the "novels" of Christie, Carr and Queen are gigantic short stories, with correspondingly gigantic plots, much bigger than the plots of traditional mainstream novels, and not novels at all in the conventional sense. Grisham's works are seemingly the exact opposite. He never says anything in a paragraph when he can expand it out to ten pages. Amazingly to me, it all works in his books, and works wonderfully. One aspect is that Grisham's writing is full of fascinating detail and inventive plot elements. Also, it makes his characters and settings seem much more real and vivid.

Grisham's works are thrillers, not mystery stories. One can trace a direct line from pioneer thriller writer Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905) to The Pelican Brief (1992). Like Wallace, Grisham's books are full of liberal satire and social commentary. Both deal with public issues, and with characters at the upper reaches of government. There are other parallels. Wallace was defeated in his bid to enter Parliament, whereas Grisham has served in the Mississippi State Legislature. Grisham has reportedly turned down an offer to run for the US Senate, preferring to concentrate on his writing career.

The Firm

John Grisham's The Firm is full of wicked satire of today's yuppies. His "hero" Mitch is only a little better morally than his villains. Mitch doesn't kill anyone, but he has much the same values as the bad guys in the tale. He judges people by their physical attractiveness, as we see in the first chapter, just as the book's villainous lawyers do, and values money above all things. He only considers helping the government out in catching the bad guys for pay, and has no sense of civic duty. He willingly cheats on his wife, and then seems only interested in whether he can get away with it. Mitch is at once so "normal" - he is a typical yuppie in all things - and so morally sleazy, that he forms one seamless portrait of moral corruption in our society.

All of this had to be changed for the movie version. The film's producers were apparently afraid to have Tom Cruise play a character this corrupt, and Mitch and the book had to be completely retooled to make his character a lot more innocent. While Grisham was understandably upset about the changes to his work, I think the changes made commercial sense. Audiences do not really want to see principal characters on the screen who are morally depraved. They want heroes.

Filmmakers are also perhaps a little afraid of the political implications of Grisham's tale. He shows a typical young, handsome, straight white male as rotten to the core. By implication, Grisham's book is an indictment of what is still the dominant group in our society, the white male. Minorities have been saying for a long time that this group is really corrupt, and really vicious in its treatment of outsiders. But Hollywood filmmakers have always drawn on this group for its heroes, and many white people have a deep, subconscious need to see the white male as a person of special virtue.

The filmmakers have not grasped the ideas underlying The Firm's villains, either. In the book, the bad guys who run the Firm form a picture of a totalitarian institution, trying to control every aspect of their employees' lives, right into their bedrooms. This portrait of total control forms both a fantasy or daydream of power, and a not-too-exaggerated satire of the real behavior of the world's corporations. One half suspects that many real life companies would like to go to the extreme lengths of the Firm in the book, if only they could get away with it. Grisham's book is a hilarious satire of the corporate world. It is also an allegorical picture of the excesses of too powerful governments - the scenes at the Vietnam War Memorial form a reminder of a time in the recent past when our own government went too far.

Grisham's principal interest here is plainly in looking at the Firm's efforts at total control of its employees. But he is writing in a tradition that requires him to pay at least lip service to realism, and for believability he needs some sort of "explanation" for the Firm's conduct. The only way Grisham could figure out to "explain" the extremes to which the Firm goes, is to make the Firm be controlled by mob money. This explanation is none too believable - I doubt if real life mob money laundering enterprises at all resemble the novel's Firm - but it does give the book at least a toehold in reality. Grisham's vividly imagined detail does the rest, conveying an gripping illusion of reality in most of his scenes.

In the book, the Firm's totalitarian behavior is the focus, and the mob money forms only a gimmick used for explanation. The mob serves an analogous role in the novel, to what Alfred Hitchcock called the "McGuffin" in his films. The movie version changes this emphasis. The movie shows little of the Firm's behavior, and instead is a thriller about the problems of a nice young man who discoverers that he is inadvertently working for the mob.

This is typical of the film version of The Firm. Everything that is creative or original about the book, everything that has any political or social significance, has been obliterated from the film version. What is left is an OK-enough film thriller, that resembles a thousand other thrillers made by Hollywood.

A Time To Kill

The film version of A Time To Kill (1996) shows terrific storytelling, even though it is full of confused political ideas. I would adopt a more middle position towards the father in the film than any of the characters do. I think what he did was wrong, but would not have the heart to convict him, understanding the extremes of anguish that drove him to the killings. This is a position that is never actually reached by the film: either people think he is a hero or a murderer. In addition, what the lawyer did in not stopping him before hand is extremely wrong. It is one thing for a bereaved father to run amok, something society should forgive, but not approve. It is another for an uninvolved bystander to condone such behavior. My pacifist convictions are speaking here: there is never a time to kill.

The film is of two minds about violence in general, perhaps genuinely reflecting the confusion in society on this subject. On the one hand, it suggests violence is really manly, especially when used to protect your family. There is an appeal to Rambo like emotions that most men have very strongly. It is a sentimental fantasy wallow for men, and quite irresistible as entertainment: the idea that you will strap on your guns and do battle for your family. However, the film also shows the enormous real life costs of such vigilantism, with people dead and wounded all over the place, and several characters issuing round denunciations of the violence in screen. In real life, I tend to agree with these people.

The film's ideas about race are also scrambled. Do white people still hate black people so much that they would have no sympathy for the father in the tale? I think not; I think race relations in America have improved beyond the point in the story. Perhaps I am naive. I also find it hard to believe that a politician running for Governor would feel that prosecuting the father would aid his popularity with voters; I think that most crime fearing voters today would have great sympathy with the father.

The acting in the film is very good. John Sayles regular Chris Cooper does extremely well in a small role, as the deputy. Kevin Spacey is a tiger whose claws have been pulled, however. He acts real menacing, and it is genuinely frightening when the lawyer hero realizes he is going up in court against Spacey, the most frightening bad guy in recent film and TV. But he never actually does anything that is really bad, or hard to overcome. The filmmakers have pulled his punches. Similarly, Jack Nicholson buckles up way too easily under Tom Cruise's questioning in A Few Good Men (1992). I suspect that in a fair fight, not a fairy tale like this picture, that Spacey would eat McConaughey alive. However, once again it is emotionally satisfying to see the hero win. The much hyped Matt McConaughey shows real magnetism in the lead role. He is not a great actor, yet, and he is more a matinee idol than anyone whose performance becomes totally believable, but he has real movie star charisma. It is perhaps a sign of my getting older that he looks so young to me - more like a college fraternity president than a lawyer.

Joel Schumacher's films are often multiply threaded, with many independent stories going on all at once. The effect is of a mosaic. This can be both a strength and a weakness. The films do not follow a single logical narrative, and can seem diffuse. But it allows the introduction of a great deal of varied material, and can make for a creative film. Schumacher started out with stories about a whole group of characters: Car Wash, Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill, D.C. Cab, St. Elmo's Fire. These early films recalled those of Robert Altman, with their interlocking vignettes. Less exaltedly, they also echoed The Love Boat, and other multi story TV shows of their era. Schumacher has kept to same structure for his recent films, Batman Forever, and A Time To Kill.