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
Crime, Punishment and Resurrection
Island of Steel (1988)
Trouble Is What I Do (Collected Ben Perkins stories)
Porfiry Petrovich Rostikov stories
Michael Scofield tales
Joe Standard stories
The Pelican Brief (1992)
The Client (1993)
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
Other stories in the Star Republic series include "Rise Up" (August 1998), and the more minor tale "The Vigil" (June 2006).
"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.
Risk (1977) shows echoes of the Realist School of detective fiction, especially of Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers:
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.
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.
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.