Sunday, February 11, 2007

When Mystery Authors Go "Off Series"

[This was printed in the February issue of the Vermont Review of Books -- a great publication.]

When a successful mystery writer moves “off series” into stand-alone books, it can be a jolt for committed readers. But it’s often propelled by fresh depths in the author’s thinking and writing. So it’s worth testing out the fresh work.
Donald Westlake (a.k.a. Richard Stark) spends his life going on and off series, although many of his independents have become series in turn. For him, the pressure to move comes from a personal writing style that presses out far more than the standard one book per year that publishers expect. Multiple series, multiple approaches, let him put out more than one at a time.
Michael Connelly avoids having his character Harry Bosch become stale for him by diverging from time to time. In 2005 he brought out The Lincoln Lawyer, a legal thriller set in Bosch’s neighborhood; in 2006 he erupted with Echo Park, a powerful, suspense-driven detective novel that takes Bosch back into his unsettle past, and wrestles with whether he has the capacity for enduring love of anyone.
John Lescroart, after 13 Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky police procedurals, needed to plow new ground and took a minor character from the series, Wyatt Hunt, as protagonist in the highly satisfying Hunt Club last year; his sales leaped by 25 percent, and he released this month another stand-alone that reaches into the series for its protagonist, Gina Roake, in The Suspect.
Lescroart’s work has been far less recognized than Connelly’s, but his new surge of success may shift the balance a bit. Even less known outside the circles of mystery fanatics is S. J. Rozan, petite, tough New York architect, basketball player (despite her height handicap), and mystery author. Her series featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith is charged with electricity and chemistry, as well as the grit and diversity of New York., and she’s the only woman besides Sue Grafton to win the prestigious Shamus Award for Best Novel (for Concourse). But when she moved “off series” with the 2004 publication of Absent Friends, it was a publishing disaster.
Let me quickly add that Rozan’s Absent Friends is an intense, well-written, even gripping mystery. The drawback in publishing terms turned out to be that it probes corruption in the sea of fundraising that responded to the 9-11 disaster in New York City. And, as she explained when she visited New England last year, people who experienced the trauma of 9-11 just don’t want to read any fiction about it. That means most of New York, at least. Ouch. Yet I predict the book will be quietly rediscovered by the rest of us.
So when I picked up Rozan’s brand new 2007 release, In This Rain, I thought maybe she’d return to the tried-and-true series. Wrong. What she’s done instead is intensify the probing of a city’s complex politics and the pool of money that feeds urban development; braid it into multiple motives for political and personal loss of integrity; add a dose of realistic race conflict; and spin it all through two compelling characters, the gravely wounded Joe Cole (dedicated police officer burned in a construction scandal) and hard-driven office Ann Montgomery, Joe’s former partner.
The book opens with short jagged chapters that flash among a handful of unrelated settings, much like glimpses through a bus or train window: You see the scene, even grasp the motives, but a moment later you’re someplace else and you haven’t known enough to call in an SOS for anyone, so to speak. I hated the sensation of reading these disconnected pieces, but I admit it gives a real city sensation. And it doesn’t take long before the connections emerge. Who controls development in impoverished city areas like Harlem? How will this affect mayoral and governor aspirations for the current crop of politicos and their aspiring replacements? Joe and Ann keep diving through paper trails, crash-landing in deep waters, twisted by high risks. Their complicated affection for each other adds pain.
With these plot twists come hard questions for all of us: If a political leader makes a place better, is it worth ignoring his or her ethical lapses? If there are lives to be saved, how many of the rules can be broken? What happens in a person to move the mind into killing mode? And if you’re a career police officer, exposed to death and abuse on a daily basis, do you lose the capacity to fully love another person, even your own child or spouse?
Sure, Rozan’s earlier characters were likeable, eager, and good at unraveling police situations. But this newer Rozan, with its jagged and deep losses and its hard-won survivals, even triumphs, is a far better read.
Thank goodness she left her series and made the leap into such books. Of course, she still may not find easy recognition and fame; she might not even want it. (Could interfere a lot with the basketball games.) But with each book like this one, she’s earning the commitment of readers who want their “escape reading” to also fortify them, get them better able to face the nets of both hard choices and flaming beauty still to come.

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