Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Violence, the Reader, and the Compact: New Series Mysteries from Patricia Cornwell, Andrew Vachss

Taste develops from tasting -- even in mysteries.

I like narrative, and clues, and emotion. And I confess my favorite mysteries include a balance of some sort of justice. The good guys don't always have to get rewarded, and the bad guys don't have to go to prison, but if justice is truly perverted at the end of the book, then I want an explanation, a sense of the author's frustration with how life doesn't always go right, and a touch of hope of some sort.

When Scott Smith's horror gem THE RUINS came out last year, I dug into the advance review copy determinedly, knowing the author's reputation for intense, dynamic plot work. And the book showed all of that, along with images I'll never boot out of my head -- but it turned out to be a book that I couldn't put down, but also couldn't feel clean or satisfied about. And that was a matter of taste: I like a story where the protagonist has a chance to get things right, and where the best efforts turn out to be worth something. Instead, in THE RUINS, as in many a Stephen King novel, the creeping sense of horror and dread builds from the exact opposite: the reader's awareness that no matter how good or strong or perceptive the protagonist becomes, the forces of dead or mutilation are gonna win.

Reading one of Andrew Vachss's Burke novels comes with the inverse guarantee. For all the darkness and malevolence that Burke uncovers in his lifelong crusade against child sexual molestation, Burke's world of strong friends and savvy allies ensures that the bad guys will indeed be punished, and Burke will console himself for his losses by leaning on his good friends.

However, the newest Burke -- number 17 -- takes its time getting to the action. At a rough count, the first third of TERMINAL is spent drawing out the details from the ex-con who wants Burke to help pull a super-money con game on a team of molesters. The lashings of anger and statistics that Burke dishes out in those pages have given rise to some accusations that the book is political and over-the-top. As a result, this isn't the Vachss volume I'd recommend to a newcomer to the series. Spare, terse, often broken into short stretches of thought or memory, the story unspools in a ragged pace that resembles in fact the pace of recovery: up one moment, then dragging the depths, held to the distant surface only by the safety line of phone calls to friends and fellow travelers. But for fans of the series -- like me -- it's a must-read, not only for the plot but for the revelations about Burke's friends and the hint that, after the major losses he's sustained in his life, some daily tenderness might yet fluorish.

Which is a long way of saying: It fits the agreement with the reader. Burke's successes come from his hard work. His pain, which is a side-effect of his roots and his work, gets shared with his friends and is bearable (more or less). The satisfaction is there, painted in red and black but there.

Similarly, Patricia Cornwell's fifteenth Kay Scarpetta novel, BOOK OF THE DEAD, is a must-read for a series fan. And also similarly, it's a volume I won't place in the hands of any novice to Cornwell's style of psychological threat and sickening malevolence. Kay Scarpetta has a chance at recovering some balance and steady affection in her life in this one -- but she has an archenemy whose vicious plan is constantly revealed to the reader, as the "omniscient" narration slips back and forth among the characters. And there's actually nothing much Kay can do to dodge the pain that the wicked Dr. Self is aiming with such accuracy at the examiner of the dead -- who are recorded at the morgue, by the way, in the "book of the dead."

The helplessness and ensuing losses snowball, and Kay's friends aren't as magical in their skills and connections as Burke's. And in this sense, the imbalance of forces -- the winning side is clearly the evil side, even at the book's conclusion -- violates the conventions of the solve-it-with-the-investigator mystery, as opposed to the grim realism style of, say, true crime or realistic horror.

Is the book worth reading anyway? Of course. Cornwell's continued development of Kay Scarpetta as a character is compelling, and the narrative is edgy and tight.

But this is one I won't be scheduling for a second reading in the near future. The psychological force of Dr. Self and the flailing, clumsy, unprotected Scarpetta gave me a couple of really nasty nightmares.

Which I guess is another way of saying: Like Vachss, Cornwell knows how to write the evil side. Both books make the night a bit more threatening, a bit more dark indeed. I'll find some antidote in my choice of the next book I read -- but both authors have played fair with the reader, and despite the discomfort and desolation, the compact has in fact been kept. Thanks.

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