Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mysteries in and out of Series: Cornwell (SCARPETTA), O'Connnell (BONE BY BONE), and Connelly (THE BRASS VERDICT)

We really should have terms that differentiate a linked series, where knowledge of previous volumes is expected, and one that instead simply features the same solver of mysteries: The latter category is snugly occupied by Agatha Christie's work, and trickling into the former are the Sherlock Holmes stories and Dorothy Sayers's novels that keep crimes independent, but carry an emotional thread for Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane from one part of their slow romance to the next.

At the far extreme of "read the precursors" are the brutal and disturbing Burke novels by Andrew Vachss; earlier volumes explain the mountain of grief that Burke carries, as well as the crescendo of anger and brutality that surrounds him (but also, and crucially, his network of inalienable and brilliant friends). Patricia Cornwell's series featuring Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta is best read from first volume to last, although there's little frustration in picking one up without recent recollection of its predecessor. The exception to this is surely Cornwell's most recent work, SCARPETTA.

If you read SCARPETTA without any of the others, the confusing emotions -- like Kay's maternal ties to her niece Lucy, her ambivalence toward former team player Pete Marino, and her bizarre entanglement with Benton Wesley -- accrete into painful distractions in a psychological twist of murder and foulest play. But Lucy's anger at the other players, and Pete's reluctance to collaborate, and Benton's unhappy self-knowledge, are as significant as the cruel machinations around Kay. And by the halfway point of the book, it's clear that everything, even the existence of the crimes here, centers on the forensic investigator and her overwhelming fame. Hence the book's title -- because everything revolves around her and around her past.

The plot is complex, the movement compelling, the characters only a hair more bizarre than believable. I found the book worth reading, although I have my doubts about the finale, which I'll only say appears to be an attempt to end the series. But it may have about the same long-term success as what Arthur Conan Doyle did to Holmes at Reichenbach Falls.

Michael Connelly's THE BRASS VERDICT is the second in his later series, the one that starts with THE LINCOLN LAWYER and features defense attorney Mickey Haller. After a painful sabbatical from his legal career, Haller is just about ready to resume practice -- when the sudden murder of a colleague drops an entire set of colleagues and cases into his lap. Like Connelly's other featured protagonist, Harry Bosch, whose series began with The Black Echo, Haller's attentiveness to each case depends on how vehemently he chooses to assert himself against injustice for the people involved (or the people chasing him). Bosch enters THE BRASS VERDICT early in the action, but as a relatively flat character whose actions challenge Haller's. This isn't unexpected -- THE LINCOLN LAWYER included a cameo appearance from Bosch. Haller's inner demons cause him nearly as much danger as his clients' criminal connections, and if you didn't read the Bosch series, you'll actually have more pleasure here; Bosch is more complex than Haller, endures more pain, carries darker friends with him. Haller's associates are mostly well intentioned and let in quite a bit of light. I'm not going into plot details here, except to say that the book is clearly laying the ground for its sequel. I want to read the next one -- but even more, I want to go back to the Bosch series to savor the shadows.

And that takes me to Carol O'Connell. Her newly released BONE BY BONE is a stand-alone psychological thriller, where disorders and diseases of the mind weave a frightening set of threats for Oren Hobbs, home at last after a nearly 20-year career in military law enforcement, summoned to deal with his father's infirmity and the unsolved disappearance of his brother. The title has multiple layers of significance: As Oren arrives home in northern California, the bones of his brother's body are being gradually returned, one at a time, to his father's house. Similarly, he'll sort the old neighborhood and its inhabitants as he builds a skeleton of the past and present evils, going through suspicions "one by one." And last of all, for me, is the resonance with the noted Anne Lamott "writing guide" BIRD BY BIRD -- because birds and their flying hungers add to the level of threat around Oren. Disturbing, violent, and erupting in unexpected revelations, the book fits the thriller genre immaculately.

And yet I found myself hungry for the character complexity that O'Connell wove, book by book, in her Mallory series, which begins with MALLORY'S ORACLE, O'Connell's first published volume. And that's an unfair comparison, to take the complexity of an entire series and pit it against a stand-alone. So I re-read MALLORY'S ORACLE this week, looking for the "how" of the characterization and tension. I discovered that O'Connell actually did the same thing with Mallory that she does with Oren Hobbs: keeps the protagonist well surrounded by walls of necessary mental privacy, which the other characters barely breach. Only in the sure-footed action of solving the crimes do the secrets of Mallory's and Oren's minds get reflected. And even then, as readers, we see as through a glass darkly, without the direct emotion that, say, Dennis Lehane or S. J. Rozan will reveal in the writing.

Do I like these? Yes.

Complexity, realistic threat, the necessity of allies, the long-term regrets that bedevil us all, and glimpses of redemption. To me, those are the ingredients of the modern mystery or crime novel that I'll re-read. Hey, in today's economy, if a book's not good enough to read twice, why would I purchase it?

I'm glad we purchased these.

[P.S.: To search the Kingdom Books shelves for books by these authors, go to and click on "Browse and Buy," then type the author name into our ABE search box.]

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