Sunday, April 05, 2009

Good Marriages and Good Mysteries: Donna Leon, Alexander McCall Smith, Colin Cotterill

Many a powerful crime or espionage novel takes its dark force from both the plot's master criminal actions, and the despair of the protagonist. Alan Furst's lost and bitter Eastern Europeans, John Le Carré's George Smiley, and Michael Connelly's Bosch come to mind, as well as Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, whose bizarre personal life makes her an irresistible victim for the psychopaths that obsess around her.

And it's easy to cast aside books with happier characters as being soft, or cozy. Happy families are all alike? Happy protagonists are sweetly dull?

I've picked Leon, McCall Smith, and Cotterill as examples of different ways to defeat this conclusion.

The "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" as a series has reached the point where Mma. Precious Ramotswe and her neighboring business owner, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, have settled into the satisfying and affectionate marriage that the two of them earned during earlier volumes. One of the charms of these books is that detective problems for Mma. Ramotswe are human in dimension, and she solves them through a combination of hard work, study, persistence, friendship, and the quiet commonsense that she's banked over the years. But McCall Smith doesn't flinch from the darkness that sometimes emerges in crime, out of the all-too-human wounds of life. And when Ramotswe and her friends notice the danger threatening them, they see roots in their own darknesses as well -- including an abusive previous marriage, for one.

Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti has little chance for sweetness in his overworked Venetian police role; even his boss is out to get him, and the criminals he confronts emerge from the humiliations of poverty, the hunger of greed, the bloody spawn of violence and sexual horrors. Brunetti risks soul damage from the bitterness and filth that keep moving into his days and nights. He also risks harming his family by taking this home with him. Leon manages to weave into this pattern an astonishly real balance of two bright, capable people willing to sacrifice short-term power for the sake of realistic love. Here are Brunetti and his wife Paola at home:
She reached out and put her hand on his arm. "I've been listening to you talk about your work, Guido, for decades, and it seems to me that there are a lot of people who are ready to kill for a lot less than the noise of a television."

After the acknowledgment of the smallness of evil's roots, Paola points out a truth of human behavior to her husband, so that they can "see" what it happening from the same vantage point. Then Guido in return compliments his wife by seeing multiple sides of her:
Paola still had her eyes closed, and he studied her profile: straight nose, perhaps too long, a faint tracing of lines around her eyes, lines he knew had been put there by humour, and just the first faint sagging of the flesh under her chin.

He thought of the kids, how tired they had been at dinner, while his eyes travelled down her body. He set his glass on the table and leaned toward her.

The willingness to embrace and trust in his private life becomes the anchor for Guido to make good choices as he pursues a criminal and comes to understand the human nastiness driving the crimes. Although he'll sacrifice a great deal to see the crime to its solution, he'll bring home a relatively clean heart.

So here's Colin Cotterill, providing a series about an elderly coroner working on disrespected remains in his confused and often corrupt city of Vientiane, Laos. It's 1978 and the "novice socialist republic" is squeezing the fun and color out of life. Dr. Siri Paiboun and his assistants, Nurse Dtui and the tongue-tied Mr. Geung, become increasingly stubborn about seeking justice for the deceased. And readers of the series know that Dr. Siri and the noodle seller Madame Daeng are waking up to an affectionate and humorous relationship that lets each of them be whole, and give wholly.

Cotterill's newest volume, THE MERRY MISOGYNIST, comes out in August from Soho Crime (bless this hard-laboring publisher bringing crime novels from so many nations to us!). That's too far away from now to offer a review or even hints at the plot. But I want to mention that Cotterill too has found a way to position the caring and trust of his characters' relationships as a counterweight to the loss and fear that a coroner's office confronts daily. No, Cotterill's series won't scare you as much as Cornwell's. But it also won't drive you to drink, in imitation of forensics pro Kay Scarpetta. In fact, if life imitates art, I expect to enjoy the partnership of my husband all the more for having enjoyed an advance read of THE MERRY MISOGYNIST.

And I'll tell you all about it, later in the summer.

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