The Gift of the Gab: Tana French

During the course of 2021, I discovered a fine Irish-American novelist: Tana French, who writes literary detective novels set in or near Dublin (the Dublin Murder Squad series).

French’s dialog delivers the magic elixir of story-telling: presence. She can capture the essence of a character with a line or two of craic (conversation). She has the gift of the gab; like Elmore Leonard, her dialog will hook you.

French’s latest book, The Searcher (2020), is a stand-alone novel featuring retired cop Cal Hooper, a sympatico Yank who has washed up in the west of Ireland, looking to leave the mean streets of Chicago behind. Hooper worked Missing Persons in Chicago; as luck would have it, he becomes embroiled in a local misper case.

The story unfolds in rural Ireland, sans a slew of high-octane car chases or bloody gun battles. However, there’s no lack of drama. If you like stories told with a slow burn, yet plenty of flareups along the way, The Searcher is for you. If you want a policier with forensics and hardened criminals, look for French’s Dublin novels.

Tana French on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tana_French

Reading in the Time of Covid

Recent consumer studies show that book purchases increased during the pandemic and that the Crime/Mystery genre registered the most purchases, more even than Romance.

On my side, since Covid-19 began clobbering the planet in early 2020, I haven’t been reading much mystery/detective fiction. I’ve been digging into non-fiction, mostly history and science. With a death pall on the land, grisly murders didn’t grab me. Now that Covid-19 is a smaller scourge — in my locale, that is — I’m back to reading mystery/detective novels. Although whodunits revolve around murder, most aren’t hung up on death. The plots explore everything under the sun. They portray all aspects of humanity, from the positive to the negative. They are good and evil incarnate.

So, I’m back at it, checking out the “deadly” genre. I wonder how it will reflect the new zeitgeist. What’s going on out there? Uncertainty and innovation, to name a few things. And murder, of course. It would take more than a pandemic to rid the planet of murder, not to mention murder mysteries and romances. Read on, dear reader, whatever your favourite genres.

Unwitting Accessories

Criminology studies show that many murder victims do something that leads to their deaths: e.g., they cheat, hoard money, or assault someone. In such cases, from one point-of-view, they trigger their own demises. They are accessories to their own murders – unwitting accessories.

“Accessories, AMP? How can you call them that? They didn’t conspire to kill themselves.” Agreed, they didn’t, not in the strict sense of the word. {Just to be clear: I am not an apologist for murderers. I don’t blame murder victims for their deaths. They were killed; they were not killers.} I’m expanding the meaning of the word accessory, bringing a new version to life – well, to death. Crime fiction approaches death directly. Homicide detectives don’t euphemize or obfuscate; they pursue the Grim Reaper with open eyes. They believe a person’s actions have consequences.

I’m with them. I don’t know if there’s life after death. I can’t say if there’s a heaven or hell. However, there’s one thing I’m sure of: What we do in life counts.

Dark Angels

To some, crime noir is a subgenre set in grim urban environments, featuring petty criminals and desperate characters, permeated by a sense of disillusionment. I favour a wider lens. In the North Noir series, crime noir is less bleak. It is more like life itself: not always dark, not always light.

Crime noir is linked to film noir, to movies such as The Maltese Falcon, which was first a novel. In a noir detective novel, the main character is sharp-witted and/or sharp-tongued. No quarter is given. Criminals try to rig the system, but fail.

Of course, noir detectives aren’t lily white. They cross lines, some more egregious than others, which they breach for the sake of efficiency or to apprehend criminals. Noir detectives are crime fiction’s dark angels. They know darkness, but follow the light.

Elmore Leonard – More Hemingway than Hemingway

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.

Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.

Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.

As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.

Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmore_Leonard

A few excerpts from the Leonard opus ….

A male character called Foley to Dawn:

“Tell me, what is it about a girl’s navel? It catches the eye and won’t let go.”
“I suppose,” Dawn said, “because it’s right in the middle of the playground.”

Two “criminal” characters:

“I’m saying we’re all friends,” Frank said. “Kindred spirits. Birds of a feather.”
“Man,” Sportree said, “you need some new words.”