Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spring Thaw Mystery Report by guest blogger Steven Head

I just finished my 4th C.J. Box mystery novel, “Winterkill”, featuring Joe Pickett, Wyoming Game Warden. I started reading Box based on the recommendation of fellow Wyoming mystery writer Craig Johnson. Box is a good writer, able to maintain suspense, develops good characters although his villains are uni-dimensional, and incorporate environmental and morality issues.

Box writes from the 3rd person perspective so the reader can experience the story through more than the eyes of the main character. I have to confess a preference for first person narrator. Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, the father, son, and holy ghost of the American mystery genre, all employed first person. I think it nutures a bonding between reader and detective that is harder to achieve with 3rd person.

One of the things I like about the Joe Pickett character is that he makes mistakes. A hunter takes his pistol away from him during an arrest, he tickets the Governor of Wyoming for a license infraction, and a guy he arrests handcuffs him to his steering wheel. Like most good detectives he is able to use his powers of observation and logic to see what others do not and in the process free the wrongly accused, disprove a suicide theory, and outsmart more than one bad actor.

The thing I dislike about the Pickett series is the integral involvement of his family, especially his daughters. I do not mind the frequent presence of the mother-in-law and the unstable dynamics that creates with his wife. But placing his elementary school aged children in danger in every story seems wrong. A mystery reader expects the main character, or the sidekick, to find him/herself in danger. And when used judiciously the girlfriend, wife, or child. But not every time. And not when he uses those threats to justify lethal actions. But when the villain is a cardboard character the death is just not as real as a well drawn character. Maybe Box has moved beyond this approach in his later novels, but I’m not sure I want to find out.

It is the skilled author that can sustain interest in a detective series. I faithfully followed Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhoun alphabet books until E or maybe F. Like Ross Macdonald, who Grafton openly acknowledges including the use of his fictional California town of Santa Teresa in her series, the names and circumstance of Grafton’s tales change but there is the unmistakable feeling of déjà vu.

So far I have not had that experience with author John Sandford and Lucas Davenport in the “Prey” series. Another example, from the international espionage genre, is Len Deighton and the Bernard Sampson series of (Berlin) Game, (Mexico) Set, (London) Match, Hook, Line, Sinker, Faith, Home, Charity. I want to keep reading about Sampson and at the same time recognize the series had reached a logical conclusion. Deighton used the first person narrative in the first 8 books, and used the final installment to look back over the series from different perspectives. Showing everything was not necessarily what it seemed.

And of course the Jim Chee/Joe Leephorn series by Tony Hillerman always left me counting the days until the next book.

Let me know if there is another good series I should investigate.

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