Saturday, July 19, 2008

I miss Jane Marple

I just returned from a trek to the library. Dropped off the Nevada Barr and Steve Hamilton books, picked up some fresh reading material. As I browsing the shelves, it hit me: except in police procedurals (and half the time not even there), sleuthing is a lost art. The current model is Our Hero (or Heroine, as the case may be) kind of blunders around, puts multiple people in peril, friends and enemies both drop like flies just from the sheer bad luck of having come within fifty miles of OH -- I keep thinking that any park superintendent that let Nevada Barr's Anna Pidgeon character inside the boundaries of his/her park would be bucking for early retirement using a medical (mental health) disability (it would be the equivalent of inviting Jessica Fletcher over for dinner) -- and then, voila, after there's half a dozen dead bodies piled up The Answer drops into his or her lap, usually when The Villain is standing over OH about to bash OH's brains in with a tire iron. That's when a Great Light dawns and OH has an epiphany. I really miss Jane Marple.

Or, more accurately, I miss Dame Agatha and the other writers of her generation. Granted, contemporary authors lay out clues so I, the reader who is privy to stuff OH is not, can figure out pretty quickly who the Evil-doer is, but I'd appreciate a Hero/Heroine who at least went through the motions of observing those same clues.

Case in point, Steve Hamilton's walking disaster of a hero, Alex McKnight. After reading three of Hamilton's books, I'm starting to think McKnight gives Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum a good run for the money in total denseness. Stephanie has an excuse, though. She's a Jersey girl who's being played for laughs. McKnight is supposedly an ex-cop, someone who took a medical retirement after getting three slugs from an Uzi in his chest. He should know enough to stop and think, especially when he's old enough (pushing 50) that testosterone poisoning doesn't make for much of an excuse for stupidity any more. Does he ever pause to mull things over and try to connect the dots? Nope. Loses his temper or gets impatient, goes chasing off on strange tangents without thinking stuff through, and manages to survive through sheer luck.

I do enjoy Hamilton's books. They're decent mind candy. Hamilton's got the setting (the eastern end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula) nailed, the social commentary is dead on, and he's obviously taken some time to get to understand the various ethnographic aspects of the area, like the hockey culture. It's kind of fun observing middle-aged male angst from the inside, like when McKnight decides to eliminate his gray hair as part of trying to impress a much younger woman. I just wish he'd figure out a way to have McKnight demonstrate some thinking before he gets hit in the head with the figurative (and frequently literal) 2x4.

As for Nevada Barr and poor, battered NPS law enforcement ranger Anna Pidgeon. . . Winter Study was probably better than her last book, but I really think Ms. Barr needs to re-think this chronological thing she's got going. Anna's getting way too old to be floundering around in cedar swamps in the winter -- she's got to be pushing the mandatory retirement age for an LE, so it's time for Barr to step into the wayback machine and fill in some of the spaces in Anna's story, go back to Anna's early years and how she got to be NPS law enforcement and stop trying to keep things contemporaneous with her own life. Much as I appreciate seeing a middle-aged heroine, I really don't want to end up reading about Ranger Pidgeon's hot flashes a book or two from now -- and that's going to happen if Barr continues on this same timeline.

Barr apparently spent 8 days on Isle Royale with the wolf study team as part of doing the background research for the book. Not long enough, though, because I don't think she got a real appreciation for just how exhausting and time consuming it is to maneuver in deep snow, bitter cold, and cedar swamps, especially in an area that also has a fair number of abandoned copper mine shafts to worry about, but that's a minor quibble. The book is sufficiently well-written that I got sucked into reading past my bedtime, and, had I spent money on it rather than checking it out from the public library, I wouldn't have felt ripped off. And she did get the name of the sausage company in Hancock right, even if she didn't mention that they make the best hot dogs and sauna makkara on the planet.


  1. I agree, sometimes I get so disgusted with some of the story dumb are they? can see the ending coming at page 14...which is why james lee burke is one of my favorites..he tells a story, the characters are human, real and flawed...friendship is something cherished and life is good...even when it's bad...

  2. I think James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux falls into being one of the exceptions, except technically the books might fall into the category of "police procedural" (Dave is a cop). I've been thinking, though, that Burke has the same problem with Dave that Barr has with Anna -- Dave is getting old. On the one hand, Burke has been able to do a lot with keeping things contemporary, but on the other. . . I think he needs to do the wayback machine, too, and write some set back in the 60s or 70s, fill in the gaps in Dave's life. Just like I don't want to read about Anna's hot flashes, I don't want to learn that Dave is considering popping Viagara.

  3. I keep thinking that any park superintendent that let Nevada Barr's Anna Pidgeon character inside the boundaries of his/her park would be bucking for early retirement using a medical (mental health) disability (it would be the equivalent of inviting Jessica Fletcher over for dinner)

    Damn right. My complaint about the Anna Pigeon books is that the plots tend to be overdone and improbable. Superior Death was an example: the sheer number of miscreants and misfits on one small (okay, moderately large, but still!) island beggared belief.

    I'm cool with giving her some willing suspension of disbelief about things like specific details of park topography, since she does nail NPS institutional culture pretty well. What finally caused me to tire and eventually give up were her weaknesses in plotting. Ten or 15 years ago I was buying each now book as it came out; I've skipped the last few entirely, so have no idea what personal crises Ms Pigeon is dealing with these days. (Hot flashes? Really? I'm not surprised. TMI! TMI!)

    On the other hand, I get mighty tired of the old-school Brit mysteries, where the lengthy final chapter always includes everyone assembling together in the parlor or dining room, so Mr./Ms Smart Sleuth can explain his deductive processes for 57 pages while the actual criminal gets more and more nervous, until he finally gets up and bolts, whereupon the moronic police inspector finally catches a clue and arrests the guy, making sure to include his middle name in the charging statement.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.