Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Val McDermid, Jonathan Rabb, The Closer and The Prefect

Val McDermid
Val McDermid's latest, A Darker Domain, suffers by comparison with her superb A Place of Execution, or even by its predecessor A Distant Echo. Like most singletons, Place had a completeness that made it better than almost all series novels. A Distant Echo introduced the heroine of Domain. The references to the previous novel fail so miserably, except, unhappily, to diminish the memory of Echo. In Domain, the villain of Echo receives a visit from Karen Pirie, the heroine DI. This is so awkward that the characters have to deny comparisons to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. Bursting the fourth wall, so to speak, is a bad thing when the flying bricks hit you in the face.

Domain also suffers from McDermid's infatuation with her detective, a disease endemic in series novels. The novel is written with numerous flashbacks, suggesting a hope for another TV series past Wire in the Blood. The real difficulty with this novel is not that it's fairly easy to guess the solution. But the real climax of the novel is the dauntless Pirie successfully taking down a zillionaire Scots tycoon. Since there is never any question that Pirie would even hesitate to do this, nor is there any question that the invincible Pirie could fail, the climax is way too anticlimactic. The neat dovetailing of two seemingly unrelated cases, both decades old (and one tackled without permission to boot!) is also way too neat.

There is personal jeopardy hook, having to do with finding a suitable bone marrow donor for a dying toddler. Since Pirie's case(s) hinges on paternity, the sudden resolution to this outside the main plot is rather pointless, save as a ironic commentary on Pirie's "success." Except that it's the last paragraph of the book, and comes across merely as a PS to let the reader know what happened. Pirie gets laid in this one, and it is of course True Love, even though she's zaftig and he's H-O-T! Stephanie Plum getting courted by both Morelli and Ranger beats this for daydreaming in print, except this we're supposed to take seriously. Ouch!

Jonathan Rabb
Ouch, too, but in a different way for Jonathan Rabb's Rosa. (It and Shadows and Light are the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about a Kripo detective in Berlin. I've just started Shadows and Light.) Rosa was a wild conglomeration of serial killer and political intrigue over the sudden appearance of Rosa Luxemburg's body, with the distinctive cuts from a homicidal maniac imported from Belgium by some nefarious military/political operatives. Although I read the novel within the last six months the details of the labyrinthine plot have already escaped me. This doesn't matter, because Rabb's hero, Nikolai Hoffner, is much more about seeing into the souls of the people he questions, and pondering, depressively, about the emptiness of his own. There is a certain extent to which we can already see that the Reader's Digest version of the whole thing is "Humanity is shit, and the heroes are shit too."

Rabb does actually write more of a novel than a series of cues for the director. Settings are actually described! Hoffner's insights to people do actually work for the most part. And since the rather peculiar plot of Rosa got his wife killed, his depressive demeanor works in the opening of Shadows and Light. But what precisely is the point of picking Rosa Luxemburg, the eponymous victim of Rosa, and Fritz Lang in Shadows and Light, if not to address something more than the vagaries of a made up character? Rabb resolutely eschews politics, except in a politics is shit, politicians are shit and political police are especially shitty way. This quietism is like soldiers grumbling: It makes them feel all manly but doesn't mean a damn thing. Rabb may have had some foolish notions about not projecting our views backwards, except that everyone who cared to see knew exactly what kind of people murdered Luxemburg, and what kind of forces were unleashed to crush socialism. Ralph Lutz, first head of the Hoover Institute (therefore a card carrying conservative) ended his 1920 work on the Spartacist revolt specifically foreboding about the consequences. Instead, much of Rosa is about Hoffner's insight into Rosa's soul. It seems that Rabb felt a great need to find the human being, believing politics not worthy of human thought, I suppose. I would have that that all mammals have sex but only people have politics, which would make it more interesting. But there you are.

Rabb was the perpetrator of The Overseer, which positied a philosopher superior to Machiavelli who wrote centuries ago a handbook for ultimate power. The handbook was cunningly based on conservative philosophy. The gimmick was for a sexy scholar in such arcana to chase around finding the handbook, before the villainous cabal executed its instructions. Much hugger mugger, with somehow a sexy, kickass female spy handholding the sexy scholar's hand. In memory it seems very much like Da Vinci Code, except the theology in Code was intrinsically interesting. It was all very sensational and long like a blockbuster thriller should be. There is a curious contrast between The Overseer and Bruce Levine's Something to Hide. In the Levine, a not so sexy grad student has sexy, but not so kickass female holds his hand, while said grad student chases down the secret cabal operating on the philosophy of Joseph de Maistre. The plotting is much simply, the wish fulfillment characters much less grandiose and the de Maistre deadly accurate on conservative philosophy. Indeed the Levine sounds now like a Roman a clef about Leo Strauss. And yes, Skull & Bones makes an appearance in Something to Hide. That was an overlooked gem, while The Overseer's ponderous bulk confuses poor Mr. Rabb into overkill on plots and sensationalism. I'm hoping that Shadow and Light, if Rabb thinks he can start writing about the politics will be better. The opening, where someone fakes the murder of an UFA director to resemble the suicide of Fritz Lang's first wife as a way of pointing the Kripo's attention at Lang...well, maybe it won't be overplotted and underthemed. Hoffner's soulfulness may be beloved of the author, but Rabb's taste for vicarious martyrdom gives hope for some truth breaking in.

The Closer
Another detective who has been known to fail is Brenda Johnson. Kyra Sedgwick will probably never win an Emmy for her performance because Emmys are just not going to go to basic cable. Nonetheless, it is the key to the success of this show. Johnson is superior to the usual ruck of TV detectives, not just because she can fail, as in last Monday's episode, where she finds the kidnap victim dead, instead of saving him. And not just because she is a flawed human being.

She has the humorous little flaws like compulsively sneaking candy, but the big ones, like lying to her loved ones, even her parents, not just suspects. She also uses people ruthlessly, especially her new husband FBI agent Fritz. She even has had a sexual history, still a rough sell for women characters on TV. The other characters have taken note of her flaws, unusually, and they haven't always compensated with simpering at how cute her dedication is, either. The episode where Fritz told her to pick a wedding date or else, admitting that was the only way to deal with a bully was an example. Even more pointed was the Christmas episode where she lied to her parents about her visit (which was actually to search for a fugitive.) In the upshot, her lies led the fugitive to get himself killed seeking revenge for his younger brother. (Yes, there was some drivel about how the guy actually knew she was lying. It wasn't convincing.) The parents end up adopting the younger brother as a sort of compensation for her meanness. Naturally, in a later episode this is forgotten, but that's the nature of series TV.

The thing about this judgmental bitch, with her reactionary attitudes, and unthinking authoritarianism, aside from carrying conviction as the real thing, is that she is consistent. Murder's murder. Her black-and-white view leads to pursuit of lawbreakers. She almost never lets disdain for the victim or the status of suspects deter her. She never uses her manipulation to get confessions from innocent people. Is this realistic? Hell, no. It's about as fantastic as being able to twitch your nose and do magic. But it does make the series much more tasteful than something like NYPD Blue. The plots are usually decent. There has been gratifyingly little personal jeopardy. There has been a tendency for Brenda's personal life to provide the last clue to a mystery. Example: The bathroom mirror fogging up shows her how a guy in jail give his girl friend the address for a hit on a witness, despite being recorded and filmed. He fogged the mirror just off camera and wrote in it.

There has also been an extraordinary run of good luck in office politics, so that she expends huge amounts of money, time and authority on pursuing justice, instead of framing people for the clearance rate, letting cases fall between the cracks and such things we find in the real criminal investigation system. Johnson not only gets away with it, but is coming out on top! Her original nemesis, Daniels of Robbery/Homicide, now works under her in the expanded Major Crimes Unit!

The Prefect
Alastair Reynolds' latest is set in the same universe as Chasm City, before the Melding Plague that made it so delightfully Gothic, which I guess makes this book a prequel. The autonomous habitats in the Glitter Band orbiting Yellowstone must have all citizens vote in ad hoc referenda on issues of concern to all the space habitats. The Panoply operates the polling apparatus as well as traffic control. As such, it is what passes for the central government. The prefect is an agent of the Panoply. The plot is about the effort of an alpha intelligence, a survivor of the Eighty mentioned as background in Revelation Space, to seize control of the Glitter Band, having foreknowledge though the Exordium (mentioned in Redemption Ark if I recall correctly,) of the Melding Plague to come. There's still plenty of the Grand Guignol we've come to expect from Mr. Reynolds, such as the Panoply head having a booby trap in her neck that has kept her from sleeping for years. But he seems to be developing an interest in something beyond sensationalism. The variety of space habitat societies combined with political issues of polling (for instance, whether to call a referendum for authority for the Panoply to use nuclear weapons,) show an interest in people, not just angst puppets.

Also, the novel doesn't quite have the logorrhea of Mr. Reynolds' previous work, spacious as it is. Even better, the hero is a more rounded person, not quite so infatuated with himself or delighting in his ruthlessness as too many of Reynolds' other characters in the past. The novel would have been stronger as a stand alone. I imagine the impending advent of the Melding Plague is supposed to put the heroes' success into properly diminished perspective.

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