01 July 2008

Who Dunnit or Who Dinna Do It?

Like so many genealogists, I devour crime and mystery fiction (murders, lawsuits, terrorists, spies). Detective work and genealogy share great similarities regarding identification of the suspects and the collection of evidence. Exercising the brain reportedly keeps it from calcifying; let’s hug that thought! It’s hard to decide who my favourite detective is. Then again, who says I have to pick just one? My list is amended as new authors appear and the quality of others waxes or wanes. Ideally a preferred author produces a new book every two years, but it doesn’t always work that way.

It’s only fair to mention an icon of the crime genre who was held in highest esteem by his contemporaries and peers—Ross Macdonald and his detective creation Lew Archer. I couldn’t agree more with Sue Grafton in her introduction to Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan:
"If Dashiell Hammett [Sam Spade] can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone [Philip Marlowe], it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps."

Macdonald’s writing is lean and mean, perfect for the laconic California private eye he sent on dozens of cases. A number of them involved families in multi-generation context, dear to the heart of genealogists. Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in California, but was raised in Canada, attending high school in Kitchener, graduating from University of Western Ontario, and doing post-grad work at the Ontario College of Education before becoming a teacher. Macdonald elevated the genre to literate mastery.

My current A-list begins with Martin Cruz Smith’s prosecutorial investigator Arkady Renko, a man sometimes bowed but seldom beaten by the vagaries of Russian authority. In the course of the novels he manages to survive the transition from the soviet hammer to capitalist chaos to whatever is emerging today. He has deep, barely concealed contempt for his superiors, whatever their stripe. Their continual bureaucratic attempts to demoralize him rarely affect his totally engaging character. Renko sometimes second guesses himself, but even his melancholic observations have a dry humour. Renowned for his debut novel, Gorky Park, Smith does not produce a Renko novel every two years, to my regret.

Sequels like Polar Star and Red Square describe the absurd necessities and exigencies of daily life and work in a disturbing country, all fodder for the Russophile reader. Smith’s graphic portrayal of the Zone of Exclusion at Chernobyl in Wolves Eat Dogs is not for everyone’s taste but who would not appreciate his black market scenes of the 1990s in Red Square, or descriptions of Cuban street life in Havana Bay? Luckily for me, I still have Stalin’s Ghost to look forward to.

A close second is Donald James’ (aka Donald J. Wheal) police inspector Constantin Vadim who has slightly more authority and job security than Renko. This man is hot. His rather dishevelled approach to life involves many a thumb of vodka, unique expletives and superstitious ruminations on the mythical proportions of Russian folklore. Like Renko, Vadim is no indiscriminate skirt-chaser; he is true-blue to his wife. Actually, a different wife in each book. The first Vadim novel Monstrum is set in the year 2015 in a Moscow emerging from a realistic civil war. In the post-war aftermath, orphaned children are the biggest victim statistics. The next in the series is The Fortune Teller where Vadim has been moved to his hometown, the Arctic port of Murmansk. There he untangles mysterious murders and battles the slave trade with another cluster of priceless characters. But it would not be Russian if some tragedy were absent.

The third novel, Vadim, is disappointingly set mainly in the USA where Vadim becomes embroiled with politicians. A tuberculosis epidemic is sweeping Russia, causing millions to flee. My hero has quit the police militia and is not in his old form in this unfamiliar milieu—America is emasculating him. I had to wait until page 275 for his return to Moscow to see the passionate Russian emerge once again to navigate the plot twisting. The ending is an opening for more activities and more wives. But oh-oh, that was published in 2000 and we fans still wait.

To be continued. Which mystery authors and characters do YOU like??


Hushberlin said...

Enjoyed your comments on Donald James' novels. The comparison with of Vadim with Renko is spot on, but I prefer the former.

You ask how long we have to wait for another? Unfortunately I must report that Donald James Wheal died on 28 April this year. A sad loss, made sadder for anyone who has got to know him not just through his novels but also through his wonderful childhood memoirs, "World's End" and "White City".

BDM said...

Thanks for that information, BartyBee. I can't reach you through email. It makes me very sad that such a talent is gone. However, I can still look forward to Wheal's memoirs.