Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Never Mind Story, Get The Formula Right

My search for good mystery fiction continues in cycles, my success about the same as that of Diogenes. Diogenes, as you’ll perhaps recall, used to carry a lit lamp around in sunshine; and in those days that lamp lacked batteries. Asked what he was doing, he used to say: “I’m looking for an honest man.” Here a recent disappointment. On the cover an almost naked geisha with a marvelous dragon tattooed on her back. Assassin’s Touch. By Laura Joh Rowland. That Joh in the name suggested an Asian author, possibly good. Warning me off was a quote from The Denver Post’s review. It said: “Sano may carry a sword and wear a kimono, but you’ll immediately recognize him as an ancestor of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.” Still, I succumbed. Had to check something out. Well, The Denver Post’s reviewer had evidently failed to read the book. Deadlines, you know. No sign of Sam Spade anywhere. But neither did the book even remotely capture at least my imagined life of the Tokugawa Shogunate. But the formula, mind you, is good. Samurai detective placed so highly he virtually runs Japan; and better yet, Mrs. Samurai Detective is also a detective, don’t you know. And there is a kind of veneer of historical fact… Sigh.

Relighting my lamp a few days later I chanced across Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May off the Rails. Fowler is more skillful than Mrs. Rowland, but formula dominates here too. Two aging detectives run the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) in London. It’s a special agency with freedom to sidestep the usual rules. Where have I seen that before if not everywhere. Do you want a stunningly drawn portrait of London at its most decadent—transcending even Theodore Dalrymple’s shuddering descriptions—not least encyclopedic as well as microscopic knowledge of the London Underground? If yes, this is the book for you. Their eccentricities rival the characters’ emptiness. But the story isn’t getting anywhere as corpses pile up, each victim vividly described. But why don’t I feel anything? Because I’m seeing surfaces and nobody is home… Witty chit-chat on and on, but then I close the book. I’ll have to get some new batteries and try again.

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