Mur­der trail leads to ru­mi­na­tions on moral dilem­mas

Graeme Blundell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THIS writer knows how to hook a reader. The first five pages of his big Wash­ing­ton, DC, novel, A Sim­ple Act of Vi­o­lence , left me breath­less, gasp­ing; not an easy thing to do in a hard­ened crime reader who be­lieved he had anaes­thetised his sen­si­bil­i­ties to such things.

R. J. El­lory is the English au­thor of five pre­vi­ous nov­els, in­clud­ing the cap­ti­vat­ing best­selling thriller A Quiet Be­lief in Angels , who de­spite liv­ing in Bri­tain has con­vinc­ingly set all his books in the US.

In the first short chap­ter, El­lory forces us to track the progress of a char­ac­ter to­wards her mur­der, which takes place to the sound­track of the clas­sic Frank Capra movie It’s a Won­der­ful Life. It’s a vir­tu­oso set-piece open­ing to a com­pelling whistle­blower of a crime book seem­ingly based in fact: quite breath­tak­ing in the way El­lory edges the truth into fic­tional shape­li­ness to heighten some big moral is­sues.

Cather­ine Sheri­dan, a woman with a pas­sion for odd-coloured berets, takes a DVD from a book­case, opens the player, pushes but­tons and waits for Dim­itri Tiomkin’s mu­sic. She hears the tolling bells and then the play­ful strings sec­tion melody and watches snow fall­ing in a pic­ture post­card street. Then, just as Jimmy Ste­wart croons, ‘‘ Well, hello’’, she dies.

El­lory ini­tially es­tab­lishes Sheri­dan as as­sent­ing to her demise, even re­spon­si­ble for what hap­pened to her. Pos­si­bly a killer her­self, she is a self-ap­pointed vic­tim. Her last thought: ‘‘ I’m not the one who has to go on liv­ing with the knowl­edge of what we did.’’

Quickly, we be­come less con­cerned with the so­lu­tion to a puz­zle than the death of a per­son, some­one who sees the whole of her life col­lapse like a con­certina and then sees it drawn out again un­til ev­ery frag­ment and frac­tion can be clearly iden­ti­fied. What was this life like? Who is the ‘‘ we’’ she is think­ing of as she dies and what did they do to­gether?

Usu­ally in de­tec­tive fic­tion what mat­ters is the so­lu­tion of the mys­tery and why it hap­pened, but here the prime in­ter­est quickly be­comes the ef­fect of the crime on the vic­tim.

And only then on the grim young de­tec­tive, Robert Miller, for once a fic­tional cop who has no col­lec­tion of smart one­lin­ers, a man of un­re­mark­able ap­pear­ance, dark­ness in his head.

Sud­denly Miller and his part­ner, Al­bert Roth, are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mur­ders of four women in eight months, Sheri­dan the lat­est, ap­par­ently the work of a se­rial killer. ( Though maybe not, be­cause copy­cats seem to be lurk­ing in Wash­ing­ton’s shad­ows, sharp cor­ners and blunt edges.)

An un­stop­pable sense of in­evitabil­ity per­vades the case. Names don’t match so­cial se­cu­rity num­bers and the vic­tims have no pasts; po­lice sergeants with fic­ti­tious ad­dresses have dis­ap­peared; pho­tos are dis­cov­ered be­neath car­pets, shreds of news­pa­pers un­der mat­tresses.

And, drenched in laven­der, each vic­tim has a rib­bon tied around her neck, rather like the tag you find sus­pended from the toe of a body in the morgue.

Miller is a quiet man who has com­mit­ted him­self to a life of ask­ing ques­tions and wait­ing for an­swers, who ha­bit­u­ally car­ries an ex­pres­sion as if he is try­ing to ab­sorb some­thing he can’t see. He knows there must be a con­nec­tion that runs through it all, straight as a ruler. But he’s so busy looking at what’s around it that he can’t see what’s in front of him.

Soon, a new voice in­ter­rupts the po­lice nar­ra­tive, a thought process ital­i­cised in the text, a hard-bit­ten, in­te­rior mono­logue that be­gins just be­hind the be­lea­guered in­ves­ti­ga­tion, then slyly an­tic­i­pates it.

The voice speaks of AR 15s, .223s and .22 cal­i­bre rounds; of snipers’ cam­ou­flage suits, hol­low point bul­lets, gar­rotte wires and how to kill some­one with a rolled-up mag­a­zine.

And later, as Miller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­comes more con­fused, the thought stream is about sanc­tioned as­sas­si­na­tions in Rea­gan-era Amer­ica, the way the CIA sold drugs in Los An­ge­les in the 1980s and used the prof­its in its war against Nicaragua’s San­din­ista gov­ern­ment.

El­lory then painstak­ingly and with furtive craft ( you keep won­der­ing how he can bring this off) de­vel­ops three seem­ingly in­con­gru­ent sce­nar­ios. Seam­lessly, he in­ter­weaves th­ese se­rial mur­ders in the Wash­ing­ton of Ge­orge W. Bush’s pres­i­dency with the de­ceit­ful, Machi­avel­lian hor­ror cre­ated in ’ 80s Cen­tral Amer­ica.

And then he in­ter­twines them with a con­spir­acy or­ches­trated by clan­des­tine sec­tions of US gov­ern­ment agen­cies. ‘‘ We live in a frag­ile state of trans­paren­cies,’’ the for­mer agent who might be the Rib­bon Killer tells Miller. ‘‘ Some­thing that ap­pears one way is al­most cer­tainly some­thing else.’’

The de­tec­tive dis­cov­ers he is deal­ing with what the French call a sa­cred mon­ster, some­thing that the cre­ator re­grets hav­ing cre­ated, some­thing ca­pa­ble of mas­sacring hun­dreds of in­no­cent peo­ple in the name of democ­racy and flood­ing the streets of the US with crack co­caine.

‘‘ The best-kept se­crets are the ones that every­one can see,’’ one of Miller’s friends, a sur­vivor of the Nazi death camps, tells him.

El­lory cre­ates a world in which guilt and in­no­cence be­come prob­lem­atic, where the pres­ence of the de­tec­tive sim­ply can­not guar­an­tee the ra­tio­nal­ity of the world and the in­tegrity of the self, as in con­ven­tional de­tec­tive nov­els.

Writ­ten in sim­ple, un­af­fected prose that makes you think of the swell and fall of a good sen­tence as you read, it’s un­put­down­able, an ex­am­ple of what genre critic Jac­ques Barzun calls ‘‘ sto­ries of anx­i­ety’’, which cater for the con­tem­po­rary wish to feel vaguely dis­turbed. El­lory plays with the pro­ce­dural story’s con­ven­tions, throw­ing them out of kil­ter, and keeps the prob­lem of guilt and com­plic­ity, of men­ace and con­spir­acy at the front of the reader’s think­ing.

El­lory says he doesn’t write crime but hu­man dra­mas where the char­ac­ters con­tin­u­ally find them­selves chal­lenged by view­points and re­al­i­ties that are emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult as well as men­tally un­ten­able.

They find them­selves in places where they never in­tended to go and do not wish to re­main. Their pur­pose be­comes to re­cover their lives and iden­ti­ties; fail­ing that, they re­cover what­ever they can but never view life from the same per­spec­tive.

El­lory chal­lenges a fa­cade of moral­ity and le­gal­ity that ap­pears to be so rot­ten that a dis­turb­ing vi­sion lies be­hind it, and ex­presses a deep un­cer­tainty about the ad­e­quacy of tra­di­tional so­cial in­sti­tu­tions to meet the needs we have for se­cu­rity and jus­tice.

As Miller thinks to him­self at the end of it all, the sa­cred mon­ster has not yet given up all its se­crets. Graeme Blundell writes the Crime File col­umn in th­ese pages.

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