Murder trail leads to ruminations on moral dilemmas
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.