From tin­sel town to trou­ble

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Jonathan Keller­man seems to have been around a long time. His best­selling nov­els fea­tur­ing sleuthing psy­chol­o­gist Alex Delaware, and more re­cently his un­of­fi­cial part­ner, vet­eran homi­cide cop Milo Stur­gis, a sham­bling gay bear of a man who func­tions as Delaware’s cavalry, are dense, sin­is­ter and ad­dic­tive. He is th­ese days the god­fa­ther of LA Crime, his tight-packed, di­a­loguedriven sto­ries his way, as a real-life psy­chol­o­gist who has seen the worst in peo­ple, of hav­ing “some­thing to say about hu­man mis­ery”.

In 1985, with When the Bough Breaks, and writ­ing some­what from life, Keller­man imag­ined the pos­si­bil­ity of crime fic­tion writ­ten by and about a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, and placed the char­ac­ters that emerged flu­ently in the Cal­i­for­nian tra­di­tion of Dashiell Ham­mett, Ray­mond Chandler and Ross Macdon­ald. (Though no longer ac­tive as a psy­chother­a­pist, he is a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of pe­di­atrics and psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Keck School of Medicine.)

He says that while he ad­mires Chandler’s .45-cal­i­bre cyn­i­cism and ac­cu­rate feel for Los An­ge­les, it’s Macdon­ald’s mas­tery of struc­ture and story that grabs him, some­thing at which he ex­cels too. As well as evok­ing a sense of place — that sense that ge­og­ra­phy is fate — his tales of mur­der and crim­i­nal pathol­ogy ex­pose the shad­owy side of glit­ter­ing Los An­ge­les as well as any other writer. “LA isn’t a city, it’s a con­cept which ap­plies any­where in the Golden State where nice weather abounds, a chasm yawns be­tween the haves and the have-nots, and delu­sional blind am­bi­tion is ha­bit­u­ally con­fused with work ethic and wis­dom,” he wrote in a news­pa­per piece in which he pa­trolled Cal­i­for­nia’s mean streets for its hard­est boiled sto­ry­tellers.

His lat­est book, The Mur­derer’s Daugh­ter (Ha­chette, 442pp, $29.99), is a stand-alone crime novel in which guilt and in­no­cence are prob­lem­atic, and while it’s not re­ally a Delaware novel (though he makes a fleet­ing ap­pear­ance), Keller­man again ex­plores hu­man be­hav­iour un­der ex­treme cir­cum­stances. Grace Bladen is a bril­liant psy­chol­o­gist, by day a nur­tur­ing per­son pro­vid­ing ther­apy for trauma vic­tims she calls “the Haunted”, at night a preda­tor ad­dicted to abrupt sex­ual trysts with strangers. She calls it “sur­ren­der­ing to The Leap”.

Her two worlds col­lide when her new­est pa­tient is mur­dered and she is stalked by dan­ger­ous men. She be­comes their next tar­get, as her past — her abu­sive par­ents died in a ter­ri­ble mur­der-sui­cide that she wit­nessed — is vi­o­lently reawak­ened. But those who want her dead un­der­es­ti­mate her ca­pac­ity to wreak havoc, a prod­uct of her willpower and self-cre­ation.

As al­ways with Keller­man, the past has its fin­gers around the throat of the present, some­thing else he shares with Macdon­ald, and here he runs two sto­ry­lines al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously; it’s vir­tu­ally a case study il­lus­trat­ing how a char­ac­ter like Grace emerged from so much vi­o­lence. It’s a great read, a kind of ac­tion thriller with a ter­rific fe­male char­ac­ter at its cen­tre, writ­ten in the third per­son, un­like the ru­mi­na­tive, in­te­rior Delaware nov­els, in a style that surges you along in a rush, rather like the way Grace pushes her As­ton Martin around South­ern Cal­i­for­nia way past the speed limit, des­per­ate for more. Like the car, this is a novel that doesn’t like be­ing caged.

Adrian McKinty re­turns with a fur­ther in­stal­ment of his won­der­ful Sean Duffy se­ries, fast be­com­ing a favourite of crime fic­tion afi­ciona­dos world­wide. Now liv­ing in Mel­bourne, North­ern Ire­land-born McKinty writes tough and hard in bal­anced and weighty prose. His flair for lan­guage is matched by that se­ri­ously cool feel for char­ac­ters who re­ject con­form­ity.

His ti­tle Rain Dogs (Ser­pent’s Tail, 347pp, $29.99) comes from a song by Tom Waits, whose voice was once de­scribed by critic Daniel Durch­holz as sound­ing like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hang­ing in the smoke­house for a few months, and then taken out­side and run over with a car”. It’s a line that could have come from McKinty. (The nov­el­ist ac­tu­ally man­ages to in­clude the Joycean-sound­ing word “lep­i­dopter­ously” in his first para­graph. It means “of, or per­tain­ing to but­ter­flies”, and is po­et­i­cally used to de­scribe the step of the still nim­ble Muham­mad Ali on a won­der­fully imag­ined visit to Belfast. )

Duffy is a Catholic in a pre­dom­i­nantly Protes­tant con­stab­u­lary; we first met him in The Cold Cold Ground. He was newly pro­moted and posted to Car­rick­fer­gus CID, “that stinky Proddy hell hole” in North­ern Ire­land. It was 1981, the height of the Trou­bles, and he found him­self in­ves­ti­gat­ing Ire­land’s first se­rial killer. Then, in I Hear the Sirens in the Street a man’s head­less, naked torso is found in a suit­case, a dif­fer­ent kind of puz­zle. In In the Morn­ing I’ll Be Gone, Duffy was thrown out of CID and de­moted from de­tec­tive in­spec­tor to the rank of sergeant, hav­ing of­fended some high-rank­ing FBI agents. But in Gun Street Girl it was 1985 and he copped the mur­der of a wealthy cou­ple, shot dead while watch­ing TV, and the ap­par­ent sui­cide of their son, who left a note ap­pear­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the deaths.

Now in Rain Dogs it’s still the apoc­a­lyp­tic mid-80s in Car­rick­fer­gus, 20 po­lice­men have been killed in the line of duty, and the Royal Ul­ster Con­stab­u­lary has the high­est mor­tal­ity rate in the Western world. Duffy’s still driv­ing the Beemer and look­ing un­der­neath it for mer­cury tilt switch bombs. Much younger Beth, the Prod from a wealthy fam­ily, has left him alone in the cold house at Corona­tion Street, the age dif­fer­ence too great. Then he finds him­self em­broiled in the pos­si­ble sui­cide of jour­nal­ist Lily Bigelow, who is found dead in the snowy court­yard of Car­rick­fer­gus Cas­tle, guarded by a mas­sive spiked cast iron portcullis.

It looks like a sui­cide but there are doubts. If she was mur­dered, was it by grap­pling hook, hot air bal­loon or hang glider? Soon Duffy is in­volved in some­thing in­ex­pli­ca­ble — his se­cond locked-room mur­der case. This is un­usual in Ul­ster dur­ing the Trou­bles he muses, “where mur­der was never that baroque or com­pli­cated”. And just what does a rather lu­di­crous Bri­tish co­me­dian called Jimmy Sav­ile, who was made an hon­orary po­lice sergeant in the Met and who raised a king’s ran­som for the Po­lice Benev­o­lent Fund, have to do with the Kinkaid Young Of­fend­ers’ In­sti­tu­tion in Belfast? How does it re­late to the death of the young jour­nal­ist?

McKinty pref­aces his won­der­fully lyri­cal novel with a quotation from Borges: “Hu­mil­i­a­tion, un­hap­pi­ness, dis­cord are the an­cient food of he­roes.” And Duffy has more than his fair share as he tries to find jus­tice for Bigelow as army he­li­copters sweep the rain-sod­den city of Belfast with a sick, white light.

De­tec­tive Sergeant Harry Bell­tree is also seek­ing jus­tice in Ash Is­land, the se­cond in­stal­ment in Barry Mait­land’s The Bell­tree Tril­ogy (Text, 300pp, $29.99), and it’s just as re­lent­less in its pac­ing as his first, the ac­claimed Cru­ci­fix­ion Creek. It’s taken me a while to catch up with Harry but once you en­counter him, you strug­gle to keep time.

He’s the son of the first Abo­rig­i­nal judge of the NSW Supreme Court, who died with Bell­tree’s mother when their car was run off the road to New Eng­land sev­eral years ago. The ac­ci­dent also dam­aged his wife, Jenny, a cor­po­rate com­puter re­searcher, now al­most blind as a con­se­quence. Ei­ther the crash was de­lib­er­ate or the per­pe­tra­tors were crim­i­nally neg­li­gent and Bell­tree is still seek­ing them. He is ban­ished to New­cas­tle, a dif­fer­ent beat to Syd­ney’s homi­cide round — teenage ban­dits, drugs, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

He was nearly killed in Syd­ney by a cor­rupt col­league and now, an em­bar­rass­ment to the im­per­sonal forces that run the po­lice, the “theys” and “them”, the for­mer hot-shot homi­cide star has been qui­etly tucked away out of sight. But Bell­tree is ex-mil­i­tary and served in Afghanistan’s Kan­da­har prov­ince, and while the army taught him the use­ful­ness of rou­tine chores as a cor­rec­tive to the mo­ments of chaos, the pre­dictable and labour-in­ten­sive box-tick­ing of con­ven­tional polic­ing is not his game.

Then a body is found in the bleak, open marsh­land of Ash Is­land, the fin­gers of the right hand sev­ered and buried with the corpse. Is a se­rial killer re­spon­si­ble or is it gang-re­lated, the work of lo­cal bikies, or some­thing even more sin­is­ter?

As al­ways with Mait­land — he’s re­spon­si­ble for the fa­mous nov­els fea­tur­ing the Scot­land Yard team of De­tec­tive Chief In­spec­tor David Brock and De­tec­tive Sergeant Kathy Kolla — his pac­ing and plot­ting are metic­u­lous but, like Keller­man and McKinty, it’s his sense of place that im­merses you in his sto­ry­telling.

As he says, peo­ple and the things that hap­pen to them are shaped by the places in which they live and work. And he works the at­mos­phere of re­gional Aus­tralia with the same sense of au­then­tic­ity that in­formed his Brock and Kolla se­ries, cre­at­ing a dy­namic that en­ables his ac­com­plished work to push against the seem­ingly rigid bound­aries of for­mula.

De­tail from the cover of Ash Is­land

by Barry Mait­land

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