Hanging out with Higgins

Michael Wood

  • Silent Partner by Jonathan Kellerman
    Macdonald, 506 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 356 17598 7
  • ‘Murder will out’: The Detective in Fiction by T.J. Binyon
    Oxford, 166 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 19 219223 X
  • Devices and Desires by P.D. James
    Faber, 408 pp, £11.99, October 1989, ISBN 0 571 14178 1
  • Killshot by Elmore Leonard
    Viking, 287 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 670 82258 2
  • Trust by George V. Higgins
    Deutsch, 213 pp, £11.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 233 98513 1
  • Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
    Collins Harvill, 373 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 00 271269 5

There is food for comparative thought – well, not real food, more of a light snack – in the fact that the French call roman policier what we would call a crime novel. A sign of our respective allegiances, perhaps, where our hearts are. Of course there don’t have to be police in a roman policier, just the sorts of activity the Police might or ought to be interested in. And there are more and more policemen in our crime novels (and films and television series). Crime, like almost everything else, has become specialised, a full-time job on both sides of the law. The gentleman amateur has faded away almost entirely. There are still one or two private eyes about, but they look like bruised anachronisms – like maiden aunts or men of letters.

Elegant variations are possible, certainly, and include the professional from another area – journalism, medicine – who stumbles into an investigation. Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, who appears in Silent Partner and in Kellerman’s earlier novels, like Blood Test, or When the bough breaks, is a Californian child psychologist who meets violence and misdemeanour all over the place, and not just with children. The new novel involves several nasty deaths, a heartless tycoon, big business, journalism, pornographic movies, triplets, apparent schizophrenia, flashbacks over forty years, strange doings between psychiatrists and patients. It is as if Ross Macdonald or Raymond Chandler had gone Gothic, while the principal movement of the fiction remained the same: California tilted into American allegory, skeletons in every designer closet, the glossy present built over a dark and denied past, a handsome house cantilevered over a ravine (the image is Macdonald’s, who also has a character memorably say that he is not interested in money, because ‘money costs too much’). Kellerman tries a little too hard for the tough and snappy effect in his writing, and is very unconvincing about personal relations – unless he has them just right, and all the good guys in California do talk as if they were apprentice marriage guidance counsellors. But he can also write very well: ‘Her face collapsed, as if suddenly filleted,’ ‘A few blocks farther it was all by-the-hour motels and jumpy-looking streetwalkers banking on loneliness and clean blood.’ And he handles his intricate and winding plot with remarkable ease. He also has a nice line in understated social comment: ‘I drove to Beverly Hills and turned left at Crescent. The streets were empty; people who tear down $2 million houses in order to build $5 million houses tend to stay inside to play with their toys.’ Above all, Kellerman is good on everything that is or comes close to professional detail: the way lawyers talk, the world of clinics and hospitals and medical schools.

T.J. Binyon thinks the moonlighting professional may be the detective of the future – ‘We might hope to see, for example, more characters like Dr Alex Delaware’ – but Delaware seems really to be a neat updating of the past, an amiable new cousin for Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe. Binyon is impressed by Chandler, although he thinks Marlowe is a ‘romanticised and to a certain extent sentimentalised’ version of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade; a little impatient with Macdonald, too cerebral and meaningful for his taste (‘Macdonald led the tradition away on an ultimately abortive mission towards social psychology’). Kellerman, it seems, evokes the world of psychology, but Macdonald merely psychologises. There is something in this, and Macdonald certainly lacks Chandler’s power and Kellerman’s expertise. But his stories are beautifully paced, he doesn’t over-write the way both Chandler and Kellerman do at times, and some of his images are truly haunting. Los Angeles, for example, is pictured as a vast electrical circuit, allowing the lonely private eye a vivid pleasure in the connections he makes, the whole thing lighting up all at once. Like the Bride of Frankenstein, Archer adds. The thought and afterthought catch the lure and the horror of detection, of getting everything to come together, as if detection were an inverse paranoia, a cool delight in a perfect excess of plot.

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