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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 18, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Christmas, Mysteries, Harry Potter, and Crayons

Autumn is when publishers roll out their big guns, and late autumn is for the really heavy artillery. The marketers are hoping that if a book is new around Thanksgiving time, people will not only buy it for themselves, they'll buy more copies as gifts.

Gifts! Ah, yes ... it's time for everyone to start making their comments about how awful it is that the Christmas decorations went up on Halloween -- they didn't even wait for the trick-or-treating.

(Those of us still trying to buy candy on the 31st of October were hard-pressed to find a grocery store that hadn't already replaced the Snickers pumpkins with Holiday M&Ms.

(Never mind trying to score a couple of pumpkins. Thank heaven for the guy who sells vegetables on Pisgah Church just across from Willoughby. I may have had to settle for a pumpkin that was sprawling on its side, but it was huge and we had fun even if Harris Teeter had run out.)

As for the "commercialization of Christmas," I have about as much patience with people who complain about that as I have with those who whine about the ban on school prayer.

When people start moaning about how their children are forbidden to pray at school, I always ask, "Did you kneel down this morning with your children and pray as a family before you all went off to work and school?"

If the answer is yes, then what are they worried about? Heartfelt prayer at home is far more powerful than any state-sponsored doggerel they might recite at school.

And if the answer is no, then I have to wonder why they want the tax-supported, compulsory-attendance school to take over the spiritual welfare of their family, when they don't even care enough to do it for free at home.

Ditto with Christmas. We who believe in Christ can make the holiday as religious as we want to. Those who couldn't care less about religion can still have a wonderful time with their families on a national occasion of visiting, gift-giving, and sending cards to keep in touch.

Will someone please explain to me why people have to get grumpy about the fact that we aren't all forced to celebrate the same way, or even celebrate the same thing?

And I think it speaks well of our nation that half our retail economy is absolutely dependent upon the fact that for a couple of months every year the whole country goes insane giving gifts to each other.

It isn't the stores, with their early Christmas displays, that "commercialize" Christmas. They're merely recognizing the fact that most of us are going to be out buying gifts anyway; the decorations are there to encourage us to give each particular store a chance to show us just the right present.

The commerce comes from the buyers -- from us. If we stopped buying gifts, they'd stop putting up the early decorations.

Instead, we'd see a lot of "Going Out of Business" signs on January 1st.

I'll take the Christmas decorations any day.

So if you're looking for good books to give as gifts this Christmas -- or just something to read on Thanksgiving Day when everybody else is yelling at the football game on TV -- there are some wonderful mystery novels freshly placed on the shelves.

*

If you've been reading Sue Grafton's series about Kinsey Milhone, then you've already read Q Is for Quarry and you know it's quite possibly the best so far.

It's always a pleasant surprise when, instead of going stale, a mystery series gets better, deeper, and truer with each installment.

In this one, Milhone gets dragged into a cold case -- the murder of an unidentified girl whose body was found many years ago and whose identity has never been found.

The real value of mystery stories is not really in the "whodunit" question. Instead, the good mysteries are a weirdly structured story about human motivation.

The story starts at the ending -- this person is dead -- and then explores the question, "Why did this person die?"

The story ends when we've sorted our way through the network of love and hate, fear and loathing, passion and madness that permeates every human community.

In this one, Milhone deals with families -- the families involved with the murder, her own family's twisted history, and the love and loyalty within the "family" of the police force in her hometown, where friendship sometimes binds people together as surely as kinship.

The afterword, with its sobering dose of reality, only adds to the bittersweet truthfulness of the whole novel.

And if you've seen those alphabetical titles and thought that you had to read A through P before you could pick up Q Is for Quarry, then I can assure you: Even though you might miss an in-joke or two, you can start reading this series with any book, and this one is as good a place to start as any.

*

Michael Connelly has emerged as one of the most powerful voices in the mystery field, with his series of novels about Harry Bosch. Blood Work, Void Moon, and City of Bones are among the best contemporary novels in the Ross MacDonald tradition.

Chasing the Dime, however, is not in that series. Nor is it the start of another series. There is no way that the hero of this book could ever be the hero of another mystery.

The big problem with series mysteries, you see, is that the hero -- the detective character -- has to have a compelling reason to keep getting involved in murders.

We all remember the jokes about how dangerous it was to be a friend of Angela Lansbury's character in Murder, She Wrote -- and it's a wonder there was anyone left in Cabot Cove who wasn't already either buried or in jail.

And some series have simply collapsed in ridiculousness. Patricia Cornwell began well enough with her novels about the Virginia state medical examiner, but after only a few books it just became silly to think of her getting so deeply involved in detective work.

Eventually, the longest-lasting series are the ones built around characters who come across murders in the normal course of their professional lives -- cops, detectives, private investigators. (Miss Marple is the charming exception.)

Now and then, though, a writer comes up with a character who would never dream of becoming involved in a murder investigation, yet who is forced or drawn by circumstance into searching out the reason why this particular person is dead.

Mary Higgins Clark has made a splendid career of it. And it is into her territory that Michael Connelly plunges with Chasing the Dime.

Henry Pierce is the scientist behind a cutting-edge molecular bio-chip nano-tech company. (That's about as many buzzwords as I have ever fit into one sentence). But when he breaks up with his fiancée and moves into an apartment, his new phone number happens to be one that was used by a female "escort" who has disappeared without leaving a forwarding number.

For very personal reasons that Pierce can barely admit to himself, he is absolutely compelled to find out what has happened to this call-girl. And I honestly can't tell you a single thing more about the plot without giving away one of the many clever and disturbing surprises that Connelly has in store.

Connelly's characters are always believable even when they're extravagantly drawn, and the science in this story is so well handled and accurate that one wonders whether Connelly isn't reading sci-fi on the sly.

*

One of the problems with series mysteries is the flow of time. New novels come out once a year at the most, which means that a series that began in 1970 might still be going strong in 2002. But if the hero was 35 years old in the first book, do you make him 67 in the most recent one? A little aged to be duking it out with bad guys or swimming to safety from a burning boat or all the other athletic and dangerous things that mystery heroes have to do.

Different writers use different strategies. Lawrence Block and many others try to keep their hero untied to years and dates. They never mention specific landmarks, politicians, or events from the real world. They even try to avoid mentioning the model year of a particular car.

The trouble is, this avoidance of a specific time always fails in the end, because writers will have made a thousand unconscious choices that tag the era in which they wrote.

Grafton handles it by making the novels in her alphabet series take place only a few months apart. The early novels were set in the era in which they were written; but as each new novel comes out, with a story that takes place only a little while after the previous one, the series recedes farther and farther into the past.

Writers of historical mysteries don't have to worry about it. Walter Mosley set his Easy Rawlins series in the 1950s and 1960s; Steven Saylor has been working in Cicero's and Caesar's Rome. No problem with "era shift" there!

Tony Hillerman, however, has taken a different strategy with his series of novels set on the Navaho Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona. It's what I'd have to call the Gasoline Alley strategy. My wife followed Gasoline Alley in part because one of the characters was exactly the age of her father, having been "born" the same year. (For Better or for Worse is doing the same thing today, allowing the comic strip characters to age year by year.)

Hillerman simply writes each book as if the events happened in the year he's writing them, and if he writes a story five years after the previous book, then five years have passed in the lives of the characters. When Navaho cop Leaphorn got old, he retired -- but Hillerman made sure to introduce an interesting younger detective, Jim Chee, to move into his role.

Not that Leaphorn is really gone. He's still fiddling around, contributing to the story.

The new Hillerman novel, The Wailing Wind, is about murders in pursuit of a legendary lode of gold on Navaho holy ground -- and the greed, fraud, and fear that gold always brings. The complications caused by Navaho religious beliefs and social customs are as interesting as ever -- and, as always, they are intrinsic to the story and never feel like anthropology class.

Hillerman may be getting old, but he can still write a good mystery.

*

Jan Burke's series about Irene Kelly is one of my favorites, but Nine, her newest novel, is more of a thriller than a mystery -- we know almost from the start who the killers are. The suspense comes from hoping that they get caught before the wrong people die.

Like all thrillers, this one tests our ability to belief in extravagant plotting, but such is Burke's skill with characters that we don't notice how implausibly "colorful" the villains are until after we close the book on the last page.

The premise is simple. Somebody has started killing the criminals on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list. Killing them gruesomely. And killing them in a way that points a finger at a character who had nothing to do with it. Not only does he have to find out who's doing it and stop them, so also does the one guy on the list who is, in fact, innocent.

It would make a terrific movie that I would never go see. Because I'm too susceptible to tension. I can't watch movies that are too scary. I have to walk out. Why? Because I'm a big baby, that's why. Can't ride on roller coasters, either. But before you sneer at me, remember -- that just means one less person in line in front of you at the amusement park.

*

And speaking of movies I can't go see, I hear from my most trusted movie critic that The Ring is the scariest movie in recent memory. Said she, "After watching it, I was scared of everything. The TV, videos, the phone. Wells, water, cameras. Horses and centipedes.

"And crayons."

I can't see this film. I can't give up crayons.

*

Not too scary for me, though, is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Since everybody's going to see it anyway, you hardly need me to tell you that it's better than the first one, that the actors playing Harry and Hermione have become much better, that Kenneth Branagh is delightfully vain (that was a stretch), and that the late Richard Harris will be sorely missed in future installments. At more than two-and-a-half hours, it was just the right length for the story they had to tell.


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