July 2, 2011

The Romance of Crime

One of the advantages to living near a Chicago Public Library branch is that I can essentially "catch up" on my reading on an extremely frugal budget. (Full disclosure - I also use the library when I'm employed). I've been indulging my love of mystery novels, especially those of the hard-boiled type. (My comic reading has been minimal, and quite frankly, I think I owe my comic shop an apology after purchasing everything in my pull file).

Robert B. Parker's Painted Ladies is the next-to-last Spenser novel that he wrote before passing early last year. In a way, his passing has helped me get back into re-reading many of my favorite Parker/Spenser novels, such as Early AutumnCeremony, and Mortal Stakes. I won't claim that Painted Ladies is comparable to those earlier novels, because quite simply - it isn't. Like much of Parker's Spenser novels of the past ten years, they're simply really good reads. Thankfully, Parker's latest Spenser novel actually has a little bit more of a mystery to it, and is able to introduce aspects of the Holocaust as part of the plot without making it seem either cliche or maudlin - although he's not a political writer, Parker is able to throw in a slightly more political slant that does not seem forced or moralistic. Painted Ladies is the work of an author who is confident enough in his writing and characters that he avoids the arrogance that many current best selling writers may indulge in. Although Parker is no longer with us, the fact that he has a very strong back catalog makes his work unavoidable, and Painted Ladies demonstrates proof that he has retained many of his strengths.

One author whose work I love precisely for her politics is Sara Paretsky - or, more accurately, I love her ability to weave social and political themes into her stories without coming across as heavy-handed: Paretsky focuses on the effects of social issues and politics more than she does lecturing on inherent evils. Body Work, her latest novel, is pretty good....but for me, it's a mixed bag.

It does have a slight whiff of timeliness, focusing on an Iraq War Veteran and how he relates to a very provocative performance artist, and the book did seem to take a bit of time to get there. (The first chapter is posted online; please judge for yourself). However, it does gain traction, and quite frankly, is another one of Paretsky's better books.

However, there is one aspect of the book that is not so welcome - the introduction of VI Warshawski's cousin Petra as a major character. Introduced in Hardball (the previous VI Warshawski novel), Petra is kind of....well, Paretsky herself has stated she's comic relief, but quite frankly, the character has a very slight cousin Oliver-ish quality to her, complicating the plot for no other reason than...well, it might need to be complicated. Expanding the family is one thing, but Petra....seems off. Granted, she has only appeared fully in one book, but hopefully, either the character will be explored further, or will be written out. (Hopefully, the latter)

Maybe living in a city like Chicago - with a history of a romantic view of crime and corruption - have me intrigued and draw me towards books that deal with complexity and the mysteries of existence. Although these are not "great literature", these are two solid works by authors writing to their strengths.

Both highly recommended.

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