Saturday, February 26, 2011

A bit about Russel D. McLean's "The Lost Sister"

One of the stupider complaints when Peter Temple's Truth won Australia's Miles Franklin literary award was a blog comment that no crime novel could ever deserve such a prize. And Truth is not only a crime novel, it even has a damaged cop in it!

Russel D. McLean's protagonist is an ex-cop-turned PI who quit the force, punched a superior, lost a fiancée, and hurt his leg. The dude is so damaged that he's even lost his first name (we know him only as J McNee). So McLean must be shite, right?

But he isn't, and The Lost Sister, the young Dundonian's second book, is a reminder that genre conventions can be useful templates, themes on which an interesting, interested writer can build variations.

McLean's theme is emotions. McNee struggles with his own and wonders about everyone else's. He makes wrong guesses, and then he wonders why. He gets the job done, albeit messily, and, without resorting to the easy out of a happy ending, McLean ends this sometimes sad book on a note of modest, small-scale optimism. And if the theme is emotions, one of McLean's variations is that not all McNee's emotions are of the alcohol-fueled, revenge-bent, self-pitying kind. I don't remember him taking a drink anywhere in the book.

McLean does a fair job of building suspense, too, and for a good part of the book I was as puzzled as McNee was about the title character. And that means McLean is a dab hand at misdirection.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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31 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

This I can relate to. :) Will look for his books.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, The Lost Sister is hard-boiled, though with that infusion of emotion and also the very occasional wry touch. It's more like Alan Guthrie or some of Ken Bruen than it is like, say, Ruth Rendell.

February 26, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I prefer Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor to Rendell's Wexford, actually. But I wouldn't the say the same about the other Bruen novels.

I've never really liked much the categorizing of crime novels. They are helpful to a point. People know what you mean when you mention "cozy," and they probably also know that "hardboiled" is a very different kind of novel. I do like "police procedural" because that deals with a plot aspect while the others have more to do with reader perception and with labelling books in order to steer readers in a certain direction. I hate to say this, but I may have overlooked some damn fine books because they were called cozy or hardboiled.
The Jack Taylor novels are just some very well written books, no label needed.
(And not to disparage Rendell. She's a fine writer.)

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., The Lost Sister is a good exhibit for the proposition that categories are dangerous. In outline it sounds like a hard-boiled novel: tough ex-cop who has suffered loss, been beaten up, crosses paths with gangsters, and so on. But there's more going on than that.

I mentioned hard-boiled because you had said you "don't do noir." Maybe you meant simply that you don't write noir, but at the time I assumed you meant you didn't care for reading the stuff.

In any case, if you like the Jack Taylor novels bit not so much Bruen's other books, you just might like this one.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Michael Malone said...

If you haven't read Russel's first book you should get round to it. Very, very good.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It often happens that I'll go back and read an author's first book after reading and liking his or her second. This happened with Stuart Neville, for instance.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, I will definitely look into reading these. I like a damanged p.i. protagonist just as long as he's not SO damaged that he defies credulity.

Not partial to drunks, either.
But that's my own personal take.
(Well, what other 'take' could there be, Yvette? You know what I mean.)

This got me to thinking about the 'stupid comment': no crime novel being deserving of some (I'm assuming) highfaluting literary prize.

I know of a few crime novels I consider deserving of 'literay' rewards. (If we're going to make that sort of differentiation.)

Here's a few I could name:

BY A SLOW RIVER by Philippe Claudel. A Times book of the year.
Takes place in a small French town during WWI. A harrowing look at an old crime involving, among other things, a lost child.

THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr.
Set in turn of the 20th century New York. A novel about a serial killer working the state before the cops knew there was such a thing as a serial killer. The 'Alienist' in the title is a term for what I guess we'd call today, a profiler or psychologist.

THE RIVER OF DARKNESS by Rennie Airth
A novel set after WWI, with damaged men coming home from the war. Set in Britain. Also concerns the ghastly work of a serial killer before the world knew that such creatures existed.

THE CUTTING ROOM by Louise Welsh. Set in modern day Glasgow. A guy who works for a second rate auction house is given the opportunity to assess an old house full of treaures. There he finds an old cache of possible 'snuff' films. A dark and moody work of art, far as I'm concerned.

Not bad for off the top of my head.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, J McNee doesn't drink! Call him a damaged protagonist with a difference.

James Lee Burke is another name that comes up when talk turns to crime writers of literary merit.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

James Lee Burke is a terrific writer, but not one of my very favorites. Even though I recognize his worth.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read him, but his name always comes up in discussion of crime writers who are also Writers.

Of course, there is much to be said for writing that joyously lacks aspirtations to high seriousness, too.

February 26, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Bah, humbug to differentiations (often false) between "crime" and "literary" fiction.

I don't mind categories of genres within "crime" fiction, but many of books characterized as mysteries as so much more.

Here, I am reading Tana French's "Faithful Place." It is a police procedural (sort of), a book about Ireland, family life, the economic situation and more. It is also a love story of someone pining away for a love lost years before.

It is so moving that I shed a few tears so far, and this is not a usual reaction for me when reading mysteries. But one gets to know the characters so well, one cares about them.

"Faithful Place" was in the top 2010 ten fiction reads by many book reviewers, and at many reader/bloggers' web sites and in ezines or print periodicals.

It wasn't separated out as a "crime fiction" book, but simply listed among the top fiction reads.

It deserved to be. It's quite a read, unique. I can't wait to pick it up again when I put it down, but I have to think about much of it. (The relationships are tough to read about, nothing is simple.)

This is not so unusual for a mystery. It's often the case.

February 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Tana French is another author whose name I've seen mentioned in discussions of mystery writers who might appeal to readers who think they don't like mysteries.

February 27, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

James Lee Burke (also not one of my favorites) has some lovely descriptions of scenery. These are so unusual in the average crime novel, that his literary merit rests, I think, entirely on these.
Let's hear it for lovely descriptions and other poetic aberrations!
I do consider Bruen's Jack Taylor series to have literary merit. The reason is characterization. For me that's pretty much the only criterion. If you don't deal with the human condition in a major way, you just haven't made the transition.

February 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Burke-lovers invariably cite his descriptions of scenery, which raises the question of what we mean when we speak casually of "literary merit." Sometimes we mean beautiful writing. Sometimes we mean characterization. I'm not even sure I know what literary merit means. nor am I confident that I know when I see it.

February 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Maybe I'll check out James Lee Burke.

I have to do something to avoid post-good-book slump after I finish Tana French's "Faithful Place."

Her dialogue is outstanding. It is a painful book to read; it's not just murders, quick plot, big story. It's personal to the main protagonist, and he takes the losses very hard.

I had post-good-book slump after "Gunshot Road," and now I'll have to figure out a transitional book.

February 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You could find the literary equivalent of comfort food: a book or some stories you've read before and know you like. Use them as your transition.

February 28, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Michael Connelly's "The Lincoln Lawyer," which I just won, or else pick up the Camilleri in which I'm mid-book.

Kathy

February 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For me that would be Hammett or Chandler.

February 28, 2011  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

I'm looking forward to reading "Faithful Place". Thanks for your recommendation, Kathy. As for crime/literary cross-overs, I have to mention Kate Atkinson's series with Jackson Brody. They are wonderful novels, full of mystery, but not exactly what you'd expect from crime fiction as the focus doesn't always seem to be on solving a crime. That's just an added bonus. Her characters, like Tana French's, grab all of my attention and always leave me looking out for the next book.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, I expect Kate Atkinson's novels would rank high on many such lists. I haven't read her, but I think she is regarded with some respect in the crime-fiction community. I've heard no complaints that she's slumming.

March 04, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I like Kate Atkinson's writing. I've read all of hers, except the new one, which my library will take about five years to stock(!)

I can't put her books down.

Now, for a total change of pace, try Liza Marklund's "Red Wolf." I've been planning on reading one of her books; this is what the library had available.

It is a very different kind of book for me. I don't know what will happen from page to page, or paragraph to paragraph, and am spending more time trying to figure out the protagonist than the plot.

When I'm at the computer, I'm thinking about this book. I guess that's a good thing.

But it's unusual, unique. And Liza Marklund is not "the next Stieg Larsson," just in case any promoter thinks up that idea.

This character is very unusual for a woman, especially one who has a family. She's very complicated and interesting.

It's worth checking out.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, someone may already have thought of Liza Marklund as the next Stieg Larsson, in a way. I visited a bookstore this weekend that displayed Stieg Larsson's books with a sign that read: "If you like these ... " next to a row of Nordic crime novels and a sign that read: "You might like these." I don't remember if Liza Marlkund was in the row, but it did include Sjowall and Wahloo among a pretty good selection. Hakan Nesser was in the group, for instance.

OK, the store did not call anyone "the next Stieg Larsson." This showed good judgment, and the display might introduce some readers to some fine writers.

March 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Why doesn't the store say that Steig Larsson was the next Maj Sjowall/Per Wahloo incarnation?

That's what should happen. Others could do this, too, about Mankell, Nesser, etc.

However, I guess that wouldn't play off the huge promotion that Larsson's books have enjoyed.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You intend that as a tribute to Sjowall and Wahloo, but I'm afraid some readers would say Larsson is in no way a reincarnation of Sjowall and Wahloo.

"From the country that brought you May Sjowall and Per Wahloo, here's Stieg Larsson" would be better. It associates Larsson with S/W, and it lacks the tired, meaningless "In the tradition of ..."

Maj Sjowall is still alive. I wonder what she thinks about Stieg Larsson and the explosion of interest in Nordic crime writing.

March 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, good point. No. Stieg Larsson is not a reincarnation of Sjowall and Wahloo.

Neither are any of today's Swedish crime writers. However, Henning Manning may be closer to them in writing skills and social commentary, and police inspector with personal problems, though worse than Beck's.

Here is an article from the WSJ on their writing and a few authors. Wasn't sure if this had been posted here:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124347203128660835.html

Well, back to trying to understand Annika Bergstrom in "Red Wolf." And Liza Marklund, talented as she is in characterizations and plotting, is definitely not a reincarnation of Sjowall and Wahloo, either.

March 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the article. Henning Mankell is probably closer to Sjowall and Wahloo than are some other Swedish crime writers. I don't think he's quite as good as they were, but then, very few crime writers are.

March 11, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

In writing skills alone, Sjowall and Wahloo were stellar.

When I read the first chapter of "The Fire Engine that Disappeared," Martin Beck's questions about his life, his mother's life and his guilt about whether he did enough for her, loom large. The way that was written, I was hooked on the book before the main plot even began.

Not everyone likes to be confronted with life's bigger issues or personal introspection, when they're reading fiction, but some of us surely do like it when written by those skilled enough to do it, like they were.

Want to go on to other books, but feel like I just must read about Martin Beck very soon, the books suggested at Crime Scraps, either The Abominable Snowman or Murder at the Savoy, the new series, of course.

March 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Just saw a one-hour show from the BBC, I think, about Scandinavian crime fiction. Includes an interview with Maj Sjowall and other writers.

It's great. I'll find the link and post it here if it hasn't yet been put up here.

March 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I've seen links to it elsewhere, but I'm not sure anyone has posted it here. I should look for it myself. Thanks.

March 26, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, the Wall Street Journal sure does not like many Swedish writers. An article lambasts the writing and political views of Henkell Manning, Stieg Larsson, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Sacrilege!) and Marklund.

Not just the political viewpoints, but the writing! That was just nasty.

The crime-reading world respects Sjowall and Wahloo as good writers who tell a good story.

And why Marklund? That I don't.

Another point on Scandinavian crime fiction is that Jo Nesbo is quite a writer. Just finished "Nemesis"; he outthinks the reader. All is sewn up plotwise, then what appears to be a diversion, then an entirely different revelation and ending.

And clever!

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the Wall Street Journal's cultural coverage is relatively new. Someone once commented that the WSJ's news coverage and its editorial pages were part of separate universes. the former thorough, reliable, and highly professional, the latter the province of conservative wing-nuts.

I think the second tendency creeps into the paper's cultural coverage from time to time. I think it was the WSJ that published an odd piece trumpeting Paul McCartney's superiority that great leftist, counterculture hippie icon John Lennon. My big question was "so what?"

April 01, 2011  

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