Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Good-Bad Cops

Birdman (1999/ Jack Caffery #1) by Mo Hayder: Glastonbury region police detective Jack Caffery makes his first appearance here in a strong though flawed first novel from Mo Hayder. Caffery is of that ilk of police detectives who really should be private eyes -- like Luther or Jo Nesbo's Norwegian Harry Hole, his ability to stay employed by the police often shreds suspension of disbelief. But not so much here in his first adventure.

Caffery, as wounded a presence as almost any fictional detective I can remember, is, seemingly like all wounded detectives public or private, also the Best Damn Detective on the Force. In his first novel, Caffery faces a puzzling case that begins when a building project results in the discovery of several female bodies buried in a mass grave. They all have similar mutilations and surgery scars. What does this mean?

Well, we'll find out eventually. Caffery has to deal with a racist fellow detective whose beliefs send the investigation careening off course. He has to deal with his unsatisfying girlfriend. He has to deal with what must be the world's largest Scotch bill at the liquor store -- seriously, Caffery drinks single-malt Scotch the way other people drink all other liquids consumed in a normal day. And Caffery must wrestle with the demons of his own past, a brother abducted and never found when Caffery was just a boy. 

Hayder skilfully creates the mystery and its halting solution over the first 90% or so of Birdman. Alas, the perilous stereotypes of the thriller in the age of the Hollywood blockbuster make the climax somewhat disappointing, as it gives us yet another absurdly competent serial killer and yet another sidekick imperiled by the stereotype of the dead partner (See: narratives going right back to Gilgamesh). These things seem rote and boring. But the rest of the novel is very good, and Hayder and Caffery will get better as they go along. Recommended.


The Devil's Star (2003) (Harry Hole #5) by Jo Nesbo. Translated by Don Bartlett 2005: Harry Hole (pronounced HO-LEH) appears in his fifth adventure here. The Norwegian police detective's adventures weren't originally available in publication order in English translation, and the three I've read have lacked any overt explanation of when they occur. That's a bit annoying until one can get onto the Internet and discover publication order. So it goes. I still have no idea how Michael Fassbender can play the gaunt, weathered Hole in the movie of The Snowman.

This time around, Hole grapples with alcoholism, a fellow detective whom he suspects of being a criminal, and his relationship with his girlfriend. Oh, and there's a serial killer. Plot-wise, this is a satisfyingly complex and engaging detective thriller -- and the red herrings really work beautifully and surprisingly. 

Harry remains a somewhat improbable figure throughout. The novel deals with the probability that he will either quit his job or be fired at pretty much any moment, but Harry's superhuman detection skills pretty much ensure that that will never happen regardless of what stupid things he does in the course of an adventure. And boy, does he do stupid things in every novel.

It all fits into what some might call The House Paradigm -- the story in which someone's ability at one's job makes him or her impervious to criticism for other failings, no matter how grievous. That's sort of tiring, though at least Harry doesn't kill anyone in a drunk-driving accident this time around, only to escape all punishment because Everybody Looks Out For Harry.

I've read three of Jo Nesbo's Hole novels now, and I'll note one other problematic recurring plot point: once again, one of Harry's loved ones is imperiled by the killer. If this happened as often in real life as it does in novels, TV shows, and movies, no one would be a police officer. Enough already. Create suspense without the repeated threat of horrific violence to a woman or child. So it goes. Recommended.

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