pulp (2006-07)

Southern-fried Mystery

Two crime novels set close to home

by Paul Lewis

Many readers consider the crime novel genre junk, or literary confection. But a good mystery juices the synapses in an altogether pleasing manner and requires careful consideration of the many levels on which a good story can work.

One of the strongest elements in any story, but particularly pleasing in a mystery, is that sense of place that good writers can evoke or create. And when we’ve had our fill of myriad tomes set in New York or Los Angeles, it’s nice to consider books that not only keep us guessing, but that set their action a little closer to home.

Certainly one of the finest working practitioners of the Southern-set mystery novel is Georgia’s Karin Slaughter. Her fifth novel and likewise fifth entry in her Grant County series, Faithless (Delacorte Press, $25) features her usual trinity of protagonists, the central of which is arguably the fictional Georgia county’s medical examiner/pediatrician Sara Linton, followed closely by sheriff/ex-husband Jeffrey Tolliver and female deputy Lena Adams, a compelling train wreck of a character who often seems to function as much as an antagonist as a protagonist. As Adams showcases, Slaughter’s gift is crafting leads and supporting characters that ache with joyous and frustrating humanity.

Naysayers might argue that her work can approach soap opera, but I politely disagree. One expects a certain suspension of disbelief in almost any fiction, and because Slaughter’s small-town details ring so astonishingly true, one can forgive those instances of personal melodrama. Most everyone I’ve known in small Southern towns is consumed by melodrama anyway, so that’s one criticism which could easily be considered praise.

Faithless begins when a walk in the woods uncovers a metal pipe sticking out of the ground, which leads to the buried body of a young girl. Investigation leads to a religious community in a neighboring county (after four books featuring terrible crimes in Grant County, it was wise to look elsewhere for a crime) with a connection to Sara’s family’s past and a metaphorical connection to Adams’ struggles with an abusive boyfriend. As always, Slaughter uses her themes as subtle and not-so-subtle examinations of women’s issues, a motif that continues to raise her work well above the simple “whodunit” category.

Slaughter’s new publisher has done its best to broaden her audience with Faithless , so fans familiar with her work might notice her controlling her usual visceral intensity until the book’s climax, which is made more shocking by the relative calm preceding it. I have recommended Slaughter to many readers, particularly female readers, but always with the caveat that she definitely has the power to shock and terrify with her frank descriptions and oft-lurid crime scenes.

Another, newer writer I’ve enjoyed is Newport, Ky.-based Jack Kerley, whose second novel, The Death Collectors (Dutton, $24.95) is an enjoyable follow-up to his debut, The Hundredth Man .  Although one might guess his work would be set in Lexington, or perhaps Louisville, he wends southward to locate his work in the novel setting of Mobile, Ala.

Carson Ryder (your hero) and Harry Nautilus (his colorful sidekick) are detectives assigned to the city’s Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team, more of a public relations ploy than an actual functioning unit, as, this being a relatively small city, Ryder and Nautilus are the sole members of the PSIT team. Having survived a bout of political squabbling to solve a grisly spate of killings in the first novel and with shiny new commendations to show for it, Ryder and Nautilus have little trouble being assigned to a seemingly ritualistic killing that points to the subculture of people who collect serial killer memorabilia. The real hook of Kerley’s conceit is that Ryder has changed his name to distance himself from his brother Jeremy, a serial killer serving time in a nearby institution.

Kerley is immensely readable, though one gets the sense that, after the writer spent 20 years writing advertising copy, he has not fully developed his own literary voice. The Death Collectors is a nice step up from the plotting of his first book, and using serial killer collectors as window dressing is a nice touch. As far as sheer writing, Kerley can occasionally dazzle with a descriptive passage or a thoughtful word selection, and with a dedication to his craft and a few more books under his belt, one could easily see Kerley as the new T. Jefferson Parker, another writer who showed flashes of brilliance in early novels and who is now one of the best writers in the genre.

So, if life in the South is indeed a little more laid-back and front porch swings and fireplace rocking chairs still exist in abundance, then let’s cozy up and read some fine stories featuring death and detection, set just a short drive down the road.