My Three Favorite Mystery Writers

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I haven’t tried to cover the whole of the mysteries. That would probably be impossible anyway, though I’ve come a lot closer in science fiction. But I have three favorites of writers who fit more or less into that field, each of whom has (or had) a very different perspective.

I recently wrote about Ross MacDonald, who died some 30 years ago, and I think was one of the foremost of American mystery writers. Not long after his death my other two favorites began publishing: Jonathan Kellerman and Andrew Vachss.

MacDonald’s narrator was Lew Archer, a hardboiled detective out of the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler school. Private eyes became iconic figures in the 20th century, though I’m not sure their fictional exploits corresponded very well with how real private detectives behaved. One of the ways mystery writers seek to come up with something different is to have their heroes be something other than professional detectives, private or otherwise, so Kellerman’s Alex Delaware is a child psychologist (as Kellerman is outside his fiction), and Vacch’s Burke is a criminal.

The big difference between MacDonald and Kellerman is that MacDonald wrote about more or less ordinary people who make mistakes and event-ually are driven to kill to cover them up. Kellerman, however, writes about monsters–usually serial killers who represent the extremes of human behavior. You can identify with a lot of MacDonald’s characters; it’s pretty hard to identify with a lot of Kellerman’s. Not all of them are serial killers in the sense of private individuals who just like to kill people. There are certainly people who are in it for gain: a Nazi, for instance, or a police official. Still, his villains tend to be less sympathetic than MacDonald’s.

Vachss also writes about monsters, but from his narrator’s perspective, the American system is what is monstrous, and it naturally produces monsters. Burke, like most of the people around him, and the people he tries to help, is outside the system. Like many of them, he’s been abused, and spent a good deal of time in prison. Out of prison he’s part of a family related by common experience and viewpoint, not by genetics. One is the Prof (short either for Professor or Prophet) whom he met in prison, and who has been teaching him ever since. Prof is black, but his insights are for anyone who can follow them. Another of his family is a Tibetan martial artist who’s deaf, another is transgender, a third is Jewish with very poor eyesight but tremendous scientific and technical ability.

Burke has particular hatred for pedophiles. He’s been the victim of at least one, and has met plenty of others who have too. Vachss’s first novel concerns a woman whom Burke helps to find the pedophile who killed her child. She finds and kills him. Other novels explore that territory more thoroughly.

One of my favorites is Choice of Evil. The villain in this novel began as a kidnapper, who kidnapped only children, and always killed the children as a safety measure, not, in this case, because he enjoyed killing children. Then he kidnaps a girl who regards him as a rescuer. That’s because her father has been molesting her. Rather than kill her, he gives her some sort of drug that has an effect not clearly described. She lives to grow up, and eventually meet her kidnapper again.

Meanwhile, her kidnapper has become enamoured with the idea of killing. One of Burke’s friends was a contract killer, and a consummate one. By this time he’s committed a spectacular suicide, taking a lot of people with him. The kidnapper wants to be recognized as a better killer. A monstrous character, to be sure, but also sympathetic in having let a little girl touch his heart.

In the last novel about Burke (and the implication that no more are to follow) Burke is hunting a boy taken from his mother by his father, who is another monster. Burke eventually succeeds in returning the boy to his mother, but in doing so he realizes something about his own past.

In all the previous novels he has despised his mother (who gave him up as a newborn) for her apparent irresponsible attitude towards him. Now he reconsiders. Perhaps his mother gave him up because she lived in a horrific situation and thought giving him up would give him a better chance at survival. That’s uncertain, but the mother he’s trying to help has given her child up with that hope. Burke finds her hope to be unrealistic, and persuades her to try something else.

Vachss is not, as far as I know, a survivor of abuse, but he’s spent much of his life around people who are. He’s a lawyer who defends only children, and prior to that ran a prison as humanely as he could. He has some real-life experience of power relationships in the underbelly of society.

Kellerman’s view is somewhat similar, being a child psychologist in real life, in addition to being a writer. His narrator isn’t a criminal, but shares Vachss’s jaundiced view of the ugly parts of society. MacDonald, I think, wasn’t aware of a lot of the things Kellerman and Vachss are. There were still lots of things about the American condition that he wasn’t happy with, but it was more generally the human condition he wrote about, America (California in particular, in his and Kellerman’s cases) being only the location of that condition.

All three writers have a clear sense of something wrong. They can show the particulars of what’s wrong to some extent, but may not be able to show a solution to whatever it may be. Catching criminals and putting them in prison or executing them (and execution can be problematic) is all very well; the real challenge is to prevent them from becoming criminals in the first place. How is THAT to be done? It probably will never be done perfectly, but it seems pretty clear that it could be done better than it is. Answers to that question will have to come from somewhere else, though. Brilliant as these writers are, they don’t have those kind of answers.

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