Moving to the cosy detective

I believe that amongst the plethora of genres within crime fiction, there are two major divisions. There's the detective story which is slightly removed from reality - the country house murders of the golden age of detective fiction, the genteel criminals of Alexander McCall Smith, the cerebral detective (Morse, Maigret). All of these stories however intriguing they may be, and however realistic in many ways, are removed from the full horror of crime - the victim is often a fairly unsympathetic character, so no reader empathy called for here - the murderer will always be caught, or will at least come to a sticky end, the world thrown into chaos by the crime will be restored, and we can confidently hope that the survivors will all live happily ever after. In many ways this style of fiction is not unrelated to the "cosy catastrophe" of science fiction where, however bad, the apocalypse, the survivors will come smiling through at the end.

Set against this is the more realistic school of detective fiction. Events within these volumes may be as fantastical as those in the cosy detective version, but here there is more emphasis on the blood and gore of crime, the less than genteel detectives, the psychology of the murderer, an attempt to make the reader think that this is really what it is like to be a detective/murderer - in many of these novels there is a tension that suggests that just occasionally criminals do get away with their crimes, that order may not be totally restored.  These kind of novels are exemplified by Nordic noir, the hard-boiled detectives of Chandler and Ellroy, and the pathologist fiction of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell.

Occasionally one novel may move between the two schools, although it will always be most firmly based in one or the other. Even more rarely an author may move from one school to another, and this is what I believe is happening with Kathy Reichs.

Her earlier novels felt breathtakingly realistic, intense, scary, and with an eye for verisimilitude. But as the series has progressed she seems to have moved further away from this. This is certainly true of Mortal Remains (published in the US as Spider bones) When a body is discovered in unusual circumstances near the Canadian/US border, Temperance Brennan is called in to investigate - the body turns out to be that of a former US soldier.....who is supposed to have died 40 years previously in Vietnam. As bodies proliferate Brennan and Ryan have to sort out who's meant to be buried where, while keeping their warring daughters apart on what should be an idyllic trip (except for the bodies and sharks) to Hawaii.

There's lots to recommend in this book. Basic storyline is good, and there's some interesting content on the work of JPAC an organization that works to bring missing US servicemen home. Originally set up to return both POWs and dead servicemen, it now primarily focuses on finding and repatriating the bodies of American military from any theatre of war in which the US lost men over the last 100 years. [Query - was intrigued to discover that there are still a number of missing servicemen from the Cold War - this does not include the Korean or Vietnam wars - so where exactly are they missing from?]

However there are lots of problems too - the body count and coincidences are just not believable, characters are part-developed and then dropped, other characters are developed in ways that don't feel convincing. It just didn't quite work. Tempe was back to nearer her normal Reichs self rather than her Bones version (see earlier post), but Ryan had completely morphed into his Booth counterpart of the TV series. Don't get me wrong - I love David Boreanaz' portrayal of Booth, but it has always been a very different animal to Kathy Reichs' Ryan. To me the books have always been from the "realistic" school of detective fiction, while Bones although sometimes dealing with gruesome subject matter has been nearer the cosy detective strand. Now unfortunately they seem to have merged, with the cosier side taking over. I have a slight preferance for the cosy detective story, but for this series I feel it doesn't really work, I'd rather like the old Brennan and Ryan back.

It's an enjoyable light read, but for Kathy Reichs at her best take a look at some of the earlier volumes in the series.


Popular Posts