July 22, 2014
I was thinking about last week’s post on damage, and how damaged characters tend to make for an interesting read. And it suddenly occurred to me that the emotionally maimed protagonist may be the most absolute dividing line…not between cozy mysteries and hard-boiled, but between cozies and everything else. That line is firmer than the Amateur Sleuth requirement, firmer even than the rule that cozies should involve a minimum of on-stage violence. I’m sure there are fancier-pants ways to describe it, but here’s mine: Nobody in a cozy mystery shall be seriously messed up.
I’m not talking wacky. Cozies are all about the wacky neighbor, the goofy best friend. I’m talking substance-abuse, flashbacks-to-Nam, history–of-psychotic-breaks mess-up. Jane Marple does not have a tortured relationship with vodka. Agatha Raisin is not a secret cutter. Jessica Fletcher does not cruise rough-trade bars and then embark on week-long spirals of self-loathing.
That kind of damage is not confined to the realm of the hard-boiled. Missing, for example, is by no means classic HB (where’s the nihilism? Where’s the professional sleuth?) but Sybilla – homeless by choice, haunted by her past – is certainly a gal with more than a few little problems. The sisters – all the sisters – in The Past and Other Lies provide a kind of walking paradigm of Messed-Up Through the Ages, but the book is a generational saga that encompasses most of the 20th century and involves a single crime that occurs on something like Page 347. Not exactly HB as it’s known and loved.
But I do love me some damage. I don’t know that I’d want it as a steady reading diet: Binging on the “Mallory” books, by Carol O’Connell, or Patricia Cornwell’s “Kay Scarpetta” series, or even on A.J. Holt’s terrific “Jay Fletcher” duo, about an FBI agent who learns a little too much about serial-killing, might prompt me into a tortured vodka-relationship of my own. However, there is always what you might call damage-light – the equivalent of a runny nose, say, compared with the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu. I’m thinking of all those marvelous melancholic coppers, from John Harvey’s sandwich-making jazzbo, Charlie Resnick, to Henning Mankell’s gorgeously glum Kurt Wallander.
Felony-side…well, you wouldn’t call Andy Dalziel damaged, if only because he’d pound you on the shoulder a bit harder than necessary, and knock back another pint or five. And Peter Dickinson’s lovely Jimmy Pibble, the almost pathologically quiet presence in Sleep and His Brother, The Old English Peep Show, and Skin Deep isn’t so much damaged as…well, you get the feeling that he’s been halfway invisible all his life, a virtual line-drawing, dong nothing but notice, note, and note everything down, in a spidery, all-but-illegible hand.
On the other hand, there’s Neil Kelly, the professor at the heart of S.F.X. Dean’s exquisitely literate series, whose Catholicism leaves him somewhat permanently rubbed raw, and who is then all but mortally wounded by the events of By Frequent Anguish. Or George Sansi, first encountered in Season of the Monsoon, whose half-caste status (he’s the son of an Indian mother and an English father) leaves him an outsider everywhere. Or Sheila Radley’s Inspector Quantrill, trapped in a loveless marriage, and aware that happiness has passed him by, but getting up nevertheless and getting on with things, because that’s what men do.
I’ve been asked, more than once, what authors I wish I could publish, and I always say that Robert Goddard is at the top of the list. Why? Because so many of his books are, underneath the complex mysteries, stories of redemption: Many of his protagonists are deeply damaged, but Goddard loves them more than they love themselves. I come away from Goddard’s books with all the satisfaction of having read a terrific, twisty mystery, but with a certain uplift as well, an unusual combination. In looking over my list of some of F&M’s wounded protagonists, I feel that same kind of love and admiration. These are all people with scars, some of them running very deep. And yet they are all trying, sometimes with gritted teeth, to get up and get on with things. A toast to them, please. And this week only, you can offer it cheap: 25% off some of our best Damaged Goodies: Sleep and His Brother, By Frequent Anguish, Death in the Morning, Missing, Season of the Monsoon, Dangerous Davies, and The Past and Other Lies.