Saturday, January 23, 2010

Seeking Balance

I’ve been accused of not spending enough time writing about so-called cozies--gentler mysteries more gris than noir. Mea culpa. To make up for that slight, let’s consider two recent--and excellent--examples of the subgenre:

Scary Stuff, by Sharon Fiffer (Minotaur)

It’s called The Reviewer’s Curse, and it has happened to me several times. A critic goes nuts about a first novel--and then the writer either slides into a steep decline or falls off the page entirely. So when I said about Sharon Fiffer’s 2001 debut mystery, Killer Stuff, “This one’s a keeper,” I had all digits crossed.

Fortunately, the Curse was out to lunch. Six books later, Fiffer’s Jane Wheel--collector of weird old stuff and a crime solver of surprising skills--is better than ever. Best of all, her writing mixes great humor and unique insights with a powerful narrative engine.

Early in Scary Stuff, Fiffer reminds us that “Jane collected Bakelite, buttons, sewing tools, measuring tapes, yardsticks, cigar boxes, flower frogs, anything with letters and numbers ...” When her shrewd, stamp-collecting niece asks Wheel why she doesn’t go in for stamps or coins, Jane explains, “I never collect anything that I actually might make money on. ... I only accept poor stuff, old throwaways and castoffs.”

One of the most intriguing features of Fiffer’s Wheel series is the way she gives Jane an instantly believable background. Jane and her younger brother, Michael, were reared in Kankakee, Illinois, where their parents, Don and Nellie, own and run a bar-and-grill called the EZ Way Inn. Jane got as far from home as Evanston, but Michael made it all the way to Los Angeles. Finding a box of Michael’s old baseball cards at his California home, Jane remembers Nellie threatening to throw them away, and is baffled. “Every mother threw away her son’s baseball cards. It was the rule ...,” she thinks.

It is this visit to her brother, her first in two years, that plunges Jane into the mystery part of Scary Stuff. Michael tells her that on three occasions, someone has accused him of fraud on eBay--only to realize later that it wasn’t him. Then, back in Kankakee, one of Don and Nellie’s close friends is attacked. Jane and her detecting partner, a former cop called Oh, work hard to tie everything up in a package that is, er, definitely a keeper.

Doubleback, by Libby Fischer Hellmann (Bleak House)

Not at all a cozy, Hellman’s new book is one tough cookie. When I think of Libby Fischer Hellmann, her two excellent series come to mind: the longer one about video producer and single mother Ellie Foreman, and the newer one about ex-Chicago cop-turned-private investigator Georgia Davis. (Hellmann also edited and contributed to Chicago Blues, a wonderful 2007 collection of stories about the city and its musical heritage, which should be on everyone’s shelf.)

Now Hellmann has combined her two protagonists into one strong and moving novel. Other writers have done this before: Michael Connelly merged his LAPD veteran, Harry Bosch, with his fascinating Mickey Haller, a lawyer who does business from his Lincoln Town Car. But with Doubleback, Hellmann proves she can stand up to peer pressure.

When Ellie receives a call from her best friend, Susan, asking for help in finding a missing 8-year-old girl named Molly, her first reaction is to stay clear of the whole affair. “Over the past several years,” she tells us, “I’ve had several encounters with the dark side of human nature. I don’t look for it, and don’t much like it. I prefer a boring, normal life. But then Rachel is my daughter, Jake Foreman is my father, and Luke Sutton is my boyfriend. Normal is not an option.”

Ellie decides to pass the problem on to Davis, a tough, competent private eye with whom she has worked before. The case appears to be a lose-lose situation: Molly’s mother, Chris, has been warned not to talk with the police, and she was just involved in a nasty divorce case and is worried about losing custody of her daughter. “Being a good P.I. meant knowing when to take on a case and when to hand it off,” Davis says. “This one practically screamed ‘hands off.’”

The little girl is returned safely three days later. But the plot darkens and thickens when it’s learned that mother Chris, who is the information technology manager at a large Chicago bank, may have misappropriated $3 million. Not convinced that his daughter is safe, Molly’s father hires Georgia Davis to follow the money.

Hellmann has done such a good job of bringing her dual principals to vivid life in Doubleback, that you believe every word of it.

No comments: