BEING A READER, Crime books

Revisiting genre giants Elmore Leonard and Henning Mankell

In the last two weeks, I revisited two of my favourite crime writers and learned a thing or two – not all of it positive.

Both of these authors have long reached the stage where their names dwarf the actual book titles on the covers. This, more than any printed claim, is the sure sign that an author is successful. So, kids, dreaming of publishing a book isn’t the ticket any more – you have to dream of publishing a book where your name is bigger than the title. To achieve success, the author has to become a brand.

But what happens to authors once they’ve become a brand? Suddenly there’s an expectation that they’ll write more books of the same type and quality, and do so with great regularity.

For Mankell, especially, this is a great challenge, as he’s known primarily for a series of books featuring one character, the detective Kurt Wallander. Being a cop, Wallander can be involved in a new crime as many times as is needed, so the plot permutations are virtually unlimited. The problem is the character itself. How many twists and turns can one man’s private life take before it becomes totally ridiculous?

Mankell has seemingly found a way out of that conundrum by shifting his focus to Kurt’s daughter, Linda Wallander. In Before the Frost, she takes over as the lead character.

The plot of this book feels unusually contrived. It’s not so much that it’s any less believable than the norm for books of this type, but that the plot comes across as a lifeless joining of dots, lacking the inspiration or gusto of earlier Wallander books. This is, however, offset to some extent by the clever game the author plays with dates, giving his fictional tale a deftly handled resonance in the real world of his readers.

Mankell has, of course, also written books that have nothing to do with Wallander. Based on the one I have read (Depths), these books should be well worth seeking out.

Without the expectation to stick to one character, coming up with a new book every year or so should be easier for Elmore Leonard than for Wallander. All his readers expect is that trademark stripped-down style and smart characters who are a law unto themselves. Leonard has done essentially the same thing in his early Westerns, the modern crime stories he’s most famous for and occasionally in novels with a historic bent. What he does is undoubtedly great, and in the pantheon of crime writers Elmore Leonard ranks with the handful of giants of the genre up in the Chandlersphere.

The problem is that he’s been at it an inordinately long time, and seems to be struggling a bit, if Up in Honey’s Room (2007) is anything to go by. The book seems to consist of highlights from previous books retold and bits of somewhat jarring research, joined together in a not altogether involving plot. And alarm bells always start to ring for me if an author has his characters telling jokes.

Leonard dusts of Carl Webster of The Hot Kid (himself the son of Virgil Webster of Cuba Libre), which is fine. What’s more worrying is that so many of the other characters become indistinguishable from Elmore Leonard characters in other books and even from other characters in this particular book.

Roger Ebert made the point about modern American movies that the characters in most movies are unbelievably dumb. In this book, the problem is the opposite – everyone is unbelievably clever.

The typical Elmore Leonard hero is smarter than the people around him, always first to catch on to what’s happening. In this book, Carl, Honey, the cop Kevin, German POW Jurgen and spy Vera are all exceedingly quick on the uptake. They catch on to things about each other and events so quickly that you wonder if they’re not all reading each other’s minds.

There’s just too much cleverness and this causes confusion rather than tension – something that’s not helped by the fact that the book doesn’t have a clear main character, nobody we really want to root for. Even the two villains (one charmingly evil, one a dull fool) are not hateful.

The lesson from all this, I guess, is that it’s unrealistic of readers and publishers to expect these marquee authors to keep churning out equivalents of their best books time and again. Perhaps becoming one of those writers isn’t the best thing in the world after all.

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