Saturday, July 28, 2012

Anatomy of a Murder

Peter Lovesey’s newest book, Cop to Corpse, follows a classic plot device: a serial killer is out there targeting policemen. Cop to Corpse opens on the third such murder by “the Somerset Sniper”. Three police officers walking their beat are now dead, a clean shot straight to the head by an expert marksman who chose ideal locations from which to fire.

This sounds like a job for Peter Diamond, Lovesey’s series sleuth. He’s not your conventional police detective. He isn’t in great shape, he’s middle-aged and decidedly old-fashioned (taking particular delight in the triumphs man can still claim over the computer).  But the case seems like one even he will have trouble cracking. The police are inches away from catching the mad sniper multiple times, but each time the culprit slinks silently into the shadows, leaving his pursuers empty-handed. And on one such occasion, he even runs down Diamond himself on his (or her) motorbike!

All in all, Cop to Corpse is an interesting book. The first few chapters are told in the present tense, which I must admit threw me off somewhat. But soon enough we returned to a more traditional verb tense and it stayed that way. However, the narrative is interrupted several times by blog posts from a young woman, who gets involved in events that soon seem like they might have a connection with the Somerset Sniper.

Throughout the book, my main criticism was… something. For the sake of spoilers I won’t mention what it was, and giving hints are very tricky in this case. This is because this point of criticism turned out to be entirely stage-managed by the author. This is fair-play at its most diabolical—getting the reader to notice something over and over again but dismiss it because there’s no way it can be relevant to the plot, right? Wrong. It turns out that this something I kept noticing and criticising was actually an important clue! Well-played, Mr. Lovesey!

In fact, it’s fascinating to notice that, in this aspect, Lovesey’s book forms a sort of spiritual successor to Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which I reviewed earlier this year. McBain’s classic 1956 novel also involves a serial killer targeting policemen, and like Lovesey he manages to pull off an unexpected feat in terms of clueing. Although Cop Hater is a ground-breaking police procedural, Ed McBain managed to fairly clue his mystery, which is something you rarely expect in such a novel. (To be fair, it wasn’t a particularly complex solution and I personally solved it by instinct, but the achievement alone is nevertheless impressive.) Lovesey in a way follows McBain’s footsteps by using something entirely unexpected as his major clue. To sum it up briefly and without giving too much away, both novels contain a major surprise in the clueing department.

But this book is not a Cop Hater clone, and I personally enjoyed it all the more for that. In fact, the biggest difference between Lovesey’s approach and McBain’s approach is the characterization of the victims. McBain’s approach works very well for his victims, with the exception of the opening kill. The character is so briefly sketched that the attempt to do so instead comes off as somewhat pathetic. Lovesey chooses a completely different route: he opens on murder #3 and characterization of the victims occurs after they have already been murdered. And thus, I thought Lovesey’s approach worked better. We still get some well-rounded characters, but they don’t bog down the story, which was for me the major flaw of Cop Hater.

Cop to Corpse is 304 pages long, and yet it whizzes by very quickly. Meanwhile, the edition of Cop Hater that I read numbered only 166 pages, yet it felt very padded indeed. Does this reflect how the genre has changed from 1956 to 2012? I would argue that the reverse is instead true: a modern novel is far likelier to be steeped in trauma and self-pitying angst. So why such a different result between these two books? Well, remember that Cop Hater was written in a post-WWII world by an American, and Cop to Corpse is a brand-new book by a British author… and that author happens to be Peter Lovesey.

Peter Lovesey is one of the best talents working in the mystery field today. In an era where we might easily spend 50 pages on our detective’s traumatic childhood, Lovesey gives us a few well-placed sentences where Peter Diamond painfully recalls the murder of his wife (who was very much alive and well in Bloodhounds, the only other Diamond novel I’ve read). Lovesey remembers the key to the mystery novel: the story. He has a good story to tell and by gum, he tells it. He doesn’t forget about characters or atmosphere and in fact there are several thrilling sequences. (If there’s one thing in Cop Hater’s favour, it has a superior climax in terms of thrills, but Cop to Corpse has several scenes that are just as thrilling or more.) But the driving force of this novel is the story, and it’s a good one with one particularly neat clue. Cop to Corpse is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.

Notes: I will attempt to read X Vs. Rex by Philip Macdonald in the near future and take advantage of that opportunity to do a three-way comparison between it, Cop to Corpse, and Cop Hater. So far, Cop to Corpse is in the lead as my favourite, but will Macdonald manage to pull out ahead? We’ll find out sooner or later, I guess…

I read the Kindle edition of Cop to Corpse and have nothing but praise for it. The editing is excellent and the font chosen is quite clear and easy to read. It's worth getting for fans of the Kindle.

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