a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
Being a mystery writer - and someone who occasionally teaches mystery writing to wannabe authors - it's usually a let down for me when I pick up a crime novel, too much like work. As a professional, I see too easily through the various tricks that authors use to create suspense, having used most of these tricks myself. It's a bit like a chef, I suppose, going to a restaurant and tasting a sauce he knows how to make down to the last pinch of salt.
I like to tell my students that, plot-wise, mysteries are a limited field, that certain things need to happen simply for it to be a mystery: a crime must occur, there must be a protagonist who solves the crime, and a villain who did it, etc. When you look at story structure this way, it simplifies the writing of a crime novel, which is pleasant for those of us in trade. However, for a reader, this can be the opposite of pleasant - boring, in fact, an endless repetition of the basic formula. So I am always thrilled when a book comes along that breathes new life into what has become a numbingly over-exploited recipe. Blood Work by Michael Connelly, recently made into a movie by Clint Eastwood, is a classic police procedural that does exactly that. There is nothing remotely new about Blood Work; every element of this story has been worked again and again by such experts as Lawrence Sanders and Robert Daley. Yet Connelly has used the formula very cleverly, adding just a few forensic twists we've never seen before, and bringing some fresh energy to the old cat-and-mouse game between a brilliant detective and a (nearly) equally brilliant serial killer.
When I teach mystery writers, the first point I like to make is that the detective hero is a mythical archetype, far from realistic, one of the "thousand faces of the hero" in the Joseph Campbell sense. In real life, cops give up, cases are left unsolved; but in the fairy tale world of crime fiction, the detective hero is relentless, risking his/her life and career without a second thought, never stopping until the bad guy is caught, no matter whose toes are stepped on. So the first thing the author must do is get his hero properly motivated to solve the crime at any cost. There has to be real passion here; if the story has an amateur detective, the motive needs to be more than busybody curiosity, and if the hero is a professional cop, the propelling force must be more than a mere job.
The hero of Blood Work is Terrell (Terry) McCaleb, a retired FBI agent living on his boat in Southern California who has recently received a heart transplant and is supposed to take it easy. Along comes a beautiful woman, Graciela Rivers, who informs McCabe that his heart came from her sister, a murder victim in an unsolved crime. She wants McCaleb to find her sister's killer, and there's simply no way for him to say no, not with the victim's heart beating in his chest. The medical twist makes for a clever opening, and a very personal stake in solving the crime. And if his new heart isn't enough motivation, he soon falls in love with Graciela and later becomes the LAPD's prime suspect, and now must find the killer in order to clear his own name. These last two devices, of course, are old as the hills, but Michael Connelly is a good enough writer to make them appear fresh.
Work is no masterpiece, but it is a solidly good read, start to
finish, with a number of surprises and an extremely likeable hero
that the reader comes to worry about - too much exercise, running
around Los Angeles in search of justice, and his new heart could fail
at any moment. This is a good choice, I'd say, for a long plane ride
where you want guaranteed entertainment, or for that perfect patch
of summer beach.
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