REMINDERS: (1) Have you taken our polls? (Very bottom of page)
(2) Obtain, Read, and Comment on the current book!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mysteries, Racism, and MLK Day

Do any mysteries revolve around a theme suitable for MLK Day? I'm not sure.

Chiefs (Stuart Woods) traces a crime through 3 generations of police chiefs in a small Georgia town. One factor is the evolving race relations. By the end of the book, An African-American chief solves the series of murders that goes back some forty years.

I have always enjoyed the Easy Rawlins character created by Walter Moseley. There are many things that come together to make the Moseley books a great series: plot, characterization, great dialog. But it's hard to find a lot of books that provide insight into the challenges of urban African Americans in the Civil Rights era (1945-1970ish) as you get from following the life of Rawlins and his friends.

Like many, I never read John Ball's In the Heat of the Night (1965) but remember the movie. The book one an Edgar for first mystery, and was strong on theme of racial tension.

A ten year old article describes "a crowded list of black protagonists who solve crimes in detective stories and novels penned by African-American writers." I am not familiar with these books. This should be a good start into some new and different writers.

As usual, the "Stop You're Killing Me" site is great for lists: For example all of the African-American sleuths featured in mystery fiction.

I found an interesting study of both positive and negative stereotyping in mysteries of the 1940s and earlier.

I do not believe that every black author necessarily will result in a book with insights into the issues of racism and civil rights in our society; however I'm not well read enough to say for sure. In looking up various books, I found one for my "must read" list: A Rage in Harlem, (1957) by Chester Himes. You can get the idea from Amazon readers and others.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Zero Hour Quite Predictable

Imagine - a terrorist will set off a bomb in New York City, disrupting banking communications around the world. Imagine - the hero is single Mom and Boston based FBI agent who is put in charge of a task force to find the terrorist and stop him before the bomb goes off. The thing is, it is easy to imagine mainly because the plot line is so familiar. It just seemed all too predictable. I'm not sure whether the The Zero Hour (Joseph Finder, 1996) failed - or whether I'm starting to fail to appreciate such stories.

Here are some of the things that bothered me. The terrorist is a former member of the South Africa's spy agency. He was so successful that he was given the designation "zero" -- remind you of "007" at all? Anyway, at the start of the book, he cleverly escapes from a South African prison, killing two people with his bare hands. Very cold. Yet somehow the tension is not there. He is just not believable. Telling me that he is known in the trade as the Prince of Darkness doesn't build the character, it makes a joke of the character. Tension evolves in a thriller like this when the reader is brought to a state of sustained belief, even if the plot is incredible. But that does not happen with this character. Baumann, the real name of the terrorist, is master of everything. He seems to be able to be in more than one place at a time as the plot evolves from Washington DC to New York City. He seems to know many details about American culture, specific places in Washington and New York, and yet there seems no basis for his ability to know these things. He is portrayed as a convincing actor, able to take on accents and personae at whim. He can actually cause Sarah Cronin -the Terrorist Task Force leader- to let down her guard and believe that he is a benign architect. No - it's way too much. Either that or Finder cannot make me believe it.

In the midst of great personal stress, Sarah is relieved when a stranger saves her son from nasty hoodlums in NY Central Park. For several chapters, Finder has this architect insinuate himself into the life of Sarah and her son. There was absolutely not the slightest surprise when the reader is told that the nice guy is actually the Prince of Darkness. Come on! So predictable.

Then there is the whole idea that Sarah would receive the kind of career treatment granted to her by the FBI in the book. The FBI seems way too accommodating to her personal requirement to live in Boston, since her divorce decree required her to live near her ex-husband. Then, she is suddenly brought to Washington and made Task Force leader! Just, not believable.

Finally, Finder goes out of his way to introduce and then explain high tech stuff. But it just gets in the way. Do mystery readers really need to get so much information about the well-known fingerprint classification system? Does anyone not know what a local area network (LAN) is? Well Finder takes a few paragraphs to explain the way the computer network is set up in the Task Force office in New York. But it has no bearing on the story, the characters, or really even the setting.

I read it all the way (but I rarely give up on a book). But it was largely a forgettable story. The Zero Hour by Joseph Finder is not at all up to the quality of some of Finder's more recent books, such as Paranoia. Maybe Finder is stronger with these more recent stories because they are largely new ground - there are not so many "corporate thrillers" as international bomb and terrorist stories. But it's really more than that. I was much more completely drawn into the characters in Paranoia. And the ending of Paranoia is anything BUT predictable.

2009 POLL #2--Do Mystery Stories and Political Bias Mix? What is closest to your view?