Sorry I’ve been away from writing reviews for the last month. Part of it was the annual slog through the sunless swamp of low winter in the Pacific Northwest and part of it was that my way of dealing with the black-afternoon blahs was to retreat to the comfort-food reading that got me through a lot of long lonely nights in Christian boarding school: John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Williams, Peter Abrahams, Stephen King, etc.
But I’ve been doing a lot of other reading, too, of more current work.
I’ll start catching you up on those with a question: Is it fair to judge a book by the established standards of its genre, or should it simply be judged on its own merits? I admit I tend toward the former since most readers of crime fiction read, well, a lot of crime fiction, be it P.I. novels, or procedurals, or cozies, or hardboiled tales.
But I always think about the question every time I read a new book.
I ask because A Map of the Dark, by “Karen Ellis,” a pseudonym for Katia Lief, is basically a standard-issue supermarket-checkout-lane suspenser with a surface layer of sophisticated prose—run-on sentences are oh so like totally literary!—that brings to mind a novel-length New Yorker story.
Like the wretched Descent by Tim Johnston, an obnoxiously overpraised “literary thriller” from a few years ago, it pays slavish homage to the tropes that most readers of domestic suspense and law-enforcement procedurals will recognize. In this case, an FBI agent with a haunted past; missing teenage girls; a hot partner with an undercurrent of personal appeal, etc. etc.
But, despite its cut-above-convention pretensions—Elsa Myers, the FBI agent in question is a surreptitious skin cutter, a female analogue of sorts to Frank Marr, the drug-abusing ex-cop from David Swinson’s two novels—it’s really just the same old story you’ve likely read dozens of times before from Catherine Coulter or Alison Brennan or J.T. Ellison or any of the many mass-market FBI-fetishist authors out there.
And it’s done competently but with no special skill: its two big twists are telegraphed far too obviously for them to have much impact on anyone who has read more than a few missing-girl or FBI-agent thrillers.
(I had the same experience with the even-more-hyped pseudo-Hitchcockian The Woman in the Window, by man-pretending-sort-of-to-be-a-woman “A.J. Finn,” which I disliked so much that I don’t trust myself to review it dispassionately.)
The flip side of the question for me came in my reading of May, from Marietta Miles.
When I first read it, I found myself disappointed that it wasn’t more of a cat-and-mouse thriller in its final act, given how skillfully it isolated three people with colliding agendas on a storm-swept North Carolina coastal island. Imagine that: I wanted it to hew to the tropes of the crime genre.
Then I relaxed and realized that May’s heart lay elsewhere, that it isn’t a plotted crime novel so much as a novel that stumbles across crime in the course of peeling back the cover of how real people live when they live close to the ground. May, at heart, is an utterly compelling character study of a wounded woman trying to stumble her way clear of complete shutdown, and of two teenage boys whose compulsive needs put them on a collision course with her need to be needed.
May is the sort of novel I’ll revisit simply because it’s much more than plot twists and pulse points. It’s a nuanced immersion in quiet, almost dignified brokenness, and in time and place (the narrative is split between the early 1970s and 1987, and Louisiana and North Carolina). A perfect mirror moment at about the novel’s halfway point:
May doesn’t think she has what other women have. The way of a mother. When she visits with Linda and her boys she sits next to them on the couch or even in one of their little chairs, working at making them smile. She is also breathless for the duration, knowing something bad will happen and sure it will be her fault because babies are so weak and breakable.
It turns out that May is wrong, that she has what it takes to care for someone more broken than she, and the great pleasure of MAY is in finding out how she finds out. May would never be an FBI agent, nor want to be, but under all that storm damage in her soul is a strong instinct for setting things right. Right enough to live with, anyway.