Glass Houses, Jane Haddam, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.99.
I have a love/hate relationship with Jane Haddam. As in I love some of her books - The Headmaster's Wife being a recent standout - and others, like the class reunion mystery, Somebody Else's Music, I found so mean spirited I couldn't finish it. But there's no denying her skills, which are many, and when she has a good story to tell, there are few authors who tell it in a more interesting way. For the uninitiated - are there any of you out there? - Haddam is deep into a series about widowed Armenian ex-FBI profiler, now private consultant, Gregor Demarkian. The series picks up after he's been widowed and meets his present girlfriend, Bennis, in the first book, Not a Creature Was Stirring. Unfortunately these early titles are out of print; only the later seven (counting the new one, Cheating at Solitaire) are available. In the first book Haddam takes a very traditional type of mystery trope - murder in an old mansion - dusts it off, shakes it off, and examines it meticulously for holes in the fabric. The holes are few in her capable hands; she brings to the traditional form a real depth of characterization and world weary knowledge and practicality in the form of her main character, Gregor Demarkian.
My husband doesn't like Gregor Demarkian. He says he's too perfect - too patient, too sympathetic, too smart, too all knowing. He also dislikes Peter Wimsey for the same reason. But I say women should be allowed their fantasies - Wimsey is definitely a fantasy figure, and so is Demarkian, though he inhabits a world that seems far more familiar than the one Sayers writes about, and therein lies the charm of this series. Haddam has basically been able to update Wimsey, in her own way, and bring him forward into the present day in an entertaining and often gripping fashion. The psychological detail Haddam gets into makes her series very compelling. Now I can sometimes object to Gregor's girlfriend, Bennis, but I don't dislike her the way I dislike Kellerman's Robin or Parker's Susan. I actually like her, I just can't figure out why she hesitates about committing to Gregor. But I couldn't figure out Harriet Vane's problem with committing to Peter Wimsey, either, and I like Harriet too. Like Haddam herself, Bennis is a genre fiction writer (though she writes science fiction, not mysteries), and she comes from a wealthy mainline family that practically is the definition of dysfunction (read the first book to find out the ins and out of that situation).
In this novel Bennis has taken off to parts unknown which is driving Gregor nuts; and Gregor is working on the case of the "Plate Glass Killer", a series of murders in the Philadelphia area that have stumped police but which are adding up too fast to be ignored any longer. There's a standard formula for telling a story like that, one Haddam completely ignores. Gregor is called in by a friend who is representing the accused killer, an apparent drunk and homeless man named Henry Tyder. Tyder turns out to belong to a very wealthy family, he just leaves home and the company of his sisters to drink. His lawyer is sure he's innocent; Gregor isn't exactly sure but what he is sure of is that the case is completely messed up. The two detectives running it hate each other so much they've actually beaten each other up; neither of them tells the other what the other one is doing; and the case files are so messed up that when Gregor finally gets a look at them he can't make heads or tails of them. Gregor of course begins to straighten things out and as he does Bennis turns up, maddeningly, throwing a wrench into the works of Gregor's life. Few authors are as gifted as Haddam at depicting the complete fabric of a life, and in Gregor Demarkian's, she leaves nothing out. She must be a little bit in love with her main character, but I think Sayers was too. I can't hold that against her.
As Gregor untangles the complicated skeins of the plate glass killer case and his relationship with Bennis, there's another element at play. An author as talented as Haddam at portraying character doesn't let second tier characters slide, and there's plenty to choose from here, including one that illustrates why I have a love / hate relationship with this author. One of the sidebar characters is a British journalist who has come to "red state" America to write a blog about the U.S. and all its shortcomings, and she's landed in Gregor's neighborhood. Her shortcomings are so many and so obvious that Haddam could easily leave it alone and trust most any reader to form a negative opinion of this character, but she doesn't. She instead hits you over the head with everyone's dislike for this woman, though it would be a far stronger book if she had trusted her readers enough to let them make up their own minds. And while I enjoy her detailed explication of the human psyche, I sometimes wish she'd trust me enough to realize that I'm smart enough to reach my own conclusions. I'm smart enough to read and enjoy her books, after all! But form your own opinion - despite her shortcomings, Haddam is a talented writer well worth seeking out.
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