Monday, August 06, 2007

One book and beyond ... Vol. 3

Continuing my personal list - inspired by The Rap Sheet's One Book Project - of crime, mystery and thriller novels that were “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.”

Jonathan Valin's 1989 novel EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES would be another candidate for the short list of the ten best private eye novels ever written. It was Valin's eighth novel about Cincinnati private detective Harry Stoner - and the most uncompromising.

It starts off in fairly standard PI fashion. Stoner is hired to find Ira Lessing, a prominent businessman and philanthropist who's gone missing in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. When his bloodstained BMW is found abandoned, everyone fears the worst - and with good reason. Stoner soon discovers Lessing had a secret life neither his family nor his business partner ever suspected. The investigation leads him into Kentucky's seamy riverside red-light districts, and a world of teenage hustlers, prostitutes and junkies. Stoner has a hard time letting go of the case, even after Lessing's badly beaten body turns up, and a teenage boy confesses to the murder. Stoner suspects the real killer is still out there, a theory confirmed by a subsequent blackmail attempt and threats to destroy the dead man's reputation by revealing the lurid details of his other life.

It's become a cliche in modern detective fiction to give the hero a dangerous, more physical sidekick, who can carry out acts of violence and vengeance that the hero would like to but can't, without becoming less sympathetic in the eyes of the average reader. This device allows the hero to keep the moral high ground while at the same time offering readers the satisfaction of a violent demise for the villains. It's a useful plot device, which is why so many use it, but it's also a cop-out. The heroes don't have to take the responsibility for - or face the repercussions of - the violent acts they've benefited from. That's why it's called fiction.

In CIRCUMSTANCES, on the other hand, Valin effectively shows these devices for the contrivances they are. He gives neither Stoner nor the reader an easy way out. The book does offer a sense of catharsis and closure, but only after Stoner commits an act in the final pages that few writers would be brave enough to let their heroes do. It's shocking and surprising and at the same time makes perfect sense. And it feels like real life.

However, it also brought the series to a level of intensity that might have made it difficult to go back to business as usual. The next Stoner book, 1991's SECOND CHANCE, seemed tame in comparison, and the one after that, THE MUSIC LOVERS, was an intentionally lightweight lark. The 11th in the series, 1995's MISSING, revisited some of the same themes as CIRCUMSTANCES, but it sometimes seemed like Stoner had shot his bolt in the final scenes of that earlier book. And Valin may have felt the same way. There has yet to be another Stoner novel - or a book of any type - from him to date.

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