Book review: American crime writing loses the plot

Heartwood by James Lee Burke (Orion, pounds 16.99) The Burglar in the Rye by Lawrence Block (No Exit Press, pounds 16.99)
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The Independent Culture
IN JAMES Lee Burke's last novel, Sunset Limited, the very first sentence refers to the narrator's involvement in the Vietnam war. Such references recur constantly in Burke's crime fiction as a means of providing a distance between the narrator (in that case, the Louisiana copper Dave Robicheaux) and the general run of compromised men. Robicheaux does dubious things in the pursuit of justice, but his Vietnam experiences provide a moral framework that makes them tenable.

In Heartwood, Burke holds the Vietnam reference back to the end of paragraph four, an act of restraint that does not set the new novel apart from its predecessor. Heartwood is narrated by Billy Bob Holland, so like Robicheaux that the two might be twins. Robicheaux is a cop, Holland a lawyer; each has a female buddy to keep them on the right track; both are shadowed by a child (for Robicheaux, a daughter; for Holland, a neighbour's son) who serves to remind them why it is important to cleanse the world.

And cleansing the world is what they are about. As cop or lawyer, the novels' narrators may be approximate equivalents of the traditional private eye, but their "I" is anything but private. It is the mechanism of a very public display of morality. In the end, though, Burke's rectitude is of a rather easy kind. The rich rip off the poor with impunity, bad men do unspeakable things to women and children, the world is full of scuzzballs and slimebags. Only a man with a hairy chest and 'Nam scars can save us. Billy Bob Holland, like Dave Robicheaux, knows where the scum comes to the surface in his neck of the woods, and knows how to skim it off.

It's the neck of the woods that provides the interest that Burke's moral certainty fails to generate. From Hammett and Chandler onwards, most of the best US crime fiction has patrolled the city beat. Burke is among those writers who, in the last decade or two, have taken crime out of the metropolis and dropped it into the heart of small-town America. Burke is at home here, showing us how sleepy intolerance, casual indifference and easy violence feed off each other. Burke knows and even loves this world, but his portrayal of it too often settles for crude caricature.

And where does that leave Lawrence Block? Somewhat out on a limb, perched precariously between hard-boiled American and a kind of soft-centred British crime fiction that has not been in vogue here for many years. Block is a ferociously prolific author who has written nearly 50 novels. He is not afraid of titles such as The Topless Tulip Caper, but his work is far removed from the pulpy gaudiness that might imply. He is, in the category defined by Julian Symons in his book Bloody Murder, a genteel farceur in the genteel style - crossbred, perhaps, with a sardonic and slightly tipsy Agatha Christie. It's as if Block wants to transpose the English country-house murder of the Thirties to Nineties New York.

The Burglar in the Rye is the most recent in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series: first-person stories again, but without Burke's ethical claims, or the violence that attends them. Murder here doesn't hurt a bit; crime is harmless fun. In these light entertainments the second-hand book-dealer Rhodenbarr dabbles in burglary to supplement the meagre earnings of his shop.

Bigger crimes inevitably ensue, and Rhodenbarr finally reveals whodunit to a roomful of suspects. As the title implies, The Burglar in the Rye involves a certain amount of literary by-play about a reclusive novelist. It is all done with an agreeably light touch, and Block has taken to heart the pulp dictum, "Keep it short, sharp and sweet". Yet where James Lee Burke suffocates in self-righteousness, Block succumbs to a surfeit of irrelevance. Somewhere between these two, American crime fiction, for so long a valuable abrasive, seems momentarily to be losing its rough edge.

Nick Kimberley

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