RADIO / Crime and the private ear: Robert Hanks reviews Kathleen Turner as (PI) V I Warshawski in Deadlock

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The Independent Culture
IF THE present acceleration in the crime rate continues, there is a chance that real murder will outstrip the fictional kind during the first half of the next millennium. It's a comfortingly remote prospect, though. This country has produced more murders, and in more ingenious and subtle varieties, than almost any other, and it's probably healthier to live in a society that manages to keep most of its homicide locked up in paperbacks. The situation is different in America, where a vast industry of fictional crime can barely keep pace with actual violence. That's especially so in the conurbations of Miami, Detroit and Chicago, even though these are also the locations for by far the greatest number of books.

South Chicago is the setting for Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski novels - of which Deadlock (Radio 4, Thursday) is the second to be dramatised for radio. Warshawski, played again by Kathleen Turner (who must wonder what her agent is up to), is ostensibly a feminist twist on the Chandler / Hammett tradition - a hard-bitten private eye, alone against the city with nothing but a pistol and a few principles.

Here, she's investigating the death of her cousin Boom Boom, a former ice hockey player who now works for a grain company, Eudora. Just before the story opens, he has fallen off a dock and under a ship that has just been loaded with Eudora grain. V I is intuitively certain that Boom Boom's death wasn't an accident ('He was an athlete. I can't see him just falling into the lake') and her instinct rebels against suicide, but she hasn't yet got around to the only other available option.

By the end of the first episode we've learnt that:

The ship Boom Boom fell under was replacing another that had been vandalised. The vandalised ship belonged to Pole Star lines, the replacement to the rival Grafalk. Nils Grafalk nurses a grudge against Pole Star's boss, Martin Bledsoe, who used to work for him, while Bledsoe involuntarily crushes a glass in his fist when playboy Grafalk mocks his inexpensive education. Boom Boom's boss at Eudora makes surreptitious phone-calls to Grafalk before driving V I to their offices. Meanwhile, a mysterious ballerina, Paige Carrington, has turned up, claiming to have been Boom Boom's lover and demanding to rifle through his papers; but she has no key to his apartment and drives an expensive car for a dancer (perhaps there is a rich man behind her).

You can't complain about skimpy exposition. Quite the opposite, in fact: unless this is all bluff (and you hope it is), Warshawski should be gathering the suspects in the library by now. It may be a fault of Paretsky's original story or of Michelene Wandor's adaptation, but the story so far is far too clue-heavy.

But a more difficult problem is Warshawski herself: the basic idea - showing a strong, independent woman in the traditionally male- dominated world of the private detective - is admirable. But there's so much concentration on Warshawski's strength and independence that the other characters lose substance. She's never without a sharp - no, let's make that a blunt - riposte to every man who wonders what a nice girl like her is doing in a job like that: a typical sally in Deadlock is 'Flattery will get you nowhere with me.' Remarkably, this dull wit puts her on top in every situation.

On the whole, American crime fiction, more colourful and hardboiled, can knock spots off the British kind, however much social comfort it offers. There are exceptions on both sides of the pond, though: and Warshawski, for all her outward adherence to the Philip Marlowe school, is one of them. In her hollow, unconvincing infallibility, the detective she most resembles is Lord Peter Wimsey.

Sarah Caudwell's Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the current Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday-Friday), is far more satisfying, because it embraces the Wimseyesque school of upper-crust murder and donnish sleuthing whole- heartedly and self-mockingly. The murder here takes place on an art- lovers' holiday in Venice, the victim being a beautiful young man called Ned and the chief suspect Julia, a barrister who has pursued him relentlessly. The events are recounted in Julia's letters home, as read by her barrister friends and their acquaintance, Professor Hilary Tamar, the pompous narrator, who all already know that the murder has been committed.

The writing is witty - often too self-consciously so, as in the heavily ironic jokes about the indolence of barristers and academics. But the reading, switching between Neville Barber's dry Tamar and Kathryn Hunt's elegant Julia, has far more variation of tone than the one-dimensional, Turner-dominated Deadlock. The events unfold at an easy, confident pace, too, and while there's nothing remotely believable about it all, at least Caudwell knows it. And perhaps that's the real secret of a low murder rate - after all, implausibility guarantees that there'll be no copy-cat crimes.