Thursday, January 5, 2012

He Was a Dark and Stormy Sleuth....Pondering the Recurring Mystery Series Hero

I've been on a Scandinavian reading jag (and who hasn't?). There is no better way to combat the onslaught of holiday cheer than to bury oneself ('scuse the pun) in a ripping good tale of a serial killer at large. Except, of course, if that serial killer is at large anywhere in Scandinavia. Germany works well, too (I'm halfway through Erik Larsson's wonderful Beasts in the Garden - - the real star is Martha, the 'party hearty' daughter of U.S. Ambassador Dodd...but I digress).

Recovering from my post-Stieg Larsson trilogy slump was not easy. I found solace by way of a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It contained an excerpt from Jo Nesbo's The Snowman. Truly chilling. I headed straight out to get a copy. It was fantastic. So great I'm going to read the others in sequence, or as near to sequence as I can because the first couple have not yet been translated into English.

I had several memorable visits to Norway over the years, so reading about places I visited in Oslo and Bergen was great. But the real reason to love The Snowman is Harry Hole, ace homicide detective. It isn't that he's the only smart character in the book. Nor is he the only neurotic one (his new colleague, Katrine, is rumored to engage in S&M - - yes indeed the testosterone vapors float right off the pages - - not to mention the guy caught in a 70s time warp driving an ancient Volvo). For nuttiness, the overall cast probably can't compare to the Spelling, England crowd (Sophie Hannah's lead inspector might have some kind of autism disorder), though they do trump Tana French's Dublin detectives (who probably could recover with several years' attendance at 12-step meetings), but Harry Hole is fantastic in every way.

He fits the bill of the Lone Wolf detective. Despite being dumped by his ex for being EU (emotionally unavailable to those of you who missed the Chick Lit wave either in bookstores or, sadly for some of us, in real life) - and can I just say, how macho and sexy is that? - he is still attractive as heck to every woman he meets (despite his crazy addiction to alcohol), both physically and mentally (hey, since when is sheer brilliance a turnoff?). Think Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar. Not to mention there is just no way to dislike a guy who spends his free time practicing a one-handed freestyle handcuff technique. Harry Hole has already ruined the wood on his desk with this maneuver, and you pretty much know by the end of the first chapter it's going to come in handy one day soon. Remember John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany? That kid practiced his jump shot every day, sometimes with a stop watch. You just knew it would come in handy.

In short, whether he's searching a deserted summer cabin alone in the off-season, or making an ass of himself on a talk-show (all in the name of catching his killer), you've gotta love this guy. Even when he's  trampling the snowman the neighbors' kids have spent all morning building.

So, what are the elements for a star sleuth in a mystery series? Bring on the broodiness, for starters. Despite what we learned from Sex & the City and books like Women Who Love Too Much, our star homicide detective is the man at the edge of the party. He's not joining in, placing bets with the other guys on whether the Lions have a prayer against the Saints. Nope, this guy is staring into the fire, barely able to contain his boredom. He is thinking Deep Penetrating Thoughts.

Which brings me to the next element. This is one big honkin' Alpha Male. Whether he is squeaky clean appealing (Tom Cruise, I will always love you!), just plain handsome like Brad Pitt (think early days before that nasty braided goatee) or less 'Pretty Boy' but still stunning (think young Prince Charles or Johnny Cash at pretty much any age), this guy is Mucho Macho. Enough to make every woman he meets check her brains at the door.

Alcoholism, no problem! So he's broody, hunky and drinks himself unconscious once in a while. It's all in a day's work on his way to solving the case. If you want a happily married detective who eats a low-fat, high-fiber diet, check out Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti. And need I remind you, Venice is a looong way from Oslo. The lead homicide detective in any book with a shot at the big screen can indeed battle the bottle. Just so long as it doesn't - like in pesky real life - give him money problems or broken capillaries on his nose or (God forbid) problems (ahem) 'Down Below.' If anything, a fictional hard drinking detective is picking up clues while he's downing his single malt at the bar. Doing research, if you will. It's a pity his ex (who often goes back for more, because this guy is so irresistible) doesn't see it that way.

So, here is the dilemma. How can a female thrill writer hope to compete? There's just no amount of research that can assure this Girlie Girl she can do it. I've fired guns. I've taken online courses. I've talked to cops. I watch episodes of Scared Straight and every news magazine cold case show that comes along. I even spent a memorable day in jail, within easy reach of men who have done the worst things you can think of. All it did was reinforce my lifelong belief that Crime Does Not Pay. And make me very glad indeed that there are brave men and women (women who are not like me) who choose a life in law enforcement.

No amount of research has given me the confidence to bluff it. I am like the Diane Keaton character in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the one Woody Allen says would make a horrible spy. 'Once they take away your Bloomingdale's charge card, you'd spill your guts and tell them everything you know.'

What's the answer? Build a Beta Male detective? You know, a guy with a great sense of humor who is afraid of spiders and wouldn't have any more use for a Home Depot gift card than I?

Here is the problem. Guys like that - from what I can see - don't become homicide detectives. Maybe they do. I just haven't met them. The relatively few homicide detectives, cops and firemen I've met in my life seem totally Alpha Male to me. More likely to enjoy a Hillybilly Handfishin' type vacation than hearing about what you learned at your Weight Watchers meeting. I can only speak for myself. But still, I'm just sayin'.......

Which leaves me with the option of a female amateur sleuth for my mystery series. She can be macho. She can do her own home repair. She can raise Pit Bulls, enjoy four-wheeling on the beach. She can shoot skeet in her spare time. Maybe even struggle with addiction (my money says she needs to be reformed - - I learned the hard way that readers might not mind watching a guy pound shots and hook up with the woman on the next bar stool, but try doing the same with a female heroine and you will find nasty emails in your website inbox). But her idea of emotional well-being involves one loving male relationship at a time. No young kids (sorry, I love them too but they're just not that sexy). And she can be smart but somehow not be complete on her own (even if it's just a drawerful of unused Home Depot gift cards and unfinished DIY home improvement projects to match).

Maybe she can date a homicide detective. Someone who's tough-as-nails, hard to figure and who doesn't think 'punning is funning.' Someone who spends a lot of time on his own, does not seem all that keen to attend her annual Book Country fundraiser with the gals in her book club, but who could be counted on when her car breaks down. Or someone who will use his professional connections to help her figure out something that just seems a little 'off' when she goes to pick up her dog from Doggy Day Care. A sort of part-time Alpha Male until I get ready for the full Undiluted Dose.

Until then, I'll leave the heavy lifting to others.....