Monday, October 28, 2013

Pausing during a murder mystery

Detectives all have private lives, but you wouldn't always know it by reading some mystery fiction. I'm thinking of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series, which reveals only sparse information about its main character. At the other extreme we have the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, which can be found in the mystery sections of most bookstores but in which the mystery is always secondary to the story about the detective, her friends and family.

Somewhere in the middle we find Milan Jacovich, hero of the terrific series of mysteries set in Cleveland and written by Les Roberts.Roberts keeps his focus on the mystery, yet there are frequent intermissions, usually just a sentence or two long, that remind readers Jacovich is a real, albeit fictional, person who isn't always chasing bad guys.

I reviewed the latest Milan Jacovich novel, Win, Place, or Die, last Friday, and I previously wrote about one of those "intermissions" in the story in my Oct. 11 post ("Scrabble, with coffee and tea"). Today I want to comment on two others, one I reacted to in a positive way and another I responded to negatively. First the one that bothered me:

"Hiram College came to being in 1850, thanks to the Disciples of Christ Church -- a liberal church back then, if anyone alive today even remembers those two words were sometimes used in the same sentence."

Now what do you suppose that means? The "two words" the author refers to are apparently "liberal church," a phrase that is probably heard as much today, especially in conservative churches, as ever. I'm a Presbyterian, a denomination still losing thousands of members yearly because so many people consider it a hopelessly "liberal church." Do a Web search and you will find plenty of references to "liberal Catholic Church," "How to Be a Conservative in a Liberal Church," etc. Roberts may not have heard the phrase "liberal church" lately, but that doesn't mean it's no longer in use.

Now here's a line from the novel I enjoyed: "Had two cups already," he said, a small lie; he'd had four cups of coffee and a cinnamon bun at Panera before he began his drive and had already stopped once at a McDonald's to use their facility on the way." This sentence actually refers to Jacovich's associate, K.O. O'Bannion, not to Jacovich himself, and it clearly has absolutely nothing to do with the mystery at hand. So why do I like it?

For one thing, I appreciate the details: four cups of coffee, a cinnamon bun, Panera and McDonald's. I also enjoy the phrase "use their facility." "Use the facilities" happens to be one my own favorite euphemisms, and when I stop at McDonald's while traveling, it is rarely to buy anything to eat. So I found this very amusing. It's an aside that humanizes the detective without boring the reader. After that sentence, Roberts returns immediately to the mystery. That strikes me as good writing.

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