[Editor's Note: Don't miss Jeff VanderMeer's reading at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on Saturday, November 7, 2009, at 4 p.m. Click here for more information.
Killers are like mushrooms; the deadly ones look like the ones you have for breakfast, unless you happen to have the sense to turn them over and look at the funny underneath.
— Derek Raymond, Dead Man Upright
If killers are like deadly mushrooms, then detectives are also like mushrooms, but of the non-poisonous variety. This analogy is more literal than you might expect in my case, as I have a new noir-thriller-fantasy detective novel out, entitled Finch, in which mushrooms play a somewhat important role. Finch is set in the imaginary city of Ambergris, which has been occupied by bizarre creatures called gray caps who have subjugated the human population using their advanced fungal technologies. Indeed, their spores have infected detective John Finch's partner, Wyte, who is disintegrating. Against this backdrop, Finch must solve a difficult double murder without getting killed by his masters or by the rebels who oppose them.
Despite the strangeness of the setting, my novel, like most mysteries, depends on the complexity of the case and, perhaps more importantly, the reader's interest in or fascination with the characters. If Finch works, it's because readers care what happens to John Finch, and they care about Wyte because Finch cares about Wyte.
But Finch, despite being a man who tries to do the right thing, is not a strictly moral person. He's not a villain, but he engages in dubious actions at times and has rather eccentric habits. He's a reflection of what real people are like — and an acknowledgment that we can feel an affinity for people who are strange or off-center, even in the real world, perhaps because we recognize that quality in ourselves.
In that context, here are three underrated mystery series that I love because the detectives in them are deeply weird, deeply flawed people.
Stephen Greenleaf's Marsh Tanner series:
In books like Grave Error, Death Bed, and State's Evidence, Greenleaf proved Ross MacDonald wasn't the only one who could create classic West Coast detective novels. Lawyer-turned-private eye Tanner is an eccentric and quirky protagonist who encounters a number of odd possible suspects and victims in the course of 14 installments. Books like Fatal Obsession, in which he returns to his childhood haunts in Iowa, showed that Tanner traveled well — it's one of the best books in the series, wedding San Francisco noir grit to a world of small-town secrets. Some of the later novels seemed a little preachy, but I always thought Tanner's method of expression and his take on the cases he investigated made him more than a little different. That said, on the surface he may be the most normal of the three detectives I'm mentioning here.
Derek Raymond's Factory series:
The five Factory novels — He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil's Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez, and Dead Man Upright — are morbid yet satisfying classics of the noir subgenre. The nameless narrator works as a detective in the Department of Unexplained Deaths. He often clashes with his superior, Bowman, and has turned down promotion at every turn. His wife is in a lunatic asylum and is responsible for the central tragedy of the detective's life. The cases in front of him are all about an inner life, of bringing back the dead. In each case, the detective to some extent reanimates the victims and attempts to identify with them. No one would ever want to have a pleasant lunch with this detective, but he's deeply sympathetic despite his hang-ups, or perhaps because of them. As you read the series, you realize that a lesser — perhaps even a more normal — man wouldn't have dedicated himself to murder cases. In the context of the tragedy the nameless detective has faced, a lesser man would have gone mad or become a killer himself.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Detective Beck series:
Detective Martin Beck investigates several often intriguing and unique murders in these stunning Swedish police procedurals, including the debut, Roseanna, plus The Man on the Balcony, The Laughing Policeman, and seven others. As the series continues, Beck becomes more and more cynical, his health deteriorates, and in all ways his investigations impact him negatively. In a sense, Beck is a less dramatic version of Raymond's nameless detective, in that his cases resonate in his bones. It doesn't help that Beck's personal life is a mess, and that the bleakness of the landscape of the cities and countryside explored by the writer permeates his character.
All three of these series influenced my portrayal of Finch in the novel, to greater and lesser extents. All three provide great reading for mystery fans. All three deserve to be better known. Go forth and find them. I'm sure the wise book detectives at Powell's won't mind taking on the case.