A jerk’s a jerk for a’ that.

Being a guy, I have been spared the dread that I will end up looking like my mother–to be sure, some observers felt that my mother in her later years bore a disturbing resemblance to legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray, so I suppose the gender difference might not completely immunize me, but so far it hasn’t been an issue. Still, one might worry about following in her footsteps in other ways.

Evelyn always wanted books to be about nice people, people she could like and even admire. As a teenager into Stephen King and Gabriel García Márquez, I looked down on her naive fondness for Dorothy Sayers and Dick Francis and little old ladies who solved crimes, books where the good guys had good manners and, if not British aristocrats themselves, at least knew how to address them properly. This desire for niceness might seem out of keeping with her fascination with Greek myths, full as they are of rage and rape and such, but you know, Ev was large, she contained multitudes.

Well, I still don’t think that nice characters are the noblest aspiration of literary art, and most of my favorite books would not suit Evelyn at all, but when it comes to genre fiction, and mysteries in particular, the apple has fallen too close to the tree for my own comfort.  I have read quite a few of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, and even have a soft spot for Dick Francis despite his undeniable cheesiness.  And more generally, I suppose what I want most from a mystery are a puzle worth puzzling over and someone to cheer and/or fear for.  So Evelyn probably would have shared my feeling of alienation in reading Ian Rankin’s award-winning Resurrection Men.

Rankin’s book won the Edgar award, which I think is a reasonably prestigious prize for mysteries, so it must have given many readers what they were after.  Part of this is probably the local color (Edinburgh and environs, places with cute names like Fife and Dundee and Tayside) and eating/drinking/listening info (they now have pizza delivery in Scotland, people drink IPA or lager or of course Scotch, the protagonist listens to Van Morrison and REM and Mogwai) which are characteristic obsessions of the genre, and to his credit Rankin doesn’t descend to the kind of food-and-outfits porn that drags down a lot of mystery writers (you know who you are).

But what are we to make of our hero, Detective Inspector (or something like that) John Rebus?  I understand that the flawed hero brooding over his dark past has been fashionable since the Romantics, but Rebus is not so much Byronic as Clouseauvian.  In the course of this novel he not only conceals critical professional information from the colleagues he’s supposed to be working with, he tells outright, self-serving lies to basically every person he talks to, from his (police) partner to his girlfriend (she doesn’t like his habit of lying, but seems to regard it as a minor peccadillo like leaving the toilet seat up).  At one point he interferes with a murder investigation and contaminates a crucial piece of evidence, then orders his partner to lie about it to her superior.  Rebus assaults at least four characters, including two polics colleagues, mostly just because he doesn’t like the way a conversation is going (one is surprised that this habit has not been beaten out of him, given that he is an aging, flabby dude whose main exercise consists of lifting pints of lager and opening whiskey bottles, but whatevs).  One of his other peccadilloes is asking for favors from crime bosses, and at one point in Resurrection Men he offers to go light on an organized-crime boss (funnily enough, one of his assault victims) in return for the Don’s help in framing a police officer for a drug heist.  All in all, John Rebus is Mark Furman with a tam.

And yet, so far as I can tell, the reader is expected to pull for Rebus and hope for his success rather than his getting fired as he deserves.  Why does this work for so many readers?  I think that Resurrection Men belongs to the subgenre of Fantasies of Professional Misconduct.  People go through their lives following the rules, being polite to annoying colleagues and customers, subordinating their own desire to play Minesweeper or hit on any woman they meet because they’re being paid to accomplish some goal that is important to the people who pay them.  John Rebus is their chance to bust out, sock that rude customer, make sexually demeaning comments to the uppity office-mate, get plastered on the job, and still be the hero all of whose sins are forgiven, if they are even recognized as sins.  What is scary is the thought that the same impulse toward life outside the rules and the freedom to use violence without penalty are also among the things that attract real people to police work–Mark Furman is not, after all, a fictional character.

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2 Responses to A jerk’s a jerk for a’ that.

  1. beth mchugh says:

    Great post, Roy! Laughed out loud several times….and my favorite sentence is your last one!

    • Roy says:

      Thanks! It’s nice to feel that I can salvage something from a rather frustrating book. And it’s good to hear from you–it’s been pretty quiet around here.

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