Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective story, or so the lore of our genre goes, which is why the Mystery Writers of America named their awards for excellence in the field after him. The private detective has gradually evolved over the years from the times of Poe’s Auguste Dupin (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”–which Constant Reader should recognize as the source for my Chanse titles, beginning with Murder in the Rue Dauphine) through Conan Doyle’s terrific Sherlock Holmes to the twentieth century masters of crime-solving: Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, etc. The 1970’s served as a bridge for the post-war detective to the dawning of a new age–which was necessary because by the early 1980’s the genre had become a bit stagnant, repetitive, overloaded with tropes that were deeply misogynistic.
In the 1980’s, three women–Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller–breathed new life into the genre by introducing three hard-boiled women private eyes; tough women who could hold their own with their male counterparts and were also incredibly well-developed and extremely well written. All three women were named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America in their turn; alas, only Paretsky is still publishing, and we still mourn the loss of Grafton to cancer several years ago, before she finished her alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.
And while there is still great private eye work being produced today by both men and women, it’s also very exciting now to be on the verge of yet another re-invigorization of the private eye novel–and crime fiction in general–with new takes on old tropes, subversion of those tropes, and the exciting arrival of writers of color and queer writers. The passing of Sue Grafton was a great tragedy, but her publisher, Putnam, partnered with Mystery Writers of America to create an award to honor her and her work; by celebrating the series private eye novels with women firmly centered as the investigator. The first Grafton Prize, awarded last year, went to Sara Paretsky for Shell Game; this year there are six finalists: Linda Castillo (Shamed); Tracy Clark (Borrowed Time); Edwin Hill (The Missing Ones); Sujata Massey (The Satapur Moonstone); Gigi Pandian (The Alchemist’s Illusion), and Marcie R. Rendon (Girl Gone Missing)–all books I am looking forward to reading,
Ironically, I had already arranged to interview Tracy Clark for the Sisters in Crime quarterly column I do, “The Conversation Continues”–so I had already obtained copies of all her works.
Yesterday I finished reading the first Cass Raines mystery, Broken Places.
Chicago cops had to be on the lookout for any number of nefarious mopes eager to take a potshot, but this morning my biggest enemy was turning out to be the scorching rays of the summer sun. I slid into the driver’s seat of the unmarked car and cranked the windows down, balancing a rapidly melting iced tea, extra ice, between my thighs. A few feet away, my partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, stood in front of the Dairy Queen basking in the hellfire. “Vitamin D,” he said, ruddy face pointed skyward. “Soak in that Vitamin D.”
“You say Vitamin D, I say skin cancer,” I groused, The hot vinyl seats nearly seared through my blazer and pants–and they were both summer weight. I checked myself in the rearview. The little makeup I’d started the day with was long gone now, melted away by flop sweat. I flicked at the sweaty ringlets at the nape of my neck and wiggled uncomfortably in my bulletproof vest, my breasts pressed flat, as though squeezed between the hot plates of a waffle iron. I looked like I’d gone through a car wash, and it was just ten AM. No great loss, though. Five mintues tops was all I ever invested in primping. I didn’t have the patience for it, and in the long run it seemed rather silly. Thugs and killers didn’t care what I looked like. They spotted the cop car, they ran, then I had to run after them. I’d be thirty-five in the spring. Eyeliner and blush weren’t going to make the running any easier.
“The sun is going to kill you,” I yelled out the window.
Cass Raines, Clark’s private eye, is actually a cop when the book opens; and she and her partner are tracking a problem kid, a gangbanger who killed four members of a rival gang, starting a war of attrition and revenge. They chase him down to a rooftop, and Cass almost has him talked down when another douchebag of an officer–protected by powerful political connections–ruins the situation and she ends up having to shoot the kid. She resigns from the force, haunted by the kid she killed, and become a private eye. This backstory plays out over the first several chapters, and then we flash forward two years to the present day. Cass is a complicated young woman–her mother died when she was young; her father took off and she was raised by her grandparents, whose home she inherited–and she is very solitary. This, her first case, kicks off when her father figure, a local priest (she’s lapsed) hires her to find out who is following and harassing him; but before she can even get truly started on her investigation Pops (as she calls Father Ray Heaton of St. Brendan’s) is found dead in the confessional booth, with the gun in his hand, an apparent suicide–and there’s another body in the church, a young Latino gangbanger named Cesar. The police–including her nemesis, the douchebag who ruined her attempt to bring the kid in several years earlier–are very quick to rule it a murder-suicide, but Cass doesn’t believe it for a minute, and begins her own investigation.
The case itself is full of surprising twists and turns, and Cass takes quite a beating as she tries to find out the true story of what happened that night at St. Brendan’s–and her personal life also starts to grow a little complicated, with the return of her birth father and the introduction of a possible love interest police detective for her. Well written, Cass is the kind of character you love to get behind and root for; she has, like all the best private eyes in fiction, a strong moral code of her own that turns her into a complex and fascinating character, one you can’t help but like even when she maybe isn’t behaving at her best. Clark has done a fantastic job of breathing life, not only into Cass, but into her supporting characters and the people she comes across throughout the course of the case.
Clark also makes Chicago into a very real place. I spent eight years of my childhood growing up on the south side, and she brings Chicago to life, with all of its problems and charms, with a loving but critical eye. It’s not the same Chicago we see through the eyes of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, but it’s to Clark’s credit that she doesn’t try to imitate the queen of Chicago crime, but rather emulate her.
An impressive debut, and I am looking forward to reading further adventures of Cass Raines.