After all my highbrow Virago reading last week I’m faintly embarrassed at returning to murder mysteries, but there you have it. Sometimes all i want from a book is escape, and over the years Jane Haddam’s series mysteries have provided that reliably. On the other hand, I did spend some time thinking about what separated Haddam from, say Elizabeth George, who also writes series mysteries. George is a much bigger deal, commercially speaking, and that’s not entirely a question of marketing.
See, I think readers like me, reliable consumers of mysteries, often want something more than the puzzle — even more, perhaps, than the reassuring trajectory of order disrupted and restored. Elizabeth George and some other writers like Susan Hill, Fred Vargas and the goddess Tana French also manage to write about something. This is not the same as Denise Mina’s avowed social-work focus or Jane Haddam’s propensity to break into rants on behalf of her characters. Rather, the former writers use the mystery genre to think about something more abstract like, perhaps, memory (French’s In the Woods) or epistemology (Fred Vargas‘ Adamsberg novels). This doesn’t mean that I won’t follow Sue Grafton all the way to “Z” or that I’m never going to read Margery Allingham again. But mystery readers may be eager for a more multi-dimensional experience than the police procedural with an entertaining cast of sidekicks.
Haddam has been writing for years about Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI profiler of serial killers. The books are set in or around Philadelphia, and include a large cast of neighbors, friends, a love interest, and city functionaries, my favorite of whom, John Henry Newman Jackman, is a hyper-competent, hyper-ambitious, black Catholic politician. I’ve always liked Haddam because she’s a crackerjack social observer. She has a wonderful grasp of the opportunities and limitations afforded by a wide range of social strata, and she’s not afraid to share her opinions. But I have found with the recent novels that opinion — raw, unedited — is occupying more of the page than I would like.
So, Glass Houses. There’s a serial killer loose in Philly. He (they’re almost inevitably male) strangles women then cuts their faces with broken glass and leaves the bodies in alleys. Gregor Demarkian has to contend with severe police dysfunction in this case, as well as with the reappearance of his highly neurotic consort Bennis Hannaford who is ravishing and rich. The case gets solved. I never thought it wouldn’t.