Jane Haddam, “Glass Houses”

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 VargasAdamsberg 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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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7 Responses to Jane Haddam, “Glass Houses”

  1. Annie says:

    I’m in total agreement with you on this. Firstly, what’s wrong with a good mystery? Like you I love them and most weekends, after a week of reading more ‘learned’ stuff I will settle down with a good crime novel. This weekend it was the new Maisie Dobbs book, which I was lucky enough to have a pre-pub copy to enjoy. I also think that you’re correct when you say that the best in the genre are about more than the crime. I remember saying when the first Susan Hill came out that she was as much if not more interested in how the revelation of the killer was going to affect the social structure of the village in which he lived as in pointing the finger at who did it. Jane Haddam is a new name for me, I must look her out. On a tit-for-tat basis, I picked up the new Elly Griffiths novel from the library on Friday. Have you come across her? She writes about a forensic archaeologist in East Anglia. This is the third and she’s getting stronger with each book. She has the most idiosyncratic narrative voice I’ve come across for ages. I’d be interested in what you think.

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, thank you, Annie. I’m so glad you singled out Susan Hill — that first novel of hers, which broke the tacit rules of the genre, was such a fascinating development. I do think it’s very difficult to make the traditional mystery seem authentic these days and I am not sure why. Something about a general apprehension of entropy? I am so grateful for the Elly Griffiths tip and have ordered a sample chapter for my Kindle. Have you read Fred Vargas? She’s the mystery writer I’m most excited about right now because she writes on several levels with immense skill. I have found the Maisie Dobbs books a little bit twee, though. Hard to put my finger on it.

      • Annie says:

        Yes, I have a friend who reacts in just the same way to Maisie Dobbs, but then it would be a dull world if we all enjoyed the same things. You are the second person to recommend Fred Vargas, I must get hold of something by her asap.

  2. christinasr says:

    Carol, I’m usually not a mystery reader. Crime novels simply don’t do anything for me – which is a bit of a weird feeling living in Denmark where they are all the craze. It seems like crime fiction is all that is published in Denmark – and Sweden – these days.
    However, being a Philosophy major, you made me interested in the Fred Vargas novels. I will definitely look into these. Thanks!

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Christina, I know what you mean about the crime wave washing over Scandinavia! How weird is that? But you might like the Vargas novels because they are very smart and whimsical in addition to have the roman policier structure.

      • christinasr says:

        Yes, it is a bit weird. Not sure why they keep coming – and why most people seem happy that this is about all we have to choose from at the book stores…
        I’ve added the first book in the Adamsberg novels as well as the first in the Three Evangelists series to my list – we’ll see when I get to them!

  3. Pingback: Jane Haddam, “Cheating at Solitaire” « Book Group of One

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