April Smith’s Good Morning, Killer has made me think hard about the creepiness factor in crime novels. Actually, it might have been reading Smith back to back with Lee Child — I have just experienced a lot of mayhem at second hand. But the issue lingers for all of us who turn to mysteries or thrillers for escape reading — bad, violent things happen to characters. And the better the writer, the more convincing the badness is. For instance, Ruth Rendell is fabulous, and at her most sinister, she is really disturbing. Some of her writing on family structures, and especially motherhood, is downright chilling. And, sure, it’s fiction, but while reading you experience it as real — don’t you?
Maybe not. Somewhere in my reading mind, there’s a constant awareness that these books are artificial, and that’s what makes it possible not to grieve or be terrified by the stories they tell. It’s a fine line, the distinction between the artificial and the naturalistic, and where the writer positions that line is going to be different for every book. Of course this theme of artificiality vs. naturalism rewards discussion when applied to all kinds of literature, but I’m sticking to my point here: escape fiction.
Which brings me back to April Smith. She’s a wonderful writer. Elegant, humorous, evocative, clever, vivid. Good Morning, Killer opens with a description of swimming laps in a California rain storm that was, all by itself, worth the price of the book. But Smith’s heroine, FBI Agent Ana Grey — wow. I’m beginning to think Ana is seriously nuts. Good Morning, Killer is full of very poor emotional choices. For instance, imagine you are the lead agent on a case involving a kidnapping. Pretty good odds you should not be taking 3 a.m. phone calls from the kidnap victim when she’s released. Or, let’s say you’re dating your opposite number in the Santa Monica police department. And you’re his boss on this kidnapping case. Think that could get awkward? Then what if you get taken off the same case after a really unfortunate incident involving gunfire; was it really a good idea to keep pursuing leads on your own?
Despite my qualms I kept reading, because Smith is a good story-teller, and maybe I have more tolerance for this stuff — or did yesterday, anyway — than I thought. The thing is, Smith can’t let Ana become so crazy that she’s annoying. Strangely enough, that’s the quality that would be truly off-putting.