January 30, 2009

THROW AWAY KIDS


In 1992, Eleanor Taylor Bland published her first novel, DEAD TIME. Since the publication of DEAD TIME, she has published twelve novels, several mystery short stories, and edited the anthology SHADES OF BLACK: CRIME AND MYSTERY STORIES BY AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS. Bland is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in crime.

DEAD TIME introduces Marti MacAlister, a thirty-six year old, five feet ten, 160 pound African American homicide detective on the small police force of Lincoln Prairie, Ill (pop. 90,000), a town 60 miles north Chicago, the city in which she grew up. She spent 10 years on the Chicago police force before moving to Lincoln Prairie after her husband Johnny, also a policeman in Chicago, was killed. Marti and her two children, 14-year-old Joanna and 9-year-old Theo, live with her childhood friend Sharon and her daughter Lisa.

Marti works with three white cops: her partner Vik Jessenovik and two vice cops Slim and Cowboy. The calendars of “nearly nude models” on the walls of the small office do not bother her because she “had seen more imaginative art work at the precinct in Chicago.” Marti often acts on intuition, which is a constant source of conflict between her and the methodical Vik. For us readers, it illustrates the difference between the intuitive and systematic methods of investigation. Further, the interaction between Marti and Vik in examining the evidence is often humorous, since both arrive at the same conclusions.

The homicide investigation begins in the seedy Cramer Hotel where the night clerk, Wayne Baxter, has discovered the body of resident Lauretta Dorsey. Marti and Vik immediately note that there does not seem to be anything in the room anyone would want. However, Baxter becomes the prime suspect after they later discover he took money from the room. Another suspect is Louis Clark, a mystery man who was seen around the hotel and has a long rap sheet.

What gains our sympathy is the plight two boys who often come to the hotel at night to eat cookies put out by Doobee, a mentally challenged young man who becomes another homicide for Marti and Vik to investigate. The dead woman, they learn, sometimes gave the boys money. Because they believe the boys may have seen the killer and may be in danger, the detectives, enlisting the Social Service Department, begin a search to find the two boys before the killer does. They discover that the boys live in an abandon building with three other kids, a ten-year-old girl, a small boy, and a 13-year-old pregnant girl. The social worker calls them “throw away kids.”

As they search for the boys, Marti reflects on what it was like living in neighborhood on Chicago’s west side:

…in that city, on those streets, she had been safe. Neighbors watched out for her. The beat cop wasn't always friendly but he was there, on foot, and whether they liked him or not everyone knew him. They all knew his top priority was a crime-free shift. And, because those police officers knew their beat and the people who lived there so well, for a long time she thought they were omniscient.

For all that she could buy her children that her parents had been able to provide for her, she couldn't promise them safety. Even though they felt secure, this was not a safe or caring world if you were a child. It was a place where three little boys became invisible because so few chose to see that they were there.

This thinking and the fact that Marti is a working single mother who balances job and time with kids indicates that Bland is a social critic and suggests that in her novels, she practices social criticism. However, addressing social issues doesn’t distract from Bland’s storytelling skill.

Bland does an excellent job of maintaining the suspense as the plot moves toward the exciting climax. For all her skill, however, the presentation of characters’ back-stories through introspection rather than as a result of the police investigation is distracting for a reader such as myself who likes to watch the detectives gather information and clues.

2 comments:

Leigh said...

Another insightful column, as usual, Louis, and as usual, you've added to my list of books that I want to read.

Your mention of back-stories through introspection brings up a troublesome point. Characterization makes the difference between stories we remember and ones we don't, but in hands not-so-deft, pseudo-characterizations look like patches on a plaster wall.

I particularly notice this in otherwise reasonably good television shows when writers start running out of ideas. I think of this as soap-opera overlay.

Usually, this type of back-story involves one or two characters having an illicit affair. Another TV favorite sees a plot device triggering repressed memories of child abuse. One season, a major character dealt with hearing loss, but the next season he was fine.

To me, these have nothing to do with characterization, but are a distraction from the story at hand.

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