The Good, the Bad, and the Criminal:
Family Legacies in the Newest Crime Fiction from Wittig-Albert, Barr, and Lippman
It is always a pleasure to welcome the newest offerings from three of the leading writers in American crime fiction. Susan Wittig Albert, Nevada Barr, and Laura Lippman produce a new text on an annual basis, and that is a yearly gift. All three writers are as powerful as they are prolific.
Wittig-Albert, a Berkeley PH.D and former university professor and administrator, ably utilizes the mystery genre to present and explore pressing social issues that (unlike the popular television series’ mantra) are too-often absent from mainstream headlines. In Blood Orange, Wittig-Albert deftly tackles Medicare fraud—and by extension both nursing and convalescent care facility conditions and the treatment of our elderly and disabled.
The first of the families and the family legacies that this review highlights is the mother and son duo and their business/medical partnership that starts Blood Orange. One of China Bayles’ short-term tenants has discovered potentially fraudulent hospice structures and schemes and wants to expose them; she seeks advice from China, and thus the former-lawyer-turned-herbalist, small business owner, and entrepreneur gets involved.
As usual, Wittig-Albert’s plot is well-paced and fact-driven. What is remarkable is the writer’s uncanny ability to use crime to celebrate rather than threaten community. As the plot thickens, for instance, heroine China thinks through her options, “I put the Toyota in gear and pulled onto the street. What I needed was a glass of wine in a familiar place with familiar people. And I needed it now. I was glad that it was just a few blocks away” (166). Her description of that clean, well-lit place is priceless.
Bob Godwin has run Beans’ for five or six years. His food is good, and yes, often great. But not everybody goes there to eat. Some go to sit at the bar and cheer for the Texas Longhorns on TV, play pool (eight-ball, nine-ball, or one-pocket), or throw darts. Others go there to drink with friends and catch up on the gossip or listen to gen-u-ine cowboy music—the Sons of the Pioneers or Tex Ritter or Gene Autry—on the wheezy old Wurlitzer jukebox.
But when you get right down to it, it’s the down-home food that bring people, as it brought me that night. There’s always barbeque on the menu—beef, chicken, and pork grilled out back in old metal half-drums over mesquite fires. Chicken-fried steak. . . .Big bowls of Bob’s secret-ingredient chili (be warned: it’s spicy), served with hot-water cornbread flattened into five-inch pancakes and friend. . . .usually cabrito in various forms—kabobs, or drunken goat stew, or (as it was this week) fajitas. Plus there are the sides: mac and chees, mashed potatoes, deep-fried pickled jalapenos, frijoles, black-eyed peas, collards, cole slaw. Desserts, if you’re still able—pecan pie, peach cobbler, fried ice cream. (167-68)
Wittig-Albert always puts people first, but her dexterous descriptions make both people and place come alive.
The family and kinship ties in Lippman’s Wilde Lake are more frightening.
Siblings Luisa (Lu) and AJ Brant share more than the high social standing their father’s former position as state’s attorney provided. Although he was privy to many of the community’s secrets, and while he was able to serve as both power-player and seeker of justice, he cannot protect his adult children from their own family secrets. Lippman paints a baroque, somewhat disturbing picture of small-town life, showing that both the haves and the have-nots suffer from class mores and gender expectations. For instance, Lu finds a best friend in in 1979 whose house she sees as “funhouse mirror version of my own—a distorted, disturbing mirror version” (206). Even as a fourth-grade Lu makes the class comparison. She describes Randy’s motherless household as “[c]haotic and cramped and messy, with far too many people,” and she observes “my house always felt as if it didn’t really have enough people to justify all its rooms” (206).
In addition to showing her perspicuity, this burgeoning friendship also reveals her competitive nature. Their nascent friendship almost founders when Lu misreads Randy’s attempts at “building” conversation as attempts to correct her. She explains, “I hated being contradicted, topped” (207).
Lu Brant’s description of her six-year-old self attempting to impress her first grade teacher, reinforces that competitive streak. She fails to ingratiate herself with the teacher, so a competition of sorts starts instead., young Lu struggles to make sure she makes no mistakes and earns the highest marks. When her father questions her about her obsession, assuring her he only wants her to do her best, she responds, “Yes, being the best is important. Winning is important” (66). Her father refuses to admit his own competitive nature and affirms, “No, being a good person is important. Caring about others. Being warm and empathetic” (66). At the time, Lu can only respond, “’I just want to win.” (66)
However, as an adult Lu is able to look back offers a considered re-evaluation, “The thing I had gotten wrong was showing how desperately I wanted to win. That was what I had to learn to conceal, what my father and AJ knew from birth: disguise your desire” (67).
A grown-up Lu, now serving as state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland, continues to compete in a man’s world and to read people and their social stations as part of her job. She does a better job of disguising her desire, but she is still driven by a need to excel and to win.
As she begins jury selection for a murder trial (the crime at the heart of this novel), the lawyer reviews her options, admitting to herself that she “distrusts early Columbia [MD] ‘settlers,’ despite the fact that her family was among them. That first generation of Columbia homeowners, now in their seventies and eighties, skew bleeding heart liberal” (248). She recognizes that the suspect’s “status as one of them, along with his mental health issues, could win him sympathy with that crowd” (248).
County borders and biases also count in her calculations, as does race, “I’m so happy this is a white-on-white crime, Lu thinks, and not for the first time. . .” (248).
Lippman’s portrait of Lu Brand--single mother, successful lawyer, and up-and-coming state’s attorney--is believably drawn and developed from the history of the precocious and competitive child. When Lu finds herself digging into the past cases of her father and mining her own family’s history in order to solve a current case, past meets present in dangerous clash. Bygones cannot be bygones, but atonement can be made. As the personal becomes political and vice-versa, Lu Brand is one who can mete a suitable justice and make amends.
The family and community ties in Nevada Barr’s Boar Island are neither wholesome nor supportive. Simply put, they are strange and sinister.
Barr brings back Heath Jarrod and her adopted daughter Elizabeth from Hard Truth and Destroyer Angel. Now living a stable, secure, and middle-class life together in Denver, the Jarrod family finds itself threatened: Elizabeth attempts suicide due to cyber-stalking and undeserved slut-shaming. The child who survived a kidnapping by a sadistic psychopath and then endured a second kidnapping by a group of rough felons with repeated physical abuse and constant threats of rape, now faces allegations of seducing her best friend’s father and rumors of her own perverse sexuality.
Family and friends decided the best course of action is flight, and so Heath and Elizabeth follow Anna Pigeon to Bar Harbor, Maine as she takes a temporary position as acting chief ranger for Acadia National Park. Unfortunately, their 2,239 mile journey and the Acadia National Park acreage cannot protect them from the stalker, who has followed them and who now attempts to make physical as well as cyber contact.
Barr’s Maine town, like Lippman’s Columbia, is firmly structured on class hierarchies. Again, both the haves and the have-nots (lobster-fishers and tourist/hospitality workers) have family rivalries and secrets that threaten individual lives and community stability. Two separate plots involving the town and the park and the past and present, spousal abuse, sexual assault, divorce, family separations, and a diabolical medical diagnosis come together around the figures of Anna, Heath, and Elizabeth.
The title, Boar Island, is an unfortunate homophonous foreshadowing as the plot is both boorish and boring—as in drilling—in its adamant examination of degradation and emotional and physical squalor. The author’s unyielding use of Elizabeth in book after book as all-encompassing figure for misuse begins to seem less like an investigation of aberrant behavior and more like an exploration of personal proclivities and peccadillos.
Even the sections that do not focus on Elizabeth are inflated. Violence is excessive and seems self-indulgent and savored. In one five page assault scene, it is hard to tell if one’s sympathies should lie with the attacked or the attacker. A woman who wants revenge carefully plans her attack and encourages herself, “This was straightforward. A simple task: You walk in, you dispose of the spider, you walk out” (132).
Only it isn’t. The killer’s expectations are not met. Although her “bullets cut so cleanly through the plastic they didn’t even disturb the [shower] curtain,” the instant death she imagined doesn’t come. A second shot is needed. It is also unsuccessful, and the scene erupts in histrionic violence, “The curtain exploded out. . . . [the victim’s body] crashed into her with the force of a freight train.” (133).
As the scene unfolds, the similes become mixed, and the spider—already un unfortunate metaphor for a physically abusive husband, morphs from the train, to a “hog in rut,” to a “bear or mad dog,” to a horror movie’s monster, back to a “hog bent on eating pig for lunch,” and finally into a bull (134). Unfortunately, this bull, one “ready to gore,” whose head does sway from “side to side,” is barely able to pull himself into a kneeling position (134).
In this scene, the attacker’s description is also over-done and ill-fitting, “Like a snake from under a boot, she coiled from beneath him, slid the rest of the way off the bed to land on hands and knees” (134).
Barr’s suspense-building is equally stilted. It is mawkish, “Heath had read the phrase “deathly Pale” many times, but this was the first time she’d ever witnessed the phenomenon. It was as if she watched the blood drain from beneath her daughter’s skin, leaving a gray pallor in its wake. For a moment she though E. was going to faint or scream or vomit. What she did was even more frightening” (21). And hackneyed, “That was okay. Cybercreep would expect Elizabeth to appear frightened. After all, he’d spent weeks carefully fraying every single one of the girl’s nerves. One of these happy people in bunny slippers was feeding on E’s fear at that very moment. Anger, so intense it dimmed her vision, flooded Heath’s entire being” (323).
Conclusions are the showpiece of a crime novel. Well-done endings make the whole tale worthwhile. While Wittig-Albert’s endings consistently celebrate the resurgence of normalcy and the healthy nourishment offered by family and community, Lippman’s endings offer recompense and restitution. In Blood Orange, in fact, the ending is a homecoming of several sorts, as friends gather for police chief, Sheila Dawson’s birthday celebration, “an old-fashioned block party” (287). McQuaid (China’s husband) has returned with the chief’s husband from their own sleuthing assignment in Mexico, and the famous Bob Godwin of Beans’ is catering. Sheila, aka Smart Cookie, China’s close friend, announces a second pregnancy (after an earlier miscarriage) and announces her department’s new parental leave policy. In Wilde Lake, the protagonist sacrifices her career to finally lay the family demons to rest and to pursue the promise of a happy, less-encumbered future with her daughter. However, Barr’s Boar Island does not even offer the possibility of redemption or restoration. Anna, who does save one child’s life, closes the novel alone, “look[ing] away from the tragedy clogging the door . . . to the painted sunlight through the fake windows” (374).
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
Merry Byrd is the founder and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. She teaches composition, women’s studies, and environmental humanities at Virginia State University and serves as book review editor for the journal FEMSPEC. Her most recent non-fiction essay “Floods” appears in Situate.