Last week I was browsing around my shelves eating breakfast, and picked up a crime thriller that arrived the day before: Dead of Winter by P.J. Parrish, published by Pocket Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). I read the blurb - police officer looking for refuge and a quiet life moves to the Michigan wilderness only to find himself investigating a serial killer targeting local cops - and smirked a bit. There were plaudits on the front cover from Michael Connelly and Lee Child, whose names I recognise from the best seller lists, and the dreadful tagline 'Revenge is a dish best served cold...'. Straight to the charity shop, I thought, but opened it anyway. The epigraph was Nietzche: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. I read the first three pages. A police officer was murdered; the tension was good and the writing wasn't bad. So I did the fatal thing: I put it in my bag and took it to work. I finished it this morning, all 390 pages of it.
Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Would I read another P.J. Parrish? Almost definitely. Was it good? Hmmmm. Yes, and maybe, and not really. Dead of Winter is a marvellously formulaic book - you know what you're getting from the moment you begin to read. Louis Kincaid, the police officer seeking a quiet life in Loon Lake, Michigan, is obviously going to solve the crime by putting his life in danger; his shifty partner, Jesse Harrison, clearly knows more than he is letting on; and what are we betting that the culprit is right under our noses. By page 40 I was pretty sure I knew 'whodunnit', and it turned out I was more or less right, give or take a few details. The crimes are not eccentric; the clues are your usual cliches - calling cards left by the bodies, and watches that have stopped several hours after a murder, that sort of thing; and the motives are pretty clear cut. So why keep on reading?
First, because it has been a while since I read a book which knows exactly what it is about: out with the complex themes, in with the clear-cut. Second, because it is a relief to read a book written solely for entertainment which is so cleanly and professionally executed. It turns out that P.J. Parrish is actually a pseudonym for two sisters, Kristy Monty and Kelly Nichols, and that Dead of Winter is the second in a series of novels featuring Louis Kincaid. Kelly supplies the plots, while Kristy does most of the writing. When I first read this I was slightly disappointed - I prefer the idea of a novel as the product of a single consciousness - but I shrugged it off because it makes so much sense in context. Dead of Winter feels like a book negotiated between two minds. All its rough edges have been polished off by being rattled around. Which is not to suggest that there isn't the odd clunky line, or nugget of cloying sentiment. It isn't Shakespeare, and I can't concur with Lee Child that its 'beautifully written', but its certainly neatly written. More importantly, the dialogue is crisp and fluent. It trips very easily along and begs to be read. It is probably this quality that got me hooked in those initial pages.
Finally, it has ambition in terms of character. Louis Kincaid is unexpected, not because he is bi-racial (although this is made more interesting than I initially predicted), but because he is so young (just 25) and so unjaded. All the series' detectives I'm familiar with - Rebus, Wallinger, Frost - have been hardened and roughened by experience; their 'issues' are like shrapnel, so deeply embedded in their spines that they can barely bend. In contrast Louis is soft and tender. Of course he has a personal history - an alcoholic mother, unresolved anger at his white father, guilt over his neglect of his foster-parents - because this is what we require to justify his drive to be a police officer. But he isn't utterly damaged, and I like that because it suggests that his creators see him as a person rather than as an archetype. Similarly his relationships are dynamic and interesting. He isn't emotionally constipated like so many of his peers; he hasn't buried his empathy so completely in order to protect himself from a surfeit of feeling. Dead of Winter is particularly good at drawing out his complicated loyalty to Jesse Harrison, whose temper sometimes expresses itself in racial taunts. Harrison is haunted by a difficult childhood and sickeningly desperate to play 'cop', partly for the power it gives him and partly for the sense of honour and meaning. His role in the book is half cliche (inevitably), but also something else.
There is also the decision to set the book in the 1980s - in fact, in 1983, the year I born. This creates a smoother path for the development of the race theme, but also allows the authors to get playful with gender prejudice. The best encounter of the book is between Louis, who is used to causing consternation amongst the predominantly white communities he polices, and a female Sheriff, who causes him similar consternation. I read online that the Parrish sisters have recently started another series of crime thrillers with a female protagonist, and I can see how fertile that ground will be. I'm looking forward to reading more from them, and will probably back-track to pick up the first Kincaid book, Dark of the Moon. Not because P J Parrish is the next Ian Rankin, a crime writer about to break the genre barrier and become mainstream, but because when I'm looking for a canny, compelling guilty pleasure I could do much worse.