It may have been “Dirty Harry” on Libertas blog, or it may have been someone else talking about the movies somewhere. But I’ve never forgotten the insight. Whoever it was pointed out that the great moviemakers did not transcend their genres by trying to turn them into other genres. They transcended them by doing the same old thing better—with better stories, more interesting characters, superior artistic techniques.
This, it seems to me, is a problem with many mystery writers today. Everybody (including some authors I like very much) tries to turn the mystery into a thriller. Big explosions. Big conspiracies. Big gunfights. Big, thick, heavy books.
Old pro Stuart M. Kaminsky resists this trend, and like the great movie directors, simply works the old routine, but he does it a little better.
In many ways Terror Town is a small book. It’s short compared to most of the novels you’ll buy these days. The characters are ordinary cops and ordinary citizens, living believable lives and caring for—or damaging—one another in the usual ways.
But there’s more beneath the surface.
Terror Town is one of Kaminsky’s Abe Lieberman novels. Abe Lieberman is a Chicago detective, getting old. He’s not a romantic figure. He looks like a shoe salesman, we’re informed, and he has to watch his cholesterol. He’s been married many years, and he and his wife are now raising the children of their daughter, who ran away to California and carries an unexplained grudge against her father.
His partner is Bill Hanrahan (they call each other “Rabbi” and “Father Murphy”). Hanrahan is a widower who has recently remarried, and his wife is expecting a baby.
The first of three strands of mystery in the book concerns the murder of Anita Mills, a pretty, black single mother who is on the way to building a good life when she is robbed and shot outside a bank. Abe knew her and is assigned to her case, which comes to involve a prominent politician with a very unusual secret.
Then there’s the problem of Carl Zwick, a former Chicago Cubs baseball player who’s trying to stage a comeback in the majors when he’s attacked for no apparent reason by a crazy man who knocks him out with a Coke bottle. What’s worse, the same crazy man seems to want to kill Bill Hanrahan and his wife.
And then there’s Richard Allen Smith, a religious con man who’s practicing extortion to finance (so he claims) a crusade to liberate Jerusalem. (Normally characters like this in books drive me away, but I thought Kaminsky handled it well.)
Meanwhile, Abe’s brother Maish suffers a heart attack. Maish is angry at God. He doesn’t deny God’s existence, he just doesn’t like him much. This plot element, combined with that of Abe’s rebellious daughter, adds an exquisite Job-like subtext to the whole business. In fact the theme of parents, children, and their complaints against one another recurs throughout.
It’s on the low side for sex, violence and bad language (by genre standards). I recommend Terror Town, and all Kaminsky’s books (well, I don’t much care for the Porfiry Rostnikov mysteries, but that’s just me).