Saturday, July 30, 2016

Seth Harwood's EVERYONE PAYS

First off, why isn't every motherfolklore among you reading Seth Harwood? Seriously, he is one of the best we've got, and the crime genre he so loves to write in is lucky to have him. Any genre would be.

Harwood has proven this time and time again, in a sound and unflashy way, and then later in a spectacular way (seriously, if you are one of those types still crying that The Wire is all done and dusted, you owe it to yourself to go have a look at Young Junius, in which Harwood had the balls to go where the admittedly spectacular writing staff of that show never went, right up into the project towers).

And the guy keeps improving.

With Everyone Pays, Harwood returns to his beloved San Francisco to bring us what looks on the surface like a straight-up cops'n'killers story: a homicide detective and her partner find themselves on the trail of a serial killer. I yawn just typing that description. I cocked an eyebrow when I realized that's what my boy had written. But of course this is my boy Harwood, so lots more is going on.

For one thing, the serial killer in question is killing low-lifes who abuse prostitutes, so, Dexter-ish, he could almost become a sort of hero-villain. But that twist is not what makes Everyone Pays so special.

It's special for two reasons.

First, the way it's structured. Now, alternating points of view between hero and villain is not a new trick, and Harwood knows this, but he's gone that structure one better in a way that feels strange at first but subtly gives the experience of reading this novel more depth than I would have ever expected. As our hero, Sgt. Clara Donner, begins investigating the case, she and her partner come across crime scene after crime scene as they start piecing together who this guy is and what he's all about. Emphasis is placed more on Donner's interaction with her team members than on the gruesome details -- except, usually, for one unusual one (that's not necessarily gruesome, but is unusual enough to be the one thing you might expect these people to feel worth mentioning later on when they tell their tales at the bar or in the locker room. Aagain, not to unusual.

But then, after each crime scene, we get the crime from the killer's point of view. The strange detail gets put into context, the killer's story and motivations deepen and become (kind of sickeningly) more comprehensible, and while the first few times this happens it feels like a weird choice for Harwood to have made, it gives the novel a rhythm all its own that makes it stand out.*

So, that's pretty cool, but what really is going to make this a memorable read for me for a long time to come is how masterfully Harwood constructed a narrative about a female homicide investigator and made it work. Sgt. Donner is blue-blooded but her homicide investigator father insisted forever that homicide is no place for a woman. She became a homicide investigator anyway, but doesn't carry a chip on her shoulder about it. She gets stuff done, lives her life, seems to enjoy it, passes the Bechdel test fairly well, encounters some sexism but doesn't get distracted by it, is kind of constricted within a sexist world within her narrative but fights it with weary excellence. She's got to be twice as good and she knows it, but she doesn't resent this, just accepts it as part of her world and displays considerable skill in getting things done anyway. She's a great character and I kind of love her.

Then her quarry becomes aware of her. Her quarry who thinks God has commanded him to punish sinners and protect women from them. Her quarry whose understanding of women traps them, pacing like animals in an old-fashioned zoo, in the smallest possible space, and tries to force Sgt. Donner into a role he has imagined for her. The tension between who Donner is and who this most patriarchal of killers tries to make her be is powerful, and drives a lot of the second half of the novel.

So Harwood, in other words, is a white male novelist who has worked very, very, very hard to Get It. He's dared and succeeded to write inner city black characters with sympathy and plausibility and skill in other books; now he's turned that same sensitivity to a female character, and his work rings just as true.

And it's a hell of a good crime story. Good enough, once again, to make me wonder if maybe I shouldn't be reading more crime fiction. I run through this set of thoughts every time I finish one of Harwood's books, with the answer being "I probably should" but honestly? I have such a monstrous pile of TBR in my lifelong favorite genres (science fiction, science fantasy, weird fiction, etc), to say nothing of all of my other projects, that I just don't know how I'd ever fit in another whole genre with its own set of classics (and I've read the serious classics of the genre already. Dashiell Hammett forever, yo) and must-reads and newcomers and all that. Perhaps if I live beyond my century mark I'll pull it off, but man, do you know how much stuff I still haven't read in my chosen genres? To say nothing of the books yet to come? Motherfolklore.

But always, always, I will make time for Seth Harwood.

*At least for me, but I don't read a lot of crime fiction. It's just not my thing. I grew up in a law enforcement family, worked in the field myself for a decade, and so I just can't stand cop shows or novels. So I can't be considered an authority on them. But still, for me, this technique made the book special. Your mileage may vary.

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