July 4th, 2014

J.K. Rowling And Stephen King Take On Crime

In the past month two authors not exactly well known for working in the genre released two very traditional crime books - Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes" and J.K. Rowling's "The Silkworm."  Both books are very good - even if they do highlight their respective author's flaws. What's really fascinating is that both are very traditional, yet very different.

King is working within the cliches and conventions of American crime  novels - drawing on Patrica Corwell and James Ellroy in particular. Rowling is drawing from the conventions of British crime novels - drawing on Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Reading them back to back gives you a real sense of just how different these conventions are.

With Mr. Mercedes we get one of the most common of all crime tropes. A serial killer contacts a retired cop and starts taunting him. The retired cop is determined to catch him before he kills again. The chapters alternate between the POV of the ex cop and the POV of the psychopath. King moves well through the conventions (including the sexually confused psychopath who still lives with his mom and has a secret room in the basement where evil happens) until we get to a completely terrifying final confrontation in a very crowded space where if the cop makes one mistake many, many people will die.

With The Silkworm the conventions are even more well known. A man  has been killed. The cops are focusing on the wrong suspect. Then a civilian duo, one an experienced private detective and one an apprentice start searching for and piecing together the clues to find the real killer. Rowling is not subtle about her source material - the apprentice detective is named "Robin." Why she didn't go all the way with that and call her "Robin Watson" is beyond me. As this is a UK crime novel we don't get a scary conclusion, we get the pieces finally falling together until the Sherlock character lays out who did it and why.

Both books do great justice to their source material and when there are faults there are faults we should expect from these two.

Mr. Mercedes suffers from King's inability to use women or black characters in interesting ways even when he tries. I'll give him credit that for once he has a major female character who i s neither a monster nor a victim, but he still has a way to go on female characterization. And, as always he likes to go for the folksy charm, which works well in Gothic horror but less so in crime.

The Silkworm suffers from Hermione Syndrome - where the female almost lead is much smarter than the male lead but does not get listened to until late in the book. Why Rowling creates smart dynamic women and then puts them in situations where nobody listens to them is beyond me.

Still, both books give a decent bang for the buck and I'd love to see these authors branch out into other genres.