recent fiction by Karen Russell, Jed Rubenfeld, Harry Dolan

Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan is a neatly constructed mystery with elements of noir, police procedural, and a drawing-room detective story. The author, a very clever guy with a philosophy degree, plays with some interesting ideas as he introduces a plot about mystery writers who may be killers. The two detectives–not exactly partners, but potential friends–are, respectively, a single mom and a tough guy with a fake name and an unknown past. Everyone except the killer is described with affection.

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld is even cleverer, weaving together such ideas as Freud’s reaction to World War I, the capacity of radium to kill and to cure, and America’s response to terrorism. A surprising proportion of the unbelievable events in the novel actually occurred, as the afterward explains. Freud and Madame Curie are among the historical figures who make appearances in this mystery/spy novel. I only wish that the two heroes weren’t perfectly competent, physically courageous, and handsome (possessing between them many languages and scientific disciplines), while the chief female character is so beautiful that she literally turns the heads of whole regiments.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is in a whole different category, literature rather than genre fiction, but I mention it with these two works because it is equally suspenseful. Russell is an aphoristic writer, capable of passages like this: “Some things you know right away to be final–when you lose your last baby tooth, or when you go to sleep for the ultimate time as a twelve-year-old on the night before your thirteenth birthday. Other times, you have to work out the milestone later via subtraction, a math you do to assign significance, like when I figured out that I’d just blown though my last-ever Wednesday with Mom on the day after she died.” She is a self-conscious writer, MFA-style, an echoer of diverse American voices and dialects and describer of remarkable places. I feared that her plot would veer off into some kind of unbelievable fantasy, but it remained compelling to the end. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you can handle some truly bad things happening to innocent youth. Overall, it’s a powerful study of what it means to leave the family for the big, cruel world–in this case, symbolized by the urban mainland of South Florida.

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