Michael Fredrickson

 

A Defence for the Dead

 

How well do you rate a novel that gets nothing wrong without ever really soaring?

 

Unlike so many crime thrillers out there, there’s nothing you have to excuse here. The characters are varied and not stereotypical. The middle-aged protagonist heads out there in seedy bars in the attempt to solve the mystery – and then returns home to his sickly wife, who he loves faithfully, to discuss things with openly: very rare in the genre to see a perspective contrary to the usual teenaged one, and instead an understanding that a faithful relationship might demand and offer much more than the usual quick titillation. Indeed, a lot of dialogue is given over to intelligent discussion of issues outside the immediate action – Fredrickson doesn’t feel he has to throw in a car-chase, gun-fight or bonk to keep the punters in, so we can get beyond, “Look out!” or “Phwaaaaar!”. He is very refreshing in the way he utilises some of the treasures of crime fiction (solving a mystery, building to a climax, dry wit) without bothering with much of the unnecessary baggage such as macho posturing and ‘steamy’ prurience.

 

The sub-plots too can run in quite unexpected ways (poor Taffy!), making the characters feel more interesting and believable. He doesn’t appear to have a big agenda (unusual in a book set so often in a gay sub-culture, where the author usually is out to unsubtly teach the reader something). The pace is steady, it’s easy to keep turning the pages. And Jimmy and his thoughts are good company for the trip.

 

Still, I’m back to my starter question – how good is it that Fredrickson isn’t bad? I suppose artistically that’s no mean feat: many professional writers struggle to get out something that doesn’t slip up – it’s a tough assignment. But is what I liked most about this book that it didn’t have me ever rolling my eyes or groaning? Perhaps. And sometimes I’ll even prefer a book that might slip up now and then but has some real moments of slapping you in the face, or making you laugh out loud, or gripping you … which never really happened for me in this more consistent effort. Yeah, I like something to hit me in a thriller (Bam! Think of the climax of The Fencing Master) or maybe a mood that takes me somewhere else (Hammett). Maybe Jimmy was too authentic for me – in one sense it’s great that he’s not Mr. Superhero/cunning fox/melancholic loner, but a guy just getting on with his workaday life much of the time like the rest of us – but in another sense part of the joy of fiction is someone a bit larger than life.

 

If you read a lot of crime fiction, this would probably be a comparative oasis: there’s nothing wrong with this book and a lot going for it. I wouldn’t warn anyone against it, but I can’t say I’d rush to get a copy on my bookshelf either.

 

February 2005