Late last year, I read two very different crime novels that ended up reminding me of one another because of the similar tension between the plot imperatives of crime fiction and the writers' interest in other matters, primarily fleshing out protagonists beyond the core plot. The two books are Stephen Dobyns's 1983 novel Dancer with One Leg (which I think is a great title) and Peter Temple's 2005 novel The Broken Shore. Both are strong books, though I preferred Dancer, as I'll explain.
Dancer tells the story of Frank Lazard, an investigator for the Arson Squad of the Boston Fire Department. A former fireman, Lazard was badly injured in a fire and nearly lost a leg. He walks with a cane, a young man (in his thirties) moving like an old man. He is bitter about his career, his health, and his divorce. He is a prickly guy but a good, honest investigator, though he is swept away by his anger at times. The book's main case -- but not the only one -- involves the investigation of a warehouse fire that has killed two firemen. The main suspect is a former friend of Lazard, the husband of a distant cousin of Lazard. He sticks with the case, with mixed emotions. The novel also provides snapshots of the lives of some of the other arson investigators and some of the criminals. It includes an intricately detailed description -- a chapter -- of the Fire Alarm Headquarters, a 1920s building that looks "like a giant Greco-Roman crypt... designed to be left standing after the rest of the city had burned down."
In other words, the book is digressive, diffuse, and messy. The pieces fit together, but not as an unfolding crime novel plot. The book would be something less without the Fire Alarm Headquarters, but the chapter could be removed and it wouldn't be missed. It provides color and even metaphoric resonance, but no plot or character essentials.
Lazard eventually solves the crime, and then resolves the complicated criminal situation in a creative way (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers). On this level, the book is satisfying, but Dancer is really about Lazard coming to grips or -- failing to come to grips -- with his damaged self. The crime story is somewhat muted because Dobyns has other interests and goals, though he still tells a good crime story. I suppose it is a story within the larger novel. Readers in pursuit of a breakneck, page-turning thriller would be frustrated, but I found the pacing, detail, and ancillary story lines added an emotional resonance often missing from more straight-up crime novels.
The Broken Shore is set on the other side of the world -- in eastern Australia -- in a provincial town, with forays to Melbourne. Like Lazard, police detective Joe Cashin is also a damaged soul. Before the novel opens, a junior partner had been killed and Cashin badly injured on the job. He is still haunted by this incident and by his difficult upbringing. His dotty mother and estranged brother both figure in the novel. Cashin has relegated himself to the provincial police force as part of his recovery. With the assistance of a tramp he takes in, he also works at restoring a family property.
All of the subplots described above -- and others -- surround Cashin's investigation of the murder of a wealthy community patron. Corrupt local police want to pin the murder on aboriginal youth. The case becomes political, and then it becomes overwrought. The lurid history of the victim and a local boys summer camp emerges. A long-lost psychopath comes out of the woodwork. We're treated to some additional byzantine murders. The ornate plotting and over-the-top crime scenes show up only in the last quarter of the book -- not quite an afterthought, but not cleanly laced with the other parts of the book.
Like Dobyns, Temple has a range of ambitions for his novel, many of which do not exactly pertain to the crime story nugget. Did Temple hype up the crime-story elements to meet an inner or outer voice of market demand; e.g., "Make the crime story juicy" ? Maybe. Dobyns tells a more sedate, convincing crime story, but if he wanted a mainstream publisher for the book today, maybe he would've had to add filigree and steroids as Temple does 20 years later. As much as I like the Dobyns novel, I don't think it would be published today (at least by Penguin Random House, the original now-united publishers) without significant, probably reductive changes.