Reading genre fiction offers a host of pleasures. There’s a certain predictability—in the case of detective fiction these days, often a quirky character who inner life or family life can provide continuity across a series of novels. Plots can surprise in their details while still conforming to an expected and pleasurable pattern. If you like, detective fiction offers a challenge—whodunit?—or, if you’re like me, just the enjoyment of watching a cleverly constructed puzzle unfold without worrying too much about how it will end: it usually ends for the best.
But perhaps the greatest satisfaction lies in the knowledge that there will be an almost endless supply of novels by an assortment of writers that in itself seems limitless. I don’t mind the occasional cozy village story, especially after a spate of Scandinavian noir. The hardboiled streets of Los Angeles or Detroit offer a change of pace from dastardly realms of academe. And there are always plenty of friends willing to recommend a new author, a different landscape.
Lately I’ve gotten caught up in the novels of British author Peter May. May has published approximately two dozen novels, some stand-alone ventures, other in three series featuring different detectives in different locales. I’ve sampled two of the series, and have been delighted by their ingeniousness as well as the intriguing differences among them.
I started, for no particular reason, with the first of what are known as “The Enzo Files.” Set in France, these feature Enzo Macleod, a Scottish professor of forensic biology who has retreated from an unhappy domestic life to establish a new living for himself as a professor at a small university in the south of France.
The first novel in the series, Extraordinary People (Poisoned Pen Press, 2006), sets the stage for those to come by positing a bet whereby Macleod will seek to unravel a number of unsolved murders. Jacques Gaillard was a public intellectual and political gadfly when he suddenly disappeared without a trace. Macleod travels to Paris to undertake the investigation, and begins by visiting the dead man’s mother. She has conveniently left his apartment untouched for a decade, and even more conveniently draws attention to Gaillard large collection of films, and then finally and most absurdly reveals his devout spiritual life, centered on a nearby church.
The astute Macleod, having been gifted with these seemingly unconnected snippets of a life, visits the church and immediately recognizes bloodstains at the altar rail. He is off and running, so to speak, and before long has stumbled on a metal box secreted in a labyrinthine underground series of tunnels, also conveniently exposed by recent construction work in the city. The odd assortment of items in the box set an irresistible rebus for Macleod, who wastes no time unraveling the pointers they represent to yet another buried cache.
Much of the book follows Macleod, his daughter, her weightlifting boyfriend, a slinky, sexy new love interest, and a poor peasant’s daughter as they race across the French countryside discovering the location of box after box of artifacts, each one pointing them to another, until the last one they unearth leads them back to the location of the first in the Parisian catacombs. If credulity is strained, the whole escapade is so ingenious and written with such panache that the fun of following the joyride overwhelmed any critical response I might otherwise have mounted to its sheer improbability.
The tone is quite different (although the sly sense of humor is not) in The Firemaker (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), the first of an earlier series known as “The China Thrillers.” Margaret Campbell, another forensic scientist, has accepted the offer of a six-week residency in China in the hopes of escaping from a deep personal misery that is only hinted at until halfway through the novel. Almost immediately upon arriving in the sweltering capital of Beijing, her car and driver knock a severe-looking Chinese policeman, Li Yan, off his bicycle, and cultural confusion and confrontation immediately complicate the plot.
Dr. Campbell is called in to perform an autopsy on the body of an unidentified man who was discovered burning to death in a park at sunrise; two other bodies are discovered nearby soon after. With panache and improbability that would make Enzo Macleod proud, Campbell quickly identifies the corpse, who fortunately had studied in the United States some years earlier. An unlikely alliance grows up between Campbell and Li, who quickly fall afoul of the authorities and almost as quickly fall in love, despite the inauspicious beginnings of their relationship.
Overall, though, the timbre of The Firemaker is far more serious than that of the Macleod novels; this is a political thriller laced with a murder mystery and an exercise in cross-cultural confrontation at personal and social levels. Eventually, things get very dangerous for the pair of sleuths, and their final attempts to elude a steely contract killer by escaping to Mongolia offer an opportunity for a panoramic look at China’s varied cultural and geographical landscapes.
If I had to choose one word to characterize the three novels by May I’ve sampled so far (including the second Enzo Macleod, The Critic, about the quintessential French occupation of winemaking), that word would be “fun.” The stories are well and intricately plotted, but there’s an undeniable Gaelic mischievousness that never sinks far below the surface of mayhem that carries the plots along. The write-ups on Amazon of his latest “Lewis Trilogy,” set on the bleak Outer Hebrides, hint that May has turned serious in recent years, but the books have proven so popular at the public library that I haven’t been able to get my hands on them yet. But however that turns out, I’m looking forward to a few more years of indulgent delight in May’s international wit.