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Mysteries: Modern Morality Plays

Nominees for annual `Edgar' award for crime fiction incorporate contemporary issues

By B.J. RahnB.J. Rahn teaches literature at Hunter College. / August 4, 1989



A COLD RED SUNRISE, by Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Scribner. 224 pp. $15.95. IN THE LAKE OF THE MOON, by David L. Lindsey. New York: Atheneum. 320 pp. $17.95. JOEY'S CASE: A MARIO BALZIC NOVEL, by K.C. Constantine. New York: Mysterious Press. 216 pp. $15.95. SACRIFICIAL GROUND, by Thomas H. Cook. Maine: Thorndike Press. 486 pp. $18.95. A THIEF OF TIME, by Tony Hillerman. New York: Harper & Row. 224 pp. $15.95.

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TO celebrate the 44th anniversary of the Mystery Writers of America, 700 writers, editors, publishers, and agents gathered earlier this summer in New York's Sheraton Centre to honor the winners of the Edgar Allan Poe Awards.

Named for the father of the detective story, the Edgars - ceramic statuettes of Poe - are given annually as the Oscars of crime fiction. The books nominated this year reveal a high standard of writing.

The detective novel has come a long way since the early days of the genre. Until after World War II, the ordinary murder mystery focused on the puzzle plot solved by a sleuth who was an eccentric superman. The other characters were mostly stereotypes, and the setting functioned to limit both the physical area to be searched for clues and the number of suspects to be interviewed. Theme was relegated to a simple demonstration that crime did not pay.

During the past three decades, increased awareness of the rising crime rate has led writers to attempt to portray crime, criminals, and law enforcement more realistically. Changing attitudes toward antisocial behavior and its punishment caused authors to present victims and villains in a new manner, to explore the circumstances and feelings that produce violent behavior.

Since the 1960s, character has become the main focus of detective fiction; the action of the plot is derived from internal and external conflicts of character. The whodunit has become the whydunit.

Also employed in a more literary manner, setting is used to create mood, reveal character, influence action, and communicate theme. And themes have become more profound. Some writers began using the form to treat serious social problems and comment on the human condition. The world view has shifted from one of absolute morality to one of existential values. Detective fiction has drawn closer to mainstream literature by employing its techniques and sharing its goals. The detective novel today has evolved from a fictional crossword puzzle to a fully developed literary art form that explores the causes and consequences of man's inhumanity to man.

Although the five novels nominated for the Edgar in 1989 feature policemen as protagonists, they cannot all be considered police procedurals. Each contains an imaginative, original plot, a story of compelling human interest. Enormous range exists among the heroes; each is a well-defined individual who does not conform to any stereotype. The secondary characters are also well drawn and memorable. Each book is strong in local color, and setting is vivid and evocative. The themes address contemporary political, philosophical, psychological, and social problems of compelling importance.

STUART M. KAMINSKY'S ``A Cold Red Sunrise,'' voted best novel of the year, contains the most exotic setting. In the fifth of his series featuring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov of the Moscow police, his hero travels to Tumsk in Siberia, a small village of about 15 people - wherein winter snow falls every day, dawn is merely a graying of the prevailing darkness, and a temperature of 40 below is normal.

Sent to investigate the bizarre murder of Moscow police Commissar Rutkin, who was stabbed through the eye with an icicle while inquiring into the suspicious death of the young daughter of a famous dissident about to leave for the West, Rostnikov is ordered to concentrate on the death of the commissar, and not to involve himself in the death of the child. He regards this injunction as impossible, because in such a small community the two violent deaths will almost inevitably be linked.

Suspicion falls most heavily on Dr. Samsonov, who discovered the commissar's body and is said to resent Rutkin's bumbling efforts to find his daughter's killer. The suspects also include two voluntary exiles, a former Russian Orthodox priest who spends his time locating and studying such artifacts as a 12th-century Mongol cup, and a retired army general who writes articles discussing alternative strategies for great battles in Russian history, particularly those fought against the Nazis.