Mysteries: Modern Morality Plays

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

By , B.J. Rahn teaches literature at Hunter College.

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.

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.

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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.

Superstitious and pusillanimous, Sergei Marasnikov, the elderly janitor of the People's Hall of Justice, provides suspense and humor. He witnessed Rutkin's murder, but to avoid trouble claims the Evenk shaman, Kurmu, sent a snow demon to kill the commissar for intruding into his domain. After Sergei is shot while defending Rostnikov, his wound is examined and bandaged by Dr. Samsonov. When Kurmu also appears at his bedside, the old man is terrified that the shaman means to kill him for lying about the snow demon.

The shaman, one of the aboriginals who have lived in the forest for thousands of years untouched by the flow of Western history, concocts some medicine from shavings of hot ginseng root and reindeer horn mixed in snow water, which he insists that Sergei drink. He comments, ``... there has been no need for demons since the whites came across the mountains and brought their own demons within their soul.'' DAVID LINDSEY'S ``In the Lake of the Moon'' also deals with the antique rites and beliefs of an exotic people - the Aztecs of Mexico. The title is derived from the location of Mexico City in a valley formed from the dried bed of Lake Texcoco - the Lake of the Moon - site of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Throughout the novel, one is constantly aware of the juxtaposition of ancient and modern cultures in Mexico City, as well as other parallels such as archaic and nascent sins, superannuated and youthful passions.

The dualities in the Aztec religion reflect the complexities and incongruities of life and also the ambivalence of humanity's dual nature, the mixture of good and evil. Tlazolteotl, goddess of the moon, was not only the goddess of fertility and hence of sexual misdeeds, but also the deity who had the power to absolve people from the guilt of illicit or unhealthy sexual behavior. The most powerful god in the pantheon, Tezcotlipoca, could see into the heart of man through his smoking mirror, but when man looked into it, his image became distorted and horrible. Known as the Mocking God or the Lord of the Night, he was the capricious author of sudden reversals and his presence brought discord.

Stuart Haydon, a detective in the Houston police department, falls under the spell of both Aztec deities when he undertakes a voyage of discovery into his father's past. His quest is for information about a youthful love affair that threatens to shatter cherished assumptions about their family life.

Lindsey vividly evokes life in contemporary Mexico City, with its ocher smog like a solar eclipse, kamikaze taxi drivers, haphazard telephone service, ubiquitous bribery, impoverished colonias to the east with open sewers and dwellings without running water, as well as elegant upper-class enclaves in the pine-covered foothills cooled by mountain breezes on the south and west. IN ``Sacrificial Ground,'' by Thomas H. Cook, a middle-aged police detective, Frank Clemons, whose personal and professional life have been on the skids since the suicide of his 16-year-old daughter, finds himself driven to explain the strange death of a beautiful, wealthy orphan of his daughter's age.

Clemons perceives a poignant similarity between his Sarah, whose alienation was labeled ``congenital loneliness'' by the school psychologist, and Angelica, who was strangely isolated from her classmates and was even estranged from the sister with whom she shared the big old family mansion. He ponders the mysteries of the human condition, ``the whole scattered landscape of the life he had seen through the battered golden screen of his badge,'' as he seeks reasons for Angelica's death. MUCH as Clemons eases the pain of loss through work, in Tony Hillerman's ``A Thief of Time,'' Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police rediscovers the will to live after his wife dies as he investigates the surprising disappearance of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal. She is a ceramics expert on an archaeology team identifying, dating, and marking for exploration significant sites of the Anasazi tribe, which flourished for 1,000 years and then simply vanished.

Hillerman limns the beauty of the magnificent arid landscape as the search moves down roiling white water of the San Juan River in Utah and over rough, stark, deserted terrain to the ruined stone tenements of the Anasazi in lonely canyons far from the populated outposts of New Mexico. ATAVISTIC, if not aboriginal, behavior figures in K.C. Constantine's ``Joey's Case,'' the latest in his series featuring Mario Balzic, police chief of Rocksburg, a small town in the coal-mining region of western Pennsylvania. Panicked by a temporary spell of impotence, Balzic ponders the macho code of his Italian-American subculture, which equates self-respect with potency, courage with violence, manhood with insensitivity. His experience teaches him that meanness comes from feeling weak and powerless. Balzic's reactions give him insight into the behavior of both the victim and the killer in Joey's case, as he realizes ``what power is and what it isn't.''

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