Tuesday, 8 June 2004

Michael Malone: Uncivil Seasons (1984)

Edition: Robinson, 2002
Review number: 1242

Over the last few months, I have suddenly started seeing and hearing the name of Michael Malone, basically out of the blue. Because of this, I assumed that he was a novelist who had taken up his pen relatively recently, and so was a little surprised to find out how old this novel, the first in a series set in Hillston in North Carolina, actually is. Apart from anything else, it is reminiscent of other more recent crime writers, particular Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels, or Donald Harstad's relaxed Iowa cop.

The narrator of this novel is Justin Savile V, a police lieutenant in Hillston, but also from one of the foremost families of the area, with connections to everyone from the State Governor down. He has turned his back on privilege, finding investigation more interesting than the top-notch legal career mapped out for him (though alcoholism had something to do with this decision as well). His partner, Cuddy Mangum, couldn't be more different, his background being the rundown East Hillston, the wrong side of the tracks.

When Justin's uncle's wife is killed, there is an obvious suspect - one of the "usual suspects", in fact - lined up, but Justin begins asking dangerous questions which threaten those who have run the town for generations, relatives and family friends who consider him one of their own. The detective story works extremely well, with several sources of conflict driving the plot - resentment between the poor and the rich, lack of understanding between the under and over privileged, Justin looking to find the truth rather than cover up a potential scandal. There is also conflict in the narrator; his turning away from his background was to a large extent not a matter of principle but because he wasn't interested in the sort of rewards it could bring him (and many people would agree that investigating murders is more interesting than sitting on the North Carolina state legislature). The characterisation is well done, and makes both Justin and Cuddy interesting (Cuddy is much better realised, in particular, then the usually stereotyped sidekick characters in detective fiction). Uncivil Seasons is an extremely well written novel, with nods to the American noir tradition, without being as angst ridden as Connelly or Deaver.

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