Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Robert Wilson Tackles Terrorism

I'm a bit of a crime fiction fanatic, but the worst kind you can be: the kind who wants the writing to be awesome. I think I'm more disappointed by bad crime novels than by pretty much every other sort of bad novel, and more delighted by a good one than is perhaps healthy. A good police procedural can serve as a near-perfect metaphor for the process of creative inspiration; a bad one makes a mockery of discovery.

By and large I've gotten the most enjoyment out of Scandinavia, beginning with the Swedish husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, who wrote what has to be the greatest detective series of all time, in the 1960's and 70's. Their ten-book run included the stunning The Laughing Policeman and the deeply interior and ultimately optimistic The Locked Room. And their successors, who include Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Ake Edwardsson, and Arnaldur Indridason, have also written a veritable library of absorbing mysteries.

But what I've most looked forward to lately has been whatever Robert Wilson has just published, particularly the books featuring Spanish police detective Javier Falcón. Wilson is British, and writes about everywhere but Britain; the Falcón books, set in Seville, are the most convincing, and the character the one, among Wilson's oeurve, with whom he seems most engaged. The new one, The Hidden Assassins, is probably my least favorite of the bunch, but it's still pretty good, and I recommend it.

In it, Falcón finds himself presiding over a bombing that appears to be the work of Islamic terrorists. The investigation, of course, reveals that the bombing isn't so straightforward as that. This is no surprise, of course--but what sets the novel apart is the way it demonstrates the deep complexity of terrorism itself, the multiplicity of its connections, the depth of its political opportunism, and the way it is enabled by those who benefit from its condemnation.

Throughout, we see how the bombing worms itself into the lives of Falcón's friends, family, and associates, and get to enjoy more of the smart, exhausted self-doubt that characterizes this most lachrymose of policemen. Wilson loves to use Falcón to turn the clichés of crime fiction inside out. Here, he knocks a dent in the storied power of intuition:

Falcón was surprised at himself. He'd been such a scientific investigator in the past, always keen to get his hands on autopsy reports and forensic evidence. Now he spent more time tuning in to his intuition. He tried to persuade himself that it was experience but sometimes it seemed like laziness.

Nothing in this book seems remotely like laziness, though you could fault Wilson for his mountains of (admittedly fascinating) expository dialogue. Still, it's lovely not to have to throw a crime novel across the room, especially one as heavy as this one.

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