I recently exchanged e-mail messages with Oregon science-fiction author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, better known to crime-fiction enthusiasts under the nom de plume Kris Nelscott. Among other things, I was curious to know whether she planned to pen more novels featuring late-1960s African-American private eye Smokey Dalton. Introduced in A Dangerous Road (2000), Dalton went on to feature in five further tales, including 2006’s Days of Rage, before suddenly vanishing from the ranks of fictional sleuths. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from her that, yes, a seventh Dalton novel is on the horizon—The Day After, scheduled for release in 2012.
Read the last Rap Sheet on Jassy Mackenzie's Stolen Lives.
This started me thinking, though, about other once-interesting series detectives who have gone AWOL from the literary landscape. Not just those whose makers have passed away (such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Arthur Lyons’ Jacob Asch and Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Toby Peters), but some who’ve been abandoned as a consequence of mediocre sales or their creators’ career shifts. When I started making a list, I realized just how many such disappearances have taken place—right under our noses, without any alarms being sounded or APBs being issued—and how much I miss some of those characters.
Were it possible to compel the comebacks of missing crime-fiction protagonists, here are five that I’d be most happy to see back in action:
Harry Stoner, created by Jonathan Valin. Stoner was a compassionate, 40-something gumshoe in Cincinnati, Ohio, similar to Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, only somewhat less refined and more physically aggressive. He debuted in The Lime Pit (1980), a sometimes shocking yarn about an old snuff-movie maker who wants the Pinto-driving private eye to locate and retrieve for him a 16-year-old runaway, who’d been living with him for upwards of a year. Ten additional Stoner outings followed, winning Valin a Shamus Award (for 1989’s Extenuating Circumstances), before the author—fearing that he was starting to repeat himself—ditched his brooding hero and went off to found a music-criticism magazine.
Jean-Louis St-Cyr and Hermann Kohler, created by J. Robert Janes. OK, I’m cheating here, choosing an author’s pair of detectives. But what an unlikely duo they are. Like Philip Kerr, Canadian writer Janes set his mysteries against the general tumult and redundant moral outrages of World War II. Introduced in 1992’s Mirage, St-Cyr was a detective with the French Sûreté, a “constant questioner” who “talked” with corpses and (because he wasn’t trusted by France’s German occupiers) had been partnered with a former Munich cop and Gestapo Oberdetektiv, Kohler, somebody who’d risen rapidly in the secret police ranks despite being a disloyal “lampooner of the Führer and Nazi doctrines.” The author painted a dismal picture of Vichy France as a place where people smoked tobacco scavenged from whatever cigarette butts they could collect and kept “meat on the hoof in their flats and rooms”—chickens, pigeons, cats and guinea pigs. The murders in these novels (which apparently ended their run with 2002’s Flykiller) were often grisly, and the stories tended to be overstuffed with bit players; but Janes’ prose was often elegant, his scenes dramatic and his tales brutally explicit, exploring the innumerable ways humans find to mistreat each other.
Dr. Elizabeth Chase, created by Martha C. Lawrence. A new age demands a New Age sort of shamus, and Chase was about as “out there” as some of us could take. Introduced in 1995’s Murder in Scorpio, she was not only a licensed P.I. in San Diego, California, but also a parapsychologist with a couple of degrees from Stanford and periodic “psychic flashes” that, though uncontrollable, lent her aid in cracking cases that might have stumped less intuitive investigators. Lawrence received multiple award nominations during the years she was composing her five Chase novels. That, though, was not enough to keep her in the game. After the publication of Ashes of Aries (2001), she started working on “a big, violence-filled thriller.” But then came 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Lawrence says she “lost all enthusiasm for a story that was essentially about a gun-toting hero chasing down an evildoer. By that time there was entirely too much talk about hunting down evildoers and I didn’t want to add to that gestalt.” Instead, she deserted novels and went to work “behind the scenes” as a writing partner with management expert Ken Blanchard (The One Minute Manager). Even Elizabeth Chase probably couldn’t have foretold that turn of events.
John Marshall Tanner, created by Stephen Greenleaf. Like his creator, “Marsh” Tanner was an attorney, but he’d quit practicing and become a San Francisco peeper. He tended toward angst and depression, and fully embraced cynicism; however, the cases Tanner tackled really made this series intriguing, whether they focused on radical politics (Death Bed, 1980), libel and the publishing industry (Book Case, 1990), bogus AIDS therapies (Blood Type, 1992), racism (Southern Cross, 1993) or computer technology and pornography (Flesh Wounds). Sadly, Tanner was last seen bodyguarding a controversial novelist in Ellipses (2000).
Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, created by Caleb Carr. New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt could probably have carried The Alienist (1994) by himself. However, historian Carr chose to partner him in that 1896-set serial-killer adventure with New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, intrepid police department secretary Sara Howard and renowned fictional psychologist (or “alienist,” as he’d have then been known) Laszlo Kreizler. The Alienist offered a surfeit of shocks and took readers into both the grim and grand reaches of Gilded Age Manhattan, where Carr could show off his research and Kreizler—despite public skepticism shown toward psychology in his day—could demonstrate his understanding of human nature and early criminal-profiling acumen. It helped that Roosevelt believed Kreizler’s theories held water, and acted on them. The Alientist sold well over a million copies, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and provoked Carr to write a sequel, The Angel of Darkness (1997), which built around the kidnapping of a Spanish diplomat’s daughter and a nurse who may be murdering children. Carr reportedly planned to continue his series, telling each new story from the viewpoint of a different character; but he has yet to pen a third entry.
The list of detectives forsaken by their still-living authors could extend well beyond these five to include Andrew Bergman’s Jack Levine (Tender Is Levine, 2001), Karen Kijewski’s Kat Colorado (Stray Kat Waltz, 1998), John Lutz’s Fred Carver (Lightning, 1996), A.E. Maxwell’s Fiddler (Murder Hurts, 1993) and others. But those are only some of my picks. Which crime-fiction protagonists would you most like to see back on their old beats?