Sunday, July 09, 2006

P.J. Tracy, Mystery Writer!

Mysteries by P.J. Tracy

I like a good mystery, especially if the writing is knockout-quality. I recently read Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracy and was pleasantly impressed. The characters are vivid, the writing is great, and the structure is astoundingly tight for a first novel. To complicate, P.J. Tracy is a mother-daughter team, writing from two different states (Minneapolis and California). I'd love to know how they coordinated the writing effort so well. The book is nearly seamless, and most of the chapter endings have a little twist and lift that will make it impossible for you to put this book down.

My sole criticism is that the characters are very close to that border between vivid and cartoonish. Monkeewrench is a software development company and its members are each unique and compelling, and their physical and psychic individualities are the sort that work well in a novel but fall just short of translating into characters who could live in the physical world. That's a minor criticism, and I was interested to see how the characters would be protrayed in subsequent books.

I read the second in the series, Live Bait, and it is really really good. The Monkeewrench characters are there, but they are secondary characters and that role suits them well. A pair of detectives who played a central part in Monkeewrench take the foreground in Live Bait. Magozzi, the dominant character of the pair, is a strong personality with a compelling set of strengths and human frailties. He has sharp instincts and is willing to trust them as much as the trusts the hard facts. His partner is a good foil, often talking through possible and impossible scenarios, even ridiculous ones, often providing these as fodder for Magozzi's instincts and intellect to struggle through. The partner is very earthy and physical, and unashamedly and charmingly in love with his wife. That's a good counterpoint to Magozzi, who sticks to a spartan and healthy diet (occasionally succumbing to the partner's offers of rich and wonderful foods) and goes home to an empty and emptied house, which he has left in the condition it was in when his ex- left him.

Live Bait is based on a series of murders in Minneapolis that show some obvious linkages but there are enough anomolies that the reader knows a solution won't be forthcoming. Senior citizens are murdered, one by one, and it soon becomes clear that most are Jews who spent time in the World War II concentration camps. But they weren't all in the same camp, and one senior citizen is Lutheran with no apparent link to the others.

As the detectives struggle to put the pieces together, racing to prevent more murders, since they are happening with an alarming regularity, some of the cops and detectives seem to be struggling with their own private dilemmas. One cop is related to a murder victim and has left the police force after the murder of his wife; his world is collapsing on him and when we first meet him he is interrupted in an attempted suicide. Another is wondering if he's a good cop or not, struggling with something he did and what his motives might have been. Another character, the estranged son of one of the murder victims, plays the role of a hopeless drunk but is clearly caught up in his own struggle with an internal moral compass.

The mystery unfolds, and once you think you've got it figured out it takes a twist again -- I don't think any reader will successfully outguess P.J. Tracy, and that's the way it should be. The twists are compelling and, once revealed, believable. But as the mystery is solved, the secondary plot line about all those moral compasses is the part that captured me. You can read this as a simple mystery and enjoy it a lot, but you can also read it as a mini-philosophy on the question of what it means to be a good person, and whether it is possible to be good in the midst of overwhelming evil. Each character resolves his or her own struggle with what it means to be a good cop, or to be a good person. I felt very connected to the characters as this all played out, and by the time the true "heroes" are identified -- those who remain "good" despite all pulling to the contrary -- they are the sort that really are the heroes of real life. They're not the primary characters, and not the ones you'd pick out as shiny. One of them is nowhere close to perfect. But they have understood, and held on at all costs, to what it means to be a good human being.

That, and the excellent writing and fully-honed characters, make Live Bait a must-read. You'd do well to start with Monkeewrench, but if you only have time for one, make it Live Bait.

Here's the official P.J. Tracy website:

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