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February 4, 2007

Murder Most Suburban


WHEN P. D. James, the grand master of the well-made detective story, said, ìYou can gain a far more accurate impression of what it is like to live and work in a city from a mystery than from more pretentious forms,î she probably wasnít thinking about Great Neck. Or Upper Montclair. Or any of the other thinly disguised locales found in dozens of mysteries set in the suburbs of New York.

Genre fiction is no less revealing about small-town life, but letís face it ó suburbia just doesnít attract the same kind of dark, brooding sleuths who are drawn to the mean streets of Big Bad City, U.S.A. What we tend to get, instead, are the comedians, the cranks and the kooks, more amateurish at the business of crime-solving, less hard-bitten and far more lovable than their inner-city cousins.

By happy coincidence, the quintessential suburban sleuth ó Susan Isaacsís frustrated Long Island housewife Judith Singer ó is back on the scene after nearly 30 years. Smart, funny and bored out of her mind playing the dutiful little wife in an era of womenís liberation, Judith made a sensational appearance in Ms. Isaacsís 1978 comic mystery ìCompromising Positions,î which has just been reissued in paperback. Judithís snoozing intellect wakes up from its long nap when the townís Don Juan dentist is murdered and curiosity compels her to poke her nose into the official police investigation. Playing amateur sleuth not only liberates Judith from her stultifying marriage, it also frees her wicked tongue to spill the beans about her neighborsí secret vices and adulterous affairs.

Although Ms. Isaacs never revisited her wisecracking Long Island sleuth (ìTwenty-five years down the line, I didnít want to be writing ëJudith Singer with Botox,í î she recently told Publishers Weekly), the heroines of her later novels share many of Judithís characteristics. Quick of wit and sharp of tooth, these suburban busybodies have a rare talent for exposing the murderous impulses of their affluent neighbors and a positive genius for mocking the materialistic values and social pretensions that define their world.

Satire of the suburban lifestyle is hardly limited to the counties of Suffolk and Nassau and, in fact, extends to the cities and towns across the entire New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region. But the grounds for satire, no less than murder, depend on where you live ó and what constitutes a killing offense in your community.

In ìMcMansion,î Justin Scott gleefully blows up an S.U.V. dealership and buries a greedy real estate developer under his own bulldozer. Ben Abbott, the private eye in his series, has a day job as a real estate agent in Newbury, Conn., a quaint fictional village located somewhere in the Metro-North commuting corridor. Happiest when heís showing an old Colonial to a client hunting for an antique house with beehive ovens, Ben takes aesthetic offense at the five-bedroom ìmonstrositiesî polluting this rural environment with their Palladian windows, triumphal arches and two-story marble foyers that ìhailed the street like neon dollar signs.î In this bucolic neck of the woods, where rampant development is chewing up all the old farmland, thatís reason enough to murder.

The Connecticut burbs also take their knocks in Parnell Hallís comic whodunits featuring Cora Felton, a celebrity crossword-puzzle author who looks like your dear old granny, but is a brash and boozy broad with the vocabulary of an interstate trucker. In ìStalking the Puzzle Lady,î Mr. Hallís targets are the giant, impersonal shopping malls that make a cynical pretense of being civic-minded town squares. Although Cora doesnít even write her own puzzles (her niece does), the sponsor of her TV show books her on a statewide supermarket tour, a task she performs ìwith all the satanic glee of a dope peddler pushing her wares.î But somewhere between Danbury and Stamford she picks up a stalker and, Cora being Cora, she actually prefers matching wits with this killer over entertaining the screaming kiddies at the malls.

Before he moved to upstate New York and started writing about dogs, Jon Katz produced a terrific mystery series featuring Kit Deleeuw, a stay-at-home father and private eye who calls himself ìthe suburban detective.î In books like ìDeath by Station Wagonî and ìThe Family Stalker,î Kit takes on teenage suicide, deadbeat dads and other topics of critical import to the ìchild-obsessedî parents in his bedroom community, Rochambeau (think Montclair), N.J., a ìsurprisingly tolerant place, as long as youíre not messing with lawns, schools or property taxes.î Explaining the focus on family life in his gently critical novels, Mr. Katz has said that exurbanites create a ìchild-centered cultureî when they move to the suburbs. ìRaising kids is the only industry in these towns.î

Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) takes an original approach to suburban crime in his savagely funny novels ó he sends out a professional criminal named Parker to commit some. The mayhem unleashed by Parkerís crack team of thieves and con men is sometimes in a good cause, as it is in ìBackflash,î when the gang decides to rob a gambling casino floating up the Hudson River on its way to Albany to rendezvous with the bonehead state legislators who voted to give it a trial run. (A gambling ship on the Hudson? They wouldnít do that . . . would they?) The vision of this ìbig shiny white empty box, going upriver to be filled with money,î inspires an ingenious heist that can only end badly. But before it does, Mr. Stark offers grand views of the river and moody reflections on proud old Hudson Valley towns that, having once been poor, ìhadnít seen much modernization, and so, without trying, had become quaint.î

And yes, even the most cutting satirists have real affection for the targets of their wit. Janet Evanovich became a best-selling author by knocking Trenton in her comic novels about an endearingly inept bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum, whose current assignment in ìPlum Loviní î is handling the clients of a matchmaker on the lam for armed robbery. But for all the fun Ms. Evanovich has with this big-haired Jersey Girl and her lowlife friends, these madcap capers are rooted in a fierce love for the battered old neighborhood and the decent old folks who will always make it home.

Down on the Jersey Shore, in a resort town thatís a ringer for places like Seaside Heights and Long Beach Island, a couple of beach cops in a fun series by Chris Grabenstein spend much of their time discouraging kids from vandalizing the commercial amusements on the boardwalk and chasing thieves who swipe $350 tricycles off peopleís front porches. The partners do get real crimes to investigate in ìTilt a Whirlî and other novels, but in their off-time they just like to hang around the beach. And why not? ìI still love going down to the Jersey Shore,î says Mr. Grabenstein, who will patronize any restaurant ìwhere they serve cold bottles of beer in an aluminum bucket and mountains of peel-and-eat shrimp in red plastic baskets.î

So, yes, local color and charm figure large in the appeal of suburban whodunits. Maggie Summer, the peripatetic amateur sleuth in Lea Waitís mystery series about the antiques trade, brings her own charm to the country estate auctions, flea markets, barn sales and trade fairs where she buys and sells vintage prints. In ìShadows at the Fair,î Maggie has a booth at the Rensselaer County Spring Antiques Fair, and when she isnít busy solving the murder of one of the dealers at the fair (ìcourteous cutthroats,î she calls them), she will show you how to authenticate an 1869 Currier & Ives print and graciously pass on professional tips on everything from Colonial kitchenware to Victorian mourning artifacts.

The charm factor is even more pronounced in Susanna Hofmann McSheaís ìHometown Heroesî mysteries, all three of them set in a pretty Connecticut town on the Housatonic River. Ms. McShea refers to the town as Ravenís Wing; but residents of Ridgefield, where the author went to school, would have no trouble recognizing local landmarks like ìthe wedding cake mansion that was the Community Center.î The real question is, can they identify the four elderly busybodies (a retired police chief and his earthy lady friend, a bored socialite and a retired doctor) who do the collective sleuthing in this cozy series?

Silly as it sounds, ìcozyî is the technical term for any mystery that is set in a picturesque small town, features a clever amateur sleuth and takes a puzzle-solving approach to crime. The suburbs are the happy hunting grounds of the cozy because they consider themselves safe communities, secure in their common civic goals and shared social values. The amateur sleuth functions as the ultimate good neighbor who weeds out whatever evil element threatens the stability of the community.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to spot the serpent in the gardens of suburbia. McLeod Dulaney, the protagonist in ìThe Princeton Murdersî and other academic mysteries by Ann Waldron, is a Florida journalist who is offered a teaching job at Princeton after winning a Pulitzer Prize. Although the petite widow is very much a Southern lady (to the point of sharing her recipe for baked grits), her outsider status gives her the perspective to spot the campus poisoner among her fellow academics.

Another attractive outsider, the Londoner Lee Bartholomew, lands in East Hampton in Hope McIntyreís chick-lit mystery ìHow to Marry a Ghost.î She is there to attend the ìcommitment ceremonyî for her eccentric mother and a local billionaire. But when the body of a man wearing a formal wedding dress washes up on the beach, Lee finds her visit extended indefinitely. (Those city visitors will find any excuse to put off going home.)

Despite the abundance of wit in these books, authors of suburban mysteries are not all writing for laughs. One rule of thumb that seems to apply on Long Island is that the closer you get to Montauk ó and the deeper into winter ó the bleaker the story.

Sam Acquillo, a burnout case who picked up his dog and retreated to his familyís bayside cottage in Southampton in Chris Knopfís debut novel, ìThe Last Refuge,î is still living like a hermit in ìTwo Time.î And when this brooding hero actually manages to drag himself out to a local restaurant ó wouldnít you know ó somebody firebombs the place. This is excellent hard-boiled stuff, moody without being depressing and shrewdly observant about what goes on in resort towns after the summer crowd packs up and goes back to the city.

Off season in Shinnecock Bay proves no cheerier in Daniel Judsonís chilling crime novel, ìThe Darkest Place,î which follows a morbid homicide case from multiple points of view, including that of the killer. When students at Southampton College turn up drowned in the bay in the middle of a bone-chilling winter, parents hire a private eye named Reggie Clay to disprove the copsí suicide theory. Clay knows his way around the seediest parts of the prettiest towns, which takes his investigation down all those back alleys where the winter sun never shines.

Although serious novelists tend to take a bleak view of their crime settings, they tend to recover their lyrical voices whenever they write from a historical perspective. In ìAmagansett,î Mark Mills recounts a melancholy chapter in Long Island history when rich outsiders began to displace local descendants of the original English settlers. But in depicting the cruel and often violent transformation of the old fishing villages after World War II, Mr. Mills also captures the haunting beauty of the South Fork and the nobility of its lost heritage.

Regional heritage is shown in a more bizarre light by Louis Bayard in ìThe Pale Blue Eye.î This historical thriller, set in the early days of West Point, features a young cadet who is none other than Edgar Allan Poe, enlisted as an in-house spy by the detective who has been brought in to find the fiend who is killing cadets and carving the hearts from their bodies. Lacking the poetic sensibility of the future master of the macabre, Mr. Bayard concentrates on the shock value of his tale. But such huggermugger about secret societies and ritual murder is gruesomely entertaining and well integrated into the fascinating early history of the military academy.

So, maybe our dark poets are different after all. They wonít take a job if it doesnít come with a great view.

Marilyn Stasio writes the Crime column for The New York Times Book Review.