July 09, 2008

Fade to Clear

Fade to Clear
Leonard Chang, 2004

This is my favorite of Chang's series of three Allen Choice detective novels. Like other great exemplars of the mystery genre, Fade to Clear is about truth and in many ways about literature. Someone's no doubt already written a dissertation on the special power of genre fiction to comment on itself and on fiction in general. Pretty much all my favorite detective stories play with this in some way, though not often as overtly as this one does.

Because this book surely wears its philosophy on its sleeve, positing a hero who (to grossly oversimplify) fights crime by day and reads Kierkegaard by night. The two earlier books in the series grapple with similar issues, but here it's laid out plainly: a detective's investigation and philosophical inquiry are two sides of the same coin. In particular, the detective Allen Choice attempts to understand human relationships and what they mean, his investigation and his reading of Kierkegaard moving along in parallel at first, then dovetailing quite elegantly near the end of the book. It's relatively rare in genre fiction to see a character evolve morally, and Chang accomplishes that here without dumbing down the character in any way.

Maybe I've overemphasized the philosophical angle too much ... this is also a very intense crime novel. Lots of action, romance, plot twists, harrowing situations, obsessions, betrayal. In particular, the mental and emotional stress of the main character leap right off the page, felt in his actions and dialogue as much as in the more reflective sections of prose. This makes him easy to identify with - sometimes so much so that my heart pounds hard in my chest as I read, something that rarely happens to me. The author keeps things tightly paced throughout, and it's surprising how easily the text flows from gun battles to domestic arguments to reflective passages like this:

The contours of grief are textured and serrated, and if you run your fingers over them, Braille-like to read the trajectory of sadness, you find the ridges rising and falling with small snags and depressions. They are never smooth; they cut your fingertips. You will leave a thin trace of blood.

Not exactly punchy terse emotionless Hammet prose, is it?

At the climax of the novel, a combination of violence, tragedy, and redemption through love, the action and the soul-searching seem all of a piece. That in itself is immensely gratifying to me as a reader. The Kierkegaard-reading isn't a gimmick (as in Philip Kerr's eye-rollingly lame A Philisophical Investigation), but a key part of a character-driven philosophical novel. Nor is the book archly and self-congratulatory about the mystery genre - it's a detective story because it should be, and the crime-novel medium gives rise to the philosophical inquiry as much as the other way around.

Definitely the best of the three novels in this series so far, though I've enjoyed them all. Read them now, before somebody makes a movie out of them.

Drat, Powell's ain't got it. Check your local library!