In some of the best crime fiction, the detectives work the case as the case works the detectives, forcing them to evaluate their sense of justice, their moral compass and each other.
That approach is the cornerstore of True Detective, the engrossing new HBO series that debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EST/PT.
Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) are partners in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division.
We first meet them in 2012 when both are being interviewed about a case involving the ritualistic occult murder of a woman that they handled in 1995.
It became one of those cases that changed their lives and forced them down a path of life from which they have never recovered.
True Detective alternates between the interview in 2012 to the case in 1995 with flashbacks to 2002 when Cohle left the squad.
“You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partners,” says detective Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the investigators who are interviewing him at the beginning of True Detective. At first glance, Hart doesn’t look much different than he did back in 1995—a bit more grizzled, a bit more cynical—but he is clean shaven, looks presentable in a suit and is sober.
The same can’t be said for his former partner. In 1995, Cohle was clean-shaven, dressed neatly and, despite personal tragedies and a bleak attitude, had not seemed to completely give up on life. The 2012 Cohle seems unable to care about anything, least of all himself. His beard and long hair are not a fashion statement but because he can’t muster the energy to shave, or even wear clean clothes. He drinks heavily throughout the interview because the investigators are interrupting the hours he has set aside each day to drink, and he will not give up this time.
Cohle and Hart were never friends. Cohle’s propensity for his nihilistic monologues on religion, life, and families irritated Hart when they were partners. Married with children, Hart doesn’t trust the fact that Cohle is single and lives in a Spartan apartment.
The eight-episode True Detective takes the partners through the backroads of Louisiana as the camera lovingly follows the bleak beauty of swamps, abandoned buildings, burnt-out churches and blue-collar towns around the Atchafalaya basin.
The murder of this young woman spirals both Cohle and Hart into cycles of obsession and violence. Neither is prepared for how the case will affect each.
True Detective resists the cliches of the televised police procedural as it draws us into each man’s life. Credit goes to creator Nic Pizzolatto, the author of the novel Galveston, an Edgar finalist for best first novel in 2010, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) who show the humanity of each detective, exploring what made these already damaged men and how the case changed them. Both Pizzolatto and Fukunaga keep the onscreen violence to a minimum but make the threat of violence high, lurking just below the surface ready to erupt at any moment.
But credit also must go to McConaughey and Harrelson, both of whom dial down their usual onscreen personalities to create an intriguing ensemble. I have had a lot more respect for McConaughey since he appeared in The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s novel. In True Detective, McConaughey morphs into a credible, haunted detective whose intelligence is his biggest asset, and liability. He’s no longer a movie star famous for taking off his shirt or hawking cologne, but a man who has lost everything. Harrelson is frightening as a cop too tightly coiled. Their strong performances make True Detective even more compelling.
Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone) stars as Hart’s wife, Maggie, who wants to keep her family together but knows she may not succeed.
True Detective unfolds over eight episodes. In an interview, Pizzolatto said he is planning each season to be a self-contained series with a definite ending and a different cast.
That’s an interesting idea but McConaughey and Harrelson are so good in True Detective that they would be welcomed back.
True Detective airs at 9 p.m. (EST/Pt) Sundays on HBO. Frequent encores will run each week.
Photo: Matthew McConaughey, left, and Woody Harrelson in True Detective. Photo courtesy HBO
Most authors who write series concentrate on one or two recurring characters to drive the story. Kinsey Millhone, Harry Bosch, V.I. Warshawski, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, Sookie Stackhouse—each is as well known to readers as are the authors who created them.
(Five points each if you can name in one quick breath the corresponding authors; no, there is no prize, just a fun exercise.)
Lisa Unger has taken a different route with three of her last novels. Instead of focusing on a person, Unger uses the fictional town The Hollows as the driving force while concentrating on different residents each time out.
The only recurring characters in Unger’s series have been Jones Cooper, a detective, and his psychologist wife, Maggie, both of whom were the focus of Fragile, her first Hollows novel. But these characters are now minor in the series, vital, yes, but only supporting.
Unger’s newest novel In the Blood, which just came out this week, belongs to Lana Granger, a troubled young college student who is trying to hide a past that includes her father being on death row for the murder of her mother and her own violent tendencies.
The Hollows is a charming sounding town, located about 100 miles from New York City, giving it both an urban and a rural feel. Each time Unger visits The Hollows, we learn more about this place and how it affects its residents. Who knew there was a college in The Hollows, as we find out with In the Blood?
I have been trying to think of other authors who have used a town as the recurring series character and the only one I can remember is the late Marilyn Wallace, who wrote a series during the late 1980s and 1990s set in Taconic Hills (“a tiny hamlet halfway between the Hudson River and New England”).
And Tana French uses a police squad, which is in its own way like a town, in her Irish mysteries.
Perhaps more knowledgeable readers than I will remember a series in which the town was the recurring characters.
Sturges’ “gift” came during Connelly’s appearance this past Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation during which four authors talked about books with Bob Schieffer.
Each author was asked to name one of the best books they had read this past year.
Connelly mentioned sturges’ series that is called “the shortcut man.”
The “hero” of this series is Dick Henry, who has been called the shortcut man because he can quickly get to the heart of a problem. He’s not a detective or a cop, just a guy who does jobs for others.
Sturges has three novels in his series—Shortcut Man, Tribulations of the Shortcut Man, and Angel’s Gate.
Sturges, the son of writer-director Preston Sturges, laces his hard-boiled series with gallows humor.
Connelly, of course, is the author of the Harry Bosch series. Connelly’s latest novel The Gods of Guilt returns to his Lincoln Lawyer character Mickey Haller. (The Gods of Guilt is my pick for best crime fiction of the year.)
Marcia Clark’s series about Rachel Knight, a Deputy District Attorney in the Special Trials Unit of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, may be the next series on TNT.
The cable network has given the OK to the pilot Guilt by Association. The script is being co-written by Clark and Nashville showrunner Dee Johnson. Nelson McCormick (The Closer; Rizzoli & Isles) will direct the Guilt by Association pilot and also act as executive producer.
One of the hallmarks of Clark’s series is the friendship between Rachel and LAPD detective Bailey Keller and prosecutor Toni LaCollette.
The three women have a solid friendship that is based on respect and affection. This would fit in very well with TNT’s series Rizzoli & Isles, based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.
A couple of years ago, TNT had a string of terrific made for TV films based on crime fiction. Novels by Lisa Gardner, Richard North Patterson, and Mary and Carol Higgins Clark made quite credible movies.
Would love to see TNT explore more crime fiction for future projects. I have lots of suggestions, TNT executives.
This time of year, there are myriad lists about the year’s best books. And heaven knows Mystery Scene has one to come. And I have one that is being published across the country. Here’s a link to my personal best of 2013.
But let’s take this time to take a look at the future. Who are the newest authors we should be reading? This list isn’t to take away from our current top mystery writers. We know who they are and they continue to enthrall us with solid stories.
But here are 12 new authors who I consider to be ones to watch for. By new, I am focusing on authors who have three or less novels to their name. And this list is not in any particular order. And after I compiled it, I realized I left off about another dozen authors. If anyone has a favorite, please post in the comments.
(And if you are still looking for holiday gifts for your reader friends, this list also makes a good start.)
Owen Laukkanen: This Canadian author has made the current economic woes his genre niche while creating action-packed stories that also are contemporary cautionary tales. His debut The Professionals set the tone -- a suspenseful and insightful thriller about four out-of-work, newly graduated college friends who become kidnappers. He followed that up with Criminal Enterprise in which a wealthy man, who defines himself by his possessions and career, turns to bank robbery when he is downsized. Laukkanen’s next novel Kill Fee comes out in March. While Laukkanen makes us care about his finely drawn characters, the real heroes of his novels are FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state cop Kirk Stevens.
Ivy Pochoda: Ivy Pochoda’s novel Visitation Street ranked No. 2 on my best of 2013, a close close second to Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt. Visitation Street is the second novel under the Dennis Lehane imprint. It is a poignant look at the bonds that link a Red Hook neighborhood when a teenage girl disappears following an accident on the water. Pochoda looks at the entire neighborhood, from an immigrant who owns a local convenience store to a teenage boy whose father was murdered outside their apartment. Her first novel was The Art of Disappearing, published in 2009.
Elisabeth Elo: You’ll have to wait until next year for Elisabeth Elo’s debut North of Boston to hit the bookstores. But the wait is worth it. In this novel, Pirio Kasparov’s ability to withstand extreme weather works as a metaphor for survival. The heir to a perfume company and the daughter of Russian immigrants, Pirio maneuvers various strata of Boston society. The brisk plot moves without getting lost among such far-flung subjects as environmental issues, the fish industry and perfume.
Michael Sears: Michael Sears has been able to turn complex financial dealings into thrilling plots that don’t overwhelm the reader with the machinations of the stock market and without dumbing down such shenanigans. Greed, mismanaged money and cheating are
solid foundations for many thrillers—Sears just takes them to another level. As a result he was nominated for just about every mystery fiction award last year. His debut, Black Fridays, introduced Wall Street hotshot Jason Stafford who never started out to be a criminal. A simple accounting error snowballed into a felony when his portfolio lost more than $500 million. “I was the first alumnus from my MBA class to make Managing Director. I was also the first, as far as I know, to go to prison,” says Jason. But Sears delivers more than a financial series. Jason is the father of a very difficult special needs child. Mortal Bonds is Sears’ second novel; his third comes out next summer.
Ingrid Thoft: Ingrid Thoft is off to a great start with Loyalty, her debut about a private detective whose family of high-powered Boston attorneys are as ruthless as any mob family. Identity comes out next June.
Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym for a British journalist who has three other novels under her own name. The Wicket Girls is a stand alone about two girls who are convicted of the death of another child, and the women they became 25 years later. Marwood examines the class system and gossip. Her next novel, slated for U.S. publication next summer, will be called The Killer Next Door. I am not alone in my praise of this novel. Stephen King recently mentioned it as one of his top reads of the year.
Tim O’Mara: Tim O’Mara brings a fresh approach to the academic mystery with his novels about Raymond Donne, a former NYPD detective turned middle-school teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. O’Mara’s debut Sacrifice Fly and his recent Crooked Numbers explore this complex character whose devotion to his students and making their lives better brings him a new start. And he uses his investigative skills even more as a teacher.
Wiley Cash: In his 2012 debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash melded crime fiction with Southern gothic for an emotional story about the power of forgiveness, the strength of family bonds and how religion can be misused to seduce and dominate. A 9-year-old boy, a sheriff and a midwife alternate narrating “A Land More Kind Than Home,” set in Marshall, “a little speck of a town” in western North Carolina. The three are bonded not only by geography but by the evil that slyly yet forcefully slithers into the community. This Dark Road to Mercy comes out in January. In his second novel, Cash focuses on two young sisters forced into foster care until their wayward father who disappeared years before suddenly returns.
Julia Keller: Julia Keller’s two novels, A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River, are insightful looks at a poverty-stricken community in West Virginia whose residents are determined to make a better life.
Tricia Fields: Tricia Fields debuted as the 2010 Tony Hillerman Prize winner with The Territory, an action-packed yet personal story about the infiltration of Mexican drug cartels in a small Texas town. Chief of Police Josie Gray is a fully realized character who fights the good fight against all odds. Fields followed up with Scratchgravel Road. Her third novel Wrecked comes out in March 2014.
Patrick Lee: Patrick Lee has three best-selling paperback originals to his name. But his hardcover debut Runner with its mix of sci-fi, Tom Clancy and adventure should put him over the top. You’ll have to wait until April to see what all the fuss is about.
Amanda Kyle Williams: Amanda Kyle Williams hit the ground running with The Stranger You Seek, a character-rich tale of self-discovery about Keye Street, a Chinese-American private detective who knows that her flaws are part of her persona. Keye knows little about her Asian heritage, but all about the South because she was adopted at age five by a white Georgia family. She followed The Stranger You Seek with The Stranger in the Room. Her third novel Don’t Talk to Strangers is due out in July 2014.
(Michael Sears and Amanda Kyle Williams are among the authors who will be at Sleuthfest 2014. Details here.)