Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Just Another Shade of Blue" and "Casualty Crossing" , by Kevin Hughes

Kevin Hughes has a Superman job and a Clark Kent job, although there may be disagreement as to which is which. He's a Dane County Sheriff's detective with a 30+-year career, and he also writes mystery novels.

"Just Another Shade of Blue" was Hughes' debut novel. It was based on the real-life homicide case of Doris Ann McLeod, which he investigated. The novel achieved the almost impossible task of finding justice for the murder victim by setting forth the circumstances of her tragic life. From childhood onward she had been so isolated and exploited, so uniformly betrayed, that when she disappeared nobody reported her missing. A mutilated corpse was found, but its identity remained a mystery for many months. The actual McLeod case was solved, in the end, by the strangest of flukes: a toddler happened to lisp a few words, chilling ones, that a detective realized were a description of the victim's terrible last moments. In Hughes' book, Detective Toby Jenkins finds a solution every bit as harrowing and odd.

Hughes' second novel, "Casualty Crossing," begins by describing the abusive home life of 14-year-old Billy: "He was the kid who ate lunch alone, who chose to sit in the back of the room. In the locker room, eyes were blind to the bruises on his back as he quickly changed outfits. Those bruises weren't small; it was just that nobody noticed the wallflower of a kid or had any reason to care." Billy has a confrontation with his violent, repulsive slob of a stepfather, Virgil--and it has to be said that Virgil is so evil, most readers will want to somehow jump into the book and knock his head off. Billy flees in terror, the book follows him on a desperate odyssey without ever pausing for breath, and so do we.

Hughes gets so many things right in these books. He has the storytelling instinct which drives action ahead--not always gracefully or smoothly, but then, these are mystery novels, not ballroom dances. The dialogue, especially between T.J. Jenkins and his colleagues, is the tough real deal: it jumps back at you with raw candor. And it's a pleasure to make the acquaintance of T.J., although he isn't one of your glamorous pretty-boy detectives, consulting wine lists, and combing society nymphets out of his hair. He's defiantly rough around the edges. He has an alcohol problem, is on terms of mutual contempt with a boss, his divorce left him with little more than the shirt on his back, and he's often rude, crude, and unkempt. (The grimly hilarious first scene of "Casualty Crossing", which has a hungover T.J. frantically smelling garments in his scruffy wardrobe to find the least gamey for a court appearance, demonstrates the last.)

In one scene, T.J. describes his world as "shitty," and himself as a buffoon. But the reader sees much more. T.J. is honest to the bitter end. He's loyal to friends, and he has a tremendously cranky but real dedication to his job. He has skills: in the crunch and at his absolute best, he can see like a deaf man and hear like the blind. He's committed to hunting bad guys, and he protects and serves the innocent. He gets the important things right.

1 comment:

  1. Your review had convinced me to read these books, even though the case descriptions make me wince. There is so much ugliness in the world and books that deal with it are often hard for me to read, unless the "bad" people experience that good old poetic justice.