IT’S all very well for the White House to put out the word that President Clinton dotes on Marcus Aurelius and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and that he reads books in German. It’s something else again to catch our Chief Executive red-handed with something called “The Concrete Blonde.”
Don’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of “The Concrete Blonde,” one of four novels that Mr. Clinton picked up (on blind credit, having been short of cash and bereft of plastic) on a recent binge at Mystery Books in Washington. This new police procedural by Michael Connelly won’t be out until June; the advance copy was the store owners’ gift to the President, who had expressed his satisfaction with the author’s two previous novels, “The Black Ice” and “The Black Echo,” which won an Edgar Award as best first mystery in 1993.
We could just hold our horses until June to share Mr. Clinton’s latest enthusiasm. But with galley in hand, it’s more fun to jump the gun on this blunt-spoken thriller, which pits the series hero, Harry Bosch, a maverick homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, against a cruel and cunning serial killer. Aside from making Mr. Connelly very, very happy, the alacrity with which the President snatched up this rough bit of goods would seem to indicate that he likes his genre fiction hard-boiled and a bit racy. Or does he?
“It’s obvious that he genuinely likes mysteries and is very knowledgeable about them,” says Debora Knutson, the Mystery Books employee who helped the President fill his book bag. “But you can’t really peg him.”
Not easily, anyway. What can you make of someone whose tastes run to Carl Hiaasen’s anarchic fantasies of Florida in toxic meltdown; Sara Paretsky’s sobering views of industrial Chicago as a sociological wasteland; Walter Mosley’s moody-blues period pieces about Los Angeles’s ethnic underworld; and the country singer Kinky Friedman’s manic riffs on the theme of the detective as wild man?
Ms. Knutson gave the President what he asked for: “The Curious Eat Themselves,” John Straley’s manly outdoor adventure about freakish upheavals in the magnificent natural order of the Alaskan wilderness, and “Bad Love,” Jonathan Kellerman’s latest pop-psych thriller about children driven batty by their elders. Mr. Clinton also went for one of Joy Fielding’s domestic-suspense potboilers, “The Deep End,” on the bookseller’s word (well-meaning but misguided) that it dealt seriously with the psychology of child abuse. “Strawgirl” and “Child of Silence,” by Abigail Padgett, a former investigator on such abuse cases for the San Diego courts, would probably have been closer to the mark.
Call me pushy, but I think mystery lovers should all help our busy President with his reading list. It’s my idea, so I’ll go first, with a few authors and some representative titles to start him off:
For all the apparent eclecticism of his taste, Mr. Clinton seems partial to action-driven stories with substantive social content. Mr. Straley’s rugged Alaskan adventures may be stylistically removed from Mr. Hiaasen’s feverish Florida capers, but they express the same rage over civilization’s cynical despoilment of the environment. So let’s add to Mr. Clinton’s book list the ecologically sound regional mysteries of Bernard Schopen (“The Desert Look”) and Judith Van Gieson (“Raptor”) in the Southwest, and those of James W. Hall (“Bones of Coral”) in Florida.
THE President’s appreciation for Sara Paretsky’s tough-minded insights into Chicago’s inner-city social conditions suggests that he would also respond to the gritty underclass view of New York in Peter Blauner’s “Slow Motion Riot”; to “The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes” and other compassionate novels by K. C. Constantine about a decaying Pennsylvania mill town; to Stephen Greenleaf’s neon-lighted prowls through the San Francisco Tenderloin in “Blood Type”; and to the nightmare visions of Detroit captured in the bruising crime fiction of Jon A. Jackson (“Hit on the House”) and Loren D. Estleman (“King of the Corner”).
Given Mr. Clinton’s interest in the racial tensions that energize Walter Mosley’s raffish private-eye novels, the First Reader should also go for any of Tony Hillerman’s fiercely intelligent mysteries, which are set in the Indian territories of the Southwest and feature tribal police officers. “The Shaman’s Knife,” by the Canadian author Scott Young, might be a bit of a stretch for the President, who seems to lack a foreign policy in regard to crime fiction. But he would surely learn a thing or two about the conflict between modern law and ancient native customs from the Eskimo hero, Inspector Matthew (Matteesie) Kitologitak of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Anyone else want to play this game? Your turn.
Marilyn Stasio writes the Crime column for the Book Review.