Friday, September 18, 2009
Sandra Ruttan, Lullaby for the Nameless
Sandra Ruttan's "Nolan, Hart, and Tain" series has been unusual in several respects, including the balance among the three central characters, RCMP detective-constables assigned to Canada's Southwestern corner. But another important aspect of the series has been the substantial, unexplained backstory of the first case that the three worked on together, a case that has cast a shadow over them from the first novel, What Burns Within, uniting and dividing them at the same time. Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund used a similarly vital backstory in her first novel, The Bomber, and solved the problem of its importance to her character by "re-starting" her series, with a second novel, Studio Sex (aka Studio 69), that started the series over again with the original events that happened to her at a younger age. Ruttan hasn't done that: Her second novel, The Frailty of Flesh, continued to refer to the events prior to What Burns Within as a vital element of the relationship of the three characters, and the unexplained tension among the three has been an important and interesting aspect of the series. With the third volume, Lullaby for the Nameless, Ruttan uses multiple time-lines to carry the story of Nolan, Hart, and Tain forward while also going back to the "myth of origin," the case that first brought them together, as well as the cases they've been on since then. Two corpses are found, one in an urban dumpster and one in the woods (stumbled upon during a manhunt). Hart and Tain (Ruttan's female and First Nations' characters), are called to the body in the dumpster, and Nolan, who has been on temporary assignments since the previous novel, is involved in the rural manhunt and is assigned the case of that body. The three characters orbit around the cases and one another, Nolan in isolation from the other two until the very end, while the cases intertwine and lead back to their original case. The original case is revealed in fits and starts, as Hart is a new detective assigned to an investigation already underway and is inserted between the feuding Tain and Nolan, cut out of the real investigation by both of them. All three are at odds, and the spiky quality of their later relationship as friends and colleagues is prefigured in the conflict of the flashbacks. This is a police procedural of the first order, but with the story told through the characters and their conflictual histories more than through the serial murders and their echo in the current case. We do get glimpses of the murderers and their victims, almost as if caught momentarily in the headlights of a passing car, but for the most part Ruttan pulls off the difficult task of giving the story from the point of view of three people who are each withholding information from the others, and from the reader. Not only is there a jigsaw puzzle of information resulting from the investigation itself, there is a fractured perspective of the overlapping points of view, and what each reveals to and conceals from the reader. A good deal of the considerable pleasure of the novel is in its gradual focusing of the points of view into a single story (though not everything is resolved, leaving some elements of the case and of the cops' relationships unclear, perhaps to be taken up in the next installment). There has been a danger in Ruttan's reticence to reveal the full horror of the backstory, that when it was revealed it would not seem as important or dramatic to the reader as it has been portrayed as being for the three main characters--but when the strands finally come together, there is ample evidence of events, mistakes, and unnecessary deaths that have haunted Nolan, Tain, and Hart, as well as a final horror that even they had not anticipated, one that caps the serial killer plot and frames Lullaby for the Nameless effectively as its own coherent story. There's a good deal of reference to the first two novels in the series, not incomprehensible to a reader coming to Ruttan's work with this third novel, but I'd recommend starting at the beginning--both to understand these references and to get the full impact of the third novel's resolution of the ongoing, hitherto unresolved story. And the strength of the series, its unconventional triple narrative and the three distinct and fully realized characters who support it, is best appreciated in the full sweep of the series so far. On its own, though, Lullaby for the Nameless is a vivid, noir portrait of the hard-scrabble small towns, ethnic tensions, dark urban corners, and deep forest environments of contemporary Canada, through the eyes of three fascinating, troubled investigators.