Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sandra Ruttan, the Frailty of Flesh

Imagine walking into a squadroom in an RCMP station in Greater Vancouver, and overhearing a couple of detectives discussing a case, not to explain it to you but to update one another on what's new without going over old ground. That's a bit like the dialogue in Sandra Ruttan's Nolan/Tain/Hart series, the second installment of which, The Frailty of Flesh, comes out this week. Ruttan doesn't spoon-feed the reader: what's happening in this complex plot is revealed slowly, not so much as the detectives reveal the truth in an objective way but as they update one another the details of the investigation. The result is a kaleidoscopic and at the same time realistic police procedural that gives a lot of space to the characters as they interact with each other, with the public, and with the victims and perpetrators of the crime. That structure is highly effective in involving readers in the story as they "overhear" the varied bits of the story but difficult to summarize in any coherent way without spoiling the experience for new readers. The Frailty of Flesh has a somewhat more straightforward plot than its predecessor (What Burns Within, which followed--at breakneck speed--arsons, child abductions, and rapes): here, the murder of a child reveals a family's deep dysfunction and the release of a murderer convicted of killing his girl friend raises questions of the motivation of the police, the emprisoned man, and the victim's family. Ashlyn Hart and Tain (whose use of a single name is explained in part in this book, along with a few other details about his closely guarded private life) are investigating the dead boy, whose sister has been implicated by the surviving brother. In this plot and in Nolan's investigation of the reopened murder case, there are a lot of suggestions (and outright depictions) of incompetence, coverups, and internal politics in the RCMP, some involving Nolan's father--and Nolan himself. The cases depicted in the earlier novel were not neatly resolved, leaving loose ends to be carried forward in this book--and this book also eschews a neat ending, either in the cases or the private lives of the main characters. Nolan and Hart are now involved personally, and a good deal of the interaction and the impact of the book is in the veering thoughts of those two as they anticipate and misunderstand each other. Tain's story is hinted at, perhaps to become the centerpiece of a future novel. Ruttan's splintered style and her three-pronged central cast create an unusually vivid crime story, with vividly rounded central characters who interact with a realism of partial truths, undisclosed agendas, poor communications, and emotional reticence: in other words, with behavior that we recognize from our own lives. What they discover about the crimes and criminals slowly emerges in patterns of abuse and distorted power relations within the family that are not grasped by those among the cops who are unwilling to struggle for understanding, leading to the tragic conclusions of the intersecting stories. Ruttan's complex web of dialogue and narrative leads us gradually deeper into the lives of those caught up in the crime, including the detectives, creating a distinctive and potent novel (and series). In the gap before the relase of further installments in the series it would be interesting to go back and reread the first two novels, to dig deeper into things only partly revealed about the three detectives and even about the cases already investigated. Ruttan's ability to pique the curiosity of the reader even about novels already read once (and even read recently) is a testament to the intricacy of her stories and the depth of her characters.

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