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the use of date rape drugs is accorded barely a nod as a plot device, instead of affording Crider an opportunity to provide some substance to his story. To say that the new China Bayles there are now six revolves around drug smuggling and corruption in the Texas Rangers would be grossly to overstate the case. Susan Wittig Albert is much more interested in who China’s boyfriend is sleeping with and what that means for their own relationship. That, and the herb-related quotes which head up each chapter. Is it too much to ask that a mystery be, well, a mystery, instead of a local guidebook or herb handbook? “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” says Chandler. “The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world … he is a relatively poor man or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character or he would not know his job…. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure…. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.” It’s not so much that Crider and Albert and the dozens more who churn out secondrate mysteries year after year like the latestmodel Detroit iron are not in Chandler’s league. It’s that they’re barely in the same game. As Chandler and all the great practitioners of the detective story understand, mysteries are not about the crime itself, but about the people and forces it sets in motion, and the society in which they must operate. We read mysteries for heroes and for justice, both of which are in painfully short supply these days. The distance between Chandler’s vividly realized portrayals of the mean streets them and the run-of-the-mill crime melodrama is generally a yawning chasm. Yet judging by the groaning bookstore shelves of barely passable mysteries, the difference is indiscernible to many mystery readers. Chandler noticed that blindness as well. “The strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book.” In general, I have nothing against series detectives, although inevitably, like serial killers, they tend to become repetitive, get sloppy, and need at the very least to be locked away from society for a period of time, if not outright put down. Even masters like Arthur Conan Doyle and Nicholas Freeling, who have dared attempt mercy killings of their poor worn-out detectives, have been forced to yield to hordes of furious readers who insisted on resurrection. If you know who Truman Smith and China Bayles are, you’re likely already a fan and thus anxious to follow the continuing adventures of these amateur sleuths. If not, the question is who are these people and why should you care about them? And there’s the rub, because Truman and China are not the heroes we’re looking for. Truman just wants to stay in his house, listen to CDs, surf the Internet, and feed his cat, “Nameless”; China wants to run her herb shop, add a quaint tearoom, and feed her cat, “Khat.” But first, there are these pesky murders to solve. Cardboard characters are starting to look positively robust, compared to these traceries. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a contemporary writer like, say, Bill Crider, to a past master like Chandler. But Chandler, like the rest of the pantheon of mystery greats, looms over anyone toiling in these vineyards and can’t be avoided any more than the hot noonday sun. Two character descriptions: One was a tall thin sad-faced man with a stony chin and deep eyes and no color in his face but an unhealthy yellow. He was a good sixty, or rather a bad sixty. He wore a dark business suit, a red carnation, and looked subdued. He had on a pair of faded Levi’s, and a wrinkled white cotton shirt that he strained at the shoulders because he worked out all the time on exercise equipment he bought while watching infomercials. He was also wearing a pair of scuffed Bass Weejuns that he’d probably bought when he was in college. Three guesses which is Chandler, and the first two don’t count. Here’s a hint: it’s the one that doesn’t sound like a product endorsement. As both Crider and Albert are “Texas” authors inasmuch as their chosen locales are Galveston and the Hill Country, respectively, I wish I could say that at least they’re worth reading for their strong sense of place, in the same way, say, that Chandler’s stories are infused with southern California’s blinding sun and foggy nights. But Crider’s Galveston is culled from history books and Chamber of Commerce press releases, while Albert’s Hill Country descriptions read like in-flight magazine bed-and-breakfast puff pieces. Where is the ceaseless maddening wind off the Gulf, laced with salt and sand fine as sifted flour? The lonely dark roads that wind through the Hill Country’s quiet towns where anything can and does happen? “The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities,” writes Chandler. “It is not a very fragrant world, but it is a world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.” Thanks to the efforts of Truman Smith and China Bayles, Texas becomes the flip side of Chandler’s mean-streeted world: a very safe place to live, and yet too dull to be worth the trouble. Chris Garlock is the producer of Hightower Radio, broadcast daily from Threadgill’s World Headquarters in Austin. He admits to at least one mystery manuscript in his desk drawer. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 19, 1998 ” -erwea,si,,,