Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bringing the heroics of Alex Cross and Alex Delaware to life

This is a new book that readers of mysteries and detective stories should check out. It's called The Lineup: The World's Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of their Greatest Detectives. Otto Penzler edited the book.

Penzler gathered many of the most famous names in crime writing - from Lee Child to Michael Connelly - and had the authors discuss the fictional heroes in their books. They produce a series of biographies about fictional people, with analysis provided by the real authors who brought them to life.

So, for instance, Michael Connelly reveals the background of Harry Bosch. Jonathan Kellerman talks about the religious beliefs of his crime-solving psychologist, Alex Delaware. And so forth. One of the featured writers is David Morrell, who created Rambo. Yes, the tortured Vietnam vet was a literary creation long before he became the subject of Ronald Reagan's fantasies. The only disappointment to me was that John Sandford's Lucas Davenport wasn't featured.

I liked the book, even though pop psychology studies and background sketches of fictional characters usually don't appeal much to me. The credit goes to the spotlighted authors for providing fascinating details about their characters.

What has always intrigued me is wondering what the real-life reaction would be to some of the more famous fictional characters, especially those in mysteries or crime thrillers. As a former newspaper reporter, I always wondered how some of these people would be covered, if they had to deal with ink-stained wretches on a daily basis.

Take Alex Delaware, who stars in two dozen books by Jonathan Kellerman. A psychologist by trade, Delaware spends his spare time tracking down depraved killers while helping his detective friend, Milo Sturgis. In the series, Delaware's been involved in a bizarre island experiment gone wrong, had various attempts made on his life, been the victim of an arson fire that destroyed his beloved home, and helped put away or kill countless psychos. Exciting life.

With those kinds of credentials, Delaware would almost certainly be among the five most-famous Americans in the country. We'd see him chatting with a maniacal Nancy Grace on a nightly basis, when he wasn't thoughtfully entertaining Larry King with his thoughts on Elizabeth Smart. Psychology groupies would stalk him, throwing their panties at him while confessing their innermost secrets.

Time magazine once put Bill Bratton on its cover. Bill Bratton. All he did was help lower the crime rate in New York City in the 1990s. Bratton pulled it off with innovative crime-fighting ideas that warranted a magazine feature, but he wasn't exactly a superman. So what kind of coverage would Delaware receive, a guy who has single-handedly killed serial killers and solved countless cold cases? Like I said, he'd be one of the most famous Americans. If he got really lucky, his dating exploits might make the pages of People magazine. 

How about another Alex, James Patterson's superhero Alex Cross. In the increasingly ludicrous plots, Cross has: stopped the kidnapping efforts of madman Gary Soneji, stymied a pair of killer friends who operated on each coast, dealt with a British serial killer (the worst kind), battled a cult of vampires; been betrayed by former friend Kyle Craig, an FBI agent gone very, very bad who cryptically calls himself The Mastermind; fought several people going by the name The Wolf; traveled to Africa to solve murders on that continent; and dealt with Ku Klux Klan killings. And while all this is happening, someone killed his wife, another lover turned out to be an evil kidnapper who was executed by lethal injection, a girlfriend was kidnapped, and the aforementioned Mastermind brutally murdered a female partner. 

Yet he keeps plugging away, as seemingly optimistic as ever. Remarkably Cross keeps finding success with the ladies, though any woman capable of Googling him would stay 20 miles away at all times, fearing a bizarre and painful death at the hands of a Cross rival.

It's not just books, of course. Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher solved murder mysteries for a decade on Murder, She Wrote, despite living much of the time in a tiny Maine town that should be immune from the brutality of the real world. It's probably a nice town, but who in the hell would want to live there when a resident is murdered on a weekly basis? And how does a kindly old woman keep stumbling into these situations?

How about Perry Mason? Forget the portly lawyer's remarkable record of success. Take a look at the LA district attorney's failings. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden's careers as prosecutors basically ended the moment the O.J. jury returned with the not-guilty verdicts. Yet every week, the hapless, bumbling, confused Hamilton Burger found himself on the wrong end of a murder case. Not only did Burger lose, but Mason proved that the prosecutor arrested the wrong person. Blame the police, I suppose, but how did voters not oust Burger after, I don't know, the 324th case he lost? How did he not get disbarred?

And, more importantly, what would Nancy Grace and her special guest Alex Delaware say about Burger?

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