Detective, Arthur Hailey

Berkley, 1997, 595 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16386-5

Arthur Hailey is best known for novels that peeked under the surface of familiar institutions to reveal their inner mechanics. Hotel and Airport became blockbuster movies that did much to ensure Hailey’s continuing bestsellerdom. The Moneychangers dealt with banks. Wheels talked about the Detroit auto industry. Overload took on the power-generating industry. The Evening News… well, you get the picture.

In all cases, Hailey delivered intricately researched novels, seemingly taking more delight in showing us fascinating facts than in building a satisfying plot. You could say that Hailey practiced the technothriller years before the genre was formally defined by Tom Clancy. In almost all cases, the first half of his books -“the guided tour”- was far more interesting than the eventual plot of said novels. But as long as the guided tour was interesting, no one really minded.

In his latest novel, Detective, Hailey takes us behind the scenes at the Miami Police Department. In doing so, he faces perhaps the greatest creative challenge of his career: If there’s a social institution that’s been explored over the years, it’s police departments. The whole sub-genre of police procedurals, for instance, is based upon describing details of police work. Seasoned veterans of this sub-genre -and, given the popularity of crime-fiction, most general readers- already know most of the essential details; what could Hailey teach us?

The only way to avoid major problems would be for Hailey to abandon his usual reliance on “the Guided Tour” and, for once, give us a good plot sustained during the whole book.

Fortunately, he (mostly) manages to do that. Detective plunges in the story in an admirably efficient fashion, as a Miami police detective is summoned at the side of a death-row inmate. In a few deft pages, we’re in flashback city as previous events unfold (sometime in nestled flashbacks) and bring us up to speed in short order. The rest of the novel is smooth going, as elements of the plot are developed effectively and the writing is as compulsively readable as anything else written in the sub-genre.

I added the (mostly) qualifier because even though Detective is written with professionalism and skill, it suffers from major structural problems by the end of the book. As a crucial element of proof is uncovered, a hundred pages before the end, it essentially concludes any suspense as to the whodunit part of the plot. Everything else is redundant explanation or mechanical conclusion. The final climax seems as contrived as perfunctory.

Hailey might, in fact, be too professional in his approach; everything wraps up so neatly that it approaches ludicrousness. A minor criminal cannot simply be a minor criminal, but somehow be related in an exotic fashion to one of the book’s character to illustrate some kind or ironic counterpoint. The identity of the murderer can be deduced from a presence at an unlikely point. The fantastically gifted protagonist isn’t “just” a top-notch detective, but also an adulterous ex-priest… convenient…

It doesn’t matter much, though. Detective remains a good read and a good story. Worth a look, not only for Hailey fans, but also for anyone looking for some effortless entertainment.

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