|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Cullen Gallagher on Bad Moon Rising by Ed Gorman
The Criminal Kind: Ed Gorman
March 22nd, 2012
AT THIS YEAR'S Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in St. Louis, the Private Eye Writers of America announced Ed Gorman as the recipient of their Eye Award for Lifetime Achievement. Since his debut with 1985's Rough Cut, he's published over 70 novels (which doesn't include his short story collections, the anthologies he's edited, or his founding of Mystery Scene magazine) in numerous genres (western, mystery, horror, historical, and even swashbuckler). The hallmark of Gorman's style is the utter simplicity and clarity of his language. He doesn't go in for hardboiled-isms, procedural jargon, expletive overload, or any other attention-grabbing affectation. Straightforward prose is more than just a stylistic decision; it's the foundation of Gorman's moral universe. His protagonists shun pretensions of any kind — artistic, social, or political. In both style and substance, Gorman's work radiates a profound sense of honesty. His characters can see the worst qualities in others because they've first recognized them in themselves. Now, Gorman has officially joined the ranks of Lawrence Block, Marcia Muller, and Mickey Spillane, to name just a few of the esteemed Eye winners since the award was first presented to Ross Macdonald in 1982. And the timing couldn't be more perfect, coming shortly before the release of Bad Moon Rising, the ninth entry in Gorman's Sam McCain series.
First introduced in 1999's The Day the Music Died, Sam McCain is not only the longest running of Gorman's characters, but also one of his richest and most congenial creations. McCain is a lawyer and licensed PI in the small town of Black River Falls, Iowa. Set in 1968, Bad Moon Rising finds McCain investigating the murder of Vanessa Mainwairing, a young girl whose body was found at a local commune. The conservative citizenry immediately points its fingers at Vietnam vet-turned-hippie Neil Cameron. Convinced Cameron is the murderer, Vanessa's war-profiteering father hires McCain to track him down. But as McCain's search reveals that the cultural divide in Black River Falls isn't so black-and-white — that both sides of the proverbial tracks are enmeshed in the same web of adultery, corruption, and exploitation — he begins to question whether anyone is worth defending at all.
Gorman is in top form in Bad Moon Rising. Rather than wax nostalgic or reactionary about the sixties, Gorman cuts through the mythology to reveal a much more nuanced and confused socio-political landscape. As McCain starts to piece together the story, he discovers not some grand conspiracy, but simple, terrible, and understandable motivations. One of Gorman's recurring themes is summed up in his Western Death Ground (1988): "People were just people and sometimes they did terrible things. Everybody did." Gorman's criminals are never monsters; they're as human as we are, just like Sam McCain. They're sick with love, remorse, or hate — or maybe just sick of the world around them. The darkness in Gorman's novels is always uncomfortably real and ordinary. Sam McCain is Gorman's most compassionate and endearing character, and Bad Moon Rising is another triumph in an already extraordinary career. And with Blindside (a Dev Conrad political mystery) already slated for release in January 2012, Gorman's career shows no signs of slowing down.