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Bookmark: Author gives us bad people but great writing

March 08, 2012|By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

It takes one to know one.

That playground taunt is, like so many cliches, grounded in truth. It really does take one to know one, which goes a long way toward explaining the perversely effective law enforcement personnel in the novels of Mo Hayder, the British author whose works now regularly appear in hardcover in the United States as well. Her novels cast spells as no other novels quite do.

They detail the darkest, coldest, most forbidding aspects of human nature — aspects that are spread democratically among the heroes and the villains. Yet despite the gory premises that ignite these books — most often, the luridly detailed adventures of serial killers and creative sociopaths — Hayder's novels oddly are not depressing.

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Instead, they leave you in awe of her courage. It's as if she has willed herself to stay awake all night long while everybody else sleeps, keeping her eyes open and her reflexes sharp in order to witness the worst of what our fellow creatures might do. She doesn't relax — hence the rest of us can.

Law enforcement authorities perform the same vital function. They do, in real life, what Hayder does in stories: Rope off the nasty parts. Keep them visible as cautionary tales, but far enough away from us so that they pose no real danger.

What, though, is the cost of this service for the cops in a Hayder novel?

That's the question that haunts her work. If it takes one to know one, then how do her characters — so severely damaged themselves, so flayed by nightmares and incessantly hassled by ghosts — keep their private demons at bay long enough to go after the public ones, the ones that otherwise might threaten the innocent?

Hayder, whose new novel "Hanging Hill" (Atlantic Monthly Press) continues her astonishing string of brilliant, hypnotically readable mysteries, is part of a golden era of literary crime novels. She is among a clutch of writers who use crime and punishment the way Shakespeare used kings and wars: as the scaffolding from which to explore central questions about love, hate, guilt, ambition and fate.

To be sure, there have always been accomplished storytellers who eventually brought their gifts to bear upon the mystery genre, including Charles Dickens, Robertson Davies, Joyce Carol Oates and, most recently, John Banville, but those were — are, in the case of Oates and Banville — literary writers who turned to crime fiction as a secondary outlet for their talents. A fresh canvas.

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