Thomas H. Cook, the prolific crime writer, says that he’s always believed that crime writing “can be meditative. It’s all about resonance.” Cook’s work—from his breakthrough 13th novel, Edgar-winning The Chatham School Affair (Bantam, 1996), to his 22nd, and latest, Master of the Delta (Harcourt)—explores moral dimensions that reach far beyond the crime. In fact, he often makes use of dual story lines that enable a character to look back on a past traumatic event in order to sort out the ethical implications.
“When you have a character looking back, you’re not talking about the action anymore,” he says. “You’re talking about the consequences of that action in the moral universe that the person continues to occupy. That’s what happens in Master of the Delta.”
Talking about his earlier work, Cook looks almost apologetic when reminded of the similarities between 1995’s Breakheart Hill (Bantam) and Master. “They do have similar gimmicks,” he admits, though each book ends with a different—and shocking—conclusion. In fact, many of Cook’s novels end with a twist. Does he know the surprise ending before he begins? “Sometimes I do,” he says, and he cites as example 2005’s Red Leaves (Harcourt). “But mostly I just have an idea. I like classic themes.”
His stories, he says, depend on atmosphere and setting. “I couldn’t imagine Breakheart Hill anywhere but the town I grew up in, and I don’t think Chatham could have taken place the same way outside of New England.” Born in Alabama in 1947, Cook has lived in New York City since his graduate student days in the late 1960s. His New York experience accounts for a good deal of the gritty, urban feel of his work.
Of course, the designation of being a crime writer or mystery writer, no matter how expedient for readers, presents its problems for the writer. When asked about genre, Cook observes, “It’s always a struggle, what you call yourself. I think it can be snooty to define yourself as something other than a crime writer. I’ve written mainstream fiction. But essentially I write about people in crisis, and crime is usually what propels that crisis. So the label doesn’t bother me. It’s a balance.”
Cook does avoid one mainstay of the crime genre: serial killers. Though he’s written one such novel (Tabernacle, from Houghton Mifflin, 1983), he likens the pursuit of such monsters to “following a shark: the shark eats this and the shark eats that. It’s extremely boring.” This doesn’t stop Cook from reading true crime, though, and he’s written two such books himself, Early Graves (Dutton, 1990) and Blood Echoes (also Dutton, 1992). He’s fascinated by the “haunting ones,” such as the drawn-out search for the Green River Killer, where “[the police] had suspects that seemed like it had to be them and yet it wasn’t.” It’s this same feeling of certainty that Cook undermines in his novels, pulling the rug out from under readers just when they’re certain they’ve solved the puzzle.
Even though Master’s Jack Branch isn’t a writer per se, the profession threads its way through the novel. In both Evidence of Blood (1991) and Instruments of Night (1998), the protagonists are crime writers. “I love great quotes,” Cook says, “and by having a writer as my main character, I can slip in quotes without being showy, just simply as a texture of their thinking.” He reports that Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations was the only book in his house growing up. “There are still things I remember from that book,” Cook says fondly, as if recalling a childhood friend. “In Master, Mr. Brantley tells Eddie Miller that Eddie’s father, the Coed Killer, was very bright but very corrupt.” Cook pauses a second for effect. “He tells Eddie that his father was like rotten mackerel in the moonlight. He both shined and stank,” an image taken from Bartlett’s. But asked about his wonderful observation that “the answer to a heartfelt question is always going to break your heart,” which appears in Master of the Delta, Cook smiles and says with pride, “No, that one’s all mine. It’s true, don’t you think?”
|Jordan Foster is a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly. She is completing her M.F.A. in fiction writing at Columbia University.|