The First Deadly Sin – Lawrence Sanders
Being recommended a book is always a risky proposition. Add being given a book to read and you’re in even worse shape. You could always pretend to have read the book, but why not just read it? I can’t be a snob, I’ve read and enjoyed Star Wars novels.
Recently I was given a copy of Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, and found myself devouring it. I was turned on to how good Burgess is, the mix of high humor and feeling that he doesn’t alternate between but instead combines. Reading Burgess reminded me of Roth; literary, referential, with a compelling plot and an abundance of insight provided by sentences so perfect you think that they can’t be topped until they are on the next page, and repeatedly.
These are two writers of literature. The book that I ‘m writing about here was authored by someone very far from producing something that could be properly called that, though not for lack of trying.
The First Deadly Sin is an old detective novel published in 1973. Its plot is broadly formulaic, which isn’t a criticism. Its plot is boring and goes nowhere, which is. It follows Police Captain Edward X. Delaney, and never misses a chances to confidently declare that middle initial between the first and last names.
Delaney is a cop, been so all his life. There’s things that people who aren’t cops just don’t understand, like a former torture chamber in his old precinct building that produces a wry smile on his face. Another hallmark of the captain’s technique is ruminating constantly on the probable homosexuality of the serial killer he’s pursuing. Yes, this is a grim chase-him-down indeed. The city (New York) is crumbling and it’s brave and grave Edward X. Delaney who has to clean up the disorder, which he hates.
The killer is Daniel Blank, a successful business executive at Javis-Bircham, a publishing company. He’s in charge of the computer system there that runs circulation, etc. When Delaney finds out about this we’re treated to a thrilling rumination about how all the nerds end up being serial killers.
The book is full of these: deep ponderous thinks from the two characters who Sanders switches back and forth between. There’s Delaney expounding endlessly on how much of a CopTM he is, and how much nobody who isn’t one can get it. And there’s Blank off in a haze of clichéd serial killer traits. His internal monologue blabs about how much he loves his victims, he has ritualistic sex with his tediously profound girlfriend Celia Montfort, he wears ladies underpants and he is aloof and above the world always, searching for higher meaning, the greatest expression of which is his murders.
A genre book with a good plot but little to say can never be faulted. A compelling mystery, intriguing investigation, and thrilling action is always appreciated. This book has none of that though, and stretches itself out over 566 pages filling in the gaps of a dry plot with the philosophical meanderings of these dilettantes.
Blank kills his victims with an ice axe, he’s a mountain climber, and for hundreds of pages Delaney tracks down this connection while encountering the most mundane cut from cardboard characters that populate this dirty dirty city. At the same time his wife Barbara is dying from a strange disease, and he’s tormented about this. Well, sort of. Not enough to refuse the assignment from a faction within the police department to semi-officially track down the killer, and not enough for Sanders to treat the dying wife as anything other than a foil for Delaney’s contrived world weariness. Why does a faction have to recruit him in the first place? Some sort of inside baseball, a secret society within the city government that they don’t want to look good and get any credit for solving the murder. It’s never really explained and Delaney hardly asks, he doesn’t get caught up in stuff like that. He’s just a simple, hard-boiled cop.
All this grittiness is accomplished with a lot of “fucks” “shits” and “assholes,” as well as the constant consumption of rye highballs and beers, a profusion of farts belches and shits, and gratuitous descriptions of Daniel Blank’s sexual encounters, which somehow still manage to feel euphemistic.
Celia Montfort has a twelve year old brother called Tony who Blank rapes, Delaney dismisses speculation on this by calling the child a “little fag,” something they shouldn’t be concerned about. A newspaper reporter in the Captain’s good graces called Thomas Handry whines about other journalists calling the police “fascists,” and Delaney reminisces fondly about beatings meted out to petty criminals. Not only is the writing in this book dreadful and the plot painfully boring, but the worldview it espouses studiously reactionary and artificially cynical.
Blank is eventually apprehended just before the New Year, chased up to Chilton, across the Tappan Zee bridge and up to the top of a rock called Devil’s Needle, accessible only by a rock chimney which he’s climbed many times before. He’s fled after killing Celia, and is pursued by Captain Edward X. Delaney. They starve him out on the top of the peak where he accepts death from the elements rather than coming down, but not before we’re treated to a cornpone local lawman who talks likes he’s from an episode of the Dukes of Hazzard. Delaney “appreciates” him, and considers sin, life, being a cop, the night sky, being a cop, crime, God, and being a cop for forty more pages until Sanders finally fizzles it all out by having the Captain shout at a cop for being queasy about having to retrieve the body. A brisk epilogue wraps everything up with a laundry list of what happened to every minor and major character, and mercifully the book is over.
I may have been so repulsed by this book because I read it directly after reading Earthly Powers. That book is such a high expression of everything amazing that literature can accomplish that reading The First Deadly Sin after it is akin to eating dirt after a bowl of strawberry ice cream.
But it’s not just that. There exists a strain of literature that I don’t usually engage with, and this book is an example of it. Poorly written, intellectually grasping, and with a moral idiocy that’s founded on the received mores of a reactionary society. There are millions of these books out there, and I won’t give a single one of them a chance again. There’s too much genius out there, and too little time.