Jeremiah Healy Essay - Critical Essays


By his own account, Jeremiah Healy first became interested in crime fiction while in high school, but he did not attempt his first novel until he was well into his thirties, having practiced law for five years before becoming a law professor. By that time, he was extremely well versed in the mystery tradition and familiar as well with twists and turns in the law. From the start, his novels have been notable for their intertextuality, with frequent, often tongue-in-cheek allusions to the work of other mystery writers and shared thematic issues. Healy’s concern with troubled youth whose problems are frequently compounded by parental affluence recalls the later work of Ross Macdonald, as does his penchant for social criticism bordering on satire, with a focus on current events and sensitive political issues such as child pornography, spousal abuse, and assisted suicide.

John Cuddy’s career as a private investigator gets off to a running start in Blunt Darts (1984) when barely two months after his wife’s death, he refuses to sign off on an insurance claim that he knows to be fraudulent and is terminated by Empire Insurance after eight years of service including a recent promotion. After consulting a lawyer, Cuddy chooses unemployment compensation over filing a wrongful-termination lawsuit and strikes out on his own, having acquired a private investigator license as part of his job with Empire. Healy thus establishes the guidelines and framework for the entire Cuddy series: Cuddy is a man of strong convictions who does not suffer fools gladly. The dialogue is tart and crisp in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Cuddy is a man of few words, all of which hit their mark. As an investigator, he is persistent to the point of impertinence, frequently making enemies with whom he will later clash in some form of physical combat. Trained in several martial arts as well as conventional boxing, Cuddy frequently provokes potential bullies into attacking him to humiliate them with his superior force and skill, a tendency that does not sit well with his friend Nancy Meagher. Intensely loyal, Cuddy will vow to avenge a client or witness who has been killed in the course of his investigation, even when the case itself has apparently collapsed. As a rule, Cuddy’s cases end with violent confrontations, not infrequently featuring such bizarre weapons as crossbows and spearguns.

To counteract the effects of advancing age, Cuddy takes on a series of physical challenges that come to form an integral part of the plot in certain novels. At the start of Rescue (1995), for example, both he and Meagher take up scuba diving, their training described in such detail as to constitute a brief how-to manual. In Right to Die (1991), Cuddy, who is around the age of forty and beginning to feel it, trains to run the Boston Marathon for the first time, much to Meagher’s disapproval. Cuddy’s account of the training, conducted with the help of an acquaintance known only as Bo, a former coach who is now among Boston’s homeless, competes for the reader’s attention with the central plot of the novel. Bo, meanwhile, is only one of several dozen colorful, if enigmatic, characters who populate the Cuddy novels, adding mainstream dimensions to the traditional mystery genre.

From the start of the Cuddy series, Healy took great pains to showcase his adopted city, taking his readers on extended tours of Boston’s nooks and crannies, including the notorious Big Dig highway project. As the series progresses, Cuddy’s cases lead him increasingly afield in search of background or evidence, to locations described with great attention to detail, including the inhabitants. Healy’s readers thus get detailed guided tours of such far-flung locales as the Maine woods, the Florida Keys, and Big Sky country. Cuddy’s trips also allow Healy to make incisive observations about such phenomena as air travel and suburban development.

Like most fictional private detectives, Cuddy is frequently at odds with the local police, either at home or on the road. In Boston, he has managed a reasonable working relationship, perhaps even a grudging friendship, with Detective Lieutenant Robert Murphy, a physically imposing African American, who owes his post to a bigoted superior who thought he was promoting an Irishman. To be avoided is Murphy’s female colleague, Bonnie Cross, a white woman whose demeanor more closely matches her last name than her first. Once out of Boston, Cuddy is very much on his own, frequently detained by the authorities and often suspected of the very crimes he is attempting to investigate.

In Blunt Darts, the supposed victim of an abduction turns out to be the perpetrator of the multiple murders eventually committed, and Cuddy becomes the most likely suspect in the eyes of the police. In Shallow Graves (1992) and Invasion of Privacy (1996), he finds himself working in uneasy concert with a mid-level mobster, Primo Zuppone, with whom he shares an interest in New Age music and progressive jazz.

An occasionally heavy drinker, Cuddy is notable among fictional detectives for his frequent and sometimes tearful visits to the...

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