Eleanor Taylor Bland Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAlister lacks the eccentric idiosyncrasies that often distinguish procedural protagonists. She never swears or makes wisecracks, and she respects authority (except a particularly ambitious female lieutenant who has emerged in the later titles in the series as something of a nemesis). She attends to paperwork diligently and seldom resorts to violent engagement, strong-armed interrogations, High Noon dramatics, shootouts, or police work that bends the rules to effect a high-stakes arrest. She never drinks (save her addiction to coffee), and she lacks cinematic sexiness (she is, by her own admission, overweight, an imposing five feet, ten inches, and one hundred sixty pounds). Her off-duty life is far from exciting; she is happiest on those rare evenings when she can enjoy a Whoopi Goldberg video marathon with her children and then make love with her husband. The MacAlister series lacks the full-throttle feel of other modern procedurals: Its protagonist simply builds a case, does the job, and when there is a preponderance of evidence, brings in the perpetrator, police work that seldom dazzles but always succeeds.

The series centers on the psychology of investigation: the piecing together of forensic evidence and witness testimonies, the grueling eighteen-hour days, and the ultimate moment of insight (often presaged by one of MacAlister’s high-stress headaches and her inevitable turn to acetaminophen). As procedurals, each volume focuses on a single investigation, although other cases, frequently cold cases, become entangled. Given Bland’s omniscient narration and the shifts from MacAlister to the victims and at times to the killers, readers often know the killer’s identity and can therefore follow the twists of police investigations.

While maintaining the genre’s intricate methodologies, the MacAlister series has created a central character who generates reader sympathy, unusual in the genre (conventionally, readers either admire the central character’s acumen or envy his or her cool). Bland counterpoints the mayhem of MacAlister’s investigations with the ordinary life she maintains as a working mother. She shows MacAlister encouraging her kids to stay committed to school, while she adjusts to being a young widow and enters into a romance with Ben Walker. Bland anatomizes with candor and delicacy the dynamics of grief (Ben’s wife had been killed by a drunk driver) even as it gives way to new love. MacAlister enjoys a close relationship with her mother and her daughter, each generation offering moral insight to the next. Although her relationship with her son is more problematic (she is painfully aware of his need for a male role model), she maintains a generous communication with him. In addition, MacAlister maintains friendships with a variety of recurring characters, which underscores her sympathetic heart and the value she invests in friendship.

Although as procedurals, the novels in the series regularly center on murders among the privileged or those motivated by greed, career ambitions, and a desire to better their social position, each volume constructs a case that also involves Bland’s sympathy for the victims. Her victims exist on the margins of urban society and are the collateral damage of overworked government agencies: street people, dropouts, prostitutes, AIDS patients, battered wives, the mentally handicapped, addicts, and most of all, children. (Bland herself became a recognized community activist in the Waukegan area.) That MacAlister frequently relies on the help and testimony of those who are often ignored by other investigators gives those typically rendered voiceless a compelling narrative presence and gives the series its compassionate awareness that the forgotten deserve attention, respect, and...

(The entire section is 1553 words.)