(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As Martyn Waites is a product of culturally distinct Newcastle, England, it is not surprising that he writes with a strong sense of place. In all of his books, Newcastle assumes a brooding presence that affects each of the key elements of his fictional work: plot, characterization, dialogue, atmosphere, pace, theme, language, and style.

Waites’s plots, which verge on melodrama in their striking contrasts between the heights of good and the depths of evil, typically revolve around the examination of social issues—government and police corruption, unemployment, drugs, the huge chasm between the wealthy and the poor, or the exploitation of mine workers—and their effects on a select group of individuals. Waites does not preach; rather, he demonstrates in shudder-inducing closeups and cringe-worthy vividness how the corrosive influence of poverty breeds crimes and how violence begets violence. Pacing is frequently breathtakingly fast, with disturbing but memorable images piled one on another.

Characterization, reinforced by dialogue that is blunt, brutal, and profane, is a particular Waites strength, thanks in part to his background in acting, a profession in which one must slip into someone else’s skin to be believable. His many years of work with both teenage and adult offenders has undoubtedly also given him considerable insight into the workings of criminal minds. Waites is adept at drawing subtly shaded characters across a wide range of behavior. Heroes are severely flawed, often as the result of a traumatic past event, but are redeemed through their all-consuming drive toward a specific goal: the solution of a problem. Villains, no matter how perverted, violent, or nasty, have some small quality that makes them at least slightly sympathetic. It is through the confrontation of these damaged and unpredictable characters that Waites creates tension, conflict, and suspense.

Stylistically, Waites is a study in contrasts. Playing off his pithy, pungent dialogue are descriptive passages that, while lyrical, are nonetheless lean and stark, with no wasted words. Stories are told in the third person, past tense, often with shifting viewpoints from chapter to chapter and a dearth of gimmicks or literary pyrotechnics to clutter the narrative.

Paying homage to his lifelong love of music and to his brief career as a performing musician, Waites often includes comments on the current pop music scene. The titles of all his fictional works are taken from songs: “Mary’s Prayer,” for example, was composed by the 1980’s Scottish band Danny Wilson; “Little Triggers” is from a Waites favorite, Elvis Costello; “Candleland” is courtesy of Ian MacCulloch; “Born Under Punches” comes from the Talking Heads album Remain in Light (1980); and “The White Room” is a 1960’s hit by Cream.

Born Under...

(The entire section is 1174 words.)