In “The Mirrored Badge” in Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work (1986), Rex Burns describes the police procedural as a “novel of manners” and asserts that he was drawn to the form because he disliked the “false portrayals of cops and robbers which, especially in the mass media, can be perilous to viewers who accept them as real.” He also addresses the relationship between detective fiction and questions of psychological and moral importance. Although the genre requires a strict form, he writes, “crime is chaotic, an eruption into the ordered, public surface of our lives from some dark reservoir below—an intrusion, that is, of life’s formlessness.” The detective writer is thus faced with the problem of exploring the irrational: While “the detective wants only to solve the crime, the writer is faced with the need to explain it.” That attempt, Burns suggests, “can lead the mystery writer to the limits of explaining the possibly inexplicable.”
Burns’s style is generally spare yet sharp. In an article for The Writer in March, 1984, he used the term “imagistic compression” to identify his technique of description: “to determine, usually in revision, what precise image, in the fewest words, will blossom in the reader’s mind and make a setting visible to his imagination.” He also seeks descriptive techniques that contribute to the development of the action. As the people at the Mormon ranch in The Avenging Angel (1983) prepare for attack, the smoke rising from the house’s chimney “stood like a ghostly flagpole against the sky.” The flagpole simile, as Burns points out, not only sharpens the scene but also captures the “paradox of a domestic fire on a quiet evening and the smoke as a beacon for the invaders.” His dialogue is, in similar fashion, low-key yet distinctive. In particular, he uses the jargon of various occupations and the grammar and rhythms that betray education and social class to identify characters through their speech.
Burns uses a variety of physical and cultural settings to avoid the predictability of the police procedural, which, like actual detective work, tends to fall into repetitious patterns. He makes Gabe Wager a workaholic loner who goes undercover, pursues investigations on his own time, takes on detached assignments, and reluctantly agrees to use some of his accumulated vacation time when it dawns on him that he can go fishing in a locale that seems to have something to do with a questionable death. Thus, Burns can give Wager some of the range and independence of a private eye while letting him have access to the resources found only in a major law enforcement agency and subjecting him to the legal constraints of actual police work.
The character of Gabe Wager is a central attraction of Burns’s writing. In his scholarly book on nineteenth century American culture, Burns identified two opposing traditions of success: the materialistic American Dream of the self-made individual rising from rags to riches and the competing ideal of competence, independence, and morality embodied in the image of the yeoman who possessed “wealth somewhat beyond [his] basic needs, freedom from economic or statutory subservience, and the respect of the society for fruitful, honest industry.” To an extent, Gabe Wager is a twentieth century version of the sturdy yeoman: a working man who preserves his capacity for independent action by refusing either to join the union or to accept blindly the policies and politics of his superiors. The virtue of his independence is an extraordinarily strong sense of duty; the danger is in the inflexibility of his self-imposed moral code; and the price is loneliness.
Burns sees Wager’s “hard struggle for self-definition in a world that has its labels all ready to apply” as giving him “a rigidity that is both strength and weakness.” Wager is not wholly at home in either Chicano or Anglo culture. During his childhood in a barrio in Denver, relatives disapproved of his mother for having married an outsider.
Wager joined the Marines at sixteen and served for eight years in a period that stretched from the Korean Demilitarized Zone to Vietnam’s Landing Zone Delta, and as a consequence missed the normal experiences of the teen and early adult years, a time when most men learn something about women. There is a broken marriage in his background and a relationship with fellow police officer Jo Fabrizio that is constantly endangered by his emotional distance and stubborn pride.
Although the books use a third-person restricted viewpoint—everything is seen as if it had passed through Wager’s consciousness—Wager is as reticent in his inner life as he is in his dealings with other people. Burns skillfully uses minimal outcroppings of introspection to humanize the humorless, self-sufficient workaholic.
Both the narrative voice and Wager’s personal awareness, for example, undercut his apparent self-certainty in a spare passage such as this from The Avenging Angel: “What the hell, you didn’t have to like your partner; all you had to do was work with him. Wager could tell himself that, and he could almost believe it.”
The Alvarez Journal
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