Some crime novelists are famously prolific, publishing a novel every year to the delight of fans who can't get enough of their favorite crime-fighting heroes. And then there's Kent Anderson. The New Mexico author burst onto the literary scene in 1987 with Sympathy for the Devil, a Vietnam War novel that drew praise and controversy for its unflinching depiction of savage violence. A decade later, Anderson followed up with Night Dogs, which found Hanson, the antihero of his first book, working as a police officer in Portland, Ore.
Anderson admirers have had to wait more than 20 years for his third novel. It's a long time, of course, but they have cause to celebrate: Green Sun is a stunning book, and it's more than worth the wait.
In the new book, set in 1983, Hanson has left behind a job teaching English literature in Idaho to become a police officer in Oakland, Calif. He's not the most likely candidate for the force — he's 38, and it has been a while since he wore a badge. His superiors are skeptical not only of his age, but his demeanor: "They thought he had a bad attitude, and he did." Hanson also isn't a natural fit politically; he's more progressive than most of his fellow officers, who deride him as a "constitutional scholar" and "social worker."
It doesn't take long for Hanson to attract the notice of some of Oakland's residents. He's called to break up what's been reported as a fight, but is actually a dance party, and he climbs up on the hood of his cruiser to plead with the revelers to go home. His handling of the situation impresses Felix Maxwell, a local drug kingpin. He also gains the respect of Weegee, an 11-year-old boy who respects Hanson's politeness and friendliness.
In a city teeming with violence and mistrust, with a large African-American population and a police force marked with cynicism and racism, respect only goes so far. Hanson does his best to forge a détente, but he can't stop things from falling apart.Hanson believes in treating civilians with respect, but he still has a dark side, and he still has his limits. Called to a house on a domestic violence call, Hanson loses his temper with the suspect — a neo-Nazi bodybuilder with a bad attitude — and beats him savagely, threatening to kill him if he causes any more trouble. "Because you can't testify in court if you're dead," he explains. "That's how it works. ... And you're white. No problem with the black community. Nobody's gonna care how it happened."
Green Sun succeeds on so many levels, it's hard to keep count. As a crime novel, it's paced beautifully; Anderson lets the suspense build naturally, never resorting to cheap narrative tricks at the expense of the plot. His characters are realistic — there are no flawless heroes or evil villains; Anderson has no use for lazy archetypes of any kind.
He also displays a canny understanding of psychology. Hanson is a complex character with flaws of his own — he drinks too much, he's prone to violent outbursts, and he's not above making useless arrests in order to meet his quota. He's haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, but he doesn't fit the stereotype of a grizzled war veteran (or alcoholic detective) that some authors like to trot out when they're in need of a tough-but-troubled character. (Like Hanson, Anderson is himself a Vietnam veteran who worked as an English professor and a police officer in Portland and Oakland.)
Hanson is a fascinating and memorable character, but the real star of Green Sun is Anderson's writing. He never succumbs to hard-boiled clichés or tough-guy posturing; he's a compassionate writer who never wastes a single word. The same goes for his dialogue, which is unfailingly realistic — his characters talk like real people, and not like stock characters in a cop movie.
Anderson is adept at finding a terrible kind of beauty in the worst circumstances, which makes Green Sun difficult to put down even when it's emotionally painful to keep reading. Above all, it's a stunning meditation on power, violence and the intractability of pain, which Anderson seems to understand all too well. "Pain takes us to places we cannot anticipate, to events we have managed to completely forget, returns us to worlds we hadn't known we ever visited," he writes. "Pain bends our attention to what we would ignore."