Abu-Jaber – Origin

Origin Abu-jaberA Gentle Crime Novel

Abu-jaber, Diane. (2007). Origin. New York: W.W. Norton

This novel is in the rarified category of  “literary” crime novel, which means the characters are well-developed and the writing is above average (that’s the literary part) AND, it has a good, plausible crime story without too many loose ends (the crime genre part).

The main character and protagonist and first-person narrator is Lena, a thirty year-old fingerprint expert with the police crime lab in Syracuse, N.Y. She investigates a serial killer who murders infants in their cribs, making it look like SIDS, or crib-death. For a long while, she is the only one who rejects the SIDS diagnosis and suspects a killer. Eventually she is forced to find the killer herself.

Lena is gifted with keen intuition and a preternatural sense of smell. Like an animal, she can detect faint smells that linger long after at a crime scene. She has vague early childhood memories of being raised by gorillas in a rain forest. The information she gets from her foster mother is that she was a strange, animal-like infant, with no documentation, when she was recovered by an orphanage. So Lena half-believes she is part gorilla and the writing is so skillful that we accept that as a plausible background, even though we can tell Lena is not entirely reliable, being extremely withdrawn, maybe even depressed.

At risk of criticism, I will say the book is more of a “women’s” crime novel, because of its focus on family, kinship, babies, relationships and childrearing, and the absence of guns, knives, car chases, fistfights, explosions, drugs, money, swearing, smoking, mobsters, and similar tropes that populate a lot of “male” crime fiction. This is a gentle crime novel, every bit as suspenseful as the usual fare, and certainly better written than most, but without the  action-orientation some crime readers might expect.


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