It is not surprising that mystery is by far the most popular reading genre in the country.
A well-crafted mystery, like any other decent tale, features fully-drawn, rounded characters, flawed and sharing the same human foibles we all do. Additionally, it also features the kind of plot that relentlessly drives the action and directly contributes to character development.
It’s unfortunate that many literary critics still discount genre writing – they believe it fails to measure up to literary standards that are highly subjective at best. But some mystery authors are such remarkable writers that their work transcends the genre.
The best work of James Lee Burke, an American author who grew up in Louisiana, probably justifies the belief of The Denver Post that he is “America’s best novelist” working today.
A great example is The Tin Roof Blowdown (2008), a novel that is meticulously textured and as vibrant and vital as the thick, green stands of fern and white and purple irises of the Louisiana swamps and bayous.
This is the 16th novel in the author’s award-winning Dave Robicheaux series, a tale of sin and redemption set in the nightmare world of Hurricane Katrina. It just might be the most complete work he’s ever written.
When Det. Robicheaux’s department is assigned to investigate the shooting of two looters in a wealthy neighborhood, he learns they ransacked the home of New Orleans’s most powerful and ruthless mobster. Now he must find the surviving looter before others do and in the process learn the fate of a priest who disappeared in the ill-fated ninth ward trying to rescue his trapped parishioners.
The author’s luxuriant prose draws the reader into a swamp of greed and violence. Grace and perdition touch each of the characters and the final outcome of the struggles they face is never quite certain, much like what occurred in the aftermath of Katrina.
Mr. Burke often uses Louisiana more as a character than a setting in the Robicheaux novels and this time the approach works wonderfully to convey the true horrors and add another dimension to the tale.
British author P.D. James, critically acclaimed by such literary journals as the Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, is another writer whose finest work transcends the mystery genre.
Original Sin (1994), featuring New Scotland Yard Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh, is set in the modern publishing world and showcases the author’s uncanny penetration into even the most minor of characters. The characters live on the page with a fierce intensity, even deeper than the mystery at Innocent House occupied by the venerable publishing firm of Peverell Press.
The directors of the firm believe the suicide of senior editor Sonia Clements in the archive room of Innocent House is the last and most shocking episode in a series of disruptions to their business. But their troubles have barely begun as they learn when they open the door to discover the body of managing director Gerard Etienne dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, with his dead jaws open and the head of a stuffed snake stuck inside. Cmdr. Dalgliesh is assigned to investigate and ferret out motives and opportunity that lead to a hair-raising resolution.
It might appear to some to be presumptuous to include a work by American crime writer C.J. Box in this column. But Force of Nature (2012) an “exquisitely designed, six-act mystery” according to a Library Journal Review, uses falconry for its central metaphor without ever losing the necessary drive to make this a riveting read. In other words, it works on more than one level, a common attribute of great art.
This is the author’s 12th Joe Pickett novel and focuses on Joe’s outlaw friend, Nate Romanowski.
Nate hides from his enemies in the foothills of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, where he raises and flies his falcons, except when he helps game warden Joe on cases. But he realizes his former sociopath special forces commander is hunting him down and systematically killing all his known associates. Joe and his family are on the list and it forces him to consider how far he can go to help his friend Nate.
The struggle between loyalty and law is not a new theme for the author. It infuses the entire Joe Pickett series, a work primarily set in the wilds of Wyoming, far from the legal support systems found in big cities. This exploration of the theme is notably impressive in this superb entry.
These three works, as well as others by these authors and other mystery authors of note, such as Craig Johnson and Caleb Carr, are available at your Okanagan Regional Library, www.orl.bc.ca.
– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the ORL.