Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Beautifully composed and tragic, James Lee Burke’s 35th novel is a sweeping historical epic of war and the American dream.

stranger

James Lee Burke is famous for a long-running mystery series starring detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel; two series centered on Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland; and stand-alone novels and story collections that all evoke the beauty, heartache and social injustice of Louisiana and Texas (among other locales). His 35th book, Wayfaring Stranger, tells a historical and sometimes fantastical story of the birth of Big Oil, the legacy of World War II and the far-reaching influences of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the opening pages, young Weldon Holland fumes at his grandfather, Hackberry, who was a poor parent to Weldon’s mother and is now poised to have her locked away and electroshocked. It’s the early 1930s, and Weldon’s father is gone, looking for work. Four trespassers in a 1932 Chevrolet Confederate challenge Weldon and Grandfather on their ranch, and the confrontation ends with Weldon firing a shot through the back windshield at Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and two of their associates. This interaction casts a long shadow over the rest of Weldon’s life.

His story resumes in 1944 when he ships out for England as a second lieutenant. Weldon sees action in Normandy, particularly Saint-Lô, and the Ardennes; he digs Sergeant Hershel Pine out of a collapsed foxhole in the snow after an attack, and together they rescue a beautiful Spanish Jew named Rosita from an abandoned death camp. The three walk across enemy territory, lose toes to frostbite, fight tuberculosis, and are eventually separated. After the war, Weldon finds and marries Rosita, and Hershel turns up on Grandfather’s Texas ranch.

Together they establish the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, using Nazi tank technology, Hershel’s welding skills and nose for oil, and Weldon’s family connections to build a minor empire. But the old money in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood is offended–by their success and their humble upbringings, and particularly by Rosita’s heritage. And thus enter two of Burke’s favorite subjects: the evil lurking in the everyday, and the hero’s struggle to repress the evil within himself. Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, creates more conflict: her actions endanger both business and family success, especially when she gets “discovered” and shipped out to Hollywood.

Burke’s fans will recognize his lyrical strengths regarding the themes of social justice and class struggle, violence set to a stunning backdrop of natural beauty and destruction, and a Gulf Coast region that includes historically accurate details to delight Texas and Louisiana natives. He creates strong and convincing characters on the sides of both right and wrong, and through them writes a compelling American history. Weldon investigates his father’s disappearance, Linda Gail’s unfaithfulness, and the evil forces that have targeted the well-being of his and Hershel’s families; but this is not a mystery. In fact, perhaps more than any of Burke’s previous work, Wayfaring Stranger is a tender love story, proving yet again his versatility and skill in creating gorgeous, luscious, painful stories of the American experience.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pipe joints.

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.


This review originally ran in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 croissants.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A detective novel by the horror master in which a mass murderer torments a retired cop who fights back.

mr. mercedes

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens in a present-day depressed Midwestern metropolis, where retired detective Bill Hodges is haunted by the one who got away. It has been several years now, but he can still see the job fair, the long lines of unemployed people who’d waited overnight in the cold, the ghostly gray Mercedes accelerating through the crowd, the gristle and gore dripping from its fender as it drove off. Hodges is considering suicide when he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer.

Hodges is reinvigorated by a second chance at solving the cold case, with a few unlikely allies. The neighbor kid who mows Hodges’s lawn contributes computer skills and a surprisingly strong sounding board for new theories. The sister of the car’s original owner is both a delightful foil to the former cop’s depression and a potential love interest. Her niece brings the challenge of dealing with mental illness, but also a steely resolve, to this dubious crime-fighting team. While tracking Hodges’s efforts, Mr. Mercedes simultaneously follows the Mercedes Killer himself. He’s a loner who works two jobs, lives with his mother and attracts no attention, but harbors creepy inclinations worthy of Stephen King.

King’s fans will recognize his talents with suspense, finely drawn Americana and the horror of pure evil lurking in the everyday. His characters are as true-to-life and likeable as ever. As the improbable heroes and the Mercedes Killer rush toward a crashing finish, Mr. Mercedes is proof yet again that King can still terrify his readers without invoking the supernatural.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 ice creams.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

A literary Scottish noir mystery from the 1970s–heavy on character, setting and lyricism–lives up to its reputation in this reissue.

laidlaw

Originally published in 1977, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, the first book in a trilogy, set a standard for noir mystery. In this reissue, McIlvanney’s gruff, broad strokes read as freshly as ever.

Glaswegian detective inspector Laidlaw is the quintessential hardened, hard-drinking cop. Sarcasm, problems at home and a prickly exterior belie a sensitive man who believes that his society bears some responsibility for every crime he investigates.

Laidlaw is approached by a thug he’s dealt with before: Bud Lawson’s daughter hasn’t come home from the club, and Lawson wants Laidlaw’s help. Where other cops hold Bud’s criminal past against him, Laidlaw is willing to assist. For this case, he is partnered with the ambitious and impressionable young detective constable Harkness, who is meant to act as liaison between Laidlaw’s unconventional tactics and the police establishment. Harkness is an excellent foil for Laidlaw’s methods and worldview, and the growth and development of their relationship throughout is a satisfying side plot.

A murdered teenage girl does not, on the surface, look to be related to the network of thugs and gangsters that run Glasgow’s criminal industry. But her killer–exposed to the reader early on–quickly becomes a pawn. Bud Lawson’s gangster associates want him so they can exercise their revenge; other gangsters with other connections want him spirited safely out of town; and, of course, Laidlaw has his own goals–though, as he asks, “Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice?”

The phonetically spelled Scottish brogue adds color to dialogue, and McIlvanney’s remarkable lyricism is surprisingly refined in this dark, coarse world (“She waited patiently for his head to come back from a walk around his guilt”). His strengths are both character and setting: Laidlaw is a complex individual, harder on himself than on anyone else, with an iconoclastic nature and difficulty with authority figures. The Glasgow McIlvanney evokes, rife with poverty and an unglamorous criminal underbelly, is absolutely compelling, and is a precursor to strong mystery settings like Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles or James Lee Burke’s Louisiana.

Laidlaw is not so much action-packed–although there is plenty of head-busting–as it is considered, psychological and concerned with the existential. McIlvanney has earned his reputation as the father of the “tartan noir” crime-writing genre that includes Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Val McDermid. Readers will be glad to know that the next two books in this trilogy are set for re-release in late 2014.


This review originally ran in the May 12, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 pubs.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mad and bad

The Mad and the Bad exemplifies “hard-boiled.” It is both spare and opulent, and very bloody and French.

Stiff-backed, glass in hand, he left through the side-door, and Julie hesitated for a moment before pouring herself a brandy which she downed, standing, in a single gulp, reminded of a time when, freezing cold at dawn, she would stand at a bar and wash down black coffee with four shots of calvados at the start of a day of wandering, tears, fatigue, and despair.

I am not always pleased by that many clauses (you know I prefer semicolons to commas!) but I like this lengthy sentence and its evocations. Freezing cold at dawn with black coffee and booze, tears and despair? It’s almost a cartoon of noir. Almost.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe

This is one of Poe’s better-known short stories, “The Purloined Letter”:

I cannot remember now why I printed this story out (from here, and thank you) to read on my lunch break. I read a line about it in another book – Mr. Mercedes, perhaps? Heck. Sorry. Suffice it to say, a Poe recommendation is always worthwhile.

Now I will try to answer the question: What makes Poe so great?

His tales rely not on the solutions offered to the problems presented – which, while no pushovers, are not the mindbending puzzles of the century. Rather, his characters are so very clever, come around to things in such intellectual twists and turns that we are dazzled; and perhaps the best bits are the dialogue. I love his flair!

“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”

When the story opens, our narrator has stopped in to smoke a pipe with a friend, when the Parisian Prefect (of police) drops by to ask for help with a case. He is stumped, and wants to pick the clearly superior brains, in particular of the narrator’s host, Dupin, who we have met before (see the Murders in the Rue Morgue). A lady has lost a letter that will get her in great trouble if her husband finds out about it; and she knows exactly who took it, because he took it from under her very eyes – and those of her husband, which is why she couldn’t cry out about it. She has engaged the Prefect to recover this document, which has become an object of blackmail. He has had his men very very thoroughly search the dwelling and person of the thief, repeatedly and using microscopes, needles, and probes. The letter is clearly not in the home; clearly not on the man; and yet he clearly would keep it near to hand to help in blackmailing the lady. What a puzzler!

Dupin sends him on his way, but he returns some time later, having given up; the considerable reward he’s been promised will clearly have to go unclaimed. It is an unsolvable mystery. This is when Dupin speaks up: for a portion of that reward, he will happily hand over the letter. The Prefect pays; the letter is produced from a drawer in Dupin’s desk. The Prefect goes away again, mystified but triumphant. And our narrator asks for the explanation, which of course is… I won’t spoil, but simplicity is always the answer.

This entire story is set in Dupin’s “little back library.” The action is all removed, told in narrative; if this were a play, it would be done with the single setting, that darkened book room filled with pipe smoke, and two or three men talking. That in itself is kind of an attractive feature to me. Poe’s mysteries are cerebral; it’s all in the dialogue and the internal machinations. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Claire DeWitt, those detectives who solve mysteries by thinking, clearly owe a debt to Poe. In fact, Poe’s detective stories are credited with (at least in part) birthing the genre; but some modern-day versions follow him more closely than others.

The plot is lovely because it offers room for plenty of debate, being intellectual in nature. It is clever. But my favorite part is definitely the dialogue and the intricacies of the very clever players.

Poe’s cleverness is on display as well; I had to look up several terms & lines.

First, pardon my ignorance, but I had to look up what was meant by “the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum” – what the heck is that?? It’s a pipe, of course. The Sherlock Holmes type, one assumes.

Others:

Procrustean bed: “an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.”

recherche: “unusual and not understood by most people.”

And then the French! I copied out “Il y a parier que toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle a convenu au plus grand nombre” and Google Translate gave me the (very rough) “there a bet that any public idea, any agreement received is nonsense, because it agreed to the largest number.” Okay, I think I can follow that: what the masses easily buy is not necessarily the best solution, hm? But then in closing:

Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atree, est digne de Thyeste.

Again, my rough Google translation gives me “if a fatal design is worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.” I am totally charmed by anybody who invokes the Greek myths to close a mystery story. Although I could take a pass on the reference coming to me in French.


Rating: 9 ravens, how about.

Next up, I would like to read Shirley Jackson’s The Summer People, inspired by (what else?) my recent read of Shirley. Short stories referenced in novels, moving forward.

Maximum Shelf: That Night by Chevy Stevens

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 30, 2014.


that nightIn the small town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island in the late 1990s, Toni Murphy can’t wait to graduate from high school. Her parents are totally hassling her: they disapprove of her boyfriend, Ryan; her mom is controlling and angry; her father has become distant. A group of popular girls at school is determined to make her life miserable, and her too-perfect little sister, Nicole, has recently started hanging out with those very girls. Toni and Ryan intend to save a little money, get an apartment together and, eventually, leave town for good. Things are a bit rough at home, but they have a plan, and they are so close….

Then, one night, Nicole is killed. Toni and Ryan are convicted of her murder and sent to prison.

Nicole’s killer–or killers–not only took the life of their victim, but effectively Toni and Ryan’s as well, and the young love they shared: once out on parole they will never be allowed contact again. Toni and Nicole’s parents’ lives are ruined as well. Their mother holds onto her rage against her elder daughter, and their father’s indecision about whom to support ends up supporting no one.

Seventeen years later, Toni is being processed out of prison and into a halfway house when we meet her in the opening lines of That Night, the fourth novel by Chevy Stevens (Still Missing). She is frightened and unsure of how she’ll readjust to the outside world. It was so painful on the inside–being separated from Ryan and everything she knew–that the only way she could cope was to shut down. She stopped writing to Ryan in the men’s prison, asked her father to stop visiting and got into a lot of fights. Now that she’s out, her fellow parolees at the halfway house want to continue with violence, and Ryan wants to renew contact. He’s intent upon solving the crime they’ve been convicted of, but violating the parole conditions that forbid contact could land both of them back in prison; anyway, Toni feels the best way to move on is to put Nicole’s murder behind her. In returning to her hometown, however, she finds that no one else is ready to do that. Her mother is still furious, believing Toni killed her little sister; her father is still unsure whose side he’s on; it’s nearly impossible for an ex-con to get work, and even harder for her to keep it. And Toni’s high school nemeses, Shauna and her henchwomen, are still around, and still have a bone to pick. She makes just one friend: a rescue pit bull named Captain.

Slowly, Toni begins to settle in. Back in Campbell River, she goes to work at the Fish Shack, where she waited tables in high school–now they keep her (and her prison tattoos) hidden away in the kitchen. She lives with Captain on a small boat and checks in with her parole officer daily. Toni has now experienced severe bullying, incarceration and an egregious failure of the criminal justice system; at 34 years old, she’d like to just be left alone to put together whatever life she can. She doesn’t visit her parents, but she does see Ryan hanging around the marina where she lives. He’s pushing ahead in investigating Nicole’s death, against Toni’s advice, and he has his eyes on the girls who picked on her in high school–Shauna and her clique testified against Ryan and Toni at the trial, and Ryan wants to know why. What really happened that night? As Ryan’s investigations approach the truth, the events of 17 years ago feel very recent indeed; Toni may be in danger–and she may not be the only one.

That Night shifts back and forth between the events of 1996, when Toni’s teenaged world fell apart, and the present, with Toni newly released from prison and struggling to rebuild her life. Both are told in first person by Toni herself, although in two subtly different voices: that of the rebellious teen with short-term concerns and long-term dreams, and that of the ex-con whose hard-won and carefully constructed defense system is still brittle. This nonlinear style highlights Toni’s sense of confused and harried apprehension, of disruption. Flashbacks allow the reader to visit Toni behind bars, and these scenes, too, are evocative and disturbing.

Stevens matches the success of her previous novels with character-driven drama and a clear commitment to the particular nuances of her Vancouver Island setting. A strong sense of foreboding and a thoroughly compelling plot keeps her reader guessing, while a hint of romance broadens the appeal. Toni’s gritty, emotional, traumatized persona is both gripping and sympathetic. Foreshadowing and terrifying suspense are riveting in Stevens’s sure hands; readers will want to keep all the lights on as That Night moves into its final acceleration.


Rating: 6 dog walks.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Stevens!

Teaser Tuesdays: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

mr. mercedes

A new Stephen King! HOORAY! I think it will be as excellent as I hope it will be.

Hodges eats this diet of full-color shit every weekday afternoon, sitting in the La-Z-Boy with his father’s gun – the one Dad carried as a beat cop – on the table beside him. He always picks it up a few times and looks into the barrel. Inspecting that round darkness.

He can really paint a scene in a few words, can’t he? I won’t say too much more; the book will be out in just a few weeks and I think I’ll be able to recommend it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

A disturbing thriller of missing children in a small English town, masquerading as a quiet tale about political red tape.

light shining in the forest

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) begins as an eccentric, dreamy tale of an ineffectual pencil-pusher and a family distraught over a missing child whose trail has gone cold. A forester named Geordie works alone on a clear-cut at the English-Scottish border and remembers his missing stepson. A smarmy, self-satisfied career bureaucrat named Norman revels in his latest assignment: in a new pilot program of the British government he is given the title of “Children’s Czar” to the North East region, along with a hefty salary and a fine office and nothing to do. He sits at his fancy desk sipping lattes and waits to receive a mission that never comes.

Geordie’s stepson has been missing for months; but when more children go missing in a sleepy town nearby, an ambitious young journalist wonders if a children’s czar might be just the one to show some concern. Despite Norman’s repeated protest that his job is “strategic, not operational,” he is eventually goaded into action. When the unlikely team of journalist and bureaucrat initiates an investigation into the missing children, Light Shining in the Forest begins to accelerate into a thriller of great suspense and intensity. What started as a story of a surreal forest and quiet distress becomes a terrifying view into the mind of a monster, with religious overtones and paranormal possibilities and a panicked journey into the heart of the forest. Torday delights in creepy details as he turns his created world on its head; readers will be tempted to stay up late to finish reading but will need to keep all the lights on.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 library books.

Teaser Tuesdays: Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

laidlaw

Laidlaw was originally published in 1977, and is back in this new reissue, due out in June. McIlvanney has a unique style, literary and lyrical but also gritty and dark. I liked these lines for their nuance and contradictions…

The entry was dank. The darkness was soothing. You groped through smells. The soft hurryings must be rats. There was a stairway that would have been dangerous for someone who had anything to lose.

…by which I mean, Hemingway, right? Short sentences and a lots of sensory detail; and an almost tongue-in-cheek overdoing of the tension in that final line. I like it. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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