Pete’s Mystery Newsletter: Vol. 2

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Pete’s Mystery Newsletter, Vol. 2


As I was reading James Lee Burke’s latest The Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel, I was once again stunned by his virtuosity. The man can pack more into one sentence than most can on a whole page, his descriptions beggar belief. As I was getting further into the story which has Dave in Montana on vacation, I started thinking “Why shouldn’t James Lee Burke be considered for the Nobel, the most prestigious literary prize in the world?” From what little I know about the criteria, the subjects and themes should reflect the culture and history of the nominee’s country, so who better to represent the most violent, crime ridden country in the world than the greatest crime writer in the world (some of you may remember me introducing Jo Nesbo as the best when he was here back in November, but he’s only 1A and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings). Toni Morrison in 1993 was the last American to win, and it’s high time the gold medal came back to the good ole’ U.S. of A.

From his very first books featuring Dave — The Neon Rain (1987) and Heaven’s Prisoners (1988), which deal with the Mob, arms smuggling, and the Contra scandals toThe Light of the World (2013), which touches on evangelical extremism and good versus evil and Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002) featuring Legion Guidry, the most evil character I’ve ever come across in fiction — Burke has tackled heavy subjects while wrapping them around a crime novel.

A perfect example is The Tin Roof Blowdown (2002) which is the best book I’ve read dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Then there are the personal demons Dave has to fight: his alcoholism, the losses of his parents and first wife that haunt him, his Vietnam War experiences — all which lead to a strict morality that still allows for the law to be bent when need be. This can be fully seen in (probably my favorite of the whole series) In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993).

But what transforms his books from mere crime novels to works of literary consideration is how he interweaves the lushness and darkness of Louisiana history and landscape. The historian Simon Schama in his superb book, Landscape and Memory, postulated through the examples of Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S that landscapes mold the cultural ethos of society, from art and literature to politics and business and beyond. That is so evident in every Dave Robicheaux novel as the multi-cultural heritage of Louisiana plays out on the page and haunts every crime with a spectral beauty that only a great artist can create.

Mysteries are taking over the world. Back in May, when I was in New York for Book Expo (the big confab for us book people) I had the opportunity to visit Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop and attend a panel on World Noir hosted by Europa Editions and Melville House, two publishers who have started international crime lines. One of the questions asked of the authors was how mysteries were perceived in their counties. Both Maurizio De Giovanni of Italy and Marek Krajewski of Poland said that while the literati looked down their noses at mysteries, they were the bestselling genre in both their respective countries. That seems to be the case everywhere. Just look at the Scandinavians! It seems that every other Swede is writing a series and having it translated. There are so many foreign mysteries now I can easily take someone on a vicarious world tour and do for those who ask me. America has long led the way, but the world is quickly catching up. Mysteries, when done well, can capture the pathos of the human condition with a verve and style that no other genre can match, and it’s time for that to be recognized.

So, why not James Lee Burke for the Nobel Prize?

Here’s one to keep an eye on in the meantime, Alex by Pierre Lemaitre.

This book is going to get some press because it’s going to be touted as “From the publishers of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy!” I had a couple of friends mention it to me, and I’m glad they did. The story begins in Paris with a young woman trying on wigs lost in her thoughts. As she’s walking home, she mysteriously disappears, leading to our introduction to one of the most cantankerous detectives in recent memory, Camille Verhoeven, a dwarf with a serious chip on his shoulder. At first the story followed the usual path to the point of almost being a cliche; woman goes missing, woman tortured, police baffled. But, just at the point where I was ready to throw up my hands at the misogynistic overkill, the story takes a hard right turn, and then another before ending with the perfect…

I’m not going to tell, you but it is perfect! Check it out and see if you don’t agree.

Until next month,
Pete, Mystery Guru