Despite the fact that it’s a few days before Christmas, and the snow is deep on the ground, things are pretty hot in Tamarack County. The book seems to take its temperature from series protagonist Cork O’Connor’s son Stephen, who is burning with teenage lust for his new girlfriend Marlee, even though their gropes toward fulfillment are twice interrupted by macabre and possibly deadly attacks. With love interest Rainy out of town indefinitely, Cork finds himself eyeing the prettier women he encounters with appreciative, if somewhat impure, thoughts. Even daughter Anne, the putative novitiate nun, has apparently renounced her long cherished vocation for, well, that same old thing.
When Annie Hall first came out, I saw it with my mother. I was a senior in high school, and I was absolutely transported. It’s still one of my favorite movies. My mother, on the other hand, was disturbed by it. She was dismayed by the easy way Annie moved in with Woody Allen’s character, without being married, and the casual nature of the sexual relationships throughout the movie. It seemed like a sea-change to her.
Sara Gran’s novel, while I liked and appreciated it, feels like a sea-change to me, a generation later. I guess I’m the now the older person reading about a younger one; about a younger person whose choices I don’t always understand and whose “lifestyle” is foreign to me. That’s a good reason to read books, of course, and while Claire has a drug issue – it’s presented as almost normal for her to be snorting cocaine off her house keys – it turns out that her drug use, like everything else in this novel, is a journey of self-discovery for her.
There are seriously few writers who can beat David Housewright for sheer storytelling power. His books hit the ground running and don’t let up until the last page. This is the latest Rushmore “Mac” MacKenzie novel, and Housewright has taken a slightly new tack. Mac is undercover as desperate criminal Dyson in order to help catch a band of robbers and more importantly, the gunrunners who are supplying them with weapons at the Canadian border.
The opening chapter is pure, classic Housewright. The only other author who can match his opening chapter skills is Barbara D’Amato, who has several first chapters that remain my favorites of all time, her ultimate being the baby crawling across Chicago’s Dan Ryan expressway in 2010’s Other Eyes.
When is a P.I. not a P.I.? Today’s rash of younger male writers are taking a look at that question, and they all have a different answer. Tim O’Brien has a teacher; Brad Parks, a reporter. Steve Ulfelder has an auto mechanic AA member whose main motive is revenge. Really, though, the motives of the P.I. haven’t changed: to a man, the new P.I.s are interested in putting things right simply because it’s the right thing to do. It looks like what’s surviving from the long standing P.I. trope is not the private eye aspect itself, but the white knight aspect. That’s something I can get behind.
This is a stunning debut novel. Featuring Chicago P.I. Michael Kelly, Harvey manages to take the very tired old formula, initiated by Raymond Chandler, and somehow make it fresh and new. His P.I. is a tough Irish ex-cop, with an educated heart of gold. He reads Aeschylus in his spare time. The vengeful, bloodthirsty stories told by the ancient Greeks have plenty of relevance in Kelly’s 21st century life.
We’re introduced to Kelly in the most classic of ways: his old partner walks into his office and asks for his help. Neither the P.I. or the cop code of honor allows not helping out an old partner, and Kelly is all in. The story his old buddy, Gibbons, has to tell is horrible and gripping enough to get anyone’s attention. Gibbons has always been haunted by the brutal rape of a young woman who was stabbed while it happened and left for dead. She’s reached out to him and asked for his help in finding her rapist, who was never caught. Gibbons had been talked into forgetting the rape by his superiors, but a letter from the victim is a whole other story. He wants someone from outside the department to help.
P.J. Parrish – or the sisters who write as P.J. Parrish – are paperback writers in the very best sense of the word. They deliver a good story, well told, with reliable characters and settings, asking only that their readers enjoy the journey they deliver. Almost always, they fulfill this promise. With their new novel, set on Mackinac Island, I was holding my opinion in reserve.
Full disclosure: I grew up on Mackinac Island, so I wasn’t so sure they could get it right, having read other novels set on the island that had a misfire or two (or more). I was at first cautious but then more and more delighted as they really seemed to “get” the island (and it may help that one of the sisters lives in nearby Petoskey), but after awhile the story they were telling was simply so good, the island details really didn’t matter.
In 2010 Brad Parks won the Shamus award for first P.I. Novel for Faces of the Gone. It’s a really good book, deserving of all sorts of accolades, but the interesting thing is that Parks’s protagonist isn’t a private investigator, he’s an investigative journalist. I’ll take this as evidence that the traditional P.I. novel ain’t what it used to be – as James Crumley said, no fault divorce really took the wind out of the sails of the profession, which was never really the way it was portrayed in books anyway. A few masterful old masters keep writing in the traditional vein, but these days most private eyes, like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight, are more often of the reluctant variety.
It’s not too hard to deduce that old Mr. Private Eye is getting a little long in the tooth. Modern day masters such as Loren D. Estleman are able to cook up a delicious P.I. novel every year, but many of the older crowd, like Robert B. Parker, are no longer with us, while the newer contenders, such as Dennis Lehane and Michael Koryta, seem to have hit the wall. The game’s been going on since Hammett after all, and it seems like most of the gumshoe combinations have been played out. Women writers gave the genre a burst of vitality not long ago when they made Sam Spade into Samantha, but even that sex change has lost its novelty.
William Kent Krueger’s streak is intact – this is another wonderful book in his Cork O’Connor series, one which picks up with the recently widowed Cork attempting to move forward in his life. While last year’s Heaven’s Keep felt like an elegy, this one is all rocket powered story telling, with Krueger utilizing his well developed trademark gifts: setting, character, and story.
The Vermilion Drift is part of an old iron mine, one the federal government is studying for use as a nuclear waste site. As you might imagine, this has stirred up some fervent activism in tiny Aurora, Minnesota, especially among the Native American community. When Cork is hired as part of the security detail, lots of the natives see the half Ojibwe Cork as a turncoat.
William Kent Krueger genuinely has one of the more remarkable, and beautifully written, of all contemporary mystery series. I don’t know if he would agree, but he’s in a league with writers like James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, and Michael Connelly. He hasn’t gotten quite their degree of popularity in the marketplace, though he certainly deserves it. One of my favorite things to do as a bookseller is to press into someone’s hands a copy of Kent’s first book, Iron Lake, and simply wait.