As noted in ‘Turning to the Light,’ in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I read “brighter” fiction. Here are a few more suggestions. Caveat: Although the titles below aren’t murder stories, as with most fiction, there is death.
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan, 2001. A sweeping fictionalized account of the convict William Gould’s life in 1820s Tasmania. The central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. One of the finest Australian novels.
Dirt Music by Tim Winton, 2002. To continue the Down Under theme, Dirt Music is another modern Australian classic. It sings the raw underbelly of Western Australia in the late 20th century: the money, the greed, and, above all, the power of the land.
I don’t know about you, but in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I want brighter stories. ‘Bright, AMP? Aren’t you supposed to be a noir guy?’ Hey, bright doesn’t mean soppy. 😉 Here are a few novels that fit the bill for me, and maybe you.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, 2006. At first glance, a simple story. However, it radiates deep emotion. One of my favourite works of literary fiction from the last 15 years.
The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952. A timeless tale, told with the direct prose of a fable. The story is mythic, yet it feels absolutely real.
The Colourby Rose Tremain, 2003. A British couple migrate to New Zealand (South Island) during an 1860s gold rush. As with many tales of migration/colonization, the migrants and natives clash (in this case, the British and the Maoris). There is pain and conflict, yet the tone is uplifting.
Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.
Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.
Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.
As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.
Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.
Book lovers, you know who you are. You rank books above movies. But what about when movies are better than the books they’re based on? Consider a case from Swedish noir: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (aka, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy).
The books were a sensation. No debate there. However, the movies were far better (the three versions shot in Sweden). They have depth and complexity. As critics like to say, they live and breathe. You see the dark side of Swedish life. You feel Lizbeth Salander’s anger and disgust. And when you read the books? You don’t.
The English translations seem plodding and mundane. Relatively speaking, the books are dead wood. I’ll never read them again. However, I will watch the movies again. Movies: Three. Books: Zero. A lopsided win. And a shutout, as we Canucks say.
PS: IMHO, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy is an exception. Books usually win. But, hey, I’m in the writers’ union. 😉
Under The Holy Lake by Ken Haigh, 2008. University of Alberta Press.
Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.
Those who know me, know I’m a big fan of travelogues featuring distant lands. Few countries are as remote as Bhutan.
Under The Holy Lake presents a captivating memoir of two years in Bhutan. The prose is polished and whip-sharp. The author, Ken Haigh, is thoughtful and learned without being pedantic. The memoir is entertaining, at times light and effusive, yet also profound and intensely satisfying. What does it say?
Go to Bhutan. (Or, if not Bhutan, any place off-the-beaten track.) Live there, work there. If you can go when you’re young, all the better. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. Approach the new land slowly. Accept it warts et al; in the case of Bhutan, torrential rain, foot-long poisonous centipedes, and confusing social mores, to name a few.
Haigh certainly accepted it. His time as a teacher in Khaling, Eastern Bhutan, is a study in cultural adaptation, always a long and arduous road, and not always successfully traversed. He came to cherish Khaling – the valley under the holy lake – and the Bhutanese people. I won’t elaborate on the book’s narrative trajectory. I rarely do. Instead, I’ll say: “Read for yourself.” Experience the real Bhutan, from a to z: ara (corn-mash whisky) to zhugcho (please, sit).
PS: Haigh tells of two years in the late 1980s. Of course, places never stay the same. Bhutan is still 12,000 km from central Canada, but it is no longer distant in time. No place is.