Who’s the reigning King of Southern Noir? James Lee Burke. Some say he’s the best living novelist in the United States. I wouldn’t go that far. However, he is one of the best living crime/detective novelists. He’s also a Philosopher King, a crime writer who salts his work with references to thinkers as diverse as Saint Paul and Jonathan Swift.
A Private Cathedral, 2020: The latest novel in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, set in New Iberia, Louisiana.
Burke wrote A Private Cathedral in his eighties. It mines the moral ground of his earlier Louisiana novels, deploying variations of previous protagonists and antagonists: tough but good-hearted cops, cultured but evil killers. Hence, some of the novel covers repeat territory (be aware, it’s bloody terrain).
As always with Burke, there are beautiful descriptive passages. The narrative shifts as the novel progresses, swerving from a detective tale to a morality tale, from forensics to fantasia — with every detail expertly rendered, all gifts from Burke’s fertile mind. As well-described and inventive as the gifts are, some hijack the storyline. At times, the tale felt like a cross between Milton’s Paradise Lost and a Stephen King horror story. I still enjoyed most of it. Nobody writes detective novels like James Lee Burke. He delivers gentility and degeneracy in equal measure.
PS: If you want to check out JLB’s earlier work, try Creole Belle or TheNew Iberia Blues.
“The light was strained, as though it were draining from the western sky into the earth, not to be seen again, robbing us of not only the day but the morrow as well. Of course, these feelings and perceptions are not uncommon in people my age. This was different. As I mentioned earlier, I have long believed that my generation is a transitional one and will be the last to remember what we refer to as a traditional America.”
“This was the era that I always believed was the best in our history. But it was gone, and to mourn its passing was to demean it. The ethereal moment lives on in the heart, so what is there to fear?”
“There are epiphanies most of us do not share with others. Among them is the hour when you make peace with death. You don’t plan the moment; you do not acquire it by study. Most likely you stumble upon it. It’s a revelatory moment, a recognition that death is simply another player in our midst, a fellow actor on Shakespeare’s grand stage, perhaps even one even more vulnerable than we are.”
Broken Man on a Halifax Pier by Lesley Choyce, 2019. Dundurn.
Book reviews are supposed to be objective and largely impersonal. Caveat: This one is personal. Tune out if you wish.
Broken Man on a Halifax Pier swirls around Stewart Harbour, Nova Scotia, a fictionalized fishing post close to the real Sheet Harbour on the Eastern Shore, where I grew up. Although I left the shore at 17, I still feel it in my bones.
Some followers of this blog have been asking me to broaden my introduction. At the risk of boring others, here we go. [You can skip ahead to the review. See the last paragraph.] Shortly after leaving the shore, I headed to OZ, taking in the whole Red Continent, after which I kept goin’ down the road. Over a 20-year span, I “paused” to work many times – in Australia again and again, central and western Canada, the USA, England, and New Zealand – to fill my pockets and keep travelling, which I managed to do, seeing every continent except Antarctica. I only stopped because my pack was worn out. Just kidding.
But enough of my wanderlust. Back to the Halifax pier.
It could be that I’m prewired to like this book. Broken man on a Halifax pier happens to be a lyric from one of my favourite Stan Rogers songs: ‘Barrett’s Privateers.’
Now, the book review. To me, Broken Man on a Halifax Pier is an honest feelgood novel, not soppy but uplifting. I won’t recap the plot (I rarely do). Suffice to say, it’s a story of redemption and love. True love often comes across as unbelievable; I felt occasionally at sea as I read, but I didn’t mind. A beguiling woman (smart, sexy, and rich) falls for a completely down-and-out man. I fell for them and the setting. Choyce knows and loves the Eastern Shore. He brings it to life like no author has. For that, I am eternally grateful.
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Hawking recently – in some ways, the complete opposite of reading detective fiction. Then again, Hawking was a detective of sorts – searching for answers to mind-boggling questions from physics and cosmology.
My favourite Hawking book is his last one, Brief Answers to the Big Questions(from 2018, the year he died). It’s a pocket-size compendium that summarizes his work by addressing ten big questions – e.g., “How did it all begin?” – mysteries beyond the purview of even Sherlock Holmes.
Hawking didn’t believe in creation myths; on the other hand, he admitted science doesn’t know exactly how the universe started. He writes clearly, which doesn’t mean reading him is always easy. When he gets deep into black holes or singularities, your brain can go into its own black hole. Fortunately, he soon brings you back to earth – to good-old 4-dimensional spacetime.
Hawking was one of the greatest scientific minds of the last 100 years. He stood on the shoulders of Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and Aristotle. Like Aristotle, he was also a philosopher. To me, that is Hawking’s true genius. Through science, he tried to understand humanity.
A Hawking quote:
“I have led an extraordinary life on this planet, while at the same time travelling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics …. On Earth, I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor. I have been able-bodied and disabled …. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me.”
In memory of John le Carré (the penname of David Cornwell), who died in December 2020, I’ve been revisiting his novels. Many spy thriller heroes are almost superhuman. Le Carré’s heroes are flawed humans who rely on endurance and ingenuity.
My favourite le Carré novels are The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardener (2001), and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). PS: All three were made into movies.
The Tailor of Panama. The protagonist, Harry Pendel, a transplanted Londoner, is a wonderfully humane creation. Once a convict in England, he is now a tailor in Panama City – and bumbling spy. As Panama crumbles around him, he learns the values of family and integrity.
The Constant Gardener. The novel opens in Kenya: “The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at 9:30 on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.” From there, the story spans the globe. Le Carré exposes not only the divided heart of England, but of the West as a whole.
Our Kind of Traitor. The plot turns on the open-heartedness of a young British academic, Perry Makepiece. However, the true star of the novel is Dima Krasnov, a Russian money launderer who wants to defect to England. Dima is brilliantly rendered. Part-bully, part-romantic, part-egalitarian, he drives the story to its inevitable end.
Not so long ago, nouns didn’t double as verbs. You didn’t gift a book. You gave one. 😉 But grammar evolves. It’s 2020. It’s the Holidays too. To give a book is to give a window into another world.
Here are three titles I recommend:
Feel Free by Zadie Smith, 2018. Thirty-one engaging essays, ranging from pieces about Smith’s homeland (England) to literature, dance, art, and popular culture. Smith is a rare writer: although she’s erudite and lofty, her prose is warm and inviting. I’d love to have a conversation with her – on any topic.
Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson, 2020. A 2020 Giller Prize finalist; sequel to The Outlander, a Giller Prize finalist in 2012.
In Ridgerunner, Adamson entwines two genres – mystery and western – to create a captivating morality tale. The characters inhabit a Wild West that’s both lost and still with us.
Last but not least, my crime pick:
Exit Music by Ian Rankin, 2007. As I did last year, I’m suggesting a novel by Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir. Although Rankin has written many recent novels, I rate Exit Music above them. It’s the seventeenth Inspector Rebus novel. Rebus is three days from retirement but he’s not going out with a whimper. Ach, nae, not John Rebus. He revels in righting wrongs.