A few weeks ago, Ben Fox of Shephard.com asked for a curated list of books for his new site. The site was created to link readers to books, not just any books, but books recommended by authors as opposed to algorithms (which are used extensively by sites like Amazon).
Ben asked for a focused theme. I chose “the best Canadian detective and mystery novels.” My top five 📚 recommendations are:
A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Until the Nightby Giles Blunt
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe
Click the link below to see the full recommendations and a review of each title.
To give a book is to give a window into another world. Here are a few gift ideas for the 2021 Holidays.
First, my crime fiction suggestion:
The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, 2021. In The Dark Remains, Rankin completes an unfinished McIlvanney novel after his fellow Scotsman’s death. The story warms up slowly but is bubbling at the end. You can’t go wrong with Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir.
Bewilderment by Pulitzer-prize-winner Richard Powers, 2021. Bewilderment is set in the near-future, in a time of ecological collapse. Few adults are willing to confront the collapse. As with most dystopian fiction, there are didactic passages. However, the storyline eclipses them, as does Powers’ vision, which goes beyond the dystopic. A father and his son wrestle with the collapse, hoping that science will offer respite. It doesn’t. But the son’s love does.
Ring by André Alexis, 2021. Ring is a philosophical inquiry as much as a novel, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you have a literary fiction aficionado on your list, especially of 19th century fiction, Ring should please them. They’ll enter a contemplative world set in Toronto, a novel of manners à la Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy.
No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain, 2007. In a previous post, I noted that Kitchen Confidential is my favourite Bourdain book. No Reservations runs a close second. No one would call Bourdain an earth-shattering writer yet he’s pensive as well as informative. This book delivers an entertaining combination of food and travel, two things many people miss these days.
I’m late to the game. I started reading Jo Nesbo in 2021. He’s been an international bestseller for years. Maybe that’s why I avoided him: I thought he could be a prolific writer who churned out serviceable but boring novels.
Although Nesbo is certainly prolific, he’s anything but boring. He writes consistently intriguing crime novels, not to mention work in other genres, such as children’s literature.
So, what is it about Jo? In short, the settings and the characters. Take the Detective Harry Hole novels, centered in Oslo. In that series, Nesbo switches effortlessly between description — of both people and places — and action, between local colour and the colour red: blood and guts.
Some readers find that Nesbo overdoes the blood and guts. Admittedly, there’s never a shortage of corpses in his crime novels but I accept his version of the Norwegian underworld, overblown though it may be. As for Nesbo’s characters, Harry Hole is a flagship protagonist: dark, at times unlikeable, yet uncompromising and driven, a man with raging booze and drug habits encased in a solid ethical core. In a sense, Nesbo’s Hole novels are morality tales; good struggles against evil, not only within Hole himself but also outside of Hole, in the world at large.
If I have to pick a representative Harry Hole novel, it’s The Son (2014), which, on one level, is a retake of a central Christian myth — the Son trying to please the Father. To be expected with Nesbo, there’s a tsunami of blood. On the other hand, there’s a deep story here, a saga of good and evil full of pithy observations and a flood of emotional scenes.
Not a fan of blood and guts? Try a non-Harry-Hole novel like Midnight Sun (2015). Although certainly not a cozy mystery, to quote the LA Times, it’s a “softer, gentler Nesbo – as far as that goes.”
During the course of 2021, I discovered a fine Irish-American novelist: Tana French, who writes literary detective novels set in or near Dublin (the Dublin Murder Squad series).
French’s dialog delivers the magic elixir of story-telling: presence. She can capture the essence of a character with a line or two of craic (conversation). She has the gift of the gab; like Elmore Leonard, her dialog will hook you.
French’s latest book, The Searcher (2020), is a stand-alone novel featuring retired cop Cal Hooper, a sympatico Yank who has washed up in the west of Ireland, looking to leave the mean streets of Chicago behind. Hooper worked Missing Persons in Chicago; as luck would have it, he becomes embroiled in a local misper case.
The story unfolds in rural Ireland, sans a slew of high-octane car chases or bloody gun battles. However, there’s no lack of drama. If you like stories told with a slow burn, yet plenty of flareups along the way, The Searcher is for you. If you want a policier with forensics and hardened criminals, look for French’s Dublin novels.
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.”