Ron Corbett: Maestro of Hinterland Noir

A century ago, in the time of Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), there were relatively few detective novelists. Not so today. There are hundreds of excellent (and prolific) detective/mystery novelists. Take Canadian Ron Corbett, an Ottawa-based author whose novels have been nominated for both the Edgar and Arthur Ellis awards.

Corbett is the epitome of prolific; he’s published four novels in the last five years. The first, Ragged Lake (2017), set in an abandoned village on the Northern Divide, is the opening salvo in the Detective Yakabuski series. The Divide, a fictionalized Canadian hinterland, is beautiful but unforgiving. Frank Yakabuski is as no-nonsense as Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. He’s also as well-drawn. Ragged Lake is a paragon of descriptive prose, as are the next two novels in the series, Cape Diamond (2018) and Mission Road (2020).

Continuing the Ian Rankin comparison, like the master of Scottish Noir, Corbett doesn’t dish out genteel whodunits. [Fans of cozy mysteries, be aware.] Corbett’s fictional violence isn’t gratuitous; it’s part of life on the Northern Divide. Yakabuski is the perfect cop for the region: hard-nosed yet imbued with a deep, one could say, mystical sense of the Divide.

After the Yakabuski trilogy, Corbett moved to the wild timberlands of Maine with The Sweet Goodbye (2022). The protagonist, Danny Barrett, is an undercover FBI agent. Like the Yakabuski novels, The Sweet Goodbye is a complex tale of deceit and retribution. Unlike them, the Maine novel has a major female character, which softens the plotline — in my view, to good effect.

At the risk of stepping into quicksand, let’s look at male vs female characters in the detective/mystery genre. {If you don’t want to step with me, please go to the last paragraph.} Consider Ian Rankin’s fictional world. He portrays women deftly, but the cops, murderers, and victims are mostly male. In my reading experience, the more hard-boiled a novel, the smaller the role women play in it. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, such as the Dragon-Tattoo series with Lisbeth Salander.

I realize there’s an element of sexism in what I’m saying. ‘What, AMP, women can’t be tough or bad-ass?’ Sure they can. Take Salander again. I tend to look at the male-female continuum in terms of realism, not sexism. If females dominate an author’s fictional world, the reader shouldn’t expect males to play main roles. And vice versa. When males dominate a fictional world, you don’t often find numerous influential females. In my view, that’s fictional realism, not gender myopia. It’s up to the author to decide where they want to fall on the continuum. Readers will follow if they wish.

Bottom line: As a reader, when I’m not interested in a story, when the male-female continuum doesn’t ring true, I drop the book. Which I didn’t do with Corbett’s novels. I read all of them to their vivid ends.

For more information on Ron Corbett, see his website.

The King of Southern Noir

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 The New Iberia Blues.

Click here for James Lee Burke on Wikipedia.

A few quotes from A Private Cathedral:

“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.”