Style AND Substance: Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

It’s worth revisiting the cliché all style and no substance. It refers to an overstated buildup that proves to be unwarranted. Steven Heighton’s fourth novel is anything but. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep builds organically, to a multi-faceted and authentic climax.

Heighton is a Governor General Award-winning poet, a word master par excellence, yet his prose style doesn’t eclipse the storyline. On the contrary, it serves it.

The setting is exotic – an abandoned no-man’s land in contemporary Cyprus – without being distant in space and time. The storyline is compelling. Elias, a Greek-Canadian soldier suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan, appears to have found a home in a ruined demilitarized zone, a locale frozen in time since 1974. The DMZ is not empty. It hosts a band of outliers as fascinating as any found in CanLit, including The English Patient or A Discovery of Strangers.

The DMZ is a fecund setting, pregnant with promise yet also loss – in a sense, a Garden of Eden. Dislocation and the threat of eviction coexist with human warmth and beautifully simple food. Despite the temptations, the garden does not hold Elias. Or, rather, circumstances do not allow him to be held. He must depart. His gift – and the reader’s boon – is what transpires between his arrival and departure. At novel’s end, he is a changed man, occasionally conflicted, but able to move forward.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Heighton

A few descriptive excerpts from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

He wakes in the dark. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Then he spies through a gap in the curtains a row of three clear stars, Orion’s belt.

The moon, a few days beyond full, is blistering up out of the sea.

North Bay Noir – Giles Blunt

Giles Blunt was born in Canada to English parents. As he tells it, “they had colorful accents and amusing habits and never allowed themselves to be influenced by Canadians. Consequently I lived in England at home and Canada at school.” Regardless of the schism – or maybe because of it – Blunt learned how to write. Very well. He is one of the few crime writers to be nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award.

Blunt’s Detective John Cardinal novels have been turned into a TV series. I’m not a fan of the series, but I don’t blame Blunt. The TV offerings don’t deliver the vibrancy and depth of the Cardinal novels, a prime example of the general rule that books are better than the movies/series based on them. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (Are Movies Better Than Books?).

Back to Blunt. The Cardinal novels are set in Algonquin Bay, a thinly disguised version of North Bay, Ontario. OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Detective John Cardinal is a down-to-earth yet complex man. Blunt doesn’t hide Cardinal’s faults. The detective is not a particularly social animal (like many a detective; to wit, Connelly’s Bosch and Rankin’s Rebus). Although Cardinal bears psychic scars, he is humane, humble, and likable.    

The Cardinal plotlines demonstrate that crime novels can be personal, with “literary” character development. They don’t need to be all crime all of the time. If you have interesting detectives like Cardinal and his partner, Lise Delorme, you can deliver whodunits with depth. Of course, it helps if the criminals aren’t one-dimensional. Blunt doesn’t fall into that trap. He gives us nuanced perps. As Cardinal hunts them down, the reader walks both sides of the thin blue line.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giles_Blunt

A few excerpts from the Cardinal opus ….

Blunt delivers “literary” prose:

“The Planet Grief. An incalculable number of light years from the warmth of the sun. When the rain falls, it falls in droplets of grief, and when the light shines, it is in waves and particles of grief. From whatever direction the wind blows — south, east, north or west — it blows cinders of grief before it.”

Advice if you get lost in the Canadian woods:

“Panic will kill you faster than any wolf, faster than any bear.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Blunt novels.

The Queen of Canadian Mystery

Which female Canadian author has written the best mystery novel? Who’s the Queen of Canadian Mystery? Many will say Maureen Jennings, author of the Detective Murdoch series. Others will say Louise Penny, author of the Inspector Gamache series. I say Margaret Atwood. “What the &^$#!” you say. You’re an idiot.” I know. An opinionated idiot. Let the mud fly. 😉

Before I reveal the mystery novel, I’ll relate a few arguments I’ve heard from friends. “Atwood isn’t a mystery writer.” Correct, in as much as she’s not labeled a mystery writer. “Atwood doesn’t need kudos from anyone. She’s already famous.” Also correct. “Pick someone more current.” I will, when the new Queen comes along.

Now, to the question at hand. The best mystery novel written by a female Canadian author is …. Robber Bride.

Get &^$%,” you say, “Robber Bride isn’t a genre novel. It’s literary fiction.” Yep. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a mystery, and a damn fine one. I admit, it’s not noir. I’m also stretching the definition of “mystery novel.” Robber Bride doesn’t feature a detective or a parade of murderees. The reader knows the villain (Zenia) from the start. But you don’t know what she did, or how she did it. That’s the mystery – the howdunit, you might say.

Atwood delivers enough plot twists and obfuscation to please the most demanding of mystery fans. She deploys wry humour and strong prose. She makes you think. However, Robber Bride has its limitations. It isn’t for the hard-boiled. Too much literary description, too much talk of “feelings.” Oh, those dreaded feelings. Me, I like a good dose of feelings now and then. I don’t want noir all the time.

Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. McClelland and Stewart. 1993.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Robber_Bride

Elmore Leonard – More Hemingway than Hemingway

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. Some say that if Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. Or perhaps Leonard’s a younger brother. 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 tells you how it happened. That’s OK with me. I love the way he tells 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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmore_Leonard

A few excerpts from the Leonard opus ….

A male character called Foley to Dawn:

“Tell me, what is it about a girl’s navel? It catches the eye and won’t let go.”
“I suppose,” Dawn said, “because it’s right in the middle of the playground.”

Two “crime” characters:

“I’m saying we’re all friends,” Frank said. “Kindred spirits. Birds of a feather.”
“Man,” Sportree said, “you need some new words.”