Across The Pond
Several years ago, we were in Schipol airport in Amsterdam, heading to the US for one of our yearly visits see my family. I needed something to read on the plane, so we browsed through one of the airport bookstores. I picked up a book called Fleshmarket Close, by Scottish writer Ian Rankin (or, Fleshmarket Alley, as it is sold in the United States). His name rang a bell, possibly because my mom had mentioned his books at one point. So, I got out my euros, bought the book, and started reading.
I've been a mystery fan ever since I was a little kid; you might call me a "mystery geek", and it's how I stay sane, because reading and writing about nuclear Armageddon all the time sure takes its toll. So, the day I discover a new author is kind of like Christmas... especially if it's Ian Rankin, who's easily one of the best mystery writers I've read.
His most famous character is Detective Inspector Rebus
, who is the central figure of seventeen of Rankin's novels. If there was a gold standard for "avoidance of stereotypes and clichés", it would be the Rebus novels. They are vivid, complex, and not in the least formulaic, which is my main complaint about a lot of novels in this genre. Rebus himself is one of the most three-dimensional characters I've encountered in a book. As we discover in the first novel, (Knots And Crosses
), John Rebus is former military (SAS
, in fact, until he has a nervous breakdown), an experience which haunts him throughout his career as a detective. At times, even his friends find him hard to understand, but the reader always has the inside view of Rebus' mind. I remember my mom saying "Oh, Rebus is bad
," with a twinkle in her eye, when I started reading the books. "He practically works out of a bar sometimes," referring to his battle with the bottle. "He doesn't really get along with other cops, but he cares about the victims. He's a good man if you get to know him."
One of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" episodes was in Edinburgh, where he spent some time with Ian Rankin. They hung out in Rebus' favorite bar, the Oxford Bar. Bourdain asked Rankin why he picked "the Ox" for Rebus to drink in. Rankin said:
I thought it's the kind of bar my guy would drink in, very unaffected, very unpretentious, basic, stripped back, almost like a private club. Everybody knows everybody else...
... the kind of Edinburgh I was writing about was the secret Edinburgh, that tourists never saw, the stuff that was happening just below the surface, and I thought this was a nice representation of that.
Daily Kos readers might wonder if there are any politics woven into Rankin's stories. He manages to do so, but not in any overt, in-your-face way. Fleshmarket Close deals with the murder of an asylum-seeker, and delves into racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Scotland (click here to watch a short video about the book, narrated by Rankin). The Naming of the Dead has the 2005 G8 meeting as a backdrop, with all the accompanying protests, as well as the July 2005 bombings in London. Those are just a few examples; it's more that he works current events into his books than overt politics, which is probably why it's a nice break if you're buried in political reading all the time.
If you're a music fan, you'll enjoy the musical references that Rankin works into his books, if not even in the actual titles. To call the man a "music fan" wouldn't be doing justice to his obsession. You can get a feel for it on his website. It all makes me feel rather... musically inadequate. I end up doing Google searches on half the bands he mentions. Appropriately, the final Rebus novel is called Exit Music. (You've got to love a character who, upon retirement, says to his colleagues, "You really didn’t buy me anything, you miserable shower of bastards?")
I've been trying to avoid my own clichés here, but I can't help myself: the Rebus novels are as beautiful and complex as -- wait for it, here it comes -- some of the best whisky I've ever had. They're to be savored, not slammed in one shot and quickly forgotten. They're unlike anything else out there.
Closer To Home
|Burn, by Nevada Barr, coming August 2010. (Click to enlarge.)|
We no longer live in Amsterdam, but when we did, I'd get pretty homesick for New Mexico and the West, which is where I was born. It's also where Nevada Barr
is from (Nevada, specifically, hence her name). I read and re-read her books many times over the years, especially when I was in Amsterdam. They don't just take place in the West; in fact, part of why they're so interesting is that they take place all over
Ms. Barr's main character is Anna Pigeon, who's a Ranger with the US National Park Service (as Barr was herself, for a long time). I wanted to write about the Anna Pigeon books because they're absolutely unique, and quite a contrast to the Rebus novels. Where the Rebus novels are decidedly urban, Ranger Pigeon's "beat" as a law enforcement officer could be the back country of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (Track of the Cat), Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi (Deep South), or Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Michigan (Winter Study). Anna Pigeon claims she cares more for isolation and wildlife than she does for human companionship, though she mellows a bit with each successive book. By the time she has taken a temporary mental health break from the NPS, she's married and is visiting an old friend in post-Katrina New Orleans, which is the setting of Barr's next book, Burn, which will be published in August of this year.
New Orleans is where Nevada Barr is living now, and is the setting for 13 1/2, which is a departure in more ways than one from the Anna Pigeon novels. I won't spoil it, but if you're up for one hell of an edgy thriller, I'd recommend it. Some authors do "edgy" and end up with the Twilight series. Nevada Barr just scares the hell out of you and makes you want to check the locks on the doors all night.
What You're Missing Is Right Here In Albuquerque
Well, not literally right here in Albuquerque, but that's where novelist Andi Marquette's mysteries take place. Full disclosure: I've eaten with Marquette in many of the restaurants she mentions in her books; we're good friends, but all that aside, I'd promote her work even if I didn't know her.
When people think of New Mexico mystery writers, they usually think of Tony Hillerman. I'm suggesting that everyone branch out a little and check out Marquette's books, which are highly readable, to the point that I stayed up most of the night reading the first one... and the second one... and the third one.
Marquette has two main characters: sociologist K. C. Fontero who's the protagonist of her first and third novels, and Fontera's good friend, Detective Chris Gutierrez of the Albuquerque Police Department. Both fulfill my geeky criteria for a "good character in a mystery novel": they're believable, they're not perfect, and they're people I could imagine interviewing for an article.
Land of Entrapment
|Land of Entrapment, by Andi Marquette.
(Cover courtesy of Andi Marquette. Click to enlarge.)
manages to balance K.C.'s personal life and problems with her external issues, which involve helping an ex-girlfriend find her younger sister, who has made some unsavory friends (white supremacists) and has disappeared. I often complain about Albuquerque being a dull place, but Marquette's novels bring out the best and the most colorful aspects of the city, as well as the worst ("the North East Frights" is what she calls Albuquerque's "North East Heights").
State of Denial puts Detective Chris Gutierrez in the starring role. We got to know her a little in Land of Entrapment, but now we get to see her in full-blown investigation mode, where she's faced with determining if a young man found murdered at the Rio Grande Nature Center is part of a bigger pattern of anti-gay hate crimes. There's a lot of creepy stuff involving the pastor of an Albuquerque megachurch and "ex-gay" groups; I don't want to give too much away, so I'll stop there. Again, Marquette weaves Chris' personal life and problems into the story quite deftly, so that worlds mesh rather than collide.
The Ties That Bind is another K. C. Fontero mystery, and it's by far the most involved book of Marquette's mysteries so far; I think it's the best one, though they're all good. It was chosen as one of the top 5 general fiction reads of 2009 Lesbian Fiction Readers’ Choice Awards; you can read the first chapter here. It branches out from Albuquerque and explores a murder on the Navajo Reservation. It's a pretty tense book, but in a great way, like the others.
If I Could Show You My Library...
... you'd see a lot more authors that I couldn't possibly discuss just in one post: Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, just to name a few. I'm sure you've got your favorites, and likely some I've never heard of. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink, and let's talk about mysteries.