Mind Fields: Crime Thrillers And Mystery MediaPosted: May 20, 2022
I read everything. I read fiction, non fiction, biography, history, psychology. If libraries were edible there would be few surviving libraries. I would have been a Godzilla-like creature with an insatiable appetite for books, “The Monster That Devoured Libraries”. I’ve been reading voraciously since I was eight years old. I started my reading career with historical fiction, then turned to sci-fi and Fantasy. I detoured into crime fiction and mysteries but I put them down in my twenties and never returned until I saw the film “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. That rekindled my lust for good thrillers and I checked out the late Stieg Larsen’s epic trilogy. Then I turned to the somber depths of Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander mystery series.
Mankell is sixty four years old. I find this fact very much in his favor. I like reading authors who’ve got some worldly experience, who are old enough to recognize the body’s fragility and are beginning to be on speaking terms with death.
Henning Mankell spends half of his year living in Maputo, Mozambique. He is director of a drama troupe called Teatro Del Avenida. What, I wonder, could be better food for a writer’s mind than to open himself to a world so utterly alien to his native experience?
Stockholm/Maputo, Stockholm/Maputo… here is a successful writer who is seriously engaged with the world. He’s not hiding in some comfy Swedish estate, churning out formulaic mystery books. His writing is many layers deep.
Mankell’s best-selling character, Chief Inspector Wallander, is a frustrating man. He’s frustrating to his daughter, he’s frustrating to his colleagues; he’s especially frustrating to himself. Somehow he never seems to get to that vulnerable place that allows his feelings to surface. He looks like a man tormented by an itch that he can never scratch. He walks around with three days’ growth of beard on his face, his shirt tails are hanging out, his eyes are bleary.
Somehow he always catches the killer, by thrashing his way through obscure connections, chasing ancient traumas, exposing religious zealotry and the classic motive to many a murder, old fashioned desire for revenge. Wallander’s like a gloomy Colombo. He always has one more question.
Mankell’s prose is austere and controlled. It evokes the Swedish countryside, from its thousands of Baltic islands to its birch forests and vast yellow fields of mustard and flax. Mankell also takes non-Swedish readers into the Swedish mind-set via references to Swedish history and attitudes.
There is a nostalgia for an “old” Sweden. Just as we in the U.S. have pre and post Nine Eleven mind-sets, the Swedes divide their recent history into periods before and after the assassination of their prime minister Olaf Palme in 1986. The crime was never solved and remains a collective national trauma.
Any sensitive reading of Mankell requires this awareness of the Swedish world-view. Americans are not great in being aware of other cultures and other histories. This is an opportunity to absorb Swedish culture from one of its iconic writers.
James Lee Burke
A quote from the novel Swan Peak:
“There are occasions in this world when you’re allowed to step inside a sonnet, when clocks stop and you don’t worry about time’s winged chariot and hands that beckon you from the shadows.”
I flat out love James Lee Burke’s writing. He’s another writer with some miles on his old frame. His best selling series characters, Detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell are two of the most colorful non-heroes in crime fiction. Most of Burke’s novels move in and around New Orleans and the bayou country. The area’s history is like a character in itself. The ghosts of civil war personalities haunt the landscape. Burke’s stories draw on the family feuds and crimes from the past. His plots involves the great great great grandchildren of plantation owners and slaves. James Lee Burke’s writing is an invocation of living memory.
Certain structures appear in Burke’s narratives. There’s always an aristocratic family whose roots go back to ante-bellum times. This family has entanglements within the black community. The family is also “mobbed up”, albeit quietly, with the Giacano people in New Orleans.
People whose grandparents were slaves still work for this family. Some old blues man who plays the local dives witnessed a killing forty years ago. He won’t talk about it; he never talks about the “doings of white folk”. Dave can pry bits of information from the reluctant guitar man when he promises not to reveal his source. All the same, there’s a possibility that the old blues man’s body will float out of the bayou some time down the road.
Dave is a recovering alcoholic. The longing, the nostalgia for a shot of Johnny Walker in a glass of beer, is so authentic that Burke’s nascent alcoholism is clear as an empty decanter.
Burke knows the landscape of longing, of grief for an addiction that provided so much comfort yet brought so much destruction. This is why James Lee Burke is so good as a writer: he’s honest about who he is and his “real” personality bleeds across into his characters with perfect fidelity.
Here they are, the inhabitants of James Lee Burke’s fictional world. Dave Robicheaux, Vietnam vet and PTSD sufferer. Alcoholic. A cop who resents authority. Habitue of AA meetings when the pressure builds. Lover of his wife and his daughter Alafair and his tame three legged raccoon Tripod and his un-neutered warrior cat, Snuggles. Best friend of Clete Purcell, a de-frocked homicide cop who now does skip tracing for bondsmen Nig Rosewater and Wee Willie Bimstine.
Clete is enormous, powerful, aggressive, self indulgent and frequently teeters on the brink of losing his self control. He is described as “an elephant falling down a stairs”. He still drinks and pushes Dave’s patient loyalty to the boundary. A fellow Vietnam vet, fellow PTSD patient, Clete was Dave’s partner in the homicide division of New Orleans Police Department.
In the old days they were called “The Bobbsey Twins.”
Burke mixes up all these characters to create stories with perfect pacing and addictive tension. He describes the color of light in Bayou Teche, the sound of the rain as it blows in from the Gulf. Someone out there creeping around the roots of the drowned trees is leveling a telescopic site onto Dave’s forehead. That someone may be a psychopathic ex-prison guard from Angola Penitentiary, a “gun bull”, a racist of the old stripe who once prodded prison laborers from the saddle of his horse, carrying a shotgun and ready to use it.
Burke’s villains have a whiff of sulfur about them, they aren’t quite human, they have a Satanic indifference to human suffering and a quick toughness that seems invincible.
These are some of the scariest villains in fiction. These are just a few reasons why you should read James Lee Burke.
His heroes are flawed, his villains terrifying, his victims pathetic and mute, his settings historic and laced with the colors of Spanish moss and the distant growl of alligators.
Arthur Rosch is a novelist, musician, photographer and poet. His works are funny, memorable and often compelling. One reviewer said “He’s wicked and feisty, but when he gets you by the guts, he never lets go.” Listeners to his music have compared him to Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Randy Newman or Mose Allison. These comparisons are flattering but deceptive. Rosch is a stylist, a complete original. His material ranges from sly wit to gripping political commentary.
Arthur was born in the heart of Illinois and grew up in the western suburbs of St. Louis. In his teens he discovered his creative potential while hoping to please a girl. Though she left the scene, Arthur’s creativity stayed behind. In his early twenties he moved to San Francisco and took part in the thriving arts scene. His first literary sale was to Playboy Magazine. The piece went on to receive Playboy’s “Best Story of the Year” award. Arthur also has writing credits in Exquisite Corpse, Shutterbug, eDigital, and Cat Fancy Magazine. He has written five novels, a memoir and a large collection of poetry. His autobiographical novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man won the Honorable Mention award from Writer’s Digest in 2016.
More of his work can be found at www.artrosch.com
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