Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part II: Dark Underbellies


Author James Lee Burke on his Montana ranch. (Photo: Getty)

Read Part I of this series here.

"For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has been a given; misogyny and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues and self-congratulatory ignorance has become a source of pride." – James Lee Burke, Robicheaux

Since the 1987 publication of Neon Rain, Burke has mastered the technique of writing in the first person, remaining within the consciousness of his chief protagonist, enabling Dave to offer commentary on political, social, moral and philosophical issues. Robicheaux is set once again in the familiar setting of New Iberia along the bayou and opens with Dave seeing the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. He is in a dark psychic space as his wife, Molly, has died in a car accident. In his grief and rage, his sobriety cracks as he succumbs to his demons who "live in me like a snake that slowly swallows its prey." During an alcoholic binge, he fears he might have murdered the taxi driver who killed his wife but afterwards he cannot remember if it really happened. Worse, the investigation of the man's death is assigned to a dirty cop.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part I: Savagery and the Past

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because Burke powerfully explores the evil that men do when they cross a line.

Author James Lee Burke. (Photo: Facebook)

"I became a cop in order to deal with a black lesion that had been growing on my brain, if not my soul, since I was a child." – James Lee Burke, Light of the World 

It is unwise to pigeonhole a multiple-award-winning crime novelist like James Lee Burke as a genre writer. His detailed rendering of the Cajun culture, its food, music, and dialect, along with his gorgeous descriptions of the bayou in South Western Louisiana, particularly during rainstorms, is a distinguishing feature of the Robicheaux novels. Consider this lyrical passage from his most recent novel, Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 2018): "The flying fish broke the bay's surface and sailed above the water like pink gilded winged creatures, in defiance of evolutionary probability." (Burke's descriptive prowess is also present in his twentieth Robicheaux creation, Light of the World [Simon & Schuster, 2013], which is set in the mountainous region near Missoula, Montana.) The Globe and Mailcritic, Margaret Cannon, offers high praise to Burke by comparing him to William Faulkner: his account of the bayous of Louisiana is similar to "what Faulkner did for backwoods Mississippi." Not surprisingly, Burke considers Faulkner, particularly his The Sound and the Fury, to be a major influence.

Burke's influence has extended beyond the crime novel to the larger culture. Like some of the best crime novelists, Burke uses the procedural as a vehicle for an overlay of political and social commentary. The 2005 Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, which submerged large areas of the poorest parts of New Orleans and exposed scandalous government neglect, even before the tidal surge hit with cuts in federal aid, was the subject of The Tin Roof Blowdown. The novel is comparable to the mammoth Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, and the HBO David Simon series, Treme, for their portrayals of a community after the veneer of civilized society is stripped away and we find out what people are really like. The New York Times reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, declared that Burke's was the "definitive" crime novel about Katrina.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Famous Ones, and Everyone Else: Gender & Class in the Novels of Meg Wolitzer


Author Meg Wolitzer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
"She understood that it had never been about talent; it had always been about money." – Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings 

“The people who change our lives... give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” – Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion 

Recently, I discovered a major talent when I read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2018). I was astonished that I had never heard of her before. I mentioned my enthusiasm for it to a friend who had a similar experience with her 2013 book The Interestings and decided to read it as well. I still wondered why Wolitzer was unfamiliar to me until I read her 2012 essay in The New York TimesAlthough at that time she had published nine books, she lamented that few female writers of literary fiction are taken seriously by men unless their major protagonist is a male, they write short stories, or they embarked on their writing careers during the women's movement of the 1970s. Perhaps her piece had touched a collective literary nerve, since the publication the following year of The Interestings turned out for her to be a breakout novel, deservingly so, about the lives of both men and women.

Reading these two absorbing novels together has the benefit of revealing certain Wolitzer trademarks: her interest in exploring a broad range of relationships over a large span of time (romantic, friendship, parents and their offspring, and between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situations that will remind readers of real life personalities or events; her ability to connect the lives of her characters to larger real life issues such as Presidential politics; the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the 2008 financial crisis; and the quality of her writing that is by turns laced with verbal brio, acerbic and funny lines, and astute observations. Above all her novels are character-driven and it would be hard to review them without familiarizing the reader with her characters  sometimes with more detail than I generally prefer  and the trajectory of their lives before addressing the issues that animate Wolitzer.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Gripping Courtroom Drama: Full Disclosure by Beverly McLachlin


Photo: Roy Grogan

Beverley McLachlin retired early this year after serving eighteen years as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the first woman to hold that lofty position. According to an excellent profile by Sean Fine, McLachlin "shape(d) fundamental rights as much as any judge in the country's history from the legalization of assisted dying to a huge expansion of Indigenous rights to a rebalancing of how police and the legal system treat people accused of crimes."

Inspired by the example of P. D. James, a mystery writer she admired who maintained a day job and wrote by night, McLachlin began in the early hours of the morning for about a year before her departure from the Supreme Court to write a novel that had been percolating within her for over thirty years. The result of that effort is Full Disclosure (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and I am pleased to report that her debut novel is an engaging, well-written, dialogue-driven courtroom drama that has a distinctive Canadian sensibility.

Seeking Redemption in Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts

The late Philip Kerr, author of the Bernie Gunther series, including Greeks Bearing Gifts. (Photo: Phil Wilkinson)

"We live in a new era of international amnesia. Who we were and what we did? None of that matters now that we're on the side of truth, justice, and the American way of life." 
 Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts
The sardonic voice above is that of Bernie Gunther, the protagonist of Greeks Bearing Gifts (Putnam/Wood, 2018) the thirteenth entry of the wisecracking one-time Berlin detective and later private investigator by the late Philip Kerr, who recently died of cancer at the age of sixty-two. Kerr first introduced us to the cynical Gunther in his Berlin Noir trilogy: March Violets (1989),The Pale Criminal (1990) and A German Requiem (1991), set respectively in 1936, 1938 (just before Kristallnacht) and 1947, in which he first explored the legacy of Nazism. From the beginning, Kerr was strongly influenced by the American hard-boiled novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His razor-sharp dialogue, astringent character profiles and first-person narratives have been distinctive trademarks of the series.

Kerr turned to other fiction for fifteen years before returning with The One from the Other (2006), in which Gunther poses as a Nazi war criminal as he pursues former powerful Nazis to South America. In Field Gray (2010), Gunther is commandeered to join the SD, the intelligence arm of the SS, and serve on the Eastern Front, where he is horrified by the war's atrocities and captured by the Soviets and, as a POW, toils in an uranium mine where most of the captives do not survive. Yet Gunther prevails, returns to Berlin, and is dragooned into solving a crime for the ideological zealot Reinhard Heydrich, who holds a particular fascination for Kerr: this talented and exceedingly ruthless Nazi potentate first appeared in Pale Criminal, later re-surfacing in Prague Fatale (2011) and last year's Prussian Blue. In the latter novel, Gunther repressed his scruples to also serve the loathsome Mafia-like strongman, Martin Bormann.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Moles in American & Russian Intelligence in Jason Matthews's The Kremlin's Candidate

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because spying by its very nature depends upon committing transgressions and lines are crossed when a head of state supports the death of a foreign national.

Author and former CIA agent Jason Matthews. (Photo: Booktopia)

"The world would know that the secret services of Russia were omniscient apex predators that could penetrate the governments of his enemies, discover their secrets, and exert their will over them... His active measures were creating lasting discord in the West, at minimal cost, and if he wanted to unseat an American politician, he had only to release an embarrassing, unencrypted email through WikiLeaks run by the languid dupe hiding in that exiguous Latin embassy in London. Partisan political hysteria now gripping American society would do the rest." 
 – Jason Matthews, The Kremlin's Candidate

The Kremlin's Candidate (Scribner, 2018) is the third and most compelling novel in Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow trilogy, concluding the series that began with Red Sparrow and continued with Palace of Treason. The final novel picks up with a prologue set in 2005, in which Audrey Rowland, an American naval officer and a scientist on a brief assignment to Moscow, is lured into a honey-trap for the purpose of blackmail by Dominika Egorova, a Russian spy. The former ballerina began her career as a trained seductress in Red Sparrow, in which her first major assignment was to seduce CIA spy, Nate Nash, the handler for a Soviet mole, and secure his identity. Instead, she was turned by Nash into becoming a CIA mole in the Kremlin and he becomes her handler and lover. Fortunately, she has the protective advantage of being a synesthete, able to judge the intentions of others by the colours she sees emanating from them.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Masculine Toxicity in Dirk Kurbjuweit's Fear


Author Dirk Kurbjuweit (Photo: Julian Nitzsche)

About halfway through Dirk Kurbjuweit's unsettling psychological thriller, Fear (translated from the German by Imogen Taylor and published by the House of Anansi Press, 2017) the narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a Berlin architect, recalls a Christmas dinner he and his wife, Rebecca, hosted for his extended family a few years earlier before the central narrative occurs. His sister was dating a Romanian, a supporter of the dictator, Ceausescu, who having fled his country after the 1989 revolution, ended up in Berlin as the owner of a gym. As a supporter of self-justice, he dismissed Germans declaring that their only interests were "stuffing their faces and watching their pensions" with no "real men" with "the guts to defend themselves." His bravado constitutes a litmus test for what defines manhood.  At the time, Randolph is silently contemptuous of this disdain for civility and of his "ignorant, brutish view of democracy."

On the surface this fascinating tableau is inconsequential as the Romanian exile never reappears, but it does highlight an important motif in the novel: the tension between the values of civility and the rule of law pitted against vigilante justice when there appears no other option for a family terrorized by a stalker. Kurbjuweit, the deputy editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, was inspired to write Fear based on his own experience of being stalked.