Arriving at the B’s in my project to read through the mystery aisle, I can’t help but notice some favorite darker mystery authors that I’d love to share. Next week I’ll try something new, but for now here are some old friends:
- Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black.
Black has brilliance to spare. Having already written a layered spy novel to rival Le Carré and a riveting psychological mystery, John Banville gave in to his criminal side as the pseudonymous Benjamin Black, whose dark ruminative debut set in the 1950s era Dublin features the magnificently flawed Dr. Quirke, a drunken coroner who stumbles into a web of evil when he catches his brother-in-law falsifying the autopsy of the titular victim. If you don’t mind language that deservedly calls attention to itself from time to time, the prose sings like a banshee down a well. Gorgeous, as are the sequels.
- When the Sacred Ginmil Closes, by Lawrence Block.
Choosing one title from the prolific output of a 50+ year veteran crime writer seems daunting, but I knew immediately that this sixth entry in Block’s series featuring recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder was the one. In earlier titles, Scudder had struggled with booze and finally gone to AA. Here we flash back to Scudder’s heavy drinking days to stare down the barrel of hopelessness amidst the denizens and demons that have haunted him all these years. The result is one of the saddest, most elegiac pieces of noir in the canon, a beautiful heartbreaker. That the reader then gets to rejoin Scudder and follow his progress through a dozen more books to the present day only deepens the poignancy of this dark chapter. Scudder is a great example of the gradual development of a character’s arc over many titles and decades, a special reading experience that with only a few exceptions (e.g. Rabbit Angstrom) is reserved for genre fiction fans, and mystery readers especially.
- Open Season, by C.J. Box.
C.J. Box may be the best mystery writer you’ve (maybe) never heard of. The series is set far from the mean streets of Crime City USA, in the Wyoming wilderness, but any suspicion that this is a gimmick will be fully dispelled within a few pages. We are out west, but there are no white hats and black hats here. Rookie game warden Joe Pickett is immensely likeable and believable, a well-intentioned screw up whom you really want to succeed. The issues raised in the book (yup, environmental) are suitably complex. The conflicts are jarring and real, the suspense is palpable. In short, this isn’t just another mid-list mystery with a novel setting, but absolutely first-rate fiction.
- The Guards, by Ken Bruen
Nobody does drunken washed up wrecks like the Irish (see Benjamin Black above), and Bruen’s bitter, blasted Galway sleuth Jack Taylor is the antithesis of a great detective. Most hardboiled dicks are flawed, tarnished; Taylor is beyond that, and yet he has an irreverent, mordant humor that is irresistible, and keeps a hero dangling off his anti-. (Bruen’s other books, such as the London-based Brant books, are even darker, with goodies and baddies equally evil). Perhaps most useful of all this Guinness-dark series’ charms is Taylor’s penchant for books, music and movies. The loquacious Taylor always leaves you with a list of books you’ll want to go and read, a trait shared by James Sallis’ Lew Griffin books, and a nice treat for avid readers. So Taylor feels like a fellow countryman, shrugging at the world’s iniquities and inequities and sharing some good books over a pint or six.
- Purple Cane Road, by James Lee Burke
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d call James Lee Burke a national treasure. He’s been writing consistently excellent mysteries for a quarter of a century now – books that simmer with the unique atmosphere of New Orleans and Louisiana, in turn a disturbing microcosm or epitome of American ignorance and greed. Oh, and his writing is just beautiful. Where to begin? The series starts with The Neon Rain. One of the darker books, Purple Cane Road is a favorite of mine, as Dave Robicheaux becomes entangled in a vicious struggle to defend his mother’s memory. Reading the series forward, one can sense along with Robicheaux that Louisiana is rotten to the core, a disaster just waiting to happen. This all culminates in Tin Roof Blowdown, which strides the blast of Hurricane Katrina with remarkable, if not unusual, power.