Blood on the Bayou

Mystery Writer James Lee Burke

I have been reading occasional mystery novels by James Lee Burke over the years. Having just finished the first novel in the Dave Robicheaux series—Neon Rain (1987)—I now know why I like him so much.

Dave Robicheaux is the hero of most of Burke’s novels. After a traumatic stint in Vietnam, he joins the New Orleans Police Department. He has had a problem with alcoholism and a history with Twelve-Step programs, as well as a distrust of authority. At one point in Neon Rain, he says:

Like many others, I learned a great lesson in Vietnam: Never trust authority. But because I had come to feel that that authority should always be treated as suspect and self-serving.

His pictures of the Southern Louisiana landscape sometimes wax on the poetic:

Clouds of fog swirled off the bayou through the flooded woods as I banged over an old board road that had been cut through the swamp by an oil company. The dead cypresses were wet and black in the gray light, and green lichen grew where the waterline touched the swollen bases of the trunks. The fog was so thick and white in the trees that I could barely see thirty feet ahead of the car. A rotted plank snapped under my wheel and hanged off the oil pan. In the early morning stillness the sound made the herons and egrets rise in a sudden flapping of wings toward the pink light above the treetops. Then to one side of the road, in a scoured-out clearing in the trees, I saw a shack built of Montgomery Ward brick and clapboard, elevated from the muddy ground by cinder blocks and cypress stumps, with a Toyota jeep parked in front.

And:

Somewhere down inside him, he knew that his fear of death by water had always been a foolish one. Death was a rodent that ate its way inch by inch through your entrails, chewed at your liver and stomach, severed tendon from organ, until finally, when you were alone in the dark, it sat gorged and sleek next to your head, its eyes resting, its wet muzzle like a kiss, a promise whispered in the ear.

There is a great deal of violence in the plot as Robicheaux fights his police force and various Federal agencies at the same time as he tracks down a set of murderous thugs, one by one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Patience of Maigret

Writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Whenever I am looking for a great crime read, my first choice is usually the late Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector (later Superintendent) Jules Maigret. Like the author, Maigret always had a pipe in his mouth. I cannot help but think that Simenon thought of himself as his hero, but whenever I visualize the French detective, I have a different image in my mind, that of the film comedian Jacques Tati (1907-1982), Simenon’s near contemporary. (See photo below.)

I have just finished reading The Patience of Maigret [La Patience de Maigret] (1965), the 92nd Maigret in a series extending to 103 titles. Although the ones he wrote in the 1930s were brilliant, there was no noticeable falling-off with the later novels.

Maigret is in many ways the anti-Sherlock-Holmes. His cases are not solved as much through ratiocination as by a fanatical thoroughgoing diligence and its hero’s trust in the picture of the crime that emerges as a result. Near the beginning, Simenon describes Maigret going through his paces: “And yet that was how the Superintendent had succeeded with most of his investigations: climbing stairs, sniffing in the corners, having a chat here and there, and asking apparently futile questions, often spending hours in rather shady bistros.”

Comic Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday—The Very Image of the Paris Detective

At another point, he writes: “People had a mania about asking him about his methods. Some of them even thought they could analyse them and he would look at them with bantering curiosity because they knew more about it than he, who usually improvised at the whim of his instinct.”

In The Patience of Maigret, everyone is stumped. In fact, the jewel crimes at the heart of them have been going on for over twenty years, but no one could figure out who was cutting the gemstones out of their settings in order to fence the loot. The answer comes at blinding speed in response to a comment made during a phone call to the former mayor of Douai. When that happens, Maigret corrals the guilty parties and ties everything together with giftwrap for the examining magistrates who will do the heavy lifting for the prosecution.

 

 

“I Would Prefer Not To”

Mystery Writer Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)

The words are those of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener in his story of the same name. In that story, a clerical worker refuses outright to continue to do his work and pays the price for his obstinacy. In Patricia Highsmith’s A Suspension of Mercy, Bartleby is the last name of writer Sydney Bartleby, a man who is every bit as obtuse as Melville’s scrivener. He is married—not entirely happily—to Alicia Sneezum. They live in the English countryside, with Sydney trying to publish a novel and television scripts, and Alicia trying to paint abstracts. At one point they decide to split up for a while and maybe come together only when they had gotten the ya-yas out of their system.

So Alicia is put on a train at Ipswich, telling her husband to tell people she had gone to stay with her parents. Except, she doesn’t in fact tell her parents anything. In the meantime, Sydney plays with the idea of having his friends and neighbors suspect that he had murdered Alicia. He even rolls up an old carpet, imagining that he had hurled Alicia down a flight of stairs to her death and rolled the body into the carpet. He buries the carpet early one morning in a forest some distance from his cottage.

In the meantime, people keep calling Sydney asking to speak to Alicia. He tells them she is staying with her parents. When they call the parents, and find her not there, the suspicion arises that Sydney has murdered her. A neighbor had seen him struggle to load a heavy rolled carpet into his car.

Enter the police. Sydney leads them to the buried carpet, which they find minus the body of Alicia. That only makes the police more suspicious. They start digging other holes in the area to search for the body. Interestingly, Sydney finds Alicia, with her new inamorata whom she had met at a party, but he doesn’t alert her or, in fact, anybody. So the suspicions continue to mount.

Nasty. Nasty. Nasty. This is clearly a story by Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). It is delightful how the mutual obstinacy of Sydney and Alicia lead to the police, the press, and the general public to assume the worst. At several points, Bartleby (or Alicia) could have short-circuited all this needless mountain of false news, but, like the original Bartleby, preferred NOT to.

This is without a doubt the most obstinate mystery ever written, and great fun withal.

The Great American Novel

Maybe the Great American Novel Will Be a Mystery …

Up until fifty or sixty years ago, the great American Novel would have been by someone like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or William Faulkner. Then something happened. Specifically what happened were writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, followed by scores of other excellent mystery writers such as Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Elmore Leonard.

I just finished reading Leonard’s Get Shorty, primarily because I loved the 1995 movie directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer, the loan shark from Miami suddenly turned movie producer.

Renee Russo and John Travolta in Get Shorty

Recently, I just finished re-reading most of Raymond Chandler’s novels (except for Playback, which I’ll get to shortly). And I’ve been reading other mysteries and noir novels and enjoying them immensely. I am beginning to think that, years into the future, this will be looked at as a golden age of genre novels.

America’s contribution is mostly in the mystery genre, but there have been great science fiction classics, especially from Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few. I will have to beg off on romance classics because, jeez, I’m a guy and the genre makes me alternatively giggle and puke.

If we eliminated genre novels from consideration, I would probably say that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was the Great American Novel. But I don’t think we really should cut off the 20th Century American genre novel from a shot at the title.

 

L.A. Writers: Tyler Dilts

An Up-and-Coming Police Procedural Mystery Writer

An Up-and-Coming Police Procedural Mystery Writer

Actually Tyler Dilts is more of a Long Beach writer than an L.A. writer. I find that exciting because he writes about an interesting locale about which most people know very little. There have been writers about Beverly Hills and Hollywood before, but both places are way too enshrouded in their own myths. Long Beach is the 36th largest city in the United States, and the 7th largest in the State of California. It is an interesting city in its own right, and it is large and diverse enough to sustain a series of crime novels set within its borders.

To date, there are four novels in the Long Beach homicide series:

  • A King of Infinite Space (2009)
  • The Pain Scale (2012)
  • A Cold and Broken Hallelujah (2014)
  • Come Twilight (2016)

All four feature Long Beach Homicide Detective Danny Beckett and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka. Beckett. In the first novel, Tyler’s wife dies in a car crash on Intersate-5. In the second book, Danny is sidelined with pain in his hand to his shoulder for an entire year, but he manages to go on.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah was the first Dilts I had read, in Cusco, Peru, of all places. It is about the murder of a homeless man. In an interview with Craig Lancaster, Dilts describes his novel thus:

At the opening of the new novel, Danny’s come to terms with much of what was haunting him in the first two books, but a murder he investigates—a homeless man who is burned to death by a group of teenagers—tests his resolve, especially in mourning his late wife, who also died by burning. Danny’s the kind of detective who carries the weight of the past with him. It’s a quality that is certainly not healthy for him, but it keeps him connected to the victims of the crimes he investigates and allows him to maintain a sense of empathy. He knows that it is his greatest strength as a detective, so he can’t bring himself to let go, even though he’d be healthier and happier if he did.

As for the fourth book, I am reading that now.

The latest Novel by Dilts

The latest Novel by Dilts

What I like about the Danny Beckett novels is the empathy he feels for the characters with whom he comes into contact. He himself lives a life of occasionally disabling physical pain. Yet he works well with his colleagues in the LBPD and with both witnesses and even suspects. While there is no romance as such between Beckett and his partner Jennifer Tanaka, there is a closeness and mutual consideration that could potentially develop into one.

Tyler Dilts is the son of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detective. In the Craig Lancaster interview, he continues:

My father was Sheriff’s Deputy for Los Angeles County. He worked in quite a few different capacities—in the county jails, on patrol, as a trainer at the academy, and as a detective. I think I realized that I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps sometime in high school. But I didn’t know what path I would take until I got to college and discovered theatre. I got my BA in Acting and Directing and spent several years working in theatre in LA. I’m a big guy and found myself getting typecast, so a good friend, after hearing me complaining about the fourth time I played Lennie in Of Mice and Men, suggested that I start writing my own plays. That led me back to grad school, this time in English Lit and Creative Writing. In a way, writing about Danny Beckett feels like coming full circle and returning to that desire to follow in my father’s footsteps.

Dilts is still early in his writing career. I look forward to following it with great interest.

 

 

The Long Goodbye

 

The First Time I Read This Edition

The First Time I Read This Edition

The following is based on my review of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye for Goodreads.Com:

I had read The Long Goodbye many years ago, and liked it. In the meantime, I have aged—not exactly like a fine wine, but aged nonetheless—and found myself loving Raymond Chandler’s penultimate work. I might even go so far as to say it is his masterpiece, though back then I liked The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely more.

This time I detected the raggedness. Chandler’s wife, Cissy, was dying and he felt more vulnerable. This is no tight Agatha Christie thriller than runs like a Swiss clockwork. Not by a long shot. It’s about a nasty, persistent evil that, once you poke it with a stick, keeps coming back to snare you and hurt you. Somehow, Chandler’s detective Marlowe walks the straight and narrow path and comes out alive at the end:

I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between the stars. When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, rape, and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

A French Edition of The Long Goodbye

A French Edition of The Long Goodbye

And mind you, this is just the background in which a series of murders and/or suicides take place that call Marlowe’s actions into question and put him in personal peril, such as the time four toughs waylay him in his own house. They included the following:

A man was sitting across the room with his legs crossed and a gun resting sideways on his thigh. He looked rangy and tough and his skin had that dried-out look of people who live in sun-bleached climates. He was wearing a dark brown gabardine-type windbreaker and the zipper was open almost to his waist. He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor the gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.

That last short sentence inspired writer Walter Mosley to begin writing his own series of detective novels featuring Easy Rawlins.

I feel I have not rendered justice to this great novel—probably because it is still working its way through my bloodstream and opening channels in my body that I did not know existed.

Mischa the Penguin

A Lone King Penguin Among Magellanic Penguins on Isla Pajaros

A Lone King Penguin Among Magellanic Penguins on Isla de Pájaros

Serendipity strikes again. I just read an obscure Ukrainian crime story by Andrey Kurkov entitled Death and the Penguin. The narrator is one Viktor Akelseyevich Zolataryov who writes for publication what his editor refers to as obelisks. These are obituary essays written about living people so that, when death comes to them, the newspaper is not caught short for materials to publish quickly. Oddly, though, it seems that all too many of the individuals Andrey memorializes in his deathless prose wind up … dead.

My favorite character is Viktor’s pet and companion, the King Penguin Mischa. When the zoo in Kiev was suffering a financial meltdown, they sold their penguins; and Viktor bought the one he called Mischa.

Mischa is very like the King Penguin at the right in the above picture, which was taken on the Isla de Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Tierra Del Fuego. The largish penguin took a wrong turn into the Beagle Channel and wound up in a rookery consisting mostly of Magellanic Penguins and some Gentoos. It was obviously very lonely and disappointed. Every once in a while, he would try to mate with one of the Magellanic females, but caused uproars every time he tried.

Viktor’s Mischa shambles around the apartment, looking into the mirror, establishing a kind of hiding place behind some furniture, and displaying all the symptoms of a morose and puzzled disposition occasionally verging on depression. Even while Viktor worries that his writing job is connected with an assassination ring, Mischa slowly keeps getting worse. At the same time, he winds up taking care of Sonya, the daughter of one “Mischa-non-penguin,” who was associated with the editor who hired the writer, and who disappears after leaving money and a pistol. He also hires a teenage girl, the niece of his friend Sergey (who dies mysteriously) as a nanny for Sonya, who lethargically enters into a relationship with him.

I loved Death and the Penguin for its mellow strangeness. For a man surrounded by violent death, to which he may be contributing in some unexplained way, Viktor is relatively cool. Eventually, the situation changes rapidly. Mischa becomes ill and gets a heart transplant; and Viktor, well, let us say he takes action of an unexpected kind.