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Thursday, June 22, 2017

June 22, 2017: Mysterious Beach Reads: Attica Locke



[For this year’s installment in my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to focus on mystery authors and novels about which I’ve previously blogged in this space. Leading up a new post and author on Friday, and then one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year—so add your Beach Read suggestions in comments, please!]
On the wonderful first two novels by a new favorite author.
Attica Locke’s debut novel, Black Water Rising (2009), was the best book I read in 2014. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as it was shared with me by my favorite writer and book-recommender. But while I knew that meant it would be a good read, I was expecting just that: an entertaining and well-done mystery novel (which would have been more than enough, to be clear). And Black Water Rising is a hell of a lot more than that—I’m not going to spoil any of its particulars here, but will simply say that the book is not only a great mystery and thriller, but also a multi-generational historical novel (one with a lot to say about both the 1980s and the 1960s), a socially realistic depiction of issues such as race, labor, and the rise of the oil industry in Houston and the South, a potent and moving portrayal of family and parenting, and a lot more besides. If you want to know the rest, you know what LeVar Burton and his kid reviewers would tell you to do!
I just got Locke’s second novel, The Cutting Season (2012), as a holiday present, and I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet (too busy writing and scheduling future blog posts before the new semester begins, natch). [UPDATE: I subsequently finished Cutting and it was just as fun and impressive as I predicted it would be.] But I can tell you for sure that no matter how it ends, Cutting Season retains all those elements and adds the histories and legacies of slavery for good measure; the novel reads like a combination of Black Water Rising and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), one of my favorite American novels of all time. I would have said it was impossible for Locke to improve upon Black Water, but it seems clear to me that she has indeed taken a significant step forward, engaging more broadly and deeply with American history and identity without losing a bit of what makes her books so engaging and compelling.
Locke’s third novel, Pleasantville, is due out this coming April [UPDATE: I subsequently read and loved Pleasantville as well, and blogged about it here], and is apparently a direct sequel to Black Water Rising, featuring its lawyer protagonist Jay Porter in a mystery set fifteen years after the end of that prior book (slight but not hugely significant spoilers for Black Water at that link). I’m excited to see where Locke takes Jay this time, and what she might be adding to her repertoire with this next book. But at this point, I also have to agree with Dennis Lehane: “I’d probably read the phone book if her name were on the spine.” When I find an author about whom I feel that way, well, that’s one of the things I love best about reading and culture.
Last mysterious read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Read nominees, mysterious or otherwise, you’d share?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

June 21, 2017: Mysterious Beach Reads: Jonathan Lethem and Tim O’Brien



[For this year’s installment in my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to focus on mystery authors and novels about which I’ve previously blogged in this space. Leading up a new post and author on Friday, and then one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year—so add your Beach Read suggestions in comments, please!]
On two ground-breaking novels that explore the mysteries of memory.

One of the more interesting, if mostly taken for granted by readers, literary puzzles is the role of first-person narration in mystery fiction. For a century or so the first-person narrator was a friend and confidant of the detective: the unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories (which are often seen as originating the genre), Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, and the like; these narrators usually depicted themselves as consciously writing down the detective’s exploits after the fact (which is plausible enough, if of course complicated in that the narrator thus knows the resolution of the mystery throughout the story). With the 20th-century shift to American hard-boiled detective fiction, however, the first-person narrator became more often than not the detective him- (and eventually her-) self, introducing a couple more complicating questions into the mix: when the story is being narrated, as they are written in the past tense and occasionally include a distant perspective on the events being described (“I should have known she was trouble the second she walked into my office,” to cite a particularly stereotypical example), but at the same time often feel as if the events are unfolding in the present; and, if the story is being narrated from some future moment, whether we can necessarily trust the narrator’s memories (especially since most fictional detectives are not nearly as disinterested in their cases and clients as they might pretend).

As far as I know (or at least as far as I have read), the vast majority of first-person detective novels sidestep these questions, and in fact depend on a reader doing the same: that is, if the reader begins to doubt the detective’s memories or reliability as a narrator, the entire premise of the story would pretty quickly fall apart. While of course unreliable first-person narrators are entirely possible as a fictional option, as Edgar Allan Poe himself proves in stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” they would seem antithetical to the goals of mystery fiction, and more exactly to how fully the reader relies on the detective to guide us to the text and mystery’s successful conclusion. But there are a couple of terrific late 20th-century (in fact from the same year, coincidentally) mystery novels that not only acknowledge these issues, but make them central to their literary projects and themes, all without abandoning (revising, to be sure, but still deploying very successfully to my mind) the classic elements of mystery fiction: Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994).

The two novels could not be more distinct in either setting or tone: Lethem’s is a work of satirical and humorous science-fiction, set in a somewhat distant (if certainly recognizably possible) future which includes genetically mutated talking kangaroos and various psychological and medical uses of technology for humans as well; O’Brien’s is a tense psychological and historical thriller, focused on a Vietnam veteran turned politician whose career is destroyed by revelations of a My Lai like incident. O’Brien’s novelist-narrator is not even explicitly a detective, although he certainly has investigated extensively the novel’s central mysteries (which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here!). But what both novels share is a fascinating use of the issue of memory itself to complicate and enrich their mystery plots: in Lethem’s work, a medical procedure that can erase memories and replace them with pre-fabricated narratives becomes both crucial to the detective’s ongoing investigations and instrumental to his narration, as he goes into a six-year cryogenic sleep in the middle of the novel and awakes on the other side of such a procedure; in O’Brien’s, virtually all of the central themes come down to the parallel questions first of the memories of war and their accompanying traumas and aftereffects and second to how much any individual or community can rely on memory to determine the truths of histories and lives.

It feels somewhat strange to link these two texts in this space, since O’Brien’s is deeply concerned with American history and culture and Lethem’s much less so (although it has plenty to say about life in Los Angeles in the late 20th century, as viewed through its futuristic fun-house mirror). If you’ve only got time for one, I recommend O’Brien, for that reason and just because it’s one of the best novels by one of our most important contemporary novelists. But they both rework the mystery genre in very fun and successful ways, and in so doing both have a lot to say about not only such books and their readers, but about the human identities and issues (like memory) to which they always connect. Next mysterious read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Read nominees, mysterious or otherwise, you’d share?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

June 20, 2017: Mysterious Beach Reads: Tony Hillerman



[For this year’s installment in my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to focus on mystery authors and novels about which I’ve previously blogged in this space. Leading up a new post and author on Friday, and then one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year—so add your Beach Read suggestions in comments, please!]
On a great mystery series that captures the lure of the Southwest, then and now.
There were a lot of reasons why Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park stood out to me among the many amazing stops on my family’s 1990 trip to visit Southwestern National Parks. Exploring thousand year old cliff dwellings, hiking out to the site of long-preserved petroglyphs, surprising a lone coyote at a sunset ruin—these are the kinds of experiences that will hit a 13 year old AmericanStudier in a particular way. But perhaps the most alluring aspect of Mesa Verde is its central mystery: the question of why the Anasazi people abruptly abandoned their cliff dwellings less than a century into their time there, and what happened to them after their departure. Archaeologists and historians have a variety of theories, but to some degree the Anasazi’s fate will always remain a mystery—and will thus keep young AmericanStudiers (and all the rest of us) coming back to Mesa Verde.
Even without an event as striking as the Anasazi’s departure, the dominant features of the Southwest’s human landscape—villages atop isolated mesas, dwellings in the sides of gaping canyons, petroglyphs carved in the rock and sand—lend themselves nicely to the mysteriously inclined. No one capitalized on that element more fully, nor more effectively, than Tony Hillerman, the University of New Mexico journalism professor who wrote (among his more than 30 total books) a series of 18 phenomenal mysteries focused on Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. I may be misremembering for dramatic effect, but I’m pretty sure I was reading one of the best novels in the series, A Thief of Time (1988), during that family National Park vacation—and I know that I won’t ever think of New Mexico’s canyons and ruins without thinking of how Hillerman captures them in the hugely atmospheric, spooky, and pitch-perfect opening to that novel.
Hillerman and his Navajo mysteries (as they’re usually collectively known) also interestingly complement another Southwestern writer about whom I’ve written in this space: Mary Hunter Austin. An Oklahoma native and decorated World War II veteran, Hillerman moved to New Mexico for his UNM job and, like Austin, found himself more and more deeply interested in and attached to the region and its histories, cultures, and communities. (As he chronicles in his wonderful memoir.) While I can’t say for sure how the Navajo felt about Hillerman’s books, from everything I have seen they recognized, as I believe would any reader, that Hillerman treated his focal cultures and communities with the same abiding respect and admiration he did his protagonist policemen and the landscapes they patrolled. Perhaps the one thing that links the many different Southwestern authors and artists about whom I’ve blogged over the years is how much they found themselves drawn to the Southwest—to its places, to its histories, and, certainly, to its very American stories.
Next mysterious read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Read nominees, mysterious or otherwise, you’d share?