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American Crime ~Fiction

THE NEW IBERIA BLUES . . . Between the covers

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Occasionally I miss out on ARCs and book proofs, and so when I realised the magisterial James Lee Burke had written another Dave Robicheaux novel, and that I was not on the publicist’s mailing list, I went and bought a Kindle version. Just shy of ten quid, but never has a tenner been better spent.

TNIBTo be blunt, JLB is getting on a bit, and one wonders how long he can carry on writing such brilliant books. In the last few novels featuring the ageing New Iberia cop, there has been a definite autumnal feel, and The New Iberia Blues is no exception. Like his creator, Dave Robicheaux is not a young man, but boy, is he ever raging against the dying of the light.

Aseries of apparently ritualised killings baffles the police department, beginning with a young woman strapped to a wooden cross and set adrift in the ocean. This death is just the beginning, and Robicheaux – aided, inevitably, by the elemental force that is Cletus Purcel – struggles to find the killer as the manner of the subsequent deaths exceeds abbatoir levels of brutality. There is no shortage of suspects. A driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary, a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row – you pays your money and you takes your choice. We even have the return of the bizarre and deranged contract killer known as Smiley – surely one of the most sinister and damaged killers in all crime fiction. Smiley is described as looking like a shapeless white caterpillar. Horrifically abused as a child, he is happiest when buying ice-creams for children – or killing bad people with Dranol or incinerating them with a flame thrower. Even Robicheaux’s new police partner, the fragrantly named Bailey Ribbons is not beyond suspicion.

As ever, the Louisiana landscape and climate is a larger-than-life presence. As the name suggests, New Iberia was founded by settlers from Malaga, but then came the Acadians, French settlers driven from Canada by the British. Their name was whittled down over the years until it became Cajun. Add to the mix Creole people, and the result is a culture that matches the tempestuous weather and exotically dangerous creatures that swim in the bayou.

Robicheaux’s take on the psychological and moral wasteland inhabited by conscientious cops is bleak and graphic:

“You can drink, smoke weed, melt your brains with downers or whites on the half shell, or transfer to vice and become a sex addict and flush your self-respect down the drain. None of it helps. You’re stuck unto the grave, in your sleep and during the waking day. And that’s when you start having thoughts about summary justice – more specifically, thoughts about loading up with pumpkin balls and double-aught bucks and painting the walls.”

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Ghosts are never far from Robicheaux. His sense of history, of the glories and the miseries of the past, of old love and even more ancient hate, are only ever an arms reach away:

“When I sat under the tree at three in the morning, an old man watching a barge and tug working its way upstream, I knew that I no longer had to reclaim the past, that the past was still with me, inextricably part of my soul and who I was; I could step through a hole in the dimension and be with my father and mother again, and I didn’t have to drink or mourn the dead or live on a cross for my misdeeds; I was set free, and the past and the future and the present were at the ends of my fingertips ….”

With writing that is as potent and smoulderingly memorable as Burke’s, the plot is almost irrelevant, but in between heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of the dawn rising over Bayou Teche, visceral anger at the damage the oil industry has done to a once-idyllic coast, and jaw-dropping portraits of evil men, Robicheaux patiently and doggedly pursues the killer, and we have a blinding finale which takes The Bobbsey Twins back to their intensely terrified – and terrifying – encounters in the jungles of Indo China.

The New Iberia Blues is published by Orion and is available now.

 

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey: Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

It is starkly obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of international history that the most brutal and bitterly fought wars tend to be between factions that have, at least in the eyes of someone looking in from the outside, much in common. No such war anywhere has cast such a long shadow as the American Civil War. That enduring shadow is long, and it is wide. In its breadth it encompasses politics, music, literature, intellectual thought, film and – the purpose of this feature – crime fiction.

Charlotte NC 1920x1350There have been many commentators, critics and writers who have explored the US North-South divide in more depth and with greater erudition than I am able to bring to the table, but I only seek to share personal experience and views. One of my sons lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is a very modern city. In the 20th century it was a bustling hive of the cotton milling industry, but as the century wore on it declined in importance. Its revival is due to the fact that at some point in the last thirty years, someone realised that the rents were cheap, transport was good, and that it would be a great place to become a regional centre of the banking and finance industry. Now, the skyscrapers twinkle at night with their implicit message that money is good and life is easy.

Charlotte is, to put it mildly, uneasy about its history – that of a plantation state based on slavery. The main museum in the city is the Levine Museum of the New South. The title is significant, particularly the word ‘New’. Like most modern museums in the digital age, it reaches out, grabs the attention, constantly provides visual and auditory stimulation, and is a delightful place to spend a couple of hours. Its underlying message is one of apology. It says, “OK, over 150 years ago we got things badly wrong, and it took us a long time to repair the damage. But this is us now. We’re deeply sorry for the past, and we are doing everything we can to redress the balance.”

Drive out of Charlotte a few miles and you can visit beautifully preserved plantation houses. Some have the imposing classical facades of Gone With The Wind fame, but others, while substantial and sturdy, are more modest. What they have in common today is that your tour guide will, most likely, be an earnest and eloquent young post-grad woman who will be dismissive about the white folk who lived in the big house, but will have much to say the black folk who suffered under the tyranny of the master and mistress.

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Confederate-Museum-Things-to-Do-Historic-District-Charleston-SC%u200E-By contrast, a day’s drive south will find you in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is energetically preserved in architectural aspic, and if you are seeking people to share penance with you for the misdeeds of the Confederate States, you may struggle. In contrast to the spacious and well-funded Levine Museum in Charlotte, one of Charleston’s big draws is The Confederate Museum. Housed in an elevated brick copy of a Greek temple, it is administered by the Charleston Chapter of The United Daughters of The Confederacy. Pay your entrance fee and you will shuffle past a series of displays that would be the despair of any thoroughly modern museum curator. You definitely mustn’t touch anything, there are no flashing lights, dioramas, or interactive immersions into The Slave Experience. What you do have is a fascinating and random collection of documents, uniforms, weapons and portraits of extravagantly moustached soldiers, all proudly wearing the grey or butternut of the Confederate armies. The ladies who take your dollars for admission all look as if they have just returned from taking tea with Robert E Lee and his family.

William-FaulknerSix hundred words in and what, I can hear you say, has this to do with crime fiction? In part two, I will look at crime writing – in particular the work of James Lee Burke and Greg Iles (but with many other references) – and how it deals with the very real and present physical, political and social peculiarities of the South. A memorable quote to round off this introduction is taken from William Faulkner’s Intruders In The Dust (1948). He refers to what became known as The High Point of The Confederacy – that moment on the third and fateful day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when Lee had victory within his grasp.

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…” *

* Lee made the fatal mistake of ordering General Longstreet’s corps to charge uphill, and over open ground, towards strong Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Known as Pickett’s Charge, it was a catastrophic failure which ended Lee’s invasion of the North. Although Lee enjoyed several subsequent victories he was, from that point on until his surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, fighting a defensive war against Union forces far superior in supplies, armaments and leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I DIE TONIGHT … Between the covers

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It is October in New York State
. ‘Fall’, of course, to the residents. Nothing much disturbs the ultra-ordinary Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, however, even the yearly arrival of the quaintly named ‘Leaf Peepers’ – folk who come to witness the glorious golds and reds of the autumn trees. Until one-rain lashed night when the rickety police station is being battered by the strong winds and the shoddily repaired roof is, once again, only just holding back the weather. Above the noise of the storm, there is a battering in the door as if the devil himself was trying to force his way in. It is not the devil, but a frantic woman:

“…make-up smeared, weeping in her bright red raincoat and rainbow-dyed hair, wet as something dredged up from the river. ‘There’s been an accident’.”

614rKZRqmfLThe woman is a former rock star, now reduced to providing the warm-up act to tribute bands in dingy roadside venues. All that Amy Nathanson has left to remind her of her brief spell of fame as ‘Aimee En’ is her former manager, now disease-stricken, and a luridly painted vintage Jaguar car, which she calls her “baby”. Now, on this grim night, as she drives home from her less than star-studded gig, she has been involved in a terrible accident. Her precious car has been hijacked but, even worse, a teenage boy lies broken in the road, run down by the car and its illicit driver.

Liam Miller is rushed to hospital. Dozens of his high school friends rush to be as close as they are allowed to his bedside but their vigil, for all its tears and prayers, is fruitless. He dies without recovering consciousness. The Havenkill police now have a rare case of murder/manslaughter on their hands, and the community – parents and youngsters – are plunged into a frenzy of speculation about the identity of the hooded teenager who stopped Amy Nathanson on the pretence of selling her drugs then mugged her and drove off in her car, leaving Liam Miller – who Nathanson thinks tried to come to her rescue – at death’s door by the roadside.

This superb thriller is peopled with strongly drawn characters. Pearl Maze is one of the police officers investigating the death of Liam Miller. She began her career in the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, but a tragic event from her childhood caused her to be victimised by her fellow officers, and she is trying to build a new life out ‘in the sticks’. The Reed family, mother Jackie and sons Wade and Connor, are central to the story. Jackie is a divorcee trying to hold down a job as a realtor, while trying to be both mother and father to her boys. She is driven to Xanax by the behaviour of the older son, Wade. His moods and unpredictability are far worse than the usual hormonal torment of teenage boys. What is going on in his secret life? Where was he on the night that Liam Miller died? We see Amy Nathanson, for all her weaknesses and hankering after faded glory, as a genuinely troubled woman cast adrift in a sea of her own insecurities and quiet desperation.

Alison GaylinAlison Gaylin (right) knows full well that every human interaction in the modern world – birth, death, triumph, failure, joy and misery – has to play out on social media, and so it is after the death of Liam Miller. We see the messages and memes, the grief and the anger, flash around the Havenkill cyberspace as the speculation about the identity of Liam’s killer intensifies. Even the makeshift shrine outside Liam’s family home is dwarfed by the virtual tribute page set up by his parents.

The plot is beautifully laid out to lead us first in one direction, and the another. Two thirds of the way through the book I began to infer just a hint of the truth about Liam Miller’s death, but I would never have guessed the real reason behind Wade Reed’s refusal to absolve himself from the crime – Gaylin waves her magic wand and carries off a show-stopping piece of literary theatre. If I Die Tonight is published by Arrow, and is available now on Kindle. It will be out in paperback at the end of December, and in hardback in 2018.

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THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE …Between the covers

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Shelby Truman is a highly successful romantic novelist tapping out stories involving her heroine Patricia Harlow. After forty two novels, the public shows no sign of losing its appetite for the sultry Patricia and her ability to choose precisely the wrong kind of man for her peace of mind and blood pressure. It’s a grey Chicago morning, and Truman is taking a deep breath and trying type something – anything – which will trigger the latest episode of inflamed passions and yearning bodies, when she receives a piece of registered mail which her assistant, Billy, has just signed for. She is used to convincing her readers that Patricia’s heart has ‘missed a beat’, but now fiction becomes reality.

“The return address at the top of the envelope indicates that the sender is Robert Crane Esq. of Limite, Texas. I know the name. Eddie’s attorney. A twinge of anxiety starts deep in my chest. I’d been trying not to think about Eddie, but that’s impossible this week.

The thing is, I’ve always thought about Eddie. We go way, way back, to when we were children living in Limite.”

Chicory LaneEddie is Eddie Newcott, the boy who used to live across the street in Chicory Lane, Limite. The boy who was just a bit different from all the other kids at school. The kid whose dad was a rough and abusive oilfield mechanic. The kid whose mom turned to the bottle to escape her violent husband and the beatings he handed out to their only child. But that was then. Now sees Eddie fallen on hard times. Times so hard that he achieved brief notoriety in the tabloid press, and has now been sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant girlfriend, slashing her open, dragging the foetus out and then arranging the two corpses on his front lawn, posed in an obscene mockery of a Nativity tableau. And it was Christmas Eve.

“EVIL EDDIE…” …”SATANIST IN GRUESOME RITUAL..” … ‘SUSPECT CLAIMS TO BE THE DEVIL …”

With these headlines dancing before her eyes, Truman reads that all efforts to appeal for clemency on the grounds of insanity have failed, and that Eddie Newcott will die in four days time. As one of his last requests, the condemned man has asked for a visit from Shelby Truman.

What follows is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the bond between Eddie and Shelby. It is as good a coming-of-age novel as I have read for many a year, but Benson’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t stop there. He delivers the poignancy and unbearable sensitivity of first love and sexual awakening. His account of how children escape from the shackles slapped on by their parents is masterly. Sometimes these shackles are forged from too much love, while with other children, the shackles are tempered in the fires of cruelty and hatred. There is also a very clever murder mystery, which isn’t resolved until the last few pages, and then the resolution brings only heartbreak.

I am never entirely sure what a ‘literary novel’ is, but if it consists of elegant writing, a fine ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the painful inconsistencies of human behaviour, then The Secrets On Chicory Lane ticks that box too.

RaymondBensonLike Shelby Truman, Raymond Benson (right) is a highly successful writer. He has written thrillers under his own name, most notably his Black Stiletto Saga, and has also written novels based on video games. He has taken up the baton from authors who are no longer with us, like Tom Clancy, and has written several James Bond stories which have either been based on established screenplays – like Die Another Day – or standalone original stories such as The Man With The Red Tattoo.

The Secrets On Chicory Lane is published by Skyhorse Publishing, and is available for pre-order.

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