Creole Belle by James Lee Burke
Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen
The Lonesome Heart is Angry by Paul Charles
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
It was inevitable, I suppose. After making sterling progress in January and February towards my aim of an average of a book read per week for 2014, I came a bit of a cropper in March. Okay, so I’m still averaging a book a week for the month, but after eight books in January and seven books in February, a mere four for March seems rather poor, especially as two of them were pretty short. I’ll excuse it on the grounds that one of the books that tipped into April was very long indeed, with quite small print, and one of the March books was also pretty long, especially for a mystery novel.
Let’s begin with that book, since it’s kind of what I did. Occasionally I’ll meet would-be-writers (and, indeed, published writers) who try to avoid reading anything remotely resembling their own work while writing. I suppose they worry that they might be overly influenced by the style of the writer whom they’re reading, and I accept that this can be a real concern, especially when one is starting out. I can still spot the paragraph in Every Dead Thing that was written under the influence of too many Cormac McCarthy novels, mainly because it’s a paragraph long and entirely untroubled by punctuation, apart from the full stop at the end.
On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for reading a writer of undeniable excellence who is working in the same field as you are. At the very least, it gives you something for which to aim, and will remind you of how good the writing within your genre can be. That’s as true of mystery fiction as any other. There’s a lot of serviceable writing in the genre, but not a lot of really great prose. Some people might argue that you don’t read mystery fiction for the prose, but that’s like saying that you don’t judge your furniture by the quality of its construction. It’s enough that the table is flat, and your cup doesn’t slide off. It’s the same mindset that likes to describe mystery fiction as essentially plot-driven when, as any fule kno, it’s character-driven, or at least the best of it is.
James Lee Burke is one of the writers who made me want to be a writer. He’s one of the great prose stylists in the mystery genre, or indeed any genre, and for my money he’s the greatest living mystery writer. He’s so good that I’m always one book behind. I don’t read his next-to-last book until I have the latest one on the shelf. That way, I’ll always have one in reserve. (When I mention this at book events, it’s nice to see a lot of readers nod in understanding. I may be odd, but I’m not alone in my oddness.)
With that in mind, Creole Belle is actually 2012’s Dave Robicheaux novel, and I still have 2013’s book, Light of the World, to read. Which is nice. It was, as always, an illuminating experience to read it as I began writing the next Parker book, although, slightly worryingly, it did touch on some of the same subject matter as the novel on which I’m working. Still, that happens less often than one might expect, given that all creative endeavor draws from the same cloud of inspiration.
What’s interesting about Creole Belle – the consistency of the quality of Burke’s work apart – is the extent to which its characters are shadowed by mortality. Burke made a decision a long time ago to allow his characters to age, which has kept the books fresh. If, as I said above, all fiction is fundamentally about character, then by allowing the characters to change and develop, a writer can ensure that his or her fiction changes and develops too. I always enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, but because Spenser never really aged, the books never really changed either. They were all basically the same, which was kind of reassuring. Sometimes it’s nice to know what you’re getting before you buy it.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Burke’s characters should have mortality on their minds. Their creator is no longer a young man, and the concerns of his characters probably reflect his own. Nevertheless, I hope Burke has many years left in him yet. For my generation of mystery writers, he remains something of a touchstone, and I personally am lost in admiration for him as both a writer and a decent, moral human being.
Oddly enough, I felt a point of contact too with Donald Fagen, whose Eminent Hipsters provided a palate cleanser between novels. I’d kind of skimmed through it before Christmas, but I wanted to return to it when I had a little time on my hands. Okay, so there’s something mildly frustrating about one half of Steely Dan writing a kind of memoir in which Steely Dan is barely mentioned, but I can only assume that he’s saving the Dan years for another book, which is fine with me.
The essays that form the first part of Eminent Hipsters are curious and amusing, but the real meat is in the tour diary that takes up most of the book. I suspect that Fagen has partly created a character called “Donald Fagen” who is marginally more curmudgeonly than he is, but not by much. He clearly doesn’t care much for traveling, yet making a living requires that he tours. He gets annoyed that the audience for his tour with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald want to hear old Dan tunes instead of the R&B and soul that is the backbone of the trio’s set, yet also recognizes that the only reason that most of them have bought tickets is because he’s half of Steely Dan. Finally, he shares with me one of my own bugbears at concerts: the apparent inability of people to simply attend a concert without holding up a cellphone and watching it on a screen as they record it. As Fagen notes, it’s as though they can’t conceive of actually being present unless they have some physical evidence to remind them.
So put your phones away, or Fagen and I will do for you.
Strangely, I read two Irish novels this month, which may be a record for me, since I have a recorded antipathy towards Irish fiction in many of its forms. The first was The Lonesome Heart is Angry by Paul Charles, published next week. I know Paul well, and am hugely fond of him: he’s a good writer, and a fine human being, but it’s always a risky business when one is asked to provide a cover quote for a book by a friend. Nevertheless, The Lonesome Heart is Angry, with its gentle but incisive examination of small-town secrets, was a pleasure to read, and almost made me reconsider my attitude to Irish fiction in general, which I find worrying.
This doubt about my own prejudices was further exacerbated by The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which has become something of a phenomenon in Ireland, and won the Guardian First Book Award in the UK this year. It has also been shortlisted for the 2014 Impac Award. It’s a novel constructed from a series of interlinked short stories, each concerning a different character in a small Irish town, and its success is unsurprising. Ryan can write, and although I’m still not entirely convinced that a book constructed from interlinked short stories is actually a novel rather than a collection, I came away from it very glad that I’d read it, and glad too that, for once, the hype appeared to be justified.
And so we’re into April, and I’m already looking good for at least another four books this month — but two very large research tomes are calling to me, and I know that they’re going to scupper my progress eventually…