Doggedly indefatigable Good confronts irrepressible Evil. Again.

Old Testament imagery, suburban noir and a murdered monk all feature in the latest batch of crime novels

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 01:00

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels are usually set in Louisiana, but Light of the World (Simon & Schuster, €20.50) takes place in Montana, where the extended Robicheaux clan are on vacation.

The story opens with Alafair, Robicheaux’s daughter, being grazed by an arrow while jogging along a mountain trail. This event puts the Robicheaux family – and Dave’s long-time friend and partner, Clete Purcel – on a collision course with Montana’s less reputable characters, among them the immensely wealthy Love Younger and the serial killer Asa Surrette.

The Montana setting is entirely appropriate for Light of the World, which is the 20th Dave Robicheaux novel, and Burke’s 32nd novel in all. The monumental beauty of its soaring peaks and Big Sky provides a vast backdrop for Burke’s epic tale of doggedly indefatigable Good confronting an irrepressible Evil.

Those familiar with Burke’s work will recognise the theme immediately, but while there is a danger he is repeating himself in terms of his motifs (Robicheaux and Purcel experience, yet again, flashbacks to their life-defining tours during the Vietnam War, for example), it’s also true that Burke is refining and distilling his characters’ experiences as he edges away from the straightforward crime fiction narrative and embraces the storytelling potential of myth and legend.

As the story gathers pace, contemporary Montana comes more and more to resemble a lawless Old West setting, with Burke inserting a personification of ancient evil (“Him, the one the world’s been waiting on.”) into a full-blown Western narrative. Told in Burke’s customary elegant, elegiac style, and borrowing heavily from Old Testament imagery, Light of the World is another sumptuous tale from a crime-fiction master as he continues to rage against the dying of the light.


Home invasion
Safe as Houses (Canongate, €11.45), the second of Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt’s novels to be translated into English, opens with the rather prosaic image of a woman hanging out her washing in the garden. By the end of the first paragraph, however, Lisa’s life has changed forever, as she and her young daughter are taken captive in their own home by a psychotic killer who has escaped from prison.

A fast-paced example of suburban noir, in which cosy domesticity is transformed by a potentially brutal home invasion, the ironically titled Safe as Houses boils down to a battle of wits between a man with nothing to lose and a woman with a daughter to protect.

As translated by Michele Hutchinson, the story is told in no-frills prose delivered in a third-person present tense, with a parallel narrative heightening the tension when a woman calls to the house and realises Lisa’s predicament, only to suffer temporary amnesia in an accident as she rushes away from the scene. An unusually slim novel at 262 pages of large print, Safe as Houses focuses on incident and confrontation and largely avoids any in-depth exploration of the psychology of the characters. The result is a lean, stripped-down thriller that hits the ground running and sprints full-tilt to its breathless climax.
An innocent abroad
Irish journalist and author Michael Clifford debuted last year with Ghost Town, which used for its backdrop the ghost estates dotting the post-boom Irish landscape. The Deal (Hachette Books Ireland, €18.75) similarly explores the impact of recession, as Karen Riney, formerly a successful saleswoman, gets involved in the murky world of grow-houses, cultivating marijuana under the aegis of Dublin criminal Paschal Nix. Growing dope is a relatively harmless crime, or so Karen believes, but being an innocent abroad she reckons without the greed and paranoia that attend large sums of illicit cash.

Clifford crafts a tense tale as he braids together his headline-friendly plotlines, but where he excels is in characterisation. Karen and Nix are joined by Kevin, previously a prosperous builder-developer who now owes a debt to Nix, and by Dara Burns, a blues-loving gangland enforcer with a vacuum for a soul.

As with his fellow author and journalist Gene Kerrigan, Clifford’s characters aren’t simplistically defined as criminal or civilian, legal or illegal; for the most part, they are ordinary people in difficult circumstances, doing whatever it takes to keep their heads above water. The result is a compellingly fatalistic tale of desperation, double-cross and inevitable murder.


Gregorian chant
The Beautiful Mystery (Sphere, €11.50) is the eighth in Canadian author Louise Penny’s series of novels to feature Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Summoned to the remote monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, Gamache discovers that one of the monks has been brutally murdered – a particularly surprising crime, given that the monks have very recently become world famous for their inspiring plainchant music.

On one level a classic “locked room” mystery – Gamache immediately understands that the murderer can only be one of the monks – the novel is also influenced by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a literary detective story in which a book provided both motive and murder weapon.

Here the killer’s motive revolves around “the beautiful mystery” of music, and particularly its earliest incarnation in Gregorian chant. Penny deftly contrasts the divine worship of plainchant with the rather more squalid details of human desire for power and influence. She is a highly decorated author, and The Beautiful Mystery is a pleasingly ambitious novel for a writer who might, at this point in her career, be tempted to rest on her laurels.

The pace may be sedate, and the body-count very low, but this is a novel that places its faith in characterisation, atmosphere and the endlessly fascinating psychology of the human mind.

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