Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Newest books by Pelecanos and Penny reflect care and craftsmanship

Little wonder that the mystery genre is so wildly popular. It's a big house with accommodations for a range of styles and approaches.  No better example exists than the two books below -- one a hard-boiled thriller, the other a classic mystery in the tradition of the English cozy. Both reflects the care and craftsmanship of their authors. Both are superb reads.

Book 96: The Cut by George Pelecanos

With a nod to noir, D.C. writer George Pelecanos returns to his roots in The Cut

Pelecanos's most recent novels foundered in a high-minded bid to attain a level of moral instruction. That's gone.  His new character, a veteran of "I-raq", is a man of action and moral relativism. He has no qualms about the bodies he leaves in his wake nor his mission to restore stolen drugs to a jailed dealer. Neither will the reader.

With its smooth, jazz-like dialogue, a narrative that sweeps along at breakneck pace and scenes of sudden, explosive violence, The Cut recalls Pelecanos's first four novels, commonly known as the D.C. quartet. It also demonstrates the degree that Pelecanos's work as a writer on HBO's The Wire now influences his novels through concision, focus and pace.

Pelecanos celebrates his return to hard-boiled thrillers and lays claim to his literary heritage. Within the course of the novel he gives a chin nod to Elmore Leonard (Spero's brother is teaching Leonard's Unknown Man #89 to his high school class), Daniel Woodrell and Willy Vlautin (Spero presents a love interest with copies of The Death of Sweet Mister and Lean on Pete. Are you sending a message, she asks. "Good clean writing," says Spero) and Donald Westlake (with a reference to The Hunter, written under Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark).

He also acknowledges a couple of characters who have served him well in past thrillers -- Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos. Stefanos was the narrator of Pelecanos's first three novels. Strange was a lead character in a number of the novels that followed.  These two may reappear. For now, it's enough to know that Spero "had heard tell of the man, Derek Strange, and his latest partner, a middle-aged Greek whose name he could not recall."

The Cut contains many of the stylistic touches that distinguish a novel by Pelecanos -- the street-level tour through Washington, D.C. and references to food and music. In one sense, there's nothing new to The Cut. It's simply a welcome return to the mean streets Pelecanos has traveled so artfully in the past.

Book 99: A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny  

I don't know which is more absurd -- that the denouement of Louise Penny's new mystery comes on a dark and stormy night with the all the suspects assembled by a crackling fire or that it works.

Because it does work. Just as it has worked so well in her past novels. Penny embraces the elements of the traditional English cozy and then rises above those conventions with an intelligent plot and vivid characters to produce a compelling mystery.

Penny's greatest strength lies in her characters.  Despite the large number of characters that populate her novels by simple necessity -- there's the homicide investigation team, the inhabitants of Three Pines and those figures we meet because of the demands of the current story -- Penny manages to give them each distinct personalities.

I cannot recall another author of a continuing series who has been as successful as Penny in telling the stories of each of her recurring characters.  She works at an almost leisurely pace, introducing their back story, their passions and peccadilloes, over the course of several books. Each character gets their turn in the spotlight.

Penny's gift is to create characters the reader cares about. We cannot wait to know what happens next in their lives. What does the future hold? What events are soon to unfold in the village of Three Pines?

On several occasions in A Trick of the Light, characters observe that Three Pines isn't on any map. No matter. Any admirer of intelligent, well-written mysteries knows the way to this small Canadian village.

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