The World of Chef Brett in Far West Texas
By JOHN DeMERS
I can’t really tell you the first mystery novel I remember reading and loving – not the least because, these days, genres can be such dicey things. The briefest stroll around Murder by the Book, glancing casually at what’s on its tables and shelves, tells us that, well, Toto, we aren’t in Sherlock Holmes-Hercule Poirot Kansas anymore.
There are, of course, still traditional mysteries being written, bought and enjoyed: books in which peeling through the layers of clues, sidestepping those dastardly red herrings and identifying “whodunit” on the final page is the primary source of our enjoyment. But there are also dark tales of remembered childhood abuse, paranormal adventures, vampires and werewolves, espionage thrillers set in dazzling world capitals and, most of all, gritty modern narratives in which all-too-real human beings struggle with relationships, children, alcohol and drug addiction, even aging parents. The fiction sold in the “genre” spotlighted by Murder by the Book has become, by my reckoning, the fiction of our time. More than lots of so-called “literary fiction,” it is the time capsule those proverbial future visitors from another planet might use to understand what was on our minds – and what weighed heavily on our hearts.
What is fiction anyway? My definition, which I will create now before your eyes, is: words pulled together in the form of an interesting, non-factual narrative that makes us think, makes us feel, makes us grapple with issues and, most of all, makes us come to know people that somebody made up better than we know the real people we think we know. Such fiction, done right, has provided entertainment, amusement and the occasional call to action since the days of Homer. And it still does, primarily in this genre I have chosen to call my own.
When it comes to the difficulties of modern relationships, my heroes before writing Marfa Shadows (and the other Chef Brett novels I hope will follow) were Ridley Pearson and Dennis Lehane. Ironically, both writers seem to have made a lot more money working apart from their initial inspirations – in Pearson’s case, the sizzling Seattle police department affair of Lou Boldt and Daphne Mattthews (and a convincing, often moving look at Boldt’s troubled marriage and children), and in Lehane’s, the similar sizzle between South Boston private eyes Patrick Kinsey and Angie Gennaro. Anyone who thinks real characters can’t suffer real slings and arrows in “crime fiction” should give a look at these early novels.
Other windows into the world of personal angst by characters who burn up pages solving crimes, or at least unknowns, should include the wonderful Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell, the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke (never has my native south Louisiana sounded so beautiful in print, even when seen through a cursed, alcoholic, Vietnam-vet former cop’s worst nightmares), the Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford and my beloved Gabriel Allon espionage books by Daniel Silva. Yes, I have a stake in this guy – we long ago were both reporters for UPI. The fact that Daniel covered big stories all over the world and I covered little stories in little cities says a lot about the differences between his novels and my Marfa Shadows.
Finally, if you haven’t had the pleasure – or if you just want to talk the talk – make your own pilgrimage to the guy that most writers in the genre credit with giving them a swift kick where it counts. Until his death a few months back, Robert B. Parker churned out some of the best, funniest, tautest and most suddenly violent novels in the marketplace. By being our hero, Parker connected us directly to his heroes, the guys like Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler who gave all American crime fiction its standards, its machinery, its countless cliches to accept or reject. That’s the job, after all, of each new guy or gal who announces in a public place: Hey folks, you just have to hear this story!
Debut signing of Marfa Shadows today at Murder by the Book in Houston, starting at 6:30. Complimentary tastings of Chef Brett’s Terlingua white bean chili and the beers of Shiner!