Hello Darkness, My Old Friends

7 Jul

THE FALLEN ANGEL by Daniel Silva 

For several years now, I’ve traded the traditional light reading of summertime (remember books for the beach house, if we were lucky enough to afford either or both?) for the darkness that enters any room with Gabriel Allon. Along with other characters described below, Allon is the opposite of light, in any typical sense of the word. He’s a masterful restorer of Italian art who also happens to work as a spy and, in most cases, an avenging killer for the Israeli secret service. 

Over the years, in book after book, former foreign correspondent Daniel Silva has aimed Allon at several phases of the Arab assault on Israel, beginning with the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and passing toward the present through intifada, global terrorism and nuclear threat. Allon has also dealt with problems at the Vatican, problems with the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia and, perhaps most heartbreakingly, problems that still haunt Europe (and Gabriel himself) from the Holocaust.   

In addition to beloved parts of any Allon yarn, including patriarch Ari Shamron may he never rest in peace, there are old friends and old enemies in The Fallen Angel. There’s the Vatican and some very colorful corners of Europe, all culminating in a plot involving what must be the world’s most sacred piece of real estate. There are serious lessons about the past, the present and the future tucked away among these feverishly must-turn pages. As both Allon and his creator know well, it’s not for nothing that words like Armageddon came into our vocabulary from Israel in the first place. 

CREOLE BELLE by James Lee Burke 

It’s interesting when a phrase like “his best book yet” seems immaterial, even a little bit shallow and silly. That’s the way it feels with the 19th of James Lee Burke’s novels set in New Iberia, New Orleans and the rest of south Louisiana featuring Dave Robicheaux. Creole Belle is the deepest, darkest look behind the curtain of mortality that this Vietnam vet, disgraced NOPD cop, Iberia Parish detective and ever-recovering alcoholic has dared. Or has been forced  to dare. 

The world in which the action takes place is familiar, even beyond the Gulf Coast culture into which Burke was born in Houston in 1936. It is a world of oil rigs and sportsman’s paradises, existing side by side for what seemed would be forever. It is a world of family and longtime friends, including Dave’s wife (a former activist nun named Molly), his daughter Alafair, the quirky pets who share their rough-hewn house on Bayou Teche, and especially his overeating, overdrinking, terminally haunted sidekick Clete Purcel. From Saigon to the French Quarter, Dave and Clete have cheated death more times than they or we can count, forging a relationship/partnership/brotherhood that’s truly one for the record books. 

In Creole Belle, everything we love about the Dave Robicheaux series is served up like boiled crawfish on newspaper, even as the Gulf that Dave knows and loves is destroyed inch by inch by a mammoth rig explosion and oil spill. If James Lee Burke ever longed for his ultimate metaphor – for the way greed, lust, ego and violence spread out from their sources to empower monsters to harm and enslave the powerless – he finds it here, in the too-real headlines as well as the breathtakingly eloquent pages of Creole Belle. 

STOLEN PREY by John Sandford 

So many things have come and gone  during John Sandford’s long and wildly successful series that began with Rules of Prey. For one thing, there are 22 books that didn’t exist before this Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter first imagined a classy cop hero named Lucas Davenport. And as with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, one of the biggest changes concerns how much the hero has to lose. 

In the beginning, Davenport was single, and that was part of his womanizing roguish charm. Now that some of that role has been transferred to another character named Virgil Flowers (who appears as a sidekick in the Davenport novels as well as in a series of his own), Davenport has much to brood about as his puts his life on the line in book after book. He has a wife and daughter to think about, and although he hates to admit it as much as the next guy, he’s getting older as well. 

In Stolen Prey, Sandford’s once-sealed-off world of Minnesota joins the rest of the country in facing the measureless cruelty of the Mexican drug cartels. Minnesota, in truth, is very far from the Mexican border, yet the amounts of money involved in this smuggling, murder and corruption end up mirrored in the amounts of American landscape involved. The killers have found their way onto Lucas Davenport’s turf, and by the end of this book they won’t be happy they did. 

BEASTLY THINGS by Donna Leon

At a cursory glance, few figures in American popular fiction could be farther removed from the fast-talking, tough-fisted noir detective than Commissario Guido Brunetti. As featured in 21 novels by an American writer who’s lived in Venice more than three decades, Brunetti has done his work as chief investigator using far more brain than brawn – and, in true Italian fashion, nearly always halting the darkest, most frightening encounters long enough to go home for lunch with his wife and two children. Many fans of Donna Leon’s series would agree… Lunch with the Brunettis, priceless! 

Though Leon presumably has opinions, possibly even political ones, the ideas that form and inform her intelligent books are the ideas doing the same in modern Europe. There are hints here of struggles with finances in the eurozone, and perhaps more on that subject is to come in future Brunetti books. More prominent now are issues involving the environment (in addition to its much-reported flooding, Venice is battling industrial pollution on a scale few other places could imagine), struggling with too many immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa, and even debating within itself about genetically modified foods and meat-vs.-meatlessness. 

In short, even as Brunetti embarks on another horrific case – involving a deformed man’s body washed ashore with no wallet and only one shoe – there’s no shortage of fascinating things for people to talk about. Conversations with the inspector’s dense bosses at the Questura, with Vianello and other minions on the force, with the computer-savvy Signorina Elletra, and even with his own family light Brunetti’s path, as always with Donna Leon, into death, deception and the darkest corners of the human spirit.

CHASING MIDNIGHT by Randy Wayne White 

What seems an impossibly long time ago, there was a guy named Travis McGee. He lived on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale, had a sidekick and many friends (most of whom were women who seemed to sleep with him occasionally), turned a tough but vulnerable gaze upon an immoral world, and by the end of each book saved someone from a very unpleasant fate. We don’t have Travis McGee anymore, except in the small paperbacks John D. MacDonald left behind. But we do have Doc Ford, living in a house on stilts near a marina on the opposite side of Florida. 

Honestly, every time I read a new Doc Ford book set on and around Sanibel Island, I feel it’s time for a Florida vacation. Like MacDonald before him, and even like Carl Hiaasen now, former fishing guide Randy Wayne White delves into the corruption and violence beneath the facade of America’s tropical paradise. Yet few popular fiction writers (other than James Lee Burke on south Louisiana) understand better the natural beauty that keeps their heroes anchored in one place. 

In many ways, Chasing Midnight is a movie waiting to happen – or perhaps a movie that’s happened more than once already. Doc Ford and his thin, longhaired, drugged-up aging hippie sidekick named Tomlinson face a host of very dangerous people here, from foreign caviar tycoons to an apocalyptic neo-Christian sect with a bomb set to a timer. Tick tock. That alone keeps the pages turning, but (as with Travis McGee) it’s the scenery and the narrator’s calm, slightly sad, almost inadvertently courageous voice that keeps us coming back book after book.

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