“. . . old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends.”
–Simon & Garfunkel
If not old friends, then maybe ‘old reliable’ is a better description. We all have one or two, maybe more: comfort foods, movies, ratty clothing, and, of course, authors. You may not even be able to articulate who they are on the spur of the moment – these aren’t necessarily your favorite authors or the best ones, but when they cross your path it’s a small slice of literary promise – you know you’re not going to be disappointed.
There are two authors in particular who’ve always made reading their works worth my while, and this is going on for almost 30 years now – Martin Cruz Smith and James Lee Burke.
There’s something comforting in the storytelling of both these writers and their all too human chief characters; Smith’s Russian Chief Inspector Arkady Renko and Burke’s New Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robichaux.
Both men are iconoclasts, always at odds with, and at the same time hopelessly entwined with the conventions of their professions. They are – the both of them – very troubled individuals; each has their own uber-human faults, iron clad convictions (beliefs not criminal,) and their daily battles with the human condition around them. Alcohol, alcoholism and dreams play significant parts in their lives, as does their Sisyphean efforts to make right the societal wrongs around them .
If asked, I’d rarely say that I enjoy the mystery genre and I really don’t read most of them, but Renko and Robichaux are among my “must reads” when they come out. They’re also among the regulars I recommend when asked about a good fiction read. What I find appealing is that the whodunit element isn’t as important as the atmosphere and tension in their respective stories. These are men immersed in dark places, and I don’t know why, but I find their internal battles to be more worthy and interesting than a recitation of evidence and Agatha Christie “a-ha” moments. Maybe it’s because I don’t have their collective demons; I get to look in from the outside.
Both Burke and Cruz have positioned their stories and principals in the events / history of the moment. Renko has been our guide from Gorbachev’s Glasnost to the fall of the Soviet Union, to the successive emergence of oligarchic corruption and the rise of Vladimir Putin – an eventful if not enviable Russia. Burke’s Robichaux speaks to us of slave and slave owner descendents, dead Confederates in the bayou, Big Easy corruption, po-boys, beignets, and the physical / unworldly devastation of Katrina!
Smith’s latest gem is Three Stations and I came upon it very much by accident. It’s short as novels go – about 245 pages, but it’s absorbing – the Moscow Mafia, the militia, runaway children and dead dancers. There’s also the obligatory sidekick investigator whose vodka intake is about 50% of the annual Russian state production. Burke’s most recent work is The Glass Rainbow. As Dave investigates a series of murders involving the less than stand-up community icons, his daughter Alafair becomes involved with an ex-con in a setup perhaps inspired by Norman Mailer’s sponsoring of Jack Abbot. It’s always close to home with a little too much mortality. If you want some exposure to the human condition – from the comfort of your own life, then you need to be reading James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith.