By James Lee Burke, Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $32
I cried at the end of The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke’s previous Dave Robicheaux novel. I thought Dave and Clete Purcell were dead, bleeding out on the edge of the bayou as the ghosts of Old Louisiana watched and a paddle-wheeler arrived to carry them off to the Elysian Fields.
But Dave didn’t die. He’s back in book 19, Creole Belle, in a plot as sprawling and conflicted as the great state of Louisiana. There’s corruption, avarice, incest and, just for seasoning, an old Nazi. This is a world where evil walks upright, smiles and bullies the help.
The Creole Belle is Tee Jolie Melton, a beautiful songstress who appears to Dave in what may be a morphine dream. She tells him she’s got a new boyfriend, one who may be involved in something shady. When Dave gets out of the hospital, he goes on a search for her and learns that Tee Jolie has disappeared, along with her younger sister, Blue.
The mystery of Tee Jolie is quickly subsumed into a conflict between Clete and a trio of hired thugs dunning him for money. The thugs are killed without assistance from Clete, and that leads to an even more complex series of crimes. It’s all woven together, though there are spots that truly do strain credulity.
That said, Burke never goes wrong with his exquisite gift for taking us into the heart of Louisiana, its wetlands, small towns, the glory of old New Orleans and, as always, its checkered history. Combined with some of the finest characters ever to grace a page, that makes any Robicheaux novel a joy to read.
Mission to Paris
By Alan Furst, Random House, 255 pages, $32
Summer isn’t complete without a really good espionage novel for the beach, and this summer’s best is Mission to Paris. The hype is that Alan Furst is this generation’s John le Carré or Len Deighton, and the hype is correct. Mission to Paris is irresistible.
The time is 1938, as the world edges closer to war, and Adolf Hitler wants to undermine the morale of France in advance of an invasion.
Enter Hollywood star Fredric Stahl, glorious leading man and star of a new movie set to begin filming in Paris. The Reich sees him as a possible agent to influence the French, and an approach is made.
But Stahl, despite his Austrian birth, is no Nazi. He knows what’s going on in Germany and has no desire to assist it. What he does do is what keeps this brilliant and evocative novel moving.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln
By Stephen L. Carter, Knopf, 506 pages, $32
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is one of the best alternative history books I’ve ever read.
The world of the black upper classes is where Stephen Carter, a distinguished Yale law professor, has set his other five novels.
This one, backed by hefty historical research, takes us to the dreadful days after the U.S. Civil War, when one group of victorious Yankees wanted to ease the battered Confederate states back into the Union, and another group wanted to punish the vanquished, and punish them again.
That is the backdrop for a a story in which Lincoln survives his assassination attempt and then faces the collapse of his cabinet, leading to his impeachment by Congress.
Our entry to the tale is Abigail Canner, a very young black Oberlin College graduate, selected to work for the law firm undertaking Lincoln’s defence. Would a young black woman have been at the table? Probably not, but Carter makes a great case for her. He also knows all about the intricacies and delicate nuances of law that make this a great legal thriller as well as a superb historical drama.
Snakes and Ladders
By Sean Slater, Simon & Schuster, 532 pages, $19.99
The latest by Sean Slater (the nom de plume of Vancouver policeman Sean Sommerville) introduces Detective Jacob Striker of the Vancouver PD. It begins with a really scary murder and then moves to the discovery of the body in the unhappily named Lucky Lodge Rooming House in the tenderloin district.
The murder of Mandilla Gill takes Striker across town to a shady psychologist working at a local mental hospital. Just what is happening to the members of Dr. Erich Ostermann’s support group, and who is doing it, is what Striker has to uncover. When a close friend in the group disappears, Striker’s search becomes personal.
Slater is a dab hand with setting and cop-shop procedure. He’s a little weaker on character development, and the book is 100 pages too long. But these are minor points for a first novel. Sean Slater and Jacob Striker are names to watch for.
The Last Policeman
By Ben H. Winters, Quirk, 316 pages, $14.95
“What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?”
That’s the spellbinding question for this novel, which is the beginning of a trilogy. The world is doomed. An asteroid is speeding on its way and in six months, Earth will be so much ash and flotsam. In the face of imminent death, people are turning to faith and magic, or to suicide. Policeman Hank Palace, faced with a hanging, doesn’t believe it’s a suicide.
Who cares? He does.
This novel isn’t really about whodunit or whydunit. It’s about civilization and civility, and Winters manages to work a lot of difficult questions into a very well crafted mystery. I’ll be with Palace to The End.
The Dark Monk
By Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne, Mariner, 455 pages, $21.50
The Dark Monk is the second in this superb series set in 17th-century Germany. Readers who loved Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter will find this one every bit as good.
The story begins with a poisoned parish priest. Hangman Jakob Kuisl and his daughter Magdalena are in search of a killer, but the league of monks on their trail is intent on obscuring an old wrong and covering up a great evil.
The Skeleton Box
By Bryan Gruley, TouchStone, 320 pages, $28.99
This is the third novel in the Starvation Lake series set in rural Michigan. The plot begins with a murder committed during a break-in where nothing is stolen.
In a town where nobody has much and no one locks doors, why would anyone break in? And, once in, why kill? The dead woman is Gus Carpenter’s mother’s oldest friend. Carpenter, editor of the local weekly, is also facing the possible demise of his paper.