RAIN GODS By James Lee Burke, Simon & Schuster, 434 pages, $19
Someone once told me that all great novels are about the Four Last Things: heaven, hell, death and judgment. If that is so, then James Lee Burke has written a lot of great novels and Rain Gods is certainly one of the greatest. If your faith wavers, read this book.
This isn't a Dave Robicheaux or a Billy Bob Holland story, although a central character, Sheriff Hackberry Holland, is Billy Bob's cousin. But this Holland is over 70, working out the end of a long life. He lives in the flat, overheated land outside San Antonio, Tex., and his story begins: "On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach-paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression ..."
The young man calls 911 and reports shooting in the area, a lot of shooting. Then he hangs up the phone and runs. When Sheriff Holland arrives at the scene, it's pure horror. Nine young Asian women are dead and hastily buried in a mass grave. They have been machine-gunned and at least one was still alive when she was buried. Who could have transported these innocent women to this desolate spot and murdered them. And for what end?
The trail soon leads Hack Holland to Preacher Jack Collins, a psychopath who kills to order. Preacher believes himself to be a fine servant of the Almighty, but he's also careful to leave no clues, no trails, no witnesses. The young man who called 911 is ex-Marine Pete Flores, who was severely wounded in Iraq. Pete and his girlfriend, Vikki, are in Jack's sights and on the run. Hackberry and Preacher, along with an assortment of other thugs, are also on their trail.
As the chase plays out, Burke, in the character of Holland, ruminates and meditates about Last Things. Hackberry, like all classic detectives, is a man of honour and integrity walking through a fallen world. Raymond Chandler railed about dope, gambling and prostitution. Burke's demons are cowardice, betrayal and the weakness of soul known as anomie. Before Rain Gods is over, he has confronted them all. Skip all the philosophy, and you have a solid conventional novel with great characters in a superbly crafted setting. But it's the heaven, hell, death and judgment that make this a novel by James Lee Burke.
THE ARMS MAKER OF BERLIN By Dan Fesperman, Knopf, 367 pages, $32
I have always loved history and historians. The whole process of digging into the past is pure pleasure, so when I find a novel with a historian as detective, it's a book from heaven. There is a touch of Indiana Jones in Professor Nat Turnbull, specialist in the German Resistance, right down to the doe-eyed girls in his classes. But Turnbull doesn't have to wield a whip or carry a gun. He just has to unravel a cleverly coded message left by a dead friend.
The friend is 85-year-old historian Gordon Wolfe, Turnbull's friend and mentor. The friends have had a falling-out, but when Wolfe's wife calls to report that her husband is in jail, accused of stealing government documents, Turnbull heads out to help. He arrives to find that Gordon is dead, apparently of a drug overdose, in jail. Because of the charges, his career, after lasting more than 60 years, is in ashes.
Just what led to Wolfe's death, natural or otherwise, is the jumping-off point for the plot. It's complex and convoluted and leads back to Germany in the 1930s, a Resistance movement called the White Rose and a grand, passionate love affair, and then back to recent history. The East German Stasi gets a moment and some fiery Middle Eastern hit men come out to chase Nat and a German historian named Marta as they fight for the cache of documents that Gordon Wolfe died for.
The clues to it all are in a box of trinkets and in Nat's knowledge of history. Despite the contrivances (and there are many), I loved this book. It's not Fesperman's best, but it's a lot of fun anyway.
FEAR THE WORST By Linwood Barclay, Doubleday Canada, 399 pages, $29.95
Toronto Star columnist Linwood Barclay has written six novels about nice people caught up in crime. Fear the Worst is a different road for him. This novel rests on the scariest of all plot premises: a missing child and the distraught parent, trapped between hope for the best and fear of the worst.
The very first line sets the story and the tone: "On the day I lost her, my daughter asked me to scramble her some eggs." Tim Blake is a nice guy and a caring father, and he's about to lose his child. We quickly learn he has already lost his business to bankruptcy and his wife to another man. His teenaged daughter, Sydney, is all that remains of his happy past life, and she's spending the summer with him.
He fixes her the eggs, drives her to her job at a nearby hotel, and heads out to his own job selling Hondas. By evening, Sydney is not home. Then he goes to the hotel and discovers that she's not just missing, she's gone. They don't know her, never hired her, haven't seen her.
This is a plot line that never fails to work, simply because it really does play on every parent's worst fear. Other writers have worked it well: Is the girl dead? What kind of game was she playing? The plots can go on and on.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well for Barclay, although he does have a really good story going. The difficulty is that everyone in this novel is nice, and there's no depth to the characters. Tim is a lovely guy who radiates a rather geeky charm. His ex-wife, who left him when his business failed, is not a heartless gold digger. The nasty kid turns out to be a shy sweetie.
Even the villains have some redeeming features. The really bad guys are all cartoons, including a nasty cop who accuses Tim of killing his own kid. Tim's righteous rage here comes across as high dudgeon.
There's a clever mystery here and Barclay spins out the clues in true Christie fashion instead of building threats and suspense. Despite the scary premise and a fistfight or two, by the end, the suburbs are restored to perfect order.
BODY BLOWS By Marc Strange, Dundurn, 306 pages, $11.99
This is the second novel by Strange featuring ex-boxer Joe Grundy and his boss, Leo Alexander. The first one was a fine debut, nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award. This one is even better, with a great Vancouver setting and a really solid story that takes us back into Leo's personal life.
The story begins with the opening of Leo's latest acquisition, Vancouver's Lord Douglass Hotel, a five-star establishment promising everything from the latest in spas to the finest dining. So when Leo's housekeeper ends up dead, and it turns out she was doing a lot more for the boss than changing sheets, suspicion naturally falls on Leo.
It's up to Joe Grundy to find out just what happened and, incidentally, keep Leo's reputation intact along with his millions. But it turns out that Leo's past is a lot more pockmarked than even Joe Grundy could imagine.
Strange, an actor as well as a television writer, knows how to keep the dialogue moving, and while his characters are light, they're not slight. The action keeps moving and Vancouver is the perfect backdrop. Body Blows is a great light novel for a weekend away.
THE DYING LIGHT By Henry Porter, Orion, 425 pages, $24.95
Henry Porter, editor of British Vanity Fair, writes fabulous novels. Empire State was one of my favourites a couple of years back. The Dying Light is even better, a spy novel for everyone who loves le Carré and Deighton, but with a crisp modern woman in charge.
Kate Lockhart is a high-powered Manhattan lawyer. Years before, she was an equally high-powered intelligence agent. She had a friend who was also her lover. David Eyam was brilliant and careful. He was the adviser to Britain's highest officials. Then he made a mistake and was sent down, retired to a small town in Wales.
Kate moved on, made her ambitious way. But when David is killed, caught in a terrorist blast in Bogota, Kate finds herself his legatee. Just what was David doing in Bogota? Not holidaying. As the Prime Minister says, Eyam's idea of a vacation was a trip to the opera houses of Europe.
Kate takes on David's legacy and finds herself caught in a conspiracy. It will take all her intelligence and her skills to stay ahead of the people who are out to stop her from revealing just what happened to David Eyam and why. You won't put this novel down until the final paragraph.
THE LAST EMBER By Daniel Levin, Riverhead Books, 432 pages, $32.50
In this stellar debut, Daniel Levin sets out to become the Jewish Dan Brown, except that he's a better writer and a better researcher than Brown. In a season awash with clones of The Da Vinci Code , The Last Ember shines.
Classics scholar and lawyer Jonathan Marcus is summoned to Rome by an old friend. Fragments of a stone map of ancient Rome have surfaced, and there's a chance it might be a clue to the fabled Tabernacle Menorah, taken from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and lost.
But the menorah is far more than an rare and priceless object of devotion, or even a piece of history. As part of the history of the Temple Mount, it is part of the enduring legacy of Judaism and Christianity in the centre of Jerusalem, and there are terrorists who will do anything to eradicate that history for all time.
Levin makes no bones about which side of history he is on, but the race between the Islamists and the Jews is the smallest part of the plot. The real fun is following Jonathan as he finds and deciphers the clues and the spots where ancient and modern world converge. This is a great airplane novel.