Review: Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman

The first mystery novel I ever read was Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman (1986, Harper and Row). It was given to me as a going away present by my fellow staffers at Grand Canyon National Park and I read it on the long bus trip back to Las Vegas, and then on the plane back to Canada, in March of 1994.

I loved the book, and the genre, and read everything penned by Hillerman in the following years. Skinwalkers was the seventh book in the Navajo Tribal Police series that was Hillerman’s trademark.

Recently I had the opportunity to go back and re-read Skinwalkers. Tony Hillerman knows how to craft an engaging story without making the mystery too complex. The actual who-dunnit part of the story had just enough ambiguity to keep me guessing, without being impenetrably complex like a PD James novel. Interestingly enough, I had no memory whatsoever of who the killer was; eighteen years had passed since I last read the book and I simply couldn’t recall anything but the most rudimentary elements of the novel.

More importantly, Hillerman knows how to draw interesting characters. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are Hillerman’s protagonists, and Skinwalkers brought them together to solve a crime for the second time. These are not complex men, but they are interesting. They have habits that as readers attract us, such as Lt. Leaphorn’s habit of sticking push-pins in giant Indian Country map on his wall to look for patterns in crimes, and Jim Chee’s earnest pursuit of his training as a Navajo shaman.

His characters also have believable and relatable challenges: the death of Leaphorn’s beloved wife and Chee’s chronic misadventures in love. The chemistry between the two police officers – one nearing retirement and one just starting to make his mark on the Navajo Reservation – is compelling.

Between 1970 and 2006, Hillerman wrote eighteen mysteries set on the Navajo reservation, and another dozen books of fiction and non-fiction about the American southwest. Skinwalkers is one of his best, but to be honest, I don’t really recall the plot line to any of them. The last of the eighteen that I read was likely on a plane around the year 2000; that’s what Hillerman’s books were for me: a way to get from Calgary to Toronto or Ottawa while being entertained. Slow reader that I am, it still usually took me less than four hours to read them cover-to-cover.

But individual plots don’t matter much when it comes to Tony Hillerman’s body of work. What matters is the vast impression that the whole collection makes on the reader. The books are as wide as the desert they are set in and tower like the buttes in Monument Valley above everything else in the genre set in the American Southwest. They leave an impression of deep reverence for both the land and its ancient people, and stand as a great introduction to the mystery novel for anybody wanting to enjoy a tightly plotted read.

While Edward Abbey inspired me with his prose and passion for the American Southwest, Tony Hillerman showed me that there was more than one genre that could communicate a love of the deserts, canyon’s and the people who inhabit them. That lead me to write The Slickrock Paradox, the first book in the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series. I have Mr. Hillerman to thank for that.

Tony Hillerman died in October of 2008 at the age of 83. I am grateful for the body of work that he left us.

Read more blog posts talking about the creation of the Red Rock Canyon series here.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Review of the Corpse with the Silver Tongue

(Disclosure: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is published by TouchWood Editions, which publishes my mystery novels. So I have been extra-critical….)

Reading The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is like having a conversation with a charming, slightly quirky, and highly intelligent aunt that you heard stories about when you were a kid, but never spent much time with. The aunt in this case is Cait Morgan, a criminologist by training with a specialty in victim profiling. She’s middle-aged, a little on the heavy-side and alluring. She loves to eat, enjoys good wine, and has a couple of extraordinary talents that make her a great amateur sleuth. First, she has the ability to profile not only people, but things, which she does in this debut novel from Cathy Ace. Cait also has a photographic memory: she can recreate a scene that she has only witnessed very briefly in startling detail.

These traits come in very handy when Cait finds herself in Nice, France, to present a paper on behalf of a sick colleague, where she runs into a former employer, Alistair Townsend. Before Cait became a victim profiler and University professor, she used her skills at understanding people at the ad agency run by Alistair. She, along with most of the rest of the world, hated the man. So when she’s invited to celebrate Townsend’s young wife’s birthday, she reluctantly accepts.  Alistair does a face-plant into his escargot at the dinner table, and we soon learn he was poisoned.

This is a perfect set-up for a “closed room” murder. The setting is the Palais du Belle France, a grand old residence that during the Second World War was the headquarters of the Gestapo. The suspects are the remaining dinner guests celebrating the evening. The likely motive: the Celtic collar, a birthday gift from Alistair to his trophy-wife;  a piece of ornate golden jewellery with a mythological history of killing those who wear it if they are not of Celtic blood.

What I liked about The Corpse with the Silver Tongue the most was the confined setting. We got to know one place, and its occupants, very well. There were just enough suspects in the murder investigation to keep me both guessing, and from becoming confused (something that happens much too often for my comfort). There were just a pair of clear possible motives. And the physical setting was both complex (I love underground tunnels in a mystery!) and confined. It brought to mind several of Agatha Christie’s classic who-dunnits, including Ten Little Indians and Murder on the Orient Express. When a second person dropped dead, I was delighted. Oh good, I thought, more mayhem!

I enjoyed getting inside the protagonist’s head. Cait is whip-smart, and professional, but also human. She smokes (it’s never even occurred to me to have a character light up a butt) and over-indulges and maybe spends a little too much time thinking about pastry for my liking, and she’s got plenty of flaws. But that’s what makes her identifiable. You could imagine your aunt, who happens to be a criminologist and busy-body, getting into this sort of trouble.

The solution to the mystery wasn’t particularly intricate, though I didn’t guess who the killer was. But then, I seldom do. I read mystery novels for insight into the protagonist, and the antagonist, and rarely trouble myself with trying to solve the riddle.  Cait is going to return, and I was also reading to see what sort of set up would take place for the second book in this series, The Corpse with the Golden Nose. No doubt about it, Cait Morgan is going to have her hands full, and with Cathy Ace penning her life’s story, readers are in for a grand time.

The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is published by Touchwood Editions. Follow Cathy Ace on twitter @AceCathy.

Follow me on twitter @stephenlegault.

Review: BLACKBIRDS by Chuck Wendig

I love the cover art for Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.

This pains me, but I didn’t enjoy Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig as much as I had wanted to. I’m a big fan of Wendig’s online, expletive-laden, deliciously-vulgar and self-described dubious writing advice. Much has been made on Wendig’s blog and twitter feed about Blackbirds, so I was prepared to really enjoy it. I wanted to really enjoy it. I picked up a copy last week and read it over the next few days, and while it wasn’t really bad, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped.

I suppose the Buddha was right that all expectations lead to disappointment. Makes book marketing tough, mind you. Twitter doesn’t really lend itself to subtlety.

Blackbirds is the story of Miriam Black, a young drifter who has a unique gift: with just one touch she can tell when, where and how you will die. The whole story of your death plays out before her eyes in just a quick blink. This, as you might imagine, causes some consternation for young Miriam, until she learns how to profit from her gift. When she comes in contact with someone who is near their demise, she shadows them and like a vulture, picks over their bones (and their pockets) when they croak. Despite this predilection for profiting from other’s bereavement, Black remains a tortured soul.

It’s a great premise, and Miriam is an interesting character, with a complexity that makes her both hard to love and lovable at the same time. She’s crass and fowl mouthed, and extremely violent, but with a latent tenderness that is seeking a soul to settle on.

In the end Blackbirds is a violent and disturbing incursion into the very darkest corners of human nature. Miriam’s gift comes to the attention of some very bad people and they fix their attention on exploiting the exploiter.

It struck me as I was reading Blackbirds that the world that Chuck Wendig creates must exist somewhere, but it’s so dark, so craven, that I have a hard time accepting it. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief, as all fiction begs us to do. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I live in a naive, rose-coloured world where the sort of uni-dimensional characters that make up Blackbird’s list of bad-guys simply can’t be real. I had the same feeling recently while reading The Glass Rainbow, the most recent offering by James Lee Burke, one of my favourite mystery writers: how could so many truly awful people all find each other in a place like New Iberia, Louisiana, or in the case of Blackbirds, the truck-stops and diners along the Interstates of Pennsylvania?

I’m not a prude: a curse a blue streak, both in real life and in fiction. My kids are growing rich from the swear jar in my house. My most recent fictional antagonist is a psychopath who enjoys a good torture session as much as Wendig’s character Herriot does. That’s not what bothered me in Blackbirds. What got me was the lack of restraint: sometimes you don’t need three or four contiguous descriptions of vulgarity to explain an act of psychopathic homicide or torment. Sometimes one will do. Let the reader fill in some of the blanks.

I read Blackbirds cover-to-cover in a couple of days, though one of those included a cross-country plane trip, so that gave me a few extra hours. I’m a pretty slow reader, so I either motored through it, or it was a pretty easy read, or both. The ending was satisfying, but not surprising. The much vaulted act of redemption, of balancing the equation, that leads to the altering of a man’s fate, felt a little contrived.

The sequel, Mockingbirds, will be out in 2013. I’ll likely pick it up, with lower expectations, just to see what fate has in store for the young woman who knows so many other’s providence. In the mean time, I’ll keep reading Wendig’s excellent and hilariously crude advice for writers. Somehow there all the vulgarity works.

Review: The DROP by Michael Connelly

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start. I’m a big fan of Michael Connelly. I would read just about anything he wrote. Recently, while on one of my regular drives from Alberta into Montana, I listened to Chasing the Dime (2002) and came away believing it was impossible for Connelly to write a bad character. I consider Connolly to be one of the best mystery writers alive today.

All of that said, The Drop (Little, Brown and Co, 2011) disappointed me. Not a lot, but a little, and for a master the caliber of Connelly, that’s enough.

The Drop is the most recent book in the Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch series, one of several protagonists that Connelly deftly weaves murder mysteries around. In this the 18th book in the Bosch series (Connelly has published 31 books as of 2011) Bosch is working the Open-Unsolved desk for the Los Angeles Police Department. He gets a cold hit on a DNA sample that links a long unsolved sexual assault and murder to a man who was only 8 when the crime was committed. Something is askew, but Bosch tracks the man down and learns that he is a serial child rapist out on parole with a deeply troubling past. At the same time, Bosch’s nemesis (who was deputy commissioner on the LAPD for many years, and tried to deep-fry Bosch’s career on more than one occasion) Councillor Irvin Irving’s son is found dead, supposedly the result of the sudden stop after he jumped from the top floor of a ritzy LA hotel. To everyone’s surprise, Bosch is asked by Irving himself to investigate. Did the man fall, or was he dropped?

Both investigations proceed on parallel tracks, and the investigative technique, personal drama and petty politics of the police force are, as usual, superb reading.

Where The Drop disappoints is that the two investigations never converge except in the form of some talk about “high jingo” between the LAPD and Councillor Irving. And while both stories are told masterfully, I was a little disappointed that they never hooked up in the end. It was like watching two friends flirt all night in the bar, and then shake hands and head for separate cabs. I felt as if Connolly had two short novels he wanted to write, or maybe a pair of longish novellas, and someone talked him into writing them together, in the same book.

In the end, everything except for the final few pages was classic Connolly: tight dialog, fantastic character development, perfect pacing and in this case two really well plotted mysteries. I just wished I had skipped the last chapter. Then I wouldn’t have had any lingering disappointment.

Harry Bosch isn’t getting any younger. The double-entendre of the title is that Bosch has just a few years left before he is forced to retire; he’ll get the drop. While Connolly has other terrific characters (I’m partial to Jack McEvoy in The Poet and The Scarecrow) I expect there will be a few more novels featuring Bosch. I hope so. I’m looking forward to watching him solve a few more mysteries, one at a time.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.