FIRST GREAT READS OF THE YEAR! JANUARY, 2014
Light of the World, by James Lee Burke
This is the first of Mr Burke’s books I have read involving his two Southern protagonists, New Orleans Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and Robicheaux’s dearest friend and colleague, private investigator Clete Purcel. They have shared many hair-raising and desperate adventures, and despite me making their acquaintance so late in the piece, Mr Burke manages to give a good synopsis of the traumatic events of their respective pasts so that no reader is in doubt as to what kind of men they are: flawed, broken more than once by life’s vicissitudes, but still honourable men according to their own lights – which do not always follow conventional and acceptable moral standards, especially when their families are threatened.
Dave and Clete are on an extended visit to Montana with their families, staying with old friend professor Albert Hollister and all is well until Dave’s daughter Alafair is shot at with an arrow that barely misses her. Dave is outraged that his complaints to the local sheriff’s department are regarded as a nuisance, but the police have bigger fish to fry: the adopted 17 year old granddaughter of one of the richest men in the U.S. has been murdered not far from her home (Billionaire granddad has many homes and at least two in Montana), and in their fawning efforts to show Mr Younger that they are on the case, the police discard as mischievous Dave and Clete’s own detective work, showing that an escaped serial killer, Asa Surrette, could be behind the granddaughter’s death and the attempt on the life of Alafair.
For Alafair has met Surrette before: she interviewed him for a series of articles she wrote about the mindset and motivation of serial killers, and Surrette has never forgotten or forgiven her for her excoriation of his narcissism; in fact, the overpowering evil of his presence and his smug satisfaction at the success of his grisly deeds caused her to write that she had never espoused the death penalty – until she met Asa Surrette: only then could she see the need to remove such evil from the earth.
Now he is coming for her and anyone else who stands in his way, including Clete’s daughter Gretchen, retired Mob assassin. And this is where the plot descends into farce – at least for me: perhaps it would have been more credible if I had read some of the other books, but coming in cold as I did, I found it very hard to accept that coldblooded murderer Gretchen has now turned her life around and has just finished a course at film school so that she can make documentaries about the rape of the earth by big business – particularly big business as practised by Mr Younger.
I am bound to say that the numerous, confusing directions in which the plot veered were a major disappointment, especially as Mr Burke is an accomplished, cerebral writer of suspense; for the most part his characters are wonderfully entertaining and some of the dialogue is a delight to read, whilst his descriptions of the physical world are superb. Sadly, Alafair and Gretchen come across as comic book Superwomen, two-dimensional and unconvincing; hardly the effect intended. That said, (and I had to say it!) ‘Light of the World’ is still a classy read and Mr Burke’s beautiful imagery makes me wish I could travel to Montana to see all that beauty for myself.
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
‘Beautiful Ruins’ was one of the New York Times Notable Books for 2012 and deservedly so: it is a lovely story and merits all the glowing tributes from its myriad other reviewers. Well, it’s my turn now – and I confess that I heard about this book, not by reading the blurbs, but by that tried and true source: word-of-mouth. Better late than never.
Starting in 1962, Mr Walters’ novel spans fifty years in the lives of Dee Moray, a beautiful American actress, and the lasting connection she has with Pasquale Tursi, a young Italian called home from his university studies in Florence to a dying fishing village at the end of the Cinque Terre. His mother is very ill and unable to manage the tiny Pensione which is now his responsibility, and despite his lack of business experience he makes up for that with a boundless enthusiasm that increases hugely when Dee Moray is booked by 20th Century Fox into his humble establishment – supposedy terminally ill with cancer. She has been working on ‘Cleopatra’, the arch flop of 1962, as the only blonde lady-in-waiting (!!) to Liz Taylor’s Egyptian siren but unbeknownst to Ms Taylor, currently wed to Eddie Fisher, Dee is engaged in a passionate affair with Richard Burton, Liz’s latest Appasionata. And despite a diagnosis of terminal stomach cancer (from Ms Taylor’s Doctor) it transpires that Dee is actually pregnant to Burton, who suffers from fleeting pangs of conscience when he’s not ruining his liver and staging monumental battles with Liz.
Pasquale is disgusted by the way Dee has been spirited away by the studio and hoodwinked into believing she will die, all to prevent a scandal and keep Liz happy: he becomes her champion and eventually lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Michael Deane, reptilian Fixit Man for 20th Century Fox, but it is up to Dee to decide what she is going to do with her life, and her unborn baby. Richard is too heavily involved with the breathtaking Liz in the long term, so Dee must make her own decisions: have an abortion and a career, or have the baby and leave her life to fate.
Mr Walters has written a tragicomedy of the first order; all his characters are deftly realised and their lives over fifty years are portrayed in flashbacks and forward leaps in time that are beautifully managed. He also provides the reader with a ruthless portrayal of Hollywood, birthplace of the Art of the Deal and the sale of the Perfect Pitch, where small men live like the heroes of the movies they make – and the people they destroy to achieve that. Mr Walter unashamedly admits that it took him fifteen years to write ‘Beautiful Ruins’. It was the novel that he kept leaving and coming back to, but its lengthy gestation is well worth the wait: it’s a gem, and – ironically - is now being made into a film. Highly recommended.