Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grisham Goes Back to Beginnings in ‘Sycamore Row’

(from The Buffalo News
by Melinda Miller)

Don’t see those gift cards in your wallet as a cop-out by friends and family. They probably just aren’t sure whether you already have the latest from John Grisham, David Baldacci or Michael Connelly.

After all, SOMEONE has been putting those fellows on the top of the best-seller lists. Even people who strayed from the Grisham fold are finding “Sycamore Row” (Doubleday, 447 pages, $28.95) reason to check back in. The author goes back to his beginnings, to the small town of Clanton, Miss., and to lawyer Jake Brigance, the hero of “A Time to Kill.” That novel, Grisham’s first, was discovered by readers after “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief” made him one of the hottest writers out there.

Twenty-five years later in real time, Grisham has allowed three years to pass back in Clanton, where Jake, at 35 years old, is beginning to wonder if his career has already peaked. We know better, and his next big case – that of a millionaire who commits suicide after writing a will leaving his estate to his maid – was worth the wait. “A Time to Kill” aimed at the deep racial divisions still defining life in the 1980s South. This courtroom thriller keeps that depth but adds to the range, with enough characters and cunning, and a fair share of violence, to fill a Russian novel. If Jake has learned a few things in the three years since he defended Carl Le Hailey, Grisham has learned even more.

This is Grisham’s 26th novel, and coincidentally, it is the 26th novel by Michael Connelly that brings back his Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, who, like Brigance, was played on film by Matthew McConaughey. In “The Gods of Guilt” (Little, Brown, 387 pages, $28), forces even darker than usual surround Haller and those he cares about. Even Lincoln, the car that serves as his office, gets targeted, to tragic effect.

It all adds to the gods of guilt, the jury Haller carries around inside him, judging whether the ends justified the means, and whether the wins are worth the losses.

As Connelly knows so well, there is no hero like a flawed hero, and few play that balance better than Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko. Smith’s books arrive at a more leisurely pace than those from other best-seller factories, and they are more than worth the wait. The latest proof is “Tatiana,” (Simon and Schuster, 290 pages, $25.99), a seamless exercise in the crime and politics of the ever-changing Russian landscape. Senior investigator Renko finds himself tracking two deaths here, that of a mobster shot in the head in Moscow and of a journalist, Tatiana Patrovna, the victim of an inexplicable six-story fall from her apartment. Tatiana’s story is inspired by that of Anna Politkovskaya, whose real 2006 death was less cryptic. An investigative reporter whose work targeted those in power, she was shot outside her apartment. Her murder has never been solved.

But the book starts with another slaying, far from Moscow and practically invisible in the scheme of things. That is, until some very important players realize that the unidentified victim found on a distant beach carried with him secrets that could either undo or reveal high-level, expertly calculated and highly criminal undertakings.

The Renko of today remains the same unconventionally principled character we have known since “Gorky Park,” but his tiredness comes through. His parentage does not haunt him as much as it used to, when everyone projected onto him their memories of his father, a Soviet officer. Now, it is his own history that he lives with, as a man condemned to value integrity over authority no matter what it costs him.

This Renko doesn’t really believe in love anymore, but he will still accept whatever temporary version of it comes his way. A true Russian, he takes nothing at face value, and is surprised when he finds the good in people, not its opposite. In a nice touch, he understands villainy enough to know those who consider human lives expendable still can be attached to a dog.

For fans of Renko, this book is a treat. For anyone who has not yet met him, Smith has eight novels out there to discover, from before the fall of the Soviet Union through its troubled reinvention, all filled with a tasty blend of intrigue, personality and mayhem. Devour them.

While fate has put Renko through the wringer, Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian inspector, Harry Hole, can blame himself for most of the damage inflicted upon him. Introduced in “The Bat,” now a Vintage paperback, Harry, alcoholic and tormented by what that has cost him, is on his 10th go-round with “Police” (Alfred A. Knopf; 435 pages; $25.95).

Nesbo’s books have a dense complexity packed with powerful emotional charges the product of an author who’s also a musician and economist, and former top soccer player. He writes with a hyper sense of the theatrical and dramatic, like the stuff of Norse legends, the real ones, not the ones from comic books, in which good and evil join in bruising battles of hideous intensity. Bodies tend to pile up when he’s writing, and there are no guarantees here. Anyone can be a victim and everything is on the table. If that’s your taste, Nesbo’s books will give you plenty of chills to justify a warm fire on a cold winter night.

There are other ways to get the creeps, and Charles Palliser has a knack for delivering them. More than 20 years ago, he created a literary sensation with his puzzler of a debut novel, “The Quincunx.” The mind-bending mystery of a 19th century family’s convoluted legacy was compared to Dickens, for starters, with the acknowledgment that Palliser intended much more for his 20th century readership than a mere entertainment. The hefty book was layered and interwoven and required a good bit of attention.

He doesn’t reach that level of complexity with “Rustication” (W.W. Norton & Company; 323 pages; $25.95), and he isn’t attempting to. It is a murder tale, only the bulk of the story takes place before the killing, written as the journals of a 17-year-old student who has been expelled, then called “rusticated,” from Cambridge for reasons we find out only later.

The young man, Richard Shenstone, has not seen his mother and sister since the unexpected death of his clergyman father, a mean and controlling person who seems not to be missed.

The home Richard returns to is not the one he left; his mother has relocated to a dilapidated manse once owned by her own father in a small seaside town populated by gossips, petty criminals, liars and young women who keep Richard in a near-constant state of near arousal.

Rather then constructing a straightforward mystery, Palliser uses Richard’s youth and naïveté – you wouldn’t call it innocence – to steer his plot up every turn and alley of his little community, as we gradually come to understand how unreliable our storyteller is.

Even so, he drops along the way clues that he misses but that the reader can grasp, making for an enticing little scavenger hunt. But, while an interesting visit into the overwrought, sexualized mind of a 19th century teenager, “Rustication,” like Richard, delves too lightly into the lives of the other characters to invest the reader in its outcome. Farm animals are being disemboweled, poison pen letters are being sent around the town, and it is never clear how the slaughter is connected to the letters, or how much of the vile information in the notes is indeed true.

Consider it an old-time version of the Internet, full of ambiguous information but with no Snopes or other fact-checker to fall back upon. Those were the days ...

Melinda Miller is a News staff reporter and a frequent reviewer of crime fiction.