VJ Books Blog

(theaustralian.news.com, Dec. 6, Graeme Blundell)

A time for old mates, Christmas is a good reason to renew acquaintance with saved-up favourite genre authors, friends who can still provoke our attention.

These are the guys we know won’t let us down, their books tightly plotted with tough, likable characters, some romance and a bang at the end.

Take Robert Crais, for example. Chasing Darkness (Orion), Crais’s latest in the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private eye series, has all the wit, misdirection, violence and brutality that fans enjoy so much, the perfect Californian private eye novel for the holiday pile.

While doing the Los Angeles thing, pull out the new Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict (Allen & Unwin), a Mickey Haller legal thriller with the momentum of a hard-boiled police novel easily leaving the one-dimensional John Grisham in the dust of Haller’s Lincoln town car.

James Lee Burke is always handy, too, another doughty Christmas friend when there’s time for a long read with a glass in hand and everyone in your house is at the beach.

Swan Peak (Orion) has Burke’s quixotic Dave Robicheaux and his ex-partner in the homicide squad, Clete Purcel, heading to Montana to fish, quietly seeking a panacea, escaping the desolate mood of post-Katrina Louisiana. A perverted serial killer is at work, an escaped jailbird and his sodomising tormentor are locked in a bizarre dance of bitter revenge. Burke writes with his usual hypnotic grace.

Harlan Corben, best-selling US master of the speculative narrative, contributes Hold Tight (Orion) to our beach-chair pile. It’s a fast read, one for that time between lunch and the first bridging wines to get you to dinner.

No one does the “what if this happened to me?” narrative with more energy than Corben. Here he examines a child’s right to privacy and a parent’s right to know. And when it comes to your children, is it possible to know too much? After reading this, go inside and pull apart your children’s computers, plant surveillance devices and bug their mobiles.

And don’t forget the blockbuster you’ve been hoarding. Stieg Larsson’s brilliant The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Quercus) is the book to build the rest of your reading around this holiday. Possibly the crime novel of the year, this recently translated Swedish epic is a seriously addictive fusion of violent political thriller, sinister family saga and ambiguous love story.

It possesses all those ingredients crime addicts love: a locked-room mystery at its heart, a ruthless heroine, an unlikely team of sleuths, the exposure of large-scale corporate fraud, shadows of the Nazi past and a glorious sense of place.

A big read, too, is Don Winslow‘s The Dawn Patrol (Heinemann), a private eye story with seductive detours into San Diego social history and the cultural anthropology of surfing, an evocative, beautifully written blend of action, violence and elegiac reverie. Read as the sun drops and fantasise about the big swell making landfall and fighting just to keep your head above water.

Another lovely piece of “postcard crime” is Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die (Macmillan). Nunn explores the racial divides in a small 1950s South African country town as detective Emmanuel Cooper tracks the killer of an Afrikaner police captain. Nunn sets her characters brilliantly within a complex psychological portrayal of a particular time and place. I’ve always believed every Christmas should involve a trip to Africa. When you return, there will still be books in your pile.

Raymond Chandler, a trusted friend, though too fond of the double gimlets, liked to read just enough of a book to be certain he wanted to finish it, before putting it aside to break the ice on a couple more. In that way, when he felt dull and depressed, “I know I have something to read late at night and not that horrid blank feeling of not having someone to talk or listen to.”

This shouldn’t be a problem at Christmas, but for added holiday insurance (nothing’s worse if you discover after the first page you hate the book) toss in Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis (Random House), Gregg Hurwitz‘s We Know (Sphere) and Scott Frost‘s Point of No Return (Headline).

The Frost is a knock-out: a new tale in the Alex Delillo series finds the cop embroiled in the sinister disappearance of an ex-policeman last seen in Iraq working for a private security firm. Hurwitz is out of the Harlan Corben school and Nesbo is another great Scandinavian.

Oh, and if you must have a serial killer, get Cody McFadyen’s The Darker Side (Hodder), a book about the secrets people keep, the bad ones that get you in the end.

This will keep you going through the late nights when the guests are asleep and the owl across the bay is hooting.

My biggest treat this summer, though, will be to start reading from the beginning the wonderful novels of Tony Hillerman, who died at 83 recently. Published locally by HarperCollins, these paperbacks are true old friends and small enough to fit in the back pocket of your board shorts. Hillerman’s stories, steeped in contemporary crime, sympathetically portray people struggling to maintain ancient Native-American cultural traditions in the modern world.

Each of his 18 novels is set in the vast tribal lands that straddle northeast Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Beginning with The Blessing Way, published in 1970, they feature Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, reinventing the traditional genre hero against a background of trading posts, police substations, rodeos, rug auctions and sheep dippings. Now that’s a test of friendship during an Australian summer.

Graeme Blundell writes the Crime File column.