Usually I like to use my blog space to talk about worthy books from small and independent presses, but today I have to gush about two recent reads that I found quite impressive. Interestingly, both books were published by St. Martin's/Minotaur, probably the only one of the "big boys" known for taking chances on first-timers and new writers. Neither of the books I'm going to talk about here are by first-timers, but both are such terrific forays into genre fiction that I can't let them pass by the attention of the readers of Mysterious Matters. They're very different books, each quite stellar in its own way.BURIAL OF THE DEAD
by Michael Hogan
All I can say is...Wow.
One thing I often think about, and sometimes blog about, are the constraints of genre fiction. On the one hand, we (publishers, that is) like books that fit into a formula that is easily marketable. On the other hand, editors (like me) seek books that push the limits of the genre, that seek to do something new, different, interesting, exciting. It's a tough balance to pull off, and it requires a special writer.
Burial of the Dead is such a book. The cover clearly identifies/positions the book as "A Mystery" (St. Martin's does a lot of this), and with this book, that simple descriptor is perfect. Every single page, chapter, and part of this book is suffused with mystery. For every question that is answered, doubts are raised and new questions arise. We almost never know who's lying, who's telling the truth, and who's allied with whom. When those questions are answered, the only result is more mystery as the reader must adjust everything he thought he knew.
The plot is, on the surface, quite simple. A wealthy older woman, owner of a successful funeral home and rich in her own right, has died. Was it suicide, or was she killed? Throughout the pages of Burial of the Dead, we see a parade of characters, all of whom stand to benefit in some way by the woman's death. There's her long-lost great niece; her late husband's business partner; various employees; and various policemen and politicos, all of whom have a stake in finding out what really happened, or in trying to hide the truth. Each chapter mystifies as much as it enlightens, and the result is a book that grabs you and won't let you go, as layers upon layers are peeled back and revealed.
In many ways, the book is like a soap opera in print. The setting is Connecticut, which is deconstructed in a rather alarming and brilliant way throughout. We're treated to a slice of life in which every character is somehow linked to other characters in sometimes subtle and always mysterious ways. Many books, I think, can be lifted from their setting and plopped down somewhere else with little damage to the story, but I don't think that's the case here, which is testimony to the author's abilities as a writer and social observer.
Of course, I wouldn't be a critic if I didn't point out a few of the flaws. While the writing is stellar, there are a few points at which the author devolves into a sort of literary style that slows down the pace. And sometimes it's a little hard to swallow all those intense linkages that drive the plot. With so much going on, a book is bound to end up with a few loose ends, and Burial of the Dead does. Still, none of this matters. I do not exaggerate when I say this is the most provocative, intense, mysterious book I have read in the last couple of years. If it had passed my desk in manuscript form, I would have bought it immediately upon turning the last page.THE LOCK ARTIST
by Steve Hamilton
Hamilton is well known and respected, but I'd not read anything by him before. But I will be on the lookout for anything new with his name on it, as well as seek out the older books.
Unlike Burial of the Dead, The Lock Artist is labeled on the cover as "a novel," not "a mystery." That seems fair, because Hamilton's book is probably better considered a sort of serious caper, or coming-of-age story, rather than a mystery--although there is a lot of mystery and suspense here.
I was impressed by many things in this book. First, the author juggles two stories throughout--one in the past, describing how our narrator got to where he is today; and one in the present, as the narrator and his partners in crime attempt to pull off a daring heist. And here's the thing: Both stories are equally interesting, equally suspenseful, equally involving. It's really tough to pull that off, and Hamilton does so with panache. The reader is pulled into Mike's story--that of a young man, little more than a teenager, with a traumatic past and the way his special talent (lockpicking) pulls him into a life of crime.
There's also a romance here that captures the sort of starry quality of young love without going over the top, as well as a memorable supporting cast that is well drawn with sharp strokes. I read this book about four months ago, and I still remember all the characters' names, which I think is no main feat on the author's part.
Don't let the first chapter or two put you off. I do think the author takes a few chapters to find the voice, so the first 20 pages or so are a little awkward. But when the voice kicks in, it does so magnificently. I'm a little unsure of how I feel about the major reveal at the end of the book, which seems anticlimactic at that point, but the mark of a great book (for me at least) is the fact that its flaws recede and ultimately fade into the larger picture of the book's overall excellence. I loved Hamilton's ability to combine a terrific story (plot) with great characters...and that's what fiction is all about.