Ah, Canadian literature. Can you believe some people find you boring?
This week I challenge that assertion by going toe-to-toe with three exemplary mysteries/thrillers. Each of these authors kept me up long past my bedtime.
My mother would like a word with all three of you.
Crow’s Landing, Brad Smith
By now it’s a cliché to say that an author is “the next Elmore Leonard,” or “as good as Elmore Leonard,” or “Elmore Leonardian.” When you’re as popular and prolific as the master, it goes with the territory. It’s a cheat, an easy way for a reviewer to say the author delivers a smoothly entertaining thriller that delves into the undercurrents of the world and exposes joyfully deviant behaviour for our amusement.
Nevertheless, I am so very lazy. And so I proclaim (and not for the first time) that Brad Smith is the Canuck Elmore Leonard. And Crow’s Landing would not look at all out of place among Leonard’s oeuvre.
Landing, the second Virgil Cain mystery after Red Run, is rife with lowlifes, tough broads, sleazy cops, crazy Russians, drug deals, shoot-outs, and one hard-working protagonist trying to keep it all straight and get his boat back. Virgil is a archetypal pulp hero, gruff enough to be taken seriously as muscle and smart enough to know when the grift is on. Finding himself unwillingly linked to a missing drug shipment, Cain has no choice (by his reckoning, anyway) but to play one side against the other. It’s a classic scenario, but hey, Smith works it gangbusters. Crow’s Landing is a gritty yet smooth Hudson River breeze, a great way to spend some quality time with persons you’d be unlikely to sit next to on the bus.
Trust Your Eyes, Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay writes Hitchcock as good as anyone. By which I mean to say, he excels at intricate thrillers where decent ordinary people are thrust into dangerous situations not of their making. Trust Your Eyes throws a decent amount of conspiracy in as well, resulting in a vastly pleasurable labyrinth of mistaken identities, slip-ups, and murder. I think Alfred would be pleased.
It also has a great hook. Thomas Kilbride is a map-obsessed schizophrenic shut-in who virtually travels the world on Whirl360.com (think Google Street View). When he glimpses a suspicious image in a New York City window, he badgers his brother into checking it out in person. Being a thriller, of course there’s something dastardly afoot, but Barclay expertly turns the screws so that the truth is always around the next corner. He populates his world with flawed heroes and understandable villains, never letting the admittedly far-fetched plot get too goofy.
Like Hitchcock, Barclay understands the value of strong dialogue, rapid plot movements, and supplying a MacGuffin to keep everything travelling forward. Trust Your Eyes is a terrifically twisty thriller, and is honestly one of the only books that kept surprising me right up to the very end.
The Demonologist, Andrew Pyper
Reading Andrew Pyper is like driving 150 with your eyes closed. It’s scary, possibly insane, and always a good time should you survive.
While many of his past works have flirted with the paranormal, The Demonologist goes full-bore supernatural with a spiritual quest of sorts, following a university professor who must deduce the clues hidden in Paradise Lost to reach his daughter, who has been abducted into the netherworld. This plot sounds a bit like something Dan Brown would dream up, except that a) Andrew Pyper knows how to write, and b) The Demonologist is, y’know, good. I’d put it closer to Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas in spirit, if not in execution.
Unlike Brown, Pyper doesn’t insult the reader with paper-thin heroes, cardboard cut-out villains, and a cliffhanger in every paragraph. Pyper recognizes the value of the slow burn, taking the time to set his plot in motion through character interplay, clean prose, and effectively unsettling atmosphere. He also harbours an intrinsic knowledge of how to scare the reader, realizing when (taking a cue from Stephen King) to go for the terror, the horror, and the gross-out.
I’ve read most of Pyper’s work thus far (still need to get to The Trade Mission), and The Demonologist is one of his best, a nightmarish trek that puts Pyper firmly in the Peter Straub firmament.
And there you have it. Three book reviews, three books you darn well should read.