Fine crime: Luther and Creole Belle

luther the calling by neil crossInfluenced by both the superb television mini-series and a review by Karen Brooks, I picked up the novel Luther the Calling by Neil Cross. It’s the prelude to the TV show, ending where the show begins. And it’s brilliant.

Cross wrote the screenplay for the show, then, influenced by the performance of Idris Elba in the titular role, wrote this novel with that performance in mind. He nails Elba and his co-stars to a tee.

But that replication of the screen isn’t the winning element of the novel. No, it’s the writing, and the characterisation, the insight; it’s the use of small details to paint a big picture, of crafted prose. Much of the book is told one point of view to a scene. I like that: it’s clean, I can ride along with the character. And then, there’s this one violent moment. We are led up to it knowing what’s about to happen, following each character, four or more, walking and driving and living, and then they intersect and — bam! One par each, bang-bang-bang. It’s the stuff of adrenalin and chaos and works perfectly, guided no doubt by that screenwriter’s eye for cut scenes.

I knew how this book would end, that final scene, and it didn’t matter one jot. The characters carry me through their sublimely drawn landscape toward the inevitable moment with the clock ticking ever faster. Superb.

creole belle by james lee burke

And then there’s Creole Belle, number 19 in a series about detect Dave Robicheaux in Louisiana, from the pen of James Lee Burke. He writes in the first person from Dave’s point of view, tired and insightful and often bemused and confused, an author and a character who show their age on the page. He also writes about other characters in the third person, but from Dave’s omniscient view. It’s problematic, but I went with it, because the voice is as compelling as the flow of the Mississippi, and I love that part of the world and Burke brings it alive. He uses landscape, lushly drawn, and history to backdrop his story and to mirror his character’s state of being. With the weariness of the veteran solider and cop, he offers commentary on the state of the world and how it got where it is, bad or good, and where he thinks it might be heading. He’s a cool guy to hang around with as he tries to solve an apparent kidnapping that leads to far much worse, a state of corruption that harks back to Nazi Germany and reaches into the Gulf oil spill. With Dave and the force-of-nature Clete on the trail, there’s hints of superstition and religion, southern style, and plenty of friction; there’s a real-world sweat to this yarn that makes it hard to put down.

It’s narration, so you know that Dave’s gonna make it, but the collateral damage brings in the suspense. And the fact that this is Dave’s 19th adventure doesn’t matter at all; I picked up the novel and didn’t feel I’d missed a thing not having read the preceding titles, even though this begins directly in the aftermath of the previous, essentially part two of that arc.

Rich back story and the relationship between Dave and Clete is the key, anchored in time and place that makes me wish once more for a beignet and cafe au lait and a deeper understanding of this fascinating part of the world.

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