This Week's Hot Reads: October 7, 2013

Two masters of the crime novel have new works: Jo Nesbo’s Police and George Pelecanos’s The Double.

Police by Jo Nesbo.

After starring in nine of Jo Nesbo’s novels, Harry Hole, a talented, troubled detective, needs a break from the violent world his author created for him. Oslo’s chill, humanity’s evil, and a violent, unsolved crime that struck too close to home had made this world seem too much like a nightmare. When he finally surfaces in Police, midway through the story, colleagues notice the laugh lines around his eyes, how happy and rested he seems. This, of course, is fleeting. As always, Nesbo’s vision is as bleak as it is complex, and Hole is soon drawn back by a killer who works an eerie, familiar pattern: cops are turning up dead, brutally murdered at the scenes of crimes they investigated but were never able to solve. As one body churns up the next, the plot circles forward, ensnaring the Oslo police force in a serial loop of corruption and suspense. Early in the novel, a psychologist discusses the experience of déjà vu with his patient. The patient responds by telling him about a recurring dream that begins when Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon ends, and the record stops spinning. The dream, in a way, is a template for this novel, which is hard to walk away from, even when you’d like to. “Evil is the starting point, natural,” the patient says. “Then sometimes there is a speck of light. But it is only temporary, because we have to go back to the darkness.”

Personae by Sergio De La Pava.

The key to unlocking this complicated novel—if it can even be called a novel—may lie on page 14, when the protagonist, a savant homicide detective named Helen Tame, discovers a box at the scene of a crime. Inside she finds a notebook in “various forms of damage” that “can be seen as a kind of warming up to the subsequent works that form the greater part of this report. The short story, play, and either unfinished novel or novella that follow…” Indeed, Sergio De La Pava’s second novel, Personae, is a compilation of all of these works and more, as a murder mystery becomes a romp through various literary forms, including Greek tragedy, the bildungsroman, diaries, poetry, scholarly papers, musical scores, creation stories, obituaries, lunch menus, post-scripts, and a brief digression on why English translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude have always fallen short. With names like Nestor, Clarissa, and Ludwig, the characters are equally referential. Helen Tame is not only brilliant, she is the most beautiful woman in the world. And the dead body she finds is the author himself, a 111-year-old Colombian man whose cause of death is yet to be determined. Personae is not an easy read, and De La Pava apologizes in advance for its “imminent lack of symmetry, narrative propulsion, cheap suspense, or any other decor…” But as a meditation on literature, it is playful, ambitious, and full of imagination, a 21st-century novel-of-some-kind, well worth pondering now, tomorrow, and years down the road.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

To read The Luminaries is to recognize certain genres, yet what makes the novel feel fresh is the unexpected way that Eleanor Catton combines them. It is written in the exquisite style of a 19th-century novel, takes place in a lawless frontier town, and begins with two individuals whose deaths propel the plot and connect a slew of gold-digging characters. A note up front alerts the reader that “the stellar and planetary positions in the book have been determined astronomically,” and that the people we are about to meet were born in the Age of Pisces, an “age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” This is followed by a list of characters (there are almost as many as in a Russian novel) and an illustrated Zodiac calendar that charts their signs and lends the novel a metaphorical structure. All of these threads conspire to create a compelling, fantastical world that zips through 800 pages without the assistance of zombies or robots. Catton has spun a great story, in a good old-fashioned-yet-modern kind of way.

Tudors by Peter Ackroyd.

If it weren’t coming out this week, one could be forgiven for thinking that Hilary Mantel used the Tudors: The History of England From Henry VIII to Elizabeth I as one of her source materials. Indeed, readers who devoured Wolf Hall and Bring up The Bodies will take much pleasure in this book, as it delivers the kind of historical grist that Mantel needed to write her novels. For instance, Ackroyd unearths treasonous conversations Anne Boleyn remembered to her gaoler in the days before he chopped off her head. One such conversation, between Boleyn and her suspected lover, Henry Norris, had gone like this: Boleyn: “Why don’t you get on with your marriage?” Norris: “I will wait a while.” Boleyn: “You look for dead man’s shoes; for if anything happens to the king, you would look to have me.” Norris: “If I had any such thought, let my head be cut off.” From there, Ackroyd goes where Mantel hasn’t yet: through six more queens, Cromwell’s downfall, and life after Henry VIII. The scope of the book can seem daunting, but Ackroyd’s style is not. His prose is engaging, accessible, and he has succeeded in breaking a long stretch of history into compelling narrative chunks, complete with cheeky titles like, “The King’s Pleasure,” “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and “The Dead Cannot Bite.” Mantel is working on the book that will complete her Cromwell trilogy; in the meantime, read Ackroyd for a lead on the ins and outs of her storyline.

The Double by George Pelecanos.

Given the title, it’s no surprise that twinship is the central theme of this thriller. The hero is Lucas Spero, a veteran of the wars in the Middle East and a tough guy private eye. The villain is Billy King, a sexual predator with beach-bum good looks. When a piece of art is stolen, the two go head to head, but not before more doubles emerge, creating a cast of mirror images. There is Grace Kinkaid, the hapless needy victim and owner of the missing work, and Charlotte Rivers, Spero’s new lover, who is empowered, successful, and can take or leave his phone calls. There is Cherise Roberts, who is brutally murdered and left in a dumpster, and Perry Malone, an especially damaged member of Billy King’s criminal gang. Even our hero wonders if he’s really the kind of man who sleeps with married women and coolly kills his enemies. The problem with this kind of dualistic conceit is that it paints a black-and-white world. George Pelecanos, who has written and produced for HBO’s The Wire, tries to create dramatic tension and moral complexity by playing these characters off each other. Good versus bad. Strong versus weak. The effect wears thin in the end. It’s not the art that Grace wants. It’s her dignity, and in this world of doubles, she’ll need a man like Spero to find it.