Wednesday, April 18, 2012

(3) Kerr vs. (14) Cain

This matchup in the Ultimate Mystery Writers Bracket pits Philip Kerr's historical mysteries set amidst the Nazi Era, against Chelsea Cain and her modern series set in Portland and highlighted by a brutal, female serial killer (Gretchen Lowell). Is this one that could be deceptively close?

1) Quality of Books - Cain has written four books featuring the same Task Force and serial killer Gretchen Lowell (though she only has a main role in 3 of them). How do her books stack up?
Very Good: Heartsick
Good: Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, The Night Season
Kerr on the other hand has written eight Bernie Gunther novels which break down thusly:
Great: The One from the Other, A Quiet Flame
Very Good: Prague Fatale, The Pale Criminal, A German Requeim, If the Dead Rise Not
Good: March Violets
Okay: Field Gray
Kerr takes this one due to his two great books which are stronger than anything Cain has written. It should be noted though that Kerr wrote one book which landed in the "okay" catagory while Cain did not. However, Kerr has writen two great books and another (Prague Fatale) that I debated putting in that catagory.
Advantage: Kerr

2) Great Characters - Cain has based her series around the twin pillars of haunted Detective Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. The two have a twisted history that involves Sheridan leading a task force to track down a serial killer, all the while cheating on his wife with Lowell...who was inserting herself into the investigation and manipulating Sheridan all along. Then she tried to kill gets pretty twisted from here on. Suffice it to say that Sheridan is fighting a serious vicodin addiction and Lowell is still pulling strings from prison (and outside). The true star of Cain's lineup is Gretchen Lowell. Her gutsy and twisted female serial killer is a psycho without remorse who could teach other literary serial killers a thing or two. She is one manipulative and seriously messed up lady who cannot be trusted at all.
Kerr however has upped her in the creation of Bernie Gunther, a man whose life traces the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Gunther despises the Nazi's but has the morals of a pirate. He kills without remorse and shows us that in order to survive one of the darkest periods in history, he has to occasionally be even worse than some of the most reviled figures in history. From Argentina to Germany and back again, Gunther is a private detective unparalled in mystery fiction. His wit and intelligence (as well as horrible actions) make him a fantastic antihero. He is a brutal man with a soft spot from the ladies and no qualms about doing whatever he has to in order to survive all the while condemning all the misdeeds of those around him.
Lowell may be a genuine original in mystery fiction; but Gunther is one of the greatest fictious creations in literary history.
Advantage: Kerr

3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Cain's books are seize you by the throat page turners that often have shocking twists at the end (usually related to the Archie Sheridan / Gretchen Lowell dynamic). These are not books which are slowly savoured but must rather be devoured as quickly as possible. Each of them has been an enjoyable read and Cain's breezy style and psychological twistiness makes each book an entertaining experience. She gets into the heads of her characters and writes as steamily as she can. Overall, these are good but not great books.
Kerr relies on dense plots, packed with conspiracies and mystery. Each book ends with a jaw dropping twist and the novels are so taut and well written that you simply never want them to end. Gunther is always quick with a witty reply and is a witness to the horrible decadence of the Nazi's. His interactions with real, high ranking Nazi's feel real and Kerr never falls into cliche due to the fact that each book is slightly different. Even eight books in, Kerr avoids the trap of routine as he jumps through time (often contrasting past and present) and has so thoroughly complicated matters that it is virtually impossible to read the books "in order" (for example the most recent book Prague Fatale is the only to take part exclusively during the war, a time frame Kerr previously excluded). Kerr began the series as a simple trilogy set before and after World War Two, but seventeen years later he reached back and wrote the best book of the series The One From the Other set in Munich in 1949. No two books are ever the same - he keeps the series fresh, even when it does not quite work out (Field Grey being the best example; it simply jumps around too much and gets muddled). The latest has two chapters which cover 200 pages and function as a book within the book, a one take play set around a murder mystery at Reinhard Heydrich's country house. Few other writers are good enough to pull this off. Truly this makes Kerr special and very deserving of the 3 seed.
Cain's books are breezy but Kerr's are staggering.
Advantage: Kerr

Kerr handily defeats the younger Cain who has many more books to write about her characters. She can be cheered however by the fact that I would pit Kerr's eight book run against any other mystery series and be confident it could come out on top in almost any situation...or can it?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

(2) Lehane vs. (15) Bazell

Could this matchup of an upstart young writer and an established champ turn into a Duke - Lehigh situation? Bazell has only written 2 books, Lehane has 9 (*Note: I am excluding Lehane's The Given Day because it is not really a mystery book). Here we go.
1) Quality of Books - Again, we will start with the lower seed, in this case Josh Bazell. A young writer who has often been described as writing novels that are a cross between "The Sopranos" and "House" authored by Chuck Palahniuk...quite the combo.
Very Good: Beat the Reaper, Wild Things
Pretty high praise for the guy, how can Lehane's much more extensive bibliography stack up?
Lehane has written a long series in addition to two incredible stand alone novels.
Great: Mystic River, Darkness Take My Hand, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island
Very Good: Prayers for Rain, Sacred
Good: A Drink Before the War
Okay: Moonlight Mile
Percentage wise, Lehane takes it, but it is much closer than it we will discuss below.
Advantage: Lehane
2) Great Characters - Bazell has written two books from the point of view of Dr. Peter Brown, a former mob hitman turned life saver with a target on his back. Brown is hiding from his former employers and trying to maintain a low profile. In the second novel he is solving a mystery and protecting an archeologist. The man is cutting and sarcastic and able to kill with the efficiency of a secret agent. Altogether a great person to base a series around - additional bonus points for the fact that he kills someone by making a knife out of his own femur. As in the bone in his leg.
Lehane has created many, many characters and based a series around two private detectives, Patrick and Angie. The two have a fantastic back and forth and some of their interactions are hilarious. They also have a friend named Bubba. Bubba is a complete psycho and probably Lehane's greatest invention - a man completely without morals who will do whatever it takes to protect his friends regardless of the consequences. His stand alone characters (like crime boss Jimmy in Mystic River) are deeply flawed and complex people whom Lehane fleshes out in typically detailed fashion.
This one comes down to a relatively simple question: Is Bazell's one character better than any of Lehane's?
Advantage: Lehane
3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - This will surely be the tightest catagory between the two authors. Bazell has an interesting style, complete with the medically detailed footnotes one would expect from a doctor. Lehane's writing is gut wrenching and often a mediation on the cost of violence. Both write page turners, although Lehane relies more on the shocking twist including the one at the end of Shutter Island which seven years later I still cannot figure out. Lehane's take on the private eye world of Boston took us to the dark side of a city that had rarely been seen in the fiction world. Through a complex cast of characters and darkly twisted plots, Lehane made Boston his city. He owns it as thoroughly as Lee Burke does New Orleans. His best work? In my opinion, his take on the serial killer genre Darkness Take My Hand. The book was horrifying, twisty and took a wander down the dark path at the center of each of us. Truly a stunning achievement. However, Lehane did stumble somewhat in his last effort Moonlight Mile in which all the elements that made his earlier books successful were omitted without explanation. Basically: he pulled his punches and lost all the darkness and tension from the previous books.
Bazell's best is probably the thoughtful Beat the Reaper in which his main character reflects on how he became a mob hitman - and then a doctor - while completely destroying the American health care system. There is a lot going on here and much of it works brilliantly. While some of the plot is a little bit predictable, Bazell does anything but take a straight forward path getting there. As mentioned earlier, his footnotes are truly bizarre and understatedly brilliant.
Bazell may one day be at the top half of the seeding if he continues to do good work in the future, but...this is Lehane we are talking about and any of his great books is better than either of Bazell's.
Advantage: Lehane

Thursday, April 12, 2012

(1) Lee Burke vs. (16) Tana French

There are some matchups that are destined to see the underdog upset the grand master.
This is not one of those cases.
James Lee Burke has written 18 Dave Robicheaux books (for the sheer volume of his collection, I am omitting his other very good series); Tana French has written 3 Murder Squad books, each featuring a different character spun off from the previous novel.
Is there any chance for the talented French to overcome the odds stacked against her?
Lee Burke is the number one seed for a reason...

1) Quality of Books - Let's start with French who has three published books, each featuring a different main character (her fourth follows the same format). Here is how I ranked her three titles:
Good: In the Woods,
Okay: The Likeness, Faithful Place
However, if one was to give French ratings based on the synopsis's for her novels, she would be one of the greatest mystery writers alive.
Now we tackle the immense collection of Lee Burke...
Great: The Tin Roof Blowdown, Swan Peak, A Morning for Flamingo's, A Stained White Radiance, Heaven's Prisoners, Black Cherry Blues
Very Good: Burning Angel, The Glass Rainbow, The Neon Rain, Dixie City Jam, Jolie Blon's Bounce, In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead, Purple Cane Road,
Good: Sunset Limited, Cadillac Jukebox, Crusader's Cross, Pegasus Descending, Last Car to Elysian Fields
Breaking down the percentages makes it pretty clear Lee Burke dominates - 13 of his 18 books are in the Great to Good range (72%), 0% of French's novels fall into the same catagories.
Gigantic Advantage: Lee Burke

2) Great Characters - Lee Burke has created two of the best characters in modern mysteries: his "hero" Dave Robicheaux and "morally complex" Clete Purcell. Robicheaux and Purcell are tormented, haunted men who lash out violently and are prone to self-destructive behavior. Purcell's best moment? Bulldozing a mobster's house. Lee Burke has brilliantly crafted two men who are not always likeable, but are shockingly compelling. I have not even gone into his villains who are often so real that you can picture them sitting next to you. There are no cardboard cutouts in Lee Burke books, every character is fully fleshed out. Rather brilliantly, I might add.
French rotates characters frequently and is intensely interested in how they fall apart throughout their various investigations. The pick of her litter? Probably Cassie Maddox who appears in two books and in the second has to impersonate a murder victim in order to root out the killer. Again, if you were giving points for the synopsis of a novel, French wins this thing by a mile.
Ultimately Clete Purcell may be the greatest character in mystery novels...ever. The man is at times a little boy, and at others a psychotic killer. Only Lee Burke makes him both, and a frighteningly flawed human being at the same time.
Huge Advantage: Lee Burke

3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability - Tana French's novels have been well reviewed (from the praise she has recieved many will be shocked to see her in the 16th slot) but her books are very, very overrated. She takes too much time setting things up when a simple half page description would have been more than adequate. French's books rely however, on jaw dropping twists and for the most part she succeeds. The end of In the Woods was so unexpected that I had to re-read it several times before I fully grasped that she had, indeed, taken me there. is my main complaint - in her original debute, she never solved the original mystery (that took place long before the books events). I have a major problem with this. French feels it is enough to have her character begin to emotionally heal from the traumatic experience, no! She needs to provide a genuine solution. Her meandering style should at least come to a strong conclusion, even with the twists and turns she takes. I tried to read French's books as fast as I could, not because they were page turners, but simply because I wanted to move on to something else.
Lee Burke often leaves unresolved threads in his novels as he incorporates mystical elements, but the reader always feels satisfied at the end. His books are page turners, and when he does twists (like in Heaven's Prisoner) he does them well. Lee Burke does not always have big game changers at the end of his novels, but rather small detonations throughout that reverberate long after he finishes writing. His style is untouchable, literary and so incredibly vivid that one does not read a Lee Burke novel but rather experiences it. You smell, taste, touch and hear everything in the book. Unlike French you do not skip passages, you devour them. Additionally, few authors have been better suited to write about a certain city than Lee Burke. He seamlessly weaves through the underbelly running through Lousiana and incorporates elements as diverse as neo-nazis, the best book ever on Hurricane Katrina and old school mafioso in the french quarter. Top that Tana French!
Advantage: Lee Burke

As expected it is a crushing, going away win for the master of New Orleans crime fiction.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Mystery Writers Bracket Battle Royale

While writing a breakdown of Stieg Larssen and Jo Nesbo, I had the idea of pitting all my favorite mystery authors against one another in an ultimate battle royale that would finally select the greatest mystery author of all time (obviously having not read all mystery authors in the universe I am using my judgement and going with the best I have read).
The authors will be seeded and then 16 of them will go head to head as we wind down to just who is the best mystery author ever (or whom I have read).
Your first question: What criteria will I use to figure this all out?
Glad you asked!
I plan to break it down with three major catagories: 1) Quality of Books (what percentage falls into the "Great" to "Horrible" range) 2) Main characters (just how indelible are their creations...) 3) Style / Inner Workings / Readability (by which I mean how good a writer is the author).

The seedings
1) James Lee Burke - Dave Robicheaux novels
2) Dennis Lehane - Patrick Kenzie novels / Mystic River / Shutter Island
3) Philip Kerr - Bernie Gunther novels
4) Ken Bruen - Jack Taylor novels / Crime Squad Novels
5) James Ellroy - LA Quartet / Underworld America Trilogy
6) Jo Nesbo - Harry Hole novels
7) George Pelencanos - DC Quartet / Derek Strange novels / Nick Stefanos trilogy
8) Don Winslow - Stand alone novels
9) David Peace - The Red Riding Quartet
10) Ian Rankin - Inspector Rebus novels
11) Stuart Neville - Gerry Fegan / Jack Lennon novels
12) Stuart Macbride - Logan McRae novels
13) T Jefferson Parker - Charlie Hood novels / California Girls
14) Chelsea Cain - Archie Sheridan novels
15)Josh Bazell - Peter Brown Novels
16) Tana French - Murder squad novels

Agree? Disagree? Who got seeded too high? Who is too low? Are you excited by the matchups?