Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Notes — Faraway Places

I want to thank the person who came up with the concept of “crime fiction.”  I’ve always thought that the term“mysteries” was misleading for many books in which there was no mystery, but where crime was central to the story. Now if someone would clear up “literary” crime fiction.

Author Tom Spanbauer
I traipsed around the Internet to find some sort of definition from dictionaries to book discussion groups.  What I found was more confusion. Even so, the term continues to be bandied about by reviewers and readers. During a recent interview with Omnimystery News, James Lee Burke said, “I try to write a book or short story that has literary merit.”  I’m not sure what that means either, though I would imagine that if any of the more popular crime writers fall in the so-called literary category Burke would be one of them.

I don’t believe there is a definition on which we can all agree.  Perhaps it is similar to what has been said about obscenity.  We can’t define it, but we think we know it when we see it. Again, if there is “literary" crime fiction, Faraway Places qualifies.

I suspect that author Tom Spanbauer neither intended to write nor would he now consider his first book, Faraway Places, a literary crime novel or a crime novel at all. Certainly none of the rest of his highly regarded novels has a crime as a central plot point. But this one does, and I believe the powerful story would appeal to many crime fiction readers, especially those who seek a high-quality, out-of-the ordinary read.

Thirteen-year-old Jake Weber lives in an isolated area in the remote state of Idaho. He is a sensitive boy.  Every sensor in his adolescent being is working over time. His mind and pen register the smell of the river when it is full and flowing and the scent of the river when it is shallow and unmoving.  He is aware of the feeling of the wind, the movement of the clouds, the flight of the birds and the sound everything makes.

That place up there in the stand of twenty-two cottonwood trees smelled like the wind  — a hot smell full of dry June grass and sagebrush and big round crusty cow pies and horse turds all mixed ….  Under those trees that sound the leaves made made you feel like you were having secrets whispered to you, and I whispered secrets back — like my secret name that I said aloud there.

One hot summer day and against standing orders from his emotionally distant father, Jake goes for a swim. He witnesses a brutal murder, as brutal as I’ve ever read.   This is only the beginning, however. Secrets are exposed. Nature, human and the rest of it, will have its way. It was particularly grotesque as murder stories go, a hellish epiphany, and a particularly rough rite of passage for young Jake out there in the middle of nowhere, where a crime like this could easily go unnoticed.

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