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The Bookshelf Diaries (An Occasional Series): Peter Heller, Tom Rachman, Michael Connelly

The Bookshelf Diaries (An Occasional Series): Peter Heller, Tom Rachman, Michael Connelly

Sometimes I go backward, sometimes forward.

A nudge from Amazon a while back led me to investigate Peter Heller’s engrossing novel The Painter. Heller writes literary fiction, in the sense that his narratives are layered and philosophical and crafted with admirable elegance, but it’s literary fiction with a plot. The Painter is a story about a crusty middle-aged artist experiencing a transformational turning point in his life—and it’s also a thriller with murder, stalking, a fire, and an armed confrontation, among other notable plot points driving the story forward, making for a genuinely entertaining read that’s also full of sharp insights about human nature.

Page-turning literary fiction is a neat trick to pull off, and Heller’s done it not once but twice. Sometime after finishing The Painter, I circled back and read his debut novel The Dog Stars, another genre-spanning piece about a lonely iconoclast whose tangled and fraught connections with the world around him generate danger. Except in this case, the world is Colorado after the apocalypse (in another echo of Stephen King’s The Stand, the end of most of the human race is thought to have come about after the accidental release of a government-engineered bio-weapon). It’s a remarkably lyrical take on this sort of tale, full of both action and contemplative moments, a vision of a fallen Eden overrun by marauders, where the rarest and most precious resource left in the world is simple human compassion.

Going forward on a different path led me from The Imperfectionists—which was essentially a string of short stories all centered around the same dying institution, an English-language newspaper based in Rome—to his somewhat more conventionally constructed 2014 novel The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers. The latter is an at-times bruising read, a strange mix of tenderness and alienation, spotlighting a set of damaged characters, including one particularly bright-eyed sociopath, and the relative innocents they manipulate. In terms of story-telling, Powers is a cleverly constructed puzzle, alternating between three parallel narratives unfolding at three distinct points in the central character’s life, with key elements of the main cast’s relationships with one another withheld until near the end of the story. A book I probably admired more than enjoyed, but a compelling read nonetheless.

The rest of the reading list just lately has been a mixture of the whimsical (Nick Hornby’s sweet look back at the Golden Age of television, Funny Girl, and Dave Barry’s riotously fun Insane City), and traditional thrillers (John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye and several more Michael Connelly mysteries). I’m in real danger of finishing off Connelly’s catalogue this year, having completed The Lincoln Lawyer, Echo Park, The Closers, The Brass Verdict, and The Scarecrow already since the New Year began. Seven more to go before The Crossing comes out in November. At this point, Detective Harry Bosch, attorney Mickey Haller, reporter Jack MacAvoy, FBI agent Rachel Walling and the rest have become like especially interesting old friends you want to revisit whenever you get the chance—which is as concise a summary as I could ever hope to come up with of the appeal of series fiction.

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