The phrase “summer reading” always sort of mystifies me because I am one of those people who generally has more than one book going at a time. So, whether it’s July or December, I generally have some “light” fiction (mystery stories), a serious novel and a nonfiction book on my night table (either in paper or on my Kindle). I wrote my last column about The Tiger, and I still encourage everyone to read it, but I have also recently rediscovered some old friends.
I find many newer mystery stories too violent or too involved with deranged characters. No, I wasn’t thrilled by the Swedish The Girl Who stories. So, because one of my sons asked me for suggestions, and I know that he, too, doesn’t like graphic violence, I began thinking about mystery writers I could suggest to him. He and his girl have, long ago, gone through all of Dick Francis’ books. I had a character tugging at my memory, and with a little Amazon research rediscovered the books by Peter Bowen. Bowen’s main character, Gabriel Du Pre, is a Metis fiddler of indeterminate age. The Metis people are descended from French fir traders and Cree Indians. They developed a culture not too different from the Cajun culture of Louisiana; however, Bowen’s Metis live in Northern Montana, where a large Metis community existed and exists. I am happy to rediscover Bowen’s stories. His characters are rich and interesting. His stories have bad guys who are not just psychopaths, but who are among others, big gold mines and rich men lusting after some lost journals of Lewis and Clark. The setting is recognizable to anyone who knows Northern Montana, but if one does not know the area, the books still engage. Bowen captures the Metis’ lilting language. Like Wyoming’s Margaret Coel, Bowen allows readers to see a subculture that is unfamiliar to most people.
The other mystery writer I rediscovered because of the quest is John D. MacDonald. Thirty years ago, I read all of MacDonald’s Travis McGee mysteries. His titles all have a color in them (The Deep Blue Goodbye, The Lonely Silver Rain, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper), which is a gimmick, but no worse than Sue Grafton’s mysteries that all begin with a letter of the alphabet. I was pleasantly surprised that MacDonald’s work is not very dated. He began writing in the late 1940’s after being discharged from the army. Certainly, his books do not have cell phones or computers, and in one, he refers to a “charge plate” which is an item that I vaguely remember, a small metal plate that department stores gave their customers and was the precursor of the credit card. However, his stories are exciting. His dialogue is snappy. Travis McGee lives on a house boat, The Busted Flush, docked in Lauderdale. He describes himself as someone who “finds things” for people. He takes half of what he recovers. What has struck me as I have begun to reread the MacDonald books is how clearly he sees women as people, not as sex objects, or victims of some kind of ugly violence. Some of his women do get hurt, but MacDonald’s empathy is refreshing. Although they are a generation apart in age, John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker are kindred spirits.
So, this summer I rediscovered old friends and find that they have stood the test of time very well.