I can’t speak for other writers, but every now and again I read a book that is so damn good it inspires me and humbles me all at once. So much better when that book is part of a newly discovered series, as it means a whole new world I get to lose myself within.
I have to admit only the best books I read really capture me in this way. I can’t tell you exactly what it is about these books, but I think it has something to do with reading like a writer versus reading like a reader. Some books remove the writer filter.
I can tell I’m really into a book when I stop reading like a writer and start reading like a reader. This is almost always a sign of greatness. It’s not often I turn off my craft filter and just lose myself in a book the way I did when I was a kid. I’ve loved books all my life. I still love them. It’s just that now I love some as a writer and some as a reader, and the second type always capture a piece of my heart.
Like a lot of folks, I’ve been quarantined, so I’ve been reading. And as luck would have it, though my attendance of the single day of the then-cancelled Left Coast Crime San Diego back in March culminated with lost opportunities ,lost money, and a camper van in need of a new transmission, the one bright spot I brought home was a grab-bag copy of John Straley’s The Curious Eat Themselves.
I curiously devoured the book, and was so impressed that I immediately picked up the next book in the series, The Music of What Happens. Which is where the magic happened, at least for me. It’s the book I came here today to discuss.
I finished the book in about three sittings, and found myself wanting to get back to it each time I put it down. It inspired me to start talking about books that blow me away here on my blog. That’s what you’re reading now, as it were.
In the novel, Cecil Younger is fresh out of rehab with a head injury that leaves him at times dissociative. He received the injury while working the child custody case from hell, a case that punctuates and spans the entire novel’s plot, alongside the killing of a state senator. I honestly don’t want to say anything more, because it’s better if you go in blind. The plot can be disjointed, and even odd at times, but it’s a great mystery and amazing writing throughout.
The Music of What Happens is the third book in Straley’s Cecil Younger private investigator series. The novels are set in Alaska, where Cecil, a bumbling, sometimes-recovering alcoholic and legal investigator, muses and fumbles his way through cases that, to steal a phrase from the book, are complex in their simplicity, and always more dangerous than he is prepared for. Cecil is no Superman. He’s not even an average man. But he is incredibly sympathetic, and he somehow always finds a way to bumble into the answers by the end.
John Straley was a legal investigator for decades, and maybe that is one of the things I love about the Cecil Younger series. The books carry an authenticity that most writers simply cannot manage in the genre, because it requires lived experience. Most of you know that I work as a private investigator. I like to think I have a sixth sense for when the authentic understanding of the job comes out in fiction. I can’t even really say why or how it does in these books, I just sort of… feel it.
But it is the sense of place that makes these books, and The Music of What Happens, in particular, shine. Straley’s unassuming, poetic, and at times haunted voice brings the books, and their characters, to life.
I spent some time thinking about why I find the novel so unique. I don’t like terms like “literary,” because they assume that genre books cannot or do not deal with the human condition, which I find pretentious. But Straley has a sense of poetry in his prose that isn’t forced or artificial. It’s just the way he writes, and I think readers outside the genre will find as much to love as eccentric mystery lovers will.
I have never read a book in the detective genre like these books. The Music of What Happens is the best book I’ve read in the series so far. It’s one of my favorite P.I. books I’ve ever read, actually, though that could be the excitement of having just finished the book talking.
If I had to describe Straley’s style in the Cecil Younger series, it’s something akin to mixing the styles of Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver together, then having them write a Ross Macdonald detective novel set in coastal Alaska.
The end result is a series of novels where no one is quite a hero and no one is truly the villain. The books are full of real people with real problems, and the lines of who’s helping who can blur from moment to moment.
Younger’s world is complex, perhaps even insular. The Alaskan setting has a feeling of people sticking together while they are pulling each other apart, and though I’ve never been to Sitka, the books make me feel like I’ve lived there for years.
The entire Cecil Younger series has been re-released by Soho Crime in recent years. Soho specializes in books with a strong sense of place, no surprise here. Straley’s novels, which were mostly written in the 90’s, are the best I’ve read from Soho’s collection, the definition of what they themselves say they look to print.
I want to end this with a few quotes from The Music of What Happens, so that you get a sense of the prose and characterization. I hope you’ll pick up this or any of the books in the series to read. But be advised, these are downright strange books. If you go into them expecting a standard mystery, you will be confused at best, put off at worst.
Try them with an open mind, and you may just find you agree with me, that The Music of What Happens is a P.I. novel on par with the best of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. A bold statement, I know. Read the book and come back, let’s hash it out in the comments. In the meantime, here are the quotes:
“Christ,” Dickie muttered, scratching his greasy hair with the end of a ballpoint pen. “Another eccentric. What is this, are there more eccentrics these days or just fewer normal people?”
“There never have been normal people. It’s a myth,” I said as I reached under the sofa cushions looking for an antidepressant I might have dropped while I was opening the bottle. “Listen, Dickie, there are just crazy people and statisticians. Of course, there is some overlap.”
“There’s nothing better than a story about rich people being chased by wild animals they thought were their pets.”
I looked up into the summer sky and in a strange moment I saw the stars as long strings of light funneling down in a great sheltering tent. In that moment I thought I saw their patterns: the ancient literature of stars, common to all people who share this night. I held up my hands to point. I wanted to show them to Toddy or Jane Marie. But then I heard the clang of a bell buoy in the distance and in that moment I lost it. When I looked up again I was alone in the randomness of starlight.