Whodunit? Who cares?

A contributor to Goodreads, one of those websites where people comment on the books they’ve read, was baffled by The Last Talk with Lola Faye, the latest literary crime novel by Thomas H. Cook.

“I did not understand the point,” she said. “Who did it? I’m so lost!”

The point, I want to tell her, is that Cook doesn’t much care who did it. He does not write whodunits. He is much more interested in victims than in murders and the cops who investigate them. His books are disturbing, convoluted tales of families haunted by past acts of violence that they don’t fully comprehend, either because important details have been hidden from them or because they are good at deceiving themselves. He puts his characters into situations that compel them to reexamine the past, peeling it back day by day or year by year. Each layer reveals a painful and shocking surprise.

Cook is a great storyteller and an insightful observer of human nature. He is a superb stylist, his prose both exacting and lyrical. And his books have vividly-drawn settings, usually a southern town like the one he grew up in or New England where he now lives for much of the year. “Imagine Heart of Darkness without that river,” he once said, and you’ll understand what sense of place means to a novel.

His best work—Red Leaves, The Cloud of Unbecoming, The Fate of Katherine Carr, and, yes, The Last Talk with Lola Faye—rank with the best in contemporary American fiction.

Despite his brilliance—or perhaps partly because of it—Cook never makes the best-seller lists.

The books of many of the most popular crime writers, including James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, are the intellectual equivalent of popcorn and a Spiderman movie. Even the work of critically acclaimed crime novelists such as Elmore Leonard and the late Robert B. Parker tend to go down easy. Cook asks that readers pay closer attention; his stories require a greater investment, both emotionally and intellectually. Not every reader welcomes the commitment.

The reaction of that Goodreads contributor suggests another reason why Cook’s popularity lags.

When a reader plucks a novel from a bookstore, the book carries with it a set of expectations based on where it was shelved and the blurbs on the back cover. The Last Talk with Lola Faye includes a blurb from Harlan Coben, a best-selling thriller writer. And you’ll find Cook’s novel shelved in the mystery section beside the detective novels of Robert Crais, the police procedurals of Michael Connelly, and the whodunits of Carol Higgins Clark.

Where else would a bookseller put it? After all, Cook’s novels always involve crimes. He won an Edgar, the Academy Award of mystery writing, for The Chatham School Affair; and his work frequently makes the short list for the Dagger Award, the Anthony Award, and other crime fiction honors. He’s been nominated for the Edgar alone nine times.

But Cook doesn’t write the kind of books that Coben does. Cook’s novels aren’t much like Crais’, Connelly’s, or Clark’s either. Truth be told, Coben, Crais, Connelly, and Clark also aren’t all that much alike, aside from the fact that they all write about crime.

The mystery section of the bookstore is home to a gaggle of very different sub-genres including thrillers, espionage, police procedurals, forensics, private detectives, historical crime novels, whodunits, and the often misunderstood category of “noir,” which means, as the great Dennis Lehane once put it, “Everyone is dirty.”

Readers of crime fiction tend to be quite particular about these sub-categories. Most noir aficionados loathe whodunnits. Fans of espionage novels are unlikely to dip into private detective stories. And so on. The Goodreads contributor who was confused by Cook’s latest can hardly be blamed. The Last Talk With Lola Faye was not the whodunit she was expecting.

The fact is, Cook’s novels are too idiosyncratic and literary to fit into any of the many mystery sub-categories. And because his books are shelved alongside mysteries, readers who browse the literature section are unlikely to find them. Most lovers of literary novels are not inclined to give the mystery section a look, even though the work of many of our finest contemporary writers including Cook, Lehane, Kate Atkinson, Richard Price and George Pelecanos is shelved there.

Although Cook has been favorably reviewed for 20 years, his work continues to be overlooked by millions of readers who would adore it.

Cook was born in 1947 in Fort Payne, a northern Alabama town that was known as “The Sock Capital of the World” before most of the mills closed. The house he grew up in was devoid of books. He acquired his love of reading and writing from his teachers. Cook studied English and philosophy at Georgia State College and won advanced degrees in American history from Hunter College and Columbia University. He’s worked as an advertising executive for a chemical company, an English and history teacher at a community college, and a book reviewer for The Atlantic Monthly. He quit all that in 1981 to devote all of his time to writing and travelling. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about the saddest places on earth—a book he says will be more inspiring than sad.

Disclaimer: Cook wrote a blurb for my new crime novel, Rogue Island (Forge, Oct. 12). I got an e-mail from him recently, right after my novel received a flurry of glowing pre-publication reviews. “I swear that if you become a bestseller,” he wrote, I will ****ing KILL YOU!”

I first met him several years ago and have come to think of him as a wise and charming friend. But my reputation as a book reviewer is too valuable to be squandered by praising bad work. If I didn’t love The Last Talk with Lola Faye, I’d just keep my mouth shut.

As the novel opens, a historian named Lucas Page is about to deliver a tedious lecture to a small audience in a St. Louis museum. Once, he had been “the smartest kid” in Glenville, a little Alabama town of abandoned storefronts, deserted sidewalks, and “a trailer park perpetually pulsing in the light of a police cruiser, diesel trucks sitting like exhausted mastodons in red-dirt driveways.”

As a boy, Lucas despised his daddy, a local variety store owner with no head for anything including business. But he adored his mother, who doted on him and fed his dreams of escaping the depressing little town, graduating from Harvard, and writing great works of history.

Lucas did escape, and he did, despite long odds, graduate from Harvard. But ever since, his life has been a disappointment. In middle age, he sees himself as a dull college teacher who’s written a handful of mediocre books.

Sitting in Lucas’s audience on this St. Louis evening is Lola Faye Gilroy, a woman he hasn’t seen since he left Glenville. It’s bad enough that she has come, but afterward she wants to talk to him. Everything bad that happened to him, he thinks, began when she had an affair with his father.

Because her husband found out. And then both men ended up dead.

Unable to shake her, Lucas reluctantly agrees to have a drink with her in the restaurant of his hotel. As one drink leads to another, their conversation forces Lucas to reflect on his past. And as they continue to talk, Lucas gradually discovers that there was much he didn’t know about his father and the events that led to his death—and much that he has failed to understand about himself.

Usually I read a Thomas H. Cook novel slowly, savoring each carefully constructed paragraph. But I found myself racing through The Last Talk with Lola Faye, compelled to discover the secrets and lies behind those old violent deaths and the Lucas that had been born of them.

But in most respects, the book is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Cook: not a thriller or a police procedural or a detective novel or a whodunit—just another great book.

(This post first appeared on the website thenervousbreakdown.com)

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About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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