If you ask me, William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech is one of the finest tributes to the enduring power of literature. In it, Faulkner insisted on a return to “the old verities” —“love and honor, pity and pride, sacrifice and compassion.” Otherwise, he said, a work is “not of the heart but of the glands.” If you ask me, a little of both is good for the soul. The mysteries I’m recommending below engage us with Faulkner’s truths with the bonus of an adrenalin rush.
1 The “union of art and story” is the heart of Lisa Unger’s slick “Crazy Love You” (Touchstone, $25.99, 352 pages). The narrator, Ian Paine (he’s racked with it), writes a successful series of graphic novels featuring Fatboy and Priss, characters whose fictional realities are based on the narrator’s own toxic ones. Ian is deeply damaged because, along with an addiction to prescription drugs, “the ultimate symbol of good” in Ian’s life (his mother) “did something unspeakable.” At first I thought I knew where Unger was driving me, but then she slammed on the brakes, turned and drove me right off a cliff.
2 At the heart of darkness rests David Joy’s accomplished debut “Where All Light Tends to Go” (Putnam, $26.95, 272 pages). In Appalachia, a young outlaw, Jacob McNeely, struggles to escape what Faulkner called that “old fierce pull of blood,” a violent meth-dealing father, the dark legacies of an unforgiving place and the terrible miseries it breeds. This beautiful, brutal book begins with Jacob despairing he’s “let what [he] was born into control what [he’d] become,” a realization that circumstances and love eventually force him to defy.
3 At its heart, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s exceptional debut, “The Unquiet Dead” (Minotaur, $25.99, 352 pages), has characters who view their faith through a “prism of compassion” rather than “hot blooded certainties.” Detective Esa Khattak is a “second generation Canadian Muslim,” directing the Community Policing Section of Canada’s justice department. Khattak has an “analytical nature tempered by a long simmering hunger for justice.” His partner, Rachel Getty, is of Pakistani descent. She’s outspoken, pragmatic and driven by a personal passion. They’re a detecting dream team, reminding me of Elizabeth George’s Lynley and Havers.
4 Challenging the heart is the crux of Mette Ivie Harrison’s debut, “The Bishop’s Wife” (Soho Crime, $26.95, 352 pages), a novel so far from my reality I needed a telescope, but I think that’s why I liked it. The main character, Sister Wallheim — Linda — is a devout wife of a devout bishop in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Harrison, herself a Mormon, gives an insider’s view of a patriarchal community where strict adherence to God’s rule is the path to an afterlife (with a similar patriarchy). While investigating the disappearance of a neighbor, Linda confronts the sins of her community.
5 Greed may be a deadly sin, but in too many Wall Street companies it’s been a cherished virtue. Michael Sears’ “Long Way Down” (Putnam, $26.95, 337 pages) explores the dynamic between ambition and greed from an insider’s perspective. Jason Stafford is a former Wall Street trader turned financial crimes investigator who knows “[m]ore than a little bit about traders’ tricks,” knowledge he paid for with a two-year prison term. While Jason is rebuilding his professional life and tackling a sophisticated case of insider trading, he’s struggling with his personal life, particularly his relationship with his autistic son. Sears braids the increasingly dangerous investigation with the struggles of Jason’s single-fatherhood and the challenges of autism in such a compelling way it gives this thriller real heart.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee. She is at www.carolebarrowman.com