Rick Riordan has found fame with his young adult series of books about Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Many do not know, however, that he has also written a series of mystery novels for adults. I read three of these mystery novels this week, and here are some of my thoughts about them.
What’s not to love about a witty, confident, college English professor named Tres Navarre who is busy solving crimes when he isn’t teaching classes in medieval literature or practicing his Tai Chi forms. And, set in San Antonio, Riordan’s plots develop within a landscape familiar to those of us who are Texans. Texans will enjoy such lines as, “It’s hard for a Texan to argue with someone who insists on sticking to the truth,” and, “Her voice was soft, sweet and cold as Blue Bell ice cream.”
But, it’s not just Texans who love these books, as evidenced by the awards won by the series — the Edgar, the Anthony and the Shamus. Those awards were given for the first two books in the series; Big Red Tequila and The Widower’s Two Step. However, I thought that the third book in the series, The Last King of Texas, was far superior to the two that preceded it.
In the first two books Tres Navarre comes off as a bit of a smart alec, But, by the time you reach book three he has matured to excel in witty repartee, rather than adolescent banter. That is not to say you won’t find wit in all of the books; consider this gems from Big Red Tequila – “I’m not great with kids; I can’t handle the eerie resemblance they bear to human beings.”
And, I love the way Riordan uses language; his descriptions are visual, his dialogue crisp and witty, and he linguistically navigates his action scenes with skill. Consider this description you find in Big Red Tequila, “It had tried to fall down a long time ago but had been stopped by a nearby mesquite that was still propping it up like a sober fried trying to support a drunk.” This is one of many similes that abound in his works, such as the following.
“… but she still had a withdrawn, slightly puffed-up demeanor, like a very cold parakeet on a perch.”
Consider the almost literary quality you find in this description from The Last King of Texas, “Now the palm trees dotting the shore were dying. The Casting pond was choked with watercress and cattails and old shoes. Most of the Spanish villas and Southern plantation homes fronting the water had long ago been divided into apartment blocks, their lawns gone to crabgrass and wild pyracantha. Still in the fresh light on a late spring morning the place glowed with a kind of faded dignity.”
I have been speaking positively of the books, now for a bit of nitpicking:
- Tres Navarre’s periodic lack of self-restraint seems a bit out of character for someone who is a serious student of the martial arts.
- The police officers in these novels tend to be foul-mouthed creeps when they aren’t downright criminal. Most of the police officers I have known in real life are responsible, honorable men and women who choose their words with care.
- There are so many fights in Big Red Tequila that it sometimes seemed more like a graphic novel than a book. I kept expecting to see a big, “Wham”, “Bang” and “Zowee” appear on the pages like in the old Batman television series. In fact, I had trouble keeping all the fights separate in my mind in order to keep track of what pertinent data was attached to the various violent incidents.
- When Tres Navarre returns to San Antonio after years away in San Francisco he seems to run into an old friend or acquaintance every time he turns a corner. San Antonio is a big place, and I don’t run into that many old friends when I return to my home town that only has about 10,000 people.
- When you finally get to the climax in chapter 54 of The Widower’s Two Step (page 353), it doesn’t really seem like the previous action events have been leading to this final showdown, and the showdown seems to be disappointingly abbreviated (only 8 pages).
- Sometimes characters act in ways that do not make sense to me.
Riordan is a great storyteller, his characters are interesting, his plots creative, and his dialogue is usually both creative and believable. However, there are a few reasons why you might NOT want to read his adult mystery books. Riordan says of his books that “They have adult situations, language, etc. They aren’t any worse than a typical R-rated movie, but I do not recommend them for readers under 17.” My mother would say he should have his mouth washed out with soap for using such “adult” language, and the “adult” situations include behavior by both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” that is less than admirable; adultery, murder, sexual harassment, deception, theft, child abuse, abuse of power by police and politicians, etc. There are other books you might select instead if you are looking for “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable”, excellent and praiseworthy.