Alfred A Knopf/Penguin Random House, $25.95, 334 pages, ISBN 978-0-451-49389-7
In order to be successful, today’s crime fiction writer must be able to come up with a unique, new and different kind of detective that readers haven’t encountered before. Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Sam Spade, Spenser, Marlowe and Miss Marple many many times already . . . as well as an endless number of clones, look-alikes and downright rip-offs of iconic characters like Hieronymus Bosch, Joe Pickett and Jack Reacher. You know the type: tough, scuffed, and jonesing for alcohol or drugs . . . maybe both. It’s a hard task in today’s turbocharged, fast-moving, hyper-competitive world to speak with a truly original voice, but thanks to human creativity and ingenuity, it’s not impossible . . . only improbable. This week the MBR has found one of those improbable, sought after gems that only happen once in a blue moon.
Celine, by Peter Heller is his third stand alone work of fiction, and may indeed be his best yet. It comes two years after his spectacular 2015 sophomore effort, The Painter, which won the prestigious Reading The West Award in 2016, and, although two-years seems like and endlessly long wait in this age of the 140 character Tweet and five-second soundbite, Celine was worth waiting for. That’s because she’s the rarest of commodities—and scarce as the queen of unicorns—the improbable, but genuine, original and one hundred percent unique private-eye detective. You want new? Different? Someone you haven’t seen before? How about a sixty-eight year old female PI who’s on oxygen, suffering from emphysema as a result of a four-pack a day habit for several decades; a New England blueblood whose waspish roots are so deep, they reach all the way down to pre-revolutionary, colonial soil; a woman with artistic talent and an Ivy League education, who only accepts cold cases that could reunite families, because underlying everything, Celine is woman with secrets and guilt, and special skills from a past which haunts her every day; and she’s a woman who, along with her seventy year-old husband Ray, uses inductive reasoning . . . assembling known facts to reach a conclusion based on personal experience . . . and giving her a higher rate of closed cases than the FBI.
In this present case, Celine is contacted by a young woman named Gabriela, who saw an alumni journal article featuring the elderly detective with the unique methodology and spectacular closure rate. Gabriela asks for Celine’s help in finding her father, a world-famous photographer who disappeared twenty-some years earlier while on a photo assignment in Yellowstone Park. He was declared dead, presumably mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear. So begins the seemingly impossible task of locating someone who’s long-gone and dead as dead can be. It’s a hunt that will take Celine and her husband Ray from Brooklyn, to Denver, to Yellowstone and beyond in a search that puts all of their lives in jeopardy. As mysterious forces begin shadowing her every move however, she’s compelled to reveal many of the secret elements of her life and expose her amazing talents . . . bit, by bit, by bit.
Mr. Heller is fast-establishing himself as a world-class wordsmith who creates some of the most unusual and original figures in modern American fiction. Celine may just be his best-ever character. She’s certainly the best so far, and one the MBR hopes to see again.