April 16, 2009

The Devil Went Down to Austin *****

**** The Devil Went Down to Austin, Rick Riordan, 2001

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

The Devil Went Down to Austin, the fourth Tres Navarre story by Rick Riordan, continues a fine tradition of excellent writing, engaging characters and a compelling story. There are two things that draw me to Riordan, no three. First, he is a Texan, residing in San Antonio where he is a middle-school English teacher. Of course, that alone itself is not sufficient. There are many Texan writers who do not cause me to smile in the middle of a paragraph and grab the cell phone to call a friend just to read them a particularly well-crafted sentence. Riordan has caused me to use up cell phone minutes for that exact reason.

Which brings up the second thing that draws me to Riordan – he is one damn good writer. Yes, he writes whodunits, but I would read a shopping list if he wrote it, that’s just how good he is at his craft. He is good at putting a sentence together. And he’s good at fitting them all together into a great narrative. Many writers who can craft a good sentence can’t tell a compelling story. Things may get a bit slow here and there while you wade through something that probably made the writer feel proud, but leaves the reader a little bored. Riordan doesn’t lose the forest while crafting the individual trees.

The third thing that makes me grab every Riordan book I find is his talent for building characters, and not just the headliner characters. Even bit characters have substance, like Krystal the receptionist who shows up in one phone call and two single page appearances as he enters and leaves the building. His characters show up with a wealth of backstory hovering around the edges, which brings them to life. Building three-dimensional characters is a lot of work. It’s much easier to write the cliché for supporting characters, but they tend to resent it. A good writer detects this and makes the extra effort give them their due. For example, consider this conversation between Tres and Clyde Simms, a biker bodyguard for Ruby.

“You care for her.” His eyes got dangerously hot. “She’s a good boss.” “That’s not what I meant.” He finished his beer, crumpled the can, tossed it somewhere behind the pink sofa. “I got discharged from the Marines in ’82, Navarre. I spent a few years hanging with bikers, striking with the Diablos. Then I started bumming with dock rats at the lake. I met all kinds of people. You know what I figured out? Only friends worth having are the ones who can hurt you, man, hurt you worse than any random shithead in a barfight. I hang with Ruby because she stands by me; she tries to be good to me. Is she dangerous? Is she a little screwed up, all that shitty family history? Sure. But you want to boil it down to – hey, Clyde’s got the hots for her, well you go ahead, man. That’s how you think, you’d never understand anyway.” The Doberman was looking at me mournfully, chewing her pink bunny. “I apologize,” I told Clyde. He grunted.

That’s a supporting character. What he does with the main characters is magic.

I have yet to pick up a Riordan novel and regret it. My expectation is that this will never change. Which could explain why his first novel, Big Red Tequila, won the Shamus and Anthony Awards and his second novel, The Widower’s Two-Step, won the Edgar award.

I’ll give a quick plot summary and let you go to order your own copy. Tres discovers that his programmer brother Garrett hocked the family ranch in the Hill Country to finance a high-tech startup which does what most high-tech startups do, tank. However, the startup didn’t experience problems until after a buyout offer cum hostile takeover and Garrett suspects sabotage. The death of one of the principals plunges Tres into the thick of a murder investigation where Garrett is the primary suspect. Stir in an old love interest and you’ve got a compelling story that is a very enjoyable roller coaster ride. I fingered the murderer early on, but even that didn’t diminish the thrill of the ride. Which is a testament to Riordan’s formidable skill.

Get this one.

Other books by Rick Riordan:

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