Rick Riordan is best known for his Percy Jackson series of Young Adult novels which is apparently quite popular. His first couple of novels before he started writing YA however, are a series of crime novels centered around private investigator Tres Navarre. I was not aware of that either until i stumbled across them when the e-books were on sale. The Last King of Texas is the third novel in the series (and the third one I’ve read) and so far it has been rather a lot of fun.
The novels do not try to reinvent the genre, they’re all fairly conventional PI novels, but they are very well done, enjoyable to read and have just the right amount of original ideas and small inventive touches to keep them from becoming bland. One of those is that our main protagonist, San Antonio based Tres Navarre, has a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, which I think is probably a first in crime fiction. In The Last King of Texas he even gets to teach it when a professor at the local university is shot only two weeks after him replacing a professor who had died of a heart attack. The university then hires Tres – not to investigate the murder, but because they hope that will manage to stay alive somewhat longer than his predecessors. Of course it does not take long for Tres to be involved in the murder investigation and to find out that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye…
Tres Navarre’s Ph.D. had been more of a gimmick in the first two volumes of the series, but here it is actually relevant for the plot, and plays an important role in his character development, too, when he finds out – quite to his surprise – that he actually enjoys teaching his students, and when the reader finds out – Tres appears to not quite realise that yet – that he may actually a far better university teacher than he is a private investigator. Like the two previous novels, The Last King of Texas is a solid PI crime fiction which does not do anything special, but delivers a piece of excellent craftmanship which gets everything right and does what it does very well indeed. There are several recurring characters, some of them fairly typical – the protagonist’s criminal friend, the morally grey cop – and some not so much – the protagonist’s artist mother, the Greek private investigator and her five-year old son – but all drawn very vividly. Riordan is not afraid of using well-worn clichés, but he twists them just enough to make them appear fresh and interesting and not once during the almost 400 pages of this novel did I feel bored.
The plot moves along at a very pleasant speed, fast enough to keep the reader turning the pages, but also enough to have time for character development and local detail. The latter in particular is what lifts the Tres Navarre series above the average – never having been there myself I can’t tell how accurate Rick Riordan’s depiction of San Antonio is, but it certainly is very atmospheric. Even reading it in the middle of winter, I could feel the glare of the sun, the heat, the dust, and the Texan sky. The setting always plays a big part in any good crime novel (which makes one wonder whether place isn’t what crime fiction at its core is all about) and Riordan really brings Southern Texas to life in these novels. The sun-drenched Texan landscape contrasts sharply with what turns out to be a rather bleak story, full of betrayal, violence and death. The mystery aspect was consistently well done, too – some things I did guess ahead of their reveal, but I certainly was surprised by the main perpetrator. I also liked how the novel showed Tres as really not being very good as a private investigator and solving the case more by way of persistence and empathy than inspired sleuthing, and in the end managing to almost bungle it completely. I’m glad to say, however, that he does survive it, and that there are four more novels to this series which I’ll definitely be reading.