Peter Heller brings his engaging protagonist Celine to Iowa City

Reading: Peter Heller

Prairie Lights — Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m.

Author Peter Heller reads at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, Jan. 31. — video still

Celine Watkins is 68 years old, suffering from arthritis and emphysema and brokenhearted over the loss of her two sisters — one older, one younger — in quick succession. She is also a private eye, a crack shot and by turns fearsome and consoling. She is one of the most engaging protagonists I have ever encountered in a mystery novel.

Celine, the star of the novel by the same name, is the creation of Peter Heller, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of two previous novels (The Dog Stars and The Painter). Celine is two mysteries in one. In the primary story, the eponymous character and her taciturn husband attempt to find a former National Geographic photographer who has long been missing. Meanwhile, the story flashes back to the effort of Hank, Celine’s son, to undercover and understand a mysterious period in his mother’s life.

Peter Heller’s 2017 novel ‘Celine.’ Heller will read at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, Jan. 31.

Heller shifts perspectives with ease, allowing his third person narrator to explicitly address the reader from time to time. This device works surprisingly well, drawing us even further into the story even as the fourth wall is broken.

But the story is really driven by the force of Celine’s personality. She employs her East Coast education and ability to read any social situation with the same precision and devastating effect that an ex-military sniper might use a gun in a different kind of mystery novel or thriller. (And then for good measure, she’d match said sniper shot for shot.)

Heller balances action with lovely descriptions of landscapes urban, rural and wild. He and Celine share a keen eye for detail and they each put it to extraordinary use.

I urge you to make Celine’s acquaintance.

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