Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
IN THIS ISSUE: Changing the "Sheet" • What to read in April • The latest releases from Robert B. Parker, William Diehl, Loren D. Estleman, Keith Miles and many others • Readers rate new books by James W. Hall, Carl Hiaasen and Bill Moody • William X. Kienzle's posthumous novel, The Gathering • Oregon author Vince Kohler dies and other news from the world of mystery • A report from Left Coast Crime • And the nominees for this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Agatha Awards
Notice Anything Different?
That's right, some changes have been made in "The Rap Sheet." Most of these are cosmetic, such as the introduction of a "Pierce's Picks" section at the front, where I shall identify some of the coming month's most interesting crime fiction releases, and the addition of an "In the News" department, which will supply links to mystery-related news reports available elsewhere on the Web. In order to expand the scope of "The Rap Sheet," I've also added an "Other Voices" section of mini book reviews written by other fans of this genre. I invite you to submit your own comments (no more than about 300 words per book) to "Other Voices." The content should extend beyond telling whether you liked a book, to explaining what it is -- specifically -- that moved you about the work's plot, characters, writing style, etc. No blatant self-promotion, please. Send submissions to me via the e-mail link provided below.
But the most significant change will only be obvious over the coming months. In order to enhance the newsworthiness of "The Rap Sheet," its frequency will increase from its usual quarterly (at best) to monthly. The greater regularity should also bring about a shortening of these newsletters, as they will no longer have to cover the wide variety of book releases over a multi-month span.
Please let me know what you think about these changes as you watch them unfold.
Pierce's Picks for April
Black Water (Hyperion), by T. Jefferson Parker. Merci Rayborn, the stubborn Southern California police detective from Red Light (2000), is back to defend -- and later chase -- a deputy who's charged with killing his wife and then shooting himself in the head.
Blood on the Tongue (Collins Crime UK), by Stephen Booth. This sequel to Dancing With the Virgins (2001) has detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry holding down the "E" Division fort during a winter when the murder clues are at least as cold as the weather.
City of Bones (Little, Brown), by Michael Connelly. This powerfully plotted eighth Harry Bosch novel finds the L.A. homicide detective seeking to identify the long-buried skeleton of a child, whose death he associates with the failings of his city.
The Golden One (Morrow), by Elizabeth Peters. At the dawn of 1917, Amelia Peabody and her family sail again for Egypt, where they discover that a royal tomb has been ransacked and where Amelia's son, Ramses, is recruited by British military intelligence for what could be a perilous mission.
The Interrogation (Bantam), by Thomas H. Cook. This affecting thriller centers around the 24-hour police questioning of a homeless man who's suspected of taking a child's life, with the motives and fears of his interrogators also brought dramatically into play.
The Pale Green Horse (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Michael I. Leahey. New York "private consultant" J.J. Donovan tries to save three seemingly unconnected people, whose photos and personal information were mistakenly delivered to Donovan's partner, from a demented killer. The sequel to Broken Machines (2000).
Put a Lid On It (Mysterious Press), by Donald Westlake. A career thief is sprung by members of a U.S. president's re-election campaign, who need him to steal a compromising videotape before it can be used by the opposing candidate. According to its promo materials, Put a Lid On It "shows just how easy Watergate would have been had they left it to the professionals."
New and Noteworthy
Robert B. Parker's latest Spenser novel, Widow's Walk (Putnam), finds Boston banker Nathan Smith "naked in his bed with a hole in his head made by a forty-caliber slug." The cops figure his wife, Mary, an ingenuous but unfaithful blonde 28 years his junior, pulled the trigger. She claims to be innocent. Spenser, hired by former prosecutor Rita Fiore to help build Mary Smith the best defense her money can buy, isn't sure either way, and the more he looks into this case -- dense with business and sexual deceptions -- the more perplexed he becomes. It's good to see Spenser back on his home turf, after his contrived imitation of an Arizona frontier lawman in last year's Potshot. Although this sleuth bears obvious resemblance to Old West heroes (right down to his personal code of honor and Wyoming upbringing), he seems most credible when tackling urban miscreants. Plenty of those face off against Spenser and his robustly menacing black sidekick, Hawk, in Widow's Walk. Unfortunately, that leaves less time for Parker to nurture his other series regulars, including Susan Silverman, whose restrained jealousy toward lawyer Fiore ("Rita is sexually rapacious and perfectly amoral about it. I'm merely acknowledging that") and self-flagellation over the suicide of a gay therapy client somehow manage to produce no new depth to her character. This is standard Spenser fare -- a swiftly paced yarn, witty in its dialogue and occasionally erudite. Just the stuff to infuriate longtime fans of this series, who wish Parker would shake things up more, maybe kill off a regular or two. But then, how do you argue with success? Widow's Walk is, after all, the 29th Spenser novel.
Shift from America's Southwest to the Southeast, and you find the setting for The Blue Edge of Midnight (Dutton), the premiere novel by Jonathon King, a longtime journalist and now a news feature writer with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. King's focus in this vivid and violent tale is on Max Freeman, a former Philadelphia cop who escaped to the Sunshine State after capping an adolescent thief and is now trying to live inconspicuously in a Spartan Everglades cabin. But when he happens upon the floating corpse of a kidnapped young girl, the latest victim of a serial killer, Max's peace goes to pieces. County sheriff's investigators peg him as their quarry, and they'll only look elsewhere if Max can point them in the general direction of the real murderer. Though this is an all-too-familiar plotting device, King manages to refresh it a bit, mostly by pulling readers deep into the 'Glades, a huge part of Florida that rarely receives the attention from crime fictionists that's lavished on areas known better for bare skin than unbearable skeeters. Max is a reliable and reliably troubled figure, if a bit too heroic for my tastes. (Over the course of this mystery, he survives not only gunplay and a bar brawl, but a plane crash, to boot.) However, he's supported by a splendid cast of misfit players, not limited to his suave but stuttering attorney friend, Billy Manchester, and a passel of inbred swamp dwellers whose codes of conduct might be the envy of local gators. Author King has a precise, pared-down prose style that fits comfortably with his suspenseful story, and he leaves you holding just enough clues about Max Freeman's past and personality to make you want to learn more. Since The Blue Edge of Midnight is supposedly the initial installment in a series, you might expect that your curiosity will be satisfied somewhere down the road. ... American readers who missed last year's debut of British writer Henry Porter's A Spy's Life (one of my favorite books of 2001) can now find it in a U.S. edition from Simon & Schuster. It's the ripping tale of Robert Cope Harland, a former spy who survives a New York plane crash, only to be caught up in an international intrigue involving a supposedly dead Bosnian war criminal, a Czech agent Harland had once loved and a son Harland never knew he had. Highly recommended.
China is getting a lot of attention lately, and not just because George W. Bush appears recklessly willing to make it a first-strike nuclear target. Two new mysteries find their footing in the land of Mao and Tao. The most distinctive is Tom Bradby's The Master of Rain, which came out in Britain in January, but is only now hitting shelves in the States, thanks to publisher Doubleday. Set in Shanghai in 1926, this lengthy thriller follows police officer Richard Field, who is brought in to solve the sadistic slaying of a White Russian woman. One key to untangling the case may rest with her self-preservation-minded neighbor, Natasha Medvedev, with whom Field falls in love, even knowing that she could be targeted for death, too. Though the murder inquiry definitely has its appeal, it's Bradby's multifaceted evocation of Shanghai -- home to American gun-runners, Asian gangsters, opium dens and corruption of every stripe -- that makes this novel memorable. ... A rather less dangerous, modern-day China provides the backdrop for The Lake Ching Murders (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Canadian novelist David Rothenberg. Detective Zhong Fong, once the head of Special Investigations in Shanghai but subsequently condemned as a traitor and exiled to northern China, must prove his investigative skills by resolving the executions of 17 people found burned and frozen on Lake Ching. Rothenberg proves his ability (demonstrated before in The Shanghai Murders, 1998) to craft a twisted mystery, but he doesn't spend enough time exploring the foreign culture at the root of this story. ... Dean Barrett's Murder in China Red (Village East Books) only sounds like it should be set in the Far East; its drama actually takes place in New York City, where 35-year-old private detective Liu Chiang-hsin, known to friends and contacts as "Chinaman," concentrates his sharp mind on bringing to justice whoever killed the one woman he loved. The task will force him into the uncomfortable position of seeking help from his ex-wife (who's still bitter over finding Chinaman in the sack with the woman whose murder drives this tale) and to combat his boyhood memories of seeing his father's life taken by the Chinese Red Guards. The plot features a few clichés, but action lovers will enjoy a climatic scene in Manhattan's gloomy Red Hook district (which also recently provided the setting for Gabriel Cohen's winning debut novel, Red Hook).
By the way, author Miles has another book out under his own name. Bermuda Grass (Poisoned Pen Press) is the fifth entry in his series about golf pro and sometimes-detective Alan Saxon -- and the first new Saxon story in more than a decade (since Flagstick, 1991). With his professional tour winnings in decline, our swinging hero has taken up golf course design, instead, his first project being a hotel-associated course on the island of Bermuda. It sounds like a relatively pleasurable assignment, especially since Saxon plans to take along his Oxford student daughter, Lynette, for some high-quality bonding time. But things go wrong right off the tee. Saxon's ex-wife, Rosemary, insists that Lynette be accompanied to Bermuda by her rich, arrogant and sexually charged friend, Jessica Hadlow. More troubles arise when Saxon's design partner, the worry-prone Peter Fullard, tells him that their course is being targeted by saboteurs. Saxon doesn't take Fullard's concerns seriously at first. But when the contemptuous cab driver who squired them to their hotel turns up hanging dead from a tree, and then Lynette and Jessica are kidnapped out of their room, he accepts the dangers posed both to his family and his project. Bermuda Grass is a rather classically conceived tale, though with a nice helping of humor; and the plot's basis in an endangered building project may bring to mind not only Miles' Merlin Richards architectural mysteries (Murder in Perspective, Saint's Rest) but also The Wanton Angel (1999), an entry in the Marston series about Elizabethan stage manager Nicholas Bracewell. Yet Bermuda Grass shines because of Alan Saxon. He's a smart and spirited leading man, the resentful son of a career cop who manages to make just enough errors in his investigation to be credible, but not enough to bring about a disaster. The story's twists and turns keep you guessing at who's behind all the nefarious doings, and it requires no foreknowledge of or affinity for golf to recognize this book's charms. Incidentally, readers who would like to catch up with the Saxon series should know that Poisoned Pen Press is reprinting the first two entries: Bullet Hole and Double Eagle. If we're lucky, all of this will encourage Miles to take at a swing at another Saxon story soon. Fore!
The real treat in Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker books is their reliably cynical rants against the evils of modernity. Here, for instance, is the Detroit P.I.'s dismissal of computers as investigative tools, from the new Sinister Heights (Mysterious Press): "The modem hasn't been designed that can slip a latch, boost a hard file, intimidate a suspect, or contuse and lacerate an uncooperative witness into changing his mind. It can't seduce a receptionist or blackmail an accomplice, and it lacks the character needed to process a quart of gin and keep its circuits intact while the other fellow is overloading his. If it somehow managed to do all that, it couldn't erase its hard drive fast enough to avoid a stretch in the Stone Motel." Sure, that line of hard-boiled patter creaked even 22 years ago, when Walker began his literary adventuring; today, it seems positively antediluvian. Yet in our era of slick and politically correct gumshoes, a throwback like Walker can't help but entertain. In Sinister Heights, he's hired by the fetching young widow of powerful auto maker Leland Stutch, who wants him to locate her hubby's illegitimate offspring in order that she can share with them her inheritance -- and thereby avoid future lawsuits. But the would-be heirs have troubles far beyond anything related to money. Stutch's granddaughter is on the lam from an abusive spouse, and Walker's efforts to help her only lead to her son's kidnapping, a cinematic assault (by 18-wheeler trucks, no less!) on a suburban car factory, and a surprise Stutch progeny who hopes to capture all of the late magnate's millions, not just the meager fruits of his widow's largesse. Veteran readers of the Walker series will enjoy the reappearance of Iris Chapin, the comely Jamaican woman who was first introduced as a hooker in Motor City Blue (1980) and is now running a shelter for battered women (though, unfortunately, not for long). Estleman doesn't break any new ground with Sinister Heights; its setup and pacing are very traditional, and the author seems satisfied to caricature his cops and politicians. But the book's polished plotting and writing maintain your attention, and Walker's nostalgia for Detroit's car-fin heyday makes you see the battered old Motor City with fresh eyes.
Five years after blowing up the Los Angeles International Airport by mistake (in Shooting Elvis, 1996), Mary Alice Baker -- aka Nina Zero -- is released from prison and more than ready to start a new life. Trouble is, as we discover in Robert M. Eversz's Killing Paparazzi (St. Martin's Minotaur), pretty much anything that can go wrong for Nina does. For $2,000, she agrees to marry an English photographer who needs a green card to stay in the United States, only to later see that hubby murdered. She tries to establish her own career as a tabloid shooter, gaining notoriety with images of heavy-metal band members electrocuted in their hotel hot tub, only to realize that someone is seeking to off all the paparazzi in town -- and she may be the next target. Justly aggravated by all of this, and finding no help from police, Nina decides to track the killer herself, beginning an adventure that will have her guesting on a docu-soap called Meat Wagon and stepping into a long-running family feud. The case gives Eversz, a former L.A. writer now living in Prague, innumerable chances to satirize pop culture, California's penal system and the SoCal glitterati. Pretty much everything is fair game for Eversz's lampooning, but it's all in the service of a fairly tight, alternately hard-boiled and witty adventure that nicely showcases Nina Zero, a sexy and tightly wound wonder among heroines, who deserves to be seen more of in the near future. ... Based on a pair of real-life murders, That Dog Don't Hunt (Catfish Press), by Lance Smith, drops the reader among drugged-out trust fund babies and coke-snorting debutantes -- "the demon seed of the ruling class" -- in Savannah, Georgia, in the late 1970s. Caught in this decadent world without a clue is Clayton Bartow. The scion of an influential and deeply rooted family who expects to have everything handed to him on a silver platter, Clayton would like nothing more than to break free of his domineering father, but it's only after he meets a young street hustler that he starts to see how he might begin to take control of his circumstances. Regrettably, drug peddling, kidnapping and homicide all play a part in the scheme. While Smith injects ample dark humor into this short novel, he forgets that readers like to identify with characters; just about everyone in That Dog Don't Hunt is an execrable loser, interesting only for the extent of their depravity. There are some plotting surprises here, but the book could have used more editorial direction and much more time in a copy editor's hands.
While several longtime series authors (including Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais and G.M. Ford) have recently turned to composing standalone novels, Stephen J. Cannell -- whose first five books were all one-offs -- is doing just the opposite. The Viking Funeral (St. Martin's Press) is his second book featuring maverick Los Angeles police detective Shane Scully, who was introduced so dramatically in The Tin Collectors (2000). Unfortunately, Viking doesn't quite measure up to its predecessor. The story starts off well enough: Scully, already undergoing psychiatric review for breaking "more rules than the West Hollywood Vice Squad," only adds to his "head case" reputation when he claims to have spotted Jody Dean -- his boyhood buddy and former colleague, who supposedly committed suicide two years before -- racing down Interstate 405 in a dust-covered muscle car. Of course, nobody believes that he's seen Dean, not even his girlfriend (and former adversary), Sergeant Alexa Hamilton. So, Scully sets out to prove that he isn't crazy. As it turns out, Dean is very much alive and in command of a crew of undercover cops who've slipped their leash and are now running a convoluted money-laundering scheme that ties U.S. tobacco shipments to South American drug barons. With the sanction of L.A.'s new police chief, Tony Filosian (nicknamed the Day-Glo Dago, due to his fondness for oversized pinky rings), and after accidentally shooting Alexa with a cop-killer bullet in a staged confrontation, Scully earns a place in Dean's band of malevolent misfits. However, his life is at risk from the get-go, not just because the other gang members resent his sharing in their criminal spoils, but because the money-laundering plan -- which had once seemed so cut-and-dried -- goes off the rails as Dean & Co. jet from one tropical hideaway to the next, attracting enemies all the way. Cannell honed his talent for crafting credible action scenes in TV work (The Rockford Files, Wiseguy, City of Angels, etc.), and he does a fine job here of moving the plot along at a tension-filled clip. The problem is that all that action overwhelms the most interesting element of The Viking Funeral, which is the expansion of Scully's character. Transitions between gunplay and Scully's ruminating on the deceptive foundations of his friendship with Jody Dean are often clunky and harsh. Cannell lets his man appear shallow too much of the time, making it seem that he didn't really want to give his protagonist dimension, but that he was forced to do so by some publishing bigwig armed with studies showing that readers prefer players who show at least a bit of a beating heart. I hope that Cannell can get the balance of character development and cinematic suspense right in his third book, because he does have a good thing going in Shane Scully. Warts and all.
Finally, for serious crime fiction fans, comes The Deadly Directory 2002 (Deadly Serious Press). Edited by Kate Derie, who also manages the excellent online Web resource ClueLass, the Directory contains listings of more than 750 bookstores, publications, annual events, and gift outlets and publishers catering to mystery enthusiasts. It's great to pack along when you're traveling, so you won't miss any local bookshops specializing in mystery fiction or fail to browse unexpectedly germane stores, such as Los Angeles' Skeletons in the Closet, which peddles official merchandise from the L.A. County Coroner's office. Yeah, you read that right.
Stalking Moon (Avon), by David Cole, is a thrill-tinged mystery about outlaw cybersleuth Laura Winslow. While helping a troubled friend investigate the deaths of immigrant women being smuggled into the United States over the Mexican border, Winslow is captured by federal authorities and forfeits her carefully crafted identities. Under government scrutiny, she proceeds as a double agent on an action-packed and colorful adventure that takes her across the border to a bitter reunion with her activist ex-husband, now a political prisoner in a Mexican jail. Cole, author of two previous Laura Winslow novels (The Killing Maze and Butterfly Lost), never overplays Winslow's Hopi heritage, and his accounts of the hacker lifestyle are some of the best in the cybercrime field. ... The late John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series charted a fresh and fascinating course through the underworld of a rapidly changing South Florida coastland and Keys. Set in the same waters, James W. Hall's series about a private investigator known only as Thorn is the nearest thing to heaven for MacDonald fans. Launched with Under Cover of Daylight (1987), the series has been in hiatus since Red Sky at Night (1997). Now Thorn returns in Blackwater Sound (St. Martin's Minotaur). While many contemporary Florida crime fiction writers add black humor and the jittery pulse of Miami into their books, Hall steers a straight course. His forte is not the offbeat but the classic, and he's at his most powerful in narrative passages describing boating and fishing in South Florida. Blackwater Sound opens with a jetliner crash-landing in the ocean, followed by a flashback to a life-and-death struggle aboard a sportfishing boat some years earlier. Andy Braswell, the brilliant son of a Sunshine State industrialist, was caught in a heavy line while attempting to tag a giant marlin. The fish dragged Andy out of the boat and down to his death while his parents and siblings watched. His death -- or could it have been suicide? -- shattered his father, imperiling the future of the family technology business. At the time of the airplane crash, several key players in that company, including Andy's manipulative sister Morgan, are involved in scams to keep the business afloat or pick dry the last of its value. Thorn enters the picture when the cause of the plane crash -- which he'd witnessed -- is tied to a secret electronic weapon being tested by the Braswells' company. Corrupt businessmen, beautiful but twisted rich girls, and a bitter P.I. with quirky sidekicks are certainly familiar fare, but the distinctive writing in Blackwater Sound makes for a highly entertaining visit. -- Karen G. Anderson, January contributing editor
Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case (Knopf) is a welcome romp through the world of a 46-year-old obituary writer who is struggling to regain his edge at a small-town newspaper. Set, like most of Hiaasen's works, in South Florida, the novel is filled with characters who are a bit bigger than life, and it takes a few cathartic swipes at greedheads -- people who are out for obscene profits, no matter the human cost. The main character and narrator, Jack Tagger, is a smart-aleck journalist, banished to the obits after he admonishes his paper's silver-spoon-sucking owner for gutting editorial quality in pursuit of greater income. While prowling for a story that will be his ticket out of the obits, Tagger stumbles onto the death of a former rock star, Jimmy Stoma, who has drowned while diving in the Bahamas. Tagger chases his story among the bottom feeders of Florida's music scene, offering several characters designed to be hated, and there's an especially clever scene in which our hero must defend himself with a huge frozen lizard. (Nobody should ever expect straight-forward crime fiction from Hiaasen.) Tagger is a more engaging protagonist than, say, Twilly Spree, from Sick Puppy (2000), and I love the idea of this reporter in his 40s fighting to show that he hasn't lost his touch. Disappointing, though, is Tagger's relationship with his young and beautiful female editor, Emma. They start this book arguing and scheming against one another, but their venom dissipates all too easily and quickly, and they end up -- incredibly -- arm in arm. The story's ending must also be counted among Basket Case's few downsides, as Hiaasen neatly ties up all of his loose ends, rather than letting some issues go unresolved, which could have been a charming resolution in itself. -- Byron Rice, Minneapolis reader
Tackling his fifth case, in Bill Moody's Looking for Chet Baker (Walker), jazz pianist/sleuth Evan Horne has left California and a bad relationship, and gone to England, unsure of his next move. He's playing music again, for the first time in several years, and would rather concentrate on that than solving crimes. But Horne is instead suckered into helping his friend Ace Buffington, a professor and jazz fan. Buffington is under contract to write a biography of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who died in Amsterdam in 1988, probably by falling out of a hotel window. Although Horne is only vaguely interested in Baker's death, Buffington wants his help on the book. Horne refuses. Yet he still ends up involved when Buffington suddenly disappears, leaving his book notes behind, compelling Horne to probe the death of Chet Baker in order to locate his friend. This is not Moody's strongest book, and it's not nearly up to the standards of his previous story, Bird Lives! (1999). There was a clear point at which I thought Horne should just go home and give up this lackluster case. The usually interesting fact of Horne's piano playing is lost in this tale. The flashbacks to the last days of Baker's life are sterile and don't work, and while there are some high points -- including appearances by jazz sax player Fletcher Paige, a longtime musician in European "exile" who comes across as both an interesting and fully realized character -- the story meanders. Horne, like his music, is very laid-back, which may work well for jazz, but not for writing. -- Andi Shechter, January contributor
You, too, can have your say in "Other Voices." To submit mini-reviews of recent releases (no more than 300 words apiece), click here. Reviews may be edited for length, clarity and grammar.
Gone But Not Forgotten
While there has been no shortage of religion-related mysteries over the years -- from Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small novels to G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories and Ralph McInerny's series about Father Dowling (the latest installment of which is Prodigal Father, due out from St. Martin's Minotaur in July) -- few have gained the attention of Kienzle's books featuring Koesler, a compassionate Catholic priest, journalist and sometimes-detective operating in Detroit, Michigan. Koesler's first adventure was chronicled in The Rosary Murders (1979), which was adapted as a movie eight years later, starring Donald Sutherland, and which the Chicago Sun-Times ultimately chose as one of its top-25 mysteries of the 20th century. Kienzle went on from The Rosary Murders to compose almost two dozen additional Koesler yarns, all boasting some theological or ethical angle, even if it was sometimes well cosseted in noirish trappings (with a little sex thrown in, for good measure).
That Kienzle had himself been a Catholic priest for many years should come as no surprise to anyone who's read the Koesler stories. This Detroit-born author was ordained in 1954. He went on to manage a diocesan newspaper and other publications for two decades before turning in his collar to marry Javan Herman Andrews in 1974. He later taught contemplative studies at Western Michigan University and then the University of Dallas, but concentrated in his last years on the penning of mysteries built around the likable, liberal and independent-minded Koesler.
In the News
Vince Kohler, the Oregon writer of four humorous mysteries (including Rainy North Woods) that featured eccentric reporter/detective Eldon Larkin, died earlier this month at age 53. Read more.
British author Jake Arnott (The Long Firm, He Kills Coppers) talks about what goes into creating his fictional world of Soho gangsters and whores, corrupt police and sleazy journalists, all bound together by sin. Read more.
The Crime Writers' Association (CWA) of Britain has awarded the 2002 Cartier Diamond Dagger to Sara Paretsky. The annual award recognizes a writer's lifetime achievement in the genre of crime writing. Read more.
The CWA has also created a new annual prize -- the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger -- for the year's best thriller, adventure novel or work of spy fiction. Read more.
Report from Left Coast Crime
Announcements of who won the 2002 Lefty and Dilys awards were only the most publicized features of the 12th annual Left Coast Crime (LCC) convention, held March 21-24 in Portland, Oregon. If that four-day affair lacked the participatory wackiness of a Star Trek convention (no one came dressed as a Klingon, for instance, though many attendees did begin showing off their polychromatic aloha attire well before one evening's Hawaiian Shirt Contest), it certainly offered insights into both the writers who contribute to this genre and those who buy their books.
Seattle author G.M. "Jerry" Ford (Fury), who served as this year's toastmaster, seemed to be everywhere at once, like a beefy, bearded and brilliantly sarcastic sprite. When not being fawned over by fans (many of whom lobbied for a resurrection of Ford's series private eye, Leo Waterman), he shared with panel participants a variety of quotable opinions regarding modern crime fiction. "We've got a really wide genre here," he told one group, "[with characters] stretching from those in Daniel Woodrell's works, where 9-year-old girls carry guns, all the way to cats in orthopedic underwear." During an unrelated discussion, Greg Rucka (Shooting At Midnight) let readers in on what drives his stories -- "Normally, I write out of anger" -- while his fellow Portlander, Phillip Margolin, revealed his principal weakness as a writer of legal thrillers (including Wild Justice). "I'm very interested in plot," explained former attorney Margolin. "I'm totally uninterested in character development, and that's what my editors are always on me about." Often, what was most rewarding about meeting the writers who attended LCC was discovering how their personalities are at odds with the tone of their books. Robert Ferrigno (Flinch) may write hard-edged tales full of what he calls "honorable sleazeballs," but he totally disarmed viewers of a panel on penning suspense fiction with his self-deprecating humor. And though the Steven Saylor one imagines from reading his Gordianus the Finder novels (Last Seen in Massilia, etc.) is a cool professional, the author informed his audience that he always cries when he's writing the final chapter of a new book. "It's such a release," he said.
Perhaps the most contentious panel discussion was one titled "What Constitutes Justice?" While most of the authors leading the talk, including Britain's Stephen Booth and Victoria Heckman (K.O.'d in Honolulu), argued that today's crime novels need not end with the incarceration or alternative punishment of wrongdoers, easily 50 percent of the audience members insisted that some form of reproof (even if it's extra-legal) be dispensed in the course of these stories. Things grew heated as the writers pointed out that "justice" is not always realized in real life, so it need not be in fiction, and as one fan in the room started quizzing panelists on whether they believed in the death penalty. I can't help but wonder whether this discussion would've been different before the terrorist attacks of September 11. How many readers nowadays look to crime fiction for reinforcement of the notion that the "good guys" will eventually win?
Oh, and of course there were those awards announcements. Competition for the Lefty Award, given by the LCC to the most humorous mystery novel of last year, ended in a tie between Jerrilyn Farmer's Dim Sum Dead and Fender Benders, by Bill Fitzhugh. Meanwhile, the Dilys Award, presented by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association to the crime fiction title that members most enjoyed selling in the previous year, went to Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane.
Other Just Desserts
Finalists for the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize were announced recently, with the awards to be handed out on April 27 at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The finalists in the mystery/thriller category are:
For a complete list of the finalists in nine different categories, click here.
And Malice Domestic has announced its list of nominees for the 2002 Agatha Awards. Winners will be announced on May 4, during the annual Malice Domestic convention in Arlington, Virginia. The nominees are:
Best First Mystery Novel:
Best Short Story:
Life Achievement Award:
"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by Crime Fiction Editor J. Kingston Pierce. Authors and publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.
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