Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report #3

Literary purists exhaust far too much effort in trying to limit the definition of what is and is not mystery or crime fiction. These are the folks who howled when Seattle author Robert Clark's Mr. White's Confession -- an engrossing period tale about a slow-witted store clerk who can't remember whether he murdered a dancer -- won the 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. Because Clark hadn't deliberately set out to pen a mystery, purists were convinced that he didn't deserve to have his work acclaimed above that of such masters of the genre as Michael Connolly and Robert Goddard.

They would have done better to applaud Clark's win, for it showed once again that writing crime-related fiction is not a necessarily limiting exercise. Many prominent "mainstream" works contain ingredients that we associate with mystery novels -- hidden identities, unspoken motives, secret and violent acts. Yet it is rare that you'll find, say, Crime and Punishment and The House of the Seven Gables, or -- to choose two newer examples -- Frederick Busch's The Night Inspector and Kevin Baker's Dreamland categorized under "Crime and Mystery" in bookstores, although a case could certainly be made that they all belong there. Conversely, some books that I would immediately think to file under "Mystery" -- including the writings of John LeCarré, Boston Teran's new God Is a Bullet, and Robert Ferrigno's Southern California thrillers -- are prone to migrate into the "General Fiction" section. And some works seem to fit comfortably in both places, such as Lauren Belfer's new historical novel City of Light or Sarah Smith's The Knowledge of Water.

That these confusions are possible and frequent just shows how much crime fiction reflects familiar themes of human existence. Or, to quote author Nicholas Freeling (creator of the Inspector Van der Valk and Henri Castang mysteries): "Murder, and any other crime, is not a part of entertainment, but an integral part of life. We are all murderers, we are all spies, we are all criminals, and to choose a crime as the mainspring of a book's action is only to find one of the simplest ways of focusing eyes on our life and our world."

The boundaries of the mystery genre have, over the last half-century, become flexible. This year's Edgar judges recognized that fact with their commendation to Mr. White's Confession, and every other fan of these books should do likewise. Ross Macdonald and others fought for years to have crime fiction accepted as part of the "mainstream," and their efforts have obviously paid off. What sense is there in arguing now that the genre should be more restrictive?

* * *

But enough seriousness, already. On to this latest edition of "The Rap Sheet." As usual, I welcome any suggestions you might have for improving the newsletter or January's general crime fiction coverage. Also don't hesitate to send me news or information you think I might not already have.

J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor, January Magazine


New and Noteworthy

Several new novelists are showing off their stuff this season. One of the most impressive debut works is Murder in the Marais (Soho Press), by San Franciscan Cara Black. Set in modern Paris, Black's gripping yarn follows corporate security specialist Aimee Leduc as she tries to figure out who offed an elderly Jewish woman (and alleged one-time Nazi collaborator) and branded her corpse with an old-fashioned swastika. The case leads the street-smart Leduc and her dwarf partner to a fetid nest of Aryan supremacists; onto the long-cold trail of a Jewish child gone missing during World War II; and into an ever-more risky realm of contemporary politics and historical crimes.... Move from Paris to inland Maine, and you have the setting for Alice Blanchard's Darkness Peering (Bantam), a literary thriller that finds much of its drama in the uneasy relationships between members of the Storrow family. Back in 1980, Nalen Storrow, the police chief of a fictional town called Flowering Dogwood, investigated the slaying of a 14-year-old Downs Syndrome patient. After he realized that the evidence pointed to his own son Billy as the killer, Nalen committed suicide. Eighteen years later Nalen's daughter Rachel, now a police detective, hesitantly reopens the never-resolved case. When another woman dies savagely, it only convinces Rachel that her father was right to think Billy capable of murder. But is he?... For something a bit (okay, a lot) lighter in tone, try The Cactus Club Killings (Dell), by Nathan Walpow. The protagonist is Joe Portugal, a small-potatoes commercial actor and cactus lover (ouch!), who gets embroiled in the murder of his cactus club's president -- a woman apparently poisoned by one of the succulents she so adored. This isn't a memorable tale, but the characters of Joe and his Hispanic friend Gina make it a pleasant, diverting summer read.

Eddie North, a habitually honest sergeant with the Philadelphia Police Department, is never happy to hear that one of his people might be dirty. He's even less pleased to learn -- as he does in Scott Flander's Sons of the City (William Morrow) -- that the bad cop is Officer Steve Ryder, scion of Philly's police commissioner. Things only go downhill from there as Ryder is murdered in a crack house, and clues indicate that the hit was staged by the local Mafia, headed by North's old adversary Mickey Bravelli. While community and racial tensions build to a boiling point, Ryder's cop sister, Michelle, who also happens to be Eddie North's love interest, decides to go undercover in hopes of learning what Bravelli knows about her brother's demise. The generally powerful storyline is marred by soap-operatic elements, but Flander, an award-winning reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News, shows a confidence with his prose and a skill at dramatic development that make you forget this is his first novel.

Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy is still in shock from the airline-disaster death of his girlfriend, Nancy Meagher, when a fellow Vietnam vet asks him to dig into the questionable fate of a teenaged girl in Spiral (Pocket Books), Jeremiah Healy's 13th Cuddy novel. The girl was the granddaughter of Nicholas Helides, Cuddy's former commander from his military police days. The now wheelchair-bound Helides believes that she was murdered, even though the official report claims she drowned accidentally in her family's Florida swimming pool. As the P.I. pokes around in his usual, dogged way, he encounters greed and jealousy in others, and exposes his own raw nerves.... Also back in circulation is Detroit detective Amos Walker, who is heavily into pornography (and I mean that only figuratively) in his latest outing, The Hours of the Virgin (Mysterious Press), by Loren D. Estleman. The cynical, old-fashioned Walker had thought he was on a simple assignment -- helping an art consultant ransom back pages of a stolen ancient manuscript. But when the consultant and the money both disappear, our hero goes delving into the Motor City's worlds of art and porn, in either of which he might find the answers he seeks -- or else a ticket to an early grave.

Wilton McCleary, who returned from a Civil War prison to become a Philadelphia cop in the 1870s, made an impressive debut in Mark Graham's The Killing Breed (1998). Now he's back for an encore in The Resurrectionist (Avon Twilight), which has him trying to unmask the murderer of a black prostitute -- a thankless job that will have McCleary facing racists both inside and outside of his department.... Jeanne M. Dams, Indiana author of the award-winning Dorothy Martin stories (The Body in the Transept, Malice in Miniature, etc.) introduces another series character in Death in Lacquer Red (Walker). Hilda Johansson is a Swedish immigrant who has a good job as a maid at a South Bend, Indiana, mansion in 1900. But her peace is rocked when she discovers a dead woman on her employers' estate. Fearing that corrupt police will lay the blame on foreigners (like herself), Hilda turns amateur sleuth, working the local "servants network" to identify the deceased and her killer.

Eugene Izzi may be shooting to rival Ernest Hemingway and L. Ron Hubbard for the most posthumously published novels. Three years after his bizarre death by hanging, Izzi's name is on yet another crime novel, Safe Harbor (Avon). It concerns an enrollee in the Witness Protection Program, a family man named Mark Torrence who is known for his integrity. But that's just a cover; in his previous life, Torrence was Tommy Torelli, who trafficked with New York wiseguys until he turned traitor on some very powerful people. Now, a world-class hit man named James Bracken is after Torrence's ass, and the quiet family man will have to rely on his previous talents for violence and trickery to preserve even a shred of his new life.

British mystery readers are enjoying a wealth of excellent works this season. Among the treats is Belshazzar's Daughter (Headline), author Barbara Nadel's debut mystery set in contemporary Istanbul, Turkey. The backdrop -- with its grimy alleyways, rich blend of religions and cultures, and exotic history -- just begs for a complex criminal plot. And Nadel gives us one, spinning off from a brutal murder in Istanbul's rundown Jewish quarter. Authorities suggest a racial motive for the incident, but Inspector Cetin Ikmen isn't so sure, as his probing leads him to a 90-year-old Russian immigrant, a suspicious English-language teacher, a German businessman with Nazi sympathies, and a tragic obsession. A mental-health advocate, Nadel brings an uncommon psychological depth to her characters.... Medieval physician Matthew Bartholomew tackles his fifth investigation in Susanna Gregory's A Wicked Deed (Little, Brown). Having traveled with a group of his college's scholars from Cambridge to Suffolk, where they are set to accept the gift of a parish church, Bartholomew winds up probing a succession of violent deaths amidst a climate of superstition and reported heresy. Like A Plague on Both Your Houses (UK, 1996) and the other installments in this series, A Wicked Deed benefits both from a meticulously re-created period background and an engaging sleuth in the humble person of Matthew Bartholomew.... Lindsey Davis' ninth novel, the delightfully titled Three Hands in a Fountain just hit American bookshelves. Yet she is already out in England with her 11th story of Imperial Rome, One Virgin Too Many (Century). Here, low-rent detective Marcus Didius Falco has found new respectability in his appointment as keeper of his city's sacred geese, but he can't escape being drawn into the mysteries surrounding a murdered member of one of Rome's sacred brotherhoods and the disappearance of a prospective vestal virgin. Falco has always seemed to me a less credible and intriguing gumshoe than, say, Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder (star of Rubicon). However, Davis' humor and the relationship between Falco and his upper-crust wife Julia continue to attract readers. Davis' 10th UK release, Two For the Lions (due out in the States in late 1999), recently won the British Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger for historical thrillers.

Don't miss British writer Deryn Lake's Death in the Peerless Pool (Hodder and Stoughton), the latest in her series featuring 18th-century apothecary John Rawlings. The "brilliant" Rawlings has once more teamed up with London's famous blind judge Sir John Fielding, this time to solve the drowning death of Hannah Rankin, a woman employed at St. Luke's asylum for the insane. Pursuing the case, Rawlings begins to link it with the long-ago vanishing of children from Paris and Bath, England, and realize that Rankin's demise is only part of a far more widespread and sinister case.

Speaking of Fielding -- the real-life founder of London's original police force, the Bow Street Runners -- look for him to appear also in Bruce Alexander's Death of a Colonial (Putnam, September), the sixth book in a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining series that began with Blind Justice (1994). The story commences with the execution of a nobleman and the unexpected reappearance of the man's younger brother, come to claim his sibling's possessions. Where this brother has been for the last seven years and what connection this case has with an American's suicide in London are questions destined to test the wits of both Sir John and his earnest young assistant Jeremy Proctor. Alexander fans should know, too, that his 1998 novel, Jack, Knave and Fool, is scheduled for paperback publication by Berkley Prime Crime in October.




Future Felonies

Last year's Flying Blind was a top-flight entry in Max Allan Collins' exceptional historical series featuring Chicago private eye Nathan Heller. Now comes Majic Man (Dutton, September), in which Heller is summoned to Washington, DC, in 1949 to help retiring Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. While others fear for Forrestal's sanity, the secretary is convinced that he's being followed (by foreign agents?) and that his life is in danger. He wants Heller to identify his menacers and stop them. How this personal-protection assignment becomes entangled in political intrigue and the mysterious sighting of a UFO out in Roswell, New Mexico, promises to make this 10th Heller novel worth its cover price.

If the plot of Family Honor (Putnam, September), with its troubled teenaged runaway and Boston mob connections, sounds like something that might have been concocted by the author of the Spenser P.I. novels, well, that's because it was. Honor is the first entry in Parker's third series, this one starring Sunny Randall, a smart, sexy, 34-year-old female cop-turned-gumshoe. As the book opens, Sunny agrees to search for Millicent Patton, the missing daughter of a wealthy Boston family, despite her sense that something is wrong within the Patton household. Sunny soon learns that the girl has become a prostitute, and rescues Millicent from her pimp. But that's not the end of it, as Sunny turns bodyguard, protecting the girl from both mobsters and criminal conspirators, with some help from her ex-husband, the son of a mob family, and a dangerous gay associate named -- of all things -- Spike.


Another new series comes from the prolific Stuart M. Kaminsky. Vengeance (Forge, September) is the first full-length novel built around Lew Fonesca, a process server in Sarasota, Florida, who was introduced in two Edgar-nominated short stories. Fonesca spends most of his time living in his office behind a Dairy Queen, grieving for his dead wife and watching old movies. But he's a sucker for women or children in trouble, venturing out to do good with the assistance of some certifiably motley helpers.... Two years after she went looking for a long-lost novelist in Cold Case, Boston cabdriver/detective Carlotta Carlyle is returning in Flashpoint (Hyperion, September).... Manhattanite S.J. Rozan writes books that alternate their first-person narrators, sometimes (as in the case of last year's wonderful A Bitter Feast) taking the viewpoint of Chinese-American private eye Lydia Chin, other times adopting the perspective of Lydia's older, more cynical partner Bill Smith. Stone Quarry (St. Martin's Press, September) follows Smith on a trip to rural New York, where he not only endeavors to retrieve some paintings for a once-famous landscape artist who's now trying to live an anonymous farming life, but also defends himself against charges that he murdered a local thug.

I love the publisher's note regarding Joe R. Lansdale's Freezer Burn (Mysterious Press, September): "This book has it all: murder, police chases, circus freaks, sex, death, and even a frozen caveman." The author of five East Texas thrillers showcasing Hap Collins and Leonard Pine (including last year's Rumble Tumble), Lansdale can always be counted on for his quirky plots and still-odder characters. This new stand-alone introduces Bill Roberts, whose mother's recent death leaves him destitute. His solution: to rob a nearby fireworks stand. However, the scheme goes seriously awry when one of his two partners in the heist kills the stand owner, and then dies himself in a subsequent car crash. Roberts and his remaining partner, Fat Boy, flee into a swamp, only to have Fat Boy done in by snakes. Roberts barely survives, his face chewed over by mosquitoes, and joins a traveling freak show, and... Oh, forget it. I can't possibly do justice to this weird tale. Pick it up yourself and prepare to laugh.

Stephen J. Cannell, Emmy Award-winning writer of such TV shows as The Rockford Files and The Commish, might do better turning his novels into screenplays. As written works, they seem stilted. Yet they somehow manage to become best sellers. I'm sure that will be the case, too, with The Devil's Workshop (William Morrow, September), which finds a beautiful young scientist trying to pull the plug on a government-sponsored biological weapons program on which her husband -- a supposed victim of suicide -- had worked.... Dick Francis fans should watch out for Second Wind (Putnam, September), about an English weather forecaster who gets more than he bargained for from a hurricane-chasing flight over the Caribbean.... And finally, after a four-year dry spell, gutsy Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski is back in Sara Paretsky's Hard Time (Delacorte, October).



Focus: Old San Francisco Stories

San Francisco at the turn of the last century was a perplexing mix of the proud and the profane -- a city aspiring to velvet-curtained civility, but still rampant with whores, mayhem, crooked politicians, assassinations, and plenty of good old-fashioned white collar crime. No less than New York or Chicago, the setting seems ideal for historical novels, yet it has spawned surprisingly few works of crime fiction.

The best-known series to employ an old San Francisco backdrop is that of Dianne Day, whose fourth Fremont Jones novel, Emperor Norton's Ghost, is new in paperback from Bantam Books. Jones, a determined young woman who abandoned a coddled existence in Boston for an uncertain fate in California's Bay Area, got off to a promising start in The Strange Files of Fremont Jones (1997), but then droned through two disappointing adventures before sparking my interest again in Emperor Norton's Ghost. Set in 1908, this story concentrates around Jones' friend Frances McFadden, whose taste for spiritualism (which was very popular in 19th-century San Francisco) enrages her narrow-minded husband and is related to the murders of two local mediums.

Jones, who now operates a detective agency with her Russian spy lover, can't help diving into this mystery. Only to find herself under the benevolent, spectral guidance of Norton I (a real-life 19th-century eccentric who fashioned himself as Emperor of the United States) and embroiled in McFadden's increasingly dangerous dalliance with telepathy and those who would debunk such talents. Although Norton's Ghost wavers occasionally between the genres of mystery and romance, its exploration of women's lives in the early 20th-century West and author Day's fine development of some secondary characters (especially the plucky mother of her junior investigator) makes it the best book yet in this series. Another installment, Death Train to Boston, is due on bookstore shelves in September.

Sharper in its atmospherics and rather more fun overall is Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (University of California Press), published late last year by veteran author Oakley Hall (Warlock, The Bad Lands, etc.). Set during the 1880s, the plot is rooted in a series of murders around San Francisco's Union Square, all apparently committed by a shadowy figure known as the Morton Street Slasher. The victims are women, and their naked corpses are found accompanied by spade playing cards. Among those intent on bringing this murderer to justice is Tom Redmond, a cub reporter for Ambrose Bierce's "satirical weekly," The Hornet. Bierce, a celebrated and curmudgeonly journalist who in real life relished nothing more than skewering the wealthy and powerful, is sure that his old nemesis -- the monolithic Southern Pacific Railroad -- is somehow behind this string of killings. However, the 20-something Redmond suspects that these crimes relate, instead, to a cabal intent on purchasing a Nevada mine.

Author Hall's fast-moving yarn incorporates some peculiar features (including an involved instance of concealed parentage), as well as a nice line-up of authentic San Franciscans, from "voodoo queen" Mammy Pleasant to poet Joaquin Miller to philandering U.S. Senator William Sharon. The book's portrayal of the Gilded Age city -- complete with Chinatown prostitutes soliciting customers from their window boxes, and raucous Barbary Coast barroom scenes -- is perfect. But it's the embittered Bierce who attracts the most attention in these pages, whether he's giving Redmond instructions in the proper use of English or firing fusillades of arcane verbiage against his adversaries. The story's energy unravels in a too-long epilogue (which somehow neglects to mention that Bierce was last seen heading off into the barren wilds of northern Mexico). But Queen of Spades is still good enough to deserve a sequel.



In Their Own Words

An excellent piece about modern black crime fiction, published earlier this summer in the Los Angeles edition of New Times, included a recounting of the sharp ups and downs in Gary Phillips' writing career. After mass-marketing his first two Ivan Monk private eye novels, and then publishing a third (Bad Night Is Falling, 1998) in hardcover, Berkley Prime Crime abruptly dropped Phillips in the midst of his work on a fourth Monk book. But it sounds as if things are picking up for this union organizer-turned-wordsmith. I asked Phillips recently what he'd been doing lately, and he was quick to answer:

"Currently I'm working with my editor at a hellish pace to finish the edits on my paperback original crime novel, The Jook. The book's anti-hero is a former Super Bowl-winning wide receiver named Zelmont Raines. Raines is pulled into a story that mixes parts Richard Stark, Jim Thompson, and Donald Goines. It's definitely a departure from my Monk books. Please look for it in September from the really cool Really Great Books.

"After those edits are done, it's back to writing High Hand, the first of two books to be published by Kensington. This is a tale of Martha Chainey, an ex-showgirl and now a courier for the gaming industry -- the corporate mob, if you will -- in Las Vegas. Chainey is on the hook for a shipment of $3 million in cash that's been ripped off. Our girl doesn't have a whole lot of time to find the thieves and recover the money before the hammer drops hard on her. Writing a female character is different, and I do think twice or three times with certain scenes. I might show my wife the manuscript when it's done, to see what she thinks. Normally, I don't show anyone my manuscripts. I'm not sure when High Hand will be out, but I would guess in the fall of 2000.

"And I'm quite pleased to be doing a book with a new effort called Syndicate Media. The Syndicate action/adventure books are aimed at the hip-hop audience, and will initially only be sold in record stores. The book I'm doing is called The Perpetrators, and features another new character called Marley. He is not a P.I. per se; he's more of a troubleshooter character operating in the twilight areas between the law and the underworld. To some extent, one could say the same for Chainey in High Hand, but I see her as more of an outlaw figure. She has no interaction with the law, while Marley would from time to time. The Perpetrators is due out in March of 2000.

"No, I haven't forgotten about P.I. Ivan Monk. Only the Wicked, the fourth in the series, will be out next year. And later this summer, I'll plot out the fifth one, Wild as Sin."

It had also been some while since I'd heard from Miami writer Les Standiford, whose last book featuring building contractor/sleuth John Deal -- Presidential Deal -- originally came out in 1998. So I asked him to tell us about his works-in-progress. His response:

"I've got a book coming out in January [2000] from G.P. Putnam's Sons, Black Mountain, about a New York City subway cop who ends up on an outward-bound trip for the well heeled in the mountains of north-central Wyoming. When the bodies start to drop, it falls to our guy -- who is pretty good in the city, but unable to tell a marmot from a moose -- to figure out who is responsible and get the survivors back to civilization. As this is the first not-a-Deal book in five outings, I was tempted to call it No Deal, but my editor, Neil Nyren, thought better of that idea. One of the reasons I made the move [from HarperCollins] to Putnam's, by the way, was the chance to let Mr. John Deal lie fallow for a season. What the hell, even corn farmers plant alfalfa every now and then. Black Mountain is in the can now, and I'm off to work on another Deal novel.

"I am also editing a sequential novel for Warner Books in the spirit of Naked Came the Manatee [1997], this one on the subject of golf, scheduled for publication on Father's Day 2000. The Putt at the End of the World includes chapters by yours truly and nine `top of the leaderboard' writers: James Crumley, Tami Hoag, Ridley Pearson, Lee K. Abbott, Dave Barry, Tim O'Brien, James Patterson, James W. Hall, and Richard Bausch. To describe the plot would be, well, impossible. But we're in the home stretch now and I think the book is shaping up way beyond anyone's wildest expectations -- Warner is talking about putting together an invitational tournament of sorts to kick off the book's publication."

 



Shamus on You

The Private Eye Writers of America recently announced the recipients of its 1999 Shamus Awards. Among the winners:

Best P.I. Novel: Boobytrap, by Bill Pronzini (Carroll & Graf).

Also Nominated: Gone Baby Gone, by Dennis Lehane (Morrow); No Badge, No Gun, by Harold Adams (Walker); Flying Blind, by Max Allan Collins (Dutton); The Only Good Lawyer, by Jeremiah Healy (Pocket).

Best First P.I. Novel: A Cold Day in Paradise, by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Press).

Also Nominated: Like a Hole In the Head, by Jen Banbury (Little, Brown); Dead Low Tide, by Jamie Katz (HarperCollins); Zen and the Art of Murder, by Elizabeth Cosin (St. Martin's Press).

Best Paperback P.I. Novel: Murder Manual, by Steve Womack (Ballantine).

Also Nominated: Too Easy, by Philip Depoy (Dell); Butchers Hill, by Laura Lippman (Avon); The Widower's Two-step, by Rick Riordan (Bantam); Death In a City of Mystics, by Janice Steinberg (Penguin).

In addition, Maxine O'Callaghan (Down for the Count, etc.) received the PWA's Lifetime Achievement Award. For a complete list of Shamus winners in all categories, visit The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

 

"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by Crime Fiction Editor J. Kingston Pierce. Publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.

Other Rap Sheets:

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