Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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  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 , 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.
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