Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
It's been quite a year for crime. The fictional kind, that is. Over the last 12 months, we've celebrated the 50th anniversary of private eye Lew Archer's introduction (in Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target) and observed the 150th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious demise. We have bid goodbye to prominent novelists such as Roderick Thorp, Morris West and George V. Higgins (see obituary below). However, the genre has also greeted some promising new authors -- including Denise Mina (Garnethill), Eric Garcia (Anonymous Rex), Cara Black (Murder in the Marais) and Alan Gordon (Thirteenth Night) -- and several new characters I hope will be with us for many books to come: Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden (from Rennie Airth's River of Darkness), Boston P.I. Sunny Randall (star of Family Honor, by Robert B. Parker), 17th-century London architect Christopher Redmayne (playing the detective's role in Edward Marston's The King's Evil) and others.
This has been a year of unexpected controversy. The 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel went to a book, Mr. White's Confession, that its author, Robert Clark, hadn't even intended to have classified as a mystery. And publicity for Dick Francis' latest novel, Second Wind, jockeyed for attention against allegations (made in an unauthorized biography, Dick Francis: A Racing Life, by Graham Lord) that Francis' better-educated spouse Mary has actually been penning the numerous works for which her hubby has won acclaim over the last three decades. (Frankly, I'm not concerned with who does the writing, just so long as the couple's books continue to show the twists and flair for action that are hallmarks of Francis' fiction.)
I've read gripes elsewhere that this wasn't a year for standout stories, that awards presentations in 2000 will amount to judgments of the mediocre. But I must disagree. Certainly there were disappoints in 1999 -- major and minor, both. Every Dead Thing, Irish wordsmith John Connelly's rabidly hyped first novel turned out to be a well-written but too-gory suspenser. Les Roberts' The Best-Kept Secret, with its clichéd secondary characters, didn't measure up to the author's previous performances, and although Anne Perry's Bedford Square began with great energy, it devolved into an unbelievable tale of honor among the 19th-century English gentry.
On the other hand, 1999 saw the publication of Peter Robinson's In a Dry Season, his 10th and perhaps strongest Alan Banks police procedural, and of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's peculiar but unforgettable twist on the private eye novel. This was also the year of Michael Connelly's Angels Flight, Harlan Coben's The Final Detail, G.M. Ford's Last Ditch, Robert Goddard's Caught in the Light, Dennis Lehane's Prayers for Rain, Robert Ferrigno's Heartbreaker, Robert Crais' L.A. Requiem and Richard Barre's Blackheart Highway. All of these, along with the aforementioned River of Darkness and Garnethill, might be short-listed for awards in 2000. And, if you're still hunting up presents for the crime fiction enthusiasts on your Christmas list, any one of these volumes would surely be well received. (Need additional gift ideas? Check out January's "Essential Mystery Library.")
For avid readers, though, looking back is never so enchanting as gazing forward with anticipation. Next year, expect new novels from James W. Hall, Fiona Buckley, Gar Anthony Haywood, Sparkle Hayter, Jonathan Gash, Nevada Barr, Steve Hamilton, Margaret Yorke and Bartholomew Gill, as well as the usual welcome panoply of first-time scribblers with potential. In other words, 2000 will keep January reviewers just as busy as this last year did. Thank goodness.
Now, on to this latest edition of "The Rap Sheet." As always, don't hesitate to send me news or information about crime fiction that you think I might not already have. Also feel free to pass along comments about books in this genre that you have recently savored, for publication in future issues of "The Rap Sheet." These recommendations should run no longer than 200 words, and at the end, please give your name and the city in which you live. Anonymous reviews will not be published, and all are subject to editing for clarity, spelling and length.
J. Kingston Pierce
New and Noteworthy
Get used to Meg Gillis -- she's likely to be around a while. Introduced in C.J. Songer's taut thriller Bait (1998), Gillis is a former Los Angeles cop (and the widow of a cop) who, in partnership with another ex-policeman, Mike Johnson, now runs a private security firm. She's a tough character, and has to be, since she spends much of her time getting in the face of male police officers and generally barging around where she's not wanted. In Hook (Scribner), Gillis agrees to help out her partner by serving divorce papers to Rudolfo de la Peña, the supposedly abusive husband of Johnson's new love interest. But when Rudolfo is later found dead, Gillis figures she was used to set up the deceased. So with help from Johnson and her too-protective boyfriend, Beverly Hills Police Sergeant Joe Reilly, she begins investigating, eventually linking Rudolfo's demise to the politics of his native Argentina. Author Songer -- like her heroine, a former cop -- fills her story with action and tension, but the threats to Gillis' health and well-being seem rather too frequent, and the rapid-fire dialogue can be a bit wearing.
Old crimes beget new trouble in Cold Case (Dutton). The eighth entry in author Stephen White's series featuring psychologist Alan Gregory, this fast-moving yarn concerns an elite group of criminologists -- including Gregory and his wife, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Crowder -- assembled to solve the 10-year-old murders of two teenaged girls in Colorado. Gregory's responsibility for creating psychological profiles of the deceased pair soon puts him at dangerous odds with Dr. Raymond Welle, an ambitious psychotherapist and U.S. congressman, whose connection to at least one of the Colorado victims may be worth keeping quiet at all costs.... J.A. Jance has had a busy last 12 months, publishing new entries in her J.P. Beaumont series (Breach of Duty) and her Joanna Brady series (Outlaw Mountain). Now she's out with Kiss of the Bees (Avon), a non-series thriller. The novel tells of Arizona resident Diana Ladd Walker, who 20 years ago was assaulted and nearly killed by a psychopath named Andrew Carlisle. Although Walker tried to quiet her nightmares by writing about the attack -- in a book that made her famous -- she and her husband didn't really feel safe again until Carlisle died in prison. But then their adopted Native American daughter is kidnapped, and the Walkers' fears sprout afresh as they try to find their child and put an end to the fiend who hopes to avenge Carlisle's spirit.
Atlanta's psychic P.I., Flap Tucker, re-emerges in Dancing Made Easy (Dell), by Phillip DePoy. The slayings of two women -- both of them left hanging, with the names of familiar dance steps pinned to their bodies -- send the appealing Flap on a chase after links between these odd crimes and a recent theft of toxins. It's a pursuit given urgency by Flap's difficulty in employing his unique abilities and by threats to one of his closest friends.... The English town of Castlemere, setting for Jo Bannister's The Hireling's Tale (St. Martin's Minotaur), is shocked when a woman is found naked, dead and drugged at the bottom of a boat in the local canal. But police detectives Frank Shapiro, Liz Graham and Cal Donovan (familiar from last year's Broken Lines) are more disturbed by the fact that they don't know who the woman was and how she got onto the boat in the first place. The puzzle becomes further complicated by connections with an international business convention and the death of a sheep. Could there be a professional killer on the loose in this dockside town?... And a botched and bloody restaurant robbery in Washington, D.C., kicks off the action in George P. Pelecanos' Shame the Devil (Little, Brown). Although he managed to escape the robbery carnage, gunman Frank Farrow isn't satisfied: He wants revenge against the cop who offed his brother, the getaway driver. Meanwhile, relatives of the innocent victims in that massacre decide a little retribution would be good for their souls, as well. The resulting twisted adventure, heavy on complex characters, reminds me of why GQ magazine called Pelecanos "the coolest writer in America."
I'd like to wax as enthusiastically over Prescription for Terror (Andrew Scott Publishers), by Sandra Levy Ceren, but I can't. Built around the rapes and killings of young, single women in the San Diego area, the book provides some tense moments and an intriguing protagonist, psychologist Cory Cohen, who endured rape in her own past. Author Ceren is a clinical psychologist, so brings to this story some distinctive insight into the mind of a serial murderer. However, her prose and dialogue are quite stilted, the plot is predictable and her bashing on America's managed health care systems grows old, fast. Some humor and an aggressive editor might have helped this novel immensely.... Much better is Mimi Latt's latest legal thriller, Ultimate Justice (Simon & Schuster). It has star New York prosecutor Alexandra Locke going back to her hometown of Los Angeles, where questions about her lawyer father's role in covering up a 20-year-old murder plunge her into political and legal turmoil, find her set up for drug possession and throw her into a relationship with a criminal defense hotshot Locke had known many years before. Despite soap-operatic elements, Ultimate Justice is a rewarding read.... So is The Price of An Orphan (Soho Press), by Australian Patricia Carlson. Though not as intricately crafted as Crime of Silence, this novel about a 9-year-old Sydney orphan unhappily adopted by an outback couple, and how his witnessing the disposal of a murder victim precipitates a chilling cross-country drive, is guaranteed to make you wary of supposedly sweet older ladies.
Close on the heels of his latest Amos Walker mystery, Hours of the Virgin, author Loren D. Estleman invites us into Thunder City (Forge), the fifth entry in his series about the growth of Detroit, Michigan (which began with the spirited Whiskey River, 1990). In this book, Estleman takes readers back to the turn of the last century and Henry Ford's struggle to convert his automobile factory into a moneymaking venture. We meet Harlan Crownover, the supposedly slow-witted son of a clan that's grown wealthy from producing horse-drawn freight vehicles and luxury coaches. Harlan poses a threat to his family's business by backing Ford's dream of horseless transport. What's more, Harlan is risking his own welfare by turning to a protection-racket boss for money to finance Ford's factory.... And the umpteenth Sherlock Holmes outing is The Monster of St. Marylebone (Signet), by Wayne Worcester. A string of terrifying London murders draws the attention of Holmes and his faithful chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson. The great detective thinks he can bring this fiend to heel, but instead, his quarry captures and tortures him. After recovering, Holmes -- cast in a somewhat more human-than-normal light here -- returns obsessively to the hunt, endangering both his and Watson's life in the process.
Italian police detective Aurelio Zen has long dreaded being posted from Rome to the anti-Mafia organization in Sicily, but that's exactly what he faces in Michael Dibdin's Blood Rain (Faber and Faber), released recently in Britain, with a U.S. edition due in the spring of 2000. Zen's situation is tricky. Some people in Rome may believe that it's time to rein in the Direzione Investigative Anti-Mafia (DIA), an elite police squad set up in 1995, but there are powerful forces within that body that want it to continue undisturbed. And behind them all lurks the sinister and rarely mentioned Third Level, the Mafia's presumed protectors in the government. Zen is to act as a spy within the DIA. His stay in the Sicilian town of Catania is made more comfortable by the presence of his adopted daughter Carla, who has come to the island to install a new computer network for the local DIA branch. But Carla's realization that someone is hacking into the unfinished network, plus the discovery of a decomposed body in an abandoned railway carriage set off a series of events that will test Zen's investigative acumen and show how he reacts to extreme emotional pressures.... Janet Laurence's Canaletto and the Case of the Privy Garden (Macmillan) places the Venetian artist Canaletto in London in 1747, where he is intent on hunting up commissions for his work -- that is, until he and a friend stumble upon the body of a dead woman. This second Canaletto mystery (following Canaletto and the Case of the Westminster Bridge, 1997) offers good historical atmosphere and a sure touch with the characterization.... Another sophomore showing is that of Birmingham Detective Sergeant Kate Power in Staying Power (Hodder & Stoughton), by Judith Cutler. Jetting home to England from Italy, Power falls into conversation with businessman Alan Grafton, seated beside her. Two days later, Grafton is found hanging from a canal bridge, allegedly a suicide. But Power, who continues her struggle to prove herself in the male-dominated Birmingham CID, wants to know for sure -- a curiosity that will result in some startling revelations.
Finally, let me recommend The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (St. Martin's Minotaur), Bruce F. Murphy's eminently readable resource for folks who desire more background on this genre they so enjoy. In addition to information about individual writers and works, Murphy supplies short studies of various subgenres, including cat mysteries, gay mysteries, celebrity mysteries and more. He also features items on famous criminal cases in history, slang that's familiar from these stories and distinctive plot devices. The author displays some eccentricity in his selection of books to which he gives the greatest attention (I was surprised, for instance, to see him go on at length about Thomas H. Cook's Evidence of Blood, but say little of Cook's Edgar-winning The Chatham School Affair). And while I'm glad to see that Murphy features some newer wordsmiths (such as Janet Evanovich, Carolyn Hart and Philip Kerr) together with the classics, I was disappointed to realize how many proven or promising talents have been left out -- Anne Perry, Gary Phillips, Edward Marston, Steven Saylor and even the mondo-prolific Paul Doherty among them. But these are the quibbles of somebody who observes crime fiction for a living. Most readers (after they get over the shock of this volume's price -- $75 U.S.) will likely spend their time with Murphy's Encyclopedia learning just how fast and far this genre has expanded.
Focus: The Dinosaur Detective
One of the most unusual private eye novels of 1999 has to be Anonymous Rex, author Eric Garcia's yarn about modern Los Angeles investigator Vincent Rubio, who harbors a secret far more important -- and potentially more deadly -- than those of his shifty clients: He's a dinosaur, specifically a Velociraptor. It's a novel concept, no doubt about that. But can it really work as the basis of a new series? Not long ago I had the chance to quiz Garcia both about the future of his dino detective and his non-Vincent books:
J. Kingston Pierce: Where did the character of Vincent come from, and did you intend him to suggest that fictional private eyes, as a breed, are dinosaurs?
Now, am I suggesting that all fictional private detectives are dinosaurs? Certainly not. But there is definitely an element of the "modern-day" dinosaur in every detective, in one specific sense: they both go undercover. In the same way that the dinosaurs in Anonymous Rex have to disguise themselves in order to blend in with society, private detectives must often pretend to be something other than what they are. And in a book about deception and disguises and confusion of identity, it only makes sense for the dinosaur to be a private detective. Of course, it also helps move the story along nicely...
Vincent himself came about once I already had some of the basic concepts for the book, but he was refined over time. His name came right from his breed -- Vincent Rubio, VelociRaptor. I chose raptors mostly because of the way they're currently perceived in film and literature, as the "cunning" dinosaurs, which also made sense for a private detective. Vincent's wisecracking nature is a combination of your basic noir twist and my own oft-sarcastic voice, and little touches like the basil habit and the rest are also my own spin on what I perceive to be specific genre clichés.
I understand that your next book is a prequel called Casual Rex. Can you tell me about the plot of that story?
Casual Rex is, indeed, a prequel. And it's something that I'm glad I've done, partially because it felt right, and partially because the fans really wanted to see more of Ernie, Vincent's partner, who starts out quite dead in the beginning of Anonymous Rex. So the only way to see Vincent with Ernie was to do a prequel.
Casual Rex, then, is more of a buddy book, with Vincent and Ernie taking on the case of a dinosaur cult that owns a dino nudist colony off the coast of Hawaii. Along the way, they get involved with a midget dino dentist with a fetish for streetwalkers; a cross-dressing Ornithomimus, who does cut-rate plastic surgery out of her office hidden deep within the Hollywood Wax Museum; a host of strangely cheery cult members and their seductive leader, who has strange, ancient powers of scent production; and a whole mess of dinos dropping dead left and right. In the same way that Anonymous Rex tried to honor Chandler and Hammett, Casual Rex is, in some senses, also an homage to Ian Fleming and the Bond character. It has intrigue, beautiful women (dino women, actually), suspense, thrills -- the works.
Critics have suggested that Vincent has limited range as a novelty character. What's your view on that?
I certainly don't believe that Vincent has a limited range, any more so than any other fictional detective. As the books go on, his character will become more and more fleshed out -- just like Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum, for example -- and though the "dino" element will still be there, a good story is a good story is a good story. That's what I'm looking to do: write books that increase the world of the dinosaurs, while still keeping things fun and working as good mysteries should. With the five Rex books I have in mind (Anonymous Rex, Casual Rex, Hot and Sweaty Rex, Premarital Rex and Rex and Violence), I've already got the basic plot outlines in my head; after that, we'll just have to see.
In addition to the Rex series, I hear you're writing some non-Vincent books.
Yes. Right now, I'm working on a non-Rex book called The Reposession Mambo, which is more of a sci-fi comedy than anything else. It's been a lot of fun to write, not only because it's a story I've been telling to myself for years now, but because it allows me to exercise my writing muscle in a new, different way. The tone is similar to Rex -- comedic, no doubt, with slightly... darker overtones -- but the story and the characters are so different, it feels like a different kind of writing. I love Vincent, but sometimes I need a break from writing about the beasts.
Gone But Not Forgotten
When George V. Higgins died on November 6, Boston lost one of its shrewdest and most talented chroniclers. Higgins' early books (including The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1972; The Digger's Game, 1973; and Cogan's Trade, 1974) captured a boisterous, desperate world of urban losers that was characteristic of the greater Boston area during the pre-yuppie 1970s. It was a world of Irish lawyers and political gofers, Italian businessmen and mobsters, and activities that took places in dingy offices, crummy apartments and bars where most of the patrons are regulars. In recent years, Higgins' novels, like Boston, have crept upscale. His most recent novel, The Agent (1999), begins by profiling a high-rolling sports agent, then cuts midway to the story of a police detective investigating that agent's murder.
You have to wonder if many of the people who inspired Higgins' 23 books ever read them. Small-time mobsters, lawyers and political gofers aren't known for having a sense of irony about their activities, and Higgins certainly did. His fly-on-the wall portrayals of Boston wheeler-dealers rang true, making it worth a reader's time to penetrate an underworld lexicon captured so precisely that it would have brought tears to a linguist's eyes. Murder Ink describes Higgins as an author whose work should be read aloud.
Novels like Higgins' are one of the reasons why the genre called mystery has, in recent years, become better known as crime fiction. There wasn't much classic mystery to his stories of ill-conceived capers, business deals and political shenanigans, other than how they would unravel. Long passages of monologue and dialogue, much of them authentically inarticulate, tended to lull and amuse, setting the reader as well as the characters up for a shock when lame-brained schemes hatched over too many brewskis suddenly exploded into high-voltage violence and brutality.
Higgins was born in the Boston suburb of Brockton in 1939. After college, he worked for a few years as a newspaper reporter before earning a law degree from Boston College and going on to join the Massachusetts Attorney General's office. He served with the U.S. Attorney's Office for Massachusetts in the 1970s, and then went on to private practice. After penning several unpublished novels, Higgins suddenly achieved bestseller status in 1972 with the book for which he is best remembered, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, about a hood who tangles with bigger crime figures. -- Karen G. Anderson
In Their Own Words
After reading (and greatly appreciating) the new historical mystery One for Sorrow, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, I was curious to know from these husband-wife authors how they'd come to write about a detective, John the Eunuch, who is also Lord Chamberlain to 6th-century Roman Emperor Justinian I, and how they re-create that time and place for fictional purposes. Mayer kindly sent along the following response:
"Then too, given the gaps in what historians actually know, or can agree on, it would be virtually impossible to write an interesting story in which every word could be absolutely verified. Except for a few monuments and ruins, what remains of the ancient city of Constantinople where John the Eunuch lived lies deeply buried under centuries of rubble, and its exact layout -- even the appearance of certain buildings mentioned in literature -- is sketchy and speculative. (Conveniently for us!)
"Our basic approach is that when we write about places, events or customs that have been documented, we do our best to get the facts right and we don't write anything that can be proved not to be true. But we allow ourselves to speculate freely about things that might have happened or existed."
While browsing recently through an online crime fiction chat site, I was surprised to stumble upon the name William J. Reynolds. In case you don't remember, Reynolds was an up-and-coming detective novelist in the 1980s. His first book, The Nebraska Quotient (1984), introduced a former P.I./wannabe writer named Nebraska, who came out of retirement to solve the murder of his ex-partner. Reynolds went on from there to pen five more tough-guy Nebraska tales, but each new one became harder and harder to find, until it seemed that Reynolds had disappeared. I asked the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, author to tell me what had happened all those years ago, and he sent me this note recalling his frustrations with his previous publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and offering hope for a Nebraska revival of sorts:
"When I finished the sixth Nebraska book, Drive-By, I had the dickens of a time getting it published. Putnam expressed 'disappointment' with sales of my previous book, The Naked Eye (1990), and we failed to come to terms. (An unendearing quality of American publishers is that they insist on calling all the shots -- book size, type style, dust-jacket art and copy, price, whether and how to promote/advertise -- hah! But if the book doesn't meet expectations, kill the author.) My agent and I were dismayed when Putnam charged $21.95 for The Naked Eye -- pretty spendy in 1990 -- and I believe that had a lot to do with 'disappointing' sales.
A Dagger to the Art
Earlier this month, the British Crime Writers' Association announced the recipients of its 1999 Dagger Awards. The winners:
Gold Dagger for Fiction: A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson.
Silver Dagger for Fiction: Vienna Blood, by Adrian Matthews.
Also Nominated: Angels Flight, by Michael Connelly; Phreak, by Denise Danks; Staring at the Light, by Francis Fyfield; A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid; Dead Souls, by Ian Rankin.
Gold Dagger for Non-fiction: The Case of Stephen Lawrence, by Brian Cathcart.
Also Nominated: The Dragon Syndicates, by Martin Booth; The Sceptical Witness, by Stuart S. Kind.
Macallan Short Story Dagger: "Taking Care of Frank," by Antony Mann (from Crimewave 2).
Also Nominated: "Symptoms of Loss," by Jerry Sykes (from Crimewave 1); "Damn Spot," by Julian Rathbone (from Past Poisons).
John Creasey Memorial Dagger: Lie In Darkness, by Dan Fesperman.
Also Nominated: Provocation, by Charlotte Grimshaw; Quinn, by Seumas Smyth.
Ellis Peters Historical Dagger: Two for the Lions, by Lindsey Davis.
Also Nominated: Falconer and the Great Beast, by Ian Morson; Wings of Fire, by Charles Todd.
Cartier Diamond Dagger: Margaret Yorke.
Rusty Dagger: The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers.
For a record of previous Dagger winners, check out the Crime Writers' Association Web site.
"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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