People who don't review books for a living imagine that this must be one of the most satisfying occupations available. In fact, though, it can be one of the most frustrating. Yes, critics do hear about new works well in advance of their publication; they even receive a goodly number of those volumes free of charge. But having more enticing literature in one's possession only makes it harder to choose what to read next. There's no science involved in selecting which books to review at length, which to merely mention in a newsletter such as this one and which can be left unremarked upon. You simply pick up what interests you most -- because of its author, its subject or its setting -- and ignore the rest, knowing you haven't any more reading time available. And hoping that you're not missing any gems in the weeding-out process.
Most book review editors I know can claim rather substantial heaps of works they have set aside in hopes of digesting someday -- maybe during an extended vacation or when they find themselves desperate to read for the sheer pleasure of reading, rather than reading for work. These piles may include volumes that don't necessarily fit their "beat," as well as tomes that they've assigned to somebody else for critiquing, and which they, therefore, don't need to read in a timely fashion. My own "someday stack" includes recent editions such as Reginald Hill's Arms and the Women and Mo Hayder's Birdman, together with relatively older finds like Alison Joseph's The Dying Light and Boston Teran's God Is a Bullet. I'll get around to these. I promise myself.
Just recently, I managed to knock one of the titles from my someday stack -- A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson -- only to kick myself for having not given this exceptional novel the due it deserved when it was first published in Britain last year. Wilson, whose growing reputation derives primarily from the popularity of his brooding and brutal series about West African detective/troubleshooter Bruce Medway (A Darkening Stain, 1998), presents here two parallel stories, one set in Portugal during World War II, the other unfolding around Lisbon in 1999. In the former, a German industrialist named Klaus Felsen is sent to Lisbon on behalf of the Nazi SS to corner the market on wolfram (also known as tungsten), an element used in the manufacturing of munitions, which Adolf Hitler needs to prosecute his blitzkrieg. Felsen does better than expected, creating a powerful Portuguese bank and a business empire that outlast the Führer's fall. Meanwhile, the second narrative thread begins with the vicious murder of Catarina Oliveira, the sexually promiscuous daughter of a prestigious lawyer. Assigned to the case is Inspector Zé Coelho, a widower with his own daughter, whose delving into Catarina's past sparks resistance from his supervisors at the same time as it reveals a family's decades-worth of secrets, leading up to Catarina's killing as a final act of depravity and deceit.
Wilson can be unsparing in his depictions of violence and sex, about which some critics and readers have complained. But A Small Death in Lisbon offers so many other literary treats, that the author's dips into voyeurism should not be counted against him. He's especially successful in developing the character of Felsen, who is alternately attractive and repulsive -- and whose sidelining about two-thirds of the way through this tale drains it of some energy. Coelho, another in a distinguished line of "outsiders" as sleuths, has a touch of TV's Lieutenant Columbo about him, though his intelligence is less determinedly concealed and his human flaws better established. We come to know both men through this lengthy, involved novel, which moves at an atypically slow pace for a thriller, yet is impossible to put down for long. A Small Death in Lisbon, one of the most satisfying books I've read all year, certainly justifies its winning of the British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award for Fiction. And its U.S. hardback publication this month by Harcourt Brace should score Robert Wilson a deservedly wider audience of fans. If you like smart thrillers, don't miss this one.
Now, on to this latest (and yes, somewhat belated) edition of "The Rap Sheet." As always, remember to send me news or information about crime fiction that you think I might not already have.
J. Kingston Pierce
New and Noteworthy
Only months after the release of his latest Spenser novel, Hugger Mugger, Robert B. Parker is booked for a major American tour to publicize Perish Twice (Putnam), the sophomore installment of his series about Boston private eye Sunny Randall. In this case, the sexy and resourceful Sunny is working for well-known feminist Mary Lou Goddard, who has been harassed by threatening phone calls and suspicious shadowers. Sunny's job isn't made any easier by the fact that her client appears to be withholding information that might help curtail these malevolent attentions. When a member of Goddard's staff is killed, and the murder suspect subsequently dies by apparent suicide, Sunny realizes that what had looked like a straightforward investigation is anything but that. If Parker can bring to Perish Twice the same energy and rich character development that he displayed in his first Sunny Randall novel, Family Honor (1999), it bodes well for the series -- and for the movies, starring Helen Hunt as Sunny, that are supposed to be adapted from these books. ... In Tracking Time (Dutton), by Leslie Glass, New York police detective April Woo tackles the puzzling Central Park abduction of a doctor -- a case made more challenging with the slaying of the only known witness to the physician's disappearance. ... And more than a year after its release in Britain, The Vault, Peter Lovesey's sixth adventure featuring dogged but cantankerous Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, has finally been published in the States by Soho Press. This tale begins with the discovery of a human hand outside the Roman Baths in Bath, England. Diamond's case is soon complicated by an American professor hoping to publicize Bath's links to Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein, the disappearance of the professor's wife and the murder of an antiques dealer the professor had consulted.
Dick Francis, evidently recovered from last year's scandal over whether it's he or his wife, Mary, who is the true author of the 41 mysteries now attributed to this former Queen's jockey, hits the track again with Shattered (Putnam). Professional glassblower Gerard Logan is only tangentially associated with the world of professional horse racing through the acclaimed crystal trophies he designs. Yet when his friend, Britain's foremost steeplechase jockey, is killed, leaving in Logan's hands a mysterious videotape -- which is promptly filched from his shop -- the artist takes it upon himself to figure out why the video is so valuable, and to whom. Francis brings to Shattered his familiar skills at plotting (hint: there's a corrupt research scientist involved here) and acquainting readers with obscure professional realms (in this case, that of glassblowers). An entertaining addition to the novelist's -- or is it novelists'? -- oeuvre. ... "[M]y religion is revenge," muses ex-con/P.I. Burke in Andrew Vachss' new Dead and Gone (Knopf). With his faithful dog, Pansy, gunned down in what looks like a phony kidnapping tradeoff, and Burke blinded in one eye, New York's favorite hood-for-hire goes deep underground and all the way to the Pacific Northwest, enlisting the aid of a comely, Russian-speaking Cambodian woman as he hunts whoever ordered the hit on him. Anybody familiar with Choice of Evil, Flood or other previous Vachss novels knows better than to expect a light read here. Burke's perspective on the world is darker than dark, dominated by child molesters, pornographers, neo-Nazis and remorseless murderers. Nonetheless, his tales are powerful and ultimately hard to abandon. ... A talent for writing unquestionably runs in the Ephron family. Novelist-turned-moviemaker Nora (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, etc.) and author Delia (Big City Eyes) have already made their marks. Now it's showtime for their sister Hallie Ephron, who with psychologist A.A. Greeley has penned the new memory mystery Amnesia (St. Martin's Minotaur) under the pseudonym "G.H. Ephron." Although this new series reminds me of Martin J. Smith's books about memory expert Jim Christensen (Shadow Image), the premise of Amnesia is certainly appealing: What do you do when the single witness to a murder can't remember the crime? Six weeks after the Boston slaying of her boyfriend, Sylvia Jackson -- who was shot in the head and left for dead at the scene of the killing -- finally wakes up from a coma. Only months later does she seem to recall the incident, enough to pin the murder on her ex-husband. But is her memory reliable? Peter Zak, a forensic psychologist who'd stopped consulting on trials after his wife was done in by a homicide suspect, agrees hesitantly to work with Sylvia Jackson and uncover the truth behind her recollections.
Less ambitious, but nonetheless beguiling, is Malcolm Shuman's Past Dying (Avon), his fourth adventure for Louisiana contract archaeologist Alan Graham. Having already tackled -- if well after the fact -- the debate-worthy deaths of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis (The Meriwether Murder, 1998) and U.S. President John F. Kennedy (Assassin's Blood, 1999), this time Graham digs into a case that commences with the purported river crash of a flying saucer. It turns out that the UFO was really just a car containing a dead man -- a guy who was killed with a distinctive blade. However, history buff Graham remains intrigued, especially after he discovers connections between this contemporary slaying and the fate of Jim Bowie, a Louisianan whose dexterity with a knife was legendary, though not enough to save him at Texas' 1836 Battle of the Alamo. The more Graham probes the past, the more danger and action he finds in the present. It's a familiar yet still welcome plot balance. ... San Francisco P.I. John Marshall Tanner dreads his latest assignment, in Ellipsis (Scribner): protecting obnoxious, best-selling romance novelist Chandelier Wells, who has received death threats on the eve of a publicity tour. He isn't even convinced that those threats are real -- at least not until Wells is involved in a car bombing, which kills an FBI agent and lands the author in a hospital bed. Trying to identify the booby trapper, Tanner must dredge through Wells' messy past, exposing a long lineup of suspects, from the author's ex-hubby, to a disgruntled suitor, to a writing student who is convinced that the novelist filched her ideas. Making the gumshoe's job still more difficult is the fact that he's also dealing with some personal challenges: his increasing affection for an assistant district attorney and guilt left over from the death of his cop friend, Charley Sleet (Past Tense, 1997).
If you thought Stephen Lewis' debut novel, The Dumb Shall Sing (1999), gave his cast of 17th-century New Englanders a ripe opportunity to exercise their belligerent Puritanism, just wait till you read his sequel, The Blind in Darkness (Berkley Prime Crime). When killings in a nearby hamlet are followed by the murder of an eccentric old farmer in Newbury and the disappearance of that farmer's enigmatic assistant, Thomas Hall, Newburyites turn their suspicions on Massaquoit, the Indian servant of midwife Catherine Williams. Of course, the intelligent and independent Massaquoit is innocent; but racial hatreds boil up around him, nonetheless. They even affect William's role in the community. A wealthy merchant, landlord to the deceased farmer and father to a young man who's betrothed to Hall's sister, seeks to deny Williams the care of his pregnant daughter, claiming that the midwife's practices are too unorthodox. What's really unorthodox is this yarn's solution, although the perceptive reader is likely to figure it out long before the end. Lewis is an engaging writer, especially in scenes that recall Colonial-era midwifery practices. I look forward to reading his third novel, The Sea Hath Spoken, which he tells me "will be out next January." ... A quite different historical era backgrounds The Jekyl Island Club (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Brent Monahan. The year is 1899, and one of the deep-pocketed members of Georgia's most exclusive coastal retreat has been shot in the heart. Summoned to look into this matter is Sheriff John Le Brun, a prickly but perceptive Civil War veteran. Although encouraged by the island's winter residents -- including newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer and financier J.P. Morgan -- to dismiss this tragedy as a hunting accident, Le Brun (for professional and personal reasons) persists in his investigation, endeavoring to unearth both a killer and the crime's relationship to a pending island visit by President William McKinley. Author Monahan, best recognized for his vampire books (The Book of Common Dread, etc.), exploits this story's setting with almost expert ease and gives a different edge to that age-old question, Can the rich really get away with murder?
Prolific historical novelist John Jakes returns to familiar ground -- America's Civil War (the setting for his North and South trilogy) -- in On Secret Service (Dutton). The period's difficult choice of allegiances is symbolized primarily by two figures: Lon Price, an abolitionist and ambitious operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency; and Margaret Miller, a young Southern socialite. After Margaret's father is shot by a Pinkerton agent during a meeting of secessionists, she vows revenge -- putting her at plot-twisting odds with Price. This spy versus spy tale provides scant surprises, but does offer good character development and cameos by some real-life personages to whom we are happily reintroduced. ... The short stories in Crime Through Time III (Berkley Prime Crime), edited by Sharan Newman, seem less inspired than those in the previous two volumes, though perhaps it's just that the novelty of these anthologies has worn thin. Nonetheless, readers will be pleased to find here Peter Lovesey's tense yarn about a woman trapped by a serial killer in 1873; Maureen Jennings' speculation on events as they might have unfolded after the execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535; and Andrew Greeley's "The Case of the Murdered Pope," in which he introduces a 10th-century monk/detective who encounters -- gee, can it be? -- corruption at the Vatican. ... And after years out of print, Edward Marston's first Nicholas Bracewell novel, The Queen's Head (1988), can find a new audience in a trade paperback edition from Poisoned Pen Press. Establishing what has since become a pattern for these yarns, set during Britain's Elizabethan era, The Queen's Head finds resourceful stage manager Bracewell working to solve a murder while also keeping the eccentric members of Lord Westfield's Men in line. Highly recommended.
In Killing the Shadows (HarperCollins), Val McDermid gives frightening life to a serial killer whose targets are those thriller writers who've provided psychological profilers with a sort of modern hero status. Fiona Cameron, an academic psychologist skilled at using computer technology to track serial offenders, didn't have to get involved in this investigation; she's on the outs with the police, due to their bungling of a recent case in which she took part. However, Cameron's role here becomes important as the murderer continues to strike, forcing her into a contest that will both save lives and provide Cameron with a much-needed sense of professional redemption. ... Equally compelling is Thanksgiving (Faber), another one-off by Michael Dibdin. Touted as "a darkly erotic novel of jealousy and obsession," this yarn builds around Anthony Baines, a British journalist who becomes all too curious about his American wife's past after she dies in an accident. His passion for information leads Baines to Nevada, where his wife's previous husband is soon shot dead, sucking the journalist into a mystery from history that threatens his present. ... London private eye Billy Rucker, who debuted in Adam Barron's 1999 novel, Shut Eye, returns in Hold Back the Night (Pan). Rucker thinks himself lucky for having tracked down a missing teenager, Lucy Bradley. But when she later turns up dead and her father asks him to find yet another missing teen, the P.I. realizes that luck isn't always on his side. ... Looking for a dark novel of 18th-century crime that's guaranteed to keep you happy indoors during the coming cold months? Pick up Nicholas Griffin's The House of Sight and Shadow (Little Brown). It features an eminent anatomist, Sir Edmund Calcraft, and his ambitious student, Joseph Bendix, who work the depths of London's underworld in the interests of science, encountering thieves and grave snatchers along the way. Their pattern of successes, though, may be ended by Bendix's growing passion for an enigmatic woman he espies in Calcraft's home. Like David Liss' extraordinary novel from earlier this year, A Conspiracy of Paper, Griffin's latest work (which follows his pirate adventure, The Requiem Shark) combines malevolence with romance to chilling -- and thrilling -- effect. ... Finally, watch this month for the British release of Minette Walters' The Shape of Snakes (Macmillan), her first novel since The Breaker (1998).
The Bouchercon World Mystery Convention 2000, held in Denver, Colorado, in early September, yielded a variety of award presentations -- with some surprising winners:
Winners were chosen in a vote by Bouchercon members.
Best Novel: In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson (Avon).
Best First Novel: Murder With Peacocks, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's).
Also Nominated: Murder In the Marais, by Cara Black (Soho); Circles of Confusion, by April Henry (HarperCollins); Revenge of the Gypsy Queen, by Kris Neri (Rainbow); Inner City Blues, by Paula Woods (Norton).
Best Paperback Original: In Big Trouble, by Laura Lippman (Avon).
Also Nominated: Every Move She Makes, by Robin Burcell (HaperPaperbacks); Lucky Man, by Tony Dunbar (Dell); The Outcast, by Jose Latour (Akashic); An Antidote for Avarice, by Caroline Roe (Berkley Prime Crime).
Best Short Story: "Noir Lite," by Margaret Chittenden (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 1999)
Also Nominated: "A Bit of a Treat," by Barry Baldwin (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 1999); "At the Hop," by Bill & Judy Crider (in Till Death Do Us Part, edited by Jill M. Morgan & Martin H. Greenberg; Berkley Prime Crime); "Triangle," by Jeffery Deaver (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1999); "Paleta Man," by Laurie R. King (in Irreconcilable Differences, edited by Lia Matera; HarperCollins).
Best Critical Non-Fiction: Detecting Women, 3rd Edition, by Wiletta Heising (Purple Moon Press).
Also Nominated: The Mystery Review Magazine, edited by Barbara Davey; Deadly Pleasures Magazine, edited by George Easter; Ross Macdonald: A Biography, by Tom Nolan (Scribner); Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower (Henry Holt).
Best Series of the Century: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot
Also Nominated: Ed McBain's 87th Precinct; Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone; Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey; Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe.
Best Writer of the Century: Agatha Christie
Also Nominated: Raymond Chandler; Dashiell Hammett; Dorothy L. Sayers; Rex Stout.
Best Novel of the Century: Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier.
Also Nominated: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie; The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers.
Winners were chosen by the Private Eye Writers of America.
Best Hardcover Private Eye Novel: California Fire and Life, by Don Winslow (Knopf).
Best First Private Eye Novel: Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly (Simon & Schuster).
Also Nominated: East of A, by Russell Atwood (Ballantine); The Immortal Game, by Mark Coggins (Poltroon Press); Maximum Insecurity, by P. J. Grady (Memento Mori/Avocet); The Answer Man, by Roy Johansen (Bantam).
Best Paperback Original Private Eye Novel: In Big Trouble, by Laura Lippman (Avon).
Also Nominated: Deadbeat, by Leo Atkins (Berkley Prime Crime); Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham (Berkley Prime Crime); The Last Song Dogs, by Sinclair Browning (Bantam); Steel City Confessions, by Thomas Lipinski (Avon).
Best Private Eye Short Story: "Akitada's First Case," by I. J. Parker (in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 1999)
Also Nominated: "Unchained Melody," by Doug Allyn (in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 1999); "Hodegetria," by Jeremiah Healy (in Death Cruise, edited by Lawrence Block; Cumberland House); "The Reluctant Op," by Barbara Paul (in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 1999); "Cro-Magnon, P. I.," by Mike Reiss (in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 1999).
Eye (Life Achievement) Award: Edward D. Hoch.
Martin Cruz Smith's Havana Bay (Random House) was also named the winner of this year's Hammett, given by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers to a work of excellence in the field of crime writing. Smith previously won a Hammett in 1996 for his novel Rose.
Other nominees this year were: Heartwood, by James Lee Burke (Doubleday); L. A. Requiem, by Robert Crais (Doubleday); In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson (Avon); and Personal Injuries, by Scott Turow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
More Just Desserts
Winners, chosen by members of Mystery Readers International, were presented on September 15.
Best Mystery Novel: The Flower Master, by Sujata Massey (HarperCollins).
Best First Mystery Novel: Inner City Blues, by Paula L. Woods (W.W. Norton).
Also Nominated: Murder With Peacocks, by Donna Andrews (St Martin's); Murder In the Marais, by Cara Black (Soho); Revenge of the Gypsy Queen, by Kris Neri (Rainbow Books).
Best Non-Fiction: Ross Macdonald: A Biography, by Tom Nolan (Scribner).
Also Nominated: A Taste of Murder, edited by Jo Grossman and Robert Weibezahl (Dell); Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower (Henry Holt).
Best Short Story: "Maubi and the Jumbies," by Kate Grilley (in Murderous Intent, Fall 1999).
Also Nominated: "Paleta Man," by Laurie King (in Irreconcilable Differences, edited by Lia Matera; HarperCollins); "Heroes," by Anne Perry (in Murder & Obsession, edited by Otto Penzler; Delacorte Press); "Show Me the Bones," by Carolyn Wheat (in Diagnosis Dead, edited by Jonathan Kellerman; PocketBooks).
Ned Kelly Awards
Winners, chosen by the Crime Writers' Association of Australia, were presented on August 31 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Best Australian Crime Novel: Shooting Star, by Peter Temple (Transworld).
Best First Australian Crime Novel: The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders, by Marshall Browne (Duffy and Snellgrove).
Best True Crime: (Joint Winners) Huckstepp: A Dangerous Life, by John Dale (Allen and Unwin), and Underbelly 3, by John Silvester and Andrew Rule.
"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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