Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report #9

I'm a sucker for historical crime novels. If you don't know that, you haven't been paying close attention to my regular January Magazine reviews or previous editions of "The Rap Sheet." Being a passionate student of history and a 30-year fan of mystery fiction, it's hard for me to ignore a good pairing of the two. Whether it's one of Anne Perry's Victorian whodunits, another entry in Max Allan Collins' always-satisfying Nate Heller series, the latest of Edward Marston's Elizabethan theater romps, a new Owen Archer adventure from Candace Robb or fresh works from Charles Todd, Laura Joh Rowland, Paul Doherty or Bruce Alexander, I am likely to be angling for a copy as soon as -- if not before -- it hits bookshelves.

So allow me to recommend a couple of new titles, both of them detective novels set around World War II and written by veterans of this game: A Few Minutes Past Midnight, by Stuart M. Kaminsky, and Robert Skinner's Pale Shadow.

The former is, if memory serves, the 21st Kaminsky novel to feature that bungling and invariably impecunious, but still charming, Tinsel Town gumshoe, Toby Peters. Introduced in Bullet for a Star (1977), which found him defending a swashbuckling Errol Flynn from blackmail, the Jewish-born Peters went on to solve cases involving the Marx Brothers (You Bet Your Life), William Faulkner and Bela Lugosi (Never Cross a Vampire), Mae West (He Done Her Wrong), Dashiell Hammett and General Douglas MacArthur (Buried Caesars) and W.C. Fields (A Fatal Glass of Beer). These books are less realistic than they are amusing, which may be why Edgar Award judges haven't given them the attention they so clearly deserve. (Kaminsky won his only Edgar for 1988's A Cold Red Sunshine, his second outing for Russian policeman Porfiry Rostnikov.) However, they -- along with Andrew Bergman's Jack Levine stories (Tender Is Levine), Ron Goulart's Groucho Marx whodunits (Groucho Marx, Private Eye) and similarly tongue-in-cheek works -- provide an essential balance against this genre's preponderance of gritty and grim yarns.

A Few Minutes Past Midnight (Carroll & Graf) gives Peters the unlikely assignment of defending Charlie Chaplin against a death threat. Seems the movie legend was confronted at his Bel Air home late one night by an unidentified man wielding a knife and ordering Chaplin to cease production of his latest film, about wealthy women who are married and then murdered for their money -- or else. Likely to hinder our hero's efforts is the fact that Chaplin boasts a prodigious assortment of enemies, including those offended by his recent nuptials with the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill. However, Peters figures he has a decent clue to go on: Chaplin's crepuscular caller told him specifically to stay away from one Fiona Sullivan. Yet once found, Sullivan -- a plain-looking boardinghouse operator set to wed one of her renters -- claims to have no inkling why anyone associated with Hollywood's foremost screen clown would be interested in her. Only a list found in her betrothed's room -- a roster of eight women, five of whom turn out already to be dead -- furthers the private eye's hopes that he can expose Chaplin's intruder and, in the process, save the lives of those other three females on the list. To help, Peters enlists his usual collection of eccentrics: a Swiss dwarf, a wrestler turned poet, and a dentist with all the bedside manner of your most decent serial killer. He must also contend with his hard-of-hearing landlady and his hard-knuckled cop brother, whose mellowness of late has Toby worried. As with all Peters books, the narrative pace here is manic, the dialogue crisp and clever, and the resolution a welcome surprise. The only odd thing in A Few Minutes Past Midnight is that, unlike previous entries in this series, it doesn't give any hint at the end as to who will be Peters' next celebrity client. Let's hope he has another one. Toby Peters is too good a bad P.I. to lose.

It's a far cry from the glitz of Hollywood's heyday to the steamy and dangerous alleyways of 1940 New Orleans -- as Wesley Farrell is well aware. A mixed-race gambler and former bootlegger, who now operates a Basin Street nightclub when he isn't chasing after gangsters and murderers, Farrell is approached in Pale Shadow (Poisoned Pen Press) by a priest who says he is trying to locate one of Farrell's old cronies, Luis Martinez. According to the clergyman, Martinez's mother is dying in El Paso and wants to see her son one more time before she goes. Farrell, intimately familiar with the criminal territory over which Martinez habitually roams, agrees to help track him down. Little does Farrell know, though, what trouble this promise will bring him, for Martinez is a wanted man. He stole counterfeiting plates, designed to print up U.S. currency in 20- and 50-dollar denominations, from a suave racketeer named Santiago "Spanish" Compasso. And Compasso wants those plates badly enough that he has hired an impenitent killer, Dixie Ray Chavez, to retrieve them in any way he can. For Chavez, that means finding the people who know Martinez best and then torturing them for his whereabouts. It's a brutal business, and it won't stop until the plates are returned ...or Wes Farrell and the members of his father's Negro Detective Squad can bring down the conspirators in a phony-money scheme that extends the length of the American South.

The fourth work in a series that began with Skin Deep, Blood Red (1997), Pale Shadow is a savory gumbo of casual violence and carefully articulated secondary characters -- barkeepers and singers, crooks and prostitutes, each of whom lends a distinctive spice to the old New Orleans that Skinner so ably re-creates. Consume it with gusto.

Peace,

J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor, January Magazine


New and Noteworthy

Deaths past, present and problematic are at the center of Martha Grimes' latest Richard Jury novel, The Blue Last (Viking). While Chief Inspector Michael Haggerty tries to solve the modern-day murder of merchant banker Simon Croft, Jury looks into whether a woman claiming to be the granddaughter of a brewing magnate is actually an imposter, the real granddaughter having perished as a child during the London blitz. In classic Grimes fashion, there are numerous complications here, not the least of which are Melrose Plant's undercover efforts to help Jury determine whether Croft's death may be linked to something he learned while writing a book about World War II, and Haggerty's announcement that he is dying of cancer. ... From the "Unusual Concepts That Work" file comes Nineteen Eighty (Serpent's Tail), the third of David Peace's books backgrounded by Britain's Yorkshire Ripper murders. It's now the winter of 1980, and the Ripper has just taken his 13th victim. With tempers on edge, and no end to the terror in sight, Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter takes on the onerous task of investigating his fellow coppers. But as he turns up corruption, he also makes himself a target of police who look after their own. His house is torched, his wife threatened, and Hunter's probe turns dangerously personal. Peace, who grew up in Yorkshire in the 1970s, takes an already dark story and shingles it thickly with noir enough to block out the sun. Extraordinary stuff. ... Local tourism promoters are likely to cringe at the publication of Jane Jakeman's Death in the South of France (Allison & Busby). Converging here are two quite engrossing plot streams, one involving mutilated bodies on the French Riviera and a new magistrate whose job it is to restore order, the other beginning with a roll of film -- including the shot of a painting that depicts a cemetery in the south of France -- that arrives at the London home of Charlie Cashel, whose sister's murder in that same area has so far gone unsolved. After earning a sizable following in Britain with her previous novels, such as Let There Be Blood and The Egyptian Coffin, Jakeman is hoping to win Americans over as well with this latest story -- just the kind of yarn to make you think twice about a leisurely trip to Cannes.

Also with a European setting -- York, England, in this instance -- is Shooting in the Dark (Orion UK), John Baker's fifth adventure for accidental private eye Sam Turner and his eccentric crew of crime-solving assistants (among them a street kid, a musician-writer and a retired schoolmistress). His hormones overcoming the resistance of his good sense, Turner goes to work for blind but beautiful Angeles Falco, who wants to prove that she and her sister, Isabel, are being stalked. Turner confirms that suspicion, but too late to save Isabel, whose body turns up on the moors. And too late to save himself from an investigation that has him facing a serial killer who threatens Turner's dreams of a new life. If you aren't already familiar with the Turner series, do yourself a favor and read the first installment, Poet in the Gutter (1995), before tackling this newest one.


Amid the greater attention given to Robert B. Parker's Spenser books, his newer series about Boston gumshoe Sunny Randall, and his first western, Gunman's Rhapsody, Parker's novels featuring Paradise, Massachusetts, police chief Jesse Stone tend often to be overlooked. Yet the character continues to build a following, his third case coming up in Death in Paradise (Putnam). This time, he's trying to piece together the final days in the life of a local girl who was shot before being dumped into a lake. Nobody seems surprised by her demise; her parents say she liked the wild life, and they didn't even bother to file a missing person's report on her. It's up to Stone to resolve this mystery, but he has pitifully little to go on -- just a young man's school ring and his intuition built up over years with the LAPD. ... Sibling rivalry and savage murder share the spotlight in Flinch (Pantheon), Robert Ferrigno's sixth thriller. Once more taking inspiration from the "blank sensuality and lubricious greed" of modern-day Los Angeles, Ferrigno introduces us to tabloid reporter Jimmy Gage, who says he's been contacted by "The Eggman," a serial killer claiming responsibility for half a dozen unsolved murders. The cops investigate, but eventually decide that this confession is a hoax, and that Jimmy is just a publicity hound. However, a year later, the reporter suddenly discovers half a dozen Polaroid "splatter shots" of corpses in the possession of his brother, Jonathan, a well-respected plastic surgeon whose lifelong competitive relationship with Jimmy has only been exacerbated by his decision to marry Jimmy's ex-girlfriend, Olivia. Are these photographs related to The Eggman? Jimmy's quest for answers is complicated by a woman detective who can't decide which brother to believe, and by what the author terms "my usual cast of screwheads and badasses." Ferrigno's novels are always sharply written and darkly comic, and this one is already getting raves to rival those won by its terrific predecessor, Heartbreaker (1999). ... Just when I thought the number of detectives named Diamond had reached their illogical limit (see my recent review of Diamond Eye), here comes San Francisco's Jake Diamond, the private eye protagonist in J.L. Abramo's Catching Water in a Net (St. Martin's Minotaur). Delving into the murder of his mentor, Jimmy Pigeon, Diamond learns that Pigeon had recently argued with his partner in a Web bounty-hunting business over whether to sell their enterprise. When the partner, too, ends up in a body bag, Diamond goes from sleuth to suspect, and -- using his Mob connections -- stays out of a cell long enough to nab the real killer. Though Abramo has met few detective-genre clichés he doesn't like, he's a solid writer. Catching Water in a Net won the St. Martin's/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel award of 2000.

Virginia author and Chicago Tribune correspondent Michael Kilian, already familiar for his Civil War mysteries (Murder at Manassas and A Killing at Ball's Bluff being the first two), has now launched a second series of novels, all set during the Roaring 20s and taking as their male lead a New York celebrity columnist turned art gallery owner, Bedford Green. In The Weeping Woman (Berkley Prime Crime), the bon vivantish Green is persuaded by his statuesque young assistant, Sloane Smith, to help her track down Polly Swanscott, a friend of hers who left Manhattan for Paris, only to send back a postcard that suggests she's in trouble. Green, who had already planned a trip to France in pursuit of new stock for his gallery, is hesitant at first to add gumshoeing duties to his schedule, but quickly becomes engrossed in the search for Polly, relying on assistance from a variety of Jazz Age notables, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald's tippling spouse, Zelda. The storyline allows Kilian a maximum of enjoyment in re-creating personalities and places that obviously intrigue him, and there's a good deal of lighthearted banter and humor on the way to Green and Sloane discovering that Polly's fears for her future were not unfounded. Although the author is a tad stingy with the clues a reader would need to solve this case him- or herself, The Weeping Woman expertly captures the Jazz Age verisimilitude and proves once again, as Fitzgerald said, that "the rich are different from you and me." They have fewer scruples. ... Kilian enthusiasts take note: He has a third Civil War novel, The Ironclad Alibi, due out in January from Berkley Prime Crime. In it, Union secret agent Harrison Raines delves into the heart of the Confederacy to obtain information about the legendary ironclad warship Merrimack.

I admit to having been disappointed by Sara Paretsky's last V.I. Warshawski novel, Hard Time (1999). While the writing showed the polish of a time-tested author and its plot certainly tested the smarts and strength of its protagonist, Hard Time was a kitchen sink of leads and misdeeds meant to maintain reader interest -- it could have used more aggressive editing. I'm hoping for better from Total Recall (Delacorte), which finds the Chicago P.I. helping her Viennese refuge friend, Lottie Herschel, whose meeting with an alleged survivor of the Nazi death camps compels her to deal with a related and uncomfortable memory. V.I.'s examination of the survivor's past eventually meshes with her labors on an insurance fraud case that, according to Paretsky's Web site "leads her to an international conspiracy reaching back to Nazi Europe and gives her the unexpected means to help save her friend."

Comparisons between Paretsky's Warshawski and Martha C. Lawrence's own series detective, Elizabeth Chase, pretty much stop at the fact that they're both women. Whereas V.I. depends for her success on a combination of bullheadedness and compassion, the younger Chase puts more stock in basic deduction and her not-so-basic psychic abilities. Both of those will come in handy in Ashes of Aries (St. Martin's Minotaur), which has her facing wildfires and Santa Ana winds as she searches for a missing child. ... Infringing on the northern Michigan territory already so nicely exploited by Steve Hamilton (The Hunting Wind), author Joseph Heywood debuts his new "woods cop" mystery series with Ice Hunter (Lyons Press). The central character is Grady Service, a former Marine and conservation officer whose lifestyle often seems just slightly better than a bear's. But he's a hell of a tracker and a passionate protector of the woods in which he has worked and lived for so long. Much of Ice Hunter reads like a day-in-the-life account of what it's like to enforce the laws against illegal hunting and fishing. And most of the novel is exhausted before you realize the source of Heywood's title. However, Ice Hunter shows nice sparkle in its writing and real concern on the part of the author to fully flesh out his characters. (Certainly the oddest ones are members of a grubby backwoods clan, who spend most of their time either poaching or propagating through incest.) Service grows on you little by little, becoming more interesting as he takes on first one girlfriend, then a more interesting substitute. The episodes and motivations are expertly concocted. All in all, a very satisfying read, leaving me to look forward to a sequel. ... Forensic psychologist Peter Zaks sees the worst of people. In Amnesia (2000, and just released in paperback), he dealt with a shooting victim on whose faulty memories a murder investigation hinged. Now, in Addiction (St. Martin's Minotaur), he becomes involved in the competition to create a drug that will alleviate chronic addiction -- a competition that pits a giant pharmaceutical company against independent researcher Channing Temple, Zaks' former lover. When, suddenly, Temple is killed -- supposedly by her Ritalin-addicted teenage daughter, Olivia -- this rivalry seems at an end. But while Zaks knows Olivia is self destructive, he doesn't think she did in her mom, and sets out to prove that to the cops. Both Amnesia and Addiction are by "G.H. Ephron," the joint pseudonym used by Hallie Ephron (sister of novelist-filmmaker Nora) and psychologist A.A. Greeley.

In Killing the Shadows (St. Martin's Minotaur), Val McDermid imparts frightening life to a serial killer whose targets are those thriller writers who've given psychological profilers a sort of modern-day 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 important in much different circumstances is Louisiana contract archaeologist Alan Graham, who in Malcolm Shuman's The Last Mayan (Avon), is off to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in search of conclusive evidence that other visitors from the Old World reached Central America long before the Spanish conquistadors. But what sounds at first like a fascinating exploration into the past becomes a frightening encounter in the present, as Graham realizes there are killers in the surrounding wilds who wouldn't hesitate to turn him and his fellow researchers into relics at least as lifeless as those they've been seeking. This is the fifth Graham adventure, and though their plots are similarly patterned, the books continue to be both interesting and charming. ... Psychotherapist sleuth Cassidy McCabe tackles that most modern of threats, an "e-stalker," in Death's Domain (Intrigue Press). What starts out as an annoying plague of electronic messages, which force McCabe to revisit a traumatic experience from her past, turns deadly as her husband, Zach, becomes the e-stalker's next victim. ... Detective Inspector Joe Faraday is a reflection of his hometown, dispirited Portsmouth, England: both, it seems, refuse to give up. Yet Faraday certainly has his work cut out for him in The Take (Orion UK), by Graham Hurley. His management assistant is killed in a head-on car crash, his embittered detective superintendent has found out that his wife has terminal cancer, and a local flasher seems right on the verge of becoming something more violent. Hurley's strong on capturing sense of place, and his characters grow on you quickly.

It's been more than a quarter-century since Milo Milodragovitch figured, in James Crumley's The Wrong Case (1975), that he was washed up as a private eye. Yet he's held on -- and become an even more interesting character with time. In The Final Country (Mysterious Press), we find Molly McBride -- with whom Milo enjoyed a recent roll in the hay -- convincing him to leave his beloved Texas bar long enough to track down the man who raped and killed her sister. But what seems like a straightforward assignment takes a different course when Milo learns that his quarry is both brutal and politically well connected. Fortunately, our hero has his own connections, including those to computer geeks, bodyguards and fellow detective C.W. Sughrue (introduced in The Last Good Kiss, 1978). Expect Crumley's usual craziness as Milo's case takes him from Mexico to the snow-dusted peaks of Montana.

Be careful what you wish for. Like some other critics, I've recommended in the past that Larry Millett -- the Minnesota author of Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders (1998) and two other novels resurrecting fiction's first "consulting detective" -- give Irish saloonkeeper Shadwell Rafferty, who has played a secondary but colorful role in those books, a case of his own to solve. Now, he's done just that. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance (Viking), Rafferty probes the slaying of a union activist who's been found strung from a tree in 1899 Minneapolis, wearing only a placard that reads, "The Alliance Has Spoken." Is this the work of anti-union forces or violent anarchists? And how is this tragedy linked to the city's corrupt mayor and the compromising photo of a prominent local citizen? Full of political and underworld intrigue, Secret Alliance promises a lively read. If only for the sake of my future as an advice-giver, I certainly hope it delivers. ... Although Holmes and Dr. John Watson have only minor roles in Millett's book, they're again center stage in Murder in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes (Carroll & Graf), edited by Martin H. Greenberg, John Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower. The collection's 11 short stories, written by Anne Perry, Loren Estleman, Gillian Linscott and others, find the crime-solving pair delving into the wilds of Africa and the villainous heart of London, in all cases proving that Holmes can be as interesting at the turn of the 21st century as he was at the turn of the 20th. ... Equally unprepared to disappear into the folds of literary history, it seems, is Irene Adler, introduced in the Holmes yarn "A Scandal in Bohemia" and making a comeback in Carole Nelson Douglas' Chapel Noir (Forge). Douglas' fifth Adler offering, and her first since Irene's Last Waltz (1994), Chapel Noir opens during the 1889 world's fair in Paris. While her British barrister husband, Godfrey Norton, is off on some secret business for the Rothschild banking family, Baron de Rothschild asks Irene to scrutinize the heinous killings of two courtesans in a bordello frequented by men of renown. Talk of ties between these killings and Jack the Ripper's malefic London spree of the previous autumn is inevitable. But how could Irene or her biographer, Nell Huxleigh, know that they're about to be drawn into horrific events that will provide a new solution to the Ripper mystery? So confident are Douglas and her publisher of Chapel Noir's best-seller potential, they're preparing a sequel, Castle Rouge, for sale in October 2002. And the author tells me that Forge will begin reissuing her first four Irene Adler novels in 2003.

Back in Britain after their American travels in Slaves of Obsession (2000), agent of enquiry William Monk and his nurse wife, Hester, are quickly caught up in yet another puzzle in Funeral in Blue (Ballantine), by Anne Perry. The plot here builds around the strangling deaths of two women in an artist's studio -- a mystery given special urgency by the fact that one of the victims was the wife of Hester's colleague, Dr. Kristian Beck. ... Old San Francisco is the backdrop for two new novels: Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings (Viking), by Oakley Hall, and Peter King's The Jewel of the North (Signet). The former, a sequel to Hall's Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998), finds the acerbic columnist and his younger protégé, San Francisco Chronicle writer Tom Redmond, sniffing after clues in the 1891 disappearance of a Hawaiian princess who has come to California as part of a contingent accompanying the dying King Kalakaua. There's much made of intrigue surrounding Kalakaua's successor, Bierce gets off more than a few choice lines and Redmond has a chance to sample island delights in the arms of a young Hawaiian beauty. Bierce also makes an appearance in The Jewel of the North, although this adventure centers primarily on novelist Jack London, who in the early years of the 20th century is asked by the mayor of San Francisco to look into the frightening murders of two saloon girls. King, better known for his "Gourmet Detective" mysteries (Death al Dente, A Healthy Place to Die, etc.), crafts a lightweight but still engaging mystery that seems to leave out none of the raucous places or eccentric personages familiar in the city at that time, including not only Bierce, but Oscar Wilde and Little Egypt as well.

Martin Cruz Smith (Havana Bay) may have created readers' hunger for crime fiction with a Russian setting, but Stuart M. Kaminsky has been feeding that appetite three times as fast. His Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov makes a 13th appearance in Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express (Mysterious Press), which finds the mordant lawman on his way -- first class -- to Vladivostok, with an extortionist whose information threatens the country's political stability. Meanwhile, the Moscow Police Department contends with a woman who's stabbing natty gents on the local subway as well as the disappearance of an anti-Semitic rock star. In other words, nothing beyond the normal chaos of Kaminsky's entertaining series. ... By the way, this author's fans should also watch out for the December release of Retribution (Forge), the sophomore installment of his series about compassionate, small-time south Florida investigator Lew Fonesca, following that character's first novel-length effort in Vengeance (1999).

Coming off last year's publication of Wild Justice, criminal defense attorney and Edgar-nominated author Phillip Margolin now gives us The Associate (HarperCollins). The book builds around Daniel Ames, an ambitious young associate at the highest-profile law firm in Portland, Oregon, whose willingness to cover for a colleague on a case winds up soiling Ames' rep. Determined to put his career back on track, Ames pursues the facts of the case, only to be sucked into a multi-million-dollar fraud plot and become the target of a killer. ... Somewhat less polished, but certainly fast-paced and suspenseful, is Mahogany Row (Fiction Works), by lawyer Wayne J. Keeley. The story follows an attorney, Mark McCoy, who's in line to take the fall for his boss' murder. What follows is a Fugitive-like pursuit, with McCoy trying to stay one giant step ahead of the dogged detective, the killer and the powerful law firm all determined to take him down. The characters aren't very deeply developed, but Keeley makes good use of his story's urban setting. ... From the same folks responsible for Britain's excellent short-fiction magazine Crimewave comes American Graveyards (TTA Press), a first novel by Ray Nayler. Like Boston Teran's God Is a Bullet, this story finds its footing in California's Mojave Desert, where a burnt-out, nightmare-plagued private eye named Lance Bailey is determined to sort out a deadly conspiracy. Actually, the plot isn't what keeps you reading American Graveyards; it's Nayler's more-noir-than-noir tone that draws attention, his bleak scenes ripe with sex and hopelessness, the depth of his characters and the pools of despair that lie at the bottom of those depths. Nayler is an author to watch, but whose literary visions are not easy to read and leave behind. Consider yourself warned. ... And don't miss Shooter's Point (Kensington), the second of Gary Phillips' books about Las Vegas showgirl turned smart-talking courier Martha Chainey.

Phillips, by the way, is among the numerous contemporary authors represented in editor Ed Gorman's second-annual World's Finest Mystery & Crime Stories (Forge). Other stories are by Jan Burke, Joseph Hansen, Robert Barnard, Robert J. Randisi, Spanish writer Miguel Agusti and German author Jürgen Ehlers. But while this volume's fiction is satisfying, what may actually be most interesting are the year-end 2000 wrap-ups of what's going on in the field worldwide, from the United States to Australia to Britain and Germany. Very rarely does one encounter such expert rundowns of this genre as a whole. ... Fans of the 1988 short story collection Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration (reissued last year by ibooks) will likely remember Max Allan Collins' contribution, "The Perfect Crime" -- in which Marlowe "solved" the 1935 death of actress/restaurateur Thelma Todd -- as among the book's most compelling tales. Somewhat tougher in tone than most of that collection's entries, the LA-based story might well have starred Collins' own period private eye, Nathan Heller. And now it does. In Kisses of Death (Crippen & Landru), the second Heller "casebook" -- after Dying in the Post-War World (1991) -- the yarn appears only slightly altered, with Heller taking over the investigative role. Of the six other Heller adventures packed into these pages, the best are those written later in Collins' career: "Shoot-out on Sunset" (in which Heller survives a "hit" on mobster Mickey Cohen), "Screwball" (which finds Heller in Miami, intervening with a club owner on gangster Frank Nitti's behalf) and "Natural Death, Inc." (reuniting Heller with former "Untouchable" Eliot Ness in an undercover operation to curtail a Cleveland insurance scam). The title story has Heller working for Marilyn Monroe in the mid-1950s, while in "Strike Zone," he gets involved in the death of the only midget ever to play big-league baseball. ... Interestingly, that same story -- retitled "Pitch Hitter" -- is found in another new short-story compilation, Murderer's Row (New Millenium Press). Editor Otto Penzler's theme here is baseball, with a dugoutful of prominent authors stepping up to the plate. It's a rather uneven lineup, with some tales barely qualifying as mysteries. Don't miss Mike Lupica's "The Shot" and Laura Lippman's "Ropa Vieja." Also contributing to the book are Michael Connelly, Troy Soos and K.C. Constantine. To discover more baseball-related mysteries, check out January Magazine's feature on the subject. ... Hoping for the same sort of warm reception given to Mystery Midrash (1999), his previous anthology of Jewish crime stories, editor Lawrence W. Raphael now offers up Criminal Kabbalah (Jewish Lights). In addition to Laurie R. King's foreword, which relates Jewish mysticism to mystery writing, the most memorable elements of this book may be Stuart M. Kaminsky's "The Tenth Man" (featuring a young Abe Lieberman), Ronald Levitsky's "Thy Brother's Bloods" (in which civil liberties lawyer Nate Rosen tries to get to the root of a death row inmate's sudden interest in Judaism) and Lev Raphael's quirky "Your Papers, Please."


Future Felonies

It's been seven years since the last appearance of Harvey Blissberg, a major-league outfielder turned private investigator, in R. D. Rosen's World of Hurt (1994). But he's apparently still in shape to catch a few bad guys, if not the fly balls he could once pocket with ease. In Dead Ball (Walker, November), Blissberg is snapped out of a personal slump by a call for help from his former team, the Providence Jewels. It seems that excitement over the chances of player Moss Cooley breaking Joe DiMaggio's legendary 56-game hitting streak is being undermined by racist threats against the team, and it is up to Blissberg to find the intimidators and protect Cooley while he endeavors to make baseball history. I'd been wondering for some time whatever happened to author Rosen. After penning four well-received Blissberg books -- including the Edgar Award-winning Strike Three, You're Dead (1984), recently back in print from Walker Books -- he seemed to fall off the planet. It's good to see him back at the plate, along with Blissberg and more cast members familiar from Strike Three. No word yet on whether or when the other three titles in this series might be reissued, but the fact that Rosen's Saturday Night Dead (1988) is supposedly being made into a Showtime original movie can't help but stimulate new interest in these delightful novels.

After solving the murders of a toy tycoon (in The Dime Museum Murders, 1999) and a levitating assistant (The Floating Lady Murder, 2000), escape artist Harry Houdini takes his third turn as an unlikely but entertaining sleuth in Daniel Stashower's The Houdini Specter (Avon, November). This time out, Harry and his more level-headed sibling, Dash, play ghostbusters. "The Brothers Houdini are called in to help investigate a suspicious medium," Stashower says of his plot. "Matters take a sinister turn when one of the sitters at a seance is found dead when the lights come up. It's up to Harry and Dash to prove that a flesh-and-blood killer, rather than a vengeful spirit, is responsible for the crime." Readers familiar with Houdini's real-life career will recognize in this yarn the roots of his later "mission" to debunk seances, fairies and pretty much all other otherworldly phenomena.

Another real-life historical figure who has enjoyed a resurrection in modern crime fiction is blind 18th-century British magistrate Sir John Fielding. With his increasingly confident protégé, Jeremy Proctor, he investigates illegal cargo trading in Smuggler's Moon (Putnam, November), the eighth installment in Bruce Alexander's richly atmospheric series. Assigned to their task by the Lord Chief Justice himself, Sir John and Jeremy depart London for the town of Deal, on the Kent coast, where they dig into the doings of a local authority who's allegedly ignoring illicit cross-Channel commerce between England and France. But when they arrive, the pair discover that the law has been bent much further, and more dangerously, than they had imagined. ... In Archer Mayor's Tucker Peak (Mysterious Press, November), Lieutenant Joe Gunther and the brand-new Vermont Bureau of Investigation tackle a succession of condominium burglaries at an upscale ski resort -- a case that is quickly complicated by environmental terrorism and attempted murder, and that invites Mayor's cast of colorful cops to remark on the lifestyles of the overindulged. ... Also due out in November: Jonathan Kellerman's Flesh and Blood (Random House), which finds psychologist-detective Alex Delaware confronting his own fallibility after a defiant, borderline-delinquent patient is killed; The Thin Black Line (Forge), one of the last novels from Hugh Holton, the Chicago cop/author who died in May (leaving behind at least one additional work, Criminal Behavior, which Forge has on its schedule for February 2002); Acid Row (Macmillan UK), the latest suspenser from Minette Walters; acclaimed Scottish author Denise Mina's third novel, Resolution (Bantam UK); Candace Robb's The Cross Legged Knight (Heinemann UK), her eighth novel featuring medieval sleuth Owen Archer; and Bitter Sugar (Morrow), Carolina Garcia-Aguilera's latest case for Cuban-American P.I. Lupe Solano.

Jazz, drugs and prostitution drive David Fulmer's first novel, Chasing the Devil's Tail (Poisoned Pen Press, November). The year is 1907, and Creole detective Valentin St. Cyr has been charged with figuring out who's behind a string of murders in Storyville, New Orleans' officially sanctioned and highly stratified red-light district. Although Fulmer tries a bit too hard to stock his tale with recognizable historical figures -- from the infamous madam Lulu White to E.J. Bellocq, a dwarf who would become famous for his photographs of Storyville's cyprians -- he also delivers a high-energy plot that may lead St. Cyr to pin the crimes on one of his childhood friends. ... A second serial killer is afoot -- and tormenting Edgar Allan Poe -- in Harold Schecter's The Hum Bug (Pocket, November). Set in 1844, this sequel to Schecter's first, well-received Poe mystery, Nevermore (1999), finds the author of The Murders in the Rue Morgue having moved his family from Baltimore to New York City. Soon afterward, Poe agrees to join master showman P.T. Barnum in solving the grisly slaying of a young woman. Of course, that initial murder is followed by others, each new one feeding Poe's interest in the macabre at the same time as he is repulsed by the world of greed through which he must tread in order to find whoever's responsible for these tragedies. Schecter does a fine job of re-creating both 19th-century Manhattan and the world of "freaks" (armless men, bearded women, etc.) that brought Barnum his notoriety. ... If you can forgive their all-too-obvious debt to Edward Marston's better-known Elizabethan theater whodunits (The Devil's Apprentice, The Wanton Angel, etc.), Simon Hawke's stories about still-aspiring playwright William Shakespeare and his romantically reckless partner in crime-solving, Symington "Tuck" Smythe, have much to commend them. Last year's A Mystery of Errors found this pair mixed up with a would-be bride, whose campaign to avoid an arranged marriage was frustrated by her suitor's peculiar attempts to make her appear mad. The Slaying of the Shrew (Forge, December) again makes the point that marriage can be murder. Things start off peacefully enough, of course, with Shakespeare, Smythe and their troop of thespians traveling to a rural estate, where they are to provide some of the entertainment for a large wedding pageant. But when the willful bride turns up dead, and the air fills with talk of conspiracies against the two families involved in this aborted union, it's up to Will and Tuck to bring the curtain down on a killer. Like its predecessor, Shrew is a lighthearted romp filled with colorful exchanges and some keen re-creations of Elizabethan life.

Reaching even farther back into the past for its setting -- all the way to 539 AD -- is Three for a Letter (Poisoned Pen Press, December), by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. With the reconquest of Italy all but complete, Emperor Justinian in Constantinople looks forward to restoring the storied glory of Rome. To further his campaign, he's taken a pair of eight-year-old twins -- descendants of the last Ostrogothic king -- as diplomatic hostages. When one of those twins dies, Justinian calls on his Lord Chamberlain for help. Trouble is, John already has his hands full trying to locate Empress Theodora's favorite but missing mime. Stocking their novels with period arcana, palace intrigue and more than a few curious complications (which, in this case, include prophesizing goats and an overprotective whale), Reed and Meyer have created a distinctive historical series that has yet to disappoint.

While U.S. publication of The Falls, Ian Rankin's 12th novel featuring Edinburgh Detective Inspector John Rebus, isn't scheduled (by St. Martin's Minotaur) until November, the author tells me he's already putting the finishing touches on his 13th Rebus book, Resurrection Men, which is due out in Great Britain in January 2002. Asked for a plot synopsis, Rankin writes: "Rebus is booted off a case for insubordination and is sent back to police college, where he meets up with a motley group of 'bad cops' known as the Wild Bunch. But Rebus has another reason for being there, and it so happens that an old unsolved case they're given to work on (to instill in them some kind of group aesthetic) is one Rebus would rather not see solved. Meantime, an art dealer has been killed in Edinburgh, and [DC] Siobhan [Clarke] must find out why and who. Among the dealer's clients was Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus' nemesis. The cases, old and new, collide in a big way." Gee, I guess I know what I'm reading in January.

The next, as-yet-untitled installment of Steven Saylor's popular Roman series -- a sequel to Last Seen in Massillia (2000) -- will be published by St. Martin's Press in the spring of 2002. Offering a teaser about the book's plot on his Web site, Saylor writes: "While civil war rages between Caesar and Pompey, [series protagonist] Gordianus returns to Rome for a respite from the chaos, and to see what the women are up to. Can murder be far behind?" ... Saylor fans will be pleased to learn also that their man has a second book due out next year. Like his wonderfully dark O. Henry mystery, A Twist at the End (2000), this new work will be set in Saylor's home state of Texas, only this one's a contemporary thriller. "The tentative title," Saylor explains, "is Have You Seen Dawn? When 29-year-old Rue Dunwitty returns from San Francisco to her sleepy little Texas hometown, it seems that nothing has changed -- except that a girl is missing and a serial killer is on the loose." The author calls the story "pure contemporary suspense, in the tradition of Ruth Rendell and Mary Higgins Clark." The publisher is Simon & Schuster. ... Speaking of future projects, Peter Lovesey's seventh case for grumpy Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond (last seen in The Vault, 1999) will be called Diamond Dust. It's due out in the UK in March 2002 from Little, Brown. ... Another March release, Philip Shelby's latest novel of political intrigue, By Dawn's Early Light (Simon & Schuster), finds straight-arrow financial analyst Sloane Ryder uncovering a plot to assassinate the first women president of the United States. ... Only after my last edition of "The Rap Sheet" was distributed did I learn that publication of The Blood-dimmed Tide, Rennie Airth's sequel to his brilliant 1999 period suspenser, River of Darkness, would be delayed. Originally planned as a June 2001 title from Macmillan in Britain, the book's launch has now been bumped back till April 2002. That's a frustratingly long wait for those of us who were looking forward to a second fix of Airth's Scotland Yard inspector, John Madden. Let's hope that Macmillan is serious about getting the book out this time. ... Michael Connelly's next Harry Bosch novel, City of Bones, also set for release next April, has the LA detective trying to identify the long-buried skeleton of a 12-year-old boy found in the Hollywood Hills. Meanwhile, Bosch embarks on a love affair with a woman cop and winds up in trouble after a mission goes disastrously awry. ... Finally, Earl Emerson, who seemed to disappear after the 1998 release of Catfish Café, his 11th novel featuring Seattle P.I. Thomas Black, reports on his own Web site that his next novel, Vertical Burn, set to appear on bookstore shelves in the spring of 2002, will be a stand-alone -- one of several he is under contract to compose for Ballantine Books.


New Crime Fiction Links

Note that I recently updated January Magazine's Crime Fiction Links page, correcting a few URLs that had changed over the last few months. I also added to that page a link to Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hard-boiled Slang, a fine and funny resource for anyone who can't tell his bangtails (racehorses) from his orphan paper (bad checks). If there are more additions you think should be made to the Crime Fiction Links page, please e-mail me.

 


Last Rewards

In light of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the Private Writers of America has canceled its Shamus Awards banquet (scheduled for November 1 at Bouchercon) and announced the 2001 Shamus winners:

Best Hardcover Private Eye Novel: Havana Heat, by Carolina Garcia-Aguilera (HarperCollins)

Also Nominated: A Smile On the Face of the Tiger, by Loren D. Estleman (Mysterious Press); The Deader the Better, by G. M. Ford (Avon Twilight); Ellipsis, by Stephen Greenleaf (Scribner); Listen to the Silence, by Marcia Muller (Mysterious Press)

Best First Private Eye Novel: Street Level, by Bob Truluck (St. Martin's Press)

Also Nominated: Brigham's Day, by John Gates (Walker & Company); The Heir Hunter, by Chris Larsgaard (Delacorte); Resurrection Angel, by William Mize (Writers Club Press); Lost Girls, by Andrew Pyper (Delacorte)


Best Paperback Original Private Eye Novel: Death in the Steel City, by Thomas Lipinski (Avon)

Also Nominated: The Blazing Tree, by Mary Jo Adamson (Signet); The Sporting Club, by Sinclair Browning (Bantam); The Hindenburg Murders, by Max Allan Collins (Berkley Prime Crime); Bad to the Bone, by Katy Munger (Avon); Dirty Money, by Steven Womack (Fawcett)


Best Private Eye Short Story: "The Road's End," by Brendan DuBois (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, April 2000)

Also Nominated: "What's in a Name?" by Jeremiah Healy (The Shamus Game, edited by Robert J. Randisi; Signet, 2000); "The Sleeping Detective," by Gary Phillips (The Shamus Game; Signet, 2000); "The Big Bite," by Bill Pronzini (The Shamus Game; Signet, 2000); "The Good Daughter," by Mike Wiecek (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2000)

 

"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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