Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by Robert B. Parker, Ray Shannon and Jonathon King • Readers rate recent releases from Jeffery Deaver, Beth Saulnier, Thomas Laird, Laura Wilson and others • Howard Fast takes his last breath; Mrs. James Ellroy talks about her first novel; Dan Brown steps into the middle of religious controversy with The Da Vinci Code, and more news from the world of mystery • Murder in the Bastille author Cara Black clues us in on her 10 favorite French crime novels • Plus: the nominees for this year's Sherlock Awards, and crime fiction contenders for the 2003 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
Pierce's Picks for April
Blind to the Bones (HarperCollins UK), by Stephen Booth. East Midlands police detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry make a fourth appearance (after last year's Blood on the Tongue) in this yarn, set on the barren moors of Dark Peak. The death count is up in the village of Withens. One resident was beaten fatally, while another picked an unfortunate time to visit a neighbor. A third, student Emma Renshaw, has apparently been dead for two years, though her parents aren't ready to accept that. While Cooper tries to solve the recent slayings, a task made more difficult by close-mouthed descendants of tunnel builders, Fry seeks to reopen the Emma Renshaw case -- an effort complicated by a grim discovery and the fragility of the girl's parents.
Blood for Blood (Poisoned Pen Press), by S.K. Rizzolo. This sequel to The Rose in the Wheel (2002), set in London in 1812, finds Penelope Wolfe employed as a lady's companion. After a footman is murdered in the garden of the townhouse where she has been working, Wolfe again seeks investigative assistance from Bow Street Runner John Chase and barrister Edward Buckler, opening a case that will put them in contact with a mysterious mad woman, protesting Luddites and political conspirators. Fans of the late Kate Ross (Cut to the Quick, The Devil in Music, etc.) should find satisfaction in this Regency London series.
The Dragon King's Palace (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Laura Joh Rowland. After his wife, Reiko, together with the shogun's mother and two other women are kidnapped during a trip to Mount Fuji, 17th-century Japanese samurai sleuth Sano Ichiro concentrates his investigative talents on rescuing them. But it's no easy task. The "Dragon King" behind these abductions makes an unusual ransom demand, and the eccentric old shogun's recklessness jeopardizes the hostages' safety.
The Fiend in Human (Century UK), by John MacLachlan Gray. Edmund Whitty, an impecunious drug addict and underworld correspondent for a London broadsheet in the early 1850s, is already pitiable. But he really reaches his nadir when he's kidnapped by a slum-dwelling balladeer named Owler, who specializes in fancifully embroidered accounts of condemned prisoners. Owler wants Whitty's help in gaining access to notorious serial killer William Garvey, from whom the balladeer hopes to extract a career-making confession. The grim underbelly of Victorian London is exposed in these pages, as Whitty and Owler pursue their quarry, and copycat killers prowl streets supposedly left safe after Garvey's incarceration.
The Kalahari Typing School for Men (Pantheon), by Alexander McCall Smith. This fourth entry in Smith's humorous and popular series about Precious Ramotswe, "the first lady detective" in Botswana, Africa, has his cunning protagonist dealing with the unfortunate death of a hoopoe bird, an assistant who wants to open a typing school, and a sexist rival in the local investigative business.
Money for Nothing (Putnam), by Donald E. Westlake. Seven years ago, office temp Josh Redmont started receiving $1,000 checks in the mail from a source identified only as "United States Agent." He didn't know the reason for these tax-free windfalls, but came to accept them nonetheless. Only now, when he's a successful Manhattan advertising exec with a wife a child, is he suddenly approached by a stranger who tells him, "I'm from United States Agent. You are now active." The money obligates Redmont to participate in a terrorist assassination scheme -- a plot that the ad man may only foil by recruiting other "sleeper agents" and a disgruntled operative to his side.
Murder Imperial (Headline UK), by Paul Doherty. The year is A.D. 313, and the Roman Empire -- hobbled by economic woes and religious conflicts -- has been split into two sections, east and west. Constantine, who fought to become sole emperor of the West and intends to harness to power of the Christian Church to his cause, suddenly faces new threats to his future. Three courtesans with whom he's gleefully cavorted are found dead, provoking Constantine's mother, Helena, to recruit a spy on his behalf, a tavern keeper's daughter named Claudia. However, Claudia has ulterior motives for accepting this assignment, heaping still more welcome intrigue upon this novel's complicated plot.
No Second Chance (Dutton), by Harlan Coben. In his third-in-a-row standalone thriller (after Tell No One and Gone for Good) about men who must suddenly cope with landslides of deadly secrets, Coben offers us surgeon Marc Seidman, who wakes up in a hospital after being shot by an unknown assailant. His wife is dead, his infant daughter, Tara, is missing, and Tara's kidnappers let him know that he'll never see her again if he goes to the authorities. Marc's reticence to cooperate with the cops and FBI raises suspicion, but the surgeon cares about only one thing: bringing his child home safely. Expect Coben's usual mix of plot twists and clever deceptions.
Poison Blonde (Forge), by Loren D. Estleman. Latina singer Gilia Cristobel seems to have it all -- youth, beauty, albums at the top of the charts. But she has one hell of a problem, too: Her history is patently bogus. Having fled her native land ahead of charges in a murder she didn't commit, Gilia has re-created herself in America. Now, though, her past is giving her trouble again -- trouble she hopes can be solved by Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker (last seen in Sinister Heights). The singer wants him to find the real Gilia Cristobel, whose identity she adopted in order to stay in the United States. Yet Walker's investigation may bring his client more misery than she already faces.
Shutter Island (Morrow), by Dennis Lehane. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, arrive at Massachusetts' Shutter Island in 1954, intending to track down an escapee from the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. But is that their only task, or are they also supposed to be checking out rumors of Ashecliffe's extraordinary psychiatric approach? As a storm strands the marshals on this island, they begin to wonder whether someone isn't trying to drive them insane, too. This second standalone novel from Lehane follows 2001's Mystic River.
Unpaid Dues (Scribner), by Barbara Seranella. The last thing Miranda "Munch" Mancini wants is trouble, but that's what faces her when a former pal, Jane Ferrar, turns up battered and dead in a Los Angeles drainage canal. Looking up the deceased's arrest report, the cops find Munch's photo and prints inside. It seems that Munch, an ex-con now working as a mechanic and limo driver, once used Ferrar's identity to beat a drunk driving charge, but subsequently severed ties with the woman. Or so she thought. Meanwhile, Munch's homicide detective boyfriend, Rico Chacón, probes a dusty triple-murder case that might also endanger Seranella's peace-seeking protagonist.
Vapor Trail (HarperCollins), by Chuck Logan. From the author of Absolute Zero (2002) comes a fourth thriller featuring former undercover cop Phil Broker. As the town of Stillwater, Minnesota, endures an unaccustomed heat wave, a priest is murdered. Could this be the work of "The Saint," a vigilante who a year before drilled a dozen bullets into a pedophile, only to became a local folk hero? And if so, does it mean that the priest was a sexual predator, too? With both the temperature and the number of corpses rising, Broker steps into a small-town nightmare that could lead to a major Stillwater police scandal as well as his own death.
New and Noteworthy
It's voguish nowadays to complain that Robert B. Parker doesn't satisfy the way he once did. But the fact is, he satisfies just that much. And no more. As he demonstrates in Back Story (Putnam), his 30th novel about Boston private eye Spenser published in as many years, Parker hasn't lost his touch when it comes to spinning out laconic, wise-ass observations. ("I was twenty yards past when I spotted a car parked across the pavement. I looked in the rearview mirror. A car pulled out of the dirt road behind me and parked across the pavement. Men got out of both cars and stood behind them. They had long guns. I was pretty sure this wasn't a speed trap.") His dialogue remains crisp and clever. His plots are economies of action, menace and romance. And while it's been some time since Spenser shed a tear, this series maintains that mix of the sentimental and the sadoerotic, the venal and the vulnerable that originally appealed to both men and women.
Back Story reads less like a phone-in job than did a few recent entries in this series (1995's Thin Air and 2001's Potshot both spring to mind). Yet it lacks the energetic innovation of Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980) or Early Autumn (1981), or even the penetrating sarcasm of Hush Money (1999), one of several Spenser outings that have made his fans think Parker might be getting a second wind. This latest tale has the gumshoe working for Daryl Silver, an actress friend of Paul Giacomin, the kid Spenser rescued from his self-centered parents in Early Autumn, and who's now a 30-something playwright and director. (My, how time flies.) Daryl's mother, Emily Gordon, was killed 28 years ago during a Boston bank holdup, committed by a radical group called the Dread Scott Brigade, and not until now has the daughter gotten around to asking who shot Emily, and why. Twenty-eight years allows a lot of cold to grow over a case; however, a strangely missing FBI intelligence report on the robbery, Daryl's reticence to have Spenser look too closely into her family background, and mobster Sonny Karnofsky's ham-handed efforts to threaten both him and his psychiatrist lover, Susan Silverman, all help lead our hero to truths that -- as is often the case in these novels -- unsettle as much as they solve.
While Parker has earned a reputation for deft character development, few of the secondary players in Back Story are wrought with much care. Daryl comes off as a blindered waif, while Karnofsky is a crime boss cliché. Daryl's father, a pot-smoking ne'er-do-well who seems to have become lost somewhere on his way to exiting the 1960s, claims modest dimension, but only to make him a bigger target for ridicule. Parker's efforts are more generously lavished on his regulars, if in no remarkable ways. The single-monikered Spenser (who would be 67 years old now, had he aged realistically since his first appearance, in 1973's The Godwulf Manuscript) is just as erudite and tough as ever, though he now drives a better car and stays in fancier hotels, rarely shares cooking advice with readers anymore, and long ago switched from drinking Amstel to more chi-chi brews, such as Blue Moon Belgian White Ale. Although he experiences a darkly reflective moment here after gunning down a hit man, Susan too quickly smothers his aborning self-doubt: "'You are a violent man. ... It's neither good nor bad,' Susan said. 'It simply is. What makes you who you are is that you have contained it within a set of rules that you can't even articulate.'" As usual, the P.I. is joined by his gentleman thug of a partner, Hawk, whose witty, ghetto-tinged exchanges with Spenser rarely fail to entertain. Spenser gets a bit of help between these covers, as well, from Jesse Stone, the small-town police chief who leads a concurrent sequence of Parker novels (Death in Paradise, etc.).
If Back Story displays more of this series' strengths than its weaknesses, its title couldn't say better what many readers feel: that Parker isn't moving forward. That he's willing to leave Spenser in a holding pattern for as long as folks continue to buy these books. Trying to convince Bob Parker that his cash-cow protagonist could use a few bumps in his rut is probably as pointless as trying to make George W. Bush understand the common sense of deficit reduction. (Parker is famous for ignoring what critics say, so my words alone won't do the trick.) But it is easy to imagine twists that might revitalize this series. Susan Silverman could be killed, sending Spenser into rudderless self-analysis. Hawk could find himself in the kind of trouble that finally fleshes out his "covert" background. Alternatively, Spenser could face a threat arising from his own pre-series past, forcing him to reassess his moral code and Gawainian mission, and giving readers a window into why he is what he is today. Think about how smartly Robert Crais enhanced his Elvis Cole series by focusing on sidekick Joe Pike in L.A. Requiem and then forcing Cole to struggle with his personal history in The Last Detective. Heck, if Crais is willing to mix things up after a mere nine Elvis books, can't Parker pitch in a few left-field surprises before Spenser is too senescent to swing at them?
It's easy to see why Shannon's setup won this work editorial attention: Cutthroat film development executive Ronnie Deal ("smart, single, and beautiful -- 'heartbreak in a tall, dark hourglass,' somebody had once called her") is sitting in an L.A. bar one day, nursing her anger at a rival for fouling up her "breakout film," when a "physically intimidating" black guy suddenly commences to wail on a "young, frail blonde woman" nearby. Reacting viscerally, her adrenaline poisoned by rage at her own manifest misfortunes, Ronnie shocks even herself by battering the thug unconscious with a beer bottle. Only later, when that same goon -- freelance enforcer Neon Polk -- subdues and rapes her in her own townhouse, then demands that she pay him $50,000 to leave her alone, does Ronnie realize the horror she's invited into her life. And all because she'd impulsively defended a "career streetwalker" named Denise "Antsy" Carruth, from whom Polk was trying to retrieve $25,000 that had been stolen from drug dealer Bobby Funderburk. (Man Eater is nothing if not a gold mine of memorable appellations.) Now, determined to feel safe again from attack, and protect her reputation in the bargain, Ronnie decides that Neon's lights have to be put out. Permanently.
To advance this plan, she decides to enlist the aforementioned Langford, an ex-con who did time for manslaughter and is now out on parole, trying to peddle an action-filled film script titled Street Iron. Ronnie figures to make "the most twisted screenplay-option ever conceived": offer to purchase Langford's work in exchange for him telling her how to whack Neon. But nothing goes smoothly in this tightly framed, sardonically humorous thriller. Langford initially resists Ronnie's double-edged deal (he doesn't want to go back to prison and lose contact again with his young daughter), though he ultimately agrees to help. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Ms. Deal's weaselish colleague, Andy Gleason, is prowling for information he can use to destroy her, once and for all; a couple of deranged, drug-peddling brothers, Jaime and Jorge Ayala, have escaped their hospital beds and are gunning for Langford, who'd beaten them up during a dispute involving cold pizza; and Ronnie's ex-husband is wheeling west from Colorado with a special passenger, intending to check up on her recent success. As these plots and subplots intertwine, often in unlikely ways that owe debts to Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, Shannon -- a pseudonym of detective novelist Gar Anthony Haywood -- delivers a standalone yarn that is as fast-paced as it is frothing with satirical commentary about the shark-infested suites of Tinseltown.
Man Eater shares its lightheartedness with Haywood's Loudermilk novels (Bad News Travels Fast, 1995) and its more hard-boiled edge with his stories about L.A. private eye Aaron Gunner (All the Lucky Ones Are Dead, 1999), yet it's unlike either series. The gorgeous, white Ronnie "Raw" Deal is a sharp-elbowed survivor with a determinedly concealed past and a wit that could flay layers from stone. ("I'll tell you what's ridiculous," she says to Andy Gleason early in this story. "The fact that you were born without a tail, and can pass by a cheese tray at parties without eating everything on it.") Her relationship with African-American Langford is slow to ignite, but there's satisfaction in seeing these two find common cause. And a late scene in which the Ayala brothers -- one more comically infirm than the other -- threaten the two main characters is a guaranteed curative to anyone's foul mood. Regrettably, several of this story's actors never achieve much depth, and the subplot about Ronnie's ex provides little more than a banal opportunity for 11th-hour poignancy. Such faults can be forgiven, though, in a novel as vital and entertainingly vicious as this one.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Jonathon King's second novel, A Visible Darkness (Dutton). His previous work, The Blue Edge of Midnight, was an out-of-the-blue stunner that won a spot on January's favorite books of 2002 list. It introduced us to Max Freeman, a former Philadelphia cop who, after killing a 12-year-old robbery accomplice and being wounded himself, had sought restorative refuge in a stilt shack deep in the Florida Everglades. Implicated in a serial-killer case in Blue Edge, he had to sniff out the real slayer in order to stay free of the slammer. Not exactly a unique premise, but King's portrayal of Freeman -- a hardened city boy learning to love a life closer to nature -- plus a supporting cast of misfits made that book one damn fine read.
"Max. I need your help," Billy tells Freeman as he lays out his suspicions that somebody has been murdering elderly African-American women in a poor neighborhood--after first buying up their longstanding life-insurance policies. There's nothing illegal about the purchases themselves. "Each woman had been paid for the transfer to an investment company," King writes. "Some had brought the women large windfalls. But the purchase price was only part of the policy's worth. When the women finally died, the investors would cash in the policies for the full amount and walk away with a profit." And the quicker the insureds pass away, of course, the faster the payoffs. Greed as a motive for murder? The Fort Lauderdale police don't think so in this instance, nor do the insurance companies that issued the policies in question. Freeman isn't any more convinced, but he's not about to turn down a request for assistance from Manchester, the son of his late mother's dear black friend from church. So he follows up on Bill's suspicions, cooperating when he must with a beefy but racist insurance investigator, Frank McCane, and when he can with Sherry Richards, a "strong and tough-minded, smart and intuitive" cop he met in Blue Edge, who's been scrutinizing a series of rapes in the same neighborhood where the deceased policyholders lived.
King, a features writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, knows his territory and illustrates it keenly, with occasional poetic flashes. Early on, he has Freeman -- fresh out of the 'Glades and driving down coastal boulevard A1A -- describe the scenery: "On the sidewalk I watched a young woman in a bikini walking south, her hips switching like a metronome. Two buzzcut boys walking a pit bull said something to her and she nonchalantly flipped them the finger. I slowed for a middle-aged man crossing from the hotel side, sliding on roller blades, shirtless and tanned with a multicolored parrot perched on one shoulder. I passed a throbbing, low-ride Honda Accord that broadsided me with a bass line from a backseat full of speakers. Eight hours ago I was watching a wild bird hunting gar fish on a thousand-year-old river. Welcome to Florida." The author also does a skillful job here of fleshing out his protagonist's backstory, recounting Freeman's troubled relationship with his Philly cop father. He's equally conscientious in assembling the pivotal character of Eddie Baines, an angry, hollow-eyed ox of a streetperson who collects junk in a rusty old shopping cart ("scrap metal and aluminum cans for profit, blankets and old coats for warmth, whiskey and wine bottles for company") and believes that he's invisible. Even as this story's pace quickens, with a hunt beginning for a middleman in the insurance rip-off, and one of the scam's aged targets managing to survive her assault, it's the players in Darkness who show the brightest light of inspiration and at least partially fulfill King's promise as a novelist.
The Vanished Man (Simon & Schuster) is the latest entry in Jeffery Deaver's series about brilliant New York City quadriplegic criminologist Lincoln Rhyme. The novel stretches reality a bit, and makes some implausible plot turns, but that's nothing new to Deaver's legion of fans, who focus instead on this series' breakneck pacing and attention to detail. In Vanished, Rhyme and his protégé/lover, NYPD Officer Amelia Sachs, are pitted against an illusionist they dub The Conjurer. He's an evil, psychotic fellow who has committed two quick murders using magic and illusionary techniques to kill his victims ... and then make his escape. Rhyme and Sachs, together with Detective Lon Sellitto and forensic technician Mel Cooper, aim to keep this Conjurer from adding a third name to his victim list.
Deaver's obviously intensive research into the world of modern magic provides this novel with a rich backdrop, and helps make the book a compelling read. The villain here, who uses the stage name Malerick, is adept at planting clues and confusing the police through the fine art of misdirection. Malerick's skills are so formidable that Rhyme and Sachs must eventually seek assistance from their own illusionist, an up-and-coming star who goes by the stage name of Kara. Deaver's made a smart choice here. By adding the interesting Kara to his cast, he breathes some much-needed life into his story, compensating for the growing staleness of the relationship between Rhyme and Sachs. And their character dynamic isn't the only thing that's stalled; the forensics in this series have become formulaic. Readers are only distracted from these flaws in Vanished by a continual eruption of plot twists and a tense meeting between Malerick and Rhyme, which borders on the pyrotechnic.
The inclusion of this plot line is somewhat clunky and not coincidental: Malerick is mixed up with the militia, as well. Deaver does a less-than-adequate job here in portraying political extremists, and his story falls somewhat flat as a result. It's saved only by the author's extraordinary talent at making any sequence of action explosive and pulse-quickening. The constant churning of events in the latter portion of The Vanished Man is rather confusing. Is this book supposed to be about magic or politics? And while Deaver packs a nicely executed surprise at the end, a late jail escape scene, in which Malerick fakes his own shooting death, is too much to believe. Not even Houdini could've pulled that one off. This fifth installment of the Rhyme/Sachs series (after last year's The Stone Monkey) is a page-turner, though at the end, you may find yourself flipping faster just to be done, already. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
The reason Parisi knows so much about that older case? His dad and career model, Jake Parisi, became obsessed with trying to solve it, but went to his grave leaving it still a mystery.
Laird follows an unusual structural path in Season of the Assassin, alternating between first-person narrations by both Parisis. A clever idea, but it's hampered by two confusions: the lack of contrast between father and son (both are tough-talking, tough-living cops with womanizing sidekicks), and the difficulty in following two different investigations of the same case. The prime suspect in the nursing-student murders, an all-around creepy ex-soldier named Carl Anglin, is still the chief bad guy in the later case, and it's teeth-gritting to have Parisi the younger reveal something about Anglin that Parisi the elder then repeats a couple of pages later. Readers accustomed to smoothly engineered thrillers will find themselves working hard here for the wrong reasons.
Halfway through this novel, the story takes a turn into conspiracy-theory territory. The only surviving witness to Anglin's supposed crimes (his guilt is never proven, only assumed) turns out to have been kept drugged and under lock-and-key by the feds, while the other witnesses have conveniently suffered violent deaths, or else disappeared. Jimmy Parisi comes to the wacky conclusion that all this federal protection is due to Anglin's probable role in assassinating U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Sure, why not? In Parisi's world, what matters isn't proof but conviction, legal and otherwise.
The most intriguing elements in Laird's writing come when he tries to discuss the ethnic tensions and camaraderie in his cops' Chicago world. Irish, Italians, Latinos, African Americans -- everybody gets time on the page. True, the ethnic divisions tend to be stereotypical, especially in Laird's renderings of African-American speech patterns; but at least the attempt is being made to show the cultural stew of Chicago's neighborhoods. Maybe next time, Laird will drop the serial-killer story mold and start anew with something more complicated and intriguing, like real life on the streets. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Beth Saulnier's Ecstasy (Mysterious Press) has the sort of plot that journalists refer to as "a great story," and Saulnier, a writer with a flair for suspense, makes the most of it. Three teenage boys die from deliberately tainted LSD during a pop music festival held in Jaspersburg, New York, a small town adjoining the affluent university community of Gabriel. Their grieving parents demand explanations, but nobody wants to talk: not the kids' disaffected friends, not the disorganized old hippies who ran the festival, and especially not the Jaspersburg civic leaders whose businesses benefit handsomely from the annual five-day rockfest. The cops are baffled, but Gabriel Monitor reporter Alex Bernier, who interviewed the three victims and their friends while writing about the festival's opening day, is the perfect one to figure out what happened -- eventually.
This fifth Bernier novel (after last year's Bad Seed) is a paean to small-town life and crime, as seen through the eyes of journalists who cover it. Saulnier nicely captures the Monitor's newsroom full of 20-something reporters, falling all over each other like romping puppies to get at the news, while their jaded editors fend off infuriated town officials and the pit-bull regional reporter from The New York Times swings through town to snatch away the hottest stories. Saulnier, an editor, film critic and novelist living in Ithaca, New York, precisely pegs her story's unsophisticated small-town officials; the liberal academic parents, oblivious of their kids' escapades; and the kids themselves, whose veneer of hipness covers everything from promiscuity and drug experimentation to anorexia, rape and self-mutilation. She's not quite as on-target with the cops, who never ask the right questions of the right people. (Bernier, of course, does.)
All the clues Bernier needs to solve the drug killings are there in her notes and her memories from the festival's very first day -- if only she can piece them together properly. The refreshingly unselfconscious 27-year-old reporter starts following the money associated with the Jaspersburg festival and quickly finds herself on the wrong side of the law. Rendezvousing with the town drug dealer at night near Gabriel's college campus leads her to yet another dead body -- one that vanishes by the time the skeptical cops arrive.
Like the journalism it portrays, Ecstasy does not get particularly deep or philosophical. But in these days of brooding, thematic crime fiction, sometimes you just want a mystery that's a great read. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
A fresh take on noir fiction is awfully hard to come by these days. The clichés are known so well by now that even listing them -- the flawed loner protagonist, the bleak atmosphere, the extreme violence and high body count -- has become just as much of a cliché. Yet on occasion, a new voice pops up that takes the basic ingredients and mixes them into a recipe that may not be original, but at least has a somewhat different flavor. A lingering aftertaste, perhaps, that begs for a second helping. Lono Waiwaiole, a high-school teacher and basketball coach from Portland, Oregon, offers such a voice in Wiley's Lament (St. Martin's Minotaur).
Wiley -- the only name we know him by -- hasn't really lived in quite some time; instead, he drifts, playing poker most every night to make ends meet. At least, when he wins. When he doesn't, he resorts to Plan B, which is ripping off drug dealers in his hometown of Portland or in other seedy neighborhoods around America's Pacific Northwest. Wiley's marriage is in tatters, his friends are few, and he's estranged from his only daughter, Lizzie, whom he hasn't seen for more than a year. As hopeless as his life is, things take a serious turn for the worse when Lizzie is found brutally murdered in a cheap motel room, and Wiley must clear through the wreckage of broken friendships, empty promises and the underbelly of Portland's sex trade to discover what happened to his daughter. And, along the way, reclaim a little bit of his own self, as well.
Although Wiley doesn't know who the killer is, the reader is clued in from the very start, as this novel alternates between Wiley's viewpoint and that of a fairly sadistic DEA agent who's long crossed the barriers of morality. This construction makes for extremely compelling reading, as Wiley's further descent into the abyss is juxtaposed with the more visceral, high-strung vantage point of the drug-enforcement agent. Yet when these two characters do finally meet, their showdown is less a denouement than a coda -- an effect that could have been anticlimactic, but instead proves to be exactly the closing this book needs.
From beginning to end, Wiley's Lament is impressively written. Its opening sentence is to die for: "I picked Seattle because you don't piss in your own peonies, and because Seattle's tendency to look down on the rest of us had always rubbed me a little raw." And there are many more examples where Waiwaiole chooses exactly the right phrase for the right occasion to capture the bleakness and gritty atmosphere that permeates both Wiley's life and this entire novel. As for Wiley, for all that his life has been a series of dismal failures and endless regrets, he somehow, against all the odds, prevails.
Hot on the heels of cerebral Scottish spy Jack Valentine's debut, in John Creed's The Sirius Crossing (2002), comes a cordite-filled sequel, The Day of the Dead (Faber and Faber UK). I confess to having developed a real taste for these violent thrillers. They're filled with moral angst and the brutality of the human condition, offering more than just a peep into the dark nature of people who live and die in order to carry out covert operations. Valentine is a man of culture, who enjoys art, music and epicurean pursuits. But deep down, he lives with the faces of all the men he has killed. Although Valentine has now left the world of espionage, that world has yet to leave him.
In The Day of the Dead (which, unfortunately, is also the title of a George Romero zombie movie), Valentine is working on a personal mission, trying to track down Alva Casagrande, the errant daughter of a dying friend. The trail reunites him with ex-IRA enforcer Liam Mellows and Mellows' sister, Deirdre (who happens to be Valentine's former lover). The action starts with a car bomb going off in London, and before you can yell "Duck!," Valentine is on a flight to New York City, where he hopes to pry Alva from a Mexican über-drug dealer known as Xabarra. Joining him are Mellows, Deirdre and a Puerto Rican drug peddler named Jesus, who comes complete with his mother, Irene, and a male lover. Bodies start to litter Manhattan as Valentine and his compadres lock horns with Xabarra and become involved with a family feud from Jesus' past. Sniper rifles, grenades, bombs, poison drugs, torture, machine guns, helicopters, car chases -- sheesh, this book has them all! The trail then zooms to Mexico, where the annual festival that gives this novel its title is in full swing. A cinematic chase in helicopters ensues. More people join and die in Valentine's relentless pursuit, and soon Creed's complex and far-fetched plot starts to knit neatly together.
As in The Sirius Crossing (winner of the very first Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for espionage fiction), Creed/McNamee delivers here a wonderfully convoluted yarn that is really about people, friends and family being caught up fatally on the dark side of covert operations. The Day of the Dead makes clear how some folks have to live with the sins of their past, and how the haunted eyes of the deceased continue to plague their dreams. Despite its brutal violence, this is a deeply moral tale, both moving and poignant. It's no hollow action adventure, but contains as many ideas about living with death as it does bullets tearing across its pages. The book haunts the reader long after the smell of cordite has dissipated. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim
Laura Wilson's Hello Bunny Alice (Orion UK) is the fourth novel by a British writer who revels in mixing murder with dysfunctional relationships, while uncovering motivations that lurk in the dark side of the mind. Like her previous books, this new one presents a grimly engaging yarn. Wilson's theme, about how skeletons from the past can (quite literally) threaten the lives of the living, is explored in the blackest way imaginable.
This is a novel about deeply flawed people, mistakes, excesses and regrets that soon turn the sepia view into a blood-red vista, the truth exacting a heavy price, indeed. If a fusion of Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith is your cup of hemlock, then this Bunny's for you. -- A.K.
Sarah Lovett's latest series mystery, Dark Alchemy (Simon & Schuster), is built around a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Still reeling from a mass-poisoning case that left more than 30 people dead, forensic psychologist Sylvia Strange is asked by FBI counter-terrorism specialist Edmond Sweetheart to look into yet another poisoning.
Distracted by the aftereffects of her last investigation, as well as by her upcoming wedding and her fiancé's desire for a family, Sylvia is unprepared for Palmer's manipulative genius. A beautiful woman whose father and husband both died suddenly in the midst of terminal illnesses, Palmer appears to be poisoning subjects in order to study toxic effects, as well as eliminate problematic coworkers. She's coldly brilliant, leaving a trail of bodies without any evidence that can be traced back to her. Palmer even taunts the investigators who are watching her. Her lack of emotion and arrogance are matched only by those of Sweetheart, a sumo practitioner who is obsessive in pursuing his targets. Although Sweetheart doesn't waver in his certainty of Palmer's guilt, Sylvia has her doubts. She's reluctant, too, to jeopardize the career of one of the most brilliant female scientists in the world. However, Sylvia is willing to risk her life as "bait," hoping to trap the poisoner -- an act that will have a lasting impact on her life.
In Sylvia Strange, Lovett has created a woman who can be as emotionally unstable as her patients. If not as unbalanced here as she was in Dante's Inferno (2001), which had her coping with a patient's suicide, Sylvia remains incapable of applying the insight she uses expertly on others to her own life. She can't seem to express her doubts about motherhood to her future husband, and allows herself to be used by Sweetheart, who has his own clandestine purposes in investigating Christine Palmer. Yet such flaws help make Sylvia, along with Lovett's other characters, sympathetic and realistic. Palmer is especially fascinating, with her logical scientific studies and their obvious potential for destruction.
Dark Alchemy is a timely mystery that capably reveals the threats presented by bioterrorism and biochemical warfare. Untraceable, undetectable and unavoidable, the poisons can be used for indiscriminate destruction, or to do just enough damage to cripple society psychologically and economically. Readers are unlikely to guess who is ultimately responsible for the poisonings in this tale, and a final, ironic twist will remain imbedded in one's memory long after the last page has been turned. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow
When a trip to a friend's funeral finds Frank Pavlicek with a gun pointed at his head, it's a pretty good sign that there's more to Chester Carew's death in the woods than an accidental hunting accident. As the story unfolds in Andy Straka's third paperback original, Cold Quarry (Signet), Frank stumbles across toxic contamination and an elusive contingent of domestic terrorists.
A falconer and former New York City police officer who, in A Witness Above (2001), managed to clear his name after a racially motivated shooting, Frank has now settled into running a Charlottesville, Virginia, private detective agency with his daughter, a once-troubled teen named Nicole. Having shared a love of falconry with Carew, Frank is unable to accept his friend's death as accidental -- especially when he discovers that Carew's hunting falcon has gone missing, following a series of mysterious illnesses. It's suspicious, too, that Carew was being pressured by white-supremacist members of a local militia to sell his land to them. But because those racists seem like all too obvious scapegoats, Frank, with help from his former police partner (and fellow falconry enthusiast), Jake Toronto, begins to look more deeply into the ominous world of militias and illegal weapons trafficking, hoping to find answers to Carew's surprise demise.
Straka's plot soars along swiftly and decisively, and Pavlicek shows himself to be both a sharp and likable figure, with a tough exterior but a self-deprecating sense of humor. Regrettably much less in evidence here are the secondary characters who made A Witness Above and A Killing Sky (2002) so enjoyable -- particularly, Frank's ex-wife, Marcia, who's now an invalid due to a drug overdose, and the African-American single mom and attorney who is Toronto's girlfriend. Readers are likely to be disappointed, as well, by this novel's too-brief exploration of Toronto's troubled childhood. (He was the mixed-raced son of a white racist.) Yet Cold Quarry is, in the end, an entertaining mystery with enough red herrings to keep people guessing and an action-packed ending that should please Straka's growing number of fans. -- C.C.
Phantom begins with an interesting premise, involving a heretofore unknown (at least to me) agency called the International Maritime Bureau. A sort of sea police charged with handling oceangoing skullduggery, the IMB can actually arrest ships and hold them in port. As this novel makes clear, there are still pirates plundering our world's watery expanses, looting and pillaging to their hearts' content. The ships they capture are often stripped, re-painted and re-registered under different names, only to turn up in other ports carrying different cargo. Known by the authorities as "phantoms," these vessels belong to a devious and intriguing underworld that I wish Lewis had written more about here. Had he planted his characters' feet firmly on the deck of a ship rather than dry ground, this book might've provided a more interesting read.
For reasons not made entirely clear, attorney Ward services a generally seedy clientele. Yet in this latest story, he's hired by a high-powered firm, aptly named Goldwater's, to help straighten out some legal mumbo jumbo involving a phantom ship, the Sierra Nova, which the IMB has placed under arrest. Obviously, something underhanded is in the works. After one of the ship's crewmen, having apparently been caught smuggling drugs, is murdered while in custody, the waters swirl even darker. Soon, through the rather awkward use of alternating viewpoints, we're introduced to a motley mix of shady cops, IMB sorts and dockside lowlifes, all of whom -- along with a bad guy named Joe Tilt, who never really makes much of an appearance -- flit about while several thin plot lines are braided awkwardly into one. There seem to be a bunch of leftover bits from a previous book floating about here, and perhaps it would've help matters had I read it. For instance, though Joe Tilt is spoken about in this book, he never really makes an appearance, except toward the end when we're told what happens to him, rather than being shown. Disconcerting, to say the least.
To his credit, however, Lewis spends considerable time yanking a huge red herring down the middle of this tale, making way for an unexpected turnabout as the real reason for murder becomes clearer.
Eric Ward is not an especially compelling figure. He's currently going through a divorce, somehow involving a dead prostitute (an event also evidently hung over from a previous book). It's hard to empathize with the distant way that Lewis introduces newcomers to his protagonist's brittle wife and her obsequious lawyer. Their oh-so-terribly stiff-upper-lip routine reads as dry as dust, and while it's obvious that Ward isn't altogether happy about the dissolution of his marriage, perhaps a soupçon of humor and more concentration on Ward's viewpoint would have helped readers relate better to this character. As it is, by the time we reach Phantom's end, we're just warming up to Ward and wishing we cared more about his unsettled life.
Lewis' denouement is a tad surprising, but it actually proves my theory that a book is in trouble when its most intriguing character is murdered within the first few chapters. -- Reviewed by Yvette Banek
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In the News
The prolific Howard Fast, who wrote such popular novels as Citizen Tom Paine (1943) and Spartacus (1953), along with a series of detective works that he published under the pseudonym "E.V. Cunningham," died on March 12. He was 88 years old. His Cunningham books include The Case of the One-Penny Orange (1977) and The Case of the Russian Diplomat (1978), both of which feature Masao Masuto, "the only Japanese-American detective on the Beverly Hills police force." Read more (free registration required).
Dan Brown talks briefly with BookPage about his new novel, The Da Vinci Code, and how it turns "Christianity's most fiercely held beliefs into fictional fodder." Read more.
A Brianstorms.com profile of Michael Gruber, author of the new thriller Tropic of Night and the ghostwriter on Robert K. Tanenbaum's best-selling novels for the last 16 years, sheds light on this Seattle-based novelist's life in literary hiding, his boyhood wish "to live the life of Jacques Cousteau" and his profound interest in the "deeply weird." Read more.
The second issue of Mystery Readers Journal focusing on "Mysteries South of the Mason-Dixon Line" includes Joe R. Lansdale's ruminations on why "bad things seem more likely" in the American South; Dean James' essay, "How I Became a Sixty-Year-Old Woman"; and Donna Andrews' recollections about how fiction taught her to appreciate her Virginia hometown. Read more.
Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist Harlan Coben, T. Jefferson Parker (Silent Joe, Cold Pursuit) talks about his preference for crime novels that contain both "outer" and "inner" mysteries; how his move to San Diego, California, has changed his stories; and why his parents inserted the "T." into his name. Read more.
"Magicians like to say that the best way to hide something is to put it into print. I think this also applies to cheating," remarks James Swain, gambling expert and author of the new Tony Valentine novel, Sucker Bet. In an interview on the Ballantine Books Web site, he talks about his early interest in card handling, what it takes to be a successful con man and how not to be ripped off in casinos. Read more.
Matthew Pearl, author of the acclaimed historical mystery The Dante Club, offers Bookreporter.com his thoughts on "gratuitous" fictionalizing of the past, the power of art to incite violence and (for the scholarly) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "most important" translation of Dante Aligherieri's The Divine Comedy. Read more.
Jason Starr (Nothing Personal, Tough Luck) writes on the Powell's Books Web site about his transition from being a mere lover of Vintage Crime/Black Lizard titles to having his fourth novel chosen as that imprint's first original novel. Read more.
Janet Evanovich (High Five, Visions of Sugar Plums) talks with the British magazine Crime Time about her debts to Donald Duck and Robert B. Parker, her early unpublished story about a porno fairy and how her "creative juices flow best in New Hampshire." Read more.
Of All the Gaul!
Editor's note: France has been in the news a great deal of late, thanks to its principled, though regrettably unsuccessful opposition to Bush's obsession with making war on Iraq. Again. The backlash from a minority of Americans to France's position has been well publicized, if not always well reasoned. ("Freedom fries," anyone?) Before this Francophobic farce plays itself out, we thought it would be fun to ask Cara Black, the San Francisco author of Murder in the Bastille (Soho Press), the brand-new fourth entry in her series featuring Paris private detective Aimée Leduc, to list her 10 favorite crime novels set in France. "Avec plaisir!," Black wrote, before nominating -- and commenting on -- a wide variety of intriguing tales, all but the first of which were either written in English or have been translated:
L'ombre Chinoise (The Chinese Shadow), by Georges Simenon (1963). This Inspector Maigret book (available only in French) is set in Paris' Marais and centered in Place des Vosges, where Simenon lived for a time. It's one of my favorites. Any of the Maigret books are a "must," especially since this year marks the 100th anniversary year of his birth. His psychological insights into human nature can't be beat. Happy birthday, Georges!
Death from the Woods, by Brigitte Aubert (2001). A mesmerizing thriller centered around a blind, mute quadriplegic. You won't be able to put it down -- I couldn't. I read it one night and, yes, its an engrossing puzzle, too. Aubert won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for Welcome Rain.
Mission to Marseilles, by Leo Malet (1991). Features the adventures of private detective Nestor Burma. This book finds Burma in wartime, France caught between some villains and the Gestapo. He is soon heading for the unoccupied zone, where he discovers the secret of the mysterious Formula 5.
Murder in Memoriam, by Didier Daeninckx (1984). Another recipient of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, this novel features the laconic Inspector Cadin, who attempts to solve the puzzling double murder of a father and son. The trail of clues he must follow leads to the World War II German occupation of France and links to the Algerian war. An incredible book, one that should be read by everyone who's ever been critical of France. That's my 2 centimes.
Rough Trade, by Dominique Manotti (2001). A Paris correspondent recommended this to me. I still can't believe a woman wrote this hard-boiled, sometimes hard to take but fast-moving crime tale set in the Sentier. Thank God, I'd written Murder in the Sentier first. Immigrants, cops on the take, heroin and a bisexual police inspector -- but that's just the tip of the Sentier, as they say.
Three to Kill, by Jean-Patrick Manchette (2002). Kind of mesmerizing, like a good Goddard film. You don't know why you watch, but you can't stop. With classic thriller elements and twists and wonderful style, Manchette is also a master social critic.
A Very Long Engagement, by Sebastian Japrisot (1993). In 1917, five French soldiers were court-martialed for self-inflicted wounds and pushed, their hands bound, into "No-Man's Land." The youngest of the condemned men was the fiancé of Mathilde, only daughter of a rich industrialist, who sets out to discover what really happened to him. And decades later, as we see in this intriguing "mystery," she succeeds. But there's more to it than that.
The Zig Zag Man, by Marvin Albert (1991). A tad dated, but Albert knows France and those narrow cobbled alleys, the system, and the ins and outs of French police procedure. Why doesn't he write more?
For more information about Cara Black and her books, check out her Web site.
Five mystery/thriller novels are among the finalists for this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prizes:
The winner will be announced during The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, on April 26, 2003. For a complete list of finalists in all categories, click here.
Nominees for the fifth annual Sherlock Awards were announced recently. These commendations -- which honor characters in the genre, rather than their creators -- are given out in several categories by the UK-based Sherlock magazine. This year's awards will be presented in association with the Crime Scene festival in London on July 12. The nominations shortlist features:
Best Detective Created by a British Author:
• Detective Inspector Tom Thorne (Scaredy Cat) of the Metropolitan Police, created by Mark Billingham
• Detective Constable Ben Cooper (Blood on the Tongue) of Derbyshire, created by Stephen Booth
• Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford (Babes in the Wood) of Kingsmarkham, created by Ruth Rendell
• Detective Inspector John Rebus (Resurrection Men) of Edinburgh, created by Ian Rankin
Best Detective Created by an American Author:
• Detective Sergeant Harry Bosch (City of Bones) of the LAPD, created by Michael Connelly
• Dave Robicheaux (Jolie Blon's Bounce) of New Iberia, Louisiana, created by James Lee Burke
• Detective Steve Carella (Money Money Money) of the 87th Precinct, created by Ed McBain
• Private eye Milo Milogradovitch (The Final Country), created by James Crumley
Best Comic Detective:
• Time-traveling literary sleuth Thursday Next (Lost in a Good Book), created by Jasper Fforde
• Journalist Dan Starkey (The Horse with My Name), created by Colin Bateman
• Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (Visions of Sugar Plums), created by Janet Evanovich
• Professor Hilary Tamar (The Sybil in Her Grave), created by Sarah Caudwell
Two other Sherlock Award winners have already been announced. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Gasogene Books), the third volume in The Sherlock Holmes Library series, edited and annotated by Leslie Klinger, picked up the 2002 Special Sherlock, awarded to a work that illuminates the world of Sherlock Holmes. And the Best Television Detective award was given to author R.D. Wingfield's Inspector Jack Frost, portrayed by David Jason in Britain's A Touch of Frost.
"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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