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January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, February 2003

 

IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by Peter Robinson, Robert Wilson, and Mary Reed and Eric Mayer • Readers rate an abundance of recent releases from Lawrence Block, Joanne Dobson, William Kent Krueger, Jill McGown and others • Gavin Lyall passes away; John Le Carré passes judgment on war with Iraq; crime novels don't pass up Valentine's Day connections, and more news from the world of mystery • Plus: nominations for the 2003 Lefty, Mary Higgins Clark and Edgar Allan Poe awards


Pierce's Picks for February

The Barbed-Wire Kiss (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Wallace Stroby. The hands-down winner of this month's Best Title Award is a grave debut work starring Harry Rane, a New Jersey state trooper who retired after taking a bullet in the line of duty. Two years later, he's contacted by a childhood pal, who needs a go-between to help him get out from under a $50,000 debt to crime boss Eddie Fallon. The ensuing negotiations don't produce much right away, but they do reintroduce Rane to a woman he hasn't seen since he was 18 -- when she ran away, pregnant with Harry's child -- and who's now married to Fallon. Against the backdrop of working-class New Jersey, Stroby lays out a tale that's both angst-ridden and gripping in its action.

The Dante Club (Random House), by Matthew Pearl. In a case of life imitating art, the prominent members of Boston's post-Civil War Dante Club -- essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, and editor/publisher James Thomas Fields -- turn detective to nab a serial killer who positions his victims to re-create scenes from Dante Aligherieri's The Divine Comedy. Fearing that their rarefied knowledge of that 14-century epic might make them suspects, the iconoclastic quartet begin their own investigation, leading them on a chase through Beantown's darker quarters and halls of academia, and ultimately to the realization that their quarry -- whom they've dubbed "Lucifer" -- lies closer than they'd expected.

Death and the Jubilee (Carroll & Graf), by David Dickinson. On the eve of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, a corpse comes floating down the Thames River, provoking the crown to call in private detective Lord Francis Powerscourt (Goodnight Sweet Prince). As clues lead him to Oxfordshire and Ireland, Powerscourt finds that the Jubilee's success may depend on his solving this case.


Death of a Nationalist (Soho Press), by Rebecca C. Pawel. Reminiscent of J. Robert Janes' St-Cyr and Kohler novels (Beekeeper, Flykiller, etc.), Pawel's story is set in Madrid, Spain, in 1939. It introduces Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon, a young sergeant in the Guardia Civil, which has been charged with returning order to the ruined Spanish capital after a confrontation between Nationalists (supported by the fascists) and Republicans (backed by the communists). Amid these warlike conditions, Tejada finds his best friend shot to death on a street, a woman in a red scarf leaning over the body. Is she to blame for this killing? Can the tragedy be traced back to the communists? Doubting any easy conclusions, Tejada turns from soldier to sleuth.

Everybody's Somebody's Fool (Carroll & Graf), by Ed Gorman. When the corpse of pretty but disturbed college sophomore Sara Griffin is found in a gazebo during a summer garden party in 1961, police chief Cliffie Sykes Jr. of Black River Falls, Iowa, is determined to blame high-school dropout and "local heartbreaker" David Egan for the crime. Egan claims he's innocent, but he doesn't have a chance to prove it before dying during a drag-race outside of town. Cliffie subsequently closes the Griffin case, sure that he had the right suspect. But lawyer and sometimes-P.I. Sam McCain (returning after Save the Last Dance for Me) has his doubts. Especially when he learns that Egan's brake line was severed. Nostalgia and some fine writing make this a worthy read.

A Good Soldier (Silver Dagger), by Jeffrey Marks. This sequel to The Ambush of My Name (2001) finds General Ulysses S. Grant visiting the peaceful, post-Civil War town of Bethel, Ohio, where some of his friends -- men who together had survived the horrors of Andersonville, the Confederates' notorious prisoner-of-war camp -- are perishing unexpectedly after raising imposing homes. The key to this mystery may lie in a gold coin held by Grant's young son, Jess.

Harem (Headline UK), by Barbara Nadel. Introduced in Belshazzar's Daughter (1999), Inspector Çetin Ikmen now makes his fifth appearance in a story that has him puzzling over the discovery of a body in one of Istanbul's ancient underground cisterns. The deceased, as it turns out, was a friend of Ikmen's daughter, and was found attired in the ornate vestments of an Ottoman princess.


Have You Seen Dawn? (Simon & Schuster), by Steven Saylor. Leaving behind her life in San Francisco, Rue Dunwitty returns to her hometown of Amethyst, Texas, for what she expects will be a peaceful visit with her grandmother. Instead, she's caught up in the disappearance of popular high-school student Dawn Frady, who may be the third young local woman to have vanished unaccountably. (The first two, both of them troublemakers, were previously thought to have run away.) Add to this Rue's curiosity about flashlight glare seen inside her family's supposedly abandoned farm, and the sudden appearance of her boyfriend in Amethyst, and Saylor has the fixings of a suspenser very unlike his usual ancient Rome mysteries.

Land of the Living (Michael Joseph UK), by Nicci French. This latest psychological suspenser from the husband-and-wife team who write under the French nom de plume builds around Abbie Devereaux, who awakens suddenly in the dark, bound and hooded. A man she can't see is keeping her alive, but promises to kill her eventually. While plotting to survive, Abbie grasps at the fragments of her identity, fighting back a madness born of fear as she tries to discern what tie there can between her careless life and her mysterious "keeper."

The Last Detective (Doubleday), by Robert Crais. After penning a couple of acclaimed standalones, Crais turns his attention back to Elvis Cole (last spotted in L.A. Requiem, 1999) at what may be one of the worst times in this private eye's life. While his lawyer-girlfriend, Lucy Chenier, is away on business, Elvis has been looking after her 10-year-old son, Ben. But Ben is suddenly kidnapped, and the motive may relate to a secret from the sleuth's past. Together with his partner, Joe Pike, and LAPD Detective Carol Starkey (from Demolition Angel, 2000), Elvis struggles to get the boy back, even as Lucy's oil-industry ex-husband fights to take control of the investigation. Expect plenty of fireworks and intriguing character expansion.

My Sherlock Holmes (St. Martin's Minotaur), edited by Michael Kurland. Departing from Dr. John Watson's usual view of Holmes' exploits, this collection's 13 new stories (by Barbara Hambly, Peter Tremayne, Cara Black and others) are told through the eyes of the Great Detective's other friends and foes -- from Irene Adler and Mycroft Holmes, to James Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran.


Seven Dials (Ballantine), by Anne Perry. Having permanently lost his posting to Bow Street Station, it seems, Victorian sleuth Thomas Pitt is off on yet another assignment for Her Majesty's Special Branch. This time, he's been called to a mansion where the corpse of a junior diplomat lies crumpled into a wheelbarrow, shot to death. It's Pitt's responsibility to protect the reputation of a senior cabinet minister, Saville Ryerson, whose Egyptian mistress, the fetching Ayesha Zakhari, is the mansion's tenant -- and the prime suspect in that diplomat's demise. Ryerson, who was on hand at the time of killing, insists Ayesha is innocent. The only way Pitt can do his job is to figure out what really happened, a task that will lead him from the Egyptian cotton fields to a London slum and, finally, to a crowded courtroom where secrets are waiting to be spilled out into the open.

Stingray Shuffle (Morrow), by Tim Dorsey. The chase after a briefcase containing $5 million (first mentioned in Florida Roadkill, 1999) has history buff/killer Serge A. Storms and his whacked-out buddy, Lenny, competing with Russian hoods, Jamaican mobsters, members of the cocaine cartels and a passel of frat boys in Dorsey's fifth comic caper. Think It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with even less scrupulous characters.

Wisdom of the Bones (Onyx), by Christopher Hyde. It's November 1963, and Dallas, Texas, is reeling from the shock of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. But life -- and death -- go on, as homicide detective Ray Duval proves in this absorbing and atmospheric work. Told by his doctor that he has only months to live, Duval is anxious to solve one last case: the decapitation murder of a man found stuffed in an old icebox at the city dump. While the United States grieves the loss of its leader, Duval is busy connecting his case to that of a dozen or more children, mostly black, who died in a manner similar to his current victim, but more than two decades before. Author Hyde (A Gathering of Saints, The Second Assassin, etc.) is a deft plotter who deserves considerably more attention than he receives.


New and Noteworthy

"You seem like a man with many secrets, Alan, a very sad man. What is it you are running from?" This question is addressed to Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, who at the outset of Peter Robinson's intricately crafted new novel, Close to Home (Morrow), is well off his Yorkshire beat, vacationing in the Greek islands, drinking ouzo and flirting with taverna waitresses, and generally trying to get past the traumatic events recorded in Aftermath (2001). "Was he running?" Robinson writes of Banks. "Yes, in a way. Running from a failed marriage and a botched romance, and from a job that had threatened, for the second time in his life, to send him over the edge with its conflicting demands, its proximity to violent death and all that was worst in people."

But Banks' escape is cut short when he reads in an English-language newspaper about the discovery of Graham Marshall's skeletal remains near his hometown of Petersborough, Cambridgeshire. Graham, one of the inspector's boyhood pals, had vanished unaccountably in 1965, at age 14, while treading his usual paper-delivery route. He was thought to have been snatched up by a pedophile.


As frightful as that conjecture was, it is soon to be replaced by a still more ominous solution to the teenager's disappearance, spelled out in Close to Home -- an intense police procedural of exceptional human depth and dimension, and Robinson's finest novel since his Anthony Award-winning In a Dry Season (1999). Hopping the next plane back to northern England, Banks hopes to assist the probe into Graham's death -- and, in the process, assuage the guilt he feels for his friend's fate. It seems that the future cop was assaulted not long before Graham vanished by a "tall, scruffy sort of bloke" with a beard, who'd tried to haul him off into the bushes. Banks broke free and never reported the incident; however, he's feared ever since that there was some connection between those two events. Convincing others of this, though, won't be easy. With the exception of Detective Inspector Michelle Hart, a supposed "ice queen" newly posted to the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, the area's police don't exactly welcome Banks' barging into their reopened case. Nor does the DCI enjoy a warmer greeting at his parents' home in Petersborough. Banks' mother has long favored his "shady" stockbroker brother, while his father, a former sheet-metal factory worker, "had never approved of his choice of career ... [N]o matter how well he did, how successful he was, to his father he would always be a traitor to the working class, who traditionally feared and despised coppers." The only consolation for Banks may come from his digging up a previously unplumbed lead in the Marshall investigation: talk that Graham's dad had worked as an enforcer for the Kray brothers, notorious real-life twins who ran a criminal ring in London's East End during the mid 20th century. Could Banks' boyhood chum have died because he participated in or at least knew something about illegal activities? And did the local cops cover up that link for their own reasons?

Refusing to show his cards too hastily, Robinson instead piles intriguing complication onto his story with a parallel investigation, centered on another teenage boy lost in a grown-up world. Newly missing from his Yorkshire home is 15-year-old Luke Armitage, the sensitive, brainy son of a once-celebrated fashion model, Robin Fetherling, and rock star Neil Byrd, who committed suicide during Luke's infancy. Yet Banks' protégé and ex-lover, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, has hardly begun looking into this case when the teenager's stepfather, an ex-soccer star named Martin Armitage, receives a cell phone call from Luke, informing him that the boy will be home presently. All's well that ends well, eh? Except that Martin Armitage is lying, as the suspicious Annie discovers when she follows his BMW into the countryside and sees him deposit a money-filled briefcase -- an obvious ransom payoff -- in a stone shepherd's shelter. After Luke's corpse subsequently turns up in an isolated tarn, and Annie catches hell from both the Armitages and her superiors for interfering in the ransom drop, she seeks Banks' counsel, drawing these two plot lines neatly together.

Robinson works the circumstances spelled out in Close to Home (published in the UK and Canada as The Summer That Never Was) partly for nostalgia, offering plenty of references to long-gone bands and women celebrities who would have figured prominently into a male adolescent's fantasies during the 1960s -- and, undoubtedly, played a part in the author's own growing up. But he also uses this book's theme of lost youth and boys haunted by their past (Banks by his worries about having contributed to Graham's disappearance; Luke by his failure to come to terms with a famous father's death) to explore more of his protagonist's history, expose some of those "many secrets" he harbors. Simultaneously, we see Banks, now in his early 50s, confronting his future as he puts behind him, sadly, what had seemed a promising relationship with the fetching but damaged Annie Cabbot and embarks instead on a romance with the no less emotionally troubled DI Hart, whose investigative diligence in this tale winds up threatening her safety. As gripping as Robinson's plots can be, it's inevitably his characters -- spun out with patience, precision and a respect for multi-dimensionality -- that attract the most attention. This was true in Aftermath, even though that serial-killer yarn was oriented toward action and suspense, and it's even more true in Close to Home, which at its core is all about memories, those we hold onto and those from which we endeavor to run away.

* * *

The past and our sometimes uneasy association with its more sordid details provides the crux, too, of Robert Wilson's grimly bewitching new novel, The Blind Man of Seville (HarperCollins UK). With its action set in both modern Spain and mid-20th-century North Africa, this story marks a return to Wilson's detective-thriller roots after his success with The Company of Strangers (2001).


Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, the 45-year-old head of the Seville Police Department's homicide division, has encountered at least his fair share of gruesome murders over more than 20 years on the job in several Spanish cities. However, he quickly pronounces the death of prosperous restaurateur Raúl Jiménez "more extraordinary than any I have seen in my career." The deceased was found strapped to a chair in his apartment with his eyelids sliced off, facing a television on which had been showing a video of him entertaining prostitutes -- a tape that suggests his killer was waiting calmly in the apartment for the ill-fated Jiménez and his latest conquest to show up there. The businessman's heart had failed as he fought desperately for release from his bonds, unable to shut out the display before him. What, though, was so horrible about the tape that Jiménez should have been forced to watch in the first place? It's a question that will lead to the slayings of a hooker and an art dealer -- both arranged with messages in mind -- and force Falcón into a contest of wits against a killer who's obsessed with the contradictions between illusion and reality. Unfortunately for the homicide cop, his concentration is torn between the present-day murder inquiry and the long-secreted journals kept by his late father, Francisco, a famous painter whose brutal acts during the Spanish Civil War and subsequent hedonism in North Africa shaped Javier's life.

In the traditional way of police procedurals, The Blind Man of Seville is rampant with loose ends and seductive clues that peter out into dead ends. There are suggestions that Jiménez's death may be linked to questionable business practices during Seville's Expo '92 celebration; hints that a son Jiménez had lost to kidnappers in the 1960s could still be alive; and conjecture that these recent, finely orchestrated killings might have their cause in some historic child abuse. Against the beauty of Seville, once the leading cultural city of Moorish Spain, with its sweeping gardens and bullfight arenas, its gaudy churches and humid nights thick with the scent of moribund flowers, Wilson paints a tense drama, the nuances of which prey heavily on Falcón's mind, keeping him awake, unsettling his carefully controlled world, sending him for help to a counselor whose physical blindness contrasts sharply with her trenchant perceptions. Falcón, the lonely outsider with a perplexing aversion to milk, is as satisfyingly human as Zé Coelho, the Portuguese inspector from Wilson's Gold Dagger Award-winning 1999 book, A Small Death in Lisbon, yet considerably more flawed. This is a congenitally self-controlled figure, a cop who relishes "the protection" of a precisely draped jacket and tie, someone who "had never been by nature a daydreamer." But suddenly, thanks to the Jiménez case and to his delving too deeply into the numerous journals that his father called "a small history of pain," he's losing concentration, acting rashly, as when he surreptitiously follows his ex-wife, Inés, a beautiful woman who had once declared, "You have no heart, Javier Falcón," leaving him forever in doubt of his capacity to love. While there are allusions here to Falcón's famous father having been worried about going blind, and repeated references to this book's killer being obsessed with visual interpretation, in the end it's clear that Falcón is the one who doesn't see what lies before him ... and may, as a consequence, become the killer's next target.

Author Wilson brings a lyrical edge to his prose that makes even his most gruesome or tragic scenes re-readable, and lends the character of careful deliberation to what might have been incidental observations. ("She swallowed, resumed smoking. The sound of sizzling nylon reached him as she sawed her legs together.") The Blind Man of Seville's pace is languid, matching the easygoing style of its setting and easing the reader along to a climax that's as powerful as it is unexpected. These strengths, though, don't completely make up for the novel's conspicuous weaknesses. Its plot turns rather creakily on the coincidence of Falcón discovering, among Jiménez's things, a photograph of his father kissing a woman who was not then his wife. And lengthy excerpts from the elder Falcón's diaries, while they disclose ties between this book's secondary players, and are interesting for their portrayal of wartime Europe and postwar Tangier, hobble the story's gait and distract from the modern crimes at its center. More delicately wired readers may also object to the graphic but not exploitative record of Francisco Falcón's early adventures as a pederast. Yet The Blind Man of Seville remains an eye-opening and compelling read, making the case, as Javier Falcón puts it, that "The stuff of horror ... is not necessarily the truly terrible."

* * *

Certainly one of the purposes of composing a series prequel is to significantly fill in the backstory of a character or characters. Which is what's so odd about Four for a Boy (Poisoned Pen Press), the latest John the Eunuch novel from Mary Reed and Eric Mayer: As enjoyable as this tale is, it offers little new information about the future Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian I.


The story begins in Constantinople in A.D. 541, with John joining a procession into the city's Great Church (present-day Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia), which had been raised just a few years before to replace an edifice "destroyed by rioting mobs." However, the scent of roses draws the Lord Chamberlain's mind back to an earlier day, when he'd still been a mercenary-turned-slave in the palace of Justinian's immediate predecessor, Justin I. From there, the plot shifts back in time to A.D. 525, when a prominent philanthropist, Hypatius, was murdered in the previous Great Church, to which he'd gone to visit a controversial statue of Christ. Responsibility for his killing is laid at the feet of the Blues, a faction of "swaggering and elegant young thugs" with whom Justinian and his lover, the mendacious and manipulative actress Theodora, are allied. John hardly seems like the person to investigate this crime; yet after becoming involved in a palace altercation, he's hauled before an ill Justinian, who praises him as a "highly intelligent man," and then assigns him, along with a German excubitor (palace guard) and fellow pagan, Felix, to ferret out the killer and determine whether Hypatius' murder was intended to reflect badly on the imperial heir. Likely unspoken is Justinian's hope that, in the process of watching and questioning people, this odd couple may also serve as his spies, giving him a leg up in his rivalry not only with the ailing Justin but with Theodotus, the imperious city prefect who, thanks to his misshapen head, has been nicknamed "the Gourd." Amid a mounting tide of lawlessness in the city, John and Felix interview citizens, hospice physicians and prostitutes. Their initial supposition is that Hypatius' slaying, as well as an attack not long afterward on a senator whose daughter, Lady Anna, John has been tutoring in the Persian language, may be politically motivated, linked in some manner to a conspiracy against Justinian. It's only after a marble importer is slain that a more complex and sorrowful solution to these odd crimes emerges.

Reed and Mayer have demonstrated a consistent skill at concocting royal intrigues, such as Theodora's plot here to wrest control of the former Eastern Roman Empire from Justin, whose senescence has him parlaying at length with his dead wife. They are clever, too, in developing action sequences that fit their historical setting. (A scene in Four for a Boy that finds John trying to "fly" from pursuers on Icarus-like wings deserves Hollywood's attention.) Sadly, the authors aren't as successful in these pages at adding dimension to their series protagonist or the people with whom he will become associated as Lord Chamberlain. We probably learn less here than we did in One for Sorrow (1999) about John's painful transformation from soldier to eunuch, despite a subplot that has him delicately fending off the affections of Lady Anna. And while it's interesting to see the eunuch-slave's first meetings with a not-yet-bearded Felix (who is destined to become captain of the excubitors) and the self-confident brothel-keeper, Madam Isis, the expectation that these characters will be shown in a radically different light goes largely unsatisfied. Perhaps the authors are laying the groundwork in this new book for the plots of novels yet to come, in which we will better recognize connections with this story -- but of course, we can't yet know that. On its own merits, Four for a Boy -- while not so captivating or delightfully eccentric as Reed and Mayer's second novel, Two for Joy (2000) -- is a smartly twisted mystery that builds logically from its historical setting and invites acclaim for balancing political intrigue with humor. A fan of these authors, though, cannot help but reflect on how much more this prequel might have done to seed surprises into the series' backstory.


Other Voices

One of the running gags on television's Late Night with David Letterman has the host and his faithful sidekick, Paul Shaffer, judging the relative merits of various vaudeville acts and other questionable human tricks, and solemnly declaring them either "something" or "nothing." Well, I may still be trying to get a handle on master crime writer Lawrence Block's ambitious, sprawling new novel, Small Town (Morrow), but I'm sure about one thing -- it's definitely something.

The "small town" in question here is none other than New York City, still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, and now being terrorized by a serial killer called "the Carpenter," whose motivations make no more sense than the destruction of the World Trade Center. This book may be Block's stab at the publishing industry's latest obsession, the multi-character, multi-plot line, standalone BIG BOOK, à la Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities; but Block, as always, doesn't forget to keep things on a deeply human level, showing that even in a city of 10 million, people's lives are inexplicably bound.

The author aims high in this one, but he doesn't forget to have some fun as well, bringing along many of the usual suspects from his long and varied career for one wild ride. They're all here: alcoholics, glib trendoids, grizzled private eyes, frustrated writers, seen-it-all cops, art gallery owners, hookers, wise-cracking bartenders, sleazy shylocks, dreamers and schemers.


You could almost call this novel Lawrence Block's Greatest Hits. He tosses in a few steamy sex scenes that'll have your jaw bouncing on the floor, recalling his apprenticeship penning porn back in the day. And he even takes a few chomps at the hand that feeds him, when mid-list writer John Blair Creighton, arrested on suspicion of murder, suddenly finds himself the object of an intense bidding war between publishers for his next novel. But the real star of Small Town is the Big Apple itself. Block has always had a thing about his hometown, and this is his heartfelt valentine to it. Like watching a couple squabble and then make up in public, it's a little embarrassing at times, but you walk away smiling at this veteran novelist's audacity and his pure ability to spin a tale. Coming off the success of his doorstopper collection of short stories, Enough Rope, Block shows again that he's a master at the top of his game. Yep, even fellow New Yorkers Dave and Paul would agree: definitely something. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

* * *

"Nothing involves just one country now. It's the age of globalization." That's what a man claiming to be a French intelligence agent assures Pascual Rose, the reluctant hero of Dominic Martell's latest international thriller, The Republic of Night (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler). And it's an observation that Pascual, former radical terrorist and ex-CIA employee (last seen in Lying Crying Dying, 1998), soon discovers to be painfully true. It may also be the last true thing that Frenchman tells Pascual.

Forced against his will to finger a former associate from his shady past, Pascual finds himself in this tale jerked back and forth across Europe, with stopovers in Spain, France and Switzerland. He's an unwilling pawn in a dark and deadly game of convoluted foreign intrigue that involves Algerian freedom fighters, Russian gangsters, entrepreneurial terrorists, elderly pederasts, idealistic journalists, corporate skullduggery, high finance, assorted well-armed Israelis and Arabs and a renegade member of the Swiss police. At least that's who Pascual thinks it involves. Sometimes it's hard to tell, not just for Pascual but also for the reader, because in this game, nothing is quite as it appears, and nobody seems inclined to tell the truth. Identities and alliances change almost as quickly as the weather, as the hunt continues for Abu Yussef, a shadowy figure in terrorist circles. Peeling back one layer of lies seems only to reveal another set, and the bodies and the betrayals start to pile up.

Pascual is clearly out of his league here. No wonder all he wants is a chance to get back home to his quiet, peaceful life in Barcelona, where he's been laying low for years under an assumed name, living on the cheap -- often off the kindness of good-hearted women and a translation job or two (he speaks several languages) -- and trying to come to terms with the murderous sins of his youth.

The cowardly Pascual is no angel, and often not even much of a hero. Yet somehow Martell makes us root for him. Set against a gritty but vibrant European background, this is another strong book by Martell, who under another identity (appropriately enough) writes very American hard-boiled crime novels (see Dooley's Back). -- K.B.S..

* * *

When the tough, leather-wearing broad walks into Karen Pelletier's office, the Enfield College professor knows she has trouble. It comes in the form of a huge rottweiler by that name, Trouble, who always accompanies his master, Sunnye Harcastle, author of the hard-boiled Kit Danger private detective series. The novelist wants Karen's help in researching a new historical mystery -- a task that will lead to complications as the fictional-detective genre meets the self-important world of New England academia in Joanne Dobson's The Maltese Manuscript (Poisoned Pen Press).

Although she finds Sunnye abrasive, controlling and just plain rude, Karen also envies her exciting and dangerous lifestyle. An apparent inspiration for the Kit Danger character, Sunnye holds a martial-arts black belt, rides a Harley and is a crack shot with a gun. By contrast, Karen must kowtow to the whims of department heads who will decide whether she receives tenure; her new cop boyfriend, Lieutenant Charlie Piotrowski, is pushing her for a commitment; and her daughter has just returned from college morose and uncommunicative. On top of all that, Karen is lured into attending a reunion at her high school -- the same school that took away her valedictorian award, after it was discovered she was pregnant. At least the reunion isn't a total loss; it reunites her with Dennis O'Hanlon, a former runty bad boy-turned-hunky private eye.

When the Enfield librarian subsequently discovers that numerous first-edition detective novels and other priceless manuscripts are missing from the stacks, O'Hanlon is brought in, undercover, to work the case. His discovery of a body in the library, in turn, ropes Piotrowski into this affair, and the latter isn't any too happy to find Karen already there in the midst of death.


Meanwhile, Sunnye is implicated as a suspect in the library murder and, bored with the Women's Studies conference she'd agreed to attend while at Enfield, decides to take a hand in the investigation. Karen soon feels pressure from all sides, as the college urges her to be quiet about the thefts, Sunnye hides out in Karen's home, and Charlie orders her to stay out of this case. All of this makes for an extremely entertaining mystery, with some of the most humorous moments arising from encounters between mystery authors attending the Women's Studies conference and the college professors. When asked by one professor if she writes crime novels because "murder provides you with a transgressive symbol system for an anti-essentialist social critique," Sunnye replies: "I write about murder in order to tell a good story. Oh, and to make some money."

This is the fifth Karen Pelletier mystery, following Cold and Pure and Very Dead (2000), yet Dobson smoothly reintroduces her characters so that The Maltese Manuscript can serve as a starting point for readers new to the series. Karen is very funny and admirable, proud of her achievements but also aware of academia's absurdities. The supporting players are charming, as well, from the neurotic professors to Sunnye Hardcastle, who needs to take risks in order to avoid the loneliness of her life. Dobson's plot moves along swiftly to one final, bullet-dodging conclusion that will surprise readers with its twist on the traditional detective mystery. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

Entering author J.M. Hayes' fictional Kansas town of Benteen County is like journeying into another dimension. It's there that part-Cheyenne Harvey Edward "Mad Dog" Maddox, who believes himself to be a powerful shaman, plans to give his elderly friend Tommie Irons a traditional Choctaw funeral. That Mad Dog neglects to inform Tommie's retirement home, the coroner, the sheriff or any other official that he's taking his friend's corpse only begins the problems for Mad Dog's half-brother, Sheriff English, in Prairie Gothic (Poisoned Pen Press).

Called to the retirement home, English -- inevitably nicknamed "Englishman" -- finds not only that Tommie is gone, but that a dead infant has appeared, replacing an old woman's baby doll. The town's assumption that the infant was abandoned by a teenage girl creates dissension, anger and suspicion of all of the young women in Benteen County. This happens to include "the Heathers," Sheriff English's own pair of daughters (one biological, one adopted). Known by their own choice as Heather One of Two and Heather Two of Two, these girls are already involved in their own mess. Having more or less kidnapped an inept deputy, Wynn (also known as Wynn Some, Lose Some), ostensibly in hopes of learning how to drive, they have holed up in the house of an extremely eccentric family.

The discovery of another deceased infant, as well as swastika signs on the first one, sends the sheriff in search of homicide clues, at the same time as he looks for his daughters, whom he fears are involved in the baby mystery. With his girlfriend (and ex-wife), Judy, and the county supervisor, English must also keep an eye out for Mad Dog and pursue secrets stemming from Nazi Germany.


Hayes' character-driven story is so filled with enjoyable eccentric types that the mystery elements sometimes seem more like side issues. Among this book's cast are members of the extremely gothic (and probably inbred) Hornbaker family; a runaway little old lady who wears red shoes and answers to the name "Dorothy"; and even a witch who's being kept in a cage. Yet the serious subjects raised in Prairie Gothic -- abortion, teen pregnancy in a conservative small town, etc. -- are handled both compassionately and believably. The action here moves along swiftly, culminating in a surprising, if somewhat bizarre, solution. Adding to the suspense is Hayes' decision to switch point of view frequently between the sheriff, Mad Dog and the Heathers. However, these shifts also led me to skip ahead in order to continue following one plot or another. This is a fun and wacky sequel to Mad Dog and Englishman (2000), and I look forward to reading about the continuing adventures of these likable characters. -- C.C.

* * *

Jimmy Mangino, the title character in Charlie Stella's second novel, Jimmy Bench-Press (Carroll & Graf), hurts people for a living. Somebody owes you money and falls behind in the payments? You get Mangino. Some loudmouth is threatening to go to the cops if you don't pay him off? Mangino's your boy. You got a stone in your shoe you want removed? Mangino makes "it" disappear. He's a bruiser and a killer who goes about his work with chilling efficiency.

On the other side of the law, NYPD Detectives John DeNafria and Alex Pavlik, partners in the Organized Crime unit, would like nothing better than to take Mangino down. Pavlik, a former boxer, was transferred to OC from Homicide after he nearly beat to death a child rapist and murderer during an arrest, a beating that was captured on tape.

DeNafria was also reassigned to Organized Crime after a controversial police action, a deadly gunfight at an ATM with a young black man who was shot and killed during an attempted robbery of a customer. DeNafria was brought up on charges for the shooting, but the ATM camera showed that he was returning fire in self-defense, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing.


Stella, who made his crime fiction debut with Eddie's World in 2001, was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Brooklyn. He attended college in North Dakota, where a teacher introduced him to George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, reading the first chapter aloud to the class. It was a transforming moment for Stella. "I knew people who spoke like Higgins' characters," he has said. "I knew some of that world because my father was a knockaround guy himself." His decision to become a crime fiction writer was made.

Wiseguys and wiseguy-wannabes involved in porn movies, drugs, extortion and murder make up the rest of the Jimmy Bench-Press cast, along with a handful of FBI agents trying to play them off against each other. The feds also frustrate the efforts of DeNafria and Pavlik. Once, the detectives make a solid arrest of a made guy on assault and possible murder charges, only to discover he's an FBI informant in a federal investigation and they have to release him. These three forces -- hoods, cops and feds -- work against, around and even with each other as the momentum builds toward a final resolution.

If this story seems a little rushed in the closing chapters, it's still an engaging read, and the ending has the ring of truth. Stella's long experience with the streets of Brooklyn pays off not only in the authentic-sounding dialogue, but also in the respect he shows his characters. As he says, "Most street guys aren't so unlike the rest of us. They have big dreams and not enough luck to see them come true. -- Reviewed by Charles Smyth

* * *

William Kent Krueger is best known for his outstanding series featuring Cork O'Connor, the half-Irish, half-Indian former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota. Now, in The Devil's Bed (Atria), Krueger trades in the frozen north for a broader story that goes inside Washington, D.C.'s corridors to expose a government conspiracy that threatens the lives of the president and his family.


Secret Service agent Bo Thorsen has pledged his life to protecting his country's top leaders. He has foregone family, forsaken love, and given everything he has to that commitment. Bo is definitely one of the men in the white hats, the kind of hero you hope actually exists in public service. He is assigned to protect the former U.S. vice president and his daughter, who just happens to be the current first lady, Kate Dixon. Bo believes that there is a very serious threat against their lives. Predictably, nobody else believes him. (Where would the story be if the threat were taken seriously and everyone adequately protected?) When the bodies start to drop like flies, though, suddenly Thorsen seems like a genius.

This standalone thriller starts out at a languid pace, slowly doling out the backstory of its characters and laying the foundation of his plot. I must admit to some trepidation that it was going to be a bore. Krueger knows what he's doing, though, and as the story continued, the pace quickened and the tension mounted. This is especially true once Thorsen stumbles on to a labyrinthine government conspiracy. (It is a nice touch that the conspiracy is reasonably plausible, a rarity in this genre.) Bo puts himself at risk to do his job, but the threats lobbed at him aren't exactly of the garden variety. It isn't terrorists or assassins who jeopardize the president and first lady, but rather members of the government itself -- possibly even those closest to President Daniel Clay Dixon -- who pose the greatest danger. This makes Bo's job all the harder, as he doesn't know who to trust and who to kill.

President Dixon is probably the weakest character in The Devil's Bed. He is neither particularly interesting nor realistic. His only apparent qualification to occupy the Oval Office is that he was once a Rose Bowl-winning quarterback at Stanford, and later a star in the National Football League. Improbably, his chief of staff and closest adviser is his former go-to receiver. Dixon is more of a puppet than a leader throughout most of this story, which makes him hard to take seriously or care about very much. His wife is a sounder, more realistic character, engendering both the reader's interest and sympathy. The book is better when she's working a scene.

It is always interesting to see how well a series author does when he tries to stretch his wings with a "one off" novel. In Krueger's case, he has achieved a modest success. The Devil's Bed is entertaining and worthwhile to read, though it does fall short of the Cork O'Connor series. -- Reviewed by David Montgomery

* * *

Scottish novelist Jill McGown has a well-deserved reputation for writing solid, traditional police procedurals. Like her former teacher, Colin Dexter (The Remorseful Day), McGown turns out complexly plotted novels featuring sympathetic inspectors, skillful character sketches and a willingness to address problems in modern British society without wallowing in gory details. Her latest, Death in the Family (Ballantine) -- the 12th in her Inspector Lloyd/Inspector Judy Hill series -- is pressed from the same template.

As with many of McGown's mysteries, this one takes its time getting underway. In cinematic fashion, the narrative proceeds in brief scenes, jumping between Lloyd and Hill (who have just welcomed their first baby, Charlotte, into the world) and several other crisis-stricken families in nearby Northamptonshire villages. Not until page 101 does a body finally turn up, and then, of course, the classic Agatha Christie formula kicks in: the least sympathetic character has been murdered, and all the rest of the story's players are on hand to qualify as suspects. It's a tribute to McGown's suspense-writing skills that the hopscotch narrative and large cast (more than a dozen major characters) don't mutually overwhelm each other; instead, the lengthy-buildup tactic pays off, creating a sustained interest in each figure's personality and motivations.

Much care is lavished on the ongoing relationship between Lloyd and Hill, who are doing their best to balance love, family and careers. Hill, in particular, is beset by conflicting feelings over becoming a mother and wanting her day job back. She's not alone in the fraught-emotions department; two other local couples are falling apart due to mutual adultery, and a teen romance has gone tragically awry. The passions boil over in two seemingly unrelated incidents -- a murder and a baby-napping -- that wind up affecting all the characters together.

Admittedly, elaborate plots involving timetables, multiple suspects and complex contingency plans can be trying to both the reader's patience and credulity. And the outcome of Death in the Family -- clearly based, in part, on the notorious 1954 Parker-Hulme matricide, already fictionalized in the film Heavenly Creatures -- strains the bounds of possibility, much less probability.


But because McGown, unlike Christie, devotes so much time to her characters, the byzantine plot feels psychologically feasible. It's not often that incidental players -- the hapless men, the patient women, the bewildered rookie cops -- are given as much attention as the stars, and with McGown it's a treat. Yes, Hill and Lloyd will return, and that's all to the good, but everybody else will be missed, too. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

With Bet Your Life (HarperCollins), award-winning novelist Richard Dooling really puts Omaha, Nebraska, on the crime fiction map. Circle it in yellow highlighter, mark it with a deadly dart: This is where discerning readers will want to return for what seems likely to become an outstanding series following insurance investigator Carver Hartnett. As Bet Your Life opens, Carver, a disaffected Gen-Xer, regards his neurotic boss, casual girlfriends and life in general with low-energy disdain. He spends his free time hanging out with two co-workers from Reliable Allied Trust: Lenny, a drug-addled computer hacker the company tolerates because of his investigative prowess, and Miranda, a provocative fashionista who won't let Carver get past first base.

Trouble rears its head when Carver is assigned to investigate another Omaha insurance company for viatical fraud. Viaticals are life-insurance policies. The fraud comes in when people who are terminally ill conceal their conditions and take out big policies -- then sell those policies back to middlemen, who proceed to resell them to individuals who realize big gains when the patients die.


Lenny, who'd been on the viaticals investigation previously, has just been fired for mouthing off to a shady attorney. He celebrates his firing with a night of disastrous casino gambling, drugs and drinking, then staggers home to play the online adventure game Delta-Strike against Carver and a mysterious opponent whose screen name is GothicRage86. Miranda and Carver become concerned when they can't reach him later, and drive to his apartment, only to find him dead. The police assume that Lenny died from one of the many substances he'd abused that evening. But information from Lenny's computer -- evidence too esoteric for the police to digest -- leads Carver to suspect that someone was in Lenny's apartment when he perished. And as Carver follows the clues, he discovers unsettling ties between Lenny, Miranda and the company under investigation for viatical fraud. He knows he is really on to something when the FBI arrives and tries to muscle him off the case.

Dooling, who was nominated for a National Book Award for his 1994 thriller/satire, White Man's Grave, is exploring generally overlooked crime fiction territory with this Midwestern high-tech setting and a young sleuth just embarking on his career. This is an author to watch. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson

You, too, can have your say in "Other Voices." To submit mini-reviews of recent releases, click here. Reviews may be edited for length, clarity and grammar.


In the News

"I'm really just an old pro, turning out the same book over and over again, but trying to make it better," wrote British thriller writer Gavin Lyall, who died from cancer on January 18. He was 70 years old. A onetime journalist, Lyall produced some 16 books over 40 years, including The Most Dangerous Game (1964) and Midnight Plus One (1965), both of which picked up awards from the UK Crime Writers' Association, as well as The Secret Servant (1980), which introduced series protagonist and SAS officer Harry Maxim. Read more.

Best-selling novelist Tess Gerritsen (The Apprentice, The Surgeon, etc.) talks with Shots magazine about her history as a physician, her early experience in writing romantic thrillers, her move into crime fiction and what attracts her to "the dark side of the human condition." Read more.

Shots also features an interview with Fidelis Morgan, whose often-comic novel The Ambitious Stepmother -- her third featuring down-at-heels 17th-century aristocrat Ashby de la Zouche and her over-endowed former maid, Alpiew -- was released in the UK in November. This new book finds the detecting pair in France, minding the stepdaughter of Mrs. Franklyn-Green. Read more.


Spy novelist John Le Carré may not have the clout of Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela or Jimmy Carter, both of whom have recently denounced George W. Bush's obsessive rush to another war with Iraq. Yet in his essay "The United States of America Has Gone Mad," published originally in The Times of London, this internationally renowned author is no less critical of the "religious cant" with which "Bush and his junta" have been pushing for the carpet-bombing of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad. "What is at stake is not an 'axis of evil' but oil, money and peoples' lives," Le Carré opines. "Saddam's misfortune is to sit on the second biggest oilfield in the world." Read more.

"The novels of George P. Pelecanos have been praised as the contemporary equivalents of [Raymond] Chandler's," writes James Fallows in Legal Affairs magazine, "but -- at least by modern standards -- Pelecanos's are better." Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, says he prefers the complications and emotionally wrenching nature of works by Pelecanos (whose latest novel, Soul Circus, is due out in March) to Chandler's Philip Marlowe books, which he calls "stylized and unrealistic." Read more.

In a long and thoughtful essay for The New Yorker, Chicago lawyer and author Scott Turow (Reversible Errors) recalls how "I was forced to confront my own feelings about the death penalty as one of fourteen members of a commission appointed by Governor George Ryan of Illinois to recommend reforms of the state's capital-punishment system." Ryan subsequently commuted the sentences of most death-row inmates to life-imprisonment. Read more.

A profile of Elmore Leonard in The Guardian talks about the author's start as an advertising writer; the "cold turkey" end of his drinking days; his resistance to attempts to intellectualize his work; and how the stories in his new book, When the Women Come Out to Dance, offer the "perfect primer for Leonard's work, wonderful models of concision and wit and character." Read more.


Thomas Perry talks with Bookreporter.com about his latest standalone novel, Dead Aim, the usefulness of his "predatory and unsavory" characters, and his experience in having his novels translated to film. Read more.

Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist Jan Burke, Dana Stabenow talks about how her story inspirations come "always and ever" from settings; how winning an Edgar Award "scared the shit out of me," and her interest in someday writing a "historical novel featuring Marco Polo's granddaughter." Read more.

Finally, with couples set to celebrate their love -- or, at least, their lust -- on February 14, what better way to get in the mood than to read some Valentine's Day-related mysteries? MyShelf.com offers 21 titles that combine crime and passion, from Susan Wittig Albert's Love Lies Bleeding to Tom Savage's thriller Valentine. Read more. Meanwhile, MysteryGuide.com presents a dozen mysteries with a strong romantic element, including Janet Evanovich's One for the Money and Dorothy L. Sayers' classic Gaudy Night. Read more.


Last Rewards

Nominees have been announced for the 2003 Lefty Award, to be given to the most humorous mystery novel published in the United States last year. The shortlist features:

Buck Fever, by Ben Rehder (St. Martin's Minotaur) Hard Eight, by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's Press)

The Hearse Case Scenario, by Tim Cockey (Hyperion)

This Pen for Hire, by Laura Levine (Kensington)

Pipsqueak, by Brian Wiprud (iUniverse)

The Rival Queens, by Fidelis Morgan (Morrow) 

In addition, nominees have been announced for a new commendation, the Arty Award, intended to recognize the best cover art on a humorous mystery novel published last year in the States. The nominees are:

Buck Fever, by Ben Rehder; jacket art designed by David Baldeosingh Rotstein (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Chopping Spree, by Diane Mott Davidson; jacket illustration and design by Jamie S. Warren Youll (Bantam)

Faking It, by Jennifer Crusie; jacket photography by Herman Estevez (St. Martin's Press)

Home Sweet Homicide, by Craig Rice; cover art by Rob Pudim (Rue Morgue) 

Posted to Death, by Dean James; cover art by Matthew McFarren (Kensington)

Voting for these awards is open only to people attending this year's Left Coast Crime convention, which will be held in Pasadena, California, from February 27 through March 2. If that includes you, make your votes count at the Lefty page and the Arty page.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) has announced its 2003 Mary Higgins Clark Award nominations. This award is given to the best suspense novel written in the Clark vein. And the contenders are ...

Absolute Certainty, by Rose Connors (Scribner)

The Stone Forest, by Karen Harper (Delacorte)

The Truth Hurts, by Nancy Pickard (Pocket)

The Bad Witness, by Laura Van Wormer (Mira)

Winners will be announced in New York City on April 30.

* * *

Last, but certainly not least, comes the MWA's list of candidates for the 2003 Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Those nominees include:

Best Novel:

Savannah Blues, by Mary Kay Andrews (HarperCollins); Jolie Blon's Bounce, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster); City of Bones, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown); Winter and Night, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur); and No Good Deed, by Manda Scott (Bantam)

Best First Novel by an American Author:

Southern Latitudes, by Stephen J. Clark (Putnam); The Blue Edge of Midnight, by Jonathon King (Putnam); High Wire, by Kam Majd (Random House); Buck Fever, by Ben Rehder (St. Martin's Minotaur); and Open and Shut, by David Rosenfelt (Mysterious Press)

Best Paperback Original:

Black Jack Point, by Jeff Abbott (Onyx); The Night Watcher, by John Lutz (Pinnacle); Out of Sight, by T.J. MacGregor (Pinnacle); Trauma, by Graham Masterton (Signet); and Prison Blues, by Anna Salter (Pocket)

Best Critical/Biographical:

The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley (Carroll & Graf); The Classic Era of Crime Fiction, by Peter Haining (Chicago Review Press); Crime Films, by Thomas Leitch (Cambridge University Press); and The Art of Noir, by Eddie Muller (Overlook Press)

Best Fact Crime:

Blood & Ink: An International Guide to Fact-Based Crime Literature, by Albert Borowitz (Kent State University Press); Takedown: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire, by Rick Cowan and Douglas Century (Putnam); Death at the Priory: Sex, Love and Murder in Victorian England, by James Ruddick (Grove/Atlantic); The Count and the Confession, by John Taylor (Random House); and Fire Lover, by Joseph Wambaugh (Morrow)

Best Short Story:

"The Murder Ballads," by Doug Allyn (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], March 2002); "To Live and Die in Midland, Texas," by Clark Howard (EQMM, September-October 2002); "Rumpole and the Primrose Path," by John Mortimer (The Strand); "Angel of Wrath," by Joyce Carol Oates (EQMM, June 2002); and "Mexican Gatsby," by Raymond Steiber (EQMM, March 2002)

For a complete list of Edgar nominees, go the Mystery Writers of America Web site. Awards will be presented during a banquet in New York City on May 1.

 

"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.

 

Previous Rap Sheets:

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