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 Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, July August 2003

 

IN THIS ISSUE: An explanation and a tribute • This season's most-wanted reads • New novels by Stuart M. Kaminsky, Quinn Fawcett and Richard Hoyt • Readers rate a wealth of works by Barbara Nadel, Clyde Phillips, Claire Francis, Simon Kernick and others • The end of days for Nicholas Freeling and Newgate Callendar; the start of a new literary direction for Laura Lippman; TV crime-drama themes put listeners back in the middle of the 1970s, and other news from the world of mystery • Literary prizes go to Dean Koontz and Owen Parry • The nominees for this year's Macavity, Shamus and Barry awards • And, because we could all use a break from political scandals, not a single word about George W. Bush's use of bogus intelligence to justify the recent war on Iraq


A Word of Explanation

I have recently received a variety of e-notes, all of which say basically the same thing: "Why was there no July edition of 'The Rap Sheet'?" While I apologize for that unprecedented lapse in our publishing schedule, it could not be helped.

You see, in the thick of editing and writing the July "Sheet," I was summoned to Portland, Oregon, where my 79-year-old architect father, Alexander Bolton Pierce II, had been hospitalized. He'd suffered for most of a year with prostate cancer, but his condition had suddenly grown worse. Regrettably, he died in the wee hours of July 14, though at least he went in relative peace, with all of the central members of his family gathered round.

During our more than 40 years together, my dad and I often butted heads over "lightweight" issues such as politics, religion and gun control, and our relationship wasn't always as close as I would have liked. Yet we accepted and loved each other for what we had in common, including an appreciation of history, architecture, language and, curiously, TV westerns. And in later life we discovered a friendship that helped to putty up some of the faults in our original association as father and son. For his faith in me, his encouragement and his good humor, I offer gratitude to my dad that cannot be limited by time or even death. This necessarily combined, July/August edition of "The Rap Sheet" is dedicated to his memory.

J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor
, January Magazine


Pierce's Picks for July/August

A Fistful of Rain (Bantam), by Greg Rucka. Heavy-drinking guitarist Mim Bracca thought the worst had happened to her when she was cut loose from a tour with her rock band. But no sooner does she return home to Portland, Oregon, than she's kidnapped. Shortly thereafter, nude photos of her turn up on the Internet, and her drug-dealing brother, Mikel, is shot to death. Mim blames this murder on her father, who's just been released after 15 years spent in prison for killing her mom. But the answers in Fistful are far more complicated, and discovering them will require that Mim elude police and stay sober long enough to stay alive.

a.k.a. Sheila Weinstein (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler), by Pat Jordan. With her Cherokee lover and their old friend Sol Bilstein, the sexy former Sheila Mackenzie embarks on a sure-thing heist that goes bad fast, drawing the ire of "crime queen" Angela Scarpetti, better known as the White Witch. This tightly plotted and tough tale is the sequel to a.k.a. Sheila Doyle (2002).

A Blind Eye (Morrow), by G.M. Ford. Seeking shelter after an SUV accident in backwoods Wisconsin, true-crime writer Frank Corso and photographer Meg Dougherty stumble across the bones of Eldred Holmes and his sons, who'd supposedly moved away years ago. Answers to this mystery may lie with Eldred's wife, an exotic seductress whose skeleton isn't among the pile, and whose deliberately obscured -- and bloody -- trail leads to a slain nun in Pennsylvania, a family-destroying fire among isolated hill folk in New York, and a desperate, deadly ambush in northern Michigan.

Cuddy -- Plus One (Crippen & Landru), by Jeremiah Healy. Building on The Concise Cuddy (1998), his first collection of short stories featuring compassionate Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy, Healy presents 13 more Cuddy yarns, four of which were nominated for Shamus Awards. One additional tale, "Decoys," stars Beantown attorney Mairead O'Clare, the protagonist in two novels (Uncommon Justice and Juror Number Eleven) that Healy has penned under the pseudonym of "Terry Devane."

Death in the Valley of Shadows (Allison & Busby UK), by Deryn Lake. What starts with a generous act turns into disaster, after apothecary John Rawlings agrees to help Aidan Fenchurch, who is seeking to escape from a former lover, Ariadne Bussell. A few days later, however, Fenchurch is found dead, supposedly the victim of street robbery. Thinking Bussell may be responsible, Sir John Fielding orders her arrest. But the woman is poisoned before she can provide adequate information regarding Fenchurch's fate. Additional murders -- some more violent than others -- lead Rawlings on a trip to Surrey in search of answers.

Done for a Dime (Ballantine), by David Corbett. On the heels of his stunning debut novel, The Devil's Redhead (reviewed in "Rap Sheet" 10/02), Corbett returns with this still more noirish story, rooted in the murder of blues musician Raymond "Strong" Carlisle. Northern California detective David Murchison initially figures this homicide is the work of Arlie Thigpen, a young tough. But Carlisle's son, Toby Marchand -- with his dubious alibi and a girlfriend who supposedly witnessed the homicide, but can't remember it -- may be equally good for the crime. What Murchison doesn't recognize right away is that Strong Carlisle's death is an inconvenient result of a much broader deception involving a lucrative construction project and an awfully convenient fire.

Fear Itself (Little, Brown), by Walter Mosley. As in Fearless Jones (2001), Paris Minton, the owner of a bookstore in 1950s Los Angeles, is drawn into trouble by his tougher, skirt-chasing friend, Tristan "Fearless" Jones. This time, Jones has been convinced to help a pretty young wife and mother find her missing husband. But as the case takes a sharp turn toward murder, kidnapping and theft, Paris and Fearless must figure out the connections between these crimes, at the same time as they steer clear of prejudiced cops.

Four to Midnight (Morrow), by Scott Flander. Returning to the streets of Philadelphia after his introduction in Sons of the City (1999), Sergeant Eddie North steps into a controversy involving a black city councilman and a couple of reportedly abusive white cops. In the racially charged aftermath, a ski-masked assassin targets police, and corrupt cops band together to protect themselves.

The Gates of Hell (Carroll & Graf), by Paul Doherty. Set in 334 BC, this third entry in Doherty's series featuring Alexander the Great and his trusted physician-detective, Telamon, finds the conqueror leading an assault on the strategically important Asian city of Halicarnassus, a place that links him with his assassinated father. But even as the "Macedonian Wolf" readies his forces for battle, and his enemies plot to make this confrontation his last, a series of gruesome murders among the members of Alexander's court draw Telamon into a search for Persian spies. This is the sequel to last year's The Godless Man ("RS" 9/02).

Graves Gate (Carroll & Graf), by Dennis Burges. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lambasted in the press for his belief in the spirit world, receives a missive supposedly from Dr. Bernard Gussmann, his father's long-dead psychiatrist. It promises "absolute proof of communication with the dead" -- but only on the condition that he accompany one of three specific people to visit a woman awaiting execution in prison. With help from his son's journalist friend, Charles Baker, and the fetching Adrianna Wallace, wife of a prominent Member of Parliament, Conan Doyle must track Gussmann through 1920s London and expose the man's devious occult practice. Though a bit slow at first, Burges' story offers ample psychological suspense.

The Manhattan Island Clubs (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Brent Monahan. Retired Georgia sheriff John Le Brun, back in the States again after tackling London homicide in The Sceptred Isle Club ("RS" 6/02), is called to New York City in 1906, where a banker and distinguished member of the Metropolitan Club has had his throat slashed -- supposedly by a gentleman who was not even at the club that night, but was instead across town in full view of numerous witnesses. The deceptively brilliant Le Brun must confront a supporting cast that includes financier J.P. Morgan, newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer and renowned architect Stanford White.

Medusa (Faber and Faber UK), by Michael Dibdin. Commissioner Aurelio Zen (last seen in And Then You Die, 2002) returns to investigate the discovery of human remains by cavers in some abandoned military tunnels in the Italian Alps. The death is presumed to have been accidental -- until the unidentified body is filched from the morgue and a news blackout is slapped over the affair.

The Murder Room (Faber and Faber UK), by P.D. James. Adam Dalgliesh probes the demise of a museum trustee in Hampstead Heath. However, there are more killings ahead, based on exhibits in the small museum's Murder Room, which recalls a notorious case from the early 1900s. Dalgliesh's effort to solve these crimes is complicated by his relationship with Emma Lavenham.

The Night Calls (St. Martin's Minotaur), by David Pirie. This gripping follow-up to The Patient's Eyes ("RS" 6/02) centers around a series of bizarre assaults on women in the brothels of 1878 Edinburgh. Forensic expert Dr. Joseph Bell and his "trusted clerk and pupil," Arthur Conan Doyle, follow the attacker's trail through gloomy Victorian streets and to a blood-filled room where the puzzle of their quarry's motive deepens. Pirie's plot gains even greater perplexity as its action shifts to London, where Bell and Doyle contend with opium fiends, disappearing corpses and a severed head with "horrifying power."

A Question of Blood (Orion UK), by Ian Rankin. Edinburgh inspector John Rebus finds himself a suspect in the gruesome burning death of a psychopath who had threatened his protégé, Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. Meanwhile, the son of Rebus' estranged cousin is murdered in a high-school shooting that may be connected to the inspector's past involvement with British special forces.

Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference (Carroll & Graf), edited by Robert F. Moss. Moss, who's also the editor of The Raymond Chandler Web Site, provides an excellent expansion of the information contained in last year's Hardboiled Mystery Writers ("RS" 9/02). Private correspondence, previously uncollected essays (both by and about this author) and associated material shed greater light on Chandler's triumphs and troubles. The volume is well illustrated with classic book jackets and photographs.

Their Wildest Dreams (Ballantine), by Peter Abrahams. The author of The Tutor, A Perfect Crime and other noteworthy suspensers delivers a character-driven yarn set in the desert realm of the U.S.-Mexico border. As the plot develops, we find "seekers" of one sort or another -- including a suburban mother-cum-stripper, her impulsive teenage daughter, a charismatic Russian club owner and a mystery writer in search of new material -- becoming tangled up intriguingly in theft, blackmail and homicide.

A Time Gone By (Simon & Schuster), by William Heffernan. The 1945 bludgeoning of Judge Wallace Reed, a corruption foe who appeared destined to become the next governor of New York, launched the career of cop Jake Downing. But 30 years later, as Downing prepares for his retirement, he's still haunted by that crime and his subsequent actions, and decides to set the record straight. Or is he only looking for revenge?

The Serpent's Kiss (Atria), by Mark T. Sullivan. A case that begins with a savage snake-bite death (the victim was found with a strychnine-laced apple in his mouth, as well) eventually leads lonely San Diego homicide cop Seamus Moynihan to a fundamentalist sect of Alabama snake handlers and a biblical scholar who may have found a key to solving this mystery in the story of Cain's wife.

The Vagabond Clown (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Edward Marston. Ousted from their usual stage in Elizabethan London, following an audience brawl and the slaying of a mysterious spectator, stage manager Nicholas Bracewell and the actors from Westfield's Men begin a tour of the Kent countryside that will bring them even more trouble, from an ambush on the open road and prankish attacks on injured actor Barnaby Gill, to a brutal assault on stand-in clown Giddy Mussett. Does fault for these adversities lie with a rival band of thespians who are also traveling through the area? As always with the Bracewell novels, expect plenty of fine character development and clever dialogue.

Waking Raphael (Weidenfeld & Nicholson UK), by Leslie Forbes. From the best-selling author of Bombay Ice comes this thriller set in historic Urbino, Italy, the birthplace of famed Renaissance painter Raphael. An investigation into a forgotten crime dating back to World War II is provoked by a peculiar mute woman's stabbing of a count -- an act of violence that also damages Raphael's recently restored La Muta. Rumors linking the assailant to her victim cause others to worry about too many uncomfortable truths being unearthed, and lead to revelations about what really happened at a rotting local fortress during the war.


New and Noteworthy

I'm sure I was not the only reader surprised by the recent news that novelist Stuart M. Kaminsky is considering retiring his longest-running series, which features 1940s private-eye-to-the-stars Toby Peters. Begun with Bullet for a Star (1977), the Toby tales, though formulaic, have been pretty consistently enjoyable, not just for their plots (which inevitably build around World War II-era celebrities, from Judy Garland and Eleanor Roosevelt to the Marx Brothers and Cary Grant), but because they're rich with humor and humanity. Peters is a perpetually disheveled and impecunious Los Angeles investigator, who nevertheless manages to solve crimes and protect his eccentric clients, if sometimes in the wackiest of ways. As Kaminsky describes his protagonist, he's "an anti-Marlowe character" -- more nebbish than knight.

What's especially sad about the possibility of Peters' disappearance is that his last two outings, in A Few Minutes Past Midnight (2001) and To Catch a Spy (2002), showed that this series still has a lot of life left in it. And the latest, 23rd installment, Mildred Pierced (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler), contains what could be a most promising turning point in this shamus' career.

The premise here is vintage Kaminsky: Dr. Sheldon Minck, Toby's "half blind and all stupid" office mate, is arrested for shooting his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Mildred, in the heart with a crossbow bolt on a sunny day in L.A.'s Lincoln Park. Though Shelly had motive for murder (divorce would have deprived him of Mildred's substantial estate), he insists he's innocent. "I didn't know Mildred was there," he tells Peters. "I don't know what she was doing there. I didn't even see her till she fell." So why was this klutzy dentist wielding a crossbow, anyway? It seems he recently joined a group called Survivors for the Future. Using James Fenimore Cooper's frontier fiction as their bible, these survivalists work to hone their hunting and hiding skills, "in case America is overrun by the Asian hordes, or the Arabs or Nazis or creatures from another planet or the government goes nuts." Setting aside the ludicrousness of Minck's archery exercise, the greater immediate problem is that there was only one witness to Mildred's death, erstwhile MGM movie queen Joan Crawford -- and she harbors no doubt that Shelly shot his "skinny, homely, harping, and unfaithful" spouse. However, the actress would prefer not to testify to this in court, since she's up for her first major role in two years (as the title character in Mildred Pierce). The last thing she needs is bad publicity.

Agreeing (for a fee, of course) to help keep Crawford's name out of the press, Toby turns his attention to the eccentric Survivors and their organization's elusive founder, James Fenimore Sax. He discovers that, in the event of Mildred Minck's demise, her husband's will bequeaths everything they own to this cabal of poseur pioneers -- which could provide the Survivors with reason to leave the dentist on ice, or perhaps ice him themselves. Meanwhile, in a clever grocery store scene, Toby narrowly avoids being pinned by a blowgun dart, and he later finds a second crossbow bolt in the area where Shelly was practicing his aim, suggesting that another shooter may have stuck it to Mildred, instead. But none of this explains why the deceased was in Lincoln Park, in the first place, or why she'd made a hairdressing appointment in preparation for a funeral -- whose funeral? Certainly not her own. In typical Kaminsky fashion, myriad plot complications -- from a threat on Joan Crawford's life to Shelly's slapstick escape from jail, in drag -- contribute energy, urgency and wit to this story, with the intriguing question of Sax's identity protected until the penultimate chapter. The author's studied, textured portrayal of Crawford as more savvy than shrewish is welcome, as is the amusing scene of Mildred's funeral (during which Shelly, struggling to honor his late mate, lapses into acclaim of her dental health). Also interesting is a subplot concerning Toby's splenetic elder sibling, homicide cop Phil Pevsner, who makes a remarkable job change following the long-anticipated death of his wife, Ruth.

Kaminsky is hardly the only author to lure leading Hollywood lights of old into his fiction. The late George Baxt (The Bette Davis Murder Case), J. Madison Davis (The Vertigo Murders), John Stanley and Kenn Davis (Bogart '48) -- they've all contributed to this sub-subgenre of celebrity mysteries. Yet none of them has rivaled Kaminsky's productivity or acclaim. Were the delightful Toby Peters to hang up his gumshoes once and for all, it would be a considerable loss to crime fiction. Yet Kaminsky has some good news to share as well: he's currently working on a 24th book in this series (featuring renowned magician Harry Blackstone Sr.); "there is ... renewed interest in Toby for a film"; and this P.I.'s retirement may be less than permanent. "Both Toby and [a second Kaminsky protagonist, Moscow Police Inspector Porfiry] Rostnikov are probably going to have to take a rest for a few years," the author tells me, "but that depends on what kind of offers we get to keep either or both of them going." Let's hope that Kaminsky's present publisher, or another one, will soon come to Peters' rescue in the same way this detective has been saving his clients for the last 26 years.

* * *

A less successful celebrity thriller, also with a historical backdrop, is Quinn Fawcett's Siren Song (Forge). The follow-up to last year's Death of Spies, it again employs journalist, "retired" secret agent and future novelist Ian Fleming in the detective's role. Although this story boasts abundant twists, it never develops into more than a showcase for its suave protagonist.


Fawcett is conscious not to confuse Fleming with his literary creation, James Bond, although the two of them do share a fondness for fine clothes and finer women. It's one of the latter who kicks off the plot of Siren Song. While attending a New Year's Eve celebration in London in the late 1940s, Fleming (then nearing his 40th birthday) encounters the slightly younger Nora Blair DeYoung, a redheaded "vision of loveliness," who -- writing under the pseudonym "Blake Young" -- is a world-renowned journalist. Yet their association appears stillborn; Fleming must hie off the next morning to Jamaica, where he has a winter home (Goldeneye, in the island's northeast corner). Leaving Nora behind, he embarks for the airport, only to be waylaid by a pair of British Secret Service agents. They try to interest Fleming in a "juicy scandalous story" about Oscar Winterberg, a German-born labor leader in California who may be feeding U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union. Suspicious of the motives behind this disclosure, Fleming passes up the tip and continues on to the Caribbean -- only to encounter there, once more, the pulchritudinous Miss DeYoung, who has stopped by on her way to San Francisco, where she intends to conduct her own inquiry into Oscar Winterberg's business. Coincidence or connivance? Fleming's not sure, but after a bomb reduces Nora's Kingston hotel room to rubbish, he is convinced that she could use his protection. So he accompanies her to the Bay Area, only to watch as she probes Winterberg's past -- not in search of espionage activities, but in quest of proof that he's a bigamist, a charge that would likely do no less to destroy the man's career.

Siren Song's best asset is the swiftly maturing relationship between Fleming and Nora, a couple who are smarter, savvier and more full of secrets than they initially appear. Certainly, Miss DeYoung could have served as the model for a Bond girl, had she really existed. This is only one of several connections to be made between Fawcett's latest yarn and the fiction Fleming would go on to pen. Especially obvious in this regard is a passage in which Fleming observes the "impressive length and bulk" of a new Cadillac, imagining how, with the assistance of a clever inventor, the Caddy might be rigged to convert suddenly into a boat-car: "All it would require would be heavy-duty inflatable canvas pouches beneath those oversize wheel guards, which would spread a buoyant apron underneath the craft. They would be activated with the throwing of a switch inside the auto." Paging Q!

There's ample action in these pages, from gunplay to car chases, and even more deceptions arrayed in the interests of building suspense. Fleming fans will recognize in Fawcett's prose the same sort of attention to curious detail that characterized the original Bond adventures. However, Siren Song suffers from too great a dependence on Ian Fleming's participation. Replace him here with a purely fabricated protagonist, and the novel would be nothing more than a fairly conventional Cold War thriller. Quinn Fawcett, who composed four Mycroft Holmes books (including The Scottish Ploy, 2000) before resurrecting Bond's colorful creator, should know better than to expect a celebrity sleuth -- no matter how recognizable -- to carry a story on his or her own. A tightly constructed, distinctive story line is also essential. Unfortunately, it's in that area where Siren Song could have used some fine tuning. A Russian spy, known as the Scimitar, is introduced in an early chapter, only to be dispatched later without any plot reverberations, as if the author couldn't decide what to do with him next. Fawcett's portrayal of Jamaica never amounts to much (which is an odd failing, when you realize that he makes his home in the Caribbean), and his unilluminating descriptions of San Francisco suggest that he spent more time pouring over street maps than studying the city's postwar personality. The author's apparent intent -- to recapture an old-fashioned, conflict-propelled and heroic style of spy-storytelling -- may stir a modicum of nostalgia among readers, but it doesn't take into account the demands of a modern audience weaned on espionage tales (by John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Henry Porter and others) that are more complex and less absolute in their moral perspectives. Were Ian Fleming still alive, he too might find Siren Song more anachronistic than seductive.

* * *

There's something equally out-of-time about The Weatherman's Daughters (Forge), Richard Hoyt's eighth novel featuring Pacific Northwest private eye John Denson. First introduced in Decoys (1980), the "soft-boiled" Denson -- originally based in Seattle, Washington -- was once described by his creator as a sleazy man with a weak stomach who didn't carry a gun "because he might have to use it sometime." Twenty-three years later, the pony-tailed, perpetually randy and now 47-year-old Denson hasn't changed all that much. He still smokes pot, still swills cheap wine, still references Carlos Castaneda and drives a 30-year-old Volkswagen microbus. Yes, over the years he's moved from Seattle to the northwest corner of Oregon and has adopted a sidekick, Cowlitz Indian and putative shaman Willie Sees the Night (née Willie Prettybird). But Denson isn't substantively different from the wisecracking guy who, in Decoys, reassured a new client that having a hot plate in his downtown office didn't mean he lived there. "I have an apartment," he explained. "I rent this office to make me look legit. I picked this building because it has lawyers and chiropractors. Figured I could use a little class. ... I'm a gentleman and a scholar; would you care for some screw-top?"

The Weatherman's Daughters finds this sleuth driving back to his cabin in the wonderfully named Whorehouse Meadow, when he's suddenly bombarded by a freakish downpour of live seafood -- fish drawn out of the adjacent Columbia River by a gargantuan waterspout. "Down they came, sailing out of a clear blue sky," Hoyt writes. "Fish. Coho or silver salmon to be precise. They bounced onto the highway and smacked into my bus. Fish, fish, fish. Hundreds of coho raining down from the sky. Sweet Jesus, I was caught in a salmon storm!" Grabbing his video camera, he starts filming this spectacle, only to stumble across a young woman at the side of the road with a bullet hole in her chest, who mumbles a few unintelligible words at Denson before perishing. Police later identify the deceased as Sharon Toogood, a daughter of "Portland's famous television weatherman," Jerry "T.G." Toogood, and part-owner of Lao Tzu's, a chain of New Age health stores. It seems she had one of Denson's business cards tucked into her wallet. Was she killed en route to hire the P.I. or his partner? If so, why? Hoping to find out, our hippieish hero questions (and then, for good measure, beds) Sharon's sister, Mariah, an Ava Gardner-lookalike who claims that Sharon was in the midst of investigating something that could damage T.G.'s reputation. But before Mariah can say more, she too bites the dust, supposedly at her own hand.

Doubting that suicide conclusion, and driven by his self-inflicted obligation to solve Sharon's murder, Denson commits himself to figuring out who really put a premature end to both Toogood siblings. The case will lead this detective to search for links to a bear-poaching ring, mix it up with right-wing militants, and even resort to an "out-of-body experience" in search of answers.


There are many confusing aspects to Hoyt's latest story, and still more bizarre turns. Although it helps lead to the exposure of a well-concealed -- and pretty darn unlikely -- secret, a mid-book shootout involving heavily armed, militant "patriots" seems gratuitously staged, designed to boost this book's action complement without adding appreciably to its substance. (The same author proved, in his far less enjoyable 1996 novel, Blood of Patriots, that he can write over-the-top shoot-'em-up scenes. Why did he bother trying to outdo himself here?) Most of the characters in these pages are marginally developed, at best, the notable exception being Annie Dancer, aka "Kammy Sutra," a double-jointed exotic dancer with more tricks up her sleeve than she has bills in her G-string. And Hoyt's tilt toward outlandishness is most evident in Denson's extra-corporeal foray (conducted under Willie's guidance), during which the usually skeptical P.I. encounters his mustachioed "creator" -- a "demented author" who bears resemblance to nobody so much as Richard Hoyt himself. (Full disclosure: Hoyt was a journalism professor of mine in college, so I am likely more prone than most readers to recognize him in print.)

It's not every day that a fictional detective resorts to spiritual means in order to solve criminal problems. And it is that willingness to be different, coupled with Hoyt's numerous philosophical ramblings (some less smoothly inserted than others), that makes The Weatherman's Daughters stand out among the many competing genre works. Hoyt has penned more imaginative and tightly constructed books, including 1983's The Siskiyou Two-Step (retitled simply Siskiyou in paperback), which opens with Denson riding the very naked -- and very dead -- body of a young woman down an Oregon rapids. Yet Hoyt derives such obvious pleasure from sending his "aging dork" of a private dick into dangerous circumstances filled with eccentric personages, that readers may be charmed whether they like it or not. John Denson may be a throwback, but at least he hasn't forgotten how to entertain.


Other Voices

An American journalist based in Portugal, Richard Zimler is best known for his 1998 novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, in which a classic locked-door murder mystery unfolds during Portugal's violent 16th-century expulsion of its Jews. His latest, Hunting Midnight (Delacorte), also revolves around the difficult lives of Portuguese Jews; the main characters, in fact, are direct descendants of the principals in Kabbalist. But this time around, Zimler drops the tight structure of the mystery in favor of the grandiose framework of the epic.

Hunting Midnight is essentially the life story of a half-Scottish, half-Portuguese Jewish man, John Zarco Stewart, whose unconventional background causes him a great deal of anguish. As a boy, he wins and then loses his only two friends; as a young man, his secret Jewish heritage is a source of both pride and fear. But the greatest influence on his life is Midnight, a Bushman from southern Africa whom his father had helped escape from slavery. Adopted into the family, Midnight becomes the mentor Stewart had needed but never had.

Zimler lavishes attention on Midnight; the Bushman is wise, careful, quirky, strong and patient, all things that Stewart isn't. Midnight is, in fact, a stereotype: the resilient primitive, wiser than his oppressors and more attuned to the natural and spiritual worlds. However, the tangible love and respect between Midnight and the Stewarts overcomes any weaknesses of cardboard characterization.

Hunting Midnight's plot hinges on a domestic secret: a series of shameful betrayals committed by Stewart's parents and kept hidden for years. When John Stewart discovers the truth, he decides to try to make amends for his family's sins; the book then veers from urban Portugal to the slave plantations of the American South. Zimler proves himself just as adept at describing slave communities of the early 1800s as he is at portraying historical Portugal, but the territory is, naturally, less exotic; the ways of slavery have already been extensively documented in American literature. Nevertheless, this book's two sections manage to hang together despite the story's great leap of setting and theme.

In what may be a nod to The Last Kabbalist, a series of locked-door murders takes place in the American South section, yet Zimler shies away from making them into more than a side note. Indeed, the killings feel out of place in Hunting Midnight, which derives its suspense not merely from crime but from personal mysteries. The book is a novel of loss -- of innocence, freedom, love and faith -- and of the lengths people will go to in order to recover what they can. Yes, occasionally Midnight's situations feel contrived, and the characters' reactions overly dramatic. But Zimler's attempt at describing a great wound and its healing is heartfelt. Would that all crime novels made a similar investment in the human psyche. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

Beginning with the 1999 publication of Belshazzar's Daughter, British author Barbara Nadel has turned out five books featuring Inspector Çetin Ikmen, a Turkish detective based in Istanbul. Nadel's contemporary police procedurals are suspenseful page-turners, but their real fascination derives from their vivid, believable casts of multi-ethnic characters. A series in which the private lives of the detectives feel like essential elements, instead of distracting lulls, is a rare find indeed.

Nadel's latest, Harem (Headline UK), finds the usual suspects from her previous books all crowding each other for space. The chain-smoking Ikmen (five cigarettes before breakfast is de rigueur) is feeling besieged by his demanding teenage children (two out of a brood of nine). He misses his wife, Fatma, who is out of town caring for her cancer-stricken brother. His former deputy, Mehmet Suleyman, is worried about his own wife, psychiatrist Zelfa Halman, who at 48 years old is about to give birth for the first time. His current deputy, Orhan Tepe, is having an unhappy affair with a fellow officer. Everybody has parents, siblings and neighbors offering unasked-for opinions. And this is all before any criminals wander onto the scene to wreak a little additional havoc. It's to Nadel's credit that -- even with a large cast bearing unfamiliar Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Armenian, Kurdish and Slavic names -- the various threads of interpersonal connection don't snarl into a confusing tangle.

The same can be said of Harem's two plot lines, which inevitably intertwine. The best friend of Ikmen's teenage daughter is found dead wearing a strange 19th-century costume, and Ikmen vows to the grieving mother that he will solve the mystery. But within a few days the inspector is pulled from that case and reassigned to a newer problem: the kidnapping of the American wife of an aging Turkish movie star. Naturally, Ikmen -- who, like most police detectives, tends to ignore authority when it suits him -- decides to pursue both investigations at once, puffing away on his smelly Maltepe cigarettes all the while.

The devolution of Harem's plot provides this book's wildest, and least credible, sequence: A secret Istanbul prostitution ring with ties to various international mafias and nameless powerful leaders is destroyed by a squad of, yes, mysterious men in black. Ikmen, of course, is greatly annoyed by this mess, particularly when his boss, Commissioner Ardic, tells him to back off.

"My orders," says Ardic, "came from people so exalted you cannot imagine who they might be." Oh, OK then. End of clichéd story.

Far more convincing are the passages here that describe social and ethnic prejudices, including those faced by the Turkish movie star as he struggles to break into Hollywood, or the frustrations that half-Irish doctor Zelfa Halman feels in regard to Turkish expectations of marriage and motherhood. And author Nadel expresses very real concerns about the futility of police work as an instrument of genuine justice. She has been compared to Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon; all write novels featuring honest detectives struggling against widespread institutional corruption and organized crime. Pessimistic worlds, each one. But with people as clamorously lively as those in Nadel's Istanbul, they're always worth a visit. -- C.C.

* * *

Coming off the success of his debut novel, The Business of Dying (released last year in the UK, but only recently in the States), Simon Kernick now offers up The Murder Exchange (Bantam Press UK). It's a much faster-moving tale that swings from a funny series of misadventures in London's underworld to some of the most brutal fictional violence I've encountered in many years.


This novel has another paradox, one of "voice." Its point of view alternates between the first-person narratives of two main characters: cop John Gallan and the mercenary Max Iversson. Iversson kicks off the action here with his violent escape from a "money drop" that goes completely awry, after he'd reluctantly agreed to provide personal security for shady nightclub owner Roy Fowler. During the fracas, Fowler is slain by a member of Iversson's "Elite-A" security team, who has changed sides. Now on the run, Iversson stumbles into a heterogeneous cast of London lowlifes and finds himself sexually involved on an almost hourly basis with one of Fowler's employees, the mysterious Elaine Toms. As Iversson tries to figure out why Fowler was killed, and who pulled the strings to make it happen, Detective Gallan -- working with a blood match at the homicide scene -- launches onto Iversson's trail. But the closer he gets to his quarry, the more linkages he sees to gang lord Krys Holz. A much-feared psychopath, Holz controls the North London underworld through pure, cold fear. People who get in the way of Holz and his gang are dismembered and then dropped into liquefied vats of "maggot bait" along the fishing estuaries of Essex.

Beyond the difficulty of trying to connect Fowler's death to Holz, Gallan also faces political problems within the police hierarchy, following accusations of racism that led to his being demoted. This taint haunts the detective, as does his earlier failure to find a missing schoolboy. Gallan has much to prove to himself before this tale is done. Iversson has less to prove; he's too occupied just trying to find out why one of his men turned into a murderous traitor, and why everyone seems to be after him. The alternating perspective in The Murder Exchange is interesting and certainly keeps Kernick's story flowing swiftly. The one and only third-person chapter here reveals the true depths of Krys Holz's depravity. It's a torture scene guaranteed to test any reader's nerves, with action bordering on the sadistic. Even I had difficulty reading it, and believe me, I have read many tough and violent scenes. This one is particularly unpleasant.

As I was working through this novel, I found myself switching loyalties, siding with the very funny Iversson until around the halfway mark, when I began favoring the more straight-ahead Gallan, hoping he would eventually run down his target. Like a Guy Ritchie film, Kernick's latest literary brew bubbles over with quirky London criminals, all of whom draw from a peculiar and colorful vernacular. The Murder Exchange, with its pyrotechnics-filled finale set in the menacingly dark countryside just outside of England's capital, is an accomplished second novel, highly recommend for lovers of the amoral. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim

* * *

Janet Evanovich is a dangerous woman. The creator of the immensely successful series featuring Jersey Girl, bounty hunter and snappy dresser Stephanie Plum could easily lead an unsuspecting reader to his or her doom -- or at least, down the bumpy road to a couple of black-and-blues.

This reviewer knows whereof she speaks. Late one night, while reading the newest Plum novel, To the Nines (St. Martin's Press), I not only laughed loud enough to scare my dog, but managed, while rollicking, to slip off the side of the bed and bang an elbow on the night stand. Not an unusual occurrence while reading any Evanovich work. I have the bruises to prove it.


So reader, beware. And please, take care when enjoying these books in a public place. Otherwise, humiliation is sure to follow.

Bursts of uncontrollable laughter are merely the price you pay to hang out in Trenton, New Jersey's inner "burg" with Stephanie and her gang of highly irregulars. Wisely declining to change a winning formula, Evanovich brings the whole bunch back in To the Nines. Exasperated Jersey cop Joe Morelli, Stephanie's on-again/off-again love interest, is definitely on this time, though Ranger, her mysteriously intriguing (not to mention dangerously hunky) fellow bounty hunter pops in to raise an eyebrow, lend a hand and supply an endless parade of cars and bodyguards. Rex the long-lived hamster is still hanging out in his soup can and, of course, the bodaciously zaftig Lula is back. This time, the reformed "ho" is on a low-carb (all the meat she can eat) diet, clutching a pocketbook full of chicken and leaving a trail of frustrated dogs in her wake. When you think Evanovich has stretched the boundaries of outrageousness as far as only she can go, she kicks you over the edge. The woman has no mercy.

She also delivers us a dizzying display of "burg" residents: Stephanie's long-suffering mom and dad; her very pregnant and unmarried sister, Valerie, and Valerie's doting boyfriend, the haplessly endearing Albert Kloughn (pronounced Clown); and good old Grandma Mazur in high-tops and spandex checking in between side trips to Stiva's Funeral Home, the neighborhood's gossip central. Just the usual crew, plus another crazed assortment of the good, the bad and the ugly cluttering the highways and byways of Trenton and all points west.

Although the plots in these books hardly seem to matter (visiting with a bunch of lunatic friends is the ticket here), Evanovich doesn't forget to include a good story in Nines. Stephanie is on the trail of Samuel Singh, a dog-napping "skip" who's run out on his bail bond and departed for parts unknown with Boo, a canine puffball belonging to Mama Apusenja, whose daughter, Nonnie, is marked for marriage to the unwitting Singh. At the same time, a deranged killer begins stalking Stephanie, leaving notes and flowers and the odd corpse or two, hoping to get her attention. And, since too much is never enough in these books, we get the added fillip of a wacky trip to Las Vegas, where Stephanie, Lula and Connie (the receptionist at cousin Vinnie's bail-bond agency) do a sort of "Three Stooges Take Vegas" routine, hitting the blackjack tables, breaking and entering and appropriating a suspicious laptop, stealing back Boo, flattening a mountain of a bodyguard, and, oh yes, starting a riot at a Tom Jones impersonator concert.

One could hardly expect any less from our band of intrepid ladies. The flight out from Newark alone, during which Stephanie and Lula run afoul of vaunted airport security, is worth the price of the book. To the Nines shows Evanovich in her looniest form, and this reviewer couldn't be any happier about it. -- Reviewed by Yvette Banek

* * *

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the miner's strike in England. For more than a year, ordinary hardworking miners fought for their rights and their jobs, though in doing so they jeopardized their livelihoods and the lives of their families. Not surprisingly, that was an ugly, violent time, during which protesters were pitted against police, and frustrations mounted as days turned into weeks and months of unemployment and futility. To make ends meet, people did tasks they would never have imagined doing before -- whatever it took to keep the rent paid and families together.

The strike and its ramifications have been integral to several fine movies, including Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. Yet the event has not been addressed much in general fiction, let alone crime fiction. That's changed, though, with the arrival of Martyn Waites' fourth novel, Born Under Punches (Simon & Schuster UK), which attempts to capture the myriad tensions, emotions and frustrations permeating the British landscape of the time. It is an attempt that succeeds brilliantly.

Waites' story follows the lives of several current and former residents of a fictional northern England town called Coldwell at two stages: in 1984, at the strike's apex, and in 2001, when the Liberal government of Tony Blair is re-elected once more. Many things change between these two periods, but the past has a way of intruding on the present, keeping the characters in this book intersected in shifting ways. Here we meet Tony Woodhouse, once a football player on the rise, a brash and cocky young man who evolves into a more sober creature, running a treatment center for drug addicts. Tommy Jobson, meanwhile, is a thuggish drug dealer who has his hooks into Coldwell's underbelly, then and now. And in Mick Hutton we find a striking miner trying with decreasing success to support his young family, eventually struggling with the choices he's made as his family grows up and is torn apart. Finally, there are the Larkins: Louise Larkin was in love with Tony Woodhouse back in 1984, and thought love would conquer all. Seventeen years later she's made her own middle-class dream, with a husband and two kids. But the dream has many cracks, and they don't start to show in earnest until her brother comes back to Coldwell.

Stephen Larkin, the star of Waites' three previous novels (including Candleland, 2000), was an idealistic young reporter at the time of the strike. Now, having endured a litany of catastrophes, he has grown into the cynical reporter archetype he so desperately fought against when he was younger. He leaves his London home to research a novel he's writing about the strike, but in the process opens up deep wounds that were best left alone.

Not only are people in Coldwell uneasy about revisiting the turbulence of years past, but there's much to hide in the present -- including a drug ring that's ensnaring the next generation, those children who were born after the strike's end. As Stephen Larkin investigates, he uncovers all too many links to his own family, leading to a conclusion marked with high emotion and brutal violence.


What makes Born Under Punches such a riveting read is its level of passion. Waites' prose is lean, stark and deceptively simple. But he doesn't flinch from showcasing the wide spectrum of emotions influencing his characters -- be it Louise's despair at the hell of her marriage, the shadowy fear her daughter experiences when she sinks deeper and deeper into a destructive relationship, or the ragged tempestuousness that is a hallmark of Stephen's relationship with his first love. This is a difficult book to absorb, because there is so much anguish and bleakness, yet at the same time a tremendous amount of hope permeates throughout. Waites offers up fully realized characters who grab the reader from the outset, forcing us to experience what they do and to feel what they feel. Born Under Punches, a few years in the making, examines a subject obviously close to the author's heart. It is a tremendous pleasure to discover such a novel; it would be an absolute shame if the crime fiction readership at large were to miss out on making this same discovery. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman

* * *

I'm not usually a fan of historical crime fiction, and I often find that flashbacks intrude upon a story and interrupt its plot. So it was rather surprising to discover how fascinated I was with Jacqueline Winspear's debut novel, Maisie Dobbs (Soho Press), which displays both of these traits in an entertaining tale that combines a wartime narrative with a mystery and a tragic romance.


It is early 1929 and the title character here has just opened her own Trade and Personal Investigations office in Bloomsbury, England. Unfortunately, one of Maisie Dobbs' first cases seems disappointingly commonplace: she's asked to follow Christopher Davenham's much younger and ostensibly straying wife, Celia, in hopes of finding where the woman has been sneaking off to twice a week. However, Maisie's powerful intuition soon sets off alarms, as Celia leads her to a graveyard for World War I veterans, where several tombstones are marked with first names only. Mystified, Maisie follows her instincts to the Retreat, a place of recovery for military veterans whose disfigurements have isolated them from society, and who now suffer from mental rather than physical wounds. With the help of her office handyman, Billy Beale, this young sleuth slowly but certainly peels open a tragic mystery left behind by the so-called Great War.

In the midst of this case's evolution, Maisie Dobbs flashes back to its protagonist's childhood. When Maisie was 13 years old, we're told, her mother died and the girl was sent into the domestic maid service of London social activist Lady Rowan Compton. Though this was an era when many servants never so much as laid eyes on their employers, Lady Rowan became a mentor to the precocious Maisie, providing her with an education and -- assisted by renowned forensic scientist, philosopher and investigator Maurice Blanche -- tutoring her in subjects to which women in most western schools of that time would never have been exposed. The advent of World War I drove Maisie to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, and in France she developed a doomed romance with Captain Simon Lynch, a dedicated doctor. Far from being simply a diversion, this flashback section helps readers to understand Maisie's talents and drives.

Winspear does a beautiful job of re-creating the atmosphere and class strata of early-20th-century England, while never overburdening her story with details. Dedicating this novel to her grandparents, both of whom were injured during World War I, the author keenly explores the lasting damage that was inflicted on soldiers long before post-traumatic stress disorder became a catchphrase. But, as its title makes clear, Maisie Dobbs focuses on one woman and her development as an innovative and forward-thinking individual. Much less time is spent here exploring her actual detective work, and that's unfortunate. It would have been interesting to observe the nuances of investigating a crime in a society so ruled by sex, class and social structures. Still, Maisie proves to be an engaging and original character. Now that her background has been fully revealed, perhaps we'll see more of her detection practices in the future. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

It took six years for Clare Francis' A Dark Devotion (Soho Press) to make its way from England to publication in America, but it has definitely been worth the wait. In this traditional British village mystery, we meet London lawyer Alexandra O'Neill, who in her attempt to help an old friend finds that you really can't go home again.

Practicing in a law firm with her business partner and husband, Paul, Alex has grown weary of defending shady criminals who manipulate the legal system, and she cringes at Paul's noticeably waning ethics. His worsening drinking habit isn't helping their marriage, either. So when Alex's old friend Will Dearden calls for her help, she is especially vulnerable. The lawyer had a painful crush on Will when they were both teenagers in the Norfolk village of Deepwell, and she's rarely visited home there in recent years, preferring to avoid seeing Dearden and his perfect wife, Grace. But Grace has now disappeared, and the police seem to be doing little toward finding her.

Looking into this case, Alex finds there are many people with reason to want Grace out of the way -- including Alex's own brother, Edward, who is in a dispute with Will over the selling of his marshlands. It soon emerges that on the night Grace vanished, the sluice gates on the local marsh were opened, flooding that mire and lowering its value. With Grace last being seen near the sluice gates, could her body have been washed away? Although the flooding was initially labeled an accident, many villagers believe that either Will or his withdrawn, dyslexic son played a role.

As police circle the Deardens, searching for proof of their complicity in this mystery, Alex finds her task of protecting the family complicated by her loyalty toward Will, as well as by the Deardens' surreptitiousness. The attorney's faith in those she loves will be sorely tested as she witnesses the extent of Edward's greed, Paul's dearth of morals and Will's dubious devotion to his wife.


The prolific Francis, whose last U.S. title was Betrayal (2002), delivers here a rather morose suspense yarn, rich with vivid, multi-dimensional characters -- all of whom conceal dark secrets and troubling weaknesses. The breakdown of Alex's beliefs regarding her past and the people from it can be painful to watch at times, and in the end, the reader must concede that some secrets are just better left unexplored. A Dark Devotion is replete with circuitous plot twists and red herrings enough to cast suspicion on nearly all of its players. Though the story drags at times, and it bogs down seriously as Alex tallies up motives behind Grace's disappearance, fans of the English village mystery -- in which everyone only thinks they know everyone else -- will find much to enjoy between these covers. -- C.C.

* * *

For his sake, let's hope journalist Mark Arsenault doesn't follow too closely that old adage, "write what you know," because in his debut novel, Spiked (Poisoned Pen Press), Arsenault's protagonist, newspaper reporter Eddie Bourque, falls through a second-story floor, is dumped into an icy canal, has his ear shot and must elude the police in order to solve a murder.


Bourque has recently gone back to work for Massachusetts' Lowell Daily Empire, after a dismal effort to boost his career at a Vermont paper. He's desperate to write a story that will gain him wide renown, and thus improve his chances of moving on to a more prominent daily. However, since Eddie's reports all seem to end up either "spiked" (killed) or edited down to tourist-friendly blurbs, his chances of earning notice are slim, at best. So when his co-worker and competitor, Danny Nowlin, promises to share a juicy tip with Eddie, the latter can hardly refuse. He's less pleased when Danny's failure to make a scheduled meeting endangers his big story. But as it turns out, Nowlin had a good excuse, for the next dead body that washes up from Lowell's Worthen Canal -- and which Eddie is assigned to report on -- is none other than Danny's.

Feeling guilty about being Danny's rival, rather than his friend, but also hungry to capitalize on what could be the prize-worthy tale of Nowlin's fate, Eddie throws himself into the ensuing homicide investigation. He begins by searching for a mysterious Cambodian woman who was spotted both when Danny's corpse was pulled from the canal and, later, at his funeral. This path leads Eddie to political cover-ups and connects Danny's demise with the genocidal horrors committed by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. As the reporter slowly sacrifices his ambition in favor of discovering whatever facts are available here, he risks his job, his freedom and, ultimately, his life.

The plot thread concerning Cambodia and its brutal old regime is less than compelling, and it wanders terribly. More interesting are Arsenault's characters, including the eccentrics who staff the mediocre Daily Empire. From the hypochondriac intern with a mental-health-companion dog, to the computer hacker and wannabe stand-up comedian with no sense of humor, to the one-legged Vietnam veteran and records librarian who "files" articles in a manner that guarantees his job security, these players enliven this novel and engage the reader's interest. Eddie Bourque is very likable, too. Despite his sarcasm, cynicism, ambition and tendency to torture interns, he still believes that journalism should exalt the exposure of truths above all other responsibilities. Its humor, cast and light tone make Spiked a breezy summer book, perfect for reading while lazing beside a pool. -- C.C.

* * *

Clyde Phillips didn't start penning crime novels until he'd already made his mark as a writer and producer of TV series such as Parker Lewis Can't Lose and Suddenly Susan. His 1998 first novel, Fall from Grace, introduced small but tough San Francisco cop Jane Candiotti. Its sequel, Blindsided (2000), picked up more than a few favorable reviews and has now spawned a new third series installment, Sacrifice (Morrow). Like its predecessors, this book boasts the slickly produced feel of a TV cop show. Action is definitely Phillips' forte.

Sacrifice opens with the melodramatic, fog-shrouded slaying of Silicon Valley millionaire and philanthropist Phillip Iverson. Candiotti, newly promoted to homicide lieutenant and freshly wed to Inspector Kenny Marks, is assigned to the case. Just an hour later, a homeless black man is found viciously stabbed to death on the city's docks. Stopping by that latter crime scene on her way to inform Iverson's stunningly beautiful wife, Alice, of her widowhood, Jane discovers an "S" scrawled in blood. It doesn't take long before Jane feels pressure from higher-ups to solve the philanthropist's killing, but it's her own conscience that pushes her to resolve the transient's death, as well.

The unequal attention given to these murders isn't lost on Candiotti. She is further frustrated by having to break in an ambitious female subordinate, who resents Jane assigning her to the docks case. But when more homeless men are found stabbed, each accompanied by a crimson "S," a low-wattage homicide suddenly becomes part of a broader serial killer investigation.


If that excitement wasn't enough, an anonymous letter makes clear that there's a connection between Iverson's demise and the bum slayings. With police chief Walker McDonald roaring in one ear and the increasingly shrewish Alice Iverson (echoed by the media) seething in the other, Candiotti is under the gun to wrap everything up quickly, with a nice bow. The fact that all of this is happening during an election year only increases demands that justice be meted out expeditiously. Finally, Jane decides to take matters into her own hands, putting every ounce of energy into the case, but also putting her life in jeopardy.

Candiotti maintains the reader's attention, but the fact that she is portrayed as so much more knowledgeable than her police colleagues begins to grate after chapter 11. When she informs medical examiner Dr. Tony Tedesco that he missed something in his examination of a victim, which she had to find on her own, and then instructs him to "make sure this is measured, weighed, typed and DNA'd," the lieutenant crosses that boundary line between reasonable protagonist and supercop. Other problems arise when Phillips tries to build up Candiotti's character beyond her work environment. The banter between Jane and husband Kenny is enjoyable and humanizing, but descriptions of how her parents met and fell in love feel forced and superfluous. Although Sacrifice's premise is solid and interesting, the story contains some clichés, and the antagonist's inevitable speech at the end -- answering any and all lingering questions -- disappoints, preventing this good book from achieving greatness. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan

* * *

Vermont freelance journalist Sarah Stewart Taylor, author of the debut novel O' Artful Death (St. Martin's Minotaur), has written some strong articles in her time, many of them about social issues pertaining to women and the poor. Her assorted other work experiences -- as a nanny, professional dog walker and community college professor -- color her fiction with anecdotal feeling. Taylor's study of Anglo-Irish literature in Dublin and her membership in the Association for Gravestone Studies are useful in giving her academic cozy depth. However, none of that preparation saved O' Artful Death from its familiar first-novel flaws and weaknesses.

The story takes place in pastoral Byzantium, Vermont, a former artists colony abounding in Victorian mansions and old studios. It's the last place that 28-year-old Harvard art professor Sweeney St. George thought she'd end up spending Christmas. She is only there because her best friend, Toby DiMarco, promised her some family fun and the lure of a mysterious monument in a cemetery down the hill. Specializing in the art of death, Sweeney has more than a passing interest in gravestones, and DiMarco's marble specimen -- with its depiction of a stunningly beautiful woman, Mary Elizabeth Denholm, and the anomalous nature of the marker's theme -- can't help but spark her curiosity.

Meanwhile, Byzantium -- already plagued by petty thefts -- is dealing with a fresh murder. The victim happens to be a descendent of Mary Denholm's. This fact, layered atop rumors that Denholm's 1890 drowning may not have been an accident, spurs Sweeney to dig into the colony's past and present -- and maybe find a killer among the glut of eccentrics marooned in town for the winter.


Assisted by a local historian, Sweeney impatiently pieces together Denholm's Gilded Age story: she was a farm girl, employed as a maid and subsequently as a model by one of the colony's avaricious artists. (Coincidentally, she was also one of Toby's ancestors.) But the more Sweeney learns about Mary Denholm's peculiar death at the age of 18, and the harder she works to identify the sculptor of that poor girl's tomb, the more this research turns from curiosity into obsession. Eventually, the professor decides she needs a "break from Mary's grave." This interlude allows author Taylor to flesh out her protagonist's character. During a rare unguarded (and drunken) moment, Sweeney, conversing with a family friend, Ian Bell, who's also visiting Byzantium for the holidays, recounts her personal history filled with loss. This section provides some of the book's best dialogue, and certainly its most natural interaction. As Sweeney explains the suicide of her artist father and the terrorist-related death of her fiancé just over a year before, the reader clues in to why she can be such a guarded and distrustful person.

The novel's action picks up again with the slaying of another local, also linked to the mythologized Mary. With the help of Byzantium's many grave markers and the lost pages of diaries, revealing family secrets from long ago, and despite a bevy of underdeveloped players who serve the function of red herrings, Sweeney draws closer to the killer. In a denouement that wraps things up just a little too nicely, Sweeney unmasks a murderer, a blackmailer and a thief. And puts herself in mortal danger.

Taylor's vast knowledge of funerary art provides an unusual premise for this cozy mystery novel. But her story's plot structure is too reminiscent of the old Nancy Drew adventures. Like that more famous female sleuth, Sweeney St. George seems always to be stumbling into trouble. And though both protagonists are strong, intelligent, resourceful and bold, Sweeney possesses neither Drew's earnestness, nor her helpful nature and passion for justice. Sweeney's desire to solve the case in O' Artful Death comes across as an almost childlike need to prove herself right to the world. Perhaps by softening this character a bit in future books, allowing her to express more empathy toward the people around her, Taylor can make Sweeney a more welcome series visitor. -- J.J.

 


In the News

Award-winning British novelist Nicholas Freeling, who made his literary reputation with a pair of police detective series -- one featuring Amsterdam's Piet Van der Valk (Sand Castles, 1989), the other built around Henri Castang, a French inspector operating from Brussels (A Dwarf Kingdom, 1996) -- died on July 20. He was 76 years old. Read more.

Harold C. Schonberg, who reviewed mysteries and thrillers for The New York Times Book Review from 1972 to 1995 under the pseudonym of "Newgate Callendar," died on July 26 in New York City. He was 87. In addition to assessing crime fiction, Schonberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for the Times. Read more.

A Seattle Times profile of G.M. Ford (A Blind Eye) recounts the author's late-blooming academic interests, his move to an Oregon commune and his work with students at a "rough" alternative school. Although it's increasingly popular, Ford concedes that his work isn't great literature: "Mysteries are to literature what meatloaf is to haute cuisine. They're comfort reading." Read more.

Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist S.J. Rozan, Laura Lippman -- author of the forthcoming standalone Every Secret Thing -- talks about the tragedy of child-on-child crime, how her journalism prepared her to write fiction, and why she loves her adopted Baltimore "so much." Read more.

Screenwriter-turned-mystery novelist George Baxt, who created one of the genre's first gay detectives, African-American New York City cop Pharaoh Love (introduced in A Queer Kind of Death, 1966), before penning several celebrity mysteries (such as The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case, 1987), died on June 28 "from complications following heart surgery." He was 80 years old.

Movie and TV actor Buddy Ebsen, who portrayed Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies before playing an aging private eye in the 1970s series Barnaby Jones, died on July 6 in Palos Verdes, California. He was 95. Read more.

"I love the Victorian era, but I want to stretch and tell another story. World War I gives me the opportunity to examine different sorts of ethical problems ..." So says Anne Perry, telling Publishers Weekly about No Graves As Yet, her first installment in a five-book mystery series. This novel stars Joseph Reavley, a biblical languages professor at Cambridge. It's due out in August. Read more.

The first of two issues of Mystery Readers Journal devoted to "Music and Mysteries" includes a variety of essays by such talents as Peter Robinson, Patricia Wynn and David Corbett, all citing ways in which crime fiction employs music and musicians. Three of those essays are available at the Journal's Web site: In "Too Many Notes, Mr. Barnard?," Robert Barnard recalls his resurrection of Wolfgang Mozart for Dead, Mr. Mozart (1995) and explains his use of a Verdi soprano in his latest book, The Mistress of Alderley; in "Music and Mystery," Cynthia Harrod-Eagles explains that "police and musicians equally live by their skills and on their wits"; and in "Kinky Friedman -- The Lone Star Private Eye," Alan Bishop tries to separate the fictionalized "Kinkstah," series detective, from his musician creator of the same name. Read more.

Maybe it's because I was a fan of TV crime dramas before I ever picked up my first detective novel, but I can't seem to get enough of Mark D. Little's ThemesOnline Web site. It offers a trove of treasured mystery series tunes, from the familiar (Henry Mancini's NBC Sunday Mystery Movie theme, for instance, and Quincy Jones' jagged-edged Ironside composition) to the more arcane (Nelson Riddle's plaintive introduction for City of Angels, Elmer Bernstein's jazzy Ellery Queen licks and the bouncy Mike Post/Pete Carpenter accompaniment to Riptide). Of course, there are hundreds of other, non-mystery programs represented at ThemesOnline, from the eminently forgettable Paul Lynde Show to the more fondly remembered Nichols and The Magician. Can't you just feel the nostalgia? Read more.

John Donohue, a martial-arts expert, professor of anthropology and, not incidentally, the author of Sensei, a new thriller about the hunt for a serial killer who targets martial-arts teachers, tells Mystery Ink that his protagonist, Connor Burke, "is like me, but on steroids" and insists he could take Jackie Chan -- "as long as I were armed with a sledgehammer and he was tied to a chair." Read more.

ON NEWSSTANDS ONLY: Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and The Full Cupboard of Life (his fifth Precious Ramotswe book, already released in the UK), talks in the summer edition of Mystery Scene magazine about his present, Botswana-based mystery series as well as a second set of books he's working on, featuring Isabel Dalhousie, a woman detective who travels among the haute bourgeoisie of Edinburgh, Scotland. That same issue contains interviews with Lisa Scottoline (Dead Ringer) and James Swain (Sucker Bet), and an intriguing retrospective on the "beautiful" Dell Map Back mysteries of the 1940s and 50s. ... Meanwhile, the June/July Mystery News leads with a profile of Marcia Muller, but equally interesting is its interview with Olen Steinhauer, whose 2003 novel, The Bridge of Sighs, is supposed to be the first entry in a five-book series set in Eastern Europe after World War II. Steinhauer cites John Le Carré, J. Robert Janes and Raymond Chandler as well as Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver as his literary influences. Not bad company.


Last Rewards

Best-selling suspense/horror novelist Dean Koontz (whose 40th book, The Face, is due out in September) will be given the 2003 Ross Macdonald Award on September 20, during the Santa Barbara (California) Book & Author Festival. This commendation, which honors one of the foremost creators of American detective fiction, is presented annually to "a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence." Read more.

* * *

Ralph Peters -- better known to readers under the pseudonym of "Owen Parry" -- has won the 2003 Hammett Prize for his fourth Abel Jones Civil War mystery, Honor's Kingdom (Morrow). The Hammett is given out annually by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers.

The other books nominated for this year's Hammett Prize were: Jolie Blon's Bounce, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster); The Eighth Day, by John Case (Ballantine); Flykiller, by J. Robert Janes (MacArthur/Orion); and Bad Boy Brawly Brown, by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown).

Parry received his award in Ottawa, Canada, on June 14, during the Bloody Words conference.

* * *

S.J. Rozan, Eddie Muller, Jonathon King and Marcia Talley are among the nominees for the 2003 Macavity Awards. Winners will be chosen by members of Mystery Readers International. The awards are to be presented during Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, being held in Las Vegas, Nevada, in October.

And the nominees are ...

Best Novel:

Nine, by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster); Winter and Night, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur); Savannah Blues, by Mary Kay Andrews (HarperCollins); City of Bones, by Michael Connelly; and Jolie Blon's Bounce, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

Best First Novel:

A Valley to Die For, by Radine Trees Nehring (St. Kitts Press); The Blue Edge of Midnight, by Jonathon King (Dutton); In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur); and The Distance, by Eddie Muller (Scribner)

Best Critical/Biographical:
The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley (Carroll & Graf); The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir, by Eddie Muller (Overlook Press); They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated, and Forgotten Mystery Novels, edited by Jim Huang (Crum Creek Press); and Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel, by Jeff Marks (Deadly Alibi Press)

Best Short Story:
"Boot Scoot," by Diana Deverell (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine [AHMM], October 2002); "The Adventure of the Rara Avis," by Carolyn Wheat (Murder, My Dear Watson, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower; Carrol & Graf); "Voice Mail," by Janet Dawson (Scam and Eggs, Five Star); "An Empire's Reach," by Brendan DuBois (AHMM, November 2002); "Too Many Cooks," by Marcia Talley (Much Ado About Murder, edited by Anne Perry; Berkley Prime Crime); and "Bible Belt," by Toni L.P. Kelner (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 2002)

For more information about the Macavity Awards, go to the Mystery Readers International Web site.

* * *

The Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) has announced its list of nominees for the 2003 Shamus Awards, given to novels in which "the main character [is] a person paid for investigative work but not employed by a unit of government." This year's contenders are:

Best P.I. Novel:
Blackwater Sound, by James W. Hall (St. Martin's Press);
North of Nowhere, by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Minotaur); The Last Place, by Laura Lippman (HarperCollins); Hell to Pay, by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown); and Winter and Night, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best First P.I. Novel:
Westerfield's Chain, by Jack Clark (St. Martin's Press); The Bone Orchard, by D. Daniel Judson (Bantam); The Distance, by Eddie Muller (Scribner); Open and Shut, by David Rosenfeld (Mysterious Press); and Private Heat, by Robert Bailey (M. Evans)

Best Paperback Original P.I. Novel:
Cash Out, by Paul Boray (NAL); Juicy Watusi, by Richard Helms (Back Alley Books); The Lusitania Murders, by
Max Allan Collins (Berkley Prime Crime); Paint It Black, by P.J. Parish (Kensington); and The Poisoned Rose, by D. Daniel Judson (Bantam)

Best P.I. Short Story:
"Setting Up the Kill," by J. Michael Blue (HandHeld Crime, Summer 2002); "The Second Coming," by Terence Faherty (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], November 2002); "Aftermath," by Jeremiah Healy (Most Wanted, edited by Robert J. Randisi; NAL); "Second Story Sunlight," by John Lutz (Most Wanted); and "The Jewels of Atlantis," by James Powell (EQMM, November 2002)

The Shamuses will be presented in October at the PWA banquet to be held in Las Vegas, during Bouchercon. For more information about Bouchercon, click here.

* * *

Finally, Deadly Pleasures magazine has announced its nominees for the 2003 Barry Awards. Those nominees are:

Best Novel:
Without Fail, by
Lee Child (Putnam); The Hearse Case Scenario, by Tim Cockey (Hyperion); City of Bones, by Michael Connelly (Little Brown); North of Nowhere, by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Minotaur); Hell to Pay, by George P. Pelecanos (Little Brown); and Winter and Night, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best First Novel:

The Devil's Redhead, by David Corbett (Ballantine); Not All Tarts Are Apple, by Pip Granger (Poisoned Pen Press); The Blue Edge of Midnight, by Jonathon King (Dutton); The Distance, by Eddie Muller (Scribner); Buck Fever, by Ben Rehder (St. Martin's Minotaur); and In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best British Novel:
Scaredy Cat, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown UK); The Master of Rain, by Tom Bradby (Bantam UK); The White Road, by
John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton); The Business of Dying, by Simon Kernick (Bantam UK); Diamond Dust, by Peter Lovesey (Little, Brown UK); and The Yeare's Midnight, by Ed O'Connor (Constable)

Best Paperback Original:
Black Jack Point, by Jeff Abbott (Onyx); Fatal Truth, by Robin Burcell (Avon); Cold Silence, by Danielle Girard (Onyx); The Bone Orchard, by D. Daniel Judson (Bantam); Prison Blues, by Anna Salter (Pocket); and Pipsqueak, by Brian Wiprud (iUniverse)

Winners -- to be selected by Deadly Pleasures subscribers -- will be announced in Las Vegas on October 16, during the opening ceremonies of Bouchercon. For more information about the Barrys, go to the Deadly Pleasures Web site.

 

"The Rap Sheet" is compiled 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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