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January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, July 2004

 

Edited by J. Kingston Pierce

IN THIS ISSUE: A better-late-than-never rundown of the month's most-wanted reads • Fair-weather fiction from Carl Hiaasen, Laura Lippman, Qiu Xiaolong, Deon Meyer, Betty Webb, Kevin Wignall and many others • J.A. Konrath blends humor with homicide; David Hewson defends amateur book critics; pulpster Hugh B. Cave ends his many-storied career, and more news from the world of mystery • A bumper crop of new crime-fiction links • Plus: Sherlock Award winners, and the nominees for this year's Macavity, Barry and Anthony awards


Pierce's Picks for July

Bandit Queen Boogie (Three Rivers Press), by Sparkle Hayter. From the author of the Robin Hudson series (The Last Manly Man, The Chelsea Girl Murders, etc.) comes this over-the-top standalone thriller about a pair of post-college women who, while traveling through Europe, amuse themselves by robbing the deceitful married gents who are constantly trying to hit them up for dates. Everything goes along just fine -- until they steal a valuable statue of the Hindu god Ganesh.

Dirty Sally (Viking Press), by Michael Simon. Still reeling over the line-of-duty demise of his partner and best friend, Austin, Texas, homicide detective Dan Reles tries to recover his professional standing by figuring out who's been mailing the body parts of a murdered prostitute to prominent locals. Powerful stuff from a first-novelist who once worked as an Austin probation officer.

50 Best Mysteries (Carroll & Graf), edited by Eleanor Sullivan. Comprising stories by such genre luminaries as Robert Bloch, Ruth Rendell, Julian Symons, Margery Allingham, Anthony Boucher and Patricia Highsmith, this anthology represents the last half-century of short-fiction offerings in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Stories range all over the map, from clever whodunits to crafty suspensers.

Flesh and Blood (Carroll & Graf), by John Harvey. Frank Elder was a detective inspector in Nottinghamshire, England, before his wife betrayed him and age forced him into retirement. Seeking solace, he moved to Cornwall. But he can't escape his memories of Susan Blacklock, a 16-year-old who disappeared in 1988. When one of his two prime suspects is released from prison, after serving a sentence for the long-ago rape and murder of a different girl, Elder returns to Nottinghamshire to see if he can finally close his case. But soon another young woman is killed, and postcards from the murderer draw Elder into a crime that can only feed his personal demons. Harvey fans should watch for the cameo appearance here by this author's best-known protagonist, Polish-English cop Charlie Resnick.

The Garden of Beasts (Simon & Schuster), by Jeffery Deaver. In his first historical novel, Deaver (The Vanished Man, reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 4/03) sweeps readers back to Nazi-era Berlin, where Paul Schumann, a New York hit man who has entered the country disguised as a journalist covering the 1936 summer Olympics, tries to hunt down and kill the mastermind behind Germany's military build-up before a dogged police investigator can stop him. A high-tension game of cat-and-mouse.

Hark! (Simon & Schuster), by Ed McBain. The notoriously criminal Deaf Man is back, 11 years after his third and most recent appearance, in Mischief. This time, he insists on taunting Steve Carella and the other 87th Precinct detectives with clues, based on William Shakespeare plays, that must be unraveled if they are to stop the Deaf Man from pulling off the impossible -- the perfect crime. Hard as it is to believe, this is the 55th installment of McBain's 87th Precinct series.

Little Scarlet (Little, Brown), by Walter Mosley. In the aftermath of Los Angeles' 1965 Watts Riots, with racial tensions still running high, the cops ask unlicensed private eye Easy Rawlins to find an injured white man thought responsible for strangling and shooting a redheaded black woman. With its extra emphasis on crime solving, this is one of the most powerful Rawlins novels yet.

The Mask of Red Death (Random House), by Harold Schechter. New York City in 1845 is shocked by a series of brutal murders and scalpings, which too many people are inclined to blame on Chief Wolf Bear, a "redskinned savage" living among P.T. Barnum's stock of human attractions. But author/editor Edgar Allan Poe believes that blame for these atrocities lies elsewhere, and with the aid of legendary scout and Indian fighter Kit Carson -- who has been tracking the same slayer for months -- he sets out to calm his city by corralling the real savage here. This is Schechter's third Poe adventure, following Nevermore (1999) and The Hum Bug (2001).

A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women (HarperCollins), edited by Elizabeth George. Arranged chronologically, the more than two dozen short tales to be found here make clear the contribution female fictionists have made to the crime genre over the last century. Among the authors represented are Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sara Paretsky and Minette Walters, as well as Nadine Gordimer and Joyce Carol Oates, not commonly thought of as mystery novelists.

Murder Loves Company (Rue Morgue Press), by John Mersereau. Originally published in 1940, this mystery offers equal parts nostalgia and intrigue. It centers around a young professor of horticulture at the University of California-Berkeley, James Yeats Biddle, who -- in company with fetching reporter Kay Ritchie -- turns detective after seeing a pair of Japanese laborers thrown from a car on the city's new Bay Bridge, and after learning that some ancient olive trees he helped relocate to Treasure Island for the 1939 San Francisco world's fair have been killed.

One Last Breath (HarperCollins UK), by Stephen Booth. The fifth case (after last year's Blind to the Bones) for Peak District police detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry has them looking for a recently released murderer, Mansell Quinn, whose ex-wife has been found dead. At the same time, Cooper reassesses Quinn's previous conviction, for stabbing his lover -- an exercise that reveals cunning and duplicity among the convict's friends and family members, and suggests that Cooper (whose father put Quinn behind bars in the first place) should be watching his back, now more than ever.

Queer Street (UglyTown), by Curt Colbert. From the author of last year's Sayonaraville comes this third novel starring 1940s Seattle P.I. Jake Rossiter. His investigation into the murder of a female impersonator soon has Rossiter chasing leads in every direction, from the pricey refuges of Seattle society to the grimier confines of local mobsters. Meanwhile, he must cope with the oddly increased attentions of his junior partner, Miss Jenkins, and his sidekick's amorous interest in a client he's been assigned to gather evidence against. The Shamus Award-winning Colbert is currently finishing a fourth entry in this series, Nowhere Town.

Sick as a Parrot (Orion UK), by Liz Evans. The engagingly humorous Sick finds British gumshoe Grace Smith trying to prove the innocence of an adopted woman's birth mother, accused of murder. At the same time, Grace must deal with an ambitious cop, a mysterious e-mailer, a suddenly homeless (and chauvinistic) policeman who's eyeing her spare room, and the psychotic parrot left in her care.

Strange But True (Morrow), by John Searles. Following a tumble out of his New York City apartment, Philip Chase moves back home with his embittered mother, who hasn't yet gotten over the death of her younger son, Ronnie, five years earlier. Philip is essentially living a nonexistence filled with too much arguing and television-watching -- until the day that Ronnie's former girlfriend, Melissa, shows up, claiming she's pregnant with his dead brother's child. A suspenseful, surprising yarn that will force Philip and his mother to confront their own pasts, as well as Melissa's, in order to learn the truth.

The Wake-Up (Pantheon), by Robert Ferrigno. Frank Thorpe, a "special operations" guy fired over a recent screw-up, is waiting to board a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, bound for a vacation, when he sees an arrogant, hard-charging art dealer, Douglas Meachum, knock a poor Hispanic boy out of his path. Determined that Meachum's sense of entitlement should be brought down a few pegs, Thorpe decides to trap him in a scam involving a Mayan relic. No big deal, just a wake-up call. Except that Thorpe didn't anticipate Meachum's female client having such a negative reaction to the ploy. From the author of the Shamus-nominated Scavenger Hunt (2003).


New and Noteworthy

By this time, we should know pretty much what to expect from any new Carl Hiaasen novel: unmitigatedly venal villains as well as some less comprehensively corrupted scoundrels, and victims who -- despite the monumental odds against them -- eventually one-up their adversaries, everybody careening through a leanly written, satirical tale that allows the author to skewer the corporate and political interests bent on destroying Florida's fragile environment. Oh, and of course there has to be some sex thrown in, too, because Hiaasen's novels are the literary equivalent of Jimmy Buffett's country-tropical music licks -- both of them best appreciated while vacationing in sultry climes where nobody thinks twice about the fact that you're lapping tequila out of your shapely girlfriend's navel.

Against these standards, Skinny Dip (Knopf), Hiaasen's 10th adult novel, easily measures up. As it starts off, we find "biologist by default" Charles "Chaz" Perrone pitching his lovely wife, Joey, off the deck of a luxury liner and into the Atlantic Ocean on their second-wedding-anniversary cruise. He fears she's stumbled upon a pollution scam he has been handling for an agribusiness mogul.

There's just one little fault in Chaz's scheme: Joey, five years his senior and considerably wealthier, also happens to be a former swimming champ. Instead of drowning in the night, far from Key West, she strips off her clothes and begins stroking for shore. Thanks to an itinerant bale of Jamaican marijuana and a timely assist from 53-year-old Mick Stranahan, who was force-retired from his job as an investigator with the State Attorney's Office and now lives with his dog on a secluded island, she survives -- only to embark, with Stranahan's arch encouragement, on a revenge stratagem designed to convince the lazy and perpetually lustful Chaz that somebody witnessed him disposing of his spouse. As things disappear from or are subtly moved about in his Boca Raton home (the evidence of Joey's covert visits there), and as Stranahan lays the early groundwork for the blackmail ruse, Chaz is flung into a self-protective agitation that cracks the façade of calm and bereavement he had hoped to maintain. Soon, he's raising the suspicions of a python-loving police detective, lashing out at his zestful mistress, and popping Viagra in a hilarious offensive against concerns that offing his missus has left him unable to get it up again. Worse, though, for all parties involved, is that Chaz's increasingly erratic behavior attracts the notice of Samuel Johnson "Red" Hammernut, the wealthy grower who has roped Chaz into a water-sample-falsification conspiracy that will allow him to turn the Everglades into "God's septic tank." As the dimensions of Joey and Stranahan's intrigue unfold, and as Hammernut ties a hulking baby sitter to Chaz's butt, the reader can do naught but stand in awe of the comical climax ahead.

Hiaasen has assembled a striking cast of quirksters in Skinny Dip. Foremost among these is Chaz Perrone, the egotistical, opportunistic biologist who could hardly despise Mother Nature any more than he already does. (The guy won't even go into the "steaming shithole" of the 'Glades without a golf club -- just in case he has to kill some endangered wildlife, and thereby save his own pathetic neck.) His principal rival for attention here: Earl Edward "Tool" O'Toole, the hairy, painkiller-addicted enforcer who's charged with keeping Chaz out of further trouble, but whose more human side is slowly brought forth by a convalescent-home patient desperate for a little escape. Sadly, neither Joey Perrone nor Mick Stranahan (the latter originally introduced in Skin Tight, 1989) ever comes close to attracting the same level of interest, and their spring-fall relationship fails to achieve adequate credibility. Still, there's enough unwholesome craziness going on in this book to make one overlook its few weaknesses. Order another mai tai, dude, and just keep on readin'. -- Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

* * *

Considerably less frivolous is The Dark Water (Century UK), British author David Pirie's sequel to The Night Calls (2002) and his third grimly gripping thriller to feature the investigative duo of Arthur Conan Doyle and his mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell. These men make outstanding stand-ins for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, especially given the oft-repeated assertion that Bell, a surgeon and forensic expert who taught at Scotland's Edinburgh University medical school -- where the young Conan Doyle studied in the 1870s -- was the future author's model for his Great Detective. But while Bell, like Holmes, shows himself in Pirie's fiction to be impatient with idleness and given to exultations at the prospect of a rewarding chase ("I have no intention of delay. ... It is the opportunity we sought and we must take it at once"), Conan Doyle, 22 years his junior, comes off in these books as both more impetuous and less idolatrous than Sherlock's amanuensis. It isn't at all uncommon to find Pirie's sleuths quarrelling over one thing or another, as they dog their quarry's heels.

This is particularly true when, as in The Night Calls and The Dark Water, the object of their fervent pursuit not only outruns but outsmarts them at every turn. Readers of the previous novel will recall that Pirie blossomed his story from the rather astonishing fact that Conan Doyle studied at Edinburgh beside one of the 19th-century's most notorious serial killers, Thomas Neill Cream. (In The Night Calls, Conan Doyle refers to Cream in 1878 as "my closest companion," though that's taking considerable liberties with history.) Readers conversant in Jack the Ripper lore will recognize Cream as an arsonist, blackmailer, abortionist and remorseless poisoner of London prostitutes who, while being hanged in 1892, exclaimed, "I am Jack the --" just before the bolt was drawn. Whether or not this American had a bloody hand in the Whitechapel killings (and doubts of that abound), he serves splendidly as the nemesis of Bell and Conan Doyle. The Night Calls found him leading them a merry chase through the gloomy Victorian streets of Edinburgh and to a blood-filled room, while they simultaneously tried to solve the puzzle of a philanthropist's wife who was growing sicker by the day -- either as a result of disease or deviousness. By book's end, Cream had targeted Conan Doyle as the one person who can both understand his malevolence ... and be the most satisfying recipient of it.

As we resume the action in The Dark Water, it is the early 1880s. Cream has kidnapped Conan Doyle and imprisoned him in a miser's isolated cottage. After shaking off the debilitating effects of laudanum, with which Cream had been dosing him, the young doctor sets out to kill his tormenter, but must settle instead for fleeing into the English countryside, and thence to Edinburgh.

Only in Bell's company does Conan Doyle return to that "infernal cottage." However, it offers no clues to Cream's whereabouts. It takes a trip to London, and the discovery that Cream's mail has been forwarded to the Suffolk coast, for our heroes to pick up his scent once more. This leads them to Dunwich, a once-prominent village now eroding into the sea, where the disappearance of a rakish heir named Oliver Jefford has spurred fresh talk about the legendary 17th-century "Dunwich witch." Did Jefford fall prey to that witch's curse, or are more human hands behind his fate? And what link does this mystery have to the subsequent death of a groundskeeper, talk of a "howling man" who haunts the woods, and Dr. Bell's sudden preoccupation with "dowsing"? Burdened with suspects and unanswered questions, Bell and Conan Doyle move ever closer to untangling these Dunwich doings -- and confronting Cream, who must have a despicable role in it all.

A screenwriter in addition to being a novelist, Pirie brings a fine, dark eye to his scene-setting, though the results often suggest as much influence from Robert Louis Stevenson as from Holmes' creator. Given its gothic backdrop and supernatural overtones, one can be excused for thinking of The House of the Baskervilles while reading The Dark Water. But this is no simple effort to imitate Arthur Conan Doyle's storytelling. The three Bell-Conan Doyle books thus far (including also The Patient's Eyes, 2001), while they may diverge wildly from the reality of the relationship between these two real-life figures, and while they certainly bolster the misconception that writers' ideas are drawn more from their experiences than their imagination, nonetheless do much to illuminate Conan Doyle's younger life and troubled family situation. (His father was locked away in an asylum, while his mother allegedly took up with a lodger not much older than Arthur himself.) Where they are weakest, in fact, is where they are most like the Holmes canon -- being told from the first-person perspective of the character (in this case, Conan Doyle) who's left to observe the "master detective." Even more here than in The Night Calls, readers will grow frustrated by Bell's tendency to keep his investigative ruminations secret, to drag his associate from seemingly uneventful inquiry to dramatic incident without benefit of binding explanation -- at least until the mystery is resolved or the culprit apprehended. It might add considerably to these tales were we able to see, if only occasionally, into Bell's head. Oh, what an odd place that must be.

Readers expecting the Cream theme to end with The Dark Water ought to know better. Whether Pirie has in mind a trilogy or a longer story arc, I don't know. But having come this far, I can't not find out how it all ends. -- J.K.P.

* * *

In When Red Is Black (Soho Press), the third outing in the Chief Inspector Chen Cao series, author Qiu Xiaolong shows all the signs of settling into a familiar pattern. Contemporary China is still changing rapidly from a communist nation into a recklessly capitalist society. Chen is still a poet-turned-detective who relies on his intuition just as much as his brains to solve crimes in Shanghai. And all of his peers are still struggling to adjust to China's evolving culture, while leaving the ideological burdens of Mao Zedong's 1960s Cultural Revolution behind them.

Chen's subordinate, Detective Yu Guangming, takes over from his boss in When Red Is Black, probing the murder of a middle-aged writer who'd been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Chen himself has taken a working vacation in order to earn extra income doing a translation project, but when Yu asks him for help, the chief inspector finds excuses to trade translation for detection.

As usual with Chen's cases, the key to the writer's death here lies within her own writing, which may or may not have been plagiarized from other sources. Ordinary police work does the heavy lifting of Qiu's plot, but literary insight reveals the psychology of his characters. And by the end, what had seemed to be a classic locked-door mystery turns out to be poignantly mundane.

When Red Is Black may not be as compelling, plotwise, as its predecessors, Death of a Red Heroine (2000) and A Loyal Character Dancer (2002). But its satisfactions are those of reading books in a series, of seeing familiar characters return and change. Yu's wife, Peiqin, has now become a regular contributor, in this case as an unpaid assistant who parses the dead writer's work for her husband. Chen is still uneasy being a detective, but his hiatus from work makes him realize how much he enjoys it. And Qiu himself, a native of China who writes in English, is clearly more comfortable here with that language, weaving together smoothly flowing dialogue with unobtrusive explanations of Chinese culture. Poetry and food were always Chen's chief passions, while politics provide a steady undercurrent of tension. Luckily for Chen, all three come together for him each time a murder occurs in Shanghai. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

The 10th book in Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient Rome, The Judgment of Caesar (St. Martin's Minotaur), follows Saylor's aging hero, Gordianus the Finder, as he leaves Rome for Egypt. It's 48 B.C., and Caesar and Pompey are still duking it out for dominion over Rome, the Mediterranean and the known Western world. Gordianus and his wife, Bethesda, just want to sample the healing waters of the Nile in the hopes of curing Bethesda's lingering illness. Naturally, they are blown off course and into Pompey, just in time to see him captured and beheaded by the Egyptians. Peaceful times these are not.

In the 30-odd years of Gordianus' career so far, he's watched the old Roman Republic slide inexorably toward empire, and when he arrives in Egypt, he encounters for the first time an ancient monarchy that gives him an uncomfortable glimpse of what the future may hold for Rome. "It was hard to imagine any Roman citizen bowing to another man as if he were divine, but the fate of the world had taken such a tortuous path in recent years that anything seemed possible," he admits, presciently. The capricious brutality and profound egotism of the Ptolemies, the last pharaohs of Egypt, do not endear them to the pragmatic Romans. It's enough to make the war-weary Gordianus reflect upon the equally violent ways of his compatriots with nostalgia. But Caesar dismisses Gordianus' wistfulness, telling him, "You spend too much time looking backward."

Throughout his career, Gordianus has seldom managed to keep his working world and his home life separate. But with Rubicon (1999), the seventh book in this series, Saylor began shifting Gordianus from a career of accepting cases to a war of protecting his family from the unpredictable winds of change.

In Judgment, Gordianus is so busy trying to keep his head afloat that it's a surprise, two-thirds of the way through, to encounter an actual murder that needs solving. Saylor's smooth, simple writing skills -- here dedicated to bringing the hot, humid deserts and waters of Egypt to life -- make Gordianus' everyday struggles compelling enough without the traditional opening device of a crime.


Besides, there's so much intrigue and bloodshed in Egypt that a mere death from poisoned wine hardly seems to warrant an investigation. But the wine may have been meant for either Caesar or his new infatuation, Cleopatra, and it's Meto -- the son whom Gordianus disowned at the end of Last Seen in Massilia (2000) -- who stands accused of the murder. Stricken, Gordianus drops everything to save his son. It's a mark of how well known Gordianus has become among the Roman elite that, even though he despises them and can't seem to stop running into them, they forgive him occasional lapses. Caesar overlooks a bad blunder by Gordianus in exchange for Gordianus ignoring Caesar's own errors in judgment. In the end, as always, everyone tries to save face and only Gordianus is left "musing on the compromises forced upon us by the struggle for survival." -- C.C.

* * *
Whatever made me the way I am left me hollow, empty inside, unable to feel. It doesn't seem like a big deal. I'm quite sure most people fake an awful lot of everyday human contact. I just fake all of it.

Dexter Morgan is clearly not your average, everyday kind of guy. Sure, he's likable, although he is rather bewildered by the attentions of women. He can be charming and witty, and he's always supportive of his foster sister, Deborah, a Miami vice squad cop. But Dexter leads one hell of a double life. During the day, he's a blood-splatter lab technician with the Miami Police Department. At night, he's a serial killer with a marked difference: he only slays bad people (as if that excuse will save him from the electric chair). Orphaned by tragedy as a boy, he was adopted at age 4 by a cop, Harry Morgan, who set about trying to channel his new son's animal nature, his aberrant "need." It was Harry who convinced Dexter only to prey upon other killers -- such as the pedophiliac priest who he dispatches at the beginning of Jeff Lindsay's new novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (Doubleday). But with 36 kills to his name, Dexter suddenly finds that he has a competitor.

This newcomer is responsible for the gruesome murders of prostitutes. Not only does he take their lives, but he drains their blood and wraps up their body parts like prized possessions. Though Dex admires the technique, which mirrors his own modus operandi, he decides to help his sister solve these serial slayings -- a fateful decision that will compel him to question his own life.

Could Dex Morgan, "the best-dressed monster in Dade County," be more involved in these abominations than even he realizes? I'll just say that Lindsay's readers won't be the only ones surprised by this tale's outcome. Written with a playful and hip style, Darkly Dreaming Dexter manages to avoid farce or to tumble into bad taste. This is a very different and entertaining work, though more of a light holiday read than an intellectual challenge. Incredibly, Lindsay, a former playwright living in South Florida, intends this novel to be the start of a series. Watch out, Miami. -- Ali Karim

* * *

Thobela Mpayipheli, the star of Deon Meyer's South African thriller Heart of the Hunter (Little, Brown), has spent the last two years making a clean break from his past. Although he's now firmly established as a family man -- lover to Miriam Nzululwazi and father figure to her young son, Pakamile -- it wasn't so long ago that his skills were used by the government in more covert operations, where the only question was survival at any costs.

However, his placid existence suddenly comes crashing down in the form of Monica Kleintjes. She's turned to Mpayipheli -- a 6-foot-3-inch giant known as "Tiny" -- because it seems her only recourse. Johnny Kleintjes, her father and Tiny's old friend, has been kidnapped, and the price of ransom is a computer hard drive that may contain enough information to damage several African governments.

The abductors have given Monica only 72 hours to deliver the drive to a remote location in Zambia, before they kill Johnny. Regretful, but honor-bound to help an old comrade, Mpayipheli barely hesitates before embarking on a trip that will shatter his existence in a multitude of respects.

As he makes his way north to Zambia by off-road motorbike, and then by sheer wits, Mpayipheli is tracked by overzealous government agents and hired assassins who want nothing more than to reclaim Johnny Kleintjes, and are puzzled by Tiny's murky and possibly lethal past. The multiple pursuits here are compelling and fraught with symbolism. As Tiny, once a hunter, chases after an impossible quest, he is also being chased by others -- while trying to chase back the demons of the life he once led. Add in a forlorn but dogged young reporter, a craftily mysterious professor and a conflicted South African intelligence agent trying to do right by her offspring, and you've got a breathless fictional race to the finish -- one that may leave no one standing at the end.

Curiously, the promotional materials for Heart of the Hunter (originally published in Afrikaans in 2002, and translated by K.L. Seegers) compares it to Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, when there couldn't be two more dissimilar novels. Even so, Meyer, an information-technology consultant whose books are hugely popular in his native country, evokes the mood of a South Africa still grappling with change in the wake of apartheid's end and the dawn of democracy. At the same time, he cleverly sustains a furious pace by keeping scenes short and switching between multiple points of view. Unfortunately, this frequent switching doesn't always allow for equal character development. Janina Mentz, the aforementioned intelligence agent whose actions will get her in a world of trouble, remains elusive. By contrast, journalist Allison Healy emerges as the most memorable character in these pages, as her ruminations about struggling to succeed in a man's world as a less-than-beautiful woman ring strikingly true. Equally authentic-seeming is Mpayipheli, who has spent years overcoming a so-called genetic inclination toward ruthlessness and singularity in order to better himself for his loved ones, only to find it all stripped away for a simple mission.

Heart of the Hunter works splendidly as an action-packed thriller set in a fascinating foreign country, but at its heart are basic questions about nature and nurture, genetics and behavior. By layering in the subtext, Deon Meyer has concocted a novel that's entertaining and enlightening. Luckily, two of his earlier standalone novels are in the pipeline for U.S. publication; here's hoping that his translator doesn't spend any more time than necessary in delivering those future works to an eager readership. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman

* * *

In six previous novels Jack Liffey, John Shannon's battered and bruised finder of lost children, has been all over Southern California, both geographically and culturally. But in the new Terminal Island (Carroll & Graf), the hapless detective who wears his heart and his lefty politics proudly on his sleeve is hot on the trail of a truly lost child: himself.

Yes, after years of peering into the multicultural maelstrom of Los Angeles' reality and trying to rescue the damaged youngsters who have fallen through the widening cracks of the American dream, Jack's finally turned his gaze inward, upon his own rough-and-tumble growing-up among the stevedores and longshoremen of San Pedro, L.A.'s working-class port city. Perhaps it's his increasingly frequent brushes with mortality, or just the sense that time is slipping away, but when the call goes out for him to help Dan Petricich, a high-school buddy from the old neighborhood, Jack doesn't hesitate. Defying both his current girlfriend and his doctor's strict orders (Liffey is still recuperating from the near-fatal events related in last year's justly acclaimed City of Strangers, "RS" 5/03), the tattered warrior heads out once more, despite a collapsed lung, a metal plate in his skull and assorted other wounds of battle, to set the world right.

But Jack soon finds his own past front and center, as the abduction of Petricich's goth son is revealed as merely the prelude to a war of increasingly cruel vandalism perpetrated by a mysterious foe upon several of Jack's high-school friends -- and their families. The victims include, surprisingly, Liffey's own estranged father, a bitter, openly racist man who's the antithesis of everything Jack stands for. Rubbing salt into that newly reopened wound is Jack's eternally precocious teenage daughter, Maeve, whose attempts to foment a relationship with her grandfather have Jack scrambling to reconcile his own personal antipathy toward his elderly parent.

In this era of mealy mouthed and dumbed-down political posturing, Shannon dodges dry, empty rhetoric by fleshing out every issue, including the World War II-era internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. He puts real meat on the bones of ideas and real lives on the line -- and, as always, he asks hard questions that call for real answers, not mumble-mouthed sound bites.


Even the done-to-death stereotype of the half-crazed Vietnam veteran is treated in Terminal Island with fresh understanding and respect, and the currently trendy romanticizing of the ancient Japanese samurai warrior code gets taken in for questioning. A man of honor? Liffey is all that and more, but most importantly, perhaps, he's a man of decency and compassion. If on occasion he comes off as a little too good to be true (his irresistibility to women is really beginning to wear thin, and can anyone -- never mind an out-of-shape middle-aged man -- really be that indestructible?), things are more than balanced by Jack's very real and very human flaws, and a swirling, nightmare climax in the choking, dusty industrial hell of Terminal Island that just has to be experienced. Still, the real treat here, as always in the Liffey books, is the sympathetic intelligence and relentless honesty that John Shannon brings to his courageous, ongoing study of a man and his city.

My only caveat to the author: Please take it easy on old Jack -- he's no spring chicken after all, and I'd like him to be around for a while longer. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

* * *

And while I'm spouting off to authors, I have a question for Laura Lippman: Uh, what happened? After jumping from strength to strength over the last few years in your popular and increasingly vital Tess Monaghan series, you threw us a wicked curve with last year's gut-wrenching standalone, Every Secret Thing. In the wake of that tour de force, you had us all slobbering like Pavlov's mutts, anxiously awaiting your triumphant return to one of the most fully realized of all female private eyes, Baltimore's own intrepid gumshoe, the one, the only Theresa Esther Weinstein Monaghan.

However, By a Spider's Thread (Morrow), the eighth Monaghan outing, is disappointing, a step down from the intensity of your last few books. Was this intentional? The story feels like a mere pit stop on the road to somewhere, rather than an actual destination. I realize Tess has been through plenty lately, and probably deserves a break, but this book seems curiously subdued.

Oh, your fierce eye for detail and your eerie ability to find just the right image are still there, and few of your competitors can nail down the banality of evil better than you can. Yet through most of this book the supposed bad guys seem more banal than evil. Zeke and Natalie, two star-crossed would-be lovers not so much on the run from her jilted husband as absent without leave, are meandering about the country from small town to small town on a seemingly pointless (and surprisingly joyless, at times) joy ride. They're not exactly Bonnie and Clyde, even if Zeke's a just-released ex-con with some serious (but mostly unspecified) issues. Meanwhile, Natalie is a pampered but curiously naïve mother who comes off as more spoiled (and more than a little dense) than truly criminal. I mean, what sort of desperado takes off with her three young children in tow? Sure, Zeke and Natalie are obviously up to some sort of no good, but what they are actually doing is rather murky, and revealed so late in the game that a lot of the danger and suspense has been lost along the way.

Not exactly ratcheting up the tension is Tess' client, Mark Rubin, the wealthy furrier, devout Jew and heartbroken hubby who just wants his wife, Natalie, and their kids back. Rubin is a good character, even if he is utterly clueless about his "perfect" marriage, but the sap's got such a giant stick up his butt that we never get (or are given) a chance to really feel for him. And whatever hidden depths of his we keep hoping to discover (where'd he learn to shoot like that, for instance?) never quite materialize.

The multiple viewpoints you used so expertly in Every Secret Thing are employed here, too, but to much lesser effect. And a small, casual cameo by that previous book's likable police officer, Nancy Porter, only underscores this new novel's comparative lack of tension

Even Ms. Monaghan, who tends to latch onto her cases with an endearing ferocity, seems less engaged than normal in Spider's Thread. Initially reluctant to take her client's worries too seriously, she pegs Natalie's disappearance as the result of a mere domestic squabble between a habitually coddled wife and a husband in denial. Oh, sure, this story's parallel plot, which finds Tess finally learning a little more about the Jewish side of her gene pool, spurred along by the slowly developing but wary fondness she and Rubin feel for one another, is finely rendered and sensitively handled. But it's still not exactly the most gripping turn of events. Ditto the two subplots concerning Tess' begrudging preparations for her beloved Aunt Kitty's wedding to Tess' longtime mentor, Tyner Gray, and the P.I.'s eternal preoccupation with Crow, her on-again/off-again "perfect post-modern boyfriend." Crow, it appears, is once again missing in action, at least sparing us those scenes, but other burning questions still linger: Will he ever come back? Will Tess ever find a bridesmaid dress that fits? Will she become Mrs. Crow? And when did Tess become so darn girly, anyway?

But maybe it's me who's missing the point. As troublesome as I found this book to be at times, and as frustrated as I was by some of Tess' obsessions and habits, I never once questioned the protagonist's absolute believability. She remains as witty and vulnerable and self-deprecatingly charming as ever, as when she cops to her less-than-stellar journalistic career, confessing, "I wasn't much of a reporter. I was so far down the fourth-estate food chain I was plankton."

I mean, how can you not love a woman who cracks wise like that? So my embarrassing crush on Tess Monaghan continues unabated. She's a trouper, all right, a thoroughly modern gal right down to her daily latté and her Snoop Sisters Digest, the Internet discussion group to which she belongs and religiously posts. Yes, she has her quirks and foibles, and a vast array of those prickly little traits that drive men nuts. But hey, if Tess has some personal issues she feels she has to work on, Laura, or you think she needs a little time out, well, I'm willing to give her that space to "find herself." After all, it's what the perfect post-modern reader would do. -- K.B.S.

* * *

Talk about truth in advertising. Few modern fictional private eyes go down those mean streets with such reverence and enthusiasm for the past -- and disdain for the present -- as Loren D. Estleman's decidedly retro tough guy, Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker. So Retro (Forge), the title of Walker's 17th novel-length adventure, is more than just catchy -- it's also a one-word catchphrase that neatly sums up a big part of the appeal of this popular and long-running series.

By his own admission, Walker is a 1940s buff, who takes no small amount of pride in being so out of step with the times:

You know, Glenn Miller and Casablanca and the Bataan Death March. Nobody worried about cholesterol and you could smoke in a supermarket. We didn't have civil rights or penicillin, but you could get a T-bone steak for a buck at Berman's. I like hats and big cars and black-and-white movies. Then the lights come up and I have to fill up the tank on the way home at twenty-first-century prices.

No wonder many readers assume that this private-tin palooka must permanently sport a fedora, despite Estleman's insistence that he only mentioneded "that damn hat" in one book (Motor City Blue), way back in 1980. But let's face it: Regardless of what's planted on his noggin (if anything), Walker was just born to wear a fedora. And despite his creator's protestations that his hero is "a genial fellow, always grinning," I've found Walker's endearing grumpiness to be one of his best features. Somehow, the present never quite rises up to his expectations, and he can't help but express his disappointment, using some of the best side-of-the-mouth comments since Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. It's that sense of sardonic humor and what Chandler called "rude wit," more than anything, lumped atop Walker's surehandedness with a left-field simile ("graceful as an armored car") or turn of phrase ("a smut-colored sky"), that makes this series so consistently enjoyable.

And Retro is one more solid entry, rich with snappy patter and macho dramatics, and boasting yet another of Estleman's head-spinning noir-through-the-looking-glass plots, packed with more twists and turns than a bag full of worms. This time out, Walker is hired to facilitate the deathbed wish of Beryl Garnet, a once-notorious Motor City madam who wants her cremated remains delivered to her fugitive son, Delwayne, a not overly bright Vietnam-era radical who made the FBI's most-wanted list and then split for Canada in the 1960s. Walker promptly tracks down Delwayne in Toronto -- a potentially promising detour for this story.

Alas, like many American authors, Estleman gets Canada wrong, leaving no ham-handed stereotype unexploited, and demonstrating all the cultural nuance of a Dudley-Do-Right cartoon (a Canadian detective firm actually calls itself the Loyal Dominion Enquiry Agency and sports both a maple leaf flag and a Mountie in its Yellow Pages display ad. What, no hockey players?)


Of course, cultural sensitivity never was Walker's forte. I mean, half the time this dude is more likely to blow smoke in your face than extinguish his cigarette.

Fortunately, that's only the start of this case, and Walker is soon back on his home turf, followed shortly by Delwayne. But the prodigal's triumphant return to the good ol' U.S. of A. is marred by his murder in an airport hotel room, pinning Estleman's shamus between two unsolved homicides (those of Delwayne and his father, a black heavyweight boxing champ) committed more than a half-century apart -- but with the same .38 used as the murder weapon. The usual convoluted hijinks then ensue, spurred along by a large cast of decidedly retro-leaning, honesty-challenged characters who wouldn't be out of place in a 1947 RKO programmer, each with his or her own story to tell and lies to sell.

Through it all strides Walker, a Chandleresque wet dream, a walking anachronism too smart to slip into easy nostalgia, but too tough to let it slide. And that's why we love him. In a world of increasingly correct detectives whose moral code seems pencilled in, according to the politics du jour, Walker is a rock -- definitely his own man, walking his own walk and talking his own talk. His moral code, such as it is, may be stolidly black-and-white, but damn it, hell or high water, he sticks by it.

It's a feeling that fans of this long-running series understand perfectly. -- K.B.S.

* * *

Thriller writer Lincoln Child has come up with a high-concept doozy in Death Match (Doubleday). Imagine a technology that allows you to find your soul mate, a technology that never fails. Think of it: love and all its random messiness reduced to a simple mathematical formula of ones and zeroes -- a sort of shotgun marriage between The Dating Game and The Stepford Wives, with romance reduced to feasibility studies and probability charts and cold hard science. Now imagine a corporation offering that technology for sale to any lonely sap who can afford it. The Manhattan-based Eden company does just that, and it's never failed at match-making. Ever.

Until now, that is. Dr. Christopher Lash, a former FBI forensic psychologist with a small private practice in Connecticut and the obligatory troubled past, is hired by Eden when something does go wrong -- terribly, terribly wrong. It turns out all that infallibility may just have one helluva side-effect. The partners in one of Eden's absolutely perfect matches, a one-in-a-zillion couple "in which all 100 percent of the variables between two people have been in synch," have just committed a spectacularly dramatic double-suicide.

Eden wants Lash to investigate, but also to keep a tight lid on the scandal that may result from this disaster. Although he's initially hesitant, Eden makes Lash an offer he can't refuse, and then swears him to secrecy. However, the psychologist's private investigation abruptly becomes infinitely more difficult when another perfect couple almost immediately kill themselves, too.

We get to follow Lash as the corporate big-shots pull back the curtain to display Eden's secrets, and the science and technology revealed is heartbreakingly feasible and utterly fascinating. Less well portrayed, unfortunately, are some of the characters, who too often come off as underdeveloped pawns enlisted solely to serve the plot. An eccentric, socially inept computer genius, for example, could have come from a rather lame Saturday Night Live skit about Bill Gates, and many of the others seem to be merely narrative placeholders, never really fleshed out to the point where we care about them. This is an odd weakness for a novel that routinely provokes philosophical musings about the true nature of love, emotion and individuality. I also found Death Match to be slightly lengthy, its plot lingering perhaps a little too lovingly over the supposedly explosive conclusion. Still, Child's audacious premise, some intriguing insights into demographics and psychological screening (the deconstruction on inkblot tests is way cool) and a willingness to at least try to deal as much with the heart as the hardware, go a long way toward overcoming these flaws, and make this smart techno-thriller a real treat. -- K.B.S.

* * *

Having tackled the troubling world of Mormon polygamy, in Desert Wives (2003), Betty Webb now offers a peek into the realm of niche book production with her third Lena Jones mystery, Desert Shadows (Poisoned Pen Press). After the much-despised owner of a racist publishing house is poisoned at a book expo and the cousin of Lena's Pima Indian partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, is arrested for the crime, Webb's P.I. finds herself looking closely at Arizona's small publishing houses -- and not liking what she sees.

Given the proclivity of Patriot's Blood Press (no resemblance, of course, to Arizona-based Poisoned Pen Press) to produce volumes of a virulently bigoted nature, together with a few token liberal works, there's been ample hostility directed at its founder, Gloriana Alden-Taylor. Rabidly proud of her ancestral line, the 75-year-old Gloriana had managed to offend just about everyone around her, and she appears to be mourned by no one. Not even her family members -- from Gloriana's identical twin sisters, who are locked into their own abusive relationship, down to her son's wife, who is more concerned with saving animals than the her mother-in-law's demise -- seem overly bothered by Gloriana's murder. And making the job of identifying her killer that much harder, many people had the opportunity to spike Gloriana's salad with hemlock, not the least of whom are fanatically racist wordsmith Randall Ott and the Reverend Melvin Giblin, who just happens to be Lena's former foster father.

As she tries to sort out this case, Lena must also deal with court-ordered therapy that's awakening memories of her being shot and abandoned by her mother, and later mistreated in a series of foster homes, all of which left her with psychological scars. While she's hidden the damage behind sarcasm and humor, Lena still finds herself afraid of the dark and checking beneath her bed at night.

With the same determination that led her to confront the abusive culture of religious polygamists, in Desert Shadows Lena Jones has to face-off against white-supremacist groups, extremist politicians and an imprisoned serial killer. Driven by a near-obsessive compulsion to right wrongs and prevent abuse (the result of her own fractured childhood), Lena finds herself shot at, being nearly blown up, and making tough choices as to how she must live the remainder of her life.

For all of its dramatic plot turns, though, the most engaging thing about this novel may be its insight into today's small, independent book-publishing businesses. At the same time as Webb takes a few gratuitous (though certainly understandable) jabs at the lack of respect still being accorded to mystery fiction, she depicts the struggles that both writers and publishers have in dealing with -- or around -- book-producing conglomerates. Far less interesting, and distracting, is Lena's relationship with an ex-boyfriend who broke up with her by the unsubtle means of going off to marry someone else in Las Vegas. Now pleading for forgiveness (he says he'd had too much to drink, and was doing a "Britney"), the man's lack of appeal leaves the reader baffled as to why our heroine took up with him in the first place.

Betty Webb exhibits an obvious love for Arizona, and she does a wonderful job describing the beauty of America's Southwest -- an area that's slowly being taken over by tourists and real-estate developers. The prickly Lena Jones also continues to fascinate, especially because of her childhood traumas and continuing frailties. While Webb presents, in Desert Shadows, a clear viewpoint that's hard to argue against (few people would likely go out of their way to defend the merits of racist or fascist publications), she also provides an educational and extremely enjoyable mystery that informs as it entertains. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

July 1952. It is a typical summer day in Pepin County, Wisconsin. Sunshine bathes the Schuler farm as wife Bertha Schuler prepares a pot roast for her German family. But as she calls everyone to dinner, the first shot rings out over the gentle breeze blowing across the yard. Before long, the seven Schulers are dead, and the killer has removed one finger from each of them as a grisly memento.

Fifty years later, the circumstances of that rural slaughter remain a mystery, the crime itself largely forgotten. But at least one person remembers it. And, as we learn in Mary Logue's Bone Harvest (Ballantine), the fourth and strongest entry in her Claire Watkins series (after Glare Ice, 2001), he's determined to make everyone else remember, too.

As this book begins, Pepin County deputy sheriff Watkins is summoned to investigate a robbery at the local Farmer's Cooperative. Two very toxic chemicals, Parazone and Caridon, have been stolen. They're worth maybe $60,000 to $70,000, so it isn't difficult to imagine money as the motive. But why didn't the thief also take the expensive equipment on the floor nearby? And how would he or she go about fencing those chemicals, anyway? Before Claire has a chance to begin answering such questions, she's faced with a still more astounding puzzle, in the form of seven cream-colored pellets, each an inch long. Each containing dried finger bones. More bones are soon found in the deliberately contaminated flowerbed that fronts the county sheriff's station, and on a local farm where chickens have been poisoned. Are these simply tasteless pranks, or is there malevolence behind them?

Harold Peabody thinks he may have unearthed a clue. While working on his usual weekend project, a "Fifty Years Ago Today" column for the Sunday Durand Daily, he stumbles across the story of the Schuler massacre. Could those half-century-old slayings be linked in some manner to the present-day poisoning pranks, which are not only continuing but are escalating in their virulence? Claire suspects they may well be. This means, though, that in order to find out who's doing the killing now, she'll have to figure out who was responsible back then -- a far from easy task. What's more, the closer she gets to the answers, the closer the killer gets to her.

Logue, who wrote two standalones, Red Lake of the Heart (1987) and Still Explosion (1993), before tackling the down-to-earth Claire Watkins series, provides her protagonist here with solid purpose in expanding her investigation into historical territory -- and no shortage of reasons to fear for the safety of her loved ones, should the killer try to stop her inquiries. Just to be on the safe side, Claire sends her 11-year-old daughter, Meg, out of town, but she can only hope that her marriage-intent boyfriend, Rich Haggard, will look out himself. All of this makes for a police procedural that, while set in the country, still bears a sharp, urban quality. With its varying viewpoints and appealing sense of humanity (heck, even the killer here claims some sympathy), Bone Harvest is a decidedly satisfying read. No bones about it. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan

* * *

In Kevin Wignall's For the Dogs (Simon & Schuster), the professional "hit" on England's Hatto family spares only a single member -- teenage daughter Ella, who is conveniently away on holiday with her boyfriend, Chris, in the charming Tuscan town of Montecatini, Italy. But Ella is quickly caught up in the ripple effect of those murders. While relaxing one afternoon, she happens to glance at a man seated at a café table across the street. He looks familiar -- maybe someone she's seen before, in Florence or Rome? Why, though, would a stranger be following the two lovers? Before she can muse further along these lines, the man looks away, down the street, and reaches for something inside his shirt. A gun. As he wends his way toward her, Ella grabs Chris. Shots are fired -- only not at them. Instead, the stranger fires at two other men, both of whom promptly tumble to the ground, bleeding. "Come with me," the stranger says as he reaches Ella, and with that, her life changes forever. As does the life of this man, Lucas, a retired contract killer who's been sent to protect her.

It turns out that Ella's businessman father, in a moment of foresight, had hired Lucas to get her safely out of Italy and into the British consulate in Switzerland. The men he'd shot in Montecatini probably intended to kidnap her -- or worse. But why? The answer will be as surprising as it is tragic, overturning Ella's perceptions of her life and sending her into a downward spiral of sadness and rage.

All along, she's still in danger. And Lucas continues to protect her -- which is not what he'd wanted. His plan had been to finish this job and then sink right back into the mundane oblivion of his usual life. Spending most of his time with books, Lucas is not comfortable handling this shattered girl and her sullen boyfriend. He's made even more uncomfortable when he provides the pair with safe haven in his own house, before escorting them on to Switzerland. Ella, it seems, reminds the hit man of a past he'd tried hard to forget -- a past that includes a daughter he's never met. The more he is around the girl, the more determined Lucas is to find his daughter, once Ella is gone.

However, Ella Hatto has her own ideas about the future. With everyone admonishing her to get over her family tragedy, and get on with what life she's been left, she feels increasingly isolated and misunderstood. She's sick with grief, and comes to believe there can be only one cure: revenge. Naturally, she wants Lucas to help her get it. He agrees, hoping that the death of the man who wiped out her family will bring Ella some measure of peace. But instead, it unleashes events that can't be stopped. Events that will lead one of these two players to redemption, and the other to death.

With For the Dogs and its predecessors, People Die (2001) and Among the Dead (2002), Wignall has established his voice as a noirist with roots strongly immersed in the classics. His allusions to the Nibelungenlied (translated by A.T. Hatto) confirm the plotting depths of this third novel. In no regard a dry epic, For the Dogs is a commanding, complex exploration of death and isolation and the lives of two individuals headed in opposite directions, but with complementary needs. Wignall's prose is fluid and rich, and the pace of this story won't let readers put the book down without a darn good reason. -- J.J.


In the News

J.A. "Joe" Konrath, author of the new novel Whiskey Sour (Hyperion), talks with Mystery Ink about the 450 rejections he amassed before cutting his first book deal, the challenge he faces when mixing laugh-out-loud comedy with depictions of mayhem in fiction, and his efforts to make sure that his series protagonist, Chicago cop Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels, doesn't come off as "Mike Hammer in a bra and panties." Read more.

No surprise: Agatha Christie has been named as Britain's favorite mystery writer. According to The Scotsman, "Christie's books" -- including 79 crime novels -- "have sold more than a billion copies in the English language and a further billion in more than 44 different foreign languages." Read more.

This summer's update of The Thrilling Detective Web Site has finally been posted, and it was worth the wait. In additional to the customary overload of new pages about fictional P.I.s and other good guys (some of whom, like Mary Carner and Harry Dresden, I'd never encountered before), you'll find short stories by Ray Banks, Dave White and James Winter, plus Ron Miller's new, downloadable tale starring stripper-turned-detective Velda Bellinghausen. Read more.

Mark Billingham, whose latest novel, The Burning Girl (Little, Brown UK), is just out in Britain, gives London's Guardian newspaper a list of his 10 favorite fictional detectives. Along with Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade, he also throws in Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, Ian Rankin's John Rebus and ... Frank Cannon, from the 1970s William Conrad TV series, Cannon. Read more.

January contributing editor Sarah Weinman recently interviewed Michael Connelly (The Narrows; Little, Brown) for her blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Their intriguing exchange covers everything from one-book-a-year writing pressures, to the treats and tedium of book touring, to the two interviews that Connelly wishes he'd never agreed to and the next installment of his Harry Bosch series, which has the character back in uniform and investigating an "open-unsolved" murder case from 1988. Read more.

Fifty-eight-year-old Scottish author Quintin Jardine, who recently celebrated the publication of his 14th Bob Skinner novel, Stay of Execution (Headline UK), talks with Edinburgh's Evening News about the roots of his mystery-writing career ("I did it for something to do in my holidays"), his delight in punishing fictional bad guys, and his sordid past as a "Tory spin doctor." Read more.

This summer's issue of Mystery Readers Journal is the second in a row devoted to the subject of religious mysteries. Although its contributors include John Burdett, Jeremiah Healy, Mark T. Sullivan and Robert S. Levinson, only two stories from the magazine can be found online: Laurie R. King's explanation of why she, a trained theologian, turned to a life of crime (writing); and Rochelle Krich's account of how she has -- and has not -- let her Jewish faith influence her storytelling. Read more.

Janet Evanovich, whose 10th Stephanie Plum thriller, Ten Big Ones (St. Martin's Press), has finally hit bookstores, gets the star treatment in Newsweek. Read more.

No less glowing is a write-up about G.M. Ford (Red Tide, Morrow) in the Tacoma, Washington, News-Tribune. Read more.

Former ad writer Jack Kerley, whose first novel, the Alabama-based thriller The Hundredth Man (Dutton), has been collecting plaudits right and left of late, and has also won him a $75,000 movie-rights deal, tells The Cincinnati Post that he's already hard at work on a sequel. "I'm having fun now," Kerley says. "It's exactly what I always wanted to do. Somehow, it happened." Read more.

Hugh B. Cave, who penned more than 800 pieces for the 1930s and 40s pulp magazines, died on June 27 in Vero Beach, Florida. He was 93. In addition to his vintage tales about American private eyes and amorous femmes fatales, the British-born Cave wrote prolifically about vampires and voodoo, and continued to work well into his later life. He had more than 50 books to his credit. Cave's work is well represented in both Long Live the Dead: Tales from Black Mask (Crippen & Landru, 2000) and Bottled in Blonde (Fedogan & Bremer, 2000). Read more.

Walter Wager, who beginning with 1956's Operation Intrigue wrote more than 30 novels and works of non-fiction, died in New York City on July 11. He was 79 years old. Several of Wager's books were translated into films, including 58 Minutes (1987), which was turned into the Bruce Willis flick Die Hard 2, and Telefon, which became a 1977 spy movie starring Charles Bronson. Among his other thrillers were Otto's Boy (1985) and Tunnel (2000). Read more.

And let us bid a tuneful farewell to Jerry Goldsmith, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning film and TV composer who died on July 21 at age 75, after a long battle with cancer. During his career, the Los Angeles-born Goldsmith wrote the themes for movies such as Chinatown (1974), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and L.A. Confidential (1997), as well as for TV crime/thriller series including Barnaby Jones, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Archer. Read more.

Although the latest survey of reading habits in America doesn't concern crime-fiction fans exclusively, we can all benefit by observing the results -- and trying to alter the trends. This survey, conducted the National Endowment for the Arts, finds that "fewer than half of Americans over 18 now read novels, short stories, plays or poetry; that the consumer pool for books of all kinds has diminished; and that the pace at which the nation is losing readers, especially young readers, is quickening." One other interesting survey finding is a "striking correlation between readers of literature and those who are socially engaged." Readers, we're told, "are far more likely than nonreaders to do volunteer and charity work ..." Says endowment chairman Dana Gioia: "Of literary readers, 43 percent perform charity work; only 17 percent of nonreaders do. That's not a subtle difference." Read more -- please!

In an interview on the Murder and Mayhem Bookclub site, British author David Hewson talks about his second detective Nic Costa novel (The Villa of Mysteries, Macmillan UK), his history as a journalist, the tendency of fictional characters to exercise "free will," and why he's grown to like amateur book reviewers at least as much as "so-called professional critics." Read more.

CUFF NOTES: January contributing editor Kevin Burton Smith delivers a high-energy interview with Lee Child (The Enemy) in the summer issue of Mystery Scene magazine, from which we learn that Child regularly receives mail from America's erstwhile number-one mystery fan, Bill Clinton. The same edition includes features about first-time crime novelist Linwood Barclay (Bad Move), paperback cover artist Robert E. McGinnis and magazine editor-turned-novelist Kate White ('Til Death Do Us Part). ... Meanwhile, the June/July issue of Mystery News leads with a profile of Manhattan author Jason Starr (Twisted City), followed by an interview with newcomer Mark T. Conard (Dark as Night) and a retrospective on Eric Ambler, "father of the modern thriller." ... I haven't yet seen a copy, but reliable sources tell me there's a new print magazine out for the delectation of mystery-fiction fans, Crime Spree. The June/July debut issue is dominated by cover boy Mark Billingham, but also has Blake Crouch (Desert Places) reporting on his first-ever signing tour and an appreciation of Bouchercon by Reed Farrel Coleman (Redemption Street). Jon and Ruth Jordan are the editors/publishers, with "Rap Sheet" regulars Jennifer Jordan, Ali Karim and Sarah Weinman among Crime Scene's contributors. ... Tom Bradby's latest historical thriller, The God of Chaos, originally slated to appear in UK bookstores in August, won't be out until February 2005. The story, set in 1945 Cairo, revolves around a former New York City cop whose investigation of a murder may serve to expose a spy feeding information to German general Erwin Rommel. ... Capitalizing on the popularity of last year's Academy Award-winning film Road to Perdition, Max Allan Collins -- who wrote the graphic novel from which that movie was made -- is preparing for the December launch of a prose sequel, Road to Purgatory (Morrow). According to a press release, Purgatory will follow Michael O'Sullivan, "the young boy from Perdition, [now] grown to manhood, from World War II combat in the Philippines to wartime Chicago, where he seeks revenge on the gangsters who murdered his father ..." Concurrently, DC Comics will publish Road to Perdition: On the Road, a graphic-novel "inbetween-quel" that recounts the adventures of O'Sullivan and his ill-fated father as they flee the Capone/Nitti outfit and rob banks of mob money. ... Still more reasons to live: Craig Holden (The Jazz Bird) has a fifth book due out from Simon & Schuster next February, The Narcissist's Daughter, described as "a dark, stylish novel of sex and death in 1970s Ohio." And John MacLachlan Gray, whose The Fiend in Human found a prominent place on January's favorite books of 2003 list, has a sequel on its way from British publisher Century: White Stone Day finds 1850s London underworld reporter Edmund Whitty "involved with a bizarre and sinister group who photograph dead children dressed as well-known real and fictional characters from the past." This literary creepfest is due out in March 2005.


New Crime Fiction Links

Even the most venerable products need a bit of sprucing up now and again. So, while it took us a while to get around to this project, we've finally updated, reorganized and dramatically expanded January's Crime Fiction Links page. In addition to the familiar ClueLass HomePage and The Detective and the Toga, casual and serious students of this genre will now find links to Web sites honoring American private eyes Mike Shayne and Philip Marlowe, as well as British superspy James Bond; recommendations of where to look for more news about current and upcoming crime fiction (Sarah Weinman's Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and David Montgomery's Crime Fiction Dossier are both good bets); sources of short crime fiction on the Web (Plots with Guns and Shots, for instance); and a rundown of sites spotlighting some of our favorite novelists (everyone from Bruce Alexander and Cara Black to Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Winspear). Readers and authors are invited to e-mail us leads to any valuable Web pages we might have missed.

To find the new and improved Crime Fiction Links page, click here.


Last Rewards

Britain-based Sherlock magazine presented its 2004 Sherlock Awards on July 10 during an event at London's Crime on Store bookstore. The winners were:

Best Crime Novel: The Distant Echo, by Val McDermid (HarperCollins UK)

Best Detective Novel: The Last Red Death, by Paul Johnston (Hodder & Stoughton UK)

Best Comic Novel: Be My Enemy, by Christopher Brookmyre (Little, Brown UK)

Lifetime Achievement: P.D. James

* * *

Mystery Readers International (MRI) has released its list of nominees for the 2004 Macavity Awards. The winners -- chosen by MRI members -- will be announced during Bouchercon, to be held October 7-10 in Toronto, Canada. This year's nominees are:

Best Mystery Novel: The Delicate Storm, by Giles Blunt (Putnam); For the Love of Mike, by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin's); The Guards, by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur); Done for a Dime, by David Corbett (Ballantine); and The House Sitter, by Peter Lovesey (Soho Press)

Best First Mystery Novel: Night of the Dance, by James Hime (St. Martin's Minotaur); Death of a Nationalist, by Rebecca C. Pawel (Soho Press); The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur); and Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)

Best Non-Fiction: Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction, Volume 3, by Colleen Barnett (Poisoned Pen Press); A Second Helping of Murder: More Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers, edited by Jo Grossman and Robert Weibezahl (Poisoned Pen Press); Make Mine a Mystery: A Reader's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, by Gary Warren Niebuhr (Libraries Unlimited); and Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury)

Best Short Story: "The Grass Is Always Greener," by Sandy Balzo (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], March 2003); "Rogues Gallery," by Robert Barnard (EQMM, March 2003); "Texas Two-Step," by Diana Deverell (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine [AHMM], February 2003); "No Man's Land," by Beth Foxwell (in Blood on Their Hands, edited by Lawrence Block; Berkley Prime Crime); "War Crimes," by G. Miki Hayden (in A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime, edited by Jeffery Deaver; Berkley Prime Crime); "Child Support," by Ronnie Klaskin (in A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime); "Red Meat," by Elaine Viets (in Blood on Their Hands)

* * *

It's uncharacteristic of me, but every year I actually agree with most of the nominations for the Barry Awards, given out by Deadly Pleasures magazine -- and 2004 is no exception. Editor George Easter recently announced this year's nominees:

Best Mystery Novel: The Guards, by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur); The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, by Dan Fesperman (Knopf); Keeping Watch, by Laurie R. King (Bantam); Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane (Morrow); Every Secret Thing, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); and A Fountain Filled with Blood, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best First Mystery Novel: Mission Flats, by Bill Landay (Delacorte); The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur); The Barbed-Wire Kiss, by Wallace Stroby (St. Martin's Minotaur); Monkeewrench, by P. J. Tracy (Putnam); Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press); and Clea's Moon, by Edward Wright (Putnam)

Best British Mystery Novel: Lazybones, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown UK); Full Dark House, by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday UK); The Murder Exchange, by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK); The House Sitter, by Peter Lovesey (Little Brown UK); The Distant Echo, by Val McDermid (HarperCollins UK); and The American Boy (aka An Unpardonable Crime), by Andrew Taylor (Flamingo UK)

Best Paperback Original: Dealing in Murder, by Elaine Flinn (Avon); Wisdom of the Bones, by Christopher Hyde (Onyx); The Courier, by Jay MacLarty (Pocket Star); Tough Luck, by Jason Starr (Vintage Crime); The Shadow of Venus, by Judith Van Gieson (Signet); and Murder Between the Covers, by Elaine Viets (Signet)

Best Mystery Short Story: "The Blind Pig," by Doug Allyn (EQMM, May 2003); "Rogues' Gallery," Robert Barnard (EQMM, March 2003); "Always Another War," by Brendan DuBois (AHMM, July/August 2003); "The Mask of Peter," by Clark Howard (EQMM, April 2003); and "Rogue's Run," by Donald Olson (EQMM, April 2003)

The Barrys will be given out during a ceremony on the first night of Bouchercon.

* * *

Finally come the nominations for the 2004 Anthony Awards. These commendations (named in honor of book critic Anthony Boucher) will also be handed out during Bouchercon, at a banquet on October 9. This year's nominees:

Best Novel: Blood Is the Sky, by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Minotaur); The Delicate Storm, by Giles Blunt (Random House); Every Secret Thing, by Laura Lippman (HarperCollins); Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane (Morrow); and The Summer That Never Was (aka Close to Home), by Peter Robinson (McClelland and Stewart)

Best First Novel: Death of a Nationalist, by Rebecca C. Pawel (Soho Press); Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart (Simon & Schuster); Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press); Monkeewrench (aka Want to Play?), by P.J. Tracy (Putnam); and Wiley's Lament, by Lono Waiwaiole (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Paperback Original: Deadly Legacy, by Robin Burcell (Avon); Dealing in Murder, by Elaine Flinn (Avon); Find Me Again, by Sylvia Maultash Warsh (Dundurn Press); Thicker Than Water, by P.J. Parrish (Pinnacle Press); and Tough Luck, by Jason Starr (Vintage/Black Lizard)

Best Short Story: "Doppelganger," by Rhys Bowen (in Blood on Their Hands, edited by Lawrence Block; Berkley Prime Crime); "The Grass Is Always Greener," by Sandy Balzo (in EQMM, March 2003); "Munchies," by Jack Bludis (in Hardbroiled, edited by Michael Bracken; Wild Side Press); "Red Meat," by Elaine Viets (in Blood on Their Hands); and "Wanda Wilcox Is Trapped," by Eddie Muller (in Plots with Guns, September/October 2003)

Best Young Adult Mystery: Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, by Eoin Colfer (Viking Children's Books); Feast of Fools, by Bridget Crowley (Hodder Children's Books); Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling (Bloomsbury); No Escape, by Norah McClintock (Scolastic); and Seventh Knot, by Kathleen Karr (Marshall Cavendish)

Best Historical Mystery: Find Me Again, by Sylvia Maultash Warsh (Dundurn Press); For the Love of Mike, by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin's Minotaur); Let Loose the Dogs, by Maureen Jennings (St. Martin's Minotaur); Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press); and The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Critical/Non-Fiction Work: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury); Interrogations, by Jon Jordan (Mystery One Books); Make Mine a Mystery: A Reader's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, by Gary Warren Niebuhr (Libraries Unlimited); Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction, Volume 3, by Colleen Barnett (Poisoned Pen Press); and The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape, by Jane Doe (Random House)

Best Fan Publication: Deadly Pleasures, edited by George Easter; The Drood Review, edited by Jim Huang; Mystery News, edited by Lynn Kaczmarek and Chris Aldrich; Mystery Readers Journal, edited by Janet A. Rudolph; and Mystery Scene, edited by Kate Stine

 

"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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