Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
Edited by J. Kingston Pierce
IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • Mr. Whodunit's Holiday • A double-helping of tasty new titles from Edward Wright, Mo Hayder, J.A. Konrath, G.M. Ford, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Simon Kernick and many others • Mark T. Conard talks Nietzsche; Walter Mosley talks nudity; Ken Bruen just talks and talks, and other news from the world of mystery • Sue Grafton and Lowen Clausen both add to their commendations collections • Plus: Shamus Award nominees, and the winners of this year's Arthur Ellis, Agatha and Edgar awards
Pierce's Picks for June
Bad Move (Bantam), by Linwood Barclay. Prodigiously paranoid science-fiction writer Zack Walker moves out to the suburbs with his two children and exasperated wife, hoping to find some safety from the dangerous modern world. Instead, he happens across the corpse of an ardent conservationist who had been trying to stop further construction in the vicinity of a rare salamander breed. Walker would prefer to stay out of this controversy, but his subsequent discovery of a second body and some undeveloped film make him -- and his family -- targets. This fast-moving and funny debut mystery comes from a Canadian journalist and acquaintance of the late, great Ross Macdonald.
The Blackbird Papers (Doubleday), by Ian Smith. The slaying of a prominent African-American professor at Dartmouth College attracts the attention of his brother, FBI agent Sterling Bledsoe, who's not convinced by talk of this crime having been racially motivated. As he starts asking questions, though, a graduate student is decapitated, and then the professor's longtime colleague comes under attack. Sterling thinks all these incidents might be parts of a larger conspiracy, linked somehow to the deaths of local blackbirds. But before he can piece it all together, he too becomes a suspect in his brother's demise.
The Hundredth Man (Dutton), by Jack Kerley. Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus, who make up the Mobile, Alabama, police department's new Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team (aka PSIT, or "Piss-it"), are assigned to check out a headless body carved with an enigmatic message, left in a local park. With the help of his brother, an asylum-dwelling mass-murderer who coaches him on the psychology of madmen, Ryder sets out to catch a serial killer. But he's distracted both by department politics and by an oddly appealing new pathologist, Dr. Ava Davanelle, who could sure use the detective's aid in solving a job-threatening problem of her own. This is the debut novel for Kerley, a former advertising writer who lives in Kentucky.
Ice Run (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Steve Hamilton. Once again, the chances of reluctant private eye Alex McKnight ever actually being happy look pretty darn slim. Yes, it's springtime in Paradise, Michigan, and he's off for a romantic weekend trip with Canadian cop Natalie Reynaud (whom he met in Hamilton's last book, Blood Is the Sky, reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 6/03). But when the pair arrive at the old luxury hotel where they'd booked a room, they find a photo of Natalie's father and grandfather, along with a message that will force them to face a frightening Reynaud family secret.
Judgment of Caesar (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Steven Saylor. After taking his ailing spouse to Alexandria, Egypt, for a water cure in the Nile, Roman citizen-sleuth Gordianus the Finder is called on to figure out who poisoned a royal taster -- and nearly killed both Cleopatra and Caesar in the bargain. This is as much a political thriller as it is a mystery, centered on the bloody power struggle for the Egyptian throne between Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy.
The Lover (Orion UK), by Laura Wilson. The author of last year's Hello Bunny Alice ("RS," 4/03) returns with this chilling and emotional tale set in Blitz-ravaged 1940 London. Amid the wartime devastation visited upon that city by Nazi bombers, a prostitute is found horribly mutilated in a Soho alleyway -- apparently the latest victim of the so-called Blackout Ripper. Everywhere, terrors abound for Wilson's three main characters: another prostitute, a middle-class office worker and a fighter pilot. But of course, that's the nature of war. And of fictional thrillers.
Pony Girls (Forge), by Richard Hoyt. On the heels of last year's The Weatherman's Daughters ("RS" 7-8/03), Hoyt brings back P.I. John Denson -- this time to set upon the trail of horse killers in the American West. With lover and techie Annie Dancer, as well as his old partner, shaman Willie Sees the Night, Denson tries to corral this mystery's multiplying complexities, while fielding obscene clues on the Internet and trying to figure out whether the animal spirits he sees are for real. Weird but entertaining.
The Spider's House (Orion UK), by Sarah Diamond. Anna had hoped that her move to the Dorset village of Abbots Newton would be beneficial to her second career as a novelist. But things are just too quiet -- at least until she realizes that her cottage used to be owned by Rebecca Fisher, a notorious child murderess of the 1960s. Intrigued, she begins reading up on those long-ago crimes, and is soon determined to reveal the facts of Fisher's actions. However, someone else wants Anna to drop her inquiries, or face the dire consequences. Diamond's last novel was Remember Me (2003).
Time's Fool (Forge), by Leonard Tourney. It's a wonder that William Shakespeare ever had time to put pen to paper, what with all the mysteries today's authors insist he courageously tackled. It's 1603, and though everything else seems to be going well for the bard, one thing decidedly is not: A woman from his past has returned, dying from the pox and proclaiming she will blackmail him into paying her medical bills. Yet before she can accomplish this deed, the woman dies in a fire and Shakespeare realizes that his troubles have only just begun.
Wiley's Shuffle (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Lono Waiwaiole. To aid a prostitute named Miriam means that the resourceful, card-playing Wiley (last seen in Wiley's Lament, "RS," 4/03) will have to face off against her sociopathic pimp, Dookie, whose recent lucky streak has convinced him of his own invincibility. Just to even the odds, Wiley recruits his tough best friend, Leon, and the two go wheeling off on a dangerous adventure that will take them to L.A. and Las Vegas, though Shuffle's final, High Noon-style confrontation plays out on Wiley's familiar streets of Portland, Oregon.
What I Did on My Summer Vacation
If you're wondering why the usual monthly schedule of "The Rap Sheet" has been interrupted to bring you this special "double-trouble" edition of the newsletter, it's because I spent most of May enjoying a long-saved-up-for European vacation. That proved to be an unexpectedly good time to be out of the United States, for it's when news broke about the American military's torturing of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Had I been at home in Seattle, I would have been subjected to wall-to-wall coverage of the scandal, which seems like an inevitable, if horrific, result of the Bush regime's dishonestly incited and now out-of-control occupation of Iraq. And I would have been glued to media analyses of how this moral disgrace might buttress John Kerry's campaign for the White House, by further souring the image of George W. Bush's presidency (which is already "an overall failure," according to a poll of U.S. historians).
As it was, I avoided most of the scandal's immediate fallout, tuning in CNN only occasionally from London, Paris or Amsterdam. I was otherwise busy touring museums, dining out, scaling historic landmarks (did you know there are 530 narrow steps leading up to the highest public gallery in London's St. Paul's Cathedral?) and, of course, reading. I'd packed along several recent releases, including Anne Perry's The Shifting Tide, Timothy Harris' Unfaithful Servant and Simon Levack's debut Aztec mystery, Demon of the Air. But I also took every chance to stop by local bookshops and investigate offerings unfamiliar to me, since much European fiction never breaches U.S. borders. A stop at one store near Paris' exquisite Opéra Garnier, for instance, introduced me to the work of three English-translated French authors I'd not previously heard of: Fred Vargas (Have Mercy On Us All), Jean-Christophe Grangé (Empire of the Wolves) and Chantal Pelletier (whose novel Goat Song is slated for publication by Bitter Lemon Press in July). And while in Edinburgh, Scotland, I happened across The McGovan Casebook, a 2003 Mercat Press collection of short stories written during the 1870s and 80s. Ostensibly the autobiographical product of a local policeman named James McGovan, these dryly humorous detective yarns were in fact perpetrated by violinist-editor William Crawford Honeyman and may well have influenced the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, who grew up in Edinburgh and whose foremost creation, Sherlock Holmes, had at least a passing acquaintance with the violin himself.
Being better versed in current British crime fiction, I found fewer surprises at bookstores in England. However, I did manage to pick up a few volumes that aren't yet available in the States, including Jon Connor's well-reviewed recent novel, Phoenix (which introduces West Yorkshire Detective Constable Karen Sharpe); Paul Doherty's The Magician's Death (number 14 in his series about medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett); Robert Goddard's latest standalone thriller, Play It to the End; and, best of all, David Pirie's The Dark Water, the sequel to last year's terrifically suspenseful The Night Calls, which found a young Conan Doyle and his mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, alternately pursuing and being pursued by real-life serial poisoner Thomas Neill Cream. I was also fortunate, with the assistance of British critic and "Rap Sheet" contributor Ali Karim, to score an invitation to HarperCollins' London fete introducing Michael Marshall's new novel, The Lonely Dead, a follow-up to 2003's The Straw Men. Over perhaps too many free beers, I made the acquaintance not only of Marshall, but also of Mark Billingham (Lazybones), Simon Kernick (whose third book, The Crime Trade, is reviewed below) and the editors of two noteworthy UK crime-fiction periodicals: Mike Stotter of the e-zine Shots and Barry Forshaw of CrimeTime. (Photographs chronicling that evening's camaraderie can be found here.)
The only problem I find in having returned from Europe is that my to-be-read piles have now grown even taller and more precarious than they were before, thanks to the addition of all those new books I packed home. (I bought an extra piece of luggage in London, just to hold everything!) Sigh. Maybe I should consider this reasonable provocation for another trip someplace, because after all, I need the extra leisure hours to catch up on my reading. What do you think: Will my wife buy this excuse?
New and Noteworthy
"You don't remember me, do you, John Ray?" The woman asking had been quietly settled at a Los Angeles bar, draining a highball, when former B-western actor turned debt collector John Ray Horn sidles in, looking to trouble a guy who'd allegedly roughed up the niece of his employer, Native American casino owner Joseph Mad Crow. Although Horn barely notices this graying barfly at first, his memories of her soon start shaking loose. "Time had not been kind to her, it was true," Horn muses on the lady's semblance in Edward Wright's While I Disappear (Putnam), "and no one would call her beautiful today." Yet, Horn recalls, he had once thought much of this woman, Rose Galen, back when she was his co-star in a late 1930s oater called Smoke on the Mountain. The pair had even briefly been lovers -- before Rose suddenly dropped out of sight. To discover now, more than 10 years on, that she's become a shattered and indigent creature, living in a subdivided old house and serving food at a downtown mission ... well, Horn can't help but wonder what the hell drove her downhill.
Horn, introduced in Wright's award-winning debut novel, Clea's Moon (one of January's favorite books of 2003), continues to be a compelling character. The scion of a contumacious Arkansas preacher, who escaped to Southern California before World War II and stumbled into the spotlight as Hollywood hero "Sierra Lane" ("In 1940, I was Medallion Pictures' top cowboy, and if you looked at all the studios, I ranked pretty high, right after Gene and Roy and a few others ..."), he was later imprisoned for assaulting the son of the Medallion studio chief. Since his release, Horn has been scraping by, running down scofflaws for Mad Crow, who'd played his Indian sidekick in the movies -- a reversal of fortune that grates constantly on Horn's self-worth. His raw investigative talents come in handy when, as in this new book, he tries to strip away the cover from Rose Galen's past, looking for her murderer. The endeavor only sours Horn's impressions of his erstwhile leading lady, though, as he comes to suspect she had some hand in causing or covering up the 1927 rape-murder of an 18-year-old aspiring actress. But why should Rose have been slain so many years after that crime, and who's responsible? Could it have been celebrity attorney Jay Lombard, defender of gangsters great and small-minded? Or Horn's director friend, Dexter Diggs, whose interest in Rose ("she was the best natural actress I ever worked with") may have developed into an unhealthy relationship? Not above reproach, either, are the recovering drunk who runs the mission where Rose worked, or the "gray man" who was seen lurking outside Rose's window. As Horn pursues this case, he stirs up more than dusty recollections of classic, free-loving Hollywood. He also bestirs a killer who'll target anyone who might help the cowboy-sleuth solve Rose's enigmatic demise.
While I Disappear shows that author Wright is evolving, learning. His prose style is a bit tighter in this sophomore work, and he's less prone to propel his plot by way of coincidences. Historic mysteries are often force-fed with period details, but Wright exercises a lighter touch, sprinkling in occasional references to radio quidnunc Louella Parsons, the postwar decline of L.A.'s previously upscale Bunker Hill neighborhood, and the French dip sandwiches at Cole's Buffet that demonstrate his knowledge of the city's past, without suggesting that readers stand up and applaud his research. That said, Clea's Moon may still be the superior book, for it found Horn tackling an inquiry (into his stepdaughter's sexual exploitation) that was considerably more personal and emotionally wrenching than his probe of Rose Galen's suppressed guilt. With that same degree of motivation absent here, we are more liable to notice Wright's storytelling faults. The most obvious of these is his adherence to the third-person limited perspective. We are only ever shown things through John Ray Horn's eyes, which means that while we slowly get to know him, the yarn's other players remain opaque, and consequently shallow. Their fears, fancies and other interior dialogue are impossible to fathom, because Horn can't mind-read. It would be interesting to see what Wright could do if he'd open up the perspective of his novels, allow another one or two characters to hold the microphone now and then.
Edward Wright's second novel is scheduled for UK release by Orion in July under the title The Silver Face. -- Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
The road to publication is never an easy one, but for J.A. Konrath, it was downright treacherous. Twelve years, countless rejections, multiple agents -- it's enough to make anyone tear their hair out. But through persistence, perseverance and dedication to improving his craft, Konrath finally achieved what eludes many other aspiring authors: a multi-book deal at a major publishing house. Already it's a feel-good story, an inspiration to budding novelists on the edge of forsaking their own dreams. However, it's all to easy to be seduced by such a tale and forget what's really important: Is the book any good? Fortunately, Whiskey Sour (Hyperion), the first in a series starring Chicago police lieutenant Jacqueline Daniels, is very good indeed.
And to make matters worse, a particularly sadistic serial killer is making a name for himself in Chicago, kidnapping and torturing young women in such a way that death is a release. When Jack takes on this case, she makes it her single-minded mission to catch the killer. What she doesn't know, though, is that he has Jack in his line of sight, and intends to make her the next victim -- unless she can get to the psychopath first.
It's an unusual, and perhaps risky, move to combine gory violence with laugh-out-loud humor, but Konrath keeps the transitions between such extreme states very smooth, most especially in the second half of Whiskey Sour, when the pace picks up and the prose becomes even leaner than before. This success is primarily attributable to the strength of his cast, from the shifty P.I. who keeps popping up in this investigation, to the unfortunate Latham Conger, whom Jack starts dating -- only to put him repeatedly in danger under near-hilarious circumstances. Jack Daniels, especially, emerges as a fully rounded figure, her flaws and dry humor making her seem realistic. Most worth watching is her interaction with her Violent Crimes Unit partner, Herb Benedict, who may only rank as a sergeant, but whose judgment Jack always values -- even as he overeats junk food to his heart's discontent.
If there's a quibble to be made, it's that this new novel doesn't live up to its rather distorted publicity. Readers who sit down with Konrath's story, expecting it to read like something from Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton, may be surprised by the extreme nature of the killer's acts (though most of the violence is left off the page, as action is recounted in spare sentences which are most effective -- and even more chilling). But for fans of all-too-human protagonists, sharp dialogue, swift action and some serious gallows humor, you're in for a treat with Whiskey Sour. Like any first novel, there's room for improvement, but the series, which will continue with Bloody Mary (2005) and Rusty Nail (2006), is kind of like wine and liquor -- it's bound to get better with age. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
Thomas Wolfe once said that you can't go home again -- but sometimes, you're not able to leave home at all. That's how it is in the northern England town of Mangel, a settlement too small for outsiders to find, and when they do stumble across it, they are greeted with scorn and derision. As for the local townsfolk, they aren't going anywhere -- what's the point, when they are so much a part of the place? The only ones who manage to leave do so in a hearse, thanks to the Muntons, a native gang of thugs. Getting out of Mangel just isn't a viable option.
Or at least, he did. But the whispers are growing louder, the rumors becoming rampant: Could Blake have lost his touch, become a "bottler," a coward who's suddenly afraid to fight? When his sometime girlfriend Sal adds herself to the list of doubters, Blake realizes it's time to make a change.
The problem is, the rumors are too close to the truth for Blake, whose wife died three years before in a mysterious fire that destroyed the old incarnation of the Hopper. He's let himself go a bit ever since. Now, though, he decides to hit back by going after the source of his problems: the Munton brothers. What follows is a brutally funny depiction of revenge and murder, in which nobody's a hero and everybody discovers his or her inner thug -- and maybe does a little reputation reclamation along the way.
Williams, a native of Worcester, England, who recently returned to his hometown, writes in local dialect that's jarring at first (like the constant use of "I were," and "us" as a singular pronoun) but becomes less so as you recognize its internal consistency. Also, this is how Blake thinks and talks, so the use of proper grammatical structure would be out of place. Williams shines at painting a portrait of a ghost town barely hanging on, mired in ordinariness but full of life nonetheless. And the black humor is a constant here, ensuring that the story never becomes truly depressing or bleak. Deadfolk is an idiosyncratic and fresh crime novel that establishes Williams as an author to watch. Mangel may be a town that its citizens cannot escape, but the vitality and edginess of this debut will eagerly bind readers to the prospect of future installments. -- S.W.
What is it with the month of June and debut novels? For everywhere I look, there's a new author, a new voice waiting to be discovered. As my reviews in this edition of "The Rap Sheet" bear out, several of those debuts are quite fine indeed. Yet for some reason, the one that's left the most indelible impression upon me is a left-field candidate from a young Canadian author who boasts a colorful history, having spent much of his life wandering around the world in search of a wide variety of experiences.
Balthazar Wood -- better known as "Paul," because it's shorter and less unwieldy than his birth name -- lives to travel around the world. He has a day job with a Silicon Valley-esque computer firm, but takes liberal leaves of absence to backpack in the most remote corners of the globe. Regrettably, his current trip is seriously marred when, in the midst of climbing mountains in Nepal, he and his best mate, Gavin, stumble across the mutilated body of a Canadian traveler who was truly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Knowing that the authorities won't do much with this case -- and sure enough, the violent death is officially ruled a suicide so as not to scare off potential tourists -- Paul takes pictures of the crime scene, and discovers to his horror that the Canadian's death bears an eerie resemblance to the murder of Paul's lover, Laura, in Cameroon two years before.
Stunned by the similarities, Paul plunges into his own investigation, concluding that there may well be a serial killer at work, someone who hunts down backpackers and brutally kills them. Although at first reluctant to make the modus operandi connections -- how, after all, can a killer move from Mozambique to Malawi in a mere 24 hours? -- with the help of a skeptical travel guide writer, an informal network of backpacking buddies and choice Internet message boards, Paul discovers the truth of this case is considerably worse, and more bizarre, than he could ever have imagined. In order to track down the killer, he must literally travel to all ends of the earth, to places where his death might not be noticed for years, if ever.
Evans makes intelligent and credible use of the Internet, using Paul's skills as a programmer to ferret out the right nugget of information that propels the plot along. As well, this novel is saved from contrivance by having Paul regularly question the levels of coincidence at first, then slowly realize that things are far from random and that he alone must put things together to solve the current spate of killings and come to grips with his own past. Dark Places is a sharp debut that never lets up on the tension, with a denouement that is both shocking and utterly right. To say that Jon Evans is an author to watch is quite the misnomer -- because he isn't about to develop into something special, he's already there. -- S.W.
How much mileage can Julia Spencer-Fleming wring out of the relationship between her two very likable protagonists, Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne? It's a good question to ask, considering that after only a pair of novels, the Episcopalian priest and the married police chief of Millers Kill, New York, have already endured their fair share of danger, hijinks and near-fulfillment of their growing attraction. Yet even though Clare and Russ must still fight their way through a few more hazardous situations in Out of the Deep I Cry (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne), theirs is not a gimmicky relationship doomed to collapse at the moment they finally act on their feelings. Instead, it's a more complicated beast, due in part to the friendship and trust that have grown between these two throughout the series, but also due to two qualities that seem in short supply in today's world: honor and integrity.
It all starts innocently enough. The roof of the Millers Kill Episcopal Church is in dire need of repairs, but the church is seriously in hock. In steps Mrs. Marshall, a longtime member who offers to donate money from a trust that is currently being used to keep the town medical clinic open, a venture originally started by her mother, Jane Ketchem. Although the church's roof will be repaired, the clinic must be shut down -- to the consternation of its director, Dr. Allan Rouse, and the delight of angry protesters who are convinced the clinic's administration of vaccines has led to an outbreak of autism in various local children. The tension only worsens after Dr. Rouse vanishes without a trace, and one of the protesters, Debba Clow, was last known to have argued with him. When Rouse's blood is found in her car, the case looks open-and-shut. Naturally, it proves to be anything but, especially when a long-ago mystery -- a similar disappearance by Jane Ketchem's husband, Jon, in 1930 -- intertwines itself with the present. What happened to him, and is it related to the current mystery? As Clare and Russ dig deeper, both separately and together, they face the fact that their town -- as well as their relationship -- may be changed unalterably by this case.
If I mention that relationship repeatedly, it's because it is the focal point of Spencer-Fleming's series. The success of this new book, as well as its predecessors, A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003) and In the Bleak Midwinter (2002), rides on the author's portrayal of interactions between her two principal players. Fortunately, she handles that task skillfully. In addition to her conscientiously crafting of a mystery, and making careful choices in her use of flashbacks that never confuse, Spencer-Fleming keeps adding layers to Clare and Russ, developing their strengths and flaws, both as individuals and as a couple. She also, finally, does something here about Russ' wife, Linda, who had been a cipher in earlier books. In a scene near the close of Out of the Deep I Cry, we finally meet this "other woman" who had never been more than a topic of conversation. In so doing, Spencer-Fleming raises the stakes for future novels; an easy resolution of the triangle remains a long way off. Out of the Deep I Cry shows a writer developing her voice in order to sustain one of the most intriguing series in crime fiction, one that should only get better in the installments to come. -- S.W.
Successful Brooklyn burglar Emmanuel "Manny" Williams is on the run from Russian gangsters after he rips them off for a cool $2 million, in Norman Green's third novel, Way Past Legal (HarperCollins). In what seems to be a favorite plot device this summer (see also Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing), Manny and his partner, Rosario "Rosey" Colon, keep their stash in a storage unit. But before Rosey can scam him and possibly kill him, Manny takes off with all the money -- enough for him to make a new life for himself. After grabbing his 5-year-old son, Nicky, from foster care, and thus increasing the number of people anxious to track him down, Manny heads for the beautiful and sparsely populated landscape of northern Maine. But when their minivan breaks down on the coast, a few "hours north of a town called Machais," father and son are forced to wait while their van is being repaired.
The combination of fresh air and solitude, along with the echoes he hears of his own orphaned boyhood, start to transform Manny's criminal soul. He realizes that his son needs him to be a real father, not the letdown who abandoned Nicky to the foster care system after the child's mother died.
No matter how well intentioned I might be, no matter what a great kid I thought he was, if I wanted him to turn out better than me, I needed to start doing things differently. Fuck me, it's bad enough you got to be responsible for yourself, okay, I'm a crook, I'm this and I'm that, go right down the fucking list, I don't really care, I'll cop to it all, but now I've got this kid, and if I don't find him a place where he can have his own room, and a bicycle, and a school to go to and all that shit, then it will be on me how he turns out.
Green, who won critical acclaim with his 2001 debut novel, Shooting Dr. Jack, shows in Way Past Legal a sharp ear for the dialogue and dry humor of "down easters" ("He's got the disposition of a bay-ah with a bad case of hemorrhoids"). Anyone who's been to Maine ought to appreciate how this book captures that state's vast, forested landscape ("There was not a house in sight. As a matter of fact, I could not remember exactly how long it had been since I'd seen human habitation"), which comes complete with ubiquitous swarms of annoying and vicious "mosquitoes, no-see-ums, blackflies and so on." The difficulty of earning a living in the remoter reaches of the Pine State is rendered here with equal honesty and a resignation that reminds one of Richard Russo's Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls. "Ain't no jobs up here," Manny is told early on in this book, "unless you want to work at the mill. Working at the mill cam be discouraging, because you can see where yo-ah gonna be and how much yo-ah gonna make for the rest of you-ah life, and it ain't enough."
The tension that comes from constantly anticipating the arrival in Maine of those Russian mobsters is an underlying basso to Green's upper-lying depiction of the state's landscape and people. Manny and his son may be hiding out in small-town America, but they haven't escaped the problems familiar to much larger places. They're staying at the home of Louis and Eleanor Avery, two good people with health and money problems who are being squeezed by Sam Calder, a wealthy entrepreneur with designs on their land. Green's cast also includes local sheriff Taylor Bookman, a wise and shrewd man who prefers subtle manipulation, unless force is necessary. Bookman figures Manny out right away, which strains credibility somewhat, but the sheriff's convincing ways, insight into human frailty and good nature take prominence. Thomas Hopkins is a girlfriend-beating "son of a hoah" deputy whom Bookman is trying to rehabilitate. Hopkins becomes Manny's nemesis. When the Russians and Rosey show up in town looking for the Brooklyn burglar and their money, it's not too hard figuring out who tipped them off. The ensuing showdowns are tepid and somewhat derivative, though that's not what really matters in this book. Manny's narrative voice and how he changes -- how Maine and its people change him -- are the real draws here. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
British novelist Simon Kernick is on quite a roll. His first two novels, The Business of Dying (2002) and The Murder Exchange (2003), both earned spots among January Magazine's favorite books of their respective years. And his latest, The Crime Trade (Bantam Press UK), might just give him a hat trick. This seems a much lighter story than its predecessors, but only because Kernick is more liberal here with humor. There are still dark moments in The Crime Trade, rest assured of that.
The plot starts out in fourth gear at Heathrow Airport, just outside of London, where a drug bust goes completely and tragically wrong. A "sting," dubbed Operation Surgical Strike (yet another in a long roster of wincingly bad military designations), had been set up to confront and capture a gang of Colombian cocaine smugglers. But when that plan blows up, suspicion falls quickly on Montgomery "Stegs" Jenner, a maverick undercover cop who's known to be a bit too comfortable in the criminal world -- and whose partner and friend, Paul Vokerman, took a bullet in the head during that fouled bust. Concurrent with the airport disaster, gangster-turned-informer "Slim" Robbie O'Brien is murdered, along with his mother, in a council flat. It's those latter homicides that rope in Kernick's regular players from the Serious Crime Squad: Detective Inspectors John Gallan and Asif Malik, and Detective Sergeant Tina Boyd.
Hip, amoral and most refreshingly un-PC, The Crime Trade provides a fast and exhilarating read that's sure to reinforce Simon Kernick's reputation. But this novel's real strength can be found in its sizzling dialogue and gallows humor, which at times recall George V. Higgins' wonderful 1972 novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, another book that invited readers into the world of small-time hoodlums, trapped between the wheels of big-time organized crime. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim
For some while now, I have been anticipating the release of Tokyo (Bantam Press UK), the third novel from Mo Hayder (after Birdman and The Treatment). But my excitement was tempered with a sense of trepidation, as I knew the story would deal with a dreadfully murderous event in the history of mankind: the so-called Rape of Nanking. My concern was justified. While this is a beautifully composed work, it also gives readers a deeply disturbing look under the rocks of society, and showcases the darkness below.
Hayder's story starts out with the memories and diary notes of Shi Chongming, an elderly Chinese scholar who was one of the few residents to survive the terrible Japanese occupation of Nanking, China, in the winter of 1937. From here, we're introduced to the mysterious "Grey" Hutchins, who wants to learn the truth about a specific torture technique that was reportedly used by invading Japanese troops. Grey is a troubled and deeply disturbed British woman, whose nickname likens her appearance to that of the alien abductors often cited by X-Files conspiracy theorists. (Hence, the metaphor for alienation and inhumanity is subtly set up.) Her first task is to locate a copy of an 8-mm film that dates from the Nanking massacre. Grey believes that Chongming can point her in the right direction, so she contacts him at his university post in Tokyo. But the aged scholar is annoyed by this odd Brit, and sends her on her way.
Penniless and desperate, Grey befriends a young American in Tokyo named Jason Wainwright. In short order, she moves in with him and his two housemates, Siberian twins Irana and Sveltana, and is introduced into the city's hostess-bar scene. The dark realm of the hostess-bar is as alien to Grey as it would be to any Westerner, but it is portrayed in these pages with remarkable authority (Hayder has apparently had some personal experience with that scene). The upmarket bar where Grey goes to work, the Some Like It Hot Club, is managed by a weird mama-san, Strawberry Nakatani, and it's there that she's noticed by local gangsters and meets a dangerous wheelchair-bound yakuza called Fuyuki. Guarded by a clutch of henchmen, Fuyuki is rumored to possess a special elixir -- a drug with supernatural properties that is protected by his sinister nurse.
By incorporating sections from Chongming's journal, which detail the 1937 occupation, Hayder's narrative builds an atmosphere of menace. Reading these passages is comparable to driving through a series of car crashes -- the imagery is horrific, but it's hard to turn your eyes away. Meanwhile, in modern Japan, Grey discovers the connection between Fuyuki's elixir and the powers it releases. And readers learn not only why Grey is so interested in long-ago torture methods, but why Chongming has held onto that hideous film footage for so many decades -- and why he needs Fuyuki's elixir.
Enchantingly rendered (with its split narrative and split timeframe) and meticulously researched, Tokyo is a tremendously challenging work. Although it's certainly a mystery, it is also much more than that. It's a tale about the power of belief, the sanctity of life and how easy it can be to create a hell on Earth. Yet it's only fair to warn prospective readers that Tokyo's climax is visceral and dreadful, if far from gratuitous in its tragic circumstances. Never again will you look at the image of the rising sun on Japan's flag in the same way, because as Grey finds out, when you have the chance to turn your face to the sun, you really should. Light is the best way to chase darkness from your life. -- A.K.
Pronzini is best known for his long-running "Nameless" detective series, which chronicles the life and times of an aging -- and moniker-challenged -- San Francisco private detective. (The most recent installment is Spook, "RS" 1/03.) But he's also been writing non-series noir novels for years now. These bleak forays into the often dark recesses of the human heart include Blue Lonesome (1996), Nothing But the Night (1999) and Step to the Graveyard Easy (2002). I'd even venture to say that these standalones are superior to his Nameless novels, and that A Wasteland of Strangers (1997) is possibly the best thing this six-time Edgar Award winner and three-time Shamus winner has ever written. Although The Alias Man may not quite reach those lofty standards, it's compelling evidence that while they may not film 'em like they used to, they sure as hell write 'em like they used to. In fact, they (or at least Pronzini) may actually write 'em better than they ever did.
The focus of the chapters in this new book shifts between three strong, distinctive women. Jesse Keene is an antiques dealer from Pennsylvania and a recent widow, "edging up on the big four-oh" and still caught between grief and anger ("Damn you, Darin, why did you have to die on me like that?"). She's on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, mostly at the insistence of Brenda, a pushy but well-meaning friend who thinks that seven months of grieving is enough. Then, Jesse meets Frank Court, a handsome computer salesman, and for the first time in months she thinks it may be "time she got laid." Meanwhile, Sarah Collins is a 30-something bookstore owner in British Columbia, Canada, with problems of her own. Her beloved husband, Scott, disappeared four years ago in a particularly nasty car wreck on Vancouver Island, his body never recovered, and now her Gastown bookstore, Bright Lights, is slowly going bankrupt. Alone and lonely, Sarah feels emotionally detached, as though she's been "coping instead of living for four years." Finally, there's Morgan Cord, a high-school English teacher in Los Alegres, California, who's having marital problems with her husband of four years, Burt. He's always been rather secretive, but his recent behavior has led her to suspect that he's having an affair. She's angry and bitter, and determined not to be a victim.
What binds these three women together is hurt, the deep-rooted kind of hurt that gnaws like a cancer at everything you are, the kind that time won't heal -- just the sort of hurt that allows for Oscar-worthy performances. But things really get moving after Sarah receives a phone call from someone who claims that her husband wasn't actually killed in the automobile crash. Suddenly, these three strangers find themselves on a collision course with more hurt than they'd ever imagined, and laying in wait at ground zero is the charming con man -- an homme fatal -- whose wicked web of deceit is about to be ripped to shreds. But what makes this book ultimately so rich and rewarding is that in trying to discover the real identity of the man they all know by different names, Jesse, Sarah and Morgan are forced to confront questions about their own identities.
Make no mistake -- The Alias Man is noir, and defiantly modern noir at that. These woman are emphatically modern girls, and the men in this book do not sport fedoras or smoke Luckies -- it's a world of fax machines and cell phones, computers and e-mail. Yet all the traditional trappings of noir, that curious subgenre that straddles both literature and cinema, are present and accounted for: the pervasive sense of despair; the cynical fatalism; a taut, fast-moving plot; plenty of existential angst, questionable motives and twisted psychological ambiguity; and of course, the ever-present threat/promise of good ol' sex and violence lurking in the shadows. The Alias Man, with its deft interlocking of gradually converging plot lines and compelling but recognizable characters, is simply further proof that these days, nobody works those shadows as well as Bill Pronzini. Somebody tell Hollywood. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
The ominously prolific Lawrence Block just keeps rolling along, like Old Faithful on wheels. In fact, Block, who recently received the British Crime Writers' Association's Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement, has only just concluded an extensive U.S. road trip during which he hawked his latest release, The Burglar on the Prowl (Morrow). It's the 10th comic novel in his long-running series about Bernie Rhodenbarr, the affable and peace-loving New York City used-books dealer and occasional housebreaker, and Bernie's fans ought to eat it right up.
Don't expect much tinkering with the formula here -- part of the charm of the Burglar series is its formula, and the endless variations Block spins on it. As Bernie says at one point in the story, "There's a lot to be said for tradition, and sticking with the tried and true." And how.
All the usual suspects are present and accounted for in Prowl. Mrs. Rhodenbarr's favorite son is, of course, still the owner/manager (and sole employee) of Manhattan's Barnegat Books on East 11th Street. He's as charming and dry-witted as ever, and his best pal, Carolyn Kaiser, the dog-grooming lesbian with the bathtub in her apartment's kitchen, still works two doors down at The Poodle Factory, and she's still as loyal and true-blue as a best friend can be. And what Bernie caper would be complete without a visit from Detective Ray Kirschmann (Boo! Hiss!), the decidedly less-than-fine member of New York's finest who is always eager to pick up a stray clue or a few bucks -- or both? Toss in the usual pain-inducing puns, wry banter, plot convulsions and a plethora of mind-snapping coincidences, and we're on our way. In fact, the coincidences are so abundant this time around that even Bernie remarks on them, musing on "the long arm of coincidence" even as that arm seems to be tightening about his neck.
Things backfire, however, and our hero must bear witness to a clear case of date rape in the Riverdale apartment he had just commenced robbing. Shaken, the next day Bernie finds himself the number-one suspect in another burglary committed in the same neighborhood -- and this one has two corpses attached to it. Soon, the coincidences begin to stack up, until Bernie finds himself up to his eyeballs in trouble. And once again, this plucky burglar is the only one who can dig his way out. Suffice it to say that he does so in his usual charming and entertaining fashion, in the end gathering the suspects together and uttering the line eager fans have anticipated ever since his last adventure (in 1999's The Burglar in the Rye): "I suppose you're wondering why I summoned you all here ..."
So ... an easygoing, entertaining, well-written mystery full of sly wit, interesting characters and a plot that will keep your brain cells working overtime until the final pages. The name on the spine? Lawrence Block. Coincidence? If so, that's one you can take to the bank. -- K.B.S.
In many ways, Richard Barre's latest novel, Echo Bay (Capra Press), is classic noir, what with its cast of self-destructive losers, avaricious weasels and clueless innocents all circling the drain. The glaring sunshine, postcard scenery and beer-commercial good times of present-day Lake Tahoe, California, and a last-minute happy ending (of sorts) do little to lighten the inherent darkness, or the characters' generally bleak prospects.
Washed-up former skiing champ and sometimes-publicist Shawn Rainey has come home to paradise, reluctantly leading a PR project to resurrect the Constance, a Tahoe steamship that was scuttled back in the 1940s. Why take on this project, if he's so reluctant? Simple: If he doesn't, Terry Dahl, his ex-wife's slimy new husband (and Shawn's former best friend), threatens to deny Shawn visitation rights to his own children, making Terry perhaps the most enjoyably detestable reptile I've read in a good long while. As the head of a flock of investors who see potential big bucks in the Constance's resurrection as a tourist attraction, Terry desperately needs Shawn's hometown celebrity status and ample charm to help sway the locals, many of whom are strongly opposed to this scheme. But Terry, as venal and viciously manipulative as he is, is hardly the only prize in this crackerjack box of venality and brutality, weakness and cowardice. There are also crooked cops, sadistic bullies, abusive alcoholics, dealers, scam artists, greedy speculators, suicidal lovers and enough nasty little secrets and lies lurking just below the surface to choke on.
Even Shawn, the reluctant "hero" of Echo Bay, despite his aging golden-boy charm, comes off as more pathetic than sympathetic, his eventual valiancy a result of fluke and self-preservation rather than some overlying moral conviction. Turns out that Shawn has his own issues to deal with, from his brother's suspicious death in a boating accident years ago, to his strained relationship with his father and an unresolved breakup with the girlfriend he left behind -- a woman who is now married (unhappily) to one of Shawn's old pals. What's more, the campaign to resurrect the Constance isn't just disturbing the troubled waters of Shawn's past. The ex-skiing star's return has set off an accelerating chain of events that threaten to dredge up plenty of other people's secrets as well, making an awful lot of the resort town's citizens unhappy -- some of them unhappy enough to kill.
OK, so Primal Spillane: Early Stories 1941-1942 (Gryphon Books), by Mickey Spillane, edited and with an introduction by Max Allan Collins and Lynn F. Myers Jr., is not going to change anybody's mind about the literary merits of Mickey Spillane.
And it would be wrong to expect they would, anyway. These rough-and-ready short-shorts were churned out in the early 40s by a then 22-year-old Spillane as who-gives-a-damn text fillers for comic books attempting to sashay past postal regulations and qualify for a cheaper mailing rate. That these stories were not Spillane at his absolute best is a given -- the white-hot passion of his gazillion-selling sex-and-violence Mike Hammer revenge fantasies, including I, the Jury and My Gun is Quick, lay in wait at the far end of that decade. This, on the other hand, is pulp fiction at its pulpiest and most disposable -- no apology given, and none taken. What is amazing, though, is how many of these yarns, obviously tailored for the undiscriminating boys who constituted the comics-reading audience, nonetheless already showed much of the visceral narrative muscle that would transform Spillane into possibly the most successful American author of the era.
Supposedly, Spillane himself didn't even have all these stories on hand until he was presented with a copy of this collection.
But what stories they are! This is real boys' adventure stuff, full of rip-snorting CAPITALIZATION and macho derring-do, and heavy on the "Gee Whiz!" and "Wow!" (I don't think I've ever read so many consecutive short stories whose final punctuation is an exclamation mark.) These are yarns filled with ace detectives and tough GIs (the United States was just about to enter World War II at the time of their writing), Nazis and "Japs" (referred to in one instance as "little brown men"), sea monsters and space creatures, cops and robbers, heroes and villains. Some of the stories here don't even make much sense, and some are pretty dumb, but there's an energy to the best of them, a damn-the-torpedoes approach and a two-fisted narrative drive that would serve Spillane well in the not-too-distant future. A revealing -- and enjoyable -- look at an important writer's apprenticeship. Don't like this story? TRY ANOTHER!!! -- K.B.S.
Thirty-nine-year-old West Hollywood resident Cece Caruso is tired of living, breathing, reading and dreaming about Erle Stanley Gardner, the California attorney who, in 1933's The Case of the Velvet Claws, introduced the imperturbable Mason. Since dumping her husband, Cece has become a rather successful biographer of deceased mystery novelists. Her latest assignment is to profile the extraordinarily prolific Gardner. But she's having trouble getting a firm handle on the novelist. Then, while excavating files related to the Court of Last Resort -- a select group of experts who, under Gardner's supervision, reinvestigated cases involving culprits who might have been wrongly accused -- she stumbles across a 1958 letter that just screams to her instincts. The missive came from Joseph Albacco Jr., who was convicted 40 years ago of murdering his wife, Jean, and remains in prison despite his claims of innocence. Cece is soon drawn into this historical homicide, not just because of pleas from Albacco and the prison's Catholic priest, but because she thinks that taking on an investigation worthy of Mason himself might cure her writer's block.
In the course of her probing, Cece discovers that Jean Albacco was not such an innocent victim, after all. She'd engineered a blackmail scheme that ensnared a vintage couture queen, a Holy Roller candidate for the local school board, her own boss and even her old high-school teacher. Toss in a book deadline, the fact that Cece's daughter has just ditched her "perfect husband," the handsome son of one of the suspects and the reappearance of a former boyfriend (and present cop), and Kandel's perky beauty queen-turned-sleuth faces enough distractions to frazzle the most placid of women.
Kandel, a former Los Angeles Times art critic, hits the mark perfectly with her fast and witty banter and a compelling story line that deftly manages to weave together Gardner lore, commentary about California's colorful past, and Cece's passion for classic attire. It's a tribute to the author that these intriguing diversions are accommodated without interrupting or distracting from her main story line. However, there is a cost to covering these topics in some detail: a few of Dreamed's very promising characters are consequently given short shrift. Cece's daughter and her Trekkie son-in-law, as well as vintage fashionista Bridget Sugarhill and detective Peter Gambino all appear, play their roles, but then are quickly hustled off the stage. At least Cece Caruso doesn't have to fight for the spotlight. She comes across as a character whose meddling instincts are perfect for her professional life, even if they must be tamped down in her personal one. Cece reacts realistically to discovering murder, and she's less brave than she is curious, with her sense of humor seeing her through, no matter what the occasion.
This borderline "chick lit" may not thrill the more masculine segment of today's readership, but I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason never fails to entertain. It looks to be the introduction to a very successful series. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow
Mick Callahan could use a lucky break. Unfortunately, the odds against that seem high in Harry Shannon's Memorial Day (Five Star). A once-celebrated Beverly Hills TV psychologist, Callahan sent his career and life into a nosedive by abusing his access to alcohol, drugs and women. His downfall was only cemented when his self-centered and callous neglect of a mistreated woman ultimately ended with her death. Now, he's gone back to his hometown of Dry Wells, Nevada, even though the place is dying and depressing (it ranks second only to Roswell in UFO sightings), and Callahan has no interest in revisiting his bad childhood memories there. Were his reputation not in ruins and his wallet empty, he'd never have accepted a guest spot hosting a local call-in radio show in Dry Wells. But desperation will make a man do strange things.
Callahan is reluctant to look into the death of this caller, who has been identified as Sandy Palmer, even though he distrusts the local sheriff -- a man he believes is already covering up one recent homicide. Yet the combination of Mick's unsettled conscience, the pleas of a young computer hacker and fears that the Palmer tragedy will damage his chance to win a new TV assignment finally persuade this pop psychologist to delve into the case, even when it causes him trouble with the deceased's powerful and extraordinarily dysfunctional family. He doesn't know what troubles lie ahead. Callahan, an ex-Navy SEAL who was booted from the service for his "attitude," spends considerable time in Memorial Day being beaten senseless by teenage thugs armed with bows and arrows. He is also distracted by Annie Wynn, an old flame who can boast attitude of her own and, if possible, even more personal baggage than Mick's. And it's only with the long-distance assistance of his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor that our hero fights his way through an exhausting (for both Callahan and the reader) 50-page chase scene and confrontation with the killer in order to resolve this tale.
Mick Callahan is not a protagonist who's easy to like. He's an alcoholic who has had terrible luck with women, and he is all too ready to disparage his clients as well as anybody who's had the bad judgment to reside in Dry Wells. Furthermore, his constant analysis of other people's behavior and thoughts is annoying and an unnecessary trait in the character. We already know he's a psychologist; must we be continually hit over the head with the fact?
I decided to bore in on the obvious narcissism. He had the whole package -- arrogance, the callused exploitation of others, a distinct lack of empathy, the glaring sense of entitlement. This was a textbook case.
On the other hand, the dark wit, excellent writing and action-packed pace of Memorial Day make it an engaging read. And the reader does, eventually, come to root for its flawed and edgy hero. Harry Shannon, who's penned horror novels in the past (including Night of the Werewolf, 2003), has made an impressive debut in the noir mystery field. His return appearance seems as inevitable as it is welcome. -- C.C.
"Nasty things can happen to young women astray in the world without guidance."
Perhaps no one knows that better than the beautiful Phryne Fisher, a thoroughly modern woman and former artists' model, who at age 18 left her family in order to serve as a World War I ambulance driver. She now runs her own detective agency in 1928 Melbourne, Australia -- a time and place that didn't invite women to be either independent or particularly bright. Yet when we first meet her, in Kerry Greenwood's Murder in Montparnasse (Poisoned Pen Press), Phryne has already learned how to stay several steps ahead of both the police and criminals.
The divine Phryne (pronounced FRY-knee) has a history with cases of a less-than-serious nature (finding a Spanish ambassador's lost kitten, for instance). However, the circumstances surrounding her latest assignments are more serious. First of all, she's hired by a rather talented French chef to sort out the disappearance of his fiancée, the much younger Elizabeth Chambers. While Phryne might sympathize with the missing woman's reluctance to marry this old man who dyes his hair black, she soon discovers that Miss Chambers, the daughter of an unlikable racing horse owner, has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. But before she can dive into this inquiry, her scruffy mates Bert and Cec ask her to investigate the suspicious deaths of two combat soldiers they served with in Europe during the Great War -- and with whom they unknowingly witnessed a murder in Paris in 1918.
Greenwood's Murder in Montparnasse (not to be confused with Howard Engel's 1999 period mystery of the same name) is the first Phryne Fisher novel to see print in the United States, though the series actually began with Cocaine Blues, published in Australia in 1989. The writing here is sharp and biting, and Phryne displays all the wit, sensuality and intelligence she needs to manipulate the people around her and close the cases she takes on. She's not a woman who is easily flustered, either. Even as her domestic life is shaken in this book, with her Chinese lover, Lin Chung, bringing his new fiancée by for a meet-and-greet with Phryne, she manages to maintain her grace. If the solutions to the two mysteries in Montparnasse aren't particularly earth-shattering, and the main villain's identity seems rather obvious ... well, the details Greenwood provides of war-torn Paris and postwar Australia more than compensate.
Even before Murder in Montparnasse hit U.S. bookstores, Poisoned Pen Press was planning to publish 13 more Phyrne Fisher adventures from Greenwood (who won the 2003 Crime Writer's Association of Australia Lifetime Achievement Award). The next installment will be The Castlemaine Murders, due out in September, with more fascinating stories about this clever -- and ever stylishly attired -- detective to follow. -- C.C.
On the subject of women whose World War I experiences turned them into detectives, let us not forget resourceful London resident Maisie Dobbs. After lending her name to Jacqueline Winspear's impressive 2003 debut novel ("RS," 7-8/03), Maisie now returns in Birds of a Feather (Soho Press), in which she realizes that for many people, the war has not ended, and that it affected more than just those who were involved in the fighting.
Thirteen years after the war, during which she had served as a combat nurse and found (and lost) the love of her life, Maisie operates her own Psychologist and Investigator business. Her latest case has her summoned to the mansion of Joseph Waite, a prosperous businessman who demands that Maisie find his 32-year-old daughter, Charlotte. While he doesn't particularly admire Charlotte, Waite absolutely detests the notion that her disappearance might become fodder for the press, and thereby injure his reputation. Maisie takes the case on one condition: that once she's returned, Waite listen to Charlotte's problems and respect her wishes. Lofty demands, but the more Maisie learns about Waite's daughter, the more she sympathizes with her plight and realizes that they have loneliness in common. Maisie's concern soon develops into alarm, though, when she learns that several of Charlotte's friends have been murdered -- poisoned, then bayoneted. With a white feather deposited at each crime scene.
Maisie Dobbs set a high bar for author Winspear, being named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of Publishers Weekly's Best Mysteries of 2003. But Birds of a Feather doesn't pale by comparison. With Maisie's history having been well established, Birds can concentrate on expanding upon its protagonist's character. It also focuses a bit more than its predecessor on the investigation at hand. Winspear's prose is formal and delightful, and the novel's themes resonate even today. Pilates, drug addictions and heated debate over a nation's involvement in war all apply to our present time, and it's intriguing to watch how Maisie confronts each of those issues. This sequel's carefully constructed setting in 1930s England will satisfy history buffs, while its riveting plot ought to engage readers for whom the mystery is everything. This historical whodunit is a winner on every front. -- C.C.
If you're looking for an author who has lived as "interesting" a life as her protagonist, Barbara Seranella would definitely have to be included on the list. Like her creation, Miranda "Munch" Mancini, Seranella ran away from home at the age of 14, rode around with motorcycle gangs for a while and worked as a mechanic. Her best-selling series has followed Munch from her beginnings as a drug-addicted murderer to her eventual transformation into the hard-working single mother of an adopted daughter, Asia. In Unwilling Accomplice (Scribner), Los Angeles resident Munch discovers that it's not easy to leave the past behind, as Asia's aunt comes to town bringing along trouble, bad memories, her two daughters and -- you guessed it -- murder.
It doesn't take long before Munch's suspicions are proven true, when a frantic Lisa calls her with the news that her 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte, is missing. Feeling some attachment to this girl, whose innocent questions as a child had helped her straighten out her life, Munch begins putting questions around, only to learn that Charlotte had ties to another teenager, Steven Koon, who was murdered, and that she may also have been part of an elaborate Fagin-type burglary scheme. Although Munch used to avoid the cops like the plague, she now goes for help to Asia's godfather, L.A. detective Mace St. John. Worse, when she needs assistance in reconciling Charlotte's disappearance with the Koon case, Munch must turn to her ex-boyfriend, Rico Chacón, aka He Who Must Do the Right Thing When an Old Girlfriend Shows Up Pregnant. Talk about awkward! Putting no trust in Lisa, and well aware that teenagers will never open up to the police, Munch tries tackling the case herself. But as she tries to focus on Charlotte, hoping to prevent this teenager from going down the same wrong paths she once followed herself, Munch also has to deal with disturbing news about Chacón and the woman with whom he has supposedly become engaged.
One of the most enjoyable things about Seranella's series is too see how much Munch Mancini has evolved since her first appearance, in No Human Involved (1998). This protagonist's past, as both a victim and a criminal, has led her to form own idiosyncratic definition of justice, even if -- as a reformed and ostensibly responsible parent -- she tries to at least follow the spirit of the law. Although Unwilling Accomplice (the seventh entry in this series) is not the strongest of the Mancini mysteries, it is still a joy to see Munch as a mother and to notice how her adopted daughter has picked up some of her wit and cynicism. Munch continues to be one of the most original characters in modern crime fiction. -- C.C.
Thrills, chills and bio-terror spills! In Red Tide (Morrow), the fourth installment of G.M. Ford's hard-hitting Frank Corso series (following last year's A Blind Eye), we're offered an insidiously deadly sign of the times. Employing taut, spare language, the author details a frightening doomsday scenario that might, just might, actually become reality one day -- a "what if" that reminds us of how vulnerable we remain to today's "evildoers." Remember the still-unsolved anthrax scare? Well, in Red Tide the danger comes from the Ebola virus, newly refined and portable. Imagine the horrific consequences of this incurable, incredibly contagious killer being set loose in modern Seattle!
Predictably, local resident Corso finds himself smack-dab in the middle of all the excitement. The defrocked former New York Times journalist, now a successful true-crime writer, rolls onto the scene shortly after a biological "occurrence" turns the Pioneer Square bus station into a killing field. While the local police, unsure of what they're dealing with, quickly clamp down on information and cordon off eight square blocks of the city's downtown historic district, Corso lingers in the shadows, risking his life (conveniently appropriating a hazardous-materials suit and investigating the carnage in Seattle's bus tunnel) and inevitably making himself a part of this heart-stopping story.
In the meantime, the terror assault has played havoc with Meg Dougherty's first photography exhibit at a Pioneer Square gallery. Dougherty -- an aggressively tattooed photojournalist, as well as Corso's on-again/off-again girlfriend and one of this genre's more intriguing female leads -- was appearing with Corso at the gallery, as friends, when all hell broke loose at the nearby bus station. Cops swept in to shoo the gallery-goers out into the night -- an angry Meg to be trailed home by someone out of her past, and to be set up to take the fall for a grisly murder, while Corso gets involved in a nail-bitingly tense manhunt that follows the deadliest attack ever on America's Pacific Northwest.
Jockeying for position in this fast-and-furious thriller are the conflicting interests of several of its principal players. Not just Corso and Dougherty, but also bottom-of-the-heap TV reporter Jim Sexton, who's determined, finally, to prove his mettle and hit the big time; the sometimes hapless cops Reuben Gutierrez and Charly Hart; and dueling law-enforcement agencies, as well as the politicos at City Hall, officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and the terrorists themselves. It's while writing about this particular cadre of fanatics -- who travel under assumed and ludicrously Americanized names -- that author Ford throws us a curve. Just when your eyes are focused on the radical elements of the Middle East, Ford shows that another area of the world has spawned these malevolent killers. And while no one can condone their cruel actions, Ford does manage to humanize these vengeful men -- victims themselves of a ghastly incident in their country's past.
Rumor has it that this is Frank Corso's last stand, but I hope that "rumor" is all it is. He and Dougherty are too dynamic a pair of characters to let fade into the literary mists. -- Reviewed by Yvette Banek
Jason Starr's urban-noir writing career began with 1998's Cold Caller, and he has since produced four additional novels (including Nothing Personal and Tough Luck). Inevitable and not-unearned comparisons with masters James M. Cain and Jim Thompson exist. However, Starr is ultimately unlike anyone else out there. His books explore that deep, forbidding alley of human fear that the majority of us couldn't walk past without shuddering. Starr doesn't walk past, though; he sets a course right into the alley's darkest corners, shines a light and writes about all of the creatures that go scurrying for cover.
His newest book, Twisted City (Vintage/Black Lizard), explores what can happen when a man makes a wrong turn and finds out just what he's made of.
It isn't easy waking up every morning to discover that you're still David Miller. Once on the payroll of The Wall Street Journal, Miller has tumbled down the ladder of anticipated success to land at a second-rate financial magazine in New York City. He thinks his editor is a hack. His girlfriend is a bipolar, partying parasite. And the young Miller's life consists mostly of drifting from one day to the next in a meaningless haze. The recent death of his beloved sister, Barbara, has left him without his only emotional anchor. But life has more in store for the forlorn Miller than mere grief and disconnected dissatisfaction. On his return one day from a beastly interview with a CEO, whom he likes but has been assigned to trash in print, Miller runs into a woman who reminds him of the deceased Barbara. Then, what he hopes might lead to a love connection in a Manhattan bar turns into a mock-and-steal. A barfly distracts him as a fleeting figure makes off with his wallet. This seemingly commonplace incident has Miller reacting as anybody would: He cancels his credit cards and freezes his bank accounts. What begins, though, as an ordinary theft develops into Miller's own private hell, after one phone call. A woman who calls herself "Sue" tells him she has his wallet. Great, he thinks.
The sort of sordid world in which Twisted City's action occurs exists in every urban settling. And any guy who's pushed as far as David Miller has been might, in the same situation, react as he does. But Starr takes his story further than that. Much further. He examines the part of Everyman that no man likes to think about, the part that involves a crossing of thresholds between the light and dark sides of humanity. This crossing exacts a heavy toll on Miller. His life turns into a sort of endless bungee jump, with the cord attaching him to safety having been snipped long before it can reel him back in. Starr's latest yarn is unsettling at best, and possibly the most twisted one this critic ever read. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan
In the News
Philadelphia writer Duane Swierczynski (The Encyclopedia of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List) admits that he didn't really know what he was getting into when he started interviewing Galway, Ireland-based author Ken Bruen, author of the Shamus-nominated novel, The Guards (released in the States last year). "What began as an innocent 'hey, let's lob a question or two via e-mail' ... slowly morphed into a freewheeling conversation that spanned 26,000 words and covered such weighty subjects as family, sin, God, crime, music and booze." The edited-down results appear in the e-zine Hardluck Stories. Read more.
A quirky interview in Plots with Guns finds first-time novelist Mark T. Conard (Dark as Night) talking about the dimensions of Albert Einstein's penis, the Nietzschean significance of noir fiction (Conard is, after all, a philosophy prof in his spare time), his research into the Philly mob scene, and the two other novels he has ready for publication. Read more.
2004 marks the 40th anniversary of "salvage expert" Travis McGee's introduction to the American private-eye pantheon, in John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-by (1964). I hope we'll be hearing much more about McGee, MacDonald and the Busted Flush as this year rolls along. But Doug Moe, a columnist for the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, is early out of the gates with an ode to the colorful McGee novels -- "the greatest mystery series ever written." Read more.
Speaking of special occasions for mystery fans, Margery Allingham, best known for having created the eccentric detective character Albert Campion (introduced in The Crime at Black Dudley, 1929), would have been 100 years old in May -- had she not already gone to her grave in 1966. Together with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, Allingham helped define the Golden Age British mystery. To commemorate this centennial, UK publisher Lucas Books has issued Margery Allingham: 100 Years of a Great Mystery Writer, which includes an introduction by Sara Paretsky. To find out more about this book, as well as Allingham's career, refer to the Margery Allingham Web site.
Father and daughter authors James Lee Burke and Alafair Burke -- whose latest novels, In the Moon of Red Ponies (Simon & Schuster) and Missing Justice (Henry Holt), respectively, have both recently hit print -- sit down with National Public Radio interviewer Linda Wertheimer for the final installment of All Things Considered's mystery program. Read more.
When it comes to crime-novelist interviews, the British e-zine Shots has recently made every other publication look as if it's editors are asleep on the job. Shots' latest issue includes discussions with Michael Connelly (The Narrows), Laura Wilson (The Lover), Harlan Coben (Just One Look), Michael Marshall (The Lonely Dead) and Gayle Lynds (The Coil). There's also an interesting piece about the new UK publisher Bitter Lemon Press, which specializes in international crime fiction. Read more.
British novelist Natasha Cooper (Keep Me Alive) writes in Crime Time about the challenges involved in accurately translating crime fiction that was first penned in some other language than English. "Even when a translation is produced by a skilled and sensitive writer," she opines, "it is going to be different from -- and probably less than -- the original." Read more.
Here's an author dear to the heart of any perfectionist. A brief profile of Nichelle D. Tramble (The Last King) in California's Alameda Times-Star recalls that Tramble "once pulled back a final manuscript to polish." Read more.
The Private Eye Writers of America has announced the nominees for its 2004 Shamus Awards. Winners will be announced during Bouchercon, to be held October 7-10 in Toronto, Canada. This year's nominees are:
Best Novel: Scavenger Hunt, by Robert Ferrigno (Pantheon); The Guards, by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur); Blood Is the Sky, by Steve Hamilton (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's); Fatal Flaw, by William Lashner (Morrow); and A Visible Darkness, by Jonathon King (Dutton)
Best First Novel: Spiked, by Mark Arsenault (Poisoned Pen Press); Black Maps, by Peter Spiegelman (Knopf); and Lover's Crossing, by James C. Mitchell (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Best Paperback Original: Cold Quarry, by Andy Straka (Signet); Thicker Than Water, by P.J. Parrish (Pinnacle); Wet Debt, by Richard Helms (Back Alley); and Dragonfly Bones, by David Cole (Avon)
Best Short Story: "Munchies," by Jack Bludis, in Hardbroiled (Wildside Press; edited by Michael Bracken); "The Rock in the Orange Grove," by Mitch Alderman (in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2003); "Slayer Statute," by Janet Dawson (in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], September/October 2003); "Valhalla," by Doug Allyn (in EQMM, January 2003); and "Lady on Ice," by Loren D. Estleman (in A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime, edited by Jeffery Deaver; Berkley Prime Crime)
Sue Grafton might well think about building more bookshelves for her awards. On June 13, she received the Marlowe Award from the Southern California Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. She is also set to receive the Ross Macdonald Award from the Santa Barbara Book Festival on September 18. The latter commendation is given to California writers whose work raises the standard of literary excellence. Grafton's latest Kinsey Millhone novel, "R" Is for Ricochet, is due out from Putnam in July.
The Crime Writers of Canada announced the winners of its 2004 Arthur Ellis Awards on June 9. These commendations are given out annually to honor the work of Canadian authors. The 2004 winners are:
Best Novel: The Delicate Storm, by Giles Blunt (Random House Canada)
Also nominated: Lament for a Lounge Lizard, by Mary Jane Maffini (RendezVous Press); The Glenwood Treasure, by Kim Moritsugu (Simon & Pierre, Dundurn); The Hua Shan Hospital Murders, by David Rotenberg (McArthur & Company); and The Summer that Never Was (aka Close to Home), by Peter Robinson (McArthur & Company)
Best First Novel: Just Murder, by Jan Rehner (Sumach)
Also nominated: Amuse Bouche, by Anthony Bidulka (Insomniac Press); Confession in Moscow, by Michael Johansen (Breakwater); Mazovia Legacy, by Michael E. Rose (McArthur & Company); and The Sleeping Boy, by Barbara J. Stewart (Anchor Canada/Random House Children's)
Best Crime Writing in French: On finit toujours par payer, by Jean Lemieux (La Courte Echelle)
Also nominated: Indésirables, by Chrystine Brouillet (La Courte Echelle); La Salaire de la honte, by Maxime Houde (Alire); Les effets sont secondaires, by André Marois (La Courte Echelle); and Au nom de Compostelle, by Maryse Rouy (Québec Amérique)
Best Crime Short Story: "Dead Wood," by Gregory Ward (in Hard Boiled Love; Insomniac Press)
Also nominated: "A Christmas Bauble," by Therese Greenwood (in The Kingston Whig-Standard, December 24, 2003); "Dead in the Water," by Dennis Murphy (in Storyteller, Summer 2003); "When Laura Smiles," by Liz Palmer (in Bone Dance; RendezVous Press); and "The Gimmick," by Vern Smith (in Hard Boiled Love)
Best Crime Non-Fiction/True Crime: The Road to Hell, by Julian Sher and William Marsden (Knopf Canada)
Also nominated: The Story of Jane Doe, by "Jane Doe" (Random House Canada); Nowhere to Run: The Killing of Constable Dennis Strongquill, by Mike McIntyre (Great Plains Publications); and Where There's Life, There's Lawsuits, by Jeffrey Miller (ECW)
Best Juvenile Crime Book: Acceleration, by Graham McNamee (Wendy Lamb/Random House Children's)
Also nominated: Theories of Relativity, by Barbara Haworth-Attard (Harper Trophy Canada); Truth, by Tanya Lloyd Kyi (Orca Book Publishers); The Deep End Gang, by Peggy Dymond Leavey (Napoleon); and No Escape, by Norah McClintock (Scholastic Canada)
Derrick Murdock Award Cheryl Freedman, secretary-treasurer
Former Seattle police officer Lowen Clausen's sophomore novel, Second Watch (Silo Press), has won the 2004 Spotted Owl Award, conferred annually by The Friends of Mystery, a Portland, Oregon-based organization, to "the best mystery written by a Pacific Northwest author." Clausen's previous novel, First Avenue (1999), was also a Spotted Owl recipient. Could this be a trend?
Malice Domestic, which promotes "the traditional mystery," announced the winners of its 2004 Agatha Awards during the Malice Domestic Convention, April 30-May 2. This year's winners:
Best Novel: Letter from Home, by Carolyn Hart (Berkley Prime Crime)
Also nominated: Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's Minotaur); Mumbo Gumbo, by Jerrilyn Farmer (Morrow); Dream House, by Rochelle Krich (Ballantine); Last Lessons of Summer, by Margaret Maron (Mysterious Press); and Shop Till You Drop, by Elaine Viets (Signet)
Best First Novel: Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)
Also nominated: Dealing in Murder, by Elaine Flinn (Avon); Haunted Ground, by Erin Hart (Scribner); Take the Bait, by S.W. Hubbard (Pocket); Alpine for You, by Maddy Hunter (Pocket); Murder Off Mike, by Joyce Krieg (St. Martin's Minotaur); and O' Artful Death, by Sarah Stewart Taylor (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Best Non-fiction: Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium, edited by Elizabeth Peters and Kristen Whitbread (Morrow)
Also nominated: 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); Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, by Jeffrey Marks (Delphi Books); and Dick Francis Companion, by Jean Swanson and Dean James (Berkley Prime Crime)
Best Short Story: "No Man's Land?" by Elizabeth Foxwell (in Blood on Their Hands, edited by Lawrence Block; Berkley Prime Crime)
Also nominated: "Doppleganger," by Rhys Bowen (in Blood on Their Hands); "Safety First," by Marcia Talley (in Blood on Their Hands); "Red Meat," by Elaine Viets (in Blood on Their Hands); and "Sex and Bingo," by Elaine Viets (in High Stakes, edited by Robert J. Randisi; Signet)
Best Children's/Young Adult Novel: The 7th Knot, by Kathleen Karr (Marshall Cavendish)
Also nominated: Gangsters at the Grand Atlantic, by Sarah Masters Buckley (Pleasant Company); Danger, Dynamite, by Anne Capecci (Peachtree Publishers); Ghost Light on Graveyard Shoal, by Elizabeth McDavid Jones (Pleasant Company); and Mystery of the Equestrian Park, by Gay Toltl Kinman (Amiser Quill Press)
Life Achievement Award: Marian Babson
Poirot Award (for significant contributions to traditional mystery fiction through means other than writing): Ruth Cavin and Thomas Dunne of St. Martin's Press
Finally, The Mystery Writers of America announced the winners of its 2004 Edgar Allan Poe Awards during a New York City banquet, held on April 29. The lucky victors were:
Best Novel: Resurrection Men, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown)
Also nominated: The Guards, by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur); Out, by Natsuo Kirino (Kodansha International); and Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)
Best First Novel by an American Author: Death of a Nationalist, by Rebecca Pawel (Soho Press)
Also nominated: 12 Bliss Street, by Martha Conway (St. Martin's Minotaur); Offer of Proof, by Robert Heilbrun (Morrow); Night of the Dance, by James Hime (St. Martin's Minotaur); and The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Best Paperback Original: Find Me Again, by Sylvia Maultash Warsh (Dundurn Group)
Also nominated: Cut and Run, by Jeff Abbott (NAL); The Last Witness, by Joel Goldman (Pinnacle); Wisdom of the Bones, by Christopher Hyde (NAL); and Southland, by Nina Rovoyr (Akashic Books)
Best Critical/Biographical: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury)
Also nominated: Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction, Volume 3, by Colleen Barnett (Poisoned Pen Press); Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium, edited by Elizabeth Peters and Kristen Whitbread (Morrow); Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick McGilligan (HarperCollins); and The American Police Novel: A History, by Leroy Lad Panek (McFarland)
Best Fact Crime: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson (Crown) -- one of January's favorite books of 2003
Also nominated: Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, by Steve Hodel (Arcade Publishing); Judgment Ridge: The True Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders, by Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins); And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, by Steve Oney (Pantheon); and Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series, by David Pietrusza (Carroll & Graf)
Best Short Story: "The Maids," by G. Miki Hayden (in Blood on Their Hands, edited by Lawrence Block; Berkley Prime Crime)
Also nominated: "Bet on Red," by Jeff Abbott (in High Stakes, edited by Robert J. Randisi; NAL); "Black Heart and Cabin Girl," by Shelly Costa (in Blood on Their Hands); "Aces and Eights," by David Edgerly Gates (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, December 2003); and "Cowboy Grace," by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (in The Silver Gryphon, edited by Gary Turner and Marty Helpern; Golden Gryphon Press)
Best Young Adult: Acceleration, by Graham McNamee (Wendy Lamb/Random House Children's)
Also nominated: The Last Treasure, by Janet Anderson (Dutton Children's Group); Feast of Fools, by Bridget Crowley (McElderry); Death and the Arrow, by Chris Priestly (Knopf Young Readers); and Uncovering Sadie's Secrets, by Libby Sternberg (Bancroft)
Best Juvenile: Bernie Magruder and the Rats in the Belfry, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum)
Also nominated: The Malted Falcon, by Bruce Hale (Harcourt Children's); Lily's Ghosts, by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins Children's); Dust, by Arthur Slade (Wendy Lamb/Random House Children's); and Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception, by Wendelin Van Draanen (Knopf Young Readers)
Best Television Episode Teleplay: The Practice -- "Goodbye," teleplay by Peter Blake and David E. Kelley
Also nominated: Law & Order: Criminal Intent -- "Probability," teleplay by Gerry Conway, story by Rene Balcer and Gerry Conway; Law & Order: SVU -- "Coerced," teleplay by Jonathan Greene; Monk -- "Mr. Monk and the 12th Man," teleplay by Michael Angeli; and Monk -- "Mr. Monk and the Very, Very Old Man," teleplay by Daniel Dratch
Best Motion Picture Screenplay: Dirty Pretty Things, screenplay by Steve Knight (BBC, Celador Productions)
Also nominated: The Cooler, screenplay by Wayne Kramer and Frank Hannah (Lions Gate Films); Monster, screenplay by Patty Jenkins (MDP Worldwide); Mystic River, screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (Malpaso Productions); and Runaway Jury, screenplay by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman, based on the novel by John Grisham
The Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award: Song of the Bones, by M.K. Preston (Intrigue Press)
Also nominated: Ricochet, by Nancy Baker Jacobs (Five Star); A Bloodhound to Die For, by Virginia Lanier (HarperCollins); Samurai's Daughter, by Sujata Massey (HarperCollins); and The Body in the Lighthouse, by Katherine Hall Page (Morrow)
Robert L. Fish Memorial Award: Sandy Balzo for "The Grass is Always Greener" (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March 2003)
Grand Master Award: Joseph Wambaugh
Raven Award: Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, in recognition of its longstanding work in collecting and preserving detective fiction; and to Vanity Fair magazine and its editor, Graydon Carter, in recognition of the magazine's true-crime coverage
Special Edgar Award: Home Box Office, in recognition of the creation and production of such groundbreaking crime series as The Sopranos, Oz and The Wire
"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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