January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, March 2003

 

IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by Tom Bradby, Denise Hamilton, Steven Saylor, Louise Welsh, Earl Emerson and others • Booker Award-winning writer Graham Swift talks about his new mystery novel; Henning Mankell discusses his divided life; the use of "junk science" in TV forensics thrillers, and more news from the world of mystery • Plus: the winners of this year's Dilys and Lefty awards, and the 2003 Agatha and Hammett award nominees


Pierce's Picks for March

Back Story (Putnam), by Robert B. Parker. This 30th Spenser novel in as many years finds Boston's best-known P.I. working for his more-or-less son, Paul Giacomin. Daryl Gordon, a woman friend of Paul's, is hoping to find "closure" in the death of her mother, Emily, who was killed 28 years ago during a bank robbery. The perpetrators were never caught, nor was it determined who shot Emily Gordon. Both the FBI and Beantown mobster Sonny Karnofsky want this cold case kept on ice, and Karnofsky threatens Spenser's girlfriend, Susan Silverman, to ensure that it is. But the wit-spitting gumshoe, refusing as usual to be intimidated, assembles a line-up of familiar figures -- including the ever-menacing Hawk, shooter Vinnie Morris and even Jesse Stone, the protagonist in another of Parker's series (Death in Paradise, etc.) -- to watch his back while he pieces together the circumstances that sent Emily Gordon to an early grave.

Clutching at Straws (St. Martin's Minotaur), by J.L. Abramo. Lefty Wright saw it as an easy gig: just break into the deserted house, open the wall safe and filch an envelope containing $15,000. What he didn't figure on was the corpse of a judge under the bed. Caught and charged with murder, Lefty turns to San Francisco P.I. Jake Diamond (Catching Water in a Net) for help.

The Coffee Trader (Random House), by David Liss. Following his Edgar Award-winning debut novel, A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), Liss returns with a second historical thriller, this one set in 17th-century Amsterdam. Miguel Lienzo, a savvy Portuguese-Jewish commodities broker who lost his fortune in a bad sugar trade, and has since been reduced to accepting charity from his younger brother, is determined to regain his wealth. But he doesn't know half the troubles that face him when he joins an entrancing Dutch widow in an intricate plot to corner the market on an exotic bean called "coffee fruit." Hidden agendas, avarice and deceptions abound in this carefully researched yarn.

The Desperate Remedy (St. Martin's Press), by Martin Stephen. In what seems to be the first entry in a new historical series, British educator-author Stephen introduces us to Henry Gresham, a scholar and gentleman spy, who in the early 17th century is summoned by Robert Cecil, King James I's manipulative chief secretary. Cecil says he wants Gresham to investigate the private life of Sir Francis Bacon, who has been trying to ingratiate himself at Court. But Gresham soon realizes that he, too, is being watched. Could all of this be connected to the recent slaying of one of Gresham's informers, a thief and pimp named Will Shadwell? As the spy makes his inquiries, he tumbles onto a daring scheme (based in historical fact) to blow up London's Houses of Parliament.

The House Sitter (Little, Brown UK), by Peter Lovesey. Answers are hard to come by -- and very likely to raise still more questions -- in this eighth Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond mystery (after last year's sparkling Diamond Dust). Why, for instance, was psychologist and criminal profiler Emma Tysoe murdered at Wightview Sands on England's Sussex coast? What was she doing there, far from home and alone, in the first place? Whatever happened to the man who found her body? Finally, does Tysoe's demise have anything to do her recent efforts to profile a person who has assassinated one celebrity, and threatens to do away with more? The stout and curmudgeonly Diamond believes there's a link, but he's finding it damnably hard to convince his fellow cops that he's right. And the longer it takes him, the longer Tysoe's deadly quarry remains on the loose.

Land of the Blind (ReganBooks), by Jess Walter. Spokane, Washington, detective Caroline Mabry, from Over Tumbled Graves (2001), is on night shift when into the station walks Clark Mason, ready to testify to a murder. However, his crime has deep roots, sending Mabry to follow up on incidents from his past. Mason's murky motives and Walter's clear prose make an engaging combination.

Life Sentence (Putnam), by David Ellis. Political intrigue, false accusations and twists aplenty propel this second offering from the author of Line of Vision (2001). Narrator Jon Soliday is the best friend and chief counsel to an Illinois state senator, Grant Tully, who has his sights set on occupying the governor's office. When Soliday receives a blackmail threat, based on his role in a 1979 murder, he's worried about the impact it might have on Tully's future. However, it is Soliday's butt that winds up firmly in a ringer, after another attorney with whom he'd consulted on an election issue is found dead, and Soliday is fingered as the prime suspect.

Murder on the Run (Berkley Prime Crime), edited by Lawrence Block. This collection of 11 stories about criminals on the run includes works by Joyce Harrington, Peter Straub, Mary Higgins Clark, Whitley Strieber (writing here about a turn-of-the-last-century gentleman who won't allow his antisocial activities to disturb his pretense of gentility) and Warren Murphy (who imagines a black assembly-line worker single-mindedly solving her brother's slaying).

Soul Circus (Little, Brown), by George P. Pelecanos. Picking up where Hell to Pay (2002) left off, this third novel to feature black Washington, D.C., private eye Derek Strange has him searching for a nail salon worker whose testimony may keep manipulative mobster Granville Oliver, accused of murder and racketeering, from being given the death penalty. Meanwhile, Strange's white partner, Terry Quinn, is helping a homely, unpredictable gangsta-wannabe to locate his missing girlfriend, who (unbeknownst to the P.I.) skipped out with their drugs stash. Even as the threads of this yarn come together, amid a deadly gang conflict, Pelecanos keeps his focus on the story's characters, each of whom -- good or bad -- is rendered in a way that suggests the author understands their plight.

Sucker Bet (Ballantine), by James Swain. Tony Valentine, the cop-turned-casino consultant from Grift Sense and Funny Money, is back to solve a con game that includes a vanished blackjack dealer, a remorseless gangster, a hooker who still dreams of love and a rich rock 'n' roll musician. Swain is a clever writer, but it's his gambling savvy that makes this series especially enjoyable.

Tropic of Night (Morrow), by Michael Gruber. Following her sister's murder, Jane Doe, a young anthropologist who has spent years researching African shamanism, fears for her life. So she fakes her own suicide and goes into hiding in Miami. But the ritualistic killings of pregnant women convince Doe that her ex-husband, a poet-turned-sanguinary sorcerer, is following her and becoming more powerful with each murder. At the same time, a Cuban-American police detective named Iago "Jimmy" Paz is investigating the Miami slayings, but finds that eyewitnesses don't remember much -- except that the killer looks a lot like Paz himself. An odd but engrossing first novel.

Uniform Justice (Heinemann UK), by Donna Leon. Was the death of a young military-school cadet the result of suicide ... or homicide? That's the question facing Leon's series sleuth, Guido Brunetti, commissario of the Questura in Venice. And any chance of simple answers is soon dispelled, as Brunetti discovers that the boy's sister has vanished and that their mother was once the victim of a shooting. Receiving little cooperation from academy officials, Brunetti keeps yanking at clues, exposing corruption and allegations of sexual deviance, until he reaches a not-too-tidy resolution to the case.

Walking the Shadows (Century UK), by Donald James. Tom Chapel visits St. Juste, a reservoir-drowned village in the South of France, hoping to determine why, after receiving a fortune from her late father, a local girl was seized, attacked and left in a life-threatening coma. Chapel's efforts to untangle the puzzle lead him back to World War II, when the area was under Vichy control and Resistance fighters sought to smuggle Jews to safety. He learns that some of the Jewish women were betrayed and never escaped. Is the party responsible still alive -- and still taking lives in order to protect his secret? A dark and consuming tale from the author of Monstrum (1997).

Water Lily (Picador UK), by Susanna Jones. From the author of The Earthquake Bird (2001) comes this haunting tale of a Japanese high-school teacher named Runa, who -- in the wake of her affair with one of her pupils -- adopts her sister's identity and boards a Shanghai-bound ferry, little knowing that she's about to attract the attention of a wife-murderer, looking for the ideal Oriental bride.

The White Road (Atria), by John Connolly. Following closely the U.S. release of The Killing Kind, Irish novelist Connolly's third thriller featuring P.I. Charlie "Bird" Parker, comes this grim yarn in which the detective hies off to South Carolina to defend a black man who's accused of raping Marianne Larousse, the daughter of one of the state's wealthiest individuals. Always supportive of lost causes, Parker dives into this case that nobody else wants to touch. Expect a strong sense of place and the reappearance of Reverend Faulkner, whose presence in the previous novel was so chilling, as well as the advent of another hellish creation, deformed killer Cyrus Nairn.

Wolf Pass (Putnam), by Steve Thayer. In this suspenseful sequel to Thayer's The Wheat Field (2002), it's 1963 and sheriff's deputy Pliny Pennington is campaigning to become the sheriff of Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin. But his history as a World War II sniper returns to haunt him after the shootings of a railroad engineer and that man's sexy spouse. Suspicion that Pennington is behind these acts can't help hurting his election chances. But the deputy's greater fear is that the murders were actually committed by a Nazi SS colonel, Christian Stangl, who has come to the States seeking revenge against him -- and may be planning to frame Pennington in Minneapolis for the slaying of President John F. Kennedy.


New and Noteworthy

St. Petersburg, Russia -- Peter the Great's once-glorious capital -- was no easy place to be living in January 1917. As the country neared its third year in a badly executed war against Germany, the city's general populace was suffering through street violence and severe economic privations. "The poor," writes Tom Bradby in his latest novel, The White Russian (Bantam Press UK), "had to queue up for anything and everything, these days: food, oil for their lamps, clothes. They joined lines even when no one knew what lay at the front; it was bound to be something in short supply." Meanwhile, Tsar Nicholas II and his German-born wife, Alexandra -- who was rumored not only to be carrying on sexually with the deranged Siberian holy man, Grigory Rasputin, but to be funneling Russian secrets to the country of her birth -- were becoming increasingly unpopular. Talk of having the tsaritsa arrested and assassinating Nicholas wasn't confined to circles of malcontents, but was even discussed "in hushed tones" at exclusive men's clubs. "It's a time for caution," observes a senior policeman near the start of Bradby's tale.

So a police probe into the frenzied stabbing deaths of an unidentified man and woman on the frozen Neva River, right in front of the tsar's glittering Winter Palace, can only be expected to aggravate anxieties. Not so obvious, at least to Chief Investigator Alexander "Sandro" Ruzsky, is the link between these murders and the political tensions that will soon embroil St. Petersburg in revolution.

Author Bradby, a senior correspondent for the British TV network ITN, demonstrated in his previous novel, The Master of Rain (one of January's gift book picks for 2002), a manifest aptitude for composing richly atmospheric historical thrillers. Set in decadent, casually corrupt Shanghai in 1926, Rain was captivating both for its twisted plot (which centered on the killings of Russian immigrant women) and the way it introduced readers into every stratum of Shanghai's culturally divided society, from the "solid majesty" of the city's waterfront down to the sordid temptations of its whorehouses. Pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg ("as sophisticated, European and rich as most of Russia was backward") boasted of similarly exotic extremes -- tenements of Dostoevskian squalidness, gilded ballet theaters full of gowned and garrulous royalty -- which Bradby employs deftly in The White Russian, producing a yarn that is at once bleak (reflecting its frigid backdrop) and vivid with human emotion.

Ruzsky, the black sheep scion of an old aristocratic family, has just returned to St. Petersburg from a three-year Siberian banishment for having dared to cross the Okhrana, the tsar's secret police. Forty years old, stubborn and "hardened by more experience than was good for a man," Ruzsky has a son he rarely sees and a wife who, having abandoned him in Siberia, now betrays him with a grand duke. The chief investigator is also burdened with guilt for the demise of his youngest brother, who died in a frozen lake accident at age 6 -- a tragic mishap that caused the erection of what seems a permanent wall between Sandro and his father, a Russian finance minister. All of this history will come into play as Ruzsky and his partner, Investigator Pavel Miliutin, endeavor to solve the Neva River slayings. Clues are few; the apparent murder weapon -- a crude black dagger -- is found, and there must be some significance to the fact that the male victim was stabbed 17 times, while the woman caught the blade only once, "precisely in the centre of her chest." It's finally the woman's hand-me-down dress that leads to her identification as a former nanny to the Imperial Family, dismissed for theft, though precisely what she stole isn't clear, despite Ruzsky's questioning of employees in the tsar's palace at Tsarskoe Selo outside of St. Petersburg and his unexpected audience with a flustered Tsaritsa Alexandra. Meanwhile, the dead man on the river turns out to be an American criminal and labor agitator, who had in his coat pocket a roll of banknotes marked with tiny ink dots. A secret code of some sort? If so, who's using it, and to what end? As Ruzsky chases leads that take him south to Yalta, provoke confrontations with arrogant Okhrana chief Igor Vasilyev, and threaten to blow him to bits, he slowly unpeels a conspiracy that's wrapped up in greed, politics and revenge.

Readers who've already enjoyed The Master of Rain will recognize a couple of characters making prequel appearances here. But they are minor figures, compared with Sandro Ruzsky or the much younger star ballerina, Maria Popova, after whom both Ruzsky and his soldier brother, Dmitri, lust -- a woman whose cloaked past makes her a far more intriguing, and more deadly, companion than the chief investigator realizes. Bradby does an artful job of revealing character complexities layer by layer (though he leaves Ruzsky's wife, Irina, a cardboard cutout of a figure), and not until deep into this story do the dimensions of the conspiracy at its core become clear, leading to a conclusion that's as heart-rending as it is dramatic. It's too bad that author Bradby offers so few glimpses into the rarified world of Tsar Nicholas II, even though it intersects with his plot (readers wanting to know more should procure a copy of Edvard Radzinsky's 1992 biography, The Last Tsar). And those who ate up the atmospheric arcana of Shanghai in The Master of Rain may be disappointed that St. Petersburg isn't so frequently or meticulously portrayed in The White Russian. However, it's difficult to fault a book that does so well as this one at integrating the doleful air of the Russian Empire's dying days with a mystery plot that's as chilling as an arctic night.

* * *

Denise Hamilton uses sense of place with equal conscientiousness in her second Eve Diamond novel, Sugar Skull (Scribner). Only the place here is Los Angeles, a metropolis in the midst of social and racial transition, where the death of a teenage prep-school student who's been slumming with runaway street kids barely registers above the white noise of quotidian anguish.


"All over town, people were dying violently -- shot in dead-end bars, withdrawing money from ATMs, working the night shift in liquor stores, and playing hopscotch on the corner," notes L.A. Times reporter Diamond, who's working the weekend shift at her paper's downtown city desk (a step up from her usual San Gabriel Valley beat). "Usually, we waited until Sunday, when the final tally came in, then did a roundup. Unless the victims were rich, prominent, or had met their end in some horribly unusual and tragic way, they got folded into the main story as smoothly as egg whites into cake. So far the [news] wires were at fourteen and counting." The disappearance of precocious, 15-year-old Isabel Chevalier hardly measures up to these stiff standards for journalistic notice. Heck, she's only been missing for a day, not even long enough for the cops to be interested. Yet her single father, Vincent, a "creepy" music sound engineer, fears for her safety, pleading with Diamond to go with him to the "filthy squat" in an abandoned East Hollywood building where his daughter has lately been hanging out. Letting curiosity overcome her concern that Vincent Chevalier's story is a hoax, Eve drives to the squat with him, only to find Isabel murdered and rolled up in a shabby futon mattress.

Diamond, who proved in her last adventure, The Jasmine Trade (2002), that she has a sharp instinct for finding juicy stories, especially when they involve young people somehow adrift in an adult world, pursues the Chevalier case, tracking down the naïve Isabel's old friends and newer acquaintances, including the feral but oddly magnetic Finch "Mad Dog" Marino, with whom she'd been sleeping (despite his resident colony of body lice), and an abused girl called Scout ("on account of she often wears a Girl Scout uniform"), whose incautious behavior and gentle nature bestir Diamond's maternal feelings. Was Isabel the victim of an enraged teen outlaw, or is her slaying not related at all to her association with the homeless? Good questions both, but Eve hasn't much time to concentrate on them. She's also hot on the trail of another scoop, this one involving the suspicious swimming pool death of Venus Dellaviglia Langdon, the "super-socialite hostess" wife of Carter Langdon III, a candidate for mayor. While poking about the scene of Venus' expiration, Diamond spots what appears to be "a man's black Speedo racing suit" in a cabaña adjacent to the pool, dropped right next to a woman's one-piece suit; yet the subsequent police report makes no mention of that cast-off garment. Could Eve have been wrong, or was that man's swimsuit hidden before anyone else noticed? Was it evidence that Venus, in hypocritical disregard of her hubby's "family values" platform, was carrying on with another man? And if so, who was the Lothario?

Hamilton shares a journalistic background with her perspicacious protagonist, and it shows in the inquisitive way she plumbs the economic and ethnic strata of modern Los Angeles. Under her pen, California's largest city emerges as something more galvanizing than the TV-familiar blend of Hollywood, the glass-and-steel spires of downtown and the lascivious hip of coastline that marks L.A.'s western extreme. Sugar Skull sends Eve from the elegant remove of Los Feliz to a riverside transvestite camp, then on to nightclubs catering to a Latino culture that has been part of the city long enough to have evolved well beyond its roots. It's the sort of idiosyncratic tour that could only be offered by somebody intimately familiar with (and invigorated by) the City of Angels' heterogeneity. Beyond this scene-setting, though, Hamilton has a mostly fascinating story to tell about the clashing idealism and pains of youth, the ability of humans to re-create themselves and the often constrictive demands of family. This novel isn't beyond criticism; its portrayal of Carter Langdon and his political "handlers" never rises above the banal. (When are novelists going to realize that politicians aren't all about obfuscation, cover-ups and sound bites? If that shallowest of media, television, can make politics fascinating to watch -- at least on The West Wing -- why can't supposedly more thoughtful prose stylists provide their fictional lawmakers and office seekers with substantive, nuanced personalities?) But Sugar Skull's deficiencies are far outweighed by its strengths. Particularly rewarding is to see Hamilton further expand on Eve Diamond as a character, as the reporter engages in a tryst with a somber Hispanic music promoter and confronts the hyper-competitive individuals with whom she shares a newsroom. (Anyone who's ever worked at a daily paper will recognize the haughty Metro editor and also, perhaps, the princeling son of a "newspaper legend.") This is one sophomore novel that can hold its own against its predecessor.


Other Voices

When a debut work comes along that wins as much acclaim as Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room (Canongate), which has already picked up the UK's coveted John Creasey Dagger Award for Best First Novel, there might be a tendency among some to take it all with a healthy dose of skepticism. Can a book be deserving of so much hype? Indeed, this one can -- and then some. The Cutting Room grabs hold from the first and forces you to keep going until the very end. It has a level of confidence and assurance rarely found in third or fourth novels, let alone a first book.

Rilke, a tall, gaunt man in his 40s, works in Glasgow as an auctioneer. His current assignment is to go through the contents of the McKindless home. The brother has just died, and the sister wants all his stuff removed and auctioned off in one week's time -- a job that usually takes triple the time and effort. Although initially unwilling, Rilke realizes the money in this job is too good to pass up. Then, as he clears out the attic, he discovers an incredibly rare collection of erotic literature, which had belonged to the dead man and for which other collectors would clamor. As Rilke contemplates how he can get rid of such a treasure trove, he discovers a stash of photos secreted away. Leafing through them, the auctioneer finds an increasingly disturbing sequence of degrading sexual acts, until the final photo, from several decades earlier, shows a young woman strapped to a rack with her throat cut.

Is this photo real, and was the woman murdered? Or was it posed? Rilke becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. His journey takes him through the seamy underbelly of Glasgow, to porn shops and sketchy amateur video clubs, to nearly getting his hide beaten by a religious fanatic, and to questioning the motives of everybody he comes across -- strangers, his friends, even himself.


Intertwined with Rilke's personal investigation are brief sexual encounters he has with several young men, usually at bars or clubs. These scenes could come across as tawdry or superfluous, but in Welsh's hands, they form an integral part of her protagonist's character: In trying to understand the motivations behind his quest, he has to address his own penchant for promiscuity. Although these scenes in the novel can be graphic, they contain an element of stark beauty, for perhaps, among these furtive encounters, Rilke will find some personal salvation.

Although Rilke is the star of Welsh's show, each character, no matter how large or small their supporting role, is fully fleshed out. There is Rose, a fellow auctioneer, who is both caustic and vulnerable and isn't sure she's happy in the role of mother hen to her more destructive partner; Les, a transvestite who aids and hinders Rilke's search; and the shadowy figure of McKindless, whose death hangs over all the events as they transpire. Welsh's writing style is reminiscent of fellow Scottish writer Denise Mina's (Garnethill), not only because of the Glasgow settings but because of the complex emotional grapplings of the principal players. Considering how Mina's career has progressed to date, one can only hope Louise Welsh's enjoys a similar trajectory. I eagerly await her next offering, if it's anywhere near as good as The Cutting Room. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman

* * *

With his nine mystery novels set in ancient Rome, Steven Saylor has earned himself a reputation not just for careful scholarship, clever plotting and colorful characters, but for creating a pungent perfume of time and place. Three years ago, Saylor took a thematic detour to 1880s Texas for another mystery, A Twist at the End, which was built around a notorious series of brutal murders in Austin. Twist showed Saylor's evocative skills in fine form, but failed to bring forth his usual plot and character talents. With his latest, Have You Seen Dawn? (Simon & Schuster), the author leaves historical research behind for a contemporary tale of rural Texas. The result -- Saylor's first attempt at a pure novel, without a foundation of historical events -- is, unfortunately, little more than a generic suspense story.

The protagonist here is Rue Dunwitty, a Texas gal who long ago left her small hometown of Amethyst to live the glamorous life in San Francisco. Her mother is dead, her father is estranged and her brother lives in Austin. But Rue still finds herself drawn back to Amethyst to see her grandmother, who lives in the small farmhouse where Rue grew up. On her latest visit, she's disturbed to find out that three local teenage girls have gone missing in the past year. She's even more disturbed to come across a dead body in a lonely corner of her family's property -- then bewildered when the police show up and can't find a thing.

Not much detection goes on in Have You Seen Dawn?; the plot is pure tension, with Rue as the classic heroine-in-danger. (With pretty girls going missing left and right, it's only a matter of time before the lovely Rue becomes a target, as well.) Each male character, from Rue's old high-school classmate Marty to her current boyfriend, Dylan, is painted in slightly mysterious, suspicious colors, so the suspect list is very clearly delineated. Meanwhile, each female character is given such sketchy treatment that it's hard to believe they were invented by Saylor, whose ancient Roman women are remarkably complex.

Rue works for a nameless dot-com in San Francisco, doing ... well, we're never really told what she does. Her grandmother, crippled by polio, seems content to wheel around the house all day. Does she have a car equipped for disabled drivers? Are her groceries delivered? Do she and Rue ever have a heart-to-heart? We're never shown what their lives are like. They're just frail females to worry about.


Granted, for a late-night, under-the-covers read, Have You Seen Dawn? fits the bill just fine. It's page-turning and action-packed, complete with Texas gunslinging. But Saylor's interests clearly lie with Amethyst itself, in the warm-hearted but quick-to-judge culture of small rural towns. If we could have cared more about Rue and her family, if we could have known more about the rest of the town's denizens, this portrayal of a small town under stress might have come alive. Instead, the most vibrant descriptions in the book are the lurid passages about the dead. And that leaves everybody else looking rather lifeless. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

Much of modern detective fiction is populated by armed-to-the-teeth, hard-muscled honchos wandering the mean streets of Any City, USA, doing battle against the minions of evil. But if you're looking for heroics and/or battling of any kind in Manslaughter (Carroll & Graf), the 15th entry in Parnell Hall's quirky, often hilarious series about recalcitrant Stanley Hastings, forget it.


Private eye Hastings, an erstwhile writer, actor and working stiff with a wife and kid to support, spends most of his time unabashedly chasing ambulances and signing up clients for his wily boss, attorney Richard Rosenberg, the scourge of Manhattan's civil courts. Although the likable Stanley generally wins out in the end, or at least avoids getting killed, you'd be hard pressed to call his convoluted crime solving skills heroic. I usually walk away from a Stanley caper shaking my head and smiling, and since I've read every book in this long-lived series, I have done a lot of head shaking and a hell of a lot of smiling. Parnell Hall may not have invented the "nebbish" detective subgenre, but he's certainly helped give it prominence. Ever since Stanley's debut, in 1987's Detective (this series isn't much for highfalutin' titles), with its "I want to kill somebody" opening line, it's been clear that Hall is a total wisenheimer. In the best sense of that word, of course.

Manslaughter introduces us to the Balfours, a family that's blackmail wise and pound foolish. The story begins typically enough with an unwanted client and a reluctant Stanley. But the lure of a large fee soon has him on the case. The assignment seems simple enough: impersonate client Joe Balfour, a man who may once have done time for killing another guy in a bar brawl, and set up a meet with a pesky blackmailer. Not wishing to go alone, Stanley fast-talks his NYPD pal Sergeant MacAuliff into lending a hand. And before you can say, "pin the rose on your lapel," the gruff, perpetually scowling MacAuliff, poster boy for acid reflux disease, is publicly compromised in a midtown bar.

Thereafter, Stanley -- up to his hypotheticals in multiple blackmail schemes, mismatched murders and hidden loot -- must step as lively as he has in years through an occasionally confusing, though always deviously delightful, maze of a plot. Tampering with evidence, breaking and entering, outmaneuvering the cops and oh, yes, hanging out in a topless bar -- they're all done here in the name of solving the crime, helping a pal and earning a big fat fee. This latest adventure in chicanery finds Hall returning (after 2001's lackluster Cozy) to the clever dialogue and whiz-bang writing style that have made this series so entertaining. Though he has been known to bamboozle inattentive readers, excessive mental gyrations aren't required in order to appreciate Manslaughter. This is a good-time read, guaranteed to leave you smiling. -- Reviewed by Yvette Banek

* * *

What would you do if you learned that the job you love, the profession you've dedicated your life to, might also be destroying you? Knowing that your time is limited, how would you choose to spend the remainder of your days? These are the torturous quandaries facing North Bend Fire and Rescue firefighter Jim Swope in Earl Emerson's latest standalone mystery, Into the Inferno (Ballantine).


Swope is consumed by his career as a Washington firefighter, despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- the fact that his personal life is a mess. His wife abandoned him and his two young daughters in order to run off with North Bend's female mayor. (Her Honor's husband was appointed as her replacement, making him Swope's boss.) Since then, Swope has built up a reputation for loving and leaving any and all women, including the less-than-stable Holly Riggs, whom he met during an accident involving semis, bibles and runaway chickens. Jim now spends his time ducking Holly's stalker-like attentions, much to the amusement of his coworkers.

It is also that accident that marks the beginning of a string of bad luck for the members of Swope's company, who succumb to strange accidents that leave them either in comas or dead. Confronted with Holly's comatose state, as well, Jim starts to suspect that more than coincidence is involved here. His friend and fellow firefighter, Stan Beebe, is the first to come up with what Jim sees as a rather paranoiac explanation for their "curse." Beebe believes they are all suffering from an illness that, after seven days of debilitating symptoms, will turn them all into "vegetables." Swope must decide whether to believe this theory and, if he does, how to live out his remaining time. As he contemplates his fate, he also tries to convince others that the threat actually exists. With help from several scientists as well as Holly's sister, Stephanie, he pursues possible sources of contamination and confronts people who seem determined to prevent him from discovering the truth.

Emerson, a lieutenant with the Seattle Fire Department (and author of series featuring P.I. Thomas Black and small-town fire chief Mac Fontana), creates a riveting mystery that illustrates the dangers firemen face every day. The details of how blazes are battled are presented more smoothly here than in Emerson's previous standalone, Vertical Burn (2002), which read rather like a technical manual. Into the Inferno focuses more on the development of characters, especially Jim Swope, an extremely interesting but flawed hero who is all too aware of his weaknesses and, though he regularly faces death, has never truly confronted his own mortality. On top of all this, Emerson throws in an almost too ironic complication: Jim's father is brain dead (the result of a stroke), leading the firefighter to contemplate the burden he'd be to his own daughters, were illness to leave him in a vegetative state. Would it be better for everyone if he just committed suicide?

Emerson shows real talent in writing sometimes-humorous, action-packed mysteries. He makes even the most incredible situations (such as a twist on the traditional confrontation scene in Into the Inferno, which has Jim armed, naked and holding suspects hostage) seem downright believable. Although this is his 18th novel, it's both entertaining and fresh-sounding -- just the kind of work to draw new readers to Emerson's fiction. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

One of the most enjoyable things that can happen when you pick up an anthology such as A Hot and Sultry Night for Crime (Berkley Prime Crime), edited by multiple award-winner Jeffery Deaver (The Bone Collector, The Stone Monkey), is the chance to find a story by a favorite author. Even more enjoyable, though, is to discover a new author worth reading. Angela Zeman fit that bill here. Her entry, "Green Heat," was unique. It had a lovely twist at the beginning (Is Tyree Garcia a hit man? No, not at all) and tells a subtle story of a small town where people really know more than you realize. It requires some suspension of disbelief, but it's a mystery short story -- we readers are used to amateurs who discover bodies and private eyes involved in murder after murder. Other tales in this collection built around the theme of crimes in hot climes are commendable as well. Deaver's "Ninety-eight Point Six" has a twist ending that I've come to expect from this author, and the story is fairly told: A car breaks down on the highway and its driver goes to a local house for help, but something's wrong; the people seem scared. Is there a crime being committed? "The Slow Blink," by one of mystery's best, Jeremiah Healy, tells of a woman who disappeared in Florida, and of the savvy man who figures out where she went. And British writer Mat Coward contributes a gem with "Too Hot to Die," a story in which, again, things are not what they seem. Two strangers sit down and talk in a pub -- but one has a gun, and seems both dangerous and threatening. The results are totally satisfying.

Few anthologies are 100 percent wonderful. In this collection, my biggest disappointment was "El Palacio," by John Lutz. It sure was hot and sweaty, but rather far-fetched -- a fictional take on the O.J. Simpson case, that "trial of the century" that bored me silly. And David Bart's "Prom Night" is written in a way (with internal dialogue and flashbacks) that proved difficult to follow.


There are several welcome historical stories in this collection. "Body in the Pond," by Suzanne Johnson (another name that's new to me), was not only the tightly knit tale of a well-respected man found dead, but it incorporated issues of race and class in Richmond, Virginia, in 1835. I don't think G. Miki Hayden's "War Crimes," about prisoners of war in the Philippines, worked as well, but she certainly did her homework. And Loren D. Estleman, who contributes to these pages a modern-day yarn about an old-time film noir femme fatale and what happened one night in 1947 in Southern California ... well, I don't think Estleman can ever write badly. This story belongs in an anthology of Estleman's own work, which I hope we'll see someday. -- Reviewed by Andi Shechter

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


In the News

"My love affair with Seville started when I arrived there on a bicycle in 1984, and I've been going back there ever since," says Robert Wilson in an interview on the HarperCollins UK Web site, discussing his grim but gripping new novel, The Blind Man of Seville. The author goes on to talk about the villains in his books, his use of fear in Blind Man, and his intention of using that book's protagonist, Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, in "a series of at least four books." Read more.

In a too-brief interview on the Mystery Ink Web site, Eddie Muller (The Distance, Shadow Boxer) talks about why his series protagonist, Billy Nichols, "resonates with women"; his fear of being typecast as the "noir guy," and how his third Nichols novel will give "free rein to all my obsessions." Read more.

A quirky Guardian profile of British novelist Graham Swift -- whose mystery novel, The Light of Day, is just out in the UK -- recounts his youth, his controversial career (including plagiarism charges) and his suspicion of narrative fireworks. "The real art," says Swift, "is not to come up with extraordinary clever words but to make ordinary simple words do extraordinary things." Read more.


Thanks to the slow pace of book publishing, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., have taken some while to sift down into the fictional worlds created by crime novelists. But those tragedies are finally being reflected in a variety of new works by S.J. Rozan, Lawrence Block, Linda Fairstein, Ed McBain and others. Read more (free registration required).

The impact of the 9/11 tragedies on Lawrence Block's work is touched on again, this time by The Village Voice, in a fine piece that examines this prolific author's appreciation for New York City -- perhaps best exemplified in his latest novel, Small Town. Read more.

Scandinavian novelist Henning Mankell (The Fifth Woman, One Step Behind, etc.) talks with Britain's Observer newspaper about his divided life (he lives half of each year in Mozambique, the other half in Sweden); the AIDS plague in Africa; and how "he doesn't actually really like [his series character, Kurt] Wallander that much: 'If we met, we'd never get on. I'd prefer to meet Sherlock Holmes,'" says the author. Read more.

John D. MacDonald's writing career is recounted fondly in the second edition of Hardluck Stories, a new Webzine that contains both hard-boiled fiction and essays about crime fiction. Read more.

Maine's Waterboro Public Library offers a list of mysteries featuring unexpected murder weapons -- everything from Donna Andrews' Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon (2003), which finds a practical joker choked to death with a mouse cord, to Georgette Heyer's Behold, Here's Poison (1936), in which the means of dispatch is a tube of toothpaste injected with nicotine. Read more.


According to the Boston Globe Magazine, TV police dramas "are having an unexpected impact in the real world: The public thinks every crime can be solved, and solved now" -- just like on CSI or Crossing Jordan. "It has contributed to jurors' desire to see more forensic testimony from the stand ...," the mag continues. "And it has spurred a phenomenon that defense lawyers call 'junk science,' in which high-paid, underqualified consultants are hired to lend a little razzle-dazzle to a case. Because in prime time, we've learned that virtually anything left behind can solve the crime: sofa cushions, a dead insect, lint." Read more.

Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist T. Jefferson Parker, Jan Burke (Bones, Nine) talks about the roots of her workaholism; her next Irene Kelly novel, Paperboy -- "a missing persons story"; and her hatred of "last-minute villains." Read more.

The latest edition of American Heritage magazine features a rather extensive interview with retired "military intellectual" Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters -- better known to mystery readers as Owen Parry, author of the Abel Jones Civil War series (Faded Coat of Blue, Honor's Kingdom, etc.) -- in which he talks about the United States' role as an "anti-imperialistic power," the underappreciated importance of the 1898 Spanish-American War, and what he says is America's mistake in aligning itself militarily with the Saudis -- "the Arab world's Beverly Hillbillies." Read more.


Last Rewards

In the Bleak Midwinter (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Julia Spencer-Fleming, has won the 2003 Dilys Award, given out annually by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association to the book that stores most enjoyed selling.

Also nominated for this year's Dilys were: You've Got Murder, by Donna Andrews (Berkley Prime Crime); Without Fail, by Lee Child (Putnam); The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (Viking); and Hell to Pay, by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown).

* * *

Three lucky people walked away from the 2003 Left Coast Crime convention, held in Pasadena, California (February 27-March 2), with commendations for their work.

Tom Cockey's The Hearse Case Scenario (Hyperion) and Brian Wiprud's Pipsqueak (iUniverse) were declared the co-winners of the Lefty Award, given to the most humorous mystery novel published in the United States last year. Also nominated were: Buck Fever, by Ben Rehder (St. Martin's Minotaur); Hard Eight, by Janet Evanovich (St. Martin's Press); This Pen for Hire, by Laura Levine (Kensington); and The Rival Queens, by Fidelis Morgan (Morrow).

Meanwhile, David Baldeosingh Rotstein's jacket art for Buck Fever won the Arty Award as the best cover art on a humorous mystery novel published last year.

* * *

Malice Domestic has announced its nominees for the 2003 Agatha Awards, honoring "traditional mysteries" -- those "best typified by the works of Agatha Christie." (Think no explicit sex, no graphic gore, and a confined setting). Winners will be announced during the Malice Domestic mystery convention, to be held in Arlington, Virginia, from May 2 to 4. This year's nominees are:

Best Novel:
You've Got Murder, by Donna Andrews (Berkley Prime Crime); Death of Riley, by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin's Minotaur); Blues in the Night, by Rochelle Krich (Ballantine); The Body in the Bonfire, by Katherine Hall Page (Morrow); and The Golden One, by Elizabeth Peters (Morrow)

Best First Novel:
Not All Tarts Are Apple, by Pip Granger (Poisoned Pen Press); Six Strokes Under, by Roberta Isleib (Berkley Prime Crime); Beat Until Stiff, by Claire M. Johnson (Poisoned Pen Press); How to Murder a Millionaire, by Nancy Martin (Signet); In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur); and Shadows at the Fair, by Lea Wait (Scribner)

Best Non-Fiction:
The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, edited by Mike Ashley (Carroll & Graf); Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction, edited by Colleen Barnett (Poisoned Pen Press); Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir, by Mary Higgins Clark (Simon and Schuster); Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by
Sue Grafton, with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman (Writer's Digest Press); and They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated, and Forgotten Mystery Novels, edited by Jim Huang (Crum Creek Press)

Best Short Story:
"Dognapped," by Robert Barnard (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 2002); "Devotion," by Jan Burke, 18 (ASAP Publishing); "What He Needed," by Laura Lippman (in Tart Noir, edited by Stella Duffy and Lauren Henderson; Berkley Prime Crime); "The Dog That Didn't Bark," by Margaret Maron (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December 2002); and "Too Many Cooks," by Marcia Talley (in Much Ado About Murder, edited by
Anne Perry; Berkley Prime Crime)

Best Children's/Young Adult:
Whistler in the Dark, by Kathleen Ernst (Pleasant Company Publications); Red Card, by Daniel J. Hale and Matthew LaBrot (Top Publications); Hoot, by
Carl Hiaasen (Knopf); The Secret of the Red Flame, by K.M. Kimball (Aladdin Library); and The Maltese Kitten, by Linda Stewart (Cheshire House)

In addition, Elizabeth Peters (aka Barbara Michaels, aka Barbara Mertz) will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. And actor David Suchet, who has portrayed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on television over the last dozen years, will be given -- appropriately enough -- Malice Domestic's first Poirot Award, honoring "individuals who have made significant contributions to the world of the traditional mystery through means other than writing."

For more information, visit the Malice Domestic Web site.

* * *

Finally, the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers has announced its nominees for the 2003 Hammett Prize. They are:

Jolie Blon's Bounce, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

The Eighth Day, by John Case (Ballantine)

Flykiller, by J. Robert Janes (Orion UK)

Bad Boy Brawly Brown, by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown)

Honor's Kingdom, by Owen Parry (Morrow)

The winner will announced on June 14 during the Bloody Words mystery convention, to be held in Ottawa, Canada. For more information, click here.

 

"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by crime fiction editor J. Kingston Pierce. Authors and publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.

 

Previous Rap Sheets:

February 2003 | January 2003 | December 2002 | November 2002 | October 2002 | September 2002 | August 2002 | July 2002 | June 2002 | May 2002 | Rap Sheet #1 | Rap Sheet #2 | Rap Sheet #3 | Rap Sheet #4 | Rap Sheet #5 | Rap Sheet #6 | Rap Sheet #7 | Rap Sheet #8 | Rap Sheet #9 | Rap Sheet #10 |