Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by John Shannon, Val McDermid, Carole Nelson Douglas, Stuart Pawson, April Smith and others • Sherlock Holmes lives; Robin Winks dies; Otto Penzler endures legal purgatory, and more news from the world of mystery • On hand at the 2002 Edgar Awards ceremony • George P. Pelecanos and G.M. Ford capture literary prizes • Nominations are in for the Anthony Awards, Canada's Arthur Ellis Awards and Australia's Ned Kelly Awards • And because we're already depressed enough by the statistics, not a single word about America's skyrocketing government budget deficits and worsening unemployment
Pierce's Picks for May
Babel (Arcade), by Barry Maitland. Detective Chief Inspector David Brock is brought in to investigate the brutal slaying of a university professor in London's Docklands district. When the motive for this murder appears to be political, it provokes both headlines and interest from Brock's protégé, Kathy Kolla, who -- though she's on leave, following her experiences in Silvermeadow (2000) -- begs to take part in the case.
Cypress Grove (Walker), by James Sallis. Having apparently concluded his Lew Griffin series with Ghost of a Flea (2001), this author delivers a standalone that's heavy on character and sense of place. Turner, an ex-cop and ex-con, is looking for escape, and hopes he's found it in a place "halfway between Memphis and forever." But the ritualistic murder of a drifter convinces Sheriff Lonnie Bates to request Turner's help. As he returns to a world of darkness he'd tried to leave behind, Turner also discovers human kindnesses he hadn't come to expect.
The Deadly Directory 2003 (Deadly Serious Press), edited by Kate Derie. This latest edition of Derie's dauntingly thorough guide to the world of mystery includes: an international listing of bookstores specializing in crime fiction; a rundown of periodicals focused on the genre; research sources (on the Web and in libraries) that would be of use to biographers and other serious students of mystery; and a wide variety of shops, tour operators and other businesses that cater to people with an appetite for mayhem -- at least, of the fictional sort. (Folks wanting to get a wee bit closer to genuine malevolence might wish to check out the listing for the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts.) Derie is also creator of the Web mystery resource, ClueLass.
Death at Versailles (Allison & Busby), by Jane Jakeman. Examining magistrate Cecile Galant has been relocated to Versailles, after her prosecution of an influential gangster (in Death in the South of France, 2001). But all is not peaceful, even in this tourist-friendly locale. An Oxford student claims to have witnessed the slaying of a young man while she was visiting the gardens of Louis XIV's Château de Versailles. Stranger still, the deceased was supposedly dressed in 18th-century garb -- and he vanished before police reached the scene. Galant nears X-Files territory as she ponders ties between this bizarre incident and an equally extraordinary tale, dating back to 1901, about a pair of English women who said they'd journeyed into the past while strolling around the Petit Trianon.
First Degree (Mysterious Press), by David Rosenfelt. Although he's no longer so desperate for clients as he was in Open and Shut (2002), New Jersey defense attorney Andy Carpenter is still desperate for answers in trying to save a client who's been arrested for killing a corrupt cop. And things don't get any easier after Carpenter's lover, private eye Laurie Collins, is charged with this crime, instead. The author alternates skillfully between the homicide investigation and courtroom action, but it's the genial Andy and his friends who make this sequel most welcome.
The Last Good Day (Little, Brown), by Peter Blauner. With her family in tow, Lynn Schulman returns to the ostensibly complacent suburban New York town she'd fled after high school, only to find that dangers aren't confined to the big city. It's not bad enough that the decapitated corpse of her oldest friend, Sandi Lanier, washes up beside the town's riverside train depot: the cop assigned to investigate is Michael Fallon, Lynn's onetime boyfriend-turned-stalker. Tensions and resentments escalate as Fallon, struggling in his personal life, tries to resurrect a relationship with Lynn, while also keeping secret the extent of his associations with Lanier. Blauner (The Intruder, Slow Motion Riot, etc.) offers a circuitous and suspenseful plot, buttressed by well-crafted characters.
Shaman Pass (Soho Press), by Stan Jones. This sequel to 1999's White Sky, Black Ice has Alaska state trooper Nathan Active trying to solve the harpoon murder of an Inupiat tribal leader and looking for a sacred mummy, "Uncle Frosty," that's been returned to Alaska by the Smithsonian, only to be stolen by supporters of native funeral customs. Active interviews an eccentric array of tundra dwellers in order to understand the motives behind these crimes and how they relate to the long-ago killing of an Eskimo prophet.
The Sinister Pig (HarperCollins), by Tony Hillerman. It's up to Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police to investigate, after an undercover FBI agent who'd been trying to trace billions of dollars missing from the U.S. Interior Department's Tribal Trust Fund is found dead near New Mexico's huge Jicarilla Apache natural gas field. Meanwhile, Bernie Manuelito, the woman closest to Chee's heart, is working with the U.S. Border Patrol in the state's southwestern corner, tackling a case involving old oil pipelines that likely links to the same murder. With the help of more-or-less-retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, a conspiracy connected to drugs and power is revealed. This is Hillerman's 16th Chee/Leaphorn novel, after last year's The Wailing Wind.
Winterkill (Putnam), by C.J. Box. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett can't seem to stay out of trouble. In his third outing (after last year's Savage Run, reviewed in "Rap Sheet" 8/02), he stumbles on the body of a murdered Forest Service supervisor, surrounded by illegally shot elk. The local sheriff figures this is the work of anti-government survivalists, but Pickett isn't so sure. As Forest Service bureaucrats and FBI agents swarm about, threatening to incite another Ruby Ridge debacle, Pickett must rescue his adopted daughter, April, who is with her birth mother in the survivalists' encampment. Box excels at rendering his stories' western landscape, but could make more of an effort to develop credible secondary characters.
Not since Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer has a fictional detective paid so much attention to the flora of Southern California. Yep, Nathan Walpow's affable botanical snob and amateur sleuth, Joe Portugal, is back in One Last Hit (UglyTown). But the plants are increasingly shuffled to the background, because Joe has found a new passion in life -- or at least reacquainted himself with an old one. It seems he has a bad case of the rockin' pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu. The opening chapters in this third installment of Walpow's series have Joe fondly recalling his rock 'n' roll glory days as the rhythm guitarist for a band that almost "coulda been a contender." Walpow's obvious affection for the rock music of the 1960s and 70s comes through loud and clear -- names are dropped like bombs throughout the story, with song titles from such classic rock groups as Steppenwolf and The Who used for chapter heads.
Portugal's band is getting back together, and the other members figure that Joe is the ideal guy to track down their enigmatic lead guitarist. But before he can even start, somebody shoots the bass player. Music critics, or someone more nefarious? Meanwhile, Joe's longtime squeeze, Gina, is going through a mid-life crisis of her own. She's beginning to regret not having kids, and the 12-year-old runaway girl whom Joe brings home (in a subplot that meanders like a wayward Farfisa organ solo through these chapters) triggers maternal feelings she didn't even know she had.
Coincidences abound in One Last Hit, but far worse is the fact that, for all his alleged rock 'n' roll 'tude, Joe is simply too nice a guy for rock 'n' roll. And this is a nice series. Gina's a nice lady. Joe's old bandmates are nicely colorful. Joe's old man is nice. Joe's agent is nice. Even the murderer turns out to be sorta nice.
So what starts out as like a crunching Pete Townshend power chord ends up just so much air guitar, a Pat Boone cover of Little Richard. Sure, you tap your feet, but you don't pump your fist in the air, or raise your voice and just scream. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with simply tapping your foot, not really, but I prefer my rock 'n' roll (and my crime fiction) to have a little more edge. In other words, sometimes you just have to turn it up to 11, and kick out the jams. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
John Shannon has no such compunction about kicking out the jams. His latest Jack Liffey detective novel, City of Strangers (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler), really rocks, with an ending that's the literary equivalent of a smashed guitar. Make no mistake -- there's blood on these tracks.
Liffey actually has a brief but convincing cameo in Walpow's aforementioned One Last Hit. However, it's in his own new adventure that Shannon's P.I. really shines. Like Joe Portugal, he's going through a mid-life crisis. The difference is that Jack, the endearing, enduring sad-sack Everyman star of this criminally underrated series, has been having a mid-life crisis forever. Or at least ever since we first met him six novels ago, in The Concrete River (1996), after he'd just lost his job as a technical writer for the airline industry and had wandered into his current occupation as an L.A.-based finder of lost and missing children.
So Jack throws himself into his work. He's hired to find a missing teenage girl whose disappearance seems somehow tied in with the fate of four Iranian boys who have also gone missing from a snooty private school. But what starts out as a routine missing-persons case soon has Jack wandering in the no-man's-land between Islamic and Western cultures, political idealism and political reality, and youth and wisdom. Not that City of Strangers reads like some dull philosophical tract; Jack also has to deal here with the very real threats posed by ruthless drug smugglers, crooked cops, extremists of various political and ideological stripes (including a bunch who are plotting a mass murder), and some other lowlifes who get their jollies torturing animals.
More than one reader may shy away from some of the novel's more wrenching scenes, and others may find the politics almost as disturbing. But for those who stick with it, this is a rare detective novel that's not just entertaining (with Shannon, that's become a given), but also timely. Unlike many current writers who shy away from asking bigger questions, Shannon is unapologetic, more than willing to bite off a huge chunk of whatever the latest version of political correctness is, government-approved or not, and spit it back out. His unflinching (and often enlightening) insights into the American Muslim community and other cultural and political landmines may not win him many fans on either end of the spectrum these days; but in this time of multimedia spin control, when people mistake a late-night comedian's tossed-off one liner for in-depth analysis, and the mere questioning of government policy is loudly denounced as treasonous, it comes off as refreshingly direct and courageous. Still, Shannon never lets us forget that his characters are real people, fallible and human. And that, of course, is really what makes this book so powerful, moving and, yes, important. -- K.B.S.
Editor Jon L. Breen, the books critic for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, has assembled some great stuff here, reprinted from a variety of sources. Howard's "To Live and Die in Midland, Texas" is a hold-up yarn that sets the tone for an eclectic, but generally tough-nosed assortment of tales. Private eye fans, in particular, will enjoy Collins' Dan Fortune story, "Twilight's Last Gleaming," while those familiar with Dashiell Hammett's biography should get a genuine kick out of Mike Doogan's "War Can Be Murder," which has 48-year-old private "Sam" Hammett stationed in Alaska during World War II, playing amateur sleuth. And Pelecanos' sexually charged "The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us," reprinted from last year's Measures of Poison, is simply to die for. Even Gorman's almost pastoral "Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned" ends up revealing a far darker heart than you'd suspect.
This is crime fiction that's short, hard and fast. And entertaining as hell. Not to mention dirt cheap, at a mere eight bucks. Forget those classy, high-priced spreads -- this is the real deal. -- K.B.S.
Keeping a long-running series fresh is often a writer's most difficult task. There are several ways to accomplish this: adding considerable character depth to the main protagonist; changing the point of view from third-person to first-person (or vice versa); switching locales; or as has become most popular of late, setting the series aside for a book or two in favor of a standalone thriller. That last approach can not only revitalize a series in jeopardy of growing stale, but lead to greater sales upon returning to the characters fans have grown to love.
Few, if any, authors have chosen Jane Haddam's method. Her latest novel, Conspiracy Theory (St. Martin's Minotaur), marks the 19th outing for Haddam's main character, Gregor Demarkian. "Main character" is a term chosen deliberately; while Demarkian appears in each book, and he develops and changes over time, his is not necessarily the strongest or most compelling voice in any given installment of Haddam's series. Rather, the author spends as much if not more time fleshing out characters -- almost all of them potential suspects -- who will never reappear in a future book. In doing so, she's managed to accomplish the remarkable, which is to pen a series of novels that work equally well as standalones.
The chief hallmark of any Demarkian story is the social issue at its core, whether that be the Roman Catholic Church's continuing woes, familial discord or the hell that is high school (the subject of last year's excellent Somebody Else's Music, "RS" 7/02). As its title indicates, Haddam's new book deals with the slippery landscape of conspiratorial hypotheses, and the ease with which a litany of apparently unconnected events can be linked to form an ominous whole. Creating such order out of chaos turns violent in these pages after a wealthy Philadelphia banker is gunned down outside a swank city hotel, and then the Armenian Church on Cavanaugh Street, a much poorer area, is firebombed. What connects these two occurrences? Police quickly latch onto the fact that the banker, Anthony van Wyck Ross, was deemed public enemy no. 1 by the fledgling Harridan Report, an online conspiracy rag railing against the power that rich blue-blooded Philadelphians -- or members of the "Main Line" -- supposedly wield worldwide. Yet that still doesn't explain the firebombing, or why the church's typically light-hearted priest is acting so fearful and tight-lipped.
As Demarkian investigates and this story's body count rises, the foibles and flaws of Haddam's players grow more pronounced. Especially disturbing is Kathi Mittendorf, a plain, somewhat pathetic middle-aged woman who has found her life's purpose in slavishly worshipping at the altar of the Harridan Report's wild speculations. She comes alive only when she's espousing her newfound rhetoric, and the scenes in which Mittendorf does so are riveting, albeit in a most unpleasant manner.
Although Conspiracy Theory works as a character study, focusing on lunatic-fringe dwellers, it's less accomplished as a mystery and doesn't even try very hard to hide this fact. Demarkian says a number of times here that he has no idea what is going on and is unsure which direction to take. Murders are committed, but their resolutions seem somewhat half-hearted. Oddly enough, however, the lack of mystery does not really take away from this book's success. For in the end, Haddam does make her readers think long and hard about how firmly ingrained fringe theories can be and the damage they can cause when people push their limits way beyond reasonable borders. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
Laughing Boy (Allison & Busby), Stuart Pawson's eighth book in an increasingly popular series starring affable Detective Inspector Charlie Priest. He's a product of the 1960s and still feels at home with the music and culture of those times, but isn't such a maverick that he can't work within the confines of the police system in his hometown of Heckley, located somewhere in England's Yorkshire Dales. And Priest is a good cop, as one of his colleagues points out, even if he has an unseemly habit of making the odd mistake or two. His skills serve him well as the DI attempts to unravel a case with increasing frustration levels. At first, the murders of middle-aged Laura Heeley, pretty young co-ed Colinette Jones and teenager Robin Gillespie appear to be random; two females, one male, no connection to each other. Yet there haven't been any other recent murders in that area, so the possibility of a link between the victims must be explored. As the investigation progresses, Priest and his cronies sift through red herrings, taunting letters and a bizarre connection to a dead American rock star from the late 60s.
Although the procedural aspects of Laughing Boy are well done, the most fascinating parts of this book deal with the aforementioned rock star, Tim Roper, whose fate is documented in the prologue of Pawson's novel. How a song Roper wrote for his bandmate's newborn child becomes intertwined with an investigation across the Atlantic is what Priest needs to figure out, and the childlike lyrics and simple tune soon morph into something far more menacing.
Interestingly enough, even as the plot's pace quickens, it is tempered by the deftness of humor in Pawson's writing. Charlie Priest never seems to take himself too seriously, and the banter he shares with his colleagues is chock full of snappy comments and dry wit, adding a lightness to the story that most novels of this sort simply do not have. There are times, however, when the throwaway humor jars against the seriousness of the crimes under analysis, when the offhand comment seems slightly out-of-place. Another quibble concerns Laughing Boy's denouement -- swift as it should have been, it is perhaps too abrupt.
Yet overall, Stuart Pawson has given us here a fine book that should further increase his profile. I look forward to catching up on Charlie Priest's earlier adventures and to anticipating where he goes from here. -- S.W.
You'd think that Val McDermid would want immediately to extend her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, given the success both of her 2002 entry in that bunch, The Last Temptation ("RS" 9/02), and of the British TV series based on The Wire in the Blood (1998). Instead, she confounds convention by taking a risk on a brand-new standalone novel, The Distant Echo (HarperCollins UK), which looks at friendships, family, deception and murder. There is power and misdirection here, reminding readers of the dizzying heights to which McDermid took us with her award-winning A Place of Execution (1999). Like Execution, Echo is written in a split timeframe, and it contains a very grim secret. The story's strength lies in its characters, and what befalls them over a 25-year span.
The action begins in the Scottish Lowlands town of St. Andrews, in 1978. Four university students leave a party and stumble upon the dying Rosie Duff, a young barmaid, in a snow-filled cemetery. She appears to have been raped and slashed deeply by a knife. In their desperation to save Rosie, the students are stained with her blood. After Rosie dies, the four fall under suspicion -- not only of the police, but also Duff's family and the shadowy presences that lurk along the edges of Echo's plot. McDermid expertly carves out distinct personalities for each member of her quartet, initially through the use of nicknames: "Weird," "Ziggy," "Mondo" and "Gilly." Alex Gilbey is Gilly, and like his colleagues he finds the trajectory of his life altered by the events of that terrible night. The four had grown up together, formed a rock band, and conjointly ventured into the halls of academe. But, facing the backlash from Rosie Duff's murder, they start to unravel -- both mentally and as a group. They're soon driven in different directions by religion, sexuality and their individual worldviews, and haunted by a mysterious figure who expects a heavy price to be paid for what happened to the late barmaid.
McDermid uses a pair of police investigators to link the two eras in which her events take place, and to provide a basic framework for her twisted tale. She poses plenty of questions about the darkness that lies at the core of human interactions -- answers to which prove highly disturbing, but also provide Echo with some moral context and a grounding in compassion. The message here is that, like McDermid's characters, reality is never quite what it seems to be, and no one is ever truly innocent in life. What a sinister web the author has woven in The Distant Echo. Don't be surprised if this turns out to be the most talked-about novel of the year. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim
In 1946, the town of Newport, Kentucky -- better known as "Little Mexico" -- is home to supper clubs, casinos, bordellos, dirty cops and the Cleveland Syndicate. After five years in the U.S. Navy, this is the world to which Nick Cavanaugh returns, hoping to write a novel and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. What he discovers instead, in Cathie John's In the Name of the Father (CC Publishing/Journeybook Press), is a place that's far more dangerous than the recently ended world war -- a place destined to challenge his morals and beliefs.
Soon, The Oasis becomes as threatened by the Jules family's infighting as by the Cleveland Syndicate and other club owners who look to prey on its profits. Concurrently, Little Mexico's nightspots are haunted by another veteran, Chuck Gifford. Convinced that the gambling joints were responsible for his father's death, Gifford starts systematically bombing them in revenge. Among his unintended victims is Jennifer Rome, a former prostitute who abandoned her old life to become a Hollywood actress. Her triumphal return to Newport is shattered when a casino explosion scars her face and sends her back to the very bordello she had escaped.
Local police, well bribed to keep Little Mexico's clubs out of the spotlight, do almost nothing to get to the bottom of the bombings. But one detective in particular, Steve Pope, feels his soul wither a bit each time he must accept the payoffs, knowing he can't refuse without losing the trust of his fellow officers. Pope's only salvation is to record the corruption in hopes of exposing it later. As this novel heats up, with rival gangsters and vigilante Clifford all closing in on The Oasis, Nick Cavanaugh must decide how far to go to save the place, without sacrificing the new life he has created for himself.
Married authors John and Cathie Celestri, writing as "Cathie John," offer in Name of the Father a noir mystery that re-creates the malignant atmosphere of postwar gambling clubs. Alternating viewpoints and excerpts from Nick's journal keep the action moving, without disrupting the story's pace. Although Gifford comes off occasionally as a stereotypical psychopath, bedeviled by childhood issues, the moral dilemmas facing other characters -- many of whom are trapped by their town's corruption -- are fascinating to observe. As in real life, there are no perfect solutions, and everything is not tied up neatly by this book's end. However, the Celestris do bring events nicely together in their conclusion, at the same time establishing new beginnings for this story's characters. It's obvious that a third Little Mexico novel is in the works. As long as it provides similar pacing and players, it should be worth reading, too. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow
Carole Nelson Douglas delivers her own take on the noir novel in Cat in a Neon Nightmare (Forge). The story has tough-talking Las Vegas P.I. Midnight Louie and his equally smart-mouthed daughter, Midnight Louise, investigating the possible murder of a high-priced call girl. That Louie and Louise are both cats doesn't at all inhibit their sleuthing; in fact, it helps them to work undercover among oblivious humans.
Neon Nightmare, the 15th in Douglas' alphabetical series, covers a year in the lives of both human and feline tenants at the Circle Ritz condominiums. The previous installment, Cat in a Midnight Choir (2002), found Matt Devine, a former priest and current late-night radio talk-show host, being stalked by the psychotic Kathleen "Kitty the Cutter" O'Connor, a woman determined to steal his virginity -- and slay anyone else who tried to get in her way. At the end of that book, Matt followed the dubious advice of police Lieutenant Carmen Molina, and solicited a prostitute in hopes that once he'd abandoned his chastity, O'Connor would finally leave him alone. However, as we pick up the story in Neon, Matt's call-girl of choice, Vassar, plunges fatally from her hotel room, just after his visit -- leaving both Devine and Molina anxious to save their reputations.
While Molina and her fellow cops look into Vassar's demise, interviewing her madam and the employees at the hotel where she took her plunge, Midnight Louie conducts his own probe. He interrogates the single witness to this death -- a parrot -- and goes undercover in the Neon Nightmare nightclub, following (and protecting) Max as the latter hunts for members of the Synth, an ancient brotherhood of magicians. In short order, Matt, Max and Midnight Louie all find themselves desperately trying to escape Kitty's claws, with events colliding in a fatal high-speed motorcycle chase.
Douglas' latest novel features all the elements of a traditional hard-boiled detective yarn: a fallen priest, prostitutes, love triangles, a by-the-book cop and a cynical sleuth with female problems. That the P.I. here happens to be a cat somehow doesn't come off as either too cute or jarringly gimmicky. (In fact, in Midnight Louie's first appearance -- part of Douglas' 1990 romance novel, Crystal Days -- it's wasn't until the book's end that the reader realized the narrating house dick was a hairy tom.) Folks who otherwise avoid cat mysteries needn't be as leery of the Midnight Louie books, for the author's bipedal characters can be just as haunted and complex as her four-footed players. One caveat, though: This entire series is written with numerous references to past installments, each of which contains complications deliberately left unsolved until the subsequent book. The novels, as a consequence, may seem somewhat incomplete. Yet taken together, they are a purr-ennial favorite among cat and cozy lovers, both. -- C.C
Murder in the Bastille (Soho Press), the fourth installment of Cara Black's Aimée Leduc series (after last year's Murder in the Sentier), puts the Parisian computer security expert in her most vulnerable position yet. While meeting in a trendy resto with client Vincent Csarda, Aimée notices a woman nearby wearing a Chinese jacket identical to her own. This similarity brings deadly consequences, when the woman leaves her cell phone behind in the restaurant. After a falling-out with Csarda, Aimée picks up the ringing phone and agrees to meet the male caller, hoping to return the instrument to its rightful owner. Instead, Aimée is attacked and left for dead in a passageway of the Bastille quartier. Though lucky to be alive, there is damage to her optic nerve, which renders the P.I. blind, with little hope of recovery.
Police are convinced that Aimée was victimized by the infamous Beast of the Bastille, a serial killer targeting women in passages throughout that section of Paris. Aimée does not agree, however -- especially after the woman she'd seen in the restaurant, Josiane Dolet, is found dead only hours after Aimée's assault. Believing she was accosted as a result of mistaken identity, and that her attacker was mimicking the Beast's modus operandi, Aimée sets out to find her assailant. To do this, she must rely on her partner in Leduc Detective, the stocky dwarf and fellow computer whiz René Friant. Normally a behind-the-scenes player, René must do the bulk of the footwork in this tale, while Aimée heals and learns to live sightless.
As Aimée gets better and learns how to navigate Paris with the help of a couple of blind volunteers, René's investigation leads him to Mathieu Cavour, a master woodworker specializing in restoring antiques. Cavour lives in the same Bastille passage where Aimée was attacked. He claims that he heard nothing that night, but Cavour is harboring his own secrets of illicit activity and is afraid to get involved. He is busy renovating stolen furniture and using the profits to pay the escalating rent on his atelier. René's consistent and intuitive plodding also reveals that Dolet was a journalist who'd been nosing about in several important and potentially damaging stories, any of which could be connected to her murder. One in particular involves real-estate developers with a penchant for using Serbian thugs to intimidate tenants into vacating their apartments.
Although she's attacked again, this time in the hospital, Aimée eventually gains strength and confidence enough to rejoin the investigation in person. After obtaining information from several quirky sources -- including a former prostitution madam and a forensic pathologist given to breaking the rules -- it's clear that the mystery at the core of this novel ties in somehow with Cavour rather than the Beast. Despite the many twists this case takes and the leads that abruptly end, Aimée Leduc proves that her investigative intellect can pierce the darkness of these heinous crimes. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Archeological pursuit can be a fascinating backdrop for fiction. But long hours spent digging into the sandy coastline of Florida's Panhandle, hunting for potsherds, does not enthralling reading make -- especially when the characters involved are as nondescript as those in Mary Anna Evans' debut novel, Artifacts (Poisoned Pen Press). Neither the anticipated discovery of a skeleton or two, nor the modern-day murder of two archaeology students (handled in such an awkward way, that it's not immediately obvious they're dead) can enliven this story.
Evans' protagonist is Faye Longchamp, the poor and slightly dishonest descendant of slaves who is trying, by hook or by crook, to hang onto Joyeuse, a deteriorating plantation house all but hidden by time and vegetation on the Sunshine State's hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. The once-magnificent residence was passed down to Faye by her great-great grandmother Cally, whose birth followed an assault on her African-American mother by a white plantation owner. How this unlikely home ownership scenario came about is revealed through excerpts from a pair of fortuitous literary discoveries: a 19th-century diary and the transcription of an oral history, recalling Cally's experiences as a slave. Slipping back and forth between present-day activities and the recorded testimony of long-dead characters is not the easiest technique to master. Yet it might still have worked to the betterment of Evans' tale, had the revelations been at least a bit more surprising.
To maintain control of Joyeuse and pay her property taxes, Faye resorts to illegally selling historical artifacts she's unearthed from the property. This puts her in a dicey position, which she only worsens by agreeing to date a slick politician who had purchased some of her finds. Evidently, Faye has been so isolated from reality, she doesn't recognize the futility of such a romance. This is the weakest plot thread in Artifacts, making us doubt the supposedly brilliant protagonist's basic life skills. Faye's subsequent discovery of a human skull on the plantation further threatens her meager existence: The last thing she needs is to have cops crawling around, eventually stumbling on her "pothunting" sideline. As it turns out, the bones belong to a high-profile debutante who disappeared without a trace many years before. The deaths of those aforementioned archaeology students, a hurricane and buried treasure add predictable twists to this confusing tale.
Although most members of Evans' cast miss the mark, Joe Wolf Mantooth is right on target -- in more ways than one. He's a modern-day "noble savage" with little book learning, few people skills and the kind of shining innocence that can be quite captivating. While he plays the role of second banana, Mantooth is too strong a character to remain in the background. He easily dwarfs those around him -- which is a problem, since this is supposed to be Faye's show. More of Joe's strength and less of Faye and her historical angst would help make any sequel Evans has in mind a more intriguing read. -- Reviewed by Yvette Banek
North of Montana introduced Special Agent Ana Gray, an ambitious, independent and impetuous member of the FBI's Kidnapping and Extortion division. In Good Morning, Killer, she's assigned to investigate the possible abduction of Juliana Meyer-Murphy, a 15-year-old girl in Santa Monica, California. Juliana's parents are in a rapidly disintegrating marriage, and their daughter suffers from new-kid syndrome at school. Her disappearance has her mother on the verge of a breakdown, and her father bellowing about incompetence. Ana is having her own problems. She is teamed here with Santa Monica detective Andrew Berringer, a smart cop with whom she had begun a tentative relationship, after they worked together on a case. Now, as they search for the lost teenager, Ana and Andrew butt heads. The FBI has decided to take over the case almost completely, edging Andrew out. He's further disturbed when Ana forgets to pass along evidence relating to a year-old bank robbery they had both investigated. As the pair's relationship crumbles, Andrew follows a lead in Juliana's kidnapping, provided by a homeless man with a tenuous connection to reality. In the meantime, Ana goes looking for what may be a significant green van. But not long after it's suggested that Juliana was snatched by a serial rapist, the girl suddenly reappears, stumbling through the fog, wounded and stunned.
Attending the examination of Juliana at the hospital, Ana breaks a cardinal rule of law enforcement by befriending the girl. She has been strangled, beaten and raped, and is now subject to a highly invasive search for fiber and DNA evidence. This contributes to Juliana's trauma, rendering her mute on the subject of her recent treatment. The case grows personal for Ana as she becomes Juliana's only confidante. Over the phone, the two share their fears, until Juliana finally describes the nightmare of what happened to her in the back of a van. This revelation incites Ana's obsession with catching the girl's abuser -- before he strikes again.
The case builds to a fever pitch as information about a similar incident is revealed. A suspect may be closer than Ana expected. Concurrently, Ana and Andrew's relationship comes to a violent culmination. The agent's eyes are brutally opened, letting her see just what sort of man she's fallen for, and forcing her to do something that could not only take his life, but end her career.
Good Morning, Killer is a fast-paced, fine-tuned police procedural that gives the reader excellent insight into FBI profiling. Though, at times, the dialogue reads a bit too much like a TV script, author Smith does an outstanding job of creating tension between her characters. She explores the psychology of her criminals, investigators and victim, while moving them all closer and closer to the edge. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan
In the News
Do you know which books crime novelists Jan Burke, Steve Hamilton and Lee Child recommend your reading? If not, check out the Gardiner (Maine) Public Library's "Who Reads What 2003" list. There you'll discover the name of Lawrence Block's favorite writer and learn why Peter Robinson can't get enough of Wuthering Heights. Beyond the author responses, there are also suggestions from U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, actress Teri Garr, and Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the White House press corps, who was recently mauled by conservatives for labeling George W. Bush "the worst president in all of American history." Read more.
Noted historian and crime fiction critic Robin Winks died on April 7, at age 72. A former master of Berkeley College, at Yale University, Winks wrote or edited at least 25 books. Although mystery enthusiasts may know him best for his book reviews in The Boston Globe and The New Republic, and for works such as Modus Operandi: An Excursion Into Detective Fiction (1982), he's more widely remembered for writing Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, a non-fiction work focusing on the links between Ivy League academics and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Read more.
Did Sherlock Holmes really exist? That's the question taken up (most entertainingly) by The Straight Dope, a syndicated column and Web site known for tackling obscure subjects. Readers unfamiliar with the evolution of Holmes from a product of Arthur Conan Doyle's imagination into a figure worthy of academic study may find this piece especially interesting. Read more.
In an interview with Mystery Ink, Earl Emerson -- author of Into the Inferno ("RS" 3/03) -- talks about his "day job" as a firefighter, his switch from writing a series to penning standalone thrillers, and his fear for the future of mid-list novelists. Read more.
There's an interesting squib in the latest New Yorker magazine about the lawsuit brought against critic/editor/bookstore owner Otto Penzler by publisher New Millenium, which had signed Penzler to produce a series of mystery short-story collections with sports themes (baseball, boxing, tennis, etc.). Trouble arose when New Millenium tried to change the name of its 2001 football anthology from Murder in the End Zone to The Mighty Johns, borrowing that title from a David Baldacci novella included among the book's contents, and feature Baldacci's name prominently on the cover. The author sued to stop publication, arguing that the cover made the volume look like his work alone, and eventually forced a book jacket change. But then New Millenium sued Penzler for breach of contract. The trial is scheduled to begin on June 17 in Los Angeles, with Penzler defended by A-list attorney David Boies, who was unfortunately on the losing side of the 2000 Bush v. Gore case. Read more.
ON NEWSSTANDS ONLY: The spring issue of Mystery Scene features an entertaining interview with John Grisham, conducted by January contributor Tom Nolan, as well as a profile of noirist Eddie Muller (Shadow Boxer, "RS" 1/03) and a piece by Jon L. Breen about crime fiction ghostwriters (did you know, for instance, that Donald Bain is not only the man behind "Jessica Fletcher" but also, allegedly, Margaret Truman's authorial stand-in?). In addition, there's a recollection by Denise Hamilton about her writing of Sugar Skull ("RS" 3/03), and our very own Kevin Burton Smith offers Mystery Scene readers a list of his all-time favorite private eyes -- most of whom, like Liza Cody's Anna Lee and Robert Martin's Jim Bennett, long ago gave up their beats. ... The April/May edition of Mystery News introduces itself with an intriguing profile of C.J. Box, author of the new Winterkill. Inside can be found interviews with Fiona Buckley (A Pawn for a Queen) and Robert Crais (The Last Detective). ... And the May/June "adventure issue" of Book magazine recounts some of the perils that crime/thriller writers have faced in researching their fictional works. Unfortunately, only two of the five tales -- from Ian Rankin and Michael Gruber (Tropic of Night) -- are available online.
Scene of the Crime: the Edgar Awards
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared May 1, 2003, to be Mystery Writers of America Day. Not so coincidentally, that was also the day of the 57th annual Edgar Allen Poe Awards dinner, held at midtown Manhattan's Grand Hyatt Hotel.
Master of ceremonies Jerry Orbach (from TV's Law & Order), looking dapper in a blue suit and suntan, with amazingly white teeth, gratefully acknowledged last year's ceremony as his inspiration for this year's gala: It showed him how not to run things. Recalling the 56th Edgar presentation's slow pace, Orbach related a story he'd been told by an actor friend. It seems that outdoor theaters in Pennsylvania and Ohio would promise full ticket refunds, if the performance was cancelled by rain. So whenever the actors heard thunder, they would shift into "rain tempo," saying their lines as fast as they possibly could. Orbach's promise that this year's fête would go at "rain tempo" won him enthusiastic applause.
New MWA president Michael Connelly, himself a nominee in the Best Novel category (for 2002's City of Bones), echoed those sentiments. Told, in jest, that he would be given only 60 seconds to deliver his opening remarks, the author insisted that he could do it in even less time. Fortunately, he didn't have to. Connelly spoke about the Mystery Writers of America's importance as an advocate for all writers, whether their work is already in print, or they're still looking for that lucrative publishing contract.
Finally getting down to the nitty-gritty of awards-giving and -receiving, the talented Cara Black, accompanied by composer and playwright Rupert Holmes, presented the Best Play commendation to Philip DePoy for Easy. Giving what was perhaps the most honest acceptance speech of the evening, DePoy said that while the joy of writing was "reward enough ... screw that -- this is better!" Few would disagree. Certainly not Dawn DeNoon and Lisa Marie Petersen, who picked up the Edgar for Best Television Episode Teleplay for their Law & Order: Special Victims Unit script, "Waste." The pair gave special thanks to their boss, executive producer Dick Wolf, who was in the audience. "Dick would've fired us, if we lost," the screenwriters joked.
Adventure novelist Clive Cussler, along with Connelly, presented this year's award for Best Fact Crime, which went to Joseph Wambaugh's Fire Lover (Morrow). Cussler began the presentation by pointing out that he hadn't been nominated for an Edgar since 1974, and half-joked that he was damn "angry" about it. This is every presenter's greatest fear, added Connelly, that "they would stick me up here with someone who was pissed off." Wambaugh could not make the ceremonies, because the single flight out from his hometown of San Diego that day was cancelled, due to mechanical problems. "I never knew San Diego was such a one horse town," Orbach quipped.
The award for Best Paperback Original went to T.J. MacGregor for her 2002 novel, Out of Sight (Pinnacle). (Obviously, winning isn't contingent on having an original title -- right, Elmore Leonard?) One of the evening's funniest moments came when Parnell Hall gave a monologue about authors who have never won an Edgar, including Robert Crais ("I just look this young, but I swear I can vote"), James Ellroy ("What do you mean I was adopted?") and Sue Grafton ("I had a nightmare that I got to the X's and titled my book "X is for Xcitable"). Hall, a non-winner himself, deadpanned that Edgar Awards night in his house is referred to as "Thursday night."
Screenwriter and novelist James Dallesandro and veteran New York gossip columnist Liz Smith gave out the prize for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. It went to Bill Condon, for the musical Chicago. Perhaps because the film has already collected so many nominations and awards, the crowd wasn't terribly moved by the announcement. Condon, though, gave a gracious acceptance speech and closed by remarking that Orbach's performance in the original stage version many years ago was "the best." Another touching moment came when 80-year-old quidnunc Smith got up to sing Blue Moon, with lyrics altered to fit the occasion ("Oh, Edgar Allan Poe"), and accompanied by Peter Duchin on piano. Need I mention that she received a standing ovation?
Raven Awards (which honor outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside of creative writing) went to Ed and Pat Thomas, owners of the Book Carnival Bookstore in Orange, California; Otto Penzler, writer, editor, publisher and owner of Manhattan's Mysterious Bookshop; and the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. That last Raven was handed out by New York Times crime fiction critic Marilyn Stasio, along with actor John Astin, who looked eerily like the very late Poe himself.
Grand Master winner Ed McBain (Fat Ollie's Book) presented the 2003 Grand Master Award to Ira Levin, who published his first book (the Edgar-winning A Kiss Before Dying, 1953) at the tender age of 22. Many in the audience -- myself included -- felt like slackers when we heard this announcement. Beyond his responsibilities as MC, Orbach also presented a Special Edgar Award to Dick Wolf, creator of the popular Law & Order series and its spin-offs, as well as the recently resurrected Dragnet. Talking to the audience about the creative process, Wolf urged would-be novelists to "keep writing," noting that, no matter how successful they are, for all writers there would be "a blank page when you start."
Shaved-headed and exceedingly tall Jonathon King accepted the award for Best First Novel by an American Author. Greeted on his way to the stage by past Edgar winner Steve Hamilton, King told listeners that no writer ever does it "alone," and he thanked his wife. He also thanked Michael Connelly, his "longtime buddy" from their "crime-reporting days in Fort Lauderdale," for being the first to read his manuscript, The Blue Edge of Midnight (Putnam), and thinking it was the real thing. The biggest award of the night, though -- and the last one to be announced -- was for Best Novel. When Rick Riordan and Walter Mosley gave the prize to S.J. Rozan, for Winter and Night, there was much applauding and cheering. Among others, Rozan thanked her editor, Keith Kahla, of St. Martin's Minotaur, who she said was "right, most of the time." (I could swear I heard Kahla disagree with that comment.)
Rounding out this year's other Edgar winners:
Best Critical/Biographical -- Mike Ashley, for The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction (Carroll & Graf)
As promised, the evening ended ahead of last year's pace. Winners departed clutching their Edgars, elated by their accomplishments. Hopefuls in attendance tried to grasp a portion of that euphoria, and left dreaming of their own "what ifs" for next year. -- Anthony Rainone
George P. Pelecanos' Hell to Pay (Little, Brown) has won this year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category. Judges called the novel -- the second in Pelecanos' series about Washington, D.C., private eyes Derek Strange and Terry Quinn -- a riveting thriller that "shows readers a part of our modern world that many choose to ignore, the truly mean inner-city streets of our nation's capital and some of the citizens who live and die there."
Nominated in the same category were: The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L. Carter (Knopf); Living Dead Girl, by Tod Goldberg (Soho Press); One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell (The New Press); and Reversible Errors, by Scott Turow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Pelecanos' win was announced during The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, on April 26, 2003. For a complete list of prize recipients in all categories, click here.
Seattle author G.M. Ford's novel Black River was chosen to receive the 2003 Spotted Owl Award, presented by the Friends of Mystery, a nonprofit organization of crime fiction enthusiasts based in Portland, Oregon. The Spotted Owl is given annually to "the best mystery novel of the year by an author who lives in the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, British Columbia, Canada, Idaho, Oregon or Washington)." Previous recipients include John Straley, Marcia Simpson and Earl Emerson.
Black River ("RS" 7/02) was the second of Ford's novels featuring Seattle reporter and true-crime writer Frank Corso. It followed 2001's Fury.
Runners-up for this year's Spotted Owl were: And Then You Die, by Michael Dibdin; Turncoat, by Aaron Elkins; Vertical Burn, by Earl Emerson; Garden View, by Mary Freeman; Learning to Fly, by April Henry; Cold Company, by Sue Henry; Partner In Crime, by J.A. Jance; Thin Walls, by Kris Nelscott; and Skeletons, by Kate Wilhelm.
For more information, go to the Friends of Mystery Web site.
Donna Andrews and Julia Spencer-Fleming were the highest-profile winners of the 2003 Agatha Awards, which honor "traditional mysteries" -- those "best typified by the works of Agatha Christie." These commendations were presented during the Malice Domestic mystery convention, held in Arlington, Virginia, from May 2 to 4.
The complete list of recipients and runners-up:
Best Novel: You've Got Murder, by Donna Andrews (Berkley Prime Crime)
Also nominated: 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: In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Also nominated: 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); and Shadows at the Fair, by Lea Wait (Scribner)
Best Non-Fiction: They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated, and Forgotten Mystery Novels, edited by Jim Huang (Crum Creek Press)
Also nominated: 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); and Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton, with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman (Writer's Digest Press)
Best Short Story: (co-winners) "The Dog That Didn't Bark," by Margaret Maron (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], December 2002), and "Too Many Cooks," by Marcia Talley (in Much Ado About Murder, edited by Anne Perry; Berkley Prime Crime)
Also nominated: "Dognapped," by Robert Barnard (EQMM, 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)
Best Children's/Young Adult: Red Card, by Daniel J. Hale and Matthew LaBrot (Top Publications)
Also nominated: Whistler in the Dark, by Kathleen Ernst (Pleasant Company 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 (Children of the Storm) was given a Lifetime Achievement Award.
For more information, visit the Malice Domestic Web site.
The Crime Writers of Canada has announced the contenders for this year's Arthur Ellis Awards. Winners be announced on June 4 in Toronto. The distinguished nominees are:
For more information about the Ellis Awards, go to the Crime Writers of Canada Web site.
The Crime Writers' Association of Australia (CWAA) has issued its list of nominees for the 2003 Ned Kelly Awards. Winners will be announced on August 28 in Fitzroy, Victoria. The contestants are:
Best First Novel:
For more information, click over to the CWAA's Web site.
Finally, this year's list of nominees for the Anthony Awards is out. Winners will be announced in Las Vegas on October 19, during Bouchercon 34. The full rundown of contenders is as follows:
Best First Novel:
Best Paperback Original:
Best Short Story:
Best Cover Art:
For more information about this year's Bouchercon, visit the convention's Web site.
"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.
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