Best of Crime Fiction 2005

 Best Books of 2006


















The Big Boom by Domenic Stansberry (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

The bar for mysteries set in San Francisco is demonstrably high; Domenic Stansberry, author of The Big Boom, clears it without hesitation. This novel features private eye Dante (“The Pelican”) Mancuso and begins with the sense of dread that blows in with the fog. Mancuso’s detective agency is hired by wealthy developer Nick Antonelli to find his missing daughter, Angie. Mancuso, a former San Francisco cop, knows only too well what can happen to missing persons. His suspicion turns out to be correct, when Angie’s body is pulled from scenic San Francisco Bay. It’s an apparent drowning, though no one believes she simply walked off the end of the nearest pier. Was Angie Antonelli despondent? A suicide? A murder victim? It all combines for a rather ordinary case, a “wandering daughter job,” as Philip Marlowe might have described it. But Stansberry’s firm control of his characters and setting make this a compelling and provocative new tale, one that sneaks up on you, like the beauty of Northern California itself. What makes The Big Boom’s urban setting unique is that it’s clear to both Mancuso, as well as his creator, that San Francisco is under siege. Not from AIDS, homophobia or the occasional bouts of Left Coast-itis. What drives this work is the fact that the North Beach way of life is collapsing from within -- specifically, from residents anxious to cash in on today’s runaway real-estate market. Stansberry skillfully juggles the heavy-gauze romanticism of “the old neighborhood” with the realities of the California craze of escalating values. Throughout The Big Boom, Mancuso and the other characters wrestle with the prosperity that is there for the taking, if only you’re lucky enough to grab it while the riches are plentiful. The only problem is that the rose contains a stem of thorns, thorns that will puncture your skin and poison your soul, and perhaps cause some undue suffering upon others. -- Stephen Miller

The Blonde by Duane Swierczcynski (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Duane Swierczcynski’s last name is almost as hard to spell (ask his publisher) as his new book is to put down. Not that The Blonde is ultimately anything more than a cobbled-together compendium of occasionally hoary pulp-fiction and B-movie archetypes and plot devices, but man, Swierczcynski has such a good time wielding his literary nail gun that you just don’t give a damn. It hits the ground running, with Jack Eisley, businessman and average joe, having a few drinks and doing a little low-level, no-harm, no-foul flirting with the pretty young woman (guess what hair color?) sitting next to him in the Liberties Bar at the Philadelphia International Airport. Things are going swimmingly, until the titular babe politely informs him that she’s just poisoned his boilermaker. Not to worry, though -- she’ll give him the antidote if he takes her to his hotel. Jack figures it’s some kind of scam and doesn’t need any more complications in his life right now (he has a meeting scheduled for the next morning with his wife’s shark of a divorce lawyer), so he politely blows the blonde off, thinking that’s that -- he’s finished with this strange, pretty wingnut. Wrong, Jack. As she puts it, “Sweetheart, I haven’t even started yet,” which may well be crime fiction’s understatement of the year. Over the next 24 hours, Jack will bounce back and forth across the City of Brotherly Love like a pinball machine, in an increasingly frantic effort to stay alive. He’ll be kidnapped, beaten up, poisoned again, handcuffed to the wall in a private sex club for cops, and hunted down by a mad scientist and a hired gun carrying a decapitated head in his sports bag. It all plays out like a decidedly modern, turbo-charged twist on that old film noir classic D.O.A. -- a twist Swierczcynski has jokingly referred to as D.O.A. meets Speed. But what this book really is, is D.O.A. on speed; a wild, preposterous white-knuckle ride that would probably fall apart if you had time to stop and think about it. Not that that’s likely to happen -- once you start reading this one, you won’t be able to stop. It’s pure pulp-fiction popcorn, in all the best ways -- simply one of the most rip-snorting reads of the year. Hook up with this blonde as soon as you can. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case Crime)

Ken Bruen (American Skin) and Jason Starr (Lights Out) have combined their considerable authorial talents to concoct this black-comedy caper of the darkest and raunchiest order. Although Bust is knee-slappingly funny at points (sometimes the vilest ones), the novel has bona fide mystery aspirations; there are vicious murders in these pages, as well as a heaping helping of blackmail intrigue, a love interest and a pair of plodding detectives who would feel right at home in the meatiest of crime-fiction offerings. Bust revolves around New Yorker Max Fisher and his one major problem: he no longer wants to be married to his wife, Deirdre. His impediment to divorce, however, is that the couple didn’t make a pre-nuptial agreement. (And here I thought only Paul McCartney was that dumb.) Fisher is a successful businessman, who owns his own computer-networking firm, with a self-appraisal mechanism in place that always likes what it sees. His morality is the exponential antithesis of his business acumen, however. After starting an affair with a hot-to-trot employee named Angela Petrakos, Fisher decides to take dear Deirdre’s life. Conveniently, Petrakos’ cousin has “a friend,” Thomas Dillon, aka Popeye, who has a black chunk of coal for a heart and can make the hit. While the lovelorn and neurotic Fisher naïvely believes that he has a future with the short-skirted and fake-boobed Petrakos, this classic femme fatale is actually devoted to the sadistic, Zen-reading Dillon. If Bust introduced no more key players than this trio, its casting would still be the equivalent of a royal flush. Yet, there’s a fourth character who’s shot-gunned into this fictional mix. His name is Bobby Rosa, a wheelchair-bound ex-con and disabled Gulf War vet. While his preferred means of earning a living is armed robbery and bank holdups, Rosa spends his days snapping photos of unsuspecting women in their bikinis. He happens to be in the Hotel Pennsylvania one afternoon, when Fisher and Petrakos arrive for their usual tryst. Rosa snaps their photograph mid-coitus, and then attempts to blackmail Fisher. The unleashed series of events will not only leave you laughing out loud -- if you haven’t been laughing up to this point -- but will make you cringe, too. Bust is an absolute winner. If Hard Case Crime’s track record holds up, this book will be in line for many award nominations next year. Bruen and Starr -- that has a golden ring to it, don’t you think? -- Anthony Rainone

By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt (Random House Canada)

With the U.S. and UK publications of this novel due in spring 2007, it’s to be hoped that American and British readers will discover what savvy Canadian mystery readers have known for several years now: that Giles Blunt writes some of the sharpest and most compelling police novels around. His series (which began with 2000’s Forty Words for Sorrow) focuses on middle-aged, methodical John Cardinal and his younger sometime-partner, Lise Delorme, detectives in the small, isolated town of Algonquin Bay in northern Ontario, a fictionalized take on the author’s hometown of North Bay. Cardinal and Delorme are no supercops; yet their very ordinariness and quietly competent, workman-like approach to their jobs gives them a down-to-earth appeal that resonates throughout this series. Their reliance on good, old-fashioned DIY police work and not the latest CSI-like bells and whistles (the nearest crime lab is a couple of hundred miles away in Toronto) adds considerably to the series’ charms. In this pair’s fourth outing, By the Time You Read This (published in Canada this last spring), Delorme is busy hunting down a pedophile with possible local connections who has been posting a series of obscene photos on the Internet, while Cardinal mourns the recent suicide of his beloved wife, Catherine, a popular local photography professor. Not that the police or anyone else in town is surprised by her demise -- Catherine had a long history of mental illness, including a few stints of hospitalization; nor are they, or her psychiatrist, questioning the official verdict -- she did, after all, leave a suicide note. But the grief-stricken Cardinal is unconvinced, and he won’t let it rest, particularly after he starts receiving nasty, hate-filled notes that gloat over Catherine’s passing. Convinced now that she was murdered, ardinal ignores orders from his superiors and decides to investigate on his own, with a little clandestine help from Delorme, whose own case unexpectedly begins to parallel his. The book’s conclusion, when it comes, is as darkly disturbing as any I’ve read, a blast of pure evil not easily forgotten. Blunt, whose past credits include writing for television’s Night Heat and Law and Order, infuses his novel with pleasingly complex characters, a satisfying psychological depth, a genuine and heartfelt feel for the land (his evocation of the bright cold autumn weather is so dead-on, you can almost hear the crackling of dead leaves under your feet) and a rough, dry wit that’s uniquely Canadian. Fans of Peter Robinson or Ian Rankin will not be disappointed. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang (Soho Crime)

In Henry Chang’s thriller Chinatown Beat, New York police detective Jack Yu is back in Chinatown, the culture in which he grew up, and the remnants of his past are all around him. His father is recently dead, and Yu frequently has to deal with the fact that, of his childhood friends, he alone is alive and on the right side of the law. His uneasy relationship with the still heavily Anglo (and culturally unprogressive) NYPD power structure and the shifting and increasingly territorial and violent Chinese-American subculture take a back seat when he’s called to investigate the execution-style killing of Uncle Four, the undisputed leader of the Hip Ching Benevolent Society, a Mafia-like social order whose days of iron control over Chinatown is waning. The list of possible suspects in Uncle Four’s assassination is extensive -- there’s Mona, his escort from Hong Kong; the car-service driver Johnny Wong, who is madly in love with Mona despite having no illusions about her being a glorified prostitute; various up-and-coming members of Hip Ching who wouldn’t mind having their turn at the top of the heap (and who observe a predictable conspiracy of silence when it comes to the police investigation); and, perhaps most sinister, Tat (“Lucky”) Louie, Jack’s boyfriend friend, now the leader of the Ghost Legion gang, who is in the midst of his own turf war with the rival Fuk Ching gang. Chang’s debut novel is one of this year’s most impressive. Here, the object isn’t to figure out whodunit; it’s pretty clear who offed Uncle Four. The suspense comes from tracking Jack Yu through his investigation, navigating the shifting tides of Chinese turf wars, generational tension, and his own internal struggle with being a “standup Chinaman” and an effective cop. This is a character well worth knowing. -- Stephen Miller

A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Minotaur)

James Church (the pseudonym of a former Western intelligence officer who obviously knows North Korea down to its skin) stirs up a mixture of fear, depression and mysterious beauty in A Corpse in the Koryo, which is so instantly accessible that it will remind many readers of Qiu Xiaolong’s China (Death of a Red Heroine) and Olen Steinhauer’s unnamed Eastern European country (The Bridge of Sighs) -- both of which became the setting for impressive series. Church’s Inspector O, a homicide detective, is a man who works within a repressive system but works even harder at staying his own person -- often an impossible task. When the body of a murdered man -- perhaps a Finnish agent for the International Atomic Energy Agency -- briefly surfaces and then disappears from a hotel room in Pyongyang, two rival branches of Military Security seem ready to do anything it takes to keep the crime invisible. As for Inspector O, he winds up being interrogated for the purpose of recruitment by an Irish agent in Prague who seems to be working for the KGB. O is not really tempted: it might get him the sandpaper he needs for his woodworking, a lovely legacy of the grandfather who raised him; but in the end he can’t imagine a life without the rolling hills of his North Korean homeland. -- Dick Adler

Critique of Criminal Reason by Michael Gregorio (Faber and Faber UK)

I read historical crime novels as much for their time-period embellishments and probes of locale as I do for their mystery elements. Maybe more. Which is why I find Michael Gregorio’s Critique of Criminal Reason so enchanting. The time is 1804, and the place is the Prussian town of Königsberg, to which a young magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, is called from his quiet village and family life to figure out who’s responsible for a series of slayings. In each case, the deceased has been found kneeling, with no obvious evidence of violence. In the absence of answers, fear and panic have swept over Königsberg. Some folks suspect that French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte might even be behind these crimes. One man in Königsberg seems to know differently, though: Emmanuel Kant, the renowned German philosopher who was then reaching the end of his long life, and who once held forth as Stiffeniis’ mentor. (The circumstances of their long-ago estrangement are most intriguingly held back, at least for a while.) Kant seems to have much more faith in Stiffeniis’ investigative talents than he himself does; and the magistrate is certainly prone to judgments best reconsidered later. But then, Kant intends to help, if only to test his own hypotheses about criminal-probing methodologies. There’s something quite Holmesian about Kant, as Gregorio (the pseudonym apparently employed by “an incognito Italian-English couple”) portrays him, a benevolent manipulator who comprehends far more than he discloses, and intends to apply “logic and sound reasoning to the resolution of [the] conundrum” facing his hometown. But even Kant understands that reason alone cannot put an end to Königsberg’s crime spree. That’s where the imperfect but increasingly determined Stiffeniis comes in, solving these murders and bringing peace back to the town, even if it means losing people in whom he has entrusted his friendship. There are points in this novel where the reader is liable to become frustrated by Stiffeniis’ lurching between solutions; but by the end, one should be grateful to learn that this is the first entry in a projected series of Hanno Stiffeniis crime stories. -- J. Kingston Pierce

A Dangerous Man by Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books)

Charlie Huston’s A Dangerous Man is the concluding note on a three-book arc that should ultimately prove to be a crime-fiction classic. Back in New York City, where it all painfully started, Hank Thompson has undergone plastic surgery and is employed as a hit man doing the bidding of Brooklyn-based Russian mob boss David Dolokhov. Introduced Six Bad Things (2005), Dolokhov is ruthless in his expectations. He owns Thompson, because it was Dolokhov’s $4 million that Hank pilfered in the first book of this trilogy Caught Stealing (2004). There is an additional, coercive caveat, in case Thompson gets it in his mind to run again: he does as the mobster wishes, or else Thompson’s parents will pay for his disobedience with their lives. Dolokhov’s turning Thompson into a hit man is not only physically painful for Thompson (he has to pop pills to kill the pain in his surgically altered face), but the brutality is also sapping Hank both spiritually and emotionally (the painkillers help to numb this, too). To guide Thompson in his new life as a hired murderer, and to keep an eye on him, Dolokhov employs a professional Serbian killing machine, known here only as Branko. Branko teaches Thompson about clothes, cars, taking care of himself and, above all, taking lives efficiently. Soon enough, the proficient Thompson learns how to do it all by himself. Serving as a hip-noir testament of a promising life gone horrible wrong, A Dangerous Man forces readers to witness Thompson’s slide toward the dark side. The slope isn’t just slippery for Thompson, it’s at a 90-degree angle into the jaws of hell. Each Thompson tale moves with the tempo of a speeding car careening recklessly down the freeway (a cool, souped-up car, of course), with A Dangerous Man providing the awful wreckage of a conclusion. This wouldn’t be a Hank Thompson book, of course, if it didn’t have a slathering of violence, and this one surely does. Fists fly, bullets find their mark and saps break bones. Huston’s third novel is poignant and soaked in street creds, with a noirish foreboding lingering over every page. While all three novels in the series are substantial, A Dangerous Man may be written with the greatest sophistication. Huston has tapped into a cool-jive, bad-boy vein. Perhaps Hank Thompson’s greatest legacy is in setting his hard-working creator free to open up new vistas. Über good guy Thompson will be missed, but we still have Huston. We should all be thankful. -- Anthony Rainone

The Darkest Place by Daniel Judson (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

At some point, we borrowed the word “noir” from the French, and we’re showing no signs of giving it back. The term migrated from film to books, and while Hollywood drifts further from its roots, books are coming full circle. The Darkest Place draws on the classic elements of fiction rooted in the emotional juxtaposition of bad things happening to people in bad places. Nothing is more threatening in vintage noir than the hero’s own weakness. Daniel Judson’s story is set on Long Island’s East End, close to the glamour of the Hamptons yet far removed from the playground of the wealthy. It’s winter and it’s cold: young men are dying, their bodies floating in scenic bays and private lakes. The local cops are pushing the idea that the boys are victims of bad judgment, swimming while drunk despite the weather. Like many theories, this one begins to unravel as the body count rises. The plot serves as a platform for the author to explore the thematic notion of grief and loss. Tommy Miller, for instance, is a local boy with a bum knee and a need to prove himself. Deke Kane lost his son to drowning, and the metaphor of sinking beneath the waves defines Kane and his state of mind. Private investigator Reggie Clay is conflicted about his line of work, while his boss, Ned Gregor, demands a kind of moral rigor that makes the business of crime solving more complicated than it would be otherwise. Into this world of broken men comes Colette Auster. She is not conflicted about seizing the main chance and understands human weakness the way a botanist understands plant life. To make this novel work, the author has drawn from literary sources larger than the genre. German directors such as Fritz Lang influenced film noir; The Darkest Place creates a mood and atmosphere more reminiscent of Kafka than Raymond Chandler. This puts the internal conflicts of its characters at odds with the story’s events, as each of them suffers consequences while questioning the reality of cause and effect. Colette’s character remains aloof, serving as a ground for the charged emotions of the others. At times, the perilous disconnect between perception and reality creates frustration rather than tension, forcing the reader to judge for him- or herself whether the novel’s action meshes with the characters’ responses. The author has something larger in play, and he has the skill and passion to push the narrative beyond the ordinary. As crime novels go, The Darkest Place blurs the focus on plot to explore the damaged psyches of its principal characters. The story’s climax fits with the book’s theme, that loss robs its victims of the human ability for self-preservation, creating a vulnerability that is more compelling than any external threat. Daniel Judson respects the conventions of crime fiction, while infusing his story with raw despair, delivering on the promise to find the place where the physical trumps the metaphysical, where death, so seductive in grief, is no longer welcome. -- David Thayer

Darkness & Light by John Harvey (Otto Penzler/Harcourt)

Even though he’s quit the Nottingham force and retired to Cornwall, ex-copper Frank Elder keeps being asked by friends and family to look into certain matters unofficially. “ “‘It’s not as though you’re actually busy down there, after all.’ That’s the point, Elder thought.” But the 50-ish Elder often as not obliges such supplicants -- partly from guilt, it seems, and partly to avoid having to cope with his own ambiguous regrets and half-acknowledged obligations. It’s a lot easier for him to look into a near-stranger’s private business than it is for him to make a date for lunch with his own grown daughter. In this case, the near-stranger is his ex-wife’s friend, a woman gone missing of a sudden. Nothing so unusual about that, Frank notes: “how many thousands disappeared each year? Just walked away, without so much as a by your leave. Hadn’t Elder done so himself in a way?” But this woman’s troubles, as it happens, are much greater than Elder’s; and as she and her fate develop connections with an old case of his, he feels a growing responsibility to uncover the unsettling facts behind this mystery. John Harvey, as all the world has known for years, is a smart and stylish writer with a low-key wit and a keen eye for detail. Darkness & Night is his fourth book to feature the thoughtful and moody Frank Elder, who has proven a worthy successor to Harvey’s previous thoughtful and moody series hero, Charlie Resnick (who makes a cameo appearance in this fine work). -- Tom Nolan

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina (Little, Brown and Company)

Paddy Meehan, the feisty, pudgy, novice Glasgow reporter introduced by Denise Mina in the memorable Field of Blood, returns in this even stronger work set largely in the wee hours of 1984. The 21-year-old Meehan is working the late-night crime-beat now -- intrigued by the weird things she sees, but thwarted by her paper’s dry-as-dust style: “the news editors didn’t want surprising, surreal vignettes, they wanted flat, dull news stories, the who, what, and when, rarely the why or the guess-what.” But once Paddy sees cops ignore a domestic-disturbance incident at an upper-class house, and the case turns fatal, she knows even her staid bosses will agree: “There was a story here.” And not just an ordinary space-filler, but a career-maker: “This was the story that would get her off the night shift.” It’s a big scoop, all right, involving a hijacked stash of drugs, surprising social connections and layers of official malfeasance. Mina juggles all these elements with skill. But her gift for precise one-liners is just as impressive: the poultry tycoon who found his second calling as a newspaper boss when “he bought a couple of magazines ... and discovered a flair for interfering”; “the implacable fury of bright women locked in houses all day long, moving objects around, wiping dirt, making meals for people who grabbed a sandwich on the way home”; the harsh illumination at a crime scene, “bright as the ugly lights in the dying half hour of a disco.” Paddy Meehan, well-acquainted with (and determined to rise above) ugliness and fury and all manner of interference, is the irresistible life-force at the center of The Dead Hour, a terrific book informed by hard knowledge and written from the heart, the head and the gut. -- Tom Nolan

The Death of Achilles by Boris Akunin; translated by Andrew Bromfield (Random House)

This is the fourth in a bestselling Russian series of books involving Erast Fandorin, 19th-century diplomat-detective, to be translated and published in America. The books are written by Grigory Chkhartishvili, under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, or B. Akunin, in evocation of the Russian anarchist-author Bakunin (1814-1876). There is anything but anarchy, though, in the elaborate manner in which these exhilarating books are composed. The author intends each work in the Fandorin cycle to exemplify one of 16 personality types defined by the psychological system of socionics. Each book also is written to typify a different crime-fiction subgenre: locked-room mystery, hired-assassin history, etc. The Russian-doll within a Russian-doll scheme extends further. This book’s title, for instance, at first seems to refer to the apparent murder of a beloved Russian general nicknamed “Achilles” for his war-heroism. But the title assumes a more elaborate meaning in the book’s second half, a biography of the general’s killer, Achimas -- a life-study which plays out as a 19th-century “remake” of the classical history of Homer’s Achilles. Such elaborate literary stratagems are realized with great energy and panache by a sophisticated author who owes as much to Umberto Eco as he does to Arthur Conan Doyle. The hero, Erast Fandorin, is also a complex figure, with the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes and the martial-arts prowess of Bruce Lee. Read The Death of Achilles once for pure pleasure, and again to discern the clever ways in which that pleasure has been engineered. -- Tom Nolan

Dope by Sara Gran (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

Set in New York City in 1950, Dope tells the story of Josephine Flannigan. She goes by Joe; she’s a Hell’s Kitchen girl, daughter of a hooker, and sister to a fashion model who dumped the life for a shot at the big time. In Sara Gran’s yarn, Joe is paid $1,000 to locate the daughter of a Westchester couple who fear that their college coed, Nadine, has vanished into the maw of the big town’s nasty drug scene. It seems Nadine has been hanging around with Jerry McFall, a tough guy, pimp, and general badass. Joe starts asking around, hitting the junkie hot spots, from the Lower East Side to Bryant Park to Harlem. Joe’s been clean for two years so this is no picnic for her; her search for Nadine brings her close to the places she doesn’t want to be, to the railroad flats where people shoot, nod, drift and die with what remains of their humanity. Joe knows this world, which is why the nice people from the suburbs hired her in the first place. Author Gran lets the reader run with her setup until the hook is in deep. Joe makes progress after talking to the taxi dancers at the Royale, a rundown theater off Times Square where rundown theaters go to die. She learns that Jerry McFall punched Nadine around, leaving her bruised and bloodied, unable to work. If you grew up in any kind of neighborhood, you knew guys like Jerry; the best you could hope for is that a piano falls from the sky when Jerry steps out to light a cigarette. Yeah, that never happens ... What does happen, though, turns this story around, making Joe the pursued rather than the pursuer. Gran makes artistry appear simple with straightforward prose that blends the grit of her story with an elegant economy of style. Few things are as complex and difficult to render as simplicity; a novel can be a labyrinth with many false starts and scenic byways. This one stays on course, making the restrictions of the first-person point of view work to its advantage. Joe is a loner; her friends and allies are broken beyond repair, yet she understands their limitations because she shares them. Dope presents a world fractured by a common need -- for youth and promises lost. Wolves are always at the door, and that door is wide open. Cops, pimps, hustlers and junkies push Joe around, secure in the knowledge that she is powerless. No spoilers about the story’s resolution; suffice to say that the ending does justice to what preceded it, that the climax flows from the narrative with logic and impact. Dope falters once or twice, in scenes where Joe steps out of character for what feel like forced moments of doubt. Doubt is fine, but it might have been distributed here, rather than compressed into the narrative in large doses. But I’m only talking about a handful of paragraphs in the entire book, which is an indicator of how well Dope is written. This is like pointing out how a pitcher throws a perfect game, but has a few three-ball counts along the way. If Sara Gran wasn’t so damned skilled a writer, and Dope so good a book, there would nothing left to say except “Sara, get busy with your next one. I’m looking forward to it.” -- David Thayer

The Do-Re-Mi by Ken Kuhlken (Poisoned Pen Press)

Ken Kuhlken first burst onto the crime-fiction scene with The Loud Adios, which won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Award for Best First Private Eye novel in the year 1991. Set in 1942, it introduced private eye Tom Hickey and his family, and their story continued through two other books, The Venus Deal and The Angel Gang. But as the time period of the Hickey novels stretched into the 1950s, it appeared that the thread had run itself out. Tom Hickey is back, however, in Kuhlken’s latest, The Do-Re-Mi. Set in the summer of 1972, Tom Hickey is a supporting character to his son Clifford, a disaffected soon-to-be law student who drives north into the redwoods of Northern California to attend and play at a folk jamboree in the town of Evergreen, and reconnect with his adopted brother, Alvaro, a barely balanced Vietnam veteran and fellow musician who is all too familiar with the tactics of jungle warfare. Only hours after their reunion, both brothers are rudely awakened from their sleep at Alvaro’s campsite by the sound of gunfire. Local law enforcement suspects Alvaro of having killed a deputy’s son. The deceased was also somehow involved with a violent motorcycle gang called The Cossacks. Alvaro grabs his Browning rifle and heads for the hills. Faced with the pressures of trying to find the real murderer, locating Alvaro, and navigating the centrifugal pressures of the town’s natural antagonists, Clifford eventually realizes he has to call in a professional, none other than Tom Hickey. The elder Hickey could have more than carried this story, but Kuhlken was looking for a different angle. In bringing Clifford Hickey front and center, the author provides his readers with the quintessential anti-hero for crime fiction. And yet the symbiotic way in which these two generations work together to help save the unpredictable (and perhaps unsteady) Alvaro gives the reader hope that Clifford will, in fact, turn into his dad. I suppose that at one level, The Do-Re-Mi exists in a space that might be described as “James Crumley meets Roger L. Simon.” But along with the interplay between the characters, the poignant comments and the laugh-out-loud one-liners, The Do-Re-Mi contains more than a trace of the bitter aftertaste that the Summer of Love and the promise of the 1960s not only failed to pan out, but left America in the throes of the confusion and paranoia of the 70s. -- Stephen Miller

The Drummer by Anthony Neil Smith (Two Dollar Radio Movement)

In The Drummer, Merle Johnson wants simply to be left alone to enjoy his life quietly, in the environs of pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Merle wants things boring, meaning he wants to spend time with his girlfriend, Beth, watching television and “rubbing her legs,” chill with his (gay) bartender friend, Justin, and enjoy collecting antiques that he keeps in his house (a former funeral parlor). There’s a slight hitch, however. Merle’s real name is Calvin Christopher, and he was the drummer for a successful 1980s metal band called Savage Night. The group never hit the Ozzy-sphere, but they were big. When things got financially hairy, and the band faced bankruptcy, Merle-Cal faked his death, spread his investments around the world in various bank accounts, and disappeared into the gumbo-drenched air of the Big Easy. Without the hair and the makeup, no one recognized him. Nowadays, life is good -- until Todd, the former lead singer for Savage Night, discovers Cal’s whereabouts, and comes calling. Todd wants a Savage Night reunion, which promises to net the band “16 million” dollars. Cal is a likeable protagonist, a fairly mellow former metal head (though good with his fists when necessary), and a pragmatist who sees that the sun has set on his old band’s music, and has no problem moving on (“we’re dinosaurs”). Cal wants nothing to do with Todd’s plans, and contemplates killing the obnoxious lead singer to keep his new identity secret. When Todd dies in a suicide-by-binge-drinking incident at his hotel (which may or may not have been helped along), Cal finds himself not only running from the law, but from his other former band mate and Savage Night’s inner circle. All of Cal’s previous machinations to stay hidden start to come undone. Doug, the bassist, Doug’s sister Alison (whom Cal used to sleep with), and Todd’s wife, Sheila, their former manager, all proceed to invade his new hometown. Author Anthony Neil Smith has a love affair going with New Orleans, and he skillfully re-creates that vibrant city, prior to the 2005 catastrophe. (Portions of the proceeds from Drummer sales will go towards reconstruction efforts). The New Orleans Police Department makes an appearance in the form of a tragic metal-head detective, and the body count triples by book’s end. Cal learns that you can never go home again, but the road out of town might be jammed, too. The narrative goes back and forth in time, from 2004 to the late 80s, and the locations change, but the transitions are smooth under Smith’s accomplished talent. The vitality of “N’awlins,” the grittiness of the circumstances, and characters as full-bodied as jambalaya -- all are a driving bass that hypnotizes the reader into playing this song -- loud -- until the end. And then hitting replay. Rock on, Mr. Smith. -- Anthony Rainone

Escape Clause by James O. Born (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

Escape Clause opens with a fast-moving, violent scenario which makes it obvious that Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) special agent Bill Tasker is in for another thrilling adventure. Accompanied by his daughter Emily on one of his prized days off, Tasker has to confront a couple of bank robbers -- a conflict that leaves one of the bandits mortally wounded, and sends Tasker to face a review board inquiry and possible departmental discipline. But Tasker does a pretty good job of beating himself up, though he knows the shooting was a “good” one. Born interjects a significant police reality here: superior cops take into consideration the fact that criminals have families; and they, like the relatives of the victims, suffer the consequences of crime. To appease the FDLE administration, and maybe make the review board inquiry go away, Tasker accepts the assignment to investigate the death of inmate Rick Dewalt at the Manatee Correctional facility in Gladesville, Florida. Dewalt’s family has connections to the governor, which could either improve Tasker’s position with his superiors, or make it horribly worse. Now, Gladesville might be just a small, fairly sleepy community in South Florida, but there Tasker finds himself put squarely in the middle of political and romantic intrigue, as well as several murders. The Dewalt murder probe reveals layers of scams that have been perpetrated by Manatee Correctional officers Captain Sam Norton and Sergeant Henry Janzig, two cold-blooded killers betraying their badges and allegiance to public service. As he digs further into Dewalt’s demise, the divorced Tasker finds himself growing closer to Inspector Renee Chin, despite the willingly offered and more readily available feminine charms of his temporary neighbor, Billie Towers. Though tempted, Tasker keeps his distance from Towers, and luckily so, for she’s harboring dark secrets, and events quickly turn ominous for her. Making a welcome reappearance in Escape Clause is Luther Williams, aka Cole Hodges, a dynamic character we originally got to know in Walking Money (2004). The corrupt and deadly lawyer is now doing time at Manatee, and although it was Tasker who put Williams there, the latter doesn’t seem intent on seeking revenge for his incarceration. Williams is mainly preoccupied with trying to escape from the corrupt prison facility, and his return appears to lay the groundwork for the next book in this series. One of the finest police-procedural writers working today, Born uses his considerable personal experience as an FDLE officer to create novels of great craftsmanship and high authenticity. Escape Clause is another bright testament, and one that should supply an enthralling fix to police procedural addicts everywhere. -- Anthony Rainone

Fear & Greed by Lawrence Light (Leisure Books)

New York City is dominated by the world of finance, and Lawrence Light knows its testosterone-fueled machinations well. Once again, he brings its money-rules-all influence to bear in the second Karen Glick novel. Like its predecessor (Too Rich to Live, 2005), Fear & Greed is a fast-paced, riveting tour de force of money and politics. The novel’s main premise is the creation of a software program called Goldring, which can pick winning stocks, and promises to make anyone who owns it fabulously wealthy. The software was created by three sisters, who intended to keep the software secret and for their use only. Linda Reiner is a “glamorous stockbroker”; older sister, Ginny, is a Columbia University mathematician and professor; and younger sister Flo is a computer geek. These siblings store their program -- the only copy -- on a laptop computer. As fate would have it, the laptop is stolen and one of the sisters is killed. Besides her involvement with the sisters Reiner, Glick is also investigating the high-profiled and arrogant entrepreneur Jack Faff, for her magazine, Profit. One can imagine that author Light, with his considerable experience as an editor at Forbes magazine, understands the workings of the editorial board rooms of business journals, and the managerial intrusions of Profit are not to be envied. Faff has discovered the existence of Goldring, and he wants it for himself. Letting nothing and no one stand in his way, Faff plots a diabolical end for the probing Glick, and a means to buy the software from the thief. When Faff takes Glick into the New Jersey countryside in his new Jaguar, purportedly to give her an interview, it provides an edge-of-your seat action sequence. Fear & Greed has a political dimension, as well. The existence of Goldring has been discovered by Kingston Wooten, the director of the Authority, a top-secret anti-terrorist operative group, under the auspices of the U.S. president. Wooten is in financial straights, and he goes after Goldring with the help of two main operatives. There are numerous twists and turns in Fear & Greed, and the body count rises as the story progresses, and the ending offers several shockers. If, in future novels, Light focuses on the illegal foibles of Wall Street, there will never be a dearth of material. And that will be to every reader’s benefit, for he is a talent worth keeping in your sights. -- Anthony Rainone

A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read (Mysterious Press)

“There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them.” The introductory line of Cornelia Read’s debut novel is both a shot across the reader’s bow and the initial salvo from a restless mind at work. Madeline Dare isn’t your average crime-solving protagonist. She has a husband she loves, and she lives in a town -- Syracuse, New York -- where lime Jello with shredded carrots is considered a perfectly acceptable alternative to endive and arugula, and where extremes of heat and cold are observed from the pebbled contours of genuine Naugahyde. A pair of dog tags trigger Madeline’s search for the killer of two young women years earlier. A farmer near Syracuse found the bodies; the staged crime scene had been photographed, the cops had gone through the motions, but the investigation ended without an arrest. The dog tags belong to Madeline’s cousin Lapthorne. He is her favorite among a group of wealthy relatives who adorn the north shore of Long Island in graceful decay. Much of this story’s inner workings are a brilliantly drawn portrait of wealth and its effects on the generations born to it. “Really chic Manhattan women smoke their lunch,” says Madeline’s mother. Rail-thin women and bizarre WASP eating rituals are integral to Madeline’s perpetual state of flux, of not being happy anywhere -- to the manor born but not bred. Guilt pushes Madeline to uncover the truth about the double homicide everyone else has forgotten. The postindustrial wasteland propelled her ancestors to great wealth and privilege, leaving the Rust Belt to fend for itself. “The Rose Girls” died at the hands of persons unknown, their deaths fodder for the local newspapers. Madeline is writing fluff pieces for a Syracuse weekly and from this wobbly perch sets out to find the truth. Anchored by her husband’s relentless common sense, she risks more than she knows in her quest for resolution. No spoilers here; A Field of Darkness follows Madeline through enough small-town corruption and big-time decadence to establish the plot’s logic, but the story is secondary to the sheer skill of its teller -- or as Madeline puts it, “watching Fellini and Wodehouse drop acid.” A friend of mine once veered to the side of the road when he came to the border between the Bronx and Westchester. “Do you know what that is?” he asked, pointing across the street. “That’s the Midwest.” Cornelia Read sets the tension between Upstate and Downstate before shredding this Maginot Line with a fusillade of wit and observation. The result is a terrific read, a dark comedy of crime and deferred punishment, family dynamics and veiled menace. -- David Thayer

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris (William Morrow)

Gentlemen & Players is one of those rare books that grips and holds you like an elaborate conjuring trick. It’s only after you’ve stopped gasping -- after the last page has been turned and marveled at -- that you begin to ask questions. What did I miss? Were there any hints I should have noticed, any mistakes the author or her editors should have caught? This book is narrated as the moves of a chess game, and aside from the color of the pawn on page 269 (surely it should be white, not black?), I found no errors. Joanne Harris, who has written everything from sensuous cookbooks to best-selling novels such as Chocolat (1999), immerses us so quickly in her frightening story of a child driven to murder by hatred for a school, that her new book is both socially important and vastly entertaining. At its center is a palace of privilege -- St. Oswald’s, a British school for the sons of the wealthy and powerful, an escape from the realities they will soon have to face. “St. Oswald’s was another world,” says the troubled child who tells half this story and whose chapters are marked by a black pawn. “Here I knew there would be no graffiti, no litter, no vandalism -- not as much as a broken window ... I felt a sudden inarticulate conviction that this was where I truly belonged ...” The other half of the novel is narrated by a classics master named Roy Straitley, who has been at St. Oswald’s for 33 years and knows the best and worst of what the school really is. He at first seems like an unlikely and unworthy chess opponent, chosen at random -- but turning those ideas upside down is another one of Harris’ amazing tricks. Her two lead characters play out their elaborate chess match involving unrequited love, revenge and violent death, with the white pawn as the visual icon of Straitley’s sections. Watching the St. Oswald’s pupils arrive by car one morning, the black pawn -- now grown up and a member of the St. Oswald’s faculty -- says, “God forbid that the clean, shiny boys should have to jump puddles or breathe pollutants or (worse still) experience contamination by the dull, grubby pupils of the nearby Sunnybank Park; the loudmouthed, loose-limbed boys with their nylon jackets and scuffed trainers; the yawping girls in their short skirts and dyed hair. When I was their age I walked to school; I wore those cheap shoes and grubby socks; and sometimes as I drive to work in my rented car I can still feel the rage mounting in me, the terrible rage against who I was and who I longed to be.” -- Dick Adler

Go to Helena Handbasket by Donna Moore (Point Blank)

Got the P.I. blahs? Tired of po-faced potboilers? First-time novelist Donna Moore’s subversive new private eye novel may be just what the librarian (or possibly the mental-health specialist) ordered, a kick between the goalposts to the same-old same-old, a welcome blast of (recycled) air that doesn’t take anything -- including itself -- seriously. Make no mistake here -- we’re talking full-tilt parody, a full-frontal assault on just about everything you’ve come to expect in crime fiction, a bungee jump down the rabbit hole of literary predictability. Moore comes off like an unholy cross between Raymond Chandler and Alfred E. Neuman, leaving no pun unspun and no turn of phrase unstoned, no cow too sacred to tip and no play on words too painful to inflict on unsuspecting readers. Certainly, Helena Handbasket, private eye extraordinaire, isn’t quite right herself -- she makes Honey West look like a nuclear physicist. Imagine Dan Turner and Mae West’s bastard love child, a man-hungry bozo with a penchant for martinis, gourmet food, designer shoes and zero aptitude for detective work, plunging head-on into a convoluted and complicated case that will have your head spinning and your gut convulsing with laughter -- and recognition. This is no hatchet job, though, guv -- Moore’s love for the mystery game comes through loud and clear, as she lovingly makes her way down a checklist of the genre’s usual suspects and most beloved stereotypes, ticking them off one by one, and letting the air out of each and every one. The elderly cop due for retirement? The crime-solving cat? The psycho sidekick? The long-suffering secretary? The cop boyfriend? The enigmatic FBI profiler? The obsessed serial killer? The missing loot from the long-ago heist? The mysterious next-door neighbor who smells of cheese? Check, check, check. They’re all here, all deliciously grilled and lambasted over a low heat of buffoonery and lampoonery, fleshed out by a slew of characters with monikers such as Smilla daCrowde, Evan Stubezzi and Fifi Fofum. This is Ms. Moore’s first novel, and -- barring incarceration pending a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation -- it’s clear she’ll go far. Maybe even as far as Siam. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson (HarperCollins UK)

I’m not usually a fan of post-9/11 terrorism tales. Too often, I think, they serve simply to increase -- without adequate reason -- the public’s anxiety about terrorist attacks, and make otherwise thoughtful citizens susceptible to the manipulations of politicians (such as George W. Bush) who would wield fear as a partisan tool and bludgeon. But I am a big fan of British novelist Robert Wilson; I have been, ever since reading his 2000 standalone, A Small Death in Lisbon. So, I dove cheerfully into his latest novel, The Hidden Assassins -- his third book (after The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned) to feature Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, the head of the police homicide division in Seville, Spain. But my momentum was not constant. The plot finds Falcón investigating both the discovery of a faceless, mutilated corpse in a city dump, and the deadly explosion at an apartment building that contains a basement mosque. As bodies are unearthed from the collapsed structure, anti-Arab bigotry raises its ugly head, while the media heighten suspicion that the explosion was terrorist-caused. Some local politicians are also too willing to hop on the terrorist explanation, especially those who see it as useful in tightening immigration controls. All of this sounds interesting; however, Wilson goes on at rather extraordinary (and detailed) length in the first quarter of this novel about terrorist worries and Muslim influences on Seville, one of Spain’s most beautiful old cities. Pursuing that topical track delays his development of subplots, at least one of which -- involving Falcón’s ex-wife, Inés, and her philandering husband, an egotistical local judge -- packs more emotional resonance and shock than does the principal terrorism angle. Only as tensions heighten between Inés, her hubby and the judge’s cigar-smoking mistress does this circuitous tale become more than a straightforward thriller. And from that point onward, the reader is hooked, following the rapidly unwinding parallel threads of Javiar Falcón’s investigation (which reveals a conspiracy stretching well beyond Spain’s porous borders), Inés’ painful self-denials and her ex’s inability to protect her, and a third subplot, revolving around a female restaurateur the inspector met and fell for in The Silent and the Damned, only later to lose. Thank goodness, I didn’t give up on this novel too soon. If there’s any disappointment to be found here, in the end, it’s that Wilson is allowing Falcón to become all too well adjusted; I liked him better when he was a screwed-up outsider, one small revelation away from depressive catatonia. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Jacquot and the Waterman by Martin O’Brien (St. Martin’s Press)

This novel almost doesn’t make it off the starting blocks, for Chief Inspector Daniel Jacquot is that most tired of crime-fiction clichés: the beleaguered homicide detective. A former French rugby champ, recently abandoned by his flight-attendant lover, he seems resigned to the life of a perpetual sad sack. Assigned to investigate the slayings of young women in and around the slightly down-at-heel port city of Marseilles, Jacquot learns that the common denominators of these crimes are that the victims were sexually assaulted, then drugged to numb their motor skills and any prayer of physical resistance, and finally drowned; and their corpses were deposited in bodies of water -- salt or fresh. Only when Jacquot notices an unusual tattoo on the third dead victim, though, does he come to believe that these slayings weren’t merely impulsive, but that there’s something more sinister and deliberate behind them. Once those dots are connected, linking the third woman with two others who were discovered prior to this story’s beginning, author O’Brien dispenses with what we’ve seen elsewhere and lets his creativity go to work -- whether he’s wheeling us through antiseptic-smelling tattoo shops, or giving us peeks inside the head of his killer, whom the media have dubbed “The Waterman.” In the course of his busy narrative, O’Brien introduces us to no fewer than 10 significant characters whose lives weave in and out of his central story. Over the course of 100 chapters, several as brief as two pages, O’Brien keeps these various players firmly under control, never allowing his novel to turn into a routine story about a serial killer with a quirky aquatic signature. Jacquot and the Waterman is an elegant story, told in compellingly brief snippets, some of them staccato riffs on a theme, and others following a more melodic pattern of randomness and order. This is an impressive debut to a promising series. A second entry, Jacquot and the Angel, has already been published in Britain. Let’s hope it reaches American shores sometime soon. -- Stephen Miller

Killer Instinct by Joseph Finder (St. Martin’s Press)

As in the best thrillers, the plot of Killer Instinct is simple. But in that simplicity comes duplicity as Joseph Finder’s latest tale (after Company Man, 2005) takes the basic Faustian story and updates it for the 21st century. Jason Steadman is a middle-ranking salesman in a giant, Boston-based American electronics company, Entronics, that has been acquired by a Japanese conglomerate. His wife, Kate, wishes he were more ambitious, but Jason was brought up “blue-collar” and is happy with his lot -- that is, until he befriends Kurt Semko, an ex-Special Forces soldier, in a quirky twist of fate. Jason gets Kurt a job in corporate security with Entronics, and soon his career starts to take off, but in an unexpected way. Grim things begin happening to people who have been obstructing Jason’s career, and at first those appear to be happenstance, mere twists of fate. However, Jason soon comes to suspect that something more sinister is happening. Something dark and dangerous, linked to his new buddy, Kurt Semko. Finder, employing his by now highly tuned writing voice and great insights into how a psychopath works, as well as knowledge of how the corporate world ticks, delivers a masterful thriller, and one that will make your heart race. With short chapters, Finder does not sacrifice characterization for the speed of plot; instead, he adds humor to keep the proceedings from becoming too grim. Informative, smart, and a damned fine read, Killer Instinct beat my high-tide mark by a mile. -- Ali Karim

The Last Spymaster by Gayle Lynds (St. Martin’s Press)

Just when you thought that the classic CIA-centered Cold War espionage thriller (of the sort practiced at the highest level by Charles McCarry and Robert Littell) had been displaced by the current crop of spy books set in Iraq and Afghanistan, along comes the superbly gifted Gayle Lynds to prove you wrong. “The Last Spymaster” is Jay Tice -- a man who sold out the whole CIA store to the Russians during the Cold War and is now serving a life sentence in a federal prison from which no one has ever escaped. But Tice has slipped away -- and a highly motivated CIA hunter named Elaine Cunningham has been sent to find him. Like Cunningham, Lynds is very good at her job: her narrative skills and her character creation engine are as high-octane as they come. She can also condense into a few words what has been missing from today’s espionage thrillers, as she describes a liaison between Jay and a top East German female agent: “Tice and Raina had had a fiery but covert Cold War affair. That was the way people lived then. When sex, lust, love erupted between East and West, it was always forbidden and usually volcanic ...” -- Dick Adler

Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

I’m not sure exactly what first prompted American novelist Olen Steinhauer to use the crime fiction form to tell the story of the rise and fall of Communist ideology in an unnamed Eastern European country from just after World War II through the 1970s. Perhaps it was his time in Romania as a Rhodes Scholar. Whatever the reason, it was an inspired choice -- giving history and politics a chance to simmer over the flame of murder. Another good idea was to have each book in the series focus on one particular character, who later becomes a minor player in the next one. But for his fourth outing, Steinhauer sacrifices the advantages of this concept -- less chance of the books getting bogged down in the personal lives of his people and perhaps weakening their social impact -- by continuing the major role played by the central figure of his last novel, 36 Yalta Boulevard (2005) -- the decidedly unflashy but still intriguing Brano Sev. Sev has now, in 1975, risen from his lowly position as an ordinary (and not very much respected) investigator to the man in charge of the homicide section of the People’s Militia. When a member of his staff is killed in the explosion of a hijacked airplane bound for Istanbul, he sends two junior agents -- one a very interesting female investigator looking for vengeance as well as justice -- to see if the Armenian terrorists who took over the flight were also responsible for the explosion. Steinhauer’s first three books caught the frustration and bleakness of their Eastern European setting to heartbreaking perfection. He underscores those qualities this time with contrasting scenes of a Turkish capital bursting with life and some semblance of hope. And the irony which has colored the series to such strong effect is even more evident in Liberation Movements. “Intelligence work is precisely what it says -- it’s about intelligence. We are not murderers,” Sev lectures one of his associates. Readers of this series know that Sev has in fact murdered several people himself -- giving those words an ironic edge. But they also point toward a future (or at least toward the fifth and supposedly last book in this most important series) where life and hope might again be possible. -- Dick Adler

Lights Out by Jason Starr (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Major-league baseball star Jake Thomas and his high-school rival Ryan Rossetti share center stage in this year’s novel from Jason Starr, Lights Out, the first of Starr’s novels to be published in hardcover in the United States. Thomas arrives in his old Brooklyn neighborhood to a hero’s welcome. His goal is to scoop his long-ignored fiancé, Christina, into his arms and get ahead of a statutory rape charge that’s about to be made public. Jake is a natural at the game of baseball, so good that he rarely works at it anymore, preferring to concentrate on lucrative endorsement deals and his public image. Just as no man is noble to his butler, Jake’s old teammate Ryan sees through the thin veneer of “good old Jake,” and he’s seething with resentment. Ryan blew out his arm during the last glory days of high-school ball and never had a chance to make it into “the show.” Now reduced to working on a house-painting crew, Ryan finally has the chance he’s been waiting for to trump Jake-by stealing Christina away from him during this media-saturated homecoming. When that plan fails to execute as planned and Ryan wanders into the wrong neighborhood after his car quits, the unpredictable but logical chain of events begins to roll, and no one will be getting out without damage. Starr gives us a thrill ride here, similar to his past work, but then taking it to the major league of crime-fiction thriller. He skillfully juggles multiple points of view, as all the principal players are clearly focused and distinct. Like all Starr novels, the characters are considerably less capable of controlling their destinies than they would like to believe, and all fail to grasp the runaway freight train as it bears down on them. Lights Out is Starr’s strongest effort to date and should bring him the wider audience he clearly deserves. -- Stephen Miller

Memory Book by Howard Engel (Carroll & Graf)

What do you do if you’re a successful, highly lauded mystery writer in his late 60s, who suffers a stroke that causes a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia, which affects the memory and the ability to read but not the ability to write? If you’re Howard Engel, you turn the experience into one of your wry and solid books about Toronto private detective Benny Cooperman. Benny’s latest investigation begins as he wakes from a recurring dream about a train wreck to find himself in a Toronto, Canada, hospital. Cooperman has been in a coma for eight weeks, after being found in a trash bin near the University of Toronto with a near-fatal blow to the head -- next to the body of a young female professor, dead of a similar injury. Using a small notebook in which he meticulously jots down thoughts and details as they occur to him, Benny and his friend Anna Abraham reconstruct his most recent case. An anonymously sent basket of flowers triggers the name Rose or Rosie, and other clues suddenly pop into his head apparently at random to finally reveal an academic conspiracy. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and no mean writer himself, contributes an afterword that says it all: “Is the present volume up to the standard of the previous Benny Cooperman novels? My answer, as a reader of detective stories, is ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Indeed, I think this may be the most remarkable of them all, because of its special personal dimension ... Memory Book has a unique depth and authenticity, because Howard Engel has known and traversed all that he writes about ...’” -- Dick Adler

Mr. Clarinet by Nick Stone (Penguin UK)

This is one of the best debut novels I have read over the last decade, and I read a lot. Reminiscent of William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel (which was filmed by Alan Parker as Angel Heart), as well as John Connolly’s The Black Angel, Mr. Clarinet weaves a Chandler-esque detective story from the ashes of the dead and dying, but still has a voice that is as fresh as it is dangerous. I find it hard to shake off the story from the darker recesses of my mind, and it has haunted my dreams. This book is very, very scary. It features Max Mingus, a Miami P.I. who specializes in finding lost children. After being released from jail, where he spent time for killing three sadistic murderers, and mourning the loss of his wife, who only days before his release died at the wheel of her car after swerving into the path of an oncoming truck. With nothing left to lose, Mingus decides to take the case of a missing Haitian boy to try, hoping to fill the void inside his heart. Working for the rich and powerful Carver family, he first checks out one of his predecessors on the case, a sleazy P.I. named Clyde Beeson, only to find a hint of the horror that lies in wait for him. From there, the trail leads our hero to Haiti, where many children have vanished without so much as a trace. A country filled with elusive rumors about a figure of magic and myth called “Mr. Clarinet,” who like some seriously demented Pied Piper has supposedly been leading boys and girls astray from their loving families for many decades. The plot here is far from conventional, as Mingus traverses Haiti trying to find out who Mr. Clarinet is, not knowing along the way who is good, and who is bad -- seriously bad. Nick Stone’s vivid prose makes for compelling reading, but like maneuvring past a car crash, one’s compulsion to finish reading Mr. Clarinet is balanced by an equal dose of revulsion. I have only two problems with this book: (1) I needed a long cold shower when I finished it, as I felt so damned grungy, and (2) the wait for more from the pen of the talented Mr. Stone may become unbearable. Reading Mr. Clarinet reminded me of the day I turned the last page of Thomas Harris’ seminal work, Red Dragon. Need I say more? -- Ali Karim

Murder in Montmartre by Cara Black (Soho Crime)

As I finished reading Cara Black’s latest Aimée Leduc novel, I was reminded of French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Monet was fascinated by light and color, and he did several series showing the changing aspects of light on objects (haystacks being his most famous study) at different times of the day. The same can be said for Black’s Parisian setting for her Leduc detective novels. Granted, the neighborhood is going to be different each time out, but Black could take a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese and make it seem new and unique every time. She is a master at the game of detail and sensory exploration. Aimée Leduc, the computer-savvy private investigator, finds herself compelled in Montmartre to help a childhood friend, Laure Rousseau, after Laure is accused of killing her police partner, Jacques Gagnard. Laure ends up in a coma and unable to defend herself, leaving Aimée to sort things out. Life has thrown the protagonist a curve as well: her boyfriend, Guy, has left Aimée, because their relationship is battered and strained by the demands of both his doctor duties, and Aimée’s P.I. responsibilities. Sublimating her shattered personal life, Aimée is hell-bent on solving Gagnard’s death, which seems tied into intra-Corsican vendettas and terrorist attacks on the beautiful city of Paris. Providing a level of pathos and raising the stakes higher for Aimée, it appears that Gagnard’s death is in some way related to Aimée’s father’s murder years before in a terrorist explosion. So, what starts for our heroine as a mission to aid a close friend, takes on crusade status to clear up the mystery surrounding her father’s demise. Besides being known for her narrative rendering of Paris, Black has a penchant for introducing innumerable plot twists and red herrings, and this latest book in the series is particularly twisty. The exploration of Corsican culture and underground criminal activities, and the chance to watch Aimée negotiate Parisian music clubs (she is not only tres chic, but tres hip), together with her dwarf business partner, René Friant, and an insider look at French government spying techniques, makes this one of the most enjoyable novels in this series. The reader pulls for Aimée to find happiness -- perhaps in the arms of a talented musician -- and for Paris to somehow expand its boundaries. There are 20 arrondissements in the French capital, so that leaves only 14 novels to go. I’m missing Aimée Leduc already. -- Anthony Rainone

The Murmur of Stones by Thomas H. Cook (Quercus UK)

This is a tremendously well-crafted work, thematically structured in a similar way to Thomas Cook’s previous novel, Red Leaves (2005): both have to do with secrets hidden in the families of the dysfunctional and fractured. The narrative enfolds from the perspective of David Sears, a divorce lawyer coming to terms with the loss of his father and his young nephew, Jason, both of whom suffered from schizophrenia -- and neither of whom may have died from natural causes. After Jason -- who’d been placed in the care of his father, the scientist Mark Regan -- is found drowned in a garden pond, Sears watches his sister Diana, Jason’s mother, slowly unravel. She suspects that her husband had a hand in their child’s death, but lacks proof. The incident forces David to confront the past and to wonder whether there’s madness in his family’s gene pool, which would mean that his own sanity was at risk. As Diana’s behavior grows bizarre, her brother fears for the life of his own daughter, with whom Diana has started to form a bond. The short chapters in The Murmur of Stones are filled with dark insight, but you really cannot trust the relaying of events by either David Sears, who narrates the tale, or any of the other principal characters, because there is the smell of madness rippling throughout this yarn. Cook may telegraph his ending a bit; yet, it still shocks the reader. His tale poses one interesting question that I have often found myself pondering ever since: How insane are the people who hear voices in their heads? Murmur will be released in the States in January under the title The Cloud of Unknowing. -- Ali Karim

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown and Company)

George Pelecanos’ tales always boast pretty tight story structures, with plots unfurling in dramatic and almost inevitable ways. But their real strength comes from the author’s understanding of people -- their aspirations, fears and failures. That’s proven yet again in this character-rich yarn, which begins in Washington, D.C., in 1985, where a 14-year-old black girl has been found dead -- the latest victim of a killer the media have dubbed “The Night Gardener.” But then the novel accelerates 20 years, to find one of the three detectives who’d worked that still-unsolved homicide, Gus Ramone, assigned to the Violent Crime Branch of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. Of the three, Ramone was, and still is, the least colorful (“Ramone had his own rules: follow the playbook, stay safe, put in your twenty-five and move on. ... Romanticizing the work could not elevate it to something it was not. This was a job, not a calling.”). That Pelecanos should have promoted him as the protagonist here shows that he likes a good challenge. And Ramone lives up to his role, for the most part. But the weight of The Night Gardener doesn’t sit solely upon his shoulders. Also important to this novel is Dan “Doc” Holiday, an ex-“cowboy” cop whose involvement with a prostitute led to his dismissal; he now operates a chauffer service. It’s Holiday who, early in this story, stumbles across the corpse of Asa Johnson, a black teenager, left in a community garden, though he deliberately avoids reporting that find. While Ramone goes on to probe the boy’s demise officially, Holiday -- curious about similarities between this new case and the 1985 “Night Gardener” investigation -- conspires with an aged and infirm former detective, T.C. Cook, to look into the matter on the side. Through this effort, they both hope to expunge their individual demons. Ramone’s motivation, meanwhile, contains a personal aspect, too: The dead boy was a friend of his mixed-race teenage son, Diego, who could be victimized by the same killer. There aren’t many fireworks in The Night Gardener. The author prefers to work an emotional and psychological terrain here, at once examining the relationship between a father and his troubled son, and Washingtonians and their troubled city -- a place where the death of a young black man can be overlooked among the superfluity of dead young black men. For Pelecanos, that is fertile ground, indeed. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

If you were alive and reading detective fiction in the late 1980s and early 90s, you probably recognize the name Bernie Gunther. The captivating creation of then still-green British novelist Philip Kerr, Gunther started out (in March Violets, 1989) as a 38-year-old ex-soldier and former Berlin cop, who in 1936 -- during the run-up to World War II -- worked the often seedy streets of Adolf Hitler’s capital as a private eye specializing in missing-persons cases, of which there were appallingly many. Tough-guy Gunther went on to star in two more novels, The Pale Criminal (1990) and German Requiem (1991), the latter of which finds the war over, Berlin in shambles, and Bernie married and seeking some solace in Vienna. But after that third installment, his adventures appeared over. Kaput. Kerr went on to other things, writing a number of standalone crime works (such as 1993’s Dead Meat, 1999’s The Shot and his wonderful Sir Isaac Newton sleuthing yarn, 2002’s Dark Matter). He even branched out into children’s lit, penning a succession of fantastical novels under the name “P.B. Kerr.” But then, earlier this year he returned to the world of Bernie Gunther, delivering an unexpected fourth book in the series -- The One from the Other -- that is every hard-boiled inch as good as its predecessors. Maybe even better than German Requiem. This latest yarn starts out with our man Gunther managing a rapidly declining hotel just outside the gates of the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, while his wife, Kirsten, languishes in a state mental hospital, “a complete ruin of her former self.” But he’s had enough; he’s decided to sell the hotel (which had belonged to Kirsten’s late father) and resume his private detective career, this time setting up shop in Munich. It’s 1949, and there are plenty of potential clients there -- former Nazis wishing to bury their pasts, fugitives from international justice and spouses searching for husbands who went missing during the recent hostilities. One of that last breed is among Gunther’s earliest clients, Britta Warzok, a tall, good-looking blonde who wants him to find out whatever happened to her missing husband, a sadistic former concentration camp supervisor. Not, she says, because she wants to reconcile with such “an evil man,” but because she needs to know that he’s dead, so she can marry someone else. But that seemingly simple assignment turns complicated fast, as Bernie is beaten up, has one of his fingers brutally foreshortened, and winds up convalescing in a mountain retreat. From there, he heads to Vienna -- with a bogus passport -- to collect an inheritance for someone he’s come to trust, but should not, because this “favor” will lead the P.I. into the sights of Israelis hungry for some postwar revenge. Bernie Gunther is a brilliantly sardonic creature, with a mouth full of Chandleresque witticisms and a hard enough noggin to take the inevitable beatings inflicted on characters of his sort. If you liked the first three Gunther novels, you should not be disappointed by this one. Dare we hope for a fifth? -- J. Kingston Pierce

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown and Company)

Crime fiction can be stretched and pulled in many directions, toward the literary, toward the pulp. Kate Atkinson delivered Case Histories a few years back, a reluctant crime novel that introduced Jackson Brodie, the thinking P.I. One of the many pleasures of the book was the author’s fresh view of the baroque world of good and evil; Atkinson has a dangerous sense of humor, one that leaves the reader not quite sure which side of the great divide she stands on. One Good Turn takes the parable of the Good Samaritan on a fast tour of Scotland, where criminal enterprises are a cottage industry. Jackson Brodie is back from France, a tourist in Edinburgh. His girlfriend, Julia, is appearing in a stage production, part of the city’s famous Fringe Festival. This reference becomes a wonderful play on words as the plot unfolds. A road-rage incident incites the action. Those who witness a driver assaulting a man with a baseball bat are sucked into the aftermath with life-altering consequences. Jackson is among the witnesses. He senses a certain detachment in Julia, an insight akin to noticing a tornado has touched down in your garden. If this were the good old days and One Good Turn was at the local drive-in, patrons would be standing on the roofs of their cars begging Jackson to wake up. His state of mind is crucial to this narrative, because we spend vast amounts of time in Jackson Brodie’s head, fretting about Julia. There are other things to occupy him, however: mysterious Russian maids, a dead body that vanishes in a tidal pool, a deranged killer bumping off witnesses to that road-rage incident, a feckless writer and the utterly brilliant housewife, Gloria. One Good Turn never quite finds a unity of purpose, with social satire competing for the lead, followed by a crime story wrapped in the doom of failed relationships. The top of Jackson’s emotional range is confusion. He’s a man lost in an array of choices presented by financial independence, but isolation is his default position. There are excellent character studies to be found here, although Martin Canning, himself a crime writer, is too much of a caricature, victimized so often and so freely that his presence on the page wears thin. Events offstage embroil point-of-view characters in criminal conspiracies. Thus, the innocent Gloria meets the wily Tatiana, while Gloria’s husband, Graham, beeps toward oblivion in the intensive-care unit. Graham’s misdeeds have set off much of the story’s action, catalogued by the author through witty observation. Kate Atkinson loves misdirection, ensnaring the reader in set pieces that seem disjointed, but in fact have a purpose. Great swatches of this novel are fun to read, others are frustrating. One Good Turn is to crime novels what Doris Day movies were to comedy, if Doris stepped out of character to launder money rather than iron shirts. -- David Thayer

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins)

Edgar Allan Poe has been a frequent presence in mystery and crime fiction -- not just as an author (he created the detective protagonist C. Auguste Dupin for the 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), but as a character. However, he’s rarely been interpreted as engagingly or eccentrically as Louis Bayard does in this year’s The Pale Blue Eye. This historical whodunit is set at the West Point military academy in 1830. A young cadet has been found in the compound, hanged and mutilated, and the academy’s superintendent summons a lonely, retired and alcoholic New York City detective, Augustus “Gus” Landor, from his Hudson Valley home to investigate. Gus recognizes a cover-up when he sees one, but he doesn’t know how to get past the mutual self-protectiveness of the cadets -- at least not until he takes on an assistant, the least likely military man I can imagine: the alternately poetic, macabre and romantic Poe, who has wound up at West Point in an effort to appease his foster father, John Allan. With Landor’s encouragement, the young and maverick future wordsmith tries to worm information from within the ranks, while the ex-cop works from the outside. Meanwhile, more corpses turn up, and Poe complicates the investigation by falling -- fast and hard, and in a welter of purple prose -- for the sister of Landor’s chief suspect in these atrocities. Bayard, who may be most recognizable as the author of Mr. Timothy (2003), a novel in which Charles Dickens’ Timothy “Tiny Tim” Cratchit, from A Christmas Carol, was skillfully re-imagined as a reluctant sleuth in 1860 London, delivers in The Pale Blue Eye an essentially simple plot strongest on character, and with an ending guaranteed to surprise. Bayard’s writing is appealing throughout, but most memorable in the chapters told from Poe’s perspective -- a task that requires Bayard to adopt an idiosyncratic lexicon, and maintain that style over long sections. No easy task. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Prisoner of Guantánamo by Dan Fesperman (Alfred A. Knopf)

Mix together a great journalist, a surreal location, a topical subject and a terrific plot -- and bingo, you have one of the best literary thrillers released during this last year. In his fourth novel, former Baltimore Sun writer Dan Fesperman serves up a political suspenser that might be best described as “the Cold War meets the ‘war on terror.’” His story is told through the eyes of Revere Falk, a 33-year-old FBI agent who first stepped onto the shores of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (referred to as “Gitmo” by the soldiers who work at the navy base and military prison there) a dozen years ago, when he still an American Marine. Back then, he was involved in some pretty shading goings-on (and he continues to harbor secrets that threaten to reverberate in the present). Now, though, the Arabic-speaking Falk is sent to Gitmo to interrogate a Yemeni prisoner, Adnan al-Hamdi (a young Afghan caught in the post-9/11 war), who allegedly possesses sensitive information vital to U.S. interests. But Falk soon finds himself enmeshed in the apparent murder -- or was it suicide? -- of an American sergeant, Earl Ludwig, whose body has washed up on the beach that separates the U.S. and Cuban ends of the island nation. The tension in this book is like a steel cord being tightened, and you can hear it creak and strain as the plot inches towards its climax. As Prisoner rolls along, adding a colorful array of characters (including a female interrogator and Revere’s love interest) and suggesting possible links between the Cubans and al Qaeda (could the cold warriors and the jihadists be awkward bedfellows?), Revere realizes that his own past could destroy his future, and that everyone is guilty of something. -- Ali Karim

Red Sky Lament by Edward Wright (Orion UK)

Like previous novelists who wrestled with Los Angeles before and after World War II (John Fante of Ask the Dust and Horace McCoy of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? come to mind), Wright knows how to capture the smell of something burning in the hot fields and streets of that 1940s city and turn it into the kind of art that both stirs up old memories and pierces the soul. His books (which began with Clea’s Moon, one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2003) are about John Ray Horn, a former cowboy star of B-movies who played a character called Sierra Lane. The son of an unforgiving Arkansas preacher, Horn had his few moments in the film sun, before a very bad war in Italy and then a violent attack on the son of his studio owner -- which sent him to prison for two years and ended both his career and his marriage to the wrong woman. Now he lives on the wrecked estate of a silent-film star, which he keeps up in lieu of rent, and earns food money collecting debts for Joseph Mad Crow, his former Indian co-star, who has started a gambling casino. Red Sky Lament starts off with a troubled woman needing Horn’s help: Maggie O’Dare, the person he should have married -- a top stunt rider whose horse ranch high above the San Fernando Valley is a place of great comfort. Maggie wants John Ray to help a once-famous screenwriter, Owen Bruder, now unemployable and on his way to prison as an “Unfriendly Witness” before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, which is in full terrorizing swing. Horn, with no particular sympathy for Communists, takes on the job of finding out who lied about the cold and unlikable Bruder to HUAC’s investigators, because Maggie gives him convincing reasons. What all of Wright’s books do is what the best fiction does: re-create a vanished world (even if the time passed is days rather than decades), then populate it with people we’d know anywhere. As two boys at a big barbecue on Maggie’s spread break up a fight to stare in wonder at him and John Ray, Mad Crow asks, “‘You know who we are ... This old cowboy and me?’ They nodded wordlessly. ‘We always fight for the right side, don’t we?’ Another nod. He grinned broadly, enjoying the moment. The older boy, his eyes now fixed on Horn ... whispered, ‘Sierra Lane.’ The younger boy, eyes wide, could only nod ...” -- Dick Adler

Smoked by Patrick Quinlan (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Portland, Maine, is the setting for Patrick Quinlan’s debut thriller, Smoked. Smoke Dugan is living in Portland, but he’s far from your average AARP member. He stole a lot of money from a bent-nose-type down in Queens. A former bomb maker, Smoke is seeing Lola Bell, a tough young woman whose past is as murky as his. The opening scenes here establish Lola’s ability to handle a difficult situation, when she fends off two men running a modeling agency scam. It sets the tone for a fast ride through the streets of Portland, including a one-man revival of the car chase, and the destruction of massive amounts of real and personal property. When the boys in Queens dispatch Cruz, their top assassin, life in Portland takes on the charm of Beirut in the 1980s. Author Quinlan takes the setup and lets fly with a variation on the no-bad-deed-goes-unpunished theme. The point of view here is divided between Smoke, Lola, Cruz and a few minor characters, all of whom manage to be compelling or bizarre, each of them dedicated to the task of wreaking havoc. Smoked is well-written, tight, tense and well-paced. Overtones of early Dennis Lehane carry suggestions of Prayers for Rain or A Drink Before the War, with the subtext of retribution’s fatal inevitability. That Smoke Dugan becomes a sympathetic character is a tribute to the author’s skill. After all, Smoke built bombs for the Mafia and exposes everyone in his new life to the fury of the mob’s vengeance. Fans of hard-boiled fiction should enjoy this dark fable. The story is shrouded in moral ambiguity accompanied by the classic noir elements of regret, loss and imminent peril, all richly deserved and all the more engrossing because of the hero’s compromised virtue. -- David Thayer

A Stolen Season by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

It might be summertime in Paradise, Michigan, with the snow gone, but the early July weather is uncharacteristically gray and cold in A Stolen Season, the newest Alex McKnight novel. Did you expect anything else? If the weather causes McKnight to don a coat, it doesn’t dampen this novel’s sizzling action sequences, including the opening scenario. When a speeding boat crashes into pilings on foggy Lake Loop in Brimley, Michigan, McKnight and his friends rush to save three men from drowning. We’ve all done things that we wish we hadn’t, and McKnight lives to regret the day that he helped pull these men from the cold water. Like the chilly, wet weather that seeps into your bones and won’t go away, these men -- Cap, Brucie and Harry -- integrate themselves into Paradise in a bad way. McKnight’s Ojibwa friend, Vinnie LeBlanc, takes a beating at the hands of Cap and Brucie, and McKnight ends up in jail and on the outs with Chief Maven (again). The unfolding story uses two principal plot points that integrate contemporary urban issues into rural America. More than in the previous McKnight books, events in A Stolen Season go from bad to worse, and never fully recover. This is a life-altering book in the history of our man McKnight, and his fans will be moved by the hardship that he must endure. The worsening circumstances encompass McKnight’s lover, Natalie Reynaud of the Ontario Provincial Police. Back on active duty, following her experiences in Ice Run (2004), Reynaud is assigned to undercover detective work in Toronto. While trying to bust gun smuggler Antoine Laraque, who’s been putting weapons on Canadian streets with devastating effect, Reynaud senses this man is more dangerous than most bad guys, and fears for her life. The emotional connection between McKnight and Reynaud is epic, and the Canadian officer never seemed more fully dimensional and vulnerable than in these pages. As always, the setting is remarkable to behold, and the regional nuances only make it chunkier. A Stolen Season offers some of the finest writing yet from Hamilton, passages that are lyrical, and emotions that are as raw as the Upper Peninsula wind. I wish this book had a happy ending, because it’s what McKnight deserves. What McKnight fans want, and can only hope for, is that the wounded protagonist finds the inner strength to come back for more. -- Anthony Rainone

The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster)

If there’s one thing readers take away from Robert Crais’ latest novel, it’s that family is paramount. It is not like crime-fiction writers haven’t mined this terrain before; it’s simply that no one writes this type of book with a bigger heart than Crais does. The Two Minute Rule centers around Max Holman, a man who has spent time in federal prison for bank robbery. Now, older and with better impulse control, he’s getting ready for supervised release. But as he’s getting ready to move to Culver City, just west of Los Angeles, he learns that his 23-year-old son, Richard, an LAPD officer, has been was killed along with three other officers in an early morning ambush. Holman, who’d hoped to reconcile himself with his son, is stunned by this news. And as he adjusts to life on the outside again, he also goes looking for answers to Richie’s murder. When he analyzes what the cops tell him -- that the officers were surprised by the killer -- and then examines the actual crime scene himself, things don’t add up. Holman realizes that he’s facing a cover-up by the LAPD, so he turns to others for help. The first person he taps is Gary “L’Chee” Moreno, a man he has known since childhood and who was his partner in crime. L’Chee is currently running a body shop in East L.A and feels indebted to Holman for not ratting him out as the getaway driver in their last bank job, the one that landed Holman in federal stir. Max Holman then turns to another unlikely source for help: Katherine Pollard, the FBI special agent who arrested him a decade earlier. Crais has long been regarded as a writer of exceptional women characters, and Pollard is the latest recipient of that mantle. While Holman is on a mission to redeem his son’s reputation and bring the murderer to justice, Pollard faces her own inner struggles. When she receives Holman’s letter requesting her help, she is intrigued and reluctant. When her own peripheral investigation of the case turns up more questions than answers, she jumps in feet first. There are twists galore in The Two Minute Rule, and early assumptions are likely to be proven wrong. This novel opens and closes with fast-paced pyrotechnic action that only Crais can pull off so well, and the author is to be commended for taking a redeemed convict and fashioning him into one of his most sympathetic characters yet. The Two Minute Rule is perhaps Crais’ finest effort. -- Anthony Rainone

The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard (Ballantine Books)

Nancy Pickard, who recently won the Barry and Macavity awards for her short story There Is No Crime on Easter Island,” is also a past Anthony, Agatha and Shamus award recipient and the founding member/past president of Sisters in Crime. With credits like those, she could easily rest on her laurels, but instead she continues to create mysteries with memorable characters and brilliant plots. In The Virgin of Small Plains, Pickard takes what could have been a formulaic plot about a past unsolved murder in a small town, and weaves it into a completely absorbing and unique tale of becoming an adult and learning how past truths can shatter the present. Seventeen years ago, two teenage lovers, Mitch Newquist and Abby Reynolds, had their liaison interrupted by Mitch’s discovery of a horrible crime involving the town leaders, including Abby’s father. When he shares this with his parents, they make the shocking decision to send Mitch away, leaving many questions among the townspeople as to Mitch’s involvement in the murder of the unknown girl who becomes the legendary Virgin of Small Plains. Not until nearly 20 years later does Mitch finally return to the Kansas town, after the death of his mother, who’d wandered out to the Virgin’s grave in a haze of dementia. Still simmering with resentment against his parents and the townsfolk, who he believes framed him for murder, Mitch attempts to come to terms with his bitterness as well as his feelings toward Abby, who still feels the pull of attraction towards him, even as she hates him for leaving years ago. As these two inevitably collide, they discover the many hidden secrets of the town’s “adults,” and will go on to shatter the quiet peace of the families involved. Pickard, the author of the Jenny Cain series (Confession, 1994) and the Lightfoot series (The Truth Hurts, 2002), is one of the grand dames of mystery writing. This latest standalone continues to prove her skill as a concocter of suspense and creator of realistic, memorable characters. While the fate of the so-called Virgin is tragic and heartbreaking, Pickard concludes her tale with a sentiment of hope and leaves the reader satisfied that in some way, at least, justice has been delivered. -- Cindy Chow

Voices by Arnaldur Indridason; translated by Bernard Scudder (Harvill Secker UK)
Voices is a dark tale set at Christmastime in a classy hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Gudlauger Egilsson, the doorman-cum-handyman, is found stabbed viciously to death in his basement room. The deceased is still dressed in his Santa Claus outfit, prepared to entertain a group of children, but a condom dangles surreally from his flaccid penis. Summoned to investigate this peculiar crime, Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson and his police colleagues Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg converge upon the bristling hotel. Unable to face Christmas alone in his flat, Erlendur takes a room in the hotel in order to focus on the murder probe. He soon discovers that the late Santa stand-in was in fact a former child-prodigy choirboy (until his voice broke), who had spent his adult life as a lowly odd-jobs man at the hotel. As the detectives delve into this case, they piece together the fragments of Gudlauger’s tragic life. The hotel staff close ranks, but soon divisions appear as talk surfaces of large-scale thefts, as well as organized prostitution. Gudlauger’s sinister relatives appear, and they reveal just enough to pique Erlendur’s suspicions. Meanwhile, policewoman Elínborg is still preoccupied with another case, involving a schoolboy who was badly beaten by a gang of bullies, and the boy’s father, a businessman with a violent temper who faces bankruptcy. Award-winning Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason shows a little compassion for the world-weary Erlendur by involving him, at least initially, in a relationship with one of the female forensic officers, the middle-aged Valgerdur -- even though it draws the detective into conflict with his daughter, Eva Lind. It’s really overdue that Erlendur should find a little happiness, as his worldview has been so darkened by everything he witnessed as a child, and everything else he’s had to witness as a world filled with dysfunction and pathos. Indridason is one of the modern masters of the police procedural. -- Ali Karim

The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow (Alfred A. Knopf)
Upon first encounter, the 62-year-old Frank Machianno (known to some as “Frankie Machine”) of San Diego, California, appears to be a regular kind of guy: colorful but conservative, single parent of one college-age kid, casual businessman and well-liked local figure. But the service industries Frank’s dabbled in for decades include doing various favors for the Mob; and his past catches up to him in The Winter of Frankie Machine, Don Winslow’s fast-paced but atmospheric thriller (and the follow-up to last year’s The Power of the Dog). Someone, it seems, wants Frankie dead; but he doesn’t know who, or why. As he goes on the run to save his skin, Frankie combs through his past to explain his present dilemma. Sordid episodes from his seamy history are revisited via flashbacks, while Frankie looks up long-forgotten figures to see how he might set things right -- or at least settle scores. Frankie’s irregular career has caused him to cross paths with all sorts of unsavory characters, high and low: from thugs to politicians, from the slick to the sordid. If a reader never feels complete sympathy for Frankie Machine, one at least comes to appreciate how brutal events and cruel dilemmas have shaped and brought him to his fate. -- Tom Nolan

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company)
Daniel Woodrell’s first novel, Under the Bright Lights, came out in 1986, not long before The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke’s first book about New Orleans policeman Dave Robicheaux. Like Burke, Woodrell had a seriously flawed but fascinating cop hero (Rene Shade) and a sharply evoked bayou setting (the fictional town of St. Bruno). Both writers showed serious promise of artistic and commercial longevity, but many critics -- myself included -- thought that Woodrell was so poetic and original that he would be the one to prosper. It didn’t happen that way, of course. Burke’s career still soars, especially in the sales department, even though the later Robicheaux books have a certain sense of “been there, read that” about them, while Woodrell has written seven more novels, leaving Shade and St. Bruno behind, and has become wealthy mostly in praise -- the kind of writer other writers want to be when they grow up. Maybe this latest book by Woodrell, set in the Missouri Ozarks where he was born and lives, will restore some of the balance between art and commerce. It’s a simple story, about a smart girl named Ree Dolly, (“brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes”) who looks after her addled mother and two younger brothers while her father, Jessup (“a broken-faced furtive man given to uttering quick pleading promises”), is either stewing up crystal meth -- which has replaced illegal whiskey as the area’s cottage industry -- or trying to stay out of jail when he’s caught at it. When Jessup jumps bail after signing over their house to a bondsman as collateral, Ree gives up her plan to join the army when she hits 17 and sets off in search of her father. “Ree felt bogged and forlorn, doomed to a spreading swamp of hateful obligations. There would be no ready fix or answer or help,” Woodrell writes in sentences that could be ancient carvings on a tree. Her search for her father, dead or alive, takes Ree through a human bramble thicket of Dolly relatives that could so easily have turned into caricature that we hold our breath and finally gasp in admiration at Woodrell’s restraint. Blond Milton, Uncle Teardrop, Buster Leroy and Little Arthur are as frightening as they are believable -- and even the men who offer help of various kinds (from food to stern advice) could turn nasty in a tick. But it’s not the men Ree really thinks about as she pauses in her arduous search to remember her female ancestors: “The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can’t.” And it’s their female descendants who cause Ree the most pain in the end. -- Dick Adler

The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes (Simon & Schuster)
It may be the “wrong kind of blood” that drives this tale of redemption and murder and family, but it’s certainly the right kind of book, an impressive, passionate and ambitious debut that heralds a major new voice in detective fiction, and by far my favorite private-eye novel of the year. There are echoes of everyone from Ross Macdonald to Ken Bruen in this sad but moving tale of Ed Loy, a once-successful Los Angeles private investigator still reeling from his own personal tragedy, who packs up his shattered life and makes the long journey back to his native Dublin, Ireland, for his mother's funeral. He’s barely returned, however, before he gets dragged, reluctantly at first, into looking for an old girlfriend’s missing husband. And it isn’t long after that that he discovers he’s run afoul of not just one, but two powerful -- and dangerous -- local families: one deals in drugs and the other in real estate. But the deeper Loy gets into this case -- or perhaps, more exactly, the deeper the case gets into him -- the more it seems to point to his own troubled past, and the disappearance of his own father years ago. An equally impressive theme here is the very real sense of dislocation and loss that P.I. Loy must contend with, as he realizes that the Ireland of his youth is long gone, sold down the river in the name of progress, leaving a Celtic-tinged boomtown mentality in its place and a bad taste in Loy’s mouth. Coyly subtitled “An Irish Novel of Betrayal,” The Wrong Kind of Blood has an emotional drive to it that tears into the guts of all the carefully constructed lies we tell ourselves about the past so we can go on living, and suggests that no matter what you tell yourself, ultimately you can't go home again. This is Irish theater director and playwright Hughes’ first detective novel, and if at times it seems Hughes has bitten off a little more than he can chew, ultimately his strong and unflinching vision, his confident and unique voice and his passion bode well not just for his future, but for the genre’s. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Zero to the Bone by Robert Everz (Simon & Schuster)
Think you’ve got Nina Zero pegged? Think again. This series (which began with Shooting Elvis back in 1996) has always been a little confrontational, but with this latest installment Nina and creator Eversz really get into readers’ faces, serving up a succession of increasingly charged scenes that hit like sucker punches to the gut -- and to more sensitive areas. You don’t see ’em headed your way, but you sure feel ’em land. As the needle drops on Zero to the Bone, things seem to be looking up -- or at least calming down -- for the ballsy ex-con paparazza who toils for a sleazy Los Angeles tabloid obsessed with Hollywood celebrities, werewolf babies and other freaks. Somehow, her photography has brought Nina to the brink of celebrity herself, and we find her prepping for her first-ever showing with a series of moody, edgy, tabloidesque stills, carefully composed (and posed, using models and props) that challenge our obsessions with sex and violence. It should be a heady time for Nina, a long-delayed but well-deserved smile from the gods. But her carefully built and fiercely protected sense of personal autonomy and independence (not to mention her big gala night) come crashing down with the arrival of a videotaped snuff film depicting the murder of Christine Myers, her friend and featured model, and the unexpected arrival of Cassie Bogle, her mouthy 15-year-old Goth niece. If this were a simple case of Nina hunting down Christine’s killer and avenging her death, it would be thrilling enough, a hard-boiled tour through a sun-bleached Southern California wasteland replete with “some really twisted shit.” But it ain’t called Zero to the Bone for nothin’. More than in any of her previous adventures, Nina is stripped bare here, the protective flesh of rationalization and self-determination ripped away until all that’s left is her essential core. Because this time it’s not just Nina’s freedom or autonomy that are at stake -- this time, it’s her heart, and possibly her loins, that hold her fate. It ends with Eversz dropping a final emotional bang as audacious as it is fitting, a cock-eyed, blackly humorous conclusion to the emotional gauntlet Nina has run that makes a twisted kind of sense. And it makes for one hell of a set-up for her next adventure -- if there is one. That’s because this book also completes a very definite cycle and logical stopping point. Rest assured, though, that if the series does indeed conclude here, Nina will have gone out on a high -- and characteristically defiant -- note. Whatever Eversz decides to pull out of his hat next, it’ll definitely be worth a look. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Best Books of 2006