Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
The Blue Last
Deaths past, present and problematic lie at the center of Grimes' latest Richard Jury novel. While Chief Inspector Michael Haggerty tries to solve the modern-day murder of merchant banker Simon Croft, Jury looks into whether a woman claiming to be the granddaughter of a brewing magnate is actually an impostor, the real granddaughter having perished as a child during the infamous London blitz. In classic Grimes fashion, there are numerous complications here, not the least of which are undercover efforts by Jury sidekick Melrose Plant to determine whether Croft's death is linked to something he learned while writing a book about World War II, and Haggerty's announcement that he's dying of cancer.
Despite the bizarre premise of Garcia's two novels -- that dinosaurs didn't all die off 65 million years ago; the survivors merely costumed themselves to blend in with "ape" culture -- there's something utterly charming about them. In both Anonymous Rex (1999) and Casual Rex, we watch Velociraptor private eye Vincent Rubio stumble about Los Angeles like Philip Marlowe's naïve and horny reptilian relation, running alternately into trouble and increasingly outlandish (read: hilarious as hell) situations. In Casual, Rubio and his partner, Ernie Watson, are working two cases: trying to get their hands on their dino landlord's missing prosthetic penis, and investigating a cult of "Progressives" who have convinced Ernie's former brother-in-law, Rupert, to rediscover his saurian roots. They do better with that second assignment, kidnapping and then deprogramming Rupert. But when he supposedly commits suicide shortly thereafter, the dino detectives decide to probe further, eventually jetting off to a secluded Hawaiian island where even Rubio's attraction to a seductive Progressive doesn't blind him to the fact that this cult is less benign than it seems. Although Casual could have used some more rigorous copy editing, its dialogue is sharply delivered and Garcia's offhand mentions of well-known personalities (including FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover and proto-Mormon Joseph Smith) who were also disguised dinosaurs never cease to entertain.
Douglas' fifth outing for Irene Adler Norton, the onetime operatic diva who bested Sherlock Holmes in the Arthur Conan Doyle short story "A Scandal in Bohemia," finds her and her companion, the sheltered and prudish Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, investigating the slayings of two high-priced courtesans in Paris in 1889. But what appears to be a crime of violent passion, perhaps committed by the Prince of Wales or else that "renowned gentleman of the theater," Bram Stoker, comes to look more and more like the blunt savagery of Jack the Ripper, whose predations had sent shivers of fear through London just the year before. Could it be that Jack has taken up his old crimes in a new locale? With some help from a mysterious young woman, a supposed prostitute called Pink, Irene and Nell reel from one threatening circumstance to another, traveling to the depths of Paris' catacombs and to the heights of its just-opened Eiffel Tower. If Douglas' prose turns purplish at times, she nonetheless presents here a captivating story that offers a few interesting twists on the Ripper legend and cameos by both Buffalo Bill Cody and Holmes himself. Beware, however: this is the first book of a pair. You'll have to wait until the publication of its sequel -- Castle Rouge, due out in October 2002 -- for the answers to numerous questions left hanging at the end of Chapel Noir.
2001 was a bumper year for fictional crimes set in far-northern climes. Of the four such stories mentioned here, Cold is arguably the most distinctive, a James M. Cain-style thriller as bleak as the landscape that gives it life ... and leads to its deaths. Prisoner Norman Haas has fled a work detail in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and set off through a snowstorm to reclaim the life he'd enjoyed before his duplicitous family sent him away. Nothing will stand in his way, though Norman avoids being easily defined as a "bad guy." It's mostly the people around him who turn out to be mendacious, as well as desperate. Or terminally confused, like his ex-fiancée, Noel, who saw Norman's incarceration as just revenge for his abuse, and then went on to marry his malingering brother, but now plans to run off with Norman to Canada. While a small-town sheriff tries to recapture Norman (and at the same time make sense of his aborning relationship with a widowed sculptor), a violent climax is brewing, one that will reveal a complicated deception at the heart of Norman's imprisonment and an ugly conspiracy to profit from wildlife destruction.
The Cold Six Thousand
Ellroy's latest gritty-than-thou work sends us back once more into the 1960s, the setting of his previous blockbuster, American Tabloid (1995). It begins on the day of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's assassination, when Las Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow Jr. flies into ill-fated Dallas, Texas, to arrest a pimp -- and make sure he perishes in the process. But it's not only that procurer whose high times end amid Ellroy's aggressively staccato prose. As the author leads Tedrow forward through the seemingly unendable Vietnam War and the killings of both civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, he drains his readers of optimism, filling up the holes with paranoia and a sense that the worst things will always happen in this world. Though The Cold Six Thousand is often an excessive and frustrating read, Ellroy's audacity in trying to make sense of the 60s is, alone, worth the cost of this 688-page book.
It has been seven years since the last appearance of Harvey Blissberg, a major-league outfielder turned private investigator, in Rosen's World of Hurt (1994). But he's apparently still in shape to catch a few baddies, if not the fly balls he could once pocket with ease. In Dead Ball, Blissberg is snapped out of a personal slump by a call for help from his former team, the Providence Jewels. It seems that excitement over the chances of player Moss Cooley breaking Joe DiMaggio's legendary 56-game hitting streak is being undermined by racist threats against the team, and it is up to Blissberg to find the intimidators and protect Cooley while he endeavors to make baseball history. I'd been wondering for some time whatever happened to author Rosen. After penning four well-received Blissberg books -- including the Edgar Award-winning Strike Three, You're Dead (1984), recently back in print from Walker Books -- he seemed to fall off the planet. It is good to see him back at the plate, along with Blissberg and more cast members familiar from Strike Three.
Death in Holy Orders
Detective Commander Adam Dalgliesh is nearing his fourth decade of literary service (he was first introduced in Cover Her Face, 1962), yet seems as able as ever. A good thing, too, since his task in Death in Holy Orders -- to reexamine the "accidental death" of a student at St. Anselm's theological college in East Anglia -- would test the wisdom of any member of Scotland Yard. Initially, it seems a cut-and-tried case, no matter what the boy's businessman father contends. Yet when St. Anselm's is shaken by a second tragedy -- the murder of a visiting Archdeacon, who boasts a rather shady past and at least two enemies on the premises -- the poetry-loving Dalgliesh realizes he's awash in old hatreds and new violence. James makes the most of her story's classic enclosed environment, and even manages to inject some of her religious interests into the plot, without being, well, preachy.
The Devil's Apprentice
Readers sometimes complain that historical mysteries tax their comprehension, forcing them to concentrate not only on the plot but also on essential, frequently arcane details of setting. However, Edward Marston's 11 books so far about an adventuring 16th-century theatrical troupe, Westfield's Men, and its resourceful book holder, Nicholas Bracewell, are delightful romps rather than daunting reads. In The Devil's Apprentice, the company -- suffering through a chill winter and equally chilling lack of employment -- eagerly accepts the opportunity to perform at an Essex manor house. This, despite the fact that the commission requires that Westfield's Men feature a brand-new play in their program and take on a new apprentice from the Essex area, Davy Stratton. The first demand is more easily satisfied: Bracewell encourages the troupe to perform a production called The Witches of Colchester, penned by an eccentric London lawyer. Hiring Davy had seemed initially like a capital prospect, but when the boy turns obstreperous, then disappears during a visit to Essex, it sets in motion a cascade of trouble and troubling coincidences that provoke suspicion that the troupe's fine new play may have brought a witch's spell down upon all their heads. While this book is less intricately conceived and more typical of the series' installments than was its predecessor, The Wanton Angel, The Devil's Apprentice nonetheless stands out with its spirited pace and clever characterizations.
The Final Country
Judging solely on the evidence of his half-dozen detective novels so far, one might presume that Crumley was the unholy love child of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. He can be that good ... and that outrageous. His 1978 novel, The Last Good Kiss, must rank among the 20th century's most original works in this genre. But it was his previous book, The Wrong Case (1975), that introduced Milo Milodragovitch, a twice-divorced, heavy-drinking Montana private eye who had accepted his life as "a dismal failure." Twenty-six years later, Milo is no better off. In The Final Country, he's relocated to Texas, where he is trying to salvage a soured relationship with his girlfriend, Betty, and helping out a friend by running his tavern (where the real profits are made in money laundering, not brewsies). Most of the detective labor he does nowadays, when his back isn't hurting too much and his supply of cocaine doesn't distract him, involves missing persons. But his search in this story for a straying wife is only the start of a much larger, more violent case that has Milo witnessing the slaying of a drug dealer, being framed for murder and setting traps for a serial killer. The action takes him from Mexico to the snow-sprinkled peaks of Montana and forces Milo to call upon the help of computer geeks, bodyguards and fellow detective C.W. Sughrue, last seen in Bordersnakes (1996). There's lots of what Hunter S. would call "bad craziness" here, hard not to enjoy.
Forty Words for Sorrow
"[Ontario, Canada's] Algonquin Bay in February is the very definition of winter," Blunt remarks in his novel's opening. "Algonquin Bay is snowbound, Algonquin Bay is quiet, Algonquin Bay is very, very cold." In other words, it's the ideal backdrop for this brooding and remarkably intelligent serial-killer thriller. The plot centers on Detective John Cardinal, whose obsessive interest in the disappearance of a 13-year-old Chippewa girl, Katie Pine, led to his dismissal from the case. However, he's called back after Pine's frozen corpse is found in an abandoned mine shaft, only to be partnered with Lisa Delorme, whose covert secondary assignment it is to determine whether Cardinal has been keeping drug dealer Kyle Corbett safe from recent RCMP busts. This twisting of motives, coupled with Blunt's careful crafting of Cardinal's past and personality, shifting viewpoints and the author's rich evocations of the Ontario surroundings, make Forty Words for Sorrow one of the two most interesting Canada-based crime novels produced this year. (The other is Ice Lake, by John Farrow.) It's easy to see why Blunt was honored with the 2001 Macallan Silver Dagger, given out by the British Crime Writers Association.
Taking what may be a permanent break from his series about private eye Leo Waterman (The Deader the Better), G.M. Ford offers up this tension-filled tale of a Seattle rapist and serial killer who is set to die by lethal injection -- until the prosecution's chief witness suddenly recants her testimony. It seems she lied in court to cover up an unwanted pregnancy. But with the city's mayor and police honchos refusing to reexamine the case, it's up to the publisher of a third-rate tabloid and a discredited reporter named Frank Corso to stop the execution. If they can. Fury's convicted murderer is a hateful and sartorially challenged hick. Yet what really makes this novel shine are protagonist Corso, the privacy-obsessed former New York Times star, and Ford's wry observations about life in America's damp caffeine capital ("Much like the weather, nobody talked about the traffic anymore. Sitting for hours breathing catalytic converter fumes had become such a fact of life that taking notice was now considered positively rural").
Hope to Die
Some authors (Robert B. Parker and Sara Paretsky come immediately to mind) are reluctant to allow their series protagonists the characteristically human weaknesses of age and change. But not Lawrence Block. When he introduced Matthew Scudder back in the 1970s, Scudder was a drunken ex-New York cop basking in self-pity, who tithed 10 percent of his investigative fees to churches in hopes of atoning for his accidental shooting of a young Hispanic girl. However, since coming to grips with his life in Eight Million Ways to Die (1983), Scudder has become a legit P.I., married his former call-girl girlfriend and become a more sober (in more ways than one) critic of modern society. The subsequent stories have lost some of their "downer" edge, which may disappoint a good number of longtime fans, but allows the rest of us to enjoy Scudder's exploits without slipping into despondency. Yet Matt Scudder -- now 62 years old -- remains a fine guide to his city's dark side. Hope to Die has him probing the murder of a wealthy Manhattan couple, Byrne and Susan Hollander, who had the misfortune to interrupt a burglary. The housebreakers are later found dead, and the police rule their fate a murder-suicide. But Scudder isn't so sure, being drawn into the case by suspicions that the Hollanders' daughter is at the root of these tragedies. What follows is a smartly constructed plot that leads our instincts-trusting hero to an unexpected and unexpectedly nefarious third party.
Whether Robert Crais will ever return to his fine series about Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole (L.A. Requiem, Sunset Express, etc.), now that he's making a bigger name for himself with standalones, is anyone's guess. His first non-Elvis offering, Demolition Angel (2000), about the efforts of bomb squad technician Carol Starkey to defuse a sequence of malevolently targeted explosions, proved that Crais doesn't need the crutch of a regular protagonist to carry his stories. In Hostage, the lead role falls to still another main character, damaged just like Starkey, yet very different: former LAPD SWAT hostage negotiator Jeff Talley. Having burnt out in the big city, Talley has fled to the job of chief of police in an affluent California bedroom community. But after a trio of toughs botch their robbery of a convenience store, then hold up in a local residence, taking its accountant owner, Walter Smith, and his two children prisoner, a resistant Talley is called in to settle the standoff. It won't be easy, especially since Smith works for the Mob and keeps in his home sensitive records of criminal activity. Further complicating the situation: Mob honchos kidnap Chief Talley's own wife and daughter and make it clear that his family's survival depends on their acquiring Smith's records before the cops do. While it's a bit thick with action-movie clichés, Hostage remains a smart and rapid-fire thriller.
The Hunting Wind
Ever-reluctant detective Alex McKnight is surprised when his old baseball buddy, Randy Wilkins, turns up in the remote northern Michigan town of Paradise. It's been 30 years since McKnight last talked with this left-handed pitcher, with whom he played in the minor leagues before Wilkins moved on to a disastrous stint with the Detroit Tigers. But Wilkins hasn't come to McKnight's stomping grounds just to swap baseball yarns; he wants his former teammate's help in tracking down a woman named Maria Valeska, the comely daughter of a fortune teller, who Wilkins met during his Detroit days. Wilkins' own efforts to locate the mysterious love of his life have been less than successful, and he's hoping McKnight's experience as a Motor City cop will improve the odds. But Maria's family greets the men with hostility, Wilkins is shot, and as McKnight follows a series of leads to a small resort town, he realizes that Maria's motives for staying hidden and Wilkins' purpose in finding her are both deceptive.
Infringing on Steve Hamilton's northern Michigan territory, author Heywood debuts his new "woods cop" mystery series. The central character in Ice Hunter is Grady Service, a former Marine and conservation officer whose lifestyle often seems just slightly better than a bear's. But he is a hell of a tracker and a passionate protector of the woods in which he has worked and lived for so long. Much of this novel reads like a day-in-the-life account of what it's like to enforce the laws against illegal hunting and fishing. And most of the story runs it course before you realize the source of Heywood's title. However, Ice Hunter shows nice sparkle in its writing and real concern on the part of the author to fully flesh out his characters. (Certainly the oddest ones are members of a grubby backwoods clan, who spend most of their time either poaching or propagating through incest.) Service grows on you little by little, becoming more interesting as he takes on first one girlfriend, then a more interesting substitute. The episodes and motivations are expertly concocted. All in all, a very satisfying read, deserving of a sequel.
Kisses of Death
Fans of the 1988 short-story collection Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration (reissued last year by ibooks) will likely remember Max Allan Collins' contribution, "The Perfect Crime" -- in which Marlowe "solved" the 1935 death of actress/restaurateur Thelma Todd -- as among the book's most compelling reads. Somewhat tougher in tone than most of that collection's entries, the LA-based story might well have starred Collins' own period private eye, Nathan Heller. And now it does. In Kisses of Death, the second Heller "casebook" -- after Dying in the Post-War World (1991) -- the tale appears only slightly altered, with Heller taking over the investigative role. Of the six other Heller adventures packed into these pages, the best are those written later in Collins' career: "Shoot-out on Sunset" (in which Heller survives a "hit" on mobster Mickey Cohen), "Screwball" (which finds Heller in Miami, intervening with a club owner on gangster Frank Nitti's behalf) and "Natural Death, Inc." (reuniting Heller with former "Untouchable" Eliot Ness in an undercover operation to curtail a Cleveland insurance scam). The title story has Collins' Chicago-based gumshoe working for Marilyn Monroe in the mid-1950s, while in "Strike Zone," he gets involved in the death of the only midget ever to play big-league baseball.
Actor Antoine Dubois has died in pre-Revolutionary Paris, supposedly during a murder-suicide involving his mistress. But Dubois' stepdaughter, Anne Cartier, a young vaudeville actress and teacher of the deaf in London, doesn't believe it. So, in Charles O'Brien's debut historical novel, she hies off to the European mainland where, with the aid of Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin of the Royal Highway Patrol, she plans to learn what really happened to her beloved relative. O'Brien, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, expertly captures the class struggles that precipitated the French Revolution. But he also gives us, in Cartier, a terrific new addition to the ranks of amateur sleuths, a woman skilled at both acrobatics and imposture.
The Orange Curtain
This might finally be the breakout novel for author Shannon and his series character, Jack Liffey, a former aerospace worker who now makes his living searching for lost children in LA. Even if it's not, this fourth entry in the series (and first hardcover original) still packs a hell of a tale, sending the sentimental Liffey into Orange County's Little Saigon to locate the daughter of a Vietnamese bookseller. In the background bubble the consequences of the Vietnam War and the ethnic politics that shape Southern California. In the foreground, Liffey discovers his young quarry dead, apparently done in by a serial killer, whose own story unfolds for the reader in parallel with Liffey's inquiry. Shannon excels at character creation and action choreography, but he's also worth watching for his sly allusions to other figures and places familiar from American detective fiction.
The steamy and dangerous streets of 1940 New Orleans are fecund breeding grounds for crime -- as Wesley Farrell is well aware. A mixed-race gambler and former bootlegger, who now operates a Basin Street nightclub when he isn't dogging gangsters and murderers, Farrell is approached in Pale Shadow by a priest who says he is trying to locate one of Farrell's old cronies, Luis Martinez. According to the clergyman, Martinez's mother is dying in El Paso and wants to see her son one more time before she goes. Farrell, intimately familiar with the criminal territory over which Martinez habitually roams, agrees to help track him down. Little does Farrell know, though, what trouble this promise will bring him, for Martinez is a wanted man. He stole counterfeiting plates, designed to print up U.S. currency in $20 and $50 denominations, from a suave racketeer named Santiago "Spanish" Compasso. And Compasso wants those plates badly enough that he has hired an impenitent killer, Dixie Ray Chavez, to retrieve them in any way he can. For Chavez, that means finding the people who know Martinez best and then torturing them for his whereabouts. It's a brutal business, and it won't stop until the plates are returned ...or Wes Farrell and the members of his father's Negro Detective Squad can bring down the conspirators in a phony-money scheme that extends the length of the American South.
If Brigham Bybee thought he could get away from it all after purchasing a motel in remote Kanab, Utah, and concertedly pursuing the affections of Zolene Swapp -- who played a major role in Gates' first Bybee outing, Brigham's Day (2000) -- he was wrong. Not long after the attorney agrees to help prosecute a notorious polygamist named T. Rampton Crowe, he's approached by one of Crowe's six "plural wives," a woman named Chenoya "Mercy" Whiting, who shows up beaten and bloody and claims that Crowe murdered her lover. The charge is enough to get Bybee's attention, and to convince him that Mercy needs protecting. But he makes the mistake of stashing her in the same place where he's already hidden Faith, another of Crowe's wives and Brig's original witness in the polygamy trial. When, shortly thereafter, Faith is found dead and Mercy vanishes, the supposition is that Mercy had been a player in Crowe's game, revealing Faith's whereabouts. Brig -- under attack by both the press and a longtime rival, and even fielding criticism from his employers, who'd wanted to prosecute Crowe only as a show of Utah's intolerance of "backward behavior" -- is left to sort justice from a series of interlocking criminal puzzles. Although Sister Wife challenges credibility at times, the Mormon angle gives it novelty, the story's link to this winter's Olympics gives the book timeliness, and anyone who remembers fondly Robert Irvine's earlier series about Salt Lake City private eye Moroni Traveler (Called Home, Gone to Glory, etc.) should be pleased to find good use being made again of the colorful Utah backdrop.
Tender Is LeVine
On the mend after a bout with depression, 1950s Manhattan P.I. Jack LeVine is hired by Fritz Stern, a German-born violinist with the NBC (Radio) Symphony Orchestra, who believes that his company's octogenarian conductor, Arturo Toscanini, has been kidnapped and replaced by an exact double. Ridiculous? LeVine thinks so, until Stern is killed and an NBC exec confirms that Toscanini is being ransomed for $3 million. With Stern's stunningly sculpted daughter in tow, the peeper sets off to locate the real maestro, a task that will take him all the way to a new gambling mecca called Las Vegas and throw him into the company of gangsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Frequently comic, yet not straying too far from the traditions of postwar detective fiction, Tender Is LeVine shows that Bergman (who introduced his Jewish private eye in 1974's The Big Kiss-off of 1944) hasn't lost his novel-writing chops since turning primarily to moviemaking (Honeymoon in Vegas, Striptease, etc.).
Water of Death
Set in the independent city-state of Edinburgh in 2025, Water of Death finds wisecracking P.I. Quintilian Dalrymple sweating through a particularly steamy summer and, simultaneously, trying to figure out who's poisoning local citizens with contraband whiskey. His investigation isn't helped at all by the nervousness of Edinburgh's governing body, the Council of City Guardians, which worries that poisoning deaths will decimate the local tourist trade. Nor is it made easier by the fact that Quint's former lover, dissident Katharine Kirkwood, has come back just in time to become a suspect in these murders -- the chief suspect, if Dalrymple's present female companion, the burg's highest-ranking medical officer, has anything to say about it. While the novelty of Johnston's series has worn down some since his first installment, Body Politic, saw print in 1996, Water of Death still stands out for its deftly drawn characters and ability to mislead readers, to make them think they know where the plot is headed ... and then shift gears entirely. (By the time you reach the end of Chapter 19, you'll have no doubt of Johnston's skill at this.) Like Ian Rankin, Johnston presents an Edinburgh that is lashed alternately by hope and torment, a place always worth revisiting.
The Whitechapel Conspiracy
The very bedrock of Britain's monarchy seems imperiled in Anne Perry's 21st Thomas Pitt novel. After his testimony relegates a celebrated soldier to the gallows for murdering a traveler and antiquarian, the soldier's high-ranking friends contrive to remove Inspector Pitt from his command of Bow Street station. He is assigned, instead, to go undercover in the indigent London quarter of Spitalfields, which is supposedly rife with anarchist activity in that year, 1892. Although Pitt seems resigned to this exile, his wife, Charlotte, and their maid, Gracie -- with help from Gracie's diffident suitor, Sergeant Samuel Tellman -- determine to clear the inspector's name. It's a mission that will not only unearth a wide-ranging plot to end the monarchy, but connect this conspiracy to the devilish doings of Jack the Ripper. Perry is to be commended for shedding light on the poorer side of London, and also for making good use of Gracie and Tellman, who play the most interesting parts in this drama, revealing more of themselves in the process.
The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders
The winner of Australia's coveted Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel, Browne's debut story centers on a much-decorated but soon-to-retire Roman cop named D.P. Anders. Comparisons to the works of Michael Dibdin are not inappropriate, both because of the elegant writing here and because The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders, like Dibdin's 1999 novel, Blood Rain, involves the Italian Mafia. Anders is sent to an unidentified city in southern Italy, where he's basically supposed to rubber stamp a halfhearted probe into the assassination of an anti-Mafia judge. Not the toughest of assignments -- and perfect for Anders, a former hero who long ago lost a limb to left-wing terrorists and has since lost his investigative drive, beaten into complacency by the overwhelming corruption around him. But when the judge's widow convinces him to at least attempt to pin her husband's death properly on the Mafia, Anders discovers he hasn't completely lost his interest in justice. Browne dexterously captures his protagonist's philosophical reinvigoration and the moral ambiguities that underpin his plot. Good news: a sequel is already in the works.
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.