Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by Ruth Rendell, H.R.F. Keating and Jack Bludis • Readers rate the latest releases from David Cray, Karin Slaughter, John Connolly, Edna Buchanan and others • Patricia Cornwell invites a defamation suit with her Jack the Ripper book, a Santa's sack full of Christmastime crimes, and more news from the world of mystery • Plus: Harlan Coben and Linda Fairstein are among the nominees for the 2002 Nero Wolfe Award
Pierce's Picks for December
Breakout (Mysterious Press), by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). The 22nd adventure for master thief Parker finds him behind bars, after a pharmaceutical heist goes bust. While awaiting arraignment, he brews up escape plans with help from a pair of fellow inmates and his sometimes-partner, Ed Mackey. Their efforts to flee prove both frustrating and thrilling.
Curtains of Blood (Leisure Books), by Robert J. Randisi. Jack the Ripper is back (as if he'd ever been allowed to escape this genre), this time not only to terrorize 1888 London but to bedevil theater manager Bram Stoker, whose production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is closed when cops suspect that its star may be the notorious killer. To preserve his livelihood, Stoker sets out on a dark quest to unmask "Bloody Jack."
Fat Ollie's Book (Simon & Schuster), by Ed McBain. After filling minor roles in McBain's 87th Precinct novels, bigoted yet likable Ollie Weeks finally catches a case of his own: a probe into the murder of a leading mayoral candidate, only days before the election. But while he's off digging through the crime scene, someone light-fingers the only copy of Ollie's unfinished mystery novel from his car -- a book the thief believes outlines a real crime, which he intends to cash in on, too.
Flash Flood (Poisoned Pen Press), by Susan Slater. Insurance investigator Dan Mahoney arrives in Tatum, New Mexico, to check out claims involving several prize-winning cattle. But the small town harbors much bigger troubles, brought into focus by the flash flood death of pilot Eric Linden -- an "accident" that may be something more. The deeper Mahoney looks into this affair, the more he starts to suspect almost everyone in southern New Mexico. Slater is the author of the Ben Pecos series (Pumpkin Seed Massacre, Yellow Lies and Thunderbird).
Jimmy Bench-Press (Carroll & Graf), by Charlie Stella. Endeavoring to establish his creds with the New York-New Jersey Mafia, ex-con Jimmy Mangino muscles in on various sleazy scams, always more concerned with making some quick dough than with the body count he leaves behind. But he also attracts the notice of Organized Crime cops Alex Pavlik and John DeNafria, a pair with problems of their own. This fast-moving but violent work is Stella's second novel, after Eddie's World (2001).
Much Ado About Murder (Forge), by Simon Hawke. In their third joint escapade (after The Slaying of the Shrew), thespian sleuths Symington "Tuck" Smythe and William Shakespeare -- temporarily bereft of stage work, due to the Plague -- tackle the case of a young London craftsman who has allegedly murdered a prosperous merchant during an argument over the latter's fetching daughter, to whom the craftsman is betrothed.
Not Quite Kosher (Forge), by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Jewish Chicago policeman Abe Lieberman has his hands full with crises, one more vexing than the last. He's got a guy confessing to a murder that didn't happen; a gang of delinquents who might be responsible for a couple of floating corpses; and a partner, Bill Hanrahan, who has impulsively decided to marry his Chinese fiancée, a woman also admired by an Asian crime boss.
The Plague Lord (Headline UK), by Paul Doherty. When 13th-century Chinese ruler Kublai Khan needs help to discern what's behind a variety of odd visions and killings throughout his empire, who does he call for counsel and assistance? Why, Marco Polo, if he can. But will even this renowned Venetian explorer be able to stop the leaders of a demonic sect before they can let loose a legendary Plague Lord? This is new historical territory for the prolific Doherty, but he handles it with his usual eye for intrigue and attention to detail. By the way, this British author's 2001 novel, Corpse Candle -- the 12th installment of his series about medieval detective Sir Hugh Corbett -- is also scheduled to be released this month in the States, by St. Martin's Minotaur.
New and Noteworthy
One cannot help but admire Ruth Rendell's ability to capture and maintain reader interest, through both her use of subtle misdirection and her attention to what one critic termed (with a smile, no doubt) "ordinary derangement." In her series about Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, she eschews modern crime fiction's rather rote expositions of gore and focuses instead on the progressive disintegration of the status quo and how communities deal with folks who have been propelled toward the margins of society, either by external pressures or internal instability. These books aren't overrun with cinematic action or overtly sanguinary players; their appeal stems, instead, from Wexford's interaction with suspects, how he perceives their prevarications and potential for abnormal behavior. Rendell's plots are knotty, and the clues necessary to resolve them frequently linguistic. While this final fact may inspire comparisons with Agatha Christie and other Golden Age authors, Rendell's concern for the realistic development of characters and settings marks her clearly as a post-World War II mystery maker.
Late November has brought torrential downpours to Kingsmarkham, the tiny (and fictional) British town where Wexford lives with his wife, Dora. "There hadn't been anything like it in this part of Sussex in living memory -- not, at least, in his memory ...," Wexford muses. "[T]he water lay a foot, two feet, in places three feet, deep. In St. Peters churchyard the tops of tombstones pierced a grey, rain-punctured lake like rocks showing above the surface of the sea. And still it rained." As if missing-persons cases weren't hard enough, this persistent precipitation is making matters more desperate. It seems that Roger and Katrina Dade returned home from a weekend in Paris, to find their 15-year-old son, Giles, and his 13-year-old sister, Sophie, gone without explanation. Also AWOL is Katrina's "absolutely dearest closest friend," Joanna Troy, who'd agreed to look after the children in their parents' absence. The guilt-ridden Katrina is sure that all three have been sucked away by flood waters, a possibility given weight by the finding a discarded T-shirt that bears Sophie Dade's name and likeness. But Wexford surmises a more nefarious explanation, especially as Joanna's car is also gone, along with coats owned by both of the children. Could the sitter, a former teacher, have kidnapped the Dade offspring?
The Wexford novels aren't your standard police procedurals, though their storylines are credibly constructed and they show a certain amount of law-enforcement routine. While other members of Kingsmarkham Crime Management, such as Detective Constable Lynn Fancourt and Wexford's assistant, Inspector Mike Burden, contribute to the mass of information collected in every case, it's Wexford around whom Rendell's sequences of events really turn. He's a mass of intriguing contradictions -- erudite, without being pedantic; "liberal, compassionate, sensitive, well-read and at the same time," the author writes, "ribald, derisive, sardonic and flippant about serious things." And he commands the centerstage like any seasoned actor, playing along or prodding when necessary. In Babes, we find Wexford patiently interviewing members of a chauvinistic religious order with which Giles was involved; grilling the hen-pecked owner of an estate where evidence vital to the investigation is unearthed; digesting rumors about Joanna Troy's run-ins with her erstwhile pupils; and, as the weeks roll on with no sign of the missing teens, trying to keep their increasingly obnoxious parents apprised of the case's progress (or lack thereof). In a slow-building subplot, we also watch Wexford at home, struggling to accept his daughter Sylvia's insufferable new boyfriend ("good-looking but neither clever nor a conversationalist").
The 72-year-old Rendell writes in an elegant yet not overwrought prose, with unforced moments of humor arising naturally from character interactions. And she lards her story with red herrings and seemingly trifling discoveries -- such as that of a loose dental crown in the Dades' entryway -- all dropped with deceptive disregard, leading as sure as breadcrumbs to her solution. Yes, there are a few dubious leaps made in these pages (such as Wexford's sudden discernment, upon waking one morning, of the location of Joanna's missing car), and as often happens in the Wexford tales, this novel's startling conclusion arrives without fireworks or fright -- the sorts of turns that readers have come to expect from younger crime fictionists, especially Americans. (Readers looking for yarns more dependent on psychological suspense might check out the standalones, such as The Blood Doctor, released earlier this year, that Rendell writes under her pseudonym, "Barbara Vine.") But when it comes to delivering head games and exploring the wobbly foundations of modern community, Ruth Rendell is no babe in the woods.
Curvaceous teenage tennis star Barbara "Bubbles" Xingara, "the favorite for the Ladies' trophy at Wimbledon," as Keating explains, has been found dead on the grounds of Adam and Eve House, her Leven Vale estate, stabbed through the throat with an as-yet-unidentified weapon. Due to this victim's prominence and the shorthandedness of the local police force, Detective Superintendent Martens is seconded from adjacent Birchester to take charge of the case. Her best suspect may be a drunk and layabout named Tim Rowley, who's been previously convicted for acts of indecent exposure, and was found about a quarter-mile from the star's home with blood on his attire. However, a number of other folks might just as likely have popped Bubbles, including her secretary, the comically monikered Fiona Diplock, a once-wealthy schoolmate and now the illicit lover of Bubbles' stepfather; Pierre le Fou, a resentful French gangster and certifiable psychopath who "had been the victim of a fierce rejection when he had openly suggested taking Bubbles to his bed"; a spry octogenarian named Patrick Angus Peregrine, whose obsession with the 19-year-old "Brit with a Hit" has caused him to compose grating doggerel in her tribute; and a geeky computer scientist with a trove of Bubbles photos plucked from that great gold mine of compromising pixels, the Internet.
But as she lurches from one promising suspect to the next, practicing her best intimidation techniques to no avail, Martens begins to doubt both her ability to solve the Bubbles puzzle and her fortitude in avoiding a sexual liaison with the more youthful Anselm Brent, a Leven Vale detective of questionable talent, who nonetheless makes the hardened Harriet go soft inside. The suddenness of her attraction to this country constable -- based as it is on a guileless display of his reddened and callused right palm -- demands a suspension of belief; yet the tale could have sustained that twist's impact, were it not for Keating's subsequently redundant reiterations of Martens' girlish infatuation. The author plays about as well as he could with the idea of this unlikely "crush," making it something that endangers Martens' career and marriage; and there's a slapstick scene well into A Detective in Love in which the DS and her junior officer are caught in the throes of lust by a rumormongering colleague. Trouble is, about halfway through the book Keating starts to turn his attention away from the Bubbles Xingara mystery, which got us to that point in the first place, and concentrate instead on the amorous demands of Martens' heart. The plot drags from there on out. Keating manages to restore a modicum of interest every now and then, as he displays Martens' comical impatience toward everyone and everything around her (even her own media-made reputation), but it's not until the story's end that some hard choices are made and we're buoyed again by the possibility of the Bubbles case actually being closed.
Keating, who's probably still best known for his Bombay-based series of Inspector Ghote novels (beginning with The Perfect Murder, 1964), has developed a reputation for experimenting with the conventions of crime fiction. He composed one novel, Jack the Lady Killer (1999), entirely in verse, and a number of his recent standalones have addressed the motives and lifestyles of his sleuths as much as they have crimes. That willingness to test his audience's appetites should be generally applauded. But A Detective in Love is neither one of his more successful experiments nor a satisfying follow-up to Harriet Martens' debut in The Hard Detective (2000). We only hope that in the third installment of this trilogy -- A Detective Under Fire, issued last month in the UK by Pan -- Martens can stay free from the "coils of Aphrodite" long enough to tackle a case that's more revealing of her investigative acumen.
Perhaps because they both operate in a realm of fantasy, Hollywood and the hard-boiled private eye seem made for one another. While the quantity of modern Tinseltown investigations has dropped off since the 1970s, when fictional gumshoes started opening offices in every other corner of the United States, there remains a following for novels about shamuses prowling the neon-washed streets of mid-20th-century Los Angeles. One that P.R. man-turned-P.I. novelist Jack Bludis is hoping to capture.
A year ago, in The Big Switch, he introduced Brian Kane, a Camels-smoking, Ford-driving former flatfoot who -- despite talk of his working the not-so-glitzy side of La-La Land, "where the wannabes wait for fame and fortune behind dreary lunch counters and hat-check lines" -- has so far spent most of his time sniffing around the dirty laundry of the pulchritudinous and powerful. He keeps up that habit in The Deal Killer (Design Image Group), set in 1951. Already on retainer to Regal Pictures, a B-movie studio that specializes in low-budget Westerns featuring actors and actresses who look remarkably like Clark Gable, Lana Turner and other authentic luminaries, Kane is asked by Regal chief Bobby Clarke to take on a blackmail case. Apparently, Hanna Mills, Clarke's Hungarian inamorata and "the second biggest female star on the Regal lot," is being hit up by extortionists, though the studio honcho doesn't know who ... and refuses to say why. Hanna is equally close-mouthed, except to remark that "if I don't give them what they want," they'll serve their smears to local quidnunc-columnist Andrea Anderson. That's not a lot for even a genius detective to go on, and Kane doesn't rank as a genius. However, he has no sooner talked with Hanna than her co-star, handsome Hanes Baxter, takes a slug through the heart on the set of their latest Western.
Although Clarke demands that Kane ignore this murder (and finally fires him when he doesn't), the P.I. figures these two mysteries must be connected. He's just not sure how. Or through whom. However, with some help from model and "call girl by choice" Kitty Chaney, he's determined to find out -- an assignment that will open up a whoppin' can of worms, putting him in the ring against Hungarian mobsters and underground pornographers, and leading to the execution of an escort-cum-starlet, who is found "tied to a chair and dressed to appear like a nun." The Deal Killer reminds me of another small-press Hollywood period novel, released earlier this year: 4-F Blues, by Charles Rubin, which also featured plans to destroy a movie studio and filmmakers who lived behind fragile façades (as well as its own cameo by the great Humphrey Bogart). Both books, too, play their stories partly for humor; but Maryland author Bludis adds to that a layer of unexpected warmth, in the relationship between Kane and Kitty.
Besides, the splendidly contoured Kitty turns out to be a clever and courageous partner in crime-solving, as we see in The Deal Killer's rescue-attempt climax. ("You're terribly nervous for a private eye, do you know that?" she asks Kane as they prepare, on a ruse, to infiltrate an elegant nest of conspirators. "Nervous is what keeps me alive," he replies.) It's too bad that even her distinctive participation will not distract readers from this novel's weaknesses: the Baxter assassination is just one of several plot-driving but wince-worthy coincidences here; even Bobby Clarke can't be arrogant or stupid enough to believe that Kane will do his bidding without asking questions (he is, after all, a detective); and the conclusion depends in part on the hard-to-swallow proposition that one of Hollywood's foremost actresses would consider appearing in a skin flick. Beyond its structural flaws, Bludis' second Brian Kane paperback could have used more conscientious proofreading. (Are publishers so contemptuous of readers' intelligence that they think we won't notice inconsistencies or blundering punctuation?) Yet The Deal Killer nicely captures the atmosphere of postwar L.A., without overdoing pop-culture references, and it doesn't depend egregiously on clichés to maintain its pulp-fiction tone. That makes this a deal that's hard to pass up.
What You Wish For, by David Cray (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler), is a smooth, powerful thriller with handsome hard-bodies striding the streets of New York to run down murderers, pornographers and kidnappers. A sharp eye for details and an authoritative tone -- "David Cray" is the pseudonym of former New York City cop Stephen Solomita -- keep this book credible. The protagonist, attractive police captain Julia Brennan (introduced in Little Girl Blue, 2001), heads the investigative arm of the district attorney's Sex Crimes Unit, where her publicity-hungry and jealous boss, DA Lily Han, can be as dangerous to her career as any slimy suspect. The book opens with Han micromanaging Brennan's investigation into the brutal stabbing death of Adeline Rose, an elderly society matron. But this is no sweet-little-old lady story. Rose, an ex-stripper who married a wealthy businessman, amused herself in her later years by manipulating the family attorney and withholding her late husband's money from her two ne'er-do-well stepchildren. Han, concerned that a prolonged investigation may send the charities that benefit from Rose's will squawking to the mayor, wants to distance her unit from this case. She gives Brennan's team a short deadline to make an arrest -- or else admit defeat and turn the case over to the homicide cops.
Believing Patti is still alive, Foley has constructed an identity for himself as an online purveyor of kiddie porn, hoping to find information that will lead him to her abductors. Now he is hooked up with a pornographer who has a videotape of Patti. And he's nearly killed him.
Fans of Andrew Vachss' writing will glom onto this second plot, one that comes to dominate the book as Brennan, risking her own career, diverts police resources to assist her lover. Cray does a masterful job of pacing his new novel, shifting between the two murder investigations and the kidnapping case, as well as weaving in scenes from Brennan's home life, which involves her daughter, Correy, and her uncle, newspaper columnist Robert Reid. These supporting characters, along with Brennan's investigative team and various players in the porn industry, are quickly and deftly sketched. What You Wish For is a thriller with a refreshingly light touch, and what Cray's readers will wish for is more. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
The cat is back. That's Sam of Sam the Cat Detective (1993), a handsome gray feline who lives in a bookstore and prowls the mean streets of New York's Greenwich Village. In Linda Stewart's The Maltese Kitten (Cheshire House Books), he's hired to find a mysterious little kitten who's been the victim of multiple catnappings. As the book opens, Sam has just wound up a Missing Persian case ("[W]hen I found him, in a little Italian bistro on Lafayette, up to his whiskers in antipasto, he was eager to stay unfound; so I didn't find him and walked away").
Brigid claims that her thoughtless roommate (cat terminology for a pet owner) sold her kitten to someone from an art gallery. Following the trail to the gallery after hours, Sam turns up the supine body of a drugged human and an empty cat carrier. Luckily, an observant calico in the window of The Gypsy Tearoom & Astral Boutique nearby, a paw reader who calls herself Madam Lazonga, spotted the catnapper and points Sam to the seedy hotel where he's holed up. There Sam enlists the help of the house detective, a tough Siamese named Buster, and together they scale the fire escape to the catnapper's room. They find the kitty snatcher in a drunken stupor and the window open just wide enough for a tiny kitten to have escaped into the wintry night. Or was he lured? A discarded mitten and the pop-top lid of a can of cat food indicate that a second catnapper, whom they dub "Mr. Mittens," has coaxed the young Maltese out the window. Sam hurries back to the bookstore where he has an unexpected visitor, a glamorous male Maltese who calls himself Jean-Clawed and claims that the kitten's mother is not Brigid, but instead one Fifi La Belle. Meanwhile, Buster has found Mr. Mittens unconscious in an alley with a goose egg on his head. The kitten seems to have escaped -- or been nabbed -- yet again. Why does everyone want to get their paws on this darn cat?
Author Stewart once again achieves a perfectly cat-centric story. Humans, even the owner of Sam's comfortable bookstore, remain remote, flat figures. The cats, however, are colorful and complex, right down to the vicious neighborhood tom, Slasher, who lives in a pet health food store and be goofily in love with his owner. Sam not only discovers this bully's soft side, he recognizes the owner: Mr. Mittens, the second catnapper, who turns out not to be such a bad guy after all. The plot of The Maltese Kitten meanders along at this distinctly feline pace. No one will ever mistake this book for a thriller, but Sam's hard-boiled narrative is as hypnotizing and pleasurable as a happy purr. -- K.G.A.
Sorry, but I don't get it -- when did writers decide detectives needed interference from beyond the grave to work their cases? It's an irritating device that jars, and pulls the reader out of the story. Not that it's the only problem in this novel -- Connolly leans far too heavily on symbolism and mysticism for my tastes, and revels in what seems at times to amount to a little boy's delight in grossness. There's also an unnecessary prologue -- a meandering bit of mumbo-jumbo about hidden depths, both temporal and spiritual.
But speaking of hidden depths ... Scrape away all the New Age hokum, and The Killing Kind is one of the most captivating, intricately-plotted stories I've read this year -- full of great characters, a compelling hero, a truly nasty villain or two, and a muscular plot that grabs you by the throat and shakes the hell out of you. Looking into the apparent suicide of a young female grad student on behalf of a former U.S. senator, Charlie soon finds himself battling not just his own ghosts but also those of a failed cult and its charismatic leader, who disappeared nearly 40 years earlier. Along the way, we meet Charlie's smart girlfriend, a delightful odd couple of homosexual career criminals, gun dealers, opera-loving gangsters, fundamentalist hit men, anti-abortion militants, and one of the most repellent playfriends you could ever encounter, a nasty slice of pure evil going by the Dickensian moniker of Elias Pudd, who seems to have stepped right out of a Clive Barker novel. And, of course, there are all those dead people.
Somehow, Connolly is able to control this large, unwieldy cast and deliver the goods. There is some heart-stopping violence in his story, some truly wonderful writing and a palpable sense of evil. Connolly is a brave and powerful storyteller. It's a shame he feels the need to gussy up such a strong tale in the shrouds of the supernatural. Let's take it for granted that evil is already here among us -- there's no need to get out the Ouija boards. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Richard Hoyt, a journalist-turned-novelist, has been churning out thrillers for more than 20 years. His books are plush with exotic locations, elaborate political plots, gorgeous women and macho men. Yes, this sounds like the world of Bond, James Bond. But Hoyt's novels lack the careless spirit of Ian Fleming's spy adventures. He's always got a serious agenda to push, and his latest, Old Soldiers Sometimes Lie (Forge), is no exception.
But picking and choosing is about all they do. And sitting in tropical bars having hash sessions does not a thriller make.
Hoyt might have tried to make up for the lack of sustainable plot by creating fuller characters, but he drew outlines and little else. Kobayashi is given no precise motivation for wishing to clear her grandfather, much less a description (other than being "good-looking in addition to being smart"). Smith is supposed to be a smart guy too, but he drops everything upon meeting Kobayashi and follows her to the Philippines with the winning line, "I've always found Asian women attractive." This book's male characters in general are preoccupied with squinting their eyes, digging at their crotches and spitting on the ground like so many baseball players.
Fictional attempts at solving real mysteries are not rare, and can be quite polished; Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, about the historical Richard III, is one of the better-known examples. But such attempts make a dual demand on the writer's skill at verisimilitude: making a convincing factual case, and placing it within a believable fictional framework. In the case of Old Soldiers Sometimes Lie, Hoyt tries to pass off rumor as fact, and an anemic cast in a lackluster plot as thrilling. It's a tall tale that doesn't hold up under its own dead weight. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
For Miami News reporter Britt Montero, the discovery of a body stuck in the ceiling of a jewelry store is pretty much routine. The would-be thief attempted to burgle the store one time too many and fell victim to its owner's homemade electrical burglar trap, which worked a little too effectively. What makes this crime unique is that Britt's friend, cold case detective Craig Burch, recognizes the corpse as that of a suspect from a long-ago rape and murder investigation. Thus begins former Miami Herald journalist Edna Buchanan's eighth Britt Montero mystery, The Ice Maiden (Morrow).
When members of the Cold Case Squad are ordered, unexpectedly, not to launch another probe into the Chance-Hartley assaults, they turn to Britt for help. She agrees to poke her nose into this case -- despite the fact that it places her in direct conflict with the squad's lieutenant, K.C. Riley. (Both women, it seems, have an interest in homicide cop Kendall MacDonald, Britt's longtime on-and-off boyfriend.) As Britt digs into the Chance-Hartley case, she realizes that it left more than one victim behind. Detective Burch's marriage was nearly destroyed in the aftermath. Although Sunny survived, her brother still wallows in anger and resentment for being ignored by his parents, and Sunny herself has become the reclusive "Ice Maiden" of this book's title, a sculptress as chilly as the frozen material she carves. Sunny refuses to cooperate with a new investigation into her teenage trauma, preferring to put that experience as far behind her as possible. As the Cuban-American reporter closes in on the truth of the events from 14 years ago, she not only threatens to expose dark secrets and destroy comfortable lives, but risks her own career and existence, as well.
Buchanan's novels are known for their black humor and bizarre crimes -- the kind that could only happen in Miami. Her earlier books (including You Only Die Twice, 2001) were stocked with studies of eccentric and empathic characters, but those sorts of vignettes are featured less often in The Ice Maiden, as Britt focuses her attention on Sunny, herself a fascinating and confusing figure. Her investigation moves quickly and in a direction that few readers will anticipate. In these pages, Buchanan also brings back some of her crowd-pleasing regulars, such as the man-hunting photographer, Lottie Dane; the incompetent and back-stabbing editor, Gretchen Platt; and the extremely unlucky reporter, Ron Battle, who in past books has been hit in the head with a brick during a riot and lost at sea while reporting on the Cuban refugee "experience." Buchanan masterfully describes police personalities and procedures, and Britt has one of the few positive reporter-police relationships in modern crime lit. Although her final twist can be spotted a mile in advance, The Ice Maiden still stands out as a riveting mystery, one to enhance the reputation of its Pulitzer Prize-winning author. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow
Joan Hess can always be counted on to make the absurd seem plausible, whether in her Maggody series or in the lighthearted adventures of Farberville, Arkansas, bookstore owner Claire Malloy. She proves her reliability as an entertainer again in the latest Malloy installment, Out on a Limb (St. Martin's Minotaur).
While contemplating her on-and-off relationship with by-the-book police lieutenant Peter Rosen, Claire sees a news report featuring retired schoolteacher Emily Parchester. Miss Parchester appears to be protesting a land-development project by staging a sit-in at the top of a tree. Claire, who had previously helped this same elderly woman in Dear Miss Demeanor (1987) and Roll Over and Play Dead (1991), fears that Miss Parchester may have again lost her senses. After being dubiously reassured by the woman's claims that a heart attack or stroke would bring some much-needed publicity to the Green Party, Claire returns home to face yet another impending crisis. Left on her doorstep is Skyler, the baby boy she helped a runaway teenage girl to deliver and then send on to a shelter (in A Conventional Corpse, 2000). Feeling responsible for the fates of both son and mother, and unwilling to abandon this infant to social workers, Claire enlists the aid of her temperamental teenage daughter, Caron, in a conspiracy to hide the infant -- which results in no end of embarrassment for Caron, as rumors circulate that she is Skyler's mother.
When ruthless developer Anthony Armstrong is found shot to death beneath Miss Parchester's tree, and Skyler's real mother is arrested, Claire believes she has no choice but to investigate. With Caron, her best friend, Inez Thornton, and Claire's friend Luanne Bradshaw alternating as baby sitters, Claire goes on the hunt for people who had the most reasons for wanting Armstrong dead. Suspects include the Green Party's leader, whose sister was burned in one of Armstrong's faulty projects; Armstrong's child bride; and the ex-wife whose inheritance he stole. Claire's efforts to find the killer have her sipping tea while sitting at the top of a tree, posing as an attorney to visit a prisoner, and even planning the dead man's funeral reception.
Many authors find it difficult to impart plausibility to their amateur detectives' forays. But Hess is exceptionally talented at making the ridiculous realistic, at the same time as she makes it clear why Claire Malloy's boyfriend should occasionally feel like strangling her. Readers will sympathize with this book-selling sleuth as she throws herself into the hunt for a murderer and will giggle at her frustration with folks who refuse to instantly confess their crimes. The dialogue in Out on a Limb is breezy and witty, with the story's mystery oriented more toward character than plot. -- C.C.
You get the hint that Kisscut (Morrow) is going to be an extraordinary ride in the very first chapter, when a 13-year-old girl practically begs police chief Jeffrey Tolliver to shoot her. The girl is threatening the life of another teenager, a 16-year-old boy. She tells Tolliver to make the decision: shoot her or, if he does not, she will shoot the boy, then herself. "With that," writes author Karin Slaughter, "she lifted the Beretta toward the boy's head. Jeffrey watched as she spread her feet apart to a shoulder-width stance and cupped the butt of the gun with her free hand. Her posture was that of a young woman who knew how to hold a weapon."
That scene is typical of Slaughter's writing in Kisscut, her second novel (after Blindsighted, 2001). It is taut, tense and almost unbearably fast-paced; yet, on closer scrutiny, it doesn't hold up to the light.
Slaughter's fortes are characterization and setting. Kisscut takes place in a small town in Alabama during the steamy season, and she brings us with her. You practically feel the sweat between your shoulder blades and suffer under the fetid air. Likewise, her characters are believable: likable when they're meant to be, detestable when they're not. Kisscut features an ensemble cast: three main players are concerned with bringing down a child pornography ring that they stumble across, piece by sorry piece, after Tolliver is forced to take out the girl in that opening chapter. Tolliver is even-tempered, a good and caring sheriff who's divorced from Dr. Sara Linton, the town's pediatrician and part-time medical examiner (though the couple are reconsidering their options). The last piece of this crime-solving triumvirate is Lena Adams, a detective recovering from the extreme personal trauma of being raped and physically abused and, in an unrelated turn of events, having lost her twin sister. Lena is in some ways crazier than some of the crazies she's chasing, her backstory seems deeper than that of the other two and she is by far the most interesting character.
Kisscut's theme is so dark and distasteful and Slaughter's writing so crisp and energetic that the pages fly by. It's an engrossing book, at least while you're reading it. Only afterward do you realize that, for instance, there was nothing in that 13-year-old's background to give her experience with a gun: not even a father. Or that the book's well-drawn inhabitants often act out of character, or that pieces you thought were going to be important to the story end up being dead ends.
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In the News
Val McDermid talks with the thoughtful Webzine Salon about her creative debt to Sara Paretsky, the reason why modern Brits look down on their homegrown private eyes, and how to avoid fetishizing serial killers. Read more.
Excellent news: After being unceremoniously dumped by his previous, big-time publisher a couple of years back, Shamus Award-winning novelist Richard Barre has been picked up by smaller, Southern California-based Capra Press and has a new Wil Hardesty novel (his first since Blackheart Highway, 1999) due out in April 2003. The new book is called Burning Moon. Read more.
Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist Dana Stabenow, Laurie R. King talks about the inspiration for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries; how Allen Carmichael, the "ghost" from Folly, earned a standalone novel of his own (Keeping Watch, due out in March 2003); and the odiferous interlopers who once made merry in her laundry room. Read more.
As decorative lights and ornament-hung trees go up, in anticipation of Christmas, what better way to get in the spirit of this season than to read some Christmas-related mysteries? On its Web site, Massachusetts' Lucius Beebe Memorial Library offers a simple list of 74 possibilities, everything from Nancy Atherton's Aunt Dimity's Christmas to Deck the Halls With Murder, by Valerie Wolzien. Read more. For greater detail about 11 holiday titles that will distract you from present-wrapping, check out Terry Frey Weingart's suggestions at Suite 101.com. Read more. The same site also offers a rundown of more recent Christmas novels, including Rest You Merry, by Charlotte MacLeod, and Sarah Graves' Wreck the Halls. Read more. Or look ahead to 2003 with a tally of New Year's-related crime novels, which run the gamut from Loren D. Estleman's Stress to Fountain of Death, by Jane Haddam. Read more.
And the ardent philosophizing over the masculinity and meaning of James Bond continues! The New Yorker presents a fine, occasionally funny retrospective on the evolution -- good and not so -- of the Bond movies. Read more. The Boston Globe features a thoughtful assessment of author Ian Fleming's literary legacy. Read more. Meanwhile, The New York Times assesses the rising and falling fortunes of Bond's fictional CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter. Read more (free registration required).
Nominees for the 2002 Nero Wolfe Award have been announced by the Wolfe Pack, a New York-based fan club. This commendation is given out annually to the novel that members think best reflects the Nero Wolfe tradition in detective fiction. Their latest nominees are:
Tell No One, by Harlan Coben (Delacorte)
This year's winner will be announced during the Black Orchid Banquet, to be held on December 7 in New York City. Previous recipients of the Nero Wolfe Award include Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Aaron Elkins and Martha Grimes. For more information about the Nero Wolfe Award, go to the Wolfe Pack Home.
"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by crime fiction editor J. Kingston Pierce. Authors and publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.
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