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January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, September 2004


Edited by J. Kingston Pierce

IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • Fall fiction from Robert Ferrigno, Anne Perry, Steve Hamilton, Karin Slaughter, Benjamin M. Schutz, Margaret Coel and many others • Anthony Horowitz turns to adult comic thrillers; Jim Fusilli bends the detective series to his own demands; women prefer a spin with crime-reading gents, and more news from the world of mystery • Plus: nominees for this year's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and the Southern California Booksellers Awards

Pierce's Picks for September

Absent Friends (Delacorte), by S.J. Rozan. In her first standalone, the author of the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith detective series (Winter and Night) spins a moving story out of the ashes of the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. Jimmy McCaffery, a decorated captain with the New York City Fire Department who perished when those twin towers collapsed, has since been lionized. But when a newspaper alleges connections between McCaffery and a Staten Island organized crime figure, it sets off a chain of deaths and disappointments that affect not only the late firefighter's closest childhood friends, but also the once-renowned newspaperman responsible for unearthing the McCaffery scandal and his much younger lover, reporter Laura Stone.

Before the Frost (Harvill Press UK), by Henning Mankell. Obviously inspired by the 1978 mass suicide among preacher Jim Jones' worshippers in the South American nation of Guyana, Mankell's new novel imagines a similar scene of death -- except that one of the cultists escapes. Subsequently, in the woods outside Ystad, Sweden, police discover a severed head and a Bible beside the victim's body, the book crammed with handwritten changes. Coming in the wake of violence committed against animals, Inspector Kurt Wallander fears this brutality might lead to further attacks on humans. But it will be up to his daughter, Linda (who's just joining the Ystad force), to find out for certain, as she confronts extremists anxious to punish sinners of all sizes and stripes.

Chaucer and the House of Fame (Carroll & Graf), by Philippa Morgan. Poet Geoffrey Chaucer is sent to France in 1370, at the height of the Hundred Years War, to persuade a nobleman to remain loyal to the English king. After that aristocrat is slain, Chaucer finds himself a suspect, and must turn fugitive and sleuth in order to win his exit from this dangerous, foreign land.

The First Cut (Dark Alley), by Peter Robinson. Originally published in Britain in 1990 as Caedmon's Song, this tense, well-constructed tale follows Martha Browne, a woman determined to have her revenge on the "Student Slasher," a man who had brutalized her and left her for dead. Paralleling this story is that of Kirsten, a university student following her own path toward physical and mental healing.

Hard, Hard City (Putnam), by Jim Fusilli. Following on the heels of Tribeca Blues, one of January's favorite books of 2003, this fourth entry in the Terry Orr series finds the occasional detective doing a job for his precocious daughter, Bella, who's worried about a gifted student who has suddenly vanished. As Orr confronts violence and family secrets, he must also contend with reminders of his own difficult youth and deal with Bella, who is wanting more distance from him.

Melancholy Baby (Putnam), by Robert B. Parker. Returning to one of his most familiar themes -- young people in trouble -- Parker focuses this fourth novel starring Boston private eye Sunny Randall on a 21-year-old trust-fund kid, Sarah Markham, who suspects her parents aren't really related to her at all, and wants to know for sure. Though she doesn't really want the case (she's distracted by having to deal with the news that her ex-husband, Richie Burke, is marrying another woman), Sunny eventually expose the secrets not only in Sarah's father's past, but also in the history of a holier-than-thou radio celeb. Dr. Susan Silverman, familiar from Parker's Spenser series, drops in to help the not-so-sunny Ms. Randall get through it all.

The Midnight Band of Mercy (Soho Press), by Michael Blaine. Set in 1893 Manhattan, this engagingly atmospheric novel follows struggling reporter Max Greengrass as, following a trail of strangled cats, he unearths a far more devious plot by progressive preachers to commit murder for profit. Fans of John MacLachlan Gray's The Fiend in Human (2003) will find Blaine's yarn similarly satisfying.

Monkology (Dennis McMillan), by Gary Phillips. Readers who've missed Los Angeles P.I. Ivan Monk (not seen much since the novel Only the Wicked, 2000) will want to track down this collection of 13 stories, most (like "Through the Fog Softly," in which Monk's father is introduced) adding welcome depth to the character of this black sleuth.

The Romanov Prophecy (Ballantine), by Steve Berry. From the author of last year's The Amber Room comes this second Russian thriller, building around a plan to restore the Romanov dynasty to power after almost nine decades, in hopes that a new tsar will bring security and economic strength back to the country. But Miles Lord, the African-American lawyer from Atlanta who has been hired to vet the new tsar, soon realizes that this Romanov claimant is thoroughly corrupt, and that if he's to help Russia find a better future, it will require his discovering whether any children of the assassinated Tsar Nicholas II escaped execution in 1918.

The Silent and the Damned (HarperCollins UK), by Robert Wilson. A supposed suicide pact, involving the wealthy owner of a Spanish construction company and his "crazy" wife, draws Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, head of the Seville Police Department's homicide division, to one of his city's more exclusive suburbs. But anomalies at the scene -- including a cryptic note in the dead man's hand -- lead Falcón to question the circumstances of these deaths, and to ask whether they are connected to an incursion of Russian mafiya into Seville and an actor's son incarcerated for a shocking crime. This sequel to British novelist Wilson's The Blind Man of Seville (2003) will be released by Harcourt in the States in January 2005, but retitled The Vanished Hands.

Skin River (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Steve Sidor. Former armed robber Buddy Bayes is trying to go straight in the small town of Gunnar, Wisconsin. But his accidental discovery of a severed hand puts him squarely in the local sheriff's sights, and forces him to safeguard his loved ones, even as he dodges a vengeful former partner and wonders whether one of his friends is behind the recent carnage.

The Thief Taker (Bantam Press UK), by Janet Gleeson. Agnes Meadowes, cook to a family of London silversmiths in the 1750s, finds her world upset after a giant silver wine cooler is stolen, a young apprentice is murdered and a maid goes missing. Are these events connected? Agnes' master wants to know, and assigns her to investigate "below stairs," a task that will reveal previously hidden jealousies and other secrets, and propel her into the depths of London's underworld. From the acclaimed author of The Grenadillo Box (2002).

A Watery Grave (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Joan Druett. In the premiere installment of a new historical series, New Zealand author Druett (In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon) introduces William "Wiki" Coffin Jr., the half-Maori son of a New England sea captain, who is serving as a "linguister" with the infamous 1838-42 United States South Seas Exploring Expedition. Mistakenly suspected, just before the fleet sails, of involvement in murdering the wealthy daughter-in-law of a Virginia plantation owner, Wiki continues to pursue the real killer at sea -- an investigation that will lead him to confront a brutal ship's commander and put his best friend at mortal risk. In addition to some fine characterizations, A Watery Grave is awash in maritime color. Where else will you learn how to load and fire a cannon?

New and Noteworthy

In the beginning there was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Then came Roger L. Simon's The Big Fix and Andrew Bergman's The Big Kiss-Off of 1944. Now, thriller writer Robert Ferrigno delivers a consuming, edgy tale of deliberate payback and unintended consequences that might well have been called The Big Whoops. But instead, it's titled The Wake-Up (Pantheon). The protagonist here is Frank Thorpe, a 40-year-old former member of the "Delta Force warrior elite," now a covert operator, who has recently been canned from his espionage "shop" because of a fouled-up sting that left his lady friend dead and a murderous arms dealer, the Engineer, at large. Still suffused with grief and anger, Thorpe decides to wing off for a Miami vacation. But while he's waiting for his plane at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thorpe watches a power-suited businessman, "a real hard charger," wield his crocodile briefcase like a weapon against a "sweet-faced" young Hispanic hawker, sending the boy "stumbling backward onto the floor, blood streaming down his face." This cavalier injustice, heaped atop his own professional mortification, convinces the lonerish Thorpe to humiliate the hard charger for his bad manners.

"Thorpe was just going to give him a wake-up," Ferrigno explains early in the book. "That's what they called it in the shop when you wanted to send a message, a love tap to prod a source, to remind a restless contact of his vulnerability. ... Thorpe just wanted to get the hard charger's attention, to show him how quickly the storm clouds could roll in on his sunny world. Just a little wake-up."

Thorpe employs his spy skills to identify that hard charger as Douglas Meachum, the proprietor of a Laguna Beach art gallery, then formulates a scheme -- "one that required the minimum of detail work and the maximum of bravado" -- to disgrace the man. Passing himself off as a U.S. State Department investigator looking into the illegal importation of antiquities, Thorpe convinces one of Meachum's testiest patrons, social-climber Missy Riddenhauser, that the gallery owner has bilked her out of $125,000 for a bogus Mayan wall plaque. After word of this supposed scam reaches a local gossip columnist, Missy is furious -- not only because it makes her and her younger husband, surfer-turned-designer pharmaceuticals maker Clark Riddenhauser, look like hicks among the highborn, but because this duping might embolden their most dangerous drug-dealing competitor to take them out of the game. Permanently. When Missy's under-appreciated brother, Cecil, decides that these circumstances give him an opening to prove his worth, not to mention his capacity for violence, The Wake-Up shifts from being a story about clever deceptions to being a hard-driving thriller about revenge, murder and dire coincidences. Even as Thorpe tries to prevent the unplanned aftermath of his "wake-up" from consuming him or Meachum, he must deal with a mismatched pair of homicidal bodyguards (one of whom looks like Nosferatu on a bad day) and the elusive, cheesy movie-loving Engineer, who Thorpe hopes to nab before he can harm his new lover.

Ferrigno's seventh novel, Scavenger Hunt, ranked among January Magazine's favorite books of 2003. The Wake-Up has nothing on that previous work when it comes to sardonic humor or the sagacious exposition of L.A.'s idiosyncratic extremes, and the storyline here is twisted enough at times to require note-taking. Nonetheless, the author's dexterity at plotting out a tale that quickly escapes its protagonist's leash is to be admired, even envied. Other writers have tried to do similar things, but often with far more contrived results. Also to be applauded is Ferrigno's increasing confidence in crafting his lead characters. It used to be that you could always count on this novelist to produce entertaining bad guys, who inevitably outshone his good ones. But tabloid reporter Jimmy Gage, who took the helm in both Flinch (2001) and Scavenger Hunt, and now Frank Thorpe are sufficiently multifaceted to hold the limelight. The only significant player in these pages who never quite lives up to her billing is Claire, Thorpe's fetching neighbor, who does little more than provide the covert op with a mirror in which he can see what he's been missing in his life of dark doorways and darker machinations. -- Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

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Over the past 25 years, the prolific Australian author Garry Disher has been turning out novels, short stories, children's books, writing guides and a series about a tough-minded antihero named Wyatt (The Fallout). With The Dragon Man (Soho Press), first published in Australia in 2001, Disher began a second crime series, this one featuring Melbourne-area Inspector Hal Challis.

The Dragon Man opens with an abduction and a killing. Challis and his staff are put on the case, which feels awfully similar to an earlier murder. A nosy editor at the local newspaper reports that she's been receiving letters from an anonymous author claiming responsibility for the slayings. Just another serial-killer thriller. But no, Disher veers off to visit some local hoodlums who like to start fires, including burning down the mailbox of a terrified woman who's hiding out in Australia under a witness-protection program, and then the cop who's investigating the arson starts to fall for the frightened woman. And so forth. This is not a paint-by-numbers detective story.

Challis, it turns out, is less the book's protagonist than just one character out of a large cast of coppers, criminals and ordinary folk; as befits a longtime novelist, Disher cares more about his characters and their interlinked lives than about crafty plots, tricky brainwork or outlandish malefactions. This ensemble feel is the greatest strength in The Dragon Man. Southeastern Australia's Melbourne region provides a hot, dry backdrop, and Disher does a decent job of showing the nuts and bolts of police work. But it's the sense of community, of watching a group of detectives and cops working more or less well together, that gives this book a solid core.

At times The Dragon Man feels almost too much like a sunbaked, Australian version of an Agatha Christie story, in which everybody seems to know everybody else, and everyone turns up with bits of evidence or knowledge at exactly the right time. But the too-neat series of coincidences here are almost forgivable when set against the desperate fumblings of the characters to fall in love, stay in love, or just figure out their lives. The Dragon Man is a book about ordinary Australians who just happen to be cops, or criminals, and know each other far too well. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

Shoulder the Sky (Ballantine), the second installment in Anne Perry's projected five-book series about World War I, picks up where the first, No Graves As Yet, left off. In Flanders, Joseph Reavley slogs through the trenches in the thankless job of army chaplain, while his sister Judith drives ambulances behind the lines. In England, brother Matthew toils away in the intelligence service, at the same time as sister Hannah keeps the home fires burning. They are all stunned by the unexpected brutality of the war, and nostalgic for the good old days of peace.

But Perry barely gives them a chance to breathe. Not only do the poor Reavleys have to continue playing spy vs. spy, trying to avenge their dead parents by discovering the identity of the fabulously sinister Peacemaker, but the honor-bound Joseph finds himself obligated to hunt down the murderer of a war correspondent whom nobody liked. Unlike the sedate No Graves As Yet, in Shoulder Perry tosses her characters hither and yon; only Hannah escapes the frequent-traveler mileage imposed on her siblings. Joseph wins the distance prize, getting in a nice Mediterranean jaunt to Gallipoli as well as a spot of open-water drifting in a lifeboat.

All of that strenuous action, however, fails to leaven the weighty moralizing here. Like No Graves As Yet, this new book is bloated with repetitive arguments about the uses and misuses of war, honor, courage and justice.

Perry's descriptions of trench warfare are vivid, but her characters tend toward cardboard, and the long-winded monologues and dialogues grow tedious. Joseph's detecting is once again haphazard and aided more by confession than by evidence. And the seemingly endless saga of the Peacemaker's antiwar conspiracy becomes more preposterous with each passing book.

Perry's liveliest efforts in Shoulder the Sky are dedicated to Judith, an unfocused young woman who finds direction and purpose in the war, and her heartbreaking love affair with the general she drives around Flanders. Joseph is clearly the brainy center of Perry's books, but Judith is their heart and soul. And a book built around Judith instead of Joseph might lift this series out of the earnest mire of sentiment and into the more salubrious air of realism. -- C.C.

* * *

Small-town secrets are one of crime fiction's hallmarks. A sleepy hamlet, a washed-up corpse and an investigation that turns up a long line of deceptions and lies -- sounds like a lot of recently published (and many not-so-recently published) novels. But to reduce a book to its most primal elements doesn't necessarily do it justice, and that's certainly the case with Mark Mills' elegantly constructed debut novel, Amagansett (Putnam). A melancholic strain permeates throughout, with the net effect of augmenting a solid story and a wonderful sense of place into something almost magical.

In 1947, the Long Island, New York, town of Amagansett felt the same postwar effects as did major cities, only in more pronounced fashion: prosperity belonged solely to the monied classes, who spent the bulk of each year in town, only venturing out to the island on hot summer weekends. Working-class residents could only dream of doing more than making ends meet.

Conrad Labarde, a Basque-born fisherman who grew up in Amagansett, is happy with his lot, but his life is drastically altered when he fishes the drowned corpse of a beautiful socialite from the island's waters. Was Lillian Wallace, the daughter of one of Amagansett's leading families, murdered, as both he and town cop Tom Hollis suspect, or was her death an accident? The dual investigations conducted by Labarde and Hollis uncover all manner of secrets, some stretching to an earlier unsolved murder of a little girl, and others hitting far too close for comfort for either man. By the novel's close, Amagansett is forever altered, yet the rise and fall of the water never changes, creating an ominous effect of loss and stability at the same time.

Author Mills is a working screenwriter (who recently adapted Barry Unsworth's Morality Play for the big screen), and there's no question that Amagansett has an epic, cinematic feel. Its setting comes alive so much that one can almost taste the salty water lapping up on shore. But thankfully, Mills forgoes broad brushstrokes and opts for nuance to tell a story of lost love, disappointed relationships and family ties that bind every so tightly -- whether it's Labarde's slow recovery from the childhood loss of his brother and mother, Hollis' tentative foray into a relationship with a local woman after the messy breakup of his marriage, or the twisted strands of the Wallace clan. Mills also possesses an acute understanding of class distinction and the tension between Amagansett locals and visitors -- especially surprising considering that he's based in London and has only visited Long Island a handful of times. Amagansett is a joy to read, and an excellent mystery that's literary minded. I'll be surprised if it isn't nominated for the 2004 British Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey Dagger, because to date, this debut is the strongest candidate for that award, by far. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman

* * *

It's winter again and snowing heavily in Paradise, Michigan, which means that sometime-private eye Alex McKnight is busy just trying to stay warm and out of trouble. But, as we find in Steve Hamilton's latest novel, Ice Run (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne), no matter how much he plows the road in front of his rental cabins, Alex is fighting a losing battle against the weather. He has no better luck fending off the entanglement of hatred and murder that has trapped his love interest, Natalie Reynaud. First introduced in last year's Blood Is the Sky ("RS," 6/03), Natalie is a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police, "stationed in a little town called Hearst." Following the death of her partner, Claude DeMers, she has taken an administrative leave of absence, and now spends her time fixing up her family home in Blind River.

The divorced Alex has fallen for this aloof and pretty cop, and the sex they share is steamy enough to melt the whole Upper Peninsula snowpack. However, this is not merely an affair, nor even a four-night stand. Good guy Alex admits that his feelings might be serious: "It was not the first time I'd felt it, this little nagging doubt, that maybe I wanted something out of all this. Something real."

McKnight fans may wonder why their reluctant hero pays so much attention to Natalie Reynaud. Sure, there's a paucity of women in Paradise ("the loneliest place I'd ever seen"), but Natalie does not come across as warm; rather, she's moody. Author Hamilton offers ample examples of insecure Alex's commitment to his new girlfriend, yet far from convincing the reader that his devotion is well-placed, they serve to illuminate the depths of his folly. Yes, Alex is acutely fearful of ending up alone in his life. But a better explanation of his interest in this Canadian cop might lie in the dark corners of her past, including the murder of her natural father, Jean Reynaud, when she was a little girl, and her subsequent sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Albert DeMarco.

I couldn't stop thinking about what she had told me that day, about her own scars and how they'd never heal completely. It helped me to understand her a little bit better, how she could be so close to me one moment and then suddenly a million miles away.

Like the guaranteed warm fire and cold Molson at Jackie Connery's Glasgow Inn, Ice Run offers a return to the familiar. McKnight's good friend Vinnie LeBlanc is back, stoic and unwavering as ever in his support of Alex, as is ex-P.I. Leon Prudell, with his copious attention to detail. Trouble is, the comfort of the sure thing provides no thrill of the challenge. Hamilton's sixth novel goes through too many expected motions. Even Chief Roy Maven, of the Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, police department, seems to sense the regularity of it all, and his bile is less phlegmatic than knee-jerk. The stalwart characters here are shadows of their former selves, bleached and indistinguishable from the white landscape.

Ice Run's saving grace is its clever plotting, grounded in a classical mystery framework replete with clues, red herrings and periodic twists. Lee Child has described sleuth fiction as "soap opera," yet Hamilton shows considerable nuts-and-bolts thinking here. Back in 1973, he tells us, Natalie's father was slain in Sault Ste. Marie. That crime was never solved, and Natalie was subsequently warned by her grandfather Luc to stay away from "Soo Michigan." She should've listened. When, early in this story, Natalie and Alex meet for a romantic rendezvous at the Ojibway Hotel in that same fateful city, they encounter a mysterious, 82-year-old man by the name of Simon Grant, who sports "an old fedora." Grant later turns up dead -- but not before he leaves his hat, filled with ice and snow, in the hallway outside Alex and Natalie's hotel room. Inside the hat is a cryptic note stating, "I know who you are." This is a somewhat clumsy and overused plot device; however, it doesn't go to waste. When it's later discovered, thanks to old photos in Natalie's basement, that the fedora originally belonged to her father, Alex is convinced that Grant knew who put an end to Jean Reynaud.

A beating by Grant's sons soon lands Alex in the hospital -- and smack dab in the middle of the historical conflict between the Grant and Reynaud families. With Prudell's assistance, McKnight tracks these suspicious goings-on back to Mackinac Island, an isolated vacation spot on Lake Huron. In too-tidy fashion (through a previously recorded confession), the identity of Jean Reynaud's murderer is revealed, and Natalie goes on to discover that DeMarco, her evil stepfather, not only played a part in that killing, but -- despite the assertions of her dysfunctional mother -- is still alive, and dangerous as ever.

Ice Run boasts Hamilton's trademark crisp dialogue and well-timed dry humor. Unfortunately, you'll also find here heavy dramatic set-ups at the close of too many chapters and passage breaks ("Everything that was about to happen would begin that night"), as if the author deliberately set out to rub that how-to-write convention raw with overuse. Hamilton is normally too self-assured an author to allow such clunkiness into his work, much less to give it free reign. We can only hope that his next novel shows more of the talent we've come to expect from an Alex McKnight adventure. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

* * *

The critical praise has been gathering pretty fast and thick for Shark Tank (Kate's Mystery Books/Justin, Charles & Co.), Tom O'Neill's imaginative new crime novel, drawing comparisons to everyone from the legendary Chester Himes to current best-selling thriller writer Lee Child. And I won't be one to dissent, either -- this is simply one kick-ass debut. However, O'Neill's literary antecedents struck me as far more downscale. Imagine, instead, Marvel Comics' whacked-out vigilante hero The Punisher as re-imagined by Carl Hiaasen, today's master of gonzo pulp fiction, and you'll have a pretty good idea what this one's all about -- two-fisted slam-bang action in an off-kilter universe, played as much for (dark) laughs as for thrills. I mean, we're definitely in Bizarro Land here: a parallel dimension where psychopaths have law degrees and shark fetishes, battered wives become media superstars and two high-school kids become instant millionaires by selling cards and comic books that glorify a violent, possibly deranged vigilante -- transforming him into "Captain Crack Attack," a national folk hero. Smash! Bang! Pow! All that's missing are the talk balloons.

And I mean that as a compliment. The alleged loony, the good "Captain" himself, is Jim Sullivan, a former Special Forces soldier and successful Philadelphia criminal attorney whose life jumped the rails following a series of Job-like tragedies. Still in shock over the sudden death of his beloved wife, followed in short order by the loss of his job, his home and finally his dog, Sullivan snapped, and began his own personal (and very hands-on) war on drugs, targeting those who deal in them. But it turned out he had a real knack for this bloody work -- over a three-year span, he's dispatched 80 or so dealers to their reward, while being scrupulously careful not to harm any "innocents." His success, however, has drawn unwanted attention from the Feds, whose own war on drugs has, three decades on, hardly been a ringing success. And of course, they can't very well let some homicidal loose cannon start taking the law into his own hands, can they?

Fortunately for Jim, Roger Sorenson, the agent in charge of the FBI task force assigned to apprehend him, is an egotistical, pencil-pushing, bureaucratic nincompoop. Far more competent (and therefore far more of a threat to Sullivan's continued liberty) are the other members assigned to the team: Joe Macuszak and George Whitcomb, a mismatched, freewheeling pair of Camden, New Jersey, cops nearing retirement, with big plans to open their own detective agency; and Stacey Smith, a young, ambitious state police officer, whose path has already crossed with Jim's during a tragic casino shootout that left her partner dead.

For a raging nutjob, Jim is surprisingly affable, and the three street cops soon begin to question their loyalties (as might many a reader) as they close in on their prey. Meanwhile, Sullivan would like nothing better than to settle down, but first he has a score or two to settle with Dennis O'Brien, his former employer at the law firm, a man whose predatory tendencies put his pet sharks to shame.

The author, a former Philadelphia lawyer himself who now resides near Seattle, has crafted an impressive debut, a darkly humorous swipe at crime and punishment, whose larger-than-life, comic-book flourishes and giddy social commentary do little to diminish the serious whomp he delivers. Mark my words: O'Neill is one cat to watch. But watch out -- he bites. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

* * *

Speaking of predatory attorneys, O'Neill's Dennis O'Brien ain't got nothin' on Albert Olen Garfield, the high-priced divorce lawyer whose scorched-earth tactics in bitter marital disputes have earned him the nickname "Agent Orange." As a prospective client puts it early on in The Mongol Reply (Five Star), by Benjamin M. Schutz, "A friend of mine ... he says your shadow can kill. Well, that's what I want. I want that bitch to beg for death. I want her left with nothing, absolutely fucking nothing."

The charmer speaking is Tom "The Bomb" Tully, a special teams coach (and former football star) for the Virginia Squires. A violent, vindictive brute and bully, a notorious philanderer and nobody's idea of husband-of-the-year, Tom suspects his wife has been cheating on him, and has decided he wants a divorce, but bad. The "bitch" in question is his wife, Serena Tully, a troubled former model who's had more than her own share of problems, not the least of which is that Tom has locked her out of their house without a penny to her name, and won't let her see their two young children. It's a strategy that's very much part of Garfield's nasty, vicious war to win at all costs. As one legal opponent puts it, "Custody cases with Garfield were a poker game with a pot full of children."

Fortunately for Serena, standing in Tom and Garfield's way is psychologist Dr. Morgan Reese, a specialist in the evaluation of child-parent relationships, whom the judge has appointed to decide who should get custody. Reese is the calm, patient voice of decency and reason; a methodical, scrupulous man and an unlikely hero in this most unlikely of detective stories.

And that's exactly what we have here. This tale of a slightly wimpy doctor coolly, painstakingly compiling a case study unfolds like a classic hard-boiled detective story, something right out of Chandler or Hammett, complete with a determined man who can't be bought or paid off, facing down the ruthless but heartbreakingly banal forces of evil, amid a swirling cast of damaged and desperate characters, all of whom have their own self-serving lies to tell. That Morgan is a shy, middle-aged man afraid of heights, whose turf is doctor's offices and research libraries, and not some square-jawed two-fisted knight in a trenchcoat going down the mean streets of some big bad city, doesn't diminish the considerable hard-edged narrative drive of The Mongol Reply one bit. And the ending, when it comes, is as heart-wrenching and as shocking and bristling with authorial anger as they come.

This is not a comfortable novel, and many a reader might squirm with an unpleasant shock of self-recognition. But I think that Schutz, a forensic psychologist himself and the author, in the 1980s and early 90s, of a Shamus Award-winning hard-boiled series starring Washington, D.C., private eye Leo Haggerty (Embrace the Wolf, A Fistful of Empty), has returned to fiction after an absence of more than a decade with arguably his most angry and potent work yet. The Mongol Reply is an unrepentant, take-no-prisoners assault on the twisted and selfish games people play in the name of love, and the sometimes very brutal price that children (and ultimately, all of us) have to pay for their parent's sins. Welcome back, Ben. -- K.B.S.

* * *

After the angry, once-removed variations on the genre that Schutz displays in his latest novel, it's almost a relief to slip back into the more comfortable hard-boiled world of Christopher G. Moore's most recent Vinnie Calvino detective novel, Pattaya 24/7 (Heaven Lake Press).

More comfortable, perhaps, but not more familiar. Newcomers to Moore's series of private-eye novels featuring Calvino (this is the eighth) may be pleasantly surprised by the setting. Moore, you see, is a Canadian expatriate novelist who has been dubbed "the Hemingway of Bangkok," and the stomping grounds of his series protagonist, an expatriate himself (from New York City), are the mean and exotic streets of Bangkok.

Moore may be almost completely unknown in his native Canada (or the rest of North America, for that matter), but in Thailand and Southeast Asia he's become something of a literary sensation. His English-language novels regularly hit the bestseller lists, and he's been known to easily sell 20,000 copies in Bangkok alone, with his work eagerly translated into German, Japanese, Chinese and Thai. His detective novels featuring Calvino are the most popular of all, able to hold their own easily against the likes of commercial heavyweights like Michael Crichton and Stephen King, making Calvino arguably one of the world's best-selling eyes.

So, popular, yes. But are these stories any good? I'm happy to report that they are. Although much of the scenery may be fresh and disconcerting to new readers (when was the last time Robert B. Parker's Spenser tramped through a rice paddy?), many of the trappings of the hard-boiled milieu are well-represented. This is thanks, in large part, to Moore's unsparing depiction of Southeast Asia's complicated swirl of multicultural and political double-dealing; of Bangkok's expatriate, wide-open demimonde world of farangs and yings; and of the city's cockfights and exclusive clubs. It's a place where any pleasure imaginable may be had -- for a price. People, it seems, are people.

And oh, what people Vinnie meets in this tale. Eager to escape the claustrophobic post-9/11 paranoia and fear of Bangkok, an increasingly xenophobic multicultural metropolitan maelstrom that's already reeling from the SARS panic, Vinnie jumps at the chance to spend a little time in the countryside on a plush secluded estate near Pattaya, as the guest of a colorful, retired British concert pianist, Searles Valentine. It seems Valentine's gardener, Prasit, has gone and committed suicide in his room at the estate, much to the dismay of his employer, who believes that "a thoughtful employee ... would have hanged himself off the premises."

But several of Valentine's staff, including Prasit's widow, Fon -- an educated woman many think married beneath her -- believe the gardener was murdered, further inconveniencing the self-centered pianist. So he hires his old friend Calvino to investigate Prasit's death, to reassure Fon and the staff (whom Valentine charmlessly refers to as his "creatures") that it was indeed suicide.

Of course, things aren't ever quite what they seem in books like these, and Calvino is soon involved with assorted poisonous snakes, drug dealers, local warlords, American intelligence agencies and a possible terrorist conspiracy or two. With its wide-ranging international plot and rather formal prose style, Moore's work at times recalls the international "entertainments" of Graham Greene or John le Carré, but the hard-bitten worldview and the cynical, bruised idealism of his battered hero is right out of Chandler. Intelligent and articulate, Moore offers a rich, passionate and original take on the private eye game fans of the genre should definitely investigate, and that fans of foreign intrigue will definitely appreciate. -- K.B.S.

* * *

It all began back in 1976 with the TV series Quincy, M.E., in which Jack Klugman played a medical examiner who was as involved in solving crimes as he was in cutting up the victims of those often brutal misdeeds. Nowadays, authors Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen are all there to remind us that the coroner's life can be a very dangerous one -- at least on the printed page. Don't forget, either, about Karin Slaughter, who is now four books into a series featuring pediatrician and Grant County, Georgia, medical examiner Sara Linton. Throughout Slaughter's series, Sara has been involved in an on-again, off-again romance with her ex-husband, police chief Jeffrey Tolliver. But in the new thriller Indelible (Morrow), what begins as seemingly yet another of this couple's domestic squabbles explodes into a graphic and violent hostage-taking scene that grabs the reader and refuses to let go.

Indelible is told within two timeframes, because the brutal present-day assault on the Grant County police department (which leaves Tolliver seriously wounded) has its motives rooted in events of a decade ago. Tracing those motives, Slaughter's yarn shifts smoothly back into the past, where we find Tolliver -- for reasons even he cannot fully explain -- taking his then new lover, Sara Linton, on a visit to his hometown of Sykacayga, Alabama, a place that has stereotyped him as a bad boy and serial seducer of women, if not also worse. But their excursion could hardly have been more poorly timed, for as Sara is busy learning about her cop boyfriend's abusive upbringing, Jeffrey's best friend from childhood, Robert Blankenship, is arrested for the fatal shooting of a home invader.

Robert goes on to confess to this crime. But because his story doesn't really add up, Sara presses Tolliver to pursue the case, and question his own loyalties. The discovery of another corpse -- that of a woman who'd been friendly with both Jeffrey and Robert -- leaves Sara wondering whether she can trust the man she feels so drawn to, especially in light of her own traumatic brush with violence.

Meanwhile, the current hostage situation at the police station weighs most heavily on the brittle and acerbic Lena Adams, whose sister was previously murdered in this series and who was herself raped and tortured, before taking a forced leave after the events recounted in A Faint Cold Fear (2003). Wouldn't you know it, that Lena's first day back at her job as a police officer would erupt in unnerving violence. To make matters still worse, she's trying to cope with a possible pregnancy as well as an abusive ex-con boyfriend. While Lena faces her fears and places herself at risk once more, she and the other hostages discover how the secrets, rumors and scandals of the past continue to have lasting and destructive effects, erupting in this final hostage situation.

Folks with weak stomachs might think twice before picking up a Karin Slaughter novel. Her scenes often portray mayhem in graphic detail, and as in her previous works, Indelible features rape and sexual assaults. The Linton/Tolliver series sometimes goes over the top in trying to manipulate readers -- what's a hostage situation, it seems, without an elderly dispatcher who's beaten, an earnest but inexperienced patrolman and a visiting group of schoolchildren? But it's Slaughter's continual mistreatment of poor Lena that leaves the reader cringing and angry here. Putting aside that concern, though, Slaughter does manage the difficult task of maintaining tension through both of this book's timeframes, and while her fictional players can be abrasive and irritating at times, they're never less than realistic and fascinating. The reader cannot help but follow their often self-destructive lives, and wait impatiently for each new installment of this series. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

Margaret Coel has made herself a fine reputation with her award-winning, New York Times best-selling Wind River Reservation mysteries. Her rich descriptions of the modern-day Wyoming reservation, and the way she brings into her tales the history and lore of the Arapaho Indians as well as the complex beliefs of the Catholic Church, make this a series well worth watching. However, longtime Coel fans are likely to read Wife of Moon (Berkley Prime Crime), the 10th novel featuring attorney Vicky Holden and Father John O'Malley, with two questions foremost on their minds: Will they or won't they? And would they please hurry up and decide?

Since their introduction in The Eagle Catcher (1995), the attractive Arapaho lawyer and the Irish priest have often teamed up to mete out justice and preserve traditional ways of life on the reservation. But that task may be more difficult in this new story, as photographs taken by famed frontier shooter Edward S. Curtis in 1907 appear to be having lethal effects on the present.

Those pre-battle images of Plains Indians are on display at the reservation's St. Francis Mission museum. Although they were staged, according the granddaughter of one of the Indian subjects, all of the men in the photographs later died violently. It wasn't long after the shots were taken, in fact, that a tribal chief's daughter was murdered and her suspected slayers hanged without benefit of trial. But the killing apparently did not end there. In the present day, one of the descendants of a chief whose image Curtis captured is murdered, and her straying husband is soon arrested for the crime. Vicky for one, though, doesn't believe that the suspect -- her childhood friend T.J. Painted Horse -- could have committed such an act, and the subsequent disappearance of the museum's curator lends credence to her hunch that there's more going on here than Indian domestic violence. Father John comes into the investigation from another angle, as he attempts to locate the missing curator, Christine Nelson, who is far less stable than she appeared to be and has an estranged husband obsessively dogging her tail. With the further complications of a visiting Wyoming senator and presidential aspirant (with his own connections to the Curtis photos) and a peculiar CIA operative, Coel's plot picks up speed. The answers to its various mysteries will be heart-wrenching and reveal a continuing pattern of prejudice.

Coel once again shows her remarkable writing skills and a knowledge of Native American lore that has led more than a few critics to compare her with Tony Hillerman. In Wife of Moon, she does an extraordinary job of blending the factual past with her own fictional present, her flashbacks to 1907 revealing the depth of antipathy between whites and Arapahos, and how often such tensions have resulted in bloodshed. However, it's the relationship between attorney Holden and priest O'Malley that has won Coel her devoted readership. These two players are obviously drawn to one another, even as they understand that the choices they've made for themselves will never allow them to be together. For Father John, watching Vicky become interested in another Arapaho lawyer is sheer torture. Yet the sexual agitation between Vicky and Father John draws readers who are curious to see just how they will work it all out. Is this manipulative of the author? Of course. But anyone who's seen Moonlighting recognizes the danger of turning tightly wound attraction into unsubtle happiness. Better that these star-crossed, unfulfilled lovers should explore Indian legends than each other's capacity for ardor. -- C.C.

* * *

Psychologists and therapists may be leery of M.J. Rose's latest thriller, The Halo Effect (Mira), for it blatantly compares therapists with ... prostitutes. Here, New York sex therapist Dr. Morgan Snow finds herself relating a bit too closely with her new client, Cleo Thane, a high-priced hooker whose disappearance plunges the doctor into the world of sexual deviancy and commerce.

It seems that Cleo recently inked a six-figure contract to produce a tell-all book that only thinly disguises the identities of her high-profile and often kinky clients. When she suddenly vanishes, it leaves Morgan with the knottiest of quandaries. Patient confidentiality prevents the therapist from releasing information to the police that might connect Cleo's disappearance to the serial-killing spree of a madman who's murdering prostitutes, and leaving their bodies dressed in nun's habits and violated by religious sacraments. Fearing that the cops are not doing enough to solve the Thane case, Morgan agrees to work with Cleo's partner, which entails pretending to be a prostitute in order to interview and profile the missing woman's clients as potential murderers. It also happens that the investigating detective, Noah Jordain, is rather attractive. But though she is drawn to him, Morgan feels ethically unable to reveal to him confidential knowledge. This situation results in her getting uncomfortably close to the suspects in Cleo's disappearance and getting over her head in Cleo's dark world.

It's common in modern fiction to find therapists who are every bit as screwed-up as their patients, and The Halo Effect only continues that conception. Recently divorced, Morgan Snow is burnt out on the diverse sexual eccentricities of her patients, and has dealt with it (or perhaps failed to deal with it) by avoiding sexual associations of her own. The doctor's relationship with her 12-year old daughter, Dulcie, is also on the rocks, because the girl's acting aspirations have Morgan fearing that she might end up following in the footsteps of her neglectful, failed-actress grandmother. Morgan knows first-hand how cruel the acting profession can be, as she was reared by a former teen actress and substance-abusing mother who kidnapped her in a custody battle and later died as a result of her addictions.

With The Halo Effect, Rose, best known for Flesh Tones (2002) and other erotic suspensers, encroaches quite convincingly on the psychological thriller genre. This book is being promoted as the first in a series featuring Morgan's Butterfield Institute. Readers shouldn't be leery about picking up this novel simply because its protagonist is a sex therapist; the sex scenes in these pages aren't nearly as explicit as one might expect. A far more troublesome aspect of Rose's story is her premise that a therapist would willingly go undercover as a prostitute in order to investigate the disappearance of a client. There's confidentiality, and then there's lack of common sense. The plot moves along steadily but slowly, with the repeated butterfly symbolism occasionally seeming forced (at one point, a butterfly pin falls slowly off Morgan's blouse and pricks her in the leg). There's nothing in the least original about Halo's religion-obsessed serial killer, but Dr. Morgan Snow does at least emerge from this debut outing as an interesting and likable character, worthy of repeat performances. -- C.C.

In the News

Jim Fusilli (Hard, Hard City) tells a Mystery One Bookstore interviewer that "the most interesting part of writing a series is having characters who grow and change in ways that are surprising yet utterly consistent with subtle aspects of previous behavior, and inviting readers to participate in that experience of growth and change. If [that] wasn't so, I'd just write standalones. Frankly, the crime stories in my four novels have almost nothing to do with each other, which is why the books, even though they are linked by the characters and setting, work as standalones too and why you can read them in any order." Read more.

According to a UK study by Penguin Books, women find men who read crime fiction and thrillers more desirable than those who favor science fiction and fantasy. "[R]eading grown-up writers such as Nick Hornby, Ian McEwan and F. Scott Fitzgerald shows the sensitivity ladies crave," reports the Daily Record, while gents who prefer the works of, say, J.K. Rowling or Terry Pratchett are turn-offs. So why in the hell are women the biggest buyers of mysteries? Get a clue, guys. Read more.

British screenwriter/author Anthony Horowitz, who's responsible for that wonderful TV mystery series Foyle's War, but is even better known for penning "the phenomenally successful Alex Rider series of children's adventures," chats about his first adult novel -- the black-comic thriller The Killing Joke -- as well as his peculiar childhood and his outlandish first sex scene. Read more.

Jeff Abbott is best known as a novelist (Cut and Run, Black Jack Point, etc.), but he also turns out to be a skilled interviewer. For his Web site, he's now quizzing "leading writers from the perspective of a fellow working writer. I'm sort of a wonk about the writing process -- I find it endlessly fascinating to see how fellow authors handle the craft of writing and the business of being a writer." Already posted are his discussions with Lee Child, Harlan Coben and Laura Lippman. Abbott promises new interviews "about once every two months." Read more.

There have been several worth-reading analyses recently of the diverse styles of crime fiction and the locations in which fictional mysteries seem prone to take place. The San Francisco Chronicle explores the developing subgenre of Korean-American crime fiction through the works of Don Lee (Country of Origin) and Leonard Chang (Fade to Clear). Mysteries featuring lesbian protagonists, including those by Nicola Griffith, Ellen Hart and Clare McNab, are the focus of a thoughtful piece at, a Web site devoted to gay and lesbian issues. The Boston Herald talks about the resurgence of crime-fiction noir with Hard Case Crime's Charles Ardai and Kate Mattes, of Kate's Mystery Books. Meanwhile, the SF Station Web site gives the subject of San Francisco-based noir fiction a good working over, and Britain's Daily Telegraph explains the importance of that San Francisco noir-fiction classic, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. On America's opposite coast, The Boston Globe asks, "What is it about this city, especially its most gritty, urban neighborhoods, that breeds not only great crime writers but gripping stories ...?" The works of Boston-bred novelists Dennis Lehane, Richard Marinick, George V. Higgins and Robert B. Parker all go under the microscope.

Well, I guess it had to happen eventually: Ian Rankin, best-selling author of the Inspector John Rebus series (A Question of Blood, Fleshmarket Close) has had a street named after him in his Scottish hometown. Read more.

In a three-part autobiographical essay for The Scotsman, novelist Alexander McCall Smith -- whose latest book, a new-series introduction titled The Sunday Philosophy Club, was just published this month by Little, Brown UK -- writes about his childhood, his unintended initial move into children's fiction and how the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has changed his life. Read more.

Finally, over at the Plots with Guns site, January contributing editor Sarah Weinman interviews John Williams, British author of the crime-writer study Into the Badlands (1991) as well as several novels, including Cardiff Dead (2001) and The Prince of Wales (2003). Williams, who serves as the crime consultant for publisher Serpent's Tail, talks about the current state of crime fiction, the difference between American and British noir fiction, and his former life in the music world. Read more.

CUFF NOTES: The still-new mag Crime Spree gives S.J. Rozan star treatment in its August/September issue, presenting not only an interview with the author of Absent Friends, but also a retrospective on her Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series and a short encomium to Rozan, penned by Gabriel Cohen (Red Hook), that seems to be as much about Cohen as it is about his subject. Elsewhere in the issue, Ali Karim conducts interviews with British writers Martyn Waites (Born Under Punches) and David Peace (Nineteen Eight-Three); William Kent Krueger (Blood Hollow) extols classic horror films; and Simon Kernick (The Crime Trade) explains why he's a food fetishist. ... Sue Grafton makes the cover of Mystery News, with writer Gary Warren Niebuhr recalling the development of Grafton's popular Kinsey Millhone series, the latest installment of which is "R" Is for Ricochet. Meanwhile, Stephen Miller's "In the Beginning ..." column profiles Mike Siverling, author of The Sterling Inheritance. ... More reasons to live: Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith's fourth Arkady Renko novel (after Havana Bay, 1999), is due out from Simon & Schuster in November. And Charles Todd's seventh Inspector Ian Rutledge novel, A Cold Treachery (Bantam), Robert Eversz's fourth Nina Zero investigation, Digging James Dean (Simon & Schuster), and Kris Nelscott's fifth Smokey Dalton book, War at Home (St. Martin's Minotaur), are all scheduled to hit bookstores in February 2005. 

Last Rewards

Former Baltimore Sun reporter and now author Dan Fesperman has won the 2004 Baltimore Book Festival Literary Award in fiction for his second Vlado Petric thriller, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (Knopf). Small Boat beat out Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage for this commendation, which was handed over during a September 18 ceremony in Baltimore, Maryland.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Marks has been chosen to receive an Ohioana Library Citation for his "outstanding accomplishments in the field of mystery fiction" in 2003. Those accomplishments included his novel A Good Soldier (Silver Dagger), the second installment in his U.S. Grant mystery series, and his non-fiction study Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s (Delphi Books; "RS" 9-10/03). Marks lives in southern Ohio. He will be presented with his award on October 16 in Columbus.

* * *

The seven nominees for the 2004 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers' Association, comprise a particularly wide cross-section of what is possible within the field of historical crime fiction. The contestants are:

  • The Damascened Blade, by Barbara Cleverly (Constable & Robinson UK)
  • The Shape of Sand, by Marjorie Eccles (Allison & Busby UK)
  • Hell at the Breech, by Tom Franklin (Flamingo UK)
  • The Thief Taker, by Janet Gleeson (Bantam Press UK)
  • The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl (Vintage UK)
  • The Judgement of Caesar, by Steven Saylor (Constable and Robinson UK)
  • The Lover, by Laura Wilson (Orion UK)

The winner will be declared on October 19.

* * *

Finally, nominations have been announced for the 2004 Southern California Booksellers Association Book Awards. Included in the list of 20 nominees, in four categories, are five finalists in the Mystery division:

  • Last Lullaby, by Denise Hamilton (Scribner)
  • Earthquake Weather, by Terrill Lee Lankford (Ballantine)
  • Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)
  • Dirty Laundry, by Paula Woods (One World)
  • While I Disappear, by Edward Wright (Putnam)

Winners will be announced on Saturday, November 6, at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. For a full list of finalists and more information, refer to the SCBA Web site.


"The Rap Sheet" is compiled 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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