Best of Crime Fiction 2005


















All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block (William Morrow)

Block's 16th novel starring New York City private eye Matthew Scudder (and his first since 2001's Hope to Die) is a bouquet of roses tossed to readers of literary mystery novels, because it's written with a flourish that shows Block as a master and commander of the English language. Flowers is also a culmination of plot lines, characters, ideas and moods that have been germinating over the course of Scudder's lengthy career (ever since his introduction in The Sins of the Fathers, 1976), placing the life of this tormented, alcoholic cop-turned-sleuth-for-hire in something approximating context. The story opens with an interchange -- so typical in the Scudder series -- that evokes the small-town nature of New York City and illuminates some of the places that tourists often fail to explore. It also illustrates Block's ability to magically weave characters and locations into a story, and make it appear completely effortless. You can smell the aroma of coffee when Scudder talks to his cronies in the various bars he frequents, and you know that even these very early scenes will feature heavily later in a complex plot -- but how, remains a mystery, to be solved over time. More quickly, as the scenery shifts, you realize that all is not right at a Virginia correctional center, where enigmatic psychologist Dr. Arne Bodinson, from Yale University, pays a visit to death-row inmate Preston Applewhite, a pedophile who was convicted of murdering three youths. Bodinson wants help in finding the last resting place of one of Applewhite's victims. The encounters between doctor and prisoner are unsettling, as Applewhite continues to insist that he's innocent, and Bodinson probes for the truth. Things are obviously not what they seem, as Applewhite and Bodinson begin to form a relationship in the shadow of a pending lethal injection. Somehow, this association will lead to terrible consequences for Scudder and his friends, though the extent of those consequences can't be foreseen. One of the themes of Flowers is the relationship between time and the folks with whom we choose to share it. Applewhite's relationship with Bodinson, then, serves as the novel in microcosm -- two people thrown together by circumstances. Meanwhile, Scudder's wife, Elaine, is enjoying life operating her antiques shop and meeting with friends. It seems her pal Monica has finally found a man who can satisfy her needs; however, he also turns out to be a dangerous individual, a man with a history that weighs menacingly on the present. It doesn't take long for Flowers to be infected by torture and death, and for Elaine, Scudder and his brainy sidekick, TJ, to realize that someone has thrown a noose around them -- and is reeling them in. As his friends start to perish, the harder Scudder tries to cling to what really matters, the tighter grows that noose. All the Flowers Are Dying is a tough, uncompromising look at life, and how the passing of friends impacts our lives. It is also a difficult book to review, since it could be the last entry in this acclaimed series. But then, the only thing certain about life is death, and Matthew Scudder has cheated death for over 25 years. So who knows what will come? -- Ali Karim

The Black Angel by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton UK)

John Connolly's work is quite different from your run-of-the-mill crime fiction, not only because of his dexterity with the English language, but because he places what's seemingly a veil of the supernatural over his complex stories. However, the reader is never absolutely certain just how much the supernatural is really in play, or whether these tales' twists and histories are shaped instead by the ravings of the madmen who populate the world of New York City police detective-turned-private eye Charlie "Bird" Parker -- a guy who, in The Black Angel, finds his world falling apart, just when he thought he was pulling it back together again. As Angel takes wing, we find Parker settling down in Maine, where he's tries to carve out a new life with lover Rachel Wolfe and their infant daughter, Samantha. But during Sam's christening, Parker's sometime-sidekick Louis -- half of a psycho homosexual partnership with the no less violent or resourceful Angel -- is confronted by his aunt Martha. It seems that her own daughter, a drug-addicted New York City prostitute named Alice, has disappeared, and she wants help in retrieving the lost lass. If you're expecting a typical missing-persons case, forget it. Parker's pursuit of the errant Alice leads him into the crack-dens, red-light districts, and diseased and dying corners of overcrowded modern Manhattan. While in the shadows lurk a cadre of people who call themselves "The Believers" -- though what they believe in remains a mystery until the close of this novel. Parker soon discovers that some very dark forces have been swirling about Alice lately, and that her disappearance is connected to the search for a religious artifact that vanished during the last months of World War II from a monastery in what's now the Czech Republic. Were the forces surrounding Alice really "fallen angels," led by a grotesque known as Brightwell -- a creature who walks the earth, supposedly endeavoring to find a pathway back to Heaven? Or is Brightwell simply the most prominent figure in a contingent of likeminded mad folk? As this story moves along, Parker unearths a network of collectors of "unusual artifacts," some of which are carved from dried human skin and bones. He also comes to believe that his own struggles might be tied together in some manner -- and that his world is considerably more dangerous than even he had supposed. Despite its supernatural texture, The Black Angel could probably be read as a conventional thriller. Just try to ignore the fact that, in Connolly's world, there's often little distinction between those who are dead and those who will be dead. -- Ali Karim

The Blood Knot by John Galligan (Bleak House Books)

John Galligan's The Blood Knot grabs, yanks and hauls the reader in with the lure of intelligent, atypical and dark prose. A chronological sequel to this author's The Nail Knot (2003), The Blood Knot stands boldly on its own and is an unexpected pleasure. Ned Oglivie, a.k.a. The Dog, lives very much on the fringes in backwoods Wisconsin, where the fringes are unknotted, frayed and libel to bite. He's there by choice, knowing that he'll move on to a possibly more out-there place soon enough. In the midst of an extended fishing trip, The Dog stumbles across the body of Annie Adams floating in a stream, her painting easel left behind on a bridge overlooking the watercourse. Standing on the bridge is 10-year-old Deuce Kussmaul, a half-Amish, half-redneck with a Chipmunk .22 in hand. The Avalanche Kid, as The Dog refers to him, is taking potshots at Adams' corpse. This is not good. The Dog owes The Avalanche Kid's meth-using mother, Eve Kussmaul, a hearty debt of gratitude for helping to get him stitched up after a vicious beaver bite. Eve is an Amish woman who was kicked out by her family of misfits after she got pregnant with the aforementioned Kid and then married his beer-swilling bully of a father, known as King Midas. Trying to stay afloat in a chaos populated by the amorous Amish, backcountry bullies and the occasional well-intentioned cop, The Dog finds himself hemmed in by a conscience he didn't know he possessed and by a felled oak that blocks his escape. He figures The Avalanche Kid is being set up for Adams' murder. That's the only thing The Dog is sure of. Well, that and that he might have rabies. When Eve asks him to help her son, The Dog wants to say no. Instead, he limps along through late-night stakeouts, arrests and fists full of warning, learning along the way more than he ever wanted to know about how things go on the wrong side of nowhere. In The Blood Knot, author Galligan has concocted a meticulous plot that is as original as it is peculiar. The reader will find him- or herself mesmerized by the rockslide of events heading The Dog's way, wondering until the last page if he'll have the capacity to get out of the way before he's buried for good. This book may well be the freshest catch of the year. -- Jennifer Jordan

The Closers by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company)

It's been three years since Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch retired from the Los Angeles Police Department and became a private eye. But he finally returns to the blue brotherhood in The Closers, the 11th installment of Michael Connelly's Edgar-winning series. Frankly, that's too long an absence. Bosch is assigned to the LAPD's newly re-branded Open-Unsolved Unit, where he's teamed up once more with Kizmin Rider, and given the case of a 16-year-old girl, Rebecca Verloren, who went missing back in 1988. But now Bosch and Rider are tossed a bone -- a DNA "cold hit." Skin tissue had been extracted from the murder weapon at the time of the killing, but the technology to analyze that tissue was not available to the original investigators.Now is it matched to a man named Roland Mackey, a racist felon with a record of hate crimes. The question becomes whether Mackey only once possessed the gun, or was the actual slayer. The Closers ranks right up there with the best cop novels I've read this year. Watching Bosch work is invigorating, and it is not only the reader who's energized -- this is a rejuvenated Bosch, as well. The rush that this detective feels is tempered, though, by the practical and emotional difficulties of the Verloren case. Bosch's supervisor, Abel Pratt, warns him of the human devastation that open-unsolved cases can cause in family members, and cautions him that "closure is bullshit ... all we do here is provide answers." The wounds of a crime often never heal, and in the case of the Verlorens, their lives effectively ended with the death of their daughter. Although Bosch is attempting to change his own way of operating, the LAPD remains the same, embroiled in a cloud of political cover-ups. Our hero soon realizes that his assignment to the Open-Unsolved Unit might have been more than mere chance, when he runs up against his old nemesis Deputy Chief Irvin S. Irving. To Bosch and Rider, it is clear that the original investigators of the Verloren murder were heavily involved in "COA," or Cover Your Ass. Bosch still retains plenty of his former creativity and confrontational fire. Despite the downside of Bosch's headstrong actions, his in-your-face style and sharp intelligence lead him to do what his fellow cops failed to accomplish for 17 years -- find justice for the Verlorens. Whether the LAPD likes it or not, Bosch is back carrying a badge, and that's not just closure for his legion of fans, it's a reason to rejoice. -- Anthony Rainone

Cold Granite by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins UK)

Set in the northeastern Scottish town of Aberdeen -- known alternately as "Granite City" and the center of the North Sea oil industry -- MacBride's debut novel introduces Detective Sergeant Logan McRae, who's just returned to duty with Grampian Police after a year "off on the sick," following a hunting-knife attack by a serial killer known as the "Mastrick Monster." Although he'd hoped for a quiet re-entry into law enforcement, McRae is instead thrown head-first into a child-molestation case. David Reid, three months shy of his fourth birthday, has been found strangled to death in a water-filled ditch, with his genitals removed. And one of the local newspapers, the Press and Journal, somehow manages to report this discovery even before police can notify the tyke's parents -- a development that results in McRae's being painfully gut-punched by the boy's frustrated father. Just when it seems things couldn't get worse, they do: another boy, 5-year-old Richard Erskine, goes missing on his way back from buying milk and biscuits for his mum. Rumors of a malevolent pedophile spread quickly among Aberdonians, fed by the media and exacerbated further by the subsequent finding of a little girl's corpse in a civic dump. It's up to McRae to determine whether these deaths are connected, but there seems to be no end of obstacles mounted in his way: he's working with a new boss, Detective Inspector Insch, who doesn't suffer idiots gladly ("And the inspector thought everyone was an idiot."); he's having to deal with chief pathologist Dr. Isobel MacAlister, a stunning but chilly ex-girlfriend who's said to have found a new man in her life; and he's been teamed with leggy, dark-haired Woman Police Constable (WPC) Jackie Watson, to whom McRae is attracted -- despite her intimidating sobriquet, "Ball Buster." On top of all this, the DS is handed a second investigation, involving the message-fraught murder of Geordie Stephenson, porn-star-handsome enforcer for "Edinburgh's leading importer of guns, drugs and Lithuanian prostitutes." For a 458-page novel, Cold Granite proceeds at a surprisingly healthy clip. This has partly to do with the tightly rendered turns MacBride keeps throwing in the reader's face; every time McRae & Co. think they have found a solution to one of their cases, unexpected new information sends them back to square one -- and embarrasses them in the process. Granite also boasts an adroit mélange of humor and heartache, a bang-up denouement and supple prose, and careful and often comic characterizations, both of the main players and an array of eccentric suspects. Comparisons with Ian Rankin's John Rebus novels (A Question of Blood, Fleshmarket Close) are premature, but not altogether unreasonable; both MacBride and Rankin are skilled at character cultivation and at depicting Scotland's moody atmospherics. It will be interesting to see how MacBride develops his series. A sequel to Granite, Dying Light, is due out in Britain in May. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Company Man by Joseph Finder (St. Martin's Press)

Boston novelist Joseph Finder seems to have found a niche for himself in the overcrowded world of fictional thrillers, conjuring up espionage and intrigue within the polished corridors of American Big Business. And as he proved so memorably in last year's Paranoia, he really knows how to manipulate his readers -- in the best sense -- pulling them along with short chapters, cliffhangers aplenty and enough red herrings to stock a Norwegian fishing boat for the winter. Company Man, his sixth novel, is told from the viewpoint of Nick Conover, the troubled CEO of an office furniture manufacturer, the Stratton Corporation, once the largest employer in Fenwick, Michigan. Although Conover deserves credit for trying to rear his two young children alone, following the car-accident death of their mother, he is not well liked in Fenwick. No wonder: He's just had to pink-slip half of Stratton's 10,000 employees (many of whom he's known since his own working-class childhood), thanks to post-Iraq war downturns in the U.S. economy and competition from Chinese imports. After his home in a guarded neighborhood is vandalized, he picks up a stalker, and a body is left on his lawn, Conover turns to Stratton's security director for help. Before you can say Freeze punk!, police detective Audrey Rhimes (the troubled wife of one of Stratton's laid-off workers) appears, and quickly discovers that all is not as it seems, either at the company or in the Conover household. As Rhimes digs up evidence against the CEO -- information that could shatter his life and family -- Conover finds it difficult to hold himself together, or to trust those around him. And as he begins to recognize the outline of a corporate conspiracy unfolding behind his back, Conover's future -- not to mention his sanity and very life -- hangs in the balance. Company Man hooks you from the opening page, and keeps you reading even when your eyes want to close at the end of a day. My sole reservation is that author Finder ties up all the loose ends of his plot a bit too neatly for my taste. But that's a minor gripe, and one unlikely to stop readers from enjoying this confidently wrought thriller. -- Ali Karim

Controlled Burn: Stories of Prison, Crime, and Men by Scott Wolven (Scribner)

Controlled Burn is an apt title for Scott Wolven's amazing new collection of stories. The men who populate these hard-bitten tales are burning, all right, smoldering with a fiery anger and resentment barely held in check by the grim fatalism and gritted-teeth pragmatism that constitutes the code by which they live. One of the few books that really rocked me in 2005, this collection offers a swirling kaleidoscope of heartbreak, pride and busted dreams, an episodic road trip of character-driven vignettes that stretches from the woods of "The Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont, Maine and New England to the lawlessness of "The Fugitive West" -- a road trip as American as a Woody Guthrie song, a John Steinbeck novel or a Sam Peckinpah film. These men are loggers and crank dealers, boxers and bounty hunters, drifters and drunks, petty criminals and ex-cons, no strangers to work or cut corners, working guys who smell of "beer ... and gasoline." They do what they have to do, suck it up and tough it out, rarely complaining -- and what the hell good would that do, anyway? But beyond the desolate stillness and stoic resignation that lies at the core of the tales here, there's a surprising amount of heart, as well. Make no mistake -- Wolven's men may scoff at the notion of "the sensitive male," but they are neither stupid nor shallow; in fact, there's a kind of tight-lipped, hard-earned wisdom and no-bullshit self-awareness to these guys, plus a compelling, almost uplifting sense of rough-hewn humanity that lingers long after the last sentence has been read, that really brings these stories home. Yes, life is dark and cruel and unfair, Wolven seems to suggest, but his characters rarely surrender to it; instead, they adopt and do whatever they have to do to survive -- a philosophy that owes as much to the rugged if tattered working-man's idealism of Steinbeck as it does to the pessimistic fatalism of Dostoyevsky or the hard-boiled machismo of the tough-guy pulp-era writers like Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Horace McCoy, W.R. Burnett and James M. Cain who echo through these pages. This collection marks the arrival of an important new voice, not just in crime fiction, but possibly in American literature itself. Honest. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Creepers by David Morrell (CDS Books)

This tremendous new novel will have you riveted to your chair, because its story bonds to the reader like a steel weld. The "creepers" in question are urban infiltrators, men and women wont to outfit themselves with caving equipment, and then break in to and explore derelict buildings. Sure, it's illegal; but the creepers resist pilfering or damaging anything they happen across. They just want photographs of themselves at the abandoned, and soon to be demolished, sites. But under the direction of David Morrell (whose Nightscape was one of January Magazine's gift-book picks for 2004), such inner-city speleology assumes a decidedly dark cast. The protagonist here is Frank Balenger, a former U.S. Army Ranger and Iraq war vet, who, in the guise of a New York Times reporter, joins a cadre of creepers to invade the seven-story Paragon Hotel, a 1910 New Jersey relic built by an eccentric industrialist. The group is led by a down-on-his-luck professor, Robert Conklin, but also features teacher Vincent Vanelli and a couple of graduate students, Rick and Cora Magill. It doesn't take long for the team members to realize that everything is not as it seems -- and that at least two among them harbor agendas beyond the thrills available in a spooky old hostelry. The Paragon holds secrets of its own (gangsters once convened there, murders occurred on the premises, and gold is rumored to have been hidden within the walls), and evils that were once cloaked in darkness are no longer dormant. Furthermore, Balenger and company aren't the only ones poking around the hotel. Others have their own interests in this place -- and no compunction against eliminating rivals. Morrell's latest thriller is propelled by tense dialogue and even tenser situations, and its story combines elements of horror, adventure and crime. The reader is never quite sure what is happening; and because no one is who he or she seems to be, there are some very satisfying shocks delivered. Violent, scary and unsettling, Creepers definitely lives up to its title. -- Ali Karim

The Devil's Wind by Richard Rayner (HarperCollins)

If ever there was a crime novel in search of a Sinatra soundtrack, it's The Devil's Wind, British-born Rayner's attempt to marry The Fountainhead with James M. Cain's worldview. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, Las Vegas and parched points in between, it is a classic Pandora's box sort of yarn, in which events, once set into cascading motion, cannot be restrained, but eventually overwhelm the hapless participants. Players in these pages strive, to quote Old Blues Eyes, for "all or nothing at all" -- and generally end up with the latter. Yet Wind is anything but a fiction of desolation; instead, it's a seductive invitation to the more sinister side of the Eisenhower era, where power politics, gangsters, gambling and nuclear testing all vie with sleek-finned automobiles and Ava Gardner's gams for attention -- and the control of men's souls. The first-person narrator here is Maurice Valentine, the son of a failed Philadelphia engineer, who, after having his nerves "torn to shreds" during World War II, began life anew on America's West Coast. Now, in 1956, he's a 40-year-old rising-star architect capitalizing on Southern California's postwar building boom, married to the daughter of Nevada's junior U.S. senator. He's made a prominent place for himself in architecture circles, but only after first turning his back on his brilliant, libidinous former partner, Luis Barragan, who was blacklisted for refusing to identify friends in the Communist Party. Then, into Valentine's life sashays Mallory Walker, a 20-something, bleached-blond and Yale-educated shipping heiress, who wants him to design a house for her and, in the course of things, advance her own career in architecture, a usually male-dominated profession. Taking her on as either a lover or protégé could prove risky; Valentine has recently completed work on a glittery new hotel-casino in Vegas, the first of several big-ticket commissions from mob boss Paul Paul Mantilini, while his influential father-in-law is talking him up as a replacement for Nevada's ailing senior U.S. senator. Valentine doesn't want to upset either arrangement. However, he throws caution to the wind when he lets Mallory accompany him to Las Vegas, where he's to meet with Mantilini. Only there, after Mallory dazzles the relatively refined mobster with building sketches that aren't her own, and Mantilini seems to mistake her for a strong-willed woman he knew long ago, does Valentine realize that his inamorata's agenda might not be so straightforward as his own. A subsequent shooting in a hotel penthouse, during an atomic bomb test (a public spectacle, "both beautiful and terrifying," that's attended by a host of sunglass-wearing Hollywood celebs), followed by Mallory's apparent death in a car accident, lead the designer to ask whether she wasn't just as much of a self-creation as he is, only far more dangerous -- to herself as well as others. Rayner's portrayal of mid-50s Vegas, still very much a neon-lit oasis of entertainment fighting to survive in the desert, is enriched with cameo appearances by Dean Martin, Lana Turner and union honcho Jimmy Hoffa. But it's Valentine, Mallory and the oh-so-manipulative Mantilini who carry the greatest burden of this novel's plot, and they do so with aplomb. While none of The Fountainhead's nihilistic characters was easy to associate with on a human level, Maurice Valentine comes across here as naïve but hardly bereft of likableness, and more concerned with his family and profession than he lets on to others. Meanwhile, Mallory's seemingly impenetrable femme fatale façade proves to be more porous than Swiss cheese, as we're offered glimpses back into her troubled history and her love affair with an ill-fated black jazz musician. The slaying of an Oregon P.I., a blazing denouement and interspersed, third-person chapters that follow a precocious teenager named Beth Dyer all contribute to Wind's noirish atmospherics. Although it would've been nice to see things tied up somewhat less neatly in the end, The Devil's Wind remains as welcome and unpredictable as a desert breeze. -- J. Kingston Pierce

First Drop by Zoë Sharp (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Were James Bond less of a sex addict, not misogynistic, and, well, a woman, he would be Charlotte "Charlie" Fox. A British ex-Special Forces soldier (and survivor of a gang rape), who now works as a bodyguard for her former lover Sean Meyer's protection agency, the 26-year-old Charlie takes her first assignment in the United States in Zoë Sharp's brilliantly suspenseful yet emotionally affecting First Drop. Charlie (who narrates this story) was already fed up with her latest, spoiled charge, teenager Trey Pelzner, when gunshots started flying through the air during their visit to Disney World, convincing our heroine to flee with the boy into the unfamiliar surrounding territory of South Florida. Although it was Trey's computer genius father, Keith, who was the original target of threats, Charlie is suddenly forced to protect the boy from dangers that may emanate not only from the local police department, but even from her own firm. On the run and not knowing whom to trust, Charlie is soon sporting pink hair and hiding out among the teenage outcasts at Daytona Beach, trying to figure out what's going on, who's trying to abduct her young charge, and what the hell has become of both Sean and Trey's dad. All she can rely upon is the assistance of a retired FBI agent and her considerable intelligence. Biker babe Charlie Fox is one of the strongest female characters working the dark alleys of mystery fiction nowadays, and her wit and humor prevent her from becoming a stiff caricature of the traumatized ex-soldier. The reader can feel her anguish, as the usually no-nonsense Charlie -- unsure of her former lover's fate -- contemplates how she might have lost him forever, just as they were finally beginning to forge a future together. Sharp also achieves the difficult task of creating teenage characters who are neither two-dimensional nor annoying. The action in these pages is continuous, with shootouts interspersed among the cat-and-mouse games Charlie must play with the police as well as the killers. First Drop is actually Sharp's fourth Charlie Fox novel (after 2004's Hard Knocks), but the first to be published in the States. Nominated last year for the Barry Award in the Best British Crime Novel category, First Drop is a stellar breakout for Sharp, and pretty much guarantees that she'll be making many future appearances in the Colonies. -- Cindy Chow

The Forest of Souls by Carla Banks (HarperCollins UK)

I was suspicious about the publicity surrounding this "debut novel" by Carla Banks, because the characterization in The Forest of Souls is so vivid and chilling, that it seemed unlikely to be the work of a novice. Sure enough, a little digging revealed that "Banks" is a nom de plume of Danuta Reah, a British master of psychological suspense whose previous novel, Bleak Water, ranked among January Magazine's favorite novels of 2002. This novel's plot hangs on the circuitous path followed by Faith Lange, as she tries to figure out who killed her best friend and colleague, Helen Kovacs, a British university researcher who had been investigating the World War II-era Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, journalist Jake Denbigh is asking a great number of questions about Helen's father, the elderly Marek Lange, a man who escaped the horrors of wartime Europe. Marek refuses to discuss his past, but it may be revealed anyway by a 75-year-old concentration camp survivor, now living in England. From reading the late Helen's notes, Faith realizes that there is more to this woman's death than the authorities acknowledge. Even Helen's estranged husband has secrets he's holding. Eventually, a man is arrested for Kovacs' slaying, but Faith isn't convinced he was responsible. As the number of mysteries grows here, reporter Denbigh and Faith find themselves heading east, to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they hope to uncover a trail that will lead them from the ashes of the past to the murders of today. The Forest of Souls is tremendously involving and at times gut-wrenching, with a plot that's as deceptive and reptilian as a serpent. Reah/Banks examines how horrors born in the depths of history can never really be forgotten -- or forgiven -- and that the secrets of the deceased are far from buried. This book really shocks on occasion, not because of violence or gore, but because of the disturbing pictures it paints in your mind. It's also a very timely story, considering the recent Holocaust memorials that have been taking place worldwide. Forest is admittedly a tough book, but one that makes the name Carla Banks worth watching. -- Ali Karim

The God of Chaos by Tom Bradby (Bantam Press UK)

Tom Bradby's third historical thriller (after 2002's The Master of Rain and The White Russian, one of January's favorite books of 2003), Chaos is a tightly wound, tumbling-paced police procedural set in ethnically diverse but British-ruled Cairo. The year is 1942, and with World War II bearing down on northern Africa, the last order of business might seem to be solving ordinary homicides. But there's nothing ordinary about the murder by hanging of Captain Rupert Smith, a popular officer assigned to track military deployments. Found cut into Smith's chest is a fork-tailed canine figure -- Seth, the Egyptian God of Chaos -- as well as a single word, "Liberation," the slogan of an anti-British group of assassins. Could this slaying have been politically motivated? Major Joseph Quinn, a disgraced former New York City cop, now serving as chief investigator with the Royal Military Police, believes it's only been made to look that way. Cairo is in the midst of tremendous turmoil: Erwin Rommel, Adolf Hitler's legendary "Desert Fox," is driving his powerful Afrika Korps across the desert toward Egypt's exotic capital, hoping ultimately to capture the Suez Canal and cut off the ability of the Allies to supply themselves; and while the Brits make evacuation plans, white-robed locals prepare to make the most of a German occupation. Anarchy and malevolence are curbed in Cairo only by the "blistering" June heat. With so much else going awry, Smith's death might well attract little interest -- especially if it's seen as the work of political extremists. However, Quinn thinks the allusions to Egyptian mythology are "a red herring," the killer "[h]oping for a dumb cop who was going to buy a scenario." Joe Quinn is no dumb cop. But he is a troubled one. It's now been a full year since his 4-year-old son perished in a hit-and-run accident, the driver of the automobile still unidentified but known to have been "a deserter travelling on false papers." That tragedy threw up daunting emotional walls between Quinn and his wife, Mae, which they have yet to hurdle. Further distracting the major is the fate of 8-year-old Rifat, the tubercular son of Quinn's Egyptian friend and colleague, Effatt, chief detective of the Cairo Police. Rifat's "only chance of recovery" is to be sent to a sanatorium in Jerusalem; but if the boy goes away, and if Cairo falls to the Nazis, he might not be allowed back into Egypt. Any such concerns, though, have to be set aside if Quinn is to determine why Smith was slain, and by whom. A second homicide, rumors of a German spy in Cairo's British military ranks, a sex scandal, talk of blackmail, an elusive South African conspirator, an American female photographer who might offer Quinn some welcome relief from his loneliness -- all of these complications are destined to make the detective's task more difficult. So, too, will suspicions that his superiors are deliberately covering up facts in the case. However, the chance that solving this mystery might also reveal his son's killer propels Quinn onward, no matter the risk to his marriage -- or his longevity. Bradby, who serves as the UK editor for London-based Independent Television News (ITN), when he's not producing novels, enriches The God of Chaos with his taste for the seedy and the arcane. His wartime Cairo comes alive in these pages, complete with western-style nightclubs, circuitous and jeopardous streets, and periodic snowfalls of propaganda leaflets, released from Nazi bombers. Eccentric King Farouk careers about the city in expensive cars, while beggars palm off scarabs to guilt-plagued travelers at the local train station. It's an environment ripe for the layering-over of fictional intrigue, and Bradby doesn't disappoint. Imagine Casablanca shotgun-hitched to Mulholland Falls, and you get some idea of what has been produced here. Among recent historical crime yarns, Chaos reigns supreme. -- J. Kingston Pierce

A Good Day to Die by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK)

Denis Milne first appeared in British author Kernick's debut novel, The Business of Dying (2002). In A Good Day to Die, we find him -- no longer a London detective sergeant -- living in the Philippines under the nom de plume Marcus "Mick" Kane and running a diving-supplies business with a former informant, Tomboy Darke. He also works part-time as a hit man for London criminal overlord Les Pope. Milne/Kane's first target is Richard Blacklip, a British pedophile escaping justice back in the United Kingdom. Next, Pope assigns our man to do away with Billy Warren. However, Warren isn't who he claims to be. When Milne knew him, during his police days, he was "Slippery Billy" West, a soldier turned criminal and killer. Confronting Slippery, revealing to him Pope's plan to take him out for good, Milne learns that West's escape to the Philippines came in the wake of his involvement in the murders of two cops from the Serious Crimes Unit: Detective Inspector Jason Khan and his partner, Detective Chief Inspector Asif Malik. Word of Malik's elimination sets Milne way back on his heels, for the pair used to be partners. He's no less disturbed to discover that Les Pope had a significant hand in Malik's early end. So Milne hops onto the next available flight to Britain, determined to figure out why Malik and Khan were gunned down in a restaurant, and to avenge his old friend's death. Was it connected to his police work? Or could the killer have been one of Malik's enemies among organized-crime figures? A series of misadventures follow, as Milne knocks elbows with some pretty profound scoundrels and begins to wonder about the fabric of his own reality. Lacking friends and unable to use his previous contacts in the British capital, the former detective sergeant turns eventually for assistance to newspaper reporter Emma Neilson. But he senses something amiss as he and the elfin-featured Emma uncover a conspiracy that leads right to the pillars of influence -- and turns this taut thriller back upon itself. The theme of A Good Day to Die is morality, the uses and abuses of power. That mercenary Milne starts out in this tale by committing two cold-blooded homicides, yet winds up at the close looking like a champ, tells readers much about the variety of yarn from which Kernick spins his stories. As a novel of raw urban realism, hard-charging action and ever-escalating stakes, Good Day is second to none. As an examination, within a fictional framework, of moral choices and principles of honor, it may pose many more questions than it answers. Yet during the hours required to experience Milne's rites of retribution, you are offered the extraordinary chance to see things through the eyes of someone for whom the decision to act in the right is a conscious and often troubling one. For my money, that opportunity is worth the price of admission. -- Ali Karim

The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow)

Elmore Leonard has been doing what he does so well, for so long that we tend to take him for granted. The Hot Kid, his latest, is a case in point. On the surface it's all just the same old same old, a pleasant enough but unassuming journey back to the "good ol' days" of American Prohibition and the Great Depression, when trigger-happy bootleggers and bank robbers and the take-no-prisoners lawmen who were sworn to bring them in fought it out in the streets -- and on the front pages. When a cop in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, shows up one morning to get a statement from 15-year-old Carlos (soon to be known as Carl Webster, deputy U.S. marshal and the "hot kid" of this novel's title), the young man is urged, "Don't tell no more'n you have to." That's sorta funny, because talking is what Leonard's characters do best -- they explain and justify, they lie and obfuscate, they boast and deny and contradict both themselves and each other. And Leonard is simply the king when it comes to putting words in other people's mouths: his dialogue is always smart and sharp, amusing and cryptic, full of deadpan wit and deft characterization and off-the-wall digressions. Even better, though, is that Leonard makes it all look so effortless and natural, that he never comes off as showy or pretentious. Carl, however, feels no such compunctions -- he's a natural showoff, intent on building a quick rep as a tough-talking, fast-drawing, straight-shooting lawman who brings 'em back -- dead or alive. But what really gives this book its heart is the journey the affable young marshal takes from grandstanding showboater to seasoned and savvy lawman. Leonard's gift for gab has occasionally propped up some less-than-powerful plots, and at first glance, that may seem the case with the episodic, low-key The Hot Kid. But in its own quiet, unassuming way, this book slowly (and subtly) builds up to a satisfyingly full head of steam, making it, ultimately, one of Leonard's most enjoyable reads ever. No, there's nothing fancy in these pages -- no giant plot loop-de-loops or mid-air narrative somersaults -- just straightforward storytelling by a master, with a style as laidback and easygoing as Carl himself boasts. Think of it as a Sunday drive on a hot summer day, a pleasant wander along the back roads of the Depression, leaving a sepia-tinted cloud of dust and wry amusement in its wake. Maybe sometimes it isn't where you're going that matters, but the trip itself -- and when Uncle Elmore is behind the wheel, that's good enough for me. Hop in. -- Kevin Burton Smith

How to Be Bad by David Bowker (St. Martin's Griffin)

How to Be Bad is a violence-infused coming-of-age story for the new millennium. Brit David Bowker began his crime-fiction career by writing The Death Prayer, a 1995 supernatural police procedural with teeth, but he's best known for his books about a hit man known as Rawhead (The Death You Deserve, I Love My Smith & Wesson, etc.). In this satirical new novel, he takes a break from serial slaying in order to write about a bland but nice London bookseller who finds himself complicit in several deaths. Running a gloriously unsuccessful rare bookshop keeps 23-year-old compulsive list-maker Mark Madden sufficiently busy and frustrated. But his life is about to change. First off, he's already had two customers in one week -- a veritable flood of business. The first of this pair was a large, abrasive Jesus look-alike gangster who, after demanding to see Madden's "most horrible book," destroys the thing. The second visitor was a policeman. Despite this pandemonium, Madden remains a nice guy. Yet his attitude only seems to lead him into further trouble, with every good deed being paid back with a fist to the face. Then, a trip to the hospital brings a chance encounter with his hurtfully gorgeous ex-lover, Caro Sewell. Fate thus strikes him a blow of which he's blissfully unaware. The artist Renoir once said, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains." For Mark Madden, it is surely the opposite. One night spent at Caro's, during which she kisses him good night "like Florence Nightingale kissing a dying soldier," and he's once again under his manipulative ex's spell. He's ready to do anything for her, and she is waiting with a list. A list of people she wants him to murder. Realizing that Caro lacks even the most elementary human goodness, he balks. But, looking over his bruised face in the mirror, he also realizes the unfortunate results of being a "nice guy." Of course, agreeing to become a killer is one thing; stumbling into it, as Madden does, is another. After two deaths occur despite his efforts -- making Caro a very rich woman, indeed -- she and Mark marry. "Happily ever after" isn't in the cards, though, as the newlyweds dodge an assassin and a cyberstalker, both. Just how far will Madden go to keep Caro happy? Author Bowker has a dark, rapid-fire writing style that keeps the reader's eyes glued to the page, laughing and horrified at the same time. Escalating dangers force Madden's unexpected strengths to the surface as he learns How to Be Bad. -- Jennifer Jordan

Killing Rain by Barry Eisler (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

In this fourth installment of Eisler's series about John Rain, a Japanese-American assassin with a conscience, Rain undergoes both an outer journey -- to track a man down in order to finish a job -- and an inner journey -- to track down his own morality. Since book one (Rain Fall, 2002), Eisler has written novels steeped in rich atmosphere and compelling pathos. Each new entry in this series is original, deeply thoughtful and packed page to page with action. Rain is a hit man who draws the line at killing women and children. He believes that all he is can be summed up by what he does for a living: kill effectively and survive to kill again. Against his better judgment, he has acquired a talkative and ribald American partner, Dox, and learns trust. Against a code of survival, he develops a hunger for a woman and must learn faith. Killing Rain finds Dox and Rain being hired sub-rosa by Israeli intelligence to bring down Manheim Levi, a man who's spreading the knowledge of sophisticated bomb technology to the highest bidder. Standing in position in Manila, ready to take down his target, Rain suddenly hesitates. Levi's young son has suddenly appeared, and chaos is the result, as Levi's bodyguards enter the scene with guns drawn. Amid the melee, Levi escapes. Now, Rain is the hunted one, for the deceased bodyguards were ex-CIA, working for a maverick Company man with an inclination toward revenge. Seeking help to complete his assignment, Rain contacts Delilah, an intelligence colleague. She has ties to the Israeli Mossad and manages to buy Rain at least a brief interlude of calm in the storm that has become his life. But she's been instructed to set him up; her Mossad associates have their own plans for Rain's removal. Setting eyes on him again, however, Delilah isn't sure she can deceive this man with whom she's been involved. Killing Rain (which follows 2004's Rain Storm) is suspenseful, brimming with tight turns of plot and exotically backdropped. It's an achievement borne of taut writing and a profound character. What could you want out of a thriller? -- Jennifer Jordan

Killing the Beasts by Chris Simms (Orion UK)

This highly polished study of madness and murder shows how well Chris Simms' talent is maturing, after the work he did on his previous two novels, Outside the White Lines (2002) and Pecking Order (2003), both of which were also cracking reflections on madness and mental disintegration. Set against the run-up to Manchester, England's 2002 Commonwealth Games, Beasts gives us Detective Inspector Jon Spicer, a fast-riser in his department, who's hunting down a gang of car thieves targeting top-end vehicles -- Mercedes, BMWs, Porsches and the like. But he's distracted from that assignment by the murder of a female "model." Soon, more corpses come to light, and Spicer is convinced that a serial killer is at large. Meanwhile, advertising executive Tom Benwell, one of Spicer's old friends, has been promoted to managing director of his firm, just as the feeding frenzy brought on by the Games nears its zenith. Not so surprisingly, the strain of fielding too many deals and finessing the truth too often in his new job begins to take its toll on Benwell. To keep up, he resorts to cocaine and other drugs. And from within his narcotic haze, he starts to worry about his firm's information-technology manager, "Creepy George," who's likely the one responsible for storing pornography on the company's computer servers -- pornography of the worst possible sort. As Spicer follows what he believes is a link between the stolen luxury cars and the grotesque corpses left behind by Manchester's mysterious killer, Benwell moves to shut down the pornographer. But the odds of his succeeding seem to worsen with the day, as his high-powered career, his marriage and his sanity all commence to crumble. Amidst his disintegration, he becomes delusional about the dried lumps of chewing gum that litter Manchester's streets, which does nothing to help his relationship with his latest client. Another source of concern: A figure is observing Benwell -- stalking him, actually -- just waiting for his world to collapse. For you see, this ad exec owns a prized Porsche. If you've not read Simms' work before, Killing the Beasts is a great starting point to enter his realm of madness. But beware: Like the drugs that Benwell consumes, Simms' writing is addictive in the extreme. -- Ali Karim

Mercy Falls by William Kent Krueger (Atria Books)

An Anthony Award-winning book, such as William Kent Krueger's Blood Hollow (2004), can be difficult to follow up. But it helps when you have a compelling series lead such as Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor. In Mercy Falls, we find him once more serving as a sheriff in Aurora, Minnesota, called in on a domestic-violence case on the nearby Ojibwe Reservation. Deputy Marsha Dross drives with him to the scene of the crime, filling Cork's ear along the way with talk of a skunk she hit. But when they reach the cabin from which the call was made, everything is quiet. Too quiet. Not even the sound of the dogs barking up a storm is there to greet them. Dross sees blood on the ground, a lot of it, and then a shot suddenly breaks the silence. Dross goes down, and Cork finds himself hiding behind their vehicle, calling for back-up. More shots ring out. Only later, when help reaches the remote area and the deputy is taken away by ambulance, does Cork begin to wonder about who wants his life cut short. On a dark, rainy night only days later, a man is found in a Lexus, dead and mutilated. Cork knows him: It is Eddie Jacoby, a Chicago mover and shaker with ties to the local Indian casino. This more than multiplies the troubles plaguing Cork's mind. The wealthy Jacoby's even wealthier family wants answers, and they'll pay to get them. They insist on bringing in Dina Willner, an intelligent, willful and attractive private investigator to "help" solve the case. With Willner riding his heels, Cork uncovers worrisome ties between one of Jacoby's sons and Jo, Cork's somewhat-reconciled wife. With a sniper aiming to take his life and an old flame hoping to steal his spouse, Cork O'Connor has to think fast and move even faster, if he's to save himself from sinking beneath the raging waters of Mercy Falls. Kent Krueger is an eloquent and earthy wordsmith, a master of subtle and visceral writing, who boasts one of the best series leads in the genre today. With each new installment, both character and creator evolve, taking chances when others would rest on their laurels. The ending of Mercy Falls, the fifth Cork story, will leave readers white-knuckled, as they clench the book in their hands. -- Jennifer Jordan

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow (Alfred A. Knopf)

Don Winslow's newest tour de force, The Power of the Dog, is a 560-page saga that begins in the late 1970s and concludes in May 2004. It's a harrowing account of the "Mexican Trampoline" -- aka the trafficking of cocaine "from Medellin to Honduras to Mexico to the States." Dog's story, made all the more complex and riveting by collusion between the Mafia, Mexican drug lords and a U.S. government that turns a blind eye to the rampant coke shipments, conceals the depth of its intent and information by moving briskly along and packing one gut punch after another. Considering the success of Winslow's previous, brilliant and Shamus Award-winning novel, California Fire and Life (1999), I was concerned that this follow-up would fall short. Well, that was just plain dumb. The Power of the Dog is the best crime novel about the Western Hemisphere's drug trade I have read in many years. It will leave you stunned, but also sickened by the dark side of American democracy. Dog is relentless in the pounding it delivers to U.S. policy regarding the so-called War on Drugs (which is really tantamount to a non-war on drugs). Yet the book's greatness doesn't derive solely from its astute dissection of federal deception. This tale is elevated as well by Winslow's cast of evocative characters. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent Art Keller is a tortured soul, who introduces and closes Winslow's tale. A former CIA operative, Keller is half Mexican, having grown up in San Diego, California's Barrio Logan. The brooding and intelligent Keller pins a personal motivation to his sleeve as he participates in the government's War on Drugs campaign: As a child of the barrio, he saw first-hand the ravaging effects of heroin. He is also haunted, though, by the time he spent as a CIA op in war-torn Vietnam, taking part in the systematic assassination of the Vietcong leadership. With so much blood staining his hands, left over from serving dubious American interests, Keller just barely manages to maintain his sanity -- and, eventually, his actions will cost him everything important in his life. Author Winslow has been thorough in his research, both for historical and plotting-strategy purposes. He recalls in these pages, for instance, the bizarre 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, which involved a sort of "shadow government" within the Reagan White House that schemed to peddle arms to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and then divert the proceeds from that sale to fund efforts by the rebel Nicaraguan Contras to bring down their nation's USSR-friendly government. The more elaborate and sinister link between Contras, Mexican drugs and the Mafia, as Winslow explains it, is plausible and horrifying. The CIA is represented in Dog by John Hobbs, an older white man so pale that he looks ghostly. Hobbs embodies the same murderous mentality as the Mexican drug lords -- he achieves his objects by taking lives, if necessary, and without second thoughts. Winslow has written a maelstrom of a fictional political and historical book, eternally complicated, filled with killers and lovers, passion, betrayal and the quest for redemption. A book like The Power of the Dog rarely comes along, and when it does, let it break your heart and open your mind. -- Anthony Rainone

A Quiet Vendetta by Roger Jon Ellory (Orion UK)

Roger Jon Ellory neatly combines fact with fiction in his latest work, as he retells the story of organized crime in America and how the criminal underworld has ridden the shifting winds of U.S. politics right up to the present day. A Quiet Vendetta presents such a kaleidoscopic vision of real people interacting with fictional characters, that it's impossible at most points to distinguish reality from make-believe. The story begins conventionally enough with Detective Verlaine of the New Orleans Police Department investigating a dead body found in an automobile trunk. This murder was extremely brutal, with the victim displaying a representation of the Gemini constellation carved into his back. The corpse appears to be sending a signal of some sort -- a warning, perhaps? As more facts become available, worries are heightened. As it turns out, the murder victim is a bodyguard, responsible for looking after 19-year-old Catherine Ducane, the daughter of Charles Ducane, the governor of Louisiana. And she's now missing. Soon, FBI agents grab the case from Verlaine, and a mysterious, elderly Cuban gent named Ernesto Perez contacts the investigative team, telling them that he has Ms. Ducane and is looking to cut a deal. Strangely, all he wants in exchange for her release is to speak with Ray Hartmann, a down-on-his-luck attorney from a Washington-based organized-crime task force. Hartmann is soon brought into the investigation, and then kidnapper Perez turns himself in. However, Perez won't reveal where the woman is being kept, or how long she has left to live -- at least not until he is allowed to spill out his whole tale, which forms the backbone of this gripping narrative. Perez's tale unravels like the skin of a banana, one strip peeling away at a time. We soon learn more about the brutal world that Perez has lived in, and how he evolved into a psychopathic enforcer and underworld hit man. Brutal at times, but beautifully written, A Quiet Vendetta is a novel worth getting lost in. Ellory (who also wrote Ghostheart, one of January's 2004 gift-book picks) presents an epic novel of the Italian Mafia that will remind you of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, but which never tries to copy that earlier, classic work. -- Ali Karim

Rosa by Jonathan Rabb (Crown Publishers)

I've periodically toyed with the idea of creating a new crime-fiction award, this one to be given to "the most underappreciated book of the year." The 2005 winner might well by Rosa, a suspenseful, noirish tale set in Berlin in the dying days of World War I, and incorporating the real-life disappearance of the body of Rosa Luxemburg, "Red Rosa," a Polish-born socialist revolutionary who was executed in January 1919. Rabb (The Overseer, The Book of Q) builds this emotional, evocative historical thriller around the murders of middle-aged women in the German capital's slums, all of them left with the same sort of cryptic carvings in their backs. Assigned to make sense of it all is Detective Inspector Nikolai Hoffner, a 45-year-old, part-Russian policeman with two sons, an unsatisfying marriage and an ambitious new, 25-year-old partner, Hans Fichte, who was tossed out of the Kaiser's army after an unfortunate gas-mask incident. The murders appear to be just another reminder of Berlin's increasingly sorry state, its citizens striking out at each other, even as war strikes at their future. But when this serial-killer case attracts attention from the Polpo, Germany's arrogant political police ("Hoffner had never figured out whether they had been created to combat or augment domestic espionage"), there's no question that more is going on than meets the eye. When Hoffner is shown the recovered corpse of Rosa Luxemburg, her back scarred in a way similar (but not identical) to the other women, the urgency and need for discretion in the case becomes clearer. But playing it safe, sweeping secrets and criminal acts -- even officially sanctioned ones -- under the rug, isn't what Hoffner does; his probe into what the press calls the "chisel murders" is more likely to upset the status quo than settle it, as it propels him into the company of lace artists, leads him to a hesitant audience with Albert Einstein (then director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics), sends him off via aeroplane to Belgium, and ushers him into the soft embrace of Lina, a self-possessed teenage flower-seller -- and Fichte's girlfriend. The ever-brooding Hoffner, unsettled but unwilling to hope for more ("Hope fostered despair, and Hoffner had no desire for either"), makes a superb protagonist, a not overly brilliant man who might be stronger if he had more to buttress himself than a job and the disrespect of his elder son. While Rosa is a deeply political novel, reflecting author Rabb's research into the times (and hinting at developments that will lead to Adolf Hitler and World War II), it's also a fine examination of the smaller aspects of life in war-torn Berlin -- the food shortages, the hardships of street living, the societal divisions that compel the secret construction of an underground train station. We view all of it through the eyes of Hoffner, an old-school cop who accepts but isn't happy about the changes being wrought to his city, to his nation. It's inevitable that Rosa should be compared with Philip Kerr's private eye Bernie Gunther novels, J. Robert Janes' St. Cyr and Kohler series (Beekeeper, Flykiller) and even Pierre Frei's recently issued Berlin. But Rabb's work isn't satisfying because it fits so nicely into what's becoming a subgenre of "wartime mysteries": It's satisfying because it stands out from the crowd. I can only hope that this isn't the last we've heard of Kriminal-Kommisar Nikolai Hoffner. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Shock Wave by James O. Born (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

James O. Born has managed to find a fresh perspective for his Miami police-procedural series, which features Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) special agent Bill Tasker. In Shock Wave, the second installment of this series (after 2004's Walking Money), Tasker once again displays his "straitlaced" professionalism and passion for investigation. Tasker does have a dark side, though: he's not content with doing just a good job; he's obsessed with his work. It was because of this occupational zeal that his wife, Donna, divorced him and assumed sole custody of their two girls, though she retains a soft spot for the earnest Florida lawman. Given the joy ride that is Shock Wave, the reader is likely to develop a soft spot for him, too. This new book starts off modestly, with Tasker involved in an undercover gun-buy sting. But Shock soon grows in complexity, as the sting leads to an arrested suspect turning in another bad guy, who just happens to have a stinger missile for sale. Ultimately, this revelation will lead to a grander plot, in which a sociopath schemes to blow up a very public venue. Author Born, an FDLE agent himself by trade, builds his plot using real-time criminal case development, where one piece of evidence can sometimes reveal a bigger crime scenario. Born knows the perp ego and personality well, and he sets his novel on the shoulders of a psychologically well-drawn bomber. This story is no run-of-the-mill whodunit. The reader is never in the dark about the bomber's determination to take down something really big. What isn't known, however, is the precise target -- and whether Tasker and his task force can stop the bomber before the fireworks begin. With its tempo clicking like a timer on an explosive, Shock Wave makes for one compelling read. As much as Shock Wave focuses on Bill Tasker, the cop, Born also commits significant time to portraying his protagonist's family life. It turns out that, despite his work obsession, Tasker is a devoted and loving father, and he still feels the sting of losing his spouse. This vulnerability (well short of moroseness) is an appealing quality in Tasker. The tenderness he displays in relation to his daughters, along with his desire to make them happy, is downright touching. The pulse of Shock Wave is steady, though edge-of-your-seat moments scattered throughout this yarn hit quickly, like punches. Fans of police procedurals will learn a great deal of realistic detail from this work. With an adversary who is more than an adept match for Tasker and his quirky team, success in the bombing case will depend on our hero's perseverance and deductive skills. Although the FBI let him down, Tasker's bravura more than makes up for it. With the United States' heightened awareness of bombings, Born has hit upon a timely topic. And, thankfully, his decision to make this story's psycho an American prevents Shock from making the now-cliché reach into racial fears. James O. Born is certain to increase his fan base with Shock Wave, a blast on every level. -- Anthony Rainone

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason; translated by Bernard Scudder (The Harvill Press UK)

When I read Jar City (or Tainted Blood, which is the book's new title in the UK) some time ago, I was struck by Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason's remarkable ability to mine heartfelt emotion from the sparest of prose. I often commented to people that this was one of the saddest books I'd ever read. So any follow-up would have to meet exceedingly high standards, but Silence of the Grave actually surpasses them. Erlendur, the police detective with a justifiably dour disposition, makes a return in these pages, and he faces frustration on both the professional and personal fronts. The latter due to his wayward daughter, Eva, who continues freefalling down a vicious path of drug addiction and anger; the former because of a shallow grave unearthed at a construction site that yields old bones -- and a shattering mystery that dates back to World War II. All the while, a parallel narrative unfolds of a young woman struggling to raise her family in the face of horrific abuse, and how her life connects with the discovery of the buried bones unfolds in surprising and deeply moving ways. Although Indridason, perhaps the biggest crime-writing star in his native country, does an excellent job of portraying and explaining the investigative aspects of his story, Silence of the Grave is more concerned with social commentary -- especially with regards to how the specter of violence affects one generation to the next. Special note should be given to translator Bernard Scudder, who relays a writing voice filled with nuance and layered emotion. Not only did this novel deserve its Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award (which lead to considerable controversy, including the removal of crime novels in translation from future consideration for the commendation), but it's without question one of the best crime novels published in 2005. -- Sarah Weinman

Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books)

Henry "Hank" Thompson has been living down in Mexico, ever since he had to flee both irate Russian mobsters and the New York police in Charlie Huston's fast-paced and edgy first novel, Caught Stealing. Now, in the sequel Six Bad Things, set in 2003 -- three years after that earlier tale -- we find Hank sitting on part of $4.5 million in stolen cash and attempting to stay sober, while acting as silent owner of a Yucatan Peninsula beach bar, The Bucket. It's not a half-bad life. Hank swims daily in the Gulf of Mexico, and tries his damndest to blend into the casual sunny atmosphere and just chill out. But that proves to be a hard task for Hank, who can't escape his memories of the 14 dead people he left behind in Manhattan -- fatalities he played a significant role in causing. Hank has no actual plans to ditch his beachside retreat, but when a Russian traveler suddenly turns up at his watering hole, intimating that Hank's family could be in danger from gangsters back in the States ... well, that's all this dedicated son needs to hear. He packs up and heads home to Oakland, California. Any fans of Caught Stealing who worried that this sequel might mark a letdown in pace or intensity can relax: Six Bad Things is no sloppy second. With the intensity of a crackhead on methamphetamines, the novel packs a wallop of quick, potent violence, together with breakneck plotting. The mesmerizing voice of Hank Thompson is no less engaging here than it was last time, and since author Huston has stated that his series will be a trilogy, fans might as well start salivating now for the third and final installment (A Dangerous Man, due out in 2006). One can argue that Hank is a victim of unfortunate circumstances. But he also makes some seriously misguided choices, leading to dire consequences. Returning to Oakland, he knows he has to stay under the radar of local law enforcement. Yet, while trying to purchase a used car, Hank nearly beats several men to death and averts capture only by escaping to Las Vegas. It's in Nevada's largest, glitziest gambling city that he hopes to find his friend Tim from New York, a dealer to whom he'd sent the bulk of his ill-gotten dough before leaving Mexico. However, Tim didn't happen to tell Hank precisely where in Vegas he'd be staying. So our hero turns to an old high-school buddy, "T," who dresses like Elvis Presley, has a dog named Hitler and works as a DJ in a Vegas strip club. Some of Hank's other bad choices revolve around Rolf, an acquaintance of his who ollowed him north from Mexico. Rolf and his sidekick, Sid, are sociopaths and stone-cold killers. By the time Rolf and Sid are done here, they'll have left Hank with another pile of bodies to shoulder. One wonders whether the calculating mobsters might actually be more welcome. Readers are likely to worry more than a bit about the direction Hank Thompson is headed in his next adventure. The persona that this ill-fated but good-hearted protagonist has "found" in himself is perhaps an id that holds no redemption for him. Still, with steeled nerves and bated breath, we're all ready to jump along at his side. -- Anthony Rainone

Strange Affair by Peter Robinson (William Morrow)

Robinson is a classic example of a skilled crime novelist who made the difficult leap from genre ghettohood to literary acclaim, and has never looked back. After the publication of In a Dry Season (1999), which was nominated for both an Edgar and an Anthony award, he's turned out five books -- the only klinker in that bunch (to my mind, anyway) being Playing with Fire (2004). This year's Strange Affair, the 15th novel featuring headstrong British Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, is a welcome return to the sort of intimate, personalized storytelling we last enjoyed in Close to Home (2003). It finds Banks still recovering, slowly from his blazing adventure in Playing with Fire. But he's summoned away from his familiar brooding over the injustices of life and disappointing relationships by a phone message from his estranged younger brother, Roy, who states that he could use the DCI's help in "a matter of life and death." Naturally, Banks is concerned -- especially given Roy's background of questionable business involvements. So when the cop can't raise his brother on the phone, he heads off from Yorkshire for Roy's home in London, only to find that residence unlocked, Roy's computer nowhere on the premises, but his cell phone left behind. Has Roy gone off on his own, or been kidnapped for some reason? After discovering that his sibling was last spotted getting into a car with an unidentified gent, and receiving on Roy's mobile what looks like a photo of his brother slumped over in a chair, the inspector suspects the latter. While all of these events are transpiring, back in Eastvale, Banks' colleague and ex-lover, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, is busy looking into the shooting death of Jennifer Clewes, a family planning center administrator from London who's been found in her Peugeot, with the address of Banks' once-ruined (and recently broken into) cottage tucked into the back pocket of her jeans. As Annie struggles to identify Clewes' attacker and determine whether this slaying fits into a pattern of recent roadway assaults, she's anxious also to learn what connection Banks may have to the case. But the DCI is frustratingly unavailable (which, as readers of this series well know, has been one of this couple's issues all along). Over the course of the last 18 years, ever since the publication of his first Banks novel, Gallows View (1987), Peter Robinson has been carefully assembling his protagonist's back story. However, the last few installments of the series seem to have made great leaps in that regard, especially when it comes to Banks' association with his family. In Strange Affair, the DCI is compelled to re-evaluate the brother he has long distrusted and resented, and even to look more self-critically at what parts of himself he might be willing to share with Annie Cabbot. It's a careful dance the author executes with this story, mixing the personal into what's also a most rewarding police procedural, filled with talk of international arms dealing, a bevy of suspicious secondary players, and hints of misdeeds at a women's clinic. I look forward to Robinson's next Banks novel, Piece of My Heart, due out in June. -- J. Kingston Pierce

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

School Days by Robert B. Parker (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Remember the good ol' days back before 9/11, when people worried about such things as school shootings -- that peculiarly American pastime that combines the fun of assault weapons with secondary education -- instead of weapons of mass destruction and "the war on Christmas"? Remember the hysteria over trench coat mafias, assault rifles, classroom bullying and Marilyn Manson videos? Seems almost quaint, now, doesn't it? But Laura Lippman and Robert B. Parker apparently remember. They've both released smart and passionate novels this year that deal with the aftermath of school shootings, and both books are notable and provocative reads, entertaining and disturbing. Readers of Lippman's previous standalone, Every Secret Thing (which dealt with murderous little girls) and her equally bruising latest, To the Power of Three (which features a locked high-school washroom, three teenage girls, a loaded handgun and fatal consequences as its narrative centerpiece), may be excused for feeling that the author has apparently left "sugar and spice and everything nice" behind a very long time ago -- and that she's seriously pissed off. To the Power of Three is like a relentless shotgun marriage between Mean Girls and Bowling for Columbine. Lippman directs her wide cast of characters, each with his or her own guilty secrets and concealed hurts, with a sure and powerful hand like the pro she is, never taking a false step or flinching from her vision, eschewing dime-a-dozen acts of violence in favor of the far more devastating violence of raw emotions exposed and dreams crushed. She stretches and snaps time like elastic, starting with the shooting (one girl dead, one not talking -- and one whose story seems dubious, at best) and then retracing the steps that led to it, leapfrogging from character to character and viewpoint to viewpoint, as teachers, police officers, parents and other members of the adult world struggle in vain to make sense of the shooting. But one by one, every lie, half-lie and treacherous little secret is knocked down as Lippman works her relentless way back to the present -- until, finally, all that's left standing is the truth. Or something close to it. Robert B. Parker takes a similar tack in his latest Spenser novel, the psychologically complex School Days, and is equally on top of his game, all manly swagger, wiseass retorts and lean, mean prose. Like Lippman's novel, the shooting in School Days is over almost before the book has begun, and the reader (along with Parker's series detective, the enduring one-named Boston gumshoe with the plug-and-play moral code) are left to pick up the pieces. Spenser is hired by a wealthy woman to clear her 17-year-old grandson, who's been charged with participating in a shooting at a snooty private school that left five students and two teachers dead. The problem is that the boy has already confessed and there seems little evidence of any kind that he didn't do it -- something even Spenser soon acknowledges. But the burning question, Why? remains, and finding the answer to that one turns out to be anything but easy. The boy isn't talking and everyone else, including the local law, the school administration, the boy's lawyer and even his parents, wish Spenser would just go away and let justice -- or what passes for it -- be served. Fortunately, Spenser's nothing if not determined, and his dogged search for the truth soon has him tangling with local gangbangers, hostile cops and more than a few nasty little secrets. An added treat for longtime fans of this series is that our hero works solo this time out, knocking down doors, taking names and annoying those who should be annoyed. With both Susan Silverman and Hawk noticeably MIA, School Days is a marked (and welcome) return to the series' earliest heyday, a pleasant and long overdue blast of pure, unadulterated Spenser in all his wise-cracking, two-fisted, poetry-spouting heroic glory. And the truth, when finally revealed, is a jaw-dropper, raising a slew of troubling questions that recall the ethical, moral and psychological quandaries that this long-running and popular series, at its best, has always trafficked in. Spenser, like the hero he is, crawls through the wreckage of torn lives, trying to bring a little mercy, or at least understanding, to those deserving of it (and often, least likely to get it), trying to make the world right again. This is a task that may be more or less hopeless, but both Parker and Lippman deserve full marks for trying -- and for daring to ask the burning question that really lies at the dark hearts of both these books, a question too few "grown-ups" seem willing to ask or even acknowledge: What the hell is wrong with us, and what the hell are we doing to our children? The answer, as always, is elusive and far from simple, but maybe it's one we should all be asking. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Watcher in the Pine by Rebecca Pawel (Soho Press)

This third novel in Rebecca Pawel's superbly drawn historical series featuring Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon, finds the earnest Nationalist lieutenant taking command of the Guardia Civil post in the small Cantabrian village of Potes. It's 1940, in post-civil war Spain. Tejada sees his relocation both as a means to get away from his overbearing commander, Captain Rodriguez in Salamanca, and as a deserved promotion. But he didn't expect his new post to be so rural, or the village to be in such crying need of repair. And he feels guilty for having brought his lovely pregnant wife, Elena Fernandez, to this backwater town -- a place that may prove hostile to them both. It seems that the Republican maquis ("Red guerillas") are sporadically attacking the Guardia patrols from mountain positions, and "the terrorists" may even be responsible for the murder of Tejada's predecessor at Potas, Lieutenant Calero. Tejada finds his immediate subordinate, Sergeant Márquez, of questionable use in decision making, and the whole Guardia Civil post lacking in discipline and proper accommodations. While Tejada is busy turning his new command into a respectable enforcer of government law, Elena is concerned about not having the whole town hate them. Very quickly, things turn ominous for Tejada. It seems that someone has stolen two shipments of dynamite from Devastated Regions, the government agency responsible for rebuilding those portions of the town that were destroyed during the war, as well as general infrastructure improvements, and Tejada fears for Potas' safety. When villager Anselmo Montalban, the owner of a local fonda (bar), is found dead, amid rumors of his possible involvement with the maquis and even the murder of Calero, and then Elena is temporarily kidnapped, Tejada's investigations into the small town's mysterious affairs takes on an air of urgency. The solution to these crimes comes as much as a surprise to Tejada as to the reader. The Watcher in the Pine does not succeed simply as a novel of criminality, however. Author Pawel spent a good month in Potes, doing direct research and adding to her already abundant knowledge of Spain in the 1930s and 40s. As a result, Watcher is a rich historical novel, as well as offering an engrossing exploration of the damaged human soul. The distrust that characters feel for their post-civil war government bleeds through these pages, and the hardships that each side inflicted upon the other is much in evidence. Touchingly, Tejada's own vulnerabilities come to light here, as he becomes a father for the first time, Elena bearing a son, Carlos Antonio ("Toño"). For Lieutenant Tejada, those things for which he would have given his life previously, suddenly become irrelevant compared to his family's safety. Elena, with her longstanding leftist leanings, and her loyal Nationalist husband come to terms with their at-odds political beliefs, and it is their forged union that symbolically holds out hope for the whole of Spain -- if the various political parties can learn to compromise for the greater good of their country. The Watcher in the Pine is a glorious book, and both the characters and the earthy Spaniard countryside are well worth the time spent with them. -- Anthony Rainone

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