Saturday, December 27, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Crime Fiction, Part I

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr (Akashic Books) 320 pages
One of the great pleasures of reading is discovering a stunning writer totally unknown to you. It’s very much like the romantic experience: your first thought is “Where has this person been all my life?” Akashic, that wonderful class act run by rock musician Johnny Temple, sent me in January a copy of a novel by Nina Revoyr called The Age of Dreaming. Not only is it a tremendously intriguing book about a fascinating period -- the 1910s and 20s, the golden age of silent movies -- but it’s also a superb work of publishing art: French covers (the fold-over sort that provide instant, unloseable bookmarks), an evocative cover photo, all the trimmings. Revoyr’s Jun Nakayama was a Japanese actor who became a movie star in Hollywood. He might remind you of Sessue Hayakawa, who appeared as the terrifying prison camp commander in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Into this mix, Revoyr ladles recognizable chunks from a genuine Hollywood mystery -- the murder of a famous director which, although it was never officially solved, was thought to be the work of the mad mother of a very young and emotionally fragile Southern actress. Jun starts his story in 1964, 42 years after the murder and his abrupt retirement from the film world. Thanks to wise investments, he now lives in comfort in Los Angeles, thinking only occasionally about the past. But when a journalist and budding screenwriter calls to ask for an interview, Jun is set off on a truly amazing voyage of self-discovery. Driving his vintage Packard through neighborhoods now unimaginably changed to him, he contacts old associates from the period. A strong undercurrent of racial prejudice runs through this book: a scene in which Jun takes some Japanese associates to a golf driving range in Westwood, only to discover that a new rule bars “Orientals and Negroes” from playing there, could break your heart. -- Dick Adler

Blackout by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Henry Holt) 243 pages
Chief Inspector Espinosa, the bibliophilic Brazilian police detective featured in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s unusual series of police-procedural novels, is an odd duck -- as he himself reflects, in this passage from Blackout (translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser): “No other police chief went to interview witnesses after stopping off at the best bookstore in the neighborhood and selecting three books -- Faulkner, Coetzee, and Patricia Highsmith -- did the interview and got enraptured by the beauty of the interviewee, and then went out into the street, looked at the sky, and thought ‘Matisse blue.’ ... [W]hat a strange person he was ... a person turned in on himself, his own questions, his own world, that was a better way of putting it: he lived in his own world.” That world includes a beautiful girlfriend (whom he helped rescue from harm’s way in a previous book), an apartment with a “bookshelf” made just of volumes stacked upon volumes (“a compact mass of books three meters tall and two meters wide”) -- and of course those police cases which demand his professional attention and which somehow or other draw on his idiosyncratic knowledge, behavior and reading-tastes. The case in Blackout involves a homeless man killed in a cul-de-sac on a residential hillside. What was the poor man doing up there? And why would anyone harm him? The investigation centers on an interior decorator who may know more than he says; and the decorator’s psychiatrist-wife, who not only gets patients to explore their own secrets but who has some of her own. Espinosa behaves at times like the thoughtful Parisian inspector in the books of a certain French author he reads, and at other times like some hard-boiled American op stirring things up in Poisonville. In the existential end, though, the inspector is his own man: a self-absorbed and self-conscious original. -- Tom Nolan

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard (Morrow) 368 pages
Having previously recruited Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim (Mr. Timothy) and poet-novelist Edgar Allan Poe (The Pale Blue Eye) as detectives in two previous mysteries, Washington, D.C., author Louis Bayard finally turns to a real-life sleuth, accused criminal-turned-crime-fighter Eugène François Vidocq, to tackle one of history’s most curious cases -- the disappearance in 1795 of dauphin Louis-Charles, the son of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI. Although he’d technically become King Louis XVII at the time of his father’s death in 1793, during the French Revolution, Louis-Charles never ascended to the throne, but was instead imprisoned by republicans, who abused and eventually left him to die behind bars at age 10. But did he perish? Rumors spread that he had in fact escaped his cell, and several dozen “lost dauphin” pretenders came forward in subsequent years, after the monarchy was restored, hoping to be acclaimed the royal heir. Bayard’s own take on this episode is by turns thrilling, funny and moving. The action begins in Paris in 1818, when Vidocq, a renowned master of disguise and the founder of Paris’ plainclothes police force, approaches 26-year-old medical student Hector Carpentier. It seems that a man named Chrétien Leblanc was murdered while on his way to visit Hector, and Vidocq wants to know whether the aspiring young doctor was involved in that crime. Trouble is, Hector never met the deceased. Driven by Vidocq’s suspicions as well as his own curiosity, Hector goes on to discover a connection between Leblanc and his own doctor-father, who had once treated a very special and secret patient: the doomed young dauphin at Paris’ dreaded Temple Prison -- the “black tower” of this novel’s title. Apparently, someone is convinced that the almost-king did not actually die 13 years before, and he or she is willing to kill now in order to prevent his surprise resurrection. Could a youthful innocent lacking in memory, over whom Hector and Vidocq stumble in the course of their investigation, be the missing dauphin? And to what lengths are they willing to go to save his life now? Bayard is a skilled plotter and character-crafter, delivering here a playfully capricious Vidocq, who steals every scene he steps into, and in Hector Carpentier, a protagonist who sees his family’s story altered as he defies political chicanery and vengeful conspirators to determine the fate of Louis-Charles. Or does he? -- J. Kingston Pierce

Blue Heaven by C.J. Box (St. Martin’s Minotaur) 352 pages
Blue Heaven, by the redoubtable C.J. Box, who does such a tremendous job with his series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, is a superb standalone thriller, set in an Idaho town where Los Angeles Police Department retirees go to live -- and die, some of them violently. What Box does so well, without wasting a word, is to create an insular and frighteningly plausible community in North Idaho where Mark Fuhrman, the L.A. cop who sank the O.J. Simpson prosecutor’s case, has a radio talk show and many of the citizens share his conservative bias. It’s the kind of town where a Hispanic officer from Arcadia notices that he’s the only non-Anglo on board the flight to Spokane, Washington. (It’s his refusal to let go of a cold case, a robbery at Santa Anita, that sets off the ensuing bloodbath.) But it’s also home to some good people, notably a courageous banker who has held a dark secret too long and an old rancher (a perfect film role for Sam Elliott) who protects two children -- witnesses to the murder of a retired LAPD officer -- who are now in flight from the killers. In a word, heaven. -- Dick Adler

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) 422 pages
Mickey Haller, the L.A. criminal-defense attorney who narrates Michael Connelly’s exciting The Brass Verdict, is a no-frills professional: his ex-wife is his office-manager, his ex-wife’s boyfriend is his investigator, and his office is the backseat of his chauffeured car. Haller hasn’t taken a case to trial for a year, when this hard-charging book begins; but fate, and a presiding judge, give him a bounty of business when he’s assigned the client-list of a murdered colleague. One of those clients is a movie studio-chief accused of killing his wife and her apparent lover. As Haller works against deadline to craft a feasible defense -- a task made even harder by having to ascertain the truth or fantasy behind all these Hollywood types’ real or imagined back-stories -- another of Mr. Connelly’s series characters, LAPD detective Harry Bosch, is investigating the death of that murdered colleague of Haller’s, a death which impinges on Mickey’s life in unexpected and dangerous ways. It’s fascinating to see Detective Bosch through another character’s eyes, and intriguing to watch Mickey try to get the best of Harry, even as Haller finds his way through a legal and moral labyrinth that may lead to the end of his own career. Some reviewers have compared Michael Connelly to Raymond Chandler, if only because their works are both set in Los Angeles; but it should be apparent to all that Connelly is a modern maestro with his own style and set of preoccupations. Let others be compared to him. -- Tom Nolan

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe (McLelland & Stewart) 391 pages
Published in North America early in 2008, The Calling created a stir for playing coy with the identity of its author. We were told only that Inger Ash Wolfe was the pen name of a well-known author of literary fiction. As a result, a lot of reviewers seemed to have a problem going beyond guessing games and, when they didn’t come up with answers, kicking the book to the curb. On reading this novel, though, I found that response little short of weird. In clarity of tone and sureness of voice, The Calling is astonishing. And yes: it is a serial-killer novel. And yes again: the book sometimes reaches towards violence that some readers will find distressing. Even so, The Calling is exquisite. More mystery novels are expected from this mysterious author. I can hardly wait. -- Linda L. Richards

Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster) 288 pages
Hired three years ago to help defend suspected killer Lionel Byrd, private eye Elvis Cole found evidence that proved Byrd’s innocence. Now, jump forward to present time, when newly discovered and indisputable proof surfaces that Byrd was not only guilty of murder, but he was a serial killer who went on to claim more victims. It is a P.I.’s worst nightmare. Someone once said that Los Angeles is a great place to live, but a better place to write about. Robert Crais’ L.A. crackles and sparks, and the wounded and emotionally distressed are easily visible under the sun’s glare. Cole is a great gumshoe, because he has the heart of a lion and the soul of a poet. If there’s an alternative truth about Byrd yet to be uncovered, Cole will be the one to find it. Chasing Darkness does not succeed if Cole can’t penetrate the blue wall of Parker Center and the investigating detectives who refuse to give him information. P.I.s don’t have the accessibility of cops, and Byrd can be of no help, because he’s already committed suicide by the time this book opens. With assistance from insider friends such as LAPD detective Carol Starkey and Scientific Investigation Division technician John Chen, Cole is able to piece together what the police have. The evidence is rock-solid, but the difference lies in the interpretation, the subtleties that have to be teased out during the course of any criminal probe. The police agreed with suspicious speed on Byrd as their killer, and Cole isn’t buying it. He begins the most daunting aspect of his investigation -- going to speak to the family of Debra Repko, a woman who died after Cole helped free Byrd. Cole experiences the Repko family’s pain first-hand, in their faces and numbed mannerisms. Several things are guaranteed in any Elvis Cole book -- he’s going to bend the law if necessary to save a life, there are going to be action-packed sequences of some violence and his partner, Joe Pike, will be nearby to watch Cole’s back. It isn’t long before those ugly bed-partners, politics and big money, come into play here, and Cole believes he’s unearthed a diabolical connection between the murdered women and the LAPD itself. Chasing Darkness is not only about finding the identity of a serial killer, and redeeming a P.I.’s career, but it’s also about finding the light in one’s life. For Elvis Cole fans, there’s plenty of light in L.A. -- Anthony Rainone

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing) 448 pages
Remarkably accomplished in both storytelling and plot, Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel had me clutching it with both hands and barreling through it in a single sitting. What’s so bewitching about this tale? Begin with the fact that it takes place in Russia during the 1950s and Stalin’s cruel Soviet regime, which enslaved the Russian people in poverty and paranoia. Against that backdrop we’re given the hunt for a child-murdering serial killer, but also fed the propaganda that such crimes do not exist in Stalin’s Communist nirvana. Then we have to consider Smith’s characters -- Leo Demidov, a respected secret policeman, and his wife, Raisa, who find themselves on the wrong end of state politics when the case of a murdered child turns to obsession. They discover that the death on a railway track was not an accident, as the authorities insist. Nor was it an isolated case, for a trail of child homicides snakes along Russia’s railway system. On top of everything, we are presented in these pages with the cruelty of a state oppressing its population with gulag threats. Loosely based on the real-life case of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, “the Red Ripper,” Child 44 finds Leo and Raisa exiled from their privileged home in Moscow to the freezing hinterlands, and trying to make do as best they’re able -- which is not always the prettiest picture. The brutality of this book is shocking, but is placed into the context of Stalinist-era atrocities. Even through that darkness, one can still feel the warmth and heartbreak of people struggling against tyranny. Child 44 is part Martin Cruz Smith, part Thomas Harris and part Robert Harris with just a smattering of George Orwell thrown in. -- Ali Karim

Dancing for the Hangman by Martin Edwards (Flambard
Press UK) 256 pages

Most students of criminal history know the fundamentals of the Hawley Harvey Crippen murder case. In 1910, that reportedly mild-mannered, Michigan-born homeopathic practitioner is said to have slain and then buried the partial remains of his domineering and unfaithful spouse, music hall singer Cora Crippen (aka “Belle Elmore”), beneath the brickwork floor of their London basement. Afterward, Crippen and his much younger employee and lover, Ethel Le Neve -- the two disguised as father and son -- fled Great Britain aboard the SS Montrose, bound for Canada, where they dreamed of beginning a new life together. However, their plans were foiled in dramatic fashion by Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Walter Dew. After being tipped to their escape via wireless telegram (a technological turning point well recounted by Erik Larson in Thunderstruck), Dew set off in pursuit on a faster ship, and was waiting for the Montrose when it finally entered Canada’s St. Lawrence River. He quickly took Crippen into custody and returned him to England, where the culprit was found guilty of homicide and hanged. That’s the framework of this tale, but around it Martin Edwards packs considerable substance -- emotional, entertaining and intriguing -- as he seeks to make sense of what led Crippen to poison Cora and then try to conceal her dismembered corpse. Retelling the story from Crippen’s point of view, Edwards casts his protagonist as a man too naïve and stoic for his own good, falling for a woman who manipulated him without compunction, abused him verbally and then cheated on him with younger admirers. Crippen trusted in people when he should not have, stayed in a marriage he ought to have abandoned long before violence resulted (if only the prejudice against divorce had not been so intense in his era) and may have put more faith in his legal defenders than they deserved. Edwards sees Crippen as a romantic, hungry for happiness, even if it only lasted briefly. Other fictionists have tackled the Crippen case, but none so successfully as Edwards does in Dancing for the Hangman. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Darwin’s Nightmare by Mike Knowles (ECW Press) 288 pages
At one point in Knowles’ hard-charging debut, career criminal Wilson confesses he isn’t “one of the good guys.” Well, duh. Before this blitzkrieg of a crime novel has run its course, young Wilson will have inflicted a world of hurt on his enemies -- and taken more than a few licks himself. Wilson is a rumor: a professional go-between and thug for hire working on the sly for a very select roster of clients in the criminal netherworld of Hamilton, the hard, gritty steel town without pity that lurks on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. But when a fairly routine gig -- a “snatch-and-grab” at the local airport -- goes bad, Wilson’s name is suddenly on everyone’s lips, and he’s in everyone’s sights. The action is hard and raw and savage, and the characters are about as deliciously nasty as you’d expect. But what sets this book apart is Knowles’ considerable storytelling muscle, as he deliberately strings out the narrative (and cranks up the tension) with well-placed flashbacks to his protagonist’s dysfunctional past. And yet this is as clean and clenched a first novel as I’ve seen recently, suffering few of the common debut-work excesses. Devotees of Andrew Vachss’ Burke and Richard Stark’s Parker and fans of hard-boiled fiction in general should take heed: there’s a new bad boy in town. Wilson himself may not be one of the good guys, but his creator, a Canadian schoolteacher, is definitely worth keeping an eye on. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow (Knopf) 320 pages
What can I say about Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol to get you to buy it? That it’s one of the best private-eye novels in years? That behind the great writing and wonderfully unique voice hides a very serious truth about the United States, and California in particular? I’ve read the book twice now, and I enjoyed it even more the second time because I knew what to look for, but I could also fully immerse myself into Winslow’s world. The yarn is told in third-person narrative, much like some dude might tell you in a bar. And this dude, he’s a great storyteller; he’s excited about the tale he’s sharing and he just can’t keep himself from getting so worked up that his grammar gets a little sloppy. This dude in the bar, the one telling the story, wants you to know what makes his protagonist, surfer-detective Boone Daniels, and Daniels’ friends on the Dawn Patrol tick. In his telling, he wants to bring you along with him to San Diego, where his story takes place -- to smell the salty air near the beach, to understand that the coastal communities in America’s finest city boast individual personalities. He wants you to understand that the paradise of San Diego pays a very heavy price to be as enticing as it is, and that the price you pay makes you a little blind to the city’s dark and tattered soul. Man, this dude wants you there and nowhere else. I love The Dawn Patrol, I love that Winslow tells a P.I. novel like no one else, and that even when he uses a genre cliché, like having a powerful criminal try to pay off his hero, it still feels real, not like a cheap device to advance the plot. It’s wonderfully refreshing to read a P.I. novel that feels like it belongs in the present, rather than trying to emulate the styles and time periods of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. By the time I was finished with The Dawn Patrol, I knew Winslow’s characters so well, I kept expecting to see them at the beach -- Boone catching the big waves, High Tide chowing down on fish tacos (San Diegans take their fish tacos very seriously), Dave the Love God checking out the babes and Sunny Day walking into the water with her board, all eyes on her, men wanting her and women alternately wanting to be her while hating her for her confidence and beauty. The Dawn Patrol is my favorite novel of the year. I guess that’s saying a lot. -- Cameron Hughes

Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards (St. Martin’s Minotaur/Thomas Dunne) 272 pages
This comforting homage to private-eye fiction of the 1930s is a huge departure from Richards’ Madeline Carter contemporary thrillers (Calculated Loss). Not only are the time period and setting different, but so are the style and pacing. Other Woman features Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn, the youthful and educated secretary to boozy but brave private eye Dexter J. Theroux in Depression-era Los Angeles. Left behind by her industrialist father, who committed suicide after the collapse of the U.S. stock market, Kitty tries to pick up the pieces of her world and make new sense of them. Although she’s fairly destitute, she is also resourceful and strong in spirit, and those traits are ideal complements to Theroux’s world-weariness. (Richards modeled Kitty generally on Effie Perrine, the underappreciated assistant to another seen-it-all gumshoe, Sam Spade.) Theroux is a World War II vet who looks at the city around him through the ridges of a whiskey tumbler; he needs somebody to watch out for him, even if that somebody is better known for her gams than her gats. Hints are made here about why the P.I. drinks so heavily, but I am sure that more will be revealed in further adventures. (This is the first installment of a series, to be followed next month by Death Was in the Picture.) Picking up where Chandler, Hammett, and their tough-edged ilk left off, but giving the conventions a sassy kick that the old guys never could have imagined, Richards offers a fresh outlook on the era that delivered the “Golden Age” of crime fiction. Death Was the Other Woman can be heartbreaking at times, but it’s also fast-paced and perceptive about the nuances of human deception. Journalist-turned-novelist Richards tells a brilliant story about a bygone era and a character, Kitty, who might have shown Spade and Philip Marlowe a thing or two about crime solving. -- Ali Karim

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason (St. Martin’s Minotaur/Thomas Dunne) 312 pages
Icelanders have lots of room and time to reflect on the past -- or so it seems in the engrossing and moving police-procedural novels of Arnaldur Indridason, who chronicles the cases and concerns of the gloomy Reykjavik Inspector Erlendur Sveinnson. In The Draining Lake, it’s taken more than a quarter-century for an old corpse to rise to the surface of present-day scrutiny. Erlendur, whose personal preoccupation is missing persons and whose private life is a natural disaster, is the ideal man to investigate. His probing leads back into Cold War history, to a time when Iceland was a strategically vital country and the destination-spot for all sorts of sanctioned and unsanctioned guests. Who was the man whose body was thrown back then into Lake Kleifarvatn, weighted down by an old Russian radio transmitter? What set of circumstances led to this violent act? Was it a political gesture? A personal vendetta? A spy’s endgame? “There needn’t always be an explanation,” reasons Erlendur, who can’t quite see the cause-and-effect in his own personal history. “In Iceland there’s rarely a real motive behind a murder. It’s an accident or a snap decision, not premeditated and in most cases committed for no obvious reason.” On the other hand, a colleague insists: “All murders are willful. Some are just more stupid than others.” When the inspector finds the truth, in this work translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder, its aspects and implications stir echoes in his own mind and heart -- maybe enough for another quarter-century’s worth of gloomy reflections. -- Tom Nolan

Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan (Harcourt) 400 pages
Andrew Klavan takes my breath away. Never mind that since his last novel, Damnation Street, the author has become a “baptized Christian,” a state of being I don’t entirely approve. But Klavan writes like an angel. He can tell me any story he likes, I’ll follow with my tongue hanging out. And I don’t even care about the picture that makes. Klavan is just that good. As befitting all this hyperbole, Klavan’s latest novel, Empire of Lies, is breathtaking and in some ways, the perfect set piece with Larry Beinhart’s Salvation Boulevard, published slightly earlier in the year. Both books are novels of thought as much as mystery. Both plumb depths quite often left unplumbed: politics, religion, the unpleasantness of the modern age. And though both books do it quite differently, they manage it all with awe-inspiring style and grace. Hard-core mystery and thriller enthusiasts might be left a little cold by either book, because both of these authors kick conventions to the door. There is only story, style and substance for page after breathless page. -- Linda L. Richards

Empty Ever After by Reed Farrel Coleman (Bleak
House Books) 259 pages

We all possess secrets of some kind, from the innocent to the complex. After Brooklyn-based private investigator Moses Prager discovers that his ex-brother-in-law Patrick Maloney’s grave is violated, he finds himself traveling back in time to solve one of his most perplexing cases. When Prager’s ex-wife, Katy, receives a voice-mail from her dead brother, and then Prager sees Patrick at a local airport, things seem to be veering toward the paranormal. But this is a crime novel, not horror fiction, and Prager is too savvy not to know when someone is playing him. Forced to revisit people from Patrick’s past in order to get to the bottom of things, Prager understands it’s his past too. In these pages, Prager comes across as a philosopher-P.I., a man who sees the past as a wave washing over present time. Reed Farrel Coleman is a writer at the top of his game. The winner of several prestigious mystery-fiction awards, he never cheats his readers. There are well-delineated reasons his characters do what they do, and his stories leave you thinking. Coleman writes lush back-story, and wry observations are coupled with broad comedic touches that lighten the tone. Gem-like characters pebble the landscape, including Auschwitz survivor Mr. Roth and Moe’s pregnant Puerto Rican P.I. partner, Carmella Melendez. Prager is an ex-cop, and Empty Ever After features cops in abundance, such as upstate Sheriff Vandervoort, a man loyal to the Maloney influence, and gritty NYPD Detective Feeney, who first suspects Prager when the bodies start piling up. In a nod to the way things really work, Prager makes sure to keep the cops up to speed on whatever he learns. At the novel’s end, Prager depends on heavily armed police to help him face the bad guys down. Empty Ever After is a novel of metaphysics. For every action there is a reaction that can span the string of time. In Prager’s mind, you do what you must, no matter the cost. Emptiness can take many forms and there are many ways to fill it. But far from feeling empty at the end of this book, the reader feels greatly enhanced. -- Anthony Rainone

Envy the Night by Michael Koryta (St. Martin’s Press) 304 pages
Koryta’s books about Cleveland gumshoe Lincoln Perry were wonderful slices of Midwestern noir (Tonight I Said Goodbye was an Edgar Award finalist). But Envy the Night is that rarest of literary creatures: a standalone thriller that you want to see turned into a series. Could it happen? Could Frank Temple III, the 24-year-old son of a hired killer, and Nora Stafford, at 30 the unwilling proprietor of her comatose father’s auto body shop, survive all the dangers they face in the bucolic Wisconsin lakefront town known as Willow Flowage, just down the road from Tomahawk? We live in hope. -- Dick Adler

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by John McFetridge
(Harcourt) 304 pages

Set in Toronto, John McFetridge’s sophomore offering (after Dirty Sweet) features an ensemble cast from both sides of the law, most of them spokes radiating out from Sharon, a single mother operating a low-level dope-growing operation. Gangs of Italians, South Asians and Angels, all grafting for a heavier slice of Toronto’s new prosperity; a Native American cop and his recently widowed partner investigating an apparent suicide while sitting on the powder keg of an internal affairs probe about to blow the Toronto force apart; Ray, a new face on the scene with an offer Sharon can’t refuse; Richard, the old flame now a power broker in the world of Canadian crime. A multi-character narrative, this story unfolds with a brevity, fluidity and power that is reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s writing, in that it’s almost an abbreviation of style. One of its chief delights, however, is that McFetridge appears to be working on a more epic scale -- Toronto is here a microcosm of the contemporary world, where criminality is leading the charge towards globalization and leaving the local law-enforcement officers dazed with the speed and force of the onslaught. It’s also a tremendously fun read, the whole imbued with a deadpan wit, particularly in the sections where the supposedly dumb-ass criminals use the jargon of business executives to discuss their trade. Swaggeringly self-assured, it reads like the work of a master in mid-career; that it’s only McFetridge’s second novel only adds to the satisfaction. -- Declan Burke

The Fourth Watcher by Timothy Hallinan (Morrow) 320 pages
I thought that John Burdett’s terrific books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts) about Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the only practicing Buddhist on the Bangkok police force, contained all I needed to know about the darker, sadder side of that popular tourist stop. But then I began to read Timothy Hallinan’s novels about American travel writer Poke Rafferty, starting with A Nail Through the Heart (2007), a moving thriller full of violence, depravity and love. Hallinan’s latest, The Fourth Watcher, is even better: the kind of book that makes you wonder, What more can he possibly do? This time, he mixes into the tale Poke’s long-missing father, Frank, and a half-sister he never knew he had; a Secret Service agent who could be the worst nightmare anyone ever had; a few honest and many more crooked Thai cops; and Colonel Chu, the head of a Chinese triad, who grabs Rafferty’s beautiful love interest, Rose, and their street-smart 9-year-old adopted daughter. Chu says he’ll kill them both unless he gets back what Frank Rafferty stole from him: a whole lot of rubies and the papers to launch a new life for himself in America. Poke believes him, and so will you. -- Dick Adler

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
(Knopf) 480 pages

I consider this to be the best crime novel of 2008. No question about it. The late Stieg Larsson’s debut work is a giant, multi-layered, multi-character tale by a writer of considerable power. Full of social conscience and compassion, with considerable insight into the nature of moral corruption, the book just knocked me out. What’s most interesting about Dragon Tattoo are its vast array of characters and its unfamiliar Swedish setting, which captivates readers as this yarn unravels to an unexpected and chilling conclusion. Larsson’s two main characters are disgraced journalist and publisher Mikael Blomkvist and his partner, the enigmatic and deeply troubled Lisbeth Salander. This pair is soon to join the pantheon of the greatest crime-fiction players of all time. The story in which they perform is a curious blend of subgenres. We have a splash of courtroom drama at the opening, when Blomkvist loses a libel case brought by corrupt Swedish industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom, which has serious repercussions for the magazine that Blomkvist publishes. Then we have the private-eye strand, which comes in the shape of a 40-year-old case involving the disappearance of teenager Harriet Vanger from an isolated island. Using as well some of the conventions of “cozies,” Dragon Tattoo slowly evolves into a tortured tale of family secrets, manifest evil and deep compassion that takes its two lead players from a desolate Swedish island during a frigid winter, to London and then on to Australia. It isn’t long before both Blomkvist and Salander find themselves to be hunters as well as prey, and it will take all of their combined skills to untangle themselves from the iniquities surrounding the events that have shaped the Vanger clan. Larsson even throws in an element of techno-thriller, what with Salander’s skills and contacts in the computer-hacking community. And, finally, what would a crime novel be without serial killing and torture? These are hoary conventions of the trade, but Larsson manages to ring freshness from them even as he mesmerizes the reader with his insights into human motivations. -- Ali Karim

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler
(Touchstone) 336 pages

This is the book that surprised me the most this year. It shouldn’t have been good. It sounded silly, being set in a collapsed country where the most important thing is a string of strip clubs. You’d never expect it to be as smart as it is, or so vicious in its satire or so sad at times. Victor Gischler’s protagonist, Mortimer Tate, was an insurance salesman with a failing marriage, and when things started to go really bad, he took a ton of supplies and moved into his cabin in the woods, hoping to ride out whatever was happening. Nine years later, he’s lonely but content. Then his little home is raided and he’s forced to kill the bandits. The incident convinces him to come down off his mountain to see what’s been going on in the world during his absence. A lot, as it turns out. Now, when you think of civilization, what images come to mind? Probably Starbucks and Best Buy stores, the result of corporations becoming obscenely powerful. So it made total sense to me that a string of strip clubs should have become social magnets. Those joints have three basic things everyone wants: food, shelter and sex. Upon entering the first club he finds, Tate becomes a celebrity, because he’s carrying so many valuable supplies, such as food and guns. To stay sane and have a reason to keep on going, our hero decides that his goal is to find his wife and see if she’s OK. It’s a simple plan, but in this world, nothing is easy. The action in Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is fast and furious, and Mortimer Tate is almost always in danger because he possesses a large quantity of money that can be used at the clubs. In short order, he engages in a shootout on a moving train (powered by steroid-jacked musclemen), is kidnapped by what appears to be a tribe of women (really, escaped inmates from a mental institution, who intend to use him as a society-rebuilding stud) and finds himself in the clutch of cannibals ( who in a hilarious revelation, turn out to be white suburbanite soccer moms and dads). A lot happens in this fairly slim novel, but it all feels quite natural. Gischler has created a living, breathing, but dramatically off-kilter world, where the worst things you can imagine happen. The scariest part is how plausible this fiction seems. No single thing destroyed the world; instead, it was a deadly mix of natural disasters and large-scale wars. Go-Go Girls’ premise is made credible in part by America’s response to Hurricane Katrina. In the summer of 2005, a terrible disaster wrecked New Orleans, one of the most beautiful and cultured cities in the United States, and we all but left it to die. Sure, there were dramatic rescue efforts made; but in the end, people stopped caring about the city -- saving New Orleans just wasn’t sexy anymore. This is why Go-Go Girls doesn’t stretch one’s imagination beyond reason: we’ve already proved we are capable of destroying ourselves. But I said earlier that Gischler’s tale is sad. He gives us a world in which a young man dresses and acts like a cowboy, because he wants some identity beyond that of refugee; a world where a teenage girl admires the sort of dress somebody might wear to a prom, and is amazed to realize that there was a time when people dressed to look good, not just to stay warm. There are a lot of moments like those in Go-Go Girls. I daresay Gischer’s book is even better than Cormac McCarthy’s slightly overrated The Road, because its satire is a lot smarter and its humor brings out just how horrific the world’s situation has become. -- Cameron Hughes

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Blogger Tony said...

This is a great list of novels. I will be copying down many of the titles you listed, and taking the list to my local library. Thanks for the article.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

Sunday, December 28, 2008 9:38:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

Here I am, alone on a Sunday morning and sick as a dog, and a friend sends me a link to this page.

It means a lot to me that you included my book, but it means double that Dick Adler is the reviewer. And it's a thrill to be included with such amazingly good books, beginning with Nina Revoir's note-perfect "The Age of Dreaming" and including Louis Bayard's "The Black Tower," Tom Robb Smith's devastating "Child 44," Don Winslow's "The Dawn Patrol," Michael Koryta's "Envy the Night," and Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." "Age of Dreaming" and
"Dragon Tattoo" are the books I've given away the most copies of in 2008.

So thanks again. I even feel a little better.

Timothy Hallinan

Sunday, December 28, 2008 11:33:00 AM PST  
Anonymous dick adler said...

Tim -- As my wife always says to me, "THEY write the books; YOU just write the reviews..."

Feel better -- EDGAR and others await you.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 12:23:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, Dick --

From your lips to God's ears.

So happy you're still reviewing.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008 12:58:00 PM PST  

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