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 Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute









January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report #5

It's been quite a year for crime. The fictional kind, that is. Over the last 12 months, we've celebrated the 50th anniversary of private eye Lew Archer's introduction (in Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target) and observed the 150th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious demise. We have bid goodbye to prominent novelists such as Roderick Thorp, Morris West and George V. Higgins (see obituary below). However, the genre has also greeted some promising new authors -- including Denise Mina (Garnethill), Eric Garcia (Anonymous Rex), Cara Black (Murder in the Marais) and Alan Gordon (Thirteenth Night) -- and several new characters I hope will be with us for many books to come: Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden (from Rennie Airth's River of Darkness), Boston P.I. Sunny Randall (star of Family Honor, by Robert B. Parker), 17th-century London architect Christopher Redmayne (playing the detective's role in Edward Marston's The King's Evil) and others.

This has been a year of unexpected controversy. The 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel went to a book, Mr. White's Confession, that its author, Robert Clark, hadn't even intended to have classified as a mystery. And publicity for Dick Francis' latest novel, Second Wind, jockeyed for attention against allegations (made in an unauthorized biography, Dick Francis: A Racing Life, by Graham Lord) that Francis' better-educated spouse Mary has actually been penning the numerous works for which her hubby has won acclaim over the last three decades. (Frankly, I'm not concerned with who does the writing, just so long as the couple's books continue to show the twists and flair for action that are hallmarks of Francis' fiction.)

I've read gripes elsewhere that this wasn't a year for standout stories, that awards presentations in 2000 will amount to judgments of the mediocre. But I must disagree. Certainly there were disappoints in 1999 -- major and minor, both. Every Dead Thing, Irish wordsmith John Connelly's rabidly hyped first novel turned out to be a well-written but too-gory suspenser. Les Roberts' The Best-Kept Secret, with its clichéd secondary characters, didn't measure up to the author's previous performances, and although Anne Perry's Bedford Square began with great energy, it devolved into an unbelievable tale of honor among the 19th-century English gentry.

On the other hand, 1999 saw the publication of Peter Robinson's In a Dry Season, his 10th and perhaps strongest Alan Banks police procedural, and of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's peculiar but unforgettable twist on the private eye novel. This was also the year of Michael Connelly's Angels Flight, Harlan Coben's The Final Detail, G.M. Ford's Last Ditch, Robert Goddard's Caught in the Light, Dennis Lehane's Prayers for Rain, Robert Ferrigno's Heartbreaker, Robert Crais' L.A. Requiem and Richard Barre's Blackheart Highway. All of these, along with the aforementioned River of Darkness and Garnethill, might be short-listed for awards in 2000. And, if you're still hunting up presents for the crime fiction enthusiasts on your Christmas list, any one of these volumes would surely be well received. (Need additional gift ideas? Check out January's "Essential Mystery Library.")

For avid readers, though, looking back is never so enchanting as gazing forward with anticipation. Next year, expect new novels from James W. Hall, Fiona Buckley, Gar Anthony Haywood, Sparkle Hayter, Jonathan Gash, Nevada Barr, Steve Hamilton, Margaret Yorke and Bartholomew Gill, as well as the usual welcome panoply of first-time scribblers with potential. In other words, 2000 will keep January reviewers just as busy as this last year did. Thank goodness.

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Now, on to this latest edition of "The Rap Sheet." As always, don't hesitate to send me news or information about crime fiction that you think I might not already have. Also feel free to pass along comments about books in this genre that you have recently savored, for publication in future issues of "The Rap Sheet." These recommendations should run no longer than 200 words, and at the end, please give your name and the city in which you live. Anonymous reviews will not be published, and all are subject to editing for clarity, spelling and length.

J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor, January Magazine

New and Noteworthy

Get used to Meg Gillis -- she's likely to be around a while. Introduced in C.J. Songer's taut thriller Bait (1998), Gillis is a former Los Angeles cop (and the widow of a cop) who, in partnership with another ex-policeman, Mike Johnson, now runs a private security firm. She's a tough character, and has to be, since she spends much of her time getting in the face of male police officers and generally barging around where she's not wanted. In Hook (Scribner), Gillis agrees to help out her partner by serving divorce papers to Rudolfo de la Peña, the supposedly abusive husband of Johnson's new love interest. But when Rudolfo is later found dead, Gillis figures she was used to set up the deceased. So with help from Johnson and her too-protective boyfriend, Beverly Hills Police Sergeant Joe Reilly, she begins investigating, eventually linking Rudolfo's demise to the politics of his native Argentina. Author Songer -- like her heroine, a former cop -- fills her story with action and tension, but the threats to Gillis' health and well-being seem rather too frequent, and the rapid-fire dialogue can be a bit wearing.

Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford returns in Harm Done (Crown), British writer Ruth Rendell's 47th book. A relentlessly engaging novel, it begins with the disappearance -- and subsequent reappearance -- of two teenage girls, neither of whom will explain their absence to the authorities. Not long afterwards, Wexford learns that a once-notorious pedophile has been released onto his patch... and that another girl, the 3-year-old daughter of an airline executive, has vanished. The pedophile is held to blame, but Wexford's probing instead makes him suspicious of the girl's parents. The chief inspector, with guidance from his social-worker daughter Sylvia, is soon grappling with the tragedies of domestic abuse. Author Colin Dexter's decision this year to end the career of Inspector Morse (in The Remorseful Day) makes me appreciate Wexford, a similarly literate and pragmatic crimesolver, all the more. Harm Done finds him, and Rendell, at the top of their games.

Rumors that actor Tim Chase is gay (despite a well-publicized marriage) lead Todd Mills, an investigative reporter for Minneapolis' WLAK-TV, to seek interview time with the superstar in Innuendo (Dell), by R.D. Zimmerman. However, Mills' celebrity scoop-chasing is interrupted by the murder of a teenage runaway who was familiar to Mills and his lover, homicide detective Steve Rawlins. Looking more closely into this slaying, Mills discovers that Rawlins knew the teenager much better than he has admitted, and is now trying to hide that fact. The personal tensions and consequent character developments make Innuendo a strong entry in Zimmerman's acclaimed Mills series.... On a lighter note comes Big Ugly (Simon & Schuster), by politician-turned-novelist William F. Weld. The sequel to last year's entertaining Mackerel by Moonlight, Ugly follows Massachusetts Senator-elect Terry Mullally to Washington, D.C., where he promptly dives into trouble, making questionable political alliances and soiling himself amid dubious fund-raising tactics. Weld, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, displays a sharp political wit in these pages, and his man Mullally is a charming rogue. But Weld is an amateur plotter, filling his tale with far too many story threads that go nowhere.... Originally scheduled for publication last summer, Grave Undertakings (St. Martin's Minotaur), the 19th installment of Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling series, has finally arrived. It centers around the death of a local mobster and later attempts to dig up his coffin.

Old crimes beget new trouble in Cold Case (Dutton). The eighth entry in author Stephen White's series featuring psychologist Alan Gregory, this fast-moving yarn concerns an elite group of criminologists -- including Gregory and his wife, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Crowder -- assembled to solve the 10-year-old murders of two teenaged girls in Colorado. Gregory's responsibility for creating psychological profiles of the deceased pair soon puts him at dangerous odds with Dr. Raymond Welle, an ambitious psychotherapist and U.S. congressman, whose connection to at least one of the Colorado victims may be worth keeping quiet at all costs.... J.A. Jance has had a busy last 12 months, publishing new entries in her J.P. Beaumont series (Breach of Duty) and her Joanna Brady series (Outlaw Mountain). Now she's out with Kiss of the Bees (Avon), a non-series thriller. The novel tells of Arizona resident Diana Ladd Walker, who 20 years ago was assaulted and nearly killed by a psychopath named Andrew Carlisle. Although Walker tried to quiet her nightmares by writing about the attack -- in a book that made her famous -- she and her husband didn't really feel safe again until Carlisle died in prison. But then their adopted Native American daughter is kidnapped, and the Walkers' fears sprout afresh as they try to find their child and put an end to the fiend who hopes to avenge Carlisle's spirit.

More children are endangered in Julia Wallis Martin's riveting novel, The Bird Yard (St. Martin's Minotaur). Martin, an Edgar nominee for A Likeness in Stone (1998), offers here a mystery that began five years ago in Manchester, England, with the disappearance of pubescent Joseph Coyne. Detective Superintendent Parker, still anguished at being unable to return Joseph to his mother, sees similarities between that case and the recent vanishing of another boy. Parker's sure that the same person committed both crimes -- but was it the local pedophile, the strange aviary keeper, or someone else? To help find the answer, Parker enlists the aid of a criminal psychologist with demons of his own. But their efforts may come too late to stop a third murder. Martin's characters are richly developed, and her story rolls out with terrifying precision. You'll never view a birdcage quite the same way again...

Avian anxieties of a different sort converge with millennial madness in British first-novelist Mo Hayder's Birdman (Doubleday). What seems like the routine discovery of a corpse at the millennium dome site in Greenwich, England, takes a sharp turn for the bizarre when the deceased young woman is found to have been mutilated postmortem, her heart cut out and replaced by the tiny body of a dead finch. As more women's corpses turn up, each similarly violated, Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey and his fellow coppers grow anxious to bring down the person responsible, dubbed the "Millenium Ripper." Far from being merely gruesome, Birdman benefits by having as its focus the battle between Caffrey, an immensely troubled man, and the self-confident Ripper.... The focus turns to Nordic mythology in Lise McClendon's Nordic Nights (Walker), the third in her series about Wyoming art dealer Alix Thorssen. As the resort town of Jackson Hole holds its annual Nordic Nights celebration, Norwegian guest artist Glasius Dokken is found murdered -- with Alix's stepfather Hank standing over the body. Surprisingly, Hank refuses to defend himself, leaving Alix to investigate on her own, while also dealing with a series of accidents that befall her family. Could all of this tie in with ancient Viking myths? McClendon entertains and provides an education in Scandinavian history at the same time.

Atlanta's psychic P.I., Flap Tucker, re-emerges in Dancing Made Easy (Dell), by Phillip DePoy. The slayings of two women -- both of them left hanging, with the names of familiar dance steps pinned to their bodies -- send the appealing Flap on a chase after links between these odd crimes and a recent theft of toxins. It's a pursuit given urgency by Flap's difficulty in employing his unique abilities and by threats to one of his closest friends.... The English town of Castlemere, setting for Jo Bannister's The Hireling's Tale (St. Martin's Minotaur), is shocked when a woman is found naked, dead and drugged at the bottom of a boat in the local canal. But police detectives Frank Shapiro, Liz Graham and Cal Donovan (familiar from last year's Broken Lines) are more disturbed by the fact that they don't know who the woman was and how she got onto the boat in the first place. The puzzle becomes further complicated by connections with an international business convention and the death of a sheep. Could there be a professional killer on the loose in this dockside town?... And a botched and bloody restaurant robbery in Washington, D.C., kicks off the action in George P. Pelecanos' Shame the Devil (Little, Brown). Although he managed to escape the robbery carnage, gunman Frank Farrow isn't satisfied: He wants revenge against the cop who offed his brother, the getaway driver. Meanwhile, relatives of the innocent victims in that massacre decide a little retribution would be good for their souls, as well. The resulting twisted adventure, heavy on complex characters, reminds me of why GQ magazine called Pelecanos "the coolest writer in America."

In Janet Hannah's The Wish to Kill (Soho Press), her first entry in a new series, brilliant biochemist Alex Kertész suspects that the laboratory death of Professor Ilan Falk, a much-disliked researcher at Israel's University of Jerusalem, was anything but accidental. Nearly everyone who had worked with Falk -- including Kertész -- had a motive for murdering the guy. Even the deceased's good-natured lab assistant Shoshana admits that she had wished him dead. But can wishes actually kill someone? As Kertész pursues the psychological aspects of this puzzle, one of the prime suspects, a research rival of Falk's, seems intent on creating another "accidental" death -- this time with Kertész as the corpse. Author Hannah, herself a biochemist at the University of Jerusalem, is working with an interesting premise here. However, her writing is not as lively or well paced as her story and its volatile setting deserve.

After years out of print, Marc Behm's 1980 novel The Eye of the Beholder is finally available once more (from Ballantine Books), thanks to a new film production of Behm's innovative, wonderfully dark-edged story, starring Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd. Like Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, Behm's detective hero is unnamed. We know him only as The Eye, a neurotic and lonely sort who spends most of his time doing crossword puzzles and pretending that his long-lost daughter will again find a place at his side. Now enter Joanna Eris. She's lonely, too, only for quite different reasons: Every time she gets married, her husband winds up dead. The Eye is hired by the wealthy parents of Joanna's latest groom, and when he, too, is bumped off on their wedding night, The Eye's curiosity is piqued. He doesn't turn the bride in for this homicide, but instead follows her as she changes her identity and remarries. Again, the connubial bliss is broken by bloodshed, and Joanna leaves to become yet another woman, with yet another name and destination. Eventually, The Eye becomes Joanna's guardian (though she isn't aware of it), protecting her from the law and from herself. His efforts to stop her exterminations, however, are usually unsuccessful -- and that may be exactly the way he wants it. Like his creations, Behm is a manipulator. His writing style carries you off into a crazy world, and you don't recognize its effect on you until the end.

I'd like to wax as enthusiastically over Prescription for Terror (Andrew Scott Publishers), by Sandra Levy Ceren, but I can't. Built around the rapes and killings of young, single women in the San Diego area, the book provides some tense moments and an intriguing protagonist, psychologist Cory Cohen, who endured rape in her own past. Author Ceren is a clinical psychologist, so brings to this story some distinctive insight into the mind of a serial murderer. However, her prose and dialogue are quite stilted, the plot is predictable and her bashing on America's managed health care systems grows old, fast. Some humor and an aggressive editor might have helped this novel immensely.... Much better is Mimi Latt's latest legal thriller, Ultimate Justice (Simon & Schuster). It has star New York prosecutor Alexandra Locke going back to her hometown of Los Angeles, where questions about her lawyer father's role in covering up a 20-year-old murder plunge her into political and legal turmoil, find her set up for drug possession and throw her into a relationship with a criminal defense hotshot Locke had known many years before. Despite soap-operatic elements, Ultimate Justice is a rewarding read.... So is The Price of An Orphan (Soho Press), by Australian Patricia Carlson. Though not as intricately crafted as Crime of Silence, this novel about a 9-year-old Sydney orphan unhappily adopted by an outback couple, and how his witnessing the disposal of a murder victim precipitates a chilling cross-country drive, is guaranteed to make you wary of supposedly sweet older ladies.

"I am no mere performer! I am Houdini! I have talents and knowledge that other men do not!" proclaims magician/escape artist Harry Houdini, as he sets out to solve the 1897 murder of a New York toy tycoon in David Stashower's delightful novel, The Dime Museum Murders (Avon Twilight). With respect but also humor, Stashower has captured the former Ehrich Weiss in all of his preening, arrogant majesty -- a finer fictional portrayal than any other in recent memory. Called in by police to brief them on a famed automaton that may have been used to assassinate the toymaker, the not-yet-famous Houdini -- assisted reluctantly by his brother -- quickly begins his own investigation of the crime, one that will lead him into the arcane world of curio collecting and allow him ample opportunity to display his extraordinary skills. I look forward to Stashower's next Houdini whodunit.

Although the plot of H.R.F. Keating's Jack, the Lady Killer (Poisoned Pen Press) isn't so unusual, the book's form certainly is. Set in 1935, this 149-page verse novel introduces Jack Steele, a still-wet-behind-the-ears member of India's Imperial Police Service, charged with learning who strangled a lascivious widow after his boss, the very embodiment of British righteousness, succumbs to sunstroke on a tennis court. Jack's hopes of blaming the murder on an Indian native are dashed early, as he realizes that his best suspects are all members of the exclusive Briton's Club. Rather than inhibiting one's appreciation of Keating's plot, his tumbling rhymes actually quicken the story's pace. A welcome experiment, Jack ultimately proves to be a gratifying mystery, as well.... Lauded last year for The Poyson Garden, in which she debuted the future Queen Elizabeth I as an amateur detective, author Karen Harper returns with The Tidal Poole (Delacorte). Elizabeth begins her second case even as she is marching through mid 16th-century London to take up residence at Westminster. During the procession, one of her party is killed, and Elizabeth's investigation exposes a scheme to do away with the queen.... Like Max Allan Collins' The Titanic Murders (1999), Conrad Allen's Murder on the Lusitania (St. Martin's Minotaur) makes admirable use of a shipboard setting. But in this instance, the luxury liner at least remains afloat while private eye George Porter Dillman, posing as a passenger on the Lusitania during its 1907 trans-Atlantic maiden voyage, searches for the ship's missing blueprints and tries to discern who put an end to a nosy journalist.... The premiere installment of Michael Kilian's new Civil War crime series, each book to be set around a real-life battle, is Murder at Manasses (Berkley Prime Crime). It's the summer of 1861, and blue-blooded gambler/investor Harrison Raines has escorted a British actress to the front lines of what will be Virginia's historic First Battle of Bull Run, both anticipating a lively show, but neither expecting to be at the scene of a cold-blooded murder. However, when a Union general perishes during a supposed act of cowardice, the apolitical Raines is asked by some powerful people to learn the truth behind the general's demise. Kilian exacerbates the appeal of this book with plenty of historical trivia.

Close on the heels of his latest Amos Walker mystery, Hours of the Virgin, author Loren D. Estleman invites us into Thunder City (Forge), the fifth entry in his series about the growth of Detroit, Michigan (which began with the spirited Whiskey River, 1990). In this book, Estleman takes readers back to the turn of the last century and Henry Ford's struggle to convert his automobile factory into a moneymaking venture. We meet Harlan Crownover, the supposedly slow-witted son of a clan that's grown wealthy from producing horse-drawn freight vehicles and luxury coaches. Harlan poses a threat to his family's business by backing Ford's dream of horseless transport. What's more, Harlan is risking his own welfare by turning to a protection-racket boss for money to finance Ford's factory.... And the umpteenth Sherlock Holmes outing is The Monster of St. Marylebone (Signet), by Wayne Worcester. A string of terrifying London murders draws the attention of Holmes and his faithful chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson. The great detective thinks he can bring this fiend to heel, but instead, his quarry captures and tortures him. After recovering, Holmes -- cast in a somewhat more human-than-normal light here -- returns obsessively to the hunt, endangering both his and Watson's life in the process.

Just issued in the UK: The Lazarus Widow (Constable), a novel begun by renowned Scottish mystery maker Bill Knox, but completed after Knox's death in March of this year by Martin Edwards (The First Cut Is the Deepest). Fishing corpses out of Glasgow's Clyde River is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence. However, Detective Superintendent Colin Thane of the Scottish Crime Squad and his colleague, Sergeant Sandra Craig, are disturbed when one of those dead turns out to be Sam Baker, a criminal who'd previously agreed to help Thane destroy an international fraud ring. Baker was an unpopular fellow, especially with his battered wife; but it wasn't until he ran afoul of a ruthless extortionist known as The Lazarus Widow that he finally received his comeuppance. Now the Widow is working Baker's old territory, taunting Thane to figure out who's behind the extortion racket and why Baker was sacrificed.

Master storyteller Robert Goddard is back with Set in Stone (Bantam UK). After losing his wife in a cliff fall, Tony Sheridan goes to visit his sister-in-law Lucy and her husband, Sheridan's friend Matt Prior. But there's no peace for the new widower at their peculiar moated residence, where he experiences bizarre dreams, feels a growing attraction to Lucy and is haunted by the house's history of murder and scandal.... Candace Robb's A Spy for the Redeemer (Heinemann) finds Owen Archer still in Wales (the site of Robb's previous novel, A Gift of Sanctuary), delayed there by his father-in-law's death. As he tries to schedule safe passage back to York, Archer is approached by mercenary Martin Wirthir, who hopes to persuade the soldier-sleuth to work for the would-be Redeemer of Wales, Owain Lawgoch. At the same time, Owen's wife Lucie, heartbroken by her father's demise, may be asking for trouble by hiring a suspicious stranger to look after her parent's manor. Spy probably won't be released in the States until 2001, reports Robb, who adds that she is meanwhile preparing to introduce a second mystery series. This one will be set in Scotland during the early 14th century and feature a female crimesolver, Margaret Kerr, who becomes embroiled in Scotland's Wars of Independence. The first Kerr book, A Trust Betrayed, should be out in 2000.... An Uncertain Death (Women's Press), by Carolyn Marwood, is a rare and welcome Australian crime novel with an unusual investigator: professional cricketer Marlo Shaw, who in this tale is determined to find out whether her Aunt Jenny's death was really suicide -- or murder. An entertaining, if fairly quiet family murder mystery.... After a four-year hiatus, Detective Inspector Jack Frost is back on the job in Winter Frost (Constable), by R.D. Wingfield. Busier than ever, he's simultaneously trailing a serial killer, looking for the identity of a long-buried skeleton and heaping trouble on himself by mistakenly accusing a man of kidnapping schoolgirls -- only to have his suspect commit suicide. Whoops.

Italian police detective Aurelio Zen has long dreaded being posted from Rome to the anti-Mafia organization in Sicily, but that's exactly what he faces in Michael Dibdin's Blood Rain (Faber and Faber), released recently in Britain, with a U.S. edition due in the spring of 2000. Zen's situation is tricky. Some people in Rome may believe that it's time to rein in the Direzione Investigative Anti-Mafia (DIA), an elite police squad set up in 1995, but there are powerful forces within that body that want it to continue undisturbed. And behind them all lurks the sinister and rarely mentioned Third Level, the Mafia's presumed protectors in the government. Zen is to act as a spy within the DIA. His stay in the Sicilian town of Catania is made more comfortable by the presence of his adopted daughter Carla, who has come to the island to install a new computer network for the local DIA branch. But Carla's realization that someone is hacking into the unfinished network, plus the discovery of a decomposed body in an abandoned railway carriage set off a series of events that will test Zen's investigative acumen and show how he reacts to extreme emotional pressures.... Janet Laurence's Canaletto and the Case of the Privy Garden (Macmillan) places the Venetian artist Canaletto in London in 1747, where he is intent on hunting up commissions for his work -- that is, until he and a friend stumble upon the body of a dead woman. This second Canaletto mystery (following Canaletto and the Case of the Westminster Bridge, 1997) offers good historical atmosphere and a sure touch with the characterization.... Another sophomore showing is that of Birmingham Detective Sergeant Kate Power in Staying Power (Hodder & Stoughton), by Judith Cutler. Jetting home to England from Italy, Power falls into conversation with businessman Alan Grafton, seated beside her. Two days later, Grafton is found hanging from a canal bridge, allegedly a suicide. But Power, who continues her struggle to prove herself in the male-dominated Birmingham CID, wants to know for sure -- a curiosity that will result in some startling revelations.

Finally, let me recommend The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (St. Martin's Minotaur), Bruce F. Murphy's eminently readable resource for folks who desire more background on this genre they so enjoy. In addition to information about individual writers and works, Murphy supplies short studies of various subgenres, including cat mysteries, gay mysteries, celebrity mysteries and more. He also features items on famous criminal cases in history, slang that's familiar from these stories and distinctive plot devices. The author displays some eccentricity in his selection of books to which he gives the greatest attention (I was surprised, for instance, to see him go on at length about Thomas H. Cook's Evidence of Blood, but say little of Cook's Edgar-winning The Chatham School Affair). And while I'm glad to see that Murphy features some newer wordsmiths (such as Janet Evanovich, Carolyn Hart and Philip Kerr) together with the classics, I was disappointed to realize how many proven or promising talents have been left out -- Anne Perry, Gary Phillips, Edward Marston, Steven Saylor and even the mondo-prolific Paul Doherty among them. But these are the quibbles of somebody who observes crime fiction for a living. Most readers (after they get over the shock of this volume's price -- $75 U.S.) will likely spend their time with Murphy's Encyclopedia learning just how fast and far this genre has expanded.

Focus: The Dinosaur Detective

One of the most unusual private eye novels of 1999 has to be Anonymous Rex, author Eric Garcia's yarn about modern Los Angeles investigator Vincent Rubio, who harbors a secret far more important -- and potentially more deadly -- than those of his shifty clients: He's a dinosaur, specifically a Velociraptor. It's a novel concept, no doubt about that. But can it really work as the basis of a new series? Not long ago I had the chance to quiz Garcia both about the future of his dino detective and his non-Vincent books:

J. Kingston Pierce: Where did the character of Vincent come from, and did you intend him to suggest that fictional private eyes, as a breed, are dinosaurs?

Eric Garcia: There are a few different answers for this one, and I'll give 'em all to you, and you can pick and choose to decide which you enjoy, or amalgamate at your discretion. The basic question here is: Why dinosaurs? And the answer is that I'm not quite sure. While there was definitely interest, it's not like I was a dino-nerd as a kid, though I do remember my mother bringing dinosaur puzzles home for me on the days when I was sick and couldn't go to school (or faking sick and not choosing to go to school). I had the usual fascination with dinosaurs that most children have, but never over the top, never so much as knowing all the Latin names by heart or their characteristics, etc. I liked dinos, but that's about as far as it went.

In terms of liking dinosaurs enough to write about them, it has more to do with my penchant for watching the Discovery Channel and TLC than any childhood urges. On some show on one of those networks, I seem to remember watching a special on the dinosaurs, and listening to experts argue about how the dinosaurs died out. And the more they argued with one another, the more futile it all seemed to me: OK, there's no way to know how they died out, so why are they trying to spread this information (or disinformation) to the world? And for some reason, I thought: They must be dinosaurs trying to throw us off the track. Thus, the basic core of Anonymous Rex was born.

Now, am I suggesting that all fictional private detectives are dinosaurs? Certainly not. But there is definitely an element of the "modern-day" dinosaur in every detective, in one specific sense: they both go undercover. In the same way that the dinosaurs in Anonymous Rex have to disguise themselves in order to blend in with society, private detectives must often pretend to be something other than what they are. And in a book about deception and disguises and confusion of identity, it only makes sense for the dinosaur to be a private detective. Of course, it also helps move the story along nicely...

Vincent himself came about once I already had some of the basic concepts for the book, but he was refined over time. His name came right from his breed -- Vincent Rubio, VelociRaptor. I chose raptors mostly because of the way they're currently perceived in film and literature, as the "cunning" dinosaurs, which also made sense for a private detective. Vincent's wisecracking nature is a combination of your basic noir twist and my own oft-sarcastic voice, and little touches like the basil habit and the rest are also my own spin on what I perceive to be specific genre clichés.

I understand that your next book is a prequel called Casual Rex. Can you tell me about the plot of that story?

Casual Rex is, indeed, a prequel. And it's something that I'm glad I've done, partially because it felt right, and partially because the fans really wanted to see more of Ernie, Vincent's partner, who starts out quite dead in the beginning of Anonymous Rex. So the only way to see Vincent with Ernie was to do a prequel.

Casual Rex, then, is more of a buddy book, with Vincent and Ernie taking on the case of a dinosaur cult that owns a dino nudist colony off the coast of Hawaii. Along the way, they get involved with a midget dino dentist with a fetish for streetwalkers; a cross-dressing Ornithomimus, who does cut-rate plastic surgery out of her office hidden deep within the Hollywood Wax Museum; a host of strangely cheery cult members and their seductive leader, who has strange, ancient powers of scent production; and a whole mess of dinos dropping dead left and right. In the same way that Anonymous Rex tried to honor Chandler and Hammett, Casual Rex is, in some senses, also an homage to Ian Fleming and the Bond character. It has intrigue, beautiful women (dino women, actually), suspense, thrills -- the works.

Critics have suggested that Vincent has limited range as a novelty character. What's your view on that?

I certainly don't believe that Vincent has a limited range, any more so than any other fictional detective. As the books go on, his character will become more and more fleshed out -- just like Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum, for example -- and though the "dino" element will still be there, a good story is a good story is a good story. That's what I'm looking to do: write books that increase the world of the dinosaurs, while still keeping things fun and working as good mysteries should. With the five Rex books I have in mind (Anonymous Rex, Casual Rex, Hot and Sweaty Rex, Premarital Rex and Rex and Violence), I've already got the basic plot outlines in my head; after that, we'll just have to see.

In addition to the Rex series, I hear you're writing some non-Vincent books.

Yes. Right now, I'm working on a non-Rex book called The Reposession Mambo, which is more of a sci-fi comedy than anything else. It's been a lot of fun to write, not only because it's a story I've been telling to myself for years now, but because it allows me to exercise my writing muscle in a new, different way. The tone is similar to Rex -- comedic, no doubt, with slightly... darker overtones -- but the story and the characters are so different, it feels like a different kind of writing. I love Vincent, but sometimes I need a break from writing about the beasts.

Gone But Not Forgotten

When George V. Higgins died on November 6, Boston lost one of its shrewdest and most talented chroniclers. Higgins' early books (including The Friends of Eddie Coyle, 1972; The Digger's Game, 1973; and Cogan's Trade, 1974) captured a boisterous, desperate world of urban losers that was characteristic of the greater Boston area during the pre-yuppie 1970s. It was a world of Irish lawyers and political gofers, Italian businessmen and mobsters, and activities that took places in dingy offices, crummy apartments and bars where most of the patrons are regulars. In recent years, Higgins' novels, like Boston, have crept upscale. His most recent novel, The Agent (1999), begins by profiling a high-rolling sports agent, then cuts midway to the story of a police detective investigating that agent's murder.

You have to wonder if many of the people who inspired Higgins' 23 books ever read them. Small-time mobsters, lawyers and political gofers aren't known for having a sense of irony about their activities, and Higgins certainly did. His fly-on-the wall portrayals of Boston wheeler-dealers rang true, making it worth a reader's time to penetrate an underworld lexicon captured so precisely that it would have brought tears to a linguist's eyes. Murder Ink describes Higgins as an author whose work should be read aloud.

Novels like Higgins' are one of the reasons why the genre called mystery has, in recent years, become better known as crime fiction. There wasn't much classic mystery to his stories of ill-conceived capers, business deals and political shenanigans, other than how they would unravel. Long passages of monologue and dialogue, much of them authentically inarticulate, tended to lull and amuse, setting the reader as well as the characters up for a shock when lame-brained schemes hatched over too many brewskis suddenly exploded into high-voltage violence and brutality.

Higgins was born in the Boston suburb of Brockton in 1939. After college, he worked for a few years as a newspaper reporter before earning a law degree from Boston College and going on to join the Massachusetts Attorney General's office. He served with the U.S. Attorney's Office for Massachusetts in the 1970s, and then went on to private practice. After penning several unpublished novels, Higgins suddenly achieved bestseller status in 1972 with the book for which he is best remembered, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, about a hood who tangles with bigger crime figures. -- Karen G. Anderson

In Their Own Words

After reading (and greatly appreciating) the new historical mystery One for Sorrow, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, I was curious to know from these husband-wife authors how they'd come to write about a detective, John the Eunuch, who is also Lord Chamberlain to 6th-century Roman Emperor Justinian I, and how they re-create that time and place for fictional purposes. Mayer kindly sent along the following response:

"The Byzantine Empire caught my imagination early on, probably because its continued existence contradicted what was taught about 'the fall of the Roman Empire' in 476 A.D. The Eastern Roman Empire had the same exotic appeal as the alternative histories and worlds I encountered in the science fiction I'd read so voraciously while growing up. My actual knowledge was sketchy, but I had done a bit of research for a proposed comic-book script which was never written. So when editor Mike Ashley contacted Mary in 1993 and gave us the opportunity to contribute to his Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits, the Byzantine period was an easy choice, especially since -- due to a combination of circumstances -- we had only a few weeks to write the story. Nor were we aware of any other mysteries set during those times.

"A novel requires considerably more historical background than that four-page-long first story, so Mary and I have had to do a lot of research since then. Because we are both fascinated by history -- more in how people lived than in battles and political events -- we aim for accuracy. However, we don't rein in our imaginations any more than we would were we writing a contemporary novel. We don't feel we need to footnote every sentence. Authors have imagined a lot of strange happenings in current-day New York City, for instance, and are not subjected to the criticism that the events didn't happen or haven't been documented.

"Then too, given the gaps in what historians actually know, or can agree on, it would be virtually impossible to write an interesting story in which every word could be absolutely verified. Except for a few monuments and ruins, what remains of the ancient city of Constantinople where John the Eunuch lived lies deeply buried under centuries of rubble, and its exact layout -- even the appearance of certain buildings mentioned in literature -- is sketchy and speculative. (Conveniently for us!)

"Our basic approach is that when we write about places, events or customs that have been documented, we do our best to get the facts right and we don't write anything that can be proved not to be true. But we allow ourselves to speculate freely about things that might have happened or existed."


While browsing recently through an online crime fiction chat site, I was surprised to stumble upon the name William J. Reynolds. In case you don't remember, Reynolds was an up-and-coming detective novelist in the 1980s. His first book, The Nebraska Quotient (1984), introduced a former P.I./wannabe writer named Nebraska, who came out of retirement to solve the murder of his ex-partner. Reynolds went on from there to pen five more tough-guy Nebraska tales, but each new one became harder and harder to find, until it seemed that Reynolds had disappeared. I asked the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, author to tell me what had happened all those years ago, and he sent me this note recalling his frustrations with his previous publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and offering hope for a Nebraska revival of sorts:

"When I finished the sixth Nebraska book, Drive-By, I had the dickens of a time getting it published. Putnam expressed 'disappointment' with sales of my previous book, The Naked Eye (1990), and we failed to come to terms. (An unendearing quality of American publishers is that they insist on calling all the shots -- book size, type style, dust-jacket art and copy, price, whether and how to promote/advertise -- hah! But if the book doesn't meet expectations, kill the author.) My agent and I were dismayed when Putnam charged $21.95 for The Naked Eye -- pretty spendy in 1990 -- and I believe that had a lot to do with 'disappointing' sales.

"We showed Drive-By to virtually every publisher in the game, and heard multiple variations of one theme: Love the series, love the book, would love to publish it, but won't. Several editors said P.I. novels were in decline, contrary to what most booksellers said. One opined that, since most mystery readers are women, books by women are all they want. (I still haven't figured out whether that's more insulting to women or to men.)

"During this time, I had lunch with a friend who is a successful publisher of regional non-fiction books. I joked that I should hire him as a consultant and publish Drive-By myself; he called a few days later with an offer for the book. Seems he had for some time been interested in doing fiction, and expanding beyond the upper Midwest region. Drive-By appeared, at last, in 1995, published by Ex Machina.

"One of the nicer things about working with a small press is that your book stays alive longer; with the majors, it's as good as dead within six months. Ex Machina markets and sells Drive-By even unto this day, but since the distribution was not all it might have been, some people don't realize there is a sixth Nebraska book. But there is, and it's available, albeit usually by special order.

"Please note that yours truly was not completely indolent during this spell, though I did pull away from the genre, except for some short stories. (Go to
my Web page for details.) I taught at a technical school. I consulted on some local political campaigns. I wrote a software manual, magazine articles and advertising copy, plus some non-fiction books, the latest of which is coming through the pipe as we speak.

"Now it seems there might be new life for the Nebraska books: An electronic publisher has expressed interest in issuing the six books on disk. I've been busy the past few weeks preparing the manuscripts. Once that's off the plate, I intend to return to a novel I'd started before getting involved in my latest non-fiction project. It's a mystery, though not a Nebraska -- and since I dislike discussing works in progress, I'll clam up about it now.

"Will there be more Nebraskas? Who knows? Never say never, and so on. It is, in the end, as much a mystery to me as to you."

A Dagger to the Art

Earlier this month, the British Crime Writers' Association announced the recipients of its 1999 Dagger Awards. The winners:

Gold Dagger for Fiction: A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson.

Silver Dagger for Fiction: Vienna Blood, by Adrian Matthews.

Also Nominated: Angels Flight, by Michael Connelly; Phreak, by Denise Danks; Staring at the Light, by Francis Fyfield; A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid; Dead Souls, by Ian Rankin.

Gold Dagger for Non-fiction: The Case of Stephen Lawrence, by Brian Cathcart.

Also Nominated: The Dragon Syndicates, by Martin Booth; The Sceptical Witness, by Stuart S. Kind.

Macallan Short Story Dagger: "Taking Care of Frank," by Antony Mann (from Crimewave 2).

Also Nominated: "Symptoms of Loss," by Jerry Sykes (from Crimewave 1); "Damn Spot," by Julian Rathbone (from Past Poisons).

John Creasey Memorial Dagger: Lie In Darkness, by Dan Fesperman.

Also Nominated: Provocation, by Charlotte Grimshaw; Quinn, by Seumas Smyth.

Ellis Peters Historical Dagger: Two for the Lions, by Lindsey Davis.

Also Nominated: Falconer and the Great Beast, by Ian Morson; Wings of Fire, by Charles Todd.

Cartier Diamond Dagger: Margaret Yorke.

Rusty Dagger: The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

For a record of previous Dagger winners, check out the Crime Writers' Association Web site.


"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by Crime Fiction Editor J. Kingston Pierce. Authors and publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.


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