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  Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute











January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, April 2004


Edited by J. Kingston Pierce

IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • Now we are five: anniversary thoughts on the newsletter game • An abundance of fresh offerings from David Liss, Elizabeth Peters, Olen Steinhauer, Chris Mooney, Robin Burcell, Lee Child and many others • Manhunt on the mind; novelists on the circuit; Robert Crais fans on hold again, and other news from the world of mystery • Last Lullaby author Denise Hamilton conducts a spot-check of her 10 favorite cross-cultural crime stories • Plus: the winners of this year's Gumshoe Awards, and Britain's "author of the year" is ...


Pierce's Picks for April

Bombshell (Five Star), by Barbara and Max Allan Collins. In 1959, with the Cold War freezing out any hope of international peace, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev visits the United States, hoping to see at least two things: Disneyland and Marilyn Monroe. Denied that first request, for security reasons, he settles for a meeting with Hollywood's sex goddess of the moment. Sounds simple -- until Marilyn discovers an assassination plot against the dictator. Her warnings ignored by the State Department, the actress takes matters into her own hands, leading Khrushchev on a midnight visit to the land of Mickey Mouse. A thriller with comic undertones.

Doctored Evidence (Atlantic Monthly Press), by Donna Leon. The 13th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery (after 2003's Uniform Justice) centers on the murder in Venice of miserly spinster Maria Grazia Battestini. Her Romanian housekeeper immediately becomes suspect, only to be shot while fleeing arrest. Case closed? Not quite, the pleasure-loving Brunetti decides after a neighbor alibis the housekeeper. So who did kill Battestini? And does it have anything to do with the spinster's lawyer, her niece and some Italian bank accounts that were cleared out after the woman's death?

The Full Cupboard of Life (Pantheon), by Alexander McCall Smith. This fifth entry in Smith's wry and popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has Precious Ramotswe trying to figure out whether the four suitors for a Botswanan hairdresser's hand are more interested in her money than her love. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe ponders the potential of her long-term engagement to a mechanic.

Last Lullaby (Scribner), by Denise Hamilton. A shootout at the Los Angeles International Airport and the disappearance of a little girl during the melee involve L.A. Times reporter Eve Diamond in the world of international adoptions and drug smuggling, while she must also contend with a returning ex-boyfriend and an unexpected pregnancy. Though this book's pacing outstrips that of Hamilton's previous Diamond novel, Sugar Skull (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 3/03), we lose the newsroom dynamics that distinguished Skull as well as its predecessor, The Jasmine Trade (2002).

The Lonely Dead (HarperCollins UK), by Michael Marshall. Ward Hopkins, John Zandt, Nina Baynam and the Upright Man, familiar to readers of Marshall's The Straw Men (one of January Magazine's favorite books of 2002), all return for this sequel, which finds Hopkins running from a powerful group that put his parents and best friend in their graves. At the same time, L.A. ex-detective Zandt is obsessed with finding the malevolent Upright Man, FBI agent Baynam is investigating the murder of a woman found with a computer hard-drive jammed into her mouth, and a guilt-ridden killer who roams the forests of northern Washington state is about to have a mind-blowing encounter with an American legend. A grisly but gripping work.

Live Bait (Putnam), by P.J. Tracy. The follow-up to last year's stylish Monkeewrench checks back with Minneapolis detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, who are assigned to identity the killer of Morey Gilbert. Trouble is, the elderly Gilbert -- found dead in the plant nursery he operates with his wife, Lily -- hasn't an enemy in the world. Or has he? His spouse, his low-rent lawyer son and his ex-cop son-in-law all qualify as suspects. But as the aged victims in this story multiply, it may be take Grace MacBride's case-solving software program to link them together and reveal the murderer.

Murder on the Leviathan (Random House), by Boris Akunin. In 1878, two years after the events recorded in The Winter Queen, former Russian policeman Erast Fandorin boards a luxurious steamship, bound from England to India, on which also rides the killer of an aristocrat and his servants. Can Fandorin identify the culprit before a swell-headed French police commissioner does?

The Perfumed Sleeve (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Laura Joh Rowland. As 17th-century Edo, Japan, is riven by violence between two factions, both intent on gaining control over the ruling Tokugawa regime, the murder of a high-ranking official draws the shogun's investigator, Sano Ichiro, into the middle of the conflict. Each side wants to implicate the other in this homicide, and it's up to Sano -- with help from his wife, Reiko -- to discern whether the official was killed for reasons of political intrigue or sex, or both.

Out of the Deep I Cry (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Julia Spencer-Fleming. From the Maine author of last year's A Fountain Filled with Blood comes this third Clare Fergusson/Russ van Alstyne mystery, built around the disappearance of a doctor from a free medical clinic in Millers Kill, New York. The clinic has had some recent troubles, but as priest Fergusson and police chief Van Alstyne look into the case, they discover evidence of sordid behavior dating all the way back to the 1920s. As if that weren't enough to keep them busy, this pair must also deal with their developing relationship and the gossip it engenders.

Redemption Street (Viking), by Reed Farrell Coleman. Retired cop Moe Prager seems quite content with his life as a Manhattan wine merchant, husband and new father. Nonetheless, he can't seem to pass up helping a man named Arthur Rosen search for his sister, who's believed to have perished in a Catskills fire 15 years earlier. The case takes him to a declining small town called Old Rotterdam, where his questioning sparks resentments among the locals, including neo-Nazis and a group of Jews. The sequel to Coleman's Walking the Perfect Square (2002).

The Road to Ruin (Mysterious Press), by Donald E. Westlake. John Dortmunder and his comical contingent of crooks join the house staff of thieving former CEO Monroe Hall in order to steal his antique automobiles. But they didn't plan to be interrupted by other parties seeking revenge against Hall, or to have Dortmunder kidnapped right along with the corrupt collector.

Shadow Men (Dutton), by Jonathon King. Guilt-burdened Philadelphia cop-turned-Florida private eye Max Freeman is hired to solve the 80-year-old disappearances of Cyrus Mayes and his two sons, who were last seen working a construction crew on the Sunshine State's Tamiami Trail back in 1923. After last year's disappointing A Visible Darkness ("RS," 4/03), it's good to see King back with a stronger story that better employs its colorful Florida backdrop.

Unforced Error (Poisoned Pen Press), by Michael Bowen. Copyright lawyer Rep Pennyworth and his wife, Melissa (introduced in 2002's Screenscam), head to Kansas City, Missouri, to take in a Civil War battle re-enactment and find Rep a juicy copyright case. However, their trip is spoiled by the murder of writer/editor R. Thomas Quinlan, for whom Melissa's childhood friend Linda Damon works. Chief among the suspects is Peter Damon, who isn't any too happy to learn of his wife's intimate association with Quinlan -- and whose Civil War saber just happens to be coated with Quinlan's blood. While Bowen's mystery is traditionally constructed, humorous dialogue, spry characters and a sense of history increase this book's appeal.

The Villa of Mysteries (Macmillan UK), by David Hewson. On the heels of A Season for the Dead (released in Britain in 2003, but only now available in the States from Delacorte), Hewson presents this second case for Roman Detective Nic Costa, in which he investigates the corpse of a young woman found in a peat bog. A pathologist declares her the victim on an ancient Roman ritual, but the Caravaggio-loving Costa isn't so sure.

Happy Anniversary to Us

I love those impertinent lists that men's magazines often publish of "reasons to go on living." You know, the kind that this year might include "having the lovely Rachel Weisz double our pleasure by playing twins in the upcoming, comic book-inspired film Constantine," or "no The Apprentice: Omarosa in Charge," or "watching John Kerry whip George W. Bush's lying ass in the November elections." A comparable roster for crime-fiction enthusiasts would accommodate "the second season of Foley's War (beginning on U.S. public-TV stations in July)" and "the upcoming publication of Laura Lippman's eighth Tess Monaghan novel, By a Spider's Thread, and Robert Wilson's second Javier Falcón novel, The Silent and the Damned."

But my own modest reason to go on living? To see whether I can make it through yet another 12 months of "The Rap Sheet."

Believe it or not, it's been five years since this newsletter debuted, and two years since it assumed its present, expanded format. What began as a relatively unpretentious endeavor -- an irregular vehicle through which I could share opinions and bits of news about the genre -- has turned into a fairly daunting, mostly monthly project with thousands of subscribers. For those of you who haven't been keeping track, the premiere "Rap Sheet" ran a mere 2,684 words long; the one you're reading now exceeds 16,600 words in length, and it includes not just my comments about books, but also those of a growing stable of regular contributors, some of whom (like Sarah Weinman and Kevin Burton Smith) operate their own separate Web sites devoted to crime fiction.

Even though, with the approach of each month's deadline, I am known to complain about the volume of work this newsletter demands ("I have how many reviewlets left to edit?"), I'm also grateful for the favorable reader remarks it has drawn and the modest renown it's generated, thanks to mentions at other sites and in resource books such as Kate Derie's indispensible Deadly Directory. My satisfaction in completing each edition of "The Rap Sheet" is similar to seeing one's child excel at an academic exam: You can simultaneously be proud of his or her success, and glad that the hours you spent helping to ensure that success are finally over.

The most interesting thing I've learned in writing and editing this newsletter is that readers -- and authors, too -- prefer thoughtful criticism over glib, blurb-worthy remarks. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that people are too busy with their children and their underpaying jobs and their teetering relationships to sit down before a review of more than 200 words. But such "wisdom" isn't borne out in the notes I receive. More often than not, subscribers applaud January's willingness to be thorough and thoughtful in its criticism, and while I do receive the occasional disapproving missive (usually from someone who doesn't understand that reviews are supposed to be opinionated as well as informative), not a single person has complained to me that we talk too much about the books under review. If anything, readers seem to want more, not less -- perhaps because so many other publications, especially those on the Web, underestimate the attention spans of book enthusiasts. (And do editors really think we're too stupid to judge a work without its also being star-rated?)

Truth be told, the majority of books published in the crime-fiction realm are either mediocre or downright awful, designed to separate readers from their cash, rather than expand the genre's possibilities or enhance its future. Of course, the same might well be said of any other category of fiction. It's only too bad that critics wont to dismiss crime fiction focus on those lesser, commercial efforts, unaware or uninterested in the fact that the genre also produces novels well worth remembering -- or, for authors, worth emulating. 2004 is already shaping up to be a good year, thanks to the publication of such books as Laurie Lynn Drummond's Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You, George Pelecanos' Hard Revolution, Kris Nelscott's Stone Cribs and Jim Kelly's The Fire Baby. Still to come: David Pirie's The Dark Water (May), Michael Connelly's The Narrows (May), Edward Wright's While I Disappear (May), Alafair Burke's Missing Justice (June), Steve Hamilton's Ice Run (June), Stephen Booth's One Last Breath (June), Tom Bradby's The God of Chaos (July), Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip (July) and the previously mentioned novels by Lippman and Wilson (due out in July and August, respectively). Any or all of those could be construed as "reasons to go on living." And all of them give reason for "The Rap Sheet" to go on publishing.

If this newsletter can, in any way, help readers distinguish literary gems from junk, I figure the many hours that go into its production are worthwhile.

Now, if I can only contrive a way to read and sleep at the same time ...

* * *

Early warning: The next "Rap Sheet" will be a combined May/June edition, due out in early June. Until then, keep your eyes out for the regular crime-fiction reviews in January Magazine's main pages.

J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor
, January Magazine

New and Noteworthy

How many times have you read a novel in which somebody (often the detective protagonist him- or herself) is framed for murder? Trust me, you haven't enough fingers and toes to count them all. This is one of the most reliable and repeated plot devices in all of crime fiction. Yet a talented author can manufacture a transporting tale from even such hackneyed material. David Liss accomplishes that in A Spectacle of Corruption (Random House), his second adventure for Benjamin Weaver, a pugilist-turned-"thief-taker" in 18th-century London. Having already exposed -- in the Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) -- a financial scandal previously unequalled in British history, Weaver is now tasked with unearthing chicanery in the 1722 race for a House of Commons seat from Westminster, while fleeing the law himself.

What brought Weaver to this troublesome pass? That's the principal mystery to be solved in these pages. Weaver is hired near the outset of Liss' exuberant new yarn by Anglican priest Christopher Ufford, who has been receiving threatening notes for having spoken out in defense of London dockworkers. He wants the Jewish "ruffian-for-hire" to put a stop to this epistolary assault.

But while looking into the matter, Weaver is embroiled in a tavern riot, during which labor agitator Walter Yate is killed. Although he'd aided Yate during the brawl, Weaver is soon accused of the man's murder and sentenced to hang. It's only thanks to a mysterious female admirer at his trial, who slips him a lock pick and file, that the former boxer maintains hope of surviving. Tossed into London's most-unsavory Newgate Prison, Weaver must escape by way of a chimney and thence -- naked -- into the city's filthy thoroughfares. Needing cover while he tries to determine who gained most from his criminal conviction, Weaver, assisted by his wonderfully mischievous surgeon friend, Elias Gordon (whose ardent advocacy of enemas leaves more than his patients squirming), takes on the disguise of a well-to-do plantation owner freshly returned from colonial Jamaica. He penetrates Georgian London's high society, and in so doing, becomes convinced that behind both his own torment and Yate's demise lies the hand of Dennis Dogmill, a "vicious and unpredictable" tobacco importer with a selfish interest in the outcome of the latest parliamentary campaign. Weaver also stumbles into the treacherous center of a power struggle between supporters of present King George I and the Jacobites, who endorse returning his Catholic rival, James II (ousted in 1688), to the English throne.

Risking serious nosebleed with his frequent commuting from London's most rarified social circles down to its lowest ones, Weaver slowly comes to recognize the machinations behind his recent woes. He also strikes up an amorous acquaintance with Dogmill's appealing and shrewd sister, Grace; faces a blackmailer who has cottoned to his charade; encounters the elusive James II in the flesh; and finds himself in the uncomfortable position of both plotting against and backing Griffin Melbury, the Tory candidate for that Westminster legislative seat -- and the man who stole the hand and heart of Miriam Lienzo, Weaver's cousin's widow and the woman he had fervently hoped to marry. Along the way, readers are offered a tutorial in the distinctions between England's Whigs and Tories, though the politics never overwhelm this yarn.

While clever twists goad the pace of A Spectacle of Corruption, it's David Liss' eye for curious historical detail that really separates this book from the pack. Where else are you likely to learn that boxers of Weaver's era would take on not just other men, but imposing women as well? Where else will you find people insulting each other as "mollies" and "buggerantos"? Or witness the alleged sport of "goose pulling," which Weaver describes in all its horrific particulars:

A plump goose was tied by its foot from a high branch of a tree, and its neck well greased. Each participant had to ride [on horseback] at top speed under the goose and grab it by its neck. The fellow who could successfully hold on to the bird and wrench it free or -- as was often the case -- pull its very head off, came home with the prize.

Yes, as a reviewer for The Washington Post has pointed out, Liss sprinkles a few incongruous terms here ("communist" and "perambulator" being two of the most obvious) that threaten the reader's illusion of having been transported back to the early 18th century. And yes, it is a bit hard to swallow the presumption that a bewigged Weaver could hide in plain sight. However, A Spectacle of Corruption boasts drama, wit and luxurious prose enough to keep one from focusing on such problematic matters. If there's any negative comparison to be made between this novel and its predecessor, it is simply that the former gave more stage time to Jonathan Wild, a real-life bounty hunter who appears here only in cameo. If there's a third installment of the Benjamin Weaver series, as seems inevitable, perhaps Wild will grab for a role more befitting his oversized ego. -- Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

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Boston P.I. Spenser is back, and for once he has a paying client. Brittle, bitter and vengeful, Marlene Rowley wants pictures of her husband cheating on her -- and she means actually in the act of cheating. Unlike other modern gumshoes, who might be unwilling to lower themselves to divorce work, Spenser amiably accepts this assignment and promptly gets himself into a tangled web of detectives, corporate espionage and murder in Robert B. Parker's 31st Spenser mystery, Bad Business (Putnam).

Our hero quickly discovers that Mrs. Rowley has good reason to be suspicious. However, when a routine surveillance turns wonky, Spenser also realizes that he's not the only detective who's been hired to keep a private eye on the philandering couple. He and this second sleuth agree to turn in their respective reports only after Spenser can catch the pair in his camera lens. But things go south when Trenton Rowley is shot to death in his office at the energy brokerage company Kinergy, for which he served as chief executive officer. Aware that she's the obvious suspect here, Marlene Rowley asks Spenser, tearfully, to continue investigating the case, in order to prove her innocence.

Focusing his interest on Kinergy, where security seems too tight and the chief of security a bit too wary, he finds that Rowley's coworkers are all devoted to Darrin O'Mara, a radio talk-show host who preaches and practices free love. Things soon turn hairy, as Spenser must confront a dwindling list of suspects, too many (and then too few) detectives in the mix, and a good deal of illicit sex.

Fans of the Spenser mysteries should be pleased to find the usual ingredients in Bad Business. The P.I. has his smart mouth in high gear here, and the muscle to back up his taunts; his gang of shooters are still the best at what they do; and his psychologist girlfriend, Susan Silverman, continues to nibble away at lettuce leaves and sip drops of wine, while she assures Spenser that he does what he does because it's who he is, and that's why she loves him. This novel's bad guys are arrogant and cowardly -- and obvious. Unfortunately, Hawk, Spenser's magnetic black sidekick, doesn't get to do much more in these pages than look intimidating, though he and his girlfriend du jour do get to attend a seminar for swingers.

Readers new to this popular series may wonder just which era Spenser is from, since he holds up astonishingly well for a Korean War vet. Following the pattern set by Ed McBain and Sue Grafton, Parker has hardly aged his protagonist since the Shakespeare-spouting, gourmet sleuth first appeared in 1974's The Godwulf Manuscript. It seems appropriate, then, that Spenser's views should be outdated and less-than-feminist. Although there have been exceptions, the women in Parker's books are mostly vapid, vain, man-crazy and whiny. That's even true of his parallel series about Boston private eye Sunny Randall (Shrink Rap, 2002), in which nearly all the female characters, other than the protagonist (and she, too, has serious man troubles), are cast in an unflattering light. Despite such weaknesses, Parker manages to produce noir novels in which the action comes on fast, the dialogue is snappy and humorous, and the good guys are likable. Bad Business is pretty standard Spenser fare, and certainly not the highest form of literature. (Parker seems nowadays to devote more of his attention to standalones, such as his 2001 western, Gunman's Rhapsody, or his upcoming Jackie Robinson thriller, Double Play, than he does to his serial yarns.) But Spenser partisans will applaud the fact that their man is still out there, keeping the Beantown streets safe and the tough-guy traditions of American P.I. fiction alive. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

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It's not often that the hero of a mystery happens to be a psychopathic serial killer. Even rarer is the author who can have you liking and even rooting for that killer. But if anyone can make a malevolent lunatic charming, it's Tim Dorsey. With Cadillac Beach (Morrow), Dorsey brings back Serge A. Storms, who through five previous mysteries -- the last of which was The Stingray Shuffle (2003) -- has entertained, terrorized and educated Floridians. In this latest screwball adventure, Serge, having just escaped from a state psychiatric hospital, puts together an eccentric Post-It list of objectives: to (1) solve the murder of his grandfather, Sergio; (2) recover millions of dollars worth of diamonds missing since a 1964 New York City heist; (3) humiliate Fidel Castro and Cuba; (4) entice the Today Show back to Miami; (5) restore Florida's image; and, last but not least, (6) market a new energy drink. With Dorsey's assistance, Serge will accomplish all of these tasks by creating a tourism business that highlights the Sunshine State's less-than-desirable but inevitably entertaining side.

On his medication Serge is homicidal, a genius and free from the mortal hindrance of a conscience; off his medication he's homicidal, a genius, without a conscience and also obsessive-compulsive. His obsession can be seen in his rabid devotion toward preserving and worshipping Florida's unique history, including its grand hotels and diners, and its unique characters.

Serge's grandfather happened to be one such character, and it is Sergio's death by suicide -- following the infamous "Murph the Surf" jewel robbery -- that this book's anti-hero plans to investigate. Unfortunately for Serge, but fortunately for readers of Cadillac Beach, Serge is sidelined when a drunken prank by his tourist clients results in the mistaken kidnapping and murder of Miami mobster Tony Marsciano, who was in the midst of entering the witness protection program. Now Serge, together with his 48-year-old best friend, Lenny Lippowicz -- who's only too happy to live at home with his mother, as long as he has an intoxicating drug handy to inhale, inject or ingest -- is being hunted by both the mob and the FBI. Yet even on the run, Serge and company manage to accomplish his master list of objectives, while also skewering the U.S. government, the Mafia, land developers and mystery-fiction conventions.

Although Dorsey has been compared in the past with fellow Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen, he has really carved out his own niche with Serge Storms, a nutcase and history buff who's prone to comical and often insightful manic rants. There are frequent laugh-out-loud moments in Cadillac Beach -- from Lenny misrepresenting himself as a lesbian in online chat rooms, to his and Serge's effort to escape in a bullet-riddled car, with the friends pretending that it's all part of a movie filming. And nostalgic flashbacks to 1960s Miami showcase grandpa Sergio's viewpoint, while also allowing the author to incorporate the Beatles, Jackie Gleason and Flipper into this crime-spree yarn. Flip-flopping between time periods is jarring at first, but the reader eventually comes to accept the rhythm without becoming confused. It's just another aspect of this book's frenetic nature. Tim Dorsey's Florida is alternately uproarious and frightening, a place where the craziest events might presage coming realities. Like Serge's tourist clients, we only hope to return home safely. -- C.C.

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What does an author do when the characters in his or her long-running series grow a little too old and a little too settled, and additional installments are filled with so many references to previous entries that new readers feel left out? The most popular options are to (1) leave the series entirely and write standalones, (2) knock off a significant character or (3) write a prequel. However, in her 16th Amelia Peabody Emerson mystery, Guardian of the Horizon (Morrow), Elizabeth Peters takes the rather innovative step of "discovering" lost manuscripts that describe events said to have taken place right in the middle of this series, when both generations of the Emerson family of archaeologist-sleuths had attained adulthood, but ample romantic intrigue still remains.

The year is 1907, and thanks to a dispute over the plundering of an ancient tomb, Radcliffe Emerson -- living up to his nickname, "Father of Curses" -- gets his family banned from Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Sulking, he and the rest of the Emersons return home to England, where son Ramses has a violent encounter with a young Egyptian named Merasen, who claims to be on a mission for his brother, Tarek, ruler of the wealthy and hidden Lost Oasis (introduced in The Last Camel Died at Noon, 1991). The Emersons owe Tarek for his assistance 10 years before in saving Nefret Forth, an orphaned English girl who was being reared as a goddess in the Lost Oasis (and has since been adopted by Amelia and her husband). So when Tarek, whose son is gravelly ill, asks the family for their help, how can they refuse?

But on their way back to the Lost Oasis, the Emersons must shake off fortune hunters and determine the intentions of a young girl named Daria, whose beauty may turn the head of Ramses, who's already dealing with his own distinctly unbrotherly feelings toward Nefret. And upon reaching their destination, they find their presence integral to a plot to undermine Tarek's rule.

While the last Amelia Peabody Emerson mystery, Children of the Storm (2003), took place in 1919 and 1920, the events described in Guardian follow those chronicled in an earlier installment, The Ape Who Guards the Balance (1998). Because of this new yarn's position in the series, Peters' regular readers won't find much suspense here, as far as what becomes of the main characters. And newcomers will have to become familiar with a great deal of story background. Fortunately, Peters is quite adept as summing up events and twists in relationships, without belaboring these points for Emerson family fans. And she never ceases to entertain, with her snappy dialogue and the easy banter between members of the Emerson clan, who love one another despite (or maybe because of) their ability to exasperate one another. The most engaging thing about Guardian may be its portrayal of Amelia and her distinguished spouse, who have yet to lose their attraction for one another. Peters keeps their relationship lusty without the hint of vulgarity:

"Emerson," I said, as he advanced toward me. "I hope you won't take this in the wrong way, but I really am not in the proper frame of mind for -- er -- that. Not this evening. And not with that beard."

"My dear Peabody." He gave me a reproachful look. "That was not what I had in mind. Well -- to be honest, I always have it in mind, but for once it was not my primary reason for wanting to be alone with you."

Peters (a pseudonym of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz) was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1998, and received the Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. With almost 60 books (both fiction and non-fiction) under her belt, she has honed her authorial craft to an enviable level. In this follow-up to The Last Camel Died at Noon, a novel that once helped to reinvigorate this series, she brings to mind the adventure movies of old, complete with marauding bandits, elaborate escapes, and beautiful and mysterious religious ceremonies. We can only hope that she has another lifetime of achievement ahead of her. -- C.C.

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Many fictional detectives seem to have gotten their starts after being personally touched by crime. Just look at Batman. Or Denise Mina's Maureen O'Donnell (introduced in Garnethill). Or Lisa Miscione's Lydia Strong, whose life was changed forever when (in Angel Fire, 2002) she discovered her mother's mutilated body. This tough-hided New Yorker went on to use her instincts in tracking down the slayer, Jeb McIntyre. Although that resolution led her to become an author of true-crime books -- the first of which recounted McIntyre's path of horror -- it never allowed her to fully recover. Her life ever since has formed around that horrific event of 15 years ago, right down to her choice of business and life partner: FBI agent-turned-P.I. Jeffrey Mark, the investigator who had originally worked her mother's murder.

Lydia should understand better than most the moral at the core of Twice (St. Martin's Minotaur), the third entry in Miscione's series: that people who are unable to give up the past will forever be haunted by it.

Whoever said history repeats itself could have been thinking of Julian Ross. A successful Manhattan artist, she was already tried but acquitted in the brutal murder of her first husband 10 years ago. Now, her second hubby has suffered a similar fate, with Julian found at the scene. Convinced of her daughter's innocence, Julian's mother, Eleanor, asks Jeffrey and Lydia to flush out the real killer.

Since Jeffrey happened to have had a hand in investigating the death of Julian's previous spouse, he readily agrees. For Lydia -- three weeks pregnant and still troubled by the resolution of her last case (in The Darkness Gathers, 2003), which resulted in McIntyre being set free to torment both her and her loved ones -- the Ross affair looks like just the distraction she needs. So, together with the lead detective from both domestic murder cases, Lydia and Jeffrey dive into the Ross family's carefully concealed history, following clues that lead eventually to the New York town of Haunted (how convenient is that name?), where a legacy of tragedy and frightful secrets await. Meanwhile, the heinous McIntyre lurks in the background, watching over Lydia and planning horrific revenge as he follows her through the hidden tunnels beneath New York City.

Gothic horror, hints of incest and the isolated denizens of those tunnels combine to make this a compelling and creepy suspense novel. After the disappointingly weak The Darkness Gathers, Miscione comes back strong with Twice, a considerably more intriguing and well-written tale. Lydia Strong is developing into an engaging character, though not an altogether likable one. She feels resentful here toward her pregnancy, even as Jeffrey hovers over her and tries to protect his lover by assigning to her an ex-Special Forces bodyguard, Dax Chicago. Despite the fact that a serial killer is obsessing over Lydia's every action, and threatening the lives of her relatives, she still manages to make some less-than-brilliant moves, including ducking Dax in order to do some solo investigating. The reader may drum up greater sympathy for Jeffrey Mark, who regardless of his strong ethical beliefs, has determined to end McIntyre's obsession with Lydia, even if it costs him his soul. Dax Chicago is more stereotypically drawn, being a well-muscled and well-armed sidekick with a mysterious past, who's willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his own definition of justice. But Twice's most interesting player, by far, is Ford McKirdy, the lead detective on both Ross killings, who has allowed his police work to define his life and cost him his family. With it being possible that he screwed up the original investigation, Ford now faces the prospect that his sacrifices have been in vain. Has he been a failure not only in his professional life, but also in his personal one?

Although the final solution to the murders in Twice may be rather unbelievable and surreal, it is the characters who shine and make this an enjoyable read. It looks as if Lisa Miscione's series is back on track. Thank goodness. -- C.C.

* * *

The three Blackbird sisters haven't had an easy time of it. First, there's the curse proclaiming that all Blackbird women are destined to be widows. Second, their parents blew threw the family's fortune before fleeing the States one step ahead of the IRS. And now? The newly widowed Libby Blackbird just gave birth to her fifth child and is channeling her inner goddess, while looking for her next husband. Nora is struggling with her job as assistant gossip columnist for The Philadelphia Intelligencer, and at the same time is trying to save the Blackbird clan's home from foreclosure, following the shooting death of her drug-dealing husband. To top it off, sister Emma was just found unconscious next to the body of Rushton Strawcutter and is now the chief suspect in his slaying. Could things get worse? As fans of the popular series by Nancy Martin know to expect, the answer in her latest Blackbird Sisters Mystery, Some Like it Lethal (Signet), is "yes."

Although their family is in debt to half of Philadelphia, the Blackbird name still has enough clout and history to guarantee Nora invitations to the best social events, where she holds forth as both guest and reporter. It is at such an affair, the breakfast of a Philadelphia Main Line hunt club, during which Nora finds the hapless Emma -- suffering from alcohol-induced amnesia -- with Rush Strawcutter, a man who'd married into the Strawcutter fortune, and then changed his name to better fit in at the family's dog-food-producing company. Drawn into the ensuing investigation, Nora finds herself pitted against an attractive police detective by the name of Benjamin Bloom, who sees nothing wrong in using his appeal to manipulate the society observer for the benefit of his career. As Nora navigates between dysfunctional Strawcutter relatives, she's also forced to deal with her developing relationship with Michael Abruzzo, the white sheep of the Abruzzo crime family, who's in the middle of an FBI investigation.

Nora is alternately aided and distracted by her sisters, as well as Hadley Pinkham, a society-party crasher who acts both as her Watson and as catty comic relief. Since the crime at hand affects the upper-crust, Nora naturally encounters blackmail, infidelity and family infighting as she pursues the case. Combined with power struggles at the Intelligencer, she definitely has her hands full.

Lethal's colorful cover will likely attract readers of romance and lighter mysteries. However, Martin gives her characters enough depth to lend this third installment of her series (after Dead Girls Don't Wear Diamonds, 2003) an unexpected seriousness. The curse of widowhood has influenced each of the Blackbird siblings, despite their attempts to circumvent and defy such a fate. While Libby's hormones have her chasing after a prospective father for her children, she is simultaneously terrified that her kids will repel men and leave her, forever, a struggling single mother. Emma, still mourning the passing of the husband she loved, engages in numerous one-night stands, but never allows herself to care enough and risk the pain of another loss. Finally, Nora refuses to surrender to her own feelings and trust Michael Abruzzo, having been so betrayed by her late hubby -- first, by his lies and then by his demise. So, although these women still travel in rarified social circles, they're all deeply wounded and struggling to find happiness.

There is one glaring fault in this book's puzzle plot: a pivotal character undergoes a 180-degree change in personality in order to be the guilty party -- as well as the person least suspected of the crime. While this guarantees that Lethal's solution will come as a surprise, it's also an unnecessary manipulation by the author. That said, Martin must be given credit for creating delightfully eccentric high-society players. And she's encouraged Nora to grow stronger as a protagonist, one who no longer allows herself to be a slave to the whims of others -- even the members of her own family. The author also handles this novel's conclusion well, ginning up enough sympathy around the culprit that you're left satisfied that justice has been served. This is a highly enjoyable and humorous mystery that attracts with its deft balance of serious themes and light dialogue. -- C.C.

* * *

If Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Harry Houdini and even Groucho Marx can be detectives in fiction, why not Louisa May Alcott? As Anna Maclean proves in Louisa and the Missing Heiress (Signet), the young literary icon has ample enough wit, determination and pluck to solve the nasty murder of a friend and dive into the secrets of an upper class that may not be so classy.

Set in Boston in the early 1850s, well before she became famous as the author of Little Women, this yarn finds Louisa in her early 20s, still living with her parents and writing children's fables and "blood-and-thunder" romances. Recently reduced to a level of near-poverty, the result of her philosopher father's failed attempt to create a utopian commune, Louisa teaches children out of her home, while taking on additional work as a housekeeper and seamstress. She also volunteers at a home for abandoned pregnant women, while her progressive parents participate in an "underground railroad" that assists slaves fleeing to freedom from the American South.

After her dear childhood friend Dorothy "Dottie" Wortham returns home from honeymooning through Europe, in company with a man everyone in their circle seems to believe is a gold-digger, Louisa visits her, but finds Dottie preoccupied and acting strangely. When, soon afterward, the bodies of Dottie and her little dog are discovered -- both apparently slain -- everyone concludes that Dottie's husband, Preston Wortham, did them in, and he's arrested. But Louisa has her doubts. So she and another friend, Sylvia Shattuck, march into the investigation, only to learn that it is Dottie's own family who had the most reasons for wanting her dead. Seems that she was set to inherit her uncle's prosperous business, which had been built on the back of slaves, and Dottie -- who abhorred the practice of enslaving her fellow humans -- would have forced her family to sell off their shares of the enterprise at a loss. Louisa learns, too, that the men in Dottie's life have not been of the honorable sort; both her brother and her husband have left a trail of mistresses and abandoned children in their wakes. Before long, Louisa is up to her corset in blackmail, scandal and duplicity. All of which, she decides, ought to provide rich sources of inspiration for her future novels.

Whether or not the Louisa May Alcott found in Anna Maclean's series debut accurately reflects the real woman is beside the point. Readers will enjoy the character, who is frustrated by the mores and restrictions of her era, yet certainly reflects the beliefs of her society. It's amusing to watch Louisa wrestle here with her inability to travel unescorted to interview suspects, bring up the topic of personal finances or allow unannounced visits to last longer than a "proper" 30 minutes. Just as fascinating is the dichotomy of a respectable single women being forced to live up to high standards, while men's exploits with mistresses and illegitimate offspring are overlooked. Maclean, the pseudonym of historical novelist Jeanne Mackin (The Sweet By and By, 2001), does a splendid job of re-creating 19th-century New England, from its dress styles and food choices, to the mannerisms that both confine and allow people to function. Rife with plot twists, hints of romance and delightfully witty dialogue, Louisa and the Missing Heiress might well have made a fan of the real Miss Alcott. -- C.C.

* * *

The border separating the United States from Canada has traditionally been one of the world's most peaceful. Over a 4,000-mile stretch, only a few thousand customs officials are deployed to oversee travel between the countries. Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s made crossing this boundary still more painless. If border tensions don't seem like a good basis for an espionage plot, think again: terrorists, smugglers and tax cheats can all make good use of this border for their ill-gotten gains and illegal desires. In his debut novel, The Border Guards (HarperCollins Canada), Mark Sinnett shines a fascinating light on those who oversee the U.S.-Canada divide and who must, in this story, use all of their law-enforcement might to derail a deadly smuggling operation. And he juxtaposes that main plot against a poetically written character study of a son's fraying relationship with his father.

Tim Hollins operates a restaurant on the Canadian side of the Thousand Islands, a series of border towns near Kingston, Ontario. One reason for his restaurant's success is that it's patronized by affluent customers -- most of whom are friends and colleagues of Tim's powerbroker father, Michael. But after a night of drinking, Michael goes for a drive and dies in a car accident.

This looks to be open-and-shut case. But after Tim turns up some mysterious documents, as well as a cache of diamonds, and then more people die, keeping his restaurant running pales in comparison to simply staying alive. Meanwhile, FBI agent John Selby has returned from a sabbatical to join the Border Vigilance Commission (BVC), a special branch investigating illicit dealings involving cross-border shipments. The BVC is focusing its attention upon Nikolai Petrovich, a Russian mobster who's officially as clean as a whistle but very much at the forefront of a litany of smuggling schemes, protection rackets and art-dealing scams. Sinnett's complex plot wends its way through urban Toronto, picturesque Kingston and the expanse of the border to reach a violent, yet utterly believable, conclusion.

This author's previous work includes two books of poetry and a short-story collection, and that experience comes through in the quality of his prose-writing. His descriptions of nature and cold weather brim with authenticity, and his poetic style informs the depth and complexity of each of his major characters. There are no two-dimensional stock caricatures or clichéd plot turns here; instead, The Border Guards is a more subtle work, a thriller of nuances, trace glances, melancholy and loss. Especially poignant is the declining relationship between Tim and his father. The two men were never close, and Michael's death does not magically bridge the gap separating them. Rather, it creates a sad suspicion in Tim that his dad let him down in many other ways. Also worth noting is Sinnett's way with his female players. Though Rebecca, the chef at Tim's restaurant, and Hanne, an art dealer and agent Selby's former lover, could have been prosaic love interests, they become far more integral to the tale, and wonderfully appealing.

The best thing about The Border Guards is that it accomplishes its overall goal: to educate about border politics and intricacies without ever becoming dry and didactic. The level of detail here was fascinating and added extra dimension to the story at hand. This first novel by Sinnett, a Briton who has lived in Canada for almost 25 years, was a joy to read and kept me glued until the very end. It's a pleasure to find someone who writes so well and has created a work that is so very Canadian. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman

* * *

The life of a foreign correspondent today is one of nearly complete transience. Flitting from place to place, often hopping several time zones in the space of a few days, to track down a story that will grace the front pages of a major newspaper. It's a brutal, fast-paced, often desolate world, in which your only friends are the other reporters with whom you knock back drinks late at night in hotel bars -- when you're not trying to undercut them surreptitiously to get an exclusive scoop, of course. Shiny, happy people need not apply, and yet, those who do the job couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Anna Blundy's ferocious new thriller, The Bad News Bible (Headline UK), captures the wildly unstable, fast-paced world of news reporting in an alien land, all the while pointing out some harsh truths about government politics, deadened emotions and the difficulty of finding normality amid a sea of tragic events. To call this an impressive start to a new series is quite the understatement.

Faith Zanetti works for an unnamed, London-based newspaper, and although she's not much of a fan of her drunken boss, he's done her a huge favor by assigning her to cover the Jerusalem beat. She loves all aspects of this duty: covering the increasingly violent acts that occur on a daily basis, being in the trenches and drinking in the bars. She's especially happy to tip back a few, because her fondness for vodka keeps her tumultuous childhood at bay, tamping down the memories that spawn her nightmares and threaten to break down her cynical defense mechanism. But her precarious lifestyle is given quite the beating when her best friend and fellow journo, Shiv Boucherat, suffers a mysterious mental breakdown, and then is found hanging lifelessly from Zanetti's bathroom door. Is it suicide or murder? And what connection does Shiv's death have to another reporter's investigation into the trafficking of Russian children? As professional duties merge into personal quests, Faith tests herself and her demons in ways she would never have imagined before.

From The Bad News Bible's very first page, author Blundy's pointed, caustic style whisks the reader into an unpredictable storyline that maintains its speed throughout. The language here is tart, the tone cynical, the dialogue authentic. And that's not even taking into account Faith Zanetti, who could probably out-drink, out-hustle and outwit many of this genre's hard-boiled heroines. Yet her hard-bitten shell barely covers the vulnerability she doesn't want anyone to see -- especially not her ex-lover, Eden Jones. Their relationship is stuffed full of traded barbs, erected defenses and episodes of banter that disguise just how much they mean to one other. Theirs is a fascinating, fully grown rapport that, one expects, will only develop and change in future installments. If any quibble can be made about this story, it's that the conflicts that characterize Israel and stay in the news on a constant basis seem to be somewhat subdued; although Blundy, a former foreign correspondent who is the author of a previous novel and a non-fiction account of her journalist father's murder, does a credible job in her descriptions of Jerusalem, the city's pulse is curiously low. Still, The Bad News Bible is a great start, and as long as Faith Zanetti can keep sitting at bars, knocking back a vodka or few and trading war stories, this series is well on its way to being required reading. -- S.W.

* * *

The specter of World War II loomed large in Eastern Europe for many years after the fighting had ceased, as communism spread from country to country. As we know now, this Russian-influenced brand of socialism was hopelessly broken and riddled with corruption. But in the 1950s, such knowledge was suppressed, shared only quietly, for speaking out might lead to death or exile.

Against this backdrop of intrigue and distrust, Olen Steinhauer has crafted an atmospheric series focusing on the militia homicide unit in an unnamed Eastern European country. Last year's first installment, The Bridge of Sighs, won considerable praise, and it deserves its place among the 2004 Edgar Award nominees for Best First Novel. With The Confession (St. Martin's Minotaur), this series now grows in scope and breadth, promising to turn its author's potential into a firmly entrenched and thriving career.

Ferenc Kolyesar leads a dual life. He works as a police officer in the homicide unit, marking time and shuffling paperwork, waiting to investigate murders that almost never happen. He is also the author of a proletariat novel that sold reasonably well several years ago in various rarified circles, and continues to tap away at an upcoming book. But success is out of reach and happiness even more elusive, because his 17-year marriage to Magda is slowly crumbling; he suspects she is having an affair with one of his colleagues. Ferenc's cynical attitude takes firm hold command when he's suddenly asked to look into both the murder of a young artist and the mysterious disappearance of a Communist Party member's wife. That these two cases, and others to follow, are connected appears rather obvious, but Ferenc's individual despair and increasingly morally ambiguous actions are what propel him into trouble. His very personal decline eerily echoes that of his native country. Only by writing down the events as they happen in the titular confession can he, perhaps, overcome the sense of hopelessness that pervades everything he thinks and does -- and save his life in the process.

Although The Confession is being promoted as a thriller, its police investigation is only a subplot to the main storyline about a man who tries so very hard to save his marriage, his viewpoints and even his soul from the decay that infects his daily life and those who govern him. Ultimately, Steinhauer, an American now living in Budapest, is more interested in how his players interact, affect each other's choices and are in turn affected by the fluctuating political climate of their country. This leads to character development that goes well beyond black-and-white brushstrokes. Ferenc and his fellow police officers come across as utterly human -- products of their backgrounds, occupations and personal choices. It's also fascinating to see how Emil Brod, the callow hero of The Bridge of Sighs, has evolved into a much less idealistic and more morally uncertain man in the years that have passed between these books. Steinhauer's world is a dynamic one, and his beautiful prose paints a heartbreaking portrait of a country in flux. Fans of wartime and espionage fiction should not miss this series. -- S.W.

* * *

Radio just ain't what it used to be. Turn the dial and you'll likely find a mix of bad pop, worse R&B and shlocky tunes of yesteryear that purport to be "classic tracks." No wonder FM is dead and AM is a walking corpse and people flock to the Internet to download snippets of their favorite music, from the popular to the obscure, the hits to the lesser lights, the good stuff to the ridiculously kitschy. Yet in spite of the decline and fall of radio -- or maybe because of it -- there's a certain fascination the public has with the colorful characters who populate station houses, valiantly trying to protect the airwaves from corporate meddling and bottom-line watchers. That's why the late-1970s TV classic WKRP in Cincinnati still strikes a chord with audiences today: the ensemble cast chemistry, the spot-on dialogue, and most of all, the great classic rock music played every hour, every day. It's a nostalgia trip like no other.

It's that same heady mix of notable rock tunes and station upheaval that serve as fodder for Bill Fitzhugh's latest novel Radio Activity (Morrow), and the result is pure, unabashed enjoyment, with a healthy dose of gentle humor, Southern charm and vicious backstabbing -- oh, and a body or two.

Rick Shannon is on the move again, just as he has been during the greater part of his adult life. For radio disc jockeys like him, permanency is a state best avoided. But as Shannon contemplates selling off his prized record collection for quick cash, he knows things have never been worse than now. That is, until fate takes a hand and guides him to WAOR-FM in McRae, Mississippi.

There he assumes duties as the program director, replacing "Captain Jack" Carter, who apparently left town without letting anybody know. This new job gives Shannon a chance to play the kind of music he wants -- classic rock from the mid-60s to the late-70s. But soon he's worried about a whole lot more than which songs to select, for in his new digs (a trailer home that used to be Carter's) he stumbles across an audiotape of two men discussing illicit sex, loan fraud and blackmail. Just for the hell of it -- but mostly because it gives him something else to do -- Shannon decides to play investigator, assuming the unlikely role of "Buddy Miles, P.I." As he travels a twisted back road into arson, rigged radio contests and murder, Shannon realizes that the radio biz can be a whole lot deadlier than he'd ever imagined.

Although the crime aspect here is solidly plotted, Radio Activity is really less about solving a mystery than it is about the modern state of radio and music. Fitzhugh, who has written five previous satirical novels (including last year's Heart Seizure), was himself a DJ in the 1970s and 80s, and his new novel drips with knowledge and passion, both about the best of music and the possibilities of programming. Some of the finest scenes in these pages find Shannon getting into heated debates with his fellow disk jockeys about how exactly to pinpoint the start and end of classic rock (beginning with Bob Dylan and finishing with The Last Waltz.) Fitzhugh also does a nice job in creating a likable protagonist who's not altogether sure what to do with his life; someone who wants a measure of stability, but still feels the tug of a musical riff or a smooth segue between songs. And finally, there's the music itself. Radio Activity is filled with reference after reference to classic rock tracks that had me nodding in pleasurable memory or making a list of records to get as soon as possible. Fitzhugh has promised more adventures featuring Rick Shannon and his radio DJ ways, and as long as there's plenty of murder and music, this is one radio dial worth cranking up to top volume. -- S.W.

* * *

Chris Mooney's third novel, Remembering Sarah (Atria Books), is a deeply moving account that details the journey a father must endure after his daughter vanishes mysteriously on a seemingly peaceful, snow-filled night. It is a journey that every parent dreads. Against the wishes of his over-protective wife, Jess, Mike Sullivan takes their 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, sledding on a hill in Belham, Massachusetts. There, they encounter Sarah's friend Paula O'Malley and her father, Bill. The two girls set off for the hilltop -- but Sarah never comes down again. Only her sled and glasses are left behind. The child herself has disappeared into the snowstorm.

Sullivan, in the aftermath, is plunged into the hell that lies at the heart of this narrative. Desperate to rescue his only offspring, he works with and against a huge cast of memorable characters, including a disgraced pedophilic priest, Francis Jonah, who is believed to have abducted and murdered two other young girls. But Sullivan is having more than a little trouble keeping his life together. After losing his cool, he's restrained by court order from any further interaction with Jonah, and must attend anger-management counseling. His wife deserts him, no longer being able to cope with their mutual loss. And the Belham cops appear ineffectual in their efforts to find Sarah or her abductor. Mike Sullivan feels left alone in a world that he doesn't understand.

Five years later, with Jonah facing terminal cancer, Sullivan tries to enlist the church's help in learning the former cleric's secrets -- before he can take them to his grave. Even in these dark times, Mike Sullivan keeps Sarah's memory fresh in his tortured mind. Then, on the snowy anniversary of his daughter's disappearance, a pink girl's jacket is found atop the hill where Sarah was last seen.

Like some of the recent novels by Harlan Coben (Tell No One, Gone for Good), Remembering Sarah turns on hidden family secrets and relationships that often lie submerged and invisible until a trauma unearths the truth. One such secret works itself loose following the discovery of that blood-stained pink jacket. Mike Sullivan remembers a fragment from his early life, a splinter that now gnaws at him. He recalls his French mother leaving their home for good when he was just a boy; he recollects her love of the church and the flight she took to Paris to escape her violent husband, Lou. Then, Sullivan's father suddenly reappears in Belham -- implicated in a brutal murder, but also bearing information he thinks Mike should know. How much of what Lou says, though, is fiction, and how much is fact, told by a man in need of his son's help and a sense of atonement?

Remembering Sarah is a pretty stark departure from Mooney's previous psychological thrillers, Deviant Ways (2000) and World Without End (2001), but this book remains a tough read -- a harrowing tale with real emotional punch. It hits you in the stomach from Page 1, and then squeezes you, tears at you, as you accompany Mike Sullivan on his so often discouraging journey to find the truth. Passion and sentimentality are both integral to the dramatic mix here, though neither is exploited for mere effect. And at the story's core can be found a message of hope -- that even in the blackest winter, even when grief seems suffocating and deceit swirls all around, the prospect that things may yet work out for the best should never be discounted. I fully expect to find Remembering Sarah scoring high among my favorite reads of 2004. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim

* * *

The DaVinci Code seems to have opened the door for more historical page-turners with pedagogical subtexts. Through that door now comes The Intelligencer (Atria Books), the debut work by P.I.-turned-novelist Leslie Silbert. Alternating its action between the 16th century and the present day, this unusual work welds the contemporary spy-thriller to the historical mystery.

Sparking this chronicle of intrigue is the secret life of Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, a successful English playwright and poet -- a contemporary and rival of William Shakespeare -- whose death by dagger in May 1593 still holds enough mystery to incite scholarly debate more than 400 years later. A good part of the reason is that Marlowe's companions on the night of tragic demise were secret agents of one sort or another, and the writer had done some part-time spying himself. When we encounter him in The Intelligencer, he's investigating questionable doings by a cadre of merchants anxious to locate a Northwest Passage to the wealthy Orient. Before he's murdered, Marlowe records his findings in a coded document.

Now skip ahead to 21st-century New York City, where Kate Morgan, a young detective and student of the English Renaissance, is asked by a U.S. government intelligence outfit to look into an attempted burglary at the London home of Cidro Medina, a charming Anglo-Spanish businessman. Further complicating the case are a body in Medina's study and a strange and sinister yellowed document titled "The Anatomy of Secrets," which was uncovered during a building restoration. As Kate endeavors to decipher the manuscript and learn where Kit Marlowe buried a valuable jade dragon, she's contacted by a mendacious Italian art dealer, Luca de Tolomei, who has just purchased a shipment from Iran that could contain the ammunition for his revenge against Kate's father, a U.S. senator with whom he has sparred in the past. Add to all of this an arsenal of whiz-bang spy gadgetry (including a bullet-armed lipstick tube), a tutorial on both modern and Elizabethan torture techniques, and the tantalizing prospect of a solution to Marlowe's slaying, and you've got a novel combining sapience with stimulation.

With its plethora of champions and rogues, some fictional and others reality based, The Intelligencer can be confusing, at least until its various plots and subplots start to converge about halfway through. As a protagonist, Kate Morgan is somewhat plastic and short of dimension; however, Silbert's narrative, though it's written more serviceably than elegantly and occasionally slips modern jargon into 16th-century mouths, is convoluted and crafty enough to let the reader pass by Morgan's faults. If you liked Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, you should appreciate this new literary brew. It may be less literary than some recent historical mystery novels, including Andrew Taylor's An Unpardonable Crime, Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy, but The Intelligencer could have greater mass-market appeal. Let's hope we see more from Silbert in the future. -- A.K.

* * *

Lee Child's immense talent shows in the way he can integrate a liberal viewpoint into novels that fulfill our need for action, justice and escapism -- but are set mostly in the right-wing world of the military. His eighth Jack Reacher adventure, The Enemy (Transworld UK), can be read at several different levels. It's an extremely intricate tale, but strip away the airbags, metallic paint and wax, and you're left with an engine that can only accelerate forward.

A prequel, set during the late 1980s and early 90s, when the Cold War was finally winding down, The Enemy shows us a Reacher we haven't seen before. He's still a uniformed military policeman in these pages, and not yet the wandering loner we'd recognize from the seven previous installments of this series. Again employing the first-person perspective (which served Child so well in his 1997 debut novel, Killing Floor, and last year's Persuader), the author dishes up an adventure that begins outside of Fort Bird, North Carolina, where a two-star general named Kramer is discovered dead in a sleazy, pay-by-the-hour motel, his pants down around his ankles and his briefcase missing. Army investigator Jack Reacher is sent to sort out this situation and then bring it under control. He's accompanied by Lieutenant Summer, a small but tough and fast-acting African-American woman, who's as ballsy as any of Reacher's previous sidekicks, having come from one of the poorest parts of the American South. (I can't help but imagine Halle Berry playing Summer in the film version, with Hugh Jackman as Reacher.)

Here's where the story turns convoluted. Dead bodies start peppering the landscape. And we're given a lesson on the U.S. crowbar industry, as two of the victims have their skulls cracked open with such implements. The first of these is Kramer's wife, while the second is a Delta Force tough guy named Christopher Carbone, who's killed in a particularly nasty manner.

As subplots and suspects multiply, Reacher soon finds himself in bad odor with Fort Bird's new, desk-jockey commander. Meanwhile, a woman psy-ops colonel is brought in to help probe the slayings, and there's the worrisome involvement here of a Bulgarian defector once linked to the Soviet KGB. Of greater interest, though -- especially to veteran Child fans -- is the opportunity for Reacher to follow the leads in this case to Europe. Sections of The Enemy that take place in Paris and Frankfurt, Germany, appear to have been robustly researched, but the Paris scenes are especially interesting because they help to fill in Reacher's back story. We're offered glimpses of Jack interacting with his brother, Joe, as well as their French mother, Josephine. And we're taught a lesson in the way genetic influence can never be ignored, as Jack and Joe discover secrets about their dying mother that might help to explain their own natures.

There are several intriguing aspects, at least, to The Enemy. First is the way Child connects firmly with his reader, so even when his action wanes somewhat, the reader hardly notices. Also, you may note, this tale is filled with secondary characters who are as lean and minimalistic as any this British author has created so far, yet each comes off as distinct -- there are no throwaway players in Child's fiction. Finally, although The Enemy may initially appear to be slanted toward an ultraconservative, even jingoistic American readership, it's infused with ideas fired from a more liberal direction. Characters here openly discuss the problems faced by gay members of the U.S. military. We learn that Jack Reacher's mother was French -- a tidbit sure to inflame that rapidly dwindling population of pro-Bush, pro-Iraq war types who still want "freedom fries" with their burgers. And Child even manages to slip in a safe-sex message, as General Kramer suits up in a condom before coming to the end of his life.

Despite the intricacy and many dimensions of The Enemy's subtext, and multiple subplots that propel Reacher from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and on across the Atlantic, Lee Child knits his latest thriller together neatly, with some satisfying battle theatrics at the end. In a word, the book is "exceptional," a sure contender for the 2004 Ian Fleming Dagger Award. A U.S. edition is due out from Delacorte in May. -- A.K.

* * *

Seattle police Lieutenant Lou Boldt speeds his Crown Vic through traffic, heading for the site of an assault on a fellow officer. The victim, Danny Foreman, is an old friend of Boldt's. He's been knocked out with a stun-gun during a solo stakeout. All that's missing from the scene is David Hayes, the owner of the trailer Foreman had been watching -- and which is now covered in blood.

But hey, let's not get ahead of things here. Ridley Pearson's thrillers should be appreciated for their punctilious plotting as well as their moments of scorching drama, and The Body of David Hayes (Hyperion) is no exception. Years ago, we're told, this new novel's eponymous character embezzled $17 million dollars from Westcorp Bank -- the same institution for which Boldt's wife, Liz, works as an executive. It seems that Liz also had an affair with computer whiz Hayes, a mistake that nearly destroyed her marriage. Although the embezzler was caught, the pilfered dough was never recovered. Now, with Hayes finally released from prison, the bank, the cops and Russian mob boss Yasmani Svengrad (known as the "Sturgeon General," because he controls a caviar-importing outfit) all have an interest in retrieving that money. So when Hayes contacts Liz about accessing the bank's computer mainframe, he puts her in the crosshairs of trouble. The missing millions are evidently trapped in cyberspace, and in order for Hayes to recover the money, he needs computer codes that are provided to only a handful of Westcorp employees, including Liz Boldt. Capitalizing on Liz's sympathies, the ex-con tells her that the Russians will kill him if they don't get the stolen money.

Lou Boldt, skeptical under the best circumstances -- and dealing with the man who cuckolded him hardly qualifies as the "best" -- thinks Hayes isn't telling the whole truth here. Therefore, he constructs an elaborate scheme that he hopes will trap Hayes' tormentors, while protecting Liz. But the Russians are one step ahead of him. They seem to know where Boldt is going to be and what he's going to do. Boldt can trust only his closest allies -- and Danny Foreman isn't among them. He knows that in order to keep his wife and family safe, he'll need to find both the embezzler and the money. And he's ready to sacrifice his career and life to do it.

Surprisingly, this ninth installment of Pearson's best-selling Lou Boldt/Daphne Matthews series finds forensic psychologist Matthews taking a back seat. Yes, she and her boyfriend, Sergeant John LaMoia, do lend some support in The Body of David Hayes, but it's Liz who splits the spotlight with her hubby. This allows the author to explore the emotional complexity of Boldt's longtime marriage and the impact his wife's indiscretion had on it. Scenes focusing on the couple are fraught with tension and long-buried pain, as the two deal with the ramifications of an event that still weighs heavily on their relationship:

"For what it's worth, with him it was never 'making love.' It was sex. An escape. Nothing more."

"That's not worth anything. Not to me," Lou said, "though I'm certainly glad that you made the distinction."

Balancing sentimentalism with suspense is a challenging task, but Pearson manages it here with a minimum of stumbling. For quality of writing and sheer storytelling excitement, the author still hasn't topped his second Boldt/Matthews outing, The Angel Maker (1993). But The Body of David Hayes remains a solid read. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan.

* * *

Amazing. Sixteen books into his writing career, and the Kinkster remains an inexhaustible comedic truth-seeker with a heart of tarnished gold. In The Prisoner of Vandam Street (Scribner), Kinky Friedman, the singer-turned-novelist, brings back Kinky Friedman, the private detective, in an adventure that has the quasi-fictional protagonist conversing with his anus-licking cat and -- gasp! -- questioning his own sanity. For all the guffaws and witty one-liners that are offered up with his elemental mysteries, Mr. Friedman has an intellectual and almost poetic intensity that really comes to the fore in this novel. Yes, it's true: Kinky is deep.

While bickering with Mike McGovern, one of his Village Irregulars, at the Corner Bistro in New York City, Kinky begins to feel "decidedly strange." He soon passes out, and when he comes to, he's in a "horsepital" with a tag team of marginally helpful friends as company. His first question: "Where in the hell's Saint Peter?" Next, though, Kinky wants to know what laid him low. Turns out that he's come down with a latent malaria from his days in the Peace Corps. And it's not just any malaria -- it's Plasmodium falciparum, the only truly deadly strain. His doctor says he's willing to turn Kinky loose, but only on one condition: that the amateur sleuth remain within the confines of his Vandam Street apartment in lower Manhattan for six weeks.

Bundled home by his goofy pals (only to find a cat turd on his pillow -- expressive of his pet feline's opinion on Kinky's confinement), the patient is left to lie shivering and delirious, while his compadres add to the already ankle-deep mess in the Kinkster's loft and partake of dubious smoking materials. Then, during a rare quiet moment (and in an obvious allusion to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window), Kinky gets up and gazes out of his kitchen window. In his "malarial unfocusment," he spies through his opera glasses a beautiful woman on the third floor of a warehouse across the street. She sits "looking like an island maiden, standing on the shore, longing for her sailor to return." But when her man does return, he beats her mercilessly. Kinky dials 911.

Naturally, an investigation turns up no sign of the poor woman. In fact, there are no apartments on the third floor. Neither the cops nor the Irregulars believe Kinky's tale. He's not sure he should believe himself, for the malaria has him seeing dead people and barely able to stand. A few days later, though, he's once again the only witness when the mysterious man returns -- this time with a gun.

If there's a bright light to be found at the end of the Kinkster's fevered tunnel, it comes in the form of Kent Perkins, a friend and fellow private eye. Perkins won't dismiss his buddy's tale of mayhem -- not outright, anyway. Instead, he agrees to act as Kinky's eyes, ears and legs while looking into this case. If the mystery woman is real, Kinky intends to save her. If she's a product of his delirium ... well, the best he can hope to do is save himself. Forced to play a passive part in these events, the bedridden Kinky feels himself distanced from reality, questioning his own sanity. As Friedman writes: "It was similar to being a child again ... Waking up in the middle of the night and maybe you'd done something wrong or maybe you hadn't. You weren't sure. But you could hear the adults talking in the next room. And every word they spoke seemed so important, falling like a raindrop through the long dark night of childhood onto the window of your heart."

In The Prisoner of Vandam Street, Friedman offers up a deeply moving book wrapped in shiny sarcasm and tied with a big philosophical bow. The mystery is a mystery here, both in the crime-fiction sense and in the "why do people make the choices they do" sense. We, as readers, get to share that long dark night with Kinky. It is a pleasure and a privilege. -- J.J.

* * *

When British novelist John Baker debuted the character of Stone Lewis in The Chinese Girl (2000), he introduced his usual readership of P.I. Sam Turner yarns to a deep, provocative and singular protagonist. Lewis is an autistic ex-con who served 11 years for killing a man, only to later discover that he didn't kill him at all. Those years in prison changed Lewis, both inside and out. By offending the prison's notorious gang boss, he'd been made to pay a stiff price: he was tattooed on the face and gang-raped. Once set free, Lewis had one thing on his mind: revenge.

Now, most writers would probably have exploited that revenge theme to the fullest, packing their pages with action. Baker concentrated instead on building Stone Lewis up into a multi-dimensional figure, struggling to understand life on "the outside" and regain a sense of normality. This unexpected character development made The Chinese Girl a gem, and left readers hungry for more.

Sad to say, its sequel, White Skin Man (Orion UK), pales by comparison. Yes, Lewis continues to work at an Internet café called System.ini, in the northeast England town of Hull. The café is still run by Eve Caldwell, who took Lewis in after his stint in the nick and was one of the first people to treat him like a real person. But this book actually revolves less around Lewis than it does around Katy Mandika, an impatient professional photographer who seeks out Caldwell for help after witnessing a murder. Ignoring Lewis, Katy sequesters the old café owner and tells her a harrowing story: While shooting pictures down by Prince's Dock Street, her attention was caught by the image of a hook-nosed man in her lens. She continued to take photos of this odd gent, following him as he crossed the street and headed along the dock, where he met a man in a Panama hat. Shortly, Katy heard two dull explosions, and the man in the hat walked quickly away. His hook-nosed companion remained, slumped, with blood streaming from his head. Dead. Before she even had a chance to take in this violence, the man in the Panama hat appeared again, this time right in front of her. Katy ran, only just escaping him.

Knowing that this situation is well beyond what her husband could handle, and too afraid to approach the local police, the photographer seeks refuge with Caldwell, a bisexual divorcée and political activist. But she'll need Lewis' assistance too, as circumstances start to spin out of control, the man in the Panama hat threatening Katy's child and endangering her mixed-race marriage. Katy has misgivings about Lewis, as he explains at one point to a surprised Caldwell:

"Was it so obvious?"

"Bourgeois malice and resentment, thick as clotted cream."

"You can detect that?"

"Eve, with your friend there, I can taste it."

However, Katy comes to realize that the prison-hardened Lewis is the only person who can help her out of this jam. As he investigates, he unearths a racist plot and a cadre of neo-Nazi wannabes who will do literally anything to prove their worth to a Hull group bent on violently acting out their white-supremacist ideations. Author Baker has philosophical and political points to make here, and he does -- sometimes through Katy Mandika's unconscious prejudices. But he neglects his many readers who have come to White Skin Man hoping to find greater depths of Stone Lewis' character revealed, rather than the frustrating trials and tribulations of the thin-skinned Katy. -- J.J.

* * *

Austin S. Camacho's "honey-colored" Hannibal Jones is back in The Troubleshooter ( Books), his third big novel. And once again, the two-fisted adventurer is fighting the good fight -- and acting like he's seen way too many Samuel L. Jackson movies. Unfortunately, though Camacho's enthusiasm for this hard, punchy tale is more than evident, and the action rarely lets up, there's a curiously rushed-to-press feel about much of the novel. Perhaps it's time for the author to turn down the histrionics a notch, and invest more thought in not only plot and character development, but also narrative consistency and copy-editing (it's not a "base" guitar, for example). More attention to nuance and detail could have honed Camacho's occasionally awkward prose to the razor-sharp edge he's so desperately seeking. Even protagonist Jones remains something of an ill-defined cipher. A Virginia-based "troubleshooter" and Shaft-wannabe, he favors black clothing, black leather gloves and black Oakley shades, and occasionally breaks into American "street talk" for little apparent reason, despite having been reared and educated in Europe. For such a worldly dude (his past experience includes impressive stints in the U.S. Secret Service and the NYPD), some of Hannibal's notions about manhood, love, race and politics seem disappointingly naïve and wide-eyed -- the result of locker room philosophizing and water cooler chit-chat, rather than any hard-earned or hard-learned wisdom.

Still, the basic premise of this novel is a good one. The enigmatic Jones is hired by a big-shot lawyer to "clean out" the current, undesirable residents from a small apartment building he has just purchased in southeastern Washington, D.C., and make the place suitable again for paying tenants. A clever idea, but it falls short -- the squatters are an unlikely who's who of inner-city stereotypes -- the homeless, winos, a hooker, crack addicts, a fence and a heroin dealer. All that's missing is an Internet kiddie-porn ring and a terrorist cell. That all of these people would willingly share space in a small structure is stretching credulity, a vision of urban hell possibly imagined from the comfort of the suburbs.

The scenario could have provided the basis for some real social commentary, but Camacho shies away from making all but the glibbest conclusions. And because his characters are paper-thin, we have little emotional investment in all the action -- or even the by-numbers romance between Hannibal and an attractive Hispanic lawyer he meets in the course of this tale.

There's promise here, but the end result lacks any real passion or grit. Early copies of George Pelecanos' latest novel, Hard Revolution -- also set in the U.S. capital and boasting quite similar themes -- comes with a promotional CD of classic cuts by the Stax/Volt likes of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, songs that practically define the word "soul." By comparison, were The Troubleshooter to include a CD, it would feature the shiny, honey-colored Motown warblings of Diana Ross. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

* * *

It may be difficult to pin down Robin Burcell's Cold Case (Avon), the fourth entry in her Kate Gillespie series, but mystery readers not afraid to cross crime-fiction subgenre borders should definitely give her a try. Burcell comes off as the long-lost love child of Joseph Wambaugh and Mary Higgins Clark, offering a police-procedural romance that's also a clever, complicated mystery with as many angles, plot twists and acts of misdirection as a Ross Macdonald novel.

In this novel's tightly written Chapter 1, the grim, nasty reality of an arrest gone very wrong at San Francisco's Twin Palms Motel seems to be setting us up for a hard, nasty ride. But in the first of a series of plot shifts, Chapter 2 picks up three years later, with a deft but definite grinding of narrative gears. The reader is expecting a dark, tormented story of a wounded police officer struggling to overcome great psychological and physical obstacles; instead, we're thrown into the bright lights of a TV studio, as affable, down-to-earth Homicide Inspector Gillespie appeals to viewers of San Francisco's Most Wanted for information on that still-unsolved motel shooting. The reader is then plunged into a complicated tale of armed robbery, drug deals, infidelity, money laundering, stolen diamonds and murder, before the action changes tack once again, and romance rears its ugly head. Suddenly, the focus is on men afraid of commitment and women afraid of committing to the wrong men, with Kate stuck right in the middle of it all, full of questions. Like, what's the deal with Nick Paolini, the handsome, charming gangster who has made his affection for her very, very clear? And what about Mike Torrance, the even handsomer FBI agent, who has been circling Kate forever, and is something of a cold case himself? Will Mike and Burcell's protagonist ever get their act together, or will they become the police-procedural equivalent of Cheers' Sam and Diane?

The questions don't end there, either. Mike's frosty new partner -- what's up with her? Why do all these red roses keep popping up in odd places? And, oh yeah, who was the shooter at the Twin Palms Motel three years ago? And how about this alleged witness to the shooting who seems to switch identities, hair color and even gender more often than some people brush their teeth?

The refusal of suspects, motives, relationships and even narrative direction to lie still threatens to turning Cold Case into a babbling, frustrating mess. However, the author walks that fine line with a sturdy confidence, and manages to pull it off in a big way. A cop herself, Robin Burcell is naturally familiar with the nuts and bolts of police work. But it's a pleasant surprise to discover that she's just as adept at tracing the complicated mysteries of the human heart, and her refusal to overly romanticize and glorify police work or even romance itself bodes particularly well for Kate's future. -- K.B.S.

* * *

Why bother huffing and puffing your way slowly up the eternally slippery corporate ladder of success when you can lie, cheat and hijack a ride on the express elevator right to the top? That's the strategy endorsed by the authors of The Spy's Guide: Office Espionage (Quirk Books), who suggest that the "same tactics used by professional intelligence agents can be used to get ahead fast." Yes, this is yet another entry in what's becoming a very popular -- and increasingly lucrative -- subgenre, that of the pocket-size how-to guide (The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbooks, How to Rule the World, etc.). But this one might be especially interesting to crime-fiction enthusiasts.

Here's advice on how to succeed, written in clear, concise (and occasionally tongue-in-cheek) prose, accompanied by equally clear, concise illustrations. You'll learn how to access co-workers' computer files, reconstruct shredded documents, unlock your boss' file cabinets, and pry secrets from competitors -- in short, how to eliminate everyone between you and that coveted corner office.

Of course, it's a dangerous world out there, and being forewarned is being forearmed, so this book also offers useful counter-espionage tips about booby-trapping your briefcase, debugging a meeting room and safeguarding your own computer. There are also plenty of anecdotes sprinkled throughout these pages, detailing how such tactics have been (mostly) successfully employed by the CIA, KGB, MI6, RCMP, POWs, Proctor & Gamble, the Republican Party and other groups.

Unlike other books of this nature, scores of experts haven't been called in to dish out the know-how. The wisdom to be found in The Spy's Guide comes from author-researchers H. Keith Melton (one of the world's foremost espionage experts), Craig Piligian (a TV producer who probably knows more about treachery than the CIA and the KGB combined) and Duane Swierczynski (author of The Perfect Drink for Every Occasion, who sadly never answers the burning question, "Martinis: shaken or stirred?"). This guide does, however, contain a foreword by a retired KGB major general, as well as several handy-dandy appendices, including one that lists espionage products and services, and another that gives convenient tips on how to pad your expense account (to pay for all those products and services, no doubt).

For both the ethically challenged and the professionally paranoid, not to mention aspiring crime and espionage writers, The Spy's Guide is an engaging and amusing read, a primer on the basics of the spy biz. James Bond should've had it so easy. -- K.B.S.

In the News

Well-known British anthologist Mike Ashley (The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, The Mammoth Book of Impossible Crimes, etc.) pens a tribute to the best hard-boiled crime magazine you've probably forgotten: Manhunt, which, between 1953 and 1967, published the fiction of Mickey Spillane, Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald), Avram Davidson, Joe Gores and many others. Read more.

The spring issue of Web Mystery Magazine features analyses of the collected works of both Michael Dibdin and Colin Watson. Read more.

Let your prejudices reign! The sixth-anniversary update of the Thrilling Detective Web Site includes a fun TV/movie poll that asks readers to name their all-time favorite private-eye films and TV shows, as well as the Best Theme and Coolest Car ever featured in these small- and large-screen stories. Read more.

In an interview with the Webzine Plots with Guns, Washington, D.C., novelist George Pelecanos talks about his work on the HBO series The Wire; race as "the defining issue in American life"; and the difficulties he faced in writing his fourth and latest Derek Strange/Terry Quinn novel, Hard Revolution, a prequel that Pelecanos says he'd been wanting to tackle for a long time. Read more.

With so many books being rushed out now in preparation for the summer vacationing and reading season, there appears to be no end to the number of crime fictionists being interviewed or profiled in the media. It doesn't matter whether your interests run to Jonathon King (Shadow Men), Joe R. Lansdale (Sunset and Sawdust), Ridley Pearson (The Body of David Hayes), Chris Simms (Pecking Order), Phillip Margolin (Sleeping Beauty), Chris Mooney (Remembering Sarah) or William Kent Krueger (Blood Hollow). Although he has no book of his own slated for print in 2004, Eddie Muller (Shadow Boxer, The Distance) still has a lot of witty stuff to say about mankind's natural badness, his work on a Tab Hunter biography, Albert Camus' debts to James M. Cain, and the damnable shortage of nooky available to noir novelists. Read more.

Shots magazine alone has a slew of new interviews with such diverse UK and U.S. talents as David Morrell (The Protector), Roger Jon Ellroy (Ghostheart) and Jeff Abbott (Cut and Run). Several of the subjects under scrutiny are featured in publisher Orion's "New Voices" collection, including John Connor (Phoenix), Massimo Carlotto (The Colombian Mule), Steve Mosby (The Third Person), Stuart Archer Cohen (The Stone Angels), and Alafair Burke (Judgment Calls).

And don't miss Bob Cornwell's career profile of Newton Thornburg, still probably best known for his 1976 novel, Cutter and Bone. The author, now "physically unable to write," talks about his efforts as an advertising copywriter and screenwriter, his "pretty pessimistic view of modern American life," and the "struggle" of his everyday life in a Seattle retirement home. Read more.

U.S. readers wanting to get better acquainted with excellent modern mystery fiction from "across the pond" ought to check out Crime Time magazine's brief on "nine key Britcrime authors," including Lee Child, Martina Cole, Dick Francis and Nicci French. Peter Robinson is mentioned, too, though he has lived in Canada long enough to be considered a native. Read more.

Mystery-loving travelers bound for wonderful New York City should take along the New York Daily News' rundown of Manhattan's four major crime-fiction bookstores, which includes Otto Penzler's must-visit Mysterious Bookshop. Read more.

In a Library Journal article titled "Out of the Genre Ghetto," sometimes January contributor Andi Shechter applauds crime-fiction trends toward more standalone novels and a greater emphasis on developing the character of protagonists. Read more.

Oh, no, not again. Sarah Weinman reports that Robert Crais' The Forgotten Man, his 10th P.I. Elvis Cole novel, originally slated for publication in February 2004 but then set back until July, has now been rescheduled to come out in February 2005. Doesn't this sound eerily like what happened to a previous Elvis offering, L.A. Requiem? Read more.

And the British Library has announced that it will put its rich archive of historical sound recordings online. According to the UK's Guardian newspaper, offerings will include "a live recording of Paul Robeson in Othello, Florence Nightingale speaking in one of the earliest sound recordings" and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle "recounting how he came to create Sherlock Holmes." The Guardian piece includes a link to the Conan Doyle recording. Read more.

Can I Get a Witness?

Editor's note: Many novelists write to make sense of the world around them. Telling stories helps them explain life's brutal realities as well as its occasional transcendence. So it's not a surprise that our globalized, post-NAFTA world has produced a gaggle of authors committed to chronicling current issues by ushering readers into assorted racial, cultural and ethnic communities. In this politically correct age, writing from a perspective that is not one's own can be like tightrope walking without a net. Yet it's also the ultimate form of empathy. As the "global village" shrinks ever further, we asked Denise Hamilton, the culturally curious author of Last Lullaby (Scribner) and two previous works featuring L.A. reporter Eve Diamond, to list (and comment on) her 10 favorite crime novels that both entertain and address social issues. "These books," she assures us, "will haunt you long after you put them down":

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett (2003). I hesitate to say that this is the first book I'd pack for a trip to Thailand, since its title refers to Bangkok's notorious red-light district, but this is a sizzling gem of a debut that introduces one of the most unique detectives in mystery fiction: the half-Thai, half-American prostitute's son, devout Buddhist and Royal Thai policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Sonchai's devotion to his job, his refusal to take bribes and his outsider status all help to make him an ideal commentator on his country's exuberant chaos. Filled with venomous snakes, sleazy ex-pats, transsexual surgery parlors, drugs, motorcycle taxis, neon, traffic and girls girls girls, this electrifying take on Thailand doesn't judge as it moves fluidly between worlds.

Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley (1994). I think of Mosley as the alter-Chandler, telling us what his more famous predecessor left out about L.A.'s mid-20th-century black community. Easy Rawlins' hunt here for the missing Daphne Monet takes him into places that Philip Marlowe could never have penetrated. Through his mystery novels, Mosley reclaims a lost history of black Los Angeles.

Done for a Dime, by David Corbett (2003). Whew, here is a guy who doesn't just dance with the dark side, he lives there. Corbett's second novel (after The Devil's Redhead) explores racial tensions in a small California city where the main employer, a Navy shipyard, has closed and poverty and crime are on the rise. As developers eye an African-American neighborhood called Baymont that sits on prime real estate, one developer decides to take matters into his own hands. He plots to burn down the hillside neighborhood, then blame it on an arsonist loosely tied to EarthFirst! so that he can invoke eminent domain and begin building upscale homes. When an aging blues singer is murdered, the stakes only get higher. The plot could be torn from tragic newspaper headlines, but what makes Corbett's story sing are his characters, who provide a humanizing and compelling look into a multiethnic community, where racial imperatives fall by the wayside when it comes to that most prized of all California commodities: property.

Reflecting the Sky, by S.J. Rozan (2002). If I were going to Hong Kong, I'd be sure to take this along, both to occupy myself on the plane and to suss out interesting neighborhoods once I landed. New York P.I. Lydia Chin and her partner, Bill Smith, must work their way through a labyrinth of secrets when they are hired to deliver a jade amulet to the heir of Wei Yao-Shi, an elderly New York immigrant whose American relatives had no idea of the secret family he left behind in Hong Kong.

Right as Rain, by George P. Pelecanos (2002). It's clear that for this "Zola of crime fiction," exploring the marginal lives of the poor and struggling black and white denizens of Washington, D.C., is his way of testifying, of trying to make sense of the poverty and class and racial struggles that haunt the United States today. For the sake of mystery writers everywhere, I hope he never figures it out.

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, by Dan Fesperman (2003). When we last saw Sarajevo homicide detective Vlado Petric, in Fesperman's Lie in the Dark (1999), he was packed inside a crate disguised as a looted work of art and getting airlifted out of his war-torn Balkans to Germany. Now Petric is back, this time working off-the-books for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, investigating the massacre of Srebrenica. Petric's hunt leads him across Europe and back to the Balkans, where he eventually uncovers another killer dating from World War II and learns the true story of what his father did in that war. I lived in the Balkans during the Bosnian War, and I can testify that it's fertile ground for thrillers. Fesperman gets it just right. A Baltimore Sun correspondent, he covered the siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian War, and his experience there shows in Small Boat's riveting descriptions, wartime flavor, colorful characters, general anarchy and black humor. This book (which won the 2003 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in Britain) takes us inside the minds of killers and victims from all sides.

A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson (2002). This mesmerizing thriller reads like a gorgeous literary novel, moving from World War II Germany and Portugal to 1990s Lisbon without ever letting up on the tension. A winner of the UK's prestigious Gold Dagger Award, Small Death finds morose Portuguese detective Zé Coelho nosing around a Nazi scandal in which the sins of the fathers are echoed among the children, and even minor characters are drawn with such care that they still haunt me several years later. An elegant intellectual puzzle.

Southland, by Nina Revoyr (2003). This Edgar nominee for best original paperback wasn't conceived as a mystery, but it works wonderfully as one anyway. When her grandfather dies, young Japanese-American lawyer Jackie Ishida is puzzled to learn that he's bequeathed a long-gone grocery store to a stranger. As Jackie unravels her grandfather's secret life, Southland chronicles three generations of black, Japanese and white relations in Los Angeles and slowly reveals who killed a trio of young black boys in a particularly harrowing way during the infamous Watts riots of 1965. I thought I knew L.A. pretty well, but Revoyr's moving and ultimately generous tale of race relations opened my eyes to new aspects of my native city.

Stormy Weather, by Paula Woods (2002) I love books that teach me something I didn't know, and this tale about the suspicious death of a pioneering black film director in Tinseltown fits that bill perfectly. On top of learning about forgotten black contributions to movie-making, we get both tough-talking, ambitious African-American homicide detective Charlotte Justice navigating racial and sexual politics inside the LAPD, and the warm bickering of her large, embracing, upper-middle-class family. Moving deftly among relatives, work and historical black L.A., Woods weaves an intriguing tale.

Summer of the Big Bachi, by Naomi Hirahara (2004). Meet Mas Arai -- widower, Hiroshima survivor and member of a dwindling Los Angeles breed, the Japanese gardener. When a fellow gardener is brutally murdered, Mas finds himself navigating his adopted city in search of the killer. Along the way we're treated to Mas' musings on cultural assimilation, his estranged daughter, his deceased wife and the Japanese cronies with whom he drinks, smokes, gambles and tries to dodge his bachi, or bad karma. The solution to the mystery here lies in something that dates back across the sea to when the Americans leveled Hiroshima with the atom bomb in 1945. Cranky, salty, stubborn and shrewd, Mas is endearing nonetheless, and Hirahara peels back a fascinating and dying subculture with poignant love and clarity.

For more information about Denise Hamilton and her books, check out her Web site.

Last Rewards

The online magazine Mystery Ink has announced the winners of its third annual Gumshoe Awards, recognizing "the best achievements in the world of crime fiction." So let's hear a round of applause for ...

Best Novel: Blood Is the Sky, by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne)

Also nominated: Eye of the Abyss, by Marshall Browne (St. Martin's Minotaur); Persuader, by Lee Child (Delacorte); Hard Rain, by Barry Eisler (Putnam); and Tribeca Blues, by Jim Fusilli (Putnam)

Best First Novel: Monkeewrench, by P.J. Tracy (Putnam)

Also nominated: Hex, by Maggie Estep (Three Rivers); Dealing in Murder, by Elaine Flinn (Avon); The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon (Doubleday); and The Cutting Room, by Louise Welsh (Canongate)

Best Crime Fiction Web Site: Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, by Sarah Weinman

Lifetime Achievement Award: Ruth Rendell (to read MI's tribute, click here)

* * *

Meanwhile, Edinburgh, Scotland-based novelist Alexander McCall Smith has been named the winner of this year's prestigious British Book Awards "Author of the Year" for his series the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Precious Ramotswe, "Botswana's answer to Miss Marple." For more information, click here.

"The Rap Sheet" is compiled exclusively for January Magazine by crime-fiction editor J. Kingston Pierce. Authors and publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.

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