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 Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute





























January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, January 2004


Edited by J. Kingston Pierce

IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • Assessing the latest novels from Elmore Leonard, M.G. Kincaid, Ken Bruen, Jodi Compton, Andrea Camilleri, P.J. Parrish and numerous others • Walter Mosley throws his weight around; L.A. private eyes abound; "cool" Canadian crime fiction earns renown, and other news from the world of mystery • Plus: nominees for this year's Dilys Award, and Britain's 2003 Dagger Awards winners

Pierce's Picks for January

Absolute Friends (Little, Brown), by John le Carré. The pals of this novel's title are Ted Mundy, the uncomplicated only child of a retired British colonial army officer, and Sasha, the malformed scion of a Nazi, with whom he developed a double-agent partnership that was most beneficial to British Intelligence during the Cold War. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, though, Mundy has been at loose ends. So he's interested to hear again from Sasha, who lets him know that a mysterious benefactor wants his help to counter a growing tide of propaganda designed to push the world into another invasion of Iraq. Although he's been a vocal opponent of George W. Bush's rush to war, Le Carré does not hobble this tale of international intrigue with intemperate political editorializing.

After Havana (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Charles Fleming. In this sequel to The Ivory Coast (2002), it's 1958 and American jazz musician Peter Sloan is working in Havana. There he re-encounters Anita, the mixed-race beauty who'd stolen his heart, and who is now visiting pre-revolutionary Cuba with her real-estate mogul boyfriend, Nick Calloway. After Anita is kidnapped by rebels, Sloan, Calloway and a conflicted Cuban security agent head for the dissident-held Sierra Maestra with the ransom money, only to fall deeper into a plot filled with corruption, double-crosses and strivings for redemption.

Aphrodite (Mysterious Press), by Russell Andrews. Former homicide cop Justin Westwood is drawn against his wishes into investigating the murder of a young reporter on New York's Long Island. As other corpses appear, Westwood picks up on a story the newsie had stumbled onto before her demise, about a fountain-of-youth project that supporters may be killing to protect.

Bluffing Mr. Churchill (Atlantic Monthly Press), by John Lawton. Originally released in Britain in 2001 under the title Riptide, this prequel to the Inspector Freddie Troy series (Black Out, Old Flames) takes place in 1941. Wolfgang Stahl, an American spy and top aide to Adolf Hitler's SS chief, flees Berlin carrying German military plans for the invasion of Russia -- only to vanish into bomb-ravaged London. The task of finding and debriefing him falls to the odd couple of U.S. Captain Calvin Cormack and British Chief Inspector Walter Stilton, who, with some help from then-Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard, go searching through the city's underground, turning up other spies, eccentrics and assassins as they close in on the elusive Stahl. Wartime suspense with touches of humor.

Death of an Old Master (Carroll & Graf), by David Dickinson. The 1899 garroting death in London of art critic Christopher Montague draws Lord Francis Powerscourt (Goodnight, Sweet Prince and Death and the Jubilee) into a smartly plotted mystery involving forged or faked Renaissance paintings, a talented (and captive) young artist, and a wife's affair that may have prompted her husband to violence. This witty, rompish adventure will take Dickinson's aristocratic sleuth from the Mediterranean island of Corsica to London's hallowed National Gallery and a disheveled dynastic mansion on the Norfolk seacoast.

Desert Places (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Blake Crouch. Horror novelist Andrew Thomas thinks his life is going rather well, until the day he finds a letter at his North Carolina home, telling him that the body of a woman is buried on his property, "covered in your blood." This is just the start of a nightmare that will lead Crouch's protagonist to Denver and reintroduce him to his long-missing twin brother, now a repeat killer, who wants Andrew to share his passion for grisly conquest. This story's graphic gore can be a bit much, but first-novelist Crouch sure knows how to build and maintain suspense.

The Frumious Bandersnatch (Simon & Schuster), by Ed McBain. Poised on the edge of fame, hip-hop singer Tamar Valparaiso is suddenly kidnapped, igniting a heated debate about her latest video and setting 87th Precinct detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes on her trail. But the solution to Tamar's snatch is less compelling than McBain's commentary about modern music and politics.

The Grenadillo Box (Simon & Schuster), by Janet Gleeson. Nathaniel Hopson, an apprentice to renowned 18th-century British cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, is more than ready to be done with his latest assignment: installing a new library at the country estate of Lord Montfort. But he hadn't expected the completion of his task to be followed closely by the irascible nobleman's expiration. It looks like suicide, except for some bloody footprints and the small wooden box clutched in Montfort's hand. In short order, a second dead man is found -- a journeyman friend of Hopson's. Trawling for answers, Hopson weaves from Fleet Street to the elegant retreats of the wealthy, and encounters a mysterious actress who may provide a connection between these two murder victims.

Jacques Futrelle's "The Thinking Machine" (Modern Library), edited by Harlan Ellison. First introduced in a serialized 1905 tale, "The Problem of Cell 13," cerebral and cantankerous scientist Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen -- aka "The Thinking Machine" -- would go on to star in 46 known short stories and one novel (The Chase of the Golden Plate, 1906), before his American creator, Futrelle, went down with the Titanic in 1912. Here, Ellison has collected 23 of those "impossible crime" yarns, including the death-row "Cell 13" classic. "There is only one reason to read these stories," Ellison opines: "Joy."

Partners (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler), by David Cray. The pseudonymous Cray (Little Girl Blue, What You Wish For) strives for a fresh slant on serial-killer yarns with this suspenseful urban drama. Partners follows a pair of New York City police detectives -- confident African-American Belinda Moore and ambitious Pudge Pedersson -- as they defy both the odds and the police bureaucracy to apprehend a handsome criminal known as "The Break-In Killer." The characters and the way that Cray's murderer manipulates his pursuers make this novel worth investigating.

The Shiloh Sisters (Berkley Prime Crime), by Michael Kilian. Back from his adventures in New Mexico (recounted in A Grave at Glorieta, 2003), Civil War secret agent Harrison Raines falls into the service of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who wants to know how a pair of twin sisters -- one of whom he'd personally allowed past Confederate lines -- wound up inside a single coffin, murdered.

The Ten Word Game (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Jonathan Gash. Wow! Can this really be the 22nd outing for that lovably roguish antiques dealer known only as Lovejoy? And yet Gash's protagonist still hasn't worn out his welcome. Here, we find him already ducking the law (after he stole a painting he had forged himself), only to be lured aboard a cruise ship. His kidnappers want him to find -- and, of course, filch -- some irreplaceable treasures from St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, but all Lovejoy wants to do is escape. Well, that and maybe pull one over on his kidnappers in the process ...

A Very Private Gentleman (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne), by Martin Booth. "Signor Farfalla," as he's known in the southern Italian village where he has made his home, spends his days painting butterflies and his nights in the supple embrace of local prostitutes. But this is all part of his cover: He's really a technical weapons expert who's preparing for his next job (which may be the construction of a new gun to assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat), even as he looks forward to retiring from this dangerous profession and watches his back for another "shadow dweller" -- someone just waiting for him to slip up. Weaving episodes from his protagonist's violent past into his modern story, Booth produces a wonderfully literary thriller.

New and Noteworthy

Having composed a string of big-selling, character-driven novels set in Florida (including Glitz, Out of Sight and the especially winning La Brava), Elmore Leonard may now be more immediately associated with Miami than Michigan's Motor City. Yet Detroit, where this 78-year-old author has spent most of his life, provided the backdrop for several of his classic crime works, including Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), City Primeval (1980) and Split Images (1982). And it's in that same racially divided, Great Lakes burg where the action takes place in Leonard's new work, Mr. Paradise (Morrow).

"Hon ... I desperately need you," says Chloe Robinette, a former high-ticket prostitute, as she tries to persuade her near-twin roommate, Victoria's Secret model Kelly Barr, to help her entertain a prosperous, 84-year-old trial attorney by the name of Anthony Paradiso Sr. There's plenty of dough to be made from this stunt; Paradiso -- aka "Mr. Paradise" -- has already been shelling out $5,000 a week for Chloe's attentions. But Kelly isn't entirely comfortable with the client's entertainment of choice. Seems he likes having young cheerleaders perform for him in person as he views videotaped University of Michigan football games. "We stand in front of the TV set, on each side of the screen while he's watching ...," Chloe explains. "He pauses the game while we cheer." Naturally, these rah-rah numbers are more sexually suggestive than they are athletically encouraging. Kelly can accept that. What she's having a harder time with, though, is the fact that Mr. Paradise prefers his cheerleaders to come dressed in short skirts and no tops. Posing in underwear so skimpy that it barely justifies its existence is one thing, apparently, but shaking pom-pons and more for the benefit of a libidinous octogenarian crosses the line. Nonetheless, Kelly agrees to accompany Chloe to Mr. Paradise's mansion -- only to wind up in the nerve-wracking center of a crime scene.

While Kelly is upstairs with Paradiso's black right-hand man, Montez Taylor, she hears gunshots ring out from below. A pair of middle-aged guys in black raincoats and Detroit Tigers road caps cross the foyer, shoot out a window, and take off into the night -- Leaving Chloe and Paradiso dead in the living room. Obviously, Taylor knows the killers, but with Kelly's help he might keep that quiet.

All this 27-year-old lingerie lovely has to do, he explains, is pretend to be Chloe. For at least as long as it takes to get them past the police and retrieve whatever the late Mr. Paradise left in a bank deposit box for Kelly's roommate. Maybe a maturing life-insurance policy, maybe stock, maybe something else -- but in any case, an inheritance supposedly valued at $1.6 million. "I ain't asking do you want to do it, you already in, girl," says Taylor. And though she knows this too is wrong, Kelly Barr agrees. It's a decision that will lead her to lie, cheat and eventually steal the heart of an investigating cop. At the same time, Montez struggles to keep his plans for prosperity alive. And the assassination of Paradiso and his girlfriend threatens to expose a hit-for-hire enterprise that provides a living for working-class tough guys Carl Fontana and Arthur Krupa, and is managed by a sleazy lawyer named Avern Cohn. (According to the Detroit Free Press, the real-life Cohn is a "widely respected U.S. District judge" who forked over $1,500 at a charity auction to get his moniker into a Leonard book -- but failed to inquire how, precisely, his good name would be used. Whoops.)

Leonard's dialogue can be ungrammatical enough to make an English teacher scream, but it never sounds less than deliberately authentic -- gritty and often hilarious as hell. In addition, this author claims an enviable talent for creating and manipulating villains, none of whom he makes terribly smart, but all of whom are given distinctly human characteristics; don't expect to find any narrowly "evil" perpetrators in his books. This so-called "Dickens of Detroit" prefers to blur distinctions between "good" and "bad," as readers can see by watching Krupa and Fontana here, or by playing close attention to Paradiso's 71-year-old ex-con houseman, Lloyd Williams ("a cross between Uncle Ben on the rice box and Redd Foxx"). Leonard shows less skill, unfortunately, in developing Frank Delsa, the widowed, 38-year-old homicide detective who tries to bring down Taylor and company -- and winds up falling, himself, for Ms. Barr. Even as their relationship smolders to a predictable climax, it's hard to imagine the curvaceous Kelly being won over so quickly or easily by the dimension-challenged Delsa. Worse, their cooperation here deflates early prospects of a twist, some surprise Kelly might spring on Delsa, Montez and the reader as a result of either greed or sheer opportunism. Leonard was too ready to let the guy get the girl, rather than explore the full potential of his story.

Which is regrettable, because he certainly knows how to amaze his readers. Instead, Mr. Paradise comes off as enjoyable and cleverly penned, without ever defying expectations. -- Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

* * *

Do you ever really know your friends? Even if you've been acquainted with them since childhood and have shared confidences, adventures and many, many drinks together, there's always something that's kept apart, held back. Sometimes it's because of different interests or other social circles that people move in. On other occasions, it's far more sinister. Richard Burke's moodily atmospheric debut novel, Frozen (Orion UK), explores the depths of the bonds of friendship, and the long-dormant secrets that threaten to rip those bonds apart.

For 20 years, Verity Hadley -- brilliant, disorganized, lovely Verity -- has been the strongest presence in Harry Waddell's life. They meet every other Wednesday for drinks at their local pub, catching up on their lives and keeping up the friendship they began as youngsters growing up in the south English town of Battersea. But one Wednesday, Verity doesn't show up. At first Harry is annoyed, but his annoyance turns to horrendous guilt and shock after Verity is found at the bottom of a cliff. She's alive, but only just, and chances aren't good that she'll ever emerge from her newly comatose state.

The police rule the jump a suicide attempt, but Harry refuses to believe Verity would be capable of such a thing. He's known her for two decades. Besides, she'd seemed so happy of late, having just overcome a rough patch in her life. However, in searching for answers -- with the help of his other childhood friend, Adam Yates, and a possible love interest, Sam Mandovini -- Harry finds that he's searching to make sense of the girl he thought he knew and the woman she really is.

He also has to make sense of how the present day connects to the summer they met, the summer they shared a kiss that held so much promise yet signaled an end to the way things had been. As Harry probes deeper into the hidden facets of Verity's life, he finds he must re-evaluate everything and everyone, and how actions long ago are the underpinnings of a series of shocking events.

Frozen is not so much a crime novel as it is a tale of psychological suspense. Whether Verity fell off the cliff or was pushed is less important than what led up to it and, most of all, why it happened. Even though Verity spends most of this book in a vegetative state, her complex personality and strength of character come through in Harry's account and in skillful flashbacks to their childhood, showing how she could be at the center of a man's existence for so many years. Harry, too, could have been bogged down in caricature in his tireless search for the truth about what happened to Verity. But his unyielding devotion is tempered by a wry sense of humor and enough self-knowledge to know that he can move on, but simply must not. His love for Verity runs much deeper than thwarted longing, and it's the friendship and loyalty that spur him to uncover one harsh truth after another.

Richard Burke, formerly a producer of TV documentaries (including BBC One's Space from a few years back), has produced here a first novel that grabs the reader from its outset, unpeeling layer upon layer of the story of a man and a woman who mean different things to each other, but are inextricably bound together. Harry and Verity will linger in the reader's memory long after the last page of Frozen is turned, and with this wonderfully moving work, Burke has launched a career that should follow the footsteps of British writers such as Laura Wilson and Julia Wallis Martin. Burke is being hyped along with eight other crime novelists -- including the already-acclaimed Americans Alafair Burke, David Corbett and Denise Hamilton, and Italian Massimo Carlotto (The Colombian Mule) -- as part of Orion's "New Blood" campaign. It's an initiative that signifies quality, and based on Frozen, it won't be long at all before Richard Burke elicits hype all on his own. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman

* * *

Reviews these days are at a premium, as budget cuts and changing priorities have reduced the number of books that are deemed newsworthy enough to be critiqued, praised or pilloried. Crime fiction has certainly received less attention from reviewers, and even among those books that do merit attention, one would be hard-pressed to find a paperback original. PBOs, the acronym of choice, have the reputation of being the ugly stepchildren of mystery. The cheaper prices and mass-market look leave the impression that what's between the covers is seriously lacking, never mind that most publishers don't push as many dollars on them as they would to tout a hardcover.

Still, PBOs seem to be enjoying greater attention, not judging only by the numbers published but by the quality of the works themselves. Over the last year, for instance, mystery debuts from Jay McLarty (The Courier), Maggie Estep (Hex), Diana Kilian (High Rhymes and Misdemeanors) and Alina Adams (Murder on Ice) have drawn deservedly strong critical notices.

Based on her first book, The Last Victim in Glen Ross (Pocket), M.G. Kincaid seems destined for a long and healthy writing career.

Glen Ross marks the first outing for Detective Sergeant Seth Mornay, a decorated ex-Royal Marine who has opted for a quieter post with the Grampian Police Force in a town located on the outskirts of Aberdeen, Scotland. The change of scenery is no accident; Mornay has an accumulation of scars, both physical and psychological, that he refuses to divulge, but demons are still plentiful in a small town. In the period of a few short months, he's made an enemy of his superior and bedded far too many of the local lasses. Only his professional demeanor has remained exemplary. However, after the brutally slashed body of an attractive woman is found in an old church cemetery, the investigation's twist and turns threaten to ruin Mornay's career once and for all. As the tangle of lies accumulate and signs point toward a link between this case and the suspicious suicide of the local rector's wife several years before, the DS has to keep his equilibrium and not let his personal problems overshadow the inquiry at hand.

Author Kincaid maintains a consistently brisk pace as Mornay sifts through the conflicting statements and startling inconsistencies surrounding the woman's murder. However, the procedural aspect takes a backseat to Mornay himself; a good move, as the character has enough depth and pathos to carry this novel, even when his behavior is teetering on the edge of moral ambiguity. The Scottish setting is nicely captured and atmospheric, and it's well apparent that Kincaid, a decorated former marine herself living in Michigan, has deep affection for the country. Although The Last Victim of Glen Ross is firmly rooted within genre conventions -- and perhaps owes a great debt to the works of Ian Rankin -- Kincaid's storytelling ability seems well suited to a work of greater scope and complication. If this debut is anything to go by, I know I'll be perusing the paperback original section a whole lot more in the months to come. -- S.W.

* * *

Las Vegas is a city unlike any other. One gets a sense of it right away, when you exit the airport gate amid the sounds and sights of people playing the slot machines. As your taxicab winds its way around the Strip, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the town's sheer garishness -- its neon signs, the ads for lavish shows starring has-beens of bygone days, the enticements for illicit gambling and behavior.

For some folks, this is the ideal getaway, a journey into a surreal world far removed from the realities of home. For others, it's nonstop sleaze and sadness, a place where hope suffers and dies on the vine. For Charlie Pellecchia, the ordinary man who stars in Charlie Stella's third novel, Charlie Opera (Carroll & Graf), Las Vegas is all of that, and as things go horribly downhill, much more.

The trouble started a week ago, when Charlie and his wife, Lisa, went out to a Manhattan club. A man approached them and said the wrong thing, and before there was any time for a calmer reaction, Charlie defended his woman by punching the stranger in the jaw. He forgets about the incident completely until he arrives in Vegas. Then, instead of the weekend vacation he'd planned, Charlie is hit with the triple whammy of being dumped, mugged and targeted for a hit. Unfortunately for Charlie, the man he'd punched out was rising New York mobster Nicky Cuccia, and that single swing has now put Charlie in the path of the FBI, the DEA, some sociopathic Vietnamese gangsters, a Las Vegas cop struggling to keep a lid on the hot tempers of his underlings, a prostitute with a predilection for ripping her customers off, a vengeful abuser looking for the wife who's hiding from him, and a vicious turf war between members of two crime families. Somehow, in the middle of all this chaos, Charlie discovers a new love. But will his life ultimately follow the plot of his favorite Italian operas, leading him to ruin? Can't anything go right for Charlie anymore?

Charlie Opera is a crime story painted in lean brush strokes. Every character is deeply flawed, yet Stella, the author of Eddie's World and Jimmy Bench-Press (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 2/03) and an off-Broadway playwright of note, needs only a few short sentences and crackling, authentic dialogue to create fully realized human beings instead of overly one-dimensional people the reader couldn't care less about. Although this novel's plot spirals out from one simple encounter, the resulting yarn resonates because Charlie and the people he interacts with are grappling with the choices they make and how events intertwine. It's a bruised, bloody tale, but in the midst of the violence, which is sometimes shocking and at other times blackly funny, there's a small ray of hope. Although Charlie Opera is not without its own flaws, such as occasional, abrupt switches of perspective and some problems with pacing, it's a gritty novel that brings alive the underbelly of a seamy city. Fans of hard-boiled fiction in the tradition of George V. Higgins will want to seek out Stella's latest novel. -- S.W.

* * *

Jaysus, look who's back. Yep, Jack Taylor, Ken Bruen's Irish half-assed private investigator, returns in The Killing of the Tinkers (St. Martin's Minotaur), full of piss and vinegar (not to mention other mind-altering substances of various degrees of potency and legality), once again haunting the barstools and mean streets of his hometown of Galway, after a disastrous sojourn to London, unrepentant and unapologetic. Just like Bruen's prose. Get it straight: This is no watery Budweiser Light novel -- it's as bleak and bitter and black as the Guinness that apparently constitutes one of Jack's major personal food groups (along with Marlboro cigarettes, Bushmills whiskey and cocaine).

A disgraced former member of The Guards, the Irish national police force, Jack (last seen in The Guards, which was released in the States in 2003) is an amazing character, self-destructive as hell, an ardently opinionated asshole who wears his heart on his sleeve and keeps his numerous failures close at hand. He's a walking disaster who cares deeply about his friends, is obsessed with literature and rock 'n' roll (imagine the record store in Nick Hornsby's High Fidelity run by characters from James Ellroy), and is a compulsive list-maker who takes every wrong direction on his lonely way back home. He's not even that great a detective, if you really want to know the truth; yet he's barely back in Galway when a tinker (that's a gypsy to those of us who live on the left side of the Atlantic) convinces Jack to look into the murders of several members of his clan, whose mutilated bodies have been turning up with increasing regularity. Not that Jack's former employers seem to care -- tinkers aren't exactly a favored ethnic group in Ireland.

And that's another thing readers should know before picking up this book: Jack Taylor's Galway is not some Lucky Charms, bucolic, pastoral Celtic paradise fresh from a Hollywood backlot, a place where Bing Crosby might warble a Tin Pan Alley ditty about dear old ma. No, Jack's Galway is a hard, cold town, and The Killing of the Tinkers is a hard and often brutal story.

Yet, for all of its darkness and pain, and despite its bleak, chilling conclusion, this is one of the warmest and most life-affirming novels I've discovered over the last year. Jack and his friends may not have an easy time of it here, but they're never less than recognizably authentic, full of the constant struggle of real life -- heartache, heartbreak, busted dreams and the occasional bittersweet triumph that keeps them going. Clocking in at a fast-paced 250 pages or so, Tinkers is a brisk, punchy read that's defiantly fresh and original, and more emotionally true than the majority of books. As Jack's beloved Kris Kristofferson might put it, this work is "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." To put it another way, Irishman Bruen is one helluva a writer, and I've denied myself the pleasure of reading his novels for too long -- an abstinence I intend to rectify as soon as I can. Set 'em up, Ken. Next one's on me ... -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

* * *

Michael Bracken's series of hard-boiled anthologies from Wildside Press continues with Fedora II (hot on the heels of Fedora and Hardbroiled), and once again there are plenty of pulpy thrills offered for your reading pleasure. And that pulpiness is intentional -- from the prerequisite (though curiously lame) retro-style cover typography and illustration, to the endless stream of tough-talking, booze-soaked private dicks and tough guys working between these covers. Fedora II captures the pulpy ambience it so strives for -- no argument there -- but then, not all pulps were of Black Mask or Dime Detective caliber. And sadly, neither are many of the stories in this volume, although I have no doubt that some could have slipped right into Ten Aces Detective or Big Detective Mysteries. What bugs me isn't that this is genre fiction; it's that so many of these stories seem, well, generic, with a disappointing similarity and creeping sameness to far too many of them. Familiarity may not be exactly breeding contempt in this series, but it sure is breeding familiarity.

The original Fedora (2001) seemed refreshing and new, a deliberate shot across the bows of the cozy complacency common to much contemporary criminous short fiction. That collection featured some truly brilliant writing -- most notably Michael Collins' Edgar-nominated "The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women," while Hardbroiled (2003) made good use of its theme of food and detection, adding a touch of whimsy to the proceedings. Together they served notice -- and provided ample proof -- that the hard-boiled detective short story is far from dead. Fedora II, though, doesn't so much stretch the genre as hide out in it.

Oh, there are some solid stories here -- the late Dan Sontup waxes nostalgic in his Runyonesque "The Watcher on Sin Street"; Simon Wood shows a deft touch for fatalism in "Crestfallen's Getaway"; Percy Spurlark Parker's "No More Running" is a quick, nasty tale that ends with a helluva rimshot; and Anthony Neil Smith offers pitch-black (and pitch-perfect) humor in "Your Weekly Beating."

This anthology contains other treats, as well, and the best writing here is as good as it gets. But too many of Fedora II's stories never quite reach their potential -- they end up backing down, playing it safe, and the result is too often either relentlessly dour or just curiously emotionally shallow. Or both. A disconcerting number revolve around dead young women and the rather routine macho posturing that detectives display on their way to avenging their deaths. It's hard, though, to figure out why these guys even bother, since most of the women are portrayed as bitches, whores or shrews of one type or another (with ex-wives showing up in more than one story). It may be a man's man's man's world here, and down these mean streets a man must go and all that, but there's not a lot of real detection going on -- coincidences and he-man "hunches" play far too big a role in these yarns, occasionally reaching epic proportions, as in Robert Hughes' "The Butcher." Some of the weaker stories here contain little suspense; and the conclusion to more than one over-boiled tale is groaningly obvious. So we're left with an awful lot of chest-beating, a few rather adolescent sex scenes (twins!) and some embarrassingly earnest violence that tries hard to shock but barely leaves any impression at all. It would help if we could care more about the characters here, but too many seem to move through these stories like gamepieces, not real people. And so this admittedly jaded reader is sorry to report that after such a promising start, the Fedora series, already rather pricey ($32.95!), is now in real danger of simply becoming old hat. -- K.B.S.

* * *

It's 1937, and the luxurious cruise ship Queen Mary is sailing from England to America. On board are a famous black American singer, his equally famous (but white) actress wife, numerous international passengers with political intrigue on their minds, and one very dastardly senator from South Carolina, who just happens to be racist, sexist and just about every other abhorrent "-ist" imaginable. What these circumstances lead to in David Roberts' Dangerous Sea (Carroll & Graf) is a classic-style whodunit in which all the suspects are sequestered together, and everyone seems to have a motive for killing a very deserving victim.

Making his fourth fictional appearance, and his first since Hollow Crown (2002), Lord Edward Corinth, son of the former Duke of Mersham and brother to the present one, is still not being taken entirely seriously. However, he has gained a reputation as a troubleshooter of sorts, and it is for this reason that British economist Lord Benyon has asked Corinth to accompany him on a secret mission to the States, during which he will seek financial support for England's defense against an increasingly threatening Germany. Benyon fears an attack by Nazi secret agents, and he knows that Corinth can both protect him and blend in with the liner's high-class passengers.

Coincidentally, brash and impulsive reporter Verity Browne is also on board, accompanying attractive American labor organizer Sam Forrest. Although Verity and Edward have solved crimes together in the past (beginning with Sweet Poison, 2000), her determination not to marry into the higher classes, and her disdain for the elite, have prevented their relationship from progressing further.

While the politically mismatched aristocratic investigator and the young communist journalist mingle among their fellow first-class passengers, crimes occur all around them. The naked (and refrigerated) corpse of a valet is discovered early on in their voyage. Later, actress Jane Barclay, the wife of singer Warren Fairley, is nearly parboiled in a sauna. And finally, odious right-wing Senator George Earle Day is found floating in a swimming pool, very much dead. As Corinth and Verity stumble from suspect to suspect, they learn that Day was blackmailing virtually everyone on the ship. The question becomes who didn't want to kill him, rather than who did.

Although it runs a scant 256 pages in length, this streamlined cozy offers so many characters and plot points that Roberts might well have spread them across two novels, not just one. He introduces the subject of racism by way of black singer Fairley and his white spouse, who have been all but blacklisted in America since their nuptials, but then fails to delve farther into racism's corrosive affects. He peppers in numerous political discourses, mostly having to do with communism -- and mostly ironical, given our present knowledge of communism's fate. Yet Dangerous Sea is principally a character-driven novel. And what characters there are among its cast ... While Verity Browne comes off as irritating at times, with her naïve ideals about the power of the proletariat, it is amusing to see her reluctantly admit to enjoying the ample comforts of cruise-ship travel, and to watch as she falls comically into lust with union activist Forrest. Other, secondary players, including some possibly counterfeit relatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Corinth's wayward nephew (who is acting as a bagman for Lord Benyon), and a German-Jewish aeronautical engineer, are all enjoyable but make too-brief appearances.

Publicity materials sent with Dangerous Sea proclaim that the novel has been optioned as a major motion picture. And with its shipboard races, couples tumbling out of closets, a costume party, beautifully rendered scenes of the elegant Queen Mary, and political machinations aplenty, it seems clear that Roberts wrote his latest novel with a screenplay in mind. Still, this is a fun read that capably keeps up the antics readers expect in a traditional English "house" mystery. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

Sometimes you can still like a novel, even though its story hinges on coincidences, it features a protagonist who sounds as if he just stepped out of a 1940s detective film, and it includes beautiful women who do little more than pine away for the hero. Tom Mitcheltree's Blink of an Eye (Intrigue Press), the follow-up to his award-winning Katie's Will (1997), is just such a book.

Grant Reynolds is a former captain with U.S. military intelligence, an ex-homicide detective and the proud possessor of a law degree. And he's only 36 years old. Following his shooting of a teenager, who he mistakenly thought was threatening him with a gun, Grant fled the States for Paris, where he has recently accepted work as a field representative for the American Embassy's Legal Attaché office. This job, he's told, will have him doing preliminary inquires on cases that involve Americans, and then determining who else should handle the full investigations. Being a hands-on sort of guy, though, Grant can't just leave it at that. So after two young Americans are murdered, and he recognizes their deaths as the work of an assassin he'd once encountered, he's compelled to look into the matter himself.

This is where the coincidences begin piling up. After living for so long in a Parisian hotel room, Grant stumbles across a powerfully connected lawyer who, on the spot, offers to rent him an apartment. His investigation receives another boost when the attorney representing the billionaire grandfather of one of the murdered American just happens to be Grant's old law-school girlfriend, who never quite fell out of love with him. When the assassin, whose viewpoint Mitcheltree reveals in alternating chapters, realizes that Reynolds is on to him, he targets both Grant and the attractive coworker he's been seeing. This really ticks Grant off, spurring him through convoluted French protocols in order to track down a hired killer who's been eluding police for decades.

Grant Reynolds is a pretty traditional, loner detective, a guy who's willing to flout authority in order to get his job done. He's never formed a long-term relationship with a woman, and given his sexist assessments of his coworkers ("[S]he had an admirable figure. All woman," and "he liked a trim woman who ate well"), it's no great wonder. He also turns out to be a museum lover with a bachelor's degree in Literature, and to possess extensive martial arts skills: He can kill with his hands, a talent that will prove surprisingly useful as his probe connects those two murders to the art world. Once the reader gets past this book's groan-provoking coincidences, and buys into Grant's James Bond-like skill set, Blink of an Eye becomes an enjoyable read. Its plot clips right along, with Grant conquering both bureaucrats and, eventually, the assassin. It's regrettable that so much of this story's action occurs within the Legal Attaché's office; as a result, the reader never achieves much sense of the novel's Paris backdrop. And Mitcheltree's prose tends to creak with the overwrought conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction. Nonetheless, Blink comes off the way its author presumably intended it should, as candy for the mind. -- C.C.

* * *

The Bard is back. With his companion in both theater and sleuthing, Symington "Tuck" Smythe III, Will Shakespeare returns to track down the killer of a young Jewish tailor in The Merchant of Vengeance (Forge), the fourth in this series of fast-paced literary mysteries by Simon Hawke, following A Mystery of Errors, The Slaying of the Shrew and Much Ado About Murder.

Merchant opens in a disreputable London tavern, where a down-at-heels playwright, offended by the way Will has adapted one of his works for Lord Strange's Men to perform, starts a fight. Ale is hurled, knives drawn, and Tuck and Shakespeare flee the premises. As they head for a more congenial tavern, they talk about why Will (still early is his career) is forced to adapt scripts. It seems that drama companies are being compelled to insert more action and violence into their scripts to keep pace with the bloodthirsty plays of Christopher Marlowe, whose Doctor Faustus and Jew of Malta have taken London by storm. Key to Marlowe's success are broadly painted villains such as Barabas, the Jew of Malta, whom audiences immediately identify as the bad guy simply by virtue of his foreign faith. Shakespeare sneers at this as weak characterization. "Who is this Jew? What does he think? What does he feel?" he asks rhetorically, concluding, "Forget Marlowe's Jew. I will show you a Jew, by God. I will show you one who has a reason to be evil. A reason that any man can easily understand."

Like the earlier installments of this series, Merchant is guaranteed to delight history buffs. Author Hawke weaves in dozens of events and characters foreshadowing Shakespeare's major plays and evokes the sights and sounds of 16th-century London, from its perfumed merchant-class social climbers to its surly thieves and bawds.

At that time, Jews are nearly unknown in England, but through a well-traveled friend, Tuck and Will meet one: Thomas Locke, a prosperous but distraught young tailor. Despite his lowly origins -- his father, Charles "Shy" Locke, is a tavern-keeper and brothel owner rumored to be the master of London's underworld -- Thomas Locke had until recently been engaged to a wealthy young woman, Portia Mayhew. However, their engagement has been broken off by Portia's father, who has discovered the well-kept family secret that Locke's mother, Rachel, is a Jew.

Shakespeare is fascinated to meet a Jew, but Tuck takes a personal interest in Locke's misfortune. He has long been infatuated with Elizabeth Darcie, a wealthy and headstrong young woman whose father does not consider the near-penniless player to be on their same social level. Tuck advises Locke to find Portia and elope. Will, far less of a romantic, sets out to discourage this scheme, but he arrives too late. The unlucky tailor is dead, a dagger in his back, and Tuck and Will barely escape arrest themselves.

As in earlier books in the series, Elizabeth Darcie plays a key role in Merchant's subsequent sleuthing. She and her friend Antonia Morrison have been trying to help Portia, though their own friendship is foundering. Antonia, trapped in a marriage of convenience to a man much her senior, reveals to Elizabeth her many romantic affairs, and urges her friend to have a fling with Tuck, then marry someone wealthy. The stunned Elizabeth finds herself wondering if Tuck has been among Antonia's lovers.

Fans of this series will find the characters of Tuck and Will continuing to evolve, with Shakespeare developing his theatrical voice. In defense of a man wrongly accused of Locke's murder, he extemporizes a grand speech that will later be used in the real Merchant of Venice. Will's relationship with Antonia also becomes ever so slightly less star-crossed. Given the vast Shakespearean repertoire, Hawke's readers can look forward to many entertaining encores. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson

* * *

Between 1965 and 1996, the English novelist Elleston Trevor (writing under the pen name Adam Hall) turned out 19 books featuring a British super-spy known as Quiller. The last entry in that series, Quiller Balalaika (Carroll & Graf), has finally been published in the States. Written while Trevor was dying from cancer, the book -- like Trevor's life -- stops rather abruptly. The author's son and his widow both wrote epilogues for Quiller Balalaika, but it's hard not to wish for more.

Like all good Cold War spies, Quiller is an enigmatic loner whose talents include agelessness, linguistic fluency, dexterity with gadgets, unfailing wits and stunning martial-arts skills. But by forcing Quiller to tell his stories in the first-person, Trevor wisely gave the spy genre a hero with engagingly human weaknesses. At moments of tension -- of which there are many, of course -- Quiller begins narrating in a hypnotic, stream-of-consciousness style, with only commas to create rhythm: "Meanwhile follow the shadow, my shadow, and keep conscious thought aware only of the crunching of my calfskin boots through the snow and beyond it the vast silence of the night, of the universe, leaving the gossamer-fine attentions of the subconscious to address my karma and conjure if they could a ray of light." And these are only Quiller's idle thoughts while trying to avoid being shot in a forest outside of Moscow. His experience always gets him through, but his nerves and fear and sweat -- all those things that ordinary mortals suffer -- never go away.

While Quiller Balalaika takes place in the former Soviet Union, this is no Cold War spy-vs.-spy game; instead, Quiller tries to take on the powerful Russian mafiya, with predictably bloody results. (It's somewhat odd, but certainly in character, that Quiller -- who casually drops mafioso thugs left and right -- gets ethical about killing when he's ordered to commit an official hit.)

For his final literary sortie, Quiller goes all out, infiltrating a Siberian gulag in order to find a witness who can bring down the top mafiya kingpin in Moscow.

Of course, it's not the "will he make it?" but the "how will he do it?" that keeps the entertainment moving here. This book is full of predictably enjoyable spy-novel conventions -- the initial debriefing, the array of gadgets, the impossible escapes, the beautiful women, the satisfying revenge. It'd be lovely if, for this final novel, some sort of career closure for Quiller were in the cards. But perhaps it's better that Quiller just winds up with his nose to the ground and his collar turned up, ready as always for his next assignment. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

Andrea Camilleri's Italian -- sorry, Sicilian -- detective, Salvo Montalbano, has been compared to the hard-boiled dicks of Hammett and Chandler. But Montalbano, a police inspector, lives a life much closer to that of Georges Simenon's Jules Maigret: the tedious/dangerous pendulum of routine police work, covered in the wry, brittle psychological armor such work inevitably produces, and relieved by regular escapes into daily life, Latin-style, with midday trips home for lunch and lingering pauses in sidewalk cafés. The Sicilian twist, however, on the more formal mores of Maigret's Parisian life is a plunge into the profane. Bodies are gruesome and everyday talk is obscene. But there's something refreshing about a police inspector who casually tells his ever-adoring subordinates to fuck off on a regular basis.

In Voice of the Violin (Viking; translated by Stephen Sartarelli), Camilleri's fourth Montalbano novel to appear in English, the inspector's life follows the same familiar diet of flexible ethics, corrupt cops (and government and media and, of course, the mafia) and fresh fish for lunch every day.

On their way to a colleague's funeral, driving in fine breakneck Sicilian fashion, Montalbano and a fellow cop crash into a parked car. No time to be responsible and knock at what must be the owner's door; instead, they stick a note under the windshield wiper and dash off to the funeral, which, of course, they manage to miss. As they're returning, they notice that their note is still on the car.

Do these two finally check to see if the owner's at home? Nah, why follow American-style procedure when you can just return in the dead of night (in a thunderstorm, no less) to pick the lock, snoop around and discover a beautiful, naked, dead woman upstairs?

Events rapidly entangle, with Montalbano having to set up a fake discovery of the body and fox the forensics team, at the same time as he investigates this case. The dead woman had a mysterious late-night life, an aloof older husband, an elegant younger lover and a devoted girlfriend. She had also inspired a mentally weak young man to stalk her, and had left a trail of dubious bank statements. Then there's her unusual friendship with a local reclusive violinist ... Montalbano has his hands full trying to solve the murder, cover his reckless mistakes and keep his corrupt fellow cops from screwing everything up. But Camilleri takes a typically shoulder-shrugging Sicilian attitude to all of these shenanigans. Witness an average conversation between Montalbano and a TV news station pal:

Nicolo Zito showed him into his office. He was nervous.

"How'd it go with Tommaseo?"

"How do you expect? He gave me a royal tongue-lashing, flayed me alive. He wanted the witnesses' names."

"And what did you do?"

"I pleaded the Fifth Amendment."

"C'mon, give me a break, there's no such thing in Italy."

"Fortunately! Since anyone who pleads the Fifth in America still gets screwed anyway."

As a detective, Montalbano relies more on brilliant guesswork and shrewd diplomacy than on plodding evidence-gathering, and he's the first to admit that this intuitive, haphazard style leads to mistakes. If he'd avoided an obvious blunder early on in this latest investigation, in fact, he could have prevented at least one other death and tied everything up neatly in about 30 pages or so. But what would be the fun in that? Far better to wing it and stop off for an espresso while doing so. Montalbano may drive you crazy, but it's an enjoyable ride. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

A young woman runs for her life through the tangled mangrove stands on one of the many island's bordering Florida's tropical coastline. The winds of an impending hurricane threaten her every step, but what she's running from is far worse. Even when she reaches the small boat tied to a dock, she's not safe. She starts the motor and casts off. But not soon enough to escape her fate ...

Louis Kincaid does his fifth investigative turn in P.J. Parrish's Island of Bones (Pinnacle). And for the first time, this half-black, half-white former Detroit cop seems ready to put down some roots. It's the late 1980s, as this story begins, and Kincaid -- now a licensed private detective -- resides in the wreck of a seaside cottage on Captiva Island, off Florida's Gulf Coast. Though not an entirely idyllic setting, it's certainly one where he can find some contentment. That is, until the morning after a hurricane hits, when Kincaid is walking along the beach, hoping just to find an open restaurant or store, and instead stumbles across a baby's skull nestled among the seaweed, sand and shells. Dropping this skull off at the nearby Fort Myers police headquarters, the P.I. is swept up into a second mystery, this one involving the bullet-ridden corpse of a beautiful young woman found wrapped in mangrove roots. Chief Al Horton hopes Kincaid will work the case with a recent addition to his force, Mel Landeta. But Landeta, rumored to be a burnout and known to be a hard-ass, rubs the P.I. the wrong way -- fast. One snide comment too many, and Kincaid leaves him on his own.

Then, a few days later, Kincaid meets Diane Woods, who suspects not only that her ostensibly dull librarian father, Frank Woods, may be mixed up in that young woman's murder, but fears he might also be connected with several women who've gone missing over the last 35 years. After a week of surveillance, Kincaid finds himself overwhelmed with strange and circumstantial evidence, all pointing to Frank Woods' guilt. But after Woods makes a peculiar confession to Kincaid, he suddenly leaps off a ferry and drowns. Chastened and frustrated, and with nagging doubts about Woods' suicide, Kincaid reluctantly re-teams with Landeta. Together they link the baby's skull and the dead woman in the mangroves to tales about an old Asturian family, a bizarre mating ritual and Roman mythology, and ultimately reveal the true horror of what's happening on the Island of Bones.

Parrish (a joint pseudonym used by sisters Kristy and Kelly Montee) delivers here a story that could be consumed rapidly. But resist that urge, for Island of Bones is a well-researched and well-wrought novel that deserves one's thorough attention. Especially worth watching is the interaction between Kincaid and Landeta; the beaten-down but still reflective cop brings out both the best and the worst in Kincaid, who can be impulsive and hotheaded in equal measure. These two men butt heads, but they also share a common sense of loss and a need to find out all the answers. Their partnering against a backdrop of fast-paced action, decades of lies and the untamed coastal islands of Florida makes Bones a deeply satisfying reading experience. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan.

* * *

Winter's End (St. Martin's Minotaur), the debut novel from English journalist John Rickards, is a swiftly paced psychological thriller that's destined for comparison with Thomas Harris' best-selling creepfests. The protagonist here is Boston private eye Alex Rourke, a former FBI agent who burnt out on the task of profiling serial killers. He's recruited by his childhood friend Dale Townsend, who's now the sheriff in their hometown of Winter's End, Maine, to help interrogate an unidentified murder suspect -- a man found half-naked, standing over the nude corpse of a woman, with a hunting knife clutched in each hand and his face broken by "a slow, almost mocking smile." The suspect won't relinquish his name, let alone confess to murder, and when asked whether he wants a lawyer, he'll only say, "I have all the lawyers I could want. I just don't think I need them here."

Townsend hopes that Rourke can crack the impenetrable wall that this suspect, who comes to be known as "Nicholas," has built around himself. But the going isn't so easy as it is eerie. During a series of interviews, Nicholas shows Rourke that he knows a great deal about both Winter's End and the former FBI agent. The suspect's answers are disdainful and cryptic, leaving Rourke feeling frustrated and manipulated. Nicholas is evidently playing a well-considered game with Rourke, waiting for the P.I. to figure out where it's all headed. This is clear from their first meeting, after which Nicholas turns to Rourke and says, "You asked me what I was waiting for. I was waiting for you."

Slowly, Rourke follows the clues he needs to identify Nicholas as well as that dead woman in the road, and illuminate the circumstances of their bloody encounter. At the same time, his investigation reveals sins and secrets hidden beneath the idyllic façade of Winter's End -- secrets that have to do with a now-closed home for children, and may involve the P.I.'s own father, a former cop.

Nicholas' eventual escape from jail, and Rourke's efforts to determine why this inscrutable suspect is apparently carrying out a vendetta against the hometown he hadn't visited for 17 years, keep Rickards' plot moving briskly. However, Winter's End suffers from some conspicuous weaknesses. The hyper-perceptive psychotic genius, Nicholas, reminds me too much of Hannibal Lecter and his mind games. And though Rickards does a painstaking job of building his story up to a momentous climax, the book's ending turns out to be disappointing predictable. All that said, I shall still be eager to read John Rickards' second novel. He shows talent that may bloom more vividly now that Nicholas is out of his system. -- J.J.

* * *

Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sheriff's Detective Sarah Pribek is bound for trouble from the opening pages of The 37th Hour (Delacorte), Jodi Compton's premiere police procedural. Although she has handled many missing-persons cases over the years, Pribek has never before found herself balancing precariously on the framework of a railroad bridge above the Mississippi River, trying to save a previously missing, and now suicidal, teenage girl. The jump may be survivable, Pribek knows, but the river itself is merciless. Nonetheless, when the teen jumps, the detective goes down with her. Both of them are fished out of the water minutes later, cold and wet -- but still alive.

Which is almost more than can be said of Genevieve Brown, Pribek's partner and mentor. Following the recent brutal rape of her daughter, Kamareia, Brown has gone almost catatonic, withdrawing emotionally from the world. Pribek, too, suffered in this crime's aftermath. Together with Brown, she'd been on hand to retrieve the battered girl, and had drawn from her an identification of her violater. However, Kamareia later died of massive internal injuries, and Pribek's I.D. was thrown out of court on a technicality, allowing the man everyone knew to be the rapist, Royce Stewart, aka Shorty, to go free. Brown subsequently took compassionate leave, and Pribek was left feeling guilty for her inability to bring Shorty to justice. She and her new husband, Michael Shiloh, have tried to go on with their lives, but they, like Brown, are haunted by Kamareia's death.

All that, though, is just backdrop for The 37th Hour. The central mystery here has to do with Shiloh, a detective with the Minneapolis Police Department, who fails to show up for a four-month training program at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. Pribek doesn't realize that anything's gone wrong until days -- each one precious in the locating of a missing person -- have passed.

With official resources already stretched thin, she starts to investigate Shiloh's disappearance, only to realize that there's much about her hubby's history that she didn't know, and maybe didn't want to know. For instance, why did he leave his birth family behind without a word seven years ago? Some answers may come from Shiloh's disaffected sister, Sinclair, a deaf poet living in Utah. Yet each time Pribek peels back another layer of inquiry, she finds more questions lurking beneath. And every answer is more painful than the last. Even with help from the damaged Genevieve Brown (whose mental recovery is threatened by a plot twist involving the malevolent Shorty), Pribek's chances of finding her husband alive diminish with the passing hours. Tick, tock ...

Compton's career as a Minnesota news reporter led her to choose crime fiction when she sought a more literary outlet. Although journalists aren't always comfortable (or successful) making the big leap to novel-writing, Compton shows marked potential in The 37th Hour. Of course, she's new enough at this game to make some bad moves, chief among those being her decision here to write in the first-person. Relying on only Sarah Pribek's emotionally charged view of the world, in both present and past tenses, offers readers a very limited understanding of the complex events that make up this tale. Additional character perspectives might have made it easier to empathize with Compton's protagonist. This book's climax could also have benefited from some tightening. While the actions in that section of The 37th Hour can be justified by the passions that preceded them, Compton takes things too far, giving one reason after another for why things happened as they did, and turning her cast brittle with analysis. Fortunately, these sorts of problems can be overcome with experience. Maybe in a Sarah Pribek sequel? -- J.J.

In the News

The New York newspaper Newsday reports that Walter Mosley -- whose latest novel, a standalone, is The Man in My Basement (Little, Brown) -- has been leveraging his authorial renown to promote other black writers, as well as black publishers; that he is busy "fine-tuning the script for a USA Network series slated to launch next summer about Easy Rawlins"; and that he is convinced that politics must play a role in any sort of story. "There's no way you can talk about life and not talk about where that person is politically and economically," Mosley says. "All of my books, including, but not especially, this new one, have politics as part of the fabric." Read more.

The Pages magazine Web site features a short profile of Elmore Leonard, in which the author holds forth on the subjects of his new novel, Mr. Paradise; his hometown of Detroit; his hopes for TV's Karen Sisco series (inspired by his 1996 novel Out of Sight); and his next book -- a children's story about a has-been dog star. Read more.

"Why can't I be judged for who I am now, not what I was then?" asks novelist Anne Perry in an unusually candid interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper that covers not only her historical crime novels (the next of which is a William Monk tale, The Shifting Tide, due out in the States in May), but also her efforts to rebuild her life after the 1954 murder that landed her to prison. Read more.

In a wide-ranging interview, John le Carré talks with Salon about his new espionage novel, Absolute Friends, as well as about the use of intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 era (and their misuse by America's Bush regime); the eternal dilemma of reconciling politics with human decency; and why he remains opposed to the war on Iraq. (Subscription required.) Read more.

Los Angeles claims a rich history as the stomping ground of fictional gumshoes, but The New York Times reported recently that California's largest city may today "have more real-life private detectives than anywhere else on earth." One journalist and screenwriter is quoted in the piece as saying that, in Hollywood, "people hire private eyes in the way that other people hire lawyers or dentists." Read more.

Although Web surfers don't have free and easy access to the complete contents of Mystery Readers Journal's "Cool Canadian Crime" edition, three essays are available online: William Deverell's musings on the distinctions between U.S. and Canadian crime writing; Giles Blunt's thoughts on the "exotic" fictional setting of northern Ontario; and Maureen Jennings' report on having her detective William Murdoch historical mysteries adapted for television. To read other pieces from that issue (including January contributor Kevin Burton Smith's assessment of Montreal P.I.s), you'll just have to break down and buy the thing. Read more.

A lengthy article in The Washington Post delivers a distinctive view of Baltimore, Maryland, as seen through the eyes of resident writer Laura Lippman (whose eighth Tess Monaghan novel is due out this coming summer). "There's classic Baltimore: crab cakes, white marble stoops, the Orioles," the Post explains. "There's quirky Baltimore: bouffant waitresses, John Waters, window-screen art. And then there's Laura Lippman's Baltimore, which contains all of the above, plus a few things you may not have heard about. A giant ball of string. An immaculately preserved 19th-century mill village. A naked guy with a harp." Read more.

Max Allan Collins talks with Tim O'Shea of the Silver Bullet Comics Web site about his new three-part graphic-novel follow-up to the movie Road to Perdition, which was adapted from Collins' 1998 comic book of the same name. Read more.

My, how "girl detective" Nancy Drew (reintroduced in A Race Against Time and three other novels due out in March) has changed. According to USA Today, the new Drew has finished high school and now "tools around River Heights in an environmentally friendly, gas/electric hybrid car. She uses computers to solve detective work. And she tells her crime-fighting tales in first person." Read more.

Half a dozen women mystery writers from the San Francisco area -- Gillian Roberts, Ayelet Waldman, Marcia Muller, Nadia Gordon, Cara Black and Jacqueline Winspear -- received star treatment in a recent San Francisco Chronicle feature. While publicity is always good for this genre, the piece could certainly have been more comprehensive. Left out were such recognizable names as Perri O'Shaughnessy, Janet Dawson, Rhys Bowen and Lynne Murray. Read more.

The winter 2004 installment of Web Mystery Magazine features a variety of articles (including two by novelists Roberta Gellis and Sharan Newman) that look at the task of researching historical crimes and the value of research in giving fictional mysteries a realistic air. This new issue also introduces columns about real-life forensics and private eye work. Read more.

Finally, check out a couple of crime novels-in-installments currently taking shape on the Web. John Westermann (Exit Wounds) recently introduced The Short List, a wittily conceived yarn that's backdropped by efforts to replace the bunker-loving Dick Cheney as George W. Bush's running mate for this year's hotly contested U.S. presidential race. Read more. Meanwhile, Gorman Bechard (Ninth Square) has begun posting 24 installments of Snow Blind, his previously unpublished, very dark thriller about a woman FBI agent who faces off against a serial killer while trapped in a remote, blizzard-battered Montana ski lodge. Read more.

Last Rewards

Nominees were recently announced for the 2004 Dilys Award, given by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association to a work that's judged "the most fun to sell" in any given year. The contenders this time around are ...

  • Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's Minotaur) 
  • The Sixth Lamentation, by William Broderick (Viking)
  • Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde (Viking)
  • Monkeewrench, by P.J. Tracy (Putnam)
  • Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)

A winner will be announced during the 2004 Left Coast Crime convention to be held in Monterey, California, in February.

* * *

Because winners of the 2003 Dagger Awards, given out by the Crime Writers' Association (CWA) of Britain, were announced only after the deadline had passed for the last "Rap Sheet," the list didn't make it into that newsletter. For the record, here are those winners:

Gold Dagger for Fiction: Fox Evil, by Minette Walters (Macmillan UK)

Silver Dagger for Fiction (runner-up): Half Broken Things, by Morag Joss (Hodder & Stoughton UK)

Also short-listed: The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin (Weidenfeld & Nicholson UK); The Company, by Robert Littell (Macmillan UK); Almost Blue, by Carlo Lucarelli (Harvill UK); and The Blind Man of Seville, by Robert Wilson (HarperCollins UK)

Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction: Pointing from the Grave, by Samantha Weinberg (Hamish Hamilton UK)

Also short-listed: Wicked Beyond Belief, by Michael Bilton (HarperCollins UK); The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson (Doubleday UK); Imprint of the Raj, by Chandak Sengoopta (Macmillan UK); Underworld at War, by Donald Thomas (John Murray UK); and Gang War, by Peter Walsh (Milo Books UK)

John Creasey Memorial Dagger (given to first books by previously unpublished writers): Mission Flats, by William Landay (Bantam UK)

Also short-listed: Backlash, by Rod Duncan (Pocket Books UK), and Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom (Macmillan UK)

Short Story Dagger: "Closer to the Flame," by Jerry Sykes (in Crime in the City, edited by Martin Edwards; Do-Not Press UK)

Also short-listed: "Dollface," by Marion Arnott (in Sleepwalkers; Elastic Press UK); "Doctor's Orders," by Judith Cutler (in Birmingham Noir, edited by Joel Lane and Steve Bishop; Tindal Street Press UK); "Les Inconnus," by Kate Ellis (in Crime in the City, edited by Martin Edwards; Do-Not Press UK); and "Ester Gordon Framlingham," by Anthony Mann (in Crimewave 7)

Ian Fleming Steel Dagger: The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, by Dan Fesperman (Transworld Bantam UK)

Also short-listed: Persuader, by Lee Child (Transworld UK); Candlemouth, by Roger Jon Ellroy (Orion UK); The Nightspinners, by Lucretia Grindle (Pan Macmillan UK); The Company, by Robert Littell (Pan Macmillan UK); Empire State, by Henry Porter (Orion UK); and Traitor's Kiss, by Gerald Seymour (Transworld Bantam)

Debut Dagger (given to as-yet-unpublished books): The Cuckoo, by Kirsty Evans. (Runner-up: Speak Now, by Margaret Dumas)

Also short-listed: The Woman from Smyrna, by Duncan Brewer; The Third Room, by Sandra Charan; Speak No Evil, by Avriel Geneson; Without Apparent Reason, by Judy Larkin; The Long Train, by Peter Wynn Norris; Lunchbox Hero, by Bryon Quertermous; Driftlines, by Chris Rose; The Mouths of Men, by Melissa Kate Rowberry; Soul of the Desert, by Maria E. Schneider; The Amazing GM Dog, by Michael Shenton; Days of Future Past, by Betty Jacque; and On the Albino Farm, by Otis Twelve

In addition, the Dagger in the Library (given to authors nominated and judged by librarians) went to Stephen Booth. The Ellis Peters Historical Dagger was previously presented to Andrew Taylor for his latest novel, The American Boy (HarperCollins UK).


"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.


Previous Rap Sheets:

November 2003 | September/October 2003 | July/August 2003 | June 2003 | May 2003 | April 2003 | March 2003 | February 2003 | January 2003 | December 2002 | November 2002 | October 2002 | September 2002 | August 2002 | July 2002 | June 2002 | May 2002 | Rap Sheet #1 | Rap Sheet #2 | Rap Sheet #3 | Rap Sheet #4 | Rap Sheet #5 | Rap Sheet #6 | Rap Sheet #7 | Rap Sheet #8 | Rap Sheet #9 | Rap Sheet #10 |