Edited by J. Kingston Pierce
IN THIS ISSUE: The season's most-wanted reads • Fresh fiction from Domenic Stansberry, Jan Burke, Duane Swierczynski, Carole Nelson Douglas, George V. Higgins, Kate Atkinson and many others • Kris Nelscott's double life; Massimo Carlotto's history bubbles up; trouble is P.G. Wodehouse's business?; and much more news from the world of mystery • Resurrecting Margaret Millar's renown • Plus: nominees for this year's Dilys, Lefty and Gumshoe awards
Pierce's Picks for January-February
Bourbon Street (Carroll & Graf), by Leonce Gaiter. Gambler Deke Watley lands in mixed-race New Orleans in 1958, hoping to make a big score. Instead, he winds up in a maze of duplicity, manipulated by the half-black son of a blind white racketeer, negotiating Mardi Gras dangers and trying to figure out the game being played by beautiful Hannah, a woman Deke had wronged and left back in Texas. An atmospheric, sharply wrought first novel from a California novelist.
Byline: Mickey Spillane (Crippen & Landru), edited by Max Allan Collins and Lynn F. Myers Jr. Although its contents are uneven, there's plenty of stuff in this Spillane collection to appreciate, including three short stories featuring private eye Mike Hammer, reproductions of comic books featuring Hammer's predecessors, a previously unpublished comedic tale and non-fiction magazine pieces that find the tough-guy novelist diving for sunken treasure and racing sports cars.
The Cold Dish (Viking), by Craig Johnson. Written by a former New York City cop, who moved west 12 years ago, The Cold Dish finds Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire investigating the shooting death of Cody Pritchard near the North Cheyenne Reservation. Though it looks like an accident, the fact that Pritchard was convicted two years before of raping a Native American girl, but given a suspended sentence, raises worries. After a second young man involved in that rape is shot too, Longmire must step in to quiet racial tensions and figure out whether his longtime friend, Henry Standing Bear, may be involved in these crimes. The first entry in a new series.
A Cold Treachery (Bantam), by Charles Todd. Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge, summoned to England's Lake District, where he's supposed to probe the December 1919 shooting of the entire Elcott family -- save for a missing son, who may be the only witness to this horrific crime, if he remains alive -- quickly turns his sights on members of the Elcott clan, who have not only secrets but motives for these murders. As usual, Todd (the pseudonym used by a mother-son writing team) relies heavily on character study and historical color to heighten the mystery and drama in this sixth Rutledge tale.
Dangerous Women (Mysterious Press), edited by Otto Penzler. Seventeen suspenseful stories written by the likes of Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, John Connolly, Ian Rankin, Joyce Carol Oates and others spice up this delightful anthology of original yarns spun around dangerous -- and frequently desirable -- women, many of whom belie those familiar old sayings about "the gentler sex."
Digging James Dean (Simon & Schuster), by Robert Eversz. Who's unearthing the mortal remains of deceased American celebrities? That's what tabloid photographer Nina Zero (Burning Garbo) wants to know -- and she may get a lead from a young actress wannabe who thinks that her secret could pave her way to stardom. But when the grave robbers turn to killing, and her long-lost sister suddenly reappears, full of questions about these incidents, Nina starts to think there's something ... well, really weird going on here.
The Excursion Train (Allison & Busby UK), by Edward Marston. Following in the tracks of The Railway Detective (one of January's gift book selections for 2004), Marston's second mid-19th-century thriller featuring British Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck begins with the murder of Jake Bransby, who was aboard an excursion train bound for an illegal prize-fight in Berkshire. Colbeck figures that the weapon employed to do Bransby in -- a noose -- must have been chosen because of the dead man's history as an executioner. But how, then, to explain a second noose-strangling on the rails?
The Empire of the Wolves (Ecco), by Jean-Christophe Grangé. Psychological intensity reigns in this thriller about a Parisian chocolate shop worker, Anna Heymes, who's troubled by recent headaches, confusion over the identity of her husband and X rays that show her face has undergone extensive reconstruction. Meanwhile, a shady retired cop is called in to help investigate the mutilation murders of female Turkish immigrants, perhaps victims of a right-wing political group called the Grey Wolves. How these two story lines intersect, and the changes they cause in "Anna" as she flees France for Istanbul, provide the stuff of great drama. And more than a little bloodshed.
The God of Chaos (Bantam UK), by Tom Bradby. It's the summer of 1942, and as Cairo, Egypt, braces for the anticipated onslaught of German General Erwin Rommel's forces, a senior British officer is murdered. It appears that local extremists were behind this assassination, but Major Joe Quinn of the Royal Military Police believes the motivation for this crime isn't political at all. Though distracted by questions regarding his wife's heritage, as well as by concern over the future of his Egyptian detective friend's ailing son, Quinn remains focused on the case at hand, which produces more deaths and suggests that a local spy is feeding the Allies' secrets to Berlin. The atmospheric Chaos is Bradby's follow-up to The White Russian, one of January's favorite books of 2003.
The Heartbreak Lounge (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Wallace Stroby. In this sequel to 2003's The Barbed-Wire Kiss, former New Jersey State Trooper Harry Rane struggles to protect Nikki Ennis, a dancer at the Heartbreak Lounge, whose ex-hubby, Johnny Harrow, has just been sprung from prison after a seven-year stretch for attempted murder. As the vicious Harrow settles scores with all the people he thinks did him wrong while he was away, among them Nikki (who put their baby son up for adoption), Rane must safeguard himself as much as his client.
Los Angeles (Little, Brown), by Peter Moore Smith. Angel Veronchek, the albino son of a renowned movie producer, begins a passionate affair with his West Hollywood neighbor, a young black stripper. But when she suddenly disappears, following a phone call that suggests she's in danger, Angel must stretch well beyond his comfort zone to get her back -- and figure out who the hell she really is, an assignment that will send him south to Rio and throw him into conflict with his dad's unctuous attorney. From the Edgar-nominated author of Raveling (2000).
Mad Money (Mira), by Linda L. Richards. Unnerved after watching a friend and fellow stockbroker shot to death in New York by an unsatisfied client, Madeline Carter quits for the sunnier climes of Los Angeles -- only to then lose her money on an insider's tip provided by Ernie Billings, an ex-lover who's soon to be named CEO of Langton Regional Group, the very company he said was such a dandy investment. If that wasn't bad enough, Madeline passed the same bum tip on to others. Feeling responsible for their losses, too, she tries to figure out what's happening at Langton, only to discover that Ernie's been kidnapped. Murder, corporate fraud, a bit of romance -- hey, what more do you want from a breezy crime story? Mad Money is the first entry in a new series.
Strange Affair (Morrow), by Peter Robinson. Still on the mend from the hot times he had in Playing with Fire (2004), Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks receives a phone message from his estranged younger brother, Roy, who says he needs the DCI's help in "a matter of life and death." But when he arrives at his sibling's home in London, Banks finds the doors unlocked and Roy's computer missing. Has something dire or even criminal happened here? And how does it tie in with a case being tackled by Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot back in Eastvale, involving a family planning center administrator who's been found in her car, with the address of Banks' once-ruined (and recently broken into) cottage tucked into a pocket of her tight jeans? Strange Affair should be counted among Robinson's finest Banks novels yet.
What Goes Around Comes Around (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Con Lehane. Like its much-applauded predecessor, Beware the Solitary Drinker (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 11/02), this new novel features slackerish Manhattan bartender Brian McNulty, who's working the case of a crony found dead in the East River. Is there a connection between this death and two others that occurred 15 years before in Atlantic City? Assisted by "Big John" Wolinski, the son of a reputed mobster, McNulty goes searching for answers -- only to be jailed, shot at and have his heart broken. The plot here is confusing at times, but Lehane's characterizations are winning.
The Watcher in the Pine (Soho Press), by Rebecca Pawel. The outlook is grim, as Lieutenant Carlos Tejada takes up his first independent Guardia Civil post in the small Spanish mountain town of Potes in 1940, accompanied by his pregnant wife. His officers are hostile, and so are the townsfolk. Worse, there are rumors that Potes will be the center of a new outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Pawel, whose first novel, Death of a Nationalist (2003), won an Edgar Award, shows an increasing maturity with each new installment of this series.
A Window in Copacabana (Henry Holt), by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza. When three unremarkable policemen are methodically shot to death, and then their mistresses start dropping too, it looks as if someone is trying to keep a lid on information they all shared. But who, asks Espinosa, the bookish chief of Rio de Janeiro's 12th Precinct? And what, if anything, can be concluded from the subsequent, supposed suicide leap of a woman believed to have been mistaken by the killer for one of the cops' lovers? As he commences an affair with an obsessed witness to that dubious suicide, Espinosa embarks on an investigation that will test his heart's desire and his hunger for justice.
New and Noteworthy
If exploring the dark primordial passages of the human mind is your thing, then The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry (Hard Case Crime), must be added to your reading list. Told in first-person by a creepy narrator, and with unrelenting tension, The Confession is certain to become a neo-classic among pulp-fiction fans.
Protagonist Jake Danser is a forensic psychologist practicing in Marin County, California. At the time the events in this novel unfold (Stansberry tells his story in a flashback to 10 years before), he's a good-looking and vain man of 37. Danser's clients are the criminally charged, either awaiting trial or in the process of being prosecuted. His present case is that of Matthew Dillard, a young man who is accused of strangling his wife, Angela Mori, to death. Danser is on his second marriage himself, this time to an older and wealthier woman named Elizabeth. He truly loves and is physically drawn to Elizabeth, but not enough to keep him from engaging in illicit affairs -- one of which was, coincidentally with the lately deceased Mori. It soon becomes apparent that Danser is not merely an unreliable narrator, but he is downright suspicious. It seems that dead women are littered throughout his past (his first wife drowned, for instance).
Stansberry does a superior job of transporting his readers deep into the dark passages of Danser's mind, an undertaking that even Danser finds daunting at times.
Who are you?
Danser is a highly intelligent man, but he has some strange habits, such as keeping a mysterious box into which he puts keepsakes -- specifically, female items such as an earring, a skirt band and a necklace. The Pandora-like receptacle serves as a touchstone for Danser's disturbing psychosis.
Even so, it was a connection to my past. Things I had done and people I had known.
After an early episode, during which Danser nearly strangles his latest fling, attorney Sara Johnson, during sex, only to then black out himself, one has to question whether his professional involvement with the criminally charged stems instead from a personal interest in understanding himself. When Johnson is later found choked to death, with Danser's tie knotted looped around her neck, the psychologist is quickly indicted for her murder by prosecutor Minor Robinson. Robinson is not only Danser's peer socially, but he's just as good looking and with the same proclivity for women. Robinson and Danser have had a prior contentious history, and their simmering dislike for each other takes unexpected twists as the murder trial unfolds.
A cold dread pervades The Confession, fed by a vividly portrayed terrain -- a no-man's land fraught with psychological red flags, perhaps the most daunting being Danser's clear view of San Quentin from his house. Stansberry is the Edgar-nominated author of several previous works, including The Spoiler (1988), The Last Days of Il Duce (1999) and the recently published Chasing the Dragon, and The Confession adds a dimension of "chill" to the hard-boiled pulp fare currently coming off the Hard Case Crime presses. Stansberry's exploration of abnormal psychology in this newest novel is thorough and sure, and the synopsis it provides of the field not only fuels the plot progression, but it enables the reader to accurately gage Danser's thought machinations. Stansberry masterfully sows a mixture of distrust in one character or another, without ever tipping his hand. His epilogue here confirms what the reader suspects throughout, and one can only be horrified at the grim existence of Danser's inner life. Stansberry delivers a winner in The Confession, perhaps worthy of another Edgar nod. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Raymond Chandler once said, "The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published. The average -- or only slightly above average -- detective story does."
Granted, I've never been a true fan of either series, although I'll readily cop to occasionally enjoying offerings from both. Tapply's Brady Coyne is an affable enough Boston lawyer given to inadvertently wandering into private-eye waters with alarming frequency. Not for him the tough-guy heroics of fellow Beantown gumshoes John Cuddy or Spenser, or even of Sunny Randall. Yet it's that very appealing Everyman quality about Coyne's humble but earnest detecting (and his acknowledgment of those limitations) that makes his low-key adventures such pleasant diversions, and such a hit with his many dedicated readers. There certainly seem to be plenty of those: Second Sight marks the 22nd outing for Coyne.
It's also the 17th novel featuring J.W. Jackson. This seems a clear sign that lots of folks have succumbed to the laid-back charms of Craig's former Boston cop, who, thanks to a bullet lodged in his spine from a shooting, plus a couple of pensions and a bit of income from odd jobs, is able to retire at the ripe old age of 35 to Martha's Vineyard for an idyllic life of fishing, martinis, cooking and swapping dewy-eyed banter with his wife, the lovely and witty Zee Maderias. Like his good buddy Brady, J.W. -- a guy who's ultimately about as two-fisted as a Jimmy Buffett song -- somehow manages to get into a good number of tense private-eye-like situations.
No, it's not that I think every fictional shamus who comes down the chute has to be a knuckle-dragging hard-boiled hard ass, but there's something about these two muffins when they're together that gets on my nerves, a certain predictability and self-satisfaction with themselves and each other that grates. For example, it's bad enough that J.W.'s constantly extolling Zee's wonderfulness, without Brady joining the chorus. At least Brady occasionally flashes a bit of humility, but Jackson's smugness chafes -- it often rings more than a little hollow, and smells of pandering. Like, we're supposed to buy into the notion that J.W.'s life is a sort of domesticated paradise, that he's a gently simmered P.I. safe for consumption by timid readers everywhere. But, for such an allegedly dedicated and loving family man, it's rather surprising (and telling) that it takes several chapters of Second Sight (and even then it's one of the chapters narrated by Coyne) to find out the names of Jackson's children, or their ages. In other words, J.W. talks a good game, but I'm not buying it.
And so it goes. Brady is hired here to track down the missing daughter of a dying friend who may or may not have been spotted on Martha's Vineyard. Meanwhile, cranky old J.W. is asked (by the U.S. government, no less) to baby-sit and bodyguard an international rock star who just happens to be on the island for an upcoming gigantic rock festival that we're to believe will be a combination of Woodstock, Live Aid and the America: A Tribute to Heroes 9/11 concert. Naturally, the country mouse invites his big-city counterpart to stay with him and Zee, while they work their separate cases -- making this story seem at times more like the ultimate soft-boiled Boys' World sleepover, a pajama party for middle-aged would-be Hardy Boys.
But the two cases -- I'm sure you'll be shocked to discover -- turn out to be connected, and the paths of these two old crime-solving chums soon cross. Between fishing expeditions and plenty of male-bonding and low-level badinage, Brady and J.W., in oh-so-democratically divided alternating chapters, must race to save the day. I won't tell you how it all turns out, but suffice it to say there aren't a lot of rough edges or unpleasant surprises here to scare the horses (or any overly sensitive readers). Tapply and Craig are professionals, after all.
So, if you like these characters and their respective series, by all means, feel free to pick up Second Sight. This is more of the same -- solid, dependable and safe. Better a C than an F, I suppose. But if this is your introduction to either of these two reluctant heroes, there's not much to latch onto here. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
There's somewhat more to latch onto, concept-wise, in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Man Who Tried to Get Away (Forge), but if Donaldson reaches a little higher here, he also sinks a bit lower. This story must have seemed like a clever idea at the time, a witty merger of arguably the two most popular subgenres of crime fiction: the traditional fair-play mystery and the hard-boiled detective story. But clever ideas don't always make good books, and I'm sorry to report that this a writing exercise that should have been left in the notebook.
Those earlier works leaned heavily on the ongoing dysfunctional relationship and adventures of the narrator, guilt-ridden alcoholic ex-cop Mick "Brew" Axbrewder, and his smart, tough-as-nails private-eye boss and sometime-lover, Ginny Fistoulari. In many ways, Ginny is the real star of the show in the series, a genuine find -- a complicated and hard-boiled-as-hell dame finally confronting the fact that toughness alone is never enough. Yet in the aftermath of events depicted in those prior stories, the sharp, taut bite of harsh self-examination and soul-searching is now long gone, replaced by the worst sort of soggy melodrama, a touchy-feely overdose. Ginny has become as psychologically screwed up as Mick (and Mick is even more screwed up than ever). Trust me, it's not a pretty sight. Worse, neither of these players can shut up about it. At times, the self-pity is laid on so thick that it's a chore just making out the words on the page.
But the whining and second- (and third-) guessing of our two star-crossed gumshoes (What did he/she mean by that?) must also compete with the convoluted motives and predictable nature of Donaldson's too-cute-by-half, auto-pilot plot, which finds Ginny and Brew -- recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound -- working security for a mystery role-playing game that's being hosted at an isolated mountain lodge. A lodge that -- surprise, surprise -- becomes snowbound just as someone starts bumping off the guests. Nor are matters helped by a few painfully broad stereotypes (Texans everywhere could launch a class-action suit against this author for defamation of character), and there's an artificiality here so forced that it extends not just to the characters, but to the characters' very names. (There's no Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum in these pages, but trust me, Donaldson comes pretty darn close).
The traditional fair-play mystery and the hard-boiled mystery can co-exist. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, 75 years on, remains the gold standard of that combo, a shining example complete with the obligatory final gathering of the suspects in the parlor. However, The Man Who Tried to Get Away ain't Hammett. Not by a long shot. Still, this may be the first time a book has been written that will cause both Dame Agatha Christie and Hammett to roll in their graves, simultaneously. Average mystery fans will just roll their eyes. -- K.B.S.
Now here's a concept, folks. Del Farmer does the Haley Joel Osment character in The Sixth Sense one better: not only does he see dead people -- he is dead people. Del, the detective hero in Duane Swierczynski's head-scratching new novel, the aptly titled Secret Dead Men (PointBlank Press), has the unique ability to snatch up other people's souls and store them in his mind in the Brain Hotel, a mental construct complete with a lobby, a bar, a pool and even some Brain Hookers. And because Del also has the ability to jump into and take control of other people's bodies (living or dead), he's one dead dick who gets around -- and around and around. Which comes in mighty handy, because Del Farmer is a man on a mission.
That mission is vengeance. Back in the late 60s, Del was just another hard-working young reporter, his most prized possessions his trusty Underwood portable and a tape recorder with a microphone. Visions of Pulitzers dancing in his head, Del was hot on the trail of an election-fraud scandal that seemed to be tied to earlier incidents of drug dealing, extortion and even DJ payola. He suspected that a crime syndicate he'd dubbed "the Association" lay behind it all. Turns out he was right, but unfortunately his suspicions were confirmed in a most unpleasant fashion when three representatives of the Association showed up to take Del for one last ride.
However, Del is barely dead when his soul is "collected" by a fellow called Robert, who has his own bone to pick with the Association. Robert values Del's investigative skills, and he soon becomes his mentor, showing Del the finer ropes of soul collecting. When, a few years later, Robert finally decides to split for the much "nicer neighborhood of the Great Beyond," he leaves Del the keys to the Brain Hotel as well as the body he's currently using, charging him with the task of amassing souls and gathering enough evidence to destroy the Association once and for all -- a job Del is more than willing to take on.
Alas, even being dead doesn't help. A recent check-in to the Brain Hotel, a murdered informant in the Witness Protection Plan, refuses to play ball, and a dead FBI agent who exists "out of time" keeps popping into Del's brain and crashing the investigation, while some among the growing crowd of hotel guests are starting to grumble. Plus, it turns out that dead folks lie too, resulting in a Marx Brothers-like frenzy of mistaken identity and soul and body swapping (played out against a backdrop of Philadelphia gearing up for the 1976 U.S. bicentennial celebration) that will leave most readers dizzy and scrambling for a pencil to try and keep score.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- what is this guy Swierczynski on? The writer or co-author of such enjoyable non-fiction reads as The Spy's Guide to Office Espionage and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Frauds, Scams, and Cons, Swierczynski always seemed like such a normal guy. But, as the wise men of Spinal Tap once said, there's such a fine line between stupid and clever, and Swierczynski (who's currently editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia City Paper) is tap-dancing all over that line in Secret Dead Men.
After this book, I'm really not sure. -- K.B.S.
What I am sure about is short-story writer James W. Winter's Northcoast Shakedown (Quiet Storm). Oh, sure, it suffers a little from the first-time novelist's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink opening chapters. But once the story kicks in and the multiple plot lines and hey-this-is-a-series exposition sorts itself out, we're treated to a solid, workmanlike effort that packs a surprising punch. Which is only apt, since this novel is very much about work.
Private eye and former Cleveland cop Nick Kepler is unapologetically working-class, a sort of lunch box Philip Marlowe, a beer-and-chicken-wings kinda guy who works for a living, thankyouverymuch. Fortunately for Kepler, work is seldom in short supply. He manages to keep himself busy (and the wolf from the door), thanks to a decent retainer from the Terminal Tower Group insurance company, which gives him a sweetheart deal -- free office space and secretarial help, and a seemingly endless supply of low-intensity cases, which they allow him to supplement with a few freelance investigations of his own. So when his schedule suddenly gets a little crowded, Nick doesn't sweat it -- he just buckles down and works a little harder.
Unfortunately, the three cases currently on Kepler's plate (a background check on a guy who fell from a balcony while painting it and broke his neck, a suspicious workman's comp claim, and tailing a possibly straying husband for a suspicious wife) aren't quite the slam-dunks he assumed. They turn out to be connected, at least tangentially, to one another. Worse, they seem also to be tied to a nasty political campaign that's getting nastier by the minute; an ambitious crime lord desperate for respectability; some internal power grabs at the insurance company, and a lucrative sex-for-cash business that involves some of Cleveland's biggest movers and shakers. As these cases circle closer and closer to each other, and Kepler sifts through a slag pile of lies and half-truths, it slowly dawns on him that someone out there would prefer that some secrets remain secret -- and they're willing to kill to ensure that they do. It's all a bit much for the affable, lumbering Kepler, who cheerfully admits he's no hard-boiled hero, just a "guy who ... photographs cracks in the sidewalk for insurance companies."
But of course, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and Kepler rises convincingly to the challenge. There's good use made here of Cleveland (a working class burg, if ever there was one) and its environs, some genuinely thrilling rough-and-tumble action, and refreshingly, attention is paid to the actual working lives of the story's various characters, be they hookers or attorneys, or even hapless insurance dicks. An added bonus is the self-deprecating civic pride author Winter brings to this fast, hard and deliriously plotted tale, and the no-nonsense first-person narrative voice of its appealingly down-to-earth protagonist.
Michael Koryta's Tonight I Said Goodbye (St. Martin's Minotaur) is also set on the mean streets of Cleveland, but his take on the city is decidedly upscale from Nick Kepler's hard-scrabble world. Not that impulsive, 30-something P.I. Lincoln Perry and his older, wiser partner, retired cop Joe Pritchard, are exactly rolling in dough. Nor is there any real doubt that they work hard for their money, but they just don't seem quite as concerned about making ends meet as Kepler, and are easily able to devote almost their entire time to one case.
Which is just as well, since that one case turns out to be a doozy. In the midst of a bone-bitingly cold Cleveland winter, Perry and Pritchard are hired by John Weston, a lonely, well-off World War II vet. He wants them to investigate the apparent suicide of his only son, Wayne Weston, also a private eye, as well as the disappearance of his son's wife, Julie, and their 6-year-old daughter, Betsy, both of whom the police suspect are already dead.
Perry's an intriguing character, a young ex-cop who left the Cleveland PD's narcotics squad under an unspecified cloud. Impulsive, and prone to shooting off his mouth and jumping to conclusions upon occasion, he's nicely balanced by the older and wiser and decidedly more stoic Pritchard. Together they make a formidable and appealing team, who are "awfully damn good" at what they do. It will be interesting to see where Koryta takes them next.
Although Tonight I Said Goodbye picked up the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America award for Best First Private Eye Novel in 2003 (an impressive win for the 21-year-old novelist's first book), it's not all peaches and cream. Like Jim Winter, Koryta demonstrates a common problem of many beginning novelists: a tendency to overwrite on occasion, and to waste too much literary energy establishing his book as part of a series, instead of just telling the story. All this leaves the plot to meander a bit, particularly at the end. Koryta also clings a little too tightly to the genre's usual tried-and-true plot elements at times, instead of going out on any limbs and trusting his own instincts.
That's a disappointment, because Koryta is a natural-born storyteller. There's a definite heart beating amid all the posturing here, and every indication that his is a brave new voice well worth heeding. He manages to give his characters just enough raw depth and real character to make us really care about them, and infuses his story with sufficient wit and compassion (and even a little misty-eyed sensitivity) to make even the most standard-issue items and characters on the hard-boiled checklist come alive.
File this one under: Awfully Damn Good. -- K.B.S.
On one tragic night in 1958, Kathleen Ducane, her husband and his parents all disappeared at sea, while her infant son was kidnapped from his bed and the nanny murdered. Reporter "Handsome Jack" Corrigan believed that he was witness to a car being buried whole on the same night, but his reward was to be beaten seriously enough that he wound up in a hospital. Corrigan is the mentor of journalist Connor O'Connor (who'd first sought Jack out when he was still a child, after O'Connor's beloved sister went missing). Discovering that Kathleen was a friend of Jack Corrigan, and needing to know why his mentor had been so brutally manhandled, O'Connor began to investigate both the influential Ducanes and Mitch Yeager, a friend -- but also rival -- of that family, who boasted two lackey-like nephews lacking in brains as well as morals.
Twenty years later, the brash and impulsive young newsie Irene Kelly is on site when a car is unburied, revealing the skeletons of two adults and a small body. Quickly realizing the connection to the Ducane tragedies, O'Connor is forced into mentoring and partnering with Irene as this complex case seems to come together. Tied into their case is Kyle Yeager, the adoptive son of Mitch Yeager, whom Irene befriends, but O'Connor distrusts. As Irene and O'Connor move closer and closer to discovering the truth behind Kyle's origins, and face their own deaths in the process, the horrors and ruthlessness of the Ducane family are revealed.
Now leap ahead to the year 2000. Irene has grown into a successful and respected reporter, who's mentoring two journalists on her own. More experienced, but still just as determined as she ever was to learn the truth behind a story, Irene finds herself yanking in the reigns on two rash and ambitious reporters who are as problematic as they are helpful. With the advent of DNA testing, Kyle Yeager is finally able to solve the questions behind his birth, but in doing so he sets forth violence that has its roots in decisions and events that took place 30 years before.
At nearly 500 pages long, Bloodlines is essentially three novels in one, and at times the pace lags and the volume of characters seems unwieldy. However, Burke's skill at writing gripping suspense scenes and lively dialogue keep readers engaged until the end. Burke fans were first introduced to Connor O'Connor way back in Goodnight, Irene (1993), when Irene was devastated by his murder and risked her life to find his killer, so it's fitting to finally learn more about the man who so influenced her life. Regular readers of the Irene Kelly series will also be happy to see the reappearance of her husband, Detective Frank Harriman, though it proves to be fleeting. This is definitely O'Connor's story, and as a jaded reporter with a soft heart, he has the character to pull it off.
One of the most serious problems facing the authors of long-running series is maintaining the freshness of their characters, along with their own freshness as writers. Burke has dealt deftly with this issue, first by focusing on Irene's husband, Frank Harriman, in Flight (2001), and then departing from the Kelly series altogether in a standalone thrillers (Nine, 2002). In Bloodlines, she innovatively reveals the background behind a pivotal character in Irene's life, but also takes the reader back to a younger version of her protagonist, with a fascinating comparison between the two. In the hands of a lesser author, this might be an overwhelming and confusing task, but Burke pulls it together for a wonderfully thrilling and entertaining novel. Fans of Irene Kelly should be relieved to know that she can still hold this popular series together. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow
Although she appeared only briefly in Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia," Irene Adler deserved far more attention than that 1891 Sherlock Holmes short story bestowed upon her. Wisely recognizing this character's potential, Carole Nelson Douglas created a whole series around the Woman. Diva-turned-detective Adler now returns in Spider Dance (Forge), the eighth book to star the only woman who ever entranced -- and outwitted -- Holmes. With her own origins shrouded in mystery, Irene finds herself in this latest novel on a mission to discover her mother's identity by following hints provided to her by the exasperating and arrogant Mr. Holmes.
The fetching and free-spirited Montez, born Eliza Gilbert, became notorious during the Victorian Age as a talented actress of dubious morality -- the latter distinction deriving from her famously suggestive "Spider Dance" (which thrilled gold-rush-era San Francisco during her time there in the early 1850s) as well as her three marriages and her time spent as mistress to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. By 1889, Americans had come to think of her as either a harlot or, thanks to her charitable actions over the years, as a saint. In Spider Dance, one of the priests most active in the movement to elevate Montez to sainthood is found crucified in the New York City home of the distinguished Vanderbilt family. This crime is sufficiently high-profile to warrant the summoning of Sherlock Holmes to investigate -- and once again to match wits with Irene and Nell. Soon, the women find themselves trailing murderous Jesuits and Ultramonites. Meanwhile, Nellie Bly shows designs on Nell's would-be suitor, British foreign officer Quentin Stanhope, though the journalist's interest is intended mostly to irritate Nell and to protest the British government having previously muzzled her on the topic of Jack the Ripper's true identity. When Irene suddenly disappears, Nell must step into the role of Dr. Watson to help Holmes unravel a mystery that's all tied up with Lola's jewels, religious fanatics, the Vanderbilts and the wild California gold rush of 40 years before.
Once more, Douglas offers a wry and witty novel that vividly re-creates Gilded Age America. Much of the enjoyment to be found in reading Spider Dance may come from this author's recognition of the proper manners of that time, when the holding of a woman's hand held far more erotic tension than any modern-day descriptions of lust. In one case, Douglas is able to describe the post-rescue reunion between Irene and her barrister husband, Godfrey Norton, with a succinct "They rose very late the next morning." Nothing more is needed, and the respectable Nell Huxleigh would never record in her diary anything prurient, anyway. Yet what is so enjoyable about this series is how it shows women in that repressed time behaving daringly -- bravely rescuing themselves, each other and the men in their lives through ingenuity, innovative thinking and, oh yes, a resourceful employment of hatpins. The Irene Adler series (which began in 1990 with Good Night, Mr. Holmes) continues to grow more and more enjoyable. No doubt about it: The Woman rules. -- C.C.
British novelist Kate Atkinson's beautiful and moving Case Histories (Little, Brown) turns on three episodes of loss that intersect in the turmoil-ridden life of a private detective. Olivia Land disappeared when she was 3 years old. Laura Wyre was murdered in her father's office on her first day at work. And Michelle Fletcher was imprisoned for axing her husband to death, after being pushed to her limits by her crying baby. Investigations into all three of these mysteries are undertaken by a P.I. named Jackson Brodie, whose own history of tragedy leads him to take the cases to heart.
It's easy to see how one could become caught up in the stories at hand here, as well as by the characters' need for resolution -- certainly the reader is consumed.
Thirty years ago, Olivia Land, the most favored daughter of a genius mathematician, went missing and her loss ruptured what was already a dysfunctional family. Now, two of her sisters, Julia and Amelia, determine to hire Brodie to find their lost sibling after they discover Olivia's beloved Blue Mouse among their late father's possessions. Knowing that the toy had disappeared along with Olivia, the two sisters are determined to discover why their father retained this clue to Olivia's fate.
Meanwhile, Laura Wyre was the light in the life of her solicitor father, Theo, and he encouraged her to work in his office in order that he could better protect her from the outside world. But it was there, ironically, that a crazed man attacked and stabbed her to death while Theo was out running an errand. What further compounds his guilt is that, deep in his heart he wishes that his other daughter, Jennifer, had been the one taken from him. He would have mourned the loss of Jennifer, a medical student in London, but would also have recovered from that loss. But losing Laura shattered his life.
Finally, there are the mysteries surrounding Michelle Fletcher. Not long after being released from prison, where she'd been sent for killing her handsome hubby, Keith, she vanished. Now, nearly 20 years later, Michelle's younger sister, Shirley, wants Jackson to find Michelle's daughter, Tanya, who had been taken by Keith's parents after the homicide. Among the players destined to be affected by Jackson's inquiry is Michelle, who has created a new life for herself, but still lives in constant fear that starting another family could ignite the same fury that led her to commit horrific murder.
What author Atkinson so excels at in Case Histories is exploring her characters' minds and their often hilarious quirks and eccentricities. All of them have been damaged by tragedy, and they've come to believe that the solutions Jackson could provide them will plug the gaping holes in their lives. The most memorable players are the middle-aged Land sisters, who have never truly recovered from their odd upbringing. A failed actress, Julia's most memorable performance was on stage as a poodle -- and, Amelia laments, she didn't even need a wig -- while Amelia is so repressed that she has had only one forgettable sexual experience, which led to her create an imaginary boyfriend to placate her family and friends. All three of the cases at hand here manage to intersect in unexpected ways, leading to a conclusion that leaves the reader surprised yet satisfied. A winner of the 1995 Whitbread First Novel Award (for Behind the Scenes at the Museum), Kate Atkinson deserves every bit of the praise -- and there has been much of it, indeed -- that has attended Case Histories so far. It will be interesting to see what she can come up with next. -- C.C.
Martha Stewart should consider herself lucky that she's only been imprisoned, for a considerably worse fate awaits a domestic diva of television and books in Susan McBride's second Debutante Dropout series, The Good Girl's Guide to Murder (HarperCollins). Marilee Mabry is a dictator of good taste who has books, radio spots and now a Dallas, Texas, TV studio all devoted to her idea of good fashion, cooking and etiquette. That she also has a boy-toy lover she stole from her daughter, an ex-husband who despises her and employees whom she humiliates daily makes her a target for "bad luck" accidents that have been plaguing her studio and will ultimately end in tragedy.
The rebellious Andrea "Andy" Kendricks would never have agreed to design the demanding diva's Web site, were it not for a two-pronged attack by Cissy Kendricks, Andy's high-society mother and a past master at manipulation. The stick: Cissy lays a guilt trip on her daughter for taking one of Andy's friends into her home and then paying for her son's schooling. The carrot: Cissy's bribe of an Escada suit and accessories. But a party celebrating Marilee's TV debut is cut short when a cat fight breaks out between Marilee and her ex-husband's new trophy wife, culminating in a fire caused by a highly flammable hair fall. While stumbling through the smoke-ridden studio, Andy finds the unconscious body of Kendall Mabry, Marilee's neglected and often-abrasive daughter. Concerned by the accidents plaguing Marilee, and feeling protective of Kendall, sometime-sleuth Andy begins to look into the relationships surrounding the domestic guru who boasts more enemies than acolytes.
While there's an appealing element of sly humor and wit running through this mystery, it is Andy Kendricks and her mother who carry the book. As in McBride's previous novel, Blue Blood (one of January's gift picks for 2004), the complex and contradictory relationship between this mother and daughter takes center stage. Although the strong-willed Cissy tries habitually to marry off Andy, and is constantly enjoining her contrary offspring to act like a "good girl," the elder Kendricks ultimately reveals more than what one may anticipate are facets of her personality. As Andy realizes in what ways the egotistical Marilee has corrupted Kendall, she comes to appreciate her own mother a bit more and value her as a person, despite what she recognizes as Cissy's manifold abilities to irritate. The anticipated murder doesn't occur in Good Girl's until nearly three-quarters of the way through, but McBride's amusing and interesting characters do more than an adequate job of entertaining readers up to that point -- and further. A secondary plot, involving the first African-American family to move into Cissy's exclusive Highland Park residence since the 1920s, adds an intriguing element to the story that smoothly ties into the central mystery.
Sandra Balzo's debut mystery novel, Uncommon Grounds (Five Star), might well have been overlooked and buried along with other foodie mysteries, were it not for the impressive advance praise by S.J. Rozan, Jeremiah Healy, Parnell Hall, Steve Hamilton and Max Allan Collins. The buzz raised expectations, and fortunately, the book delivers. Although it gets off to a rather rocky start, this coffeehouse-based mystery serves up an enjoyable mystery that can be appreciated even by readers cool to caffeine.
After being rudely ditched by her husband in favor of his dental hygienist, former bank public-relations executive Maggy Thorsen entered into partnership with friends Caron Egan and Patricia Harper to open Uncommon Grounds, a gourmet coffee shop in Brookhills, Wisconsin. But their shop's opening day is something of a disaster when Maggy and Caron discover Patricia's body lying in a pool of milk. It appears that she was killed by -- of all things -- the espresso machine. Hot stuff, indeed. Things only turn more unpleasant when the local county sheriff, Jake Pavlik, immediately suspects Maggy of the crime. Worse, Pavlik doesn't even like coffee. Determined to prove this lawman misguided on both counts, Maggy begins looking into who could have electrocuted Patricia, with some help from her police chief friend, Gary Donovan. Yet what's a great detective to do without her Watson? So, after eliminating several candidates for the job (due primarily to their incompetence, ethical conflicts and annoying personalities), Maggy settles on type-A real-estate agent Sarah Kingston. Unfortunately, Sarah turns out to be more of a Nero Wolfe than a Watson, leaving Maggy to chase all across Brookhills in pursuit of motives for Patricia's murder, focusing finally on the fallout from an election that Patricia lost (by one measly vote) for town chairman and the deceased's affair with a health inspector.
What weakness this book bears shows up mostly in the rather twisted relationship between Maggy and Sheriff Pavlik, as the latter bounces from accusing her of murder and ordering her to stay out of the investigation, to asking her out on a date. As Maggy herself muses, "[S]till, wasn't this a teensy bit odd? I mean, in three separate conversations, the man had accused me of being, in turn, manic, schizophrenic and a murderer. And then he wants to do dinner?" Maggy's irony and sense of humor entertains throughout the novel and carries readers swiftly to the story's amusing conclusion. This is a mystery that's light in tone and succeeds in being believable, despite Maggy's occasional lapse in rational thinking and her impulsive behavior. Uncommon Grounds is entertaining fare from a Macavity Award-nominated short-story author, who shows here that she knows beans about writing longer works. -- C.C.
Adding to the surprising number of golf-related mysteries that have been teed up over the last year comes John Corrigan's Center Cut (University Press of New England), a dramatic yarn destined to draw golfers like an open fairway on a sunny day. While some crime novels may spice up their action with a smattering of links lore and trivia, few can match Center Cut's devotion to the philosophy, practice and love of golf -- and all of that comes in tandem with a protagonist who is flawed, original and very appealing.
However, Jack, a new family man with some readjusted priorities, is unable to leave the matter alone. He recruits his childhood friend Perkins, a PGA Tour security office consultant, along with his mentor, golf legend Peter Schultz, to look into Lynne Ashley's background and ferret out any possible reason behind her disappearance. Questions surrounding this case only grow in number when Grant's caddy is slain, and then again when Lynne reappears -- in the company of Jim Dempsey, Jack and Grant's agent. With a chance to win his first championship at the Buick Classic Tournament, competing against Tiger Woods, the last thing Jack needs is to be mixed up in murder.
The mystery element in Center Cut is relatively low-key, as Jack Austin spends more time sifting through confessions than doing actual investigating. It's the golf that really takes center stage in Corrigan's third novel (after Snap Hook, 2004), with Jack struggling to compete in what could be his greatest triumph ever. A dyslexic whose ability to concentrate on one action has made him a great golfer, Jack finds that the missing Lynne and the murdered caddy are serious distractions, obstructing his path to professional success. Golf strategy and the details of each new hole are lovingly described by Corrigan as Jack moves from tee to tee. Less-than-hardcore sports fans may feel a little lost amid the detailed descriptions of each green and obstacle, but veteran golfers can be excused for demonstrating pleasure at every shot. Both camps, though, are sure to recognize the significance of Jack's reaction to Lynne's casual destruction of two families: Having just created his own treasured clan, Jack is unable to comprehend the callous actions of adulterers. Also strongly on display in these pages is Corrigan's understanding of the mindset among tournament golfers, who are constantly competing against themselves and their insecurities, as much as they are against others. Readers who have shied away from golf mysteries before should take a swing at this one. -- C.C.
At the age of 33, having worked as a journalist, a district attorney and a federal prosecutor, George V. Higgins took the literary world by storm in 1972 with his first published novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. "What I can't get over," Norman Mailer said at the time, "is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz." Years later, Elmore Leonard, when asked to list the 10 greatest crime novels, insisted on naming only one: The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
The story concerns the criminal activities, jail-evading maneuvers and daily routines of a weary Boston gangster who is surrounded by treacherous "friends" on both sides of the law. Higgins wrote the book largely in dialogue, and his earlier work in law enforcement gives Eddie's virtuosic display of mobsterspeak a resoundingly authentic ring. "Dialogue is character," the author once said, and no one made that point more convincingly than Higgins in his 27 years of writing fiction.
"Dancer" tells the tale of Craig Emerson, 36, on the day of, and the day after, the funeral of his grandmother, Jenny Irwin. As the story unfolds, we learn that Emerson had lived with Irwin during the summers when he was a boy. Higgins fleshes out these two characters through Emerson's encounters on funeral day and his flashbacks to earlier times at his grandmother's. The two did not have a Hallmark relationship. "I hated the old gargoyle," Emerson tells Flynn, the funeral parlor director. "She didn't like me one helluva lot, either. If there was anybody else around to put her in the ground so that she didn't spoil, I wouldn't goddamned be here." Interrupting Flynn's sales pitch for an expensive casket, Emerson instructs him, "So what you do is, you give me some kind of container, cheap, that doesn't leak and you can close the cover on it."
Higgins, who died in 1999, is best remembered for his crime and legal fiction, but he didn't think of himself as a crime writer. "He denied that he wrote mysteries," according to University of South Carolina English professor and Higgins authority Matthew J. Bruccoli, PhD, who edited The Easiest Thing in the World and organized the invaluable George V. Higgins Archive at South Carolina. "He wrote novels about characters who had troubles with the law, some of whom were professional criminals." (For a complete list of Higgins' books, click here.)
Higgins once explained that he wrote about criminals because "people who are violent and unpredictable and who break codes and laws and all sorts of solemn promises are more interesting than the people who behave themselves." No one has done it better. -- Charles Smyth
Billy Chaka, ace reporter for Cleveland's most popular Asian teen magazine, the cleverly named Youth in Asia, returns in Kinki Lullaby (Dark Alley), the fourth entry in Isaac Adamson's Chaka series (after Dreaming Pachinko, 2003). It's not long after he steps through the doors of the PanCosmo Hotel in Osaka, Japan, that Chaka finds himself headed for trouble, stemming from a favor he's been asked to do for a man he met more than a decade earlier. Chaka is officially in Japan to receive an award for an article titled "Prince of Puppets," which he'd written long ago about Bunraka puppeteer Tetsuo Oyamada. Right away, though, Tetsuo's father pulls him aside and asks the reporter to help him find Tetsuo and resurrect his career. It seems the elder Oyamada hasn't spoken to his son during the years after the prodigy left the National Bunraku Theater in disgrace, following his mysterious assault on a fellow puppeteer. Chaka "tried like hell to decline," but Oyamada is upset and Billy -- feeling the need to respect local protocol -- begrudgingly agrees to help. The task is certainly more interesting that participating in the Kinki Foundation conference events.
Then that night, while Chaka is taking the stairs up to his room, he encounters a beautiful but befuddled woman in the stairwell. Wild-eyed, she claims to have just awoken from sleepwalking, and before Chaka can lend her assistance, she scurries away down the steps and out the hotel. As if all that wasn't weird enough, the very next day, the man to whom Chaka had given his nametag is found murdered -- in the room right next door to Billy's.
Although he's already working surreptitiously to track down the errant Tetsuo, Chaka can't help but have a vested interest as well in the investigation of that fallen American, whose name was Richard Gale. The hotel detective, Imanish, finds Chaka quite interesting. He wants to know, first, what the dead man was doing with Chaka's nametag. The explanation is simple, of course, but Chaka's failure to mention the woman he saw in the stairwell is rather more complicated. With the aid of a translator acquaintance, English expatriate Kenneth "Curry" Balderton, Chaka learns that Gale was married to Koari Inoue, whose family has strong ties to the shady Komoriutakai.
Meanwhile, Billy tracks the missing Tetsuo down to Osaka's Nocturne Theater, where he's working in a puppet drama called The Whispering Goat. Tetsuo is easy to distinguish from the rest of the puppeteers, because of the fluidity of his movements and the pathos he manages to convey through his artistry. However, as Chaka is watching the play's climax -- which involves a straight-edge razor applied to the throat of the male puppet -- a woman sobs and runs out of the theater. It is the woman from the stairs, Chaka realizes, as he gives chase. When he catches up to her, both investigations begin to intersect, and Chaka is soon convinced that his bloody death is next.
Anyone who has followed the Billy Chaka series (which began with Tokyo Suckerpunch, 2000) knows that author Adamson's approach to crime fiction is, innovative, dark, idiosyncratic and fast-paced. He conveys the feeling of modern Japan without relying on extensive plot-dragging description. He also manages the deft feat of keeping Chaka likable, while at the same time making him just a touch jaded and overconfident. The rapid-fire conclusion of Kinki Lullaby cements Adamson as a name to watch. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan
"When men plot to rule the world," the old man said, "they do it in plain sight."
So begins The Librarian (Nation Books), Edgar-winner Larry Beinhart's first novel since American Hero, the 1993 novel that was filmed as Wag the Dog. It's a captivating, timely work that takes contemporary conspiracy theories to their fictional extreme.
University of Virginia librarian David Goldberg is the victim of severe cutbacks in the cyber age. It seems that no one loves books anymore -- except perhaps Alan Carston Stowe, an elderly Republican mover and shaker of considerable reputation, and head of the Octavian Institute, a right-wing think tank, who has a private collection of books and papers that he wants to see organized. When Elaina Whisthoven, the bespectacled image of a librarian, begs off from that task, due to "stress," she asks a reluctant Goldberg to fill in for her. It all seems straightforward -- except that when Goldberg shows up for his assignment, the eccentric Stowe hands him a confidentiality agreement, explaining that "There are secrets here. ... Great secrets."
He isn't exaggerating. After a few surprisingly pleasant days on the job, and despite being warned that Stowe "is an evil person," Goldberg is rather enjoying his moonlighting work for the conservative billionaire. However, that's when he comes face to face with the fetching but dangerously flirtatious Niobe Morgan, an employee of the nefarious Octavian Institute, and her husband, straight-backed Marine Colonel Jack Morgan. Goldberg doesn't know it yet, but the Morgans are two of the frontline troops for Augustus Winthrop Scott, the vapid offspring of an influential Republican family who is running for a second term as president of the United States. It seems that certain interested parties, ostensibly allied with Stowe, are worried that Goldberg may already know too much about the Project for the New American Century, Scott's plan for world domination. And they want something done to silence the librarian.
It's at this stage that Goldberg's life starts to go off the rails. A series of misunderstandings land him on Virginia's Ten Most Wanted list (for bestiality) and set him firmly on the run from government operatives, who've been told that he's a threat to national security. In his effort to right these wrongs, the hapless Goldberg becomes mixed up in Scott's dirty-tricks plan for re-election -- a plan that includes a fail-safe scheme by which he can trounce his Democratic opponent, the considerably more upstanding Vietnam veteran Anne Lynn Murphy.
Published in the run-up to November's U.S. presidential election, it was natural that The Librarian should receive attention for its blindered and bellicose, George W. Bush-like chief executive. But even now, the novel deserves notice. Larry Beinhart wraps this book around Fog Facts: secrets in plain sight that could change everything. They're provable and would sway public opinion -- except that the media fail to report them. Nobody ever says a thing, so much can be committed in the name of Americans without their understanding what is going on. Good grist for a thriller. And it doesn't hurt that The Librarian is completely hilarious, to boot. -- J.J.
In the News
Although Ross Macdonald is usually considered to be a California novelist (since it was there that he set his Lew Archer novels and others), The Winnepeg (Manitoba) Sun observes that Canada, where the author spent most of his first two decades of life, had a significant and lasting impact on Macdonald. Read more.
I'm not in the habit either of reading or recommending articles from that conservative mag The Weekly Standard, but it is certainly worth checking out the estimable Jon L. Breen's recent piece about crime fiction's superfluity of "celebrity sleuths," among them Elvis Presley, Agatha Christie, Ambrose Bierce and Geoffrey Chaucer. Although Breen applauds several efforts in this regard, he worries that "as cultural literacy declines," readers "may have a harder and harder time making the needed distinctions between the real and the fanciful." Read more.
The British Webzine Shots, which used to be updated every couple of months, is now being refreshed on a less regimented, more frequent basis. It kicks off this new format by posting interviews with Horace Silver (Judas Pig), Peter Guttridge (whose second Nick Madrid novel, A Ghost of a Chance, is due out in late January), Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) and Keith Miles (aka Edward Marston), who talks about his interest in English railway history, his forthcoming collection of short fiction (Murder Ancient and Modern, to be published by Crippen & Landru) and the possibility of his penning standalone historical sagas. Read more.
In "P.G. Wodehouse: P.I. Writer," Rudyard Kennedy of The Thrilling Detective Web Site looks at the unexpected variety of gumshoes who appeared in the congenitally sunny Mr. Wodehouse's fiction over the years, among them Percy Pilbeam and J. Sheringham Adair. Read more.
"[W]e're tired. And we're busy. And we wanted to go out on top while we were still in love with the magazine and what we stood for," explain the editors of Plots with Guns, as they turn out the lights on that determinedly hard-edged Webzine. The final issue features fiction by Charlie Stella, Reed Farrel Coleman and Scott Wolven. But it seems we haven't yet heard the last of PwG. Word is that next fall, Dennis McMillan will publish a print anthology of "the defining works from Plots with Guns' five-year run, with a handful of new stories from our favorites as well." Read more.
Red-headed, quick-fisted Miami private eye Mike Shayne, who made his first appearance in 1939's Dividend on Death, by Brett Halliday (neé Davis Dresser), is remembered fondly by The Miami Herald: "Though he never achieved the golden, hard-boiled immortality of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Shayne -- rhymes with pain -- was a man almost perfectly situated within his place and time." Read more.
South African novelist Deon Meyer, author most recently of Heart of the Hunter ("RS" 7/04), talks with the UK's Crime Time about his fondness for BMW motorcycles, the difficulties of writing stories sympathetic to the police in his country, and why he's leaning toward developing a series character. Read more.
Max Allan Collins -- whose first two novels about loner bad guy Nolan were recently resurrected by Hard Case Crime, under the combined title Two for the Money -- talks with Noir Originals about the origins of that series, offers some behind-the-scenes Nolan series trivia, and rates the chances of our ever seeing another Nolan (or another Quarry) story in the future. Read more.
CUFF NOTES: Southern California novelist John Shannon reports that he's just finished "a four-day run on the final edit" of his next P.I. Jack Liffey novel (after last year's Terminal Island) and will then devote himself fully to work on a standalone titled Hammett's Son, which posits a resentful illegitimate child of author Dashiell Hammett, plus a hapless blacklisted starlet who came to die a penniless waitress. ... Australian Peter Temple reports that MacAdam/Cage Publishing, which last year issued his standalone thriller Identity Theory, is planning to market the first, Ned Kelly Award-winning installment of his P.I. Jack Irish series, Bad Debts (originally published in 1996), in the States next fall, with the remaining Irish titles to follow. ... Arizona-based Poisoned Pen Press, which recently reissued The Face in the Cemetery, British author Michael Pearce's 14th novel starring Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt in early 20th-century Cairo, Egypt, reports that the series' next original installment will be its penultimate one: The Point in the Market. That title should reach bookstores in April. After that, we're told, "Pearce will write a final chapter to the series to be published in late 2006 or in 2007." ... I have just one word for Steven Bochco and the other "innovators" behind the new ABC-TV crime series Blind Justice, set to premiere in the coveted NYPD Blue timeslot on Tuesday, March 8: Longstreet. ... Not only does Gary Phillips have a new collection of Ivan Monk stories in bookstores (Monkology), but he's just launched a five-issue DC/Vertigo graphic novel series, Angeltown. It introduces Nate Hollis, a black former investigator with the L.A. District Attorney's Office, now a P.I., who's been hired by a former lover, lawyer Monica Orozco, to track down bad-boy basketball star Theophus "The Magician" Burnett, whose decision to disappear couldn't have been more badly timed: his wife has just been murdered, and he's a natural suspect. More background on this series is available from The Thrilling Detective Web site. ... Caleb Carr, he of The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness fame, has a new novel being readied for launch in May 2005, according to Sarah Weinman's blog. Called The Italian Secretary, it sends Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to look into the murders of two of Queen Victoria's servants -- homicides that are somehow related to the slayings of Mary, Queen of Scots' confidante three centuries before. ... It's been a while now since we've heard from Robert Goldsborough, who in the late 1980s, early 90s penned fresh Nero Wolfe mysteries (The Silver Spire, Murder in E Minor, etc.). But Memphis, Tennessee-based Echelon Press recently announced that it will publish, in June, a new novel from Goldsborough. Titled Three Strikes You're Dead, this book "will take fans back to 1938 Chicago, to a time when politics were king and baseball ruled. Dizzy Dean sat in the driver's seat of the Cubs' World Series ride, while scandal rocked the tight political community of the Windy City." ... The latest edition of Mystery News leads with an S.J. Rozan interview, followed by a profile of Scottish noirist Allan Guthrie (Two-Way Split) and a conversation with author -- and Judo practitioner -- Barry Eisler (Rain Storm).... Still more reasons to go on living: Bill Pronzini's latest Nameless Detective novel, Nightcrawlers, is slated for release in March from Forge. Anne Perry's Long Spoon Lane (Ballantine), again starring Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, should hit bookstores in April. And James Crumley's latest C.W. Sughrue adventure, The Right Madness, is due out from Viking in early May. ... Finally, don't forget to check out January Magazine's new crime-fiction "pick of the week," updated each Monday on the Crime Fiction page.
Best in View: Reintroducing Margaret Millar
Margaret Millar (1915-1994) was appreciated by discriminating readers and fellow writers in the United States, Canada and many other countries as a master of "psychological suspense." Her two dozen novels won her an Edgar and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America (a group she once served as president), as well as Canada's Derrick Murdoch Award; and they influenced or presaged the work of such cutting-edge crime-fiction writers as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell.
Yet the author who most inspired Millar herself (besides her husband, Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald) was not a mystery writer at all.
"I think the most influential writer in my life was Somerset Maugham, who didn't have anything whatever to do with mysteries," Margaret Millar told novelist and editor Ed Gorman in 1989, "except if you reread his best stories, they all had a kind of mystery plot to them. Not in wondering who did it, but in wondering what happened. He's the best in short stories ... Ever since I found out what a terrible son of a bitch he was I've tried not to think so highly of him but, that's separate, that's quite separate."
Such blunt talk was characteristic of the speech and art of Margaret Millar (who was born in Toronto, Canada, and lived in Santa Barbara, California, from 1946 until her death).
I had the chance to hear some of that blunt talk myself when I interviewed Margaret Millar in 1990. During the 10 years I spent researching and writing a biography about Ross Macdonald, I was also in effect researching "Maggie" (as she liked to be called); and I learned what a gifted and accomplished writer she had been and remained.
Once the Macdonald biography was done, I was able to edit and write the introduction to Strangers in Town (2001), a book of three previously unpublished Macdonald short stories found in his archive. That made me realize there had never been a collection of Margaret Millar's short stories, though over the years she'd written several brief tales.
Crippen & Landru, the Virginia-based independent publisher that had brought out Strangers in Town, was at the time beginning a new series of "Lost Classics" books; C&L editor Doug Greene thought a volume of Margaret Millar stories would make a fine entry in that line.
The Couple Next Door was to be the book's title (after one of its entries, a prize-winning 1954 story first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine [EQMM]). Our volume's subtitle, "Collected Short Mysteries," would determine -- and limit -- its contents. We wouldn't include the few mainstream-fiction tales Maggie had done for magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal and Woman's Day. Nor would we use the excerpt from her charming, informative and surprisingly suspenseful 1968 non-fiction book about bird watching (The Birds and the Beasts Were There), which was printed as a standalone piece in Sports Illustrated.
Adhering to our suspense-only rule, we were still able to assemble a decent-sized volume, a book in which readers might see what I'd discovered: how Margaret Millar, in her short stories as well as in her novels, moved from a skilled crafter of suspenseful entertainments (like the 1942 novelette, "Mind Over Murder," featuring Dr. Paul Prye, the psychiatrist-sleuth who figured in her first three books) to a more serious writer whose best work probed the mysteries of the human mind (such as "The People Across the Canyon," a 1961 short story that bears comparison, I think, with tales from that time by Ray Bradbury, John Cheever and Shirley Jackson).
The result: Margaret Millar's brief crime-fiction is gathered together for the first time now in The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries by Margaret Millar. Its seven selections (one of which is a short autobiographical sketch) span almost the length of this Canadian-American author's nearly 50-year career: from that novelette published in Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine in 1942, to a brief 1987 tale printed by EQMM.
That 1942 novelette and another one from the following year are the two main "finds" in this new collection: stories almost unknown to Millar's readers. Some of the other tales here were anthologists' favorites throughout the 1960s and 70s. Almost all of the stories demonstrate, in miniature, the characteristics of Margaret Millar's novels, as enumerated by British critic Mike Ashley: "a puzzling, convoluted plot, a strong psychological element and a surprise ending."
For those readers familiar only with Millar's novels, The Couple Next Door should prove an unexpected treat or even a revelation. For those who've not yet read her at all, may this volume serve as an enticing introduction to one of the most skillful and enjoyable suspense novelists of the 20th century.
During its Black Orchid banquet, held in New York City on December 4, the Wolfe Pack gave the 2004 Nero Wolfe Award to Fear Itself (Little, Brown), Walter Mosley's second Paris Minton/Fearless Jones novel. The other 2004 nominees were The Vanished Man, by Jeffery Deaver (Simon & Schuster), Fat Ollie's Book, by Ed McBain (Simon & Schuster), Burning Garbo, by Robert Eversz (Simon & Schuster), and Where the Truth Lies, by Rupert Holmes (Random House). For more information, click here.
The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has announced its nominees for the 2005 Dilys Award, given to the book that merchants had the most fun selling in the previous year. The contenders this time around:
A winner will be announced during the Left Coast Crime convention, to be held in El Paso, Texas, in late February.
Meanwhile, Left Coast organizers have announced their lists of nominees for the 2005 Lefty, Bruce Alexander and Calavera awards. The competitors are:
The Lefty Award (given to a humorous mystery novel): Blue Blood, by Susan McBride (Avon); Carnage on the Committee, by Ruth Dudley Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press); Holy Guacamole, by Nancy Fairbanks (Berkley Prime Crime); Perfect Sax, by Jerrilyn Farmer (Morrow); and We'll Always Have Parrots, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's Minotaur)
The Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award (given to a historical mystery): Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press); Five for Silver, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (Poisoned Pen Press); Murder on Marble Row, by Victoria Thompson (Berkley Prime Crime); Tyrant of the Mind, by Priscilla Royal (Poisoned Pen Press); and The Witch in the Well, by Sharan Newman (Forge)
The Calavera (like last year's Otter Award, given to a mystery set in the geographic area covered by Left Coast Crime): Family Claims, by Twist Phelan (Poisoned Pen Press); Grave Endings, by Rochelle Krich (Ballantine); Shadow Play, by David Cole (Avon); Snap Shot, by Meg Chittenden (Berkley Prime Crime); and What Others Know, by L.C. Hayden (Top Publications)
Current LCC members are eligible to vote for their favorite nominee in each category. Awards will be presented on Saturday, February 26, in El Paso.
The Webzine Mystery Ink has issued its shortlist for the fourth annual Gumshoe Awards, intended to "recognize the best achievements in the world of crime fiction." The nominees are:
Best Mystery: By a Spider's Thread, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); California Girl, by T. Jefferson Parker (Morrow); Hard, Hard City, by Jim Fusilli (Putnam); Last Lullaby, by Denise Hamilton (Scribner); and Absent Friends, by S.J. Rozan (Delacorte)
Best Thriller: Rain Storm, by Barry Eisler (Putnam); Life Expectancy, by Dean Koontz (Bantam); Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst (Random House); A Death in Vienna, by Daniel Silva (Putnam); and The Wake-Up, by Robert Ferrigno (Pantheon)
Best European Crime Novel: The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell (New Press); The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Penguin); Doctored Evidence, by Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press); Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin (Random House); and A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown)
Best Debut: Whiskey Sour, by J.A. Konrath (Hyperion); Rift Zone, by Raelynn Hillhouse (Forge); Misdemeanor Man, by Dylan Schaffer (Bloomsbury); Dating Dead Men, by Harley Jane Kozak (Doubleday); and Caught Stealing, by Charles Huston (Ballantine)
Still to be announced are a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and the winner of an award for Best Crime Fiction Web Site. Victors will be revealed on March 9.
The Mystery Writers of America (MWA) has announced the recipients of its 2005 Special Edgar Awards. The lucky few are as follows:
Television producers/writers Tom Fontana and David Chase will be given the Special Edgar awards for their groundbreaking work in TV crime shows.
Carolyn Marino, vice-president and executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers, will be given the Ellery Queen Award for her generous support of the mystery genre.
There are also four Raven Awards, presented to individuals and institutions that have made significant contributions to the genre or to the MWA. The recipients are: Martha N. Farrington, owner of Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas; Steven Oney, founder of Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theater; and Diane Kovacs and Kara Robinson, founders/owners of the DorothyL Internet mailing list.
These commendations will be presented on April 28 during the Edgar Awards banquet, to be held at the Grant Hyatt Hotel in New York City.
During the same banquet, novelist Marcia Muller, whose Sharon McCone novels (beginning with Edwin of the Iron Shoes, 1977) helped usher in the modern era of women private eyes, will be named an MWA Grand Master.
The Lambda Society has announced its award finalists in the Best Lesbian and Gay mystery categories for 2005. Those finalists are:
Lesbian Mystery: An Intimate Ghost, by Ellen Hart (St. Martin's Minotaur); Commitment to Die, by Jennifer Jordan (Bean Pole Books); Death by Discount, by Mary Vermillion (Alyson Books); Hancock Park, by Katherine V. Forrest (Berkley Prime Crime); and The Wombat Strategy, by Claire McNab (Alyson Books)
Gay Men's Mystery: Flight of Aquavit, by Anthony Bidulka (Insomniac Press); Jackson Square Jazz, by Gregg Herren (Kensington Publications); Moth and Flame, by John Morgan Wilson (St. Martin's Minotaur); Someone You Know, by Gary Zebrun (Alyson Books); and The Role Players, by Dorien Grey (GLB Publishers)
These awards will be presented during a ceremony in New York City on June 2, hosted by the Center for Lesbian Gay Studies at the City University of New York.
And finally, for the record (since there was no December "Rap Sheet" in which to provide this information), the winners of 2004 Dagger Awards -- given out on November 9 by the British Crime Writers' Association -- were as follows:
Silver Dagger: Flesh and Blood, by John Harvey (Heinemann UK)
Ian Fleming Steel Dagger: Garden of Beasts, by Jeffery Deaver (Hodder & Stoughton UK)
John Creasey Memorial Dagger: Amagansett, by Mark Mills (Fourth Estate UK; "RS" 9/04)
Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction: (co-winners) Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, by John Dickie (Hodder & Stoughton UK); and The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London, by Sarah Wise (Jonathan Cape UK)
Short Story Dagger: "The Weekender," by Jeffery Deaver (from Twisted; Hodder & Stoughton UK)
Dagger in the Library (awarded to an author for a body of work, not one single title): Alexander McCall Smith
Debut Dagger (for as-yet-unpublished crime novels): Ellen Grubb for The Doll Makers (UK)
People's Choice Award: Good Morning, Midnight, by Reginald Hill (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.
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