Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, October 2002

 

IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by Martin Cruz Smith, Paul Johnston, David Corbett, Robert J. Randisi and others • Readers rate the latest releases from David J. Sherman, Nancy Pickard, Fredric Brown and Lindsey Davis. • The flavorful fusion of cuisine and crime, Laura Lippman interviews Karin Slaughter, and other news from the world of mystery • Plus: the winners of this year's Hammett Award and Australia's Ned Kelly Awards


Pierce's Picks for October

Angels Passing (Orion UK), by Graham Turley. This third Joe Faraday police procedural (after The Take, 2001) has the Portsmouth detective inspector hunting for a 10-year-old boy who may be connected to a teenage girl's demise, at the same time as he inquires into the strange death of a small-time crook. Faraday's difficult relationships with his girlfriend and his son provide engaging subplots.

The Big Dig (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Linda Barnes. After too long an absence, Boston P.I. Carlotta Carlyle returns in a story that finds her going underground -- both literally and figuratively -- to investigate theft, corruption, kidnapping and murder, all linked neatly to her city's budget-busting urban tunnel project.

Chasing the Dime (Little, Brown), by Michael Connelly. A phone mix-up leads a prostitute's potential clients instead to scientist Henry Pierce, whose subsequent search for that gorgeous call girl leads to his becoming the prime suspect in her disappearance. Bad timing for Pierce: His company is set to welcome an investor, who might frown on being associated with the developing crime.

Dark Matter (McArthur & Company Canada), by Philip Kerr. Scientist Sir Isaac Newton enters the ranks of historical part-time detectives when he's hired by the King of England to help prosecute counterfeiters whose coinage may undermine the British economy. Assisted by a younger associate, Christopher Ellis, Newton realizes that the phony currency is only part of a larger conspiracy that threatens to cast their nation into anarchy.

An Experiment in Treason (Putnam), by Bruce Alexander. Blind 18th-century magistrate John Fielding and his able young charge, Jeremy Proctor, become involved in the search for some controversial letters that were filched from a prominent official's home in London ... and turn up later in colonial Massachusetts. With political tensions increasing, Fielding tries to determine whether Benjamin Franklin might have a hand in this odd affair.

A Fearsome Doubt (Bantam), by Charles Todd. In his sixth outing (following Watchers of Time), shell-shocked Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge begins to doubt his prewar talents as a policeman, after new evidence is brought forward in an old case that suggests he sent the wrong man to the gallows for preying on the infirm elderly. But he cannot dwell solely on past errors, for he's been assigned to look into the poisoning deaths of three disabled soldiers.

The Little Friend (Knopf), by Donna Tartt. From the author of The Secret History (1992) comes this tale of dangerous innocence, set in Mississippi in the 1970s. A dozen years after the unsolved hanging of her older brother, 12-year-old Harriet Dufresnes determines to unmask his murderer -- a pursuit that will lead her into a dark, adult world of menace, betrayal and moral paradoxes.

The Mammoth Book of Egyptian Whodunnits (Carroll & Graf), edited by Mike Ashley. Among the 20 authors represented in this entertaining volume, which covers two distinct periods of Egyptian history -- Ancient Egypt and the post-Napoleonic era -- are Paul Doherty (who contributes a murder case for Judge Amerotke), Michael Pearce (with a brief tale featuring Gareth Owen), Marilyn Todd (who turns Cleopatra into a detective) and Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (imagining the historian Herodotus as a sleuth).

The Night Calls (Century UK), by David Pirie. A second case (after The Patient's Eyes) for part-time sleuths Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell has them looking into peculiar assaults on women at Edinburgh's brothels. At the same time, they try to help a female university student beset by potentially malevolent distractions and meet the model for Sherlock Holmes' most notorious adversary, Professor Moriarty.

Primitive Secrets (Poisoned Pen Press), by Deborah Turrell Atkinson. Entering her Honolulu law office one morning, Storm Kayama is stunned to find her adopted uncle dead at his desk. But grief is soon overcome by questions surrounding this tragedy, her adopted family's over-eagerness to close its ranks, and an "accident" from which Storm barely escapes. After retreating to her Aunt Maile's home, she fights to solve her uncle's murder and simultaneously heal wounds left over from her childhood.

Reversible Errors (Farrar Straus & Giroux), by Scott Turow. Court-appointed attorney Arthur Raven hadn't looked forward to representing death-row inmate "Squirrel" Gandolph in a final appeal of his murder conviction. Yet he rises above his personal burdens to win a temporary reprieve for his client, in the process attracting an unlikely ally: the judge who found Gandolph guilty.

Six White Horses (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur), by Gaylord Dold. A Marine corporal named Palmer is approached by Sergeant Harry Wilde with a Hobson's choice: serve as a "mule" for a drug-trafficking enterprise, or be sent to jail for possession. Instead, Palmer escapes to Mexico, leaving behind his girlfriend. Seven years later, after Wilde has expanded his business to take in weapons smuggling, as well, he arrives in Mexico, thinking he can finally impress Palmer into his service. But the former corporal isn't the naïve guy he once was. Dold is the author of the Mitch Roberts detective series and The Devil to Pay (1999).

The Sniper's Wife (Mysterious Press), by Archer Mayor. Vermont detective Willy Kunkle heads to New York City, after his ex-wife is found dead there -- an apparent victim of a drug overdose. Kunkle, though, thinks foul play is involved, and he goes looking for revenge, only to find himself confronting troubles from his own past.


New and Noteworthy

Truly brilliant fiction not only entertains, but expands your perspective on the world as it is. Or as it was. While a superfluity of stories have been written from the U.S. side, recounting the December 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor, Martin Cruz Smith's slickly plotted and exotically atmospheric new thriller, December 6 (Simon & Schuster), swings the viewpoint 180 degrees. It opens in Tokyo just a few days prior to that historic attack. There we encounter Harry Niles, the owner of a popular nightclub called the Happy Paris and an outwardly cynical opportunist, who suddenly finds himself caught at a cultural crossroads. The son of Methodist missionaries, who left him for protracted periods in Tokyo to be reared by nurses and a besotted uncle, Harry grew up as "a Japanese boy who pretended to be an American son when his parents visited." Now, with war imminent between the land of his history and the land of his heart, he must choose where his allegiances lie. The trouble is, even he doesn't seem to know.

"Harry was skipping town," Smith writes. "Any sane person would." He has a seat waiting on what may be the final flight out to Hong Kong, and plans to escape from there to the States with a British diplomat's wife. There seems to be little that would hold him in Tokyo, and much to drive him away -- especially since both Japanese and American officials have grown to distrust Harry.

Before he leaves, though, the nightclub proprietor has sticky business and personal affairs to settle. For instance, he's been running a con game on the Japanese Imperial Navy, endeavoring to forestall a disastrous conflict with America by convincing naval strategists, particularly Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, that the United States is stockpiling oil for its fleet in Hawaii. "It's a harmless ploy, if you will, to create the possibility in the Japanese mind that oil was delivered in a secretive manner to tanks they haven't located," Harry tells a friend. "You know how meticulous and paranoid the Japanese are. This is the sort of thing that drives them crazy. They can't be so sure an attack [on Pearl Harbor] will actually locate and wipe out all the oil reserves in Hawaii. Yamamoto understands odds. If he doesn't think he can nail both the fleet and the oil, he won't touch Pearl. No Pearl, no war."

Harry's departure is also complicated by a sword-wielding military fanatic, who's seeking dramatic revenge for a long-ago incident that cost him "face" among his men, and by his need to bid sayonara to Michiko, his Japanese mistress and the Happy Paris' enigmatic jukebox jockey. A woman as scary as she is seductive, who relishes the romantic Japanese tradition of committing joint suicide with a man she loves, "Michiko maintained a lack of self-consciousness which, added to a complete lack of morality, lent her a feline independence." Harry isn't at all sure that he can abandon her ... and live to tell about it. Only as December 6 progresses and Michiko reveals levels of mysteriousness that even Harry hadn't anticipated, does he come to understand the improbable depth of their relationship.

Comparisons can be easily made between Rick Blaine, the ostensibly selfish nightclub operator (played by Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca, and Harry Niles. Both face decisions complicated by love and the politics of World War II, and both find it easier to live behind façades of indifference than to show how they've been shaped by hurt. Yet Casablanca rarely ventures beyond the doors of Rick's Café Americain, while December 6 re-creates a kaleidoscopic wartime Tokyo filled with pet beetles and mincing geishas and the naïve conviction that "victory lies in a faith in victory." We're told that in the city's entertainment district, "life-size posters of samurai stood between cardboard cutouts of Clark Gable and Mickey Mouse." Fire is a constant threat to Tokyo's tinderbox architecture of wood and bamboo and paper screens. To keep flames from spreading, Smith writes, "firemen had a special incentive in leveling whole neighborhoods, since their second occupation was construction. What they tore down, they rebuilt." This book's wondrous street scenes reveal a place not yet resigned to the 20th century, packed with "government workers in three-piece suits and farmers in cone-shaped hats of straw," Cadillacs accelerating past rickshaws and rag wagons, and modern neon signs competing with paper lanterns to hold the night at bay. Smith's veteran readers recognize his talent for crafting brilliantly convoluted yarns against unfamiliar backdrops, whether it's Moscow (Gorky Park and Red Square), Cuba (Havana Bay) or the coal-mining towns of Victorian England (Rose). Rarely, though, has he shown such appreciation for the vivid nuances of location as he does here.

If there's any flaw to December 6, it is an overextended cat-and-mouse confrontation between Harry Niles and the latter-day samurai mad enough to take his head off -- literally. But even that episode, which includes Michiko in an unexpected and memorable role, serves to enhance the base foreignness of Smith's story. It also proves that the problems of three little people sometimes do amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

* * *

British author Paul Johnston was a quick hit, with his first novel, Body Politic (1997) -- a near-future tale featuring Edinburgh P.I. Quintilian Dalrymple -- picking up a John Creasey Memorial Award from the UK Crime Writers' Association. But after knocking out four more Dalrymple adventures, he's introducing a new series with A Deeper Shade of Blue (Hodder & Stoughton).

The setting this time is modern Greece, where Athens private investigator Alexandhros "Alex" Mavros explains that he only takes on "cases I have a feeling for." He has that particular feeling about the disappearance of Rosa Ozal, a captivating, 29-year-old Turkish-American tourist from New York City, who is more than a month late in returning from her solo travels through the eastern Mediterranean. The last communication her family received from her was a postcard, mailed from the Greek holiday island of Trigono. Rosa's brother, Deniz, a rather shifty character who may be linked to a local trafficker in illegally obtained antiquities, wants Mavros to see if he can track his sister from there. The gumshoe doesn't exactly leap at this assignment, knowing that it will require great subtlety -- and that he will need to conceal himself behind the guise of a Scottish traveler, with nothing more than a passing interest in Rosa Ozal's fate. But Alex could sure use some time away from the city, if only to escape his social worker girlfriend, Niki Glezou, whose mood swings have got him down. So off he flies to Trigono, only to discover that the island is in mourning over the recent deaths of two teenage lovers, who were found naked and tangled underwater in a fishing net.

Taking a room in the same private home where Rosa had stayed during her time there, Mavros starts poking around, his curiosity rewarded with oddities (such as a World War II memorial, from which one name has been roughly removed) that will become significant as this narrative unfolds. Of course, neither the island's residents nor its European and American visitors step forward right away to say whatever became of Rosa. But, in a too-convenient plot twist, Alex does find a package stuffed up the chimney of his guest room, containing a computer disk and three photographs -- one of the war memorial with its scratched-off name, a second shot of a cliff face punctuated by cave entrances, and a third, black-and-white print showing a soldier identified as George Lawrence. How do these images relate to the absent Rosa, those dead teens, a local mining tycoon and his spoiled-rotten son, ancient statuary unearthed during an archaeological dig, and an unidentified woman being held captive by violent sexual abusers? And is there any connection to be made between Rosa and a woman journalist who went missing from Trigono not long after she did? The more Mavros learns of this island and its troubled history (related in a series of 60-year-old diary entries), the more questions there are demanding answers.

Somewhat less cynical and in command of his life than Quintilian Dalrymple, Alex Mavros is the 39-year-old son of a once-high-ranking member of the Communist Party. At the same time as he untangles mysteries for his clients (at the rate of "a hundred thousand Greek a day plus expenses"), he lives with an unfinished puzzle of his own: His elder brother, a political activist named Andonis, disappeared one night in 1972, and Alex has been searching for him ever since. Mavros boasts the right balance of insight and luck that's demanded to tie all the loose ends of this tale together.

A Deeper Shade of Blue has its faults beyond that coincidence I mentioned earlier. A late scene finds Mavros suffering a cave accident and being left behind by his companion, an archaeologist named Eleni. That accident leaves the P.I. serendipitously on hand to discover an unexpected corpse, but the story never adequately justifies Eleni abandoning him in the first place. And a final epiphany for the mining mogul and museum owner whose controlling presence suffuses these pages comes too swiftly and easily. Still, this novel's intricately constructed plot, and its parsing of the long-standing hatreds and long-ago tragedies that have shaped the character of the Trigono community, show Johnston's strengths as a writer and bode well for the future of this new series.

* * *

Just the name of David Corbett's debut novel makes you sit up and take notice: The Devil's Redhead (Ballantine). It's so provocative, in fact -- and such a welcome relief from this genre's numbing redundancy of titles containing variations of "death" or "murder" -- that readers might well fear the story inside can't measure up. But it does, for the most part. While Corbett may not break much fresh ground with this twisted romance about drugs and redemption and the heart's sometimes foolish pursuits, The Devil's Redhead is certainly a full-throttle thrill ride.

The clay-footed Romeo role here goes to Daniel Abatangelo, a talented photographer whose real business is smuggling premium-grade Thai pot into the United States. However, by eschewing the "macho baggage" of guns and gangsters, Abatangelo "resisted conceding that what he did made him a criminal." He's just in it for the money, some of which he takes to Las Vegas in 1980, and there encounters his Juliet -- a stunning, Texas-reared card dealer named Lachelle "Shel" Beaudry. "Her hair was red, her eyes green," we're told, "and she had the kind of smile that said: Gentlemen, start your engines." Their attraction is mutual, the results combustible. Soon, they're both running drugs, Shel baby-sitting safe houses while Abatangelo handles the receiving and distribution. But the marijuana trade is changing, forcing out the minor players, and Abatangelo thinks it might be time for a new career. Unfortunately, before he can get out, one of his shipments goes sour, leading the DEA to nab all parties involved. Rather than roll over on Shel and the rest of his people, Abatangelo accepts a 10-year sentence, while the rest are given lesser time behind bars.

Now, jump ahead to 1992 and Abatangelo's release from prison. He heads to San Francisco, where he already has a job set up: working in a small-time photography studio, snapping shots of families and drooling babies. "It ain't art," a friend reminds him, "but it beats washing dishes and kicking back to some asshole for the privilege." Besides, it looks like a leg up on a new life.

Ah, but the trouble is that Abatangelo won't give up completely on his old life. He wants nothing more than to reunite with Ms. Beaudry, who after a three-year silence, suddenly sent him a letter just prior to his being sprung from the slammer. The note explained that she has hooked up with another man, but "she didn't sound like she was any too thrilled about the guy," Corbett writes. "And she'd thought enough to keep track of Abatangelo's release date ... That meant something. It meant she wanted him to find her. Find her, or die trying." Locating Shel turns out to be the easy part; she's living north of San Francisco, playing Good Samaritan to a drug-befuddled basket case named Frank Maas, who has never quite recovered from the brutal slaying of his young son and ex-wife. Getting her back ... now, that's another matter altogether, complicated beyond belief by Maas' insane plan to steal money from the ruthless crooks he works for -- a scheme that leads to double murder and, eventually, to Shel being taken hostage in a vicious conflict between opposing drug gangs.

Corbett, who put in more than a decade as a San Francisco private eye, boasts a surprisingly polished prose style for a first-time novelist. He also knows how to lard his scenes with grit and tension. There's plenty of firepower in these pages, too, but not so much testosterone that it poisons the pleasures of a story well executed. Abatangelo and Shel both come off as credible figures, damaged but hopeful. Only reporter Bert Waxman, charged with helping Abatangelo to connect the dots that will bring down the gangsters who are threatening Shel, seems more stereotype than substance. Along with Jonathon King (The Blue Edge of Midnight), David Corbett may be the most promising American thriller writer to debut this year.

* * *

When originally introduced (in 1995's Alone With the Dead), Joe Keough was a New York City homicide detective, banished to Brooklyn. But by the series' next installment, In the Shadow of the Arch (1997), Keough -- like his creator, Robert J. Randisi -- had relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. Now, two books later, Keough is thinking about moving once more, this time to Washington, D.C.

"Since arriving in St. Louis just over two years ago," Randisi explains in East of the Arch (St. Martin's Minotaur), "Keough had been involved in two very high profile cases and had closed them both out. He was a media darling, and a valuable asset to the mayor's office. His own life, however, seemed to have been put on hold." He lost his partner, Al Steinbach, to a heart attack and his girlfriend, Valerie Speck, because "he didn't want to share his feelings" -- especially his reaction to having contracted diabetes. Even six months later, tough-guy Keough "had not yet come to terms" with his metabolic disorder: "Oh, he thought he had. He took his pills, and drank diet soda, and thought he was unhappy about it, but in reality he wasn't dealing with it at all. He had stopped checking his sugar levels each day, and he constantly broke his 'diet' with donuts and beer and other forbidden items. He thought he was dealing with it, but what he was feeling was unmitigated anger, and an immeasurable resentment that this had happened to him before he was even forty." Further souring Keough's disposition is the realization that what he had thought would be plum duty, working out of the St. Louis mayor's office, has turned him from a crime solver into a glorified security specialist.

So when two women turn up dead -- murdered during the forcible removal of their unborn children -- on the opposite side of the Mississippi River, in the bad-rep town of East St. Louis, Illinois, Keough looks on his assignment to the case as an energizing test of his expertise with serial slayings. Unfortunately, he seems more adept at spawning resentment among his East St. Louis superiors than at solving these gruesome guttings. And he's having to contend with myriad other distractions, including an offer to join a special FBI unit in the U.S. capital and rumors of abuse within the prospective foster family of a boy he helped more than a year before (see In the Shadow of the Arch). What's more, his serial-killer case is going nowhere fast, despite the help of an eager young black detective named Marc Jeter, who finds every life lesson in Mark Twain's plenteous proverbs. One of the victims wasn't even thought to be missing before she turned up as a corpse, and questioning friends of the dead women proves to be more time-consuming than enlightening. It's not until the murderer begins acting rashly and arrogantly -- at one point, impersonating the husband of a victim, in order to identify her body -- that the investigation starts to go Keough's way. Even then, though, he's racing against time. His quarry, a lonely, sociopathic misogynist, has already found another pregnant women from whom he intends to harvest his next "friend."

Author Randisi boasts an envy-generating résumé. Not only did he found the Private Eye Writers of America, but he's penned some 350 books, including a pair of P.I. series, featuring ex-boxer Miles "Kid" Jacoby (introduced in Eye in the Ring, 1982) and Brooklyn gumshoe Nick Delvecchio (whose first case was recorded in No Exit from Brooklyn, 1987). His Keough novels, now four in number, are informed by Randisi's history as an administrative assistant with the New York Police Department. Regrettably, though, his familiarity with law-enforcement procedures isn't enough to save East of the Arch from mediocrity. While the book's plot has its gripping moments, it's awfully predictable, and most of the characters here -- from the edge-treading Keough to self-absorbed politicians -- lack novelty. The serial butcher is one of the least imaginative of all the players, a guy who grew up unloved by his father, scares even his longtime psychiatrist with his hatred of women and, incredibly, "had no idea that there were actually women who had their babies through C-section and lived." Only Jeter, who's still finding his place as a cop, surprises in these pages. It's only too bad that his turning point comes late, in an epilogue that tries to sum everything up too rapidly and in the process wastes the tension Randisi had been progressively building over 350 pages.

* * *

Finally, let me tout a handsome new volume of cultural history, The Classic Era of Crime Fiction (Chicago Review Press). Written by Peter Haining, it traces the evolution of the modern mystery story from the 19th century through the 1950s, covering Sherlock Holmes and Britain's "yellow-back" thrillers, as well as America's Black Mask period and the rise of more literary yarns.

Like last year's excellent The History of Mystery, by Max Allan Collins, Haining's book shows both an appreciation for and an infectious curiosity about this genre's colorful development. Even people who consider themselves well read in crime fiction are likely to discover authors they've never heard of -- such as Peter Cheyney, whose hard-boiled novels featuring British private eye Lemmy Caution (including This Man Is Dangerous, 1936) were precursors to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer books. And who remembers the exploits of professor-sleuth Craig Kennedy, "the American Sherlock Holmes," who appeared in more than two dozen novels (such as The Exploits of Elaine, 1915) written by Arthur B. Reeve? In addition to excavating the roots of detective fiction, Haining devotes an intriguing -- what else? -- chapter to the maturation of the spy story, from James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821), starring Revolutionary War agent Harvey Birch, all the way through John Buchan's renowned The Thirty-Nine Steps (1913), Herman McNeile's Bulldog Drummond series (including The Female of the Species, 1928), Eric Ambler's espionage classics (such as The Mask of Dimitrios, 1939) and, of course, the best-selling titles by Ian Fleming and John le Carré.

As good as its text is, though, The Classic Era of Crime Fiction probably wouldn't attract nearly so much attention were it not for its abundant original magazine and book jacket illustrations, from the startling (the cover of George Manville's 1899 A Crimson Crime shows a frilly-hatted woman shooting a man in the head) to the suggestive (Bevis Winter's Redheads Are Poison, 1948, is fronted by a long-legged beauty in a dress so sheer that one's imagination hasn't far to leap). Far be it from me to encourage Christmas present buying in October, but you just might want to remember this book for those giftees on your list who take their criminal pursuits -- of the fictional sort, that is -- seriously.


Other Voices

The Dark Side (Oaktree Publishing), David J. Sherman's debut novel, is a noir mystery in the best Raymond Chandler vein. All the essential ingredients are present: a hard-headed, independent-minded dick, troublesome but beautiful women, cops who are either threateningly underfoot or grudgingly useful, and plenty of casual death and violence. Lit by the harsh sunlight of Los Angeles and fed on a steady diet of cigarettes, coffee and booze, the characters inhabiting The Dark Side hardly seem to notice that the tough-guy routine went out of vogue some 50 years ago. But then, maybe that's because the mean streets of L.A. never really went away.

Sherman puts a spin on the classic noir formula: He gives his protagonist, ex-cop-turned-private eye Jack Murphy, a sidekick who can help him win access to L.A.'s Latino ganglands. This comrade-in-armaments (Murphy's equivalent of Spenser's Hawk or Elvis Cole's Pike) is Arturo, a former gang member who once saved Murphy's life and now happily refers to the P.I. as "Holmes." Murphy's got a few other reliable supporters, as well, including his lovely secretary, Nadia, and his cop pal, Tyrone, but Arturo is his main man and best resource. Who else would he turn to when, on short notice, he needs a forger, a professional assassin or a small army of illegals to storm a Hollywood estate?

And when you're up against several wealthy, powerful men who happen to be running a child-prostitution ring, as is the case for Murphy in The Dark Side, you need all the help you can get. Both Murphy and Arturo carry burdens of guilt regarding children, so they're natural crusaders in the thankless cause of truth, justice and busting pornographers. They aren't quite prepared, however, for the string of homicides, beatings, shootings and other escapades that this job requires, and emotions run high. So it is something of a miracle that Sherman winds up his novel with yet another twist on the noir tradition: a happy ending. Sure, it was a hell of a ride getting there, but once it's over, the author doesn't give his characters a chance to look back in regret.

It would be nice for the reader, though, if Sherman had glanced back at his plot and filled in its numerous holes. A staged death is never explained, nor is the prostitution ring's recruitment process. Kidnapped girls are flown away in private jets -- but to where? What happens to them? The bad guys are caught, the good guys wind up the case, and that's it. End of story.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Sherman intends to make Murphy the star of a series, so maybe he'll pick up those threads in the next installment. And Sherman has got a good thing going with his solid characters, terse banter and page-turner storytelling. Murphy makes a winningly human detective, a man given to open uncertainty about his career and his unabashed employment of professional tricks cribbed from movies and books. Arturo is the ideal sidekick, challenging Murphy when he needs it and showing up to provide support at just the right time. And everybody seems right at home in the L.A. glare. It'll be interesting to see where Sherman takes them next. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins, Berkeley, California.

* * *

The one mystery that Florida true-crime writer Marie Lightfoot has never written about is also the one closest to her: the disappearance of her parents in 1963. However, when her life is suddenly exposed in the tabloids, in Nancy Pickard's The Truth Hurts (Pocket), Marie finally sets out to determine why Michael and Lydia Folletino abandoned her as an infant at an Alabama hotel, and were never seen again. The Folletinos, both civil rights activists, had run an "underground railroad" for blacks fleeing the American South, until an FBI raid on their safe house led the couple to be branded as traitors, racists and government informants. This episode from her past is what ultimately led Marie to dedicate herself to solving other people's mysteries.

Adding urgency to Marie's diggings into history is a crazed fan, "Paulie Barnes," who seems to know far too much about the writer's personal past. He is also eerily intent on bringing to life the plot of John D. MacDonald's The Executioners, a chilling stalker novel that was made into the movie Cape Fear. Barnes begins sending threatening e-mail notes to Marie, demanding that she co-author the story of how he is going to murder her. If she fails to follow his wishes, Barnes promises that those people nearest and dearest to her will suffer.

Although Marie follows Barnes' commands that she separate herself from her friends and relatives, while not contacting the police, she doesn't fall into stereotypical woman-in-jeopardy helplessness. Instead, she hires a bodyguard: Steve Orbach, introduced in Pickard's Ring of Truth (2001) -- a man who spent most of his life in prison for killing his abusive parent, and who is now devoutly loyal to Marie, because she proved him innocent of a later, unrelated murder. The writer also reveals Barnes' e-mailed threats to her lover, African-American prosecutor Franklin DeWeese; however, the lawyer's overprotective response may threaten not only his life and that of Marie, but the futures of their families, as well.

While police search for the evasive Barnes, he sends Marie to Sebastion, Alabama, her birthplace and the site of her parents' betrayal. Anger toward the Folletinos still lingers in that town, especially among members of the safe house "Hostel." Anger is no less present in Marie, who resents Barnes ordering her about; yet this trip may finally give her with the answers she's sought to her parents' fate.

As in Pickard's two previous Marie Lightfoot mysteries, chapters of The Truth Hurts alternate between Marie's first-person narrative and the third-person text of her latest book -- in this case, the story of her parents' long-ago experiences with the Alabama safe house. At first this construction interrupts the flow of action, but the writing soon smoothes out, and the alternating chapters serve to heighten suspense, essentially giving readers two mysteries to follow. Marie Lightfoot fans will be pleased to see that Pickard has brought back several of the characters from her earlier novels to aid Marie in her quest, including several police officers and a private detective. Unfortunately, these characters appear too fleetingly; Pickard neither allows them to take full part in the action nor expands on their backgrounds. The other flaw in this mystery worth mentioning has to do with Marie's witty and somewhat smart-alecky comments, which occasionally seem out of place and forced. But on the whole, The Truth Hurts should please Pickard fans with its unstoppable plot and vivid sense of place. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow, Kaneohe, Hawaii

* * *

Stewart Masters Publishing, out of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, ought to get some kind of humanitarian award for its ambitious attempt to bring all of the mystery novels and short stories penned by pulpster Fredric Brown back into the public eye. The company's first volley -- Hunter and Hunted, a handsome omnibus edition comprising the first four Ed and Am Hunter detective novels -- is a doozy. For those of you who miss character-driven mysteries and oddball plots, you could do a whole lot worse than these tales.

Idealistic young Ed Hunter and his short, chubby but worldly Uncle Am (short for Ambrose, but don't call him that!) made their debut in the Edgar-winning The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), wherein Am resigns from his carnival career and heads to Chicago to track down the killer of his brother, Ed's father. In Dead Ringer (1948), Ed joins his uncle in the traveling carnival, and they become involved in investigating a midget's murder. The Bloody Moonlight (1949) finds Ed and Am working as operatives for the Starlock Detective Agency, investigating a newfangled radio, and in Compliments of a Fiend (1950), they look into the peculiar and troubling disappearance of several men named Ambrose. It's exactly the quirky sort of plot at which Brown excelled, because, simply put, he was one hell of a writer.

Read separately, these stories are just (JUST!) above-average detective tales. But taken together they form a charming and perceptive (and always entertaining) coming-of-age journey, following a young man from idealism to adulthood. And while these books might be considered hard-boiled, there's an underlying tenderness and sympathy for the human condition that belies their bleak trappings.

In stories populated by killers, molls, alcoholics, thugs, gangsters, grifters, femme fatales and more than a few folks with a fleeting grasp of reality, Brown never lets his characters descend into cheap stereotypes or one-dimensional stick figures. Whatever else these players may do, they never forsake their humanity. Add to these stories Brown's surreal sense of humor, a love of paradox and a surprisingly earthy (but never cheap) sexiness, and you've got a recipe for some damn good reading. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith, a January Magazine contributor and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

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I usually shudder at the label "historical mystery," which all too often portends pages of stilted dialogue and romanticized characters. Lindsey Davis' A Body in the Bathhouse (Mysterious Press) is refreshingly free of these stereotypes. This latest book in Davis' series about Roman private eye Marcus Didius Falco starts with a bratty 4-year-old pointing out an embarrassing stink in the new family bathhouse -- it's a corpse, of course -- and ends up with the detective and his entire family investigating down-and-dirty business scams and multiple murders plaguing the construction of a Roman palace in the hinterlands of the empire, Britannia.

A private investigator under contract to Emperor Vespasian, Falco suffers from a messily entertaining personal life. His aging father is being scammed by sleazy bathhouse contractors, who have parked a dead body beneath their lousy tilework and fled the city. Falco's sister Maia is being stalked by her ex-boyfriend, Anacrites, the government's chief spy. Although initially reluctant to accept an assignment to investigate the public works project in Britannia, Falco agrees to go north when the trip offers an opportunity to get Maia out of danger and to pursue the two contractors. Of course, his strong-minded spouse, Helena, their two young children and the family's exasperatingly incompetent nanny accompany him, along with his two young brothers-in-law, who are dabbling in investigative work. Davis strikes a lively balance between the serious and the humorous, and writes with admirable brio.

Did characters resembling Falco and his dynamic wife, Helena, really exist in Roman times? Did egomaniacal designers, greedy contractors and grim engineers clash then as they do today, leaving a heap of dead bodies behind them? A Body in the Bathhouse makes it all seem perfectly plausible -- and fun. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson, a January contributing editor

You, too, can have your say in "Other Voices." To submit mini-reviews of recent releases (preferably no more than 400 words apiece), click here. Reviews may be edited for length, clarity and grammar.


In the News

Joyce Christmas, Peter May, Janet Laurence and Lev Raphael all write in the latest Mystery Readers Journal about the role that food plays in their fiction. Plus, editor Janet A Randolph offers a tasty tally of mystery-related cookbooks, including everything from Sneaky Pie's Cookbook for Mystery Lovers, by Sneaky Pie Brown and Rita Mae Brown, to Cooking with the Bad Guys: Recipes from the World's Most Notorious Kitchens, by Don Abel. Read more.

Among the nominees for this year's Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Awards are two crime novels: Walter Mosley's Fearless Jones (in the Fiction category) and Nichelle D. Tramble's The Dying Ground (in the Debut Fiction category). A winner and two finalists in each category will be announced on Saturday, October 5, in Washington, D.C. Read more.

In an entertaining and insightful interview on the Tangled Web site, Michael Malone, whose First Lady was one of my favorite books of 2001, talks about the under-appreciated strengths of today's mystery fiction, his experiences as a soap-opera scriptwriter and his debts to Charles Dickens. Read more.

Karin Slaughter, whose second novel, Kisscut, hit bookstores last month, is interviewed on her own Web site by fellow author Laura Lippman. They discuss everything from the titling of Slaughter's books and the first-person "voice" in women's crime fiction, to the use of pop culture in mysteries and the next two installments of the Sara Linton/Jeffrey Tolliver series. Read more.

In advance of the November release of I, Richard, a collection of her short fiction, Elizabeth George spoke with People magazine about her research techniques, her love life and her 12th Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers novel, A Place of Hiding. Read more.

Shots magazine profiles Irish novelist Glenn Meade, whose novel Resurrection Day -- about threats made on Washington, D.C., by an al-Qaeda terror group wielding a weapon of mass destruction -- was actually written before September 11, 2001. Read more.

Architecture professor-turned-author Barry Maitland, whose latest David Brock/Kathy Kolla novel, Babel, came out in the UK in September, talks with the Australian magazine Crime Factory about how architecture influences his writing, the often prickly interplay between his protagonists, and his use of London as a setting for his award-winning fiction. The typos in this interview are numerous, but it's worth reading past them for some of Maitland's comments. Read more.

Looking toward the next eight months of crime fiction releases, the "Bloodstained Bookshelf" (part of the ClueLass Web site) whets our appetites with news of a fourth John the Eunuch novel from Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (Four for a Boy, December), a standalone from "dinosaur detective" author Eric Garcia (Matchstick Men, December), a second entry in Robert Ferrigno's series about journalist Jimmy Cage (Scavenger Hunt, January 2003), the latest Nameless Detective novel from Bill Pronzini (Spook, January), the delayed eighth installment in Robert Crais' Elvis Cole series (The Last Detective, February) and another samurai sleuth novel from Laura Joh Rowland (The Dragon King's Palace, April). Read more.

And since this is, after all, the month for goblins and skeletons and myriad Britney Spears imitators, check out MyShelf.com's list of Halloween-related mysteries. Read more.


Last Rewards

Alan Furst has picked up the 2002 Hammett Award for his novel Kingdom of Shadows (Random House). The award is given out by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers, for a work of excellence by a U.S. or Canadian author.

Other nominees were Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane (Morrow); Silent Joe, by T. Jefferson Parker (Hyperion); Right as Rain, by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown); and Hollowpoint, by Rob Reuland (Random House).

Furst received his award on September 27, in Philadelphia, during the Mid-Atlantic Mystery 2002 conference.

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The Crime Writers' Association of Australia recently announced the winners of its 2002 Ned Kelly Awards:

Best Novel: Death Delights, by Gabrielle Lord (Hodder)

Also Short-listed: Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools, by Marshall Browne (Duffy & Snellgrove); Crime of Silence, by Patricia Carlon (Text Publishing); Yesterday's Shadow, by Jon Cleary (HarperCollins); Skin Deep, by Cathy Cole (Duffy & Snellgrove); Lugarno, by Peter Corris (Bantam); Death Club, by Claire McNab (Allen & Unwin); Death of the Author, by Andrew Masterson (HarperCollins); A Simple Death, by Carolyn Morwood (Women's Press); The Disciples, by Andy Shea (Simon & Schuster); and In the Evil Day, by Peter Temple (Bantam)

Best First Novel (tie): Apartment 255, by Bunty Avieson (Pan), and Who Killed Angelique? by Emma Darcy (Pan)

Also Short-listed: On Probation: Detective Ludowski's Casebook, by Margaret Bevege (Preszoom); The Artist Is a Thief, by Stephen Gray (Allen & Unwin); and Black Ice, by Sandy Curtis (Pan)

Best True Cime (tie): Razor, by Larry Writer (Pan), and The Hanged Man, by Mike Richards (Scribe)

Also Short-listed: The Poison Principle, by Gail Bell (Pan); The Murder of Nellie Duffy, by Stephanie Bennett (Simon & Schuster); Taken in Contempt, by Robin Bowles (Pan); Young Blood, by Bob O'Brien (HarperCollins); Touched by the Devil, by John Clarke and Andy Shea (Simon & Schuster); 10 Months in Laos, by Paul Conroy (Crown Content); Death at Bondi, by Darren Goodsir (Pan); On Murder 2, edited by Kerry Greenwood (Black Inc.); More Cops, Crooks and Catastrophes, by Shirley Hardy-Rix (Hybrid); The True Story of Jimmy Governor, by Laurie Moore and Stephan Williams (Allen & Unwin); Underbelly 5, by John Silvester and Andrew Rule (SLY Ink); Writing on Gravestones, by Gary Tippett and Ian Munro (HarperCollins); and Moran v. Moran, by Murray Waldren (HarperCollins)

Best Teenage/Young Adult: Blue Murder, by Ken Catran (Lothian)

Readers' Favorite: Apartment 255, by Bunty Avieson (Pan)

Lifetime Achievement Award: Patrick Gallagher, managing director of Allen & Unwin

For more information about the Ned Kelly Awards, go to the Crime Writers Association of Australia Web site.

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The British Crime Writers' Association has released the short list of nominees for its 2002 Macallan Gold Dagger Award for Fiction:

Acid Row, Minette Walters

City of Bones, Michael Connelly

Jolie Blon's Bounce, James Lee Burke

The Final Country, James Crumley

Scaredy Cat, Mark Billingham

The Athenian Murders, Jose Carlos Somoza

A winner will be announced in London on November 7.

 

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

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