Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Still recovering from the death of his old rodent-faced crony, Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, who presumably perished from gunshot wounds at the end of A Little Yellow Dog (1996), school custodian and occasional sleuth Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins agrees to help Alva Torres, the lover of his longtime pal John McKenzie. It seems that Alva's headstrong son, Brawly Brown, has gone missing and may be headed for trouble by running with black revolutionaries. Easy agrees to look for the young man and "somehow ... get him back home." But before the end of his first day on the job, Rawlins stumbles across Alva's murdered ex-husband. He's soon ducking cops, endeavoring to connect a black activist's demise to a mysterious weapons cache, and exposing years of family betrayal that have made Brawly an ideal pawn in some disastrous plans. Mosley's portrayal of Los Angeles in 1964, a place riven by racial animosity, is rewardingly complex, with champs and chumps on both sides. This is a fine sixth installment to a series that explores a side of L.A. that was mostly foreign to Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and other white Southern California novelists of the mid 20th century.
The Bawdy Basket
Beyond the usual threats to the survival of Westfield's Men, certainly Elizabethan London's most calamity- and crime-prone theater troupe, this latest adventure threatens the company with the loss of both its creative genius and its financial backing. And there seems little that stage manager Nicholas Bracewell can do about it. Tensions bedevil the actors from page one. The public hanging of Gerald Quilter, father to one of the company's new performers, Frank Quilter, provokes the younger man to clear his father's name. Yet the majority of Westfield's players have already determined that Frank should be let go, lest his progenitor's conviction -- for the murder of his embezzling former business partner -- taint their company's reputation. It falls to the resourceful Bracewell to back up Quilter fils, even at the cost of his own job. And perhaps his life, as the stage manager untangles the plot behind Gerald Quilter's framing -- a conspiracy that will lead to the killing of a young woman peddler and focus the malevolent attentions of a corrupt moneylender on the pleasure-seeking benefactor of Westfield's Men. The pseudonymous Marston's 12th Bracewell adventure is flush with dramatic urgency, ribald humor, swashbuckling action and richly detailed scene-settings.
Marston, this time writing under his real name -- Keith Miles -- earns an additional spot on this list with the long-delayed fifth entry in his series about golf pro and sometimes-detective Alan Saxon. With his professional tour winnings in decline, Saxon has taken up golf course design, instead, his first project being a hotel course on the island of Bermuda. It sounds like a pleasurable assignment, especially since Saxon intends to take along his Oxford student daughter, Lynette. But things go wrong right off the tee. Saxon's ex-wife insists that Lynette be accompanied to Bermuda by her rich, arrogant and sexually charged friend, Jessica Hadlow. More troubles arise when Saxon's worry-prone design partner, Peter Fullard, tells him that their course has been targeted by saboteurs. Saxon doesn't take Fullard's concerns seriously at first. However, when the contemptuous cab driver who squired them to their lodgings turns up hanging dead from a tree, and then Lynette and Jessica are kidnapped from their room, he recognizes -- and must overcome -- the dangers posed both to his family and his project. Although Bermuda Grass is a rather classically conceived tale, it shines because of Alan Saxon, a smart and spirited leading man, who manages to make just enough errors to be credible, but not enough to cause disaster. Appreciating this book's charms requires no knowledge of golf whatsoever.
Frank Corso, the reclusive reporter introduced in Fury (2001), returns to cover the high-profile prosecution in Seattle of a former Russian gangster, Nicholas Balagula, who's been linked to the faulty concrete used in constructing a California hospital that collapsed, killing 63 people. What may bring this Russian down is a witness whom the arrogant chief prosecuting attorney in the case says he's "turned" to the state's advantage. Ford's plot starts to gain complication, though, when Meg Dougherty, the tattooed photojournalist with whom Corso once enjoyed an affair, stumbles on Cuban hit men in the middle of an assignment, and is seriously injured during an ensuing car chase. Wanting to help and knowing that Dougherty had been covering the discovery of a pickup truck and its gunshot driver, buried together in a bridge footing, Corso tries to build on her research. He learns that the late truck driver is Donald Barth, a maintenance man whose habitual miserliness doesn't even begin to explain how he could afford to pay for his estranged son's medical school education. And can it be merely coincidental that a usually reliable foreman who'd been directing work on the bridge where Barth's corpse was found has suddenly gone missing? As the Balagula prosecution continues, Corso pursues the Barth murder, all the while trying to keep Dougherty safe from the two Cuban shooters who want to silence her forever. This is a story pared down to its most volatile essentials, with a consistently engaging protagonist.
After a series of high-profile investigations that took him out of his native Chicago, randy but resolute private eye Nathan Heller finally returns to the Windy City, just as America's first congressional inquiry into organized crime, led by presidential-hopeful U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver, sweeps into town in 1950, borne on a wave of press and political hype. Heller isn't anxious to participate in this subpoena-waving "circus." But a mob hit on Bill Drury, his friend and recently fired employee, followed by the abduction of Jackie Payne, a shapely former gangster's girlfriend who Heller was trying to save from heroine addiction, convince Nate that if there's any justice -- and maybe revenge -- to be had from this situation, it's up to him to find it. Even if that means throwing his lot in with Kefauver and chasing crooks down Mexico way. If this 12th novel-length Heller investigation isn't so grimly entrancing as Collins' last Heller outing, Angel in Black -- which had our boy "solving" L.A.'s notorious 1947 Black Dahlia murder -- it still showcases the skills of a crime fictionist at the very top of his game.
The Classic Era of Crime Fiction
Haining shows both an appreciation for and an infectious curiosity about crime fiction's colorful heritage. Even people who consider themselves well read in this genre are likely to discover authors here 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 chapter to the maturation of the spy story, from James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821), all the way through John Buchan's renowned The Thirty-Nine Steps (1913), 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).
With the world now girding for a U.S.-incited attack on Iraq that threatens to escalate into a broader and bloody conflict, the Cold War -- with its Berlin Wall and domino theories and détente diplomacy -- seems positively old-fashioned, almost worthy of nostalgia. Yet longtime espionage fictionist Robert Littell, whose outstanding 1973 novel, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, served as one of the models for literary Cold War spy fiction, restores that era's air of intrigue at least for the length of this magnum opus. His plot covers four decades in the life and legend of America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), from the Russian invasion of Hungary, through the Bay of Pigs face-off in Cuba, to the fall of the Soviet Union. It's a multigenerational saga with a generous cast of characters, including double agents and rule-breaking bureau chiefs and a definable hero, Jack McAuliffe, who provides a continuing presence in this sprawling, often devious adventure. Also figuring into Littell's drama are real-life figures, among them John and Robert Kennedy, the odious G. Gordon Liddy and William Casey, a bumbling Ronald Reagan and a boisterous Boris Yeltsin. Oh, and there's a "mole" in the intelligence network, too, just waiting to be exposed -- if not by the CIA, then perhaps by the KGB or the Israeli Mossad. What comes through more clearly than anything in these pages are the pragmatic concessions and egregious mistakes that are made on the stage on international affairs. While Littell's tale is a hefty bit of history to swallow, its fictional twists and insider understanding of spycraft help it to go down easy.
A Deeper Shade of Blue
Detouring from his near-future series about Edinburgh private eye Quintilian Dalrymple (Body Politic, The House of Dust, etc.), Johnston takes us to modern Athens, where half-Greek, half-Scottish P.I. Alexandhros "Alex" Mavros is hired to locate Rosa Ozal, a captivating Turkish American who is late in returning from her solo travels through the eastern Mediterranean. The last communication her family received from her was a postcard, mailed on the Greek holiday island of Trigono. Undertaking the guise of a Scottish traveler, Mavros flies to Trigono, only to find the island in mourning over the recent deaths of two teenage lovers, who were found naked and drowned in a fishing net. As Mavros pokes around, he discovers several suggestive oddities (including a World War II memorial, from which one name has been roughly removed) as well as a package, stuffed up the chimney of Rosa's old guest quarters, containing a computer disk and three cryptic photographs. 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? This novel's intricately constructed plot, and its parsing of the hoary hatreds and long-ago tragedies that have shaped the Trigono community, show Johnston's strengths as a writer and bode well for the future of this new series.
The Devil's Redhead
While Corbett, a private eye-turned-novelist, 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. Ten years after being imprisoned for smuggling premium-grade Thai pot into the United States, Daniel Abatangelo is released and heads for San Francisco, not only to work in a small-time photography studio, but also to find Lachelle "Shel" Beaudry, his former lover and partner in crime, who after a three-year silence had suddenly sent him a letter just prior to his being sprung. Tracking Shel down, though, 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 is another matter altogether, complicated by Maas' insane plan to steal money from the ruthless crooks he works for -- a scheme that leads to double homicide and, eventually, to Shel being taken hostage in a battle between opposing drug gangs. Corbett lards his scenes with grit and tension, and while there's plenty of cinematic firepower here, it doesn't distract from the pleasures of a story well told.
Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond had long considered his "honest, blissful marriage" to his wife, Stephanie, to be "one of the few certainties in his case-hardened life." But when Stephanie is murdered in broad daylight, "shot twice in the head at close range" while visiting a local park, this head of the Bath, England, murder squad suddenly finds himself doubting the integrity and openness of their relationship. Not surprisingly, Diamond is told to stay away from the investigation into his spouse's death; his superiors worry that he'll turn the case into a "personal vendetta." But this stout and curmudgeonly sleuth has no intention of being sidelined. So even as Diamond becomes the prime suspect in this tragedy (the murder weapon was an old revolver that he'd kept secreted in his attic), he pursues more likely perpetrators. Chief among these are members of a Bristol-based gangster cabal and Steph's ex-husband, a ne'er-do-well hotel chef who may have arranged to meet her on the day of her demise. Lovesey, though, gives nothing away fast. Or unintentionally. He's a master of the artful diversion, the seemingly throw-away plot turn that eventually shows itself to be a key to solving his puzzle. Could Stephanie's execution have anything to do with an elaborate jewel-theft scheme that's brewing in the background of this yarn? And is there some connection between Diamond's loss and the recent disappearance of another cop's wife? Diamond Dust is a jewel of many intricate facets.
The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes
Although Millett's previous four Holmes adventures, beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (1996), all sent the Great Detective and his chronicler, Dr. John Watson, to Minnesota, this latest series installment has them logging even more travel time, as they pursue a band of American conspirators determined to frame them for kidnapping and homicide. The narrative commences in the summer of 1900, two years after Holmes (in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men") captured Abe Slaney, a Chicago gangster who murdered the husband of Elsie Cubitt, his childhood love. A note, inscribed with the distinctive "dancing men" code, arrives at 221B Baker Street, telling Holmes that "You are not finished with me, nor I with Elsie." Sure enough, the Widow Cubitt is missing, and there's every indication that she was snatched. Goaded on by a singular French spiritualist and ransom demands, Holmes and Watson engage in a lively chase that will lead them from the bedside of a slain Liverpool strumpet to a foggy standoff at a Manhattan church, a death-defying train ride across Pennsylvania and a climactic shootout at a Chicago fraternal hall. While purists may find this novel's action sequences out of character for a Holmes pastiche, and Millett's regular readers could be disappointed by the bit part assigned to Minneapolis saloonkeeper Shadwell Rafferty (despite his being promoted on this book's cover), the author's easy humor and attention to historical detail continue to bring new life to Conan Doyle's literary legacy.
If Eureka can't claim either the dark emotional depths of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential or the shocking secrets of the classic film Chinatown, it still captivates with its distinctive synthesis of the noirish thriller and the multi-generational saga. The first quarter of this book transports readers back to 1900 and introduces Thomas "Brodie" Culhane, an Irish orphan whose adoption into the household of a wealthy Jewish developer saves him from the corrupting influences of nearby Eureka, a vice-ridden burg north of Los Angeles. As the years pass, Culhane goes off to become a World War I hero but eventually returns to Eureka, where he takes up the business of crime busting. Now jump ahead to 1941 and the bathtub electrocution of Verna Wilensky, a mysterious widow in L.A. An investigation by young homicide cop Zeke Bannon leads him to Eureka -- now called San Pietro -- from which Wilensky had been receiving anonymous cashier's checks for the last two decades, money Bannon surmises she had earned by her silence. But what was she keeping quiet? As Bannon soon discovers, nobody in San Pietro has anything to say about Wilensky, least of all Brodie Culhane, who's now running for the California governor's seat. Torn between admiring Culhane and working to tie him into Wilensky's death, Bannon ignites old rivalries and hatreds that threaten to engulf San Pietro in fresh violence. Eureka is a slick and hard-driving work, full of meticulous character studies.
Monroe's second period crime novel (after '57, Chicago, 2001) gets off with a bang. Once-bent Chicago cop Gus Carson shoots a black man who's just killed a white lawyer in a whorehouse, and he's suspended from the police force. To fill his time he accepts an assignment from Arvis Hypoole, the wealthy scion of a local Republican kingmaker, who wants Carson to find kidnapped black racketeer Ed Jones. Hypoole says he needs Jones, a big wheel in the local numbers racket, to provide a grand jury with the information necessary to choke off his own gambling operations. But Carson is skeptical of Hypoole's civic-mindedness, and his doubts grow as he sees links between that early gunplay in the brothel, Jones' mysterious abduction and Hypoole's wish to become the next mayor of Chicago. Why does Hypoole really want Jones rescued? And how in the world does it relate to a black maid Carson has been told to keep under surveillance? As the questions increase in number, and Carson's inquiries attract the rancorous attentions of both black and Italian hoodlums, the cop starts to wonder if anybody is telling him the truth anymore. Monroe writes in a spare but vigorous prose, and the patient way in which he reveals Carson's normally concealed conscience is both commendable and convincing.
The Godless Man
The year is 334 BC. Alexander the Great and his army have just wrested control of Ephesus, an ancient Greek city on the west coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), from Persian King Darius III. However, the young Macedonian king's authority in that nervous town is soon undermined by murder. Prosperous Ephesian politicians whom the conqueror had sworn to protect are burned to death under mysterious circumstances in a local temple. Then, one of Alexander's old tutors is found floating in a pool at the eerie House of Medusa. The gruesome slayings of a prominent young courtesan and a secrets-keeping scribe follow, feeding rumors that a high-ranking Persian assassin called "the Centaur" is at work, trying to throw Ephesus into turmoil enough to distract Alexander and his soldiers from moving on to subdue the deep-water port city of Miletus. It falls to Telamon, a physician and childhood friend of Alexander, to expose the Centaur as more man (or men) than myth, sort out political executions from others precipitated by greed, and not insignificantly, guard Alexander from revenge killers among the Ephesian citizenry. The Godless Man is a smartly written, classically constructed mystery, enlivened by Alexander's entertaining egomania and myriad red herrings that succeed in masking the Centaur's true identity until the last.
Gone for Good
Like Coben's first standalone thriller, Tell No One (one of January's favorite books of 2001), Gone for Good comprises a tangle of deceptions and personal pains, guaranteed to fool all of the people all of the time. Three days before her death, Will Klein's mother tells him that his beloved yet allegedly murderous elder brother, Ken -- who'd disappeared 11 years earlier from their family's suburban New Jersey neighborhood after Will's ex-girlfriend, Julie Miller, was raped and strangled -- is still alive. And that's only the first shock for Will. A big, good-hearted naïf, he works for a Manhattan foundation "that helps young runaways survive the streets" and is looking forward to marrying his "soul mate," Sheila Rogers, herself a former runaway. But shortly after Will buries his mother, Sheila vanishes into the same thin air that had consumed his brother. Worse, her fingerprints turn up at a homicide scene in New Mexico, and now the FBI is breathing down Will's neck for answers that he has in much shorter supply than questions. Can the disappearances of Ken Klein and Sheila Rogers be connected? And do they have anything to do with the recent reappearance in Will's world of a freakish-looking contract killer known as the Ghost? With the help of some unlikely characters, including a severely abused ex-hooker, a reformed white supremacist-turned-yoga guru and the late Julie Miller's kid sister, Will pieces together a puzzle involving double identities and misplaced trust. Along the way, he discovers that he's far more courageous than he'd ever supposed.
The Isaac Quartet
The first four of Charyn's acclaimed novels about New York City police inspector Isaac Sidel, all packed into this doorstopper of an omnibus, establish Sidel's domain -- a mythologized Manhattan chock-a-block with corrupt cops, cynical pols and captivating losers. At the center of this byzantine realm sits Sidel, or "Isaac the Pure," a tough and incorruptible figure, but also neurotic and given to slobbish behavior. What ties the stories in this volume together is Manfred "Blue Eyes" Coen, a street cop and Ping-Pong fan who is Sidel's protégé, until the latter nudges Coen toward eternity, in Blue Eyes (originally published in 1975). Marilyn the Wild is a prequel, in which Sidel's errant daughter, Marilyn, falls in love with Coen and incites her father's jealousy. The Education of Patrick Silver has a family of Peruvian pimps infecting Sidel with a tapeworm, which unravels his psyche and leaves him dreaming that Coen is still alive. And in Secret Isaac, Sidel -- now the police commissioner of New York -- encounters a beautiful hooker with a scarlet "D" branded on her cheek and sets off for Ireland to find the man who disfigured her, along the way internalizing the worm and the ghost of Coen that has come to haunt him so. Lawrence Block once said that Charyn possesses "the richest imagination in contemporary letters." Certainly the four novels collected here demonstrate his ability to conjure fantasy from the feeble stuff of reality.
Five years after blowing up the Los Angeles International Airport by mistake (in Shooting Elvis, 1996), Mary Alice Baker -- aka Nina Zero -- is released from prison to start a new life. Trouble is, pretty much anything that can go wrong for Nina does. For $2,000, she agrees to marry an English photographer who needs a green card to stay in the United States, but said hubby is subsequently murdered. She tries to establish her own career as a tabloid shooter, gaining notoriety with images of heavy-metal band members electrocuted in their hotel hot tub, only to realize that someone is seeking to off all the paparazzi in town -- and she may be the next target. Justly aggravated by all of this, and finding no satisfaction from the police, Nina decides to track the killer herself, beginning an adventure that will have her guesting on a docu-soap called Meat Wagon and stepping into a long-running family feud. The case gives Eversz, a former L.A. writer now living in Prague, innumerable chances to satirize pop culture, California's penal system and the SoCal glitterati. But it's all in the service of an alternately hard-boiled and witty escapade that nicely showcases Nina Zero, a sexy and tightly wound wonder who deserves to be seen more of in the near future.
The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction
This eminently browsable reference work concentrates on fiction -- books primarily, but also movies and TV series -- produced since World War II. Featured are not only familiar American writers, such as Ross Thomas, Sara Paretsky and Robert Crais, but a wide variety of British novelists -- from Robert Wilson to Denise Mina to Reginald Hill -- and an intriguing assortment of international stars, including Peter Temple (Australia), Batya Gur (Israel), Howard Engel (Canada) and Janwillem van de Wetering (Netherlands). In addition to offering briefs on prominent writers, Ashley gives suggestions of other crime fictionists who do similar work. The Loren D. Estleman entry, for instance, directs readers to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy, while the bio of Japanese author Masako Togawa suggests that fans try tales by the UK's Minette Walters. On top of all this, the book finds room for lists of crime movies and TV shows (some of which, like CHiPs and T.J. Hooker, might best have been forgotten.) Appendices catalogue crime fiction award winners, related magazines and Web sites, and key characters and series. A must-have for any serious student of contemporary crime fiction.
The Master of Rain
This cleverly executed, splendidly atmospheric thriller, set in Shanghai in 1926, builds around Richard Field, a young English police officer escaping from his past and well out of his comfort zone in the Far East. Together with his hard-edged American partner, Caprisi, Field is assigned to solve the slaying of a White Russian woman, Lena Orlov, who's been found handcuffed to her bed and stabbed repeatedly. One key to understanding not only this first brutal murder, but the killings of other Russian immigrant women to follow, may be Orlov's neighbor, the self-preservation-minded Natasha Medvedev, with whom Field progressively falls in love, even knowing that she could be targeted for death, too. Although this novel's murder inquiry definitely has its appeal, it is Bradby's multifaceted evocation of Shanghai -- home to American gun-runners, Asian gangsters, opium dens and corruption of every conceivable stripe -- that makes The Master of Rain memorable. Bradby is a British TV news correspondent and the author of several other thrillers, including Shadow Dancer and the forthcoming The White Russian.
"Some [people] want their lives predictable. You go to work, come home, no surprises. ... I wasn't like that. I needed possibilities or I don't know what I would have done. It was in my blood. I needed creeps pawing teenagers and gangsters torching houses and mystery women cooing danger over the phone." So says Ike Van Savage, a former cop and current private eye in Rochester, New York, who has his plate heaped with unpredictability in this noirish period yarn from the author of Line of Sight (2000). It's 1959, and Ike -- never one to pass up a little divorce work -- is shadowing Eddie Gill, a 37-year-old father of four known to be moteling it with a 16-year-old girl. He's also working for Vicky Petrone, who fears that her husband, local mobster Joe Petrone, wants to make her the latest in his line of deceased wives. It doesn't take long for these two investigations to connect, however. Gill's young lover, Sandy Mink, turns up dead, and the cops figure Gill iced her because Sandy knew about some illegal business he was doing for Petrone. Ike struggles just to get a handle on the rapidly unraveling plot threads, even as he confronts multiplying corpses on his way to an explosive conclusion. This novel's out-of-the-ordinary setting and Kelly's obvious delight in borrowing the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction (right down to the cynical monologues and long-legged blondes) make Mobtown a throwback worth catching.
The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria
Samurai sleuth Sano Ichiro is called to the pleasure quarter of 17th-century Edo (Tokyo) to probe the alarming demise of Lord Mitsuyoshi -- the shogun's young heir-apparent -- who has been found sprawled on a bed, stabbed through the eye with a woman's hairpin. The tayu (or top-ranking prostitute) with whom he'd enjoyed his final hours, Lady Wisteria, has in the meantime vanished, along with her private journal, which might supply clues to her complicity in this crime. In the absence of both, and with the eccentric old shogun ordering that Sano not question Mitsuyoshi's family, the samurai is left to sift suspects from among Wisteria's attendants and eminent clients. That task will take time, of which Sano has little to spare: His enemies are vying for credit in solving Mitsuyoshi's murder (even if it means pinning the deed on Sano), a woman's headless body is found wrapped in Wisteria's distinctive kimono, and Sano's amateur investigator wife, Reiko, comes closer every day to discovering her husband's connection to the missing cocotte. Marital tension and trust issues between Sano and Reiko add human interest to Rowland's seventh historical whodunit.
The Sceptred Isle Club
Hoping to test his mental mettle, now-retired Georgia sheriff John Le Brun (introduced in The Jekyl Island Club, 2000) travels to London -- "the hub of the learned world" -- in 1905. Unfortunately, his hobnobbing among the British intelligentsia is interrupted by the murders of four men in the gambling room of the exclusive Sceptred Isle Club. Le Brun realizes at once that the circumstances are unusual: the room's inside door is bolted, and there's no sign of either a weapon or the money being wagered. He is immediately suspicious of the club members, including the one with whom he is staying. When, not long afterward, a small fortune is unearthed from the garden of a local policeman, the case appears closed. But the American lawman is far from convinced. Instead, he initiates his own investigation of the massacre, turning up another corpse and evidence of blackmail, and eventually linking the killings to a longevity pool and the fight for Irish self-governance. Le Brun, a thoughtful and intuitive crime-solver, receives some assistance here from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but he doesn't really require it -- except, perhaps, to prevent his focus from being thoroughly diverted by Veronica Godwin, a comely young Irish lass with a penchant for older lovers. The Sceptred Isle Club enchants with its understated humor, textured characterizations and Monahan's detailed re-creations of Edwardian-era sights, both high- and lowbrow.
Racial prejudice supplies at least some of the heat here. The rest comes from the severe summer weather in Good Hope, Virginia, a town ready to explode after the birth and subsequent death of a baby girl. A baby of mixed race. Unsettled by the interment of this child in a local Baptist church graveyard, that church's white deacons insist on her exhumation, which leads to the house of worship's being set afire and the arrest of Elijah Waddell, the dead girl's father. It falls to attorney Nat Deeds to defend Waddell, a task made almost hopeless not only by the resistance of a politically astute prosecutor and an implacable sheriff, but also by Waddell's refusal to accept a plea. When a corpse is found in the ashes of the church, the desperation to find answers -- and prevent emotions from boiling over into violence -- intensifies, leading Deeds into a desperate race for evidence to save his client's life. Robbins, who authored The End of War and War of the Rats, brings his sharp understanding of human emotions and weaknesses to a story that reminds us how much power race still wields over the American psyche.
Amos Walker wears change like a cheap suit: as a concession, not a comfort. More than two decades after his introduction in Motor City Blue, he's still the same cynical, computer-illiterate and lone-wolf Detroit private eye he always was. Yet in our era of slick and politically correct gumshoes, Walker's allegiance to hard-boiled traditions has made him an entertaining standout. Sinister Heights finds him being hired by the fetching young widow of powerful auto maker Leland Stutch, who wants him to locate her hubby's illegitimate offspring in order that she can share with them her inheritance -- and thereby avoid future lawsuits. But the would-be heirs have woes far exceeding the monetary. Stutch's granddaughter is on the lam from an abusive spouse, and Walker's efforts to help her only lead to her son's kidnapping, a made-for-the-movies assault (by 18-wheeler trucks, no less!) on a suburban car factory, and a surprise Stutch progeny who hopes to capture all of the late magnate's millions, not just the meager fruits of his widow's largesse. Estleman breaks no new ground with Sinister Heights; its setup and pacing are rather conventional, and the author seems satisfied to caricature his cops and politicians. But this book's polished plotting and writing maintain your attention, and Walker's nostalgia for Detroit's car-fin heyday may make you see the battered old Motor City with fresh eyes.
Something Borrowed, Something Black
Estleman may be his own best competitor. In addition to Sinister Heights, 2002 saw the release of his fourth novel featuring professional killer Peter Macklin. The 44-year-old Macklin, having quit the mob and left Detroit, is honeymooning in Los Angeles with his 21-year-old blonde bride, Laurie. Unfortunately, their post-wedding bliss doesn't last. Macklin is called out of town to take care of some "business" he thought had already been concluded. "It'll just be a day," he assures Laurie before leaving, as he claims, for Sacramento. But Macklin doesn't return as promised; instead, Laurie is met by a cowboyish figure who calls himself Abilene and says he's an old pal of Macklin's -- a credential supported by a brief note from her new hubby. Angry at herself and suddenly distrustful of Macklin ("Was there a woman in Sacramento, some old girl-in-the-port from sales trips past? Was he even in Sacramento?"), Laurie tries not to worry -- a pretense of peacefulness that lasts only until she tries to break free of Abilene's attentions and realizes that he's no friend, at all. Macklin, meanwhile, is in San Antonio, not Sacramento, and has found more than his share of trouble. Enough that it may end any hope of a future well spent. Or a future at all.
Victorian London police inspector Thomas Pitt is bound for a holiday in Dartmoor, when he's suddenly summoned back by Victor Narraway, the head of Special Branch. It seems that Sir Charles Voisey, quondam leader of the autocratic Inner Circle, and the man whom Pitt thought he'd routed in The Whitechapel Conspiracy (one of January's gift book picks for 2001), is making another grab for power -- this time, by running as a Tory for what seems a vulnerable Liberal Party seat in the British Parliament. Pitt resists manipulating the upcoming elections, but agrees to "watch and listen" and learn whether Voisey has any "unguarded vulnerabilities" that could leave his governmental career stillborn. Unfortunately, the odds appear to favor Voisey. His opponent's candidacy is endangered by the man's connection to the slaying of a popular spiritualist, who'd been blackmailing her clients with information obtained during séances. If Pitt is to have any hope of stopping Voisey, he must first solve the medium's murder -- an effort that includes his exposing some of the ghostly trickery behind séances. A thoughtful blend of politics and perfidy.
To Catch a Spy
Bumbling Hollywood P.I. Toby Peters naturally assumes that extortion is underway when actor Cary Grant hires him to deliver a leather pouch containing $5,000. But the photogenic British-born star quickly disabuses him of any such notion. "I'm not being blackmailed over some crime or sexual indiscretion," Grant insists. "It's more important than that." He wants Toby to make a late-night swap of the cash for some "compromising documents." Unfortunately, the messenger Peters is supposed to meet in L.A.'s Elysian Park is shot before the exchange can be made and perishes after mouthing the words "George Hall." It's not much to go on, but with the encouragement of Grant -- who's on assignment for British Intelligence Services -- the detective stays on the case, which leads him to another corpse, a collection of Nazi sympathizers and a perilous confrontation on a moonlit cliff above Laurel Canyon. Kaminsky's 22nd Peters mystery finds the author in top form, his dialogue fast and funny, his 1940s wartime atmospherics restrained, and his affection for Tinsel Town's heyday palpable. Grant and Peters make an entertaining, if contrasting pair, and this series' usual collection of endearing eccentrics is on hand to lend as much zaniness as they do assistance.
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.