Gift Guide 2003







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Bad Men
by John Connolly
Published by Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
416 pages, 2003

Connolly's fifth novel, but first standalone, is set principally on an island off the coast of Maine: Sanctuary, renamed "Dutch" in honor of a Dutch sailor, and guarded by a "giant" policeman known as Melancholy Joe Dupree. At more than seven feet tall, Dupree can trace his family back several generations into the island's grim past, and he serves as the community's sentinel. Part violent thriller and part ghost story, Bad Men features an enormous cast of folks either living on or heading toward Sanctuary, yet the author makes each character, even minor ones, distinct and worth caring about. His tale centers on Marianne Elliot and her young son, Danny, who have settled into life on the island and befriended Bonnie Claessen and her retarded son, Richie. As Marianne is drawn to Joe Dupree, it becomes clear that secrets from her past are hurtling this tale toward its inevitable collision. One of these is connected to the prison breakout of Edward Moloch, a monstrous figure who soon reunites his former gang of psychopaths and sets off a murder spree on Sanctuary. Meanwhile, the islanders start seeing visions and ghosts, paintings show figures from the past, and strange moths appear in the evenings. Connolly offers some truly repulsive characters here. However, there are also some very moving and tragic episodes on the periphery of Bad Men. The one that really burned into me concerned a one-legged soldier who was asked to stand and take a bow on the old Ed Sullivan Show. A tragic sketch, but bearing the same irony that peppers these pages. Connolly's first novel without private eye Charlie Parker (The Killing Kind, The White Road, etc.) aspires to greatness. It is full of ideas, character, and a love of history and language, as well as an understanding that bad things can happen to good people -- and vice-versa. Above all, it exalts people like Joe Dupree (or Connolly himself) who have ambition and do not fear risks. -- Ali Karim

Bangkok 8
by John Burdett
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
336 pages, 2003

Books that make you stop and look at the world from a different angle are scarce. John Burdett's Bangkok 8 is one of those rare beasts. Its story opens with a U.S. Marine being murdered by diabolically drugged snakes. Two detectives from the Royal Thai Police arrive to investigate -- Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the Buddhist, half-caste son of a Thai bar girl and an American G.I., and his partner and best friend, Pichai -- but the reptiles leave only the former alive. Sonchai and Pichai were pretty much the only non-corrupt cops left in bustling, neon-lit Bangkok, and Sonchai doesn't intend to let his friend's death go unavenged. He sets off to find Pichai's killer, maneuvering his way through the illicit world of drugs and prostitution that are so common in the police district from which this book takes its title. He isn't on his own for long, however. Because the original victim in this crime was an American serviceman, the FBI gets involved, in the person of Kimberley Jones, a sexually unsatisfied field agent. Soon the two are working the case together, following clues to a jade-smuggling operation as they begin to understand the riddle of the drugged snakes. The pairing of these very different investigators gives Sonchai an opportunity to reflect on culture clashes between Thais and visiting farangs (westerners). And it invites Jones to try and unravel her temporary partner from both his clothes and his religious beliefs. The mystery here is often over-shadowed by the philosophical subtext that layers Bangkok 8 like the smoke trail from an incense taper. This novel is almost a primer on Buddhism; I felt by the end as if I'd experienced some religious conversion. Yet that element only adds to the story's exoticness. It comes as no surprise to learn that author Burdett has lived in the Far East for many years. What is surprising is that he's English by birth, and was a lawyer in Southampton before he left to practice in Hong Kong. In Bangkok 8, he's created an almost hypnotic sense of place, introducing readers to the rituals and abstruse customs of Thailand's capital. Full of sex, violence, good meals, some great writing and ghosts, Bangkok 8 ranks a "10" for distinction among this year's field of thriller fiction. -- Ali Karim

by Sara Paretsky
Published by Putnam
416 pages, 2003

Only months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, tenacious Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski is hired by business exec Darraugh Graham to determine whether there's any validity to claims by his 91-year-old mother that someone has broken into her childhood home, a currently vacant suburban mansion known as Larchmont Hall. Although V.I. suspects this may just be a bid by the wealthy dowager for greater attention, she agrees to stake out the estate -- only to encounter a teenage girl prowling its moonlit grounds. Before Warshawski can question her, the girl takes a runner, leading the gumshoe on a chase that ends with V.I. stumbling over the corpse of a young black man. The dead guy turns out to be journalist Marcus Whitby, while the fugitive lass was Catherine Bayard, granddaughter of Calvin Bayard, a liberal book publisher and frequent target of anti-Communists back in the 1950s. V.I. spends the remainder of this novel trying to figure out what Whitby and Catherine were doing at Larchmont Hall, whether their actions are connected somehow to the recent demise of a prominent right-wing attorney, and what all of this has to do with Kylie Ballantine, an African-American dancer about whom Whitby had been planning to write a book. Paretsky's 10th Warshawski novel may hammer a bit redundantly on obvious parallels between the "Red-baiting" era of the 50s and today's cynical assault on civil liberties by America's Bush regime. Yet its strong women characters, undertone of honest compassion and timely political commentary give Blacklist a substantiality that's often missing from works in this genre. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Blind to the Bones
by Stephen Booth
Published by HarperCollins (UK)
480 pages, 2003

Booth's novels (of which there are four already) are powerful without resorting to explicit violence, poignant without blatant melodrama ... and damnably hard to put down. Case in point: Blind to the Bones, which finds Detective Sergeant Diane Fry plumbing the mystery of university student Emma Renshaw, who vanished without a trace just over two years ago while on her way home from Birmingham, England, to Derbyshire for the Easter holiday. Unable to accept the likelihood of their daughter's demise, Howard and Sarah Renshaw have persevered in trying to find her, consulting psychics and "bombarding the police with theories and suggestions, pleas and demands" -- all to no avail. But then, out of the blue, Emma's blood-stained mobile phone is found, discarded in a woodland, and her parents' fragile faith seems finally to have found its first reward. Or is this just another opportunity for their naïve hope to be squashed? As all that's unfolding, Detective Constable Ben Cooper -- seconded temporarily (he hopes) from "E" Division to the Rural Crime Team -- is probing a string of burglaries around Withens, a drab, hopeless old village in England's scenic Peak District. Quiet enough duty -- until the battered corpse of Neil Granger, one of Emma Renshaw's former Birmingham-area housemates, turns up, the young man's face blackened with theatrical make-up and a stolen antique bronze bust left behind in his car. Was his murder related to the break-ins, or did it serve another purpose? Blind to the Bones, like Booth's previous tales, is propelled by the convergence of seemingly random plot lines, and the way they're fed by additional puzzles -- both telling and deliberately complicating. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Blood Is the Sky
by Steve Hamilton
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne
304 pages, 2003

For a guy who's supposed to help get other people out of trouble, Alex McKnight sure knows how to get himself into it. In his fifth adventure (after North of Nowhere), Michigan's most reluctant P.I. agrees to help his Ojibwa Indian friend, Vinnie LeBlanc, track down his ex-con brother, Tom, who vanished while guiding moose hunters deep into the Ontario wilderness. The owners of the lakeside lodge where Tom and his sportsmen employers had stayed insist that their guests left days ago. So where did they go? And who were the other two men who showed up at the lodge not long before, asking these same sort of questions? Intent on fitting these puzzle pieces together, Alex and Vinnie head out into the woods, to face not only bears but two-legged predators that can be more dangerous still. Like Steve Hamilton's previous novels, Blood Is the Sky gains its greatest strength from its characters, but the author also throws in Deliverance-style episodes to keep his readers' hearts a-racin'. -- J. Kingston Pierce

by Roger Jon Ellroy
Published by Orion Books (UK)
352 pages, 2003

Although it's very well researched, Candlemoth is a rather strange debut novel set within the U.S. penal system. Its cover has a Thomas Harris flavor, but its style is closer to Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." The story opens in Sumter, South Carolina, in the early 1980s. Thirty-six-year-old African-American death-row prison inmate Daniel Ford -- incarcerated for killing his best friend, Nathan Verney, in a jealous rage 12 years ago, and only a month away from taking his seat in the electric chair -- decides to tell the story of his life to the prison's white chaplain, Father John Rousseau. From there, the book becomes a long and tortuous tale of love, betrayal and the linkages between Ford and Verney. Its setup gives British author Roger Jon Ellroy the opportunity to moralize over potent issues such as capital punishment, the consequences of one's life choices, the price of friendship and the troubled state of U.S. race relations. All wrapped up in a sentimental prison yarn. Candlemoth reminds me a bit of Forrest Gump, in the way it weaves the stories of these two men against the backdrop of a changing America, from the 1950s to the 80s. Sections of the novel that evoke the boyhood shared by Ford and Verney are wonderfully evocative of that period. By contrast, however, Ford's life behind bars is presented rather turgidly, and I lost some sympathy for him before the story's final twist. Regardless, you have to give Ellroy credit for ambition. If Candlemoth reaches beyond its abilities as a tale, it nonetheless demonstrates that this writer has serious talent. Ellroy's second novel, Ghostheart, is due out in the UK in February. -- Ali Karim

Children of the Storm
by Elizabeth Peters
Published by William Morrow
416 pages, 2003

If anyone can make Egyptian archaeology fun, the prolific Elizabeth Peters can. In Children of the Storm, her 15th historical mystery (after The Golden One, 2002), we find amateur sleuth Amelia Peabody Emerson and her increasingly extended brood back in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. It's 1919, the Great War is over, and the Emersons are excavating a new ancient site. The prize this time: the buried remains of four royal High Priestesses, who traveled into the afterlife in style, accompanied by lavish jewelry and beautifully beaded robes. But their endeavor's relative serenity is soon upset by the discovery that several of the dig's most valuable finds, which were stowed at the home of wealthy excavation sponsor Cyrus Vandergelt, have been stolen. Gone, too, is an Italian restorer who'd been staying in that same residence. Vandergelt, worried that he'll be held responsible for this crime, calls for help from his dear friend Amelia. And she eagerly declares her intention to investigate the theft, despite the predictable objections of her distinguished husband, Radcliffe Emerson. As all this is transpiring, Amelia's son, Ramses, has his own peculiar adventure. He's kidnapped by a veiled young woman claiming to be Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of joy, motherhood and love, who assures him that he's under her protection, and promises that his captivity will be, well, pleasurable. The clever Ramses quickly escapes and returns to his family, but his abduction only deepens the puzzlement surrounding those missing artifacts. Amid an atmosphere of tension, heavily spiced by rising Egyptian nationalism, the Emersons pursue their inquiries with typical intrepidity and despite violent attacks on their friends, the threat of a riot, and the need to baby-sit their assorted precocious offspring. -- Cindy Chow

Cold Pursuit
by T. Jefferson Parker
Published by Hyperion
360 pages, 2003

Regret. T. Jefferson Parker's Cold Pursuit is soaking in it. In fact, everyone here, from Parker's lonely protagonist, San Diego homicide cop Sergeant Tom McMichael, on down, is wallowing in woe, dogged by the ghosts of misery past, present and future. But mostly past. Mistakes and failures and unanswered questions from long ago dog these characters, lingering like old scabs that refuse to heal. The story starts with McMichael and his partner, Hector Paz, being called to the murder scene of "local badass hero" Pete Braga, a former Portuguese tuna boat captain-turned-port commissioner and business tycoon, a mercurial 84-year-old who's been beaten to death with a FishWhack'r, a club generally used to kill tuna. Braga's cause of death may be pretty straightforward, but nothing else in this convoluted case is. Nobody is ever quite what they seem, and everybody has a secret or two. There's a lot of self-denial going on here, as well, and still waters don't just run deep -- more often than not, they run very troubled, indeed. And Tom's own family's complicated history with the Bragas doesn't help matters -- the possibility that someone from the cop's own clan is responsible for Braga's death eats at Tom like a cancer. Yet this twisted, tangled tale of murder, betrayal, hatred, revenge, greed and corruption -- both past and present -- is saved from its own excesses by Parker's no-nonsense prose style, seamlessly merging the "just the facts, ma'am" play-by-play of classic police procedurals with the brooding, bittersweet exhumation of the past that was Ross Macdonald's forte. Even better, Parker manages to infuse Cold Pursuit with some grim humor and almost poetic stylistic flourishes all his own. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon: A Documentary Volume
(Dictionary of Literary Biography Series: Volume 280)
edited by Richard Layman, with the assistance of George Parker Anderson
Published by The Gale Group
429 pages, 2003

Even those who think they know everything there is to know about Dashiell Hammett's classic 1930 detective novel and the equally classic 1941 film made from it by director John Huston should find things to learn in this innovative and formidable reference work edited by noted Hammett scholar Richard Layman. For instance: Though it's well known that George Raft turned down the chance to play Hammett's protagonist, Sam Spade, in Huston's movie, who knew that others considered for that part included Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, Paul Muni, and "Tony" Quinn? And that among those mentioned as possibilities to portray Wilmer, the young "gunsel," were Elia Kazan (who'd soon abandon acting for directing) and Peter Lorre (who ended up playing Joel Cairo in the same film)? These tidbits can be gleaned from Warner Brothers' preliminary list of casting suggestions for Huston's film -- one of hundreds of illustrations to be found in this oversized hardcover volume. Other items reproduced here include book jackets, lobby cards, production stills, original correspondence, newspaper clippings and any number of wonderful photographs. The book's text is equally diverse, encompassing essays, letters, book excerpts, interviews and reviews. There's enough intriguing material here -- from items pertaining to the real-life history behind the book's eponymous statuette, to several interpretations of its Flitcraft koan -- to keep a reader engrossed for hours. In addition to enhancing an appreciation of Hammett's enduring novel, this invaluable volume underscores the artistry in the work of an author whose street-cred as a former real-life detective often obscured his equally considerable lit-cred. -- Tom Nolan

December Heat
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
Published by Henry Holt and Company
288 pages, 2003

During his 15 years with the Rio de Janeiro police, Inspector Espinosa (introduced in The Silence of the Rain, 2002) has learned that open-and-shut cases are rarely simple. So when a prostitute named Magali is found asphyxiated one morning in her tiny Copacabana apartment, he doesn't conclude immediately that the killer was retired cop Vieira Crisóstomo, her older "companion and protector" -- even though Vieira's leather belt was used to secure Magali's legs to her cast-iron bed. Yes, the Brazilian ex-policeman had been spotted with the decedent the night before, stumbling drunk out of a restaurant and losing his wallet in the confusion. But do opportunity and his waist strap at the crime scene necessarily prove his guilt? Vieira admits he can't remember what transpired after his dinner with Magali, but he swears he didn't do her in. And Espinosa wants to believe him. Consequently, the bookish and independent inspector goes looking for a homeless boy who may have seen the couple on that fatal night. And in the process, he exposes a drug-trafficking scheme involving corrupt cops, incites assaults on both Vieira and himself, and faces off against a gorgeous hooker who may be as manipulative as she is seductive. Espinosa's inquiry is conducted at a restrained pace that might frustrate readers accustomed to "ah-ha!" moments of superhuman ratiocination, and its focus deviates frequently from criminal matters to more romantic ones. Still, December Heat attracts as a smartly conceived, intelligent and distinctly foreign yarn. A third (and, sadly, final) entry in the Espinosa series, Southwesterly Wind, is due out in the States in March 2004. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Distant Echo
by Val McDermid
Published by HarperCollins (UK)
400 pages, 2003

You'd think that Val McDermid would want to extend her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, due to the success of her British TV series. Instead, she confounded convention this year by taking a risk on a standalone, which looks at friendships, family, deception and murder. There is power and misdirection here, reminding readers of the dizzying heights to which McDermid took us with her award-winning 1999 novel, A Place of Execution. And like Execution, Echo is written in a split timeframe, and it contains a very grim secret. The story's strength lies in its characters, and what befalls them over a 25-year span. We begin in the Scottish Lowlands town of St. Andrews, in 1978. Four university students leave a party and stumble upon the dying Rosie Duff, a young barmaid, in a snow-filled cemetery. She appears to have been raped and slashed deeply by a knife. In their desperation to save Rosie, the students are stained with her blood. After Rosie dies, the four fall under suspicion -- not only of the police, but also Duff's family and the shadowy presences that lurk along the edges of Echo's plot. McDermid expertly carves out distinct personalities for each member of her quartet, initially through the use of nicknames: "Weird," "Ziggy," "Mondo" and "Gilly." Alex Gilbey is Gilly, and like his colleagues he finds the trajectory of his life altered by the events of that terrible night. The four had grown up together, formed a rock band, and ventured conjointly into the halls of academe. But, facing the backlash from Rosie Duff's murder, they start to unravel -- both mentally and as a group. They're soon driven in different directions by religion, sexuality and their individual worldviews, and are haunted by a mysterious figure who expects a heavy price to be paid for what happened to the late barmaid. Now leap ahead a quarter-century. The police decide to reopen the Duff case, hoping to resolve it through DNA analysis. At the same time, those four former students find themselves being picked off through thinly disguised accidents. Before he ends up dead like his friends, Alex Gilbey determines to figure out what really happened on that night 25 years ago. What a sinister web the author has woven in The Distant Echo. -- Ali Karim

The Empire of Shadows
by Richard E. Crabbe
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne
384 pages, 2003

Hoping to escape the pressures of his job as well as the quotidian hazards of 1889 Manhattan, police captain Thomas Braddock heads north by train with his family, bound for New York state's deeply forested Adirondack Mountains. However, their vacation has barely begun before Braddock is caught up in the pursuit of a young Mohawk fugitive, Jim Tupper, who, after knifing a construction foreman in Gotham, quickly fled town, intending to vanish into the Adirondack wilds so beloved by his ancestors. Braddock has a personal interest in tracking down Tupper: the Indian may be able to help clear the policeman's adopted son, Mike, of murdering a comely hotel maid. It seems the girl, with whom Mike had just begun an affair, was brutally slain with a modified bayonet similar to one Tupper acquired during his exit from New York City. As good a manhunter as Braddock is, though, finding the renegade Mohawk amid tens of thousands of acres of woodlands will prove a daunting task. And a deadly one, as well, since Tupper isn't the only murderer prowling that ruggedly exquisite outback. Empire of Shadows is the second outing for Braddock, after Suspension (2000), a tumbling-paced and engrossing novel that posited a plot to sabotage the still-unfinished Brooklyn Bridge. Although the action in this new book is sometimes hard to follow, especially since it occurs in an area that most readers will know only vaguely, if at all (a map of the Adirondacks might have proved helpful), Empire once more demonstrates Crabbe's skill with character expansion and plot-twisting. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Hard Boiled Love
edited by Kerry J. Schooley and Peter Sellers
Published by Insomniac Press
200 pages, 2003

With their latest collection of "Canuck Noir," editors Peter Sellers and Kerry Schooley continue their efforts to show that Canadians are far darker, and more twisted and perverse, than their Dudley Do-Right image would have you believe. There's no thin line between love and hate in Hard Boiled Love -- in fact, there seem to be no borders at all. Author Vern Smith drops the puck with his tale of a mismatched pair of Toronto lovebirds working an ATM scam, who turn on each other. Farther along, Stan Rogal offers a gloriously low-rent tale about what happens when people try to live their tawdry lives as if they were in a movie, and Barbara Fradkin brings her years of experience as a psychologist/social worker to bear in a yarn about an Ottawa criminal lawyer who thinks she's seen it all, yet allows lust to cloud her judgment. As the doc says, "The problem with spending half your working life before the courts is that you know restraining orders are worth dick-all." And just in case anyone misses the point that women writers can get just as down-and-dirty as men, check out Jean Rae Baxter's "Loss," perhaps this book's blackest, most chilling story. The editors also get to strut their stuff: Sellers offers a vicious little reprint about a less-than-scrupulous P.I. and his gold-digging girlfriend that has the sort of dirty-trick ending one might have expected in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; and Schooley, under his "John Swan" pen name, offers up the bucolic "Buying the Farm," a cautionary parable about what happens when a middle-aged couple with money problems discover that the simple life ain't so simple. Green Acres, you're not there. Rounding out this compilation are sturdy reprints from seasoned vets William Bankier, James Powell and the late Sinclair Ross, along with strong stories by relatively new authors such as Gregory Ward, Mike Barnes and Linda Helson. My only gripe is that Canada is much bigger and more varied (and possibly even nastier) than it's depicted in these pages, and it stretches way beyond Ontario. It would have been good to include more voices from other provinces and other subcultures, including from French Canada. Still, that's nitpicking -- this is a rock-solid collection, without a dud in the bunch, full of delightfully nasty surprises. Forget about standing on guard for thee -- maybe Canadians should watch their backs. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Hello Bunny Alice
by Laura Wilson
Published by Orion (UK)
256 pages, 2003

This is the fourth novel by a British writer who revels in mixing murder with dysfunctional relationships, at the same time uncovering motivations that lurk in the dark side of the mind. Laura Wilson's theme, about how skeletons from the past can (quite literally) threaten the lives of the living, is explored in the blackest way imaginable. Hello Bunny Alice opens with the sepia-tinted recollections of a former Playboy-style bunny-girl, Alison "Alice" Jones, who is now living a lonely existence in an isolated Oxfordshire farmhouse. There, she dwells upon the memory of her complex relationship with former comedian Lenny Maxted, one half of a highly successful 1960s double act. Lenny washed up his career with alcohol, and in 1969 he ended his life at the short end of a rope, much to the anguish of both Alice and Maxted's partner, Jack Flowers. It's now 1976, and a distressed Flowers suddenly appears at Alice's door. Already alarmed, Alice grows still more concerned when anonymous newspaper cuttings arrive on her doormat, revealing that human bones have been fished from a lake in Wiltshire. The remains, it seems, were found inside a sports car once owned by Lenny Maxted. With Flowers becoming increasingly unhinged, Alice explores her past life, especially her links to Lenny, Flowers, their gay agent and others who populated the late-60s London celebrity scene. Wilson sprinkles humor into her story, but Hello Bunny Alice is generally set well into the shadows. Before long, cracks from the past widen and Alice's wonderland world turns into a living, bleeding nightmare. If a fusion of Barbara Vine and Patricia Highsmith is your cup of hemlock, then this Bunny's for you. -- Ali Karim

Judgment Calls
by Alafair Burke
Published by Henry Holt and Company
256 pages, 2003

Yes, she is the youngest daughter of James Lee Burke, author of the Dave Robicheaux series (Last Car to Elysian Fields) and one of crime fiction's legends. But Alafair Burke isn't hoping just to ride her daddy's coattails to renown. She's the real deal, with her own take on things and exhibiting a considerable amount of promise in her much-hyped first novel, Judgment Calls. This story introduces Samantha Kincaid, a deputy district attorney in Oregon's Multnomah County. For the past couple of years, she's worked low-level drug cases for the Portland-based office, but when a 13-year-old prostitute, Kendra Martin, is brutally raped and left for dead, Kincaid dives into the biggest legal proceeding of her career. Unfortunately, the case against the main suspect, Frank Derringer, is only circumstantial at best, but Kincaid forges on to try him anyway. This proves to be an unwise move. Her legal methods are challenged, the tangled threads of her personal life become a major issue, and the young prostitute's assault may be connected to a potential serial killer still on the loose. The story's resolution, when it comes, catches everyone -- especially the reader -- very much off-guard. There is much to like about Judgment Calls. Samantha Kincaid is a confident young woman, and a shrewd observer of her colleagues and the legal process. Burke allows us to see her protagonist in a professional capacity, while also demonstrating her ability to relax off-duty. Sam has strong relationships with friends and lovers, but she's especially close to her father (who bears perhaps more than a passing resemblance to Burke's real-life sire.) Though Judgment Calls is a primarily a character-driven work, Burke shows much promise in moving her plot along briskly and effectively. Her yarn is not without flaws; its resolution is somewhat underwhelming, and Kincaid's actions concerning her on-again, off-again boyfriend are rather questionable. Still, there's no doubt that Alafair Burke has arrived on the crime fiction scene in dramatic fashion, and I look forward to further installments of Samantha Kincaid's adventures. Believe the hype -- Burke is going going far. -- Sarah Weinman

by Mark Billingham
Published by Little, Brown (UK)
384 pages, 2003

This third installment (after Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat) in Mark Billingham's London-based police procedural series, featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, is by far the most iniquitous and densely plotted of the bunch. Its complexity derives from Billingham's confidence, as well as from his mastery of character and plot development. Lazybones is something of a paradox -- a monstrously fiendish tale of rapists and their pursuers, but told in an easygoing, almost conversational style, with a great deal of gallows humor. That contrast serves the book well, making a frightful tale bearable. The action gets rolling when a recently released rapist is discovered in a seedy hotel, murdered violently and anally raped. His killer left behind a calling card: a wreath. More homicides follow, convincing Thorne, Phil Hendricks, Dave Holland and the other members of their Serious Crime Group that a serial slayer is on the loose. This particular murderer appears to be targeting sexual sadists, the victims (and here Billingham skirts around issues of morality and vigilantism) being lured to their deaths by a woman known as "Jane." The trail leads to Soho, and the welcome return of Kodak, the squeaky-voiced, muscular pornographer from Sleepyhead. As in Billingham's previous novels, subplots impinge on the proceedings and lend them additional dimension. Holland faces a mid-life crisis caused by the pregnancy of his wife, while we learn more about Thorne's issues with his ill and aging father, and find the DI with a new love interest. Lazybones cranks up a gear at the halfway point, when a former detective joins the team and finds the connection to a tragedy dating back many years -- a case of rape, murder and lost innocence. While the investigation zigzags around North London and Essex, Thorne has his car stolen and his flat burgled, and wonders about links that start to show like the cracks on an impacted windscreen. This story's climax is as violent as it is unanticipated, disturbing both Thorne and the reader. -- Ali Karim

Maisie Dobbs
by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Soho Press
294 pages, 2003

Combining a wartime narrative with mystery and a tragic romance, Jacqueline Winspear's debut novel opens in early 1929. The title character has just opened her own Trade and Personal Investigations office in Bloomsbury, England. Unfortunately, one of Maisie Dobbs' first cases seems disappointingly commonplace: she's asked to follow Christopher Davenham's much younger and ostensibly straying wife, Celia, in hopes of finding where the woman has been sneaking off to twice a week. However, Maisie's powerful intuition soon sets off alarms, as Celia leads her to a graveyard for World War I veterans, where several tombstones are marked with first names only. Mystified, Maisie visits the Retreat, a place of recovery for military veterans whose disfigurements have isolated them from society, and who now suffer from mental rather than physical wounds. With the help of her office handyman, Billy Beale, this young sleuth slowly but certainly peels open a tragic mystery left behind by the so-called Great War. Winspear does a beautiful job of re-creating the atmosphere and class strata of early-20th-century England, while never overburdening her story with details. Her multiple flashbacks into Maisie's past, far from being intrusive (which is frequently the case in historical fiction), help readers to understand this protagonist's extraordinary talents and drives. Now that her background has been fully established, perhaps we'll see more of her detection practices in the future. -- Cindy Chow

Man Eater
by Ray Shannon
Published by Putnam
280 pages, 2003

Smart, sexy and seriously cutthroat film development exec Ronnie Deal is sitting in a Los Angeles bar one day, nursing her rage at a rival for fouling up her "breakout film," when a beefy black guy suddenly starts wailing on a "young, frail blonde woman" nearby. Reacting viscerally, her adrenaline fed by anger at her own misfortunes, Ronnie shocks even herself by battering the thug unconscious with a beer bottle. Only later, when that same goon -- freelance enforcer Neon Polk -- subdues and rapes her, then demands that she pay him $50,000 to leave her alone, does Ronnie realize the horror she's invited into her life. And all because she'd impulsively defended a "career streetwalker" named Denise "Antsy" Carruth, from whom Polk was trying to retrieve $25,000 that had been stolen from a drug dealer. Now, determined to feel safe again from attack, and protect her reputation in the bargain, Ronnie decides that Neon's lights have to be put out. Permanently. To advance this plan, she turns to Ellis Langford, an ex-con who did time for manslaughter and is currently trying to sell an action-filled film script. Ronnie figures she can offer to purchase Langford's work in exchange for him telling her how to whack Neon. Although Langford resists at first, he ultimately agrees to help. Meanwhile, a weaselish colleague of Deal's is prowling for information he can use to destroy her; a couple of deranged, drug-peddling brothers are gunning for Langford; and Ronnie's ex-husband is wheeling west from Colorado with a special passenger, intending to check up on her recent success. As these plots and subplots intertwine, often in unlikely ways, Shannon -- a pseudonym of detective novelist Gar Anthony Haywood (All the Lucky Ones Are Dead) -- delivers a standalone caper that is as fast-moving as it is frothing with satirical commentary about the shark-infested suites of Tinseltown. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Mission Flats
by William Landay
Published by Delacorte Press
384 pages, 2003

The biggest compliment one can bestow upon a first-time novelist is to say that his or her new work doesn't read like a literary debut. This year has seen the launch of many wonderful first books exhibiting promise and potential. William Landay's Mission Flats, on the other hand, leaves the world of promise far behind, and emerges as an assured, confident work. It's beyond a debut; it is simply a novel. Introduced here is Benjamin Truman, who, though still in his mid-20s, is the chief of police of the small town of Versailles (ver-SALES, as locals pronounce it), Maine. Not much happens there, so it's a shock when, in the middle of a walk, Truman discovers the body of a prominent prosecuting attorney from Boston, left in an abandoned shed. As high-ranking cops sweep into his little town, trying to link the attorney's death with an ongoing investigation into gangland murders, Truman feels the squeeze. Even though the inquiry is effectively taken out of his hands, he can't let go. Instead, he inveigles himself into the investigation with the help of retired policeman, John Kelly, and Kelly's Boston-dwelling attorney daughter, Caroline. As the story develops, Ben not only discovers links to past murders, but falls under suspicion himself. Is the Versailles police chief an innocent bystander, or something far more sinister? Taken alone, Mission Flats' plot, with its brisk pace and shocking but fair-play twists, would make this a standout novel. However, Landay, a former Boston-area prosecutor, also displays here an elegant, straightforward prose style and an extraordinary depth of character development. Ben Truman is one of the most unusual police protagonists to appear in fiction in some time. Young, yet experienced, he has a cerebral nature that makes him extremely appealing -- but also proves to be a tragic flaw, rendering him unreliable as a narrator. Landay has already been compared to Dennis Lehane and Scott Turow, but given his talent, it may not be long before other new authors are compared to him, instead. -- Sarah Weinman

Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference
edited by Robert F. Moss
Published by Carroll & Graf
345 pages, 2003

It's been a good year for marvelous reference works about classic private-eye novelists (also see Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, above). This terrific compendium of essays, book excerpts, letters and other prose matter, supplemented by an enormous number of illustrations, amounts to an almost holographic collage of the life and works of Raymond Thornton Chandler, the Illinois man, born in 1888, whose imaginative tales of private detective Philip Marlowe so shaped our collective picture of Southern California in the 20th century. Moss (editor of The Raymond Chandler Web Site) has assembled a glorious assortment of Chandleriana, both well-known and obscure. Among the treasures here: Ivan Moffatt's meaty interview with director Billy Wilder, about collaborating with Chandler on a screenplay of the James M. Cain book Double Indemnity; Moss' own essay drawing fascinating parallels between Chandler's book The High Window and a real-life murder case which seems to have inspired some of its plot; and Natasha Spender's extraordinary memoir of Chandler's 1955 visit to London: probably the best portrait of this author as seen by an articulate author that we're ever likely to read. Attractively designed and handsomely packaged, this trade paperback is a must-have book for any Chandler aficionado. -- Tom Nolan

Saw Red
by Bob Truluck
Published by Dennis McMillan Publications
238 pages, 2003

"I was busy like a pickpocket at a nudist joint," grouses Orlando, Florida, private eye Duncan Sloan. However, he's just about to get busy with high-end call-girl Terry Sebring. No, not in the way you think. It seems that this "knockout redhead" has had her black Jaguar stolen, along with the Palm Pilot left inside -- a handy little gizmo containing a roster of her clients. Now, those libidinous males are being squeezed for money to keep their names quiet. Terry wants Sloan (introduced in the award-winning Street Level, 2000) to pay the blackmailer off, or otherwise end this harassment. No prob. Sloan gets right on it, bitch-slapping reluctant informants, swapping grins and half-uttered threats with Dixie Mob hit men, counting corpses and trying to keep an out-of-his-depth shakedown artist and a couple of mullet-headed carjackers from getting into worse trouble. Along the way he sucks down his share of Newcastle beer and even samples the supple entertainments of an exotic-looking private cop. And he discovers that this case is about past crimes as well as present greed, with much of both related to the sordid affairs of Sebring's wealthy but twisted family. Truluck is obviously a big fan of old-fashioned, hard-boiled detective fiction: he refers to bullets as "pills," prefers that Sloan "spark a butt," rather than just light a cigarette, and may never have encountered a hard-bitten witticism he didn't like ("Seems nobody knocks on my door unless there's trouble. It's that kind of door"). Yet Saw Red doesn't take itself overly seriously. It is a savory bit of referential fun that justifies a third Sloan outing. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Shadow Boxer
by Eddie Muller
Published by Scribner
272 pages, 2003

In Muller's debut mystery, The Distance (2002), set in 1948, newspaper sports columnist Billy Nichols, aka "Mr. Boxing," helped to cover up the murder of heavyweight fighter Hack Escalante's manager, doing the seemingly ingenuous palooka a favor. However, the reporter's actions led to worse trouble, as he fell dangerously for Escalante's wife, Claire. By that novel's end, Nichols had exposed an extortion racket, pinned blame for Claire's killing on the deserving party and figured himself for a pretty smart guy. But one doesn't have to read far into Muller's sequel, Shadow Boxer, to realize that Nichols didn't know half of what was really going on. The action picks up not long after The Distance's close, as Nichols looks forward to seeing Claire's murderer "rot in a prison cell, for life." The last thing this celebrated scribbler for the San Francisco Inquirer wants to do is help the accused prove that he's being unjustly sacrificed to protect "the real operators" in a more extensive criminal enterprise. However, when the defendant's shapely limbed former secretary shares with Nichols a file containing dubious trust documents linking her ex-boss with a prominent but recently deceased lawyer, the columnist can't help but recognize the ingredients of a good story. And a juicy scandal, to boot -- one that will eventually connect a Napa Valley camp for underprivileged black youths with a gaggle of dummy corporations, a backroom abortion clinic and a conflicts-fraught deputy district attorney. Muller's second novel is delightfully overstuffed with unctuous grifters, macho-spitting hoodlums and femme fatales, and his ringside scenes (sadly fewer in number here than in The Distance) are finely framed masterpieces of anticipation and flop sweat and cigar smoke. Yet none of this would be quite so satisfying were it not for the presence of Billy Nichols, an ass-guarding moral relativist who's short on heroics and long on complicating flaws. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Sinner
by Tess Gerritsen
Published by Ballantine Books
352 pages, 2003

This year's Tess Gerritsen thriller takes readers back to New England and into the company of her regular players -- many of whom still bear bruises from their battles in The Surgeon (2001) and The Apprentice (2002), and are a bit wary of what nightmares might come next. The Sinner starts off with a gothic flourish, focusing on a faceless woman in India and a mystery that does not reveal itself until well into the narrative. But the meat of this tale begins as we're reintroduced to Boston homicide detectives Jane Rizzoli, who's suffering emotionally from her brief but passionate fling with FBI agent Gabriel Dean. The consequences of that entanglement reverberate through a case of murder and mutilation at a Catholic abbey full of nuns and whispered secrets. Joining Rizzoli on this case is forensic examiner Dr. Maura Isles, known by her colleagues as "The Queen of the Dead." She, too, is coping with the end of a relationship, and now her ex-partner appears to be stalking her. Thus banded by travails, these two warrior women join forces to learn why one nun was brutally murdered and another lies in a catatonic state at a local hospital. As their investigation gathers momentum, a dead child is found on the abbey grounds, and another woman -- with her face, hands and feet removed -- is discovered in a tenement well stocked with vermin. It becomes obvious that these crimes aren't simply the erratic and random actions of a disturbed mind. Agent Dean enters the picture when he suspects there might be connections between Rizzoli's case and an ongoing federal inquiry. Adding to the already abundant tensions, Isles unearths secrets involving her ex-spouse, who has been locked into serving the medical charity One Earth -- an organization with many more facets than its name implies. For readers who favor character-driven narratives that take them to the darker side, The Sinner is a winner. -- Ali Karim

by Marion Arnott
Published by Elastic Press (UK)
202 pages, 2003

Why is it so difficult to get collections of short stories published and onto shelves these days? You would think, in this high-pressure, time-constrained world of ours, that more people would turn to short stories for quick gratification, rather than novels. Yet even in crime fiction, which has long had the short-story format as a staple, convincing publishers to buy and market compilations of bite-size yarns is a challenge. Which is why I'm glad that Andrew Hook's Elastic Press has taken the bold step of publishing Sleepwalkers, a diverse aggregation of work by one of Britain's true masters of the short story, Marion Arnott. The book contains tales that originally appeared in Crimewave, Hawakaya Mystery Magazine and other periodicals. They are difficult to categorize, since they run the gamut from mystery/crime all the way to dark fantasy. Among the offerings here is "Prussian Snowdrops," a sinister little adventure set in the warped world of Nazism, which won the British Crime Writers Association's short-story Dagger Award in 2001. Also look for "Marbles," which was short-listed for a CWA Dagger last year and reappears in Maxim Jakubowski's brand-new compilation, The Best British Mystery Stories (Allison & Busby UK). It's a tale told via an intersecting narrative and diary pages, and shows that some relationships are darker than others. If you've never heard of Arnott, it's time to take an engaging stroll through Sleepwalkers. -- Ali Karim

Sugar Skull
by Denise Hamilton
Published by Scribner
304 pages, 2003

Fifteen-year-old Isabel Chevalier has been missing for only a day -- not even long enough for police to be interested. Yet her single father, Vincent, a "creepy" music sound engineer, fears for her safety and pleads with Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond to accompany him to the filthy East Hollywood "squat" where his daughter has been hanging out. Allowing curiosity to overcome her concern that Vincent Chevalier's story is a hoax, Eve drives to the squat with him, only to find Isabel murdered and rolled up in a shabby mattress. Diamond, who proved in The Jasmine Trade (2002) that she has a sharp nose for juicy stories involving young people somehow adrift in an adult world, pursues the Chevalier case, tracking down the naïve Isabel's old friends and newer acquaintances, including her feral but oddly magnetic lover and an abused girl called Scout, whose incautious behavior and gentle nature bestir Diamond's maternal instincts. Was Isabel the victim of an enraged teen outlaw, or is her slaying not related at all to her association with the homeless? Good questions both, but Eve hasn't much time to concentrate on them. She's distracted both by another scoop, involving the swimming pool death of a mayoral candidate's wife, and by her interest in a handsome but somber Hispanic music promoter. As good as Hamilton is with character development, she's even better at portraying L.A. in all its multi-ethnic diversity. Last Lullaby, the next Eve Diamond outing, is due for publication in April 2004. -- J. Kingston Pierce

12 Bliss Street
by Martha Conway
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
224 pages, 2003

If there's one thing San Francisco Internet design engineer Nicola Swain would like to change about her life, it's ...everything. Her incompetent boss belittles her; her landlord is trying to evict her from her dream house; and she has once again failed to follow through when asked out by a man with whom she'd been flirting. Then, just when Nicola figures her life couldn't get any worse, two teenage computer geniuses kidnap her as she exits her kick-boxing class. It doesn't take long for Nicola to realize that the mastermind behind this snatch is her loser ex-husband, Scooter, who's hoping to clean out her ATM account in order to pay off his loan shark. As she turns the tables on Scooter, Nicola makes a life-changing decision to meet with the loan shark's nephew, Lou, a law-school dropout and wannabe food critic. She agrees to pay off her ex-hubby's loan -- provided Lou can find proof that her landlord is evicting her illegally. Meanwhile (you knew more complications were coming, right?), that man Nicola flirted with (and to whom she's given the nickname Chorizo) has decided to track her down, fearful that she saw him leaving a dead woman's motel room. It turns out that Chorizo has been making Internet snuff videos to finance the release of his terrorist wife from a Cyprus prison. And his partner in this crime is none other than Nicola's conniving landlord! Conway manages to herd all of these complications and interweaving relationships into a flowing, entertaining story that proves Florida doesn't hold the patent on wacky crime tales. -- Cindy Chow

The Vagabond Clown
by Edward Marston
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
352 pages, 2003

Booted from their customary stage in Elizabethan London, following a deliberately provoked audience melee and the concurrent slaying of a mysterious spectator, and with their resident petulant clown, Barnaby Gill, brought down by a broken leg, the trouble-attracting actors who make up Westfield's Men hie off to the Kent countryside in search of alternative venues. But they cannot escape the twin plagues of mishaps and mendaciousness. They're ambushed on the open road. Prankish attacks are launched against a temporarily wheelbarrow-bound Gill. And a brutal assault on Giddy Mussett, the company's truculent stand-in jester -- and a sworn enemy of Gill's -- threatens to end their touring prematurely. Does fault for these redundant adversities lie with a rival band of thespians who are also traveling through the area? Or are there less obvious foes and machinations in operation here? As in the previous 12 installments of this lighthearted, alternately ribald and romantic series (including The Bawdy Basket, 2002), responsibility for saving the contentious troupe lies with Nicholas Bracewell, its resourceful stage manager-cum-detective. Expect plenty of colorful character elaboration and clever, period-suggestive dialogue. -- J. Kingston Pierce

We'll Always Have Murder
by Bill Crider
Published by ibooks
240 pages, 2003

Humphrey Bogart brought two of America's most famous fictional private dicks to the silver screen -- Sam Spade (in The Maltese Falcon) and Philip Marlowe (in The Big Sleep). But how might he have handled crime-solving on his own? That's the question Bill Crider raises and tries to answer in We'll Always Have Murder, which is intended as the first entry in a new 1940s-era series. After being hit up for blackmail dough by Frank Burleson, a determinedly sleazy shamus who's peddling dirt on Mayo Methot, Bogie's choleric ex-wife, the actor turns for help to Terry Scott, a P.I. and ex-Marine who regularly does cover-up work for Bogie's employer, Warner Brothers. Trouble is, when this pair try to confront Burleson at his suspiciously new bungalow, they find him dead, shot right through the heart with a .45. Bad news, and destined to get worse -- the gun is Bogart's own, and the actor had recently threatened to kill Burleson if he kept bothering him or Methot. So is somebody seeking to frame one of Warner's biggest box-office draws for murder? Or did Burleson's shakedown trade earn him a slug for his trouble, with the actor's gun used simply out of convenience? That's what Scott, with a wisecracking and Scotch-tipping Bogie in tow, intends to find out. Provided he can stay clear of an unscrupulous nightclub owner and survive attempts on his life long enough to learn who else had secrets they'd kill to keep. Crider, best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series (Red, White and Blue Murder), is a bit too free in suffusing his dialogue with lines quoted from familiar Bogart roles, but he does a fine job of portraying postwar L.A. and of resurrecting one of America's best tough-guy actors -- maybe too good a job, since the abstemious Scott pales as a character by comparison. -- J. Kingston Pierce

White Dog
by Peter Temple
Published by Text Publishing (Australia)
344 pages, 2003

Readers who aren't familiar with Australian solicitor-cum-sleuth Jack Irish will nonetheless recognize his type. He's a gambler (the ponies, mostly), a cabinet-maker, a cook (shades of Spenser) and a loner -- single, he explains in White Dog, ever since his wife "was murdered by a client of mine and I developed a powerful urge to destroy myself." He has a clever, captivating girlfriend, Melbourne radio star Linda Hillier, but as this book begins, she's off to London -- and he's not immune to other supple temptations. Irish's latest case is likely to offer those. His former partner in law, Andrew Greer, has him looking into the slaying of property developer Mickey Franklin, who was shot five times while taking a shower, supposedly by his shapely ex-girlfriend, sculptor Sarah Longmore. The circumstantial evidence doesn't favor the accused: her gun was used in the crime, she was allegedly spotted near Franklin's place on the night of his demise, no witnesses can confirm Sarah's alibi that she was home watching television at the time ... and there are hints of revenge as a motive, based on Franklin's having taken up with Sarah's younger sister, Sophie, after their breakup. But loose ends abound here, too, any of which might help to unravel the prosecution's case. Who, for example, is the mystery woman who's been shadowing Sarah? Had there been a falling-out between Franklin and the powerful Corsican-controlled construction company that was his longtime backer? And what does any of this have to do with a missing fashion model, a dead pimp, a drug-money laundering scheme and a millionaire land dealer too fond of Napoleon memorabilia? Temple's latest tale is gracefully choreographed, offeing witty prose, gripping action and a protagonist whose weaknesses enhance his strengths. No wonder White Dog won this year's Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel from the Crime Writers' Association of Australia. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Wiley's Lament
by Lono Waiwaiole
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 2003

A fresh take on noir fiction is awfully hard to come by these days. Yet every once in a while, a new voice pops up that takes the basic ingredients and mixes them into a recipe that, if not entirely original, has at least a somewhat different flavor. A lingering aftertaste, perhaps, that begs for a second helping. Lono Waiwaiole offers such a voice in Wiley's Lament. His eponymous protagonist hasn't really lived in quite some time; instead, Wiley drifts, playing poker to make ends meet -- when he wins. When he doesn't, he resorts to Plan B, which is ripping off drug dealers, either in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, or in other seedy neighborhoods around America's Pacific Northwest. Wiley's marriage is in tatters, his friends are few, and he's estranged from his only daughter, Lizzie, whom he hasn't set eyes on for more than a year. As hopeless as his life already was, things take a really serious downturn when Lizzie is found brutally murdered in a cheap motel room, and Wiley must clear through the wreckage of broken friendships, empty promises and the underbelly of Portland's sex trade to discover what happened to his daughter, all the while unwittingly coming closer to a showdown with a high-strung DEA agent who's long crossed the barriers of morality. For Wiley, the journey is just as much about finding a killer as it is about reclaiming a little bit of his own self. Wiley's Lament is impressively written, with an opening sentence to die for ("I picked Seattle because you don't piss in your own peonies, and because Seattle's tendency to look down on the rest of us had always rubbed me a little raw") and many more instances where Waiwaiole chooses exactly the right phrase for the right occasion. Despite the bleakness and failures of Wiley's life, he somehow manages to prevail -- a fact that should be made even clearer when a sequel to this novel, Wiley's Shuffle, is published next year. Lono Waiwaiole may be the newest member of the Class of Noir, but it's a good bet that he'll still be around when other classmates are forgotten. -- Sarah Weinman

The Winter Queen
by Boris Akunin
Published by Random House
320 pages, 2003

Boris Akunin's series of novels starring raffish 19th-century detective Erast Fandorin is nothing short of a phenomenon in his home country of Russia. After an inauspicious debut, the now 10-book-strong series has sold millions of copies and made Akunin (the pen name of Gregory Chkartashvili, a translator of Japanese literature and editor of the Journal of Foreign Languages) famous. Only this year, however, was an English translation of Akunin's first Fandorin novel issued. Retitled The Winter Queen (it was originally called Azazel), the book introduces Fandorin as a young clerk -- "civil servant, fourteenth class" -- in the Moscow police's Criminal Investigation Division. Although he had previously been ignored within the CID, following the suspicious suicide of a tortured student near Moscow's university grounds in 1876, Fandorin is brought into the case on a whim, his superiors having recognized his diligent note-keeping and inquisitive nature. Naturally, nothing in this story is as it seems. Yet Fandorin soon begins to connect the student's demise to a possible worldwide conspiracy, heightening tensions and sending Fandorin on a colorful investigative path that will take him through seedy gaming houses and unsavory nightclubs, all the way to London, and force him into many dangerous situations, from which he manages to escape only at the very last moment. The Winter Queen is not meant as a serious commentary on sociological issues of the past; rather, it's a fun, breezy romp built around a high-spirited would-be detective who gets into as many scrapes as any film or TV hero of old. While the book's plot can sometimes be contrived and convoluted, the strength of its protagonist and Akunin's assured prose more than make up for those weaknesses. With a second installment in the Fandorin series, Murder on the Leviathan, due out in April 2004, chances are excellent that Akunin will find the same success with American and British audiences that he has enjoyed with his Russian readers. -- Sarah Weinman


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Gift Guide 2003