Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Best of 2007: Crime Fiction, Part II

Lost Echoes by Joe R. Lansdale (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) 352 pages
As a child, Harry Wilkes suffered a mysterious ear infection that seemed to go away as fast and suddenly as it came. But it left him with the ability not only to see dead people but to hear violent occurrences from the past. Now he has to be careful in his surroundings, and map out specific routes whenever he goes somewhere, because at the slightest bang, he might witness some horrible tragedy from an area’s bygone days. It could be a rape, it could be a case of physical abuse. It might even be a murder. Much of this novel recounts Harry’s childhood. My favorite scene is that in which the protagonist goes out for the first time, at age 16, with the family car. His father, a poor but proud laborer, slips him $20 bill, and Harry -- knowing that his father can’t really spare the money -- tries to give it back. But Harry’s dad smiles and refuses, saying, “Take it. This is the kind of thing a father does.” (I’ve lived that scene with my own father on dozens of occasions.) In due time, though, Harry grows up to be a quiet young man who, while out one night with a loser friend, sees an inebriated guy beating up three muggers outside a bar. Seeking out this man after the fight, one Tad Peters, Harry learns that he too stays away from people, escaping his demons in drink and his expertise in the martial arts. Peters takes Harry under his wing, and over time they grow close, agreeing to sober up together. But their determination to avoid life’s darkness is tested after the woman who was Harry’s childhood crush, Kayla Jones -- now a cop -- asks him for help to prove that her father’s supposed suicide was actually a case of homicide. She wants Harry to use his “gift” at the scene of the crime, and try to see if her fears are justified. From there, Lost Echoes becomes a great little thriller, but because author Joe Lansdale spent so many previous pages building up his characters, we know crucial things about them that would not have been mentioned, or might have been glossed over, in a more conventional, pacy thriller. We really care about what happens to these people. In Lost Echoes, Lansdale gives us one of the scariest novels of the year, and one of the funniest (full of his trademark profanity). The bonus is that this is also among the most human novels published in 2007. -- Cameron Hughes

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay (Bantam) 338 pages
Where’s the note? There has to be a note. My mom never goes away without leaving a note … So insists Cynthia Bigge, in the poignant prologue to Linwood Barclay’s suspenseful and humane thriller, No Time for Goodbye. A 14-year-old Cynthia wakes up hung-over from a night of adolescent excess to find that her mother, father and brother have all vanished without a word or trace. Flash-forward now 25 years: Cynthia is married to high-school English teacher Terry Archer, who narrates this “what-the-hell-is-going-on?” tale with a fine balance of empathy, humor and terror. Strange things start happening to the Archers, and these odd doings seem linked to Cynthia’s revived efforts to learn the truth behind her family’s disappearance. One death occurs, and then another. Long-suppressed deeds rise to the surface -- until at last the danger that once found her family is again at Cynthia’s door. Such extraordinary events lead to equally extreme explanations, in this first standalone novel by Toronto journalist-turned-mystery novelist Barclay, who as a teenager was mentored, via correspondence, by the late Ross Macdonald. The reader is happy to accept this story’s mind-stretching dénouement for the pleasure of sharing hair-raising quality-time with the resourceful and endearing Archer family. -- Tom Nolan

Queenpin by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster) 192 pages
A never-named 22-year-old female narrator starts out in Queenpin working as a bookkeeper in the Tee Hee nightclub. She’s a former Catholic school girl, with a hidden penchant for the dangerous and glamorous. When Jerome and Arthur Bendix, the owners of the Tee Hee, ask her to cook the books, she doesn’t blink an eye. When their bosses find out what’s going on, they send emissary Gloria Denton to take care of business. Denton is an icon in the mob world, an older beauty with brains, still boasting legs a mile long, who sees the potential in our narrator. Under Denton’s tutelage, the narrator learns how to place bets at the track, how to collect casino earnings and how to deliver payoffs to the cops. It’s the high life for both women, cushioned with swanky apartments, steak dinners and oodles of jewelry. Denton is dangerous in her snakeskin shoes and alligator bags, and she doles out punishment just like the big boys. Her young protégé must not only follow Denton’s lead in regards to the rackets, but in how to behave in life, too. The narrator delights in the luxuries of moll living, but chaffs under Denton’s smooth, iron hand. When Vic Riordan, a loser-gambler with big dreams and a perpetual smile, enters the picture, our narrator falls hard for him and her sexual appetite is unleashed. She gives everything to Riordan, despite Denton’s warning to stay clear of his influence. When Denton calls upon Amos Mackey, an up-and-coming gangster, for help in handling the beguiling Riordan, things start to fall apart. And when Detective Clancy puts the screws on the narrator to turn on Denton, her choice is obvious. Queenpin is written in a stylized hard-boiled manner. Women are dolls and guys are meat. The plot is hard-boiled fare, in which romance stands little chance, and loyalty is only as good as the latest payoff. Yet, it’s the gorgeous descriptive qualities of the narrator’s worldview that pull the reader firmly into her lair. Queenpin ends where it began, with Abbott’s protagonist taking care of business. She is beyond redemption, and she wants it that way. -- Anthony Rainone

Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman (Alfred A. Knopf) 288 pages
Red Cat is the third private eye John March novel, following Death’s Little Helpers and Black Maps. There should still be time for all of you to ask for Spiegelman’s books in your stocking this year. Then you can read them all, rather than interact with your extended family, watch bowl games or feel the need to change the oil in your car while your family fumes. Maybe you don’t have the family John March has and, if not, count your blessings. March’s Wall Street brothers and sisters deeply disapprove of our boy. This is a recurring theme throughout the series; Black Maps has one of the grimmer Thanksgiving get-togethers I’ve read in a while. These people are cold. Red Cat escalates the sibling rivalry between March and his brother David. Spiegelman fans will recognize the set-up quickly, for John March endures much in the course of surviving a tragedy in upstate New York, being driven off the police force, and moving back to the city. In an ironic twist, David needs his brother’s help; he’s entangled in a sordid affair and when the woman stalking him turns up dead, the tables are turned in the family dynamic. I’m oversimplifying the plot, because Peter Spiegelman gives a dark texture to every paragraph he writes. His descriptions alone make this book worthwhile; March is not an easy character. He wants to make his way in the world according to his lights, to misquote the works of St. Bonaventure. There’s nothing like independent thought and action to create outrage within the family circle. It’s the holidays. You probably don’t understand the Bowl Championship Series rules any more than I do. I don’t know if Missouri will beat West Virginia or even play them, but a few hours spent with Red Cat, and you won’t care. -- David Thayer

Requiem for an Assassin by Barry Eisler (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 368 pages
It’s almost funny how bad most thrillers are. Not that thrillers aren’t hard to write: You have to constantly keep the pace going, every action has to lead to another, and your plot has to be at least plausible and interesting; your logic needs to be impeccable and your choreography of tension must constantly one-up whatever you offered in the last tense scene. Barry Eisler makes it look easy, writing the best thrillers available today. What makes them the best, is that he employs all of the techniques mentioned above, but then adds to his storytelling a fierce intelligence and a searing humanity that never fails to amaze me. Take, as an example, Requiem for an Assassin. It starts with longtime hired-gun John Rain trying to walk away from that life and find some kind of peace with his lover Delilah. But before he can, his close friend and partner, Dox, is kidnapped by a rogue CIA agent who wants Rain to carry out three assassinations -- or see Dox die. And so the game begins. Unlike most thriller writers, Eisler does something interesting with his action scenes; he infuses Rain’s growing humanity and pathos into the series of hits. Eisler is a great choreographer of action, and it’s morbidly fascinating to read about him here, finishing a job on a lonely road in a California Bay Area suburb. Rain murders with a chilling efficiency and vigor, and we like John Rain, so go ahead and root for him to complete the job. But congratulations, you just cheered for the death of a computer businessman, loving father and husband. Rain knows what he just did is monstrous; it eats at him as he tries to rationalize that he did it to save a friend and get out of “the life,” but still, he just killed a completely innocent man; and to save Dox, he most likely will have to do it twice more, staining his soul even further. And that’s why Eisler is the best at what he does. He deconstructs the thriller subgenre, while writing a great thriller novel that never insults your intelligence, makes you feel the growing tension with every pore and, most of all, makes you care. That’s quite the achievement. -- Cameron Hughes

Runoff by Mark Coggins (Bleak House Books) 302 pages
This fourth novel (after Candy from Strangers, 2006) to feature Bay Area private eye August Riordan, opens with one of the most original action sequences I’ve seen. Waiting in his Galaxie 500 on a self-appointed stakeout, Riordan searches for the person or persons responsible for ripping off ATM machines in downtown San Francisco. And by that, I don’t mean someone who hacks in by punching some obscure code and the money flows out like a river. This thief is physically removing ATM machines. That creative set-piece and the comedic chase through Chinatown that follows set Runoff apart from any other book this reviewer has read all year, and further establishes author Mark Coggins as a major contributor to the P.I. genre. The attempted apprehension of the ATM bandit and the wreckage it creates put Riordan on the radar screen of the notorious Leonora Lee, more commonly known as the “Dragon Lady,” a powerful business and political presence in San Francisco. She hires him to investigate the alleged fixing of the recent mayoral election. The Dragon Lady’s anointed candidate, the hapless and aggressively bland Alan Chow, was easily the most conservative candidate on the ballot. Chow finished third in a field of three, but captured enough votes to force a runoff between establishment moderate Hunter Lowden and Green Party maverick Mike Padilla. Lee suspects the election was rigged, and hires Riordan to find out if it was true, how it was done, and at who’s bidding. In the midst of suspense and carnage, readers are taken on a tour of the San Francisco power structure, acquainted with modern struggles over the need to provide low-cost housing (struggles that run counter to businesses more interested in selling million-dollar condos that reach above the bay’s fog) and introduced to a lethal Hong Kong-controlled gang. “What’s Happening With the Private Eye Novel” is a popular crime fiction parlor game. Runoff is the answer to that question. -- Stephen Miller

Safe and Sound by J.D. Rhoades (St. Martin’s Minotaur) 228 pages
This is a trip down the murkier passages of the soul, a terrain that philosophers and religionists warn against. While Safe and Sound protagonist Jackson Keller’s main goal is to rescue and protect those he loves from one of crime fiction’s more ruthless killers, the cost of “safe and sound” is enormous. Keller is in a psychological no-man’s land. His inner demons took their twisted shape back when he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and witnessed the death of his men on a hot night in the Saudi desert. His Bradley fighting vehicle was mistaken for an enemy tank, and if not for happenstance, Keller would have been incinerated too. Keller was left with survivor’s guilt, and the outrage he endured was a ripening worm in his psyche that finally begins to rear its ugly head. The ability to find men is Keller’s one redeeming asset, and he lends his expertise to private investigator and girlfriend Marie Jones on her newest case. Local attorney Tammy Healy has hired Jones to locate a missing child, Alyssa Fedder. The girl is believed to have been taken by her father, David Lundgren, a sergeant with the army’s Special Forces. Although this case may initially seem like a matter of two parents fighting over child custody, it quickly spirals outward and intersects with another more sinister story line. Lundgren is AWOL -- and he has a killer on his trail. The main villain here is an Afrikaner mercenary-for-hire named De Groot. The South African’s skill lies in extracting information, using various forms of torture. Like any diligent craftsman, De Groot is practiced at what he does, and he has an assortment of tools useful to his trade. De Groot’s motivations are very simple -- he has no compunction against torturing and killing to get what he wants, and he wants to retire rich. He has figured out a means to the latter, and it involves David Lundgren and two of Lundgren’s fellow special-ops soldiers, Mike Riggio and Bobby Powell. Safe and Sound takes on a survivalist sensibility, as the locale switches to North Carolina’s rural Blue Ridge Parkway. Keller and Jones find Alyssa Fedder in the safe care there of commandos Powell and Riggio, the child given to them by the now-not-heard-from Lundgren. Keller, James and the commandos form an alliance. This group eventually bunkers down at a nearby safe house, until members can sort things out, and perhaps bring in federal help. De Groot finds them, however. What follows is a confrontation of visceral carnage by men who have honed the art of killing. There are no winners at the conclusion and there is no happy ending. Safe and Sound is a tour-de-force, diabolical thriller. It paints how real evil in the world works -- when things that go bump in the night suddenly stare you in the face. -- Anthony Rainone

Secret Asset by Stella Rimington (Alfred A. Knopf) 336 pages
Fans of spy thrillers should start paying attention to author Stella Rimington’s protagonist, Liz Carlyle, a counter-intelligence agent with the UK security service MI5, who first appeared in At Risk (2005). Carlyle’s pursuit of enemies of the British Empire bears an unusually cerebral flavor, eschewing Hollywood-style pyrotechnics. Carlyle and her counterparts in Thames House rely on the unusual display of behavior, or the odd bit of personal history, to flush out their adversaries. Make no mistake however, Rimington can write a compelling chase scene or deadly encounter, when needed. Carlyle’s main role is agent-running -- supervising undercover civilian men and women in strategic positions. In Secret Asset, she handles Sohail Din, a 19-year-old aspiring lawyer, code-named Marzipan. Din works in an Islamic bookstore, and there have been suspicious men meeting within that shop’s confines. Din convinces Carlyle that it’s a nefarious matter; she in turn convinces her boss, Charles Wetherby, a sharp dresser and able manager, that some sort of terrorist act is being planned. Soon, a coordinated team is put in place to plant mikes and watch the shop. Although the intrigue involving that bookseller gets hot and heavy, and a key witness is murdered, Carlyle is taken away from the investigation and assigned an equally important task: rooting out a suspected mole planted inside the security service itself. This is a potentially devastating development. Believed to have originally been recruited by the Irish Republican Army, this unknown mole has turned his skills away from spying for Ireland (since the Northern Ireland peace process began) and toward other sinister ends, including possibly aligning himself with the suspected Islamic terrorists connected to the bookstore. Aided by researcher Peggy Kinsolving, Carlyle conducts counter-espionage interviews assessing the psychological make-up of those suspected. The resulting character studies are striking. Rimington is the retired director-general of MI5, so she knows the spy game intimately. Her insights into the mores of intelligence operations are fascinating. The pacing mimics actual intelligence work, meaning the tempo is sometimes slow, sometimes urgent. As Carlyle and her colleagues close in on the suspected terrorists and their truck bomb, your pulse rate is going to accelerate. At the same time, Rimington shows that security agents are ordinary people. Carlyle, for instance, is without prospects for a serious relationship, her apartment is a mess and her mother is sick. At day’s end, she might have a glass of wine and read a good book. To bad Ms. Carlyle herself can’t pick up Secret Asset and escape into its pages herself. It’s a thriller of the finest order. -- Anthony Rainone

The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime) 316 pages
At a time when British crime fiction seems tipped toward the noir edge of things, it is a treat to come across a classic puzzle story. Such is the reward in store for readers who delve into The Secret Hangman, the ninth entry in the Inspector Peter Diamond series. A woman with two young children has disappeared. That missing woman, Delia Williamson, is eventually found -- but, unfortunately, not in the way Diamond expected: she’s suspended from a children’s swing set in a public park, with a noose tied around her neck. All the preliminary signs point to a suicide: a broken fingernail or two, but no signs of a struggle, no indications of sexual assault. Williamson’s significant other, with whom she and her children had been living, boasts a decent enough alibi that would rule out his involvement in foul play. And then, soon after, her ex-husband, Danny Geaves, is discovered hanging from a viaduct over the main drag through Bath, England. Was it a murder borne of a long-simmering resentment? Did Geaves kill his ex, then jump to his death in the most public way of self-execution? Those questions are muddied when Diamond’s intrepid young inspector, Ingeborg Smith, recalls that these hangings are markedly similar to a pair of unexplained deaths just a couple of years earlier. The previous victims, an affluent couple named Twining, could not be more dissimilar from Delia Williamson, a waitress in a local Italian restaurant, and Geaves, a bizarre eccentric with no known current means of support. There may be a serial killer loose. But if there is, how could the fates of these two couples be related? The Secret Hangman, while appearing on the surface to be a serial-killer novel, is actually a throwback to the classic English whodunit, dressed up for the modern age. Author Peter Lovesey is an old pro; so is Diamond. It’s a pleasure to recommend that you spend time with both. -- Stephen Miller

Silverfish by David Lapham (DC/Vertigo) 160 pages
I love a good graphic novel as much as the next yegg, but good graphic novels in the crime-fiction realm that don’t involve overdeveloped guys in tights are relatively hard to find. However, writer and illustrator David Lapham’s Silverfish more than makes up for the scarcity. To put it bluntly, it’s stunning -- simply one of the most unapologetically gut-wrenching, brutally thrilling books I've ever read. In any format. It’s almost like a movie between two covers. By the time I got to the conclusion, in fact, I was flipping the pages so quickly, it almost was a movie. It plays out like Hitchcock on meth, a wicked black-and-white kaleidoscope of teen angst, misunderstandings of noirish proportions, evil stepmothers, local yokel cops, psychotic killers with fish on the brain, deadly secrets and innocent pranks that turn out to have deadly consequences. Mia, a teenage girl, chafing under the bit of dad’s new wife and egged on by her slutty friend, decides to snoop around while her father and stepmother are away for the weekend. Ignoring her asthmatic kid sister’s dire objections, she searches through her stepmom’s belongings, but finds more than she bargained for -- a suitcase full of money and evidence that seems to implicate her stepmother in a murder committed in conjunction with a former lover several years ago. The discovery sets in motion a chain of events that culminate in a chilling showdown in a deserted amusement park on the Jersey shore that looms like a Bruce Springsteen song turned inside out -- and vicious. At first glance, Lapham’s straightforward black-and-white artwork may not seem particularly “arty” compared with some of the illustrations out there in ComicBookLand, but it more than does the job here. The author’s deceptive simplicity of line is positively retro, harking back to the broad-shouldered comic art of the 1950s and ’60s, while his use of shadows shows he’s seen a film noir or two. But then, there’s something almost retro about this story -- I mean, evil stepmoms? Amusement parks? Suitcases of money? And when the art calls for something a little more surreal, as when the killer starts envisioning schools of silverfish eating into a man’s brain, Lapham more than rises to the task. Lapham, of course, is the man responsible for the sporadically published and highly regarded Stray Bullets crime comics, one of the most ambitious and compelling (and most highly respected) series of the last decade or so, a sprawling sequence of loosely linked vignettes that trace the damage that the stray bullets of violence and crime wreak on the innocent and guilty alike. He explores that same theme, to memorable and powerful effect, in Silverfish. Alas, Stray Bullets has been missing in action for the last few years. But I tell you, if Lapham’s taking time off from that to craft the occasional masterpiece like this, he’s more than forgiven. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom (Viking) 592 pages
No fan of historical mysteries, I was particularly likely to cast a cold eye at the well-worn subgenre of British historical mysteries. But when I started reading C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign, I fell hard. It’s the third entry in the author’s Matthew Shardlake series, picking up the story of the hunchback London attorney as his loyalty to reformer Oliver Cromwell continues to wane. Now it’s fear rather than admiration of Cromwell’s growing power that compels the lawyer’s agreement to travel to York to ensure the safety of an imprisoned conspirator waiting to be transported back to London. The timing of Shardlake’s journey is particular delicate: York, only recently brought under the banner of King Henry VIII, is making elaborate preparations to receive the monarch and his huge entourage (called The Progress) that includes his most recent young wife, Queen Catherine. Steering clear of the affected prose that mars so many historical mysteries, Sansom lays out plots and subplots that wind around like the cobblestone streets through a medieval old town, putting Shardlake and his young assistant, Jack Barak, on ever more treacherous footing. When a master craftsman working on preparations for the king’s visit dies in a gruesome fall, Shardlake suspects murder; his investigation turns up evidence of yet another conspiracy to overthrow the king. And when Barak takes up with one of the ladies of the royal party (or was she dispatched to seduce him?), Shardlake is plunged deep into court intrigue that leads him right to the fearsome Tower of London. Sansom makes the religious and political issues of Tudor England as easy to understand, and as troubling to watch, as the forces that shape the society we live in today. But the strength of the book lies in the character of Shardlake. The barrister’s physical deformity has always set him apart from the mainstream, giving him time to develop talents as an observer. The passion for fairness and reform that originally made him a follower of Cromwell leaves him increasingly out of step with the politicians around him. In short, Shardlake’s an ideal detective. And that makes him a very dangerous person in an environment seething with conspiracies. Sovereign is replete with seamy settings, cold-blooded betrayal and torture (as well as a very mysterious series of suicide attempts that Shardlake figures out brilliantly). It has scenes that make contemporary hard-boiled crime fiction seem quaint and stylized. Which is not to say that it’s without its own moments of wry humor. The description of the arrival of King Henry at York (“God’s anointed on earth”) with rows of perspiring dignitaries waiting hours to greet him, told from the viewpoint of Shardlake, concludes with a description of those same dignitaries bolting towards a row of outdoor privies after their long ordeal. One thing’s for certain: After reading Sovereign, you’ll be far less likely to associate the adjective “Tudor” with the genre “Romance.” -- Karen G. Anderson

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (Simon & Schuster) 368 pages
This is a novel that shouldn’t have worked. Not at all. First off, it has no plot. Well, there is one, but it’s incredibly thin. What it does have, though, is character. Izzy Spellman is the oldest daughter in a clan of P.I.s. The Spellman Files is about a family, as dysfunctional as any regular family, except that in this family of criminal investigators, they take dysfunctional to a whole new level where they bug the rooms of family members, discreetly tail them to see who they’re dating or what they’re doing, and even set up the basement to look like a police interrogation room for when one of the younger Spellmans causes trouble -- and when a Spellman causes trouble, he or she does it in style, believe me. The Spellman Files is one of those novels that could easily have easily been a mess and gotten away from its author. The cast here is extensive, the quirk factor is huge, and Files has a framing device that finds Izzy telling someone else stories about her family. I was waiting for it to go off the rails, and the novel does come dangerously close a few times, but debut author Lisa Lutz reins it in with a wonderful human touch every so often, and it’s that humanity that sets this book apart from so many other quirky mystery works. I love the characters, from her parents (a modern take on Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, if they had ever settled down and started a family P.I. business) to Uncle Lou, who likes to drink, smoke cigars and gamble a lot (he actually adds a great deal of drama to this tale, because he disappears on a regular basis during what the family refers to as “Lost Weekends,” and it’s up to somebody in the clan to track him down again). The black sheep among these relations is actually the most well-adjusted. Izzy’s brother David successfully started a new life outside the business as a corporate lawyer, but he still has a hand in the family’s affairs by throwing business their way. My favorite player, though, is Izzy’s 14-year-old sister, Rae. She has yet to become as jaded as Izzy, but she doesn’t want to follow David’s lead and leave the family. There’s an interesting internal tug of war for her soul, as she goes through the normal activities of being a teenage girl, dealing with homework and mean teachers and bullies -- and, of course, blackmailing her family to get out of going to Summer Camp. The Spellman Files is a wonderfully human family saga, with a great sense of humor and heart, not to mention intelligence. I hope Lutz enjoys a long and successful career. -- Cameron Hughes

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) 384 pages
After Hurricane Katrina clobbers New Orleans in the summer of 2005, New Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robicheaux is put on “lend-lease” to the flooded and chaotic Louisiana metropolis. With most of the New Orleans Police Department force deserting, or committing crimes themselves, Robicheaux is assigned to pursue cases he’d rather ignore, and becomes caught up in personal circumstances he can’t put aside. While patrolling the ravaged streets with Sheriff Helen Soileau, the hurricane’s aftermath deposits images in Robicheaux’s mind that he will “never” forget. Of the 16 Robicheaux books so far, this one is the most poignant love song to the city Burke calls “the great Whore of Babylon.” At the heart of the tale is Robicheaux’s search for a missing friend, a junkie priest named Jude LeBlanc. LeBlanc was last seen heading out in a rowboat to rescue trapped parishioners. But that search competes with Robicheaux’s investigation of the shooting death of a teenage African-American looter, whose killer may be a prosperous white insurance company executive. Knowing that state authorities are going to make a shining example of that executive, Robicheaux urges him to find “a good lawyer.” The creeps in Tin Roof are prime examples of the vilest of characters, and it’s bad guys with biblical-mythological derivations that Burke excels at depicting. The key to helping Robicheaux solve the teenager’s murder is none other than “street puke” Bertrand Melancon, whose ulcer is a metaphor for his rotting soul. Like a gust of wind blowing off the bayou, the enduring pain of ruptured southern Louisiana, “peeled” from the face of the earth, pervades Tin Roof. Robicheaux is a damaged man in many ways, but sidekick Clete Purcel matches him in reckless behavior. In these pages, Purcel is initially hot on the trail of two “bail skips,” but when blood diamonds are stolen during the looting, Purcel is thrust into the center of their recovery. Purcel careens through this book in a heat-induced craze, the booze percolating through his veins, the senseless murder of a friend fueling his actions. Purcel’s pain and loss are just as great as Robicheaux’s, though he’s less verbally reflective about it. Thankfully, its Robicheaux’s -- and Burke’s poetic voice that tells this marvelous and moving yarn. -- Anthony Rainone

Tokyo Year Zero
by David Peace (Faber and Faber UK) 368 pages
This may well be the most-reviewed novel of 2007. A series of rape-homicides in the collapsing moments of World War II-era Japan send Detective Minami on an investigation that ranges far beyond the crimes at hand. The aftermath of war and defeat has trapped him in a nightmare. Author David Peace takes a page from James Ellroy, using a staccato, repetitious style that conveys the urgency and desperation of Tokyo in 1946. You either love this book, or you hate it. I loved it. It’s the most surreal police procedural I have ever read, not only because of the presentation but the setting. Tokyo is destroyed, Tokyo is being rebuilt. Life goes on, but families are searching for missing loved ones, buildings are uninhabitable and entire districts are razed in the wartime firestorms. The main character, Minami, shivers and shakes, itches and scratches through his encounters with the Kompetai (Japan’s military police), the new rules imposed by the victorious Americans and a shakeup in the local police bureau. His fear and anxiety are the novel’s focus expressed through a drumbeat of heat, reconstruction, a mad killer and a new beginning. -- David Thayer

12:23: Paris. 31st August 1997 by Eion McNamee (Faber and Faber UK) 304 pages
As a lover of conspiracy thrillers, I was awaiting Irish novelist-screenwriter McNamee’s 12:23 as I would a missing lung, especially as I had met the author several years ago when he was presented with the inaugural Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for The Sirius Crossing (written he penned under the nom de plume “John Creed”). I probably could have read this new novel in well under two hours, as it is slim in terms of page-count; but it is a big book in terms of ideas, literary style and the atmosphere it can conjure in one’s head. Consequently, I was forced to read more slowly than usual, in order to absorb every word, every sentence into my fevered mind. The premise of 12:23 is that several international spies, connected with assorted agencies and working both officially and not-so-officially, converge upon the French capital during the summer of 1997 to watch fate unfold for Princess Diana, referred to in this text simply as “Spencer,” her family’s surname. Rumors have spread that she is pregnant with a child spawned by her lover, Dodi-al-Fayed, whom the agents call “The Arab,” that label carrying a whiff of racism engendered by the dark figures who seem connected here to Britain’s “establishment.” Further complications arise, as talk spreads that Spencer is going to deliver a speech in which she sides with the Arab Palestinians in their ongoing conflict against Israel. McNamee even manages to implicate members of the Solar Temple cult (a secret society linked to the ancient Knights Templar) in his plot, along with shadowy representatives from a cabal of international arms traders who are concerned that Spencer is eroding the market for landmines. And what would a British espionage novel be without involvement by the French? 12:23 offers a bit of that too. However, it’s the interactions between members of a unit of low-level British spies that drives this narrative so forcefully forward. As in another UK thriller set in Paris, The Day of the Jackal (1971), we know in 12:23 the outcome of the story before it commences. Yet, like Frederick Forsyth, Eoin McNamee captivates us as he sends his characters toward a brutal and disturbing climax. McNamee writes like a magician, with an abundance of smoke and silvery mirrors shielding the truth until the end, when he rolls up his sleeves to reveal his fictional take on the death of Diana, which like a landmine was hidden in plain sight. Like the elusive white Fiat Uno that was allegedly involved in the fatal car accident, the plot concludes here with an alarming number of people having vanished. 12:23 ought to be a very strong contender for next year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. -- Ali Karim

The Unquiet by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton UK) 480 pages
Irish writer Connolly’s The Unquiet is a dark and dangerous literary journey that starts with a feeling of dread, and just builds and builds, until the tension becomes unbearable. If you haven’t previously been introduced to Charlie Parker, this author’s Maine-based private eye (last seen in The Black Angel, 2005), then this novel is a great place to start in the series. The Unquiet finds Parker looking back into the past -- both his and others’ -- to find redemption and atonement for past sins, some of which may never be completely forgiven. We find Parker in these pages no less melancholic than he’s been before, hearing the voices of his deceased first wife and daughter, and trying to find peace with his new, estranged wife, Rachel, and their daughter. To break his morose mood, he takes on what looks like a simple job: protecting a woman named Rebecca Clay and her daughter from a mysterious stalker. In Parker’s world, however, nothing is ever simple. His adventures inevitably contain supernatural aspects, because for this P.I., the world of the living always intersects with the world of the dead, and past sins are propelled into the future. It seems that the stalker harassing Rebecca Clay and her child is an underworld hit man by the name of Frank Merrick, who’s working for a lawyer called Eldritch (an apparent homage to American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft). Together, the men are attempting to trace Rebecca’s father, the child psychologist Dr. Daniel Clay, a man whose career was ruined by whispers of pedophilia, and who subsequently vanished in disgrace. This assignment proves troublesome, so Parker calls upon Louis and Angel, his rough-and-tough sidekicks, as well as Jackie Garner and his bodyguards, Tony and Paulie Fulci, to protect Ms. Clay from Merrick, while Parker probes further into the hit man’s motives. Our hero soon discovers much more amiss than he had expected. It appears Merrick’s young daughter went missing at the same time as Daniel Clay vanished (and while Merrick was still in prison). There’s also evidence that the children Clay was involved with drew pictures of their abusers, all wearing sinister bird-masks. We’re told as well that along the Maine-Canada border rests an abandoned community known as Gilead -- a place Dr. Clay was known to visit, but that was abandoned after it was discovered that ritual child abuse had taken place there. Parker soon finds connections to members of Boston’s Russian mafia, who traffic in children, Internet child abuse and murder. As this story develops further, Parker and Merrick both hear voices from the dead, voices that are hollow, voices belonging to people who no longer walk the earth. And into that potent and chilling mix comes the cigarette-smoking avenger known as “The Collector,” who inquires of Parker: “You think you are a good man?” and continues, “How can one tell the good from the bad when their methods are just the same?” The Unquiet is among the finest reads of this or any other year. I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified. But it’s the wit Connolly harnesses to his fiction that prevents his dark tales from overwhelming readers with malevolence. -- Ali Karim

Walla Walla Suite (A Room With No View)
by Anne Argula (Ballantine Books) 272 pages
There were two big disappointments for me in Walla Walla Suite. One has nothing at all to do with story, but was due to the fact that, late in enjoying the first novel I’d read from this author, and thinking I’d found a woman writer with a strong voice who I hadn’t encountered before, I discovered that Argula is actually a well-known male screenwriter named Daryl Ponicsan (Cinderella Liberty, The Last Detail). The other disappointment was that, for me, three quarters of this book was like listening to new music -- easy, pleasurable, sometimes unexpected -- but in the end, the story didn’t quite hold together, sagging under the weight of overly complicated plotting. Still: here I am, selecting it as one of my best reads of the year simply because, when all was said and done, I loved this book. I loved the Seattle setting, I loved the main character’s quirky way of talking and her hot-flashes-driven view of the world. I loved the language of the book: noir in modern drag. The rapid-fire rat-tat-tat of old-time storytellers, combined with the beautiful punctures of well-placed metaphor. OK: the story could have been slightly better. There’s a killer, of course. A dead girl who everyone loved. For a while our protagonist is in danger. The culprit, when she finds him out, is unexpected. So the story could have been stronger, more weightily hinged. But the journey? For me the journey through Walla Walla Suite was second to not very much. And I’ll follow this writer through more of them, regardless of the name on the cover. -- Linda L. Richards

The Watchman by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster) 304 pages
Technically, this is the first Joe Pike novel, though fans of Crais’ Elvis Cole private-eye series are well acquainted with the hard-charging former Los Angeles police officer and world-ranging mercenary. Pike’s steadfast morality and single-purpose zeal are once again put to the test in The Watchman, this time protecting Larkin Connor Barkley, a wealthy young California socialite whose life is in danger, following a seemingly innocuous traffic accident. Barkley is a hot 22-year-old, suffering as a result of lack of attention from her multi-billionaire father. Barkley likes to live and drive fast, and when her Aston Martin smacks a silver Mercedes sedan, her life is turned upside down. The three occupants of the Mercedes survive and inexplicably flee the scene. Shortly afterwards, several attempts are made on Larkin’s life. The U.S. Department of Justice steps in, and Barkley identifies one of the occupants of the Mercedes as Alexander Liman Meesh, a known murderer and money launderer for a South American drug cartel. The feds suspect that Meesh is behind the attacks on the willowy Ms. Barkley. But the feds seem congenitally incapable of protecting this wild child, so Pike is summoned to help. Nobody writes action sequences better than Crais, and the unfolding drama of Pike fighting off the bad guys here is sheer exhilaration. Also, nobody is better than Pike at making villains wish they were never born. The former marine boasts the skills and discipline that Meesh’s band of South American thrill-killers lack. This contest isn’t even close to being fair. Meesh does have one advantage, though: someone on the inside is leaking Barkley’s location to the bad guys every time she moves to a new safe house. The Watchman gives us a chance to know Joe Pike better than we did before -- to hear more about his mercenary jobs in places like Africa, his abusive father and his career as an LAPD officer. In the past, Elvis Cole has often relied on Joe Pike to watch his back, but this time around, it’s Pike who needs the assistance of The World’s Greatest Detective. The relationship between Pike and Barkley is touching and grows close over time, though never intimate. Pike doesn’t so much undergo a transformation in this novel, as he is deepened as a protagonist. Joe Pike is willfully capable of inflicting pain, or killing villains without remorse, and the hard-edged, kick-ass warrior emerges from these pages ready to do battle with the next batch of bad guys who come along. I pity them already. -- Anthony Rainone

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (William Morrow and Company) 384 pages
Full disclosure: My name appears in this novel’s acknowledgments for technical assistance, and the author managed to twist an anecdote involving yours truly into something even funnier than what really happened. But the basic plot is this: Two sisters disappear from a suburban shopping mall one summer in the mid-1970s. Thirty years later, the victim of a car accident in Baltimore claims to be Sunny Bethany, the younger of those siblings. But is she? That’s what Detective Kevin Infante intends to find out. He’s a womanizing wreck of a man who at least doesn’t have the drinking problems of Jimmy McNulty (from HBO’s The Wire). While What the Dead Know could easily have been the latest in a series about Baltimore County cops Infante and Nancy Porter (of Every Secret Thing fame), it’s not. Still, Porter is along for the ride in this one, with Sergeant Harold Lenhart standing behind them to plant a boot in Infante’s butt from time to time. However, this, like Every Secret Thing and To the Power of Three before it, is a standalone, with a familiar set of characters in place more for familiarity than continuity. The real story is Sunny’s. Or rather the woman Sunny has been for the past four years. It’s about Sunny’s mother, a pleasant Stepford mom who escapes her loveless marriage after her children vanish. It’s about Sunny and Heather Bethany and their transformation from typical suburban girls to urban legends. Lippman deftly juggles four different stories -- Sunny’s life in hiding, her childhood with her sister, their mother’s recovery from losing her girls and Infante’s own mid-life crisis -- mainly by not staying in any one timeframe long enough to reveal too much about each character. The shifts in point of view and setting are seamless and let Lippman’s skill as a writer shine. It’s the latest step in her transformation as a novelist, which began with 2002’s The Last Place. Lippman has always been a good writer. This book proves she is a great one. -- Jim Winter

Whitewash by Alex Kava (MIRA Books) 432 pages
Set in the dual locations of Florida and Washington, D.C., Kava’s multi-layered novel focuses on the central topic of alternative-fuels development, and features an alternating cast of characters culled from the worlds of science, politics and international intelligence. If you never thought the environment could be riveting, you obviously haven’t read Whitewash. Dr. Dwight Lansik is the head scientist for EcoEnergy, an alternative-fuel production facility nestled near the Apalachicola Forest outside of Tallahassee, Florida. Lansik devises a formula using feedstock -- in this case, chicken guts, heads and lungs -- that is heated at extremely high temperatures. There are several individuals who hope to take advantage of EcoEnergy’s breakthrough feedstock process. One of those is Senator John Quincy Allen, from the state of Florida. Allen has been escorting EcoEnergy through the Byzantine channels of D.C. politics, and giving it special attention in the Senate Appropriations Committee. He hopes not only to earn recognition as a front-runner on environmental issues, but also to secure a $140 million contract to supply the U.S. military with fuel. If successful, Allen can write his own political future. Meanwhile, Jason Brill is Allen’s hardworking and underappreciated chief of staff. While Brill engages in a one-night stand with Lindsay Matthews, the chief of staff for Allen’s senatorial adversary, in D.C.’s Washington Grand Hotel, a gay senatorial aide is brutally murdered in that same hotel. Brill presently finds himself a suspect in the eyes of investigating detectives, after police discover that the two men knew each other. And while all of this is going on, workaholic Dr. Lansik goes missing, and Dr. Sabrina Galloway, a staff scientist at EcoEnergy, becomes suspicious. When she notices that Reactor #5 is processing Grade 2 materials -- plastics and metals, even though EcoEnergy is not set up yet to safely process those materials -- she brings it to the plant engineer’s attention. Galloway’s powers of observation are not welcome. Someone runs her off the road one night, and she nearly dies. Later, when a fellow scientist is mistaken for Galloway and brutally murdered, Galloway doesn’t need further provocation. She packs up and flees Tallahassee. There’s a lot going on in Whitewash, which explains its more than 400 pages of length; but that expansiveness doesn’t give it room to drag. Whitewash is a rock-solid, imaginative thriller. -- Anthony Rainone

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins) 432 pages
Alternative history scenarios can be fascinating to spin out within the safety of fiction. How, for instance, might the past have been changed, had the Spanish Armada defeated the English fleet in 1588? What would have happened, had the Russian Revolution never happened, or the South had won the U.S. Civil War, or Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1944, or a World War II-era plan to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe in the Territory of Alaska been successful? Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution and other novels, tackles that final “what if” in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a thoughtful reconsideration of Jewish identity cleverly disguised as a detective novel. Apparently, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, there were plans floated to bring displaced Jews from Nazi Germany to sparsely settled Alaska. That scheme eventually foundered in Congress, and the fleeing Jews instead found what they fervently hoped was sanctuary in Palestine. But like Philip Roth, who, in The Plot Against America (2004), played with the scenario of famed aviator and supposed Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beating FDR in the 1940 U.S. presidential race, Chabon considers what might have come to pass had that Alaskan resettlement scheme been executed. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it’s the 21st century, and the government of Alaska determines to reassert its hegemony over the Federal District of Sitka, which it always considered a “temporary” Jewish home. For the Yiddish-speaking Sitkans, though, who for 60 years thought they were safe, this is yet another unwanted and unfair eviction, and there’s no telling where they’ll go next. In the midst of the upheaval, a burnt-out homicide cop named Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a chess-playing, junkie neighbor, who may or may not be the Messiah. Landsman sees in this case his path to a love-overdue redemption, but others -- including underworld rabbis and his ex-wife, who also happens to be his new boss -- see him as a pain in the ass and a troublemaker, and want him stopped. Chabon has a lot of fun, dropping in allusions to twists in history that never actually got twisted (he mentions at one point former first lady “Marilyn Monroe Kennedy in her pink pillbox hat”) and playing with the rhythms of crime fiction (his prose can be positively Chandleresque at times). However, he has some thought-provoking things to say in these pages about whether history shapes people, or it’s the other way around. Although the Jews of Chabon’s fertile imagination have escaped their real-life rivalry with Palestinians, they are still challenged for their homeland--in this case, by Alaska’s Tlingit Indians, who don’t appreciate the refugees squatting on land that has historically belonged to them. Like the storied character, Flitcraft, in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the Jews in Chabon’s tale haven’t found their lives all that changed by a change in environment. -- J. Kingston Pierce

(Part I can be found here.)

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Blogger JD Rhoades said...

Thank you, folks. It's humbling to be included in such company.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 5:50:00 AM PST  

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