Saturday, December 27, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Crime Fiction, Part II

Hit and Run by Lawrence Block (Morrow) 304 pages
Over the years, I’ve made no secret of the fact that Lawrence Block is my favorite writer. I’m deeply in love with his Matt Scudder novels, so smart and sad and rich with character and grit. I discovered Eight Million Ways to Die when I was 19 and it made me love the genre and take it very seriously. Block was my gateway drug to George Pelecanos, Richard Price and so many other great novelists. Creative bastard that he is, Block has also reinvented the hit man novel. Although I love Barry Eisler’s John Rain series about an assassin searching for his soul, afraid that he might not even have one, Block’s John Keller is even more realistic -- and far scarier because of it. I keep going back to actor John Cusack’s line in Grosse Point Blank, when he says to a victim: “It’s not personal! Why does everyone always ask that?” That’s Keller in a nutshell. He’s a regular guy. He watches baseball and collects stamps. He’s the quiet neighbor everyone likes because he never bothers them. Killing just happens to be his job. And unlike most fictional hit men, Keller will kill a simple housewife just as easily as he would a mobster. He’s good at it too. Pure pro, all the way. He’ll get a call from his agent, Dot, catch a plane to wherever the hit is supposed to happen, stay in a cheap motel fighting boredom, and then after he’s finished, he will go back home to his simple life until the next call comes. In Hit and Run, though, he’s gotten it into his head to retire. Not because he’s growing a conscience about killing all those people, but because he’s getting old and he thinks this one last hit will set him up financially for the rest of his days. Of course his last hit goes wrong. While watching television in his room, he sees a special report about the governor of Ohio, a rising star, being assassinated in the same city where he’s gone to make his hit. Then bad turns to worse, when a picture of the suspected assassin is shown on the news -- and it’s a picture of Keller. Out of money, having spent most of its on expensive stamps, Keller sets off on the run with very few resources. But you don’t want to attack a savage beast without knowing what you’re going up against, do you? It’s not long before Keller stops running defensive drills and goes on the offense, trying to figure out who set him up for the crime, and why. Block’s third-person narration immerses you in his story, but with a curious detachment, the same sort of detachment Keller must feel while assassinating his targets. It’s a subtle technique, but once you get it, the story becomes horrific. You suddenly find yourself cheering on a really bad guy who should probably be put down like a mad dog or else imprisoned for life. This is why I idolize Block’s writing. What Keller does feel is often loneliness, where what he craves most is to be able to talk with someone and be completely honest. Who doesn’t want that? -- Cameron Hughes

The King of Swords by Nick Stone (Harper) 576 pages
This prequel to Nick Stone’s astonishing and award-winning first novel, Mr. Clarinet (2006), finds Miami cops Max Mingus and Joe Liston investigating the escape of some monkeys from a primate park. But that’s small potatoes compared with the larger, deeper and more disturbing focus of this book, which comes into relief as these cops are embroiled in a brutal series of murders. All the cards seem to lead them back to a man in the darkness, the epitome of evil, his name heard only in whispers -- Solomon Boukman. The only solution is for Mingus and Liston to navigate the Miami underworld looking for a fortune teller as well as a slimy pimp, who together may hold the key. But confronted with corrupt cops and black magic, Mingus and Liston realize that Boukman is far worse than the rumors that circle his existence. A book not to be missed. -- Ali Karim

The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics edited by Paul Gravett (Running Press/Robinson) 480 pages
Hmm. Crime comics. I love ’em. But there’s never really been a decent, affordable collection. Oh, there have been reference books about them, full of teasing references and tantalizing glimpses of a panel or two, but a true selection, that will give you a real taste? Nope. Until now. The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett, is by far the richest reading experience I’ve had all year -- grim, vital, thrilling and alive. Within its almost 500 pages, there’s a veritable who’s who of some of the most regarded and respected comic-book writers and artists ever assembled, from all over the world, from past to present, all in glorious, no-holds-barred black and white. And there’s not a dog in the bunch. There are excerpts from comic strips, comic books and even a healthy smattering of bandes dessinées from Europe, where comics are taken a lot more seriously than they are in spandex-obsessed North America. Alan Moore’s “Old Gangsters Never Die” is a surreal bit of business, but an appropriate kick-off to an amazing lineup of well-known classics and bold new discoveries. Will Eisner’s The Spirit gets his heart broken; El Borbah, the Mexican professional wrestler and private eye, breaks into a sperm bank; and Max Allan Collins’ very pregnant Ms. Tree’s water breaks. There’s a “true crime” story here from the legendary team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond are represented by an arc from their Secret Agent X-9 newspaper strip, and France’s Jacques Tardi (who, alas, doesn’t contribute one of his masterful Nestor Burma adaptations) illustrates a sobering tale of post-Vietnam New York. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer shows up twice in this collection, once in a 1942 story that actually predates I, the Jury, where he’s known as Mike Lancer, and once under his own name in a string of little-seen 1954 strips. There’s a story from the extremely rare 1962 87th Precinct comic book (a tie-in to a TV show already cancelled), and Argentinean refugees Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz’s still-astonishingly bleak Alack Sinner appears in a noirish vignette. And even so, Gravett barely scratches the surface. More, please. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Nothing to Lose by Lee Child (Delacorte Press) 416 pages
Former military cop Jack Reacher is drifting through Colorado, when he stumbles upon two small towns, Despair and Hope, both of which will ultimately live up to their names. He soon finds himself run out of Despair by the local constabulary for vagrancy. As any veteran reader of Lee Child’s phenomenally popular series could predict, Reacher decides to return to the town, sensing that something is not quite right there. After befriending a shapely cop from Hope named Vaughan, he starts an investigation, only to turn up a dead body found on the side of a road separating the two towns. After that corpse vanishes, Reacher realizes there are larger and darker forces at work around him. All of this leads to a bare-knuckles barroom brawl pitting the 6-foot-5 Reacher against Despair’s sheriff and deputies, a sequence that it is as vivid as it is violent. And amid all of this, Reacher discovers that Despair is very much a company town, dominated by one powerful employer, a giant metal-recycling plant from which trucks roll in and out at all hours. He’s also intrigued by a mysterious plane that flies over Despair at night, questions surrounding a covert army base, and Thurman, an evangelical mayor. Thurman is actually kept offstage until the middle of this book, just when Reacher and Vaughan are getting intimate. But action fans need not fear, as plenty of bad guys get their jaws broken in these pages. What’s most interesting about Nothing to Lose may be Reacher’s musings on the madness that lurks at the heart of the road separating his two fictional Colorado towns. Although this book follows Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor (1997), in terms of plotting, the peep we get into Reacher’s understanding of the Iraq war and his distaste of fanatical religion make for compelling reading. This is what I love about the Jack Reacher novels -- the thought-provoking information that peppers the narrative and makes one question apparent reality. -- Ali Karim

Pavel & I by Daniel Vyleta (Bloomsbury) 352 pages
In a year that it seemed impossible to keep up with Cold War novels, Pavel & I stood head and shoulders above the pack. Unfortunately, it’s also quite likely that the book entirely escaped your notice. Although Daniel Vyleta’s debut work possesses strong literary merit, with a twisty plot featuring espionage, marauding gangs of displaced youths and a dead dwarf who keeps cropping up in the most unlikely places, the book would have done much better had it been marketed as a thriller, which it most clearly is. (It certainly kept this reader perched on the edge of her seat.) Set in Berlin immediately following World War II, the period detail here is wonderful, as is Vyleta’s ability to bring it all to life. I shivered under a blanket for most of my reading of the book, which is set entirely in the meanest Berlin winter in memory. -- Linda L. Richards

Paying for It by Tony Black (Preface Publishing/
Random House) 272 pages

A keen journalistic eye is evident in Black’s debut novel, set in the dark heart of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. The story features Gus Dury, who like Black is a journalist; but unlike Black, Dury’s career is imploding in the wake of an incident involving a government minister and the hot topic of immigration. Dury, who now lives in a flat above a pub, gets involved in finding out what happened to Billy, the son of his landlord and only friend. The trail leads deep into the malicious business of people-trafficking, where can be found Russian and East European gangsters, cops on the take and innocents trapped in the linkages between those worlds. At first I was a little skeptical about this story, due to its all-too-familiar genre trappings, such as Dury’s failed marriage, his love for the bottle and criminal gangs from the east. However, within a few pages, I was captivated by Black’s command of the English language, his sense of pace and the narrative marbled with humor pulled right off the gallows. Black’s debut is a superb effort -- and a good pick for readers lamenting the passing of Ian Rankin’s sardonic Detective Inspector John Rebus. Dury’s Edinburgh is as interesting, if not more interesting than Rebus’. -- Ali Karim

A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr (Quercus Publishing) 368 pages
Until two years ago, when British writer Philip Kerr brought Bernie Gunther back in The One from the Other, most readers -- myself included -- thought that his World War II-era Berlin cop turned private eye had been left behind in a trilogy of wonderfully atmospheric mysteries: March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990) and German Requiem (1991). But The One from the Other showed Gunther still endowed with cynicism and ingenuity, and that novel was so fondly received, that Kerr has put his man back on the payroll. In A Quiet Flame, we find Gunther posing as a Nazi war criminal (read the previous book to find out why) and escaping to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950. Everywhere he goes in South America’s most European city, he seems to come across some former Hitler henchman, now living behind an assumed name and innocent occupation, benefiting from President Juan Perón’s interest in permanently retired Nazis -- and their ill-gotten gains. Gunther might have liked to disappear among the metropolis’ late-night eateries and broad boulevards, too. But instead he’s called on by the local chief of police, who knows something of his sordid background, to help investigate the gruesome slaying of a young girl -- a case that bears similarities to another, unsolved case that Gunther worked on during his days with the Berlin police. The assumption is that an ex-Nazi is behind this homicide, and who could be better prepared to suss out malevolent Nazis than Bernie Gunther? There are lots of flashbacks here, placing a more hopeful Gunther in Berlin in 1932, where he delves into the “lust murder” of Anita Schwarz, a disabled part-time prostitute and the daughter of a prominent “ brown shirt.” Far from distracting, these back-stories give us both more knowledge about Bernie Gunther and a captivating portrait of Berlin during its often wild, Weimar Republic days. In this sometimes chilling yarn, Kerr does an exceedingly good job of bringing to life such characters as Perón and his wife, Eva, as well as Adolf Eichmann and Otto Skorzeny. And he mixes them with fictional figures no less able to win attention, notably Anna Yagubsky, a beautiful young Jewish woman (“Her figure was all right if you liked them built like expensive thoroughbreds. I happened to like them built that way just fine.”), who wants the older Gunther’s help in finding her lost relatives, and in return assists him in the Schwarz probe, no matter the dangers involved -- and the bed sheets they must tangle along the way. Questions about Argentina’s collaboration with the Nazis and its anti-Semitism only add further spice to A Quiet Flame. There are just enough loose ends in the last chapter to suggest that Kerr has a sixth Bernie Gunther book in the works. Thank goodness. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Robbie’s Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime) 256 pages
Jack Stone, a 60-year-old screenwriter quits Los Angeles after his second failed marriage, matched by a career on the slide. He packs his laptop and his life savings into a duffel bag and heads to Dorset, a sleepy little agricultural backwater in England’s southwest, to compose the killer screenplay he believes will get him back on professional track. His precarious financial situation is the ticking clock that is marbled throughout this narrative. Finding himself a lodger in the Barlow household’s spare room, he struggles to get a handle on his screenplay. But then he meets Maggie, “a tall woman with long auburn hair” and the eponymous Robbie Barlow’s wife. Robbie is a rugged sheep farmer, but with a university education, who befriends Stone, taking him in after his car has been vandalized. Robbie is in his early 40s and handsome, contrasting with the aging Stone, who at three score years considers himself on the losing side of his career as well as his life. Stone soon finds himself falling in love with Maggie, who is more than 20 years his junior, and as he does so, he discovers his lust expressing itself in his writing. As his fevered mind senses the attraction of this comely farmer’s spouse, his screenplay starts to take shape -- a dark shape. Due to this novel’s trajectory, the first three-quarters build up the tension until it becomes unbearable, both from a sexual and character-development perspective. Once all of that build-up is released, and the crime committed, Robbie’s Wife seems to go into a downward spiral, as Stone discovers the high price he must pay for his actions, both morally and criminally. As a cautionary tale, Robbie’s Wife works with a real erotic charge, but it’s the novel’s atmosphere, location and players that elevate it from the pulp tradition it so wants to emulate, and make it a very absorbing and insightful read. You’ll be thinking about this book for a lot longer than it takes to read. -- Ali Karim

Rough Weather by Robert B. Parker (Putnam) 304 pages
Ho-hum. Another year, another Spenser novel. But once more, Parker delivers the goods, and makes it look effortless. Although actually, the first few chapters didn’t bode particularly well. Yet another of Parker’s pastiche/rip-offs of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal”? He’s been there, done that (most notably in 1998’s Jesse Stone novel, Trouble in Paradise), each time with diminishing returns. On this occasion, private eye Spenser is hired by über-rich Heidi Bradshaw to serve as her bodyguard/escort at her daughter’s swank wedding on a private island. And he’s told he can bring his girlfriend, Susan Silverman! Oh, joy! By now, those of you who gave up on this Boston wise-ass years ago will be rolling your eyes, and I’ll admit that the arrival of Spenser’s nemesis as one of the wedding guests, the deadly and apparently superhuman hit man Rugar (never one of my favorite characters), had me wondering myself. Was Parker once again lighting out for the territory of misguided, self-indulgent self-mythology (cf.: A Catskill Eagle, Small Vices)? And yet, somehow, the love affair Parker has with his own character is put aside long enough for him to crank out yet another winner. Once the ball starts rolling, it becomes obvious why Parker’s still a champ after all these years. Simply put, the dude can write. The dialogue snaps, the pace never slackens (the confrontation between Spenser and a gang of kidnappers on the storm-tossed island could double as a how-to on writing action scenes), the characters reveal surprising depths and the stakes are mortal indeed. And once again, Parker’s preoccupation with the bounds of friendship and family, of honor and courage, are challenged. No, there are no great revelations here, but it’s always refreshing to see Spenser root around in the murk of his own moral code. Make no mistake: Spenser is a man of conscience, someone who understands that every action has consequences. But in a genre that too often resorts to glib cynicism of the cheapest and most prurient kind, it’s sorta nice to see someone pandering to the notion of doing the right thing. Call it the audacity of heroism. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Salvation Boulevard by Larry Beinhart (Nation Books) 368 pages
You hardly ever see this in these days of brain-dead, self-perpetuating culture wars: an honest-to-god intelligent mystery written for people whose thirst for ideas extends further than some snake-oil salesman’s spiel or the 24-hour “news” networks. The divisive issues of faith and belief -- and the increasingly cynical exploitation of that chasm by believers and non-believers alike -- is tackled with verve, style and surprising fair-mindedness in Beinhart’s Salvation Boulevard. Born-again gumshoe Carl Van Wagener is a devoted member of a huge fundamentalist church; a clean-living man who’s run a gauntlet of addictions and broken marriages to finally find salvation and redemption through Christ and the love of a good woman. But he’s also a well-respected and much-in-demand professional with a questioning nature. Which means he’s no slack-jawed drooler or squeaky-clean Bible humper -- the way believers are too often depicted in crime fiction -- but an intelligent and caring man whose beliefs are as human as he is. And those bedrock beliefs are challenged when he’s summoned by one of his best clients, Manny Goldfarb, a high-flying Jewish defense attorney and sucker for lost causes and big headlines, to work on the case of Ahmad Nazami, a young Muslim student charged with the murder of Nathaniel MacLeod, a controversial atheist professor. This book should be an unholy mash-up of pretentious polemics and cynical stereotypes, or a mean-spirited snoozefest taking potshots at easy targets. But it’s neither. Rather, it’s that rare crime novel that wears both its heart and its brain on its sleeve and manages to ask hard questions without sacrificing one single thrill. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski (St. Martin’s
Minotaur) 288 pages

In Severance Package, the Pole with Soul offers up his latest loose sequel to The Wheelman (2005). PR hack Jamie DeBroux is summoned to work one morning for a “management meeting.” For Jamie, it’s his first day back after the birth of his baby. He kisses his wife good-bye, heads for work, and is promptly informed that the company is a front for a super-secret government organization. The operation is being shut down, and they’ve all been ordered to commit suicide, even Jamie, who thought he was just writing copy for some vague investment firm. The elevators are rigged with nerve gas, and bombs will destroy that floor of the building once it’s all done. Jamie is soon fighting for his life as sweet, corn-fed Molly Lewis proceeds to slaughter everyone. What follows is a combination of The Terminator and Die Hard, except this is written by Duane Swierczynski, whose debut novel, Secret Dead Men, centered on a schizophrenic zombie. So this is really Terminator and Die Hard on acid. As a bonus, the novel shows some influence from Swierczynski’s comic-book work. This book makes the list on its weird factor alone. -- Jim Winter

Sins of the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno (Scribner) 400 pages
You know, once I realized that this was a creative take on Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories by way of Islam, Robert Ferrigno’s satirical thriller really opened up for me. Sins of the Assassin has all the trappings of a Bond yarn. The protagonist, Rakkim Epps, is little more than a highly trained thug for his government, only this time it’s an Islamic government rather than a British one. The novel has two colorful villains, the Colonel and his femme fatale lover, Baby. He’s a warlord in the Bible Belt (the old Southern confederacy), which vies with the Islamic Republic for dominance in what had been the United States, but was conquered dozens of years ago using a brilliantly executed attack involving suitcase nukes. Even more colorful is the rich, radical Islamist known as the Old One, who lives on a large, well-populated yacht that can be hidden with ease, become no one thinks it really exists. This book even has a major doomsday weapon hidden in the mountains that everyone wants. Sound familiar yet? It’s the questions that author Ferrigno asks in Sins that make it an interesting read. Can a theocracy survive without eventually devouring itself as people with different belief levels clash for power? Is it acceptable to be a killer in the name of patriotism? Do we need religion in a world where science is advancing at such a quick rate that many previously unanswerable questions about existence and life are finally being answered? And can somebody still be a good person without the assurance that only such behavior will lead him to Paradise? Sins is pulpish in the best ways, without feeling retro and insulting the reader’s intelligence. It’s the second book of a trilogy (following 2006’s Prayers for the Assassin), but would also work as a standalone novel. Ferrigno’s series plumbs the anxieties kicked up by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after which many people who’d been politically liberal on 9/10 were scared out of their minds and became right-wing conservatives on 9/12. While Sins of the Assassin shows clear Bond influences, the action is more Jason Bourne caliber. Political intrigue is deep and layered here, and the action is often quick and vicious; it left me breathless, and the book’s climax left me speechless. Rakkim Epps is Daniel Craig’s James Bond -- quiet and tortured, with a soul that he won’t let us see for fear that the revelation would leave him unable to carry out what he views as his patriotic duties. This is a great and unique thriller. You’ll love it. -- Cameron Hughes

Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime) 336 pages
Olen Steinhauer has written many fine books about the police in a country very much like Romania. Now comes Genelin, whose protagonist, Jana Matinova, has climbed to the rank of commander in the police force of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Her rise to her present position has cost her a lot, though, and she’s currently in charge of an investigation into a deadly human-trafficking ring. She’s a tremendously interesting character, totally believable (and with the same aura of sad determination as the hero of Child 44), facing a truly frightening villain named Koba. -- Dick Adler

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin (Picador) 320 pages
The sequel to Goodwin’s Edgar Award-winning The Janissary Tree (2006), The Snake Stone is the second of his Istanbul novels to feature Yashim Togalu. Formerly a eunuch at the sultan’s court, Yashim has earned a reputation as a lala, or guardian, a man of discretion to whom people can turn in their time of need. When a French archaeologist throws himself on Yashim’s hospitality, and is then discovered horribly murdered, suspicion falls on Yashim himself -- but things are rarely what they seem in 19th-century Turkey. The plot is as pleasingly labyrinthine as its host city, employing history, archaeology and politics to flesh out a vibrant and meticulously detailed vision of the former Constantinople. Situated at the geographical crossing point between East and West, that city is a cultural melting pot that accommodates a bewildering variety of nationalities alongside its staple populations of Turks and Greeks. Goodwin, a historian, employs a rich and lyrical style perfectly suited to the stately pace, and The Snake Stone (originally released last year, but new in paperback for 2008) is very much a compelling page-turner, a literary thriller. The most gratifying aspect of it all is that the plot is not simply grafted onto a historical setting; the city is as much a character as anyone else in the novel, and the uncovering of its layers is integral to the investigation of the murder at hand. Beautifully written and exquisitely crafted, this is an exotic jewel with a keen respect for the tradition of the genre’s classic private-eye narratives. -- Declan Burke

Special Assignments by Boris Akunin (Random House) 335 pages
Fans of the brilliant Russian author Boris Akunin (a pseudonym) expect the unexpected: each of his books about Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a late-19th-century government detective -- “the governor-general of Moscow’s deputy for special assignments and a citizen of the sixth class, a knight of many Russian and foreign orders” -- is different in tone, style and subject-matter from the others; all are composed with the help of an elaborate (though not obtrusive or even apparent) scheme of subgenre classification and psychological personality types that keeps the writer stimulated and the reader surprised. (For instance, to quote Fandorin’s advice to a subordinate: “From what they knew about [one witness] ... he was a ‘tortoise’: an unsociable, suspicious type turned in on himself ... [W]ith a tortoise you had to avoid being too familiar; you must narrow the distance between you, or he’d immediately withdraw into his shell.”) The single book Special Assignments, containing two Fandorin tales, provides examples of Akunin’s eclecticism. “The Jack of Spades” notes the mischievous doings of a daring confidence-trickster whose swindles are thwarted by a just-as-cunning scheme perpetrated by the resourceful Fandorin; it is a witty duel between a comic knave and a prince of disguise. “The Decorator” displays the dark deeds of a Russian Jack the Ripper, who turns his evil eye upon Fandorin and his beloved associates; it is a grim and suspenseful battle with a serial killer. Both stories are translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, who seems as adept at setting mood and style as the masterful Mr. Akunin. -- Tom Nolan

The Survivor by Tom Cain (Bantam Press) 400 pages
This second novel from the pseudonymous Tom Cain (The Accident Man) starts out with a flashback, focusing on shadowy intelligence figure Samuel Carver’s third mission. That 1993 assignment was to sabotage a plane carrying the elderly Waylon McCabe, a grotesque character who, apart from having a warped vision of Christianity, busies himself as an industrialist amassing a fortune from war and oil. Although his airplane crashes in the far reaches of Canada, McCabe survives, and then proceeds to plot his revenge not only on Carver, but on humanity in general. The Survivor then flips back to the conclusion of The Accident Man, where Carver is in therapy recovering from both the physical and mental injuries he’d sustained in the story. After that, we’re asked to follow parallel plots, one set in Carver’s hospital ward, the other built around an American and Russian conspiracy that could destroy our planet. The Russians are seeking to recover their agent, Alix Petrova -- who has become Carver’s lover -- and use her on a mission. Alix, meanwhile, is uncertain whether Carver will recover from his injuries, but she remains deeply in love with him. And as this story progresses, there’s a little problem with regard to a cache of suitcase-contained nukes that went missing after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. McCabe and his cabal realize all too well that these devices could be awfully useful in their plan to call forth the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Tense, terse and fraught with anxiety, The Survivor draws upon the pulp-thriller heritage to navigate a story that makes you zip through the pages as if your life depended upon reaching the conclusion before your heart gives out. If you enjoy your thrillers fast and furious, with a nod to the Golden Age, when Britain’s spies saved the world, then the adventures of Samuel Carver will satisfy. -- Ali Karim

Swan Peak by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) 416 pages
New Iberia Sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux and private investigator Clete Purcell find themselves neck deep in homicide and targeted by a potential mobster in James Lee Burke’s gorgeous paradigm of good and evil, Swan Peak. This story is set in western Montana’s Lolo Pass, and Burke brings the same paintbrush and palette to the forests, creeks and mountains of Big Sky Country that he usually reserves for his Louisiana-based novels. It is an effusion of color and carnage. There are multiple story lines converging like tributaries meeting to feed the deep waters of a surging river. Purcell stumbles upon the ranch of wealthy brothers Ridley and Leslie Wellstone and raises the distinct possibility that Leslie Wellstone is really notorious mobster Sally Dio, who supposedly died in a plane crash. Leslie Wellstone is married to Jamie Sue Stapleton, a former country-music singer of physical beauty and exceptional voice whose ex-lover, Jimmy Dale Greenwood, a gifted musician himself, comes looking for her toting baggage of his own. While doing a stint in a Texas prison for grand theft, Greenwood sticks a shiv in a sadistic guard named Troyce Nix. Nix follows Greenwood to Montana to exact revenge, only to fall in love with another lost soul by the name of Candace Sweeney. If that weren’t enough, Purcell falls for an FBI agent investigating the Wellstones and maybe Purcell himself. The criminal aspects of these characters is more than enough for one book, but on top of all that, Burke sets a serial killer loose in Montana. The murderer’s victims are a University of Montana coed and her boyfriend. Purcell is convinced the Wellstones and their stable of hired thugs are involved, and Robicheaux is deputized by local sheriff Joe Bim Higgins to help solve the case. It isn’t long, though, before Robicheaux and Purcell are deemed more detrimental than helpful, and Robicheaux is un-deputized. And in a particularly gruesome confrontation involving Purcell (though there are many altercations throughout), the beleaguered and often juiced-out P.I. nearly loses his life. There is arguably not a better living American writer today than Burke, and all the robust qualities of his work -- the exploration of good and evil, of historical connections to present circumstances, of the consequences of happenstance and deliberate action, of love -- fill the pages of Swan Peak. -- Anthony Rainone

Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay (Bantam) 404 pages
Promise Falls, New York, the setting for Linwood Barclay’s terrific standalone thriller Too Close to Home, is a town of some 40,000 citizens: “too large to be called quaint,” notes Jim Cutter, the book’s narrator, a would be-artist turned landscape-gardener, “but it’s a pretty city, lots of historic architecture, a river running down from the falls it’s named for” -- and a population that turns self-righteous at the first hint of scandal. When Cutter’s teenaged son becomes the prime suspect in the murders of the Cutters’ next-door neighbors, Jim finds that in most townspeople’s eyes -- including those of his gardening clients -- his boy is guilty until proven innocent:
“Well, I certainly don’t blame him for pleading not guilty,” Leonard Putnam said. “That’s how the game is played. ... I suppose, were I to somehow lose control of my impulses and commit an act of violence, I’d no doubt proclaim my innocence, too.”

“I didn’t say he was pleading not guilty. I said he was innocent.”

Putnam half-chuckled again. “Look at me, actually having a debate with you about this. It’s quite extraordinary, really. We won’t be needing you anymore, it’s as simple as that. I’ll send you a check to cover the entire month, however. I’m a reasonable person.”
Barclay, a former Toronto, Canada, humor-columnist and author of last year’s internationally bestselling novel No Time for Goodbye, has a fine ear and eye for the hypocritical and ludicrous nuances of life in our modern cities and suburbs. He also knows how to tell a suspenseful tale of a family in jeopardy -- and of the saving graces of love, humor and grit. -- Tom Nolan

Toros & Torsos by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books) 408 pages
This second installment in the Hector Lassiter series is really more about Ernest Hemingway, with a detour into 1947 Hollywood for an accidental brush with the Black Dahlia. It begins in 1935, where Lassiter and “Hem” are locking down in the Florida Keys for a killer storm about to blow through. “Lasso,” as Hemingway calls Craig McDonald’s pulp-fiction writer with literary aspirations, manages to snag himself a young thing named Rachel. Soon, a bizarre series of killings begins up and down the Keys. Women are cut up and stuffed with machine parts, or else set in odd postures like surrealist paintings. When Hem and Lassiter return from a rescue run to another island, Rachel appears to have fallen victim to the same murderer. Lassiter is haunted by the killings as he accompanies Hemingway to revolutionary Spain in 1937 and then helps out Orson Welles on a movie in 1947, his presence in Los Angeles at that time perhaps leading to the Black Dahlia slaying of starlet Elizabeth Short. Across a quarter-century span, Lassiter is shadowed by Rachel’s ghost, wondering if she really died. Hector Lassiter himself is a compelling character, and an unusual one for a series player. He is a fictional member of the Lost Generation, so it’s not strange to find in his orbit luminaries such as Hemingway and Welles. McDonald paints a broad canvas that stretches from pre-World War I to the late 1960s. Not your typical crime novel, but then McDonald is not your typical writer. -- Jim Winter

Trigger City by Sean Chercover (Morrow) 304 pages
“Facts are not truth. Listen carefully. This is important.” These are the first words to come from private eye Ray Dudgeon since he finished his first adventure, in Sean Chercover’s debut novel, Big City, Bad Blood (2007). In Trigger City, Ray’s still smarting as a result of his clash with The Outfit, losing his girlfriend and being tortured. Business isn’t going well, either. So when the late Joan Richmond’s father offers all the money Ray needs for exclusive use of his services, Ray can’t say no. There’s no question about who killed Joan Richmond; a former coworker rang her doorbell, shot her in the face, then went home and committed suicide to The Best of Abba. But things get hairy when Ray’s usual allies, Chicago police Lieutenant Mike Angelo and reporter Terry Green, are scared away from this case. Things become even more bizarre when Ray finds himself caught between two government organizations straight out of a Duane Swierczynski novel. Chercover achieved amazing results with a stock premise in Big City. He does even better with Trigger City, writing more tightly and never letting up on the pace. A pale copy of his first novel would have been an achievement in and of itself. Chercover goes far beyond that with his sophomore work, telling a good story better than most writes could do. -- Jim Winter

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith (Bleak House
Books) 260 pages

Anthony Neil Smith, the mastermind behind Plots With Guns, brings us a novel-length story that would be right at home among the 4,000-word nuggets PWG presents each quarter. Billy Lafitte is a disgraced New Orleans cop rebuilding his life in rural Minnesota. Only Billy hasn’t kicked his old habits. They come back to bite him when he tries to help out a friend with benefits by running interference between her boyfriend and some meth dealers. Everything Billy touches from the word go blows up in his face, and almost every friend he has in the world dies. To make matters worse, a Homeland Security agent named Rome loves the idea of making Lafitte into a terrorist, so he can present poor Billy’s head on a platter to his bosses. Turns out, Rome is every bit as bad, or even worse than Lafitte. Of course, Rome has no conscience. Lafitte can at least fake one. This is a dirty, nasty little book that sounds like rockabilly set to the clatter of bullets. -- Jim Winter

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Blogger Neil said...

I'm tickled pink. But will punch you if you make fun of me for it.

Thanks for the love.

Sunday, December 28, 2008 3:54:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do good female crime writers not exist?

Monday, February 9, 2009 2:40:00 PM PST  
Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

Of course, Anonymous, there are many fine women crime novelists. If you're looking for just a handful of suggestions, try Linda Barnes, Laura Wilson, Anne Perry, Ann Cleeves, Christa Faust, Megan Abbott, Kris Nelscott, Linda L. Richards, Natasha Cooper, Alafair Burke, Cara Black, Tana French, Laura Lippman, Barbara Fister, Susanna Gregory, Denise Hamilton, and ... well, the list could go on and on.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009 1:32:00 PM PST  

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