Lair of the Lizard

by E.C. Ayres

Published by St. Martin's Press/Dunne Books

1998, 288 pages

Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?
Photographer-turned-private eye Tony Lowell would much rather hang out in his cabin at Manatee Bay, on Florida's Gulf Coast, where he can wait for prosperity to plunge conveniently from the sky while he works to refurbish his classic schooner, the Andromeda. But Lair of the Lizard finds his gorgeous daughter Ariel suddenly showing up on his doorstep to ask that he go looking for Alicia Sandoval, a Hispanic woman whom Ariel met during a New Age self-awareness seminar in New Mexico... and who has recently disappeared. Lowell, still feeling guilty for having missed the first 20-odd years of Ariel's life (thanks to her interfering and wealthy grandfather), figures he has to help. Despite the fact that this means stepping into what sounds like a messy domestic dispute, involving Alicia and her menacing ex-husband Danny Lopez. And even though it requires that he haul his sorry Anglo butt all the way out to Santa Fe -- a trip of greater cultural than physical distance.

Author E.C. Ayres has some fun working the fish-out-of-water theme, as Lowell is cursed at in Santa Fe by gun-toting Hispanic gang members and puzzles over how to eat sapodillas. But the detective isn't enjoying himself at all, as he realizes that Ariel's fears for her friend are justified: Lopez is not the benign and charming ex-jock he appears to be. He has not only beaten Alicia Sandoval, but stalked and raped her. He may also have been responsible for the untimely demise of his previous wife. Yet Danny's friends, the local constabulary, and the prosperous Sandoval family all resist getting involved, adhering to a harmful and tragically out-of-date tradition that says a husband has the right to control and keep track of his wife -- even if he is patently unfaithful, and regardless of whether she divorces him!

With help both from a dubious mystic and from Santa Fe gumshoe Joshua Croft (who makes an unexpected cameo appearance here, after being featured in several novels by Walter Satterthwait), Lowell finally finds Alicia in southern Colorado. But before he can save her (or exploit the obvious sexual tension between them), she vanishes again, with switchblade-wielding Danny hot on her trail and Lowell running dangerously close behind.

This is the fourth Tony Lowell adventure (after Hour of the Manatee, Eye of the Gator, and Night of the Panther). And according to Ayres, it may be his last. "I have tried to address powerful social and ecological issues... in my books," Ayres explains. "That has not always been met with approval from more traditional mystery readers and institutions (including my own publisher)." This is a regrettable turn of events, indeed; for while Ayres hasn't always produced wholly original plots (Lair of the Lizard could be Exhibit A in making that case), and he often substitutes quirky explanations for logical ones in moving his stories forward, he has shown a decided aptitude for creating sharp dialogue and characters (like Alicia Sandoval) with whom the reader cannot help but empathize. For his publisher to cut him off now, as Ayres is still trying to get this series noticed, would be an act of cowardice equal to what today's TV networks demonstrate in deep-sixing any new shows that don't capture huge segments of the viewing audience within a month. If you agree that this is an injustice, e-mail your support for E.C. Ayres and his man Lowell to Senior Editor Ruth Cavin at St. Martin's Press: Or send a letter by snail mail to: Ruth Cavin, c/o St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Meanwhile, Ayres reports that "I'm busy working on a historical crime book about the [16th-century] murder of Christopher Marlowe."

The Meriwether Murder

by Malcolm Shuman

Published by Avon Twilight

1998, 272 pages

Grave Doubts
Even 189 years after renowned explorer Meriwether Lewis is said to have taken his last breath, there are still people questioning the circumstances of his demise. Could Lewis -- who, with Captain William Clark, had guided an 1804-06 mapping party across America's Rocky Mountains to what is now Oregon -- later have shot himself to death in a lonely cabin on the Natchez Trace, the most infamous trail through the southeastern United States? Or was he slain, instead, either by common looters or his political opponents? In The Meriwether Murder, author Malcolm Shuman takes this whole mystery one step further, asking: Did Lewis even perish, as reported, in 1809? Could the body found and interred beside the Trace have been somebody else's?

Following on the success of Burial Ground (1998), his first novel featuring Dr. Alan Graham, head of a contract archaeology firm based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Shuman this time sends Graham and his Moundmasters team out to survey a length of levee along the Mississippi River just north of Baton Rouge. In the course of that work, Graham is intrigued by a crumbling antebellum plantation and especially by its small cemetery, containing a headstone that reads simply, "LOUIS -- Died July 3, 1863." His curiosity grows after he meets the estate's owner, a spunky old woman whose avaricious nephew has had her declared incompetent and tossed her into a rest home. She loans Graham three journals that had been kept by her ancestor -- records hinting that this Louis fellow, who had somehow lost his memory before arriving at the plantation after 1811, might actually have been an amnesic Meriwether Lewis. Certainly Louis' references to knowing President Thomas Jefferson, who'd sent Lewis and Clark west in 1804, point to that conclusion, as does a note about Louis having a head wound -- perhaps caused by a self-inflicted gunshot.

However, before Graham and his seductive younger associate, Yankee historical archaeologist P.E. "Pepper" Courtney, can sort proof from presumptions, he's threatened with violence for asking questions. Then the plantation's caretaker is stabbed and an attempt made to burn down the estate's main house. Finally, Graham is told to stay clear of the plantation, but by then, he and Pepper are so involved in the Louis conundrum that they must pursue it to an answer, hoping that whatever they learn about the past will help expose a present-day killer.

It's no surprise that The Meriwether Murder carries a laudatory quote from novelist Aaron Elkins, for he and Louisiana resident Shuman share an interest in tales that scientifically link historical puzzles with contemporary misdeeds. The Gideon Oliver books and Shuman's series are similar as well in boasting of pleasant, but not terribly complicated protagonists with romantic ties -- anthropologist Oliver and his park ranger wife Julie in the Elkins stories, and Graham and Pepper here. Further, both series are densely packed with red herrings and quirky secondary characters, and the prose in each is serviceably groomed, with few challenging leaps into the lyrical. Throw in the occasional house trashing or suggestive destruction of evidence, and at least in The Meriwether Murder, you've got a thought-provoking yarn that may not attract new readers to the crime fiction genre, but will likely gain Shuman a loyal following among veterans.

The Devil in Music

by Kate Ross

Published by Penguin Books

1998, 492 pages

A Singing Sensation
Like many readers, I was startled and saddened to read of Massachusetts novelist Kate Ross' death from cancer, at age 41. Though her series about Regency dandy and amateur sleuth Julian Kestrel had begun only in 1993 with the publication of Cut to the Quick, she had gained a large and loyal following of people who appreciated her ability to portray the lifestyle and mores of English society in the early 1800s. Ross also boasted great skill at creating complete and engagingly quirky characters. At the time of her passing, I'm told, this lawyer-turned-litterateur had a fifth Kestrel story underway, but it was far from completed.

Fortunately her fourth novel, The Devil in Music, recently released in paperback, was a high note on which to exit. Set amidst the operatic world of Northern Italy in 1825, it finds the droll Kestrel, his Cockney ex-pickpocket valet Dipper, and Kestrel's cranky friend Dr. MacGregor chasing after whomever murdered a Milanese marquis, Lodovico Malvezzi, four years before. The assumption is that his killer was an impecunious young English tenor named Orfeo, whom he had been grooming for a life on the stage, and who'd taken a powder soon after the marquis' demise. But, of course, Kestrel has other ideas, involving a variety of suspects -- from Malvezzi's too-enchanting young widow, to a haughty and suspiciously well-voiced Frenchman, to a politically active nobleman at odds with the Austrians then ruling Northern Italy. As he pursues each thread, Kestrel unravels a web of intrigue, revealing the truth about Orfeo and shedding some light on his own shadowy past. Yet he also looses unpredictable passions that endanger both his life and that of the surviving Malvezzis.

This is Ross' longest and certainly most densely plotted novel, full of well-researched wanderings about Lake Como and the private boxes at La Scala. The closing chapters are so jam-packed with red herrings and revelations that you may find yourself having to review frequently just to keep everything straight. In another writer's hands, all of this might have been too much to bear. But Ross maintains a driving pace and coaxes you along with such finely manicured writing, that allowing yourself to be engulfed by this tale is a memorable pleasure. The subgenre of the historical mystery lost a real talent with the passing of Kate Ross.

Upon a Dark Night

by Peter Lovesey

Published by Mysterious Press

1998, 374 pages

Identity Crisis
Stress causes other people to join gyms or pay extraordinary attention to their diet. But it provokes Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond to imagine murders where there seemingly aren't any. I emphasize seemingly, because you learn to anticipate frequent misdirection in Peter Lovesey's Diamond novels.

Although probably still best known for his series about 19th-century London Detective Sergeant Archibald Cribb (Waxwork, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, etc.), Lovesey has been spending a lot more time lately in the modern and commonly quiet streets of Bath, England (near which the author himself lives). It was in The Last Detective (1991) that he first presented Diamond, a portly, balding, and short-fused sleuth who nonetheless manages to solve crimes, his best tools being a sharp instinct and sheer tenacity. Four more adventures down the road, Diamond has been off the Bath homicide squad and is now back as its chief, has managed to piss off just about every one of his colleagues, and in Upon a Dark Night is bewildering his superiors by trying to find new levels of nefariousness in two presumed suicides. The key might be an amnesia victim called Rose, who has been taken in (in more ways than one) by her "sister."

Lovesey is rewardingly intent upon getting his police procedures right, and he never fails to inject some humor (most of it stemming from Diamond's curmudgeonly demeanor) into these rather classically constructed mysteries, which makes the entire experience of his novels that much more delightful. However, Upon a Dark Night is not his best effort. It relies too heavily on coincidences, and the theme of an amnesiac who knows more than she realizes has been so worked over in this genre that it rarely surprises anymore. Lovesey's tight plotting and adeptness in building suspense at key moments keep this book from being a disappointment. But it doesn't measure up to Diamond's earlier outings in Diamond Solitaire or Bloodhounds.

The Witchfinder

by Loren D. Estleman

Published by Mysterious Press

1998, 306 pages

Out of Time
You just don't read tough-guy prose like this much anymore:

A fuel-guzzling jet venerable enough to have starred in Chet Huntley's coach lounge commercial in 1972 bellied in over the tarmac, touched down with a shriek of rubber, and taxied toward the gates with beads of rain glittering like perspiration on its red-and-white metal skin. The sky had been weeping over the metropolitan area since before dawn, lowering the temperature another ten degrees and putting paid to the hot spell, at least until the next front came through or the fan in my office gave up the ghost. Burning cigarettes with the rest of the lepers in the designated area, I rested my feet on my overnight bag and hoped for a craft built sometime in the present decade. Flying is one of those activities best left to children and that class of adults who are content to let other people make decisions regarding their survival, like Szechwan chefs.

Of course, if this was how everybody wrote, you'd want to give up detective fiction altogether -- too much pointless imagery to contend with. But such a style has pretty much fallen out of use, except by hack writers, Mickey Spillane in his increasingly infrequent better moments... and Loren D. Estleman.

Estleman was quoted recently as saying that he's never felt pressured to retune his stories about a wisecracking Detroit private eye, Amos Walker, for the politically correct 1990s. "If you look at the history of literature," he insists, "and at writers who have skewed their works in order to please a current tendency in the marketplace, those authors have tended to lose their audience of the future." Not that Estleman's yarns have the same staying power as, say, Raymond Chandler's Marlowe series or Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels. But Estleman has lasted longer than most of the detective novelists who entered this field with him in 1980. Since Motor City Blue, Walker has gone on to star in 11 novels and one collection of short stories. He appeared to have vanished in the late '80s, but then reappeared last year in Never Street. (Estleman blames the hiatus on contractual difficulties with his original publisher.)

The Witchfinder finds him back in top form, working for Jay Bell Furlong, a trend-setting, Philip Johnsonesque architect who at the end of his lonely life wants to find the perpetrator of a photographic hoax that long ago cost him the one woman with whom he had wished to spend that life. It's a sordid trail down which Walker must tread as he matches wits with child pornographers, blackmailers, Furlong's embittered ex-wife, and a former Vietnam sniper. It's often a predictable path, as well -- with murders occurring just in time to nudge Walker toward the next valuable clue.

In a world where so many fictional gumshoes have turned all warm-hearted and mushy, cooing charged yet gentle come-ons into the ears of their paramours, a resolute throwback like Amos Walker enjoys an unexpected charm. I know that, as a properly evolved male, I shouldn't hunger for the next Walker mystery. But whoever said that our literary choices must be logical?

The Stalking of Sheilah Quinn

by Jeremiah Healy

Published by St. Martin's Press

1998, 400 pages

Summary Judgment
Jeremiah Healy's 18 years as a professor at the New England School of Law came in handy when he decided to detour from his highly acclaimed series about a reflective Boston private eye, John Francis Cuddy, and pen a "legal thriller" instead. Unfortunately, The Stalking of Sheilah Quinn hardly seems to have been worth the effort. Everything about this novel seems predictable -- from the character of its protagonist, the lovely and ambitious litigator of the book's title; to the oleaginous rich-kid client she springs from the charge of murdering his girlfriend, and who then commences to hunt her as his next victim; to the sexist old-line judge who starts out as Quinn's champion but, after she spurns his crude advances, winds up among her principal nemeses. The only aspect of this story that is surprising is its menacing conclusion -- and that isn't believable, more the stuff of cheesy TV films than what would reasonably be expected from someone as experienced as Healy.

Healy is a proficient writer, if not so lyrical as some. His Cuddy series has developed nicely since its first installment, Blunt Darts, in 1984. His 1996 novel, Invasion of Privacy, in which Cuddy gets entangled with a protected government witness and vengeful mobsters, was a reminder of how much drama can yet be tapped from the formulas of private eye fiction. But Sheilah Quinn should have been an idea he toyed with...and then dropped as not ground-breaking enough for publication. He should stick with Cuddy and file Quinn under "case closed."

Night of the Panther

by E.C. Ayres

Published by St. Martin's Press

1997, 272 pages

The Cat's Out of the Bag
Southern Florida is in danger of becoming as overused a mystery-thriller setting as southern California. Once the exclusive haunt of novelist John D. MacDonald's seductive "salvage expert," Travis McGee, the area is now crowded with Carl Hiaasen's criminal crazies, James W. Hall's brooding baddies, the smart-talking sinners of Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford tales, and the occasional double-helping of wacko dished up by Elmore Leonard. In those authors' hands, the promised land of Ponce de León becomes a land of broken promises, corrupt officials, petty hoods gunning for foreign tourists, and real estate scammers who'd replace the Everglades with cheesy condo developments, if only they could do it without alarms going off at the Environmental Protection Agency.

E.C. Ayres is no more generous to the Sunshine State.

A Hollywood screenwriter who fled to Florida, Ayres is best known for turning one of his rejected screenplays into Hour of the Manatee, the 1994 story that won a St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America competition for the Best First Private Eye Novel. Manatee introduced Tony Lowell, an aging former star press photographer who has semi-retired to a Gulf Coast cabin and a part-time detective gig. More interested in resurrecting a venerable old wooden schooner than in pursuing the justice he once thought could be found in this world, Lowell nonetheless allows himself to be talked into taking on cases that have explosive political or environmental repercussions. In these, he is assisted by a shady but still invaluable Crow Indian named Perry Garwood, as well as by Lena Bedrosian, a homicide detective every bit as earnest as Lowell is eccentric.

Night of the Panther, Ayres' third Lowell outing, involves this unlikely trio in the death of Bedrosian's cousin, a Fish and Game officer working Florida's alligator-infested Big Cypress Swamp. The woman had taken a gunshot to the back of the head, but she's on the books as a hunting accident victim. Bedrosian smells cover-up. However, her boss, wary of conflict of interest, stops Bedrosian from becoming professionally involved, so she hires Lowell to sniff out a lengthening trail of clues that leads him to the loutish members of a local militia, panther poachers, a dangerous bar owner, and a sweetheart deal between a conservative legislator and a trophy-obsessed hunt and gun club that wants more public lands for its own private use.

The whole mystery appears to hinge on America's voguish anti-government sympathies -- the underpinnings and consequences of which Ayres has wicked fun exploring. In one memorable scene, an honest longtime senator must face down a roomful of well-to-do National Rifle Association loyalists -- all of whom have guns trained on his noggin:

The very notion of society's greatest beneficiaries taking to arms against their own government would seem absurd, were it not happening. It was the same logic... whereby so many of [the senator's] colleagues up in Washington could be a part of the government, and still denounce it and fawn and pander to reactionary armed militias bent on overthrowing it. While both hands remained deep in that same government's pocket.

Ayres has an ear for humorous dialogue and an excellent eye for atmospherics -- the gossipy trailer parks, political independence, and patience-cracking humidity that are all quintessentially Floridian. He also keeps a lid on violence, never allowing it to substitute for more thoughtful plot development. Regrettably, he seems less concerned about putting more flesh on the bones of his protagonists. Tony Lowell remains a cynical cipher, even after three books, and Perry Garwood suffers from never getting enough stage time to prove that he can measure up to better-known sidekicks such as Spenser's Hawk or Joe Pike, the right-hand thug in Robert Crais' fine series of Elvis Cole adventures. Lena Bedrosian seems fully formed, but only because she aspires so ardently to one-dimensionality.

Though Ayres hasn't yet distinguished himself from the current glut of Florida crime fictionists, I suspect he could prove as surprising as those gators about which he so often writes. Watch out for the next time he surfaces.