Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
It serves me right for soliciting advice from "Rap Sheet" readers on how this newsletter might best expand or be improved: Somebody actually sent me a suggestion. "Would you consider including short reviews from subscribers about new books they've read and enjoyed?" inquired Chris from Colorado.
Hmmm. Would I? You're darn right I would. What simpler way could there be to expand January Magazine's reporting on mystery and crime fiction than to enlist the aid of people like you, this genre's faithful fans? My fellow critics and I can read only so many books and write so many reviews every month. And, despite our efforts to report on a wide variety of new titles, each of us must confess to being prejudiced in favor of, or against, certain subgenres.
So here's the deal. In future issues of "The Rap Sheet," I am willing to include readers' comments about recently published crime and mystery novels. These submissions should run no longer than 200 words, and at the end, please give your name and the city in which you live. Anonymous reviews will not be published, nor will gushings that obviously come from publicists or friends of the author whose work is being discussed. And I must reserve the right to edit submissions for clarity, spelling and length.
While there's no money to be made in this venture, it will give you the chance to share with other crime fiction enthusiasts some suggestions for future reading. Please e-mail me your brief reviews. I look forward to perusing -- and learning from -- your comments.
Now, on to this latest edition of "The Rap Sheet." As always, I welcome suggestions you might have for improving this newsletter or January's general crime fiction coverage. Also, don't hesitate to send me news or information about books in this field that you think I might not already have.
J. Kingston Pierce
New and Noteworthy
There's been considerable hand-wringing of late (especially within a few online discussion groups) over whether fictional female private eyes have had their day in the sun, and whether a glut in sales will lead publishers to reject more women P.I. series in the future than they accept. That may well happen; book publishers can certainly be as stupid as TV execs when it comes to anticipating the market. But browsing bookshelves recently, you'd never presume that women sleuths are an endangered lot.
Laura Lippman, still collecting awards for Butchers Hill, her previous novel featuring reporter-turned-detective Tess Monaghan, is just out with her fourth entry in that series, In Big Trouble (Avon). Sara Paretsky, having had her fling in the mainstream with Ghost Country, is back with her ninth V.I. Warshawski adventure, Hard Time (Delacorte Press). Sue Grafton this month chalks up number 15 in her alphabetical series starring 1980s P.I. Kinsey Millhone, "O" Is for Outlaw (Henry Holt). Two male writers showcase their own female protagonists this season: In Family Honor (Putnam), Robert B. Parker debuted distaff dick Sunny Randall; while Greg Rucka counters with Shooting At Midnight (Bantam), in which Bridget Logan, a hotshot investigative op who first appeared in Rucka's Atticus Kodiak books, takes centerstage to save a teenage heroin addict and murder suspect. And Elizabeth M. Cosin follows last year's much-praised Zen and the Art of Murder with Zen and the City of Angels (St. Martin's Minotaur). This time, cigar-smoking, tough-gal P.I. Zenaria ("Zen") Moses and her sometimes-partner/soul mate Bobo are engaged in a missing-pooch case that soon mixes them up in multiple murders (as if you couldn't have seen that coming).
Followers of Dianne Day's series about turn-of-the-century San Francisco sleuth Fremont Jones have come to expect with each new book another threat to their heroine's existence. And Death Train to Boston (Doubleday) doesn't disappoint on that score. Hired by the greedy Southern Pacific Railroad to end a rash of vandalism aboard its coaches, Jones and her partner/lover, Michael Archer, catch a Chicago-bound train -- only to fall victim to an explosion-caused derailment near Salt Lake City. Amidst the confusion of that tragedy, Jones is first rescued, then kidnapped by a pious (if slightly deranged) Mormon who decides that she should be his sixth wife. Despite its melodramatic title, this story is quite enjoyable, especially given its peek at the polygamous home life of long-ago Latter-Day Saints.... On the heels of last year's remarkable Dead March comes the second of Ann McMillan's U.S. Civil War mysteries, Angel Trumpet (Viking). The year is 1861, and a Confederate colonel has come home to his Virginia plantation -- only to discover his family butchered, apparently by their servants. As fears of a slave rebellion abound, two women from opposite ends of society, white widow Narcissa Powers and free black herbalist Judah Daniel, explore the roots of this bizarre episode and link it to ghostly lore.
Making his sophomore appearance in Dana Stabenow's So Sure Of Death (Dutton), Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell tries to figure out who shot and then burned a family aboard their fishing boat, while simultaneously smoking out a murderer at an archaeological site. Further complicating Campbell's life are his romantic pursuit of air-taxi owner Wyanet Chouinard and his mounting concern that the killings to which he's been assigned are somehow linked to his overbearing father.... Unlikely L.A. sleuth Jason Keltner and his sort of helpful pals (last seen in the wonderfully titled Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside, 1998) tangle with drug dealers and old rockers, and thwart -- at least temporarily -- the kidnapping of a little girl in author Keith Snyder's Trouble Comes Back (Walker and Company).
William Monk, Anne Perry's irritable, memory-challenged "agent of inquiry" in mid 19th-century London, has recently wed nurse Hester Latterly and embarked on another socially charged case in The Twisted Root (Ballantine). He's on the trail of Miriam Gardiner, whose disappearance from a garden party at the home of her wealthy -- and younger -- fiancé was followed by the murder of the coachman who helped her escape.... Maybe it's that their novelty has worn off, or that I am tired of trying to keep the huge casts of characters in these books straight, but I found less pleasure in reading Barbara Hambly's Graveyard Dust (Bantam) than I had reading either of her previous Benjamin January yarns, A Free Man of Color (1997) and Fever Season (1998). January, a doctor, musician and free man of color who operates in New Orleans during the 1830s, is faced here with saving his sister Olympe, a voodoo practitioner who's accused of helping a young woman murder her husband. Few wordsmiths are as skilled as Hambly at bringing sensuality to historical landscapes. However, Graveyard Dust's plot is rather slow and it hits you full in the face with innumerable societal complexities, with scant clues as to which should be remembered and which appreciated only briefly.
Several other new short-story collections merit attention, as well. Foremost among these is The Best American Mystery Stories 1999 (Houghton Mifflin), edited by Ed McBain. The range of winners is broad, from Phillip Margolin's amusing "The Jailhouse Lawyer" and Joseph Hansen's "Survival" (in which cowboy sleuth Hack Bohannon runs into right-wing survivalists in Idaho), to Peter Robinson's "In Flanders Fields," a World War II-era story of identities, both mysterious and mistaken. There are a few disappointments, including Joyce Carol Oates' nightmare adventure for a scholarship interviewee. But editor McBain's introductory remarks about his early short-fiction writing set a neat stage for what's to come.... Remember when Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small tales were about all there was of Jewish crime fiction? No longer, as editor Lawrence W. Raphael makes clear in Mystery Midrash: An Anthology of Jewish Mystery and Detective Fiction (Jewish Lights Publishing). Some familiar wordsmiths and characters are to be found in these pages, from Stuart M. Kaminsky (whose Chicago detective, Abe Lieberman, here takes a confession from a lapsed and irate Jew) to Ronald Levitsky (contributing a story in which civil-liberties lawyer Nate Rosen faces a truly unique First Amendment case) and Howard Engel (providing P.I. Benny Cooperman with a light-hearted locked-room puzzle). Although Raphael's selections often deal with Jewish issues, fans of this book will likely stretch across the religious spectrum.... Finally, Janwillem van de Wetering's 13 somewhat quirky short stories featuring renowned cops Henk Grijpstra and Rinus de Gier find a home in The Amsterdam Cops: Collected Stories (Soho Press). Novelists often complain that they're uncomfortable concocting fiction of fewer than 100,000 words. But van de Wetering adapts his style most satisfyingly to the short form, sending Grijpstra and de Gier off to investigate murders, suicides and even a supermarket scam in this compilation.
Focus: A Poe Anniversary
Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer, poet and critic who was so influential in creating mystery fiction as we know it today, died 150 years ago this month. And it's only fitting that he should have perished under what any reader of this genre would recognize immediately as mysterious circumstances.
The bare facts of the case are these: In the fall of 1849, Poe, then 40 years old, departed Richmond, Virginia, bound for his home in New York City. He had been in Richmond on a lecture tour, but had also visited the widow Elmira Shelton, a childhood friend he was expected soon to marry. Only his need to complete a minor editorial commission and retrieve an elderly guest for the wedding had sent him from Elmira's embrace back to New York. He was expected to be gone a couple of weeks, returning in plenty of time to complete the nuptial preparations.
But he never made it back. In fact, after departing Richmond, Poe disappeared. Only a week later did he resurface in Baltimore, in reportedly "shocking condition" -- dressed shabbily and suffering from severe inebriation. He died a few days later, on the morning of October 8, after periods of "violent delirium," never saying where he'd been since he started north...or with whom.
Theories about the cause of his death vary. One says that Poe succumbed to complications of an alcoholic debauch (despite his having sworn to his fiancée that he would remain sober). A second, more incredible thought is that he was kidnapped and drugged by political thugs and forced to vote at multiple Baltimore polling booths in a congressional election, then abandoned to overexposure. Wisconsin literary sleuth John Evangelist Walsh has plumbed the scant documentation available to arrive at yet another solution, which he spelled out in his fascinating 1998 work Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. His conclusion: that the widow Shelton's brothers, unhappy with the prospect of welcoming a "money-chasing, womanizing drunkard" like Poe into their family, followed the writer from Richmond. In Baltimore, Walsh posits, they accosted him, may even have beaten him into submission and then made him swallow copious quantities of alcohol. Finally, they deposited Poe in a tavern, sure that he'd exacerbate his wretched state with more drink and make a scene that would worsen his reputation -- and force Elmira Shelton to reconsider his fitness as a husband. By the time anyone thought to find Poe help, it was too late.
Walsh (who has now written three Poe biographies, including his Edgar Award-winning Poe the Detective, 1968) can't help but lament his subject's early death. "I believe he was a great writer," says Walsh, "and if he had lived even another 10 years, he might now be considered America's greatest literary talent. He had that much potential."
Yet by 1849, Edgar Allan Poe had already penned, among many other pieces, three short stories -- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and "The Purloined Letter" -- that would establish formulas of detective fiction that are still familiar today. As Ian Ousby explains in Guilty Parties: A Mystery Lover's Companion, "He presented the reader with a brilliant (and also eccentric) detective; a puzzling crime which requires more than ordinary intelligence or common sense to solve; and a dénouement which emerges not through divine revelation or simple accident but through the methodical investigations of the detective."
Poe may not have single-handedly "invented" the detective story, but the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, the protagonist he introduced in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," was certainly a model for numerous successive sleuths, including Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Nero Wolfe. Not until the 1920s was a rival detective tradition born in Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled novels, a tradition that would flower in Raymond Chandler's work and influence generations of writers since.
For his contributions to this genre we enjoy so much, let us raise a glass this month in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. The justice in that salute is inarguable, the irony of the act itself something that Poe would surely have appreciated.
To learn more about Poe and his works, check out Qrisse's Edgar Allan Poe Pages. This extensive site contains biographical material about the author, as well as online-reading versions of his work and links to numerous related Web resources.
In Their Own Words
"The core character in my novel Murder In the Marais, the 'real' Sarah, comes from a friend's mother, a Parisian Jew, who had experiences much like Sarah's during the Occupation. I was haunted by her story: a 14-year-old girl, her family torn from her, fending for herself in their apartment, waiting for their return which never came. Years later, through the Oral History Project at the Holocaust Center of Northern California, I met a survivor who shared with me her similar experiences. The idea for a novel about such a character began to germinate.
"I've been drawn to the mystery genre since I first read Nancy Drew mysteries as a young girl, after bedtime, with a flashlight. For me, it seems a perfect genre to allow the writer to give voices to ordinary characters who have lived through significant historical experiences: an old man on the Metro, a fishmonger or a prying concierge. Recently, while writing a scenario for NBC-TV's Unsolved Mysteries, this story of the Marais came back to me and I found a way to use the setting with the character I had been contemplating. I sat down at the computer and the story flowed from the keyboard.
"My protagonist, Aimée Leduc, half French, half American, possesses elements of the lone detective seeking justice, following in her own way the tradition of [Raymond] Chandler's Philip Marlowe, [Sara] Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski and even Nancy Drew. Aimée's father, a French investigator, died in a tragic terrorist bombing which she witnessed. Her mother, a bohemian American, disappeared during Aimée's childhood. Aimée will always feel like an outsider: expert in her field of corporate security, fierce in her beliefs and loyalties, yet struggling on the fringes of French society, dreaming of an American mother she never really knew. She is single-minded, not afraid of danger and unlucky in love. And, she's enough of a Parisian to wear her scarf, usually an Hermes, with the proper panache."
Gone But Not Forgotten
Morris West, the best-selling Australian thriller writer, died of heart failure on October 9 while working on his latest novel, The Last Confession. He was 83 years old. "He died very peacefully in the middle of a sentence," reports his son, Chris O'Hanlon.
Born in a suburb of Melbourne, West wrote 27 novels, including The Devil's Advocate (1959), Shoes of a Fisherman (1963), and Lazarus (1990). Many of his books reflected his Roman Catholicism, though his writing frequently challenged the church. Many critics were disdainful of West's writing, calling his plots far-fetched and his characters thinly conceived. However, several of his stories were made into movies and he sold an estimated 60 million copies of his books worldwide. West died at his home in Sydney.
That's Anthony, Not Tony
Nominees and winners of the Anthony Awards (named in honor of the late writer and critic Anthony Boucher) are selected by attendees at the annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. This year's winners were announced during Bouchercon 99, held September 30-October 3 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
Best Novel: Bloodwork, by Michael Connelly.
Best First Novel: Iron Lake, by William Kent Krueger.
Also Nominated: Sympathy for the Devil, by Jerrilyn Farmer; Tiger's Palette, by Jacqueline Fiedler; A Cold Day In Paradise, by Steve Hamilton; Eleven Days, by Donald Harstad.
Best Paperback Original: Butchers Hill, by Laura Lippman.
Also Nominated: Zen Attitude, by Sujata Massey; The Widower's Two-step, by Rick Riordan; Remedy for Treason, by Caroline Roe; Murder Manual, by Steven Womack.
For a complete list of Anthony Award winners in all categories, visit The Deadly Directory Online.
"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by Crime Fiction Editor J. Kingston Pierce. Publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.
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