Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute






January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report #6


Well, awards season is upon us once again. No, I don't mean movie awards (although there are certainly plenty of those due to be handed out over the next few months), but crime fiction awards. As you'll see below, nominations have already been made for both the 2000 Agatha Christie Awards and Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Still to follow is a motley lineup of Daggers and Derringers and Dilyses. As the popularity of this genre has flourished, so has the number of associated commendations.

Winning an Edgar, say, or maybe one of Australia's Ned Kelly Awards or an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, can supercharge the sales of a book that might otherwise have drawn notice only from those of us who endeavor to read everything for a living. But I'm trying to remember: How many times have I actually picked up a new work, based primarily on the fact that it was an award recipient (much less a mere nominee)? Steve Hamilton's Shamus-winning A Cold Day in Paradise (1999) comes to mind; sifting through the annual avalanche of detective stories and hyper-marketed thrillers, I almost missed that debut adventure of Hamilton's reluctant Michigan sleuth, Alex McKnight -- which would have been a shame. And I think the fact that it secured the 1997 Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writer's Association may have prodded me to read what I continue to believe is Ian Rankin's finest John Rebus novel, Black and Blue.

Most of the time, however, awards do little to stimulate my curiosity. (You're not going to see me paging through many of the best-selling "cozy" mysteries, for instance, no matter how many plaques or other plaudits they rack up.) I generally choose books that interest me for other reasons: their reportedly distinctive plots; their extraordinary settings (in either place or time); or the fact that I am familiar with the author's earlier publications. If my favorite book of any given year happens later to be singled out for some professional accolade -- as was Robert Clark's Mr. White's Confession in 1999, or as Peter Robinson's In a Dry Season may be this year -- I am always willing to accept credit for prescience. I'm not the kind to wait, though, for judges to tell me what I will and will not relish. Experimentation and occasional disappointment are both integral to the education of a reader.

Speaking of awards, I want to offer my hearty congratulations to Tom Nolan, one of January Magazine's contributing editors, on the Edgar nomination of his book, Ross Macdonald: A Biography. Well reviewed by critics and selected as one of January's "best books of 1999," Ross Macdonald was an excellent pairing of writer with subject, giving Nolan a chance to honor one of detective fiction's foremost American practitioners at the same time as he revealed details about the late author that Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar) preferred in life to keep hidden. Tom is currently at work on the introduction to Strangers in Town, which will comprise three previously unpublished stories by Macdonald. Two of these are novelettes featuring Los Angeles gumshoe Lew Archer, while the third story stars Joe Rogers, an earlier Macdonald protagonist. Tom tells me that he came across these stories while he was researching his Macdonald biography. Strangers in Town is due out later this year from Crippen & Landru Publishers. I wish Tom luck both with the Edgars and with his forthcoming collection.

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Now, on to this latest edition of "The Rap Sheet." As always, don't hesitate to send me news or information about crime fiction that you think I might not already have. Also, feel free to pass along comments about books in this genre that you have recently savored, for publication in future issues of "The Rap Sheet." These recommendations 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, and all are subject to editing for clarity, spelling and length.

J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor, January Magazine

New and Noteworthy

Having driven not long ago up the exquisitely landscaped Natchez Trace Parkway -- which follows a historic "robber's route" from Natchez, Mississippi, north to Nashville, Tennessee -- I was predisposed to like Nevada Barr's Deep South (Putnam), set along the same 450-mile course. And I wasn't disappointed. This eighth narrative featuring U.S. park ranger Anna Pigeon finds her accepting a promotion from Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park to the Trace's lower Mississippi section. The assignment promises to be challenging, not only because Pigeon generally dislikes administrative work, but because she must contend with insubordinate male employees and a humid natural environment that can seem as menacing as it is amazing. Further disrupting her efforts to settle in is the slaying of a 16-year-old girl, found in a cemetery with a noose around her neck and her head draped in a white sheet with eyeholes cut out, Ku Klux Klan-style. Pigeon's investigation attracts trouble, most prominently in the form of an alligator let loose one night in her carport, but allows author Barr to explore the often-peculiar strains of Southern culture. Like prior Pigeon stories, this one is full of vivid characters and some fine strokes of humor. My only complaint is that, while Barr acknowledges "there's history everywhere" along the Trace (and she should know, having been a park ranger there herself), she offers little of it to readers.

A rather more cultured South is the backdrop to Robert B. Parker's 27th Spenser novel, Hugger Mugger (Putnam). With a serial killer targeting that region's horseracing stock, the manager of Georgia's Three Fillies Stables hires Spenser to protect his current prizewinner. This gives Boston's favorite private eye ample opportunity to crack wise about the thoroughbred gentry (an exercise that's nearly as entertaining as his verbal skewering of the collegiate elite in his last adventure, Hush Money). At the same time, Spenser alternately jousts with and investigates the stable manager's thoroughly dysfunctional family, attracts the resentment of local law enforcement... and is on hand when the attacker branches out to claim a human victim. The best news about Hugger Mugger may be that Spenser's increasingly annoying girlfriend, Susan Silverman, plays only a tertiary role. Unfortunately, Hawk, the detective's consistently engaging sidekick, is also absent from this yarn.

Renegade former Brooklyn cop Joe Keough, now a police detective working the less-mean streets of St. Louis, makes his third appearance in Blood on the Arch (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Robert J. Randisi. This time out, Keough probes the murder of a political candidate, eventually ferreting out scandal. While that may not sound like a particularly unique storyline, Randisi is a taut plotter and he makes good use of modern-day St. Louie as a location. ... Also making his third run at literary renown is John Shannon's Los Angeles P.I., Jack Liffey. In two antecedent volumes -- Concrete River (1996) and The Cracked Earth (1999) -- Liffey proved that he has a talent for tracking down missing children. But his skills and savvy are sorely tested in The Poison Sky (Berkley Prime Crime), when he's hired to locate a runaway teenager who has taken up with a cadre of potentially dangerous spiritualists. ... Meanwhile, another L.A. gumshoe, African-American Aaron Gunner, becomes embroiled in a pair of unappealing cases in All the Lucky Ones Are Dead (Putnam), by Gar Anthony Haywood. One involves a threatened right-wing talk-show host, while the other sends Gunner into the often-violent world of gangsta rap. Always strong on dialogue and characterization, Haywood's tales deserve more attention than they usually receive. ... Less sophisticated in its construction, but nonetheless enjoyable, is Ship Shapely (Allen A. Knoll), the fifth Gil Yates novel from author Alistair Boyle. The gimmick here is that Yates has a double identity. During the day, he's Malvin Stark, a colorless drone with a bad marriage and an unappreciative daughter. But in his Yates guise, he's a dashing top-dollar detective, mixing with seductive female suspects and raising enough money to support his addiction to rare tropical plants. In his latest outing, Stark/Yates agrees to help the widow of a yacht captain figure out what happened to her hubby, who mysteriously disappeared near Hawaii a year before while sailing with five stereotypically curvaceous lovelies -- one of whom may well have done in the missing mariner. Boyle's humor can sometimes seem forced, but he deserves credit for trying something new in a genre too often known for repeating itself.

This is destined to be a big year for Southern California author Robert Crais. Not only does he have a non-series novel, Demolition Angel, due out from Doubleday in May, but the paperback edition of his highly praised 1999 Elvis Cole tale, L.A. Requiem (Ballantine), is proving to be both a mystery and mainstream success. With good reason, opines January Contributing Editor Kevin Burton Smith. "The conventional wisdom," Smith remarks, "is that you don't bite the hand that feeds you. Well, here Crais dares to take a big bloody bite out of his popular series featuring quirky L.A. private eye Elvis Cole. Nothing Crais has done in his previous outings could prepare you for this: Requiem is simply one of the ballsiest and most rewarding crime novels in years, and a great leap forward for Crais. He switches viewpoints, introduces parallel storylines and dreamlike, noirish flashbacks and boots the 'don't touch a thing' school of series continuity right in the nuts. By mid-book, you realize it's all up for grabs. Ostensibly about Elvis' taciturn partner Joe Pike's murky past as a police officer and the pair's pursuit of a possible serial killer, the story is really an unflinching look at the shadows in all our lives and how we deal with them -- the price we pay for love and friendship and honor, and yes, growing up. Gone are the adolescent hijinks of previous Cole outings, replaced by this sweeping, bold, mature work that dares to question all of the lies we tell ourselves just to get up each morning. Potent, entertaining and defiant, this is simply an extraordinary book. It just kicks ass."

The Black Maria (Avon Twilight), Mark Graham's third novel about Philadelphia police detective Wilton McCleary, reads like the flip side of Gore Vidal's underappreciated novel, 1876. While Vidal focused on Manhattan high society and the high political intrigue of that American centennial year, Graham turns his sights instead on the opium dens, career criminals and slumming swells that compete for notice with Philly's spectacular Centennial Exposition. Walking the "tawdry and cheap" thoroughfares near the fairgrounds, McCleary discovers a girl's mutilated corpse. Not surprisingly, his superiors want to bury the incident until the Exposition is over, but McCleary won't back off. Instead, he links the killing to a powerful industrialist family, only to find himself in a case involving revenge and madness. Intricately plotted and replete with historical color, this is a work to reward all of us who enjoyed Graham's first novel, The Killing Ground (1998).

Some historical series employing real-life figures as sleuths definitely wear better than others. For instance, Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding mysteries (the newest of which was last year's Death of a Colonial) seem only to improve as Fielding's teenage assistant and chronicler, Jeremy Proctor, acquires maturity and insight. And I never weary of Peter Lovesey's humorous historical whodunits starring the rakish Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (Bertie and the Crime of Passion, 1995, being the most recent). But Karen Harper's new The Tidal Poole (Delacorte) is short of the novelty that distinguished her debut effort. In 1999's The Poysen Garden, this author introduced Princess Elizabeth -- the daughter of King Henry VIII, and the future "virgin queen," Elizabeth I -- in a story that sent her and her faithful retainers off to a castle in Kent. There they hoped to learn who was behind a poisoning plot against Elizabeth's family -- before the assassin struck again. The yarn was appealing not only for Harper's sympathetic depiction of strong-willed, 25-year-old Elizabeth, but also because it deftly portrayed the notorious scheming by the princess' half-sister, Queen Mary, to keep her off of the English throne. Similar formulas are followed in The Tidal Poole, but with less-satisfying results the second time around. This latest fiction begins amidst Elizabeth's 1559 coronation. During the celebration, one woman is shot, while another -- a promiscuous lady of the court -- is evidently raped and suffocated. When the lookalike son of the queen's first love is charged with the latter crime, Elizabeth undertakes to prove his innocence, if she can. There's ample action in these pages, with the queen sneaking amongst her subjects dressed in male costume and foiling disasters in her path. However, Harper, whose background is in romance writing, has Elizabeth too often "tingling" or catching her breath in the presence of handsome gents, and her dialogue contains overly modern insights and too-informal language patterns that detract from her story's period-authenticity. Let's hope that Harper will stretch herself and her characters further in the next installment of this series, The Darke Tower.

Making his own comeback in 21st-century fiction is short-story author William Sydney Porter, better recognized under his pen name, "O. Henry." In A Twist at the End (Simon & Schuster), Steven Saylor casts Porter as the protagonist in a compelling re-creation of the "servant girl murders," which convulsed Austin, Texas, during the mid-1880s and may have been the first recorded serial killings in America. Although the historical ax murders went unsolved, Saylor can't help but offer his own literary conclusions. ... By the way, Saylor fans should note that the next volume in his series about ancient Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder will be Last Seen in Massilia, an immediate sequel to Rubicon (1999), due out from St. Martin's Minotaur in the fall. ... Although not really a historical figure, Scotland Yard Superintendent Thomas Pitt is certainly familiar enough by now to seem like flesh and blood. In Anne Perry's Half Moon Street (Ballantine), he is called in to determine the identity of a man found adrift in a punt on the Thames, clad in a torn green gown. With his wife, Charlotte, away in Paris, Pitt is left behind to pursue the corpse's true identity -- a task that will lead him into London's eccentric theater community and introduce him to the curious new art of photography. ... Full of a different variety of exotic settings (backwoods, rather than bohemian) is Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery (Viking), author Larry Millett's third Minnesota assignment for "the Greatest Detective" and his trusty Boswell, Dr. John Watson. This case centers on a farmer's 1898 discovery of a supposedly ancient Scandinavian rune stone. When the finder is subsequently murdered and his relic vanishes, Holmes and Watson -- together with the ever-resourceful Irish saloonkeeper and sleuth, Shadwell Rafferty -- set out to discern what truth (if any) there is to the stone's reported provenance and who might have benefited most from its theft. Along the way, they re-encounter the formidable Mary Comstock -- whom Millett introduced in his first Holmes tale, Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (1996) -- and tempt death in a grain elevator. Millett, a columnist for Minnesota's St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper, does quite well at capturing the characters of Holmes and Watson, but he has a harder time here re-creating the malevolence and tension that were hallmarks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original Holmes yarns. Superior, in terms of both plotting and Gilded Age atmospherics, was Millett's last novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders (1998), which played out against the backdrop of a sparkling St. Paul ice festival.

You might relish A Conspiracy of Paper (Random House) merely for author David Liss' brilliant and occasionally brutal evocation of early-18th-century London. But there is so much more to appreciate in this adventure, from its inspired detective figure, former pugilist Benjamin Weaver, to the way it introduces readers into the Byzantine world of finance and investments, to the manner in which Liss' prose consciously but comfortably echoes that of the time about which he writes. Shortly after the death of his estranged "stockjobber" father, Weaver takes on two cases -- one dealing with an unexpected demise, the other related to some missing papers -- that seem unrelated. Yet they eventually converge ... and reveal hidden risks to the ex-boxer's own family. Weaver's fight to rely more on his mind than his muscles is a pleasure to watch, and Liss does well at hiding the seams of his obviously copious historical research.

More secrets -- though of the modern sort this time -- lie at the heart of English author Margaret Yorke's The Price of Guilt (St. Martin's Minotaur), freshly released in the United States. The plot builds on Louise Widdows' struggle to escape a "tyrannical" husband she suspects of trying to kill her. After landing in a small town, Louise wants to believe that she's on her way to regaining peace and freedom. But her hubby's history is catching up with him -- and Louise is a loose end he cannot afford to leave hanging. ... Yes, it's true: That randy antiques dealer and sometimes-forger, Lovejoy, is back for a 21st time in Jonathan Gash's A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair (Viking). Here, we find him cruising London's fabled and frenetic antiques markets, hoping to learn the source of some bogus gems, while at the same time he's seeking to get even with a thug named Dieter Gluck, who may be responsible for the murder of Lovejoy's old pal, Arthur Goldhorn. As always, expect plenty of humor and a crash course in antiques arcana. ... Less fun is William Deverell's Slander (McClelland & Stewart). It follows Elizabeth Finnegan, a headstrong young woman attorney in Seattle, who risks her job and reputation by taking on the prosecution of a well-respected judge accused of sexually violating women in his past. Canadian Deverell, who won the Arthur Ellis Award for his last novel, Trial of Passion (1997), again expertly presents the parry-and-thrust of modern lawyering, and reminds us that justice is not always perfectly executed. But Slander's plot -- which is anything but new -- rolls out too predictably, and Finnegan comes off as a nail-spitting feminist caricature. ... By contrast, The Loser's Club (St. Martin's Minotaur) -- a first novel by private-eye-turned-novelist Lise S. Baker -- is a winner. Sent to Reno to investigate the allegedly accidental death of a child, San Francisco P.I. Cal Brantley and her "chaperone," a former L.A. cop named Denny Wickerstaff, discover that the real story is much stranger and sadder than they could have imagined. While some of Baker's metaphors could be a bit fresher, Brantley seems smart and sympathetic -- a character to appreciate over the long haul.

Divorce can be murder. Or, at least, that's what prosperous attorney Jack Newlin contends in Moment of Truth (HarperCollins), the latest legal thriller from author Lisa Scottoline. The trouble is, Newlin's claim that he stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage after she'd demanded an end to their marriage is baloney. He's framing himself to protect his 16-year-old daughter, who he believes actually did the dirty deed. Mary DiNunzio, Newlin's rookie lawyer, isn't as blind as he hopes: She figures out that he's innocent, and in an unusual plotting development, tries to prove Newlin innocent, while he simultaneously struggles to maintain his guilt. Scottoline rarely disappoints in legal technique and is strong in character development. DiNunzio's self doubts make it easy to associate with and feel for her. However, her romantic interest in the shallow, workaholic Newlin seems contrived. As does this novel's "surprise" ending. ... "I'm not the good guy," insists Burdon Lane, a businessman with a double life, who lives in a scrubbed suburb of Washington, D.C., is well thought of by his friends and bosses -- and deals in illegal gun sales on the side. In Douglas E. Winter's Run (Alfred A. Knopf), he is embarking on what's supposed to be a normal exchange of weapons for cold, hard cash. But the deal goes bad -- and I mean, seriously bad -- throwing Lane in with a dangerous street gang known as the U Street Crew and ultimately testing the limits of his capacity for violence. While Lane's gun advocacy can be infuriating (especially as it reminds Americans why they live in a violent nation), Winter's clipped writing style and short paragraphs make Run an overwhelming rush of a read.

Aaron Elkins' Skeleton Dance (William Morrow) sends forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver and his wife, Julie, to the French village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, which is home to "the largest concentration of prehistoric bones in Europe" as well as an acclaimed institute that studies them. But it's modern bones, recently unearthed by a dog, that have that institute in a tizzy, reigniting a heated academic debate over Neanderthal Man's place on the human evolutionary tree and giving new life to doubts about the suicide of a former institute director, whose archaeological evidence in support of the Neanderthals' "humanity" was proved fraudulent. When the dog's accidental find leads to one murder and then more, Gideon begins probing professional rivalries, hoping to corner a killer and prevent the institute from being torn asunder. Elkins' stories often sound like one another, but his charming characters and humor always make them enjoyable.

My introduction to the character Ellery Queen came not from books, but from television: a short-running and stilted Queen series (starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne) back in 1975. It would be several more years before I'd take up any of the books from which the series had been derived, only to discover that my attention span was inadequate to the task of reading all of the Queen novels and short stories. The two cousins who labored under the pseudonym of "Ellery Queen" -- Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee -- could well have been writing machines, so prolific were they. As events are recounted in an excellent new tribute collection, The Tragedy of Errors (Crippen & Landru), this pair penned their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, in 1929 as an entry in a contest sponsored by McClure's Magazine. Over the next four decades, Ellery Queen became "the most famous and influential figure in American detective fiction," Jon L. Breen remarks in one of the finer essays contained in this volume. Not only did Dannay and Lee churn out novels, but (with some help from ghost writers such as Anthony Boucher and Avram Davidson), they generated short stories and anthologies of short stories, juvenile mysteries, radio plays and even true-crime articles. Yet contemporary, and particularly younger, mystery readers often ignore the contributions these two made to the genre's growth. The Tragedy of Errors works to change that, to renew interest in Queen. It incorporates six previously uncollected short tales and a detailed plot synopsis for a never-completed last Ellery Queen novel. It's real strength, though, is in its second half, comprising recollections of Lee and Dannay by a wealth of wordsmiths who knew or worked with the cousins. Two of the best essays come from Peter Lovesey and H.R.F. Keating.

How do you boil 100 years of crime fiction down into a few hundred pages? Ed Gorman and Jon L. Breen do a pretty good job of it in Sleuths of the Century (Carroll & Graf), which includes short stories by all of the usual suspects: Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, G.K. Chesterton, Ruth Rendell, Walter Mosley and more. But I actually prefer The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin) for its willingness to step slightly beyond the usual genre boundaries. Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler (who pat each other on the back in their respective introductions, without adding much to our understanding of the field), this 864-page volume features not only works by Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Jacques Futrelle and Dennis Lehane, but also contributions from Damon Runyon, Flannery O'Connor, John Steinbeck and others. What might have been most expected but also proves most fascinating is to see how the telling of stories has become less formal, and how the emphases of mystery tales have changed, shifting from a focus on the puzzle to the greater attention being paid to the characters involved. ... Retired lawyer Mari Ulmer locates Midnight in the Camposanto (Poisoned Pen Press) in Taos, New Mexico -- but in the town's Spanish-speaking communities, rather than its artsy, trendy quarters. When a member of a local religious brotherhood is assassinated, and one of his comrades becomes the chief suspect, former attorney Christina Garcia y Grant takes time out from her new life as an innkeeper to defend him. It's a task that will require help from a mismatched team of professionals and some digging into both Satanism and secrets at the Los Alamos nuclear research facility. ... Finally, British readers should look for Dark Hollow (Hodder & Stoughton), Irish author John Connolly's sequel to his 1999 thriller, Every Dead Thing. Still reeling from the murders of his wife and daughter, as well as from his run-in with a serial killer known as the Traveling Man, former New York police detective Charlie "Bird" Parker has gone looking for sanctuary and sanity in his home state of Maine. He finds neither; instead, he's drawn into the slayings of another mother and child, which he believes are linked to incidents 30 years in the past. As he hunts for a homicide suspect, and as more deaths occur, Bird realizes that he isn't the only one involved in this pursuit. He is soon on the trail of not just a human killer ... but also a "bogey man" known as Caleb Kyle. Returning to assist him are gay career criminals Angel and Louis.

In Their Own Words

Pisces Rising, the fourth installment in Martha C. Lawrence's astrological series featuring parapsychologist/P.I. Elizabeth Chase, was just published by St. Martin's Minotaur. Leading off from last year's Aquarius Descending, the story follows Chase as she begins to cope with the death of her FBI lover, Tom McGowan, while simultaneously trying to determine who scalped a Native American casino owner. These endeavors are destined to teach Chase about reservation life at the same time as they test the resiliency of her spirit. Before Lawrence began a nationwide tour to promote her new novel, I e-mailed her with some questions about the research that had gone into writing Pisces and about the future of her detective character. She generously sent back the following answers:

Q: Why did you choose to set this latest tale on a Native American reservation? Do you have a long-standing interest in American Indians?

A: I don't think I fully understood why I was drawn to the Native American setting until after I'd written Pisces. I'm not an American Indian, yet I have a long-standing interest in spirituality and nature, two areas that practically define Native American culture. I grew up close to the land -- much of north San Diego County was undeveloped chaparral in the 1960s. As a kid I spent nearly every daylight hour outside. I rode my horse bareback with a hackamore (a bitless bridle); the forts I built were huts made from dried anise stalks and desert grasses. When I was researching Pisces Rising I learned that the Native Americans in this area did the same things hundreds of years ago. A psychic once told me I lived a past life as an Indian in Southern California. I dismissed it as horsepucky at the time, but now an infinitesimal part of my brain wonders if it might be true.

Q: How did you research the reservation setting for this tale?

A: The answer to that question is nothing short of amazing. I knew when I got the idea for Pisces Rising that I needed an introduction into the local Native American community. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that. But when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I was getting my hair cut at a new salon, of all places, shooting the breeze with the stylist. When I told him I was a novelist and thinking about writing a murder mystery set on a Native American reservation, his face lit up. Turns out he was a full-blooded Luiseno Indian. He regaled me with tales of his family and tribal history, and invited me to spend time with him on the res. That was just one of the many ways help came to me as I was writing Pisces. A Native American friend gave me several Indian fetishes -- carvings of animals that can bring power and protection to the person who carries them. Happily, learning about animal medicine helped me to make sense of a vision I'd had in the mid-1990s: I'd been meditating one afternoon and opened my eyes to see a giant red spider hanging from the ceiling near the window. As I got up and walked toward the window, it dawned on me that there was no such thing as a giant red spider. Yet the spider was hanging there, solid and real. When I was practically nose to nose with the thing, it disappeared. I really didn't know what to make of that experience until I started writing Pisces.

Native Americans tell us that Grandmother Spider wove the web that brought humans the first picture of the alphabet. Spider represents storytelling and creativity. I had my spider vision just before I started writing my first book, Murder in Scorpio (1995). I doubt very much that was a coincidence.

Q: How do you think Elizabeth Chase's experiences in Aquarius Descending and now Pisces Rising will influence her as a character?

A: Characters are defined by the decisions they make. That applies to life as well as fiction. Think about it -- our responses to the tough decisions are what make or break us. Elizabeth made some mistakes in Aquarius Descending and paid a high price. I think we've all had at least a taste of that experience. But Elizabeth's hardships in Aquarius didn't break her. Folk wisdom says that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. That's true for Elizabeth. In Pisces she rises from her despair and begins to see the bigger picture.

Q: Have any experiences from your own past helped you to understand what Chase is going through after the death of her lover?

A: I lost my father when I was 13 years old. I was kneeling at his bedside when he took his last breath and slipped away. At such a vulnerable age, the loss of the man I loved most in the world was devastating. My father's death was perhaps the defining experience of my life. Decades later I'm still feeling the emotional shock waves of that event.

The year I was writing Aquarius Descending, I lost not one, but two men in my life, both of whom I deeply loved. The book contains a dedication to one of them. To write a happy ending, or even a noncommittal one, was impossible for me at that point. Knowing there was a fervent controversy in the mystery world about the killing off of significant others, I desperately tried to avoid McGowan's death. I wrote two early versions in which McGowan didn't die. My editor deemed them "hollow... false." She was right. Writing must come from the heart, and my heart was breaking that year.

Mystery and crime novels, by their very nature, deal with the cold, irreversible reality of death. In astrology, death is ruled by Pluto. Astrologers teach that what Pluto takes away, it gives back in a higher form. It's not an easy lesson, but I expect Elizabeth will master it one of these old days.

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"Escapologist" Harry Houdini has appeared in a variety of crime novels over the years, but rarely has he seemed so delightful a presence as he is in Daniel Stashower's The Dime Museum Murders (Avon Twilight). This is actually Stashower's second Houdini outing, the first having been The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man (1985), which paired the former Ehrich Weiss with Sherlock Holmes in a 1910 blackmail case involving the Prince of Wales. I recently asked Stashower to tell me about the source of his interest in Houdini and what we might expect from a sequel to The Dime Museum Murders. His response:

The Dime Museum Murders, which features the young Harry Houdini in the role of a detective, grew out of my lifelong interest in magic. I was a magician myself -- though not a terribly good one -- in high school and college, and I still have a trunk filled with dove boxes and coin tricks and vanishing flowers. Every so often I pull out my top hat and black cape, both of which still smell faintly of the rabbits and doves I once used in my act, but I no longer do any magic apart from the occasional balloon animal -- and I suspect that we should all be grateful for this. However, all of my books deal with magic and magicians in some manner, and it's my hope that The Dime Museum Murders will grow into a series. The second book, provisionally called The Floating Lady Killer, is already written. When a magician's assistant is murdered while floating in mid-air, Houdini and his brother Dash are called upon to investigate. It should be out later this year as an Avon paperback original.

Random Shots

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's rousing 1999 novel about a New York private eye with Tourette's Syndrome who struggles to solve the murder of his mentor, was recently given the National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction. In his review of the story, January Contributing Editor Frederick Zackel called P.I. Lionel Essrog "one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered in this genre," and he added that Lethem "clearly loves the private eye genre ... [H]is playing with the genre shows an amused and loving respect for its traditions and conventions."

The British Crime Writers' Association has chosen to give Peter Lovesey the 2000 Cartier Diamond Dagger Award. This annual commendation recognizes an author's outstanding lifetime achievement in crime writing. Lovesey's career began with the publication of Wobble to Death, which won the Macmillan/Panther First Crime Novel Award in 1970 and was the start of series featuring Victorian police Sergeant Cribb and Constable Edward Thackerey. The eighth and final Cribb adventure, Waxwork (1978), won the CWA Silver Dagger Award. Lovesey has since composed several non-series novels, three historical mysteries featuring the Prince of Wales and a contemporary series of police procedurals built around grumpy police officer Peter Diamond (the most recent U.S. installment being Upon a Dark Night). His next novel, The Reaper, is to be published in the UK in May 2000. Previous recipients of the Diamond Dagger include Eric Ambler, P.D. James, Ed McBain and Margaret Yorke.

Harlan Coben reports that his next Myron Bolitar novel, Darkest Fear, is due out from Delacorte in June. He calls this both his "most ambitious" Bolitar to date and his "favorite." To read an excerpt, check out Coben's Web site. Meanwhile, his previous book, The Final Detail, is now out in paperback. ... Southern California novelist Martin J. Smith, author of Shadow Image (1998), tells me that Straw Men, the third entry in his Jim Christensen "memory series," is scheduled for release in November 2000, "and the fourth book is well underway." Look for an excerpt from Straw Men at Smith's Web site. ... Here's good news for readers who've patiently awaited another installment in Maan Meyer's "Dutchman" series: Annette Meyers (who, with her husband Martin, writes under the "Maan" nom de plume) says that a sequel to The House on Mulberry Street (1996) has already been written, but there is still no publication date. Currently titled The Organ Grinder, this new work is set in 1899 New York. Meyers adds that Murder Me Now, the sequel to her recent novel Free Love, is due out in January 2001. ... According to The Anne Perry Chronicle, the prolific Perry has two more Victorian novels due out in 2001: Slaves of Obsession, which will send detective William Monk and nurse Hester Latterly off to investigate a case in the United States; and The Whitechapel Conspiracy, in which Sergeant Samuel Tellman and the Pitts' maid, Gracie, "join forces to solve the crime." ... And Lawrence Block reports that he's finished writing Hit List, a sequel to Hit Man (1998), to be published by William Morrow in October of this year. "It's episodic," Block wrote to his fans not long ago, "but more a novel and less a collection of stories than Hit Man."

Agatha Christie may have died in 1976, but it looks as if her multitudinous works are destined to be just as popular in the 21st century as they were in the 20th. Especially if managers of Agatha Christie: The Official Online Home have anything to say about it. This new Web site (part of the MysteryNet group) wants to be the definitive resource for fans of England's Queen of Crime. It already includes complete lists of Christie's works (books and plays, as well as TV and movie adaptations), biographies of the author as well as her foremost sleuths, and monthly online mysteries featuring the irrepressible Miss Marple. The Christie site is one of several new offerings on January's Crime Fiction Links page. ... One of the more unusual mystery-related Web sites I've come across lately is called Tart City. Concocted by Lauren Henderson, Sparkle Hayter, Katy Munger and other women crime writers behaving badly, it offers an, umm, eclectic monthly mix of contents. The site's introduction explains that "We will be recommending our favourite books, movies, lipsticks and for all I know handguns, in between a considerable amount of mayhem involving writing short stories, fantasizing about the Man of the Month, which frankly so far seems to have been a Man Every Two Days -- but that's Tart City girls for you -- and spanking people we have dragged down to the dungeon for some of the best." The premiere edition included everything from a horoscopes page, to Jennifer Gould's dispatch about former Stasi agents in Berlin, to short fiction by Henderson and Stella Duffy. No nutty right-wing diatribes or nude pics of Laetitia Casta here, but plenty of feminine sass. Joe Bob says check it out.

To help promote its paperback release of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration, edited by Byron Preiss, publisher ibooks has made two new Marlowe stories (both unique to this edition) available free of charge from its Web site. Roger L. Simon's "Summer in Idle Valley" finds the L.A. private eye saving his creator's life and looking for Dr. Seuss' missing watercolors, while "Sixty-Four Squares," by J. Madison Davis (Red Knight), has Marlowe assisting a delivery truck driver who has stumbled into trouble of possibly international proportions. These aren't the best two stories in Preiss' anthology (originally published in 1988), but they fit nicely with other Marlowe adventures by Max Allan Collins, Loren D. Estleman, Sara Paretsky, Jonathan Valin, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Robert Crais and others. A new introduction to this paperback edition, penned by Robert B. Parker (whose Poodle Springs [1990] completed Chandler's unfinished last novel), supplies the basics of Chandler's life and rise to fame.

Finally, an overdue adieu to Sarah Caudwell, the English barrister/novelist, who died of throat cancer in late January. The sister of well-known journalist Alexander Cockburn, Caudwell published her first mystery, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, in 1981. In it she introduced the character Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don and professor of medieval law, who is often called upon to assist former students in solving legal mysteries. Caudwell went on to produce two witty sequels: The Shortest Way to Hades (1985) and The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989), an Anthony Award winner. A long-awaited fourth installment in this series, The Sibyl in Her Grave, is due out from Delacorte in July. Although the bright young lawyers in these books tend to be irritatingly pretentious and the plots are sometimes improbable, Caudwell's prose style has been lauded as "luscious" and "sexy," and Tamar is a wonderfully curious figure, if only because it is never quite clear whether the professor is a man or a woman. Caudwell evidently went to her grave without telling.

And the Nominees Are...

The Edgars

The Mystery Writers of America has announced its nominees for the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 1999. Awards will be presented at the MWA's 55th Gala Banquet, to be held May 4 in New York City. Nominees include:

Best Novel: River of Darkness, by Rennie Airth (Viking); Bones, by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster); L. A. Requiem, by Robert Crais (Doubleday); Strawberry Sunday, by Stephen Greenleaf (Scribner); In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson (Avon).

Best First Novel By An American Author: Certifiably Insane, by Arthur W. Bahr (Simon & Schuster); Big Trouble, by Dave Barry (Putnam); The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison (St. Martin's Minotaur); God Is a Bullet, by Boston Teran (Knopf); Inner City Blues, by Paula L. Woods (W. W. Norton).

Best Paperback Original: Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham (Berkley Prime Crime); Lucky Man, by Tony Dunbar (Dell); The Resurrectionist, by Mark Graham (Avon); The Outcast, by José Latour (Akashic Books); In Big Trouble, by Laura Lippman (Avon).

Best Fact Crime: The Ghosts of Hopewell, by Jim Fisher (Southern Illinois University Press); Mean Justice, by Edward Hume (Simon & Schuster); And Never Let Her Go, by Ann Rule (Simon & Schuster); Disco Bloodbath, by James St. James (Simon & Schuster); Blind Eye, by James B. Stewart (Simon & Schuster).

Best Critical/Biographical Work: Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert (Oxford University Press); A Suitable Job for a Woman, by Val McDermid (Poisoned Pen Press); The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, by Catherine Ross Nickerson (Duke University Press); Ross Macdonald: A Biography, by Tom Nolan (Scribner); Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower (Henry Holt).

To find a complete list of Edgar nominees, go to the Mystery Writers of America Web site.

The Agathas

Also announced recently were nominees for this year's Agatha Christie Awards. Winners will be declared on May 6 at the Malice Domestic XII convention awards banquet in Washington, D.C. Among the nominees:

Best Novel: Immaculate Reception, by Jerrilyn Farmer (Avon); Mariner's Compass, by Earlene Fowler (Berkley); Death on the River Walk, by Carolyn Hart (Avon); In Big Trouble, by Laura Lippman (Avon); The Flower Master, by Sujata Massey (HarperCollins).

Best First Mystery: Murder with Peacocks, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's Press); Circles of Confusion, by April Henry (HarperCollins); Revenge of the Gypsy Queen, by Kris Neri (Rainbow); By Blood Possessed, by Elena Santangelo (St. Martin's Press); Sing It to Her Bones, by Marcia Talley (Dell).

Best Nonfiction: The Deadly Directory 2000, edited by Kate Derie (Deadly Serious Press); A Taste of Murder: Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers, edited by Jo Grossman and Robert Weibezahl (Dell); Detecting Women 3, by Willetta Heising (Purple Moon Press); The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert (Oxford University Press); Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower (Henry Holt).

In addition, author Dick Francis will receive the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement. For a complete list of Agatha nominees in all categories, visit the Malice Domestic Web site.


"The Rap Sheet" is written exclusively for January Magazine by Crime Fiction Editor J. Kingston Pierce. Authors and publishers are encouraged to e-mail Pierce with information about new and forthcoming books.


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