January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, August 2002


IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New books by Robert Skinner, Steve Monroe, Edward Marston and others • Readers rate the latest releases from James Lee Burke, Clare Layton, Jeannine Kudow and C.J. Box • Last good-byes to Bartholomew Gill and Jack Olsen, as well as other news from the world of mystery • The sassy "Tart City" site is one of several additions to January's Crime Fiction Links page • Plus: nominations are in for the 2002 Anthony Awards

Pierce's Picks for August

And Justice There Is None (Bantam), by Deborah Crombie. Gemma Jones' recent promotion to Scotland Yard inspector leaves her in charge of investigating the brutal slaying of pregnant Dawn Arrowood, whose porcelain-dealer lover appears shattered by her demise. Jones figures Arrowood's cuckolded hubby for the crime, but Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid -- Jones' former partner and imminent roommate -- is uncomfortable with the parallels between this case and the unsolved death of an antiques dealer. This is Crombie's eighth Kincaid-Jones novel, after A Finer End (2001).

The Art of Deception (Hyperion), by Ridley Pearson. Seattle's well-known "Underground," a spooky collection of building levels and former sidewalks that were abandoned after the city was rebuilt in the wake of an 1889 fire, plays a secondary role in this tale that finds police psychologist Daphne Mathews being stalked by a deputy sheriff. Frightened, she moves in with detective John LaMoia. Meanwhile, their boss (and Daphne's ex-lover), Lou Boldt, is busy with the death of an influential figure in Seattle's Chinese community.

Criminal Intent (Penguin), by Sheldon Siegel. Family troubles abound in this third novel featuring priest turned lawyer Mike Daley, who now runs a San Francisco criminal defense firm with his quondam spouse, Rosie Fernandez. The main focus here is on Rosie's niece, a model who's accused of beating her movie director husband to death with his Oscar statuette.

The Curious Conspiracy and Other Crimes (Crippen & Landru), by Michael Gilbert. The 20 stories compiled here, presented in commemoration of veteran British author Gilbert's 90th birthday, feature both Scotland Yard inspectors Hazlerigg (introduced in Gilbert's 1947 first novel, Close Quarters) and Patrick Petrella. Some are historical, others contemporary, and the settings range well beyond the British Isles. But in all of these tales, Gilbert's characterizations are sharp and his writing elegant -- reminding us why he's considered a master of his craft.

Forbidden Hollywood (Cole Dixon), by William Prendergast. Short-story writer Prendergast's first novel revisits Golden Age Hollywood, where a two-bit blackmailer discovers screen goddess Stacey Tilden's most well-guarded secret (which, unfortunately, can be anticipated by the reader). He then agrees to keep a lid on it -- for the right amount of dough. Dark humor and a smart-alecky first-person point of view elevate this book above the heap of usually marginal small-press titles.

The Grave Maurice (Viking), by Martha Grimes. A story overheard in a pub becomes the starting point for this 18th suspenseful entry in Grimes' series about Inspector Richard Jury and his accomplice, Melrose Plant. It seems that teenager Nell Ryder went missing from her family's stud farm in Cambridgeshire more than a year ago. When that farm hosts a second crime -- a woman is found dead on its horse track -- Plant, with the help of Jury and the local police, sets off to find young Nell. But is the only goal of this endeavor to reunite a family?

Louisiana Bigshot (Forge), by Julie Smith. Black New Orleans computer whiz and private eye Talba Wallis (from Louisiana Hotshot, 2001) was helping a new friend find out more about her supposedly unfaithful fiancé. But when this client dies of a drug overdose, the P.I. follows a trail of clues to a mostly white Louisiana town, where her late friend wasn't exactly held in high esteem.

Partner in Crime (Avon), by J.A. Jance. Combining her two series, Jance sends Seattle detective J.P. Beaumont to Arizona, where he hooks up (and competes) with Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady on a murder investigation involving the Federal Witness Protection Program.

The Torso in the Town (Berkley Prime Crime), by Simon Brett. Amateur detectives Carole Seddon and her friend Jude, residents of the retirement village of Feathering, look into the mystery surrounding a human torso, found in the cellar of a grand old house. This is the third of Brett's Feathering novels, after The Body on the Beach (2000) and Death on the Downs (2001).

New and Noteworthy

Wesley Farrell ought to be kicking back a bit, enjoying his lot in life. In recent years, this Creole former bootlegger has re-created himself as a prosperous nightclub owner, with interests in New Orleans and Havana. "We've had a banner year," his cousin and business manager, Marcel Aristide, informs Farrell when the latter returns to Louisiana in early December 1941, after almost 14 months spent in tropical Cuba. On top of all this, Farrell's Irish cop father, Captain Frank Casey, is on the verge of marrying and the club proprietor continues to enjoy his relationship with the fetching Savanna Beaulieu.

But Robert Skinner's sixth tautly contrived crime novel, The Righteous Cut (Poisoned Pen Press), instead finds Farrell working his underworld contacts in the Crescent City, trying to locate a kidnapped teenage girl, prevent the slaying of a naïve young witness to her schoolyard abduction, and keep a corrupt city councilman from perishing in what appears to be a local gangland coup.

It's that councilman, Whitman Richards, around whom this story's violence builds. With his hands into every nefarious enterprise, from book-making to prostitution, and commanding "a network of city and state officials, cops, and political grafters that makes it possible for him to manipulate state laws and local regulations," Richards knows almost no bounds to his influence. But when two of his top henchmen are slain in quick succession, and then Richards' only daughter, Jessica, is abducted, the councilman suddenly finds himself on the defensive. Convinced that he knows who's behind these attacks and can curtail them on his own, Richards refuses assistance from Captain Casey, even threatening to yank the cop's badge if he doesn't stay away from the kidnapping. He's no more willing to listen to appeals to reason from his wife, the "strikingly beautiful red-haired" Georgia, who finally turns for assistance to Farrell, a man she knew intimately during his younger days as a "two-bit hood." As capable as Farrell can be, though, the troubles coalescing around Richards may be too much for him to handle. Not only is there the matter of the missing Jessica, who's been left under the "care" of a hopheaded punk with rape on his mind, but her capture is related to a larger scheme that involves revenge for long-ago injustices and a hit man's search for the frightened and fleeing custodian who knows too much about Jessica's plight to be left among the living.

Skinner portrays New Orleans in the last days before the United States entered World War II as a place where "anything goes if you got the price of the ticket." The city's nights buzz with the business of jazz dives, whorehouses, strip joints and gambling dens thick with cigar smoke and avarice. Its streets are rampant with crooks and the surrounding swamps harbor men -- and women -- as deadly as any full-grown gator. One can imagine nearly anything happening there, including, in the case of The Righteous Cut: the faked death of a Cajun gangster; a drive-by shooting that nearly ends Farrell's investigation at its outset; and a moral conflict that has a veteran killer thinking he might just spare the life of his latest target. Although the principal roles in this novel go to men, it's the female secondary characters -- Georgia Richards, the courageous Jessica, an inexperienced mulatto prostitute named Patience and others -- who are the most memorable. This latest Farrell adventure isn't so consuming or harrowing as the earlier Blood to Drink (one of January's favorite books of 2000), and its final resolution sacrifices some credibility to convenience. Yet Skinner's noirish storytelling style, his attention to pre-civil rights race relations, and the balance he strikes between human emotions and action all make The Righteous Cut a particularly sharp read.

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The hazardous intersection between organized crime and power politics has also spawned '46, Chicago (Talk Miramax Books), the second period novel from real-estate broker turned author Steve Monroe. A tale built on moral compromises, it follows a once-crooked policeman whose struggle to mend his ways may be foiled by people intent on pulling his strings to their own advantage.

Twenty-nine-year-old Gus Carson has led a rough life. His mother killed herself by leaping from a bridge into the Chicago River, and young Gus was subsequently taken in by "South Side" Sam Brody, a cop who knew how to "turn graft and corruption into an art form." Carson eventually followed Brody into the Chicago Police Department (CPD), only to be booted out in the wake of an inauspicious altercation. "I had pushed Mayor [Edward J.] Kelly's right-hand man through a plate-glass window," Carson explains, "after I'd busted up an opium party at his house -- replete with Joliet Josies and teenage boys." With World War II winding down, he joined the military police and, after months of "cush duty," was sent to retrieve a rapist-murderer from the island of Guam. But while returning with his prisoner to Hawaii, their transport ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo, and Carson was the sole survivor after five days in shark-infested waters. This experience seemed to set him on the straight and narrow. Just under a year after rejoining the CPD, his superior remarks, "I haven't had a complaint about you since your return. No fights, no bribes, no extortion, not even a restaurant owner complaining that you demanded free doughnuts and coffee."

But then one night, Carson shoots a black man who's just killed a white lawyer in a whorehouse, and he's suspended from the police force. To fill his extra time -- as well as earn $500 and reinstatement on the force -- he accepts an assignment from Arvis Hypoole, the wealthy scion of a local Republican kingmaker, who wants Carson to find a kidnapped black racketeer named Ed Jones. It seems Jones is a big wheel in the Chicago numbers racket. Hypoole says he wants him back so that Jones can provide a Grand Jury with the information necessary to choke off his own gambling operations. Carson can sure use the $500, especially since he's dating Sheila Prescott, the amorous, raven-maned daughter of Lake Forest socialites. Yet he's skeptical of Hypoole's civic-mindedness. His doubts are exacerbated as he begins to see connections between that early gunplay in the brothel, Jones' mysterious abduction and Hypoole's wish to become the next mayor of Chicago. Why does Hypoole really want to see Jones rescued? And how in the world does it relate to a black maid Carson has been assigned to keep under surveillance every night? As the questions increase in number, and Carson's inquiries attract the rancorous attentions of both black and Italian hoodlums, the cop starts to wonder if anybody is telling him the truth anymore.

Monroe, who won plaudits for his pulpish boxing novel, '57, Chicago (2001), writes in spare but vigorous prose -- just the thing to lend distinction to his otherwise fairly conventional noir plot. Though he occasionally falls back on hard-boiled clichés, both in terms of characters (Sheila's predatory "hellcat" of a mother, for example) and situations, his imagery can be striking, if offbeat. "The sun peeked out from behind the clouds like a firefly sticking his ass out of a can of gray paint," Monroe writes halfway through. "May in Chicago: winter flirted with summer, but they never screwed." Juxtaposing the Windy City's caviar-class white and worker-class black cultures gives '46, Chicago social depth, and the patient way in which the author reveals Gus Carson's normally concealed conscience is commendable as well as convincing.

Like Max Allan Collins, whose Nate Heller series is also set largely in mid-20th-century Chicago, Monroe draws on that city's post-war history for some of this book's events and players (including Ed Jones). However, most readers are unlikely to notice. For them, '46, Chicago can be enjoyed simply as a hard-charging tale of power and avarice and the corruption they engender.

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One final, and funnier, wartime mystery: 4-F Blues (New Century Publishers), by San Francisco-area advertising exec Charles Rubin. The protagonist here is Hollywood stuntman Tom Driscoll, who, despite having "the build of Johnny Weissmuller," was refused a commission into the U.S. armed forces because of his irregular heartbeat. However, Driscoll "was still risking his life on a daily basis" by stunting for Grove Pictures, an L.A. studio that survives primarily by churning out cheesy, patriotic flicks, most of which feature leggy, red-headed starlet Maggie Graym and her handsome but less-than-macho leading man, Vance Varley.

As Rubin has it, Hollywood in 1942 is rife with Nazi spies and provocateurs. They'll do anything they can to keep their identities secret, and whatever they must to undermine the morale boost that celebs like Maggie Graym can give to American troops overseas. When those detestable calculations lead to the murder of Driscoll's alarmist friend, Grove senior editor Erne Parkin, followed by Maggie's near-disastrous fall in a Ferris wheel "accident," the stuntman starts to look more closely at the troubles besetting Grove Pictures. For instance, is mere misfortune behind the disclosure that the studio's young contract actress, Jane Allen -- "Hollywood's sweet, virginal girl-next-door" -- was once a San Diego stripper known deliciously as Ice-Cream Cohen? Or did somebody with Grove's destruction in mind supply compromising photos of Miss Allen to Hollywood's twin quidnuncs extraordinaire, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons? And could it really have been chance that led to the swimming-pool death of Wanda Belkins, a former coffee-shop waitress who was being groomed (red hair dye and all) to supplant the less easily manipulated Maggie as Grove's signature draw?

Driscoll, though distracted by having to periodically save Maggie's shapely ass and protect a Japanese American named Douglas Tanaka from being shipped off to one of the West Coast's interment camps, is determined to get to the bottom of Grove's multiple mishaps, which he believes are related to the recent wasting of valuable movie film and the disappearance of a disagreeable director.

Author Rubin peppers a few interesting period scenes into his story, including one in which Driscoll washes dishes at the newly opened Hollywood Canteen alongside Humphrey Bogart, and another that has Angelenos cowering in the looming shadow of an early gray cloud of air pollution, which they mistake for "poison gas from Japan." But Rubin isn't as practiced as, say, Stuart M. Kaminsky (To Catch a Spy) at re-creating wartime Hollywood, and his account of early film stunting lacks the delights that Peter Lovesey evoked in his 1983 novel, Keystone. More regrettable is the fact that, halfway through this novel, Driscoll is told (in the most machinelike dialogue imaginable) about the Nazi plot to create mayhem in Tinseltown; it would have been better had he discovered this scheme piece by suggestive small piece. Regardless, 4-F Blues does have its charms, not the least of them being the rocky and slow-boiling relationship between Driscoll and the magnetic Maggie. And the novel's portrayal of Adolf Hitler, squealing with pleasure as he screens "Maggie's latest Technicolor extravaganza" in the privacy of his very own theater, is not easily forgotten.

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The publication of a new entry in Edward Marston's long-running series about Westfield's Men, certainly Elizabethan London's most calamity-prone theater troupe, is always worth celebrating. I've read all but one of the dozen novels in this series thus far and have yet to be disappointed. Marston (the best-known nom de plume of UK wordsmith Keith Miles) brings a mature hand to the development of his plots and has a heart-deep appreciation of 16th-century English society and stagecraft that's evident on every page. Other authors, notably Simon Hawke (The Slaying of the Shrew) and Philip Gooden (The Pale Companion), may compose similar yarns, but not better ones.

So it's especially remarkable to find Marston outdoing himself, as he does in The Bawdy Basket (St. Martin's Minotaur). Beyond the usual threats to the survival of Westfield's Men, this latest adventure finds the company at risk of losing both its creative genius and its financial backing. And there seems little that Nicholas Bracewell, the troupe's resourceful stage manager, can do about it.

Tensions bedevil the actors from page one, initially due to an execution. Gerald Quilter, a prosperous mercer and father to one of the company's new performers, Frank Quilter, is to be hanged for the murder of his embezzling onetime business partner. However, both Quilters insist upon Gerald's innocence. While the public hanging cannot be stopped (a good thing, only in that it provides this book with a wonderfully bizarre scene), the elder Quilter's name might be cleared in the aftermath, and Frank is determined to do just that. This mission, though, makes his fellow actors nervous. Imagining the decline in their fortunes should they retain the son of a killer in their midst, they conclude that Frank Quilter must be dismissed. But Bracewell, inevitably less intimidated than others by strife and less superstitious than many men of his era, elects to back Frank's efforts on behalf of his father -- even if it costs him his job, too. "Westfield's Men without Nicholas?" ponders the wife of the company's acknowledged star, Laurence Firethorn. "That would be like the River Thames without water -- empty and meaningless." Still, it takes a bit of clever negotiating by Bracewell to keep Frank in the troupe, as he is primarily occupied with unmasking the parties responsible for leading his father to the end of a rope. Meanwhile, more trouble brews, this time concerning the future of playwright Edmund Hoode, who after years of consistently unrequited romances ("Your whole life is one long, desperate, lovesick sigh," another player reminds him), appears finally to have found a woman anxious to share his heart. The downside to this happy news is that Hoode's inamorata, a wealthy widow named Avice Radley, demands that the talented playwright abandon the stage in order to pen sonnets solely in her tribute.

With these potential disasters looming over him, it's all Bracewell can do to concentrate on untangling the plot behind Gerald Quilter's framing -- a conspiracy that involved prominent judicial and business players. Those conspirators, though, won't go down without a fight, and Nicholas' determination to reveal their misdeeds leads to the killing of a young woman peddler and focuses the malevolent attentions of a corrupt moneylender on the financially overextended, pleasure-seeking benefactor of Westfield's Men. The cost to Bracewell and Frank Quilter of bringing their quarry to ground may be the destruction of the theater company they both hold dear.

Although The Bawdy Basket provides fewer insights into Nicholas Bracewell's character than did The Silent Woman (1994), and slightly less menace than The Roaring Boy (1995), it is flush with dramatic urgency, swashbuckling action and richly evocative scene-settings. In addition to its execution episode and Marston's re-creation of a 16th-century country fair (complete with jugglers, acrobats, performing bears and the occasional hermaphrodite), the story captures well the simultaneously riveting and revolting attractions of an inn-yard stage show. A crowd depiction early on is priceless: "Pressed closely upon each other in the pit, hundreds of sweat-sodden, unwashed bodies gave off a fearsome stink, intensified by the bad breath of the standees and mingling with the odor of fresh manure that came from the stables. Seated in his familiar position in the gallery, Lord Westfield, the troupe's patron, was holding a pomander to his nostrils, and many of the spectators in the upper levels were sniffing nosegays or pomanders to ward off the stench from below." Bravo!

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And from my gee-it's-about-time-I-got-around-to-them stack come two more novels to round out this month's selection. First up: Vulture Capital (Poltroon Press), by Mark Coggins. The sequel to The Immortal Game (another of January's favorite books of 2000), it returns San Francisco private eye August Riordan to the Silicon Valley, this time to search for a vanished biotech executive.

Riordan's client is venture capitalist Ted Valmont, who's only recently learned that Warren Niebuhr, a friend and the chief technical officer (CTO) of a biotech firm called NeuroStimix, has gone AWOL. At first, Valmont thinks there might be nothing particularly sinister about this; Niebuhr, he notes, has "got a history of running off with colleagues he meets on business trips." But the CTO's truancy could have some serious business ramifications, possibly jeopardizing progress on the development of NeuroStimix's new device to help victims of spinal cord injuries. And since Valmont also happens to be a NeuroStimix investor, he can't sit still and let that happen. So he rousts Riordan from his 12th-floor office in San Francisco's landmark Flood Building, and this odd couple hit Niebuhr's trail, zipping around California's high-tech quarter and chic Napa Valley, and discovering that Niebuhr's disappearance is a small part of a larger plot to use NeuroStimix's technology for nefarious purposes.

Coggins has a talent for penning credible, often clever dialogue, and some of his more cynical remarks and observations about modern society might reduce a nun to gales of laughter. (Totally appropriate in a book so entwined with faith in technological advancement is a scene, just a few chapters in, that finds Valmont assaulted by the background noise of someone "shouting to make himself heard: ëPets.com! Why not buy dirt online and have it shipped?'") Vulture Capital even makes learning about software creation and funding interesting. Less a pulse-quickening corporate conspiracy novel than an appealing detective adventure for the post-dot-com world, VC might be just the read for those harried business types who want to see that others have it worse than they do.

I only wish I could be half as enthusiastic about Dave Zeltserman's In His Shadow (Mystery and Suspense Press/iUniverse). This consciously hard-boiled novel starts out well enough, introducing readers to Johnny Lane, a Denver P.I. who also writes a monthly column about his cases for the Denver Examiner. That column has scored Lane not only local renown, but a pretty consistent stream of clients. Enough that he can farm assignments out to a variety of freelance operatives, keeping 60 per cent of the fee for his trouble (an arrangement that only rubs an occasional op the wrong way). His work might not be glamorous (he spends the first few chapters here tracking down a 16-year-old girl who has escaped her abusive home life, only to seek employment in the raunchy porn joints along Denver's East Colfax Avenue), but Lane figures he's good at it. Sometimes unbelievably good, as when -- out of a cold start -- he reasons that his office neighbor, a chiropractor, is really a murderer who adopted the identity of his victim.

But when he goes to work for fetching college student Mary Williams, who wants to find her birth parents, Lane doesn't realize what it will entail. Or cost him. The job just sounds easy. And it is, at first. Lane's records search leads him to Oklahoma and a woman named Rose Martinez ... who, unfortunately, happens to be one of Lane's old lovers and the wife of a man he cruelly murdered years ago.

So, OK, this is where the wheels start to come off what had initially seemed like a predictable detective yarn. Lane realizes that he can't reveal Rose Martinez to Mary without exposing himself in the bargain. Instead, he ducks his client for a while, and then lies to her, telling Mary that her mother is actually dead, but her father has remarried and lives in the Mile-High City. Trouble is, the guy Lane phonies up as Mary's dad is a sleazeball, who, shortly after meeting Lane's young client, tries to molest her. From that point onward, In His Shadow descends into craziness and violence, with a bit of incest thrown in, just to keep things lively. If these shocking events had been better presaged and were more believably presented, in less of a landslide manner, the book might have retained my interest. I have no problem with bloodshed; I just expect it to amount to something more significant than it does in these pages. Zeltserman deserves some credit for good intentions. He's trying to turn our preconceptions of private-eye fiction on their heads, offering up a gumshoe with way more deep-seated problems than most of the people who hire him. But he needed an editor to tell him when enough was enough. 'Nuff said.

Other Voices

In James Lee Burke's latest crime novel, Jolie Blon's Bounce (Simon & Schuster), sheriff's deputy Dave Robicheaux grapples with demons inside and out to unravel the grisly murders of two young women.

Robicheaux is a former homicide detective in the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) who now works for the New Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department. A reformed alcoholic, he finds his resolve to stay off the booze severely tested during his investigation of these killings. By far the most serious challenge to his sobriety comes in the form of Legion Guidry, an older man who was once the brutal white overseer on a plantation. Guidry is a satanic figure gifted at spreading misery and planting fear wherever he goes. Using a blackjack, he gives Robicheaux a ferocious beating, ending it by sticking his tongue in Robicheaux's bloody mouth. The awful taste of that humiliation proves hard to get rid of and inflames Robicheaux's barely controlled longing for a drink.

Helping him in the sobriety struggle, and in the murder investigation, is a close friend and former fellow NOPD homicide detective, Clete Purcel. Purcel is now a P.I., whose tactics are not admired by the New Iberia Parish sheriff. But they nicely complement Robicheaux's official investigation, helping to turn up elusive information and loosen reluctant tongues beyond the easy reach of law enforcement.

The case draws in a colorful cast of characters, including a retired mob hit man bent on revenge, a stunningly sexy prosecuting attorney, an oddball bible salesman who doesn't quite ring true and a lowlife nightclub owner with BAD NEWS written all over him. Then there's Tee Bobby Hulin, a talented young musician whose prowess on the guitar is at risk from his addiction to heroin. Listening to Tee Bobby play a blues song at an outdoor concert, Robicheaux is reminded of the great New Orleans bluesman Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones. The name of that song is "Jolie Blon's Bounce."

Along with being a mesmerizing storyteller, James Lee Burke is a master of vivid description. When you come across a passage about the sweltering heat of a Louisiana summer afternoon, don't be surprised if you break out in a sweat. -- Reviewed by Charles Smyth, a periodic contributor to January Magazine

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Clutch of Phantoms (Poisoned Pen Press) offers all you'd expect from a contemporary British popular novel -- urban chic, rural horror and nasty contemporary politics -- plus a generous splash of romance, à la Barbara Michaels. Author Clare Layton (known for mysteries written under the pen name Natasha Cooper) heaps plenty of trouble on the pretty head of Cass Evesham, a tough-as-nails and sexy-as-hell stockbroker clawing her way to the top at a male-dominated firm.

High from her latest hot deal, Cass sashays off to a trendy bistro for lunch with her attorney lover, only to get dumped. It seems that the attorney's estrangement from his wife was only a fabrication to delude Cass, and his wife has discovered their affair. As he blithely dashes off a check for his half of the deposit on their planned vacation, Cass reaches across the table and backhands him, knocking him to the floor of the restaurant and drawing blood and attention. An uncharacteristic outburst -- or is it? This act of violence soon returns to haunt Cass when a smarmy reporter calls with a second shocking revelation: Cass' maternal grandmother is the notorious murderer Livia Claughton, just released from prison after serving 25 years for the killing of her architect husband and his opera singer mistress. The vengeful daughter of the opera singer has tipped the press to Cass' connection with Livia in hopes of ruining Cass' life, as she feels the murder ruined hers.

With her professional and personal life in tatters, Cass reluctantly agrees to meet Livia at the remote cottage where she is hiding from the slavering press. In the midst of their uneasy reunion, the arrival of a mystery man, delirious with fever, threatens to make Cass' life even more complicated. Through it all, Cass gradually discovers the untold story of the cruelty that drove her grandmother to murder.

Clutch of Phantoms is light on mystery and heavy on feminist angst. The reporters in this tale are incredibly vicious and even more incredibly incompetent, and the device of the mystery man feels contrived. But the feisty and admirable characters of granddaughter and grandmother, along with the murder motive Claire finally uncovers, make Clutch of Phantoms a good read.

Meanwhile, Jeannine Kudow's Dead Tide (New American Library) puts the thrill back in thriller. This book rises above what could be a stereotypical plot and characters -- a jet-set beauty, a mysterious neighbor, a twisted serial killer and a military conspiracy -- thanks to the power of Kudow's writing. A former journalist, she believes in short chapters, colorful characters and plenty of action. Her heroine, Lacie Wagner, is a celebrity TV anchor with a flair for investigative journalism. As the book opens, Lacie is at a beachfront retreat on Nantucket Island recovering from injuries suffered while rescuing her daughter from the clutches of a child killer (see Kudow's Burnout, 2000). But before she can return to her job in Washington, D.C., she discovers the body of a woman diver, hideously disfigured, washed up on the beach near her house.

It's clear to the local medical examiner and the ambitious female assistant district attorney that something more than a simple drowning has occurred. Using her reporting connections to butt into the official investigation and relaunch her broadcasting career, Lacie discovers that she may be the killer's next target. She receives threatening e-mail notes, and the wealthy bachelor with whom she has been enjoying a torrid affair suddenly vanishes without a trace. As the plot thickens, Lacie seeks out freelance manhunter Nick St. James, a sexy nature boy who lives in a mansion on his own private island and, in between death-defying cases, cooks a mean sea bass. Yes -- all the main characters in Dead Tide are gorgeous, all the meals are gourmet and all the murders are revoltingly gory. In short, it's a passionate coupling of the romance and thriller genres, sure to spur beach readers into keeping an uneasy eye on the water's edge. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson, a January contributing editor

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C.J. Box's Savage Run (Putnam) begins and ends with a bang. Or, more specifically, with exploding cows in Wyoming's Bighorn National Forest. While on a monkey-wrenching mission to spike trees, environmental activists Stewie Woods and his new bride are "accidentally" killed in a detonation that the local sheriff blames on their own carelessness. Game warden Joe Pickett, introduced in Box's Edgar-nominated debut novel, Open Season (2001), is more skeptical as he begins to probe their deaths.

Joe's investigation leads him to the owner of the first blasted bovine, wealthy rancher and suspected poacher Jim Finotta. Although Finotta is protected from prosecution by his many powerful political cronies, the rancher's blatant violation of the law offends Joe deeply. Despite warnings from his superiors and even from his wife, Marybeth, Joe -- with his strong commitment to justice -- stubbornly pursues Finotta. Complicating matters further, Marybeth begins to receive phone calls from a man who claims to be the deceased Stewie. Joe is left to determine not only this caller's true identity, but also why the man appears to be on such familiar terms with his wife.

Alternating chapters of Savage Run reveal the predatory presence of two anti-environmentalists, whose own form of protest is to track down and murder prominent nature supporters. As their hunt continues, it leads them ever closer to Pickett and his family, eventually forcing the game warden into a run for his life through Wyoming's deadly Savage Run canyon, with a killer in panting pursuit.

Joe Pickett is a likable hero who, in contrast to most other detectives, is flawed both in his professional life and his personal one. His daughters are embarrassed by him, he has problems communicating with Marybeth, and he's jealous of his wife's past relationship with Stewie. Joe's also insecure about his abilities as a game warden, thanks to an episode from Open Season, in which a prisoner took away his gun. Yet despite Joe's tendency to second-guess himself, he is a strongly moral figure who enforces the law not simply because it's his job, but because he truly loves the Wyoming forests and the animals living within their expanse.

Though Box's debut mystery received much critical acclaim, I was disappointed by its stilted writing and uneven plot. Savage Run suffers from no such unmet expectations. Its plot is fast paced, the writing witty, and the characters both complex and engaging. Box's descriptions of the Intermountain West leave vivid pictures in the reader's mind; they could well serve as publicity for Wyoming's travel industry. And this novel's chase scene through Savage Run is sure to keep you awake through the night. You can't help but cheer for Joe Pickett. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow, Kaneohe, Hawaii

You, too, can have your say in "Other Voices." To submit mini-reviews of recent releases (preferably no more than 300 words apiece), click here. Reviews may be edited for length, clarity and grammar.

In the News

Coinciding with Vintage's reissuing of Raymond Chandler's books in handsome new paperback editions, the excellent Webzine Salon features an essay that tries to explain why Chandler "will always be the favorite mystery writer of people who hate mystery novels but love mystery." Read more.

Daniel Chavarr'a, the Uruguay-born Cuban writer whose novel Adios Muchachos won this year's Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, talks with The New York Times about his interest in "society's hard-luck outcasts" and his contempt for manor-house whodunits, and shares mysteriously little about his personal past. Read more (free registration required).

New Jersey resident and outdoors columnist Mark McGarrity, better known to crime fiction fans as Bartholomew Gill, died on July 4 when he fell accidentally from a stairway. He was 58. Under the Gill moniker, McGarrity wrote 15 novels -- including the Edgar-nominated The Death of a Joyce Scholar (1989) and last year's The Death of an Irish Sinner -- featuring Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr, the head of Ireland's Special Crimes Unit. Read more.

True-crime writer Jack Olsen, who won an Edgar in 1990 for his book about a Wyoming serial rapist, Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell, died on July 16 after suffering a heart attack at his Seattle-area home. He was 77. Olsen's final book, I: The Creation of a Serial Killer, about "Happy Face Killer" Keith Hunter Jesperson, is due out this month from St. Martin's Press. Read more.

One more death to report, that of Barry Reed, a Massachusetts trial lawyer who wrote several legal thrillers featuring down-and-out lawyer Dan Sheridan, including The Verdict (1980), which was made into a movie starring Paul Newman. Reed died on July 19, at age 75. Read more (free registration required).

Do you wonder how Robert Ludlum could still be turning out new novels, more than a year after his demise, or how Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler manage to produce so many books? The Washington Post reports that collaborating novelists can make even the most wooden or spent writers look good. Read more.

In an interview with Bookreporter.com, Kathy Reichs, author of the new Temperance Brennan novel, Grave Secrets, talks about the work of a forensic anthropologist, how her own experiences in the field influence the Brennan tales, the "great promise" of stem-cell research and her next novel, to be set entirely in North Carolina. Read more.

The Mystery Readers International Web site features an interview that author Peter Robinson conducted with best-selling Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. In the piece, Rankin talks about the potential retirement of his protagonist, Inspector John Rebus, his need to spend more time writing books in the future and the necessary evolution of British crime fiction. Read more.

In a very short item at the Bookreporter.com site, Tony Hillerman writes about the origins of his principal series characters, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Read more.

Finally, if you haven't been watching Murder Rooms, an exceptional four-part series presented in the PBS-TV Mystery! slot, now is definitely the time to start. Inspired by David Pirie's excellent first novel, The Patient's Eyes (reviewed in the June "Rap Sheet"), it imagines Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle teaming up with his old surgery professor, Dr. Joseph Bell (on whom Holmes was evidently based), to solve wonderfully atmospheric and arcane crimes in 1880s Portsmouth. Ian Richardson, who played the oleaginous Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, brings a brilliant eccentricity to his portrayal of Bell. There are still two more Monday episodes of Murder Rooms to come, on August 5 and 12, at 9 p.m. (check local listings). Read more.

New Crime Fiction Links

Every once in a while, we have to update January Magazine's Crime Fiction Links page, to keep readers informed of what else of interest is available on the Web. Our latest additions include connections to the extensive Mystery Readers International site, which features lists of U.S. mystery-reading groups and mystery bookstores from around the world, and Tart City, which celebrates women crime writers behaving badly (but all in good fun). If there are more additions you think should be made to the Crime Fiction Links page, please e-mail us.

Last Rewards

Nominations for the 2002 Anthony Awards were recently publicized. Winners will be selected by members of Bouchercon 2002, and announced during that convention in Austin, Texas, this coming October. This year's nominees are:

Best Novel:
The Devil Went Down to Austin, by Rick Riordan (Bantam); Flight, by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster); Mystic River, by
Dennis Lehane (Morrow); Reflecting the Sky, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur); and Tell No One, by Harlan Coben (Delacorte)

Best First Novel:
Austin City Blue, by Jan Grape (Five Star); The Jasmine Trade, by Denise Hamilton (Scribner); Open Season, by C. J. Box (Putnam); Third Person Singular, by K.J. Erickson (St. Martin's); and A Witness Above, by Andy Straka (Signet)

Best Paperback Original:
Dead of Winter, by P. J. Parrish (Pinnacle); Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris (Ace); Dim Sum Dead, by Jerrilyn Farmer (Avon); The Houdini Specter, by Daniel Stashower (Avon); and A Kiss Gone Bad, by Jeff Abbott (Onyx)

Best Short Fiction:
"Bitter Waters," by Rochelle Krich (in Criminal Kabbalah, edited by Lawrence W. Raphael; Jewish Lights Publishing); "Chocolate Moose," by Bill and Judy Crider (in Death Dines at 8:30, edited by Claudia Bishop and Nick DiChario; Berkley Prime Crime); "Double-Crossing Delancy," by S.J. Rozan (in Mystery Street, edited by Robert J. Randisi; Signet); "My Bonnie Lies," by Ted Hertel (in The Mammoth Book of Legal Thrillers, edited by Michael Hemmingson; Carroll & Graf); and "Virgo in Sapphires," by Margaret Maron (in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December 2001)

Best Non-fiction/Critical Work:
Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers, by Jo Hammett (Carroll & Graf); The History of Mystery, by Max Allan Collins (Collector's Press); Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir, by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins); Who Was that Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery, by Jeffrey Marks (Delphi Books); and Writing the Mystery: A Start to Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, by G. Miki Hayden (Intrigue)

Best Young Adult Mystery:
Death on Sacred Ground, by Harriet R. Feder (Lerner); Ghost Sitter, by Peni Griffin (Dutton); Matthew's Web, by Jeri Fink and Donna Paltrowitz (Bookweb); The Mystery of the Haunted Caves, by Penny Warner (Meadowbrook); and The Viking Claw, by Michael Dahl (Simon & Schuster)

Best Cover Art:
Chapel Noir, by Carole Nelson Douglas, cover art by Glenn Harrington (Forge); Grape Noir, by Kit Sloane, cover art by Annie Sperling (Deadly Alibi Press); Reflecting the Sky, by S.J. Rozan, cover design by Michael Storrings from a photograph by Josef Beck/FPG (St. Martin's Minotaur); The Tainted Snuff Box, by Rosemary Stevens, cover art by Teresa Fasolino (Berkley Prime Crime); and Under the Color of Law, by Michael McGarrity, cover design by Anthony Ramondo from a photograph by Index Stock Imagery/John Warden (Dutton)

"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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