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 Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute























January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, January 2003


IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • Year-end thoughts about books past and promised • New novels by Eddie Muller, Stuart M. Kaminsky and Bill Pronzini • Readers rate the latest releases from Pierre Magnan, Susan Wittig Albert and Michael Crichton • Commemorating the 100th anniversary of Georges Simenon's birth; how to capture the distinctive accents of Southern crime fiction, and more news from the world of mystery • Robert Barnard is chosen to receive the 2003 Diamond Dagger Award • And, because we've heard enough already, not a single word about Trent Lott or the U.S. Republicans' history of racist politics

Pierce's Picks for January

The Cross-Legged Knight (Mysterious Press), by Candace Robb. Almost a year after its publication in Great Britain comes the U.S. release of Robb's eighth Owen Archer medieval mystery. This time out, the one-eyed spy is asked by the Archbishop of York to look into mysteries involving William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester -- a prelate held responsible for the recent death in France of a powerful York family's patriarch. Was a fire that destroyed Wykeham's townhouse, and left the smoldering corpse of a local midwife behind, set to scandalize the bishop ... or to conceal the midwife's demise? With help from his wife, Lucie, Archer determines to find out.

Crowner and Justice (Allison & Busby), by Barrie Roberts. West Midlands lawyer Chris Tyroll longs for the leisurely existence, but has to settle for a life filled with extraordinarily odd cases. Here he's asked to simultaneously handle an employment squabble at an arms factory; a mother who, unwilling to accept her son's suicide, insists that the coroner change his cause-of-death ruling; and a dispute over ponies wanting to graze an open field. As Tyroll investigates, with some assistance from his girlfriend, Sheila McKenna, the three cases begin to connect -- with disastrous consequences.

Death in Dublin (Morrow), by Bartholomew Gill. The late Gill's final Peter McGarr novel has the Irish chief superintendent seeking help from a "scandal sheet" publisher to investigate a brutal slaying that occurred during the theft of the historic Book of Kells. Evidence points to the involvement in this crime of zealots striving to return Ireland to its ancient pagan state.

Detective Inspector Huss (Soho Press), by Helen Tursten. When businessman Richard von Knecht takes an apparent suicide leap from the balcony of his apartment in Göteberg, Sweden, it falls to Irene Huss of the Violent Crimes Unit to sift through the circumstances. What she comes up with, though, is evidence of homicide, which leads Huss down a circuitous trail leading to drug dealers and motorcycle gangs. An interesting glimpse into the underbelly of ostensibly ordered Swedish society.

A Fine Dark Line (Mysterious Press), by Joe R. Lansdale. After 13-year-old Stanley Mitchell Jr. unearths a cache of love letters, he sets out to learn the identities of the two correspondents, with help from an elderly, black drive-in movie projectionist. This search serves to educate Stanley about blues music, Sherlock Holmes and racism, but it also reveals the truths behind a 20-year-old murder case in his hometown of Dewmont, Texas -- and makes the boy a target for the real killer.

The Frost Fair (Allison & Busby UK), by Edward Marston. While partaking of a celebration mounted on winter ice that covers the Thames River in 1669, constable Jonathan Bale and architect Christopher Redmayne must rescue one of Bale's sons. In the process, they locate the frozen corpse of an Italian fencing master. Soon, Redmayne's ne'er-do-well brother, Henry, is charged in the murder, and the designer and Bale team up for their fourth investigation (after The Repentant Rake, 2001), rich as usual in historical texture and humor.

A Grave at Glorieta (Berkley Prime Crime), by Michael Kilian. The fourth of Kilian's Harrison Raines novels places the U.S. secret agent in the midst of New Mexico Territory's 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass. When, after federal troops win that fight, Raines' local contact is murdered and his partner accused of the crime, the agent commits himself to identifying the real killer.

The Guards (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Ken Bruen. Kicked out of Ireland's Garda Siochna for booze-related missteps, lugubrious Jack Taylor now makes a living in the seaside city of Galway as a "finder." In this debut thriller, he has to remain sober enough, long enough to satisfy a mother's request that he look into the alleged suicide of her teenage daughter. In so doing, however, he gets his best friend killed and starts down a path that will bring about his own betrayal. Bruen works a bit too hard to squeeze in pop-culture references and can be awfully cute with punctuation, yet his writing is occasionally mellifluous.

Hollow Crown (Carroll & Graf), by David Roberts. It's the fall of 1936 when Lord Edward Corinth is asked by a newspaper mogul friend -- and close associate of the British royal family -- to recover some letters that were sent by King Edward VIII to his "special friend," the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. There seems no doubt that the pilferer is a former mistress of the king, and another friend of Corinth's. But retrieving those missives is complicated by murder at a country estate. Together with journalist Verity Browne, just back from observing the Spanish Civil War, Corinth becomes mixed up in political protests and the anti-Fascist campaign as he seeks to carry out his mission on the eve of World War II.

Let Loose the Dogs (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Maureen Jennings. Late-19th-century Toronto sleuth William Murdoch (introduced in Except the Dying, 1977) hasn't seen his father, Harry, for more than 20 years. But when Murdoch père is convicted of murder, he asks his son to help clear him -- an assignment that will lead the dubious detective to an underground gambling ring, where bets are made on the gruesome "sport" of rat-baiting.

Let's All Kill Constance (Morrow), by Ray Bradbury. This campy yet clever mystery features an unnamed science fiction writer, who is interrupted on one dark and stormy night in 1960 by a has-been actress, who's sure that she and other aging stars have been marked for death. What follows is a whirlwind tour through classic Hollywood, as the writer searches for the would-be killer.

Scavenger Hunt (Pantheon), by Robert Ferrigno. The death of an Oscar-winning, ex-con film director, who claimed to have been working on a "dangerous screenplay" that would expose the frame behind his conviction for killing a teenage actress-wannabe, leads tabloid reporter Jimmy Gage (last seen in Flinch, 2001) to look again into the circumstances of this crime. A circuitously plotted tale, rampant with ambition and guilt and every flavor of Southern California eccentric.

The White Russian (Bantam Press UK), by Tom Bradby. From the author of last year's The Master of Rain comes this murder mystery set on the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution. St. Petersburg police investigator Sandro Ruzsky, never popular with his superiors, seems destined to incur their wrath again as he probes the double killing of a nanny from the Imperial Palace and her American companion, their bodies found atop the frozen Neva River. As this case unfolds, Ruzsky faces an implacable murderer, and worries that a ballerina he once loved may be involved in the deaths.

Out With the Old ...

Every year, I promise myself that I'm going to do better at staying abreast of what's new and significant in the expanding field of crime fiction. And come every January 1, I shake my head at the number of books I wanted to read ... but just couldn't seem to fit in during the preceding 12 months. For instance, I was never able to make time in 2002 to read either Reginald Hill's Dialogues of the Dead or Henning Mankell's Firewall. (Fortunately, other critics took those in hand and wound up adding them to January's favorite books of 2002 list.) Nor have I found an opportunity yet to immerse myself in Linda Barnes' The Big Dig, her latest private eye Carlotta Carlyle adventure; John Brady's seventh Irish inspector Matt Minogue novel, Wonderland; or Ninth Square, a raw-edged detective yarn (set in New Haven, Connecticut, of all places) by Gorman Bechard. With any luck, I can get to those before they're reissued in paperback ...

2002 seemed to be a remarkably good year for this genre. Even though there were no new titles from Sara Paretsky, Peter Robinson, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais or many others, we did see the publication of such remarkable works as Blood on the Tongue, by Stephen Booth; Martin Cruz Smith's December 6; S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night; George P. Pelecanos' Hell to Pay; and The Jazz Bird, by Craig Holden. We were also introduced to several first-time authors deserving of greater attention, including David Corbett (The Devil's Redhead), Julia Spencer-Fleming (In the Bleak Midwinter) and Cornelius Lehane (Beware the Solitary Drinker). And hey, any year that produces not one, but two new novels by Michael Connelly (City of Bones and Chasing the Dime) can only be considered satisfying.

At the same time as I lament the books unread last year, I look ahead to the Everest of enticements for 2003. A real fan can be excused for wiping away a bit of drool in anticipation of Robert Wilson's next psychological thriller, The Blind Man of Seville (February); Crais' new Elvis Cole novel, The Last Detective (February); the second Eve Diamond mystery, Sugar Skull (March), by Denise Hamilton; Jonathon King's A Visible Darkness (April), the sequel to last year's The Blue Edge of Midnight; Richard Barre's Burning Moon (April), the fifth novel featuring P.I. Wil Hardesty; the next installment of John Shannon's Jack Liffey series, City of Strangers (June); and Walter Mosley's forthcoming Fearless Jones tale, Fear Itself (July). After that ... well, let's not get too excited. We also have to make time for jobs and children and the occasional movie or anti-war protest. Life can't be all about books. (Or can it?)

Undoubtedly, in another 12 months I shall be right back where I am now: determined to spend fewer hours in front of the television and more time with my nose in a novel that can expand my mind as well as my world. But given what other sorts of New Year's resolutions I might come up with, instead (join an over-priced gym, change all of my wife's behavior patterns, clean out the gutters with militant regularity), reading more is something that I might actually accomplish ... or at least be better for trying.

Happy New Year,
J. Kingston Pierce
Crime Fiction Editor, January Magazine

New and Noteworthy

Intersections between the often sordid world of professional boxing and crime fiction aren't unknown. (I'm reminded particularly of Steve Monroe's '57, Chicago and Robert J. Randisi's Miles "Kid" Jacoby series). But rarely has that world been so thoroughly or convincingly portrayed as it is in Eddie Muller's two historical novels. The son of a renowned San Francisco boxing journalist, and founder of the San Francisco Historical Boxing Museum, this guy knows whereof he writes. And he writes of where he knows -- a post-World War II Bay Area that exudes authenticity, whether Muller is setting a scene in the now-extinct Bank Exchange Bar (birthplace of the Pisco Punch) or near the Pacific-hugging Cliff House ("a sawed-off stepchild of the spectacular Bavarian confection that glowered over Seal Rock in the late 1800s"). These are the stomping grounds, too, of newspaper sports columnist and sometimes-detective William Nicholovich -- better known as Billy Nichols, "Dean of the Fistic Fraternity" or simply "Mr. Boxing."

In The Distance (2002), set in 1948, Nichols helped to cover up the murder of heavyweight fighter Hack Escalante's manager, doing the seemingly ingenuous pug a favor. However, the reporter's actions led to worse trouble, as he fell dangerously for Escalante's "knockout redhead" of a wife, Claire, and as a cop who wasn't nearly so thick-headed as he appeared closed in on the truth.

By the end of that initial outing, Nichols -- having exposed a pestiferous extortion racket and pinned blame for Claire Escalante's killing on the deserving party -- figured he was a smart guy. Yet not long after Muller sounds the opening bell in his sequel, Shadow Boxer (Scribner), it becomes obvious that Mr. Boxing didn't know half of what was really going on. It's now late 1948, a few months after Claire suffered a terminal hemorrhage, and Nichols is looking forward to seeing her murderer "rot in a prison cell, for life." The last thing this celebrated scribbler for the San Francisco Inquirer wants to do is help the accused prove that he's being unjustly sacrificed to protect "the real operators" in a more extensive criminal enterprise. However, when the defendant's former secretary -- a shapely limbed, chain-smoking, Buick coupe-driving number named Ginny Wagner -- emerges from self-protective seclusion to share with Nichols a file containing dubious trust documents linking her ex-boss with a prominent but recently deceased lawyer, Nichols can't help but recognize the ingredients of a good story. And a juicy scandal, to boot -- one that will eventually connect a Napa Valley camp for underprivileged black youths with a gaggle of dummy corporations, a backroom abortion clinic and a conflicts-fraught deputy district attorney.

Muller, whose interest in film noir has led him to pen several non-fiction books (including Dark City Dames and last year's The Art of Noir), lards Shadow Boxer with characters familiar from that genre: unctuous grifters, macho-spitting hoodlums and femmes who you know from the get-go are going to be fatale. In addition, he throws in a few extraordinary players, such as the good-hearted Manny Gold, a bulky peddler of promotional novelties, married to a mentally deteriorating socialite, who is torn between doing what he knows is right and what he thinks is necessary. Given this author's pedigree, one might only expect that his ringside episodes (of which there are regrettably fewer here than in The Distance) should be finely framed masterpieces of anticipation and sweat and cigar smoke. But even some of Muller's minor, binding paragraphs capture the postwar era with such tonal precision that you're inclined to recheck the novel's publication date. Introducing a scene in which Ginny recalls for a tea-sipping Nichols how she acquired those trust documents, the author writes: "She perched on a plump ottoman that matched the couch and took a drag of the tar-bar, her knees drawn together demurely: Little Miss Muffet's more experienced sister. ... I peered expectantly over the rim of the cup, mimicking the eager first-nighter waiting for the curtain to rise. Trying to resemble someone who actually gave a shit." That Muller pulls off this sort of hard-bitten wordsmithing without overstepping into cliché is an enviable feat.

Of course, none of this would be quite so satisfying were it not for the presence of Billy Nichols, an ass-protecting moral relativist who's short on heroics and long on complicating flaws. Bespectacled, with a "rakish mustache," false teeth that he has to remove before lovemaking, and a repertoire of resentments that don't begin or end with the fact that his wife cuckolded him (and now insists that Billy help her to rear that other man's son), the 30-something Nichols enjoys in his profession an influence and romance that otherwise elude him in life. This deadline demon can't fully compensate for Shadow Boxer's sometimes convoluted plot; nor does he seem inclined to explain why his paper, so obviously William Randolph Hearst's flagship San Francisco Examiner, has been barely cloaked in these books as the Inquirer. But, fast on his feet and with a wisecracking patter, Nichols shows that he can take a punch and still go on to wow the crowd. Can round three in Eddie Muller's series be too soon in coming?

* * *

So very different is Abraham Lieberman, who makes his seventh novel-length appearance in Stuart M. Kaminsky's Not Quite Kosher (Forge). Pushing 70 years old, an insomniac with high cholesterol and no further hope of career advancement, this Chicago cop is less dependent on his job than he is grateful for the rare chances it gives him to cheat fate in favor of justice.

Although Not Quite Kosher lacks some of the emotional depth of its predecessor, The Big Silence (2000), it still demonstrates this series' strengths. The story kicks off with a bungled heist. Exactly one year after they first knocked over a small jewelry store north of the Windy City, George Wychovski and his blindly obedient partner in thievery, Pryor ("He was stupid. Born that way. Punches to the head hadn't made his IQ rise."), decide to hit the place again. But just when this repeat robbery looks like it's in the bag, so to speak, Pryor accidentally shoots the store's proprietor, only to soon be plugged himself by a pursuing policeman. Desperate to escape, so that he can fence the loot he's salvaged from this debacle, Wychovski eventually abandons his bleeding confederate afloat on the moonlit waters of Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, a lapsed Jew named Arnold Sokol enters Chicago's Temple Mir Shavot. Mistaking the visiting, white-haired Lieberman for the rabbi, Sokol makes a confession: just the night before, he says, he killed one of three teenagers who tried to steal his watch and wallet -- and "it's made me feel better about myself ..." Lieberman, in turn, confesses his true identity, and after making a few phone calls, escorts Sokol to see his "victim," Melvin Zembinsky. It turns out that Zembinsky, a recidivistic juvenile offender, is hospitalized, not dead, and with some arm twisting from Detective Sergeant Lieberman, he agrees not to seek revenge against Sokol. (If this plot line sounds familiar, it's because Kaminsky developed it in a short story called "Confession," published in Mystery Midrash, Lawrence W. Raphael's 1999 anthology of Jewish crime fiction.) Lieberman hopes this is the end of the matter -- though, of course, it isn't. And when, in an eyebrow-raising coincidence, the bodies of Pryor and Sokol subsequently wash up together on the shores of Lake Michigan, Lieberman and his Irish partner, Bill Hanrahan -- "the Rabbi and the Priest," as they're often known -- take a hand in solving both cases.

A challenge, indeed. Not merely due to the odd nature of these crimes, but because both detectives are distracted by personal business. One of the attractions of this darkly humorous series is its humanity. Kaminsky's cleverly concocted felonies aren't treated in isolation, but rather in the contexts of Lieberman's and Hanrahan's lives. Those lives supply additional levels of plot complication, as well as numerous (and eccentric) secondary regulars. In Not Quite Kosher, for instance, Lieberman must balance crime solving with the financial and social demands of his grandson Barry's pending bar mitzvah -- planning that has the normally commanding detective bowing to his wife Bess' expectations for this boy, who was left in their care by their errant daughter, Lisa. At the same time, Hanrahan, whose life has in recent years been reshaped by divorce, drink and a painful separation from his two grown sons, is trying to start anew by marrying his Chinese girlfriend, Iris Chen, an event that would be less stressful, were her hand not also sought by Laio Woo, the chieftain of Chicago's Asian crime syndicate. As these professional and personal obligations come to a head, with the wandering Wychovski being kidnapped by a fellow crook and tensions building between Chinese and Hispanic gangsters, Kaminsky produces a pleasantly low-voltage police procedural. If Ed McBain ever goes looking for a ghost writer, he should hire Kaminsky, who shows here a similar appreciation of human conflict and the common-man scale of crime.

* * *

Though I don't expect to be around in another 100 years, it would be interesting to see which American crime writers of our time are considered giants of their art in 2103. Because this field only took root in the early 20th century, the mantle of "greatness" has barely been extended beyond the holy triumvirate of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

But what about Bill Pronzini, the veteran California writer whose 28th Nameless Detective novel, Spook (Carroll & Graf), is out this month? The same sort of thing that can be said about Edward Kennedy (that during his 40 years in the U.S. Senate, he's had a greater effect on American society than either of his more famous, but shorter-lived brothers) might well be said of Pronzini: that with his Nameless series, he's turned out a much more substantial body of heralded work than what was produced by Hammett (who published five novels), Chandler (who published seven) or even Macdonald (with 24 novels, 18 of which featured P.I. Lew Archer). Yes, some of his early books -- including the first Nameless outing, The Snatch (1971) -- were fairly workmanlike and derivative. But the almost 60-year-old Pronzini has matured over the years, and allowed his San Francisco sleuth (who's only ever been identified vaguely as "Bill" in the books) to change with him. This evolution has often been precipitated by personal crises, such as Nameless' cancer scare in Blowback (1977) -- which finally led him to rethink his life and to marry in 1995's Hardcase -- but that doesn't make them any less important. Or extraordinary, for that matter. By contrast, Robert B. Parker's Boston P.I., Spenser, has been dating/living with his girlfriend, Susan Silverman, since God Save the Child (1974), yet their relationship has barely progressed beyond acquiring a dog together. And while Spenser has hardly aged over three decades, Nameless has stayed fairly current with his creator, experiencing a range of health problems and shifts of perspective that seem unavailable to Parker's consistently tough gumshoe.

Spook, in fact, finds Nameless preparing for semi-retirement (which will come as a welcome relief to longtime fans who thought he was going to disappear entirely after his ordeal in 2001's Bleeders). He's turning over business responsibilities to his young black partner, Tamara Corbin, with whom he'd so seriously clashed once upon a time. And he's breaking in a new investigator, a reserved ex-cop and widower from Seattle, Jake Runyon. As part of that breaking-in, he hands off to Runyon the firm's most recent case: an identity search on a homeless man known only as "Spook" (because "he had ghosts living inside his head"). Having been more or less "adopted" by the employees of a San Francisco film-industry supplier, Spook's sudden shooting death in their office doorway comes as a shock. And while homeless people die every day in America without engendering much concern, the employees of this company want to know what happened. "He didn't have a mean bone in his body," one staffer says of the haunted Spook. "I just don't understand why anyone would want to kill him." So was this just the random slaying of a street crazy, or had someone from Spook's unknown past -- maybe Dot or Luke, the apparitions he was always jabbering to -- finally come gunning for him? Runyon proves himself a dogged investigator as he takes over the case, little knowing that it will soon turn ugly, linking the "gentle, friendly" Spook to the slaying of another homeless man and a long-ago triple homicide in the California Sierras.

This book feels rather like a transitional installment, moving Pronzini's series onto a new track. And that shift isn't without bumps. A secondary plot, which sends Nameless to finish up a high-profile dig into some questionable practices by city employees, seems gratuitous, existing principally to reacquaint the detective with fellow sleuth Sharon McCone (the creation of Pronzini's wife, Marcia Muller), who collaborated on a case in an earlier Nameless novel, Double (1984). Also, Spook's climax -- which involves a pre-Christmas hostage situation -- is a bit jarring, sharply ramping up this story's pulse and violence just before a pat, feel-good ending. All that said, though, it's good to see Nameless back on the streets. Mellowed by age, marriage, recent fatherhood and too much death, he's still more vital than many newer, less deservedly cynical competitors. If, 100 years from now, his non-name is mentioned in the same breath as those of Marlowe, Spade and Archer, nobody should be surprised.

Other Voices

Ah, France. Land of romance, civilization and la bonne cuisine. At least, that's the popular belief. But the country's literature is hardly all sweetness and light, and Pierre Magnan's epics of rural French life are no exception. His Provençal peasants just want to live out their quiet lives, but the constant disasters that come their way -- wars, mudslides, ecclesiastical crises, floods -- leave few unscathed. This is not the cheerfully eccentric countryside of Peter Mayle's best-selling A Year in Provence; it's more akin to the grim, fate-ridden world of Marcel Pagnol's classics, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.

Like Pagnol's two books (both made into art-house films in the 1980s), Magnan has written two novels in a series, The Murdered House and Beyond the Grave, the latter of which was only recently released in the States by The Harvill Press. In the first novel, an embittered villager named Séraphin Monge exacts revenge on his hometown for the murder of his family years before. In Beyond the Grave, Monge has vanished, leaving behind a trail of broken feminine hearts. One of them, belonging to Marie Dormeur, the baker's daughter, has a curious tenacity. Dormeur bicycles endlessly around the countryside, going from town to town in search of Monge. Her childhood friend Rose Sépulcre, also infatuated with Monge, accepts her loss and marries a villager horribly scarred from fighting in the First World War. Dormeur eventually gives in, too, and marries the baker's apprentice. But neither is happy, and when they hear that Monge has died in a mudslide in another village, they scrape together some sort of peace of mind by having his body moved back home.

Sépulcre, true to her name, builds Monge's bones a rosy pink tomb, and the two women spend their spare time resting in its cool shadow. But then odd things start to happen. Dormeur's blind son, Ismaël, falls at the door of the tomb and suddenly, his sight is restored. Another boy goes to the tomb and his birthmark vanishes. A third has an inflamed limb cured. And the rumor mill starts to grind.

Neither of Magnan's two novels are mysteries, exactly; they are mysterious, but in the way of secretive villagers, adulterous lovers and scheming businessmen. Crimes are usually those of the heart, and accepted even if not quite forgiven. As if in penitence for the vengeful life he lived, Monge becomes his name after death, seraphically providing healing from on high to the suspicious but hopeful townspeople. In return, the Church, that bastion of forgiveness, is skeptical of what may just be a false miracle, and swiftly tries to hush the matter up.

But Magnan's narrators do not forget. There is no single narrator; this story is told by many voices speaking as "we," or "I," or even as an omniscient third person. The sense conveyed is that of pervasive folk knowledge, of events being breathed through the villagers who lived them onto the page. It's a mesmerizing effect, and gives the book that feeling of true possibility inherent in all good novels. As in real life, Beyond the Grave leaves several loose ends untied, little mysteries of motivation and action and misunderstandings. But life goes on, and the reader does, too. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

* * *

Casey Ford is the most hated man in tiny Indigo, Texas. While the local historical society attempts to revitalize that dying town by hosting an arts-and-crafts festival to draw in much-needed tourists, Ford -- who owns most of the buildings thereabouts -- is intent on shutting Indigo down and selling the mining rights to his properties, giving business owners little chance to recoup their losses.

Ford's determination to have his own way alienates even his family. He incurs the wrath of his niece Allison Selby by threatening her with the loss of her home and her goat farm, and then prevents his sister from marrying the man she loves. With so many people despising this man, can there be any question that he will be murdered? Actually, there is, and that provides the initial twist in Susan Wittig Albert's new China Bayles mystery, Indigo Dying (Berkley Prime Crime). It seems the obsessively controlling Casey had begun booby-trapping his buildings to prevent evictees from reclaiming them. When one of those traps backfires, sending a shotgun blast through Ford, the remaining residents of Indigo are all too willing to write his death off as an accident.

But not China Bayles. A former attorney and now the owner of an herbal shop and tearoom in Pecan Springs, Texas, she was planning to spend a profitable time in Indigo helping her old college friend, Allison Selby, host a Colors to Dye For workshop. China had also hoped that the trip would be a nice vacation with her new husband, ex-police detective Mike McQuaid, and her teenage stepson, Brian. Ford's death, though, reawakens McQuaid's cop instincts and provides him a welcome escape from his latest role as a staid professor of criminal justice. Knowing that this investigation could endanger McQuaid and cause Allison to fall under suspicion, China decides to look into Ford's fate herself, helped by her friend and business partner, Ruby Wilcox. It doesn't take them long to realize that there are just too many suspects with reasons for killing Casey Ford for him to have died accidentally.

Although this 11th China Bayles mystery (after Bloodroot, 2001), isn't one of her best, her longtime fans will certainly find delights in it. There are numerous references here to herbal dyes and instructions on how to create and use them. The historical applications of the dyes are also explained, but never so obtrusively as to interrupt the action. Albert even throws in a few recipes for foodies in need of a fix. (Readers who think that recipes and herbal information trivialize mysteries should remember that even Ed McBain succumbed to the food trend by including a chocolate-chip cookie recipe in Big Bad City.) At the same time, she throws several serious complications into her yarn, including suspicions that young Brian may have been abused by his mother's boyfriend. Unfortunately, this subplot's solution is handled too quickly and without any interaction between the parties involved. Albert may have thought that she needed to introduce some personal upheaval into China's life; however, the end result feels forced and awkward.

Despite these weaknesses, Indigo Dying shows Albert capable of writing "cozy" mysteries that are neither cute nor whimsical. She capably confronts serious issues (not only child and sibling abuse, but cancer and the devastating effects of mining) while entertaining and amusing her readers. This enjoyable mystery should be read with guiltless pleasure. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *

Michael Crichton's latest techno-thriller, Prey (HarperCollins), arrives with the usual fanfare, plus reports of a $30 million advance paid by his publisher (for a two-book deal). Once more, the author takes an emerging technology and shows how it could run amok in the world. This time around he focuses on genetics, distributed intelligence and nanotechnology. One criticism often leveled at Crichton is that his wooden characterizations play second fiddle to his plots. But with Prey the plot is so "out there" that no character could conceivably compete against it. Even so, this first-person narrative has some very interesting main players and probably his most well-painted landscape yet.

The story starts off in a most straightforward manner. California software guru Jack Forman, who's living the life of a house husband after being fired from a shady Silicon Valley firm, comes to suspect that his wife, Julia, a high-powered computer executive, is having an affair. She's behaving oddly and has been spending more and more time working at the Xymos Corporation's experimental fabrication plant in the barren Nevada desert. So when Xymos asks Jack to help Julia with her top-secret research, he sees it as a chance to put his fears to rest. He realizes quickly, though, that there's more to worry about here than extramarital shenanigans. Xymos is having a few problems with its prototype, self-replicating nano-devices -- microscopic machines that were designed to swarm and act as "eyes in the sky" for the U.S. military, but have escaped confinement. They've now started to breed in the wild, and are menacing the Xymos scientists, trapped in their laboratory. From this point, Crichton's tale turns into a race against time and raises questions about what these nano-swarms want from mankind. Do they crave some symbiosis with their creators ... or something far more threatening?

Prey is loaded with technical details, which contribute to an enjoyable and paranoiac read. Crichton's real narrative skill is shown in the way he pits his team of scientists against the swarm they've foisted upon the world. Readers may find themselves simultaneously wanting to zip through the pages, just to reach the conclusion, and reading slowly to absorb the author's myriad concepts.

This novel shares a great deal with Crichton's 1969 novel, The Andromeda Strain, in term of plot, and with Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when it comes to building up paranoia. Prey reminds me, too, of science fiction novelist Frank Herbert's little-known masterpiece, The Green Brain, which deals with "hive minds" and distributed intelligence. As with so much of Crichton's work, Prey is easily adaptable to celluloid, and film rights were sold many months ago. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim

You, too, can have your say in "Other Voices." To submit mini-reviews of recent releases, click here. Reviews may be edited for length, clarity and grammar.

In the News

With the 100th anniversary of Georges Simenon's birth coming up in February, Britain's Guardian newspaper offers a thoughtful look back at this Belgian thriller writer "who could write a book in 11 days and claimed to have had 10,000 lovers." Read more.

Again from the Guardian: José Carlos Somoza, acclaimed author of last year's The Athenian Murders, recalls how the Translator in his novel essentially forced his way into that story of intrigue in classical Athens. "I wasn't used to my characters arguing with me before I put them down on paper," Somoza remarks. Read more.

In an interview with the excellent Australian magazine Crime Factory, Marshall Browne -- best known for his Inspector Anders books (The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders and Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools) -- talks about his latest novel, The Eye of the Abyss (a thriller set in Nazi Germany), as well as his rather distinctive fascination with human deformities. Read more.

The first Mystery Readers Journal of 2003 focuses on "Mysteries South of the Mason-Dixon Line." Contents available online include Carolyn Hart's essay about South Carolina's Low Country (the setting for her "Death on Demand" series), Margaret Maron's piece about the judicious use of a distinctly Southern grammar in fiction, and an article making the case that audiobooks best capture the American South's dialect and auditory atmospherics. Read more.

Finally, in case you missed this news amid the recent holiday rush, Linda Fairstein -- whose latest Alex Cooper novel, The Bone Vault, is out this month from Scribner -- picked up the 2002 Nero Wolfe Award for her previous series installment, The Deadhouse. Read more.

Last Rewards

Robert Barnard has been chosen to receive the 2003 Cartier Diamond Dagger Award, presented by the British Crime Writers' Association (CWA) for a lifetime of achievement in crime fiction. The award will be presented to Barnard in a ceremony at London's British Museum on May 7.

Known for writing classic English mysteries, but with unusual twists, Barnard saw his first novel, Death of an Old Goat, published in 1974. He has since concocted both novels bearing a satirical tone (like Political Suicide, 1986) and others with a more psychological bent, such as A Fatal Attachment (1992). Under the pseudonym "Bernard Barnstable," he's penned historical mysteries, including two that are plotted in an alternative history, in which composer Wolfgang Mozart survives to old age in Regency London, and there takes up detection. Departing from fiction, Barnard is also the author of A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie (1980).

For more information, go to the CWA Web site.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association has announced its nominees for the 2003 Dilys Award, given out annually to the book that stores most enjoyed selling. And the nominees are ...

  • You've Got Murder, by Donna Andrews (Berkley Prime Crime)
  • Without Fail, by Lee Child (Putnam)
  • The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (Viking)
  • Hell to Pay, by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown)
  • In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur)

The winner will be announced during this year's Left Coast Crime convention, to be held in Pasadena, California, from February 27 through March 2. For more information, go to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association 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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