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 Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute























January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, June 2002


IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New books from Peter Lovesey, James Swain, David Pirie and others • Readers rate the latest releases from April Henry, Tim Myers and J.R. Ripley • Arthur Rosenfeld goes postal and other news from the world of mystery • 10 top crime fiction titles to put some chill into your hot summer • Plus: nominations are in for the 2002 Arthur Ellis and Shamus awards

Pierce's Picks for June

Black Gold (Poisoned Pen Press), by Charles O'Brien. It's the spring of 1787, and Anne Cartier, the young teacher of the deaf who was introduced in Mute Witness (2001), is in the fashionable spa town of Bath, England, to tutor a boy at the estate of Sir Harry Rogers. But she's inevitably caught up in efforts to capture an alleged rapist, as well as in an extortion scheme engineered by someone from her past.

Chicago Confidential (NAL), by Max Allan Collins. As America's first congressional inquiry into organized crime opens in Chicago in 1950, P.I. Nathan Heller hopes to lie low. But after an ex-cop friend of his is targeted by hit men and the abused, drug-addicted girlfriend of a powerful mobster is abducted, Heller finds a way to get revenge and justice at the same time.

Jolie Blon's Bounce (Simon & Schuster), by James Lee Burke. This Gothic-style crime story sends Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux to investigate the murders of a mob-connected prostitute and an attractive teenage girl, both allegedly committed by a Cajun blues musician. Robicheaux thinks the musician is innocent, but proving that will mean facing his own demons as well as an adversary with near-supernatural powers.

The Jupiter Myth (Century UK), by Lindsey Davis. Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco's visit to Londinium (London) coincides with the slaying of a renegade cohort of King Togidubnus, Rome's essential ally in Britain. As more murders occur, Falco strives to smooth over the diplomatic waters at the same time as he searches for gangsters anxious to take control of this crime-ridden town at the end of the empire.

Killer Waves (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Brendan DuBois. Deceptions abound after retired U.S. Department of Defense analyst Lewis Cole, curious about a disturbance adjacent to his New Hampshire home, discovers a car containing a corpse. Right away, he's visited by people identifying themselves as drug enforcement agents. Cole is told that the dead man committed suicide and that his help is needed to capture cocaine smugglers. But what truth is there in all of this, if any? The appealing Cole can't rest -- or return to his life as usual -- until he finds out.

The Pale Companion (Carroll & Graf), by Phillip Gooden. In this witty and risqué yarn, the 17th-century theater company known as Chamberlain's Men travels to a country estate to stage Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in celebration of a noble marriage. But actor Nick Revill is beaten up on the way, and when the performers arrive at their destination, they must confront family conflict, a riddling wild man of the woods, a contingent of fire-and-brimstone morality players and, of course, murder.

Resolution (Carroll & Graf), by Denise Mina. This conclusion to Mina's "anti-cozy" Garnethill trilogy looks in again on perpetually troubled Glasgow resident Maureen O'Donnell, who is set to appear as the star witness in the trial of her therapist-boyfriend's murderer. At the same time, she's dealing with the reappearance of her abusive father and with the worries she has brought on herself by becoming involved in a disagreement between an illiterate flea market stallholder and that woman's dangerous son.

Savage Run (Putnam), by C.J. Box. After an exploding cow kills a well-known "ecoterrorist," Stewie Woods, who'd been spiking trees in Wyoming's Bighorn National Forest, game warden Joe Pickett can't help but investigate. The case leads him to more deaths among environmental activists and some pretty odd phone calls, supposedly placed to Pickett's wife by the deceased Stewie, who was her boyfriend in high school. This is the sequel to Box's acclaimed debut novel, Open Season (2001).

Seventh-Inning Stretch (Walker), by Elizabeth Gunn. Just when chief of detectives Jake Hines thought crime was declining in Rutherford, Minnesota, a team of scam artists hits town. But before Hines can collar the grifters, their leader turns up murdered and stuffed into a garbage barrel. Further complicating things: the barrel was stolen from one of Hines' men, whose wife has drug problems.

The Shooting Gallery (Lyons Press), by Joseph Trigoboff. The killing of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist has New York police detective Alvin Yablonsky (from The Bone Orchard, 1990) questioning politicians, a Nobel winner and the victim's lover, who has now taken up with Yablonsky himself. Trigoboff enriches this police procedural with a surrealistic vision of Manhattan and insightful social commentary.

A Summer of Discontent (Little, Brown UK), by Susanna Gregory. This eighth Matthew Bartholomew mystery places the medieval physician in the English cathedral town of Ely, where he investigates a supposedly murderous bishop.

Twelve Mile Limit (Putnam), by Randy Wayne White. Based on a real-life incident, this new Doc Ford tale has the randy Florida marine biologist looking into a boat-sinking that apparently claimed one of his lab assistants as a victim. However, the sexy sole survivor of that accident says her companions didn't drown, but were kidnapped aboard a malodorous shrimp boat. After satellite surveillance photos confirm the rescue, Doc mounts a recovery mission to Colombia.

New and Noteworthy

Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond had long considered his "honest, blissful marriage" to his wife, Stephanie, to be "one of the few certainties in his case-hardened life." But when Stephanie is murdered in broad daylight, "shot twice in the head at close range" while visiting a local park, this head of the Bath, England, murder squad suddenly finds himself doubting the integrity and openness of their relationship. Who, he asks himself in Peter Lovesey's extraordinary Diamond Dust (Soho Press), was Stephanie intending to meet at that park? And why didn't she tell her husband anything about it? What did she have to hide that may have resulted in her killing?

Not surprisingly, Diamond is told to stay away from the investigation into his spouse's slaying; his superiors worry that he'll turn the case into a "personal vendetta." But equally unsurprising, at least for anyone who has enjoyed the six previous installments of the Diamond series (beginning with The Last Detective, 1991), this stout and curmudgeonly 50-year-old sleuth has no intention of being sidelined, while others feel free to poke into Stephanie's life and death. "Throughout their marriage," Diamond muses, "Steph ... had never directly benefited from the one skill he had: sleuthing. She was entitled to it now. He would find her killer, and to hell with the problems it raised." So, even as Diamond becomes the prime suspect in this tragedy (the murder weapon was an old revolver from his days with London's Metropolitan Police, which he'd kept hidden in his attic), he pursues more likely perpetrators. Chief among these are members of the Carpenter family, a Bristol-based gangster cabal that may have seen Stephanie's murder as retribution for Diamond having recently testified against one of their number. Also in the detective's sights: Steph's ex-husband, Edward Dixon-Bligh, a ne'er-do-well hotel chef who may have arranged to meet her on the day of her demise. But Lovesey gives nothing away fast. Or unintentionally. He's a master of the artful diversion, the seemingly throwaway plot turn that eventually shows itself to be a key to solving his puzzle. Could Stephanie's execution have anything to do with an elaborate jewel-theft scheme that's brewing in the background of this yarn? And is there some connection between Diamond's loss and the recent disappearance of another cop's wife? Diamond Dust is a jewel of many intricate facets.

The value of injecting significant change into the life of a fictional detective has so often been proved (the divorce of Peter Robinson's Inspector Alan Banks comes immediately to mind, as do the traumatic Guadalcanal experiences of Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller), it's remarkable that more authors aren't willing to experiment with such turning points. The death of Stephanie Diamond certainly has short-term consequences, in opening up more of her husband's life to reader inspection; but the long-term evolutionary affects may be the most welcome. Could we see the outwardly abrasive Diamond dating again (perhaps taking up with his former deputy, Julie Hargreaves, who helps him through his crisis in Diamond Dust)? Or, in his new loneliness, will he become an even more dedicated lawman? Lovesey has given himself freedom to explore new avenues for this series that was already one of the most consistently readable and rewarding on the racks.

* * *

Maryland author Roy Hoopes won a lot of attention with his cleverly conceived first novel, Our Man in Washington (2000), which sent Baltimore journalists H.L. Mencken and James M. Cain to the U.S. capital, where they probed corruption within the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Now, Hoopes turns to a much later period of political scandal in A Watergate Tape (Forge).

It's 1973, a year after five men connected with the re-election campaign of Republican President Richard Nixon broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Senate Watergate Committee is preparing to convene , setting in motion an investigative process that will lead to the approval of three articles of impeachment against the 37th president and Nixon's resignation from office. In the middle of all this, Tom Cranston, a Nixon-despising staffer with the Senate Select Committee on Oil Reserves, is found shot in the head on a Delaware beach. A coincidence? Freelance journalist Ray Hartley has to wonder. Only a day before, his friend Cranston had dialed him up, saying that he'd "learned what was really behind the Watergate break-in" and was in danger because of it. Cranston added that he might be mailing Hartley a package. "If the package arrives and you haven't heard anything from me in a day or so," Cranston said, "I want you to deliver the package to Bob Woodward at The Washington Post. Got that? Bob Woodward!" After Cranston's corpse is discovered, Hartley begins looking into the tragedy, under his quasi-authority as a journalist, quizzing the deceased's estranged widow, his neighbors and others who might know what Cranston was up to during his final days. This research frequently connects to the official investigation of wrongdoing by Nixon's men, reminding those of us who lived through Watergate how that crisis was exposed in the press (and inspired a new generation of "investigative journalists" in the Woodward and Carl Bernstein mold). To the detriment of this story's credibility, Hoopes makes his protagonist a bit too successful in convincing interviewees to reveal everything they know. And Hartley can't hope to measure up to Mencken and Cain as a fictional gumshoe. But the questions raised in A Watergate Tape about Nixon's secret political plans are as compelling today as they've ever been. Can we expect next to read Hooper's take on the other great presidential scandal of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan's Iran-contra affair?

* * *

Puerto Rico hasn't been completely ignored by crime fictionists. In the 1980s, Denver's M.J. Adamson did set a police series in that U.S. island commonwealth, all of her books named after months of the year (Not Till a Hot January, April When They Woo, etc.) and featuring the unlikely pair of Sixto Cardenas and Balthazar Marten, the latter a New York homicide detective in the Caribbean on an exchange program. But Steven Torres' Precinct Puerto Rico: Book One (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur) aspires to greater memorableness. Sadly, this uneven series introduction may make readers think twice about buying books two, three and higher.

Protagonist Luis Gonzalo is the sheriff of Angustias, a pueblito with only 9,000 residents, stuck up in the Puerto Rican hills. It's a quiet posting; as one of the town's deputies explains, there have been a total of seven murders over Gonzalo's 13 years on the job, in addition to the usual domestic violence, car thefts, drunken brawls and auto wrecks. "We get a lot of business. But this is not New York; it doesn't all happen on the same day." Still, Gonzalo manages to find trouble. As Precinct Puerto Rico begins, he and his family travel to the west coast town of Rincón, where his father-in-law has been hospitalized with minor injuries after driving away three home invaders with a machete. While there, the sheriff assists in the recovery of bodies washed ashore from a shipwreck. Gonzalo is not surprised to find that the dead are illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic. (Dominicans have, apparently, been sneaking onto the island for years, engendering resentments.) He is shocked, however, to discover a murder victim among the drowned. When that corpse subsequently vanishes into the trunk of a mysterious police cruiser -- the only proof of its existence being a series of shots taken by a news photographer on the scene -- Gonzalo has to ask, What happened to the body? He makes the mistake, though, of asking that question too loudly and persistently. His curiosity attracts the malevolent attentions of Nestor Ochoa, a corrupt San Juan police sergeant who works part-time for the never-identified masterminds behind the alien-smuggling biz. Hoping to end Gonzalo's inquiries, Ochoa threatens the sheriff's family. When that tactic proves insufficient, the San Juan cop arranges a daylight robbery of Angustias' bank, thinking -- incredibly -- that he can cover up one crime with another. The result is chaos and a new level of cinematic excitement, as an irate Gonzalo sets out to finally bring down Ochoa.

This rather schizophrenic plot reminds me of the 1996 cult film favorite From Dusk Till Dawn, which starts out as a bad-ass crime story, only to morph halfway through (and without warning or reason) into a vampire thriller, worth watching only for Salma Hayek's seductive snake dance. Precinct Puerto Rico looks at first like a distinctive, politically conscious police procedural, centered around the desperation of Dominicans to share in the "American Dream." Yet it turns into a fairly standard, high-caliber action drama that could have been set almost anywhere. Torres seems to resist capitalizing on the foreignness of his tale's backdrop. Reminders of the Caribbean environment come mostly from the interjection of Spanish phrases and occasional observations about social distinctions on the island. ("Since moving to Puerto Rico she had often been made to feel like something less than Puerto Rican. Her Nuyorican accent told everyone who heard her that she had not grown up on the island and this was a strike against her. In New York, some had seen her as nothing but a Puerto Rican. In Puerto Rico, she wasn't Puerto Rican enough.") But the author doesn't incorporate either this commonwealth's sensual richness or much about its complex history into his yarn. Too bad, because he is a lively wordsmith and he shows some marked skill at portraying small-town eccentrics, not all of them as likable as the change-resistant Gonzalo. Perhaps by the time Precinct Puerto Rico: Book Three rolls out, Torres will have achieved a more satisfying blend of exotic location, character study and police procedural.

* * *

The most distinctive thing about James Swain's Tony Valentine mysteries -- the second of which, Funny Money (Pocket), has just been released -- is their elucidation of arcane gambling scams. Almost halfway through the book, for instance, Valentine educates his new assistant on the proper use of a "monkey's paw": "It's a mechanical device that cheaters stick up the coin tray of a slot machine ... It has a light on the end which activates the slot machine into paying out even when the reels aren't lined up correctly." Swain, described as "a magician and gambling expert," would seem to know whereof he speaks.

But Funny Money, like its predecessor, the much-praised Grift Sense (2001), deals out more than insider information. This tightly plotted tale sends the 62-year-old Valentine, a cop turned casino consultant, back to his hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey, where his former police partner, Doyle Flanagan, has been killed in a car explosion outside a McDonald's. Not surprisingly, Valentine figures this tragedy must be connected to Flanagan's private investigation of a $6 million blackjack hustle at the city's huge Bombay casino. So he takes over Flanagan's case himself, eventually exposing a band of brainy Croatian crooks, led by an Audrey Hepburn-lookalike and a guy with a bowl-cut hairdo. Trouble is, the Croatians' scheme -- though successful -- has pulled in much less than $6 million. Where did the rest of the missing dough go? Is the casino's petulant and high-living owner, Archie Tanner, ripping off his own business and laying the blame elsewhere? Or is responsibility for the greater part of these thefts attributable to some more elaborate and widespread revenge plot? Valentine's usual ability to sniff out "crossroaders" -- hustlers or cheats -- appears for once to be failing him. Before the book is done, he'll face off against thickheaded gangsters who are trying to shake down his slacker of a son, try to convince Tanner (who's distracted by his campaign to break the Native American monopoly on gambling in Florida) to tighten up his casino operation, and figure out why Flanagan, a career Catholic, would have been heard asking in the weeks before his death, "What is sin?" Oh, and Valentine must also make nice with a female professional wrestler, who turns him on when she isn't scaring him.

While Funny Money's tumbling pace will keep you awake, and its humor certainly entertains, it's the relationship between Valentine and his son -- and, by extension, his son's more levelheaded fiancée -- that provides this book's warmth. It's not new that fathers and sons should antagonize one other, but author Swain does a careful and credible job of repairing the Valentines' long-standing differences. If only he'd given equal effort to fleshing out some of his secondary players, including the obnoxious Archie Tanner, the baby-faced and opportunistic Florida governor (Jeb Bush?) and the menacing Mollo brothers, none of whom achieves more dimension than a poker chip. Funny Money could also have benefited by restraint in the violence department; its ending, in particular, goes overboard and weakens the book's credibility. Still, in a genre that too often goes out of its way to repeat itself, Funny Money takes a worthy gamble on something slightly different.

* * *

Georgia sheriff John Le Brun, introduced in Brent Monahan's The Jekyl Island Club (2000), has long felt cheated. Brought up in the American South during the 1850s, he was just preparing to head off to the College of Williams and Mary when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, which helped precipitate the Civil War and put an end to Le Brun's dreams of further education.

Only now, in 1905 -- the time setting for events described in Monahan's new sequel, The Sceptred Isle Club (St. Martin's Minotaur) -- does a retired Le Brun travel to London, "the hub of the learned world," where he hopes to finally test his mental mettle. Unfortunately, his hobnobbing among the British intelligentsia is interrupted by the murders of four men in the gambling room of the exclusive Sceptred Isle Club. Having been brought to this gentlemen-only sanctuary by his English friend Geoffrey Moore, the ex-lawman is on hand to discover the carnage. He realizes at once that the circumstances are unusual: the gaming chamber's inside door is bolted, and there's no sign of either a weapon or the money being wagered. Whoever committed these crimes must have been let in through the room's exterior door, which meant that he or she had been recognized by the butler in attendance "and judged safe to admit." Le Brun is immediately suspicious of the club members, including the one with whom he has agreed to stay while in London. When, not long afterward, a small fortune is unearthed from the garden of a local policeman, the case appears closed. But Le Brun is far from convinced. Instead, he embarks on his own investigation of the massacre, turning up another corpse and evidence of blackmail, and eventually linking the killings to a longevity pool and the fight for Irish self-governance.

Le Brun is a disarmingly keen, frontier-style sleuth (reminiscent of Oscar Schiller, the Arkansas marshal from Douglas C. Jones' 1991 western-mystery, The Search for Temperance Moon), who is best showcased in relation to more refined personages. Though plagued with doubts about his abilities in many respects, Le Brun is a thoughtful and intuitive crime-solver. The former sheriff receives some assistance in Sceptred Isle from Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- wonderfully rendered in these pages as an adventure-loving adulterer -- but he doesn't really require it. Except, perhaps, to prevent his focus from being thoroughly diverted by Veronica Godwin, a fetching young Irish woman with a penchant for older lovers. The Sceptred Isle Club is rather old-fashioned in its plot structure, and intriguing twists are long in developing. Yet the book certainly enchants with its understated humor, textured characterizations and Monahan's detailed re-creations of Edwardian-era sights, both high- and lowbrow. One caution, though: There's a secret from Jekyl Island given away in this sequel, so the books should be read in order of their publication.

* * *

Coincidentally, Conan Doyle takes the lead role in another new work: The Patient's Eyes (St. Martin's Minotaur), a series debut by British journalist and film critic David Pirie. Just as Howard Engel did in his charming 1997 novel, Mr. Doyle and Dr. Bell, Pirie capitalizes here on the conventional wisdom that Dr. Joseph Bell, a celebrated professor of anatomy under whom Conan Doyle studied while training in medicine at Edinburgh University, provided the model for Holmes. In The Patient's Eyes, the two meet in 1878 and then wind up working together several years later on a pair of perplexing crimes, Bell applying the sort of forensic methods for which Holmes would become famous, while Conan Doyle acts as his naïve and impetuous Watson.

The early part of this adventure does a fine job of establishing the prickly relationship between Bell and his protégé. Conan Doyle doesn't buy in easily to his teacher's technique for identifying the histories or habits of people simply by concerted observation of their clothing and quarters. ("The Doctor was a charlatan; and, what was worse, the kind who believes his own twaddle," the future novelist grumbles early on.) But, after leaving school to practice as an eye specialist on England's south coast in the early 1880s -- only to partner with an acquaintance from college, who has become a shameless and successful patent-medicine dispenser -- Conan Doyle re-establishes contact with Dr. Bell. And just in time, for he soon becomes involved in the murder of a Spanish businessman and the still more daunting mysteries surrounding Heather Grace, a young woman upset by the long-ago murder of her parents, who claims to be stalked by a phantom bicyclist. The former case is the less satisfying, and though readers will likely expect it to converge at some point with the Grace affair, it unfortunately never does. However, the cycling conundrum and the prevarications connected to it are alone sufficient to make The Patient's Eyes worth seeing for yourself.

It is for the best that Pirie doesn't endeavor to duplicate the real Conan Doyle's writing style, but that he has a polished prose all his own. And the author appears to relish making Bell and his protégé slightly imprecise stand-ins for the world's first "consulting detective" and his warmer-hearted amanuensis. Yet Holmes enthusiasts will surely find in this novel a captivating, convoluted tale worthy of the master himself. A second entry in Pirie's "Murder Rooms" series, A Night Calling, has already been scheduled for publication in the UK in October.

* * *

Finally, I want to draw attention to a couple of recent non-fiction releases that deserve to find a readership among open-minded mystery enthusiasts: This Here's a Stick-Up: The Big Bad Book of American Bank Robbery (Alpha), by Duane Swierczynski, and The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery (Dutton), by Simon Worrall.

Swierczynski, a senior editor at Philadelphia Magazine, has compiled more than 200 years worth of crafty, quirky and bungling efforts to make surprise withdrawals from U.S. financial institutions. He identifies the nation's first bank robber as Isaac Davis, who in 1798 filched $162,821 from the Bank of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, with some help from the repository's porter. Then he goes on, in spirited anecdotal fashion, to remark on many of the usual suspects -- Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, John Dillinger and Patty Hearst are all represented in these pages -- as well as myriad forgotten felons, such as Paddy Mitchell, whose "Stopwatch Gang" became known between 1974 and 1994 for quick heists, never firing a shot in the execution of their business and wearing masks of ex-presidents to conceal their identities. In addition to the plunderer profiles, This Here's a Stick-Up looks at theft techniques (lone-wolf-style robberies versus takeover-style invasions), the success of the Pinkerton Agency and later the FBI in apprehending these thieves, and the cities most susceptible to bank jobs ("L.A. is the bank robbery capital of the world, and has been since 1978"). A chapter titled "Reservoir Dorks" will have you howling over world-class foul-ups by looters who just couldn't catch a break. (Don't miss the account of a Brooklyn robber who, during his escape from a hold-up, was mugged and lost his whole paper sack full of cash.) Swierczynski even includes a clever "stick-tionary" at the end, where you can pick up a mouthful of crook-speak. This here's a book for folks who prefer to take their history with a grain of assault.

Much different, but no less enjoyable in its own way, is Worrall's The Poet and the Murderer, which looks back at the life and crimes of Mark Hofmann, who began his career in forgery at the tender age of 14, when by jiggering the mint mark on a coin, he produced a numismatic rarity worth thousands of dollars. Hofmann is better known, though, for his literary fabrications. Over the years, he forged documents from such luminaries as Daniel Boone, Jack London and Emily Dickinson, in the last case producing a 15-line poem -- supposedly a missing work from the elusive "belle of Amherst" -- that was auctioned off by Sotheby's for $21,000. (Only later, after several forgery authorities had ruled the poem authentic, was it proved to be a fake.) It's Hofmann's audacity and obsessive commitment to accuracy, as well as the complexity of his subterfuges, that make The Poet and the Murderer a consuming read. Most intriguing may be this master con man's determination to expose the hypocrisy of the Mormon Church, into which Hofmann had been born, by faking religious documents that would cast the church in a negative light. That Hofmann perpetrated his frauds for so long, and that the fear of his being exposed increased the severity of his crimes -- he resorted to murder -- gives Worrall's work the feel of a well-plotted thriller. "Journeying into Mark Hofmann's world," the author writes in his introduction, "was like descending into a dark pit where all that is most devious and frightening in human nature resides." Fortunately, Worrall does not leave the reader in that pit, but supplements his tale of a criminal's pathology with asides about the history of forgery and forgery detection. Knowing that more of Hofmann's counterfeitings may still be out there, waiting to be discovered, makes this story all the more enthralling.

Other Voices

Having so enjoyed April Henry's Claire Montrose books (Circles of Confusion, Heart-Shaped Box), I anxiously awaited her latest mystery, Learning to Fly (St. Martin's Minotaur). I was a little nervous, though, as this standalone novel is much darker than her series. But once I started reading Learning to Fly, I was unable to stop ... which was pretty much why I was comatose at work the next day.

What would you do if you were pregnant, you discovered your boyfriend in the act with a Taco Bell countergirl, you just found $740,000 in cash and everyone thinks you're dead? This is what happens to 19-year-old Free Meeker, a daughter of hippies who craves the conventional family life. After picking up a hitchhiker in eastern Oregon, Free finds herself in a 52-car pileup caused by a devastating dust storm. The resulting carnage leads police, as well as her family, to think the hitchhiker's body is Free's. And Free isn't inclined to clear up this confusion, not when she has a suitcase full of drug money given to her by one of the dying crash victims.

This is her chance to create a new life, as the professional soon-to-be mother she always dreamed of being. However, her plan puts other forces in motion against her. It turns out that the drug money belongs to a hit man turned mafia businessman, who needs to recover the cash in order to save his own life. And the hitchhiker whose identity Free has taken was in the process of fleeing an abusive and psychotic husband, who wants his wife back in order to punish her further. On top of this, Free attracts the attention of a policeman whose offer of friendship is as appealing as it is threatening to her secret new life.

The characters in Learning to Fly are so real and fascinating, you will want to know more about them. Especially interesting is the mafia businessman, who has suffered personal tragedies; though he admires Free's attempt to create a new life, he still knows he must kill her. Chapters alternate between those that focus on Free's maturation and the creation of her new life, and others concentrating on the men who are coming closer and closer to her. While this novel is generally dark and suspenseful, there are frequent scenes of humor that relieve the tension and only make the story more enjoyable. I look forward to the next of April Henry's books. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow, Kaneohe, Hawaii

* * *

In Reservations for Murder (Berkley Prime Crime), the second installment of Tim Myers' Lighthouse Inn series (after the Agatha Award-nominated Innkeeping With Murder), North Carolina innkeeper Alex Winston has reluctantly agreed to host a local crafts fair on the grounds of his up-and-coming country B&B, the Hattaras West. But just as this fair is about to open for business, Jefferson Lee, a master blacksmith, is murdered. Lee's body is found staked to a wall "like a butterfly on a pin," and the weapon is a wrought stake of metal suspiciously similar to the trademark work of rival blacksmith Bill Yadkin.

The local sheriff, a fan of the blindingly obvious, is of course intent on arresting Yadkin. But Winston, who moonlights as an amateur sleuth, promises Yadkin's significant other, woodworker Rachel Seabrook, that he'll try to clear Yadkin of suspicion by finding the real culprit.

Myers crafts a mystery plot as intricate and neat as a Nantucket basket. That, and this book's trim size (only 192 pages long), make Reservations for Murder nearly impossible to put down. It turns out that Lee was an arrogant womanizer, and the small adjacent town of Elkton Falls is filled with jilted flames and infuriated husbands with motives for murder. The book's somewhat less plausible subplot has all the women in town chasing after Winston, while he yearns for the inn's attractive housekeeper, but never gets up the nerve to reveal his intentions. The Lighthouse Inn series is indeed light, but lively, and an ideal vacation read.

Crooked cops, ruthless drug traffickers, corrupt politicians and clever jewel thieves abound in J.R. Ripley's fourth Tony Kozol mystery, The Body from Ipanema (Long Wind Publishing), but the plot that should hold this Brazilian thriller together remains flimsier than a thong bikini.

Kozol and his not terribly bright sidekick, Rock Bottom, are in Rio de Janeiro as sidemen for the spoiled Latin pop star Luis Angel. Within a few days of arriving, Kozol has proposed marriage to gorgeous showgirl Silvia Parra and struck up an ill-advised friendship with Alvarez Yairi, one of Angel's thugs. His lack of judgment unleashes a conga line of unpleasant events. The opening chapter of Ripley's novel has Kozol helping Yairi dump in the slums a heavy, body-size duffel bag that's leaking a mysterious dark liquid. Yairi assures him that the bag is filled with corn. Late that night, a stranger approaches Kozol on the street, warns him to leave Silvia alone, and proceeds to mug him. The next morning police arrive at Kozol's hotel with his wallet and news that it was found on the mugger's dead body. On and on the story goes, with the hapless Kozol more victim than vanquisher, until you wonder if the stunning Silvia, too, is one more of the many locals stringing the Americano along. Ripley is at his best when describing the various bad guys and Rio's colorful nightlife, but this underworld travelogue falls short as a work of crime fiction. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson, January contributing editor

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

It's "the first time any branch of the federal government has ever actually promoted and sold a novel," enthuses Florida writer Arthur Rosenfeld, who recently convinced the U.S. Postal Service to peddle copies of his delightful debut mystery, Diamond Eye (2001) -- featuring postal inspector Max Diamond -- through its heavily trafficked Web site. To reach the USPS site, click here.

Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote -- anonymously -- the first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries (for a flat fee of $125 per book!) and went on to compose more than 100 other books for children and young adults, died on May 28 at age 96. Read more.

Max Allan Collins reports on his Web site that he's written a sequel to Double Dealer, his first original novel based on the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, that he's planning two sequels to his graphic novel Road to Perdition (the basis for the forthcoming DreamWorks movie featuring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman) and that the fourth of his "disaster mysteries," The Lusitania Murders -- "starring snooty detective S.S. Van Dine, creator of Philo Vance" -- will be out before the end of 2002. Read more.

Contending that his fans might be confused by his prominent naming on the cover of The Mighty Johns, an anthology of football-related mysteries, best-selling author David Baldacci won an unusual preliminary court injunction halting publication of the book by New Millennium Press. The chairman of New Millennium says he'll publish the anthology with a new cover. Read more (free registration required).

George P. Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin discuss their writing, their favorite books and their worldviews in a lively New York Times feature. Read more (free registration required).

In a fine piece for the British magazine Shots, prolific novelist Paul Doherty writes about some of history's foremost mysteries and the "detectives" -- often friars or clerks -- who were hired to solve them. Featured along with this essay is an excerpt from Doherty's latest novel, Domina, set in Ancient Rome. Read more.

A decade after the publication of her first novel of psychological suspense, The Secret History, Donna Tartt is set for a return to the limelight in October with The Little Friend. The plot is being kept under wraps, but Tartt describes her new work as "a book about children -- but not for children. It's a ... scary book about children coming [into] contact with the world of adults, in a very frightening way." Read more.

Tim Heald, Ellen Hart and Jerrilyn Farmer all weigh in on the sometimes comic associations between food and felonies in the summer 2002 "Culinary Crime" edition of Mystery Readers Journal. Read more.

Top 10 Summer Reads

News that the publication of Robert Crais' ninth Elvis Cole novel, The Last Detective, is being pushed back into 2003 was a severe disappointment to crime fiction fans currently on the lookout for intelligent "beach books." However, there are other recent and forthcoming releases that are sufficiently engrossing to draw your eyes away from the surfside hard-bodies, but not so brain-taxing that you can't fully relax during this year's much-needed summer holiday. Any of the following 10 books would go nicely with coconut oil, mai tais and sand castles:

Basket Case (Knopf), by Carl Hiaasen. Jack Tagger, a smart-aleck journalist, banished to the obituary page of his small-town Florida newspaper, hopes to win his way out of purgatory by probing the death of a former rock star, Jimmy Stoma, who has drowned while diving in the Bahamas. Hiaasen offers his characteristic craziness, including a scene in which Tagger must defend himself with a huge frozen lizard.

Eureka (Ballantine), by William Diehl. The bathtub electrocution of a mysterious widow in 1941 Los Angeles leads a young homicide cop, Zeke Bannon, to the once-vice-ridden town of Eureka, from which the deceased had been receiving anonymous cashier's checks over the last two decades -- money Bannon surmises she'd earned by her silence. But what was she keeping quiet? Does it have anything to do with Thomas "Brodie" Culhane, the former Eureka sheriff who's now campaigning to be governor of California? A distinctive synthesis of the noirish thriller and the multi-generational saga.

Gone for Good (Delacorte), by Harlan Coben. Will Klein lost his beloved elder brother 11 years ago, after he allegedly raped and strangled Will's ex-girlfriend. Now, he's also lost his "soul mate," Sheila Rogers. Worse, Sheila's fingerprints have turned up at a homicide scene in New Mexico, and the FBI is breathing down Will's neck for answers. Are these two disappearances connected?

Hard Eight (St. Martin's Press), by Janet Evanovich. New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum goes searching for a missing girl, while at the same time fending off a bizarre bad guy who insists on putting snakes in her apartment and trying to blow up her car. As usual in Evanovich's fast-paced, funny series, the stimulating Stephanie must also juggle her love and family lives.

Killing Paparazzi (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Robert M. Eversz. Newly released prison inmate Nina Zero tries to establish herself as an L.A. tabloid photographer, gaining notoriety with images of heavy-metal band members electrocuted in their hotel hot tub, only to realize that someone is seeking to off all the paparazzi in town -- and she may be the next target. Justly concerned, and finding no help from the police, Nina decides to track the killer herself, beginning an adventure that will have her guesting on a docu-soap called Meat Wagon and stepping into a long-running family feud. A fairly tight, alternately hard-boiled and witty adventure.

The Last Temptation (HarperCollins UK), by Val McDermid. Psychological profiler Tony Hills tracks a killer who likes to drown and mutilate psychologists, while his sometimes-cohort, DCI Carol Jordan, goes undercover in Europe to nab a drug trafficker, whose late lover was a dead ringer for the highly competent cop. McDermid (best known as the author of A Place of Execution) excels at producing frightening criminals and menacing situations.

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. Due out in August.

The Procession (Orion UK), by Jeff Gulvin. Semi-retired FBI agent Johnny Harrison investigates the killing of a fingerprint analyst, who's been supplementing his income by covering up positive print matches in old crimes -- for a price. The case leads to a clannish Mississippi River community, the unresolved death of a young boy in the Louisiana bayous and sinister doings from New Orleans' past.

Split (Do-Not Press), by Bill James. The author of the Harper and Iles police series turns his talents to this first installment of a British spy series, featuring mixed-race intelligence officer Simon Abelard. Split has Abelard vying with both colleagues and outsiders to bring in a fellow agent accused of high-level drug peddling.

Triggerfish Twist (HarperCollins), by Tim Dorsey. This prequel to the comical Florida Roadkill (1999) finds Midwestern family man Jim Davenport adapting poorly to Sunshine State absurdities. And things aren't likely to get any easier after he kills the youngest member of an outlaw clan that's big on revenge-taking.

Last Rewards

The Crime Writers of Canada will give out its 2002 Arthur Ellis Awards during a dinner in Toronto on June 12. Short-listed for these awards are the following 2001 works:

Best Novel:
The Laughing Falcon, by William Deverell (McClelland & Stewart); Ice Lake, by
John Farrow (HarperCollins Canada); Cold Fear, by Rick Mofina (Kensington); Aftermath, by Peter Robinson (McClelland & Stewart); and In the Midnight Hour (Ballantine), by Michelle Spring

Best First Novel:
The Thief-Taker: Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, by T.F. Banks (Delacorte); The Devil in Me, by J. David Carpenter (McClelland & Stewart); Missing: Presumed Dead, by James Hawkins (Dundurn Group); The Boy Must Die, by Jon Redfern (ECW Press); and Every Wickedness, by Cathy Vasas-Brown (Doubleday Canada)

Best True Crime:
The Last Amigo, by Stevie Cameron and Harvey Cashore (Macfarlane Walter & Ross); One Dead Indian: The Premier, the Police, and the Ipperwash Crisis, by Peter Edwards (Stoddart); No Kill No Thrill: The Shocking True Story of Charles Ng, by Darcy Henton and Greg Owens (Red Deer Press); Saboteurs, by Andrew Nikiforuk (Macfarlane Walter & Ross); Free Rider, by John Lawrence Reynolds (McArthur & Company); and Quicksand, by Ellen Singer (HarperCollins Canada)

Best Juvenile:
Seeing Stars
, by Gary Barwin (Stoddart Kids); Body, Crime, Suspect, by Norah McClintock (Scholastic Canada); Scared to Death, by Norah McClintock (Scholastic Canada); and Bone Beds of the Badlands, by Shane Peacock (Penguin Canada)

Best Short Story:
"Coup de Grace," by Barbara Fradkin (in Iced, edited by Kerry Schooley and Peter Sellers; Insomniac Press); "Double Trouble," by Barbara Fradkin (in Fit to Die, edited by Joan Boswell and Sue Pike; RendezVous Press); "Blind Alley," by Mary Jane Maffini (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2001); "Sign of the Times," by Mary Jane Maffini (in Fit to Die, edited by Joan Boswell and Sue Pike; RendezVous Press); and "Avenging Miriam," by Peter Sellers (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December 2001)

Best Crime Writing in French:
L'Attentat, by Michel Auger (Trait d'Union); La Trajectoire du pion, by Michel Jobin (Editions Alire); Fleur invitait au troisiëme, by Anne-Michële Lèvesque (Vents d'Ouest); Trente-huit morts dont neuf femmes, by Andrè Marois (Trait d'Union); and L'Espion du 307, by Louise-Michelle Sauriol (Vents d'Ouest)

To learn more about the Arthur Ellis Awards, go to the Crime Writers of Canada Web site.

* * *

The Private Eye Writers of America has listed its nominees for the 2002 Shamus Awards. Winners will be announced in Austin, Texas, on October 17, during a banquet held in association with this year's Bouchercon. The nominees are:

Best P.I. Novel:
Angel in Black, by Max Allan Collins (NAL); Ashes of Aries, by Martha C. Lawrence (St. Martin's Minotaur); The Devil Went Down to Austin, by Rick Riordan (Bantam); Reflecting the Sky, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur); and Cold Water Burning, by John Straley (Bantam)

Best First P.I. Novel:
Epitaph, by James Siegel (Mysterious Press); Chasing the Devil's Tail, by David Fulmer (Poisoned Pen Press); Rat City, by Curt Colbert (UglyTown); A Witness Above, by Andy Straka (Signet); and Pilikia Is My Business, by Mark Troy (LTD Books)

Best Paperback P.I. Novel:
Ancient Enemy, by Robert Westbrook (NAL); Archangel Protocol, by Lyda Morehouse (Roc); and Keepers, by Janet LaPierre (Perseverance Press)

Best P.I. Short Story:
"Rough Justice," by Ceri Jordan (Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine); "The Jungle," by John Lantigua (in And the Dying Is Easy, edited by Joseph Pittman and Annette Riffle; Signet); "Last Kiss," by Tom Sweeney (in Mystery Street, edited by Robert J. Randisi; Signet); "The Cobalt Blues," by Clark Howard (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October 2001); and "Golden Retriever," by Barbara Paul (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, December 2001)

For more information, go to the Private Eye Writers of America 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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