Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

















January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, March-April 2005

Edited by J. Kingston Pierce

IN THIS ISSUE: The season's most-wanted reads • Fresh fiction from Richard Rayner, Naomi Hirahara, Scott Wolven, Elizabeth Peters, Ed McBain, George Pelecanos and many others • Red Harvest's offspring; Sara Paretsky's political wellspring; a new fictional springboard for Denise Mina, and much more news from the world of mystery • Plus: a groaning shelf-load of awards from the United States and Britain (and a chance for January to pat itself on the back)

Pierce's Picks for March-April

Adiós Hemingway (Canongate), by Leonardo Padura Fuentes. The discovery of remains relating to a murder committed on Ernest Hemingway's Havana estate way back in 1958 propel Cuban former cop Mario Conte out of retirement in order to investigate. As he learns the truth, Conte also re-examines his idealized memories of Hemingway. Fuentes is one of Cuba's best-known authors.

Alibi (Henry Holt), by Joseph Kanon. Adam Miller arrives in Venice, Italy, in 1946, anxious to be shed of his traumatic experiences as a U.S. Army war-crimes investigator in Germany and looking forward to a visit with his widowed mother, who has recently taken up with a polished Venetian doctor. But not long after he begins a romance with a Jewish woman who still bears the deep psychological scars of wartime, the city's troubled past erupts in homicide, and Adam must decide whether it's more important to seek justice or protect the people he loves.

Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Shoots (Viking), by Oakley Hall. San Francisco newspaperman Ambrose Bierce and his associate, Tom Redmond, look for a celebrity shooter suspected of putting a bullet into Colonel Studely, the owner of a Wild West show, during an 1890s street parade. A train robbery, the reek of opium and "Bitter" Bierce's acerbic commentary add spice to this romp.

Ash and Bone (Heinemann UK), by John Harvey. The follow-up to last year's Flesh and Blood finds Detective Inspector Elder worrying about his 17-year-old daughter, Katherine, who's "running wild," her life unsettled by an abduction and rape for which the retired Elder feels himself partly responsible. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Maddy Birch -- with whom Elder had an affair 16 years ago -- is disturbed by the fouled-up capture of a violent criminal, which left both the quarry and a constable dead, as well as by suspicions that somebody is following her home.

The Black Angel (Hodder & Stoughton UK), by John Connolly. As private eye Charlie Parker investigates the disappearance of a young woman from a seedy New York City neighborhood, he finds links to a church of bones in Eastern Europe, World War II-era slayings at a French monastery and a legendary artifact, the existence of which may contain the secret of Parker's origins. The U.S. release of this fifth Charlie Parker novel is expected in June.

The Cocaine Chronicles (Akashic Books), edited by Gary Phillips and Jervey Tervalon. Seventeen writers -- including Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen and Jerry Stahl -- contribute to this narcotics-themed anthology of short yarns, which introduce us to users, dealers and unsuspecting victims all over the United States. Humor, tragedy and depression all infuse these stories, which remind us of just how unglamorous (not to mention dangerous) drug addiction really is.

Company Man (St. Martin's Press), by Joseph Finder. Corporate CEO and erstwhile Wall Street golden boy Nick Conover has seen his reputation suffer severely as a result of layoffs. Now a stalker appears to be targeting what remains of this widower's family. But as Nick tries to do something about his plight, in the process attracting the unwanted attentions of a persistent female homicide detective, he discovers that some of his closest colleagues are actually in league against him. Its tense, full-speed-ahead storyline makes this thriller a worthy successor to Paranoia (2004).

Eight of Swords (St. Martin's Minotaur), by David Skibbins. Resourceful former "revolutionary guerilla" Warren Ritter, who's been "underground" for 30 years and now works as a tarot card reader in Berkeley, California, is drawn into a murder case after he tells the fortune of a teenager who is subsequently kidnapped, and whose mother turns up murdered in a city park.

The Field of Blood (Bantam Press UK), by Denise Mina. Aspiring Glasgow investigative journalist Paddy Meehan is sucked into the 1981 mystery of a murdered toddler after her fiancé's young cousin becomes a suspect. Soon she's shunned and dangerously alone, because both her family and beau blame Paddy for spreading the cousin's name. The first entry in a projected five-part series from the author of Garnethill (1998).

The Italian Secretary (Carroll & Graf), by Caleb Carr. From the author of The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997) comes this fleet-footed tale, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are called in to investigate the murders of two of Queen Victoria's servants in Edinburgh -- a case that brings to mind another killing, three centuries earlier in the household of Mary, Queen of Scots, and provokes talk of vengeful ghosts and political intrigues.

Legends (Overlook), by Robert Littell. After living for so many years under manufactured guises (or "legends," in spy parlance), CIA field agent-turned-private detective Martin Odum is feeling more than a bit confused as to his identity. Which of the traits he has mastered are integral to his original persona? The fact that he's even asking such questions makes Odum worry that he's suffering from multiple-personality disorder, or that he has been brainwashed somewhere along the way. But can he trust his psychiatrist to tell him the truth, any more than he can put faith in the veracity of his latest client, a young Russian who hires him to find her brother-in-law? Another engrossing novel from the man who gave us The Defection of A.J. Lewinter (1973) and The Company (2002).

Little Black Dress (Forge), by Loren D. Estleman. This fifth outing for conflicted former contract killer Peter Macklin has Estleman's anti-hero squirming in his new role as a married man. A dearth of privacy is the least of Macklin's concerns; on top of that, he must deal with a mother-in-law, Pamela Ziegenthaler, and her boyfriend, who turns out to be involved with a gang of robbers.

Long Spoon Lane (Ballantine), by Anne Perry. Terrorism fears hit Victorian London, where Special Branch investigator Thomas Pitt is called out to find the parties responsible for a bombing, allegedly an act of revenge against police corruption. The case eventually leads Pitt to an abandoned building -- and the dead son of a peer. As Parliament debates how much authority police should be given to pursue anarchists, Pitt and detective Victor Narraway follow a trail that leads once more to the notorious Inner Circle. The sequel to Seven Dials (2003).

The Magdalen Martyrs (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Ken Bruen. Jack Taylor owes Galway gangster Bill Cassell a favor, so he breathes a sigh of relief when Cassell asks him only to find a woman, Rita Monroe, who long ago helped his mother escape from an abusive institution for unwed and pregnant females. But when the alcoholic Taylor doesn't get results immediately, Cassell's men pull him in for a little "encouragement" (read: a game of Russian roulette). It seems that Jack's only hope of survival is to locate the elusive Rita -- a chore that will lead to unwise sex, a friend's funeral and the destruction of his personal property. Spare prose gives punch to this third Taylor case (after The Killing of the Tinkers, reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 1/04).

The Minotaur (Viking UK), by Barbara Vine. Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) offers up this haunting tale of Kerstin Kvist, a trained nurse who takes a job at the Cosway family's grand old manse near Essex, only to find that everyone living there is more than bizarre -- especially sad, 30-something son John, whose behavior is ascribed simply to "madness."

Murder on Old Mission (Arbutus Press), by Stephen Lewis. Jealousy, betrayal and moral indignation are all bound up in this haunting novel from the author of the Old New England Mystery series (The Sea Hath Spoken, 2001). Based on a real murder case from 1895 Michigan, this novel tells of a father whose courtship of a young woman leads him to court, following the pregnant girl's slaying. But was he actually responsible for terminating her life? His teenage son isn't sure, and the fact that he was enamored of his father's lover doesn't make it any easier for him to distinguish the truth.

Murder on the Salsette (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Conrad Allen. Embarking on a four-day excursion aboard the Salsette, from Bombay to Aden in 1909, now-married shipboard sleuths George Dillman and Genevieve Masefield encounter a girl from India bound for a life of servitude, a pair of rival politicians and a poseur mystic, any of whom may be behind recent jewelry thefts -- and murder.

Nightcrawlers (Forge), by Bill Pronzini. This 29th Nameless Detective novel (after Spook, "RS" 1/03) finds operative Jake Runyon searching for gay bashers who made his son's lover one of their victims, while Nameless tries to do a favor for a dying pulp-magazine contributor that will win him no points with either his wife or her mother. However, the most dangerous assignment here falls to Nameless' black junior partner, Tamara Corbin, whose stake-out of a deadbeat dad turns perilous, after she witnesses her subject's neighbor sneaking an unidentified, squirming bundle into his house one dark eve.

The Point in the Market (Poisoned Pen Press), by Michael Pearce. As if it weren't bad enough that World War I has cast a shadow over British-ruled Egypt, the head of Cairo's secret police, Captain Gareth Owen, must also deal with a disturbance at the local Camel Market and the consequences of his having married a Pasha's daughter. Reports are that this 15th Mamur Zapt novel is the penultimate entry in Pearce's series.

Rules of Engagement (Putnam), by Bruce Alexander. This last, posthumous mystery from Alexander (aka Bruce Cook) is the 11th outing for blind 17th-century magistrate Sir John Fielding and his youthful legman, Jeremy Proctor. When Lord Lammermoor, who had been working on legislation to head off America's Revolutionary War, plummets fatally from London's Westminster Bridge, it's presumed that he committed suicide. But Fielding thinks hypnotism may in fact be behind this death. Engagement, still uncompleted when Alexander died in 2003, was finished by his widow, Judith Aller, together with Southern California novelist John Shannon.

See Isabelle Run (Mysterious Press), by Elizabeth Bloom. Isabelle Leonard, whose socialite fiancé suddenly finds he has other places to be on their wedding day, refuses to succumb to sorrow. Instead, she table-dances at the reception, earning herself a newspaper mention and a new job with decorating-magazine guru Becky Beldon. But then her boss drowns in a rooftop pool, leading our feisty heroine to discover that other Beldon employees have also encountered fatal "accidents." After Isabelle is targeted, she launches into her own investigation, only to conclude that she may be dating the killer, a company exec. The plotting by Bloom (the married moniker of Beth Saulnier, author of the Alex Bernier series) is creaky in places, but See Isabelle Run benefits from its protagonist. Let's see what more can be done with this spunky sleuth.

A Slight Trick of the Mind (Doubleday), by Mitch Cullin. The emotional life of Sherlock Holmes is finally plumbed in this absorbing tale, set in 1947. It's a story within a story, on the one hand addressing Holmes' aging faculties and diminishing physical capacities, and on the other recounting -- via a secreted manuscript -- an abiding infatuation from earlier in the detective's career.

Swing (Random House), by Rupert Holmes. Set against San Francisco's 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition, Holmes' latest period tale (after Where the Truth Lies, 2003) centers around Ray Sherwood, a big-band musician who falls for Berkeley coed Gail Prentice, the author of an award-winning musical composition. But rumors regarding her parentage make him think twice, and he's stunned by the tragic demise of a Frenchwoman who plunges to her death at his feet. Mounting worries in the run-up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and more killings, together with revelations about Sherwood's history, keep this musical mystery in fine tune. Holmes' portrayal of pre-war San Francisco is alone worth the cost of this book. An accompanying CD full of swing music also contains clues to the mystery laid out here.

War at Home (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne), by Kris Nelscott. In the summer of 1969, black private eye Smokey Dalton, his adopted son, Jimmy, and street-smart orphan Malcolm Reyner set off in an old panel van from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut, in search of Daniel Kirkland, a black merit-scholarship student who's failed to show up for classes at Yale University. Could his disappearance have to do with Daniel's involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement -- and rumors of bombs waiting to go off? As Daniel's trail leads onward to New York City, Smokey finds himself confronting a vengeful sniper and his own mortality, as well as the awful realization that Daniel Kirkland may not be as innocent as his mother believes.

New and Noteworthy

If ever there was a crime novel in search of a Sinatra soundtrack, it's The Devil's Wind (HarperCollins), British-born litterateur Richard Rayner's attempt to marry The Fountainhead with James M. Cain's worldview. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, Las Vegas and parched points in between, it is a classic Pandora's box sort of yarn, in which events, once set into tumbling motion, cannot be restrained, but eventually overwhelm the hapless participants. Players in these pages strive, to quote Old Blues Eyes, for "all or nothing at all" -- and generally wind up with the latter. Yet Wind is anything but a fiction of desolation; instead, it's a seductive invitation to the more sinister side of the Eisenhower era, where power politics, gangsters, gambling and nuclear testing all vie with sleek-finned automobiles and Ava Gardner's gams for attention -- and the control of men's souls.

Maurice Valentine, the first-person narrator of this twisted tale, was born Maurizio Viglioni, the son of a failed Philadelphia engineer. After having his nerves "torn to shreds" in World War II, he bought a train ticket to America's West Coast, changed his name there and began life anew, ambition cauterizing "the pain and guilt of the past." Now, in 1956, at age 40, he's a rising-star architect capitalizing on Southern California's postwar building boom, married to the "tough, intuitive" and pragmatic daughter of Nevada's junior U.S. senator, with two sons. He's made a prominent place for himself in architecture circles, but only after first turning his back on his brilliant, libidinous former partner, Luis Barragan, who was blacklisted for refusing to identify friends in the Communist Party (while Maurice willingly "named names" behind closed doors). The antithesis of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, Valentine is a man quite happy to choose money over the integrity of his design vision.

I was a big-time architect, a man of the world, a cynic, adept at maneuver and compromise. Ideals and grand plans had no place in my life. I was scrambling always to get ahead, working always to make the process look smooth. I fancied that I knew about people, what made them tick and the noises they made. In my experience, money and power made things go, caused the squeals of delight and fear, the squawks, the base grunts of satisfied desire. In a more elegant way, or so I liked to think, I was driven by ambition. Maybe I was blinded by it, too. I'd risen high fast, and in my professional and social lives I tended to meet only people as jaded and unimpressable as myself.

Yet the roving-eyed Maurice cannot help being awed by Mallory Walker, a slender, 20-something, bleached-blond and Yale-educated shipping heiress, who wants him to design a house for her and, in the course of things, advance her own career in architecture, a usually male-dominated profession. Taking her on as either a lover or protégé could prove risky; Valentine has recently completed work on a glittery new hotel-casino in Vegas, the first of several big-ticket commissions from relatively refined mob boss Paul Mantilini (who previously appeared in Rayner's 2001 novel, The Cloud Sketcher, which also happens to feature an architect protagonist), while his influential father-in-law is busy promoting Valentine to replace Nevada's ailing and vindictive senior U.S. senator, Democrat Walton "Boss" Booth. Valentine doesn't want to upset either arrangement. Yet he throws caution to the wind and takes Mallory with him to Las Vegas, where he's to meet with Mantilini. Only there, after Mallory dazzles the mobster with building sketches that aren't her own, and Mantilini seems to mistake Ms. Walker for a strong-willed woman he'd known before, does Maurice realize that his inamorata's agenda may not be so obvious or clear-cut as his own.

A subsequent shooting in a hotel penthouse, during an atomic bomb test (a public spectacle, "both beautiful and terrifying," that's attended by a host of sunglass-wearing Hollywood celebs), followed by Mallory's apparent death in a car accident, lead the designer to ask whether she wasn't just as much of a self-creation as he is, only far more dangerous -- to herself as well as others

Rayner's portrayal of mid-50s Vegas, still very much a neon-lit oasis of entertainment fighting for elbow room against the surrounding desert, is enriched with cameo appearances by Dean Martin, Lana Turner and especially union honcho Jimmy Hoffa. But it's Valentine, Mallory and the oh-so-manipulative Mantilini who carry the greatest burden of this novel's plot, and they do so with aplomb. While none of The Fountainhead's nihilistic characters was easy to associate with on a human level, Maurice Valentine comes across here as naïve but hardly bereft of likableness, and more concerned with his family and profession than he lets on to others. Meanwhile, Mallory's seemingly impenetrable femme fatale façade proves to be more porous than Swiss cheese, as we're offered glimpses back into her troubled history and her love affair with an ill-fated black jazz musician. The slaying of an Oregon P.I., a blazing denouement and interspersed, third-person chapters that follow a precocious teenager named Beth Dyer all contribute to Wind's noirish atmospherics. Although it would've been nice to see things tied up somewhat less neatly in the end, The Devil's Wind remains as welcome and unpredictable as a desert breeze. -- Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

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Well known in Europe for his darkly funny crime novels, Tonino Benacquista is finally going English with Holy Smoke (Bitter Lemon Press), a new translation of one of his earliest novels, La Commedia des Ratés. Starring an obvious alter ego, Antonio Polsinelli (both he and Benacquista are Italians born in France in 1961), Holy Smoke is less a traditional piece of detective fiction than a first-person family saga shrouded in fumes of mystery, mafiosi and amusing mayhem. There are flashbacks to World War II, some corrupt villagers and churchmen, and plenty of wine and pasta. If it weren't for the gunshots, la dolce vita might not be so bad.

Polsinelli's family lives in an Italian enclave on the outskirts of Paris. He tries to avoid them, but heads home occasionally for a dutiful meal of macaroni. In the 'burbs, he's accosted by Dario Trengoni, a childhood friend who's lapsed into prostitution and petty crime. Trengoni persuades Polsinelli to write an enigmatic love letter for him, then promptly turns up with a bullet through the head.

As a result, Polsinelli becomes the heir to a scrubby 10 acres of vineyard in southern Italy that, as far as he can tell, has never turned out anything but plonk. That doesn't stop the neighboring farmers, or some American gangsters, or the Church from making him all kinds of outrageous offers for the land. What's the secret? Polsinelli figures it out, and decides to honor his dead pal by setting up an elaborate scam.

It all goes more haywire than Polsinelli had counted on, and he ends up trusting to his wits, his feet and his devil-may-care attitude in order to scramble out of several uncomfortable situations. Money, not truth, is Polsinelli's main motivation, although once southern Italy gets too hot for him, he's content to save his own skin instead of getting rich. Benacquista makes an ordinary joe into a bitterly amused character, a less alcoholic heir to the mantle of the hard-boiled P.I. Polsinelli's not out to save the world, just his own tolerance for it. And he lets the reader know he's not all that tough a guy: Pasta, he says in a moment of poetic rhapsody, "is a strange combination of blandness and sophistication." Kind of like Polsinelli himself. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

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In her debut novel, 2003's Summer of the Big Bachi, former journalist Naomi Hirahara introduced Masao Arai, a Los Angeles gardener-turned-reluctant detective. At age 70, Arai (who prefers to go by "Mas") is too old to still be pruning trees for a living, but like the other Japanese-American gardeners he pals around with, he can't afford to quit. Before the Bomb, Arai wanted to be an engineer. After surviving its ravages, he figures that life, with a little house of his own and nice California weather, has turned out about as good as he could have hoped for.

But things have only gotten busier in his seventh decade. Bachi treated Arai to an unwelcome exploration of the lingering effects of 1945's Hiroshima devastation, with murder and theft upending his quiet existence. Gasa-Gasa Girl (Delta), Hirahara's new, second Arai novel, opens with the elderly protagonist heading for New York City, summoned there by a frantic, mysterious phone call from his estranged daughter, the always gasa-gasa (restless) Mari. Arai may be a tough old bird, but he's also sentimental, and so he gets himself a credit card, a plane ticket ... and one messy New York murder.

Mari, an impoverished filmmaker and the worried new mother of a sickly boy, is married to Lloyd, a shaggy-haired hakujin, or white man, who's a professional gardener. Lloyd tries to bond with Arai over their presumed love of plant life; Arai ignores him. Gardening was a job for Arai, not a calling. But when Mari asks her father to help Lloyd finish renovating a 90-year-old Japanese garden in Brooklyn, he can't say no -- until the project boss, Kazzy Ouchi, a half-Japanese millionaire and the son of the man who built the garden, turns up dead under a pile of trash in a koi pond. It was Arai who discovered the corpse, and who notices some peculiarities at the scene that police don't. However, the aged gardener long ago learned to keep his observations to himself. Only after his son-in-law becomes the prime murder suspect does Arai act, trying to protect his daughter and her family.

Hirahara knows how to weave a plot; at the end of Gasa-Gasa Girl, hardly any strands are left untied. But her real strength lies in character and atmosphere. The tension between the more traditional Arai (whose speech, written in slangy dialect, takes some getting used to) and his totally American daughter feels genuine, and Hirahara expertly contrasts the freezing wind and grimy streets of New York with the smoggy sun and endless lawns of Los Angeles.

Like her first novel, Gasa-Gasa Girl is an exploration of family and history, of secrets and misunderstandings. It takes teamwork to sort everything out; Arai, no lone wolf, recruits all of his Japanese connections on both American coasts to help him out, producing useful gossip, legal help and translation services within hours. The result is a surprisingly warm portrait of a man, a family and a community, nesting inside one another like Russian dolls.

Even Arai, who has his curmudgeonly moments -- he compares the random scatterings of Japanese-American culture to "weeds stuck on the blades of a lawn mower" -- knows where his heart lies. He stays in New York longer than he'd intended, long enough to see cherry blossoms appear on broken branches he'd fixed himself just days earlier. "Thatsu the way it happen," he says. "No control nature." -- C.C.

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"The world is ready for a black James Bond," acclaimed social critic P Diddy recently opined, and Luther Green, the hero of Gary Hardwick's new espionage thriller, The Executioner's Game, is certainly being groomed by the publicity boys at William Morrow to fill those shoes. He's being touted as A VERY BIG THING, a guaranteed smasheroo cross between Shaft and Bond, with current media darling and red-hot Oscar winner Jamie Foxx slotted to star in A VERY MAJOR MOTION PICTURE. The Morrow folks are namedropping flicks such as Bad Boys, and making a lot of noise about the hero being African American. But all the hoopla does a disservice to Hardwick's novel -- for all the actual "color" of its hero as evidenced in this "gritty urban thriller," Green might as well be played by Ben Affleck.

Not that The Executioner's Game is a bad book. I found it to be an often quite enjoyable romp, a good old-fashioned spy game full of suitably twitchy betrayals, counter-betrayals and counter-counter-betrayals -- a sly update of classic Ian Fleming with just enough John Le Carré cynicism and paranoia tossed in to keep things moving and au courant, while avoiding the more over-the-top machinations and gimmickry of the Bond movies and the literary ham-on-cheese of Robert Ludlum's convoluted pulp fantasies. Nor is there anything particularly wrong with this novel's hero. As written by Hardwick, Luther Green is an intriguing cipher, a coldly pragmatic assassin for E-1, a top-secret American intelligence organization that undertakes "all of the dangerous, covert, and illegal missions the government needed carried out in foreign lands." Its director's motto is "Secrets live -- and people die," and Luther seems to have no compunction about ensuring the latter in order to guarantee the former. He's no flag-waving super-patriot, either -- just a lean, mean, but oddly affable sociopath with a license to kill and a refreshingly skeptical take on his job and his country. His race is probably the least interesting -- and least important -- part of his entire character.

Also the least convincing. Sorry, but Green just doesn't seem all that "black" to me -- or is that supposed to be the point? Hell, it didn't even dawn on me that he was black until the fourth chapter or so. Oh, sure, Green listens to hip-hop when he's not listening to classical music, and we're assured that he knows how to please the ladies (who was the last black action hero who didn't make like a private sex machine with all the chicks?); and yes, the plot is built around a conspiracy theory that's been quite popular over the last 20 years or so, particularly in some African-American circles. And Green's mission, to track down and take out Alex, a rogue agent (and former mentor) who may have potentially dangerous proof of this conspiracy, conveniently sends the globetrotting assassin and his techno-geek (white) assistant, Hampton, on a tour of U.S. inner cities -- all the better to see Luther showing off his "street cred," getting down with the homies in the hood (an eye-rolling assortment of predictably colorful dealers, pimps, thugs and hos). Sadly, though, Green comes off about as "street" (and cliché-ridden) as the lily-white Roger Moore was on the streets of Harlem in the 1973 movie version of Fleming's Live and Let Die. Ouch.

Too bad, because when his creator's not trying to convince us that Luther's some Super Fly Super Spy, he's an often-compelling character, and the book's clever reworkings of Fleming in particular are a hoot. But Hardwick's writing isn't always up to the task, and the promo machine's overheated comparisons to people like Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley just underscores that fact.

Hardwick, a veteran film and TV producer, as well as the author of several previous crime novels, writes with enthusiasm but too often seems more interested in establishing a franchise than in telling a story. A bit more energy spent on character development, and especially on editing and tightening up the writing at hand, and less on pre-selling some possible cinematic adaptation or a sequel a few years down the road, would have been a wiser investment for all concerned. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

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James M. Cain's first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), begins with the line, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon," and that's a perfect encapsulation of the world the men in Controlled Burn (Scribner), Scott Wolven's amazing new collection, have come to know -- an unforgiving world marked by back-breaking physical labor, booze and drugs and casual violence, stained by a pervasive, pragmatic under-the-table morality that soaks through everything.

But it's a world not entirely devoid of self-awareness, or humor, either. These men know who and what they are. In "Atomic Supernova," one of the many fine tales included, an aging Nevada sheriff confesses that he occasionally visits the grave of a man who killed one of his deputies:

"I check up on him sometimes, when I'm on the road. Stop over there and take a piss right on him." He touched his fly. "It might surprise you, how often I have to piss."

Then, just when you think that's it, he adds:

"I'd like to think it's motivated by hate, not age."

That's the kind of hard dry talk, tight-lipped humor and no-bullshit awareness that peppers these skinned-knuckle tales, rough confessions by rough men who take each day straight on, not expecting much and rarely receiving it. They're "either busy working or busy living their lives, which is work itself ... the hard work crushed one empty beer can day after another, adding to a lifetime pile of empties," as the title story puts it.

Subtitled "Stories of Prison, Crime and Men," this collection offers a swirling kaleidoscope of heartbreak, pride and busted dreams, an episodic road trip of character-driven vignettes that stretches from the woods of "The Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont, Maine and New England to the lawlessness of "The Fugitive West," a road trip as American as a Woody Guthrie song, a John Steinbeck novel or a Sam Peckinpah film. These men are loggers and crank dealers, boxers and bounty hunters, drifters and drunks, petty criminals and ex-cons, no strangers to work or cut corners, working guys who smell of "beer ... and gasoline." They do what they have to do, suck it up and tough it out, rarely complaining -- and what good would it do, anyway? But beyond the desolate stillness and stoic fatalism that lies at the core of these tales, there's a surprising amount of heart.

"Atomic Highway," for example, is an unexpectedly touching ode to loyalty, made all the more moving by its characters' brooding fatalism, while the aptly titled "Taciturnity" is a stirring tribute to an elderly woman's feisty determination (she's one of the few women in this book), and "El Rey" is a brutal, relentless exploration of the limits and obligations of friendship, courage and male bonding.

But it's that compelling, almost uplifting sense of rough-hewn humanity that lingers long after these stories have been read. Yes, life is dark and cruel and unfair, Wolven seems to suggest, but his characters rarely surrender to it; instead, they adopt a dogged determinism and grim pragmatism, doing whatever they have to do to survive -- a philosophy that owes as much to the rugged if tattered working-man's idealism of Steinbeck as it does to the pessimistic fatalism of Dostoyevsky or the hard-boiled machismo of the tough-guy pulp-era writers like Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, W.R. Burnett and Cain who echo through these pages.

Wolven, who attended Columbia University's MFA program and now teaches creative writing at SUNY Binghamton, and whose work regularly shows up in year-end collections (this year will make the fourth in a row that one of his stories has featured in Otto Penzler's acclaimed The Best American Mystery Stories series), is an original, a muscular and fearless storyteller, literate in a sleeves-rolled-up, hands-on way. He has a great ear for dialogue, particularly the way guys speak, and an even greater eye for the small, telling detail that digs in under your skin and itches like crazy long after the story has been read. This collection, simply put, marks the arrival of an important new voice, not just in crime fiction, but possibly in American literature itself. Honest. -- K.B.S.

* * *

It's too bad the first-person narrator/protagonist in David Cray's Dead Is Forever (Carroll & Graf) doesn't share the work ethic of some of the characters in Wolven's book. Although trust-fund kid-turned-private eye Philip Corvascio Beckett assures us repeatedly that he's just another working stiff, and that he turned his back on his wealthy family and their business empire a long time ago, that's not quite the case. The guys who inhabit Controlled Burn would eat him alive.

At first, I was drawn to the idea of a man who would abandon inherited wealth in order to work the mean streets. What would drive a man to such lengths, and what kind of individual would he be? And what if he chose not to divorce himself entirely from the family coffers? That would also be intriguing: a dilettante detective able to draw on all those vast resources, able to take on only those cases that interest or challenge him. I pictured Philip Marlowe with a platinum card, Bruce Wayne without the bat fetish, or maybe a Philo Vance for the new millennium. This could be good, I thought.

But it turns out that Beckett isn't motivated by personal demons, a burning obsession with justice or revenge, or anything like that. He lives his life tongue-in-cheek and pinkie up, inhabiting a two-bedroom Manhattan condo (a gift from his industrialist father) and laboring part-time as a "gumshoe to the ruling class," as he so cheekily puts it. A trust fund, established by his late mother, pays him quarterly, thankyouverymuch, with millions more to come after Daddy passes away. Beckett only works in order to finance "a continuing, self-indulgent passion for Chinese antiques." So if little Richie Rich is going to make a point of complaining about the silver spoon stuck in his mouth since birth, he shouldn't be surprised if plenty of readers feel inclined to offer alternative suggestions as to where he could insert that particular piece of cutlery.

Despite all of this, Beckett seemed at the outset like an enjoyable character, with a self-deprecating sense of humor; and he's at least self-aware enough to occasionally admit his limitations. The waitress at Sharpers, a café that serves as his home away from home, calls him a "philanderer to [his] bones," and if the charge isn't quite fair (Beckett concedes only that his "affairs tended toward brevity"), it's a clear indication that this easygoing bon vivant and lady killer isn't your average P.I. So I was looking forward to what seemed like it was going to be a sly update of The Thin Man, especially when it turned out that there was a Nora of sorts in the wings: Philip's latest inamorata, the lovely and witty Maggie Santos, a corporate lawyer for Exxon who's bored with corporate law.

However, as Cray's plot thickens, Dead strays far from Hammett -- instead we get mostly a bad episode of Dynasty, full of china-rattling familial treachery, incestuous backstabbing and the usual corporate skullduggery among the rich and listless. Obsessed not with justice but with acquiring an expensive chunk of Oriental jade that's about to go on the block at Sotheby's, Beckett reluctantly allows himself to be hired by his younger sister, the ever-ambitious and manipulative Regina, on behalf of "the family." It seems that Philip and Regina's ugly duck cousin Audrey's ne'er-do-well hubby, Count Sergio D'Alesse, has accrued an embarrassing amount of gambling debts, and "the family" wants Philip to take care of the problem, in the hopes of avoiding a potential scandal. But when Sergio goes down for the count, courtesy of a bullet through the skull, it's Philip who's the prime suspect.

Predictably, Maggie and Philip take it on the lam, hiding from the law while they try to bring in the real killer. Who framed Beckett? The gangster who held D'Alesse's marker? Or maybe a member of his own family? And if his family is behind all this, why is Beckett so blasé about it, whiny and petulant as a kid on a car trip, instead of seething with the anger of a man being fingered for a murder rap?

After a while, the paper-thin characters, the listlessness of the plot and its cookie-cutter, staged artificiality scream out for some sort of real heat and passion, some real action, some real emotion.

Instead, we're given some so-so sex, some unconvincing violence, a lot of scenes (including the obligatory gather-all-the-suspects-together conclusion) that whimper away to nothingness, and a hero who's not quite the hard-nosed detective he's lead us to believe he is. Beckett, whom I had really wanted to like, turns out to be about as effective as Niles Crane from television's Frasier, a glib wannabe with delusions of hard-boiled grandeur too often hopelessly out of his league. But Dead Is Forever doesn't play this for laughs -- when push comes to shove, Beckett simply gets pushed. And when he tries to crack wise like some tough guy refugee from Black Mask, it's embarrassing, belabored and completely out of place. I mean, does anyone really want to hear how someone's burgeoning confidence is cut through with "the efficiency of a surgeon's knife through a disfiguring wart"? Yuck. -- K.B.S.

* * *

Radcliffe Emerson is a little grumpier and Amelia Peabody's hair is suspiciously blacker, but the premier family of early 20th-century Egyptology is livelier than ever in The Serpent on the Crown (HarperCollins), Elizabeth Peters' 17th novel featuring the strong-willed Mrs. Peabody and her remarkable family. From her overly precocious yet winsome grandchildren to her reformed "master criminal" brother-in-law, Amelia's clan will once again be called to battle thieves, perform exorcisms and wield disguises, as they track down the secrets behind a cursed artifact and some hidden treasure.

It's the fall of 1921, and the world is recovering from the so-called Great War. When gothic paranormal writer Magda Petherick dramatically crashes the Emerson family's tea, bringing both a priceless statue and a tale of the curse that killed her husband, Radcliffe is more intent on discovering the source of the treasure than allying her fears and superstitions. The rude arrival of Magda's grown children, and their accusations that the Emersons are trying to swindle their mother, does not endear them one iota more to Amelia's family. And it's only the volatile Radcliffe's desire to pry his way back into the archeologically rich Valley of the Kings, from which he has been banned for years, that convinces him to help the distraught Magda. But the family soon finds their home burgled, then Mrs. Petherick disappears, and the Emersons learn that virtually every known treasure hunter is after the statue and its original site.

In addition, it's Amelia's burden to keep peace among her relations. She must contend with her grandchildren's curiosity, arrange new hires to join the family excavations, and act as a conciliator when her children determine to pursue professional goals separate from their father's. Needless to say, armed with her lethal parasol and even deadlier wit, Amelia is more than capable of these tasks.

Peters, a Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master, has written in Serpent, one of her tighter novels, boasting of greater humor and less angst and soap-operatic complications than some previous installments of the Peabody series. Gone, too, are the knotty espionage subplots of recent books. This story instead highlights the relationships between members of the Emerson family, who obviously love each other immensely, but have fallen into relaxed patterns of indulging one another's quirks and obsessions. Consider the following exchange between Amelia and Radcliffe:

Emerson fixed me with a terrible look. "If you say 'I told you so,' Peabody -- "

"As you know, Emerson, I deplore the use of that phrase, especially between married persons."

"Ha," said Emerson. "I have lost count of the number of times you -- "

"An unjust and unjustified accusation, Emerson. Anyhow, I did not contradict your -- as it has proved -- incorrect assumption in so many words, I only -- "

"Looked contradictory," Emerson shouted.

It's remarkably challenging to begin the timeframe of a series in 1884 (the setting of 1975's Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first Amelia adventure) and extend it well into the 1920s. The novelist must evolve her characters, but also allow them to retain their individual traits and appeals. Few others have accomplished this task as well as Peters (a pseudonym of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz). Readers who have grown close to the Emersons will be rewarded in The Serpent on the Crown with a finale that beautifully illustrates the mutual love this family shares. Following on the spirited heels of Children of the Storm and Guardian of the Horizon ("RS" 4/04), this latest Egyptian mystery provides an amusing episode in the daring lives of the Emersons, who manage to educate even as they entertain. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow

* * *
My clients are the producers the puppets work for. We're talking here about puppets performing lewd acts to and with other puppets they're not married to. Okay, some people don't have a problem with that. Maybe I'm one of them. Maybe you're one of them. That makes two of us --

That pretty much sums up the latest assignment for Pete Ingalls, the self-delusional private eye in Ellis Weiner's second satiric mystery, The Big Boat to Bye-Bye (New American Library). Convinced, after being clobbered over the head by a pile of books at a Manhattan bookstore (see Dead, My Lovely, 2004), that he is a hard-boiled, 1940s-style gumshoe straight out of the pulp-fiction novels he's read, Pete has since hired an aspiring actress, Stephanie Constantino, as his secretary and begun one doozy of a new career. Big Boat finds him working for Charlotte Purdy and Donnie Dansicker, the married producers of a children's puppet show on public television. This pair are being blackmailed for $1 million by someone who threatens to distribute videotapes showing the puppets during their less than child-friendly moments. During downtime on the show, it seems, the puppeteers engaged their malleable charges in some rather innovative moments of puppet carnality. (Yikes! What would those latter-day moralists at the FCC say? Janet Jackson's breast is one thing, but ...) Only now their jocularity could destroy the show, should its sponsors and the public see the candid footage.

Pete is hired to follow the blackmail payment, but when he's attacked and robbed, the case turns personal. Soon our inept, fedora-wearing hero is grilling puppeteers, engaging in some sordid sex-capades of his own (after another case, involving a lost necklace, intrudes) and gathering together suspects for a denouement that blissfully disregards such incidentals as the law.

Mark Schorr may have been the first author to conjure stories about a tough private dick who's really just an average joe gone round the bend (see Red Diamond, Private Eye, 1983). But Weiner, a former editor of National Lampoon and a columnist for the wonderful 1980s magazine Spy, brings a distinctive comic 'tude to his fledgling series. A Remington Steele-like character, who doesn't seem to realize that he's not the one leading the investigation, Pete Ingalls blunders successfully through his cases by distracting suspects with his wingtips, boxy suit and snappy sleuth patter. But what makes this New Yorker special are his rambling rants on society, children's programming, P.I. noir and pretty much anything else that catches his fancy. If those monologues are at times too wordy, too skimmable, the reader hardly has time to lose interest in the story, before Weiner comes up with another twist to draw laughs. There's never been a more original, hysterical and perverted scene, for instance, than one in Big Boat that features puppets caught sharing the sex and drug habits of their fellow marionettes ("Bird Bird? Juicer. Has his own wing at Betty Ford"). This is a breezy satire that exposes the unexpectedly sinister side of puppet television. -- C.C.

* * *

When he described his innovative new thriller at February's Left Coast Crime convention, David Ellis, an Illinois attorney and Edgar Award-winning author (for Line of Vision, 2001), said it was like seeing a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat, then going backwards step-by-step to observe exactly how the trick was executed -- only to realize that what you thought was a rabbit wasn't a rabbit at all. That's a pretty accurate assessment of In the Company of Liars (Putnam), a mesmerizing thriller that begins with an apparent suicide and then goes backwards in time to reveal that everything the reader believed was either a lie or the truth was never as simple as it seemed to be.

As this novel kicks into gear, Allison Pagone's self-inflicted demise appears to tie up the murder case of Sam Dillon. Pagone, a famous writer, was being tried for Dillon's murder, her motive being either that she was a woman scorned or because Dillon was investigating Allison's lobbyist ex-husband for bribing U.S. senators. Allison had been intent on taking the fall for this slaying, frustrating her attorney, who considered her overly protective of both her daughter and her former hubby. Also playing roles here are Jane McCoy, an FBI agent whose conscience is heavily weighed down by her manipulation of Allison, but who is willing to manipulate if it means preventing a greater tragedy; and Ram Haroon, a mysterious fellow who is playing a complex role in framing Ms. Pagone. Although Liars begins with a "simple" suicide, the story soon becomes anything but simple, as Ellis' plot hurtles toward a conclusion (or should that be commencement?) that involves a tragic romance, political corruption and terrorism.

The reverse chronology here (similar to what was accomplished with the film Memento) takes some getting used to, especially since -- within each chapter -- days proceeds in regular time. Once the reader catches on to Ellis' rhythm, though, this story unfolds brilliantly, with all the characters being revealed as liars, each pretending to be someone else, and with his or her own agenda.

Ellis' most difficult task in Liars may be to make Allison, the suicide victim, into an admirable woman willing to sacrifice everything for her family. Especially heart-wrenching are scenes in which Allison mourns the death of Sam and insists on acting the martyr. But some of the most effective episodes are those showing Allison and her grown daughter, the two women obviously loving one another, yet occasionally falling to the roles of rivals and enemies. Equally complex in their characters are the federal agents who have set up Allison as a staked goat, but are obviously full of regret for their actions. Author Ellis has taken a chance in writing a thriller told in a reverse progression of action. It could have been a brilliantly conceived but confusing flop, a real disappointment after three well-received novels. Happily, the payoff here was worth the risk. Ellis has again created, in The Company of Liars, a satisfyingly unusual tale which concludes with a beginning that will leave readers stunned. -- C.C.

* * *

When John Dunning's first "Bookman" mystery, Booked to Die, saw print in 1992, it drew a wide audience of readers wanting a glimpse into the fascinating but fairly unknown field of antiquarian book collecting. That novel introduced Cliff Janeway, a Denver, Colorado, cop and part-time collector, and was filled with arcana concerning the amassing and care of rare volumes and how, for instance, works with the same title could be valued at either $5 or $5,000. Who knew that trafficking in prized editions could be so profitable? Or so dangerous?

The fourth entry in this series, though, The Sign of the Book (Scribner), is light on bibliophilic lore and heavy on action, as Janeway rescues an abused child, confronts both a menacing deputy and a crooked, book-dealing preacher, and tries to clear a woman of murder. All this, when he was only supposed to be evaluating the book collection of a murder victim. Just another day's work, eh?

As Sign opens, Janeway (now the proprietor of a bookstore on Denver's East Colfax Avenue and retired from the force, though he still moonlights as a P.I.) is asked by his attorney girlfriend and business partner, Erin D'Angelo, to assess the value of an extraordinary collection in Paradise, Colorado. His police instincts tell him there's a lot more to the story, however. What Erin only slowly reveals is that these books happened to belong to Robert Marshall, the ex-lover she discovered en flagrante with her best friend, Laura -- now Laura Marshall, who has confessed to gunning her husband down in their home. When the only witness to this murder turns out to be the deceased's adopted, mentally disabled son, Janeway takes a special interest in the case. And when a contingent of thugs move in on the eclectic, autographed collection, the former cop finds himself using his physical skills as much as his mental knowledge of books, culminating in events reiterating that book accumulation isn't the quiet intellectual pursuit the uniformed might suppose it to be.

This latest "Bookman" outing forces Janeway to rely more on his police training than was true of, say, the previous installment of this series, The Bookman's Promise (2004). What upsets him here, as much as the murder, is seeing how the books he so treasures are crassly viewed by others as merely another form of currency, and are abused by folks who want the tomes only for their monetary value, rather than for their beauty or content. It's abundantly clear from reading The Sign of the Book that dealers in literature can be just as down-and-dirty and prone to corruption as drug dealers or thieves. It's only unfortunate that the intricacies and in-depth explorations of antiquarian bookselling, present in the early Dunning novels, are largely missing here. Sign's plot could just as easily have turned on the collecting of baseball cards or furniture. Nonetheless, Dunning has crafted in these pages a riveting detective yarn, and while the motivation to perpetrate homicide might be expected, this story's final twist definitely is not. One of the most original crime-fiction series being written today continues to delight readers who love books as much as the mysteries within them. -- C.C.

* * *

What could be worse than playing in a golf tournament while partnered with your estranged father as well as your possibly soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend? Well, how about playing while also trying to serve as maid of honor to one of your competitors? That's the caliber of torture facing Cassie Burdette in Fairway to Heaven (Berkley Prime Crime), Roberta Isleib's fourth Golf Lover's Mystery.

Fairway finds Cassie, never one of the most stable of personalities, back in her therapist's office for a "tune-up" and lamenting the rigors imposed upon her by the upcoming wedding of her friend Jeanine Peters. Little does Cassie know, however, that attending numerous showers and wearing ridiculous hats will be the very least of her problems. As this golf pro-cum-sleuth tries to delicately soothe the egos of her father and boyfriend, and avoid her stepmother's jealous glares, she is surprised by a corpse showing up at a pre-wedding party. Suspicion for this homicide points directly at Jeanine's father. Knowing of Cassie's experience at ferreting out the truth behind crimes, the bride begs her to help clear up this killing the nuptials begin. It's a tough call, since Cassie's caddie has been trying to get her to concentrate exclusively on playing in the upcoming tournament at Pinehurst, North Carolina. But hey, what are friends for, if not to solve mysteries? When Jeanine's father disappears, though, the pressure really falls on Cassie, since her responsibility as maid of honor has her attempting to hide the situation from the police, investigate the relatives of both families, and play her best in a tournament without showing up her male partners.

What sets Fairway to Heaven apart from other "gimmicky" mysteries is its plot line focusing on the complicated relationships between fathers and daughters. Cassie is the golfer her father wishes he could be himself, and she continues to seek his approval, despite her birth mother's hatred of their shared sport and her stepmother's resentment toward the "old" Burdette family. Because of Cassie's tenuous bond with her father, she has never been able to commit fully to another man, fearing that she'll once again be abandoned. Jeanine has issues with her own father, and the secrets that are kept to protect her set the stage here for disaster. Author Isleib shows a deft touch with this theme, avoiding emotional hokeyness.

When composing amateur-sleuth tales, authors must worry about succumbing to the "Jessica Fletcher Syndrome": compelling everyone in a small community to be either a victim or a suspect. In her latest novel (after Putt to Death, 2004), Isleib maneuvers around that pitfall by thrusting events upon Cassie, often off-scene and entirely against her will, rather than having her venture out to probe -- and doubt -- the motivations of everyone with whom she comes in contact. The writing here is above par, with wit and sarcasm that makes even Cassie's neurosis more humorous than annoying. Isleib, continuing a series that teed off with Agatha and Anthony award nominations (for Six Strokes Under, 2002), showcases her skill with a putter as well as a pen. -- C.C.

* * *

Fans of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series may at first be disappointed that his latest novel, Alice in Jeopardy (Simon & Schuster), is a standalone. Disappointed that is, until they actually start reading the book.

Thirty-four-year-old Alice Glendenning lives in steamy Cape October, Florida. Her husband, Eddie, is presumed dead, after his sailboat was found abandoned eight months before, floating on the Gulf of Mexico. While waiting impatiently for the payoff from Eddie's life-insurance policy -- money that will support not only her but her two children, Ashley and Jamie -- Alice sells high-end real estate.

To her horror, Alice receives a phone call one day from a strange woman, informing her that her little girls have been kidnapped, and the ransom just happens to be the exact amount of money Alice is expecting from the insurance company -- $250,000. Although this plot is common, and the mastermind behind the snatching is easily deduced, there is a madcap effort by all parties involved in Jeopardy to locate the extortion dough and the children, so that the work becomes quite entertaining. Lead Detective Wilbur Sloate and communications specialist Detective Macia Di Luca are under-experienced, at best, and deficient in following up leads. Yet, the FBI special agents assigned to this case, Felix Forbes and Sally Ballew, are really no better, despite what they arrogantly believe. While Alice is focused on retrieving her children unharmed, her truck-driving and former inmate brother-in-law, Rafe Matthews, is more intent on getting his hands on the ransom money (when he's not cheating on Alice's sister), and Alice's housekeeper, Rosie Garrity, seems determined to alert all of Cape October to what's happening -- despite the kidnappers' demand that they tell no one.

While the remaining, surrounding cast of characters boast the traditional McBain flair for detail and nuance, it's the sadly under-used investigative cop duo of Peter Wilson Andrews and Julius Aaron Salzman -- a Mutt and Jeff team, if ever there was one -- that attracts the greatest interest. Salzman and Andrews possess the street-cop weariness and flair for psychoanalyzing witnesses that would make them welcome in Fat Ollie's domain. Despite all the interference caused by Matthews, Garrity and even the local news media; and with law enforcement providing only minimum efforts to find the girls, Alice Glendenning eventually manages, through amateurish means, to track the kidnappers down. Unfortunately, the final confrontation in Jeopardy is somewhat tired and less than satisfying, though not because the kidnappers lack substance -- they are fully realized with hopes and flaws that make them human, and not one-dimensionally "evil."

The setting of this tale is classic Ed McBain, with Cape October feeling more like an actual hot Florida locale, rather than an imaginary one. It may not be the urban setting of the 87th Precinct, but it serves just fine. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone

* * *

Michael Gruber's second novel, Valley of Bones (Morrow), follows upon his critically acclaimed debut work, Tropic of Night, in the best possible manner -- by being equally brilliant. It transports us once more into the company of Miami police detective Iago Xavier "Jimmy" Paz, who this time is called out to investigate the homicide of Sudanese oil businessman Jabir Akran al-Muwalid. Al-Muwalid was hit on the head with a connecting rod from a car engine and then pushed over a 10th-floor balcony of Miami's Trianon Hotel. When Paz discovers Emmylou Dideroff in al-Muwalid's hotel room, deep in a type of trance, and her prints are found on the connecting rod, it seems to be a slam-dunk that this unstable woman did the deed. It doesn't help her case any that she has an infamous history, or that she's willing to confess that she offed the oilman.

When Paz's boss, Major Douglas Oliphant, an ex-FBI agent, tells him that the Bureau is interested in the case and to continue looking into the homicide in order to "fatten the file," Paz thinks it's a waste of time. But it soon becomes evident that Dideroff's involvement may have been peripheral, and that bigger players are involved. Together with his new partner, fellow Cuban American Tito Morales, Paz uncovers an oil connection to this murder, with broad political implications that would influence the balance of world power. In particular, Paz and Morales are suspicious of Dave Packer, a shadowy type who rented Dideroff her houseboat.

Outside of the stationhouse, Detective Paz has many interests, such as poetry and music -- though what he wants most of all is a meaningful relationship and to settle down. While he also finds significant delight in cooking at his mother's well-received Cuban restaurant, Paz's life is made all the more frustrating by his overly involved mami, who wants to see her son finally married with children.

His days (and nights) don't become more interesting until he meets Dr. Lorna Wise, a forensic psychologist assigned to Emmylou's case, who must determine whether the young woman is mentally fit to stand trial. Paz and Wise are soon heating up the sheets and talking long-term relationship. Wise shares Paz's uncertainty about Emmylou. While Dideroff appears to be a psychologically disturbed woman, given to religious "mania"; and though both Paz and Wise experience, first-hand, her personality transformations in the throes of religious fervor, the question remains whether this woman who communes with saints is more manipulative than maniacal. By accounts rendered through a four-part written confessional, one learns that Dideroff was molested as a child by her stepfather and stepbrother, and that she endured years of drug abuse and further sexual degradation, including prostitution. Eventually, and inexplicably, Emmylou Dideroff joined the Society of Nursing Sisters of the Blood of Christ, and Gruber intersperses his new novel with historical background on the society's founder, Marie-Ange de Berville.

Valley of Bones isn't your typical detective fare, though it offers enough suspense and intrigue to keep fans of the police procedural happy. Instead, readers should allow themselves plenty of time to relish the dazzling display of psychological, historical and political information that Michael Gruber imparts in these pages, as well as the way he so lavishly unfurls the complexities of Paz's and Wise's characters. Whether Paz is pontificating to Morales about how to be a good detective (expensive suits are apparently key), tracking killers or cooking up churros in his kitchen, he drives this machine. The real treat is in seeing how the author accomplishes all of his goals while still making the book immensely entertaining. After two outstanding efforts, this reader selfishly hopes that Gruber delivers a trifecta with his next book. -- A.R.

* * *

Computer security experts Aimée Leduc and René Friant put themselves in mortal danger once again in the newest installment of Cara Black's Paris-based series, Murder in Clichy (Soho Press). Set in November 1994, this story finds Leduc being asked by Linh, a Vietnamese nun at the Cao Dai temple where Leduc and Friant go to meditate, to deliver an envelope to the Clichy quartier and there retrieve a package from an associate, Thadée Baret -- a seemingly harmless request.

Unbeknownst to Leduc, however, Baret is a recovering drug addict who has somehow gotten his hands on ancient jade figures stolen from Indochina decades earlier by French soldiers. Baret is shot and killed at their meeting, and Leduc impulsively grabs the jade figures, which leads to her being chased by a collection of unsavory and dangerous men, all after the jade.

In a storyline brimming with red herrings and action-packed sequences, Leduc faces off against Fabien Regnier, an agent with the Renseignemnts Généraux (a French intelligence agency similar in role to America's FBI, or Britain's MI5), as well as Inspector Pleyet, a shadowy operative from the Ministry of Interior who seems to have had a role in the death of Leduc's father, Jean-Claude, a Paris cop-turned-private eye, some five years earlier. Add a ruthless drug dealer nicknamed the Candyman, who wants the money owed him by the deceased Baret, and one of the original French soldier-thieves seeking the jade he believes is rightly his, and it appears that Mademoiselle Leduc will be swallowed whole by this intricately woven and dangerous affair. So it's understandable that after being robbed of the figures and then having her dwarf partner, Friant, kidnapped, Leduc should turn as desperate as the men threatening her.

The Parisian settings in Black's books have been masterfully sketched, and that's true too in Clichy (the sequel to 2003's Murder in the Bastille, "RS" 5/03). French culture in every respect comes through loud and clear, and as the pages are turned, one can envision the capital's Gothic architecture and small cafés, smell Gitane cigarettes and "runny" cheeses, and hear idiomatic French uttered in memorably seedy bars. Using her extensive contacts in the French police, detective Leduc manages to unravel the mystery behind the value and origins of the jade figures, as well as the motivations of those trying to get their hands on the statuettes. When she discovers that her latest corporate client, Julien De Lussigny, a wealthy and attractive man who tries to seduce our heroine, has an ex-Vietnamese wife who is a drug-addict friend of Baret's, the plot thickens even more. As if all this weren't enough for the chic sleuth, her boyfriend, Dr. Guy Lambert, asks her to settle down with him in the suburbs of Paris, which would effectively shutter the Leduc agency. To say no, Aimée Leduc will risk ending her relationship with the dashing doctor. With skills such as hers, however, this Parisian city dweller is right where she belongs, which is a happy state of affairs for fans of the series. -- A.R.

* * *

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (Bloomsbury USA) is a macabre and often repellent psychological thriller which, nevertheless, fascinates and ultimately breaks your heart. British novelist Liz Jensen (The Paper Eater, War Crimes for the Home) reveals the awful truth about Louis Drax, a remarkable 9-year-old who lives in a provincial French town and has an uncanny knack for self-preservation. As Louis tells readers in this book's opening:

I'm not most kids. I'm Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn't happen, like going on a picnic where you drown.

Just ask my maman what it's like being the mother of an accident-prone boy and she'll tell you. No fun. You can't sleep, wondering where it's going to end. You see danger everywhere and you think, Got to protect him, got to protect him. But sometimes you can't.

"Precocious" doesn't even begin to describe Louis. He is intelligent, maddeningly so, and prone to prattling on, ad nauseam, about the obvious horrors of his short life, as if by telling every sinister detail, he can make the reader -- and possibly himself -- understand the why of it.

After the boy's latest disaster -- he falls off a cliff in the midst of a family picnic -- his father, Pierre, goes missing and Louis finds himself, miraculously, alive and a guest at a French experimental coma clinic run by Dr. Pascal Dannachet. There, Louis' mother, Natalie, guards him like a lioness, while Dr. Dannachet appears baffled, befuddled and bemused by his mysterious patient.

Jensen uses an intriguing method of telling this story, dividing the viewpoint between the comatose Louis, who navigates his world of the unconscious in tandem with Gustave, an imaginary, bandaged companion; and Dannachet, who develops a tenderness toward Natalie Drax and her valiant effort to hang onto her sanity, despite the crushing developments of recent weeks and the horrendous burden of caring for such an accident-prone child. As the doctor explains, "Louis' bizarre seizure changed nothing on the surface of things -- but somehow, like a seismic shudder, it rocked us all in unforeseen ways. The worst part of the whole episode, I thought afterwards, was the reaction of his mother. It should have told me instantly that things weren't fitting together the way they should. That something was fundamentally and irredeemably amiss, that an appalling truth was trapped inside her, insisting on release. But I was blind. We all were." Obviously, the estimable Dannachet is a member of the "had I but known" school of literature. Still, in Jensen's capable and talented hands, the ploy works.

When Pierre Drax is finally suspected of having flung Louis from the cliff, the police search intensifies, and malevolent forces swirl even darker around Louis.

Much more can't really be said about Ninth Life, without revealing too much of a plot that ultimately shocks and then tears at your emotions. Louis, in spite of being quite a spinner of tall tales intended to shock, is exceptionally bright and seems supremely aware of what he must do to protect himself. But he is (as the reader never forgets), first and foremost, a little boy beset by danger. More than anything else, this amazing book is the story of survival at all costs, a yarn about human resilience even in the face of unspeakable evil.

In the end, despite the content, I came away from this novel full of admiration for Louis Drax and the uniquely heroic path he has chosen. Whether you agree with his decision or not, at least you can say you understand the why of it. -- Reviewed by Yvette Banek

* * *
The Oscar for best supporting actress came down on my head.

Before I blacked out, I saw the face of the most famous child star of the nineteen-seventies. Today, she looked like a combination of Bette Davis in Baby Jane, a Bel Air trophy wife, and a dead dog.

Nearly broke, between typesetting jobs and at odds with the non-trivial world, hard-boiled nerd Roy Milano returns in The Shooting Script (Ballantine), a snappy follow-up to last year's The Cutting Room ("RS" 3/04). Author Laurence Klavan has created, in Milano, the unlikeliest of heroes, a man prone to reciting movie trivia when he's in a difficult situation -- which is almost always. The only bright light in Ray's life is his homemade newsletter, Trivial Man.

As we catch up to him again, Milano has taken work as a walking billboard for a Manhattan farmer's market, hoping to raise dough for his mute mother's care. But he's more interested in trying to outdo his previous triumph -- locating a copy of Orson Welles' never-released 1942 society drama, The Magnificent Ambersons -- by getting his hands on Jerry Lewis' unreleased 1972 Holocaust movie, The Day the Clown Cried. An anonymous e-mailer, Ted6569, lures Milano to a seedy hotel in Hell's Kitchen with promises of the lost film. But Milano arrives just in time to hear the aged informant -- who turns out to be the movie's owner, Ted Savitch -- utter his final words: "The other man." Like a soon-to-be bride at a wedding dress sale, Milano isn't about to let go of Lewis' Clown, now that he has had it in his sights. His search is augmented with monetary backing from his nemesis in trivia (or should that be "trivial nemesis"?), Abner Cooley. Milano is hired to protect the arrogant Cooley, after the latter is commissioned to write a script based on a multi-part cult fantasy novel, The Seven Ordeals of Quelman -- a job that earns him death threats, when hard-core fans learn that he intends to insert a love interest into the popular saga.

Ray soon hooks up with Dena Savitch, daughter of the now dead Ted and an au pair working for the regrettably retired comedian Howie Romaine. She leads Milano to the Hamptons, and there this plot, well, weirdens. Romaine, bored and rich, is thinking of acquiring Clown, himself. And following on Milano's worn heels is a mystery man, intent on bringing harm to our intrepid film geek-investigator.

It isn't long before Milano is swimming among eccentrics big and bigger, both domestic and foreign. Thanks to the Jerry Seinfeld-esque Romaine, he makes contact with wicked former tennis great Thor Ludwig, as well as Thor's lusty ex-model wife, Marthe, and Troy Kelvin, a washed-up, drugged-out producer hoping to make a comeback by remaking Clown, only this time with the legendary Ludwig in the starring role. The opportunity for madcap hilarity only increases, as Milano pursues a bizarre German actor, Graus Menzies -- who'd worked as an extra on Clown -- to Amsterdam. Location to location, enticing female to enticing female, Milano is always mere steps away from the film and mortal danger. But the chase is worth it to this trivia fanatic.

Laurence Klavan has created a winning and wonderful character in Roy Milano. And he has a premise to match. Always teetering on the very edge of too much, Klavan carefully steers the reader along in this fast, dialogue-driven novel. With thinly veiled references to cult figures and a peppering of true film trivia throughout, The Shooting Script is a sophomore showpiece. -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan

* * *

If you're familiar with Joan Brady's previous works, which include the 1993 Whitbread Book of the Year, Theory of Way, then her new novel, Bleedout (Touchstone), might come as a surprise. But Brady's first foray into crime fiction is only guaranteed to enhance her reputation. With a murder victim's journal providing much of the narration here, and with strong and absorbing characters that compel the reader to carry on, Bleedout will likely not be Brady's last foray into this genre.

Twenty years of living with the question, and now I find myself in the absurd situation of a man about to be murdered -- without the hope of answer first.

So writes Hugh Freyl, an attorney and offspring of the most prominent family in Springfield, Illinois. Freyl lost his sight by freak happenstance, but that did nothing to stifle his love of the law. Nor did it stop him from frequenting Marion Federal Penitentiary, where he taught illiterate prisoners to read. That prison was home to some of the most violent and irredeemable convicts in Illinois, yet one among the many, convicted murderer David Marion, took precedence in Freyl's mind, because of his story, his anger and his latent intelligence. Marion "apparently came from nowhere." Reared on the streets and deprived of every human kindness, as he was shunted between foster homes, imprisonment was considered a foregone conclusion for Marion. Hence, it seems, his last name. He learned early on to trust no one and to take what he needed.

But Freyl outlasted David's rage, finally reaching an angry boy beyond everyone else's reach. Convinced that David was railroaded into a false confession, Freyl devised his release from behind bars -- much to the chagrin of Freyl's wealthy relations. The attorney even went so far as to make David his protégé, giving him the foundation that could lead to a normal, healthy life.

And then, one night, Hugh Freyl is beaten to death in the library of his white-shoe law firm. David Marion's name immediately shoots to the top of the suspects list, despite the illogic of the young man doing in his protector. What, after all, was his motive? Although efforts are made to keep David incarcerated, he manages to make an appearance at Freyl's rain-soaked funeral, sparking fury and fear among his fellow funeral goers. The killing has only confirmed their cynicism about Freyl's generosity.

Cornered and without any support from the local community, David takes it upon himself to find the person or persons responsible for Freyl's demise. He uses the very skills he honed as a miscreant to follow the scant evidence left by the murderer. On his own, David begins to unveil long-held secrets of the Springfield upper echelon. However, the deeper he digs, the more questions are raised about Freyl's behavior, and the more the ex-con must look to his own violent past to find the answers for which he searches.

Author Brady's name may well soon find a spot next to those of Scott Turow, John Grisham and John le Carré. David Marion's battle against his own negative impulses mirrors what is going on in larger, previously tranquil Springfield. Dusty lies, betrayal and jealousy all rumble beneath that town's façade, spoiling even the purest of friendships and coloring every twist this novel makes. The first entry in a new series, Bleedout is so far the book to read in 2005. -- J.J.

* * *

With a career that already spans two decades and 27 books, British novelist Mark Timlin has honed his noir style to an edge that cuts decisively through both formula and pretense. Though he's best known as the author of 17 books (including Quick Before They Catch Us and All the Empty Places) starring Nick Sharman, an invalided London cop-turned-private eye, Timlin has also penned 11 standalones. But he has outdone himself with Answers from the Grave (Do-Not Press), a chronicle that shows how one frozen moment in time can cross generations to stab at the heart with revenge.

Billy Farrow and Jimmy Hunter grew up in South London in the 1960s, hungry for a future better than what they were due and anxious to sample the narcotics, music and sexual amusements that others enjoyed. Yet after getting much of what he'd wanted, Billy changed his ways, becoming a cop. And, much to the surprise and consternation of his former friends, a straight cop.

Now move ahead to June 1982, when the mastermind behind a South London bank heist sends Jimmy Hunter and his gang forth to commit the robbery. These four thieves descend upon a Brixton financial institution just after its doors are opened. Within two minutes, the robbers exit the bank -- money in hand -- only to see everything start to go wrong. Gang members scatter to the winds, but only Jimmy seems to be in the clear. Just one man stands in the way of his freedom: Billy Farrow.

He saw Farrow put up one hand as if by doing so he could prevent the inevitable, and as he looked down into the deep blue eyes that had got Billy his nickname, almost without meaning to, Jimmy pulled the trigger and the hammer on the gun started the short journey towards the rim of the cartridge. Just a centimeter or two in distance, and a split second in time, but a split second that would stretch for more than twenty years before its echoes and reverberations would finally end.

More than 30 years later, with Jimmy Hunter finally due for release from prison, Mark Farrow begins to circle the waters where his father's killer will appear. Mark, who followed in his father's earlier footsteps and adopted a life of crime, disappeared off the radar in France for eight years. But he's now returned to the only home he ever knew. He is driven by revenge, but he still has room in his heart for two people: "Uncle" John Jenner, a mob boss and his dad's former friend, who took young Mark in when no one else would; and Linda Pierce, the daughter of the man who killed Billy Farrow. Mark had left them both behind, but he now finds himself drawn to their company like a moth to flame. And like a moth, destruction awaits him in the light.

Answers from the Grave is the book every crime writer aspires to write at some point in his or her career. It's a deeply satisfying read, richly colored by social mores, forbidden love and a sense of place that plunks the reader right down on Brixton's dirty thoroughfares. This book is well worth the import cover price for any American lover of Brit Noir. -- J.J.

* * *

The release of a new novel by George Pelecanos is comparable to Christmas Day for this reviewer. His work is of such extraordinary power, that the words resonate in my mind long after I've set the finished yarn aside. Drama City (Little, Brown), his first standalone after four consecutive novels starring Washington, D.C., private eye Derek Strange (including last year's highly praised Hard Revolution), is -- like all of his fiction, really -- about character and the lives of people who take up residency between the cracks of modern society. It's not about bulky guys wielding M-16s and rocket launchers, or feisty blond female detectives with attitude harder than their thighs. This Greek-American author's work is instead about wiping the slime from a burger wrapper, or avoiding eye contact with a belligerent homey, or skirting the shards of a glass bottle. It's about survival when just walking down the middle of a street is liable to get you killed. It's about the small things that can so easily precipitate big trouble. In Pelecanos' fiction, the good guys can be far worse than the bad guys. His poignant tales explore the absence of social cohesion in the world's lower layers, and his gritty D.C. backdrop could just as easily be any metropolis -- Manchester, Toronto, Dallas -- because the very human problems he writes about are universal to inner cities and always bursting with drama.

In the therefore aptly named Drama City -- Pelecanos' most ambitious novel to date -- we meet Lorenzo Brown, an ex-criminal enforcer who did eight years in the slammer on a drugs charge, but who's ostensibly turned his life around, now serving as a Humane Law Enforcement Officer with the Humane Society. Mostly Brown protects dogs from human cruelty -- a really neat metaphor for this tale.

Estranged from his ex-wife and young daughter, Lorenzo keeps pretty much to himself, staking out a place on the straight and narrow with his canine friends, maintaining distance from the life he once led. But this black man's chances of staying clean and alive are reduced by the sorts of people with whom he consorts. They include a volatile gunman by the name of Rico Miller, rival drug bosses Nigel Johnson and Deacon Taylor, and Rachel Lopez, Lorenzo's half-Jewish, half-Latina probation officer and friend, who spends her nights trawling bars, trying to lose herself in drink and sex.

As a turf war (set off by what seems like an insignificant mistake) brews between Johnson's henchmen and Taylor's, Lorenzo tries to avoid stepping into the middle of it. But after a hopped-up Rico stabs Rachel in the chest, fearing that she's preparing to arrest his partner, Brown is forced to revisit the past he'd tried to leave behind, and determine in which direction his future lies. And just how far across the line he's willing to go.

Drama City is a heroic story about a guy facing up to his destiny in a world that has more than two sides, and far too many sharp edges. What's most terrifying about Pelecanos' 13th novel, though, is to see the hordes of disaffected, inner-city youths willing to step into the shoes of their fallen comrades. As Lorenzo knows better than most, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and the distance between order and violence is never so great as moralists would have us believe. With soul as well as teeth, Drama City plays out rather like a Greek tragedy. You know things are going to turn bad before they turn worse, but Pelecanos makes every moment worth experiencing. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim

* * *

Novelist Greg Iles was quoted recently as saying, "So many thrillers today are formulaic and one-dimensional. I feel like there used to be a higher standard. I know I'll get in trouble for saying this, but the problem is that the whole industry is built around writing one book a year. It's not enough time to write a good book."

Which may be why it took Iles two years to get Blood Memory (Scribner) onto the market, his first novel since the supercomputer suspenser The Footprints of God (2003). Fortunately, the wait was worthwhile. This is one damn good book, have no doubts about that. It's also a rather stark departure from Iles' previous work, insofar as it is a Southern Gothic tale about family, abuse and the rank unreliability of memory. The saga introduces us to Dr. Catherine "Cat" Perry, a fetching forensic odontologist (aka bite-mark authority) and recovering alcoholic, who recently found herself paralyzed by a panic attack at a New Orleans crime scene and fears losing her credibility.

Cat has other problems, too. She's been having an affair with married New Orleans police detective Sean Regan, and is now pregnant with his child. She's prone to depression, is plagued by nightmares, and tries to hold her life together with the demands of work. But after blacking out again, at the scene of what could be the second mutilation by a serial killer, Cat is suspended from the FBI task force investigating these crimes. She retreats, then, to her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, hoping to get her act back together. However, there's no peace to be found at her family's antebellum mansion. The spilling of some chemicals on the floor of her childhood bedroom reveals bloody footprints, one of which may be hers, left on the night her Vietnam vet father perished from a mysterious gunshot wound. This discovery compels Cat to piece together her fragmented past. In doing so, though, she finds that her memories might reveal connections between her sire's long-ago slaying and the violent sex attacks on males in present-day New Orleans. It appears that only by exposing the attacker's identity can she ensure her own continued sanity.

Blood Memory is a jigsaw puzzle, part thriller, part melodrama and part mystery -- but much greater than the sum of its components. Written in first-person, it offers murderous twists that leave the ground beneath the reader more quicksand than solid narrative. Iles takes an unconventional path, linking the secrets of a powerful Southern dynasty to events blacker than the swamps. -- A.K.

* * *

You don't often come across "debut novels" boasting the vivid characterization and storytelling zest offered in The Forest of Souls (HarperCollins UK), by Carla Banks. But then, this author turns out not to be such a novice after all. A little digging reveals that "Banks" is a nom de plume of Danuta Reah, a British master of psychological suspense whose previous novel, Bleak Water, numbered among January Magazine's favorite novels of 2002. I guess that, like the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine relationship, the Carla Banks/Danuta Reah correlation is founded in a divergence of style and material. While benefiting from Reah's ability to weave players who are fated from the outset to be caught in webs of deceit, the Carla Banks books will also delve into the past and show how menace can penetrate and thrive in the modern world.

Forest's plot hangs on the circuitous path followed by Faith Lange, as she tries to figure out who killed her best friend and colleague, Helen Kovacs, a British university researcher who had been investigating the World War II-era Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, journalist Jake Denbigh is asking a great number of questions about Helen's father, the elderly Marek Lange, a man who escaped the horrors of wartime Europe. Marek refuses to discuss his past, but it may be revealed anyway by a 75-year-old concentration camp survivor, now living in England. From reading the late Helen's notes, Faith realizes that there is more to this woman's death than the authorities acknowledge. Even Helen's estranged husband has secrets he's holding.

Eventually, a man is arrested for Kovacs' slaying, but Faith isn't convinced that he is responsible. As mysteries grow in quantity, reporter Denbigh and Faith find themselves heading east, to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they hope to uncover a trail that will lead them from the ashes of the past to the murders of today. But will also reveal a shattering event from Faith's family's past.

The Forest of Souls is tremendously involving and at times gut-wrenching, with a plot that's as deceptive and reptilian as a serpent. Reah/Banks examines how horrors born in the depths of history can never really be forgotten -- or forgiven -- and that the secrets of the deceased are far from buried. This book really shocks on occasion, not because of violence or gore, but because of the disturbing pictures it paints in your mind, images that cling like a canvas painted in Hell. It's also a very timely story, considering the recent Holocaust memorials that have been taking place worldwide. Forest is admittedly a tough book, but one that makes the name Carla Banks worth watching. -- A.K.

In the News

In the wake of February's multiple anniversary celebrations of Dashiell Hammett and his best-known novel, The Maltese Falcon, Salon's Allen Barra suggests that readers take another look at Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest (1929) -- a book that has resisted direct adaptation to film, yet has provided the basis for a variety of knock-offs, including HBO's brilliant Western series, Deadwood. Read more (subscription required).

English writer Alan Hunter, whose pipe-smoking, Maigret-like Chief Inspector George Gently starred in almost 50 novels (including Gently Down the Stream, Gently Floating and his last mystery work, 1999's Gently Mistaken) died on February 26. He was 82 years old. Read more.

Sylvian Hamilton, a British cancer survivor, Star Trek fan and the author of three historical novels featuring 13th-century "bone-pedlar" and ex-Crusader Sir Richard Straccan -- The Bone-Pedlar (2000), The Pendragon Banner (2001) and The Gleemaiden (2004) -- died on February 28, leaving behind an unfinished fourth installment of her series. Read more.

With help from a variety of modern novelists and academics, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review book editor Regis Behe analyzes the remarkable growth and current sociological significance of crime fiction, noting at the outset that in 1955, "not a single book among the Top 10 sellers for the year was a mystery or crime story or thriller. Fifty years later, six of the Top 10 books on a recent New York Times best-sellers list are of the crime/mystery/thriller genre." Read more.

Craig Holden, whose fifth novel, The Narcissist's Daughter, was recently released, talks with "The Art of the World" interviewer Craig McDonald about his use of autobiographical material in his fiction, the challenges of period research, his effort to publish more and leaner books, and the reactions he had to The Jazz Bird (2002) from folks who'd known its real-life players. Read more.

Fifty-seven-year-old author and "unreconstructed liberal" Sara Paretsky, reportedly "stung" by criticism that her 2003 V.I. Warshawski novel, Blacklist, was "too political," defends her work to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "All my books have been political in a way," Paretsky remarks. "Crime fiction brings together law, justice and society in a way that either defends the status quo or challenges it." The next installment of the Warshawski series will be Fire Sale, due out in May. Read more.

Novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón tells the Toronto Star that, after he delivered the manuscript of The Shadow of the Wind to his Spanish publisher, he was told "it is an impossible book, totally uncommercial. We won't be able to sell more than 200 copies." Instead, that Barcelona-set literary mystery "rapidly sold 1 million copies in Spain (population 40 million), making it the bestselling Spanish book of all time. In translation, 2.5 million copies are in print worldwide." Read more.

London thriller writer Philip Kerr, best recognized for his private eye Bernie Gunther trilogy (beginning with March Violets, 1989) and his outstanding historical mystery, Dark Matter (2002), in which Sir Isaac Newton assumes the role of sleuth, speaks with The Scotsman about his unlikely new escapade: penning a trilogy of children's adventure novels, the first of which is The Akhenaten Adventure. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is already interested in the series. Read more.

A sprightly and wide-ranging profile of Martin Cruz Smith, in the British Guardian, recalls how his U.S. publishers were originally disappointed with what would become his best-known novel, Gorky Park (1981). The newspaper explains that they'd "commissioned a new book about an American cop solving a case in Russia. Smith changed its focus when the figure of [Arkady] Renko entered his imagination and says: 'I knew I was on to something pretty good. But when I showed my publishers they asked where was the American hero? I told them about my better idea and they said they didn't think it was a better idea.'" Smith's fifth Renko investigation, Wolves Eat Dogs, was released in the States late last year. Read more.

In an entertaining three-part interview with Robert B. Parker, on the Dumpster Bust blog, the author of Cold Service (the 32nd installment of his best-selling Spenser private eye series) talks with Eric Berlin about his writing philosophies, the future of Spenser and Susan Silverman, his process of writing "black" and the importance of having a good cardiologist. Read more.

L.A. Weekly catches up with Charles McCarry, the 75-year-old Massachusetts author (and former CIA covert operative) whose 1974 book, The Tears of Autumn -- perhaps "the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American" -- has recently been reissued by Overlook Press, after being out of print for more than a decade. "Economical in length, tersely poetic in style," opines critic Brendan Bernhard, "[Autumn] purports to solve the biggest political mystery of the 20th century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In a just world, or at any rate a braver one, the liveliest film directors of the last few decades would have fought to bring it to the screen. That this hasn't happened can perhaps be explained by the fact that its interpretation of the Kennedy assassination quietly stings American pride in a way even Oliver Stone wouldn't countenance." Read more.

The British e-zine Shots offers a new interview with Martin Stephen, whose third book featuring 17th-century "gentleman spy" Henry Gresham, The Galleon's Grave, was recently released in the UK. He talks about his self-introduction to crime fiction, Gresham's debt to Hamlet, and how William Shakespeare turned him from an academic writer into a novelist. Read more.

"I'm fascinated," says Robert Ferrigno, speaking with Tangled Web interviewer Bob Cornwell about his latest novel, The Wake-Up, "by the attempt to do the right thing in an imperfect world where our impressions themselves are suspect (the philosophy major emerges yet again). I wanted to write about a deeply flawed man attempting to redeem himself by doing a small bit of good, the most simple kindness, and having it all go terribly bad." Read more.

"Why isn't Swedish writer [Henning] Mankell better known in the United States?" asks The Washington Post. "After all, he has written 40 books that have been published in more than 35 countries and sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. He has outsold Harry Potter in Germany, his American publisher, the New Press, likes to point out. His recurring detective, Kurt Wallander, is quirky, wise, flawed, a lover of music and eventually successful in solving tough cases. It may be because Mankell's books are cheerless things." Read more.

Canadian author Howard Engel is the subject of a New York Times profile suggesting that his stroke of four years ago, and the way his own problems have since been incorporated into the character of Ontario P.I. Benny Cooperman, star of the new novel Memory Book (to be released in the States next year) may prove to be "a lucky literary break" for the 73-year-old fictionist. Read more.

Portland, Oregon, attorney-turned-novelist Phillip Margolin is grilled (though too briefly) by a Bellingham Herald reporter about his use of plot outlines, his research into the settings of his thrillers and various facets of his newest page-turner, Lost Lake. Read more.

Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, whose fifth novel, The Field of Blood, was published last month in the UK (but isn't due out in the States till July), talks with the Glasgow Herald about the right-wing attitudes of many American contributors to this genre, her close association with her adopted hometown, her disappointment that crime writing "is not as low-class as it used to be," and her plans for Blood sequels. Read more.

The latest issue of Scotland's The Crime Scene includes a retrospective on Harold Q. Masur, the now 96-year-old Florida author of the Scott Jordan legal sleuth series, which began with 1947's Bury Me Deep and eventually extended to eight more novels and The Name Is Jordan, a 1962 short-story collection. Read more.

Finally, with two heavily publicized new Sherlock Holmes adventures -- Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind and Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary -- both due out in April, Lawrence Block looks back fondly at the Great Detective's life (and resurrection) for The Village Voice. Read more.

Last Rewards

Winners of the 2005 Dilys, Lefty, Bruce Alexander and Calavera awards were announced during the Left Coast Crime convention, held in El Paso, Texas, in late February. Congratulations go to ...

Dilys Award (given to the book that merchants had the most fun selling in the previous year): Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay (Doubleday) -- reviewed in "RS" 7/05

Also nominated: The Enemy, by Lee Child (Delacorte); Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde (Viking); The Intelligencer, by Leslie Silbert (Atria); Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press); and The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Penguin)

The Lefty Award (given to a humorous mystery novel): tie -- We'll Always Have Parrots, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's Minotaur), and Blue Blood, by Susan McBride (Avon) -- reviewed in "RS" 3/05

Also nominated: Carnage on the Committee, by Ruth Dudley Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press); Holy Guacamole, by Nancy Fairbanks (Berkley Prime Crime); and Perfect Sax, by Jerrilyn Farmer (Morrow)

The Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award: The Witch in the Well, by Sharan Newman (Forge)

Also nominated: Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press); Five for Silver, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (Poisoned Pen Press); Murder on Marble Row, by Victoria Thompson (Berkley Prime Crime); and Tyrant of the Mind, by Priscilla Royal (Poisoned Pen Press)

The Calavera (like last year's Otter Award, given to a mystery set in the geographic area covered by Left Coast Crime): Grave Endings, by Rochelle Krich (Ballantine)

Also nominated: Family Claims, by Twist Phelan (Poisoned Pen Press); Shadow Play, by David Cole (Avon); Snap Shot, by Meg Chittenden (Berkley Prime Crime); and What Others Know, by L.C. Hayden (Top Publications)

* * *

Winners of the 2005 Gumshoe Awards, given out by Mystery Ink, were announced on March 9. And much to our surprise, January Magazine's Crime Fiction section was named as Best Crime Fiction Web Site of the year. Modest creatures that we are, we'll refrain from overt public displays of glee at having received this honor (Yahoo! We're kings of the world!!), and simply offer up the full roster of Gumshoe recipients.

Best Mystery: Hard, Hard City, by Jim Fusilli (Putnam)

Also nominated: By a Spider's Thread, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); California Girl, by T. Jefferson Parker (Morrow); Last Lullaby, by Denise Hamilton (Scribner); and Absent Friends, by S.J. Rozan (Delacorte)

Best Thriller: Rain Storm, by Barry Eisler (Putnam)

Also nominated; Life Expectancy, by Dean Koontz (Bantam); Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst (Random House); A Death in Vienna, by Daniel Silva (Putnam); and The Wake-Up, by Robert Ferrigno (Pantheon)

Best European Crime Novel: The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell (New Press)

Also nominated: The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Penguin); Doctored Evidence, by Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press); Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin (Random House); and A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown)

Best Debut: Misdemeanor Man, by Dylan Schaffer (Bloomsbury)

Also nominated: Whiskey Sour, by J.A. Konrath (Hyperion); Rift Zone, by Raelynn Hillhouse (Forge); Dating Dead Men, by Harley Jane Kozak (Doubleday); and Caught Stealing, by Charles Huston (Ballantine)

Best Crime Fiction Web Site: January Magazine's Crime Fiction section

Lifetime Achievement Award: Lawrence Block

* * *

Oregon author Kris Nelscott (aka Kristine Kathryn Rusch) has won the 2005 Spotted Owl Award for her novel Stone Cribs, the fourth installment of her wonderful P.I. Smokey Dalton series, set primarily in 1960s Chicago. The Spotted Owl is conferred annually by The Friends of Mystery, a Portland, Oregon-based organization, on "the best mystery written by a Pacific Northwest author."

* * *

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has announced this year's Readers Award winner and runners-up as follows:

First Place: "The Gin Mill," by Doug Allyn (September-October 2004)

Second Place: "Deep Lock," by Clark Howard (December 2004)

Third Place: "Tequila Memories," by Clark Howard (June 2004)

* * *

Nominees for the 2005 British Book Awards (the "Nibbies") were recently announced in 13 different categories. The shortlist for Crime Thriller of the Year comprises:

  • The Graft, by Martina Cole (Headline UK)
  • The Murder Room, by P.D. James (Penguin UK)
  • Fleshmarket Close, by Ian Rankin (Orion UK)
  • Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom (Macmillan UK)

The winners will be announced during a presentation at London's Grosvenor House on April 20.

* * *

Finalists were announced last month for the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Nominations were made in eight categories, with contenders in the Mystery/Thriller division being:

  • Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst (Random House)
  • The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell (New Press) 
  • Old Boys, by Charles McCarry (Overlook Press)
  • Tijuana Straits, by Kem Nunn (Scribner)
  • A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown)

In addition, Tony Hillerman was named as the recipient of this year's Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement. Other winners will be announced on April 24 at UCLA's Royce Hall.

* * *

The Mystery Writers of America has released its extensive list of nominees for the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Awards. They are as follows:

Best Novel: Evan's Gate, by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin's Minotaur); By a Spider's Thread, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); Remembering Sarah, by Chris Mooney (Atria); California Girl, by T. Jefferson Parker (Morrow); and Out of the Deep I Cry, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best First Novel by an American Author: Little Girl Lost, by Richard Aleas (Hard Case Crime); Relative Danger, by Charles Benoit (Poisoned Pen Press); Cloud Atlas, by Liam Callanan (Delacorte); Tonight I Said Goodbye, by Michael J. Koryta (St. Martin's Minotaur); Country of Origin, by Don Lee (Norton); and Bahamarama, by Bob Morris (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Paperback Original: The Librarian, by Larry Beinhart (Nation Books); Into the Web, by Thomas H. Cook (Bantam); Dead Men Rise Up Never, by Ron Faust (Dell); Twelve-Step Fandango, by Chris Haslam (Dark Alley); and The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry (Hard Case Crime)

Best Critical/Biographical: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories, edited by Leslie S. Klinger (Norton); Latin American Mystery Writers: An A-to-Z Guide, by Daniel B. Lockhart (Greenwood Press); Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel, by Rita Elizabeth Rippetoe (McFarland & Co.); and The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 3: 1956-1991, by Norman Sherry (Viking)

Best Fact Crime: Ready for the People: My Most Chilling Cases as Prosecutor, by Marissa N. Batt (Arcade Publishing); Conviction: Solving the Moxley Murder: A Reporter and a Detective's Twenty-Year Search for Justice, by Leonard Levitt (Regan Books); Forensics for Dummies, by D.P. Lyle, MD (Wiley Publishing); Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, by Suzanne O'Malley (Simon & Schuster); Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts, by Julian Rubinstein (Little, Brown); Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer -- America's Deadliest Serial Murderer, by Ann Rule (Free Press)

Best Short Story: "Something About a Scar," by Laurie Lynn Drummond (from Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You; HarperCollins); "The Widow of Slane," by Terence Faherty (from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], March/April 2004); "The Book Signing," by Pete Hamill (from Brooklyn Noir; Akashic); "Adventure of the Missing Detective, by Gary Lovisi (from Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years; St. Martin's Minotaur); and "Imitate the Sun," by Luke Sholer (EQMM, November 2004)

Best Young Adult: Story Time, by Edward Bloor (Harcourt Children's); In Darkness, Death, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (Philomel Books); Jude, by Kate Morgenroth (Simon & Schuster Children's); The Book of Dead Days, by Marcus Sedgwick (Wendy Lamb Books); and Missing Abby, by Lee Weatherly (David Fickling Books)

Best Juvenile: Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press); Assassin: The Lady Grace Mysteries, by Patricia Finney (Delacorte Books for Young Readers); Abduction!, by Peg Kehret (Dutton Children's); Looking for Bobowicz, by Daniel Pinkwater (HarperCollins Children's); and The Unseen, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Delacorte Books for Young Readers)

Best Play: Spatter Pattern (Or, How I Got Away With It), by Neal Bell (Playwrights Horizons); Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, by Max Allan Collins (The Art House); and An Evening of Murder and the Like, by Edward Musto (Barrow Group Studio Theatre)

Best Television Episode Teleplay: Law & Order: Criminal Intent -- "Want," teleplay by Elizabeth Benjamin, story by René Balcer and Elizabeth Benjamin; Law & Order: Criminal Intent -- "Conscience," teleplay by Gerry Conway, story by René Balcer and Gerry Conway; Law & Order: Criminal Intent -- "Consumed," teleplay by Warren Leight, story by René Balcer and Warren Leight; Law & Order: Criminal Intent, "Pas De Deux," teleplay by Warren Leight, story by René Balcer and Warren Leight; and Monk -- "Mr. Monk and the Girl Who Cried Wolf," teleplay by Hy Conrad

Best Television Feature or Mini-Series Teleplay: State of Play, by Paul Abbott (BBC America); Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness, by Peter Berry (Granada TV and WGBH Boston); Death in Holy Orders, by Robert Jones, based on the novel by P.D. James (BBC Worldwide); Amnesia, by Chris Lang (BBC America); and "The Darkness of Light," Wire in the Blood, by Alan Whiting (Coastal Productions)

Best Motion Picture Screenplay: A Very Long Engagement, screenplay by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot (2003 Productions); The Bourne Supremacy, screenplay by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum (The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Universal Pictures, Hypnotic); Collateral, by Stuart Beattie (DreamWorks SKG); I'm Not Scared, screenplay by Francesca Marciano, based on the novel by Niccolo Ammaniti (Miramax Films); and Maria Full of Grace, screenplay by Joshua Marston (HBO Films)

Robert L. Fish Memorial Award: Thomas Morrissey for "Can't Catch Me" (from Brooklyn Noir; Akashic)

Grand Master: Marcia Muller

Ellery Queen Award: Carolyn Marino, vice president/executive editor, HarperCollins

Raven Awards: Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theatre (founded by Steve Oney); DorothyL listserv (founded by Diane Kovacs and Kara Robinson); Murder by the Book, Houston, Tex. (Martha Farrington, owner)

Special Edgar Awards: David Chase (writer/producer, The Sopranos); Tom Fontana (writer/producer, Homicide: Life on the Street)

The Simon & Schuster-Mary Higgins Clark Award: Perfect Sax, by Jerrilyn Farmer (Morrow/Avon); The Drowning Tree, by Carol Goodman (Ballantine); Scent of a Killer, by Christiane Heggan (Mira); Grave Endings, by Rochelle Krich (Ballantine); and Murder in a Mill Town, by P.B. Ryan (Berkley Prime Crime)

Winners will receive their Edgars during a gala banquet to be held at New York City's Grand Hyatt Hotel on April 28.

* * *

Malice Domestic has announced its nominees for the 2005 Agatha Awards, as follows:

Best Novel: We'll Always Have Parrots, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin's Minotaur); By a Spider's Thread, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); High Country Fall, by Margaret Maron (Mysterious Press); The Pearl Diver, by Sujata Massey (HarperCollins); and Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)

Best First Novel: Till the Cows Come Home, by Judy Clemens (Poisoned Pen Press); Arson and Old Lace, by Patricia Harwin (Pocket); I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason, by Susan Kandel (HarperCollins); Dating Dead Men, by Harley Jane Kozak (Doubleday); and The Clovis Incident, by Pari Noskin Taichert (University of New Mexico Press)

Best Non-fiction: Private Eye-Lashes: Radio's Lady Detectives, by Jack French (Bear Manor Media); and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories, edited by Leslie S. Klinger (Norton) 

Best Short Story: "The Butler Didn't Do It," by Maria Y. Lima (from Chesapeake Crimes, edited by Donna Andrews; Quiet Storm Publishing); "The Two Marys," by Katherine Hall Page (from Mistletoe and Mayhem; Avon); "Wedding Knife," by Elaine Viets (from Chesapeake Crimes)

Best Children's/Young Adult Novel: Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press); Betrayal at Cross Creek, by Kathleen Ernst (American Girl); and Green Streak, by Daniel J. Hale and Matthew LaBrot (Top Publications)

Attendees at the Malice Domestic conference, to be held in Arlington, Virginia, from April 29 to May 1, will be eligible to vote for the nominees in each category. Winners will be announced during an April 30 banquet.

* * *

The North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers has announced nominees for its 2005 Hammett Prize. The contenders are:

  • The Havana Room, by Colin Harrison (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Prince of Thieves, by Chuck Hogan (Scribner)
  • The Madman's Tale, John Katzenbach (Ballantine)
  • California Girl, by T. Jefferson Parker (Morrow)
  • Playing with Fire, by Peter Robinson Morrow)

A winner will be announced during Labor Day weekend, at the Bouchercon convention in Chicago.

* * *

Scottish novelist Ian Rankin has been chosen to receive the British Crime Writers' Association's Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2005, marking a lifetime's achievement in crime writing. (Bear in mind, of course, that Rankin's publishing "lifetime" extends only back to 1986, the year in which his first novel, The Flood, was published.) "I'm overwhelmed," Rankin said, after hearing of this commendation, "but really feel this lifetime achievement award should go to Inspector Rebus rather than his creator. After all, Rebus is in his late-50s, rapidly approaching retirement, with deteriorating health and a fixation on cigarettes, alcohol and 60s rock. Through the course of his life, he has been knocked about, shot, pushed out of helicopters, tortured, walked out on by a host of girlfriends, fallen out with his family, seen friends and colleagues murdered in cold blood, and been haunted by ghosts. He's tackled terrorists and serial killers, racists and bigots, pimps and dealers and gangsters. On the other hand, all I've done is sit at a desk in a well-heated room, drinking coffee and eating chocolate, while I put Rebus through the mill for the umpteenth time. I'm still in my 40s, enjoy general good health, and feel my best books may still be ahead of me. Put simply, he deserves this award more than I do … but I'm more than happy to accept it on his behalf."

Rankin will receive his Dagger during a reception at London's Savoy Hotel on May 11. For more information, click here.


"The Rap Sheet" is compiled 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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