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Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute



























January Magazine's Crime Fiction Report, November 2002


IN THIS ISSUE: The month's most-wanted reads • New novels by Larry Millett, John Mortimer, Boston Teran and Cornelius Lehane • Readers rate the latest releases from Jan Burke, Walter Marks, Ian Rankin and others • Tony Hillerman's Skinwalkers comes to PBS-TV, a James Bond trivia quiz, and more news from the world of mystery • Plus: this year's Dagger Awards from the British Crime Writers' Association

Pierce's Picks for November

The Babes in the Wood (Hutchinson UK), by Ruth Rendell. The 19th mystery to feature Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford (after Harm Done, 1999) has him searching through historically heavy flooding for a pair of teenagers and their sitter, who disappeared while the parents were off in Paris. As the story evolves, Wexford begins to question his assumptions about how people will behave.

Bet Your Life (HarperCollins), by Richard Dooling. The death of manic-depressive computer whiz Leonard Stillmach, reportedly caused by a mélange of alcohol and pills, leads his friend, insurance investigator Carver Hartnett, to uncover the alleged sale of fraudulent insurance claims. Further adding intrigue to this story are questions about Stillmach's role in a sting operation and the possibility that the woman after whom Hartnett lusts played a part in his pal's untimely demise. Dooling is the author of White Man's Grave (1994), a National Book Award finalist, and Brain Storm (1998).

Death of Riley (St. Martin's Minotaur), by Rhys Bowen. In this sequel to the Agatha Award-winning Murphy's Law (2001), Irish immigrant Molly Murphy sets herself up in 1901 New York City as an apprentice to P.I. Paddy Riley. But Riley's subsequent murder tests both Molly's capacity for crime solving and her patience with a handsome but cynical Manhattan police detective.

Domino (Walker), by Ross King. From the author of Ex-Libris (2001) comes this highly atmospheric, 18th-century tale about an aspiring London portraitist, George Cautley, who agrees to paint the image of mysterious Lady Petronella Beauclair. In exchange, she tells him the scandalous story of a castrato singer in George Frederick Handel's opera company 50 years before. As Cautley grows closer to his subject, his fate begins to mirror the tragedy that befell that singer.

An Eye for Murder (Poisoned Pen Press), by Libby Fischer Hellmann. After an old man dies in Chicago, documentary filmmaker Ellie Foreman receives a letter from his landlady that entwines her in a mystery dating back to World War II-era Prague. A clever and compelling thriller.

A Fine Line (St. Martin's Minotaur), by William G. Tapply. Boston attorney Brady Coyne gets a shock when he drops by the Back Bay residence of Walt Duffy, a prominent naturalist and paraplegic: Duffy has been slain in his backyard. Barely less distressing is the disappearance of Duffy's son, Ethan. As evidence surfaces of the naturalist's involvement with an ecoterrorist group, and as more corpses are found, Coyne sets out to find Ethan before he too joins the ranks of the untimely dead.

Fox Evil (Pan UK), by Minette Walters. The plot of this soon-to-be-best seller turns on the consequences of community change. What becomes of an English village after most of its residences become second homes? And how does a family cope when one of its number goes bad? Just back from a Kosovo peacekeeping mission, Captain Nancy Smith finds a community in turmoil.

The Golden Gate Murders (Signet), by Peter King. In his third outing as a sleuth (after Dead Man's Coast, 2002), author Jack London braves the treacherous docks and dives along San Francisco's Barbary Coast in search of a killer. Fortunately, he's found a useful ally -- none other than former Arizona lawman Wyatt Earp.

The Lusitania Murders (Berkley Prime Crime), by Max Allan Collins. The fourth of Collins' intriguing "disaster mysteries" series takes place in May 1915 aboard the British luxury liner Lusitania. Among the passengers is critic and journalist Willard Huntington Wright, traveling as "S.S. Van Dine" (the pseudonym under which he would go on to write 12 novels featuring dilettante detective Philo Vance), who encounters treason and murder even before a German sub sinks the ship.

Naked at the Window (Constable Robinson UK), by Bill James. Erupting violence between rival London drug gangs puts Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur and his amoral colleague, Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles, on the defensive as they seek a truce -- or at least some way to lower the body count. Meanwhile, dealer "Panicking" Ralph Ember and the captivating girlfriend of a murdered sidekick try to take the law into their own hands. Naked at the Window is set for U.S. release in December.

Nineteen Eight-Three (Serpent's Tail UK), by David Peace. In this final chapter of Peace's haunting Red Riding Quartet, his themes of crime and the corruption of justice in Yorkshire come to a head, with characters from earlier installments -- including the brutal senior cop Maurice Oldfield and lawyer "Big John" Piggott -- clashing toward a revenge-ridden conclusion.

The Terra-Cotta Dog (Viking), by Andrea Camilleri. The search for an illegal arms cache leads Sicilian inspector Salvo Montalbano to a mountain cave, where he finds the remains of two young lovers, dead half a century but still embracing in the shadow of a life-size terra-cotta dog. Eschewing personal dangers, the passionate and sardonic Montalbano delves back into the horrors of World War II in order to solve the crime behind the lovers' confinement.

Winston's War (HarperCollins UK), by Michael Dobbs. Forget about George W. Bush's ludicrous attempts to portray himself as some sort of latter-day Winston Churchill. Opt for the original, instead. Dobbs' 10th novel (following Whispers of Betrayal) takes readers back to 1938, when Churchill, at his lowest point -- reviled and mocked as nothing more than an intoxicated warmonger -- is visited by a young BBC journalist, critical of the statesman's defeatist attitudes. This encounter renews Churchill's energy and propels him toward higher office, his path cleared by talent as well as treachery. What Churchill doesn't realize is that his new BBC "pal" is actually Soviet spy Guy Burgess.

New and Noteworthy

It's rare for fictional sleuths to "outlive" their creators. Philip Marlowe has, at least in one volume of short stories (the excellent Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Collection [1988], edited by Byron Preiss) and a pair of novels (Poodle Springs [1989], by Chandler and Robert B. Parker, and Perchance to Dream, Parker's mediocre 1991 sequel to The Big Sleep). Lord Peter Wimsey has already returned once from the grave, in Thrones, Dominations (1998), which was begun by Dorothy L. Sayers but completed by Jill Paton Walsh, and he's set to make another appearance next March in Paton Walsh's A Presumption of Death. Margery Allingham was in the midst of composing the final chapter of her Albert Campion saga when she died in 1966; her husband, artist Youngman Carter, went on to finish that work (Cargo of Eagles, 1968) and then write two more Campion novels of his own. After resurrecting Rex Stout's beloved Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in Murder in E Minor (1986), former journalist Robert Goldsborough penned four additional sequels. But most authors prefer to work with characters and situations of their own devising, rather than borrow familiar fictional figures ... and risk the opprobrium that might ensue if their reprisals don't measure up to the original works.

So it's more than a bit remarkable that Sherlock Holmes stories continue to proliferate, 115 years after Arthur Conan Doyle's first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published. Of course, some of these pastiches are better than others -- not necessarily because they hold true to Conan Doyle's style, but because they contribute some grace note of originality to the series.

Larry Millett has proved a more than able steward of Conan Doyle's legacy, even if he's failed signally to keep Holmes and his faithful amanuensis, Dr. John Watson, grounded in foggy, familiar London. Beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon (1996), Millett, a former columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has sent this pair hieing off to Minnesota at every opportunity. The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes (Viking) finds them logging more travel time yet, as they pursue a cabal of American conspirators who are determined to frame the British detectives for kidnapping and homicide. The tale commences in the summer of 1900, two years after Holmes (in Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men") captured Abe Slaney, a Chicago gangster who murdered the husband of Elsie Cubitt, his childhood love. A note, inscribed with the distinctive "dancing men" code, arrives at 221B Baker Street. "You are not finished with me, nor I with Elsie," Holmes translates. "Catch me if you can. I will be waiting." It's signed "Abe Slaney," though Slaney is supposed to have died during a prison escape. Sure enough, the Widow Cubitt is missing from her Norfolk manor, and there's every indication that she was snatched. Goaded on by a singular French spiritualist and ransom demands, Holmes and Watson commence a lively chase that will lead them from the bedside of a slain Liverpool strumpet to a foggy standoff at a Manhattan church, a death-defying train ride across Pennsylvania and a climactic shootout at a Chicago fraternal hall. "Elsie Cubitt's kidnapping has nothing to do with money," Holmes tells his faithful chronicler as they chase after a trail of carefully orchestrated clues. "It is about revenge. ... [I]t is all too clear that we are being invited into a trap, Watson."

Purists will undoubtedly admonish Millett for tuning his fifth novel to the demands of a more modern audience, accustomed to urgent pacing and frequent action sequences. But that only endorses the notion that Holmes stories should be frozen in a Victorian expectation of fiction. Nonsense. This canon should be allowed to evolve somewhat, as long as it doesn't completely abandon its roots. Millett has adapted Conan Doyle's characters and style to his own uses, shifting his action out of England and being far more attentive to the historical settings of his yarns than Conan Doyle ever was. The meanderings of Holmes and Watson across Gotham are especially noteworthy, with Millett footnoting references to long-gone structures or those (like Grant's Tomb) about which 21st-century readers probably know little. (Most captivating, perhaps, is Watson's excursion into the bowels of Manhattan, following the uncompleted "pneumatic railway" built by inventor-publisher Alfred E. Beach -- a construction that also played a role in William Marshall's splendid period mystery Faces in the Crowd [1991]). Furthermore, the author dares to address Holmes' love life, spooning in hints that Sherlock has found in the peril-plagued Elsie Cubitt a warm heart to temper his cold logic. All of this serves to humanize the Great Detective. How can that be wrong?

Millett's veteran readers are likely to identify the malign genius behind the conspiracy in The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes long before they reach the denouement. And they may be disappointed to realize that hard-fisted Minneapolis saloonkeeper Shadwell Rafferty -- a series regular who held centerstage in Millett's previous novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Alliance (2001) -- has been relegated here to a late and very minor role. This new book doesn't boast quite the eccentric intrigue of Millett's Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders (1998). However, it entices with an easy humor and bristles with enough twists and shocks to have kept even Conan Doyle reading past his bedtime.

* * *

"You're a taxicab, Rumpole!" exclaims a woman colleague of Horace Rumpole, the irreverent and irascible London barrister making his latest American appearance in John Mortimer's Rumpole Rests His Case (Viking). "You're committed to giving a ride to anyone who hails you. You don't have to like them. You ... can probably do their cases better if you don't like them particularly."

There's certainly an abundance of distasteful clients for the rumpled Rumpole to cast a jaundiced eye upon in this collection of seven amusing tales, from the impecunious actor who can't resist an opportunity to dramatically defend himself in court, to the cuckolded husband who buried his wife beneath their floorboards because, as he explains, "I didn't want to be parted from her." Ever since his print debut, in 1978's Rumpole of the Bailey, Mortimer's protagonist (modeled, apparently, on the author's own father) has preferred to stand up for colorful, if rather reprehensible types, be they bumbling break-in artists or murderers. This pattern has provoked other barristers in his chambers to complain of Rumpole "lowering the tone," yet it has also given the elderly, claret-swigging, cheroot-smoking advocate ample opportunities to demonstrate his aptitude for cross-examination and his fortunate facility for unearthing the unlikely evidence necessary to win his clients' release. While some of Mortimer's yarns involve detection worthy of the classic British sleuths, a majority focus on the human-interest elements or simply provide Mortimer with excuses to remark on the farcical facets of his nation's judiciary and society. Rumpole is never so witty as when he's heaping ridicule on trendmongers and moralizers. Targets of sarcasm in this collection include anti-smoking zealots and the interior designers who have convinced Rumpole's formidable wife, Hilda (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed), to install lava lamps and a "talk pit" in their "gone-to-seed, deeply worn-out London flat."

One story in Rumpole Rests His Case finds Mortimer's man working for an elusive Afghan doctor, who was smuggled into the UK in a crate of mango chutney and now seeks to become a British citizen. In another, Rumpole investigates an assault on a teenage girl, apparently committed by one of her friends -- an unmanageable "teenage werewolf" with a curious poetic streak. The author seems to particularly relish lampooning politicians, as he does so well in "Rumpole and the Camberwell Carrot." The plot centers on a blustering, hypocritical right-wing Member of Parliament who, after first seducing away Justice Phillida Erskine-Bowles, wife to one of Rumpole's long-suffering colleagues (she explains that her heart was won "during a quarrel about whether or not President George W. Bush is a total dickhead"), is accused of committing a drug offense -- specifically, rolling a "Camberwell carrot" (an especially fat marijuana joint) in company with a tabloid reporter. Cleverest of all the short stories here, though, is the title tale, in which Rumpole, after collapsing in court and being confined to a hospital, concocts the defense for one of his roommates, a "reformed" thief with an unlikely connection to the aged major who shot him during a supposed residential break-in.

How much longer will readers be treated to new Rumpole adventures? Barrister-turned-writer Mortimer originally created this character for British television in the 1970s, and he's on record as saying that he would continue to write about Horace Rumpole only so long as Australian actor Leo Kern, who portrayed him so expertly on the small screen, was willing to keep playing the part. Does Kern's death in July 2002, combined with Mortimer's advancing age (he'll turn 80 in 2003), mean that Rumpole Rests His Case is the beginning of the end? The author has at least one more book of short stories destined to delight his fans: Rumpole and the Primrose Path, due out this month in Britain from Viking. And if, after that, there are no more ... well, the good news is that this series will have concluded on a high and humorous note.

* * *

I almost never fail to finish a book I've started. In fact, I could probably count on the fingers of a single hand the number of volumes I've found too lackluster or offensive to read all the way through. Although I really wanted to pitch Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities across the room, when he gave up his otherwise brilliant narrative in favor of an ending that consisted of contrived newspaper reports, I stuck with it. And I am proud to count myself among the probable minority who actually finished all 1,079 pages (including footnotes) of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, even though I was confident by page 57 that the author had less to say than he had colorful ways of saying it.

However, Boston Teran's new, third novel, The Prince of Deadly Weapons (St. Martin's Minotaur), came very near to bumping up my record of uncompleted reads. Following God Is a Bullet (1999) and Never Count Out the Dead (2001), both of which showed this author's talent for grim inventiveness and near-poetic imagery, Prince turns out to be a pauper in the area of engagement.

It gets off to a promising enough start: Twenty-six-year-old Taylor Greene, troubled by the murder of a federal agent two days before, is found dead in his little house on Disappointment Slough, in the Sacramento Delta region of northern California. His fiancée, Essie Law, doesn't think Taylor committed suicide, no matter what the official interpretation. Nor does the young man's father, wealthy developer Nathan Greene, whose guilt over his only son's demise leads him to promote the establishment of a medical research center in Taylor's name. Now, into the picture steps Dane Rudd. Nearly blinded in a subway attack years ago, Rudd has only regained his vision thanks to the posthumous transplanting of Taylor's corneas. He's been invited to the Delta by Nathan, who wants to meet the recipient of Taylor's bequest, but also needs Rudd as his guileless pitchman, "the miracle of modern science he'll troop out to fund-raisers." However, Rudd has an agenda of his own. The way he wiggles his way into Nathan Greene's life is simply too calculated, the rudiments of information he provides about his own life too vague. By the time Rudd intercepts a bloody box full of "plasma," allegedly being shipped by Nathan to an animal shelter, it's clear that Rudd is no naïf; he's the most important link in a scheme that may lay Nathan Greene -- as well as an avaricious banker, a randy, paraplegic district attorney with political ambitions, and a pair of brutish sibling pilots -- open to charges in a conspiracy that involves money laundering, missing diamonds and murder.

The pseudonymous Teran's earlier works earned their reader interest and various awards on the merits of their tight, tense plotting and sometimes lyrical prose. The Prince of Deadly Weapons isn't strong in either of those regards. Its story has moments of drama (Rudd's last-second escape from an onrushing train, a climax replete with boat explosions) that seem deliberately prepared for Hollywood's interpretation. But too often the reader is left confused by Teran's twists, and bored by his overextended expositions of action. Furthermore, his characters seem intended to draw attention merely as enigmas, rather than as fully developed figures. They're clichés of good and bad and worse, never gelling sufficiently as dimensional individuals to make us care what happens to them. The most interesting player here may be an assistant D.A. named Francie Flescher (known by her boss, with whom she's having an affair, as "Flesh"), whose appeal comes almost solely from her ability to switch roles -- from the upright attorney to the up-all-night sexual adventurer. And Teran's writing? Well, he does get off a few memorable lines, such as his remark about Flesh having "legs that went all the way from the ground up and into a man's psyche." However, his prose here is a flabby version of what readers have come to expect. Too often, paragraphs that needed to be tightened or trashed remain to drag down the story's pace. Just one example: "Everything that would ever happen in the world was happening here, happening now. Everything that would ever happen to him would happen here, would now happen." Sheesh! Maybe Teran's right-out-of-the-gates renown has cowed his editors, made them doubt their experience and caused them to think twice before requesting changes in his work. If so, let's hope that a negative reception for The Prince of Deadly Weapons snaps those folks out of their malaise. The author, his publisher and his readers might all benefit as a result.

* * *

Considerably more satisfying is Beware the Solitary Drinker (Poisoned Pen Press), an intricate -- sometimes a tad too intricate -- amateur sleuth mystery, set in 1983 among the plenteous bars and embittered tipplers of Manhattan's Upper West Side. Although this is a first novel from Washington, D.C., writer Cornelius Lehane, it shows the confidence of a more mature hand.

Brian McNulty is a 40-year-old failed law student, sometimes-actor and veteran bartender who works the plank at Oscar's, a smoky, seedy joint on Broadway, near Harlem. One night, he meets Angelina Carter, an utterly charming, blue-eyed 20-year-old who takes to bunking with him (more chastely than he would prefer) until she finds a waitressing job, moves into a studio apartment and starts "spending money like a drunken sailor, recklessly enjoying her prosperity and popularity." But after winning the hearts of the Oscar's clientele, and taking several of the eccentric regulars into her bed, Angelina suddenly turns up murdered in Riverside Park. Who would do in such a sweet and sexy young thing, and why? The cops have McNulty pegged as the perpetrator, if only because Angelina made him the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. McNulty worries that she may have been capped, instead, by another friend of his, a black bass player with whom the bartender had spotted Angelina on the night of her final breath. Either way, McNulty wants no part of the ensuing investigation. Reared by a grudge-bearing Communist father to distrust the Establishment, he can't even bring himself to share what little he knows about Angelina's life with the cops. However, McNulty is ultimately pushed into the middle of this tangled case by Janet Carter, the dead woman's elder sister, a Massachusetts bank employee who insists on unearthing the full circumstances of her sibling's slaying, even if it means exposing aspects of Angelina's behavior -- her casual participation in cheap porno flicks, her possible role as a blackmailer -- that the usually cynical McNulty would rather not acknowledge.

As the bartender and Janet alternately lock horns and brace suspects, regularly refueling their energies with booze and coke, they discover that nearly every one of the Oscar's habitués might make a credible killer. If they're not Runyonesque crooks, they are known wife beaters or have sexual assaults tucked away in their pasts. Although Lehane tends to tell more than he shows (difficult not to do in a first-person story), he revels in revealing the foibles behind his characters' façades. With the exception of Angelina and Janet's mother, whose disastrous disengagement from reality is rather too thorough to be swallowed whole (she's never forgiven her younger daughter for being molested by a college student when she was 10), this book's players are so real you can almost smell their deodorant. The author devotes equal care to portraying New York City in all of its hopeful, hyped and whoreish glory. He's especially successful at using small incidents and encounters to reflect larger truths. Consider, for instance, McNulty's observations during a walk along Riverside Drive, above the Hudson River: "A half dozen rats lay sunning themselves on the side of the hill. The sight of them scared me. If the city had to have rats, they should at least hide; they shouldn't be brazen, lying in the sun, they should run and hide when people came by. Something was terribly wrong with a place where the rats didn't have to hide. Like the drug dealers and the numbers joints and the illegal after-hours clubs and the crazy people from the SROs, they shouldn't be so readily visible, so out of control. It made me feel like no one was in charge -- that we were all like the animals in the wild with only our wits to rely on." As McNulty chases all over Manhattan, trying to identify the last person who saw Angelina alive, and determine whether that same individual was responsible for the subsequent murder of another Oscar's regular, Lehane gives us a disenchanted, barstool-to-barstool perspective on the Big Apple that isn't usually available without sacrificing 20 years in the life of your liver. Beware the Solitary Drinker is an impressive first taste of Lehane's talents. I, for one, am looking forward to the next round.

Other Voices

Laura Winslow seemed finally to be getting her life together. She was conquering her addiction to Ritalin, had found her ex-husband and had clues as to her grown daughter's whereabouts, and she was in therapy to deal with her paranoia, social phobia and anxiety attacks. However, in David Cole's Scorpion Rain (Avon), Laura's recovery comes to an abrupt end as she begins to receive harassing phone calls and e-mail notes that invade the protective walls she's built around herself in Tucson. Hired by private businesses to track the criminal financial shenanigans of suspects, Laura is a computer hacker who obsessively guards her own privacy and only allows select individuals into her personal realm. One of those trusted few is Meg Arizana, a bipolar woman who runs a safe house for abused women. When Meg asks Laura to accompany her on a mission to escort a witness in a drug cartel case, Laura sets aside her own problems to assist her friend.

Not surprisingly, that mission goes tragically wrong, resulting in violence and Meg's kidnapping. Laura -- who's already haunted by violence from her own past -- is plunged back into her dark world of paranoia and Ritalin addiction. Her life is further disrupted by her harasser, the mysterious Victorio, who begins leaving her clues about the still-unsolved kidnappings of numerous women.

All of this puts Laura in contact with a CNN reporter, Johanna "Jo" Kanakaredes, who claims to have been kidnapped and raped herself. Determined to find and punish her captors, Jo has hired the engaging Kyle Callaghan, whose New Zealand accent and occupation as a kidnap-and-recovery expert inevitably bring to mind comparisons with Russell Crowe's character in the movie Proof of Life. Aging and worried about her waning career, Jo is narcissistic, addicted to drugs and obsessed with finding her kidnappers. In other words, she's even more of a mess than Laura.

Author Cole keeps the reader riveted as Laura struggles to find connections between the ransom-driven kidnappings, Meg's disappearance and her own harassment. The generally very likable Laura must also deal with addiction and other psychological problems, which can at times be painful to observe. Cole does a fine job of portraying the stages of his protagonist's deterioration and her descent into addiction, then contrasts those with her gradual recovery as Laura pulls her life together enough to help rescue her abducted friend. Occasionally, however, this novel's plot appears as disjointed as Laura's personality. Frequent references to events from the hacker's past may confuse people who haven't read the three earlier installments of Cole's series. Having enjoyed the last Laura Winslow mystery, Stalking Moon (2001), which ended with her taking off on an investigation vitally important to her life, I was disappointed to find no references to that investigation until many chapters into Scorpion Rain ... and then the reference was blithe. Further disappointing is that some of the final confrontations here occur offstage and with a villain who appears out of the blue. Bottom line: This isn't the best of David Cole's work. Yet I still look forward to his next Laura Winslow outing, hoping to see some of Laura's demons put to rest and the author return to the original, intriguing storytelling he demonstrated in his previous books.

They call their group "Project Nine." Their goal -- to eliminate everyone on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list -- springs not from a need for justice but simply from a wish to prove they're capable of fulfilling that gruesome objective. When one of their tortured, bloodless victims is found, it begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in Jan Burke's first standalone thriller, Nine (Simon & Schuster).

Experienced L.A. Sheriff's Department detective Alex Brandon, still mourning the death of his partner, is paired with a bristly fellow homicide investigator, Ciara Morton, to look into the murder of a ruthless drug lord, Bernardo Adrianos. A member of the "Most Wanted" rogues' gallery, Adrianos has been found hanging by a climber's repelling rope above a bathtub, the number "9" painted in blood on the bathroom mirror nearby. This murder's methodology reminds Brandon of the work done by a serial killer he pursued more than 10 years ago, a man who was later offed by his own horrifically abused stepson, Kit Logan.

Protected by his wealthy family and pleading his innocence by reason of self-defense, Logan escaped incarceration for the assisted death of his stepfather, and was instead sent to Sedgewick, a private reform school for wealthy boys. He has since created a stable life for himself, and even adopted a runaway girl, intending to give her the childhood of which he was deprived. But Logan's tranquility is shattered when Project Nine targets Gabe Taggert, one of the few friends he acquired at Sedgewick. Gabe also happens to be the brother of Meghan Taggert, a woman Logan has long admired, if only from a distance. Gabe is now fleeing both the police and the vigilante killers, all of whom are willing to use Kit and Meghan as bait to draw out their prey.

As more tortured, bloodless bodies turn up -- each of them numbered in a grim countdown -- Brandon leads the investigation into Project Nine. But his efforts are hampered by public and media approval of these serial killings. With elaborate planning and the backing of unlimited wealth, the vigilantes are doing what the police and FBI cannot: get some of today's worst criminals off the American streets. At the same time, though, they appear to be engineering these homicides carefully, to ensure (by the location of the corpses) that Brandon and his people, not federal investigators, have charge of the case. If that fact isn't enough to unsettle Brandon's mind, he's also having to deal with his only nephew, Chase, whom the cop hasn't seen since his wife married his estranged brother, but who has suddenly decided to run away and join him at his Manhattan Beach home.

Hunters become prey and then hunters again as Project Nine's attention turns to the families of Brandon and Logan, driving both men to delve into those vigilantes' secrets and eventually discover their connection to Sedgewick -- a place that serves as a training ground for the dysfunctional and predatory. Members of Project Nine, we learn, are hobbled by remnants of their wounded childhoods. They were given more wealth than affection growing up, and thus became easy targets for their manipulative leader. Burke does a magnificent job in Nine of portraying credible sociopaths, who are at times sympathetic and vulnerable. By alternating viewpoints between Brandon, Logan and the Project Nine contingent, she shapes characters with pasts that make clear why they became who they are today. Although Nine features some scenes of brutal violence, it also contains welcome moments of humor and amusing episodes built around police cynicism. As the parties involved in this suspenseful drama circle closer and closer to one another, the action heats up to an inevitable showdown. While the final confrontation seems a little contrived and intended to attract Hollywood's attention, it ultimately delivers a satisfying twist. Leaving behind her series characters, Irene Kelly and Frank Harriman, Burke offers up an enjoyable, exciting read that reminds us why she's a critical favorite. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow, Kaneohe, Hawaii

* * *

Let's hope Broadway composer and lyricist Walter Marks has room on his mantle next to his Emmy for a few more awards. His debut thriller, Dangerous Behavior (Carroll & Graf), has all the hallmarks of a winner. It opens with a flashback to the brutal stabbing death of Agnes Rivera, a young mother who was attacked after she wheeled her infant daughter's stroller into the lobby of their building in a Manhattan housing project. Fifteen years later, a man named Daniel Rothberg enters a prison in upstate New York. He's the new prison psychiatrist, and his first assignment is to prepare a report recommending that Victor Janko, the man convicted of Rivera's murder, be denied parole.

Fresh from a stint as a therapist at a prestigious Manhattan psychiatric hospital, Rothberg is shocked to learn that he won't even have to meet the patient to prepare his "expert opinion" for the parole board. The prison hospital has a computer program that assesses risk of recidivism based on age, education and social class. Yet Rothberg insists on actually interviewing Janko.

Once known as the Baby Carriage Killer, Janko is an obsessive-compulsive who has spent his years in high-security lockup refining his talent as a photorealist painter. His work has been featured in a story about prison art in Newsweek. Janko tells Rothberg he has no memory of killing Agnes Rivera, thus planting suspicion that he may well have been wrongfully convicted. Rothberg is under pressure not only from his supervisor, but also from Janko's guard, the prison chaplain and an anonymous caller to recommend against parole. However, his own instincts, plus an encounter with Janko's young girlfriend, Daisy Leszczynski, drive him to investigate the long-ago crime and the possibility that Rivera's ex-boyfriend, who'd threatened her in a local supermarket the day of her murder, might have been the killer, instead.

Dangerous Behavior is charged with tension, as Rothberg takes personal and professional risks to uncover deeply buried truths, some of which are obscured by his own prejudices and his guilt about the death of a woman in his recent past. Marks' writing is not flashy, but he serves up well-rounded and thoroughly believable characters -- including the naïve and increasingly flaky Daisy, Rothberg's sage but burned-out boss, the sadistic prison guard who torments Janko, and the understandably paranoid prisoner himself. As Marks' story unfolds, these characters' layers are peeled back, providing both chills and delights, right through to the final pages.

Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime novelist who's been so acclaimed for his Inspector John Rebus series, set in contemporary Edinburgh, hints in the introduction to Beggars Banquet (Orion UK) that he's a short-story writer at heart. And he goes on to prove it in the 21 tales that make up this sumptuous collection, his second book of short stories after A Good Hanging (1992).

The best of these yarns hook the reader with their very first sentence: "Blame it on patience." "They paid me not to make mistakes." "You know the videos I mean." Lines that, if overheard at a party, would have you edging closer to the speaker to catch what followed. Seven of the entries in this volume are Inspector Rebus tales. They range from the bitter "Trip Trap" to the wry "In the Frame," in which a long-divorced, middle-aged civil servant comes to the police puzzled because he's getting blackmail letters from someone threatening to reveal "photos you wouldn't want your wife to see." When the blackmailer then sends a photo of complete strangers -- three men on a couch with a tarty-looking woman -- the victim is even more perplexed. But Rebus is delighted, for by pure coincidence, the photo contains evidence he needs to solve an armed-robbery case. These Rebus stories should more than satisfy readers who buy this volume for further insight into the hard-drinking maverick detective. But the balance of Rankin's yarns here shouldn't disappoint anyone, either. He explores protagonists ranging from corrupt cops to guilt-stricken criminals at all levels of Scottish society. The collection falters only once, with "Glimmer," a piece of experimental fiction about a journalist who falls in with the Rolling Stones' entourage in the psychedelic '60s. Despite Rankin's descriptive powers, this is ground long pounded flat by dozens of rock music critics. The fawning journalist is a bore, and the story, which winds up at Altamont, is thin and predictable. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson, a January contributing editor

* * *

Whit Mosely, the laid-back ne'er-do-well whose father found him a job as a Texas justice of the peace, has surprised everyone by actually taking his position seriously. He lives in Port Leo, on Texas' stormy Gulf Coast, and one of his responsibilities is to arrive at crime scenes and determine when someone has actually died. His very informal manner (he tends to wear cut-offs and Hawaiian shirts under his robes) and lack of expertise can irritate the police. But Whit is slowly finding his way, actually using some of his intelligence, which he hasn't had much call to do in the past.

Black Jack Point (Onyx) finds Lucy Gilbert, owner of a psychic hotline and Whit's girlfriend, reporting the sudden disappearance of both her uncle, Patch Gilbert, and his significant other. When police investigate, they find Gilbert's buried body as well as some older bones and the alleged remains of a treasure chest. As her uncle's sole beneficiary, Lucy quickly becomes the cops' principal suspect.

Meanwhile, police detective Claudia Salazar heads out for the day on a boat with her former and possibly future beau, Ben Vaughn, only to have their craft hijacked by three men -- one of them terrifying and violent. The three are looking for Ben's brother, Stoney, a supposed investment counselor whose conniving in a scheme that involves Texas history, jewels and riches secreted on the Gulf Coast by French pirate Jean Lafitte leads to a great deal of death and destruction. This is not your typical story of "thieves falling out," but when greed overcomes the good sense of Stoney's co-conspirators, it affects too many innocent people who get in the way of their desires and delusions.

After writing a four-book series around Lone Star State librarian Jordy Poteet, one of this genre's most intelligent protagonists, author Abbott has found in Whit Mosley another small-town hero who uses his wit and understanding of people to get out of jams. The kidnapping of Salazar and Vaughn made me cringe, as I have difficulty reading stories of victimization; but as in the previous Mosley novel, A Kiss Gone Bad (2001), Abbott shows here an excellent sense of timing. He does not dwell on ugly too long, but switches scenes well and keeps the action moving. He has also done the historical homework necessary to make this new book's Lafitte connection credible and engaging. After reading A Kiss Gone Bad, I was hoping to see Whit toughened up some, and he is in Black Jack Point. What's more, Abbott delivers a fine final twist -- something that might have come too late, or been less believably executed by a less-talented author. But in Abbott's hands, it works well. I still miss Jordy, but this Mosely guy? He's really growing on me. -- Reviewed by Andi Shechter, Seattle, Washington

You, too, can have your say in "Other Voices." To submit mini-reviews of recent releases (preferably no more than 400 words apiece), click here. Reviews may be edited for length, clarity and grammar.

In the News

Martin Cruz Smith, author of the terrific new World War II thriller December 6 (reviewed in the October "Rap Sheet") tells The New York Times that it required "a combination of ignorance and arrogance" for him to write a novel about simpering geishas and a latter-day samurai without descending into clichés. Read more (free registration required).

Tony Hillerman fans take note: The video version of Skinwalkers is set to debut as part of PBS-TV's Mystery! series on Sunday, November 24. "The first American Mystery! in the show's 22-year history," according to publicity materials, it stars Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) and Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves) as Native American detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. Robert Redford is the executive producer. A related PBS Web site is supposed to be fully functioning by Monday, November 11. Read more.

In a too-short but still interesting interview available at the Publishers Weekly Web site, Linda Barnes talks about The Big Dig, her latest novel featuring Boston private eye Carlotta Carlyle. The topics include: how she went about researching this new book, Carlotta's evolution as a character, the role of racial tensions in Barnes' series, and her hatred of randomness in life. Read more.

Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist Laurie R. King, Michael Connelly talks about his recent move from L.A. to Florida, the personal inspiration for his latest novel, Chasing the Dime, and the importance of connecting crime fiction with real life. "The best crime novels reflect what is happening in our society," Connelly says. "So nothing should be off limits." Read more.

Just in case this month doesn't bring you enough hype about James Bond, who's portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in the new film Die Another Day, let me direct your attention to Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang!, touted as the "premier James Bond Website." There you'll find news items and features directly related to the movie, as well as stories about the re-release of Ian Fleming's 007 novels and the proliferation of Bond spoofs. To be shaken and stirred, read more.

Esquire piles on with The James Bond Trivia Quiz. Out of 10 questions, we're told, Brosnan could answer nine. Showoff. Read more.

Scott Turow, author of the new Reversible Errors, tells Book magazine that his story's inspiration came from two years spent as a member of Illinois Governor George Ryan's commission to explore the ramifications of the death penalty. Read more.

Cuban crime novelist José Latour, author of Outcast and Havana Best Friends (newly released in Britain), talks with Shots magazine about the dysfunctional relationships at the heart of his fiction, what he says are "quite serious" drug problems in the land of Fidel Castro, the difficulties of writing in English, and his reputation as "the King of Cuban Noir." Read more.

As Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving Day later this month, what better way for them to get in the mood than to read some Thanksgiving-related mysteries? features a list of 15 books that aren't themselves turkeys. Read more., meanwhile, offers a list of seven Thanksgiving titles, with useful plot descriptions. Read more.

ON NEWSSTANDS ONLY: September's Mystery Scene, the first edition of that magazine to be produced under its new owner, Kate Stine (who was for many years editor of The Armchair Detective), is fat with tributes to its outgoing editor, author Ed Gorman. But it also features a trio of essays about New York City, penned by S.J. Rozan, Maan Meyers (aka Martin and Annette Meyers) and Charles Mathes; a feature about the state of the modern romantic suspenser, written by Dean James; and a fine article by Jeffrey Marks about novelist Jacques Futrelle, the creator of "Thinking Machine" detective S.F.X. Van Dusen, who went down with the Titanic in 1912 (only to become the protagonist in Max Allan Collins' delightful The Titanic Murders).

Last Rewards

Watch the Daggers fly! Britain's Crime Writers Association (CWA) has recently presented three of its annual Dagger Awards -- for Best First Novel, Best Debut and Best Historical Novel -- and winners of the Daggers for Fiction, Non-Fiction and Short Story will be announced in London on November 7.

The Debut Dagger, sponsored by the publisher Orion, is given to an unpublished author on the strength of a 3,000-word opening section of a crime novel and a 500-word synopsis. This year's winner is Ilona Van Mil, a teacher of law at the University of Essex, whose winning entry, Sugarmilk Falls, is set in Quebec, Canada. Judges also gave an honorable mention to Los Angeles resident Carol Baier for her entry, Heaven's Door.

The John Creasey Memorial Dagger for the best crime novel by a first-time author, sponsored by Chivers Press, was awarded to Glasgow-based author Louise Welsh for her novel, The Cutting Room (Canongate) Also commended in this category was The 25th Hour, by David Benioff (Hodder and Stoughton).

Finally, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel went to Sarah Waters, author of Fingersmith (Virago). On the short list as well were: The Jupiter Myth, by Lindsey Davis (Century); The Pale Companion, by Philip Gooden (Constable); Dead Man Riding, by Gillian Linscott (Virago); The Athenian Murders, by Jose Carlos Somoza (Abacus); and The Desperate Remedy, by Martin Stephen (Little Brown)

Nominees for the CWA Macallan Daggers for Fiction, Non-Fiction and Short Story are as follows:

Gold Dagger for Fiction:

Scaredy Cat, by Mark Billingham (Little Brown); Jolie Blon's Bounce, by James Lee Burke (Orion); City of Bones, by Michael Connelly (Orion); The Final Country, by James Crumley (HarperCollins); The Athenian Murders, by Jose Carlos Samoza (Abacus); and Acid Row, by Minette Walters (Macmillan)

The Macallan Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction:

Anthony Blunt, His Lives, by Miranda Carter (Macmillan); Town Without Pity, by Don Hale, with Marika Huns and Hamish McGregor (Century); and Dead Man's Wages, by Lillian Pizzichini (Picador)

The Macallan Short Story Dagger:

"Marbles," by Marion Arnott (from Crimewave 6, TTA Press); "The Plater," by Ann Cleeves (from Murder Squad, edited by Martin Edwards; Flambard Press); "A Kick in the Lunchbucket," by Sean Doolittle (from Crimewave 5, TTA Press); and "Martha Grace," by Stella Duffy (from Tart Noir, edited by Stella Duffy and Lauren Henderson; Pan Macmillan)

For more information about the CWA Daggers, go to the Crime Writers' Association Web site.


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


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