Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute
IN THIS ISSUE: The season's most-wanted reads • New novels by Sara Paretsky, Stephen Hunter, David Corbett and Peter Temple • Readers rate a wealth of works from Karin Slaughter, Corson Hirschfield, Margaret Coel, Dean Koontz, Tess Gerritsen, Terry Devane and many others • S.J. Rozan joins the standalone crowd; Crime Factory does Sherlock Holmes proud; Julian Rathbone works to leave his readers wowed, and other news from the world of mystery • Plus: the winners of Australia's 2003 Ned Kelly Awards
Pierce's Picks for September/October
Bangers (Dafina Books), by Gary Phillips. An elite team of L.A. cops known as TRASH, led by Detective Sergeant Rafael "Saint" Santian, tries to keep the peace in crime-plagued Venice Heights. But that's not so easy when one of the city's biggest gangs starts to make moves in the area, and when an assistant district attorney decides to make trouble for Saint and his men. Power plays and corruption give this novel its excitement, but Phillips (the creator of private eye Ivan Monk) also presents strong, complex characters on both sides of the law.
Burning Garbo (Simon & Schuster), by Robert Eversz. Ex-convict and tabloid photographer Nina Zero (making her third appearance, after Killing Paparazzi, reviewed in "Rap Sheet" #10) spends the morning of her 30th birthday stalking reclusive movie star Angela Doubleday, only to be caught in a brushfire at the actress' estate and wind up as a prime suspect in her murder. When the cynical Nina -- with some help from a toothless Rottweiler named "Baby" -- goes after the real killers, she becomes their target, as well.
Chasing a Blond Moon (Lyons Press), by Joseph Heywood. Michigan Conservation Officer Grady Service, introduced in 2001's Ice Hunter ("RS" #9), is spreading himself thinly these days, trying to cover tasks that were done by others before the latest round of state budget cuts. But a little overwork won't stop Grady from chasing poachers who've been killing black bears for their gall bladders -- organs that are in demand on the Asian traditional-medicines market.
Dead Heat (Orion UK), by Caroline Carver. After surviving a plane crash in the steamy northern reaches of Queensland, Australia, Georgia Parish is left to wonder who would have sabotaged the flight, and why. Could the target have been one of the two other strange passengers? Or maybe the guy who failed to show up for takeoff? Georgia could not have been the one intended to die, right? As she digs for the truth, though, Georgia is certainly putting herself in danger. And not just from crocodiles ... Dead Heat is Carver's evocative and violent follow-up to Blood Junction (2001).
Empire State (Orion UK), by Henry Porter. The author of A Spy's Life (one of January's favorite books of 2001) returns to the realm of international espionage in this second adventure for British former spy Robert Harland. Acting on behalf of the United Nations and MI6, he must find a link between what seem to be disparate events: the assassination of a U.S. national security chief; the slaying of a Pakistani airport employee and his family; a New York City osteopath's receipt of two postcards showing the Empire State Building; and the murder of migrant workers in Macedonia. Porter shows the frightening extremes to which agencies such as the CIA will go in the post-9/11 environment to hunt down terrorists.
Gatekeeper (Mysterious Press), by Archer Mayor. The "war on drugs" comes to Vermont -- big time -- when Joe Gunther's Bureau of Investigation is assigned to curb the flow of heroin into the Green Mountain State. It's a seemingly unwinnable struggle, made all the harder by pressures from politicians, and will push Gunther's team to take chances they probably shouldn't ... and investigate people they likely wouldn't under other circumstances. This is the 15th installment of Mayor's popular series.
Last Car to Elysian Fields (Simon & Schuster), by James Lee Burke. Small-town Louisiana police officer Dave Robicheaux (last seen in Jolie Blon's Bounce, one of January's favorite books of 2002) returns to his former New Orleans stomping grounds to help an old friend, Father Jimmie Dolan, who's been the target of a recent beating. It seems like a straightforward case -- until Robicheaux's private eye colleague lands in jail, Dave is warned anonymously to stay out of the Crescent City, and a fatal drunk-driving accident back in New Iberia is linked, through an influential local resident, to the five-decades-old disappearance of a renowned blues singer. Complicating all of this further is a remorseless hit man who's been sent to finish the job on Father Dolan.
The Last Red Death (Hodder & Stoughton UK), by Paul Johnston. Inspired by the slayings of two businessmen in Athens, Greece -- and suggestions that these deeds were carried out by Iraklis, a group of "terrorist lunatics" who haven't been heard from in a decade -- American Grace Helmer seeks the P.I. services of Alex Mavros. Her father was murdered by Iraklis years ago, and she's hoping now to catch the person or persons responsible. However, as Mavros gets closer to his quarry, he attracts the attention of an even more malevolent contingent of conspirators. This is the second of Johnston's Mavros novels, following A Deeper Shade of Blue ("RS" 10/02).
The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (Random House), by Ted Riccardi. Filling that gap in the Holmes canon between the Great Detective's "death" at Reichenbach Falls and his resurrection in "The Adventure of the Empty House," Riccardi presents nine short tales set all over Asia. Holmes variously takes up cases involving a tsarist agent, an art thief and the notorious Giant Rat of Sumatra. A smartly rendered confection for Holmes enthusiasts.
Pompeii (Hutchinson UK), by Robert Harris. The British author of Fatherland and Archangel takes a step back -- way back -- with this novel of intrigue set in the Roman Empire. Marius Attilius Primus, the engineer responsible for maintaining the vital Aqueduct Augusta, is concerned when his predecessor vanishes. But his worries only become greater after trouble strikes the Augusta's primary distribution line.
The Price of Murder (Putnam), by Bruce Alexander. Blind magistrate Sir John Fielding and his considerably more energetic young apprentice, Jeremy Proctor, delve into Georgian England's child-slavery trade after the body of a 7-year-old girl is plucked from the Thames River. A subplot, having to do with the disappearance of a childhood friend of Jeremy's near-fiancée, is based on a real-life unsolved mystery.
Quarry's Greatest Hits (Five Star), by Max Allan Collins. Introduced in The Broker (1976; reprinted in 1985 as Quarry), Collins' single-named Vietnam veteran-turned-hit man went on to appear in four more novels and several short stories. Those stories are collected here, along with Quarry's final novel-length adventure, Primary Target (originally published in 1987). Readers most familiar with Collins' Nate Heller books will find in this collection a different, darker side of the novelist.
The Return of the Dancing Master (The Harvill Press UK), by Henning Mankell. Departing from his acclaimed Kurt Wallander series (The Fifth Woman, etc.), Mankell introduces Stefan Lindman, a Swedish police officer who's been forced into an extended medical leave by tongue cancer. After the shooting death of one of his retired colleagues, a tango enthusiast named Herbert Molin, Lindman -- needing a distraction from his own woes -- investigates, only to link this killing with neo-Nazi activity worldwide.
The Rottweiler (Hutchinson UK), by Ruth Rendell. London becomes the dark harbor for an apparently motiveless serial strangler in this novel about crime and its affects on a community of curiously flawed individuals. The identity of the "Rottweiler" -- so nicknamed because of a deceptive bite mark left on the first victim's throat -- is less a mystery than whether police can run the killer to ground, and why a piece of jewelry is taken from each corpse.
Silver Lies (Poisoned Pen Press), by Ann Parker. Leadville, Colorado, could be a violent place back in 1879, when local silver mining was in operation. So the demise of precious-metals assayer "Honest" Joe Rose doesn't strike most residents as especially odd. However, saloon owner Inez Stannert can't help wondering why the happily married decedent had in his pocket an admission token to a Denver brothel. Asked by Rose's widow to help her settle the assayer's affairs, Stannert discovers phony greenbacks and a blackmail scheme that might have contributed to Rose's death -- if he wasn't killed for more personal reasons.
Stone Cold (Putnam), by Robert B. Parker. Having already checked in this year with his man Spenser (Back Story, "RS" 4/03), Parker turns his attention to Paradise, Massachusetts, police chief Jesse Stone. His fourth outing (after last year's Death in Paradise) has Stone facing political and media pressure as he probes a series of murders. But his attention is divided between the job, the bottle and his ex-wife, Jennifer. And the longer it takes him to catch the thrill killers, the more Stone retreats into himself.
The Ten Word Game (Allison & Busby), by Jonathan Gash. Roguish antiques dealer Lovejoy (last seen in Every Last Cent, 2001) takes to his heels after pilfering one of his own forgeries from a marquis. But his plans to find peace by fleeing England on board a cruise ship only lead him into the hands of a criminal contingent anxious to exploit Lovejoy's familiarity with pricey art and antiques for their own enrichment.
Tribeca Blues (Putnam), by Jim Fusilli. Still recovering from the loss of his artist wife and their infant son, and not yet able to accept the compassion of his remaining daughter, private eye Terry Orr (Closing Time, A Well-Known Secret) discovers a new clue that may lead him to the lunatic he blames for his family's destruction. Concurrently, he tries to execute the terms of his late friend Leo Mallard's will, putting him in confrontation with Mallard's drunken and perhaps homicidal widow.
We'll Always Have Murder (ibooks), by Bill Crider. Like John Stanley and Kenn Davis' 1979 novel, Bogart '48, which imagined Humphrey Bogart in the role of detective, Crider here partners the tough-guy actor with a Hollywood P.I. named Terry Scott. In their efforts to foil a blackmail scheme against Bogie, this pair visit familiar L.A. locales, face off against gangsters and unearth secrets that may significantly reduce the likelihood of their surviving into ripe old age. Bogart, who once remarked that "I don't care what anybody says about me as long as it isn't true," would probably be entertained by his fictionalized portrayal in this first installment of a potential series.
New and Noteworthy
Never think that professional reviewers, like me, are more immune to disappointment than other readers. Or that we're any less willing to eschew authors whose work has irritated us. Case in point: Four years ago, I received an advance copy of Hard Time, Sara Paretsky's ninth and then latest novel featuring pertinacious Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski. I'd read every previous installment of this series (save for Paretsky's 1995 short-story collection, Windy City Blues), going all the way back to Indemnity Only (1982), so I was looking forward to the new thriller. But while Hard Time started out well enough, with our heroine discovering a body on the road, it ultimately devolved into what struck me as an unbelievable scenario, in which Warshawski spent a month undercover in a tough women's prison to further her investigation. So disappointed was I with Hard Time, that I didn't even bother to review it, and I testily avoided the next book in the series, Total Recall (2001), which I've heard since was a far superior read.
This intricately conceived adventure commences only months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. V.I., still suffering from an "exhaustion of the spirit" brought on by those incessantly televised tragedies, is hired by business exec Darraugh Graham to determine whether there's any truth to the claims by his 91-year-old mother, Geraldine, that someone has broken into her childhood home, a currently vacant suburban Chicago mansion known as Larchmont Hall. It seems that Geraldine, who now lives in a pricey adjacent development, has been spying on the manse though binoculars. "Mother thinks she sees people coming in and out of the place at night," says Darraugh. V.I. suspects this may just be a bid by the wealthy dowager for increased attention, but agrees to stake out the estate -- only to encounter a teenage girl prowling its moonlit grounds. But before Warshawski can question her, the girl takes to her heels, leading the gumshoe on a chase that ends when V.I. stumbles over the corpse of a young black man hidden in an ornamental pond. The dead guy turns out to be Marcus Whitby, a Pulitzer-caliber journalist, while the fugitive lass was Catherine Bayard, granddaughter of Calvin Bayard, an unapologetically liberal book publisher who was hounded by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s, but avoided being "blacklisted," like so many of his authors.
As is common in these books, V.I. receives very little cooperation as she conducts her inquiries, trying to figure out why Whitby was at Larchmont Hall and how he got there (his car is nowhere in the area), what Catherine was doing on the premises (she claims to have been searching for her granddad, who'd supposedly wandered over from his nearby residence), and whether these mysteries can be connected to the recent demise of Olin Taverner, a prominent right-wing attorney and former HUAC counsel who had condemned Calvin Bayard's politics. The detective is scoffed at by cops, dismissed from the case by her original client, accused of harboring an Arab terrorist and assaulted by an intruder in Taverner's home -- after she'd sneaked in there herself to find illuminating or incriminating evidence. Yet Warshawski's doggedness eventually brings results. She learns that Whitby had been doing research for a biography of Kylie Ballantine, an African-American dancer and anthropologist who'd enjoyed Calvin Bayard's backing, until she fell victim to anti-Communist hysteria. This leads V.I. to wonder whether the reporter was killed en route to visit the reclusive publisher, and if so, whether Bayard or his overprotective younger wife, Renee, had a hand in Whitby's murder -- a prospect that our heroine, who as a young law student had admired Bayard "to the point of hero worship," doesn't wish to face.
Blacklist includes so many different characters, that it might have benefited from a "dramatis personae" roster at its front. Most of these figures, though, never amount to much. The exceptions are all women: Geraldine Graham, who proves to be both braver and more passionate than is expected; Renee Bayard, whose competence and determination will threaten the foundations of her family; Catherine Bayard, who is torn between the ideals of her rebellious, archconservative father and her liberal grandparents as she seeks to do the right thing; and, of course, V.I. (Victoria Iphegenia) Warshawski, the erstwhile public defender and specialist in corporate crime, whose intelligence and liberal values are understandably offended by law-enforcement extremes in the post-9/11 era. ("It's the trouble with these times ...," she says, while struggling to protect an Egyptian dishwasher from the FBI and other terrorist hunters. "We don't know who to trust. But an attorney general who thinks that calico cats are a sign of the devil doesn't inspire me with greater confidence than I have in my own judgment.")
Paretsky's latest novel contains a few weaknesses, including some astounding turns of luck (such as the late-chapter discovery of a revealing audiotape left behind in a car's player), its tendency to portray right-wingers as either shrill or manifestly hypocritical (both clichés, if not necessarily inaccurate ones), and its redundant efforts to draw parallels between the "Red-baiting" era of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and the current Bush regime's cynical assault on civil liberties in the name of domestic security. There's also a minor plot thread here about Warshawski's journalist lover, who's under fire in Afghanistan, that is more distracting than substantive. Yet Blacklist's strong women characters, its undertone of honest compassion, its artful entwining of crimes past and present (reminiscent of Ross Macdonald's later works) and its timely political commentary give this novel a substantiality that's missing from so many works in this genre. It seems my fear that Sara Paretsky had lost her touch was, at best, premature.
The year is 1953, and Cuba -- dominated by American business ever since the "splendid little" Spanish-American War of 1898, and now a magnet for U.S. mobsters -- is growing restless. Island residents, weary of corruption and the political upheaval it has caused, and increasingly impatient with dictator and U.S. strongman Fulgencio Batista, are susceptible to the revolutionary ideals of people such as Fidel Castro, the lawyer son of a Spanish immigrant. In an early chapter of Stephen Hunter's new novel, Havana (Simon & Schuster), a director from the CIA's "clandestine side" voices American concerns about Cuba's potential to become a hotspot in the Cold War: "Everybody wants this island to stay just the way it is, now that we've reinstated Batista. We don't want any applecarts upset, and we don't want our Red friends taking any interest in this sort of fellow [Castro]. He's exactly their kind of man; they could play him like a Stradivarius. Too much money has been invested, and too much time has been spent. We can't let this get out of control. If we're not on top of it, it could be on top of us."
Meanwhile, ex-Marine and Arkansas state policeman Earl Swagger -- the straight-shooting hero from Hunter's Hot Springs (2000) and Pale Horse Coming (2001) -- has been coaxed to Havana as a bodyguard for "Boss" Harry Etheridge, an influential Southern congressman who proposes investigating the influence of New York gangsters at the Guantanamo Naval Base, on Cuba's southeast coast. It's hardly Swagger's kind of duty; Boss Harry seems more interested in sampling Havana's bounteous vices than in curtailing their number -- a proclivity that leads at one point to Earl having to yank the concupiscent pol from atop an uncooperative whore. In the aftermath of that dispute, Swagger is tossed into jail ... which is where he first encounters Speshnev, who shows up in the ta-da! nick of time, posing as a vacuum cleaner salesman, to save Hunter's protagonist from evisceration. ("A vacuum salesman with a gun?" inquires Swagger. "It comes in handy," answers Speshnev, coolly.) Had Swagger known the violence he'd face during his stay in Cuba, he probably would've hopped the next plane back to West Arkansas. Instead, he goes on to protect Etheridge's party during a high-caliber confrontation on the road to Guantanamo, foil author Ernest Hemingway's advances toward a "knockout" airline employee in a bar, attract the unwelcome attention of mob boss Meyer Lansky and his latest trigger-happy gunsel, and agree to assassinate Castro before the 26-year-old agitator can work his countrymen into a frenzy that spells trouble for U.S. business interests as well as the casinos, porn-makers and drug dealers who thrive on the American trade. All of this places him in intriguing opposition to Speshnev, who as a fellow professional killer has more in common with Swagger than any of the smug, back-stabbing intelligence types who brought him to this tropical locale.
There are more bullets burned in Havana than in some famous historical battles. In many respects, this is a muscular male fantasy novel about honor and tough justice and essential retribution. Yet Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Washington Post, is too thoughtful a writer to produce mere shoot-'em-up pulps. This novel richly evokes the Cuban capital of half a century ago, a city of pungent coffee stands and sidewalk cigar rollers, of bandit attacks and band leaders hoping to be the next Desi Arnez -- a decadent "Paris of the Caribbean" where one could have anything, for the right price. Into this polychromatic maelstrom he pitches not only Earl Swagger, a man haunted by his past and with "a special gift for mayhem," but also a Cuban military intelligence chief particularly adept at tortures involving the eyes, and a bumbling, self-centered Fidel Castro, who provides much of the humor in these pages. (Don't miss the mid-book scene in which the future presidente is caught in his mistress' bathtub during an assassination attempt, and must flee naked, save for a pair of women's slippers.) While lesser novelists might have mixed a simply entertaining adventure from these ingredients, Hunter crafts a thoroughly engrossing yarn full of politics, sex, treachery and violence that raises uncomfortable doubts about the pre-eminence of fair play in an unfair world. It will be interesting to see how much farther the author can take this prequel series before it collides with his previous line of thrillers, featuring Earl's grown-up son, shootist Bob Lee Swagger (introduced in Point of Impact, 1993).
Right away, we're offered the murder of Raymond "Strong" Carlisle, a choleric black saxophonist who is gunned down at his home in Rio Mirada, an increasingly crime-ridden town outside of San Francisco. Carlisle used to accompanied America's musical greats -- Count Basie, Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland -- but more recently has played only about four gigs a year, "if he's lucky, with a bunch of sorry old men the business forgot long ago." Corbett, the private eye-turned-novelist who won acclaim for last year's The Devil's Redhead ("RS" 10/02), shows a genuine appreciation for music, especially rhythm and blues, and some of his best writing in these pages explores the magic of tuneful accomplishment. Consider, for instance, how he defines Carlisle's views on the elusive nature of music's soul: "Like other players he knew, he'd gone so far as to give it a name: The Deep Sweet. And he learned then what a curse it is, to name a thing. For at one and the same time, as it finally feels solid, it somehow also slips away. And so a new word is needed, then another -- till one day you're chasing it down those nameless streets like a madman jabbering after his own delusions." Regrettably, Strong Carlisle -- though he does make a few flashback appearances -- soon vanishes from this yarn.
Attention shifts to white detectives Dennis Murchison and his racist partner, Jerry Stluka, neither of whom likes playing by the regulations that restrict modern cops from intimidation and other traditional manipulative measures. Connecting Carlisle's slaying to a nightclub fight he had provoked the night before brings forward two prime suspects: Arlie Thigpen, a black gang tough with a bad eye, who's employed by a local drug dealer; and Toby Marchand, Carlisle's 22-year-old musician son (or is he?), who'd rankled at his parent's incessant taunts. Neither of these young men will confess, though, and Murchison hasn't enough hard evidence to prove their guilt. The sole witness to the Carlisle killing was Toby's 19-year-old white lover, Nadya Lazarenko -- but she's too traumatized to remember anything about it. As Murchison and Stluka drill their suspects and others for useful information, greater trouble is brewing across town, where a young arsonist and his mysterious, ex-cop handler are doing the dirty work for an avaricious, politically well-connected real-estate developer who covets the land beneath a predominately African-American neighborhood. The ensuing made-for-Hollywood conflagration diverts attention from Corbett's previously character-driven tale, but it does lead to the linking of these two crimes and the solution to Carlisle's death.
On top of his lyrical observations about music, and his insider's perspective on cop shop dynamics, Corbett pops out a trove of lines that would be good enough to steal, if no one was watching. (My favorite is Strong Carlisle's remark about Nadya's minimalist club-going attire: "I mean, girl, you gotta admit, that skirt you're in -- barely covers your home life. Any shorter, it'd be a hat.") And though there are almost too many players here to keep straight, several of them demonstrate conscientious design, including a smart woman lawyer who confuses Murchison's heart, an assassin who's not above helping the law in order to achieve a sense of justice in the world, and lovers Nadya and Toby, whose hesitant but hopeful relationship inhabits the periphery of this story -- a welcome counterpoint to violence -- without ever being adequately exploited. More attention is lavished on Murchison, a man who can't seem to please his wife, his parents or even himself. ("There is a sadness about you, Detective ....," says the stand-up mother of a prospective informant. "A sadness -- in your eyes, in your voice -- a weariness that seems almost a kind of, if you'll forgive me, a kind of desperation.") But this character development doesn't lead to any surprises, as Murchison follows the obvious vigilante road, becoming a useful pawn in Done for a Dime's endgame.
Readers who aren't familiar with Irish's earlier escapades will nonetheless recognize his type. He's a gambler (the ponies, mostly), a cabinet-maker, a cook (shades of Spenser) and a loner -- single, he explains in White Dog, ever since his wife "was murdered by a client of mine and I developed a powerful urge to destroy myself." He has a clever, captivating girlfriend, Melbourne radio star Linda Hillier, but as this book begins, she's off to London -- and he's not immune to other supple temptations. Irish's latest case is likely to offer those. His former partner in law, Andrew Greer, has him looking into the slaying of property developer Mickey Franklin, who was shot five times while taking a shower, supposedly by his shapely ex-girlfriend, sculptor Sarah Longmore. The circumstantial evidence doesn't favor the accused: her gun was used in the crime, she was allegedly spotted near Franklin's place on the night of his demise, no witnesses can confirm Sarah's alibi that she was home watching television at the time ... and there are hints of revenge as a motive, based on Franklin's having taken up with Sarah's younger sister, Sophie, after their breakup. But loose ends abound here, too, any of which might help to unravel the prosecution's case. Who, for example, is the mystery woman who's been shadowing Sarah? Had there been a falling-out between Franklin and the powerful Corsican-controlled construction company that was his longtime backer? And what does any of this have to do with a missing fashion model, a dead pimp, a drug-money laundering scheme and a millionaire land dealer too fond of Napoleon memorabilia?
Temple's tales are gracefully choreographed, each turn of plot and leap of character establishment a deceptively simple exertion fraught with precise intent. While there are episodes here of gripping drama (a workplace explosion, an assault on Irish by that eponymous white dog), the author also takes time to cast a sharp and sometimes skeptical eye over Melbourne, both past and present. Early in this book, Irish presents a typical streetscape: "I got out and crossed the street, made my way in the late-morning throng, young and youngish people mostly, modish, long-haired, hairless, the odd balding man with a small tuft sticking out of the back of his head like a vestige of tail, people in Melbourne black, people in Gold Coast white, people in saris, sarongs, the odd suit, the odd secondhand pink tracksuit, many naked midriffs, some not much wider than a greyhound's, some not much narrower than a 44-gallon drum but the colour of lard." It's hard to beat a crime novel packed with wit, savory prose, gripping action and a protagonist whose weaknesses enhance his strengths. No wonder the Kelly Awards committee sat up and took notice of White Dog.
Pathology is the medical science devoted to the causes and effects of human disease. For the most part, it's a discipline of little details, as doctors spend the bulk of their day poring over the microscope, looking at body tissues magnified many times in order to discover what makes them abnormal, and what clues they hold for why people are stricken with certain conditions. Forensic pathology, on the other hand, is concerned with discovering the cause and manner of death of an individual. Though the details are obviously important, what is crucial is the greater whole, using every skill possible to investigate why someone perished. In other words, the skills that make a good pathologist can often be the undoing of a medical examiner.
No wonder conventional and forensic pathology are uneasy bedfellows and try their best to steer clear of one another. St. Benjamin's Museum of Pathology, the setting for Keith McCarthy's lively and shrewd debut novel, A Feast of Carrion (Carroll & Graf), has been a venerated English institution, training would-be pathologists in their pursuit of further understanding. Until now, that's all they had been known for.
John Eisenmenger is in a unique position throughout this story. Once a respected forensic pathologist, the ghosts of his last case have haunted him throughout his current position at St. Benjamin's. Unfortunately for him, the student's brutal murder brings Eisenmenger's professional and personal history back to the forefront. Although the slaying is conveniently resolved as the handiwork of the museum's assistant curator -- a drug dealer and former rapist who quickly kills himself in jail -- solicitor Helena Flemming has other ideas. Acting on behalf of the dead suspect's family, she first enlists Eisenmenger to take a look at the victim's autopsy report, then pleads with him to render a second opinion -- after he's performed an additional autopsy. As it happens, the doctor's findings are completely at odds with the original report, and a can of worms that had been thought closed for good springs open with a vengeance. It seems the young woman student's murderer is still out there, waiting to be found.
A Feast of Carrion is a promising read, yet perplexing. Eisenmenger is presented as the main protagonist, and the reader gains enough insight into why he left the field he loved and is privy to the complications of his personal life. Yet he comes off as a supporting player in his own show. Author McCarthy shifts between a variety of viewpoints, including those of Ms. Flemming, the dean and several professors of the pathology museum, a burnt-out policeman on the edge of retirement, and the most unscrupulous female detective inspector to grace the pages of a crime novel in quite some time. Yes, this technique develops the main players fully; but the narrative ends up seeming rather fragmented. A second problem is McCarthy's writing voice: he recounts this tale of gruesome homicide and lasciviousness in a rather dry, almost courtly tone. Although he likely does this deliberately, hoping to make his story seem less lurid, it leaves the occurrence of cuss words and more contemporary slang seeming somewhat jarring.
Flaws aside, A Feast of Carrion, billed as the first installment of a series, is smartly written, well-paced and only occasionally becomes mired in technical jargon. Gloucestershire-based McCarthy has been a pathologist for nearly 20 years, and his knowledge of the field and of forensic medicine rings very true. He also conveys how inured doctors often become to violent death and the autopsy procedure, even as those observing their techniques are at risk of losing their lunch. If the author can refine his voice and adopt a less fragmented narrative style, this series has the potential to attract a fan base increasingly interested in the world of forensic pathology. -- Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
Among modern crime writers, the devoutly tough-minded tend to follow what might be called the Brutalist school of thought. Chief among the tenets of this school are a predilection for gore and a belief that protagonists should suffer as much, if not more than, criminals and their victims. In the novels of the aptly named Karin Slaughter, a trio of well-meaning detectives stumble across not just clues but vicious personal attacks, including kidnappings, rape and murder. Stunned and scarred, they manage to claw their way to the end of each novel, only to discover that yet another book of trials awaits them.
A Faint Cold Fear (Morrow) is the third in Slaughter's series about Sara Linton, Jeffrey Tolliver and Lena Adams, three denizens of Heartsdale, a small town rapidly turning into an Atlanta suburb. All are loyal to their hometown. And all are worldly, but worried about the big-city currents running through their little village -- as well they should be, for Heartsdale is certainly plagued with murderers, abusers and violence on a scale far out of proportion to its modest population.
In previous novels (including last year's Kisscut, "RS" 12/02), Linton and Tolliver -- the county coroner and the police chief, respectively -- watched their marriage unravel as a result of stress and adultery. But it's Adams, a struggling alcoholic and talented but undisciplined cop, who's come in for the most battering. Her sister was murdered and she herself was kidnapped and raped. Now, in A Faint Cold Fear, Adams has lost her job and is scraping by as a security guard on a college campus, at the same time as she falls for a charming but physically violent student. However, the major blunt trauma this time around is dealt to Linton: In the opening scenes of this story, her pregnant sister, Tessa, is stabbed nearly to death.
In the meantime, poor Adams fumbles around, uncovering clues that she can't share with Tolliver because she's too proud to talk to her former boss and too obstinate to help herself. It's obvious that Slaughter's heart lies with the sympathetic Adams, which makes it all the more painful to watch this favored character continually undergo self-inflicted damage.
Two more books are in the works for the Heartsdale series; the next, Indelible, is actually a flashback tale set before the beginning of the series, while the fifth installment, Faithless, is due to pick up where A Faint Cold Fear leaves off. So it'll be at least a couple of years before Karin Slaughter has the chance to finally reward her wayward protagonists with some well-earned peace and happiness. If they're lucky, that is. -- Reviewed by Caroline Cummins
Unfortunately, Marks, the author of Who Was that Lady?, a highly acclaimed biography of mystery novelist Craig Rice, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew with his latest non-fiction work. Perhaps seven women were too many -- indeed, it could be argued that several of them deserve full-length biographies of their own. But it's his attempt to group these often very different writers all together under the rather dubious title of "Atomic Renaissance" that's the real problem. Marks' thesis, that with the dawn of the post-World War II nuclear age these women "took the crime novel in new and innovative directions ... since the prevailing forms had so little use for them," gives his subjects both far too much credit and not enough, with the end result that in some cases their very real accomplishments are cheapened.
His claim that "the sub-genres we know as regionals, gay and lesbian, strong women detectives, psychological suspenses, soft-boiled suspense novels and historical novels had their beginnings with these women" is at best arguable. But Marks never even tries that hard to make this argument. Instead, he comes off as an overaggressive cheerleader, whose vigorous pom-pom shaking obscures his vision of the game. He tosses out highly contestable ideas without any supporting arguments, and overlooks (or often, just seems unaware of) any evidence that doesn't fit his theories. For example, at one point he credits these writers with "paving the way" for the later appearances of "strong women detectives" such as Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski, and yet even a cursory bit of research reveals that these characters' creators -- Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, respectively -- have all traced their influences and inspirations to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and other male writers. Not only that, but Marks conveniently ignores both the women (Leigh Brackett, W. Lee Herrington, Katherine Brocklebank, etc.) who did write for early, mainly male-dominated crime pulps -- trying to forge their own version of hard-boiled fiction -- and the very strong female detectives (Carrie Cashin, Sarah Watson, Mary Carner and the rest) who predated his so-called "atomic" era. In other words, if they don't fit his precious theories, forget about 'em.
As well, Atomic Renaissance suffers from numerous factual errors, and if they're not always earth-shattering (a 1966 film is referred to here as being released in the early 70s, for example), they do add up, suggesting that the editing and fact-checking of this book was, to be charitable, not all it could have been. In a work that celebrates American writers ("English mystery writing," we are solemnly informed in the introduction, "changed little after 1945") the first chapter focuses on Canadian Margaret Millar. And if Millar is automatically considered American because she lived for so long in California, what then to make of Highsmith, who spent the bulk of her writing career in Europe? Worse, Marks has the habit of trivializing the work and contributions of other (usually male) writers, such as when he praises Millar's work for its psychological complexity but glibly dismisses her husband Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels as merely "hard-boiled." He then incorrectly identifies Millar's own series character, Dr. Paul Prye, as a "private investigator" -- a blatant error made all the more annoying when a few pages later he contradicts himself and refers to Prye by his actual occupation: psychiatrist. This book is riddled with similar factual hiccups, as well as peculiar word choices. Leslie Ford is considered "prolific" for writing 40 books in 30 years -- not that astonishing, really, given the brevity of her stories; and Taylor is born "surprisingly" far from the peninsula she would "call home for the rest of her life." Huh? Boston is surprisingly far from Cape Cod? And how can the esteemed biographer of Craig Rice allow ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, even in passing, to be credited with penning The G-String Murders, without at least mentioning that Rice herself is generally acknowledged to be its author?
In place of substantiated critical analysis, we're given a lot of rehashed plot summary and often slapdash biography, and far too much attention is paid to film adaptations and celebrity gossip. In a longer, more comprehensive book, Marilyn Monroe's performance in a film based on Charlotte Armstrong's Mischief -- and its effect on Monroe's career -- might be an interesting digression, but here it seems like mere wheel-spinning. More annoying, though, is that each chapter is followed by a list of "Similar Authors Published Today," a pointless name-dropping exercise that may help to pad out this rather skimpy book, but raises serious questions about Marks' critical skills. I mean, the rambunctiously risqué Janet Evanovich is similar to the genteel Leslie Ford? And how can Dean James (also mentioned in the acknowledgments, and a writer of children's books as well as a rather whimsical series about a gay, pill-popping vampire in England) and Max Allen (sic) Collins, who writes an often dark and hard-boiled historical Chicago private detective series, both be similar to Dorothy B. Hughes? A bit of explanation might have helped here.
In his enthusiasm and his attempts to right what he perceives as the unjustified obscurity of these novelists (who, to tell the truth, really aren't that obscure), Marks comes uncomfortably close at times to revisionist history, so that what should have been a great and even pivotal work is considerably weakened. Still, good intentions count for a lot, and any book that gets the word out about these and other writers from the past -- be they male or female -- is a worthy ambition. Even if only a few readers are inspired by this book to discover and enjoy the work of one of these authors, it will have been a resounding success. -- Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Speaking of atomic women, Ron Miller trots out his version of 1950s femininity with his new character, burlesque bombshell-turned-New York City private eye Velda Bellinghausen. OK, there's something a little disconcerting about the number of retro-pulp detectives out there these days, what with everyone from James Ellroy and Max Allan Collins to Curt Colbert and Stuart M. Kaminsky sending their various dicks, both public and private, down those mean -- and oh, so nostalgic -- streets. Like, today isn't good enough for youse guys? You'd rather hang out in the past? But at least Velda, making her novel-length debut in the eponymously titled Velda (Timberwolf Press), seems to have a little more fun than most.
But nothing in Hawkshaw's Book on Detective Work could have prepared her for this screwy case: Cleo, Velda's upstairs neighbor in the Zenobia Arms, is troubled by visions of the murder she's been charged with committing, and Velda herself is the girl's only alibi.
Make no mistake -- this one's pure cheese, and it meanders a bit at the end. You can also see the solution coming from about page two, but who cares? This ain't Agatha Christie, and let's face it -- nobody ever wanted to see Miss Marple in her knickers, anyway. As it is, Velda, perpetually broke and with her preference for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Thermos-size servings of martinis, is an affable (and yes, sexy) character with just the right blend of working-class toughness and sass, who's not above surprising herself -- or the reader. There's even a back-cover blurb from 1950s pulpmeister Richard Prather, which is just about perfect. Prather's own private eye, Shell Scott, would be a good match for Velda. More, please. -- K.B.S.
The buzz about Buzz Monkey (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler), the first novel by Sam Hill, is all true: Mystery readers who compulsively seek out ever more daring thrills will find their literary soul mate in Top Kiernan, a collector of toy tops and a freelance undercover operative for Shaw's Mercantile, "the world's leading booking agency for mercenaries, bodyguards, and probably worse." Kiernan, who lusts after increasingly dangerous assignments, receives a nasty shock when Soames, the chief of Shaw's, tells him he's finished. "You've crossed the line, Top," explains Soames. "We think you've become an adrenaline addict, that you've started taking risks that you don't need to take." Has Kiernan turned from a "buzz monkey" into a "buzz junkie," to use the lingo of his trade? Or is there some other reason he's become too hot for Soames to handle?
In this swerving narrative of double- and triple-crossing, it's never clear who's setting up whom. Only that someone is out to get Kiernan, and may have already gotten his longtime friend DeWayne "Dee" Lane, an international smuggler who's disappeared along with a suitcase full of cash. Top realizes his life is in danger when the battered black briefcase Soames leaves for him turns out to contain not the severance pay he'd expected, but rather files showing that a Colombian drug dealer believes Dee Lane ripped him off ... and stashed the stolen dough with Kiernan.
Polymath operates out of a decommissioned elementary school on the outskirts of Athens, Georgia. Kiernan's bedroom is the school basketball court (he moves the bed when he wants a half-court game with his buddies), and he starts each workday conferring with staff in the boys' bathroom while he washes up. Polymath employs a few dozen academics and researchers from the nearby university. The only two people there who know about Kiernan's real job as an operative are Gillie, his Rubensesque office manager, and Benny, the facilities manager. When she's not handling research requests or fussing over her devoted but clueless husband, George, Gillie likes to hop in bed with her dashing boss. Benny, a small, wiry black man, moonlights as Kiernan's undercover henchman, exhibiting terrifying skill with a straight razor.
Rounding out the cast of Buzz Monkey are a fugitive IRA assassin, an unhinged record store manager, Dee Lane's unfaithful ex-girlfriend, and another of Kiernan's boyhood friends, Bob John Wynn. Wynn plays on the other team, being a DEA agent. When he and other feds turn up looking for the missing Lane, Kiernan knows his own investigation will have to be damn good, both to find his legendarily elusive friend and to avoid leading Wynn straight to him. Intellectuals, rednecks and international outlaws in the Georgia woods -- all with a thirst for money and no aversion to violence -- contribute to this ironic thriller, with its highly ironic ending. -- Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Protagonist Annie Szabo is a freelance writer who works for "every publication from The National Eye to Playboy." She is also the single mother of three full-grown daughters and she's grown comfortable with her life. Years ago, Annie had married into the Szabo family -- a clan of Gypsies who love and hate fiercely. After her husband, Stevan, died in a motorcycle accident, she disassociated herself from his quirky relatives and attempted to live a quiet life in the redwoods country north of San Francisco. But a frantic phone message from her former sister-in-law, Capri, has the Szabo clan hurtling back into Annie's life full-throttle. It seems that Jerry Baumann -- corporate lawyer, Capri's ex-husband and Annie's old friend (and sometimes-lover) -- is in trouble. In the middle of a six-year bender, Capri doesn't know how to help him. "I don't want trouble, just for Jerry to be okay," she tells Annie. "This means I didn't tell my mother I called you."
Mother, it turns out, is Madame Mina, the sun around whom the entire Szabo clan orbits. She's a powerful, intractable woman who roundly blames Annie for Stevan's death. She takes a dim view of Gypsies getting mixed up with outsiders, or gaje. Her basic philosophy of life: "You want to give God a good laugh? Tell Him you got plans."
Hoping to help Jerry, Annie travels to California's Bay Area -- only to discover that he's been killed. Likely murdered. In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, Madame Mina and Capri re-enter Annie's life, bringing with them a mysterious Romany man called the Hummingbird Wizard, whose presence shocks Annie out of her erotic coma and opens her eyes to the lives around her. In order to find Jerry's slayer amid a plethora of suspects, Annie and her former mother-in-law must put aside their many differences. As these two distinctive women begin to learn about each other -- and also try to stay safe from Jerry's killer -- Annie uncovers long-held secrets as well as new and daunting questions: What is Jerry's law partner up to? Is the luscious Capri ever sober? Are 10 two-gallon cans of Spaghetti-O's and five cases of Hostess Ding-Dongs enough to feed an orchard full of Gypsies after a pomana? And is the Hummingbird Wizard the best or the worst thing that has ever happened to her?
In The Hummingbird Wizard, Blevins has written a wonderful and atypical debut mystery. Its pace is fast, its characters vivid and richly drawn, and Annie Szabo is a reluctant heroine whom even the most jaded reviewer can love. With its heady combination of Gypsy lore, slimy lawyers, amorous dreams and hilarious repartee, The Hummingbird Wizard displays a wit and polished prose style that suggest the experience of a much longer novel-writing career. This jaded reviewer is already looking forward to Blevins' sequel, The Vanished Priestess. Write faster, Meredith! -- Reviewed by Jennifer Jordan
Shickie Doone has conned himself into believing that he's one of the best con men on the planet. Yet he's achieved only moderate success with his latest scam -- acting as spiritual leader to a Tennessee religious cult called the Brothers of Light -- in Corson Hirschfield's offbeat new novel, Freeze Dry (Forge). Despite the money poured into his "church" coffers by eager zealots, Doone has a pile of unpayable bills, plus angry creditors and an even angrier wife, Rita Rae Deaver, on his back. So what does this bright bulb do? He replaces Rita's platinum-and-diamond wedding ring with a fake, takes out a loan from local mobster Thadeus Trout and heads west to Las Vegas, hoping to recoup his losses -- and then some. But if Shickie was really as good as he thought, he wouldn't have (a) needed more cash than his followers could provide, (b) borrowed from somebody as dangerous as Trout and (c) literally lost his shirt after his last poker hand. Oh, what a dumb-dumb, Shickie Doone!
At least Shickie's return home to Gatlinburg suggests better times ahead. In the midst of sneaking into his own house, wary of Rita's retribution, the con man is waylaid by a buxom member of his congregation. An encounter of the distinctly non-spiritual persuasion seems inevitable. However, as he follows this woman upstairs to his bedroom, shedding clothes along the way, Shickie is suddenly snatched up by Trout's goons and taken to see the mobster.
But even as a human popsicle, Shickie has no luck. Within days, his cold body is discovered, and becomes a hot commodity. The Brothers of Light want to reclaim their leader, local Native Americans -- convinced that the mummified Doone is an ancestor -- want his remains for themselves, and a mob clean-up man known as the Hammer needs to get hold of the corpse in order to claim his bounty money and escape Gatlinburg. Even the cheated Rita wants her husband back, if only to provide the proof she needs for a huge life-insurance payoff. It seems Shickie is a better con man dead than alive.
Freeze Dry is right on the verge of being good comedic crime fiction, but it doesn't quite make the cut. While author Hirschfield (also known for Aloha, Mr. Lucky and Too High) tells a solid story here, there's too much book for the premise. What's more, his vast number of characters -- primary, secondary, tertiary and just plain unnecessary -- handicap the novel's pacing, and its myriad shenanigans don't have the smooth punch found in works by Colin Bateman, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. -- J.J.
Publisher UglyTown has chosen neo-noir writer Sean Doolittle's Burn as its first hardcover book. Doolittle, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, is an author worthy of such an evolutionary step. Anyone familiar with his debut novel, Dirt (2001), knows that his prose style is smooth, tight, fast-paced, addictive and discernibly original. He is also one of a growing number of crime writers to feature protagonists who are engagingly fallible, and who live more on the wrong side of right and wrong, with only their sardonic humor to keep them company. Nonetheless, these sometimes-do-rights follow a strict moral code, which helps them appeal to readers.
Opening lines can tell you much about what to expect from a book, and the first sentence of Burn is a classic: "The morgue felt nice." Given that Homicide Detective Adrian Timms must contend with 103.6-degree temperatures in Los Angeles, the coolness among corpses is a relief. He's looking in on the autopsy of celebrity fitness guru Gregor Tavlin, whose remains were found quite by chance in Topanga Canyon.
Detective Timms has received anonymous information that connects Kindler to the Tavlin case, and ends up drawing Kindler into the chaos developing around the Lomax family, proprietors of a chain of health clubs. The late Mr. Tavlin's association with the Lomaxes cost him his life, and now Kindler's days may be numbered, too. As the cast of characters in Burn expands, so does Timms' roster of suspects. Kindler finds that his name has shot to the top of that list, and with the dubious help of a local P.I., he's determined to figure out why ... and what the hell is really going on here. With more, and increasingly violent visitors headed for Kindler's beach house, his life may depend on his answering a few important questions: Why does everyone think he knows about Tavlin's disappearance? Where is the Lomax heir? And who told everybody where he's been living lately? Loyalties of many varieties, on many levels, steer the characters in this novel. All Kindler has to do is separate his supporters from those who'd like to see him out of the way.
Doolittle's extensive experience in concocting short stories has honed his writing skills to a razor sharpness. He cuts through pedantic filler to the pure, strong tale that lies beneath. The title of his second novel portends a subtle theme that plays throughout its pages, adding to an already robust story line. UglyTown has helped re-establish the practice of including pages devoted to lists of characters and events at the front of its books. Those lists in Burn whet readers' appetites for the scorching meal before them. -- J.J.
Best-selling author Margaret Coel moves deftly between work as a historian and as a novelist. Her well-researched 1981 non-fiction book, Chief Left Hand, showed Coel to be sensitive to the plight of modern Native Americans. She has immersed herself in the heritage of the Arapaho Indians and become familiar with their present-day life on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation. Often inspired in her fiction by real events, Coel's novels are insightful. Her main series characters, Jesuit missionary Father John Aloysius O'Malley and Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden, were carefully created to provide perspectives from both a white outsider and a reservation Indian.
Enter Father John. His involvement here begins after the body of a white man is excavated from the site around that truck, but it doesn't end there. He soon takes it upon himself to curb the ripple effect this murder will have on the community served by St. Francis Missionary. O'Malley also joins the search for frightened Lela.
Meanwhile, Vicky and Lakota lawyer Adam Lone Eagle are hired to protect the interests of the Great Plains Casino, the reservation's newest enterprise and the Arapahos' foremost hope for a financially prosperous future. Vicky is confident she can keep tabs on the casino's inner workings and prevent nefarious goings-on. Sure enough, it's soon apparent that something's not right at the casino. A mob of men known as the Rangers are aggravating the establishment's customers and workers, and coming to focus animosity toward Vicky, as well. As she probes further, Vicky grows suspicious of Matt Kingdom, the casino commission chairman, and his links to a number of the Great Plains workers. She's also left with a disturbing possibility: If Kingdom is corrupt, is it inevitable that her friend and coworker, Adam Lone Eagle, must be dirty too? As the number and depravity of crimes in these pages increases, so does the danger to Vicky herself. Father O'Malley is the only person she can really trust. But, since he's already occupied with his own case, will the missionary arrive to late to help her?
The plot of Killing Raven has a formulaic feel that hobbles the potential of Coel's material. However, readers will be swept up quickly in this novel's rapid stride, its back story, and the tensions evident between Holden and O'Malley. -- J.J.
Manuel Ramos is long on street creds. He left his job as a private-practice attorney in order to accept a staff attorney position with Denver, Colorado's legal-aid program. He's now director of advocacy for Colorado Legal Services. Most of Ramos' career as a lawyer has been spent furnishing assistance to the needy. Most of his parallel career as a novelist has been spent writing about that same segment of society. His crime fiction has earned critical and popular recognition. He's received the Colorado Book Award, the Chicano/Latino Literary Award and an Edgar nomination, and he teaches Chicano literature at the Mile-High City's Metropolitan State College.
Móntez has been defending Denver's downtrodden for many years. He began his career with dreams of benefiting his community, but has ended up with mostly deadbeat clients who've left him high and dry when his services are no longer needed. One all-too-frequent client offers to make it up to him by bringing him a new patron. The new case offers money upfront from a cantankerous father and a lascivious "wife." How can Luis turn this opportunity down?
Of course, there's nothing easy about the legal matter in question. Dominic Santos has landed himself in jail for allegedly starting a fire that ended another man's life. Exacerbating these troubles is the fact that the crime occurred on the ranch of a white owner in the San Luis Valley -- an area already split along racial lines by a water-rights conflict. Hackles are up all around as the Anglos who already have water defend themselves against the others, mostly Chicanos, who want a share. The human element in this dispute, and how it affects the accused Santos, spins Móntez around and leaves him wondering which direction to take. No one is absolutely right, no one is completely wrong, and it's probable that no one is telling the whole truth, either. The only person Luis can believe in is himself -- and he doesn't consider himself a reliable source. As this tale matures, Móntez is drawn into a sticky web of lies and manipulation that topple his heroes, threaten his life and leave him thinking he's getting too old for this business.
Luis Móntez's bitterness and exhaustion are palpable in Brown-on-Brown. He has seen too much and stared death in the face a few too many times to retain hope. Yet redemption and sanctuary are offered to him just when his body and soul seem on the brink of burning out completely. This infusion carries both him and the reader though to the end. -- J.J.
Dean Koontz's lengthy 40th novel, The Face (Bantam), introduces us to Ethan Truman, an ex-Los Angeles police detective and current chief of security for "the biggest box-office draw in the world," actor Channing Manheim. This movie star is so good looking that Hollywood has bestowed upon him the nickname "The Face," which had previously been reserved for another famous looker, Greta Garbo. We are told by Truman that Manheim is a likable, if "bland," fellow, but can only take his word for it, since the character himself never appears in these pages. Despite his amiability, though, someone has been mailing a series of ominous objects to Manheim, including a plastic eyeball embedded in an apple and 10 foreskins (ouch!). Truman believes the psychotic stalker is going to these attentions a step further and perhaps try to kill Manheim.
If you can get past Koontz's seemingly endless descriptive passages, mostly about the rainy Southern California weather (Is there an extended metaphor here that I'm missing?), the author delivers a compelling psychological makeup for his fictional stalker, whose identity he reveals to readers early on in this story. Vladimir "Corky" Laputa, we're told, is an English professor and self-proclaimed anarchist. He spreads destruction and chaos wherever he goes, by any means possible. He likes tossing chemical defoliant onto shrubs and flowerbeds, and handing out free packets of Ecstasy to youngsters (hoping to turn them into addicts or, at the least, destroy their developing minds). Of course, Laputa also likes to kill and torture (his mother was one of his victims), and he has a predilection for children, which puts Manheim's lonely 10-year-old son, Aelfric, at risk in the actor's large and mainly empty mansion.
Laputa is not a typical two-dimensional psycho killer -- and that's a relief, given the amount of space devoted to him in this 500-plus-page novel. (His penchant for wearing a bright yellow rain slicker while he perpetrates his crimes is certainly unique.) But even Laputa's attractions can't save the reader from getting bogged down in The Face's central paranormal element -- an aspect that's both intrusive and fantastical. Truman's childhood friend Duncan "Dunny" Whistler dies at one point in this story, and after his body mysteriously disappears from the hospital morgue, Dunny continues to "appear" in the plot. Apparently, while Truman went into law enforcement as an adult, Dunny turned to a life of crime -- and he's now trying, posthumously, to redeem his soul. (Think Touched by an Angel at its cheesiest.) At one point here, as they're closing in on Laputa, Truman and Hazard are actually saved from death by spiritual intervention and a mob of helpful ghosts, which somehow seems like literary cheating. If not for the dead, this case wouldn't be solved -- and that speaks volumes about the inabilities of Truman and Hazard. If I'm going to tackle a book of this length, I'd rather spend it in the company of investigators who can make a difference. -- Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
An author takes a risk when he or she writes a novel related to recent world events. By the time the book is actually published, there's a good chance that the public will have been over-saturated with the topic, or that the story will too easily date itself. However, in his latest legal thriller, A Stain Upon the Robe (Putnam), the pseudonymous Terry Devane manages to get more mileage out of not just one, but three very timely issues: child molestation by Catholic priests; the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy mystery; and the after-effects of the World Trade Center attacks.
While overseeing the case of a priest who's been charged with raping more than 20 boys, the admirable but unlikable Judge Barbara Quincy Pitt goes to the Boston law firm of her ex-lover, Sheldon "Shel" Gold, with a serious problem. It seems that Charles Vareika, the young law clerk with whom she's been having an affair, has disappeared, and Pitt fears an investigation could destroy her reputation, just as Congressman Levy's was decimated. She's hoping Gold can track down Vareika -- and protect her in the process. Much will depend on the talents of Gold's new associate, Mairead O'Clare, and his investigator, Pontifico "The Pope" Murizzi. Not surprisingly, these two discover that Vareika was involved in other questionable sexual activities, behavior that may connect him to the priest on trial (who has himself developed a fixation on Mairead). When Vareika is found dead, Gold and his people have to make the difficult ethical choice to protect their client, while putting their own freedom at risk.
To minimize the likelihood of these story lines becoming outdated, Devane (who's written two previous installments of this series, Uncommon Justice and Juror Number Eleven) concentrates as much on the progression of his characters' lives as he does on the mysteries at hand. His principle players are drawn together by their loneliness and their psychological wounds, and they only slowly reveal themselves to one another. Billie Sunday, the African-American legal secretary, who believes that she truly runs Gold's firm, is widowed and struggling to raise three sons, away from the lure of gangs. The Pope, a gay former cop and Richard Gere-lookalike, left the Boston PD after helping to convict an innocent young man, who then killed himself in prison. Brilliant attorney Shel Gold is married to a woman he still loves -- but whom he had to institutionalize, after their toddler was kidnapped from his stroller and never found. Finally, there's the innocent but tough Mairead. When she was a girl, her parents abandoned her at an orphanage, because of her literal stigmatization -- her arms and hands are stained red by a hemangioma birthmark. These figures' personal lives may be a mess, but they survive with their humor intact. And together they represent a legal force to be reckoned with.
Mairead O'Clare continues to be worth watching. Defying this genre's conventions, she is not likely to fall for any of her co-investigators (The Pope is gay, after all, and Gold is already smitten with another shark-like attorney), so Devane/Healy can't depend on romantic subplots to help illuminate her depths. Instead, Mairead's head is filled with the voice of the nun who was responsible for rearing her -- a technique similar to one used in the Cuddy series, where the detective is often found talking to his late wife's grave. This twist may lead readers to question the protagonist's sanity; however, it's a very effective method by which characters can work out their quandaries. I have to confess, I miss not seeing another Cuddy mystery on the horizon. But A Stain Upon the Rose is a fine addition to what's become an entertaining series, sure to please veteran Healy fans for the time being. -- Reviewed by Cindy Chow
It's 1889, and singer and former Pinkerton detective Irene Adler, along with her English companion, Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, are recovering in France after their experiences with Jack the Ripper, in Castle Rouge ("RS" 9/02). Wanting to put that frightful affair behind them, the two women believe that nothing could lure them into another investigation. But that's before the brash and impulsive journalist, Nellie Bly, delivers a message to them with news of mysterious murders in America and a possible future target -- Irene's mother. Thus begins Carole Nelson Douglas' delightful seventh Irene Adler mystery, Femme Fatale (Forge).
With that in mind, Bly has lured both Irene and her rival, Sherlock Holmes (whom she bested in Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia"), to the Unites States with hints of knowledge about Irene's mysterious past. Reared in the world of vaudeville theater by a variety of performers, Irene has no recollections of the woman who was her mother. But now the entertainers who were closest to her as a child are being murdered using methods inspired by their own shows, and it falls to Irene and Nell Huxleigh to figure out who's behind these crimes before Holmes and the headline-hungry Nellie Bly can expose the truth about Irene Adler's life to the world.
Once again, Douglas beautifully establishes her story's late-19th-century backdrop, as Irene and Nell travel from Europe to America and witness the cultural complexity of New York City. The author's writings about busy Manhattan and early Coney Island are laden with details, and her descriptions of the snobbish Nell's first encounters with such oddities as hot dogs, roller coasters and a Ferris wheel (the first of which didn't actually appear at Coney until the mid 1890s) are both amusing and ironic. Even more fascinating is Douglas' exploration of the world of vaudeville, with its "freaks" and other performers who are as close to one another as any biological family.
As she also has in her other, longer-running series featuring feline sleuth Midnight Louise (Cat in a Neon Nightmare, "RS" 5/03), Douglas maintains in her Irene Adler novels a continuing plot, but one that allows her characters to grow and change. And even though these are light novels, the author confronts some serious themes -- in this instance, abortion, a topic as controversial in 19th-century America as it remains today. Sherlock Holmes appears only irregularly in these pages, which is common. Yet I was a little disappointed to find that it's he, not Irene, who ultimately reveals the identity and method of Femme Fatale's killer. This seems to go against Douglas' effort to show the strength and intelligence of her female characters. The good news is that this book is easier to follow than Castle Rouge, which really needed its introductory list of dramatis personae. Although the Reader's Guide at the back of this new book seems a bit pretentious, offering topics and questions for discussion, Femme Fatale doesn't come off for the most part as stuffy. This is, instead, an easily appreciated adventure, led by two women who were pleasantly ahead of their times. -- C.C.
The relatively normal life at Massachusetts' Clare College is seriously disrupted by the finding of the body of Virginia Vanderlyn hidden beneath her family's old home. The promiscuous wife of professor Cornelius Vanderlyn, Virginia was believed to have abandoned her family years ago. Antigone, harboring a secret crush on Cornelius, cannot believe that he murdered his spouse, the mother of his son, Charlie, who's a student at Clare. Hiawatha, a visiting guest lecturer at the college, has his reservations about trying to play detective in this case, but ultimately agrees to take part, so long as he can don disguises, playact and meddle in any life not his own. As these sleuthing siblings investigate, they learn that Virginia was liked too well by some and despised by many, and that she had a reputation for seducing not only professors, but students, as well. Also curious are letters supposedly written by Virginia Vanderlyn to her son during the time she was a ripening corpse. When another killing occurs, it only adds confusion to this inquiry and shows that a murderer remains at large.
Reading Grave Circle is rather like watching a play performed. The novel's omniscient narrator directly addresses the reader, commenting on events and explaining the characters' thoughts and actions. Although startling at first, this narration grows on you and it blends smoothly with the story's dialogue. Lengthy discourses on art, marriage and families are thought provoking and exceedingly amusing, and they emphasize academia's preference for language over action. At times, Hi and Tig seem to be conducting interviews with suspects only to provide an excuse for their witty banter and wordplay. In fact, the most captivating chapter follows the siblings' visit home for Thanksgiving, during which they resume the rolls they played out as children. The result is a dinner that hints at the abuse and confrontations that continually occurred under the genteel atmosphere of their family's intellectual household.
Although Antigone appears initially to be the heroine in this "Ivory Tower Mystery," it's Hiawatha who emerges as the most intriguing, multi-dimensional and entertaining player. Estranged from all the members of his family, save for Antigone, and a bitter disappointment to his father, the gay Hi is flamboyant and impressive in his professional life but oppressed and immature in his personal one. He's willing to probe the murder of Virginia Vanderlyn out of sheer boredom, but he also feels protective of Antigone and fears that her interest in Cornelius may lead her to be hurt, both emotionally and physically.
This is not a mystery to be read quickly; instead, it should be savored for its lyrical language and humorous banter. The plot flows casually until the denouement, which occurs gracefully and is almost an aside to the rest of this novel. Comparisons to Amanda Cross' Kate Fansler series will inevitably be made, but Nolta's Grave Circle really stands on its own as a study of academics' lives and their very human frailties. -- C.C.
As more romance authors follow the trend set by Linda Howard, Nora Roberts and Elizabeth Lowell, and turn to penning suspense works, the line between these genres is blurring. Many mysteries now read like romances with a dead body thrown in. However, Bad Girl (Random House), the debut crime novel from historical romance writer Michelle Jaffe, succeeds both in offering an exciting tale and a distinctive twist on the serial-killer theme.
After nearly losing her life in a stabbing incident, Chicago "Windy" Thomas (yes, she's already heard all of the jokes) left her position as an acting sheriff in Virginia and moved with her 6-year-old daughter to Las Vegas, where she now heads up the police department's Criminalistics Bureau. Although Windy has promised her fiancée that she'll stay away from dangerous situations, she's unable to resist becoming involved in a particularly horrific sequence of homicides. Sin City families are being butchered, the victims' bodies decapitated and posed for later discovery by the fathers. With her witch-like talent for re-creating crime scenes, Windy proves invaluable to the local Violent Crimes Unit and gains the particular attention of its chief, Ash Laughton, a capable cop who stays on the job despite the fact that he's a computer software multimillionaire (reminiscent of John Sandford's Lucas Davenport).
Certainly the most compelling and original character here is Eve Sebastian, the "bad girl" of this book's title. After prostituting herself during her teen years in order to pay off her father's gambling debts, Eve has become an anorexic chef and restaurant owner. Yet she still can't find peace, as she's drawn to spy on the happy families who now occupy the homes where she used to live. Jaffe's writing is strongest when she focuses on Eve or on the technical aspects of Windy's search for revealing evidence at each new murder site. Where she falters, however, is in her attempts to apply her romance-writing experience to this new novel -- whether it's her descriptions of Ash's fantasizing about Windy at crime scenes, or her portrayal of Windy's relationship with her fiancée, a man who passive-aggressively manipulates Windy and resents her love of investigative work. That Thomas, out of guilt, curtails her actions to suit her lover's needs drastically contrasts with her professional behavior. On the job, she's perfectly capable of standing up to her staff, her superiors and even Vegas' mayor.
I wish some more established authors would read Chris Simms' debut novel, Outside the White Lines (Hutchinson UK), because they just might learn a thing or two about the value of lean editing. This 200-page thriller is perfect for an afternoon when you want at least a brief escape from your problems. The concept is simple: A serial killer of sorts is preying on people whose cars have broken down along the "hard shoulder" of British motorways. These murders are brutal, and the police have no leads in identifying the attacker. The only motive seems to be advanced road rage. But why?
Seer grows passionate about nailing this peripatetic killer, his determination only increasing his conflicts with Walker. Eventually, the young constable is suspended from the traffic police on medical grounds. But it only leaves Seer with more time to stew about this case. Meanwhile, the killer -- who's portrayed as a blue-collar victim of Britain's congested roads system -- disintegrates further as the days pass, his fragile mind corroding with anger until all he can think of is violence. Nonetheless, Simms draws some poignancy from the predicaments of both his killer and the killer's wife. We see how the man's personality flaws combine with the pressures of his environment to turn him into a monster. This undereducated sociopath completes his transformation by unhinging himself from life's grim realities. His banality reminds me of the chilling serial murderer in George Sluizer's film masterpiece, The Vanishing (the European original, not the U.S. remake).
There's a third main player in this yarn, too, a shadowy social outcast referred to as "The Searcher," who hunts at night along the road verges and the edges of our lives, sifting through the detritus in his own idiosyncratic quest. He eventually, and unintentionally, provides the link between the slayer and Andy Seer.
Simms' use of alternating viewpoints threatened to confuse me, at first. But I wasn't many chapters in before I started to race through the pages, unable to let up on the accelerator. The author is a freelance copy editor, and he's applied the same stringent demands to his own work that he might to anyone else's. He's stripped any and all excess padding from this thriller, leaving its story stark and exhilarating. The book's climax is, quite literally, a road crash that brings Andy Seer, The Searcher and this tale's serial killer together, and reveals the fate of that kidnapped child. Despite its graphically presented violence, Outside the White Lines is 200 pages worth any crime fiction fan's time. Just don't read it before getting into a car at night. -- Reviewed by Ali Karim
The novel starts with a gothic flourish, focusing on a faceless woman in India and a mystery that does not reveal itself until well into the narrative. But the meat of the story begins as we're reintroduced to Boston homicide detectives Jane Rizzoli, who's suffering emotionally from her brief but passionate fling with FBI agent Gabriel Dean. The consequences of that entanglement reverberate through a case of murder and mutilation at a Catholic abbey full of nuns and whispered secrets. Joining Rizzoli on this case is forensic examiner Dr. Maura Isles, known by her colleagues as "The Queen of the Dead." She, too, is coping with the end of a relationship, and now her ex-partner, Dr. Victor Banks, appears to be stalking her. Thus banded by travails, these two warrior women join forces in hopes of learning why one nun was brutally murdered and another lies in a catatonic state at a local hospital. As their investigation gathers momentum, a dead child is found on the abbey grounds, and another mutilated woman is discovered in a tenement well stocked with rats and other vermin. This latest victim has had her face, hands and feet removed. Clearly, the only thing that The Sinner has in common with "cozies" is its abbey setting.
The suspense only escalates as it becomes obvious that the crimes under consideration here aren't simply the erratic and random actions of a disturbed mind. Agent Dean steps into the picture when he suspects there might be connections between Rizzoli's case and an ongoing federal inquiry. Adding to the already abundant tensions, Isles unearths secrets involving her ex-spouse, who has been locked into serving the medical charity One Earth -- an organization with many more facets than its name implies.
What we have here is a fast-moving and thought-provoking thriller that finds its greatest strength in the tapestry of Isles' and Rizzoli's lives. These strong women appear able to withstand the worst that human behavior can thrown their way -- rape, murder and mutilation. Yet in their private lives, they struggle to hold themselves together. For readers who favor character-driven narratives that take them to the darker side, The Sinner is a winner. -- A.K.
In the News
Interviewed for the Mystery Readers International Web site by fellow novelist Qiu Xiaolong, Edgar Award winner S.J. Rozan discusses her detective series' alternating voices (those of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith), her other career as an architect, her passion for research, and her work on Absent Friends, a post-9/11 standalone novel due out in the summer of 2004. Read more.
A satisfyingly long profile of Laura Lippman in the Baltimore CityPaper covers not only this journalist-turned-author's new standalone novel, Every Secret Thing, but also goes into some depth on her falling-out with the Baltimore Sun, for which she worked for a dozen years. "Ironically," we're told, "the loss of her job at the paper may have proved the biggest boost to Lippman's career since an editor's comment almost a decade ago that she ëcouldn't write' led her to pen her first novel, just before she turned 34." Read more.
Sherlock Holmes receives a flood of cyberink in the latest edition of Australia's Crime Factory magazine. Articles examine the Great Detective's continuing popularity, Holmes-related art and memorabilia, the ever-expanding oeuvre of Holmes stories, and more. There's even an "interview" with Holmes "about the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the 1951 Festival of Britain." Read more.
Forensic science is the main focus of the fall 2003 edition of Web Mystery Magazine, a new addition to the breadth of true-crime and crime fiction-related Internet sites. Article topics here include: psychological detectives, the history of criminal identification, forensic nurse death investigators, Britain's 1988 Lynette White murder case and the use of humor in crime fiction. Read more.
This year's second issue of Mystery Readers Journal devoted to the theme "Music and Mysteries" includes pieces by Keith Snyder, Rhys Bowen, John Harvey, Taffy Cannon and January contributor Kevin Burton Smith. Available online are articles by Tim Cockey (writing about the lack of musical talent he shares with his series protagonist, Hitchcock Sewell), Reginald Hill (who recalls how music seeped into his 1998 novel, On Beulah Height) and Paula L. Woods (remarking on music as the unifying theme in her Charlotte Justice series). Read more.
New York City critic/editor/bookstore owner Otto Penzler was recently awarded $2.8 million in a legal dispute with Los Angeles-based publisher New Millenium. New Millenium had previously sued Penzler for breach of contract, but lost. All of this court wrangling began when New Millenium sought to change the name of its 2001 collection of football-related short stories (edited by Penzler) from Murder in the End Zone to The Mighty Johns -- borrowing that title from a David Baldacci novella included among the book's contents -- and also feature Baldacci's name prominently on the cover. Baldacci sued to stop publication, arguing that the cover made the volume look like his work alone, and eventually forced a book jacket change. After New Millenium lost its lawsuit against him, Penzler brought a counter-suit against the publisher. Read more.
ON NEWSSTANDS ONLY: One of the most consistently interesting parts of the bimonthly Mystery News is its "In the Beginning" column, penned by Stephen Miller. The focus is on crime novelists freshly out of the box, folks such as Martha Conway, the San Francisco debut author of 12 Bliss Street ("RS" 6/03), who is profiled in MN's August/September issue. Also here are features on G.M. Ford (A Blind Eye), Carole Nelson Douglas (Femme Fatale) and Richard Barre (Burning Moon). ... Meanwhile, the seventh issue of the British mag CrimeWave contains new fiction by Ray Nayler, Mat Coward, Marion Arnott and James Sallis, whose extremely short story, "Your New Career," looks at a secret-agent school class assignment taken too seriously.
The Crime Writers' Association of Australia (CWAA) announced the winners of its 2003 Ned Kelly Awards on August 28.
Best Novel: White Dog (Text), by Peter Temple
Also nominated: The Affair, by Bunty Avieson (Pan Macmillan); Open for Inspection, by Carmel Bird (HarperCollins); The Eye of the Abyss, by Marshall Browne (Duffy & Snellgrove); Salt and Blood, by Peter Corris (Random); Deadly Tide, by Sandy Curtis (Pan Macmillan); Who Killed Bianca, by Emma Darcy (Pan Macmillan); Kittyhawk Dawn, by Garry Disher (Allen & Unwin); Murder in Montparnasse, by Kerry Greenwood (Allen & Unwin); The Analyst, by Fred Guilhaus (Wakefield Press); Breakfastinfur, by Michael Herrmann (Fremantle Arts Centre Press); Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing, by Gabrielle Lord (Hodder); Babel, by Barry Maitland (Allen & Unwin); Something Fishy, by Shane Maloney (Text); The Chance, by Andy Shea (Simon & Schuster); The Empty Bed, by Paul Thomas (HarperCollins); and Evidence, by Emma Tom (HarperCollins)
Best First Novel: Blood Redemption (HarperCollins), by Alex Palmer
Also nominated: Lady Luck, by Kirsty Brooks (Wakefield Press); Half Past Dead, by Jane Clifton (Text); The Games, by Peter deVries (Zaresky Press); and The Final Account, by Greg Wilson (Pan Macmillan)
Best True Crime: Bloodstain (Allen & Unwin), by Peter Lalor
Also nominated: What Happened to Freeda Hayes?, by Robin Bowles (Pan Macmillan); Just Another Little Murder, by Phil Cleary (Allen & Unwin); Beyond Bad, by Sandra Lee (Random); Blood Brothers, by Bertil Lintner (Allen & Unwin); The Mickelberg Stitch, by Avon Lovell (Creative Research); Reasons of State, by Kevin Ruane (HarperCollins); Tough, by Andrew Rule and John Silvester (SLYInk); Underbelly 6, by Andrew Rule and John Silvester (SLYInk); and The Brotherhoods, by Arthur Veno (Allen & Unwin)
In addition, the CWAA gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Kerry Greenwood.
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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