The Best Books of 2003










Crime Fiction

The Blind Man of Seville by Robert Wilson (HarperCollins UK)

British fictionist Wilson, who produced several novels about West African "fixer" Bruce Medway before hitting it big with his first standalone thriller, A Small Death in Lisbon (1999), returns to his detective-thriller roots in The Blind Man of Seville. Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, head of the Seville Police Department's homicide division, has encountered at least his fair share of gruesome murders over more than 20 years on the job in several Spanish cities. However, he quickly pronounces the death of prosperous restaurateur Raúl Jiménez "more extraordinary than any I have seen in my career." The deceased was found strapped to a chair in his apartment with his eyelids sliced off, facing a television on which had been showing a video of him entertaining prostitutes. The businessman's heart had failed as he fought desperately for release from his bonds, unable to shut out the display before him. What, though, was so horrible about the tape that Jiménez should have been forced to watch in the first place? It's a question that will lead to the slayings of a hooker and an art dealer -- both arranged with messages in mind -- and force Falcón into a contest of wits against a killer who's obsessed with the contradictions between illusion and reality. Unfortunately for the homicide cop, his concentration is torn between the modern-day murder inquiry and the long-secreted journals kept by his late father, Francisco, a famous painter whose brutal acts during the Spanish Civil War and subsequent hedonism in North Africa shaped Javier's life. Against the beautiful backdrop of Seville, Wilson presents a grimly bewitching drama, with a languid pace and a lyrical edge. Despite some plot weaknesses, The Blind Man of Seville firmly makes the case, as Javier Falcón puts it, that "The stuff of horror ... is not necessarily the truly terrible." -- J. Kingston Pierce

Born Under Punches by Martyn Waites (Simon & Schuster UK)

2004 will mark the 20th anniversary of the miner's strike in England -- an ugly time, when workers sacrificed their livelihood, rioted continuously and braved the law to secure better wages and benefits. That strike and its ramifications have been integral to several fine movies, including Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, but only now has crime fiction addressed the subject, in Martyn Waites' Born Under Punches. This novel follows the lives of several current and former residents of a fictional northern England town called Coldwell at two stages: in 1984, at the strike's apex, and in 2001, when Tony Blair's Liberal government is re-elected once more. Many things change between those two periods, but the past has a way of intruding on the present, keeping the characters in this book intersected in shifting ways. At the center of Waites' story is the Larkin family, including daughter Louise, who was once in love with a brash footballer but chose instead to pursue a middle-class dream. However, that dream has many cracks, none of which show until her brother Stephen, a journalist and the star of Waites' previous novels (among them Candleland, 2000), returns to town. Although he'd intended only to do some research for a novel he's writing about the strike, Stephen manages to both open deep wounds among townsfolk uneasy about revisiting the turbulence of years past, and unearth present-day skeletons involving the children born after the strike's end. Larkin's investigation also uncovers links to his own family, leading to a conclusion marked with high passion and brutal violence. Waites doesn't flinch from showcasing the wide spectrum of emotions influencing his characters -- whether it's Louise's despair at the hell of her marriage, or the ragged tempestuousness that is a hallmark of Stephen's relationship with his first love. Punches is a difficult novel to fully absorb, because of its anguish and bleakness. Yet Waites' prose is lean, his fully realized players grab the reader from the outset and force us to feel what they feel, and Britain's 20-year-old strike is obviously a subject close to this author's heart. -- Sarah Weinman

Burn by Sean Doolittle (UglyTown)

When the corpse of celebrity fitness guru Gregor Tavlin is found in Los Angeles' Topanga Canyon, it touches off a series of events coinciding with the arrival in town of Andrew Kindler, who is hiding out at his cousin's beach house in order to recover, both mentally and physically, from wounds he'd received from his former mob pal, Larry "Eyebrow" Tomiczek. (It seems the mobster didn't take kindly to Kindler singeing one of his eyebrows off some months before.) Meanwhile, homicide detective Adrian Timms receives anonymous info linking 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 equally numbered. As Burn's cast of characters 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 future may depend on his being able to answer a few important questions: Why does everyone think he knows about Tavlin's disappearance? Where is the Lomax heir? And who squealed about where he's been living lately? Loyalties of many varieties, on many levels, steer this novel's players. All Kindler has to do is separate his supporters from those who'd prefer to see him out of the way. Doolittle's prose style is smooth, his plotting fast-paced and addictive. Burn is a hot follow-up to the author's debut novel, Dirt (2001). -- Jennifer Jordan


Chapter and Verse by Colin Bateman (Headline UK)

Bateman's path out of the publishing slushpile and into the role of Northern Ireland hero has been paved with his creations of darkly fallible, mordantly human, yet utterly likable fictional protagonists. Every one of Bateman's protagonists to date has gotten under my skin and driven me batty. And I've adored them all. With Chapter and Verse, he two-steps away from his Dan Starkey mystery series (Divorcing Jack) and into the even more sinister world of publishing. Ivan Connor is a novelist, the heartbeat of a generation, and a self-described icon of literature. His latest and greatest work, Chapter and Verse, is finally finished. It's a masterpiece -- but it is also soon rejected. After ushering into the world the first eight of his novels, Connor's publisher has decided that the financial losing streak of Ivan's literary career must finally come to an end. It's a bitter disappointment for this author, who continues to live with his mommy (the only person to show up at his latest reading) and is still desperately in love with his ex-wife. And it's made all the worse by the fact that rival author Francesca Brady, whom Connor describes unhesitantly as a "hack," is seeing her own career head for the stratosphere. But Ivan drunkenly stumbles upon the answer to all his problems: Give the people what they want. He fires up his computer, brings up his latest book ... and adopts a nom de plume: April May. With a few keystrokes and the wonders of e-mail, his manuscript is resubmitted to the same publishing house that just rejected it. And it's accepted! What's more, though, the publisher wants to sign April up, long-term. To get his multi-million-dollar contract -- and his revenge -- Connor must find someone to pose as the talented April May. What better place, he thinks, than prison ... And so begins a novel with wit to spare. The plot of Chapter and Verse moves in multiple directions, yet Bateman maintains a tight reign. His jabs at the publishing industry are priceless, with the oft-repeated questions at book signings and the mysterious world of authors becoming fodder for his acerbic humor. -- Jennifer Jordan

City of Strangers by John Shannon (Carroll & Graf/Otto Penzler)

Ho hum. Another year, another great book. Which is pretty much the only predictable thing about John Shannon's criminally underrated Jack Liffey series these days. And the conclusion of his latest novel, City of Strangers, really, truly rocks -- the literary equivalent of a smashed guitar. Make no mistake: there's definitely blood on these tracks. The hook here is that Jack, the endearing, enduring sad-sack Everyman hero, is going through a major mid-life crisis. Mind you, it's the same mid-life crisis forever he's been having forever, or at least since he first lost his job as a technical writer and wandered into his current occupation as an L.A.-based finder of lost and missing children years ago. Long divorced, recently kicked out by his long-suffering girlfriend, fearing that his beloved daughter, Maeve, is growing up and away from him, and with his own body beginning to betray him, Jack has never felt more alone ... or closer to a complete emotional meltdown. Hired to find a missing teenage girl whose disappearance seems somehow tied in with the fate of four missing Iranian boys, Jack throws himself into his work. But what starts out as a routine wandering-daughter job soon has him beating the bushes in the no-man's-land between Islamic and Western cultures, political idealism and political reality, and youth and wisdom in that eerie dead zone between the 9/11 tragedies and the latest Iraq war. Not that this is some dull philosophical tract or a political rant -- Jack also has to deal here with flesh-and-blood threats from ruthless drug smugglers, crooked cops, extremists and opportunists of various political and ideological stripes and even some lowlifes who get their jollies torturing animals. More than one reader may shy away from some of the novel's more wrenching scenes, and others may find the politics almost as disturbing. Yet Shannon is unapologetic, more than willing to bite off a huge chunk of whatever the latest version of political correctness is, government-approved or not, and spit it back out. Hard insights into various cultural and political landmines may not win him many fans on either end of the spectrum; but in this time of multimedia spin control, when the mere questioning of government policy is loudly denounced as treasonous, and group-think has too often replaced individual reasoning, it comes off as refreshingly direct and courageous. Shannon's bravest act, though, is that he never lets us forget his characters are real people, fallible and human. And that, of course, is really what makes City of Strangers so powerful, moving and, yes, timely. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Clea's Moon by Edward Wright (Putnam)

The last few years have brought a variety of crime stories anchored in the glamour and adversities of post-World War II Hollywood. Few, though, have shown the assured storytelling style and realistically developed players that Clea's Moon boasts. Protagonist John Ray Horn escaped northern Arkansas and an abusive preacher father to become cowboy hero "Sierra Lane" in a series of cut-rate westerns for Medallion Studios. But his assault on the dandified son of Medallion's honcho earned him a two-year prison stint. Now, unhappily divorced and blacklisted among L.A. moviemakers, he barely earns his nut by doing debt collections for his former Indian co-star, casino owner Joseph Mad Crow. Horn's malaise ends, though, when he hears from his old friend Scotty Bullard, the son of an affluent and recently deceased land developer, who has found among his father's belongings some well-thumbed "dirty pictures" that show older men with young girls -- one of whom is Horn's ex-stepdaughter, Clea. Within days, Scotty plummets to his death and Clea runs away from the home of her mother and possibly abusive stepdad. Fearing that Clea might have been kidnapped by one of the men in those black-and-whites -- someone who'd go to dangerous lengths to protect his sexual fetish -- Horn turns into Philip Marlowe with an anger-management problem, saddling up for an inquiry that will have him tangling with mobsters, creating scandal at a mountaintop monastery, and swapping lead during a shootout at the dilapidated estate of a silent-movie idol. As Horn concedes to Mad Crow, "It's a lot easier to play a hero than to be one." Clea's Moon is a tumbling-paced period yarn that deftly captures the physical atmospherics of its era, and introduces a credibly flawed headliner who is not likely to be riding off into the sunset at any time soon. A sequel to Clea's Moon is scheduled for release in July. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Close to Home by Peter Robinson (William Morrow)

Lost youth and the way that past pains can haunt the present are the themes Peter Robinson works in Close to Home, his finest novel since the Anthony Award-winning In a Dry Season (1999). Cutting short a Greek vacation, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks returns to England after learning that the skeletal remains of Graham Marshall -- a boyhood pal who'd vanished in 1965, supposedly snatched up by a pedophile -- have been found near his hometown of Petersborough. Banks hopes to assist the probe into Graham's death and, in the process, assuage the previously unrevealed guilt he feels for his friend's fate. However, with the exception of Detective Inspector Michelle Hart, newly posted to the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, the area's police don't want Banks barging into their case. So he starts asking questions on his own, eventually turning up an old but unplumbed lead: talk that Graham's dad had worked as a criminal enforcer, which suggests that Banks' friend may have died because he knew something about illegal activities. While all of this is going on, the DCI's protégé and ex-lover, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, is busy with a missing-persons inquiry that turns to homicide, after she evidently interferes with a ransom drop. By seeking Banks' counsel, she draws these two story lines neatly together. She also kicks up a well-honed subplot that finds Banks initiating a new relationship with DI Hart, even as he accepts (begrudgingly) the end to what he'd once hoped would be a long relationship with the fetching but damaged Annie. An intense police procedural, Close to Home turns out to be a work of exceptional human depth and dimension, as well. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (Canongate)

Rilke works in Glasgow as an auctioneer. His current assignment is to sift through the contents of the McKindless home. While doing so, he discovers an incredibly rare collection of erotic literature, which had belonged to the dead man and for which other collectors would surely clamor. As Rilke contemplates how he can get rid of such a treasure trove, he discovers a stash of photos secreted away. Leafing through them, the auctioneer finds an increasingly disturbing sequence of degrading sexual acts, until the final photo, from several decades earlier, shows a young woman strapped to a rack with her throat cut. Is this photo depicting a real murder, or is it a fake? Obsessed with learning the truth, Rilke journeys through the seamy underbelly of Scotland's largest city. He visits porn shops and sketchy amateur video clubs, and is to nearly beaten by a religious fanatic. Before long, he starts to question the motives of everybody he encounters -- strangers, friends, even himself. The Cutting Room grabs hold of the reader from the outset and forces you to keep going. Its author, Louise Welsh, shows a level of confidence and assurance rarely found in third or fourth novels, let alone a first book. Her stark, lyrical writing style reminds me of another Scottish writer, Denise Mina (Garnethill), not only because of the Glasgow settings but because of the complex emotional grapplings of this story's principal players. -- Sarah Weinman

The Day of the Dead by John Creed (Faber and Faber UK)

On the heels of cerebral Scottish spy Jack Valentine's debut, in John Creed's The Sirius Crossing (2002), comes a cordite-filled sequel. The Day of the Dead finds Valentine, a cultured man who still lives with the faces of all the men he has killed, undertaking a personal mission, trying to track down Alva Casagrande, the errant daughter of a dying friend. The trail reunites him with ex-IRA enforcer Liam Mellows and Mellows' sister, Deirdre (Valentine's former lover). The action starts with a car bomb going off in London, and before you can yell "Duck!," Valentine is on a flight to New York City, where he hopes to pry Alva from a Mexican über-drug dealer known as Xabarra. Joining him are Mellows, Deirdre and a Puerto Rican drug peddler named Jesus, who comes complete with his mother and a male lover. Bodies start to litter Manhattan as Valentine and his compadres lock horns with Xabarra and become involved with a family feud from Jesus' past. From there, the action shifts to Mexico, where a cinematic chase in helicopters ensues. More people join and die in Valentine's relentless pursuit, and soon Creed's complex and far-fetched plot starts to knit neatly together. Creed (a pseudonym used by Irishman Eoin McNamee) delivers here a wonderfully convoluted yarn that, for all of its violence, is a deeply moral tale, both moving and poignant. -- Ali Karim

Dynamite Road by Andrew Klavan (Forge)

This latest read from Andrew Klavan (True Crime, Hunting Down Amanda) is billed as "A Weiss and Bishop Novel," so I guess it's the first installment of a new series. And that is good news, because Dynamite Road is a veritable pulp-fiction buffet, offering something for every taste, and echoing everyone from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to Timothy Harris and Ian Fleming. There's even a bit of romance in these pages. Yet Dynamite is fresh and original in its own way. Scott Weiss is an older version of Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a lonely, world-weary and tattered knight clinging to a code of honor that even he doesn't always understand. A deeply moral man, who wears his fragile heart on his sleeve, Weiss runs a large and successful San Francisco detective agency, employing several operatives -- including horny, cocksure Jim Bishop, who he sends undercover, as a pilot, to investigate some suspicious goings-on at a Northern California airport. If Weiss is occasionally troubled by ethics, young Bishop shows no such qualms. He's barely unpacked his bags before he starts trying to displace head pilot Chris Wannamaker, an abusive, loudmouth drunk. And not just at work, where Bishop sucks up to the airfield's owner, but also at Wannamaker's home, where the detective begins putting the moves on the pilot's neglected wife. And so commences a chain of events that will snap back and forth, from character to character and viewpoint to viewpoint, as Bishop and Weiss race to thwart a criminal mastermind who's almost as creepy -- and, seemingly, nearly as omnipotent -- as Hannibal Lecter. All leading to one of the most dramatic, big-bang conclusions I've encountered in a long time. (I'd be surprised if filmmakers aren't sniffing around this baby already.) But Dynamite Road isn't simply about white-knuckle, popcorn-ready thrills. What really bring this explosive novel home are the merely life-sized emotional pyrotechnics that Klavan zeroes in on -- particularly, the secret hurts of the human heart, whether it's the middle-aged loneliness of Weiss' romantic obsessions, or the bruised idealism of his agency's young mailroom clerk. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

Laura Lippman's new thriller completely blindsided me, yet I should have seen it coming. After all, each successive novel has found this author reaching a little higher, venturing a little deeper into that place where the wild things go. But a standalone about two 11-year-old Baltimore girls charged with murdering a baby? Nothing could have prepared me for that. This is primo stuff, written with raw passion and a savage intelligence, a brave, blistering questioning of life and justice and vengeance and the so very many ways we all fail each other. Every Secret Thing is by far the best work Lippman has done to date, the kind of book that, as Dashiell Hammett (another pretty good Baltimore writer) once put it, rips off the lid and lets you look at the works. Some of Lippman's more genteel fans will head for the smelling salts; but she stands to gain (and deserves) an even larger audience than her work has previously attracted. Her eye for the telling detail has never been so sharp, or so fierce -- and that's true right from the prologue, which slams shut just as those two little girls, walking home after being expelled from a classmate's birthday party, come across a nine-month-old in an unattended baby carriage. "We have to take care of this baby," says one of the girls ... and the next time we see them, it's seven years later, and the pair are being released from prison after serving time for their part in the infant's murder. Yet the actual circumstances of that long-ago tragedy, the secret that lies at the heart of this dark masterpiece, are never quite laid bare -- at least initially. Instead, like Richard Price's recent Samaritan, this is a rich, emotionally charged jigsaw puzzle that finds its power not in gun battles or car chases, but in the deceptively trivial minutiae of people's lives, and the gradual accumulation of the shifting, overlapping and often contradictory testimonies of a large and diverse (and almost totally female) cast. But all of the pieces finally, brutally snap into place, and the truth -- or some version of it -- is ultimately revealed. The revelations in Every Secret Thing are jarring and unsettling, and the points it makes about society, and the way we treat our children, are scathing. And damning. If there be monsters here, they be us. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray (Random House Canada)

There's a splendid exchange not far into John MacLachlan Gray's The Fiend in Human, during which Edmund Whitty, an impecunious drug addict and underworld correspondent for The Falcon, London's "second-best sensational tabloid," discusses the decline of journalism with a "patterer," Henry Owler, who peddles doggerel about condemned prisoners to crowds awaiting the spectacle of their public hangings. Owler begins: "I don't mind saying it, Mr. Witty, business could be better. People are more choosy like -- they demands more and more of the nasty particulars." To which the reporter replies, "I agree with you, Mr. Owler. It is getting so that the news is not driven by facts, but by the fickle taste of the reader." Gray, a Canadian columnist and playwright, might well have sprinkled these words upon the tongues of present-day newsies, many of whom mourn the way that journalistic standards are often sacrificed to a perceived market demand for overhyped and/or oversimplified stories. That Fiend is set way back in 1852 makes this colloquy both ironic and depressing, pointing up just how little has changed over the last century and a half. Indeed, other elements of Gray's novel -- from its focus on a serial killer (36 years before Jack the Ripper) to its recognition that a self-satisfied people crave ever more bizarre entertainments (Fear Factor, anyone?) -- seem positively modern. And in that unexpected currency this book finds part of its attraction; the balance derives from its alternately dark and whimsical story, as well as its Dickensian cast. Foremost among the players is Whitty, whose wont to feed the public's appetite for lurid sensationalism has spawned Chokee Bill, "The Fiend in Human Form," his diabolic caricature of a strangler at large in Victorian London. The arrest, though, of coiner William Ryan for these heinous crimes forces Whitty to look for new ways to scoop his professional brethren. So when he's approached by Owler for help in extracting a "last confession" from Ryan, Whitty sees opportunity for himself. What he doesn't expect, however, is for the murders to continue -- raising doubts about the incarcerated Ryan's guilt, and convincing Whitty to enlist Owler in a search after the fiend's true identity. As this pair pursue their quarry, and copycat killers prowl streets supposedly left safe after Ryan's capture, readers will revel in Gray's elegant prose and humorous situations, as well as his gloomy and squalid evocations of Victorian London. Of the several novels this year that have resurrected England's capital in the mid-19th century (David Pirie's The Night Calls and Louis Bayard's Mr. Timothy being two other examples), The Fiend in Human does it most memorably. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Fortunes of the Dead by Lynn Hightower (Atria Books)

It's been a long 10 years since Lexington, Kentucky, private eye Lena Padget's last appearance, in the highly praised Satan's Lambs (1993). During the interim, author Lynn Hightower has focused on her series about police detective Sonora Blair (The Debt Collector, 2000) and her somewhat disappointing standalone, High Water (2002). Thankfully, Lena's return, in Fortunes of the Dead, justifies the wait. The sleuth has recovered from the horrifying murder of her sister and nephew, and she's not only making a success of her career but is moving into a new home with homicide detective Joel Mendez. There's nothing she'd like better than to paint her new walls and wallow in her nest. However, wealthy developer Paul Ellis Brady is intent on hiring Lena to investigate the disappearance of his stepdaughter, Cheryl Dunkirk, an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) intern. The fact that Joel is the assigned police detective on this case is a major factor in Brady's decision to hire Lena, and he and his other, unstable daughter put the pressure on Lena to find out what she can about the official investigation. As it happens, Cheryl isn't the only ATF connection here. An L.A.-based agent, Wilson McCoy, is probing the deaths of several federal agents who appear to have been murdered in retaliation for the disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. He's traced the killings to a traveling rodeo and a suspect whose sister died in that shootout. When Lena's search eventually leads her to Cheryl's ATF mentor/supervisor, Cory Edgers, her investigation intersects with Wilson's, and they find themselves having to determine whether justice and the law are the same thing. (Although it seems to be required that female P.I.s have as their boyfriends cops from whom they can pump insider info, in this case, Joel Mendez's ethics bar him from helping Lena, and their inquiries progress separately.) Hightower is adept at fully developing characters who are neither stereotypical nor predictable. By using alternating viewpoints, she allows for enhanced insight into her players' motivations -- especially true in the cases of Edgers' dependent but awakening wife, and Janis Winters, who loves horses but is otherwise an emotionless and skilled assassin. While I often only skim past narrations by killers, hoping to get back to the hero or heroine, Winters is better than the usual abused child/depraved psycho cliché; her actions seem understandable, if not justified, and she grows more interesting as the novel progresses. Which isn't to say that Lena, Wilson and Joel aren't themselves compelling; Lena's competitiveness with her boyfriend, and the relationship she maintains with her flamboyant actor ex-husband, both add welcome lightness to this novel. As the tale's pace quickens, with more agents falling and Lena inching closer to the truth, Fortunes of the Dead proves to be one of Hightower's best mysteries. Let's hope we don't have to wait another decade for Lena Padget to make another showing. -- Cindy Chow

Havana by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster)

The pseudo bullet holes in this novel's dust jacket tell the story: Stephen Hunter (Hot Springs and Pale Horse Coming) is sending his series regular, ex-Marine and Arkansas state policeman Earl Swagger, into high-caliber trouble. With a capital "Yikes." The year is 1953, and the U.S.-buoyed government of Cuba seems to be having difficulty maintaining things as they have always been -- prodigiously corrupt, with American mobsters making a killing from the casino biz. Public unrest is helping to advance the careers of revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro, a lawyer and wannabe baseball star. Into this kettle of fishiness drops Swagger, who's agreed to bodyguard "Boss" Harry Etheridge, a rainmaking 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. And it only introduces the state cop to greater dangers, as he tries to protect Etheridge's party during a shootout on the road to Guantanamo, foils author Ernest Hemingway's advances toward a "knockout" airline employee in a bar, attracts the unwelcome attention of mob boss Meyer Lansky and takes on the assignment to assassinate Castro before the 26-year-old agitator can work his countrymen into a frenzy that hurts U.S. business interests as well as the porn-makers and drug dealers who thrive on the American trade. All of this places Swagger in intriguing opposition to a fellow professional killer named Speshnev, a "rehabilitated" Russian who has been sent to Cuba to protect Castro. As much as Havana is a muscular male fantasy novel about honor and tough justice and essential retribution, it's also a thoroughly engrossing yarn replete with politics, sex, treachery and violence that raises uncomfortable doubts about the pre-eminence of fair play in an unfair world. Oh, and Hunter does such a remarkable job of resurrecting mid-20th-century Havana, with its odoriferous coffee stands and sidewalk cigar rollers, you can almost get a buzz just by reading. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Hummingbird Wizard by Meredith Blevins (Forge)

Freelance writer Annie Szabo is the single mother of three full-grown daughters, who has grown quite comfortable with her own life. Years ago, she'd married into the Szabo family -- a clan of Gypsies who love and hate fiercely. After her husband, Stevan, died in a motorcycle accident, she distanced herself from his quirky relatives, moving to the redwoods country north of San Francisco. But a phone message from her former sister-in-law, Capri, has the Szabo clan hurtling back into Annie's life. 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, we learn, is Madame Mina, an intractable matriarch who blames Annie for Stevan's death and takes a generally dim view of Gypsies mixing with outsiders. Hoping to help Jerry, Annie travels to California's Bay Area -- only to discover that he's been killed. Likely murdered. In the aftermath, 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. If they are ever to expose Jerry's slayer (and stay safe themselves), Annie and her ex-mother-in-law must put aside their many differences and work together to answer some 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 Annie Szabo? Far from being a kooky cozy, The Hummingbird Wizard is an utterly charming first novel packed with polished prose, Gypsy lore, slimy lawyers, amorous dreams and hilarious repartee. -- Jennifer Jordan

The Lamplighter by Anthony O'Neill (Scribner)

Ideally, a historical thriller should place a series of brutal crimes in some factual context, while providing an entertaining, thought-provoking read. Anthony O'Neill's The Lamplighter does that; yet it also exceeds expectations created by previous works in this subgenre to become something dazzlingly different. The story's action takes us back to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1866. Brutal crimes have lately been occurring in that city's shadowy streets. A university professor is found ripped to shreds. A colonel's grave is dug up, 14 years after his death. A lighthouse keeper is murdered. The only obvious links between these incidents are their ferocity and the cryptic notes, written in foreign languages, that were left at the crime scenes. But what are police to make of messages such as "Ce Grand Trompeur" and "Innocentium Prosecutor"? And how do the horrific homicides relate to Evelyn Todd, a mysterious woman in her early 30s who claims to dream of the events as they occur? Conducting separate but parallel investigations are Carus Groves, a famous-yet-foolish police inspector, and Thomas McKnight, an increasingly disillusioned professor of logic and metaphysics, who's assisted by his friend, Joseph Canavan, an Irish laborer and gravedigger. Philosophy and phantasmagoria soon become important facets of this case, and in an outlandish yet utterly right resolution, McKnight and Canavan must not only solve the murders, but challenge the very notion of existence itself. O'Neill skillfully weaves a tale here that gains momentum with each successive page, yet also involves much thought and questioning. The Lamplighter assumes its reader are of reasonable intelligence and able to follow all the philosophical flights of fancy, which I appreciated very much. There's something refreshing about having one's mind slightly altered and in acquiring new patterns of thought after finishing a thriller. -- Sarah Weinman

Lost Souls by Michael Collins (Weidenfeld & Nicholson UK)

British novelist Michael Collins writes in a manner so fine and so subtle that one may miss the silken threads of plot wrapping tighter and tighter. A powerful first-person narrative instantly involves readers in the plight of his protagonist. In Lost Souls, the focus is on a small-town Midwestern cop named Lawrence, who receives a phone call on Halloween night, 1984, telling him that a 3-year-old girl is missing. Her mother, Lisa Kendell, passed out on her living room couch after putting her daughter to bed. A cold draft awakened her to an open front door. Near the street in front of the Kendell house, Lawrence discovers the broken wings of an angel costume. The child inside has obviously been dead for hours, and judging from the zigzagging tire tracks nearby, she perished in a hit-and-run accident. It transpires that a pickup truck, owned by the town's star quarterback, Kyle Johnson, had been spotted earlier, tearing away from the scene. This is bad news, indeed, because the town's hopes of winning the upcoming state football playoffs rest on Johnson. So it's really no surprise when the mayor and police chief let Lawrence know, in no uncertain terms, that it would be best if his investigation led away from young Johnson. Covering up crimes isn't remotely Lawrence's style, but the mayor holds a past transgression and the hollow promise of a better future over his head. So he figures he has no choice. However, his compliance stirs a slow, insipid whirlpool that will eventually pull all of Collins' players down. Too many people, with too much to hide from themselves and others, cause everything to implode. They have all turned from a truth that hides in plain sight. And only as he emerges from the undertow for the last time does Lawrence grasp what has really happened and realize that, all along, he had the power to do something about it. Slightly existentialist, and thoroughly haunting, Lost Souls is a perfect example of how the most beautiful and unforgettable prose can find a home within the crime fiction genre. -- Jennifer Jordan

Mister Candid by Jules Hardy (Pocket Books UK)

When his novel Red Dragon first saw print back in 1981, it's unlikely that Thomas Harris realized what a beast he had unleashed upon the publishing world. More than 20 years on, the "serial-killer novel" is frighteningly commonplace in the crime fiction world. There are numerous variants -- some expert, many mediocre -- but few delve into deeper waters, examining moral ambiguities and taboo underpinnings. Instead, they stick to what might be called the "graphic cozy" formula -- plenty of brutal violence, but a nice and neat resolution. Then along comes a novel that throws conventions out the window and skirts so many fine lines, it's amazing that it succeeds at all, let alone triumphs. In the stunning Mister Candid, Jules Hardy poses many disturbing questions and doesn't offer easy answers. For nearly two decades, law-enforcement types have half-whispered theories about Mister Candid. Some say he doesn't exist; others believe the shadowy figure has been on a systematic quest to right wrongs, killing scores of people who committed unspeakable crimes yet remained beyond the law's reach. The truth might be found among a series of disconnected people and items: a wizened, dying woman in a Florida rest home; the photograph of a laughing young man leaning against the hood of his Cadillac; and the mysterious disappearance of a rich East Hampton family 17 years ago. Putting the pieces together are an ex-NYPD officer long past burnout, a former nurse-turned-New York transplant who makes ends meet by turning tricks (while she waits for the man of her dreams), and Charlie Kane, who may be the biggest mystery of all. Mister Candid is a difficult novel to summarize, as it's less a whodunit than a carefully crafted psychological study of what drives someone to seek revenge, and the fine line between heroism and malignity. This book also chronicles a family so dysfunctional it makes Jacobean drama seem like fluffy comedy. Hardy's second novel (after 2002's Altered Land) is disturbing, unflinching and wholly uncomfortable. By rights, it should have descended into over-the-top melodrama, but instead it's saved by the author's straight-ahead prose style and its blistering pace. This is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone unprepared to do some serious thinking after turning the final page. In short, it's nearly a masterpiece. -- Sarah Weinman

The Murder Exchange by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK)

Coming off the success of his debut novel, The Business of Dying (released last year in the UK, but more recently in the States), Simon Kernick now offers up The Murder Exchange. It's a much faster-moving tale that swings from a funny series of misadventures in London's underworld to some of the most brutal fictional violence I've encountered in many years. This novel's point of view alternates between the first-person narratives of two main characters: cop John Galen and mercenary Max Iversson. Iversson kicks off the action here with his violent escape from a "money drop" that goes completely awry, after he'd reluctantly agreed to provide personal security for shady nightclub owner Roy Fowler. During the fracas, Fowler is slain by a member of Iversson's "Elite-A" security team, who has changed sides. Now on the run, Iversson stumbles into a heterogeneous cast of London lowlifes and finds himself sexually involved on an almost hourly basis with one of Fowler's employees, the mysterious Elaine Toms. As Iversson tries to figure out why Fowler was killed, and who pulled the strings to make it happen, Detective Galen -- working with a blood match at the homicide scene -- dogs Iversson's trail. But the closer he gets to his quarry, the more linkages Galen sees to gang lord Krys Holz, a psychopath who controls the North London underworld. Beyond the difficulty of linking Fowler's death to Holz, Galen also faces political problems, following accusations of racism that led to his being demoted. This taint haunts the detective, as does his earlier failure to find a missing schoolboy. Galen has much to prove to himself before this tale is done. Iversson has less to prove; he's too occupied just trying to find out why one of his men turned into a murderous traitor, and why everyone seems to be after him. With its pyrotechnics-packed finale set in the menacingly dark countryside just outside of England's capital, The Murder Exchange is an accomplished second novel, highly recommend for lovers of the amoral. -- Ali Karim

Persuader by Lee Child (Delacorte Press)

Written in the first-person (like Child's 1997 debut thriller, Killing Floor), Persuader starts out with former military policeman Jack Reacher apparently crossing the legal line -- killing a few cops as he rescues university student Richard Beck from an attempted kidnapping, and then hies off with the boy to a remote estate on the Maine coast. Naturally, as any Child fan could tell you, there's more here than meets the eye. Reacher is trying to get close to Beck's father, a reclusive tycoon and alleged drug kingpin who may know the whereabouts of a missing FBI undercover agent. Hired by Beck as a new bodyguard, he has the chance to poke about the estate, looking for the errant fed and silencing anyone who suspects he isn't who he seems to be. Along the way, he discovers that the elder Beck may be able to lead him not just to that missing agent, but also to an old nemesis -- the man who killed Reacher's lover a decade ago, and whom our hero thought he'd already disposed of in revenge. Child uses location to great effect here, with the bad guys holed-up in a fortress that harkens back to the Piz Gloria from Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, or perhaps Alistair MacLean's Eagles Nest, from his Where Eagles Dare. The book is an action smorgasbord, and its dialogue crackles, with Reacher at his most laconic. Child tips his hat fondly to New York caper novelist Brian Wiprud (Pipsqueak) by naming a taxidermy warehouse after him, and what's with all the to-ing and fro-ing to a town called MacLean? A subplot highlighting the dysfunctional Beck family, guarded (or is it trapped?) by the maniacal Paulie, is almost surreal. And the final fistfight between Reacher and Paulie made me check my own teeth, such is the bone-crunching intensity of its detail. By keeping this story's main villain off-stage for most of the time, Child adds to the sense of menace leading up to his finale. In Reacher, Child has developed a protagonist who actually deserves the label "hero." -- Ali Karim

Prey by Michael Crichton (HarperCollins)

Once more, Michael Crichton takes an emerging technology and shows how it could run amok. This time he focuses on genetics, distributed intelligence and nanotechnology. Prey gets off to a pretty straightforward start: California software guru Jack Forman, who's living the life of a house husband after being fired from a shady Silicon Valley firm, comes to suspect that his wife, Julia, a high-powered computer executive, is having an affair. She's behaving oddly and has been spending more and more time working at the Xymos Corporation's experimental fabrication plant in the barren Nevada desert. So when Xymos asks Jack to help Julia with her top-secret research, he sees it as a chance to put his fears to rest. He realizes quickly, though, that there's more to worry about here than extramarital shenanigans. Xymos is having a few problems with its prototype, self-replicating nano-devices -- microscopic machines that were designed to swarm and act as "eyes in the sky" for the U.S. military, but have escaped confinement. They've now started to breed in the wild, and are menacing the Xymos scientists, trapped in their laboratory. From this point, Crichton's tale turns into a race against time and raises questions about what these nano-swarms want from mankind. Do they crave some symbiosis with their creators ... or something far more threatening? Crichton's real narrative skill is shown in the way he pits his team of scientists against the swarm they've foisted upon the world. Readers may find themselves simultaneously wanting to zip through the pages, just to reach the conclusion, and reading slowly to absorb the author's myriad concepts. -- Ali Karim

Scavenger Hunt by Robert Ferrigno (Pantheon Books)

Early on in this witty, full-bodied yarn, tabloid reporter Jimmy Gage meets Garrett Walsh, a gifted L.A. film director who did seven years in prison for the beating death of 15-year-old actress-aspirant Heather Grimm. Taking a shine to the man from SLAP magazine, Walsh offers to give Gage a peek at his new screenplay, based on the director's conviction that he was set up for Grimm's slaying -- possibly by the husband of an unnamed "good wife" with whom he'd been having an affair at the time. "I got it all down here: names, places, dates," Walsh assures Gage. But the journo is skeptical. At least until Walsh is found dead, and the alleged evidence of his framing -- what he'd called "the most dangerous screenplay in Hollywood" -- goes missing. Distrustful of findings that Walsh died accidentally, bad boy Gage (introduced in Flinch, one of January's favorite books of 2001) digs back into the Heather Grimm case. He's particularly intrigued by the existence of that mysterious "good wife" Walsh mentioned, a woman who had supposedly sent the director a letter in prison, shortly before his release, saying that her husband had known about their affair all along -- and that he's kept videotapes of their lovemaking to prove it. Could that jealous spouse have deliberately and wrongly implicated Walsh in Grimm's grim demise? And, if so, was the teenager complicit in the scheme? Ferrigno brings a wonderfully sardonic humor to his portrayal of L.A. as a mesmerizing fantasyland where nymphets think nothing of posing nude in front of the HOLLYWOOD sign and pistols are the jewelry of choice. Scavenger Hunt is fluidly written and brilliantly sordid escapist fare. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow)

Like the hurricane-pounded landmark that gives Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island its name, I feel battered and bruised by the complexity and ambition of this deeply disturbing novel. Its story starts out simply enough: two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, arrive at Ashecliffe Hospital, a federal penal institution for the criminally insane, located on Shutter Island, just outside of Boston Harbor. They've been assigned to retrieve a missing inmate, Rachel Solando -- a mysterious barefoot woman who murdered her children and was incarcerated for life at this facility. During the marshals' surreal investigation, which finds them deciphering clues that seem to have been deliberately left by Solando for her pursuers, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the hospital's staff from its patients. Rumors abound of mind-control experiments, using surgery as well as drugs. And in an enigmatic warning, one of the inmates who was in group therapy with Solando on the day of her disappearance tells Daniels to "run." Meanwhile, all around them, a tempest is gathering to smash at the rocky isle. Before Lehane's tale is spent, the marshals will have to face up to latent dark truths, hidden at the very top of a lighthouse that acts like a sentinel, watching these peculiar proceedings with an omnipotent penetration. It's amazing how Lehane snaps back the boundaries in Shutter Island, combining the mystery genre with the sinister and paranoid world of Philip K. Dick, and raising doubts about reality, madness and evil. The novel is also intensely moving and written with a hallucinogenic, almost hypnotic style. Shutter Island's structure is at times scary, at times worrying, and at other points it threatens to bring you to tears with the beauty of its language. Astute readers will listen to the crazy whispers that nibble at your earlobe throughout the book; but then the ending rips off your ear like Mike Tyson's teeth. A robust and intricately structured yarn, Lehane's second standalone (after 2001's Mystic River) is likely to divide this author's growing legion of fans, but be remembered by all. -- Ali Karim

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman (Alfred A. Knopf)

Is murder ever trivial? It seems an odd question to ask, considering the devastating impact that violent death can have; but when the setting is a war-torn city where hundreds die each day, it's all too easy to become desensitized. Death is no longer about the individual, and people's daily lives become lost in the fray. Still, the best war-backdropped novels combine the atrocities of armed conflict with the need to convey each death as a singular event worthy of further investigation. Dan Fesperman's The Small Boat of Great Sorrows does that exceedingly well. It's the sequel to Lie in the Dark (1999), a moving tale about police investigator Vlado Petric, who was working in ravaged Bosnia to unravel a murder no one really wanted to see solved. Five years later, as Small Boat opens, Petric has left his native country behind in order to reunite with his wife and daughter in Berlin. He now toils as a construction worker, putting the past behind him -- or so he thinks. But then, one day, he's visited by Calvin Pine, an American lawyer for the international War Crimes Tribunal, who offers Vlado an intriguing opportunity: working undercover to help facilitate the exchange of a World War II war criminal for a Serbian general wanted for his role in the more recent massacre at Srebrenica. Feeling the itch of his former profession and the tug of his homeland, Vlado agrees, only to realize later that the story here is far more complicated than he was led to believe, and that he wasn't picked only for his police skills. In the process of uncovering secrets dating back nearly 50 years, the moody and sometimes morally ambiguous Vlado also discovers a few uncomfortable -- and potentially lethal -- truths about his own family. Small Boat is a well-plotted mystery, a moving character study and a pointed commentary on the horrors of war. Ultimately, it's about how much things change over time, and yet how little they do, as well. -- Sarah Weinman

Small Town by Lawrence Block (William Morrow)

This book reeks of love -- love for the "small town" of New York City, a love for the process of writing and a general love of life, all framed by the horrifying events of 9/11. It's a multi-viewpoint tale set during the months immediately following those attacks on Manhattan's World Trade Center, and finds the metropolis being terrorized yet again -- this time, by a serial killer dubbed "the Carpenter," who excuses his crimes as sacrificial vengeance on the city that cost his wife and children their lives. Around this thriller premise, Block assembles a diverse cast that includes a gay Greenwich Village housecleaner, whose clients keep turning up dead; a mid-list crime novelist named John Blair Creighton, who becomes a hot commodity after police target him as a suspect in the on-going slayings; a politically ambitious ex-police commissioner who is ensnared by a successful art gallery owner-turned-dominatrix; the gallery owner herself, Susan Pomerance, who discovers her perverse sexuality in those dark days and, in so doing, frees herself from her repressive childhood; and, of course, the serial killer, who is a force more to be pitied than feared. From these components, Block creates a modern morality tale full of pathos, sexual deviants and witty swipes at the publishing industry. The author, a New Yorker born and bred, has created here a valentine to America's largest city. Small Town, a rare standalone for Block, takes plenty of risks but makes few errors. It's one literary bite of the Big Apple that will stay with you for a long, long time. -- Ali Karim

Soul Circus by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown and Company)

This is perhaps George Pelecanos' most mainstream novel yet, and it marks a distinct shift for series lead Derek Strange. A black Washington, D.C., private eye, Strange is 54 years old and at last married to his longtime secretary and girlfriend, Janine Baker. He seems to have accepted his unaccustomed role as a husband and stepfather, and his dealings with the community's young black men are tinged with determination and purpose rather than anger and guilt. Soul Circus picks up where Hell to Pay (2002) left off, with drug lord Granville Oliver on trial in federal court. Strange has been hired by the defense to dig up exonerating evidence -- no easy task, especially since Oliver's former right-hand man, Phil Wood, is the government's key witness. Oliver urges Strange to locate Devra Stokes, a young woman formerly with their operation who could testify that Wood himself had planned, and likely carried out, at least one of the murders the feds have hung on Oliver. But Devra has been intimidated into silence by Wood's associates on the outside, a gang of drug dealers headed by the chillingly brutal Horace McKinley. Strange's preoccupation with Devra will lead to this book's tragic ending, which comes about because he loses control of a separate investigation that he's entrusted to his white partner, Terry Quinn. Quinn thinks he is helping Mario Durham, a slightly dim young black man, find his vanished girlfriend, Olivia Elliott. Turns out, though, that the innocent-appearing Mario is the brother of gang leader Dewayne Durham, McKinley's rival for control of the city drug trade, and Mario's looking for Olivia to exact revenge for her stealing from him. When Olivia turns up dead in a city park, anger and guilt blur Quinn's judgment, and Strange, though he's accustomed to his partner's short-fused temper, fails to notice what's going on in time to avert tragedy. Pelecanos writes about D.C., from its criminal subculture to its black middle-class and law-enforcement community, without a scintilla of stereotyping. Strong characterization and rich setting making Soul Circus a superb standalone novel as well as a powerful addition to the Derek Strange series. -- Karen G. Anderson

Tribeca Blues by Jim Fusilli (Putnam)

There isn't a single blues lick here; not one mention of sharecroppers, cotton picking or slavery; no obligatory name-dropping of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, but take it from me: this book ain't called Tribeca Blues for nothing. Terry Orr, its tragic hero, definitely has hellhounds on his trail. OK, so maybe it's hard to feel sorry for this spoiled, self-obsessed, self-pitying, rich white yuppie with his bottled water, his loving and devoted daughter, his wonderfully loyal friends, his attractive and smart girlfriend, and his great house (yes, house!) right smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. In fact, while reading this book -- and the same was true with its predecessors, Closing Time (2001) and A Well-Known Secret (2002) -- I often felt the urge to grab Terry, shake him and yell, "Snap out of it!" But then Fusilli's vigorous prose kicked in again, and I was hooked once more on his continuing saga of a haunted, tortured man who's struggling to be a good father and a decent human being -- even as he's obsessed with avenging the deaths of his wife and infant son, both of whom were pushed in front of a subway train several years ago. Terry's determination to catch the supposed killer, a homeless wingnut named Raymond Weisz, has lead him to become a private eye (pro bono, since he doesn't need the money), in hopes that he can one day use his new skills to bring the elusive Weisz to justice. And his ongoing, angst-ridden mission of vigilantism (a sort of yuppie Death Wish), supported by sharply drawn characters and a vivid sense of the Big Apple, is never less than captivating. Fusilli could have easily coasted, stringing us along for several more books, eventually running this series into the ground; but it turns out he's an even smarter and braver writer than I'd suspected, after far bigger game. Tribeca Blues begins with the death of a close friend of Terry's (and a colorful series regular). Then, instead of just piling more pain on our would-be hero's shoulders, making this novel merely round three of Terry's dangerous game, the author takes dead aim and kicks all of his protagonist's props out from under him, leaving Terry Orr stranded at a crossroads. It's an audacious masterstroke and immediately calls into question many of the "truths" about this character and this series -- not to mention assorted concepts of crime, punishment, justice and mercy -- that many readers, myself included, may have taken for granted. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The White Russian by Tom Bradby (Bantam Press UK)

It's January 1917, and as social and political tensions threaten to embroil Russia in revolution, the bodies of an unidentified man and woman -- both of them stabbed to death -- are discovered on St. Petersburg's frozen Neva River, right in front of Tsar Nicholas II's glittering Winter Palace. Called in to clear up this mystery are police investigators Alexander "Sandro" Ruzsky, just back on the job after spending three years in Siberian banishment for having crossed the tsar's secret police, and his partner, Pavel Miliutin. Though there are few clues left at the crime scene, the apparent murder weapon -- a crude black dagger -- is found, and there must be some significance to the fact that the male victim was punctured repeatedly, while the woman caught the blade only once, "precisely in the centre of her chest." It's finally the female victim's dress that leads to her identification as a former nanny to the Imperial Family, dismissed for theft -- though precisely what she stole isn't clear, even after Ruzsky's questioning of palace employees and his unexpected audience with a flustered Tsarina Alexandra. Meanwhile, the dead man from the river is found to be an American criminal and labor agitator, whose pockets contained a roll of banknotes marked with tiny ink dots. A secret code of some sort? If so, who's using it, and to what end? As Ruzsky pursues leads that take him south to Yalta, provoke confrontations with an arrogant secret-police chief and threaten to blow him to bits, he slowly unpeels a conspiracy that's wrapped up in greed, politics and revenge. At the same time, he must contend with longstanding family guilt and a youthful ballerina, after whom both he and his soldier brother lust -- a woman whose concealed past makes her a far more intriguing, and more deadly, companion than Ruzky realizes. Bradby, a senior correspondent for the British TV network ITN and the author of The Master of Rain (2002), has produced in The White Russian a story that is at once bleak and vivid with human emotion, with a mystery plot that's as chilling as an arctic night. -- J. Kingston Pierce

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