Crime Fiction


Absent Friends by S.J. Rozan (Delacorte)

A number of readers and reviewers of crime fiction wondered what effect the events of September 11, 2001, would have on their genre of choice. Would future mystery and suspense books, especially those taking place in New York City, specifically acknowledge the terrorist attacks of that day? Or would writers ignore this epochal tragedy in hopes of telling stories set in a more timeless and reassuring zone? Several writers took the realistic route -- some by inserting references to September 11 into manuscripts about to be published in its immediate wake, some by subsequently writing books inspired or built around those attacks. Most impressive of these latter works, in this reader's opinion, and one of the best thrillers of this year, was Edgar Award-winning author S.J. Rozan's Absent Friends: a standalone novel with an elaborate plot of friendships and betrayals unfolding in the aftermath of the tragic events. What starts all the memories and revelations is the death on September 11 of a veteran New York firefighter, 46-year-old Captain Jimmy McCaffery, nicknamed "Superman" for his career heroism. A once-renowned journalist exploring the dead man's history comes upon some less-than-savory-seeming aspects to his life. After this writer, Harry Randall, prints stories insinuating scandal in the fireman's past, he himself dies in a fall from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Was it an accident, a suicide -- or murder? Absent Friends uses flashbacks and multiple points of view to tell its decades-spanning story, which scrupulously evokes the emotional and physical feel of Manhattan before, during and after those awful September events. -- Tom Nolan

Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You by Laurie Lynn Drummond (HarperCollins)

This debut collection of short stories by a former Louisiana uniformed police officer has been called "astonishing" (by Elmore Leonard), "beautiful" (by Bret Lott), "brilliant" (by Margot Livesey) and "the real deal" (by Joseph Wambaugh). The work of Drummond (who grew up in Virginia, and now lives and teaches in Texas) deserves all those adjectives and more. Centering on five female cops in Baton Rouge, these first-person tales convey the authority of lived experience told with the precision of a fearless artist. Hard-boiled? Some of these pages are almost too tough to read. Here's a snippet: "She got slowly to her knees, panting, realizing suddenly holy mary mother of god that she had a knife in her -- so deep, the doctors would tell us later, that the blade tip was embedded in her spine, that it took such force to remove it, even after carefully cutting away all the tissue, muscle, tendons around each serrated edge of the knife, that her body came up off the surgical table." In the context of such violent incidents, the humanity of Drummond's complex characters stands out all the more starkly. "What I wanted was to see," one of her women officers recalls, of why she became a cop. " ... But what do you do with the feelings, I wondered ..." Drummond, at least, found an answer to that one. The result is this brave and extraordinary book. -- Tom Nolan

Bad Move by Linwood Barclay (Bantam)

Maybe the funniest crime novel published in the United States in 2004 was written by a journalist from Canada. Linwood Barclay has been a popular Toronto Star columnist for several years. And January Magazine readers will know him as the author of the non-fiction Last Resort (2000), a wonderful memoir of Barclay's childhood and adolescence in Ontario's "cottage country." Barclay's jump into detective fiction is not as out of character as it may seem, though. Bad Move displays much the same sort of wild domestic humor with which Barclay's column-readers are familiar. And Last Resort revealed how a teenaged Barclay was mentored, by mail and then in person, by another Canadian columnist-turned-detective-fiction writer, Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald). Still, even Barclay's greatest champions may have been surprised at just how funny Bad Move is. This hilarious tale of Zack Walker, a busybody suburban dad caught up in dangerous doings and in over his head, is perhaps the most comical crime-fiction series debut since Donald E. Westlake's The Hot Rock (1970). Zack's abiding fault (as well as his stock-in-trade as a science-fiction writer) is an overactive imagination. He can't stop thinking how things might go wrong. Fear of possible city mishaps drove him to move with his family to the suburbs. Now, in the 'burbs, Zack can't stop seeing new possible perils. After stealing what he thinks is his wife's unattended purse from a market-basket to teach her a lesson on caution, Zack becomes caught up in a sticky web of circumstance that not even his own paranoid self could have dreamt up. Confronted at last with actual disaster, he initially can only fall back on his old spousal-parental patter: "My first instinct, in the hours following the discovery of Spender's body, even without knowing exactly how he'd died, was to give everyone a security lecture. Don't talk to strangers or pick up hitchhikers, make sure you haven't left the keys in the door, make sure you throw the deadbolt, obey your 'walk' and 'don't walk' signals, don't use the electric hair dryer while you're sitting in the bathtub, wait an hour after eating before swimming, never run with scissors." Only a veteran columnist or a skilled playwright, I think (both types of writers used to setting up things early in order to have them pay off later), would be able to pull off one spectacular physical gag Barclay engineers in Bad Move -- a gag, be it said, which not only forces you to laugh out loud but also works to advance the plot. I envy a reader his first close encounter with Zack Walker, frantic brainchild of Canada's latest gift to American crime fiction. Sequels, it's rumored, are already in the works. Not bad, eh? -- Tom Nolan

The Blood-Dimmed Tide by Rennie Airth (Macmillan UK)

Critics can be a cynical lot, and many expressed doubts as to whether Rennie Airth's second John Madden historical thriller would ever reach bookstores. Twice over the last four years, this sequel to The River of Darkness (1999) was promised ... and twice it failed to be published. But doubt no longer. The Blood-Dimmed Tide (which takes its title from a W.B. Yeats poem) finds Madden, now a former Scotland Yard inspector, retired and living peacefully on a farm in Surrey with his doctor wife, Helen, and their two children, 10-year-old Rob and 6-year-old Lucy. The year is 1932, and the rise of Nazis in Germany has many of their fellow countrymen, as well as the Brits, worried for Europe's stability. More immediately concerning for Madden, however, is his discovery of the corpse of pubescent Alice Bridger -- raped, disfigured and secreted near a tramps' campsite. Suspicion falls quickly on a vagrant known as Beezy, who was supposedly in the area, but Madden -- with his remarkable insight into crime ("Madden's always had a way of seeing things clearly, of seeing through them, or rather beyond them," says a former police colleague) -- thinks this is more than an isolated case. Sure enough, a records check turns up similar murders in England dating back to 1929, as well as an active investigation by the German police into half a dozen dead girls in Bavaria and Prussia. What accounts for both the wide range of these mutilations, and the long lag time between them? Could the cops be looking for a psychopathic traveler, or worse, a rogue spy who's managed to keep up a good front at his international postings, while satisfying his malevolent appetites in his spare hours? Author Airth is a precise plotter, expert in dribbling out twists that heighten story tension but don't overwhelm readers with red herrings. Although Madden's role here is less than it was in River of Darkness -- a consequence of his strong-willed wife trying to protect him from further hurt, after the events of the previous book -- Airth compensates by giving us a supporting cast of full-dimensioned Yard types, led by Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, a perceptive Scot whose doggedness pairs well with Madden's gift for inspiration. While the author fails, oddly, to exploit a couple of opportunities for interesting plot turns at book's end, his psychological portrait of the murderer imbues Tide with a fine pathos, and the backdrop of Nazi power-grabbing sets the stage for what is supposed to be a third and final Madden yarn. Let's hope that novel appears in a more timely fashion. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Border Guards by Mark Sinnett (HarperCollins Canada)

The border dividing the United States and Canada has traditionally been one of the friendliest in the entire world. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, going across the border remains a fairly easy and mostly painless exercise. If border tensions don't seem like a good basis for an espionage plot, think again -- because terrorists, smugglers and tax cheats make good use of the border for their ill-gotten gains and illegal desires. In his debut novel, The Border Guards, Mark Sinnett shines a fascinating light on those who oversee the border and those who must use all of their law enforcement power to derail a smuggling operation that has turned deadly, while juxtaposing a poetically written character study of a son's fraying relationship with his father. Tim Hollins operates a restaurant on the Canadian side of the Thousand Islands, a series of border towns near Kingston, Ontario. His restaurant is successful primarily because of the affluent customers who patronize the place -- most of whom are friends and colleagues of Tim's powerbroker father, Michael. But after a night of drinking, Michael goes for a drive and dies in a car accident -- an open-and-shut case. But when Tim turns up some mysterious documents and a cache of diamonds, and then more people start to die, keeping the restaurant running pales in comparison to staying alive. All the while, FBI agent John Selby has returned from a sabbatical to join up with the Border Vigilance Commission, a special branch investigating illicit dealings involving cross-border shipments and Russian mobsters. This novel's complex plot wends its way through urban Toronto, picturesque Kingston, and the expanse of the border to reach a violent, but utterly believable, conclusion. Mark Sinnett, a British expat living in Canada, is an accomplished poet and short-fiction writer, and that experience shows through in the quality of his prose. His descriptions of nature and cold brim with authenticity, and his poetic style informs the depth and complexity of each of Guards' major characters. There are no two-dimensional stock caricatures and no clichéd plot developments here; instead, The Border Guards is a more subtle work, a thriller of nuances, trace glances, melancholy and loss that also educates the reader about border politics and intricacies without ever becoming dry and didactic. It's a pleasure to find a talent who writes so well and has created a work that is so very Canadian. -- Sarah Weinman

The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown UK)

OK, so we're now four books into Mark Billingham's London-based police-procedural series featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. In previous installments, we encountered a woman drugged into a coma; serial murderers working in concert; and rapists being hunted down by a serial killer. Now, in The Burning Girl, Billingham delves deep into the underworld as Thorne and his team investigate gangland slayings in north London, linked to a turf war. In the midst of this, Thorne is asked for help on a different matter by retired Detective Chief Inspector Carol Chamberlain. Twenty years ago, Chamberlain was the arresting officer in the tragic case of a hit man, Gordon Rooker, who set fire to schoolgirl Jessica Clarke. Except that Clarke was the victim of mistaken identity; Rooker was supposed to have attacked the daughter of a local organized-crime boss. With Rooker still incarcerated, who is threatening the former DCI, and why? Topical, given its focus on the foreign gangs that increasingly occupy London's criminal underbelly, and offering a very authentic portrayal of the police canteen culture, The Burning Girl scores high marks -- not just as a police procedural, but because it incorporates great character interplay and examines the effect that violence can have on the people who use it as a tool of their trade. Sherlock Award-winning top-cop Thorne is in fine form here, and comedian Billingham shows his wit and ability to weave a devious plot. Hit men and gangsters are a welcome change from this author's usual cabal of serial killers. -- Ali Karim

Burning Precinct Puerto Rico by Steve Torres (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Speak of Steven Torres' Precinct Puerto Rico series and the word "solid" comes readily to mind. Torres puts the reader right into the heart of small-town Angustias, Puerto Rico, as events from Book One (Precinct Puerto Rico, 2002) reach into this year's third installment, Burning Precinct Puerto Rico -- a story so real, so human and so brutal that the reader may forget to breathe. As he prepares for the fête celebrating his 25 years as sheriff of Angustias, Luis Gonzalo looks at his image in the mirror. Every scar tells a tale of the corruption he has seen, the people he has lost and the paradoxes that landed him at this day, bedecked with medals of valor. He knows, though, that his battle isn't over. Even as townspeople gather to heap honor upon their sheriff, the enemy is afoot. As smoke rises suddenly into the sky, Gonzalo is already walking toward his car. Too late. By the time he arrives at the fire scene, the Ortiz house is engulfed in flames. Strangely, though, the family is not among the onlookers. Gonzalo has no choice. Dousing himself with water from a nearby water tower, he enters the blazing residence. Amid the bodies, bound and burnt, screams a baby. Only that little boy and his unconscious sister survive. Arson is a foregone conclusion. It is obviously a message, but for who, and why? Angustias' new mayor, Francisco Primavera, who so recently had heaped praise upon Gonzalo, decides to call in the Metropolitanos (metropolitan police) to investigate these murders, despite the longstanding feud between the blue-clad Metropolitanos and the rural, green-clad, less-respected Gandules. In Gonzalo's experience, it is the Metropolitanos who were the source of all of the events that earned him his medals. The battle has begun anew. And any conflict involving corruption this deeply rooted is bound to leave casualties on both sides. Torres' police-procedural series is among the best in print today. Unlike some series, in which installments all feel like standalones, the Precinct Puerto Rico books feed a larger, expanding story line. Events ripple through these novels, past characters continue to be mourned and wounds take time to heal. There isn't an unnecessary word here -- and those that Torres does offer convey his characters and setting so expertly, you'll feel the Puerto Rican sun on your back as you look for Luis Gonzalo to walk down the street. In his small-town lawman, Torres has created a real hero. He is a man fortified by his family and driven by integrity in his fight against powerful political forces that most other folks would have walked away from. And Gonzalo solves crimes the old-fashioned way, with footwork and questions. It is through his keen observations of people that he manages to bring vague clues together. And it's how he manages to stay alive. This series conveyed authorial experience from its beginning, with a promise of greatness kept in each new installment. -- Jennifer Jordan

By a Spider's Thread by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

Those who were worried, after the critical and commercial success of Every Secret Thing (2003), that Laura Lippman would give up her Tess Monaghan series need fret no longer. Unlike authors such as Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane, who have abandoned their series in favor of more profitable standalones, Lippman shows no such inclination. In By a Spider's Thread, she brings back Tess in a mystery that has this Boston private investigator both reassessing her relationships and questioning her religious beliefs. When Tess is introduced to her prospective client, Mark Rubin, it's not love at first sight. Tess finds the Orthodox Jew sexist, anal and completely oblivious to the warning signs his missing wife, Natalie Peters, may have been giving off. The much younger Natalie has disappeared with the couple's two sons, and all Mark wants is to have his happy family together once more. Anyone familiar with Lippman's series won't be surprised to learn that things are not what they seem in Spider's Thread. Soon, she and Mark are up to their necks in a scheme that began before he even met his wife. Natalie is on the run with her ex-con boyfriend, and contrary to what she had told Mark, her father is quite alive and in prison. As Tess interviews Natalie's friends she must decide how much of the truth to tell Mark about his wayward wife. This mess leaves Tess contemplating her own estranged relationship with her boyfriend, Crow, as well as her Aunt Kitty's upcoming nuptials. In addition, Mark's devotion to his religion forces Tess to confront her ignorance about her mother's Jewish heritage and to ask whether she has been missing something from her life. Tess receives aid in this story from the SnoopSisters Digest, an e-mail network of other female P.I.s. Although this sets up the contrivance of Tess being able to make fast leaps in her investigation without the footwork usually involved, the witty e-notes contribute some nice humor, since the ladies talk as much about manicurists as they do about welfare scams and police connections. Tess Monaghan continues to be a vastly entertaining character whose cynical sense of humor, sharp tongue and rash actions often land her in situations she'd have been better off avoiding. A former reporter whose boyfriend's murder started her on the path of being an investigator (see Charm City, 1997), Tess has grown immensely as a protagonist. And with a conclusion that is both startling and tragic, By a Spider's Thread soars toward an ending that the reader knows can't be good. Rightfully deserving of its praise, I'm thrilled to see Lippman sticking with the series that brought her to this favorable stage. -- Cindy Chow

California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker (William Morrow)

"Everybody loves a pretty girl and a tragedy," notes a cop in T. Jefferson Parker's extraordinary 12th novel. The young woman he's thinking of in this case is this book's eponymous victim and symbol: a beauty queen from the wrong side of the tracks, whose fate intersects and helps shape the lives of three brothers (a policeman, a clergyman, a journalist) in Orange County, California, in the 1960s and beyond. The Becker boys first meet Janelle Vonn in an orange grove; and in the mind of Nick Becker, the future police detective, Janelle becomes identified with the beguiling female on the local SunBlesst orange-crate label: "a raven-haired beauty holding out a perfect navel orange and smiling. Behind her were rows of orange trees. The sky above the trees was indigo blue and the words California Girl charged out of it in bright yellow letters." In telling the story of Janelle Vonn, who goes from bad to better to worse, this book also unfurls a vivid tapestry of a certain patch of Southern California in the 60s: a dangerous paradise where God, drugs, sex, crime, music, writing and politics mingle and meld in an ever-changing cultural here-and-now. As impressive as Parker's wide-angle panoramas are his sharp little color snapshots of the Southland: "Bonnett's rock, wood, and glass castle dominated the hill. Above the roofline Nick saw only sky and a redtail hawk gliding on a thermal ... Nick looked out to the blue Pacific wedged between the brown canyon hills. Smelled the sage and eucalyptus and just a hint of ocean blowing into the canyon from the sea." California Girl is a knockout work, a haunting book that lingers in memory like the vanished years it so beautifully evokes. -- Tom Nolan

The Crime Trade by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK)

This third novel from the amoral pen of British novelist Simon Kernick starts out in fourth gear at Heathrow Airport, just outside of London, where a drug bust goes completely and tragically wrong. A "sting" had been set up to capture a gang of Colombian cocaine smugglers. But when that plan blows up, suspicion falls quickly on Montgomery "Stegs" Jenner, a maverick undercover cop who's known to be a bit too comfortable in the criminal world -- and whose partner and friend, Paul Vokerman, took a bullet in the head during that fouled bust. Concurrent with the airport disaster, gangster-turned-informer "Slim" Robbie O'Brien is murdered, along with his mother, in a council flat. It's those latter homicides that rope in Kernick's regular players from the Serious Crime Squad: Detective Inspectors John Gallan and Asif Malik, and Detective Sergeant Tina Boyd. While the suspended Jenner works his own scheme to avenge Vokerman's death, Gallan and company sniff after Slim Robbie's murderers as well as the men behind the Heathrow debacle. That trail will lead them to London's most ruthless gangs of criminals, for whom life and death are merely part of the crime trade. Hip and refreshingly un-PC, The Crime Trade is an exhilarating read guaranteed to further enhance Kernick's reputation. But this novel's real strength is found in its sizzling dialogue and gallows humor, which at times recall George V. Higgins' 1972 novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which also invited readers into the world of small-time hoodlums, trapped between the wheels of big-time organized crime. -- Ali Karim

Day After Day by Carlo Lucarelli (The Harvill Press UK)

Italy may not be the first country that comes to mind when one is evaluating the best of noir fiction, but that's not for a lack of output. In fact, some of the very best noiristes reside in that country; however, the slow trickle of English translation prevents their voices from being heard. Luckily, Carlo Lucarelli's reputation is growing in a manner it wholeheartedly deserves. His first translated novel, Almost Blue, was nominated for the British Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger last year. The next in the series, Day After Day, is even better. Ispettore Grazia Negro faces the usual challenges a female police officer does in a predominantly male environment. She's also recovering from the events of the previous novel, in which she battled a vicious serial killer -- and in the process, gained a lover. The problem is that the relationship between Negro and the blind Simone, who helped catch the "Iguana" two years earlier, has slowly disintegrated into painful silences and increasing distance. The news that a new killer -- code name "Pit Bull," because of the pictures he leaves behind -- is at large in Italy is almost welcome to Negro's ears. As the killings increase in number and the frustrations grow (for Pit Bull assumes a different disguise with each new victim), a bored Internet chat room supervisor decides to check in on what's happening, and stumbles across a conversation between the killer and an associate. His amateur investigation collides with Negro's, and as she inches closer to unmasking the murderer, the stage is set for one of the most disturbing protagonist/killer confrontations in recent crime fiction. The elements of Day After Day suggest standard serial-killer fare, but don't be fooled. Author Lucarelli's stripped-down style, which never wastes a single word, focuses more on developing the main characters into realistic human beings. Pit Bull, too, comes across as a reasonably sympathetic figure, even as he commits the most horrible crimes possible. As a thriller, this book is very good; as a character study of disaffected individuals who can't quite find their way back to each other, it approaches brilliance. Carlo Lucarelli has crafted one of the best examples of noir I've read this year, and it's only a matter of time before his popularity in his home country translates fully to the English-speaking world. -- Sarah Weinman

Dead Sight by Glenn Chandler (Hodder & Stoughton UK)

I was wondering how long it would take to get a follow-up to Savage Tide (2003), the first entry in a new series by British TV writer Glenn Chandler (best known for his award-winning Taggart series for Scottish Television). As it turns out, we hadn't long to wait at all, and the sequel, Dead Sight, doesn't disappoint. This novel puts us back in the company of Detective Inspector Steve Madden, still traumatized by the previous investigation into his son's murder, and by the split from his wife. In Dead Sight, this Brighton DI's past collides with his future after he is told by Lavinia Roberts, a childhood friend and enigmatic fortune-teller, that one of her clients could well be a serial killer. Days later, Lavinia is found murdered, with a deck of tarot cards left before her. Then a child's corpse is uncovered, and signs suggest this was a ritual slaying. If Madden's to settle these mysteries, he must delve into the world of the occult, witchcraft and mysticism. Bodies start to pile up, as do connections between these deaths and a Brighton crime lord. Well written in a terse style but with characters that breath as well as resonate against the landscape of England's south coast, Dead Sight is another terrific police procedural, with dialogue just as sharp as you'd expect from Taggart's creator. I used to think Brighton was such a nice seaside resort, but as with all places of beauty, it claims a dark shadow. Like his renowned American namesake, this Chandler is becoming an important figure in crime fiction. -- Ali Karim

Double Play by Robert B. Parker (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Even with three contemporary series going full tilt, master storyteller Robert B. Parker just can't seem to keep his paws off the past. Previous historical forays -- such as his audacious stab at the Wyatt Earp legend (in 2001's Gunman's Rhapsody) and his period-piece dabblings with Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe (Poodle Springs and Perchance to Dream) -- have been generally well received by fans and even, begrudgingly, by some critics. But now he's turned back the clock again with Double Play, arguably his best book in years. It's a smooth, taut thriller which finds a physically and emotionally wounded white World War II vet, Joseph Burke, playing bodyguard to a gifted "colored" baseball player. Like the novel itself, however, that's just part of the story, because the year is 1947 and the talented jock is none other than Jackie Robinson, just brought up from the Montreal Royals farm team to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers -- and thus effectively shattering major-league baseball's color barrier once and for all. Parker paints a sensitive portrait of a bygone and racially charged era, walking a fine line between complacent nostalgia and finger-pointing condemnation, and gives us intriguing, compelling characterizations. Burke, a survivor of both Guadalcanal and a postwar busted marriage, just doesn't give much of a damn about anything anymore, but he's slowly learning that maybe, just maybe, there are still some things worth fighting for. And Parker's Robinson is a revelation, a principled and honorable man, drawn with clean and sympathetic strokes, whose quiet diffidence belies a bedrock sense of self that will be familiar to Spenser fans, who will also quickly recognize the burgeoning sense of camaraderie the develops between the two men. As always, Parker's prose is hard and as straightforward as a line drive; he's a powerful and muscular storyteller who writes so damn well and makes it look so damn easy that he doesn't get half the critical respect he deserves. Even better, though, is that this time Parker lets down his authorial guard a little and allows a glimpse into his own past, mixing apparently firsthand reminiscences (in chapters conveniently titled "Bobby") of growing up in Boston as a devoted Dodgers fan into the narrative, a move that adds a breathtaking resonance and elegiac, emotional depth to a book that echoes long after you put it down. Parker goes the full count with this one, and then knocks it out of the park. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Dramatist by Ken Bruen (Brandon Books UK)

Hurrah, the fourth Jack Taylor book has finally arrived (in Britain, anyway) from Edgar Award-nominated novelist Ken Bruen. The Dramatist should secure the growing reputation of this outstanding Irish writer, who can so smoothly leaven even the most grave situation with a wisecrack that reminds us of the natural links between death and life. This time around, Galway private investigator Taylor appears to have cleaned up his act. No cocaine, no drinks (and almost no smokes), and Jack is heeding the bell for Mass and dating a mature woman. But his career remains a dirty one, reminding him continually of the pain humans can inflict on one another. In The Dramatist, we're offered two deceased students -- tragic accident victims, it would appear, were it not for the fact that both bodies are found atop copies of books by Irish playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909). Taylor isn't fooled; he comes to recognize behind these acts the hand of a calculating murderer, "The Dramatist." As this tale spins out, bringing into its plot mix an old case involving "The Swan Killer" as well as a cadre of dangerous vigilantes, Jack finds himself being directed by a malevolent hand, one that won't hesitate to make his life hell in the usual heaven of Galway. The strength of Bruen's fiction is its slow pace, which gathers momentum as the action unfolds. His dialogue is priceless, and his wit as sardonic as one could wish for. The plotting here is rather loose, as Bruen goes about seeing the world through Jack Taylor's world-weary eyes, commenting on the changes in Ireland. But the ending of The Dramatist is spectacular. If you haven't discovered Bruen yet, it's high time you did. -- Ali Karim

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)

Michael Chabon seems to be on a quest to prove that fiction can be fun! And if a little pensive brow-furrowing occurs along the way, all the better. In his editor's introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Chabon says he wanted to produce an anthology of plot-driven, action-heavy stories which will recall the good old days when readers got their fiction served on reams of pulp. Now, with this fall's release of McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, I'm ready to start calling the author Genreman (able to leap tall stacks of languid, plotless prose with a single bounding sentence!). While the latest McSweeney's anthology was hitting bookstores, Genreman also released this thick novelette, set in 1944, about the waning days of an old British detective who, though he's never mentioned by name, we all know is Sherlock Holmes. The book is a beautiful little poem to the detective genre as we watch the old man solve a mystery involving a seemingly mute Jewish orphan, an African gray parrot and a victim killed with the typical "blunt instrument." Yes, it's a smartly written detective story (one that rivals the best by Arthur Conan Doyle himself), but it's more than that. The Final Solution is ultimately as much about how we live and die as it is how we solve the tedious little mysteries along the way. -- David Abrams

The Golden Silence by Paul Johnston (Hodder & Stoughton UK)

Although ancient Greece has lead to an abundance of crime novels, contemporary Greece is a different story altogether. The dichotomy (as seen in January's "It's All Greek to Mystery" feature from this past summer) is rather perplexing, considering that the country is still recovering from hosting the Summer Olympics, but is rife with problems, whether of an international or domestic bent. But even though the number of crime novels is low, the quality is incredibly high, thanks to Paul Johnston, a Scotsman who spends most of the year in Greece with his family. The Golden Silence is the third book to feature Athens-based P.I. Alex Mavros, whose Scottish and Greek heritage give him both outsider status and a troubled past. Like its predecessors, this novel mixes the conventions of private-eye novels with a thoughtful, layered examination of current Greek culture and its shadier history, doing so with great success. This time, Johnston chooses more domestic problems, showing how drug running and a legacy of corruption can have devastating results. After having tracked down one of the country's most notorious terrorists (in 2003's The Last Red Death), Mavros isn't keen on working much as a P.I. But fate has other plans in the form of his high-strung, fiery tempered girlfriend, Niki, who implores him to investigate the disappearance of the teenage daughter of a Russian acquaintance. Katia Tratsou seems to be an ordinary teen with no reason whatsoever to go missing, and Mavros' initial investigation goes frustratingly nowhere at first. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that Katia's intimates, including her father and her drug-addicted boyfriend, know far more than they've said, and the pieces that fall into place grow increasingly disturbing as they include a famous actress, a drug operation involving some of the most powerful people in Greece, and a notorious father-son assassin team whose atrocities date back to the country's more militaristic past. Johnston excels at bringing together the multiplying complexities of this plot, never letting matters get too out of hand even as a new strand is introduced. Primarily it's due to the concentration on Mavros' internal struggles, his relationship with his family and his newfound commitment to Niki, and his permanent link to past deeds and tragedies. Relationships of all stripes, whether loving or twisted, newfound or decades-old, are at the heart of The Golden Silence, and to see how these are portrayed and changed is what drives the narrative along to its climactic finish. This is how thrillers should be crafted, and here's to many more from Johnston's imaginative pen. -- Sarah Weinman

Hard, Hard City by Jim Fusilli (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Jim Fusilli didn't invent "Manhattan Noir," but he has certainly appropriated it for his own uses and, in the process, raised that subgenre to a fine art. In his fourth novel, Hard, Hard City, we're again welcomed into the cynical company of Terry Orr, a writer-turned-private eye who's so bedeviled by his past that he's compelled to dwell there in his dreams. And awful dreams they are, too: his artist wife and their infant son being crushed beneath the unforgiving wheels of a New York subway train -- a tragedy that has cast a terrible pall over Orr's life ever since, and made him difficult to know or appreciate. Were it not for his precocious teenage daughter, Bella -- a brilliantly written character who occasionally overshadows her father -- Orr might never have earned our sympathy. As it is, we're getting to know him little by little. And he is so worth the effort. Hard, Hard City finds this reluctant detective responding to a request from Daniel Wu, Bella's best friend, that he look into the case of a missing high-school student. It seems that Allie Powell, a gifted rich kid, has vanished from his uncle's place on East 64th Street, along with some money and papers out of the uncle's safe. Allie, we're told, is originally from Silver Haven, a small, exclusive New Jersey enclave -- the kind of money-glazed place that imperiously repels all outsiders. His parents seem, on the surface, unfazed by their son's disappearance. The father, a high-tech entrepreneur who has recently drawn some unwanted attention from the Securities and Exchange Commission, looks to be hardly more than a well-dressed thug, while Allie's mother is an icy photographer with political connections and a hazy past, evidently more interested in her cameras than her son. As Orr endures a beating and an attempt on his life, all in pursuit of Allie, he's also endeavoring to stay abreast of his daughter's basketball games and teenage angst, and deal with his hapless friend Diddio's failing tea bar. But Terry perseveres. It's what he does best -- probably because if he's moving forward, he can't slip backwards. A distinctive literary experience, the Orr series -- with its trials and travails -- reads almost like an epic poem filled with the dashed hopes and dreams of a man and his city. If you haven't yet sampled Fusilli's work, it's time to start. -- Yvette Banek

Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown and Company)

Washington, D.C., novelist George Pelecanos' ambitious Hard Revolution, a sort of prequel to his series about black middle-aged private eye Derek Strange, doesn't shy away from social or political commentary, but is hardly the plodding polemic one might expect. Instead, it's actually one kick-ass read, relying as much on character development as it does on the hard-boiled action for which this author is known. That's because Pelecanos understands that the true action takes place in the soul -- and soul is the operative word here. From the opening epigram, which quotes the tormented blues of Springsteen's Adam Raised a Cain to the Stax-drenched promo CD that accompanied early copies, Hard Revolution is the real deal, a heartfelt burst of storytelling that delivers on every single promise made by his early work. The loving attention to pop culture; the sprawling, racially mixed cast and the swirling, multiple plot lines moving relentlessly toward a head-on collision are all here, of course, but Pelecanos has never been this on top of his game before. Opening on an idyllic spring day in 1959 with 11-year-old Derek and his "Saturday companion" playing in an alley, we're soon introduced to a world of young boys and men with their whole lives ahead of them -- or so they think. Seven chapters in, though, it's 1968 and the days of innocence are officially over, with the seemingly random, seemingly inconsequential choices those boys have made coming back to roost. A war is raging in Vietnam, and another is raging at home. D.C. is a racially and politically charged powder keg, and the "race riots" that will follow the murder of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. lurk right around the corner. For rookie police officer Derek Strange and the other lost boys of his generation, the time for sitting on the fence is about to come to an end. But Hard Revolution is about more than one man's journey. With an assured hand, Pelecanos infuses the narrative and his large cast of characters with real blood, sweat and soul. He offers here a historical perspective that dares to hold a match to our present, burning down many of the complacent myths with which we attempt to comfort ourselves and blame others, and he bravely suggests that ultimately the choice is ours. With its moments of genuine power and hard truths that'll squeeze your heart, Pelecanos stands defiant in a town full of would-be losers, daring us to win. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert (Atria Books)

With The Dante Club, The DaVinci Code and now The Intelligencer, historical page-turners with pedagogical subtexts have found their moment in the literary sun. The action in Leslie Silbert's unusual debut thriller alternates between the 16th century and the present day. At this story's root is the secret life of Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, a successful English playwright and poet whose death by dagger in May 1593 continues to incite scholarly debate even today. A good part of the reason is that Marlowe's companions on the night of his demise were secret agents, and the writer had done some part-time spying himself. When we encounter him in The Intelligencer, he's investigating questionable doings by a cadre of merchants anxious to locate a Northwest Passage to the wealthy Orient. Before he's murdered, Marlowe records his findings in a coded document. Now skip ahead to 21st-century New York City, where Kate Morgan, a young detective and English Renaissance student, is asked by a U.S. government intelligence outfit to look into an attempted burglary at the London home of Cidro Medina, a charming Anglo-Spanish businessman. Further complicating the case are a body in Medina's study and a sinister yellowed document titled "The Anatomy of Secrets," which was uncovered during a building restoration. As Kate endeavors to decipher the manuscript and learn where Kit Marlowe buried a valuable jade dragon, she's contacted by a mendacious Italian art dealer, who has just purchased a shipment from Iran that could contain the ammunition for his revenge against Kate's father, a U.S. senator with whom he has sparred in the past. Add to all of this an arsenal of whiz-bang spy gadgetry, a tutorial on both modern and Elizabethan torture techniques, and the tantalizing prospect of solving Marlowe's slaying, and you've got a novel that combines sapience with stimulation. Full of champions and rogues, The Intelligencer can be confusing at times, and Kate Morgan is somewhat short of dimension; however, Silbert's narrative, though written more serviceably than elegantly, is crafty enough to coax the reader past Morgan's faults. I hope to see more from Silbert in the future. -- Ali Karim

In the Moon of Red Ponies by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

When Missoula, Montana, resident Johnny American Horse finds himself in trouble with the law, he turns to former Texas Ranger and current lawyer Billy Bob Holland for representation. A Native American who served with distinction in the U.S. military, American Horse returned home bearing a predilection for drinking and an inability to assimilate back into society. He's arrested one night for being intoxicated and carrying a concealed weapon, and while those charges seem uncomplicated and easily litigated, the simple event snowballs until it embroils American Horse, Holland and their respective loved ones in a conspiracy involving the U.S. government and Big Business. After a local company called Global Research is burgled, and computer records are stolen by a suspected local environmental group, sheriff's detective Darrel McComb, a racist ex-military man, becomes convinced that American Horse is somehow involved. Soon, an FBI agent shows up, interested in American Horse, followed by a pair of out-of-town hit men -- and then all of them are killed, causing good-hearted Holland to worry seriously about the mess that American Horse seems to have gotten himself into. When Wyatt Dixon, the old nemesis of Billy Bob and his private-eye wife, Temple, comes back to town after being released from prison on a technicality, this cauldron of tempest-mixed events grows murkier and hotter. Dixon claims he harbors no ill will toward Holland and Temple; however, his activities seem suspicious and border on the provocative, and when angered, he's one mean son of a gun. Author James Lee Burke is renowned for his poetic observations and settings, both in his Dave Robicheaux series and the Billy Bob Holland books, and he delivers here once again. The plot of In the Moon of Red Ponies is complicated and tight, and the violence explodes with the intensity of a lit powder keg. When it's later determined that Global Research played a role in selling biological weapons to Iraq in the 1980s, and that it enriched local businessman Karsten Mabus, the recognition of who's been behind the violence engulfing Missoula becomes as clear as day. The visceral elements of Red Ponies are juxtaposed with supernatural ones, and it makes both components refreshing and equally credible. Holland talks to his dead ex- Ranger partner L.Q. Navarro, seeking answers to his problems with Dixon, while American Horse has dream visions that too often foretell occurences. Detective McComb is perhaps the most complex and pleasantly surprising character in these pages, as he transforms over the course of the novel and his deep sensitivity is revealed. Not only does McComb recognize that bigger forces are at play, but he ultimately helps clear American Horse and implicates Mabus. For a narrow-minded lawman, these are Herculean jumps. Holland tries to keep his well-known temper in check, but by the end of this novel, he is forced to pick up his gun. Burke has mined the bedfellow nature of government and business before, but dealings between the two camps will never go away, thus ensuring a cornucopia of usable plot lines. In the end, many of the good people who populate In the Moon of Red Ponies die, and most of the bad guys continue to do business as usual. Yet, Burke raises our consciousness in his novels, both in a beautifully crafted and emotionally wrenching manner. He does it again here, and for that, we are all winners. -- Anthony Rainone

The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Over the course of 10 novels so far, Steven Saylor's pragmatic gumshoe, Gordianus the Finder, has worn his sandals thin traipsing around the declining Roman Republic. In The Judgment of Caesar, Gordianus and his wife, the manumitted former slave Bethesda, head for Egypt in search of a water cure, but get a soggy beheading instead. Rome's most powerful leaders -- Caesar and Pompey -- have been duking it out, while the regally spoiled Cleopatra tries to keep her country from becoming another Roman province. But even as her days are numbered, her ways are soon to become Rome's, and Gordianus knows it. "It was hard to imagine any Roman citizen bowing to another man as if he were divine, but the fate of the world had taken such a tortuous path in recent years that anything seemed possible," he sighs. Caesar is the man who would be king, and in The Judgment of Caesar, the elderly Gordianus learns awkwardly that he's a man not to be trifled with. There's a brief murder case tucked away inside this slender novel, but it's barely noticeable under Saylor's rich tapestry of politics, conspiracy, violence and loss. The Judgment of Caesar is both a worthy installment in the Gordianus series and a vibrant work of historical fiction in its own right. And a preview, of sorts, of the mayhem in Rome to come. -- Caroline Cummins

The Last King by Nichelle D. Tramble (Strivers Row/Ballantine)

In Nichelle D. Tramble's The Last King, former athlete Maceo Redfield is compelled to return to his hometown of Oakland, California, in hopes of helping his childhood best friend, Jonathan "Holly" Ford, beat a looming murder charge. Set in 1992, King is the sequel to the critically acclaimed novel The Dying Ground (2001), which introduced most of the characters featured in this present work. Maceo is a refreshingly honest narrator, beset by memories and guilt, for whom the first priority here is to find Holly, who has gone underground to avoid arrest. Holly sorely needs well-intentioned friends. During those years that Maceo was away, Holly developed a friendship with Cornelius "Cotton" Knox, a National Basketball Association all-star with a bad temper and a gorgeous wife, Allaina. Cotton is another childhood acquaintance of Maceo's from the same black neighborhood, a poor but talented boy who grew up to become both wealthy and famous. However, Knox's reputation is severely threatened when a dead call girl is found in his hotel room. The local newspapers report "an unidentified man" having been spotted running from the crime scene, and Maceo is sure it's "only a matter of time" before Holly will be offered up as the suspect -- a charge that Cotton and Allaina seem all too willing to let gangster and police nemesis Holly take on, in order to preserve Cotton's career. The Last King is a noir novel, and as such, it has certain aspirations to fulfill -- which it does admirably. There is a dark tone to this sequel, established not only by the plot implicating Holly Ford in murder, but also by the story's general atmosphere and urban setting. King's realm is one of rough men ready to break bones with the slightest provocation, homeless guys scratching for their next buck to buy a drink, quick and explosive violence and beautiful women who provide loving for a price. This is a novel of place. Tramble's characters don't merely live in Oakland; rather they breathe in the city and are transformed by it. Theirs is an Oakland that is "a blue-collar city to its core," and though it may have skyscrapers downtown, it "could feel like the piney woods of the most backward-ass state." It is the place that Maceo belongs. Tramble is magnanimous toward the folks who populate her books. She understands them, forgives them and sometimes scolds them, all with a huge heart. She knows all people matter, from the crack heads all the way up to the athletically over-gifted. Though not a new voice to crime fiction, Tramble's is perhaps the freshest of 2004. -- Anthony Rainone

Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown and Company)

Bristling with fierce intelligence and emotion, Walter Mosley's Little Scarlet marks something of a high point in the author's career, a recapitulation of his favorite themes and arguably his most fully realized mystery to date, a literary tour de force that dares to openly play the race card. In a perfect world, of course, the color of someone's skin shouldn't matter, but as Mosley knows, we're not living in a perfect world. Or even an easy one. Which is why it's so thrilling to see him sidestep the usual convenient scapegoats of race, class and gender and actually try to uncover some truth, or at least some understanding of who we are and why we're like this. The novel picks up almost exactly where George Pelecanos' similarly themed Hard Revolution left off -- with a riot. The smell of wood smoke and "the acrid stench of burnt plastic and paint" still lingers in the air. The observer is Mosley's own series sleuth, Easy Rawlins, surveying the aftermath of Los Angeles' infamous Watts Riots of 1965. No longer the quick-tempered young Turk of past novels, Easy is a middle-aged working man with his own "beautiful patchwork family," slowly sliding into a sort of middle-class respectability, ruefully admitting that he spent most of the riots "shut up in [his] home, in peaceful West L.A., not drinking and not going out with a trunk full of Molotov cocktails." Participant or not, though, there's obviously some kind of riot still raging inside Easy, as the opposing forces of guilt, anger and frustration duke it out. Which is why, when he's asked by white police detective Melvin Suggs to help solve a potentially explosive murder case, he declines. But Suggs persists, and Easy finally relents, cautioning that "If I don't like the way things smell I'm walkin' away." Of course the investigation of the murder of a young black woman known as "Little Scarlet" begins to smell almost immediately; by then, though, it's already too late to walk away. But as the case takes some unexpected and disturbing turns that could set the city aflame once more, the two detectives' uneasy alliance unearths unexpected commonalties, and an implication that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't let the things that tear us apart override those things which bind us together. In this beautifully crafted tale of a society torn asunder, rich in detail, needle-sharp nuance and unapologetic moralism, Mosley has created a beautiful and oddly inspiring patchwork of his own. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Live Bait by P.J. Tracy (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

How long before revenge becomes obsession? Is it ever too late to right a horrible wrong? How heinous must a crime be before "an eye for an eye" becomes acceptable? Or can revenge ever be acceptable? These weighty questions are handled most ably by the mother-daughter writing duo known as P.J. Tracy in Live Bait, their second ingenious mystery, after last year's award-winning Monkeewrench. The story's scene is established well from the start: "April in Minnesota was always unpredictable, but once every decade or so, it got downright sadistic, fluctuating wildly between tantalizing promises of spring and the last, angry death throes of a stubborn winter that had no intention of going quietly. ... But spring had eventually prevailed, [and now] giddy, sun-starved Minnesotans were out in force, cherishing the temporary delusion that the state was actually habitable." With this change in weather, Grace MacBride and the quirky Monkeewrench computer mavens are back in top form, alongside two of their state's most amiable homicide cops, the charmingly rumpled Leo Magozzi and his gruff partner, Gino Rolseth. These two eventually ask for Monkeewrench's help, after several vicious murders shatter a Twin Cities murder-free dry spell. It all appears to begin with the slaying of 84-year-old Morey Gilbert, outside his garden greenhouse, and the intentional disruption of the crime scene by his equally elderly wife, Lily -- who should know better. Other murders follow, and soon it is up to Grace and her crime-solving software program to help figure out what ties these cases together (other than the advanced ages of the victims). As the vile stench of long-ago and mostly forgotten villainy wafts over the current crop of killings, the cops and computer geniuses realize there's more at stake here than run-of-the-mill, garden-variety, murder most foul. The malevolent past has risen to smite the present. Despite its subject matter, Live Bait is written in a fast-paced, snap-crackle-pop style, colored with ironic humor, warmed by a low-key love story and peopled with a cast of off-center figures you won't soon forget. Reading Tracy's latest novel before a crackling fireplace on a cold winter's night is a great way to spend a few hours. -- Yvette Banek

The Madman's Tale by John Katzenbach (Ballantine Books)

I've been following Edgar nominee John Katzenbach's fiction for years, enjoying his character-driven stories (Just Cause, The Analyst, Hart's War, etc.). This year's offering, The Madman's Tale, is among his thrilling best. Like Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, it ushers readers inside a gothic sort of mental hospital and introduces them to a cast of players, all of whom are suffering the scars of mental problems -- though some scars are more hidden than others. The conception of this yarn is that it was recorded, in pencil, on an apartment's walls by a madman named Francis Xavier Petrel, nicknamed "C-Bird" after the seabird his surname suggests. Back in 1971, C-Bird was a diffident, frightened 21-year-old, locked up against his will in Massachusetts' Western State Hospital and plagued by the voices filling his head. His only friend was Peter the Fireman, an erstwhile Boston firefighter who had been institutionalized after torching a church occupied by a pedophilic priest. Just as we're getting used to this menagerie of misfits, Katzenbach throws a murder into the mix. The raped and disfigured corpse of a nurse is discovered by C-Bird and Peter in a closet. Evidence points to a paranoid-schizophrenic inmate named Lanky as the killer, if only because he'd recently denounced the nurse as an emissary of evil. Lanky, however, says that responsibility for the crime lies with an invisible "Agent of Death." Confident of Lanky's innocence, C-Bird and Peter investigate, their skepticism fed by Boston prosecutor Lucy Jones, who suspects that the real killer has previously committed other heinous acts outside the hospital. At times, Madman's plot is confusing and its pace slower than necessary; but these are deliberate devices, as freighted with significance as the title of Katzenbach's opening section, "The Unreliable Narrator." This novel pulls no punches as we delve into the murders and rapes hidden in time and insanity. Mystery readers with a side interest in horror will be particularly rewarded. -- Ali Karim

Misdemeanor Man by Dylan Schaffer (Bloomsbury USA)

A sense of absurdity (my favorite type of humor) is the first thing you notice about this engaging debut novel from Oakland appellate lawyer Dylan Schaffer. His brilliant creation of schleppy Gordon Seegerman, a young man perfectly content to flounder in misdemeanor hell down at the local public defender's office, is fresh, inventive and oh-so-bittersweetly funny. Misdemeanor Man is set in the fictional Santa Rita, California, a suspiciously Oakland-like town full of fodder for an imaginative author, and it's a quirky, character-driven tale of legal shenanigans, embezzlement, murder, family angst and love's sad song. In other words, all the stuff that makes life worthwhile. Gordon Seegerman is not your ordinary hero. His all-consuming passion is not the law, but instead singer Barry Manilow's music; almost everything else that transpires in his frenetic day-to-day life is just window dressing. He'd much rather get together with his Manilow homage band, Barry X and the Mandys (featuring several co-workers from the office), than show up in court. And in MM, their group is practicing in earnest, since there's a distinct possibility that the great Manilow himself may show up at an upcoming gig and actually acknowledge them. Oh rapture of raptures. But what's a fellow to do when office life intrudes on his dream-quest? Gordon is handed a simple enough case: an accountant named Harold Dunn has exposed himself to shoppers at a local department store -- nasty, but hardly earth-shattering. A quick wheel and deal with the district attorney's minion should take care of Mr. Dunn. Unfortunately, though, things do not go as planned. Dunn's arraignment hits a snag, and Gordon finds himself actually having to try a case. Luckily, our hero (though he might deny it) is really a man of honor, and so, though it pains him, he tries to do his best by Dunn. As he finds out more about this peculiar case, he discovers a connection to a highly respected Santa Rita institution, a charity outfit known as G-O-D (Giving-Out-Dinner), run by ex-nun, Mary Godfrey, head of one of Santa Rita's most powerful families. All is definitely not what it seems down at Godfrey enterprises. Gordon's own unorthodox family is also cause for much of his angst. He still lives with his brother, grandfather and ailing father in the old ramshackle house he grew up in. His father is a disgraced ex-cop who is quickly slipping into dementia brought on by early onset Alzheimer's disease, and Gordon has a 50-50 chance of having inherited the same gene. Life isn't easy for him. In the likely event that you'll want to know more about the remarkable Gordon and his anxiety prone life, Dylan Schaffer has a sequel in the works, I Right the Wrongs. I have the sneaking suspicion that I'll be writing about it right here next year. -- Yvette Banek

The Narrows by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company)

The Narrows is a great book to read, but a tough one to review, because it contains so many spoilers that could ruin not only this story but its predecessor, The Poet (1996). It also features spoilers relating to two other of Michael Connelly's novels, Blood Work and A Darkness More than Night. Although The Narrows can certainly be enjoyed as a standalone, do yourself a favor and track down all three of the books I've just listed. Then switch your phone off and read them in order of their publication, before so much as cracking the spine of The Narrows. The result will be one of the best reading experiences you'll have in 2004. The Narrows itself starts out with a startling, but not entirely unexpected revelation: the serial killer from The Poet not only survived the climax of that earlier adventure, but has returned to his gruesome business. Retired Los Angeles homicide cop Harry Bosch, now working as a private eye and shuttling between L.A. and Las Vegas, is contacted by -- watch out: here comes a spoiler! -- the widow of his former colleague and friend, Terry McCaleb, who hopes that Bosch can solve her husband's slaying. The trajectory of Bosch's investigation soon leads him Rachel Walling, the FBI agent heroine from The Poet, who's still haunted by that case. This leads to bodies buried in the Nevada desert (meant to lure Walling), an intriguing look at Las Vegas' dark underbelly, and of course the final showdown with the Poet. The Narrows is a tremendous book, peppered with nods and winks to earlier Connelly works, as well as some thinly disguised cameos by real-life booksellers, mystery writers and fans. Like The Poet, this novel is told in both first- and third-person, but works best in the Harry Bosch first-person voice. It carries a sense of dread right from the start, but the tension is released explosively at its climax. A must-read for 2004. -- Ali Karim

Nobody Runs Forever by Richard Stark (Mysterious Press)

Cold. Hard. Professional. Unrepentant career criminal Parker is back in Nobody Runs Forever, the latest installment in the long-running and always satisfying series by Richard Stark (that's Donald Westlake to you). Dispassionate and icily pragmatic, Parker doesn't seem to give much of a damn about anything but the next score, so one of his few steadfast rules is that he will only work with other pros. Of course, when Parker hears about the potential "heist of a lifetime" -- an armored car carrying an entire bank vault's worth of cash -- he's willing to bend the rules a little and put up with a few amateurs. Just this once. Unfortunately, the "civilians" soon develop cold feet and want to back out, forgetting the crucial fact that Parker and the hardened crew of heist artists and stickup men he's assembled are not nice guys. When push comes to shove, they will shove back -- with force and without a second thought, violence simply another tool in the box, one they reach for as casually as they might reach for a pair of wire-cutters or a gun. And as all the carefully laid plans begin to fall apart, it's a tool they will definitely consider using. As one of his accomplices coolly muses at one point, "I always think it's a waste to kill a good-looking woman"; then he concludes, with chilling nonchalance, "but we live in a wasteful world." A wasteful world, maybe, and certainly a dark one, but Parker is a true king of that darkness. Taciturn and grim, the only humor he displays is that of the gallows variety; yet there's something oddly compelling about Parker and his solid professionalism, and how he uses it as a shield against the outside, straight world. Not that it's necessarily enough, mind you -- there's more than the usual whiff of mortality in this outing, with it's rather ominous title (who exactly doesn't run forever?) and an ending that lands like a sucker punch. When, at one point, a shady doctor remarks to his accomplice, "By God you're right! Nick, this guy is good," he's referring to criminal Parker, of course, but he could just as easily be speaking about the author himself. Like Parker, Westlake (in his Stark persona) is a true pro, cold, hard and focused, with a sharp unflinching eye for details and no time for bullshit. Long may they both run. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Phoenix by John Connor (Orion Books UK)

Introducing Detective Constable Karen Sharpe, Phoenix, the first novel from English criminal lawyer John Connor, features a vividly realized backdrop -- the moors and desolation of West Yorkshire, an area just about as far removed from Betty's Tearooms as is it physically possible to be without leaving Britain. There we find Sharpe drinking to block out memories of her undercover past, accompanied by her colleague Detective Sergeant Phil Leach and his attractive, 21-year-old informant, Fiona Mitchell. Sharpe and Leach are working on a drug investigation dubbed "Operation Anvil." Leach subsequently takes Sharpe home, disgusted by her drunkenness. The next morning, the bodies of Leach and Mitchell are discovered -- he, executed in military fashion; she shot through the head and chest. Signs point to the involvement of professional hit-men. Sharpe, who may well have been the last person to see the victims alive, sees linkages to Operation Anvil's prime suspects: drug dealers Mark Coates and Luke Varley. Detective Chief Superintendent John Munro pulls out all the stops to get to the bottom of the professional hits in darkest Yorkshire. No stone is left unturned. Munro focuses on the drug connection, while DC Sharpe comes to suspect that eight-year-old secrets from her past are affecting this case -- and that she'll finally have to confront those secrets. Connor's storytelling technique is like the sanding down of a rough plinth of wood, because as each layer is smoothed, another layer of secrets is revealed. Phoenix reeks of authenticity, with characters as genuine and genuinely diverse as any you're likely to find in a northern England squad room. Connor offers here a haunting police procedural, with a strong and enigmatic lead -- one who will reappear in a sequel, The Playroom, to be published in the UK later this month. If your taste runs to dark cop-based thrillers, then this slice of grimmest Yorkshire may be to your taste. The Pennines and moors have scarcely ever felt more threatening. -- Ali Karim

Queen of the Flowers by Kerry Greenwood (Allen & Unwin Australia)

When Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood got her first writing assignment, she decided that her heroine was going to be so rich that she could be utterly independent, and that the story would be set in 1928, an era when women could still do exciting things, before they got sent back to the kitchen. Besides, she knew quite a lot about that year, having done research on it for her university degree. None of her stories, she decided, were going to take place after 1928. At the time, she wasn't expecting to write more than two novels in the series. But 14 novels along, Greenwood's heroine, private detective Phryne Fisher -- rich, beautiful, kind, skilled in everything from acrobatics to flying, owner of a gorgeous red Hispano-Suiza car (which she drives like a maniac) -- is still having adventures in 1928. It leads to some strangeness in chronology, but if you love this series, as I do, you just chuckle indulgently and enjoy. The novels have remained consistently good, amazing in a series that has been going for so long. Queen of the Flowers is based on an event that actually took place a year later, a festival in St. Kilda, the beachside suburb of Melbourne in which Phryne lives. Phryne has been chosen as the queen of the title, to lead the parade. The circus is in town, along with a man from Phryne's past, and a mystery is raised concerning the origins of her adopted daughter, Ruth. When one of Phryne's flower maidens is washed up on the beach, nearly drowned, Phryne must get to work yet again. Fun though these whodunits are, you don't read them solely for the mystery content. You read them because of their sheer zest and fun, and because of their detailed portrayal of Melbourne, Australia, in 1928. It was such a very different time and culture. Phryne Fisher herself lives the way many of us fantasize about living: gorgeous gowns, delicious dinners, beautiful lovers (though in the last few novels, she has cut back on the multiple lovers, since she acquired the perfect boyfriend). I have re-read the entire series many times and this one twice, so far. If you just want to switch off and enjoy, while still learning something, this book has it all. -- Sue Bursztynski

Red Tide by G.M. Ford (William Morrow)

Thrills, chills and bio-terror spills! In Red Tide, the fourth installment of G.M. Ford's hard-hitting Frank Corso series (following last year's A Blind Eye), we're offered an insidiously deadly sign of the times. Employing taut, spare language, the author details a frightening doomsday scenario that might, just might, actually become reality one day -- a "what if" that reminds us of how vulnerable we remain to today's "evildoers." Remember the still-unsolved anthrax scare? Well, in Red Tide the danger comes from the Ebola virus, newly refined and portable. Imagine the horrific consequences of this incurable, incredibly contagious killer being set loose in modern Seattle! Predictably, local resident Corso finds himself smack-dab in the middle of all the excitement. The defrocked former New York Times journalist, now a successful true-crime writer, rolls onto the scene shortly after a biological "occurrence" turns the Pioneer Square bus station into a killing field. While the local police, unsure of what they're dealing with, quickly clamp down on information and cordon off eight square blocks of the city's downtown historic district, Corso risks his life, conveniently appropriating a hazardous-materials suit and investigating the carnage in Seattle's bus tunnel, and then joining the hunt for whoever was behind this deadly attack. Meanwhile, the incident has played havoc with Meg Dougherty's first photography exhibit at a Pioneer Square gallery. Dougherty, Corso's on-again/off-again girlfriend, was at the gallery with Corso when all hell broke loose at the bus station. Cops shooed gallery-goers out into the night, leaving an angry Meg to be followed home by someone out of her past -- and set up to take the fall for a grisly murder. Jockeying for position in this fast-and-furious thriller are the conflicting interests of several of its principal players. Not just Corso and Dougherty, but also bottom-of-the-heap TV reporter Jim Sexton, who's determined, finally, to prove his mettle and hit the big time; the sometimes hapless cops Reuben Gutierrez and Charly Hart; and dueling law-enforcement agencies, as well as the politicos at City Hall, officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and the terrorists themselves. It's while writing about this particular cadre of fanatics -- who travel under assumed and ludicrously Americanized names -- that author Ford throws us a curve. Just when your eyes are focused on the radical elements of the Middle East, Ford shows that another area of the world has spawned these killers. And while no one can condone their cruel actions, Ford humanize these vengeful men -- victims themselves of a ghastly incident in their country's past. Except for its rather flat ending, and the inclusion of one annoying female character who keeps popping up out of the blue, Red Tide is a read-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, roller-coaster ride of a book by a guy who's writing at the top of his game. G.M. Ford is obviously having great fun scaring the bejeezus out of his readers. -- Yvette Banek

Remembering Sarah by Chris Mooney (Atria Books)

Chris Mooney's third novel is a deeply moving account that details the journey a father must endure after his daughter vanishes mysteriously on a seemingly peaceful, snow-filled night. It is a journey that every parent dreads. Against the wishes of his over-protective wife, Mike Sullivan takes their 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, sledding on a hill in Belham, Massachusetts. There, they encounter Sarah's friend Paula O'Malley and her father, Bill. The two girls set off for the hilltop -- but Sarah never comes down again. Only her sled and glasses are found. The child herself has disappeared into the snowstorm. Sullivan, in the aftermath, is plunged into the hell that lies at the heart of this narrative. Desperate to rescue his only offspring, he works with and against a huge cast of memorable characters, including a disgraced pedophilic priest, Francis Jonah, who is believed to have abducted and murdered two other young girls. Despite efforts by the Belham cops and Sullivan both, Sarah remains missing. Five years later, with Jonah dying of cancer, Sullivan tries to learn his secrets -- before he can take them to his grave. Then, suddenly, on the snowy anniversary of Sarah Sullivan's disappearance, a pink girl's jacket is found atop the hill where the girl was last seen. Remembering Sarah turns on hidden family secrets and relationships that often lie submerged and invisible until a trauma unearths the truth. It's a pretty stark departure from Mooney's previous psychological thrillers, Deviant Ways (2000) and World Without End (2001). It hits you in the stomach from Page 1, and then squeezes you, tears at you, as you accompany Mike Sullivan on his so often discouraging journey to find answers. -- Ali Karim

Road to Purgatory by Max Allan Collins (William Morrow)

Two decades spent writing the Shamus-winning Nate Heller historical P.I. series (Angel in Black, Chicago Confidential) put Max Allan Collins in an excellent position to compose other novels set during the early decades of the 20th century. Road to Purgatory proves that case nicely. It's a sequel both to Collins' 1998 graphic novel, Road to Perdition, and to the Oscar-winning 2002 movie adaptation of that same gangster-filled thriller. In Purgatory, we catch up with Michael O'Sullivan Jr., the boy who in Perdition accompanied his hit-man dad on a road-trip of vengeance against Al Capone, only to see his father murdered. Adopted after the close of that yarn by unprepossessing Sicilian restaurateurs in DeKalb, Illinois, a town not far outside of Chicago, he's become Michael Satariano, known as un Demonio Angelico by the Filipinos who've witnessed his murderous precision with weaponry in the Philippines during World War II. It's 1942, and Michael has just returned to the States after a bloody and botched military campaign that cost him his left eye, but won him that war's first Congressional Medal of Honor. Far from celebrating the relative safety of his situation, though, Michael finds himself unsettled by the normality of DeKalb and expectations that he should slip right back into his previous life and back into company of Patty Ann O'Hara, his blond high-school girlfriend with the "just-full-enough bosom" and "Grable-esque gams." So when former "Untouchable" Eliot Ness approaches him with a job offer, Michael is more than receptive. Ness, now in charge of a federal agency responsible for "safeguarding the health and morale of the armed forces" -- a brief that allows for plenty of interpretation, good and bad -- wants Michael to take on the riskiest of assignments: infiltrate Capone's operation, undercover, and help to curtail its many profitable criminal endeavors. Blaming Capone for his father's demise, Michael is hungry for a way to get back at him. But, as was true for Michael O'Sullivan Sr., retribution comes at a cost. As Michael entrenches himself in Capone's notorious "Outfit," he wins the respect of chief lieutenant Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti. He also captures the guarded heart of Estelle Carey, "Chicago's most famous 26 girl" (26 being a popular bar game of the time) and a high-rolling madam whose hidden agenda rivals Michael's for audacity. However, in trying to "rub out" Scarface, he discovers that his conception of where blame lies, and where adulation is due, are not so easily judged. As well, Michael Jr. comes to better recognize just how similar he is to his father -- parallels emphasized in a flashback to 1922, when Michael Sr. had to rescue Irish mob boss John Looney from his adversaries and cover up the vicious behavior of Looney's heir apparent. There's an edge of bloodless venality in Road to Purgatory that may not appeal to all readers, and others may find improbable Michael Satariano's good fortune in escaping responsibility for some of his acts. However, it's all in a good cause. Collins is building a generational criminal saga that, in addition to delivering fireworks and betrayals, is replete with human pain and disappointment, fleeting pleasure and tested loyalties -- all components of outstanding gangster yarns. In a year that failed to offer a new entry in the Heller series, Purgatory is a powerful and most satisfying substitute. Another Perdition sequel, Road to Paradise, is still to come. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Semiautomatic by Robert Reuland (Random House)

Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Andrew Francis Giobberti makes his sophomore appearance in Robert Reuland's Semiautomatic. Following on the polished heels of his critically successful first novel, Hollowpoint (2001), Reuland further solidifies his reputation as one of the few realistic voices in legal crime fiction. As this story opens, Giobberti is grappling with trials both personal and professional. Still reeling from the death of his daughter, as well as his marital separation, he's been removed from the Homicide Bureau and transferred to Appeals, where he now spends uneventful weeks in legal purgatory. But one day, chief ADA Phil Block offers Giobberti a way back into the Homicide brotherhood: he must take over the prosecution of a street thug named Haskin Pool. Pool has been charged with killing a bodega owner, and though the case is already being handled by junior ADA Laurel Ashfield, she is not trusted. Giobberti knows that there's "something wrong" with this case, but no one in the DA's office seems willing, or able, to confirm his suspicions. Ashfield resents having lost the lead prosecutor's chair to Giobberti, and initially she offers him only scant professional help. She is indignant of the elder attorney's "moral ambiguity" and resists letting him past her uptight façade of shiny shoes, sharpened pencils and legal decorum. For his part, Giobberti has little use either for Ashfield's propriety, behind which he sees a lack of killer instinct, or her injured pride. Eventually, though, their relationship provides a palpable dynamic that resonates with repressed sexual sizzle. Meanwhile, there's Haskin Pool, implicated in murder by Dellroy Dunn, a mentally challenged young man. Giobberti discovers that Dunn was not only a witness to the murder, but was an active participant. Since accomplices cannot, by law, testify against one another, Dunn is coaxed to testify as a witness -- not as a participant in murder -- in a setup of Pool. Pool is clearly not an innocent character: he is guilty of killing at least one other man. When he's informed by his attorney simple Dellroy is going to testify against him, Pool expresses the outrage not of a morally wronged man, but of a smug killer who's been done one better by the police and DA's office. Semiautomatic is a novel of awakening -- not only on the part of the reader, who's given an eye-opening discourse (by a former prosecutor) on how justice really works in 21st-century America, but also on the parts of Giobberti and Ashfield, who come to realize the sacrifices that the DA's Homicide Bureau will continue to demand of them. Author Reuland gives us a consuming portrait of individual and shared struggle, using an economy of words and action, with the full force of his narrative devoted to character. Semiautomatic's setting, too, is richly depicted, adding flesh and credence to a borough that is too often thought of merely in terms of bravura and degradation. While Lady Justice is ultimately served in the end, that's not what really matters in this novel, perhaps the finest of 2004. -- Anthony Rainone

The Silent and the Damned by Robert Wilson (HarperCollins UK)

"Fictional police work," remarks Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón in The Silent and the Damned, "is always more entertaining than the real thing." That's certainly true of this psychologically intense sequel to Robert Wilson's The Blind Man of Seville (one of January's favorite books of 2003). It's so packed with mendacity, treachery and cruel intentions, that it's amazing everything could fit betwixt two covers. Wilson's story opens in the summer of 2002, more than a year after the shocking revelations chronicled in Blind Man, and Falcón, still the chief homicide cop in Seville, Spain, has regained his powers of concentration, as well as his self-confidence. However, he can't figure out why a construction company owner, Rafael Vega, would have smothered his younger, unstable wife in her bed, and then ingested a fatal dose of drain cleaner. What precipitated such tragic acts, and are they connected in some way with the disappearance of the Vegas' gardener, or maybe the husband's visceral antipathy toward the U.S. government? In typical police-procedural fashion, Falcón sets about to question the Vegas' neighbors in "the Garden City of Santa Clara," teasing out tantalizing revelations about one couple's involvement with a deceased carpet dealer in New York, and the fact that another nearby resident, a well-known actor, has a son in prison on charges that he kidnapped and abused an 8-year-old boy. However juicy these tidbits are, their value to Falcón's investigation appears questionable. And they seem no greater help to him in solving the actor's subsequent drowning in a cesspool, or the death leap of a policeman who specialized in crimes against children. As Falcón tries to make sense of these ostensibly unrelated suicides, he must also contend with a new and delicate love affair, an ex-wife whose betrothed may already be straying, and a forest fire that sweeps through the hills around Seville, threatening to hide as much as it reveals. Wilson, a British writer who's made quite an impact on crime fiction in just a few years (thanks not only to The Blind Man of Seville, but his 1999 thriller, A Small Death in Lisbon, as well) is a steady, careful storyteller whose marriage of a distinctive, romantic setting with a disturbed detective -- one for whom justice is sometimes elusive -- continues to enchant. The Silent and the Damned is set to be released in the States next month, under the title The Vanished Hands. -- J. Kingston Pierce

A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss (Random House)

The finest historical crime fiction doesn't just use the past as a backdrop; rather, it depends for its story on the distinctive mores, politics or societal shifts of some long-gone era. David Liss proved his skill at formulating such transporting fiction in the Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), which found 18th-century London pugilist-turned-thief Benjamin Weaver exposing a financial scandal previously unequalled in British history. This year's welcome sequel, A Spectacle of Corruption, casts Weaver among still more threatening company as he connives to reveal chicanery in the 1722 race for a House of Commons seat from Westminster -- even as he himself flees the law. How Weaver came to this troublesome pass is the principal mystery to be solved in Spectacle. Near this yarn's outset, he's hired by an Anglican priest who wants to determine the source of some threatening notes he's been receiving ever since he defended London's dockworkers in public. But while investigating the matter, Weaver is embroiled in a tavern riot that results in the death of labor agitator Walter Yate. Although Weaver had aided Yate during the brawl, he's accused of the man's murder and sentenced to hang. Only the intervention of a mysterious female admirer allows Weaver to escape his subsequent imprisonment, and let him go after whoever was in a position to gain most from framing him. Disguised as a plantation owner from Jamaica, Weaver penetrates Georgian London's high society, and becomes convinced that behind both his own torment and Yate's demise lies Dennis Dogmill, a vicious tobacco importer with a selfish interest in the outcome of the latest parliamentary campaign. Weaver also stumbles into the treacherous center of a struggle between supporters of present King George I and the Jacobites, who endorse returning George's Catholic rival, James II, to the English throne. Clever twists goad this novel's pace, but it's author Liss' eye for odd historical details that really separates Spectacle from the pack. (Where else, for instance, would you witness the horrific "sport" of goose pulling?) While it tests credibility that a bewigged Weaver could hide in plain sight among the gentry, A Spectacle of Corruption boasts drama, wit and luxurious prose enough to keep one from focusing on such problematic matters. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Tokyo by Mo Hayder (Bantam Press UK)

Though impressively rendered (with a split narrative and split timeframe) and meticulously researched, Mo Hayder's third novel, Tokyo, also deals with a dreadfully murderous episode in the history of mankind: the so-called Rape of Nanking. The story starts with the memories and diary notes of Shi Chongming, an elderly Chinese scholar who was one of the few residents to survive the 1937 Japanese occupation of Nanking, China. From there, we're introduced to the mysterious and deeply disturbed "Grey" Hutchins, a British woman wanting to learn the truth about a specific torture technique that was reportedly used by invading Japanese troops. She hopes to locate a copy of an 8-mm film that dates from the Nanking massacre, and believes that Chongming can point her in the right direction, but the aged scholar rebuffs her approach. Penniless and desperate, Grey befriends a young American named Jason Wainwright. In short order, she moves in with him and his two housemates, Siberian twins Irana and Sveltana, and is introduced into Tokyo's hostess-bar scene. She goes to work in an upmarket joint, managed by a weird mama-san, Strawberry Nakatani, and it's there that she meets the dangerous wheelchair-bound Fuyuki. Guarded by a clutch of henchmen, Fuyuki is rumored to possess a special elixir -- a drug with supernatural properties that is protected by his sinister nurse. When Chongming learns that Grey's involved with the yakuza, he proposes a bargain: If she can track down Fuyuki's elixir, he'll share with her the film she's seeking (which is supposed to show the Nanking torture). Grey eventually discovers the connection between Fuyuki's elixir and the powers it releases. And readers learn not only why she's so interested in long-ago tortures, but why Chongming has held onto that hideous film footage for so many decades. This is a beautifully composed story, yet it's only fair to warn readers that Tokyo's climax is visceral and dreadful, if not gratuitous in its tragic circumstances. Never again will you look at the image of the rising sun on Japan's flag in the same way. -- Ali Karim

Unfaithful Servant by Timothy Harris (Five Star Press)

Connoisseurs of the post-Chandler Southern California private-eye novel often single out the works of Timothy Harris for special praise. His two 1970s books featuring L.A. detective Thomas Kyd (Kyd for Hire, Goodnight and Good-Bye) are still considered high points of the modern hard-boiled subgenre. Harris stopped writing fiction for several years, during which decades he wrote many successful screenplays. But in 2004, Harris returned to book-writing -- and he brought Thomas Kyd back with him. How has Kyd been doing all these years? Not so good. A Vietnam vet with unsettling memories, Kyd was always a less-than-fully-heroic figure. This new book finds him in an even greater existential slump, having wasted much of the past quarter-century in a vague haze of dissipation. It says something about Kyd's lot in life that his most promising client, when this book begins, is a 14-year-old showbiz brat with an apparently precarious hold on reality. It says more when the youngster looks down on the P.I. as a loser. But eventually, Kyd becomes entangled in this boy's domestic life, which threatens to become a contemporary variation on the tragedy of Hamlet. Harris' Hollywood-Beverly Hills-Bel-Air details and dialogue ring scathingly true, and he hasn't lost his touch for menacing atmosphere. Unfaithful Servant marks the welcome if unexpected return -- the resurrection and redemption, you might say -- of a rueful but winning character who's been absent far too long. -- Tom Nolan

The Warlord's Son by Dan Fesperman (Bantam Press UK)

The examination of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in fiction is, understandably, a fairly recent phenomenon. There is the issue of publishing lead time, and worries that the subject was simply too raw for writers to deal with honestly. Most of the fiction that has been published in the wake of the attacks, however, did not deal with the immediate aftermath: the war in Afghanistan and the search for Osama bin Laden. Dan Fesperman's thoughtful new novel, The Warlord's Son, does just that, while offering a nuanced examination of two men who must depend on each other at the height of danger. Stanford J. Kelly (Skelly to all) is a burned-out foreign correspondent who finds, after being grounded at an Ohio newspaper, that he's really itching to get back in the trenches. The 9/11 attacks gives him a new lease on his journalistic life, and he's off to Pakistan to find a way to cross the Afghan border and hunt for the ultimate prize -- journalistic redemption. He's helped by Najeeb, a "fixer" responsible for navigating the treacherous path between the two countries, both physical and psychological. Najeeb has his own secrets, especially his ties to an Afghan tribal overlord. Those secrets play out in startling ways once he and Skelly cross the border, and find themselves in perilous danger. Fesperman, whose career as a foreign correspondent with the Baltimore Sun already served him well in two prior novels about the Balkan Wars (including The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, 2003), is ideally suited to telling this latest story. In other hands, the devil-may-care attitudes of journalists might have had to vie for space with the details of war or with giving a history lesson in how many cultural differences there are within various Pakistani and Afghan areas, let alone between those countries and Western ones. But all of these ingredients meld together in Fesperman's fiction to support finely crafted characters who carry the story on their collective backs. The Warlord's Son is a tale of humanity, showing how primal instincts come to the forefront in dangerous situations. But it's also about friendship and loyalty and redemption, either achieved or disappointed. With the same compassionate prose style that marked his earlier works, Dan Fesperman has crafted one of the must-read novels of the year by tackling a tricky subject head-on and indirectly at the same time. It's a September 11 novel, but it's truly a great deal more. -- Sarah Weinman

While I Disappear by Edward Wright (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Los Angeles, went the old cliché, is seven (or 17) suburbs in search of a city. By the same token, you might say that L.A. today is seven (or 17) decades in search of a history. Fiction is as good a way as any for the present to find out the truth of its past. And crime-fiction has long been L.A.'s truthful subgenre of choice, ever since Raymond Chandler put some of the town's facts of life into his 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. It's some of Chandler's old turf that Edward Wright re-explores in the period novel While I Disappear, his second book with protagonist John Ray Horn, a former B-Western movie star who's slipped several rungs down the Hollywood ladder. (Readers were introduced to Horn in Wright's last novel, Clea's Moon, one of January's favorite books of 2003). But Wright is no mere imitator, of Chandler or any other writer, in this gripping and atmospheric tale set just after the end of World War II. The author weaves his own special magic in a story of Horn's attempt to find the killer of his former female co-star. Horn's quest takes him even deeper into Hollywood history, as he discovers the mystery he's investigating has ties to a hushed-up scandal of the 1920s. While I Disappear tells an absorbing story. Just as impressively, it captures an intriguing chunk of a city whose past often seems to be vanishing in front of its residents' eyes. Wright achieves his time-travel through a judicious mixture of glamorous detail and gritty reality. These people from back-then are living fully in their own present -- an often disturbing one. "Since the war," one movie-conscious Angeleno reflects, "something unsettling had crept into certain American films -- a darkness, a moral ambiguity, a sense that the average man had little chance against the world." John Ray Horn, in his diffident and reluctant way, begs to differ. -- Tom Nolan

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster)

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Martin Cruz Smith first introduced his Moscow police detective, Arkady Renko, in the best-selling novel Gorky Park (1981). Although this saturnine sleuth has since found competition from a few other modern Russian detektivs (Stuart M. Kaminsky's Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov and Anthony Olcott's Ivan Duvakin come to mind), Renko remains foremost in his class, never ceasing to act as an aware but wary observer of Russian (or, earlier, Soviet) culture and crime. In Wolves Eat Dogs, this series' fifth entry (after Havana Bay, 1999), Renko is sent to investigate the apparent suicide of Pasha Ivanov, a Moscow physicist-turned-billionaire businessman whose body was found 10 stories below his stylish apartment. Why would a guy like Ivanov, who's made out like a bandit, literally, in the "New Russia" of cutthroat capitalism, and who has a leggy Lolita-esque girlfriend to show for his trouble, take his own life? More curious yet, why would he leap from his window with a salt shaker in hand? And what's with the 50 kilos of table salt dumped on his closet floor? "A sign of derangement," declares one of Renko's colleagues, dismissively. But the congenitally skeptical Arkady isn't convinced, and starts digging seriously into this case. In the process, he exasperates police higher-ups who view Renko as "a difficult investigator, a holdover from the Soviet era, a man on the skids" -- and who much prefer the conclusion that Ivanov did himself in. So those superiors are only too happy to learn, days after Ivanov's demise, that his corporation's senior vice-president has been found in the Ukraine with his throat slit, for it gives them an excuse to send Renko on what looks like a wild goose chase, out into the "radioactive wasteland" surrounding Chernobyl, the site of a notorious 1986 nuclear disaster. As colorful as today's Moscow is (with its superfluity of Irish pubs and sushi bars, and its chaotic roadways), the Zone of Exclusion ringing Chernobyl provides an even more bizarre setting for Smith's tale -- a place as remarkably bleak as Arkady's inner life. It is in the Zone where Renko finds scavenging opportunists, scientists beset by hopelessness ("None of us makes progress, that's the nature of this place") and a "damaged" doctor, Eva Kazka, whose self-doubts and pessimism compete with Renko's own. For all its trappings of despair, though, Wolves Eat Dogs bears an optimistic edge, evident both in its portrayal of Chernobyl habitués who find strength in dismal circumstances ("If you want to know how people will react at the end of the world, this was it"), and in Renko's associations with Kazka as well as an 11-year-old orphan boy, Zhenya, whose obstinacy Renko struggles to surmount. Would that thrillers could all be this intelligently wrought. -- J. Kingston Pierce


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