Best of 2002













Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute





Crime Fiction

The Apprentice by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine Books)

Gerritsen follows last year's supremely dark and menacing tale, The Surgeon, with this sequel of sorts. Like its predecessor, The Apprentice is an addictive read and takes readers to the dismal basement of indisputable evil. It's a year on since Boston homicide detectives Jane Rizzoli and Thomas Moore captured serial killer Warren Hoyt, aka the Surgeon. Moore has since married Catherine Cordell (one of the Surgeon's early victims, and the only survivor of his predations) and relocated to London. Rizzoli, though, continues to suffer from the scars of the Surgeon case -- scars destined to be wrenched opened again by the appearance in Beantown of a second serial killer, known as the Dominator, whose grisly handiwork appears to have been influenced by Hoyt. Working with a fellow police detective, Vince Korsak, and FBI agent Gabriel Dean, Rizzoli learns that Hoyt and the Dominator have been in communication. When the Surgeon escapes custody and, in concert with his imitator, designates Rizzoli as his principal target, Gerritsen's already fast-paced tale hits hyper-drive. The dynamics of this new novel are quite different from its predecessor's, the tale here being wider-reaching, and The Apprentice's menace can be felt as early as page two, where Rizzoli is seen investigating the corpse of an illegal immigrant who fell from a plane. Only at the book's end do you finally see a surreal tie back to its opening, and realize why the Dominator linked himself with his equally repulsive precursor. -- Ali Karim

Bad Lawyer by David Cray (Orion UK/Otto Penzler)

Britain is a bit behind in publishing the works of David Cray (a pseudonym of former New York City cop Stephen Solomita). While his fourth novel, What You Wish For, was just released in the States, the UK's Orion has only recently published his second thriller, Bad Lawyer. The story starts out like the majority of courtroom dramas these days, except that it's a first-person narrative. Sid Kaplan, a once-high-flying Manhattan criminal-defense lawyer, is now on the skids, thanks to a combination of drugs, booze and arrogance. Like so many heroes, though, he eventually gets a shot at redemption, when a high-profile, media-attractive case falls into his lap. The defendant is Priscilla Sweet, a young and attractive woman who's been charged with murdering her dope-selling husband. Although the cops insist she acted with cold-blooded intent, Priscilla says she killed her hubby in self-defense, after suffering years of his abuse. Sid's pretty sure that his client is withholding information from him, but he doesn't care; he's focused instead on how winning this case will boost him back into the limelight. Not until drug dealers show up on his office doorstep, demanding the return of money stolen from them, and then his two associates are killed, does Sid realize that he's brought trouble on himself. Again. Cray's book is a bit confusing in places, and its slows during court scenes; but the tale's conclusion is well worth the trawl and comes as a surprise. Fans of John Grisham and Scott Turow should have a ball with this book. -- Ali Karim

Beggars Banquet by Ian Rankin (Orion UK)

This collection of 21 tales is a big improvement over Rankin's last round-up of short stories, A Good Hanging (1992). That's due in large part to its greater breadth and diversity. Many of Rankin's offerings here are fast reads, such as his macabre hit man tale, "The Hanged Man," in which the antagonist gets more than he bargained for. But there is social commentary as well, as in "Glimmer," about a journalist who falls in with the Rolling Stones' entourage during the psychedelic 1960s. Beggars Banquet serves up a few unusual tales, such as "Video Nasty," a surreal first-person narrative, plus some that give off the air of having originated as radio plays ("Talk Show" is one of those). An attractive feature of this book is the way it shuffles stories around, mixing up first- and third-person yarns. Only seven of the entries are Inspector Rebus outings. Though Rankin fans may crucify me at the stake for saying this, I preferred the non-Rebus tales, because their style of writing seemed less claustrophobic and their milieus was less familiar. This tightly written presentation of work by one of Scotland's most celebrated authors of our day is perfect for either bedtime reading or to occupy oneself on an early train or bus journey to work. I hope it helps publishers to realize that in today's frenetic, time-constricted world, collections of short crime fiction deserve a comeback. -- Ali Karim

Beware the Solitary Drinker by Cornelius Lehane (Poisoned Pen Press)

Brian McNulty is a 40-year-old failed law student, sometimes-actor and veteran Manhattan bartender who works the plank at Oscar's, a smoky, seedy joint on Broadway. One night in 1983, he meets Angelina Carter, a charming, blue-eyed 20-year-old who takes to bunking with him (more chastely than he would prefer) until she finds a waitressing job, moves into a studio apartment and starts "spending money like a drunken sailor, recklessly enjoying her prosperity and popularity." But after winning the hearts of the Oscar's clientele, and taking several of the eccentric regulars into her bed, Angelina suddenly turns up murdered in Riverside Park. Who would do in such a sweet and sexy young thing, and why? The cops eye McNulty as the killer, if only because Angelina made him the beneficiary of her life insurance policy. McNulty worries, instead, that the perpetrator was another friend of his, a black bass player who'd been spotted with Angelina on her last night of life. In any case, the bartender wants no part of the investigation. But he's ultimately pushed into it by the deceased's elder sister, who insists on unearthing the full circumstances of this slaying, even if it means exposing aspects of Angelina's behavior -- her casual participation in cheap porno flicks, her possible role as a blackmailer -- that the usually cynical McNulty would rather not acknowledge. Lehane, an author out of Washington, D.C., revels in exploring the foibles of the Runyonesque crooks and ne'er-do-wells who frequent Oscar's, and portrays New York City in all of its hopeful, hyped and whoreish glory. Although this intricate (sometimes too intricate) amateur sleuth mystery is a first novel, it shows the confidence of a more mature hand. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Bleak Water by Danuta Reah (HarperCollins UK)

Eliza Eliot is the curator of a new art gallery, opened on the banks of a rundown canal that cuts through the deprived northern England city of Sheffield. Despite its off-the-beaten-track location, Eliza has high hopes for this space (and her career), fueled by her opportunity to show the latest works by wunderkind Daniel Flynn, her former lover, who has finished a series of reworkings of Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel's The Triumph of Death. However, her excitement is tempered by sad memories of a four-year-old murder, and by the more recent car-accident death of Eliza's friend Maggie. Soon, more bodies turn up, the victims showing sinister links to the visceral madness portrayed in Brueghel's art. Are these the acts of a random psychopath, or can the modern murders be connected to the tragedy of four years ago? Reah offers here a complex, character-driven narrative that peers into the dark side of human nature. Distinctive secondary players abound, from a drug-addicted (and sexual thrill-seeking) policewoman who's trying to cope both with the investigation and her own demons, to her supposedly straight-laced boss (destined also to be tempted by the pleasures of the flesh). Throw in a dead prostitute, teenagers in peril, a prisoner incarcerated for pedophilia and a backstory from Madrid's bohemian side, and you have a haunting, multi-viewpoint narrative by an author who understands that people's psyches are multi-leveled, and that no one is ever really innocent. -- Ali Karim

Blood on the Tongue by Stephen Booth (HarperCollins UK)

In his third and most mature work to date, Booth locks England's East Midlands district in a winter chill made more bleak by murders new and old. This cold has put many officers of "E" Division out of commission, leaving empathetic Detective Constable Ben Cooper and his more severe superior, Detective Sergeant Diane Fry, to take on a medley of knotty puzzles: the freezing deaths of a man found on a roadside and an abused woman curled up on nearby Irontongue Hill, as well as the case of a Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber that crashed into Irontongue back in 1945, killing everyone on board except for the pilot, who reportedly walked away from the wreckage Ö and was never heard from again. Cooper finds himself drawn to the World War II tragedy, in large part because of Alison Morrisey, a beguiling young Canadian and the grand-daughter of that missing pilot, who's come to Derbyshire determined to clear her ancestor's name. Fry is frustrated in her efforts to concentrate Cooper's attention on the modern crimes; but as it becomes evident that these various mysteries are intertwined, she and Cooper both search for proof that deceptions from the past have led to death in the present. Atmospheric, intricately plotted and teeming with singular secondary players, Blood on the Tongue should provoke readers who haven't already enjoyed Booth's previous works, Black Dog and Dancing With the Virgins, to track down those titles, as well. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Blue Edge of Midnight by Jonathon King (Dutton)

Max Freeman is a former Philadelphia cop who escaped to Florida after capping an adolescent thief. He's now trying to live inconspicuously in a Spartan Everglades cabin. But when he happens upon the floating corpse of a kidnapped young girl, the latest victim of a serial killer, Max's peace goes to pieces. County sheriff's investigators peg him as their quarry, and they'll only look elsewhere if Max can point them in the general direction of the real murderer. Though this is an all-too-familiar plotting device, King manages to refresh it a bit, primarily by pulling readers deep into the 'Glades, a huge and humid section of the Sunshine State that rarely receives the attention from crime fictionists that is lavished on areas better known for their naked skin than their nasty skeeters. Max is a reliable and reliably troubled figure, if rather too heroic for some tastes. (Over the course of this mystery, he survives not only gunplay and a bar brawl, but a plane crash, to boot.) And he's supported by a splendid cast of misfits, including his suave but stuttering attorney friend, Billy Manchester, and a passel of inbred swamp rats whose moral codes might be the envy of local gators. This debut novel by King, a South Florida feature writer, will be followed next spring by a second Max Freeman adventure, A Visible Darkness. -- J. Kingston Pierce


The Business of Dying by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press UK)

This is a remarkable debut novel, its story both amoral and bizarre. Detective Sergeant Dennis Milne and his partner, Asif Malik, are sent to investigate the gruesome North London murder of teenage prostitute Miriam Fox. It's a complex case, and though there seems to be an obvious suspect, Milne is not convinced of his guilt. What's really unique here is that the DS is himself mixed up in some pretty dodgy dealings, including a multiple killing that he committed to earn extra cash, but which comes back to haunt him as he probes deeper into Fox's murder and becomes mixed up with a few strange characters from her past. Add to these complications Metropolitan Police politics and a ruthless crew of London gangsters, and it's not surprising that the cynical, hard-drinking Milne is soon ducking bullets on London's mean streets. The crimes and deaths grow increasingly violent and perverted, and the definition of morality is blurred as Kernick's story rolls on. This novel's players are very well delineated, its dialogue is polished and its prose generally exceeds the quality one might expect from a debut work. A scene in which Milne and Malik interview the dead prostitute's parents is a real standout, tugging at the reader's emotions. The body count in The Business of Dying is high and the story's climax is stunning, and even this jaded mystery critic didn't twig to its cathartic resolution. Kernick is definitely a writer to watch. -- Ali Karim

Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company)

It's hard to find new adjectives to describe Connelly, given all that he has accomplished so far. What's easier is to pick up his latest standalone novel, Chasing the Dime, and hang on for a fast-paced, techno-laced ride through the darker side of the Internet. Henry Pierce is a brilliant California researcher who heads his own company, Amedeo Technologies, and is racing to develop energy sources for molecular computers. His devotion to work, however, has cost him his fiancée, Nicole James, Amedeo's former intelligence officer. After relocating to an apartment in Santa Monica, Henry finds that his new phone number previously belonged to a prostitute named Lilly Quinlan. He is soon inundated with calls for the mysterious and missing Lilly, and his initial annoyance turns to intrigue. So, although he's on the verge of securing major funding for his latest discovery (code-named Proteus), Pierce embarks obsessively on locating Lilly, who reminds him of his late sister, a former prostitute. This is, perhaps, the only hole in Connelly's story. Either you accept that Henry must search for Lilly in order to soothe both his festering guilt over a sibling's demise and his quasi-guilt for letting the relationship with Nicole deteriorate ... or you insist that no one with millions of dollars and a career on the line would take such risks. Fortunately for Connelly, he's an explosive writer, and the psychology is believable enough to convince readers that Pierce is doing the right thing -- even as he seeks help from Lucy LaPorte, a hooker with a helping heart, to penetrate the world of Internet porn and thereby piece together Lilly's unhappy life and sad fate. Chasing the Dime is infused with the good and bad of technology. Life-improving discoveries such as Proteus are weighed against the exploitation of the World Wide Web by sex-for-money operations with criminal underpinnings. Yet it's Henry Pierce, not high-tech, who gives this tale its depth. As he seeks--through his search for Lilly--to atone for his own sister's death, Pierce also finds himself being protective of LaPorte and trying to rekindle Nicole's affections. (Henry may be a whiz in the lab, but he's below average in understanding the opposite sex.) And after almost losing his life to one of the more sinister of characters in thriller fiction, he uses the sophisticated toys in his lab to deliver justice in a heart-pounding techno-jazzed finale. There are nice tie-ins between this story and Connelly's previous series novels. But given the complication and tempo of Chasing the Dime, most readers will scarcely miss his usual sleuths, Harry Bosch and Terrell McCaleb. -- Anthony Rainone

City of Bones by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company)

In City of Bones, Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's irresistible LAPD homicide detective, responds to a report of a dog bringing home an apparently human bone from a nearby hillside. Preliminary examination establishes that it is indeed human, the humerus bone of an arm. Bosch orders an exhaustive search of the hillside, which yields the skull and enough other bones to compose about 60 percent of a human skeleton, a small one. The forensic anthropologist working with the medical examiner's office tells Bosch and his partner, Jerry Edgar, that he found "incontrovertible evidence of tremendous skeletal trauma and chronic abuse" during his examination of the bones, which he confirmed belonged to a child. "So we've got a ten- to thirteen-year-old kid killed twenty to twenty-five years ago," says Edgar, summing up the case he and Bosch will have to solve. Bosch, suddenly nauseated, heads for the bathroom and throws cold water on his reddened face. Looking up from the sink at his reflection in the mirror, he promises himself, "I'm going to get this guy." How Bosch's painstaking investigation unfolds, leading in unpredictable, but never unbelievable, directions, makes up the meat of this fascinating, intricate crime story. -- Charles Smyth

December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster)

Myriad accounts have been written from the U.S. side, describing the December 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. But Smith's slickly plotted and exotically atmospheric new thriller swings the viewpoint 180 degrees. It opens in Tokyo just a few days prior to that historic attack. There we meet Harry Niles, the cynical and opportunistic owner of a popular nightclub called the Happy Paris, who finds himself at a cultural crossroads. The son of Methodist missionaries, who left him for protracted periods in Tokyo with a besotted uncle, Harry grew up as "a Japanese boy who pretended to be an American son when his parents visited." Now, with war approaching between the land of his history and the land of his heart, he must choose where his allegiances lie. The trouble is, he doesn't seem to know. "Harry was skipping town," Smith writes. "Any sane person would." He has a seat waiting for him on what may be the final flight out to Hong Kong, and plans to escape from there to the States with a British diplomat's wife. Before he leaves, though, he has some sticky affairs to settle--not the least of which is a con game he's been running on the Japanese Imperial Navy. Harry's departure is further complicated by a sword-wielding military fanatic, who's seeking revenge for a long-ago shame, and by the club owner's need to bid sayonara to Michiko, his seductive but dangerous Japanese mistress. While this tale starts out slowly, it soon flourishes with conflicted personalities and a finely textured re-creation of wartime Tokyo, an alien city filled with pet beetles and mincing geishas and the naïve conviction that "victory lies in a faith in victory." Rarely has author Smith shown such appreciation for the vivid nuances of character and location as he does between these covers. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Dialogues of the Dead by Reginald Hill (Delacorte Press)

With Dialogues of the Dead, crime fiction master Reginald Hill pays homage to the Edmund Crispin school of British academic mystery, in which the eccentricities of scholars are so extreme as to make the most innocent appear guilty and allow true madness to operate unnoticed. While in many of his previous works, Hill focused on his series police investigators -- the lusty and fearsome Andy Dalziel and the thoughtful Peter Pascoe -- in Dialogues (as in Arms and the Women) the cops are merely players in a complex ensemble. Librarians screening entries for a local short-story competition discover that someone is submitting well-crafted descriptions of murders -- killings which are then reported a day or two later in the local paper. In search of the author and apparent murderer, young Detective Constable Hat Bowler finds plenty of suspects in the local literary world. These include a graduate student put behind bars by Pascoe some years earlier (who is now writing a graduate thesis -- on revenge) and one of the seemingly mild-manner librarians. Despite plenty of clever repartee and literary pranks -- a prominent author, for instance, responds to a negative review by smashing a pudding on the head of a trendy arts critic -- this book, with its recurring "dialogues" contributed by the murderer, exudes a powerful chill. Readers shocked by the book's gory conclusion will find themselves leafing back to locate the plentiful but subtle clues that led Pascoe to drive like a madman in the final pages, hoping to rescue Bowler and catch the killer in the act. -- Karen G. Anderson

The Distance by Eddie Muller (Scribner)

Best known for Dark Dames and other books about film noir, Muller delivers here his first installment in a knockout series built around celebrity sports columnist Billy Nichols, aka "Mr. Boxing." Set in 1948 San Francisco, the yarn has Nichols helping to cover up the murder of heavyweight fighter Hack Escalante's manager. He figures he's doing the hard-fisted but seemingly guileless Escalante a favor. However, the reporter's actions only lead to worse trouble, as lies begin to topple over one another; Nichols falls dangerously for Escalante's "blue plate special" of a wife; and a cop who's not nearly so thick-headed as he appears closes in on the truth. Muller, the son of a renowned Bay Area boxing writer and founder of the San Francisco Historical Boxing Museum, hits a perfect pitch with his postwar atmospherics and not-overwrought use of period slang. And his prose is, dare I say, punchy -- especially when relating Nichols' deadline work for the San Francisco Inquirer (a thinly veiled Examiner): "The shiny black keys of the Royal stared up at me. They were used to being hammered, as I banged out words that would become column inches cast in hot metal. Write the story. Let all the rest slip into the void. What matters is the work at hand. Bring it back, spare and vivid, the noise and sweat and desire. Make them see it, make them smell it. The loyal readers want testimony, something that will stand. A tribal memory." Shaped by his career and the sometimes larcenous conduct of the sport he loves, Nichols is an appropriately flawed protagonist, a man unhappy with his wife (who's cheating on him) and with a life that, when compared with the action he sees inside the ring, seems insignificant and chaotic. Packed with showboating impresarios and overly sentimental bruisers, backgrounded by San Francisco's scoop-hungry newspaper scene, The Distance is an odds-on favorite. Muller has a sequel, Shadow Boxer, due out in January. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Dooley's Back by Sam Reaves (Carroll & Graf)

For those of you hankering for a good stiff shot of crime fiction, Sam Reaves' bracing new thriller sure hits the spot. It goes down real smooth, but ends up kicking like a mule. Ex-cop Frank Dooley is barely off the plane, back in Chicago after a self-imposed "sabbatical" in Mexico, when he gets involved in a little nastiness involving a would-be rapist, a switchblade, a five-story drop and a shopping-mall food court. It ends with Frank's grim observation that "The punk had let go of the knife in midair, and it hit the floor and bounced at the same time he did, proving Galileo right once again." This homecoming sets the tone for a hard-hitting tale of murder and revenge, corruption and pain. Frank is still getting past the long-ago rape and murder of his wife, and all he wants to do now is be with his family and friends. The problem is that, as Frank philosophizes, "People passed on, and the ones who were left had to go on making the best of it in a world with a lot of rough edges." And some of those edges are brutal. His former partner and best friend, Roy Ferguson -- grief stricken after the drowning death of his young son -- has started gambling, racking up debts no honest man could pay. He owes some serious coin to an ambitious mob bagman named Johnny Spanos, who's using that debt as leverage to force Roy into tampering with evidence in a murder case. Frank convinces Roy to own up to his sins, but when things go awry, he finds himself once more out for vengeance, determined to take down Spanos at almost any cost. This is real working-class noir, in which people grind their lives out, their only refuge being loyalty and, if they're lucky, love. Oh, and maybe a shot and a beer at the end of the road. It's hard to read Dooley's Back, and not start to see things filtered through a shot glass. People in this book work, play, gamble, fight, love and live and even die in bars. But they know drinking is never really the answer -- it's just a temporary release from the grim fatalism and bittersweet joys that run through Reaves' novel, and their lives. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Enough Rope by Lawrence Block (William Morrow)

Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block. I'm just so tired of hearing about him. And you probably are, too. Yeah, he's this prolific, multiple-award-winning New York City author. But what has he done for us lately? Oh, sure, earlier this year he published Enough Rope, a humongous (900 pages!) collection of his short crime fiction (83 stories, including 11 brand-new ones) that traces Mr. Big Shot's career from just about the dawn of time (actually, around 1957) to the present, so we can't complain that he's not generous. But does he really have to rub our faces in his extraordinary productiveness? I mean, Enough Rope doesn't even contain all of his short works, despite his sneaky claims to the contrary. What really steams my clams, though, is that Block's so damn good at what he does. How unfair can you get? There are hordes of us struggling writers out here, just trying to come up with even one good idea, and this guy's been cranking out winners for more than 40 years. And the damn stuff even stands up to re-reading. Pouring through Enough Rope, I encountered many stories I'd read before; and even though I already knew their endings, I still found myself enjoying all over again Block's deceitful writerly tricks: humor, wit, believable characters, straightforward prose and inventive but honest plotting, not to mention his effortless use and total mastery of the language. The plain, unpleasant truth is that nobody working in crime fiction today has consistently written so many good stories, of so many different types, with so many great characters as Block has. But you know the absolute worst thing about Lawrence Block? He shows no signs of abating, of ceasing and desisting, but appears determined to continue delighting readers and infuriating other writers for years to come. Somebody stop him before he uses up all the good ideas! Damn. I hate that guy. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Viking)

With the energy of a Douglas Adams or a Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde transforms classic genres such as mystery, science fiction and social satire into springboards from which to launch his imagination. Like Adams, he has a penchant for wordplay; like Pratchett, he creates memorable characters who represent entire schools of thought. In the astonishingly original The Eyre Affair, Fforde sets detective Thursday Next on the trail of Acheron Hades, a professor-turned-arch-criminal who is bent on destroying great works of literature by using time travel to enter the novels and rewrite their plots. The Eyre Affair takes place in the mid 2000s, in an England that diverged from the universe we know sometime during the late 19th century. Cars exist, but planes don't. Thanks to advances in science, previously extinct animals such as dodos can be kept as pets and people are able to time-travel into the past, the future and even the world of fiction. Literature has become a popular obsession comparable to soccer or rock music, with criminals like Hades snatching original manuscripts and holding them for fantastic ransoms. Thursday, a low-level operative with the Literary Detectives, finds herself pursuing this villain into the plot of Jane Eyre, where she must conspire with the book's famous characters to patch up the plot even as Hades is altering it. Thursday -- slated to return soon in Lost in a Good Book -- is a tough, brainy protagonist you care about, whether she's shooting it out with Hades or making a fool of herself in front of her ex-boyfriend's fiancée. -- Karen G. Anderson


Firewall by Henning Mankell (The New Press)

One way to describe Firewall is as a techno-apocalyptic thriller on a human scale. But it might be more accurate (or less confusing) to say it's the latest book in a remarkable series of police-procedural novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell. The series' protagonist is Inspector Kurt Wallander, a middle-aged, weary, stubborn man who lives alone and is prone (when faced with especially grotesque crimes) to ask, "What's happening to the world?" The events prompting Wallander's question in Firewall include the unprovoked killing of a taxi-driver by two teenage girls, and the murder of another man at a remote power station whose malfunction blacks out electricity to a large part of the country. Gradually, while working on these seemingly unrelated cases and also dealing with police-office politics and their own personal lives, Wallander and his colleagues discern the shape of a larger and more frightening conspiracy. Firewall was the second riveting Wallander mystery to be published in North America this year; One Step Behind (also finely translated by Ebba Segerberg) was equally good. -- Tom Nolan


Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman (Carroll & Graf)

Many of us know the major works of Dashiell Hammett -- but who has read The Maltese Falcon's author's brilliant early parody, "The Advertising Man Writes a Love Letter," from a 1927 issue of Judge magazine? There are good biographies of Raymond Chandler in print -- but what did magazine and newspaper writers report about Philip Marlowe's creator during his own lifetime? Critics of hard-boiled fiction refer to Ross Macdonald as the heir of Hammett and Chandler -- but what did the author of The Goodbye Look and The Chill himself have to say, in print and in conversation, about his distinguished predecessors? Bruccoli and Layman's generously illustrated and cleanly designed trade-paperback anthology presents a wealth of primary-source material by and about Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald: essays, reviews, interviews, jacket art, book ads and even a page or two of FBI files. Hardboiled Mystery Writers will give pleasure to all sorts of readers, from the browser to the scholar. -- Tom Nolan

Hell to Pay by George P. Pelecanos (Little, Brown and Company)

In Hell to Pay, George Pelecanos reunites black private eye Derek Strange and white ex-cop Terry Quinn (introduced in Right as Rain, 2001) to investigate the drug-related shooting of a 9-year-old boy. As in Pelecanos' acclaimed earlier series -- the first about bartender Nick Stefanos, and the second about P.I. Dmitri Karras -- the seamy Washington, D.C., setting is integral to this novel. And its story sets the standard for contemporary hard-boiled crime fiction. Pelecanos makes you care about his characters, then shows you sides of them you'd rather forget. Of course, it's their flaws, particularly when they admit to them, that give Strange and Quinn crucial insights into the crimes they solve and the criminals they pursue. Strange is unable to commit to his longtime girlfriend and her fatherless teenage son; in Hell to Pay, he finds himself doing business with a powerful D.C. drug lord who has shrugged off responsibility for the woman and children in the violence-plagued community. Quinn is nearly killed during a lone-ranger rescue of a teenager girl from a wily pimp, in part because his own attitude toward women prevented him from enlisting the aid of the female private eye with whom he was working. The hard-boiled genre has always portrayed the P.I. as a hero estranged from society. In Hell to Pay, Pelecanos suggests that just catching the bad guys may not be redemption enough. -- Karen G. Anderson

Hunter and Hunted by Frederic Brown (Stewart Masters Publishing)

Stewart Masters Publishing ought to receive some kind of humanitarian award for its ambitious attempt to bring all of the mystery novels and short stories by pulpster Frederic Brown back into print. Its first volley is Hunter and Hunted, a handsome omnibus featuring the first four Ed and Am Hunter detective novels. For those of you who miss character-driven mysteries and oddball plots, you could do a whole lot worse than these. Idealistic young Ed Hunter and his short, chubby but worldly carny uncle, Am (short for Ambrose, but don't call him that!), make their debut in the Edgar-winning The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), wherein Am resigns from the carnival and heads to Chicago to track down the killer of his brother (Ed's father). In Dead Ringer (1948), Ed joins his uncle in the traveling carnival, only to become involved in the investigation of a midget's murder. The Bloody Moonlight (1949) finds Ed and Am working as operatives for the Starlock Detective Agency, investigating a newfangled radio, and in Compliments of a Fiend (1950), they look into the peculiar disappearance of several men named Ambrose. Read separately these stories are just (JUST!) above-average detective tales, but taken together they form a charming and perceptive -- and always entertaining -- coming-of-age journey of a young man from idealism to adulthood. And while these books might be considered hard-boiled, there's an underlying tenderness and sympathy for the human condition that belies their sometimes bleak trappings. Add Brown's surreal sense of humor, his love of paradox, and his surprisingly earthy (but never cheap) sexiness in many of the stories, and you've got a recipe for some damn good reading. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Interrogation by Thomas H. Cook (Bantam Books)

Thomas H. Cook is one of the most interesting authors in the genre of suspense and crime fiction -- and one of the ones most deserving of the description "novelist." His 2002 book, The Interrogation, takes place in 1952, with police detectives in an unnamed city grilling a likely suspect in the shocking murder of a young girl. Pressure mounts for a confession, but the strange young man getting the third degree refuses to admit guilt. His questioning becomes a personal crisis for several cops and their bosses, whose stories are revealed through flashbacks. Cook's gripping text neatly evokes the feel of popular entertainment of its era: movies such as The Asphalt Jungle, live-TV dramas like Twelve Angry Men, radio's Suspense and Ed McBain's first 87th Precinct books. But The Interrogation yields its own original satisfactions, as it races towards its final page. -- Tom Nolan

The Jazz Bird by Craig Holden (Simon & Schuster)

Holden, familiar as the author of literary suspensers (The River Sorrow, The Last Sanctuary, Four Corners of Night), bases his fourth novel on the real-life murder trial of George Remus, a successful Prohibition bootlegger, who in 1927 shot his wife, Imogene, in a Cincinnati park. But this is no play-by-by re-creation of a crime. The Jazz Bird takes the Remus homicide and the headline-grabbing courtroom drama that followed it, and molds them into the core of a haunting, vividly written and tragic tale of love gone horrendously wrong. Any question of Remus' culpability in his wife's slaying is dispelled in this book's first chapter, as the rum king surrenders himself to police and confesses his crime. However, he subsequently refuses to roll over and accept whatever punishment might be meted out by his contemporaries. Remus instead chooses to act as his own solicitor, claiming he was temporarily insane at the time he pulled the trigger. That's not an easy defense to make, as his opposing counsel -- Charles P. Taft II, the younger son of former U.S. President William Howard Taft -- knows well. Taft intends to counter with proof of premeditated murder, and goes searching for evidence of such in the pages of Imogene's diary. While those pages may be dry, the yarn they spin -- of crime and glamour and, finally, a scheme gone horribly wrong -- is anything but. Flashing back and forth between past and present, Holden paints a picture of tragedy against an era of excess and creates a luminous character, in Imogene Remus, who seems capable of beguiling any man -- even, posthumously, lawyer Taft. The author took some liberties in recounting this historical court case. Yet, given the thoroughly captivating results, who can't forgive him such fictionalizing? -- J. Kingston Pierce

Jolie Blon's Bounce by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

In Burke's latest crime novel, sheriff's deputy Dave Robicheaux grapples with demons inside and out to unravel the grisly murders of two young women. A former New Orleans police detective and reformed alcoholic, Robicheaux finds his resolve to stay off the booze severely tested during his investigation of these killings. By far the most serious challenge to his sobriety comes in the form of Legion Guidry, an older man who was once the brutal white overseer on a plantation. Guidry is a satanic figure gifted at spreading misery and planting fear. Using a blackjack, he gives Robicheaux a ferocious beating, ending it by sticking his tongue in Robicheaux's bloody mouth. The awful taste of that humiliation proves hard to get rid of and inflames Robicheaux's barely controlled longing for a drink. Helping him in the sobriety struggle, and in the murder investigation, is a close friend and former fellow homicide detective, Clete Purcel. Purcel is now a P.I., whose tactics are not admired by the New Iberia Parish sheriff. But they nicely complement Robicheaux's official investigation, helping to turn up elusive information and loosen reluctant tongues beyond the easy reach of law enforcement. The case draws in a colorful cast of characters, including a retired mob hit man bent on revenge, a stunningly sexy prosecuting attorney, an oddball bible salesman who doesn't quite ring true and a lowlife nightclub owner with BAD NEWS written all over him. Then there's Tee Bobby Hulin, a talented young musician whose prowess on the guitar is at risk from his addiction to heroin. Listening to Tee Bobby play a blues song at an outdoor concert, Robicheaux is reminded of the great New Orleans bluesman Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones. The name of that song is "Jolie Blon's Bounce." Along with being a mesmerizing storyteller, James Lee Burke is a master of vivid description. When you come across a passage about the sweltering heat of a Louisiana summer afternoon, don't be surprised if you break out in a sweat. -- Charles Smyth


The Killing Kind by John Connolly (Atria Books)

A mass grave is just one of the many long-buried secrets unearthed in The Killing Kind, featuring Charlie "Bird" Parker, a troubled Maine private detective who's haunted by his past -- literally. Like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, the detective on TV's Haunted or even the kid in The Sixth Sense, Parker sees dead people. Sorry, but I don't get it -- when did writers decide detectives needed interference from beyond the grave to work their cases? The device not only jars, but pulls the reader out of the story. Not that it's the only problem here. Connolly leans far too heavily in this third Parker novel on symbolism and mysticism for my tastes, and revels in what seems like a little boy's delight in grossness. There's also an unnecessary prologue, a meandering bit of mumbo-jumbo about hidden depths, both temporal and spiritual. But scrape away all the New Age hokum, and this is a great read -- full of sharp characters, a compelling hero, a truly nasty villain or two, and a muscular plot that grabs you by the throat and shakes the hell out of you. Looking into the apparent suicide of a young female grad student on behalf of a former senator, Charlie soon finds himself battling not just his own ghosts but also those of a failed cult and its charismatic leader who disappeared nearly 40 years earlier. Along the way, we meet Charlie's smart girlfriend, a delightful odd couple of homosexual career criminals, gun dealers, opera-loving gangsters, fundamentalist hit men, anti-abortion militants, and one of the most repellent playfriends you could ever meet, a nasty slice of pure evil known as Elias Pudd. And, of course, there are all those dead people. Somehow, Connolly is able to control this large, unwieldy cast and deliver not only some heart-stopping violence and wonderful writing, but one of the most captivating, intricately plotted books I read this year. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Kisscut by Karin Slaughter (William Morrow)

Slaughter continues the themes and characters she outlined in her debut novel, Blindsighted (2001), but ramps up the tension here with a truly terrifying story. Dr. Sara Linton, the pediatrician and part-time medical examiner in a modest Alabama town, finds herself at the center of a mystery-cum-conspiracy after a shooting goes disastrously wrong for her ex-husband, Chief of Police Jeff Tolliver. A teenager is dead, and as Linton and Tolliver, assisted by detective (and still-recovering rape victim) Lena Adams, conduct an investigation, they stumble across a child-pornography ring and other unspeakable crimes dating well back into their town's past. The depravity of these crimes contrasts starkly with the backdrop of rural normality, and makes the point that villainy knows no bounds -- and can hide in plain sight. Slaughter's prose is taut and forceful, but Kisscut might be a hard read for those of a weaker constitution to stomach. Like Blindsighted, the events in this sequel aren't easily erased from one's mind. I confess that it gave me nightmares, as I pondered the concept of sinister intent finding protective harbor in an idyllic setting. Never again will you take seriously the notion that everybody knows everything that goes on in small American towns. -- Ali Karim

Living Dead Girl by Tod Goldberg (Soho Press)

Tod Goldberg's striking and affecting second novel, told in the first person and in the present tense, makes smart use of the unreliable-narrator device. Paul Luden, who tells Living Dead Girl in a narrative that moves easily and poignantly between present and past, can't be completely trusted by readers -- because he can't fully trust himself. Emotionally unstable since childhood and prone to odd obsessions, he doesn't always remember what happened and can't guarantee he hasn't succumbed to violent impulses. Nevertheless, Paul -- an anthropology teacher living in Los Angeles -- persists in trying to find out what's become of his estranged wife, Molly, missing from their lake cabin in Granite Point Park, Washington. With his 19-year-old girlfriend (a would-be filmmaker), Luden drives up to look for Molly -- and for what may remain of his sanity. Goldberg is a gifted writer, poetic and rigorous. And Living Dead Girl -- be it a suspense tale, a psychological mystery or a fiction tour de force -- is a haunting book. -- Tom Nolan

North of Nowhere by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne)

It's summer in Paradise, a remote small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But resident Alex McKnight's disposition is hardly sunny. He's turning 49 and becoming even more of a recluse, and his flirtation with the on-again, off-again life of a backwoods gumshoe seems to be nearing an end. Yet McKnight has a way of becoming entangled in sordid affairs not of his own making -- a pattern that continues in North of Nowhere, Hamilton's fourth novel (after The Hunting Wind). Hoping to snap Alex out of his doldrums, his friend Jackie Connery, who runs the Glasgow Inn (Alex's favorite local hangout), invites him to a poker game at the home of Win Vargas, the big-mouthed owner of a custom hardware store. However, that friendly game is interrupted by a trio of armed and masked intruders. While two of the robbers hold McKnight and the other players at gunpoint, the third ransacks Vargas' bedroom safe. The armed men finally retreat, and everybody breathes a sigh of relief. Yet by the next day, Vargas has convinced himself that McKnight masterminded the heist. Ridiculous, and Alex knows it. However, when a videotape turns up, incriminating Connery and two of his friends from the game, the reluctant P.I. is provoked to stick his nose into the case -- a decision that will lead to arson, kidnapping and a well-choreographed confrontation on Lake Superior. While North of Nowhere is ostensibly about solving a crime, it is also about McKnight trying to help Connery -- and the sometimes painful lessons one learns by being a friend. Hamilton's characters are as open and uncluttered as the landscape they inhabit. With McKnight roused again as a P.I.-with-a-conscience, North of Nowhere is a great book in a great series. -- Anthony Rainone

Precinct Puerto Rico: Book One by Steven Torres (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne)

Luis Gonzalo, the small-town Puerto Rican sheriff at the center of this exciting first book in a promised police-procedural series, has his seasonal vacation turn into a busman's holiday when he witnesses the aftermath of a fatal shipwreck involving (it seems) illegal alien-smuggling and murder. But Gonzalo's efforts to provoke an official investigation are thwarted, apparently by corrupt cops in the seaside town near where the wreck occurs. Worse yet, trouble follows Gonzalo back to his own mountain town of Angustias: The sheriff and his deputies are eventually involved in pitched battle with bank robbers who have more than robbery on their agenda. First-novelist Torres, a New York City resident, writes with vigor and an admirable simplicity. Sheriff Gonzalo is firmly in charge in this book, but all of his deputies -- in fact, all other major and minor characters -- are also sharply sketched. In five or 10 years, Steven Torres may have done for Puerto Rico what Tony Hillerman did for the American Southwest and Ed McBain for a fictionalized Manhattan. But don't wait until then. Read Torres now. -- Tom Nolan


Resolution by Denise Mina (Carroll & Graf)

Mina's modern Glasgow, Scotland, is a dismal place, full of tired, beaten-down people. It's here that we meet Maureen O'Donnell for the third time (after her appearances in Garnethill and Exile). A marginal woman, who was once employed at a shelter for battered women, she now lives by deceit, selling unlicensed cigarettes in an open-air market. Plagued by continuing nightmares, Maureen uses alcohol to try and block out all she remembers. But her recollections are crucial to this tale: She's due to testify at the trial of Angus Farrell, a psychologist who murdered her married lover. Farrell is trying to hide behind a well-faked cover of insanity, and sends Maureen notes and ugly videotapes to ensure that she'll hesitate to testify against him. The police are unsympathetic, even contemptuous (after all, Maureen has been a mental hospital patient). And her friend Leslie, who lives with a deadbeat, is only marginally supportive. More troubling than Maureen's own situation is that of Ella McGee, an elderly former prostitute who cautiously befriends Mina's protagonist at the market, only to turn up dead later on. Maureen suspects the old woman's demise was engineered by her allegedly respectable son, against whom Ella had intended to file a legal complaint. So despite her own woes, she and Leslie work to figure out what really happened to Ella -- more than any policeman wants to know. Maureen O'Donnell is such a disaster, but she's also tough. She reminds me of Barbara Seranella's protagonist, Munch Mancini (No Man Standing), if Munch didn't have a skill to rely on and was a bit needier. Resolution isn't an easy book to read, but it's also not quickly forgotten. I thought that after finishing, I'd be ready to go back and tackle the first two entries in Mina's Garnethill trilogy, but I haven't been able to do so. I want to appreciate, at least for a while, the image of Maureen at the end of this novel, when she finally manages to claim a life for herself. -- Andi Shechter

Reversible Errors by Scott Turow (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Dutiful Illinois corporate attorney Arthur Raven is the unlikely hero figure in author-lawyer Scott Turow's brilliant novel. The court appoints Raven to represent the interests of a convicted murderer who's being given a last-minute appeal before his scheduled execution. Awakened from the torpor of dull routine, Raven gets caught up in his new client's cause -- and in a budding relationship with the now-disgraced woman judge who sentenced that client to death a decade ago. Also figuring significantly in Reversible Errors' story, which shifts back and forth in time, are the case's female prosecutor and its male police detective, former lovers whose personal histories are entangled in this old affair. The plot is full of twists that keep the pages turning; but at the same time, Turow's shrewd eye for human behavior and his masterful prose keep you lingering over those same pages. -- Tom Nolan

The Righteous Cut by Robert Skinner (Poisoned Pen Press)

Wesley Farrell ought to be enjoying his lot in life; a Creole former bootlegger, he has re-created himself in recent years as a prosperous nightclub owner, with interests in both New Orleans and Havana. Instead, Skinner's sixth tightly contrived crime novel, set in December 1941, finds this sometimes-sleuth hard at work, trying to locate a kidnapped teenage girl, prevent the slaying of a naïve young witness to that girl's schoolyard abduction, and keep a corrupt New Orleans councilman from perishing in what appears to be a local gangland coup. It's the councilman, Whitman Richards, around whom this story's violence builds. With his hands into every nefarious enterprise, and a bevy of politicians owing him favors, Richards knows almost no bounds to his influence. But when two of his top henchmen are slain in quick succession, and then Richards' only daughter, Jessica, is abducted, the councilman suddenly finds himself on the defensive. Confident that he knows who's behind these attacks and can stop them on his own, Richards refuses assistance from Captain Frank Casey, Farrell's Irish cop father. He's no more willing to listen to appeals to reason from his wife, who finally turns for assistance to Farrell, a man she knew intimately during his younger days as a "two-bit hood." As capable as that nightclub owner can be, though, the troubles coalescing around Richards may be too much for even him to handle. Not only is there the matter of the missing Jessica, who's been left under the "care" of a hopheaded punk with rape on his mind, but her capture is related to a larger scheme that involves revenge for past injustices and a hit man's search for the frightened and fleeing custodian who knows too much about Jessica's plight to be left among the living. Skinner's noirish storytelling style, his attention to pre-civil rights race relations, and the balance he strikes between human emotions and action all make The Righteous Cut a particularly sharp read. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Scaredy Cat by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown and Company UK)

This book is that tricky sort of beast: the follow-up novel by a writer who came out of the gates with a strong and acclaimed debut, in Sleepyhead (2001). Like its predecessor, this tense, sweaty and disturbing drama is built around Serious Crime Group (West) 3, led by Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. Keeping his references to the backstory from Sleepyhead at a minimum, Billingham launches straight into this narrative about two serial killers who carry out simultaneous murders across London, drawing pursuit by Thorne and his expert team. Billingham writes in the third-person, yet he makes us feel as if we're inside the heads of his characters. Exceptionally well portrayed is Thorne, who has an appealing layer of vulnerability but also an inner strength that shows even when he's stumbling about (bashing into a coffee table, being assaulted, driving a clapped-out car, etc.). Although he totes around a lot of baggage from his past, the DI doesn't dwell on it, and he manages to keep his angst in check, which is refreshing. The other members of Thorne's team etch themselves smartly into this thriller, as well: Dave Holland has a good, meaty role, and Sarah McEvoy shows herself to be a very interesting figure. While I was justifiably impressed by Sleepyhead, this sequel really illustrates Billingham's writing skills, the novel's style easygoing but with a stickiness that kept my fingers flicking through pages late into the night. I also enjoyed the small flourishes of humor that pepper what could have become a grim and emotionally grueling read. -- Ali Karim

The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Henry Holt)

Inspector Espinosa, the appealing protagonist and partial narrator of Garcia-Roza's inventively structured police-procedural novel set in Rio de Janeiro, is of two minds about being a cop. "I'd rather, when I meet a pretty woman," says Espinosa, who's always happy to do so, "not have to start out with the ominous line: 'I'm Inspector Espinosa from the First Precinct.'" With his romantic and bookish bent (he haunts used-book stores searching for works by Conrad and Dickens), Espinosa seems better suited to being a teacher or writer. But once he's on the case -- in this instance, looking into the death by gunshot of a Rio businessman -- the lieutenant goes all-out, demonstrating skills and a tenacity that startle his peers. The Silence of the Rain (the first book in a trilogy, it seems, and ably translated by Benjamin Moser) alternates narrative point-of-view to maximize suspense. The novel's exotic setting adds to its appeal. But Silence's greatest asset is its eccentric, humane hero. -- Tom Nolan

The Straw Men by Michael Marshall (HarperCollins UK)

This dark, hypnotic serial-killer yarn follows two fictional tracks. One is written from the first-person perspective of Ward Hopkins, an ex-CIA type with a shady past and an enigmatic sidekick, who is investigating the suspicious death of his parents in Montana. The second track details the hunt for a Los Angeles serial killer, known as "The Delivery Boy," who has abducted teenager Sarah Becker. On the Delivery Boy's trail is ex-homicide cop John Zandt, who's been brought back into service by his former partner and lover. The novel tips its hat to Thomas Harris and Stephen King with an opening that that has Bach's "The Goldberg Variations" playing on a car radio just before a Regulators-style bloodbath breaks out at a McDonald's in Nowhere, USA. The Straw Men then turns sinister, as Ward realizes that everything he held dear and true about his past may well be a sham. When these two plots converge, the ensuing revelations can be shocking, especially if you're still reading this story well into the wee hours of a morning. This isn't just another conventional serial-killer novel. Marshall uses the Internet to the advantage of his plot, without too much dependence on techno-terror, and there's a "grassy knoll" sort of conspiracy at the story's dark heart. The ideas explored in The Straw Men will remain embedded in your mind like broken glass. -- Ali Karim

Streets on Fire by John Shannon (Carrol & Graf/Otto Penzler)

Shannon's series featuring ex-aerospace engineer-turned-unofficial private investigator Jack Liffey has earned high praise (and good sales, in Liffey's Southern California) for its ambitious mixture of hard-boiled tradition and social realism. Shannon's fiction crosses Raymond Chandler with Mike (City of Quartz) Davis. In Streets on Fire, the fifth book in the series, Liffey accepts the task of looking into the disappearance of a young interracial couple, one of whom is the adopted son of a well-known 1960s civil-rights activist. As Liffey pursues his quest in conservative Orange County's "Wonderbread City" of Claremont, the boulevards of South-Central L.A. erupt in protest over the police beating of a popular African-American athlete. Shannon's themes are large, but he keeps his focus on quirky individuals, including a young black girl who imaginatively transforms her dangerous environment into an enchanted and protected place, and Liffey's teenage daughter, who conceives the risky notion of helping her dad by becoming a 21st-century Nancy Drew. It's such people for whom Liffey is really working, and who make Streets on Fire a standout. -- Tom Nolan

Thin Walls by Kris Nelscott (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Introduced in A Dangerous Road (2000), Smokey Dalton is a black unlicensed private eye, somewhere around 40 years old. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and later settled in Memphis, Tennessee. But after civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Smokey fled to Chicago, taking with him a 10-year-old boy named Jimmy Bailey, whose knowledge of King's murder put his life at risk. The pair have been more or less hiding out in the Windy City ever since, with Jimmy passing as Smokey's son. But staying quiet and out of sight doesn't come naturally to Dalton. Just before Christmas, 1968, the wife of black dentist Louis Foster hires him to investigate her husband's knifing death. Foster's body was found propped against a tree in a public park, far from his home, on a day when he'd mysteriously left work early. "It's been three weeks," Mrs. Foster complains to the detective, "and the police won't even return my calls." Smokey isn't shocked to hear that Chicago's mostly Caucasian constabulary hasn't jumped on the Foster case. Yet he is surprised when his inquiries into the killing appear to endanger the life of both Saul Epstein, a young freelance photographer whose shots of the Foster crime scene may shed light on that attack, and Epstein's black girlfriend, Elaine Young. And he can't help but be startled by suggestions that Foster's demise is one small part of a larger homicidal pattern, related to the dentist's interest in a racially evolving neighborhood and revealing a killer with close ties to Chicago's mayor. Boasting subplots that involve Jimmy's contact with street gangs and efforts by Smokey's wealthy white lady friend, Laura Hathaway, to gain control of her late father's corporation, Thin Walls is a thoughtful rendering of life and crime in a time of American racism. It compares favorably with Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels (including Bad Boy Brawly Brown). -- J. Kingston Pierce


Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow)

Tunica, Mississippi, is the happening place in this Leonard novel. High-dive artist Dennis Lenahan brings his act to the town's Tishomingo Lodge and Casino, at the same time as a re-enactment of the Civil War's 1864 Battle of Brice's Cross Roads is about to take place. When Lenahan witnesses a murder from his diving board one day, he figures the killers will come back for him. But that subplot occupies little of this story. Instead, it's a Detroit con man named Robert Taylor who takes control of Tishomingo Blues relatively early on by schmoozing, spinning outrageous tales and having an affair with the wife of his mob boss. As members of the so-called Dixie Mafia lurk in the background, efficiently killing each other off, the Civil War re-enactment finally grinds into gear, with most of this tale's principal characters taking part. Meanwhile, in the background, a real-life gunfight takes place, promising the victor sole control over wholesale drug distribution in the area. Leonard knows how to glean truth from his character, which makes the cesspool that is Tunica worth mucking around in for a while. There's little redemption to be found here, though Lenahan does show signs of maturing when he falls in love with a local woman. And the demise of the Dixie Mafia doesn't bode well, considering that the more dangerous, organized and intelligent Robert Taylor lays claim to their roost. Elmore Leonard is smart enough to know that life is messy and unpredictable. Tishomingo Blues reflects that nicely. -- Anthony Rainone

Tropical Heat by John A. Miller (Forge)

A.G. Farrell hadn't figured to remain as sheriff of Hopewell, Virginia. He'd only taken the position in 1942 "as a favor to his community, fully intending to return to Charlottesville for graduate studies in philosophy as soon as [World War II] ended." But 12 years later, he's still on the job. It's part of a pattern for Farrell, really: His life has been contoured by inertia rather than inspiration. He has grown to fit the modest expectations that Hopewell has of him. But the discovery of a murdered army captain in a DeSoto, followed by the puzzling demise of a previously healthy teenage girl, will not only upset his town's customary quiescence--it will bump A.G. off the straightforward path to his future. For good as well as ill. The late Captain Martin Fitzgerald of the Quartermaster Corps, stationed at nearby Fort Lee, is described by his superiors as "an exemplary officer." Yet he also engaged in big-stakes poker games and was reportedly having an affair with the abused wife of an army motor-pool worker. Either of those activities could have led to his shooting. Or perhaps Fitzgerald's smarter and independent wife, Theresa, did him in -- a possibility that A.G. would rather not contemplate, as he's swept into Theresa's seductive embrace and loses any objectivity he had regarding her hubby. Miller offers in Tropical Heat a consuming tale of deception and fragile innocence, redolent of its era and setting in the muggy American South. Although it's low on cinematic violence, this story is brimming with fine-tuned, small-town characters, foremost among whom is Farrell, a lawman trying to do what's right, yet destined to be wronged for his trust in human virtue. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Tutor by Peter Abrahams (Ballantine)

Peter Abrahams doesn't write series books; his riveting suspense novels are each (in several ways) one-of-a-kind. In The Tutor, Abrahams gives us the Gardners; parents Scott and Linda, coping with the demands of busy lives and lingering loss; adolescent son Brandon, smart enough but slothful and a potential screw-up; and younger child Ruby, a brilliant charmer who copes with school and family tensions by imagining herself into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Enter Brandon's new home tutor: the insidious Julian, whose fantasy life is much darker and more purposeful than Ruby's. You can't predict what Abrahams' characters will say or do, but it's always believable. He takes you inside the minds of his disparate characters so convincingly that you're still thinking and caring about them even after the book is done. -- Tom Nolan

The Wailing Wind by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins)

This 15th novel to feature Navajo cops Joe Leaphorn and/or Jim Chee ranks among Hillerman's best -- which is saying something. The story opens with the appealing Officer Bernadette Manuelito discovering a man's corpse in an abandoned pickup truck. With the body are certain clues that tie into an unresolved case from Leaphorn's past, one involving a missing spouse, a murdered con man and an oil tycoon's obsession with legendary "lost" gold mines of the American Southwest. Over the course of the book a couple of gunshots get fired and there are several testy arguments, but in typical Hillerman fashion, most of the dramatic action takes place offstage, with the plot chiefly advancing through descriptions of simple activity (often driving), radiant evocations of landscape, and above all dialogue. The prose is a marvel of craftsmanship, compressed yet leisurely feeling and virtually never straining for effect. Though The Wailing Wind has a few minor shortcomings in narrative structure, it is an absorbing, suspenseful and moving tale that only Tony Hillerman could have written. -- Nicholas H. Allison

Winter and Night by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Responding to a late-night phone call, P.I. Bill Smith heads out to a police station, where he finds his sister Helen's son, Gary Russell. Bill has no idea why Gary is in New York City or what's wrong, but the police agree to give Bill custody of the 15-year-old. Within hours, though, Gary has run off again, telling his uncle only that there's something he "had to do," and he can't tell his parents. Reluctantly (since they haven't spoken in years), Bill tracks down his sister and her husband, Scott Russell, in suburban Warrenstown, New Jersey, a place where life revolves around local high school football. The detective determines to find his nephew, in the process opening up old family wounds and revisiting a crime from two decades ago. Winter and Night is about a lot of things: loyalty to friends, definitions of family, and love and values. It can be read as just a smart, very intense mystery; but Rozan also uses her tale to question the importance of winning at all costs and the overly dominant role of high school sports in modern life. Although a young man is missing here, and a girl is soon found dead in her empty house, Warrenstown tries to turn a blind eye -- the girl, it's said, was looking for trouble, and Gary is considered "new" in town, so he doesn't matter much either. It's not like he's a quarterback or anything ... Bill Smith, who lost his wife and daughter in a car crash several years ago, doesn't like to talk about his family (in sharp contrast to his investigative partner, Lydia Chin, the young Chinese American who lives with her mother, and whose four brothers are always held up to Lydia as shining examples). Yet we learn a lot about Bill in this book, and it's heartbreaking. It seems that he did something very tough, but right as a young man, and his family blamed him harshly for his actions. Slightly less well portrayed in Winter and Night are Scott Russell, whose constant setting is "scream and swear" (especially when he's dealing with Bill), and another major character who's driven by a long-simmering and unusually believable desire for revenge. S.J. Rozan has won numerous awards -- Edgars, Shamuses and Anthonys -- in a very short time. (Her first book, China Trade, appeared in 1994.) That these are honors have been bestowed by writers and readers confirms her status as one of the most talented authors working in this genre today. -- Andi Shechter 

Without Fail by Lee Child (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

The breadth and audacity of Child's Jack Reacher series never fails to impress. In previous books, this ex-MP drifter with a seldom-talked-about past and way too much military training has dug swimming pools in Florida and helped a Texas rancher's wife out of a domestic jam; in Without Fail, he's hired to try and assassinate the U.S. vice president-elect -- the best way to determine if holes exist in the politician's Secret Service protection. Reacher may not want trouble, but it sure seems to find him. His absolute confidence in his abilities, and his unerring sense of what is and isn't right, stand out in a world of conflicted detectives. Yet, there is also a lot of wit in Without Fail, and even a certain amount of playfulness. There's a great Forrest Gump-like scene, in which Jack is sucked into a press interview with the VP-to-be, and asked his thoughts on the use of military force ("Yes, I still support overwhelming force. That's for sure. I support it big time. Always have, believe me"). And there's a small, tender episode of such powerful but unspoken passion between a man and a woman that the fact it doesn't lead anywhere will crack your heart. This is a men's adventure book for men and women who can read with their mouths closed and their minds (and hearts) open -- smart, literate and just good old-fashioned thrilling. -- Kevin Burton Smith

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