2004 Holiday Gift Guide









art & culture

children's books











by Mark Mills
Published by G.P. Putnam Sons
416 pages, 2004

Small-town secrets are one of crime fiction's hallmarks. A sleepy hamlet, a washed-up corpse and an investigation that turns up a long line of deceptions and lies -- sounds like a lot of recently published (and many not-so-recently published) novels. But to reduce a book to its most primal elements doesn't necessarily do it justice, and that's certainly the case with Mark Mills' literary-minded debut mystery, Amagansett. A melancholic strain permeates throughout, with the net effect of augmenting a solid story and a wonderful sense of place into something almost magical. In post-World War II Amagansett, prosperity belonged solely to monied types, who ventured out to this Long Island, New York, town on hot summer weekends, while working-class residents could only dream of doing more than making ends meet. Conrad Labarde, a Basque-born fisherman who grew up in Amagansett, is happy with his lot, but that soon changes when he fishes the drowned corpse of Lillian Wallace, the beautiful daughter of one of Amagansett's leading families, from the island's waters. The dual investigations conducted by Labarde and local cop Tom Hollis uncover all manner of secrets, some stretching to an earlier unsolved murder of a little girl, and others hitting far too close for comfort for both men. By this novel's close, Amagansett is forever altered, yet the rise and fall of the water never changes, creating an ominous effect of loss and stability at the same time. Mills is a screenwriter, and there's no question that Amagansett, which won the 2004 British Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey Dagger, has an epic, cinematic feel. But thankfully, the author forgoes broad brushstrokes in favor of nuance to tell his story of lost love, disappointed relationships and family ties that bind ever so tightly -- whether it's Labarde's slow recovery from the childhood loss of his brother and mother, Hollis' tentative relationship with a local woman after the messy breakup of his marriage, or the twisted strands of the Wallace clan. Mills also possesses an acute understanding of class distinctions and the tension between Amagansett locals and visitors -- especially surprising considering that he's based in London and has only visited Long Island a handful of times. -- Sarah Weinman

The Bad News Bible
by Anna Blundy
Published by Headline (UK)
288 pages, 2004

A foreign correspondent's life is one of nearly complete transience. Flitting from place to place, often hopping several time zones over just a few days in order to track down a story that will grace a major newspaper's front page. It's a brutal, fast-paced, often desolate world, where your only friends are your fellow reporters, with whom you trade drinks late at night in the hotel bar -- when you're not trying to undercut them surreptitiously in pursuit of a scoop. Anna Blundy's ferocious new thriller, The Bad News Bible, captures the wildly unstable, fast-paced world of news reporting in an alien land, while pointing out some harsh truths about government politics, deadened emotions and the difficulty of finding normality amid a sea of tragic events. Faith Zanetti works for an unnamed, London-based paper, and while she's no fan of her drunken boss, he's done her a huge favor by assigning her to cover the beat in Jerusalem. She loves the unpredictability of that contested city, and especially the after-work imbibing that keeps her nightmares at bay and her cynical defense mechanism in check. But then her best friend and fellow journo, Shiv Boucherat, suffers a mysterious mental breakdown, and is found hanging lifelessly from Zanetti's bathroom door. Suicide or murder? And what connection does Shiv's death have to another reporter's probe into the trafficking of Russian children? As professional duties merge into personal quests, Faith tests herself and her demons in ways she'd never have imagined before. Blundy's pointed, caustic writing style springs fully formed from the first page and whisks the reader into an unpredictable storyline that maintains its speed throughout. The language here is tart, the tone cynical, the dialogue authentic. And that's not even taking into account Faith Zanetti, who could probably out-drink, out-hustle and outwit many of the crime genre's hard-boiled heroines. Still, her steeled shell only barely covers the vulnerability she doesn't want anyone to see -- especially not her ex-lover, Eden Jones. Theirs is a fascinating, fully grown rapport that is only likely to develop and change as we see more of them in the future. As long as Faith can keep sitting at bars, knocking back a vodka (or a few) and trading war stories, this new series is well on its way to being required reading. -- Sarah Weinman

Blue Blood
by Susan McBride
Published by Avon Books
352 pages, 2004

Although Andrea "Andy" Kendricks boasts a long history of disappointing her Dallas socialite mother, never in her wildest dreams did she picture herself wearing short shorts and a revealing T-shirt, and working at a Hooters-style eatery called Jugs. But at least, as Susan McBride explains in her first Debutante Dropout mystery, Blue Blood, it's all for a good cause: to help a friend she hasn't seen in years. Molly O'Brien, a scholarship student and foster child from the "wrong side of the tracks," grew close to the wealthy, upper-class Andy in high school, and they remained best friends until college, when they lost contact with each another. Now, more than a decade later, and after being arrested for murdering her boss -- the obnoxious owner of Jugs -- Molly turns again for help to the only person who was always there for her, Andy Kendricks. This delinquent deb capably steps up to bat, first by saving Molly's son from the clutches of Child Services and then by hiring an attractive, if inexperienced, attorney to handle her friend's defense. When everyone finally seems convinced of Molly's guilt, Andy throws herself entirely into this case, going undercover as a waitress at the scene of the crime. While fending off lecherous frat boys and suppresses her feminist convictions, Andy unearths financial misdeeds, and gets involved not only with a TV preacher who's a bit too cozy with Jugs' attractive new proprietor, but also anti-pornography protestors who want to save the restaurant's distaff staffers from themselves. It would have been easy for Blue Blood to descend into farce, complete with boob-job jokes. Fortunately, McBride avoids that trap by focusing on more substantive themes, particularly the relationship between Andy and her surprisingly multifaceted mother. Filled with entertaining dialogue, rapid-clip pacing and a bit of romance and suspense, Blue Blood is much more than a cozy, with an ending that is both unpredictable and touching. -- Cindy Chow

Caught Stealing
by Charles Huston
Published by Ballantine Books
258 pages, 2004

In a boon year for crime fiction featuring misanthropic New York City males, the most notable voice might belong to Henry "Hank" Thompson, a displaced Californian living on Manhattan's Lower East Side in the year 2000. A former high-school baseball prodigy, Hank has settled into an unassuming life that swallows him whole. A passive man with no firm goals, living in an aggressive and ambitious city, Hank tends bar six nights a week, which feeds his binge-drinking habits and gives him bad feet. Despite this seemingly mediocre existence, author Huston manages to establish an intoxicating first-person voice for Hank -- a voice that bears both an urban neurotic charm and a keen edge of dry humor. When his questionable neighbor, Russ Miner, leaves town for a few days to visit his sick father, he asks Hank to watch his pet cat, Bud. Russ, it seems, is a career criminal with several nasty friends, who has been safeguarding a large quantity of laundered money. His sudden departure from Manhattan alarms a thug named Roman and his gang. They want the money back, and they don't hesitate to turn their malicious attentions on uncomprehending Hank. Caught Stealing succeeds on at least two levels. The exuberance of Hank's narrative is thick with engaging descriptions of virtually everything he does, and the story boasts a breakneck tempo. Huston's plot is straightforward, with very few detours, which serves the action effectively. The danger Hank faces only escalates when a second set of criminals -- the brothers Ed and Paris Durante -- show up, also looking for Russ Miner and the money he'd been holding. The Durante brothers are a hipped-up version of Wild West outlaws, both of them dressed in black leather vests, cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hats. As this perfect storm of criminals invades Hank's life, it is inevitable that good people should die -- which means most of Hank's friends. But as the bodies pile up, Hank's former jock machismo kicks in and he takes action, which means answering violence with violence. Huston knows the streets of New York City, and convincingly captures the psychology and pace of the people who live there. His man Hank Thompson is a persuasive character study, and his response at the hands of unexpected events drives this novel. Ultimately, the new life that he creates for himself seems tenuous, and one wonders whether the choices he makes won't catch up to him one day. -- Anthony Rainone

The Coil
by Gayle Lynds
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
464 pages, 2004

So much for dire warnings about the death of the international thriller. It's back with a vengeance in The Coil, a taut tale of espionage, intrigue and multinational corporations penned by the late Robert Ludlum's onetime collaborator, Gayle Lynds. We're introduced here to Liz Sansborough, a CIA covert operative-turned-university professor, who finds her peaceful life in Santa Barbara, California, shattered when her lookalike cousin, Sarah, is kidnapped in Paris. Soon, bodies start littering the landscape like confetti. It seems the kidnappers want to establish a link with Liz's father, a notorious Cold War assassin known as the Carnivore. Something lurks deep in the files of the Carnivore's activities -- intelligence that can be used to bring governments to their knees -- and powerful groups are hoping to retrieve it. But do those files really exist? Either way, Liz will need to fall back on her now-rusty spy training, and perhaps rely on the assistance of an MI6 agent named Simon Childs, if she's to survive this drama. I had to smile when Childs steps on stage, because despite its recent publication, The Coil harkens back in some ways to an earlier era, when international thrillers dominated bestseller lists and British spooks littered the genre. The British sections of this novel are vivid, and Lynds has certainly done her homework on MI6, bringing that clandestine agency right up to date. The Coil has plot twists that will your make your head spin like Linda Blair's, plus authentic locations and action set-pieces that propel this plot forward as if on amphetamines. This is one thriller that really thrills. Lynds' humor is deft and a welcome release from this story's pace, which is perhaps a bit too breakneck at times. Readers who miss Ludlum should try unwinding with The Coil. -- Ali Karim

Dark as Night
by Mark T. Conard
Published by Uglytown
288 pages, 2004

You might not expect a novel about crime, chefs and the Philadelphia mob to be one likely to make an old gourmet like Hannibal Lecter salivate. But Dark as Night, Mark T. Conard's debut novel, has its dark moments. No doubt about that. It's a tale of lowlife hoodlums and high-tone restaurants -- sort of like what might have resulted had George V. Higgins ever tried to concoct a cookbook. Imagine The Friends of Jamie Oliver. Conard's tale finds sous chef and incorrigible food snob Morris White working at Le Tour de Couchon, a top-notch place run by the dictatorial Belgian chef Enin Neves. But White wants to move up a peg or two and run his own restaurant. He also dreams of landing a girl like Vicky Ward, Le Tour's "good girl" manager. Just as those appetizers are being cleared away, though, out comes the main course: Vince Kammer, White's half-brother, recently sprung from Pennsylvania's Graterford Prison, where he'd done a three-year stint for his part in a botched jewelry store heist. He needs a place to stay, and White -- despite his reservations -- agrees to put him up "for a while." He'd have been better off listening to his gut (and isn't that what chefs are good at, anyway?), because the tendrils of trouble trail Kammer out of prison, and will soon encircle Morris. Seems that a hefty local mobster, "Little Johnny" Stacks, who had set up the robbery that led to Kammer's incarceration, is still looking for the hundred grand worth of diamonds that were never recovered after the crime. Kammer's denials aside, Stacks is sure the ex-con knows where to find those gems, and he intends to get his hands on them. Further complicating matters, Vince has his very own post-release goal: to kidnap the daughter of a Philly mob boss who was responsible for his sexual debasement behind bars. With local mobsters on the sniff, and cops sniffing harder, Morris White's dreams of his own kitchen start to bleed like a prison tattoo. Peppered with coal-black humor and some splendid dialogue, this debut work is what a reviewer more prone to clichés might call a "scorcher." If you fancy haute cuisine and slumming in the world of small-time, low-life hoods, then this unusual little novel is for you. But bear in mind the implications of that title, Dark as Night. Even in the kitchen, no one can hear you scream. -- Ali Karim

Darkly Dreaming Dexter
by Jeff Lindsay
Published by Doubleday
304 pages, 2004

Dexter Morgan is certainly not your average, everyday kind of guy. Sure, he's likable, although he is rather bewildered by the attentions of women. He can be charming and witty, and he's always supportive of his foster sister, Deborah, a Miami vice squad cop. But Dexter leads one hell of a double life. During the day, he's a blood-splatter lab technician with the Miami Police Department. At night, he's a serial killer with a marked difference: he only slays bad people (as if that excuse will save him from the electric chair). Orphaned by tragedy as a boy, he was adopted at age 4 by a cop, Harry Morgan, who set about trying to channel his new son's animal nature, his aberrant "need." It was Harry who convinced Dexter only to prey upon other killers -- such as the pedophiliac priest whom he dispatches at the beginning of Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter. But with 36 kills to his name, Dexter suddenly finds that he has a competitor. This newcomer is responsible for the gruesome murders of prostitutes. Not only does he take their lives, but he drains their blood and wraps up their body parts like prized possessions. Though Dex admires the technique, which mirrors his own modus operandi, he decides to help his sister solve these serial slayings -- a fateful decision that will compel him to question his own life. Could Dex Morgan, "the best-dressed monster in Dade County," be more involved in these abominations than even he realizes? I'll just say that Lindsay's readers won't be the only ones surprised by this tale's outcome. Written with a playful and hip style, Darkly Dreaming Dexter manages to avoid farce or to tumble into bad taste. This is a very different and entertaining work, though more of a light holiday read than an intellectual challenge. -- Ali Karim

The Dark Water
by David Pirie
Published by Century (UK)
320 pages, 2004

While each year brings more and more (and still more!) Sherlock Holmes pastiches, British author and screenwriter David Pirie faces considerably less competition in writing about the investigative duo of Arthur Conan Doyle and his mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell. That's right, although Holmes' creator may not actually have prowled the English countryside in search of heinous criminals, Pirie suggests he might not have been half bad had he taken up a magnifying glass himself. Over the course of three books thus far (beginning with The Patient's Eyes, 2001), he's made Conan Doyle and Bell outstanding stand-ins for Holmes and Dr. John Watson, especially given the oft-repeated assertion that Bell, a surgeon and forensic expert who taught at Scotland's Edinburgh University medical school -- where the young Conan Doyle studied in the 1870s -- was the future author's model for his Great Detective. The Dark Water picks up where The Night Calls (2002) left off -- mid-chase after one of the 19th-century's most notorious serial killers, Thomas Neill Cream. As the action resumes here, it's the early 1880s. Cream has kidnapped Conan Doyle and imprisoned him in a miser's isolated cottage. After shaking off the debilitating effects of laudanum, with which his captor had been dosing him, the young doctor flees back to Bell's side in Edinburgh. Sadly, by that time clues to Cream's whereabouts are thin on the ground. It takes a trip to London, and the discovery that Cream's mail has been forwarded to the Suffolk coast, for our heroes to pick up his scent once more. This leads them to Dunwich, a once-prominent village now eroding into the sea, where the disappearance of a rakish heir named Oliver Jefford has spurred fresh talk about the legendary 17th-century "Dunwich witch." Did Jefford fall prey to that witch's curse, or are more human hands behind his fate? And what link does this mystery have to the subsequent death of a groundskeeper, talk of a "howling man" who haunts the woods, and Dr. Bell's sudden preoccupation with "dowsing"? Burdened with suspects and unanswered questions, Bell and his younger cohort move ever closer to untangling these Dunwich doings -- and confronting Cream, who must have a despicable role in it all. Pirie knows well how to build and maintain suspense, and he brings a fine, dark eye to his Victorian scene-setting, though the results often suggest as much influence from Robert Louis Stevenson as from Holmes' originator. Readers wanting to dive into this exceptional series should tackle the books in order of their publication. And be warned: The Dark Water represents either the midpoint of a trilogy, or another degree along a longer story arc. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Cream, like Conan Doyle and Bell, will live to see another sequel. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Dead to the World
by Charlaine Harris
Published by Ace Books
291 pages, 2004

Well recognized for her two mystery series about Aurora Teagarden (Poppy Done to Death) and Lily Bard (Shakespeare's Counselor), Charlaine Harris is also beloved for having created Sookie Stackhouse, the Louisiana waitress with the twin abilities of telepathy and getting into trouble. Big trouble. Sookie is the shining star of Harris' Anthony Award-winning Southern Vampire books, and her love life has the message boards on Harris' Web site full of debates, theories and romantic cyber-sighs. Dead to the World, the fourth entry in this series, has fans in a dither and proclaiming their oft-repeated demand of Harris: "Can't you write any faster?" Here we find Sookie nursing a broken heart over the duplicitous hijinks of her vampire lover, Bill Compton. After a few rejected overtures toward reconciliation, Bill leaves for Peru to pursue an ongoing vampiric roll-call project, leaving Sookie alone with her own thoughts as well as those of every human around her. As Sookie heads home after a long night of New Year's Eve waitressing, something catches her eye. The local vampire leader, Eric, is running down a country road -- buck naked. It takes a bit of gentle persuasion to coax the scared-stiff Eric into her truck. And when she does, Sookie discovers that Eric has been robbed of his memory as well as his wardrobe. A quick call to Eric's second-in-command tells Sookie what she doesn't want to know: Evil is afoot in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Again. A coven of witches, bent on acquiring territory and power are led by a wanton witch, Hallow, who is also bent on acquiring Eric. Until he returns to his normal, arrogant, seductive self, fang boy is under Sookie's watch. When her brother Jason disappears, she's frantic. The newly compassionate and tender Eric comforts her, and she's drawn to him like never before. Yep, Sookie is in it, and in it deep. Again. For a girl whose New Year's resolution was to not get beaten up that year, things are looking a little dicey. Harris has created an earthy, tough and irrepressible lead in Sookie Stackhouse. Humor runs through this series but never overwhelms the storylines. With testimony given from mystery and non-mystery readers alike, this is one of the most readable books you'll ever pick up. -- Jennifer Jordan

Earthquake Weather
by Terrill Lee Lankford
Published by Ballantine Books
293 pages, 2004

Terrill Lee Lankford has an insider's knowledge of the West Coast movie industry, and with a willingness to shine the light on the toxic nature of filmmaking, he has written one of the more entertaining novels of this past year. Set in 1994 Los Angeles, Earthquake Weather features mid-30s narrator Mark Hayes, a "creative executive" working in development at Warner Bros. Hayes aspires to become a producer, and so spends his days toiling under the egotistical weight of his boss, Dexter Morton, a major but much-resented Hollywood player who boasts his own production company. In order to move up the celluloid food chain, Hayes keeps his lips firmly planted on Morton's prodigious posterior. Lankford has the modern film-industry crowd down cold. The pages of Earthquake Weather are strewn with bitter, frustrated screenwriters; slimy, backstabbing producers; pragmatic studio heads; egomaniacal directors, and drug-addicted stars and wannabes. Given this menagerie of diseased and depressed personalities, one has to wonder why in the hell Hayes would want to make a living in the film biz. Although this is technically a work of crime fiction, it isn't till halfway through the book that anything criminal happens. Then Hayes discovers the body of Dexter Morton floating in a backyard pool. Our hero needs little time to convince himself that the investigating homicide detectives like him for the crime. After all, Hayes found the body. However, his fears are more idiosyncratic and dramatic than they are grounds for police suspicion, since Dexter Morton was almost universally disliked. So where's the saving grace in this landscape of pulchritude? The answer lies with Earthquake Weather's likable narrator. Mark Hayes is a purist who does his damnedest to steer clear of all the degradation and follow his dream to simply "make movies." He's a good guy surrounded by the emotionally crippled, though even Hayes is not completely immune to the smog of sin that hovers over this novel. Lankford's ending captures a brilliantly edgy, noir tone, with just the right touch of tension and flavoring of ambiguity. This novel isn't really about the producer's murder; it's about those souls who populate a sordid world built on illusion, and who try to hold onto their dreams no matter how often they're discouraged and burned. -- Anthony Rainone

by Roger Jon Ellory
Published by Orion Books (UK)
344 pages, 2004

Apart from its being a darn good tale in which to get totally lost (don't even begin Ghostheart unless you have the time to finish it), Ellory's second novel pretty much defies genre classification. It builds around Annie O'Neill, a lonely New York secondhand-bookseller who is happy with her existence, despite having arrived at age 30 with an emptiness that gnaws away at her insides. She watches the world from the window of her life, and has only one real friend: Jack Sullivan, her neighbor and an alcoholic ex-newsman. Sullivan acts as Annie's protector and also father figure, since her real parent died when she was too young to have known him. But suddenly her known world is thrown askew, when an elderly stranger named Robert Forrester comes to her store with some letters written by her father, as well as a mysterious, yellowed manuscript. He was her dad's oldest friend -- or so he claims. Yet he's less interested in answering her questions than he is in reading from the manuscript, which contains a story thick with loss and love. The yarn starts in Eastern Europe and travels through the true horror of Auschwitz, then sails over the Atlantic to gangland New York City of the 1960s. While Forrester's recitation fills Annie's head with images, her heart is drawn to a young man called David Quinn, who enters her store one day ... and soon entices her into his bed. This unexpected turn of events leads Sullivan to abandon booze and watch Annie as she is slowly acquainted with the past -- a past marked by a far-off betrayal that has consequences for Annie's present. Ellory (whose previous novel, Candlemoth, ranked among January's gift guide picks for 2003), is first and foremost a storyteller, not a genre writer. He fears neither complex plots nor evocative descriptions. Ghostheart will appeal to readers who like novels that blend history with character, and that haunt well past their closing pages. -- Ali Karim

Ice Run
by Steve Hamilton
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
320 pages, 2004

It's winter again in tiny Paradise, Michigan, which means that sometime-private eye Alex McKnight is busy just trying to stay warm and out of trouble. But, as we find in Steve Hamilton's sixth novel (after Blood Is the Sky, "The Rap Sheet," 6/03), no matter how much he plows the snow in front of his rental cabins, Alex is fighting a losing battle against the weather. And he has no better luck fending off the entanglement of hatred and murder that has trapped his love interest, Natalie Reynaud, a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police. Following the death of her partner, Natalie has taken an administrative leave of absence, and now spends her time fixing up her family home. The divorced Alex has fallen for this aloof and pretty cop, and the sex they share is steamy enough to melt the whole Upper Peninsula snow pack. Yet, the Canadian cop has a dark past, including the murder of her natural father, Jean Reynaud, when she was a little girl, and her subsequent sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Albert DeMarco. McKnight's good friend Vinnie LeBlanc returns in these pages, as do ex-P.I. Leon Prudell, tavern owner Jackie Connery and police chief Roy Maven. However, their roles are diminished, since this is really Natalie's story. Even Alex is changed here, showing an emotional vulnerability that's unusual for him. Ice Run's strength is in its clever plotting, grounded in a classical mystery framework replete with clues, red herrings and periodic twists. One of those clues involves 82-year-old Simon Grant, who leaves his fedora, filled with ice and snow, in the hallway outside Alex and Natalie's hotel room one night in Sault Ste. Marie. Inside the hat is a cryptic note stating, "I know who you are." The Grants and Reynauds have a long contentious history, and Simon's subsequent death sets the machinations in place that help expose the real killer of Jean Reynaud. Alex eventually tracks these suspicious goings-on back to Mackinac Island, on Lake Huron. In too-tidy fashion (through a previously recorded confession), the identity of Jean Reynaud's murderer is revealed, and Natalie goes on to discover that DeMarco, her evil stepfather, not only played a part in that killing, but is still alive -- and dangerous as ever. Ice Run boasts Hamilton's trademark crisp dialogue and well-timed dry humor. Though not the strongest entry in this series, it should quiet the hunger of McKnight fans until this dynamic P.I.'s next appearance. -- Anthony Rainone

I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason
by Susan Kandel
Published by William Morrow
288 pages, 2004

It's not every day you come across a mystery novel featuring lawyer-detective Perry Mason, a four-decades-old murder, a historical tour of Southern California and descriptions of vintage clothing, all in a contemporary setting. However, those elements can be found in this frothy yet appealing debut work by former Los Angeles Times art critic Susan Kandel. West Hollywood resident Cece Caruso is tired of living, breathing, reading and dreaming about Erle Stanley Gardner, the California attorney and creator of the imperturbable Mason. Since dumping her husband, Cece has become a rather successful biographer of deceased mystery writers. Her latest assignment is to profile the prolific Gardner, but she's having trouble getting a handle on the man. Then, while digging through some old Gardner-related files, she stumbles across a 1958 letter from one Joseph Albacco Jr., who was convicted 40 years ago of murdering his wife, Jean, and remains in prison despite his repeated claims of innocence. Cece is soon drawn into this historical homicide, not just because of pleas from Albacco and the prison's Catholic priest, but because she thinks that tackling an investigation worthy of Mason himself might break down her writer's block. Before long, she learns that Jean Albacco was not such an innocent victim, after all. She'd engineered a blackmail scheme that ensnared a vintage couture queen, a Holy Roller candidate for the local school board, her own boss and even her old high-school teacher. Toss in a book deadline, the fact that Cece's daughter has just ditched her "perfect husband," the handsome son of one of the suspects and the reappearance of a former boyfriend (and present cop), and Kandel's perky beauty queen-turned-sleuth faces enough distractions to frazzle the most placid of women. Kandel hits the mark perfectly with her fast and witty banter and a compelling story line that weaves together Gardner lore, commentary about California's colorful past, and Cece's passion for classic attire. This borderline "chick lit" novel serves as the introduction to a new series. A sequel, Not a Girl Detective, is due out in June 2005. -- Cindy Chow

Judas Pig
by Horace Silver
Published by The Do-Not Press (UK)
345 pages, 2004

I found myself riveted by this uncompromising look at the vicious world of London gangsters. Written under a pen-name (an homage to an African-American soul musician of the 1950s and 60s), Judas Pig is a narrowly disguised tale by a notorious reformed London criminal who fled the UK to hide under the Florida sun, and now visits Britain in disguise. Having read this novel, I understand why he lives undercover. Judas Pig provides an extremely tough and uncompromising look at the grim lives led by violent malefactors -- a story so horrific, you'll want to shower after putting the book down. Written in the first-person, Pig tosses us into the hands of Billy Abrahams, a career criminal who makes a pretty descent living from pornography, robbery and ripping off other brutal crooks. When the violence isn't enough, the drugs kick in -- and that's especially true for Danny, a psychopath who acts as Billy's partner and finally pushes him over the edge. Composed in a terse and impatient style, with a narrative excellence one doesn't expect from an ex-armed robber and drug smuggler, the book is well leavened with black humor that makes it easier to get through. There is no glamour in these pages, nor any message apart from a nihilistic look at madness and death in a world that co-exists alongside our own. I worked for many years in the East End of London, and the smell of this tale is suffused with authenticity. This is a difficult book, but one that deserves to be read, even if it makes your skin crawl and causes you to question some of the elements included in the human race. -- Ali Karim

Just One Look
by Harlan Coben
Published by Dutton Books
352 pages, 2004

I once remarked that the complexity of Harlan Coben's plots could be a marketing opportunity for Aspirin, and Just One Look is his most convoluted of his books to date, outdoing even No Second Chance (2003). Continuing his theme of suburban families having the rug pulled out from under their coffee-table lives, he introduces us to housewife Grace Lawson, who's sharing a supposedly idyllic life with her husband, Jack, and their two beautiful children. But all that comes to a screeching end, after Grace retrieves some snapshots from the local Photomat and finds in the bunch an old print that shows her hubby with other college students. Curious, she asks Jack about this image, only to have him drive away, upset -- and vanish. Grace naturally wants to find her missing spouse, but she also wants to figure out what it was about that photo that spooked him. And before you can say "Windsor Horne-Lockwood the Third," we have a gonzo chase thriller that careens forward like an out-of-control freight train. Anyone who's been reading Coben's books over the last few years (since Tell No One, 2001) might well anticipate the twisted turns to come. It turns out that Jack has been kidnapped (for reasons that won't become clear for some while) by a malevolent martial-arts expert named Eric Wu. Grace's hunt for Jack leads her back into a nightmarish memory of a rock concert that turned into a riot, after someone started firing a gun. She turns for help to a mobster whose kid was killed during that rampage, and to Jack's lawyer sister, who is representing the guy who was supposedly responsible for the concert's deadly turn. The number of red herrings Coben serves up here ought to land him in hot water with fisheries regulators (surely, he's bagged more than his limit). How he manages to knit all of these complications together at the end of Just One Look is a marvel to behold. Reading this book is like tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle blindfolded. Top notch from the man with the fastest plots in the west. How will he top this one? -- Ali Karim

The Killing of the Tinkers
by Ken Bruen
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
256 pages, 2004

One of the true delights of 2004 was Ken Bruen's The Killing of the Tinkers, which marked the "triumphant" return of hapless Irish private investigator Jack Taylor, the all-night drug-prowling wolf whose penchant for bad situations and assorted mind-altering substances of various degrees of potency and legality is truly staggering. After a disastrous sojourn to London, Jack is once again haunting the barstools and mean streets of Galway, as unrepentant and unapologetic as ever -- just like Bruen's prose. Get it straight: this is no watery Budweiser Light novel -- it's as bleak and bitter and black as the Guinness that apparently constitutes one of Jack's major personal food groups (along with Marlboros, Bushmills and cocaine). Nor is the Ireland depicted here some magically delicious Lucky Charms pastoral Celtic paradise -- Jack's Galway is a hard, cold town without pity, and Bruen tears into it with a vengeance. A disgraced former member of the Irish national police force, Jack is an ardently opinionated and self-destructive asshole who wears his heart on his sleeve and his numerous failures close at hand. Stubbornly loyal to his friends, and a compulsive list-maker obsessed with literature and rock 'n' roll trivia, he's a walking disaster who takes every wrong direction on his lonely way back home. He's not even that great a detective, really; yet he's barely back in Galway when a tinker (that's gypsy to you) convinces Jack to look into the murders of several clan members, whose mutilated bodies have been turning up with increasing regularity, to the great indifference of Jack's former employers. Life may be no easy ride for Jack or his friends, either, but they're never less than recognizably real, full of the constant bone-wearying struggle of real life -- heartache, heartbreak, busted dreams and the occasional bittersweet triumph that keeps them going. Still, for all of its darkness and pain, and its bitter conclusion, this is ironically one of the warmest and most life-affirming novels I've read all year, a hard fast read that's more emotionally true than most books ever dare to get. As Jack's beloved Kris Kristofferson might put it, this book is "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." Bruen is one helluva a writer, and any fan of bold, original detective fiction should make his and Jack's acquaintance as soon as possible. Or at least buy them a round. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Lover
by Laura Wilson
Published by Orion Books (UK)
304 pages, 2004

Shortlisted by the British Crime Writers' Association for awards in both the Best Historical Crime Novel and Best Crime Novel of the Year categories, The Lover is a wonderfully chilling work that you need to grab, before it grabs you! Set in World War II London, during the Blitz, Laura Wilson's latest yarn is loosely based on the real-life case of the Blackout Ripper, a serial killer who conducted his gruesome business under the distractions of air raids and tumbling rubble. Like her previous work (including Hello Bunny Alice, "RS" 4/03), The Lover lays open the wickedness within her characters' hearts, and spotlights the passions and motivations that steer them to their doom. The remarkable twist here is that the killer is known to readers right from the start; what's left a mystery is the identity of his final victim. Amid Wilson's amazingly well-researched landscape of 1940s London, we find Royal Air Force officer Jim Rushton, a troubled Spitfire pilot who (due to a terrible childhood) is unable to form conventional relationships, seeking solace in the arms of harlots. Solace that leads to savagery. Seems he prefers to prey on the desperate women who hide beneath the blackout canvases. Two of those are strumpet Rene and Lucy, an office girl from Clapham, who meet their sorry fates at Rushton's hands during a raid. Less predictable is Wilson's ending, which will remain with you long after the fires of the Blitz have cooled. The Lover is a tragic, terrible tale, but a must-read for anyone who appreciates thoughtfully constructed psychological suspense. -- Ali Karim

Mr. Paradise
by Elmore Leonard
Published by William Morrow
304 pages, 2004

"Hon ... I desperately need you," says Chloe Robinette, a former high-priced prostitute, as she tries to persuade her near-twin roommate, Victoria's Secret model Kelly Barr, to help her entertain Anthony Paradiso Sr., an 84-year-old Detroit trial attorney. There's plenty of dough to be made from this stunt; Paradiso -- aka "Mr. Paradise" -- has already been shelling out $5,000 a week for Chloe's attentions. But Kelly isn't entirely comfortable with the client's amusement of choice. Seems he likes having young cheerleaders perform for him, topless, as he views videotaped University of Michigan football games. ("We stand in front of the TV set, on each side of the screen while he's watching ...," Chloe explains. "He pauses the game while we cheer.") Nonetheless, Kelly accompanies Chloe to Mr. Paradise's mansion -- only to be implicated in murder. While Kelly is upstairs with Paradiso's black right-hand man, Montez Taylor, a pair of toughs in raincoats and Detroit Tigers caps enter the house, and shoot not only the lawyer, but Chloe as well. Taylor obviously knows the killers, but with Kelly's help he might keep that on the QT. At least as long as it takes to get them past the police and retrieve whatever the late Mr. Paradise left in a bank deposit box for Kelly's roommate. Maybe a life-insurance policy, maybe stock, maybe something else -- but in any case, an inheritance supposedly valued at $1.6 million. Though she knows this too is wrong, Kelly Barr agrees. It's a decision that will lead her to lie, cheat and eventually steal the heart of an investigating cop. Elmore Leonard, the much-heralded "Dickens of Detroit," fills his latest character-driven novel with dialogue that's often ungrammatical enough to make an English teacher scream, but never sounds less than authentic -- gritty and often hilarious as hell. He also claims an enviable talent for creating and manipulating villains, none of whom he makes terribly smart, but all of whom are given distinctly human characteristics; don't expect to find any narrowly "evil" perpetrators in Mr. Paradise. While this book doesn't demonstrate any expansion of Leonard's skills, it does deliver a story that's as complex as it is cleverly penned, easily satisfying the opening requirement of Tom Wolfe's Writers' Oath: "First, entertain." -- J. Kingston Pierce

by David Morrell
Published by Headline (UK)
352 pages, 2004

I'm a great lover of the short-story format, so it was a red-letter day when I got my hands on Nightscape, the second collection of David Morrell's short fiction (after Black Evening, 1999). He introduces each tale with some notes about how and why he wrote them, but the greater prize is his introduction to this entire volume. It's a gut-wrenching glance back at his childhood and the pain of living in fear. It's presented in Morrell's familiar deadpan style, and doesn't seem intended to draw either sympathy or laughs from readers. Yet it may justify some of the darkness found in the short stories here. The best example of that darkness is found in the novella "Rio Grande Gothic," which features a chase to discover the reason why severed feet (still in their shoes!) have been scattered over the streets of New Mexico. All the stories here have appeared previously in horror collections edited by the likes of Dennis Etchison, Al Sarantonio, Doug Winter and Robert Bloch. My only criticism of Nightscape is that it's too short. I read the whole collection on one black evening, and wanted more! -- Ali Karim

One Last Breath
by Stephen Booth
Published by HarperCollins (UK)
487 pages, 2004

Things don't look good for Mansell Quinn. Given a life sentence 14 years ago for stabbing his lover to death with a knife in his Castleton kitchen, he has just been released. Only hours later, his ex-wife, Rebecca Lowe, is murdered in her own kitchen, again with a blade, and the ex-con goes missing. Can there be any question of guilt? Yes, especially when the case falls to Detective Constable Ben Cooper, an innately empathetic investigator whose unwillingness to accept easy solutions drives his harsher colleague, Detective Sergeant Diane Fry, to distraction at times. While tracking Quinn, Cooper also looks into the circumstances of the original murder, back in 1990 -- and questions why Quinn should have first denied his murder charge, but then entered a guilty plea, only to change his mind again after he'd spent some time behind bars. As Booth's sleuths chase the elusive fugitive across England's scenic Peak District, they also raise the prospect of additional victims, including a couple of Quinn's duplicitous old pals. And Cooper realizes that, with his cop father having put Mansell Quinn behind bars in the first place -- and perhaps being complicit in concealing another suspect at the time -- he might be wise to watch his back, now more than ever. This fifth Cooper/Fry outing is in some ways more conventional than its predecessors (especially Blood on the Tongue, one of January's favorite books of 2002). However, the psychodrama surrounding Quinn's family and that of his murdered lover, plus the backdrop of Peak District caverns and an ending that doesn't bend over backwards trying to tie everything up neatly, leave the reader panting for more by the end of One Last Breath. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Pecking Order
by Chris Simms
Published by Hutchinson (UK)
300 pages, 2004

What if, by some chance, you came across an individual who is otherwise ordinary but possesses one remarkable talent? Would you nurture this ability, and use it to make that person the best he or she can be? And what if said individual never really understood how special he or she was? All these questions are examined in Chris Simms' ingenious second thriller, Pecking Order, and the answers become increasingly horrifying. Roy Bull -- better known as "Rubble" -- works at a battery farm outside of Manchester, England. He's simple and rather childlike, not even knowing the year of his birth, but he possesses a singular talent for doing the tasks no one else would dare touch -- especially killing sick and injured animals. Eric Mauldsey is a veteran sociology professor whose dry lectures on caring for the elderly and dying have been abandoned in favor of a more dynamic professor's modules. He's desperate to find a way to save his flagging fortunes and career, but nothing has worked to date. Finally, Claire Silver is a sociology student, working diligently to secure a postgraduate position and making ends meet as an astrologist for the local chat lines. This trio's fortunes become increasingly intertwined when Mauldsey chances upon Rubble's unique talents at the farm -- and forms a plan to make use of those talents for his own gain. As the killings mount, the only person who could change Rubble's fate is the chat-line lady from whom he receives his daily horoscopes. Claire dismisses Rubble's calls as rubbish, but soon realizes something truly terrifying is happening and it's up to her to put a stop to things. Chris Simms impressed many people last year with his debut novel, Outside the White Lines ("RS," 9-10/03), but with this novel, he doesn't just beat the sophomore jinx, he pounds it into submission. Pecking Order is longer, more ambitious, and it features three wonderfully drawn, extremely flawed protagonists. Not only does Simms offer a believable female heroine in Claire -- no easy task for a male writer -- and demonstrate how Mauldsey's moral descent is sown from almost innocuous seeds, but he also makes Rubble's inherent sociopathy sympathetic to readers. And by showcasing how Mauldsey's plans come to fruition, the author offers a searing commentary on the nature-versus-nurture debate, and how evil isn't necessarily born or made, but the combination of malleable and exploitative personalities is, quite literally, lethal. Pecking Order is a wonderful display of talent from a soon-to-be star of the crime fiction world. -- Sarah Weinman

Playing with Fire
by Peter Robinson
Published by William Morrow
368 pages, 2004

I greet each new Inspector Alan Banks adventure as I would an old friend from whom I've been apart for a year. And I'm pleased to say that the pleasure of becoming reacquainted has become greater each time. In Playing with Fire, though, author Peter Robinson offers a really hot treat. If you thought the introspective, jazz-loving Banks had already been having a tough time of it, wait till you see what happens to him in the course of hunting a murderous arsonist. Two rotting barges are found burning in a Yorkshire canal, and when the flames are extinguished, two bodies are found aboard -- those of Tina Aspern, a teenage heroin abuser, and Thomas McMahon, a landscape artist way down on his luck. Promptly, Banks and his team set to work trying to figure out who was responsible for this blaze, and whether murder was an intended consequence. As in the previous 13 Banks outings (including Close to Home, one of January's favorite books of 2003), we're confronted here by myriad distractions, plus nearly as many subsidiary plots and insights into the less friendly facets of human motivation. The canal lock-keeper who called the police took longer than was necessary, and may have much more to hide. Tina's parents appear to be hiding knowledge of why their daughter resorted to drugs (is it something to do with sexual improprieties?), and why did her cheating boyfriend flee the scene when the cops arrived? As if all that weren't enough, Robinson spends welcome effort beefing up the already familiar characters of Banks (who has questions about his latest relationship) and his colleague and ex-lover, Annie Cabbot (who should be asking more questions of her own new boyfriend, an art researcher whose presence in this case causes Banks to lose his objectivity). This is a very fast-moving and interesting tale, and enters territory with which readers of Thomas Harris and Patricia Highsmith should be most familiar. Playing with Fire's conclusion is inflammatory, to say the least, and his final lines of dialogue -- in which Alan Banks speaks to two loves of his life -- bodes well for future installments of this fine series. -- Ali Karim

Putt to Death
by Roberta Isleib
Published by Berkley Prime Crime
272 pages, 2004

Golf mysteries don't fit everyone to a tee. But one author who's succeeded in demonstrating her savvy about the sport, while still attracting readers who've never done more than putt balls over a moat and through a spinning windmill, is Roberta Isleib. Her third Golf Lover's Mystery, Putt to Death, has former rookie Cassie Burdette signing on as a touring pro for Stony Creek, an exclusive Connecticut country club. (Think: substituting as a clerk at the golf shop and trying to improve members' lifetime bad habits in one lesson.) Not exactly her dream job, but it's a paying diversion from a recently broken relationship and the father who has suddenly reappeared in her life. And, of course, Stony Creek helps by offering up a murder in need of solving. While putting in necessary duty as the club's lady pro golfer, Cassie stumbles across the body of Brad Latham, who'd been pushing the association to be more wildlife-friendly, left at the 7th hole. And despite the insistence of nearly everyone, including police, that she's not a suspect, the discovery of Ms. Burdette's bloodstained sand wedge can't help but throw her into the middle of the ensuing investigation. Wanting to clear herself of blame, Cassie engages in some haphazard sleuthing of her own: she asks everyone she can find who they think committed the killing. Not exactly an innovative approach, but then, she's a golfer, not Columbo. Isleib's series depends both on her protagonist's ability to control a scene and the reader's willingness to continue following this 20-something woman, whose difficulties in life are ever-multiplying. Cassie's not only makeup-phobic and neurotic, but frequently makes wrong decisions in her relationships. Remarkably, this makes her a more sympathetic and likable figure. Even inveterate golf-haters might find Cassie's love of play infectious. Although the murderer's identity here is pretty obvious, even if that person's criminal motivation is not, Putt to Death's mystery thread unravels at a healthy clip. The book is a fun read, one that's several strokes ahead of the competition. -- Cindy Chow


The Railway Detective
by Edward Marston
Published by Allison & Busby (UK)
261 pages, 2004

Every obsessive reader has two, or three, or more novelists whose work they always pick up, confident that those wordsmiths will provide them with entertainment or enlightenment, or both. Historical mystery master Edward Marston is one of my own reliables, and he certainly keeps me busy. He's been juggling half a dozen series over the last few years, written under his Marston pseudonym as well as his real name, Keith Miles, and another nom de plume, Conrad Allen (Murder on the Marmora). On top of those, he introduced still one more sleuth in 2004: Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck, the son of a cabinet maker and "the unrivaled dandy of Scotland Yard." Colbeck, however, isn't just about social graces and charm; he has a fine mind and a bold heart behind all that sartorial splendor. Which is a damn good thing, because his first case, in The Railway Detective, will lead him to puzzles and peril aplenty. At a time when there was considerable hope for the future of British railroading, the robbery of the London-to-Birmingham mail train in 1851 threatens to dampen enthusiasm. The thieves were successful in carrying away "a large consignment of gold sovereigns," but went further, derailing and thus damaging the engine. Why go to such trouble if their goal was pilferage? Colbeck moves quickly to capture the perpetrators, but not before blackmail and still more destruction ensues. And not before Madeleine Andrews, the daughter of that Birmingham train's conductor, is kidnapped. Marston, ever the enthusiastic researcher, sifts a considerable amount of information and train trivia into this yarn, together with suggestions of insider plotting against Britain's railways and dire threats against the Crystal Palace, the main attraction at London's soon-to-open Great Exhibition. On the strength of this first installment, the Colbeck series seems to be chugging ahead at full-steam; a sequel, The Excursion Train, is set for publication in the UK late in January 2005. Guess I'd better clear my schedule. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Skinny Dip
by Carl Hiaasen
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
368 pages, 2004

Carl Hiaasen's leanly written, satirical novels are the literary equivalent of Jimmy Buffett's country-tropical music licks -- both are best appreciated while vacationing in sultry climes where nobody thinks twice about the fact that you're lapping tequila out of your shapely girlfriend's navel. Skinny Dip, his 10th adult work, asks no more -- of less -- of the reader. As it begins, we find Florida "biologist by default" Charles "Chaz" Perrone pitching his lovely wife, Joey, off the deck of a luxury liner and into the Atlantic Ocean on their second-wedding-anniversary cruise. He fears she's stumbled onto a pollution scam he's been running on behalf of an agribusiness mogul. There's just one little fault in Chaz's scheme: Joey, five years his senior and considerably wealthier, also happens to be a former swimming champ. Instead of drowning in the night, far from Key West, she strips off her clothes and begins stroking for shore. Thanks to an itinerant bale of Jamaican marijuana and a timely assist from Mick Stranahan, who was force-retired from his job as an investigator with the State Attorney's Office and now lives with his dog on a secluded island, she survives -- only to embark, with Stranahan's encouragement, on a revenge stratagem designed to convince the lazy and perpetually lustful Chaz that somebody witnessed him disposing of his spouse. As things disappear from or are subtly moved about in his Boca Raton home (the evidence of Joey's covert visits there), and as Stranahan lays the groundwork for a blackmail ruse, Chaz is flung into a self-protective agitation that cracks his façade of calm and bereavement. Soon, he's raising the suspicions of a python-loving police detective, lashing out at his zestful mistress, and popping Viagra in a hilarious offensive against concerns that offing his missus has left him unable to get it up again. Worse, though, for all parties involved, is that Chaz's increasingly erratic behavior attracts the notice of Samuel Johnson "Red" Hammernut, the wealthy grower who has roped Chaz into a water-sample-falsification conspiracy that will allow him to turn the Everglades into "God's septic tank." As the dimensions of Joey and Stranahan's intrigue unfold, and as Hammernut assigns a hairy, painkiller-addicted enforcer called Tool to watch over Chaz, the reader can do naught but stand in awe of the comical climax ahead. Although Hiaasen spends most of his creative energy on Chaz and Tool, giving shorter shrift to Joey Perrone nor Mick Stranahan (the latter originally introduced in Skin Tight, 1989), there's enough unwholesome craziness going on in this book to make one overlook its few weaknesses. Order another mai tai, dude, and just keep on readin'. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Tonight I Said Goodbye
by Michael Koryta
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
304 pages, 2004

Michael Koryta's Tonight I Said Goodbye is an impressive debut, the winner of the 2003 St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Prize for Best First P.I. Novel. That commendation is made all the more impressive (and even a little annoying to us older guys) because the author was just 21 when he wrote it. Oh, sure, the book suffers from a few of the Typical First Novel Blues: overwritten on occasion, a few extraneous subplots, and a little too much energy wasted dropping hints about the main characters' pasts (gotta establish the book as the first in a series, ya know). But perhaps most disappointing is that Koryta stays too close to the genre's usual tried-and-true plot conventions, instead of trusting his own instincts. But hey, that's forgivable -- I have socks older than some of Michael's instincts. And make no mistake, this is one rip-roaring debut. The secret weapon is that Koryta's a natural born storyteller. Cocksure 30-something Lincoln Perry and his older, wiser partner, retired cop Joe Pritchard, are Cleveland private eyes, struggling to make their new agency a going concern. Not exactly titans of industry, maybe, but there's no doubt that they're willing to work hard for their money. Which is just as well, since the case before them is a doozy. In the midst of a bone-bitingly cold winter, Perry and Pritchard are hired by John Weston, a lonely World War II vet, to investigate the apparent suicide of his only son, Wayne, also a P.I., as well as the disappearance of his son's wife, Julie, and their 6-year-old daughter, Betsy, whom the police believe are already dead. Before this head-spinning case is through, though, there'll be tangles with Russian mobsters, blackmailers, gun runners and assorted thugs, plus a hot time in a hot tub, a jaunt to sunny Myrtle Beach and a run-in with "Cleveland's answer to Donald Trump." Underneath it all, though, there's a definite heart beating. Koryta gives his cast just enough raw depth and real character to bring them home, and he infuses his story with sufficient wit, compassion (and even a little misty-eyed sensitivity) and formula-tweaking to make even the most standard-issue items and characters on his hard-boiled checklist seem fresh again. Together, Perry and Pritchard make a formidable and appealing team -- men who are, in the words of the smug young detective, "awfully damn good" at what they do. So is Koryta. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Twisted City
by Jason Starr
Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
256 pages, 2004

For David Miller, a reporter with Manhattan Business magazine, life has become a serious drag. His sister, Barbara, recently died from brain cancer; his associate editor, Peter Lyons, is ruining his writing (as well as his reputation) by incompetently editing Miller's articles; and his 24-year-old club-hopping girlfriend, Rebecca Daniels, ignores his demands that she move out of his Upper West Side apartment. To make matters worse, Miller loses his wallet in a bar one afternoon after attempting (and failing) to pick up a hot woman he met in an office building. Miller freaks out, not so much because his credit cards, Social Security card and driver's license were all in the wallet, but because it also holds a cherished picture of his late sister. That Miller misses Barbara is made abundantly clear by his frequent recollections of the times they'd spent together. He even makes several attempts to contact her spirit when he's alone, as foolish as that makes him feel. These familiar patterns of Miller's life change suddenly, though, after a woman who introduces herself as "Sue" calls him at work, saying she has his wallet. What appears to be a favorable turn of luck soon results in horrific consequences. Miller visits Sue's Lower East Side apartment in order to claim the wallet, only to learn that she's a skinny junkie hooker who wants an extravagant reward for returning his property. When her drug-addicted boyfriend barges in and attacks Miller, things go from bad to worse, precipitating violence. David Miller is a character who, one comes to believe, could benefit from a good ass-whupping -- something to snap him out of his willing role as a manipulated patsy. After allowing his relationship with the troubled Rebecca to poison his other friendships, and finding that his only living relative, Aunt Helen, is more overbearing than comforting, he's let himself drift through the various messes of his life. But the reader gradually realizes that Miller doesn't quite have all his screws turned tightly, either. His only chance at having a healthy and romantic relationship with a co-worker never gets off the ground because Miller is, well, not grounded. And his obsession with his deceased sibling slowly takes on eerie overtones. It's not altogether surprising when a series of bad choices brings David Miller's less-than-healthy impulses to the surface. Starr, the author of four previous novels (including Nothing Personal and Tough Luck), is a native of New York City and renders the environs skillfully, but this is not a novel of setting. Twisted City's prime selling points are its spiraling plot complications and the gradually increasing perverse gradations of Miller's persona. The author knows how to play his cards close until the end, when the reader recoils in disgust. -- Anthony Rainone

by Chris Niles
Published by Pan (UK)
400 pages, 2004

For many folks, high school was the best time of their lives, filled with memories to hold onto for years, if not decades. But for those in the misfit category, it was a time of torments and tribulations, promising only the chance to make something of themselves down the road. Then there's Sophie Graham, the star of Chris Niles' fifth novel, Vanished. A 30-something struggling actress who's working at a wannabe-upscale bar in New York City, she's been floating from idea to idea, job to job, never quite succeeding at anything. It's certainly not the desired career path for alumni of the prestigious boarding school she attended, where she was tormented on a near-regular basis by the prettier, more popular girls in her class. When Electra Jordan, queen of the high school she-bitches, shows up with her family at the bar while Sophie's on duty, she's mortified, angry and a little scared. To save face, Sophie lies, saying that she's a private investigator. It's a throwaway line, something she forgets about completely. But a few months later, just as Sophie is about to be laid off, the lie comes back to haunt her. Electra Jordan has disappeared, and her father, wanting to know what happened, hires Sophie to look for her. Should the struggling actress reveal the truth, or take the case? A $5,000 retainer makes the choice all too simple, but Sophie hasn't a clue how to go about being a P.I. With the help of her friends, a sardonic Internet café manager and her eccentric neighbors, Sophie dives into Electra's world, trying to put the puzzle pieces together. And if it means staying in Electra's wonderfully minimalist apartment, trying on her clothes and buying expensive new things ... well, it's all for investigative purposes, right? Naturally, the more questions Sophie asks and the more half-truths and bald deceptions she uncovers, the more obvious it is that something rotten really is going on here -- and that it might be up to her to save the life of the woman she hates the most. The overriding theme of Vanished is that nothing can be taken at face value. Sophie is pretending to be a private eye, but she's smarter and less clumsy at it than many fictional gumshoes. Her whole adult life is based on overcoming the torments of adolescence -- Electra's, in particular -- but circumstances force her to re-examine those events and re-evaluate the personality of her so-called nemesis. Finally, though Niles' breezy, seemingly effortless prose paints a wonderfully superficial portrait of the idiosyncratic denizens of Manhattan, it's a façade that works to skewer those same superficialities and point to something altogether deeper: the fraying bonds of friendship and family. There's nobody quite like Chris Niles in the modern mystery world. Long may she subject the genre to her merciless scrutiny. -- Sarah Weinman

The Wake-Up
by Robert Ferrigno
Published by Pantheon Books
272 pages, 2004

Frank Thorpe is a former "Delta Force" warrior-turned-covert operator, who has recently been canned from his espionage "shop" because of a fouled-up sting that left his lady friend dead and a murderous arms dealer, the Engineer, at large. Still brimming with grief and anger, he decides to wing off for a Miami vacation. But while Thorpe is waiting for his plane at the Los Angeles International Airport, he watches a power-suited businessman, "a real hard charger," wield his briefcase like a weapon against a young Hispanic hawker, sending the boy "stumbling backward onto the floor, blood streaming down his face." This cavalier injustice, heaped atop his own professional mortification, convinces Thorpe to humiliate the hard charger -- Laguna Beach art gallery proprietor Douglas Meachum -- for his bad manners, remind him of his vulnerability. Passing himself off as a U.S. State Department investigator looking into the illegal importation of antiquities, Thorpe convinces one of Meachum's testiest patrons, social-climber Missy Riddenhauser, that the gallery owner has sold her a bogus Mayan wall plaque. After word of this supposed scam reaches a local gossip columnist, Missy is furious -- not only because it makes her and her younger husband, surfer-turned-designer pharmaceuticals maker Clark Riddenhauser, look like hicks among the highborn, but because this duping might embolden their most dangerous drug-dealing competitor to take them out of the game. Permanently. When Missy's under-appreciated brother decides that these circumstances give him an opening to prove his worth, not to mention his abundant capacity for violence, The Wake-Up shifts from being a story about clever deceptions to being a hard-driving thriller about revenge, homicide and unintended consequences. Even as Thorpe tries to prevent the aftermath of his "wake-up" from consuming him or Meachum, he must deal with a pair of murderous bodyguards (one of whom looks like Nosferatu on a bad day) and the elusive, cheesy movie-loving Engineer, who Thorpe hopes to nab before he can harm his new lover. Ferrigno, whose Scavenger Hunt ranked among January's favorite books of 2003, offers in this eighth novel a dexterously wrought yarn built around a seemingly simple plot that quickly (and convincingly) escapes its protagonist's leash. Although there are enough twists in The Wake-Up to require note-taking, Ferrigno knows how to layer on the risks and competitive relationships. In a world sometimes too full of blunt-object crime fiction, this is stiletto storytelling. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Way Past Legal
by Norman Green
Published by HarperCollins
272 pages, 2004

Successful Brooklyn burglar Emmanuel "Manny" Williams is on the run from Russian gangsters after he rips them off for $2 million. Although half the money rightfully belongs to his partner, Rosario "Rosey" Colon, Manny smells a scam brewing and takes off with all the loot, instead, stopping only to pick up his 5-year-old affection-starved son, Nicky. The pair head for the beautiful and sparsely populated landscape of northern Maine. The combination there of fresh air and solitude, along with the echoes he hears of his own orphaned boyhood, start to transform Manny's criminal soul. He realizes that his son needs him to be a real father, not the letdown who abandoned Nicky to the foster-care system after the child's mother died. At 28, Manny's a thoroughly citified guy. Yet Maine's natural beauty takes hold of his heart. So do some of the people he encounters, including Louis and Eleanor Avery, decent folks with health and money problems who are being squeezed by Sam Calder, a rich entrepreneur with designs on their land. Green's cast also includes local sheriff Taylor Bookman, a wise and shrewd man who prefers subtle manipulation, unless force is necessary. Bookman figures Manny out right away, but the sheriff's convincing ways, insight into human frailty and pleasant nature take prominence. When the Russians and Rosey show up in town looking for the Brooklyn thief and their money, it's not too hard figuring out who tipped them off. The ensuing showdowns could be more sinister, though that's not what really matters in this book. Manny's narrative voice and how he changes -- how Maine and its people change him -- are the real draws here. -- Anthony Rainone


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