Crime Fiction 

Back Story (Putnam) by Robert B. Parker

This 30th Spenser novel in as many years finds Boston's best-known private eye working for his more-or-less son, Paul Giacomin. Daryl Gordon, a woman friend of Paul's, is hoping to find "closure" in the death of her mother, Emily, who was killed 28 years ago during a bank robbery. The perpetrators were never caught, nor was it determined who shot Emily Gordon. Both the FBI and Beantown mobster Sonny Karnofsky want this cold case kept on ice, and Karnofsky threatens Spenser's girlfriend, Susan Silverman, to ensure that it is. But the wisecracking gumshoe, refusing as usual to be intimidated, assembles a line-up of familiar figures -- including the ever-menacing Hawk and Jesse Stone, the protagonist in another of Parker's series (Death in Paradise, etc.) -- to guard his rear while he pieces together the circumstances that sent Emily Gordon to an early grave.

Bangkok 8 (Alfred A. Knopf) by John Burdett

Sonchai Jitpleecheep -- just try to say that name five times in quick succession. (Heck, just try to say it one time.) The man behind the moniker is the half-caste son of a Thai bar girl and an American G.I., a guy who's grown up to become an ardent Buddhist and peculiarly honest detective with the Royal Thai Police. In John Burdett's Bangkok 8, Sonchai must investigate the case of a U.S. Marine who was murdered by snakes -- the same reptiles that go on to kill his partner and best friend, Pichai. Our hero is subsequently paired with Jones, a sexually unsatisfied FBI agent who provides him with opportunity to reflect on culture clashes between Thais and visiting farangs (westerners). Author Burdett invites his readers along on a sometimes wild ride through Bangkok's neon-lit streets, shadowy brothels, and trade in both jade and methamphetamines. However, its setting is only part of this novel's foreign appeal. While Sonchai exhibits some traditional aspects of the fictional detective, he also sees ghosts and has the ability to look into people's past incarnations (and from those, judge the karma behind their present lives). Full of sex, violence, good meals, some great writing and ghosts, Bangkok 8 ranks a "10" for distinction among this year's field of thriller fiction.

Blood Is the Sky (St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne) by Steve Hamilton

For a guy who's supposed to help get other people out of trouble, Alex McKnight sure knows how to get himself into it. In his fifth adventure (after North of Nowhere), Michigan's most reluctant P.I. agrees to help his Ojibwa Indian friend, Vinnie LeBlanc, track down his ex-con brother, Tom, who vanished while guiding moose hunters deep into the Ontario wilderness. The owners of the lakeside lodge where Tom and his sportsmen employers had stayed insist that their guests left days ago. So where did they go? And who were the other two men who showed up at the lodge not long before, asking these same sort of questions? Intent on fitting these puzzle pieces together, Alex and Vinnie head out into the woods, to face not only bears but two-legged predators that can be more dangerous still. Like Steve Hamilton's previous novels, Blood Is the Sky gains its greatest strength from its characters, but the author also throws in Deliverance-style episodes to keep his readers' hearts a-racin'.

The Bobby Gold Stories (Bloomsbury) by Anthony Bourdain

In his first novel since the non-fiction work Kitchen Confidential (2000) kicked his writing career up several notches, Anthony Bourdain gets back to his writing roots in The Bobby Gold Stories. The pace is brisk and the tone light, though some of the flavors Bourdain serves up here aren't. Bobby Gold is a lovable mook, shy and misdirected, intelligent but unchallenged. Bobby reaches manhood in prison, then finds work as a bone breaker for a low-level mobster after he's freed. His careful life is complicated when he falls in love with Nikki the "sauté bitch" at the club where he works as chief of security. This slender book is composed of sequential vignettes -- the Stories of the title -- that shed stark light on aspects of Bobby's life.

Cold Pursuit (Hyperion) by T. Jefferson Parker

The bludgeoning murder of an octogenarian former San Diego port commissioner sets up a story fraught with family rivalries, political pressures and history-based motives. The homicide cop on the case is Tom McMichael, who must set aside his personal antipathy toward the deceased if he's to have any hope of catching the killer.



The Dante Club (Random House), by Matthew Pearl

In a case of life imitating art, the prominent members of Boston's post-Civil War Dante Club -- essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, and editor/publisher James Thomas Fields -- turn detective to nab a serial killer who positions his victims to re-create scenes from Dante Aligherieri's The Divine Comedy. Fearing that their rarified knowledge of that 14-century epic might make them suspects, the iconoclastic quartet begin their own investigation, leading them on a chase through Beantown's darker quarters and halls of academia, and ultimately to the realization that their quarry -- whom they've dubbed "Lucifer" -- lies closer than they'd expected.

Days Without Number (Bantam Press UK) by Robert Goddard

A retired archaeologist and supposed descendent of Byzantine emperors infuriates his children by refusing a generous offer for his Cornwall family home. Only after tragedy strikes does the reason for that rejection become clear -- and by then, it may be too late to protect the family and keep the father's terrible secret.

Deadlight (Orion UK) by Graham Hurley

There seems to be no end of suspects in the battering death of Paul Coughlin, an ex-navy prison officer who'd made it his business (and distinct pleasure) to demean inmates given to protesting their innocence. The most likely killer may be a recently paroled convict Coughlin had found time to brutalize in the slammer. But Detective Inspector Joe Faraday, recently promoted to Portsmouth, England's Major Crimes Unit, wonders if there isn't a more complicated motive behind this crime -- perhaps related to the 20-year-old sinking of a Royal Navy frigate during the Falklands War. In his fourth Faraday novel (after Angels Passing, 2002), Graham Hurley nicely constructs a mystery around Portsmouth's sometimes uneasy relationship with the Royal Navy. He does even better, though, at demonstrating the downsides of police preconceptions and at recognizing that no one is either all good or all bad.


December Heat (Henry Holt) by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Called in to the investigate the slaying of a Rio de Janeiro prostitute named Magali, Inspector Espinosa sets aside the simple answer -- that she was murdered by her "companion and protector," retired cop Vieira Crisóstomo -- and instead goes looking for a homeless boy who may have seen the couple on the night of Magali's murder. In the process, the bookish and independent Espinosa exposes a drug-trafficking scheme involving corrupt cops, incites assaults on both Vieira and himself, and faces off against a gorgeous hooker who may be as manipulative as she is seductive. A sensual, smart and wonderfully foreign yarn, told against the backdrop of a Brazilian summer.

The Delicate Storm (Putnam) by Giles Blunt

In his sequel to the widely acclaimed Forty Words for Sorrow (2001), Blunt sends Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay, Ontario, police force to investigate the discovery of a white male's severed arm. After more body parts turn up, and the decedent is identified as an American citizen, Cardinal and his French-Canadian partner, Lise Delorme, find themselves embroiled in a three-decades-old unsolved homicide that's tied to violent Quebec separatists and clashes between Canadian law-enforcement agencies, and is complicated to magical effect by a rare ice storm. Fans of John Farrow should appreciate Blunt's work, as well.

The Distant Echo (HarperCollins UK) by Val McDermid

Leaving a party in the Scottish Lowlands town of St. Andrews, in 1978, four university students stumble upon the dying barmaid Rosie Duff in a snow-filled cemetery. She's apparently been raped and slashed deeply by a knife. In their desperation to save Rosie, the students are stained with her blood. After the barmaid dies, these four fall under suspicion -- not only of the police, but also Duff's family and the shadowy presences that lurk along the edges of Echo's plot. Now leap ahead a quarter-century. The police decide to reopen the Duff investigation, hoping to resolve the case through DNA analysis. Meanwhile, the four former students -- who have since been driven apart from one another by religion, sexuality and their individual worldviews -- are being picked off through thinly disguised accidents. Before he ends up dead like his friends, one member of this quartet, Alex Gilbey, determines to figure out what really happened on that fateful night 25 years ago. Like McDermid's previous standalone, the award-winning A Place of Execution (1999), Echo is written in a split timeframe, and reality here is never as simple as it seems to be.


Done for a Dime (Ballantine) by David Corbett

With the publication last year of The Devil's Redhead, former San Francisco P.I. David Corbett established his creds as a writer of moody thrillers. Now he returns with Done for a Dime, a still more noirish story, rooted in the murder of legendary blues musician Raymond "Strong" Carlisle. Northern California detective David Murchison initially figures this homicide is the work of Arlie Thigpen, a young tough. But Carlisle's son, Toby Marchand -- with his dubious alibi and a girlfriend who supposedly witnessed the homicide, but can't remember it -- may be equally good for the crime. What Murchison doesn't recognize right away is that Strong Carlisle's death is an inconvenient result of a much broader deception involving a lucrative construction project and an awfully convenient fire. Corbett's snowballing plot and vividly sculpted characters make Done for a Dime worth a whole lot more. It's due out in August.

Everybody's Somebody's Fool (Carroll & Graf) by Ed Gorman

When the corpse of pretty but disturbed college sophomore Sara Griffin is found in a gazebo during a summer garden party in 1961, police chief Cliffie Sykes Jr. of Black River Falls, Iowa, is determined to blame high-school dropout and "local heartbreaker" David Egan for the crime. Egan claims he's innocent, but he doesn't have a chance to prove it before dying during a drag-race outside of town. Cliffie subsequently closes the Griffin case, sure that he had the right suspect. But lawyer and sometimes-P.I. Sam McCain (returning after Save the Last Dance for Me) has his doubts. Especially when he learns that Egan's brake line was severed. Nostalgia and some fine writing make this a worthy read.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men (Pantheon) by Alexander McCall Smith

This fourth entry in Smith's humorous and popular series about Precious Ramotswe, "the first lady detective" in Botswana, Africa, has his cunning protagonist dealing with the unfortunate death of a hoopoe bird, an assistant who wants to open a typing school, and a sexist rival in the local investigative business.


The Last Detective (Doubleday) by Robert Crais

After penning a couple of acclaimed standalones, Crais turns his attention back to Elvis Cole (last spotted in L.A. Requiem, 1999) at what may be one of the worst times in this private eye's life. While his lawyer-girlfriend, Lucy Chenier, is away on business, Elvis has been looking after her 10-year-old son, Ben. But Ben is suddenly kidnapped, and the motive may relate to a secret from the sleuth's past. Together with his partner, Joe Pike, and LAPD Detective Carol Starkey (from Demolition Angel, 2000), Elvis struggles to get the boy back, even as Lucy's oil-industry ex-husband fights to take control of the investigation. Expect plenty of fireworks and intriguing character expansion.


The Last Good Day (Little, Brown) by Peter Blauner

With her family in tow, Lynn Schulman returns to the ostensibly complacent suburban New York town she'd fled after high school, only to find that dangers aren't confined to the big city. It's not bad enough that the decapitated corpse of her oldest friend, Sandi Lanier, washes up beside the town's riverside train depot: the cop assigned to investigate is Michael Fallon, Lynn's onetime boyfriend-turned-stalker. Tensions and resentments escalate as Fallon, struggling in his personal life, tries to resurrect a relationship with Lynn, while also keeping secret the extent of his associations with Lanier. Blauner (The Intruder, Slow Motion Riot, etc.) offers a circuitous and suspenseful plot, buttressed by well-crafted characters.

Last to Die (HarperCollins) by James Grippando

It's "reality game shows" meet thriller fiction in James Grippando's third novel (after Beyond Suspicion, 2002) to feature Miami attorney Jack Swyteck. Beautiful young divorcee Sally Fenning has been murdered in her Mercedes, and her will leaves a $46 million estate to one of six heirs, all of whom Fenning disdained -- and almost all of whom are also linked to her daughter's slaying five years before. The gimmick is that none of these folks can collect until the rest have either died or renounced their claims to the inheritance. The only beneficiary not connected to the Fenning girl's murder is Tatum Knight, a hit man who is said to have turned down an offer from Sally to kill her. While the beneficiaries' lawyers gird for a fight, someone starts snuffing out the life of Fenning's heirs. The $46 million question for Swyteck is whether his client is really an innocent party in all of this ... or is plotting to become one very rich survivor.

Life Sentence (Putnam) by David Ellis

Political intrigue, false accusations and twists aplenty propel this second offering from the author of Line of Vision (2001). Narrator Jon Soliday is the best friend and chief counsel to an Illinois state senator, Grant Tully, who has his sights set on occupying the governor's office. When Soliday receives a blackmail threat, based on his role in a 1979 murder, he's worried about the impact it might have on Tully's future. However, it is Soliday's butt that winds up firmly in a ringer, after another attorney with whom he'd consulted on an election issue is found dead, and Soliday is fingered as the prime suspect.


Money for Nothing (Putnam) by Donald E. Westlake

Seven years ago, office temp Josh Redmont started receiving $1,000 checks in the mail from a source identified only as "United States Agent." He didn't know the reason for these tax-free windfalls, but came to accept them nonetheless. Only now, when he's a successful Manhattan advertising exec with a wife a child, is he suddenly approached by a stranger who tells him, "I'm from United States Agent. You are now active." The money obligates Redmont to participate in a terrorist assassination scheme -- a plot that the ad man may only foil by recruiting other "sleeper agents" and a disgruntled operative to his side.


No Second Chance (Dutton) by Harlan Coben

In his third-in-a-row standalone thriller (after Tell No One and Gone for Good) about men who must suddenly cope with landslides of deadly secrets, Coben offers us surgeon Marc Seidman, who wakes up in a hospital after being shot by an unknown assailant. His wife is dead, his infant daughter, Tara, is missing, and Tara's kidnappers let him know that he'll never see her again if he goes to the authorities. Marc's reticence to cooperate with the cops and FBI raises suspicion, but the surgeon cares about only one thing: bringing his child home safely. Expect Coben's usual mix of plot twists and clever deceptions.

Persuader (Delacorte Press) by Lee Child

Harking back to his crime fiction debut, Child's latest novel employs the first-person voice that launched Jack Reacher into popular culture. In these pages, the maverick drifter has to confront a dark secret from his past and a grotesque series of villains led by the sadistic Francis Xavier Quinn. Though fueled with the violence and menace of the modern age, Persuader is told within the confines of a secluded fortress on Maine's icy coast, one that would not have seemed out of place in the early heroic-altruism works of British crime fiction. There, Reacher is trapped and guarded by an assortment of muscular psychopaths. Like Ian Fleming before him, Child keeps "Xavier," as his main villain is known, off-stage until the final third of the novel. And then, before you can say "Blofeld," we are hit with a violent climax that releases all the tension with a cathartic flourish -- plus a surprise or two.


Poison Blonde (Forge) by Loren D. Estleman

Latina singer Gilia Cristobel seems to have it all -- youth, beauty, albums at the top of the charts. But she has one hell of a problem, too: Her history is patently bogus. Having fled her native land ahead of charges in a murder she didn't commit, Gilia has re-created herself in America. Now, though, her past is giving her trouble again -- trouble she hopes can be solved by Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker (last seen in Sinister Heights). The singer wants him to find the real Gilia Cristobel, whose identity she adopted in order to stay in the United States. Yet Walker's investigation may bring his client more misery than she already faces.

A Question of Blood (Orion UK) by Ian Rankin

Edinburgh inspector John Rebus' ability to spot connections where others don't -- or won't -- works to his advantage in A Question of Blood. The lonerish cop, so used to pinning crimes on the heads of others, now finds himself a suspect in the gruesome burning death of a psychopath who had threatened his young protégé, Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. (Rebus contends that damage to his hands is the result of a drunken run-in with overheated bath water.) Meanwhile, the son of Rebus' estranged cousin is murdered in a high-school shooting that may connect somehow to the inspector's past involvement with British special forces. With his usual combination of obstinacy and doggedness, the inspector eventually solves the mysteries before him, while Rankin layers his 14th Rebus novel with Edinburgh lore and insight. A Question of Blood is due out in August.


Scavenger Hunt (Pantheon), by Robert Ferrigno

The death of an Oscar-winning, ex-con film director, who claimed to have been working on a "dangerous screenplay" that would expose the frame behind his conviction for killing a teenage actress-wannabe, leads tabloid reporter Jimmy Gage (last seen in Flinch, 2001) to look again into the circumstances of this crime. A circuitously plotted tale, rampant with ambition and guilt and every flavor of Southern California eccentric.


Shutter Island (William Morrow) by Dennis Lehane

U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, arrive at Massachusetts' Shutter Island in 1954, intending to track down an escapee from the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. But is that their only task, or are they also supposed to be checking out rumors of Ashecliffe's extraordinary psychiatric approach? As a storm strands the marshals on this island, they begin to wonder whether someone isn't trying to drive them insane, too. This second standalone novel from Lehane follows 2001's Mystic River.


Sucker Bet (Ballantine) by James Swain

Tony Valentine, the cop-turned-casino consultant from Grift Sense and Funny Money, is back to solve a con game that includes a vanished blackjack dealer, a remorseless gangster, a hooker who still dreams of love and a rich rock 'n' roll musician. Swain is a clever writer, but it's his gambling savvy that makes this series especially enjoyable.


Walking the Shadows (Century UK) by Donald James

Tom Chapel visits St. Juste, a reservoir-drowned village in the South of France, hoping to determine why, after receiving a fortune from her late father, a local girl was seized, attacked and left in a life-threatening coma. Chapel's efforts to untangle the puzzle lead him back to World War II, when the area was under Vichy control and Resistance fighters sought to smuggle Jews to safety. He learns that some of the Jewish women were betrayed and never escaped. Is the party responsible still alive -- and still taking lives in order to protect his secret? A dark and consuming tale from the author of Monstrum (1997).


The White Road (Atria) by John Connolly

Following closely the U.S. release of The Killing Kind, Irish novelist Connolly's third thriller featuring P.I. Charlie "Bird" Parker, comes this grim yarn in which the detective hies off to South Carolina to defend a black man who's accused of raping Marianne Larousse, the daughter of one of the state's wealthiest individuals. Always supportive of lost causes, Parker dives into this case that nobody else wants to touch. Expect a strong sense of place and the reappearance of Reverend Faulkner, whose presence in the previous novel was so chilling, as well as the advent of another hellish creation, deformed killer Cyrus Nairn.

Wisdom of the Bones (Onyx) by Christopher Hyde

It's November 1963, and Dallas, Texas, is reeling from the shock of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. But life -- and death -- go on, as homicide detective Ray Duval proves in this absorbing and atmospheric work. Told by his doctor that he has only months to live, Duval is anxious to solve one last case: the decapitation murder of a man found stuffed in an old icebox at the city dump. While the United States grieves the loss of its leader, Duval is busy connecting his case to that of a dozen or more children, mostly black, who died in a manner similar to his current victim, but more than two decades before. Author Hyde (A Gathering of Saints, The Second Assassin, etc.) is a deft plotter who deserves considerably more attention than he receives.

Wolf Pass (Putnam) by Steve Thayer

In this suspenseful sequel to Thayer's The Wheat Field (2002), it's 1963 and sheriff's deputy Pliny Pennington is campaigning to become the sheriff of Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin. But his history as a World War II sniper returns to haunt him after the shootings of a railroad engineer and that man's sexy spouse. Suspicion that Pennington is behind these acts can't help hurting his election chances. But the deputy's greater fear is that the murders were actually committed by a Nazi SS colonel, Christian Stangl, who has come to the States seeking revenge against him -- and may be planning to frame Pennington in Minneapolis for the slaying of President John F. Kennedy.


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