Sunday, April 01, 2007

Summery Judgment 2007 II

Front porches used to be the favored retreats of Americans, until back decks became popular and shut residents off from their neighbors. But I still enjoy sitting out front with a book, diving down into the other world of an author’s imagination, even as reality peddles on around me. More than once, my mailman has startled me out of a good international spy caper or the depths of some historical whodunit in order to hand me, personally, that day’s complement of utility bills. As summer approaches, the frequency of my trips to the front porch and the longevity of my stays there increases. It’s partly because I like being outside in the all-too-rare Seattle sunshine, but also because there are so many new books to be enjoyed in the spring and summer, as publishers seek to fill the free time of vacationers.

Compiling a list of the volumes I most look forward to reading between now and Labor Day is no easy task, given how many catalogues of forthcoming works are available. Nonetheless, in my selfless devotion to you, the reader, I have winnowed down my choices to a mere dozen. If you spot me on my front porch with one of these, know that I’m enjoying myself. Just don’t expect me to acknowledge your approach. Can’t you see that I am busy reading?

• American Detective, by Loren D. Estleman (Forge USA). Of the three then-newly minted U.S. detective novelists I was most grateful to discover in the early 1980s--Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, and Estleman--only work by the last do I continue to enjoy. Estleman’s 18th novel helmed by aging Detroiter Amos Walker finds the hard-nosed (and -headed) shamus in the employ of an ex-baseball player, Darius Fuller, who hopes to terminate his daughter’s engagement to Hilary Bairn, a man he’s convinced is only after the girl for her trust fund. But before the P.I. can pin anything incriminating on the fiancé, Fuller’s daughter is killed, and Bairn becomes the prime suspect. Rather than wash his hands of this whole mess, Walker delves further into the case, revealing Bairn’s debts to a loan shark and exposing an immigrant-smuggling operation. American Detective is due out this month.

• Up in Honey’s Room, by Elmore Leonard (Morrow USA). Once a near-unknown creator of westerns and gritty crime fiction, Leonard has enjoyed in his last 25 years of novel-writing all the acclaim he missed in the first 25. Now 81, he’s hailed for his economy of language and exceptional dialogue. Up in Honey’s Room, part of a trilogy along with The Hot Kid (2005) and Leonard’s 2006 New York Times-serialized novel, Comfort to the Enemy, is a fine sampler of his creative strengths. It returns us to the often-violent, mid-20th-century world of Oklahoma lawman-turned-war hero Carl Webster. He’s cozying up in these pages to the wife of a Detroit butcher who bears a marked resemblance to German SS commander Heinrich Himmler, and is apparently feeding information about U.S. war production to the Nazis. A remarkable mix of incisive character development and incendiary plotting. Due out in May.

• The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins USA). What if, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in 1940, a temporary Jewish homeland had been fashioned from the remote Alaska panhandle? Pulitzer Prize-winner Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution) spins from that premise a complex tale of cultural upheaval and crime. It’s the 21st century, and the government of Alaska determines to reassert hegemony over the district, threatening to cast the Jews out. Again. In the midst of this, a chronically unlucky cop convinces himself that solving the murder of a neighbor--which will require his tangling with underworld rabbis and his own resilient demons--is his path to redemption. Should we call this Yiddish noir? An early May release.

• The Death List, by Paul Johnston (Mira Books UK/USA). Leaving behind--at least for the moment--both his futuristic Quintilian Dalrymple series (The House of Dust) and his books about Greek-Scottish private eye Alex Mavros (The Golden Silence), author Johnston delivers what he says is a more personal novel. Set in London and starring Matt Wells, a “crime writer with a stalled career and a bad case of the ‘I Hate the World Blues,’” The Death List finds Wells being targeted by a serial killer who calls himself the White Devil--not targeted for death, but rather as somebody who can properly convey the murderer’s story to the world. Wells is simultaneously horrified and intrigued, since blockbuster status seems inevitable for this project. But as the killing progresses, Wells realizes that the White Devil isn’t just after his own enemies--he’s after Matt’s, as well, leaving the author in the position of saving the people he’s come to hate. Look for Johnston’s new book in June.

• Stalin’s Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster USA). Twenty-six years after his introduction in Gorky Park, Moscow cop Arkady Renko is still fighting the bureaucracy and cynicism that make his job difficult, even pointless. This time out, he’s dogging a once-heralded soldier and police officer, gathering evidence of the man’s corruption. However, he’s also having to deal with seemingly ludicrous reports of the late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin haunting a local metro train platform; the sudden disappearance of his adopted son, Zhenya; and his girlfriend’s decision to pick up where she left off with her former boyfriend, who also happens to be the dirty cop Renko is investigating. Smith has proved himself to be an exceptional storyteller, with a particular skill for milking emotion and humor from what in another writer’s hands might be bleak plots and characters. The official pub date for Stalin’s Ghost is June.

• The Cairo Diary, by Maxim Chattam (St. Martin’s Minotaur USA), and The Snake Stone, by Jason Goodwin (Farrar, Straus, Giroux USA). Ever since late last year, when I read Frederick Highland’s Night Falls of Damascus, a promising series start set in 1930s French-occupied Syria, I’ve had a weakness for Middle Eastern mysteries. Two are likely to satisfy that hunger this summer. The Cairo Diary follows a pattern used by previous works (such as Leslie Silbert’s The Intelligencer), following a historical mystery with a modern-day crime tale. Chattam transports us first back to British-occupied Egypt in 1928, where Inspector Jeremy Matheson is on the trail of a cloaked giant with a supernatural air. Then the action leaps ahead to a French coastal monastery in 2005, where a scandalized Parisian woman has been taken by the French Secret Service for her own protection. There, she stumbles across Matheson’s diary, is drawn in by its remarkable revelations, but soon fears she’s being watched and is not too subtly urged to relinquish that diary. Should she blame the apparently peaceful brothers and sisters in her midst, or somebody entirely different? Meanwhile, Goodwin--whose first novel, The Janissary Tree (2006), was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award--presents in The Snake Stone a second adventure for eunuch investigator Yashim Togalu. A French archaeologist visits Istanbul in 1838, looking for a lost Byzantine artifact, but instead winds up dead. Yashim takes on the case, only to reason that he himself is the only good suspect. Nonetheless, he launches an investigation that reveals the existence of extremists committed to reviving the Byzantine Empire, places Yashim in the company of the sultan’s West Indies-born mother, and puts into his hands a 16th-century book that may help him sort out the tangle of motives and manipulators behind the foreign archaeologist’s demise. Both books are set for publication in June.

• Queenpin, by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster USA). If I didn’t know that Megan was younger than me, I’d think she had come up as a writer in the 1930s or ’40s, so proficiently does she handle her noirish atmospherics. Following close on the heels of The Song Is You, Queenpin (which builds upon a story she wrote for Duane Swierczynski’s 2006 anthology, Damn Near Dead) feminizes the classic noir plot about the ambitious young person who falls in with an experienced mobster, only to be voluntarily corrupted. In this case, the criminal legend is Gloria Denton and her protégé is a woman hired to do bookkeeping at a casino that’s seen better days, but the ending is the same: big money, big thrills, big trouble. The fact that Megan’s books have such dynamite covers is only a bonus. Due out in June.

• The Iron Horse, by Edward Marston (Alison & Busby UK/USA). Although Marston (né Keith Miles) is best known for his Elizabethan theater mysteries, starring the resourceful Nicholas Bracewell (The Princess of Denmark), I’ve been no less entertained by his novels featuring mid-19th-century British Inspector Robert Colbeck, the “Railway Detective.” That series’ fourth installment (after The Railway Viaduct, 2006) finds Colbeck and his travel-phobic partner, Sergeant Victor Leeming, trying to figure out exactly who left a severed human head in a lady’s hatbox. Clues lead them into horseracing circles, through London’s noxious underworld, off to Ireland, and to the southern English town of Epsom, famous for its annual derby. Due out in July.

• Chain of Evidence, by Garry Disher (Soho Crime USA). Aussie wordsmith Disher’s fourth book (after Snapshot, 2005) to star Melbourne-area homicide inspector Hal Challis sends the brooding detective into the Outback, where he’s supposed to sooth his dying father--but instead winds up investigating the death of his sister’s hubby, who’d disappeared years before. In the meantime, Challis’ colleague, Sergeant Ellen Destry, remains behind in Victoria to probe the case of a vanished child and its connections to a possible pedophilia ring. I’ve heard lots of complimentary things said about Disher’s work; however, I’ve never read one of his books. Until now. Reaching stores in July.

• Friend of the Devil, by Peter Robinson (Hodder & Stoughton UK). Someone asked me not long ago which modern crime novelists I thought would still be remembered 20, 30, even 40 years from now. I think that list is pretty short, but British-born Canadian resident Peter Robinson is definitely on it. His talent has really shone since the publication of In a Dry Season back in 1999. And Friend of the Devil (taking its title, of course, from the 1970 Grateful Dead song) will likely bring him more plaudits. As is common with Robinson’s books, this one tells two parallel stories that eventually converge. The first concerns a woman found in her wheelchair, staring out to sea with her throat slashed. The second tale is that of a 19-year-old girl who’s raped and strangled near Eastvale’s market square. Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot catches the former and more frustrating case, while the latter is dropped into Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks’ lap. As the two cops negotiate the hazards and wounds of their own on-and-off romantic past, they follow clues that suggest these two slayings are historically connected--though there may still be more than one killer involved. This 17th Alan Banks yarn (after last year’s Piece of My Heart) is due out in Britain in August, but won’t be available in the States till September.

• Dying to Sin, by Stephen Booth (HarperCollins UK). Booth told listeners to a panel discussion at Left Coast Crime, in Seattle, in February that his work might best be described as “rural noir,” which apparently means that cows and killers can coexist in his yarns--as they frequently do. In Dying to Sin, his eighth-in-a-row novel organized around British Peak District cops Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, Booth presents us a historical puzzle: the unearthing of two human bodies buried at Pity Wood Farm, a useful employment resource for poor migrant workers. With a new superintendent breathing down their necks, and with nothing but a cold trail to follow, Cooper and Fry can only try to reconstruct the history of Pity Wood from the memories of locals, and hope that somewhere in that past are found the answers to the present-day mystery. Or is there, as Cooper wants to believe, a third body in the ground someplace that will provide the final jigsaw bit? This is a late August or perhaps early September release.

If these dozen books were the only crime novels due for publication in the next six months, I might breathe easy at the prospect of enjoying them all. However, there are myriad other potentially captivating works heading for bookstores, as well. Those include Con Lehane’s Death at the Old Hotel, Susan Kandel’s Christietown, Dick Lochte’s Croaked!, Max Allan Collins’ A Killing in Comics, and the late Barbara Seranella’s last novel, Deadman’s Switch; John Connolly’s The Unquiet, Hard Case Crime’s reissue of David Goodis’ classic The Wounded and the Slain, Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace, Peter Lovesey’s The Secret Hangman, Ray BanksDonkey Punch, John Burdett’s Bangkok Haunts, Mark McNay’s Fresh, and Andrew Pepper’s Revenge of Captain Paine (his sequel to 2006’s The Last Days of Newgate). On top of these, there are a couple of colorful works of historical crime that I look forward to reading: Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Corruption, and New York’s Trial of the Century, by Mike Dash; and Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, by Karen Abbott. Oh, and Sara Paretsky “explores the traditions of political and literary dissent” in her forthcoming non-fiction book, Writing in an Age of Silence. Don’t want to miss that.

I guess I’d better head out to that porch right away, and get started.

READ MORE: Stephen Miller’s Summer 2007 Reading Picks; Anthony Rainone’s Summer 2007 Reading Picks; Linda L. Richards Summer 2007 Picks.

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