Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Pierce’s Picks: “Alive!”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Alive!, by Loren D. Estleman (Forge):
Michigan resident Loren D. Estleman is certainly best known for having produced 22 novels--thus far, anyway--about Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker (Burning Midnight, 2012). Prolific writer that he is, he has also penned a succession of tales focusing on hit man Peter Macklin and a seven-book series of thrillers rooted in the Motor City’s criminal history. Oh, and of course he’s concocted a generous number of Westerns. And standalones too, such as the forthcoming The Confessions of Al Capone.

In the late 1990s, Estleman introduced yet another protagonist, a young Los Angeles “film detective” by the name of Valentino--no relation to the silent-film performer of that same name--who serves as an archivist for UCLA’s Film Preservation Department and lives in a historic but rundown movie theater that he is slowly (and expensively) restoring. Valentino, whose initial investigations were related in short stories published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, specializes in digging up valuable vintage films, but along the way he becomes involved in mysteries of a more violent variety. For instance, Alive! (his third book-length romp, after 2009’s Alone) finds him being contacted by an alcoholic old friend, who is murdered shortly after Valentino refuses to get involved with him again. Regretful, Valentino sets off to figure out who terminated his former pal’s life, and why. That leads him to what may be notorious, long-lost film footage of Dracula portrayer Bela Lugosi auditioning for the starring role in the 1931 horror-movie classic, Frankenstein (a part that eventually went to Boris Karloff). As it turns out, though, Valentino isn’t alone in wanting to get his mitts on that missing screen test; others are equally interested--and considerably more ready to kill to acquire the reels.

Estleman is a veteran film enthusiast, so he brings an abundance of knowledge about Hollywood history and trivia to this sometimes humorous series. Readers who enjoyed the late Stuart M. Kaminsky’s collection of Tinseltown mysteries featuring Toby Peters, or who reveled in Jonathan Gash’s stories about antiques “divvie” Lovejoy, should find much to like in these Valentino yarns.

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Also new and worth looking over is Murder by the Book (Sphere), the 18th installment in Susanna Gregory’s popular series about 14th-century English physician-sleuth Matthew Bartholomew. In these pages we find tempers flaring at the colleges of the University of Cambridge over plans to create a democratizing Common Library. After a corpse is discovered in the library’s garden, and then more murders take place in the adjacent town (supposedly committed by smugglers), it falls to Bartholomew to end the bloodshed and restore peaceful co-existence between Cambridge and its growing institutions of learning. ... The plot of Gregory Gibson’s caperish debut novel, The Old Turk’s Load (Mysterious Press), builds around a $5 million shipment of high-grade heroin that vanishes amid Newark, New Jersey’s 1967 riots. Between these covers you’ll find an entertaining cast of eccentrics that includes a crime boss in rather desperate need of anger management, a Manhattan developer of dubious honesty, and a private eye who’s much in the market for some redemption. In addition to delivering a memorable final showdown, Gibson makes excellent use of his tale’s quirky historical setting. ... Finally, in Criminal Enterprise (Putnam), Owen Laukkanen brings back his justice-seeking duo, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere, who were last seen in The Professionals. Here, the pair seek to bring down Carter Tomlin, a formerly successful executive who, after being laid off as a consequence of the Bush recession, turns to robbing banks in order to keep up his living standards. As he did in The Professionals, Laukkanen executes this work of suspense largely from the viewpoint of the “bad guy,” in this case Tomlin, stirring readers to sympathize with his plight. He’s less successful at making Stevens and Windermere compelling.

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