Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Becoming Attractions

During the seven years The Rap Sheet has held its annual Best Crime Fiction Covers competition (ever since 2007, though we wound up skipping 2012), I have never once guessed which book jacket would win. This time, however, I not only pegged the victor, but I was confident of my choice even before the year began.

Allow me to feel awfully smug for a moment.

OK, now, let’s recap: This last December 9, I posted 20 covers from crime, mystery, and thriller novels--all released over the last 12 months, on both sides of the Atlantic--that I said offered “more than the usual complements of expertise, cleverness, subtlety, and freshness.” Some of those jackets I’d had in my files for months, while others were suggested more recently by Rap Sheet readers. As part of the December 9 post, I invited everybody who was interested in participating to fill out a ballot identifying their favorites among the bunch. We received 1,192 votes, which was down somewhat from last year’s tally, but not by much. (2013 attracted 1,329 votes, spread between 15 nominees.) As has often been the case in the past, the closer we got to the cut-off date--which was December 21 this year--the more votes were registered each day. It was interesting to watch the swift jockeying back and forth of the top contenders, as ballots poured in. And at the finish line, it proved to be a tight race, with only 38 votes separating the No. 1 pick from the No. 3 choice.

Finally coming out on top was the darkly evocative front from the British edition of The Black-Eyed Blonde (Mantle), the latest high-profile Philip Marlowe pastiche, written by Benjamin Black (aka Booker Prize-winning Irish wordsmith John Banville). Receiving 171 votes, or 14.35 percent of the total, that cover was the work of Jonathan Pelham, a senior designer for UK imprints 4th Estate and William Collins (and a former “middleweight” designer with Pan Macmillan and Picador).

As I wrote in Kirkus Reviews last March, The Black-Eyed Blonde finds Los Angeles private eye Marlowe “being hired, in the early 1950s, by a curvaceous and easily bored young perfume heiress to trace her caddish former paramour, who’s supposed to be dead--the victim of a hit-and-run incident two months ago--but who she purportedly spotted just recently up San Francisco way.” Pelham’s design for that novel’s jacket is dominated by the profiles of a smoking man and a red-lipsticked young woman, facing opposite directions but nonetheless appearing to move in tandem, the gent’s cigarette smoke swirling about them both. From the midst of their joined shadows pop bold white titles, rendered in a typeface echoing that used in the trailers for classic black-and-white horror and thriller films.

“The biggest challenge at first was finding stock photography that felt appropriate to the period and mood of the book,” Pelham told me in response to an e-mailed query. “After turning up almost no images that delivered the melodrama I was looking for, I decided to approach the problem from a different angle: find models with strong profiles and fudge the period feel by obscuring them with heavy, noirish shadows. The basic composition built itself after that, though I spent a very long time refining things. I suspect I was subconsciously influenced by the graphics from packets of Gitanes cigarettes, which my father used to smoke.

“Ideally I would have had the lettering hand painted by some professional sign-painter/calligrapher, but due to time and budget constraints that wasn’t possible. Instead I set the type in a comic-book font called Monster Mash, which I warped to fit the space, altered the terminals of each letter in an effort to disguise the fact that it was a font, and then added an inverted drop-shadow. I’m not particularly pleased with the lettering, truth be told--I would have liked it to have had a more fluid feel--although I did enjoy the process of breaking all the rules of ‘good’ typography. The [back cover] blurb copy is set in News Gothic. Support and criticism from other designers and typographers during the process also helped a great deal.”

Regardless of Pelham’s doubts about his work, his design for the façade of Black/Banville’s 2014 novel is far superior to the cover U.S. publisher Henry Holt brought to market.

It’s curious to see that the first-place finisher in this year’s book-cover survey is a novel starring Raymond Chandler’s best-known fictional gumshoe, while the No. 2 spot goes to a far less-publicized book in which Chandler himself plays a substantial role. The Kept Girl, by Kim Cooper (Esotouric Ink), takes place in late summer, 1929, and imagines Joseph Dabney, head of the Dabney Oil Syndicate--a petroleum-drilling enterprise in Southern California for which Chandler once worked as a bookkeeper (and later as vice-president)--asking the future author to help retrieve $40,000 his nephew imprudently gave to a wacky religious cult. As I explained in this Kirkus column from earlier this year, The Kept Girl also brings to the case a resourceful woman based on Chandler’s reported mistress of the time and Thomas H. James, a stalwart member of the Los Angeles Police Department who may have provided Chandler with his inspiration for the Marlowe character.

Credit for the front of The Kept Girl--the first novel by Cooper, co-owner of an L.A. bus-tour company and a “passionate advocate for historic preservation”--belongs to Pasadena artist Paul Rogers. He’s known for his work on posters, as well as advertising and editorial projects, and he developed the striking original look for Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s 2009 edition of Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb. Rogers also designed “The Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles,” a fold-out guide to the City of Angels. His collage-like cover for The Kept Girl includes elements drawn from this tale’s rich plot line: L.A.’s towering City Hall, a pipe and pair of round-framed specs that look like those favored by Chandler, a Depression-era automobile, and the mock-up of a newspaper front page featuring a photograph of May Otis Blackburn and her daughter, Ruth Wieland Rizzio, who were behind the cult about which Cooper writes. Behind all of those rises the silhouette of a woman, presumably “the kept girl” herself. It all adds up to a stylish creation that says both “crime fiction” and “period piece.” The Kept Girl collected 157 votes in The Rap Sheet’s latest Best Crime Fiction Covers contest, or 13.17 percent of the total.

Rounding out the top three spots--having captured 133 votes, or 11.16 percent of the total--is Brash Books’ reprint of Sleeping Dog, by Dick Lochte. This novel, initially released in 1985 by Arbor Press, was the first to feature Southern California P.I. Leo Bloodworth and his self-appointed teenage partner, Serendipity Dahlquist. It won the Nero Award from The Wolfe Pack, a New York-based Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin fan organization, and in 2000 was named by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of its favorite mysteries of the 20th century. Publishers Weekly offered the following plot synopsis:
This thriller outclasses, in many ways, the tales of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and other renowned California mystery writers. Raffishly funny incidents, grave dangers and touching moments are described alternately by Serendipity Dahlquist, 14, and Leo G. Bloodworth, a middle-aged private eye. Their search for Serendipity’s stolen dog takes the two up and down the coast, into clashes with operators of cruel dog fights, inept hit men for Mexican gangsters and other menaces. Linked to the plot also are a pushy TV comic, Serendipity’s hippie mother with her current companion, Leo’s partner (who is one of several victims of a faceless killer) and the unsolved robbery of a Los Angeles bank. The novel’s critical point occurs at a huge, mind-blowing punk-rock center where Serendipity lands in a trap set by the villain. Lochte astonishingly builds a host of disparate elements into a corker entertainment, uncontrived and satisfying.
Sleeping Dog has gone through several printings, all differently packaged. Brash Books’ version boasts a front by Zak Erving, who says on his Web site that he’s “equipped to tackle creative hurdles in a variety of mediums. Currently, I design books for Amazon/Createspace, make jigsaw puzzles for an artisan puzzle company, make logos and branding kits for various businesses,” and create user interface “experiences” for the mobile operating system iOS. His colorful, playful artwork for the cover of Sleeping Dog, featuring what must be silhouettes of the hard-drinking Bloodworth, the precocious, roller-skating Serendipity, and her pitbull, Groucho, stands out nicely on bookstore racks. Erving also created fronts for Lochte’s novel-length sequel, Laughing Dog (1988), and his 2014 Kindle-only follow-up, Rappin’ Dog.

Fourth place in this poll goes to Brainquake, by Samuel Fuller. For a while it was leading the competition, but ultimately wound up scoring 77 votes, or 6.46 percent of the total. Fuller, you may know, was an American screenwriter, novelist, and film director who died in 1987 at age 85. His movie credits include The Steel Helmet (1951), Park Row (1952), the Richard Widmark film Pickup on South Street (1953), and The Big Red One (1980). He also penned such novels as The Dark Page (1944) and 144 Piccadilly (1971). As The Dissolve explains, Fuller wrote Brainquake--“about a brain-damaged mafia ‘bagman’ who risks his life and his livelihood to help the widow of one of his colleagues”--in 1993, while living in France. The edition released earlier this year by Hard Case Crime represents its first publication in the English language.

While it’s not unusual for Hard Case paperbacks to figure into our annual covers competition (they’re usually so sexy and fun!), I believe this is the first time one of them has secured top-five placement. The artwork for Brainquake was created by Glen Orbik, a frequent contributor to the Hard Case line. (He has previously worked up the fronts for novels by Stephen King, Christa Faust, Max Allan Collins and others, and he illustrated Thieves Fall Out, a “lost” novel by Gore Vidal, which is due for publication in April 2015.)

Finally, we came out with a tie for the No. 5 position in this year’s contest. The Axeman’s Jazz, by Ray Celestin (Mantle; cover design by Jo Thomson), and Gangsterland, by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint; designed by Michael Fusco), both received a respectable 60 votes, or 5.03 percent of the total count.

I want to thank everyone who cast a ballot in this year’s Best Crime Fiction Covers rivalry. We had an especially strong field of contenders--mostly illustrated fronts, but a couple that featured photographs. Any of the 20 might have scored top honors. If you’d like to see how all of them did in terms of popularity, click over to this post and then scroll down to study the poll results at the end.

Already I’m looking forward to 2015, collecting fronts from new crime and thriller novels that might ably go head to head in next year’s contest. If you spot any you think deserve to be included, please drop me an e-mail note here. I look forward to hearing from you.

READ MORE:The 30 Best Book Covers of 2014,” by Liz Shinn and Alisan Lemay (Paste); “The 25 Best Book Covers of 2014,” by Jonathon Sturgeon (Flavorwire); “50 Covers for 2014,” by Dan Wagstaff (The Casual Optimist); “My Year of Reading: Best Book Covers of 2014,” by David Abrams (The Quivering Pen).

“A Shadow Is Encroaching”

Here’s another novel I haven’t thought of in many years, but that probably deserves a re-read sometime soon: John D. MacDonald’s 1958 psychological thriller, The Executioners (which was later filmed as Cape Fear). Steve Scott offers an excellent long piece about that book in his MacDonald-focused blog, The Trap of Solid Gold.

(Hat tip to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.)

Twisted Romance in the Woods

It’s been a very long while since I thought about Robert B. Parker’s 1979 standalone tale, Wilderness, but Jake Hinkson reminded me of it yesterday with this Criminal Element post. In that novel, he recalls, Parker “tells the story of a middle-aged author named Aaron Newman who writes macho books but faces a real-life crisis when he witnesses a murder. He fingers the killer--a gangster named Adolph Karl--to the cops, but when his wife, a fiercely independent professor named Janet, is terrorized by the bad guys, Newman and Janet decide to strike back.” Hinkson calls Wilderness “a flawed book to be sure, but for Parker fans it will help to illuminate some of the darker themes that run beneath the surface of so much of the author’s work.”

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Actually, whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, those of us at The Rap Sheet wish you the very merriest holiday season! The memorably dark-themed magazine cover embedded above, from the December 22-29, 1997, edition of The New Yorker, was illustrated by Northern California artist Owen Smith, whose work we’ve showcased at least one time before on this page.

(Hat tip to Pulp International.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

First Out of the Gates

As we prepare to kiss 2014 adios, I’ve posted on the Kirkus Reviews Web site a brief look at eight crime and thriller novels--all due for release in the States between January 1 and March 31 of next year--that deserve your special attention. Included are works by Paul Hogan, Laura Lippman, Charles Todd, and David Morrell. On top of those, I have listed 20 more titles you should keep on your radar. 2015 is shaping up as a very promising year for fans of this genre.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Bullet Points: Santa Week Edition

• Peter James’ 2014 thriller, Want You Dead--his 10th Brighton-based novel starring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace--has been crowned E-book of the Year by the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, reports Shotsmag Confidential.

• Well, this is certainly a surprise! It seems 20th Century Fox has finally released the 1976 TV movie Sherlock Holmes in New York in DVD format. Somehow, I missed spotting this development in August, when the disc originally went on the market. If you are not familiar with the film, let me tell you that it starred Roger Moore (still early in his career playing James Bond) as Holmes, with the delightful Patrick Macnee (formerly of The Avengers) appearing as Doctor John H. Watson and Charlotte Rampling (who back then was still recognized for her femme fatale turn in Farewell, My Lovely) cast as “the woman,” aka Irene Adler. The New York Times describes this flick’s plot thusly:
There is an affectionate bow to the master sleuth in this lavishly produced original that has Holmes rushing to New York City [in 1901] after discovering that his old nemesis, Moriarty, not only has kidnapped the son of his (Holmes’) long-time love, actress Irene Adler, but also has hatched a scheme to steal the world’s gold supply, squirreled away under Union Square in lower Manhattan.
Oh, I forgot to mention that director-actor John Huston fills the role here of Professor James Moriarty. If you would like to see the opening sequence from Sherlock Holmes in New York, I embedded it in this 2010 post. Needless to say, I have asked Santa for a copy of this picture. You can purchase your own right here.

• David J. Foster had more to say about Sherlock Holmes in New York in this 2012 post from his blog, Permission to Kill.

• While we’re on the subject of Holmes, note that Nick Cardillo has compiled a list of what he says are “The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Pastiches (of All Time)” in The Consulting Detective. Part I includes Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (one of my own favorites), while Part II leads with Edward B. Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horrors (a Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper yarn that I found quite unsatisfying). To each his own, as they say ...

• Actor Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t sound at all optimistic about the future of his 24 protagonist, Jack Bauer. “Then again,” observes blogger Tanner, “he’s got a history of being a bit of a downer on the subject.’ So who really knows?

• It’s nice to see Gary Phillips out with a brand-new prose collection of stories featuring Nate Hollis, a Los Angeles private eye born in Phillips Vertigo Comics mini-series.

• Being a longtime Alistair MacLean follower, I was very pleased to see Vintage Pop Fictions’ recent look back at that author’s 1971 novel, Bear Island, which the blog says “generally seems to be regarded as the last of his really top-notch thrillers. … [I]t also includes most of the characteristic MacLean signatures.”

• Novelist and film scholar Jake Hinkson has a nice piece in the latest edition of Mystery Scene about sometimes controversial TV producer Roy Huggins, but he also offers up a post in Criminal Element synopsizing seven “noir holiday films.” “I’m not sure why there are so many noirs set around the holidays,” Hinkson writes, “but maybe it has something to do with seasonal depression. We all know that this time of year can be especially hard on people, when our usual American propensity toward surface cheer becomes something of a national obligation. After all, we quite literally force each other to be--or to appear to be--‘merry’ (which, when you think about it, is a weirdly antiquated word that we never use in any other context) and to conform to our national religion of positive thinking. All that forced good cheer just gives some folks the winter blues.”

• Valerie Plame, the CIA operative whose identity was leaked by the George W. Bush administration early in the last decade as part of retaliatory action against her ambassador husband, and has since re-created herself as a novelist (her latest book is Burned), complains to Salon that most of today’s fictional women spies are terrible. “I wanted to develop a strong female CIA character,” Plame says. “Because what’s out there is just insane. It’s just eye-rolling. They’re sexy. They’re eye candy. They’re good with guns. But it has nothing to do with how intelligence is realistically collected.”

• I’m sorry to see International Crime Authors Reality Check closing up shop after more than five years. Fortunately, the blog will remain extant as an accessible archive.

• I also can’t help but shed a tear at the news that legendary Mad magazine cartoonist Jack Davis has finally decided to retire ... at age 90. My father was a huge fan of Davis’ work, and I’ve highlighted the cartoonists talents at least once in The Rap Sheet. More of his artistic efforts can be enjoyed here. (Hat tip to Illustration Art.)

• Finally, The Huffington Post’s list of 23 classic books that are so short “you have no excuse not to read them” includes Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Phew! Been there, done those.

The Listing Post

With not much more than one week to go now before 2014 ends, “best books of the year” lists continue to pop up online.

Library Journal’s rundown features five titles drawn from the mystery/thriller stacks, among them Peter May’s The Lewis Man and Terry Shames’ The Last Death of Jack Harbin. My friend Adam Woog’s 11 choices for The Seattle Times include Love Story, With Murders, by Harry Bingham, and The Day of Atonement, by David Liss. Meanwhile, Sarah Ward weighs in at Crimepieces with her top-five contenders for the year’s best reads in this genre. (It seems she was very high on Thomas Mogford’s Hollow Mountain.) The bloggers for Crime Fiction Lover have each been rolling out their five top-shelf choices, at the same time as Sons of Spade’s Jochem Vandersteen presents a simple rundown of his five favorite works of private-eye fiction from the last 12 months. Austin, Texas’ MysteryPeople bookshop goes in a slightly different direction, highlighting its five favorite short-story collections. And three different crime novels are mentioned in novelist David Abrams’ compilation of the “Best First Lines of 2014.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Now or Never, Folks!

In case you have forgotten, tomorrow--Sunday--is the last day you can register your preferences in The Rap Sheet’s poll to choose the “Best Crime Novel Cover of 2014.” If you haven’t already expressed your opinions, click here to do so now. We’ll keep the voting open till midnight tomorrow, in hopes that everyone who wants to participate has the chance to do so. After that, the votes will be tallied, and they’ll be announced on this page early next week.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014,
Part VI: J. Kingston Pierce

J. Kingston Pierce is the overworked editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.

Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (Morrow):
Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks (last seen in Watching the Dark) was among the 16 books chosen by Kirkus Reviews critics as the best mysteries and thrillers of 2014. I agree. It starts off with a dead, 59-year-old ex-college lecturer, Gavin Miller, being discovered along a disused length of railway track. We soon learn that Miller hadn’t been doing well for several years, ever since he was dismissed for alleged sexual misconduct with female students. He’d become something of a hermit, drinking himself into forgetfulness. So how did such a loser come to have £5,000 in his pocket? That’s what Banks wants to know, and it will take more than a little rummaging around in Miller’s troubled past to find out. Banks eventually determines that Miller’s murder is connected to events from four decades ago--the days when this future professor was another “young, naïve, privileged intellectual” caught up in political protests and friendly with a woman who has since become a top romance writer, related to a man who’s in line to serve as England’s next home secretary. By the time Banks’ higher-ups start feeling queasy about where this case might be headed, and tell him to put the brakes on, he’s too invested in the outcome to comply. Beyond delivering a compelling story, Robinson does a nice job here of showing how Banks’ subordinates, particularly Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman, have learned from his rather unconventional but determined example as an investigator.

Darkness, Darkness, by John Harvey (Pegasus):
Introduced in Harvey’s 1989 novel, Lonely Hearts, Charlie Resnick--a Polish-descended, jazz-loving, and stalwart police detective in Nottingham, England--has since seen fictitious service in a dozen sequels as well as one collection of short stories (Now’s the Time, 1999). The redundantly titled Darkness, Darkness supposedly marks Resnick’s last appearance, though we’ve heard such claims before. In these pages we see Harvey’s man retired but still working for the Nottingham force as a civilian advisor. When young Kenyan-born Inspector Catherine Njoroge is served up the case of a woman, Jenny Hardwick, who disappeared during the bitter UK coal miners’ strike of the mid-1980s (and whose skeleton has only just resurfaced), she turns to Resnick for assistance. He, after all, had a hand in police surveillance during that work stoppage and might shed some light on the deceased’s fate. With skills acquired after many years of penning police procedurals, Harvey weaves together Hardwick’s experiences, the story of the long-ago strike--which created fissures between friends and divided whole families--and a secondary plot line about Njoroge’s souring association with an abusive ex-lover to produce a novel that, if it does offer Resnick’s final bow, tops off that series most pleasingly.

The Devil in the Marshalsea,
by Antonia Hodgson (Mariner):

This debut historical novel from Antonia Hodgson, the editor in chief of publisher Little, Brown UK, won the Endeavour Historical Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association and found a spot on Publishers Weekly’s list of favorite mystery and thriller novels from 2014. It deserves those and other accolades. The story builds around Tom Hawkins, an almost professional good-for-nothing in 18th-century London. Finally convicted for failure to pay his debts, Hawkins is tossed unceremoniously into Marshalsea prison, a much-feared institution in Southwark, a district distinguished at the time by its disgraceful pleasures: “bear fights and cock fights; theatre and gambling; acrobats and fortune tellers; cheap beer and even cheaper Flemish whores.” He winds up bunking with one Samuel Fleet, a thoroughly eccentric gent--viewed by many in the gaol as the devil incarnate--who may or may not have slain his previous roomie. Not surprisingly, Hawkins wants out of this nightmare post haste. But his only hope of early liberation might be to solve the recent murder of a previous Marshalsea inmate, Captain John Roberts, whose comely wife has been pushing for an investigation into his demise, and whose ghost has allegedly taken to roaming the prison grounds. Hodgson is unsparing in her evocation of Georgian-era penitentiary life, complete with whippings, cruel restraining devices (at one point, Hawkins finds his head locked into a metal skull cap and the rest of him chained in a rat-infested chamber), and an unusual in-house economy that allows better-off jailbirds to enjoy treats such as taverns and coffeehouses. A sequel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, is due out in the UK next July.

An Officer and a Spy,
by Robert Harris (Knopf):

Twenty-four years after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1895 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on charges of feeding military secrets to the German Empire became an international outrage and an opportunity for French intelligence officials to get back at their nation’s old adversary. However, the Dreyfus case may be less straightforward than it appears. Not long after Colonel Georges Picquart, one of Dreyfus’ teachers, reluctantly accepts a promotion to lead the French military’s Statistical Section--which had been instrumental in gathering the feeble evidence used to exile Dreyfus to Devil’ Island in French Guiana--he becomes convinced that another highly placed turncoat was actually behind those treasonous endeavors (“[H]ow easily I am slipping into the clichés of the spying world …,” he muses early on. “Already I trust no one”). Picquart’s superiors want him to curtail his probing, but the colonel--an ambitious gent who, despite his cool demeanor, is something of a ladies’ man--won’t give up so easily, his persistence eventually landing him in an African purgatory from which he must escape if he’s ever to act as whistle-blower in the Dreyfus affair. This is not the first novel to tackle the Dreyfus case; Michael Hardwick’s Prisoner of the Devil (1979), a lackluster work in which Sherlock Holmes sticks his nose into the scandal (at Queen Victoria’s behest, no less) covered much of the same ground. But An Officer and Spy, though slow-paced at times, is a much more engaging take on one of history’s most notorious subversions of justice.

Sundance, by David Fuller (Riverhead):
Finally, let me diverge from the theme to take in a work of speculative historical/Western fiction. Although we’ve been told that Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, perished during a November 1908 shootout in Bolivia, accompanied by fellow outlaw Butch Cassidy, David Fuller imagines an alternative scenario. As Sundance opens, we see Longabaugh--or Longbaugh, as this author prefers to spell it--being released from a Wyoming prison, where he’d spent 12 years under an assumed name, for a crime unrelated to bank or train robbing. 1913 presents the Kid with a vastly different world from the one he’d known during his misspent youth (he’d now be in his mid-40s), but he hasn’t lost his determination to reunite with wife Etta Place, who’d stayed in contact with him through most of his incarceration, but has now disappeared into the concrete wilds of New York City. Following clue after vague clue (might he be reading too much into the signs Etta allegedly left behind?), Longbaugh cuts a fascinating, dangerous path through Manhattan, encountering old friends and new foes as he struggles to find his beloved, hoping time hasn’t sapped her desire for his company. The end of Sundance is a bit too neat, but given how things might have turned out, it’s also satisfying as hell. This is David Fuller’s second novel, following 2008’s Sweetsmoke, and if I enjoy that one as much as I did Sundance, you can be I’ll be hoping for more from this author.

Let me draw attention, too, to three non-fiction books I was fond of this year, and that other crime-fiction fans should also enjoy:

The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott (Titan): A beautifully illustrated overview of McGinnis’ 60-year career, during which he painted the covers for myriad paperback works by Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Carter Brown, and others. Read more about this volume here and here.

Goodis: A Life in Black and White, by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool): Although it was published in France way back in 1984, this book about David Goodis, one of the 20th century’s finest authors of paperback thriller fiction (his 1946 novel, Dark Passage, became a film noir classic) was unavailable in English until now. Learn more here.

Roy Huggins: Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, by Paul Green (McFarland): Huggins’ sometimes controversial, usually successful life as an author and developer of TV shows is explored in great depth here, though anyone who knows Huggins’ career well is sure to be frustrated by not having all of their questions about his work answered.

Step Up and Speak Out

Coming up shortly, we’ll roll out the sixth and final installment in The Rap Sheet’s “best crime fiction of 2014” mini-series. If you have failed to keep up, here are links to all of those write-ups:

Part I: Jim Napier
Part II: Kevin Burton Smith
Part III: Steven Nester
Part IV: Anthony Rainone
Part V: Ali Karim
Part VI: J. Kingston Pierce

It’s been fun presenting these rundowns of our critics’ favorite crime, mystery, and thriller works, but we do need to move on to other editorial endeavors (including tallying the results of our “best crime novel covers” poll). We encourage you now, though, to express some of your own opinions of which books in this genre, published during the last 12 months, most impressed or surprised you. Please use the Comments button at the end of this post to tell us what new works we should have read, but maybe missed, during 2014.

We thank you in advance for your thoughts on this matter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014,
Part V: Ali Karim

Ali Karim is The Rap Sheet’s hyperactive regular British correspondent, a contributing editor of January Magazine, and the assistant editor of Shots. In addition, he writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines, and he will be in charge of programming for Bouchercon 2015, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Entry Island, by Peter May (Quercus, UK):
Hot on the heels of his Lewis Trilogy (which includes the Barry Award-winning The Blackhouse) comes yet another remote-island murder mystery from Scottish author Peter May. Fifth-generation Canadian-Scottish Sûreté Inspector Sime Mackenzie is far from his home in Quebec, having been sent off to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Entry Island--850 miles from the Canadian mainland--as part of a team investigating the murder of that isle’s wealthiest resident, James Cowell, who operated the majority of boats farming lobsters along the sea coast. Mackenzie’s role is to act as an English-French translator in police interviews with such people as Kirsty Cowell, the deceased’s spouse. Kirsty is the only person to have witnessed what she says was her husband’s death at the hands of a ski-masked killer. She’s also regarded as a prime suspect in that crime. Yet despite her bloodied clothing, Mackenzie feels a closeness to Kirsty, a feeling he can’t seem to shake. May’s novel elegantly blends two story lines, one following the contemporary investigation, and the other recounting the history of Scotland’s Highland Clearances, which influenced Canada’s development. As Sime Mackenzie and the Quebec Sûreté investigate Cowell’s untimely end, we learn there may be a longstanding link to the Mackenzie clan as well as a connection to a more recent tragedy in the inspector’s past. The superlative Entry Island proves that May’s Lewis Trilogy was no flash in the pan. This is a book in which one can get easily lost.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, by Peter Swanson
(Faber & Faber, UK):

This throwback to the criminally twisted romantic-noir tales of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith focuses around an unremarkable Bostonian, George Foss, who (despite his job as the business manager for a literary magazine) has been drifting through life, directionless. But his world-view is shattered when the mysterious Liana Dector (or is she “Jane Byrne,” or somebody else?)--his unforgettable first love, from their college days together--suddenly reappears in his life. I say “mysterious,” because as far as George knew, Liana had committed suicide decades ago under circumstances he never quite understood. Or did she? The situation only grows more bizarre and unpredictable when the woman he knows as Liana asks George for help. There are supposedly dangerous people dogging her trail, led by an enforcer named Donnie Jenks … who has been sent by Liana/Jane’s ex-lover, Gerald MacLean, to exact retribution for a theft that may or may not have occurred. George’s willingness to lend aid quickly brings peril to himself as well as to his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Irene. This is a wild ride of a novel, built on the themes that a broken heart can change a person deeply and that love can be both manipulative and dangerous when it is blind to its consequences. Reading this book may require a seat belt, as its turns are nowhere near safe. Boasting a fabulous femme fatale and a terse writing style that’s astonishing for a debut effort, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart suggests Massachusetts resident Peter Swanson may be someone worth watching closely in the future. A new U.S. paperback edition of this novel is due out in January.

The Last Room, by Danuta Reah
(Caffeine Nights, UK):

A new publication by Danuta Reah (or her alter-ego, Carla Banks) remains a treat for serious readers of crime and thriller fiction. The back story to The Last Room is the Balkan Wars, though its lineage traces back even farther, to World War II and African civil wars. This novel’s opening is a terse, grueling snatch of a vicious attack on a pregnant woman, Nadifa, on Africa’s war-torn Ivory Coast in 2005. This sets the stage for a complex novel that questions whether there can ever be any absolute truth amid the “fog of war.” Moving the story on to Europe in 2007, we follow the aftermath of the suicide of Dr. Ania Milosz, a forensic linguist and expert witness involved in the conviction of a child killer, Derek Haynes. Haynes is currently appealing his guilty verdict in the slaying of Sagal Akindes, the 6-year-old daughter of the aforementioned Nadifa, who’s now an asylum seeker in Great Britain. Neither Ania’s father, retired policeman Will Gillen, nor her fiancé, Dariusz Erland, believes the young woman jumped to her death. And so starts a trail that snakes its way to the deeds of the past, deeds that some wish to see remain hidden forever. The Last Room is highly recommended, a topical novel that really challenges the reader’s understanding of reality.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King (Scribner):
Never one to be constrained by the convenient definitions of genre, King’s latest novel is a full-out detective thriller, the first clue to that being the nod to James M. Cain that opens this tale. When longtime cop Bill Hodges finds it difficult to cope with his retirement from the force (a diet of bad TV dinners, daytime TV programs, and holding his father’s pistol in his mouth not being good for his health), he finds solace in returning his attention to an unsolved case. The Mercedes Killer was a madman who drove a top-range SL500 into the crowd at a job fair in a Midwestern American city, killing and maiming many people. But like the morning mist, he vanished from the scene, leaving no trace. Now, though, the driver has reached out to Hodges, sending him a taunting missive that leads to a cat-and-mouse chase between the retired detective and the Mercedes Killer, aka Brady Hartfield. A disturbed young man, the Norman Bates-like Brady supports his alcoholic mother by working two jobs, one as a computer repairman and the other as an ice-cream man, complete with a van and afternoon sales route. Author King does an exceptional job of digging beneath Brady’s vile, empathy-lacking exterior to expose the misfortunes of his existence. Yet Brady isn’t done hurting people; he’s planning an encore to his Mercedes rampage, one that could have far more devastating results. Unable to convince former police colleagues to help him with his unofficial investigation, Hodges turns for aid to a couple of computer wizards: Holly, his lover’s high-strung niece, and his lawnmower man, Jerome. There should really be a sticker on the front of Mr. Mercedes, saying “No bookmark required,” because this is definitely a one-sitting read.

Run, by Andrew Grant (Ballantine):
This first standalone techno-thriller from Grant (the younger brother of best-selling novelist Lee Child) reveals his skill as a master puppeteer, peeling away later upon layer of misdirection and revealing the murky motivations of his characters. At the tale’s outset we find Marc Bowman, a loose-cannon information technology troubleshooter for communications giant AmeriTel, having just devoted his weekend to a covert project--only to then be unceremoniously dismissed from his job and escorted off the company’s premises. When he later recounts this episode to his wife, fellow AmeriTel executive Carolyn, a woman he loves with a passion, he’s perplexed to find her siding with their employer rather than offering him sympathy. The theme of this novel is well summed up by its title: Run. Before you can fire a starting pistol, Bowman is fleeing for his life and sanity, pursued by agents from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA (or at least they appear to be from the CIA). Word is out that Bowman spent the weekend before his termination copying sensitive AmeriTel data onto twin USB sticks, and it seems nobody wants him to keep those. Then just when you think things couldn’t get worse for Bowman, his wife and a large slug of cash disappear, putting this Everyman in the cross-hairs of some very dangerous folk. Run is a pulse-accelerating, sometimes confusing ride through the technological paranoia of our age. Nothing is as it seems in these pages. No one can be trusted. Trust me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014,
Part IV: Anthony Rainone

Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor to January Magazine and a (too-infrequent) contributor to The Rap Sheet. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes screenplays, novels, and stories.

The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):
Harry Bosch is like a fine bourbon: you taste the complexity but you’re not quite sure what produced it. Except in this case, you can go back to all of Connelly’s previous 16 Bosch novels and learn exactly what made him the finest cop protagonist in literature today … and maybe for a lot of tomorrows. In The Burning Room, we find the Los Angeles homicide detective just a year away from retirement, and now teamed up with novice Lucia Soto, or “Lucky Lucy,” who’s become a hero for having shot it out with the armed robbers who subsequently killed her previous partner. Soto has an immediate appeal and depth not seen in a Bosch cohort for some time, not since the days of Jerry Edgar and Kizmin Rider. Bosch and Soto go on to work a 10-year-old cold case involving the murder of a mariachi musician, as well as a decades-old day-care fire that claimed the life of Soto’s childhood friends. No matter how long he’s been at his job, Bosch still manages to piss people off. A cameo appearance here by FBI Agent Rachel Walling is a welcome touch. Connelly does in this novel what he excels at: weaving together two complex cases, upping the tempo and stakes of each one. Bosch and Soto make a dynamic duo and one laments the team’s short shelf life. But at least in these pages, it’s sublime.

Murder in Pigalle, by Cara Black (Soho Crime):
Cara Black’s Parisian private-eye heroine, Aimée Leduc, is a complicated woman. Five months pregnant with her first child, fashionista Aimée finds herself embroiled in a serial rapist case that becomes personal. The victims are teenage girls, and when the daughter of Leduc’s café-owning friend goes missing, the P.I. races against the clock to find her. Author Black is perhaps writing her finest prose these days, and this particular novel has a gravitas that pulls the reader in--if the sensory-infused writing doesn’t do it first. The topic here is difficult; yet in Black’s hands, it avoids the gut-wrenching for the practical: finding the man responsible. Although this tale is set in 1998, Leduc is the embodiment of the modern woman: keeping her business afloat and her love life thriving, and doing what she does best—solving crimes. Every time I read one of Black’s novels, I want to book a flight to Paris. The only disappointment would be not finding Aimée Leduc in residence there; she’s one of the best things the fictional City of Light has to offer.

Let me also mention one non-fiction book, which was published in hardcover last year, but that I didn’t read until 2014 …

George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger (Sentinel):
Putting aside current bad press regarding the CIA and torture, America would not be the country is it without its spy agencies, and that held especially true during the American Revolution, when the very founding of the country was at risk. After Nathan Hale’s failed attempt at procuring information about attacking British forces and his subsequent hanging, then-General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, felt personally responsible for putting the inexperienced Hale in harm’s way. Drawing upon his own spy past, he created an intelligence ring so secret that neither he nor its other members knew each other’s identities. Operating from New York City, Long Island, and Connecticut, the Secret Six--five men and one woman--obtained information about ship movements, troop build-ups, and even a plan by Benedict Arnold to surrender West Point, and succeeded in foiling the British consistently. As one of His Majesty’s military officers later remarked, the Americans didn’t outfight the British, they out-spied them. Kilmeade and Yaeger present this fascinating piece of history in a fast-paced narrative with re-created scenes and dialogue that lend the book a thriller-ish tone. It is a fascinating account of six brave American patriots who never wanted their identities or exploits known to the public. They served their country, and that was reward enough. In fact, they did it so well, that they had to be protected from anti-British sentiment after the war was over, because many people thought them British sympathizers. It might help the modern United States for readers to pick up this book and learn the value of espionage, what it’s true purpose is, and the best kind of spies we should aspire to produce.

Straight Jackets

Have you cast your ballot already in The Rap Sheet’s poll to pick the “Best Crime Novel Cover of 2014”? If not, you can still do so by clicking over to this post and then scrolling down to the bottom. We will keep the voting open through this coming Sunday, December 21, after which the results will be tallied and announced on this page.

As of this afternoon, the fronts from Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl, Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake, and Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland were holding down the top four slots. Those rankings, though, could change dramatically over the next five days. Voice your own opinions here. But do it soon!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014,
Part III: Steven Nester

Steven Nester is the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene, and Firsts Magazine.

The Cost of Doing Business, by Jonathan Ashley (280 Steps):
Ashley debuts with an attention-grabbing, character-driven crime novel that’s made supremely readable through the use of a sly, laconic wit and the author’s ability to move his story along economically. When bookseller and low-level dope dealer Jon Catlett suddenly finds himself in the position to make big money in the heroin trade, he must team up with a crooked cop who has the skill and nerve to take Catlett and his slacker pals to the top of the Ohio Valley heroin heap. Catlett’s accidental killing of an annoying trust-fund junkie begins his elevation, along with that of sidekick Paul, from “part-time middle man to straight-up dope kingpin.” Our “hero” faces this change of life with equanimity, focus, and a willingness to be mentored by corrupt cops and mobsters who’ve been to the rodeo many times. Best of all, he discovers he has a knack for the logistics of setting up and implementing drug deals. But Catlett quickly learns the high cost of participating in this business.

Gangsterland, by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint):
Mafia hit man Sal Cupertine is on the lam and everybody is looking for him. Sold to the “Kosher Nostra” in Arizona, he re-emerges as “Rabbi David Cohen.” Sound familiar? It shouldn’t: In Gangsterland, author Tod Goldberg has, within the well-elbowed constraints of the conventional crime narrative envelope, written an exceedingly sage and witty thriller that reveals no chinks in the armor, no narrative lines to nowhere, and with a “look Ma, no hands” ease of invention that would have Elmore Leonard turning over in his grave to see who has taken his place as one of the best writers around.

One Kick, by Chelsea Cain (Simon & Schuster):
Chelsea Cain has hit one out of the park with One Kick, the first novel in a projected series featuring Kick Lannigan, a young victim of sexual abuse. Kick is drawn here into assisting the mysterious John Bishop (a wealthy former gun dealer working with the FBI) and his even more mysterious masters as they attempt to track down and release other victims of such horrible crimes, and then punish the people responsible. One Kick looks at child porn, co-dependence, and getting justice with a steady eye and an unapologetic humanity that will make readers line up right now for this series’ second installment.

The Sixth Extinction, by James
Rollins (Morrow):

Fortified with fact and given energy through a plethora of what-ifs, Rollins’ 10th Sigma Force novel finds a mad scientist in a hidden lair, planning to unleash a globe-destroying weapon of prehistoric origin discovered beneath the ice of Antarctica. Once more, Commander Gray Pierce and his Sigma Force are called upon to save the planet. James Rollins’ creative DNA is clearly linked to that of H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Sixth Extinction—with its well fleshed-out disaster plot—might be just the thing to read when you need a break from today’s real-life and mounting ecological worries. Rollins’ nimble mind running wild in the world of fact and fiction is something to behold.

Finally, one true-crime pick …

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, by William J. Mann (Harper):
Hollywood has never been more of a party town than it was back in the 1920s, before the Hays Code kicked in, giving legal weight to moral censorship guidelines. Mann’s Tinseltown puts the ’80s Brat Pack and all other wannabes to shame as he reinvestigates the February 1922 murder of Irish-born American director-actor William Desmond Taylor. There’s plenty of dope, booze, and sex in these pages, as well as desperate starlets, but Mann’s yarn isn’t meant merely to titillate. He gives Taylor’s death a historical perspective as he shows how early Hollywood moguls, together with Wall Street, built a town and a film studio system from scratch. There are surprises here for fans of Hollywood lore, and even more for newcomers to the subject.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

No Mystery Behind Their Mastery

After returning home from a weekend spent out of town and away from my computer, I am just catching up with this news: “Lois Duncan and James Ellroy have been chosen as the 2015 Grand Masters by Mystery Writers of America (MWA). MWA’s Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality. Ms. Duncan and Mr. Ellroy will be presented with their awards at the Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on Wednesday, April 29, 2015.” Read more in Shotsmag Confidential and Crime Watch.

In addition, the recipients of two Raven Awards (“recogniz[ing] outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing”) have been announced. Jon and Ruth Jordan, co-founders of Crimespree Magazine, will receive one of those prizes. The other will go to Kathryn Kennison, founder of the Midwestern mystery-fiction conference Magna cum Murder.

Finally, Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai has won the MWA’s 2015 Ellery Queen Award, which honors “outstanding writing teams and outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014,
Part II: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is a Montreal-born crime writer and critic currently looking for an honest glass of beer in Southern California’s High Desert region. In the meantime, he’s working on the Great Canadian Detective Novel, writing features for Mystery Scene magazine, and contributing far too infrequently to The Rap Sheet. Not incidentally, Smith is also the founder and editor of that invaluable resource, The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman (Morrow):
Breathtaking in the sheer muscularity of its plotting and pacing, in After I’m Gone Lippman finally weaves the two threads of her work together. The emotional whomp of her crime-fiction standalones meets the feet-on-the-ground tautness and investigative legwork of her Tess Monaghan detective novels, resulting in arguably her most gripping and head-spinning book yet. It’s 1976, and charming but shady Baltimore businessman Felix Brewer is staring down the barrel of a slew of criminal charges. Rather than face the music, he empties bank accounts and disappears, leaving behind five women: his heart-of-gold wife, “Bambi,” their three young daughters, and his mistress, cocktail waitress Julie Saxony. Flash forward to the present, where we find retired cop, widower, and designated sad sack investigator “Sandy Sanchez” picking up a few extra bucks, working cold cases for the Baltimore PD. The cold case he draws is the 1986 murder of Julie, her body only recently discovered. The story skitters back and forth in time like cold water on a hot skillet, offering a deluge of vivid and wrenching snapshots, flashbacks, confessions, and clashing points of view, as Sandy doggedly tries to make sense of it all. The financial and emotional turmoil the still-missing Felix has left in his wake over the last three decades or so becomes the bulletin board on which Lippman pins the stories of these women, and when all the lies and myths fade, and the truth is finally outed, I was finally able to breath again. Stunning.

Black Rock, by John McFetridge (ECW Press):
This time it’s personal. In this hard, taut police procedural set in 1970, Montreal ex-pat McFetridge sticks a knife deep in his hometown’s heart and spills it all over the page. A warning, though--the writing feels so personal and visceral, it may hit far too close to home for any Montréalais errant to maintain a kind of critical distance. Everything McFetridge spins here is pitch-perfect; a solid jab to my heart as he captures the moment when the political and cultural turmoil of that fractious, paranoid era is made manifest in a city slowly being torn apart, as the would-be revolutionaries of the Front de libération du Québec move up from years of planting bombs in mailboxes to kidnapping politicians. Troops are called in and helicopters fill the air, even as likable young rookie Constable Eddie Dougherty, still unsure of where his life is heading, finds himself playing detective, doggedly investigating a series of killings in his old working-class neighborhood of Point St. Charles. For Eddie, you see, it’s personal. Me, too. But in tapping into the personal, McFetridge has struck something bigger and more universal; giving us one of the year’s most compelling, gripping, and, yes, sadly timely novels. We never learn, do we?

You Know Who Killed Me, by Loren D. Estleman (Forge):
Defiantly and definitively old-school, Estleman’s private dick, Amos Walker, kills me. He works the hard-boiled mean streets like it’s still 1947, spitting out similes and metaphors with a caustic and piercing wit, cracking wise like a pissed-off Chandler on a talking jag. But Walker’s Great Wrong Place is not Marlowe’s post-war City of Angels; it’s contemporary Detroit--a rusted-out dream waiting to be towed away; a city “rotting from the top down and from the bottom out, like Dutch Elm.” Fortunately, despite the dings and dents on his own exterior (when this story kicks off, he’s fresh outta rehab, after a sojourn with painkiller addiction), Walker’s V-8 of a heart still throbs mightily under the hood, with plenty of power when it counts. Which comes in handy when the Cranky One signs on to help out the overworked Iroquois Heights cops run down some anonymous phone tips on the murder of an “ordinary” Joe, found shot to death in his basement rec room on New Year’s Eve. Things, of course, get messy and soon there are government agencies, Ukranian gangsters, and a big steamy mess of family secrets--plus the lure of those damn pills--to deal with, as well as plenty of dirty little truths to be exposed. There are no great shockers here, but You Know Who Killed Me is still a gripping and fully satisfying read, high on style, verve, and street smarts. And that’s the real beauty and the appeal of Estleman’s long-running series--you stick the key in and turn, and it always roars to life. It’s private-eye action the way I like it.

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014,
Part I: Jim Napier

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian papers as well as in Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence, January Magazine, the Montreal Review of Books, and the Ottawa Review of Books. In addition, Napier maintains an award-winning crime-fiction site called Deadly Diversions.

The Killer Next Door, by Alex Marwood (Penguin):
Marwood is the pseudonym of accomplished British journalist Serena Mackesy, whose previous book, The Wicked Girls (2013), was shortlisted for an Edgar Allan Poe Award. Here, a young woman is on the run after witnessing her boss murder a man. He’s tracked her from London to Spain and back again. Desperate, and with no confidence in the police, who want her as a material witness, she seeks anonymity in a rundown house in South London that’s been divided into flats, each occupied by one of the city’s many marginalized people. Unknown to her, one of them is a killer. A dark and harrowing tale of the anonymous lives of people who have slipped through the cracks of civilized society.

Letters to My Daughter’s Killer, by Cath Staincliffe (Constable & Robinson):
Cath Staincliffe is best known for her award-winning series of standalone crime novels. But when approached to write tales based on British television’s popular crime drama, Scott & Bailey, she couldn’t resist--and we are all the richer for it. Every bit as well-crafted as those in her standalone stories, this book’s characters lead complex lives, and the layered plots form compelling narratives of both policing and the troubled society in which officers must do their jobs. A homeless man is found in the remains of a fire in an abandoned chapel, and the autopsy reveals he had been shot in the head first. Detective Constables Rachel Bailey and Janet Scott wonder who could have done such a thing, and why. Their efforts will take them into a murky world inhabited by hate-mongers and drug-dealers and impressionable teens, and the deaths have only just begun.

Mr. Campion’s Farewell, by Mike Ripley (Severn House):
Long a respected reviewer of crime fiction, as well as the author of a fine original series of more than a dozen comic crime novels based on the highly eccentric and engaging character of private detective Fitzroy Maclean Angel, Mike Ripley adds yet another arrow to his quiver with Mr. Campion’s Farewell, the first of two novels in the classic Albert Campion series of tales that were begun by Margery Allingham but were left unfinished at the time of her death in 1966. Albert Campion is paying an innocuous visit to his niece in a sleepy Suffolk village presided over by a mysterious group known as the Carders, when his car is vandalized. Shortly afterwards Campion is very nearly killed in a hunting incident, and he resolves to get to the bottom of things. The result is a delightful, timeless tale that will appeal to all lovers of the Golden Age of British crime fiction.

The Secret Place, by Tana French (Viking): Five books and counting, and every one a winner. Tana French is Ireland’s answer to Ian Rankin, each of her novels fresh and compelling, carefully crafted and perfectly capturing a distinct atmosphere, with the trademark darkness of Irish crime fiction. The Secret Place puts an exclusive girls’ boarding school under the microscope, where all of the petty bickering, rivalry, and scheming of adolescent teens is brought out in sharp relief. A hunk from the nearby boys’ school has been murdered; but who did it, and how is a police detective’s daughter involved? A riveting, original tale from Ireland’s rapidly rising star.

Walt, by Russell Wangersky (House of Anansi):
With five books to his credit, one a finalist for the Giller Prize, Russell Wangersky has carved out an impressive career as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. With Walt, the reader is introduced to the very private world of a unprepossessing grocery store janitor, a person ignored and overlooked by almost all who come into contact with him, but who harbors very dark secrets. Walt has a seemingly harmless habit: he collects other peoples’ discarded shopping lists. From these he forms a picture of the shopper--single or in a relationship, happy or troubled, middle-class or simply making do. But Walt doesn’t stop there. His interest becomes an obsession, and he seeks to learn more about their lives. The result is a harrowing tale of just how vulnerable most people are, and how easily their lives can be accessed. And underneath it all lurks the question, Whatever became of his wife? You will never look at a grocery store list the same way again.

Next Up: Favorite Crime Fiction of 2014

There are now fewer than three weeks remaining in 2014, so book reviewers and author-bloggers have accelerated their pace of posting “best crime fiction of the year” lists. Library Journal offers its choices in this genre (as well as other literary fields) here, while The Washington Post promotes what it contends are “The Five Best Thrillers of 2014” here. BOLO Books blogger Kristopher Zgorski shares his opinions on the year’s top reads here, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel correspondent Oline Cogdill’s picks are available in a slideshow (never my favorite format, but Oline’s a nice person, so I’ll forgive her the gimmick just this once). Finally, UK journalist-author Woody Haut has assembled a “dirty baker’s dozen” of his favorite crime novels from the last twelvemonth, while pseudonymous fictionist Clinton Greaves comes up with 14 choices.

Ever since 1998, I’ve helped put together the annual “best books” features for January Magazine, the online publication from which The Rap Sheet spun off in 2006. This year editor Linda L. Richards decided to break with tradition and not post such a package of mini-reviews. However, I’m so accustomed at the end of every year to soliciting “best books” recommendations from January crime-fiction reviewers, that I went ahead and asked some of them to contribute their inventories of favorites to The Rap Sheet instead.

The first two of those rundowns are set to appear on this page later today, with more to roll out early next week--soon enough, we hope, to help shoppers who are still stumped as to what they might purchase for the book lovers on their holiday gift lists. Let us know what you think of our critics’ choices, and what other crime, mystery, and thriller novels published in 2014 really caught your fancy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Pierce’s Picks: “Moriarty”

An irregular alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):
Let me say, first of all, that as a rule I really, really, really dislike novels that don’t offer a sense of conclusion by their final page, but instead end in cliff-hangers that compel you to purchase the sequel if you’re ever to find out the rest of the story.

With that off my chest, let us now consider the case of Moriarty, a follow-up to Horowitz’s 2011 Sherlock Holmes yarn, The House of Silk. Holmes doesn’t appear in Moriarty, which is set in 1891; even before page one, he’s already tumbled off Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, supposedly locked in a death grip with his most cunning nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. (Anyone who’s read Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House” knows how that episode turned out.) Instead we’re thrust into the company of Frederick Chase, who describes himself as “a senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in New York,” and Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones, who Conan Doyle said in his 1890 novel, The Sign of the Four, was “not a bad fellow.” These two meet for the first time over the corpse of a man fished from beneath Reichenbach Falls and believed to be the elusive “Napoleon of crime,” Moriarty. Chase explains to Jones that he’s traveled to Europe in search of an agoraphobic American criminal mastermind named Clarence Devereaux, who was reportedly seeking a mutually beneficial (or destructive, depending on your viewpoint) alliance with Moriarty--an association seemingly confirmed by a coded missive sewn into the corpse’s coat lining. With haste these two launch upon Devereaux’s trail, hunting down a pair of brothers who were, well, thick as thieves with Chase’s quarry; unearthing a robbery scheme also tied to Devereaux; and eventually conning their way into the U.S. legation in London (and the company of Robert T. Lincoln, President Lincoln’s only surviving son). Jones and Chase serve well as stand-ins for Holmes and Dr. John Watson; Jones has even made an obsessive study of the Great Detective’s methods. When this pair start to talk about forming a professional partnership (“London needs a new consulting detective,” Chase says at one point), you can almost see Horowitz imagining the possibilities in that arrangement.

Yet matters are never as straightforward as they appear here. Gruesome killings take place without clear reason. (Horowitz’s 1890s London wears a heavier mantle of grime, despair, and violence than Conan Doyle’s ever did.) Shadowy figures show up in the ta-da nick of time to rescue our investigating duo, and too-convenient clues are found. Everything ties together when you learn the twist at the end (or figure it out earlier, as I did), but some readers may not make it that far; that it is necessary for Horowitz’s narrator to explain finally--and for page after page--every plot turn shows how much the author concealed in order to achieve his “high concept.”

Conan Doyle fans will likely enjoy Horowitz’s frequent allusions to Holmes’ famous cases, and any reader should come quickly to appreciate the determined sleuth and family man Athelney Jones, who does not fit Watson’s stereotype of the bumbling Scotland Yarder. That Horowitz makes you feel as if you’re experiencing a Holmes and Watson adventure without either of those two characters featuring on the page is a notable achievement. Still, it’s frustrating that Moriarty manipulates the reader at its close, throwing down sweeteners in order that you might be enticed to fork over another $26.99 for Book Two. If that sequel were available next week, the scheme might work. That we’ll have to wait at least another year for it lowers the odds.