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.