Thursday, December 31, 2015

Don’t Touch That Dial!

This is a busy time here at Rap Sheet headquarters, as I work on year-end pieces set for posting tomorrow and next week. But I’ll be uncommonly susceptible to distractions from the medium of television over the next several days. And you might well be, too.

Cable network TCM (Turner Classic Movies) has scheduled a marathon showing of the six Thin Man comedy-mysteries, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, to begin today--New Year’s Eve--at 5 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT and continue through 3:45 a.m. ET/6:45 a.m. PT Friday. Those films will be broadcast in the order of their original production, with The Thin Man (1934), based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, to be rolled out first. It will be followed by After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947).

Then tomorrow night, January 1, look for the premiere of “The Abominable Bride,” a new, 90-minute episode of the acclaimed BBC series Sherlock, on PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery!, beginning at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The Web site Deadline Hollywood explains that “BBC One also confirmed [this episode] is airing the same day in the UK. This marks the first time the series has premiered on the same day in both countries ...” Britain’s Telegraph, which provides a handy recap of the previous nine episodes of Sherlock, notes that the story line of “The Abominable Bride” is “a closely guarded secret and no press have been allowed anywhere near it. What we do know is that Holmes and Watson are transported back to 1895, when [Arthur] Conan Doyle’s sleuths were investigating murder most foul on the fog-shrouded streets of London. Here, the pair investigate the mysterious resurrection of Thomas Ricoletti’s wife in a story inspired by Holmes’s throwaway reference [in ‘The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual’] to the case of ‘Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife.’”

Finally, on Sunday night, January 3, we can look forward (with more than a bit of trepidation) to the final season premiere of Downton Abbey. The 90-minute episode will begin on PBS’s Masterpiece series at 9 p.m. ET/PT. This Season 6 will feature nine installments, with its story set in 1925, when “momentous change threatens the great house, its owners, and servants” and “past scandals are also looming.” Downton Abbey is expected to run through Sunday, March 6.

How am I ever to concentrate on my writing?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Introductions All Around

Excuse me, but I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by books at the moment. This Christmas brought me a welcome abundance of new reading material, including novels by William Boyd (Sweet Caress) and Sara Moliner (The Whispering City), and new non-fiction by David Maraniss (Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story) and David B. Williams (Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography). I still haven’t finished everything I want to read in 2015, so it’s more than a bit intimidating to glance at the pile of opportunities building up for 2016. And there are still a couple of wrap-up pieces I hope to write about the last 365 days before moving on to a new year.

One such piece keeps up a tradition I adopted back in 2008. Late that year, Brian Lindenmuth--then a Bookspot Central reviewer, but currently with Spinetingler Magazine--proposed that book bloggers make a habit, during the December holiday season, of posting the names of authors whose work they first read during the preceding 12 months. My entries to this meme have varied in length over time. Some of my annual assessments have been quite fiction-heavy, while others have demonstrated a better balance between novels and factual works. As was also true of 2014 (and is obviously the consequence of my book-reviewing responsibilities), I found less time to enjoy general fiction this year than I did crime and thriller fiction. Even my non-fiction reading tended toward books about crime novelists, or at least historical crime. In 2016, I shall have to concentrate on reading a greater diversity of material, lest I become a bore at parties, unable to talk about anything except misdeeds both genuine and imagined.

Below you will find my 2015 rundown of authors whose books I’d never read before. Debut novels are boldfaced. Asterisks denote crime, mystery, or thriller fiction.

Patricia Abbott (Concrete Angel)*
• Ben Atkins (Drowning City)*
Matt Bell (Scrapper)
Christopher Bollen (Orient)*
Conor Brady (A June of Ordinary Murders)*
Robin Burcell (The Last Good Place)*
• Ray Celestin (The Axeman)*
• Trace Conger (The Shadow Broker)*
Cat Connor (Databyte)*
Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See)
Ben Elton (Time and Time Again)
Barbara Ewing (The Petticoat Men)*
• Celia Fremlin (The Hours Before Dawn)*
Matthew Guinn (The Scribe)*
Lotte and Søren Hammer (The Girl
in the Ice
Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train)*
Phil Hogan (A Pleasure and a Calling)*
• Dinah Holman (A History of Crime: The Southern Double-Cross)*
B.B. Johnson (Death of a
Blue-eyed Soul Brother)*
Jeremy Massey (The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley)*
Ed McBain (So Nude, So Dead)*
Patrick Modinano (Missing Person)
Jennifer Mortimer (Trilemma)*
• A.W. Mykel (The Windchime Legacy)*
• Bryon Quertermous (Murder Boy)*
Lori Rader-Day (Little Pretty Things)*
Peter Ranscombe (Hare)*
W.L. Ripley (Storme Warning)*
Maria Doria Russell (Epitaph)
Tina Shaw (The Children’s Pond)*
Larry D. Sweazy (A Thousand Falling Crows)*
Art Taylor (On the Road with Del & Louise)*
Simon Kurt Unsworth (The Devil’s Detective)*
Irving Wallace (The Man)
• Sarah Ward (In Bitter Chill)*
• Carolyn Weston (Poor, Poor Ophelia)*

Here’s my somewhat briefer inventory of non-fiction works I pored through and enjoyed over the last year, all of them penned by people who were not previously represented on my bookshelves. Debut works are, again, identified in boldface type.

Steve Aldous (The World of Shaft)
• Christine L. Corton (London Fog: The Biography)
Margaret Leslie Davis (Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny)
Piu Marie Eatwell (The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse)
Gary Kamiya (Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco)
John Oller (American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague--Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age
Woman of Scandal
Lee Server (Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers)
• Joe Urshcel (The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt that Changed the Nation)
Nathan Ward (The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett)

OK, so those are my results for the year. What about yours? Which authors’ work did you first sample in 2015? Please let us all know in the Comments section of this post. Or, if you’d prefer to deliver your first-reads record in your own blog, simply provide the URL among the comments here, so the rest of us can find your list.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Plum Picks: Everyone Wants a Say

It’s been impossible to keep track of every “best books of 2015” list dumped onto the Web recently. We’ve posted a wide variety of them already on this page--including those from regular Rap Sheet contributors--but their numbers appear to swell daily. What follows is our latest collection of “bests” links. These selections come primarily from the crime, mystery, and thriller genre, though some of the choices extend well past those parameters. And not all of these lists restrict themselves to books that were released during the last 12 months; some older volumes are highlighted as well.

Crime Fiction Lover’s various “Top Five Books of 2015” lists
S.W. Lauden’s “Recommended Reading 2015
Jingle Bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2015 Christmas Recommendations
LitReacter Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2015
Sarah Ward’s “My Top Reads of 2015” in Crimepieces
Nigel Bird’s “Faves of Fifteen (Overseas)” in Sea Minor
Declan Burke’s “Review: The Best Crime Novels of 2015
Best of 2015” in His Futile Preoccupations …
Crime Thriller Girl’s “Top Reads 2015: Crime
Crime Thriller Girl’s “Top Reads 2015: Thriller
Steve Donoghue’s “Best Books of 2015: Mysteries” in SteveReads
Scott Montgomery’s “Top 10 of 2015
Jochem Vandersteen’s “Favorite Sons of 2015” in Sons of Spade
Peter Rozovsky has posted several “best books of 2015” items in his blog, Detectives Beyond Borders
The Year in Review: 2015 Reads” in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog
My Top 5 Reads of 2015” in Bite the Book
My Favorite Reads of 2015” in Ms. Wordopolis Reads
The Year’s Best Books in Review -- A.D. 2015; Featuring Three Deserving Resurrection,” by The Dusty Bookcase’s Brian Busby
Nick Jones’ “The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015” in Existential Ennui
My Favourite Books of 2015” in Cross Examining Crime
Not Quite a Top 10…” in Novel Heights
John Harvey’s “Best Books of the Year, 2015
Euro Crime critics are currently rolling out their “Favourite Discoveries of 2015” lists, featuring books, films, and more.
Book Riot Best of 2015
• Tobias Gohlis’ “Best Crime of 2015” in the German newspaper Die Zeit. The original posting is here, but an English translation can be found here. (Note that some books have been published under different titles in Germany; Richard Price’s The Whites, for instance, becomes The Untouchables, while James Lee Burke’s House of the Rising Sun becomes Embers and Ashes).
The Books We Loved in 2015” in The New Yorker
Top Ten Tuesday: Best of 2015” in You Book Me All Night Long
McVoice’s “Faves of Fifteen (UK)
Celebrity Picks: Gillian Flynn’s Favorite Reads of 2015” in Omnivoracious
Flavorwire’s “The Best Fiction of 2015
Powell’s Books’ “Best Fiction Books of 2015
My Top Ten Favourite Books of 2015,” by Bob Douglas in
Critics at Large
Top Five Texas Authors of 2015” in MysteryPeople’s blog
The Bowery Boys Ten Favorite New York History Books of 2015

And now for a few broader-reaching extras:

The Best Facts I Learned from Books in 2015,”
by Kathryn Schulz (The New Yorker)
2015 in Books News: Tragedies and Triumphs,”
by Richard Lea (The Guardian)
2015 in Crime Flicks,” by Jedediah Ayres (Hardboiled Wonderland)

Please feel free to add any additional, interesting links in the Comments section of this post.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas from The Rap Sheet!

Could that be a very young and innocent Honey West (Anne Francis) I spy playing Santa Claus? Yes, I do believe it is!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pierce’s Picks: Emergency Gift Ideas

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

OK, all you sorry last-minute present buyers, listen up! If you’re still looking for books to buy for those crime-fiction lovers on your list, here are a few ideas to consider:

The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories (Running Press), edited by Maxim Jakubowski, which gathers together three dozen abbreviated yarns about late-19th-century London’s most notorious serial killer. Since that marauder of the night was never nabbed, or even identified, there’s ample room within his legend for writers to exercise their vivid imaginations. This volume features work by crime- and horror-fictionists both, among them Martin Edwards, Michael Gregorio, Barbara Nadel, and Sarah Morrison. Some of the authors focus on the killer and his dark motives, while others--including K.G. Anderson (better known as Karen G. Anderson, at one time a frequent contributor to January Magazine)--spin yarns about the policeman who, in 1888, tried to bring down “Saucy Jack.” Expect some interesting speculations about the Ripper’s identity, along with plentiful helpings of eerie London fog (even though, according to Christine L. Corton’s wonderful London Fog: The Biography, “each of the Ripper’s crimes was actually committed on a night without fog”).

Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s (Library of America), edited by Tom Nolan, comprising several of the most “beautifully written” books that Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) penned about Los Angeles private eye Lew Archer, including The Way Some People Die (1951) and his turning-point tale, The Galton Case (1959). This is the first of three Nolan-edited collections of this author’s detective fiction; the second, Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s, is due out in April of next year. These are both fine tributes to Macdonald, the centennial of whose birth was celebrated earlier this month.

Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s (Library of America), edited by Sarah Weinman, a two-volume collection of riveting tales by female authors who--aside from Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar--have been forgotten by most of today’s mystery-fiction fans.

Murder on the Orient Express (Morrow), a beautiful new, facsimile edition of the original 1934 release of Agatha Christie’s best-known work featuring mustachioed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot.

The Lost Detective (Bloomsbury USA), Nathan Ward’s entertaining separation of truth from legend in Dashiell Hammett’s transformation from Pinkerton operative to hard-boiled detective novelist.

The World of Shaft: A Complete Guide to the Novels, Comic Strip, Films, and Television Series (McFarland), by Steve Aldous, certainly the most comprehensive study of how journalist Ernest Tidyman created fictional P.I. John Shaft and how that character went from fame to flame-out in the 1970s.

The Golden Age of Murder (HarperCollins). British lawyer-author Martin Edwards, who last month became the president of the Detection Club, here recalls the vital contributors made to crime and mystery fiction, during the early 20th century, by other members of that organization, especially Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and Anthony Berkeley. “[B]ut the allure of the book,” opined Mark Lawson in his review for The Guardian, “is the parade of less usual suspects: Anthony Berkeley Cox, whose witty chillers included The Silk Stocking Murders and, under the pen-name Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought; Freeman Wills Crofts, a railway engineer whose murders often turned on discrepancies in train timetables; and Anthony Gilbert, the cross-dressing dust-jacket alibi of Lucy Beatrice Malleson.”

Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets (Reservoir Square), by Scott M. Deitche. As this book’s press materials explain, true-crime writer Deitche “celebrates the potent potables [that crime novelists and real-life mobsters] imbibed and the watering holes they frequented, including some bars that continue to provide a second home for crime writers. Highlighting the favorite drinks of Noir scribes, the book includes recipes for cocktails such as the Gimlet described in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the Mojito Mulatta T.J. English drank while writing Havana Nocturne, and the Dirty Martini favored by mob chronicler Christian Cippolini. Cocktail Noir also lets us in on the drinking habits of notorious organized crime figures, revealing Al Capone’s taste for Templeton Rye, Meyer Lansky’s preference for Dewar’s Scotch and Gambino family hit man Charles Carneglia’s habit of guzzling Cutty Sark.”

The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook (Quirk), edited by Kate White. This 176-page illustrated work features more than 100 “wickedly good recipes” from such famous fictionists as Raymond Benson, Alafair Burke, Lee Child, David Morrell, Gillian Flynn, Bill Pronzini, S.J. Rozan, Sue Grafton, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Gary Phillips, Sara Paretsky, and--with a perfect name for this endeavor--Thomas H. Cook. The dishes range from breakfast favorites to soups, salads, dinner entrées, libations, and desserts (with James Patterson’s “Grandma’s Killer Chocolate Cake” being an example of that last course). As White explains in her introduction, proceeds from sales of the cookbook will go to the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), which sponsors the annual Edgar Awards.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How Can Just a Little Taste Hurt?

We’re still a week or so away from my posting, in The Rap Sheet, a longer rundown of what I think will be the most interesting crime, mystery, and thriller novels to be published during the first quarter of 2016. But my column today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site looks at 14 of those releases, including new works by Ian Rankin, J.D. Rhoades, Sara Blaedel, Antonia Hodgson, and John A. Connell.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

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

The Sleeper (Mysterious Press/Open Road) finds Canadian J. Robert Janes taking another of his infrequent breaks from composing the Jean-Louis St-Cyr/Hermann Kohler series of historical mysteries (Clandestine) in order to present this story of David Douglas Ashby, an American with a potentially deadly secret. Following his military service in World War I, Ashby wed Christina von Hoffman, the well-proportioned, yet manipulative offspring of a German general, and with her fathered a child, Karen. As Adolf Hitler consolidated his power in Berlin and became ever more bellicose, though, Ashby--fearing for his daughter’s safety--essentially kidnapped the girl from her mother and fled with her to England. Ashby is now a popular teacher at a country boarding school, the headmaster of which is an old army comrade whose life he once saved, and whose wife has fallen more than a little in love with Ashby. Meanwhile, Karen has been placed covertly in the care of Hilary Bowker-Brown, a surprisingly resourceful young woman who lives on the Cornwall coast and dreams of writing novels. Impatient with Ashby’s determination to keep Karen from her, Christina pushes the German intelligence services to find and recover the child. This task may require the awakening of a “sleeper,” an agent in Britain who has remained quiet and under the radar for a long while, in anticipation of just such an assignment as this one. Concealed motives and rivalries between spy agencies help keep readers off-guard through most of this yarn.

Skeleton Blues, by Paul Johnston (Severn House UK), brings the swift return of maverick, near-future Edinburgh investigator Quint Dalrymple, who we last saw in Heads or Hearts, released just this last summer in the States. It’s 2034 here, and the various city-states that once comprised Scotland are holding a public referendum to decide whether to restore their union. That’s a touchy enough matter by itself, and is destined to be made even more difficult following the murder of a tourist in Edinburgh. Called in once more by the Council of City Guardians to help, Quint and his partner, Davie Oliphant, go looking for a prime suspect who is nowhere to be found, while the threat of violence hangs heavy over the former Scottish capital--social unrest that might be playing into the hands of nefarious parties. The U.S. debut of Skeleton Blues is expected in March 2016.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Closing the Book on Dickinson

Africa-born British author and poet Peter Dickinson certainly tied things up neatly for his obituary writers when he passed away yesterday, December 16--which also happened to be his 88th birthday. He died after what’s being termed “a brief illness.”

Britain’s Telegraph remembers Dickinson as a “prolific children’s author who combined riveting plots with historical and psychological insight.” But he also gained a fine reputation for penning adult mystery novels. As The Bookseller explains, “He was the first author to win the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger for two consecutive novels: Skin Deep in 1968 [a novel rechristened in the States as The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest] ... and A Pride of Heroes in 1969 …” Both stories starred Scotland Yard Superintendent James Pibble, who had “a knack for solving the most extraordinary of crimes.” Among Dickinson’s other mysteries, fellow author Martin Edwards writes that “The Yellow Room Conspiracy (1992) is probably my favorite.” Several of Dickinson’s Pibble mysteries are available in e-book format from Open Road Media, which also circulates more of his works.

READ MORE:Peter Dickinson Obituary,” by Julia Eccleshare
(The Guardian).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part VII: 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.

The Axeman, by Ray Celestin (Sourcebooks):
New Orleans, Louisiana, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a culturally rich but sometimes violent place to reside. “[C]olorful miscreants stalked the streets,” explains Gary Krist in his 2014 history of the place, Empire of Sin; “warring vice lords shot up their rivals’ saloons and gambling dens; and mysterious Italians, purportedly members of the murky organization called ‘the Mafia’ or ‘the Black Hand,’ assassinated one another for obscure and sinister reasons.” Making matters even worse, from the spring of 1918 until the autumn of 1919, a serial killer known in the popular press as the Axeman, preyed on the Crescent City’s populace, mostly on its Italian-American residents, killing them with old axes that he (presumably he) left at the scene of his atrocities. Amid the facts of this case, British author Celestin inserts three fictional sleuths whose goal it is to identify the killer and bring his reign of terror to a swift halt. The first is a 20-year police veteran, Michael Talbot, who has previously endangered his career by helping to prosecute and imprison a crooked fellow cop and former mentor. Next comes Luca D’Andrea, that adviser himself, newly freed after a five-year penitentiary stint and soon drafted by a Mafia chieftain who wants the Axeman removed from the streets before his homicidal acts provoke police to crack down on all crime in the city. Finally, there’s Ida Davis, an able young black woman who clerks at the local office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and who hopes--with the aid of a “chubby-face” musician known as Lil’ Lewis (or Louis) Armstrong--to bring the Axeman down and thereby win promotion to field agent. The Axeman’s plotting gumbo of political shenanigans, gang hostilities, and hints of the supernatural diverges somewhat from the historical record, but you can’t say the dramatic results aren’t worth Celestin cheating here and there.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead):
Because it gathered plaudits right from the moment of its release in early 2015 (and quickly built up a reader following, thanks in part to heavy promotion through the Goodreads site), I was sure I’d despise this novel; I rarely enjoy best-sellers. In this case, though, I was wrong to be skeptical. Hawkins, who has previously concocted romantic-comedy tales under the nom de plume Amy Silver, here delivers the thoroughly suspenseful story of Rachel Watson, a divorced but not quite indigent young alcoholic who rides a commuter train in to and out of London every day, despite the fact that she lost her public-relations position some while ago. The rail transit brings her peace that she lacks in other areas of her life. It also lets her fantasize about the people she sees inside the houses passing by. Those folks include Scott and Megan Hipwell, an attractive couple who occupy a residence not far from the one Rachel and her ex-hubby, Tom, once owned. Lonely Rachel is convinced the Hipwells share an idyllic life--at least until the morning she spots blonde Megan swapping kisses with another gent in her back garden. Not long after that, Megan goes missing, and Rachel summons up the courage to approach local police with what she knows of the apparent betrayal, sure it will help their search. But the cops don’t believe her, both because they’re wise to her dipsomaniacal ways and because she has recently behaved erratically toward Tom and his new wife. Rather than slink away, Rachel determines to figure out for herself what has happened to Megan. She contacts the missing woman’s lover, allows her concern for Scott Hipwell to evolve into a disastrous affair, and generally makes a mess of things. That her nosiness and poor choices eventually lead to a resolution of this mystery is remarkable, but credibly executed. Readers who have accidentally picked up the wrong book when looking for Hawkins’ psychological thriller will want to correct that error post haste.

Inspector of the Dead, by David Morrell (Mulholland):
Thomas De Quincey is not the most obvious candidate to become a crime solver. A journalist turned essayist, with intestinal problems, bad eyesight, and a serious opium jones, by 1855--the year in which Inspector of the Dead is set--he was 70 years old. Yet in the hands of author Morrell, De Quincey and his youngest child, the surprisingly resourceful and progressive Emily (who assumes a Watson-like role here), seem well on their way to joining the ranks of fiction’s memorable Victorian-era amateur sleuths. Someone is intent in these pages on doing away with members of England’s fashionable class, presumably to satisfy a desire for revenge. On the corpse of each victim the killer leaves the name of a person (and there were several) who at one time or another sought to assassinate Queen Victoria. Assisting Scotland Yard, as they did in Morrell’s much-praised last novel, Murder as a Fine Art (2013), the De Quinceys look toward the twisted psychology of the murderer in order to discern his identity, exposing somebody whose outward respectability conceals a volatile well of self-justified resentment. Yet even then, there’s no guarantee that the laudanum-imbibing De Quincey and his more youthful cohorts from the constabulary can stop the so-called Revenger from striking what appears to be his ultimate target: the right-proper Victoria herself. Morrell shows a keen eye for historical atmospherics, and he does an extraordinary job of illuminating faults in both the social and political strata of mid-19th-century British society. Moments of humor and rollicking adventure make the reading of this second installment in what Morrell says will be a trilogy of books all the more pleasurable.

A June of Ordinary Murders, by Conor Brady (Minotaur):
Temperatures are running quite high in Dublin, Ireland, during the summer of 1887, and so are tempers. With representatives of Queen Victoria coming to the city soon to help celebrate the monarch’s Golden Jubilee, local police are on the lookout for anarchists who would like nothing more than to end British hegemony over this island nation. The last thing they need are further criminal distractions. But those come anyway. Two corpses, evidently belonging to a man and a boy, are found in a public park, shot to death, their faces mutilated. Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Metropolitan Police, a cynical copper who’d like to add new successes to his record, quickly realizes there is nothing “ordinary” about these slayings. The murdered man, after all, turns out to have been a woman in masculine attire, and Swallow’s difficulty in identify either victim exposes him to press derision. If that weren’t enough bad news, a local criminal matriarch, Ces “Pisspot” Downes, has died in her bed, leaving her covetous lieutenants to vie for control of her empire, and a house servant is found mortally bludgeoned and discarded in a canal. Brady, a former editor of The Irish Times, does an estimable job of establishing Swallow’s multiple dimensions, fleshing out his historical environs, and exploring the politics that roiled Dublin 130 years ago. I’m very much looking forward to reading his sequel, The Eloquence of the Dead, due out in March 2016.

The Whites, by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt):
It’s possible I would have passed on reading The Whites, had it not been for author Richard Price’s interview with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, back in February. So interesting did I find Price, and so open about his history and his goals in composing this novel, that I went out the next day and bought The Whites. Smart move. At the center of this expansive cop tale is Sergeant Billy Graves. He used to be part of a crackerjack anti-crime unit of the New York Police Department, known as the Wild Geese, that rewarded cowboy independence. But he eventually shot the wheels off his own career when he killed an innocent 10-year-old boy rather than the drug-crazed scumbag for whom he’d been aiming. Graves has since been lucky to earn command of the NYPD’s Manhattan Night Watch, which responds to post-midnight felonies and tees up further investigations for the morning shift. However, his hard-won peace is put at risk after a slashing at Penn Station costs the life of a man he had known in his Wild Geese days, a murder suspect who’d “walked away untouched by justice.” Borrowing a term from Moby Dick, Graves and his Wild Geese cohorts used to call such lawbreakers-on-the-loose “Whites.” Now it appears that one of their number has turned vigilante, eliminating those Whites piecemeal, and if might fall to Graves--the last member of that old unit still with the NYPD--to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, a psychopathic detective stalks our hero’s family, hungry for his own version of revenge. This is no straightforward police procedural or action-rich whodunit; it’s a loosely focused narrative that compels reader interest with its character development and Price’s dexterity with language.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part VI: Anthony Rainone and Seamus Scanlon

Anthony Rainone is a contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes screenplays.

The Cartel, by Don Winslow (Knopf):
Art Keller is a tragic figure. He has been fighting the war on drugs for four decades on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He has been the de facto American warlord on drugs in Mexico. In particular, he has waged a personal battle against Adán Berrera, the head of the El Federación cartel. It has cost Keller his family and his partner, and at the beginning of this novel, it seems it has cost him his will to live as well. The Cartel is about so much more than Keller, however. It takes in everything swirling around the drug trade like a twister ripping the ground apart. It is about the violent forces interlocking the cartels against each other with unspeakable brutality (men are burned alive in oil barrels). It is about the market forces of supply (Mexico) and demand (the United States) that make Adán and Keller puppets in a Machiavellian clash of law and order and money. Adán can no more turn away from what he has built and what he has become, than Keller can lay down his gun and stop hunting the man who has forced him to live in cheap motels and look constantly over his shoulder. The Cartel is more than a saga: it is folklore, history, and socio-economic forces all backdropped by the context of fragile human life. Everyone is affected by the kind of choices made in this yarn, from the man and woman on the street trying (literally) to make one dollar, to the cowboy-dressed millionaire narcos hiding out in hilltop mansions that could withstand an invasion from Seal Team Six. Winslow is a master novelist, and there is good reason why his book spans more than 600 pages and demands considerable attention from readers. Three-quarters of the way through, you lose sense of who belongs to which cartel, who is fighting against whom, which plazas (drug territories) are vital and which are not. It is the same logistical maze that law enforcement faces when confronting the constantly shifting sands of drug alliances and wars. The violence here is unrelenting: burnings, throat slashings, redundant deaths by semiautomatic rifle. This maelstrom of bloodshed beats like an unending drum rhythm, because it brings the reader face-to-face with the true nature of narcotics-dealing. Keller is up against a tsunami. The immense fortitude and, perhaps, lunacy necessary for someone to remain committed to this drug war is enough to make your stomach churn. This is realism at its best. In the pas de deux between Berrera and Keller we see mirror images of the lengths to which each man will go. Berrera is barbaric: men, women, and children are endlessly executed on his orders. Meanwhile, Keller is coldly objective: he turns a blind eye to the Mexican military assassination squads he assists. In the end, almost nobody is left alive, though one could argue that they weren’t really living to being with. Keller has again lost those he loved, but perhaps he has gained, too. Maybe he isn’t really all that tragic a figure. Maybe he realizes that the best you can hope for is the victory today and the single life you can save from the bullet.

Seamus Scanlon is a librarian, a professor at The City College of New York, and the award-winning Irish author of As Close as You’ll Ever Be.

Dark City Lights: New York Stories, edited by Lawrence Block
(Three Rooms Press):

Science fiction, crime, horror, tour guides, squeegees, movie locations, struggling artists, ambulance chasers, Marilyn Monroe, the garment industry, subways, Shakespeare in the Park, wilding, a corrupt bedside manner--all of those genres and topics, plus more, are included in this fine collection of New York City stories, along with a succinct and witty introduction by Lawrence Block. His own story in this collection, “Keller the Dog Killer,” I had read previously, but it is always a pleasure to reread tales featuring Keller, the antihero assassin-for-hire with a penchant for guns, stamps, and getting rid of loose ends. “The Big Snip,” by Thomas Pluck, made me wince in a good way. “The Garmento and the Movie Star,” by Jonathan Santlofer, is a magnificent story about Marilyn Monroe. “The Dead Client,” by Parnell Hall, has great energy, dialogue, and humor. Erin Mitchell’s “Old Hands” is written with aplomb and bleak humor. S.J. Rozan’s “Wet Dog on a Rainy Day” is a sobering, despair-filled story of lost love. This anthology offers great stories in the great city of New York, where anything can happen and usually does. Highly recommended.

Getting to the Bottom of the Tops

Lately it’s seemed that a good deal of what I do here at Rap Sheet headquarters is gather together other people’s “best books of 2015” picks. And those lists are multiplying in number as we near New Year’s Day. The latest reviewer to announce her choices is Shotmag Confidential’s Ayo Onatade, whose dozen favorites include Pleasantville, by Attica Locke; The Ghosts of Altona, by Craig Russell; The Body Snatcher, by Patrica Melo; The Killing Kind, by Chris Holm; and Every Night I Dream of Hell, by Malcolm Mckay.

Meanwhile, the contributors to UK-based Crime Fiction Lover are each presenting rundowns of their preferred mysteries and thrillers from the last year. Among the books mentioned so far are The Bone Tree, by Greg Iles; Friends of the Dusk, by Phil Rickman; The Caveman, by Jørn Lier Horst; The Father, by Anton Svensson; I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh; and Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin. Click here to keep up with all of their selections.

Finally (for now), Andrew Nette’s list of the “Top 10 Books of 2015” in Pulp Curry extends beyond works that were actually published this year. It features Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter; The Tattoo Murder Case, by Akimitsu Takagi, and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

* * *

While we’re on the subject of these year-end lists, note that The Rap Sheet will post its last two rolls of critics’ picks later today and then tomorrow. If haven’t been keeping track, here are links to the pieces we’ve already run:

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015, Park V: Ali Karim
Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015, Part IV: Kevin Burton Smith
Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015, Part III: Stephen Miller
Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015, Part II: Jim Napier
Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015, Part I: Steven Nester

Please feel free to express your own ideas about this year’s superior releases in crime fiction in the Comments section below.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

At 100, Ross Is Still Boss

It seems so odd now, but back when I first became a follower of Ross Macdonald’s private-eye fiction, in the 1970s, my impression was that most people had never heard of Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar). I remember, in the mid-’80s, giving a copy of The Blue Hammer (1976)--the last of his 18 books starring Los Angeles sleuth Lew Archer--to a friend of mine, a highly literate young woman (though not usually a crime-fiction reader), and having to explain how Macdonald was the third-most-important developer of American detective fiction in the 20th century, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. She looked at me as if I’d just enthused about Ceres’ significance in our solar system’s asteroid belt. I might as well have been speaking Urdu. And when, after writing to the author through his publisher, I received an invitation to meet and interview Macdonald at his residence in Santa Barbara, California, I had to do a hard-sell on my newspaper editor of the time, trying to convince him Macdonald was an important wordsmith who deserved our attention. I ultimately had to pay my own way down to Southern California, but it was worth the trouble.

Well, what a difference a few decades can make. Had Macdonald not died from Alzheimer’s disease in 1983, he would today be celebrating his 100th birthday. Over the last few years, and especially in the lead-up to this centennial, there’s been a good deal of writing in praise of his contributions to crime fiction and to literature, in general. The man that novelist-screenwriter William Goldman once declared, in the pages of The New York Times, had penned “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American” is a mystery no longer.

In an excellent recent piece for the Santa Barbara Independent, Bruce Riordan explains that Macdonald is
poised to enter into his greatest period of renown since the 1970s, when his books were international best-sellers and he was on the cover of Newsweek magazine. This longtime Santa Barbara resident, known to his friends and family by his birth name, Kenneth Millar, is the subject of an unprecedented posthumous revival that looks set to position him as the most significant figure in the highly influential genre of hard-boiled detective fiction. The decidedly highbrow and prestigious Library of America is leading the way, having recently published the first of a projected three hardcover volumes anthologizing Macdonald’s Lew Archer books, thus setting his work alongside not only the usual suspects, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but also on the shelf with such literary heavyweights as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Philip Roth, and John Cheever. Also this fall, Arcade Publishing has released the previously unpublished decade-long romantic correspondence between Macdonald and the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Eudora Welty under the title Meanwhile There Are Letters. The Archer Files, a collection of Macdonald’s Lew Archer short stories, is also back in print, with new material collected by Macdonald’s biographer, Tom Nolan.

Although the Ross Macdonald centennial bonanza will stretch into 2016 with the publication of the next two Library of America volumes and
It’s All One Case by Kevin Avery, a collection of previously unpublished transcripts of interviews between Macdonald and Rolling Stone rock music writer Paul Nelson, the most exciting development for many fans may be cinematic. Variety reports that Joel and Ethan Coen have signed on with Hollywood mega-producer Joel Silver to adapt Macdonald’s 1966 novel Black Money for the big screen. Black Money, which is set in a town remarkably similar to Montecito, is Macdonald’s take on The Great Gatsby, and the combination of the Coens’ wry sensibility and Macdonald’s hard-boiled yet literate prose could well prove irresistible.

With all this activity, it’s increasingly clear that 2015 is not only the centennial of Macdonald’s birth but also the year of the rebirth of Macdonald as a serious figure in American literature…

Writers in America’s 1975 interview with Ross Macdonald

Not that the value of Macdonald’s Archer yarns has ever really been in doubt. As John Geraci wrote in Criminal Element:
If James M. Cain was detective fiction’s 30-minute hard-boiled egg, Hammett its errant knight, and Chandler … its Southern California stylist, then it is Macdonald who elevated the genre.

Yeah, he writes stories about detection and crime and foul deeds, but what he really writes about are families--about the sins of the fathers, and mothers, and every family member, including yourself--that screw things up royally. And so when Lew Archer is summoned, he picks and pulls at the errant thread and eventually unravels the tapestry of deceit--from discovering whether it was the wastrel son or the sexpot daughter who pushed millionaire papa into the deep end (
The Drowning Pool) … to finding a runaway bride (The Chill) … to locating the wayward son (The Galton Case) … to tracking a missing child who might be the sacrificial pawn in a game of marital chess (The Underground Man).

Macdonald’s style was, in truth, the sleek package for delivering a trainload of Freudian issues, Greek tragedy, and vivid imagery: “I could see the enormous slick spreading like premature night across the sea” (
Sleeping Beauty); “Number seventeen needed paint, and leaned on its pilings like a man on crutches” (The Chill); “… Truttwell himself looked rather artificial, like a carefully made wax image wired for sound” (The Goodbye Look).

The late Nora Ephron said her parents always admonished her that life “was copy.” In other words, everything’s up for grabs and you must use your own life, your own experiences for material.

Macdonald did exactly that. And while his books aren’t autobiographical, the themes, the people who came to life on his pages with their own petty plans, their hurts (real or imagined), and their desperate actions at trying to uncover the truth or bury the past, had their genesis in his own life.
His was a life full of complicated material worth mining. In the intro to an interview I conducted in 1999 with Tom Nolan, author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography, I noted how that study recounts
some of the more tragic and certainly less-reported elements of the author’s existence. He recalls how Millar grew up poor and virtually fatherless in Ontario, Canada; how, as a boy, he was introduced to homosexuality and expressed his anger at the world through fighting and theft (“I’m amazed at some of the chances I took as a boy,” Millar once admitted); how he stayed for over four decades in a frequently unpleasant marriage to fellow mystery novelist Margaret Millar; and how, after at least one attempted suicide and his initial refusal to seek professional help, he eventually agreed to psychiatric treatment (a “watershed event,” as Millar once described it). What finally drove him to the analyst’s couch were difficulties with his daughter, Linda, who in 1956 was involved in a vehicular homicide and three years later--on parole and under psychiatric care--disappeared from her college dorm, setting off a widely publicized police hunt that led Millar to appeal through the media for his daughter to return home. (Linda Millar was finally located in Nevada, and subsequently told a harrowing tale about her days on the run.)
That exchange I had with Nolan, by the way, was published as part of a much more extensive feature package in January Magazine, which also included tributes to Ross Macdonald by Kevin Burton Smith, Gary Phillips, Karl-Erik Lindkvist, and a host of contemporary novelists (Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Max Allan Collins, etc.). Since then, I’ve made a point of keeping up with Macdonald-related news, reporting it not only in The Rap Sheet but also in Kirkus Reviews and elsewhere. Rather than take this occasion of the author’s 100th birthday as an opportunity to repeat everything that’s come before, let me simply point you toward some of those pieces:

“The Name Is Macdonald: Fresh Acclaim for a P.I. Fiction Master” -- Part I of my most recent interview with Tom Nolan, covering his work on the anthology Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s and the book he co-authored with Suzanne Marrs, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

“On the Case with Tom Nolan” -- The much larger and more wide-ranging Part II of that same conversation.

“The Rap Sheet: First Contact” -- In which I recall my high-school introduction to Macdonald’s first Archer novel, The Moving Target.

“Graves Goes to His Grave” -- A 2010 obituary of actor Peter Graves that deals extensively with his role as Lew Archer in the TV pilot film The Underground Man, based on Macdonald’s 1971 novel of the same name.

“A Saint with a Gun” -- My comments on the original, 2007 edition of The Archer Files, edited by Tom Nolan.

“‘Heyday in the Blood’: A Never-Before-Published Lew Archer Tale” -- A short excerpt from The Archer Files.

“A Master’s Last Bow” -- In which Nolan recalls the research he did in order to compile the pieces that make up The Archer Files.

“Out of the Past” -- A review of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald (2001), edited by Tom Nolan.

There’s been considerable debate over the years as to which books among the Lew Archer series are the best. When The Rap Sheet conducted a survey along these lines in 2011, the top three vote-getters were The Chill (1964), The Underground Man, and The Galton Case (1959). But other readers stand behind Black Money, The Instant Enemy (1968), Sleeping Beauty (1973), The Goodbye Look (1969), The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), and The Way Some People Die (1951). Really, there are no bad choices in the bunch. If, for some strange reason, you’ve never read an Archer tale before, though, I would start precisely where I did so many years ago, with his first, The Moving Target (1949). And I’d do it now.

READ MORE:A Not-So-Golden State: The Detective Stories of Ross Macdonald,” by Andrew J. Bacevich (The Baffler): “Kenneth Millar at 100; Ross Macdonald at 59,” by Brian Busby (The Dusty Bookcase); “Ross Macdonald Turns 100” (MysteryPeople); “The Last Testament of Ross Macdonald,” by Leonardo Cassuto (The Boston Globe); “Facing Up to Macdonald’s Fiction,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Sinatra on Screen

Although he’s best known as a singer, Frank Sinatra--who would today have celebrated his 100th birthday (if he hadn’t died in 1998)--managed to find time during his decades-long career to act in both movies and on television. In addition to his roles as a heroin addict in The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), a wise-cracking, second-rate singer in Pal Joey (1957), a war veteran turned casino robber in Ocean's Eleven (1960), and a suspicious army major in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), he appeared in several works of crime fiction.

The intro and opening scene from Contract on Cherry Street.

For instance, Sinatra twice starred as Marvin H. Albert’s “hard-living, hard-loving” Miami private eye, Tony Rome, first in the 1960 big-screener Tony Rome and then in 1968’s Lady in Cement. Also in ’68, he showed up as New York City police investigator Joe Leland in The Detective, based on Roderick Thorp’s 1966 novel of that same name. Almost a decade later, in 1977, Sintra played another Manhattan cop, Deputy Inspector Frank Hovannes, in the NBC-TV movie Contract on Cherry Street, which Wikipedia says is often cited as his “one starring role in a dramatic television film.” And in The First Deadly Sin (a 1980 picture adapted from Lawrence Sanders’ 1973 novel), he portrayed a troubled New York City homicide cop, Captain Edward X. Delaney. His last screen role, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), was as retired police sergeant Michael Doheny in a 1987 episode of Tom Selleck’s Magnum, P.I. A note in IMDb maintains that Sinatra “planned to appear on Magnum, P.I. again the following season, but Tom Selleck’s scheduling conflicts forced the producers to cut back the episodes and Sinatra’s turn never came.”

READ MORE:Mystery History -- The Crime Films of Frank Sinatra,” by Patrick Balester (Picks by Pat); “Frank Sinatra’s Centennial,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts); “Frank Sinatra: A Hundred Years On, the Voice Resonates Still,” by Stephen Holden (The New York Times).

Friday, December 11, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part V: Ali Karim

Ali Karim is The Rap Sheet’s longtime British correspondent, a contributing editor of January Magazine, and the assistant editor of Shots. In addition, he writes for Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Crimespree, and Mystery Readers International.

After the Crash, by Michel Bussi (Weidenfeld & Nicolson UK):
A sensation in France, and a bestseller in the UK, Michel Bussi’s After the Crash (French title Un avion sans elle) is a remarkable narrative, a look at how an unknown past can impinge on an uncertain future. In 1980 (before DNA testing became commonplace), a passenger plane crashes in the French-Swiss Jura Mountains, instantly killing and cremating more than 160 people. The sole survivor is a three-month-old baby, nicknamed Dragonfly, whose identity is the intriguing plot device powering this page-turner. Close to two decades on, questions still remain, as a pair of families--representing two different sets of parents on that flight from Turkey--battle for “ownership” of the child. Is she Lyse-Rose de Carville or actually Emilie Vitral? The Carville family have wealth, while the Vitrals most definitely do not, which adds a socio-political dimension to Bussi’s yarn. Private investigator Crédule Grand-Duc, who has been hired by one of the grandparents to solve this mystery, contemplates suicide, despairing that he will never be able to complete his assignment. But before speeding off into oblivion, the sleuth notices a clue, one he hopes will finally reveal the truth behind the identity of Lylie, as the now teenage survivor has come to be known (that name being a hybrid of her two possible real identities). This realization comes too late, though, for Grand-Duc is then murdered … or so it seems. Told largely through excerpts from Grand-Duc’s journals, After the Crash achieves a conscientious unpacking of this mystery, delving into the ways that uncertainty over the girl’s heritage affects not only her relationship to the world but also her potential siblings’ relationships to Lylie. Now available in 26 languages worldwide, Bussi’s engaging yarn is perfect for a winter’s evening, and one of the best English-translated crime novels of 2015.

The Crossing, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):
The title of this novel refers to forcibly retired Los Angeles police detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch “crossing the line” to help his half-brother, so-called Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, on a defense case that at first appears to be a slam-dunk. Alexandra “Lexi” Parks, a respected city official, has been savagely slain in her bed and the evidence seems to point unequivocally at Haller’s client, Da’Quan Foster, a gangbanger turned family man. Bosch doesn’t really want to become involved in this tragic affair; he’s quite content rebuilding an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle. However, after Haller’s usual investigator is involved in a hit-and-run incident, the attorney turns to our favorite detective for assistance. Bosch isn’t so easily swayed as others are by signs pointing to a home invasion with a sexual motive, all gone wrong. He thinks Foster just might be as innocent as he claims. As he pursues the case, though, Bosch must not only overcome the guilt inflicted upon him by his former colleagues (who see him as a “traitor” for aiding a criminal defendant), but negotiate around roadblocks thrown up by someone who’s determined to alter the path of justice. Connelly’s journalistic background is much in evidence here, as he keeps a tight rein on an eclectic array of supporting characters and mutiple plot twists, and imbues his narrative with the atmospherics of the complex U.S. legal system as well as the techniques of modern police procedure. Written in a terse and urgent style, The Crossing is the sixth Connelly novel to feature Mickey Haller and the 20th investigation for Harry Bosch. So far, Bosch shows no signs of stagnation, despite evidence of age dogging his heels. Like the Harley in Bosch’s garage, this protagonist charges on untarnished. Thank goodness.

Dust and Desire, by Conrad Williams (Titan):
Better known to readers of horror fiction than those attuned toward mysteries, Conrad Williams here begins a P.I. series that’s rooted in the seedier side of London. His protagonist is Joel Sorrell, a melancholic, sometimes self-destructive former cop haunted by the murder of his wife and the disappearance of his daughter--years-ago crimes that still bleed inside his mind. In Dust and Desire, Sorrell is hired by the mysterious Kara Geenan to track down her missing 18-year-old brother, Jason Pythian. Along the way our hero falls victim to several visceral assaults, but he always manages to lick his wounds and return to the chase. It appears that a serial killer may be involved in Jason’s disappearance, one who has succeeded thus far in remaining under the radar. Monsters beget monsters as Williams provides context to the destructive capabilities of his repeat killer, known as “Wire.” There’s also a goodly amount of witty but black-edged dialogue here, and introspective ruminations that make Sorrell sound like a Cockney Philip Marlowe. It should be noted that one of the more memorable players in Dust and Desire is London itself, though a version of the British capital that you won’t find in TripAdvisor or Expedia. Sorrell’s city is more of the hellish variety, with the gumshoe filling a Job-like role. Readers who enjoy the nihilistic tales of Derek Raymond will find similarly engaging (and terrifying) treats in Williams’ story.

Life or Death, by Michael Robotham (Mulholland):
The winner of this year’s Gold Dagger, given out by the British Crime Writers’ Association, Life or Death unravels the yarn of Audie Palmer, a convicted armed robber who, just one day shy of being released after spending 10 years in a Texas maximum security prison, suddenly breaks out. Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? As the Bard said, “thereby hangs the tale”--and it’s a damn good one. It seems the armored truck robbery that landed him behind bars, led to the deaths of four other people, and left Audie in a coma also left behind many unanswered questions. Such as, whatever became of Audie’s brother and the $7 million that truck had been carrying? As Audie flees, determined to keep a promise he made long ago, he’s pursued by a motley assortment of federal authorities and more nefarious figures, including his old cell compatriot, Moss Webster, and tenacious FBI Special Agent Desiree Furness. Relentless in its pacing, with a storytelling style that is almost elegiac and a conclusion guaranteed to satisfy the reader’s every curiosity, Life or Death is a twisted, brooding thriller that makes us question what we think we know of the past and its links to the future.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin Classics):
Thanks to the first season of HBO-TV’s True Detective, there’s been a marked resurgence of interest in the work of American horror-fictionist Thomas Ligotti. The same themes of philosophical pessimism, cosmic horror, and antinatalism that can be found in Ligotti’s work also peppered True Detective. This Penguin Classics paperback edition gathers together the first two collections of Ligotti’s short stories. While not “crime fiction” per se, there is mystery here, and certainly crime. This newly released volume opens with a thought-provoking essay by Jeff VanderMeer, award-winning co-editor of The Weird, and features a number of standout tales. One of the best is “The Frolic,” a distressing episode about a psychiatrist, his family, and the touch of a madman who may well extend his insanity to other layers of reality that cloak our own. No less engaging is “Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes,” in which a magician’s act turns out to be far more sinister than it initially appeared to his distracted audience, raising questions about how our senses interpret what we experience--which may or may not be real. Special mention must be made of Ligotti’s highly acclaimed homage to H.P. Lovecraft, “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” which gives us an unreliable narrator in an unreliable world. Although they may not be to everyone’s taste, these stories will be a revelation to lovers of mystery fiction as well as to people who were puzzled by allegations that True Detective’s writer had committed plagiarism by borrowing from Ligotti’s work.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015,
Part IV: 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.

The Fade Out: Act One and The Fade Out: Act Two, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image Comics):
It may seem odd recommending a serialized novel or film before it’s played out, never mind a comic book. But trust me--judging from what’s gone before, and the quality the Eisner Award-winning team of Brubaker (words) and Phillips (pictures) continually bring to the genre, those of you who get your crime-fiction fix at the dark end of the street won’t want to miss this one. And now that two-thirds of this 12-part noir comic miniseries has been gathered into two easy-to-obtain collections (each comprising four issues), you’ll have no excuse. Because this sprawling saga of 1948 Hollywood is simply one of the sharpest, most morally complex crime stories in any medium in recent years; a great noir that somehow was never filmed. A deliciously gritty swirl of sex, violence, naked ambition, and back-lot treachery, The Fade Out revolves around a couple of tortured (and alcoholic) writers still haunted by World War II, a murdered actress, an ill-fated starlet, a plucky PR girl, a despotic studio head and his ruthless, take-no-prisoners fixer (who knows where all the bodies are buried--and may have buried a few of them himself), plus several more gloriously doomed schemers, dreamers, wannabes, and never-wases. Hell, even Dashiell Hammett shows up here, briefly, drink in hand. It’s all brought to a full boil with dark grace and bleak wit, with Phillips’ shadow-drenched, evocative artwork bringing Brubaker’s twisting, turning script to life. If you’ve missed out so far on what The Fade Out offers, these two collections are the perfect way to catch up. And all you crime writers out there should consider yourselves lucky that these guys are content--for now, at least--to stick to comics.

The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, by Lawrence Block
(Hard Case Crime):

The cover of this work prominently displays the publisher’s retro-looking logo and a naked babe (painted by the late Glen Orbik) with the obligatory gun and come-hither look. Even the title suggests we may be time-traveling back to the heady days of the original paperback boom, when thousands of cheesy soft-cover books (with their lurid covers, and promising varying degrees of lust and violence) filled the spinner racks of America. Some of those paperbacks were well worth reading, some even approached the level of literature, but every one of them promised--at a bare minimum--fast, cheap thrills. And all the years and all my alleged maturity are defenseless against Block’s latest, a knock-off quickie that gets in, gets out, and leaves behind only the lingering stench of sex, sweat, booze, and blood. Protagonist Doak Miller is a former NYPD dick, pushing 50, who’s set up shop as a cut-rate private eye in a steamy Florida bunghole somewhere between Tampa and Panama City. He has an understanding with the cops, as well as with several hot-to-trot women around town. But the fireworks, carnal and otherwise, really begin when he agrees to pose as an out-of-town gun in order to help the local fuzz nab Mrs. Lisa Otterbein, who’s looking to get rid of Mr. Otterbein. Simple enough, until Doak sees Lisa, she of the deep blue eyes, and then all bets are off. There’s an instant erotic attraction, and before you can say James M. Cain, the two are plotting to murder her husband--in between several steamy amatory encounters that definitely weren’t written in the 1950s. “It was more than kinky,” Doak reflects at one point, “It was … well, he didn’t know what it was, exactly.” What it is--exactly--is an unholy combo of primal urges, sexual obsession, twisted desires, and murderous treachery played out in motel rooms, bars, and dark alleys, that will not end well for anyone. But, then, really good noir tales never have sequels. This is Block at his very best, having a bit of fun. It’s greasy and sleazy and cheap, but sometimes cheap is how I feel.

The Martini Shot: A Novella and Stories, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown):
When George cleans his closet, it’s always worth seeing what he drags out. One of the most acclaimed genre authors of our time, Pelecanos is known primarily for his tough, socially relevant crime novels, mostly set in Washington, D.C., and his work in television for such class acts as The Wire, The Pacific, and Treme. Yet he isn’t particularly recognized for his short fiction--possibly because he’s done relatively little of it. He’s sure got the chops for it, though. Stretching back almost two decades to “When You’re Hungry” (1996) and roaring right up to the present with “Miss Mary’s Room” and “The Martini Shot,” both making their debuts here, this collection is like a whirlwind tour of Pelecanos’ world: men (and occasionally women) caught out on that line, pinned between need and duty, survival and honor, in a land of broken dreams and shattered promises. Pelecanos’ characters, be they grifters, cops, thugs, snitches, killers, or just some scared kid in a bad neighborhood trying to get home in one piece, always have hard choices to make, and those choices, even the right ones, inevitably come with a price. The intended money shot here is “The Martini Shot,” which details the on-location relationship-of-convenience between two lonely, middle-aged members of a TV cop-drama crew--an affair that’s sidetracked when another member of the production staff is murdered. With his spare, hard prose Pelecanos shows surprising compassion and nuance in that yarn, but for my dough the real heart of this collection lies in “Chosen,” a sort of prologue for his most recent series character, Spero Lucas (The Cut, Double), which relates the unapologetically earthy yet touching romance between Lucas’ Greek-American parents and their interracial slew of adopted kids. There’s always emotional heft to this author’s work. Despite the hard-bitten and often glib cynicism of his characters and the bleak, savage violence that pops up so frequently in their world, underneath it all there’s an underlying belief in at least some of his players that maybe, just maybe, choices really do matter, regardless of the cost, and that perhaps there is some hope after all. Heady stuff, if you ask me.

Someone Is Watching, by Joy Fielding (Ballantine):
Remember Peter Sellers in Being There, explaining that he “likes to watch”? Well, ditto for the folks in Fielding’s latest standalone, a perverted little fairy tale that’s equal parts Brothers Grimm and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Cocky Miami private eye Bailey Carpenter not only likes to watch, but gets paid for it. She’s young and beautiful, the princess in the tower, with a lucrative gig as the lead investigator for Holden, Cunningham and Kravitz, a prestigious Miami law firm. She lives in a swank high-rise, drives a flashy little sports car and is, of course, wonderfully thin. She’s also set to inherit a small fortune from her recently deceased dad, and will no doubt live happily ever after. And then she gets raped. The actual attack is--mercifully--dispatched quickly, reduced to a few unsettling pages early on, but it’s not the sexual assault that interests Fielding; its the vicious psychological and emotional aftermath. With her unknown assailant still on the loose, Bailey holes up in her apartment, afraid to leave, showering incessantly and tormented by nightmares. The phone rings and there’s nobody there. Fragile and frightened, she becomes obsessed with watching tenants in the tower across from her with binoculars. Particularly the preening exhibitionist who has sex with various women and never closes his blinds. Does he know she’s watching? Is he watching her? Could he be her attacker? Could he even be … a murderer? Bailey doesn’t know it, but nobody--the cops, building security, her own brother--quite believes her suspicions. Only Claire, her estranged half-sister, and Claire’s wise-ass teenage daughter, Jade, seem to buy into Bailey’s story. But as the comely P.I. sinks deeper into a drowning pool of paranoia, fear, guilt, and deceit, she begins to question her own sanity. Readers may as well. This isn’t an easy book, but at a time when rape is too often trivialized for political gain, it’s a powerful and timely one, haunting and harrowing. Read it now. But for God’s sake, pull the blinds.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street):
Don’t let all the highbrow praise for this metafictional head-spinner scare you away--McAlpine’s ambitions may be more high-falutin’ than those of the next ink-stained jasper, but he knows how to tell a kick-ass story. Even when it’s presented in bits and pieces. The snippets from a couple of different novels, interspersed by selected correspondence from the editor (the “woman with the blue pencil” of the title), are dealt out here like clues that the reader must assemble on his or her own. You’ll soon be caught up, though, as I was, by the author’s ambitions and audacity, as well as his capacity to nail the tone and reach of 1940s pulp fiction, and the tango writers and editors have been seemingly dancing forever. This slim volume should be a heaving mass of look-at-me-now literary pretension, but McAlpine keeps it moving, flitting from one novel’s story of a bookish Japanese-American UCLA professor, Sam Sumida, who’s still grieving over his murdered wife, seeking solace in watching a detective film on the night of June 6, 1941 … to the eye-rolling adventures of pulp hero Jimmy Park, a preposterously over-boiled L.A. gumshoe of Korean descent turned super spy, who’s out to nail those “dirty Japs” for Uncle Sam. And then there are the letters from Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries Inc., who offers guidance to Tukumi Sato, the creator of both Sam and Jimmy. Tukumi just wants to be a writer, but the poor sap’s ambitions are being thwarted at every turn not just by commercial necessity (always a bitch), but also by the cold, bitter realities of a scared, paranoid post-Pearl Harbor America. And that, beyond the post-modern whiz-bang and the gleeful potshots at the publishing biz, is where the true heart of this book beats. McAlpine may be a master of hint and nuance, but when the walls break down between fiction and reality, and the real story emerges, it’s a punch to the gut: the sad tale of Tukumi Sato, an American writer caught up in history.

Finally, one choice from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy (Spiegel & Grau):
Politicians may grandstand, the NRA and its lackeys may suggest that more guns are always the answer, and others may bristle at the apparently offensive suggestion that “black lives matter,” but Los Angeles Times crime reporter Leovy drops the cold, hard truth on the table: black lives might well matter (at least to some of us), but black-on-black murders don’t seem to count for shit, given the abysmal solution rates of those crimes, the lack of interest displayed and funds allocated to solving them, and the general apathy displayed by the rest of the country over the issue. Which is--partially--what makes this non-fiction book so bracing. Leovy finds one LAPD cop, John Skaggs, who does give a damn, and she doggedly follows him through his paces, using the wedge of a single case--the pointless murder of Bryant Tennelle, an 18-year-old black kid walking down an L.A. street one spring evening with a friend, carrying an unopened bottle of root beer--to pry open the whole ugly mess of racism, politics, cultural and societal malfunction, and downright stupidity that have set the seeds for this bloody epidemic. Not that Ghettoside is a finger-pointing screed that lays the blame on any particular faction, or even a particular race. As Leovy’s investigation spirals further and further out, it soon becomes clear that there are no easy answers, just a steaming mess of factors that will eventually bring everything from modern-day policing budgetary concerns to the Canadian Inuit and gender roles under her microscope. Of course, Skaggs, a methodical, gentle giant of a man, polite to a fault, is not the only cop to give a damn, but this book also explores how Skaggs and his like-minded colleagues are at a disadvantage and discouraged when dealing with the institutional practices of big-city law enforcement. The endless stats, the underlying reasons for the carnage, and the answers, fleeting as they are, are heartbreaking. But it’s the never-ending litany of American families destroyed by violence that will truly haunt you. Possibly the best book about real-life homicide cops since, well, David Simon’s Homicide was published more than 20 years ago, this work pulls no punches and soft-sells nothing. It’s a ballsy, alternately inspiring and angry piece of literary journalism and truth-telling that should be mandatory reading for any American who dismisses the whole issue by glibly claiming that “all lives matter.” Prove it then. Do something.