Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

I admit, this front from the 1959 Signet edition of The Dame, by Carter Brown (with artwork by Robert McGinnis), doesn’t look particularly festive. However, it’s promoting a celebratory series that begins today in my other blog, Killer Covers. As I explain there,
… I got to thinking about how often the word “dame” appears in the titles of those classic paperbacks I’ve come to treasure over the years. Could I find enough such books to fill a tribute to the dozen days of Twelvetide? As it turns out, there are many more than 12 available, especially if you include covers with “dame” in their teaser lines. So beginning today and running through January 5, Killer Covers is celebrating “The Twelve Dames of Christmas.”
Click here to enjoy the first entry. The Rap Sheet will be on hiatus for a few days (a little end-of-the-year breather), but you can delight in many more “dames” by visiting Killer Covers!

Fiction Favorites Galore

How about if we squeeze in one more post about “best crime fiction of 2016” compilations before ringing in the new year in?

Check out these pieces: Ayo Onatade runs down her 11 favorite reads of the last 12 months in Shotsmag Confidential, a list that features Colin Winnette’ Coyote, Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying, and Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill; Puzzle Doctor picks the “Best New Crime Fiction (of the Books That I’ve Read) 2016 (in My Opinion),” among them being The Great Revolt, by Paul Doherty, and A High Mortality of Doves, by Kate Ellis; Clinton Greaves anoints 16 new novels as the best of ’16, including Stuart Neville’s So Say the Fallen and Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild; and five different Crime Fiction Lover bloggers deliver their “bests” lists—Vicki Weisfeld (on whose inventory we find Bill Beverly’s Dodgers and J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty, as well as other titles), Keith Nixon (Sarah Ward’s A Deadly Thaw, Tim Baker’s Fever City), Spriteby (Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree, Chris Nickson’s The Iron Water), NagaiSayonara (Alan Furst’s A Hero in France, Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer), and RoughJustice (Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where It Hurts, Conrad Williams’ third Joel Sorrell novel, Hell Is Empty).

Meanwhile, Open Letters Monthly contributor Steve Donoghue has released his tally of the worst new novels of 2016, containing mention—much to the chagrin of Stephen King fans—of that author’s third Bill Hodges novel, End of Watch.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
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.

Beloved Poison, by E.S. Thomson (Pegasus):
Skeletons—both figurative and genuine—rattle through the pages of this initial historical mystery by Scottish author E.S. “Elaine” Thomson. Protagonist Jem Flockhart has at least one skeleton tucked away deep in her closet: she’s a young woman with a prominent birthmark (a mask of sorts), passing as a young man in order to continue a generations-stretching family tradition of apothecary service at St. Saviour’s Infirmary, a currently decaying 700-year-old London hospital on the brink of being replaced by a new railway bridge. Then, the first step in preparing St. Saviour’s for demolition is to remove the many layers of bones filling its adjoining churchyard. Finally, there are the featherweight, symbolic skeletons, half a dozen of them, packed into tiny coffins that Jem and junior architect Will Quartermain—sent to supervise the chuchyard’s razing—discover hidden in St. Saviour’s derelict chapel. Who was responsible for fashioning those caskets, and what do they represent? These are only two of the puzzles and twists Thomas offers in this abundantly atmospheric yarn. Soon, a maverick, womanizing physician known for dosing himself with toxins in order to learn more about their affects, is found poisoned; the wife of another physician falls dead, perhaps the victim of a legendary Abbott said to haunt the streets; and Jem’s declining father heads to the gallows for those crimes. Can Jem expose and make sense of St. Saviour’s long-harbored secrets before the small world she has known comes crashing down around her? Jem Flockhart is a thoroughly engaging amateur sleuth, and I’m looking forward to her reappearance next fall in Dark Asylum (Constable UK).

Better Dead, by Max Allan Collins (Forge):
Chicago-based private eye Nathan Heller is hired in 1953 by Pinkerton sleuth-turned-author Dashiell Hammett (a one-time member of the Communist Party of America, now representing a contingent of concerned literary leftists) “to conduct an eleventh-hour investigation into the alleged crimes of two people who are sitting on Death Row”: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a New York City couple convicted of conspiring to commit espionage by leaking American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. With assistance from Natalie Ash, a beguiling young Greenwich Village art gallery manager, who was once a neighbor of the Rosenbergs, Heller interviews and re-interviews witnesses to the incarcerated pair’s reputed treachery. Meanwhile, Reds-baiting Republican U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his odious chief counsel, Roy Cohn (later to become Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor), lean on Heller to tell them what he learns about the Rosenbergs, so they can be sure the couple won’t ever again enjoy life outside prison walls. It’s McCarthy, the scheming junior lawmaker from Wisconsin, who links the two halves of this boisterous, history-based novel. In Part II, Heller is approached by real-life pin-up model Bettie Page for help in slipping out from under congressional hearings targeting indecent publications and pornography. But no sooner does the wisecracking shamus accomplish that, than he’s drawn into a more significant case involving a bacteriologist privy to government-condoned experiments using drugs and biological warfare, as well as “radical interrogation techniques.” Author Max Allan Collins—recently named as a 2017 winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award—has now penned 16 Heller novels, and is still going strong.

By Gaslight, by Steven Price
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux):

As I wrote in my Kirkus Reviews critique of By Gaslight, this is “the most ambitious, most elegantly crafted book I’ve read all year.” Canadian poet Price combines graceful, evocative writing with an impellent plot set primarily in London, England, in 1885. Central to his yarn are two quite different men: William Pinkerton, the real-life elder son of legendary U.S. national detective agency founder Allan Pinkerton; and fictional gentleman-thief Adam Foole. Both on the trail of a “vicious and lovely” female grifter and erstwhile actress named Charlotte Reckitt—Pinkerton because he thinks she can lead him to Edward Shade, a mythologized miscreant who had eluded his lately deceased father; and Foole, because he still harbors a passion for Charlotte, even a decade after their parting. Evidence of Charlotte’s demise (she’s said to have leapt from a bridge into the “metallic sinew of the Thames”) fails to dissuade either man from his hunt; in fact, the two form an uneasy alliance, hoping to flush out Charlotte and Shade, and in the process they discover that they’re more connected by past events than they had understood. Price’s sweeping yarn bounces from fetid London thoroughfares to the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War, with stops in between at opium dens, African diamond mines, and crumbling sewer systems beneath the English capital. This is an all-consuming adventure with romantic undertones, establishing a new and very high bar against which other historical whodunits will be judged.

Little Sister, by David Hewson (Macmillan UK):
Not to be confused with Raymond Chandler’s better-known 1949 novel, this is the third entry in British author David Hewson’s series featuring Amsterdam police brigadier Pieter Vos and his feisty Frieslander colleague, Laura Bakker. The pair are called upon here to recapture Kim and Mia Timmers, orphaned twin sisters and once-famous singers, who—after being charged with multiple murders as children—spent 10 years in an island-isolated psychiatric institution before being released. The facility’s director had reservations about turning these two blondes, now in their early 20s, back into Netherlands society, and his prescience seems confirmed when the corpse of the sisters’ male nurse, who was supposed to drive them to a halfway house, is instead found buried on a beach, his car left submerged in a choked watercourse. The sisters, meanwhile, have traveled on to a hideout in Amsterdam, led by an unexplained note they’d received, along with some money. They think they have finally won their freedom, divorced from their former supervision … but in fact, they have only traded one set of restrictions for another, and must now exercise desperation-born ingenuity to escape. Vos, a particularly introspective detective, who makes his home on a dilapidated houseboat with his terrier, Sam, finds his search for the girls leading him to reanalyze the long-ago killings that institutionalized them in the first place. His supervisors aren’t pleased by this direction the case is taking, especially when it leads Vos to question his immediate boss’ links to dubious players involved in the original Timmers slayings. For Vos, though, a little insubordination in a good cause isn’t the worst sin; so with help from Bakker (whose country upbringing—usually an impediment to her fitting in—comes in handy here), he pushes for answers, inciting further violence. Hewson’s credits include the Rome-based Nic Costa series (Carnival for the Dead) and three hefty books based on the popular Danish TV crime drama The Killing. However, it’s his Vos/Bakker novels (the first two of which were 2014’s The House of Dolls and last year’s The Wrong Girl) that I find particularly rewarding. Another entry, Sleep Baby Sleep, is scheduled for UK release next June.

The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam):
Philip Kerr’s 11th Bernie Gunther novel finds the former Berlin police detective living on the French Riviera in 1956—which sounds more glamorous than it is. Now pushing 60 years old, and having recently bungled a suicide attempt (after his third wife left him to return to the Germany), Gunther is serving under an assumed name as the concierge at the posh Grand Hôtel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, maintaining the lowest profile possible, in order not to attract notice from the French Sûreté. But Kerr’s protagonist does not easily avoid trouble, especially when it comes to him. First, he determines to solve the shooting death of his bridge partner. Soon after that, Gunther is hired by one of the Riviera’s best-known residents, indiscreetly gay spy-turned-wordsmith W. Somerset Maugham, who needs his help in retrieving compromising photographs from a blackmailer. Complicating our hero’s endeavors are not only the involvement of a fetching female journalist determined to compose Maugham’s biography (if she can win entrée to his inner circle through Gunther), but also a onetime Gestapo officer, the remorseless Harold Hennig, against whom our “hero” hopes to take revenge for the wartime demise of a lover in Königsberg. As I opined in my Kirkus review of The Other Side of Silence: “Among several fine authors currently composing crime thrillers set amid and around World War II, Kerr is unquestionably the best.” A 12th Gunther outing, Prussian Blue, is due out in April 2017.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part VI: 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.

Fool Me Once, by Harlan Coben (Dutton):
Maya Stern Burkett has endured more than her fair share of strife and strains. Her career as a U.S. military helicopter pilot was ended by a whistle-blower who posted video evidence of her ordering a defensive assault in Iraq that led to the deaths of five people. Her husband, Joe Burkett, was killed senselessly in New York’s Central Park by a couple of masked muggers. Her sister, Claire, was slain during a home invasion while Maya was stationed in the Middle East. Maya, suffering from the stresses of her military assignments, has had to support herself and her daughter, 2-year-old Lily, by working as a flight instructor. And as if she didn’t have enough worries on her plate, she returns from work one day to discover that the “nanny cam” she’s installed in her home features footage showing what appears to be her late husband alive and visiting her den. When Maya questions her nanny, Isabella Mendez, about this unlikely resurrection, she gets a faceful of pepper spray, and Isabella steals the camera’s memory card. It’s enough to make beleaguered Maya paranoid, to trust no one—not her late husband’s wealthy family, not her deceased sister’s husband, and eventually not even herself. Author Coben has obviously done a good deal of research into the lives and deaths of military personnel, and he addresses the war-born horrors inflicted upon them with compassion. Thankfully, as Maya pursues solutions to the multiple puzzles raised in this story, Coben also sprinkles observational humor into his yarn, enough to prevent the grimness of her findings from crippling the plot’s drive. The final pull of the curtain at the dénouement of Fool Me Once is deftly executed, and it makes one pause for thought before beginning the inevitable search for the hidden-in-plain-sight clues you missed.

The One Man, by Andrew Gross (Minotaur):
I’ve been reeling somewhat ever since I read this decidedly literate suspense yarn, which is so very different from previous efforts by the same author. Andrew GrossThe One Man is a heavily researched World War II-era techno-thriller that mixes in the themes of family and of ordinary people being caught up in extraordinary situations. Gross uses the conventions of the historical thriller genre, but steers clear of the line that takes convention toward cliché. The One Man opens with a terse memo, dated August 21, 1943, and sent from nuclear physicists working on America’s Manhattan Project to J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of that project’s secret weapons laboratory, in which those physicists warn that Germany’s Nazi regime might succeed in creating a destructive nuclear device before the Allies can develop their own. In the prologue that follows, Gross introduces an elderly, unnamed man—a widower—whose daughter confronts him with a box of artifacts she’s found during a clean-out, and is curious to learn what they mean. “You really want to know?” he asks. When she replies, “I do,” then corrects herself—“We all do”—the old gent sits back to unfurl his tale. And what a story it is, involving a concentration camp in Poland, Jewish U.S. Intelligence agent Nathan Blum, and what initially seems like an impossible mission to free the single prisoner, a scientist, whom the Allies believe can help them win the war. This is a remarkable yarn, one that reminds me of thrillers by Alistair MacLean, and made me recall a weekend when I was a teenager and devoured Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal, back-to-back, so hypnotized was I by Forsyth’s storytelling prowess. Tucked beneath The One Man’s prominent moments of action, though, are some poignant stories about both love and the corrosive affects war and hate can have on families. Like Gross’ 2003 novel, The Jester, this new book informs at the same time as it makes our blood rush. Today, when countries stockpile weapons that can decimate the planet, we need to be reminded of how shamefully humans have dealt with their destructive powers in the past, and how one man’s actions really can make a difference.

Redemption Road, by John Hart
(Thomas Dunne):

Gun-safety efforts, dubious police shootings, and the fast-changing modern faces of justice and family are all concerns that find places in Redemption Road, Edgar Award-winner Hart’s first new novel since Iron Horse (2011). His intricate and lyrical narrative centers primarily on two North Carolina cops, Elizabeth Black and Adrian Wall, both of whom have been caught on the wrong side of gunplay incidents. Black is under investigation following her bullets-flying rescue of 18-year-old Channing Shore, who was being held prisoner in an abandoned home by two sexually abusive men. The news media are all over that case, because Black and the historically privileged Channing are both white, while the girl’s captors were African American. Black discharged her weapon 18 times in the course of Channing’s dramatic recovery. Should that be deemed excessive force? And is Black a “hero” or an “angel of death”? Meanwhile, former officer Wall has just be released on parole after serving more than a decade in prison for the ritual slaying of Julia Strange—a crime for which he has always protested his innocence. Black, who has harbored feelings for Wall, believes him, regardless of the evidence. But not so Julia Strange’s teenage son, Gideon, who sets out on the morning Wall walks free, holding a gun and with revenge on his mind. The theme of fractured relationships frames this Southern Gothic yarn quite nicely, and its plot gains further welcome complication thanks to Hart’s injection of another woman’s murder, police corruption, and his thoughtful portrayal of alcohol’s corrosive affects on families. It’s terrific to see this author back after such long radio silence, and I hope he has space on his mantelpiece, because Redemption Road is likely to figure heaving in the competition for next year’s major crime-fiction awards.

What Remains of Me, by Alison Gaylin (Morrow):
Taking a break from her acclaimed Brenna Spector series (Stay with Me, etc.), Alison Gaylin delivers this standalone, split-timeline whodunit full of Hollywood decadence. The focus is primarily on Kelly Michelle Lund, the vulnerable fraternal twin of an aspiring actress who took her own life in 1978. Two years after that, Kelly—hungry to be noticed, and given to hanging out with the trouble-prone children of Los Angeles big shots—is charged with murdering renowned film director John McFadden, and subsequently sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Kelly is a teenager at the time, and speculation regarding her motive runs rampant. Now jump ahead to the first decade of the 21st century. Kelly has been released and has walked down the aisle with Shane Marshall, the son of movie legend Sterling Marshall. There appears to be potential for Kelly to finally turn her life around … until the elder Marshall is found dead at his Hollywood residence, done in by a gunshot wound to the head (just like John McFadden), and Kelly falls under suspicion once more. There are plenty of vividly rendered back-stories in these pages, some having to do with the Lund family’s tragedies, others with Kelly’s search for acceptance among her acquaintances, especially Bellamy Marshall, her hubby Shane’s sister. As twisty and satisfying as Gaylin’s narrative is, it’s her characterizations that really distinguish What Remains of Me from the pack. Like Hollywood itself, Kelly’s life is filled with secrets, which are slowly revealed here as investigators look into the two homicides with which she’s connected. This is a highly recommended thriller with an unexpected and thought-provoking climax.

Finally, a selection from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

Death Comes Knocking: Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, by Graham Bartlett with Peter James (Pan Macmillan UK):
This companion piece to Diamond Dagger Award winner Peter James’ best-selling, Brighton-set series of Roy Grace police thrillers was penned in partnership with Graham Bartlett, a former Sussex Police beat officer, who during a 30-year career rose to become chief superintendent. A fine foreword, contributed by James himself, establishes the historic seaside resort scene against which Bartlett recalls some of the most intriguing criminal cases he encountered during his many years of maintaining law and order. The writing is surprisingly easygoing, and there’s very little stilted, officious “thin blue line” vernacular. This book reads more often like a novel than a work of non-fiction. And it’s gently striated with humor—some of it pretty black, due to the underworld figures (among them psychopathic murderer Paul Teed) and drug gangs that figure into Bartlett’s recollections. Mention should also be made, though, of forgers David Henty and Clifford Wake, for the details of that investigation made me laugh out loud; had I not known it was factual, I’d have thought it too incredible for fiction. No doubt many loyal Peter James readers will grab this book because of its links to Grace; and indeed, Bartlett does relate some interesting real-life criminal encounters to James’ fiction. However, Death Comes Knocking is essential reading for anyone curious about the world of the police procedural, whether they be devotees of John Rebus, Alan Banks, Adam Dalgliesh, or others.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Different Tastes, Different Choices

Chances are that critics will still be naming their favorite books of 2016 well into January of next year. If so, you can guarantee we’ll be paying attention. Among the latest offerings in this regard: The Seattle Times’ Adam Woog chooses what he thinks are the “10 Best Mysteries of 2016,” including Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye, Laurie R. King’s The Murder of Mary Russell, and Timothy Hallinan’s King Maybe; Open Letters Monthly contributor Steve Donoghue offers his own, quite different 10, among the books he applauds being Jeri Westerson’s The Silence of Stones and Conor Brady’s The Eloquence of the Dead; Crime Fiction Lover reviewers continue to roll out their preferences, with Marina Sofia declaring her picks here, while Mal McEwan posts his own here; the Web site Dead Good solicited suggestions from 17 authors and received still more selections, covering everything from Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 to Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal and Bill Beverly’s Dodgers; Crime Watch’s Craig Sisterson promised to deliver his 12 “best reads of the year” on an unambiguous schedule, but seems already to have fallen behind; and though its list extends beyond crime, mystery, and thriller fiction, Vox finds room on its favorite books roster for Emma Cline’s The Girls and Tana French’s The Trespasser.

Readying Literary Escapes for 2017

With the new year starting in less than two weeks, I’ve devoted my new Kirkus Reviews column to a selection of crime-fiction releases due out in the United States during 2017’s three opening months. In addition to my mentions of some two dozen other fresh finds, I am offering short previews of seven novels I think deserve special attention, including tales by Derek B. Miller, Charles Cumming, and Julia Dahl. You can find the full piece here.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part V: Jacques Filippi

Jacques Filippi started his career as a journalist, but has been working in the book world since 2001 as a bookseller, translator, sales representative, events coordinator, and editor. In 2011, he started his blog, The House of Crime and Mystery, and co-founded the now-defunct QuébeCrime Writers Festival. His blog will soon be re-created as a Web site. Filippi is the co-editor (with John McFetridge) of the 2017 short-story collection, Montréal Noir (Akashic Press). When not working, Filippi loves hiding behind his Canon camera. He lives with his family in Châteauguay, Quebec.

Before the Fall,
by Noah Hawley (Grand Central):

A multimillionaire’s private plane plummets into the Atlantic Ocean with 11 people on board. Only two of those passengers survive: Scott Burroughs, a painter looking for one more chance (maybe his last) to become the artist he believes he can be; and the multimillionaire’s 4-year-old son, J.J. Bateman. Burroughs saves the boy by pulling him onto his back and swimming for hours in almost complete darkness and tumultuous waters. Hawley’s description of that long night is incredibly intense and claustrophobic. The subsequent investigation of the crash starts, and it is immediately followed by a media frenzy that captivates the public. Hailed as a hero, Burroughs only wants to hide and take some time to process all of what’s happened. Meanwhile, J.J.—under tremendous psychological shock—has stopped talking. The news media, impatient for answers that investigators can’t find quickly enough, start to make up their own scenarios involving here a group of terrorists, there a government plot, and everywhere else a new theory. Until one last option emerges: what about Scott Burroughs? With Before the Fall, Noah Hawley (creator of the TV series Fargo) has given us a suspenseful story that also delivers insights into how today’s media exert power—sometimes inadvertently, but much too often deliberately—over public perceptions of events, without sufficient consideration for veracity or decency. Hawley details the lives—before the fall—of each person on that doomed aircraft, and a few become suspects in the reader’s mind. Then the author examines the common mind of a public that fears the unknown and hates ambiguity. It wants quick, simple solutions, and is unwilling to think for itself; it needs heroes and villains, and is all too willing to accept whoever the media offer.

Brighton, by Michael Harvey (Ecco):
Kevin Pearce is an investigative reporter with The Boston Globe, who has recently won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles he wrote about a black man wrongly convicted of murder. Now, thanks to inside information passed along by his eager district attorney girlfriend, Kevin learns about another case of homicide, perhaps linked to one of his childhood pals, Bobby Scales, whom he hasn’t seen in more than a quarter-century. Deciding to probe further, Kevin heads back to Brighton, the violent Boston neighborhood from which Bobby once saved him, giving Kevin a chance to make a better life for himself. Now it’s Kevin’s turn to save Bobby, for better or worse. Every character in Brighton is multifaceted, draped with layers of secrets and regrets, but no one seems to have more to lose than Kevin Pearce. While investigating a series of murders, he rediscovers the streets and venues of his boyhood, meets old friends and family members he hasn’t seen in decades, and feels the pull of the painful past entering his brain like the blade of a knife. The different points of view in this narrative give it a haunting atmosphere. As the complexity of the truth is slowly revealed, we discover each character’s true intentions. There is also plenty of blame to be distributed in a world that revolves around its own sets of rules. Many players here are compelled to revisit the mistakes of the past, but not everyone is willing to face the consequences. For Kevin Pearce and Bobby Scales, the question is who will be left standing. If you’ve never read the works of Chicago journalist Michael Harvey (The Governor’s Wife, The Fifth Floor), you’ve been missing out on a fine writer who pulls you into his world and convinces you to stay put until the end. Evocative prose, even better dialogue, and sharp descriptions make Boston come alive in Brighton.

Close Your Eyes,
by Michael Robotham (Mulholland):

Characters, characters, characters. It’s all about the characters in Michael Robotham’s novels, even more so in Close Your Eyes. Don’t get me wrong—his plots are multilayered, tightly written, darkly complex, and always nerve-wracking. What draws you back to this Australian author’s works, though, are the attachments you develop to his fictional players. From clinical psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin (a Parkinson’s disease sufferer) and his estranged wife (currently battling cancer) to their two daughters, ex-police detective Vincent Ruiz, and various cops, detectives, and the necessary slew of “ordinary” people and suspects, Robotham presents us in Close Your Eyes with a better-than-one-dimensional cast. Even his criminals are intricate humans, given their own belief systems and rules, their own emotional scars and unexpected capacities for empathy. In Close Your Eyes, a double-murder investigation is complicated by the intervention of one of Joe’s former students, who wins the attention of the media and general public by revealing inside information about the crime. Joe and Ruiz are brought in to help, and they soon link a series of homicides in the area to the present investigation. Their list of suspects grows longer and longer, but they’re aware that their timeframe to catch the killer is very short. As Joe becomes more involved in the investigation, he realizes that his world, and the people who inhabit it, could be at great risk. In the second part of this novel, the intensity increases sharply as the route toward a possible resolution narrows. Just don’t be too quick to think you’ve figured it all out. Close Your Eyes delivers one of the most emotionally charged and poignant endings I’ve read in a long time. A few years ago, Canadian thriller writer Linwood Barclay said that “Michael Robotham doesn’t just make me scared for his characters, he makes my heart ache for them.” That’s never been so true as it is with Close Your Eyes.

Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow):
Luisa “Lu” Brant, a young widow and the mother of twins, has recently been elected as the state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland—following in her eminent father’s footsteps—and is looking for a case that will justify voters’ faith in her abilities. However, her decision to prosecute a seemingly unbalanced African-American man charged with fatally assaulting a woman in her own residence will bring back personal memories both challenging and dubious, involving her father’s own first investigation. It will push Lu toward people she knew many years before, while revealing how much they’ve changed in the interim, and why. More importantly, her work will lead her to view her parent and his long career with greater scrutiny … and even doubt. She will question some of his decisions, which will destabilize her as well as draw a dark cloud of uncertainty over her judgment. Lippman’s narrative lulls you in slowly, seductively, enticing you with a compelling plot and absorbing details. Her wide range of beautifully flawed and true characters adds to one’s enjoyment of the experience. And like any good story should, this one stops but doesn’t abandon you immediately. For many readers, it would be sacrilegious to compare a recent work of fiction to a beloved classic; but for various reasons, mostly because of their shared compassion and authenticity, Wilde Lake often reminded me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. If you read Lippman’s latest standalone, you’ll realize why. Because it’s that good, and you shouldn’t miss it.

You Will Know Me,
by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown):

This novel’s official plot description begins with the provocative question, “How far will you go to achieve a dream?” You might think that only people who harbor dreams of their own advancement would ever go to great lengths to reach them. But that neglects the fact that many men and women—having been denied their own sense of significant achievement, thanks to a lack of passion, or an injury or sickness, or myriad other obstacles—seek it through others, instead. In many cases they’re parents with aspirations for their children, or friends of the family willing to lend a hand, or sponsors who can provide financial assistance to young achievers, or strangers who would like to be part of a possible success. The potential prodigies might be hockey players, football sensations, incredible violinists, natural comedians, or as Megan Abbott imagines in her eighth novel, You Will Know Me, a diamond-in-the-rough gymnast. The talent and the will are already present in Devon Knox, a 15-year-old athletic marvel being determinedly groomed for Olympics renown. But when tragedy befalls her tight community in the form of a hit-and-run incident that takes the life of handsome teenager Ryan Beck, Devon’s bright future might have to be put on hold indefinitely. That’s tough, because as her parents, her coach, and everyone else who’s backing her rise to the top realizes, a gymnast has only a slender path toward victory. Time can be the determinant between reaching the highest level … or being stuck right behind a champion. In Devon’s case, though, there’s an additional roadblock: many of the people who have placed their fervent hopes and dreams in Devon are also suspects in Ryan’s killing. Author Abbott rolls out her story in fairly straightforward fashion, helping you understand her ambitious, imperfect players and judge for yourself whether any of them might be willing to go too far in pursuit of their goals. The results are as emotional as driving past an accident on the road: you feel for the people involved, but you’re happy you are not one of them.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part IV: Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller was a regular contributor to Mystery News, writing the “In the Beginning” column about new crime-fiction writers for several years. He has also penned posts for The Rap Sheet and reviews for January Magazine. Originally from Central Ohio, Miller now makes his home in Massachusetts with his wife, Leslie, and spends his days working in the insurance industry.

Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir,
edited by Jim Fusilli (Three Rooms Press)

In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block (Pegasus)
Short-story anthologies look easy—a reasonably well-connected author or editor handpicks an assembly of similar writers, gives them the theme of the collection, sits back … and voila, a year later appears a perfectly balanced quilt of short fiction, memorable but not overwhelming, that readers can dip into every now and again. It strikes me as not unlike leading a jazz quintet—everyone gets a solo, but no one should be a spotlight hog to the detriment of the other journeymen. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Often, the results are less than optimal. The theme is weak, perhaps, or the editing too light and the stories entirely forgettable once a page is turned. In late 2016, two terrific new anthologies broke the mold, favoring discerning readers of short fiction with tales of particularly high quality. Most of us know Jim Fusilli as the creator of the Terry Orr series of private eye novels (Hard, Hard City, etc.). In his day job, however, Fusilli is the rock and pop music critic of The Wall Street Journal, which makes him well-suited to edit an anthology of crime fiction set in and around the music scene. While many of the stories in Crime Plus Music focus on musicians (among them Naomi Rand’s “The Misfits,” about a creepy, predatory producer taking advantage of a naïve girl band), a surprising number of them center around the role music plays in the lives of civilians and how we react to music and let songs serve as the soundtracks of our lives (see “Me Untamed,” by David Liss, for what can result from some auditory courage). A particular standout here is David Corbett’s “Are You With Me, Doctor Wu?” which contains a terrific villain who reminded me of Dashiell Hammett’s Kaspar Gutman, plus several sly references to the Steely Dan album which contains the inspiration for Corbett’s title. (On a related note, this year I also dipped into Fusilli’s Catching Up: Connecting with Great 21st Century Music, a collection of essays about the current state of pop music, and I direct all music lovers to follow my lead.)

In his own 2016 collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, Lawrence Block amasses another impressive roster of short-story writers (not a single one of whom is duplicated from Crime Plus Music), who were asked to choose a favorite painting by Edward Hopper, the 20th-century American master most closely identified with the theme of urban loneliness and solitude, and go at it. Not all the resulting yarns are mysteries; Jill D. Block’s “The Story of Caroline,” for instance, certainly has an element of the unknown, but it can’t be truly classified as crime fiction. Yet each contains the elements associated with Hopper—characters with troubled pasts and uncertain futures, alone in their thoughts with or without helpful accomplices. Many of the authors mustered here pop up frequently in themed anthologies (Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates), but Block also throws two surprises at us. Craig Ferguson, formerly of late-night television, contributes a laugh-out loud yarn that contains both a whale and the ghost of Elvis Presley; while Gail Levin—author of the definitive Edward Hopper biography—offers a story about the value of owning a Hopper original (as Block notes in his introduction, Levin tells us about “an extraordinary little-known episode toward the end of the artist’s life, of which she has firsthand knowledge”).

Both of these short-fiction collections are well worth your attention.

The Girls, by Emma Cline
(Random House)

I suppose it’s possible that reasonable minds could fairly debate the inclusion of young Emma Cline’s literary-fiction debut in a tally of exceptional crime fiction, but I long ago gave up that particular ghost—if there’s crime at the center of a story, that’s good enough for me. Cline’s coming-of-age novel about a girl at the periphery of a Manson Family-like cult envelops the reader in a cloud of foreboding that the noir masters could respect. Set during the Summer of Love, 1967, this tale finds an impressionable and largely abandoned 14-year-old Evie Boyd walking her bicycle on the side of a road in Marin County, California, just a few short weeks before she is due to be shipped off to boarding school. That’s when her life changes. After encountering a group of free-spirited girls in a park, she’s swept up by them and taken to their knockabout compound. There she is drawn not to the godlike Russell, this novel’s Charles Manson stand-in, but instead to raven-haired Suzanne, the leader of these acolytes who blindly follow Russell’s increasingly erratic orders. Although in the case of Suzanne, she also serves to provide subtle manipulation, egging Russell on to exercise his worst and deadliest tendencies. Suzanne provides the dramatic lynchpin to both this book’s final act of violence and the haunting secret that Evie will take with her into her adulthood. Cline’s prose is occasionally difficult to claw through, but the characters and atmosphere make up for any stylistic overreach. Fans of Laura Lippman and Donna Tartt will be rewarded here.

“One Cracking Year for Crime Fiction”

While other blogs and Web sites continue to broadcast their critics’ comparatively paltry five or 10 individual choices of the “best crime fiction” published over the last 12 months, Barry Forshaw’s Crime Time has dashed out in front of the pack, waving its list of the “Top 100 Books of 2016.” The choices are so numerous, they had to be split three ways. Part I is available now, featuring the first 50 picks, everything from Alan Furst’s A Hero of France and Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger to Anthony J. Quinn’s Trespass, William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher, and Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City.

There’s no telling yet when Parts II and III of Crime Time’s rundown might appear, but we’ll update this post when they do.

FOLLOW-UP: The second part of Crime Time’s list—which gives effusive thumbs-up to Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where It Hurts, Ian Rankin’s Rather Be the Devil, and Walter Mosley’s Charcoal Joe, among other books—can be found here. Finally, Part III focuses on the top 21 vote-getters, from Chris Brookmyre’s Black Widow and Eva Dolan’s After You Die to Ray Celestin’s Dead Man Blues, Abhir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, and ... sorry, but you’ll have to click here to find out which novel Crime Time chose as this year’s best.

Revue of Reviewers, 12-15-16

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.

Piping in More “Maigret”

The British television network ITV was apparently pleased enough with the viewership numbers on this last March’s “Maigret Sets a Trap”—its first episode in a rebooted Maigret series, starring comedic actor Rowan Atkinson and based on Georges Simenon’s long-running succession of mystery novels about French detective Jules Maigret—that it has a second installment, “Maigret’s Dead Man,” set to air in the UK on Christmas Day. Past Offenses has the trailer.

If you’d like to know more about the 1948 novel on which episode two is based, check out Crime Fiction Lover’s new review.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part III: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is the Montreal-born founder and editor of that invaluable resource, The Thrilling Detective Web Site, as well as the Web monkey for The Private Eye Writers of America and a contributing editor of Mystery Scene. He lives in Southern California’s High Desert region, where he’s working on a non-fiction book about married detective couples with his wife, mystery author D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian and Josh Lanyon).

Black Hills, by Franklin Schneider and Jennifer Schneider (Thomas & Mercer):
Is Whitehurst the new Poisonville? Or does it just feel like it? Because the dirty, dusty South Dakota mining boomtown that serves as this riveting, slyly subversive novel’s setting—complete with its surly oil workers, paranoid drug dealers, desperate whores, slimy pimps, noxious air, crooked cops, and more corruption than any sane person could swallow—is as toxic a setting as anything I’ve read in crime fiction, both literally and figuratively. Enter Alice Riley, a bitter and abrasive Brooklyn private investigator, running on bad luck and bad choices, who reluctantly journeys to Whitehurst to clear a former colleague’s geologist husband of beating up a young hooker, only to discover that there’s more to the case than anyone suspected. And Alice, flawed, vulnerable, and nowhere near as tough as she thinks she is, may not be able to handle it. Her tumble into the rabbit hole becomes a descent into Hell. With drugs, greed, and corruption running rampant, the violent, polluted, and earthquake-prone boomtown is a great variant on The Great Wrong Place, and represents a stinging indictment of the moral and environmental decay we too often write off as “business as usual.” This rough-edged debut by a sister/brother writing team may occasionally lose its way, but Alice Riley’s misguided attempt to set things right is a bleak, harsh tale well worth investigating.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen (Atria/37 INK):
Black lives matter? Not in post-World War II Atlanta, Georgia. Or at least not enough for the members of that city’s newly minted squad of eight “Negro” police officers to be allowed to do their jobs with all the power and authority enjoyed by their fellow white officers. They’re restricted to patrolling the predominantly black “Darktown” area. And forget about questioning—never mind arresting—white suspects; these young African-American cops aren’t even allowed to enter Atlanta’s main police headquarters without permission, and instead must work out of a dingy basement office at the “colored” YMCA. But when black officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith (and Dennis Rakestraw, a sympathetic white rookie) suspect a former cop may have been involved in the murder of a young black woman—and that Rakestraw’s partner, Lionel Dunlow, a brutal, racist thug, may be covering up the crime—all bets are off. The unlikely trio (race may be the least of their differences) begin their own off-the-books investigation that burrows deep into the hate-filled, corrosive heart of “the good old days.” Riveting and compelling, and burning with a righteous anger that continues to smolder long after the last page is read, Mullen’s rabble-rousing, provocative novel is a somber reminder that even an antique mirror can cast a true reflection. Anyone who questions the validity of the anger behind recent BLM protests, or thinks a pretty little “All Lives Matter” bandage will fix the open wound of racism in this country should read Darktown.

The Knife Slipped, by A.A. Fair (Hard Case Crime):
This long-lost novel by A.A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner), never before published, is like a long-delayed Christmas gift, arriving scarred and battered 75 years late. But it’s here now, and what a treat! These days, Gardner’s remembered—if at all—for creating Perry Mason, but if you ask me, the best characters he ever whipped up in his long career were bullying, penny-pinching Los Angeles private eye Bertha Cool, a cynical, 60-something woman of mountainous proportions, and her younger, hen-pecked shrimp of an assistant, Donald Lam, a disbarred lawyer who somehow still has a few ideals discreetly tucked away. It’s become common for today’s young crime writers to identify with the sometimes-dubious pulp fiction of the 1930s and ’40s (let’s face it—much of it was horrible), but Gardner was one of the authors who got it right. At his best, he was a master of characterization and nicely complicated plots that managed to zip, zig, and zag, leavened with banter that kept everything moving smartly along. And he’s on fire here with the proposed second entry in what was, in the late ’30s, a new series (it would eventually extend to 30 books), but still tinkering. Donald remains fresh to the shamus game, a little green and rather too easily distracted by a pretty face; while Bertha, who nobody would ever call a pretty face, and who generally displays about as much warmth as a hockey puck, lets slip a quick glimpse of a possible soft side to her personality. Well, maybe. It all begins with Donald dispatched by Bertha to get the goods on a cheating husband. But the case soon takes an unexpected hop and ends up a hot mess full of crooked cops, thugs, a pretty switchboard operator, extortion, and assorted dirty political tricks. Bertha immediately smells money and sets to work from her end, she and Donald both keeping their other partner in the dark. Important? Nope. Just fun. A lotta fun. This is how it’s done, kids.

One or the Other, by John McFetridge (ECW Press):
It’s so easy to dismiss the appeal of John McFetridge’s Montreal, Quebec-set Eddie Dougherty police procedurals as knee-jerk homesickness on my part—anyone who’s spoken to me for about four seconds knows I miss that gloriously fractured, schizoid city with all my heart. But there really is something wonderful going on in this author’s pin-point evocation of a time and a place that sidesteps lame nostalgia; there’s a slow-burning narrative drive flowing under the easygoing, some-stuff-happened, then-some-other-stuff-happened that’s hard to resist. It’s 1976 and Constable Dougherty, already 10 years a cop, isn’t getting any younger, and his career has stalled. He yearns to break into the Detective division, but worries that he may be too English for Montreal’s predominantly French force. Or does he just lack the right stuff? As summer approaches, with the cops tearing through the city, frantically searching for clues to the recent and daring multi-million-dollar daytime hold-up of an armored car, and the entire city gearing up for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games (with a seismic political upheaval and its subsequent linguistic and cultural fallout waiting in the wings), Eddie throws himself into investigating the murder of a teenage boy and girl whose bodies were dumped off the Jacques Cartier Bridge into the St. Lawrence River on their way home from a concert. But when their superiors order Eddie and a young, female colleague from the suburban force on the other side of the river to drop the case, they decide to work it on their own. McFetridge gets every detail right and tight, but it’s the narrative heart beating underneath it all that really brings this tale home.

Last but not least, one choice from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives, by Paul Nelson and Kevin Avery (Fantagraphics):
The geekiest of my choices for 2016 is this handsome slab of a book: a heartfelt tribute to one of my all-time-favorite crime writers, Ross Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar), the creator of fictional Long Beach private eye Lew Archer, and among the few toilers in this genre who can rightfully be mentioned in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Archer, the eternally lonely and compassionate sleuth, plumbed the depths of familial discord and dysfunction through 18 amazing novels and a handful of short stories (plus two films starring Paul Newman). Anybody who’s ever fallen under the spell of Macdonald’s compelling detective fiction (or the author’s own story, which would be more than suitable fare for one of his novels) will be fascinated by this astoundingly personal and captivating tome, a fanboy scrapbook of sorts that’s part serious bibliography and part biography, comprising excerpts from numerous interviews conducted by the late rock-music critic and crime nerd Paul Nelson over a period of years, and illustrated with a barrage of rare photos, correspondence, manuscript pages, and essays. Too rich for one setting, it’s a veritable buffet—the long-awaited, perfect complement to Tom Nolan’s Ross MacDonald: A Biography (1999); essential and at times provocative reading for anyone who ever looked for solutions to their own mysteries in a crime novel.

Malfeasance and Mistletoe

I’ve had some trouble feeling the Christmas spirit this year. Maybe it’s because I am still getting over the loss of my dear cat, Monkey. Or because my mother-in-law passed away a few months ago, and my wife continues to work through her grief around that. Or because I’m having trouble coping with the potentially disastrous fact that Americans elected a bullying bigot, misogynist, and sex predator (not exactly a role model for youngsters) as their next president. Whatever the reason, it has been hard for me to find the joy and smiles I usually share at this time of year. I’ve tried loading my CD player up with Christmas music and whittling down my list of presents to be purchased, but so far without satisfactory result.

Maybe the answer is to bury myself in Yuletide-associated crime fiction and try to block out the world for a while. If so, Mystery Fanfare’s compilation of Christmas mystery titles will come in very handy. Blogger Janet Rudolph has broken her list down into five parts: Authors A-DAuthors E-HAuthors I-N, Authors O-R, and Authors S-Z. Clearly, crime writers see great potential in linking homicide and the holidays. Any family that has had to arrange Christmas parties around complicated guest schedules or endure the conflicting demands of divorced parents during this season might understand that quite well.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part II: Steven Nester

Steven Nester is the longtime host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio program heard on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). In addition, he is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, January Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, Mystery Scene, and Firsts Magazine.

The Far Empty, by J. Todd Scott (Putnam):
Big Bend County Sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross is the kind of lawman who, “once he said something, it was the law,” and in the rugged, sparsely populated border region of Texas he polices, there’s no one looking over Ross’ shoulder to make sure his version is by the book. J. Scott Todd’s The Far Empty is a slow-blooming fleur de mal that thrives in the harsh west Texas climate, where “there’s more blood in the ground than water”—thanks to Sheriff Ross—and where he and his deputies bully the populace with impunity, and enable drug smugglers to operate unimpeded. While Ross might bring to mind another hard-ass Texas peace officer, sociopath Lou Ford (a creation of pulp tragedian Jim Thompson in his 1952, first-person-recounted classic, The Killer Inside Me), Scott, a real-life agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, deftly alternates his yarn’s point of view between several characters with an assuredness that belies the fact of this being his first novel. The murderous Ross incites the curiosity of his teenage son to investigate his mother’s strange and recent disappearance. And when a new schoolteacher arrives in the small town of Murfee under murky circumstances, she and one of Ross’ deputies begin to link together several coincidences, which serve to bring many mysteries and crimes both into the open and to closure.

IQ, by Joe Ide (Mulholland):
Young high school dropout-turned-private eye Isaiah Quintabe is the eponymous and aptly named IQ in Joe Ide’s superb, often hilarious debut crime novel. Smart as a whip, “unlicensed and undaground,” IQ has no family and no money, just his renowned intellect. While enabling him to run circles around the local competition, his smarts also relegate him to outsider status in gritty Long Beach, California, where minds are corralled by chain-link and the lines are usually drawn in cocaine. After his older brother, Marcus, is killed by a hit-and-run driver, IQ must support himself to avoid foster care, and he hopes to make bank when he’s hired to find out who is trying to kill Calvin Wright, aka Black the Knife, a once-successful rapper on his way down. IQ takes on a roommate, a dope dealer named Dodson, who has confidence, big plans, and “a hitch in his stride like a pimp on his birthday.” The two embark on a burglary spree to pay the bills; but IQ finds himself trapped by Dodson’s avarice, which culminates in a plan to rob Junior, Dodson’s coke supplier. Dodson’s innate common sense and wit result in many of the book’s cleverest moments, such as this priceless exchange between him and his calculating girlfriend:
“Yeah, [says Dodson] but robbing a pet store ain’t nothing like trying to jack Junior.”

“I’m not saying they are the same. I’m saying you could work it out in your mind, ask yourself how the shit could go down.”

“Ask myself how the—I
am myself. Why would I ask somebody who don’t know?”
IQ is nobody’s main man and nobody’s fool as he gets on in the world and learns to deal with death and atone for mistakes in this wise and funny character-driven novel.

The More They Disappear, by Jesse Donaldson (Thomas Dunne):
The corruption is thorough, ubiquitous and, sadly, a family affair in Jesse Donaldson’s beautifully written first novel, The More They Disappear. Sheriff Lew Mattock is murdered by a young couple, children of Marathon, Kentucky’s leading citizens, who plan to escape the drug-ravaged town. Deputy Sheriff Harlan Dupee steps into Mattock’s filthy shoes to solve the case—and quickly wishes he hadn’t. The gold rush of the illegal prescription-pill trade introduces ambition and pretension all the way from Tobacco Road to the biggest mansions in town, and the ones who experience the worst damage aren’t just addicts, but those who are flush with the riches, influence, and venality fast money offers. Few characters are without sin in this story, whether their failings are carnal, remunerative, or a gross abuse of power. An exception is the harried and progressively more horrified Dupee. He wants the job of sheriff, but to earn it he must first bring Mattock’s killers to justice. Still in mourning, following the murder of a woman he loved, Dupee becomes even more bitter and jaded when it comes to light that the powers-that-be had a hand in earning her killer a lenient sentence. “All his life,” Donaldson writes, “Harlan had searched for a code worth living by, a guiding star, but he was a man who hedged his bets, who believed a little in everything and therefore stood for nothing.” Dupee eventually makes inroads with a feral teenage girl named Maddie, and it’s this ray of hope that might save Marathon, Kentucky, from falling deeper into darkness.

Red Right Hand, by Chris Holm (Mulholland):
Former Special Ops guy Michael Hendricks is back, and he’s out for revenge. First seen in Chris Holm’s 2015 debut novel, The Killing Kind, fugitive Hendricks in this second book is once more pitted against The Council, an organization of American crime bosses, but this time things are different. His old business model of hitting hit men has been blown, some crucial members of his team are no longer around, and a terrorist attack has put California’s Bay Area on high alert—and dredged up a mafia turncoat everyone thought was long disposed of. That unexpected reappearance flips a variety of lives upside down, but especially that of FBI Special Agent Charlotte Thompson. For Hendricks, though, it provides an opportunity for many urgent questions to be answered. To keep that resurrected mafia man turned FBI informant on the radar, even though all official and available manpower is out hunting jihadists, Thompson summons Hendricks into action, in the process risking both her career and her special relationship with her FBI boss. Red Right Hand brings together corrupt big businessmen, foreign terrorist groups, and domestic criminals in a way that might lead readers to think of Ian Fleming, sans the martinis and 007’s panache. Hendricks is an anti-hero and a complicated guy, but one worth rooting for. Those who crave page-turning action that maintains credibility should give Holm a read, starting with book one.

Willnot, by James Sallis
(Bloomsbury USA):

In the contrarily named town of Willnot, a character quotes French author André Gide (“Fish die belly up and rise to the surface. It’s their way of falling”), as if to explain that in Willnot, expectations are defied, and circumstances often deliver quirky and existential surprises. Narrated by the town’s resident physician, Dr. Lamar Hale, who’s just as likely to tend to an injured bird as a gunshot victim, Sallis’ latest novel floats between a criminal investigation and the everyday caprices that make the mundane appear to glow, especially when there’s no definite resolution to the baffling events and coincidences found here. After the remains of several bodies are discovered, the inexplicable continues to occur, beginning with the return of an AWOL marine and former resident, Bobby Lowndes, who’s “just passing through.” His official records missing and the FBI hot on his trail, Lowndes is the large-as-life symbol of the past-less random that resounds in the present—and a harbinger of things to come. Events and fictions circle and meet, posing questions for characters as well as readers. (At one point, for instance, Hale falls into a year-long coma, that turn echoing something his pulp-novelist father once wrote. Elsewhere, a bullet intended for former sniper Lowndes instead strikes Hale’s partner, Richard.) But, as one player here opines, “going with things is better than messing with them.” That’s contradicted by another statement, advising, “We must stir the pot or the stew will stick and burn,” which perhaps reminds us that one must be engaged in the world. In the town of Willnot, as in life, there are choices, most of them opposing, and we must pick what works best for each of us.

In Need of More Novels to Read?

Here are two more “best books of 2016” features that might be of interest to studious Rap Sheet followers.

In Crime Fiction Lover, Philip Rafferty names his five favorite works of the year, including Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl and Max Allan Collins’ Quarry in the Black. Meanwhile, on the Strand Magazine Web site, reviewer John B. Valeri chooses his “Top 10 Thrillers of 2016,” a roster comprising only books by women, from Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me to Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part I: Jim Napier

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec, Canada. He’s also the creator of the award-winning Web site Deadly Diversions, which features more than 500 reviews and interviews with leading crime-fiction writers. Napier’s own first crime novel, Legacy, is scheduled to appear in the spring of 2017. It will be the first in a series of contemporary Britain-based police procedurals.

Coffin Road, by Peter May (Quercus):
A middle-aged man washes ashore on Scotland’s Isle of Harris, exhausted and near death. He has no recollection of how he came to be there. Even more remarkably, he does not even know who he is. His first clue as to his identity comes when an elderly woman encounters him on the rocky beach, and addresses him as Mr. Maclean. She helps him to his cottage nearby, where a dog bounds out to meet him, and he calls to it by name, although he has no memory of having encountered that animal before. The man showers, changes his clothes, serendipitously finds a bottle of single malt, and takes stock of his surroundings. Some papers on a kitchen table, including a bill addressed to Neil Maclean. Some books on a shelf. Not particularly enlightening. A map on the wall of the Outer Hebrides. And, curiously, a laptop computer with absolutely nothing on it. Bit by bit the man struggles to reconstruct his world, and learns that there are forces at work that go far beyond the elements of the barren island on which he finds himself. Peter May’s exquisitely layered novel bridges the gap between Scandinavian noir and traditional British crime dramas, drawing on the barren landscape of the Scottish islands for its power, yet fashioning an original narrative that is very much of our time and place. There are uncharted depths here, involving subplots and enigmas galore, to beguile the reader into pressing on. Not least, there is a significant social theme at work, a theme that calls into question mankind’s tenuous relationship with nature.

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley,
by Jeremy Massey (Riverhead):

Paddy Buckley is an undertaker with Gallagher’s Funeral Directors, a firm based in Dublin, Ireland. He generally likes his work, but this just isn’t his week. Things have gone from bad to worse, and Paddy is quickly finding himself up a very nasty creek indeed, and lacking the proverbial paddle. It all begins when Paddy receives a late-night summons to collect a body from a local nursing home. By the time Paddy has finished the job, it’s 3 a.m., and he finds himself driving home in a pouring rain, drowsily mulling over the day’s events … when he suddenly hits a man walking through the dark. Paddy jumps from his car ready to help, but it’s clear that the man is already dead. Paddy goes though the deceased’s wallet, trying to determine his identity. His papers reveal him to be one Donal Cullen. Paddy is stunned: he realizes the man is—or was—the brother of Vincent Cullen, Dublin’s most notorious gangster, and not someone known for his compassion. The only things Cullen will be interested in knowing are who killed his brother and how he can best go about exacting a terrible revenge. Paddy drops the wallet and stumbles back to his car. He drives off, hoping to escape detection. The next morning Paddy is back in the office, still coming to grips with the events of the previous day, when his boss, Frank Gallagher, tells him he has a job for him. It seems Vincent Cullen has called: the mobster wants Gallagher’s to handle his brother’s funeral. Frank asks Paddy to go to the man’s home and make the arrangements. Paddy’s nightmare is about to turn a whole lot worse. The Irish are well known for their dark sense of humor, and on a scale of 50 shades of gray, The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley (first published last year in hardcover, but released in paperback in early 2016) has to be reckoned among the darkest. Author Massey has crafted an original and delightfully wry tale of a hapless but likable person for whom, it seems, nothing can go right.

The Letter Writer,
by Dan Fesperman (Knopf):

New York City, February 1942: Woodrow Cain, a police detective from North Carolina, arrives with a checkered past, his wife gone, his daughter left behind in the care of his sister, and rumors surrounding his involvement in two deaths back home—one of the deceased being his best friend. But three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, experienced officers are in short supply in the United States, so the NYPD gratefully adds Cain to its payroll. Before long Cain makes the acquaintance of an elderly immigrant named Maximilian Danziger. The man is clearly educated, and speaks several languages. He has carved out a reputation in the Lower East Side as a letter writer—someone able to help other immigrants, those who are illiterate or who have limited language skills, to read as well as to write to their loved ones abroad. More importantly from Cain’s perspective, Danziger can help identify the body of a man found floating in the Hudson River. But Danzinger’s own past is yet to be revealed, and Cain soon finds himself caught up in events that go far beyond a local crime, and involve players both prosperous and powerful. For more than a decade, American journalist and novelist Dan Fesperman has been entertaining readers with finely crafted literary tales bearing a distinct criminal slant. He’s skilled at basing yarns on historical events and figures, and then weaving engrossing tales around them. The characters in The Letter Writer are expertly drawn and compelling, and the plot will hold you in its grip until the final pages.

Out of Bounds, by Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly Press):
When Edinburgh youth Ross Garvie and his mates steal a car and take it joyriding, they set in motion a train of events that trails back decades. Garvie winds up hospitalized in a coma, and a sample collected by doctors to determine his blood alcohol level turns up a DNA match relating to a rape and murder that occurred more than 20 years ago. At his age, Garvie couldn’t have been the perp … but someone in his family certainly was. That’s enough to interest Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie, the head of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit. It’s not long before another case lands on her plate. A mentally challenged man, Gabriel Abbot, has been found dead on a path bench, seemingly a routine suicide. It’s hardly a cold case, and wouldn’t normally concern Pirie, except for one thing: 22 years ago, Abbot’s mother was murdered, and although her death had been blamed on the Irish Republican Army, no one was ever identified as her killer. Two apparently unrelated and mysterious deaths in the same family? Pirie doesn’t believe in coincidences, so she decides to look into these killings. Still recovering from the death of her lover and colleague, who was killed in the midst of an investigation only months earlier, Pirie has taken to wandering the largely deserted, early morning streets of Scotland’s capital. There she encounters a group of Syrian refugees huddled around a campfire. They only seek to make use of the skills they brought from their homeland, but immigration rules prevent them from working until their status is settled. Pirie has enough work in front of her already, but because the immigrants’ situation concerns her, she seeks to help these new nocturnal friends. To succeed, Pirie will have to use all of her wits. And before this novel reaches its end, she will find herself on a dark street, utterly alone, stalked by a killer. Out of Bounds is an original, exquisitely layered, and compellingly told tale, revolving around the most engaging protagonist I’ve run across in a very long time. It’s easily among the top half-dozen crime novels I’ve read in the past 10 years, and McDermid’s best work yet.

Set Free, by Anthony Bidulka
(Bon Vivant):

Within minutes of arriving at Menara International Airport, outside the Moroccan city of Marrakech, renowned author Jasper Wills is pistol-whipped into unconsciousness and kidnapped. He awakens to discover that he’s bound and gagged and alone in a darkened room. As he lies in that isolated chamber, contemplating his fate, Jasper tries to make sense of his abduction. Who took him, and why? Is this crime somehow connected to his daughter’s kidnapping years earlier? And where is he being held? Just as he begins puzzling out his location, he is moved, his new prison being located far off in the Atlas Mountains. The weeks pass, and Jasper is visited by a mysterious woman who speaks no English. Then his deprivations are replaced by delicacies: honey, a small tagine consisting of lamb, apricot and vegetables, and even a tiny serving of couscous. These luxuries defy any sort of rational understanding: Why starve him to the point of extinction, only to reward him with unbelievable delights? What could be his kidnappers’ purpose? The scene is surreal, and before this story ends, readers will be taken on a Byzantine journey destined to test their own assumptions, their own take on the world. But more—much more—is to come. Poignant, ingeniously plotted, and exquisitely told, Set Free will keep you on the edge of your seat until you turn the final page. Bidulka is an accomplished writer, with nearly a dozen well-received novels to his credit; but Set Free is heads and shoulders above the rest. At the risk of jinxing this talented writer, his latest work could very well be his breakout novel. Pass on it at your own risk.

Here’s Something to Watch This Week

I have recently sought to keep track, on this page, of which crime, mystery, and thriller novels various reviewers from other publications have declared to be the “best of 2016.” Beginning this afternoon, however, the Rap Sheet’s stable of critics will commence weighing in on that same subject. The plan is to post one new compilation of picks each day, beginning today at 1 p.m. with Jim Napier’s choices.

Are These on Your Radar Already?

As we speed toward the end of a very tumultuous year, crime-fiction critics seem to be tumbling over each other to broadcast their “favorite books of 2016” lists. Prominent among those arbiters of literary taste is Friend of The Rap Sheet Tom Nolan, whose “bests” choices appear in The Wall Street Journal. Because the online version of Nolan’s article is available only to subscribers, I’m posting his choices below (in order of his remarking on them):

You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown)
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Skyhorse)
All Things Cease to Appear, by Elizabeth Brundage (Knopf)
The North Water, by Ian McGuire (Henry Holt)
Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)
The Gun, by Fuminori Nakamura (Soho Crime)
Nitro Mountain, by Lee Clay Johnson (Knopf)
Every Man a Menace, by Patrick Hoffman (Atlantic Monthly Press)
The Trespasser, by Tana French (Viking)
Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner (Random House)

Hmm. I completely missed checking out a couple of those works (McGuire’s and Johnson’s), and disagree about one other choice, but otherwise this is a solid selection. As I would expect from Nolan.

Included among The Globe and Mail’s “100 Best Books of the Year” roster are just five nominations from the crime/thriller stacks:

The Night Bell, by Inger Ash Wolfe (Pegasus)
The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)
The Trap, by Melanie Raabe (Spiderline)
Conclave, by Robert Harris (Random House)
The Letter Writer, by Dan Fesperman (Knopf)

The Boston Globe picks a wholly different four mysteries:

Rain Dogs, by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street)
South Village, by Rob Hart (Polis)
Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (Minotaur)
So Say the Fallen, by Stuart Neville (Soho Crime)

Only one work of crime fiction features on National Public Radio’s “10 Best Books of 2016” roster (Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters), but NPR’s broader “Book Concierge” list of “2016’s Great Reads” recommends 13 meritorious novels.

I’m expecting several more of these lists from Crime Fiction Lover, but for now, we must be satisfied with critic Jeremy Megraw’s five top choices, which include Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir and Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal.

Finally, the usually interesting Ms. Wordopolis Reads mentions two favorite crime novels for 2016, while Words & Music blogger Don Coffin has nice things to say about 15 mysteries, not all of which first saw print over the last 12 months.