• 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.”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.
“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?”
• 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
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.