Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Second Chance at First Choices

When I asked Rap Sheet contributors to submit their “favorite crime fiction of 2017” lists, I limited them to five choices. I’ve done the same thing every year since 2014, when I moved this selection process from January Magazine to The Rap Sheet. However, I’d also been in the habit, during my long stretch as a blogger for Kirkus Reviews (which ended last January), of annually naming a rather more generous 10 favorites from the genre. Barry Forshaw allowed me that same higher count when he invited me to participate in Crime Time’s critics’ choice feature of 2017 releases. But when it came to cutting the roster in half for The Rap Sheet … well, it caused me considerable angst and regret. I think this was an outstanding year for crime, mystery, and thriller fiction, and I was sorry not to be drawing attention to more excellent offerings.

Then something unexpected, and quite fortunate, happened. Months after they’d issued their “Top 12 Mystery Novels of 2017” rundown, editors of The Strand Magazine—seemingly having their own second thoughts on the culling process—posted a longer list of 25 nominations. Suddenly, there was a precedent for expanding on my original preferences. So below, you will find my new, 25-strong register of favorite crime novels published since the beginning of this year. The first five titles are those I already mentioned in The Rap Sheet. The remaining 20, logged alphabetically, also left me a delighted reader. (I have provided Amazon links in order that you can find out more about any books here with which you are not yet familiar.)

The Dry, by Jane Harper (Flatiron)
The Force, by Don Winslow (Morrow)
If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio (Flatiron)
Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen (Atria/37 INK)
Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper)

The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)
Arrowood, by Mick Finlay (Mira)
August Snow, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime)
The Birdwatcher, by William Shaw (Mulholland)
Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Mulholland)
Dark Asylum, by E.S. Thomson (Pegasus)
Dead Man’s Blues, by Ray Celestin (Pegasus)
Double Wide, by Leo W. Banks (Brash)
The Irregular, by H.B. Lyle (Quercus)
A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré (Viking)
The Man in the Crooked Hat, by Harry Dolan (Putnam)
Murder in the Manuscript Room, by Con Lehane (Minotaur)
A Negro and an Ofay, by Danny Gardner (Down & Out)
The Pictures, by Guy Bolton (Oneworld)
Prussian Blue, by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood Books/Putnam)
A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee (Pegasus)
The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indridason (Minotaur)
She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper (Ecco)
Sleep Baby Sleep, by David Hewson (Macmillan)
Wonder Valley, by Ivy Pochoda (Ecco)

* * *

As the curtain goes down on 2017, there are also a number of other blogs and Web publications reviewing their recent book consumption. The “social cataloguing” site Goodreads has posted the results of its readers’ choice awards for mystery and thriller fiction, with Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water—the follow-up to her mega-seller, The Girl on the Train—taking top honors. Meanwhile, Euro Crime’s Karen Meek identifies her “favorite British/European/translated reads of 2017”; Crime Fiction Lover co-founder Garrick Webster names his own top-five books of 2017, including Andrew Martin’s Soot and Jonathan Lyon’s Carnivore; Shots’ Ayo Onatade recommends a dozen yarns; Jen Forbus mentions five crime novels in her account of special 2017 works; Spanish blogger José Ignacio Escribano serves up a baker’s dozen of tasty narratives, some of them older; and librarian-reviewer Lesa Holstine makes 11 picks, almost all of them crime fiction yarns. In a different vein, Criminal Element chooses what it says are “The 12 Best Cozy Mystery Title Puns of 2017.”

Finding Success, One Hurdle at a Time

Sue Grafton was so well known for her Kinsey Millhone private-eye series, that I’d quite forgotten she composed any books prior to A Is for Alibi. The Gumshoe Site’s Jiro Kimura reminded me of the truth in his succinct obituary of the author:
Sue Grafton died of [cancer of the appendix] on December 28 at a hospital in Santa Barbara, California. The younger daughter of mystery writer-lawyer C.W. Grafton was miserable with her second husband and wrote novels at night after her day job (at a hospital in L.A.) and housework (at home in Santa Barbara). Two of her written novels were published (Keziah Dane, Macmillan U.S., 1967; and The Lolly-Madonna War, Owen UK, 1969) before A Is for Alibi (Holt, 1982). The Lolly-Madonna War was turned into the movie Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) with her co-written script, resulting in her working in Hollywood. She co-wrote for TV programs such as Rhoda and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and [scripted] two TV movies based on Agatha Christie's novels (A Caribbean Mystery and Sparkling Cyanide, both in 1983). To her, A Is for Alibi, the first in the Kinsey Millhone series, “was a ticket out of Hollywood.” She received three Lifetime Achievement Awards: one from the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA] in 2003 (The Eye); second from the Crime Writers Association of Britain in 2008 (The Diamond Dagger): and third from the Mystery Writers of America in 2009 (The Grand Master). She won three PWA Shamus awards—for B Is for Burglar (1985), G Is for Gumshoe (1990), and K Is for Killer (1994), as well as the 1991 Falcon Award from the Maltese Falcon Society Japan for F Is for Fugitive. Her last novel was Y Is for Yesterday (Putnam, 2017), and her alphabet series has ended at Y because she would not allow any movies or TV shows or continuation sequels. She was 77.
That last note, about how she forbade the publication of any “continuation sequels,” surprises me. I’d assumed, after hearing of Grafton’s demise just one novel short of her filling out the alphabet, that some writer friend of hers or other author would push to concoct a 26th Millhone investigation. But it sounds like that won’t happen.

SEE MORE:Remembering Sue Grafton: Sparkling Cyanide (1983),” by Elizabeth Foxwell (The Bunburyist).

Friday, December 29, 2017

“Letter Writer” Grafton Signs Off

From Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper:
The death of internationally acclaimed author Sue Grafton means at least one mystery will remain unsolved.

Grafton, a Louisville native, was known globally for her alphabet detective series featuring investigator Kinsey Millhone. She died Thursday night [at age 77] following a battle with cancer.

Grafton’s series began with “A Is for Alibi” in 1982 and continued through “Y Is for Yesterday,” released in August 2017.

Her last book, “Z Is for Zero,” was scheduled for release in fall 2019, according to the author’s website. But her husband, Steve Humphrey, said Grafton had yet to start writing the novel.

“She was trying to come up with an idea, but she never got one she liked,” Humphrey said. “With chemo, she didn’t have much energy or interest in that anyway. There will just be a 25-letter alphabet, I’m sorry to say.”
Our condolences go out to Grafton’s family on their loss.

READ MORE:Sue Grafton, Whose Detective Novels Spanned the Alphabet, Dies at 77,” by Neil Genzlinger (The New York Times); “Sue Grafton, Best-Selling Author of Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, Dies at 77,” by Laura Wamsley (National Public Radio); “Sue Grafton: R.I.P.,” by Janet Rudolph (Mystery Fanfare); “R.I.P., Sue Grafton,” by Ken Levine; “Sue Grafton Remembered,” by Ruth Jordan (Crimespree Magazine); “Sue Grafton, Whose ‘Alphabet Mysteries’ Became Best Sellers, Dies at 77,” by Matt Schudel (The Washington Post); “Mourning Sue Grafton” (Literary Hub); “Sue Grafton: A Remembrance (of Sorts),” by Art Taylor; “S Is for Sad,” by Lee Goldberg; “Thinking About Sue Grafton,” by Bill Selnes (Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan); “In Memoriam,” by Ayo Onatade (Shots).

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Pleased to Meet You

My friends and family are clearly growing bolder. In a typical year only two or three of the people with whom I exchange gifts at Christmastime ever give me books. The rest, not familiar enough with my personal library to know what’s already there—and not wishing to ask me for suggestions of new works I’d like to receive—customarily play it safe and give me music CDs or clothing or edible things.

But 2017 has been different. Several people this holiday season took a chance on presenting me with works of fiction and non-fiction, most of which were by authors not already represented on my shelves. These included Noah Isenberg (We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie), Bill James (The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery), Pete Souza (Obama: An Intimate Portrait), Walter Isaacson (Leonardo da Vinci), and Richard Matheson (The Best of Richard Matheson). This continues a pattern I realized was taking shape about halfway through 2017, which is that I’ve been tackling an inordinate number of books by wordsmiths I have never sampled before.

Ever since 2008, I have been keeping an inventory of such author “discoveries.” Thus far, 2015 proved to be my most successful year for testing out scribblers I either hadn’t heard of before, or whose books I had at least not previously enjoyed: it added 47 authors to my lifetime reading record. This makes my final count for 2009, when I “test-drove” a mere 30 unfamiliar authors, look rather feeble. The tally for 2107 is 46 new writers—just one shy of my record. No wonder this has felt like an exceptional 12-month period.

So who did I “discover” over the course of 2017? Let me begin, below, by naming all the novelists. Debut works are boldfaced. Asterisks denote crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

• Leo W. Banks (Double Wide)*
• Guy Bolton (The Pictures)*
Chris Brookmyre (Places in the Darkness)*
Héctor Aguilar Camín (Day In, Day Out)*
Polina Dashkova (Madness Treads Lightly)*
Harry Dolan (The Man in the Crooked Hat)*
Ramón Díaz Eterovic (Dark Echoes of the Past)*
• Mick Finlay (Arrowood)*
• Danny Gardner (A Negro and an Ofay)*
• Steve Goble (The Bloody Black Flag)*
• Jane Harper (The Dry)*
• Jordan Harper (She Rides Shotgun)*
Peter Heller (Celine)*
• Martin Holmén (Clinch)*
• Andrew Hughes (The Convictions of
John Delahunt

• Ragnar Jónasson (Snow Blind)*
• Stephen Mack Jones (August Snow)*
• Harry Kemelman (Friday the Rabbi
Slept Late

• Gerald Koplan (Etta)
M.J. Lee (Death in Shanghai)*
Attica Locke (Bluebird, Bluebird)*
• H.B. Lyle (The Irregular)*
Greer Macallister (Girl in Disguise)*
Ian McGuire (The North Water)*
• Abir Mukherjee (A Rising Man)*
• Jim Napier (Legacy)*
John O’Connell (Baskerville)*
• John O’Hara (Appointment in Samarra)
• T.R. Pearson (A Short History of a Small Place)
Ivy Pochoda (Wonder Valley)*
John Rector (The Ridge)*
• M.L. Rio (If We Were Villains)*
• Sarah Schmidt (See What I Have Done)*
Tony Schumacher (An Army of One)*
William Shaw (The Birdwatcher)*
• Burt Solomon (The Murder of Willie Lincoln)*
Amor Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow)
Andy Weir (Artemis)*
• Kaite Welsh (The Wages of Sin)*
• Theodore Wheeler (Kings of Broken Things)
Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad)

For reasons I cannot explain, I consumed fewer than normal works of non-fiction, in general, this year. That also reduced my count of fact-based volumes by writers with whom I had no prior acquaintance:

Mattias Boström (From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon)
Tom Clavin (Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West)
Vicki Constantine Croke (Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II)
Mark Kurlansky (Havana: A Subtropical Delirium)
Brad Ricca (Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation)

OK, those are my new-author encounters for 2017. How about yours? Which writers’ books were you introduced to this year? Please let everyone know in the Comments section of this post.

A Hasty News Break

The last couple of weeks have been so busy here at The Rap Sheet, I haven’t had a chance to put together any of my signature “Bullet Points” news briefings. I am still pretty jammed up with work, but I want to mention at least a few things of interest.

• Not everyone remembers this, but the first big-screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon, was made in 1931—10 years before the better-known version starring Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade. “This first adaptation,” writes Mystery*File’s Steve Lewis, “as I’ve just discovered, follows the story line of the book just about as closely as the Bogart one. In my opinion, though, while very good, if not excellent, it isn’t nearly as good as the later one, in spite of the semi-risque bits it gets away with, having been made before the Movie Code [went] into effect. (I suspect that I’m not saying anything new here.)

• Speaking of Falcon, the blog Down These Mean Streets has posted an abbreviated, but nonetheless dramatic, 1946 radio adaptation of that tale, starring Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet.

• The latest update of Kevin Burton Smith’s The Thrilling Detective Web Site is now available for your perusal. Among the subjects of its new or updated files: TV Guide’s private eye covers; Mitch Roberts, “one of the best P.I. series you never heard of”; Ray Bradbury’s Elmo Crumley novels; Brian Vaughan’s Patrick “P.I.” Immelmann comic books; and a catalogue of “Private Eyes Who Won’t Stay Dead.”

• Apparently, Larry Harnisch, the historian and retired Los Angeles Times copy editor who has been quite critical of Piu Eatwell’s latest work, Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder, has been laboring since 1997 on his own book about the 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short, the waitress and would-be starlet best remembered as “The Black Dahlia.” He writes this week in his blog, The Daily Mirror:
To those who might ask “Is there really anything left to research after 21 years?” the answer is “absolutely.”

Since 1996, the doors have swung open on many resources that were restricted or unknown when I began. Not long ago, I received material that would have required a court order to obtain in the 1990s, or so I was told at the time. Some questions can only be answered with painstaking research and analysis at the molecular level. A few months ago, I spent the better part of a week building a spreadsheet from the FBI’s uniform crime reports from 1940 to 1949 to determine Los Angeles’ ranking among the deadliest American cities. All for one or two sentences—an amazing amount of work that will invisible to readers.
I, for one, look forward to reading Harnisch’s completed text—whenever it’s finally published.

• Phoef Sutton (Colorado Boulevard) is Nancie Clare’s latest guest on her Speaking of Mysteries podcast. Listen to that show here.

• As we near the close of 2017, there are still more “best books of the year” posts popping up around the Web. Sons of Spade blogger Jochem Vandersteen has chosen his favorite P.I. novels of the last 12 months. Benoit Lelievre names his “top 10 favorite reads of the year” in Dead End Follies. Scottsdale, Arizona’s renowned Poisoned Pen Bookstore recently asked a number of well-known crime- and mystery-fiction authors to identify the best crime novels they’ve tackled since January 2017; the results of that survey can be found here. Crime Fiction Lover singles out its “Top 10 Nordic Noir Novels of 2017.” Literary Hub offers up a rundown of the best-reviewed mystery and crime novels of the year. If you’re curious to know Crimespree editor Jon Jordan’s five preferred crime novels, click here. And David Nemeth, after declaring that “best lists are bunk,” then proceeds to list his own idiosyncratic picks in Unlawful Acts.

• And sad to say, the group blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room will be shutting down at the end of this month after a decade in the business. I don’t see any mention of whether the site will remain online in archive status … but I also have not heard it’s disappearing in 2018, either. Hope for the best.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas from The Rap Sheet

From A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), music by Vince Guaraldi.

Still More to Read This Year

Well, that’s rather interesting. After first posting its selections of the “Top 12 Mystery Novels of 2017” at the end of October, The Strand Magazine is now back with an expanded, “Top 25 Books of 2017” ranking. The original titles are all there, but they have been joined by such works as Allen Eskens’ The Deep Dark Descending, Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, Bill Loehfelm’s The Devil’s Muse, and Susan Furlong’s Splintered Silence.

In the meantime, Criminal Element has its own choices of the dozen best crime novels published over the last 12 months. They include Allison Brennan’s Shattered, Riley Sager’s Final Girls, Matthew Sullivan’s Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, and M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains, the last of which appears among my own favorites.

Also worth checking out is Critics at Large contributor Bob Douglas’ new piece, “A Year of Reading: My Favourite Books of 2017,” which includes several works of crime fiction.

* * *

Those others rosters look unambitious, though, when matched up against Marcel Berlins’ fresh collection for The Times of London of the 50 best crime and thriller novels of the last 50 years. As expected, his nominations have spurred non-professionals to complain about the works he failed to mention (there’s simply no pleasing everyone). But Berlins’ picks are good ones, indeed, running from James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (1990) and Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist (2003) to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001), Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue (1997), P.D. James’ Devices and Desires (1989), Arnaldur Indridason’s Jar City (2000), and Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers (1988).

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
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 now a columnist with Down & Out: The Magazine.

The Dry, by Jane Harper (Flatiron):
There’s no mystery as to why Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, won not only this year’s Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers’ Association, but also Australia’s 2017 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and the 2017 Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel. It’s one hell of a tale, its character development finely tuned, raw human emotions roiling across its pages, and a whodunit plot at its center, the dimensions of which are revealed with the utmost patience. Set in the fictional, drought-ravaged Australian farming community of Kiewarra, northwest of Melbourne, this harrowing yarn builds around what looks like a murder-suicide case. Evidence suggests that Luke Hadler turned his shotgun on himself after first ending the lives of his wife and 6-year-old son; only his baby daughter—too young to serve as a witness—survived the carnage. However, Aaron Falk isn’t convinced by that straightforward solution to the Hadler family’s end. A federal police officer specializing in white-collar crime, Falk grew up in Kiewarra, but 20 years ago, when he was 16, he and his father were booted out following the suspicious demise of Aaron’s girlfriend. Luke Hadler was Aaron’s best friend back then, and it’s Luke’s funeral that has finally brought him back to town. Despite the hostile reception he receives in Kiewarra, Falk agrees to remain there after Luke’s mother requests his help in unraveling the truth behind her son’s alleged crimes. But by sticking around, Falk also runs the risk that a long-buried secret from his childhood will be uncovered. The British-born Harper, currently a journalist with Melbourne’s Herald Sun, has created in The Dry a claustrophobic mystery filled with ominous flashbacks and innumerable engaging misapprehensions of the truth. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the solution to the present-day crime isn’t as twisted as I expected. A sequel, Force of Nature, is slated for release on both sides of the Atlantic in February.

The Force, by Don Winslow (Morrow):
“Cops fall into two categories—grass eaters and meat eaters,” Don Winslow says in his 18th novel. “The grass eaters are the small-timers—they take a cut from the car-towing companies, they get a free coffee, a sandwich. They take what comes, they’re not aggressive. The meat eaters are the predators, they go after what they want—the drug rips, the mob payoffs, the cash.” Sergeant Denny Malone is definitely of the latter herd. A repeatedly decorated 18-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, he’s risen to lead an elite but insufficiently overseen task force charged with working the front lines of gun, gang, and drug hostilities. Trouble is, Malone has learned not only how to follow the rules, but more importantly from his perspective, how to deftly break them. Any reluctance he once had about delivering (and accepting) payoffs, “testilying” to help the District Attorney’s Office win convictions, and dispensing vigilante justice long ago went by the wayside. Malone still believes in the Job—his crucial function in keeping Manhattan’s busy streets from turning barbarous—but he’s also interested in securing a comfortable future for himself and his small family, even if that requires under-the-table dealings. Following a particularly large heroin bust, Malone spots and intends to seize an opportunity to feather his nest a bit more. Only after he’s caught on camera funneling dirty dough to an assistant D.A. does the precarious balance of Malone’s world begin to crumble. While Gotham seethes with racial tensions, Malone tries to bargain with federal agents, hoping to save his brother officers and the other people he loves, but quickly learns that no amount of cooperation with his superiors or betrayal of his colleagues guarantees his salvation. As much as The Force is about corrupt cops, it’s no simplistic indictment of U.S. law enforcement. It’s about a culture that demands integrity but too often rewards its opposite. Malone may be a self-destructive protagonist with a hard-luck mistress, a ready supply of bad habits, and an inflated sense of invulnerability, but he somehow manages to come off here as more pathetic than contemptible.

If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio (Flatiron):
Comparisons between the debut novels of M.L. Rio and Donna Tartt are inevitable. Both this year’s If We Were Villains and Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) are about over-privileged students at small colleges who are involved in murders and then try to cover them up, becoming increasingly burdened by the weight of their confidences. But I’d say that Rio’s If We Were Villains is the more tightly composed and suspenseful (and less annoying) of the two works. Its story takes place at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an elite arts school in Illinois, and focuses on “seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of [them]”—a quartet of men, a trio of women, all fourth-year students—studying and performing the works of William Shakespeare. Their interest in the Bard has, in fact, become an obsession, as is evident on those many occasions when lines from his plays infiltrate even their exchanges off the stage. Having rehearsed and acted together so many times, and been rather stereotyped in roles throughout, the members of this septet now display characteristics familiar from the parts they’ve been asked to inhabit, whether it be arrogance, seductiveness, or audacity. By 1997, though—the students’ last year at Dellecher—the easy-going relationship between them starts to fray. Jealousies, rages, power struggles, and other tensions that were once subsumed beneath a mutual affection for the theater are coming to the fore. When, after some unexpected casting changes precede an ugly and violent opening-night party, and one of their number is found drowned in a nearby lake, it upsets the order of these friends’ lives and forces them to show their true acting mettle, as they endeavor to convince the police—and each other—that they weren’t to blame. Rio, who holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare studies, skillfully uses her cloistered college environment as a Petri dish where the taxing demands of thespianism mix hazardously with the stumbling efforts of young adults to establish their social and sexual identities. Most of her tale unrolls in flashbacks from 2007, when one of those seven actors is being released after a 10-year prison sentence for having confessed to the killing, and may finally be prepared to tell the truth about what really happened that fateful opening night. Rio has created, in If We Were Villains, a mystery worth more than one standing ovation.

Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen (Atria/37 INK):
As revealing and richly atmospheric as I thought Thomas Mullen’s Darktown was, its sequel is better still. Again, we’re introduced into the company of Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, partners in a small, new, and widely suspect squad of black policemen charged with maintaining peace in the crowded, post-World War II “colored neighborhoods” of racially divided Atlanta, Georgia. The year is now 1950, and the Georgia capital is changing, not necessarily for the better. Ever since Prohibition, there’s been a profitable trade there in illegal booze, but now the “white lightning” distillers—mostly Caucasian thickheads from outside the city limits—are branching out into marijuana, as well, happily peddling their wares in Darktown, the district for which Boggs, a college-educated preacher’s son, and the more street-savvy Smith are responsible. Following a fatal encounter with a moonshine runner, these two cops set off to identify and topple the drug sellers before street fights and gunplay can get out of hand. Trouble is, they aren’t allowed to question, much less apprehend, white folks. And they can’t expect assistance from the APD’s other officers, most of whom hold racist viewpoints. A rare exception is Denny Rakestraw (“Rake”), a half-German war hero turned flatfoot, who at least believes segregation should be made more fair. But he’s busy enough already with family troubles. It seems his Klansman brother-in-law, Dale Simpkins, agreed to demonstrate “moral authority” by beating someone he’d been told was a sinful man—a sinful white man, as it turns out. When that task takes a horrible turn, Rake must decide whether to help simpleton Simpkins, or hand him over to the law and in so doing, hurt his sister, Simpkins’ wife. Mullen mixes far more ingredients into this yarn, including Boggs’ courting of a domestic servant with ex-boyfriend woes and a scheme to curtail the encroachment of better-off black families into whites-only sectors of town. And he does so quite adroitly, illuminating the ugliness of America’s racist past, while giving greater dimensions to his principal players and testing their loyalties to one another. It’s welcome news, indeed, that Thomas Mullen has already completed a third entry in this rewarding series.

Magpie Murders,
by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):

It’s extremely rare for two Rap Sheet critics to put forward, in any given year, the same crime novel as a favorite. So when three do so in 2017, you know there’s something special going on. Like Kevin Burton Smith and Ali Karim, I’m a big fan of screenwriter-author Anthony Horowitz’s Agatha Christie homage, Magpie Murders. This wasn’t at all predictable, since I don’t usually select my reading material from the genre’s cozier edge. But Horowitz manages at once to respect, even applaud, the hoary conventions of Golden Age whodunits, while reinvigorating them in a multi-layered, dark puzzler of a story. We’re introduced initially to Susan Ryeland, an editor with a minor London publishing house, who has just sat down to peruse the manuscript of the ninth, and apparently concluding, entry in author Alan Conway’s best-selling mystery series starring Atticus Pünd, a 65-year-old half-Greek, half-German concentration camp survivor who, since the end of World War II, has set himself up in London as a private investigator. From that point, Horowitz propels us into the midst of Conway’s twisted narrative, which is set in a fictional English village in 1955. We learn about the stairway death there of Mary Blakiston, a controlling woman who had served for many years as the housekeeper at Pye Hall, the local ancestral abode of Sir Magnus Pye. There’s gossip that Blakiston’s “accident” might have been something else—perhaps homicide, with her rebellious son, Robert, imagined as the architect of her exit. Robert’s fiancée has sought Pünd’s help in putting that gossip to rest, but he’s preoccupied with news that a cranial tumor will soon cost him his life, and turns her down. Not until a second slaying occurs—Sir Magnus being the victim on this occasion—does Pünd begin probing both tragedies. The Hercule Poirot-esque sleuth successfully unearths motives, clues, and suspects galore. However, before he can unmask the killer (or killers?), Conway’s manuscript … abruptly ends. Horowitz’s story line bounces back to the present, where we find editor Ryeland in pursuit of the book’s missing chapters. Her hunt hits a daunting roadblock with Conway’s sudden suicide, but it is made more intriguing by the parallels she discovers between the author’s life and the plot of his valedictory work. Concealed codes and word games—perfect tests for Ryeland’s detail-oriented mind—help move the plot toward a resolution, but I, for one, didn’t figure everything out before Horowitz provided the answers. Playful, poignant at times, and boasting an intricately knotted scenario, Magpie Murders is likely to be a major contender for next year’s book awards.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
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.

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper):
Anthony Horowitz’s love for the British Golden Age mystery is evident in this intricate homage to Dame Agatha Christie. Reviewers are often on the hunt for something new, something fresh, and Magpie Murders is just that—a most unusual, and almost flawless, take on the classic mystery yarn. Horowitz offers here a “novel within a novel” that, in addition to its plotting strengths, reflects on the state of modern crime-fiction publishing and blends the names of real people (such as his own publicity manager, Angela McMahon) with purely fictional ones. When, in an introduction, literary editor Susan Ryeland acquaints readers with Magpie Murders, the 1950s-set work at the center of this book, around which Horowitz wraps a second mystery, she makes clear that the novel changed her life. The rest of this tale shows us why. Magpie Murders, we soon learn, is best-selling author Alan Conway’s ninth novel starring half-Greek, half-German detective Atticus Pünd, a very Hercule Poirot-like figure. It kicks off with the funeral of one Mary Elizabeth Blakiston, housekeeper to Sir Magnus Pye of Somerset. She apparently tripped over a vacuum cleaner cable and tumbled down a staircase to her death. Or did she? That’s the puzzle facing Pünd, who’s summoned from his London abode to investigate, and for whom this case might be his last—it seems he’s facing a terminal condition of his own, which he has yet to reveal publicly. From editor Ryeland’s perspective, the yarn is rolling smartly along, with mysteries being solved or on their way to resolution, when suddenly author Conway’s manuscript just … ends. The final chapters are missing. Turning sleuth herself, Ryeland sets off to find out what happened to the omitted pages, a challenge made more tricky by the fact that Conway has committed suicide. To figure out who was behind the killings in Magpie Murders, and perhaps also determine why Conway died by his own hand, Ryeland must parse the connections between the author’s life and his final knotty, fictional plot. This book boasts more red herrings than a coastal fishing vessel, a testament to Horowitz’s devious mind. Yet working your way through them is decidedly satisfying. In two words, Magpie Murders is “bloody good.”

The Saboteur, by Andrew Gross (Minotaur):
After penning a succession of modern “suburban thrillers,” about everyday people suddenly caught up in frightening situations, Andrew Gross shifted gears last year with The One Man, about a near-impossible mission to help a scientist escape from the World War II-era Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland. He followed that up last summer with The Saboteur, another fictionalized recounting of events from the same war, only this time the plot focuses on efforts by clandestine Norwegian subversives to stop Nazi Germany from acquiring heavy water created at a hydro plant in Vemork, Norway—heavy water (deuterium oxide) being a product Adolf Hitler’s cruel regime could have used in its nuclear weapons development. After the Allies fail disastrously in their initial campaign to destroy the remote and heavily fortified Norsk Hydro Ammonia Fertilizer Plant (NH3), they turn for assistance to Leif Tronstad, a scientist who had been engaged in the Norwegian resistance movement before fleeing to England. With the backing of British Special Operations (SOE) and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor to today’s CIA), Tronstad helps engineer a second sabotage attempt on the facility, this one led by Kurt Nordstrum. The assignment is spectacularly dangerous, and Nordstrum’s special squad faces a competent foe, Captain Dieter Lund, representing Norway’s post-occupation government and its Nazi puppet dictator, Vidkun Quisling. Lund is a bitter man, who exploits his allegiance to the Nazi conquerors to achieve power and respect he was never able to win as a civilian. While he once attended the same school as Nordstrum, their ideals can hardly be more different. Yes, Lund and Nordstrum hold the leads in this yarn, but the secondary characters are perhaps even more intriguing, with particular applause due Nordstrum’s covert field agents—Ox, Hella, Einar and Alf Larson, along with Austrians Natalie Ritter and her grandfather, cellist August Ritter of the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra. The Saboteur is an elegant and nerve-shredding thriller in the Alistair MacLean tradition, with enough intrigue and action to keep one on the edge of his or her seat. (No wonder that same raid on the Vemork power station inspired a 1965 Kirk Douglas/Richard Harris film, The Heroes of Telemark.)

The Switch, by Joseph Finder (Dutton):
When Boston coffee company executive Michael Tanner inadvertently picks up the wrong laptop computer while traversing transportation security at Los Angeles International Airport, his life definitely takes a turn for the worse. It appears the machine he mistook for his own actually belongs to powerful U.S. Senator Susan Robbins of Illinois. In most cases, this wouldn’t be a big problem: Tanner could contact authorities and the laptops would be switched back. However, the Mac Tanner walked off with is not only Robbins’ personal one, but in a serious breach of protocol, the politician has downloaded onto it top-secret files concerning a National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program. If her computer should tumble into the wrong hands, it would not only present a severe security risk to the United States (and potentially other countries as well), but scandalously terminate her dreams of being elected to the White House. While Robbins’ chief of staff puts into gear a stop-at-nothing operation to retrieve the senator’s laptop, Tanner’s investigative reporter friend, Lanny Roth, advises him to keep hold of the computer until he can make a deal with the NSA for its return. But Roth’s death soon afterward, disguised as suicide, makes Tanner realize the true dimensions of the danger he’s facing. And not only him, but his family too. This novel’s terse and concise chapters, coupled with a building dread that seeps through its pages, makes The Switch an addictive but anxiety-producing read, laying bare some of the many worrisome downsides of our digital age. If ever a thriller novel deserved to come with a health warning, this is the one.

The Word Is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz (Century UK):
Wait, another Anthony Horowitz novel makes my top-five list of crime fiction for 2017? Yes, but with good cause. The Word Is Murder is metafiction of a high order, with Horowitz casting himself as a character in his yarn. Here’s the set-up: Diana Cowper is a wealthy 60-year old widow living in modern London, who is found murdered by strangulation only hours after she’d arranged her own funeral. Robbery doesn’t appear to have been a motive for her demise, but there are other incidents in her past—notably, a fraud scheme and an automobile accident that cost a young boy his life—that may provide clues to her fate. Called in by the Metropolitan Police to consult on the investigation is Daniel Hawthorne, a standoffish former Met detective with whom Horowitz has struck a business deal: He’ll write a book about the case and Hawthorne’s involvement in it, and the two men with split the profits 50-50. The trail Hawthorne and Horowitz follow here in hopes of solving Cowper’s homicide is quite curious, with strands reaching Hollywood as well as a seaside resort in Kent, England. The narrative provides grief and misfortune, and there are more than a few suspects worth grilling. If the case wasn’t complicated enough from the outset, it becomes further so when another killing occurs—one that relates to an earlier tragedy poorly understood by police. Although The Word Is Murder is somewhat weird in terms of storytelling structure and the fact that it weaves real people into its plot (among them Horowitz’s publisher, Selina Walker), the novel offers splendid insights into Horowitz’s life as a writer and the publishing business, in general. And the Cowper mystery is solved in fair-play fashion, with Horowitz drawing our attention to its facets with all the precision of a stage magician, pulling back the curtains to expose past misdeeds and twists from the dark edge of human behavior. A U.S. edition of The Word Is Murder is due out in June 2018 from Harper.

Let me leave you with one additional pick, this one plucked from the crime non-fiction shelves …

Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder, by Piu Eatwell (Liveright):
It was 70 years ago—on January 15, 1947—that a dead young brunette was found in a weedy vacant lot in south Los Angeles, her body severely mutilated and drained of blood. The identity of that 22-year-old would soon come to light in the newspapers: Elizabeth Short, though history remembers her best as “The Black Dahlia.” However, the name of her killer remains officially unknown. In the decades since, much has been written about Short’s murder, both in fiction (James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Max Allan Collins’ Angel in Black) and non-fiction. And the case continues to pique the public’s imagination, as demonstrated by the widespread interest shown in a book published earlier this year titled Black Dahlia, Red Rose, by Piu Eatwell, a British TV producer and documentary maker. This is a most unusual work, racked on non-fiction shelves yet composed in a novelistic style that adds dramatic flair to its real-life horrors. The research Eatwell did before drafting her text and postulating as to who was behind the tragic destiny of waitress and would-be starlet Short seems extraordinary, and is spelled out in detailed notes, glossaries, an index, and footnotes—all of which might have run against the work’s novelistic structure, but only wind up contributing to the ominous ambiance that overlays her narrative. This is by no means a fast read, but that is perhaps for the best of reasons: one is quickly caught up in Eatwell’s rich re-creation of post-World War II Hollywood, with its beacon summoning misfits from around the country in search of fame, fortune, or love (as was the case with Short). The author frames the Black Dahlia story with observations about the darker side of the American Dream, an ample enumeration of the Los Angeles Police Department’s corruption scandals of that era, and a look back at how local newspapers fueled the public’s appetite for the sordid and the sensational. Doubts have been raised, notably by former L.A. Times editor Larry Harnisch, as to some of this publication’s facts and conclusions. Nonetheless, Eatwell’s attempt to drain the murky mire of mythology surrounding Short’s murder in order to reveal a most likely suspect in her long-ago homicide is commendable. The appeal of Black Dahlia, Red Rose as a story is obvious, yet it must be said that it’s troubling, too. Is it simply part of human nature that we gravitate toward lurid mysteries?

“Crime Literature, a Genre Well-Suited to
the Messy Brutality of Modern Times”

The Web site Literary Hub is out today with one of the better “Best Crime Books of 2017” lists I’ve seen. It’s a long list, to be sure, covering both British and U.S. releases, and adding a section of true-crime titles. Among the many works earning praise are Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, Arnaldur Indridason’s The Shadow District, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Among the Ruins, Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue, Don Winslow’s The Force, Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Stephen Mack Jones’ August Snow, Joe Ide’s Righteous, and The Obama Inheritance, a short-story collection edited by Gary Phillips.

Click here to see all of the choices.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Ho Ho Holmes

As Janet Rudolph observes in her blog Mystery Fanfare, there have been myriad mystery novels and short stories written with Christmas themes and settings, or at least with strong references to that holiday (see here, here, here, here, and here). Radio and television crime dramas have found no less inspiration in these annual December festivities. Today we bring you two such broadcasts.

The first is an installment of the 1954-1955 syndicated U.S. TV series Sherlock Holmes, which cast Ronald Howard (son of the more famous English actor Leslie Howard) in the title role and Howard Marion-Crawford as Doctor John H. Watson. This particular episode, “The Case of the Christmas Pudding,” was originally shown on April 4, 1955 (not exactly the appropriate season). As described in the International Movie Database (IMDb), this is the story’s plot:
Just before the Christmas holiday, John Norton is convicted of murder and is sentenced to death. In the courtroom, Norton threatens Sherlock Holmes, and swears to kill the detective before the execution takes place. Although Norton has murdered five wives, his sixth wife still believes in his innocence. Shortly after she delivers Norton a Christmas pudding at his request, the convict escapes, despite the many precautions that prison authorities had taken. In the middle of the night, Holmes is informed of the escape, and he knows that he must take action at once.
The version of “The Case of the Christmas Pudding” embedded below comes from the video sales site Captain Bijou.

For our second presentation, we have the December 24, 1945, episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a radio serial that, for most of its long run (1939-1950), featured Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his phlegmatic associate, Watson, both of whom were familiar from Holmes movies of the time. The broadcast featured below is titled “The Night Before Christmas.” As explained on YouTube, it finds Holmes’ landlady at 221B  Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson, asking Watson “to play Santa at a party for her two nieces. After Watson leaves, Sherlock Holmes … is visited by a wealthy friend who has decided to share some of his wealth by way of jewels and bank notes with his less-fortunate relatives. But Holmes’ old nemesis, Professor Moriarty, has found out about this act of generosity and is attempting [to] blackmail the yuletide benefactor.”

By the way, this was one of at least two episodes of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to have been rooted in this merry time of year. The second, “The Christmas Bride,” was initially broadcast on December 21, 1947. Rather than Rathbone and Bruce, it found John Stanley playing “the world’s most famous detective,” with Alfred Shirley as his chronicler. You can listen to that show here.

Mama’s Day

This item comes from B.V. Lawson’s In Reference to Murder:
The Shaft reboot, Son of Shaft, has found another one of its headliner actors. Independence Day: Resurgence's Jessie Usher was already cast as the newest, youngest Shaft (the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s returning character), but his mother was the last pivotal role to be decided on for this family affair, and the production has found her in the form of Regina Hall. The project centers on Usher’s younger Shaft, who’s not exactly the eye candy to all the chicks that his great uncle, or even his father were. However, he is a young and promising FBI agent, who is about to engage in the family business of detective work after a friend has died under mysterious circumstances.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
Part V: 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.

August Snow, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime):
August Snow is a former Marine and ex-cop who, after winning a wrongful-termination lawsuit, takes his pile of cash and returns to his old Detroit neighborhood, Mexicantown, a once-thriving haven for families that was cruelly hit by years of “white flight.” Snow is the kind of guy you want watching your back. He also believes in redemption. As he recalls his late father saying: “We are defined by those we could have helped and chose not to …” In this, his debut outing, the protean Snow is asked by a former foe, Eleanor Paget, to investigate improprieties at her private wealth management bank. But Snow isn’t ready to tackle detective work again, and turns her down. When Paget is subsequently found dead, an apparent victim of suicide, Snow has more than a few doubts about the circumstances. A man of intelligence and curiosity, he launches his own probe of her demise. This brings him into contact with crooked cops, the FBI, Russian assassins, a dysfunctional family circle, and international money laundering. As interesting as the case being tackled here is, it’s Snow—a “Blaxican” (the son of an African-American policeman and a Mexican mother)—who draws and rewards the reader’s attention most. He is at heart a mensch, a person exhibiting integrity and honor, and the 800-pound metaphors of second chances in this book drive that home. Author Jones is a Detroit-area poet and a playwright whose love of language makes every page of this novel resound with meaning. Plans to turn August Snow into a TV series protagonist may have been disrupted by the fact that the Hollywood heavyweight spearheading that idea was now-disgraced film producer and Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, but it’s said Jones is working on a second Snow novel.

Down to No Good, by Earl Javorsky (Story Plant):
This paranormal noir gives one the sensation of walking through a darkened room, stepping tentatively with care and trepidation so as to not trip over the furniture, bang one’s head, and be cast as a fool. But once readers wrap their minds around Javorsky’s darkly blithe thriller and sense the geography of the world he has created, the humanity of his narrative will draw them in as quickly and completely as did Thorne Smith’s Topper series. A follow-up to 2014’s Down Solo, this new novel finds ex-junkie and single-dad private investigator Charlie Miner still adapting to his Twilight Zone metabolism, which allowed him to survive being shot dead by multiple bullets. After hearing a “voice” tell him how to heal his wounds, he arose from a slab at the morgue, stole clothes from a corpse, and kept on keeping on. Not only did Miner resurrect himself, but he now possesses another superpower: the ability to leave his body and “roam.” Miner can also enter the bodies of others, “like a hermit crab, taking over an abandoned home.” In Down to No Good he is called in to help his old pal, Los Angeles Homicide Detective Dave Putnam, after Tamara Gale— “psychic to the stars” —begins giving the media vital information about several murders, making the LAPD appear clueless. Putnam, who is privy to Miner’s extraordinary secret, wants the P.I. to gather some insights into Tamara and Philip, her unctuous and lethal husband, who’ll stop at nothing to promote themselves. You might think Miner’s skills would make him the perfect crime solver. But Javorsky tempers his protagonist’s abilities with discretion. Miner isn’t given an all-access pass to every room or person—he is nowhere near that cartoonish. Nor is he so flawed and humanized a character that, like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, he verges on being an antihero. Charlie Miner has a mission—to save lives in order to stay alive—and a sense of humor that makes him an engaging enigma.

The Fallen, by Ace Atkins (Putnam):
Ace Atkins has definitely made it in the world. The Robert B. Parker estate commissioned him to take over the long-running Spenser series of private eye novels. He’s won the Edgar Award three times, and is a respected journalist. Yet The Fallen—the seventh book in his series starring Quinn Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger and current sheriff of Mississippi’s Tibbehah County—is proof that success hasn’t spoiled Atkins, and that his man Colson will be around for some time to come. The story finds Colson on the trail of a sophisticated gang of former Marines turned bank robbers, who disguise themselves in Donald Trump masks and warn bank patrons, “Anyone moves and I’ll grab ’em by the pussy.” It’s only their misfortune to knock over the Jericho National Bank, giving Colson clues as to how he might bring their run on financial institutions to a close. The sheriff, though, can’t focus solely on that goal. His old nemesis, Johnny Stagg, a local politician who prospered in the gambling and prostitution business, might have finally been incarcerated, but the vacuum he left behind is promptly filled by one Fannie Hathcock, who’s opened a strip club of her own in Jericho. Then there’s the matter of two missing teenage girls; Colson’s younger sister, Caddy, and the drama of her keeping her nose clean while running an outreach program; the so-called Dixie Mafia and its tentacles reaching all the way to the statehouse; and Maggie Powers, a childhood friend of Colson, whose move to Jericho kicks up romantic sparks. All of this would tax any normal gent’s capacity as a father figure and guiding force in a small town. However, it’s all part of a day’s work for Quinn Colson. Any loose ends Atkins leaves in these pages are intentional, clearing up troubles from previous books and setting traps to be sprung in future entries in this fine series.

Fast Falls the Night, by Julia Keller (Minotaur):
Over a 24-hour period, America’s too-often-ignored opioid epidemic turns a hard-luck former coal-mining town in Raythune County, West Virginia, into a graveyard of dead junkies in Keller’s sixth Bell Elkins novel. Elkins, the county’s chief prosecutor, discovers that cheap heroin flooding the area around Acker’s Gap, the county seat, has been cut with lethal quantities of an elephant tranquilizer, and as more overdoses are reported, it’s up to her and the local sheriff’s department to find the source—as hopeless a task, Keller writes, as “finding a needle—make that a syringe in a hay stack.” EMTs do what they can, treating near-dead junkies with a dwindling supply of Narcan, but residents of the town are conflicted about the plight of these victims, some choosing to do no better than bid them a hateful farewell: “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The sufferers, though—who’ve come to see dope as “the quickest way out of Acker’s Gap”—aren’t all luck-starved white trash; a few are prominent citizens. While the sheriff’s department tries to identify the distributor of these tainted narcotics, Bell Elkins is also struggling with the decision of whether to leave West Virginia, the home to which she returned eight years ago, in order to take a job with a Washington, D.C., law firm. She must contend, too, with her sister, Shirley, who did time for killing their abusive father. An unrepentant alcoholic (“Who needs stained-glass windows if you had liquor bottles on a lighted shelf?”), Shirley here drops a figurative atom bomb into her relationship with Bell; and that information sets up a situation to be dealt with in a coming installment of this series by Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The heroin problem in Appalachia and other rural areas is a hot topic in fiction, but few have handled it as beautifully as this author.

Gangster Nation, by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint):
Rabbi David Cohen, the mobster and hit man once known as Sal Cupertine, is back in Gangster Nation, Tod Goldberg’s follow-up to 2014’s wonderfully over-the-top Gangsterland. It’s now September 2001, and although David/Sal has become firmly ensconced in his Las Vegas synagogue and the profitable doings of the Jewish mob, things aren’t getting any easier for him. An obsessed FBI agent (whose associates Sal had killed) is closing in, the plastic surgery on Sal’s face is failing, and the pain he feels for having abandoned his wife and son in Chicago more than three years ago is becoming unbearable—to the point that the former hit man is planning a return to the Windy City. During his time studying the Torah and ministering to the congregants of his Vegas temple, Sal has become a very sage man, wise about the plights of others … as well as his own. “If Sal Cupertine came to Rabbi David Cohen, what would David tell him?” he muses, as he places his predicament onto a larger stage. Yet Cupertine remains a gangster, working the angles whenever he can, convinced that life (and the new PATRIOT Act) is basically a con and a scam. That’s the kind of jaded thinking that might force a man to make mistakes—just what a fake rabbi can ill afford.

Need More Reading Ideas?

As we continue to roll out The Rap Sheet’s own “Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017” posts, we’re also keeping track of picks made by other publications and Web sites. The Boston Globe, for instance, is out with its 16 top choices among novels published in the States over the last year, including Julia Dahl’s Conviction, Benjamin Percy’s The Dark Net, Sara Paretsky’s Fallout, and Adrian McKinty’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. Click here and then scroll down to the “Mystery” subheading to find them all.

Meanwhile, Crime Book Junkie’s Noelle Holten says, “I have been so excited about SO many books [this year], I have to do FIVE separate posts over FIVE separate days!” Catch her initial offerings here, and stay tuned for the rest. In its latest podcast, Writer Types includes Best of 2017 choices “from a few of our favorite reviewers, including Kate Malmon, Dan Malmon, Craig Sisterson. Keir Graff, Erica Ruth Neubauer, David Nemeth, and Benoît Lelièvre.” Individual contributors to the blog Crime Fiction Lover continue to present their top-five reads of the last dozen months, the most recent selections running from Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley and Christopher Fowler’s The Wild Chamber to Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark. And Kirkus Reviews has announced its seven choices of the “Best Indie Mysteries & Thrillers of 2017,” that number including Emily Carpenter’s The Weight of Lies and William Hunter’s Sanction.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2017,
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.

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Mulholland):
Attica Locke’s fourth novel (following Pleasantville, which won the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction) is a masterpiece. Bluebird, Bluebird is a crackling police procedural set in rural East Texas in the present day. Texas Ranger and law school dropout Darren Matthews is on suspension after testifying before a grand jury on what could well have been a calculated murder committed by one of his friends. While cooling his heels waiting to see if an indictment is handed down, Matthews is talked into investigating a pair of murders in a small town that may be related and appear to have been racially motivated. One victim was an African-American Chicago lawyer who wandered into a roughneck bar known to be an Aryan Brotherhood hangout; the second was the hapless wife of one of the ex-con Aryans. When the Chicago victim’s estranged wife arrives on the scene, followed by a television reporter, the tensions escalate and the secrets refuse to stay buried. Much of the action takes place in a diner owned by Geneva Sweet, the acknowledged matriarch of the local African-American community who has, over the years, buried both her husband and son, neither of whom met natural ends. Watching over Geneva, both literally and figuratively, is Wallace Jefferson III, the head of the current generation of the white family who calls all the shots in this backwater county. Reviews of Bluebird, Bluebird have centered on the locale of Lark, Texas (population 178), in heralding Locke’s book as a great Southern mystery. While this is true, the themes here transcend the setting. At many points in the narrative, the character of Matthews struck me as a modern-day incarnation of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, if the latter had gone into more traditional law enforcement. Bluebird, Bluebird will likely be found on many Best Books of 2017 lists, and deservedly so. I hope it’s also remembered come 2018 award season.

Bosstown, by Adam Abramowitz (Thomas Dunne):
Ever since my wife and I moved to Boston, I have been seeking out books that take place in New England. I’ve been working my way through backlists of Robert B. Parker, Dennis Lehane, and Linda Barnes, so I was excited to hear about Bosstown, by debut novelist Adam Abramowitz. Here, the kinetic energy of the city is complimented by a gripping story. Zesty Myers is a bike messenger shooting through Boston streets, delivering anonymous packages to faceless recipients, when he is plowed over in an intersection by a hit-and-run Buick that seemed to gun for him. After regaining consciousness, Zesty looks around to see a shower of money that was in the package he’d just picked up from a record store in Back Bay. Later, when he is visited by agents from the FBI, he learns that the dough he lost in the accident may have been the proceeds from an armed robbery of a Wells Fargo truck that left one security guard dead. This is not Zesty’s first encounter with Boston’s sometimes sordid history. His father was a legendary local “fixer,” tight with both cops and pols. His long-gone mother was an explosions expert who worked with a band of bank robbers reminiscent of the Weather Underground. And his brother, Zero (OK,so the names are a bit much), runs a local moving company where he employs ex-cons … and at least one freshly dead Wells Fargo guard. In the midst of all this storytelling is a parallel plot involving Zesty’s father, now in the grip of Alzheimer’s, and how his former life intertwines with Zesty’s current troubles. A criminal mastermind clearly modeled on Whitey Bulger supplies the thread to tie these plot lines together. It all results in a bit of a jumble that, for this reader, required a second run-through. Yet as unnecessarily complicated as Abramowitz’s yarn can be on occasion, those frustrations are nitpicks when the overall book performs in high gear, racing along much like Zesty on his bike. I particularly enjoyed Bosstown’s high-octane dialogue, highly stylized but always smile-inducing, not unlike that of another Boston crime-fiction legend, George V. Higgins.

Gone to Dust, by Matt Goldman (Forge):
Fans of private-eye fiction who are weary of stories that lay the noir ambiance on with a trowel will find much to like in Matt Goldman’s inaugural novel, Gone to Dust. Highly entertaining without lapsing into triviality, Goldman writes an engaging story about Nils Shapiro (known as “Shap” by one and all), who is hired by a suburban police force outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to help solve the baffling case of a recent divorcée who was murdered in her home without signs of forced entry. The great hook of this yarn is that the killer contaminated the crime scene with copious amounts of dust brought in from an unknown outside source. Goldman, a former writer of television comedies (Seinfeld, Ellen), demonstrates in his fiction both skill and humor (for instance, he calls one setting “the kind of neighborhood where every parent makes their kid take piano lessons but no parent wants their kid to be a musician”). And he weaves into his whodunit issues relating to U.S immigration policies and a terrorist investigation underway by the FBI. Gone to Dust is not groundbreaking, but it returns to the tradition of American private-eye tales exemplified by Robert B. Parker, Arthur Lyons, and the chronically underappreciated Roger L. Simon. Shap is a sleuth without a dark and predictable back story, which keeps the narration from turning maudlin and overbearing. A very promising series introduction.

Finally, a couple of fine works from the crime non-fiction shelves …

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press)
The Otto Penzler Collection of Bibliomysteries: A Catalogue of First Editions of Mystery Fiction Set in the World of Books, 1849-2000 (The Mysterious Bookshop):
This year brought two superb reference books that crime-fiction aficionados should consider adding to their own library. In 2016, British author Martin Edwards won just about every award possible for The Golden Age of Murder, his entertaining study of classic crime fiction published between the two world wars. He now follows up with The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, an esoteric collection of seminal works both famous and obscure in the development of traditional crime fiction. In this latest offering, Edwards expands his focus to the period 1900-1950 and, as he puts it in the introduction, “My choice of books reflects a wish to present the genre’s development in an accessible, informative, and engaging way.” To the extent that Edwards both manages to remind me that Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, penned a well-regarded locked-room whodunit (1922’s The Red House Mystery) and introduces me to dozens of authors I had not previously encountered, he has been successful in his mission. If, like me, you occasionally seek out the obscure for a good read, Edwards’ latest study of the genre should be placed within arm’s reach.

Someday a statue will be erected in honor of Otto Penzler. Or perhaps, more appropriately, a grand library. The founder of The Mysterious Press and New York City’s renowned Mysterious Bookshop, and an editor as well as a seemingly tireless anthologist, Penzler is the Protector of the Faith in the world of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction. Given this pedigree, it comes as no surprise to learn that he is also without peer as a collector of works from this genre. His interest in that enterprise has now led to the compiling of The Otto Penzler Collection of Bibliomysteries. This significant work is a directory of Penzler’s astounding assortment of mystery stories with a bookish theme. There are, of course, the expected entries (such as John Dunning’s Booked to Die and Lawrence Block’s Burglar series), but this index also runs to the enigmatic (G.B. Vale’s The Mystery of the Papyrus) and works pointing back to Penzler (including a 1999 chapbook by Ed McBain, I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus, which is set in The Mysterious Bookshop). If you are afflicted with what American author Nicholas A. Basbanes terms “the gentle madness” of bibliomania, then Penzler’s directory is a great source for helping you decide what to read next. Also included with each entry is a purchase price, should you wish to acquire one of Penzler’s books for your personal stock.