Friday, December 04, 2020

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2020,
Part V: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is the Montreal-born founder and editor of that essential 22-year-old resource, The (New) 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’s currently hiding out in Southern California’s High Desert region, where he’s still working on a non-fiction book about married detective couples with his wife, mystery author D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian and Josh Lanyon), and waiting for the end of the world.

Fortune Favors the Dead, by Stephen Spotswood (Doubleday):

In a year most of us would like to escape from, this nostalgic ode to the Golden Age of crime fiction is a vaccination well worth rolling your sleeve up for. A nifty and refreshingly creative spin on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, this Manhattan-set debut novel was a true tonic for the troops, a comfortably complex—but not too complex—tale of a cranky, demanding genius detective and her younger, more physically able partner, assigned to handle the rough stuff, as well as the secretarial duties, records keeping, and office management. Lillian Pentecost, “the most famous woman detective in the city and possibly the country,” is a spry, enigmatic, and demanding 40-something fighting multiple sclerosis, who favors expensive suits and exactitude, while Willowjean “Will” Parker is a boyish young woman whose rough-and-tumble childhood has left the former traveling circus performer with a more-than-particular skill set (knife-throwing, lock-picking, mimicry, pickpocketing, and, uh, dancing). And since this book was written in 2020, not 1945, the “cirky girl” is a lesbian. But who cares, right? It’s all cool, and well-handled, and Spotswood nails the period details—even narrator Will’s wisecracks and similes are era-appropriate. The only glitch? The irritating anachronism of Will—and everyone else—constantly referring to her boss as “Ms. Pentecost.” In 1945? Yeah, right. But fortunately, that retro bit of wokefullness gets lost in a breezy, colorful, clue-ridden plot that serves up Will and Lillian’s “meet-cute” origin story, as well as the main course, an “honest-to-God locked-room mystery,” complete with a wealthy millionaire apparently murdered by her husband's ghost. Toss in the woman’s surviving twins (the son’s a cad, the daughter’s surprisingly interested in Will’s work), a shady spiritualist, plenty of post-World War II corporate shenanigans, a well-meaning “uncle,” and a mansion’s worth of deep, dark family secrets, and you’ve got a satisfyingly modern spin on what’s essentially a good old-fashioned ripping yarn. I want to see more of these two.

All Kinds of Ugly, by Ralph Dennis (Brash):

Lee Goldberg and his Brash Books imprint deserve a slap on the back for resurrecting the literary bits and pieces of this long-lost manuscript by Dennis (1931-1988), and assembling them into this Frankenstein’s monster of a read—an unapologetically hard-boiled page-turner that finally wraps up the Jim Hardman series. The buzz for years was that sales of Dennis’ original 12 books were sandbagged by their having been published as “men’s adventures” back in the 1970s (complete with cheesy covers and numbered titles), and there’s no doubt who these novels were aimed at: manly men who appreciated a good drink, a good broad, and a good brouhaha. But those of us who can lift our knuckles an inch or so off the ground can also appreciate the books—Dennis was a fine writer, a master of believable action and surprising empathy, with characters who could crack wise with the best of them. And in an era when the P.I. genre was still waking up from the Big Sleep of the Tighty-Whiteys, the idea of a black-and white team of gumshoes was fresh, bold, and in-yer-face; by the time Robert B. Parker’s Spenser met Hawk, Dennis had already cranked out seven or so books featuring tough-guy Atlanta private investigator Jim and his drinking buddy Hump Evans, a former pro football player. Make no mistake—Ugly’s some kind of beauty: a pure distillation of Grade-A Hard-Boiled Pulp that dares to reach for more. Jim’s not getting any younger, and has recently been dumped. At loose ends, he takes on a case for a wealthy, elderly industrialist, and flies to London to track down that old man’s missing grandson. But the job is a bust—the potential heir is dead. Instead, Jim brings the deceased’s sexy (and apparently pregnant) young widow back to Atlanta, where Grampa waits with open arms. And then the fun really starts: the widow’s a femme fatale of the highest order, an atomic bomb of bad news, bad choices, bad drugs and bad luck … but Jim can’t seem to keep his hands off her. A typical noir setup, maybe, but underneath it all floats the enduring friendship of Jim and Hump that gives this book unexpected heart, and makes it a fitting conclusion to a series that coulda/shoulda been a contender.

That Left Turn at Albuquerque, by Scott Phillips (Soho Crime):

As bleak as Phillips’ books may occasionally get, they’ve always had a sort of gleeful, Looney Toons wickedness about them, so it’s great to see the author finally acknowledge it with the title of this darkly funny slice of noir. Douglas Rigby, a fast-living, fast-talking slime ball of a SoCal lawyer (think Foghorn Leghorn in cargo shorts, maybe), is circling the drain, having “borrowed” a sizable pile of cash from his only remaining client, Glenn Haskill, a former TV big shot not long for this world. Rigby’s big plan is to finance a drug deal with a gang called the Devil’s Hammers (nice chaps, I’m sure) that absolutely can’t go wrong. Except … it goes wrong. Fortunately for readers, if not for the attorney himself, Rigby may be a slick piece of work, but he’s not particularly bright, and the people he enlists in his criminal endeavors aren’t exactly stable geniuses, either. Desperate to replace the missing loot before its absence is discovered, he embarks on a series of increasingly frantic schemes that Wile E. Coyote might admire, finally culminating in a cock-eyed scam involving a valuable painting, art fraud, a murder or so, and a will that may or may not exist. Meanwhile, Rigby contends with his long-suffering real estate broker wife, Paula (who doesn’t want to lose their house), his girlfriend, a forger with an agenda of his own, Glenn’s devious nurse, a hot-to-trot bartender, a greedy, unscrupulous nephew with eyes on Glenn’s estate, and regular visits to his priest to confess. Nobody’s particularly likable in these pages, and none of them are overly burdened with scruples or self-control. Think Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, maybe Sylvester—that’s the caliber we’ve talking about here. As this bonfire of inanities rages higher and higher, about the only one displaying any sort of Bugs Bunny-like wisdom is Paula, who might even deserve to survive. The rest? That’s all, folks …

Dead Girl Blues, by Lawrence Block (LB Productions):

Block decided to self-publish this dark little morsel, and who can blame him? As the author explains, “I don't think it's terribly commercial. And there are elements that will put off a lot of readers.” No doubt, but this is Lawrence Block, folks, and while his book will offend many, and upset even more, God help me, I loved it. It may just be one of the more life-affirming novels I’ve read in years. Strange to say, but it’s true. There’s no doubt the initial crime here, related in first-person—the murder and violation of a young woman somewhere near Bakersfield, California—is sickening, and the subsequent justifications, rationalizations, and philosophical meanderings of the narrator as he drifts aimlessly through the country, changing names and occupations, are disturbing. Yet somewhere along the way, the narrator (by now calling himself Roger) matures and takes stock of his life, coming to tentative terms with his past, and folding himself into the American Dream. As he becomes a businessman, a husband, and even a father, I began to, um, sympathize with the bastard. I mean, he killed and raped that kid (in that order). And now, years later, he’s living a comfortable suburban life, and he gets to be surrounded by a loving family, all gathered around the television set watching fricking Dateline with Lester Fricking Holt every night? Roger doesn’t deny his past to us, although his family’s in the dark; but as the science of forensics marches on and the minutiae of a middle-class life well-lived piles up, he tries to reckon with his possible, or even probable, future. Until then, though, he writes in his journal and waits for the knock on the door, guilt and doubt never far off. You may think you know where this book goes, but you don’t. Not so much a crime novel as a ballsy and important novel about the very nature of crime, Dead Girl Blues prods troubling questions about justice and mercy and morality and family, the worth of a life, and the whole existential soup. Put this up on your shelf, right next to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I think it belongs there.

Dead West, by Matt Goldman (Forge):

Oh, what a joy to discover a new private eye! Yes, I know, I’m three books late, but who cares? OK, Goldman may not break any new ground, but he injects so much fresh heart into this fourth book in his series (which began with 2017’s Gone to Dust) that it’s like falling in love with the shamus game all over again. When Minneapolis gumshoe Nils Shapiro is offered a job by a crazy-rich control-freak to fly out to sunny Los Angeles to attend a memorial service for the fiancée of her beloved grandson, Ebben Mayer (and meanwhile find out whether that young heir is squandering his trust fund on some Hollywood films), Nils jumps at the chance. It’s February, after all, and he’s never been to warm, sunny, shiny La-La Land. Swimming pools! Movie stars! How can he say no? So he picks up his pal Jameson, a hefty former pro football player, to act as a guide, and the two head off to the airport. It doesn’t take long for them, though, to realize that Ebben is no trust fund bozo, but instead a young man in genuine pain over the death of his fiancée. He’s also a serious filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing. A quick phone call to reassure Grandma, and Nils is more than ready to head home to his own fiancée and their infant daughter. Except … somehow, Jameson has gone missing, Ebben’s fiancée may have been murdered, and somebody may be out to stop his film project—at any cost. But part of the joy of this book is simply Nils. He’s a decent, level-headed, and unjaded guy in a business not exactly overpopulated with them; a dogged investigator with a “disproportionate sense of justice,” whose new-kid-in-town take on Tinsel Town culture and its various denizens may be worth the price of admission alone, being full of razor-sharp observations tempered with equal amounts of wit and empathy. Ultimately, however, it’s the heart and soul that veteran TV writer Goldman sneaks into this tough little tale of loss and love, particularly its final scenes, that sucker-punched me. In an unexpectedly good way. More Shapiro, please.

Other 2020 Favorites: Anonymous, by Elizabeth Breck (Crooked Lane); Do No Harm, by Max Allan Collins (Forge); Dead Land, by Sara Paretsky (Morrow); and two non-fiction works—Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-Boiled History, by Susanna Lee (Johns Hopkins University Press), and The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence Is Reshaping the World, by Tyler Maroney (Riverhead).

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