Thursday, January 15, 2009

An Early Read on 2009

The list of books I was able to read last year was noticeably shorter than usual, as I had also to write two non-fiction works--one more than I’ve ever tried to compose in a period of 12 months. Having now completed that assignment (I sent off my last batch of corrected proofs two days ago), I am looking forward to having more time to read now. I want not only to get through some of the holdovers from 2008, but a stack of promising novels that are set to reach bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic between now and the end of April. One of my fellow Rap Sheet contributors, former Chicago Tribune books critic Dick Adler, has already mentioned a number of 2009 titles that he’s hoping to enjoy over the next few months (see here, here, and here). Now it’s finally my turn:

Darkness Rising, by Frank Tallis (Century UK, January). The fourth installment in Tallis’ thoroughly engaging historical series featuring Sigmund Freud disciple Dr. Max Lieberman (following last year’s Fatal Lies), this tale builds around the violent deaths of two ardent anti-Semites in Vienna in 1903. Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt turns to his psychoanalyst friend, Lieberman, to help put an end to their city’s rising tide of racism. But in order to accomplish that, the usually rational Liebermann--who’s already having to deal with threats to his professional standing--must enter the work of Jewish mysticism and confront his own cultural background.

The Last Gig, by Norman Green (St. Martin’s Minotaur U.S., January). The author of Shooting Dr. Jack (2002) and Dead Cat Bounce (2006), Green introduces us here to an ex-teenage runaway turned “sleazy P.I.” by the name of Alessandra “Al” Martillo, who knows how to use her sex and brains to best advantage, and isn’t bad with her high defensive kicks, either. Reads the promo copy: “When an Irish mobster named Daniel ‘Mickey’ Caughlan thinks someone on the inside of his shipping operation is trying to set him up for a fall, it’s Al he wants on the job. She’s to find the traitor and report back. But just a little digging shows it’s more complicated than a simple turncoat inside the family; Al’s barely started on the case when she runs into a few tough guys trying to warn her away. Fools. As if a little confrontation wouldn’t make her even more determined.” This looks like fun, indeed.

Spade & Archer, by Joe Gores (Knopf U.S., February). Set in 1921, most of a decade before the action in Dashiell Hammett’s most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon, the story follows private investigator Sam Spade as he opens his office in San Francisco, takes on the ill-fated Miles Archer as his partner (even though Spade is still pissed at the man for stealing “his girl” while he was off fighting in World War I), falls in love, and confronts a villain who thinks he has pulled off the perfect crime. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding this novel. “Edgar-winner Gores has not only pulled off the Herculean task of writing a prequel to The Maltese Falcon but also created a rip-roaring yarn of his own that will please even the crustiest of Hammett devotees,” opines Publishers Weekly. I hope the published work lives up to expectations.

Blood Money, by Tom Bradby (Bantam Press UK, February). I’ve been looking forward to seeing this book in print ever since January 2007. Bradby, ITV News political editor and the author of such acclaimed historical thrillers as The White Russian (2003) and The God of Chaos (2005), transports readers back to the start of the Great Depression, 1929, when Chaos’ Joe Quinn was still a cop in New York City, charged with getting to the bottom of a troubling series of Wall Street slayings. “The men have connections to Lucky Luciano and other major players in organized crime,” reads the back-jacket copy. “Their leader, whose true identity remains a closely guarded secret, is known simply as ‘The Bag Man,’ once the name give to a top cop on the take. The days of such naked corruption are supposed to be over, but nothing in Prohibition-era Manhattan is that simple.”

Shanghai Moon, by S.J. Rozan (St. Martin’s Minotaur U.S., February). After taking a flier on a couple of standalone thrillers, New York writer Rozan returns to her series characters, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, for the first time in seven years. Unfortunately, it appears that those partners are now estranged, and Lydia is working with her former mentor, Joel Pilarsky, to solve the case of some missing European jewelry, unearthed in China and then stolen by an official there who escaped to Manhattan. “Lydia,” according to the book’s press materials, “soon learns that there is much more to the story than they’ve been told: The Shanghai Moon, one of the world’s most sought-after missing jewels, reputed to be worth millions, is believed to have been part of the same stash. Before Lydia can act on this new information, Joel Pilarsky is murdered, Lydia is fired from the case, and Bill Smith finally reappears on the scene. Now Lydia and Bill must unravel the truth about the Shanghai Moon and the events that surrounded its disappearance 60 years ago during the chaos of war and revolution, if they are to stop more killings and uncover the truth of what is going on today.”

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas (Harvill Secker UK, February). In her fifth Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg mystery, Vargas sends her unorthodox policeman out to investigate “strange blue chalk circles ... appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris.” As the book’s publisher explains, “the press take up the story with amusement and psychiatrists trot out their theories. Adamsberg is alone in thinking this is not a game and far from amusing. He insists on being kept informed of new circles and the increasingly bizarre objects which they contain: a pigeon’s foot, four cigarette lighters, a badge proclaiming ‘I Love Elvis,’ a hat, a doll’s head. Adamsberg senses the cruelty that lies behind these seemingly random occurrences. Soon a circle with decidedly less banal contents is discovered: the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut. Adamsberg knows that other murders will follow.”

Drood, by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown U.S., February), and The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl (Random House U.S., March). British author Charles Dickens died during the summer of 1870, leaving behind an unfinished novel he’d titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Ever since, scholars and literary thumb-suckers have pondered Dickens’ intentions with that novel--how should it have ended? Strangely, two different writers seem to have been bitten with curiosity about Dickens’ last work of fiction, and have their own tales based around it due out soon. Simmons, known best for his horror and science-fiction work, follows up his 2007 historical thriller, The Terror, with Drood. It’s a suspenseful yarn kick-started by an 1865 train wreck that killed 10 people and brought Dickens to the scene to help survivors. While there, though, the author spots a mysterious figure who he believes hastened the deaths of some who might have lived. “Unsettled by the tragedy,” explains Bookgasm editor Rod Lott, “Dickens enlists his friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins--who serves as the novel’s narrator--to locate this Drood fellow.” Meanwhile, Matthew Pearl (The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow) begins his own yarn in 1870 Boston. According to the publisher’s précis, “When news of Charles Dickens’s untimely death reaches the office of his struggling American publisher, Fields & Osgood, partner James Osgood sends his trusted clerk Daniel Sand to await Dickens’s unfinished novel--The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But when Daniel’s body is discovered by the docks and the manuscript is nowhere to be found, Osgood must embark on a transatlantic quest to unearth the novel that will save his venerable business and reveal Daniel’s killer.” How much Drood can a dude take? I’ll soon find out.

Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb (Farrar Straus Giroux U.S., March). I picked Rabb’s previous historical mystery, Rosa, as one of my favorite books of 2005. I’m looking for at least equal satisfaction from this sequel, also set in Berlin after World War I. Of Shadow and Light’s plot, the publisher explains: “When an executive at the renowned Ufa film studios is found dead floating in his office bathtub, it falls to Nikolai Hoffner, a chief inspector in the Kriminalpolizei, to investigate. With the help of Fritz Lang (the German director) and Alby Pimm (leader of the most powerful crime syndicate in Berlin), Hoffner finds his case taking him beyond the world of film and into the far more treacherous landscape of Berlin’s sex and drug trade, the rise of Hitler’s Brownshirts (the SA), and the even more astonishing attempts by onetime monarchists to rearm a post-Versailles Germany.” Ever since I began reading Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther mysteries, I have eaten up early 20th-century Berlin stories. Shadow and Light promises to be a particularly bright spot on my reading horizon.

All the Colors of Darkness, by Peter Robinson (Morrow U.S., March). British-born Canadian novelist Robinson is one of my go-to guys. With rare exception, I depend on him to give me modern crime stories that are energetic, emotional, and well-penned. According to Publishers Weekly, this 18th installment of Robinson’s Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks series “finds the Yorkshire copper trying to unravel a murder-suicide with potential ties to national security. While Banks is on holiday, Det. Insp. Annie Cabbot is called to the woods outside Eastvale, where a hanged man--soon identified as Mark Hardcastle, the local theater’s set designer--is discovered in a tree. What looks like a simple suicide takes an unexpected turn when the badly beaten body of Hardcastle’s boyfriend, Laurence Silber, is found in Silber’s posh home. Banks, who returns to assist in the investigation, uncovers Silber’s past life as a spy in MI6, which makes Banks doubt the prevailing theory that Hardcastle murdered Silber and then hanged himself.”

Murder in the Latin Quarter, by Cara Black (Soho Press U.S., March). This ninth entry in Black’s popular Aimée Leduc series has a plot that goes something like this: “A Haitian woman arrives at the office of Leduc Detective and announces that she is Aimée’s sister, her father’s illegitimate daughter. Aimée is thrilled. A virtual orphan since her mother’s disappearance and her father’s death, she has always wanted a sister. Her partner, René, is wary of this stranger, but Aimée embraces her and soon finds herself involved in murky Haitian politics leading to murder.”

Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins (Putnam U.S., April). In September 1921, a 30-year-old actress wannabe named Virginia Rappe took her last breath in a guest room at San Francisco’s downtown St. Francis Hotel--supposedly murdered during a sexual assault by famous film funnyman Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Assigned to that scandalous case and charged with helping to clear Arbuckle’s name is a persistent but not-altogether-healthy Pinkerton detective, Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Based on real-life events, Devil’s Garden comes from the author of two previous historical standalones, White Shadow (2006) and Wicked City (2008).

A Visible Darkness, by Michael Gregorio (St. Martin’s Minotaur U.S., April). Continuing the events from their previous historical mystery, Days of Atonement (2008), husband-and-wife novelists Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio--who write under the joint pseudonym “Michael Gregorio”--set their latest story in early 19th-century Prussia, which according to the publisher has now “been overrun by Napoleon’s forces, and the Emperor’s troops have discovered a new source of funds there: enough amber to finance France’s wars. But their plans stall when the girls who collect the stones begin to disappear, only to be found gruesomely disfigured by an unknown killer. The French call upon Prussian investigator Hanno Stiffeniis, who must seek out the culprit knowing that his own success may doom his country’s future.”

Dark Times in the City, by Gene Kerrigan (Harvill Secker UK, April). Irish wordsmith Kerrigan, who made a minor splash with a couple of previous crooks-and-cops narrative, Little Criminals (2005) and The Midnight Choir (2006), returns with this story of Danny Callaghan, who makes the well-intentioned mistake of protecting a petty miscreant from gun-toting assailants in a Dublin pub. “Soon, his own survival is in question,” explains the publisher. “With a troubled past and an uncertain future, Danny finds himself drawn into a vicious scheme of revenge.”

A few other forthcoming works bear mentioning, too, but at this point I know comparatively less about them. Among those books: A Cool Head, by Ian Rankin (February); Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman (March); The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay (March); and Chinatown Angel, by A.E. Roman (March). Don’t forget, either, that a pair of exceptional UK novels from last year--The Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr (one of my favorite novels of 2008), and The Bellini Card, by Jason Goodwin--are set to debut in the States in March, as well. And I’d be a poor colleague, indeed, if I didn’t mention that Rap Sheet contributor and January Magazine editor Linda L. Richards has a second Kitty Pangborn Depression-era mystery, Death Was in the Picture, comes out next week from St. Martin’s Minotaur.

Whew! What did I say about trying to finish the remainder of my to-be-read pile from last year and then tackle all of these soon-to-debut gems? I guess I had better get cracking. Try not to disturb me till the spring, OK?

1 comment:

Scott D. Parker said...

I'm anxiously awaiting the Simmons Drood book. Didn't know about the other one. I'm reading Hyperion, Simmons' classic SF novel. Early report: I haven't read such an elegant SF novel since Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.