Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pierce’s Picks: “The Scent of Death”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

The Scent of Death, by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins UK):
British fictionist Taylor has been making rival authors jealous ever since he won the John Creasey Memorial Award from the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) for Caroline Minuscule, his 1982 debut work. Since then he’s gone on to create several broadly commended series, among them the Lydmouth stories and the Roth Trilogy, but in recent years has concentrated on standalone historical works with a distinctly criminal bent. The American Boy (2003; retitled An Unpardonable Crime in the States) built a gothic-seasoned mystery around a young Edgar Allan Poe, while Bleeding Heart Square (2008) was a concoction of intrigue focused on a manipulative London landlord who may have been implicated in a woman’s disappearance. It was in the wake of Bleeding Heart Square’s publication that Taylor received the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for his lifetime achievement in crime writing. The Scent of Death, being released this week in the UK, transports readers back to still-tiny New York City in the midst of the American Revolution. Edward Savill, a “coming man” with the British government’s colonial department, lands at Manhattan Island in 1778 with the assignment to analyze claims on property made by British loyalists rudely displaced by the independence movement. Right away, however, Savill finds himself mixed up with death--not simply the discovery of a corpse afloat in the East River, but the slaying of another man in a particularly squalid district known as Canvas Town. The authorities don’t evince much interest in these wrongdoings; they have enough worrying them, what with spies and refugees streaming into town, and suspicious fires threatening every stick of local architecture. “Justice,” in some cases, means little more than hanging a convenient black man. Yet even as Savill tries to carry out his assigned duties--distracted frequently by questions involving his hosts, the generally respected but odd Wintour clan--he becomes embroiled in a murder inquiry, the results of which could be as consequential as any threats posed by rebellious colonists. Taylor’s plot is intricate and absorbing, but it’s the quality of his prose and the depth of his characterizations that will most likely win you over.

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Also new and worth your noticing this week: Stephan Talty’s Black Irish (Ballantine), about a Harvard-educated young police detective, Absalom “Abbie” Kearney, whose return to her native Buffalo, New York, leaves her scrambling for answers after the sadistic murder of a man in a church basement--an offense that threatens to expose long-held secrets within her own family; and Angel’s Gate (Scribner), P.G. Sturges’ third wryly humorous novel about “vigilante-for-hire” Dick Henry. His search here for a missing woman leads Henry--aka the Shortcut Man--into the circle of an aging but randy Hollywood mogul, and soon draws him as well into a historical puzzle involving a death on a boat and a screenplay of uncertain authorship.

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