Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Favorite Crime Fiction of 2016,
Part III: Kevin Burton Smith

Kevin Burton Smith is the Montreal-born founder and editor of that invaluable resource, The 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 lives in Southern California’s High Desert region, where he’s working on a non-fiction book about married detective couples with his wife, mystery author D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian and Josh Lanyon).

Black Hills, by Franklin Schneider and Jennifer Schneider (Thomas & Mercer):
Is Whitehurst the new Poisonville? Or does it just feel like it? Because the dirty, dusty South Dakota mining boomtown that serves as this riveting, slyly subversive novel’s setting—complete with its surly oil workers, paranoid drug dealers, desperate whores, slimy pimps, noxious air, crooked cops, and more corruption than any sane person could swallow—is as toxic a setting as anything I’ve read in crime fiction, both literally and figuratively. Enter Alice Riley, a bitter and abrasive Brooklyn private investigator, running on bad luck and bad choices, who reluctantly journeys to Whitehurst to clear a former colleague’s geologist husband of beating up a young hooker, only to discover that there’s more to the case than anyone suspected. And Alice, flawed, vulnerable, and nowhere near as tough as she thinks she is, may not be able to handle it. Her tumble into the rabbit hole becomes a descent into Hell. With drugs, greed, and corruption running rampant, the violent, polluted, and earthquake-prone boomtown is a great variant on The Great Wrong Place, and represents a stinging indictment of the moral and environmental decay we too often write off as “business as usual.” This rough-edged debut by a sister/brother writing team may occasionally lose its way, but Alice Riley’s misguided attempt to set things right is a bleak, harsh tale well worth investigating.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen (Atria/37 INK):
Black lives matter? Not in post-World War II Atlanta, Georgia. Or at least not enough for the members of that city’s newly minted squad of eight “Negro” police officers to be allowed to do their jobs with all the power and authority enjoyed by their fellow white officers. They’re restricted to patrolling the predominantly black “Darktown” area. And forget about questioning—never mind arresting—white suspects; these young African-American cops aren’t even allowed to enter Atlanta’s main police headquarters without permission, and instead must work out of a dingy basement office at the “colored” YMCA. But when black officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith (and Dennis Rakestraw, a sympathetic white rookie) suspect a former cop may have been involved in the murder of a young black woman—and that Rakestraw’s partner, Lionel Dunlow, a brutal, racist thug, may be covering up the crime—all bets are off. The unlikely trio (race may be the least of their differences) begin their own off-the-books investigation that burrows deep into the hate-filled, corrosive heart of “the good old days.” Riveting and compelling, and burning with a righteous anger that continues to smolder long after the last page is read, Mullen’s rabble-rousing, provocative novel is a somber reminder that even an antique mirror can cast a true reflection. Anyone who questions the validity of the anger behind recent BLM protests, or thinks a pretty little “All Lives Matter” bandage will fix the open wound of racism in this country should read Darktown.

The Knife Slipped, by A.A. Fair (Hard Case Crime):
This long-lost novel by A.A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner), never before published, is like a long-delayed Christmas gift, arriving scarred and battered 75 years late. But it’s here now, and what a treat! These days, Gardner’s remembered—if at all—for creating Perry Mason, but if you ask me, the best characters he ever whipped up in his long career were bullying, penny-pinching Los Angeles private eye Bertha Cool, a cynical, 60-something woman of mountainous proportions, and her younger, hen-pecked shrimp of an assistant, Donald Lam, a disbarred lawyer who somehow still has a few ideals discreetly tucked away. It’s become common for today’s young crime writers to identify with the sometimes-dubious pulp fiction of the 1930s and ’40s (let’s face it—much of it was horrible), but Gardner was one of the authors who got it right. At his best, he was a master of characterization and nicely complicated plots that managed to zip, zig, and zag, leavened with banter that kept everything moving smartly along. And he’s on fire here with the proposed second entry in what was, in the late ’30s, a new series (it would eventually extend to 30 books), but still tinkering. Donald remains fresh to the shamus game, a little green and rather too easily distracted by a pretty face; while Bertha, who nobody would ever call a pretty face, and who generally displays about as much warmth as a hockey puck, lets slip a quick glimpse of a possible soft side to her personality. Well, maybe. It all begins with Donald dispatched by Bertha to get the goods on a cheating husband. But the case soon takes an unexpected hop and ends up a hot mess full of crooked cops, thugs, a pretty switchboard operator, extortion, and assorted dirty political tricks. Bertha immediately smells money and sets to work from her end, she and Donald both keeping their other partner in the dark. Important? Nope. Just fun. A lotta fun. This is how it’s done, kids.

One or the Other, by John McFetridge (ECW Press):
It’s so easy to dismiss the appeal of John McFetridge’s Montreal, Quebec-set Eddie Dougherty police procedurals as knee-jerk homesickness on my part—anyone who’s spoken to me for about four seconds knows I miss that gloriously fractured, schizoid city with all my heart. But there really is something wonderful going on in this author’s pin-point evocation of a time and a place that sidesteps lame nostalgia; there’s a slow-burning narrative drive flowing under the easygoing, some-stuff-happened, then-some-other-stuff-happened that’s hard to resist. It’s 1976 and Constable Dougherty, already 10 years a cop, isn’t getting any younger, and his career has stalled. He yearns to break into the Detective division, but worries that he may be too English for Montreal’s predominantly French force. Or does he just lack the right stuff? As summer approaches, with the cops tearing through the city, frantically searching for clues to the recent and daring multi-million-dollar daytime hold-up of an armored car, and the entire city gearing up for the 1976 Summer Olympic Games (with a seismic political upheaval and its subsequent linguistic and cultural fallout waiting in the wings), Eddie throws himself into investigating the murder of a teenage boy and girl whose bodies were dumped off the Jacques Cartier Bridge into the St. Lawrence River on their way home from a concert. But when their superiors order Eddie and a young, female colleague from the suburban force on the other side of the river to drop the case, they decide to work it on their own. McFetridge gets every detail right and tight, but it’s the narrative heart beating underneath it all that really brings this tale home.

Last but not least, one choice from the crime non-fiction shelves ...

It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives, by Paul Nelson and Kevin Avery (Fantagraphics):
The geekiest of my choices for 2016 is this handsome slab of a book: a heartfelt tribute to one of my all-time-favorite crime writers, Ross Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar), the creator of fictional Long Beach private eye Lew Archer, and among the few toilers in this genre who can rightfully be mentioned in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Archer, the eternally lonely and compassionate sleuth, plumbed the depths of familial discord and dysfunction through 18 amazing novels and a handful of short stories (plus two films starring Paul Newman). Anybody who’s ever fallen under the spell of Macdonald’s compelling detective fiction (or the author’s own story, which would be more than suitable fare for one of his novels) will be fascinated by this astoundingly personal and captivating tome, a fanboy scrapbook of sorts that’s part serious bibliography and part biography, comprising excerpts from numerous interviews conducted by the late rock-music critic and crime nerd Paul Nelson over a period of years, and illustrated with a barrage of rare photos, correspondence, manuscript pages, and essays. Too rich for one setting, it’s a veritable buffet—the long-awaited, perfect complement to Tom Nolan’s Ross MacDonald: A Biography (1999); essential and at times provocative reading for anyone who ever looked for solutions to their own mysteries in a crime novel.

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