January 1, 2007
Mouse (2002) introduces Bill Damen, a filmmaker turned sleuth,
in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. Bill stumbles on some scary
industrial doings in Silicon Valley, and has some emotional adventures
besides. Watch that shellfish!
is set in a beach resort town and features an unlikely set of partners—John
Ceepak, a veteran of the Iraq war, and his sidekick Danny Boyle, in
Sea Haven, New Jersey. Ceepak is 100% cop living by his personal code
of honor while Boyle is a "summer cop" more interested in
how the police cap looks to the girls than carrying a gun. The mystery
is involving, but the characters make this book stand out. (2006 Anthony
Award for Best First Novel)
Days of the Condor (1974) provides a healthy dose of paranoia, when
Richard Malcolm, a CIA a lowly CIA analyst and grad student in Washington,
DC, code-named Condor, steps out for lunch and things get crazy. Condor
has resourceful survival instincts, perhaps thanks to his job reading
mystery fiction. (What a deal!)
Storm (2003, translated 2006) introduces Rebecka Martinsson, a
tax attorney in Stockholm, called back to her hometown Kiruna, north
of the Arctic Circle, in Sweden. Rebecka returns to Kiruna to support
a neurotic childhood friend accused of murdering her brother. More
a psychological thriller than a police procedural, this book haunts
even after the last page.
Trouble at Aquitaine (1985) is a traditional manor house weekend
murder with a twist. Castle Aquitaine is now a health spa and the author
manages to pay homage to the tradition while poking fun at the same
time. G.D.H. Pringle, a retired tax inspector in England, is the epitome
of the hesitant fumbling amateur.
in a Blue Dress (1990) introduces Easy Rawlins, a black WWII veteran
living in 1940s Los Angeles, California, who finds himself learning
to be an investigator in order to survive. Easy is hard-boiled yet
compassionate, the supporting characters are vividly drawn, and the
compelling narrative voice makes this a hard book to put down.
Ramping up for Bouchercon in Anchorage in September 2007, we're reading
Dana Stabenow, and where better to be snowily refreshed than the first
Kate Shugak entry, A
Cold Day for Murder (1992), featuring the native Alaskan ex-DA
Detective Inspector Huss (1999) is a police procedural introducing
Irene Huss, a detective inspector in the Violent Crimes Unit in Goteborg,
Sweden. Huss is a believable and sympathetic character struggling
to balance the demands of her job and her family in a society facing
all-too-familiar modern problems: alienated youth, drug dealers, and
February 1, 2007
Immortal Game (1999) introduces August Riordan, a jazz bass-player and
private investigator, in San Francisco, California. While chasing down the
source code for a new chess game, August gets help with the techie aspects
of the case from Chris Duckworth, a nerdy drag queen. Great characters, snappy
dialogue, and a tight plot make this book hard to put down.
in Amsterdam (1962 [APA: Death in Amsterdam (1964)] introduced Chief
Inspector Van Der Valk in Amsterdam, Netherlands, who operates quickly and
intuitively to understand the dynamics of the crime and identify the most
likely suspects and wear them down to a final resolution. He's relentless
and quirky, almost in an Inspector Morse-like way, sometimes making the inspector
more intriguing than the plot. The second in the series, Because
of the Cats (1963), finds an alarming poor little rich kid gang of spoiled
teenagers that almost seems to anticipate a Dutch Manson Family — except
for Van Der Valk's intervention.
Time (2001) introduces Terry Orr, a newly-licensed private investigator,
and his daughter Bella, in Manhattan, New York. This book reads more like
a novel than a mystery, what with the emphasis on character and mood. Terry
was a writer until his wife and baby son were killed. Now a private investigator
working without payment, he is struggling to adapt to his new reality. The
relationship between Terry Orr and his twelve-year old daughter Bella is
wonderfully drawn. Highly recommended!
Shamisen (2006), the third Mas Arai book, featuring the 70s year old
Los Angeles gardener and Hiroshima survivor. The first book, The
Summer of the Big Bachi (2004) is grander than a mystery (if such a thing
is possible!) because of its Hiroshima bomb thread. In her third book, nominated
for an Edgar, we find Mas reluctantly involved in a high-stakes set of circumstances
involving half a million dollars, Spam sushi, and murder, along with the
usual harkening back to events in Japanese-American and this time Okinawan
Rummaging in some older lists finds us reading John
P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), the second in that odd, but
highly literary series; John Buchan's
Thirty-Nine Steps (1915); and Carter
Brown's pulpy Hellcat (1962), the 22nd Al Wheeler title.
March 1, 2007
Pale Blue Eye (2006) is set at West Point Academy in 1830. Worried about
negative publicity, Augustus Landor, a New York police detective retired
for health reasons, is asked to quietly investigate a cadet death. Landor,
who narrates the bulk of the novel, is a wonderful character: clever, quirky,
lonely, prone to drink, and a wonderful writer. Landor soon recruits an equally
unique cadet to serve as his eyes and ears on the inside: a certain E.A.
Poe who shoves lengthy reports under his door in the middle of the night.
The relationship between the two men, united by their intelligence and alienation,
make this book something special. The mystery is also a wonderful puzzle
that continues to unfold and surprise throughout the book. Nominated for
the 2007 Edgar for Best Mystery Novel and highly recommended!
Erle Stanley Gardner
Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) was the start of a series of over 80
books featuring the tricky, smart, and rough-edged lawyer Perry Mason, his
secretary and more, Della Street, and the indispensable investigator, Paul
Drake. The early Perry Mason skates close to the ethical line, and has little
respect for the officials, but some kind of higher justice always seems to
be his goal, in these still highly readable books. The early books are marred
by some casual racism of the time, which is somewhat surprising in light
of lawyer Gardner’s career fighting for the underdog. Gardner’s
books can be hard to find and seem to be disappearing from libraries.
and Players (2006) is set at St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys,
which has educated generations of privileged young men. Classics teacher
Roy Straitley is close to achieving “Centurion” status by teaching
100 terms. Unknown to him, a secret opponent with a bitter grudge from the
past has a carefully crafted plan to ruin both the school and Straitley.
Narrated with humor and style from both points of view, this suspenseful
novel enthralls. Nominated for the 2007 Edgar for Best Mystery Novel and
Point (Sweden 1994, English 2006) introduces DCI Van Veeteren (actually
the first in English, the second in the series) whose vacation is interrupted
when he is assigned to assist the local police in investigating some ax murderers
in an unnamed northern European country. Nesser’s belated entry into
the English-reading world is worth the wait. Strong characterizations, believable
characters, and complex factual interactions, along with philosophical touches
make this police procedural a standout.
April 1, 2007
Thin Woman (1984) introduces Ellie Simons, an interior decorator
who is longing to release her interior thin woman, and Ben Haskell,
a pornographer who would like to write real books currently moonlighting
as an escort-for-hire. When Ellie hires Ben to help her through another
ghastly family weekend at Uncle Merlin’s castle the fun begins.
This English country-house mystery includes a quirky will, a treasure
hunt, and odd-ball characters I enjoyed spending time with.
Big Over Easy (2005) introduces Detective Jack Spratt, an investigator
in the Nursery Crimes Division in Reading, England: an oddly familiar
alternate universe where nursery rhyme characters reside next to regular
folk. Spratt is a dedicated and talented investigator, but is undervalued
since his cases aren’t dramatic enough to appear in Amazing Crime
Stories. His team consists of a hypercondriac, an alien who speaks
binary, and an ambitious new officer who longs to become an Official
Sidekick. Spratt’s current case is the death of Humpty Dumpty,
killed (of course) by a fall from a wall. Full of literary allusions,
word play, and puns, this book pokes fun at mystery fiction protocol
while retaining the elements of a police procedural.
Robin Hudson, a third-string cable news reporter in New York City, first
appears in What’s
a Girl Gotta Do? (1994). Hayter's driven and somewhat daffy protagonist
is caught up in the edgy, back-stabbing world of cable TV news where
journalistic talent frequently plays third fiddle to youth and beauty.
Robin's personal life suffers the same challenge, with husband Burke
Avery having traded her in for a younger model. Robin is drawn into
sleuthing out of necessity, when she is accused of murdering an apparent
blackmailer. The book is funny and a bit offbeat, with an appealing,
wacky heroine, who can find herself clutching a tire iron at just the
US publication 1998) introduces Murray Whelan, an aide for Australia’s
minister for industry in Melbourne. Whelan’s estranged wife is
off pursuing a more successful career, leaving him to cope with home
maintenance and their young son. Through Whelan’s wry narration,
Maloney pokes fun at anything and everything. Great Australian flavor.
May 1, 2007
Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) starts the Ed and Am Hunter series. Brown
has a knack for natural dialog, direct story-telling, and creating
a subtle sense of time and place. The first of a series, and hard to
find, this title impresses with endearing characters and good plotting.
A trip into the past in Chicago 60 years ago, as a teenager deals with
his father’s death, with help from Uncle Ambrose, from one of
the masters from that era.
Saddlemaker’s Wife (2006) tells the story of a woman unraveling
her husband’s past. When Ruby's husband dies in an accident she
discovers he is not an orphan; he has left her a share in his family’s
ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Everyone in the
small town of Cardinal seems to be connected somehow to the secret
Ruby wants to uncover--why did Cole hide his family from her? Finalist
for the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel
Field of Darkness (2006) is a powerful debut novel. Born into an
old-money family, Madeline Dare marries a farmboy-inventor and moves
to his hometown of Syracuse, New York. "There are people who can
be happy anywhere. I am not one of them." Working as a part-time
journalist covering food news for the local paper, Maddie becomes involved
in a 20-year old murder while her husband is away working for the railroad.
The characters are sharply drawn, the narration is compelling, and
the social commentary acidly funny. Finalist 2007 Edgar Award for Best
First Novel and highly recommended.
Grifters (1963) starts as a casual record of a small con, making
his money with the twenties and the tat and other minor schemes. He’s
so careful, you’d wonder how he could go wrong, if you weren’t
reading his story. A dysfunctional family, too. Powerful writing from
a master writer in a downer noir vein.
June 1, 2007
Down There1 (1956) demonstrates that no matter
how hard you try to stay out of trouble, it can find you anyway, particularly
when your family is involved. Eddie seemed to have found the solution
to his problems, playing piano for survival wages in a drinking joint
near the docks in Philadelphia. The past was buried and everything
was cool, until… A noir classic, that inspired Truffaut’s
film, Shoot the Piano Player.
introduces Zack Chasteen, an ex-football player who was unjustly imprisoned,
and now trying to get back in the groove with his rich magazine-mogul
girlfriend. But the business that got him in prison in the first place
isn’t over, neither to the Caribbean thugs nor to Zack and his
friend Boggy, who is the only Taino Indian we know of in crime fiction.
Funny, adventuresome, and serious, too, and a Finalist for the 2005
Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Circular Staircase (1908) “is the story of how a middle-aged
spinster lost her mind, took a furnished house for the summer out of
town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes
that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.” Women
are inclined to swoon and racial stereotypes creep in here and there,
but the narrative voice is fresh and compelling. (The stage play and
movie based on this book were called The Bat.)
Turns a Trick (1982) introduces Rebecca Schwartz, a Jewish feminist
lawyer in San Francisco, California. While playing piano in the bordello
owned by one of her clients, Rebecca flees a police raid one night
and arrives home to find a corpse bleeding all over her Flokati carpet.
Fast-paced and funny, the characters make this book something special.
I became especially fond of Rebecca’s law partner who substitutes
nonsense words (like “pigball”) for those she can’t
July 1, 2007
The White Trilogy: A
White Arrest (1998), Taming
the Alien (1999), The
McDead (2000) — read them together, since they are linked and
not very long (416 pp. for the 3). The interplay of the proper DCI Roberts
and the thuggish DS Brant keeps the pace lively, and WPC Falls has
tragedy enough to keep things serious. The police work isn't entirely
by the book, particularly for London police, but the brutality is leavened
by Bruen’s humorous and absurdist writing.
Person Singular (2001) introduces Marshall “Mars” Bahr,
a detective who serves as a special investigator reporting directly to
the chief of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A solid police procedural
with an interesting mystery, the real strength of this book is the characters
and the relationships between them. Mars is divorced, and his struggle
to be a good father to his unique eight-year old son Chris is one of
the highlights of the book.
Big Clock (1946) is a brilliant, methodical, clockwork noir thriller,
full of period details, corporate power-plays, urban sophistication
post-WW2, and a well-crafted use of the multiple perspective style
that multiplies the tension of the story. This book has been made into
movies at least twice (which we haven’t seen), but it is hard to
believe anything could beat the reading experience.
of Swords (2005) introduces an unlikely investigator: Warren Ritter,
a bipolar 55-year-old former Weather Underground member who has been
living under a succession of pseudonyms since an explosion in which
he was presumed dead. Now working as a tarot card reader in Berkeley,
California, Warren gives a reading to a young student who is kidnapped.
When Warren is framed for a murder he enlists the help of paraplegic
computer hacker and a Hispanic security specialist and the fun begins.
Warren’s mood swings and his conflicting desires to flee and to
connect to a sister he hasn’t seen for nearly 30 years and a daughter
he has never met keep the reader solidly inside his head. While the mystery
itself is resolved at the end of the book, the mystery of Warren’s
past and future is still open.
August 1, 2007
Reed Farrel Coleman
The Perfect Square (2002) introduces Moe Prager, an ex-cop in New York
City. The novel begins in 1998, but most of the action is in 1978 when Moe
was invalided out of the police force because of a bad knee. Convinced by
a friend to investigate the disappearance of a young man, Moe finds himself
repelled by the missing man’s father and attracted to his sister. Moe’s
casual narrative style draws the reader easily into his life. The characters
are individual, the mystery unfolds at a satisfying pace, the writing is
excellent. The book feels so complete at the end that I had to check again
that it really is the start of a series.
Shark (2006) introduces Kristin Van Dijk, a teenager who travels around
with her father hustling pool in 1950s Texas. Dad is killed in the first
few pages, and Baby Shark is raped, beaten, and barely alive. But she comes
back with a vengeance that could fuel a spaghetti Western. This is a fast-paced
read, with a good feel for the time and place, and a regular dose of violence.
Kristin returns a few years later as a PI in Baby
Shark’s Beaumont Blues, which isn’t as interesting as the
debut, but every bit as violent. (Baby Shark: Finalist 2007 Anthony
Award for Best Paperback Original)
Objects (2006) is narrated by Camille Preaker, a reporter for a third-rate
Chicago newspaper sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, MO, to write a human-interest
piece about the murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another.
Camille is clearly uneasy about returning home, and the more we get to know
about her family the better we understand her misgivings—dysfunctional
doesn't begin to describe these family dynamics. The author skillfully reveals
successive hidden layers of Camille’s past as she investigates the
current mystery. This is a psychological thriller you won’t want to
put down once you start. (Finalist 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel)
Dark House (2003) starts at the end for the 60-year partnership of detectives
Arthur Bryant and John May, when May learns of Bryant's death in an explosion
at the headquarters of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, in London. The book bounces
between their first case during the Blitz in WWII, and the present, which
sometimes annoys, but the writing is vigorous and blackly humorous, the characters
interesting, and the historical atmosphere engaging. Much of the book takes
place in a theatre, where the duo investigate the death of a dancer whose
feet… well, let’s not get too macabre here. The theatre setting,
where Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is being produced, is particularly
September 1, 2007
Untouchable (1997) is not the usual spy novel. Seventy-two year
old Victor Maskell’s career as one of the “Cambridge spies” for
Russia is interwoven with philosophical and artistic reflections, presented
in a series of wry reminiscences and internal conversations, as the
now-disgraced double agent tells his story to a would be biographer.
This highly literary work doesn’t have a traditional plot, but
is full of little surprises and great questions. (Banville’s
Falls (Benjamin Black) is nominated for a 2007 Macavity Award for
Best Mystery Novel.)
Irene (1993) introduces Irene Kelly, a former newspaper reporter
in the fictional town of Las Piernas in Southern California. O’Conner,
Irene's best friend is killed by a bomb and old flame Detective Frank
Harriman is in charge of the case. Suspecting that the killing had
something to do with O’Conner’s obsession with the unsolved
murder and mutilation of a woman 30 years earlier, Irene finagles her
old job back with the newspaper and soon finds herself sitting in O’Conner’s
desk and reading his cryptic notes. The pacing of the book is a bit
uneven, but Irene is a character I want to read more about.
Dorothy B. Hughes
a Lonely Place (1947) presents Dix Steele, in post-WWII Los Angeles.
Steele is a writer, living on an uncle's allowance. He reflects on
each moment, analyzing things in a logical way, while emotions swarm
around him, as he stumbles from event to event, full of jealousy, fantasy,
and self-doubt. He is also a serial rapist and strangler, but one who
makes sense, in his own way. Consummate psychological suspense from
the “Queen of Noir”.
Human Involved (1997) introduces Munch Mancini, a flawed, vulnerable
heroine. Mace St. John of the LAPD has Munch at the top of his suspect
list for the murder of a drug dealer. St. John loses track of Munch
as he works on his other cases and cares for his father, who has suffered
a series of strokes. Meanwhile, Munch is busy burying her former identity
as she struggles with kicking her heroin addiction. The strength of
this book is the characters: richly drawn and sympathetic.
October 1, 2007
Cleanup (2006) follows Matt Worth, an Omaha, Nebraska, cop who
falls into helping an abused young woman dispose of her boyfriend's
body. Worth has troubles of his own, working nighttime security at
a supermarket after being disciplined for slugging a superior officer
his ex-wife is living with. Little lies and big lies lead to a web
of confusion, trapping the somewhat unwitting Worth and those around
him. This Anthony nominee and Barry award winner for Best Paperback
Original is written in a clear and direct style, with great pacing
throughout, and a hint of noir.
Murder… Suicide… Whatever… (2007)
introduces Fifi Cutter, a feisty, bi-racial, unemployed, twenty-something
who is surprised when her free-loading half-brother, Bosco, appears
on her front porch moaning that Uncle Ted has just been murdered. Though
unsure she even had an Uncle Ted, Fifi is soon partnered with Bosco
pretending to be private investigators pretending to be grief counselors.
They stumble over bodies, but all the violence happens off screen.
Fifi and Bosco have real personalities and the minor characters are
classic Los Angeles. The author promises that a sequel is in the works.
Literary Murder (1989) [1993 English trans.] is the second in the
series featuring Michael Ohayon, a chief inspector of police in Jerusalem.
Gur's books are complex and intellectual — sometimes one can
almost get lost in the rich and knowledgeable prose and forget about
the mystery. Like the first in the series, this book involves murders
in a close-knit group — the “closed milieu” sub-genre — this
time in the literature department of Hebrew University. Inspector Ohayon
unravels layer after layer of complex relationships, professional jealousies,
and scholarly betrayals, as he works relentlessly to solve the crimes.
A rewarding read, full of detailed characterizations and fascinating
Life (2005) introduces Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du
Québec, who is called to the village of Three Pines, in southern
Quebec, Canada, to investigate a suspicious death. Gamache is a sympathetic
and talented detective, and the other characters are compelling and
complex. This traditional mystery is enhanced by a great setting and
interesting tidbits about hunting and art. (2007 Anthony Award for
Best First Novel, 2007 Barry Award for Best First Novel)
November 1, 2007
Coroner’s Lunch (2004) introduces Dr. Siri Paiboun, who was
conscripted in 1975, after the Communist takeover, to become the chief
medical examiner of Laos, though he has no experience with forensic
medicine. At the age of 72, Siri had hoped to retire with a state pension,
but the party won’t agree. The death of an important official's
wife and the sudden appearance of three bodies that may create problems
between Laos and Vietnam prod Siri out of his normal boring routine
of doing minimal examinations and enjoying lunch on his favorite bench
in the park. The pace of the book starts slowly, in keeping with Siri’s
minimal involvement with life, and accelerates as he starts to take
more interest in his job and the puzzle of the mystery. Great descriptions,
sympathetic characters, and a compelling time and place.
is the first Aurelio Zen police mystery, set in Italy, by the recently
and untimely deceased Dibdin. This renowned series starts with a kidnapping
of a rich businessman, but on some levels, that plot is less interesting
than the convolutions of the investigation and the intricacies of the
Italian police bureaucracy and the disfavored Zen's place in it. The
action is dense with characters, observations, and local color, interesting
even to those who have never been to Perugia. This first in the series
compels the reader to want more; luckily there are 10 left.
introduces Sara Townley, an investigator for a Seattle law firm, who
is assigned the task of finding a missing heir who happens to be a
cat. Sara hasn’t much experience with detective work, but has
plenty of curiosity and determination. Sara is supported by her husband
Connor, a Navy Seal who suddenly reappears after months away on assignment,
and her best friend Russ, the sexy tenor on late-night radio. There
are plenty of suspects and lots of fun in this debut mystery.
Rage in Harlem (1957) introduces Grave Digger Jones and Coffin
Ed Johnson, detectives in Harlem. The book is raw and full of the 1950s
sense of place and character. This first, of nine in the series, doesn't
read like the main characters were meant to survive. But they do, and
it is handily managed in the next book (The Crazy Kill). In some ways,
looking back from 2007, the story isn’t as important as the characters.
Himes is direct, honest, and unapologetic in his characterizations.
The action is real as the detectives deal with the realities of Harlem
in the ’50s and with being black police officers who need to
mediate between the white world and Harlem.
December 1, 2007
Ruth Dudley Edwards
of Death (1982) introduces civil servant Robert Amiss as a reluctant
sleuth (in what surprisingly is now an 11-book series), but he seems
more like a vehicle for the erudite and witty observations on politics
and bureaucracy in England, and by extension, the English speaking
world. The rest of the world should be so lucky. (The author’s
delightful presence at Anchorage Bouchercon this fall encouraged our
interest.) The first book is dense with detail and characterization,
as well as delightful dialogue and political intrigue. The satirical
and knowledgeable descriptions of modern politics and government compete
with the plot, but delightfully so. For those who have enjoyed the
“Yes, Minister” series, this book is bound to delight.
for a Tramp (1959) and Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961), now in print
in the same volume, set a very high literary standard for pulp fiction.
The first book introduced Harry Fannin, a private detective in 1960s
New York, who rarely seems to be in control of his situation. The “tramp” in
the first book is his ex-wife, and so we have some period conventions,
but the writing and literary allusions more than make up for the predictable
weaknesses of the time. The Fannin books set a high standard for mid-century
pulp fiction that is hard to beat, and rarely, if ever equaled.
City of Tiny Lights (2005) features Tommy Akhtar, at first glance
a typical shamus with cigarette in hand, bottle in drawer, and snappy
reparte. But Tommy is of Ugandan Indian extraction, a cricket fan,
and a devoted son to a slightly loopy father. The first person narration
of this book is distinctive and dense with London slang, comic in a
darkish way. Hopefully we will hear from Tommy Akhtar again. Finalist
2007 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
Qualified (1991) is a complex mix of murder mystery, science fiction,
and psychology. Barbara Holloway, a defense attorney in Oregon, is
“death qualified,” legally able to act in capital cases,
though she has not practiced law for years. Convinced by her father to
take on a murder defense, Barbara struggles with balancing ideals of
justice with legal ethics. Mathematical theories of chaos, interpersonal
relationships, and courtroom drama all share the stage. This well crafted
novel will appeal to mainstream as well as mystery readers.
Disclosure: Some of these books were received
free from publishers.