The Best American Mystery Stories 2011
Jon L. Breen

Each year in this stimulating series, Otto Penzler’s introduction notes that “many people regard a ‘mystery’ as a detective story,” which he believes is actually “one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which [he] define[s] as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.” This is something of a straw man, since no one seriously confines the mystery (or more accurately crime story) to pure detection. The argument some of us have with the annual selection is that it is too often overbalanced toward mainstream literary pretentions and away from the features that make the mystery a unique genre. This year’s first selection (by alphabetical accident) provides a striking illustration: Brock Adams’ “Audacious,” from the Sewanee Review, is a very good short story, but it is not a mystery even by Penzler’s elastic definition. True, one of the main characters is a pickpocket, but her crimes or potential crimes are not really central to the plot or theme.

The rest of the stories at least meet the lenient criteria, and as always, there are some gems among them, highlighted by three extraordinary pieces of writing drawn from original anthologies: David Corbett and Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Who Stole My Monkey?” from Lone Star Noir (Akashic), about the theft of a band bus containing a Cajun musician’s prized accordion and the challenge to write a song for a Mexican patron’s ugly girlfriend, written in eloquent, colorful prose, with genuine elements of crime/mystery/detective fiction; Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Stars are Falling,” from Stories (Morrow), a beautifully written and heartbreaking variation on the old story of the returning soldier (from World War I in this case) whose wife believed him to be dead and found another love; and Charles McCarry’s spy-novel-in-miniature “The End of the String,” from Agents of Treachery (Vintage/Black Lizard), about a plot to overthrow the president-for-life of an African republic, believably drawing on the author’s own experiences as an American agent in the 1950s.

Other notable stories combine solid plotting with writing chops that would grace any genre magazine or literary journal: Brendan DuBois’ “Ride-Along,” about a journalist out for a night with a veteran cop, a gem of mystery craftsmanship; Loren D. Estleman’s “Sometimes a Hyena,” in which one of the greatest fictional private eyes, Detroit’s Amos Walker, looks into a possible accidental police shooting; Ed Gorman’s “Flying Solo,” a unique and unforgettable tale of cancer-patient vigilantes; Richard Lange’s “Baby Killer,” in which a deeply sympathetic East Los Angeles grandmother, who already has enough problems, witnesses the killing of a child by a gang member; and Andrew Riconda’s darkly satirical (and maybe sneakily religious?) variation on the old one-last-job ploy in “Heart Like a Balloon,” which the author appropriately recommends to the shade of Charles Willeford.

With competition this strong, the rest pale a bit by comparison, but most of the others have their points of interest. Chris F. Holm, a specialist in the offbeat, introduces an unconventional hired assassin in “The Hitter.” S.J. Rozan’s “Chin Yong-Yun Takes a Case” is told by the traditional Chinese mother of her series private eye Lydia Chin. “A Long Time Dead,” like all of Max Allan Collins’ posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane, an improvement on the original, will delight those who share Penzler’s exalted view of Mike Hammer’s creator. Lawrence Block’s “Clean Slate,” the case history of a female serial killer, has his usual smooth readability though it’s not one of his best. Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin’s “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For” uses its background of the 1927 Mississippi River flood effectively, but the situation of two otherwise-occupied guys finding an inconvenient baby is overly familiar. James Grady’s “Destiny City,” about an anti-terrorist double agent in Washington, DC, has a good central situation but clunky development that suggests action-movie treatment more than short story. Harry Hunsicker’s “West of Nowhere” is a pretty good crook story, though I can’t believe it was the best of the year from the criminally under-utilized Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Dennis McFadden’s “Diamond Alley,” about the murder of a small-town Pennsylvania high school girl in the year of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dramatic World Series win, begins well with its evocation of the joys of baseball and early-1960s adolescent life but fizzles as a whodunit. Still McFadden wins the prize for canny self-promotion in his author note, luring the reader to Hart’s Grove (Colgate University Press), the collection in which the tale first appeared, for the real solution.

My fellow statistical buffs will want to know the points of origin. Five of the twenty stories come from literary journals, including Adams’ ringer and three by Eric Barnes, Ernest J. Finney, and Christopher Merkner that missed the mark for me. Four were drawn from mystery genre magazines, three from single-author collections, and eight from original anthologies, which provided the most as well as the three best. On balance, this is a worthwhile collection but not as strong as the 2010 volume, edited by Lee Child, or the 2008 volume, edited by George Pelecanos.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 11:11

coben_bestamericanmysteries2011Harlan Coben guest edits a notable crop of shorts in this year's annual "Best of" series.

Envy
Sarah Prindle

Katelyn Berkley was found dead in her home in Port Gamble shortly before Christmas. Only a few people know whether it was accident, suicide, or murder—and they’re not telling. But twin sisters Hayley and Taylor Ryan, estranged friends of Katelyn, suspect there is more to the story than what they’ve heard. Helped by their mysterious psychic abilities, the girls begin to investigate. They are soon swept up in a whirlwind of lies, secrets, and hatred. Their sleuthing is further complicated by popular but nasty Starla Larsen, scoop-hungry reporter Moira Windsor, and sleazy Jake Damon. As Hayley and Taylor struggle to find the truth, they risk exposing their psychic abilities to the world.

Told from multiple points of view, Envy—the first in a proposed Empty Coffin series—is a hard look at the effects of cyberbullying and exclusion. The action is engaging, the tone dark, and the characters’ personalities realistic. In his debut YA mystery, Gregg Olsen (an award-winning true-crime writer, adult thriller author, and father of twin girls) also draws readers in with relentless twists and turns—including mysterious email messages, a secret video, and the coroner’s take on events. Hayley and Taylor’s psychic talents enhance the plot, allowing them to learn facts no one else could. The deceptions that lie behind closed doors in this small town will leave the reader thinking hard about their own actions and consequences for a long time to come.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 12:11

Psychic twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan kick off the first in the new Empty Coffin series for young adults.

V Is for Vengeance
Lourdes Venard

As Sue Grafton winds down her alphabet series, it couldn’t be more popular with fans who eagerly await each book. Happily for us readers, she isn’t resting on her laurels. V is for Vengeance may be her best so far. The case begins when Kinsey alerts department store security to a woman she sees shoplifting item after item at her local Nordstrom. The woman, Audrey Vance, is arrested and a few days later she is found dead, seemingly a suicide. Audrey’s fiancé doesn’t believe it though, and hires Kinsey to find out what really happened.

This is a fast-paced private detective procedural, for sure, but also a novel rich with interesting, complex characters: Phillip Lanahan is a rich kid in over his head with gambling debts; pretty Nora Vogelsang is married to a hotshot Hollywood attorney who is cheating on her; and Audrey Vance was leading a double life as a professional thief. All of them have one person in common, Lorenzo Dante, a loan shark who has grown weary of the business. Dante, in fact, is at the heart of the book. Like that other famous Dante, he is hoping to escape his own personal hell.

Of course, the regular cast is back as well. Private investigator Kinsey Millhone turns 38 in this book, but she has not changed much. She still likes her Quarter Pounders and has one black dress she can wear in a pinch. Also returning is her octogenarian landlord and neighbor Henry; police detective Cheney Phillips; and Diana Alvarez, an intrusive reporter from U is for Undertow.

The novel moves quickly, alternating between Kinsey and the other characters, with a twist thrown in toward the end. But it’s the slow reveal of the characters, and the turns that their lives take, that keeps us in its grip. V may be for vengeance, but it’s also for very, very good.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 12:11

grafton_visforvengeanceHappily for readers of the Kinsey Millhone series, Grafton isn’t resting on her laurels. V is for Vengeance may be her best yet.

Well-Offed in Vermont
Sue Emmons

Taciturn Green Mountain natives and an invasion of “flatlanders” who venture to higher elevations for the foliage season are not the only surprises awaiting Stella and Nick Buckley when they ditch big-city living for rural Vermont. Before they can enjoy a romantic evening in their newly purchased farmhouse, water from a spigot runs red and a body is discovered in their well.

Sheriff Charlie Mills, a burly softy with a yen for Alma Deville, the sultry, divorced owner of a local bakery and coffee shop, quickly discovers three bullet holes in the victim, a wealthy wheeler-dealer who had cultivated a lot of animosity by sticking his fingers in several business pies. Meanwhile, the Buckleys have had to abandon their home for a primitive one-room dwelling deep in the woods, since the scattered motels in the Green Mountains are crowded with “leaf peepers.” The couple once again find themselves at the center of the investigation though, when Bunny, the aging receptionist for the Buckleys’ realtor, is gunned down with a hunting rifle. Mixed into the plot is a missing painting, believed to be of great value, which was stolen from the home of the eccentric Maggie Lawson, a lady who is handy with a gun.

Quaint characters and settings abound in this outing by New Yorker-turned-Vermonter Amy Patricia Meade. Meade peppers her scenic mystery with a variety of well-developed characters. Although Vermonters may not care for their sometimes unflattering depictions of the Vermont cast, the pleasures of this cozy procedural and its rustic setting remain undiminished. Meade, whose trademarks are mysteries spiced with both sly humor and a wisp of history, is also the author of the Marjorie McClelland mysteries set in the 1930s. She is presently working on a new series featuring Rosie the Riveter.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 12:11

Sly humor and a rustic setting mark this new series from the author of the Marjorie McClelland books.

The Drop
Hank Wagner

It’s reassuring to pick up the latest book in a long-running series, especially when it’s Michael Connelly’s newest Harry Bosch. If you’ve been following a character’s exploits for any significant period of time, it’s like checking in with an old acquaintance, and getting an update on what’s happening in their corner of the world.

That’s certainly the case with The Drop, the chief plot points of which can be illuminated through a discussion of the title itself. There’s the literal drop/fall of an apparent suicide, which triggers much of the main action. There’s also the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, through which Bosch hopes to extend his tenure in the Open/Unsolved unit of the LAPD. Further, Bosch is falling more deeply in paternal love with his young daughter by the day, and may be falling in romantic love with one Dr. Hannah Stone, whom he meets after a surprising DNA match provides a new lead in a decades old cold case. Finally, there’s the drop down the metaphoric rabbit hole, as Bosch deals with the surreal nature of the world he inhabits, from the oddities of police bureaucracy to the horrors and sudden violence he confronts on the job.

Readers will vicariously experience similar feelings and emotions, as Connelly successfully strives to keep them off balance throughout. The sensation is only temporary, however, as the author’s sure-footed and psychologically incisive writing provides yet another solid, satisfying example of suspenseful and agile storytelling, delivered with his trademark tight style and craftsmanship.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 12:11

It’s reassuring to pick up the latest in a favorite series, especially when it’s the new Harry Bosch.

Mercury’s Rise
Leslie Doran

Amateur sleuth and Silver Queen Saloon proprietress Inez Stannert returns in Ann Parker’s fourth novel in her award winning Silver Rush historical mystery series. It is August of 1880 and Leadville, Colorado, is a perfect example of the Wild West.

Inez and her photographer friend Susan are on their way to Manitou, a famed resort spa town, to reunite with Inez’s young son and her sister Harmony, but en route to the upscale Mountain Springs House, their fellow passenger Edward Pace dies suddenly of heart failure in front of his wife and children. The distraught Pace widow refuses to believe the diagnosis though, and begs Inez to help find the true cause of his death.

Inez soon welcomes the investigation as a distraction from her own troubles, including a difficult reunion with her toddler son William, who no longer recognizes her, and the sudden reappearance of her husband who has been missing for past 18 months. Her plan for a simple divorce on the grounds of abandonment is quashed, as well as a budding romance.

As Inez delves into the world of popular health spas for desperate people seeking a cure for tuberculosis, she unearths an industry peopled with charlatans and profiteers—and a growing body count.

Parker portrays a richly detailed world that describes a time when travel was an ordeal, not a luxury; health care utilized barbaric treatments with potions and practices that would horrify today’s patients and doctors alike; and women’s roles were strictly dictated by the men in their lives. This compelling historical mystery is a fascinating read.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 01:11
An independent businesswoman takes on corruption and social mores in the Wild West.

Mr. Kill
Bob Smith

It’s 1975 in South Korea and the local population remains grateful for American military help but leery of the thousands of GIs posted in their country. Acceptance of the foreign troops becomes deeply strained when two young mothers are raped and murdered by a kocheingi (“big nose” i.e., an American soldier). Army CID investigators Sgts George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are tasked to find the killer before he strikes again. Working closely with Korean authorities, but often at odds with their own Army hierarchy, the search for the murderer takes them the length and breath of the peninsula. Along the way readers are treated to some excellent descriptions of the barren, oft-times beautiful Korean countryside. A major distraction occurs in the form of a United Service Organizations (USO) tour of an all-female (and very sexy) country band who cause them as much trouble as the murderer.

This is the 7th book in this series, but it maintains the freshness and originality of the first. The workings and mindset of the American military are depicted for both the good and the bad. Sueño is the heart and brains of the team, Bascom the brawn. The two work great together, not always to the liking of their superiors, but always doggedly to get at the truth.

Never judge a book by its cover or, in this case, its title. Mr. Kill may conjure up images of a mad serial killer but actually refers to the name Americans call Gil Kwon-up, Chief Homicide Inspector of the Korean National Police. He more than lives up to the nickname in the novel’s action-packed conclusion.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 01:11

It’s 1975 in South Korea and the local population remains grateful for American military help but leery of the thousands of GIs posted in their country. Acceptance of the foreign troops becomes deeply strained when two young mothers are raped and murdered by a kocheingi (“big nose” i.e., an American soldier). Army CID investigators Sgts George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are tasked to find the killer before he strikes again. Working closely with Korean authorities, but often at odds with their own Army hierarchy, the search for the murderer takes them the length and breath of the peninsula. Along the way readers are treated to some excellent descriptions of the barren, oft-times beautiful Korean countryside. A major distraction occurs in the form of a United Service Organizations (USO) tour of an all-female (and very sexy) country band who cause them as much trouble as the murderer.

This is the 7th book in this series, but it maintains the freshness and originality of the first. The workings and mindset of the American military are depicted for both the good and the bad. Sueño is the heart and brains of the team, Bascom the brawn. The two work great together, not always to the liking of their superiors, but always doggedly to get at the truth.

Never judge a book by its cover or, in this case, its title. Mr. Kill may conjure up images of a mad serial killer but actually refers to the name Americans call Gil Kwon-up, Chief Homicide Inspector of the Korean National Police. He more than lives up to the nickname in the novel’s action-packed conclusion.

The Lantern
Oline H. Cogdill

Gothic overtones and echoes of the Daphne du Maurier classic novel Rebecca gracefully reverberate through The Lantern, Deborah Lawrenson’s first novel to be published in the United States.

Unlike the unnamed naïve heroine of Rebecca, The Lantern’s Eve is a savvy freelance journalist, confident in the choices she makes in life—until she meets Dom during a trip to Switzerland. Following “a classic whirlwind romance,” Eve moves with the wealthy Dom to a hamlet in Provence where he buys Les Genévriers, an abandoned house near lavender fields. Les Genévriers needs a lot of work, yet it captivates the couple—“Recklessness, muted by instant empathy, surrounded by beauty,” as Eve describes the house, comparing it to her and Dom’s first meeting.

At Les Genévriers, Eve feels more alive than ever, totally in love with Dom, and excited to uncover the house’s treasures such as walled-in rooms and antiques. But the couple is not alone. Les Genévriers is haunted by the ghost of Bénédicte Lincel, the house’s last resident whose tales of her family in a found diary are anything but idyllic.

The Lantern switches from the couple’s contemporary life to that of Bénédicte and her family. As Bénédicte’s tales grow more lurid, so does Eve’s disenchantment with their life and her frustration that Dom refuses to discuss what happened to his first wife.

Eve herself acknowledges similarities between her situation and the young woman in Rebecca, but the compelling Lantern is no reimagined shadow of du Maurier’s masterpiece. The author keeps The Lantern balanced between the past and the present, and her supernatural elements seem as realistic as her contemporary scenes.

Lawrenson’s novel already has a following in Great Britain, where it was picked for the Channel 4 Book Club (the UK equivalent of the Oprah Book Club), thanks to the fresh voice she brings to her novel, which is part gothic, part mystery, and part ghost story.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 22 November 2011 01:11

Gothic overtones and echoes of the Daphne du Maurier classic novel Rebecca gracefully reverberate through The Lantern, Deborah Lawrenson’s first novel to be published in the United States.

Unlike the unnamed naïve heroine of Rebecca, The Lantern’s Eve is a savvy freelance journalist, confident in the choices she makes in life—until she meets Dom during a trip to Switzerland. Following “a classic whirlwind romance,” Eve moves with the wealthy Dom to a hamlet in Provence where he buys Les Genévriers, an abandoned house near lavender fields. Les Genévriers needs a lot of work, yet it captivates the couple—“Recklessness, muted by instant empathy, surrounded by beauty,” as Eve describes the house, comparing it to her and Dom’s first meeting.

At Les Genévriers, Eve feels more alive than ever, totally in love with Dom, and excited to uncover the house’s treasures such as walled-in rooms and antiques. But the couple is not alone. Les Genévriers is haunted by the ghost of Bénédicte Lincel, the house’s last resident whose tales of her family in a found diary are anything but idyllic.

The Lantern switches from the couple’s contemporary life to that of Bénédicte and her family. As Bénédicte’s tales grow more lurid, so does Eve’s disenchantment with their life and her frustration that Dom refuses to discuss what happened to his first wife.

Eve herself acknowledges similarities between her situation and the young woman in Rebecca, but the compelling Lantern is no reimagined shadow of du Maurier’s masterpiece. The author keeps The Lantern balanced between the past and the present, and her supernatural elements seem as realistic as her contemporary scenes.

Lawrenson’s novel already has a following in Great Britain, where it was picked for the Channel 4 Book Club (the UK equivalent of the Oprah Book Club), thanks to the fresh voice she brings to her novel, which is part gothic, part mystery, and part ghost story.

Get the Drop on Michael Connelly
Oline Cogdill

altA title is just a title, right? A character's name is just a name, right?

Wrong.

The best writers use a book title or a character's name to give a hint about a plot or the nature of a character.

Perhaps this allusion isn't evident right away in a novel, but it will rise up eventually.

Take Michael Connelly, the best-selling author who I believe is one of the best—and most consistent – living crime writers.

Each title of his 24 novels—17 of which are part of the Harry Bosch series—has multiple uses. This is especially true in his latest novel, The Drop.

The Drop has many definition in this fine novel. Here's a link to my review.

Without giving away any spoilers, The Drop means a fall from a high-rise hotel; a retirement program (Deferred Retirement Option Plan); a chokehold; a child lost to the system and, as an adult, lost to society; a case dropped by the cops and even the end of a friendship. It also can mean the end of a period of adjustment for two partners and a new beginning.

A few other meanings of The Drop crop up in Connelly's novel, but that would mean giving away spoilers and that is something we do not do.

Most, if not all, of Connelly's titles have multi-uses.

In Connelly's 2010 novel The Reversal, each character undergoes a reversal, from a convicted murderer’s case that jumpstarts the plot to a successful defense attorney and a seasoned detective working in an uneasy alliance against the grain of their jobs. But the most intriguing reversal is personal—how a loner learns to be a father and two half-brothers discover the meaning of family.

Authors, of course, have used titles and character names to illustrate what is beneath the surface for centuries.

I credit Theresa Harbin, my English teacher when I was a freshman at St. Henry's High School, with showingme the deeper meaning of literature and showing me how to read on a deeper meaning.

Miss Harbin showed me how in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, each name gave an insight to aspects of a character.

Chillingworth was cold in the heart; Hester Prynne was basically a prim and proper lady who gave into passion; Dimmesdale was a doomed man, unable to allow himself pleasure or forgiveness; and, of course, Pearl was indeed a treasure.

Of course now, I wonder how I ever got through The Scarlet Letter, but Miss Harbin's lessons never left me.

And I am sure Miss Harbin, now Theresa Lebeiko, made the same impact on her future students.

So when you read Connelly's fine The Drop, savor the complex plot, the complicated characters and the vivid Los Angeles setting, and remember that each of these aspects has at least one or more meanings.

Super User 2
Sunday, 27 November 2011 05:11

altA title is just a title, right? A character's name is just a name, right?

Wrong.

The best writers use a book title or a character's name to give a hint about a plot or the nature of a character.

Perhaps this allusion isn't evident right away in a novel, but it will rise up eventually.

Take Michael Connelly, the best-selling author who I believe is one of the best—and most consistent – living crime writers.

Each title of his 24 novels—17 of which are part of the Harry Bosch series—has multiple uses. This is especially true in his latest novel, The Drop.

The Drop has many definition in this fine novel. Here's a link to my review.

Without giving away any spoilers, The Drop means a fall from a high-rise hotel; a retirement program (Deferred Retirement Option Plan); a chokehold; a child lost to the system and, as an adult, lost to society; a case dropped by the cops and even the end of a friendship. It also can mean the end of a period of adjustment for two partners and a new beginning.

A few other meanings of The Drop crop up in Connelly's novel, but that would mean giving away spoilers and that is something we do not do.

Most, if not all, of Connelly's titles have multi-uses.

In Connelly's 2010 novel The Reversal, each character undergoes a reversal, from a convicted murderer’s case that jumpstarts the plot to a successful defense attorney and a seasoned detective working in an uneasy alliance against the grain of their jobs. But the most intriguing reversal is personal—how a loner learns to be a father and two half-brothers discover the meaning of family.

Authors, of course, have used titles and character names to illustrate what is beneath the surface for centuries.

I credit Theresa Harbin, my English teacher when I was a freshman at St. Henry's High School, with showingme the deeper meaning of literature and showing me how to read on a deeper meaning.

Miss Harbin showed me how in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, each name gave an insight to aspects of a character.

Chillingworth was cold in the heart; Hester Prynne was basically a prim and proper lady who gave into passion; Dimmesdale was a doomed man, unable to allow himself pleasure or forgiveness; and, of course, Pearl was indeed a treasure.

Of course now, I wonder how I ever got through The Scarlet Letter, but Miss Harbin's lessons never left me.

And I am sure Miss Harbin, now Theresa Lebeiko, made the same impact on her future students.

So when you read Connelly's fine The Drop, savor the complex plot, the complicated characters and the vivid Los Angeles setting, and remember that each of these aspects has at least one or more meanings.

Eye Witness: Miss Marple Is Not a Private Eye
Kevin Burton Smith

Miss_Marple_Joan_HicksoNeither is Charlie Chan. Or James Bond. Or Philo Vance.


Yet in the eight-odd years (some odder than others) that I’ve been doing the Thrilling Detective Web Site, people have argued passionately for their (or some other favourite detective’s) inclusion on my site.

I calmly, patiently, tactfully try to explain. Ms. Marple is an amateur sleuth. So is Mr. Vance. Mr. Bond is a spy. Mr. Chan is a police officer. Not a PI. Sorry, Charlie.

Granted, occasionally someone turns me on to a new private eye and I’ll only too happily (and gratefully) include them in my alphabetical listing of detectives. And Lord knows my site has expanded over the years to include not just PIs but also “other tough guys and gals who make trouble their business—not their hobby.”

Maybe that’s just a little too glib for some folks, but it boils down to this: no cops, no amateur sleuths, no government agents of any kind, be they DEA, FBI, CIA, RCMP, or E-I-E-I-O. And no cats, thankyouverymuch.

james_bond_craig_small

James Bond, PI? NO.

The truth is, I find this apparent confusion over what a PI is to be more than a little baffling. After all, that tough-talking, straight-shooting urban cowboy we call the private eye has been around for over eighty years now, if you start from his earliest appearances in the pulps, courtesy of such writers as John Carroll Daly and particularly Dashiell Hammett. He’s an enduring cultural icon whose popularity has expanded far beyond the stereotypical pale male in the fedora and trenchcoat plying his trade in some American urban hell, cracking wise and dispensing justice out of a blazing .45. We now have eyes of almost any race, creed, religion, sexual preference, and nationality you can think of.

And yet, the essential core of the private eye hasn’t changed one iota.

He’s still the guy (or gal) who makes his living doing the job the official police can’t (or won’t) do. For money. Plus expenses. The one who is our guide, our own “private eye,” if you will, into a world where one man or woman might somehow, some way, make a difference. A world where, for just a moment, justice or something like it might be possible.

charlie_chanCharlie Chan, PI? NO.


The Private Eye Writers of America, who presumably would have a clue or two about the topic, define a “private eye” as “any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent.”

Allen J. Hubin, everyone’s favorite bibliographer and another guy you’d think would know how many beans make four, goes a bit further, defining a private investigator as one who “seeks clients, accepts pay for his services, and is not a member of an official law enforcement agency.” He goes on to include “investigators working for private firms—such as insurance companies—and lawyer-sleuths.”

I’d have to agree there—the private eye, as we understand the term, does not have to be a freelancer. After all, Hammett’s seminal eye, the Continental Op, was just one more operative in the large (albeit private) Continental Detective Agency. So you could also toss in journalists (or at least those like Pete Hamill’s Sam Briscoe and David Alexander’s Bart Hardin, whose jobs as investigative reporters might reasonably have them acting like detectives—but the gardening columnist or the nice lady who does the society news, on the other hand, are straight out of luck, no matter how many bodies show up in the rose bushes, the flower show, or at the Mendholsson wedding reception).

lippman_anotherthingtofall

Tess Monaghan, PI? YES.

You’d also have to include hotel dicks (Chandler’s Tony Resick, for example, and Gil Vine’s Stewart Sterling), security specialists, bodyguards, and bounty hunters, as well as any other sort of privately hired or employed troubleshooter or fixer, be it William D’Andrea’s Matt Cobb, a TV executive in charge of “special projects,” Spencer Dean’s Don Cadee, the head of a large New York department store security, or even Oliver Bleeck’s St. Ives, a professional “go-between.” These guys’ hands-on approach to their jobs, which frequently (and once again, reasonably might) bring them into contact with some particularly nasty business, more than makes up for whatever occupation they declare on their tax returns.

Ditto “salvage consultant” John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder who, in his good old pre-sobriety days stubbornly insisted he was “just a guy who does some favors for friends.” They can call themselves what they want, but they’re private eyes, licenses or not.

macdonald_cinnamonskinTravis McGee, PI? YES.


Of course, we could wander these oceans of hairsplitting forever without much chance of ever hitting any iceberg of conclusion or agreement, but who qualifies as a private eye in a work of fiction is ultimately less about occupation and more about attitude, anyway. I mean, technically, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and even Sherlock Holmes are all “private eyes” (or at least “private detectives”), but when the average mystery fan in the know talks about private eyes, trust me—they’re not talking about these guys at all. Whatever else they may be, these gentlemen all lack that hard-to-pin-down hard-boiled “private eye-ness” that makes all the difference.

And that “private eye-ness,” has never been better expressed than by Raymond Chandler in his 1945 landmark essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” arguably the most quoted nonfiction piece on the mystery genre ever written. Sure, it’s a little dated—Chandler doesn’t seem to even consider the possibility that the dick may actually be a jane—but his definition as easily fits V.I. Warshawski or Tess Monaghan as it does Philip Marlowe. That’s because he eschews the brouhaha about job descriptions and cuts to the chase. You’ve read this before, but feel free to join in as we recite the mantra:

paretsky_bodywork

V.I. Warshawski, PI? YES.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

douglas_catinvegasgoldvendetta

Midnight Louie, PI? NO.


The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.


To which all I can add is: Amen.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #95.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 23 November 2011 05:11

Miss_Marple_Joan_HicksoNeither is Charlie Chan. Or James Bond. Or Philo Vance.

The Boy Who Shoots Crows
Hank Wagner

Silvis' latest begins and ends with Cumberland County Sheriff Marcus Gatesman standing pensively outside the front door of Charlotte Dunleavy's rural Pennsylvanian home. Both times, Gatesman is reflecting on questions concerning the disappearance of 12-year-old Jesse, the eponymous "boy who shoots crows." The main difference, after a long and frustrating investigation, is that the questions in his mind have narrowed from "where?" and "who?" to "why?"

This masterful novel is a detailed account of the dark, personal journeys that the principals of The Boy are forced to embark upon after Jesse's disappearance, journeys that include hope, despair, reflection, and self discovery. The key player is ex-Manhattanite Charlotte, a high-strung artiste and classic, small-town outsider. As the new person in town, and as the owner of the land adjacent to the woods where Jesse disappeared, it's no surprise that she feels targeted by the investigation. But it's the convergence of her difficult past and tortured present that provides the backbone of this taut, engrossing psychological thriller, as Silvis takes us deep within her troubled psyche.

Besides Charlotte and Sheriff Gatesman, the cast is small, but very well-drawn. It only takes Silvis a handful of sentences to create an intimacy between audience and protagonists. Add lush prose and an eerie, well rendered locale to his expert characterizations, and you end up with a book both and engrossing and merciless. It is a novel worth your intense attention, even as it sometimes makes you want to avert your gaze.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 12:11

Silvis' latest begins and ends with Cumberland County Sheriff Marcus Gatesman standing pensively outside the front door of Charlotte Dunleavy's rural Pennsylvanian home. Both times, Gatesman is reflecting on questions concerning the disappearance of 12-year-old Jesse, the eponymous "boy who shoots crows." The main difference, after a long and frustrating investigation, is that the questions in his mind have narrowed from "where?" and "who?" to "why?"

This masterful novel is a detailed account of the dark, personal journeys that the principals of The Boy are forced to embark upon after Jesse's disappearance, journeys that include hope, despair, reflection, and self discovery. The key player is ex-Manhattanite Charlotte, a high-strung artiste and classic, small-town outsider. As the new person in town, and as the owner of the land adjacent to the woods where Jesse disappeared, it's no surprise that she feels targeted by the investigation. But it's the convergence of her difficult past and tortured present that provides the backbone of this taut, engrossing psychological thriller, as Silvis takes us deep within her troubled psyche.

Besides Charlotte and Sheriff Gatesman, the cast is small, but very well-drawn. It only takes Silvis a handful of sentences to create an intimacy between audience and protagonists. Add lush prose and an eerie, well rendered locale to his expert characterizations, and you end up with a book both and engrossing and merciless. It is a novel worth your intense attention, even as it sometimes makes you want to avert your gaze.

Storm Damage
Kevin Burton Smith

Trying to adjust to the "new normal" of post-Katrina New Orleans ain't easy. Just ask beleaguered ex-cop and mixed martial arts trainer Cliff St. James who, five months after the storm, is still living rough in his wrecked dojo, a sheet of plywood covering a giant hole in the wall, scrabbling to survive in a city that's barely functioning.

So when Twee, a young Vietnamese woman, offers him big bucks to investigate the death of her father Sam Siu, a popular bar owner who was murdered during the course of an apparent robbery on the night that Katrina hit, Cliff jumps at the chance, taking advantage of the Big Easy's suddenly relaxed private investigator licensing laws.

But as he probes further into his old friend's murder, he discovers there was far more to Sam than he ever knew. It turns out that during the Vietnam War, Sam flew clandestine missions for the CIA, and that his involvement with the agency—and T-Boy, its local head—may in fact have been ongoing. Things aren't helped when it becomes apparent that Twee seems utterly incapable of telling the truth about much of anything—including her own involvement with a gang trying to capitalize on the New Orleans criminal community's currently dysfunctional state.

The author certainly captures the uneasy shambles that the Big Easy has become, trotting out a long, vivid litany of destruction, corruption, greed, incompetence, and indifference, as Cliff wanders, frequently on a bicycle, from wrecked bar to ravaged restaurant to abandoned airfields working the case, taking an almost wicked glee in noting the devastation left behind by the hurricane. Although for all the genuine emotion Sam displays, he might as well be working his way down a checklist. Because, despite his repeated assurances that he's tough, jaded and cynical—when he's not telling us how much his divorce hurt him or how much he's pining for his ex-wife or how paranoid he is or how hollow everything has left him emotionally—we never really get a sense of who Cliff is, or that he ever felt much of anything. Perhaps in his next outing, Cliff should turn his hardened gaze not on his beloved New Orleans, but on the man in the mirror.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

kovacs_stormdamageTrying to adjust to the "new normal" of post-Katrina New Orleans ain't easy...

Coffin Man
Leslie Doran

The 16th Charlie Moon novel, Coffin Man, is a Western tale set in the style of an old melodrama or a yarn spun around a roaring campfire. Moon, a former Southern Ute lawman and the owner of Columbine Ranch, is surrounded by a cast of colorful characters that include his best friend Scott Parris, Granite Creek, Colorado police chief, and Sarah Frank, an Ute-Papago orphan who lives at his ranch. Moon's famously grumpy aunt Daisy Perika also adds to the fun and tries the patience of her good-humored nephew. Her ability to see and communicate with the dead and various spirits, both complicate and help Moon's life.

This adventure begins with a phone call from a frantic Wanda Naranjo who has a leaky pipe and a no-show repairman, and... by the way, her eight-and-a-half month pregnant daughter Betty is missing. Spurred into action, Moon and Parris take off for Wanda's and begin the search for the missing teenager, who may have taken off with the baby's unknown father.

Meanwhile Aunt Daisy is in search of her ghost vision because, for some reason, she can no longer communicate with the dead. Daisy enlists Sarah's help in her quest, but Sarah's attention is diverted when she meets a dashing young man in the local cemetery.

Doss has created a devilish plot that twists and turns and weaves in history with a modern mystery. The frequent asides to the reader detract from the seriousness of a missing child, and the solution is not the most satisfying of this highly regarded series, leaving true Western Justice missing in this tall tale.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

The 16th Charlie Moon novel, Coffin Man, is a Western tale set in the style of an old melodrama or a yarn spun around a roaring campfire. Moon, a former Southern Ute lawman and the owner of Columbine Ranch, is surrounded by a cast of colorful characters that include his best friend Scott Parris, Granite Creek, Colorado police chief, and Sarah Frank, an Ute-Papago orphan who lives at his ranch. Moon's famously grumpy aunt Daisy Perika also adds to the fun and tries the patience of her good-humored nephew. Her ability to see and communicate with the dead and various spirits, both complicate and help Moon's life.

This adventure begins with a phone call from a frantic Wanda Naranjo who has a leaky pipe and a no-show repairman, and... by the way, her eight-and-a-half month pregnant daughter Betty is missing. Spurred into action, Moon and Parris take off for Wanda's and begin the search for the missing teenager, who may have taken off with the baby's unknown father.

Meanwhile Aunt Daisy is in search of her ghost vision because, for some reason, she can no longer communicate with the dead. Daisy enlists Sarah's help in her quest, but Sarah's attention is diverted when she meets a dashing young man in the local cemetery.

Doss has created a devilish plot that twists and turns and weaves in history with a modern mystery. The frequent asides to the reader detract from the seriousness of a missing child, and the solution is not the most satisfying of this highly regarded series, leaving true Western Justice missing in this tall tale.

Need You Now
Barbara Fister

Patrick Lloyd, a young financial analyst working for a powerful Swiss bank, finds out the hard way that there's a lot going on behind the recent takedown of a gigantic Ponzi scheme in the news when, one morning, he's told by federal agents that Lily, a woman he once dated, has been terminated by the bank because of her involvement in the criminal scheme. Later the same day, Patrick is abducted at gunpoint by thugs and told that Lily has to cough up the money she stole—and if he reports the threat to the police, he'll be killed. Before he can decide what to do, Lily appears, desperate and on the run. Can he trust her or not?

This thriller explores a timely topic, giving readers a close-up view of financial skulduggery through the perspective of a young, idealistic financial analyst whose life depends on figuring out the truth. How could the world's financial systems have teetered so close to the edge? Why didn't anyone notice Bernie Madoff's profits were too good to be true? Need You Now explores what might have been covered up, and why. Though Grippando's prose style is pedestrian, he manages to weave enough twists and turns into his story to keep fans of financial thrillers guessing, and second-guessing, themselves as they try to put the pieces together along with our hero, who is in over his head.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

Patrick Lloyd, a young financial analyst working for a powerful Swiss bank, finds out the hard way that there's a lot going on behind the recent takedown of a gigantic Ponzi scheme in the news when, one morning, he's told by federal agents that Lily, a woman he once dated, has been terminated by the bank because of her involvement in the criminal scheme. Later the same day, Patrick is abducted at gunpoint by thugs and told that Lily has to cough up the money she stole—and if he reports the threat to the police, he'll be killed. Before he can decide what to do, Lily appears, desperate and on the run. Can he trust her or not?

This thriller explores a timely topic, giving readers a close-up view of financial skulduggery through the perspective of a young, idealistic financial analyst whose life depends on figuring out the truth. How could the world's financial systems have teetered so close to the edge? Why didn't anyone notice Bernie Madoff's profits were too good to be true? Need You Now explores what might have been covered up, and why. Though Grippando's prose style is pedestrian, he manages to weave enough twists and turns into his story to keep fans of financial thrillers guessing, and second-guessing, themselves as they try to put the pieces together along with our hero, who is in over his head.

The Ionia Sanction
Bliss Kern

The ancient Athens of detective Nicolaos seems to turn Socrates' famous command to "be as you would like to seem" on its head, as the characters of Gary Corby's historical mystery specialize in seeming to be one thing while actually being something quite different. Take for example the body that Nicolaos is called to examine. Nicolaos' powerful employer, Pericles, tells him that the man committed suicide after committing treason, but a brief examination reveals the man was neither a suicide nor a traitor.

In search of truth, Nicolaos follows deceptions and illusions through Athens and across the Aegean Sea looking for answers as to why the man was killed and framed. The trail leads him to a complicated plot by the Persians, who are the Greeks' most feared enemy. Nicolaos braves a voyage to enemy territory, where to be an Athenian outsider means ridicule, and to be an Athenian agent means certain death. Along the way Nicolaos finds help from a mysterious slave woman, whose exiled Athenian father lives within Persia's domain.

The Ionia Sanction has everything required for a good mystery: twists and turns, a host of characters to help and hinder the investigation, moments of real danger and unexpected emotion. On top of all this, Corby offers us a pinch of humor and a sprinkling of themes more complex than the majority of whodunits. Without ever seeming to plod or preach, Corby illustrates the social benefits and disadvantages of ethical versus moral citizens, democracy versus monarchy, and order versus freedom. For the thinking mystery-in-history fan, The Ionia Sanction is a good bet.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

The ancient Athens of detective Nicolaos seems to turn Socrates' famous command to "be as you would like to seem" on its head, as the characters of Gary Corby's historical mystery specialize in seeming to be one thing while actually being something quite different. Take for example the body that Nicolaos is called to examine. Nicolaos' powerful employer, Pericles, tells him that the man committed suicide after committing treason, but a brief examination reveals the man was neither a suicide nor a traitor.

In search of truth, Nicolaos follows deceptions and illusions through Athens and across the Aegean Sea looking for answers as to why the man was killed and framed. The trail leads him to a complicated plot by the Persians, who are the Greeks' most feared enemy. Nicolaos braves a voyage to enemy territory, where to be an Athenian outsider means ridicule, and to be an Athenian agent means certain death. Along the way Nicolaos finds help from a mysterious slave woman, whose exiled Athenian father lives within Persia's domain.

The Ionia Sanction has everything required for a good mystery: twists and turns, a host of characters to help and hinder the investigation, moments of real danger and unexpected emotion. On top of all this, Corby offers us a pinch of humor and a sprinkling of themes more complex than the majority of whodunits. Without ever seeming to plod or preach, Corby illustrates the social benefits and disadvantages of ethical versus moral citizens, democracy versus monarchy, and order versus freedom. For the thinking mystery-in-history fan, The Ionia Sanction is a good bet.

The Ronnie Gene
Bob Smith

When their investment business goes bankrupt, Stanley Jamos and Dave Mosit form a detective agency. They really don't expect any clients—they just need to qualify for an affordable business health care plan. You see, both are in their sixties, Stan has Parkinson's disease, and Dave has Alzheimer's—not qualifications one generally finds in private eyes.

When Pete, a frat brother from their college days and a partner in their failed investment firm, is murdered, they do get a case. Enter Ronnie, a femme fatale who would give the Maltese Falcon's Bridget O'Shaughnessy a run for her money, and Stan's first and only love from his college days. Ronnie and Pete (behind Stan's back) had been working on a potential million-dollar deal and now some important papers dealing with this matter are missing. It's a MacGuffin that sets the plot spinning.

There is a belief that if a book doesn't grab you in the first 50 pages, it's better to dump it. That would be a mistake in this case. Initially, it's difficult to decide if this first-time author is trying to be serious or comic, and Stan's character is so slow on the uptake, it is easy to lose patience with him. There are also two Chicago detectives whose comic-relief antics fall short, but the plot perks up and the book becomes hard to put down. There are more twists and turns than a roller coaster, some of them foreseeable, others totally surprising. People and events just aren't what they seem to be. And slow Stan eventually solves the mystery with as much flair as old Hercule Poirot himself. Stay with this one, you won't be disappointed.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

When their investment business goes bankrupt, Stanley Jamos and Dave Mosit form a detective agency. They really don't expect any clients—they just need to qualify for an affordable business health care plan. You see, both are in their sixties, Stan has Parkinson's disease, and Dave has Alzheimer's—not qualifications one generally finds in private eyes.

When Pete, a frat brother from their college days and a partner in their failed investment firm, is murdered, they do get a case. Enter Ronnie, a femme fatale who would give the Maltese Falcon's Bridget O'Shaughnessy a run for her money, and Stan's first and only love from his college days. Ronnie and Pete (behind Stan's back) had been working on a potential million-dollar deal and now some important papers dealing with this matter are missing. It's a MacGuffin that sets the plot spinning.

There is a belief that if a book doesn't grab you in the first 50 pages, it's better to dump it. That would be a mistake in this case. Initially, it's difficult to decide if this first-time author is trying to be serious or comic, and Stan's character is so slow on the uptake, it is easy to lose patience with him. There are also two Chicago detectives whose comic-relief antics fall short, but the plot perks up and the book becomes hard to put down. There are more twists and turns than a roller coaster, some of them foreseeable, others totally surprising. People and events just aren't what they seem to be. And slow Stan eventually solves the mystery with as much flair as old Hercule Poirot himself. Stay with this one, you won't be disappointed.

The Rope
Betty Webb

In this prequel to Barr's popular mystery series, Anna Pigeon is not the resourceful park ranger we've come to admire and love. Instead, she's a hard-drinking, self-pitying, screwed-up woman who's trying to run away from her problems rather than face them.

As The Rope opens, Anna awakens from a drugged stupor at the bottom of a 20-foot-deep "solution hole," a well-like depression common in the desert Southwest. She's naked, her shoulder is dislocated, the word WHORE has been carved into her thigh, and there's a murdered teenage girl decomposing in the hole with her. This horrific situation is just the beginning of an extraordinary thriller in which Anna, a temporary National Park Service worker at a Lake Powell marina, finds her true calling while attempting to escape from a demented killer.

To tell this story, Barr has wisely opted for multiple points of view, thus while Anna is fighting for her life at the bottom of that hole, we also experience the lives of other park workers. Compared to Anna's messed-up mind, even the most neurotic of them appears normal, until we realize one of them might be the teen's killer, and that he—or she—plans to finish the job on Anna.

The Rope is writing of the highest caliber, quite possibly Barr's best yet. It's a hero's journey about a seriously damaged woman who must make a conscious choice to live, even though death promises lasting peace. In her most despairing moments, Anna—who'd been a Manhattan theatre director before her husband's untimely death—actually quotes part of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, while tempted to let the desert sun take her. These theatrical allusions keep cropping up, providing a startling contrast between Anna's sophisticated, big city past and her current struggles against the desert's primitive elements. A warning: the sense of dread in this superb novel is almost unbearable, so if you read it at bedtime, prepare to wake up screaming.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

barr_theropeIn this prequel to Barr's popular series, a hard-drinking Anna Pigeon is on the run from her problems.

Broken Music
Betty Webb

As Broken Music begins, it's 1919, and maimed soldiers are still limping home from World War I to the small English village of Broughton Underhill. One of those soldiers is former police sergeant Herbert Reardon, whose face has been disfigured, but whose memory of a local drowned girl remains intact.

In a brief flashback to 1914, we learn that the morning the village's able young men left to go to the front, Marianne Wentworth was found drowned. Her death was ruled an accident, but Reardon suspects the verdict might have been wrong.

Before the war, Broughton Underhill was seen by its inhabitants as a minor Eden, but Reardon's new investigation uncovers a society at war with itself. So, too, are the members of families who have lived there for centuries. Among them, and at the center of this book, is the drowned girl's family, the Wentworths. Reverend Francis Wentworth, grieving for both his dead wife and oldest daughter Marianne, has lost his faith. His middle daughter, Nella, who'd served as a nurse at the front, remembers more horror than she's comfortable with. The Reverend's youngest, Ada, dreams of a London debut in a fine dress, but because of the new investigation, her future becomes increasingly clouded.

In many ways, Broken Music reads like a darker version of Little Women. Through ongoing flashbacks and multiple points of view, we experience the lives of each of the Wentworth girls, but are shown only the briefest glimpses of their brother, William.

Eccles' oblique writing style lends a further dreamlike quality to the narrative, and this sometimes makes it difficult to discern the social and emotional relationships between the book's characters. This may be on purpose, because in the end, we are shown that the now-maligned Victorian code of conduct was actually grounded in a fairly sensible view of human nature and what mischief it can get up to if not reined in.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

As Broken Music begins, it's 1919, and maimed soldiers are still limping home from World War I to the small English village of Broughton Underhill. One of those soldiers is former police sergeant Herbert Reardon, whose face has been disfigured, but whose memory of a local drowned girl remains intact.

In a brief flashback to 1914, we learn that the morning the village's able young men left to go to the front, Marianne Wentworth was found drowned. Her death was ruled an accident, but Reardon suspects the verdict might have been wrong.

Before the war, Broughton Underhill was seen by its inhabitants as a minor Eden, but Reardon's new investigation uncovers a society at war with itself. So, too, are the members of families who have lived there for centuries. Among them, and at the center of this book, is the drowned girl's family, the Wentworths. Reverend Francis Wentworth, grieving for both his dead wife and oldest daughter Marianne, has lost his faith. His middle daughter, Nella, who'd served as a nurse at the front, remembers more horror than she's comfortable with. The Reverend's youngest, Ada, dreams of a London debut in a fine dress, but because of the new investigation, her future becomes increasingly clouded.

In many ways, Broken Music reads like a darker version of Little Women. Through ongoing flashbacks and multiple points of view, we experience the lives of each of the Wentworth girls, but are shown only the briefest glimpses of their brother, William.

Eccles' oblique writing style lends a further dreamlike quality to the narrative, and this sometimes makes it difficult to discern the social and emotional relationships between the book's characters. This may be on purpose, because in the end, we are shown that the now-maligned Victorian code of conduct was actually grounded in a fairly sensible view of human nature and what mischief it can get up to if not reined in.

Northwest Angle
Lynn Kaczmarek

There are now 11 books in the Cork O'Connor series, the newest, Northwest Angle, follows last year's Vermilion Drift. I'm not quite sure how William Kent Krueger manages it, but there's not a bad book in the series. And Northwest Angle ranks right up there with the best.

There has been tragedy and heartbreak in the past few books, and Northwest Angle finds Cork O'Connor trying to hold his family together. What could be better than gathering everyone (daughters, son, sister- and brother-in-law) for a vacation in the remote Lake of the Woods in the Northwest Angle? The only problem is that Cork didn't count on the violent storm, a murdered teenager, or the baby found under the storm's debris. Nor did he expect that truly evil people wanted very much to find that baby.

Northwest Angle takes off like the storm that opens the book. And the fact that I read it this past August while Irene was battering the East Coast made Krueger's depiction all the more believable. This is not simply a thriller, but also a complex study of the destructive power of belief and the restorative power of love. As with the other books in the series, Northwest Angle carries an undercurrent of Native American spirituality that enriches the story and gives depth to the characters. And then there's the Northwest Angle, 100 or so square miles of land far north in Minnesota on Lake of the Woods, a lake so huge that it holds 14,000 (mostly uninhabited) islands. The vastness of the lake, the isolation of the islands, and the incredible storm all provide the perfect setting for murder.

William Kent Krueger skillfully provides suspense together with incredible settings and fascinating characters. If you've not read this series, you should—and you should start at the beginning with Iron Lake.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

There are now 11 books in the Cork O'Connor series, the newest, Northwest Angle, follows last year's Vermilion Drift. I'm not quite sure how William Kent Krueger manages it, but there's not a bad book in the series. And Northwest Angle ranks right up there with the best.

There has been tragedy and heartbreak in the past few books, and Northwest Angle finds Cork O'Connor trying to hold his family together. What could be better than gathering everyone (daughters, son, sister- and brother-in-law) for a vacation in the remote Lake of the Woods in the Northwest Angle? The only problem is that Cork didn't count on the violent storm, a murdered teenager, or the baby found under the storm's debris. Nor did he expect that truly evil people wanted very much to find that baby.

Northwest Angle takes off like the storm that opens the book. And the fact that I read it this past August while Irene was battering the East Coast made Krueger's depiction all the more believable. This is not simply a thriller, but also a complex study of the destructive power of belief and the restorative power of love. As with the other books in the series, Northwest Angle carries an undercurrent of Native American spirituality that enriches the story and gives depth to the characters. And then there's the Northwest Angle, 100 or so square miles of land far north in Minnesota on Lake of the Woods, a lake so huge that it holds 14,000 (mostly uninhabited) islands. The vastness of the lake, the isolation of the islands, and the incredible storm all provide the perfect setting for murder.

William Kent Krueger skillfully provides suspense together with incredible settings and fascinating characters. If you've not read this series, you should—and you should start at the beginning with Iron Lake.

Partners in Crime
Derek Hill

Not much happens in the rural community of Klail City, but Belken County, located in south Texas near the Mexican border, gets a dose of violence when the body of a middle-aged man is discovered on the property of wealthy Mexican-American ranchers. The suspicious death sends Detective Rafe Buenrostro and the rest of the police on a search for the killer. The investigation is upended, however, when there is a massacre at a local establishment and the local district attorney is killed, along with a number of other people. The suspected killers? Men connected with the Mexican drug cartels. Buenrostro journeys across the border and comes face-to-face with the venal relationship between the police and the cartels.

Originally published in 1985 and long out of print until now, Partners in Crime was the first mystery novel by acclaimed Mexican American academic Hinojosa as part of his multivolume Klail City Death Trip series, chronicling the lives of various residents in the Rio Grande Valley. Many of the novels are experimental in terms of how narrative is conveyed—some lack central characters, others have multiple first-person narrators, and many of them take risks with structure as well. Although this book is strongly in the police procedural subgenre and the central investigation is gripping, it too displays the author's penchant for pushing genre conventions.

That is both a good and bad thing here. The way police work is portrayed—the drudgery of paperwork, following up leads, and other mundane details—is one of the book's strengths. But the pace of the novel feels meandering at times, particularly at the beginning. Technically, the book starts with a bang with the discovery of the body at the ranch. However, the story lacks dramatic urgency until later, when the massacre occurs. It is then that Detective Buenrostro's presence feels stronger and the plot kicks into high gear as he heads to Mexico. The complex mix of people and culture along the US-Mexico border is richly detailed and makes for a solid read, offering up something different from the urban crime that dominates the field.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

hinojosa_partnersincrimeThe first novel of Rolando Hinojosa originally published in 1985 and long out of print until now.

Ranchero
Bob Smith

Laughter takes many forms: a silent grin, a groan for a bad pun, a giggle of funny embarrassment, a quick ha-ha, even a spontaneous, side-aching, laugh out loud. Rick Gavin's debut novel, Ranchero, hits all of these and then some.

The action takes place in the Mississippi Delta with one of the zaniest group of characters ever assembled between two covers. Don't expect three-dimensional types with deep emotional and intellectual complexities, because what you get are caricatures with nary a profound thought among them. But oh, are they fun to be with. The one normal voice in this crowd is Nick Reid, a former Virginia cop-turned-repo man now living in the Delta who learns that "the Delta ain't like no where else." It sure ain't!

When Nick's classic Chevy Ranchero is stolen, he is determined to get it back. He enlists the help of his friend, Desmond, a 350-pound black man who needs perpetual fast-food reinforcements to maintain his energy. Once the search begins, our heroes hit the road traversing the Delta, picking up added help along the way, and meeting an unusual assortment of Delta residents. It inevitably ends with a showdown between Nick and the most feared man in the area, Guy, who has the height, ego, and attitude of a low-class Napoleon. ("He held himself like a rooster on a planet full of hens.")

Any attempt to detail the fun-filled encounters or to describe the roster of offbeat characters couldn't do justice to the delight awaiting the reader. Suffice to say that this debut from one of crime writing's funniest new writers is a romp to be enjoyed by one and all. It's a hoot!

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

Laughter takes many forms: a silent grin, a groan for a bad pun, a giggle of funny embarrassment, a quick ha-ha, even a spontaneous, side-aching, laugh out loud. Rick Gavin's debut novel, Ranchero, hits all of these and then some.

The action takes place in the Mississippi Delta with one of the zaniest group of characters ever assembled between two covers. Don't expect three-dimensional types with deep emotional and intellectual complexities, because what you get are caricatures with nary a profound thought among them. But oh, are they fun to be with. The one normal voice in this crowd is Nick Reid, a former Virginia cop-turned-repo man now living in the Delta who learns that "the Delta ain't like no where else." It sure ain't!

When Nick's classic Chevy Ranchero is stolen, he is determined to get it back. He enlists the help of his friend, Desmond, a 350-pound black man who needs perpetual fast-food reinforcements to maintain his energy. Once the search begins, our heroes hit the road traversing the Delta, picking up added help along the way, and meeting an unusual assortment of Delta residents. It inevitably ends with a showdown between Nick and the most feared man in the area, Guy, who has the height, ego, and attitude of a low-class Napoleon. ("He held himself like a rooster on a planet full of hens.")

Any attempt to detail the fun-filled encounters or to describe the roster of offbeat characters couldn't do justice to the delight awaiting the reader. Suffice to say that this debut from one of crime writing's funniest new writers is a romp to be enjoyed by one and all. It's a hoot!

Three-Day Town
Art Taylor

As followers of the Deborah Knott series know, five novels have already appeared since the good judge married sherriff's deputy Dwight Bryant (back in 2005's Rituals of the Season). But where's the honeymoon? Maron's new novel remedies that situation (the title refers to New York, with the happy couple making a winter getaway to an in-law's Manhattan apartment). Even longer-term fans of Maron's novels have more to celebrate here, with the return of NYPD Lt. Sigrid Harald, the lead character of her previous series.

Deborah has ferried a package to New York for the lieutenant from the North Carolina branch of Harald's family, but before the handover of goods, a corpse is discovered in the borrowed apartment and the package itself disappears.

A crowd of partygoers at a neighbor's shindig, surly tenants in a long-term fight with the co-op board, a teenager who's been playing pranks on the high-rise's staff, and the building's staff members themselves form a tight community that offers up plenty of drama, numerous suspects, and at least one jaw-dropping surprise.

But the real joy here is seeing Maron's two heroines juxtaposed against one another in loosely alternating sections: Deborah's warm first-person narration and gently inquisitive nature matched against Lt. Harald's more stoic, methodical investigation. It's a testament to Maron's range and prowess as a writer that she can balance each of these personalities and styles within the same novel and still keep the suspense humming along briskly. (And here's hoping this fresh appearance of Sigrid Harald won't be the last we'll see of her for a while.)

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

As followers of the Deborah Knott series know, five novels have already appeared since the good judge married sherriff's deputy Dwight Bryant (back in 2005's Rituals of the Season). But where's the honeymoon? Maron's new novel remedies that situation (the title refers to New York, with the happy couple making a winter getaway to an in-law's Manhattan apartment). Even longer-term fans of Maron's novels have more to celebrate here, with the return of NYPD Lt. Sigrid Harald, the lead character of her previous series.

Deborah has ferried a package to New York for the lieutenant from the North Carolina branch of Harald's family, but before the handover of goods, a corpse is discovered in the borrowed apartment and the package itself disappears.

A crowd of partygoers at a neighbor's shindig, surly tenants in a long-term fight with the co-op board, a teenager who's been playing pranks on the high-rise's staff, and the building's staff members themselves form a tight community that offers up plenty of drama, numerous suspects, and at least one jaw-dropping surprise.

But the real joy here is seeing Maron's two heroines juxtaposed against one another in loosely alternating sections: Deborah's warm first-person narration and gently inquisitive nature matched against Lt. Harald's more stoic, methodical investigation. It's a testament to Maron's range and prowess as a writer that she can balance each of these personalities and styles within the same novel and still keep the suspense humming along briskly. (And here's hoping this fresh appearance of Sigrid Harald won't be the last we'll see of her for a while.)

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

This is a typical British country house murder mystery, set in the 1950s, with an unusual twist: The primary investigator is an 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce, who is also a chemistry prodigy.

Before you decide that this is too improbable a premise, note that the first entry in this series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, won nearly every major mystery award for Best First Novel.

As the story opens, the country house, which has seen better days, is about to be overrun by a British film crew who have rented the premises for a movie shoot. Flavia's widowed father has reluctantly agreed to this intrusion so that he, Flavia, and his other two teenage daughters can continue to afford living there.

When one of the cast is murdered, and a raging snowstorm traps the crew and half the local townsfolk in the house, Flavia uses her Holmesian gift of noticing things that others, including the police, have missed to assist the bemused Inspector Hewitt of the Hinley Constabulary.

What makes this work is a deftly crafted plot, crisp dialogue, and an unusual—but nonetheless believable—main character. Flavia is at once a lonely young girl, often bullied by her older sisters and mostly ignored by her morose father, and a budding scientist whose laboratory is her escape from the real world around her.

This is the fourth Flavia de Luce mystery. The unusual title is a quotation from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shallot," in which the lady is cursed to view the world, including Sir Lancelot, the object of her affection, only by looking into her mirror. Oddly enough, Agatha Christie's novel The Mirror Crack'd is based on the same poem.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11
El Gavilan
Derek Hill

An ex-Border Patrol officer, Tell Lyon, relocates from the Southwest to New Austin, Ohio, when he becomes the head of police there. His new job is not that different from his old profession despite the change in weather—illegal Mexican immigrants have flooded into the area looking to start new lives; and because of that, there is plenty of tension with the locals. County Sheriff Able Hawk has started an aggressive campaign to stop the influx of illegals into the area, as have the sheriffs from the surrounding counties. The authoritarian Hawk needs Lyon to help him clean up the area, especially since Lyon has extensive experience working along the US-Mexico border. The small community is rocked when the body of a Mexican American woman close to Hawk, Thalia, is found brutally raped and murdered in a field. Lyon discovers that Thalia is only the latest of several murdered women found in the area. Suspicions mount against a number of prominent local citizens as Lyon and Hawk track their quarry.

Craig McDonald's latest is an unflinching look at the difficult issues surrounding Mexican immigration in America. The book could have come off as an irritating polemic, but McDonald avoids this by grounding his controversial subject within a thoroughly gripping crime story, and peopling it with characters that are consistently realistic. Lyon, still haunted by the tragic deaths of his wife and children while working the border, knows all too well the harsh reality of illegal immigration and he could have been written as nothing more than a revenge-minded lead. But Lyon is thankfully anything but a clichéd cop. Still wounded emotionally when he arrives in New Austin, Lyon's ability to hold on to his humanity as he moves from one tragedy into the next makes for a refreshing and fascinating character. Even more impressive is the portrayal of the imposing Hawk. Set up as a frighteningly rigid cop (who initially appears motivated by racism in his zeal to rid his county of illegal immigrants), McDonald humanizes Hawk in some surprising and effective ways, showing how even the most problematic character can be presented with depth and display degrees of unforeseen sympathy. El Gavilan is a dark and difficult journey at times, but it never loses sight of its characters' complexities.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 28 November 2011 01:11

mcdonald_elgavilanA crime novel that takes an unflinching look at the issues surrounding Mexican immigration in the US.