Matthew Pearl’s new novel The Technologistsmoves his exciting brand of historical hokum to the origins of MIT. It is the 1860s and the institution itself is struggling to be born amidst distrust from locals and disdain from older bastions of culture that look down on the idea of technology. Outside the fledgling school, something—or someone—is causing horrific accidents in Boston whilst inside, a secret society of students pledge to use their talents to save the townspeople from whatever is out to destroy their city.
This society includes a Brahmin, a scholarship man, a young genius, and a woman, and it makes for a Victorian high-concept thriller with strikingly modern outlines.
Pearl’s style is heavy—ponderous, if it’s not to your taste—but he manages an interesting rhetorical trick. He borrows the form we might associate with Victorian novelists (long sentences, lots of careful modification and balanced subclauses), but he uses it to fill the reader in on background details. Instead of the moral scruples of Trollope or the energetic grotesquerie of Dickens, his sentences are full of details about people’s clothes, class, and other elements a Victorian contemporary wouldn’t have bothered to tell us. He gives us the rhythm of (some) Victorian prose, whilst helping us picture the world it originated in, and doing so allows him to write dialogue which sounds authentic. It isn’t, of course, it’s crammed with formal circumlocutions and elaborately dated references, like someone trying to show off how at home they are in the period. But, as in science fiction, technical terms in historical novels offer verisimilitude, to give a sense that the world extends beyond the page in all directions.
In fact the science fiction analogy isn’t far off. There’s something very steampunky about Pearl’s enthusiasm for 19th-century technology and its possibilities. In a way his mode is both futuristic and historical: it’s an elegy for an American future, which never quite happened. Its technological modernism is as much escapism as the most outrageous pastoral: it yearns for a time when engines were the solution, not the problem, and when science was going to bring democracy and opportunities would go to those who merited them.
Beautifully written and sprinkled with historical data, Kieran Shields’ debut mystery set in New England in 1982 introduces readers to the unlikely duo of Deputy Marshal Archie Lean, an old-school police officer, and Perceval Grey, a criminologist versed in more up-to-date forensic techniques but distrusted by many because of his mixed Abenaki Indian ancestry. Their current case harks back to the Salem Witch Trials, as a serial killer eerily emulates elements of those crimes, albeit in a Portland, Maine, setting. Joining them is historian Helen Prescott.
Together they discover that the ritualistic murder of a prostitute, found slain in a pentagram position and pinned with a pitchfork, is a recreation of an ancient mode of witch killing. But this is just the underbelly of the complicated case: their probing reveals more killings and the secrets that connect them. The investigation delves not just into the pathology of the killings but to secret societies and asylums of 19th century New England. The link to the atrocities in Salem more than 200 year before unleashes a long-forgotten aspect of those trials that proves the key to the killings.
Shields, who is a native of Portland, offers meticulous research into the city’s history in this heart-pounding suspense that should delight any lover of period mysteries. A plus is that he introduces fascinating detectives, a pair that hopefully will return in future outings.
Pavone’s accomplished debut tells the story of ex-CIA agent Kate Moore, who, after taking a lesser role in the agency after getting married, leaves the organization entirely after her husband Dexter, a security consultant, lands a job advising a private bank headquartered in Luxembourg. But Kate has a sneaking suspicion that she’s not entirely through with her past life, a time when she regularly made life or death decisions affecting US national security. Instinctively on the alert for danger, her paranoia increases when another expat couple, who may or may not be government agents, befriend the Moores. It also doesn’t help that her formerly communicative husband has suddenly become secretive about his activities, constantly leaving her alone with their two young sons to travel across Europe on business.
The Expats is highly entertaining, reminiscent of the television show Alias at its peak, as a highly trained operative simultaneously deals with the extraordinary and the mundane. Pavone doles out surprises with almost alarming frequency, all without losing credibility, keeping his audience in suspense, as they root for his winning heroine, who, to her chagrin, learns she is not the only one in her circle that’s harboring secrets. He also renders the entire expat experience accurately, capturing both its exciting and more humbling aspects. That in depth knowledge, evident on every page, grounds the book in reality, allowing readers to more easily accept the novel’s more outré occurrences.
Authors who use social or political issues as the basis for their mysteries often over emphasize the issue to the detriment of the mystery itself. Not so with Betty Webb’s latest Lena Jones book, Desert Wind, where the issue is blended so expertly with the mystery that it is hard to imagine one without the other.
The story revolves around uranium mining, the A-bomb tests in the Arizona and Nevada deserts, and the resultant long-term harm they’ve caused. It is the murder of a mining company publicist that brings PI Lena to remote Walapai Flats in northern Arizona, where her partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, a Pima Indian, has been arrested in connection with the man’s death. She quickly learns that nuclear fallout is behind more than the region’s cancer epidemic as she becomes embroiled in the conflict between the mining officials who live in gated-community splendor and ordinary people who are victims of the pollution and the subsequent government cover-ups.
As fans of the series know, Lena was raped by one of her foster fathers when she was a young orphan. A tough survivor, she isn’t one to let wealth or power stand in her way when a friend is in trouble.
It is worth mentioning that woven throughout the story is the ghost of John Wayne, who appears to one of the main characters, a former horse wrangler who knew the actor from The Conqueror, a 1956 movie shot in the area in which Wayne played Genghis Khan. Allegedly a great percentage of the Indian extras in the film, along with The Duke himself, contracted cancer. Author Webb skillfully presents Wayne not as some supernatural gimmick but as a believable, important part of the puzzle.
Since the author doesn’t preach to us but presents her case against uranium mining as an intricate part of the mystery, the book moves steadily from the first page and interest never lags. Importantly, the author backs up her extensive research with a detailed bibliography for any reader who wants to learn more about the atom bomb testing and uranium mining.
Deborah Crombie’s novels are more than just suspenseful, well-crafted police procedurals: they are equal part family chronicles with a cast of characters who develop from book to book and become as important to readers as the solving of the crime. During the course of Crombie’s 14 books in the series, her two main protagonists, Detective Inspector Gemma James and Detective Superintendent
Duncan Kincaid, have gone from being working partners to a happily married couple with three kids, the latest being three-year-old foster daughter Charlotte. (See Necessary as Blood, 2009.) Raising a family has Gemma on leave in this latest book, while Duncan investigates the drowning murder of a potential Olympic rowing athlete. Since the victim, Rebecca Meredith, is also a Metropolitan police officer, it becomes a top-priority case. Duncan is confronted with a slew of suspects including an ex-husband, a part-time lover, a disgruntled coworker, and a jealous rowing coach. But the one causing him the most trouble is a retired senior police official with ties to Rebecca’s past.
This book is excellent on many levels: a murder mystery, a police procedural (with the added intrigue of high-level police machinations), a family chronicle, and even a primer on the art of scull racing. Followers of the series should have no trouble sorting out the relationships of the many characters, but it could be initially difficult for a reader not familiar with past books. Happily Crombie is more than up to the task of presenting it in a clear, concise manner without confusing readers or detracting from the solution to the murder.
Though the last few seconds of this season’s Dexter television show brought events in the character’s video world closer to those as created by Lindsay in the books, there are still some pretty major differences. It’s safe to say that, for fans of the show who are still uninitiated with the novels, lending an ear to Double Dexter is rather like entering a parallel world.
For example, Dexter’s wife, Rita, is still very much alive, as is his homicidal brother. He has four children; the tiny tyke is a girl, not a boy, and the other three know about his penchant for cutting up predators and try to help him with his kills. One thing that sounds surprisingly the same is Dexter’s voice. I’m not sure if the actor, Michael C. Hall, has been influenced by author Lindsay, or vice-versa, but the latter, who narrates the novel, sounds enough like the former to help bring the two formats a bit closer. Such help is needed. In fact, it might be time for Lindsay to start following the lead of the writers of the TV series. They were smart enough to bump off Dexter’s spouse Rita before she became as annoyingly loony as she is here. And though their season-long episodes have lost some of their edge, they’ve never allowed Dexter’s family life to become as drearily mundane as it is here, with wife Rita hitting the sauce and harboring an insipid secret, and daughter Astor whining about her braces.
No complaints about the two interesting cases—a Dexter copycat killing bad guys and an unknown murderer using a sledgehammer to bash in the heads of cops. But that family! What’s the point of being a sociopath and serial killer if you opt to put up with that?
“How could I kidnap a child and get away with it?”
This was probably the wrong question to ask an FBI agent right out of the gate. The agent’s expression turned grim and his answer was clipped and a tad aggressive. “You couldn’t. We’d catch you.”
“No buts. We’d catch you. When a kid gets snatched, we drop everything. It becomes top priority. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”
At this point I started to panic. Not because I thought the Feds weren’t going to let me leave the building, but because I saw my novel falling apart around me. A child kidnapping is a key factor in Paying the Piper. A kidnapper with a grudge comes after the family of a newspaper reporter. I thought it was a good idea. So did the publisher. They’d paid me an advance on this very story line. In the space of five minutes, my book was in tatters before it was written because the FBI knew better.
I thought the story line was going to be tough to pull off, but not this tough. I quickly outlined the scenario for the book to demonstrate my master plan for counteracting law enforcement procedure. I waited for him to applaud me for my criminal genius. He didn’t.
“We’d still catch you,” he said.
I wasn’t too downhearted as I didn’t care if my antagonist got caught, as long as he got caught on page 347 and not page 10. I put my frayed plot line to one side and we talked kidnappings—procedures, old cases, likely outcomes, etc. As I listened a single thought rose to the surface. It’s bloody hard to get away with a high profile crime. As far as I can see it, as soon as the cops get a hold of the case, you (the criminal) are toast.
The problem is, it is impossible not to leave a trail. It doesn’t matter if you go high-tech or low-tech. There’s a trail. As I listened, I could envisage a snail-like physical trail left behind by my fictional kidnapper and the cops following it all the way to his lair.
I couldn’t see a way around the problem. A kidnapper, being a kidnapper, needs to make contact with the kidnapee’s family. Phones are a nightmare these days. Landline or wireless, they’re easy to trace. Digital seems to be the criminal’s worst enemy. The technology’s strength is its weakness. As easy as it is to use, it’s just as easy to locate.
Going old school doesn’t help matters either. If the kidnapper sends a letter, he’s going to need a return address for return correspondence. That doesn’t even cover the issues of how easy it would be to trace the sorting offices the letter went through to narrow down the sender’s location. Document specialists can lift all sorts of forensic evidence off paper.
The only thing left open to the kidnapper is face-to-face meets and that’s fish-in-a-barrel time for law enforcement.
It doesn’t matter how you slice it, if you kidnap a kid for ransom, you’re going to get caught.
Eventually, with a little devious ingenuity plot-wise and some character flaws, I built a plot line that worked, but the Q&A with the FBI was a tipping point.
I’m a good guy, but it made me question myself and whether I would ever cross a legal line. I don’t think I would, but I can’t rule it out. Circumstance may dictate otherwise. However, the more I write and the more I research crimes for my stories, the more honest it makes me. In spite of how smart I think I am, I’d get caught. I’ve seen the inside of police stations, courtrooms, and a prison and I quite honestly can say I don’t want to be arrested, I don’t want to go to court, and I definitely don’t want to go jail. I wouldn’t last a day in the big house. This smart mouth would get me into all sorts of trouble.
So a simple question about kidnapping helped turn me into a more law-abiding person. It’s my fiction that’s just plain criminal.
Paying the Piper, Simon Wood, Leisure Books, October 2007, $7.99
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #102.
West 86th Street, aka Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. Now the meow of investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and surgeons, there’s nothing on the surface of this new money mecca to reveal that when I was born there 30 years ago, abandoned buildings and a crack house were tucked between the middle class Jewish homes.
I would play video games at the laundromat arcade around the corner with the black and Latino kids, sometimes bonding over Street Fighter II moves and sometimes scared the violence on the screen would spill into reality. Like most white children of liberal families in the neighborhood, the interracial feelings ran deeply ambivalent—our parents were grown-up flower children, who in my case marched for Civil Rights and a unified America, yet we were often terrorized by the poorer kids who saw our young intellectualism and lack of fighting experience as weakness. My brother had his bicycle stolen three times right in front of our building—while using it. While our parents taught us about political equality and injustice, the other kids were learning hard knocks. Their rugged swagger was a stark, obvious contrast to our timid, earnest ways. I was mugged, jumped, chased, and threatened many times before I even made it to high school.
In New York, home of transients from America and all over, when you want to get to know someone, you ask them where they’re from. If what we write is who we are, and identity is, like real estate, about location, then mine is, shall we say, complicated. I went to grade school at Bank Street on 112th and Broadway, with Robert De Niro and Bill Cosby’s children in my year, all of us scurrying past neighborhood thugs to get to class. About nine kids jumped Raphael De Niro and me one day in front of a pizzeria. They stole his hat and sucker-punched me.
In high school it was easy to overly identify with one group or another—Raphael wore a beeper, sold weed, and tagged Mecker all over the city. I read Freud and Oscar Wilde. While we tried to categorize ourselves to make sense of things, we really were youngsters exposed to too many cultures all at once. For all my intellectual efforts and repeated viewings of Annie Hall, my favorite music was hip-hop, with Tribe Called Quest and Pharcyde coming from my headphones at all times. In Brooklyn, Woody Allen and Jay-Z were separated by neighborhoods. On the Upper West Side, they were rolled together with a twist of Marc Anthony.
I went to college in Baltimore, where there was no in-between. You were white or black, hillbilly or ghetto. There weren’t any Puerto Rican kids reciting Biggie lyrics walking down the streets, and certainly no Jewish-Italians with a foot in each room. I played basketball and liked hip-hop, so I was slowly immersed in black culture. After living in Baltimore for five years, I got into Columbia University’s MFA program. This was on 116th and Broadway, just four blocks from where I went to grade school, where I’d been jumped by the neighborhood kids and always walked with my head low.
After living in Baltimore with its salt-of-the-earth ball players and tough guys, I was ready to come home and confront the ghetto rats that had terrorized my childhood. To my surprise, they were gone.
The pizzeria where Raphael and I were jumped was now a French bistro called La Monde. Columbia’s campus had left the campus and become the whole neighborhood. Grads and undergrads dominated the streets with abstract conversations and casual entitlement. It was culture shock all over again. My fellow classmates were arriving in New York for the first time, and didn’t believe me when I told them what it used to look like.
Now when I sit down to write, I try to make all those cultural strands tie together. The prospect is confounding—looking out at West 86th Street and remembering walking to school past the blazing graffiti, ragged bums, and do-rag young thugs, compared to today’s promenade of designer labels, purebred toy dogs, and organic juice bars. I came up with a character called Izzy, a Reagan-era black Jew who’s been making his living robbing drug dealers. Though his identity was defined 30 years ago, today he realizes he has a choice. By showing the city through his eyes I can reveal all those old gritty ghosts as well as the contrast of young new money reaching for something better.
Izzy’s counterpart is Eva, a social worker with aspirations of practicing psychotherapy, his estranged son interns for a Midtown finance group, and his former partner Mal is a wild gunslinger from the fringe ghettos of old Harlem. In Bang Bang I’ve thrown Izzy into this urban clutter where these different walks of life meet, challenge, and bang into each other.
Bang Bang, Theo Gangi, Kensington, October 2007, $15.00
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #102.
Carole Nelson Douglas' Mash-up Mystery
For 16 years and 27 novels, I’ve been going steady with mystery fiction, despite 25 earlier novels categorized as fantasy, science fiction, mainstream, and romance.
My reinvention of Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Sherlock Holmes, made her the first woman from the Canon to front her own series. Feline PI Midnight Louie, a “Sam Spade with hairballs,” is now appearing in his 19th novel, Cat in a Red Hot Rage. Both series offered options aplenty to keep me and mystery happily monogamous.
Then she showed up. The other woman. The noir gal from a world both older and newer. “She” is an orphan named after the place she was abandoned as an infant...except there’s no “Delilah Street” in Wichita, Kansas.
A TV reporter who covers paranormal topics like cattle mutilations, Delilah is an estate sale junkie surrounded by vintage artifacts of other people’s family lives. Her best friend is a tough little terrier that dies from blood poisoning after he bites a first date who meant to kill her. And then she sees her identical self autopsied on TV’s CSI V: Las Vegas!
Delilah drives to Vegas, hell-bent on finding her double. There, she’ll save a huge wolfhound from certain death and become a crime investigator for the slightly scummy CSI producer, Hector Nightwine. Oh, and she’s now the most wanted woman in Vegas and everywhere else, thanks to that perplexing nude debut on CSI.
Not a bad start for a mystery series...except I didn’t mention some facts: The year is 2013, after 2001 rang in the terrifying “Millennium Revelation.” No apocalypse, no global computer failure, just a mob of creepy creatures oozing out of the closet. Delilah’s murderous date was the jerky vampire anchorman at her TV station. His annoyed new girlfriend is the station weather witch, who had Delilah’s rented bungalow blown away by a very selective, get-out-of-town-bitch tornado.
In Dancing With Werewolves, Vegas is where Delilah will solve the mystery of her double and make her stand. Sex and death are the main attractions. People are literally dying to play dead bodies on CSI. (After the novel was written, the actual CSI ran a viewer contest to win a role as a corpse.) A werewolf mob runs the Gehenna hotel-casino, and ordinary working weres dance at a Los Lobos club.
Delilah meets an attractive ex-FBI guy, Ric Montoya, aka the “Cadaver Kid,” with a weird gift for finding dead bodies. Together, they uncover the skeletons of a 60-year-old mob hit and earn the furry fury of a werewolf hit team and an albino vampire.
This series allows me to explore and satirize everything from mystery icons, to the current entertainment media fascination with gruesome forensic details, to the trade in illegal aliens and then some, to intellectual property rights in the Internet Age. Everything in Delilah’s Las Vegas is larger than life and tinged with sex and death, with both “good” and “bad” vampires, werewolves, and police personnel aboard.
Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator, debuts in Dancing With Werewolves this fall. Brimstone Kiss arrives next year. I call it “noir urban fantasy,” and I loved combining my fantasy instincts with hardboiled crime and a truly twisted vision of Midnight Louie’s “slightly surrealistic” Las Vegas. And going all-out canine instead of feline was a nice change of species.
I will be double-dating Louie and Delilah for the foreseeable future, concocting a double dose of mystery noir, both harking back to classic genre icons, pushing crime and punishment into the light fantastic...and into the very, very darkest corners of human and unhuman nature.
Dancing With Werewolves, Carole Nelson Douglas, Juno Books, October 2007, $6.99
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #102.
Twist Phelan dishes on her wild, ibuprofen-fueled False Fortune
"Hut, hut, HO!”
No, that isn’t the marching cadence for a squad of ladies of the night. It’s the call for a stroke changeover in outrigger canoe paddling.
I write the Pinnacle Peak series, legal-themed mysteries featuring different sports. Kayaking suited the story in my latest book, False Fortune, and my research included surf ski paddling and outrigger canoe racing in Australia and Hawaii.
One morning while running on the beach near my house in Australia I saw a long, narrow craft being propelled though the waves by six women wielding wooden paddles. When they came ashore, I helped them drag the boat above the tide line.
“Our five had to quit. Ya want to give it a go?” said another.
What does a five do? “Sure!” I said.
“See ya Wednesday morning, America.”
I had a new sport, a new team, and a new nickname.
If you’ve ever watched a Hawaii Five-0 rerun, you’ve seen an outrigger canoe, a long boat with a separate float (ama) connected by two perpendicular arched cross beams (iako) on one side.
Lesson one was the paddle stroke—rotation and power come from the hips. Next I learned timing. The team faces the front of the boat. Odd numbers paddle on one side and even numbers paddle on the other (this keeps the canoe in balance), with the number six steering. The lead paddler sets the pace under the steerer’s direction, and everyone synchronizes her stroke to the person directly in front.
Paddling on one side is fatiguing, so every 16 strokes, paddlers switch sides. To maintain speed and avoid capsizing, everybody has to switch at the same time. The paddler in the number two position calls out in time to the last three strokes—“hut, hut,” followed by a HO!” that everyone shouts while lifting her paddle from the water to start stroking on the opposite side.
Outrigger canoes move fast. This makes the canoe less stable, which is when the ama comes into play, preventing the tippy canoe from capsizing.
We set off. I was in the five seat. A salty breeze blew over my sun-warmed face. We passed what looked like a floating rock that turned out to be a sea turtle.
At first, boat speed wasn’t great, largely because of the rookie (me). But I caught on to the rhythm, and soon we were hydroplaning. When the steerer upped the cadence, I ended up a half tick off the pace. It was time for the stroke changeover.
“Hut, hut, HOLY SH—!”
One instant we were paddling along; the next, we were all in the ocean with the boat floating beside us, upside down. A huli.
We righted and bailed out the canoe, then started for home. Stroking hard, we caught a swell that carried us all the way onto the sand. My teammates congratulated me over breakfast.
The author demonstrates her paddling technique.
“Good on ya!” said the number two paddler as I tore into a pumpkin scone like a rescued castaway.
The number four wiped orange juice from her mouth. “You’ll be apples by race day.”
Race day? Turns out she was talking about a 42 kilometer open ocean marathon at the end of the month. I spent the next three weeks essentially learning how to be a galley slave.
The day of the competition, the waves were so high that when we came ashore during a practice run, I felt as if we’d jumped off the top of a three-story building, then had the building chase us down the street.
“Noah’s weather,” said the number four paddler. “Keep yer eye out.”
I was learning the Oz rhyming slang. Noah’s had to be short for Noah’s ark. But the word it replaced...
She saw my puzzlement. “Shark.”
I managed a tense smile. Shark?
The starter’s gun cracked. We were last off the mark.
“Come on, girls!” yelled the steerer. “Pull!”
Our lead paddler picked up the pace. We matched it, our paddles moving as one. An unexpected pain radiated from my wrist, but I swallowed ibuprofen that I’d kept handy just in case. A silver flow of small fish, hundreds of them, knifed through the water underneath us. Each stretch between buoys, we reeled in and passed another racer.
My sore wrist disappeared in a surge of adrenaline and Advil. The steerer called for another tempo increase. Sweat ran steadily down my forehead from under my cap, leaving a frosting of salt on my eyebrows. The shoulder muscles of the paddler in front of me rippled like water passing over rocks.
With the only remaining opponent barely a boat length ahead, we turned for the final leg, a perpendicular run to the beach. By now, I moved in a kind of trance. Catch. Pull. Lift. Catch. Pull. Lift.
The finish buoys loomed ahead. We were closing the gap to the other boat when a crosswind snatched the cap from my head.
“Watch the ama!” someone yelled.
I glanced at the outrigger in time to see my cap sink. It was followed by my heart when a big gust of wind lifted the ama out of the waves.
We’re going to huli.
“Drop your paddle!” shouted the steerer into my ear. “Push down on the iako.”
I reached over the side and leaned on the iako. It wasn’t enough.
I braced one foot where the iako was lashed to the canoe, and balanced the other on the boat’s edge. With a brief thought to my dental work, I lunged. The ama crashed back down onto the water.
The boat kept going, with me suspended between the float and the canoe like rigging. My ab muscles screamed while waves slapped my face. My grip started to slip on the fiberglass.
“Hang on, America!”
Beneath the water I glimpsed a rock...or was it a triangle fin? I shut my eyes.
We smacked into the beach. The impact jarred me loose onto the sand. I spat up salt water while my jubilant teammates pounded me on the back.
“Way to hang twenty, America!”
I staggered to my feet and traded a few low-fives. My sore shoulders couldn’t manage high ones.
We were the first come-from-behind team to ever win this race.
I momentarily passed on the celebratory champagne, rummaging through my gear for what I really wanted.
Where was the Advil?
False Fortune, Twist Phelan, Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.
Lillian Stewart Carl
“That chapel proud, where Roslin’s chiefs uncoffin’d lie.”—Sir Walter Scott
Several miles south of Edinburgh stands Rosslyn Chapel, built by the Sinclair family in the 15th century and dedicated to St. Matthew. With its lavish carvings—the stone might just as well have been butter—Rosslyn Chapel was an anomaly even in Catholic Scotland. For it to have survived the violent transition to Protestantism testifies to its being a very special place.
Is it the quality of its workmanship that makes it special, or something more?
The answers to that question range from the feasible (that Rosslyn is the hiding place of Scotland’s crown jewels), to the bizarre (that its sculptures are musical notes or maps of the New World or hints to religious secrets dating back to early Christianity).
I visited Rosslyn in 2001 because that’s where I intended to set my book The Burning Glass. There were so few people there my husband and I wandered at will through the chapel and up the scaffolding erected so that masons—small “m” masons—could repair its crumbling exterior. We enjoyed tea and cookies in the garden which chased away the wet-dog smell of decay in the chapel itself.
I’ve read pseudo-history for many years, including Holy Blood, Holy Grail, whose authors sued the author of The Da Vinci Code for plagiarism, and The Templar Revelation, published six years before The Da Vinci Code, whose first chapter is titled “The Secret Code of Leonardo da Vinci.” The theme of my series is that perception is reality, and that belief is a marketable product—whether it comes to Bonnie Prince Charlie (The Secret Portrait), the Loch Ness monster (The Murder Hole), or speculative history (The Burning Glass). So like Jean Fairbairn, the heroine of the Fairbairn/Cameron mystery series, I find it highly entertaining when authors try to prove their conspiracy theories by crawling to the end of perceptual limbs and clinging desperately to fallacy and twig alike.
Before I’d even started writing The Burning Glass, the Da Vinci juggernaut made Rosslyn Chapel so famous that now visitors can only enter with scheduled tours, and must contend with long lines. So I decided to create my own “chapel of ease” for The Burning Glass.
A chapel of ease is a place of worship for the convenience of parishioners residing at some distance from the main church. My chapel, Ferniebank, was supposedly built by the same family and the same hands that built Rosslyn, but it’s a little further south in the Scottish Borders, the area described by H.V. Morton as part fairyland and part battlefield.
While Ferniebank—a chapel of unease, if you will—is based on Rosslyn, the adjacent half-ruined Ferniebank Castle is based on two real castles: Neidpath Castle, a gray tower near Peebles filled with crumbling plaster and suggestive shadows; and Huntingtower Castle, which is outside Perth. Huntingtower is a much tidier ruin, and the resident caretaker lives in a flat that’s been built into one corner of the medieval tower.
I visited Huntingtower in 2000, before Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron were gleams in my muse’s eye, but I knew that flat would some day figure in a story. And so it has. Jean and Alasdair live in that flat, and they not only have to build a relationship while criminals and ghosts walk the darkened rooms of the castle, they also have to deal with murder, both modern and ancient.
My plot is based on the popularity of secret history books in general and The Da Vinci Code in particular. In The Burning Glass, tourists overflow Rosslyn and descend upon Ferniebank, a new owner plans its conversion to a New Age spa, and what looks like a simple case of myth-mongering becomes a mad mouse ride through historical fantasy. For it doesn’t matter what drives the traffic in secret history—it’s a lucrative business, and money is as much a motive for crime as jealousy.
“There’s nothing wrong with myth,” Jean insists, while Alasdair retorts, “The danger comes in hiding from the fact that they are myths.”
And yet the border between myth and history is as doubtful as that between Scotland and England. Just ask the beleaguered caretakers of Rosslyn Chapel.
The Burning Glass, Lillian Stewart Carl, Five Star, $25.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.
What Archer Mayor chats about when he chats about Chat
Chat, my latest (and 18th) Joe Gunther, Vermont-based mystery, will be appearing in stores this October. As I hope the title conveys, it deals in part with the very real problem of Internet child predators.
Of course, those familiar with my series will not be surprised to learn that I take an unusual approach to the subject: the bodies of two men appear in Brattleboro, but they don’t appear to be tied to Brattleboro in any way. Their only connection seems to be that they prowled the Internet looking for young girls. So, who killed them, and why?
The book takes place entirely in Vermont this time, with only a couple of quick side trips elsewhere.
Chat’s subject matter was brought to my attention locally by a friend of mine who works for the Brattleboro Police Department. What he told me really opened my eyes, since even I, who had spent all these years writing about Vermont’s less-than-touristy activities, never would have thought that Internet predation was a huge problem in the state.
In short, this cop friend of mine began posing in chat rooms as a 14-year-old girl, having set up a 25-mile perimeter for responses (in order to make whatever cases he might make relevant to his jurisdiction, not to mention the taxpayers). Within two-and-a-half days, he had too many cases to handle of men propositioning him. He had to shut down for six months in order to process them. He’s back at it now, and with the same success rate. It boggled my mind to extrapolate on his experience and imagine what was occurring worldwide.
Chat doesn’t just deal with this grim topic, however. I thought it was high time to bring back Joe’s brother and their mom, both from up north, so they also play prominent roles in the book, as do a number of characters from his home town of Thetford, Vermont. And for all of you who have contacted me concerning Joe’s love life, I am keeping my fingers crossed that you will be pleasantly surprised by the new companion in his life.
Chat, Archer Mayor, Grand Central Publishing, $24.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I haven’t really changed inside since I was seventeen. Not fundamentally. It’s not that I mind being in my forties, but the thing that has surprised me as I’ve aged is that I don’t feel that much different on the inside, and I’ve often wondered if that’s true for everyone.
I still remember sitting with my grandfather in comfy armchairs in his den, the day he told me how he’d met my grandmother, how he had seen her skating at an outdoor rink when she was my own age and he was not much older. And I realized for the first time they’d been young, once—that they hadn’t always been somebody’s parents, someone’s grandparents, respectable and staid. I saw the young man’s face beneath the old while he was talking, as though I were seeing someone I had never met.
That afternoon was an epiphany. After that I never saw an older person in the way I had before, as simply being old. And when I came to write my thriller Every Secret Thing, I tried to teach that lesson to my heroine, Kate Murray.
When Kate first meets Andrew Deacon on the morning of the day he dies, she easily dismisses him as just another old man in an overcoat and hat—a grave mistake, because his sudden death soon throws her own life into danger. On the run, Kate has to outwit her pursuers long enough to track down those remaining people who knew Deacon long ago in wartime Lisbon, hoping they can help her fit together the pieces of the puzzle that was Deacon’s life so that she can bring a murderer to justice.
Kate has her own epiphany, while talking to her grandmother. I thought I had a handle on that character until I spent some time with some extraordinary women who had gone to New York City in the 1940s to do secret work for spymaster Sir William Stephenson, the famous “Man Called Intrepid.” Running teletype machines in a hidden room in Rockefeller Center, these women handled coded messages that helped to change the course of WWII in favor of the Allies. Their work was so secret that they couldn’t tell their families what they did, or even talk about the job with one another. They held these secrets for so long that many of their parents and their husbands died not ever knowing of the contribution that these women made. They keep some secrets still. They wouldn’t tell me everything, but luckily they told me just enough to let me see them as they were when they were young, as they most probably still feel.
That insight helped to bring Kate’s grandmother to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined on my own, and shaped the story by reminding me that, even though the years may change us outwardly, and though our views and attitudes evolve with our experiences, who we are inside remains essentially unaltered.
And for Kate, that realization is the thing that saves her life.
Every Secret Thing, Emma Cole, Allison & Busby, $15.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.
Throughout 2012, Mulholland Books will release 25 of Thompson's novels.
That's pretty much all of Thompson's work. He wrote 29 novels, beginning with Now and Earth in 1942 and ending with King Blood in 1973. He died in 1977.
Thompson was a visionary crime writer who saw a world overrun with violence and corruption.
To me, he is the definition of noir. His novels are tough, uncompromising, full of nasty people. Somehow he makes you care about each of them. His prose is as graceful as it is lean and mean.
His brilliant The Grifters (1963) shows a trio of con people at the lowest point in their lives, yet forever interlocked in their prism of deceit. Roy Dillon, who's 25, may actually leave his life as a short-con operator.
But Roy's mother, Lilly, who had him when she was 14, and his girlfriend Moira Langtry, also a con artist, pull him back. To say he has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother is putting it mildly.
The Grifters was adapted into a film in 1990; directed by Stephen Frears, and starrring John Cusack, Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston. For me, this was one of the best adaptatons of Thompson's work, keeping the dark spirit of the work.
Thompson's compelling The Getaway (1958) is a descent into hell with some of the most unsavory characters. Carter "Doc" McCoy and his wife Carol are bank robbers and killers whose life on the edge hinges on making one more score. They do not trust their partners; they barely trust each other. Yet, they do deeply love each other.
The Getaway was made into a film twice—in 1972 with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw and in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Both movies softened the McCoy characters and both films hinted that their moving to Mexico would be a happy ending. In the book, they are much more hard-bitten and their move to Mexico is anything but happy.
The Killer Inside Me (1952) is considered one of Thompson's finest novels and marks his start as a mature writer. Lou Ford, is a small-town Texas sheriff, pleasant to the town's people, a go-along to get-along kind of guy. He sometimes comes across as slow-witted. But Ford is intelligent, a deep thinker, an avid reader of the classics. Ford also constantly fights the "sickness," as he calls it, which is his violent streak, especially to women. (Though he doesn't limit his killing spree only to women.)
But The Killer Inside Me didn't translate well to film. The 1976 movie, directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Stacy Keach as Lou Ford, is a second-rate approach. The 2010 film, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, was just vile. Here is my review of the 2010 version.
In addition to his novels, Thompson also wrote two screenplays, for the Stanley Kubrick films The Killing and Paths of Glory.
And if you are in New York next week, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinématek will be showing two classic films based on Jim Thompson work: Paths of Glory on Tuesday, February 28, and Coup de Torchon (an adaptation of Pop. 1280) on Wednesday, February 29. For more information, visit www.bam.org/cinematek.
Ken Isaacson Presents His Case
Photo © Christopher Barth
Silent Counsel asks you to imagine this: Suppose your child were killed in a hit-and-run, and the one person who knew the driver’s identity—his lawyer—didn’t have to tell you his name because of a legal technicality?
As a lawyer, I write for a living. There are cynics who’d even say that lawyers write fiction for a living. But when I sat down to begin writing Silent Counsel, I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. I decided to approach the task as I did a legal case, and I remembered an instructor emphasizing the importance of developing a theme for your case. “A case without a theme is just a bunch of testimony. A car crash doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s a tragedy that involves real people and real consequences.”
Cloaking your case with a theme gives jurors a reason to stay interested and alert: “This case is not just about young Will being injured when the buckling mechanism on his infant seat failed. It’s about corporate greed that places the cost of recalling a defective product above the benefit of saving a child’s life!” Now the jury has a reason to care and the otherwise dry testimony about how this strap connects to that latch may be, if not interesting, at least a little more bearable.
In the context of a legal case, we start with the facts. We search for a theme that relates well to those facts and exerts an emotional pull to grab hold of the jury. I learned quickly, though, that writing fiction requires the reverse. When I started, the page was—literally—blank. There were no facts.
All I had was an idea, which came to me upon reading a true account of a hit-and-run accident along a deserted highway: Could the simple name of a lawyer’s client be privileged information? With that intriguing question in mind, I began constructing facts: I decided that the victim in my story had to be a child, because readers (my jury) might actually care about this arcane legal issue if the attorney-client privilege were being used to shield someone with the label “child killer.”
I knew the lawyer in my story would face a difficult ethical dilemma—needing to protect a client’s confidences while feeling that the “right” thing would be to help the grieving mother. Because I had never faced such a challenge, I decided my lawyer should (like me) be unaccustomed to criminal practice and protecting the rights of the guilty. I made him a corporate litigator handling a “quick referral” for a friend—just a matter of making a few phone calls to the prosecutor to see if a deal could be made. This way, as I wrote, I could experience my protagonist’s doubts and misgivings as he did, for the first time. And I decided that my lawyer should have a young child of his own, so the conflict he felt between duty and right would strike close to home.
From this germ of an idea and these few basic facts emerged competing themes: Silent Counsel would be about a lawyer’s struggle with his personal beliefs when confronted with the fundamental need for secrecy between client and attorney. It would also be about a mother’s rage at a system that places more value on a legal technicality than on finding the killer of a six-year-old boy.
Having begun the process the way a lawyer addresses a case—by finding a compelling theme—I was then able to free myself from the constraints that always confound attorneys: Facts. As a lawyer, I’m stuck with the bad as well as the good. Not as a novelist.
The first time one of my characters was about to take an action that wasn’t consistent with the facts up to that point, I was stumped. How could he possibly do that in view of what had come before? Then it dawned on me—I was making the whole thing up. I could go back and rewrite history. A little thought and a couple of keystrokes, and a new path opened for my character.
If only I could do that when a real-life client does something really stupid. Lawyering would be a whole lot easier.
Silent Counsel, Ken Isaacson, Windermere Press, $24.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.
Steven Torres Goes Back to the Bronx
A few weeks ago I was with a person who had grown up in rural Kansas. He wanted to know why I had recently switched from writing mysteries set on the tropical paradise of Puerto Rico to writing about the gritty streets of New York. We were on a walking tour in the Bronx, in a neighborhood where I had lived during the mid to late ’70s when I was going to grade school. Back then, it was a bad place to raise a child and my parents wanted to get us out. Eventually, they left as well.
I told the guy on the tour about the building across the street from where we lived. It had been abandoned months before we got there and in the early mornings people were still coming out with shopping carts filled with copper piping and bathroom fixtures to sell, stripping the building as clean as they could. Heroin junkies would use it as a shooting gallery and stumble out high as a kite. They’d leave the candles they’d used burning, and the mattresses they dragged in would catch fire.
As a kid, I thought it was hilarious to watch their feats of balance—sometimes they’d pick up a foot to take a step, then forget to put their foot down again for the longest while.
I also talked about the bar and grill that got closed down. No health violations—other than a dinnertime stabbing. The police were fed up with having to answer calls there. A short while after it was closed, the place was torched in the middle of the night. I don’t think the tenants living above the bar were injured.
Nearby was a building where an elderly couple was murdered for the money they kept in the bag of their Hoover vacuum. Thousands of dollars that the murderers—two of them—took straight to an auto dealership to buy a sporty car with cash. Since there was still wet blood on the money, the dealer called the police.
The tour ended with a spot two blocks from where I lived, Tremont Park. Paul Newman had filmed a scene here for his police drama Fort Apache, The Bronx. He played a cop, and my aunt took me to see him the day of the filming. She pushed me toward him through the crowd. She wanted me to touch him. I was eight or nine. Touching a blue-eyed cop wasn’t high on my agenda, so I kept my hands to myself.
Back in those days, there was a murder in my precinct about every two and a half days. New York averaged six or seven murders daily. “So and so got kilt,” we kids would say. “Ain’t no thang.”
Even cops were dying. That scared our parents—a dead cop meant everyone was a suspect. When my fourth grade class took a tour of the precinct, the officer told us repeatedly what would happen to us if we got brought in. Time would be added to our sentence if we used lit cigarettes to mark the walls of the cell. And they took Polaroids of the cell to check, so we’d better be careful…
From there, my parents moved the family to Puerto Rico. Much less crime, much more sunshine. I wrote the Precinct Puerto Rico novels about that time. It seemed right to me, but the Bronx deserves attention as well. For a long stretch of years, there were sections of the place that were brutal—“wouldn’t want to raise a pit bull there” kind of places. Yet there were parents who had no other options.
I knew a girl who left a roller skating rink with a man who turned out to be a drug dealer and pimp. Sleepless days later, her parents got her back, not safe, not sound, but back. It’s for these people, the ones who struggled to survive the Bronx when it was just a giant maw for bodies and souls, that I wrote The Concrete Maze. In it, a girl leaves a roller skating rink with a man who… And her father tries desperately to… Well, it’s the Bronx from long ago—hardboiled and noir.
The Concrete Maze, Steven Torres, Dorchester/Leisure Books, $7.99
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.
One of the most moving novels I’ve read in a long time is Laura Wilson’s The Lover. Stylish and grim, the book is set in 1940, during the Blitz where Nazi bombs are terrorizing Londoners and a serial killer is on the prowl. The Lover isn’t a true mystery because we quickly learn the identity of the killer. It’s actually a literary thriller written in a style so intimate that we enter into the hearts and minds of stalwart Brits as they shake their fists at the Nazis while taking refuge in theaters, tube stations, and under kitchen tables.
Most notable of these defiant everyday heroes is young Lucy Armitage, who trudges to work every day even as bombs fall around her. When a handsome serial killer gets Lucy in his sights, the immediacy of Wilson’s prose makes us tremble. We also empathize with the grim determination of Rene Tate, who turns tricks to support her small son and sister. In this heartfelt novel no one is a saint, no one is irredeemable. Wilson never paints her superbly crafted characters in black and white; instead, she plumbs the nuances of human behavior, the gray areas where people really live. Thus, innocent Lucy has a crush on a married man; Rene experiences flashes of contempt for her johns; and Jim “Goldilocks” Ruston, a gallant RAF fighter pilot, harbors a loathing of women so all-encompassing it can only be alleviated by murder.
Want to know what it’s like to live through a bombing raid? The stirring scene on pages 63 through 67 brings you as close as you ever want to be to that horror. Want to understand wartime deprivation? Since utility services are spotty, your afternoon tea is made with the tepid liquid from an old hot water bottle. Hungry? Feet hurting? A single egg must be split four ways, and new shoes can only be dreamed of, even though you lost your last pair while running to the bomb shelter. Under such stress, family dynamics shift. A child rocks her mother to sleep, siblings forgive lifelong grudges, a medaled veteran of the WWI trenches praises the courage of his cowering, shell-shocked wife. In The Lover, compassion is the order of the day even as evil rains from the heavens and stalks the streets.
In Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat, a young white woman is found murdered on the doorstep of African peace activist Joshua Hakizimana, a professor at a Madison, Wisconsin university. Loathe to bring charges against the heroic activist, the powers that be send African American detective Ishmael to Kenya to find out if Hakizimana is being framed by old Rwandan enemies.
When Ishmael arrives in what he considers to be the country of his roots, he expects to be welcomed like a long-lost son, but the opposite turns out to be the case. The native Africans see him as rich and spoiled by his cushy American life, and insult him by calling him “Mzungu,” a racial epithet for “white man.” Ishmael’s hard lessons don’t end there. He quickly learns that law and order are spotty at best in refugee-crowded Nairobi and that rape, even of children, is routinely ignored. Ishmael is horrified by this purposeful blindness, and his rescue of a young rape victim sets him at odds with much of the community, including his new friend, pot-smoking Detective David Odhiambo.
Nevertheless, all isn’t violence and squalor in the settlement camps of Nairobi. Love grows when Ishmael meets Madeline, a former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army who was repeatedly gang-raped by “genocidaires” before being rescued by Hakizimana, the very activist Ishmael is trying to clear of murder. Beautiful and brave, Madeline may well be speaking for the author when she says to the rape victim Ishmael has saved, “Sister, this is a cruel country on a cruel continent, there are no second chances.”
The author’s spare noir style is perfectly suited to a story set in the maze of national, cultural, tribal, class, and sexual divisions that make up contemporary Kenya. Ishmael is the Everyman lost in that maze, ever stumbling towards the truth, only to be turned back again and again by the people he longs to save. When illustrating the guilt and despair of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and their subsequent hardscrabble existence in the country that took them in, the author never takes the easy way out; he rubs our noses in it. Shocking, heartbreaking, yet ending on a glimmer of hope, the echoes of Nairobi Heat remain long after the last page is turned.
In The Feng Shui Detective Goes West, Nury Vittachi delivers the riotous tale of greedy feng shui master C.F. Wong, who stops at nothing to make a buck, even if it means traveling from Singapore to the West to remove bad vibes from Buckingham Palace. Wong isn’t looking forward to the trip, because his knowledge of all things Western has been gleaned from television, where “cop cars exploded hourly, helicopters usually had someone clinging to a landing strut, and all the women were tall blonds who wore torn clothing while firing machine guns with one hand.” But money is money, so he begins packing. First, though, Wong must fix the bad vibes of Skyparc, a luxury airliner where a murder has just been committed. Wong likes murders since they always raise his fees. Although this is a mystery—and a dandy one it is, too—The Feng Shui Detective particularly shines in its witty portrayal of Wong and those closest to him. Like the cobbler whose children have no shoes, Wong’s office is so badly furnished he must sit on a chair constructed from rolls of discount toilet paper. When driven to distraction by Joyce, his disrespectful Australian assistant, he ascends his paper throne and buries himself in notes for his upcoming book, Some Gleanings of Oriental Wisdom, a resource Wong often appears to lack.
Author Vittachi (born in Sri Lanka, now residing in Hong Kong) wisely tells his giggly story from an omniscient viewpoint, because it gives him plenty of room to have fun with Mandarin-English language barriers. In one prime example, Wong flounders around for several pages trying to determine how he should address the Queen of England, a laugh-out-loud segment that ranges from the clueless to the scatological. But for all its knee-slapping humor, at one point the book surprises us with a sublime soliloquy on the meaning of life, delivered by a person on the verge of leaving it. You may read The Feng Shui Detective Goes West for its belly laughs, but you’ll remember it for its message.
In Don Bruns’ rollicking Too Much Stuff, dumb and dumber PIs Skip Moore and James Lessor are hired by a descendant of railroad man Matthew Kriegel to find more than 2,000 pounds of lost gold Kriegel supposedly buried just before the deadly 1935 hurricane ripped through the Florida Keys, killing hundreds. The two amateurish ’tecs immediately hit a complication when a murdered man is found in their hotel room and James, who’s unable to keep his big mouth shut, gets arrested. This is the fifth in the “Stuff” series (after 2010’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff), wherein Skip and James make an intriguing duo much on the order of Laurel and Hardy. These guys are so stupid they’re downright loveable. Skip, the brighter of the two (but not by much) is frequently saved by the intervention of his no-nonsense girlfriend Emily, but hapless James’ taste in women runs to women almost as dumb as he is, and more than once these bimbos almost get him killed. In between the gold-digging, scuba-diving, shooting, and bed-hopping, the two men swap lines from classic films. They’re better at this than they are at detecting, but if Skip and James weren’t trying to be PIs, we’d never get to follow their Keystone Kop-ish adventures. That would be a shame, because these appealing goofballs never fail to show us a good time.
The awards season is heating up for the mystery genre.
The nominees for the 2011 Agatha Awards have just been announce and, once again, it is a list packed with excellence.
The Agatha Awards honor the "traditional mystery" — books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie. As these authors prove time and again, a lighter, traditional approach doesn't have to mean lightweight.
The winners will be announced at the 2011 Agatha Awards banquet to be held on Saturday, April 28, during the Malice Domestic conference.
Guest of honor is Jan Burke, left; Dana Cameron is toastmaster.
Congratulations to the nominees.
2011 Agatha Award nominees
The Real Macaw by Donna Andrews (Minotaur)
The Diva Haunts the House by Krista Davis (Berkley)
Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet (Minotaur)
Three-Day Town by Margaret Maron (Grand Central Publishing)
A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
BEST FIRST NOVEL
Dire Threads by Janet Bolin (Berkley)
Choke by Kaye George (Mainly Murder Press)
Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry (Crown)
Who Do, Voodoo? by Rochelle Staab (Berkley)
Tempest in the Tea Leaves by Kari Lee Townsend (Berkley)
Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure by Leslie Budewitz (Linden)
Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making: More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks by John Curran (Harper)
On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling by Michael Dirda (Princeton University Press)
Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel by A. B. Emrys (McFarland)
The Sookie Stackhouse Companion by Charlaine Harris (Ace)
BEST SHORT STORY
"Disarming" by Dana Cameron, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine - June 2011
"Dead Eye Gravy" by Krista Davis, Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (Wildside Press)
"Palace by the Lake" by Daryl Wood Gerber, Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (Wildside Press)
"Truth and Consequences" by Barb Goffman, Mystery Times Ten (Buddhapuss Ink)
"The Itinerary" by Roberta Isleib, MWA Presents the Rich and the Dead (Grand Central Publishing)
BEST CHILDREN'S/YOUNG ADULT
Shelter by Harlan Coben (Putnam)
The Black Heart Crypt by Chris Grabenstein (Random House)
Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic Press)
The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey (EgmontUSA)
The Code Busters Club, Case #1: The Secret of the Skeleton Key by Penny Warner (EgmontUSA)
BEST HISTORICAL NOVEL
Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen (Berkley)
Murder Your Darlings by J.J. Murphy (Signet)
Mercury's Rise by Ann Parker (Poisoned Pen Press)
Troubled Bones by Jeri Westerson (Minotaur)
A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper)
Frederick Forsyth has won the Crime Writers Association's Diamond Dagger award, presented annually to an author whose career is "marked by sustained excellence" and and who has "made a significant contribution to crime fiction published in the English language, whether originally or in translation." Forsyth will be honored at a ceremony later this year.
Peter James, chair of the CWA, said Forsyth "is a hugely deserving recipient and The Day of the Jackal remains one of the greatest thrillers of our times. He has set a new standard of research-based authenticity with his writing, which has had a major influence both on my work and on many of my contemporaries in the crime and thriller field. We are very thrilled that he has accepted this award."
I couldn't agree more.
A fine new series debuts with Jaden Terrell’s Racing the Devil, featuring ex-cop Jared McKean, surely one of the most intriguing protagonists in years. Jared, a hot-tempered man not averse to brawling, which is the main reason he’s now an ex-cop, has a tender side rarely encountered in detective fiction. The divorced father of a boy with Down syndrome, he’s a sucker for endangered children and battered women. Jared’s empathy for anyone in need works against him when it gets him framed for murder. After a wild one-night stand with a pickup from a seedy Nashville bar, McKean is arrested by his old cop buddies. They claim his fingerprints and DNA were found on the body of Amy Hartwell, a respected wife and mother. Not only that, their investigation uncovers kiddie porn in his truck. At this point, McKean realizes that someone has gone to great lengths to frame him. As enthralling and intelligent as this twisty plot is, the characters are so riveting that even without the murder the book could stand on its own. Of particular note are Reverend Avery, who runs a misogynistic church (“Wives, be subject to your husbands,” is the good Reverend’s favorite passage); Josh, a Goth teen conflicted about his sexuality; and Valerie Shepherd, the beautiful owner of a horse stable. At the end, though, the heart of Racing the Devil is McKean, a PI who is too good for his own good. Yet thanks to Terrell’s considerable writing skills, the detective never comes across as a mere goody two-shoes. He remains a tough man in a rough business. Racing the Devil is a top-quality read from a promising writer.
The mystery scene in Canada is a strong one, so it was with great anticipation that I approached Garry Ryan’s Malabarista: A Detective Lane Mystery. Set in Calgary, the plot revolves around the fate of Mladen, a man who appears to be a Bosnian refugee, although his country of origin is never named. Despite his loss of a leg, Mladen, a Muslim, is making a living as a street performer (also known as a malabarista, giving us the book’s title). Leo, his musician partner, is missing a foot, and the two bill themselves as “two men and two legs.” When a local man is found murdered, Detective Lane discovers information that implicates the victim in long-ago war crimes, which points the finger at Mladen. It becomes Lane’s job to find out if the malabarista is guilty of murder. Although the plot encompasses religious, racial and cultural bigotry, Malabarista is also a family drama. Detective Lane, a gay man, has been estranged from his family since coming out. Arthur, Lane’s longtime life partner, has been diagnosed with cancer. As if that isn’t enough to deal with, the two are raising Lane’s niece and Arthur’s nephew. While intriguing, this fifth in the Detective Lane series isn’t flawless. If you haven’t read the first four books, you’re liable to be mystified by many references. Annoying, too, is the author’s continual insertion of italics for nonessential interior monologue, which succeeds only in throwing up roadblocks for the reader. These quibbles aside, Malabarista still provides a thoughtful exploration of what makes a family a family, and the love that keeps them together during difficult times.
Best New England Crime Stories 2012: Dead Calm is packed full of regional crime stories, 27 of them, some of which are quite short. The anthology features both established writers and newcomers, and it closes with the hard-hitting (pun intended; read it and see) and very short “Repose” by Mark Ammons, one of the editors.
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