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Remembering Ross Thomas
Lawrence Block

thomas_rossRoss was always at the top of his game, and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character.

 

Ross Thomas didn’t do a lot of public speaking, and maybe it’s just as well. He was both good and bad at it—good in that he expressed himself well and spoke in paragraphs, not so good in that he didn’t project, and was often hard to hear beyond the first few rows. But the worst thing about a Ross Thomas talk or interview was the number of people who’d walk out of it afterward yearning to kill themselves.

Writers, all of them. And what sent them home itching to swallow the Veronal was Ross’ explanation of how he’d started out in the business. I heard him tell the story several times, and it generally came out something like this:

“I decided I’d like to write a book. I set up my typewriter and started hitting the keys, and when I was done I had a couple hundred double-spaced pages and didn’t know what to do with them, so I called a writer friend of mine in New York and told him what I’d done. ‘Now why would you do something like that?’ he wondered. ‘Well, go out and buy some brown wrapping paper, and wrap your manuscript in that. And then address the parcel to this fellow at William Morrow, in New York, and mail it to him. And enclose return postage, so he can send it back to you.’

“So I did that, making a reasonably neat parcel of it, and I sent it off, and a couple of weeks went by. Then I got a phone call from the chap I’d sent the manuscript to, and he said they wanted to publish my book.”

Ah, the sweet agony of the literary life. The struggle, the disappointment, the never-ending cycle of hope and heartbreak.

Yeah, right.

“So I sent it off, and this fellow called up and said they wanted to publish it.” Many would sigh when they heard those words, and the loudest sighs came from those who knew what Ross was too modest to add, and what the late Paul Harvey would have called The End of the Story: The book was The Cold War Swap, and William Morrow did indeed publish it, and it went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Mystery Novel of 1966.

Ross followed The Cold War Swap with Cast a Yellow Shadow, a second book about Padillo and McCorkle. It seems to me I read those two out of order, but after that I bought all his books as they came out. And one day in 1969 I came across a new book called The Brass Go-Between, by one Oliver Bleeck, identified by his publisher as the pseudonym of a well-known writer. The publisher was William Morrow, which would have constituted a clue, but it was a clue I doubt I’d have needed. I opened the book, read two or three pages, knew at once just what well-known writer had written these words, and bought the book and took it home.

I was a fan, and a year or two later I wrote a fan letter. I learned from someone at Morrow that Ross was living in London, got his address, and sent him the letter, along with a copy of my new book. I got a response that made it clear that he had been enjoying my work over the years, and that sort of mutual admiration is not the worst foundation for a friendship.

A couple more letters crossed the Atlantic, and my then-wife and I enlarged a planned trip to Ireland to include a couple of days in London. Ross had a flat in Kensington, if I remember correctly, and was sharing it with a woman and a couple of cats. I think the woman’s name was Judy. Or maybe that was one of the cats.

thomas_coldwarswapWell, it was close to 40 years ago, and I was drinking back then. But Ross, to my considerable surprise, was not. He poured drinks with a generous hand, made sure my glass was never empty (even as I made sure it didn’t remain full for long), and treated us to an elegant dinner at Prunier’s, where he consulted with the sommelier and chose the wine.

But he didn’t have any wine himself, or any whisky, or even a glass of light ale. Nothing stronger than a postprandial espresso.

Now I knew some people who didn’t drink. I found their behavior curious, but I figured they had their reasons. One fellow I knew got drunk once, didn’t like it, and decided never to do it again. I could understand that, even if I had a little trouble imagining what it was he didn’t like about it.

But the novels I’d read, whether by Ross Thomas or Oliver Bleeck, displayed throughout a deep familiarity and abiding affection for ethyl alcohol in all its forms. Ross’ characters drank, and drank a lot, and did so pretty much all the time.

I didn’t get it. The man was no Mormon; he drank a lot of coffee and smoked one Pall Mall after another, but he didn’t drink.

Did I ask him about it? It seems to me I probed just enough to learn that he didn’t drink these days. I wondered why, but felt it would be unseemly to ask.

The next time I saw Ross was a year or so later. I was on a weekend visit to Washington with my daughter Amy, staying at the Hay-Adams across the street from the White House. (I didn’t have any money, but hotels were cheap, and it seems to me our room at the Hay set me back all of $35 a night. Nowadays it would be 20 times that, and I couldn’t possibly afford it.) We spent an evening together, and I had a couple of drinks. He didn’t, but I no longer found it remarkable. I had grown used to the idea. Some people didn’t drink, and he was evidently one of them, although his characters were very convincing drinkers. Well, what of it? Edgar Rice Burroughs had never been to Africa—or, come to think of it, to Mars, either. You didn’t have to go there to write about it, did you?

In the late ’60s I bought a farmhouse on 20-plus acres near Lambertville, New Jersey, and Ross and Judy were going to visit, but I can’t remember whether they did or not. There are, alas, some burnt-out bulbs in the streetlights on Memory Lane. But in 1973 my marriage ended and I moved to West 58th Street, and by then Judy was no longer part of the equation. One day the following year I got a phone call from Ross, demanding to know what was the finest restaurant in New York.

I wasn’t the best person to ask, but I told him Lutèce was probably the best, or close to it.

“Make a reservation,” he announced, “for tomorrow at one. I’ll be taking you and your girl to lunch.”

The woman I was seeing had a job she couldn’t abandon, but I knew a recent divorcée, a big Ross Thomas fan, who would certainly be up for a meal. I made the reservation, and Ross said he’d pick me up at my apartment around noon.

He came by around 11:30. He rang my doorbell and I opened the door and there was Ross, with his eyes rolling around in his head. “We’ve got nothing to worry about,” he announced. “I just laid 20 bucks on your doorman.”

And just like that I understood why he didn’t drink.

The details of the afternoon are a little vague, and I can’t blame that on the years, because they were vague from the jump. Ross was accompanied by a young man he called the Sergeant-Major, for indiscernible reasons, who seemed to be a sort of driver and bodyguard. The Sergeant-Major went off to do something, and Ross had a seat, and I drank everything I could find in an effort to catch up, because I felt entirely too sober for the company. There was nothing on hand but a few cordials I kept for company, half-pint bottles of Kirschwasser and Goldwasser and triple sec, the sort of thing of which nobody would want more than a sip or two, but I braced myself and Made Do.

The Sergeant-Major turned up in time to drive us to Lutèce in a limo, picking up my friend Debby en route, then he left us to do something else. (He was armed, Ross told us, and got his gun through airport security—such as it was in those innocent days—by wearing it in an ankle holster.)

At Lutèce, they seated the three of us at a lovely table upstairs, and a waiter came to take our drink order. Ross said he wanted a triple vodka martini, straight up and extra dry. The waiter asked if he’d prefer an olive or an onion with that. “We’ll eat later,” Ross announced.

And after that, alas, it all gets rather vague. Ross was in the middle of a two- or threeweek toot, and I was no match for him. I blotted my copybook, falling asleep with my head in a plate of chicken Kiev, but not until I’d had one or two bites of it. It was a specialty at Lutèce, and rightly so.

Mencken wrote somewhere that the hand of the Lord had taken hold of the United States by the state of Maine, and lifted, so that everything loose wound up in Southern California. I was loose enough to qualify, and two years after that lunch I was living in Hollywood at the Magic Castle Hotel, and my three daughters came out to spend the summer with me. We spent July at the hotel and August driving back across the country to NewYork, and it was in July that we went out to Malibu for the day.

thomas_briarpatchRoss was living there with Rosalie, who’d been with the Library of Congress in Washington, and who had since become Mrs. Thomas. They had rented a beachfront cottage in a community called Pirate Cove—it’s right there in the opening scene in Chinaman’s Chance, so there’s no need for me to describe it. I had driven out myself for a visit sometime in May or June, but I remember the July trip more vividly. My girls were 15, 13, and 6 at the time, and I guess they were at their most charming, because over the years Ross and Rosalie never ceased asking about them, and remembering what a grand day we’d all spent together.

In Malibu, Ross mentioned the lunch at Lutèce, and confided that his spree had been physically and financially ruinous. “But,” he said a little wistfully, “it was fun while it lasted.”

As far as I know he never drank again. I drove the girls back to New York in August, and wound up moving back to Manhattan, and in the spring of ’77 I stopped drinking. The only person I could think to tell was Ross, and I wrote him a letter and got an immediate reply. “I went for the cookies and the coffee,” he said of the group he’d joined, “but what I really like are the stories, where a guy tells how he was down and out in East St. Louis, and now he’s president of IBM with rising expectations.”

As a writer, Ross was elegantly perverse. He wrote wonderfully tough-minded and uncompromisingly realistic fiction and peopled it with characters with names every bit as unlikely as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Pussy Galore. I suppose it’s possible to have a police chief named Homer Necessary, but the fellow turns up in the same book as Lucifer Dye. (The book is The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, and it’s my favorite of them all; a spin on Hammett’s Red Harvest, it boasts a backstory that’s a fine novel all by itself.)

Ross insisted that he picked colorful names so that he’d remember them while he was writing. But I think he just liked them.

Early on, he reported, some old editor took him aside and gave him a piece of advice. “Two things you never want to write about,” said the fellow, who may well have had something to drink before imparting this bit of wisdom. “Dwarves and Chinamen. Nobody wants to read about dwarves or Chinamen.”

Ross thanked the fellow and assured him he’d never forget it. And the next novel he wrote was Chinaman’s Chance, and he followed it with The Eighth Dwarf.

In one of the Oliver Bleeck books, two wonderfully engaging friends of the protagonist turn up and join him in a rescue operation in Yugoslavia. The banter among the three is a delight, and the reader looks forward to more of it in later books—until, after the plot has been successfully resolved, a stray bullet zips in and kills one of the buddies.

Why???

“I could just picture these clowns joking around in book after book,” he told me, “and I decided the hell with all that, so I nipped it in the bud.”

Ross’ life before Cold War Swap informed his work; he’d been to Africa, and Singapore, and Germany, and knew most of the places he wrote about. Rumors abounded that he’d been with the CIA, and I gather his response if asked was an enigmatic smile, but I never asked and in fact rarely gave it much thought. I’m sure his work in Africa put him in contact with some of the Langley crowd, for whom he had a contempt that could only have been born of familiarity. But I’d be surprised if he had any real connection with the Company.

But of course one never knows.

I wish I’d seen more of him over the years, but we were on opposite coasts, so our contacts were infrequent. I ran into Ross now and then at Bouchercon, and when a book tour took him to New York or me to L.A.—or, on one occasion, put us both in D.C. at the same time. Ross was a founding member of the International Association of Crime Writers, and my wife Lynne and I spent time with him and Rosalie on IACW excursions to Spain and Cuba.

In 1985, 18 years after his first Edgar, Ross won again for best novel with Briarpatch. In his acceptance speech he said he was grateful MWA felt his work hadn’t deteriorated over the years.

And it never did. He was always at the top of his game, and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character. He died in December of 1995. Too soon, I’d say—but that’s how it is with the people one likes and admires.

The books live on. That’s what we always say, isn’t it? But in Ross’ case it’s true. They’re endlessly rereadable, every one of them. Especially—no, I’m not going to pick a favorite. They’re all wonderful.

A ROSS THOMAS READING LIST

The Cold War Swap (1966) *
Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967) *
The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967)
Singapore Wink (1969)
The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970)
The Backup Men (1971) *
The Porkchoppers (1972)
If You Can't Be Good (1973)
The Money Harvest (1975)
Yellow Dog Contract (1976)
Chinaman's Chance (1978) **
The Eighth Dwarf (1979)
The Mordida Man (1981)
Missionary Stew (1983)
Briarpatch (1984)
Out on the Rim (1987) **
The Fourth Durango (1989)
Twilight at Mac's Place (1990) *
Voodoo, Ltd (1992) **
Ah, Treachery (1994)

* Features Mac McCorkle, saloon owner, and Mike Padillo, spy, in Bonn, Germany
** Features Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, soldiers of fortune for WuDu Ltd.

Written as Oliver Bleeck
Philip St. Ives in all books

The Brass Go-Between (1969)
The Procane Chronicle (1971)
Protocol for Kidnapping (1971)
The Highbinders (1973)
No Questions Asked (1976)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
2012-06-26 19:43:32

thomas_ross_croppedRoss Thomas never wrote a bad sentence, a lifeless page, or an unengaging character.

The Murders in Memory Lane
Lawrence Block

block_lawrence01I was out walking recently, and I thought of an incident involving Don Westlake and Stanley Ellin and editor Lee Wright. They’re all gone now, and it struck me that, if I wasn’t the only person around who knew the story, I was probably the only one at all likely to tell it. And was it worth the telling? I decided it was.

 

Photo: Ichiro Okada for Mystery Scene

Once upon a time, many long years ago, Random House had the curious custom of printing, on the front flap of the dust jacket and generally immediately below the retail price, the initials of the book’s title. I have no idea who thought this up, or why he thought it was a good idea, but this is what they did, and some of us noticed it.

One who noticed was Stanley Ellin, a Random House author edited by the legendary Lee Wright, and in 1960 Ellin published his fourth novel, with the title The Winter After This Summer.

Donald Westlake and I were two others who were aware of this Random House quirk, and when we learned what Ellin had called his new book, we rushed to the store to check. And yes, by God, there it was on the jacket flap: T.W.A.T.S.

Don was a Random House author himself by then, and Lee was his editor. And on his next visit to her office he found Ellin’s novel on her bookshelf and showed her the jacket flap.

“Twats?” she said, puzzled. “Twats? Twats?”

It became abundantly clear that she was unfamiliar with the word, and thus it became Don’s duty to tell her gently that twat was a vulgar colloquialism referring to the vulva. It was manifestly less offensive than the C-word, perhaps because it sounded more silly than nasty, but it was by no means a word to be uttered in polite company.

Or featured on a jacket flap.

In the fullness of time, Don and Stan Ellin became friends, and Don confirmed what we had both taken for granted, that the title’s acronym had not been coincidental. He had indeed noted the titular initials on his other Random House books, and decided there ought to be a way to take advantage of it. And he had a novel written, and he needed a title for it, and he was supposed to be creative, so he ought to be able to come up with something.

Had it been an historical western, Sam Houston in Texas might have been a possibility. Or he could have tried—oh, never mind. The Winter After This Summer is the one up with which he came, and he decided he liked it just fine on its own merits. It had a nice literary feel to it, and seemed to go with the book. It was hard to say what it meant, exactly, but that might have been what gave it that nice literary feel. He submitted the manuscript with that title on it, and nobody ever asked him to change it.

“And it was just the right word,” he said. “Not something that would leap off the jacket at you. It just sort of lurked there.”

And, as it turned out, it had one more thing going for it: Lee Wright had never heard of it.

I remembered this story during a morning walk, and it came to me not because I was thinking of Stanley Ellin—whom I did come to know, though not well. It came to me because I was thinking of Twitter, and people who tweet all the damn time, and wondering if there was a word for them. You can probably figure out how I got from there to The Winter After This Summer.

ellin_winterafterthissummerBut I think of lots of things while I’m walking, and a few while I’m sitting still, and I don’t generally hurry to the computer to share them with the world. In this particular instance, however, it struck me that I might very well be the only person left to tell the tale. Lee Wright and Stanley Ellin both died in 1986, Don Westlake on the last day of 2008. Who else is left to remember?

The book’s still around. I just now found a first edition online for what strikes me as a very reasonable $20, and I’m sure it still says T.W.A.T.S. on the jacket flap. And others must have noticed the acronym, and made their own guesses about its presence there, but does anyone else recall the incident as I do?

And so I found myself musing that there might be other memories equally unique, and equally worth the sharing. A couple of months ago I published a book called Step by Step: A Pedestrian Memoir, in which I recounted my experiences as a walker. The book got a generous reception, and has even gone into a second printing, but a significant number of reviewers complained that it was not the memoir they would have preferred that I write. They pointed out that, however much walking I may have done, and however skillful I’d been in making it reasonably interesting to read about, I’d spent 50-plus years writing 60-plus books, and if I felt compelled to write a memoir, why couldn’t I write a memoir about that?

Point taken. And in fact I did write 50,000 words of just such a memoir some 15 years ago, and set it aside and never returned to it. I might pick it up again, or start it afresh from the beginning. But then again I might not.

Maybe, though, I could do it piecemeal. Maybe I could meander down Memory Lane once a month and write a column about what I found there. But would anyone want to publish a column like that? And would I really feel like taking that metaphoric walk every month?

Hard to say. For now, though, why not recount that one story? And, while I was at it, why not see what else I can remember about Stanley Ellin?

The first book I read of his was in fact his third novel. It was called The Eighth Circle, and it was about a private detective. In fact it was very much about the business of being a private detective, as opposed to most of the private-eye-as-knight-errant fiction that was around at the time.

The title was a reference to Dante, and when I thought of it I thought too of The Ninth Circle, a Village bar/restaurant that operated for many years on West 10th Street. The clientele ran to writers and artists and West Village types, and the bar’s gimmick was a never-empty bowl of unshelled peanuts on every table. You were encouraged to throw the peanut shells on the floor.

The proprietor sold the joint and went on to open Max’s Kansas City, where the crowd was much the same and the gimmick was now chickpeas. They were all right, I guess, but there were no shells to throw on the floor. The Ninth Circle, meanwhile, became a gay bar, and its new clientele ran to very young men and their much older suitors. I used a fictional equivalent of the place in one of the Scudder books, changed the reference point from Dante to chess, and called it The Eighth Square— “where,” one of the habitués explains, “a pawn becomes a queen.”

But I digress.

Ellin was a fine novelist—The Eighth Circle won the 1958 Edgar for Best Novel, and a later book, The Valentine Estate, was an Edgar nominee. But it was as a short story writer that he achieved the most recognition, including six Edgar nominations and two outright wins. (And there could have been more; his most famous short story, “The Specialty of the House,” was published before MWA began giving out short story Edgars.)

If Ellin’s short stories were not perfect, it was not for lack of trying. He was without question a perfectionist, and would not proceed to the next page until he was satisfied that the current page was as good as he could possibly make it. Sometimes this involved rewriting a particular paragraph ten or 20 or 30 times.

ellin_stanleyIt may be worth making the point that this was in the age of typewriters. Nowadays one can sit and tinker for as long as one has the patience, reworking a passage to one’s heart’s content before ever printing it out. Ellin would write a page, take it out of the typewriter, insert a new sheet of paper, type out another draft—and so on. For every ten-page story he wrote, he’d have upwards of 50 sheets of crumpled paper in the wastebasket.

As a result, stories took him a while. As I recall, he typically produced a single short story in a calendar year, and he invariably submitted it to Fred Dannay at Ellery Queen, who invariably published it.

Somewhere along the way, Stan and Evan Hunter became friends, and each admired the other’s work. Evan was as fast as Stan was slow, and his affection and admiration for Ellin led him to suspect that he, Evan, was writing too rapidly, that the secret to success lay in taking more time with his work.

And he resolved to do so.

It didn’t come easy to him. Sentences, paragraphs, whole scenes budded in his fertile mind, and it was natural for him to let them blossom at once upon the page. But he held himself down and reined himself in, and after a couple of weeks he was able to pick up the phone and call his new friend.

“I think it’s working,” he told Ellin. “I’ve got myself down to eight pages a day.”

You know, I can just about imagine what that must have sounded like to Stanley Ellin, for whom eight pages would constitute a decent month’s work.

My own approach to writing is closer by far to Evan’s, but it’s hard to find fault with Ellin’s approach after reading his short stories. His method strikes me as pathological, and not far removed from OCD. It’s how TV’s Monk might write a short story—but a comforting thing about writing is that it never matters how a story was written, just so it works on the page. And Ellin’s stories work superbly.

His approach to novels was rather less painstaking. He still wrote thoughtfully and carefully, and with considerable success, but he did far less rewriting. As he explained it, you couldn’t write that way and expect to finish a novel.

2008 was a rough year for crime fiction. We lost a lot of fine writers. “Thank God we’ve still got Lawrence Block,” someone wrote in this context, and I have to say it gave me a turn to read it, though I must admit I share the sentiment myself. We have still got Lawrence Block, and I’m profoundly grateful that we do.

And while I’m here, perhaps I ought to share some of the flotsam and jetsam bobbing on the stagnant pond that is my memory. An uninviting image, you say? Well, okay. In that case we won’t go there for a title for this column...

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #112.

Teri Duerr
2012-06-26 21:03:52

memorylaneI was out walking recently, and I thought of an incident involving Don Westlake and Stanley Ellin...

Donald E. Westlake’s Memory
Lawrence Block

 

westlake_donaldSo much of the real work of writing gets done well below the level of consciousness. Success engenders success, and encouragement breeds ideas. I’m sure Memory, by being published, would have led to more dark existential masterpieces.

Photo: AP


It was sometime in the spring of 1963 that the mailman brought me the carbon copy of a 300-plus-page manuscript. He brought it to 48 Ebling Avenue, in Tonawanda, New York, where I’d been living with my wife and daughter for a little more than a year. My wife was pregnant—our second daughter would be born on Memorial Day. I was writing a lot and doing reasonably well with it, producing erotic fiction for a couple of publishers, short stories for crime fiction magazines, and the occasional book of fabricated sexual case histories under a medical pen name. The house was a good one on an attractive lot, and while the marriage may have been doomed, I didn’t yet realize it. All I lacked was the companionship of other writers. I’d had that in New York, and had thrived on it, and back in Buffalo I felt the deprivation.

The manuscript that turned up in my mailbox was from my closest friend, Donald Westlake. Before the move to Tonawanda, Don and I had lived a very long subway ride apart, he and his wife and two sons in Canarsie, half a mile from the last stop on the 14th Street–Carnarsie line, my wife and daughter and I at 444 Central Park West, which at the time was a luxurious building in a neighborhood that wasn’t quite good enough to be called marginal. By the time we moved, the Westlakes were preparing a move of their own, to a house in Englishtown, New Jersey. A fair amount of mail went back and forth between Tonawanda and Englishtown, but it wasn’t the same.

Now the day Don sent me a copy of the book he’d just finished, for that’s what the manuscript was, had been a day like any other day, with the exception that I’d been having chest pains. I was not yet 25 years old, and an unlikely candidate for a heart attack, but I had this occasional unpleasant sensation on the left side of my chest, and I managed to worry about it, and indeed called my doctor and arranged to come over the following day. (And let me spare you any unwarranted suspense. There was nothing wrong with me, and decades were to pass before it finally dawned on me that those symptoms, and other intimations of mortality around that time, almost certainly derived from the sudden and wholly unexpected death of my father a little over two years earlier.)

Here’s the point: Don’s manuscript arrived, and we had dinner and put the kid to bed, and I started reading. And my wife went to bed, and I stayed up reading, and after a while I forgot I was having a heart attack, and just kept reading until I finished the book around dawn. And somewhere along the way I became aware that my friend Don, who’d written a couple of mysteries and some science fiction and his fair share of soft-core erotica, had just produced a great novel.

And then, of course, nothing happened.

I don’t know what Don expected. I myself assumed someone would publish the book, and that it would get good strong reviews, and be generally well received. I don’t think I expected Memory would make Don rich, but then this was almost 50 years ago, and I don’t think any of our crowd saw writing as a road to wealth. A year or so earlier, I was in Don’s upper flat in Canarsie when he confided that he felt he’d arrived as a writer, that his future was secure. “I think,” he said tentatively, almost reluctant to speak the words aloud, “that if I just keep on with what I’ve been doing, I can be fairly sure of bringing home ten grand a year.”

What I never foresaw—and I doubt Don did, either—was that his agent would be unable to find a publisher for Memory.

But that’s what happened, and in retrospect it’s not all that hard to understand why. Henry Morrison, who represented Don at the time, was younger than his client, and his experience as an agent was largely with genre fiction. More to the point, Henry worked for Scott Meredith, who ranked in the more elevated literary circles a few rungs lower than pond scum.

Henry tried hard, and sent the manuscript all over the place, and most of the editors who read it thought it was terrific. Many of their responses contained the words “I wish I could publish this” in one form or another. But that sort of expression of regret was as far as their enthusiasm could carry them. They all sent Memory back where it came from.

westlake_fugitivepigeonBecause what it was, when all was said and done, was a rather lengthy novel with no marketable topical hook by an author whose track record was substantially less than useless. (Don had published several hardcover mysteries with Random House, a top publisher, but this was no recommendation in the world of Serious Literature, not in 1963. One of the books, The Mercenaries (now available from Hard Case Crime under Don’s original title, The Cutie), had been short-listed for the Edgar for best first novel. Impressive? Now, perhaps, but less so a half century ago. Back then, the Edgar award was something about which nobody outside of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) gave the northern end of a southbound rat. But for the small group of people who wrote them and the somewhat larger group of folks who read them, mysteries got about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

On the other hand, publishing was less corporate back in the day, and a publisher could take a chance, and even bring out a book he knew he’d lose money on just because he thought it ought to be out there where people could read it. So I still find it curious that nobody would buy the book. Why didn’t Random House publish it, if just to keep the author happy and add a little literary-world luster to his mystery-world reputation?

Never mind. The manuscript kept coming back, like a bad penny, or swallows to Capistrano. And eventually Henry ran out of places to send it.

Years later—late 1970s, it must have been—Henry told Don that he thought he could probably find a publisher for Memory. He had long since parted company with Scott Meredith, and Don’s stature in the mystery field had grown considerably. And the mystery itself was rather less of a red-haired stepchild in the world of letters.

Don told me this, and told me too that he’d had a look at the book and decided its time had come and gone, that it was too dated in too many respects to be published.

I wasn’t sure that was so. It seemed to me that the novel’s virtues were enduring ones. But I hadn’t read it since 1963, so what did I know?

(I should probably add, right about now, that Henry has not the slightest recollection of any of this. He doesn’t remember the novel, nor does he recall that there was ever a book of Don’s he’d been unable to sell, let alone that he wanted to try again 15 years down the line. “This was a book I couldn’t sell?” he said. “Well, why on earth would I remember something like that?” Memory, indeed!)

Don died suddenly on the last day of 2008. Within days someone at MWA asked me to write something about him for The Third Degree. In the piece, I talked about Don’s great versatility as a writer, and how his career might have taken different turns but for certain bumps in the road. In that context I told about Memory, and what Don might have written if its reception had been less discouraging.

I emailed a copy to Don’s widow, Abby, and told her someone might read it and make an effort to locate Memory, so she should prepare herself for inquiries in that regard. None came, as it happened, but this was the first Abby had heard of the book, and when she came upon a carbon copy of the manuscript in Don’s considerable files, she knew what it was. Would I like to read it?

It was, I must say, a bedraggled copy. I don’t suppose there are many of us left who actually remember carbon paper, and I have to tell you I don’t miss it a bit. It was indispensable for years, and every time I came to the end of a page, I slipped a sheet of it between a sheet of good typing bond and a sheet of cheap manila paper—second sheets, we called the cheap stuff—and inserted the ensuing sandwich into the typewriter. It was many years before low-cost photocopying would allow me to dispense with carbon paper, and just a few more years before I could get rid of the typewriter, too. And now, with electronic submission, one barely needs paper, and with ebooks one won’t need anything printed, and...

Never mind.

It was bedraggled, and some of the pages were torn and Scotch-taped, and others were torn and untaped. And Don, like most of us, sometimes tried to get too many copies out of a sheet of carbon paper, so some of the pages were harder to read than others. But, by God, it was the book, and it was all there, and it was legible enough for me to recognize it as the book I’d read 45 years earlier, and it was still the great novel I remembered.

Now what?

The first thing I realized was that the manuscript would have to be scanned. It was very hard to read in its present state, and the pages were in any case too fragile to survive many readings. Photocopying would just create an even less legible copy. Scanning seemed the answer, and I tried to do just that, but either my scanner or my competence therewith proved unequal to the task.

So I thought of Charles Ardai. I knew him to be a great fan of Don’s, knew he’d been delighted to republish some of Don’s early titles at Hard Case, and saw him as the ideal publisher for Memory.

And it didn’t seem to me to be too much of a stretch for Hard Case. While Memory fits Otto Penzler’s definition of a mystery, in that a crime or the threat of a crime is an important element of its plot, it is far more an existential novel than a work of category fiction. The plot, I should tell you, concerns an actor in a road company who is surprised in flagrante delicto by a jealous husband, and who barely survives a vicious beating that leaves him with a devastating and ongoing case of amnesia. It is the hero’s desperate and doomed attempt to get his life back that is the story of Memory.

westlake_memoryA mystery? Perhaps not, but nevertheless a book that is quintessentially noir. And it not only takes place in the 1960s, but was written then—as were so many of the books Hard Case publishes so effectively. So, with Abby Westlake’s permission, I got in touch with Charles. At the very least, I figured I could euchre him into getting the book scanned.

Charles loved the book, felt it was important it be published, and agreed that it could find a home in his list. The advance reviews have been outstanding, and that’s as much as I feel I need to say about the book, because you can go out and read it yourself. And I hope you do.

And still, you know, it leaves me wondering. About a couple of things.

First of all, I have to wonder how my old friend would feel about all this. You’ll recall that there was a time when he told his agent not to seek a publisher for Memory, that it was hopelessly out of date, and that he’d rather let it remain unpublished. If it was dated 20 or more years ago, is it less dated now?

Arguably, it is. You could say that the extra time has worked to the book’s advantage, that two more decades have transformed it from passé to period.

Still, it’s his book, and he made his decision and never had occasion to countermand it. I think he’d be pleased to see the book vindicated, and made available to the reading public, but I’m just guessing. And the whole question’s moot, isn’t it? If there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’s one wherein the spirit spends a whole lot of energy caring what people are doing back on earth, and whether they’re reading one’s books.

(And Memory’s publication is surely less likely to trouble Dan’s ghost than another posthumous publishing project. Back in the day—way, way back in the day—Don and I collaborated on a trio of soft-core erotic novels, writing alternate chapters and having great fun. Subterranean Press will be bringing out those books later this year in a triple volume, to be called Hellcats & Honey Girls. Would Don be happy about that? Sheesh, I’m not even sure I’m happy about it.)

What else do I wonder? Well, I once again find myself wondering what would have happened if Memory had been published at the time of its writing. I won’t try to guess what its reception might have been, whether it would have been in the running for a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, or would have had to be content with a small but respectable sale and positive but not earthshaking reviews. A succès d’estime, let us say.

How would it have changed Don as a writer? It’s tempting to say it would have had no effect, that a writer with Don’s artistic integrity would write the books he’d been placed here to write, that success or failure along the way would not persuade him to write something that didn’t appeal to him, or forego writing something that did. And that’s largely true for many of us, at least on a conscious level.

But so much of the real work of writing gets done well below the level of consciousness. Success engenders success, and encouragement breeds ideas. I’m sure Memory, by being published, would have led to more dark existential masterpieces. I know this not only because that’s pretty much how it works for everybody, but because one can see the pattern elsewhere in Don’s career.

His enduring reputation, surely, is as a writer of comic mysteries. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the first Donald E. Westlake novels were uncompromisingly hardboiled works, and that he published five of them (and five Parker books as well, as Richard Stark) before his first comic mystery, The Fugitive Pigeon.

Pigeon outsold his earlier books, and got more attention from reviewers. And the next book, The Busy Body, was another comic mystery, and it not only sold well but became the basis for a film. And, just like that, Don was a writer of comic mysteries. He still wrote hardboiled books, along with books that resist categorization, but The Fugitive Pigeon pointed his career in a direction it would never abandon.

Would he have written comic works no matter what? Well, probably. Like more than a few of us, he had both a light and a dark side, and could best fulfill himself by expressing both sides in his work. Still, the success of those early comic mysteries encouraged that source within to come up with funny ideas, and it never ceased to do so.

westlake_thebusybodyThat’s one example. Here’s another, on the opposite side. In the mid-’60s, Don wrote three or four contemporary short stories. They didn’t have a crime or mystery element, and in fact were stories about modern relationships. (I haven’t read them in ages, and suspect they’ve vanished from the earth, so I don’t remember anything much about them, but they were about couples blundering through romance, as I recall, and the characters were bright and sympathetic, and the stories were fun.)

He wrote them not because he thought there was any particular point in writing short stories. There wasn’t, any more than there is today. He wrote them because the ideas came along and engaged him, and a short story takes days out of your life, not months, so why not write them?

So he did, and nothing came of it. A couple of magazine editors liked them, but not enough to buy them. And that was the end of that.

“They were fun to write,” Don told me at the time. “And I’d write more, if I got an idea for another. But nobody bought the ones I’d written, and whatever part of me was coming up with the ideas just said the hell with it.”

There’s not much point, really, in trying to guess what Don might have written under other circumstances. For my part, I’m happy enough with what he did write—and happier still that Memory will finally see the light of day.

 

A Selected Donald E. Westlake Reading List

As Donald E. Westlake
The Mercenaries, 1960
Killing Time, 1961
361, 1962
Killy, 1963
Pity Him Afterwards, 1964
The Fugitive Pigeon, 1965
The Busy Body, 1966
The Spy in the Ointment, 1966
God Save the Mark, 1967
Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, 1968
Somebody Owes Me Money, 1969
Up Your Banners, 1969
The Hot Rock, 1970
Adios Scheherezade, 1970
I Gave at the Office, 1971
Bank Shot, 1972
Cops and Robbers, 1972
Gangway, 1973 (with Brian Garfield)
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, 1974
Jimmy the Kid, 1974
Brothers Keepers, 1975
Two Much, 1975
Dancing Aztecs, 1976
Enough, 1977 (contains A Travesty and Ordo)
Nobody’s Perfect, 1977
Castle in the Air, 1980
Kahawa, 1981
Why Me, 1983
A Likely Story, 1984
High Adventure, 1985
Good Behavior, 1985
Trust Me on This, 1988
Sacred Monster, 1989
Drowned Hopes, 1990
Humans, 1992
Don’t Ask, 1993
Baby, Would I Lie?, 1994
Smoke, 1995
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, 1996
The Ax, 1997
The Hook, 2000
Bad News, 2001
Put a Lid on It, 2002

As Richard Stark
The Hunter, 1962 (aka Point Blank, aka Payback)
The Man With the Getaway Face, 1963
The Outfit, 1963
The Mourner, 1963
The Score, 1963
The Jugger, 1965
The Seventh, 1966
The Handle, 1966
The Rare Coin Score, 1967
The Damsel, 1967
The Green Eagle Score, 1967
The Black Ice Score, 1968
The Sour Lemon Score, 1969
The Dame, 1969
The Blackbird, 1969
Lemons Never Lie, 1971
Slayground, 1971
Deadly Edge, 1971
Plunder Squad, 1972
Butcher’s Moon, 1974
Comeback, 1997
Backflash, 1998
Flashfire, 2000

 

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #114.

Teri Duerr
2012-06-27 20:49:16

So much of the real work of writing gets done well below the level of consciousness. Success engenders success, and encouragement breeds ideas. I’m sure Memory, by being published, would have led to more dark existential masterpieces.

Charles Willeford
Lawrence Block

willeford_charlesCan a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person?

 

Photo: David Poller

In the summer of 1985, Lynne and I moved from New York to Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. After we’d been there a few months, I got a phone call from Dennis McMillan, the small press publisher. He was in a car, he said, with Charles and Betsy Willeford, and he wasn’t far from Fort Myers, and he thought they might stop by.

That sounded good to us. We were starved for company down there, and I welcomed the opportunity to spend a little time with a writer whose work I very much admired. Dennis showed up with Charles and Betsy in tow, and the five of us sat around talking and then went out for a meal. I don’t remember where we went or what we ate, but I do recall two things about our conversation.

The first was that Charles spoke at some length about a book he’d written and self-published eight years previously. It was called A Guide for the Underhemorrhoided, and it clearly concerned a subject about which Charles felt strongly; indeed, he’d written and published it as a service to his fellow man, recounting his own experience in an effort to disabuse the reader of the notion that surgery of this sort could possibly be a Good Idea.

willeford_understudy_for_love“I’ll send you a copy,” he said.

He never did. It’s not impossible that I showed a lack of enthusiasm at the prospect, and this led him to drop the notion. It’s also possible that it slipped his mind. So I never did have a look at the book—until a few minutes ago, when I found the first few thousand words of the book on Dennis’ website. Here’s how it begins:

In hospital language a patient does not urinate, micturate, pee, piss, or take a leak. He voids. Or, as in my case, he is unable to void.

Hospital jargon is mid-Victorian. My hemorrhoids were not chopped out, hacked away, or operated upon. Instead, my asshole was dilated and debrided. There is no sex talk in a hospital either. Sex organs, male and female, when they are mentioned at all, are discussed formally, as elimination tools; nor is there, apparently, any distinction made between toilets for men and women....

Several years ago, before I ever thought of entering a hospital, a friend told me that a nurse’s aide would give a man a slow handjob for five bucks. Unsurprised at the time, I filed the information away, thinking I might be able to use it in a novel some day. I have been sorry since that I failed to press my friend for details. On the disinterested outside, I had no reason to disbelieve him. But on the inside, watching these harried, grimly smiling nurses’ aides—probably the lowest IQ occupational group of employees in the nation—rushing about inefficiently, but earning every cent of their $2.40 an hour, I wondered vaguely how my friend had gone about getting his slow handjob. He would have had to draw them a picture. However, discounting the denseness of the nurses’ aides understanding, the lack of privacy, the hospital stench, and the permeating reek of indignant death—these factors in combination—drove all thoughts of and about sex from my mind during the two weeks of my stay.

I certainly wish I’d accepted Charles’ offer with more enthusiasm, and in retrospect it’s hard to imagine why I didn’t. What did I think I’d get from Willeford? Something dry and clinical? Something impersonal?

Fat chance.

At some point during our lunch, Charles fixed an eye on me and began talking about people who ate cat. There was, he said, an informal worldwide society of men who had eaten cat, and they looked for and acknowledged one another. One man might look at another and say something along the lines of, “You eat cat, don’t you?” And the other might smile and nod in acknowledgment, or raise an eyebrow.

“Now you,” Charles said, “you look to me like a man who has eaten cat.”

Now at the time I was a vegetarian, so I hadn’t eaten so much as a tuna fish sandwich for seven or eight years, never mind a pussycat. But all I did was say that I hadn’t in fact ever eaten cat.

Charles seemed to find the admission disappointing. “I’m surprised,” he said. “I thought you might well be a man who has eaten cat.”

willeford_miamibluesI wonder what he meant. Was there a sexual undertone to all of this? Was “eating cat” a faintly veiled euphemism for cunnilingus? That occurred to me at the time, naturally enough, but I didn’t think so then, nor do I think so now. I just did a Google search and learned more about the subject of human consumption of cat meat than I ever wanted to know, and my guess, after all these years, is that Charles found the topic interesting enough to toss into the conversation, just to see what came back.

And did Charles ever eat cat? I suppose I should have asked him when I had the chance. But I didn’t, and so I don’t know, and don’t need to know.

But I’ll say this much. I wouldn’t put it past him.

I saw Charles two or three times after that—at the Miami Book Fair, and again in Key West, where we both took part in a literary symposium in January, 1988. The topic was "Whodunit? The Art & Tradition of Mystery Literature," and there were enough interesting writers participating to offset the academic tone set by the sponsors. I ran into Charles and Betsy several times in the course of the weekend, and sometimes I’d catch him eyeing me speculatively, as if wondering whether I’d ever eaten cat.

The Key West event was just about the last thing I did in Florida before taking leave of the state. Within a month, Lynne and I had closed our house and took off for two years without a fixed address. Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day of 1990, we returned to New York.

Meanwhile, Charles Willeford had died—in Miami, on March 27, 1988. We were out of reach in that pre-email, pre-cell-phone era, and so it was months before I learned he was gone. I’d known Charles was not in the best of health; he didn’t talk about it, but it was evident. So in that sense the news was not unexpected. But it was shocking all the same; when one meets with so clear and distinctive a voice, one expects it to be around forever.

Not long after Charles’ death I began to hear the rumors. Charles had left a fifth Hoke Moseley novel, an impossibly dark novel, in which either Hoke killed his two daughters, or died himself, or both. And the book would eventually be published, or was deemed too dark to be published, or...well, various rumors advanced various possibilities.

This is not uncommon, both before and after the death of a popular writer, especially one with a beloved series character. Several years before John D. MacDonald died, fans were speculating about a final Travis McGee novel; each of the books had a color in the title (The Deep Blue Goodbye, The Green Ripper, The Scarlet Ruse), and this last book would have black in the title, and McGee would die at the end of it. The rumors increased when John D. passed. Yes, he had indeed written such a book! Yes, it had black in the title! Yes, McGee died on the last page! Yes, it would be published!

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

(Once in an indigo moon, the rumor proves true. Decades before her death, Agatha Christie wrote not one but two novels for posthumous publication, signing off on both Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.)

The Willeford rumor persisted, and it turned out to be partially true. The book was called Grimhaven, and one can find the following notation about it in the Willeford archive at the Broward County Library: NOTE: as per Betsy Willeford: “Ms. of the ‘black Hoke Moseley,’ never published, sold to a small but ruthless group of collectors in the form of Xerox copies. May not be copied in the library by patrons who’ll wholesale it on the Internet.”

Five or six years after its author’s death, someone sent me a photocopy of the manuscript of Grimhaven. I read it right away, and saw at once that it was not intended as a fifth Hoke Moseley book but as a sequel to Miami Blues, a sequel Willeford did not at all want to write.

Miami Blues, which introduced Hoke Moseley, got a very strong and favorable response from the critics, drew a lot of attention to its author, and sold well. The publisher, not too surprisingly, wanted Willeford to write a sequel, and indeed to make Hoke a series character.

Should it surprise us to learn that Charles Willeford, whose characters constantly exhibit quirky, contrary, self-defeating behavior, should balk at the notion? He really didn’t want to write another Hoke Moseley book, and his publisher really wanted him to write that and nothing else.

So Charles knocked out a book designed to nip the series in the bud. Because in its pages Hoke, this wonderfully interesting and sympathetic hero, murders his daughters, gets arrested for the crime, and looks forward to being confined to a prison cell for the rest of his life, thus fulfilling the book’s epigraph quote, from Blaise Pascal: “All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room by himself.” Hoke is destined to do just that, and the likelihood of our reading further about him would seem remote at best.

Do you think I should have prefaced this with a spoiler alert? Well, too bad. The spoiler’s intentional, because I’d prefer to discourage you from seeking out and reading the manuscript. Betsy Willeford would rather you didn’t, and I’m with her on this one. And, let me assure you, it’s not a very good book. But then it wasn’t really trying to be.

willeford_newhopeforthedeadI wasn’t privy to the conversations and correspondence that followed the submission of Grimhaven, but I can imagine, and so can you. The publisher had his way, and Grimhaven went back on shelf, and soon enough Charles had produced an eminently successful sequel to Miami Blues, with the magnificent title of New Hope for the Dead. (That’s from an old joke, incidentally, in which it’s cited as the ultimate Reader’s Digest essay.) Then came Sideswipe, with The Way We Die Now following in the year of Willeford’s death.

Charles Willeford took writing very seriously, and applied himself to it wholeheartedly for some 40 years. He started out as a poet; his first book, Proletarian Laughter, was a collection of poems. He began publishing paperback fiction while serving his second hitch in the military, and kept at it, and worked hard at it.

With the Hoke Moseley novels, he got a taste of the commercial success that had for so long eluded him. When I learned of his death, I was struck by the irony of it; he was just beginning to get somewhere, and the Fates took him out of the game.

Later, when I learned about and read Grimhaven, and realized how hard Charles had worked to keep success at bay, I saw the irony to be vaster than I’d guessed. You could even call it Willefordian.

Not long ago I finally got around to reading I Was Looking for a Street, Willeford’s memoir of his early years. It made it very clear to me how the man was able to consistently create wildly idiosyncratic characters. He came by it honestly; their quirks were his.

The hero of Cockfighter, resolutely mute throughout the book’s pages because of an oath he’d made to himself. The cheerful old man in Sideswipe, taking his daily constitutional walk through his suburban neighborhood, meeting and greeting his neighbors, even as he sets about poisoning all their dogs. And Hoke Moseley, for heaven’s sake, quirky enough even before he decided to strangle his beloved daughters. Nobody else ever came up with characters like that, and I don’t know that anybody ever could.

Their origins become clear—well, clearer, anyway—when you read I Was Looking for a Street. It never seems to have occurred to Willeford to be embarrassed about anything, or about sharing anything with the reader, all in the most matter-of-fact manner. One gets a hint of this in the passage I quoted from the hemorrhoid book, and it’s evident throughout the memoir.

(This lack of embarrassment, I should note, extended to his early career as a writer. His books for years were published by third-rate soft-porn houses like Beacon. Now I wrote for Beacon, and so did any number of writers I’ve known, but none of us used our own names on those books. I’m sure Charles knew that Beacon was not on the same level with, say, Alfred Knopf, but they were his books and he put his name on them.)

He develops a friendship with another teenage hobo, whose main goal in life is to get a real cowboy hat, a Stetson; once he has one, he’ll feel he’s ready to quit the road and go home. Charles vows privately that he’ll get such a hat for his friend, and indeed the day comes when he sees the perfect hat on a peg in a saloon. He grabs it up and wears it out of there, and the hat feels just about perfect on his own head, and he wants that hat as he’s never wanted anything in his life.

But he promised it to his friend—even though the friend knows nothing of the promise. So Charles feels himself honor-bound to give him the hat, because that’s the right thing to do, and it would be wrong to keep it.

The moral imperative of bestowing the hat upon his friend, combined with the clear immorality of stealing it from its rightful owner—I’ll tell you, if I came across that in a novel, I’d know right away who wrote it.

It was at the end of the memoir that I found what seems to me to be the key to Charles Willeford and his work. He supplies a sort of coda to the work, a poem in which he takes to task his absent father and blames him for making him grow up a sociopath.

willeford_thewaywedienowWilleford a sociopath? Really?

To be sure, literary ability is no guarantee against a sociopathic personality, as Norman Mailer found out to his chagrin after he’d championed Jack Henry Abbott. But does a sociopath ever recognize himself as such?

And can a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person? Can one be a sociopath, virtually unaware of socially prescribed morality, and yet be consumed with the desire to do the right thing?

That strikes me as a spot-on description of just about every character Willeford ever wrote. How could he come up with characters like that? My God, how could he help it?

I haven’t re-read any of Willeford’s work since I came upon that revelation in I Was Looking for a Street. I intend to. I think it will illuminate the work, and thus shed a little more light on the man himself. I’m grateful that I knew him, however briefly and superficially. I wish I could have known him better, and longer.

A Selected Charles Willeford Reading List

Hoke Moseley Novels
Miami Blues, 1984
New Hope for the Dead, 1985
Sideswipe, 1987
The Way We Die Now, 1988

Other Novels
High Priest of California, 1953
Pick-Up, 1955
Wild Wives, 1956
Honey Gal, aka The Black Mass of Brother Springer, 1958
Lust Is a Woman, aka Made in Miami, 1958
The Woman Chaser, 1960
The Whip Hand, 1961
Understudy for Love, aka Understudy for Death, 1961
No Experience Necessary, 1962
Cockfighter, 1962; revised 1972
The Burnt Orange Heresy, 1971
The Hombre from Sonora, 1971 (as Will Charles)
The Shark-Infested Custard, 1993

Short Stories
The Machine in Ward Eleven, 1963
Everybody’s Metamorphosis, 1988

Memoir /Essays
Something About a Soldier, 1986
I Was Looking for a Street, 1988
Cockfighter Journal: The Story of a Shooting, 1989 (Willeford’s account of the filming of his novel)
Writing and Other Blood Sports, 2000

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #116.

Teri Duerr
2012-06-28 15:14:08

willeford_charlesCan a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person?

Linda Fairstein on Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca
Linda Fairstein

dumaurier_rebeccaI was 13 when I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for the first time, crossing the line from childhood mysteries to what my favorite librarian told me was a perfect Gothic thriller. The opening drew me in immediately—“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”—with the intimacy of the first-person narrative setting up a dark psychological drama of fear and suspicion.

The protagonist, whose whirlwind Riviera courtship with the elegant Maxim de Winter seems so romantic and sun-filled, soon finds herself overwhelmed when they take up residence at Manderley, battling the omnipresent spirit of the beloved Rebecca—Maxim de Winter’s late wife. The brooding groom, the longtime servants, and the community of friends who surround our narrator compel her to try even harder to please, ratcheting up her level of anxiety. It is palpable to readers that the new Mrs. de Winter is terrified about every minor decision she has to make.

Several impressions have remained me with since that first of many times that I have devoured this classic. It is through the second Mrs. de Winter’s eyes that the story unfolds, and we experience the insidious destruction of her naïveté by all of those loyal to Rebecca’s ghost. I cannot think of another novel in which we inhabit the emotional perspective of the narrator throughout, yet never learn her name. As an aspiring writer, I admired du Maurier’s subtle technique, with which she underscored the profound insecurity of her isolated young bride.

This novel also impressed me with its powerful sense of place. There is very little action in the story, but the relentlessly increasing atmosphere of impending doom that builds so steadily from the moment the de Winters arrive at Manderlay is unforgettable. The great manor house itself stands for all that torments the new Mrs. de Winter—a dense backdrop for the riveting twists that so steadily unfold as she tries to make the home her own.

dumaurier_daphneFrom du Maurier I also learned the brilliance of storytelling in which the events—the inevitable disaster that would befall our narrator—were shown to us, rather than told to us. We are with the young Mrs. de Winter when she summons the courage to enter Rebecca’s room for the first time—touching the silk dressing gown, tracing her finger over the dead woman’s monogram, envying the wardrobe full of shimmering evening clothes. She is caught in that moment by the sinister, "skull-faced" Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s personal maid, who forces her to re-examine each exquisite item while Danvers describes how beautiful her mistress looked in each of them.

And as this haunting suspense builds to its nerve-wracking conclusion, have I mentioned that du Maurier has buried a murder within her dark tale? Rebecca remains one of my favorite crime novels, though murder was certainly not the reason a librarian first placed it in my hands.

Teri Duerr
2012-06-28 20:53:53

dumaurier_daphne“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again...”

Suzy’s Case
Bob Smith

With Obamacare and medical issues topping the news, Andy Siegel’s debut novel is well timed, but he isn’t concerned with political matters; he is too intent on spinning a fast-paced tale of medical malfeasance and cover-up. When personal injury attorney Tug Wyler is handed the case of Suzy Williams, it is supposed to be a simple paperwork exercise ending with a “no fault” conclusion for the hospital involved. Vibrant, intelligent six-year-old Suzy entered a Brooklyn hospital with a slight reaction to her sickle cell disease, but she left a brain-damaged paraplegic. Suzy’s mother, June, sued and the case languished for years until landing in Tug’s in-box. Tug’s medical specialist concludes the client has no case and the hospital is not to blame, but Tug isn’t satisfied and, with June’s help, he sets out to prove just the opposite.

Siegel, a medical malpractice attorney, has set himself a difficult task here and he succeeds hands down, albeit with a few minor first-book glitches such as over-plotting and stereotyping some of the characters (i.e., the bad guys are too evil to be truly believable). Tug is a very likable protagonist, although wisecracks are often more insulting than witty. However, Siegel is a good writer and I’m sure he will smooth over these minor bumps on the road to a series of medical thrillers. I, for one, eagerly await them.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-03 19:19:51

siegel_suzyscaseAttorney Tug Wyler seeks justice for a girl left brain damaged after a medical mistake in this debut.

The Last Kind Words
Hank Wagner

Like many families, the Rands have focused on a particular profession, passing their skills and wisdom from generation to generation. Their clan, however, has not focused on medicine, or the law, or the arts. Instead, they’ve chosen to specialize in crime; their family home is a literal den of thieves.

Tom Piccirilli introduces readers to the family via Terrier Rand, who is summoned by his brother Collie (the Rands are all named after various breeds of dogs) to visit him in prison on the eve of his execution. Convicted of killing eight people during a vicious rampage some five years prior, Collie swears to Terry he was only responsible for seven victims. Compelled by deep familial bonds, Terry investigates, hoping it will help him understand his unrepentant brother’s actions. To do so, he must return home, stirring up trouble, and reminding him of failures, his own and those of friends and family. Although it is set in Long Island, Piccirilli’s latest feels like a southern gothic in atmospher. It’s also very much a novel about family, and the connections and alliances that form within one. That it’s a novel about a crime family makes it all the more fascinating, as Piccirilli has clearly given some thought to the dynamics of such group. Is there honor among thieves? Terry Rand likes to think so, but the alarming answers he receives to his questions about the past may cause him to revise his opinion.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-05 13:36:13

piccirilli_lastkindwordsThe Rand family home is a literal den of thieves...

Don Winslow's Savages: Movie Review 2 3/4 Stars
Oline Cogdill

savages2_movieDon Winslow's 2010 novel Savages was a bold, audacious story showcasing the author's skill at creating fringe characters who seem perfectly normal, extreme action -- both over the top and yet restrained-- and tight as a drum dialogue.

And Savages could not have been more timely as it vividly showed the connection between the Southern California drug culture and the Mexican cartels, which continues to be in the news.

Winslow's 13th novel, which put him on myriad best of the year lists, was written in an unconventional style with one-word chapters and sentences running vertically down the page; the opening chapter was just two words, one of which was "you."

Savages' storyline seemed tailor-made for the movies. And while the transition to the big screen is not completely smooth, the movie version of Savages retains the spirit of the novel.

savages_movieSavages benefits greatly from Oliver Stone's gonzo, unrestrained direction; and, at the same time, it suffers from Oliver Stone's gonzo, unrestrained direction.

Stone keeps the multi-layered characters and their unconventional lifestyle as well as the unabashed sexuality, gallows humor and violence of Winslow's novel.

But Stone doesn't know when to stop. In Stone's version, Savages'  violence is more graphic than necessary.

Violent scenes are cringe worthy and, while intellectually we know this is fake, I closed my eyes several times. Savages is more Natural Born Killers than U-Turn.

Getting beyond the unnecessary violence, Savages emerges as a sophisticated thriller, nearly as bold and audacious as the novel, helped, no doubt, by the fact that Winslow co-wrote the script with Shane Salerno and Stone.

savages4_movieSavages is the story of long-time friends and now business partners Chon (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights, John Carter) and Ben (British actor Aaron Johnson of Albert Nobbes). Their rock-solid friendship dates back to high school and their belief in each other has helped them build a lucrative marijuana business.

Chon, an ex-Navy Seal with a violent streak, brought back from Afghanistan the strongest marijuana seeds he could find. Ben, who majored in business and botany at UC-Berkeley, took those seeds and made them even better.

Chon and Ben live with O, short for Ophelia, (Blake Lively of Gossip Girl, The Town), who loves them both, it appears, equally and with abandon.

Chon is "cold metal," as O narrates, while Ben is "warm wood."

It's a happy little ménage à trois with lots of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Business is booming. Millions are rolling in. The payroll includes computer experts, bankers, growers, distributers, and at least one shady federal agent.

savages5_movieThe threesome live in a beach-front mansion. O spends many a day at the mall's most luxurious stores. Ben channels much of his money into philantrophy, helping villages in Third World countries.

But now the financially strapped Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by Elena (Salma Hayek), demands a merger. Ben wants to retire; Chon doesn't believe the cartel will let them get out of the business. Threats don't work so the cartel kidnaps O to force the business deal.

Now these two successful independent entrepreneurs use their network of experts in an elaborate scheme to rescue O.

Savages is strongest when the focus is on the characters. Kitsch and Johnson deliver strong performances and while the origin of their friendship is never explored, it is easy to believe that nothing can break their bond. Leaving the snobbery of Gossip Girl in Manhattan, Lively again shows an affinity for portraying off the wall characters as she did in The Town.

Hayek clearly has a wonderful time playing a villianness, steaming in her viciousness. Her Elena balances her ruthlessness with her maternal concern over her wayward college daughter. She and O briefly forge a weird mother-daughter, kidnapper-victim relationship.

savages3_movieBenicio Del Toro, left, as Elena's bloodthirsty henchman Lado and John Travolta as the corrupt DEA agent Dennis Cain nearly steal Savages. Resembling the Day of the Dead masks he often wears, Del Toro is a grinning embodiment of evil and decay. It's a role Del Toro has played time and again, but he does it so well. Travolta resembles a lizard as his corrupt character looks for every angle and payoff, even when threatened with violence.

An encounter between Del Toro and Travolta is a gem. Emile Hirsch delivers an amusing performance as Spin, a former banker who's an expert at numbers and moving accounts for Chon and Ben.

Oh, but the violence.

Savages is not a quiet thriller and the novel has a high body count. But Stone takes that portion of the story and drives it over a cliff. The violence is too graphic and actually weakens the dramatic impact of the story. 

Dialing it down a few thousand notches would have made for a stronger movie, after all that worked quite well for Hitchcock.

While Savages is a worthy companion to Winslow's novel, the novel is stronger. Readers will be pleased to learn that Winslow has just released The Kings of Cool, his prequel to Savages. It looks at the backgrounds of Ben, Chon and O and has been receiving rapturous reviews. 

Savages:  Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout) Cast: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Demian Bichir. Director: Oliver Stone
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Photos: Top, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson; Johnson, Travolta and Kitsch; Salma Hayek and Lively; Johnson, Emile Hirsch and Kitsch; bottom, Benicio Del Toro. Photos courtsey Universal Pictures

Super User
2012-07-06 07:34:51

savages2_movieDon Winslow's 2010 novel Savages was a bold, audacious story showcasing the author's skill at creating fringe characters who seem perfectly normal, extreme action -- both over the top and yet restrained-- and tight as a drum dialogue.

And Savages could not have been more timely as it vividly showed the connection between the Southern California drug culture and the Mexican cartels, which continues to be in the news.

Winslow's 13th novel, which put him on myriad best of the year lists, was written in an unconventional style with one-word chapters and sentences running vertically down the page; the opening chapter was just two words, one of which was "you."

Savages' storyline seemed tailor-made for the movies. And while the transition to the big screen is not completely smooth, the movie version of Savages retains the spirit of the novel.

savages_movieSavages benefits greatly from Oliver Stone's gonzo, unrestrained direction; and, at the same time, it suffers from Oliver Stone's gonzo, unrestrained direction.

Stone keeps the multi-layered characters and their unconventional lifestyle as well as the unabashed sexuality, gallows humor and violence of Winslow's novel.

But Stone doesn't know when to stop. In Stone's version, Savages'  violence is more graphic than necessary.

Violent scenes are cringe worthy and, while intellectually we know this is fake, I closed my eyes several times. Savages is more Natural Born Killers than U-Turn.

Getting beyond the unnecessary violence, Savages emerges as a sophisticated thriller, nearly as bold and audacious as the novel, helped, no doubt, by the fact that Winslow co-wrote the script with Shane Salerno and Stone.

savages4_movieSavages is the story of long-time friends and now business partners Chon (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights, John Carter) and Ben (British actor Aaron Johnson of Albert Nobbes). Their rock-solid friendship dates back to high school and their belief in each other has helped them build a lucrative marijuana business.

Chon, an ex-Navy Seal with a violent streak, brought back from Afghanistan the strongest marijuana seeds he could find. Ben, who majored in business and botany at UC-Berkeley, took those seeds and made them even better.

Chon and Ben live with O, short for Ophelia, (Blake Lively of Gossip Girl, The Town), who loves them both, it appears, equally and with abandon.

Chon is "cold metal," as O narrates, while Ben is "warm wood."

It's a happy little ménage à trois with lots of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Business is booming. Millions are rolling in. The payroll includes computer experts, bankers, growers, distributers, and at least one shady federal agent.

savages5_movieThe threesome live in a beach-front mansion. O spends many a day at the mall's most luxurious stores. Ben channels much of his money into philantrophy, helping villages in Third World countries.

But now the financially strapped Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by Elena (Salma Hayek), demands a merger. Ben wants to retire; Chon doesn't believe the cartel will let them get out of the business. Threats don't work so the cartel kidnaps O to force the business deal.

Now these two successful independent entrepreneurs use their network of experts in an elaborate scheme to rescue O.

Savages is strongest when the focus is on the characters. Kitsch and Johnson deliver strong performances and while the origin of their friendship is never explored, it is easy to believe that nothing can break their bond. Leaving the snobbery of Gossip Girl in Manhattan, Lively again shows an affinity for portraying off the wall characters as she did in The Town.

Hayek clearly has a wonderful time playing a villianness, steaming in her viciousness. Her Elena balances her ruthlessness with her maternal concern over her wayward college daughter. She and O briefly forge a weird mother-daughter, kidnapper-victim relationship.

savages3_movieBenicio Del Toro, left, as Elena's bloodthirsty henchman Lado and John Travolta as the corrupt DEA agent Dennis Cain nearly steal Savages. Resembling the Day of the Dead masks he often wears, Del Toro is a grinning embodiment of evil and decay. It's a role Del Toro has played time and again, but he does it so well. Travolta resembles a lizard as his corrupt character looks for every angle and payoff, even when threatened with violence.

An encounter between Del Toro and Travolta is a gem. Emile Hirsch delivers an amusing performance as Spin, a former banker who's an expert at numbers and moving accounts for Chon and Ben.

Oh, but the violence.

Savages is not a quiet thriller and the novel has a high body count. But Stone takes that portion of the story and drives it over a cliff. The violence is too graphic and actually weakens the dramatic impact of the story. 

Dialing it down a few thousand notches would have made for a stronger movie, after all that worked quite well for Hitchcock.

While Savages is a worthy companion to Winslow's novel, the novel is stronger. Readers will be pleased to learn that Winslow has just released The Kings of Cool, his prequel to Savages. It looks at the backgrounds of Ben, Chon and O and has been receiving rapturous reviews. 

Savages:  Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout) Cast: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Demian Bichir. Director: Oliver Stone
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Photos: Top, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson; Johnson, Travolta and Kitsch; Salma Hayek and Lively; Johnson, Emile Hirsch and Kitsch; bottom, Benicio Del Toro. Photos courtsey Universal Pictures

The Kings of Cool
M. Schlecht

If you’re still looking for a summer read that doesn’t wilt in the heat, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Don Winslow’s The Kings of Cool, prequel to Savages (the movie adaptation of which oopened in theaters this July). The riveting Savages was built on short, Tumblr-post-sized chapters. In fact, chapter one memorably contained only two words, the second of which is “you.” Even if you’re flipping actual wood-pulp pages, Savages seems designed for scrolling; compulsively hitting refresh for more.

Kings of Cool not only doesn’t mess with that fast-paced formula, it turns out to be the stronger novel. For all its back-and-forth dialogue and racing-pulse drama, Savages was at times too one-dimensional in its plotting: Mexican drug cartel kidnaps O (short for Ophelia), Ben and Chon race to get their SoCal rich-girl-friend-with-benefits back.

Parallel narratives add considerable depth to Winslow's prequel. In addition to providing more background on how Ben and Chon got started in the business of hydroponic cannabis (the duo goes grow-house-hunting with a real-estate agent) and O’s dysfunctional relationship with her Orange County serial trophy mom, Paqu (“passive aggressive queen of the universe”), Kings flashes back to Southern California in the ’60s, when drugs became widespread in the laid-back Laguna Beach surfing community—and it turns out the trio’s parents had quite a lot to do with spreading them.

We follow Chon’s dad, John, as he transforms from a 14-year-old skateboarder into a big-time weed dealer under the tutelage of Doc, a larger-than-life surfer Jesus who turns drug profits into free tacos for the hippie multitude. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days soon become a business to be protected, though.

A generation later, gentle-soul Ben has yet to learn similar lessons about the changing game of California marijuana dealing as The Kings of Cool begins. He blows off a tough guy with an “old-school stare” who demands a cut of their profit—"because it’s Ben’s understanding that no one controls the marijuana market.” Separately Chon, an Iraq combat vet under no such illusions, nips a few potential problems in the bud—with a baseball bat. They’re stepping on big toes, an organization that has police on their payroll. By the time Ben and Chon realize that things have developed into a....situation, and O, who assigns numbers to her mom’s many husbands, finds out the identity of her birth father, the past has more than caught up to the present for all three of them.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-05 13:47:12

winslow_kingsofcoolThis action-packed prequel to Savages is a summer read that won't wilt in the heat.

The Twenty-Year Death
Cheryl Solimini

It takes guts to attempt to replicate the literary style of one crime-fiction icon. But exactly what viscera are required to take on three?

And this 700-page trifecta is nothing if not visceral. Animal and intuitive, The Twenty-Year Death offers three satisfying, standalone noir novels, set in three time periods ten years apart. Together they form a corpus delicti more than the sum of its parts. Or, if you’ve had it with the innards metaphor, think of a séance that conjures up Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson collaborating on the ultimate story of damnation.

Ariel S. Winter might best be compared to Quentin Tarantino—the video-store clerk who came out of nowhere to write and direct the instant-classic film Pulp Fiction. A former bookseller, Winter seems to have absorbed his stock through his skin, yet the evocative episodes that make up this first novel are wholly original and timeless.

Each crime is unrelated, but their aftereffects haunt two of the characters that appear, more or less, in all three. Beginning with 1921’s Malniveau Prison, Chief Inspector Pelleter, in the Maigret mold, is summoned to a French village by an imprisoned psychopath (who would leave Hannibal Lecter fearing for his own liver) on the same day another convict is discovered dead in a ditch, though no one knew he was missing from his cell. Ten years later, the murdered man’s daughter, Clothilde, now a famous Hollywood actress, and her husband, Shem Rosenkrantz, an American novelist turned screenwriter, travel to Philip Marlowe territory for The Falling Star. There, private eye Dennis Foster is hired by the movie studio to keep an eye on its possibly paranoid leading lady, but instead stumbles onto a slain starlet and a sure setup. Police at the Funeral finds Rosenkrantz down on his luck in Maryland in 1951, desperate for a drink and redemption. Guess which wins out?

With this compelling trio of tales, Winter makes a one-of-a-kind entrance to crime fiction. Nearly as astonishing: he has also brought forth, seemingly simultaneously, a charming children’s picture book, One of a Kind (Aladdin, June 2012). It would seem that no genre is safe from Winter’s dissection and reanimation. All should be flattered by his attention.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-05 15:07:00

winter_twenty-yeardeathThree interlinked visceral, tough, and satisfying, standalone noir novels, set in three different times.

Where the Bodies Are Buried
Derek Hill

The body of a man is found slouched between two garbage bins with a bullet wound to the forehead. Just another day in Glasgow, a city rife with crime. Detective Inspector Catherine McLeod quickly discovers that the victim was a drug dealer and thug involved in a number of serious incidents over the years. He’s also connected to some big-time gangsters. Catherine must navigate through department politics and the treacherous world of organized crime, as well as keep her family intact, while she hunts down the killer.

Intersecting with her murder case is a missing persons investigation involving a depressed, aspiring actress, Jasmine Sharp, who works for her Uncle Jim as a private investigator to pay the bills. She’s terrible at it, but she needs the work. When Jim goes missing, Jasmine is forced to take her new profession seriously and find him. Jim was working on a case involving a missing family that might be connected to a notorious gangster who died 20 years earlier.

Brookmyre’s latest novel is billed as a departure from his previous crime novels in that it plays the events straighter than his more darkly comedic books. That’s technically accurate, since the violence and crimes depicted are tragic and serious, but there’s still humor underlying a lot of the scenarios, and in the way Brookmyre views the stupidity of his criminals. The early scenes of Jasmine mishandling suspects, inadvertently revealing her undercover status, and subsequently ruining the case, are cringe-inducing, yet funny. The humor, however, is always kept in check and never dominates a scene.

There’s also a poignancy here, specifically regarding Jasmine’s plight in the wake of her mother’s death, that deepens the narrative when we’re not hightailing it through the twisty narrative. Glasgow is again vividly chronicled, and Brookmyre’s way with dialogue is equally impressive. Jasmine makes for a nerve-wracking protagonist at times, but only because she’s so recognizably human and identifiable. The tenacious Catherine, who is more the prototypical no-nonsense cop we’re used to seeing in crime and mystery books, nevertheless makes for a great protagonist despite her familiarity. This is a solid, unflinching read.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-05 15:19:35

The body of a man is found slouched between two garbage bins with a bullet wound to the forehead. Just another day in Glasgow, a city rife with crime. Detective Inspector Catherine McLeod quickly discovers that the victim was a drug dealer and thug involved in a number of serious incidents over the years. He’s also connected to some big-time gangsters. Catherine must navigate through department politics and the treacherous world of organized crime, as well as keep her family intact, while she hunts down the killer.

Intersecting with her murder case is a missing persons investigation involving a depressed, aspiring actress, Jasmine Sharp, who works for her Uncle Jim as a private investigator to pay the bills. She’s terrible at it, but she needs the work. When Jim goes missing, Jasmine is forced to take her new profession seriously and find him. Jim was working on a case involving a missing family that might be connected to a notorious gangster who died 20 years earlier.

Brookmyre’s latest novel is billed as a departure from his previous crime novels in that it plays the events straighter than his more darkly comedic books. That’s technically accurate, since the violence and crimes depicted are tragic and serious, but there’s still humor underlying a lot of the scenarios, and in the way Brookmyre views the stupidity of his criminals. The early scenes of Jasmine mishandling suspects, inadvertently revealing her undercover status, and subsequently ruining the case, are cringe-inducing, yet funny. The humor, however, is always kept in check and never dominates a scene.

There’s also a poignancy here, specifically regarding Jasmine’s plight in the wake of her mother’s death, that deepens the narrative when we’re not hightailing it through the twisty narrative. Glasgow is again vividly chronicled, and Brookmyre’s way with dialogue is equally impressive. Jasmine makes for a nerve-wracking protagonist at times, but only because she’s so recognizably human and identifiable. The tenacious Catherine, who is more the prototypical no-nonsense cop we’re used to seeing in crime and mystery books, nevertheless makes for a great protagonist despite her familiarity. This is a solid, unflinching read.

The Last Trade
Debbi Mack

Drew Havens, a wealthy quant (i.e., quantitative analyst or numbers geek), is stuck at a party thrown by his super-wealthy boss, Rick Salvado, whose firm The Rising stands as the all-American Wall Street success story. Havens’ numbers savvy has made Salvado rich and powerful and he’s been paid a handsome salary in return. However, Havens’ career choices have cost him his happiness and marriage. He’s also suffered the death of his only daughter, a tragedy he shares with his ex-wife, Miranda.

But he keeps getting annoying texts from his protégé, Danny Weiss, who’s hell-bent on telling him there’s big trouble brewing in the markets, based on a sketchy conspiracy theory. Havens ignores the texts and dismisses the well-intended young man’s concerns. Unfortunately, Weiss is murdered and Havens is framed for the crime. On the run from the cops and unsure who to trust, Havens turns to Miranda. When Weiss’ killers track Havens down, this puts both of them in danger. Forced to separate, each struggles to stay alive, as they try to decipher the cryptic clues Weiss left behind.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, US agent Cara Sobieski of the Terrorism and Financial Intelligence task force is investigating the murder of a local trader who got whacked after executing a complicated set of unusual trades. Sobieski is a kickboxer and a gambler who’s willing to risk it all (and, as a result, she is deep in debt to a Hong Kong gangster). When her boss sends her to Berlin to check out unusual trades taking place through an office there to brokerages all over the world, followed shortly by the traders’ deaths, the reader feels confident she can hold her own. But can she?

The key to understanding the situation and solving the crimes is one broker. The question is whether the broker can unite Sobieski and Havens so they can put the clues together and avoid a huge global financial catastrophe on Friday. Assuming Sobieski and Havens can survive the work week.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-05 15:26:46

conway_lasttradeThe workweek is a real killer when market analyst Drew Havens stumbles upon some financial foul play at his firm.

The Orphanmaster
Bob Smith

The colony of New Amsterdam (present-day Lower Manhattan) thrived on the fur trade, but events in 1663 have threatened the prosperity of this New World Dutch settlement. Beavers, whose pelts were once the mainstay of the economy, have been decimated, forcing trappers to travel deeper into the wilderness in search of them, often dealing with unfriendly native Indian tribes. England is making overtures to take over the colony and Governor Peter Stuyvesant knows his colony can’t hold out much longer. However, what concerns the settlers most is the disappearance and murder of many of the colony’s children, especially its orphans. The settlers attribute these crimes to an evil demon dubbed the witika.

Two people—Edward Drummond, a British spy sent to the colony by the English King, and Blandine van Couvering, a 22-year-old Dutch woman who was orphaned herself as a teenager—are caught up in the witika hysteria. Edward is every young girl’s dream lover and Blandine epitomizes the modern, independent woman of today who was an anomaly in her own time. Events bring the two together and their love story forms an essential part of the plot. Things come to a head when Edward is arrested for treason and Blandine is accused of being a witch, or possible even the witika.

This is a rollicking adventure story with echoes of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and the creepiness of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. What lifts it above the ordinary is the author’s knowledge of the times. Zimmerman blends history into the story without overloading the narrative or slowing the pace. Readers will learn a great deal about life in early New York while being treated to some very fine storytelling.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-05 15:52:35

A historical suspense tale set in the New World combines adventure with the darkness of the human heart.

Guy Langman: Crime Scene Procrastinator
Kevin Burton Smith

“It’s no coincidence that I got interested in forensics right around the time they put my dad in the ground,” is the surprisingly suck-free opening of this superior YA novel that plays out like a surprisingly suck-free collision between Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and TV’s CSI. Unlike many YA books, which seem to have been written with one wary eye on parental approval, or surreal fantasies, which aim for the lowest common denominator of teenhood (Sex! Rebellion! Angst! Cool clothes!) with the pinpoint accuracy of a depth-seeking missile, this one panders to neither the powers on high or the lowest of the low. Instead, it targets—get this—normal, everyday teenagers.

Guy, a hapless, almost-17 slacker, isn’t some cooler-than-cool high school demigod, or some there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-goes-you loser, but an honest-to-goodness real kid: he’s just a horny, confused, flawed but essentially decent galoot, trying to make sense of his own life in the wake of his beloved father’s unexpected death. Dragged into the after-school forensics club by well-meaning best friend Anoop (a geeky A-student overachiever), Guy discovers his carefully honed shell of emotional detachment and dutifully maintained cynicism comes in handy when it comes to crime scene investigation—and he does seem to have a knack for the work. Unfortunately, his new skills soon lead him into unwanted discoveries about his father’s life. And when he and his friends (including Maureen, a would-be goth who seems put on earth to bust Guy’s balls) decide to investigate further, things turn nasty.

With a no-bull, matter-of-fact earthiness (complete with a genial political incor- rectness that eventually gets its comeuppance), Guy is an engaging narrator and would-be detective, a wiseass philosopher with a hardboiled worldview (despite a secret passion for bubble baths) and his heart firmly on his sleeve, simply out to do the right thing—as soon as he figures out what that is. The conclusion is kind of happy, sad and wonderful...sort of like life itself. Recommended.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 18:55:37

“It’s no coincidence that I got interested in forensics right around the time they put my dad in the ground,” is the surprisingly suck-free opening of this superior YA novel that plays out like a surprisingly suck-free collision between Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and TV’s CSI. Unlike many YA books, which seem to have been written with one wary eye on parental approval, or surreal fantasies, which aim for the lowest common denominator of teenhood (Sex! Rebellion! Angst! Cool clothes!) with the pinpoint accuracy of a depth-seeking missile, this one panders to neither the powers on high or the lowest of the low. Instead, it targets—get this—normal, everyday teenagers.

Guy, a hapless, almost-17 slacker, isn’t some cooler-than-cool high school demigod, or some there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-goes-you loser, but an honest-to-goodness real kid: he’s just a horny, confused, flawed but essentially decent galoot, trying to make sense of his own life in the wake of his beloved father’s unexpected death. Dragged into the after-school forensics club by well-meaning best friend Anoop (a geeky A-student overachiever), Guy discovers his carefully honed shell of emotional detachment and dutifully maintained cynicism comes in handy when it comes to crime scene investigation—and he does seem to have a knack for the work. Unfortunately, his new skills soon lead him into unwanted discoveries about his father’s life. And when he and his friends (including Maureen, a would-be goth who seems put on earth to bust Guy’s balls) decide to investigate further, things turn nasty.

With a no-bull, matter-of-fact earthiness (complete with a genial political incor- rectness that eventually gets its comeuppance), Guy is an engaging narrator and would-be detective, a wiseass philosopher with a hardboiled worldview (despite a secret passion for bubble baths) and his heart firmly on his sleeve, simply out to do the right thing—as soon as he figures out what that is. The conclusion is kind of happy, sad and wonderful...sort of like life itself. Recommended.

Dark Magic
Hank Wagner

As Dark Magic begins, lead character Peter Warlock is conducting a séance attended by six fellow magicians and psychics. During the session, Warlock has a disturbing vision of events to occur four days hence: He sees himself in the middle of Times Square as hundreds abruptly expire in front of him. The events seem to be caused by someone else he encounters in his vision, the dark figure he labels the Grim Reaper.

Since his visions have a way of coming true, Warlock and his colleagues feel they must somehow alert the authorities. Before they can do so, however, forces unknown declare war on their number, launching attacks on them at their homes and places of business. Events thrust Warlock into a position of leadership as he tries to organize a counterattack; they also lead to significant discoveries on his part, concerning both about his past and his future.

You might know Swain from his successful series featuring private eye Jimmy Valentine or ex-cop/child rescuer Jack Carpenter. In Dark Magic, he makes a bid for a third franchise, this time in the realm of supernatural crime fiction, in the vein of Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher. He succeeds. Fast paced and inventive, the novel reads like upscale pulp fiction, brimming with action and tension. With Warlock, a true psychic and mage who hides behind the façade of a traditional stage magician, Swain has developed a durable, versatile, and conflicted character who could carry the weight of any number of supernatural adventures.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:02:19

As Dark Magic begins, lead character Peter Warlock is conducting a séance attended by six fellow magicians and psychics. During the session, Warlock has a disturbing vision of events to occur four days hence: He sees himself in the middle of Times Square as hundreds abruptly expire in front of him. The events seem to be caused by someone else he encounters in his vision, the dark figure he labels the Grim Reaper.

Since his visions have a way of coming true, Warlock and his colleagues feel they must somehow alert the authorities. Before they can do so, however, forces unknown declare war on their number, launching attacks on them at their homes and places of business. Events thrust Warlock into a position of leadership as he tries to organize a counterattack; they also lead to significant discoveries on his part, concerning both about his past and his future.

You might know Swain from his successful series featuring private eye Jimmy Valentine or ex-cop/child rescuer Jack Carpenter. In Dark Magic, he makes a bid for a third franchise, this time in the realm of supernatural crime fiction, in the vein of Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher. He succeeds. Fast paced and inventive, the novel reads like upscale pulp fiction, brimming with action and tension. With Warlock, a true psychic and mage who hides behind the façade of a traditional stage magician, Swain has developed a durable, versatile, and conflicted character who could carry the weight of any number of supernatural adventures.

Criminal
Oline H. Cogdill

Karin Slaughter’s two series about Sara Linton and Will Trent gracefully explore how some damaged people don’t just cope with adversity, but thrive. In Slaughter’s last couple of novels, Sara, a physician, and Will, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, have been drawing closer, testing what it would be like to have a relationship.

In Criminal, Sara and Will are a fledgling, yet fragile couple, so brittle about their coupling that each fears the bond could fray at any time.

This is especially true of Will, who believes that Sara will not be able to cope with the realities of the abusive childhood he spent in an orphanage. But it isn’t just horrible memories and physical scars that Will wants to keep from Sara—it’s the history of his parents. Will’s mother was a drug addict who was murdered by his father, a serial killer now in prison. This past preys on Will as he prepares to investigate the disappearance of an Atlanta college student. But Will’s boss, Deputy Director Amanda Wagner takes charge of the case, refusing to allow him to be a part of the investigation.

The search for the missing student echoes crimes that occurred the year that Will was born. Slaughter gracefully keeps the current investigation going while also moving the plot back to 1975, when Amanda Wagner was just starting her career. Sexual discrimination, harassment, and racism abound in the Atlanta Police Department, but Amanda is determined to become a cop like her father. She begins an alliance with the equally determined Evelyn Mitchell. The two notice a pattern of young prostitutes disappearing in a crime-ridden neighborhood. None of the male cops are interested in the case, so the two women begin their own investigation. Slaughter elegantly melds the modern investigation with the one nearly 40 years old.

Criminal is as much a contemporary story as it is a historical look at women breaking into the Atlanta police force. A good ol’ boy network rules, but Amanda and Evelyn discover that help from the women work- ing as assistants, dispatch operators, and secretaries can be even more effective. Slaughter’s meticulous research delivers a forceful story about women who demand to be taken seriously. Alternating between the Amanda of today and Amanda at age 25 gives insight into how and why she became the woman she is.

Slaughter’s sharp plotting and ability to delve into her characters make Criminal one of her strongest novels.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:06:14

Karin Slaughter’s two series about Sara Linton and Will Trent gracefully explore how some damaged people don’t just cope with adversity, but thrive. In Slaughter’s last couple of novels, Sara, a physician, and Will, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, have been drawing closer, testing what it would be like to have a relationship.

In Criminal, Sara and Will are a fledgling, yet fragile couple, so brittle about their coupling that each fears the bond could fray at any time.

This is especially true of Will, who believes that Sara will not be able to cope with the realities of the abusive childhood he spent in an orphanage. But it isn’t just horrible memories and physical scars that Will wants to keep from Sara—it’s the history of his parents. Will’s mother was a drug addict who was murdered by his father, a serial killer now in prison. This past preys on Will as he prepares to investigate the disappearance of an Atlanta college student. But Will’s boss, Deputy Director Amanda Wagner takes charge of the case, refusing to allow him to be a part of the investigation.

The search for the missing student echoes crimes that occurred the year that Will was born. Slaughter gracefully keeps the current investigation going while also moving the plot back to 1975, when Amanda Wagner was just starting her career. Sexual discrimination, harassment, and racism abound in the Atlanta Police Department, but Amanda is determined to become a cop like her father. She begins an alliance with the equally determined Evelyn Mitchell. The two notice a pattern of young prostitutes disappearing in a crime-ridden neighborhood. None of the male cops are interested in the case, so the two women begin their own investigation. Slaughter elegantly melds the modern investigation with the one nearly 40 years old.

Criminal is as much a contemporary story as it is a historical look at women breaking into the Atlanta police force. A good ol’ boy network rules, but Amanda and Evelyn discover that help from the women work- ing as assistants, dispatch operators, and secretaries can be even more effective. Slaughter’s meticulous research delivers a forceful story about women who demand to be taken seriously. Alternating between the Amanda of today and Amanda at age 25 gives insight into how and why she became the woman she is.

Slaughter’s sharp plotting and ability to delve into her characters make Criminal one of her strongest novels.

False Negative
Derek Hill

It’s the early 1950s and New Jersey newspaper reporter Adam Jordan is jobless after faking a story about a congressman and get ting caught. Jordan aspires to be a serious novelist, but he has to pay the rent and so lands work writing for a true-crime pulp magazine out of New York City. It’s a sleazier gig, but a more profitable one than his old job. He covers the brutal murder of a pretty waitress/model found bound and gagged on a Jersey beach, and becomes obsessed with finding the killer. More beautiful women wind up dead and Jordan quickly discovers that writing for the pulps can be detrimental to living a long life.

It’s been 20 years since Joseph Koenig’s last novel, Brides of Blood, was published. He’s back with a bang however, evoking a period setting with a vividness and freshness that avoids hardboiled pastiche or post-World War II nostalgia. Jordan is an intriguing lead character, flawed and a bit sketchy, and his investigation of the central murders is compelling. But it’s Koenig’s way with historical detail such as the behind-the-scenes specifics of writing for tabloid magazines, and his observations about jazz clubs and the famed African-American musicians toiling in them, that are among the best things in the novel.

Koenig himself worked in the trenches of a true-crime press for years, and the way he writes about Jordan’s cynicism toward the tabloid audience, his ability to strip tragedy down to easily quantifiable moral narratives, and his capability to do whatever it takes to get the story before deadline, feels authentic. False Negative snaps and fans of contemporary noir practitioners, as well as the original masters of the tradition, should find this a thoroughly satisfying read.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:11:21

It’s the early 1950s and New Jersey newspaper reporter Adam Jordan is jobless after faking a story about a congressman and get ting caught. Jordan aspires to be a serious novelist, but he has to pay the rent and so lands work writing for a true-crime pulp magazine out of New York City. It’s a sleazier gig, but a more profitable one than his old job. He covers the brutal murder of a pretty waitress/model found bound and gagged on a Jersey beach, and becomes obsessed with finding the killer. More beautiful women wind up dead and Jordan quickly discovers that writing for the pulps can be detrimental to living a long life.

It’s been 20 years since Joseph Koenig’s last novel, Brides of Blood, was published. He’s back with a bang however, evoking a period setting with a vividness and freshness that avoids hardboiled pastiche or post-World War II nostalgia. Jordan is an intriguing lead character, flawed and a bit sketchy, and his investigation of the central murders is compelling. But it’s Koenig’s way with historical detail such as the behind-the-scenes specifics of writing for tabloid magazines, and his observations about jazz clubs and the famed African-American musicians toiling in them, that are among the best things in the novel.

Koenig himself worked in the trenches of a true-crime press for years, and the way he writes about Jordan’s cynicism toward the tabloid audience, his ability to strip tragedy down to easily quantifiable moral narratives, and his capability to do whatever it takes to get the story before deadline, feels authentic. False Negative snaps and fans of contemporary noir practitioners, as well as the original masters of the tradition, should find this a thoroughly satisfying read.

Heartbroken
Hilary Daninhirsch

This atmospheric novel by one of the mystery world’s finest authors will surely please her many fans, and perhaps garner her some new ones. Like many women, Kate is balancing marriage and motherhood. She is the daughter of Birdie Burke, an elderly woman who has never been able to express emotion or warmth toward her family members or anyone else.

Birdie, her husband, Joe, and their children, Kate and Theo, spent many summers on their own island in the Adirondacks in northern New York. The island, called Heart Island, holds magical memories for Kate, but as an adult she finds it hard to enjoy, accompanied as it is by her mother’s coldness and criticism about her lack of a career. In fact, Kate has written a novel based upon the journals of her late aunt and her grand- mother, Birdie’s mother. Birdie has not been privy to her mother’s journals; they contain long-buried secrets.

Reluctantly, Kate and her family are taking their annual trip to the island, but Kate’s brother refuses to go back. At the last minute, Kate’s husband and son stay behind, and, with trepidation, Kate drives to the island with her daughter and her daughter’s best friend. In the meantime, Birdie has been seeing a strange man on the island, which is scaring her and making her question her own sanity. On the mainland another story is unfolding. A young woman named Emily becomes embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with an ex-convict, Dean. Emily, who grew up without a father and is estranged from her mother, is simultaneously terrified of and in love. Dean and an old “friend” of his involve Emily in a plot that can only have devastating consequences.

The novel is told from the shifting perspectives of Emily, Birdie, and Kate. The device works especially well here because the reader’s feelings about the characters, especially about Birdie, tend to change as Birdie’s true nature is revealed. Most of the characters have secrets, and it’s the effect of keepheartbroking those secrets for so many years, as well as the lack of honesty with one’s self, which drives the plot.

How the lives of Emily, Birdie, and Kate converge on a fateful day is the climax of this slowly building and thoroughly enjoyable suspense novel.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:14:51

This atmospheric novel by one of the mystery world’s finest authors will surely please her many fans, and perhaps garner her some new ones. Like many women, Kate is balancing marriage and motherhood. She is the daughter of Birdie Burke, an elderly woman who has never been able to express emotion or warmth toward her family members or anyone else.

Birdie, her husband, Joe, and their children, Kate and Theo, spent many summers on their own island in the Adirondacks in northern New York. The island, called Heart Island, holds magical memories for Kate, but as an adult she finds it hard to enjoy, accompanied as it is by her mother’s coldness and criticism about her lack of a career. In fact, Kate has written a novel based upon the journals of her late aunt and her grand- mother, Birdie’s mother. Birdie has not been privy to her mother’s journals; they contain long-buried secrets.

Reluctantly, Kate and her family are taking their annual trip to the island, but Kate’s brother refuses to go back. At the last minute, Kate’s husband and son stay behind, and, with trepidation, Kate drives to the island with her daughter and her daughter’s best friend. In the meantime, Birdie has been seeing a strange man on the island, which is scaring her and making her question her own sanity. On the mainland another story is unfolding. A young woman named Emily becomes embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with an ex-convict, Dean. Emily, who grew up without a father and is estranged from her mother, is simultaneously terrified of and in love. Dean and an old “friend” of his involve Emily in a plot that can only have devastating consequences.

The novel is told from the shifting perspectives of Emily, Birdie, and Kate. The device works especially well here because the reader’s feelings about the characters, especially about Birdie, tend to change as Birdie’s true nature is revealed. Most of the characters have secrets, and it’s the effect of keepheartbroking those secrets for so many years, as well as the lack of honesty with one’s self, which drives the plot.

How the lives of Emily, Birdie, and Kate converge on a fateful day is the climax of this slowly building and thoroughly enjoyable suspense novel.

Invisible Country
Derek Hill

Paraguay in 1868: the country is embroiled in a bloody, disastrous war against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Many people know Paraguay is doomed but are afraid to admit it, since it would mean certain torture and death by supporters of dictator Francisco Solana Lopez. When one of the dictator’s closest allies, Ricardo Yotté, is murdered in a rural church after a particularly heretical sermon by Padre Gregorio Perez, one of Lopez’s most brutal commandants, Luis Menenez, intends to break the collective will of the village to root out the killer.

The padre and other villagers secretly meet to start their own investigation into Yotté’s murder. He was a vicious man and widely hated, so there are few tears for him. The difficulty isn’t finding out who would have reason to commit the crime, but who was brave enough to actually pull it off.

Annamaria Alfieri’s second novel, like her first a historical mystery set in South America, effectively chronicles the sweltering afternoons, the restless nights, and the slow pace of village life that can seem at turns idyllic and stifling.

The mystery is at the forefront of the drama, but it is the large cast of characters that makes the book feel lived-in: the spiritually conflicted priest, the devout parishioner who also risks temptation, the young girl who harbors a dangerous secret, the injured war vet who has experienced too much pain and darkness, and the dictator’s Irish mistress who came to Paraguay seeking riches and will do anything to secure wealth.

The author’s recreation of Paraguay in the 1860s is perfectly entwined with the plot and never comes off like a travelogue or historical research. Alfieri also expertly captures the stress and paranoia of life under a military dictatorship, reminding us that political violence and the manipulation of citizens by despots is nothing new. Fans of historical mysteries should not pass this one up.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:19:32

Paraguay in 1868: the country is embroiled in a bloody, disastrous war against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Many people know Paraguay is doomed but are afraid to admit it, since it would mean certain torture and death by supporters of dictator Francisco Solana Lopez. When one of the dictator’s closest allies, Ricardo Yotté, is murdered in a rural church after a particularly heretical sermon by Padre Gregorio Perez, one of Lopez’s most brutal commandants, Luis Menenez, intends to break the collective will of the village to root out the killer.

The padre and other villagers secretly meet to start their own investigation into Yotté’s murder. He was a vicious man and widely hated, so there are few tears for him. The difficulty isn’t finding out who would have reason to commit the crime, but who was brave enough to actually pull it off.

Annamaria Alfieri’s second novel, like her first a historical mystery set in South America, effectively chronicles the sweltering afternoons, the restless nights, and the slow pace of village life that can seem at turns idyllic and stifling.

The mystery is at the forefront of the drama, but it is the large cast of characters that makes the book feel lived-in: the spiritually conflicted priest, the devout parishioner who also risks temptation, the young girl who harbors a dangerous secret, the injured war vet who has experienced too much pain and darkness, and the dictator’s Irish mistress who came to Paraguay seeking riches and will do anything to secure wealth.

The author’s recreation of Paraguay in the 1860s is perfectly entwined with the plot and never comes off like a travelogue or historical research. Alfieri also expertly captures the stress and paranoia of life under a military dictatorship, reminding us that political violence and the manipulation of citizens by despots is nothing new. Fans of historical mysteries should not pass this one up.

The Last Minute
Bob Smith

Like roller-coaster rides, thrillers should be super fast with twists and turns that start your heart racing and leave you no time to question the sensation. Using that definition Jeff Abbott’s The Last Minute is the Super Cyclone of reads. He is a skilled storyteller able to take the tried and true thriller formula and infuse it with his own vision—a vision peopled with believable characters in a not-so-believable milieu.

Here he provides the requisite international organization of bad guys, Novem Soles (Nine Suns), an equal and opposite organization of good guys, The Round Table, and the sometime nefarious CIA busy playing each against the other. Battling them all is series lead, former CIA agent Sam Capra. Nine Suns has kidnapped Sam’s newborn son, one he has never seen, and to get him back, Sam has to track down and kill Jack Ming, a computer nerd who has information harmful to the organization. Helping Sam in uneasy alliance is the mysterious and beautiful Mila of the Round Table, as well as the equally beautiful and mysterious Leonie, a computer expert whose child was also kidnapped by Nine Suns.

There is no way to adequately summarize all the twists in this incredibly fast moving, complex plot. Like a roller coaster it’s best to just go along for the ride and accept the thrills as they happen. It may not all be credible but it is definitely exciting, and, even better, downright fun. The Last Minute is the follow-up to Abbott’s bestselling thriller Adrenaline, in what I hope will become a long-running series.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:23:13

Like roller-coaster rides, thrillers should be super fast with twists and turns that start your heart racing and leave you no time to question the sensation. Using that definition Jeff Abbott’s The Last Minute is the Super Cyclone of reads. He is a skilled storyteller able to take the tried and true thriller formula and infuse it with his own vision—a vision peopled with believable characters in a not-so-believable milieu.

Here he provides the requisite international organization of bad guys, Novem Soles (Nine Suns), an equal and opposite organization of good guys, The Round Table, and the sometime nefarious CIA busy playing each against the other. Battling them all is series lead, former CIA agent Sam Capra. Nine Suns has kidnapped Sam’s newborn son, one he has never seen, and to get him back, Sam has to track down and kill Jack Ming, a computer nerd who has information harmful to the organization. Helping Sam in uneasy alliance is the mysterious and beautiful Mila of the Round Table, as well as the equally beautiful and mysterious Leonie, a computer expert whose child was also kidnapped by Nine Suns.

There is no way to adequately summarize all the twists in this incredibly fast moving, complex plot. Like a roller coaster it’s best to just go along for the ride and accept the thrills as they happen. It may not all be credible but it is definitely exciting, and, even better, downright fun. The Last Minute is the follow-up to Abbott’s bestselling thriller Adrenaline, in what I hope will become a long-running series.

Leader of the Pack
Betty Webb

Ever since defense attorney Andy Carpenter came into millions of dollars, he no longer has to work, but every now and then he just can’t help himself. This time he jumps back into the legal fray because one of his old clients is rotting away in prison for a double murder Andy is certain the man didn’t commit. Nine years earlier, Richard Solano and his wife Karen were found shot to death in their home, and all the clues led to Joey Desimone, Andy’s hapless client. Joey claims he was fingered because he was having an affair with Karen and that he was upset be- cause she’d dumped him. Also, Joey tells Andy, the cops wanted him put away simply because he was the son of Carmine Desimone, the head of a powerful New Jersey crime family. Andy promises to reopen the case, but soon regrets it.

His investigation sets off a chain of events that begins with the murder of Joey’s senile uncle Nicky Fats—another mobster—and ends with a crime so horrific and large in scope that in comparison, it makes the mobsters look like squabbling toddlers.

The Andy Carpenter series (Leader of the Pack is the tenth book) has been highly successful for many reasons. First, because Andy himself is a likeable protagonist: witty, self-effacing, idealistic, and warm-hearted. Secondly, his longtime companion Laurie, a no-nonsense ex-cop, is the perfect foil for the often scatter-brained attorney. But the real reason this series is so popular is probably because of Tara, a golden retriever Andy loves so much that he has set up a rescue foundation in her name.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), the author himself runs such a foundation and is at present living with 27 rescued golden retrievers. Tara and her furry friends pop up every now and then in Leader of the Pack (I can’t get enough of them myself), but this thrilling, high-octane novel is more about the coldness of evil than about the love in a golden retriever’s eyes.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:27:43

Ever since defense attorney Andy Carpenter came into millions of dollars, he no longer has to work, but every now and then he just can’t help himself. This time he jumps back into the legal fray because one of his old clients is rotting away in prison for a double murder Andy is certain the man didn’t commit. Nine years earlier, Richard Solano and his wife Karen were found shot to death in their home, and all the clues led to Joey Desimone, Andy’s hapless client. Joey claims he was fingered because he was having an affair with Karen and that he was upset be- cause she’d dumped him. Also, Joey tells Andy, the cops wanted him put away simply because he was the son of Carmine Desimone, the head of a powerful New Jersey crime family. Andy promises to reopen the case, but soon regrets it.

His investigation sets off a chain of events that begins with the murder of Joey’s senile uncle Nicky Fats—another mobster—and ends with a crime so horrific and large in scope that in comparison, it makes the mobsters look like squabbling toddlers.

The Andy Carpenter series (Leader of the Pack is the tenth book) has been highly successful for many reasons. First, because Andy himself is a likeable protagonist: witty, self-effacing, idealistic, and warm-hearted. Secondly, his longtime companion Laurie, a no-nonsense ex-cop, is the perfect foil for the often scatter-brained attorney. But the real reason this series is so popular is probably because of Tara, a golden retriever Andy loves so much that he has set up a rescue foundation in her name.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), the author himself runs such a foundation and is at present living with 27 rescued golden retrievers. Tara and her furry friends pop up every now and then in Leader of the Pack (I can’t get enough of them myself), but this thrilling, high-octane novel is more about the coldness of evil than about the love in a golden retriever’s eyes.

The Demands
Oline H. Cogdill

Mark Billingham’s British police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne are marvels of taut suspense and imaginative plots. In Billingham’s hands, the unconventional becomes believable, from the villain putting his victims in a comatose state in Sleepyhead to From the Dead’s killer targeting families of serial killer victims. While Billingham’s tenth Thorne novel starts as a conventional hostage novel, The Demands is anything but usual. Billingham skillfully sculpts a complex plot that explores guilt, cultural differences, and injustice.

Javed Akhtar has demanded Thorne come to his London news shop where he is holding two hostages, a male bank executive and Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks. Javed wants Thorne to prove that his 16-year-old son, Amin, did not commit suicide while serving an eight-year sentence in the Barndale Young Offenders Institution. Thorne knows his original investigation was solid, but be- gins to question how Amin’s case was handled once it got to court. The young man did kill another, but he was defending a friend. Javed maintains he only wants the truth about his son, but, as the detective begins to dismantle Amin’s life, Thorne doubts this father can handle the truth.

Billingham keeps the tension high as The Demands briskly moves from the claustrophobic news shop where the tension between Javed and his captives increases to the maneuvers among the tactical teams and a hostage negotiator outside. A case being reinvestigated under pressure isn’t a new idea, but Billingham makes The Demands a complex look at the British legal system and an exploration of the corrupting power of secrets.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:32:46

Mark Billingham’s British police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne are marvels of taut suspense and imaginative plots. In Billingham’s hands, the unconventional becomes believable, from the villain putting his victims in a comatose state in Sleepyhead to From the Dead’s killer targeting families of serial killer victims. While Billingham’s tenth Thorne novel starts as a conventional hostage novel, The Demands is anything but usual. Billingham skillfully sculpts a complex plot that explores guilt, cultural differences, and injustice.

Javed Akhtar has demanded Thorne come to his London news shop where he is holding two hostages, a male bank executive and Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks. Javed wants Thorne to prove that his 16-year-old son, Amin, did not commit suicide while serving an eight-year sentence in the Barndale Young Offenders Institution. Thorne knows his original investigation was solid, but be- gins to question how Amin’s case was handled once it got to court. The young man did kill another, but he was defending a friend. Javed maintains he only wants the truth about his son, but, as the detective begins to dismantle Amin’s life, Thorne doubts this father can handle the truth.

Billingham keeps the tension high as The Demands briskly moves from the claustrophobic news shop where the tension between Javed and his captives increases to the maneuvers among the tactical teams and a hostage negotiator outside. A case being reinvestigated under pressure isn’t a new idea, but Billingham makes The Demands a complex look at the British legal system and an exploration of the corrupting power of secrets.

The Fear Artist
Lourdes Venard

Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has been quietly, but steadily, gaining fans. His last book, The Queen of Patpong, was an Edgar nominee, and it not-so-quietly propelled this excellent series into the public eye. The Fear Artist, the fifth in the series, continues the story of travel writer Poke Rafferty, who is based in Bangkok and who almost always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Truly innocent this time, Poke is coming out of a paint store when a man barrels into him. The man has been shot and, with his dying last breath, whispers three words to Poke: “Helen Eckersley” and “Cheyenne.” When Thai security agents—who publicly insist that no murder has taken place—question Poke, he is unable to remember the woman’s name. This, of course, only brings him further trouble.

Soon Poke is on the run, not just from Thai security agents, but from a danger- ous American named Murphy who wants certain secrets kept hidden—specifically, a program that goes back to the Vietnam War and has been resurrected present-day with America’s War on Terror. Hallinan’s book eloquently explores what he calls “power in the dark...the defining form of evil in the 21st century. It’s evolved from an occasional governmental tactic into business as usual.” While there is an undercurrent of darkness throughout Hallinan’s books, they are balanced by Poke’s relationships. In this book, his wife Rose and adopted daughter, Miaow, are mostly offstage, but Poke’s half-Chinese, half-sister Ming Li is back, as is his police friend, Arthit, and neighbor Mrs. Pong Siri, who saves Poke from arrest in one very funny scene. It’s this loving attention to the characters that elevate Hallinan’s books from enjoyable thrillers to must-read crime fiction.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:37:35

hallinan_fearartistThe fifth in the series continues the story of trouble-prone Bangkok travel writer Poke Rafferty.

The Investigation
M. Schlecht

A man called the Investigator arrives in a nameless town. He stands silently outside the train station observing the mixture of raindrops and snowflakes falling from the sky. Waiting, empty of thought, like an avatar on a screen.

The Investigator soon gets lost, and after a long night of wandering checks into the Hope Hotel, where he is made to give up all identification and credit cards and re- cite a 34-paragraph set of rules before he is shown to his room. When he wakes up, he notices that his window in the high tower is bricked in. Metaphor alert.

Ostensibly checking on a series of suicides at the Enterprise, a sprawling complex straight out of Huxley that assumes total con- trol over the lives of citizens, the Investigator’s inquiries are deflected and reflected back toward him at every turn. There are no cooperating witnesses in this unusual place, and it’s not long before the Investigator is forced to examine his own small existence as he seeks an escape from the bleak landscape.

So no, it’s not conventional sleuthing. The Investigation is a locked-room mysteryonly in the sense that its starring detective is also locked inside its pages. You’ll be spotting more Beckett and Kafka than clues. If that doesn’t scare you away, good. Because The Investigation is an ingenious, beautifully absurd little novel.

Teri Duerr
2012-07-09 19:41:42

A man called the Investigator arrives in a nameless town. He stands silently outside the train station observing the mixture of raindrops and snowflakes falling from the sky. Waiting, empty of thought, like an avatar on a screen.

The Investigator soon gets lost, and after a long night of wandering checks into the Hope Hotel, where he is made to give up all identification and credit cards and re- cite a 34-paragraph set of rules before he is shown to his room. When he wakes up, he notices that his window in the high tower is bricked in. Metaphor alert.

Ostensibly checking on a series of suicides at the Enterprise, a sprawling complex straight out of Huxley that assumes total con- trol over the lives of citizens, the Investigator’s inquiries are deflected and reflected back toward him at every turn. There are no cooperating witnesses in this unusual place, and it’s not long before the Investigator is forced to examine his own small existence as he seeks an escape from the bleak landscape.

So no, it’s not conventional sleuthing. The Investigation is a locked-room mysteryonly in the sense that its starring detective is also locked inside its pages. You’ll be spotting more Beckett and Kafka than clues. If that doesn’t scare you away, good. Because The Investigation is an ingenious, beautifully absurd little novel.