Monday, December 31, 2007

We Bow Our Heads

The past 12 months represent a cruelly expensive year in the literary world. We lost some of the greats in 2007 and, sadly, sometimes it seemed we spent as much time at January last year saying good-bye to authors as we did in celebrating their lives.

As Sarah Weinman commented in The Guardian in November, “No doubt people say this every year, but I can’t remember a 12-month period in which America has lost so many of its best-known writers.” I agree.

At January Magazine alone we commented on the deaths of Jane Rule, Ira Levin and Norman Mailer, all in November. Earlier in the year, there was Madeleine L’Engle (September), Margaret Clark (May), David Halberstam, June Callwood, Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Dibdin (all April) and Richard S. Prather back in February.

Our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, commented on some of the same passages, as well as Marc Behm (September), Joe L. Hensley, Magdalen Nabb, John Gardner and Rodney D. Wingfield (all in August), Philip R. Craig (May), Donald Hamilton (April) and Barbara Seranella and Sidney Sheldon (January).

You can see all of our tributes labeled as Passages and collected here.


Review: Touchstone by Laurie R. King

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Dick Adler reviews Touchstone by Laurie R. King. Says Adler:
Everything Laurie R. King writes is first-class, from her modern, totally feminist and often surprisingly touching Kate Martinelli mysteries to her Mary Russell thrillers, which manage to carry on with (and improve upon) Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes and give the Great Detective a new life. King’s new novel, Touchstone, is one of the best books of any kind published in 2007 -- a terrific combination and culmination of her work so far.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Books, Glorious Books!

Sad to say, I’ve only ever been in three of the “world’s most beautiful libraries,” as chosen by the photography site the Boston Copley Public Library; the British Reading Room at London’s British Museum; and El Escorial Library in San Lorenzo, Spain. But I think I could quite happily spend years exploring the Handelingenkamer Tweede Kamer Der Staten-Generaal Den Haag in The Hague, Netherlands.

Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

The Book Report from the UK

I love the festive season as it allows me the time to do some serious reading and writing. Most importantly, though, I can see what reading I’ve missed during the year and what I have to look forward to in one that’s coming up.

First of all, let’s have a look back to 2007 which seems to be have gone all Potter (but thankfully for the last time) as reports John Dugdale at The Guardian:
Behind the statistics at the top of this year’s chart lies a titanic clash -- between JK Rowling and Amanda Ross, rivals for the title of the book world’s most powerful figure. Rowling’s latest inevitably claimed the first two places, with combined sales of more than 4m. But it’s her final appearance at No 1, unless she reinvents herself as an adult novelist of equal commercial clout. And from No 3 down, the rest of the top 100 shows no erosion of the ability of Ross, the woman behind Richard & Judy's Book Club, to turn books by previously unknown authors into hits.

Among this year’s beneficiaries are Jed Rubenfeld’s period murder mystery (3), a book club choice voted best read by viewers; Kim Edwards (4) and Kate Morton (6), both summer reads; and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (14),
Simon Kernick (16), Mark Mills (21) and Jane Fallon (24). Of the top 10 new grown-up novels, six were R&J picks; interestingly, the summer reads performed better overall than the January book club octet, despite the latter group’s longer availability.

Ross's impact extends beyond enriching writers and saving publishers' and booksellers' bacon. Greatly helped by the preponderance of novels in her club's recommendations, fiction still dominates the top 100, with 67 titles compared to 33 non-fiction - a ratio that might amaze recent visitors to bookshops, where Christmas displays overwhelmingly consist of celeb memoirs and cookbooks.

In last year's Rowling-free list, the second- and third-placed books (by Victoria Hislop and Marina Lewycka) were both R&J-backed debuts, and the older generation of novelists seemed to have vanished, as if scared to take on TV-promoted whippersnappers. This time the newcomers' presence is less marked, and veteran storytellers have made a comeback: Maeve Binchy, Jilly Cooper,
John Grisham, Joanna Trollope, Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Danielle Steel, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell.

Things could be very different in 2008. Random House's prolific new signing James Patterson is expected to produce up to eight novels, and as he was acquired expensively from Hachette, his reliable contribution to that group's total (three entries in 2007, at 36, 57 and 70) will simultaneously be eliminated. And Dan Brown might at last send Transworld his next thriller

Meanwhile Olivia Laing at The Observer rejoices with 2008 being a Potter-Free year, and considers that 2008 will be dominated by the return of the iconic British Secret Agent 007:
Oh! What a lovely spring. In the absence of bespectacled boy wizards, the biggest literary thrill of 2008 may well be the return of a tuxedo-clad spy last seen in print in 1966. Bondmania, ignited by the tantalising form of Daniel Craig, is set to gather pace with the first official outing for 007 since Octopussy. To celebrate the centenary of creator Ian Fleming's birth, Sebastian Faulks has been commissioned to take up the tale. Devil May Care (Penguin, out in May) is a loving act of homage that pits the suave secret agent against all the usual Cold War suspects, not to mention the unwelcome spectres of loneliness and old age.
Joining Olivia is Robert McCrum looking at new talent in 2008:
On the surface, ours seems to be a golden age. For new books there's more exposure, and perhaps even more readers, in more formats, than ever before. If the Hollywood writers' strike has any lessons for books, it is that no publisher or agent can afford to be casual about intellectual property. Behind the scenes there are darker mutterings. E-books, digitisation, graphic novels, online bookselling: are these threats or opportunities? Everyone has a different answer. One thing is certain: this is a moment of transition in which old names, old wisdom and old habits will go to the wall.

Among the new names worth keeping an eye on, there's a first novel, a graphic artist, a thriller writer and a promising translation: Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter of Shanghai (Penguin), Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly (Cape), screenwriter Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 (Simon & Schuster) and burlesque tragi-comedy How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Bosnian prizewinner Sasa Stanisic (Orion).

And then there's Nick Harkaway's The Gone Away World (Heinemann), a debut published under a pseudonym, perhaps because Nick Cornwell is really John le Carre's son. A happy marriage of old and new? We shall see.
For my part, I’m personally very pleased to see Roger John Ellory finally hit the big time by being on Richard and Judy’s list for 2008. I have followed his career since his 2003 debut with Candlemoth.

I have my own prediction for next year, as this book just captivated my mind. I feel it will be one of 2008’s surprise bestsellers.

Wishing you happy reading in 2008.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Ones That Got Away

Inspired by my colleague J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet, I’ve rounded up the books I really wanted to read and write about in 2007 but which, for one reason and another, I was never able to get to. As Pierce said recently:
The fact is that, even though I’m a rather voracious consumer of the written word, I miss reading a lot of books every year -- even works that at one time or another looked destined to crest my teetering TBR stack. Or I’ll start several books around the same time, get through some, and still have others unfinished by the end of the twelvemonth in which they were published. Heck, I’m only one person; I cannot read everything, even though some publicity-oriented authors think I should.
So here, then, are my own unlucky 13. The books I set aside to read and report on -- some of them anticipated as delicious treats -- and that, in the end, fate kept me from in 2007... and now I’m facing a whole new crop!

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (Faber and Faber) non-fiction
In fairness to me, The Anatomy of Story didn’t show up until a few weeks ago: much too late to get it into the 2007 review que. Truby has taught his 22-step great screenwriting class to more than 20,000 students and is, in addition, a respected story consultant and script doctor. The Anatomy of Story looks lush and lovely. It looks like a wonderful book.

The Culprits by Robert Hough (Random House Canada) fiction
He knocked our socks off with The Final Confession of Mabel Stark in 2002 as well as 2004’s The Stowaway, so I’m pretty excited to get my hooks into The Culprits, published last September. “... a mystical, manic ride along the fraying line between good and evil...” The bunny on the cover looks pretty cool, too.

Every Past Thing by Pamela Thompson (Unbridled Books) fiction
“For fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham and Claire Messud.” Well, I like all those people, so this will be a no-brainer, right? Thompson’s debut novel is set in 1899 and takes place over a single eastern US week.

Food: The History of Taste edited by Paul Freedman (University of California Press) art & culture
Yale professor of history Freedman here lavishly collects contemporary thought and timeless art on the title subject. “Throughout history,” Freedman writes in his introduction, “recurrent patterns emerge in how people thought about food and its place in daily life and the expression of taste.” This beautiful book is about all of that and, from the looks of things, even more.

Ghost: A Novel by Alan Lightman (Pantheon) fiction
Ghost looks like a gentle, thoughtful novel and it is by a gentle and deeply talented author. I’ve been looking forward to it since before it came out last October and somehow it just kept getting pushed down the pile. Shame on me! Lightman is the author of Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis. He is not exceptionally well known now, but he will be: he is a contender.

I Am America and So Can You by Stephen Colbert (Grand Central Publishing) biography
Colbert’s manic charm is apparent even in the few lines I’ve taken the time to skim while wanting to dig right into this book. At press time, the writer’s strike continues and I find myself missing my almost daily doses of truthiness. I might need to crack this one properly soon just to help ease my withdrawal.

The Lost Highway by David Adams Richards (Doubleday Canada) fiction

I read everything by David Adams Richards. I love his smokey tone and the exotic world he brings me from the rural Canadian Maritimes. The author of Mercy Among the Children and The Bay of Love and Sorrows (and many, many others) has won just about every award he’s eligible for. David Adams Richards (who is no relation, btw) is one of Canada’s most respected and beloved authors.

Merle’s Door: Lessons From a Freethinking Dog by Ted Kerasote (Harcourt) non-fiction
This looks to be an amazing blend of animal behavior-type research and fuzzy warm dog story written by a National Outdoor Book Award winning author who claims to have learned a thing or two from the labrador mix he adopted while camping. Or who adopted him. I think I need to find the space of a few days when I don’t mind having puffy eyes to read this one.

North River: A Novel by Pete Hamill (Little, Brown and Company) fiction
Since the novel I’m currently working on is set during the Depression, I’ve been avoiding reading North River, which is set in the same era, for fear Hamill’s powerful voice will influence my own. North River is set in New York, the city Hamill returns to in his writing again and again. “Vibrant, courageous, uplifting.” I can’t wait!

Sleep Before Evening by Magdalena Ball (BeWrite Books) fiction
Ball is the primary perpetrator of Compulsive Reader and Sleep Before Evening is her debut novel. The cover is gorgeous and the story sounds promising -- academia, drugs, sex, violence and the peeling back of “layers” of a life to “expose the painful scalding within.” And we already know this author can write. What’s not to like?

We Are Not In Pakistan by Shauna Singh Baldwin (Gooselane) fiction
Everything Singh Baldwin writes sings. I can’t help it: I adore this author. Ever since her debut novel, the Commonwealth Prize-winning What the Body Remembers from 2000, I’ve adored her work. Thus I’ve been saving this collection of 10 stories for a special treat. And now the year is done. I’m still looking forward to it.

Why We Read What We Read: Exploring Contemporary Bestsellers and What They Say About Our Books and Ourselves by John Heath and Lisa Adams (Sourcebooks) art & culture
For some reason, 2007 was a big year for self-examination, especially for cultural issues. Especially about books. For example, Pierre Bayard sold a lot of copies of his very silly How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read and Michael Dirda’s wonderful Reading for Pleasure also took a close look at the inner workings of literature. In Why We Read What We Read “Heath and Adams explore the nature of what we read and what it means for our current state of conversation in society.” From what I can figure, this is the book as self-examination. Scary interesting.

The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman (Crown) fiction
Witch trials in 14th century Germany in Mailmans’ debut novel. The author’s bio tells us an ancestor was accused of witchcraft in 1600s New England, so maybe she has an inside track? In any case, she has a fistful of gorgeous author blurbs and a beautiful book to boot. “It was winter to make bitter all souls.”

Now time for your own end of year confessions. Are there any books you set aside or hoped to read in 2007 that you somehow didn’t get to?

Richard and Judy Smile

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan have announced their selections for their 2008 book club, according to The Guardian.
Modelled on the phenomenally successful book club section of Oprah Winfrey’s US talk show, Richard and Judy’s book club has proven just as great a sensation in the UK. Those who make the final list can expect to see themselves transformed overnight from jobbing novelists into household names, and are virtually guaranteed bestseller status.

Here’s the list:
  • Blood River by Tim Butcher (Chatto and Windus)
  • A Quiet Belief In Angels by RJ Ellory (Orion)
  • Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris (Viking)
  • Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale (Fourth Estate)
  • The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury)
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
  • The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann (Doubleday)
  • Visible World by Mark Slouka (Portobello Books)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Death of the Bedtime Story?

Consider this a call to action:
Blame it on working parents who are too tired. Or on the potent tug of TV and computer.

Whatever the cause, it seems the bedtime story -- and the ritual of parents reading to their children regardless of the hour -- may be losing its hold on American family life.

If so, it’s more than just the loss of a quaint custom. Researchers and child-development specialists say reduced rates of shared reading time can hurt family cohesion, stymie creative development in younger children and drag down academic achievement.

If this report distresses you -- and it certainly distresses us -- we have a strong suggestion. If there is a child in your care, don’t be diverted from your raise-a-reader goal. Pluck half an hour a day from your schedule to read to your child.

For little ones, choose picture books with illustrations you admire and stories you relate to or that you feel your child will enjoy. Since you’re to be part of this process, it’s important you start with something both of you will like.

With older children, you’ll want to select something together and, at a certain stage, perhaps alternate reading: a page for your child, a page for you so that reading to your child becomes reading together which, of course, ultimately becomes reading for pleasure.

Approached with an open heart and a sense of mild fun, the bedtime story can become the winding down spot for your child’s day as well as an oasis of calm in your own overcrowded life. Remember: it’s not something to be gotten through, but something to be savored and relished. Additionally and ideally, this ritual will become a special memory and time of bonding that both of you cherish forever.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Everyone at January Magazine would like to wish you and yours the very best of the season.

If you’re looking for the January Magazine Holiday Gift Guide, it’s here.
The Best Books of 2007 feature is here.

Here’s wishing you and yours a joyous season. May your heart be strong and may all your dreams come true.

All the best from the whole gang at January Magazine.

The photo illustration is by David Middleton and is used with permission.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Best Books of 2007: The Final Word

After a week of rolling it out, all of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2007 feature is now in place and collected here. We had a lot of fun putting this feature together for you, but now we are tired and we’re glad we don’t have to think of the best of anything again for another 11 months or so!

We review from almost all branches of the book industry and, as a result, our choices run the gamut. The January Best of the Year list is not a popularity contest. Our choices reflect what our writers and editors liked best of the books they read and enjoyed throughout the year. They don’t need to qualify their choices. There is no board or panel. No quotas from certain publishers, no authors that had to be included. And though some of the books mentioned here were reviewed for January Magazine in 2007, that’s not part of the criterion. These are, quite simply, the books that our well read eyes and hearts liked best, listed in alphabetical order within the loose category in which they fall:

children's booksfictionnon-fiction art & culture

crime fiction from A-I, by title • crime fiction from J-Z


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Best of 2007: Crime Fiction, Part II

Lost Echoes by Joe R. Lansdale (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) 352 pages
As a child, Harry Wilkes suffered a mysterious ear infection that seemed to go away as fast and suddenly as it came. But it left him with the ability not only to see dead people but to hear violent occurrences from the past. Now he has to be careful in his surroundings, and map out specific routes whenever he goes somewhere, because at the slightest bang, he might witness some horrible tragedy from an area’s bygone days. It could be a rape, it could be a case of physical abuse. It might even be a murder. Much of this novel recounts Harry’s childhood. My favorite scene is that in which the protagonist goes out for the first time, at age 16, with the family car. His father, a poor but proud laborer, slips him $20 bill, and Harry -- knowing that his father can’t really spare the money -- tries to give it back. But Harry’s dad smiles and refuses, saying, “Take it. This is the kind of thing a father does.” (I’ve lived that scene with my own father on dozens of occasions.) In due time, though, Harry grows up to be a quiet young man who, while out one night with a loser friend, sees an inebriated guy beating up three muggers outside a bar. Seeking out this man after the fight, one Tad Peters, Harry learns that he too stays away from people, escaping his demons in drink and his expertise in the martial arts. Peters takes Harry under his wing, and over time they grow close, agreeing to sober up together. But their determination to avoid life’s darkness is tested after the woman who was Harry’s childhood crush, Kayla Jones -- now a cop -- asks him for help to prove that her father’s supposed suicide was actually a case of homicide. She wants Harry to use his “gift” at the scene of the crime, and try to see if her fears are justified. From there, Lost Echoes becomes a great little thriller, but because author Joe Lansdale spent so many previous pages building up his characters, we know crucial things about them that would not have been mentioned, or might have been glossed over, in a more conventional, pacy thriller. We really care about what happens to these people. In Lost Echoes, Lansdale gives us one of the scariest novels of the year, and one of the funniest (full of his trademark profanity). The bonus is that this is also among the most human novels published in 2007. -- Cameron Hughes

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay (Bantam) 338 pages
Where’s the note? There has to be a note. My mom never goes away without leaving a note … So insists Cynthia Bigge, in the poignant prologue to Linwood Barclay’s suspenseful and humane thriller, No Time for Goodbye. A 14-year-old Cynthia wakes up hung-over from a night of adolescent excess to find that her mother, father and brother have all vanished without a word or trace. Flash-forward now 25 years: Cynthia is married to high-school English teacher Terry Archer, who narrates this “what-the-hell-is-going-on?” tale with a fine balance of empathy, humor and terror. Strange things start happening to the Archers, and these odd doings seem linked to Cynthia’s revived efforts to learn the truth behind her family’s disappearance. One death occurs, and then another. Long-suppressed deeds rise to the surface -- until at last the danger that once found her family is again at Cynthia’s door. Such extraordinary events lead to equally extreme explanations, in this first standalone novel by Toronto journalist-turned-mystery novelist Barclay, who as a teenager was mentored, via correspondence, by the late Ross Macdonald. The reader is happy to accept this story’s mind-stretching dénouement for the pleasure of sharing hair-raising quality-time with the resourceful and endearing Archer family. -- Tom Nolan

Queenpin by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster) 192 pages
A never-named 22-year-old female narrator starts out in Queenpin working as a bookkeeper in the Tee Hee nightclub. She’s a former Catholic school girl, with a hidden penchant for the dangerous and glamorous. When Jerome and Arthur Bendix, the owners of the Tee Hee, ask her to cook the books, she doesn’t blink an eye. When their bosses find out what’s going on, they send emissary Gloria Denton to take care of business. Denton is an icon in the mob world, an older beauty with brains, still boasting legs a mile long, who sees the potential in our narrator. Under Denton’s tutelage, the narrator learns how to place bets at the track, how to collect casino earnings and how to deliver payoffs to the cops. It’s the high life for both women, cushioned with swanky apartments, steak dinners and oodles of jewelry. Denton is dangerous in her snakeskin shoes and alligator bags, and she doles out punishment just like the big boys. Her young protégé must not only follow Denton’s lead in regards to the rackets, but in how to behave in life, too. The narrator delights in the luxuries of moll living, but chaffs under Denton’s smooth, iron hand. When Vic Riordan, a loser-gambler with big dreams and a perpetual smile, enters the picture, our narrator falls hard for him and her sexual appetite is unleashed. She gives everything to Riordan, despite Denton’s warning to stay clear of his influence. When Denton calls upon Amos Mackey, an up-and-coming gangster, for help in handling the beguiling Riordan, things start to fall apart. And when Detective Clancy puts the screws on the narrator to turn on Denton, her choice is obvious. Queenpin is written in a stylized hard-boiled manner. Women are dolls and guys are meat. The plot is hard-boiled fare, in which romance stands little chance, and loyalty is only as good as the latest payoff. Yet, it’s the gorgeous descriptive qualities of the narrator’s worldview that pull the reader firmly into her lair. Queenpin ends where it began, with Abbott’s protagonist taking care of business. She is beyond redemption, and she wants it that way. -- Anthony Rainone

Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman (Alfred A. Knopf) 288 pages
Red Cat is the third private eye John March novel, following Death’s Little Helpers and Black Maps. There should still be time for all of you to ask for Spiegelman’s books in your stocking this year. Then you can read them all, rather than interact with your extended family, watch bowl games or feel the need to change the oil in your car while your family fumes. Maybe you don’t have the family John March has and, if not, count your blessings. March’s Wall Street brothers and sisters deeply disapprove of our boy. This is a recurring theme throughout the series; Black Maps has one of the grimmer Thanksgiving get-togethers I’ve read in a while. These people are cold. Red Cat escalates the sibling rivalry between March and his brother David. Spiegelman fans will recognize the set-up quickly, for John March endures much in the course of surviving a tragedy in upstate New York, being driven off the police force, and moving back to the city. In an ironic twist, David needs his brother’s help; he’s entangled in a sordid affair and when the woman stalking him turns up dead, the tables are turned in the family dynamic. I’m oversimplifying the plot, because Peter Spiegelman gives a dark texture to every paragraph he writes. His descriptions alone make this book worthwhile; March is not an easy character. He wants to make his way in the world according to his lights, to misquote the works of St. Bonaventure. There’s nothing like independent thought and action to create outrage within the family circle. It’s the holidays. You probably don’t understand the Bowl Championship Series rules any more than I do. I don’t know if Missouri will beat West Virginia or even play them, but a few hours spent with Red Cat, and you won’t care. -- David Thayer

Requiem for an Assassin by Barry Eisler (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 368 pages
It’s almost funny how bad most thrillers are. Not that thrillers aren’t hard to write: You have to constantly keep the pace going, every action has to lead to another, and your plot has to be at least plausible and interesting; your logic needs to be impeccable and your choreography of tension must constantly one-up whatever you offered in the last tense scene. Barry Eisler makes it look easy, writing the best thrillers available today. What makes them the best, is that he employs all of the techniques mentioned above, but then adds to his storytelling a fierce intelligence and a searing humanity that never fails to amaze me. Take, as an example, Requiem for an Assassin. It starts with longtime hired-gun John Rain trying to walk away from that life and find some kind of peace with his lover Delilah. But before he can, his close friend and partner, Dox, is kidnapped by a rogue CIA agent who wants Rain to carry out three assassinations -- or see Dox die. And so the game begins. Unlike most thriller writers, Eisler does something interesting with his action scenes; he infuses Rain’s growing humanity and pathos into the series of hits. Eisler is a great choreographer of action, and it’s morbidly fascinating to read about him here, finishing a job on a lonely road in a California Bay Area suburb. Rain murders with a chilling efficiency and vigor, and we like John Rain, so go ahead and root for him to complete the job. But congratulations, you just cheered for the death of a computer businessman, loving father and husband. Rain knows what he just did is monstrous; it eats at him as he tries to rationalize that he did it to save a friend and get out of “the life,” but still, he just killed a completely innocent man; and to save Dox, he most likely will have to do it twice more, staining his soul even further. And that’s why Eisler is the best at what he does. He deconstructs the thriller subgenre, while writing a great thriller novel that never insults your intelligence, makes you feel the growing tension with every pore and, most of all, makes you care. That’s quite the achievement. -- Cameron Hughes

Runoff by Mark Coggins (Bleak House Books) 302 pages
This fourth novel (after Candy from Strangers, 2006) to feature Bay Area private eye August Riordan, opens with one of the most original action sequences I’ve seen. Waiting in his Galaxie 500 on a self-appointed stakeout, Riordan searches for the person or persons responsible for ripping off ATM machines in downtown San Francisco. And by that, I don’t mean someone who hacks in by punching some obscure code and the money flows out like a river. This thief is physically removing ATM machines. That creative set-piece and the comedic chase through Chinatown that follows set Runoff apart from any other book this reviewer has read all year, and further establishes author Mark Coggins as a major contributor to the P.I. genre. The attempted apprehension of the ATM bandit and the wreckage it creates put Riordan on the radar screen of the notorious Leonora Lee, more commonly known as the “Dragon Lady,” a powerful business and political presence in San Francisco. She hires him to investigate the alleged fixing of the recent mayoral election. The Dragon Lady’s anointed candidate, the hapless and aggressively bland Alan Chow, was easily the most conservative candidate on the ballot. Chow finished third in a field of three, but captured enough votes to force a runoff between establishment moderate Hunter Lowden and Green Party maverick Mike Padilla. Lee suspects the election was rigged, and hires Riordan to find out if it was true, how it was done, and at who’s bidding. In the midst of suspense and carnage, readers are taken on a tour of the San Francisco power structure, acquainted with modern struggles over the need to provide low-cost housing (struggles that run counter to businesses more interested in selling million-dollar condos that reach above the bay’s fog) and introduced to a lethal Hong Kong-controlled gang. “What’s Happening With the Private Eye Novel” is a popular crime fiction parlor game. Runoff is the answer to that question. -- Stephen Miller

Safe and Sound by J.D. Rhoades (St. Martin’s Minotaur) 228 pages
This is a trip down the murkier passages of the soul, a terrain that philosophers and religionists warn against. While Safe and Sound protagonist Jackson Keller’s main goal is to rescue and protect those he loves from one of crime fiction’s more ruthless killers, the cost of “safe and sound” is enormous. Keller is in a psychological no-man’s land. His inner demons took their twisted shape back when he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and witnessed the death of his men on a hot night in the Saudi desert. His Bradley fighting vehicle was mistaken for an enemy tank, and if not for happenstance, Keller would have been incinerated too. Keller was left with survivor’s guilt, and the outrage he endured was a ripening worm in his psyche that finally begins to rear its ugly head. The ability to find men is Keller’s one redeeming asset, and he lends his expertise to private investigator and girlfriend Marie Jones on her newest case. Local attorney Tammy Healy has hired Jones to locate a missing child, Alyssa Fedder. The girl is believed to have been taken by her father, David Lundgren, a sergeant with the army’s Special Forces. Although this case may initially seem like a matter of two parents fighting over child custody, it quickly spirals outward and intersects with another more sinister story line. Lundgren is AWOL -- and he has a killer on his trail. The main villain here is an Afrikaner mercenary-for-hire named De Groot. The South African’s skill lies in extracting information, using various forms of torture. Like any diligent craftsman, De Groot is practiced at what he does, and he has an assortment of tools useful to his trade. De Groot’s motivations are very simple -- he has no compunction against torturing and killing to get what he wants, and he wants to retire rich. He has figured out a means to the latter, and it involves David Lundgren and two of Lundgren’s fellow special-ops soldiers, Mike Riggio and Bobby Powell. Safe and Sound takes on a survivalist sensibility, as the locale switches to North Carolina’s rural Blue Ridge Parkway. Keller and Jones find Alyssa Fedder in the safe care there of commandos Powell and Riggio, the child given to them by the now-not-heard-from Lundgren. Keller, James and the commandos form an alliance. This group eventually bunkers down at a nearby safe house, until members can sort things out, and perhaps bring in federal help. De Groot finds them, however. What follows is a confrontation of visceral carnage by men who have honed the art of killing. There are no winners at the conclusion and there is no happy ending. Safe and Sound is a tour-de-force, diabolical thriller. It paints how real evil in the world works -- when things that go bump in the night suddenly stare you in the face. -- Anthony Rainone

Secret Asset by Stella Rimington (Alfred A. Knopf) 336 pages
Fans of spy thrillers should start paying attention to author Stella Rimington’s protagonist, Liz Carlyle, a counter-intelligence agent with the UK security service MI5, who first appeared in At Risk (2005). Carlyle’s pursuit of enemies of the British Empire bears an unusually cerebral flavor, eschewing Hollywood-style pyrotechnics. Carlyle and her counterparts in Thames House rely on the unusual display of behavior, or the odd bit of personal history, to flush out their adversaries. Make no mistake however, Rimington can write a compelling chase scene or deadly encounter, when needed. Carlyle’s main role is agent-running -- supervising undercover civilian men and women in strategic positions. In Secret Asset, she handles Sohail Din, a 19-year-old aspiring lawyer, code-named Marzipan. Din works in an Islamic bookstore, and there have been suspicious men meeting within that shop’s confines. Din convinces Carlyle that it’s a nefarious matter; she in turn convinces her boss, Charles Wetherby, a sharp dresser and able manager, that some sort of terrorist act is being planned. Soon, a coordinated team is put in place to plant mikes and watch the shop. Although the intrigue involving that bookseller gets hot and heavy, and a key witness is murdered, Carlyle is taken away from the investigation and assigned an equally important task: rooting out a suspected mole planted inside the security service itself. This is a potentially devastating development. Believed to have originally been recruited by the Irish Republican Army, this unknown mole has turned his skills away from spying for Ireland (since the Northern Ireland peace process began) and toward other sinister ends, including possibly aligning himself with the suspected Islamic terrorists connected to the bookstore. Aided by researcher Peggy Kinsolving, Carlyle conducts counter-espionage interviews assessing the psychological make-up of those suspected. The resulting character studies are striking. Rimington is the retired director-general of MI5, so she knows the spy game intimately. Her insights into the mores of intelligence operations are fascinating. The pacing mimics actual intelligence work, meaning the tempo is sometimes slow, sometimes urgent. As Carlyle and her colleagues close in on the suspected terrorists and their truck bomb, your pulse rate is going to accelerate. At the same time, Rimington shows that security agents are ordinary people. Carlyle, for instance, is without prospects for a serious relationship, her apartment is a mess and her mother is sick. At day’s end, she might have a glass of wine and read a good book. To bad Ms. Carlyle herself can’t pick up Secret Asset and escape into its pages herself. It’s a thriller of the finest order. -- Anthony Rainone

The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime) 316 pages
At a time when British crime fiction seems tipped toward the noir edge of things, it is a treat to come across a classic puzzle story. Such is the reward in store for readers who delve into The Secret Hangman, the ninth entry in the Inspector Peter Diamond series. A woman with two young children has disappeared. That missing woman, Delia Williamson, is eventually found -- but, unfortunately, not in the way Diamond expected: she’s suspended from a children’s swing set in a public park, with a noose tied around her neck. All the preliminary signs point to a suicide: a broken fingernail or two, but no signs of a struggle, no indications of sexual assault. Williamson’s significant other, with whom she and her children had been living, boasts a decent enough alibi that would rule out his involvement in foul play. And then, soon after, her ex-husband, Danny Geaves, is discovered hanging from a viaduct over the main drag through Bath, England. Was it a murder borne of a long-simmering resentment? Did Geaves kill his ex, then jump to his death in the most public way of self-execution? Those questions are muddied when Diamond’s intrepid young inspector, Ingeborg Smith, recalls that these hangings are markedly similar to a pair of unexplained deaths just a couple of years earlier. The previous victims, an affluent couple named Twining, could not be more dissimilar from Delia Williamson, a waitress in a local Italian restaurant, and Geaves, a bizarre eccentric with no known current means of support. There may be a serial killer loose. But if there is, how could the fates of these two couples be related? The Secret Hangman, while appearing on the surface to be a serial-killer novel, is actually a throwback to the classic English whodunit, dressed up for the modern age. Author Peter Lovesey is an old pro; so is Diamond. It’s a pleasure to recommend that you spend time with both. -- Stephen Miller

Silverfish by David Lapham (DC/Vertigo) 160 pages
I love a good graphic novel as much as the next yegg, but good graphic novels in the crime-fiction realm that don’t involve overdeveloped guys in tights are relatively hard to find. However, writer and illustrator David Lapham’s Silverfish more than makes up for the scarcity. To put it bluntly, it’s stunning -- simply one of the most unapologetically gut-wrenching, brutally thrilling books I've ever read. In any format. It’s almost like a movie between two covers. By the time I got to the conclusion, in fact, I was flipping the pages so quickly, it almost was a movie. It plays out like Hitchcock on meth, a wicked black-and-white kaleidoscope of teen angst, misunderstandings of noirish proportions, evil stepmothers, local yokel cops, psychotic killers with fish on the brain, deadly secrets and innocent pranks that turn out to have deadly consequences. Mia, a teenage girl, chafing under the bit of dad’s new wife and egged on by her slutty friend, decides to snoop around while her father and stepmother are away for the weekend. Ignoring her asthmatic kid sister’s dire objections, she searches through her stepmom’s belongings, but finds more than she bargained for -- a suitcase full of money and evidence that seems to implicate her stepmother in a murder committed in conjunction with a former lover several years ago. The discovery sets in motion a chain of events that culminate in a chilling showdown in a deserted amusement park on the Jersey shore that looms like a Bruce Springsteen song turned inside out -- and vicious. At first glance, Lapham’s straightforward black-and-white artwork may not seem particularly “arty” compared with some of the illustrations out there in ComicBookLand, but it more than does the job here. The author’s deceptive simplicity of line is positively retro, harking back to the broad-shouldered comic art of the 1950s and ’60s, while his use of shadows shows he’s seen a film noir or two. But then, there’s something almost retro about this story -- I mean, evil stepmoms? Amusement parks? Suitcases of money? And when the art calls for something a little more surreal, as when the killer starts envisioning schools of silverfish eating into a man’s brain, Lapham more than rises to the task. Lapham, of course, is the man responsible for the sporadically published and highly regarded Stray Bullets crime comics, one of the most ambitious and compelling (and most highly respected) series of the last decade or so, a sprawling sequence of loosely linked vignettes that trace the damage that the stray bullets of violence and crime wreak on the innocent and guilty alike. He explores that same theme, to memorable and powerful effect, in Silverfish. Alas, Stray Bullets has been missing in action for the last few years. But I tell you, if Lapham’s taking time off from that to craft the occasional masterpiece like this, he’s more than forgiven. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom (Viking) 592 pages
No fan of historical mysteries, I was particularly likely to cast a cold eye at the well-worn subgenre of British historical mysteries. But when I started reading C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign, I fell hard. It’s the third entry in the author’s Matthew Shardlake series, picking up the story of the hunchback London attorney as his loyalty to reformer Oliver Cromwell continues to wane. Now it’s fear rather than admiration of Cromwell’s growing power that compels the lawyer’s agreement to travel to York to ensure the safety of an imprisoned conspirator waiting to be transported back to London. The timing of Shardlake’s journey is particular delicate: York, only recently brought under the banner of King Henry VIII, is making elaborate preparations to receive the monarch and his huge entourage (called The Progress) that includes his most recent young wife, Queen Catherine. Steering clear of the affected prose that mars so many historical mysteries, Sansom lays out plots and subplots that wind around like the cobblestone streets through a medieval old town, putting Shardlake and his young assistant, Jack Barak, on ever more treacherous footing. When a master craftsman working on preparations for the king’s visit dies in a gruesome fall, Shardlake suspects murder; his investigation turns up evidence of yet another conspiracy to overthrow the king. And when Barak takes up with one of the ladies of the royal party (or was she dispatched to seduce him?), Shardlake is plunged deep into court intrigue that leads him right to the fearsome Tower of London. Sansom makes the religious and political issues of Tudor England as easy to understand, and as troubling to watch, as the forces that shape the society we live in today. But the strength of the book lies in the character of Shardlake. The barrister’s physical deformity has always set him apart from the mainstream, giving him time to develop talents as an observer. The passion for fairness and reform that originally made him a follower of Cromwell leaves him increasingly out of step with the politicians around him. In short, Shardlake’s an ideal detective. And that makes him a very dangerous person in an environment seething with conspiracies. Sovereign is replete with seamy settings, cold-blooded betrayal and torture (as well as a very mysterious series of suicide attempts that Shardlake figures out brilliantly). It has scenes that make contemporary hard-boiled crime fiction seem quaint and stylized. Which is not to say that it’s without its own moments of wry humor. The description of the arrival of King Henry at York (“God’s anointed on earth”) with rows of perspiring dignitaries waiting hours to greet him, told from the viewpoint of Shardlake, concludes with a description of those same dignitaries bolting towards a row of outdoor privies after their long ordeal. One thing’s for certain: After reading Sovereign, you’ll be far less likely to associate the adjective “Tudor” with the genre “Romance.” -- Karen G. Anderson

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (Simon & Schuster) 368 pages
This is a novel that shouldn’t have worked. Not at all. First off, it has no plot. Well, there is one, but it’s incredibly thin. What it does have, though, is character. Izzy Spellman is the oldest daughter in a clan of P.I.s. The Spellman Files is about a family, as dysfunctional as any regular family, except that in this family of criminal investigators, they take dysfunctional to a whole new level where they bug the rooms of family members, discreetly tail them to see who they’re dating or what they’re doing, and even set up the basement to look like a police interrogation room for when one of the younger Spellmans causes trouble -- and when a Spellman causes trouble, he or she does it in style, believe me. The Spellman Files is one of those novels that could easily have easily been a mess and gotten away from its author. The cast here is extensive, the quirk factor is huge, and Files has a framing device that finds Izzy telling someone else stories about her family. I was waiting for it to go off the rails, and the novel does come dangerously close a few times, but debut author Lisa Lutz reins it in with a wonderful human touch every so often, and it’s that humanity that sets this book apart from so many other quirky mystery works. I love the characters, from her parents (a modern take on Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, if they had ever settled down and started a family P.I. business) to Uncle Lou, who likes to drink, smoke cigars and gamble a lot (he actually adds a great deal of drama to this tale, because he disappears on a regular basis during what the family refers to as “Lost Weekends,” and it’s up to somebody in the clan to track him down again). The black sheep among these relations is actually the most well-adjusted. Izzy’s brother David successfully started a new life outside the business as a corporate lawyer, but he still has a hand in the family’s affairs by throwing business their way. My favorite player, though, is Izzy’s 14-year-old sister, Rae. She has yet to become as jaded as Izzy, but she doesn’t want to follow David’s lead and leave the family. There’s an interesting internal tug of war for her soul, as she goes through the normal activities of being a teenage girl, dealing with homework and mean teachers and bullies -- and, of course, blackmailing her family to get out of going to Summer Camp. The Spellman Files is a wonderfully human family saga, with a great sense of humor and heart, not to mention intelligence. I hope Lutz enjoys a long and successful career. -- Cameron Hughes

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) 384 pages
After Hurricane Katrina clobbers New Orleans in the summer of 2005, New Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robicheaux is put on “lend-lease” to the flooded and chaotic Louisiana metropolis. With most of the New Orleans Police Department force deserting, or committing crimes themselves, Robicheaux is assigned to pursue cases he’d rather ignore, and becomes caught up in personal circumstances he can’t put aside. While patrolling the ravaged streets with Sheriff Helen Soileau, the hurricane’s aftermath deposits images in Robicheaux’s mind that he will “never” forget. Of the 16 Robicheaux books so far, this one is the most poignant love song to the city Burke calls “the great Whore of Babylon.” At the heart of the tale is Robicheaux’s search for a missing friend, a junkie priest named Jude LeBlanc. LeBlanc was last seen heading out in a rowboat to rescue trapped parishioners. But that search competes with Robicheaux’s investigation of the shooting death of a teenage African-American looter, whose killer may be a prosperous white insurance company executive. Knowing that state authorities are going to make a shining example of that executive, Robicheaux urges him to find “a good lawyer.” The creeps in Tin Roof are prime examples of the vilest of characters, and it’s bad guys with biblical-mythological derivations that Burke excels at depicting. The key to helping Robicheaux solve the teenager’s murder is none other than “street puke” Bertrand Melancon, whose ulcer is a metaphor for his rotting soul. Like a gust of wind blowing off the bayou, the enduring pain of ruptured southern Louisiana, “peeled” from the face of the earth, pervades Tin Roof. Robicheaux is a damaged man in many ways, but sidekick Clete Purcel matches him in reckless behavior. In these pages, Purcel is initially hot on the trail of two “bail skips,” but when blood diamonds are stolen during the looting, Purcel is thrust into the center of their recovery. Purcel careens through this book in a heat-induced craze, the booze percolating through his veins, the senseless murder of a friend fueling his actions. Purcel’s pain and loss are just as great as Robicheaux’s, though he’s less verbally reflective about it. Thankfully, its Robicheaux’s -- and Burke’s poetic voice that tells this marvelous and moving yarn. -- Anthony Rainone

Tokyo Year Zero
by David Peace (Faber and Faber UK) 368 pages
This may well be the most-reviewed novel of 2007. A series of rape-homicides in the collapsing moments of World War II-era Japan send Detective Minami on an investigation that ranges far beyond the crimes at hand. The aftermath of war and defeat has trapped him in a nightmare. Author David Peace takes a page from James Ellroy, using a staccato, repetitious style that conveys the urgency and desperation of Tokyo in 1946. You either love this book, or you hate it. I loved it. It’s the most surreal police procedural I have ever read, not only because of the presentation but the setting. Tokyo is destroyed, Tokyo is being rebuilt. Life goes on, but families are searching for missing loved ones, buildings are uninhabitable and entire districts are razed in the wartime firestorms. The main character, Minami, shivers and shakes, itches and scratches through his encounters with the Kompetai (Japan’s military police), the new rules imposed by the victorious Americans and a shakeup in the local police bureau. His fear and anxiety are the novel’s focus expressed through a drumbeat of heat, reconstruction, a mad killer and a new beginning. -- David Thayer

12:23: Paris. 31st August 1997 by Eion McNamee (Faber and Faber UK) 304 pages
As a lover of conspiracy thrillers, I was awaiting Irish novelist-screenwriter McNamee’s 12:23 as I would a missing lung, especially as I had met the author several years ago when he was presented with the inaugural Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for The Sirius Crossing (written he penned under the nom de plume “John Creed”). I probably could have read this new novel in well under two hours, as it is slim in terms of page-count; but it is a big book in terms of ideas, literary style and the atmosphere it can conjure in one’s head. Consequently, I was forced to read more slowly than usual, in order to absorb every word, every sentence into my fevered mind. The premise of 12:23 is that several international spies, connected with assorted agencies and working both officially and not-so-officially, converge upon the French capital during the summer of 1997 to watch fate unfold for Princess Diana, referred to in this text simply as “Spencer,” her family’s surname. Rumors have spread that she is pregnant with a child spawned by her lover, Dodi-al-Fayed, whom the agents call “The Arab,” that label carrying a whiff of racism engendered by the dark figures who seem connected here to Britain’s “establishment.” Further complications arise, as talk spreads that Spencer is going to deliver a speech in which she sides with the Arab Palestinians in their ongoing conflict against Israel. McNamee even manages to implicate members of the Solar Temple cult (a secret society linked to the ancient Knights Templar) in his plot, along with shadowy representatives from a cabal of international arms traders who are concerned that Spencer is eroding the market for landmines. And what would a British espionage novel be without involvement by the French? 12:23 offers a bit of that too. However, it’s the interactions between members of a unit of low-level British spies that drives this narrative so forcefully forward. As in another UK thriller set in Paris, The Day of the Jackal (1971), we know in 12:23 the outcome of the story before it commences. Yet, like Frederick Forsyth, Eoin McNamee captivates us as he sends his characters toward a brutal and disturbing climax. McNamee writes like a magician, with an abundance of smoke and silvery mirrors shielding the truth until the end, when he rolls up his sleeves to reveal his fictional take on the death of Diana, which like a landmine was hidden in plain sight. Like the elusive white Fiat Uno that was allegedly involved in the fatal car accident, the plot concludes here with an alarming number of people having vanished. 12:23 ought to be a very strong contender for next year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. -- Ali Karim

The Unquiet by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton UK) 480 pages
Irish writer Connolly’s The Unquiet is a dark and dangerous literary journey that starts with a feeling of dread, and just builds and builds, until the tension becomes unbearable. If you haven’t previously been introduced to Charlie Parker, this author’s Maine-based private eye (last seen in The Black Angel, 2005), then this novel is a great place to start in the series. The Unquiet finds Parker looking back into the past -- both his and others’ -- to find redemption and atonement for past sins, some of which may never be completely forgiven. We find Parker in these pages no less melancholic than he’s been before, hearing the voices of his deceased first wife and daughter, and trying to find peace with his new, estranged wife, Rachel, and their daughter. To break his morose mood, he takes on what looks like a simple job: protecting a woman named Rebecca Clay and her daughter from a mysterious stalker. In Parker’s world, however, nothing is ever simple. His adventures inevitably contain supernatural aspects, because for this P.I., the world of the living always intersects with the world of the dead, and past sins are propelled into the future. It seems that the stalker harassing Rebecca Clay and her child is an underworld hit man by the name of Frank Merrick, who’s working for a lawyer called Eldritch (an apparent homage to American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft). Together, the men are attempting to trace Rebecca’s father, the child psychologist Dr. Daniel Clay, a man whose career was ruined by whispers of pedophilia, and who subsequently vanished in disgrace. This assignment proves troublesome, so Parker calls upon Louis and Angel, his rough-and-tough sidekicks, as well as Jackie Garner and his bodyguards, Tony and Paulie Fulci, to protect Ms. Clay from Merrick, while Parker probes further into the hit man’s motives. Our hero soon discovers much more amiss than he had expected. It appears Merrick’s young daughter went missing at the same time as Daniel Clay vanished (and while Merrick was still in prison). There’s also evidence that the children Clay was involved with drew pictures of their abusers, all wearing sinister bird-masks. We’re told as well that along the Maine-Canada border rests an abandoned community known as Gilead -- a place Dr. Clay was known to visit, but that was abandoned after it was discovered that ritual child abuse had taken place there. Parker soon finds connections to members of Boston’s Russian mafia, who traffic in children, Internet child abuse and murder. As this story develops further, Parker and Merrick both hear voices from the dead, voices that are hollow, voices belonging to people who no longer walk the earth. And into that potent and chilling mix comes the cigarette-smoking avenger known as “The Collector,” who inquires of Parker: “You think you are a good man?” and continues, “How can one tell the good from the bad when their methods are just the same?” The Unquiet is among the finest reads of this or any other year. I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified. But it’s the wit Connolly harnesses to his fiction that prevents his dark tales from overwhelming readers with malevolence. -- Ali Karim

Walla Walla Suite (A Room With No View)
by Anne Argula (Ballantine Books) 272 pages
There were two big disappointments for me in Walla Walla Suite. One has nothing at all to do with story, but was due to the fact that, late in enjoying the first novel I’d read from this author, and thinking I’d found a woman writer with a strong voice who I hadn’t encountered before, I discovered that Argula is actually a well-known male screenwriter named Daryl Ponicsan (Cinderella Liberty, The Last Detail). The other disappointment was that, for me, three quarters of this book was like listening to new music -- easy, pleasurable, sometimes unexpected -- but in the end, the story didn’t quite hold together, sagging under the weight of overly complicated plotting. Still: here I am, selecting it as one of my best reads of the year simply because, when all was said and done, I loved this book. I loved the Seattle setting, I loved the main character’s quirky way of talking and her hot-flashes-driven view of the world. I loved the language of the book: noir in modern drag. The rapid-fire rat-tat-tat of old-time storytellers, combined with the beautiful punctures of well-placed metaphor. OK: the story could have been slightly better. There’s a killer, of course. A dead girl who everyone loved. For a while our protagonist is in danger. The culprit, when she finds him out, is unexpected. So the story could have been stronger, more weightily hinged. But the journey? For me the journey through Walla Walla Suite was second to not very much. And I’ll follow this writer through more of them, regardless of the name on the cover. -- Linda L. Richards

The Watchman by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster) 304 pages
Technically, this is the first Joe Pike novel, though fans of Crais’ Elvis Cole private-eye series are well acquainted with the hard-charging former Los Angeles police officer and world-ranging mercenary. Pike’s steadfast morality and single-purpose zeal are once again put to the test in The Watchman, this time protecting Larkin Connor Barkley, a wealthy young California socialite whose life is in danger, following a seemingly innocuous traffic accident. Barkley is a hot 22-year-old, suffering as a result of lack of attention from her multi-billionaire father. Barkley likes to live and drive fast, and when her Aston Martin smacks a silver Mercedes sedan, her life is turned upside down. The three occupants of the Mercedes survive and inexplicably flee the scene. Shortly afterwards, several attempts are made on Larkin’s life. The U.S. Department of Justice steps in, and Barkley identifies one of the occupants of the Mercedes as Alexander Liman Meesh, a known murderer and money launderer for a South American drug cartel. The feds suspect that Meesh is behind the attacks on the willowy Ms. Barkley. But the feds seem congenitally incapable of protecting this wild child, so Pike is summoned to help. Nobody writes action sequences better than Crais, and the unfolding drama of Pike fighting off the bad guys here is sheer exhilaration. Also, nobody is better than Pike at making villains wish they were never born. The former marine boasts the skills and discipline that Meesh’s band of South American thrill-killers lack. This contest isn’t even close to being fair. Meesh does have one advantage, though: someone on the inside is leaking Barkley’s location to the bad guys every time she moves to a new safe house. The Watchman gives us a chance to know Joe Pike better than we did before -- to hear more about his mercenary jobs in places like Africa, his abusive father and his career as an LAPD officer. In the past, Elvis Cole has often relied on Joe Pike to watch his back, but this time around, it’s Pike who needs the assistance of The World’s Greatest Detective. The relationship between Pike and Barkley is touching and grows close over time, though never intimate. Pike doesn’t so much undergo a transformation in this novel, as he is deepened as a protagonist. Joe Pike is willfully capable of inflicting pain, or killing villains without remorse, and the hard-edged, kick-ass warrior emerges from these pages ready to do battle with the next batch of bad guys who come along. I pity them already. -- Anthony Rainone

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (William Morrow and Company) 384 pages
Full disclosure: My name appears in this novel’s acknowledgments for technical assistance, and the author managed to twist an anecdote involving yours truly into something even funnier than what really happened. But the basic plot is this: Two sisters disappear from a suburban shopping mall one summer in the mid-1970s. Thirty years later, the victim of a car accident in Baltimore claims to be Sunny Bethany, the younger of those siblings. But is she? That’s what Detective Kevin Infante intends to find out. He’s a womanizing wreck of a man who at least doesn’t have the drinking problems of Jimmy McNulty (from HBO’s The Wire). While What the Dead Know could easily have been the latest in a series about Baltimore County cops Infante and Nancy Porter (of Every Secret Thing fame), it’s not. Still, Porter is along for the ride in this one, with Sergeant Harold Lenhart standing behind them to plant a boot in Infante’s butt from time to time. However, this, like Every Secret Thing and To the Power of Three before it, is a standalone, with a familiar set of characters in place more for familiarity than continuity. The real story is Sunny’s. Or rather the woman Sunny has been for the past four years. It’s about Sunny’s mother, a pleasant Stepford mom who escapes her loveless marriage after her children vanish. It’s about Sunny and Heather Bethany and their transformation from typical suburban girls to urban legends. Lippman deftly juggles four different stories -- Sunny’s life in hiding, her childhood with her sister, their mother’s recovery from losing her girls and Infante’s own mid-life crisis -- mainly by not staying in any one timeframe long enough to reveal too much about each character. The shifts in point of view and setting are seamless and let Lippman’s skill as a writer shine. It’s the latest step in her transformation as a novelist, which began with 2002’s The Last Place. Lippman has always been a good writer. This book proves she is a great one. -- Jim Winter

Whitewash by Alex Kava (MIRA Books) 432 pages
Set in the dual locations of Florida and Washington, D.C., Kava’s multi-layered novel focuses on the central topic of alternative-fuels development, and features an alternating cast of characters culled from the worlds of science, politics and international intelligence. If you never thought the environment could be riveting, you obviously haven’t read Whitewash. Dr. Dwight Lansik is the head scientist for EcoEnergy, an alternative-fuel production facility nestled near the Apalachicola Forest outside of Tallahassee, Florida. Lansik devises a formula using feedstock -- in this case, chicken guts, heads and lungs -- that is heated at extremely high temperatures. There are several individuals who hope to take advantage of EcoEnergy’s breakthrough feedstock process. One of those is Senator John Quincy Allen, from the state of Florida. Allen has been escorting EcoEnergy through the Byzantine channels of D.C. politics, and giving it special attention in the Senate Appropriations Committee. He hopes not only to earn recognition as a front-runner on environmental issues, but also to secure a $140 million contract to supply the U.S. military with fuel. If successful, Allen can write his own political future. Meanwhile, Jason Brill is Allen’s hardworking and underappreciated chief of staff. While Brill engages in a one-night stand with Lindsay Matthews, the chief of staff for Allen’s senatorial adversary, in D.C.’s Washington Grand Hotel, a gay senatorial aide is brutally murdered in that same hotel. Brill presently finds himself a suspect in the eyes of investigating detectives, after police discover that the two men knew each other. And while all of this is going on, workaholic Dr. Lansik goes missing, and Dr. Sabrina Galloway, a staff scientist at EcoEnergy, becomes suspicious. When she notices that Reactor #5 is processing Grade 2 materials -- plastics and metals, even though EcoEnergy is not set up yet to safely process those materials -- she brings it to the plant engineer’s attention. Galloway’s powers of observation are not welcome. Someone runs her off the road one night, and she nearly dies. Later, when a fellow scientist is mistaken for Galloway and brutally murdered, Galloway doesn’t need further provocation. She packs up and flees Tallahassee. There’s a lot going on in Whitewash, which explains its more than 400 pages of length; but that expansiveness doesn’t give it room to drag. Whitewash is a rock-solid, imaginative thriller. -- Anthony Rainone

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins) 432 pages
Alternative history scenarios can be fascinating to spin out within the safety of fiction. How, for instance, might the past have been changed, had the Spanish Armada defeated the English fleet in 1588? What would have happened, had the Russian Revolution never happened, or the South had won the U.S. Civil War, or Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1944, or a World War II-era plan to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe in the Territory of Alaska been successful? Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution and other novels, tackles that final “what if” in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a thoughtful reconsideration of Jewish identity cleverly disguised as a detective novel. Apparently, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, there were plans floated to bring displaced Jews from Nazi Germany to sparsely settled Alaska. That scheme eventually foundered in Congress, and the fleeing Jews instead found what they fervently hoped was sanctuary in Palestine. But like Philip Roth, who, in The Plot Against America (2004), played with the scenario of famed aviator and supposed Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beating FDR in the 1940 U.S. presidential race, Chabon considers what might have come to pass had that Alaskan resettlement scheme been executed. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it’s the 21st century, and the government of Alaska determines to reassert its hegemony over the Federal District of Sitka, which it always considered a “temporary” Jewish home. For the Yiddish-speaking Sitkans, though, who for 60 years thought they were safe, this is yet another unwanted and unfair eviction, and there’s no telling where they’ll go next. In the midst of the upheaval, a burnt-out homicide cop named Meyer Landsman investigates the murder of a chess-playing, junkie neighbor, who may or may not be the Messiah. Landsman sees in this case his path to a love-overdue redemption, but others -- including underworld rabbis and his ex-wife, who also happens to be his new boss -- see him as a pain in the ass and a troublemaker, and want him stopped. Chabon has a lot of fun, dropping in allusions to twists in history that never actually got twisted (he mentions at one point former first lady “Marilyn Monroe Kennedy in her pink pillbox hat”) and playing with the rhythms of crime fiction (his prose can be positively Chandleresque at times). However, he has some thought-provoking things to say in these pages about whether history shapes people, or it’s the other way around. Although the Jews of Chabon’s fertile imagination have escaped their real-life rivalry with Palestinians, they are still challenged for their homeland--in this case, by Alaska’s Tlingit Indians, who don’t appreciate the refugees squatting on land that has historically belonged to them. Like the storied character, Flitcraft, in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the Jews in Chabon’s tale haven’t found their lives all that changed by a change in environment. -- J. Kingston Pierce

(Part I can be found here.)

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January Magazine’s Best Books of 2007

Most of us love lists. Sometimes we even love looking at lists when they don’t make a lot of sense to us and their methodology has not been explained. Here’s a list of the best places to live. The hottest spots to vacation. The best schools. The top breeds of dog. The best restaurants. The hippest place to get a fish taco. The... well, you get the idea.

Most of us love lists.

I’m not immune. I love them too. Yet sometimes, I find myself looking at them and wondering... why? Because, let’s face it, when all is said and done, this too is subjective. The best compared to what? How can you even have a best of without a worst of? And just because someone loves garlic pistachio ice cream does not make that the best flavor. Honestly, even if a whole lot of people loved garlic pistachio, you would not be able to convince me it was the best. Just saying so; just putting it in a list does not make it the best.

So all of this -- more -- and yet, here we are: I find myself once again proud and delighted to present to you the books the editors of January Magazine liked best in 2007.

This annual feature has gotten to be my favorite. Not just because we spend a lot of time making all these lists, though that’s a part of it. But the larger picture, in a way, is that all this busy list making, all of this looking back at the literary year that was, represents a very real celebration of reading and of books.

And because every publication seems to have their own method of selecting their annual bests, it seems useful to tell you about ours.

Here’s what we do: all of our contributors are asked to put together a short list of the books they liked best published in the calendar year under discussion. They write about them briefly. And then we tell you.

Collectively, January Magazine’s editors and contributors read thousands of books in 2007. We reported on quite a few of them. We review from almost all branches of the book industry and, as a result, our choices run the gamut.

The January Best of the Year list is not a popularity contest. Our choices reflect what our writers and editors liked best of the books they read and enjoyed throughout the year. They don’t need to qualify their choices. There is no board or panel. No quotas from certain publishers, no authors that had to be included. And though some of the books mentioned here were reviewed for January Magazine in 2007, that’s not part of the criterion. These are, quite simply, the books that our well read eyes and hearts liked best, listed in alphabetical order within the loose category in which they fall.

Because this year we had so much fun rolling out our Holiday Gift Guide over a number of days, we’re going to do the same with the Best of 2007. Starting here with the children’s books we liked best and working our way through the week through fiction, non-fiction, art & culture and crime fiction in two segments, A-I, by title, here and J-Z here.

We hope you enjoy our selections. Even more than that, we hope they inspire you to spend a little more time reading and enjoying books, this week and always.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Best Books of 2007: Crime Fiction, Part I

An Accidental American by Alex Carr (Random House Mortalis) 240 pages
This novel introduces Nicole Blake, an ex-con living a carefully compacted life in France. The daughter of an American grifter and a Lebanese mother, Nicole is a forger by trade, living in the shelter of the Pyrenees after a six-year stretch in a Marseilles prison. But when John Valsamis, a CIA officer, locates Nicole, the bottom drops out of her peaceful existence. He’s determined to take out Nicole’s former lover, terrorism suspect Rahim Ali, and then kill Nicole and enjoy his retirement from the Agency. She fouls his plan, however, by heading for Lisbon to find Rahim -- an act of betrayal and self-preservation that sets the tone for this novel’s bleak study of foreign policies’ unintended consequences. Nicole eludes Valsamis long enough for Carr’s yarn to emerge in full, and to return to its point of origin: Beirut, 1983 -- the year the U.S. Embassy there was attacked. An Accidental American is in part historical fiction, not by definition as much as inclination. 1983 is not that long ago, and the lingering effects of Lebanon’s civil war remain headline news. Alex Carr (a pseudonym of Jenny Siler) tells Nicole’s story in the first-person, rendering the woman’s mounting desperation by using flashbacks to her days with Rahim in Lisbon, to Beirut and Jounieh, the north coast Lebanese town in which her family sought safety as Beirut crumbled. Her life lacks the urgency of a present tense, despite the danger Valsamis presents. She is awakening while her nemesis sees the construct of his life unraveling, the two of them entwined in the machinations of Morrow, the CIA director who fears Nicole and controls Valsamis through shared treachery. Beirut, 1983, is the vector that draws all of them toward destruction, and by this novel’s end Nicole is left with the riddle of her childhood solved, a stateless and homeless refugee with a forged passport. An Accidental American demonstrates fiction’s power to follow a shard of glass from the great explosion, to examine its bloodstained edges and explore the passion, foolishness, tragedy and flawed humanity traced by its journey toward discovery. When examined through an artist’s eye, actions beyond understanding develop meaning, and in this novel, we learn how to decipher the language of war, its mismanaged intent and complex ramifications. The author reminds us that, like a child pulled from the debris of a collapsed building, the truth is a small thing in terrible jeopardy, praying to be found. -- David Thayer

The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan (Crippen & Landru) 360 pages
Canadian-American novelist Ross Macdonald had a penchant for keeping murder all in the family. He was obsessed with exploring the arcane bits and pieces of his characters’ familial histories and discovering how they continue to reverberate into, and have an impact on, the present. It’s only appropriate, then, that his prose should continue to have an impact, as well -- and it does, thanks most recently to The Archer Files, the compilation that detective and mystery fans (and anyone else who enjoys great writing, no matter the genre) have been waiting for so long to see. This attractive volume -- complete with a pulpy cover that deliberately recalls the original paperback jacket of an earlier Macdonald collection -- comprises not just all of the Lew Archer short stores from that previous collection, but it tosses in the handful of other stories that have appeared over the years, making this the first book to include all the stories featuring Macdonald’s world-weary private eye. Even better are the handful of unfinished but nonetheless tantalizing snippets that editor and Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan found while going through the late author’s files; bits and pieces of unfinished novels and short stories, brief character sketches and the like. (Would it surprise anyone to discover that perfectionist Macdonald’s rough cast-offs and discards still pack a powerful punch, or that they’re better than most writers’ polished, final drafts? Read “Heyday in the Blood,” one of those unfinished yarns -- featured in The Rap Sheet -- if you need proof.) But the real pièce de résistance is Nolan’s introductory biographical sketch of the fictional P.I., which he constructed from a careful, meticulous re-reading of every Archer novel, short story and snippet he could lay hands on. Illuminating and fascinating, it’s like finally getting the skinny on a guy you’ve known for years. And it makes this one book that any serious fan of the genre should love to explore. The modern era of private detective fiction started here. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child (Delacorte Press) 384 pages
One of Jack Reacher’s old army buddies, Calvin Franz, gets his legs broken and is flung out of a helicopter over a California desert, and left there for the vultures to pick over. This is a very bad move by the baddies, because the one guy you don’t want to mess with is a friend of Jack Reacher. In this latest Lee Child thriller, we have some more back story on Reacher as he reunites the surviving members of his old military police unit in order to hunt down Franz’s killers. Mix together the protagonist’s skill with mental arithmetic and his ability in the manufacturing of Molotov cocktails, and you have a classic adventure tale. Bad Luck and Trouble is far more violent then its predecessors, as Reacher is out for cold-blooded retribution. Traversing L.A. and Las Vegas, he and his old cohorts decide to take their revenge in the most violent way possible. Grab this book if you want bone-crunching action coupled with cerebral angst from the world’s biggest-selling living thriller writer. -- Ali Karim

Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover (William Morrow and Company) 304 pages
A cynical private eye with a reporter pal and an antagonistic ally on the force. The Chicago Outfit. A client who isn’t everything he appears to be. A love interest who can’t handle our hero’s violent way of life. Heard it all before, right? Well, so has Sean Chercover, but it didn’t stop him from putting all those ingredients into his debut novel, Big City, Bad Blood. Chercover, though, has taken the clichés, tossed them into a blender and hit frappé. The result is not a pastiche, parody or retread of the classic P.I., but a reinvention of it. Meet Ray Dudgeon, a man who really wanted to be Bob Woodward when he grew up. After he found himself punished for reporting an inconvenient truth, he left journalism and applied his skills as a private investigator in Chicago. We meet Dudgeon as he goes to work for a location scout, Bob Loniski. Loniski found himself conned by a two-bit thug named Frank DiMarco, a loser running a property scam that snared Loniski and a lot of studio money. DiMarco, according to Dudgeon’s mob contacts, is nobody, so Dudgeon teaches him a lesson. But unbeknownst to Dudgeon or his mob contact, DiMarco just crawled into bed with an ambitious capo looking to move up in the Outfit. It’s the details that make this novel. The Outfit in Chercover’s world, just as in the real world, is composed of both Gotti-like loudmouths and staid businessmen who just happen to operate outside the law. Dudgeon is cynical, not because some dame with legs up to here walks in the door once too often, but because his former profession has left a bad taste in his mouth. Particularly well-done is the Christmas Eve encounter Dudgeon has with a fading movie star (perhaps based on V.I. Warshawski’s Kathleen Turner?). And if that’s not enough, read the book for the real star of the show, that being the city of Chicago. -- Jim Winter

The Big O by Declan Burke (Hag’s Head) 288 pages
Irish wordsmith Burke took a huge gamble on his second crime novel (after Eight Ball Boogie, 2003), splitting the costs of publishing it with Dublin indie house Hag’s Head Press -- “a 50-50 costs and profits deal,” as the author describes the negotiation. Fortunately, that gamble appears to have paid off, with American house Harcourt agreeing to release Burke’s book in the States next fall and The Big O being shortlisted for one of the inaugural Spinetingler Awards. Although Burke has done a yeoman’s job of publicizing his work, it takes more than self-promotion to make a success -- and unquestionably, The Big O is a big ol’ success, a tale fueled by the mischievous spirits of Donald E. Westlake, Elmore Leonard and even Carl Hiaasen, but not slavishly imitating any of their works. The premise is simple: Frank is an incompetent plastic surgeon who wants to make a few extra bucks off his ex-wife, Madge, while she’s still covered by his insurance policy. The idea is to have her professionally kidnapped, then collect the insurance payoff and live a little happier ever after than he had expected to before, with a younger girlfriend. But as with most comic capers, when things go wrong, they go wrong in a fucked-up-royal way. Turns out that the guy tapped to snatch the aforementioned Madge is Ray Brogan, a painter who babysits people for kidnap gangs. Coincidentally, Ray has fallen recently for Karen, a motorcycle-riding bank robber in her spare time, who also happens -- get this -- to be the aforementioned Frank’s office assistant. Further contributing to the delightful confusion in The Big O is that the lovely Karen’s former partner, the style-challenged Rossi Francis Assisi Callaghan, has just been released from prison and is determined to get his money, gun and motorbike back from Karen. Naturally, every fool inhabiting these pages decides that he or she can get a larger piece of the action by scamming the scammers at their own game. So, do I have to point out the screeching, smoking wheels to make it clear that a train wreck is in the offing? Author Burke must keep a lot of balls in the air for this tale to work, but he makes it look easy, switching points of view frequently and maintaining a high level of tension that should have been harder to pull off than it seems. I’m not usually a fan of comic crime fiction, preferring the darker variety. But The Big O kept me reading at speed -- and laughing the whole damn time. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey (St. Martin’s) 320 pages
If you want to know what the once-and-future noir Webzine Plots With Guns is all about, check out Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself. Protag Danny Carter is as doomed as doomed can be, and only Sakey’s fellow author Jason Starr (The Follower) manages to light a bigger fire under his characters. Carter is a successful construction manager in Chicago. He has a violent past, but when a pawnshop robbery went wrong, sending his best friend, Evan McGann, to prison, Carter walked away from that life and made something more of himself. He’s gone from a liquor store-robbing thug to a man with a fiancée and a boss who considers him almost a son. Too bad Evan can’t see past the next score. Finally out of prison, he finds Danny, finds out about his boss and decides Carter owes him one last job. And if all goes wrong, Carter’s world is destroyed. While Sakey has spurred comparisons to Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane, I see more of the aforementioned Mr. Starr and “Tartan noir” master Allan Guthrie (Hard Man) in his story. Nobody’s as dark as Starr these days, but Sakey makes Danny Carter march through that same grimness. Sakey takes the premise of “There, but for the grace of God, go I” and beats it with a hammer. While Carter is a disturbingly familiar character -- if he doesn’t stare back at you in the mirror, he’s probably in line behind you at Starbucks -- it is Evan who drives this tale. Evan has spent seven years in prison building up nothing but hate for himself. His entire world has narrowed to only him, and everyone around him is merely disposable. It all ties back to that night in the pawnshop, when Evan drew a gun to demonstrate that he was in control, only to kill a man. Control is all Evan is about now, and his fate is rather fitting. Of all the “Killer Year” authors, Sakey is perhaps the darkest. -- Jim Winter

The Chopin Manuscript edited by Jim Fusilli; contributing authors Jeffery Deaver, Lisa Scottoline, Erica Spindler, Peter Spiegelman, Joseph Finder, James Grady, Ralph Pezzullo, John Ramsey Miller, Jim Fusilli, David Corbett, David Hewson, John Gilstrap, S.J. Rozan, P.J. Parrish and Lee Child (
The Chopin Manuscript audiobook is the collective effort of 15 authors working sequentially on furthering a plot line initiated by Jeffery Deaver. It is a remarkable achievement of collaboration in both scope and execution. Chopin runs to 17 chapters, with most averaging roughly 24 minutes long. Deaver sets the roiling pace with his opening chapter, and the succeeding authors produce layered segments of plot, setting, character and motivation. It is an extraordinary and entertaining achievement. This story’s plot revolves around main protagonist Harold Middleton, a 56-year-old former U.S. Army colonel and ex-member of a United Nations intelligence team that hunted war criminals in Yugoslavia. Middleton is also a recognized musicologist, currently on a trip to Poland. After Henrik Jedanok, a Polish piano tuner and music collector, gives Middleton a manuscript by 19th-century composer Frédéric Chopin for inspection -- a manuscript that Middleton is convinced must be a forgery -- several murders occur that seem related to that manuscript. Polish police investigator Josef Padlow believes Middleton might be in danger too, and the American races back to the States, fearing for the welfare of his married, pregnant daughter, Charlotte Middleton Perez. Much of the main action thereafter occurs in the United States, primarily in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. But significant developments also occur in Italy and Africa, giving a strong international flavor to this serial thriller. With a multitude of robust writing talents involved in this project, the characters pitted against Middleton are rendered in complex and diabolical fashion: Faust is the main antagonist, a man who aided Yugoslavian war criminal Rugova (his code name, Faust, was given him by Middleton’s intelligence team); Eleana Sobersky is Faust’s wily and very deadly cohort; and Rukavshin is a brutal murderer. Besides Charlotte and Harold Middleton being in danger, Felicia Kaminsky, the musician niece of Jedanok the piano tuner, and Charlotte’s husband, Jack Perez, also face harm at the hands of the vengeful Faust. Of course, there are plenty of law-enforcement types hovering around Middleton and this tale’s increasing number of bodies. M.T. Connelly is an FBI agent with good cop instincts; Emmitt Kallenbach at first appears to be nothing more than a paper-pushing administrative feebie, but under the pen of subsequent writers, he develops more muscle. At the heart of The Chopin Manuscript lie musical treasures that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and a heretofore unknown musical score that has significant modern-day implications. For a work of such diverse contributions, the whole of Chopin is virtually seamless. A bravura performance. -- Anthony Rainone

The Color of Blood by Declan Hughes (William Morrow and Company) 352 pages
Last year, I tagged Irish playwright Declan Hughes debut novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, as one of my favorite books of 2006. His latest, The Color of Blood, is even better. It brings back Ed Loy who, having returned to his native Dublin, Ireland, after 25 years in Los Angeles, where he worked as a private investigator, has decided to stay. But if there’s a truism in Hughes’ books, it’s that you can’t go home again. Or at least not easily. And blood always tells. The Color of Blood is, to put it bluntly, an audacious, full-blooded scream in the night, a bruising, ferocious assault on the evil that families do, a Ross Macdonald novel turned up to 11. A well-known and respected dentist, himself the son of an even more well-known and respected doctor, hires Loy to track down his 19-year-old daughter, whose appearance in a series of pornographic films is being used as a blackmail threat against the wealthy and image-conscious dentist. The girl is found easily enough, but her return to the bosom of her family seems to set off a chain of events that will soon tear that family’s comfortable, privileged lifestyle apart. Before he’s done, Hughes will wind into his yarn Ed’s ill-advised but torrid affair with his client’s sister, a string of murders stretching back 20 years, abandoned children, murders, drownings, organized crime, real-estate scams, incest, child abuse and plenty of alcohol; an unflinching critique of the Americanization of Ireland and the secrecy of the Catholic Church; and all the dirty perverted family secrets, past and present, that anyone could ever want. But it’s the breathtaking conclusion of The Color of Blood that brings it all home. There’s no surrender and no quarter given; it’s a prolonged pummeling as each piece of the Byzantine plot snaps firmly and finally into place, every new revelation another blow to the reader. This story, though, is no mere wallow in the trough -- Declan Hughes has set his sights high, aiming for the lofty literary heights of a Macdonald. And damn, if he doesn’t succeed. In spades. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Crime Writer by Gregg Hurwitz (Viking) 320 pages
Drew Danner is a Los Angeles-based crime-fiction writer, who is charged with the murder of his ex-fiancée, Genevieve Bertrand, after he’s found by the police lying over the young woman’s body, holding the murder weapon in his hands. The only problem is, Danner can’t remember committing the murder, because he suffered a brain seizure at the crime scene, and his recollection of the event has been lost. Danner is subsequently operated on and survives, but then he has to face trial for murdering his French lover, with both the prosecutors and police convinced that Danner is using his illness as an excuse to get away with homicide. He is eventually found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, but that doesn’t satisfy the distraught and confused mystery novelist. He has to know if he really did kill Genevieve, or if circumstances are as his gut instinct is telling him -- that someone else did it. Gregg Hurwitz has written seven previous novels and has consistently produced work of exceptional quality, The Crime Writer perhaps being the pinnacle of that output thus far. The author paints an L.A. setting of wealth and flash, from the multimillion-dollar homes on Mulholland Drive, to the trendy clubs in Santa Monica that serve more than 100 different types of vodka. But scratch the sun-drenched surface and you’ll find disillusionment and pathos beneath. With virtually no one believing in his innocence, Danner embarks on a painful journey along the razor-edge line between truth and justice. He has a conscience, even though he’s a pulp writer with Hollywood aspirations. Bad dreams and memory flashbacks plague him, and strange things are happening to him -- he wakes up and finds his foot is mysteriously cut, and the surgically removed brain tumor he took home as a keepsake suddenly disappears. Danner wonders if he is losing his mind, and he trains the lens of a video camera on himself at bedtime, in an effort to capture his nocturnal actions. After another young woman dies in circumstances similar to those that took Genevieve, and the recovered evidence seemingly points to Danner again, things take an urgent, darker tone. With ex-baseball player and good friend Chic Bales helping him, Danner sifts through the evidence -- most importantly, anesthetics administered to the most recently murdered woman -- and uncovers a diabolical motivation behind these killings. Is it clear yet why The Crime Writer is one of my favorite reads of the year? -- Anthony Rainone

Croaked! by Dick Lochte (Five Star) 385 pages
Set in Southern California in the 1960s, the fast-moving Croaked! almost qualifies as a historical mystery -- a semi-historical, maybe, that’s completely convincing and totally amusing. Harry Trauble, an Arkansas transplant, is a new hire in the promotions department at Ogle, a Playboy-style magazine devoted to “the masculine pleasure principle” (not to be confused, of course, with Playboy, where Edgar nominee and Nero Wolfe Award winner Lochte once worked). Ogle’s publisher is one Trower J. Buckley, whose egocentric and hedonistic “philosophy” is starting to alarm some of his more level-headed employees -- as when Buckley insists on going ahead with a company soirée after the suspicious deaths of several Ogle underlings. “The party suggests we’re beyond such mundane matters as sorrow or worry or fear,” the boss argues. “We’re on this planet to enjoy ourselves. How did Christ put it, Al?”
“I’m not sure which quote you’re thinking of, Buck.”

“The one about pleasure being the be-all and the end-all.”

“That doesn’t sound much like Jesus ... Possibly Epicurus. Or Ba’al.”

“No matter ... It’s the thought that counts.”
With Ogle’s founder-guru ensconced in Cloud Cuckoo-Land, it’s up to Trauble and a few other, saner pleasure-seekers to suss out who’s decimating Ogle’s ranks and why. Croaked! blends suspense with humor in a mix that’s pure Lochte -- with enough ring-a-ding-ding ’60s shenanigans to make you wish you were there, or glad that you were. -- Tom Nolan

The Dark Streets by John Shannon (Pegasus Books) 287 pages
What does John Shannon have to do to get some love from book buyers? Clearly, being responsible for one of the finest series of detective novels ever set in Los Angeles isn’t enough. No, Shannon’s hard, lean prose can’t compare with the soaring poetry and bruised romanticism of Raymond Chandler, or the psychological hand-wringing of Ross Macdonald. Or the contemporary noir-black outsider rage of Walter Mosley, or the heart-on-his-sleeve cinematic
testosterone of Robert Crais, for that matter. But what Shannon does better than anyone is “get” Los Angeles -- all of Los Angeles -- right. The Dark Streets -- it’s weakest aspect may be its rather generic title -- finds Jack Liffey, the dogged and dog-eared finder of lost children, on yet another wandering-daughter job, tracking down yet another troubled teenager and exploring yet one more segment of the melting pot that refuses to melt. Soon-Lin Kim, a young film student and activist, the “good daughter” of an ambitious and successful Korean-American businessman, has vanished. She had been working on a documentary film about several elderly local women, all Korean immigrants, all facing eviction, many of them having once been forced to serve as “comfort women” by Japanese invaders during the Second World War. In an ironic twist, the hotel-turned-boardinghouse that the women live in has been purchased and slated for demolition by Daeshin, the very same Korean global conglomerate whose corporate beginnings date back to the war and a possible clandestine collaboration with the Japanese occupying forces. But this isn’t the only ironic twist in The Dark Streets. Or the only troubled teenager. Liffey’s always-impulsive daughter, 17-year-old Maeve, has reached puberty -- with a vengeance -- and becomes obsessed with East L.A. gang culture, and in particular, the handsome cholo who lives next door. The ultimate twist here, however, comes when Jack himself goes missing. As always, Shannon cuts deep and fearlessly into the soft white underbelly of Los Angeles, exposing the dirty little secrets and day-to-day lives of its citizens. Given its overlapping plot lines and sprawling narrative, The Dark Streets should be a big, bleak mess of a book, all heartbreak and shallow cynicism and chaotic loose ends and a checklist of hollow talking points; but Shannon instead pulls it off with his usual wit, compassion and economy, never short-changing the humanity of his characters -- or his readers. Ambitious, intelligent, provocative and ballsy as all get out, Shannon -- possibly the best-kept secret in crime fiction -- deserves more readers. Give him some love. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Dead Connection by Alafair Burke (Henry Holt) 336 pages
I liked Alafair Burke’s first three novels -- Judgment Calls (2004), Missing Justice (2004) and Close Case (2005) -- just fine. All three featured an engaging Oregon-based assistant district attorney protagonist who got herself into tight situations that were well-written enough that when I heard Burke’s fourth book, Dead Connection, featured a whole new set of characters, I was oddly disappointed. However, that disappointment didn’t last even through the first chapter, because where all of Burke’s Samantha Kincaid novels were very, very good, her new book featuring a New York City cop named Ellie Hatcher is even better. Dead Connection is a little darker than Burke’s earlier works, a little sharper and as intricate and tightly wound as anything you’re likely to see. What I liked best was watching Burke trot out some of the things that have gotten to be standard fodder in female-protagonist crime fiction and twist and alter the beast until what she ended up with was very fresh and very different. As Dead Connection opens, Ellie has been a detective for a little more than a year. She’s quite happily working scams and robberies, when she’s surprised by a special temporary assignment to homicide. Flann McIllroy is the well-known homicide detective who has requested her as his partner on a single case. Once partnered with McIllroy she is introduced to the case he’s working on, connecting the violent deaths of two attractive young women to an Internet introduction service. As much as I enjoyed Burke’s previous work -- and I really, really did -- Dead Connection leaves it all in the dust. Smart, sophisticated and with a plot so twisty, no one will beat the protagonist to the conclusion, Burke has delivered her best book thus far. -- Linda L. Richards

Dead Madonna by Victoria Houston (Bleak House Books) 300 pages
Dead Madonna is the eighth entry in Victoria Houston’s “Loon Lake Mystery” series, named for the village in rural Wisconsin where the stories take place. Loon Lake is a weekend retreat for the wealthy folk who come over from Chicago and a year-round home for the rest, who cater to the tourist trade. And like most small towns full of weekend and “summer people,” Loon Lake is a village long on demands and short on resources. So, when Loon Lake is suddenly faced with two homicides discovered on the same day, it’s crisis time. Nora Loomis, a local senior citizen, is found dead in her cottage sunroom, her head caved in by a sharp blow from an antique porcelain lamp. On the other side of the village, the body of DeeDee Kurlander, Loon Lake’s answer to Paris Hilton, is found submerged under the pontoon boat of Bert Moriarty, a Chicagoan with more money than tact. The notion that these are two random victims, with nothing in common and with no apparent connections, is shattered when Chief of Police Lew Ferris is told by a pair of local bank presidents that they’ve noticed a disturbing series of transactions at their institutions involving phony deposits and mysterious but all too real withdrawals of large sums of money -- transactions that appear to be part of a money-laundering scheme. And the two dead women? They were holders of accounts that had seen these transactions processed. Author Houston populates her tale with all the anchors of the traditional whodunit. In fact, if Agatha Christie were alive in the modern-day Midwest, she might well have concocted a detective like Ferris. Dead Madonna progresses at a leisurely pace, yet the writing is interesting and keeps the narrative moving nicely. Like Loon Lake, the stillness might strike some as a hint of a shallow yarn. I can assure you, though, that this is not a lazy entertainment. -- Stephen Miller

Death Comes for the Fat Man by Reginald Hill (HarperCollins) 416 pages
Death Comes for the Fat Man marks a dramatic turning point in Reginald Hill’s renowned series about British police detectives Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. It’s not giving anything away to say that the “fat man” of the title is Dalziel. Once again, the crude, flamboyant, larger-than-life Detective Superintendent dominates the story. But this time, it’s in absentia. This book opens with a dimwitted constable calling in a possible firearms violation at a shabby video store. Because the store is owned by a Muslim, the situation has to be dealt with as a potential terrorist threat. The Yorkshire police department’s SWAT-style response seems ludicrously overblown to Pascoe and Dalziel -- until the street they’re staking out explodes, leaving Dalziel critically injured and expected to die. Pascoe throws himself into the ensuing investigation, unearthing a homegrown counter-terrorist group and finding himself thwarted at every turn by shadowy officials from the national security agency. Meanwhile, Death is having nearly as difficult a time tightening his grip on Dalziel. Hill is the grandmaster of a peculiarly British mystery subgenre -- books that are too realistic and brutal to be cozies, but at the same time too ironic and playful to be hard-boiled. (There’s some resemblance to Colin Watson’s Flaxborough chronicles and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, but Hill writes on a far grander and more complex scale.) Some of the most recent books in the Dalziel-Pascoe series have verged on the esoteric, but that’s sure not the case here: Hill’s given Death Comes for the Fat Man a riveting plot and he keeps the political theme (the conflict between investigating a terrorist crime and respecting the rights of individuals) firmly in check. The sinewy Death Comes for the Fat Man will bring a chill to any reader, and it has particular poignancy for those of us forced to realize, along with Pascoe, how very much we’ve cared about Andy Dalziel. -- Karen G. Anderson

The Death List by Paul Johnston (MIRA Books) 432 pages
I hadn’t read anything from Paul Johnston for a while, but then from out of nowhere and bursting out with an angry and dynamic energy came this opus set in modern-day London. The plot builds around Matt Wells, a struggling crime writer, struggling father and generally struggling man in a world that seems to have conspired against him. Add to that base an obsessive and deranged fan who’s stalking Wells, and you have all of the ingredients for a tense thriller. Evidently, this unhinged fan is a budding serial murderer who calls himself the White Devil, and who ensnares the hapless Wells in a deadly cat-and-mouse game that leaves a trail of torture and murder all over the historic British capital -- many of the crimes based on scenes in Wells’ fiction. At first, the White Devil punishes people who did him harm during his traumatic childhood: his priest, a teacher and a school bully. But when the killer begins targeting people from Wells’ world, the police begin to take greater notice. It’s clear that Wells is being set up, given the appearance of being a murderer himself. Also apparent is that the White Devil knows in advance every move Wells makes, adding to the latter’s frustration. Johnston’s protagonist sends many of his loved ones -- his daughter, his ex-wife, his mother and his lover -- into hiding, and simultaneously calls forth some of his old rugby friends to help him fight back against the White Devil. Using high-tech methods as well as brute force, Wells & Company go hunting for the hunter. Meanwhile, in the background, a contingent of Special Air Service (SAS) troopers roam London’s back alleys, searching for answers from people familiar with the White Devil. And as both the good guys and the baddies are dispatched with a dash of the Grand Guignol, the stakes in this chase are dramatically heightened. The Death List is a very fast read, sure to spark a series, as Wells is an interesting character who remains angry even at the end, as there is one very disturbing plot strand left unresolved. -- Ali Karim

Donkey Punch by Ray Banks (Polygon UK) 224 pages
Ray Banks’ previous Cal Innes novel, Saturday’s Child (2006), started with an assault by toilet and just got better. But nothing prepared me for Donkey Punch, as hard and fine a crime novel as I’ve read in a long, long time. With prison and parole behind him, former private eye Innes is back on the harsh, unrelenting streets of Manchester, England, trying to carve out some sort of halfway decent life for himself, while remaining clean and sober (codeine doesn’t really count, does it?). He’s managed to find work as a sort of combination caretaker and minder for his old pal, big soft-hearted Paulo, a retired fighter who runs the Lads’ Club, a boxing club for young offenders. Now all Cal really wants to do is keep out of trouble. But of course, trouble promptly rears its ugly head. What separates Banks’ writing from that of so many other “new wave of noir” writers is that he actually seems to understand noir and what lies right at its deep, dark heart. He doesn’t have to rely on juvenile, self-conscious shock tactics (crucifixion was very popular this year) to tell his story. Instead, he does it the old-fashioned way -- by creating credible, memorable characters and telling an actual story. Don’t get me wrong: nasty things do happen in this book, but it’s the characters that really matter. And what characters they are. Paulo’s latest prodigy is Liam, a big lout with a killer punch and more issues than a magazine stand. But Paulo thinks Liam has potential and lands him a spot on the card at a major tournament in Los Angeles. Paulo then dispatches a reluctant Cal to babysit the young fighter, and that’s when the trouble starts. The two don’t hit it off (to put it mildly), the tournament might be fixed, and Cal’s chronic back pain and his codeine habit are getting worse, along with Liam’s temper. And the two men are far, far from home. Toss in a possible nut-job with a thing for fighters, the disappearance of Liam right before the big match, and a running commentary on the state of the U.S. of A. from a frustrated and increasingly bewildered Cal who just wants to find a place where he can have a smoke, and you’ve got one of the best fish-out-of-water travelogues I’ve read in a while. The action is fierce, the worldview is bleak, the barbs are pointed, the points are sharp and Banks uses them with dexterity and skill. And the scenes between the increasingly frantic Cal and Paulo, mostly by long distance, are -- so help me-- touching. Their fumbling friendship and awkward but genuine concern for each other ring true in a way rarely seen in crime fiction. Which, ultimately, is what raises this book so high above much of what passes for noir these days. Lots of neo-noir’s young tyros can punch -- and Banks can punch as hard as the best of them -- but he also has the heart and soul to back it up. I tell ya, he could be a contender. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Down River by John Hart (St. Martin’s Minotaur) 336 pages
I missed John Hart’s first novel for St. Martin’s, The King of Lies (2006), and felt sorry to have done so. I was lucky to catch up with him for Down River, an ambitious crime novel that sets its sights on the weight of family obligations, small-town memories, violence and love. This is a novel of the American South, for the action takes place in North Carolina and the main character, Adam Chase, is a Southern man. We all know the old Thomas Wolfe warning about how you can’t home again, but novelists keep trying, and Hart succeeds here in surpassing the strictures of crime drama, evoking the theme of a fallen hero exiled from home without breaking stride. In these pages, Chase returns to Salisbury, North Carolina, after five years in New York. He’d previously beaten a murder charge and taken off for the cold city, leaving behind his father, his girl and everyone else he loved. The local sheriff does not appreciate his return, nor does the childhood friend who seems entangled in the drug trade. Although the elements of this story may sound over-the-top, Down River is more than salvaged by the author’s skillful prose and compelling story line. Hart keeps his plot moving by digging deep into the local brambles of money, tradition and well-kept secrets. In lesser hands this material might have degenerated into a vapid potboiler, but the opposite happens here; Hart sustains an aura of plausibility while creating a portrait of a town on the cusp of significant change, a place soon to be unrecognizable. Adam Chase goes home again, but John Hart avoids cheap theatrics and makes Adam’s journey well worth taking. -- David Thayer

Duck Duck Wally by Gabe Rotter (Simon & Schuster) 320 pages
This debut novel starts off slow and sort of L.A. hipster-ish, so I was prepared to hate it, to put it back on my shelf and forget it was there; but instinct forced me onward, convincing me that something was worthwhile about Duck Duck Wally. And I’m glad I persisted, because soon enough I was laughing hard and on a regular basis, starting when our protagonist, the chubby and schlubbish Wally Moscowitz, is in a bathroom and bumps into a rapper who works at the same music company he does ... and then accidentally urinates on the man. Normally, toilet humor doesn’t connect with me, but by the time we reach this scene, author Rotter has established complete control over the book, his world and his characters. Chief among those players is the aforementioned Wally, who lives in a shabby apartment, has a girlfriend who hates him, the worst agent in L.A. and a really big secret. It seems he’s the real writer of the lyrics for the biggest-name rapper in the world. And somebody knows it. He discovers this when he gets home one night and his dog, his only friend in the world, is missing. It’s not long before he receives a ransom note demanding money, or he’ll never see his dog again -- and the kidnapper will tell the world about Wally’s job with the music industry. Duck Duck Wally is one of those novels in which, if something bad can happen, it will. And Rotter rarely gives his man a break. Amid the chaos, though, this book offers some humanity. We can all relate to having a close connection to a pet, or being trapped in a relationship that just doesn’t work. Duck Duck Wally is a novel that will keep you laughing, but will also leave you liking the hapless Wally Moscowitz and wanting him to succeed. No matter how skeptical you were going into this story. -- Cameron Hughes

End Games by Michael Dibdin (Pantheon) 335 pages
End Games is the 11th and, by default, the final novel involving Italian police-detective Aurelio Zen; his creator, English-born Michael Dibdin, died in 2007. The book is “typical” Dibdin: unique, imaginative, intricate, amusing, shocking and written in a brilliant and detailed prose almost hallucinatory in its effect. This ultimate book finds Zen posted to Calabria, a remote and ambiguous part of Italy where, as one resident explains, “life itself is subjunctive. Reality here has always been so harsh that we have by necessity learnt to content ourselves with the possible, the desirable and the purely imaginary.” In this speculative region, Zen investigates the death of an American (or was he Calabrian?) apparently acting as advance-man for a supposed film company allegedly making a movie based on the revelations of St. John the Divine. Financing comes from a Northern California dot-com entrepreneur, served by a Vietnamese lieutenant, who gives orders to a headstrong Italian director. Such an international cast allows for all sorts of amusing linguistic display, in a novel whose author often seems intoxicated with words. Author Michael Dibdin was as dazzling a stylist as mystery fiction has had in decades. In the words of an American rhythm-and-blues folk-song (or was it a Calabrian proverb?): “You don’t miss your water ’till the well runs dry.” -- Tom Nolan

The Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris (Penguin Press) 305 pages
It’s no secret that Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate created by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, served as a model to Richard Levinson and William Link for the making of their 1970s TV-detective Lieutenant Columbo (“Oh -- just one more question ...”). Now the investigator has been revived in his own right by English author R.N. “Roger” Morris in this superior historical mystery novel which takes place a year and a half after the events of Dostoevsky’s classic work. In Morris’ hands, the inspector is an intriguing figure: perceptive, devoted and as kind as his occupation allows. And his St. Petersburg is as complex as Dostoevsky’s: full of moral, political and physical danger. The Gentle Axe begins with the discovery of a pair of corpses in a park: a dwarf crammed into a suitcase, and a husky man dangling from a tree limb. During his investigation, the inspector encounters citizens of all strata -- from aristocrats to prostitutes, from aesthetes and intellectuals to gamblers and knaves. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is Porfiry Petrovich himself, whose boss tells him: “All [your rival colleague] has is his ambition, and his power. You have more. You have cleverness and compassion.” -- Tom Nolan

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Rebecca Copeland (Alfred A. Knopf) 480 pages
Physiognomy is an obsession in Natsuo Kirino’s second novel (after 2003’s Out) to be translated into English. The planes and shadows of the human face become maps of a future foretold. Add a strong dose of fatalism to the mix, and theis story of how two young women from a prestigious school become victims of murder takes the reader through the history of a family doomed by a toxic mix of beauty and resentment. The unnamed heroine of Grotesque is the elder of two children born to a Swiss father and a Japanese mother. Burdened by the beauty of her sister, Yuriko Hirata, and her utter disgust for her parents, she is convinced that beauty is a monster devouring the lives of everyone around her. One Christmas holiday at a Japanese mountain cabin provides the spark for the dramatic break between the narrator and Yuriko; a dirty trick played on the younger girl results in Yuriko being sent off to live with another family, the Johnsons -- a family demonstrably more glamorous than her own. The murder of two Tokyo prostitutes occurs in the narrator’s adult perspective, bringing the story briefly into a present as precarious as the journal-style flashbacks that dominate Grotesque’s opening chapters. As it turns out, one of the dead women is Yuriko, the sister lost so many years earlier, doomed by her flawless skin, radiant hair and perfect form. Yuriko’s death triggers remembrance, not grief, and the novel shifts back to the sisters’ school years, during which their lives overlap again. Yuriko returns to Japan after her mother’s suicide in Switzerland. She is accepted into the Q system, a school for elite students. Her only qualification is her looks, which is fine with Yuriko. She’s had an affair with her Swiss uncle and begins sleeping with her benefactor in exile, Johnson. Yuriko is recruited for the Cheerleaders Club, the Q system’s highest honor. Her biology professor is compromised by his role in admitting Yuriko, while his son takes on the job of acting as her pimp. These outrages are duly noted as evidence of the corruption Yuriko’s beauty spawns. Other students are drawn into the web, one of them being a girl named Kazue Sato, a weak-willed fellow traveler destined to be at the center of the Office Lady Murder -- like Yuriko, a prostitute killed in close proximity to her idol. In the present, a Chinese immigrant and lost soul, Zhang Zhe-zhong, is arrested for the crimes, but he admits only to having done in Yuriko, not Kazue 10 months later. Ultimately every character in this novel confesses his or her crimes to the narrator, described derisively as Yuriko’s older sister, unworthy of her own name. Grotesque is a layered exploration of the human psyche, of the conflict inherent in need and desire, shame and humiliation. Character after character dissolves under the author’s scrutiny, until finally the haughty narrator becomes the very thing she hates, a desperate woman seeking love. Grostesque is a powerful study of people humbled at the altar of superficial values. -- David Thayer

Hammett’s Moral Vision by George J. “Rhino” Thompson (Vince Emery Productions) 246 pages
Reading Dashiell Hammett can change your life. It certainly changed George Thompson’s. He went from being a bright young academic to a man with an interesting career in law enforcement. In the meantime, he wrote a doctoral dissertation which became (in this expanded, updated form) Hammett’s Moral Vision -- a work which itself helped shape the intellectual lives of those who read it in serialized form in The Armchair Detective magazine in the early 1970s. Thompson’s work was the first serious, comprehensive critical examination of Hammett’s five novels, and it remains perhaps the best -- still stimulating and insightful after all these years. The author sees Hammett’s body of work as displaying a darkening social and moral vision, which ends in the chilly alienation of his final book. “To see the novels as I have argued,” he writes, “points, I think, to at least one reason Hammett never again wrote a major novel after The Thin Man; he had no more to say. He had worked out as far as he could the possibilities of the questions he had raised concerning individual man and society.” -- Tom Nolan

The Intruders by Michael Marshall (HarperCollins UK) 416 pages
From the creator of the Straw Men trilogy comes this remarkable thriller that mixes crime fiction with a dose of horror and conspiracy theories, all resulting in a sense of dread that reaches a crescendo with a very perplexing and terrifying climax. What I love about Marshall’s work is his “off-kilter” view of life and death, which in The Intruders is at its most menacing. This novel starts out with the apparently motiveless murder of a mother and her teenage son, the killer being a man who shows no emotion or humanity. This man, we learn, is called Shepard and he seems controlled by others -- not unlike the killers who populated The Straw Men, but with some major differences, which are only revealed at the stunning climax. Enter Jack Whalen, an ex-LAPD cop turned writer who escaped the madness of Los Angeles for a small town called Birch Crossing on the northern Pacific Rim. His life with wife Amy, a high-flying corporate executive, could not be better, until one day when an old high-school friend, Gary Fisher, calls him up and wants to share a secret. Then things start to get really surreal. Amy goes missing in Seattle, leaving Whalen to suspect she’s having an affair; but when she returns, things have changed and so has Amy. Whalen’s world starts to crumble. Add to the tale’s complications a missing child called Madison (who exhibits psychopathic tendencies and is drawn to the murderous Shepard), more deaths and a sinister legal firm that serves multi-million-dollar corporate clients out of -- get this -- a rotting tenement building in the slum district of Seattle, and you have a tale from which dread just seeps off the page and onto your fingers as you flip through the book. Whalen turns to Fisher to help unravel himself from the nightmare coalescing around him. At its dark heart, The Intruders is a horrific conspiracy thriller. It blends Michael Marshall’s parallax-ed view of life with a sense of menace that reaches out and grabs you, filling your mind with sheer dread. I really cannot say any more, lest I spoil the big surprise that sits like a well-armed demon at the end of this novel. -- Ali Karim

(Part II can be found here.)

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