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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