Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Crime Fiction, Part I

Editor’s note: This is the third segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2010 feature. The first was Books for Children and Young Adults, and the second was Cookbooks, which ran earlier today. Still to come: Part II of crime fiction, non-fiction, art & culture and fiction, which will be rolling out over the next week. -- LLR

The Anniversary Man by R.J. Ellory (Overlook) 400 pages
I generally dislike serial-killer novels, finding them repetitious and something of a plague on crime-fiction racks over recent years. Yet I like The Anniversary Man, which is basically a serial-killer novel. How to square these two? Part of the difference between this and other entries in the subgenre has to do with author Roger “R.J.” Ellory’s quality of composition; his prose is tightly and impressively woven, and edges more toward the lyrical than not. However, there’s also the matter of Ellory’s focus here. While typical serial-killer novels exploit the madness of their murderers, at the expense of any dimension in the majority of their other players, The Anniversary Man choreographs a complicated dance between a couple of fully realized characters, neither of them obviously the killer, but both of whom are amalgams of hope, secrecy, fear and, in their respective manners, courage. Ellory’s basic plot is fairly simple: New York City is undergoing the predations of a slayer who stages his atrocities in imitation of the work of infamous sequential murderers from the past, including Chicago’s John Wayne Gacy and San Francisco’s Zodiac. Assigned to track and apprehend this copycat is NYPD Detective Ray Irving, a man of many habits and ethics, who has been left alone by the death of his younger lover, a divorcée and possible ex-hooker. Under pressure from his more politically savvy superiors, and with a newspaper reporter, Karen Langley, threatening to release information about this string of homicides that could cause New Yorkers (yes, even hardened Manhattanites) to panic, Irving turns for help to Langley’s “authority” on serial killers, John Costello, who was himself the survivor of such an attack in the mid-1980s. Costello is nothing if not quirky, with a band of colleagues who also weathered murderous assaults in their younger days. He’s extremely knowledgeable, but also secretive beyond explanation -- which is what finally make Irving suspect Costello of having more than an intellectual interest in the recent slayings. Could the cop in fact have welcomed the killer himself into his confidence? Ellory is a patient storyteller, willing to stretch beyond the necessities of his plot and illuminate people who occupy the peripheries of his captivating tale. He also doesn’t stint in fleshing out his central players, even if in doing so he swings far from the demands of a police procedural. While I pretty much expected the ending that comes in this story, I never for a moment lost my hunger to reach that conclusion. Ellory is better known in Great Britain than the States, but nobody who writes as well as he does can remain a secret for long on either side of the Atlantic. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Bolt Action by Charles Charters (Hodder and Stoughton UK)
400 pages

As is true of the best thrillers, the plot of Bolt Action hinges on a simple premise, one that (to use a film cliché) is very “high concept.” Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the cockpit doors on commercial airliners have been locked to prevent attacks by rogue passengers. But in Bolt Action, an Al-Qaeda-linked steward cons his way into the cockpit of a Boeing jet bound for the U.S. mainland, and dispenses poisoned drinks to members of the flight crew, all of whom die. The steward then bolts the cockpit door shut and resets the combination, so nobody else can follow him in. Meanwhile, back on the ground, the CIA and MI5, together with politicians and the press, contemplate the unthinkable: scrambling a military response to the incoming airliner. Charters’ narrative swings between the high dramas in the air and on the ground. He introduces into this mix a maverick band of British ex-soldiers, including eye-catching Captain Tristie Merritt and her subordinate, Whiffler, both of whom steal a lot of this book’s spotlight. With a deep understanding of military politics, Charters here offers up a rectum-clenching tale enriched by tradecraft and research that propel his narrative at speeds not unlike those of the jet at Bolt Action’s center. This is among of the most assured first novels I have read in some time. One need not be psychic to predict that a film version will soon be prepared, and that Bolt Action will appear among nominations for the best thriller debut of 2010. -- Ali Karim

A Brewski for the Old Man by Phyllis Smallman (McArthur & Company) 320 pages
Introducing one of the most refreshing characters in years, Phyllis Smallman has struck exactly the right note with her Florida-based series featuring blue-collar bartender and amateur sleuth Sherri Travis, a sassy, take-no-prisoners woman who combines vulnerability with a penchant for stirring up trouble. Not, as they say, a good mix; but it makes for captivating reading. In her first outing, chronicled in the award-winning Margarita Nights (2009), the Florida femme found herself the lead suspect in the death of her no-good husband, not least because of the suspicions of her bitchy mother-in-law. Before she managed to extricate herself from those charges, Sherri almost wound up as the barbecue entry-of-choice in a trailer fire. Margarita Nights was followed by the teasingly titled Sex in a Sidecar (2010), in which the redoubtable Sherri, trapped with a deranged woman and a murderer during a hurricane, had to rely on her own resources to deal with both. But it is in her third novel, A Brewski for the Old Man, that Smallman really hits her stride. Returning to the hurricane-devastated resort town she calls home, Sherri buys what remains of the Sunset Bar and Grill and sets about rebuilding her life. Things are going, if not swimmingly, at least passably, when an old nemesis reappears: Ray John Leanders had tried to rape Sherri when she was all of 12 years old. He was never punished for that crime, and now he’s back, dating a woman who runs a beachwear boutique housed below the bar and grill. Even more ominously, he’s abusing both the woman and her 16-year-old daughter. Sherri must figure out how to deal with this piece of trash, and for good measure, also joins her father in thwarting a gang of alligator poachers in a nearby swamp. Who says life is dull? Suffusing her suspense tales with a light, humorous touch, Smallman skillfully brings together an engaging protagonist, a colorful setting, finely tuned plots, and a fresh, irreverent writing style to give readers a treat they won’t find elsewhere. In A Brewski for the Old Man she adds a new element to this already formidable mix: a social theme that she explores sensitively and in some depth. An entertaining read, and one of my favorites for the year. -- Jim Napier

Cape Greed by Sam Cole (Minotaur) 304 pages
Sam Cole’s gripping Cape Greed, the first book in a proposed South Africa-set series, is a noirish sliver shoved under the fingernails of western readers’ expectations -- a novel that strips away any smug, laissez-faire cultural insularity and slaps us across the face with the ground-zero reality of post-apartheid Cape Town. This is not your grandfather’s Africa. There are no lions, elephants or studly white explorers in pith helmets trotted out here; nor does Cape Greed offer the current sound-bite Africa of dictators, child soldiers and heartbreaking video featuring famine and AIDS epidemics. Instead we’re caught up in the no-exit growing pains of a nation in flux. Disillusioned and demoralized, cops Vincent Saldona and Jeffrey “Mullet” Mendes figure it’s time to get out and go private, now that even the “scum” have human rights and the streets are getting more dangerous than ever. The plan is to make some dough while avoiding “the gun stuff.” But recent widower Vince is a barely functioning alcoholic, and beach bum Mullet’s been forced to supplement his income by dealing a little pot, so they’re not exactly picky about their clients. Then two cases -- a wandering hubby job and a security gig for a local abalone farm -- appear out of nowhere, and even more unexpectedly overlap. These two gumshoes, unaware they’re being played, are soon immersed in a morass of big-time abalone poaching, triad treachery, a string of dead street kids dumped on the beach and two loose-cannon killers who take a perverse pride in their work. Cole, the joint pseudonym of South African writers Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens, serve up plenty of clipped, taut prose, shifting viewpoints and unexpected violence, yet weave in a few surprising dabs of compassion and true grit that run like slim threads of hope in this most bleak, dark novel. Released near the very end of 2009, Cape Greed was overlooked in the haste of reviewers recapping that year’s best reads. It’s a potent and nasty brew, with remarkable heart, that deserves a closer look. -- Kevin Burton Smith

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (Minotaur) 352 pages
Kelli Stanley’s latest historical thriller is set against the backdrop of San Francisco in 1940. As Europe boils with war, Northern California’s largest city is enjoying its third world’s fair, a two-summer-long celebration called the Golden Gate International Exposition. But Stanley’s alter-ego, private eye Miranda Corbie, is paying more attention to the recent violent death of a Japanese teenager, Eddie Takahashi. It’s an investigation that will send the sexy, cynical and surprisingly resilient, 33-year-old Corbie trawling through the tensions of a segregated city, navigating the undercurrents of the Chinese and Japanese communities in order to discover why Takahashi’s life ended so soon. No one else seems to care about what happened to him, least of all the local cops, who are content to sweep the whole affair under the nearest Oriental rug. Corbie does, though. A former Spanish Civil War nurse and erstwhile female escort, the chain-smoking, tough-talking and romantic-despite-herself shamus does much to make City of Dragons a standout among this year’s crime novels. Her back-story is both exciting and eclectic, and rolls out in satisfying dribs as she combs her city’s venues high and low, straightening out the kinks that she uncovers as she unearths the sad truth and puts herself in danger. Stanley’s first P.I. escapade follows the conventions of the genre, especially as established by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Yet it’s much more than pastiche, with a rich political commentary, characters that come alive and descriptions of San Francisco between the two world wars that make it clear Stanley not only knows, but loves her town. City of Dragons is a choice treat in a crowded genre. There’s every reason to look forward to its planned sequel. -- Ali Karim

City of Lost Girls by Declan Hughes (Morrow) 304 pages
This fifth offering in Declan HughesEd Loy series isn’t just his most accomplished love letter to the private-eye genre, it’s also a sharply observed novel of social realism that documents the pitiful collapse of the Irish economy over the last couple of years. An old friend of Loy’s, who’s become a successful movie director in the United States, returns home to Dublin in a blaze of glory to make his magnum opus. When a number of young women go missing from the set, however, Loy is called upon to investigate their disappearances. In essence, Hughes is blending the P.I. novel with the serial-killer novel, providing an unidentifiable first-person narration for the killer that offers an inventive take on what is fast becoming the stalest motif in crime fiction. Loy’s investigation finds him traveling to California, back to the old stomping ground from whence he first arrived in Dublin five novels ago. In one sense, this closes the circle for Loy, who appears to have finally found personal happiness in a relationship with Anne Fogarty, and a reason to abandon the demon drink. Loy being Loy, however, it’s difficult for the reader to believe that a happy ending is in the cards. Throughout, Hughes’ spiky commentary on contemporary Ireland is a joy, as is his deconstruction of various local Irish heroes, chief among them being the singer Bono, who receives a well-deserved lashing for his self-important pontificating. Most importantly, City of Lost Girls is a superb example of what the private-eye novel can be in the hands of a writer skilled enough to pay heartfelt homage to the tarnished knights of fiction, yet is astute enough to appreciate that, by comparison with the evils that exist in the real world, the creations of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, et al. amount to little more than necessary fictions. -- Declan Burke

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (Morrow)
274 pages

“M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.” That’s how Southern kids learn to spell “Mississippi,” or so we’re told in a headnote to Tom Franklin’s evocative novel of twisted spirits and crippled dreams in rural Mississippi, circa the late 1970s and then in the ’90s. Larry Ott, teenage misfit, is the last person seen with schoolmate Cindy Walker before she disappears from the small town of Chabot, Mississippi, in 1982. While Larry’s never charged with any crime, it’s assumed he killed the girl; and his future life becomes one of painful isolation. Then, two decades later, another young female goes missing -- around the same time Larry’s childhood friend Silas Jones becomes the town’s new constable. Ott is white, Jones is black, and their friendship was tinged with secrets. Wounds are opened and resentments revived as Jones tries to sort out events new and old -- including an attempt on Ott’s life. Tom Franklin is a wonderful writer who finds the lyrical in ordinary people, places and things. In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, he’s crafted a haunting and nuanced work fully worthy of the term “literary thriller.” -- Tom Nolan

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Mariner Books) 320 pages
A forensic archaeologist at England’s University of North Norfolk, Ruth Galloway is asked by a local police detective to help identify human remains discovered in a salt marsh near her home. Hopeful that they might be the bones of a victim of a killer from a decade earlier, the cop is disappointed to learn that those remains are actually ancient. When news of this discovery gets out, however, an archaeologist and former lover from Ruth’s past returns to the site, opening old wounds and raising new worries. Ruth has her hands full analyzing the remains, but when a second child suddenly disappears in circumstances eerily similar to the first, she is abruptly torn back to the present: Is there a murderer out there, using her backyard as his very own killing ground? The Crossing Places offers an interesting mix of strong, though not always likable leading characters, and a well-crafted, suspenseful plot. Yet it is the novel’s well-defined setting that makes it stand out from the herd of psychological thrillers. Much of this tale’s action takes place on the bleak and desolate Norfolk coast, and author Griffiths succeeds wonderfully in revealing to the reader the ominous beauty of this landscape and its effects upon those who live nearby. This is a classic case of a story’s setting driving its character, much in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s timeless novel, Rebecca. -- Jim Napier

Dead Man’s Chest by Kerry Greenwood (Poisoned Pen Press)
250 pages

When Kerry Greenwood created the rich, beautiful Jazz Age sleuth, Phryne Fisher, she was expecting the series to last for about two books. So far, there have been 17. In Dead Man’s Chest, Phryne has returned to the southeastern Australian coastal town of Queenscliff, the scene of her second adventure, Flying Too High (1990). That time she was in Queenscliff as part of a kidnapping case, and stayed at the gorgeous Queenscliff Hotel. This time it’s 1929, and Phryne is back with her faithful maid and companion, Dot Williams, along with her two adopted daughters, Ruth and Jane, and her dog, Molly, and they’re staying in a borrowed holiday home. There will, of course, be absolutely no investigations! But where Phryne Fisher goes, mystery follows -- or, in this case, precedes. Queenscliff is never dull, with missing servants, a group of surrealists, a nosy old lady across the road, who might have seen something, a historical film being made down on the beach and some nasty goings-on nearby. Is there a murder? Pick up the novel for yourself and find out! As always, Greenwood’s story is lots of fun, featuring adventure, baddies and plenty of lovingly detailed descriptions of meals as well as Phryne’s clothes. This author knows her era, but doesn’t overwhelm you with it. Read Dead Man’s Chest on the beach or curled up in front of the heater, depending on where you live. -- Sue Bursztynski

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (Headline UK) 464 pages
Yale University law professor Rubenfeld scored big (at least moneywise) with his first novel, The Interpretation of Murder, which numbered among January Magazine’s favorite books of 2006. But his second book, The Death Instinct, seems more assured in both its presentation and composition. Eleven years after the action related in Interpretation, we are returned to the company of two principals from that first novel, Sigmund Freud disciple (and now war veteran) Stratham Younger and cop Jimmy Littlemore, who become involved here in a multilayered, history-based plot that begins with a bang -- literally. On September 16, 1920, a wagonload of dynamite was detonated on the busiest corner of Wall Street, killing 38 people in the noontime rush and causing more than $2 million in property damage, especially to the adjacent headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank. This act of terrorism drew the attention of the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI), as well as the city police, and generated ample fear of foreign “radicals,” but was never officially solved. In The Death Instinct, Captain Littlemore, Younger and Younger’s associate, stunning young French radiochemist Colette Rousseau, are on hand for that blast. While investigators probe the tragedy’s political implications, with Littlemore trying not to accept xenophobic assumptions about the bombers’ identities, Colette weathers mysterious attacks and Younger tries to discern the connection between the explosion and the presence of a woman “with a spare head growing out of her neck,” found dead after the scene. All of this may relate to a secret from Colette’s past, which is explored in a romantic subplot, much of which takes place around the World War I battlefront. Rubenfeld enriches his text with historical anecdotes (including one about the original source of the term “lobbyists”), guest appearances by authentic personages such as corruptible U.S. Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico, and allusions to similarities between the Manhattan bombing of 1920 and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York (“A manufactured war on a country that had nothing to do with the bombing -- God knows the price we would pay for that ...,” Younger tells Littlemore at one point). Peppering the results of his historical research lightly throughout this novel, and filling these pages with characters I’m looking forward to following further in future books, Rubenfeld has defied the curse of the second novel. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Do They Know I'm Running? by David Corbett (Mortalis) 480 pages
So what’s a fun and easy way to spot a racist? Talk with him or her about immigration. The nicest people in the world can say the most outrageously mean things about members of other races, and not think it’s bigoted, because they’re talking about issues of immigration, not ethnicity. I know a guy who once said that illegal immigrants should be shot because they’re invading our country, and that’s an act of war. (Yeah, not racist at all, dude.) David Corbett’s latest book, Do They Know I’m Running? is all about immigration, and there hasn’t been a better thriller novel produced this year than this coming-of-age masterpiece. It’s a thriller that actually thrills, because the stakes are real and the issues matter. Roque Montalvo seems like an average American teenager, with a raging libido and enough talent for playing the guitar that many people say he’s the next Carlos Santana. Life is hard for Roque, but OK, until his uncle Faustino is suddenly arrested in Oakland, California, and promptly deported as an illegal Salvadoran immigrant. Then Roque’s criminal cousin, Pablo Happy Orantes, comes calling and tells Roque that it’s up to him to sneak Faustino back over the border. Happy arranges for Roque to fly into El Salvador, where the teenager learns that he not only has to help his uncle, but also a comely young woman and a mysterious Arab, who may or not be a terrorist. In this lyrically written book, Corbett weaves a tale of sacrifice and hope. Everyone here has an agenda, and moments of grace are few and far between -- but when they do come, they bowl you over. The author doesn’t preach his opinions on immigration, but instead presents the facts about why so many people from poorer nations seek entry into the United States. Amid all of these politics, we learn more about Roque. He’s Mexican, speaks Spanish and knows something about the foods and music of his native land, but only over the course of this story does he get in touch with his region’s culture and history. Like Roque, all of the characters in these pages seem real. Even the Mexican gangbangers have souls. Corbett’s big story in a small package is so rich with personality and meaning, that it brought tears to my eyes. But Do They Know I’m Running? is not only entertaining, it’s important. -- Cameron Hughes

Faithful Place by Tana French (Viking) 416 pages
On a frigid December night Frank Mackey left his gritty Dublin neighborhood, intending to run away to London with his girl, Rosie Daly. But Rosie never showed up to meet him. She’d previously been forbidden by her father from associating with Frank. So the young man just assumed that Rosie had had second thoughts about hooking up with him, and had instead lit out for England on her own. Frank wasn’t about to be stopped by this unexpected turn of events. He was already determined to leave Faithful Place, and even without Rosie by his side, he kept on going. Now, 22 years later, Frank Mackey is a Dublin cop who’s about to revisit the past he’d hoped to leave behind forever. The discovery of a suitcase, stuffed up the chimney of derelict house at the end of Faithful Place -- the very spot where he and Rosie had agreed to rendezvous before leaving Ireland -- brings him back to the old neighborhood. And it doesn’t take Frank long to recognize the pair of ferry tickets left inside -- he’d purchased them for his long-ago escape with Rosie. Obviously, the girl didn’t go to London. Later, while checking out the creepy basement in that abandoned residence, Frank sees some suspicious concrete slabs and on a hunch calls in the police tech squad. Sure enough, old bones are revealed by removing one of those slabs, and Frank is confident they’re Rosie’s remains. Faithful Place is a masterful tale of forbidden love, family loyalties, sibling rivalries and sins of the fathers extending their injurious reach into the next generation. Following French’s In the Woods (2007) and The Likeness (2008), Faithful Place is her best novel so far. -- Gretchen Echols

The Finger’s Twist by Lee Lamothe (Ravenstone Books) 264 pages
Squeezed out in the last days of 2009 and belatedly released in the United States in 2010, this edgy, unusual thriller by Canadian journalist Lee Lamothe has already come and gone, criminally neglected except by a few enthusiastic critics. It’s enough to break your heart. Because Lamothe really taps into something unique and wonderful here -- a politically charged, hard-boiled detective novel that stretches the genre while also paying tribute to it. Set in an uncomfortably familiar Toronto, Ontario, of the (allegedly) near future, it offers a stark portrait of a once-smug society slowly, inevitably coming off the rails, featuring one of the best odd-couple private-eye teams in years. Charlie Tate is a failed journalist turned muscle-bound biker with a shaved head and a colorful past (and a couple of college-age kids), who works as an under-the-table P.I. and sometime muscle. His professional and personal partner is Elodie Gray, a wealthy, wheelchair-bound, 75-pound “bone sack” alcoholic from the good side of town, who just happens to be a world-class hacker and computer whiz. Their forte is vetting prospective business partners and nailing white-collar thieves on behalf of some of Toronto’s most powerful corporations and citizens, with Elodie serving as the brains and Charlie supplying ample brawn. However, the city is fracturing around social, cultural and political fault lines, with anarchy and paranoia on the rise and riots the order of the day. When a bomb goes off at the Ontario Legislature in downtown T.O., this mismatched pair is hired to investigate, unaware that Charlie’s own daughters may be involved. The Finger’s Twist is a piercing, stark look at the high price of order, tempered with kick-ass action and some surprising moments of genuine tenderness, with a hard-living Nick-and-Nora duo who know that, no matter how much they booze, there’s no way out. -- Kevin Burton Smith

From the Dead by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown) 368 pages
Tom Thorne, a detective inspector in the London suburb of Hendon, is having a bad day. A really bad day. First, a jury has acquitted Thorne’s suspect -- his prime and only suspect -- in a vicious kidnapping-and-suspected-murder case. The guy is pond scum, and Thorne is convinced that he’s guilty. So he seethes as the man presents himself to the press as an aggrieved victim, and as a headline-grabbing Member of Parliament takes up his cause. Then a private investigator shows up at Thorne’s office. She’s been hired by Donna Langford, a woman who has just been released from prison after serving 10 years for murdering her husband, Alan, by handcuffing him to the steering wheel of his car and setting that vehicle afire. Donna confessed to the crime, even naming the man who helped her torch her husband, and both went to prison. But recently released, she’s been receiving photographs that suggest her spouse is still very much alive. And her daughter, who was a child at the time of the killing, is now 18 and has recently disappeared. Thorne can’t believe the Langford case has taken such a turn. In this day and age there was no excuse for getting something as basic as a victim identification wrong. At first our hero denies the evidence; it’s only a bunch of grainy, fuzzy photos, after all, probably Photoshopped. When Thorne reopens the file, though, he’s shocked to discover that crucial evidence was never obtained. Amid the insanity of it all, Thorne is torn between denying the woman’s claims and ignoring the case, or reopening a file he himself helped bring to a successful conviction. Weary from the various pressures of modern-day policing, Thorne is one step away from packing it in. And the violent events to come won’t likely convince him to stay on the job. Mark Billingham’s latest novel firmly cements his place as one of Britain’s leading crime writers. The characters here are spot-on, the plot original and spellbinding, and the writing is vintage Billingham. -- Jim Napier

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
(Knopf) 576 pages

So what’s the verdict on the third (and final?) volume of Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy? The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is far more complex than its two predecessors in terms of narrative direction, and it has even more characters, many of whom are hard to delineate from one another. It’s also a treat for those of us who’ve followed the adventures of superhacker Lisbeth Salander ever since the English translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in 2008, and who want to see closure after the traumatic incidents in the preceding stories. Hornet’s Nest opens minutes after the conclusion of The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), and finds Salander still seriously ill in hospital with gunshot wounds. Her quondam lover, journalist-publisher Mikael Blomkvist, tries to contact Salander through the heavy guard around her in hopes of unraveling who she really is. Through this story, Larsson explores his two pet themes -- violent misogyny and threats posed by extreme right-wingers to Sweden’s democracy. In it, we also discover (building on seeds laid down in Fire) what it was about Salander’s past that has made her such a misfit. Again, Larsson’s writing style is most peculiar, but hypnotic enough to send the reader into a trance of concentration, despite moments of confusion related to conspiracies. When I finally closed Hornet’s Nest, a sense of melancholy spread over me like a thick blanket. Though I knew intellectually that Lisbeth Salander never existed, that she was a well-constructed fiction of womanhood born from Larsson’s imagination, I still felt sad, as if I’d lost a good friend. Such powerful connections between novels and readers are rare and impossible to predict, but wonderful to experience. -- Ali Karim

Gone ’til November by Wallace Stroby (Minotaur) 304 pages
Of the two principal players in this slow-boiling novel, the bad guy is the more magnetic. He’s Nathaniel Morgan, a 57-year-old African-American enforcer for Mikey-Mike, a New Jersey drug dealer whose wares aren’t as high-grade or in demand as they used to be. Suffering from a cancer that could take him down before any of his “business rivals” have the same chance, and lacking health insurance, Morgan has decided to ditch New Jersey, with his much-younger girlfriend and her son in tow, and find a doctor somewhere far away who can administer the medical treatments he needs. However, before he can put that risky plan into action, Morgan needs more money, which means taking on one final assignment for his narcotics-king boss. Meanwhile, way down in Florida, Sheriff’s Deputy Sara Cross has come to the aid of a fellow officer, Billy Flynn, who’s just shot and killed a well-dressed young black man, Derek Willis. Willis was driving a car with Jersey plates, and according to Flynn, when he pulled Willis over and asked that he open his trunk, the younger man made a break for it. Flynn thought his fleeing suspect had a gun, so he plugged him in self-defense. Sara finds a zippered bag crammed with firearms and ammunition in the vehicle’s trunk, which might have justified Willis’ actions. So despite her doubts about the incident -- why, for instance, was there a baby seat in Willis’ car? And why didn’t Flynn call for backup before he approached the driver? -- she supports her fellow officer’s account of the proceedings. Had Flynn, who used to be Sara’s lover as well as her partner on the sheriff’s squad, left well enough alone at that point, nothing more might have been said. But instead, he tries to reignite his relationship with Sara, raising her suspicions. Then Willis’ “wife,” the mother of his child, appears on the scene to collect his corpse and “raise hell.” She tells Sara that Willis “never carried a gun in his life,” which is enough to provoke the conscientious deputy to look further into the source of the dead man’s revolver. How the stories of Nathaniel Morgan and Sarah Cross intersect, and the violence, human drama and moral choices that result, make Gone ’til November a smart, suspenseful work worth enjoying in any month. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland (Soho Crime) 371 pages
In only his second novel, Adrian Hyland has shown that his success in winning Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel (2007’s Diamond Dove, aka Moonlight Downs) was not simply a one-off. Emily Tempest is a young Aboriginal woman. She’s also a recently appointed police officer attempting to jump all of those hurdles (woman, aboriginal, newbie cop) to help solve the murder of an elderly man in a remote village in the Outback. It should be a piece of cake: a friend of the victim (well, longtime acquaintance) is the suspect of choice, and has confessed to the crime. Her immediate superior is not inclined to look further. But true to her name, Tempest stirs up a storm by pursuing the case on her own. Using a combination of basic police savvy and native skills that border on the supernatural, she doggedly follows the trail of evidence until she realizes that the pursuer has become the pursued. Out of her depth, will she pay with her life? A fine action-and-suspense tale, Gunshot Road stands out from the pack in its insightful portrayal of Outback life, and in the engaging figure of its protagonist, constable Emily Tempest. This is not a story that will incline you to visit Down Under for yourself, unless you have a strong liking for dust and isolation and characters who seem to have crawled out from under rocks. Which is to say it’s consummately written. Quite a feat for its author, and if we’re lucky, a portent of equally good things to come. -- Jim Napier

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Shelley said...

Interesting analysis.Is it a good thing or a bad thing that so many of these novels have plots that sound movie-ready?

Monday, December 20, 2010 at 4:39:00 PM PST  
Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

I think it's neither a good nor a bad thing. I think it is simply indicative of one entertainment medium's affect on the other.

Cheers,
Jeff

Monday, December 20, 2010 at 6:23:00 PM PST  
Blogger Marni said...

Happy that Faithful Place made the cut; agree absolutely that French has a winner here and her strengths as a writer continue to grow. Ditto Mark Billingham~

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 9:30:00 AM PST  
Blogger blogger said...

Wow, Bolt Action is now on my list. Anything well written with the MI5 in it is. Thanks.

see what a Kindle is all about

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 12:14:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which ones strike you as particularly movie-ready? I only felt that about a few of them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 6:41:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your crime novel reviews are good guides to subject. I'm wondering if it might be possible for you to run a short representative passage, to give an idea of style–eg how the author handles dialogue, or action, or forensics, or whatever. This would be a good "sorting" device

Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 2:01:00 PM PDT  

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