Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Crime Fiction, Part II

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

Inside Out by Barry Eisler (Ballantine) 368 pages
Maybe CIA intelligence officer-turned-author Barry Eisler just can’t do first novels. I’ve sung the man’s praises before, and I absolutely loved his John Rain series (except the initial installment, Rain Fall, which wasn’t nearly as complex as those that followed it). So I was sad to realize that I didn’t much care for last year’s Fault Line, in which he introduced black ops soldier Ben Treven. The book was, well, ordinary and mechanical, and I guessed every turn in the story before it happened. (Gee, is Ben going to sleep with that Middle Eastern woman he’s suspicious of? Whaddya know, he does!) But then came this year’s Inside Out, which blew me away. I take back all my doubts, Barry. Ben is a great new character! Inside Out starts out like a pulpy thriller: Old men in dark suits gather in Arlington Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C., to discuss the fact that 92 videotapes of suspected terrorists being waterboarded (at the instigation of the U.S. vice president’s office) have gone missing. The public has been told that those tapes were destroyed. But careers are still on the line, and lives will be ruined if, as a thief-blackmailer threatens, those tapes are exposed on the Internet. Enter Ben Treven. He is a tool, and likes it. He’s used to doing what he does best, which is catching bad guys. He’s a patriot and believes in what he does, but also he’s a complex character, not just an “America good, foreigners bad” sort of soldier. He’s kind of like 24’s Jack Bauer with a brain. Yes, the action here is thrilling and realistic, but it’s the more convolutions of the story that hooked me. Eisler understands that almost nobody thinks of him- or herself as a bad guy, and the line between good and bad is awfully damn thin, anyway. Inside Out is a smart thriller with oodles of human drama. Savor it, folks, because there aren’t many similar works. I can’t wait for Ben’s return. Honest. -- Cameron Hughes

Intelligence by Susan Hasler (Thomas Dunne/Minotaur) 320 pages
The brilliant thing about former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Susan Hasler’s debut novel about CIA analysts is that if you let yourself forget what the CIA does, it feels like an episode of The Office or Mike Judge’s brilliant office life satire, Office Space. Truly, the similarities are staggering. The hours suck, the pay isn’t as good as it should be, you have to deal with people you don’t like, and your managers and superiors demand impossible things or just want busy work that will make them look good. Splitting her narrative into several parts (one of which -- delivered by a dead CIA director -- is a bit too cute), Hasler introduces us to a small team of analysts as they try to stop a suspected major threat involving a terrorist cell known as the Perfumers. Hasler’s characters toss off cryptic phrases and jargon (fortunately, there’s a glossary in the back of the book), but there’s an astonishing absence of bullshit in these pages. The author presents her players authentically. You won’t find any conservative wet-dream characters like Jack Bauer or Mitch Rapp here, just normal folk engaged in very important jobs. They have real problems too, and genuine neuroses. They share familiar concerns, such as political in-fighting and their social lives. And they’re just as prone as the rest of us to fall apart and despair when horrible things happen. But that’s precisely when CIA personnel must push past their woes in order to make the machinery of national intelligence function. Although this is a piece of fiction, the author offers insight into why invading Iraq was such a disastrous idea and why torturing prisoners doesn’t work (terrorists lie, or they don’t tell the whole truth, no matter what punishment they receive). Often laugh-out-loud funny, Intelligence even manages to squeeze in a genuinely sweet romance. Susan Hasler does for the folks at the CIA what Joseph Wambaugh accomplishes with cops: she gives them human dimension. Sometimes sad, sometimes stupid, sometimes scary and at other times heroic, Hasler’s characters always seem achingly real. -- Cameron Hughes

Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella (Stark House) 340 pages
The amazing thing about Charlie Stella’s mob novel is that, while it feels like it could exist in the world of Goodfellas and Mean Streets, it doesn’t actually copycat those films. Set in New York City back in 1973, Stella’s excellent seventh crime story catches the cadence and blue-collar vibe of low-level mafiosi. John Albano, who lost his carpenter job and his union card because he punched out his foreman, now collects cash receipts for the mob from illicit screenings of Deep Throat, the supposedly mob-produced pornographic film that reportedly earned more than $600 million, so he can pay child support to his harpy of an ex-wife, who in turn is helping her boyfriend to rob Albano of the mob money he carries. (In an example of this book’s understated sense of humor, the Mafia tries to get extra money out of the film by selling posters of Linda Lovelace, supposedly signed by the star herself. Of course, the mook assigned to the task spells her name wrong, putting an “s” in Lovelace.) Stella’s underground is a simple one. A bribe of $50 going through channels can solve offenses, hurt pride can mean your death, and falling into the mob life when you’re desperate is easier than you would think, even for the most law-abiding citizen. Stella brings a fascination to life in the mafia, a world where psychopaths think they’re better than the average criminal because they wear fancy suits and spout buzz words like omerta, and whatever else they’re copying from the movie The Godfather. Stella’s novel almost feels autobiographical, because he lived in New York during the ’70s, and he strips away the mystique of the mob, revealing its members as the dumb psychopaths they really were, people who’d kill you over a sum as low as 200 bucks. Johnny Porno is a great slice-of-life novel. It feels like the book Stella has been building up to for years, and I’m comfortable calling it his masterpiece. Read it and see if you don’t agree. -- Cameron Hughes

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell (Knopf) 369 pages
A woman judge with high blood pressure and anxiety attacks is the surprising investigator-hero of this involving standalone thriller by the outstanding Swedish crime-novelist Henning Mankell (translated, for this work, by Laurie Thompson). District Judge Birgitta Roslin takes -- and has -- a personal interest in probing into the horrific slaughter of 19 people in the Swedish village of Hesjovallen, a mass killing without precedent in her country: Hesjovallen is where the judge’s mother grew up, and Birgitta’s mother’s foster parents are among the mass-murderer’s victims. As the police do their best to cope with this sensational crime, the judge conducts her own supplemental inquiry. The multifaceted plot she uncovers has unexpected historical origins, stretching back to Chinese workers who helped build American railroads. The author deploys formidable gifts in telling this complicated story of international intrigue and personal revenge: a clarity of style which makes visual images stand out with compelling crispness, a rendering of daily routine which creates sympathetic identification in a reader, and a way of personalizing moral issues that makes them seem a matter of life and death. As Judge Birgitta Roslin comes to know in her bones: “Justice meant action.” -- Tom Nolan

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane (Morrow) 336 pages
OK, I was wrong. For years I told people I didn’t “get” Dennis Lehane. Too wordy, too self-consciously “serious” to be taken seriously, too prone to padding out what other writers did with half the page count. I snidely referred to his (arguably) best novel, Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) as Long, Baby, Long. But then actor-turned-fledgling director Ben Affleck cut away the fat, boiled the story down to its essence and gave us a film in 2007 that ranked with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. And now, in the wake of that movie’s success, Lehane has dragged his series characters, Boston private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, back for another go. At the end of Gone, Baby, Gone, Patrick had returned kidnapped 6-year old Amanda McCready to her negligent mother, much against Angie’s wishes. Moonlight Mile begins 12 years later. Patrick and Angie are now married and struggling to make ends meet, with a young daughter of their own and the past an open wound they try to avoid. Not that the past ever cooperates, of course. Sixteen-year-old Amanda has disappeared again, and Patrick, still trying to soothe his conscience, is hired to ride to the rescue once more. Oh, the philosophical debates still drag occasionally, and Patrick and Angie continue to gaze a little too fondly into their own navels for my liking, but this time, the writing seems more focused, the action more straightforward, the characters more natural and rounded, the motivations more organic and less prone to Cliff Notes talking points. The violence, when it comes in this new tale -- and it does come, believe me -- is brutal, but it also feels like it belongs. Sure, the swamp of moral, ethical and legal questions that once flooded his work still lap at Moonlight Mile’s edges, but Lehane more easily keeps those troublesome waters at bay, delivering a provocative, mature, emotionally charged and, yes, thrilling read that rubs the reader’s face in the broken glass of easy answers. Mea culpa, Dennis. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur) 416 pages
In his previous novel, 2009’s The Tourist, Olen Steinhauer introduced readers to Milo Weaver, a conflicted operative working for The Company, a fictional secret arm of the CIA whose agents are called Tourists. The Nearest Exit continues Weaver’s story. “[T]he first rule of Tourism,” we’re told, “is to not let it ruin you. ... The rootless existence, keeping simultaneous jobs straight in your head, showing no empathy when the job requires none, and especially the unstoppable forward movement.” Propulsiveness is as much key to Steinhauer’s storytelling as it is to the life of Weaver and his colleagues. The Nearest Exit really moves along (The New York Times’ Janet Maslin likened it to the best of John le Carré), but it’s best understood if you have already read The Tourist. Following the events related in that earlier book, Weaver has been demoted to doing field work. His latest assignments seem simplistic and arbitrary, but Weaver assumes The Company is testing his loyalty before trusting him with anything challenging, and he’s got to have a job -- his credentials make him unfit for any other sort of work. Finally, he’s assigned to kill a teenage girl living in Germany, and then make her body disappear. He’s also instructed to interrogate a Ukrainian defector, who claims to know the identity of a “mole” within The Company. All of this leads to Weaver’s kidnapping by German intelligence, and a terrifying attack on Company agents. By The Nearest Exit’s close, it’s clear that Weaver -- though he has been injured -- will serve in this series’ next clever installment as an agent of The Company’s revenge. -- Gretchen Echols

Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee (Faber and Faber UK) 304 pages
Eoin McNamee’s latest offering is something of a sequel to The Blue Tango (2001). Set in Newry, Northern Ireland, in 1961, it employs the murder of 19-year-old shop assistant Pearl Gamble, and the subsequent investigation, for its narrative arc. Robert McGladdery, who was seen dancing with Pearl on the night of her murder, is considered the main suspect, but Detective Eddie McCrink, a Newry native returning to home soil from London, discovers a very disturbing set of circumstances. Not only have the local police decided that McGladdery fits the bill as murderer, but McGladdery himself appears to welcome the notoriety. Most disturbing of all, though, is that the man who presides over the court case when McGladdery is brought to trial. As the father of Patricia Curran, who was murdered in very similar circumstances 10 years previously, Lord Justice Lance Curran should have disbarred himself as judge. But McCrink quickly comes to understand that the “soft-spoken and implacable” Justice Curran has actively sought adjudicating authority in this trial, and is determined that whoever murdered Pearl Gamble should hang. Moreover, it’s clear from the beginning of McNamee’s novel that Justice Curran and the powers-that-be, including then Northern Ireland Secretary Brian Faulkner, want to see someone strung up for the killing. Students of Irish history will know already that Robert McGladdery was the last man to be hanged on Irish soil, a fact that infuses Orchid Blue with a noir-ish sense of fatalism and the inevitability of retribution. That retribution and State-sanctioned revenge are no kind of justice is one of the author’s themes here, however, and while the story is strained through an unmistakably noir filter, McNamee couches it in a form that is ancient and classical, with McGladdery pursued by Fate and its Furies and Justice Curran a shadowy Thanatos overseeing all. All told, Orchid Blue is a powerful tour-de-force and probably McNamee’s finest novel to date. -- Declan Burke

Peeler by Kevin McCarthy (Mercier Press Ireland) 479 pages
Eoin McNamee, Benjamin Black, and Cora Harrison are among those who write historical Irish crime fiction, and Kevin McCarthy’s Peeler deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Set in Cork in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, the novel has for its main protagonist Acting Sergeant Sean O’Keefe, a man who is not only a policeman with the hated Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), but also a veteran of the Great War. McCarthy has made things doubly difficult for himself as a writer by choosing such a person for his hero, as Ireland’s relationship remains conflicted even today with the men who served in the RIC and fought for Britain during World War I. It’s a testament to McCarthy’s skill as a storyteller, then, that the complex O’Keefe -- who considers himself as Irish as the next man, and is deemed suspect by his superiors for that very reason -- comes off here as such a sympathetic character, even as, aided and abetted by the despised Black and Tans, he pursues a killer who is also wanted by the Irish Republican Army. McCarthy’s historical detail is excellent as he weaves a backdrop of black ops and blacker propaganda, with O’Keefe often being a lone voice of reason and law-and-order, while about him move squads of killers, both rebel and state-sanctioned. The pace and tension are expertly handled in what is a traditional page-turner of a thriller, yet McCarthy invests his novel with occasional poetic flourishes that highlight the bleak environment in which O’Keefe operates. All told, Peeler is a remarkably assured debut. -- Declan Burke

Print the Legend by Craig McDonald (Minotaur) 352 pages
The Hector Lassiter series took a significant step forward in 2010 when author Craig McDonald released his third book about the renegade hard-boiled writer, Print the Legend. Set in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1965, four years after Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, old Papa pal Lassiter finds himself the keynote speaker at a symposium about his drinking and writing rival and fellow spirit. Hemingway is on the verge of becoming the literary cottage industry that we know today with dissertations, journals, and academic jealousies. On top of it all, Mary Hemingway, the black widow herself, is still ensconced in the Ketchum home where she is said to be ready to release a posthumous memoir Hemingway wrote about his experiences in 1920s Paris, a book familiar to us today as A Moveable Feast. Yet all is clearly not right, since a rogue CIA agent named Donovan Creedy is lurking about the symposium, apparently hell-bent on destroying Papa’s reputation -- and take Lassiter out in the process. Meanwhile, Lassiter is trying to subdue the widow Hemingway, retrieve some long-lost papers, and keep Creedy from screwing Papa over once and for all. McDonald helps to keep this story timely by dovetailing it nicely into the recent controversy surrounding a re-editing of A Moveable Feast by one of the great author’s grandson, Sean Hemingway -- a “restored” version that received significant criticism from Hemingway loyalists. Like the previous entries in the Lassiter series, Head Games (2007) and Toros and Torsos (2008), in Print the Legend McDonald pulls from the archives of conspiracies and skullduggery to compose a rollicking yarn, taking no prisoners and never letting up on the adrenaline. One can’t help but be reminded, when reading several sections of this novel, of that old joke about why battles in academia are so vicious: because the stakes are so modest. -- Stephen Miller

A Razor Wrapped in Silk by R.N. Morris (Faber and
Faber UK) 480 pages

St. Petersburg, Russia, 1870. Half a century more will pass before the Russian Revolution remakes the largest country in the world, but in British author Roger “R.N.” Morris’ third historical thriller, you can already spot the social and political fissures that will crack further to cause that upheaval. Protagonist Porfiry Petrovich, an investigating magistrate borrowed from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, is asked by a young society woman to look into the fates of foundling children, seemingly destined for lives of penury and overwork, whom she had taken under her wing at a small school of her own creation, but who have suddenly disappeared. Unfortunately, Porfiry is soon drawn off into a higher-profile case: the slaying, during a theatrical performance, of a woman with strong ties to the city’s upper crust as well as Tsar Alexander II. There’s no question that the latter investigation must take precedence. Yet, as the amusingly eccentric magistrate and his greener assistant, Pavel Pavlovich, pursue what few clues are available, along the way clashing with the tsar’s secret police, questioning military officers and even the tsar himself, and provoking an attack on Porfiry, they come to see that these two mysteries might in fact be connected. And they wonder whether the killing at the theater wasn’t committed to cover up a considerably more heinous crime. Morris is a deft plotter with an equal flair for historical atmospherics. Although his first Porfiry Petrovich tale, A Gentle Axe (one of January’s favorite books of 2007), is still my favorite of the three series installments thus far, A Razor Wrapped in Silk runs a close second. I already have an order in for Book 4, The Cleansing Flames, which is due out in the UK in May. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Reversal by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) 400 pages
Almost two dozen years ago, 12-year-old Melissa Landy was abducted from her upscale Los Angeles home and murdered, her body left in a trash dumpster. Her sister, who witnessed the kidnapping, was left traumatized for decades. Now the man convicted of Landy’s killing, Jason Jessup, is released from prison and granted a re-trial based on new DNA evidence. LAPD Detective Harry Bosch and his half-brother, attorney Mickey Haller -- working as a special prosecutor for the L.A. County district attorney’s office -- team up to put Jessup back in the can where he truly belongs. The Reversal is a novel about redemption and the terrible price often paid for it. It is also about the heart-wrenching side of the human condition through which Bosch and Haller must wade if they are to see justice done. The Reversal is arguably Michael Connelly’s finest novel to date -- and that’s saying a great deal. Jessup is the kind of slayer who would make serial killer/blood-spatter analyst Dexter Moser’s top-10 list of murderers to put down. Confronting what happened to Landy holds a mirror up to Bosch and Haller’s own vulnerability: the safety of their young daughters. Bosch has dealt with men of Jessup’s ilk many times before, men with black souls who tread the city of lost light. Now an older warrior, he seems more than up to the task of figuring out and bringing down the complex Jessup. With Haller going toe-to-toe against Jessup’s celebrity lawyer, and a guest appearance by FBI profiler Rachel Walling, a promise is made here to Connelly fans: they are in for the ride of their lives. -- Anthony Rainone

Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn (Bloomsbury) 288 pages
There’s no feeling like starting a novel and realizing that the author knows exactly what he or she is doing. It’s even a better feeling when the writer is putting in a first appearance, because such mastery is rarer. What I found to be the scariest part about Rivers of Gold is just how plausible the plot of this near-future crime drama sounds. It’s set in New York City in 2013. Unemployment there is at a staggering 20 percent, crime is at an all-time high, and even the most successful stores and hotels are shutting their doors. Told in three narratives -- from the standpoints of a drug dealer/fashion photographer, an undercover cop, and a crime kingpin -- Rivers switches voices at the drop of a hat. Sections starring photographer Renny are told in a zippy, psychedelic first-person, with Renny living by the motto, “surviving is thriving,” as he navigates through his city’s fashion and drug scenes, and its floating illegal clubs. Struggling Hispanic cop Santiago Sixer’s sections are told in a more world-weary third-person voice, like something concocted by Richard Price or George Pelecanos. Finally, we are offered the sly voice of The Slav, a transgressing top dog who plays all the angles and seems untouchable. What brings these characters together is the discovery, in a taxi cab, of one of The Slav’s dealers -- murdered. Cabs play interesting roles in Dunn’s book. They’re used by both drug dealers, to sell their products, and police, who like Sixer, go undercover in those vehicles to collar dealers. We learn a great deal here about Manhattan’s taxi cab system, from hilarious cab etiquette to the reasons why that business prospers even in a city that’s dying. Rivers of Gold is scary as hell, because the world created between its covers could so easily become our own. However, the story is also often funny, with touches of sadness and real humanity. I hope Adam Dunn has a long career. Count me among his fans. -- Cameron Hughes

Savages by Don Winslow (Simon & Schuster) 320 pages
With his newest thriller, Don Winslow seems to have decided that linear plotting, proper sentence structure and consistent use of viewpoints and tense (this book can go from first-person to third-person, and from past to present tense in the same page) are for weak little girls. Savages has a pretty simple plot. Ben and Chon are the hottest 20-something marijuana dealers in Southern California, with a thriving business and more dough than they know what to do with, when the powerful Baja cartel sweeps in and tells them that they have to start selling it their product. At a price. The boys say no, and the cartel kidnaps their girlfriend O. But Savages is so much more than that plot. Told in a narrative style that challenges the Road Runner for speed, Savages throws words at you like bullets, hot from a gun, while it rants about everything from America’s modern consumer culture to New Age religion and mega-churches to politics. (I have convinced many people to tackle Savages simply by telling them to turn to page 55, where they’ll find the funniest tirade about Republican politicians and pundits you’ll ever read.) Savages is the perfect novel for the 20-somethings of the 21st century. Ben and Chon are the Butch and Sundance of the Twitter generation. I’m constantly amazed at how well Winslow captures the voice of characters who are so much younger than he is, and Savages best personifies that talent. Unconventional, funny and sad (if you don’t feel any sorrow toward the end, you’re dead inside), this novel is the best and weirdest thriller in years. It just proves that when it comes to authors, there’s Don Winslow, and then there’s everybody else. Bravo. -- Cameron Hughes

61 Hours by Lee Child (Delacorte) 400 pages
The first of two novels, released in 2010, to feature Child’s peripatetic ex-military police protagonist, Jack Reacher (the other one being the more recent Worth Dying For), 61 Hours is set against a frigid winter in South Dakota, with Reacher involved in a tour bus crash that propels him into a complex yarn involving a Mexican drug cartel. As one expects in Child’s fiction, nothing here is entirely as it seems. The author is interested in the minutiae of life and death, which is fully demonstrated here, and he even reveals some of the facets of Reacher’s history. However, the real pleasure in 61 Hours is to see how Child makes “the cold” the real villain in these pages. Add to that small-town paranoia, a prison containing many secrets, a biker gang that may be involved in the drug rackets, and characters as multifaceted as the snowflakes pounding South Dakota, and you have a rip-roaring read that updates the work of some of Child’s predecessors, especially Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and John Buchan. The Jack Reacher novels have become my comfort reads of choice, but I would advise approaching 61 Hours with gloves on, not just because it’s such a chilly saga, but because it will save you the pain of friction burns from turning the pages too fast. -- Ali Karim

So Cold the River by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown) 528 pages
Award-winning author Michael Koryta’s latest work is best summed-up as a hybridization of Dennis Lehane and early Stephen King, or otherwise described as a huge slab of American Gothic. When brilliant but failed Hollywood filmmaker Eric Shaw is approached by wealthy young Alyssa Bradford to uncover a secret from her sick grandfather’s past, little does he realize that it will take him along a very dark journey. Since his ouster from the filmmaking big time, the disappointed and pessimistic Shaw has made a living producing “life videos” for people, with which they can celebrate their births, marriages and deaths. So when Alyssa commissions him to produce a movie about her family’s patriarch, Campbell Bradford, he accepts. Shaw’s research takes him to West Baden, in southern Indiana, where he discovers that the elderly, and now bed-ridden Bradford has links to a mysterious hotel and the local bottled libation, Pluto Water. The plot takes a sudden twist -- and his troubles really begin -- after Koryta’s protagonist sips from Bradford’s vial of Pluto Water. The strangest aspect of that bottled liquid is its temperature, which feels icy to the touch, even when the surroundings are warm. Trying to separate reality from hallucination becomes an ongoing battle for Shaw, as he realizes that something is very rotten at the core of Campbell Bradford’s past, a history liked not only to the odd Pluto Water, but also to the West Baden Springs Hotel, which once hosted film stars, politicians and plutocrats, and to which gangsters were attracted by all the wealth swirling about. So Cold the River is as chilling tale that is highly recommended to readers who like their crime thrillers tinged with a touch of the supernatural. -- Ali Karim

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer (Atlantic Monthly Press) 384 pages
This is a taut, race-against-time thriller about a young American woman who goes missing in Cape Town after witnessing the murder of her backpacking friend. South African police detective Benny Griessel must juggle the diffidence of the officer nominally in charge of the case with the brash impetuousness of another officer, while coping with his superiors, who push Benny to find the woman quickly, as they themselves are under pressure from her well-connected parents. Adding to Benny’s caseload, he’s also handed the investigation of a recording company executive found shot to death in his home. Throughout all of this he somehow manages to find time to worry about his daughter, who’s trying to make a go of it halfway around the world in London. And did I mention that Benny’s battling his own demons as well, striving to remain dry? If all of this sounds a bit frenetic, it isn’t. Unfolding his tale from multiple points of view, author Meyer skillfully inter-cuts his various storylines, deftly juxtaposing the fleeing woman’s fear against Benny’s increasingly desperate efforts to find her. He plays all of this against the Cape Town landscape, giving readers a real feeling for the convoluted forces that shape modern South Africa, from rival police forces with overlapping jurisdictions to the lingering racial and tribal tensions that dog the nation. The seventh entry in an award-winning series of novels, Thirteen Hours is a finely crafted read that perfectly captures the plight of someone whose only crime is being in the right place at the wrong time. -- Jim Napier

Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
(Quercus UK) 384 pages

This doorstop of a novel comes from the bestselling Swedish duo, journalist Roslund and reformed ex-criminal Hellström, and it just reeks with authenticity. So much so, that it may cause your palms to sweat as you turn the pages. You’ll have to persevere through a rather dense opening section (coming to terms with the unfamiliar landscape and the politics of Sweden’s Polish community), but tenacity brings rewards, as that opening sets up the back-story for some terrific prison sections to follow and induces both excitement and anxiety in the reader. Three Seconds ushers you into the grim, violent world of undercover police and the Polish mafia’s plan to corner the drug market in the incarceration systems of Sweden, Finland and Norway. When a covert drug operation handled by undercover Swedish operative Piet Hoffmann goes wrong, and a Danish agent meets his end as a result, Hoffmann’s handler concocts a scheme that will place the agent in full view of the Polish mafia, to take control of the drug supply at a Swedish penal complex. Sniffing an irregularity in the investigation of the dead Danish agent are Roslund and Hellström’s series cops, Ewert Grens and Sven Sundqvist, whose investigation encounters barriers at every turn. Meanwhile, Hoffmann infiltrates a maximum-security pen, intending to take control there by employing the drugs supply as leverage. However, the Polish mafia, in the guise of Wojtek Security, has other ideas. Tense and gripping, with a chilling climax, Three Seconds (which is due out in the States next month) boasts plenty of insider knowledge about the ways in which criminals and undercover agents work. And its brutal violence pushes the new book firmly into the thriller category.
-- Ali Karim

Tumor by Joshua Hale Fialkov (Archaia Studios Press) 225 pages
Sure, it may be historically important that this was the first comic created specifically for Amazon’s Kindle, but newcomer Joshua Hale Fialkov’s Tumor is far more significant for being one of the most haunting, emotionally charged private-eye novels of the last few years, ranking right up there with the likes of savvy old pros like Lawrence Block, Thomas Cook and James Lee Burke. Fialkov’s elderly Los Angeles private detective, Frank Armstrong, is semi-retired and definitely on his last go-round, trying to make up for a lifetime of regret and guilt before the inoperable brain tumor he’s carrying around wipes his slate clean for good. Unfortunately, that tumor means Frank’s not tracking too well, and he has never quite sure where -- or when -- he is. The hospital? A bad part of town? 1962? Hallucinations, flashbacks and the specters of a sad, hard life dog Frank, as he struggles to save a mobster’s runaway daughter, who he begins to mistake for his own long-dead wife. Suffice it to say that Frank does not go gently. There’s pain here, in spades, the kind that will take your breath away. And violence, too, of the sort that too often leads nowhere, or at least nowhere that will do Frank Armstrong any good, as he morphs from take-charge hard guy into a pathetic old man dying in a hospital bed and back again, with the rough, sketchy but perfect artwork by Noel Tuazon miraculously keeping pace, matching Fialkov’s prose blow for blow. Don’t dismiss this as a “comic book” -- Tumor is a surprisingly effective and mature tale; a nightmare captured unapologetically and unforgettably in words and art; a deft and precarious balance between heartbreak and hard-boiled action that teeters deliciously on the edge of noir, before finally, gloriously giving in. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Wolves of Fairmount Park by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur)
336 pages

Orlando Donovan, the junkie younger brother of a Philadelphia police officer who figures in Dennis Tafoya’s powerful and moving second novel, knows he’s a source of disappointment and shame to his estranged family: “He felt like a ghost, a phantom festooned with chains. Not fully present in life, able only to horrify. ... The fact of him an object lesson, a curse.” But within Orlando’s addicted frame beats the wounded heart of a hero. When his cop-brother’s son is injured in a drive-by shooting that kills another young man, Orlando determines to find out who’s responsible -- which means doing battle with the demons inside himself as well as those out prowling his city’s meaner streets. Author Tafoya, with his hard-boiled humanism and his dying-city poetics, may remind you of a lot of other good writers (George Pelecanos, Richard Price, George V. Higgins, and Ed Dee are a few that come to this reader’s mind). But his voice is all his own, and what he says with it on any given page is likely to surprise and affect you -- as in this passage, where Orlando’s brother stands over his son’s hospital bed and tries to summon a prayer; what he comes up with is something he remembers from an old plaque in his own policeman-father’s home: “When I start my tour of duty, God, Wherever crime may be, As I walk the darkened streets alone, Let me be close to thee. ... It was the kind of weepy nonsense that kept him away from church, but when he was a kid he used to get a secret thrill from reading it, and every time he did, he’d know he’d become a cop.” -- Tom Nolan

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2 Comments:

Blogger Marni said...

Think I found more on yesterday's list that I'll investigate, but thanks again for the tips! The Mankell looks particularly good~Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 12:53:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that the Savages review praised one of the weak points of the novel. The diatribes against Republicans just seemed out of place, like Winslow was inserting his own opinion into the heads of the characters and ignoring their in-story personalities. I don't care about politics as long as it's appropriate to the story and this wasn't. A real step down from The Dawn Patrol.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 2:58:00 PM PST  

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