Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Crime Fiction, Part I

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (Little, Brown) 320 pages
Peter Brown is an intern at a crappy Manhattan hospital, and he’s got a secret. A big one. He’s really a former hit man, now in the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. Things are going smoothly ... until he comes across an old associate who threatens to blow the whistle on him and have him killed if he doesn’t save him from the cancer that’s eating his organs. Josh Bazell’s debut novel has its flaws: the supporting cast is shockingly thin; you can predict every single plot twist in this novel if you’ve read or seen any mafia-related fiction (or, really, any crime fiction at all) over the last three decades; and the book feels weirdly short, and it’s even shorter on heart and soul. Nonetheless, I love it. I learned something this year: Books grow. They change. This time last year, I didn’t think Beat the Reaper would find a place on my Best of 2009 list. I didn’t even think I’d remember it a year from then. Yet the book stayed with me. I even re-read it, and now, understanding all the flaws it contains, I can get past them and enjoy the author’s voice. And Bazell may have the best new writer’s voice I’ve discovered in a long time. It’s quick and snappy, with a great smart-ass tone to it. And he employs footnotes to great effect: they’re funny, they’re educational (I now know that it’s really hard to murder somebody with air bubbles in a needle), and best of all, they serve the plot. The writing actually gets better as this book moves along, and toward the end, Bazell starts to show the heart that I often find lacking in this sort of book. I can’t wait to see what’s next from this author. -- Cameron Hughes

Black Friday by Alex Kava (Mira) 304 pages
Alex Kava’s newest Maggie O’Dell book, Black Friday, is a brilliantly executed page-turner. The story opens with a series of backpack bombs going off in Minnesota’s giant Mall of America on the busiest shopping day of the year. The explosives were carried by unsuspecting college students who thought they contained only computer-jamming equipment. Now, three survivors of that disaster find themselves in a race for their lives. One of them is Patrick Murphy, the stepbrother of FBI profiler and series heroine Maggie O’Dell. Assigned to track down the terrorist mastermind behind these bombings -- nicknamed The Project Manager -- is O’Dell, one of my favorite protagonists in thriller literature. She is still hurting emotionally in this book because her past supervisor, Assistant Director Kyle Cunningham, died in the previous novel. Her new boss doesn’t trust her at first, and then leads her in a strange direction: the possibility that The Project Manager is the mysterious John Doe #2 seen with Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City shortly before the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Although many people were killed in the mall blast, significantly more are endangered as The Project Manager plans his next big attack, this time in Phoenix, Arizona. Author Kava (Exposed, Whitewash) provides plenty of intriguing complications, including the involvement of a U.S. senator, who may want to quash the truth here under the guise of national security interests. One thing is certain however: Don’t ever discount O’Dell’s tenacity and grit. This thriller should be at the top of your list. -- Anthony Rainone

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Amistad/
HarperCollins) 434 pages

Before I read Attica Locke’s debut novel, I was intrigued to see her compared with Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley and Greg Iles. Would it have been possible to measure her against three more different writers? And yet, when you read this ambitious, muscular and ultimately triumphant work, you understand. In a way, protagonist Jay Porter was broken by the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In college, he was filled with passion for the cause that ultimately landed him in trouble with the law: wrongfully imprisoned and abandoned -- and perhaps even turned in -- by his white girlfriend. Ten years on, it’s 1981 and he’s a lawyer with an office in a Houston strip mall with bad carpet, a surly secretary and not enough clients to help him keep his wife and their unborn child in the style to which he would like them to become accustomed. And Porter is haunted by the circumstances that landed him in legal trouble. He sleeps with a .22 under his pillow and drives with a .38 in his glove compartment. He is paranoid and neurotic and otherwise deliciously flawed. But he is holding things together, despite the odds. One night, against his better judgment and on his wife’s insistence, he saves a woman from drowning. His act of unwilling heroism sets off a chain of events that are nearly his undoing ... or are they to be his redemption? Even when the story is entirely told, we’re not completely sure. Like all remarkable books, Black Water Rising works on every level. The portions of the story that deal with the Civil Rights era are well researched and tautly told. Those that deal with Jay’s present are suspense-filled and keep us on the edge of our seats. There are important issues in play here, but Locke is skilled enough that those lift the story; elevate it, never bogging it down. Attica Locke is a wonderful storyteller and Black Water Rising is a perfect book. -- Linda L. Richards

Blood Money by Tom Bradby (Bantam Press UK) 384 pages
Slowly but surely, British TV political editor Tom Bradby is stitching together a fictional universe of his own design. Over the last nine years, he’s seen four of his historical thrillers published: The Master of Rain (shortlisted for the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association Steel Dagger Award), The White Russian (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2003), The God of Chaos (another January pick, this time from 2005), and his newest book, this year’s Blood Money. What’s interesting about these novels, in addition to the fact that they’re all brimming with nefariousness and memorable characters, is that their casts tend to overlap, even though their time frames are different. For instance, one of the New York City cops in Blood Money, which is set in 1929, is the brother of a “Chicago-hardened” officer who, in The Master of Rain, helped pursue Chinese warlords and murderers in Shanghai in 1926. And this new novel’s protagonist, Joseph Quinn, was last seen in The God of Chaos, set in Cairo in 1942. These overlapping players give some continuity to Bradby’s stories, even though he isn’t committed to writing a series. Blood Money begins near the outset of America’s Great Depression, when Quinn reaches the scene of an apparent suicide: a banker has tumbled to his death from a Wall Street tower. However, the fact that he landed on his back, and that he was dressed against the day’s rainy weather (“Who puts on a coat to kill himself?”), suggest his last leap wasn’t made without assistance. Further complicating matters is the discovery in the dead man’s office of a photo showing a beautiful but under-attired woman who may or may not have been the deceased’s lover, and who may or may not know why he perished ... but who is definitely Quinn’s adopted sister and his brother’s fiancé, Martha. With Gotham’s latest mayoral race heating up, and the possibility of links being made between that “suicide” and stock market manipulations, organized criminal activities, and at least one cop on the take, Quinn’s superiors want his investigation wrapped up fast and quietly. But Quinn won’t let go, even though his determination to solve this puzzle threatens to end his own career, do further damage to his former celebrity cop father and cause Martha -- who he’s lusted after for years -- to hate him forever. Powerful storytelling, made all the more interesting by Bradby’s precise period atmospherics. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry (Metropolitan
Books) 112 pages

Write down this name and remember it: Hannah Berry. Her moody, atmospheric and astounding Britten and Brülightly may just be the best (and most unsettling) film noir since Chinatown. And it isn’t even a movie. It’s a graphic novel, a gloriously gloomy, deliciously cinematic tour de force, boasting almost-black-and-white artwork and measured, tight prose that “gets” noir in a way most current denizens of NoirLand never will. New kid on the block Berry straddles both the cinematic and the literary with her first effort. When Fernandez Britten, a dour, disillusioned 1940s London “private researcher” is hired by a woman to investigate her husband’s apparent suicide, he sees it as a chance for redemption. His long string of tawdry domestic cases has left him spiritually bruised and battered, teetering on the brink of an emotional and existential collapse, ostracized and alone. Except, that is, for his long-suffering, smart-ass partner and partner, Stewart Brülightly, a horny and rather acerbic teabag that Britten carries in his pocket. Yeah, a teabag. After all, this is England. This out-of-nowhere touch of surrealism, the occasional burst of humor and the large format of the work itself might suggest a child’s storybook, but don’t get suckered in. Britten and Brülightly’s unapologetically grim conclusion (and the deliberately beaten-down, washed-out art that makes the entire world look like it’s crying) is definitely not for kids -- or overly sensitive adults. Forget it, Jake -- it’s Lipton. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (Knopf) 288 pages
This scenic, sharply written series debut stars the head policeman in a small village called St. Denis on the River Vézère, in the Dordogne region of southern France (where the astounding caves of Périgord are located). Benoît Courrèges, or Bruno as his many friends known him, is a fellow of many parts and talents. A former soldier who has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life, he lives in a restored shepherd’s cottage, shops carefully at the weekly market, coaches the local children in rugby and tennis, makes excellent foie gras and pickled walnuts, and outwits bureaucrats from the European Union who try in vain to enforce their ridiculous laws governing local produce. Bruno has wit and charm that appeal to many of the local women, including a memorable character known as the Mad Englishwoman. But he also solves the occasional crime, as he must do after the peace of St. Denis is disturbed by the brutal slaying of an elderly North African who fought in the French army. The man is found with a swastika carved into his chest, leading Bruno and his friend and mentor, the Mayor, to fear that militants from the anti-immigrant National Front are responsible. -- Dick Adler

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster) 240 pages
Nobody combines historical fact with bravura fiction the way that Megan Abbott does. In The Song Is You, she gave her own distinctive stamp to the true tale of a young Hollywood starlet: Jean Spangler, a sexy-longlegs who disappeared one night in 1949 and was never seen again. The papers called her the “Daughter of Black Dahlia,” connecting the mystery of her fate to another notorious case from two years before. The true parts of Bury Me Deep are based on a criminal investigation that filled the tabloids in 1931, when a young doctor’s wife from Phoenix, Arizona, Winnie Ruth Judd, gave herself up to police, saying that sexual jealousy had led her to kill two of her female friends, dismember their corpses and then pack those off in a couple of trunks to a Los Angeles railway station. Judd -- dubbed “The Trunk Murderess,” “Tiger Woman” and “The Blonde Butcher” -- was found guilty and sentenced to death. Later, though, her lawyer asked for an amended verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Judd was finally relegated to a mental hospital, from which she escaped seven times. After the final escape, she went to work as a servant for a wealthy San Francisco family. Abbott’s fictionalized version of Judd, renamed Marion Seeley, is both a scarier and more touching figure than the original. In her pared-to-the-bone prose, Abbott brings Marion to vivid life as a woman whose innocence is bared and broken after she falls in with “the wrong crowd,” but who learns from that experience how to protect herself. No matter what it takes. All four of Abbott’s novels so far have been nominated for Edgar Awards, and Queenpin picked up the 2008 Edgar for Best Paperback Original. She deserves another Edgar for Bury Me Deep, a stunning work that shows her performing a dark magic all her own. -- Dick Adler

The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth (Viking) 416 pages
One of my favorite debut novels of the last 10 years was Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness (1999), which introduced John Madden, a thoughtful Scotland Yard detective inspector and World War I veteran. Madden went on to star in a second book, The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2003), which found him retiring from the force and settling down in Surrey, and lacked the pulse-racing suspense of his earlier adventure. Fortunately, I can report that The Dead of Winter shows Airth returning to the headlong pace he established originally. On a cold evening in 1944, a Polish girl is brutally murdered on the streets of wartime blacked-out London. Lacking clues to the identity of her assailant or a motive for her killing, the police figure it for a random crime. But as it turns out, the deceased, Rosa Nowak, had been working at Madden’s country farm. His interest in the case keeps it from being buried. And it isn’t long before there are connections realized between Nowak’s slaying and similar garrotings on the Continent. It appears that Madden and his former Scotland Yard colleagues are after a professional assassin and master of disguise, who’s been linked to anarchists and has lived under the radar in England for years, only now to risk exposure by killing Nowak. Airth does an excellent job of heightening suspense around the identification and pursuit of this hired gun. And though his sharing of viewpoints between several of the players here deprives us of the opportunity to get much inside Madden’s noggin, Airth still manages to give his protagonist an emotional presence and stake in the outcome of the investigation. Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding your breath as the denouement approaches. Airth had suggested that the Madden series would be a trilogy, but recently he’s hinted there might be at least a fourth book. I couldn’t be more happy at his change of mind. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Death Was in the Picture by Linda L. Richards
(Minotaur) 288 pages

After enjoying Death Was the Other Woman, the opening installment of Richards’ historical mystery series, and including it among my Best of 2008 crime fiction picks, I eagerly awaited the sequel, Death Was in the Picture. I wasn’t disappointed. The year is 1931, and secretary Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn -- a child of privilege who’s been forced into lesser circumstances by America’s Great Depression -- is investigating some dark dealings in Hollywood with her boss, hard-drinking Los Angeles gumshoe Dexter Theroux. Dex has been employed by mysterious parties to keep his private eyes on Laird Wyndham, a cinematic heartthrob whose moral standing may not be totally upright. When a promising young ingénue is murdered during a party (shades of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal), and Wyndham is spotted leaving the room where she died, only to be arrested, Dex smells a rat. But has Wyndham merely been framed, or does he perhaps have an agenda of his own in all of this? I love Richards’ detailed grasp of the alternately glitzy and glum era about which she writes, and the slang that goes along with it. However, my heart is most captured in this series by Kitty Pangborn. She’s modest but certainly resourceful, and she can handle herself in tight spots -- which is good, given that her boss tends to spend a bit too much time with the boys (Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, etc.). As Death Was in the Picture enters its later reels, Kitty and Dex go poking inside the workings of the Hollywood machine and see just how power -- and the hunger for it -- can lead to abuse and corruption. There are twists and turns enough for a carnival in these pages, along with some delightfully comic scenes. And Richards leaves the door open for more Kitty adventures -- which can’t come too soon for me. -- Ali Karim

Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya (Minotaur) 304 pages
So many among the new breed of noir writers seem to have been weaned on pulp fiction cartoons and second-rate Jim Thompson-like fireworks, that’s it’s a real rush to discover newcomer Dennis Tafoya pays as much attention to character as he does to mayhem and glib nihilism. Not that his fierce debut, Dope Thief, is all Dr. Phil or anything, but Tafoya’s idea of action aims higher than a few “cool scenes” and some penny-ante existentialism. In these pages, loser buddies Ray and Manny pose as agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order to rip off Philadelphia dealers even lower on the evolutionary scale than they are for their stash and cash. At first, it seems like a sweet gig, but Ray knows better: “It couldn’t go on forever ... Everyone was high. Everyone was stupid. Everyone had guns.” And sure enough, it’s not long before these two criminal masterminds inadvertently rip off someone smarter and far more deadly than they are: members of a ruthless biker gang who want more than just their pound of flesh. Forced to flee, the two friends split up, and the story takes a deliciously wicked hop, becoming a brooding, character-driven study with a peculiarly philosophical bent, as 30-something Ray tries to make sense of both a raw, hard-scraped world of “fucked-up people” and his own wasted life. Yeah, there’s a girl, and enough of the sort of rough, brutal nastiness you’d expect; but the real pleasure in Dope Thief lies in Tafoya’s willingness to dig into the lies and sorry justifications that Ray -- and by extension, all of us -- tell ourselves. Anyone can write about a character pulling the trigger, but it takes real chops to make us care not just about where the bullet’s going but about the man who’s holding the gun. Fans of the young man blues, as played by Richard Price or George Pelecanos, take heed -- there’s a new kid in town. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason (Thomas Dunne/Minotaur) 312 pages
The Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö really started something in the 1960s with their smart, socially conscious police-procedural novels involving Superintendent Martin Beck; the success of their books began a long-lasting boom in Scandinavian police crime fiction, a creative movement whose products, in translation, are this decade showing up on American bookshelves and bestseller lists. One of the most compelling Beck successors is Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, the Icelandic police detective chronicled by Arnaldur Indridason in such works as The Draining Lake (translated by Bernard Scudder). Divorced, haunted by the childhood memory of a vanished brother, pained by the disappointing behavior of his two grown kids, the inspector brings a heightened emotional sensitivity to the investigation of his police-puzzles -- in this instance, the discovery of a decades-old skeleton at the bottom of a lake, weighted down by a Cold War-era radio transmitter. The inspector and his colleagues trace the skeleton back to East Germany and a time when that country’s citizens were encouraged by authorities to spy on their own friends, families and lovers. The dogged Inspector Sveinsson doesn’t fail to get to the heart of the matter, in this subtle and moving work in which the detective’s contemporary melancholia complements the private sorrows of postwar Europe. -- Tom Nolan

Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay (Bantam) 416 pages
Noir hits hardest when it hits where we live. Which is why domestic noir is big right now. Mouth-breathing sociopaths, terrorists (both homegrown and foreign), serial killers and hit men are all credible bogeymen. But the loss of a child? The guilt over a failed marriage? The dashed dreams of a life gone awry? That’s what really makes us squirm. Which is why Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, Fear the Worst, is so unnerving. It’s the sheer familiarity that brings it all back home. A broken family, a good daughter, a wild friend, a fragile ex-wife, new relationships, the shards of old ones, a mopey stepbrother, bullshit office politics, a cookie-cutter subdivision -- is any of this honestly unfamiliar to anyone out there? Even the divorced couple at the story’s core, used-car salesman Tim Blake and his ex, Suzanne, aren’t the perpetually squabbling wolverines so often depicted in literature and film, but recognizable human beings simply trying to patch together their tattered lives, hoping they haven’t permanently scarred their 17-year-old daughter, Sydney. They carry on, trying to do as right as they can. But we all know where good intentions can lead. And for Tim, hell is that moment when Sydney doesn’t come home from her summer job. Tim’s increasingly frantic search (rooted in such day-to-day concerns as maxing out a credit card) eventually strips bare the safe, smug suburban banality that passes for the pursuit of happiness. Lies, hate, deceit, fraud, alcoholism, jealousy, prostitution, loneliness, rape, even murder -- none of it is quite as far away as you might think. By the time Barclay jacks up the tension to Hitchcockian levels, you’ll be peering through the shades, wondering what that car’s doing there at this time of night. Or where your child is. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Feelers by Brian M. Wiprud (Minotaur) 320 pages
New York author Brian Wiprud has been poised to be the Next Big Thing for awhile now, and if there is a God, Feelers will be his breakout hit, because it’s absolutely fantastic. It contains one of the oldest plots in fiction: A regular person comes across a large stash of money, takes it for himself and then learns why greed can be a very bad thing. Morty Martinez is a “feeler.” Officially, his job is to clean out the houses and apartments of old people who just died, in order to lessen the burden on their relatives. But his real purpose is to search around for any money hidden in coffee cans or shoeboxes, where elderly folk distrustful of banks might secret it. While on a routine job, Morty discovers the largest stash of his life, and instead of telling his employers, he keeps the dough for himself and buttons his lips. Morty is such a great character, humble yet proud of his Mexican heritage and fiercely loyal to the Brooklyn streets where he grew up. His world feels old and worn and lived in, as authentic as anything, and there isn’t a stock player among his cast of friends and associates. Even Wiprud’s baddie here seems genuine, a guy who was once a kid with a bright future, but who had some poor influences and wound up in prison, where he learned to be a killer (an unfailingly polite one). The humor and vivid players in these pages put me in mind of the Coen brothers’ film work, particularly their latest flick, Burn After Reading. The Coens might do well by Wiprud’s many creations -- the regular people, shysters, cons, killers and folks just trying to get by with their heads down, hoping not to cause a stir. -- Cameron Hughes

Get Real by Donald E. Westlake (Grand Central) 288 pages
I’m still reeling from Donald E. Westlake’s death just a year ago. There are a lot of authors whose work I loved, and who passed away in recent years, but none I idolized more than Westlake -- a novelist who, for my money, was the best plotter alive. Get Real is a very nice parting gift from the great man. Affable criminal genius John Dortmunder and his gang are feeling the squeeze of the new world. The sagging economy has made robbery less lucrative and security in most places has gone way up. Executives at a TV studio are feeling the heat, too. They have launched a string of successful reality shows (including one about a farm stand in the little town where Westlake’s 1990 novel, Drowned Hopes, took place -- just one of the many in-jokes here), but they desperately need a new hit. Perhaps up-and-coming executive Doug Fairkeep has the ticket: Why not a reality show about a real heist? At first, Dortmunder and his gang are hesitant to participate; being watched while committing theft isn’t usually a good idea, and the risk seems too high for a little reward. But details are worked out and the gang members are assured that everything will be fine, as far as legal niceties go. So they accept -- and meanwhile scheme to rob the production company of its hidden assets. There are lots of running gags in this story: the reality show’s title keeps changing; new characters (such as a gun moll) are added to “spice it up”; and Dortmunder’s gang keeps breaking into Fairkeep’s apartment to express their concerns about the show. The real comedy, though, comes straight from the world of reality television, where it seems perfectly normal to discuss at length the details of an S&M dungeon show. No doubt about it: I’m going to miss you, Mr. Westlake. -- Cameron Hughes

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville (Soho) 336 pages
Just when you thought the invasion of excellent Irish crime writers -- a group nicknamed “Celtic Noir” -- had ended, along comes Stuart Neville with his first novel. Such impressive colleagues as John Connolly, Ken Bruen and Gene Kerrigan have joined in praising The Ghosts of Belfast (which was published last summer in the UK as The Twelve). Bruen calls it “the book when the world sits up and goes ‘WOW, the Irish really have taken over the world of crime writing.’” This novel’s central character is Gerry Fegan, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) “hard man,” a killer in Northern Ireland, who has now been reduced by the coming of peace to a shambling drunk, haunted by the ghosts of 12 victims who follow him everywhere. The only way that Fegan can kill off his ghosts is by tracking down his IRA superiors, the people who ordered that he commit those murders. This he does with violent precision, one by one, until he is alone again. Along the way, author Neville condenses the fear and hate that troubled Ireland for so long, at the same time creating a memorable character with ease and a cool, deceptively straightforward writing style. -- Dick Adler

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson (Knopf) 512 pages
Following the incidents described in Larsson’s debut novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008), Lisbeth Salander, the 20-something partner of Swedish journalist-publisher Mikael Blomkvist, “inherited” a vast sum of money, so she’s decided to see something of the world. Distanced from her love interest, and feeling jealous of Blomkvist’s relationship with a business associate, the misfit Salander cuts herself off. While exploring the Caribbean island of Grenada, danger approaches, thanks to a tornado called Matilda. During that storm, Salander encounters other threats, these in human form. Afterward, she returns to Sweden and resumes a physical relationship with an old girlfriend. However, like Batman or Superman, our Ms. Salander has her own secret retreat, an expensive flat registered under one of her secret identities. Meanwhile, Blomkvist is puzzled by Salander’s disappearance and her refusal to return his calls. He plans to publish a special edition of his magazine, Millennium, to coincide with a book being written, one that exposes the illicit business of people-trafficking and the damaged women sucked into that world. Blomkvist knows that this exposé will destroy some senior people in Swedish society, but being every inch the moral crusader, he can’t see beyond his wish to shed light on the hypocrisy such individuals exhibit. Things take a turn for the worse, though, when the two journalists hired for the job are murdered, and the description of their fleeing assailant matches Lisbeth Salander. From there, we’re offered a multifarious web of dark doings that seem to originate with, or at least relate to Salander and her strange behavior. To investigate this case, Swedish police assign a motley bunch headed by the wonderfully crafted Inspector Jan Bublanski (known behind his back as “Officer Bubble”). The novel’s conclusion is truly shocking, as we learn why Lisbeth Salander became such an outcast. Despite its convoluted and violent narrative, The Girl Who Played with Fire shows why Larsson’s name will one day be spoken with the same reverence currently reserved for the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and others. -- Ali Karim

The Hidden Man by David Ellis (Putnam) 336 pages
If you’re the prosecutor who just hung Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich out to dry, what do you do for an encore? If you’re David Ellis, you write your best legal thriller yet, creating a new series hero who should be around for a long time. Jason Kolarich, a Chicago criminal defense attorney easing the pain of a personal tragedy by taking on no-brainer cases and drinking himself into a stupor most nights, has come down in the world. A college football star, he landed a good job with one of the Windy City’s most prestigious law firms after serving as a county prosecutor. Fame and fortune came his way in the wake of his second-chairing the successful defense of a state senator who had been charged by the feds with extortion and taking bribes. But then came tragedy -- the car-accident death of his wife and child. Kolarich is only just getting back on his feet, when he’s handed a nightmare of a case. It begins when a man known to him only as Mr. Smith offers the attorney a very large retainer to defend Sammy Cutler. Cutler was Kolarich’s closest boyhood friend, but he hasn’t seen him in 20 years. Now Cutler is up on a murder charge, accused of killing the sexual predator who everybody believes stole Cutler’s baby sister, Audrey, from her bed a quarter-century before. Cutler wants Kolarich to get him off, but it’s not going to be easy. The case will “require dedication, consistency and full work days,” Kolarich explains -- and the price of screwing it up will be that his old friend spends the rest of his life behind bars. -- Dick Adler

Hollywood Moon by Joseph Wambaugh (Little, Brown) 352 pages
Several years ago, I read The New Centurions (1971) and The Choirboys (1975), and declared that the latter was the best police novel ever written -- a sentiment I haven’t changed since. Both books were real, funny and mature reads. So I rejoiced when, after 10 years of semi-retirement, cop-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh returned to fiction-writing in Hollywood Station (2006). And Hollywood Moon, his third and final book in that series (after 2008’s Hollywood Crows), feels like a fitting end to the fictional world he’s created. We find Hollywood Nate still trying to break into the movie business, surfer cops Jetsam and Flotsam still searching for that perfect wave, and female cops still struggling to win respect in a male-dominated field. As in many of Wambaugh’s ensemble cop “dramadies,” Moon is told in a succession of vignettes that tie together seamlessly at the end. The main thrust of its plot is identity theft committed by a seemingly normal married couple, and how things get out of hand and deadly. The heart of this and other Wambaugh novels, though, lies with the beat cops. As much as the next guy, I like books about homicide detectives, when they are done well; but there’s a fascination to be found in reading about the wholly separate world of the boys in blue who work the grunt jobs, and the deeds they commit that only rarely win them recognition, and usually earn them derision -- and far less money than they deserve. Wambaugh’s famous dialogue skills are fully on display here, and his characters threaten to leap off the page, sweating and irritable. The author understands the culture about which he writes so well, you can’t help but become immersed in his tale. A lesser writer would have made this series a flat-out comedy. But Wambaugh is smart: he understands that there is a truth and humanity in even the funniest scenes. God, I’m glad Joe Wambaugh is back and at full speed! -- Cameron Hughes

Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed by Marc Blatte (Schaffner
Press) 275 pages

Hip hop is the music of the new and increasingly ugly world. The best of it is political and moving, with vivid characters and provocative writing. I’d like to see somebody like Jay-Z or Nas pen a crime novel. Go listen to Common’s song “Testify,” about a black man on trial: It features a beginning, a middle and a twist ending with a femme fatale. There were a lot of places in Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, Marc Blatte’s hip-hop-related debut novel, where I wanted to check the cover to see if this wasn’t an 87th Precinct story by Ed McBain. That’s high praise, and understandable, since McBain was Blatte’s mentor for many years and is considered one of the most influential crime writers who ever lived. In Blatte’s tale, we meet Sal Messina, aka Black Sallie Blue Eyes (a hip-hop sort of a name if ever there was one), a New York City homicide cop who’s very good at his job. One night, Messina is called to investigate the gun slaying of a man outside a Manhattan nightclub -- a crime that incites a refugee from Kosovo to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Messina and his team look for the gangsters behind a music producer’s stabbing. Blatte creates a huge world in these pages, populated by young and hungry rappers and old pros in the music game, as well as immigrant thugs and a diverse cast of cops. I love it that Blatte just lets his characters talk amongst themselves, sometimes about really inane stuff. McBain was famous for his written dialogue, and Blatte follows his lead, while never actually copying his mentor. Blatte’s Manhattan is both real and on the edge of reality. A lot of the players in his yarn are outrageous, without being cartoony. By the end of the book, I knew these folks, I grieved for them when bad things happened and I laughed in joy at their victories. That is rare behavior for me when it comes to an author’s debut. My only question now: When do I get to read Blatte’s next novel? -- Cameron Hughes

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