Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Books of 2009: Crime Fiction, Part II

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (Harvill Secker UK)
320 pages

I speak from my status as a longtime follower of Indridason’s Icelandic police-procedural series when I say that Hypothermia is, without a doubt, this series’ best installment yet. Why? Because one of the narrative strands in this tale details the childhood tragedy that still haunts Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. What Indridason does so well in his detective novels is to offer one main story thread, plus three or four story strands in the background that may or may not collide with the main thread. The principal thread in Hypothermia is the tragic suicide of a young woman named Maria. Erlendur believes that there was more to Maria’s demise than the rope found around her neck. After her husband, Baldvin, explains that Maria was depressed following the recent loss to cancer of her mother, Leonora, and desperate enough to dabble in séances, Erlendur decides to go it alone to uncover the truth. His Reykjavik colleagues, criminology expert Sigurdur Óli and policewoman Elínborg, are skeptical of their boss’ tenacity to dig into what is apparently a family tragedy. But he’s been right many times before. During the course of this investigation, we learn more about the snowstorm death of Bergur Sveinsson, Erlendur’s younger brother, and the effects it had on the melancholic detective and their relatives. As with Indridason’s previous novels (including Voices and The Draining Lake), Hypothermia’s narrative is edged with sadness; it’s also shadowed with the paranormal. Although I miss Indridason’s original translator, the late poet Bernard Scudder, replacement Victoria Cribb does a wonderful job here in bringing Indridason’s story to life in the English language. This tale is as chilly as its title suggests. -- Ali Karim

If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr (Quercus UK) 455 pages
When we last heard from Bernie Gunther, in The Quiet Flame (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2008), he was departing Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950, fleeing in the night after solving the gruesome murder of a young girl and falling in love with an enchanting Jewish woman wary of his former Nazi ties. Now leap backwards in time to 1934. Germany’s indulgent old Weimar Republic has given way to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, and Gunther, disgusted with the new regime (“I’m not a Nazi,” he proclaims early on. “I’m a German. And a German is different from a Nazi. A German is a man who manages to overcome his worst prejudices. A Nazi is a man who turns them into laws.”), has quit the Berlin police department to become a house detective at his city’s famous Hotel Adlon. He’s also just accidentally killed a cop, which can’t be good for business. And business isn’t all that good to begin with. For starters, he’s reluctantly helping a hotel guest named Max Reles, a gangster from Chicago, retrieve a 17th-century Chinese box that was apparently lost to the light fingers of a “joy girl” turned stenographer. In addition, he’s playing escort to a woman journalist from the New York Herald Tribune, Noreen Charalambides, who’s looking for evidence of anti-Semitism to stir up an international boycott of Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games. Gunther would love to cause trouble for Hitler’s government. However, he must move carefully, both to duck blame for that dead flatfoot and because he’s learned that he’s one-quarter Jewish, and is trying to buy himself an “Aryan transfusion” that will expunge that fact from his record. Doing his job while protecting his own ass won’t be easy, especially when he’s called to investigate a couple of homicides. Only 20 years later, though, will this story reach its conclusion, as Gunther encounters both Reles and Noreen in pre-revolutionary Cuba and seeks the justice he was unable to realize earlier. Kerr is a storyteller from whom other storytellers should steal. He has a sharp ear for clever and caustic dialogue, imbues his chief players with egos and emotions enough to make them seem genuine, is economical in incorporating real people into his fiction, and in Bernie Gunther gives us somebody we can always root for -- even when the man does things that ought to land him behind bars. If the Dead Rise Not is not a perfect book: there are too many coincidences in its underdeveloped latter section, and it reaches a too-speedy conclusion. Then again, I’m judging by the high standards Philip Kerr has set for his series over six installments. By lesser measurements, this is Best Book of the Year material. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Last Child by John Hart (Minotaur) 384 pages
I was bowled over by John Hart’s 2006 debut novel, The King of Lies, and even more impressed with his Richard & Judy-nominated, Edgar Award-winning 2007 thriller, Down River. But as the old saying goes, good things often come in threes. So I wasn’t surprised, soon after cracking the spine of Hart’s latest book, The Last Child, to find myself entranced. When 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s twin sister, Alyssa, disappears from a side street in their rural North Carolina hometown, his whole world and that of his family is ruptured. Then it disintegrates, with his father leaving him and his increasingly self-destructive mother behind. While everyone else assumes Alyssa is dead, Johnny decides he will find out for sure. Armed only with his wits and the assistance of two friends -- police detective Clyde Hunt, who’s working the Alyssa Merrimon case, and a giant named Levi -- Johnny goes looking beneath the veneer and into the historical and emotional cracks of his town. A second girl’s vanishing heightens the tension. What Johnny finds as he probes these mysteries will make your skin crawl, I guarantee it. Filled with Southern angst and genuine-feeling family strife, and reminiscent in tone of Harper Lee’s fiction, The Last Child points Hart in the direction of Grisham-level fame. This book already won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. -- Ali Karim

The Lovers by John Connolly (Atria) 352 pages
This eighth novel in Irish writer John Connolly’s Charlie Parker private-eye series pulls together many of the strands he’s been weaving through his preceding installments. Each word, sentence, paragraph and page in The Lovers seems to have been considered, polished and refined to form a picture-perfect narrative, one that is as chilling as it is poignant. The tale starts out with Parker looking into the mysterious suicide of his father, following the latter’s shooting of two young lovers for no apparent reason. Charlie Parker’s investigation will place his own life in context and reveal why shadowy figures from his earlier adventures (The Collector, The Traveling Man, etc.) were interested in him. Making his job more difficult, journalist Mickey Wallace is writing a lurid true-crime book about Charlie Parker’s life, and a Jewish cleric knows more than he’s willing to reveal until dead bodies start to pile up. Parker has to rely on his psychopathic sidekicks, Louis and Angel, to watch his back as the secrets of The Lovers are revealed. This tale is peppered with heart-wrenching vignettes concerning the dark side of our existence. At times, I put the book down and felt my eyes moisten, due to the compassion exhibited in this yarn. On other occasions, I tossed the book aside, due to my growing sense of unease and fear about what lay ahead. Reading The Lovers felt like opening the door to a charnel house, filled with the screams of the dead. But its narrative is enriched by Connolly’s research, evident in some curious observations, historical references and insights into the darker edges of religion. When I reached the novel’s end, all the events in the previous Parker books fell into context like the numbers on a lottery wheel. A most satisfying experience, indeed. -- Ali Karim

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry (Penguin
Press) 275 pages

It’s always raining on the dream-cityscape that’s the setting for Jedediah Berry’s unusual debut novel, The Manual of Detection, a surrealistic and symbolist book whose mean streets have as much in common with René Magritte and Salvador Dali as with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Protagonist Charles Unwin (sic) labors at a mammoth investigative bureau called “The Agency” -- like the Pinkerton outfit as imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, maybe -- where his unexpected promotion from clerk to detective (“For better or worse, somebody has noticed you”) provokes a carnival of odd events. There are strange doings at the edge of town, and odd shifts in the time-space continuum, as Unwin searches for his illustrious missing predecessor at the Agency, the palindromic Travis Sivart. The plot (as it were) is in constant shift and rain-blurred focus, like a poem written by an automaton or a dream generated by software, in this realm where “every looking-glass is a two-way mirror.” If you’re seeking a standard-issue thriller, drop The Manual of Detection like a hot rock. But if you want an inventive, amusing, Fellini-esque dream-within-a-dream, try this somnambulistic fable. You may never get out awake. -- Tom Nolan

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston (Ballantine) 336 pages
“Trauma scene and waste cleaning is a growth industry,” remarks Po Sin, the owner and operator of Clean Team. His observation comes early in Charlie Huston’s terrific neo-noir black comedy, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. It’s such a weird statement that you have to laugh; but it’s true, people die in horrible ways every single day, and someone has to clean it up -- for good money. Someone like Web Goodhue. The protagonist in these pages, he’s an asshole: he admits it, his friends know it, and his family knows it. Fine. The biggest lie about fiction writing is that your protagonist has to be likable. Why? Was Tony Soprano really a nice guy? How about serial killer Dexter Morgan from the Showtime TV series Dexter? They’re charming and charismatic, but not actually good people. They are, however, easy to relate to as humans. Web, too, is human. Fatal flaws and all. He suffered a tragedy that no one should have gone through, and paid dearly for it. Now, he loafs around his best friend’s apartment/tattoo parlor and does as little as he can. But his buddy finally gets sick of it and pushes him toward the first job available, which is cleaning up gory crime scenes. The people he works with are just ordinary folk, trying to make a buck. It isn’t long, though, before Web is summoned to clean up a mess for a woman he just met. And before you can say “trauma,” he’s involved with a bizarre smuggling operation and trying to free a kidnap victim from some very bad people. Gore lovers will find plenty of that here, but there’s also a nice and intricate crime-fiction plot for the rest of us. In the end, what makes The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death great is its searing humanity. Frankly, with such a great premise and character, I won’t be surprised if a network like Showtime or HBO picks up Web Goodhue as a series star. -- Cameron Hughes

9 Dragons by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) 374 pages
It’s tempting to compare today’s Southern California detective novelists to their predecessors, especially to Raymond Chandler. But while it’s said that former journalist Michael Connelly, best-known as the author of several novels featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, was inspired to write novels in part by the work of Chandler, he has surely long since put his own distinctive stamp on Los Angeles-based crime fiction. No one would mistake 9 Dragons, Connelly’s latest Bosch book, with a Chandler effort. For one thing, much of its action takes place in Hong Kong, where the police detective’s teenage daughter lives, and where he races to save her from what seems to be imminent danger. The author’s characteristic touches are in strong evidence: current cases’ connections with past Bosch mysteries and with other Connelly series; and the sense of doom that seems to dog the detective like a hovering cloud. As fast as Harry Bosch rushes towards the light at the end of his personal tunnel, so quickly he drags his dark shadow behind -- always seeming to succeed and fail in equal measure. Some of the painful personal shocks he endures in 9 Dragons make Chandler’s mean streets look, in retrospect, almost benign. -- Tom Nolan

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus, and
Giroux) 208 pages

Denis Johnson is the King Midas of contemporary American literature. It seems there is nothing he touches that doesn’t gleam with the burnish of gold. Carveresque short stories? Check (Jesus’ Son). Central American political thriller? Double-check (The Stars at Noon). Vietnam War magnum opus? Check, check and check (Tree of Smoke). This year, Johnson delivered a novel which could have rolled off the typewriters of Chandler, Cain or Hammett. Set in contemporary Northern California, Nobody Move stars a guy named Jimmy Luntz as a sort of Humphrey Bogart drifter who gets on the wrong side of a man named Juarez, who has sent his trusted henchman, Ernest Gambol, after Jimmy to collect a hefty debt. Meanwhile, Jimmy is ensnared by Anita Desilvera, a femme fatale who’s been framed for extortion by her louse of a husband. In the novel’s first two dozen pages, Johnson sets the stage for a tense dance of pursuit, evasion, sex, revenge and hair-trigger violence. At once a pastiche and an homage to classic noir-lit, Nobody Move is a novel that snaps its sentences like a stick on a snare drum and barrels through 200 pages with the accelerator pressed to the floor. Compared to the hefty Tree of Smoke, Nobody Move is a stiletto. But it cuts just as deep. -- David Abrams

The Professional by Robert B. Parker (Putnam) 304 pages
Robert B. Parker makes it look easy. Too easy, in a time when the pain and agony of writing has become just another marketing point, and any author who dares to be prolific runs the risk of being dismissed as somehow inferior, of being a mere entertainer, of being a hack. As though the time spent writing a book is a better indication of its literary merit than the book itself. Well, the hell with that. In 2009, while other, often more highly regarded novelists were allegedly sweating over every comma and clause (pausing only to whine publicly about the agony of writing), Parker published four books: Night and Day, another in his popular Jesse Stone series; Brimstone, the third is his acclaimed western series, featuring town tamers Hitch and Cole; and Chasing the Bear, a Young Adult novel featuring a teenage version of Spenser, Parker’s bread-and-butter private-eye hero. Chasing the Bear was a solid and effective work, dealing -- as do almost all of Parker’s books -- with matters of honor and morality, courage and compromise, and love and autonomy. And all rendered in Parker’s lean, tight prose, with little in the way of fat, and with dialogue -- Parker’s one real literary indulgence -- that’s right up there in the George V. Higgins/Elmore Leonard category. The Professional offers more of the same. The 37th installment of his long-running Spenser series, it follows the Boston gumshoe as he investigates a handsome stud who’s simultaneously bedding and putting the squeeze on four married, middle-aged women. Pro that he is, Spenser tracks down the cad fairly quickly. But then the real fun begins. Were this the work of a hack, stopping the blackmail would be the end of things; but Parker, as always, has a few buttons to push. The scoundrel turns out to be surprisingly affable, piquing Spenser’s curiosity. And the question of why, not who, becomes the point -- at least until, in a deft change of focus, we see what Parker’s really after this time: a mediation on masculinity and friendship, and its limits. Granted, anyone familiar with Steinbeck may see what’s coming, and the plot shifts and the “likable” blackmailer may throw some readers. But somehow Parker pulls it off, offering a smart, literate mystery that provokes and challenges, while never failing to entertain. And it didn’t take him 100,000 words and three years of hand-wringing to accomplish. That’s because Parker, like Spenser, is a professional. -- Kevin Burton Smith

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown) 448 pages
After being given his pink slip at the Los Angeles Times in a downsizing move, cop-shop reporter Jack McEvoy is not about to start feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he chooses to go out with a bang. And as we see in The Scarecrow, he has just the attention-grabbing article in mind. Sixteen-year-old Alonzo Winslow stands accused of killing 23-year-old stripper Denise Babbit and stuffing her body into the trunk of her car. Los Angeles police detectives claim that Winslow confessed to the killing, and the authorities are set to charge him as an adult. Although McEvoy initially envisioned his article as a large exposé on how a young man is turned into a killer, his subsequent investigation leaves him convinced that Winslow didn’t actually do Babbit in. But very quickly, he runs into problems. First off, Angela Cook, his younger replacement on the cop beat, convinces the assistant city editor to let her co-write the article and grab a piece of McEvoy’s byline and thunder. Secondly, Babbit’s real killer -- “The Scarecrow” -- becomes aware of McEvoy and Cook’s interest in the homicide. The Scarecrow makes it his priority to stop them before they dig too deep and discover his sordid history. After things go south with deadly consequences, McEvoy calls in the one person he can trust to help: his ex-lover, current FBI agent Rachel Walling. Walling is a recurring character in many of Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, and a fan favorite. It isn’t long before she and McEvoy pick up their romance where it stalled years ago, a romance that nearly ended her law-enforcement career. Walling is a prototypical Connelly character: she has been to the dark side and back. The sublime joy of Connelly’s newest novel is watching McEvoy and Walling track down their quarry. The reader feels an increasing dread, knowing that The Scarecrow has them outwitted at almost every turn. This is a taught thriller that makes clear why Connelly’s name so often appears on bestseller lists. -- Anthony Rainone

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central) 416 pages
The bigger the first book, the harder the second. The next fence, as any jockey will tell you, is always the toughest. It’s hard to get away from adages, except to say that British writer Tom Rob Smith clears the second obstacle better than the first with another blockbuster set in the mid-20th-century Soviet Union. This time around, Joseph Stalin is dead, and Nikita Khrushchev decides it is time for a change. His “Secret Speech” is meant to herald a new era and condemn the recent past, but it brings immense chaos. Author Smith revels in it. Child 44 -- based on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered a huge number of Russian children over many years -- was the super hit of last year’s crime list. It brought Smith the sort of success that every new writer hopes for on his or her debut. The fact is, though, that I didn’t like Child 44 very much, and was surprised so many people did. I found Smith’s fictional “solution” far-fetched and unsatisfactory. It stuck too close to the true story for much of the time, and then wandered off into adolescent fantasy at all the crucial points. I mean to say, does one man murder an army of children for no better reason than to trace the brother he hasn’t seen for ages? The strong points of Child 44 were respected secret policeman Leo Demidov, his wife, Raisa, and Smith’s tense prose. All of those elements are back in The Secret Speech, tighter and tougher than before. The story is a rollicking rollercoaster ride of a teenage adventure filled with rooftop escapes, Siberian death camps, Hungarian revolutions and hand-to-hand fighting on the high seas. It is all very Robert Louis Stevenson-esque, with hunks of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon thrown in. Who needs a film script? Hollywood should already be hopping. -- Michael Gregorio

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 384 pages
Family and film share the spotlight in this intricately wrought sequel to Jonathan Rabb’s first historical crime thriller, Rosa (one of January’s favorite books of 2005). Again, we’re in Berlin, this time in 1927 at the height of the Weimer Republic, watching beleaguered Kriminal-Oberkommisar Nikolai Hoffner go through the paces of probing a murder. The dead man -- a supposed suicide -- is Gerhard Thyssen, a producer at the famous Universum Film AG (Ufa) studios outside the city. One expects to learn that Thyssen didn’t off himself. What’s less predictable is where Hoffner’s investigation will lead: to the disappearance of a movie starlet, the discovery of a secret room at a sex club where pornographic flicks are shown, and a criminal plot centered on technology allowing sound to be recorded synchronously with what had been silent pictures. It seems Thyssen was responsible for Ufa’s top-secret work in the “talkies” realm, and now that he’s gone, so is the device he’d sought to perfect. Everyone wants to find the thing, including Ufa’s most prominent director, the real-life Fritz Lang (Metropolis), because they can imagine how it might revolutionize entertainment (and, of course, make possible Nazi propaganda newsreels during the coming decade). Pursuing inquiries that lead him deep into Berlin’s seamier corners and expose a plot to rearm post-war Germany, Hoffner seeks assistance from one of a powerful local criminal, as well as from the captivating Helen Coyle, who may or may not be a talent agent with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the States. At the same time, the chief inspector must contend with his two estranged sons, one of whom has gone to work for Ufa, while the other, angrier boy has fallen under the sway of Joseph Goebbels and the right-wing German Workers’ Party. Rabb does an excellent job in Shadow and Light of painting Weimer-era Berlin in all of its multifarious and corrupt hues, and does much to elaborate on the character of his protagonist, who is beset on all sides by his failures and the painful reminders of them. One can only imagine what challenges and disappointments might yet befall Nikolai Hoffner, as the author prepares what he insists is the final part of a trilogy. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (Random House) 288 pages
Alan Furst gets better, book by book. Each one reveals some new, intriguing aspect of his immense talents. When his first historical spy novel, Night Soldiers, appeared in 1988, it hardly seemed possible that his work could get any better. But Dark Star (1991), with its effortless painting of the complexity of middle-European politics, would be difficult to beat, while the ironic poignancy of The Polish Officer (1995) put him into the top bracket of contemporary spy novelists. Yet here we go again. Best books of 2009. (Yes, I know that The Spies of Warsaw came out in hardcover last year, but its publication this year in paperback makes it fair game for this listing.) Although Furst’s chosen genre is ever more clearly defined, there is nothing reductively “spy” about his storytelling. It all comes down to the solidity of the characters he creates, his consistent eye for detail and the natural vivacity of his plotting, which is the true essence of his narrative style. The Spies of Warsaw is as similar to -- and as unlike -- his other books as anything could be, though it is distinctively “Furstian.” Which is to say that it has a recognizable bouquet, like the finest of wines. Spies is the detached, understated memoir of Colonel Jean-François Mercier, a French aristocrat working in Warsaw, Poland, as a military attaché in 1937, making the embassy rounds of social events, picking up tidbits from colleagues, lovers and men who happen to work in Nazi arms factories, watching the “storm-clouds gather over Europe,” and yearning for his country estate and his favorite hunting dogs. The novel is a consummate achievement, a page-turner of astounding literary quality. In the end it all boils down to one driving impulse: Mercier wants to rescue Anna Szarbek from Warsaw and carry her off to Paris. And that is what he does. He gets the girl, despite the gathering storm clouds, knowing that it won’t be long before the Nazi’s tanks come rolling down the Champs Élysées. Was ever a plot more simple, or more satisfying? -- Michael Gregorio

Stardust by Joseph Kanon (Atria) 512 pages
Publisher-turned-novelist Joseph Kanon’s latest book -- his fifth -- is as good as any of those that have come before, including the Edgar Award-winning Los Alamos (1997). It’s about a young man, Ben Collier, the son of a famous German director, who has returned to the United States from service in Europe with the Signal Corps. Ben travels to California in 1946 after his sister-in-law, Liesl, informs him that his B-movie director brother, Danny, has suffered a serious tumble from a hotel window. Was it an accident or a suicide attempt? Ben arrives just in time to witness his brother briefly emerge from a coma, but soon afterward Danny dies. While Liesl believes the suicide theory, Ben suspects that someone pushed Danny to his early death, and he turns amateur detective in order to identify the culprit. Liesl and Ben soon begin a scorching affair, which is of course too good to last. Toss in the atmospherics of Los Angeles’ German émigré community and revelations about Danny’s role in an anti-Communist crusade launched by a congressman against the American film industry, and you’ve got all the makings of a box-office, er, bookstore hit. -- Dick Adler

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley (Touchstone) 370 pages
Author Gruley is the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, but don’t expect any business secrets to be revealed in his smashing debut thriller, Starvation Lake. Gruley has either played or been obsessed with the lower depths of amateur hockey, and he’s as familiar with the backwaters of Michigan as he is with his computer keyboard. He also knows how to drag you kicking and screaming into a story so gripping that you’ll probably devour it in one gulp -- like the heavenly sounding egg pie served at Audrey’s Diner (“Cheddar cheese and scrambled eggs bubbled up through a golden cocoon of Italian bread ... Steam billowed from the sausage, bacon, potatoes, green peppers, mushrooms and onions baked inside ...”). In this yarn, Gus Carpenter is the associate editor of the local newspaper, a man who’s been forced home to Starvation Lake (where his shrewd mother still lives) after a promising investigative reporter’s job at a Detroit broadsheet imploded. One freezing night, the remains of a snowmobile are discovered in the titular lake -- the same machine in which Carpenter’s former hockey coach died some years back after crashing through the ice on another, nearby body of water. Evidence of the coach’s murder is discovered, and the mystery of how the snowmobile got into Starvation Lake adds another baffling element. Carpenter’s efforts to solve these mysteries promise to shake up more than a few people. This one’s a definite keeper -- especially when served with egg pie from Audrey’s. -- Dick Adler

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Delacorte) 373 pages
Flavia de Luce, the feisty 11-year-old English girl at the heart of Canadian author Alan Bradley’s debut crime novel, may be the most engaging such precocious protagonist since Dick Lochte’s Serendipity Dahlquist or even Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew. This hectic but charming tale set in 1950 is told in Flavia’s commanding voice, and few openhearted readers will likely resist her particular combination of candor and hauteur. The youngest daughter of an aloof, tolerant, stamp-collecting widower with limited means and a colorful past, Flavia -- a resourceful loner with a bent for chemistry -- suffers (and exacerbates) the sibling frictions of living with two sisters in a dilapidated Georgian manse in the countryside. When a furtive visitor drops dead in the backyard cucumber patch, the apparent victim of a poisoned custard pie, Flavia’s singular traits and talents come into bloom. The result is an adventure that rockets (by bicycle) from village shops to college cloisters to police headquarters and back, with Flavia doing her de Lucean best to exonerate her father and save her own pre-adolescent skin. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (and its planned sequels) should delight clever 11-year-olds of all ages. -- Tom Nolan

The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe (McClelland & Stewart) 415 pages
I have yet to read a review of The Taken that doesn’t mention, even as an aside, the mystery of the author’s identity. In truth, though, the guessing is less strident this time out than it was for Inger Ash Wolfe’s “debut” outing, The Calling, when that book was published early in 2008. Part of the reason for this has to be that both books are beyond good: they’re fantastic. And there comes a moment very early on when you realize, the who matters less than the what in this instance: The Taken is just a terrific book, no matter whose name you slap on the cover. In our second visit with rural Ontario police Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, we find her recovering from back surgery and wallowing in pure and palatable misery, partly from pain and partly from the humiliation of having to live with and be cared for by her ex-husband and his new wife. The discovery of a body in a local lake refocuses Hazel’s attention. Not only was it not the drowning accident it first seemed, but it appears to have occurred in just the same way as a death described in their community newspaper: in a work of fiction. The deeper Hazel digs the less she feels she knows ... and the more there is to unravel. The characterizations here are brilliant and crystal clear. Like The Calling, The Taken is a novel of living, breathing beings -- though sometimes, perhaps slightly too real. DI Micallef is brilliant and perfect in her imperfections. She is grumpy, uncomfortable and impatient in her pain, and these things inevitably creep into her work. And that work is demanding and surprising. The suspense here is perfectly wrought, but not overworked. The Taken stands with the very best of contemporary crime fiction. Period. -- Linda L. Richards

Woman With Birthmark by Håkan Nesser (Pantheon) 336 pages
Are some sins unforgivable, some people unredeemable? Such are the questions attached to the brutal deeds of apparent vengeance in Woman With Birthmark, Håkan Nesser’s latest account (to reach American shores) of the cases of police Inspector Van Veeteren (as translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson). Someone is murdering certain male citizens in a grotesque way that implies an element of payback. What former wrongs are thus recalled? And where will the killer strike next? Van Veeteren imagines his quarry to be “a bit cheeky, a little bit roguish even, but at the same time, serious. And very, very determined.” And the thoughtful detective sees the murderer’s acts as emblematic of social trends destined to play out in his native land: “The veneer of civilization, or whatever you preferred to call it, could begin to crack at any moment, crumble away and expose the darkness underneath. Some people might have imagined that Europe would be a protected haven after 1945, but Van Veeteren had never been one of them.” In such a morose place and time, Håkan Nesser’s 60-something police investigator -- a solitary chess aficionado and Bach-listener -- proves a most apt, able and sympathetic character. -- Tom Nolan

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