Friday, June 30, 2006

Caroline Carmichael, Francine Mathews's CIA analyst protagonist, is an unusual combination of insider expertise and over-the-top violence and paranoia. Mathews's own career as a CIA analyst is obviously the source of her great store of intelligence tradecraft. But where did the other stuff come from? A fertile imagination, one hopes - plus the enviable ability to turn Carmichael loose in an environment that has often been abused and overused, but made totally believable and exciting here by the author's top notch narrative skills.
When a neo-Nazi terrorist group called the 30 April Organization -- believed to be out of business -- suddenly reappears, the close-to-burnout Caroline tears up her letter of resignation to take on this old enemy. She also wants to protect her husband, Eric - who infiltrated 30 April and now has had his cover blown. There's plenty of death and destruction as the terrorists take the world stage with a vengeance, and Mathews makes it all impossible not to gasp at. She also makes Carmichael such a complicated and real person that we never doubt her existence for a moment.
One of the pleasures of paperbacks is the second-chance factor: the ability to read books we missed and/or forgot about the first time around...

Not only is Natalie Collins’s Wives and Sisters a natural for all those fans of HBO’s Big Love; it also brings to mind one of my favorite series from the out-of-print past – Robert Irvine’s Moroni Traveler books about a father-and-son team of detectives in Salt Lake City who specialize in cases involving Mormons.

Collins creates a memorable character, Allison Jensen, who returns to her small town Utah home after years away, finally ready to find out what really happened to her best friend when they became lost and separated in the woods and all her questions about the girl’s disappearance were deflected or ignored. It’s a truly gripping story, which rings with truth and terror.
Christopher Fowler’s lovely old pair of detectives Bryant and May are back in a well-received hardcover, TEN SECOND STAIRCASE. While you wait for that one, why not catch up on their three previous adventures in paperback? Here’s what I said about Seventy-Seven Clocks:
Those two highly unusual London coppers Arthur Bryant and John May who make up the aptly named Peculiar Crimes Unit (a TV series title if I’ve ever heard one) of Scotland Yard, star in a story which starts with a violent death in the lobby of the legendary Savoy Hotel and quickly expands to include art vandalism, Gilbert and Sullivan and a host of other peculiarities. As Bryant explains the unit’s history to a biographer, “Before we knew it, we were dealing with goat-bothering bishops and transvestite Conservatives -- not that the latter constitutes much of a peculiarity these days.”

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ruth Rendell has been for years the undisputed queen of the dysfunctional family – strangers who come together by accident or fate and because of who they are plunge into some unfortunate, usually fatal situation. 13 Steps Down, just out in paperback, is a prime example. Into a huge, shabby mansion in London’s Notting Hill owned by an 80-year-old woman named Gwendolen Chawcer comes a tenant called Michael Cellini, known as Mix. (Chawcer and Cellini: Rendell does like to have her fun with names).
Gwendolen, the only child of a domineering professor, inherited the house and a small but adequate income when he finally died. Most of her clothes are relics; she has no interest in food or shopping of any kind; what she really likes to do is spend every minute reading her father’s old books. “It was a strange life she led but a safe one, as any life must be that is without fear or hope or passion or love or change or anxiety about money.”
But money has recently become a problem, so she has reluctantly rented out one of the empty apartments at the top of her house to the deceptively ordinary Cellini – a man in his 30s who repairs exercise equipment and has a pair of obsessions that border on the psychotic. He moved to Notting Hill because it used to be the killing ground of Reggie Christie, a necrophiliac serial killer of women whose bodies he interred under the floorboards and in the walls at his home at Ten Rillington Place – a house and a street that no longer exist, much to Mix’s disgust.
Cellini also has an unhealthy interest in a model called Nerissa Nash whose lovely face and body are everywhere, and imagines them becoming a couple. He stalks her from her home not far away from his to what he thinks is her gym (it turns out to be the office of a particularly greedy fortune teller), and even combines his twin obsessions into a strange brew.
In lesser hands, given a setting like this, the first killing might become merely a question of who and when. But Rendell has written more than 60 books over the last 40 years, collecting the highest praise from critics and enough awards from her peers to fill a small pawnshop, and she’s not about to let down the side by doing the expected things. Be ready for a few surprises, even a believable coincidence or three.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Second novels in a promising series must be among the hardest literary tricks to pull off. Black Maps, Peter Spiegelman's first book about John March, was virtually perfect on every level, and it earned awards and raves. His lead character was immediately interesting and moving: a cop in a small upstate New York town, choosing law enforcement instead of his family's financial business, then returning to Manhattan after the death of his wife to become a private detective specializing in business-related crimes.
The fact that the author let us learn slowly and sideways about March's history made him even more real. And best of all, Spiegelman proved that he could not only help even the most financially challenged readers understand how business crimes worked but also made them care about the people involved in their consequences.
It was a tough act to follow, and Spiegelman has done it with stunning skill. Death's Little Helpers takes us deeper into March's history and psyche, adds some serious overtones to the theme of family tensions, and makes his love life credible and problematic. Along the way, the author creates some fascinating female characters: a razor-tongued successful painter and her softer, sweeter gallery owner (and life partner), both of whom consume vast amounts of cigarettes which later become an important part of the plot; a tense researcher for a major brokerage firm; a television business reporter who combines brains and sex into a dangerous package; and lawyer Jane Lu - March's hard-working lover and upstairs neighbor.
At the center of the book is a very contemporary and largely unpleasant stock analyst named Gregory Danes - whose genius for picking technology companies made him a very rich media star before scandal sunk it all. “If the collapse of the market was a surprise to Danes, its aftermath was a whack in the head with a two-by-four,” writes Spiegelman. “The hopeless tangle of quid pro quos and conflicted interests that bound together investment banks, their corporate clients, and the people who ran those corporations were open secrets on Wall Street. But when the particulars of these arrangements…were dragged out for the public at large to see, the public at large got sorely pissed off.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Alicia Giminez-Bartlett won the Feminino Lumen prize as best female writer in Spain, and this first book in her ongoing series about Barcelona police detective Petra Delicado and her partner Fermin Garzon shows why. Inspector Delicado is tough, funny and sexy; Sgt. Garzon is softer and more sentimental, but as stalwart as a large tree when things get rough. When a man beaten to death turns out to have made his living doing something nasty with other people’s dogs, it starts out as just another case. But as the danger and duplicity increase, both cops begin to take it personally – even getting romantically involved with people they encounter.
If you had any connection with – or nostalgia for – the 80s heavy metal rock scene, Anthony Neil Smith’s The Drummer should be right up your dark alley. Smith writes with force and clarity, as his previous novel Psychosomatic and his work on the online crime magazine Plots With Guns indicated. The Drummer – published by a company which claims in its press release to “make more noise than a $2 radio” – is set in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina and is studded with heartbreaking scenes of a cultural life which has virtually disappeared.
Calvin Christopher used to play the drums for a band called Savage Night, which had a brief but loud burst of fame and money before booze, drugs and the IRS spoiled everything. Cal decided to disappear, changing his name and hiding his cash in various overseas banks. Now, 15 years later, the band’s former lead singer tracks him down in New Orleans and seems about to convince and/or blackmail Cal into a revival tour. The singer winds up murdered in his hotel bed, and Cal has to dig through the past and present to keep from becoming the number one (with a bullet) suspect.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

All sorts of things can keep the writer of a debut mystery from finishing and/or publishing a second book. But Ann Parker's Silver Lies, which came out in 2003, was such a stunning piece of work that I'm especially delighted to report that its sequel,
is just out from Poisoned Pen Press. The other good news is that Silver Lies should be out in paperback at about the same time.

Here's what I wrote when it was first published:
Is there anything better than a smart, tough woman solving crimes while moving through a freshly-researched portion of our own history? Margaret Lawrence's books about post-Revolutionary War Maine midwife Hannah Trevor (Hearts and Bones, Blood Red Roses) come to mind, as do Dianne Day’s stories (Emperor Norton's Ghost, Beacon Street Mourning) of Fremont Jones, a young woman from Boston who arrives in San Francisco just before the 1905 earthquake and begins a career as a detective. Miriam Grace Monfredo, who writes a splendid series about librarian Glynis Tryon (Through A Gold Eagle,) which begins just before the Civil War in upstate New York, is another prime example.
It’s no stretch at all to place Ann Parker’s Inez Stannert on this list. Like the other women in the group, she is both of her time – a handsome, obviously educated wife supporting and playing second fiddle to a flashier gambler husband in 1879 Colorado – and a link to the future. When her husband disappears, Inez proves she can overcome that and other tragedies to triumph in a male world by taking over the running of their saloon and helping to clear up several murders, scams and distressing puzzles.
Parker is a science writer with a degree in literature and the ability to sum up in a few sharp sentences the tawdry power of a frontier boomtown like Leadville, where a sudden surge in silver could burnish everyone’s dreams. Like the wonderful black and white photograph of historic Leadville on its cover (the credit for which admits “Image altered”), her first novel, which won a regional writing contest, combines a kind of gritty grandeur with a knowing wisdom about the way the present shapes our perceptions of the past.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Don’t zip up that suitcase before you find room to stuff in this exceptional collection of splendid stories from the pages of
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, celebrating its 50th anniversary in high style. Starting with Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, zooming along through the likes of Evan Hunter, Lawrence Block and Sara Paretsky, closing with stories from James Lincoln Warren and Rhys Bowen, the magazine’s current editor offers a virtually endless buffet that shows how the mystery short story has thrived and changed.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Why are so many good European mysteries and thrillers coming to America these days from paperback specialists like England’s Bitter Lemon Press? One answer might be a note on the indicia page of their latest offering: “Bitter Lemon Press gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance of the Arts Council of England.” What sort of similar help does America provide?

Night Bus, written by Giampiero Rigosi and translated by Ann Goldstein, is a dark and beautiful book – part classic noir but also deeply rooted in the contemporary Italian landscape. Not surprisingly, Rigosi was born in Bologna and drove a bus there – both of which play important parts in his debut novel, about a sexy young hustler named Leila who picks up men in nightclubs and robs them. One of her victims is carrying more than cash and plastic: Leila winds up running for her life because of a document that involves some very high-level political blackmail.
Europa Editions also mines the foreign fields for its handsome paperback originals, published in Italy. But one of its new releases is pure Americana: the latest stark and extremely shapely book from Matthew F. Jones, author of Deepwater – which won raves and has recently been filmed. Boot Tracks has the grace of a Japanese Noh poem and the violence of two lives burning out in front of our eyes.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Three of my favorite books of 2005 are just out in paperback:

To everyone's surprise, Citizen Vince won the Edgar Award as Best Mystery. Here's what I wrote when it first came out:
I can see the headlines now: "Local Doughnut Man's Life Changed by Voting." The fact that the man in question is Vince Camden, a 36-year-old credit-card scammer, expert poker player, small-time drug dealer and maker of excellent maple bars, and that his voting choice is between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, gives Jess Walter's combination of immensely entertaining crime thriller and wry social commentary a decidedly different series of twists.
Camden--not the name he was born with in New York City--now lives as a protected government witness in Spokane, Wash., which Walter (who lives there) describes with a mixture of love and contempt. A smart and touching hooker named Beth, studying for her real estate license, shares Camden's affections with Kelly, a sleek blond who wants him to work for the election of her lawyer boss, a rising Republican. In the three years since he accepted a federal offer and blew the whistle on some made guys in New York, Camden has put aside lots of cash by selling pot and stolen credit cards. And then there's the doughnut job, which gives him more pleasure than he could have imagined going in.
Still, Camden feels something missing in his life--a purpose. As Carter and Reagan prepare to debate the country's future, Camden begins to see the election as a symbol of his becoming a part of society. His vote takes on a mythic quality and heroic dimensions.
To the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" that Reagan asked during the 1980 campaign, Vince finally comes up with an answer that works for him:
"I think a guy could move across country, change his name, job, his friends--change everything. . . . And not really change at all."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Why are we so fascinated by the idea of an aging Sherlock Holmes? Is it because we see our own mental powers linked to his popular theatrical tricks of the brain, and want to be assured that they will continue despite the inevitable physical deterioration of the rest of the body?
Laurie R. King’s ground-breaking series about a 60ish Holmes married to a much younger American woman and Michael Chabon’s flimsy and over-rated The Final Solution are only the tip of a geriatric iceberg.
Whoever it was that first made Holmes a beekeeper in his old age, Mitch Cullin caps that achievement -- by causing us to believe every detail of the former detective’s fascination with the insects he has looked after for 44 years in his stone house in the tiny town of Cuckmere Haven on the Sussex Downs. The 93-year-old Holmes, with long white hair and a full white beard, has as his morning meal “royal jelly spread upon fried bread.” He knows everything there is to know about how to lessen the pain of a bee sting – which becomes a sad and important point later in the story. When we first see him, walking with the help of two canes, Holmes has just returned from a tiring, fascinating trip to Japan (including the ruins of Hiroshima) just after World War II; he went to Kobe at the invitation of a fellow bee enthusiast, although his host, Mr. Umezaki, had an additional agenda – a mystery possibly linked to Holmes’s past.
Cullin’s distant, preoccupied former detective is as far from the tense and edgy Holmes of Conan Doyle as can be imagined: he takes some pleasure in telling people who pester him about his legendary adventures that John (no Dr. Watson here) liked to confuse fact and fiction. But that was years ago; the good doctor, enriched by his share of the royalties, has been laid to rest by his third wife. Now Holmes (who never wore a deerstalker and who smokes Jamaican cigars and the occasional handmade cigarettes rather than a pipe) tends to his bees, passing on his knowledge to Roger, his war-widowed housekeeper’s young son with whom he has a touching relationship. He also works on several books which he’ll probably never finish, including a final volume of his massive encyclopedia of criminal behavior. Looking through Holmes’s papers, Roger discovers one unusual, fictionalized case history, about a mysterious woman who played a musical instrument called a glass armonica. It goes a long way to making this version of Holmes even more understandable.
Conan Doyle used to complain, perhaps with some degree of jealousy, that most people believed Sherlock Holmes was a real person and he was only the stenographer who wrote the stories down. Cullin, a gifted poet and novelist, takes that confusion and turns it into the highest level of art.

As the dark energy which made Ian Rankin such a deserved star seems to have faded, the idea of “tartan noir” (a term coined to celebrate Scottish crime stories) is still thriving – thanks largely to a superbly talented writer named Denise Mina. She started with an intense trilogy set in the bleak Garnethill section of her native Glasgow, and then moved a bit upscale with Deception, where an unreliable husband seems to be looking through his psychiatrist wife’s papers in search of anything that might clear her of a murder charge but is actually damaging her case.
Field of Blood is about another kind of betrayal (the title is a Biblical reference to a piece of land purchased by Judas with his reward money). Patricia Meehan, called Paddy in reverence to an earlier Meehan wrongly imprisoned for murder, lands a job as a glorified gofer on the Glasgow Daily News, and very soon is faced with a huge moral dilemma. A three-year-old boy has been abducted from a department store and later killed; a surveillance video shows that his kidnappers were two boys, possibly 10- or 11-years-old. Paddy immediately recognizes one of the boys as Callum, the cousin of her boyfriend, Sean. It’s the kind of story that a young reporter like Paddy could build a career on – but when she reveals the boy’s identity to her boss it also threatens to destroy two families. Paddy will do almost anything to prove she’s up to the job of reporter (a dreary night spent in the “calls car,” investigating police crime calls with a profanely sexist male journalist, is looked on by her as a tremendous career breakthrough), so she adopts the persona of a more glamorous intern named Heather Allen to dig into Callum’s story and clear his name as the younger boy’s killer. The real Heather winds up murdered, and Paddy herself is in dire danger as she tries to repair all the damage.
Paddy is a very appealing figure, obsessed by her weight (a scene after a family funeral where she passes up a tray of delicious rolls filled with “salt butter and sweet gammon” only to gorge on dessert is both hilarious and heartbreaking) and so obviously suited for journalism that the report that this is the start of a series is particularly good news. Spread the word -- tartan noir lives.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

“I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon…”
As any film noir addict knows, that quote is from the classic 1941 movie. But what character said it? Now, thanks to a lively little book containing some great quotes from film noir collected by Charles Pappas and beautifully designed by Claudean Wheeler,

you can discover that – plus such other delights as
“I can be framed easier than Whistler’s Mother” (1946’s The Dark Corner)
“Imagine me on this cheap rap, big man like me. Picked up just for shovin’ a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff” (1947’s Kiss of Death)
“Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit” (1950’s The Asphalt Jungle).
The list goes on, right through 2005’s Sin City – and it should improve your conversational skills no end. My only quibble is that there seems to be no mention of the writers who typed the words in the first place – especially odd since the publisher is Writer’s Digest.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Don’t zip up that suitcase before you find room to stuff in this exceptional collection of splendid stories from the pages of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, celebrating its 50th anniversary in high style. Starting with Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, zooming along through the likes of Evan Hunter, Lawrence Block and Sara Paretsky, closing with stories from James Lincoln Warren and Rhys Bowen, the magazine’s current editor offers a virtually endless buffet that shows how the mystery short story has thrived and changed

If you like your cozies with zest and teeth, Victoria Houston’s books about fishing and murder, set in Loon Lake in northern Wisconsin, come highly recommended – by the likes of T. Jefferson Parker and Laura Lippman. The characters are as real as family and neighbors, especially retired dentist Dr. Paul Osborne, who wants more time to develop a romance with police chief Lew (for Lewellyn) Ferris but mostly has to settle for identifying dead bodies for her. In Houston’s latest, three women found in an overturned car on an isolated road turn out to be murder victims. One is Peg Garmin: “that her loveliness had been for sale did not diminish it.” And it’s her past connection to a prominent Chicago family that kicks off the lively investigation.

When they work--when the balance between art and research is close to perfection--crime novels that illuminate a historical period are things of beauty. Caroline Petit's first novel falls into that illustrious company: She catches the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Hong Kong, China and Manchuria in 1937 as they filter through the senses of a fascinating young woman.
Leah Kolbe is just 19 and tenderly beautiful when her father, Theo, a corpulent and crooked antiquities dealer, dies--his money stolen by an even-more-crooked British lawyer. Kolbe, who spurns the non-Asian population of Hong Kong and speaks the Cantonese they see as downscale partly to annoy them, is suddenly left to fend for herself.
Kolbe finds time for brief romantic attachments--with a handsome but tedious young Brit and a darkly mysterious Portuguese stranger in Macao. But threatened and offered a huge bribe by a dangerous man who works for the Chinese resistance against the Japanese, Kolbe agrees to collect information and old jewelry by traveling to mainland China and then to Manchuria, where Pu Yi (the boy king in the film "The Last Emperor") is the puppet ruler for the Japanese invaders who are preparing to take over the country. She heads back to Hong Kong and arrives in the port city of Nanking the night before the Japanese attack that city and kill tens of thousands of Chinese.
Under the amazingly sure hand of Petit, an Australian writer of rare abilities, every aspect of this terrific story comes to life-- from the bent but loving soul of Kolbe's father to the inescapable feeling that this is the way it must have been.
Why did it take so long for the wonderful mysteries of Fred Vargas – 12 of them, all bestsellers in France for a dozen years – to make it to an American publisher? Could it be because Fred is a woman – a distinguished historian and archeologist? Don’t ask: just be glad that that this engrossing, exciting and definitely original creation, first published in 2001, is now kicking up some critical dust here.
Lots of good mystery writers have used Paris as a setting, but I can’t think of anyone who recreates the back streets, the neighborhood shops and especially the people (most of whom come from some other part of the country, and carry their past culture with them as veritable talismans against assimilation) with as much energy as Vargas does.
At least a dozen major characters are introduced in Have Mercy On Us All, quickly and indelibly, from Joss Le Guern – a former sailor from Brittany who now earns his living as a modern-day town crier, reading out the letters which for reasons ranging from profit to revenge have been put into his private mailbox – to the absolutely riveting Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who can’t remember the names of his men, hates the paperwork vital to his job, and would much rather be out walking in a shapeless fog of thought than sitting in his office.
These two unlikely collaborators meet when a series of anonymous messages left in Joss’s mailbox (on expensive stationery and accompanied by a much larger than usual fee) appear to predict a return of the plague which decimated the city centuries before. Adamsberg and his assistant Danglard (a complicated character worth a book of his own who consumes vast amounts of lager, raises five children by himself, and revels in all the detailed work which his boss disdains) have been looking into the sudden appearance on hundreds of apartment doors of a strange painted figure – a reversed version of the number 4 – which turns out to have been a futile charm against the plague.
Then a body is found, bearing the marks of the bites of fleas which were known to be plague carriers. This is where Vargas’s feeling for the endless death chain of history really tightens, turning what started out to be an entertaining mystery into something much more frightening. Amazingly, thanks in no small part to the spritely translation by David Bellos, (“The man was short and dark, and he looked like a pig’s breakfast,” a woman thinks on seeing Adamsberg for the first time), not one bit of the grand fun of the book is diminished by these heavier overtones.
Some of the best news in book publishing these days is the emergence of several paperback houses specializing in bringing to readers out-of-print or otherwise unavailable crime novels. New York bookseller Maggie Topkis has launched another one while my attention was diverted, and one of her early effort turns out to be a rare treasure.
From its understated, eloquent design (with a 1923 photograph of a titled British lady on the cover) through its description and dialogue which ring as true as a silver spoon on a Royal Doulton teacup, Death in the Garden is a wonderfully original mystery set in the world of the British aristocracy - – which received some wise reviews and became the favorite mystery of readers who never quite got over the retirement from crime writing of Dorothy L. Sayers.
There are touches of Sayers in Ironside’s story: some bitterly ironic overtones from World War One that clouded the years between the wars later recalled as “the long English summer.” The book starts with a young woman named Diana Pollexfen hearing the verdict on charges that she poisoned her husband at her 30th birthday party in 1925; then moves ahead 60 years to introduce Diana’s grand-niece, Helena – a London lawyer who is also just turning thirty, and who becomes the heir to both Diana’s country estate and the mysteries of her life.
The International Association of Crime Writers just gave its Hammett Award (for "a work of literary excellence in the field of crime writing by a U.S or Canadian author”) to Joseph Kanon’s Alibi. The other nominees were impressive: Martin Limon’s The Door to Bitterness; Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men; Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog; John Brady’s Islandbridge.

What makes Islandbridge an unusual case is that it has had no U.S. publication as yet. St. Martin’s Press and a house called Steerforth Press published the first six books in Brady’s excellent series about Dublin police officer Matt Minogue, to strong reviews, but so far this seventh outing has no U.S. home.
Could it be that the current taste for ultra-violent Irish fiction – a subgenre headed up by Ken Bruen – has left no room for a more cerebral kind of Celtic copper? There’s certainly plenty of action in Islandbridge, including a corpse which apparently fell from an airplane into someone’s backyard and an attempt on Minogue’s life when he threatens to awaken some almost-dead criminal dragons. And there’s a lovely, ironic lilt to the banter between Minogue, now struggling through some Euro-bureaucracy brand of police work, and his former crime-fighting colleagues.
Minogue talks about himself and his former boss as suffering from “Oisin I nidaidh na Feinne,” a Celtic phrase Brady translates as “a great longing for former times and company.” Earlier, Minogue asks us, “To be hunting down a killer, to be staying awake and half-raving even, for forty hours… How could any man in this day and age justify that shameful excitement to anyone, to his wife and family especially, or even to his own waking self?”
Before there was Matt Minogue, there was a top Dublin cop named McGarr, the creation of the sadly late Bartholomew Gill. The Death of a Joyce Scholar is his best book, and reading Islandbridge might make you wonder what would have happened to Irish crime fiction if Gill hadn’t died in an accident.
Pass through an airport or train station in Italy and you’re virtually certain to spot people devouring the latest Inspector Montalbano mystery by Andrea Camilleri. His Montalbano is a Sicilian cop, based in a fictional town called Vigata, and his five previous books about him (THE TERRA COTTA DOG is one of my favorites) are full of surprisingly fresh insights into the workings of the Mafia, beautifully-observed details of local life and scenery, and heart-stopping scenes of cooking and eating. Camilleri’s latest – as usual, translated by the poet Stephen Sartarelli, who catches the local dialect with subtle delight – is the gripping story of an investment counselor who seems to have disappeared (perhaps with help from local mobsters) with tons of money from his retired clients.
“Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists,” says Fabio Montale, the cop who narrates Jean-Claude Izzo’s sensationally readable mystery, the start of an internationally famous trilogy and the first of his books to be published here. “There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”

Death has already overtaken the first of three men in their 40s who bonded as boyhood friends in the streets of one of the French port city’s roughest areas and then 20 years ago went their separate ways because of the love each one felt for a younger girl, Lole. Manu, whose family emigrated from Spain, stayed in Marseilles and made his living as a criminal until he was shot down in the street a few months before the start of the book, probably in a professional killing. Ugo, originally from Naples, returns from his own criminal life in Paris to avenge his friend’s death, and is killed by the police after committing a violent public assassination. Now Fabio is left to sort out the end of his own boyhood hopes and dreams – a job that involves digging into both the intricate worlds of high crime and political corruption.
Izzo’s book is full of fascinating characters, tersely brought to life in a prose style which manages (thanks to Howard Curtis’ shrewd translation) to be both traditionally dark and completely original. But above and around them is the major character: the city of Marseilles, a looming example of how environment shapes peoples’ lives.
“Reading Izzo’s novels, you’re bound to cry sooner or later,” said Le Monde when Total Chaos was published. You may also cry when you read that Izzo died at the age of 55 in 2000 – too early, but at least long enough to know how much readers valued his work. All thanks to the new Europa Editions for this beautiful paperback original – and for their plans to publish the last two volumes of Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy in the months ahead.
Chris Grabenstein’s second book about two unlikely New Jersey cops, MAD MOUSE, has just come out in hardcover, and his first one is new in paperback.

Will the Iraq war ever play as large a part in crime fiction as Vietnam? Tilt-A-Whirl is the first mystery I can think of to have a lead character who did some hard and dirty time in Iraq. Former military policeman John Ceepak has brought his exceptional physical strength, sharply-honed crime-solving skills and high-minded morality to the beachside town of Sea Haven in a state that’s probably New Jersey. In Grabenstein’s thoughtful, funny and exciting debut, Ceepak is teamed up with 24-year-old Danny Boyle, a part-time summer cop who joined the force largely to impress the college girls who visit there.
The only thing they at first seem to have in common is a love for Bruce Springsteen. But the murder of a slick real estate magnate, knifed to death while secretly meeting his young daughter at the town's rundown amusement park, moves this unlikely pair of police officers into something very much like friendship.