Tuesday, August 29, 2006

More Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer is the writer I mention first when people ask me "Who's new and good?" I raved about his latest,

in my Chicago column and Publishers Weekly,

spoke highly of

on this blog, and thought I'd have to wait until Book 5 in his series for another blast of his subtly ferocious talent. Then I discovered that something called Amazon Shorts (not an underwear store) has two Steinhauer stories for a fantastic price.

Both are sad and frightening slices of the meat which would nourish his novels. In Half-Lives, he writes about a housing project in Bucharest: "Take an American 'fifties-era urban renewal complex on its final legs, where wild mixedbreed dogs sniff through piles of rubble and garbage that lie between the scarred towers; where burned-out Pintos (here: Dacias) sit tireless on pitted gravel courtyards gone feral while smokeblackened children climb over the piles, teasing the dogs with sticks then kicking them in the head. When you look from your window, instead of sky you see the grids of crumbling facades of the other concrete towers, rusty lines of drying clothes, smashed windows, old women staring out at nothing. This is Bloc 5."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Jan Burke Walks the Bloodline

While we wait for Jan Burke's new Irene Kelly hardcover, Kidnapped, to come out in October, here's what I wrote about
her last one, just out in paperback:

Jan Burke is deeply gifted at plotting and character, but what earns her a special place in my heart is her obvious love and respect for small-market newspapers. The Las Piernas News-Express, where her Irene Kelly has worked since 1978, is no Los Angeles Times -- it's a struggling Southern California paper where the obits take up several pages and are largely the records of quiet local lives.

The News-Express plays an important part in Burke's first book about Kelly since she won the Edgar for Bones in 1999. In 1958, Conn O'Connor is a young reporter with the paper when his mentor, Jack Corrigan, is the victim of a near-fatal beating. Drifting into and out of consciousness, the serious boozer Corrigan tells a bizarre story of witnessing a bloodstained car being buried on a farm in the area.

Nobody but O'Connor believes the story, but 20 years later--when Kelly, as one of her first stories under O'Connor's editorship, covers the groundbreaking ceremony for a shopping center--what should emerge from the ground but a car containing human remains. Despite everyone's best efforts, the trail goes cold again; O'Connor dies, never knowing the truth; Kelly marries homicide Detective Frank Harriman; and the News-Express seems to finally be on its very last legs.

As a tribute and a debt to O'Connor, Kelly decides to thread her way through a desperately tangled series of plots about a wealthy family that went missing just after Corrigan's beating, a man claiming to be the heir to their fortune, and lots of other dangerous and devious characters. The novel's sturdy center, however, is a portrait of a vanishing American icon, the local newspaper, which makes Bloodlines a valuable relic and a journey through our collective memory.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

London After Dark

I raved about Cathi Unsworth’s ability to bring London to life in her first novel, The Not Knowing, and I’ll continue that praise with this collection of carefully-chosen stories by some of the best new names in crime fiction. Like last year’s Chicago Noir, these tales are each set in distinct neighborhoods, from Unsworth’s own entry (“Trouble Is a Lonesome Town”) firmly rooted in King’s Cross, to Dagenham (in Martyn Waites’s exceptional “Love”) as well as others in Soho, Ladbroke Grove, Camden Town and Canary Wharf. With collections from Manhattan, Baltimore and Havana in the works, just how far will Akashic’s Noir net be thrown? When they get to Ventura County, give me a call…

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Quarry Redux

I don’t know what’s more fun – a brand new Quarry novel by Max Allan Collins or another chance for artist Robert McGinnis to create a tastefully erotic cover painting of a young woman in her underwear. Luckily, you can get both in the latest literary madeline (read your Proust, tough guys and dolls) from Hard Case Crime.

The last time we saw the world class hitman known as Quarry, 20 years ago, he had decided to retire from the murder-for-hire racket. Collins – who has ideas the way other writers have coffee – went on to write another series (about detective Nate Heller, who always seem to be on hand when history happens), graphic novels (like Road to Perdition) which became good movies, and was the wordsmith in charge of the Dick Tracy comic strip.

Still, Quarry seems to have been lurking somewhere in Collins' artistic attic. The Last Quarry, which began as a short film script and is now a full-length one, returns to his old ways for a large fee to cancel a lovely young librarian’s account – with exciting and revealing results…

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Who You Calling A Geezer?

is subtitled An Anthology of Geezer Noir, and it's edited by Duane Swierczynski. “When people think ‘senior citizens’ and ‘mystery fiction,’ certain images come to mind,” writes 34-year-old Swierczynski (who gave us the memorable thriller The Wheelman earlier this year) in his dead-on introduction. “The kindly old amateur sleuth with a ball of yarn in her lap, cat on the sofa and a dead body in the foyer… Truth is, getting old is the most hardboiled thing you can do…”

He and David Thompson, owner of the promising new paperback house called Busted Flush Press (think Travis McGee), have put together a collection of new stories by writers who range from their late 20s (Dave White and Sarah Weinman) through their 60s, all dealing with some aspect of crime and old age. Some are hilarious; many are sad; all are the kind of stuff that makes Miss Marple look like a Girl Scout…

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Force That Through The Green Fuse

"Amy's closed eyes looked sunken--bruised--and her skin had a soft, bloated texture, as if she had been underwater too long. . . . She hadn't opened her eyes for more than two years now, but with each visit I still hoped her smile or grasp would welcome me."

Trial consultant Calla Gentry's younger sister, Amaryllis, called Amy by everyone, was the victim of a brutal rape in the parking lot of a bar in Tucson when she was 19. What she told police and her sister about her rapist was rambling and incoherent, certainly not enough to point to a suspect: three days later, she tried to commit suicide and failed--but reduced herself to total silence.

Because of that crime, Gentry refuses to take on anything but civil cases--an arrangement that her bitchily successful female boss has so far honored. But now the firm needs to quickly back up the defense in the upcoming trial of a wealthy young man accused of rape and attempted murder. Could Gentry at least start the work, until another employee is available? Gentry, who needs her salary to pay for Amy's private care, recognizes the threat behind the request and reluctantly goes to meet the client. She immediately has a bad feeling about him, and for deeply rooted but unprovable reasons thinks he may be her sister's rapist.

This is Louise Ure's first novel, and it is full of touching and frightening surprises. The link to flowers is set up on the opening page by instructions on a garden tag ("To force amaryllis, place bulb in a cool, dark place"), and is reinforced by the ways lovely, gentle things can be so easily destroyed.

Those Bleeding Angels

Reed Arvin writes smart and exciting legal thrillers as well as anyone now working. His The Last Goodbye got some fine reviews and should have earned him a spot on every major bestseller list. That didn't happen, but with any luck his latest effort, Blood of Angels - the kind of book that makes “unputdownable” and “page-turner” more than just overused clich├ęs -- about a prosecutor in Tennessee who suddenly finds himself in big trouble will get Arvin the attention and sales he deserves.
Thomas Dennehy's problems include the well-documented possibility that a man he has sent to the death chamber is innocent, and a murder case against a much-loved member of Nashville's Sudanese community that could start some serious racial strife. There are some requisite family difficulties as well, but Arvin skillfully keeps them from overwhelming his main stories.

Lawyers And Liars

Lawyer David Ellis burst onto the scene with a series of thrillers set in the legal world he obviously knows and savors. His debut, Line of Vision, won an Edgar Award for best first novel, and the two books that followed were well-reviewed and widely purchased.

Now, for his fourth effort, Ellis moves away from the familiar world of courtrooms and cop shops and into the dark jungle of terrorism. He also challenges himself and his readers by writing In the Company of Liars not only in the present tense but also working backward from the death of his lead character.

Allison Pagone is a writer who apparently takes her own life when her lawyer lover gets her involved in a terrorist plot and she becomes a suspect in his murder. The time device takes a few pages to get comfortable with, but then it becomes an exciting part of the whole illusion: How many chainsaws can Ellis juggle without doing himself and his book some serious damage?

Ellis keeps us in suspense and curious about Pagone, mostly by having us see her involvement in plots and crimes through the eyes of determined FBI agent Jane McCoy. There's also enough high-level corruption to keep a roomful of paranoid investigators busy.

Let Icons Be Icons

Why did top agent Neil Olson switch to the other side of the desk to produce a richly readable and probably very commercial debut thriller? “Stories, which was to say, the chaos of life made coherent, this is what compelled him,” says a dying old man early in The Icon. And what a story Olson has dreamed up: the search for an ancient object of Greek Orthodox art called the Holy Mother of Katarini, supposedly destroyed during World War II by Nazis or stolen by partisans, which has suddenly made a miraculous reappearance.

Before you mutter “Aha -- The Da Vinci Code, with a Greek accent,” consider this: Olson's story would be a memorable one in any publishing climate, and his writing ranges from vivid battle scenes between German troops and Greek guerrilla fighters to an extremely evocative description of the icon itself: “The eyes drew you in… Large, dark brown almost to black, and almond-shaped, in the favored eastern style. Penetrating, all-knowing, forgiving, or rather ready to forgive, but requiring something of you first.” Doesn't that make the Mona Lisa sound like a second-rate piece of portraiture?

Silva Is Gold

Daniel Silva has a new hardcover, The Messenger, headed for the bestseller list, but his previous books are cheaper and take up less room in your luggage. Here's what I said about two recent efforts:

When a bomb at the Austrian Wartime Claims office leaves its chief investigator close to death at the start of A Death in Vienna, art restorer and secret Israeli intelligence agent Gabriel Allon is persuaded to put aside his work on a Bellini altarpiece in Venice to go to Vienna to investigate.

It turns out that a leading suspect is Erich Radek, the Nazi officer in charge of wiping out all evidence of the Holocaust in the last days of World War II, now living under a different name, in charge of a prestigious business-development group in Vienna. Reading his own mother's account of her time in concentration camps, Allon realizes that Radek is the man who almost had her killed, and he plunges into the chase with extra vigor.

Various groups of ex- and current Nazis want Allon to lay off, but they've got the wrong boy. Art isn't the only thing he restores: He takes a stab at justice and human decency as well. And Silva keeps the pot from boiling over with cool brilliance.

Early In The Confessor, Pope Paul VII, the elfin Venetian outsider finally chosen after much in-fighting to succeed Pope John Paul II, is having one of his dreaded weekly lunches with the extremely political Cardinal Marco Brindisi, his secretary of state. When the pope tells the cardinal that he plans to open all secret Vatican archives pertaining to the Holocaust, Brindisi bristles and points out that Pope John Paul II already did something similar in his 1998 study "We Remember."

" `We Remember?' " the pope says. " `It should have been called We Apologize--or We Beg Forgiveness. It did not go far enough, neither in its soul-searching nor in its search for the truth. It was yet another insult to the very people whose wounds we wished to heal."

This is an important scene, because Silva has more in mind here than just using up a lot of research into the ever-popular fictional form of Vatican office politics, or jumping on the current bandwagon of pope bashing. He intends to make his Pope Paul VII not just a colorful piece of moving scenery but a major part of the story--a real man with a history and a heart, whose actions jump-start the narrative and whose motives are personal and ecumenical.

Many books and plays have questioned Pope Pius XII's silence and lack of action during the Holocaust. Silva goes beyond easy assumptions, using newly uncovered documents to create a darker scenario. That darkness is increasingly tinged with sadness, as Allon moves through present-day Jewish communities in Munich, Venice and Rome where nothing seems to have been changed by the deaths and denials of history.

At the end of The Confessor, after many scenes of thumping action, passionate words, hot pursuit and cold revenge, what will probably stay with you longest are the quiet moments where the reasons for Pope Paul VII's convictions are revealed. It's a different kind of thrill than you might expect from a commercial thriller, but it certainly leaves a tingle.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Times It Isn't Changing

While we wait for Denise Hamilton's most recent Eve Diamond book (Prisoner of Memory) to come out in paperback, here's what I wrote about its predecessor:

Hamiliton's version of the Los Angeles Times where her star reporter Eve Diamond works (lots of pages for investigative journalism and writers given a free hand to fill them; a heavy interest in arcane local cultural events like theater) make it sound like a cross between the paper in Hecht/MacArthur's The Front Page and the old lefty P.M. in New York (before it became the Post.) If recent reports are true, this isn't quite like life at today's Times. But it does give Hamilton's books about Diamond a decidedly historic feel - probably to be studied by future scholars and passed off as the same kind of truth that has encircled stories about London in the 1960s.

Eve is in fact wearing a “1940s cocktail dress of raw silk with a scoop neck” as she waits at the fountain outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where the world premiere of a play called Our Lady of the Barrio by a former gang member named Alfonso Reventon is about to happen. The fact that the star, Catarina Velosi, Alfonso's ex-lover, has disappeared spoils Eve's date with a glamorous music executive named Silvio (imagine a young Caesar Romero), Alfonso's friend, who brings Diamond along on his search for the missing actress.

What makes Savage Garden worth our time is Hamilton's obvious desire to turn Los Angeles into a piece of the past - a place where ethnicity matters, where culture other than movies is treated with respect, above all where newspapers make occasional stabs at greatness.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Roosevelt's Law

Most legal thrillers use the idea of the law firm – large and greedy or small and courageous – simply as the backdrop for the cases won and lost by their lawyers. That’s why Kermit Roosevelt’s thoroughly gripping debut novel is such a major breakthrough: it makes the firm itself – the giant Washington, D.C. operation Morgan Siler -- the book’s most important character.

“Pro bono was the perfect solution: cases on which summer associates could take positions of significant responsibility without any worry that their incompetence would cause problems for the firm,” says Roosevelt about the best way to keep law students happy. “Furthermore, it gave them an unrealistic idea both of the sort of work they’d be doing and of the firm’s commitment to pro bono practice, something law students seemed to value.”

That quote says more about the idea of pro bono than the lengthy and self-defeating gyrations which first year associate Mark Clayton goes through as he works on a death penalty case in Virginia. And what another new associate, Katja Phillips, discovers about litigation (that it “consisted of trying to prevent people from enforcing the legal rights they claimed”) is never really improved or made more real during the hundreds of billable hours she spends when victims of a chemical plant explosion in Texas (owned by a Morgan Siler client) join in a class action against the offending company.

It’s not that Mark, Katja and all their immediate legal superiors are anything less than fully-fleshed characters: a shrewd and cocksure third-year associate who clerked for a Supreme Court justice (as Roosevelt himself did) is particularly well-drawn. But in the end, it’s Morgan Siler, standing like a warehouse of broken legal promises on K Street, which constantly holds our interest.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Fearing's Clock

"In short, the big clock was running as usual, and it was time to go home. Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all. But that made no difference to the big clock. The hands could move backward, and the time it told would be right just the same. It would still be running as usual, because all other watches have to be set by the big one…"

Kenneth Fearing, born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1902, three years after Ernest Hemingway, drank himself to death just short of his 59th birthday. The Big Clock, which came out in 1946, dazzled critics (and impressed the hard-to-impress Raymond Chandler) and was based on the six months Fearing spent at Time, Inc. – one of the few jobs he could ever hold for long. Its lead character, a womanizing boozer named George Stroud, edits a magazine called Crimeways for a weird publishing tycoon whose blond mistress is murdered after a surreptitious fling with Stroud – a murder Stroud himself is ordered to look into by his boss.

Both tough and strikingly poetic, Fearing's book (which was filmed twice – once with Ray Milland as Stroud and a superb Charles Laughton as the publisher, and most recently as No Way Out with Kevin Costner) is definitely an important look at American values after WW II. All credit to the New York Review of Books and their paperback branch for this handsome reprint.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Gardner Goes Zoom

My first serious magazine job (as opposed to writing captions and text blocks for a sleazy publisher of girlie mags, but that's another story) was on Argosy, where Erle Stanley Gardner ran the Court of Last Resort -- a non-fiction feature that tried to free unjustly imprisoned people. I met Gardner a couple of times on his rare visits from California, but since I wasn't a big Perry Mason fan I didn't try to talk to him about fiction.

Little did I realize that (as Bill Pronzini reveals in his lively introduction to the latest invaluable Crippen & Landru Lost Classic) before he ever wrote about the courtroom ace, Gardner had created many more colorful characters for pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s -- "Ed Migrane, the Headache Detective; Speed Dash, the Human Fly... None, however, were more unique, well-developed, or eccentric in name and nature than Sidney Zoom, the Master of Disguises."

Zoom, like Mason, was also a lawyer -- but the similarity ends there. Underneath the disguises and other examples of eccentric behavior which spice up these ten stories, all reprinted for the first time, lies the same combination of a deep distrust of the legal system and an equally strong desire to help the unfortunate which probably made Gardner study law in the first place -- and to practice it in my current home town of Ventura, CA.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Romilia Spices Up L.A.

When we first met Romilia Chacon, the smart, sexy (and how do you say “feisty” in Spanish?) police detective was not just the sole Latina on the Nashville homicide squad but the only woman. Overcoming, even using her diverse background, Romilia rose quickly through the cop ranks. Now, in her third outing, she is 30 and has become a special agent of the FBI in Los Angeles – much to the delight of her mother, who does most of the daily looking-after of Romilia’s eight-year-old son Sergio, and to the boy himself, on his way to soccer confidence. Chacon was glad to give up her job as coach of Sergio’s team, the Mighty Slayers: “I hadn’t warmed up much to the other mothers on the team,” she admits. “There were differences between us, like shards of glass strewn over the sidelines…”

But her new happiness quickly turns to darkness and anger, when someone beats to death Romilia’s former lover, Chip Pierce, an FBI agent with a prosthetic leg. A brutal drug lord is the leading suspect, but digging into Chip’s background and past cases sends Chacon on a frightening search in another direction. Villatoro catches her voice and attitude so perfectly that we hope to read many more books about Romilia.