Saturday, September 30, 2006

Who You Callin' Canadian?

Canadian crime fiction writers don’t get enough respect – or so they say, with some justification. But Ottowa’s own Mofina, who has won several of his country’s top awards, might just be the next Peter Robinson-type international breakout. His latest book about reporter Jason Wade turns all the usually suspect adjectives like “tough,” “tense” and “taut” into real emotions, as Wade digs into the kidnapping of a baby boy which quickly takes on some exceedingly scary overtones.

Thanks for the Nehr Nod

Many gratitudes to the American Crime Writers for this year's Ellen Nehr Award, announced at the Bouchercon opening ceremonies. Here I am with my lovely prize (shirt ain't too shabby, either)...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Limon Aids His Cause

Martin Limon's books about two very different but equally fascinating military cops working in Korea in the 1970s haven't gotten nearly the attention they deserve, but Soho's new paperback version of his latest might help to change that.

The Door to Bitterness starts with Sgt. Sueno losing his badge, gun and some blood in an attack in a Seoul alley. Limon uses the 10 years he spent in the Army in Korea before retiring to become a writer to recreate a pungent setting that reeks of realism, as Sueno and his partner search for the stolen items -- which have been used in a casino robbery -- down a dark and nasty path through local and international politics.

Waiting for Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips' first two novels set in 20th Century Kansas -- The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway -- were bleakly comic affairs connected by a brilliant link of shared history.

There's a similar link in his third book, Cottonwood, but you have to read the epilogue to fully appreciate it. Meanwhile, while we all wait for a new book from this most gifted author, we can enjoy the pleasures of Phillips' unique and pungent prose, as well as his skill and daring at moving us through a well-covered narrative landscape.

The story begins in 1872, in the frozen mud of Cottonwood, Kan., a profoundly unpromising place where ambitious Bill Ogden, 27, has largely abandoned his failing farm to run the local saloon and try to work at what he really likes, photography. Left to their own devices on the farm, Ogden's young son treats him with a decided lack of interest and his wife has taken to sleeping with the hired hands. This doesn't seem to bother Ogden, who has his own sexual needs taken care of by various women in town.

"One thing I particularly valued about the prairie was the reticence of most of those living there, and the lack of interest, or overt interest anyway, in one's neighbor's origins," Ogden says, and you can sense in his words the classic loner of Western literature and a man unsure of his abilities to control himself within the bounds of society.

Temptation arrives in Cottonwood in the form of slick Chicago operator Marc Leval, who announces convincing plans to turn the town into a railroad hub and promises vast prosperity. Ogden is more taken by the promise of Leval's lovely wife, Maggie, but he is shrewd enough to also sign on as Leval's partner in a new saloon. Then the book's tone deepens and darkens, as a growing number of traveling salesmen and itinerant cowboys begin to disappear. Their deaths are traced to a family of predators known as The Bloody Benders (based on an actual criminal clan), and it's during the hunt for these killers that Ogden and Leval have a serious falling out.

From this point, Ogden--accompanied by Maggie Leval--begins an odyssey that reads like a modern, deconstructionist version of a story by Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce and moves from Cottonwood to San Francisco and back again, covering a sizable slice of American history. We can only imagine what he'll do next.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Fermi in Chicago

Robert Goldsborough’s award-winning first mystery about Chicago Tribune police reporter Steve (“Snap”) Malek, Three Strikes You’re Dead, was set in 1938 – the year a sore-armed Dizzy Dean took the Cubs to the World Series. His second moves up four years and over to the University of Chicago, where Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi is hard at work on a secret weapon. The author’s own secret weapon is the way he stirs in just enough period detail to make you believe it really happened this way.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Death In Shorts

This might not be the new Golden Age Of Crime Fiction which some observers have called it, but it certainly does begin to look like a glittering era for the mystery short story. The latest evidence comes from the Mystery Writers of America, where editor Harlan Coben has honchoed an anthology of writers both currently hot (Lee Child, Laura Lippman, R. L. Stine, Brendan DuBois, Ridley Pearson) to others just about ready to come to the boil.

Worth turning to first is “The Home Front,” by Charles Ardai – whose work as editor of Hard Case Crime rubs off here in terms of dark energy and period perfection in a story about a federal agent who accidentally kills a World War II black market figure.

Best of Paperback Mysteries/Thrillers

See and bookmark our shorter version, BEST OF PAPERBACK MYSTERIES

Sunday, September 10, 2006

'Boy Detective' Creator Doesn't Fail

Have you noticed that paperbacks are getting more gorgeous as physical objects, as well as more imaginative than most hardcovers? Pirate Signal International, who designed the package for Meno’s visually and verbally delectable new book, deserves some special award for setting the tone from the first touch. (How many books include a “Make Your Own Boy Detective Decoder Ring!” kit on extra-heavy backcover stock?)

Meno mixes metaphors with audacity and daffy brilliance. Never once does he slide into parody, satire or trendy fake homage as he tells the story of Billy Argo, who as a youngster growing up in Gotham, New Jersey discovers that he is a born detective. His triumphs – aided by his sister Caroline and an overweight chum called Fenton – make the local newspapers, with headlines that might come straight from the Hardy Boys (“Wonder Boy Detective Unmasks Tarot Card Fake Without Any Kind Of Assistance At All”).

But Caroline eventually slides into depression and kills herself, and the Boy Detective appears to be off the case for good. Billy enters a mental asylum, finally coming out at age 30 to take a menial job. But it turns out that the Boy Detective was not really dead, only sleeping until the world caught up with him. This is one to leave around for young adults, who might even stop blogging or video game-playing to give it a try.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The King of the Paperbacks

Stark House Press, the enterprising paperback house in Eureka, CA, seems intent on restoring lost crime classics to the ranks of print – a worthy calling of interest to fans as well as fanatics. But Stark’s covers (perhaps for budgetary reasons) are often the least interesting part of the package. So for this new release -- A NIGHT FOR SCREAMING/ANY WOMAN HE WANTED -- of two books by probably the most prolific paperback writer ever, Harry Whittington, who wrote 170 paperback originals under 20 different names, I’ve taken advantage of national treasure Bill Crider’s amazing collection of original paperback covers to show you what these two looked like when they first came out in the early 1960s.

“After the sale of his first softcover original, Slay Ride for a Lady… in 1950,” Crider writes in one of the Stark edition’s fascinating extras, Whittington “wrote and sold 25 paperback originals in the next three years.” Tell that to your friends who spend several years on one novel…

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Tang of Cinnamon

Even when his plotting totters into the twilight zone, as it does in the tenth book in his series about Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosley has such a firm command over the mind and body of his lead character that he quickly outstrips the bounds of fiction and becomes a man we would recognize in a crowd.

“I had changed the sign on my office door from EASY RAWLINS – RESEARCH AND DELIVERY to simply INVESTIGATIONS,” Easy says. “I made the switch after the Los Angeles Police Department had granted me a private detective’s license for my part in keeping the Watts riots from flaring up again by squelching the ugly rumor that a white man had murdered a black woman in the dark heart of our boiler-pot city.”

That all happened in Little Scarlet, the last and arguably the best Rawlins book because of its overwhelming sense of the racial and social history of Los Angeles. Cinnamon Kiss is bounded by other kinds of 60s history: Vietnam and the hippy explosion, particularly in San Francisco.

Thanks to a fellow private detective, a white man with a black wife, Easy is hired on a Chandleresque task to find some missing bearer bonds supposedly stolen by a lawyer/activist named Axel Bowers. “Bowers had a colored servant named Philomena Cargill, generally known as Cinnamon – because of the hue of her skin, I’m told,” says Rawlins’ new employer – which is why he thinks a black detective will have more success finding her.

Everything about the investigation raises Easy’s blood pressure, especially when he finds Bowers’ body stuffed in a trunk. But it’s either this job or helping his friend Raymond “Mouse” Alexander pull an armed robbery. His real estate dreams – detailed so lovingly in earlier books in the series – have been turned to ashes by the Watts riots: “I owned two apartment buildings and a small house with a big yard, all in and around Watts. But after the riots property values in the black neighborhoods plummeted. I owed more on the mortgages than the places were worth.”

Rawlins finds Cinnamon hiding out in Los Angeles, and there’s an immediate attraction. “When Cinnamon smiled at me I understood the danger she represented,” he says. Easy’s stomach gets almost as large a workout as his other organs -- including this wonderful meal prepared by the wife of Rawlins’ mechanic friend, Primo: “She gave me a large bowl filled with chunks of pork loin simmered in a Pasillo chili sauce. She’d boiled the chilies without removing the seeds so I began to sweat with the first bite. There was cumin and oregano in the sauce and pieces of avocado too. On the side I had three homemade wheat flour tortillas and a large glass of sweetened lemon juice.”

All these elements, rendered in Mosley’s explosively distilled prose as powerful as homemade booze, go a long way to making the plot (Nazis and pornography are part of the package) easier to swallow. In the end, we’re left with the knowledge that Easy will be around for a long time, showing us the world we have lived in. As Mouse’s wife EttaMae says, “Easy Rawlins… if you wandered into a mine field you’d make it through whole. You could sleep with a girl named Typhoid an’ wake up with just sniffles…”

Monday, September 04, 2006

What Wine Goes With Poison?

Linda L. Richards expertly combines mystery, the sadness of life passing, and some very interesting details of two successful careers – that of a celebrity chef and an ethical stockbroker – in her third book about Madeline Carter, a broker based in Los Angeles.

Richards, who is the editor of the pioneering Internet literary journal called January Magazine, has made Carter a complicated but instantly recognizable person – a hard-edged woman who left her easygoing chef husband in New York 10 years ago, when she was 25. When she hears that he has killed himself, she decides to go to his funeral: they parted amicably, after all, and he was an important part of her early life.

But when Maddy learns that he died after taking poison in two very ill-matched dishes (duck a l'orange and beef Shiraz), she is certain that it wasn’t suicide – the man she knew would never have combined those foods. The local police, of course, don’t buy it, so Carter goes off on a dangerous private investigation.