Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lone Wolf in Bear's Clothing

Another strong and zesty Canadian thriller writer heard from. Linwood Barclay, a columnist for the Toronto Star, wrote two justifiably well-received books, Bad Move and Bad Guys, about a journalist named Zack Walker who just can’t stay out of trouble or danger. His latest roars along a similar, satisfying track, as Zack – worried about what might be a murder by bear in the fishing camp his father owns – stirs up a much more dangerous kind of evil.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Rapping About Paper

If the idea of beautiful, handmade paper or a painting by the famed 19th Century British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner gets you as excited as reading a sharp and sad mystery, this new novel – her first -- from a British journalist who specializes in covering wars should satisfy all your cravings.

Charlotte "Charlie" Hudson, recovering slowly from the physical and psychological wounds of her coverage of the war in Kosovo, becomes fascinated with handmade art papers – especially the ones used by Turner. This leads to a romantic connection with another British painter – whose daughter’s suicide is beginning to look much more like murder. Holden manages to be as interesting about the history of paper as she is about modern crime.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Who Was That Lady?

Death In the Garden (see my review posted 6/01) had a shining moment among reviewers and book-buyers last year when its ambitious new publisher proved that being the wife of the British ambassador to the U.S. (Elizabeth Ironside is the pen name of Lady Catherine Manning) couldn’t disguise a major talent. Now the folks at Felony & Mayhem hope to reinforce that by reprinting another wonderfully readable Ironside story, also set in a bucolic English village, but this time with tragic roots in the Russian Revolution.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Have A Very Noir Halloween

More than 20 years ago, Pete Hamill interrupted his rise through the higher ranks of journalism and tried his hand at crime fiction with three books about a reporter named Sam Briscoe. The Guns of Heaven is about terrorism, of the IRA variety, including vivid and credible threats to New York – a city Hamill knows as well as a child knows its parents.

David Dodge, the other half of Hard Case Crime’s shapely noir package this month, is best known as the author of To Catch A Thief – although you might be forgiven for thinking “Cary Grant” or “Grace Kelly” or even “Alfred Hitchcock” when that title flashes. Dodge died in 1974; the typescript of his last book sat in an archive until recently, when a librarian discovered it and sent it on its way to Hard Case – who by now have performed enough resurrections to qualify as a religion.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

As Goodis It Gets

David Goodis lived hard and died when he was just 50. But his life’s work (17 novels, many stories, radio scripts and film treatments) qualify him as the man who invented noir – although fans of Jim Thompson and Cornell Woolrich might disagree. Black Friday is a fine place to start if you've never read a Goodis novel: bitter, dark, but with a thin redeeming light at the end of the cold tunnel.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Waites and Measures

While we wait for Martyn Waites' Mary's Prayer to appear next month, here's what I said about his gripping The Mercy Seat, just out in paperback.

Waites, one of Britain’s hottest young crime novelists, writes about the rusted industrial city of Newcastle. The Mercy Seat, his first book to be published in America, is a welcome treat: a story with familiar ingredients which also manages to cover some fresh ground.

Journalist Joe Donovan’s life disintegrated two years ago, when his six-year-old son disappeared in a crowded department store: his marriage and his high profile career were victims of the still unsolved disappearance. When Donovan’s name turns up on an audio disc for which a man died, his former newspaper sends its top editor and a shrewd lawyer somewhat short on scruples to help them find out why another reporter has vanished – promising in return to help Joe in his obsessive search for his son.

Bloody violence explodes on virtually every page (the mercy seat of the title is an especially vicious instrument of torture) and there are some really scary villains. But the feeling which readers are likely to take away from the book is the unstoppable power of decent feelings which Donovan manages to retain – especially for a lost street boy named Jamal.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Writer Who Couldn't Read

What do you do if you’re a successful, highly-lauded mystery writer in his late 60s who suffers a stroke that causes a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia, which affects the memory and the ability to read but not the ability to write? If you’re Howard Engel, you turn the experience into one of your wry and solid books about Toronto private detective Benny Cooperman.

Benny’s latest investigation begins as he wakes from a recurring dream about a train wreck to find himself in a Toronto hospital. Cooperman has been in a coma for eight weeks after being found in a trash bin near the University of Toronto with a near-fatal blow to the head — next to the body of a young female professor, dead of a similar injury. Using a small notebook in which he meticulously jots down thoughts and details as they occur to him, Benny and his friend Anna Abraham reconstruct his most recent case. An anonymously-sent basket of flowers triggers the name Rose or Rosie, and other clues suddenly pop into his head apparently at random to finally reveal an academic conspiracy.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and no mean writer himself, contributes an afterword that says it all: “Is the present volume up to the standard of the previous Benny Cooperman novels? My answer, as a reader of detective stories, is ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Indeed, I think this may be the most remarkable of them all, because of its special personal dimension… Memory Book has a unique depth and authenticity, because Howard Engel has known and traversed all that he writes about…’”

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Renko and the New Russia

Here's a worthy paperback we missed when it came out earlier this year:

From his first appearance, in 1981's Gorky Park, through his last, Havana Bay in 1999, Arkady Renko has been the perfect dark mirror of his time and place in history -- the replacement of Cold War Russia by what passes now for a more democratic and capitalist society.

Martin Cruz Smith's police detective has certainly paid the price for his obstinate loyalties to truth and justice during those years, suffering physical and psychological trauma in a withering variety of settings. He is as out of place in the so-called New Russia as "an ape encountering fire," as he thinks when he sees a sleek new computer.

"Stop using the phrase 'New Russian' when you refer to a crime," his superior tells him wearily. "We're all New Russians, aren't we?"

"I'm trying," Renko replies, and in his own way he is. When powerful billionaire Pasha Ivanov (a man photographed often with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, "who, as usual, seemed to suck on a sour tooth"), commits suicide, Renko just wants to do a thorough job of investigating. When he takes the sadly silent and badly damaged 11-year-old boy he has volunteered to provide some entertainment for to a big charity event thrown in the dead man's honor, he is finally taken off the case.

But the dogged Renko follows a clue to Chernobyl--the Ukranian city where a nuclear disaster in 1986 began Old Russia's downfall and frightened the world into some semblance of sanity. Chernobyl is now a radioactive wasteland, and Ivanov's business successor has been found with his throat slit and his face eaten by wolves in a cemetery inside Chernobyl's Zone of Exclusion--an area inhabited by a strange band of scientists, soldiers and some dysfunctional citizens who risk their health to live in its abandoned houses and apartments. A reading on Renko's radioactivity detector taken at a small amusement park "shot the needle off the dial."

As he did in his second Renko outing, Polar Star, in which the detective is punished with one of the world's nastiest and most grueling jobs aboard a fish-processing ship, Smith manages to make the horrors of Chernobyl almost a redeeming experience--for Renko and for us. As Renko searches for the truth about the two murders he's investigating, he seems to single-handedly be trying to tell us that Russia and its people, New or Old, are worth the effort.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Atkinson Is On the Case

While we wait for Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn (which I'll be reviewing 10/22 in my Chicago Tribune column), her last book, Case Histories, is available in paperback. Here's what I wrote when it first came out:

I'm tempted to call Kate Atkinson's wonderful new mystery a detective story for people who don't like detective stories -- but that would be both pointless (Why would they be reading this column?) and pandering. So I'll just say that Atkinson, who won the British Whitbread Award in 1995 for her memorable novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is having lots of fun bending genre rules until they seem about to shatter.

Who else could create a central character as dark and funny as Cambridge-based private detective Jackson Brodie, lover of country music (especially as sung by women), divorced and desperately missing his daughter, an investigator determined to give his clients as much closure as possible?

Brodie is the link between the three case histories chronicled by Atkinson with much wit and heart: two sisters still haunted by the disappearance of a third 34 years ago, a guilt-ridden father whose daughter was murdered in his own law office, a woman eager to escape the drudgeries of home and baby who suddenly and horribly gets what she wants. It's quite an amazing performance, whatever bookshelf you put it on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Millar's Crossing

Having already done stalwart service in the cause of one-half of the Millar mystery writing household (his biography of Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar, still stands as an edifice in the landscape of literary biography), Wall Street Journal critic Tom Nolan continues the splendid defense he began in The Couple Next Door of Margaret Millar as an equally important writer --

by picking two of Millar’s best books of the 1950s, long out of print and now part of Stark House’s ambitious genre restoration. She “could seem as hard-boiled as any ‘50s writer,” Nolan says in his shrewdly admiring introduction, “and as lyrical as a poet… Juxtaposed, the two novels represent the sort of reversals of theme typical of Margaret Millar’s fiction.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Deserved Prize For Ed Wright

RED SKY LAMENT, which I reviewed in May, has just won the Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Mystery from the British Crime Writers. Here's my original review of Ed Wright's three books. (The line about RED SKY LAMENT not having an American publisher will probably change as you read this...)

Should crime fiction – written mostly for profit and entertainment – be expected to compete in the artistic arena, to strive for that abused but occasionally useful term “literature?” Probably not: the field is too skewed to make such comparisons fair. But every now and then a writer of thrillers or mysteries emerges who deserves to be compared with the best. The list of names is short, each tied to a territory or period: Charles McCarry, who has played the Cold War like a lute; Olen Steinhauer, who makes the Communist side of that war understandable; Sara Paretsky, who holds the rough, greedy heart of Chicago in her hand. You probably have one or two candidates.

To that list, I’d like to add the name of Edward Wright. Like previous novelists who wrestled with Los Angeles before and after WWII (John Fante of Ask the Dust and Horace McCoy of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? come to mind), Wright knows how to capture the smell of something burning in the hot fields and streets of that 1940s city and turn it into the kind of art that both stirs up old memories and pierces the soul.

His books are about John Ray Horn, a former cowboy star of B-movies who played a character called Sierra Lane. The son of an unforgiving Arkansas preacher, Horn had his few moments in the film sun, before a very bad war in Italy and then a violent attack on the son of his studio owner -- which sent him to prison for two years and ended both his career and his marriage to the wrong woman. Now he lives in a shabby mountain cabin which he keeps up in lieu of rent, and earns food money collecting debts for Joseph Mad Crow, his former co-star who has started a gambling casino.

Wright’s first book about Horn, CLEA'S MOON, won a British award on the basis of a sample chapter and an outline. His second was published by Putnam here as WHILE I DISAPPEAR and as a paperback called “The Silver Face” in England. And RED SKY LAMENT--his best and most important political and social statement – appears to have no American publisher as yet.

Red Sky Lament starts off with a friend needing Horn’s help: Maggie O’Dare, the woman he should have married – a top stunt rider whose horse ranch high above the San Fernando Valley is a place of great comfort. Maggie wants John Ray to help a once-famous screenwriter, Owen Bruder, now unemployable and on his way to prison as an “Unfriendly Witness” before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee which is in full swing. Horn, with no particular sympathy for Communists, takes on the job of finding out who lied about the cold and unlikable Bruder to HUAC’s investigators because Maggie gives him convincing reasons.

What all of Wright’s books do is what the best fiction does: recreate a vanished world (even if the time passed is days rather than decades), then populate it with people we’d know anywhere.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Crime For Art's Sake

Janet Gleeson first came to the book world's attention with The Arcanum, a fascinating true story about the alchemists who recreated the formula for porcelain. Then came a series of historical mysteries set in the English art world, including a lovely book -- The Grenadillo Box -- about the famous (and corrupt) furniture maker Chippendale.

Gleeson's latest, The Thief Taker, does the same kind of high-level hatchet job on the silversmith's art. Set in 18th Century London, a period which the much-missed Bruce Alexander refined and invigorated, the new book tells about a family of silversmiths whose fame and riches are in a sad decline. When a valuable wine cooler is stolen and an apprentice murdered, the family cook -- Agnes Meadowes, worth a series of her own -- does most of the investigating and comes up with some extremely tarnished items.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Creeping, Brit Style

Like the people in David Morrell's Creepers, reviewed below, the lead character in Spectres in the Smoke by Tony Broadbent has a fascination with exploring other people's buildings.

We first met the British cat burglar known only as Jethro in The Smoke, set in 1947, when Jethro’s occupation – breaking into London houses that survived the German bombings and removing objects of value – led to him being recruited by the MI5 intelligence mob, for whom he liberated some sensitive documents from the Soviet Embassy. A year later, with the city still largely pockmarked with ruined buildings – described in detail as heartbreakingly vivid as in John Lawton’s memorable mystery Black Out – Jethro is arm-twisted into stealing records from a Fascist organization intent on sinking the ruling Labour government.

Aside from his tribute to a blitzed capital, Broadbent also honors – with understated admiration and moments of high-quality local humor – the spirit of London’s inhabitants. Cary Grant could have played Jethro perfectly.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Horses and Courses

Horses play a large part in the life of Ruby Murphy, the highly addictive amateur crime solver of Estep’s shrewd series about her – a subtle mix of excitement and eccentricity. Murphy works for a museum in Coney Island, mostly to pay for the feed and stabling of Jack Valentine, her best equine friend, and this time she risks losing her job, her lover, even her life when a simple search for her therapist’s husband turns into a photo finish.

Estep is also the co-editor, with Jason Starr, of BLOODLINES, a high-stepping collection of stories and articles in which 20 writers (Starr, Estep, Ken Bruen and that fine crime novelist Scott Phillips) explore the deep love between humans and racehorses.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


I don’t know how much time David Morrell has actually spent sneaking around in abandoned luxury hotels in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but when he describes a floor collapsing under a young teacher named Vinnie (“The sound was like wet cardboard being torn. As Vinnie fell, his arms shot up, his flashlight flipping away. He screamed. Something crashed below him”) he certainly made a believer out of me.

Morrell is the author of dozens of thrillers, including the one which is probably Sylvester Stallone’s favorite – First Blood, wherein he introduced a rogue soldier called John Rambo. He has written expertly about war, organized crime and other staples of the genre. But Creepers is something unusual: a serious, even literary urban nightmare about a decaying civilization and some adventurers who deliberately make it a part of their lives.

Creepers – some of the more socially conscious prefer to call themselves “urban explorers” – are people who pay tribute to the architectural artifacts of the recent past by taking extreme risks to search through buildings and other structures which have been closed off and abandoned. Walt Whitman was one of them: he slogged through an ancient New York subway tunnel when he was a newspaper reporter. As he says in an author’s note, Morrell began his own creeping career as an unhappy boy in Kitchener, Ontario, going through apartment buildings abandoned but not worth being leveled by builders.

The five people who start their exploration of the Paragon Hotel in Asbury Park – a popular resort city in the early 1900s which turned into a documentary for social, racial and economic upheaval in the 1960s – include a 60-year-old college professor risking tenure and his fragile health; a married couple who are his students; the floor-crashing Vinnie; and Frank Balenger, supposedly a magazine writer doing a story but really (as it soon becomes obvious) a troubled ex-soldier carrying a lot of emotional baggage and a loaded pistol.

The Paragon itself is a major character, built in 1901 by a hemophiliac millionaire with a twisted psyche who included secret passages, hidden vaults and exotic touches like gold-plated eating utensils. Several violent deaths and mysterious disappearances have taken place within its walls, and now that it’s finally about to be torn down the urban explorers want to spend a night digging through its darkest secrets.

Morrell knows how to build suspense to an almost unbearable level without slipping over the edge into foolishness. Pursued by mutant wildlife, plants gone mad and some other very real super-creepers with night vision goggles and a thirst for blood and gold, his crew convinces us early on of their high intentions – to show their respect for an increasingly disposable culture.