Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Not Prone to Kill

THE PRONE GUNMAN, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, translated by James Brook.

Manchette, the revered French author of many thrillers for the famous Serie Noire publishing title, retired from writing in 1981 (he died at 53 in 1995). This was his last book, and it does a fine job of summing up a genre and his work in it. If the plot sounds familiar (a paid assassin wants to retire, but is tricked into taking on one last job, which goes absurdly and violently awry), it's probably because so many writers and film-makers have used -- and often abused -- it since.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Murder by the Numbers

THE OXFORD MURDERS, by Guillermo Martinez, translated by Sonia Soto.

The best crime fiction, as I've said often, lights up landscapes both exterior and interior. Martinez is a novelist from Argentina who combines – in person and in his latest work – a fascination with mathematics and murder. Is the violent death of an old woman in the British university city of Oxford connected in some way with a highly-lauded study of a particular form of discipline called logical series? And is it the first of a series of death which might just be putting the study to its ultimate test?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Here Comes a Falling Angel...

Millipede Press, a new publishing house in Lakewood, Colorado, specializes in crime fiction books that are beautifully designed and shrewdly introduced -- carefully chosen specimens of classics that are often not easily available elsewhere. Two recent additions to Millipede’s list prove how important the house has quickly become:

I first fell under the spell of Fredric Brown when science fiction was my mental drug of choice: his stories in Weird Tales and Astounding were worth paying the cover price for on their own. Then, as crime fiction became my favorite genre, Brown’s “cynical idealism” (as Bill Pronzini says in his new introduction) made me a devout admirer of this aspect of his work. Here Comes A Candle tells of the inner battle fought by a haunted young man who is torn between making a living as a mobster and doing something worthwhile. It uses several stylistic devices to tell its story, and you can see its influences on crime writers in the 50 years since it was originally published.

“This is the literary love child of Raymond Chandler and Stephen King,” says film director Ridley Scott in his succinct foreword to the other new Millipede tribute out this month, and King himself makes a graceful appearance in a 1978 letter to the original hardcover publisher of Falling Angel. A new afterword by author William Hjortsberg, telling how his novel has moved into the land of legend since its early cult days, plus a bonus story and an introduction by his friend and fellow Montana literary giant James Crumley make this book about a private detective named Harry Angel who is literally in over his head a holiday gift for your favorite crime fiction lover.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Any Questions?

"In my career, I reckon I have read about 3,000 crime novels; some of them all the way through. Yet I am always being accosted by crime writers who announce themselves and then say 'You haven't reviewed my new book' to which I usually answer 'There's no need to thank me.' " -- MIKE RIPLEY

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Hard Life on the Oklahoma Frontier

As the mother of nine, Alafair Tucker's hard but basically peaceful life on a farm on the Oklahoma frontier in 1912 is changed forever when one of her daughters - 17-year-old Phoebe -- is involved in the murder of an obnoxious neighbor. Phoebe is the girlfriend of the chief suspect, the dead man's son, and might even have been his accomplice in the crime.

Under Donis Casey's gifted hand and shrewd historic eye, Alafair adds solving a mystery to her busy schedule. It all could very easily have gone soft and cute - especially the many long visits to the Tuckers' fellow farmers. But by avoiding all the built-in traps, Casey has produced a sharp and suspenseful first novel.

Music to Our Eyes

Johnny Temple, publisher of the always lively paperback house Akashic Books, is a rock musician himself, and he combines his interests in music and mysteries in this first novel from Claypool -- bassist and lead singer for the band Primus.

South of the Pumphouse
started life as a screenplay, which adds a strong visual element to the sharply evocative book -- the story of two brothers on a fishing trip riddled with drugs and danger. And the only connection to Tom Wolfe's legendary Pumphouse Gang is that both pieces take place on or near the Pacific...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

It's Murda Out There

MURDALAND, edited by Michael Langnas, asks the question,"Is a new magazine featuring short stories what the crime fiction world needs right now?" (Can you say Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen?) Luckily, the folks behind this new semi-annual (they hope to publish at least quarterly soon) aren’t put off by the competition.

The format is a handsome paperback, and editor Langnas has convinced such top writers as Daniel Woodrell, Ken Bruen and Anthony Neil Smith to contribute to his first issue. There’s also a classic reprint from David Goodis, and a remarkable article called “My War” by the poet and ex-Sandinista rebel Paolo Madrigal.

The Coldest Stone

When Stone City was first published, in 1990, the reviews were as glowing as the possibilities of thriller stardom for author Mitchell Smith. His career has taken several different directions since then, but this remarkable look inside a state prison so brutal that it almost makes a good argument for the death penalty is an absolute original – now being brought back from out-of-print perdition to amaze a new generation.

Omaha Noir

The last time I waxed poetic (now it’s Poetic’s turn to wax me, as Groucho might say) about Doolittle, for Rain Dogs, I suggested that he was too good to be a writer of original paperbacks all his life. Belay that: he is, as Laura Lippman says in a jacket blurb for his latest, “a cult writer for the masses” – a title which fits several other writers (Dickens, Doyle, Dostoyevsky) whose last names also happen to begin with D. The Cleanup is about a terminally hopeless Omaha cop who winds up as a night security guard at a supermarket, and it could well be the best thrills-for-the-buck reading bargain of the year.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Rules of Laughter

Humor is hard, especially in crime fiction. J.A. Konrath pulls it off regularly, as does Joe Lansdale. But some of the former masters still mentioned in blurbs (Leonard, Hiaasen & Co.) have faltered of late, so it’s a pleasure to welcome newcomer Troy Cook to the Comedy Crime Club.

47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers starts off with a jolly premise – a 22-year-old woman raised by her father to take over the family heist business and be a veritable Joan Dillinger – then ups the ante and moves on to truly inventive excitement and hilarity.

The trouble is that Tara Evans’ daddy, Wyatt, is going nuts – jeopardizing both of their futures by breaking all the survival lessons he has passed on with such care. Tara’s new boyfriend, Max, a sheriff's son who definitely has grander plans than a career in law enforcement, also adds an element of comic danger.

Cook, a former filmmaker with a great respect for words, knows just how many to use to bring to life a sunburned Arizona landscape and the slightly screwy, often touching, almost constantly amusing people who live in it.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Wheelmen Don't Eat Quiche

How much physical punishment are the lead characters in a thriller supposed to absorb before they collapse, die, or have to spend months in hospital getting skin grafts and reconstructive surgery?

In Duane Swierczynski’s first novel, just out in paperback to coincide with his latest hardcover, The Blonde, Patrick Lennon – an Irish criminal currently working in Philadelphia -- is so smashed up, punctured, shot and mutilated that at every page turn we expect to find him lying in a whimpering heap on the ground. But minutes later, after a deep breath or two and a check of his pulse through his carotid artery, he’s back for more punishment.

Lennon doesn’t curse or scream out loud during any of this, either -- because he lost his voice to a bullet during an armed robbery some years before. An expert driver, Lennon is part of a three-man team intent on removing from a bank the $650,000 in cash which the Mayor plans to use as a political gesture to revitalize a rundown neighborhood. The robbery itself goes down smoothly, and we learn how to get a couple of crooks out of a bank’s access-control unit which supposedly locks them in the revolving door but can be deactivated by smashing an Acura head on into it – a fact probably learned by the author when he did the research for his non-fiction book, This Here’s A Stick-Up.

But (wouldn’t you know it?) somebody else also has their eyes on the loot and knows Lennon’s getaway plan: he and his two colleagues are treated extremely badly, smashed into by a van, stuffed naked down some drainage pipes, things like that. Only Lennon survives, and expends his rudely-treated body and mind on finding out who.

Swierczynski has an uncommon gift for the banal lunacy of criminal dialogue, a delightfully devious eye for character, and a surprisingly well-developed narrative engine for a beginner. I hope he also has a good health insurance plan which he can share with his hero...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Religion Can Kill You

The veteran mystery writer and reviewer Jon L. Breen has taken one of today's hottest-button issues from the editorial pages and turned it into a crackling good novel which invokes all sorts of spirits -- from G.K. Chesterton and the later Dorothy L. Sayers to more contemporary writers such as Robert Irvine and Julia Spencer-Fleming.

What happens when Norm Carpenter, one of the two partners in a successful Orange County private detective firm (men apparently as compatible as bread and butter) suddenly announces that he's quitting because he has become a born-again Christian? His partner, Al Hasp, thinks that by persuading Norm to take on one final case, involving a popular televangelist anonymously accused of fraud and other criminal behavior, Carpenter will realize the error of his decision. But things quickly turn very nasty, and it would be a sin to reveal any of Breen's devilish plotting...