Sunday, January 28, 2007

Not just a pretty face?

Check out The Rap Sheet for some news that might be of interest...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Stout's Honor

Before he earned literary immortality by inventing Nero Wolfe, Stout wrote several crime novels – two of which the tireless publisher/editor/bookstore owner Otto Penzler has collected (along with another early short story) in this classy package.

Her Forbidden Knight features a smart young woman who works as a New York hotel telegraph operator and unwittingly gets involved in a counterfeiting scheme. A Prize for Princes is about another kind of young woman – one who captures men’s souls and the uses them for her own nefarious purposes.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Holy Sheed

"No occupation designed for dim younger sons was ever easier to enter than book reviewing; or, once entered, easier to rise in. You go immediately to the top, it is the least you can ask.... So whatever politics a microscope may turn up in this game can have little to do with upward mobility. Since there is absolutely no way of not reaching the top -- and since the top proves to be so close to the bottom -- the satisfaction must be sought crabwise, foraging side to side, magazine to magazine; passing on the way other reviewers of similar, sometimes almost interchangeable sensibility, who are lurching counterclockwise." WILFRED SHEED

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bad Titles, Great Books

"Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of," says Donald Westlake -- whose own books (and titles) are world-class -- in his afterword to this new edition from Stark House of two of Rabe's most powerful paperback originals. "Murder Me for Nickels, Kill the Boss Goodbye? And yet," Westlake continues, "Kill the Boss Goodbye is one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written."

Perhaps the title problem came from the fact that Rabe was born in Germany in 1921 and immigrated to America in 1938 -- so English was not his original language. But the books themselves are fascinating and unique, as these two newly-rescued examples -- My Lovely Executioner / Agreement to Kill -- prove.

Both books are about men in or recently released from prison. Jimmy Gallivan of My Lovely Executioner is about to get out, but a fellow inmate screws up Jimmy's plans with a treacherous scheme. In Agreement to Kill, Jake Spinner is just out of jail and headed back to work on his farm, until deadly events turn things around. Both are absolutely riveting.

Monday, January 15, 2007

And So Say All of Us

I'm delighted to report that England's venerable drinking and writing group called the Detection Club has decided to celebrate one of its founders' 80th birthday with a collection of stories in his honor. H.R.F. Keating, known as Harry to friends, fans and colleagues, is a rare talent, author of the Inspector Ghote series of mysteries set in India as well as less-exotic but equally sleek and sly crime novels.

Prominent club members who celebrate him here include P.D. James, Peter Lovesey (who also does an ace job of editing the book), Reginald Hill, Colin Dexter and Len Deighton – in his first published story in recent memory, Sherlock Holmes and the Titanic Swindle. It's a jaunty, strange, occasionally baffling tale of swindlers and publishers (though its sometimes hard to tell the difference), which at 30 pages begins and anchors the collection in a way which Keating must have chortled at.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bringing Bardin Back To Life

Salvador Dali on the cover, a ground-shaking introduction by Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn etc.) quoting the likes of Greil Marcus (whose latest book is the critically acclaimed The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice) -- who is this guy John Franklin Bardin anyway, and why is everyone making such a fuss?

Bardin (1916-1981) wrote ten psychological crime novels, no doubt influenced by early tragedies -- deaths of close relatives; a mother's increasing mental illness. But he also worked for an advertising agency and edited popular magazines.

The Deadly Percheron, championed back into print by Lethem, is, as he writes, "a combination of paranoia and amnesia... but the tone is anything but. Instead, the book comes off like a brisk blend of Damon Runyon and The Twilight Zone."

Many thanks to Millipede Press for another handsome restoration.

Excellence Present

S.J. Rozan has a new hardcover -- In this Rain -- which I'll review in my Chicago Tribune column 1/14, plus a new paperback of her last novel.

Rozan isn't the first writer to use what happened to New York on Sept. 11, 2001, as the background for a crime novel. But the images of pain, loss and fear on every page of Absent Friends are so strong that the book will probably be remembered for them, rather than for the intricate and heart-breaking story of her characters, a group of friends who grew up on Staten Island in the 1970s.

"Everyone was like this now," says a criminal lawyer named Phil Constantine (a latecomer to the friends' circle and a definite outsider who does their dirty jobs but is treated roughly, especially by the women), suddenly caught up in a TV news item involving a client. "Every siren, every subway delay, every unexpected crowd as you rounded the corner made your heart speed, your palms sweat." And the sense of the city's vanished crystalline beauty comes through like an arrow in the heart: "In New York now, beautiful days were suspect, clear blue skies tainted with an invisible acid etch."

At the center of these absent friends (even the ones who survived paid a terrible price of loss of hope for the future) is Jimmy McCaffery, a heroic firefighter who died in the towers. While most of the others remained in their peaceful Staten Island harbor, Jimmy left 20 years ago for Manhattan, where he became a captain at a firehouse near the site of the attack. But why did McCaffery really leave: over a failed love affair, or because of his involvement in some secret payments to the family of a mob-connected man who died in prison?

A once-great newspaper reporter, now mired in booze and self-pity, thinks he has found the answer, but his body falls from a bridge before his story is finished. His young, idealistic lover is determined to find out why. Constantine the lawyer and other friends of McCaffery would rather let it all sink beneath the water and ash.

Rozan, who has justly won every mystery award going, knows how to balance their pasts and their presents without trivializing anything that happened on 9/11. Her performance--a dance in front of the burning towers--takes guts, brains and heart, and all are present in abundance.

No End to Abrahams' Story -- or His Talent

Peter Abrahams, one of my favorite writers, has a new hardcover -- Nerve Damage: A Novel -- out soon, and the paperback version of his last terrific novel, End Of Story, in the stores.

Here’s the deal: I’m going to keep on raving about Abrahams until he 1.) writes a bad book; or 2.) gets to be a regular on the best-seller lists where he deserves to be. If thriller-writing was a disease, Abrahams would be its poster boy, and End of Story is a beautifully crafted and astonishingly exciting story.

Ivy Seidel is a writer in trouble: she has an impressive educational background, lots of rejections (the New Yorker’s was kind and handwritten), a job as a waitress. A lucky Hollywood break for her best writing buddy gives her the chance to teach prisoners at upstate New York’s Dannemora Prison, at $100 a visit plus gas money. It’s as far from the New Yorker as Ivy can get in terms of atmosphere, but Abrahams makes you smell the fear and feel all the bad vibes.

At least one of her five pupils appears to have talent, and Ivy is so caught up in his work that she buys into his story of innocence – until life threatens to be much more dangerous than fiction.

Down But Not Out

Theresa Schwegel has a new hardcover out -- Probable Cause -- and the paperback version of her Edgar-winning first novel, Officer Down.

Schwegel's impressive first mystery about a cop named Samantha Mack – Smack to her colleagues – catches the flavor of Chicago in endearing ways. “It’s low-key, unadvertised, and out of the way, and it’s been around for too long to be trendy,” she says of her favorite late-night eating place, Iggy’s on Milwaukee Avenue. “I’ve never had a better steak after 10 p.m.”

Waiting for her date – a homicide detective named Mason Imes – to show up and buy her that steak, Smack gets an urgent call from her boss at the 23rd to fill in for another colleague with the flu. She joins her ex-boyfriend Fred as they go after a pervert, and many shots are fired. Smack gets hit hard on the head, and Fred winds up dead – killed by Smack’s .38. Was it an accident, as the police department badly wants to label it? Or was there really someone else in the room, who the battered and concussed Smack is virtually certain did the killing?

Of course there was, and it soon becomes evident – perhaps a bit too evident – that Smack will have to do all the digging herself. Between the slickly dismissive (and married) Imes, a particularly pesky bird from Internal Affairs, and a police establishment which threatens to take her badge if she doesn’t behave, Smack has no real friends.

But Schwegel, who writes about police work with authority (“It’s like hide-and-seek and my .38 is a heavy toy,” she has Smack think as a bust develops) has also created a tough and original character. At 32, Smack is as honest as they come, especially about herself. “My hair looks like it’s been pulled back all day (it has) and my makeup looks like a second coat rather than a fresh one (it is). Good thing we’re going to Iggy’s; at times like these, I live for bad lighting.”