J. Kingston Pierce

Dec 182014
 
J. Kingston Pierce is the overworked editor of both The Rap Sheet and Killer Covers, the senior editor of January Magazine, and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.

Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (Morrow):
Robinson’s 21st novel starring Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks (last seen in Watching the Dark) was among the 16 books chosen by Kirkus Reviews critics as the best mysteries and thrillers of 2014. I agree. It starts off with a dead, 59-year-old ex-college lecturer, Gavin Miller, being discovered along a disused length of railway track. We soon learn that Miller hadn’t been doing well for several years, ever since he was dismissed for alleged sexual misconduct with female students. He’d become something of a hermit, drinking himself into forgetfulness. So how did such a loser come to have £5,000 in his pocket? That’s what Banks wants to know, and it will take more than a little rummaging around in Miller’s troubled past to find out. Banks eventually determines that Miller’s murder is connected to events from four decades ago--the days when this future professor was another “young, naïve, privileged intellectual” caught up in political protests and friendly with a woman who has since become a top romance writer, related to a man who’s in line to serve as England’s next home secretary. By the time Banks’ higher-ups start feeling queasy about where this case might be headed, and tell him to put the brakes on, he’s too invested in the outcome to comply. Beyond delivering a compelling story, Robinson does a nice job here of showing how Banks’ subordinates, particularly Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman, have learned from his rather unconventional but determined example as an investigator.

Darkness, Darkness, by John Harvey (Pegasus):
Introduced in Harvey’s 1989 novel, Lonely Hearts, Charlie Resnick--a Polish-descended, jazz-loving, and stalwart police detective in Nottingham, England--has since seen fictitious service in a dozen sequels as well as one collection of short stories (Now’s the Time, 1999). The redundantly titled Darkness, Darkness supposedly marks Resnick’s last appearance, though we’ve heard such claims before. In these pages we see Harvey’s man retired but still working for the Nottingham force as a civilian advisor. When young Kenyan-born Inspector Catherine Njoroge is served up the case of a woman, Jenny Hardwick, who disappeared during the bitter UK coal miners’ strike of the mid-1980s (and whose skeleton has only just resurfaced), she turns to Resnick for assistance. He, after all, had a hand in police surveillance during that work stoppage and might shed some light on the deceased’s fate. With skills acquired after many years of penning police procedurals, Harvey weaves together Hardwick’s experiences, the story of the long-ago strike--which created fissures between friends and divided whole families--and a secondary plot line about Njoroge’s souring association with an abusive ex-lover to produce a novel that, if it does offer Resnick’s final bow, tops off that series most pleasingly.

The Devil in the Marshalsea,
by Antonia Hodgson (Mariner):

This debut historical novel from Antonia Hodgson, the editor in chief of publisher Little, Brown UK, won the Endeavour Historical Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association and found a spot on Publishers Weekly’s list of favorite mystery and thriller novels from 2014. It deserves those and other accolades. The story builds around Tom Hawkins, an almost professional good-for-nothing in 18th-century London. Finally convicted for failure to pay his debts, Hawkins is tossed unceremoniously into Marshalsea prison, a much-feared institution in Southwark, a district distinguished at the time by its disgraceful pleasures: “bear fights and cock fights; theatre and gambling; acrobats and fortune tellers; cheap beer and even cheaper Flemish whores.” He winds up bunking with one Samuel Fleet, a thoroughly eccentric gent--viewed by many in the gaol as the devil incarnate--who may or may not have slain his previous roomie. Not surprisingly, Hawkins wants out of this nightmare post haste. But his only hope of early liberation might be to solve the recent murder of a previous Marshalsea inmate, Captain John Roberts, whose comely wife has been pushing for an investigation into his demise, and whose ghost has allegedly taken to roaming the prison grounds. Hodgson is unsparing in her evocation of Georgian-era penitentiary life, complete with whippings, cruel restraining devices (at one point, Hawkins finds his head locked into a metal skull cap and the rest of him chained in a rat-infested chamber), and an unusual in-house economy that allows better-off jailbirds to enjoy treats such as taverns and coffeehouses. A sequel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, is due out in the UK next July.

An Officer and a Spy,
by Robert Harris (Knopf):

Twenty-four years after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the 1895 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, an obscure French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on charges of feeding military secrets to the German Empire became an international outrage and an opportunity for French intelligence officials to get back at their nation’s old adversary. However, the Dreyfus case may be less straightforward than it appears. Not long after Colonel Georges Picquart, one of Dreyfus’ teachers, reluctantly accepts a promotion to lead the French military’s Statistical Section--which had been instrumental in gathering the feeble evidence used to exile Dreyfus to Devil’ Island in French Guiana--he becomes convinced that another highly placed turncoat was actually behind those treasonous endeavors (“[H]ow easily I am slipping into the clichés of the spying world …,” he muses early on. “Already I trust no one”). Picquart’s superiors want him to curtail his probing, but the colonel--an ambitious gent who, despite his cool demeanor, is something of a ladies’ man--won’t give up so easily, his persistence eventually landing him in an African purgatory from which he must escape if he’s ever to act as whistle-blower in the Dreyfus affair. This is not the first novel to tackle the Dreyfus case; Michael Hardwick’s Prisoner of the Devil (1979), a lackluster work in which Sherlock Holmes sticks his nose into the scandal (at Queen Victoria’s behest, no less) covered much of the same ground. But An Officer and Spy, though slow-paced at times, is a much more engaging take on one of history’s most notorious subversions of justice.

Sundance, by David Fuller (Riverhead):
Finally, let me diverge from the theme to take in a work of speculative historical/Western fiction. Although we’ve been told that Harry Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, perished during a November 1908 shootout in Bolivia, accompanied by fellow outlaw Butch Cassidy, David Fuller imagines an alternative scenario. As Sundance opens, we see Longabaugh--or Longbaugh, as this author prefers to spell it--being released from a Wyoming prison, where he’d spent 12 years under an assumed name, for a crime unrelated to bank or train robbing. 1913 presents the Kid with a vastly different world from the one he’d known during his misspent youth (he’d now be in his mid-40s), but he hasn’t lost his determination to reunite with wife Etta Place, who’d stayed in contact with him through most of his incarceration, but has now disappeared into the concrete wilds of New York City. Following clue after vague clue (might he be reading too much into the signs Etta allegedly left behind?), Longbaugh cuts a fascinating, dangerous path through Manhattan, encountering old friends and new foes as he struggles to find his beloved, hoping time hasn’t sapped her desire for his company. The end of Sundance is a bit too neat, but given how things might have turned out, it’s also satisfying as hell. This is David Fuller’s second novel, following 2008’s Sweetsmoke, and if I enjoy that one as much as I did Sundance, you can be I’ll be hoping for more from this author.

Let me draw attention, too, to three non-fiction books I was fond of this year, and that other crime-fiction fans should also enjoy:

The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott (Titan): A beautifully illustrated overview of McGinnis’ 60-year career, during which he painted the covers for myriad paperback works by Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Carter Brown, and others. Read more about this volume here and here.

Goodis: A Life in Black and White, by Philippe Garnier (Black Pool): Although it was published in France way back in 1984, this book about David Goodis, one of the 20th century’s finest authors of paperback thriller fiction (his 1946 novel, Dark Passage, became a film noir classic) was unavailable in English until now. Learn more here.

Roy Huggins: Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, by Paul Green (McFarland): Huggins’ sometimes controversial, usually successful life as an author and developer of TV shows is explored in great depth here, though anyone who knows Huggins’ career well is sure to be frustrated by not having all of their questions about his work answered.
Dec 182014
 
Coming up shortly, we’ll roll out the sixth and final installment in The Rap Sheet’s “best crime fiction of 2014” mini-series. If you have failed to keep up, here are links to all of those write-ups:

Part I: Jim Napier
Part II: Kevin Burton Smith
Part III: Steve Nester
Part IV: Anthony Rainone
Part V: Ali Karim
Part VI: J. Kingston Pierce

It’s been fun presenting these rundowns of our critics’ favorite crime, mystery, and thriller works, but we do need to move on to other editorial endeavors (including tallying the results of our “best crime novel covers” poll). We encourage you now, though, to express some of your own opinions of which books in this genre, published during the last 12 months, most impressed or surprised you. Please use the Comments button at the end of this post to tell us what new works we should have read, but maybe missed, during 2014.

We thank you in advance for your thoughts on this matter.
Dec 172014
 
Ali Karim is The Rap Sheet’s hyperactive regular British correspondent, a contributing editor of January Magazine, and the assistant editor of Shots. In addition, he writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines, and he will be in charge of programming for Bouchercon 2015, to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Entry Island, by Peter May (Quercus, UK):
Hot on the heels of his Lewis Trilogy (which includes the Barry Award-winning The Blackhouse) comes yet another remote-island murder mystery from Scottish author Peter May. Fifth-generation Canadian-Scottish Sûreté Inspector Sime Mackenzie is far from his home in Quebec, having been sent off to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Entry Island--850 miles from the Canadian mainland--as part of a team investigating the murder of that isle’s wealthiest resident, James Cowell, who operated the majority of boats farming lobsters along the sea coast. Mackenzie’s role is to act as an English-French translator in police interviews with such people as Kirsty Cowell, the deceased’s spouse. Kirsty is the only person to have witnessed what she says was her husband’s death at the hands of a ski-masked killer. She’s also regarded as a prime suspect in that crime. Yet despite her bloodied clothing, Mackenzie feels a closeness to Kirsty, a feeling he can’t seem to shake. May’s novel elegantly blends two story lines, one following the contemporary investigation, and the other recounting the history of Scotland’s Highland Clearances, which influenced Canada’s development. As Sime Mackenzie and the Quebec Sûreté investigate Cowell’s untimely end, we learn there may be a longstanding link to the Mackenzie clan as well as a connection to a more recent tragedy in the inspector’s past. The superlative Entry Island proves that May’s Lewis Trilogy was no flash in the pan. This is a book in which one can get easily lost.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, by Peter Swanson
(Faber & Faber, UK):

This throwback to the criminally twisted romantic-noir tales of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Patricia Highsmith focuses around an unremarkable Bostonian, George Foss, who (despite his job as the business manager for a literary magazine) has been drifting through life, directionless. But his world-view is shattered when the mysterious Liana Dector (or is she “Jane Byrne,” or somebody else?)--his unforgettable first love, from their college days together--suddenly reappears in his life. I say “mysterious,” because as far as George knew, Liana had committed suicide decades ago under circumstances he never quite understood. Or did she? The situation only grows more bizarre and unpredictable when the woman he knows as Liana asks George for help. There are supposedly dangerous people dogging her trail, led by an enforcer named Donnie Jenks … who has been sent by Liana/Jane’s ex-lover, Gerald MacLean, to exact retribution for a theft that may or may not have occurred. George’s willingness to lend aid quickly brings peril to himself as well as to his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Irene. This is a wild ride of a novel, built on the themes that a broken heart can change a person deeply and that love can be both manipulative and dangerous when it is blind to its consequences. Reading this book may require a seat belt, as its turns are nowhere near safe. Boasting a fabulous femme fatale and a terse writing style that’s astonishing for a debut effort, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart suggests Massachusetts resident Peter Swanson may be someone worth watching closely in the future. A new U.S. paperback edition of this novel is due out in January.

The Last Room, by Danuta Reah
(Caffeine Nights, UK):

A new publication by Danuta Reah (or her alter-ego, Carla Banks) remains a treat for serious readers of crime and thriller fiction. The back story to The Last Room is the Balkan Wars, though its lineage traces back even farther, to World War II and African civil wars. This novel’s opening is a terse, grueling snatch of a vicious attack on a pregnant woman, Nadifa, on Africa’s war-torn Ivory Coast in 2005. This sets the stage for a complex novel that questions whether there can ever be any absolute truth amid the “fog of war.” Moving the story on to Europe in 2007, we follow the aftermath of the suicide of Dr. Ania Milosz, a forensic linguist and expert witness involved in the conviction of a child killer, Derek Haynes. Haynes is currently appealing his guilty verdict in the slaying of Sagal Akindes, the 6-year-old daughter of the aforementioned Nadifa, who’s now an asylum seeker in Great Britain. Neither Ania’s father, retired policeman Will Gillen, nor her fiancé, Dariusz Erland, believes the young woman jumped to her death. And so starts a trail that snakes its way to the deeds of the past, deeds that some wish to see remain hidden forever. The Last Room is highly recommended, a topical novel that really challenges the reader’s understanding of reality.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King (Scribner):
Never one to be constrained by the convenient definitions of genre, King’s latest novel is a full-out detective thriller, the first clue to that being the nod to James M. Cain that opens this tale. When longtime cop Bill Hodges finds it difficult to cope with his retirement from the force (a diet of bad TV dinners, daytime TV programs, and holding his father’s pistol in his mouth not being good for his health), he finds solace in returning his attention to an unsolved case. The Mercedes Killer was a madman who drove a top-range SL500 into the crowd at a job fair in a Midwestern American city, killing and maiming many people. But like the morning mist, he vanished from the scene, leaving no trace. Now, though, the driver has reached out to Hodges, sending him a taunting missive that leads to a cat-and-mouse chase between the retired detective and the Mercedes Killer, aka Brady Hartfield. A disturbed young man, the Norman Bates-like Brady supports his alcoholic mother by working two jobs, one as a computer repairman and the other as an ice-cream man, complete with a van and afternoon sales route. Author King does an exceptional job of digging beneath Brady’s vile, empathy-lacking exterior to expose the misfortunes of his existence. Yet Brady isn’t done hurting people; he’s planning an encore to his Mercedes rampage, one that could have far more devastating results. Unable to convince former police colleagues to help him with his unofficial investigation, Hodges turns for aid to a couple of computer wizards: Holly, his lover’s high-strung niece, and his lawnmower man, Jerome. There should really be a sticker on the front of Mr. Mercedes, saying “No bookmark required,” because this is definitely a one-sitting read.

Run, by Andrew Grant (Ballantine):
This first standalone techno-thriller from Grant (the younger brother of best-selling novelist Lee Child) reveals his skill as a master puppeteer, peeling away later upon layer of misdirection and revealing the murky motivations of his characters. At the tale’s outset we find Marc Bowman, a loose-cannon information technology troubleshooter for communications giant AmeriTel, having just devoted his weekend to a covert project--only to then be unceremoniously dismissed from his job and escorted off the company’s premises. When he later recounts this episode to his wife, fellow AmeriTel executive Carolyn, a woman he loves with a passion, he’s perplexed to find her siding with their employer rather than offering him sympathy. The theme of this novel is well summed up by its title: Run. Before you can fire a starting pistol, Bowman is fleeing for his life and sanity, pursued by agents from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA (or at least they appear to be from the CIA). Word is out that Bowman spent the weekend before his termination copying sensitive AmeriTel data onto twin USB sticks, and it seems nobody wants him to keep those. Then just when you think things couldn’t get worse for Bowman, his wife and a large slug of cash disappear, putting this Everyman in the cross-hairs of some very dangerous folk. Run is a pulse-accelerating, sometimes confusing ride through the technological paranoia of our age. Nothing is as it seems in these pages. No one can be trusted. Trust me.
Dec 172014
 
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor to January Magazine and a (too-infrequent) contributor to The Rap Sheet. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes screenplays, novels, and stories.

The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):
Harry Bosch is like a fine bourbon: you taste the complexity but you’re not quite sure what produced it. Except in this case, you can go back to all of Connelly’s previous 16 Bosch novels and learn exactly what made him the finest cop protagonist in literature today … and maybe for a lot of tomorrows. In The Burning Room, we find the Los Angeles homicide detective just a year away from retirement, and now teamed up with novice Lucia Soto, or “Lucky Lucy,” who’s become a hero for having shot it out with the armed robbers who subsequently killed her previous partner. Soto has an immediate appeal and depth not seen in a Bosch cohort for some time, not since the days of Jerry Edgar and Kizmin Rider. Bosch and Soto go on to work a 10-year-old cold case involving the murder of a mariachi musician, as well as a decades-old day-care fire that claimed the life of Soto’s childhood friends. No matter how long he’s been at his job, Bosch still manages to piss people off. A cameo appearance here by FBI Agent Rachel Walling is a welcome touch. Connelly does in this novel what he excels at: weaving together two complex cases, upping the tempo and stakes of each one. Bosch and Soto make a dynamic duo and one laments the team’s short shelf life. But at least in these pages, it’s sublime.

Murder in Pigalle, by Cara Black (Soho Crime):
Cara Black’s Parisian private-eye heroine, Aimée Leduc, is a complicated woman. Five months pregnant with her first child, fashionista Aimée finds herself embroiled in a serial rapist case that becomes personal. The victims are teenage girls, and when the daughter of Leduc’s café-owning friend goes missing, the P.I. races against the clock to find her. Author Black is perhaps writing her finest prose these days, and this particular novel has a gravitas that pulls the reader in--if the sensory-infused writing doesn’t do it first. The topic here is difficult; yet in Black’s hands, it avoids the gut-wrenching for the practical: finding the man responsible. Although this tale is set in 1998, Leduc is the embodiment of the modern woman: keeping her business afloat and her love life thriving, and doing what she does best—solving crimes. Every time I read one of Black’s novels, I want to book a flight to Paris. The only disappointment would be not finding Aimée Leduc in residence there; she’s one of the best things the fictional City of Light has to offer.

Straight Jackets

 Uncategorized  Comments Off
Dec 162014
 
Have you cast your ballot already in The Rap Sheet’s poll to pick the “Best Crime Novel Cover of 2014”? If not, you can still do so by clicking over to this post and then scrolling down to the bottom. We will keep the voting open through this coming Sunday, December 21, after which the results will be tallied and announced on this page.

As of this afternoon, the fronts from Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl, Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake, and Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland were holding down the top four slots. Those rankings, though, could change dramatically over the next five days. Voice your own opinions here. But do it soon!
Dec 152014
 
Steven Nester is the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene, and Firsts Magazine.

The Cost of Doing Business, by Jonathan Ashley (280 Steps):
Ashley debuts with an attention-grabbing, character-driven crime novel that’s made supremely readable through the use of a sly, laconic wit and the author’s ability to move his story along economically. When bookseller and low-level dope dealer Jon Catlett suddenly finds himself in the position to make big money in the heroin trade, he must team up with a crooked cop who has the skill and nerve to take Catlett and his slacker pals to the top of the Ohio Valley heroin heap. Catlett’s accidental killing of an annoying trust-fund junkie begins his elevation, along with that of sidekick Paul, from “part-time middle man to straight-up dope kingpin.” Our “hero” faces this change of life with equanimity, focus, and a willingness to be mentored by corrupt cops and mobsters who’ve been to the rodeo many times. Best of all, he discovers he has a knack for the logistics of setting up and implementing drug deals. But Catlett quickly learns the high cost of participating in this business.

Gangsterland, by Tod Goldberg (Counterpoint):
Mafia hit man Sal Cupertine is on the lam and everybody is looking for him. Sold to the “Kosher Nostra” in Arizona, he re-emerges as “Rabbi David Cohen.” Sound familiar? It shouldn’t: In Gangsterland, author Tod Goldberg has, within the well-elbowed constraints of the conventional crime narrative envelope, written an exceedingly sage and witty thriller that reveals no chinks in the armor, no narrative lines to nowhere, and with a “look Ma, no hands” ease of invention that would have Elmore Leonard turning over in his grave to see who has taken his place as one of the best writers around.

One Kick, by Chelsea Cain (Simon & Schuster):
Chelsea Cain has hit one out of the park with One Kick, the first novel in a projected series featuring Kick Lannigan, a young victim of sexual abuse. Kick is drawn here into assisting the mysterious John Bishop (a wealthy former gun dealer working with the FBI) and his even more mysterious masters as they attempt to track down and release other victims of such horrible crimes, and then punish the people responsible. One Kick looks at child porn, co-dependence, and getting justice with a steady eye and an unapologetic humanity that will make readers line up right now for this series’ second installment.

The Sixth Extinction, by James
Rollins (Morrow):

Fortified with fact and given energy through a plethora of what-ifs, Rollins’ 10th Sigma Force novel finds a mad scientist in a hidden lair, planning to unleash a globe-destroying weapon of prehistoric origin discovered beneath the ice of Antarctica. Once more, Commander Gray Pierce and his Sigma Force are called upon to save the planet. James Rollins’ creative DNA is clearly linked to that of H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Sixth Extinction—with its well fleshed-out disaster plot—might be just the thing to read when you need a break from today’s real-life and mounting ecological worries. Rollins’ nimble mind running wild in the world of fact and fiction is something to behold.

Finally, one true-crime pick …

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, by William J. Mann (Harper):
Hollywood has never been more of a party town than it was back in the 1920s, before the Hays Code kicked in, giving legal weight to moral censorship guidelines. Mann’s Tinseltown puts the ’80s Brat Pack and all other wannabes to shame as he reinvestigates the February 1922 murder of Irish-born American director-actor William Desmond Taylor. There’s plenty of dope, booze, and sex in these pages, as well as desperate starlets, but Mann’s yarn isn’t meant merely to titillate. He gives Taylor’s death a historical perspective as he shows how early Hollywood moguls, together with Wall Street, built a town and a film studio system from scratch. There are surprises here for fans of Hollywood lore, and even more for newcomers to the subject.
Dec 152014
 
After returning home from a weekend spent out of town and away from my computer, I am just catching up with this news: “Lois Duncan and James Ellroy have been chosen as the 2015 Grand Masters by Mystery Writers of America (MWA). MWA’s Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality. Ms. Duncan and Mr. Ellroy will be presented with their awards at the Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on Wednesday, April 29, 2015.” Read more in Shotsmag Confidential and Crime Watch.

In addition, the recipients of two Raven Awards (“recogniz[ing] outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing”) have been announced. Jon and Ruth Jordan, co-founders of Crimespree Magazine, will receive one of those prizes. The other will go to Kathryn Kennison, founder of the Midwestern mystery-fiction conference Magna cum Murder.

Finally, Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai has won the MWA’s 2015 Ellery Queen Award, which honors “outstanding writing teams and outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.”
Dec 122014
 
Kevin Burton Smith is a Montreal-born crime writer and critic currently looking for an honest glass of beer in Southern California’s High Desert region. In the meantime, he’s working on the Great Canadian Detective Novel, writing features for Mystery Scene magazine, and contributing far too infrequently to The Rap Sheet. Not incidentally, Smith is also the founder and editor of that invaluable resource, The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman (Morrow):
Breathtaking in the sheer muscularity of its plotting and pacing, in After I’m Gone Lippman finally weaves the two threads of her work together. The emotional whomp of her crime-fiction standalones meets the feet-on-the-ground tautness and investigative legwork of her Tess Monaghan detective novels, resulting in arguably her most gripping and head-spinning book yet. It’s 1976, and charming but shady Baltimore businessman Felix Brewer is staring down the barrel of a slew of criminal charges. Rather than face the music, he empties bank accounts and disappears, leaving behind five women: his heart-of-gold wife, “Bambi,” their three young daughters, and his mistress, cocktail waitress Julie Saxony. Flash forward to the present, where we find retired cop, widower, and designated sad sack investigator “Sandy Sanchez” picking up a few extra bucks, working cold cases for the Baltimore PD. The cold case he draws is the 1986 murder of Julie, her body only recently discovered. The story skitters back and forth in time like cold water on a hot skillet, offering a deluge of vivid and wrenching snapshots, flashbacks, confessions, and clashing points of view, as Sandy doggedly tries to make sense of it all. The financial and emotional turmoil the still-missing Felix has left in his wake over the last three decades or so becomes the bulletin board on which Lippman pins the stories of these women, and when all the lies and myths fade, and the truth is finally outed, I was finally able to breath again. Stunning.

Black Rock, by John McFetridge (ECW Press):
This time it’s personal. In this hard, taut police procedural set in 1970, Montreal ex-pat McFetridge sticks a knife deep in his hometown’s heart and spills it all over the page. A warning, though--the writing feels so personal and visceral, it may hit far too close to home for any Montréalais errant to maintain a kind of critical distance. Everything McFetridge spins here is pitch-perfect; a solid jab to my heart as he captures the moment when the political and cultural turmoil of that fractious, paranoid era is made manifest in a city slowly being torn apart, as the would-be revolutionaries of the Front de libération du Québec move up from years of planting bombs in mailboxes to kidnapping politicians. Troops are called in and helicopters fill the air, even as likable young rookie Constable Eddie Dougherty, still unsure of where his life is heading, finds himself playing detective, doggedly investigating a series of killings in his old working-class neighborhood of Point St. Charles. For Eddie, you see, it’s personal. Me, too. But in tapping into the personal, McFetridge has struck something bigger and more universal; giving us one of the year’s most compelling, gripping, and, yes, sadly timely novels. We never learn, do we?

You Know Who Killed Me, by Loren D. Estleman (Forge):
Defiantly and definitively old-school, Estleman’s private dick, Amos Walker, kills me. He works the hard-boiled mean streets like it’s still 1947, spitting out similes and metaphors with a caustic and piercing wit, cracking wise like a pissed-off Chandler on a talking jag. But Walker’s Great Wrong Place is not Marlowe’s post-war City of Angels; it’s contemporary Detroit--a rusted-out dream waiting to be towed away; a city “rotting from the top down and from the bottom out, like Dutch Elm.” Fortunately, despite the dings and dents on his own exterior (when this story kicks off, he’s fresh outta rehab, after a sojourn with painkiller addiction), Walker’s V-8 of a heart still throbs mightily under the hood, with plenty of power when it counts. Which comes in handy when the Cranky One signs on to help out the overworked Iroquois Heights cops run down some anonymous phone tips on the murder of an “ordinary” Joe, found shot to death in his basement rec room on New Year’s Eve. Things, of course, get messy and soon there are government agencies, Ukranian gangsters, and a big steamy mess of family secrets--plus the lure of those damn pills--to deal with, as well as plenty of dirty little truths to be exposed. There are no great shockers here, but You Know Who Killed Me is still a gripping and fully satisfying read, high on style, verve, and street smarts. And that’s the real beauty and the appeal of Estleman’s long-running series--you stick the key in and turn, and it always roars to life. It’s private-eye action the way I like it.
Dec 122014
 
Jim Napier is a crime-fiction critic based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian papers as well as in Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence, January Magazine, the Montreal Review of Books, and the Ottawa Review of Books. In addition, Napier maintains an award-winning crime-fiction site called Deadly Diversions.

The Killer Next Door, by Alex Marwood (Penguin):
Marwood is the pseudonym of accomplished British journalist Serena Mackesy, whose previous book, The Wicked Girls (2013), was shortlisted for an Edgar Allan Poe Award. Here, a young woman is on the run after witnessing her boss murder a man. He’s tracked her from London to Spain and back again. Desperate, and with no confidence in the police, who want her as a material witness, she seeks anonymity in a rundown house in South London that’s been divided into flats, each occupied by one of the city’s many marginalized people. Unknown to her, one of them is a killer. A dark and harrowing tale of the anonymous lives of people who have slipped through the cracks of civilized society.

Letters to My Daughter’s Killer, by Cath Staincliffe (Constable & Robinson):
Cath Staincliffe is best known for her award-winning series of standalone crime novels. But when approached to write tales based on British television’s popular crime drama, Scott & Bailey, she couldn’t resist--and we are all the richer for it. Every bit as well-crafted as those in her standalone stories, this book’s characters lead complex lives, and the layered plots form compelling narratives of both policing and the troubled society in which officers must do their jobs. A homeless man is found in the remains of a fire in an abandoned chapel, and the autopsy reveals he had been shot in the head first. Detective Constables Rachel Bailey and Janet Scott wonder who could have done such a thing, and why. Their efforts will take them into a murky world inhabited by hate-mongers and drug-dealers and impressionable teens, and the deaths have only just begun.

Mr. Campion’s Farewell, by Mike Ripley (Severn House):
Long a respected reviewer of crime fiction, as well as the author of a fine original series of more than a dozen comic crime novels based on the highly eccentric and engaging character of private detective Fitzroy Maclean Angel, Mike Ripley adds yet another arrow to his quiver with Mr. Campion’s Farewell, the first of two novels in the classic Albert Campion series of tales that were begun by Margery Allingham but were left unfinished at the time of her death in 1966. Albert Campion is paying an innocuous visit to his niece in a sleepy Suffolk village presided over by a mysterious group known as the Carders, when his car is vandalized. Shortly afterwards Campion is very nearly killed in a hunting incident, and he resolves to get to the bottom of things. The result is a delightful, timeless tale that will appeal to all lovers of the Golden Age of British crime fiction.

The Secret Place, by Tana French (Viking): Five books and counting, and every one a winner. Tana French is Ireland’s answer to Ian Rankin, each of her novels fresh and compelling, carefully crafted and perfectly capturing a distinct atmosphere, with the trademark darkness of Irish crime fiction. The Secret Place puts an exclusive girls’ boarding school under the microscope, where all of the petty bickering, rivalry, and scheming of adolescent teens is brought out in sharp relief. A hunk from the nearby boys’ school has been murdered; but who did it, and how is a police detective’s daughter involved? A riveting, original tale from Ireland’s rapidly rising star.

Walt, by Russell Wangersky (House of Anansi):
With five books to his credit, one a finalist for the Giller Prize, Russell Wangersky has carved out an impressive career as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. With Walt, the reader is introduced to the very private world of a unprepossessing grocery store janitor, a person ignored and overlooked by almost all who come into contact with him, but who harbors very dark secrets. Walt has a seemingly harmless habit: he collects other peoples’ discarded shopping lists. From these he forms a picture of the shopper--single or in a relationship, happy or troubled, middle-class or simply making do. But Walt doesn’t stop there. His interest becomes an obsession, and he seeks to learn more about their lives. The result is a harrowing tale of just how vulnerable most people are, and how easily their lives can be accessed. And underneath it all lurks the question, Whatever became of his wife? You will never look at a grocery store list the same way again.
Dec 122014
 
There are now fewer than three weeks remaining in 2014, so book reviewers and author-bloggers have accelerated their pace of posting “best crime fiction of the year” lists. Library Journal offers its choices in this genre (as well as other literary fields) here, while The Washington Post promotes what it contends are “The Five Best Thrillers of 2014” here. BOLO Books blogger Kristopher Zgorski shares his opinions on the year’s top reads here, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sun-Sentinel correspondent Oline Cogdill’s picks are available in a slideshow (never my favorite format, but Oline’s a nice person, so I’ll forgive her the gimmick just this once). Finally, UK journalist-author Woody Haut has assembled a “dirty baker’s dozen” of his favorite crime novels from the last twelvemonth, while pseudonymous fictionist Clinton Greaves comes up with 14 choices.

Ever since 1998, I’ve helped put together the annual “best books” features for January Magazine, the online publication from which The Rap Sheet spun off in 2006. This year editor Linda L. Richards decided to break with tradition and not post such a package of mini-reviews. However, I’m so accustomed at the end of every year to soliciting “best books” recommendations from January crime-fiction reviewers, that I went ahead and asked some of them to contribute their inventories of favorites to The Rap Sheet instead.

The first two of those rundowns are set to appear on this page later today, with more to roll out early next week--soon enough, we hope, to help shoppers who are still stumped as to what they might purchase for the book lovers on their holiday gift lists. Let us know what you think of our critics’ choices, and what other crime, mystery, and thriller novels published in 2014 really caught your fancy.