Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the Book Beat


My latest column for Pomp and Circumstantial Evidence, the magazine for the Magna Cum Murder Mystery Conference.


The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly
A lawyer working the foreclosure angle finds himself in the middle of a murder case when his client is accused of killing a banker in Michael Connelly's The Fifth Witness.

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite recent-era mystery writers and his series about police detective Harry Bosch is, despite a few low spots, a significant achievement in contemporary crime writing.  He has dabbled in a few other characters but seems to be really finding some traction with Mickey Haller, first introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer.

Like Bosch, Haller has a lot of baggage, including two ex-wives, and feels most comfortable working out of the back seat of his car.  He is also a fairly tarnished but ultimately likable character.

Connelly seems to have hit his stride with this entry, which has a neat story and compelling courtroom action.  It has been interesting to see how the characters have evolved over the last few novels as well.  I am beginning to look forward to the next Haller story almost as much as the next Bosch.


The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
After a mission turns tragic, a spy in a top-secret branch called "The Department of Tourism" goes into semi-retirement with his new family; but soon various tightly-woven plots bring him back into the fold in Olen Steinhauer's highly enjoyable espionage thriller The Tourist.

In turns darkly funny but eminently credible, The Tourist harkens back to the best of the genre (most especially one of my favorites, Len Deighton) but the storyline is up to the minute in terms of contemporary threats and political scenarios.

Steinhauer writes in a very readable, engaging style while remaining suitably complex for the steady reader of thrillers.  Worthwhile right through the final twist.

I would have to say this is one of my favorite novels of the year to date and would recommend it to any general reader.



The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg
Murders and suicides rock a small town in Sweden, sending ripples through various families and back a generation, in Camilla Lackberg's debut mystery The Ice Princess.

Lackberg has arrived on a big wave of Scandinavian novels that made it to our shores in recent years post-Stieg Larsson, and I have enjoyed them as a change of pace from their American counterparts; typically more morose and thoughtful and tangled with family dysfunction.

But Lackberg takes something back in return from here; a glimmer of romance, as the main character--writing a book about her childhood friend's death--takes up with a handsome police detective, a departure from the usual gloomy ruminations of her Scandinavian counterparts.

The darker novels of some of her colleagues (authors I enjoy like Arnaldur Indridason and Asa Larsson among them) might not be to everyone's taste, so Lackberg's relatively lighter fare might be more palatable to the general reader.  I will still look for her next book even though I would not rate her as highly as some others (including current fave Jo Nesbo).



Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom
A deep undercover police informant goes to prison to break up a Polish drug ring, only to get burned by his superiors and have to fight his way out, in Three Seconds, a tough-minded crime drama from Sweden.

Three Seconds is very hard-boiled and well-written and showcases a different voice in crime writing, which is one of the elements I have enjoyed from the recent spate of Scandinavian mysteries that have graced these shores in recent years.  Unlike others, the writing team of Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom is less melancholy than some of their counterparts and relies more on burly action.

The down side is that, after a long buildup, the finale relies too heavily on an intricate Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events, coincidences, and lucky breaks that allows the storyline to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

But I was with them most of the way and would recommend this meaty thriller to mystery fans.



Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith
Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko, an outsider in his own department, still puts his skills to work trying to solve a young woman's murder and a baby's disappearance in Martin Cruz Smith's Three Stations.

Smith's series has chronicled life in Russia for several decades now, oftentimes with long intervals between novels (though they are starting to come out considerably faster lately).  This is a credible, admirable crime series that started with the well-known Gorky Park but has produced many notable entries since then (my favorite is probably Polar Star) that are as much socio-political treatises as they are mysteries.

Wolves Eat Dogs and Stalin's Ghost, the most recent novels in the series, represent Putin-era Russia and might be a jumping-off point for new readers.



Djibouti by Elmore Leonard
A documentary film crew get involved with Somalian pirates and, by association, an emerging terrorist plot in Elmore Leonard's Djibouti.

In the 50s and 60s Elmore Leonard solid but today underrated Westerns, then was best known for a very admirable string of crime novels up through the 90s, many with a strong Detroit Rock City flavor.  In the 21st Century he has sampled all over the place with various genres and time periods, with some pretty good novels (Tishomingo Blues, The Hot Kid) and some okay ones (Pagan Babies, Road Dogs).

This one has an interesting premise, and Leonard also does some neat things with nonlinear storytelling to change it up a bit.  As usual, the novel is populated by Leonard's trademark quirky characters.

But unfortunately it's all talk, talk, talk until a (literally) explosive conclusion.  And some of the dialogue clanks a bit (including the young lead character calling movies "pictures," which seems dated).

Although this one is a bit of a mixed bag, Elmore Leonard is still worth reading, well into his 80s.


The Innocent Man by John Grisham
A washed-up, mentally unstable former pro baseball player ends up framed for an Oklahoma woman's murder in John Grisham's hair-raising nonfiction work The Innocent Man.

I have always liked Grisham but hate to admit that a lot of his books were starting to run together in my mind.  But this non-fiction work you almost couldn't make up, populated with blind and drunk lawyers, bungling judges, treacherous jailhouse snitches, bullying cops, dream confessions, last-minute death-row reprieves, and more, in a  case that spans decades.

What's more, Grisham sets forth and least two other botched cases from the same time period and geographical area during the course of the story that are almost as chilling as the main story.

Long but absolutely compelling from start to finish, The Innocent Man actually made me rethink some of my beliefs about the death penalty.



Robbie’s Wife by Russell Hill
An aging screenwriter, not exactly washed up because he was always an also-ran, tries to restart his foundering career by going to a remote English farmhouse; but instead almost instantly fall into a dangerous infatuation with a farmer's wife in Russell Hill's Robbie's Wife.

Robbie's Wife is a mature noir with a classic unreliable narrator.  It is part of the very notable Hard Case Crime series, which releases lost classics alongside contemporary counterparts.  This is a great addition to the series, a very strong modern entry that stands alongside some of my favorites, including Scott Smith's A Simple Plan and Robert Ward's Four Kinds of Rain, books that would bring a smile to Jim Thompson's face.

Hill's book also reads as a solid literary piece, with a lot of sharp writing and an interesting subplot about the Mad Cow Disease issue in England.  Recommended.

Nobody's Angel by Jack Clark
A Chicago cab driver ends up in the middle of two horrible crimes, the maiming of a teen prostitute and the murder of a fellow cabbie; cruising the streets in the shadows of the city's worst housing projects, he almost subconsciously moves towards solving both in Jack Clark's superior contemporary noir Nobody's Angel.
This book came out as part of Hard Case Crime, and has a very unusual history, as Clark is an actual Chicago cab driver who self-published the book originally and sold it out of the front seat of his cab.
It is an astounding story when one finds out how good the writing is.  It is obvious that Clark knows the mean streets of the Windy City intimately, and the characters are well-rounded.
If Cornell Woolrich drove a cab, and Jim Thompson was a passenger in the back seat, they might put their heads together and come up with something like Nobody's Angel.  Recommended.

Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace
Set in an early 70s northern England, a crime reporter tries to unravel some grisly murders that end up taking a psychic and physical toll on him in David Peace's blistering noir Nineteen Seventy-Four.
Peace writes in a raw but realistic voice and the storytelling is dense and electric.  Although I enjoyed this immensely, I would only recommend it with reservations as it is very, very mature in situations and content.  Peace's novel makes the bleak noir of Jim Thompson and James Ellroy seem like a Hardy Boys mystery.
This is the first of four novels that Peace wrote in this setting, to great acclaim.  I have also seen the first movie based on the series, Red Riding 1974, shot for British television and worthwhile in its own right.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
A young mural artist takes up with a fragile man with a dark past in Banana Yoshimoto's The Lake.
I had never heard of Yoshimoto and picked this up on a whim.  She has apparently been big in Japan for some time.
The Lake is a slight, and slightly creepy, novel that read a bit like Haruki Murakami lite.  The story ambles along as a blossoming romance between two troubled people until the pair visit a nearby lake cabin and two odd siblings who live there, one of who is an apparent psychic, where ties to a frightening past are revealed.
Without revealing too much of the backstory, I believe the novel would be pretty resonant to Japanese readers, and I enjoyed it well enough to look for more translations of Yoshimoto's work.

Look At Me by Jennifer Egan
A supermodel has a life-altering car wreck that ends up with her face being rebuilt, though unrecognizable; the results impact not only her but a teenage girl from her hometown, the supermodel's childhood friend, a downtrodden private eye, a mysterious figure known as Z and others in Jennifer Egan's genre pretzel of a novel, Look At Me.
Egan's novel The Keep was one of my favorite reads of recent years.  I didn't like this one quite as much, but it is very interesting throughout, with plenty of surprises and no linear paths to follow.  There are also lots of unique characters and very complicated characterizations. As in the last one I read, I thought the ending sort of ran out of steam, but I genuinely could not guess what was coming next; and as I read a lot of books, that means something.
Despite some flaws, I am beginning to think that Jennifer Egan is becoming one of my favorite new writers, almost entirely based on her unique storytelling alone.

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