Saturday, November 8, 2008

Let the Top Ten Lists Begin

Here are my choices for 2008:


One of the great pleasures of reading is discovering a stunning writer totally unknown to you. It's very much like the romantic experience: your first thought is "Where has this person been all my life?"

Nina. I've just met a writer named Nina. Nina Revoyr. Akashic, that wonderful class act run by rock musician Johnny Temple, sent me in January a copy of a novel by her called The Age of Dreaming. Not only is it a tremendously intriguing book about a fascinating period -- the 1910s and 20s, the golden age of silent movies -- but it's also a superb work of publishing art: french covers (the fold-over sort that provide instant, unloseable bookmarks), an evocative cover photo, all the trimmings.

Jun Nakayama was a Japanese actor who became a movie star in Hollywood. He might remind you of Sessue Hayakawa, who appeared as the terrifying prison camp commander in David Lean's The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Into this mix, Revoyr ladles recognizable chunks from a genuine Hollywood mystery -- the murder of a famous director which, although it was never officially solved, was thought to be the work of the mad mother of a very young and emotionally fragile Southern actress.


After a diet of serial killers, apocalyptic scenarios, burned-out private detectives and the usual crop of honest or bent federal agents and cops, it's like a blast of cold, fresh air to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the latest entry in the booming Swedish crime fiction business.

Karin Fossum won prizes and big sales in recent years for her The Indian Bride; so did Henning Mankell (Faceless Killers) and other Swedish writers. But what separates Larsson's work from theirs is that it features at its center two unique and fascinating characters: a disgraced financial journalist and the absolutely marvelous 24-year-old Lisbeth Salander -- a computer-hacking Pippi Longstocking with pierced eyebrows and a survival instinct that should scare the meatballs out of anyone who gets in her way.

3.Michael Koryta, ENVY THE NIGHT

Koryta's Lincoln Perry books were wonderful slices of Midwestern noir (A Welcome Grave was an Edgar finalist) . But Envy the Night is that rarest of literary creatures: a stand-alone thriller which you want to be a series. Could it happen? Could Frank Temple III, the 24-year-old son of a hired killer, and Nora Stafford, at 30 the unwilling proprietor of her comatose father's auto body shop, survive all the dangers they face in the bucolic Wisconsin lakefront town known as Willow Flowage, just down the road from Tomahawk? We live in hope.

4. Michael Genelin, SIREN OF THE WATERS

Olen Steinhauer has written many books about the police in a country very much like Rumania. Now comes Genelin, whose Jana Matinova has risen to the rank of Commander in the Czechoslovak police. Her rise to her present position cost her a lot, and now she's in charge of an investigation into a dangerous human trafficking ring -- and up against a formidable villain.

5. Tom Rob Smith, CHILD 44

One of the rare pleasures of the book reviewing trade is first hearing all sorts of advance hype about an upcoming novel and then finding out that every word was true and every dollar spent on advances and promotion was worth it, in spades.

Child 44 is the first novel (he has written for television) by a 29-year-old Cambridge graduate named Tom Rob Smith. He has admittedly taken many of the details of an infamous case of a Russian serial child murderer named Andrei Chikatilo in the 1980s – made into an excellent 1995 TV movie called Citizen X, starring Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland – and brilliantly moved them back in time to the postwar horrors of the Stalinist era.

Leo Demidov was a decorated World War II hero (a poster boy whose muscular good looks graced many photographs) and now is a superstar of the State Security Agency known as MGB. He is the best in his business of keeping the country free of dissent and decadence, having swallowed whole the Lenin/Stalin party line that “the duty of an investigator was to scratch away at innocence until guilt was uncovered. If no guilt was uncovered then they hadn't scratched deep enough...”

But Leo has also fallen into serious disfavor, because of an act of kindness to a junior investigator whose young son was apparently a victim of the serial killer. Demidov's deputy and chief rival in the department, a man called Vasili, has gone out of his way to make Leo look like a traitor. “Leo glanced across at his deputy, a man both handsome and repulsive in equal measure – as if his good looks were plastered over a rotten center, a hero's face with a henchman's heart...”

It is Vasili who personifies the brutality and duplicity of the Stalinist regime. An act of senseless violence by his deputy focuses Leo's attention on why he is having trouble doing his job. “A suspect's guilt became real as soon as they became a suspect As for evidence, that would be acquired during their interrogation,” he thinks at first, usually leaving the bloody questioning to others. But then the dangerous doubts begin. “Leo was no longer a lackey who merely followed orders... He was an investigator. He wanted to investigate.”

6. Sean Chercover, TRIGGER CITY

Chicago private investigator Ray Dudgeon is having a bad night. Rolling over onto his right side, where a beating by two crooked cops had dislocated his shoulder, he triggered a nightmare and woke up with the taste of his own blood in his mouth. “The taste of blood, sudden sweats and flashback images sometimes happened when I was wide awake,” he says. “... The episodes had diminished during the months I'd spent with my grandfather down in Georgia, but when I came back to Chicago they were right here waiting for me.
“Chicago was full of triggers. Chicago was Trigger City.”

This has been an unusually rich year for crime fiction, a lot of it from Chicago writers. But Sean Chercover's second book about Dudgeon, after last year's terrific Big City, Bad Blood, manages to rise to a unique height. He seems well on his way to becoming the Ross Macdonald of his time, close to rubbing shoulders with Dashiell Hammett in the Crime Writers' Hall of Fame.

Business has been bad for Dudgeon since the aftermath of his mauling, and he and his part-time trainee Vince now mostly try to pay the rent and buy the occasional beef sandwich at Al's #1 Italian on Taylor by doing divorce work – snooping on errant lovers and spouses for a few dirty dollars. Dudgeon's cheapo health insurance won't pay for much of the extensive shoulder surgery he needs, so he has to depend on Percocet and bags of frozen peas for relief. He's even trying to find a buyer for his beloved 1968 Shelby: “It easily constituted over 80 percent of my net worth. I could barely afford the insurance on it.”

So when Isaac Richmond, a retired U.S. Army Intelligence officer, hands Ray a check for $50,000 for two months' exclusive work, looking into the murder of his daughter by a fellow employee, Dudgeon is sorely tempted. “All I had to do is take a case that had zero chance of success. A case I should turn down cold,” he says as he tries to convince Richmond that it's hopeless. Later, delivering a finder's fee to the cop friend who suggested him to Richmond, he gets 20 minutes alone with the Joan Richmond file. Joan, head of accounting for a large department store, was shot in the face at close range in the door of her apartment by a man she had hired, computer expert Steven Zhang, whose mental health had been deteriorating for several months. Zhang then returned to his home and shot himself in the head.

But before Dudgeon can return Richmond's check, he uses the keys the man gives him to enter Joan's home. He discovers they had similar tastes in music (Chercover's books and stories are fully scored with everything from blues to rock), and that she was a secret drinker of frozen Skyy vodka. About to leave, he decides to take a look under her bed – and he's hooked.

“I knew it was totally irrational, but I was livid with Joan Richmond for keeping a diary under her bed. For making me feel like the thirteen-year-old boy who found his mother's cold body naked on top of the sheets, an empty pill bottle beside her, a half-empty bottle of Sambuca on the nightstand... The thirteen-year-old buy who found his dead mother's diary under the bed.”

Dudgeon isn't the only one hooked into swooping forward on a dark journey into the world of top secret “Black Ops,” where attackers use expensive weapons and gadgets made without labels. Joan Richmond was set to be the star witness in a Congressional investigation of a vast private military complex called Hawk River earning big bucks in Iraq, run by a pair of heavies who might give you nightmares.

There's plenty of exciting and scary action in Trigger City, but Chercover never lets it stand in the way of believability. In many ways – using the Iraqi war as a major ingredient, seeing how Ray Dudgeon grows and changes because of what's happened to him – the book could be the first of a new age of crime fiction.

7. Timothy Hallinan, THE FOURTH WATCHER

I thought that John Burdett's terrific books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts)
about Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the only practicing Buddhist on the police force, were all I needed to know about the darker, sadder side of that popular tourist site. Then I began to read Timothy Hallinan's books about American travel writer Poke Rafferty, starting with his A Nail Through the Heart -- a moving thriller full of violence, depravity and love.

Hallinan's latest is even better: the kind of book that makes you wonder what more can he possibly do? This time, he mixes Poke's long-missing father, Frank, a half-sister he never knew he had, a Secret Service agent who could be the worst nightmare anyone ever had, a few honest and many more crooked Thai cops, and Col. Chu, the head of a Chinese triad who grabs Rafferty's beautiful love Rose and their street-smart nine-year-old adopted daughter. He says he'll kill them unless he gets back what Frank Rafferty stole from him: a whole lot of rubies and the papers to launch a new life for himself in America. Poke believes him, and so will you.


Blue Heaven, by the redoubtable C.J. Box, who does such a tremendous job with his series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, is a superb stand-alone thriller, set in an Idaho town where LAPD retirees go to live -- and die, some of them violently.

What Box does so well, without wasting a word, is to create an insular and frighteningly plausible community in North Idaho where Mark Fuhrman, the LA cop who sank the O.J. Simpson prosecutor's case, has a radio talk show and many of the citizens share his conservative bias. It's the kind of town where a Hispanic officer from Arcadia notices that he's the only non-Anglo on board the flight to Spokane. (It's his refusal to let go of a cold case, a robbery at Santa Anita, that sets off the ensuing bloodbath.) But it's also home to some good people, notably a courageous banker who has held a dark secret too long and an old rancher (a perfect film role for Sam Elliot) who protects two children who witnessed the killing of a retired LAPD officer and now are in flight from the killers.


I liked Finch's second book about an upperclass London detective called Charles Lenox even more than his first, the much-revered A BEAUTIFUL BLUE DEATH. Lots of great eating scenes, a worthy mystery, an evocation of Victorian Oxford that makes me wish I'd been there then.

10. A TIE! Simon Lewis, BAD TRAFFIC and Francie Lin, THE FOREIGNER

Both books are about China -- but are very different. The Foreigner is the only mystery I can think of which is set in the streets of Taiwan. Francie Lin – a Harvard graduate and a former editor of The Threepenny Review – spent two years in Taiwan on a Fulbright Fellowship, which doubtlessly planted in her mind the idea for her absolutely riveting debut thriller. It's about a 40-year-old bachelor named Emerson Chang, a San Francisco financial analyst who doesn't speak a word of Chinese. He has spent his life looking after, and being browbeaten by, his Formosa-born mother, a tough cookie who runs a cheap motel she has renamed The Remeda Inn to suck in the chain's runoff. Mrs. Chang wears her nationality like overdone makeup, saying that her only wish is to have her ashes scattered on her native ground.

When she dies, Emerson – after being somewhat shaken by the news of her large bequest to his younger brother, Little P, who deserted the family and is now deeply involved in the Taiwanese criminal underworld – Emerson sets off for Taiwan, where Little P seems to be running some very shady business out of his uncle's karaoke bar. Lin catches the flavor of the Taiwanese world - especially its underworld - with great skill. But she is best at combining her action scenes with touching moments of memory, as Emerson realizes how much his mother lost by coming to America. In a Taiwan hotel lobby waiting for Little P to show up, Emerson listens to “the nasal strains of an old Shanghainese pop song... My mother had liked these pop songs from the mainland herself, the old, plaintive ghost of Shanghai glamour...”

Bad Traffic is another, colder cup of tea. Inspector Jian is a top Chinese cop whose search for his missing daughter brings him from Beijing to the meanest streets he's ever faced - in Leeds and the countryside of rural England. Jiang speaks no English, but eventually meets up with a 19-year-old illegal laborer smuggled into the country by vicious gangsters. An English-speaker, this man has been searching for his wife while performing crimes for his masters. The two men form an unlikely alliance, and Welsh writer Lewis -- who lives half his time in Asia -- catches all the nuances of otherness.

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