Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Runners-Up

Thanks to a wide public response to my Ten Best Crime Books of 2008, posted below. I've decided to list the titles that almost made the list. (Actually, it's the idea of dear old friend and retired USC librarian Ruth Britton -- thanks, Ruth).

They are, in no particular order

"The hands-down winner in the long-running 'Where Is the Next Raymond Chandler Coming From?' sweepstakes," I once wrote about Shannon's heartbreaking, exciting Jack Liffey books, which are set in unlikely parts of L.A. But his latest has Jack even further away, in darkest Bakersfield, where his teenaged daughter Maeve gets charged with Satanism.

DAMNATION FALLS, by Edward Wright.

Damnation Falls is Wright's first thriller since his terrific series about 1930s cowboy movie hero turned crime dog John Ray Horn. As he proved in that series (Clea's Moon, While I Disappear, Red Sky Lament), Wright is a brilliant writer, and his new book confirms my original comment on the Horn series -- "the kind of art that stirs up old memories and pierces the soul."

Damnation Falls
leaves Horn back in Hollywood in the 1950s, and moves on to Randall Wilkes, a top Chicago journalist, fired for making stuff up (could that really happen?), who takes a job writing the biography of Sonny McMahan, a former Tennessee governor who was the journalist's boyhood friend. Sonny wants to use his biography, and an economic regeneration project around his home town of Pilgrim's Rest, to relaunch his stalled political career. To complicate matters, Randall's estranged father is the head of the new museum that will be the center of the regeneration project – and he hides a dreadful secret about the town's history.

BORDERLANDS, by Brian McGilloway.

Borderlands has me, dare I say, green with envy. It’s rare I’m jealous of a debut novel but I’m ferociously so of this stunning work," says Irish writer Ken Bruen. When the body of a 15-year-old girl is found straddling the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in McGilloway's stunning first mystery, Garda inspector Benedict Devlin takes charge of the case because he recognizes the victim as a resident of his part of Ireland.

ALIVE IN NECROPOLIS, by Doug Dorst is an impressive ghost story (and I usually hate ghost stories, even the Henry James Turn and Get Screwed type) about a cop in the town near San Francisco where there are more dead people -- including famous sports figures, criminals and politicians -- than live ones.

D.C. NOIR 2 – THE CLASSICS, edited by George Pelecanos.
Wonderful stuff, starting with a marvelous story by the famed African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, set in 1900 when corruption ruled even more than today. Pelecanos's favorite crime writer, Edward P. Jones, is also a strong presence, as are Ward Just, Richard Wright, Ross Thomas, James Grady and the editor himself, with a story you might remember called THE DEAD THEIR EYES IMPLORE US.

RUNNING TIME, by T.J. MacGregor.
RUNNING TIME continues the adventures of Nora McKee, whose involvement with the rigors of traveling through time began in last year's KILL TIME. Nora was having lunch with her husband Jake at their favorite restaurant in Blue River, Mass., about to tell him she wanted a divorce. Two agents from the thinly-veiled Federal Dept. of Freedom and Security (known as Freeze on the street), who wear uniforms “the color of rich, bitter chocolate” grab Jake and carry him off to a waiting van, knocking Nora down when she tries to intervene. Jake disappears into the mists of time.

MONEY SHOT, by Christa Faust.
The first publication anywhere of female noir queen Faust's sexy and dangerous tale of a retired porno star who makes a reluctant comeback as a favor to an old friend and then winds up paying a very high price for it. Glenn Orbik's cover is dead on, as is Hard Case Crime's usual fine job of recreating classy pulps.

GOOD PEOPLE, by Marcus Sakey.
I loved The Blade Itself, Sakey's first book. His next one, At the City's Edge, suffered a bit from the second-novel blues, but it did pass the time with some pleasure. And now comes Good People, Sakey's best book yet.

A major part of its attraction is the set-up: Tom and Anna Reed, a couple in their late 30s, earning decent money in jobs they don't really hate, had enough cash flow a few years back to buy a two-floor apartment in Chicago's Lincoln Square. But now they're deeply in debt, having spent more than $100,000 on in-vitro fertilization procedures that always end in failure. The Reeds have had to let their basement apartment to a man who calls himself Bill Samuelson, a taciturn hermit who never has visitors and always pays his rent with cashier's checks.

We know from the start that Samuelson is really Will Tuttle, a minor-league criminal who behaved badly a month before, after the robbery of a famous film star with an expensive substance habit in a private club in River North. Interrupting a big drug deal, Tuttle and three others took $400,000 in cash, an equal amount's worth of heroin, and killed a bodyguard. On the way out Tuttle killed Bobby, the younger brother of the gang's leader, Jack Witkowski. (Asked how two boys named Witkowski wound up being named Jack and Bobby, Jack says, " 'My mother. ... Big fan of the Kennedy brothers.' ")

Tuttle took the cash and drugs, became Bill Samuleson and hid the loot in his rented apartment. An overdose kills Tuttle in his bed, and a fire in the kitchen set by a pan he left burning on the stove sets off his smoke alarm and brings Tom and Anna. They react smartly, knowing that throwing water on a grease fire is not a good idea. Anna finds a large bag of flour on a shelf, opens it — and out comes $370,000 in bundles of $100 bills:

"They stood in silence, staring at the money. It was funny, she thought. In the movies it would have been ten million. Some ridiculous sum. Three hundred and seventy thousand dollars was a lot, no doubt. But it wasn't completely outside the realm of their experience."

BAMBOO AND BLOOD, by James Church
is a prequel to Church's fine North Korean Inspector O books. Church, a former US government employee who has obviously spent time in North Korea (what was the second prize?) shows how O began his education into justice, Pyongyang style.

THE BLACK TOWER, by Louis Bayard.
Bayard has the balls and the talent to make the legendary thief-turned-cop Vidocq his hero. It was Vidocq who served as the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Misérables. Now he is hot on the trail of a tantalizing mystery -- the fate of the young dauphin Louis-Charles, son of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI.

HALF A CROWN, by Jo Walton.
I used to think that Len Deighton's SS GB was the best thing ever written (or filmed) about a Nazi-occupied England. But now I'm not so sure, as Walton brings her amazing "Small Change" trilogy (FARTHING, HA'PENNY) to a smashing finish. HALF A CROWN sends Peter Carmichael, the former Scotland Yard detective who hides an important, life-threatening personal fact about himself and who now heads a secret police group known as the Watch, to a peace conference in London headed by Adolph Hitler -- in 1960.

THE CALLING, by Inger Ash Wolfe.
With all the fuss about who Wolfe really is (Margaret Atwood, doing a
John Banville?), not enough attention has been lavished on just how good this book really is. When terminally ill patients are found gruesomely murdered in Port Dundas, 61-year-old Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef finds herself tracking a truly terrifying serial killer across the country, while everything she had been barely holding together begins to spin apart.

DEVIL'S PEAK, by Deon Meyer.
Meyer, the first crime writer in the Afrikaans language to reach a worldwide audience, has received much praise for his darker suspense novels. In this one, he mixes a former hired gun, a drunken cop and a desperate sex worker who will do anything to protect her daughter.

THE FINDER, by Colin Harrison.
Harrison has written some of the best thrillers in recent memory (THE HAVANA ROOM and MANHATTAN NOCTURNE), and this new one keeps the standard high. It's all about dirty deeds in the drug industry, among other places, and you'll be hooked by Page 1.

THE DAWN PATROL, by Don Winslow.
This latest from the versatile and always interesting Winslow, a great surfing mystery, made me want to go back and read all of Kem Nunn's books.

No comments: