In sun-drenched Cape Town, American expat Jack Burn stands on the deck of his rented hillside house, “watching the sun drown itself in the ocean.” In moments, his space will be invaded, and his life forever changed, by a pair of gunmen cooked on speed, in Roger Smith’s taut thriller, Mixed Blood. Burn himself is on the lam from the law in the U.S., having participated in a lucrative bank robbery that a) left him financially set, and b) forced him, his wife and his young son into a life on the run. With a bit of luck, and more than a bit of ruthlessness, Burn is able to disarm the gunmen; unceremoniously, he executes them. From above, Benny Mongrel, night watchman of the house under construction next door, watches impassively as the scene unfolds. An ex-con himself, Mongrel has no urge whatsoever to become involved. That option will not be left open to him, however, thanks to the double-teaming of corrupt cop Rudi “Gatsby” Barnard, and Gatsby’s nemesis, an honest Zulu detective with the improbable name of Disaster Zondi. That all of their paths will intersect, or rather collide, is inevitable. Barnard wants the money, Zondi wants to collar the perp(s), Mongrel wants to slip back under the radar, and Burn just wants to get the hell out of Cape Town. Some will get what they seek, but none in the way they anticipate, not by a long shot. Mixed Blood unfolds in a very cinematic scene-driven manner; no surprise, in that author Roger Smith is a screenwriter, director and producer.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and certainly not by its title, but come on, is a title like Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed irresistible, or what? The cleverness of Marc Blatte’s edgy debut thriller doesn’t end there. Detective Salvatore Messina (aka Black Sallie Blue Eyes), a taciturn cop blessed with an unerring BS detector, leads a team of New York’s finest into the mean streets and the tony suburbs on the trail of a stone-cold killer. The cast is rounded out with hip-hop impresario Sunn Volt, cultured and refined to the max, but with his feet firmly planted in the hood; Spahiu “Vooko” Congoli, a Kosovar refugee-turned-bouncer in mourning since the killing of his beloved cousin/mentor, Pashko; Lady Panther, a leather-clad muscle queen who entertains select well-heeled clients with wrestling fetishes; and Proof Positive, a talented but undisciplined up-and-coming rap group—if they can manage to stay out of the slammer long enough to make a record. I haven’t even scratched the surface here, but you get the picture: this is a seriously entertaining group of misfits, each struggling in his or her inimitable way for a bite at the Big Apple. The characters are a bit larger than life, to be sure, but that is a formula that has worked well for Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and Janet Evanovich, to name but a few.
Murder has deep roots
It is really difficult to imagine that All the Colors of Darkness (Morrow, $25.99, 368 pages, ISBN 9780061362934) is Peter Robinson’s 16th Alan Banks novel. The prolific author has offered up a new installment virtually every year since 1987 (in the off years, he has given us two collections of short stories, and a pair of stand-alone thrillers). As the latest episode opens, four schoolboys on half-term break make a grisly discovery: a body hanging from a gnarled old oak tree at the edge of a woodland path. Banks is in London on holiday, so the case falls to his assistant, Annie Cabbot. She suspects from the outset that there will be little that is straightforward about this case, but even her innate cop sense doesn’t prepare her (or her boss) for the layers upon layers of deceit to come. The anti-terrorist wing of the government finds its way (quite unwillingly) into the equation, as well as a gaggle of local thespians with more than a little experience at play-acting, especially where the truth is concerned. A major bonus in Robinson’s books is his repeated reference to Banks’ somewhat eclectic musical tastes: the middle-aged detective tunes into world artists Tinariwen, Sigur Ros, Keren Ann, Sarabeth Tucek and Cherry Ghost, to name just a few, suggesting that there may still be musical discernment to look forward to in our dotage.
Mystery of the month
You’d have to be a little bit crazy to attempt to write a prequel to one of the world’s most loved examples of genre fiction. OK, it can be done, witness Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (the prequel to The Wizard of Oz) or Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys’ atmospheric prequel to Jane Eyre), but those are the exceptions. Much more often, they fall flat flat flat (did anyone ever write a James Bond novel that came up to the standards of even the worst Ian Fleming effort?).
So it was with some trepidation that I opened to the first page of Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer to find out what Dashiell Hammett’s iconic detective Sam Spade was up to in the days before The Maltese Falcon: “It was thirteen minutes short of midnight. Drizzle glinted through the wind-danced lights on the edge of the Tacoma Municipal Dock. A man a few years shy of thirty stood in a narrow aisle between two tall stacks of crated cargo, almost invisible in a black hooded rain slicker. He had a long bony jaw, a flexible mouth, a jutting chin. His nose was hooked.” And I was hooked, too, from page one. Atmosphere: check. Hammett’s spare, clipped prose: check. Action and plot setup: check. Faithful description of Samuel Spade: check. It’s all there, in spades (sorry), without even getting past the first paragraph. Read on, and the book won’t let you down.
Veteran author Gores is an Edgar Award-winning writer who has seemingly channelled Hammett from beyond the grave. That statement, however, does not give credit where credit is due. Although Gores has replicated Hammett’s signature style, he has perhaps surpassed the master in terms of plot development. The Spade he depicts is just a little less world-weary, which is to be expected; that said, he is every bit as hard-hitting, laconic and aloof as he would be later in life. Without giving too much away, Gores will have Spade dealing with all manner of crooks and dames, not the least of whom claims to be the illegitimate daughter of deposed Chinese leader Sun Yat Sen. Spade and Archer is a milestone mystery, a book that has been begging to be written for years, but which is all the better for having waited for the singular talents of Joe Gores.