by Bruce TierneyNovember 2009
A truly odd job
James Lessor and Skip Moore are among the most unorthodox mystery fiction protagonists in recent memory. Neither cops, private detectives nor journalists (the mainstay livelihoods of genre heroes worldwide), instead they work dead-end gigs: Skip sells security systems door to door, James cleans up in a fast food crab restaurant. For all that, they are remarkably upbeat, always looking for the “next big thing,” which, in fiction as in life, seems either to elude the clueless duo completely or manifest itself in some manner 180 degrees out of whack with what they had in mind. In their latest adventure, Stuff to Spy For, Skip manages to close the largest security system sale of his career to Synco Systems, a hush-hush organization entrusted with sensitive government data. It is not an entirely straightforward deal, however, since part of Skip’s duties involve pretending to be the boyfriend of a woman who is carrying on a clandestine affair with the company president (who happens to be married to the daughter of the company’s owner!). The tangled web gets knottier (and naughtier) when said wife enlists Skip’s aid to expose the dirty dealings at Synco, a distinct conflict of interest, but a potentially lucrative one if he can navigate the treacherous waters. That’s a big if at the best of times, but when Skip enlists aid from roommate James, all bets are off. If you are a fan of the genre-bending Florida school of mysteries (Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, et al.), check out the latest from author Don Bruns; you’ll be glad you did.
Poetry in motion
Andrew Vachss is best known for his series featuring anti-hero Burke, a curiously moral purveyor of violence upon society’s predators—usually people who are, for some reason, untouchable by the law. In his latest stand-alone thriller, Haiku, Vachss strikes out in a different direction, offering up the tale of a quintet of homeless men who live beneath a New York pier, and their enigmatic leader, Ho, a Japanese martial arts master fallen on hard times. Their pier is not the sort of place where one might expect to see a Rolls-Royce, so when the owner steps out of the elegant automobile and surreptitiously pitches a package into the harbor, it creates something of a stir among the unseen witnesses. Surely there is some money to be made here, either in the sale of the retrieved object, or in blackmailing the clearly wealthy disposer. Each of the homeless men brings a talent to the table that might prove useful in furthering the group’s aim: Michael is an ex-finance guy, well-versed in high-dollar ventures; Ranger is a loose-cannon Vietnam vet, skilled in take-no-prisoners combat; Brewster is an obsessive mystery aficionado, keyed into plot; Lamont is something of a street poet, with a gang-related past; and Target, well, he is totally off the map, but with a couple of big surprises up his sleeve. Ho, of course, is the glue that holds this motley crew together, although it must be said that his job is akin to herding cats. Haiku is a markedly different direction for Vachss, and that is always a risk; in this case, it is one that should pay off handsomely.
I tend to avoid period mysteries like the proverbial plague, but one author for whom I always make an exception is Laura Joh Rowland, whose tales of Inspector Ichiro Sano, set in feudal Edo (the Tokyo of 300 years ago), never fail to impress. Her latest, The Cloud Pavilion, finds the inspector hot on the trail of a serial rapist who kidnaps his victims and drugs them, leaving them with only their injuries and faint memories of clouds as clues to the crime. The pressure gets ratcheted up exponentially when the wife of the Shogun disappears, and Sano is presented with an ultimatum from the supreme leader: find her or you will be put to death. Complicating matters is Sano’s old nemesis, Yanagisawa, returned from exile into the good graces of the Shogun. To all outward appearances, Yanagisawa seems a reformed man, eager to mend fences with Sano. That said, there is an underlying current of deceit, and a series of unexplained issues that may lead back to his long-time rival. There are numerous references made to earlier Sano mysteries, but all are thoroughly explained, so there is no problem starting here and working through the rest.
Mystery of the month
It is difficult to imagine that Martin Limón’s first novel featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, Jade Lady Burning (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), came out way back in 1992—shortly after I came onboard at BookPage. In the intervening years, I believe I have reviewed most, if not all, of Limón’s books, and I remain singularly impressed with his ability to whisk the reader away to an exotic place and time (the anything-goes Itaewon pleasure quarter of Seoul, Korea, in the turbulent 1970s).
The sixth installment in this popular series, G.I. Bones, finds Limón’s two military police sergeants in the home of a fortune-teller who regales them with a tale of being haunted by a dead G.I., murdered some 20 years earlier. She needs Sueño and Bascom to find his bones, so he (and presumably she) can rest in peace. Skeptical of fortune-tellers in general, and this one in particular, they embark on the search, never anticipating the tsunami of resistance they will meet from both the Koreans and their own superiors. As is the case in real life, multiple plot lines intersect (sometimes jarringly). One subplot involves an army officer’s underage daughter, who has gone AWOL with a young Latino soldier, introducing another element of racial tension to the already bubbling cauldron of whites, blacks and Asians that characterized 1970s Korea. Additionally, there is a bit of romance on the horizon for Sergeant Sueño, as his relationship with a lovely young Korean doctor deepens in ways he could not have foreseen.
A short side note: I had the opportunity to visit Korea earlier this year, so of course I had to check out Itaewon. Although it has lost a bit of the “Wild Wild East” flavor described in Limón’s books, there is still a delightfully sleazy international vibe to the place, complete with counterfeit goods, tantalizing aromas, expats looking for a good time and business girls (and boys) eager to accommodate them.