by Bruce TierneyJanuary, 2010
Hunting for clues
Prolific author John Lescroart is best known for his series featuring criminal defense attorney Dismas Hardy. Once a clever supporting character in the Hardy novels, P.I. Wyatt Hunt has at last come into his own in Treasure Hunt. If history is any indication, though, Hunt will not be the solo star player for long, as his protégé Mickey Dade seems well-poised to take his turn in the limelight. Case in point: credit Dade with the idea for dragging The Hunt Club, Wyatt Hunt’s investigative firm, back into the land of the working after a protracted dry spell. Following the murder of prominent San Francisco activist Dominic Como, Dade persuades his boss to serve as the liaison between the police and the scores of applicants for the reward offered by Como’s heirs and business associates. What first seems like an administrative gig quickly turns into something much deadlier, and Mickey Dade and his comely client/sweetheart are forced to take it on the lam from both the as-yet-unidentified murderer and the law. Hunt, Dade and company sift through clues, together in purpose even if at times their methodologies seem distinctly at cross purposes. Not to worry, though: the denouement offers up a classic closed-room debriefing scenario in which all the suspects (and of course all the good guys too) are gathered together for a final showdown, but with a last-minute twist or two guaranteed to keep readers guessing.
A grisly snow scene
One of my favorite parts of being a reviewer is the opportunity to introduce readers to a major new talent. This month, I have the pleasure of reviewing not one, but two fine debut novels—both from Europe, as it happens. The first, James Thompson’s Snow Angels, takes place in rural Finland in the depths of the Arctic winter. Thompson’s protagonist, police inspector Kari Vaara, is in some ways the author’s doppelgänger: Vaara, a Finn, is married to an American woman; Thompson, an American, is married to a Finnish woman. Snow Angels opens with a shocking murder: Sufia Elmi was nothing if not a walking contradiction—by some accounts a virginal starlet, by others a drug-abusing sexual deviate. Now she lies dead, and in an exceptionally grisly manner, her death-throes painting an obscene crimson snow angel in a remote Finnish field. Sufia’s father, a Somali refugee who has prospered in Scandinavia, demands Koranic justice (an eye for an eye, a life for a life), and he holds Vaara personally responsible for meting out said punishment. There is one bright note, though: the primary suspect is none other than the shady character responsible for the breakup of Vaara’s first marriage, an irony lost on nobody involved. If you like Scandinavian mysteries (Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indridason, et al.) and the first-person narratives of American detective fiction, Snow Angels should be right up your alley. Thompson is hard at work on the sequel, and I will be among the first in line to read it.
A dangerous pen pal
Our second debut, Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, has generated more pre-release industry-insider buzz than any mystery in recent memory. Happily, it is well-deserved. Serious 12-year-old Steven Lamb never knew his uncle Billy, who disappeared before Steven was born. No trace of him has ever been found, although conventional wisdom has it that he was murdered by pedophile serial killer Arnold Avery, who is now serving time for six related murders, but who has never confessed to Billy’s killing. While other schoolboys his age are playing video games and trading sports cards, Steven is engaged in a secret mission: he wants to find his uncle’s grave site, somewhere in the broad reaches of England’s Exmoor. One afternoon Steven has a flash of inspiration, at once sublimely clever and exceedingly perilous: he will write an anonymous letter to Arnold Avery in prison, inquiring after the whereabouts of the body of one “W.P.”—William “Billy” Peters. A riddle-laden correspondence ensues, with each trying to keep the game going while still holding tight to their own secrets. But when Avery breaks out of prison, all bets are off, and Steven finds himself in more danger than any 12-year-old should ever have to face. Great pacing, strong characters and palpable tension: Blacklands has it all; this is a stunning debut from a promising new author.
Mystery of the month
I pity any Mystery of the Month contender who has to go up against John Burdett; it is almost as if they should consider releasing their books in a different month. That’s not really the case, of course, but Burdett has both the chops and the history to be a strong contender every time he turns out a new book, and The Godfather of Kathmandu is no exception.
Thai policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep is back—this time in a tale of murder, police corruption and wholesale drug transport, with all of South Asia as the backdrop. It seems that Frank Charles, a onetime wunderkind of Hollywood, has suffered a particularly ignominious death: someone has disemboweled him, sawed off the top of his skull, and made a light lunch of his frontal lobes. Even by the creatively macabre Thai murder standards related by Jitpleecheep in his earlier adventures, this falls well beyond the pale. Charles’ passport contains an inordinate number of visas for Nepal, which raises eyebrows at police headquarters, since much of the drug trade is funneled through Kathmandu en route to Southeast Asia and then the West. This is a fact not lost on corrupt Colonel Vikorn, Jitpleecheep’s boss, who has made himself a millionaire many times over thanks to the insatiable Western appetite for opiates of every stripe.
Three new characters introduce an exotic spiciness to the mix: Norbu Tietsin, an exiled Tibetan lama with a couple of very non-lamalike habits; “Mad” Doctor Moi, an aristocratic Thai woman with a troika of departed husbands, all of whom met with questionable fates; and Tara, a Tantric nun schooled in the art of, um, transcendent earthly delights, which she is only too eager to demonstrate to Comrade Jitpleecheep. There is way too much going on to give you even a broad-strokes idea in 300 words, so let me just say: pick up The Godfather of Kathmandu the day it hits the stands, and block out several hours to read it in one sitting. Once you start, you won’t get anything else done until you finish it.