The opening of Nicotine Kiss, this month's Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner and the latest installment in Loren D. Estleman's popular Amos Walker series, finds the world-weary detective on the ground outside a rural Michigan roadhouse, bleeding from a bullet wound to his leg. If not for the quick thinking and quicker driving of Walker's acquaintance Jeff Starzek, a cigarette smuggler by trade, Walker would be but one more sad statistic of America's fascination with firearms. Starzek puts himself at some risk in helping Walker make it to the emergency room; on the lam from the law, he really can't afford any contact with the authorities. Shortly after delivering Walker to the hospital, he makes good his getaway, a nondescript lifesaver that nobody can quite remember or describe. A month or so later, Walker receives a call from Starzek's sister; it seems that Starzek has gone missing, and the sister is at her wits' end. Walker is in no shape to pursue a case he can barely walk after his brush with death. Still, he owes his savior a large favor, so he agrees to look into the disappearance. One by one, clues materialize, linking Starzek to counterfeiting and terrorism. Walker can easily believe that Starzek could be involved with counterfeiting, but terrorism seems unlikely to the point of absurdity. His digging will take him to the wrong side of the tracks, not to mention the wrong side of the law, and his efforts will be watched with interest by local and federal authorities, including the dreaded Department of Homeland Security. Estleman tackles the subjects of terrorism, intrusive government and fundamentalist religion with insight and wit, and gives his readers a lot to think about in these uneasy days of the new world order. The Walker novels are always a treat, and Nicotine Kiss is no exception. This hardboiled detective is a 21st-century Philip Marlowe, a classic in the making.

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