by Bruce TierneyDecember 2009
One night in Bangkok
The Third World is a notorious landing place for all manner of loose cannons, bad seeds and “wretched refuse,” and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the steamy environs of tropical Thailand. Vincent Calvino, protagonist of Christopher G. Moore’s atmospheric Paying Back Jack, works at the fringes of the aforementioned groups, a disbarred lawyer scratching out a living as an ad hoc private detective in the mean streets of urban Bangkok. When a clever trick he employs to get a recalcitrant tenant to pay up backfires badly, Calvino is hustled out of the city to a nearby resort town; here, in theory, he will wait until things cool down a bit. Of course, it’s not that easy—as he nurses a drink on his hotel balcony, a beautiful young woman plunges past him to her death on the pavement below. Witnesses identify Calvino as having been on the balcony with her when she fell. It is all just a bit too pat, even for the notoriously look-the-other-way Thai police, but since there is no better candidate, they plan to hold him indefinitely. Fortunately for Calvino, he has some well-placed friends who are able to secure his release, but only for the time being. His temporary reprieve may be revoked at any time, so it is incumbent upon him to find some answers—and in record time. Author Moore is an old Thailand hand, having lived in Bangkok since 1988, and it shows persuasively on every passing page.
J.A. Jance is author of not one, but three successful mystery series, one featuring Seattle P.I. Beau Beaumont, one starring Arizona police chief Joanna Brady and one introducing the newest member of the troika, ex-television journalist Ali Reynolds. In her latest adventure, Trial by Fire, Reynolds is approached by the Yavapai (Arizona) County Police Chief with regard to an interim position as media relations officer. Somewhat at loose ends, Reynolds agrees to take the position, for a short time and on her terms. One of the first duties in her new job is to deal with the press when an unidentified woman is rescued from a house fire, burned almost past recognition and now barely clinging to life in the burn unit of the local hospital. Reynolds teams up with hospital-appointed patient advocate Sister Anselm, a strange nun with an undisclosed agenda of her own, to uncover the identity of the burned woman. Problem is, there is still a would-be killer on the loose, one who would like nothing better than to finish the job, and remove once and for all the shred of incriminating evidence that compromises an otherwise near-perfect crime. Jance proves once again that she has mastered the nigh-impossible task of writing consistently (and convincingly) in three quite different styles, one for each of her series—no easy feat!
G is for Grafton
Unlike the rest of us, private detective Kinsey Millhone never gets any older. The perpetually 30-something detective is forever encased in amber in Santa Teresa, California, circa 1988. Things have changed a bit for her, to be sure: her totaled VW bug has been supplanted by a later-model Mustang, and she has tentatively re-established relations with her estranged family, but by and large the aging process has advanced admirably slowly for Ms. Millhone. The latest installment in the popular Sue Grafton series, U is for Undertow, like its predecessors, is set in a milieu free of cell phones, Internet scams, terrorism paranoia and global warming. That is not to say that there is any shortage of bad guys: consider the pair who kidnapped four-year-old Mary Claire Fitzhugh in 1972, held her for ransom, then never claimed the money and never returned the child to her distraught parents. Now, 16 years later, a possible witness has stepped forward—albeit a witness with some serious credibility issues. Kinsey Millhone agrees to look into the case, but not without reservations; her client has a limited amount of money, and Kinsey has moral compunctions about working pro bono (i.e., morals don’t put food on the table). The tension ratchets up several notches when Millhone finds herself on a remote hillside, staring down the wrong end of a gun. Sure to please her cadre of fans, and perhaps win her some new ones as well, U is for Undertow is a worthy addition to Grafton’s long list of thrillers.
Mystery of the month
In 2004, Joseph Wambaugh was named Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America—and for good reason: he consistently turns out taut, suspense-laden thrillers, with just a touch of the craziness that seems to characterize Hollywood for the rest of the world. The manic Tinseltown vibe is never stronger than at the time of the full moon, hence the title of Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Moon.
Wambaugh’s regular cast is all present and accounted for: veteran policewoman and single mom Dana Vaughn, about to be an empty-nester; aspiring actor-turned-cop “Hollywood Nate” Weiss, who volunteers for any industry-related affair, in waning hope of being “discovered”; two surfer cop partners who converse with one another in barely intelligible surf-speak; sloe-eyed Sheila Montez, the latest and greatest heartthrob of Hollywood Station; and, in spirit at least, the late sergeant known as the Oracle, who served in the LAPD for 46 years, and whose framed photograph every cop touches for good luck before embarking on each shift. As with Wambaugh’s previous novels, a central storyline (or two) is interwoven with the daily routines of the department regulars, their loves, their jobs, their peccadilloes. Like life, Wambaugh’s novels are by turns comical, whimsical, tense, gripping and, in one memorable instance in the final pages of the book, tragic. For sometimes storylines intersect with much more combined force than the individual tales might generate on their own, and what might seem like simple collateral damage in one story signals a life-altering (or -ending) change in another. I started reading Wambaugh close to 20 years ago, with his groundbreaking The Golden Orange; since then I have eagerly awaited each new book, and have taken the opportunity to devour his back catalog between new releases. Wambaugh is a master of the genre, and he just keeps getting better—quite an achievement considering his work includes such classics as The Choirboys, The New Centurions and The Onion Field.