James Crumley's novels featuring world-weary P.I. Milo Milodragovich are regarded as masterpieces of contemporary crime fiction. Crumley has released one Milo book per decade since the 1970s, and his legions of eager readers anxiously await each new installment. The latest is The Final Country, which finds our hero deep in the heart of the Texas hill country, chasing young women and old money with varying degrees of success. Bored with his existence, and somewhat strung out by his pharmaceutical excesses, Milo takes on a routine surveillance job, only to find himself caught up in a scam involving politics, religion and murder (and I'm just scratching the surface). Each of the players has a hidden agenda, and more than one of them has it in for Milo. Gunplay, bloodshed and the obligatory sex scenes ensue. Crumley likes to introduce himself as the bastard son of Raymond Chandler, and it is an apt description indeed. Of the current crop of mystery novelists, it is Crumley who best defines hard-boiled ; by that standard, most of his contemporaries would be over easy.
Also new to the shelves this month is Flinch, the sixth mystery by edgy modern-noir author Robert Ferrigno (pronounced Fur-reen-yo ). The two Gage brothers share the city of the Lost Angels: Jimmy, a ne'er-do-well journalist, and Jonathan, a high profile plastic surgeon who is married to Jimmy's ex. As you might imagine, the brothers' relationship is complex and strained. In his parents' pool house, Jimmy unearths a stash of Jonathan's photographs and is sickened by what he finds: a stack of what the local press has come to call snuff photos. The faces are hauntingly familiar; they have been on the front pages of the city newspapers for months. Six unsolved murders, all the handiwork of someone known only as The Eggman. Shocked into silence, Jimmy Gage faces the possibility that his brother is the hunted serial killer. Or could this be a twisted game of Jonathan's, one designed to make his brother appear foolish, the latest installment in their lifelong game of flinch?
I approach debut novels with a smidgen of trepidation, happily unwarranted in Gabriel Cohen's excellent first novel, Red Hook. Detective Jack Leightner grew up in Red Hook, a Brooklyn community that has fallen on hard times. When his investigation of a low-priority homicide takes him back to his childhood home, unsettling rumblings plague his sleep, play havoc with his digestive system and cast a pall over his relationships. Still, like a terrier, he can't bring himself to let go. And the deeper he digs, the closer he comes to exposing the secret that has been a part of his every waking moment for four decades. Cohen, who lives in Brooklyn, has an unerring sense of place, a gift for characterization and nonstop take-no-prisoners pacing. If urban crime is your thing, Red Hook is one of the best debuts in years.
Tip of the ice pick
Some authors are shoe-ins for Bookpage's Mystery of the Month award: Michael Connolly comes to mind, T. Jefferson Parker, Nicci French and, of course, Andrew Vachss, this month's winner. Vachss' latest, Pain Managementcontinues the reinvention of the anti-hero Burke (no first name, no middle name, just Burke). Forced out of his New York City home, Burke has been on the run for some time, his missing-and-presumed-dead status little more than a joke to elements on both sides of the law who would do him harm. So he bides his time in Oregon, waiting for some sign that it is safe to return home. To keep food on the table, Burke accepts a job tracking down a runaway teen. But in Burke's world, nothing is ever what it seems: is it child beating, sexual abuse or something even more evil? Vachss spins a compelling tale, with complex, well-drawn characters and some of the darkest descriptions of the urban nightscape known to man.
Bruce Tierney is a Nashville-based writer and lifelong mystery reader who was weaned on the Hardy Boys.