by Bruce TierneyNovember, 2007
Twisty mystery from a British poet
It is not every day that a writer makes the move from best-selling poetry to suspense fiction, and I suspect it's rarer still for the transition to be as successful as that of British author Sophie Hannah, who has penned a clever and original debut in Little Face. Upon her return home from her first solo outing after giving birth, Alice Fancourt makes a horrifying discovery her infant daughter has been replaced with another child, similar of feature to be sure, but not similar enough to deceive a new mother. Alice's husband, David, for his part, is convinced that Alice is delusional; her mother-in-law, Vivienne, with whom the young couple lives, remains carefully neutral, but it soon becomes evident that she is pursuing her own agenda, at odds with Alice's. Things muddy up considerably when Alice disappears with the baby, calling into question once again the mysterious death of David's first wife. Two narrative voices move the story forward, Alice's and that of Detective Simon Waterhouse. Despite overwhelming evidence that Alice is mistaken (or a complete nutcase), Waterhouse tends to believe her, and proceeds accordingly in the face of increasing opposition from his superiors. The denouement provides a clever twist, one you will likely not see coming (I certainly didn't). I've not read any of Hannah's poetry, but let's hope she eschews that art form in favor of suspense fiction for a while longer. Judging from her excellent debut, she has a brilliant new career ahead of her.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Imagine a time when gas prices are astronomical and economic indicators are tanking; where due process has been suspended, and civil liberties severely curtailed. Oh, wait a minute, that's now. OK, imagine now, then make things 30 percent worse in any category you'd care to mention. Then you will have an idea of Ben Trinity's world as he hitchhikes into Redemption, Montana, in search of employment in Lee Jackson's stark thriller, Redemption. Branded a terrorist by the Homeland Security Agency, although never tried and convicted, Trinity now serves as a guinea pig in a catch-and-release program designed to assimilate pariahs back into mainstream culture. As best he can, Trinity tries to maintain a low profile in his new home, but secrets have a short half-life under the close scrutiny of small-town small minds. He is faced with the uncomfortable choice of living under a cloud of suspicion, or taking the high road and trying to clear his name. Trinity is an engaging protagonist, and the supporting characters are convincingly rendered as well. The plot is well paced, and sadly all too believable. Perhaps not as prophetic as 1984 or Brave New World, Redemption is nonetheless an excellent look at a probable reality a few years hence, should we choose to remain on our current path.
A MILITARY MYSTERY
Martin Limon's latest thriller, The Wandering Ghost, is the fifth in the popular series featuring U.S. Army criminal investigators George Sue–o and Ernie Bascom. The scene: South Korea, in the turbulent 1970s. The crime: A military policewoman has disappeared under mysterious circumstances following her attempt to testify against a pair of GIs whose speeding truck struck and killed a Korean schoolgirl. Bascom and Sue–o are called in to investigate, but it quickly becomes clear that their presence is unwanted. Their job is to rubber-stamp the findings of the previous investigators. As is so often the case with internal investigations, people close ranks and dummy up, offering grudging assistance at best, and then only when there is no other alternative. It must be said that there isn't a lot of help to be had from the locals, either, as resentment of the U.S. occupation has grown exponentially in the weeks following the young girl's death. An old adage in mysteries goes, if you want to find the solution to the crime, follow the money. Figure out who profits, and you will likely solve the casew. As Bascom and Sue–o dig deeper, they unearth a network of prostitution, black marketeering and worse that appears to involve high-ranking military personnel. Little wonder then that closed mouths hinder their investigation at every turn. From his debut novel, Jade Lady Burning, Martin Limon has crafted some of the finest military mysteries on offer, and The Wandering Ghost will only enhance his reputation.
MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
To the best of my admittedly limited recollection, no anthology has been a Tip of the Ice Pick winner to date. That is all about to change with The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, the latest (and unquestionably, greatest) look at the origins of the modern detective story, edited by Otto Penzler. Like baseball, jazz and chocolate chip cookies, the hardboiled detective story is a quintessentially American tradition. Pulp fiction was introduced to an eager public in the 1920s, each magazine offering a handful of short stories or novelettes for the princely sum of 10 or 15 cents. During the genre heyday in the 1930s, some 500 titles were on offer each month. As you might imagine, scads of the stories were pure dreck, worth little more than the penny per word that the authors were paid, yet a number of pulp fictioneers went on to international acclaim: Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason), Leslie Charteris (The Saint), Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), to name but a few. Numerous other anthologies have addressed the pulps, but none of them have done so with the scope or sheer size of the Black Lizard offering. Some highlights include an early Erle Stanley Gardner novelette featuring attorney Ken Corning, who will be familiar to Gardner fans as the prototype for Perry Mason, perhaps the genre's all-time favorite protagonist. A special treat for suspense fans is Faith, a hitherto unpublished story from mystery icon Dashiell Hammett. Kudos to Penzler, editor extraordinaire, both for his story selections and his insightful intros to the anthology and each of its subsections ("Crimefighters, Villians and Dames"). It is exceptionally rare to find a useful reference work so outright entertaining.