Fans of the charmingly eccentric mysteries of Alexander McCall Smith, listen up: Colin Cotterill should be on your shortlist of must-read authors, with his fourth entry into the Dr. Siri series, Curse of the Pogo Stick. Set in Vientiane in the late 1970s, Cotterill's novels chronicle the adventures of Laos' first medical examiner. The elderly Dr. Siri Paiboun is a man of science by most measures, but of late he has found himself to be reluctant corporeal host to the spirit of Yeh Ming, a renowned and somewhat mischievous thousand-odd-year-old shaman. On leave from a stultifyingly boring symposium in Xiang Khouang, Siri finds himself kidnapped by a band of comely female Hmong warriors (some guys have all the luck!). It seems that they have decided to avail themselves of the legendary powers of Yeh Ming to lift a curse on a young tribal woman they believe has been victimized by the malevolent intentions of a pogo stick (despite the fact that this sounds a bit far-fetched as a premise, it makes perfect sense on the printed page). Meanwhile, on the home front, a corpse has shown up at the ME's office, booby-trapped to explode upon the first incision by the coroner. An attempt on Siri's life? It seems likely, but who, and why? Clever, graceful and atmospheric, The Curse of the Pogo Stick is a delightfully different sort of mystery, a pleasure on every level.
REAL JAPANESE WOMEN
Tokyo is said to be the safest city in the world, although if the events in Natsuo Kirino's chilling Real World are any indication, the safety may be something of an illusion, a thin gauze veil over a maelstrom. Four teenage girls are the protagonists, although some are definitely more pro- than others: Toshi, the steady one, who hears the loud noise next door, unaware that a murder has just taken place; Kirarin, the sweet and lovable one who is a bundle of contradictions just below the surface; Yuzan, the one who has not quite come out of the closet, although her friends are all aware of her sexual leanings; and Terauchi, the hyper-philosophical one who struggles with loneliness and betrayal. All of them have a peculiar bond with a geeky high school kid nicknamed Worm, and each of them will have a fateful interaction with him: two will die, and two will find the courses of their lives irreparably altered. Real World is not about central-casting Japanese girls who shyly cover their mouths when they smile, but rather about thoroughly serious contemporary young women faced with a crisis well beyond their limited abilities to cope with it.
A CLASSIC DEBUT
You have to love it when a debut novel is a classic; it's rare enough, to be sure. C.J. Box's Open Season was one, so was John Burdett's Bangkok 8. Both were set far afield of the standard Los Angeles / New York / London locales. Both featured a leading character who was at once charismatic and unkillable, thus setting up the promise of a sequel or a series. The latest addition to these ranks is the irrepressible Inspector Nergui, who plies his trade in the wintry streets of Ulan Bataar, Mongolia (of all places) in Michael Walters' The Shadow Walker. Nergui is joined by his former prot&and#233;g&and#233;, Doripalam, and English cop Drew Macleish in an attempt to bring to justice Mongolia's first serial killer. Until recently "the land untouched by time," Mongolia is rapidly modernizing; not unexpectedly, not all of the changes are for the better. The timeworn nomadic way of life is virtually a relic nowadays, and the crime rate has risen exponentially. More importantly, the nature of crime has become aggressively Western in its scope: business cons, land scams and even murder. And now, multiple murders. The three crime fighters have their hands full, both in sifting through the scant evidence and in dealing with the mounting pressure from the Justice Minister to bring the case to a close. When Macleish seemingly drops off the face of the earth after an embassy gathering, the intensity ratchets up, threatening to escalate into a full-blown international incident. The Shadow Walker is an edge-of-the-seat page-turner, well-plotted and thoroughly, agreeably alien in every respect.
BEANTOWN SUSPENSE FROM LINDA BARNES
Taxi driver and private investigator Carlotta Carlyle is back for the 12th time in Linda Barnes' latest Boston suspense novel, Lie Down With the Devil. As the story opens, Carlyle is recovering both from a short-term hangover and a longer-term bout of borderline depression, the aftermath of an emotional and deadly trip to Colombia. She doesn't really want to take on a new client, but Jessica Franklin is nothing if not persistent, and she's in a bit of a hurry as well. In two weeks, she is getting married, and she suspects her husband-to-be of infidelity; in short, she wants Carlyle to spy on him to see if her fears are grounded in reality. This is a client Carlyle can relate to, as the situation with her own boyfriend is strained, to say the least, so she agrees to take the case. Shortly thereafter, Jessica Franklin turns up again, this time in the county morgue. Oh, and she's not really Jessica Franklin, but Julie Farmer, a pivotal figure in a Cape Cod Indian casino battle, who may have been tied up with Carlyle's mob-connected boyfriend, who has conveniently skipped the country. Got all that? So, with the cops breathing down her neck, Carlyle must find out who killed her client, and why, and how it all might relate to her absentee lover. All the action and suspense you expect from a Linda Barnes book are here in spades, with an emotional denouement you probably won't see coming.
MORE SCANDINAVIAN SUSPENSE
Tornetrask, northern Sweden: the ice on the lake was more than a meter thick, perfect for portable ice fishing lodges known as "arks." Leif Pudas, after a successful day of fishing (and several beers), felt the call of nature and left the cozy comfort of his ark dressed only in pants and hastily pulled-on boots; he planned to be outside less than a minute. It was an error in judgment he would live to regret, as a strong gust of wind caught the door and sent the ark skittering away from him across the ice into the Swedish winter night. Half naked, in the bitter cold, Leif could expect to live a scant few minutes if he was not able to get back indoors. He made his way quickly to a nearby ark and forced the door open. At the thin edge of frostbite, he was desperate to get warm, and he grabbed the first blanket he could lay his hands on. What he found underneath was unspeakable: a thoroughly frozen woman, the mute victim of foul play. Grimly, he stoked the stove, and they slowly thawed out together until he was warm enough to go for help. So begins Asa Larsson's The Black Path a chilling (sorry, couldn't help it) tale of obsession and murder in the far north. Some of the finest novels of suspense nowadays are coming from Scandinavia, and Larsson has done nothing to let the region down. If you like Karin Fossum, Henning Mankell, et al., you're going to love Asa Larsson.
P.S.: kudos to Marlaine Delargy, who did a bang-up job of translation.
We've all played the "what if we won the lottery?" game; some of us might go forÊa McMansion and a Maybach, others mightÊembark on a sailboat cruise. For DINK (dual income, no kids) couple Tom and Anna Reed, protagonists of Marcus Sakey's Good People, a lottery win would finance the in-vitro fertilization program they fervently hope will bring them a child. Problem is, their "lottery win" is $400,000 in ill-gotten gains, courtesy of their downstairs tenant, who has accidentally overdosed. It turns out that the $400K is not the only contraband in the possession of the dead boy: he also has a briefcase full of designer drugs, stolen from a none-too-friendly dealer to the stars. Needless to say, said dealer wants his drugs back, and some other seriously bad guys want the money, and both groups figure that Tom and Anna have what they seek. Which they do. And they don't want to give it back. This sets the stage for the high-intensity, high-stakes end gameÊthat could cost Tom and Anna Reed the existence that they have come to take for granted: their heavily mortgaged Chicago duplex, their high-profile professional careers, their marriage and their dreams. Not to mention their lives. In Good People, Sakey has crafted another fine stand-alone thriller, packed with action, suspense and clever adversaries on both sides of the law.
MYSTERY OF THE MONTH
A small handful of mystery writers stand head and shoulders above the crowd (Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane and Ken Bruen jump to mind, to name a few), and George Pelecanos is among them. His hyper-realistic novels of Washington, D.C., are eagerly awaited by his legions of fans, yours truly included. His latest, The Turnaround, earns this month's Tip of the Ice Pick award. The novel spans 30-plus years, from the ragged end of the hippie era to the equally ragged end of the Bush era.
In the summer of 1972, three white kids took an afternoon drive into a black neighborhood to taunt some of the locals. The sceneÊgrew ugly when their escapeÊroute turned out to be a cul-de-sac, and they had to return to face the wrath of the three young black men they had so recently dissed. The ensuingÊcontretemps left one dead, one disfigured, and costÊtwo of the six half a lifetime in jail. Fast-forward 35 years, and one has become a successful restaurateur who donates time and food to the veteran's program at Walter Reed; one is a physical therapist for damaged returning soldiers; one is a high-powered lawyer; one is a blackmailer looking to exact some long-savored revenge. And one guards a secret that could wreak havoc in all of their lives. All are shaped by the conflicts that seem to have defined the U.S. for most of our lifetimes: the inequality of treatment of the races; the Iraq war and its repercussions; the erosion of the urban family; the pervasive political undertone that reaches into the homes of every D.C. resident.
You can call Pelecanos a mystery writer, and that's true as far as it goes, butÊit wouldÊperhaps be more accurate to view him as a latter-day Steinbeck or Saroyan, a social historian who just happens to work in the suspense genre. Whatever the case, The Turnaround is one of Pelecanos' finest to date, and that, folks, is saying a lot!