In all the years I have written this column, I cannot recall a month with more great choices. Winnowing down the numerous fine February offerings to a mere four selections—and reviewing them in the space available here—has proved nigh impossible. If you don’t get your fill of crime fiction with the selections below, check out my Mysterious Orientations blog at BookPage.com for coverage of more excellent February mysteries.
There is no shortage of violence in Roger Smith’s South Africa thriller, Wake Up Dead; indeed, the brutality starts on page seven and doesn’t let up for the next 300-odd pages. Cape Town, South Africa, is home to American ex-model Roxy Palmer and her gunrunner husband Joe. Upon returning home from a working dinner, Roxy and Joe are carjacked by a pair of amped gunmen. Things get a bit out of hand and Joe takes a bullet in the leg. The carjackers leave the gun at the scene, making their escape in Joe’s Mercedes convertible. As the taillights disappear into the dense South African night, Roxy picks up the gun, takes careful aim with rock-steady hands and shoots her husband right between the eyes. Joe had it coming, to be sure. In life, he had been a death merchant of the first tier; additionally, some time back in a fit of rage he had pushed Roxy down a stairs, terminating her pregnancy and ensuring that she could never bear another child, for which she has never forgiven him. But killing her husband will prove to be the most dangerous and complicated decision Roxy has ever made. There are no real good guys in Wake Up Dead; the protagonists, such as they are, sport some serious character flaws, but are all the more believable for it. If you are a fan of George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane, give Roger Smith a close look.
Ian Rankin’s crime caper
When I saw the new Ian Rankin book in the recent BookPage shipment, I reflexively anticipated several enjoyable (and suspenseful) evenings spent in the company of Inspector John Rebus—but of course, Rankin ended the series in 2008 with Exit Music. Doors Open is, instead, a caper thriller along the lines of The Italian Job, a tale of a daring art theft from a well-endowed Edinburgh museum. Three conspirators form the nucleus of the heist: Mike Mackenzie, man of leisure and art collector, who desperately wants to add a particular painting to his collection; art professor Robert Gissing, who rails against the notion that paintings should be privately owned (or stored in back rooms of museums) and kept out of the public domain; and meek investment counselor Allan Cruickshank, whose art purchases have been severely curtailed by an expensive divorce. Early on, the men realize that their talents alone will not suffice to carry the day, and they recruit a talented art forger and a notorious crime boss to fill out their ranks. The plan is virtually foolproof, the key word (of course) being “virtually.” In the aftermath, the unity of the group begins to show stress fractures, the sort of tiny cracks just itching to be pried apart by a tenacious cop. In Doors Open, Rankin displays once again the versatility that allows him to write credibly from both sides of the law.
Devil in the details
To the best of my memory (a sieve-like entity at best) I had not read anything by Chuck Hogan prior to Devils in Exile. This is a lapse I intend to rectify at the first opportunity, because Hogan is really, really good! Anti-hero Neal Maven, a returned Iraq vet, works at a Boston parking lot. There are not a lot of jobs available for a man with his unique military skill set, it seems—at least not in private-sector mainstream U.S. companies. Enter Brad Boyce, a fellow vet who seems to embody everything Maven would like for himself: confidence, a dangerous charm, wealth and most of all, the affections of beautiful Danielle Vetti (a high school compatriot of Maven’s, and the object of his long-time unrequited crush). Boyce offers Maven an under-the-table job, and Maven is only too happy to accept. The job is something of a get-rich-quick scheme: ripping off drug dealers, and flushing their harmful product down the toilet. Boyce represents the enterprise as a Robin Hood-like endeavor, with the dual benefits of breaking the (financial) backs of the drug dealers and getting the supply off the streets. A win-win for everyone, right? Wrong-o! Because Boyce has a plan inside a plan, about which I shall say no more, except that it spells trouble with a capital “T” for Neal Maven. Lightning paced, with a clever and exceptionally satisfying conclusion, this is a don’t-miss book for early 2010!
Mystery of the month
It is not a good day to be named Noel Rafferty. An obnoxious drunk holds court in a pub, obviously spoiling for a fight. Other patrons stare studiously down at their drinks, reluctant to be drawn into the brewing fracas. Then, as if out of nowhere, a cloaked figure emerges with gun drawn, and moments later, erstwhile inebriate lout Noel Rafferty lies dead on the bar floor; the killing bears all the hallmarks of a gangland assassination. Later that evening, Rafferty’s uncle, a wealthy businessman also named Noel, dies in a suspicious car accident. Is there a connection? It certainly seems so to Gina Rafferty, sister to one Noel and aunt to the other. And so begins Alan Glynn’s Irish thriller, Winterland, a tale of politics, avarice, corruption and murder on a national scale. As Gina picks at the threads of the two deaths—first out of curiosity, then later as a result of increasing unease about the unlikely “coincidence”—a couple of things transpire in fairly short order: First, she is warned off her investigation in no uncertain terms, and from several quarters; and second, this only steels her resolve to see justice done, whatever the personal cost. Her potential (and ever-so-worthy) adversaries are well placed in Dublin’s power elite: Paddy Norton, fabulously wealthy (and by some accounts unscrupulous) land developer, currently involved in the largest building endeavor in modern Ireland; and Larry Bolger, politician extraordinaire and heir apparent to the number one position in the Irish Republic.
Winterland is not a comfortable read by any means; it stirs up the thorny issues of globalization, the troubling get-it-done-regardless mentality of the wealthy and the politically connected, and the proximity of the “business-crime-terrorism-politics” continuum to all of our daily lives. Glynn’s previous novel, The Dark Fields, has been optioned for the silver screen, and I predict Winterland will be hot on its heels. Well done, Mr. Glynn!