Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Today's email edition of Publishers Weekly contains a nice recommendition of my editor Henry Kisor's latest book:

Season's Revenge by Henry Kisor (Forge, $19.95, 0765306662). "I really enjoyed this story set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the Christmas season. The descriptions of the scenery and wildlife, the people and their lives, painted a great picture of life in the U.P. The main character, Steve Martinez, was so likeable I look forward to more stories featuring him."--Connie Geverink, Chesterfield Books, Chesterfield, Mich.

I reviewed it a while back and it's excellent.

People Magazine's Top Ten Books of 2003

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Doubleday)
Moneyball by Michael Lewis (Norton)
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (MacAdam/Cage)
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek (Little, Brown)
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (FSG)
The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Amistad)
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Scribner)
Train by Peter Dexter (Doubleday)
Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins)

If I see one more award or citation for The Da Vinci Code, I won't be responsible for what I do!

(Nice to see Bob Dallek get his props, though.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Lev Raphael, author of the acclaimed The German Money, reviews a few mysteries in his Detroit Free Press column. He pans the new Mickey Spillane book, Something's Down There, saying "The confused story is mildly intriguing, but the book's writing verges on parody, and the storytelling is as flat as the characters."

You've gotta hand it to Mick for keeping his hat in the ring after all these years, but when's the last time he wrote a book that anyone actually cared to read?

What are the writers reading? (from Publishers Weekly)

They've been running a bunch of these, but I found this one particularly interesting.

From Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Doubleday):

"I've read some wonderful books this year (Train by Pete Dexter, Things You Should Know by A. M. Homes, Timoleon Vieta by Dan Rhodes) but the one I've been thrusting most regularly into other people's hands is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

"I am an avid consumer of popular (and unpopular) science so I began reading with some skepticism. To my surprise, it taught me things I didn't know, gave me fresh insights into things I thought I knew and made me laugh out loud. It's worth buying simply for the story of Thomas Midgely Jr., who invented both CFCs and leaded petrol and was accidentally strangled by a machine of his own invention. Though if you're planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park in the near future, you might want to postpone reading this book till you're safely back home."

Sounds like a wild book...I'll be looking for it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

January Magazine publishes their 2003 Holiday Gift Guide for Crime Fiction with a couple dozen books on it. Overall, it's a solid list, including Denise Hamilton's Sugar Skull, Steve Hamilton's Blood Is the Sky and Eddie Muller's Shadow Boxer -- good writers and good people, all three.

Another end-of-the-year roundup. The New York Times recently named their "Notable Books of 2003" including several crime fiction books:

THE BABES IN THE WOOD. By Ruth Rendell. (Crown, $25.) Supple prose, intricate plotting and an ominous atmosphere draw us into this disquieting case of Chief Inspector Wexford, involving two teenagers who disappear during ferocious rainstorms that flood Kingsmarkham and drench the story with intimations of nature's dark forces raging out of control. (Mystery Ink's review)

DONE FOR A DIME. By David Corbett. (Ballantine, $24.95.) The death of an old jazz musician, the axman for legends like Bobby Blue Bland and King Curtis, sounds the blue note of this dazzling novel, narrated in the blunt and vigorous idiom of California noir but full of compassion for marginal people whose rights are trampled upon by power brokers.

FEAR ITSELF. By Walter Mosley. (Little, Brown, $24.95.) Paris Minton, the lily-livered bookstore owner who wouldn't last a minute on the rough streets of Los Angeles without his deadly friend, Fearless Jones, invites trouble by trying to help a frantic mother locate the runaway father of her child, in a noir tale driven by its high-stepping, fast-talking characters. (Mystery Ink's review)

HEX. By Maggie Estep. (Three Rivers, paper, $14.) Ruby Murphy, the Coney Island drifter whose free spirit accounts for the ravishing originality of this idiosyncratic first mystery, falls for a perfect stranger's sob story and goes undercover as a stablehand at Belmont Park to keep tabs on a stable groom with sexy eyes and a mysterious past.

MAISIE DOBBS. By Jacqueline Winspear. (Soho, $24.) The resourceful heroine of this haunting first novel applies her experiences as a battlefield nurse in World War I to her new career as a private investigator, scandalizing society but offering a humane psychological approach to a harrowing case involving physically and mentally shattered war veterans.

RESURRECTION MEN. By Ian Rankin. (Little, Brown, $19.95.) It could just be John Rebus's paranoia kicking in again, but the abrasive Edinburgh cop suspects he is under internal surveillance when he is taken off a murder investigation for remedial training at the Scottish Police College, along with five other officers in need of an attitude overhaul. (Mystery Ink's review)

SOUL CIRCUS. By George P. Pelecanos. (Little, Brown, $24.95.) Fascinated with the way crime actually works, Pelecanos takes apart the gun trade like an urban anthropologist, fitting the pieces into the thriving drug industry and gang culture of a Washington neighborhood where enterprising criminals work hard to make a dishonest living. (Mystery Ink's review)

A nice selection, including a couple that showed up on my list, too. Cheers again to our friend David Corbett, and to George as well!

Monday, December 08, 2003

The Washington Post named their "Best of 2003" yesterday. The list included a handful of crime fiction titles. Here's what they had to say:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (Doubleday). It's midnight, and an autistic 15-year-old boy is sitting on the lawn, holding his neighbor's dead dog, covered with blood. The neighbor runs out screaming, police arrive, the boy hits a policeman and ends up in jail. Thus begins a jolting spiral of events in the life of one of this year's most memorable characters. In this striking first novel, Haddon is both clever and observant, and the effect is vastly affecting.

Havana, by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster). Consider the irony that one of the best thriller novelists around is also The Washington Post's chief film critic. . . . He writes some of the most complex and innovative, not to mention exciting, action novels of the past 23 years. . . . Now comes Havana, in which Earl [Swagger] -- on special assignment from the Arkansas state patrol -- takes on the gangsters, spies and communist revolutionaries of 1953 Cuba.

Soul Circus, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown). What's so brilliant about it, and Pelecanos's novels in general, is that he raises these questions not only in meditative passages but also in scenes of the rawest violence. In the space of a couple of paragraphs, four gang members suddenly die in bloody, balletic sequence, and you find yourself reeling from the senselessness of their deaths, the waste of their stupid lives. Ditto for the ending of this superb novel.

I missed the first two, but Soul Circus was terrific. I thought the previous book in the series (Hell to Pay, a Gumshoe Award-winner) was even better, but this one is still damn good. Pelecanos writes better than just about anybody else in the genre and surely deserves the accolades.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

The Times (UK) has a Christmas wrap-up of crime fiction titles by Marcel Berlins in today's edition. All of the authors they cite are Europeans, except for one:

"Back in the USA, no one is writing better than Michael Connelly. His novels featuring LAPD cop Harry Bosch have kept up an astonishingly high standard and Lost Light (Orion, £6.99; offer £5.94) is no exception. The morose Bosch, emotionally and physically weary after his many years with the department, has finally quit. But one unsolved case troubles him — the strangling of a young woman in the film business. His stubborn inquiries, unofficial and resented by his former colleagues, re-open old wounds and revive forgotten evidence. There’s even a link to terrorism after September 11. This is crime fiction of the highest quality."

Well said, my friend. I couldn't agree more.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Got an email this afternoon from David Corbett, letting me know his book Done for a Dime has just been named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Here's what they wrote:

DONE FOR A DIME. By David Corbett. (Ballantine, $24.95) The death of an old jazz musician, the axman for legends like Bobby Blue Bland and King Curtis, sounds the blue note of this dazzling novel, narrated in the blunt and vigorous idiom of California noir but full of compassion for marginal people whose rights are trampled upon by power brokers.

Haven't read it, but I plan to. David is a terrific guy and, from everything I've heard, a very fine writer.

Way to go, Dave!

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

A word of caution this morning for critics who sometimes become a little too enamored of their own wit, particularly the sarcastic and biting kind -- and this surely applies to all of us at one point or another.

An article in the Orange County Weekly called "We’ve Lost that Self-Righteous Feeling" (thanks to Sheila Lennon for the link) expresses the paper's regret for slamming the Righteous Brothers shortly before Bobby Hatfield's death -- an unkind pan that apparently got under Bobby's skin.

The piece contains a confession from its author:

I once slagged off Steve Goodman in a review, mocking his "perennial opening act" status. What I didn’t know was that he’d risen from his sickbed to do that show as a favor to the promoter when another act cancelled at the last minute. Goodman was in pain, dying of leukemia, was soon dead, and my review was the last one he ever got.

People can drop dead at any time, and that’s no reason to gild their talents. But it should make us more cognizant of what we write, and whether we do it to be truthful or because being snide might make you look cool. Again speaking from personal experience, being a rock critic is a pretty unhip job, and there’s a tendency to want to seem hipper by dumping on other people, or at least distancing yourself from things that may be even less hip than you.

Steve Goodman was one helluva songwriter (he wrote "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," the best damn country song ever written), but even if he wasn't, you have to wonder if he deserved it.

I've written my share of negative reviews, but I don't think I've ever panned anyone on their deathbed. It's something to keep in mind, though -- if you wouldn't want something you write to be the last thing a person read about themselves, maybe you shouldn't write it. Not to say you shouldn't write the truth, be it favorable or negative, but it's important to keep perspective.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

I posted some new content on Mystery Ink this morning, including reviews of the latest books from Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter, Rochelle Krich, Jonnie Jacobs, Elaine Flinn and Diana Gabaldon. The first 5 were from my most recent column in the Chicago Sun-Times and the last one is by Bob Walch. I also put up our new contest -- a drawing for a signed ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of Stephen White's new book Blinded. It's not due out until February, but one lucky winner will get a sneak peek. Good luck!

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

I'm somewhat embarrased to admit that I hardly read any non-fiction this past year. I wish I had the opportunity to read more scholarly (or even popular) works, but there just aren't enough hours in the day!

Here's what I read:

Thomas Keneally: Lincoln -- An excellent, brief (but fairly comprehensive, given the length) bio of America's best president. If you don't have the energy to read David Herbert Donald's superb Lincoln, this is a good choice.

Christopher Buckley: Washington Schlepped Here -- humorous travel guide to D.C. Very funny and informative, too.

Bill Zehme: Intimate Strangers -- A collection of articles about and interviews with celebrities and personalities of various sorts. Some great pieces in here on Sinatra, Letterman, Beatty and others.

As far as I know, that's it. Pathetic, I'll admit.

Jim Fusilli (a crime writer that my friend Yvette loves) has a review column in a recent Boston Globe. He raves about Jim Patton's Dying for Dana, calling it "a winner" and comparing it to Elmore Leonard. If you read my take on it, you'll know that I disagree. Did I miss something here? (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

The following are the most sought after out-of-print titles in the U.S., according to Kind of an odd line-up, but there's no accounting for taste, right?

1. Sex by Madonna. The pop star's first book-erotic photos and more.
2. World Crisis by Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister's history of World War I.
3. Flicker by Theodore Roszak. An alternate history novel about the movie industry, tying 1950s B-movies to Illuminati-esque global domination theories.
4. Curse of Lono by Hunter S. Thompson. The gonzo master's take on his two trips to Hawaii.
5. General Printing by Glen Cleeton. Everything you ever wanted to know about letterpress printing but were afraid to ask.
6. Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan. A record of the compilation of human knowledge bundled with NASA's Viking space probe. Intended to be seen by alien life forms.
7. Aran Knitting by Alice Starmore. A history and how-to about the Irish Aran knitting technique.
8. Disco Bloodbath by James St. James. A true crime novel set in the underside of New York's trendy club scene and the basis for the movie Party Monster.
9. Standing Room Only by Elizabeth Fowler. The autobiography of a World War II-era adventurer.

Some of the best out-of-print crime fiction titles have, thankfully, been returning to print recently, including Thomas Perry's first two books -- The Butcher's Boy and Metzger's Dog -- and several Ross Thomas novels (The Fourth Durango, Twilight at Mac's Place, Out on the Rim, etc.).

If you're a regular reader of the Crime Fiction Dossier you already know how I feel about Ross Thomas. (In a word, he was the best.) I am also a great admirer of Thomas Perry, and The Butcher's Boy, in particular, is excellent.

Monday, December 01, 2003

I finished Denise Hamilton's new book (Last Lullaby) over the weekend (due in April). It's the 3rd book in the series featuring L.A. Times reporter Eve Diamond. As with the first two, L.L. is a terrific read; well-written, with an interesting plot, intriguing (and believable) characters, and enough suspense to keep the reader hooked.

Last Lullaby isn't as deep a book as The Jasmine Trade or Sugar Skull, but the mystery is better and the pacing is faster. I enjoyed the first two more, I think, because their plotting was denser and the stories more complex. But the new one has some excellent action-packed scenes and good suspense.

It probably won't engender me to the PC police if I say this too loudly, but I think Denise Hamilton is one of the few female authors who is doing something interesting and exciting in the hardboiled/PI/detective genre.

This is not to say that other writers aren't producing good work -- but it's not necessarily to my taste. Hamilton's books, though, are expanding on the work of Chandler, Macdonald, Connelly, etc. in a way that is enriching the genre.

If you haven't read Hamilton's work, pick up Jasmine and give it a go.

On yesterday's New York Times bestseller list, 15 of the top 35 books were related to the mystery/suspense genre (assuming you include such titles as Grisham's Skipping Christmas). Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is still #1, continuing its improbable run, and James Patterson's Big Bad Wolf debuts at #2.