January 2004

Sarah Weinman

mystery strumpet

Looking Back to Look Ahead

With 2003 a fading memory, and 2004 coming well into view, I suppose I could do as nearly everyone else did and present some kind of round-up of the best of crime fiction that was. But why listen to me when there are so many other lists to look at? Never mind that for the last few months, I’ve been knee-deep in advance copies of 2004 reads. As of this writing, I’ve already read nine books with a publication date of January 2004 or later. So even in deciding to shine a light on the obvious, the promising, and the potential buried treasures, I’ve contracted a strong case of déjà vu.

First, the big guns, the people at least the mystery enthusiasts will no doubt be clamoring for the first edition the minute the book is released. Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard are the first ones out of the gate in January. The latest 87th Precinct novel, The Frumious Bundersnatch (Simon & Schuster), is already available but he won’t be touring for it until now, while Dutch’s Mr. Paradise (William Morrow) marks a return to his old stomping grounds of Detroit. In February, Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson, who are charting a twinned course in the United States (same agent, same bestseller list trajectory, both writing police procedurals that pack a great more punch than standard fare) aim to increase their profiles with the latest in their series, as Rebus investigates the aftermath of a school shooting in A Question of Blood (Little, Brown) while Inspector Banks examines a case of arson in Playing With Fire (William Morrow). In March, George Pelecanos’ best novel in years,Hard Revolution (Little, Brown) -- and I can say this having read it several months back -- reaches the masses. Set before and during the Washington, D.C. Riots of 1968, once again he illuminates an area of the District that’s been kept out of the public eye until Pelecanos started bringing it to the surface. Lawrence Block changes direction dramatically from last year’s standalone thriller, as he returns to more light-hearted territory with The Burglar on the Prowl (William Morrow), bringing back thief-turned-bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr after a several-year absence. As winter ends and spring begins, there will be new fare from Jonathan Kellerman (Therapy, Ballantine) Anne Perry (The Shifting Tide, Ballantine) Elizabeth Peters (Guardian of the Horizon, William Morrow) and Andrew Vachss (Down Here, Knopf) as they extend the lives of their respective series. Also doing so is Michael Connelly, who never seems to grow stale, even as the life and times of LAPD detective Harry Bosch is several books old. In The Narrows (May, Little, Brown), he picks up the trail of a presumed-vanished killer, and manages to tie up some loose ends in the Connelly universe. The book’s already gotten some more-than-usual buzz about the potential death of a major character, but it remains to be seen if this will actually be the case…

What of debuts? The great thing about the crime genre is that it does afford an opportunity for new authors to strut their stuff. Already rushing out of the gate this month in terms of advance word and critical praise is Blake Crouch’s keep-you-up-all-night thriller Desert Places (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Minotaur), and two “fem-jep” newcomers in Jilliane Hoffman’s (Putnam) and Jodi Compton’s The 37th Hour (Delacorte). February brings a more historical flavor in Leslie Silbert’s The Intelligencer (Atria), while additional newcomers include Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic (St. Martin’s, April) and Whiskey Sour (Hyperion, June) J.A. Konrath’s blending of terrifying serial killer with a health dose of humor in the launch of a new series starring Chicago police lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels. Don’t let the obvious joke name put you off; it’s easily forgotten in place of a fast-moving plot and great characters.

The launch of a well-reviewed debut means that following it up with something as good or better is all the more difficult. 2003 yielded a bounty of wonderful new reads, and now time will tell if these authors can beat the sophomore jinx. Rebecca Pawel continues her Spanish Civil War series with Law of Return (Soho Press, February), while Olen Steinhauer keeps the historical flavor going with The Confession (St. Martin’s, March). Victor Gischler’s riotous The Pistol Poets (Delacorte, February) seeks to build on his blackly comic noir voice with mayhem in the academic world, while Caroline Carver pens another furiously paced Australian thriller with Dead Heat (Mysterious Press, March). P.J. Tracy continues their clever series of thrillers with Live Bait (Putnam, April) and later, Lono Waiwaiole delves deep into the abyss with the second in his Pacific Northwest-set series, Wiley's Shuffle (St. Martin’s, June).

Looking at the UK publishing world, Orion is just about recovered from launching nine “new” authors in their New Blood Campaign. From well-established American authors like Denise Hamilton and David Corbett to foreign debuts such as Massimo Carlotto to truly new authors like Richard Burke and Victoria Blake, the promotion ranged all across the genre, from PI to psychological thriller to lean noir. But what else is on the horizon? Early in the year is Barbara Nadel’s latest Istanbul-set novel Petrified (Headline, February) Steven Saylor’s new Rome-set book A Judgment of Caesar (Constable & Robinson, February) and a Byzantium based mystery, A Mosaic of Shadows (Century, February) by Tom Harper (aka Edwin Thomas, the author of last year’s The Blighted Cliffs and its upcoming follow-up chronicling the adventures of a “raffish, rakish Horatio Hornblower type”). Also in February is Chris Simms’ sophomore attempt PECKING ORDER (Hutchinson), which is not for the faint of heart if you’re a lover of animals, Fidelis Morgan’s latest delightful Restoration-era mystery Fortune's Slave (HarperCollins) and John Baker’s White Skin Man (Orion), another from one of the most underrated crime novelists around. Later in the year comes big books from Lee Child, who takes us back to Jack Reacher’s military days in the prequel The Enemy (Transworld, April), Denise Mina (Field of Blood, Transworld, April) Mo Hayder (TOKYO, Transworld, May) and Mark Billingham (The Burning Girl, Little, Brown UK, July). Michael Marshall follows up on the astonishing UK success of his evolution-cum-psychopathic serial killer tale The Straw Men with The Lonely Dead (HarperCollins, May), Val McDermid continues the saga of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan with The Torment of Others (HarperCollins, June) and Simon Kernick delivers another dose of muscularly hardboiled fare with The Crime Trade (Bantam, June). Finally, new debuts that might be worth looking out for include Anthony McGowan’s revenge fantasy Stag Hunt (Hodder & Stoughton, March), Kerry Jamieson’s historical thriller The Golden Door (Hodder & Stoughton, April) and Jules Watson’s introduction to a trilogy set in Rome-occupied Britain The White Mare (Orion, March.)

Naturally, there’s loads I’ve forgotten (or have deliberately chosen to forget) but the last book I shall highlight in this roundup is an unusual gambit for the genre. For the past year, Karin Slaughter (the author of the bestselling Grant County novels, the next of which will be September’s Indelible) has been rounding up her author friends and colleagues for a joint venture. It’s billed as a “Novel in Voices”, but it’s really a series of interlinked stories, where each writer has the freedom to write however he or she wishes, with any setting possible—provided that a particular charm is passed from story to story. Not surprisingly, the collection is called Like a Charm (Century UK, February and Morrow, May) and includes some heavy hitters like Mark Billingham, John Connolly, Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Lynda LaPlante. It may well be the book I eagerly await the most this year. At the very least, it’s an interesting experiment that could play out in a variety of different ways.