August 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Tough Broads

I don’t think I can be a proper Mystery Strumpet without standing up for the girls every once in a while. Although my personal tastes tend to run to gritty, alcoholic, damaged misanthropes, it’s a refreshing every so often to step away from the purely hardboiled and sample the breath of fresh air among the gun-toting women in the genre. The mystery shelves are easily half-full or better with the works of classic female crime novelists from the Grand Dame herself, Agatha Christie, to street-smart soloists like Sara Paretsky, the creator of V.I. Warshawski, returning this month in Fire Sale. In between these two extremes are hundreds of detectives, cops, agents and rogues who more often than not are funnier, smarter and sexier than their male counterparts.

You might want to start light. Take Sandra Scoppettone’s funky experiment in historical mystery, This Dame for Hire. The start of a new character series starring spunky secretary-turned-PI Faye Quick, this book has a jolting catchiness that draws readers right back to the days of World War II. It’s 1943 and the boys of New York City have gone off to fight the war, including Faye’s boss, Woody Mason. She keeps the home fires burning in their Greenwich Village offices by taking on cases herself. With a smart-aleck sense of humor and a pitch-perfect Manhattan tone, Quick is a terrifically translated and incredibly likeable new addition to the bricks of New York City. Hubba hubba, indeed.

Across the ocean, a far more snarky detective is back in action in the English Cotswalds. The spirited, cranky Agatha Raisin returns in M.C. Beaton’s The Perfect Paragon. A longtime favorite of many cozy fans, Raisin’s adventures are dry in that lovely understated way the British have, but the books have their jarring murders as well. After more than a dozen amateur run-ins with cads and killers, Raisin has finally opened up a full-blown detective agency in the bucolic village of Carsely. Trying to escape from missing cats and the odd divorce case that hits too close to home for the recently split detective, Agatha takes on a surveillance case while also looking for a missing teenage girl. Before long, the half-naked, strangled girl turns up and Raisin is hip-deep in murderesses, struggling not just to keep up with the case but also her odd but charming staff that includes an aged photographer, a punked-out pet detective and her off-again, on-again friend, Sir Charles.

No pints back in Chicago, just straight shooters like Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels, the fiery protagonist of Bloody Mary, J.A. Konrath’s second mystery in the series started with Whiskey Sour. Jack’s troubles are only beginning when extra body parts start turning up in the Cook County morgue, accessorized with the detective’s handcuffs. Her bloody summer soon turns up a mother in poor health, a jealous boyfriend, a diva of an ex-hubby, and that’s on top of the knife-wielding maniac running circles around her. Like the Yankee cousin of southern criminal humorists like Tim Dorsey, Konrath wields a wonderful talent for mixing whacked-out characters with a rich contemporary setting. It’s even a solid police procedural, albeit one with more personal trauma than a television drama. Bloody Mary is a very readable, likeable and altogether human story that goes down just fine.

A little more serious is Janet Evonovich’s incredibly popular bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, who brings her badass self back for Eleven On Top. She’s had it with chasing fugitives. Evanovich is in solid form with icy prose that captures the inherent problem in running away from the world of crime: trouble follows you.

I’ve been working as a bounty hunter for a while now and I’m not the world’s best. I barely make enough money to cover my rent each month. I’ve been stalked by crazed killers, taunted by naked fat men, firebombed, shot at, spat at, cussed at, chased by humping dogs, attacked by a flock of Canadian honkers, rolled in garbage and my cars get destroyed at an alarming rate.

On a much darker note, Pulitzer-prize-winning crime reporter Edna Buchanan, the author of the classic The Corpse Had A Familiar Face, is pointing her practiced eye back on Miami with her new novel, Shadows. Buchanan is seriously one of the best police procedural writers in the world right up to Evan Hunter, rest his soul, and her Cold Case Squad is an outstanding vehicle for delivering the dark stories of the Miami underworld. It starts with a nail-biting intro as a desperate attacker waits for her target, sweating among the limbo trees, before shooting the bastard and running into the wilderness.

Shouts. Footsteps. Confusion. More cries in the dark. I flee for my life, adrenaline unleashing the speed of wings. Something savage runs as well. The creature from the shadows rounds the back of the house. It’s coming after me! My heart races. My shoulder aches. I barely breathe, pounding blindly through thick brush that rips and tears at my clothes. Too late, too afraid to look back, its hot breath at my heels. Oh God, what have I unleashed?

It all comes around in the Shadows, a 1920s house that draws local preservationists and developers into conflict--and might hide things far darker.

Finally, while not strictly a crime novel, I feel the need to touch on Francine Mathews's new spy novel, Blown. Like Buchanan, Mathews draws heavily on real experience, in her case four years spent as an intelligence analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. She wrote two solid mystery series but has found a real inspiration in Caroline Carmichael, a tough-as-nails secret agent introduced in The Cutout. In Blown, the agent is not just protecting her country but her own interests as her husband is “blown,” losing his deep cover identity even as he’s infiltrated a terrorist organization. It’s a nice double-edged sword, forcing Caroline to choose between doing the right thing and protecting what’s hers.

That’s a wrap. We’ve seen gum-chewing gumshoes, neurotic cops, paranoid secret agents and a bounty hunter having a midlife crisis. At the end of the day, I have the same quandary I’ve always had with women. Do I have a type? Do you favor the wise-cracking secretary or the aging PI or the ferocious police detective? Blonde or brunette? I love 'em all.

This Dame for Hire by Sandra Scoppettone
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 034547810X
272 pages

The Perfect Paragon by M.C. Beaton
St. Martin's Minotaur
ISBN: 031230448X
240 pages

Bloody Mary by J.A. Konrath
Hyperion
ISBN: 1401300898
320 pages

Whiskey Sour by J.A. Konrath
Hyperion
ISBN: 1401300871
288 pages

Eleven On Top by by Janet Evanovich
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 0312306261
320 pages

The Corpse Had a Familiar Face by Edna Buchanan
Pocket
ISBN: 0743493648
448 pages

Shadows by Edna Buchanan
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743250559
272 pages

Blown by Francine Mathews
Bantam
ISBN: 0553803301
336 pages

The Cutout by Francine Mathews
Bantam
ISBN: 0553581503
544 pages