January 2006

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

The Usual Suspects

I have no idea what’s coming.

My hopes, my dreams, my sincere wishes are that the coming year provides for a richer reading experience than years gone by. High above the canyons of New York and London, publishers are sifting through stacks of potential bestsellers and future crime classics, picking out those lucky bastards who get a place among the 2,000 or so mysteries that will be published this year.

I found myself in a few bookstores over the holidays, and in a reasonably disturbing revelation, I figured out that I wasn’t looking for books I could read. What I really want are books that don’t exist yet, or better yet, books that will never exist at all. I need that library in The Sandman’s castle, where there are stacks and stacks of books that people only dreamed of. 

Somewhere in my own whiskey-addled psyche, there’s a battered, well-thumbed copy of John MacDonald’s A Black Border for McGee, the last classic in the Travis McGee series, borne only by rumors. There on its left, a comic crime novel by John Steinbeck, with a unique and eccentric California vagabond as its odd protagonist. A whole shelf below is devoted to Dennis Lehane’s unwritten, epic Boston crime trilogy, similar in scope to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet but packing half the bluster and three times the punch. There’s Anthony Bourdain’s Bobby Gold Abroad, picking up his contemplative hardass right where we left him on the beach in Vietnam, smoking cigarettes, dreaming of pizza. John Rebus and Cafferty come to an ugly, blood-soaked end in the misty streets of Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. Well, it’s good odds that I’ll get that last one, but you get the idea.

Since I can’t have these books, and I don’t know what murderous masterpieces are coming down the pipe, I’ll have to console myself by knowing that some of our old favorites are still out there punching keys. We’ve lost a few good guys this year, among them two huge talents in Ed McBain and Edward Bunker, and we’ll likely lose a few more before we’re done. It’s the price of admission, but lucky for all of us, giants still walk the earth.

I hate asking for more from Lawrence Block. The man is a machine. Last year, we got one of the best Matt Scudder novels ever, All The Flowers Are Dying. He also contributed solid short stories to several anthologies and out-gunned Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid with his own Hard Case Crime book, The Girl With the Long Green Heart.

I’m sure he has more on his plate for this year, outside of his many trips home and abroad. It should be a bang-up Independence Day, when Block’s wistful hitman returns. The third novel in the author’s assassin series, Hit Parade, will again spin short, interconnected tales of Keller the killer. It’s published on July 4. 

Ed McBain fires off a couple of shots from the grave that weekend, too. McBain’s final 87th precinct book, Fiddlers, was published right on schedule in December despite his passing in July, but there’s an interesting collection of short stories coming out called Learning To Kill.  None of them appeared under the McBain name (a pseudonym itself for Evan Hunter), instead appearing under several the author’s many other pen names. It should be an interesting mix, revealing the author’s long evolution, and featuring individual introductions by McBain himself.

Another old favorite I’m fond of is Loren D. Estleman, the Michigan-based creator of the Amos Walker novels and several crisp historical crime novels, mostly based around race tensions in the Motor City. This year, it’s Amos Walker, the author’s sardonic throwback of a detective last seen in Retro and reappearing in March for the 18th book in the series, Nicotine Kiss. After getting his ass saved after a shooting by cigarette smuggler Jeff Starzek, Amos finds his old friend has gone missing. I’m told it ties up Homeland Security, counterfeiters, and an evangelical minister in another tough case for the old-fashioned Walker.

On a less serious note, Robert B. Parker is one of my guilty pleasures. I’ve never thought that the Spenser novels carried the fictional weight of Block or Elmore Leonard but like an aging prizefighter, Parker has consistently delivered the goods ever since The Godwulf Manuscript was published in 1974. In fact, the good doctor (Parker quietly carries a Ph.D from Boston University; his dissertation was a study of Hammett, Chandler and Ross MacDonald) has gotten even better in the past decade, stretching his literary legs with the westerns Gunman’s Rhapsody and Appaloosa, the Baseball mystery Double Play, and the emotionally richer series about lovelorn P.I. Sunny Randall and the alcoholic rural policeman Jesse Stone. 

It’s a good year, because we get to hear from both Sunny and Jesse this year. Stone in particular brings out the more contemplative side of Parker, and it sounds like Sea Change, due in February, promises more challenges for him. Part of the attraction of the Stone novels is the isolation of the quiet sea village of Paradise, Massachusetts, but when a woman’s partially decomposed body washes up on its rocky shore, it has to mean trouble for Jesse. As Jesse digs deeper into the woman’s risqué life, no one is talking and it’s up to the melancholy Stone to speak for the dead.

I haven’t confirmed that Sunny is the hero of Blue Screen, due in June, but it’s almost a sure thing. The elusive Sunny, long rumored to have been created as a screen vehicle for Helen Hunt, has turned out to be another of Parker’s better creations. She’s almost the anti-Spenser, not tough as nails, and full of insecurities. Sunny is also heavily wrapped up in her ex-husband, Richie, a Boston bar owner tied to his mob family, and that storyline will likely carry over. Spenser and Sunny are walking the same streets but they have very different takes on Boston. 

Robert Crais stumbled just a little last year with The Forgotten Man, which was disappointing, but I’m willing to forgive anybody after the one-two punch of Demolition Angel and Hostage. I think Angel’s black story of bomb expert Carol Starkey’s resurrection remains by far the best thing Crais has written, despite being watered down by her opaque guest appearances in the past couple of Elvis Cole books. Hostage remains a tense, solid thriller despite its wretched film translation as well. I hate to say it, but maybe Elvis Cole has run his course. Lucky for me, The Two-Minute Rule is another stand-alone novel due in February. The title refers to bank robbery’s unbreakable rule: get in, get the money, get out.  When career criminal Max Holman gets out of prison for breaking his own rule, he finds his son has been gunned down and the bank robber turns to the only cop he really knows: the FBI agent that arrested him. It’s a wily premise, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Crais goes with this.

From here, we wander into more shadowy territory. It’s that furtive place where there are titles and dates floating around, but little else.

Michael Connelly brings back Harry Bosch, who turned out so well in last year’s The Closers, for Echo Park later this year. No word yet on its content, other than that the LAPD detective will once more be tearing up the streets of Los Angeles, and that it features Bosch’s half-brother Mickey Haller. Connelly will also release the true crime anthology Crime Beat, a collection of stories from the writer’s reporting career. 

Tony Hillerman brings back Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police in May’s The Shape Shifter. Hillerman did a really nice job assembling A New Omnibus of Crime last year and it’s good to see him back in play. Others still working the floor are Barbara Vine, aka Ruth Rendell, who has plotted the historical medical mystery The Minotaur, due in April. Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, takes her sophomore swing in Secret Asset in August. There’s a 15th Dave Robicheaux book, Pegasus Descending, from James Lee Burke in June, and another Jack Reacher book, The Hard Way, from Lee Child in May. Finally, Andrew Vachss pulls off his own personal resurrection trick by digging up Burke for Mask Market in August.

I’m sure there will be some young guns, too. Impress the hell out of me. There’s always room on my bookshelves for one more blackhearted bad guy or chain-smoking gumshoe.

But you won’t see any “best of the year” lists from me. I was there, and so were you, right?  Let’s act like the big boys and girls that we are and assume we’re all paying attention.  What’s next?

Further bulletins as events warrant.