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Monday, July 9, 2012

MRM Reviews: A Dozen Favorite Mystery/Crime Books

Today on the blog we have short reviews of a dozen books that we have recently read and highly recommend.

Dave Zeltserman recently released a new short story collection One Angry Julius Katz and Other Stories.  Zeltserman has become one of my favorite mystery/suspense authors for his ability to span the genre, producing high quality classic/cozy mysteries, dark noir crime chillers, horror novels, fast paced thrillers, and sometimes mixing them all together in his own unique stew. He is like a Donald Westlake or Lawrence Block for this generation (though unlike those authors, to the best of my knowledge, he is not writing erotica under pen names on the side).  I snapped the collection up on release day and read it on my commute to work (not driving but on the train!).  The big news with this collection is the new Julius Katz story "One Angry Julius and Eleven Befuddled Jurors", first published a couple of months ago in EQMM. This is another fun entry in this classic mystery series, and once again it is the interplay between Julius and his AI assistant Archie that steals the show. All six stories are very strong, but I particularly liked "When Death Shines Bright", in which Zeltserman does a great job of getting inside the head of a man who is living on the run and on the edge.

Zeltserman has also recently launched his "The Hunted" series by releasing a pair of novellas, The Hunted and The Dame.  Set in the near future and featuring government trained assassin Dan Willis, the novellas recall the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark (especially the earliest ones) for their stripped down prose, tough protagonist fighting a powerful organization against long odds, and seamless plotting. While the books might be classified as hard boiled escapist reads, the social problems of today (terrorism, unemployment) form the backdrop of the novellas and give them a little more weight.  Although the novellas are self contained, I like that there is a common thread running through them that promises great things for future releases in the series.
Another pair of novellas well worth reading are Trent Zelazny's Fractal Despondency and the sequel A Crack in Melancholy Time.  I found both darkly beautiful and haunting, with almost a dreamlike quality to them.  Zelazny's noir is not built on tough guys and violence, but is more of a psychological exploration of a man on the edge, one struggling with the damage done by his own bad choices.  The feelings explored by the novellas are so real that it is easy to assume that the material is largely autobiographical.  Ultimately though, it does not matter if it is or not.  Zelazny's ability to make this world resonate with the reader is a major accomplishment.

I came late to the party for Bruce DeSilva's Edgar winning debut mystery novel "Rogue Island", only getting around to reading it in the last month.  I should not have waited so long.  The first book in the Liam Mulligan series (the second, "Cliff Walk", was recently released and this time I was sure to buy it on release day), "Rogue Island" is a gritty and funny tale of corruption with an assured sense of place, peppered with sharp dialogue and inhabited by fully realized characters.

I am even later to the party for Jess Lourey's 2006 release May Day, the first book in her Murder by Month series. While this book is ostensibly in the small town cozy amateur sleuth tradition, unlike many cozy heroines who (as my grandma might say) would not say shit if they had a mouth full of it, assistant librarian/part-time reporter Mira James has a ribald sense of humor, a smart mouth, and a healthy libido.  I found it a very entertaining read that was wacky and fun, but also grounded in a fully realized and very real character.

 Marika Christian's Phone Kitten, with it's phone sex operator and amateur sleuth Emily, is actually much more comfortably a cozy than "May Day", despite the subject matter.  The book is quirky and very funny without resorting to outlandishness as a substitute for humor.  Emily is a heroine who is easy to relate to and root for, one who grows in confidence as she tackles her insecurities.  This could easily turn into a wonderful series, and I hope that Christian is hard at work on the next book.

I recently had the pleasure of reading James Reasoner's Dust Devils back to back with Roger Smith's crime novel of the same name.  While both are terrific reads that would usually be labeled hardboiled or noir, they are quite different in the ways they achieve their ends.

Reasoner's novel is the more streamlined of the two, a deftly plotted Texas country tale with a series of narrative surprises (including the final twist) that had this reader feeling like he was being taken for a ride in a sleek, fast car.  The first 10% of the book fools the reader into thinking they might have stumbled into a sappy romance novel (or perhaps a bad Garth Brooks song) before a critical revelation followed by a spurt of violence completely changes the tone of the novel.  The book has the feel of a 50s Gold Medal paperback original (that is a big compliment), and is cut from the same cloth as Tractor Girl.

Roger Smith's novel is more modern and ambitious, and I could easily see a graduate student doing a thesis comparing and contrasting the way the 4 main male characters approach violence.  The story is told in alternating points of view between the main characters, and there is a certain inevitability to it as their arcs race toward a collision.  The narrative has a visceral quality to it, and Smith makes the South African setting come alive.  This is one that stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

$200 and a Cadillac was my first taste of the work of Fingers Murphy, and I expect I will be back for many more helpings.  The material is darkly humorous, and Murphy populates the novel with a bunch of quirky and interesting characters that feel like they could have stepped out of an early Elmore Leonard novel.

Finally, Joe Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water may just be the best thing he has ever written (and that is saying something).  It is very much of a piece with his Edgar winning The Bottoms in that it combines a historical coming-of-age drama with a crime novel in an East Texas setting .  Lansdale is a terrific storyteller, and the voice of the narrator, 16 year old Sue Ellen, is pitch perfect -- a combination of homespun wisdom, wry observation, and lyrical description.  The book is often scary and dark, but it is life affirming at its core.

1 comment:

  1. Dave Zeltserman's "One Angry Julius Katz and Other Stories" happens to be free today (7/10/12) for Kindle.


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