Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle P.I.s, Dicks, and Mystery Men

By Jesse Sublett

JUNE 29, 1998:  Two crime novel fanatics go into a bookstore and head straight for the mystery section. One fanatic goes straight to the Robert Parker shelf and grabs the brand-new Spenser novel, or to the Sue Grafton niche for the latest Kinsey Milhone, or to some other serial novelist of his or her choice. The other fanatic has a different approach - he or she's looking for a new thrill, a book by a heretofore unknown author who hasn't been writing about the same world-weary P.I./burned-out cop/blind-orchid-cultivating-bounty-hunter for the last 10 or 20 years. This mystery lover might talk with the store owner a while, trying to get the lowdown on what's new and hip. He or she might already have a tip from a book review or from a word passed on by a friend. And maybe this customer leaves the store with a book or two by a newly discovered author, who just might be the next big thing in crime fiction. Both these impulses are vital to keeping the crime fiction/mystery genre fresh and solvent. I love discovering new authors and maintaining a list of favorite obscure writers known to only a handful of other bibliomaniacs like myself, but I also love to return time and time again to the same old mean streets inhabited by Robert Parker's Spenser, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, and various other fictional crimebusters created by other serial novelists.

The writers I'm talking about, for the most part, are the ones who crank out a new book every year without fail. They also generally show up on the bestseller lists, which makes them, I suppose, mainstream writers. When a writer hits that kind of high-water mark, the cynics among us generally suspect there's a little bit of sell-out in their writing. And no matter what their success says about the talent and hard work that it took to get the big guys where they are now, we tend not to expect them to write the kind of fresh, cutting-edge fiction we expect from other struggling, less-known authors - authors who have everything to gain and nothing to lose by writing something different and unexpected and maybe even a little dangerous. Think of James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Willeford. The interesting thing is that, judging from the crop of serial novels published in the last year or so, my favorite series novelists haven't exactly been phoning it in lately, either. Though none of them has been ballsy enough to kill off their creation or even allow them to lose a limb or two in a bloody shootout, I'm impressed by the spark and inventiveness they inject into the familiar worlds they've created. Maybe they feel the competition breathing down their necks. Maybe they get bored with their own creations sometimes too. Whatever the case, in my opinion, some of the best crime novels out there are the ones by the big guys who write a new one every year, year after year.

Take Robert Parker, for example. In his latest, Sudden Mischief (Putnam, $22.95 hard), Spenser takes on the case of a smug, thoroughly unlikable jerk who's being sued for multiple cases of sexual harassment by a powerful Boston attorney who will use any means to win, including his mob connections. The jerk, whose name is Brad Sterling, is the ex-husband of Susan Silverman, Spenser's longtime lover and housemate (they share the same house, but live on different floors). Susan wants Spenser to handle the case, but doesn't want to talk about it. In fact, Susan, who is a psychologist by trade, becomes so cranky and weird that we soon find out that there's a deep psychological puzzle at the center of the book. This, however, turns out to be the least satisfying part of the story. The best stuff is played out in the usual scenes: fine Boston restaurants, Henry Cimoli's gym, in the parlors of Boston rich folks and yuppies for whom Parker seems to reserve his most eloquently biting and sarcastic prose, and in all the scenes between Spencer and his longtime ultimate tough guy pal, Hawk.

The mystery turns out to include a money laundering scam between Sterling's charity fund-raising activities, some crooked lawyers, and a very nasty character named Haskell Weschler, whom Spenser refers to as "the worst man alive." It's a helluva mess Susan's gotten her boy toy into, too, and Parker's amazing talent for painting scenes and characters with sparse but prickly prose makes this book even more entertaining than his usual work. Part of the reason is that, because we've come to know Spenser as such an invincible character, we never get very worried about what's going to happen to him. (In last year's Small Vices, for example, Spenser is shot up by a professional hit man and, although the wounds supposedly could easily have been fatal, Spenser's recovery seems little more than an extended inconvenience and an excuse for him and Susan to spend the summer on the West Coast.) In Sudden Mischief (Parker's 25th Spenser novel), however, some of the author's subsidiary characters are so tightly ratcheted and cloaked in mystery that you'll find yourself anxiously turning the pages to find out what happens next, because this really is a puzzling case. However, I have been told that some people read these novels in order to find out what Spenser's going to eat for lunch in the next chapter, and what kind of beer he'll wash it down with, while Susan Silverman merely pecks at her food and looks perfectly beautiful and acts extremely annoying.

illustration by Jason Stout

With his 1992 debut novel, The Black Echo, Michael Connelly established himself as one of the best crime writers in America. Over the course of his five novels about L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch, he's consistently turned out dark, muscular narratives that take the reader inside the inner workings of the most infamous police department in the world, while showing an equal talent for eloquently morose brooding on the twisted and peculiarly fascinating inner and external landscape that is Los Angeles. Connelly's new novel, Blood Work (Little, Brown, $23.95 hard), also set in L.A., introduces a new protagonist, Terrell McCaleb, a retired FBI agent who specialized in solving serial killer crimes. As the story opens, McCaleb is recovering from heart transplant surgery, living a solitary life on his late father's fishing boat, which he is restoring in order to return to his hometown on Catalina Island. A young woman eventually pries McCaleb out of retirement in order to search for the man who murdered her sister, who just happens to be the woman whose heart McCaleb inherited. McCaleb feels a "holy bond" with the dead woman, and after a little research into her death, discovers that the LAPD cops botched the case but are in no mood to cooperate with a burned-out Fed who offers to help them set things straight. Even worse, McCaleb's heightened sense for such things tells him that a serial killer is involved. Could it be one of the few who got away from him back in the old days? Or is he racing down a series of blind alleys, any one of which, in his delicate condition, could cause that new heart of his to give up and call it a day? Both options add up to a pile of guilt heavier and more toxic than the giant lid of smog pressing down on the San Fernando Valley in mid-August. All of Connelly's gifts are in full flower here, and the result is a dark, adrenaline-charged tale of suspense. From the first three pages of Blood Work, I knew I'd latched onto a book that was gonna cost me a few nights' worth of sleep. I was right, but the ride was well worth it.

Elmore Leonard, author of more than 30 novels and numerous screenplays, has always been hip, even before Quentin Tarantino and Get Shorty reintroduced Leonard's likeable and very talkative con men, gangsters, and other misfits to the public and showed us that those folks can be just as vain and vulnerable and prone to silly fantasies (they're just more likely to act on them) as the rest of us. Leonard has been doing quite well, thank you, with his novels, screenplays, and adaptations for quite some time. During the post-Get Shorty era, however, Leonard has gone from mainstream popularity to pop icon. Still, Leonard is mostly known for his Miami-Detroit axis suspense novels, and not for his Westerns, which he wrote exclusively until 1979. Cuba Libre (Delacorte Press, $23.95 hard), then, is quite a departure, since it's Leonard's first Western in almost 20 years, and it's his first historical novel set in a foreign country. The book takes place on the eve of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The protagonist is a likeable, rascally cowboy named Ben Tyler. Ben has done some time in prison for robbing banks, but it all started out as a disagreement between himself and a former employer. Ben and his partner, Charlie Burke, cook up a scheme to smuggle horses into Cuba to sell to a rich American planter, Roland Boudreaux. But the moneymaking part of the scheme is a shipment of guns to the Cuban insurgents who are fighting the Spaniards. When Boudreaux tries to cheat Ben and Burke on the horse deal, Boudreaux's mistress, the sultry Amelia Brown, gets all goo-goo-eyed over Ben, and a Spanish Civil Guardia officer, peeved because Ben has publicly insulted his honor, challenges Ben to a duel. As these events are percolating, dead sailors are still being pulled from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine, the American battleship whose mysterious explosion in Havana harbor precipitated America's declaration of war against Spain, so you know quite a few more explosions are about to happen. Sure enough, Ben uses his cowboy instincts to respond to the Spaniard's request for a duel by whipping out his six shooter and plugging the annoying Spanish fop between the eyes. From then on, the story is a hair-raising saga of jail escapes, train robberies, kidnapping, revolution, hideouts in leper colonies, shoot-outs, and so forth. This is Leonard's best book in a long time and, at 343 pages, his longest, but the action never flags. It could even make a great movie: Word is that Joel and Ethan Coen optioned the book and wrote a screenplay.

If you're a fan of classic hardboiled in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, then you probably already know that Loren D. Estleman, the creator of the fictional detective Amos Walker and also the author of another Detroit-based series, speaks your language. However, unlike Chandler, Hammett, and most of the other guys who made music out of that style, Estleman is not dead. In fact, he's doing some of his best work ever in that same stylish vein. Estleman is an even rarer bird because he is a fine writer of award-winning western novels, too (his latest, Journey of the Dead, a tale involving an alchemist and Pat Garrett, slayer of Billy the Kid, rates an enthusiastic thumbs up). Estleman's latest Amos Walker novel, The Witchfinder (Mysterious Press, $23 hard), starts out with a fairly standard beginning, as Walker is coaxed out of hibernation on a stiflingly humid day to work for a dying millionaire architect. Soon, however, the complications start piling on like optional equipment on a custom-ordered Cadillac. The architect wants Walker to find out who sent him a fake photo of his lover in bed with another man, which, before he caught on to the scam, destroyed his relationship with the girl and his last chance at happiness. The case takes a series of complex turns that lead Walker down Detroit's mean streets and into the parlor of a beautiful blind artist who almost - but not quite - matches Walker wisecrack for wisecrack. Walker tumbles into a web of stolen designs, a bitter ex-wife, killers and snipers. Walker even has a shootout in a warehouse involving a vintage Packard and a prototype Model T Ford, takes a bullet in the head, and naturally, being cut from the same stuff as Chandler's Marlowe and Hammett's Continental Op, escapes from the hospital too early. Walker, who returned to print in last year's Never Street after a seven-year vacation, seems to be working overtime to make up for it. Welcome back.

A feature like this would be terribly incomplete without at least a mention of Walter Mosley, one of the best crime writers in this half of the 20th century. Mosley is the author of the Easy Rawlins series, which debuted with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. We were introduced to the likeable but complex character of Easy, a hard-headed but exceptionally resourceful working class African-American with Texas roots, working as an amateur detective in 1940s-era Los Angeles. Each book in the series, however, has moved up a significant notch in time (a true anomaly in the genre), with the fabulous Little Yellow Dog, published in 1996, taking place in the Sixties. Then, in 1997, Mosley published Gone Fishin', a novelette actually written prior to the other books in the series which traced Easy's early life in Texas and his troubled relationship with his father, and the beginning of his relationship with his homicidal pal, Mouse. Although interesting as a document of Mosley's evolution as a writer, Gone Fishin' could have used some rewriting before publication and certainly stands as the least successful of Mosley's books. Mosley's latest, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Norton, $23 hard), however, shows the author in top form again. This collection of linked short stories introduces a new character, Socrates Fortlow, a tough, brooding ex-convict who dispenses advice and philosophy from his two-room shack in present-day Watts. Like his namesake, Socrates is a wise man. He is also a fascinating character in a stark, brutal world where a moral code often seems as appropriate as a screen door on a submarine. One of the things Socrates continually ponders is the subject of atonement. Another is the need for dealing with a lifetime of rage by exercising restraint. At the end of his arms are twin reminders of the need for atonement and restraint: two large, powerful hands, often referred to as "rock breakers" - the same hands he used to kill a man and his lover - the act that sent him to prison for 27 years where, on occasion, he had to use those hands to brutalize and kill other men. As with his Easy Rawlins series, Mosley's bluesy, stripped-down prose brings a lyricism to this book that is a rare, special thing. If Socrates Fortlow wants to be a series, I say bring on the next one, Walter.

If you're burned out on America's mean streets, take a trip back to World War II in occupied France, where the detective team of Jean-Louis St.-Cyr (a French inspector with the Surete Nationale) and Hermann Kohler (a German Gestapo agent) investigate the "everyday crimes'' that tend to get overlooked in the shadow of more heinous goings-on. In Sandman (Soho, $12 paper), J. Robert Janes' latest entry in this brilliant and evocatively written series, St.-Cyr and Kohler are up against a serial killer in Paris who has just claimed his fifth victim, an 11-year-old convent school girl who was dressed in the clothes of her friend, an orphaned heiress. Tracking the so-called Sandman takes the team to the convent, a back-alley abortionist's joint, whorehouses, a collaborationist's mansion, and other tangled nests of despair. Through it all, the ongoing repartee between the two partners - which swings from strictly business to downright bitchy - plays like a mood-setting soundtrack in the background. Sandman showcases all of Janes' singular talents for detail and a richly drawn setting. Grim and seething with decadence, cruelty, and desperation, Sandman is even better than last year's Stonekiller.

L.A. Noir (Mysterious Press, $25 hard) collects all three of James Ellroy's Lloyd Hopkins novels in one volume. If it took the fabulous film L.A. Confidential to finally introduce you to the gruesome, dark, terminally corrupt Los Angeles as conjured by Ellroy, the contemporary king of noir fiction, now's your chance to get hip. Before Ellroy's epic L.A. Quintet of police procedurals (of which the novel L.A. Confidential was installment number three), before Silence of the Lambs and, even more importantly, before Rodney King, Ellroy was painting this scalding-hot portrait of the secret psycho-history of L.A., its now-famously corrupt, racist police department, and some of that institution's most proficient, most obsessed, most-lacerated-with-self-loathing cops. Plus the sickos they pursued. Lloyd Hopkins isn't always a likeable character, but as you see Ellroy work out his own tormented psycho-history (which he would later retread in the L.A. Quintet and finally come face to face with in the autobiographical My Dark Places), you can't help but empathize with the guy. After all, the creation of a writer who has spent most of his life tormented by a singular obsession for his murdered mother - a love-hate obsession that corkscrewed him into a youth spent as a doper, wino, petty criminal, and voyeur fascinated by cops, criminals, and other edge-dwellers - is gonna be carrying a lot of pent-up angst. As you get sucked into these phantasmagorias, you might start to feel dirty inside. That's okay. Nobody ever said crime novels are supposed to make you feel good about yourself or the world you live in.

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