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Newsletter #66 June - August, 2004

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        What is realized after reading William Lashner's Past Due (Morrow $24.95), the fourth crime novel featuring Philadelphia criminal defense attorney and investigator Victor Carl, is that the title has not just double but multiple meanings. Foremost being that Lashner may be "past due" to break out of the mid-list and into the bestseller rank.
        Victor is very likable, ambitious, and wisecracking, but definitely not hard-boiled. He gets teary-eyed on more than a couple of occasions. His two-partner office is also seriously in debt; ("And did I mention they shut off cable? How is it possible to lead a meaningful life, I ask you, without the Golf Channel?"). When life-long petty criminal and ex-client Joseph Parma confesses to Victor his secret involvement in a twenty-year-old murder he also intimates there's a cash windfall in sight. But the next night Joey Cheaps, as he's known by all because he owes everyone money, is found murdered on the waterfront with Victor's card in his pocket.
        So Victor, always fervent about seeing justice done, has a new client. Though of course the departed Joey Cheaps not only can't pay what's past due, but is in no position to pay for Victor's subsequent and dangerous murder investigation.
        With occasional help from his partner Beth, and retained P.I. the ugly but very professional Phil Skink, Victor's trail leads to a long roster of well-fleshed characters and suspects. All seem to be escaping their past, hiding their past, or trying to recover their past. There's the charismatic drug dealer, known dead but whose body has never been identified. His schoolmate best friend, who is now a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice with a protective clerk and a problematic wife. A bar room full of blue collars all of who Joey owed money to. Cops, gangsters, and a retired FBI agent who festers over an unresolved case. The cute Kimberly Blue, whose improbable name, age, and title are eclipsed by her ditzy manner. A few other mysterious women --- all femmes and some more fatale than others. And others.
        There are also three McGuffins; a suitcase overstuffed with cash missing for twenty years, a provocative set of nude photos of a faceless woman (which Victor begins to obsess over), and a collection of lost journals.
        Perhaps most intriguing is a personal subplot which, like glue, holds this long (472 pages) first person narrative together. Victor's chronically angry and all-but-estranged father is in the hospital painfully surrendering to resistant pneumonia in anticipation of lung reduction surgery. In fits and starts during each visit, he insists on telling his reluctant listener of a son a terrible secret story from his own past. It serves as an effective counterpoint within the novel.
        Past Due is successfully constructed; and well-balanced between character, plot, dialogue, and event. It's gritty without being bleak, and leavened with touches of humor without being cute. Though it may not be quite the breakout book the publisher hopes, it's likely you're past due to meet Victor Carl yourself. Fatal Flaw, Bitter Truth (Veritas), and Hostile Witness are available in paperback. Readers should find them rewarding.

        Soho Press, publisher of a long and notable set of international mysteries in hardcover and trade paperback, has been on a bit of a roll. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear won this year's Agatha and was nominated for both Edgar and Dilys awards, while Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel won the Edgar for Best First Novel. With the addition of the very solid police procedural The Dragon Man (early Aug. $23) by Garry Disher, first published in Australia in 1999 and an Arthur Ellis Award nominee and recipient of the German Crime Fiction Critic's Prize, they can say they have another winner.
        It's hot, dry, and Christmas is coming to an economically depressed coastal town just south of Melbourne, Australia. And there's a serial killer cruising the Old Peninsula Highway. Within a week one young woman has been found raped and murdered, and another has disappeared. Plus a badly needed influx of tourists is due. Roving senior homicide investigator Detective Inspector Hal Challis and his team of men and women police officers rush to apprehend the killer before there's another victim.
        As they check links between victims, look for patterns, and collect forensic evidence, complications arise. These include a rash of aggravated burglaries, a pyromaniac vandalizing mailboxes and a gypsy seer with a small child running a scam. There are good cops, bent cops, and cops having conflicts between the job and their personal lives.
When the killer starts sending provocative and threatening notes to a local newspaper reporter, who publishes them, the stakes are raised. Events rush to a climax when the still unsuspected killer snatches the daughter of one of the investigating team.
        You perhaps would think that "Dragon Man" is the moniker the paper lays on the serial killer. But it's actually the hero's nickname --- though only used and known by one very minor character. Challis has a distinctive method of self-therapy that he practices to relieve the stress of his job and his uniquely nasty marital situation. He's restoring a 1930's vintage de Haviland DH84 Dragon Rapide airplane. A task that he knows will take years --- which is just fine with him.
        The Dragon Man is the first in a series featuring Hal Challis and is a straightforward third person narrative without gimmicks or florid language. Its strengths are in the setting and character portrayal. Disher may be known to some as creator of the Wyatt crime thriller series. Wyatt is a hard-boiled and pitiless heist-artist --- a kind of Aussie version of Richard Stark's anti-hero Parker. Detective Inspector Challis will prove to be more popular with men and women. And therefore more commercial.

        It was a distinct pleasure to have author (and professor of medical law at Edinburgh University) Alexander McCall Smith drop in at Uncle Edgar's April 29th to say hello and sign stock. Soft-spoken and very gentlemanly, he was in the midst of his tour promoting The Full Cupboard of Life ($19.95) the fifth of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. The series is a genuine worldwide publishing phenomenon and we were fortunate to be one of two strictly unannounced stops in the Twin Cities in addition to his formal signing appearance at a here-unnamed chain bookstore that evening.
        Before Mr. Smith departed for his interview on the morning show at Minnesota Public Radio it was nice to provide him a moment's delight by being the one to inform him that Ian Rankin had just won the Edgar for Best Novel for Resurrection Men ($6.99). Rankin is a close neighbor of his in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's somewhat amusing that Rankin's Inspector John Rebus series is virtually the polar opposite of Smith's Precious Ramotswe books. The one is dark, hard-boiled, more action-filled, and quite western-urban. The other is low key and charming, generally non-violent but not quite cozy, and very African.
        I'll stop short of individually reviewing any of the five titles. They really don't need my push to get them noticed, having enjoyed many laudatory critical citations and tremendous word of mouth success. It's probably best to read them in order beginning with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency ($11.95). The "traditionally built" Precious is a sensible woman who often demonstrates a cunning and deep understanding of human (African) nature. Her investigations ("Satisfaction Guaranteed For All Parties") form a string of subtle vignettes against a backdrop of Botswana's wide open spaces. The reader experiences the financial ups and downs of Precious' business, her growing circle of friends and contacts, and her developing relationship with J. L. B. Matekoni --- mechanic and proprietor of Tlok weng Road Speedy Motors.
        Alexander McCall Smith is the author of over fifty books covering a wide range of topics --- fiction and non-fiction. Fans can look forward to the start of a new series this September when The Sunday Philosophy Club ($19.95) is released. It will feature Isabel Dalhousie, editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, who's a bit of a meddler and especially fond of problems both moral and philosophical.

Mystery Reviews
by Gerri Balter

        Murder Room by P. D. James ($25.95) refers to a room in the Dupayne, a private museum, which has artifacts from notorious crimes that took place in the past. A week after Adam Dalgliesh visits the museum, tow people are murdered there. The first murder victim is one of three siblings who owns the museum. He wants to sell. His other two siblings want to keep it going. His refusal to go along with them would mean the museum would have to close. The second victim is a young girl who seemingly has no connection to the museum. As always with P. D. James novels, we learn all about the suspects along with the detectives who are working the case, especially Adam who is in love and wonders if the woman he loves returns his affection. There is no way to find out until the cases are solved. So Adam is more determined than usual to find out the truth.

        Hanging by a Thread by Monica Ferris ($6.50) begins a week before Halloween when Betsy Devonshire finds out that Foster Johns, the general contractor she hires to find someone to fix her roof, is believed to have murdered his lover, Angela Schmitt, and her husband Paul. Betsy doesn't believe that Foster Johns is guilty of the crimes. When he asks for her help in finding out the truth, she willlingly tries to help. At first all the clues seem to point to Foster. Yet Betsy finds little inconsistencies that lead her to believe that someone else might be guilty. It takes all her sleuthing skills to find out the truth.

        Barnburner by Sharon Lee ($16.00) is a mystery that takes place in a small town called Whimsey, Maine. Jennifer Pierce goes to Whimsy to settle her aunt's estate and ends up moving there. She has had several jobs before coming to Whimsey. Since she arrived she has worked as a nerwspapter reporter. When she goes to her first barn raising, she finds the body of Reverend Stern. He had opposed the barn raising because the barn belongs to a couple who are Wiccans. The main suspect is one of the Wiccans, a man named Scott Ash. The local sheriff arrests him because Jennifer sees him run away before she finds the body. She feels sorry for Scott's wife, Merry, and looks into the case. It turns out that the Reverend wasn't such a nice person. Even his wife isn't sorry he's dead. When Jennifer gets too close to the truth, the murderer decides to silence her permanently and she has no one to help her. She has to depend on herself and hope that will be enough to save her.



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