In an ideal world (but that's venturing into Uncle Hugo's territory) you'd be discovering the highly recommended No Human Involved by Barbara Saranella (Aug. St. Martin's, $22.95) while the first printing was still available. Poof! It was gone. Along with Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings, another excellent first novel by St. Martin's ($23.95), it was certainly the quickest sell-out of fall '97 at Uncle Edgar's. Except the Dying is a historical mystery, with gothic and English overtones, featuring a detective's search for a killer in l895 Toronto. Both titles are awaiting a second printing. But this being the season of hope and faith (okay, charity too) I'm confident we'll see both back in the store soon. No Human Involved in a way is a The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly story. Young Munch Mancini (short for Munchkin among her other aliases) is splitting Venice, California l977. Prostitute, heroin addict, and talented car mechanic, she's wanted by homicide detective Mace St. John for putting five slugs into the face of low-life "Flower George". And she's one of The Good guys.
St. John is divorced, caring for an ailing father, breaking in a new partner, and bucking for lieutenant: "I think what we got here is a clear case of AVA, NHI." St. John said. Cassiletti looked confused. "Asshole Versus Asshole, No Human Involved," he grinned at the detective. "What say we call it a day?"
His pursuit of Munch (and he virtually had her in his hands 'til she wriggled away) is complicated and intensified when it connects with another case --- the hunt for a sadistic serial killer. It's an investigation St. John has been warned to stay away from.
All the characters in No Human Involved are marvellously drawn, and it accomplishes the trick of being a genuine page-turner while lacking in action. I also found it interesting that setting details were understated considering that Venice in the late seventies must of had its share of color. Comparisons can be drawn to another lost favorite, Robert Leininger's Killing Suki Flood (which disappeared without seeing a U.S. paperback).
Though not in time for Christmas, the fascinating Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber is well worth consideration at any time. First published in France in '91, the translation is appearing from Bantam early February ($23.95). It actually flirts with several catagories. Empire of the Ants is very much a mystery and detective story, and a good case can be made that it features the most unusual investigator trio in current fiction. Still, the title most properly belongs at Uncle Hugo's.
Two stories are told in the third person with alternating chapters that dovetail towards a satisfying climax.
When Jonathan Wells (I wonder if that was his name in the French version) inherits his black sheep uncle's large basement apartment in Paris it comes with a single ominous proviso: ABOVE ALL, NEVER GO DOWN INTO THE CELLAR!. But when the family poodle disappears through the cellar door he goes after it, like Alice following the White Rabbit, and soon vanishes. Then, one by one, his wife, his son, and various rescuers also disappear.
At the same time, spring warmth rouses a dormant nearby ant colony. When a troop of exploring ants is mysteriously wiped out the lone survivor sets out to warn the queen and discover the nature of this frightening new weapon. Things complicate when the queen proves to be disturbingly unresponsive to the alarm.
Werber, a science journalist who has studied ants for many years, brilliantly portrays a complex alien world that lies at and beneath our feet. He includes at the end an informative glossary and useful list of "dramatis personae" (though I found ants as individuals dramatically lacking in personality). Empire of the Ants incorporates many appealling plot elements which mesh just fine. In addition to being a mystery and detective story, it's also a mad scientist and cautionary tale. There's death and war, sex without romance, conspiracy (with the ant equivalent of Men in Black), exploration and discovery of the furthest boundaries, gothic touches like "family in jeopardy" and dark secrets but without the atmosphere, and to say the least the clash of civilizations.
Comparison to Watership Down is fair (though again, it seems rabbits have more personality). But the most significant thing both titles have in common is each succeeds as an adult novel while also having great appeal to a younger reader. A good mystery will always teach the reader a little something, and Empire of the Ants goes well beyond. From the preface: In the few seconds it will take you to read these four line: S 40 human beings and 700 million ants will have been born on earth. S 30 human beings and 500 million ants will have died on Earth. Like I said, a cautionary tale. And you thought you just had to be worried about African killer bees. Recommended.