Amateur detective Sam Wiseman seems to have the perfect day job for investigative talents in Richard King's engaging first novel, That Sleep Of Death (Dundurn, 304 pages, $11.99, paper, ISBN: 0888822294). Sam sells books in the vicinity of McGill University. A good bookseller appears to have the same skills as a good detective¨ "clever questioning, an ability to absorb and retain details about lots of different books, intuition, and sometimes inspired guesswork."
When one of his academic clients, Harold Hilliard, is bludgeoned to death in his college office with the bust of Hegel, Sam is certain he can play helpful sidekick to the professional on the case, Detective Sergeant Gaston Lemieux. Lemieux brings an interest in books to the relationship since he has a taste for Dickens. Wiseman and Lemieux make an ideal team.
Shakespeare, a rare volume on the history of England, and a computer theft all appear in the "nest of vipers" the bibliohunting duo encounter in the history department of McGill. When Hilliard's laptop goes missing, the hunt is on to figure out what might be on the hard drive that a murderer would want to conceal. If academics are involved, can blackmail, betrayal, and deception be far behind?
A whole range of secondary characters is fully developed¨from the usually docile office secretary to a set of romantically involved graduate students and the customary culprits among colleagues. The consequences of past transgressions, including a student/professor affair, may have more salacious interest for the faculty but readers will also find a rigorously rewarding police procedural matched with the nature of an entertaining cozy.
Don't be misled by the garish comic book cover, the coy title or the disarming pseudonym of the first novel by Hartley GoodWeather, Dreadful Water Shows Up (Harper Flamingo Canada, 234 pages, $32, cloth, ISBN: 0002005107). It's apparent from the get go that this charming debut by a "well-known Canadian writer" (there's a cleverly disguised gumshoe photo on the inside back jacket) has been skillfully conceived and executed.
After Ora Mae Foreman, realtor for the Buffalo Mountain Resort in a northwestern state, finds a corpse in a condo, she calls Thumps Dreadful Water. Thumps has two hobbies¨golf and photography. He learned golf as kid in Eureka, California, but it's his photo habits and his former employment as a police officer that connect him to crime scenes. This time, his involvement is also personal. Stanley "Stick" Merchant, a teenaged anti-condo rebel, is the son of Claire Merchant, head of the tribal council and Thumps's sometimes paramour. Claire asks Thumps to find Stick before the law does; as a Cherokee, Thumps knows Stick might not stand a chance with the authorities.
Culture clashes with tradition when Thumps discovers that the Japanese programmer who was shot in the chest has ties to a data systems organization, a casino complex, and suspicious money transfers. Thumps has conflicted sensibilities when he comes upon what he thinks is a medicine bag hidden in a cave. Is he a traditional or an assimilated native American?
In a distinctly comic vein worthy of Tony Hillerman or Janet Evanovich, brisk dialogue combines with a tight plot and colorful characters for a series of unexpected pleasures and delights in this accomplished mystery. Let's hope that Dreadful Water shows up again and again.
Death On The Rocks (Dundurn, 271 pages, $19.99, paper, ISBN: 1550023810) is a typical cozy based on a disputable birthright. There is little action and less suspense in a plot that is guessed early and easily. This second in the Lucy Trimble series (the first was Death Of A Sunday Writer) is not nearly as engaging as Eric Wright's Charlie Salter books.
Forty-year-old pottery sales woman Greta Golden thinks she is being stalked. She hires 50-year-old P.I. Lucy Trimble to find out who is following her and why. Trimble learns soon enough that British detective Michael Curnow is seeking information on Greta for a client in England. As expected, Trimble and Curnow become an unlikely duo and set off on the same path with different goals. Can hints of romance be far behind?
Death On The Rocks splits down the middle. Half of it takes place in Toronto; half, in England. The story, too, seems split in half. The Toronto scenes are set up to give the necessary background information concerning a 100,000 pound inheritance from a previously unknown relative.
After Lucy arrives in England, she finds herself deeply entrenched in a Christie-like adventure complete with midwives, bodies jumping or falling or being pushed from cliffs, witnesses with conflicting accounts, and countryfolk unwilling to offer up any information except for the sake of confusion.
At every turn, in Cambridge, at Stonehenge, in Dartmoor, Lucy finds Michael five steps behind or ahead of her. Everyone bumbles along to the final resolution about the question of parentage which never quite seems an important enough question in this passable foray into cozy territory.
In the strictest sense, Andrew Pyper's The Trade Mission (HarperFlamingo, 293 pages, $34.95, cloth, ISBN: 0002005085) is not a mystery. It is a gritty literary thriller. As with That Sleep Of Death and Dreadful Waters Shows Up, a computer figures into the plot. Unlike those two novels, however, the computer is simply a catalyst for a novel that also examines heady topics like greed, ethics, and individual choice.
Two hot-shot dot-commers, Marcus Wallace and Jonathan Bates, both 24 years of age, have been joined at the hip, heart, and brain since they were inseparable companions as boys at school. Bullied by everyone, including the prefects, they were once left to survive as best they could during an Outdoor Orientation Exam in the middle of the Canadian woods in winter with "marbles" of snow around them.
Years later, as "boy geniuses of Canada's Great White Web," Wallace and Bates travel to the heat and steamy rain of the Brazilian rain forest in the trade mission of the title to pitch their "vaporware", a software that doesn't do anything. Their package is called Hypothesys; it "helps you make the best decision of your life!" They are accompanied on their business and moral journey by a world-weary managing partner, a pregnant lawyer, and the narrator of the novel, Elizabeth Crossman.
Crossman is an inspired choice for narrator. An enigmatic character, she is the translator for the team. The only one who speaks Portuguese, she is both overqualified (with a Ph.D. in Economic History) and "chronically underappreciated." Crossman's version of the events that happen to the Brazilian 5 contributes to the darkly ironic temper of the novel.
The Trade Mission reads like a three-act film script. There's the initial sales pitch for Hypothesys. There's a suspicious sort of kidnapping¨an eco trip down the Reo Negro river goes badly awry when the team of five is captured by pirates. And there's an ultimate escape from a tribe of "secret people", the Yanomami, which turns the whole novel into a life-altering experience and moralistic adventure tale.
The motives for the kidnapping aren't clear. Is it to get information about a "perfect bomb" that Bates whispers about to a brothel queen? Or is the horrific sequence of torture predicated on a mistake? Were the pirates meant to capture a Canadian envoy which included the Prime Minister on another boat on the river?
It hardly matters. Pyper uses allusions to Conrad's Heart Of Darkness to explore the moral dilemmas winding beneath everyone's skin. Wallace, Bates, and Crossman endure the jungle's "body of lush malevolence" and learn about misplaced values, greed, and the promise of the discovery of the true self.
The Trade Mission is a compulsive read about a devastatingly grueling physical and mental journey.
Martin S. Cohen's Heads You Lose (Ekstasis Noir, 314 pages, $19.95, paper, ISBN: 1896860931) is an unexpected pleasure full of surprises.
The blurb on the back may seem a bit off-putting with its recommendation for "fans of Biblical decapitation tales." But maybe that was written by a publicist with the same tongue in cheek which pervades the narrative voice of thirty-four-year-old Biblical scholar Saul Jacobson.
Saul finds himself in a bit of a life-challenging pickle when he comes up "wifeless, kidless, brotherless, and jobless." His wife, Helen, has left him for the gardener's brother; she's taken their 6-year-old daughter, Lena, with her to Australia. Younger, admired brother Wil hanged himself a few years earlier. Saul carries a burden of guilt because he wasn't able to fulfill Wil's last wishes to have his head frozen for posterity. And Saul has just been made redundant by the university where he taught the Bible as Literature.
As a result, in a peaked mood, Saul decides to drive away from Vancouver in his blue Camaro. On the road between Barrymore and Stanhope, he picks up 19-year old hitchhiker, Dave Kruger. Dave is "sullen, liked sweet coffee, and his mother had drowned herself." En route to Winnipeg to visit Dave's feisty 53-year-old grandmother, Abigail Kleist, a vixen with plenty of sex on her mind, David and Saul have a series of Pulp Fiction-like escapades at Denny's, Eve's Kitchen Table, Peg O' My Heart CafT.
Biblical decapitation tales (Ahab's sons at the Gates of Samaria; Sheva ben Bichri; Absalom, Amnon, and Tamar; King David; the Midianite boys; David and Goliath) become a running theme and something of a running gag as the novel hums along. Cohen does an exemplary job of incorporating the stories into the road trip without making them cumbersome intrusions or trail markers to parallel plot lines. He often provides contemporary variations on the scriptural texts¨giving Goliath's David a hip wardrobe of a "Vancouver Canucks hat, a tank-top, cut-off denim shorts and Air Jordans"; adding rape and murder to a story to give it more zing. You can make up your own projections about how a bowling bag might fit into a severed head scenario.
Everything ties together as this modern David and Saul saunter across Canada, developing a friendship despite becoming accomplices in a hideous crime related to David's past. Suffice it to say there are enough disjointed heads in this swift read to make your own roll with laughter.
Don Atkinson's Haudenosaunnee (Trafford, on demand publishing, 232 pages, $, paper, ISBN: 1552126811) is a political thriller without many of the thrills. It addresses the hot button issue of peoples of the First Nations and is best read as a primer or cautionary tale about the probable consequences when they come head to head with the established government.
Chief Superintendent Kevin Mowry of Ottawa once wrote the definitive text on terrorism (International Terrorism: Its Place In A Post-Cold War World) as his doctoral dissertation. And therein lies much of the problem with the novel. It often reads like expository prose and the characters suffer from being manipulated by the designs of the plot. A "word from the author" at the front of the book notes that research discovered during the writing of his first novel, Nations Within, occasioned a "perceived need" to follow-up on a sub-plot related to "the refusal of the First Nations of Quebec to go along peaceably with the province's unilateral declaration of independence that helped to defeat the move and keep the Canadian federation intact."
Mowry's dilemma is trying to figure out the actions of a "well-trained, well-equipped guerrilla force," the Haudenosaunnee Brigade. While that issue drives the novel, the story line is best when Atkinson focuses on the personal, family level of the characters¨issues between Mowry and his son, his ex-wife, and other romantic entanglements. The terrorist threats eventually lead to a final explosive resolution that is easily foreseen early in the book. An ironic conclusion portends possible future problems with an ongoing topic.
Like Cohen's Heads You Lose, Daniel Quinn's entertaining metaphysical thriller, The Holy (Context Books, 419 pages, $24, paper, ISBN: 189395630X), is based on a Biblical theme. The chilling premise raises the question of whether or not old pagan gods have become the demons of modern times. Is it possible that "false" gods once known as Baal, Ashtaroth, and Moluch, now exist under various guises?
This is the challenging assignment former private detective, 61-year-old Howard Scheim accepts from ailing 73-year-old millionaire Aaron Fisher.
Scheim and Fisher are members of a Chicago "social club for Jewish men of a certain temperament." As Howard hunts down the demons, Quinn enlists a quirky cast of secondary characters including a teenage clairvoyant, a tarot reader with remarkable prescient powers, a covey of warlocks, and a closetful of shapeshifters living in various parts of the United States.
What at first appears to be a separate narrative thread involves the Kennesey family of Runnel, Indiana. Tired of living a "Dick and Jane life,"42-year-old educational publisher David Kennesey abandons his wife, Ellen, and their 12-year-old son, Tim. In an imaginative riff on Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken, David Kennesey, eager to get off the beaten track, tries to recover a wrong turning in his life that began in childhood. Ellen and Tim soon follow in hot pursuit from Indiana to Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.
While Ellen loses Tim at a remote gas station, David becomes a gambling legend in Las Vegas. He breaks the bank at a third rate casino and eventually ends up in Taos, New Mexico, at a Poe-like manse overseen by a nefarious beauty, Andrea de la Mare. Andrea lives amidst opulent furnishing and artifacts but doesn't seem completely of this world. Howard, David, Ellen, and Tim cross paths several times before the novel turns on an epiphanic moment for Tim at the de la Mare house.
The Holy sometimes looks like "elaborate rigmarole" when Quinn seems to have taken his eye off the main plot and left it wandering in the desert like some of the characters. But the metaphysical tarot card trip from The Fool's "blithe young traveler" to The Magician's "seen it all, come through it all" attitude amounts to a swift, intriguing read, well worth the journey.
John Colapinto's About The Author (Perennial, 254 pages, $19.95, paper, ISBN: 0060932171) is a clever bit of literary contortionism. It's a cunning biblio-thriller that takes a satirical wink at the publishing world.
Twenty-five-year-old bookstore stock boy Cal Cunningham and Columbia University graduate law student Stewart Church share more than an apartment in Manhattan. Both aspire to publishing a novel¨one secretly, one openly.
The problem is that Cal, the overtly vocal advocate of writing, never actually writes anything. Stewart, who keeps his goal quiet, does. Cal is not so quiet about his personal life and his nighttime sexual conquests.
Stewart, of course, appropriates most of Cal's tales for the novel he's working on.
When Stewart is killed in one of those bizarre midtown cab-bicycle accidents, Cal discovers Stewart's manuscript, Almost Like Suicide, and pawns it off as his to the city's hottest brashest literary agent, Blackie Yaeger. Cal thinks he's home clear until he learns that one of his one-night stands knows the dark secret.
There's also an ex-girl friend of Stewart's, Janet Greene, a private school teacher and painter living in northern Vermont, who might have a copy of the manuscript. The novel takes an offbeat romantic turn when Cal and Janet marry. Everything seems cozy until the forgotten one-night stand shows up to blackmail Cal. The plot gets a bit convoluted in a "web of interlaced deceit" involving an international drug deal and "intimation of disaster" with echoes of the film A Place In The Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
Unlike most self-referential novels, however, About An Author never loses sight of the farcical nature of many of those books. It's delectable fun watching Cal squirm his way out of his mounting dilemmas. Duplicity pays off¨almost¨in this fine debut novel which engages all the literary sensibilities of both author and reader. ˛
Robert Allen Papinchak lives in the Seattle, Washington, area. An active member of Mystery Writers of America, he has chaired sessions at Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and other mystery conferences. He taught the British Crime novel in London and published essays in the Edgar-winning Mystery & Suspense Writers (2 vols., Scribners). He reviews mysteries and other fiction in numerous national publications.