Thriller breaks the usual rules

fresh take from first-time author

Crime Fiction

October 31, 2004|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

Winter House

by Carol O'Connell. Putnam.. 312 pages. $23.95.

Reading a crime novel involves a contract of sorts; the reader expects entertainment and edification while the writer endeavors to create order out of chaos. Reading a book by Carol O'Connell, however, is like being challenged to a duel: a thrust here, a parry there to make some sense of the plot's fragmented logic and psychological complexity along with NYPD Detective Kathy Mallory's feral, near-sociopathic personality. Such mental gymnastics leave the reader completely spent, yet begging for another round, and soon. With Winter House, Mallory's eighth starring turn, O'Connell serves up the requisite pieces -- an unusual stabbing by ice pick, a nearly six-decades-old massacre, a creepily dysfunctional family, a long-missing girl's unexpected return, a hyper-stylized Manhattan, and Mallory's unorthodox investigation methods -- and twists them beyond recognition into another enjoyably idiosyncratic tale. O'Connell is often considered to transcend genre, but it's more accurate that she's earmarked a piece of genre territory for her very own. If most crime fiction is like tonal music, O'Connell's novels are akin to serialism -- an acquired taste made more palatable by an astounding command, then gleeful breaking, of the usual rules.

Tonight I Said Goodbye

by Michael Koryta. Thomas Dunne Books. 304 pages. $21.95.

A few decades from now, when Michael Koryta is well established as a top crime writer, few will remember that his first book was published before his 22nd birthday. But for now, critics like me will make constant mention of his precociousness because he has produced what few thought possible -- an incredibly fresh PI novel when the subgenre had been long declared fatigued, if not comatose. Familiar ingredients like a dry-humored protagonist (Cleveland-based Lincoln Perry), uncooperative cops, a dead PI and his missing wife and daughter, shady Russian mobsters and a rich man who'll go to any length to protect his interests are mixed with intelligent prose, appealing characters (both good guys and bad) and an excellent balance of plot twists and story development. Tonight I Said Goodbye scores points by never underestimating the reader's ability to guess ahead and all plot points, though unexpected, are never farfetched. Koryta, winner of the 2003 Private Eye Writers of America's Best PI Novel contest, emerges fully formed in his first effort. With increasing maturity and experience, imagine what he'll deliver in several books' time.

A Gentleman's Game

by Greg Rucka. Bantam, 384 pages. $23.95.

Greg Rucka successfully lives a double life as a novelist (including last year's standalone A Fistful of Rain) and a comic book writer (Whiteout, Elektra). Now he combines the two halves with the launch of a new series of spy novels starring MI6 Minder Tara Chace, the heroine of his best-selling Queen & Country comics. The result is a smart, dizzyingly paced thriller that's tinged with well-placed emotional depth. When the London Underground is rocked by terrorism to the tune of 372 lost lives, Chace is dispatched to Yemen to take out the culprits, but the mission goes awry when she kills the wrong man. The resulting international incident pits her agency vs. the Security Service, the CIA and incensed Saudi terrorists out for revenge. Chace is to be the sacrificial lamb, handed over to the Saudis in exchange for the prevention of worse atrocities. How Chace, a difficult blonde who makes Alias' Sydney Bristow seem like a damsel in distress, outwits, outsmarts and outplays her enemies and former friends is only part of what makes Rucka's eighth book so entertaining; it's her attitude toward love's promise and destruction that keeps the reader riveted. Though A Gentleman's Game doesn't quite rise above broad brushstrokes, it's an extremely enjoyable read.

Find Courtney

by Melissa Clark. Bridgeworks Publishing, 224 pages. $23.95.

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