Delving deeper to uncover 2004's overlooked gems

Crime Fiction


December 26, 2004|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

As 2004 draws to a close, newspapers have been printing their lists of the year's best books. Some titles may appear frequently; others less so. I, too, will jump on the "best of" bandwagon, but most of the books listed in this column will likely not appear elsewhere. These are the crime novels flying under the radar, published as paperback originals or by small but well-deserving presses. In short, they are overlooked books, deserving of extra fanfare and a wider audience.

Peter Craig's first claim to fame is his lineage, but the son of Sally Field should be recognized for his own merits, on tremendous display in Hot Plastic (Hype-rion Books, 320 pages, $12), a thoughtful examination of a complex father-son relationship wrapped up in the structure of a caper novel. Jerry and Kevin, the duo in question, are con artists, traveling throughout the country making money off others' misfortune. Then the teenage waif Colette enters their lives, assuming a double role as Jerry's lover and Kevin's peer, and each relationship undergoes subtle yet critical changes as the ultimate con looms large. If the ideal crime novel combines character depth, a tight plot and a strong voice, then Craig's second effort comes awfully close to achieving it.

Character and plot are certainly at the forefront of Nichelle Tramble's The Last King (Striver's Row, 304 pages, $12.95), but what truly sets this novel apart is its sense of place. Oakland in the early 1990s was fraught with economic downtown and class distinction, and as ex-baseball prodigy Maceo Redfield returns after a two-year absence to aid an old friend accused of murdering a high-end escort, those differences seem even more pronounced. Redfield must navigate the minefield of his past, the conflicting aims of his friends and family, and face off with an old nemesis. Tramble's sense of empathy never wavers and her writing lyrically evokes the city's sights and smells.

For those in search of more far-flung locales, Peter Guttridge's debut, No Laughing Matter (Speck Press, 260 pages, $13), moves from Montreal to Edinburgh to Los Angeles as disheveled London journalist and active yoga enthusiast Nick Madrid investigates murder and mayhem at various international comedy festivals, stopping only to make pointed satirical observations about his sexual failures and the crazy people he meets. Guttridge's series, five books in all, is among the funniest and sharpest in the genre, with a level of intelligence often lacking in better-known fare.

Wit and irony also make themselves known in A.C. Baantjer's DeKok and the Geese of Death (Speck Press, 194 pages, $13) featuring a grizzled Amster-dam-based policeman. He and a younger, brasher partner (think Dalziel and Pascoe) get mixed up with a haughty society matron, dead geese, and her conniving family members who drop dead one after another. A consistently ironic tone adds a delightful sheen to this well-told procedural tale.

While Keigo Higashino's Naoko (Vertical, 288 pages, $14.95) has comic elements, they move beyond satire into seriously weird territory that many of Japan's best crime novelists are disturbingly comfortable with. Heisuke, a Tokyo-based factory worker, leads an uneventful life, but all that changes after a ski bus accident that kills his wife, Naoko, and leaves daughter Monami in a coma. When the girl wakes up, she speaks and acts like her mother -- and knows things that only Naoko could know. What begins as a satire on family structure slowly evolves into a psychological horror show as Heisuke's confusion over his daughter-wife develops into stalking and jealous possession. Naoko is a disturbingly uncomfortable read, but a fascinating one as well.

Those looking for cozier fare are well-advised to look more locally. Columbia-based Chassie West's series starring ex-D.C. cop Leigh Ann Warren has been showered with award nominations for good reason: The books are infused with warmth, lively characters you'd want to meet and an unhurried pace. The long-awaited fourth entry, Killer Chameleon (HarperTorch, 368 pages, $6.99), has all of those traits, as well as one of the most unhinged psychos in recent memory, whose goal is to stalk Leigh Ann, derail her wedding plans and destroy her life -- and possibly kill her. West has stated in interviews that she finds plotting to be "as hard as pulling an impacted wisdom tooth" but there's no evidence of any difficulty here.

Noir fans have a number of new sources to seek for excellent fiction, old and new. Thanks to the Feminist Press, two of Dorothy B. Hughes' novels are back in print. The Blackbirder (272 pages, $14.95) is an unnerving tale about a female spy whose bravery is in her normality, while In a Lonely Place (260 pages, $14.95) redefined the serial-killer novel before the sub-genre existed, and might even be better than the famed film-noir movie it spawned.

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