By Jan Burke. Simon & Schuster, 464 pages. $25.
When conversation turns to evaluating the best female crime writers, Jan Burke's name is too often omitted. It's an unjust fate, as she has steadily improved with each novel since introducing intrepid California journalist Irene Kelly to the landscape back in 1994. But Bloodlines, with its meticulous plotting and epic tale spanning six decades, is unlike anything Burke has attempted before; the novel's success lies in its grounding in history - both real and created. Told in three parts, the story hinges on a 1950s-era cold case starring the Ducanes, a wealthy society family presumably lost at sea while their young son Max simultaneously turns up missing, possibly murdered. The investigation (and the changing face of forensic evidence) is a focal point, but more important is the nature of loyalty and mentorship in all forms, from the professional to the personal, altruistic or evil. It's a pleasure to meet Kelly as a young journalist, struggling to prove herself in a sexist newsroom and learning lessons that she will impart to young upstarts several decades later. Bloodlines is a brilliant exhibition of what the crime genre can offer, and should be a front-runner for major awards.
Valley of Bones
Michael Gruber. William Morrow, 448 pages. $24.95.
Michael Gruber pulls off the schizophrenic feat of being both a veteran and new writer. He spent more than a decade ghostwriting the best-selling legal thrillers of his cousin Robert K. Tanenbaum, but solo aspirations led to an acrimonious split. The result, like 2003's Tropic of Night, is an ambitious foray into the nature of evil, African culture and the clash of the rational and the irrational. When Miami PD detective Jimmy Paz is called to the murder scene of a visiting businessman, his job seems easy, what with a suspect at the scene who's ready to confess. But Emmylou Dideroff is no usual suspect, a seemingly deranged religious fanatic with a tumultuous past she needs to chronicle on paper and whose presence leads to more mysterious deaths. Gruber cooks up a fine plot, but his main focus is on challenging the reader with insight into the plight of the Sudan, multiple viewpoints and flashbacks and creating fully formed characters. Although somewhat overlong, Valley of Bones is a fine example of a writer on form, who takes genre conventions and bends them to his will.
Peter Moore Smith. Little, Brown & Co. 338 pages. $24.95.
It has been nearly five years since Smith challenged readers with a first-person omniscient (!) narrator in his Edgar-nominated debut Raveling, but he makes a welcome return with yet another quirky, unreliable protagonist. Angel Veronchek has several strikes against him - an albino with extreme photosensitivity and a history of mental illness, he lives alone in a seedy L.A. apartment with a half-finished screenplay, a cabinet full of prescription drugs, and Blade Runner looping endlessly in his DVD player. Then Angela moves in the apartment next door, quickly befriends (and beds) him, and quickly disappears - or did she? Angel takes it upon himself to find out what happened but ends up challenging every assumption he has had, any relationship he has made, and his past experiences and future aspirations. Los Angeles takes the detective story framework and adds a decidedly hallucinatory spin. The potential for contrivance is great but never gets close thanks to Smith's beautiful, articulate prose and his unerring empathy for his lead character. This is a strange, wonderfully jarring psychological thriller - one I won't soon forget.
Stella Rimington. Alfred A. Knopf. 365 pages. $24.95.
Several former spies have tried their hand at espionage fiction with great success (think Le Carre and McCarry) but Dame Rimington trumps all in the credentials department, having served as the chief of Britain's MI5 in the mid-1990s (experiences recounted in her memoir, Open Secrets). Such background lends expected authenticity to her debut novel, but her storytelling abilities (aided by Luke Jennings) are a welcome and delightful surprise. MI5 agent Liz Carlyle is the epitome of a confident professional, born to her job and smart enough to keep her emotions under control. All her professional and personal resources will be tested with the news that an "invisible" - a nondescript foreign national using a fake UK passport - has infiltrated the country with the intent of launching a terrorist attack. The mystery deepens when a Norfolk dockworker is murdered - with special grade ammunition linked to the suspected terrorist plot. As Carlyle investigates, with the help of her organization and the combativeness of her MI6 competitors, the "invisible" sets a deadly plan in motion. At Risk's well-worn plot is elevated by a consistently brisk pace and professional tone.
David Fulmer. Harcourt. 352 pages. $23.