Books that didn't get the attention they should have

Crime Fiction

December 24, 2006|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to The Sun

This month's column, by definition, is a best-of list, but of a different bent. For the books I've highlighted might have flown under Sun readers' radar, published as paperback originals, by small but well-deserving presses, or simply neglected upon publication. They are, in short, overlooked books, deserving of fanfare and a wider audience.

Robert Ward made his first real waves in literary and crime fiction waters with 1985's Red Baker (recently reissued by St. Martin's Griffin, 202 pp., $12.95), a thoughtful, incisive account of a Baltimore steel worker's spiral into alienation, obsession and despair after he is laid off. After exploring other topics and genres in the intervening years, Ward returned with Four Kinds of Rain (St. Martin's Minotaur, 277 pp., $22.95), a most plausible noir that tracks Ward's psychiatrist protagonist down what seems to be an innocent path, only to morph into something scarier and more calamitous with every plot turn. The things we do for love, Ward shows us, turn out to be the worst decisions, with everlasting consequences.

Baltimore boasts many fine crime writers - no need to repeat familiar names in this paper - but one veteran deserving of far more due is Marcia Talley, who quietly pens one of the strongest amateur sleuth series going at the moment. In Through the Darkness (HarperTorch, 375 pp., $6.99) Hannah Ives, appealing breast cancer survivor sleuth, makes what may be her most gut-wrenching appearance, thanks to the kidnapping of her infant grandson Tim, taken from under his parents' noses. The ensuing investigation allows Talley to explore family relationships with a sharp eye, compassion and keen urgency that offers no easy answers but allows for hope and resolution.

Brett Ellen Block is another new-to-crime-fiction writer, as her previous work was of a more distinct literary bent. But with The Lightning Rule (William Morrow, 306 pp., $24.95), she treats the shopworn tale of a serial killer stalking a city with extra gravitas, partly because of her focus on character development but mostly because of her wise choice of setting: Newark, N.J., gripped by the 1967 riots. Block's abilities are in better evidence when she gets deep into the psyche of cop Martin Emmett and supporting players, but the moody atmosphere leaves a lingering quality that's reminiscent of the work of George Pelecanos.

Sean Doolittle has long been a favorite crime writer to both fans and fellow authors because of his astute combination of character, page-turning plot and rumination on goals and dreams tantalizingly out of reach. The Cleanup (Dell, 304 pp., $6.99) takes Doolittle to an even higher plane. Matthew Worth was once a cop, but now he's packing groceries at the local supermarket, falling for a girl with trouble written all over her, and soon in deep with all sorts of craziness from a body in a trunk to corrupt police officers to an ever-increasing number of secrets. Things spin gloriously out of control for Worth but never for Doolittle, who is in absolute command of every element and infuses this novel with a strong sense of wistfulness.

One of the genre's most intriguing developments is the infusion of supernatural elements. Who else but Charlie Huston, already known for his hyperviolent, adrenalin-laced noir trilogy featuring fallen baseball hero Henry Thompson, could come up with a private investigator who happens to be a vampire? While Thompson made his regrettably final bow in A Dangerous Man (Ballantine, 286 pp., $13.95), Joe Pitt looks to be around for a while to come after pummeling his way through the murky streets of a New York City infested by gangs of a distinctly undead variety. Begin with Already Dead (Del Rey, 266 pp., $12.95) and continue with No Dominion (Del Rey, 250 pp., $12.95).

A more comedic approach to vampirism came by way of Mario Acevedo's debut, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats (Rayo, 354 pp., $13.95), which is probably summed up best by its opening line: "Felix Gomez went to Iraq a soldier. He came back a vampire." What follows is decidedly good, unclean, unwholesome fun set in the thick of Denver's mountainous spaces.

Two of the best cross-genre debuts were penned by women. Sarah Langan stormed onto the new-wave horror scene with The Keeper (HarperTorch, 382 pp., $6.99), a beautiful, suspenseful novel of the hold a strange young woman has on an entire Maine small town that sets out to do exactly what it should: scare the reader with a combination of well-crafted prose and page-turning velocity. Likewise, Alexandra Sokoloff's The Harrowing (St. Martin's Press, 239 pp., $21.95) takes a familiar premise - five college students stuck in a haunted house - and adds a decidedly ancient mystic twist that ups the scare factor several-fold. The story wastes no words and is mercifully stripped of extraneous detail.

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