by Fred Burke
Killers, detectives, the quest for truth -- these are are the staples of the crime novel. I first dove into the earthbound whodunnit as a child, following the adventures of Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators, the Boxcar Children, and the ever-present Hardy Boys. The serial nature of these books appealed: an unchanging cast of characters against a backdrop of new (and dangerous) problems. From there, it was a pleasure to graduate to Agatha Christie's meatier fare, and I've returned to Dark Carnival's Mystery shelves from time to time, taking solace in the simple to-and-fro of a well-told tale.
There is something deeply satisfying in these entertainments -- rewarding to the intellect, stimulating to the heart, and, when the eyes grow heavy, soothing to the body as well. Of necessity, the villains stir our darkest cravings while the heroes encourage us to seek the finer virtues. We can have our cake and eat it too.
In these recent selections, eight fine writers explore the shadows, taking us into anarchy and -- on most occasions -- returning us safely to our reading lamps and bedside tables.
- The Hellfire Club by Peter Straub
- Growing Light by Martha Conley
- Pentecost Alley by Anne Perry
- The Cactus Garden by Robert Ward
- Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram
- Blackburn by Bradley Denton
- North of Montana by April Smith
- Dragonfly by John Farris
The Hellfire Club
by Peter Straub (hardcover $25.95)
The Hellfire Club could be a wonderful serial killer novel -- if it wasn't so much more -- but the gleefully sadistic Dick Dart is only one layer of this scrumptious confection. First there's a literary puzzle, then a historical mystery, then a dysfunctional family intrigue, then a nerve-wracking pinch of The Fugitive. . . my God, this one's got it all!
Nora Chancel is Straub's appealing heroine, a self-possessed underdog in a world of rich publishers, nebbish editors, curious policemen, and mysterious novels. As her marriage falls apart, she stumbles upon a secret that could destroy her husband's family --
-- before stumbling into the arms of a horrific rapist/murderer who rivals Hannibal Lecter on the perverse quirkometer. Now Nora's every moment is fraught with terror, but, goaded on by a tenacious desire to know the truth at all costs, she unravels, thread by thread, the dark heart of Hugo Driver's classic novel "Night Journey."
Somewhere along the way an elegant theme emerges, touching the crucial nexus between truth and fiction, between the stories we tell and the stories we live. Straub is in perfect form here, with a bestseller that could rival Ghost Story in its innate appeal. Don't wait for the paperback.
by Martha Conley (paperback $4.99)
I defy anyone to find more entertainment for his or her dollar than in Growing Light, the debut mystery from Martha Conley. Conley's take on Northern California is dead-on, and her setting -- a New Age computer company -- enables her to skewer two sacred cows with one banderilla. Growing Light proves that cynical laughter and murder are an intoxicating combination.
Anne Munro is Conley's sweetly courageous heroine, entering the job force as a technical writer at Growing Light, whose gardening software integrates weather patterns, sunlight, temperature range, and the gardener's astrological info to "attune" garden and gardener in perfect bio-synch. The brainchild of George Ashby, Growing Light reflects the Haight-Ashbury side of his persona, a daft cover for the heartless cruelty with which he runs his personal life.
That life doesn't last long, and just about everyone could be the killer. But who?
As simply pleasing as the plot synopsis sounds, the actual ins and outs of the crazy workforce at Growing Light provide a pell-mell river of fun twists -- and the ending is rewardingly unexpected.
Which brings us to the best part of mystery novels: in this genre, when a captivating writer gives us a fun heroine and rich setting, we are almost always blessed with a sequel. I'll be waiting.
by Anne Perry (hardcover $22.95)
Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt are much-loved in the mystery pantheon; the husband-wife team combines the hard-edged heroics of a London police Inspector with the Victorian histrionics of a socialite busybody. The formula must work -- Pentecost Alley is the latest in a series of sixteen novels.
I picked it up on the basis of that proven track record -- better late than never, right? -- and Pentecost Alley definitely satisfied. No previous reading is required to enjoy the tale, a potential problem with a series, and Perry brings Victorian London, complete with its stratified society and language, to rich, captivating life.
The grim, fetishistic murder of a Whitechapel prostitute is the starting point for a politically delicate investigation, and Pitt is called in to defuse the situation when the son of a prominient citizen becomes the prime suspect. That's all well and good, but things really get entertaining when Charlotte's sister Emily enters the action on page 74, bringing along the prime suspect's sister for a bushel of gossip and decadent suspense.
Next time I'm looking for perfect bedroom reading, I'll confidently curl up with another Anne Perry book.
The Cactus Garden
by Robert Ward (hardcover $22.00)
Heavy weaponry and undercover DEA action are at the heart of this Hollywood humdinger, from a writer whose Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues experience are all to the good. The Cactus Garden is rich with interdepartmental politics, wild gangsters, and the decaying sprawl that is Los Angeles. It's also a dangerous romance that touches at the heart of loyalty, love, and betrayal.
Charlotte Rae Wingate is the bombshell B starlet who sets the pulses of both DEA agent Jack Walker and cheapo furniture king Buddy Wingate to pounding. But Walker and Wingate have other antagonisms which hide beneath the surface: Walker is set to bust Wingate for massive drug trafficking, if the DEA man's cover holds up long enough.
Wingate is a great crime figure, painted in the gaudy strokes of Ian Fleming while captivatingly down-to-earth. Wingate gives The Cactus Garden a heaping share of cool gimmickry, scary theatrics, and over-the-top cruelty.
Ward's mastery of the 180 degree turn makes the plot a thrilling ride, and his sharp dialogue is always a pleasure. Anticipate at least one movie -- and maybe more -- from the arrogant Jack Walker, a gritty hero for our times.
Father of Frankenstein
by Christopher Bram
A worthy successor to Sunset Boulevard, this novel is a telling study of the last days of the man who brought Frankenstein to the masses: director James Whale. Whale's Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein hid their messages of the plight of both the atheist artist and the homosexual outsider in the rivetting images of a maniacal scientist and his lurching, pathetic experiment. Now Bram recreates the mind of the director, who died of unnatural causes in 1957, and, in the process, injects a stunning note of suspense into a tale with a necessarily foregone conclusion.
Bram excels in bringing to life the greatest shots from Whales' films; his prose descriptions had me racing to Movie Image to reacquaint myself with these movies, which took on a whole new depth for me. Bram's research, as outlined in the Author's Note, is impeccable, and he drops names like Garbo, Manchester, Cukor, and Laughton with aplomb: Whale couldn't care less, but Bram's supporting cast of characters (mostly fictitious) is invariably awed.
But what makes Father of Frankenstein a triumph is neither its whodunnit set-up or scholarly underpinnings. The heart of the book is its piercing portrait of a very flawed man: an artist who struggled to win battles but in the end lost the war; a genius who has allowed love to turn him bitter, and fame's fleeting glories to mire him in cynicism. With astonishing clarity, Bram gives us a picture of death, worship, and memory -- a picture well worth contemplating.
by Bradley Denton (trade paperback $12.00)
Its chapters alternating between snippets of Jimmy Blackburn's past and brutal recreations of his victim's final moments, Blackburn presents us with an amiable and almost justifiable serial killer, a true product of the American heartland. At times as uproarious as A Confederacy of Dunces, the bitterness of Denton's satire is compelling, forcing a deeper look into the crazed culture and legitimized lying that is rotting America to the core.
Chapter One, "Blackburn and the Blind Man," would hold its own in the pages of The New Yorker, and the episodic nature of this novel is part of its charm. Blackburn's practicality in planning and covering up his crimes seems, well, normal -- and the tension Denton creates by this device feels fresh and rather friendly.
Of late, many writers have tried to make us privy to the pathological whirrings within the mind of the serial killer (American Psycho springs to mind), painting with stark brutality the cold cruelty of the sociopath. Denton eschews this previously covered ground, exploring instead a quirky, even kindly, sort of killer. It's a book you won't soon forget.
North of Montana
by April Smith (paperback $6.99)
It may feel a little early to be discovering the perfect summer novel, a page-turner made for the beach and guaranteed to keep you happy during the worst plane trip, but North of Montana is here, ready to be packed next to the suntan lotion and mirror shades.
April Smith's first novel rides the mean streets of Santa Monica, where Hollywood glamour rubs up against a constantly ballooning underclass -- a potent melting pot just begging to boil over into murder.
Agent Ana Grey is in it up to her eyeballs: internal F.B.I. politics, racial identity, tempestuous desire, family obiligations. And we're in it with her, as Smith's fine first person narration gives us every twist and curve of this smart and sexy detective, a character sure to have Hollywood's finest leading ladies in a catfight for the movie role.
There's not a slow page in North of Montana, but, more importantly, there's not a cardboard character, either. And Smith utterly avoids what was surely a temptation: to leave Ana Grey in a status quo, ready for serialization superstardom. It's both gutsy and compelling the way Ana must take on the urban issues that make Los Angeles so complex, and she is certainly not unchanged for the experience.
Get to know April Smith's work now -- she's a household name waiting to happen.
by John Farris (hardcover $23.95)
I'm only halfway through Dragonfly, and already I've seen two other completely different novels that could have come out of the intricacies of John Farris's plot. The central core -- a handsome conman who becomes the man of your dreams, only to abscond with your cash -- is grabber enough, but Farris isn't content unless he's wowing you with a new turn -- and a new heartwrenchingly violent episode -- every fifty or so pages.
I've already been overturned by the moral ambiguities of the tale (I'm rooting for the bad guy) and now Farris introduces a heroine equally worthy of my affections. My guess is that Abby Abelard, romance writer extraordinaire, will become the main antagonist, but, as I've mentioned, Farris has proven me wrong twice so far, so I'm not making any bets.
Part of the charm of Dragonfly may be the way Farris plays fast and loose with time, darting with aplomb from episode to episode as he sees fit, with no need for chronological tyranny. But it's Farris's attention to detail, like Stephen King's, that roots the suspense in a very real world...and makes us believe every word.