Staff Picks - February 2015
McCallum, David, Once a Crooked Man, Minotaur.
Yes, this is a first novel by Ilya Kuryakin, one of the secret agent heroes in the iconic The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series of the 1960s. I expected an espionage novel but got a kitchen sink, with American gangsters, a Brit with IRA enemies, Latin American drug dealers, gun-running, and Harry Murphy, an innocent young American who puts his life at risk by trying to do the right thing. Overhearing a murder plot against a military hero, he flies to London in an effort to save him, gets a million and a half dollars shoved into his hands, and becomes embroiled in so many plots and sub-plots it would take Napoleon Solo to unscramble them. Sometimes accidently, sometimes deliberately, Murphy single-handedly takes on virtually the entire criminal organization, wreaking more havoc that Interpol, MI5, and the FBI could have done. The breakneck pace, alternating action, suspense, and slapstick comedy, will remind some of a Donald Westlake novel, and an early review compared McCallum to Ross Thomas. No, I knew Ross Thomas, and he’s no Ross Thomas, but it would be difficult not to like Harry and this zany plot. I’m told that Mr. McCallum will stop by to sign copies, which is a real thrill for those of us who loved the TV series that inspired, or was inspired by, the James Bond movies and novels. $25.99
Melton, H. Keith, Ultimate Spy, DK.
This is the expanded version of a handsome, over-sized book, heavily illustrated in color throughout. Provides everything one needs to know in how to become a spy, descriptions of the latest spying equipment and techniques, with historical coverage of famous spying operations and those who carried them out. A great browsing book. $25.00
Dunn, J. Allan, The Crime Master, Altus.
Although I am boringly straight, I love master criminals. Raffles, Fu Manchu, Lester Leith, Hannibal Lecter, and their kindred souls fascinate me. The pulps were filled with them, and I just discovered “the Griffin,” who refers to himself as “the Crime Master.” Overly purple prose, unbelievable secret weapons, lush private quarters, loyal henchman, ruthlessness, and, most important, utter genius, are standard for stories of these thieves and killers and—I can’t help myself—I like them. Fortunately, each of them has a worthy adversary—clean cut, athletic, equally brilliant, and that is true in this series. This is a three-volume collection of the 31 stories that appeared in the pages of Detective Fiction Weekly, mainly in the 1930s. Vol. 2 is titled Day of Doom; vol. 3 is In the Grip of the Griffin. Trade paperbacks, $19.95 each.
Coleman, Reed Farrel, Where it Hurts, Putnam
Emotionally raw, but stylistically tight, Reed Farrel Coleman’s new novel has all of the hallmarks of a breakout bestseller. Balanced by just the right amount of action and smart-ass dialogue, Where It Hurts is a modern take on the PI novel that pays homage to the old school, but doesn’t get bogged down trying to replicate it. Gus Murphy is a man in pain. After the loss of his son and the dissolution of his family, life hardly seems worth living. He’s abandoned his career as a detective and lives out his days in an airport hotel. When an ex-con asks for his help in solving the murder of his own son, Gus’s initial reaction is to blow him off. But when he’s caught in late-night shoot-out and warned off the case by his former colleagues on the force, Gus throws himself in the mix. Before long he’s off on a crooked trail of deceit and casual violence, as well as the chance at a new life—or an early grave. Fans of Coleman’s earlier novels featuring Moe Prager will be delighted with this new series, as will newcomers who are tired of the same old thing. Signed. $27.00
Robinson, Bruce, They All Love Jack. Harper.
One of the most infamous unsolved mysteries has finally been solved (though likely not for the last time). Among the usual suspects we have Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria's grandson, the painter, William Sickert, John Pizer, a boot-finisher, Kosminski, an unfortunate simpleton, and Dr. Gull, an epileptic elderly doctor and recovering stroke victim. After fifteen years of research, beginning with a bet, Mr. Robinson concludes that, far from being a mystery, the perpetrator of the murders was obvious—or would have been, if not for a massive cover-up engineered by London elites.
At the core of the cover-up, Robinson argues that John Maybrick, a popular singer and highly successful songwriter, and a member of the Supreme Council of Freemasons, committed the ghastly Ripper murders. To this end, covering an extraordinary amount of ground, the author tears apart Inquest hearings, Coroner's reports, police, doctor and witness statements and shows the killings continued even after Scotland Yard claimed they had stopped. This is a huge book, over 800 pages, and the author does not shy away from interjecting his own contempt and anger at the authorities for their willful failure to protect the public and bring a madman to justice. Robinson provides ample evidence to support his theory, and, in the process of doing so, provides one of the most through studies of Jack the Ripper in recent memory.
Anyone interested in the subject should find this a fascinating, infuriating, but always entertaining read. Highly recommended. $35.00.
Finch, Charles, Home by Nightfall, Minotaur.
London in 1876 can be a daunting place, but the detective agency of Charles Lenox is thriving despite competition from a rival. The city is abuzz over the disappearance of a noted German concert pianist, who vanished after a performance, and who better to investigate than the former MP and proprietor of the first detective agency in London? But while he is delving into the matter of the musician Muller, a strange series of seemingly petty crimes are occurring at Markethouse: thefts of books, blankets, even animals. Things take a more alarming turn when a local insurance man’s home is broken into, at which point Edmund Lenox, current MP, journeys to London to enlist his brother Charles to return to the homestead and investigate. Are the two situations related? And to what extent is Edmund’s status as a recent widower clouding his judgement? Can Charles Lenox solve two cases at once, before either turns deadly?
Rob’s MysteriousPress.com Favorite
Bruen, Ken, The White Trilogy, MysteriousPress.com.
The White Trilogy collects three novellas by Ken Bruen (A White Arrest, Taming the Alien, The McDead), painting an in-depth noir portrait of London’s seedy underbelly. It mostly follows the gleefully volatile Detective Sergeant Brant, an all-timer in the category of “good guys who aren’t really good.” I’d be very surprised to learn that Brant didn’t serve as a loose inspiration for Idris Elba’s character on the BBC series Luther. At very least, they share a spiritual bond.
No one writes like Bruen. He’s in a class by himself—a mad Irish poet whose sentences are sharp and fast, loaded with humor and, often, melancholy. Besides the Jack Taylor books, this is considered one of his best works, and deservedly so, relentlessly whipping between laughs and brutality. This collection also provides one of my favorite Bruen lines: When Brant describes the Irish sport of hurling as “a cross between hockey and murder.” Paperback: $24.99; eBook: $12.99