In olden times Loren Estleman would have been regarded as a master craftsman. He’s sixty plus books into a more than impressive career, setting the bar high in both the Western and the Private Eye genres, while also writing the occasional standalone as well as a couple other mystery series (Peter Macklin, Valentino). This outing is the 22nd in his Amos Walker franchise, the present gold standard for private eye mysteries. Sure, there are other private eye masters at work right now – Robert Crais, Steve Hamilton, and S. J. Rozan come to mind – but for the pure, traditional private eye experience no one can beat Estleman.
Guest reviewer Patti O’Brien is a long time friend of both Aunt Agatha’s and of mine. She is a librarian with a passion for reading and especially a passion for mysteries. Her library in Arizona is very lucky to have her!
Restless in the Grave is another terrific book by Dana Stabenow, who is one of my favorite authors. This book features both of Ms. Stabenow’s Alaskan series characters, Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell.
It is State Trooper Liam who indirectly contacts Kate to go undercover to solve the murder of a wealthy aviation businessman, Finn Grant. Grant had alienated almost everyone in his town by buying them out to turn it into a destination for hunters and other explorers of the Alaskan wilderness. Kate goes to work at the main bar in town, and manages to ask a few questions and is working on answers when things start to get a little too interesting for her. The apartment she is renting is searched, and as Kate interrupts that search, she is shoved into deep freezer. She escapes from that, but other situations occur to let her know she is being too nosy. It takes a few more near-misses for Kate to get to the bottom of what is going on and why Finn Grant was killed.
Mystery fans like to kvetch when an author takes a break from a beloved series in order to write a stand alone. At our signing for The Lock Artist, his fans practically wouldn’t let Steve out of the store until he promised that his next book would be an Alex McKnight.
But the fact is that there are many upsides to stand alones. One, of course, is the possibility that the book in question is an instant classic that, say, wins the Edgar award for best mystery novel of the year. (To put it in sports terms, Steve has now won the equivalent of Rookie of the Year and MVP.) Another is that writers are often able to return to their beloved series refreshed after a stand alone, gaining a new focus and perspective after stepping away for a while.
Ken Mercer wrote one of my favorite debut novels of last year, Slow Fire, about damaged cop Will Magowan who had taken on the job of sheriff in a tiny California town. It felt very new and original to me. In this outing, Mercer returns Will to LA, which simply by default is a less original proposition, already being seriously occupied by Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, among many others. Mercer has the chops of these better known folks, though, and his narrative skills are the equal to the big boys. The book has a type of creepy Marcus Sakey type premise (another writer Mercer has some kinship with). Will has returned to his wife as they continue to heal their damaged relationship after the death of their son, Will’s drug addiction and recovery, and his dismissal from the LAPD, something that continues to have a long tail in his life. The Sakey-esque part is taking the somewhat “normal” couple of Will and Laurie and introducing a stone psycho into their relationship and family life.
Winner of the prestigious St. Martin’s Private Eye Award contest, Kaufman joins other winners like Steve Hamilton and Michael Koryta with this novel. He’s a worthy addition to the roster. St. Martin’s has a definite niche in the marketplace – not as easy to define as the one occupied by Berkley’s dominance of the cozy sub genre – but an editorial bias is apparent in that they tend to publish books that embrace the quirky and original side of life, and their editors seem very fond of a well defined and unusual main character. Some of their heavy hitters – S.J. Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Julia Spencer-Fleming – all share this quality, but it percolates through to every Minotaur author in one way or another. And the defining quality of this debut novel is certainly the fascinating, troubled, and yes, quirky main character, Willis Gidney.
Some writers (and no doubt their editors) feel the need to begin a book with an ostentatious bang, something along the lines of a graphic torture killing or a dramatic explosion. True masters like Loren D. Estleman know how to ease into a narrative, gradually turning up the heat until things are at an irresistible boiling point.
This is one of my favorite outings in the Cork O’Connor series, a series that’s managed to continually surprise, captivate and compel a reader to continue to find out what’s happening in Northern Minnesota. As Cork’s family continues to heal after the death of his wife, Jo, in Heaven’s Keep, they are all enjoying a family vacation on a houseboat in the waters of the northern most point of the continental United States along with Cork’s sister in law Rose and her husband. Things are happy and serene–on the first six pages. Then all hell breaks loose.
With the passing of Robert B. Parker, the Private Eye (P.I.) genre took a big hit. There is Loren Estleman, of course, whose work only continues to mature and deepen, and the heir to Parker, Robert Crais, but other than that the P.I. genre is filled with talented flash in the pan writers who come and go. Happily, if you don’t want to turn to your tattered copy of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, there’s also S.J. Rozan, now 11 books in to her series alternating between the voices of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. This is a Lydia entry, Lydia being the Chinese- American daughter of a traditional Chinese mother who completely disapproves of her career choice. Also, she and her mother live together.
Deborah Crombie’s skills as a sophisticated novelist have only increased over time. What began as a standard, though excellent, police series based in London, has evolved into a series that’s richly populated with detailed, complex characters, vivid settings, and themes. She’s neck and neck with authors like P.D. James and Elizabeth George, though she doesn’t share their sometimes completely bleak viewpoint.
Deborah Crombie also often highlights something interesting about England in each book – in this novel, she’s chosen sculling, and the Oxford University rowing culture. Her victim is a cop who had Olympic aspirations – Becca Meredith – and who has been contemplating a last shot at the Games. She’s last seen out with her boat, and her ex-husband gets worried about her.