The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

December 31, 2011

Fourth Annual Lowhead Dam Awards

As I've been off my reading feed for the past couple of months, I gave serious thought to skipping the awards this year. But I decided that would be grossly unfair to those wonderful titles I did read, never mind that I've spent the last eight weeks re-reading mostly old favorites that would demand nothing of me. My memory is faulty, yes, but here are the works I read this year that, for good or ill, are unforgettable.

The Give a Dam Award, intended for a classic published at least 30 years ago, goes unclaimed this year. I read plenty of books this year that were published more than three decades back, but none of them were new to me. So, moving on...

The Water Over the Dam Award honors both a book and the person who recommended it. Well, my favorite influence peddlar, Ken Bruen, cops a share of this award for making me aware of THE WOMAN WHO MARRIED A BEAR, by John Straley. This book won the Shamus Award in 1993 for Best First Novel, and deservedly so. The series deserves more attention than it ever got.

John Hart, a rare double Edgar winner, also takes a pair of Lowheads this year for IRON HOUSE. This book rakes in the Not Worth a Tinker's Dam Award, for the most overrated work of crime fiction, as well as the Dam Your Eyes Award, for the book most anticipated and least enjoyed. Don't bother looking for my review of this one, because I didn't bother writing one.

The Dam With Faint Praise Award for the best, most-overlooked - underhyped, if you will - work of crime fiction goes to a book that caught me off guard: TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS, by Gianrico Carofiglio, is a philosophical, introspective tale about a lawyer searching for a missing woman, and finding out more about himself than he bargained for.

And now for a trio of short-story awards. I fell way, way behind on my short-story reading once autumn arrived but still managed close to 200 stories this year, so I had a wonderful array from which to choose these excellent stories:

     The Dam Skippy Award (Online) goes to Patricia Abbott for THE PERFECT DAY, published at All Due Respect. This story about a day at the beach for a dysfunctional family hints at Flannery O'Connor-like clouds on their horizon. 

     The Dam Skippy Award (Print) goes to HAIRCUT, a classic story by Ring Lardner. Lardner may be better known for his writing about baseball, but this tale of murder, narrated by an unwitting small-town barber, is chilling.

     The Dam Skippy Award (Digital) goes to Eric Beetner for his story included in the PULP INK anthology,  ZED'S DEAD, BABY. The story is about a persistent enforcer who always, always gets his man. Dead or otherwise. A darkly funny tale, far and away my favorite in an anthology that includes stories from such talents as Reed Farrel Coleman, Allan Guthrie, and Hilary Davidson.

Oddly enough, not one of the winning stories came from the best overall anthology or collection I read this year, which was DISCOUNT NOIR, edited by Patricia Abbott and Steve Weddle. Hm, I may need to add another award for next year for the best anthology or collection.


And at last, the award for the best novel I read this year, the Hot Dam Award. Well, there's a long list of the possibles. In the order I read them, first to last:
The single book that was, for me, the best read in 2011 came down to a choice between Roger Smith's DUST DEVILS - a stellar book: graphic, moving, and meaningful - and the book on which I bestow the Hot Dam Award: Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING. Abbott steps away from classic noir to display an evocative, lyrical talent that captures all that is wonderful and frightening to an adolescent narrator caught up in the dark natures of the adults in her world. If you ignore everything else I recommend this year, don't miss this book.


As always, I owe a debt of endless gratitude to the authors, for their work and for their patience with this reader, who doesn't always "get it." I'll try to do better in 2012.

Happy New Year!

December 26, 2011

A VINE IN THE BLOOD by Leighton Gage

In the wake of the recent kidnapping of a major-league baseball player in Colombia, comes this timely mystery -- only I read the ebook last spring, so maybe 'timely' is the wrong word; perhaps I should have said 'prescient.'

Brazil's (and the world's) finest football player loves his mother very much. When she's kidnapped, he's more than ready to pay the ransom. Problem is, the kidnapping occurs just prior to the beginning of World Cup play. Could this be the work of rival countries hoping to destroy Brazil's chances of winning? Could the mind behind it be the player's own fiancee, a beauty with grasping hands and a heart of "cold"? Could the mastermind be the team owner, who desperately needs money? Or the mobster who wants to crush the team owner? The servants? The imprisoned criminologist who moonlighted as a kidnapper? The kidnap and ransom plans were designed by someone who has carefully planned each step, every tiny detail. Except one, and that single misstep leads to double murder.

It's always a treat when Mario Silva's team of federal investigators work a case. The characters are defined mostly by their dialogue, something that was more common among mystery writers of old (Erle Stanley Gardner, for example, and the great Dashiell Hammett), and author Gage makes that dialogue sparkle. While the repartee among the investigators, or between the investigators and the witnesses/suspects entertains the reader and furthers the story, it also does much to reveal the characters' underlying natures. From 'Baby Face' Goncalves to (my favorite) Silva's aide, Arnaldo Nunes, from incidental characters like shop clerks and park rangers to major players like the football star's fiancee and the criminologist, each character is so well-defined by his dialogue that physical descriptions are rendered almost unnecessary.

The story, as with all of the books in this series, moves along at gallop. I love that the author, while allowing his team to make use of forensics, never lets the story's pace or tension droop due to technical or scientific explanations. Forensics support the story; forensics are NOT the story, praise be! And Mario Silva and his team don't let any grass grow under their feet, but at the same time, each of them seems very human. No superheroes here, just cops getting the job done, cops with wit and personality.

With each book I also have the pleasure of learning more about Brazil. Gage does a great job of weaving this information so tightly into the threads of the story that it never feels pedantic or confusing, but is a fascinating and fundamental part of the story. If you haven't tried this series yet, it's okay to start here, with this book, because these books are easily read out of order. But read them, yes, I urge you. Read them now; thank me later.

On sale: 12/27/2011

December 25, 2011

HEADSTONE by Ken Bruen

Jack Taylor gets a small headstone in the mail. Well, he's the kind of guy that would happen to, isn't he? But when his friends -- he still has one or two -- receive similar items and then are subject to brutal assaults, Jack has to start sitting up, drinking down, and paying attention.

Is there any encomium I have not yet bestowed on Ken Bruen? If so, it's been a drastic oversight on my part. Bruen's writing goes from strength to strength. His ability to twist a plot is masterful; his pacing is precise; and his characters fairly leap from the page in all their rage.

Rebounding from his recent encounter with one kind of devil, Jack finds himself in the position of making deals with another. Body and soul, Jack will not come away from this case unscathed, nor will his friends, and even some of his enemies will be affected by the fallout. HEADSTONE may well be the most surprising -- shocking is not too strong a word --  story in the Jack Taylor series since THE DRAMATIST, and I think it is one that reveals Jack's conflicted soul better than any other.

As with virtually every book by Ken Bruen, HEADSTONE is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

December 22, 2011

TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS by Gianrico Carofiglio

Guido Guerrieri is hired to look into a missing person case. Not to investigate it, he's a lawyer after all, not a detective, but the parents of the missing young woman are afraid the police are about to close the case, so they ask Guerrieri to go over the details to see what the police might have missed. But he doesn't think they missed anything and he dreads having to tell his clients that he can offer them no hope. Instead he begins to interview the woman's friends and the few witnesses available, and slowly the imaginative Guido begins to unravel a tale of dark deceit.

TEMPORARY PERFECTIONS is not only the title of the book, it is the theme of the book, those moments of perfect happiness that we cling to as we live them but can barely recall as little as 24 hours later. But Guido remembers them in vivid detail, and author Carofiglio fills the story with Guido's reminiscences, temporary perfections (for only what is temporary, says Guido, can be perfect), each of which not only fulfills the theme but shines a brief light on the way Guido puts together the puzzle of the missing woman.

As a result of Guido's pauses to remember, the pace of the book is easy, as the lawyer gently teases out the facts of the case, but not dragging. Every moment spent in Guido's company is fascinating because he is a fascinating character. He's a successful attorney, a failure at relationships, and those two attributes should make this character just another of the same in a long line of such in contemporary crime fiction. Guido is different because he is literate, insecure, compassionate; in short, he's the kind of man most women would love to get to know but never will because he thinks of himself as Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character. When Guido makes a misstep it isn't because he is stupid or careless. He is not a stupid or careless man. His missteps occur because he is lonely and fallible. But those same two characteristics also provoke rewards that he sometimes sees and appreciates, and sometimes does not.

Carofiglio has crafted a poignant, witty, and literate mystery in this his fourth book in the Guerrieri series. The complexities and quirks of the Italian criminal justice system are made readily comprehensible, with no strain on the reader. The emphasis is on reasoning and the understanding of the human condition, so don't expect Guido to suddenly imitate Jack Reacher -- Guido is a warmer personality, and although he is a creditable boxer, the author does not use that skill as a device to put Guido in the position of being a physical hero. Instead, Guido's punching bag acts as a friend to him, a sounding board for his emotions and ideas. Credit translator Antony Shugaar for keeping the translation smooth, never using a misplaced idiom or a word that jars the reader into a state of disbelief. I'm looking forward to finding the earlier books in this series and spending more quality time with Guido.

Here's an excerpt that may help you understand why I find the introspective and well-read Guido so engaging:

It was just then that I realized something. A couple of hours earlier, I had assumed that when I read the file, I wouldn't find any new clues. And in fact, reading the file had only confirmed my suspicions. But I also assumed that I would then report my findings to Fornelli and the Ferraros, return their check, and get myself out of an assignment that I had neither the skills nor the resources to take on. It would be the only right and reasonable course of action. But in that two-hour period, for reasons I could only vaguely guess at and that I didn't want to examine too closely, I had changed my mind.

I told myself I'd give it a try. Nothing more. And the first thing I'd do would be to talk to the non-commissioned officer who had supervised the investigation, Inspector Navarra. I knew him. We were friends, and he would certainly be willing to tell me what he thought of the case, aside from what he'd written in his reports. Then I'd decide what to do next, what else to try.

As I walked out onto the street, with a studied gesture I pulled up the collar of my raincoat, even though there was no reason to do so.

People who read too much often do things that are completely unnecessary.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED