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The Jury Box

 By Jon L. Breen

There is never a lack of books. For each volume I pick to review in this column, there are a dozen others that I regretfully have to set aside. This month I had the chance to meet some new fictional sleuths and revisit several old friends.

Fuminori Nakamura, Last Winter, We Parted, Soho, $25.00. A journalist haunted by his own demons begins work on the biography of a death-row murderer. As he probes the nature of human passion, madness, and depravity, he uncovers a plot more twisted than any he’d imagined. His subject is a photographer whose obsession with fire, his older sister, and life-size love dolls led him to murder two young women. At least, there is filmed proof of the crime, and the suspect’s own tacit confession. The story evokes Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Hell Screen,” which are both frequently mentioned by the characters. The novel is deeply erotic and haunting, and climaxes with a shocking twist.

Joyce Carol Oates, Jack of Spades, Mysterious Press, $24.00. The fictional novelist Andrew J. Rush is known for clean, cozy, nonviolent mystery novels. What no one close to him knows is that he also writes dark, amoral noir thrillers under the name “Jack of Spades.” When a plagiarism suit is filed against Rush, his pseudonymous alter ego starts to take control, like Hyde to Jekyll, leading Rush into a series of bad decisions with tragic consequences. The novel’s style is innocently light, with an almost spritely gaiety reminiscent of Jack Finney, but the narrative has a dark undercurrent of madness. At first glance, Jack of Spades has echoes of “Secret Window, Secret Garden” by Stephen King (who is frequently referenced in the novel). Both feature troubled authors leading double lives—and incidentally, both King’s character and Oates’s are, like Oates herself, frequent contributors to EQMM. But Oates’s novel stands on its own, its stark portrayal of paradoxes making for a thoughtful thriller that was hard to put down.

John Connolly, The Wolf in Winter, Atria, $26.00. In Portland, Maine, a homeless man whose daughter has gone missing musters up the funds to hire P.I. Charlie Parker. But he dies—an apparent suicide—before he’s able to contact the detective. Parker nonetheless takes the case pro bono, and the trail leads him to Prosperous, a town bound to an ancient, Lovecraftian, evil. Parker is absent from the action for a solid third of the novel, but his various friends and associates, and several of his enemies, more than adequately fill in for him. Connolly’s writing straddles the worlds of detective fiction and horror so skillfully that his books featuring private investigator Charlie Parker appeal to readers of both genres.

Rob Brunet, Stinking Rich, Down and Out Books, $16.49. Toronto author Brunet has had numerous short stories appear in anthologies and periodicals such as Crimespree and Thuglit. His story “The Hunt” appeared in the February 2015 issue of EQMM. This debut novel is a wild romp in which a likeable but hapless anti hero makes a series of bad choices that set him on the wrong side of two outlaw gangs. Danny Grant is a high-school dropout who sinks his cash into booze, cigarettes, and a local casino. But after he accidentally kills his gambling buddy with a baseball bat, another friend is arrested with a trunkload of the high-grade marijuana Danny was hired to grow and protect. Then the rest of the crop goes up in flames. Colorful characters and entertaining situations will lead to comparisons with Carl Hiaasen and Bill Fitzhugh.

Jane Haddam, Fighting Chance, Minotaur Books, $26.99. Haddam’s series character, former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian, gained the moniker “the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot” for good reason. Like Christie’s character, Demarkian is an insightful and observant sleuth who surrounds himself with helpful friends and associates, and who, once he has determined who is responsible for a crime, might gather all the suspects for a dramatic denouement. In the twenty-ninth Gregor Demarkian novel, a judge known for her harsh sentences and for taking bribes is beaten to death with her own gavel. A video appears on the Internet purporting to show the murder, and Demarkian’s best friend Father Tibor Kasparian is the man holding the bloody gavel. Haddam succeeds in writing a mystery not only with a good, old-fashioned fair-play plot, but with fully fleshed characters and a unique cultural background.

Judith Janeway, The Magician’s Daughter, Poisoned Pen, $14.95 (PB) $24.95 (HC). Street magician Valentine Hill is a mystery to herself. She never knew her father; she was lied to by her con-artist mother and exploited for her con games. Valentine doesn’t even know her own age. During a performance on the sidewalks of Las Vegas, Valentine is robbed of her earnings. She pursues the thief to San Francisco where, with the aid of a handsome cabbie, she finds herself enmeshed in one of her mother’s crooked games. Or is it? Nothing is quite what it seems, and soon the young magician finds herself part of an FBI case. The story is light and the style sprightly, but offers plenty of action and surprises.

I’ve used previous columns to point out connections between the arts of mystery fiction and magic. Both art forms use surprise, misdirection, and revelation to entertain. Clayton Rawson, a founding member of Mystery Writers of America as well as a managing editor of this magazine, was an artist in both fields. Like the Judith Janeway novel reviewed above, several recent mysteries feature magicians as protagonists. The Bullet Catch by John Gaspard (Henery Press, $15.95 PB; $31.95 HC) is the second novel featuring magician Eli Marks in an adventure that brings him as a consultant to a movie set, and to a deadly high-school reunion. The book is filled with accurate and interesting bits of magical lore. Last year Kathryn Leigh Scott introduced readers to Meg Barnes, an actress who once played magician’s assistant Jinx Fogarty on a television series. In Scott’s new novel Jinxed (Cumberland Press, $12.78), Meg is back, working as a consultant for a television series, and must draw on her magical knowledge and skills when someone from her past is murdered. Gigi Pandian has two new novels: in Quicksand (Henery Press, $15.95 PB; $31.95 HC) historian and occasional magician’s assistant Jaya Jones travels to France where an enigmatic ninety-year-old magician assists her in solving a murder; in The Accidental Alchemist (Midnight Ink, $14.99) Pandian introduces readers to an Oregon herbalist who unwittingly acquires a living, breathing gargoyle that once belonged to the French magician Robert-Houdin. The Body Snatchers Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini (Forge, $25.99) may not have a magician, but the nineteenth-century San Francisco team of Carpenter and Quincannon confront two separate cases of missing corpses, and a detective who calls himself Sherlock Holmes.

Kate White, editor, The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook, Quirk, $24.95. I’m predisposed to liking cookbooks, especially nicely designed and lavishly illustrated ones. But this particular culinary reference is exceptional. More than a hundred recipes are provided by mystery authors along with details about the authors and their characters, and connections between recipes and fictions. Contributors include Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, James Patterson, Bill Pronzini, and too many others to list by name. The book features Scott Turow’s “Innocent” Frittata, Louise Penny’s Tourtiere (meat pie), and a carrot-soup recipe by Twist Phelan that involves Thai red curry and an apple-pear chutney. The fictional Richard Castle contributed “Morning After Hotcakes.” Actress Adrienne Barbeau provided a twist on stuffed grape leaves. Gigi Pandian contributed a caramelized onion dal recipe. Charles Todd, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (before turning to crime) provides his recipe for Chicken Oscar Roulade with Chesapeake Sauce Hollandaise. The book also includes a section of dessert recipes by Gayle Lynds, Diane Mott Davidson, Laurie R. King, and John Lutz, among others. Spread throughout are color photographs and a sewn-in silk bookmark.

 © 2015 Steve Steinbock

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