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The Jury Box

 By Steve Steinbock

I’ve said it in the past but it bears repeating: Historical mysteries tend to be of a high caliber. The rigor of research weeds out most mediocre writing. On the downside, unfamiliar settings and obscure jargon can be a turnoff to many readers. But for those willing to take the journey into times past, the genre provides a lens to virtually all periods of history. Several of the titles reviewed this month are set in periods of recent memory, but before the advent of mobile phones and personal computers.

Kris Nelscott, Street Justice, WMG Publishing, $18.99. Set in Chicago in 1970, in the shadow of the Chicago Seven trial and the police killing of two Black Panthers, this is Nelscott’s seventh novel featuring Smokey Dalton. When Smokey tracks down the man who raped his teenage niece, he finds a brothel for “training” underage prostitutes, with ties to the mob and to the Chicago political machine, located next door to a junior-high school. In a shaky alliance with a street gang and a feminist group, Smokey serves justice to a broken system. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, writing as Kris Nelscott, has created a memorable group of characters in Smokey and his adopted family and friends. The storytelling is gripping and emotionally charged.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Enemy Within, WMG Publishing, $18.99. Also by Rusch is this alternative-history thriller set in 1964 New York. A New York detective and an FBI agent vie for control after the bodies of J. Edgar Hoover and his longtime companion Clyde Tolson are found outside a gay club, victims of a well-executed hit. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, still reeling from the assassination of his brother, seeks Hoover’s “blackmail” file before it can be used to damage the government’s credibility, the public’s morale, and the Kennedy reputation. Written in a tight, clipped style, the book has a plot that is complex without being complicated. A highly recommended political thriller.

Anne Emery, Blood on a Saint, ECW, $24.95. Emery’s series set in Halifax in the 1990s is as intelligent as it is entertaining, with rich interplay between series characters Father Brennan Burke and lawyer/blues musician Monty Collins. Miraculous claims at a statue of St. Bernadette draw an onslaught of press, gawkers, and hawkers to Father Burke’s church, and force him into a televised showdown with a combative talk-show host. When the talk-show host is accused of murder, Burke and Collins approach justice from different trajectories. The writing bustles with energy, and with smart, wry dialogue and astute observations about crime and religion.

Reed Farrel Coleman, The Hollow Girl, Tyrus Books, $24.99. Coleman’s series featuring Moe Prager has meandered back and forth through multiple decades in the life of the ex-cop, ex-P.I., Brooklyn wine dealer. The latest book is set in present day New York, when the case of a missing womandaughter of an old flame—pulls Prager from the depths of drunken self-pity. The missing woman is a former video-blog performance artist whose staged suicide hoax led to controversy and ignominy. Coleman’s writing is among the best. His dark probings are as profound as they are profane.

Reavis Z. Wortham, Vengeance is Mine, Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95 (HC), $14.95 (TPB). A reluctant Las Vegas mob enforcer tries to make a clean start by going on the lam—along with the daughter of his former boss—settling as newlyweds in the town of Center Springs. They be-friend the local constables, but everything turns into a screwball mess when they are recognized by a crooked sheriff, and a team of inept mobsters arrives. Nobody knows which way is up, except perhaps for a troubled thirteen-year-old orphan from whose perspective much of the story is told. Wortham is a masterful and entertaining storyteller. Set in East Texas in 1967, Vengeance is Mine is equal parts Joe R. Lansdale and Harper Lee, with a touch of Elmore Leonard. 

Gigi Pandian, Pirate Vishnu, Henery Press, $15.95. Pandian’s first novel, Artifact, gained attention when it earned her the Malice Domestic Grant. Her second book featuring history professor Jaya Jones is set in modern-day San Francisco and southern India, as well as San Francisco in the early 1900s, and takes its academic sleuth on a quest for Indian treasure and family secrets. Hours after bringing an old treasure map to Jaya, a retired lawyer is murdered.

The story is fun, romantic, and filled with action. It also features an interesting juxtaposition of a modern stage mag-ician—Jaya’s friend Panjay the “Hindi Houdini”—and a Gold Rush– era spiritualist con man.

Adrian McKinty, The Sun is God, Seventh Street Books, $15.95. McKinty tends to set his books in the 1980s, during The Troubles of Northern Ireland. But in The Sun is God, he looks at an unusual case involving the leader of a German religious cult on a New Guinea island in 1906. Following his involvement in the Boer War, British officer Will Prior leads a convalescent life in colonial German New Guinea until he is called on to investigate the suspicious death of a member of the Sonnenorden colony, a nudist, vegetarian, sun-worshipping cult. With echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this concise but eloquent novel is based on historical events.

It disappoints me every time I encounter someone who doesn’t know the name Ellery Queen. So I was pleased to discover that in the past year and a half, Blackstone Audio has adapted more than forty of the original Ellery Queen novels as unabridged audiobooks. I had the recent pleasure of listening to Robert Fass’s reading of Ten Days’ Wonder and Mark Peckham’s narration of The Murderer Is a Fox. Blackstone has by now exhausted most of the canonical Queen novels (those featuring the titular author/sleuth and his father Inspector Queen) as well as the four Drury Lane novels. During the next year, the publisher is scheduled to release dozens more Ellery Queen short story collections, Ellery Queen, Jr. books, and nearly every title written under the house name of Ellery Queen. I hope that these audiobooks serve as a gateway to a new generation of Queen devotees.

I’m also pleased to announce that McFarland Books has published a volume of essays edited by Curtis Evans, each pertaining to aspects of classical detective fiction, to serve as a celebration of Professor Douglas G. Greene’s 70th birthday (Mysteries Unlocked, McFarland Books, $45.00). Greene is the founder of Crippen and Landru Publishers and a world authority on John Dickson Carr and locked-room mysteries. The twenty-five essays in the volume include chapters by Peter Lovesey, Jon L. Breen, Michael Dirda, John Curran, and Martin Edwards. I wrote the book’s foreword and contributed a chapter on magician and locked-room mystery author Hake Talbot.

 © 2014 Steve Steinbock

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