By Robert Crais, Putnam, 343 pages, $28.50
Robert Crais’s superb novels starring Elvis Cole and Joe Pike separately command plotlines that always seem original. Now, 15 books in, they’re hunting together in Taken, one of Crais’s best yet.
The central plot involves illegal immigration into the United States, but then goes off in a very different, scary direction. Nita Morales hires Cole to bring home her errant daughter, Krista. Krista has disappeared with her boyfriend, Jack Berman. Nita has had a ransom demand from “kidnappers.” She assumes that Krista and Jack are setting her up. Elvis is to find the kids and set them straight.
But Krista and Jack aren’t playing possum. They’ve been snatched by bajadores, criminals who prey on other criminals. These kids are in deep trouble and, when Cole tries to get to them, he’s also taken. It falls to Joe Pike to unravel the entire mess.
It’s the suspense that drives these books, and Crais knows how to build it and keep it fresh. Even though there’s a formula, the little details make the novel. It’s also scarily prescient. The Canadian student and her boyfriend, kidnapped and murdered just last month in Mexico, provide a touch of background reality for the plot, and we’ve all heard about the hundreds of corpses in Mexican towns along the U.S. border.
If that isn’t enough, Crais brings back one of his best characters, Jon Stone, a Princeton grad with a photographic memory, to assist in the search. When the second banana is this good, the Pike/Cole series is good for at least 15 more.
Slash and Burn
By Colin Cotterill, Soho, 290 pages, $28.95
At first glance, this series seems too offbeat to work. The investigator, Dr. Siri, is nearly 80, the only coroner in Laos; the time is the 1970s, when the American adventure in Southeast Asia had just ended. But this unusual combination makes for solid whodunits, although not in the classic fashion. If you know Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels, you’ll recognize some of the stranger bits, like the 1,000-year-old Hmong ghost.
This time out, Dr. Siri, always on the edge of retirement, puts it off again at government request. The remains of a downed U.S. bomber have turned up and an investigation is under way. The difficulty is that the downed airman didn’t die in the crash. How he died, where and who did it are part of a plot far too good to give away. You have to watch out for Siri; read one and you’ll be haunting the bookstores for more.
By Howard Shrier, Vintage Canada, 303 pages, $19.95
The third Jonah Geller novel by Arthur Ellis-winner Howard Shrier is the best so far. Shrier has a great eye for location and a good ear for dialogue. Add those to solid characters and an intriguing plot and you have a winning combination for any mystery lover.
PI Jonah Geller nearly had his brains fried in High Chicago. He’s resting in Toronto and trying to focus when an old friend brings him a very personal case. Ron Fine’s son, David, is missing. The police in Boston, where the brilliant young surgeon lives, aren’t concerned. They know all about young men who take off for a while and don’t check in with Mum and Dad. But Dr. David isn’t like that. The Fines are convinced he’s in trouble.
Jonah heads to Boston on the trail, accompanied by his partner, Jenn Raudsepp. It doesn’t take long to discover that David Fine has run afoul of a vicious crime boss and is on the run for his life. The chase turns deadly, and Jenn joins the ranks of the missing. Jonah calls for a Toronto wise guy named Dante Ryan to help, and the clock is ticking down.
The Placebo Effect
By David Rotenberg, Touchstone, 338 pages, $29.95
Before you read this excellent new novel by Torontonian Rotenberg, best known for his mysteries set in China, you have to know two things. The first is that the opening is slow to evolve, and bodies don’t drop fast. The second is that the idea of synesthesia – a condition where people see truth or lies in colour – was a plot in the brilliant The Fallen, by T. Jefferson Parker. You may think this is a clone. It’s not.
Decker Roberts is an acting teacher with a profitable sideline. His gift of synesthesia lets him know when people are lying, and corporations pay very well for that information. Just let Decker sit in on conferences or interviews and you’ve got the truth.
When things start to go wrong for Decker, he thinks it’s one of the phonies he spotted, but he soon realizes that there’s a lot more to it than corporate intrigue. Soon Decker is alone and on the run, and whoever ruined his life is after him, and not the only one on the trail. After the necessarily slow opening, this novel heats up and never stops.
Curse the Names
By Robert Arellano, Akashic, 200 pages, $17.50
The gorgeous Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico have hidden a lot of things, including hippie pot farms and bohemian authors. But nothing in New Mexico has ever been more secret than Los Alamos, the Atomic City, where a diverse group of geniuses built the first atomic bombs and changed the face of the world forever. That’s the setting and premise for this excellent novel by Cuban-American Robert Arellano. Disaster is about to happen and one man can avert it … maybe.
The man in the saddle is reporter James Oberhelm, of Los Alamos. He knows about what’s happened and what is going to happen. To stop it, he has to evade a beautiful woman and an aging hippie. And there’s more to come. Arellano lived in the New Mexico mountains and knows the lore, the look and the strange hold the place takes on the imagination.
By David Russell, Dundurn, 432 pages, $17.99
This timely and topical mystery from Russell, whose first novel was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award, takes on gay-bashing and hate crime. And despite the political plot, Russell doesn’t forget that he’s telling a story.
Winston Patrick gave up law for teaching, a job he thought would be easier. But legal issues emerge when one of his students is forbidden to bring his same-sex partner to the senior prom. Winston puts his legal robes back on and leads the students in a lawsuit against the school., Unwittingly, he opens the door to murder. This is a solid mystery with a sad message: Hate does kill.
Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail's crime-fiction reviewer.