Shock Wave By John Sandford, Putnam, 388 pages, $32.50
Even the most lukewarm Lucas Davenport follower loves Virgil Flowers, the folksy and funny Minnesota cop who works with Davenport. Murder, mayhem, bomb or blast, Virgil packs his fishing gear first: "Better to have a fly rod and not need it, than to need it and not have it." Shock Wave is the fifth novel with Virgil in the lead, and it's the best of the Flowers books and one of the best of all Sandford's works.
Davenport summons Virgil to a bombing in Butternut Falls, Minn. The putative target is the building site for PyeMart, a big-box chain store that has divided the town. One group sees cheap and convenient one-stop shopping, the other sees a behemoth crushing local merchants. Three people are dead. Would someone commit murder to keep out a purveyor of cheap Chinese-made T-shirts? Since this is bomb No. 2, it appears so.
Everything zings in this witty novel, but it's the motley investigative team that sets it all up. There's an explosives expert, some doughy state cops, Flowers the dude, a native American lawyer and a snake-tattooed scuba diver with more on her mind than seaweed. The dialogue is smart and funny, and the eccentric characters, including the billionaire Pye, who seems to mistake Virgil for one of his hired hands, give the plot extra zip.
Picasso Blues By Lee Lamothe, Dundurn, 408 pages, $11.99
Be warned: The opening pages of this book will give you nightmares. It begins in an unnamed American city across the lake from Canada. A documentary filmmaker is lying in a shallow grave, left for dead. With her one good eye, she can see the night around her and, to maintain some semblance of sanity, she traces her artistic inheritance. Mixed with really scary gore, this riff on film, life and art is a great bit of writing. Lamothe can go from a detached eyeball to music described as "Jarretty" in one swift move, and it's what gives his novels their rhythm.
Picasso Blues is the sequel to Free From Jazz, and it brings back detectives Djuna Brown and Ray Tate. The city is in the grip of an epidemic of a SARS-like disease that appears to have originated in Asia. The police force has been decimated (Lamothe's description of a cop puking in a car will send you gagging) and the city is close to anarchy. There is a local vigilante group striking at Asians attempting to sneak in from Canada. And someone is committing murder. Are the crimes racist in nature or is there something more?
Lamothe isn't for everyone. His stories are violent and raw, and his characters ignoble. He doesn't always follow the rules, either. But Picasso Blues has its own beat and, if you can follow it, it's good.
Shelter By Harlan Coben, Putnam, 304 pages, $22
I was 50 pages into this terrific book when I realized it was one of Putnam's Young Reader books. I was reading a novel written for teenagers. Sophisticated urban teenagers.
It features Myron Bolitar's nephew Mickey, who's moved in with his uncle because his father is dead and his mother is in rehab. Welcome to a new home, new school, new girlfriend. When the girlfriend disappears, Mickey finds Uncle Myron isn't the only investigator in the family, and the trail leads to some dangerous places. It is a testament to Harlan Coben's integrity that he never writes down to his audience. The characters and plotting are every bit as good as in his adult Bolitar books, and I was quite taken with Mickey. Buy this for your kids and then read it for yourself.
Getting Off A Novel of Sex and Violence, by Lawrence Block, Random House, 335 pages, $29.95
There are very few novels with covers that force you to read. Getting Off has a naked woman standing in an open door looking at a man and a woman on a bed. The naked woman holds a very large kitchen knife along the crease of her derriere. Is she the scorned woman? An unwilling member of a threesome? See this cover and you'll want to read this book.
The story turns out to be the cover. The girl likes sex, then kills the men she has sex with. It's orgasm with a twist. The better twist is that this relaunch of Hard Case Crime novels is by Lawrence Block, who knows how to write sex and violence and add solid characters and a good plot,
How does the esteemed Block move from hard-boiled to hard-core? It seems that 40 years ago, Block began his career as Jill Emerson, writing Hard Case crime. Now he's revived that name and style. Block fans won't be nonplussed by the change.
Bloodline By Stan Rogal, Insomniac Press, 272 pages, $19.95
This debut mystery from Toronto poet and novelist Stan Rogan has so much going on that it's hard to keep track of the themes. There's the murder, or murders, of hitchhiking girls on country roads, bodies dumped in a ditch. Then there's the murder of order, murder as metaphor, as the police search for the killer with no clues and no luck. There's the death of childhood as a 15-year-old from a seriously dysfunctional family moves into the plot. There's the murder of truth, when an ambitious and ruthless reporter decides to use the crimes as her ticket to the big leagues.
And finally, there's the dead hand of the past that dogs all the characters, forcing them to face unpleasant truths about themselves and the world. Rogal doesn't always keep it all together but when this works, it works well. This is murder with poetic licence.
He Died With His Eyes Open By Derek Raymond, Melville House, 211 pages, $16.95
Derek Raymond, the pseudonym for the late British author Robert Cook, wrote the five mystery novels known as the Factory Series between 1984 and 1990, and Melville House is republishing them now. Why? Because Raymond's gritty, moving books are the foundation of modern British noir and because they hold up very well.
The nameless Detective Sergeant in charge of the Department of Unexplained Deaths is as iconic a creation as the Continental Op, and Thatcher-era London, rife with crime and perversity, is the perfect setting for an investigation into the death of an alcoholic man who deserves justice. The introduction, by James Sallis, gives insight into the series' importance, as well as Raymond/Cook's fascinating life. Look for the other four books in the series soon.