Probable Cause, by Theresa Schwegel, St. Martin's, 292 pages, $31.95
A glance at Theresa Schwegel's photo shows a very pretty, very young woman with a fresh, clear expression. One can see her hunched over her laptop, writing chicklit bestsellers: a disciple of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. But Schwegel is anything but chicklit. Officer Down won her the Edgar for the best first novel. "Gritty" and "rough" were just two of the oft-repeated descriptives. Probable Cause is, if anything, grittier and rougher. Schwegel's scene is the cop novel, the lair of writers like Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain.
This beautifully plotted novel begins with a heist. Schwegel is particularly good at description and dialogue. Her prose is clean and spare -- a real joy in these days of bloated books. The burglars, Noise Dubois and Jed Pagorski, are snatching a television and timing their exit to a burglar alarm. The chill comes when the alarm goes off. Dubois and Pagorski stuff the swag and instantly transform into their real selves -- a pair of Chicago cops. They are first at the scene to investigate the robbery.
The robbery is part of an initiation that a Chicago precinct uses for new patrolmen. There's no "real" crime. The cops get the goods, the owner gets an insurance settlement, and no one is hurt.
Enter Ray Weiss, son and grandson of Chicago cops, a believer to the core. His assignment is to break and enter a jewellery shop, but when he hits the store, there's a dead body. That takes the initiation to a whole new level. Is this a separate crime? Or part of the ongoing activities of a group of rogue cops?
Schwegel pulls off the "what's real?" plot perfectly. That's because she builds great characters who seem honestly engaged with practices that are, to say the least, questionable. There's enough nuance and depth to make us wince and hope they wake up before the final paragraph.
The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd,
by Gilbert Adair, Faber & Faber,
286 pages, $23
Gilbert Adair is an essayist, novelist and scriptwriter and he bills this sweet homage to the great Agatha Christie as "an entertainment." It certainly is that.
Adair has reconstructed the 1935 English country house, complete with three maids, cook, butler and chauffeur. There is, of course, a house party. This one is over Christmas and there's the requisite blizzard that traps the party in the house and cuts off all outside communications, which means the murderer is one of the upscale little group. The characters are English mystery staples: Colonel Roger ffolkes, his wife, Mary, their daughter, Selina, and the colonel's secretary, Farrar. The guests are actress Cora Rutherford, Selina's boyfriend (the unfortunately named Donald Duckworth), the vicar, the doctor and the doctor's wife -- and our investigator, mystery novelist Evadne Mount, who "doesn't do locked room mysteries."
The corpse is Raymond Gentry, gossip columnist. If anyone deserves to die, it's Gentry, who is found in a locked and bolted room with bars on the windows. He's been shot at close range and there is no weapon. Whodunit?
Devotees of Christie will figure it all out tout de suite but there's still plenty of fun as suspicion moves from suspect to suspect, private secrets are revealed and the local retired Scotland Yard inspector arrives to organize the clues. Adair is obviously a serious collector of English Golden Age mystery lore and he layers on the predictable like clotted cream on a scone.
The one flaw in this clever bit of nonsense is that it is an imitation of a true classic and, like all imitations, it can ape the real but never become it. When all is said and done, the clues outlined and the denouement complete, this isn't Christie's dazzling The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, but an imitation. I had fun reading it, but was reminded of just how clever Christie's plot was. The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd is just that: an act.
More Twisted, by Jeffery Deaver, Simon & Schuster, 430 pages, $32
Jeffery Deaver, the best-selling author of the Lincoln Rhyme forensic crime novels, is also a fine and prolific author of short stories. His works appear regularly in magazines such as Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in anthologies such as Otto Penzler's Dangerous Women. He has also won several awards for short fiction, including the Crime Writers Silver Dagger. In short, Deaver likes to write short and this, his second collection, shows just how good he is.
The bulk of the works here are previously published, most in magazines. But there are three excellent new works never before seen and Deaver also includes a foreword and a brief postscript in which he explains just how suspense writing works. He calls this Fear 101; that's a fine name, but I do disagree with his inclusion of dolls as objects of fear.
Deaver believes that short mysteries must have a twist, hence the title of both his anthologies. More Twisted is definitely twisted and the surprises do hit the reader. My favourite is a sly send-up of the venerable Holmes and Watson. No one will be disappointed with this group of stories.
True Evil, by Greg Iles, Scribner, 509 pages, $32.99
This novel's premise is great. An FBI profiler, sidelined by injury, walks into a Mississippi doctor's office and informs him that the physician's adored wife is planning his murder. There's no motive anyone can find and she's hired a hit man whose modus operandi is perfect. There is no crime because his victims die of natural causes. The doctor at first refuses to believe the agent, but then he begins to watch his wife. What if?
The plot should work -- but it doesn't. That's because Iles gives everything away too soon. We know who the bad guys are by the end of the fourth chapter, and they are vile. The good guys -- doctor Chris and the FBI agent -- are wonderful. They love children and animals, don't hunger for designer duds and are friends of nature. The trouble is, there's now 400 pages of plot to wade through and Iles, who usually excels at suspense, has given it all away. If you're going to do a novel with a reverse plot, you have to have brilliant and nuanced characters to drive it, and characterization is not Iles's strong suit. In True Evil, the characters are so weak we don't care what happens to them, or why. That makes the action a long, hard slog instead of a page ripper.
Ptarmageddon, by Karen Dudley, RavenStone, 341 pages, $12.99 (paper)
I can understand that the urge to use this title was irresistible. After all, an ecological crime series should have whimsy. I can hear the publisher saying that the fourth novel in the Robyn Devara series should charm readers. Fortunately, the whimsy begins and ends on the title page. This is the best book in the Devara series so far.
Fans of Dudley's work know that Devara is a research scientist who keeps getting caught up in murder. Each of her previous adventures started with a bird that's part of the plot and gives the story its name. Owls, herons and macaws have already had their day. Now, Devara is confronted with a possible ecological disaster as well as a murder. The victim is an ornithologist who leaves Devara notes that indicate the ptarmigan is endangered, possible even facing extinction. Why would someone commit murder to keep that information secret?
As always, Dudley pulls the plot together and keeps the action and the suspense tight. By the end, even the title is forgivable.
Queen of Diamonds, by Catherine Hunter, RavenStone, 403 pages, $12.99 (paper)
I started this book by Winnipeg writer Catherine Hunter thinking it was going to be a bit of a riff on the television program Medium. The major character is psychic Lorelei Good and we know there's going to be a mystery, most likely a murder. Hunter disabused me of that idea by the end of the opening chapter. Queen of Diamonds is no thin imitation but an excellent psychological suspense novel with plenty of great characters and a terrific, tight plot.
Lorelei's talents for contacting the dead hinge, it seems, on the ability of clients to pay. And pay they do for revelations that seem almost miraculous until one discovers Lorelei's real hidden talent -- her sister Nixie, who digs the dirt on the rich to make those messages from the afterlife so personal.
Lorelei and Nixie are about to complete the perfect scam. They have a wealthy believer who's going to finance them in an institute of psychic research. It promises a lifetime of ease, until a body turns up. The corpse is a psychic and it appears that Lorelei and Nixie have more than spirits to blame for this death.
Drawing Dead, by Rick Gadziola, ECW, 288 pages, $28.95
This is the third in the very good Jake Morgan series set in Las Vegas and written by Toronto's Rick Gadziola. The first Jake Morgan was nominated for an Arthur Ellis award. This one is every bit as good.
The plot -- Jake finds himself in the crosshairs of a gang war -- is a bit of a chestnut but Gadziola livens it up by having the "gang" consist of a batch of crooked cops. There's also a lady copper who's into S&M, wants to share a fetish or three with Jake and doesn't take no for an answer. Meanwhile, there are several murders to be solved and hands to play. This one has plenty of action and off-beat characters with the usual Vegas backdrop. Fans of online poker should love this series.
Playback, by Raymond Chandler, adapted by Ted Benoit and illustrated by François Ayroles, Arcade,
98 pages, $27.95
I would ordinarily hate this graphic novel on sight. Raymond Chandler's prose style was unique. His ability to use ordinary things like clocks on socks to delineate character was brilliant. His descriptions of streets in Los Angeles remain in the memory long after the plots are forgotten. Take away the prose and leave the pictures and Chandler's stories lose a lot. But Chandler was also a scriptwriter, quite a good one when he got the chance, as in The Blue Dahlia. Playback was a script that didn't get made, and it was rediscovered in 1985. Ted Benoit and François Ayroles have adapted it and drawn it, in classic black and white, with lots of scowling faces.
I can't say I was taken with Ayroles's drawings. They seemed a bit primitive and blah. But the story works because it's as Chandler wrote it. The dialogue snaps. The events move on. The pace is even and keeps the action heading toward the ultimate confrontation. It's not classic Chandler, but it's not bad, either.