SYKM


What We Were Reading in 2007

January 1, 2007

James Calder
Knockout Mouse (2002) introduces Bill Damen, a filmmaker turned sleuth, in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. Bill stumbles on some scary industrial doings in Silicon Valley, and has some emotional adventures besides. Watch that shellfish!

Chris Grabenstein
Tilt-a-Whirl (2005) is set in a beach resort town and features an unlikely set of partners—John Ceepak, a veteran of the Iraq war, and his sidekick Danny Boyle, in Sea Haven, New Jersey. Ceepak is 100% cop living by his personal code of honor while Boyle is a "summer cop" more interested in how the police cap looks to the girls than carrying a gun. The mystery is involving, but the characters make this book stand out. (2006 Anthony Award for Best First Novel)

James Grady
Six Days of the Condor (1974) provides a healthy dose of paranoia, when Richard Malcolm, a CIA a lowly CIA analyst and grad student in Washington, DC, code-named Condor, steps out for lunch and things get crazy. Condor has resourceful survival instincts, perhaps thanks to his job reading mystery fiction. (What a deal!)

Åsa Larsson
Sun Storm (2003, translated 2006) introduces Rebecka Martinsson, a tax attorney in Stockholm, called back to her hometown Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle, in Sweden. Rebecka returns to Kiruna to support a neurotic childhood friend accused of murdering her brother. More a psychological thriller than a police procedural, this book haunts even after the last page.

Nancy Livingston
The Trouble at Aquitaine (1985) is a traditional manor house weekend murder with a twist. Castle Aquitaine is now a health spa and the author manages to pay homage to the tradition while poking fun at the same time. G.D.H. Pringle, a retired tax inspector in England, is the epitome of the hesitant fumbling amateur.

Walter Mosley
Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) introduces Easy Rawlins, a black WWII veteran living in 1940s Los Angeles, California, who finds himself learning to be an investigator in order to survive. Easy is hard-boiled yet compassionate, the supporting characters are vividly drawn, and the compelling narrative voice makes this a hard book to put down.

Dana Stabenow
Ramping up for Bouchercon in Anchorage in September 2007, we're reading Dana Stabenow, and where better to be snowily refreshed than the first Kate Shugak entry, A Cold Day for Murder (1992), featuring the native Alaskan ex-DA investigator.

Helene Tursten
The Detective Inspector Huss (1999) is a police procedural introducing Irene Huss, a detective inspector in the Violent Crimes Unit in Goteborg, Sweden. Huss is a believable and sympathetic character struggling to balance the demands of her job and her family in a society facing all-too-familiar modern problems: alienated youth, drug dealers, and motorcycle gangs.

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February 1, 2007

Mark Coggins
The Immortal Game (1999) introduces August Riordan, a jazz bass-player and private investigator, in San Francisco, California. While chasing down the source code for a new chess game, August gets help with the techie aspects of the case from Chris Duckworth, a nerdy drag queen. Great characters, snappy dialogue, and a tight plot make this book hard to put down.

Nicolas Freeling
Love in Amsterdam (1962 [APA: Death in Amsterdam (1964)] introduced Chief Inspector Van Der Valk in Amsterdam, Netherlands, who operates quickly and intuitively to understand the dynamics of the crime and identify the most likely suspects and wear them down to a final resolution. He's relentless and quirky, almost in an Inspector Morse-like way, sometimes making the inspector more intriguing than the plot. The second in the series, Because of the Cats (1963), finds an alarming poor little rich kid gang of spoiled teenagers that almost seems to anticipate a Dutch Manson Family — except for Van Der Valk's intervention.

Jim Fusilli
Closing Time (2001) introduces Terry Orr, a newly-licensed private investigator, and his daughter Bella, in Manhattan, New York. This book reads more like a novel than a mystery, what with the emphasis on character and mood. Terry was a writer until his wife and baby son were killed. Now a private investigator working without payment, he is struggling to adapt to his new reality. The relationship between Terry Orr and his twelve-year old daughter Bella is wonderfully drawn. Highly recommended!

Naomi Hirahara
Snakeskin Shamisen (2006), the third Mas Arai book, featuring the 70s year old Los Angeles gardener and Hiroshima survivor. The first book, The Summer of the Big Bachi (2004) is grander than a mystery (if such a thing is possible!) because of its Hiroshima bomb thread. In her third book, nominated for an Edgar, we find Mas reluctantly involved in a high-stakes set of circumstances involving half a million dollars, Spam sushi, and murder, along with the usual harkening back to events in Japanese-American and this time Okinawan history.

Rummaging in some older lists finds us reading John P. Marquand's Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), the second in that odd, but highly literary series; John Buchan's influential The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915); and Carter Brown's pulpy Hellcat (1962), the 22nd Al Wheeler title.

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March 1, 2007

Louis Bayard
The Pale Blue Eye (2006) is set at West Point Academy in 1830. Worried about negative publicity, Augustus Landor, a New York police detective retired for health reasons, is asked to quietly investigate a cadet death. Landor, who narrates the bulk of the novel, is a wonderful character: clever, quirky, lonely, prone to drink, and a wonderful writer. Landor soon recruits an equally unique cadet to serve as his eyes and ears on the inside: a certain E.A. Poe who shoves lengthy reports under his door in the middle of the night. The relationship between the two men, united by their intelligence and alienation, make this book something special. The mystery is also a wonderful puzzle that continues to unfold and surprise throughout the book. Nominated for the 2007 Edgar for Best Mystery Novel and highly recommended!

Erle Stanley Gardner
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) was the start of a series of over 80 books featuring the tricky, smart, and rough-edged lawyer Perry Mason, his secretary and more, Della Street, and the indispensable investigator, Paul Drake. The early Perry Mason skates close to the ethical line, and has little respect for the officials, but some kind of higher justice always seems to be his goal, in these still highly readable books. The early books are marred by some casual racism of the time, which is somewhat surprising in light of lawyer Gardner’s career fighting for the underdog. Gardner’s books can be hard to find and seem to be disappearing from libraries.

Joanne Harris
Gentlemen and Players (2006) is set at St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, which has educated generations of privileged young men. Classics teacher Roy Straitley is close to achieving “Centurion” status by teaching 100 terms. Unknown to him, a secret opponent with a bitter grudge from the past has a carefully crafted plan to ruin both the school and Straitley. Narrated with humor and style from both points of view, this suspenseful novel enthralls. Nominated for the 2007 Edgar for Best Mystery Novel and highly recommended!

Håkan Nesser
Borkmann’s Point (Sweden 1994, English 2006) introduces DCI Van Veeteren (actually the first in English, the second in the series) whose vacation is interrupted when he is assigned to assist the local police in investigating some ax murderers in an unnamed northern European country. Nesser’s belated entry into the English-reading world is worth the wait. Strong characterizations, believable characters, and complex factual interactions, along with philosophical touches make this police procedural a standout.

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April 1, 2007

Dorothy Cannell
The Thin Woman (1984) introduces Ellie Simons, an interior decorator who is longing to release her interior thin woman, and Ben Haskell, a pornographer who would like to write real books currently moonlighting as an escort-for-hire. When Ellie hires Ben to help her through another ghastly family weekend at Uncle Merlin’s castle the fun begins. This English country-house mystery includes a quirky will, a treasure hunt, and odd-ball characters I enjoyed spending time with.

Jasper Fforde
The Big Over Easy (2005) introduces Detective Jack Spratt, an investigator in the Nursery Crimes Division in Reading, England: an oddly familiar alternate universe where nursery rhyme characters reside next to regular folk. Spratt is a dedicated and talented investigator, but is undervalued since his cases aren’t dramatic enough to appear in Amazing Crime Stories. His team consists of a hypercondriac, an alien who speaks binary, and an ambitious new officer who longs to become an Official Sidekick. Spratt’s current case is the death of Humpty Dumpty, killed (of course) by a fall from a wall. Full of literary allusions, word play, and puns, this book pokes fun at mystery fiction protocol while retaining the elements of a police procedural.

Sparkle Hayter
Robin Hudson, a third-string cable news reporter in New York City, first appears in What’s a Girl Gotta Do? (1994). Hayter's driven and somewhat daffy protagonist is caught up in the edgy, back-stabbing world of cable TV news where journalistic talent frequently plays third fiddle to youth and beauty. Robin's personal life suffers the same challenge, with husband Burke Avery having traded her in for a younger model. Robin is drawn into sleuthing out of necessity, when she is accused of murdering an apparent blackmailer. The book is funny and a bit offbeat, with an appealing, wacky heroine, who can find herself clutching a tire iron at just the wrong moment.

Shane Maloney
Stiff (1994, US publication 1998) introduces Murray Whelan, an aide for Australia’s minister for industry in Melbourne. Whelan’s estranged wife is off pursuing a more successful career, leaving him to cope with home maintenance and their young son. Through Whelan’s wry narration, Maloney pokes fun at anything and everything. Great Australian flavor.

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May 1, 2007

Fredric Brown
The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) starts the Ed and Am Hunter series. Brown has a knack for natural dialog, direct story-telling, and creating a subtle sense of time and place. The first of a series, and hard to find, this title impresses with endearing characters and good plotting. A trip into the past in Chicago 60 years ago, as a teenager deals with his father’s death, with help from Uncle Ambrose, from one of the masters from that era.

Earlene Fowler
The Saddlemaker’s Wife (2006) tells the story of a woman unraveling her husband’s past. When Ruby's husband dies in an accident she discovers he is not an orphan; he has left her a share in his family’s ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Everyone in the small town of Cardinal seems to be connected somehow to the secret Ruby wants to uncover--why did Cole hide his family from her? Finalist for the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel

Cornelia Read
A Field of Darkness (2006) is a powerful debut novel. Born into an old-money family, Madeline Dare marries a farmboy-inventor and moves to his hometown of Syracuse, New York. "There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them." Working as a part-time journalist covering food news for the local paper, Maddie becomes involved in a 20-year old murder while her husband is away working for the railroad. The characters are sharply drawn, the narration is compelling, and the social commentary acidly funny. Finalist 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and highly recommended.

Jim Thompson
The Grifters (1963) starts as a casual record of a small con, making his money with the twenties and the tat and other minor schemes. He’s so careful, you’d wonder how he could go wrong, if you weren’t reading his story. A dysfunctional family, too. Powerful writing from a master writer in a downer noir vein.

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June 1, 2007

David Goodis
Down There1 (1956) demonstrates that no matter how hard you try to stay out of trouble, it can find you anyway, particularly when your family is involved. Eddie seemed to have found the solution to his problems, playing piano for survival wages in a drinking joint near the docks in Philadelphia. The past was buried and everything was cool, until… A noir classic, that inspired Truffaut’s film, Shoot the Piano Player.
1. Included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s (1997)

Bob Morris
Bahamarama (2004) introduces Zack Chasteen, an ex-football player who was unjustly imprisoned, and now trying to get back in the groove with his rich magazine-mogul girlfriend. But the business that got him in prison in the first place isn’t over, neither to the Caribbean thugs nor to Zack and his friend Boggy, who is the only Taino Indian we know of in crime fiction. Funny, adventuresome, and serious, too, and a Finalist for the 2005 Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.

Mary Roberts Rinehart
The Circular Staircase (1908) “is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.” Women are inclined to swoon and racial stereotypes creep in here and there, but the narrative voice is fresh and compelling. (The stage play and movie based on this book were called The Bat.)

Julie Smith
Death Turns a Trick (1982) introduces Rebecca Schwartz, a Jewish feminist lawyer in San Francisco, California. While playing piano in the bordello owned by one of her clients, Rebecca flees a police raid one night and arrives home to find a corpse bleeding all over her Flokati carpet. Fast-paced and funny, the characters make this book something special. I became especially fond of Rebecca’s law partner who substitutes nonsense words (like “pigball”) for those she can’t recall.

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July 1, 2007

Ken Bruen
The White Trilogy: A White Arrest (1998), Taming the Alien (1999), The McDead (2000) — read them together, since they are linked and not very long (416 pp. for the 3). The interplay of the proper DCI Roberts and the thuggish DS Brant keeps the pace lively, and WPC Falls has tragedy enough to keep things serious. The police work isn't entirely by the book, particularly for London police, but the brutality is leavened by Bruen’s humorous and absurdist writing.

KJ Erickson
Third Person Singular (2001) introduces Marshall “Mars” Bahr, a detective who serves as a special investigator reporting directly to the chief of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A solid police procedural with an interesting mystery, the real strength of this book is the characters and the relationships between them. Mars is divorced, and his struggle to be a good father to his unique eight-year old son Chris is one of the highlights of the book.

Kenneth Fearing
The Big Clock (1946) is a brilliant, methodical, clockwork noir thriller, full of period details, corporate power-plays, urban sophistication post-WW2, and a well-crafted use of the multiple perspective style that multiplies the tension of the story. This book has been made into movies at least twice (which we haven’t seen), but it is hard to believe anything could beat the reading experience.

David Skibbins
Eight of Swords (2005) introduces an unlikely investigator: Warren Ritter, a bipolar 55-year-old former Weather Underground member who has been living under a succession of pseudonyms since an explosion in which he was presumed dead. Now working as a tarot card reader in Berkeley, California, Warren gives a reading to a young student who is kidnapped. When Warren is framed for a murder he enlists the help of paraplegic computer hacker and a Hispanic security specialist and the fun begins. Warren’s mood swings and his conflicting desires to flee and to connect to a sister he hasn’t seen for nearly 30 years and a daughter he has never met keep the reader solidly inside his head. While the mystery itself is resolved at the end of the book, the mystery of Warren’s past and future is still open.

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August 1, 2007

Reed Farrel Coleman
Walking The Perfect Square (2002) introduces Moe Prager, an ex-cop in New York City. The novel begins in 1998, but most of the action is in 1978 when Moe was invalided out of the police force because of a bad knee. Convinced by a friend to investigate the disappearance of a young man, Moe finds himself repelled by the missing man’s father and attracted to his sister. Moe’s casual narrative style draws the reader easily into his life. The characters are individual, the mystery unfolds at a satisfying pace, the writing is excellent. The book feels so complete at the end that I had to check again that it really is the start of a series.

Robert Fate
Baby Shark (2006) introduces Kristin Van Dijk, a teenager who travels around with her father hustling pool in 1950s Texas. Dad is killed in the first few pages, and Baby Shark is raped, beaten, and barely alive. But she comes back with a vengeance that could fuel a spaghetti Western. This is a fast-paced read, with a good feel for the time and place, and a regular dose of violence. Kristin returns a few years later as a PI in Baby Shark’s Beaumont Blues, which isn’t as interesting as the debut, but every bit as violent. (Baby Shark: Finalist 2007 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original)

Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects (2006) is narrated by Camille Preaker, a reporter for a third-rate Chicago newspaper sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, MO, to write a human-interest piece about the murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another. Camille is clearly uneasy about returning home, and the more we get to know about her family the better we understand her misgivings—dysfunctional doesn't begin to describe these family dynamics. The author skillfully reveals successive hidden layers of Camille’s past as she investigates the current mystery. This is a psychological thriller you won’t want to put down once you start. (Finalist 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel)

Christopher Fowler
Full Dark House (2003) starts at the end for the 60-year partnership of detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, when May learns of Bryant's death in an explosion at the headquarters of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, in London. The book bounces between their first case during the Blitz in WWII, and the present, which sometimes annoys, but the writing is vigorous and blackly humorous, the characters interesting, and the historical atmosphere engaging. Much of the book takes place in a theatre, where the duo investigate the death of a dancer whose feet… well, let’s not get too macabre here. The theatre setting, where Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is being produced, is particularly interesting.

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September 1, 2007

John Banville
The Untouchable (1997) is not the usual spy novel. Seventy-two year old Victor Maskell’s career as one of the “Cambridge spies” for Russia is interwoven with philosophical and artistic reflections, presented in a series of wry reminiscences and internal conversations, as the now-disgraced double agent tells his story to a would be biographer. This highly literary work doesn’t have a traditional plot, but is full of little surprises and great questions. (Banville’s pseudonymous Christine Falls (Benjamin Black) is nominated for a 2007 Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel.)

Jan Burke
Goodnight, Irene (1993) introduces Irene Kelly, a former newspaper reporter in the fictional town of Las Piernas in Southern California. O’Conner, Irene's best friend is killed by a bomb and old flame Detective Frank Harriman is in charge of the case. Suspecting that the killing had something to do with O’Conner’s obsession with the unsolved murder and mutilation of a woman 30 years earlier, Irene finagles her old job back with the newspaper and soon finds herself sitting in O’Conner’s desk and reading his cryptic notes. The pacing of the book is a bit uneven, but Irene is a character I want to read more about.

Dorothy B. Hughes
In a Lonely Place (1947) presents Dix Steele, in post-WWII Los Angeles. Steele is a writer, living on an uncle's allowance. He reflects on each moment, analyzing things in a logical way, while emotions swarm around him, as he stumbles from event to event, full of jealousy, fantasy, and self-doubt. He is also a serial rapist and strangler, but one who makes sense, in his own way. Consummate psychological suspense from the “Queen of Noir”.

Barbara Seranella
No Human Involved (1997) introduces Munch Mancini, a flawed, vulnerable heroine. Mace St. John of the LAPD has Munch at the top of his suspect list for the murder of a drug dealer. St. John loses track of Munch as he works on his other cases and cares for his father, who has suffered a series of strokes. Meanwhile, Munch is busy burying her former identity as she struggles with kicking her heroin addiction. The strength of this book is the characters: richly drawn and sympathetic.

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October 1, 2007

Sean Doolittle
The Cleanup (2006) follows Matt Worth, an Omaha, Nebraska, cop who falls into helping an abused young woman dispose of her boyfriend's body. Worth has troubles of his own, working nighttime security at a supermarket after being disciplined for slugging a superior officer his ex-wife is living with. Little lies and big lies lead to a web of confusion, trapping the somewhat unwitting Worth and those around him. This Anthony nominee and Barry award winner for Best Paperback Original is written in a clear and direct style, with great pacing throughout, and a hint of noir.

Gwen Freeman
Murder… Suicide… Whatever… (2007) introduces Fifi Cutter, a feisty, bi-racial, unemployed, twenty-something who is surprised when her free-loading half-brother, Bosco, appears on her front porch moaning that Uncle Ted has just been murdered. Though unsure she even had an Uncle Ted, Fifi is soon partnered with Bosco pretending to be private investigators pretending to be grief counselors. They stumble over bodies, but all the violence happens off screen. Fifi and Bosco have real personalities and the minor characters are classic Los Angeles. The author promises that a sequel is in the works.

Batya Gur
A Literary Murder (1989) [1993 English trans.] is the second in the series featuring Michael Ohayon, a chief inspector of police in Jerusalem. Gur's books are complex and intellectual — sometimes one can almost get lost in the rich and knowledgeable prose and forget about the mystery. Like the first in the series, this book involves murders in a close-knit group — the “closed milieu” sub-genre — this time in the literature department of Hebrew University. Inspector Ohayon unravels layer after layer of complex relationships, professional jealousies, and scholarly betrayals, as he works relentlessly to solve the crimes. A rewarding read, full of detailed characterizations and fascinating settings.

Louise Penny
Still Life (2005) introduces Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, who is called to the village of Three Pines, in southern Quebec, Canada, to investigate a suspicious death. Gamache is a sympathetic and talented detective, and the other characters are compelling and complex. This traditional mystery is enhanced by a great setting and interesting tidbits about hunting and art. (2007 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, 2007 Barry Award for Best First Novel)

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November 1, 2007

Colin Cotterill
The Coroner’s Lunch (2004) introduces Dr. Siri Paiboun, who was conscripted in 1975, after the Communist takeover, to become the chief medical examiner of Laos, though he has no experience with forensic medicine. At the age of 72, Siri had hoped to retire with a state pension, but the party won’t agree. The death of an important official's wife and the sudden appearance of three bodies that may create problems between Laos and Vietnam prod Siri out of his normal boring routine of doing minimal examinations and enjoying lunch on his favorite bench in the park. The pace of the book starts slowly, in keeping with Siri’s minimal involvement with life, and accelerates as he starts to take more interest in his job and the puzzle of the mystery. Great descriptions, sympathetic characters, and a compelling time and place.

Michael Dibdin
Ratking (1988), is the first Aurelio Zen police mystery, set in Italy, by the recently and untimely deceased Dibdin. This renowned series starts with a kidnapping of a rich businessman, but on some levels, that plot is less interesting than the convolutions of the investigation and the intricacies of the Italian police bureaucracy and the disfavored Zen's place in it. The action is dense with characters, observations, and local color, interesting even to those who have never been to Perugia. This first in the series compels the reader to want more; luckily there are 10 left.

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped (2007) introduces Sara Townley, an investigator for a Seattle law firm, who is assigned the task of finding a missing heir who happens to be a cat. Sara hasn’t much experience with detective work, but has plenty of curiosity and determination. Sara is supported by her husband Connor, a Navy Seal who suddenly reappears after months away on assignment, and her best friend Russ, the sexy tenor on late-night radio. There are plenty of suspects and lots of fun in this debut mystery.

Chester Himes
A Rage in Harlem (1957) introduces Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, detectives in Harlem. The book is raw and full of the 1950s sense of place and character. This first, of nine in the series, doesn't read like the main characters were meant to survive. But they do, and it is handily managed in the next book (The Crazy Kill). In some ways, looking back from 2007, the story isn’t as important as the characters. Himes is direct, honest, and unapologetic in his characterizations. The action is real as the detectives deal with the realities of Harlem in the ’50s and with being black police officers who need to mediate between the white world and Harlem.

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December 1, 2007

Ruth Dudley Edwards
Corridors of Death (1982) introduces civil servant Robert Amiss as a reluctant sleuth (in what surprisingly is now an 11-book series), but he seems more like a vehicle for the erudite and witty observations on politics and bureaucracy in England, and by extension, the English speaking world. The rest of the world should be so lucky. (The author’s delightful presence at Anchorage Bouchercon this fall encouraged our interest.) The first book is dense with detail and characterization, as well as delightful dialogue and political intrigue. The satirical and knowledgeable descriptions of modern politics and government compete with the plot, but delightfully so. For those who have enjoyed the “Yes, Minister” series, this book is bound to delight.

David Markson
Epitaph for a Tramp (1959) and Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961), now in print in the same volume, set a very high literary standard for pulp fiction. The first book introduced Harry Fannin, a private detective in 1960s New York, who rarely seems to be in control of his situation. The “tramp” in the first book is his ex-wife, and so we have some period conventions, but the writing and literary allusions more than make up for the predictable weaknesses of the time. The Fannin books set a high standard for mid-century pulp fiction that is hard to beat, and rarely, if ever equaled.

Patrick Neate
The City of Tiny Lights (2005) features Tommy Akhtar, at first glance a typical shamus with cigarette in hand, bottle in drawer, and snappy reparte. But Tommy is of Ugandan Indian extraction, a cricket fan, and a devoted son to a slightly loopy father. The first person narration of this book is distinctive and dense with London slang, comic in a darkish way. Hopefully we will hear from Tommy Akhtar again. Finalist 2007 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

Kate Wilhelm
Death Qualified (1991) is a complex mix of murder mystery, science fiction, and psychology. Barbara Holloway, a defense attorney in Oregon, is “death qualified,” legally able to act in capital cases, though she has not practiced law for years. Convinced by her father to take on a murder defense, Barbara struggles with balancing ideals of justice with legal ethics. Mathematical theories of chaos, interpersonal relationships, and courtroom drama all share the stage. This well crafted novel will appeal to mainstream as well as mystery readers.

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Disclosure: Some of these books were received free from publishers.