On the way to L.A., solve a crime
For those sticking close to home, mysteries offer a great getaway (First published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 30, 2004)
[Many of the writers I covered in this article have newer books available. I hope you discover some new names in the genre and if you have a few from any of the locations you'd like to recommend let me know-CB]
Reading a good mystery is like taking a journey along dangerous roads in a car crowded with suspicious characters speeding toward an unfamiliar destination with a driver who may or may not know how to get there. But it is a journey worth taking.
For many of us, two of the summer's greatest pleasures are reading mysteries and taking road trips. So pack your snacks, fill your water bottles, grab your shades (or your reading glasses), crank the Beatles and "roll up for the mystery tour." The mysteries on this tour are set in some of our favorite summer destinations.
The landscape of the American mystery is as rich and varied as the country itself, and so with help from reference librarians at the public libraries in many of our destinations, this mystery tour has chosen to visit mysteries ranging from the classic to the hard-boiled. Since space on any road trip is at a premium, we must travel light. Each mystery on this tour is available in paperback, and, because there are simply too many good mysteries and not enough time, the tour's main guide has chosen to visit some of the lesser-known mysteries in a few areas such as New York and Los Angeles. Ready? Then "roll up" and read on. Like the Beatles we're "dying to take you away."
Sara Paretsky's "Indemnity Only" introduces us to Chicago through the eyes of her feminist P.I., V.I. Warshawski, and begins a relationship with the city that has deepened and darkened over 11 books. "As I drove south along Lake Michigan," says Warshawski in the book's opening pages, "I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air . . . traffic was heavy, the city moving restlessly, trying to breathe. It was July in Chicago." Along with Paretsky, Barbara D'Amato's Cat Marsala series, beginning with "Hardball," provides equally "strong local color," according to Merle Jacob, Chicago Public Library director of library collections and development. Both Paretsky and D'Amato are sisters in Chicago crime with Eleanor Taylor Bland, whose African-American police detective, Marti MacAlister, solves mysteries in a Chicago suburb. Bland's mysteries are closer to the classic tradition than the hard-boiled, but there is always a social message with the mystery. In the acknowledgments to "Indemnity Only,"Paretsky praises another Chicago mystery writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky.
Kaminsky writes several award-winning mystery series, but his police detective, Abe Lieberman, according to Jacob, is one of Chicago's best. In "Lieberman's Folly," Kaminsky explores Chicago and its people with compassion and insight. Two other writers capture the Windy City's persona with aplomb: Max Allan Collins in "Chicago Confidential," and Michael Raleigh in "The Maxwell Street Blues." Collins writes historical hard-boiled and his main character, Nate Heller, is an ex-cop turned P.I. Set in the 1950s, "Chicago Confidential" brings fictional folks together with real characters. Jayne Mansfield, Frank Sinatra and Joseph McCarthy all hang with Heller. "Michael Raleigh's books," adds Jacob, "are gritty and take place in uptown Chicago. They're wonderful." No trip to Chicago's literary landscape would be complete without reading two of its better mysteries in the cozier classic tradition. Fred Hunter's "The Mummy's Ransom," with homicide detective Jeremy Ransom and his "adopted grandmother," Emily Charters, and Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling mysteries set in Fox Lake.
There has always been more fictional crime in Minnesota than in the rest of the Midwest. Michael McCabe of the Minnesota Public Library and his staff recommend John Sandford's enduring Prey Series, along with mother-daughter writing team P.J. Tracy's "The Monkeewrench," set in Minneapolis, and Tracy's sequel "Live Bait," which travels across the Ford Bridge into St. Paul. Beyond the Twin Cities, William Kent Kreuger, like Sandford, blends the hard-boiled tradition with settings more common to classic mysteries. Krueger's geography is the lakes, rivers, and woods of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Cork O'Connor, Krueger's protagonist, is part Irish and part Anishinaabe Indian, and the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota. O'Connor's strong moral vision and clear compassion police this pristine wilderness.
Ellen Hart's "Stage Fright," is set in a Guthrie-like theater where Jane Lawless, Hart's lesbian restaurateur and amateur detective, finds herself solving a classic puzzle mystery. Another of Hart's mysteries, "Oldest Sin," features food critic Sophie Greenway and is set in a well-known although renamed St. Paul hotel. Wandering into Steve Thayer's "The Wheat Field," our tour is thrown back in time to the political landscape of Wisconsin in 1960. Pliny Pennington is a deputy in Kickapoo Falls, Wis., and he finds himself caught in the chaff of the Kennedy / Nixon presidential campaign. A number of mysteries set in the Midwest place distinctive characters in harsh climates: "Dead of Winter," by P.J. Parrish, features Louis Kincaid, a biracial cop in frigid Loon Lake, Mich., and in "Outburst," R.D. Zimmerman's fourth Todd Mills book, Mills, a gay TV journalist, is caught in a deadly Minneapolis rainstorm. Leaving Minnesota, we travel across the Upper Peninsula to "A Cold Day in Paradise," Steve Hamilton's semi-hard-boiled mystery set near Lake Superior.
ON THE ROAD WEST
Traveling west, "The Spirit of the Hills" is visible in Dan O'Brien's Black Hills mystery, which the reference librarians at the Rapid City Public Library in South Dakota highly recommend. Vietnam vet Tom McVay is searching for his missing brother during a Sioux protest at Mount Rushmore. Nearby, it is "Open Season" in Wyoming, C.J. Box's rugged mystery in the classic tradition. Joe Picket, a game warden, hikes the violent mountain terrain and struggles with a precarious family situation. In Denver, John Dunning's Bookman series may send some readers scouring the area bookstores for first editions. Jennifer Hoffman, senior librarian for the Denver Public Library, reports that Stephanie Kane's Denver mystery "Quiet Time" is on her list to read. Further west, the landscape darkens considerably as we near Seattle and Ridley Pearson territory. His procedural mysteries featuring homicide detective Lou Boldt and his colleague Daphne Mathews, a police psychologist, are intimate in their details of Seattle and their exploration of the criminal mind.
Nancy Pearl, director of the Washington Center for the Book, also recommends G.M. Ford's "Black River" and Aaron Elkins' "The Dark Place," which takes us to the rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula. Margaret Coel's "The Eagle Catcher" features a banished priest from Boston and an Arapaho attorney working similar territory in a Wyoming reservation. Coel uses the classic mystery tradition to expose the jagged terrain where tradition and progress clash.
A story's setting can either mirror the psyche of its characters or shape the characters' actions. Two mysteries set in the Southwest achieve both. "Zia Summer" by Rudolfo Anaya, one of the America's foremost Chicano writers, mixes a number of native cultures into his mysteries, and, like Tony Hillerman, uses the lyrical beauty of New Mexico to deepen his plots. Zia's mystery opens with the smell of "coffee brewing, tortillas cooking on a comal, beans boiling, and simmering green chile: the aromas of home and peace," and like all of these, Anaya's story lingers. For Joanna Brady, the hero in J.A. Jance's "Desert Heat," the Arizona desert not only reflects her character's personal loss, but the vast emptiness of the setting offers her a new beginning.
Over the years, many mystery characters have left more than their hearts in San Francisco. The hard-boiled tradition started with Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" and continues through two of the most consistently well-written series in the tradition: Stephen Greenleaf's mysteries featuring the moral and witty P.I., John Marshall Tanner, and Marcia Muller's books with tough yet compassionate P.I. Sharon McCone. "Book Case" and "Ellipsis" are worthy introductions to Tanner and his city. Muller's "The Cheshire Cat's Eye" is set in a San Francisco neighborhood popular with tourists. Greg Kelly of the San Francisco History Center also recommends the procedural mysteries of John Lescroat, featuring criminal lawyer Dismas Hardy. In "The Vig," and "Hard Evidence," Lescroat covers the streets and the courtrooms of the city like a native.
Laurie R. King's "A Grave Talent" transforms the classic mystery tradition through a highly revealing narrative and to reveal more here would demand a spoiler. It's enough to say that King writes about San Francisco with passion. One pill may make you larger, but reading David Daniel's "White Rabbit" can make you a hippie all over again. Set in Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s, Daniel's hard-boiled mystery turns a serial killer loose in the streets of San Francisco.
Charlotte Justice is one of the most aptly named homicide detectives on this tour. "Inner City Blues" by Paula Woods is set in Los Angeles right after the Rodney King riots, and with Justice, Woods gives us a vision of the city through the eyes of a middle class African-American woman. "When Baldwin Hills was developed a lot of streets were given Spanish names," says Justice, "so the streets were christened with names like Don Lorenzo and Don Diablo and Don Quixote. There were so many that by the time black folks integrated Baldwin Hills in the sixties everybody just called the whole area 'the Dons.' " Another fitting name for an L.A. homicide detective is Michael Connelly's Hieronymus Bosch who first appeared in the hard-boiled procedural "The Black Echo." In the historical world, Bosch was actually a 15th-century artist who painted, according to Connelly on his Web site (www.michaelconnelly.com/index.html), "richly detailed landscapes of debauchery, violence, and human defilement." Connelly adds he likes to use "the metaphoric possibilities of juxtaposing contemporary Los Angeles with some of Bosch's paintings."
Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins also takes readers to a place not often seen in literature: the world of the African-American male. In fact, Mosley's books, beginning with "The Devil in a Blue Dress" set in L.A. after World War II, transcend the hard-boiled tradition and offer a history of the black male in America. John Ridley's "Everybody Smokes in Hell" does nothing to lighten up this literary stop in Los Angeles. Ridley, originally from Milwaukee and currently a Hollywood screenwriter, writes noir so dark we need a flaming torch. Finally, Robert Crais' mystery, "The Monkey's Raincoat," follows in the hard-boiled loafers of Ross MacDonald, and features Elvis Cole, a smart and snarky P.I. who would rather be reading.
Despite Robert Parker and Linda Barnes looming large on the Boston literary landscape, this city may have more private investigators per neighborhood than any other in the country. "If women, because of their socialization, read the world differently than do men," says mystery critic Maureen T. Reddy in "Sisters in Crime," "then it stands to reason that a woman detective might read clues differently than a male detective." This gender difference is one of the strengths of Dennis Lehane's "A Drink Before the War" and his series with on-again off-again lovers and P.I. partners, Patrick Kinsey and Angela Gennero. Both Gennero and Kinsey inhabit the same neighborhoods of Boston, yet it is in the collaborations of their differences that crimes are solved.
Jane Langton's Homer Kelly mysteries are written in the classic tradition, and her "Murder at Monticello" is way more entertaining than any tour guide of Jefferson's historic home. Finally, a summer road trip would not be complete without a baseball game. Richard Rosen's "Strike Three, You're Dead" features a Boston P.I. who's an ex-Red Sox player, and his mystery is one of the best sports stories around.
New York City's literary landscape is rife with crime and punishment. The city is home to "A Rage in Harlem," Chester Himes' 1957 debut of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Himes is considered the godfather of the black hard-boiled tradition. Following in Himes' Harlem footsteps is Grace F. Edwards in "If I Should Die." Her protagonist, Mali Anderson, a P.I. trying to finish her PhD. Anderson lives on Strivers Row, a street so named because its residents are mostly African-American professionals.
S.J. Rozan's Chinatown mysteries are distinctly New York in setting and point of view. Each novel in the series alternates the voice of Lydia Chin, a Chinese American, with Bill Smith, who is white. Starting with "China Trade," this series has won every major mystery award, including the Edgar, the Anthony, the Shamus, the Nero and the Macavity. A brownstone in Manhattan and a circus in Central Park are the primary setting for "The Vanished Man," one of Jeffrey Deaver's provocative and heart-pounding mysteries featuring forensic expert Lincoln Rhymes and his partner Amelia Sachs. Since Rhymes is a quadriplegic, he rarely travels beyond his apartment, but with Sachs' help, they both move into the darkest and most disturbing parts of the human psyche. In Linda Fairstein's "The Deadhouse," New York's deadly past leaches on to its present and Alexandra Cooper, a Manhattan D.A., must sort them out before she becomes the next victim. The book is steeped in interesting details of the city in the 19th century. Across town, Wall Street is the setting for "Blood on the Street" by Annette Meyers. Financial headhunters Xenia Smith and Leslie Wetson, yup, Smith and Wetson, are the prototypes for Samantha and Carrie in "Sex and the City."
Reading William Lashner's hard-boiled "Fatal Flaw" is like staring at a tightly cropped photo as the camera slowly pans wide and we gradually realize everything we thought to be true in this mystery is actually fatally flawed. The stories in Nancy Martin's Blackbird Sisters mysteries are as flirty and fun as the Marilyn Monroe movies suggested in the titles: "Dead Girls Don't Wear Diamonds," "How to Murder a Millionaire" and "Some Like It Lethal."
Ann Ripley's "Mulch" mixes politics and perennials and finds murder in a heaping pile of compost. Her northern Virginia gardening mysteries are firmly planted on the cozy side of the classic tradition.
George Pelecanos' "Soul Circus" and Margaret Truman's "Murder at Ford's Theatre" are as far apart in style and substance as Columbia Heights is from Georgetown. Truman's mysteries all have tourist destinations in their titles and cover the D.C. map. Pelecanos uses his characters, Derek Strange, who is black, and Terry Quinn, who is white, to confront how wide and complicated the racial divide in D.C. really is. Rebecca Fritz, a reference librarian at the Martin Luther King Library in D.C., also suggests "The Bride's Kimono" by Sujata Massey. This mystery features Rei Shimura, an antique dealer who lives in Tokyo but returns to D.C. to find romance and murder in the city's museums.
SOUTHEAST, GULF COAST & FLORIDA
"A Carolina mystery tour," insists Harlan Greene, manager of special collections at Charleston County Public Library, "must start with Edgar Allen Poe's story 'The Gold Bug' set on an island in Charleston's harbor." And since an Agatha Christie stop is not possible on this tour, Carolyn Hart's "The Christie Caper" also set in Charleston is the next best thing. The caper is a loving tribute to Christie and includes a murdered hard-boiled critic, a Miss Marple look-a-like, and a trivia contest for readers using the book's chapter titles as clues. Biloxi, Miss., "used to be a place where folks from the Midwest just passed through," says Charlene Longino, the head librarian at Biloxi Public Library. "Now Midwesterners stay with us." Longino recommends two Biloxi mysteries with "lots of local color": Anne George's comic "Murder on a Girl's Night Out" and Martin Hegwood's hard-boiled mystery, "The Green-eyed Hurricane." George's mystery is from The Southern Sisters series, and "it's a lot of fun." Hegwood's mystery, Longino says, is "authentic in its descriptions of local places and coastal culture."
Darryl Wimberley writes about the Florida Gulf Coast in "A Rock and A Hard Place," featuring Barrett Raines, the only African-American on an otherwise all-white police force. In Miami, Carolina Garcia-Aquilera's "Bitter Sugar" features P.I. Lupe Solana, who is caught between her feminism and her family's Cuban traditions.
And finally we reach the Florida of Carl Hiaasen whose comic mystery "Native Tongue" is required reading for anyone heading to a theme park this summer. Hiaasen writes hilarious, soft-core satire attacking eco-terrorists and developers with equal flourish. The cause of death of one particular character in this Hiaasen novel is so outrageous and so dramatically ironic if it were said aloud it would bring this tour to an end.