’Tis the season to curl up with that hot toddy and some even hotter mystery and mayhem.
But along with some bow-worthy nuggets, Santa has dumped a few lumps of coal out there. Here are some new crime and suspense offerings that should make your gift-list -- and others that should not.
You've Been Nice
Presto Variations, by Lee Lamothe (Dundurn, 416 pages, $12): Lamothe knows cops and crooks. When the former Toronto crime reporter isn't tracking Canada's underworld (The Sixth Family), he's penning some of the grittiest (and atypical) crime tales around.
This third outing for star-crossed cop couple Ray Tate and Djuna Brown is no exception. Back in their unnamed Midwestern U.S. border city after a bohemian sojourn in Paris (courtesy of a stolen state-police credit card), the duo stumble over a bizarre scheme to smuggle millions in drug money into Canada. It does not end well.
Once again, Lamothe is all about the characters, and they're all about the three Ls: love, loyalty and loss. But, this time, the thematic riff -- real or perceived, for cops and "mutts" alike -- is betrayal. And fair warning: This is scrappy, in-your-face stuff, with no European-style faux-literary pretension or cozy airport-novel conventions. It's gut-wrenching, no-frills, raw and passionate writing.
Jangly and uneven, there's a touch of Kerouac and Burroughs here, like a beat-generation revival piece. And the extended, grisly, empty-the-clip ending alone is worth the price of admission. If you're brave, go get it. If you're not, go get it anyway and take a walk on the wild side.
A Nasty Piece of Work, by Robert Littell (Thomas Dunne, 272 pages, $29): One of our best literary espionage writers (The Company, Legends, Young Philby) brings his keen, sardonic eye and plot-twist chops to the classic detective novel. Former homicide cop, cashiered CIA op, tentative New Mexico private dick and full-time wise guy Lemuel Gunn tracks a bail-jumping mobster who's blown FBI witness-protection. And, of course, it's all on behalf of a barefoot beauty who's not all she seems.
Somehow, Littell manages to jam in every noir gumshoe cliché and make it fresh, giggle-inducing, razor-sharp and deadly serious -- often at the same time. Gunn is a keeper. One of the year's best.
The Prince of Risk, by Christopher Reich (Doubleday, 384 pages, $29): A good, old-fashioned conspiracy thriller that sees a scrappy Wall Street hedge-fund boss and his FBI-agent ex-wife trying to foil a Chinese cyber attack on the U.S. financial system and a related terrorist plot against the New York Stock Exchange.
Reich's prose and plotting are assured, his market knowledge sound and reader-accessible. Sure, it's all overheated and half-baked in the details, but the thrust is not entirely implausible given recent hacking and technology-theft scandals as well as China's massive stake in the U.S. economy. Enjoy.
Saints of the Shadow Bible, by Ian Rankin (Orion, 336 pages, $29): "Rebus: Saint or Sinner?" The cover prod adorning this 19th series entry must surely be in jest, since any fan of the iconic Edinburgh copper knows well the answer: He's both, and always has been.
After retiring his crusty, retrograde inspector in 2007, then reviving him as a civilian cold-case sleuth in last year's Standing in Another Man's Grave, Rankin has decided to enjoin Rebus with another nascent (and much less compelling) series starring by-the-book complaints officer Malcolm Fox.
While a suspicious car crash, politics and murder are classic grist for Rebus and partner Siobhan Clarke, it's his reluctant involvement in Fox's probe of a 30-year-old murder cover-up by Rebus's first, old-school CID team that tests the binds of loyalty and justice.
The merger is not entirely successful. Teaming Rebus with the strait-laced Fox seems forced and unlikely, Rankin's sardonic repartee out of sorts with the moral-dilemma theme, and the resolution is flawed and overwrought.
Still, it's Rankin and Rebus, a duo that -- even at their less-inspired -- can wipe the floor with most mystery-shelf rivals.
Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $30): In a surrealistic, Putin-era New Russia ruled by plundering mafiya "businessmen," corrupt bureaucrats and scurrilous politicians, Moscow police senior investigator Arkady Renko is a world-weary survivor of multiple Communist and post-Cold War regimes.
A treacherous, multi-billion-ruble deal is struck in a former Soviet "secret city." The meeting's translator, and the mob boss who organized it, are gunned down. The interpreter's symbol-laden notebook, which no one can read, is recovered by a crusading journalist, who then appears to commit suicide. It's a suitable scenario for Renko's sardonic wit and Smith's romantically fatalistic visions.
Spare and less socio-politically nuanced than previous Renko episodes -- Smith recently revealed he's had Parkinson's since 1995, and dictated this one to his wife -- Tatiana nevertheless maintains the indelible moral spirit of 1981's groundbreaking Gorky Park.
Game, by Anders De La Motte (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $18): Loner police bodyguard Rebecca Normen is reunited with her n'er-do-well brother Henke when he's recruited by a mysterious group that taps society's disaffected for increasingly sinister "assignments." Game loses its momentum to typically excessive Scando navel-gazing, but recovers for a decent gotcha ending. First in a trilogy, it's a promising debut by this former Swedish cop and security expert.
You've Been Naughty
Dust, by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam, 512 pages, $31): Yet another fever-vision forensic misfire starring far-beyond-her-best-by-date medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. A garden-variety serial killer tied to a ho-hum Washington conspiracy, an annoyingly familiar team of uniformly angst-ridden characters, reams of first-person narrative doodling and gratuitous use of the Newtown school massacre as a dubious plot device -- what more could you ask of America's most unaccountably popular crime writer? Well, other than Jimmy Patterson.
King & Maxwell, by David Baldacci (Grand Central, 432 pages, $31): Not even Baldacci's practised style and team of editors can save this loopy conspiracy concoction, the sixth in an intermittent series starting Secret Service agents-turned-PIs Sean King and Michelle Maxwell.
Wanna get a billion euros to Iranian insurgents to buy arms? Send it in cash across Afghanistan with one guy. Sure. Wanna knock off the president? Steal the billion, hire a bunch of mercenaries to run interference and take over a satellite that can hijack the big guy's car. (And, yes, that is a spoiler, to save you the effort.)
Pure drivel. And, of course, tops of the bestseller lists. Sigh.
Burnt Black, by Ed Kovacs (Minotaur, 288 pages, $30): Someone is knocking off a thoroughly nasty circle of New Orleans sex-magic practitioners in disgusting fashion. Enter the kick-ass NOPD detective team of Cliff St. James and (no kidding) Honey Baybee to knock heads and finger the unlikely culprit.
A lame bid to be whippy and tough-guy smart that not even an overdose of voodoo can cure.
Soon, by Charlotte Grimshaw (Spiderline, 312 pages, $20): The adoptive daughter of a physician and his wife, given up by a ravishing, manipulative woman before she married New Zealand's future prime minister, is the pawn in this odd study of love, deception and devastating secrets.
Though spiced by murder and betrayal during a vacation retreat of high-powered folks, it's actually not much more than a ponderous character study of a uniformly banal and tiresome cast whose overwrought observations and manipulations drown in literary excess.
Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.