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This article was published 9/4/2010 (3603 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ever been tempted to shout "Don't do it!" as a horror-movie victim unwittingly stumbles to their demise?
The page-gripping terror of British author Belinda Bauer's smashing debut novel, Blacklands (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $30), will have you delivering just such dire pleas to 12-year-old Steven Lamb.
The disappearance of his uncle, at a similar age two decades earlier, has cast a never-ending pall over Steven's life and those of his broken nan, bitter mother and bewildered younger brother. So, seized by a child's guileless logic, Steven digs holes on Somerset's bleak, rainswept moors, searching for Billy's body — and a measure of closure for his family.
The fruitless search finally leads Steven to ask the one person who may know Billy's fate, an imprisoned child killer presumed to have murdered him. But that contact awakens the appetites of a lingering evil, an exchange of coded, carefully nurtured notes bringing Steven ever closer to his own doom.
It might be deemed sufficiently worthy that Bauer, in this slim volume of lean prose, renders with such heartrending clarity the waves of devastating agony that a random act of malice can send cascading across generations.
But for her to seamlessly inhabit, in alternating narratives, the minds of both a yearning, damaged boy and a seething, blandly amoral predator is remarkable, and their ultimate encounter chillingly horrific.
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Scottish author Philip Kerr thinks his sixth and latest outing for Nazi-era Berlin cop Bernie Gunther is his best book to date. He's not wrong.
Already winner of the British Dagger Award for best historical fiction, If the Dead Rise Not (Putnam, 448 pages, $34) is both a prequel to Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy and a postscript to Gunther's postwar adventures set in Russia, Vienna and Argentina.
A master of gritty, totally immersive milieu, Kerr seamlessly weaves the sardonic, embattled Gunther through corruption and murder cases in both a 1934 Germany caught in the perilous throes of Nazification and a Mafia-ridden, pre-revolutionary Havana 20 years later.
But it's neither the sensory depth of vibrant locales nor the skilfully crafted plot lines, linked across decades by a deep but fleeting love interest and the machinations of an American gangster, that cement this tale into a cohesive wonder.
That adhesive is simply Bernie, tossed by historic tides of threat and evil and moral ambiguity, moulded by his creator into one of crime fiction's singularly memorable actors.
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Who killed Ernest Hemingway? Papa himself, a literary suicide that shocked the world in 1961? Or did the sick, confused and tortured icon have some help from his third wife, Mary?
That's the enigma that fuels Craig McDonald's Print the Legend (Minotaur, 352 pages, $30), a sharply conceived conspiracy thriller driven by a bewildering array of secrets — state, literary and personal.
Fuelled by Hoover-era excesses and a hunt for lost manuscripts, the book might have devolved into a cartoonish whodunit featuring a Hemingway friend and Lost Generation survivor, a murderous government agent with literary pretensions, the pregnant wife of an abusive scholar determined to prove Mary's guilt, and the embittered, alcoholic widow herself.
But McDonald's dense and erudite prose, real-world dialogue, eerily compelling plot and keenly realized players all combine to empower his sobering homily: "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."
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For something completely different (and likely baffling), try The Manual of Detection (Penguin, 288 pages, $29), a nightmarish debut by Massachusetts writer/editor Jedediah Berry.
Armed with only bicycle and umbrella, Charles Unwin, impeccable but haplessly sheltered clerk for an omnipresent Agency, searches an anonymous, rain-drenched city for a missing detective he works for but has never met. The dreamworld characters and bizarre criminal plots he encounters are legion.
That's the short of it. The long of it defies summary, and perhaps analysis. Swiftian satire, Kafkaesque fantasy, absurdist chain-puller or simply absurd, it's one of the most inventive literary mindblowers in recent memory.
John Sullivan is editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.