Mobster inlaws, a good-hearted gangster, corrupt Chinese bureaucrats, a killer who has it out for the blues, and an ex who just won't die: These are some of the wrongdoers who keep these deadly tales hopping.
Married to the Mob
Family Honor (Putnam, $22.95) is being advertised as a bold departure for Robert B. Parker, because the book's first-person-narrator protagonist is Parker's first female private eye. But this is actually the kind of humane, shrewd, snappy, wonderfully diverting stuff Parker has been turning out for years with -- at least he makes it seem so -- one hand tied behind his back. Family Honor is, in fact, more-of-the-same Parker, and as such it's a gift.
The PI is Sunny Randall, petite, sexy, 35, an ex-cop who found that the Boston Police Department was "too hierarchical" for her. She's got an ex-husband, Richie Burke, who still gets her pulse galloping. The way he viewed the marriage was "suffocating" to her, however, and then there was his problematical family, two of them mobsters. Richie isn't himself a criminal -- he just allowed his father and uncle to finance his popular saloon -- but being married to him was exhaustingly complex.
Parker has always been sharp and funny with suburban WASPs who put on haute bourgeois airs, and in Family Honor he comes up with a couple of doozies. Brock Patton is a banking magnate and would-be Massachusetts governor who meets Randall and oozes to her that she's "awfully feisty for someone so attractive." Above Patton's fireplace is a portrait of his wife, Betty, "a good-looking woman with smooth blond hair and the contemptuous smile of a well-fed house cat."
The Pattons hire Randall to find their runaway teenage daughter, Millicent. She's one of those lost young people Parker portrays so well with his mixture of blunt realism and deadpan sympathetic humor about kids. Randall ends up hiding Millicent in her apartment -- a killer is after her on account of something she overheard at her parents' house -- and it's a trial for Randall, for poor Millicent has never learned the social basics of "how to be a person."
In sorting all this out Randall gets a little help from her psychotherapist pal Julie, from another chum, Spike, a gay man who boxes as adroitly as he cooks, and from Randall's miniature bull terrier, Rosie, whose dignity is impugned when a nun mentions to a miffed Randall that the dog looks like a possum.
Ex-husband Richie's mob family is brought in, too, for some not overly plausible rough justice that feels like a failure of imagination on Parker's part. But this is the only unsatisfying note in a series debut -- by a man who's written more than 30 books -- which in its unassuming way glows.
What a Racket
While Parker fails to leave some of us with a feeling of "can't get enough of those South Boston hoodlums," Jake Arnott pulls off the amazing feat of making a sadistic 1960s London mob boss fascinating -- if sometimes sickening -- for 345 very fast pages.
In The Long Firm (Soho, $25), Arnott invents a fictional counterpart to the infamous real-life Kray twins, who dominated London racketeering in the age of James Bond and Carnaby Street. Like Ronnie Kray, Harry Starks is gay; but unlike the Krays, at least as they are portrayed here, Starks is tenderhearted toward his friends, lovers and loyal colleagues. Treachery, however, or unwarranted cruelty toward the innocent, can lead to Starks reaching for his white-hot poker. And in the competition over London's extortion, pornography and airport-heist rackets, the rules are all-encompassing. "Harry didn't like to do business with anybody he couldn't tie to a chair."
Arnott lays out Starks's story with five separate narrators, each with a distinctive and richly colorful voice and point of view about Starks. One is Terry, a young man who is casually, then reluctantly, "kept" by Starks. Terry wants nothing more than to be like a character in Pinocchio, "where all the bad boys bunk off school and go to Playland." Although, Terry is soon reminded, "all the lazy boys are turned into donkeys in the end."
Lord Teddy Thursby is a cheerful, slippery old closet queen whose hypocrisy and moral cowardice almost let a psychopath get away with murder. But Starks fixes that. Another reckless fellow is the Cockney mobster, Jack the Hat, who works "car-park fiddles" and other scams at "Thiefrow" airport. Jack is himself addicted to "brown bombers" -- the '60s drug scene is an occasion of joy for the mob -- but tries to keep his distance from what the newspapers refer to as the "twilight world of homosexuals." Ruby Ryder is a self-described "tarty actress with a shady past" who lands in hot water by finding love in the wrong place -- i.e., with a confused young man Starks is head-over-heels in love with.
By far the most startling -- and funniest -- character with a Harry Starks story is a young university sociologist who sets out to "study" Harry and situate him in his work in deviance theory. "Presuming the authority of working-class culture, the gangster actually upholds the binary systems of late-stage capitalism," the Marxist-hippie professor asserts. Starks knows the criminal mind far better than his teacher, however, and lures the theoretician into a misadventure that serves as a priceless climax to the novel.
Also appearing briefly in The Long Firm is a ghostly, broken Judy Garland, nearing her drug-overdose death in 1969. Starks think her company will lend him glamour; but she's way beyond that.
Old Flames and Alphabet Soup
The new Sue Grafton, like the new Parker, falls apart a bit near the end -- you want a writer this smart and fresh never to flag at all -- but "O" Is for Outlaw (Henry Holt, $26) still offers, page for page, about as much pure pleasure as you'll find in mystery writing today. It's too bad Grafton is stuck with all those clunky alphabet titles -- "A" Is for Alibi, etc. -- because they don't begin to suggest the Kinsey Millhone series' uninhibited sense of fun.
This one is set in 1986 (Millhone, still only 36, has been caught in a time warp since soon after the series was launched) and forces Millhone to examine events 14 years earlier, the year she married and divorced her first husband, Mickey Magruder. She dumped Magruder, a rowdy right-wing vice cop, after he asked Millhone to lie about his whereabouts on the night a man who angered Magruder in a barroom confrontation was beaten to death. She assumed he did it.
But now a previously undelivered letter turns up, via a "storage-space scavenger," revealing Magruder's true whereabouts on the fatal night: He was in bed with an old girlfriend. Now Millhone is mad at him all over again, for cheating on her, and angry at herself for doubting his innocence. She's also afraid that she may have contributed to Magruder's ruination as a cop, and feels even guiltier when she learns that Magruder has been shot by a mysterious assailant down the coast in Los Angeles and lies comatose and near death.
Millhone's attempts to set things right with her lost ex take her back to the complex and often murky Southern California police culture where she first learned her own investigative skills -- if not values -- and then even further back, to the Vietnam War, many of whose veterans returned home and became police officers. In fact it's an L.A. police detective who appears, deus ex machina-like, when Millhone's investigation hits a dead end and provides information that clears the way for her to snag an arrogant big-time operator with a murderous distant past.
As always, the main attraction in Grafton is the sly, accident-prone, personable-when-not cranky Millhone herself. She's still the anti-Simenon with her culinary habits; one night for dinner she enjoys a glass of Chardonnay and a Kraft olive-pimento-cheese-spread sandwich. Sniffing out clues, she tries to insinuate herself into a locked apartment through the back-porch doggie door and -- stuck halfway -- comes face to face with the entryway's normal user. "He stopped in his tracks and stood there, his expression a perfect blend of confusion and incredulity. I could almost see the question mark forming above his head." Wonderful.
Sweet and Sour
Lisa See's thriller The Interior (HarperCollins, $25), lurches around confusingly, and it nonchalantly observes one of the sillier conventions of the genre by having an otherwise smart woman put herself -- and her unborn child! -- in terrible jeopardy for no better reason than that if she didn't, the novel would come to a screeching halt. That's the bad news.
The good news is that The Interior is packed with apparently well-researched and nuanced reporting on life in today's China, from official Beijing to the remotest peasants' fields to the country's hundreds of new foreign, manufacturing plants, many of them American. These factories are the places rural women flock to, hoping that life there will offer an improvement over a brutal existence in the fields, often with abusive fathers and unhappy arranged marriages at home.
Liu Hulan is the police detective who revisits the site of her Cultural Revolution agricultural days in the '70s and discovers that an old friend's daughter is dead, an official but dubious "`suicide," after the young woman threatened to expose harsh labor conditions at a U.S.-owned factory. Funnily enough, the pregnant Hulan's American fiance, David Stark, is an L.A. lawyer who's negotiating the sale of that very same factory.
This is all pretty clumsily tacked together, but Hulan is an insightful guide to both Chinese corruption and those who resist it, and to -- as a Chinese vice minister puts it -- "these foreigners who are coming into our country like ants looking for sugar."
Cuts Like a Knife
Mystery readers who love the blues should check out Greg Kihn's Mojo Hand (Forge, $23.95), about a plot to kill off the country's remaining great bluesmen. The investigatory to-ing and fro-ing by earnest amateurs -- a blues guitarist and his music-writer girlfriend -- is more Franklin W. Dixon than John Le Carre. But Kihn is a likable storyteller who, when he's rhapsodizing over the music that makes his spirit soar, soars as a writer.
It's 1977 and disco reigns. The blues is being rejected by many African Americans as the music of oppression. But Oakland Slim and a few other "brokenhearted dinosaurs" are still touring, and some don't mind being excluded from the glitz. "I like a club where my shoes stick to the floor," Slim says.
The surprise reappearance of blues great Robert Johnson, long thought dead, coincides with a series of slashing murders of bluesmen. Louisiana voodoo figures in the plot, as well as the arcane economics of the record business.
Kihn is especially acute on the exploitation of bluesmen by rock musicians. His droll picture of "Heath Pritchard" of the "Crawlin' Kingsnakes" is choice. Not that many of the blues men are even aware of the big-money music scene. When a writer interviewing B. Bobby Bostic mentions one rock icon, an only mildly curious Bostic replies, "Who's Jerry Garcia?"
Richard Lipez writes novels under the name Richard Stevenson. "Strachey's Folly" is the latest.