From a small town on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin to the St. Croix River, and from Brooklyn to Miami: four detectives in search of four killers.
Flying the Coop
The Minnesota-Wisconsin border is not your typical landscape for crime. But that's where poet Mary Logue sets Blood Country (Walker, $24.95), her first book featuring Claire Watkins and her daughter, Meg. After Claire's husband is killed in front of their house in Minneapolis, Claire leaves her job as a policewoman and finds refuge in the quiet of Fort St. Antoine, a small town nestled in the limestone bluffs of Wisconsin. But that life, too, is disrupted by violences large and small: A neighbor is found in his garden, dead from shovel blows to the head; Claire's sister Bridget starts to imagine that her husband is having an affair; the local pheasant farmer finds young chicks smothered and mangled alongside their coops. Fort St. Antoine itself is divided over how to handle building permits for a proposed new housing development that would alter the quiet community forever. And then old business adds to the new when Meg admits that she witnessed her father's murder and has seen his killer.
There are a lot of plots here, and Logue doesn't quite weave all the strands of local greed, buried history and contemporary danger into a harmonious tapestry. What she does do, though, is offer a wonderfully vivid tale of a woman's efforts to reconstruct her world when the geographic cure fails. Claire's a rich mix of savvy and street smarts and unexamined vulnerabilities. Her anxious desire to shield her sister and child threatens her equally sincere devotion to figure out her husband's death, and both feelings battle with her anxiety to protect her neighbor's land from greedy relatives while she uncovers the reasons for his death. Then there's Rich, the pheasant farmer, a quiet and unassuming figure who becomes more important to Claire with each meeting. The local territory gets submerged a bit in the brutality and sexual threats that come with Claire's quest for her husband's killer, but it never disappears entirely, and provides a welcome ballast to the high melodrama. As Logue moves her figures more fully into the rural landscape she's created, the series should become a real gem.
Harold Adams is another Midwesterner who makes the Midwestern woods and farms come alive. Lead, So I Can Follow (Walker, $22.95) is the 16th book in his Carl Wilcox series about the itinerant, often randy sign painter and sometime detective who wanders through the Dakotas and Minnesota of Depression-era America. This time we're in a tent on an island on the St. Croix River separating Minnesota and Wisconsin. And Wilcox is not alone: He's on his honeymoon with his new wife, Hazel, when he hears a shot, a yell, a scream and the night's silence. In a few moments he's pulling a body out of the way of an oncoming train, and his days of romantic solitude with bride Hazel are over.
The body turns out to belong to Francis "Link" Linklater, trombonist in a local band. Wilcox and Hazel try to make sense of his death by talking to the rest of the musicians, attached to each other more by their mutual passion for their lead singer, Kat, than by their music. Kat herself is a mysterious and unknowing woman who likes to be the center of attention while remaining unattached, even disconnected. The band's adoration of her shows itself in a confusing mixture of revelations and evasions in their responses to Wilcox's questions. But finally, unraveling Link's death, Wilcox and Hazel discover connections to an earlier crime: the seeming suicide of Nate Pryke, a failing if well-heeled young farmer.
Adams is a master of the laconic, low-key harmonics of small-town 1930s America: the look of cars and crocheted arm covers, the feel of unpainted wood, mosquito bites and diner counters. They're all here, providing the tang of a lost world and forgotten time. Here, too, is the quiet, plodding detection that Wilcox now shares with Hazel, as the two question witnesses, string together alibis, uncover lies and half-truths -- she sometimes his Watson, he sometimes hers. There's also more leering than we need, especially over the beautiful Hazel. And sometimes laconic can just seem dull: the interviews that circle and recircle the same material, the "and then" storytelling that drones away, killing suspense. You don't read Adams for excitement; you read him for characters and scenes and for the methodical accumulation of details about how folks lived then, thought then, talked then. The solutions, such as they are, seem afterthoughts, a few cookies to offer along with the coffee to visitors. But if you like your mysteries cool, and can relish a taste of Midwestern summer heat and buzzing insects, you'll find the hospitality perfect here.
Nicky and Nora
You practically get two novels in one in Robert Leuci's Blaze (Avon, $24). First there's the story of Nora Riter, tough detective captain, who's struggling with a husband who beat her, then left her and ran off with her police revolver along with her money. When her ex-partner, Sam, just days from retirement, tries to get the revolver back, he's wounded, and Nora finds herself under internal investigation. Story number two features Nicky Ossman, alias Nicky the Hawk, a Brooklyn street thief who's out to steal a lamb just to see if he can still do it. Nicky's got his own domestic issues: a cousin, Irma, who's doing tricks for men; and a kid named Tino who's become Nicky's surrogate son since Nicky rescued the boy from a car where he sat, deserted by his dad.
Leuci swings back and forth between Nora and Nicky, creating a modulated seesaw of a novel in which we spend a long time not quite seeing what the stories have to do with each other, while realizing that they have to come together soon. The lamb lands Nicky in Nora's custody and eventually in jail, but what really unites the two characters, and tales, is Blaze Longo, Nicky's cousin and a hoodlum and gambler who likes to cut off fingers and ears and other appendages when people can't pay their debts. Assigned to get Blaze, Nora forces Nicky to go undercover with his cousin. But neither of them knows all the reasons why Blaze is a threat to Nora's boss on the police force, nor how Blaze seems to know what's happening the moment the police do.
Leuci, the famed "Prince of the City," knows his urban politics and police procedures, and has a great ear for the rhythms of working-class life. The motives get a little hokey here and there but keep on the right side of reasonable and are supported by a rushing energy that moves the book along from scene to scene. That pace lets you forget the failings and instead relish the action, the play of cautions and admiration between Nora and Nicky, and the light touch Leuci displays with Nicky's self-created family. It's low-grade adventure, perhaps, with just a bit too much gory talk of butcher's knives and cleavers, but it's also pretty much nonstop fun.
A Kiss Before Dying
It's hard to know what to say about Edna Buchanan's Garden of Evil (Avon, $24). The novel starts out with that usual zing Buchanan brings to her Britt Montero series featuring the Miami News reporter who solves more crimes than she writes about as she covers the police beat "in this superheated sea level city at the bottom of the map." This time out Britt is watching her best stories get shoved onto the back pages of the paper. When she tries to follow up a couple of other leads, like one about an ex-Orange Bowl Queen who thinks that someone's trying to kill her, she ends up doubting the aging beauty's suspicions. But a shooting in northern Florida starts to interest her: A woman kills a sheriff with two bullets, then runs off with his car. Soon more details emerge: The lawman was killed with his pants down, shot in the brain and groin, and had a reputation as a lech; the car is abandoned but not before another man is found dead, with his car gone, his pants down, lipstick on the bullet casings.
And so the serial killings develop, as the young woman, dubbed the Kiss Me Killer by the press, moves slowly into Miami, car by car, victim by victim, sexual coupling by sexual coupling. When Brett starts to write about one of the killings, the killer calls her, and soon they are setting up an interview -- while the cops set up an ambush.
From there it's macabre brutality delivered with breathless vapidity. Gone are the tensions of an urban world that has changed character in less than 50 years; gone too are the multiple strands of plot and interpolated tales of crime and idealism that keep the first part of the book lively and rich with implication. With the faceoff of killer and reporter, culture dissolves into cruelty, and the intriguing issues of power, sexuality and rape that propel the early pages diminish to vengeance and insanity. Perhaps one wouldn't feel so disappointed if there weren't so much possibility offered in the ripe and intense first half of this lopsided and disappointing novel.
Paul Skenazy is provost of Kresge College, University of California, and the author of works on Chandler, Hammett and James M. Cain.