Mystery roundup

Humor and history dominate our eclectic selection of 1998's best crime fiction.


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Suzette Lalime
December 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

The sheer volume of mystery books
published each year makes compiling a list of the best a pretty
daunting prospect. I chose a number of these titles because
they have a bit of humor and don't take themselves too
seriously. This year, the impact of scientific research was a
popular theme. So all of my choices make comments on
technology and how it shapes the times in which the story is
set. But one of the best things about a good mystery is that the
author interweaves diverse topics with agility: The reader may
not notice picking up a few new facts because she's having fun.

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The Northbury Papers

BY JOANNE DOBSON | DOUBLEDAY | 288 PAGES

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From the perspective of amateur sleuth Professor Karen
Pelletier, we get a glimpse into academic politics at a small
New York college. Despite discouragement from her
colleagues, Karen reveals her enthusiasm for the melodramatic
novels of 19th century American author Serena Northbury
and pursues a course of research on the author. Just after
Pelletier meets with Northbury's local relatives, one of them is
killed. Pelletier is drawn into the family's conflicts, and into
fiercer academic infighting, by a change in the heiress's will.
Dobson has given Pelletier a feminist agenda, but a very
practical sense of her position at the school, and uses the
contrasting agendas of the other faculty and prominent players
to create a realistic setting for the mystery. This is Dobson's
second book featuring Pelletier.

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While Other People Sleep

BY MARCIA MULLER | MYSTERIOUS PRESS | 368 PAGES

BUY IT FROM BARNES&NOBLE.COM

San Francisco detective Sharon McCone discovers that
someone has stolen her identity when the impostor begins to
make herself known to McCone's colleagues. In a chilling
sequence of events, this intruder draws McCone into her
game, and the detective can only follow, unaware of her
nemesis's motivations. McCone is also hired by the lover of
her office manager, Ted Smalley, who wants her to uncover
why the loyal Ted has been so secretive and tense of late. As
Sharon investigates her friend and tracks down her double, she
finds herself visiting old haunts, trying to outwit two
trespassers who know the intimate terrain of their subject's
lives. Part thriller, part mystery, this book offers a look at the
seedy nightclub scene and into McCone's past and larger
questions of privacy.

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The Last Manly Man

BY SPARKLE HAYTER | WILLIAM MORROW | 256 PAGES

BUY IT FROM BARNES&NOBLE.COM

Why do these things always happen to Robin Hudson, reluctant
sleuth and professional newswoman for All News Network?
Just when she has a real staff, a steady position and a romantic
life, a mysterious man on the street hands her a hat --
containing a message. Before she knows it, she is rationalizing
her involvement with an animal rights group as an assignment
for ANN, getting involved in a plan to rescue a band of
missing bonobo chimps, going hunting with the head of a
corporation, attending a feminist conference and racing all
over New York with co-conspirator Blue Baker. Hayter's
fourth satirical mystery novel continues to investigate Robin's
collection of personal quirks, which include keeping poison
ivy in her window boxes to punish burglars and carrying a
book on the subway called "So You Think You Have Lupus"
to discourage men from asking her out. Check out Hayter's
Web site (yes, that is her real name) and read her "I tried to
quit smoking" journals.

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The First Eagle

BY TONY HILLERMAN | HARPERCOLLINS | 278 PAGES

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In Hillerman's 15th novel, he shows an artful patience -- his
trademark -- as he unwinds the intricate motivations behind a
new set of crimes in Indian Country. The book features
Navajo Tribal policeman acting Lt. Jim Chee and the retired
Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Readers will find two protagonists of subtle
humor: Leaphorn, who is having a rough time retiring, is
searching for a missing "flea catcher," a scientist who studies
the spread of plague viruses. Chee is investigating the death of
a fellow police officer and throughout the trial must work
with his former fiancie. Hillerman is a great storyteller and
uses a rich cultural mix of characters and unique landscapes to
flesh out this tale.

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Tanner on Ice

BY LAWRENCE BLOCK | DUTTON | 256 PAGES

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You can learn a lot of languages if you can't sleep. Evan Tanner, a
sometime sleuth who has insomnia due to a brain injury, studies languages,
makes his living writing theses for graduate students and organizes various
political groups. That is, until he wakes up in 1997 and realizes he has
been "on ice," cryogenetically frozen since 1972. One part Trevanian, one
part Vonnegut, with plenty of surprises and heavy dashes of humor, Block's
funnier moments include Tanner's arrival home to find that his ward,
Minna, has maintained his apartment exactly as he left it 25 years earlier,
except for the addition of "a strange sort of television set, all tricked
out with a typewriter keyboard." His elusive employer sends him on a
mission to stir up a revolution in Burma. Tanner's own agenda replaces the
assignment and the reader is treated to adventures in the cultural and
religious landscape of Burma, the practice of Thai and Burmese Buddhism,
traveling in disguise and revolution.

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-->The Moor: A Mary Russell Novel

BY LAURIE R. KING | ST. MARTIN'S PRESS | 304 PAGES

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What if Sherlock Holmes had married a woman who was a writer and
his intellectual equal, a woman who became his investigative partner? In this
fourth book of her series, Laurie R. King uses the eyes of Mary Russell (who is
married to Holmes but nevertheless discovers new details about him each
time they work together) to provide insight into the popular detective
character. This artful follow-up tale to the classic "The Hound of the
Baskervilles" is set in Dartmoor in 1924. King uses the
character of the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, an eccentric scholar and "colleague" of Holmes,
to contrast folk tales and technology, and the newly rich and country folk.
Mary's description of how she thinks through all the elements of a mystery
-- so deep in thought as if she were in a trance -- is excellent.

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Like a Hole in the Head

BY JEN BANBURY | LITTLE BROWN | 288 PAGES

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Jen Banbury's main character, Jill, the sarcastic employee of the Bitter Muse
Bookstore in Los Angeles, is offered a chance to buy a signed first edition
of Jack London's "The Cruise of the Snark." She buys it and resells it the
same day, pocketing the money. Some serious goons come looking for it, and
Jill is the unreliable narrator with a dark secret, borrowing a gun and a
motorcycle from a friend and trying to get the book back. She faces her
adversaries, learns more than she ever wanted to know about Hollywood
acting families and keeps her cool, even while being interrogated. At times
both funny and scary, this unpredictable book is a great first novel, and a
classic noir tale, '90s style.

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Gone, Baby, Gone

BY DENNIS LEHANE | WILLIAM MORROW | 256 PAGES

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Set in the Boston area, Dennis Lehane's fourth novel is a story about missing children. Private investigators Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie are
investigative partners and lovers who work their cases together. At first
they are reluctant to get involved in the case of a missing 4-year-old
girl, but the girl's determined aunt and a supportive police officer talk them into it. Even though Lehane's narrator
is professionally detached, throughout the book you get a sense of the mood of hopelessness in
the search and the determination it takes to keep it going. Lehane sets the
tone with a sad but practical introduction featuring statistics
of lost children in America and the rates at which they are found. Lehane
creates a broader picture of life, and contrasts Kenzie's and Gennaro's
perspectives as the search is reflected in the media and leaves its mark on
everyone involved.

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When Last Seen Alive

BY GAR ANTHONY HAYWOOD | PUTNAM | 223 PAGES

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Black detective Aaron Gunner is a loner working two assignments: a missing
persons case on a seemingly simple man who turns out to have many enemies and
a surveillance case for the wife of a prominent politician who wants proof
that he's cheating on her. Gar Anthony Haywood, who is true to the hard-boiled school
and pulls no punches, paints a portrait of gritty modern Los Angeles: aloof
cops, seedy hotels and gambling joints peopled with bodyguards and
gangsters. He also places Gunner in a community of business owners who
provide the detective with leads. Gunner comes too close to a secret
organization called Defenders of the Bloodline with a reputation for
eliminating "Uncle Toms" from the "House of Africa" and who threaten
anyone who tries to expose them. Well-paced, realistic dialogue and plenty
of action lead up to an unexpected twist ending.

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The Organ Grinders

BY BILL FITZHUGH | AVON | 368 PAGES

BUY IT FROM BARNES&NOBLE.COM

Bill Fitzhugh's protagonist, Paul Symon, meets his nemesis -- Jerry Landis, the
corrupt head of a corporation that is destroying the natural resources of
all the lands it owns -- early in life. Symon finds it difficult to act
and instead writes Landis letters voicing his rage. Landis is dying of a
rare disease that ages him very quickly, and he buys into the latest
corporate trend: genetic experimentation on primates -- in this case, large
baboons -- for organ transplantation and trade. Landis wants to purchase a
longer life for himself through technology. Fitzhugh's hilarious second
book presents all the modern-day horrors of the destruction humans wreak on
the planet (and on each other) at a breakneck speed. The amount of action
gives his writing an ironic tone, and you can see events flying at the
characters like car wrecks waiting to happen. Fitzhugh has based these
scenarios on real developments in organ transplant research, with which he
heads each chapter. The observant reader will also find the lyrics of the
protagonist's namesake -- musician Paul Simon -- scattered throughout the
text.


Suzette Lalime

MORE FROM Suzette Lalime

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