Steam heat and cold ground

In our roundup of the best new mysteries, a hip-hopper sells his soul to the devil, an abortion goes wrong in late-'60s Chicago, and a Minnesota sheriff's detective can't find her shifty cop husband.

By Charles Taylor
Published February 27, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)
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"Dirty South"
By Ace Atkins
304 pages
William Morrow

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It's clear by now that Ace Atkins' mysteries featuring blues history professor Nick Travers are all, in their way, ghost stories. Music has its own ectoplasm in these books. Sometimes those emanations come from the rare blues recordings Nick plays on his cassette deck. Most of the time, though, the vibrations the music leaves behind are in the places where those legendary and forgotten musicians played, in the lives of the people who knew them -- and they are not always a force for good. Atkins has kept faith with the idea that art has the power to take over our lives, turn it upside down, and shake it to pieces.

Atkins' first novel, "Crossroad Blues," found Nick lost in the mystery surrounding the death of Robert Johnson. Another part of Johnson's legend, the story of the blues guitarist selling his soul at the crossroads, reverberates through the fourth Nick Travers mystery, the terrifically titled "Dirty South." The focus here is on hip-hop, with Nick, a one-time pro football player, helping out an old teammate who has made a killing as a hip-hop impresario. Nick's buddy is in debt to some very bad men and is trying to hold on to his new meal ticket, a 15-year-old millionaire rapper named Alias.

The prickly, implied idea behind "Dirty South" is that, except for an older generation of black people (and mostly Southern blacks at that), blues has become almost entirely of interest only to white folks, fans and archivists and academics like Nick himself. To the kids and young adults hooked on hip-hop, the blues is as antiquated as a tub washing machine with a wringer on top. Atkins doesn't berate Alias or the hip-hop fans who turn up in the book for ignoring their heritage; he realizes that's an old duffer's game.

What makes "Dirty South" so potent is Atkins' suggestion that hip-hoppers who've never heard of Robert Johnson may be living out part of his legacy: In the world of "Dirty South" there's always a devil waiting at the crossroads to tempt these kids into selling their souls. (The plethora of posthumous releases in the hip-hop racks of the record store bear out Atkins' implied contention that the most profitable rapper is a dead one.) The sting of the book is that instead of gaining the chops Johnson did, they are trading away what made their music special. "You like seein' your face off buses and bein' thug-lipped over Times Square and it's cool," says Alias at one point, "but somehow you feel like you losin' you. Your rhymes not comin' out the way you feel. The beats you hear sound like someone openin' up a tin can."

The mystery Atkins sets up here is good, solidly constructed as his mysteries always are. But what works its way under your skin is Atkins' peculiar combination of realism and eeriness. The raggedy assassin who sets off after Nick is a walking bad dream, and he materializes and disappears with the insidiousness of a truly evil spirit. As a writer, Atkins knows how to walk fine lines with perfect balance; his books are compassionate, hard and richly atmospheric in a way that never overshadows narrative. As much as anyone else writing, he escapes the sentimentality that bedevils hard-boiled fiction. The end of "Dirty South" finds Nick settled in a way that suggests, if not the end of his journey, at least some well-earned peace. You'd have to be a piker to begrudge Nick that -- but I really hope "Dirty South" isn't his final appearance in print.

"Stone Cribs"
By Kris Nelscott
323 pages
St. Martin's Minotaur

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With "Stone Cribs," her fourth Smokey Dalton mystery, Kris Nelscott can lay claim to the strongest series of detective novels now being written by an American author. "Stone Cribs" picks up where the previous book, "Thin Walls," left off, in 1969 Chicago. Beginning with her first book, "A Dangerous Road," set in Memphis a few months before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelscott has been detailing the racial politics of those years.

Here, she ventures into the sexual politics of the years before Roe vs. Wade. Smokey comes home to his Chicago apartment one night to find a woman bleeding to death from a botched abortion in his neighbor Marvella's apartment. He and his girlfriend Laura rush her to the hospital and encounter a doctor who will not intervene to save the woman's life until she names the doctor who operated on her.

That's the kind of detail that makes 35 years ago seem like the Dark Ages. (And with the Bush administration doing what it can to set back abortion rights, with John Ashcroft subpoenaing the names of women who've undergone partial-birth abortions, it's an age we're about to plunge right back into.) As in the previous Smokey Dalton books, Nelscott's method is to make the distance of that past seem immediate.

It was an article of feminist faith, in the era which Nelscott is writing about here, that all women were disadvantaged as a class. Nelscott knows that's a lie. Laura, who's rich and white and therefore able to use her influence to secure treatment for the injured woman, would never, just by virtue of who she is, find herself in the same boat. Yet the fact that this indignity is being done to a woman allows her a kinship that transcends race and class.

The plot has to do with Smokey investigating the underground network of abortion providers, and with the women who try to keep track of those providers, steering pregnant women away from the butchers. It's a measure of Nelscott's control that even when the plot veers into the way the Chicago police used gang violence to their advantage, "Stone Cribs" never feels as if it's losing focus.

What's strongest in "Stone Cribs" is how good Nelscott is at calling up the way that blacks, in the law and order of the Nixon years, lived life with the feeling that a gun was pressed to their backs. This is a book about having to toe the line, a state of being reinforced by the fact that Smokey must keep his real identity secret to protect his adopted son Jimmy, a witness to the King assassination, and by the need to keep his love affair with Laura low-key. The conception doesn't allow for much humor, and there's less of Laura in this installment than I'd like.

But Nelscott brings her mysteries both a sense of moral urgency and the instincts of the muckraking social novelist. She's a superb plotter with a steely grasp of how to sustain tension. I have yet to finish one of her Smokey Dalton novels without feeling that she has navigated the divisiveness of a tumultuous time in our collective social history and has not slighted any of the complexities involved. To call her a fine historical novelist is to relegate these books to the past. They read like investigations of unfinished business, a reminder of the wounds those years inflicted that have never healed. Nelscott is fast becoming one of our most invaluable novelists.

"The 37th Hour"
By Jodi Compton
324 pages
Delacorte Press

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Jodi Compton's debut novel "The 37th Hour," the first in a projected series about Minnesota sheriff's detective Sarah Pribek, is just promising enough to make you hope she works out the kinks by the next installment.

Compton is working with a good, nervous-making premise. Pribek's specialty is missing person's cases, and here she finds herself tracking down another cop, an intensely private man who happens to be her husband of two months. When he leaves for FBI training at Quantico, Va., and doesn't turn up, Pribek begins investigating and inevitably runs into the secrets of his past.

Compton's title refers to the point in a disappearance after which it's considered nearly impossible to find a missing person alive -- if they're found at all. That should give her a built-in, racing-against-deadline tension. But Compton dilutes the tension with flashbacks establishing Pribek's past as well as her husband's. Worse, the revelations that Pribek discovers are not only signaled too early but have a clichéd Freudian quality. You never understand why Pribek's hackles wouldn't be raised by a husband so guarded and tightlipped about his past. That might be understandable if Compton had dramatized, or even addressed, how Pribek's personal attachment to the case impedes her cop's instincts. A little humor wouldn't have hurt either.

But missing persons are still fertile ground for mysteries, and the opening set-piece, in which Pribek tracks down a missing teenage girl, suggests the kind of excitement Compton could easily learn to sustain over an entire book. Having dispensed with much of the background information of the characters here, she may, in the next Pribek novel, be in a good position to tighten the narrative and let Pribek develop as a character. "The 37th Hour" ends with a cloud hanging over Pribek's future, one that could turn the cop into someone with a motive to disappear. It's good, ambiguous ground to build on.

"Midnight Pass"
By Stuart M. Kaminsky
269 pages

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This third book in the series about Sarasota process server Lew Fonesca could be one of the old black-and-white movies the hero likes to watch in the seedy office that also serves as his apartment. Stuart M. Kaminsky, who's written a series of novels about a detective in '30s and '40s Hollywood, as well as film bios and screenplays, brings in all the elements you might expect in a '40s B-programmer: "colorful" supporting characters, a villain whose wealth doesn't do much to hide his sleaziness, and a hard-boiled softy of a hero. It's hackneyed, but Kaminsky is smooth enough to keep you turning the pages.

Best among the oddballs who pop up here are Lew's shrink, an elderly, tart-tongued Jewish woman who insists he bring coffee and Danish to their sessions (it seems to be part of his reduced rate) and gives him homework like making him come in with jokes to tell her. (At least one of them is a scream.)

But having established over three books that Fonesca is haunted by the death of his wife, it's time for Kaminsky to act as a bit of a shrink himself and give his hero a push. The woman he's been seeing, a social worker with two kids of her own, isn't going to wait around forever for Lew to unload his sack of woe, and she's appealing enough that you wish he'd try. And though Lew seems to be perfectly content to live in the back room of his seedy office, sleeping on a cot and watching discount VHS tapes on his battered television set, would it be too much to ask to make him flush enough to afford some modest digs? He's a very sympathetic character, but it's distracting, each time he goes out to meet someone, to wonder about what kind of impression he's making when he can't even take a shower in the Florida humidity.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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