California Literary Review

Crime Fiction

Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb

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June 17th, 2009

A man is found dead in a bathtub, brandy is poured and the whodunit game grows darker with every turn. Throw in a gritty 1927 Berlin, a major film studio and a chief inspector who never misses a beat and the pages practically turn themselves.

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

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June 8th, 2009

For people who liked Johnson’s recent National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke or his drug-laden 1992 short story collection Jesus’ Son, his latest, Nobody Move, is a real change of pace. Originally published as a four-part serial in Playboy in 2008, this hardboiled noir tale plays with the conventions of thrillers and crime stories, utilizing nearly every stereotype and trick from the arsenal of Dashiell Hammett, Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard, and Raymond Chandler.

The Roar of the Butterflies by Reginald Hill

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May 5th, 2009

Hill has written far fewer books about the black Luton lathe operator turned PI, but The Roar of the Butterflies displays the same qualities which make the Dalziel and Pascoe series so notable: a remarkable turn of phrase, a generous tone and persistent pushing at the boundaries of what crime fiction can encompass.

Nuclear Jellyfish by Tim Dorsey

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April 22nd, 2009

To take on one of Dorsey’s books is to suspend notions of political correctness (thankfully) and the sadly homogeneous behavior associated with society’s coercing decency. The novels are an energized romp through the craziness of modern Florida with humorously illuminating excursions into the Sunshine State’s past, and oh if only high school history texts had been as fun to read.

Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell

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March 16th, 2009

There are flashes of wit – the description of the morgue as a “deconstruction site”, for example – and a sense of the book probing its own genre at times. A particularly striking passage involves faked emails, supposedly sent by Scarpetta, which purport to “dish the dirt” on autopsies at which the medical examiners mock the corpses, take souvenirs and generally act callously.

Gas City by Loren Estleman

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June 2nd, 2008

The characters and the settings in Gas City are rife with intriguing promise that never seems delivered. The story seems one- two-dimensional, never fully realized. That’s why I was unable to remember much of the book. There are a number of good scenes, but with so many quality novels out and about, including several by Estleman himself, these brief flashes of excellence are not sufficient to recommend the book.

The Right Side of the Tracks

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May 20th, 2008

Detective fiction revels in the possibilities offered by railway travel, but it also expresses some anxiety about them. The ability to travel across Britain at such speeds was exciting, but also potentially unsettling for a social system which still, in many ways, preferred that people remained “in their place”. When Sir Henry Baskerville is being followed by an unknown bearded man in London, he suspects it may be the butler from Baskerville Hall, and sends a telegram to check whether or not “Barrymore is at his post in Devonshire.”

Double Cross By James Patterson

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March 18th, 2008

I love John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series but always thought that his love scenes were clunkers to the point of being embarrassing. Compared to Patterson’s portrayals, MacDonald comes off like Arthur Miller.

Lots in a Name

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January 21st, 2008

Rather more subtle is Hercule Poirot, whose name contains elements of both “Hercules”, the classical hero, and “Pierrot”, the Italian clown – an interesting combination of heroism and buffoonery. The name reflects Christie’s practice of presenting Poirot alternately as a figure of fun and a stern emissary of justice. Dorothy L. Sayers balances her detective hero in a similar way – Peter Wimsey’s name has all the connotations of his silly-ass-about-town persona, but he is shadowed by his middle name – “Death.”

The Tin Roof Blowdown By James Lee Burke

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December 3rd, 2007

Because he’s a damn good writer James Lee Burke knows how to keep a plot going from start to finish with no loose ends or out-of-the-blue surprises that amateurishly attempt to explain and finish off a narrative.

City of Fire By Robert Ellis

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November 19th, 2007

There are red herrings aplenty, but once finished reading the novel I’m left with a sense of annoyance at these diversions, so often delightful necessities in other mysteries, but close to being filler in this one.

Gentlemen and Players

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November 13th, 2007

Yet it is the amateur, the eccentric and the outsider who plays the hero in the whodunnit. Lord Peter, with his silly-ass-about-town front, Holmes, with his Goethe and cocaine bottle and Poirot with his obsessive neatness and ostentatiously Gallic egotism, all seem pretty unlikely champions of order and public safety.

Trashed by Alison Gaylin

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November 8th, 2007

These driven individuals scour celebrity garbage cans, pose as anyone but themselves, lie as though the truth was a concept to be scorned and in general have all of the journalistic ethics commonly associated with FOX News. Getting the goods on the rich and famous is all that matters in this weird league.

The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg

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October 29th, 2007

A thriller is often a race, but without the understanding of exactly why this girl is so great a prize, it makes it harder to follow the runner.

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin

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October 25th, 2007

Goodwin now returns with another mystery, a tale as exotic as the first one, delicious in its evocation of the last days of the Ottoman dynasty. Here, however, the territory is dangerously personal.

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