Twisted plots and straight writing
Mysteries challenge us to find clues in details, solutions in the Big Picture. Their characters are cooler, meaner, more clever, and more resilient than we'll ever be. Protagonists do things we'd never dare do, or could never survive. But the best mysteries leave us with something larger, beyond survival hints and forensics. These four new efforts bolster our take on humanity and boost hope that, in the storm of modern-day strife, good may prevail.
Heartwood (Doubleday, $24.95, 0385488432; Simon & Schuster Audio, $25, 0671581074), by James Lee Burke, the sequel to his 1998 Edgar Award mystery Cimarron Rose, may well surpass the winner. Billy Bob Holland, a small-town Texas attorney, is the lone voice of sanity in a circus of antagonism. People in Deaf Smith, Texas, have trouble defining good and evil. Throw in gang members, bigots, rich against poor, bad cops chasing easy "suspects," and vicious revenge, and the complications push Holland to danger, both physical and psychological.
Best known for his ten-novel, Louisiana-based Dave Robicheaux mystery series, Burke can pack politics, romance, personality, geography, dread, and destiny onto a single page. Heartwood's tale of the flawed, honest underdog versus the powerful and selfish leaves a reader thrilled and exhausted, begging for more.
Jeremiah Healy blends odd morals, greed, and eccentricity into a vicious Spiral. As in his 12 previous Boston-based John Francis Cuddy outings, Healy provides a modern private eye whose only professional failings are personal attributes: intense loyalty and a sentimental streak.
A widower, Cuddy has begun to consider a future with assistant prosecutor Nancy Meagher, but circumstances force a change. To turn his thoughts elsewhere, Cuddy accepts an offer from an old friend who asks him to help solve the murder of the granddaughter of their old commanding officer. Every step is stymied by those closest to the young, sexually precocious victim, including her druggie dad and ice-cold stepmother. Hospitalized too regularly, driven by loyalty and numbness, Cuddy learns more than he wants to know about everyone involved.
Florida Roadkill (Morrow, $24, 0688167829), by newcomer Tim Dorsey, is even more outrageous than its title. Try to hang on as 12 or 15 uncertified Sunshine State maniacs, each with a skewed reality, take a headlong road trip to the end of the highway. After barging through Tampa, Vero Beach, and Miami, dabbling in murder-for-hire, voodoo, drugs and, worst of all, Florida tourist traffic, the characters still alive converge for a mad scramble in the Keys. The weird side stories are straight from the headlines. Dorsey demonstrates a deep knowledge of Florida history, past and recent, and possesses the sideways point of view required for survival south of Ocala. Florida Roadkill will earn the author comparisons to established area novelists; it guarantees fall-to-the-floor laughter, and a climactic melee worthy of its title.
To those unfamiliar with Loren Estleman's previous crime novels, The Hours of the Virgin (Mysterious Press, $23, 0892966831; Nova Audio Books, abridged, $17.95, 1567408478) offers a perfect introduction to an established master. Estleman knows Detroit, and mixes the city's tough, blue-collar streets with sections of town where wealth defines the rules and etiquette supercedes trustworthiness.
A job referral sends private eye Amos Walker to Harold Boyette, a museum art consultant and expert on late-15th-century illuminated manuscripts. Boyette needs Walker to watch his back while he pays ransom for a stolen manuscript. Amos agrees, then learns that the suspected thief is the man who long ago killed his agency partner.
Estleman's dialogue ranks with the volleys of George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard. Amos Walker's gritty cynicism dodges cliche cute; his bad habits offer comforting touchstones; his pessimism keeps him alert. Boiling hard in the tradition, The Hours of the Virgin will force you to go back and buy every Estleman you've yet to read.
Tom Corcoran is the Florida-based author of The Mango Opera and the new Florida Keys mystery, Gumbo Limbo.