As I prepare my reviews for the BookPage Whodunit column (check it out at www.bookpage.com) , I have to winnow down the choices to a mere four books, from the fifteen or twenty mysteries that cross my desk each month. Sometimes, there are four that are just head and shoulders above the rest in terms of writing quality, suspense quotient, humor, etc; other times, like this past month, I wish I had space to review another two or three, as there were so many deserving choices.
The Bricklayer; Noah Boyd; William Morrow; ISBN 9780061827013; 400pp; $24.99
One case in point is Noah Boyd’s gripping debut novel, The Bricklayer. The title character is Steve Vail, an iconoclastic ex-FBI agent with serious authority issues; he was tough, he got the job done, but he relentlessly called a spade a spade in a milieu where a certain amount of political savvy might have served him better, and it got him unceremoniously sacked. Nowadays, he works as a self-employed bricklayer; the money is not as good, the excitement factor is considerably lower, but on the plus side, he quite likes his boss. So it is a bit of a surprise when his services are once again required by the bureau, to track down a group of extortionists who are threatening to kill famous figures one by one (and making good on said threats) if the FBI does not pay their “ransom” beforehand. Vail’s would be handlers promise him full autonomy, the ability to work “off the grid”, unconstrained by any of the rules (Miranda, search and seizure, wiretapping) that keep law enforcement agencies in check. So let the games begin…
Vail is a character in the mold of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, a slightly loose cannon who doesn’t take guff from anybody, but with a “heart of gold” side that only a few close associates ever get to see. He is gifted with a reasonably good visage, brains, brawn, skills and a good sense of humor, basically everything you need to succeed in a suspense series (or in life, for that matter). The Bricklayer is a great series opener; I am looking forward to installment two.
Fantasy in Death; J.D. Robb; Putnam; ISBN 9780399156243; 368pp; $26.95
J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas stories, genre-benders of the first order, are a complex mashup of police procedural, detective novel, and sci-fi thriller, set some fifty years in the future. Robb’s post-postmodern New York City would be easily recognizable to Big Apple fans of the current day, but with some significant evolutionary changes: androids, often indistinguishable from humans except under close examination, perform many of the more mundane functions of daily life; virtual reality has become significantly less virtual and much more real; computers and computer games have evolved to a level almost unimaginable given current technology. Case in point: Bart Minnock, founder of computer gaming company U-Play, has a project in development which promises to up the ante in computer games; the player can choose his milieu, his opponents, his weaponry, from a virtually infinite array of choices. What even Bart Minnock didn’t realize, however, was just how dangerous his new game could be; when homicide detective Eve Dallas first lays eyes on him, he is lying on the floor of his game room, his head completely separated from his body. Eve is no techie, but she has a couple of gamers on her team, and their combined skills as computer geeks and investigators serve them well as they pick apart the threads of the most unusual case of their careers. Fantasy in Death is a welcome addition to one of the longest-running series in genre fiction (absolutely the longest, if you consider the genre as being “police procedural detective science fiction”), bound to appeal to “Bladerunner” fans and their ilk worldwide.