Sleuths for our time: smarts, not guns
Adam Woog’s January crime-fiction column features sleuths that use more brains than guns in solving crimes, including new books by Alan Bradley, Lawrence Block and Parnell Hall.
Special to The Seattle Times
I can’t speak for everyone, but in these parlous times even your seasoned crime-fiction columnist finds himself needing something that downplays violence and emphasizes good-humored entertainment.
Alan Bradley’s “Speaking from Among the Bones”(Delacorte, 388 pp., $23) is the latest adventure of the irrepressible Flavia de Luce, postwar rural England’s premiere adolescent chemist-detective-smartypants.
In between torturing her snotty older sisters and empathizing with her eccentric, bookish father, Flavia always finds time to help the local constabulary with curious and baffling cases. And author Bradley’s assured, bemused style never causes the reader to disbelieve the little scamp’s precocious abilities in that regard.
Here, Flavia’s excited about the imminent opening of the centuries-old tomb where her village’s patron saint, Tancred, is buried. Excited, that is, until something even better takes precedence: the body of the local church’s organist is found lying atop the crypt ... and the corpse is wearing a gas mask.
Wistful hit man John Paul Keller reluctantly comes out of retirement in “Hit Me”(Mulholland, 336 pp., $26.99), by Lawrence Block. Don’t fret that Keller’s former trade means this book is overly violent — he’s a reflective soul and a dedicated family man whose second-greatest passion is his stamp collection.
Plus, Keller’s knack for erasing people never interferes with his weakness for wordplay and quirky tangents. (Block, like his creation, has never met a pun he doesn’t like.)
Essentially a series of linked stories, “Hit Me” finds Keller abandoning his new trade, renovating houses, and returning to contract assassination. One reason is the lousy economy. Another is that his sardonic friend Dot, his agent back in the day, asks Keller nicely. Among the things that capture the killer’s attention: a corrupt monk in Manhattan, a mobster on a Caribbean cruise, and a tantalizing rare-stamp sale in Wyoming. That stamp sale is, by far, the thing that excites him the most.
And what better hero for a world gone mad with weaponry than Stanley Hastings, the narrator of Parnell Hall’s “Stakeout”(Pegasus, 281 pp., $25)? Stanley’s a private detective who doesn’t even have a gun.
This is the 18th in the prolific Hall’s series about Stanley, and he (Stanley, that is) is still an underachieving but endearing sad sack who has an uncanny ability to dig himself deep into trouble. (He also has a wife, Alice, who is long-suffering and much smarter than he is.)
The trouble — and there’s a lot of it for Stanley — starts with a routine job: He’s hired to trail a husband suspected of cheating. But then the husband becomes dead and — no surprise — the poor schmuck becomes the chief suspect.
In the course of clearing his name, the P.I. commits numerous sins, including jumping bail, seriously irritating both his attorney and a gangster, and impersonating a policeman. He even gets his best frenemy, MacAullif, to impersonate a policeman — and MacAullif really is a policeman. “Stakeout’s” cast of characters and plot get a little cluttered, but it’s still great fun — especially Parnell’s trademark loopy dialogue.
Finally, a well-deserved tip of the fedora to two Northwest writers: Alaskan Dana Stabenow’s “Though Not Dead” won the 2012 Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack, a group devoted to the adventures of Rex Stout’s immortal detective Nero Wolfe. At the same time, Bellingham writer Robert Lopresti received the Wolfe Pack’s Black Orchid Novella Award for “The Red Envelope.”
Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.