Books by Lia Matera

Released: June 1, 2000

" Still, as the Shamus-winning 'Dead Drunk' (who's pouring water over homeless men who end up literally frozen?) shows, when you do want a lawyer, you can't do better than Matera."
In her brief introduction to this nine-story retrospective, the chronicler of upscale attorney Laura Di Palma and struggling-scale attorney Willa Janssen explains that several of them began life as full-fledged novels, and it shows. "Dream Lawyer," which pits Willa against a just-offstage Laura; "Easy Go," about a disbarred lawyer struggling to earn a second chance at respectability; and, best of all, the title story, which drags a divorcée into defending her husband for killing his second wife—each of them has enough surprises, and enough warmth, to sustain half a dozen lesser efforts. And Matera, editor most recently of Irreconcilable Differences (1999), obligingly supplies several lesser efforts so you can compare. "Performance Crime" is a silly tale of cereal murder and other pun-addled felonies that shows its gifted author marking time, and "Do Not Resuscitate" is the sort of ironic étude you've read a hundred times before. "The River Mouth" (a troubled romantic pair from the city meets a Yurok woman who tells them more about themselves than they wanted to know) and "If It Can't Be True" (a terrorist's demand for his sister to be released from a mental institution goes fatally awry) are both more successful as atmospheric sketches than achieved stories. Of all the non-attorney exhibits in evidence here, only "Destroying Angel" (a fungus expert meets her match in some lethal mushrooms) stacks up to the stories about the criminal bar. Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 1, 1999

It's a rare crime story that doesn—t include irreconcilable differences of one sort or another, so the concept behind Matera's collection of 20 new pieces won—t exactly set your heart to pounding. And a fair number of the starry entrants circling warily or genially around unhappy marriages (Bill Pronzini, Jan Burke, Julie Smith, Judith Kelman, Gillian Roberts, Margaret Maron) and other ill-fated unions (Amanda Cross, John Lutz, Marcia Muller, Pete Hautman, Eileen Dreyer) do little more than set up their victims before mowing them down. But if the editor's broad rubric doesn—t inspire stories that go in any particular direction, it doesn—t rule anything out either, and the prizes here are the stories that find new alternatives to the whodunit and spouse-kills- spouse formulas—Laurie R. King's sadly reminiscent ice-cream man, Sarah Lovett's off-kilter showdown between a psychiatrist and a new-minted widow, Jeremiah Healy's tale of an estranged husband whose ex-wife is afraid to press him for money, Joan Hess's amiably underhanded deal to punish a successful murderer, editor Matera's all-too-close brother and sister—or that ignore the customary implications of the phrase entirely and strike out on their own. Jeffery Deaver follows a twisting trail of small-town corruption; Edna Buchanan puts an unlikely hero through a night of pure Miami hell; Sarah Shankman's heroine is dangerously maddened by a noisy neighbor; and, most powerfully of all, Joyce Carol Oates follows an aspiring teenaged predator through his school day as his anger twists inside him like a snake. The best stories here set you watching and wondering as their time-bomb killers tick down to zero. Now that's irreconcilable. Read full book review >
HAVANA TWIST by Lia Matera
Released: May 1, 1998

When only 14 of the 15 right-minded, blue-haired brigadistas of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) return from Fidel Castro's workers' paradise to California, and when the missing do-gooder is her own mother June, attorney Willa Jansson (Star Witness, 1997, etc.) swings into action. Within 48 hours she's asking questions on the streets of Havana, and within six months. . . . Well, that long span of time—during which Willa, thrown out of Cuba, rings key doorbells in Mexico City and also back home in Santa Cruz, tracing June's links to the CIA, to an imprisoned drug smuggler, and to half a dozen suspicious characters whose identities seem to change with the tide—that long span indicates the odd combination of urgency and weightlessness that over and over and over marks the proceedings as (in Willa's terms) "My worst nightmare had come true." As well-meaning as the WILPF, but this time not much more effective. Read full book review >
STAR WITNESS by Lia Matera
Released: June 1, 1997

Say this for Willa Jansson (Last Chants, 1996, etc.): She doesn't shrink from the big cases. This time she's down in Santa Cruz, repaying a favor to psychiatrist Fred Hershey by defending his client, mushroom expert Alan Miller, on charges of hit-and- run and vehicular manslaughter after his Fiat landed in a field of brussels sprouts on top of Francis Addenaur's Buick, crushing Addenaur to death. Res ipsa loquitur, says smug ADA Patrick Tober—the thing speaks for itself. Even though Miller wasn't found in the Fiat, it's full of his prints, and no one else's, and he's admitted driving it only an hour or two before the accident. Under hypnosis, though, Miller has given Hershey the wildest alibi imaginable: He was abducted by aliens who dropped the Fiat (which left no tracks through the brussels sprouts) on top of the Buick. When a hitchhiker Miller picked up earlier that evening tells an equally bizarre story about her own close encounter, it's off to the races for Willa, who ends up examining crop circles that may have been made by alien spacecraft, subpoenaing UFOlogists who keep bickering among themselves, keeping Miller away from Addenaur's grieving, well-armed widow, and sweating to protect her real-world job back in San Francisco. All right, the conclusion doesn't live up to Matera's bold, witty challenge to the most rational foundations of the mystery genre, but what could? Willa's sixth still supports her remarkable claim to have ``helped make Santa Cruz a flakier place.'' Read full book review >
LAST CHANTS by Lia Matera
Released: June 1, 1996

In her first outing since Prior Convictions (1991), Willa Jansson, unlike her creator ``one of the few lawyers without a legal thriller in the works,'' has the perfect excuse for missing her first day at the newest of her numberless jobs: She's been taken hostage by a gun-toting madman. Well, she hasn't really; seeing her old family friend, benighted mythology professor Arthur Kenna, waving a gun at a man pretending to be his holdup victim, she's impulsively rescued gentle Arthur by pretending to be his hostage and spirited him away from the San Francisco police and off to the woods outside Santa Cruz—the very place, it turns out, where Arthur's assistant, Kwakiutl shaman Billy Seawuit, has just been murdered. Since the law is still very interested in Willa and Arthur, they go to ground among Billy's recent collaborators in Cyberdelics, the mom-and-pop computer firm whose latest projects include hardware that can smell and respond to your thoughts, and a software program called TechnoShaman, which will allow your computer to heal the sick and talk to the dead. Sound crazy? Wait till Willa sees Arthur keening in hours-long grief at Bowl Rock, or runs into the demigod/shaman Pan. As in The Maltese Falcon, a constant stream of loony byplay keeps you from doping out whodunit—unless you can call on your own online shaman. Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1995

Laura Di Palma can be hazardous to your health. Just ask Jocelyn Kinsley, the labor lawyer Laura consulted about suing former fellow associate Steve Sayres, who's been talking her corporate clients out of her San Francisco practice: Jocelyn is shot dead before Laura's eyes. Can't ask her? Well, then, ask Connie Gold, the publicity-hungry district attorney Laura's been trading accusations with ever since they first locked horns over the arrest of Laura's old school friend Brad Rommel for murdering his departing girlfriend: Gold's also shot during a rancorous (very rancorous) meeting with Laura. Sadly, Gold lives on to wangle Laura's arrest for conspiracy to murder her, and Laura gets jailed, on a different floor from her client, in Hillsdale, the town she grew up in (``nothing but a banana republic,'' she now decides). If her uncle Henry weren't mayor, there's no telling where her defense of Brad Rommel—and her quest for the meaning of Jocelyn Kinsley's cryptic last words (``designer crimes'')—would get her. Two knotty cases, some fine detection, a satisfying explosion when Laura puts all the pieces together, and an unusually honest meditation on going home again. Laura's fifth appearance (Face Value, 1994, etc.) may be her best one yet. Read full book review >
FACE VALUE by Lia Matera
Released: Feb. 1, 1994

Where on earth does Laura di Palma (``my primary areas of specialty are bankruptcy and corporate litigation'') get the weird criminal clients who keep her in business? After her high-powered San Francisco law firm lets her go, Laura (A Hard Bargain, 1992, etc.) finds herself with two unlikely clients in rapid succession: Margaret Lenin, another corporate lawyer who talks about suing her spiritual guru, Brother Mike, for computer-altering the sex-therapy free-for- alls she'd participated in and for putting the altered videotapes up for sale; and then, after Margaret backs down, Brother Mike himself, who arranges through Laura's old law-school classmate Gretchen Miller to hire Laura to defend a similar suit threatened by exotic dancer Arabella de Janeiro. Before she can sign a contract with Brother Mike, though, Laura makes two trips to Arabella's workplace, The Back Door, with searing results: first, a memorable trip through a hellish First Amendment rally, then a chilling confrontation with six dead strippers. And Brother Mike's behavior—when she catches up with him on a private island off the Washington coast—is just as bizarre: he offers unsolicited sexual advice to her and disappears moments after he's asked her to release him from the handcuffs a new follower clapped him in. Matera's look at the dehumanizing power of sexual manipulation- -the computer re-imaging plot here cuts much deeper than the gimmickry of Rising Sun—is so unblinking that you'll look right past the story's coincidences in your hurry to get to the hair-raising finale. Read full book review >
A HARD BARGAIN by Lia Matera
Released: May 1, 1992

A grim third novel from the skillful Matera, who, here, examines noncommunication—with oneself and with everyone else—and its disastrous outcome. Bay Area lawyer Laura DiPalma, on an extended retreat with her cousin/lover Hal, is inveigled into working on a case with a former lover/partner, low-ideals man Sandy Arkelett. They're trying to find out what went wrong with the marriage of chronic depressive Karen Clausen McGuin, who left a tape for her husband, Ted, about committing suicide with the gun he purposefully handed her. Did he want to kill her? Or could she just not live any longer with the deformities caused from previously stabbing at her face and eye with an ice pick? Ted's in-laws hate him because he's black; Karen's despairing nephew hates him because he thinks he killed her; and Ted's eccentric family hates the Clausens for their long-time destruction of Karen and her nephew. Furthermore, Hal and Sandy loathe each other; Laura comes to truly dislike Sandy and to feel alienated from Hal; and the only one making any contact at all is the viper who poisoned Ted's scuba gear, blew up his boat, and torched his house. The resolution, when it comes, hardly frees anyone. From one of the more interesting new voices in detective fiction: a downbeat but welcome respite from the mystery-by-formula crowd. Read full book review >