I don’t think I am dancing too far out on a limb to suggest that John Banville’s The Black-Eyed Blonde—published this month under his familiar pseudonym, Benjamin Black—will score as the most talked-about crime novel of the spring. After all, that work seems to have everything going for it. Irishman Banville, a Man Booker Prize winner, is a compelling, evocative storyteller (although his labors in buttressing tenuous storylines with rhapsodic prose occasionally fall short). Furthermore, The Black-Eyed Blonde returns Raymond Chandler’s illustrious fictional shamus, Philip Marlowe, to the sun-flogged mean streets of southern California. In it we find Marlowe being hired, in the early 1950s, by a curvaceous and easily bored young perfume heiress to trace her caddish former paramour, who’s supposed to be dead—the victim of a hit-and-run incident two months ago—but who she purportedly spotted just recently up San Francisco way. In classic detective-fiction fashion, Marlowe quickly finds himself with too few clues and too many contradictions, and confronting a deep-pocketed, self-protective family that has no intention of allowing an aberrantly honest private eye to spoil their plans.
Robert B. Parker was the last prominent wordsmith to revive Marlowe in a big way, spinning out the simile-stuffed novels Poodle Springs (his 1989 completion of a tale Chandler left half-done at the time of his death in 1959) and Perchance to Dream (a 1991 sequel to 1939’s The Big Sleep). Readers and critics alike will scrutinize The Black-Eyed Blonde—a sort-of follow-up to The Long Goodbye (1953)—to see how it compares with those books as well as with Chandler’s original seven Marlowe novels. And in the process, they’ll likely turn Black-Eyed to gold.
However, there are other crime and thriller yarns due out in the States this season that deserve consideration. Below are seven more I look forward to cracking as rising temperatures again make reading outside a delight.
Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (March):
Robinson’s 21st outing for British Det. Chief Insp. Alan Banks (after last year’s splendid Watching the Dark) kicks off with the discovery of a “crumpled body” along a disused length of Yorkshire railway track. The deceased is Gavin Miller, a onetime college lecturer who’s been subsisting like a hermit for several years, ever since his dismissal over charges of sexual misconduct. If the 59-year-old was so destitute, though, why did he have £5,000 in his pocket? Banks figures this slaying resulted from a soured blackmail or drug deal. Yet as he burrows through Miller’s tragic past, particularly his long-ago college days, and connects the ex-academic to a Marxist militant–turned–romance novelist (who’s also related to the likely next home secretary), Banks wonders whether Miller was the victim of old resentments. Nearing a solution, Banks’ boss encourages him to back off, which—no surprise—only convinces the DCI to push harder.
Baudelaire’s Revenge, by Bob Van Laerhoven; translated by Brian Doyle (April):
The first English-translated novel from Flemish author Van Laerhoven, Baudelaire’s Revenge sweeps us into Paris in 1870, a place transformed by ambitious public works projects but beleaguered as a result of Emperor Napoleon III’s war with Prussia. Seeking succor from bad tidings, Paul Lefèvre, a 53-year-old police commissioner, visits a brothel, only to there stumble across a poisoned corpse, beside which he finds a paper scrap bearing verses by Charles Baudelaire. Weirder still, those lines look to have been inked by the French poet himself, who’s been dead for three years. As additional bodies turn up, accompanied by more of Baudelaire’s stanzas, Lefèvre and his colleague, Inspector Bernard Bouveroux, ask whether the lyricist’s ghost is pursuing posthumous revenge, or whether someone else is perpetrating these crimes in his memory. Van Laerhoven excels at reconstructing a city in turmoil, as Prussian shells raise “mushrooms of yellow smoke” and aristocrats rush to spiritualism for comfort. Yet the foremost attractions here are the author’s mesmerizing prose and his protagonist, Lefèvre, a man plagued by memories of France’s conquest of Algeria and prey to a clever dwarf with a “demonic tail,” who turns the commissioner’s history and appetites against him.
Blood Always Tells, by Hilary Davidson (April):
Dominique Monaghan thinks of herself as a bad girl, but this model-turned-stylist has more redeeming strength than she realizes. She’s also in a dreadful situation: her boyfriend, Gary Cowan, is a past-his-prime boxer who wedded a spoiled rich woman for her money, and is now afraid of the ruin divorce would bring him. Wanting some control over the situation, Dominique contrives to take a trip with Gary and, in the midst of it, coerce from him some information that will destroy his marriage. Things go awry, though, as things so often do in this genre, and Dominique finds herself caught up in a kidnapping that exposes more about her lover than she’d imagined. Desperate, she turns to her elder, steadier brother, Desmond, for rescue. He agrees, only to be cast into a messy, twisted plot combining murder, a missing child and a most peculiar family. Blood Always Tells is the initial standalone novel from Davidson, who made her bones with mysteries starring travel writer Lily Moore (The Next One to Fall).
A Dark Song of Blood, by Ben Pastor (April):
Italy-born Ben Pastor (aka Maria Verbena Volpi) worked for decades as a university professor in Vermont before returning to her birthplace. In 1999 she brought crime-fiction fans Lumen, her intelligently crafted novel set in German-occupied Poland during World War II and introducing Martin-Heinz von Bora, an aristocratic Wehrmacht officer inspired by the real-life Claus von Stauffenberg, who helped lead a 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. That was followed by Liar Moon (2001), in which Bora—injured on the Russian front, but still alive, and aware of how carefully he must step in order to perform his duties without forsaking his humanity—investigates the killing of a prominent fascist in northern Italy. A Dark Song of Blood finds him in Rome in 1944. As Allied forces encroach on that “open city,” Bora must come to terms with his wife’s decision to leave him, at the same time as he and an Italian inspector try to unravel three murders, including that of a German embassy secretary who “accidentally” tumbled to her death. The historical milieu of these books is grim, but Pastor’s character examinations are precise and engrossing.
Robert B. Parker’s Cheap Shot, by Ace Atkins (May):
Ace Atkins has proven himself remarkably adroit at perpetuating the late Mr. Parker’s series about Boston gumshoe-cum-gourmet Spenser—although I think his opening entry, Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby (2012), was more tightly composed than its successor, Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland (2013). In the forthcoming Cheap Shot, Spenser tackles the world of professional football, being hired to prevent a hard-charging New England Patriots linebacker, Kinjo Heywood, from getting in any further headline-making trouble. Heywood is supposedly being harassed, perhaps as fallout from a two-year-old nightclub shooting. However, when the linebacker’s 9-year-old son is snatched, the stakes are raised considerably. Backed by the steely Hawk and his newer protégé, Zebulon Sixkill, Spenser chases through Beantown’s underworld to liberate the boy. Some of Parker’s best tales paired Spenser with kids at risk; let’s hope Cheap Shot measures up.
Black Rock, by John McFetridge (May):
Montreal, Quebec, was hardly the most peaceful metropolis in 1970. It endured riots and bombings, kidnappings and soldiers flooding its streets to maintain some semblance of order. Many of those troubles were blamed on the Front de libération du Québec, a separatist group determined to make Quebec a sovereign nation. While local police were understandably focused on combating those terrorists, other criminal acts didn’t simply stop. Someone had to deal with them, and in this book, responsibility falls partly on the shoulders of Eddie Dougherty, a half-French, half Irish-Canadian constable. Under the tutelage of a more experienced homicide op, Dougherty hopes to show his worth by catching the “Vampire Killer,” a serial slayer who’s already taken down three women and left police stymied as to his identity. Canadian author/screenwriter McFetridge has earned critical praise for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (2008) and other previous works, but is still looking for a “breakout book.” With its well-etched family drama and dynamic historical background, Black Rock might finally be the one.
Jack of Spies, by David Downing (May):
With the 100th anniversary of World War I’s start coming up this summer, you can expect to see bookstore shelves groaning with myriad commemorative works. An entertaining addition to that lot will be this premiere of a new series by U.K. thriller writer David Downing (Masaryk Station). Set in 1913, Jack of Spies welcomes us into the company of Jack McColl, a young Scotsman set on an espionage career with His Majesty’s Navy. It helps that he sells high-end automobiles, his sales calls take him to distant capitals and he’s adept with languages. But as international hostilities brew, what had seemed like innocent escapades of data-gathering take on a more dangerous dimension. After being almost found out in Tsingtau, China, McColl flees to Shanghai, where he falls into the arms of an earnest American journalist and suffragette, Caitlin Hanley. What had been a source of joy, though, becomes complicated as McColl susses out his girlfriend’s connection to the Irish Republican movement—a cause his government actively opposes.
Also worth checking out: Dead People, by Ewart Hutton (April); From the Charred Remains, by Susanna Calkins (April); Chump Change, by G.M. Ford (April); The Intern’s Handbook, by Shane Kuhn (April); The Poor Boy’s Game, by Dennis Tafoya (April); Death Money, by Henry Chang (April); The Stranger on the Train, by Abbie Taylor (May); The Son, by Jo Nesbø (May); Carnival, by J. Robert Janes (May); Invisible City, by Julia Dahl (May); The Hollow Girl, by Reed Farrel Coleman (May); and Prayer, by Philip Kerr (May).