By Nicholas Pekearo
If the heart-rending circumstances surrounding the death of 28-year-old Nicholas Pekearo—a New York City auxiliary police officer and aspiring writer shot and killed in the line of duty in 2007 while patrolling Greenwich Village, the neighborhood he grew up in—aren't enough to compel hard-core crime-fiction fans to seek out his posthumous debut novel, "The Wolfman," Pekearo's unique narrative voice should be. His unusual blend of Bukowskiesque misanthropism, Lovecraftian horror and hard-boiled existentialism à la Ed McBain make the novel's intimate, first-person narration an unforgettable read.
At first glance, Marlowe Higgins seems like a typically flawed noir protagonist: He's an ill-tempered Vietnam War veteran who has drifted from job to job since returning to the U.S. a changed man. He has a propensity for razor-sharp sarcasm, jaw-dropping profanity, binge drinking and sudden outbursts of psychotic violence (he has a "right hook from hell"). Although he has never had a lasting relationship (he's currently involved with a prostitute named Alice), Higgins is a die-hard romantic with a heroic code of honor. He also happens to be a werewolf, and when transformed into the beast he is nothing short of "the wrath of God."
Having slaughtered more than 300 people since returning from the war, and now settled down in the small town of Evelyn, Higgins, who retains the memories and mannerisms of all those he has killed, has vowed to use his torturous affliction for the greater good. Every full moon when he becomes a primeval "boogeyman," he tracks down criminals in the region with the help of information from Danny Pearce, a detective with the local police who is the closest thing Higgins has to a friend. But when an infamous serial killer begins murdering innocents in the area, the monstrosity that lives inside Higgins may have finally met its match.
Crime-fiction, paranormal-fantasy and horror fans alike should cherish this outstanding debut, which could have been the beginning of a phenomenal, genre-blending series like Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt saga or Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.
By Jason Pinter
Mira, $7.99 paper
Murder, calamity and scandal are what sell newspapers, theorizes the head of the fictional New York Gazette in Jason Pinter's sequel to his 2007 debut, "The Mark," and heaping helpings of all three elements are what make "The Guilty" an addictively readable thriller.
When intrepid junior reporter Henry Parker is assigned to the story of a killer who is murdering controversial public figures on New York City streets with a high-powered rifle, his investigation leads him to an unlikely place: the Wild West. The victims, who include sexy socialite Athena Paradis and charismatic politician David Loverne, have been killed with Magnum rounds fired from an antique Winchester 1873, a 19th Century firearm known as the gun that won the West. Few working Winchester '73s are left (most are in museums), and when Parker uncovers the theft of one of the iconic rifles from an obscure tourist trap in Ft. Sumner, N.M., he begins to unravel a mystery involving one of the most infamous frontier outlaws in American history, Billy the Kid.
But as Parker closes in on the demented assassin—a descendant of the notorious gunman who has vowed to carry on his great-grandfather's legacy—the killer targets those closest to Parker: his current and former lovers, Amanda and Mya.
Intertwining two story lines set in modern-day New York City and the Old West was a brilliant move and gives this novel a real thematic depth that is rare in contemporary thrillers. It's no surprise Pinter was a book editor for years; this is a painstakingly refined story, from the realistically constructed characters, to the consistently pedal-to-the-metal pacing, to the meticulously researched historical details of Billy the Kid's short life, mysterious death and outsize legend. Even minor narrative elements like Parker's offbeat sense of humor and idiosyncratic, metrosexual tendencies (the New York County medical examiner, for example, was in "desperate need of some Pert Plus") are noteworthy for their quality and consistency throughout. "The Guilty" is a brilliantly conceived, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.
By John McEvoy
Poisoned Pen, $24.95
Evanston resident John McEvoy's third novel set in and around Illinois' horse-racing industry (after 2006's "Riders Down") is reminiscent of iconic mystery author Dick Francis' whodunits that feature jockey-turned-detective Sid Halley. Like Francis, McEvoy's richly described and insightful depiction of the daily ebb and flow of racetrack life is so vivid readers will almost be able to smell the atmosphere.
Monee Park is a thoroughbred racetrack in southern Cook County struggling financially in an increasingly competitive gambling market. Riverboat casinos in particular have dramatically hurt business, but with a gambling bill in the legislature that would allow racetracks to install video slot machines, hope is on the horizon.
When 42-year-old former amateur boxer and failed advertising executive Jack Doyle is offered the job of publicity director at Monee Park, he knows the odds are good the track will close before the Senate can pass the bill. But when the money room is robbed, electrical problems spoil a major event and arsonists try to destroy valuable documents, Doyle realizes something nefarious is afoot.
Although the conclusion of "Close Call" is briskly paced and action-packed, the first half of the novel suffers from lackluster narrative intensity and sluggish pacing. But fans of Francis' will enjoy McEvoy's wry sense of humor and adeptly described array of people associated with horse racing, from owners to handlers to die-hard bettors. As the cool Doyle so aptly reflects, "there's as many characters per square foot around the racetrack as there are divorcees in Vegas."
By Peter Leonard
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95
One of the most anticipated debuts of the year—"Quiver," by Peter Leonard, son of crime-fiction legend Elmore Leonard—turns out to be one of the most disappointing. A glut of formulaic characters and too many unbelievable plot twists doom this initially promising thriller to mediocrity.
The story line revolves around Kate McCall and her 16-year-old son, Luke, who weeks earlier accidentally killed his father, Owen, a famous stock-car driver, while bow hunting. While she tries to deal with her son's unbearable guilt and her own grief, an old lover reappears in her life after almost two decades. Smooth-talking con man Jack Curran tells the extraordinarily beautiful—and extraordinarily naïve—McCall that he has turned his life around and is now involved in real-estate development. In reality, he was recently released from prison after serving 38 months for armed robbery and is looking for a quick score. Now Curran and his crew of stereotypical dirtbags (Hicks, a hot-headed, mullet-sporting redneck; Celeste, Hicks' tattooed, racist sidekick; and DeJuan, a dope-smoking black man with a predilection for gold warm-up suits and bling) are setting up the still-grieving widow and her devastated son for a multimillion-dollar fleecing.
Toward the novel's all-too-predictable conclusion, when McCall is contemplating the circumstances leading up to her and her son's dire situation, she thinks "it was too bizarre." And that, in a nutshell, is the fatal flaw of "Quiver." The breakneck pacing, devious scheming and action-fueled sequences are all there, but without the sense of realism and emotional connectivity of believable and three-dimensional characters, fans of psychological thrillers will be left unfulfilled.