Some writers can weave intricate, surprising plots. Some writers can create characters so real you hear them breathe. And some writers can write with panache. Rare is the writer who can do all three.
Paul Lindsay scores the literary hat trick with his new book, Traps (Simon and Schuster, 320 pages, $24). You know you're in the hands of a master thriller writer when you read the wry opening paragraph about the book's hero, Jack Kincade -- FBI agent AND bank robber. It takes an audacious writer to attempt this and a talented one to pull it off. But not for a moment do you doubt either the verisimilitude of the book (Lindsay's a veteran G-man) or Kincade's complicated character.
The action starts at a gallop when the father of a girl who was kidnapped three years ago plants an 800-pound bomb under Chicago's Cook County Jail and threatens to set it off unless his daughter is finally found. Kincade is called in to work the cold case and teams up with an equally complicated, but straight-arrow agent who has just lost a leg to cancer and is investigating the unsolved night-deposit bank robberies that Kincade's been committing.
That alone would be tangled enough for many thriller writers. But Lindsay keeps upping the ante until you can't turn the pages fast enough.
This is a deftly layered book in which the title takes many meanings: from the plastic traps Kincade uses to steal from night deposit boxes, to the illegal entrapment practices of over-zealous cops, to the self-destructive internal traps that leave Kincade no way out. Traps is the best thriller I've read all year.
Harry Niles is the American-born proprietor of the Happy Paris bar in Tokyo's Asakusa district, a netherworld of theaters and prostitutes. Harry's a well-known conman and gambler, a larger-than-life lowlife. He lives dangerously near the edge. How near? The year is 1941, and the book is called December 6 (Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $26).
As he did with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith transports the reader into a world that's at once exotic and believable. In Harry Niles, he's created a vivid character. The son of incompetent missionaries, Niles grew up on the streets of Tokyo (these flashback scenes are among the book's best). His heart is torn; he loves Japan, but he will always be a gaijin -- a foreigner. In the final few hours before war, the pressure on Harry's scams, deals and loyalties becomes intolerable.
Westerners think he's a sympathizer, the police think he's a parasite and a spy, his girlfriend Michiko may rather see him die than escape, a mad Japanese colonel wants his head -- literally. In the end, melodrama intrudes, but the journey there is terrific.
This is the probably the one place in today's paper you'll read the following line: Greed is good. Without it, thriller writers would be out of business, leaving authors Pete Hautman and Michael Connelly searching for new inspiration.
In Hautman's Doohickey, (Simon and Schuster, 288 pages, $24) Nick Fashon spends as much time as a 14-year-old girl matching his outfits.
Still, you end up rooting for the guy when, first, he loses his business (a boutique that's torched) and then his girlfriend (a tattooed archaeologist who's idea of dressing up is a clean T-shirt). Along the way, his grandfather dies, leaving Fashon legal custodian of the seemingly worthless "doohickeys" that the old scoundrel invented.
While Grandpa's belt extender and electric hair comb have no future, the Handy-Mate, a kitchen gadget that does everything except clean your house, is about to make Fashon the Bill Gates of the kitchen aisle. Except, there are plenty of people who want a piece of the Handy-Mate, and they're all looking to outsmart our hero. It turns out there's more to Fashon than matching his espresso linen shirt with his aubergine trousers .
Doohickey is a fast, light read, with an assortment of over-the-top characters. Add all that to an Arizona setting with a show-down at the OK Corral and you can see why greed is good.
An invention is also key to Connelly's Chasing the Dime, (Little Brown, 400 pages, $25.95). Brilliant computer wizard Henry Pierce is on track to create the world's first molecular computer. But before he can secure financing, he starts getting calls at his new home for a mysterious escort named Lilly. Unbelievably, Pierce, who's lost the love of his life because he's so obsessed with his research, drops everything to investigate the missing Lilly. While Connelly has given Pierce past demons to explain his new fixation, it's such a stretch that the plot snaps in two like pulled taffy.
Connelly is known for his complex characters, but this book is disappointingly thin.
Jonathan Kellerman and Sue Grafton are like the two Hollywood starlets who show up at the Oscars in the same dress -- and the same shoes. Both their new books are about unsolved murders of wayward young women. Both are set in California, and both are about 100 pages too long.
But Kellerman looks better in his dress than Grafton does in hers.
In Kellerman's The Murder Book, (Ballantine, 368 pages, $26.95), psychologist Alex Delaware gets an album in the mail filled with pictures of crime scenes. Among them is a photo from an unsolved murder-torture of a young woman. It turns out that Delaware's friend, homicide detective Milo Sturgis, was mysteriously ordered off that case when he was a rookie cop.
Though the who-done-it (soulless rich kids, corrupt police and greedy land developers) is more confusing than it needs to be, it's a pleasure to spend time with Kellerman's two sleuths.
The print run for Grafton's Q is for Quarry, (Putnam, 352 pages, $26.95) is 650,000 books. Putnam must be assuming there's an awful lot of die-hard Grafton fans, because this latest venture in her alphabetized mystery series is unlikely to win many new readers.
Grafton is the godmother of spunk with her wisecracking hero, Kinsey Millhone. But this time out, Kinsey is searching for the identity of a dead girl and how she got that way -- it's a big so what.
Jody Jaffe is the author of three mysteries, Horse of a Different Killer, Chestnut Mare, Beware and In Colt Blood. Her novel, Thief of Words, will be published by Warner Books in the spring of 2003. She is currently at work on her next novel, Ragspring Summer. She lives in Silver Spring.