March 12, 2006
Some of the best books in the mystery genre today are coming not from big New York publishing houses but smaller outfits like Poisoned Pen Press in Phoenix, Ariz., and Bleak House Books in Madison, Wis. Another standout independent is Five Star Press, an imprint of Thomson Gale.
Although it's based in Waterville, Maine, Five Star has a prominent presence in the Chicago area, and that's good news for a lot of local writers. Between February and April this year, Five Star is publishing several novels with strong Chicagoland connections.
Michael A. Black, a sergeant with the Matteson Police Department, usually writes about cops, crooks and private eyes, drawing on his decades of experience as a police officer. His new novel, Freeze Me, Tender (342 pages, $25.95), goes off in a completely different direction, and it's a wild one.
The story features at its heart the alleged death and possible reappearance of an overweight, jumpsuit-wearing, much-beloved singer known the world over as the King of Rock and Roll. Sound familiar? In this book he goes by the name of Colton Purcell.
Harry Bauer, a Chicago-based reporter, is determined to find out once and for all if the King still lives, so he plunges headfirst into an investigation that takes him from Memphis to Vegas and lands him smack in the middle of a Colton impersonator contest.
The story is all good fun, yet done with enough care not to be silly. In a book that would make Elmore Leonard proud, Black has created a wild and wacky adventure that represents a surprising but welcome new career direction.
Another book by a local police officer is Out of Cabrini (341 pages, $25.95), a first novel from Dave Case, a Chicago Police Department sergeant. It is a tremendous debut with powerful writing, great characters and an engrossing plot.
As the title indicates, much of the story centers on Cabrini-Green, Chicago's infamous public housing project. The plot is divided between the good guys and the bad -- the former represented by Chicago cop Stacey Macbeth, the latter by drug lord Lonnie Huggins.
The issue tying together the two sides is an impounded car with a hidden cache of drugs. Huggins and his gangbangers try to get it back while Macbeth and the police stand in their way.
Out of Cabrini is most impressive for its realistic depiction of cops on the job and its exploration of inner-city crime. That latter aspect of the book is reminiscent of the brilliant work of crime novelist George Pelecanos.
Raymond Benson of Buffalo Grove, best known for writing some of the later James Bond spinoff novels, has produced an original thriller whose results are as exciting as any of 007's adventures.
Sweetie's Diamonds (346 pages, $25.95) tells the story of a suburban Chicago schoolteacher and her teenage son whose quiet lives are roiled just under the surface by a strong current of dark secrets.
Mom may or may not have been a porn star in her younger days, and when a tabloid magazine gets hold of the story, all hell breaks loose. What's certain is that she stole a few million in diamonds from the mob and the wiseguys want them back.
Benson turns the screws on mother and son unmercifully, giving the story lots of tension and suspense. Sweetie's Diamonds is a gem.
Gail Lukasik of Libertyville offers a charming change of pace with her first novel, Destroying Angels (291 pages, $25.95). The story opens with Leigh Girard, a Chicago schoolteacher who has fled in search of a fresh start to Door County in Wisconsin.
There she begins a new career as a journalist, only to find herself stuck writing obituaries. That turns out to be more interesting than she had thought when a series of suspicious deaths wrack the small community.
Destroying Angels suffers from some first novel-itis, but its portrayal of quirky small-town life is nicely done.
James Patrick Hunt lives in Oklahoma, but his latest novel, Maitland Under Siege (247 pages, $25.95), proves he can write about Chicago like a pro.
Evan Maitland is a bounty hunter on the trail of Thomas Hicks, an ex-con who had killed two men in self-defense. Hicks jumped bail and fled the city, and Maitland will get 50 grand if he brings his quarry back to Chicago to stand trial.
Hunt writes with a nice economy of language, and the book is packed with juicy action scenes.
What makes Chicago -- a city famous for its mystery writers -- so fertile for Five Star in particular? Editor Tiffany Schofield credits networking among the area's writers groups. Their members, she says, support one another, whether they're seasoned novelists or tyros, swapping tips and critiquing each other's manuscripts.
And the mystery writers' conferences they attend provide valuable "face time" with visiting editors, who listen as unknown authors pitch their manuscripts. Five Star, for instance, "discovered" Case and Steven B. Mandel at a local "Love is Murder" conference.
In the coming months, Five Star will publish not only Another Lost Angel, Mandel's outstanding debut, but also The Cymry Ring, an intriguing fantasy from the veteran Michael Allen Dymmoch of Northbrook.