1. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard, Rookery Press, $24.95
Benny Bunt hangs around what may be the scummiest bar in SoCal, mostly to get away from his awful wife but also to tell the cops what his drinking pals are up to in exchange for pocket money. A big payday is coming: Gus Miller, a madman Vietnam vet, is using the bar as a base of operations for a hired hit. Everyone’s a loopy comic archetype here, as in a Tarantino screenplay. Yep, that’s Orange County, all right.
The Betrayal Game by David L. Robbins, (January 2008) Bantam, $25
Before Castro raised the Red banner, he’d dine in La Barrio Chino, just a stone’s throw from haut bourgeois Miramar, where Lammeck, a yanquí historian (of assassinations!) stumbles on a mob-FBI plot involving a, um, rather familiar hit man. The professor, dodging the antics of CIA cowboys and exile invaders, tries to learn if the gun is aimed at Fidel—or the superpower that paid for it.
The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan Europa, $14.95
The novel starts with a twist: The Gardaí (Irish cops) have their mad, blood-soaked killer; they just have to sort out whom he killed. The ensuing tale is told mainly via crusty detective Henry Synott. With crime novels, you can be satisfied if a couple of things go right, but here the author does everything well. He conveys beautifully the rituals of cops and their quarry, while evoking the feel of a city where new yuppie affluence rubs up against the remnants of a seedy, savage past.
4. STOCKHOLM ET AL.
Kennedy’s Brain by Henning Mankell The New Press, $26.95
In Stockholm, death mysteriously claims the grown son of archaeologist Louise Cantor, who emerges from her dig in Athens to reconstruct the shattered vessel of young Henrik’s life. The Bergmanesque heroine finds odd clues—files on JFK’s “missing” brain, inexplicable riches in Henrik’s name, his line of lovers from Madrid to Mozambique—and assembles them while in near-constant motion, only to have her results put to the test in the modern heart of darkness: an aids-stalked, and angry, Africa.
5. JOHANNESBURG ET AL.
Salamander Cotton by Richard Kunzmann Minotaur, $24.95
It’s 2004, and South Africa’s past is not receding peacefully. In fact, in one Jo’burg suburb, it seems to have crept into the study of a retired businessman, poured petrol down his throat, and lit a match. What had this guy done to deserve this (and why did he keep photos of bruised girls)? Here’s a hint: asbestos mining. Turns out it wasn’t such a good idea.
6. ST. PETERSBURG
Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett Bloomsbury, $24.95
Shortly before the Russian Revolution, the city’s canals hold more bodies than the Gowanus, Cossacks slaughter strikers, and higher-ups on each side (or both) of the Bolshevik-royalist divide murder more subtly and selectively. One bourgeois Jewish psychoanalyst, a pawn in their endgame (in chess, Zugzwang is a state of paralysis), may be the only man capable of stopping them.
7. THE GAZA STRIP
A Grave in Gaza by Matt Beynon Rees (February 2008) Soho Crime, $24
“Do you want me to draw you a diagram?” the one-handed cop asks Omar Yussef, a West Bank native as lost in Gaza as his U.N. colleagues, who one by one fall victim to rival militias (then there’s a corruption scandal, and rocket smuggling). Buffeted by sandstorms and political ill winds, Yussef, an unwavering Marlowe of the Arab street, hopes to coax justice out of the worst circumstances.
Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong Minotaur, $24.95
The Chinese-American translator’s new Inspector Chen novel finds the perfect metaphor for Shanghai’s explosive wealth in a serial killer’s M.O.: wrapping victims in a once-verboten, suddenly trendy symbol of capitalist decadence. An atmosphere of corruption and political interference (where even acknowledging serial killers runs counter to state policy) makes detective work tricky for the inspector, who moonlights—why not?—as a literature scholar.
Hidden Moon by James Church Minotaur, $23.95
A cynical anti-hero cop is a familiar trope, but transplant him to Pyongyang and you open up fresh possibilities. This is the second book in the Inspector O series, written by James Church, the pseudonym of a former intelligence officer with vast Asia experience, and it starts with a mysterious bank robbery that widens into a larger conspiracy. As procedurals go, this one isn’t the sharpest. But as a peek into a mad society, it is creepily compelling.
Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace Knopf, $24
A year after Japan’s surrender, Tokyo is a defeated city stocked with stray dogs and humans, gang warlords, swaggering GIs, and addled cops. What happens next is dark and dizzying (involving a serial killer and a murder pinned on a Korean), but even the simple evocation of Tokyo’s sounds—the ton-ton-ton of its hammers, the za-za of its monsoons, the “Asobu?” (“Shall we play?”) of its child prostitutes—makes this difficult book worth the effort.