★ Rock of Ages
Junior Bender, burglar by profession but crime solver by avocation, doesn’t get much of a chance to pursue his ostensible career in Timothy Hallinan’s wildly entertaining Los Angeles-set caper Rock of Ages. Junior’s sleuthing skills are requested by nonagenarian gangster Irwin Dressler, which in Junior’s world is akin to being summoned by God. Dressler has invested in a rock ’n’ roll revival tour, but now none of his co-investors, who are also criminals of note, are returning his calls. Sensing that he is about to get stiffed, Dressler hires Junior to ascertain whether his worries have merit and, if so, to stymie the efforts of his potentially larcenous partners. No salary is mentioned for the gig; it is a simple exchange of favors, with Dressler’s favor to Junior being Junior’s continued existence. Hallinan worked in the music industry for years before becoming an author, and his insider familiarity with the LA music scene shines through in Rock of Ages. Those of us who remember classic rock when it was just “rock” will be amused to recognize the real-life stars Hallinan’s fictional doppelgängers represent. As a special added attraction, Junior’s smart and sharp-tongued daughter, Rina, plays a more central role than previously in the series, and she is seemingly poised to follow in her dad’s furtive footsteps.
★ Last Call at the Nightingale
At first blush, Vivian Kelly, the protagonist of Katharine Schellman’s Prohibition-era mystery, Last Call at the Nightingale, displays little in the way of sleuthing credentials. By day, Vivian is a seamstress in what we would now consider a sweatshop, and by night she is a regular at the Nightingale, a Manhattan speakeasy of some note among Jazz Age cognoscenti. She dances, she flirts without gender bias, she drinks, and for a while each evening, she forgets about her daytime drudgery. But when Vivian stumbles upon a dead body in the alley behind the club, the speakeasy’s hitherto bon vivant ambiance begins to melt away, revealing something altogether more sinister. Vivian is hauled off to jail in a police raid that happens soon after she discovers the body, and Nightingale boss Honor Huxley puts up her bond. In return for this kindness, Vivian agrees to have a quiet look into the murder of the man in the alley. She discovers early on that she possesses quite a knack for investigating, though she is often oblivious to the dangerous ripples she’s causing. The well-developed supporting cast is diverse in race, gender and sexuality, and the suspense will keep readers guessing until the end.
★ Wild Prey
Wild Prey, the second book in Brian Klingborg’s series featuring Chinese police inspector Lu Fei, takes him from his home in the northeastern corner of China to the steamy wilds of Myanmar. The story starts with Tan Meirong, a doggedly persistent teenage girl who insists that her sister, Meixiang, has gone missing. Meixiang worked at a gangster-owned restaurant that provides rare foods for wealthy clients to gorge on, ostensibly for medicinal purposes. (People in China have long consumed parts of bears, rhinoceroses, tigers and more, often for use as aphrodisiacs.) Lu launches an investigation and soon comes around to his supplicant’s way of thinking: Something is clearly amiss. However, Lu excels at incurring the wrath of his superiors, and this time is no exception. He gets pulled off the case, then suspended. Soon afterward, he is quietly approached by a Beijing bureaucrat who asks him to spearhead an undercover operation targeting a wild-game preserve in Myanmar. The bureaucrat believes the preserve is central to the illegal exotic animal trade into China, so perhaps this investigation will help Lu find Meixiang as well. Klingborg nails the atmosphere of Myanmar—the longyi, the flip-flops, the works. Lu is well drawn, world-weary but not beaten, and he has markedly upped his game in this second adventure.
Christopher Moore’s latest novel, Razzmatazz, is the wild card of this group: It’s a mystery, to be sure, but one with snippets of folklore, science fiction and the supernatural, all blended with the author’s legendary irreverent humor. For example, very few noir novels have ever begun with a tongue-in-cheek minihistory of China’s Qing dynasty. (“The sky is black with the smoke of burning villages, and it is widely agreed throughout China that the soup of the day is Cream of Sadness.”) Also, to my recollection, zero noir novels have ever featured a dragon that wasn’t just a tattoo. As this sequel to 2018’s Noir opens in 1947 San Francisco, bartender and “fixer” Sammy Tiffin has been tasked with a couple of jobs: 1) tracking down the killer of Natalie Melanoff, aka Butch, a bouncer at a lesbian nightclub who was found floating faceup in San Francisco Bay; and 2) locating a mysterious dragon statuette that went missing some 40 years prior and is now an object of keen interest to the Chinese criminal underworld. Much of the story centers on Jimmy’s Joynt, the club where Butch worked, which is a relative oasis of joy in an era not noted for its acceptance of LGBTQ people. Racism rears its ugly head as well, particularly toward the Chinese community that, then as now, constitutes a significant portion of the population in the City by the Bay. Moore provides a warning in the preface about the period-correct dialogue, noting that “the language and attitudes portrayed herein regarding race, culture, and gender are contemporary to that time, and sadly, all too real.” Be warned, but know that Moore and his merry band of miscreants are firmly on the right side of history—and they will make you laugh until it hurts.