A roundup of recent crime novels

Yellow Medicine

By Anthony Neil Smith

Bleak House, $24.95

The stark cover art of Anthony Neil Smith's latest crime fiction offering—a road almost obscured by blowing snow—is the perfect visual for this novel about a far-from-ethical Minnesota police officer whose laundry list of criminal misdeeds leads him down an existential road to nowhere.

Deputy Sheriff Billy Lafitte is no stranger to hardship. Before relocating to Yellow Medicine County in southwest Minnesota, Lafitte, his wife and two children lived in Gulfport, Miss., and experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And if losing his home and most of his belongings wasn't enough, after Lafitte gets busted for callously charging victims of the hurricane for supplies, he loses his job as a police officer, as well as his family when his wife divorces him.

Lafitte, an archetypal noir anti-hero if ever there was one, hasn't learned from his mistakes, however, and after landing the deputy job in rural Minnesota with the help of his benevolent ex-wife, he continues with his Machiavellian lifestyle. But when an unlikely love interest, a young Goth girl named Drew, asks for his help in a personal matter, Lafitte becomes entangled in a criminal quagmire that includes backwoods meth dealers, oversexed college coeds, a rogue Department of Homeland Security agent and a cell of Islamic jihadists from Southeast Asia who have infiltrated America's heartland. As the body count escalates, Lafitte's "little adventure with terrorism" turns into a karmic cautionary tale of colossal proportions.

It's difficult to create a character who evokes sympathy or some sense of partiality from readers and also commits heinous crimes without any semblance of guilt—like forcing a teenager to have sex with him in order to get her boyfriend out of a drunk-driving charge on prom night—but Smith does so with a brooding writing style that is straightforward and unsentimental. For crime-fiction fans who enjoy their literary escapism dark and bloody, "Yellow Medicine" is just what the doctor ordered.

Black Flies

By Shannon Burke

Soft Skull, $14.95 paper

Reminiscent of Joe Connelly's 1998 debut novel, "Bringing Out the Dead," about a burnt-out paramedic working in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, Shannon Burke's second novel, "Black Flies," is a visceral, nihilistic, dark gem of a story that will alter readers' perceptions of paramedics and the service they perform day in and day out.

The narrator is Ollie Cross, a recent college graduate who has decided to take a year off and work as a paramedic in New York's Harlem before going to medical school. But the altruistic and idealistic Cross soon finds himself overwhelmed by the barrage of nightmarish scenarios he faces: a diabetic woman whose blackened toes have fallen off in her sock, an HIV-positive drug addict who has just given birth prematurely and is trying to cut her umbilical cord with a broken crack pipe, and more.

Cross, whose partner is a cynical Vietnam veteran and longtime medic who may be going insane, sees firsthand what years of psychological stress and thanklessness from the community will do to even the most dedicated paramedic. When he sees some of his fellow paramedics going out of their way to harm patients—and finds himself agreeing with their criminal conduct—he realizes he has reached a spiritual crossroads.

Burke does an excellent job of re-creating the social and political atmosphere of early 1990s Harlem, and his main characters are meticulously and realistically developed, but it's the insights associated with being a paramedic that make this such a powerful read:

"[W]hen you can't sleep and your life feels completely empty and you see death so much that it's commonplace and you're filled with secret guilt of being alive among the dead, then you can become the sort of individual who is blunted and immune to the normal sensations of the everyday world. . . . That's protection—being numb—but it carries with it a risk particular to the job. When everything is meaningless, including the life or death of the people around you, then the door is left open to be evil, really . . . evil."

Virgins and Martyrs

By E.L. Merkel

Five Star, $25.95

The third mystery/thriller from Chicagoan Earl Merkel explores a powder keg of divisive topics—abortion, domestic terrorism, religious fanaticism—but the crux of the novel revolves around the power of faith: faith in God, faith in oneself, faith in the institutions that bind society.

Set in northwestern Florida and featuring hard-nosed female Police Officer Aria Quynn (who makes Dirty Harry look like an anger-management counselor), the story begins with a bang when an abortion clinic is bombed multiple times, killing several people, including Quynn's partner. Days earlier, a local 13-year-old girl supposedly spoke with the Virgin Mary while experiencing stigmata on her palms. The message Mary reportedly relayed through her—to "chastise" baby-murderers "and all who support them"—showed up on a Web site run by the quasi-military Centurions of the Lord the day before the bombing.

When the FBI takes over the case, Quynn disregards orders to let the feds handle the investigation. With the help of her old partner, Tito Schwartz, a disgraced former police officer now working as a private investigator, Quynn begins to unravel the connections among the bombings, members of the fanatical religious group and the 13-year-old.

"Virgins and Martyrs" has all the elements to create a first-rate thriller—a diverse cast of believable and fully developed characters, an intricate story line, consistently fast pacing and plenty of jaw-dropping plot twists—but the one major inconsistency pertains to narrative voice. Unlike other female protagonists in comparable series (such as Zoe Sharp's Charlotte "Charlie" Fox and Tara Moss' forensic psychology student and amateur sleuth, Makedde Vanderwall) whose points of view are unarguably feminine, Merkel's first-person narrative at times becomes awkward and almost genderless.

That said, "Virgins and Martyrs" is still a deftly crafted mystery with central characters so engaging readers will be left hoping for more installments starring Quynn and company.

The Murder Notebook

By Jonathan Santlofer

Morrow, $24.95

The second installment of painter-turned-novelist Jonathan Santlofer's series featuring New York Police Department forensic sketch artist Nate Rodriguez is just as good as, if not better than, his stellar 2007 release, "Anatomy of Fear." Featuring more than 100 illustrations by the author—black-and-white drawings that give the story an incredible sense of depth and immediacy—"The Murder Notebook" blends the striking visual impact of a graphic novel with the gritty realism of a crime-fiction thriller.

While working on a sculptural reconstruction of the skull of a John Doe found shot to death and burned beyond recognition, Rodriquez is persuaded by his detective girlfriend, Terri Russo, to join a task force investigating a rash of bizarre murder/suicides. But just as he begins finding connections between the seemingly unrelated crimes, the FBI takes over the investigation and tells Rodriguez to butt out. The ever-inquisitive sketch artist continues digging, however, and he uncovers a plot that involves a government conspiracy.

Building on story lines begun in "Anatomy of Fear" (the unresolved murder of Rodriguez's father when he was a teenager and his close relationship with his Santeria-practicing grandmother), Santlofer's fluid, almost poetic, writing, coupled with his extraordinary artwork, places him at the forefront of cutting-edge crime fiction.

In the Wind

By Barbara Fister

St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95

The latest release from Barbara Fister, an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., is an understated crime-fiction gem. Conspicuously void of any explicit sexual acrobatics or stomach-churning violence, "In the Wind" is powered by a highly intelligent story line that underscores disturbing similarities between the counterintelligence practices of post- 9/11 America and those imposed during the Vietnam War era ("an unpopular war, the constant threat of invisible and powerful enemies, a bitterly divided nation").

Fledgling Chicago private investigator Anni Koskinen is hired to clear the name of a dissident accused of murdering an FBI agent in the '70s. Her investigation leads to some troubling revelations about the government and human nature in general. Discerning fans of political mysteries and thrillers looking for a wildly thought-provoking whodunit should check out this surprisingly compelling read.

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