How can a reviewer possibly deal with the 50 to 100 mystery titles published every month? One way is to decide in advance that the 13th or 23rd book in an established series by a best-selling author will probably reach its audience with or without you, and to spend the space on books that readers might otherwise not get to hear about.
It’s true that Robert Irvine has written seven previous books about a Salt Lake City-based detective named (after an ancient Christian prophet revered by Mormons) Moroni Traveler, but his latest, PILLAR OF FIRE (St. Martin’s; $21.95 272 pp) , is so strong that he deserves to be treated as a genuine discovery. Set in a harsh Southwestern landscape made familiar by Tony Hillerman, where tangled issues of religion as tough as any fathered by Umberto Eco are stirred up by winds from the past as deadly as the best of Ross Macdonald, “Pillar of Fire” also manages to be original and totally riveting.
Traveler’s complicated relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives the book an immediate edge of danger and mystery. He and his father/partner know most of the Mormon leaders and have rattled the bones in many of their closets, but the Travelers also have status in the Gentile (non-Mormon) world that occasionally makes their services necessary.
When the daughter of a church elder runs off to join a charismatic healer and a cult of radical dissidents in the desert town of Fire Creek, Moroni is persuaded to help rescue the elder’s dying grandson. Not the least of Irvine’s many accomplishments here is to make the town a major character in the book--a place first poisoned by an accident of geography and now doomed by warring theologies.
If the name Max Brand conjures up only visions of hundreds of books about cowboys, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The million-plus words a year that Brand (born Frederick Faust) produced in the 1920s and ‘30s also included serious poetry, the wildly-popular “Dr. Kildare” series and many mysteries. One of these, MURDER ME! (St. Martin’s; $21.95 , 215 pp ) is making its belated first appearance in book form, and it happily combines nostalgia for a period form--the magazine serial--with an intriguing premise and some lively, muscular writing.
Brand was best at creating memorable male characters, and “Murder Me!” has three of them: the ambiguous anti-hero Richard Willett, who uses a death for his own purposes, and two politically incorrect (by 1995 standards) but wonderfully evocative cops named Angus Campbell and Patrick O’Rourke. The book also preserves as chapter headings the original titles of each serial episode. “I’ll Burn the Truth Out of You!” and “A Damp Coat--and a Girl” come from a time when the living, and the dying, were done in style.
Chester Himes, Gar Anthony Haywood and Walter Mosley have become well-known as mainstream mystery writers, and John A. Williams should be because of “The Man Who Cried I Am.” But what about Rudolph Fisher, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ann Petry, Hughes Allison and Sam Greenlee? They’re all on hand in SPOOKS, SPIES AND PRIVATE EYES: BLACK MYSTERY, CRIME AND SUSPENSE FICTION OF THE 20TH CENTURY, which Paula Woods has thoughtfully edited for Doubleday ($22.95; 350 pp). Her collection is the noir side of the Harlem Renaissance, impressive for the lost work she recovers and tinged with sadness for the careers and talents that were never allowed to flourish.
Finally, brief mention of an excellent book that you might have missed in recent months: THE DISHWASHERS by Dannie M. Martin (W.W. Norton: $20, 252 pp) is another kind of mystery past recaptured, in this case the hard edges of Jim Thompson or Dashiell Hammett in his non-Sam Spade mode. Martin, who gained some fame as a jailhouse chronicler known as Red Hog, creates an instant bond between the reader and Bill Malone, a just-paroled bank robber and pot smuggler trying to find a place for himself in Fresno. Malone is a complex character with a dark streak of violence, but his immediate need for a job in an environment he can control and some human contact of his own choosing make him eminently accessible if not completely admirable.
As another reminder of where we’ve come from and why we’re still reading mysteries, The Library of America has put together two handsome volumes of Raymond Chandler’s work--STORIES & EARLY NOVELS ( 1,199 pp) , and LATER NOVELS & OTHER WRITINGS (1,076 pp , $35 each) --guaranteed to bring a broad grin of acquisitive delight to the face of any recipient.