SCARY STUFF, by Sharon Fiffer (Minotaur Books)
It's called The Reviewer's Curse, and it has happened to me several times. A critic goes nuts about a first novel -- and the writer either slides into a steep decline or falls off the page entirely. So when I said about Sharon Fiffer's 2001 debut mystery, Killer Stuff, "This one's a keeper," I had all digits crossed.
Fortunately, the Curse was out to lunch. Six books later, Fiffer's Jane Wheel -- collector of weird old stuff and crime solver of surprising skills -- is better than ever. Best of all, her writing mixes great humor and unique insights with a powerful narrative engine.
Early in Scary Stuff, Fiffer reminds us that "Jane collected Bakelite, buttons, sewing tools, measuring tapes, yardsticks, cigar boxes, flower frogs, anything with letters and numbers..." When her shrewd, stamp-collecting niece asks her aunt why he doesn't go in for stamps or coins, Jane says, "I never collect anything that I actually might make money on... I only accept poor stuff, old throwaways and castoffs."
One of the most intriguing features of Fiffer's Wheel books is the way she gives Jane an instantly- believable background. Jane and her younger brother, Michael, were raised in Kankakee, IL., where their parents, Don and Nellie, own and run a bar and grill called the EZ Way Inn. Jane got as far from home as Evanston, but Michael made it all the way to Los Angeles. Finding a box of Michael's old baseball cards at his California home, Jane remembers Nellie threatening to throw them away, and is baffled. "Every mother threw away her son's baseball cards. It was the rule...," she thinks.
It is this visit to her brother, her first in two years, that plunges Jane into the mystery part of her book. Michael tells her that on three occasions, someone has accused him of fraud on EBay -- only to realize later that it wasn't him. Then, back in Kankakee, one of Don and Nellie's close friends is attacked. Jane and her detecting partner, a former cop called Oh, work hard to tie everything up in a package that is definitely a keeper.
DOUBLEBACK, by Libby Fischer Hellmann (Bleak House)
Not at all a cozy, Hellman's new book is one tough cookie. When I think of Libby Fischer Hellmann, her two excellent series come to mind: the longer one about video producer and single mother Ellie Foreman, and the newer one about ex-Chicago cop turned private investigator Georgia Davis. (Hellmann also edited and contributed to Chicago Blues, a wonderful collection of stories about the city and its musical heritage, which should be on everyone's shelf.)
Now Hellmann has combined her two chief characters into one strong and moving novel. Other writers have done this before: Michael Connelly merged his LAPD veteran Harry Bosch with his fascinating Mickey Haller, a lawyer who does business from his Lincoln Town Car. But with Doubleback, Hellmann proves she can stand up to peer pressure.
When she gets a call from her best friend, Susan, asking for her help in finding a missing eight-year-old girl, Ellie's first reaction is stay out of it. "Over the past several years," she tells us, "I've had several encounters with the dark side of human nature. I don't look for it, and don't much like it. I prefer a boring, normal life. But then Rachel is my daughter, Jake Foreman is my father, and Luke Sutton is my boyfriend. Normal is not an option."
She decides to pass the problem to Davis -- a tough, competent private eye she has worked with before. "Foreman was the kind of woman who seemed to attract trouble; it was a small miracle she was still alive," Georgia says when Ellie calls. The case appears to be a lose-lose situation: the girl's mother, Chris, has been warned not to tell the police, and she was just involved in a nasty divorce case and is worried about losing custody. "Being a good PI meant knowing when to take on a case and when to hand it off," Davis says. "This one practically screamed 'hands off' "
The little girl is returned safely three days later. But the plot darkens and thickens when Chris, the IT manager at a large Chicago bank, may have misappropriated three million dollars. Not convinced that his daughter is safe, Molly's father hires PI Georgia Davis to follow the money.
Hellmann has done such a good job of bringing her dual principals to vivid life that you believe every word of it.