- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

Mickey Spillane, an Old Master of the tough-guy mystery genre, has taken pen in hand, or fingers to keyboard, and given us Somethings Out There (Simon & Schuster, $24, 273 pages). “I, the Jury,” his first novel, came out in 1947 and made such an impact that readers who werent even born then still recognize the name of his hard-boiled Mike Hammer.

Do the math: 56 years later, hes not only still writing, hes still writing well. Mike is a bit dated, but we still love these Spillane tough guys so he gives us Mako Hooker. Same initials, updated persona.

At first glance Hooker is a newly made beach bum, learning about the waters and the ways of the Bahamas. Hes a likable guy and hes getting help from a seasoned local fisherman, who helps him run his boat, “Clamdip.” (Love that name.) Gradually he is making a place for himself among the island residents, most of whom make their living, such as it is, on the water.

But the local fishermen have a new worry, “the eater,” which is taking bites out of their boats. Those who have been close to it say it is so huge that it blacks out the stars in the sky; it makes an eerie noise and, most distinctively, it stinks.

The waters of the Bahamas contain enough known dangers without adding something unknown. Mako is skeptical that the incidents are in any way uncanny, until one of the fishermen comes back with a damaged boat bearing what can only be toothmarks. Big toothmarks.

Mr. Spillane has been his usual clever self with this one. Mako turns out to be more than he appears and the eater turns out to be very real and very killable. Dont give in to the impulse to read the last chapter out of turn. Youll love the surprise.

Oh, yes, there are some bad guys, who dont stand a chance, and there is A Woman, delightfully no longer young and all the better for it (bless you, Mickey). Travis McGee is looking down and grinning.

And to balance out the mixture, there is Jim Kelly with his excellent debut novel The Water Clock (St. Martins Minotaur, $24.95, 304 pages). Philip Dryden was a big-time reporter in London until an automobile accident left his wife in a coma in a small-town hospital. Now he occupies his time writing for a local newspaper in Englands Cambridgeshire fens, when he is not at the hospital trying to get some response from Laura, the woman he loves too much to give up hope.

Drydens closest friend is the taciturn cabbie who has become in essence his chauffeur. Dryden was behind the wheel when another car forced his car off the road and into a drainage ditch. He was rescued almost immediately, possibly by the other driver, but no one realized his wife was still in the car. Hes not touched the wheel of a car since.

Dryden comes on the scene as police are recovering a frozen body from the wreckage of another car sunk in a ditch. And he arrives as police are investigating a very old corpse found on the roof of the local cathedral, splayed against a gargoyle as if the dead man had leapt off the roof.

The pleasure in this novel comes from the plotting, which picks up a dozen strings and braids them into a pattern, and in the characterization of Dryden, his relationship with the silent cabbie, his hope and anguish over his wife and his guilt when the pull of the flesh takes him over the line with a female colleague. Treat yourself.

John Rickards also is making his debut with Winters End (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95, 298 pages), an exploration of the bitter fruit growing from a tainted past.

The matter seems cut and dried when the sheriff of a small Maine town named Winters End comes upon a naked man, a knife in each hand, standing over the corpse of a local woman in the pouring rain. Arrested and jailed, the man refuses to discuss his part in the scene. He also refuses to identify himself and fingerprints are no help. If he has murdered the woman, it would seem to be a first crime.

Sheriff Townsend needs some help, and he seeks it from a childhood friend, Alex Rourke, who left the FBI to go private in Boston. Rourke is a master of interrogation but all he can get from the suspect is the statement that the death was warranted by something the woman had done long in the past.

A chain of evidence, which Rourke suspects was deliberately laid, leads to a former orphanage, burned down years ago and never rebuilt. And then it leads to Rourkes own father.

This one is dark, atmospheric and very convincing. It will be interesting to see if Mr. Rickards gives us more of Rourke or turns his attention to another main character. Whichever, let it be soon.

Jake Lamar knows of what he writes in Rendezvous Eighteenth (St. Martins Minotaur, $24.95, 311 pages), the story of an intelligent black American man who has made a life for himself playing piano in a Paris cafe. The jacket notes tell us Mr. Lamar went to Paris 10 years ago, intending to stay for perhaps a year. Hes still there, but it is to be hoped he hasnt fallen over any gory bodies on his way home, as has Ricky Jenks.

Jenks cant afford to draw attention from the police because he is in Paris without the proper papers. He is the underachiever in a family that glows with achievements. A judge here, a doctor there, an educator over in the corner.

But Jenks is happy in Paris, living in Montmarte with his girlfriend, Fatima, even if she does refuse to marry him, and playing piano well, if not brilliantly, in the cafe. He has made a life far from his beginnings.

Except his beginnings catch up with him when a cousin, a prosperous businessman, wants Jenks to help find his wife, who has run away to Paris, supposedly with a substantial chunk of the cousins liquid assets.

This one is a gem not just for its plotting but for the extremely likable character of Jenks, who lives in a world of perpetual perplexity where music is the only thing he understands well. Mr. Lamars love of Paris and his understanding of its ways add to the delight. This one has as many flavors as a well-blended bouillabaisse.

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