A Little Yellow Dog
By Walter Mosley
300 pp., $23
Two For The Money
By Janet Evanovich
301 pp., $22
By Brian Moore
250 pp., $22.95
The Lion's Share
By Robert Campbell
245 pp., $21.95
By Susan Isaacs
462 pp., $25
Death of A Macho Man
By M.C. Beaton
216 pp., $21.95
The time is 1963, the place, Los Angeles. ''I had spent most of my adult years of hanging on by a shoestring among gangsters and gamblers, prostitutes and killers. But I never liked it. I always wanted a well-ordered working life. The Board of Education didn't pay much in the way of salary but ... I was living a life that I could be proud of."
So says Easy Rawlins at the beginning of "A Little Yellow Dog." And even if we know Easy's newfound security as a school custodian supervisor won't last, we're rooting for him all the same. After all, since Easy's first appearance four books ago ("Devil in A Blue Dress") in the late 1940s, he has not had an easy life. A black man in the racist environment of Los Angeles, Easy has earned his living - and kept living - by doing favors for friends, by trading information on the street, by being a little smarter and quicker than others. His friends have included everyone from an unsettlingly appealing killer named Mouse to a few powerful white people. But Easy has always said that what he's wanted was a good, simple, and honest life.
And now, Easy's slide from security begins with one ill-considered moment of intimacy with a teacher at school. One minute he's holding her, the next minute he's holding her "little rat dog," while she leaves him with a story about a mean husband and a promise to return later.
Before you can say "bite the hand that feeds you," Easy is back in that other world, of murder, lies, drugs, and distortion.
It's hard to see how Walter Mosley can improve as a writer, and yet with each book his voice becomes richer, more mature, and more confident. Moments of painful insight segue confidently into dry humor ("It was a regular family scene. All we had to do was to clean up a few murders and a matter of international dope smuggling, then we could move next door to Donna Reed.")
Readers unfamiliar with the series can jump right in here, but you'll appreciate Easy and his friends much more if you start with "Devil" and watch his story unfold.
IF you aren't a smart-mouthed, streetwise, big-haired bounty hunter living in Trenton, N. J. (as is our heroine, Stephanie Plum), reading "Two for the Money" is just like being a foreign exchange student: you can't understand what anyone is saying or doing, you're astonished and often appalled by the surrounding cultural climate, but you wouldn't miss it for anything.
Back for a second try at the bad guys (Miss Plum first appeared in "One For The Money"), Stephanie is more determined than ever to become a serious bounty hunter - or at least one who won't get laughed off the streets. Hey, she needed money, and her cousin Vinnie owed her a job.
Trying to discover the truth about an old flame, Stephanie enlists help from such varied sources as a gun-wielding pro - and Grandma, who is really more help, what with her insider knowledge of New Jersey funeral parlor etiquette.
Janet Evanovich has created not just an immediately likeable heroine, but an entire real, vibrant and - as foreign exchange students would say - colorful world. We call it wild and sassy, we call it wonderful, and we can't wait for book 3.
Brian More's "The Statement" proves what mystery fans have argued for years: that some of the best fiction is appearing in novels often dismissed as "mere mysteries."
More, the author of 17 earlier novels (including "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne"), tells the story, in this elegantly crafted novel, of Pierre Broussard, who, supported by the Vichy government during World War II, executed 14 Jews. For more than 40 years, Broussard has been on the run, hidden and helped by friends in the Roman Catholic church and the French government.
But political winds change, blowing morality along too, and now Broussard finds even old friends shutting doors in his face, as new - and suddenly unbiased - pressure is brought to find him before a group of Jewish assassins does.
"The Statement" is told in a straightforward narrative. The suspense builds in unexpected ways, and in unexpected settings. The French countryside seems so quiet and peaceful. But within all this structure, Moore tackles the ancient questions of guilt and innocence, revenge and redemption, and wraps it all up for the reader with the extra gifts of intelligence, style, and suspense.
One of the things a good mystery writer excels at is creating a distinctive character and place. One of the strongest voices belongs to Chicago's Jimmy Flannery, thanks to author Robert Campbell. In "The Lion's Share," Flannery (making his 10th appearance), a Chicago sewer inspector and Democratic committeeman, finds himself once again involved in mayhem and mystery. (Was that dead naked lady murdered?)
Jimmy, who wouldn't hurt a fly, finds that even Chicago politics is changing, and watching him learn and adapt is part of this series' charm.
Susan Issacs's latest novel, "Lily White" barely squeaks into the mystery category, but she is such a delightful writer that every chance should be seized to sing her praises. Her heroines are tough, funny, and vulnerable and so real that within a few pages of dialogue you find yourself talking back.
By far her best character, "Lily White" is a tough criminal defense lawyer in New York who now calls herself Lee White. Her mother shops. Her rich fur-dealer father, whose last name has evolved from Weissberg to Weiss and now White, is obsessed with being accepted by old-money, gentile society, as embodied by their next-estate neighbors, the Taylors.
Lee alternatively tells her own life story and that of her current case, involving a love 'em and rob 'em con man who is now accused of murdering his latest victim. But if Lee's family conspires to make her a victim, she'll have none of it, and her story is touching, sad, and frequently hilarious. With every social detail, every cultural nuance exactly right, Susan Isaacs shows again what a gifted and generous writer she is.
M.G. Beaton's series featuring Scottish constable Hamish McBeth is fun, silly, and as light as a well-made scone - I wouldn't miss a single book. Our lazy Lochdubh lad has endeared himself in 12 earlier appearances, and his charm continues to grow. In "Death of A Macho Man," here again is Hamish, with his relaxed air, his fear of promotion and his love/hate relationship with the aristocratic Miss Priscilla. When a newcomer to the village, dubbed the "macho man," first challenges Hamish to a find and then turns up dead, Hamish is once again pressed to find the killer in his own, roundabout way.
The admirable Ms. Beaton (who also writes the equally amusing "Agatha raisin" series) makes all this look far easier than it is, so while her style may be called light, her talents should not be dismissed lightly.
*Michele Ross is a freelance mystery and literary book reviewer living in Decatur, Ga.