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Last Minute Mysteries

Not your usual crime novels


It's late. You're roaming the nighttime streets of Charlotte, footsteps clacking on the pavement, sensing something's gone terribly wrong. You're lost, tense, grinding your teeth. The past two weeks have been an anxious blur, and now your mind is so filled with stress, you can't even remember what you're looking for. You pause in a doorway to collect your thoughts. You take a deep breath and try to retrace your steps. Oh yeah, now it comes to you. Shopping. Stocking stuffers. Merry Christmas.

If you've just about had it with rushing yourself to death, and you happen to have a loved one who likes to read -- specifically, one who likes to read crime novels -- here's a suggestion. Get her or him a couple of mysteries by a novelist who isn't a household name. Forget Grisham, Patterson, Cornwell & Co. Try one of the dozens of equally, if not more, talented crime novelists who have something different to offer. Here's a selection of three writers you should know.

Donna Leon -- The Commissario Guido Brunetti series

Venice's Commissario Brunetti is a man of integrity in a beautiful city filled with corruption. Leon's books are masterfully plotted and filled with skillfully descriptive prose that evokes Venice and renders the city itself the true main character. Brunetti, a native of the city who enjoys his wine and espresso, often finds himself battling his superiors and doofus helpers while solving the crimes at hand. Brunetti is witty and well-meaning, but wise enough to keep his investigations grounded in reality. In many ways, Brunetti becomes the city: "And then he was at the water's edge, the bridge to his right. How typically Venetian it was, looking, from a distance, lofty and ethereal but revealing itself, upon closer reflection, to be firmly grounded in the mud of the city." Leon's books are widely read in Europe, and she's beginning to pick up a solid fan base in the U.S. Begin with: Death At La Fenice and Dressed For Death.

Bill Fitzhugh -- For music fans

Fitzhugh is one of the premier practitioners of outrageous, satirical crime writing -- think Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey in a state other than Florida. He's written several funny crime novels about everything from pest control to genetic engineering and organized religion, but three recent novels revolving around the music industry are especially good. Radio Activity stars burned-out-and-broke FM rock deejay Rick Shannon, who takes a job as program director at a tiny rock station in small-town Mississippi. The previous PD disappeared, and nobody wants to talk about it. Quirky characters and political incorrectness abound while Rick overhauls the station's format and digs into his predecessor's vanishing act. Much of the book's appeal and humor comes from the deejays' deep knowledge of '60s and '70s rock trivia, and their stories of surviving that era's excesses. In Highway 61 Resurfaced, Rick has quit the deejay business and become a PI. Music is still at central to his life, as he searches for a legendary tape of a recording session by the blues group BCC (Blind, Crippled and Crazy). Throw in a pill-addled killer, an ex-con musician intent on revenge, a sick cat and mounds of more un-PC humor, and you get the picture. Fitzhugh's 8Fender Benders is a murder mystery wrapped around the comet-like career of country singer Eddie Long. The singer's inadvertent involvement (maybe) in a crime and Fitzhugh's furiously paced, dead-on filleting of the Nashville music business -- complete with crooked agents and managers, backstabbing, shamelessly profiteering hangers-on and a high-torque groupie who plies Long with drugs and sex -- produces one of the best satirical novels of the past few years. Start with: Fender Benders.

Janwillem van de Wetering -- The Grijpstra/de Gier series

This long-running Dutch series is very popular in Europe and has a cult following among readers in the U.S., but deserves wider recognition. Van de Wetering follows two Amsterdam detectives and "ordinary men," Adjutant Grijpstra and Sergeant de Gier, as they solve murders, make everyday decisions, reflect on their lives, laugh at each other and try to ignore the corruption in their own police department. Van de Wetering, a subtle, direct prose stylist, is both a former Amsterdam cop and a student of Zen, and it shows. This is a very human, down-to-earth and, for crime novels, low key series: a little melancholy, a little humorous, and always bemused by humanity's follies. Start with: The Corpse On The Dike and Outsider In Amsterdam.

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