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Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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New crime literature: amateur sleuths and a thief/detective

Adam Woog rounds up new crime literature for August: Deborah Halbert’s “The Skeleton Crew,” Timothy Hallinan’s “Herbie’s Game” and Jason Goodwin’s “The Baklava Club.”

Special to The Seattle Times


Here are three books for this summer’s ever-changing weather, suitable for armchairs and hammocks as needed:

“The Skeleton Crew” (Simon & Schuster, 240 pp., $25) is Deborah Halber’s absorbing look at a very odd corner of our world: the small but fervent community of amateur sleuths who take on cold cases — that is, years-old crimes that authorities have never solved.

Fiction is littered with amateur detectives, of course — take Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Father Brown and Nancy Drew, to name just a few. Their current, real-life counterparts, connected via the Internet, form a loose, often cooperative (and sometime viciously backbiting) global community.

Halber, a skilled journalist, tracks a variety of people ranging from retired cops to genuine eccentrics — and occasionally some very scary individuals. These sleuths, many of them no doubt certifiably obsessive, maintain websites with names like JusticeQuest and Can You Identify Me?

Browsing these sites, it’s easy to get lost in a virtual rabbit hole of online forums, detailed databases and some really grisly photos.

When not online, the amateur detectives travel to crime scenes, pore over evidence and police reports, and otherwise labor to crack cases. Their reasons are varied, but they typically involve a desire to honor the dead, a personal connection or simply a fascination with solving a real-life puzzle.

Donald E. Westlake, the casually brilliant master of the comic caper, may be pushing up daisies, but his spirit clearly lives on in Timothy Hallinan’s “Herbie’s Game”(Soho, 400 pp., $25).

Hallinan’s new book marks the welcome return of Junior Bender, a savvy professional thief who sometimes accepts detective cases for fellow crooks. Junior’s beloved mentor in the crime racket, Herbie Mott, has been gruesomely tortured to death by someone intent on finding a valuable slip of paper: a list of people connecting a hit man back up the chain of communication to whoever’s in charge.

The broker who set up the hit hires Junior to find the list; Junior, mourning the rascally Herbie, has his own reasons for finding the killer. The trail is peppered with a succession of cracked L.A. characters, and many of them are bumped off as Hallinan expertly unspools his plot. The result: “Herbie’s Game” is swift, sure-footed and awfully funny.

Jason Goodwin’s books about Investigator Yashim (including his Edgar-winning “The Janissary Tree”) are delights, the latest being “The Baklava Club”(Sarah Crichton Books, 288 pp., $26).

Yashim’s time is the mid-1800s, his turf the beguiling city of Istanbul. Goodwin, a historian, excels at evoking the rich atmosphere of Ottoman-era Istanbul, a crossroads where Eastern and Western cultures mingle and merge. He’s especially good at evoking the smells and tastes the city offers — food figures prominently in Yashim’s world.

Our man is an investigator for the reigning Sultan Abdulmecid (a real-life character). Yashim has a distinct advantage as a detective: He’s a eunuch. This gives him the ability to talk to women — a freedom typically unavailable to males under the era’s Islamic law. It helps.

His latest assignment — escorting a foreign guest of the sultan — seems innocuous enough at first. But it quickly mires Yashim in a complex maze of intrigue involving a kidnapped Polish prince, Italian revolutionaries bent on usurping the sitting pope, and an alcoholic Irish priest. Not to mention an unlikely romance for the wise and wily Yashim, an event that takes him quite by surprise.

“The Baklava Club” is being advertised as the last in the series — but let’s hope that Goodwin changes his mind and Yashim returns for another delicious course.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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