Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Long-Lost Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner, Writing As A. A. Fair

This is the second novel in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series, which was written by "A.A. Fair," a pseudonym for Erle Stanley Gardner, who is much better known, of course, for his series featuring the lawyer, Perry Mason. 

Or, at least it was intended to be the second novel in the series. When Gardner turned the book into his publisher, they refused it, arguing that the book's approach to adultery and sex exceeded the limits of good taste. In the book, Bertha insists that virtually every man cheats on his wife--that it's the nature of the beast--and that an intelligent wife will simply accommodate herself to the fact and not get bent out of shape about it. But it's probably not an idea that a large number of people would have endorsed in that day and age.

Then there's the sex. At one point, Donald escorts a shapely young blonde home in the agency's car. As they sit outside the woman's apartment house, Donald reports that, "She didn't try to stop me in anything I did....She let my hands wander around the outside of her clothes, caressing her curves. I had a feeling she'd given me the key to the city, but I didn't try any doors that I thought she'd prefer to keep locked." Apparently pretty racy stuff, for 1939!

Gardner apparently never attempted to revise the book to make it more suitable for publication; he just moved on to other projects, which included twenty-nine books in the Lam-Cool series. But the Erle Stanley Gardner Trust has finally resurrected the book and the folks at Hard Case Crime have now published it, only seventy-seven years late, apparently concluding that the reading public will now be able to handle it without fainting in shock.

It's clear that Gardner is still feeling his way along here. Donald Lam is still only a junior operative in the firm and the character is still taking shape. Bertha Cool's character is already more firmly fixed--a big, tough, no-nonsense woman who squeezes every nickle until it bleeds and who believes that her firm exists solely to make money as opposed to pursuing justice, And if she has to bend a few rules along the way, that's perfectly fine.

The story opens, as they often do, when a new client appears at the office with a seemingly simple request. A woman comes in with her daughter; they believe that the daughter's husband is cheating, and they want the firm to investigate. Bertha wheedles as much money as she can out of the mother in the way of a fee and then sends Donald out to shadow the husband and get the evidence.

And, as always happens, of course, this seemingly innocuous case will morph into something much more sinister and dangerous. There will be a murder, naturally, and the case involves a lot of municipal corruption, which was a staple of pulp crime novels during this era. Through it all, Donald will struggle to survive and to solve the case, while Bertha plays all the angles in an effort to maximize her profit. It's a lot of fun and will appeal principally to fans who already know of and enjoy the series, which now rounds out at thirty books. It's nice to have this one in the collection.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Young, Inexperienced Sheriff Hunts the Killer of His Predecessor

The More They Disappear is a very spare and bleak novel that traces the events following the murder of a long-serving sheriff in a small town in rural Kentucky. The town and its people are clearly in decline; unemployment and drug addiction have taken a heavy toll, and political corruption has made matters even worse.

The murdered sheriff headed a small force of mostly ill-trained and apathetic deputies, and the job passes, at least temporarily, to perhaps the most capable of these, Harlan Dupee. Dupee has personal problems of his own and has never recovered from the death of the one woman who made his life complete. But he is determined to do the best he can with the limited resources he has available.

His most formidable challenge is to find the person who killed his predecessor, but this will not be an easy task. Harlan soon discovers that his former boss was a man of deep secrets and contradictions, as are many of his constituents. Another of the major characters is a young woman from a prominent local family who is lost in the grip of an addiction to OxyContin. And it doesn't help that her boyfriend is a low-level dealer.

The story of Harlan's hunt for the killer is an interesting one, but it basically takes a back seat to the larger story of the very heavy toll that drug addiction combined with the lack of economic opportunity can take on a small town. Donaldson paints the picture brilliantly, even if it is an enormously depressing one. This is not a book that's going to put a big smile on anyone's face, but it has the ring of truth and marks Jesse Donaldson as a writer to watch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Jack Reacher Is Sent Back to Night School

The twenty-first entry in the Jack Reacher series is another flashback to an adventure that occurred while Reacher was still in the army. The year is 1996; Reacher is only thirty-five years old, and he's fresh off a very successful mission for which he has been awarded a medal. But immediately after the ceremony, he's issued new orders to attend a night school course--hardly the reward he was expecting after a job well done. He's now effectively off the rest of the Army's radar, at least for the time being.

Reacher arrives at the facility where the course is supposed to take place only to find two other "students," one from the CIA and the other from the FBI. They too have just come off successful missions and are wondering why they've been consigned to a duty like this. But the three are soon joined by a pair of very senior government officials who explain that they are not actually going back to school. Rather, they've been delegated to work on a very secret mission of extreme urgency.

All anyone seems to know at the moment is that a group of jihadists, with a cell in Hamburg, Germany, has offered to spent one hundred million dollars for something that an American proposes to sell to them. No one has any idea who the American is or what he could possibly have that would be worth that much money. But whatever it might be, if the jihadists want it that badly, the exchange has to be very bad news for the United States and probably for the rest of the western world as well.

Reacher will recruit his old compatriot, Sergeant Frances Neagley, to work with the team and Reacher and Neagley will spend most of their time in Hamburg, attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding this transaction. Unlike most of the Reacher novels, Reacher is obviously now back in uniform. He's part of a huge institution and, while fans of the series are used to watching Reacher act as a solitary individual, basically making up his own rules as he goes along, here he is compelled to work as a member of a team. Naturally, though, he will do so in a style that is uniquely his own and that will still enable him to beat the crap out of a lot of bad guys along the way.

This is an okay book, but it's not among the better ones in the series. In part this is because of the constraints that the plot places upon Reacher and also because the book has a tendency to bog down in places as Reacher, Neagley and the rest of the team race around Hamburg pursuing a lot of leads that will prove fruitless before they finally get on the right track. Fans of the series will certainly want to read it, but more casual fans of crime fiction who just occasionally check in on Jack Reacher might want to look for one of the other books in the series.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Brady Coyne Follows the Sharks

This is the third entry in William G. Tapply's series featuring Boston attorney, Brady Coyne, and it's the best in the series thus far. By this book, Tapply had fairly well established Coyne's basic personality and habits, which would not change in any significant way over the rest of the series. His relationship with his secretary, his ex-wife and his two boys was pretty well set, as were a number of friendships that Coyne would carry through his literary life.

Several years before this book opens, as a favor to a wealthy client, Brady had agreed to represent a young baseball phenom named Eddie Donagan. Donagan was a pitcher soon to be signed by the Boston Red Sox and also soon to be the son-in-law of Brady's client. For a while, things went swimmingly. Eddie rose through the farm system and had a brilliant debut with the Sox. But then, for no apparent reason, he lost his mojo, or his magic, or whatever, and suddenly he couldn't pitch worth a damn. Overnight, he was out of baseball and selling sneakers at a local mall. He also left his wife and young son, E.J.

The book opens a couple of years later when Brady's wealthy client calls him on a Saturday morning to tell him that E.J., now ten, has failed to return home from his paper route. Brady is sure that the kid is just playing in the park or some such thing and that he'll return home shortly. But the client and his daughter, the child's mother, are panicked and insist that Brady come over to hold their hands.

Well, of course, E.J. does not return home and eventually kidnappers will call demanding a ransom. Naturally, this sort of thing is best left to the police, but if that were to be the case here, we would have no story involving Brady Coyne. Against his wishes and his better judgment, Brady is soon mixed up in a very confusing and dangerous case. The tale takes lots of twists and turns and contains more than a few surprises. But it's an engaging story, and it's always fun to spend an evening in the company of Brady Coyne. This is a book that will appeal most to those who enjoy a fairly traditional mystery story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Owen Laukkanen Serves Up Another Compelling and Timely Thriller

In The Stolen Ones, the last entry in his excellent series featuring Carla Windermere of the F.B.I. and Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota BCA, Owen Laukkanen wove a tense thriller around the issue of sex-trafficking. In this, the fifth book in the series, the story centers on another very timely problem, the bullying of teenagers.

The story opens when Stevens's daughter, Andrea, urges her father to look into the suicide of one of her high school classmates. Stevens initially assumes that, while the teenager's death was certainly tragic, there was nothing criminal about it. The victim, Adrian Miller, was a lonely boy without any real friends. He was repeatedly harassed and embarrassed by the school jocks and others, and ultimately responded by taking his own life.

But then Andrea appears at her father's office with another teenager in tow. The boy, whose name is Lucas, tells Stevens and Windermere that Adrian had an online "friend," a girl who encourage him to take his own life and to record it on his webcam so that she could watch. Lucas says that the two had formed a suicide pact and that the girl intends to follow Lucas over to the "other side."

Even though there may not be a crime involved, a young girl's life is in danger, assuming that she hasn't already killed herself. Stevens and Windermere spring into action in an effort to find the girl. They confiscate Adrian Miller's computer and begin rooting through his online history in an effort to discover the girl's identity. The effort is especially urgent for Carla Windermere who is carrying some baggage of her own with respect to the issue of teenage bullying and who is determined to save this girl at any cost.

Without much trouble, they discover that the girl's name is Ashley Frey and they follow the haunting thread of the conversations between Adrian and Ashley up to the moment when Adrian records himself committing suicide. But the effort to find Ashley takes a very disturbing turn when the agents discover that "Ashley Frey" is really not a teenage girl planning to take her own life but rather a disturbed psychopath who is trolling the internet, recruiting depressed teenagers, and encouraging them to commit suicide while he watches. Stevens and Windermere are thus launched into a desperate race to identify and capture this predator before he can convince any additional victims to end their lives.

This is the darkest and most compelling book in the series thus far. Save for Andrea, who gets the story off and running, we see nothing of Stevens's family, the members of which have appeared prominently in each of the earlier books. The sexual tension between Stevens and Windermere that characterized the earlier books has also disappeared, and the novel remains tightly focused on the investigation at hand. The tension builds page after page before reaching a stunning climax that is likely to leave most any reader holding his or her breath for the last ten or fifteen pages.

All in all, this is another great entry in a very good series, one which also highlights a very important current social problem. The next Stevens and Windermere novel can't come any too soon.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Great New Collection of Stories, Edited by Patrick Millikin

In 2009, Patrick Millikin edited a great collection of short stories published as Phoenix Noir, which remains one of the best entries in the Noir series from Akashic. Millikin now returns with an excellent new collection of stories in The Highway Kind.

As was the case with Phoenix Noir, Millikin has recruited an all-star cast of writers, including Michael Connelly, Ace Atkins, George Pelecanos, C.J. Box, Gary Phillips, Wallace Stroby, Joe R. Lansdale and others. There's even a contribution from Patterson Hood, who is perhaps better known as a founding member of Drive-By Truckers, and whose contribution to this collection is a very noirish story featuring a Chevy Chevelle SS.

Millikin, who is currently restoring a 1960 Cadillac, notes in the preface that "Over the years, the automobile has come to represent not just our freedom, but our isolation.... When we're not checking our e-mail or text-messaging with our friends, we're driving and we're thinking.... Our cars facilitate our secret lives."

The vehicles featured in these stories are as wide-ranging as the authors who produced them. Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael Connelly's story, "Burnt Matches," takes place in Mickey Haller's Lincoln. C.J. Box's contribution, "Power Wagon," centers on a 1948 Dodge Power Wagon. George Pelecanos picks a 1970 E-body Plymouth Barracuda for his entry, "The Triple Black 'Cuda." Ace Atkins chose a vintage Ford Bronco, perfectly restored with a new Cleveland 321 engine and jacked up with a Pro Comp lift kit, Pro Comp wheels and big, chunky Goodrich tires. Luis Alberto Urrea, who won an Edgar for his story in Phoenix Noir, returns here with "The Pleasure of God," which features a tricked-out yellow VW van.

The vehicles are all interesting and the stories are all top-notch, as one would expect from a group of writers this talented. It's a collection that will appeal to anyone who loves excellent crime fiction, great cars and the open road. And with that combination, you can't possibly go wrong.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Perry Mason Comes to the Aid of an Elderly Shoplifter

The thirteenth entry in the Perry Mason series was published in 1938. It's still pretty early in the series and two of the major characters who would appear in virtually all of the books, D.A. Hamilton Burr and homicide detective Lieutenant Tragg, still have not been introduced. But the basic form of the novels has been established, and this is a very good example of the early books in the series.

As the book opens, Perry and his secretary, Della Street, duck out of a rain storm and have lunch in a department store tea room. The two observe what appears to be a refined, elderly woman, and Perry tells Della that the woman is a shoplifter. Sure enough, a store detective soon appears and begins bullying the poor old woman, whose name is Sarah Breel. 

Perry intervenes and the issue is settled, but almost as soon as he is back in his office, he's contacted by Breel's niece, Virginia Trent, a nervous young woman who is studying psychology. Virginia is convinced that her aunt has suddenly become a kleptomaniac. In particular, she's afraid that her aunt has stolen several very valuable diamonds that were left in the possession of Virginia's uncle, a jeweler.

Perry discounts the young woman's notion that her aunt has suddenly developed deep psychological problems but sure enough, the diamonds are missing. Before long, somebody will be dead and Sarah Breel will be found with blood on the heel of her shoe, a gun in her purse, and a handful of diamonds. As always, it looks like a slam-dunk victory for the D.A. who quickly charges Breel with murder in the first. But even this early in the game, the reader understands that it ain't over until Perry starts pulling rabbits out of a hat in the courtroom, and the book ends with one of the better courtroom scenes in the series.

This early on, the series was still heavily influenced by the pulp conventions of the day, and there are great scenes like this one: 

"Mason pushed his way through heavy green hangings and into an office. A man stared coldly at him from behind a desk. A woman, some years younger, her contours displayed by a clinging blue evening gown, stood near the corner of the desk. Her hair was glossy black and filled with highlights. Her full lips held no smile. Her brilliant black eyes blazed with emotions she strove to suppress. Full-throated, well-nourished, she seemed seductively full of life, in striking contrast to the man who sat behind the desk, his waxy skin stretched so tightly across his prominent cheekbones that there hardly seemed to be enough left to cover the teeth, which showed in that ghastly grin seen on starving people...."

Wow, all that and contours too! They don't write 'em like this anymore...