Monday, January 15, 2018

The First Effort from Crime Fiction Master, Ed McBain

This pulp novel from the early 1950s is of interest principally because it was the first crime novel ever published by Ed McBain, who would go on to become one of the masters of crime fiction, best known for his 87th Precinct series. This book first appeared in 1952 as The Evil Sleep!, under the pen name Evan Hunter. It was then reissued in 1956 as So Nude, So Dead, by "Richard Marsten." It was then revived in 2015 by Hard Case Crime with the authorship finally credited to Ed McBain.

As the book opens, a hophead named Ray Stone wakes up next to a nightclub singer who is lying next to him in bed, nude and dead, having been shot sometime during the night. That's a fairly lousy way for a guy to start his day, but even worse, at least as far as Stone is concerned, is the fact that sixteen ounces of pure heroine, which had been in the apartment earlier, is now missing and Stone is in desperate need of his next fix.

The story follows Stone as he orders his priorities and sets about his day. First he needs to score some H, and then he somehow needs to get out from under the murder rap that is hanging over his head. Neither will be easy. The cops have tagged him as the killer and his face is on the front page of every paper in the city. The dealers are avoiding him like the plague and he's running out of places to hide, let alone score.

This is a fairly typical pulp novel from this era, and it's really not all that special, save for the fact that it was McBain's first effort. As such, it will appeal principally to McBain's fans who would like to see how he got started. For that reason, I'm glad I read it, but if you're looking for a good pulp novel from the Fifties, there are better books out there, and McBain would go on to write a lot of them.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Retired LAPD Detective Harry Bosch Pursues Justice for the Victim of an Unsolved Murder

The ninth Harry Bosch novel is unique in a couple of ways. To begin with, Harry is no longer a cop. He has abruptly resigned from the LAPD and is now a private citizen again. Secondly, while virtually all of the other novels in the series are told from the third-person point-of-view, this story is narrated in the first person by Harry himself.

Harry has been off the job for several months by the time the book opens. He has gone through the motions of getting a license as a P.I., but he's not actively pursuing it as a career. Mostly, he's just sleeping late and wondering what to do with himself. He finally decides to get busy by digging into an old, unsolved case that has haunted him for years.

While still a homicide detective, Bosch had been called to the scene of the murder of a young woman named Angella Benton. Benton had been violated before being killed, and in death, she was found lying on the floor with her hands outstretched, as if in prayer. Bosh discovered that the victim was a production assistant for a movie studio, and only a few days after Benton's murder, a brazen gang stole $2 million from a movie set belonging to the studio where Benton worked. The police brass quickly jumped to the conclusion that the young woman's murder was linked to the robbery. Thus the homicide investigation was taken away from Bosch, rolled into the investigation of the robbery, and assigned to other detectives. But neither case was ever solved.

Bosch has never forgotten the image of Benton's body lying on the floor and thus decides to investigate the case on his own in the hope of providing some justice, however belated, for the young victim. He's at an obvious disadvantage, though. Without a badge and the power of the city behind him, the investigation will be much more difficult, if not impossible. But then the task becomes infinitely harder when the Powers That Be in the police department discover that Bosch is nosing around the case and order him to stand down for reasons they will not explain.

Those who've read this series know that Bosch was never very fond of authority while employed by the LAPD and that he often disregarded orders and went his own way in search of the truth. In this case, of course, Harry will will persist in his investigation and soon finds himself in very serious trouble and in very grave danger.

This is a very good entry in the series, and it's especially fun to watch Harry work from outside of the system rather than from within. The book, which was published in 2003, also raises some very troubling questions about civil liberties in the post 9/11 era, and is critically important in other ways to the development of the main character. Lost Light should appeal to anyone who enjoys crime fiction, and no fan of the Harry Bosch series will want to miss it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Perry Mason Is Asking for Trouble When He Agrees to Represent a Mysterious Masked Client

On a cold, rainy night in 1940, Perry Mason is awakened out of a sound sleep by a man who offers to give Mason $1,000.00 if he'll come into his office immediately. They guy gives Perry a name that the lawyer immediately recognizes is phony and after Mason agrees to come in, he calls the Drake Detective Agency and gets them on the job. Drake's people are so efficient that by the time Perry gets to his office, he knows that the mysterious caller is actually an architect named Robert Peltham.

Peltham is accompanied by a mysterious young woman who is wearing a mask and who refuses to speak, making it impossible for Mason to identify her. Peltham wants the woman to be protected against any legal danger. He removes a $10,000.00 bill from his wallet, cuts a piece off of it and gives it to Mason as a retainer. He gives the other piece to the woman and says that if she ever needs Mason's services, she will give him the rest of the bill.

Adjusted for inflation, the $10,000.00 bill would be worth just under $175,000.00 in 2018. (Actually, $174,847.14, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but who's going to quibble over a hundred and fifty bucks or so?) Still, Mason initially refuses the case, pointing out all the problems involved in attempting to represent the interests of a client he can't even recognize. But in the end he agrees to the proposition.

Over the next several days, Mason sits around the office waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the meantime, he takes on a couple of other clients and before long, bodies are dropping, people are suing, and Mason still doesn't know what, if anything he should be doing. 

The setup alone makes this among the most entertaining novels in this series. It's a lot of fun watching Perry trying to figure out what in the world is going on here and what he should be doing. In addition to a murder or two, there's also a scheming would-be heiress and a complicated stock sale that gives Perry an opportunity to trot out the Law of Agency, something that always spices up any mystery novel.

This is one of the few novels in the series that does not wind up in a courtroom. Things move so dramatically and so quickly, that Perry never even gets a chance to cross-examine anyone and expose them as lying fools on the stand. Still, it's a lot of fun and will appeal to anyone who enjoys this series.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Kurt Wallander Faces One of His Most Formidable Opponents in "The Fifth Woman"

After spending much of the summer in an exhausting search for a serial killer, Kurt Wallander gets away to Italy on an idyllic vacation with his father. He returns home to Sweden tanned, relaxed and rejuvenated, but that won't last for long. An elderly car dealer, who writes poetry about birds in his spare time, is reported missing. His body is later found impaled on bamboo spikes in a trap that has obviously been deliberately set for him. It took a long time for the victim to die, and it seems apparent that someone was really angry with him.

Wallander and his team begin the investigation, but there are precious few clues to point them in the direction of the killer. In the meantime, another man, this one a florist, goes missing, and it seems clear that a diabolical killer is on the loose. This is especially scary, because serial killers are very rare in Sweden.

Nothing seems to link the victims, and Wallander and his team are pressed to the limit. Before long, everyone is exhausted from the long hours spent on the investigation, and it seems as though every time the slightest hint of a break in the case emerges, they have to go back to square one and rethink the entire thing. 

This is a dark, brooding police procedural with a unique and clever antagonist matched against Wallander and his team. It's often said that a crime novel succeeds only to the extent that the villain is a worthy match for the protagonist, and that's certainly the case here. The killer has a long list of potential victims, and Wallander will be sorely tested if he and his team are going to save them. This is another very good entry in the series and should appeal to any fan of Scandinavian mysteries.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Are on the Job in Hawaii

The fifteenth entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series begins in the firm's offices in L.A., but quickly moves to a cruise ship and, ultimately, to the Hawaiian Islands. A client whom Bertha described as a "fragile little pipsqueak," appears in the office. Lam guesses the man to be about forty-five, but he appears very infirm. He also appears to be loaded with dough, however, and in Bertha's mind, that's all that counts.

The man, whose name is Bicknell, is concerned about a young woman names Miriam Woodford. Miriam, or Mira, was formerly married to Bicknell's partner Ezra Woodford. Woodford was sixty-nine, and Mira, who's an absolute knockout, was twenty-seven. Ezra was able to enjoy six months of wedded bliss before he died suddenly, leaving a fortune to his young widow. 

Bicknell, who seems unduly solicitous of the widow, believes that she may be being blackmailed. Mira is about to sail for Hawaii, and Bicknell wants Bertha to sail on the ship with her and protect her. Bertha is dead-set against the idea and wants Donald to go instead. Bicknell insists that he wants a woman on the job and in the end, both Donald and Bertha make the trip.

Inevitably, of course, one thing leads to several others. Donald manages to work his way into Mira's circle while on board the ship and will maintain the relationship once in the islands. Before long, someone will be dead and Donald and Bertha will be in the soup up to their necks. As always, it will take some pretty clever thinking and some very fancy footwork on Donald's part it they're going to get out of the mess.

Whenever I read a book in a series like this where the protagonist suddenly leaves his or her familiar surroundings and goes off to someplace exotic, I assume that the author is looking for a way to write off a great vacation as a research expense. Whatever the case, this is a very entertaining novel and it's fun to see Cool and Lam out of their element. A good, quick read.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

An Excellent Hard-Boiled Novel Set in Scotland

This is a deliciously nasty, noirish, early entry in the Hard Case Crime series. The protagonist, Joe Hope, walks the mean streets of Edinburgh, working as an enforcer for a loan shark named Cooper. Joe is especially effective wielding his baseball bat, the sight of which leaves delinquent borrowers terrorized. 

Joe's a heavy drinker, especially when he's been out collecting with his buddy, Cooper, and after one of these all-night sessions, Joe returns home to discover that his teenage daughter is dead. She has apparently killed herself after going to stay with an uncle in northern Scotland.

Joe is devastated and furious, and he vows to take revenge against the uncle who, in Joe's view, did not sufficiently protect his daughter. But Joe has barely begun to take his revenge when he is arrested for a murder that he did not commit. The evidence is heavily stacked against him and it's clear that someone is attempting to put him into the frame.

As the book progresses, Joe must sort out what happened with his daughter and at the same time stay one step ahead of the cops who are in hot pursuit. Neither will be easy, and his efforts align him with some pretty hard characters. One doesn't normally think of Scotland as prime territory for traditional noir crime stories, but by the time Guthrie gets through, he has produced a story worthy of the masters of the genre. This is a book that should appeal to any fan of hard-boiled crime novels.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Investigates the Disappearance of a Friend

The Constitution guarantees that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a defense--even though he or she might actually have committed the offense for which they have been charged. This is bound to cause difficulties for many attorneys--at least for those with a conscience--who find that they must mount the best defense they can even for clients that they personally find reprehensible.

Boston attorney Brady Coyne finds himself in this situation when the son of one of his clients is charged with killing two people while driving drunk. There's no question about the fact that the son was driving the car, that he was legally drunk, that he hit another car and killed two people. But the wealthy father wants his son off the hook.

As readers of this series know, Coyne's one-man law practice is largely confined to administering the affairs of wealthy, mostly elderly clients. He doesn't do criminal defense himself, but acting on the instructions of his client, Coyne finds an excellent defense attorney named Paul Cizek to take the case. Cizek, who is one of Brady's friends, was once a prosecuting attorney with an outstanding record. Since going into private practice he has successfully defended a number of high-profile defendants who have been acquitted as the result of his efforts, which certainly does not mean that they were not guilty.

Such is the case here, and against seemingly impossible odds, Cizek wins an acquittal for the drunk driver who was surely as guilty as sin. But Cizek is troubled by the fact that he is now helping guilty clients escape the consequences of their actions. His marriage is also in trouble and one night, shortly after the trial, he disappears off his boat which he has taken out into a storm.

Did Cizek die by accident? Was he so depressed that he took his own life? Brady Coyne is haunted by the death of his friend and goes searching for answers. Naturally, his quest will stir up all kinds of additional problems that Brady never anticipated, and before long, he will be in considerable trouble himself.

If that weren't bad enough, Brady's own love life has hit a troubled patch. For some time, he has been in a relationship with a newspaper reporter who seems to be his ideal mate. But when she get a chance for a big advancement, it may mean moving away from Boston and may, in turn, have serious consequences for her relationship with Brady.

This is a very good entry in this series. The case is an interesting one, and the reporter, Alex Shaw, is one of Brady's more appealing love interests, and so the reader winds up rooting for them to succeed. All in all, a good read.