Thursday, October 15, 2020

Virgil Flowers Searches for the Killer of a Bloody Genius

I've been a huge fan of the Virgil Flowers series from the very beginning, and I always eagerly await a new entry. Unfortunately, though, I don't think that Bloody Genius measures up to many of the other, better, books in the series. That's certainly not to say that I thought it was a bad book--I genuinely enjoyed reading it--but only that it didn't meet the high expectations that I have for this author and this series.

As the book opens, a wealthy and distinguished professor at the University of Minnesota is murdered late one night while sneaking into one of the university's libraries in the company of an unidentified woman. It appears that the professor may be using his private carrel in the library for a little late night clandestine "research" when he encounters an intruder. The intruder smacks the professor over the head with the professor's heavy laptop computer, leaving him dead on the floor. The professor's female friend hides in the stacks, hoping that the killer won't discover her and then, once the killer is gone, she hightails it out of the library without bothering to call the police.

As a practical matter, there are no clues and the police are completely baffled. The professor has been involved in a battle with the members of another department--one of those conflicts that could only seem important within the confines of academia--but there's little evidence to suggest that this brouhaha is the cause of his murder. The professor's family is well-connected politically and so, with the case stalled, the governor reaches out to the Minnesota BCA and has Virgil Flowers assigned to the case. Virgil joins the lead detective on the case, Margaret Trane, and spends a couple of weeks poking around, asking questions and trying to find a solution to the case.

As always, it's great fun to watch Virgil in action, and the interactions between Virgil and the other characters are often very witty and amusing. But that's par for the course in these books. The problem, at least for me, is that this case really doesn't seem worthy of Virgil's attention. Also, there's not nearly as much danger and tension in this book as there is in most of the others in the series. This case seems more like a parlor game of sorts, or maybe an old Agatha Christie whodunit, and there's not nearly as much at stake as there is in most Flowers novels.

As readers of the series know, a few books ago, Sandford decided to have Virgil settle down with a woman named Frankie who is now pregnant with twins. Up until then, one of the great pleasures of reading these books was watching Virgil flirt and otherwise interact with the attractive women who often populate these books. Sometimes these interactions led to something and sometimes they didn't, but they were always a lot of fun to read. Virgil is now effectively neutered, though, because he's not the sort of guy who would cheat on a woman to whom he has made a long-term commitment. There are at least a couple of women in this book who are attracted to Virgil and with whom, in earlier novels, he might have developed some chemistry. But we know from the jump that while Virgil might admire them, he's not going to pursue them and, for me at least, it feels like readers are being cheated out of one of the most enjoyable aspects of the earlier books.

Sandford has indicated that he's going to be taking a break from the Flowers novels if not abandoning the character altogether, save for an occasional appearance in a Lucas Davenport novel. If that's true, perhaps it's just as well to leave Virgil settled and about to become a father. I wish he had gone out at the end of a more interesting case, but I take comfort in the fact that I have a shelf full of great Virgil Flowers novels that I can always go back to and enjoy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Tibbehah County Sheriff Quinn Colson Faces His Toughest Challenge Yet

Over the course of the last few years, this has become one of my favorite series, principally because through the nine books to date, author Ace Atkins has created such a beautifully imagined setting in Tibbehah County, Mississippi and populated it with a great cast of characters.

That is not to say that the county, in the northeastern part of the state, is beautiful in and of itself. The rolling hills of the county may be naturally beautiful, but sadly the county continues to be a cesspool of crime and corruption, ruled by greedy and corrupt politicians, and populated by a lot of people who appear to be on a downward slide. For years a criminal syndicate has been running drugs and women through the county, often with the complicity of at least some county officials. A truck stop madam named Fannie Hathcock, the owner of a strip club formerly known as the Booby Hatch, now represents the syndicate in Tibbehah, at least for the moment, while a sleazy state senator named Jimmy Vardaman is the syndicate's candidate for the state's governorship. Vardaman insists that he wants to restore traditional Mississippi values, but his candidacy could mean that the state, Tibbehah County in particular, would be wide open territory for the criminal elements.

Standing against them is a former army ranger, Quinn Colson, who is again serving as county sheriff and who is determined to clean up the county, no matter the odds against him. Over the course of the first eight books in the series, Colson has been fighting what could best be described as a holding action. While he's sent a few of the criminals off to prison and dispatched a few more of them permanently, there always seem to be new recruits, like Fannie Hathcock, waiting to step up and take over the action.

This entry revolves around the death of a young boy named Brandon Taylor who died in the woods twenty years earlier. His death was ruled a suicide, but there have always been questions about that, and now two young female journalists arrive in Tibbehah County determined to reopen the case. Unfortunately, Quinn Colson, who was only a boy himself at the time Taylor died, is in the journalists' crosshairs as a person of interest in the case. The situation becomes even more complicated when Colson's wife, Maggie, who was Taylor's girlfriend in high school, suddenly begins receiving mysterious messages about the boy's death.

While Colson tries to deal with all of that, various factions of the state's criminal elements are jockeying for position. The one thing that they all seem to share is their belief that Quinn Colson is a threat to their activities and that he needs to be neutralized. It all adds up to a potentially explosive situation for Quinn Colson, and for the family and the county that he loves. This is one of the best books in an excellent series. Five stars, principally for the complex and very believable world that Atkins has created here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Used Car Salesman Russell Haxby Is the High Priest of California in This Early Novel from the Great Charles Willeford

Published in 1953, this curious little book is the first novel by Charles Willeford who would ultimately go on to write a number of excellent hard-boiled crime novels, including a great series featuring Florida homicide detective Hoke Moseley. This is not a crime novel in any traditional sense, although there are a number of crimes committed during course of the story, the bulk of them by the protagonist, a very sleazy San Francisco used car salesman named Russell Haxby.

By day, Haxby cheats both his customers and his boss at the used car lot where he works. By night, he pursues a mysterious and apparently frigid married woman named Alyce Vitale. He is determined to get her into bed by any means, fair or foul. The blurb on the cover of the book promises that "No woman could resist his strange cult of lechery!", but Alyce manages to do so for quite some time.

Haxby is a truly repulsive protagonist who exploits, cheats, and demeans practically everyone he meets. It's impossible to root for the man in any way, shape or form, but it's still a very interesting and entertaining read if just for the glimpse we get of Willeford in his early career. Even then the guy clearly had the chops, and the book is well worth reading simply for some of the great lines he offers, as in, "I took her elbow and guided her through the crowd to the floor. We began to dance. She was a terrible dancer, and as stiff and difficult to shove around as a St. Bernard."

Or, "She was a tall woman with shoulder-length brown hair parted in the center. She looked as out of place in that smokey atmosphere as I would have looked in a Salinas lettuce-pickers camp."

They just don't write 'em like that any more...

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

LONE JACK TRAIL Is Another Excellent Thriller from Owen Laukkanen

Lone Jack Trail is the second novel from Owen Laukkanen featuring Mason Burke, Jess Winslow, and Lucy, the pit bull mix that first brought Burke and Winslow together. It follows the excellent Deception Cove, which was published in 2019, and, as good as that book was, this one is even better.

Burke is an ex-con who did fifteen years in prison as an accessory to murder. Winslow, recently widowed, is a former Marine who returned home to Deception Cove with PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. A small town in Makah County on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Deception Cove is on a downhill slide and most of the people who live there are barely hanging on. Some are living on the margins of the law while others have already crossed over the line in an effort to keep body and soul together.

While in prison, Burke participated in a program where convicts trained service dogs which then went to people who needed them. As part of the program, he trained Lucy who was then given to Jess Winslow as a comfort animal. Once out of prison, Burke went to Deception Cove to ensure that Lucy was being treated well. He and Winslow became involved in a mess that involved Lucy, and once those matters were resolved, Burke remained in Deception Cove, tentatively beginning a relationship with Winslow that might or might not have a future.

As this book opens, Winslow has become a Makah County deputy sheriff and Burke is living in a cheap motel, working for a contractor who is rebuilding Winslow’s house. Their relationship is progressing slowly and it’s still not clear if the two have a real future together. They do share a love for Lucy, though, and both are very protective of the dog.

This creates a problem when a former professional hockey player named “Bad” Brock Boyd returns home after serving a prison sentence for dogfighting. Boyd is a local hero—the most famous person ever to come out of Deception Cove—and he remains very popular, his conviction notwithstanding. Given that Lucy had been rescued from a dogfighting ring before coming to Mason Burke, Burke is naturally suspicious and resentful of Boyd. The two circle each other for a couple of days and after Burke sees Boyd harassing Lucy, the two men have a huge fight.

A couple of days after that, Boyd’s body washes up on the beach with a bullet hole in his forehead. Burke, already having served time for murder and having fought with Boyd, is the natural prime suspect. He’s still an outsider in Deception Cove; many people are suspicious of him anyway, and most people have no problem assuming that he’s guilty of killing Boyd.

Even though she cares for him, even Jess Winslow can’t be totally certain that Burke is innocent, and with all of the cards seemingly stacked against him, Burke goes on the run in the hope of proving his innocence. Winslow, of course, is badly compromised, torn between her job and her affection for Burke.

As usually happens in a thriller like this, one thing leads to another and the tension and the action ramp up significantly. It’s a great plot, and as in his previous books, Laukkanen creates believable and very sympathetic characters, both human and canine. In particular, he excels at creating a great setting, and from the opening pages, Deception Cove and the surrounding county feel absolutely real.

As evidenced by my reviews of Laukkanen’s earlier books, I’ve been hugely impressed with his work from the very beginning, and Lone Jack Trail is another terrific novel that will keep readers turning the pages well into the night. I’m already looking forward to his next book.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Fiddle Player Alexander Roth Takes an Unfortunate Detour on the Way to California During the Great Depression

Towards the end of the Great Depression in the late 1930s, fiddle player Alexander Roth leaves New York City, hitchhiking to Los Angeles. Sue, a night club singer with whom he was living in New York has decided to follow her dreams and go out to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a star. Still in love with Sue, after a few weeks of living without her, Roth decides to follow her to the Coast. He hopes to reconnect with Sue and to find a job himself. He's been told that it's easy for musicians to find work in Hollywood.

In the meantime, he's almost flat broke and is having trouble getting rides. Finally somewhere out in New Mexico, he's offered a ride by a well-dressed man driving a powerful and expensive roadster. Even better, the guy says that he's going all the way to L.A. Roth figures that he's now got it made and will soon be reunited with Sue. Just out of Phoenix, though, the driver says he's not feeling well. They switch places and while Roth is driving, the guys dies. Roth has no intention of taking illegal advantage of the situation, but in attempting to help the man out of the car, the guy slips out of Roth's grip and his head cracks off the pavement in such a way that it now looks like Roth may have hit him over the head and killed him.

In short, this is a classic noir setup in which an innocent man suddenly finds himself in an impossible situation. Roth fears that if he tries to tell his story to the cops, they won't believe him and will arrest him. So he attempts to make the best of a bad situation by hiding the guy's body, appropriating his car, his money and his identity and heading off to California.

Things will naturally go from bad to worse.

The story is told mostly from Roth's point of view with some alternating chapters describing Sue's life in California. She still loves Roth and is having trouble being discovered. We learn about her problems attempting to make a success of her life, and Goldsmith describes very well the nasty underside of the Hollywood dream which consumes most of the innocents like Sue who come to the Coast seeking fame and fortune.

The Sue chapters are interesting, but they tend to break the tension of the chapters describing the trials and tribulations that Roth is enduring, and the book is a bit weaker for that. Still, it's a very entertaining read and fans of noir fiction are sure to enjoy it. It's nice to see the book back in print.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Child Psychiatrist Alex Delaware Returns to His Roots in BREAKDOWN

I've been critical of several of the recent books in this series because many of them have not involved Alex Delaware's role as a psychologist in any significant way. The stories have almost always featured a murder case which is assigned to Delaware's friend, Detective Milo Sturgis. Sturgis then calls Delaware and says, in effect, "I just got assigned a really cool murder case. Would you like to tag along and help me investigate it?"

That premise is, of course, not remotely believable. No police homicide detective would so casually invite a civilian to play a critical role in a murder investigation, and while the author has stretched to find some plausible reason for Delaware to be involved in these cases, I've never been able to buy into the idea and thus have been disappointed in many of the recent entries.

Happily, this book reverts to the origins of the series where the critical role is played by Delaware as a child psychologist and Sturgis is along to assist him. The book opens when a former television actress named Zelda Chase turns up crazed and living on the streets. Checking her history, a social worker (of sorts) discovers that five years earlier, Delaware had treated the actress's five-year-old son, Ovid. She thus calls Delaware and asks him to check out the woman.

Delaware is tempted to beg off. The woman was never his patient and he has no relationship to her. He is concerned, though, about the boy he treated and who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Accordingly, he agrees to meet with Chase in the hope of finding out where her son might be and ensuring his safety.

Before long, though, Chase turns up dead, apparently of natural causes, but under mysterious circumstances. Delaware thus recruits Sturgis to help him investigate, in the hope of tracking down young Ovid. One thing leads to another; more people will die, and this will turn out to be a very complex case. It mostly involves Delaware, with Milo's assistance, tracking people down and interviewing them. There's not a great deal of tension in the book, but it is an interesting puzzle with a great conclusion. All in all, then, a significant improvement over some of the later books in this long-running series.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

This is the fourth and final entry in William Bayer's series featuring NYPD homicide detective Frank Janek. As in the other three, this book features an antagonist with deep psychological issues and in order to solve the case, Janek will have to prove himself a brilliant analyst. Janek is a detective who relies on the excellent team of detectives he leads. He also utilizes science and the normal routine of a police homicide investigation, but principally he relies on his brain as he attempts to sort through the evidence of a case and get into the mind of the perpetrator.

This case may be his toughest challenge yet. A profoundly damaged young woman named Gelsey lives above a very elaborate mirror maze that her now-dead father constructed when she was a young girl. We learn early on that on occasion her father took Gelsey down into the maze and abused her. Now on rainy nights, she visits the maze and then drives from her home in New Jersey into Manhattan. There she goes into a bar and tricks a target who appears well-to-do into asking her up to his room or to his home. Once there, she drugs the man and then robs him. Before leaving, she always writes a mirror-imaged message on the guy's chest, insulting him in some way. This will be the first thing he sees when he wakes.

Now, though, one of her targets has been found shot to death and robbed of something extremely valuable. Janek and his team are assigned the case. Hotel employees describe Gelsey say that she left the bar with the victim. Thus she becomes the prime suspect. Janek realizes almost immediately, though, that there's a lot more to this case than meets the eye, and the whole situation will very rapidly become decidedly more complex and a lot more violent.

Meanwhile, Janek will also be assigned to reopen a murder case, known simply as "Mendoza," which has haunted the department and damaged careers for nine years. Mendoza, a very wealthy "player," was convicted of having his wife murdered in a spectacular fashion and is now in prison. The case also involved the assassination of a police detective in a car bombing and there have long been accusations that, in their determination to bring down a cop killer, the detective investigating the case manufactured evidence against Mendoza to ensure his conviction. A new lead in the case now appears, though, and as he attempts to unravel the case, Janek will find himself in mortal danger and aggravating a lot of his fellow cops along the way.

The two investigations are very compelling and thus the book moves along at a brisk pace. Janek continues to be a very appealing protagonist and it's too bad that Bayer decided to end the series this quickly. This book was published in 1994, and like the others, may be a bit hard to find. But for readers who enjoy complex psychological crime novels, the series is definitely worth seeking out.