Monday, September 24, 2018

Boston P.I. Spenser Hunts a Con Man

Spenser, Robert B. Parker's iconic Boston P.I., appears here for the forty-fifth time, now in the very capable hands of Ace Atkins who has revived the series and made it fresh again.

As the book opens, Spenser's Significant Other, the therapist Susan Silverman, refers one of her clients, Connie Kelly, to Spenser. Kelly has fallen hard for a guy named M. Brooks Welles who claims to be a former high-ranking secret agent for the U. S. government. Welles has impressed not only Kelly, but a number of cable news networks who have regularly featured him as a noted authority on military matters and international developments.

Welles convinces Kelly to give him nearly $300,000, which he is going to invest in a sure-fire scheme that will make her a fortune. But then Welles disappears and Kelly realizes that she has been conned. Embarrassed, she wants Spenser to find Welles and recover her money.

That will turn out to be a complicated process. Welles is involved in a complex web of mischief with a bunch of gun runners and other bad actors, none of whom want Spenser messing around in their business. Federal agents are also involved in the hunt, and they don't want Spenser messing around in their business, either.

Naturally, Spenser could not care less what either the Bad Guys or the Good Guys want. He's on a mission, with the assistance of his best friend, Hawk, and he's not about to be deterred. The result is a very entertaining novel that is sure to please any fan of the series and practically anyone else who enjoys crime fiction.

If I have one nit to pick with the book, it involves the fact that in his earlier Spenser novels, Atkins had seriously toned down the sappy, saccharine byplay between Spenser and Susan Silverman that so annoyed many readers, this one included. He seems to have stepped it back up a notch in this book, and thus left me cringing at several of their scenes together. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book enormously.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Detective Sid Halley Returns in This Thriller from Dick Francis

The protagonists in Dick Francis novels rarely ever made repeat appearances, but one of the exceptions is Sid Halley who we see for the second time in Whip Hand. Halley is a former jockey whose career was ended when a horse rolled over on him, crushing his left hand. The hand was ultimately amputated and he now has a prosthesis. But it's impossible for him to continue riding under these circumstances.

Halley has thus become a private investigator and, not surprisingly, a number of his cases involve the racing world. In this instance the wife of a trainer approaches him and asks him to ensure the safety of one of her husband's prize race horses. In the past couple of years, two of his horses which were virtually guaranteed to win major races, fell way short and ultimately developed health problems and had to be retired from racing. 

The woman is afraid that it's going to happen again with a horse that's set for a big race in a couple of weeks or so. She wants Halley to make sure that no one interferes with the horse, but she also wants him to do so without letting her husband know that she has hired him. Naturally, this might be somewhat difficult, but Halley accepts the assignment.

Inevitably, of course, there is something rotten, if not in Denmark, then at least in the racing world, and vicious, malevolent forces will attempt to prevent Halley from completing his appointed mission. As usual, Francis spins an entertaining tale and this book will appeal to his loyal readers and to others who might find a mystery set in the English racing world intriguing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

P. I. Amos Walker Is Back on the Mean Streets of Detroit in this Novel from Loren D. Estleman

Published in 2014, this is the twenty-fourth entry in Loren D. Estleman's venerable series featuring Detroit P.I. Amos Walker. The first, Motor City Blue, appeared in 1980, and even back then, Amos was the last of the true hardboiled detectives of the Old School--wise cracking, world weary, constantly running afoul of the cops, but dedicated to his mission and to his clients. 
Thirty-four years later, the guy has seen it all. Even worse, he's experienced it all. He's been beat up, shot, and thrown to the side of the road so many times that a lesser man would have never survived. But he keeps plugging along, nonetheless. 

Walker has not aged in real time, but he has aged, and if anything, the Mean Streets of Detroit have gotten even meaner. As this book opens, he's just out of rehab, recovering from addiction to booze and pain pills. He's contacted by Ray Henty, a lieutenant in the County Sheriff's Department, who's been temporarily placed in charge of the corruption-riddled police department in the suburb of Iroquois Heights. 

A man named Donald Gates has been murdered in the basement of his home, and the department has made no progress in solving the crime. Someone unhappy with the pace of the investigation has put up billboards around the city shouting "You Know Who Killed Me," prodding the police to act. To make matters worse, someone, acting through a local church, has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. (This plot will, of course, sound familiar to those people who have seen the movie, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," but it's worth noting that this book was published three years before the release of the movie.)

The billboards and the reward have put a lot of pressure on the police. They've also brought a ton of calls to the tip line and someone has to sort through them. Henty hires Walker to listen to the calls and try to discover if there's anything useful there. Henty emphasizes that Walker is not supposed to be investigating the murder himself; he's only to listen to calls. But you don't have to be a regular reader of this series to guess how well those instructions are going to work.

Before long, Walker is up to his neck in the case, which turns out to be hugely complex, involving Ukrainian mobsters and a lot of other unsavory types. Other murders will follow, and Walker himself will be in serious jeopardy from a variety of sources before this all plays out.

One might argue that this plot ultimately winds up being way too convoluted for its own good, but after all this time, Amos Walker has become a very old friend and it's always fun to check in and watch him chase down a case as only he can. Readers who have somehow missed this series might be better off checking out some of the earlier books, but fans of the series will not want to miss this one.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Belfast Detective Sean Duffy Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Adrian Mckinty

Adrian McKinty's series featuring Belfast detective Sean Duffy just keeps getting better and better with each entry. This is the fifth in the series and it opens when a young woman named Lily Bigelow is found dead in the courtyard of Carrickfergus Castle. Bigelow was a newbie journalist accompanying a group of Finnish businessmen on a visit to Northern Ireland. She entered the castle with a tour group late one afternoon and the next morning was found by the castle's caretaker at the base of a tower some one hundred feet high.

The caretaker swears that the castle was securely locked after the last visitors left, and it's clear that no one was able to get in or out of the castle overnight. In the morning, the only people there are the elderly caretaker and the victim. All the evidence suggests that Bigelow hid somewhere in the castle and then, sometime around midnight, climbed the tower and jumped off, committing suicide.

It's a classic locked room mystery and a thorough investigation makes it almost certain that there was no opportunity for any foul play. This cannot be a murder; it's suicide, plain and simple. Beyond that, Sean Duffy has already had one locked room murder in his career, and the chances of getting a second, he thinks, would be astronomical. Still, while everyone else is willing to write off the young woman's death as a suicide, Duffy continues to be troubled by niggling doubts, and when he continues to probe into the case the more puzzling and the more dangerous it becomes.

This series takes place during the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland when Catholics and Protestants were battling each other and when most citizens and the authorities were caught in the middle of what amounted to a civil war. The previous entries in the series have all been set very squarely against this background. This book is set in 1987, and while the battle still rages, it plays much less of a role here. This is much more a straightforward crime novel, and Duffy is much less involved in the island's larger struggles than in the earlier books.

Sean Duffy continues to be one of the most appealing protagonists in crime fiction--funny, wise and personally vulnerable. I'm closing in on the end of the series--at least the end of the books that exist thus far, and I'm really dreading the moment when I will have to wait interminably for the next new Sean Duffy novel. This series was originally set to run for only three novels; I can only hope that it goes on for much, much longer than that.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Is Offered $1500 to Spend a Night in a Motel Room with a Sexy Young Woman

Maybe I was just in the right mood for this book, but it struck me as one of the better entries in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series. 

It begins, unusually, with a client coming into the office and actually telling the truth, or a close approximation thereof. On a night when his wife was out of town, the prospective client, Carleton Allen, took a sexy young woman named Sharon Barker to the Bide-a-Wee-Bit Motel for a little fun and games. The young lady registered for the couple while Allen hunkered down in the car, hoping that no one would recognize him. Naturally, she used a phony name and address and made up a license plate number for the motel register.

Allen claims that nothing happened after that, at least not in his room. Before anything did, the young lady took offense at something Allen did and left. Sadly, though, a deputy district attorney named Rolney Fisher wound up dead at the bottom of the motel's pool that night. Now the police are attempting to interview everyone who was registered there at the time.

One would think that Carleton Allen would be in the clear. The cops don't have his real name, his real address or his actual license plate number, and nobody there got a good look at him. For some reason, though, he's nervous and offers to pay $1500.00 to have Donald go back and spend a night in the motel with the sexy Sharon, pretending that he was the man with her on the night the deputy D. A. went head-first into the pool. The cops will interview them, conclude that they know nothing about the death, and that will be the end of it.

Naturally, Bertha's eyes are lighting up at the prospect of an easy $1500.00 payday for the firm, but Donald is leery of getting mixed up in a murder investigation that might cost the firm its license. In the end, he agrees to spend the night with Sharon at the motel, but only on his own terms. And, of course, before the night is out, the fireworks will have begun and as usual, Donald will have to pull every trick he has out of the bag to save himself and the firm

I thought this was a fun read, and it will appeal principally to people who enjoy reading Gardner's work or occasionally going back in time to read a pulp novel from the Golden Age of the genre.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Another Story from Harlan Coben of Life and Death on the Mean Streets of Suburban New Jersey

Harlan Coben long ago cornered the market on the New Jersey Suburban Family Thriller sub-genre, which involves average, ordinary American folks--almost always wonderful people with great families--who are suddenly thrown into chaos and danger when some powerful negative force intrudes into their daily lives. Such is the case here.

Our protagonist is a New Jersey lawyer named Adam Price. He and his wife, Corinne, are living the American dream with excellent jobs, a very nice, comfortable home, and two great sons. Their principal worries seem to revolve around whether or not their elder son is being treated fairly by his lacrosse coach and whether the kid will get enough playing time.

Then, out of nowhere, Adam's world is abruptly turned upside down when a stranger approaches him in a bar and reveals a devastating secret about Corinne. At first, Adam refuses to believe the story, but the stranger offers evidence to support the allegation he has made and when Adam finally confronts Corinne, she evades the discussion he so desperately wants to have. She insists that they meet at a restaurant for dinner so they can discuss the matter in a place where there sons can't overhear the conversation. 

Adam appears at the restaurant, but Corinne never does. Instead, he gets a text from her phone, saying the she needs some time alone and will come back when she can. In the meantime, Adam should take good care of the kids. Adam assumes that the police will do little or nothing to find his wife under these circumstances and so he launches his own search for her. Along the way, he hears several other troubling allegations about the woman he thought he knew so well. 

Meanwhile, other poor victims are receiving visits from the stranger and his confederates, and a lot more lives are being upended. As Adam's search draws him closer to the center of this troubling mystery, he antagonizes some dangerous and desperate adversaries, and it becomes entirely possible that even if Corinne should finally return home, her husband may have lost his life in his desperate effort to find her.

I thought that this book was okay--an entertaining way to spend a couple of nights, but a story that is quickly forgettable. The plot requires a very strong suspension of disbelief, and I found it hard to take the story very seriously. I enjoyed it, although not as much as several of Coben's other novels, but you can't argue with success. Millions of people are clearly hooked by Coben's tales, and so even though this book didn't work for me as well as I would have wished, I'm glad that so many other readers have enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Finds a Young Girl Dying in His Yard

By my count, this is the twenty-fifth Brady Coyne novel, but this is another of those cases where compulsive readers disagree slightly. It opens in the middle of winter, when the Boston attorney opens his back door early one morning to discover a young girl dying in the snow in his yard. Brady brings the girl into the house and calls 911, but it's too late. The girl has had a miscarriage and dies.

The girl, who appears to be about fifteen, has no identification, but the police do find a piece of paper in her pocket with Brady's address. Clearly, she was looking for his house but died before she could get to the door. Brady is heartsick and, when the police prove to be not as interested in the case as he would like, he begins his own investigation in an attempt to determine who the girl was and why she might have been looking for him.

Brady gets a copy of the morgue photo and begins showing it around to anyone who will take a look at it. He also distributes a few copies to street people, thinking that the dead girl might have been on the streets and that someone in that milieu would recognize her. Then, a couple of days later, Brady's Significant Other, Evie, returns from a conference of hospital administrators. She recognizes the girl in the photo as the daughter of a woman who died at the hospital where Evie works. She had counseled the young woman and it now becomes clear that the dead girl was really looking for Evie and not for Brady.

Brady is still determined to find out what happened to the poor girl and then one of the street people who has been showing the girl's picture around for Brady suddenly turns up murdered. A coincidence???

Not hardly, of course, and now Brady feels a double obligation to see this case through to its conclusion. It will be a complicated, surprising and dangerous path to follow, but Brady Coyne is nothing if not determined and will follow his tenuous leads wherever they might take him. The result is another entertaining entry that will appeal particularly to those readers who are steeped in the series.