Sunday, January 20, 2019

Two Brothers Find Themselves in the Crosshairs of Some Very Bad People in This Novel from Dick Francis

Twice Shy is a somewhat unusual novel. As a practical matter, it really consists of two short novels that share a pair of villains but which have different main protagonists. The two stories are set fourteen years apart, and the first is set in the early 1980s. The lead character here is Jonathan Derry, a young physics teacher who is also a crack shot who once had hopes of competing in the Olympics. 

Jonathan is trapped in a loveless marriage that is failing because his wife desperately wants to have children but is unable to do so. He's at loose ends when a friend gives him three cassette tapes. But instead of the music he expects to find, he discovers that the cassettes contain computer programs. The programs constitute a horse betting system that, when used properly, could make a person a fortune.

The first part of the book is obviously set in the very early days of personal computing when PCs had very little internal memory and when even the operating system had to be loaded into the computer before you could use it. Francis spends a great deal of time explaining all of this, but it's all very dated. I imagine this was fascinating, at least to some people, when the book was first published in 1982, but thirty-seven years later, it tends to take the reader out of the story, at least a bit.

Once Derry comes into possession of the tapes, he finds himself in considerable danger because some ruthless and unscrupulous people know about the tapes and want them for themselves. Some bad things happen and then fourteen years pass out of the sight of the reader. When the story resumes, our new lead is Jonathan's younger brother, William Derry, a horse trainer. It turns out that the nasty people from the first half of the book are still hot on the trail of the computer tapes and now William is in their sights. More bad things will happen and the question is whether either of the Derry brothers can survive.

Even leaving aside the business about the outdated computers, this is not one of my favorite Dick Francis novels. It's serviceable enough, but neither the plot nor the characters seemed up to Francis's usual standards, and the idea that the bad guys would still be on the hunt for these computer tapes fourteen years down the road seemed a stretch. Given the advances in computers over that period of time, one would certainly think that the system contained on the tapes would be obsolete, assuming that you could even still find a computer to run them on, and I had trouble buying into the characters' motivations. An okay read, but not a great one.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Seattle Detective Tracy Crosswhite Faces Another Very Challenging and Dangerous Case

The Trapped Girl is another excellent entry in Robert Dugoni's series featuring Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. The story opens when a high school boy, illegally trapping crabs out of season, pulls up a trap and finds trapped in it the body of a young woman. Crosswhite and her unit are assigned to the case, but even identifying the victim proves difficult, especially when it turns out that the woman had undergone a series of plastic surgeries in an apparent effort to conceal her identity. 

The victim is finally identified as a woman who went missing several months earlier, and the deeper Crosswhite digs into the woman's past, the more confusing the case becomes. As it unfolds, Tracy discovers that there is also a lot of missing money involved in this case and that there are any number of people who want to get their hands on it. Some of them will go to any lengths to do so, and Tracy Crosswhite may find herself squarely in their sights before all is said and done.

Like the other entries in this series, this one moves along at a rapid pace. In attempting to solve this puzzle, Crosswhite will be forced to endure even more than the usual bureaucratic and jurisdictional interference, and she will be reminded once again of the case involving the murder of her own sister that initially set her on the path to becoming a homicide detective.

As Dugoni tells the story, he intersperses chapters from the viewpoint of the victim that gradually reveal the reasons why she found herself in an impossible predicament. This information is doled out at just the right pace and helps keep the pages turning rapidly to yet another explosive climax. Another very good read from Dugoni.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Claire DeWitt, the World's Greatest Detective, Returns with a New Mission

The Infinite Blacktop is the third novel in Sara Gran's series featuring Claire DeWitt, The World's Greatest Detective, and it's another excellent read. DeWitt is, by almost any standard, the most unique protagonist in modern crime fiction, and it's virtually impossible to adequately capture the depth and complexity of the character in a review. Suffice it to say, she's not your grandmother's Miss Marple.

Claire was drawn to detection as a young girl, and along with her friends, Tracy and Kelly, she began solving mysteries in the middle 1980s. There was never a case the trio couldn't crack. But then one day Tracy simply disappeared, never to be seen again, and her friend's disappearance remains the only case that Claire has never been able to solve. She and Kelly came to a parting of the ways and in the years after, Claire drifted around the country, living on the margins and solving mysteries as they were presented to her. "I didn't want a steady job and I didn't want a steady life and I didn't want to love anyone," she explains.

Claire is a disciple of the famous Jacques Silette, the French author of the book Detection the bible that has guided her life and career since the time she was a teen. Only a handful of detectives are wise enough and skilled enough to understand and apply the lessons that Silette provided, but they have served Claire well.

1999 found Claire in Los Angeles, trying to accumulate enough hours under the supervision of a licensed P.I. to qualify for her own license. She takes on an unsaved cold case involving the death of an artist who died in an apparent auto accident only a few months after the death of his girlfriend who was also an artist. Twelve years later, Claire will find herself in Oakland where someone attempts to kill her by deliberately slamming his Lincoln into her smaller car. Claire wakes up in the hospital, injured and confused, but clear headed enough to know that she needs to escape the hospital and find out who wants her dead before he tries again.

Gran weaves all three tales into a narrative that jumps repeatedly from 2011 to 1985 to 1999 and back again. It can be difficult at times to follow the action, but there's never anything linear about a book featuring Claire DeWitt. You simply have to surrender to the story, let it wash over you, and go with the flow, as the kids used to say back in the day. Like the first two books in the series, it's a great trip.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sheriff Quinn Colson Chases a Trio of Bank Robbers in this Novel from Ace Atkins

There's an awful lot of stuff going down in the seventh novel by Ace Atkins, featuring Tibbehah County, Mississippi Sheriff Quinn Colson. In particular, a trio of bank robbers is wreaking havoc in the area. Disguising themselves by wearing Donald Trump masks, they hit their targets with military precision, their leader warning the bank's employees and customers that, "Anyone moves and I'll grab 'em by the pussy!"

The team is in and out in minutes flat; their escape routes are meticulously planned, and they leave no evidence of any consequence behind. The Tibbehah County Sheriff's Office and the other law enforcement agencies involved will have a tough time bringing these guys to heel.

While Quinn is busy chasing bank robbers and other ne'er-do-wells, his sister, Caddy, continues to run the mission and shelter that she established several books earlier. She's particularly worried about the fate of two teenage girls who have disappeared from the area after becoming involved in the local sex trades. She recruits Quinn's best friend, Boom, to help her search for the girls, and her search will ultimately get a lot of people into trouble.

Meanwhile, in the background, Tibbehah County remains, sadly, a cesspool of corruption and shady maneuverings, driven mostly by forces that remain in the shadows. Johnny Stagg, who used to run the county's vice out of his truck stop and his strip club, the Booby Trap, is now in prison. This does not mean, though, that the county is cleaning up its act. A tough-as-nails woman named Fannie Hathcock has taken over Stagg's operation and reopened the strip club as Vienna's Place. Having an operation like this in the middle of your county will tax the patience of any local sheriff, and Quinn Colson will be no exception.

I was hooked from the first scene and raced through this book. One of the pleasures of this series is that Atkins has created such a rich setting in the fictional Tibbehah County and has developed such a great cast of characters to populate it. The reader is immediately drawn into Quinn Colson's world and it's always great to be back. There's plenty of action and lots of tension; all in all a very good read.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Detective Donald Lam Cuts Thin to Win in this Entertaining Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The twenty-seventh entry in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series is one of the better books in the series. It opens with something of a twist in that a potential client comes into the office with a case that Donald wants to take and Bertha doesn't. Usually, the reverse is true.

The client, Clayton Dawson, is the assistant to the manager of a re-debenture discount security company (whatever in the world that is). Dawson has a daughter with a wild side. He presents the detectives with a scrap of cloth. Someone, he says, might claim that the scrap of cloth was found stuck in the undercarriage of a car which people might falsely claim his daughter was driving while under the influence. The car, which he insists his daughter was not driving might have been involved in a hit-and-run accident with the woman who was wearing the dress.

Dawson would like to see his daughter clear of the mess and, without saying so directly, he wants Donald to find the victim of the hit and run and make a settlement that would prevent his daughter from facing any criminal charges. Bertha is nervous as hell because this would be skating right up against the edge of the law and could cost the firm its license. Donald, though, very skillfully walks Dawson through the interview, ascertaining what the client wants without coming right out and saying it. Over Bertha's objections, he takes the case.

As is always the case with the books in this series, nothing is as it originally seems, and in taking the case, Donald opens up a huge can of worms. The plot is especially clever and interesting and is one of the few in the series that the reader can actually follow. The fun in reading these books is watching Donald in action, particularly in regard to his relationship with his partner. Like some of Gardner's Perry Mason novels, the plots are generally so convoluted that they make no sense at all, even when Donald lays it all out in the end. That is not the case here, and this book demonstrates that near the end of what was a very long run, Gardner was still capable of returning to his top form.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Joe Gunther Returns in Another Excellent Story from Archer Mayor

This is another excellent entry in the long-running series by Archer Mayor featuring Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. The story opens when the body of a young woman is found at the top of a ski trail. Joe's team fairly quickly and easily identifies the man who dumped the body and they fairly quickly and easily secure his confession to the woman's murder. The problem is that this all happens almost too quickly and too easily, and Joe suspects that something is off about the whole business.

While Joe and his team investigate the killing, someone inaugurates a string of actions targeting a giant food distribution warehouse. The vandalism begins with a few small fires but quickly escalates to the point where people are dying. Investigating the crimes is a daunting task because there are so many potential suspects and so very few good leads. But then a connection appears linking the murder of the young woman to the crimes committed at the warehouse, and things get even more complicated--and much more dangerous--in a big hurry. 

Both the original murder and the subsequent vandalism and murders are cleverly designed, and watching the VBI agents attempt to untangle the various threads of these problems is especially entertaining. By now this cast of characters is entirely familiar; readers of the series have watched them grow and develop over the course of twenty-nine books, beginning with Open Season in 1988. Returning to the series is like dropping in on a cast of intimate friends and acquaintances, and while the mysteries in this series are always first-rate, the real joy in reading these books is checking in to see how Joe and the extended cast are getting along. This has long been one of the best regional mystery series going and Bury the Lead continues that fine tradition.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Attempts to Uncover an Insurance Fraud in This Novel from A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

Quality-wise, this book is somewhere in the middle of the pack for A. A. Fair's series featuring Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. This deep into the series Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner) was clearly writing on autopilot and not about to deviate from the formula he had established twenty-five years earlier in 1939. In fact, this book could have been written in 1939. Save for the fact that Donald takes a trip on a jet airplane rather than on a prop plane, there's really nothing here to suggest that the book might have been written in 1964 or in any year close to that.

The story opens when an insurance company executive hires the firm of Cool and Lam to try to get the goods on someone the executive believes is attempting to defraud the company. The man claims to have suffered a whiplash injury when his car was hit from behind by a driver insured by the company.

Whiplash pain is almost impossible to prove and the company fears that it's going to have to make a big settlement. The company has arranged for the man to "win" a trip to a dude ranch in Arizona in a contest. The idea is that Donald will go to the ranch and attempt to get film of the claimant riding horses, playing golf, and doing all sorts of things that would be impossible were he as seriously injured as he claims.

Naturally, the situation will almost immediately become much more complicated and, as usual, Donald will find himself in a serious mess. He will then have to extricate himself and unravel another very complex mystery before his usual adversary, Sergeant Frank Sellers, can screw things up entirely.

Those who follow the series will know exactly what to expect from the opening pages of the book. Those who are interested in sampling the series would be better off seeking out one of the first few books from the 1940s, which were fresher and truer to the time period in which they were written.