Monday, July 16, 2018

A Group of Elmore Leonard Characters Gets Freaky Deaky

There's no such thing as a bad Elmore Leonard novel, but inevitably, some of them have to be better than others, and to my mind, this book is not as successful as most of his other efforts. As virtually every reader of crime fiction knows, Leonard's principal strengths are the characters he invents and the great dialog that he gives them. In this case, though, none of the characters really appealed to me, and the dialog did not seem to flow as effortlessly, as intelligently, or as humorously as it does in most of his other books.

At the center of the novel are Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, two aging radicals from the late Sixties and early Seventies. Back in the day, when they weren't doing drugs and having sex with everyone in sight, Skip and Robin were blowing things up in the name of peace and justice. Ultimately, they wound up in prison and now that they're out, they're thinking of putting Skip's expertise with explosives to more practical use. (This book was published in 1988, and so the two are some fifteen years or so removed from their Glory Days.)

The other main character is a Detroit cop named Chris Mankowski. The book opens on Mankowski's last day as a member of the Bomb Squad before he transfers to the Sex Crimes unit. Also along for the ride are two brothers, Mark and Woody Ricks. The brothers were acquaintances of Robin and Skip's when they were in the movement. Mark now produces plays while his brother, who inherited the family's huge fortune, basically eats, drinks, and drugs himself into oblivion on a daily basis.

There's also Donnell, a former Black Panther, who now serves as Woody's driver and general factotum, and who's angling to cut himself a slice of Woody's fortune. Finally, there's an aspiring actress named Greta Wyatt, sometimes known as Ginger Jones. Greta attends a party at Woody's mansion where Woody takes her upstairs and rapes her. When she shows up at the Detroit P.D. to file a complaint, she meets Chris Mankowski who's on his first day on the job in Sex Crimes.

Once all the characters are on stage, the plot meanders all over the place as the plots in Elmore Leonard novels often do. The objectives and strategies of the various characters evolve over time and inevitably a lot of people will be double crossed and left angered and confused. There will also be a lot of explosions.

It's a fun read but, as I said, I found it less entertaining than most of Leonard's other crime novels, basically because I just didn't care about any of the characters or what might have happened to them along the way. After finishing this book yesterday, I sat down and watched "Jackie Brown," which was based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch. It's a great movie, based on a wonderful book, with lots of fantastic and memorable characters that I really did care a lot about. 
Freaky Deaky is a good book, but I don't think it's in the same league as Rum Punch and any number of other Elmore Leonard novels.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Another Great Summer Read from Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry has produced here another excellent thriller, perfectly suited for reading at the lake on a lazy summer day--or, for that matter, at any other time or place. A very clever bomb maker, who is in league with some shadowy characters that we don't really meet until late in the book, is engaged in a deadly contest with the L.A.P.D.'s bomb squad. As the book opens, he lures a large number of the squad's members into a trap and kills fourteen of them--nearly half the entire squad--with one blow.

With an obviously talented and determined bomber on the loose and with the bomb squad devastated, the department turns to Dick Stahl, who was once perhaps the most gifted member of the squad. Stahl has retired and is now operating a security firm, but given the emergency, he agrees to step in and take over what's left of the squad until permanent replacements can be found.

Stahl realizes immediately that he's up against a very skilled and unique adversary. The bomb maker clearly understands the steps that the bomb squad would take to defuse a device, and so he builds bombs that will tempt the experts to attempt to defuse them by the book. But when they do so, rather than rendering the device harmless, they will set it off, killing themselves and anyone else in the vicinity.

The bomb maker's objective is to wipe out the entire squad, although his motive does not become clear until late in the game. The result is that Stahl and his team members are in deep, deep trouble. While the bomb maker can put together a large number of devices and leave them around town to threaten the population, Stahl and his team can't afford to make even a single tiny mistake and still survive.

Not surprisingly, the tension in this book is about as high as one can imagine, beginning with the first page. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse, and Dick Stahl proves to be a very appealing protagonist. You can't help but hold your breath, every time he gets near one of the bomb makers inventions.

The technical material in the book is very impressive, and Perry obviously did a great deal of research on this subject. I saw him when he appeared at my local bookstore with this book, and it was very interesting to hear him talk about its development and about the work that went into. I've enjoyed virtually all of his earlier novels and this is clearly another winner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Hit Man You Can't Help Rooting For

Aside from Matthew Scudder, J. P. Keller has always been my favorite of the characters created by Lawrence Block. Keller is just your basic guy, living alone in New York City and doing the sorts of things that a lonely, single guy would do. But every once in a while, his phone rings and it's Dot on the line, summoning him to White Plains to meet with the Old Man. After reporting in and receiving his instructions, Keller then goes off somewhere and kills somebody.

As the book's title would imply, Keller is a hit man, and logically, we readers should be repelled by him and his actions. But as is the case with Richard Stark's amoral thief, Parker, you can't help but root for the guy, even though you know you shouldn't. He's the BAD guy, for god's sake, and we should despise him, but he's just too damned likable.

This is a collection of stories, many of which originally appeared in Playboy magazine, and which were the reason why so many people read the magazine back in the day. They trace the arc of Keller's life through a series of assignments and entanglements, romantic and otherwise. 

What makes the character so appealing are his inner musings about life in general and his own in particular. He has a habit of traveling to a small town somewhere and wondering what it would be like to live there permanently; he goes into analysis, but naturally, he can't really reveal anything about himself to the analyst--he has to make it all up. He gets a dog and a girlfriend, both of which complicate his life. He sometimes gets too close to his targets and has trouble carrying out his mission.

It's a complicated life, and in the hands of any writer less skilled than Lawrence Block, the premise would never work. But this is a great collection of stories, and Keller is a character that no fan of crime fiction will want to miss. It's interesting that Block and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) were close friends and collaborated on a couple of books, and that they would create two great characters like Keller and Parker, protagonists that any right-minded person should revile but that reader can help but love.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A Great Modern-Day Noir Novel from Laura Lippman

This is a modern noir novel that pays homage to the great books of James M. Cain. Like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, it focuses on two lovers, Polly and Adam, each of whom has closely held secrets that are revealed very slowly as the book progresses.

The story takes place in Belleville, a small town in Delaware, forty-five miles from the beach, and where nearly everyone is simply passing through. As the book opens, a sunburned Polly is nursing a drink in the High-Ho, a bar/restaurant that, like most of the town, is down at the heels. Adam spots her and moves in slowly, but the connection is made, and the two of them will wind up staying in Belleville and working at the High-Ho, long after each of them had planned to be well down the road.

As the summer progresses, someone will die, and the death will have critical implications for Adam and Polly and for their relationship. Other than that, I'm really reluctant to say anything more about the book. Lippman has constructed the plot very carefully, and peels back the curtain slowly and deliberately. To say more would reveal things that the reader should delight in discovering for him- or herself.

Suffice it to say that I think this is Lippman's best book yet and one that actually stands the comparison to those of James M. Cain. Anyone who is a fan of those classic novels will not want to miss this one. One of my favorite reads of the summer thus far.
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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Detective Harry Bosch Investigates a Homicide That May Be Linked to a Deadly Terrorist Plot

I first read this story when it was serialized in the New York Times Magazine. Following that, Connelly expanded the story and published it as a novel. I remember enjoying the serialized version, but, as one would expect, the novel winds up being a fuller and richer experience.

As the story opens, Detective Harry Bosch has just been reassigned to the L.A.P.D.'s prestigious Homicide Special Squad. He's sitting up at midnight, waiting for his first call out. When it comes, he's directed to a homicide on an overlook above the city. He arrives to find that a doctor, Stanley Kent, has been murdered execution-style, next to his Porsche, which is has been left with its luggage compartment standing open.

As Harry examines the scene, he is surprised by the arrival of F.B.I. agent Rachel Walling. Walling indicates that the victim, Kent, was a medical physicist who was on a list kept by the federal government. She initially refuses to tell Bosch why Kent was on the list or why she is interested in the case, and insists that they should get to Kent's house A.S.A.P.

Bosch concurs and, on arriving at the house, they discover the victim's wife, naked and tied up on a bed. She tells them that two men invaded the house, forced her to strip, then tied her up and took pictures of her. It appears that terrorists may have used the pictures to force Stanley Kent to give them extremely dangerous radioactive material.

The Feds, of course, want to take over the case and are, logically, pursuing it as part of a dangerous terrorist plot. The material in question could cause thousands of deaths and that is their priority. While Bosch recognizes the threat, from his perspective this is principally a homicide investigation and he insists on being allowed to pursue it. His rational is, find the killers and you find the material they stole.

It's a gripping story that moves very swiftly. Connelly excels at portraying the bureaucratic infighting between the Feds and the local police and it's really fun to watch. The fact that Bosch and Rachel Walling were once lovers only adds fuel to the mix. Bosch, being Bosch, is not about to take a back seat to anyone, especially not the F.B.I. This story first appeared only a few years after the attacks of 9/11, when the threat posed by potential terrorists was even more frightening. Twelve years later, the threat still feels palpable, especially in the hands of a writer as skillful as Michael Connelly, and fans of the series will not want to miss this one.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Spenser, Boston's Iconic Detective, Tangles with a Gang of Arsonists

This is the forty-fourth book in the Spenser series and the fifth to be written by Ace Atkins in the wake of Robert B. Parker's death. As any number of other reviewers have noted, Atkins has pretty effectively restored the series to its glory years, and with this many books under his belt, he is beginning to make the series his own. 

With Atkins at the helm, Spenser's universe is slowly changing. New characters are appearing, and the man himself is now moving into the modern day, particularly with regard to technology. Spenser long ago stopped aging somewhere in his early fifties, which is a very good thing. When the detective first appeared in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he was a veteran of the Korean War. He would thus now be somewhere in his middle eighties and might have some difficulty beating up large, well-muscled bad guys who are only in their twenties. At one point in this novel, Spenser notes that he once served in the Army. He says that he didn't do much in the Army, but Atkins gives us no hint as to when or where Parker might have served, and in this case has clearly learned a valuable lesson from his predecessor.

As this book opens, Spenser is approached by a Boston firefighter named Jack McGee. A year earlier, an abandoned Catholic church in Boston's South End went up in an inferno. Three firefighters who were friends of McGee's died fighting the blaze. McGee insists that the fire was deliberately set, although the arson investigators have been unable to determine a cause for the fire. McGee also believes that the fire may well have been connected to a series of arsons that have plagued the city in the past year.

McGee believes that the fire and police departments have given up too easily in attempting to solve the fire at the church and he wants Spenser to look into it. Spenser has no training as an arson investigator and one might well wonder how he could possibly turn up evidence that has eluded the seasoned arson and homicide investigators. McGee believes, though, that Spenser has connections in Boston's underworld that aren't available to the police and fire department investigators and that by probing these sources, Spenser might find the guilty party or parties.

It is, frankly, a pretty thin excuse upon which to build a plot, but who really cares? The story is off and running and it's great to see Spenser back in action. From the reader's perspective, there is no real mystery about who's responsible for the fires. The bad guys are revealed even before the first chapter begins, and the tension depends on the rising stakes, for the fire department, for the city of Boston, and for Spenser personally, as the fires rage out of control. It's another very good read and further proof of the fact that the Parker estate knew exactly what it was doing when it entrusted this iconic series to Ace Atkins.

Monday, June 25, 2018

An Atmospheric Novel of Brooklyn from William Boyle

The protagonist is this novel is a young woman named Amy who lives in a tiny, dingy basement apartment in Brooklyn. Amy used to party hard, but after her lover breaks up with her, she retreats into a much different, much quieter, and much more lonely life. She now does volunteer work, principally for her church, and among other things, she delivers communion to elderly shut-ins. 

One morning she delivers communion to a Mrs. Epifanio who tells Amy that she hasn't seen her usual caretaker, a woman named Diane, in several days. Moments later, a man who identifies himself as Diane's son, Vincent, walks in on the two women, having let himself in with a key that he apparently got from his mother. He tells Amy that his mother is sick and that he is checking in on Mrs. Epifanio until she gets better.

Amy is very unsettled by Vincent's appearance, especially when Mrs. Epifanio tells her that Vincent has been rooting around in her bedroom on his earlier visits. Determined to discover what might be going on, Amy takes to following Vincent and then witnesses something that she wasn't meant to see. The remainder of the book unfolds as Amy deals with the consequences of what she has seen and what she has done--and not done--in consequence.

I have very mixed emotions about this book. For me, it's principal strength is the setting. Boyle clearly knows the neighborhoods in which he has set the novel and the sense of place is outstanding. The reader feels as though he, or she, is walking right alongside Amy as she makes her way along, even though, personally, I don't think I'd want to visit many of these scenes, let alone live in them.

On the downside, I simply could not relate to the character of Amy who, to my way of thinking, made one incredibly bad decision after another. In the end, many of her actions left me simply shaking my head. As a result, I couldn't develop any real empathy for her and, ultimately, I really didn't care very much what happened to her. Also, some of the criminal activity at the heart of the book is pretty hard to believe and so in the end, three and a half stars for me, rounded up to four for the great job Boyle does at setting the scene.