Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Great Summer Read from Owen Laukkanen

I'm a big fan of Owen Laukkanen's series featuring Minnesota BCA agent Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere, and I really enjoyed his stand-alone thriller, Gale Force. Laukkanen now returns with Deception Cove, which races away from the first page in sixth gear and doesn't pause long enough to downshift anywhere along the road to the last. It may be his best book yet.

The novel has three main protagonists. Jess Winslow is an ex-Marine who returns home to Deception Cove on the Washington Coast, psychologically wounded after two tours in Afghanistan. While she's been in the service, her husband has died, leaving her only a ramshackle house and a boatload of trouble. Mason Burke is an ex-con, fresh out of prison after serving fifteen years on a murder charge.

The third character, who brings Winslow and Burke together, is Lucy, a black and white pit bull mix. Lucy was rescued just before being euthanized and was brought together with Burke in a prison program where convicts would work with damaged dogs, preparing them to move on to loving homes. Burke brought Lucy out of her shell and trained her well. The dog then went on for additional training before being given to Winslow as a comfort animal, and in the end, the two wind up comforting each other.

Burke remains emotionally attached to Lucy and upon his release from prison, tries to check up on her. He's not looking to get Lucy back, but he does want to make sure that she's safe and in a good environment. He's shocked to discover that Lucy has bitten someone--a deputy sheriff, no less--and is scheduled to be put down. Burke borrows money, buys a bus ticket to Deception Cove and races off--at least as fast as one can race on a Greyhound bus--in an effort to save Lucy.

Upon arriving in Washington state, Burke meets Winslow who is in serious trouble with the deputy sheriff who was bitten by Lucy and who has taken possession of the dog. The ex-convict and the ex-Marine form a tenuous bond, united by their affection for Lucy and their determination to save her. To say any more would be to say too much, and this is one of those cases where, in my opinion at least, the tease on the book jacket gives way too much away. If you get the book, don't read the tease; just dive in and discover the book's great twists and turns for yourself.

Those who follow the author on Twitter or Facebook will have already met Lucy, who Laukkanen rescued several years ago. She appears to be a great dog in real life and she plays a major role in Deception Cover. I really hope that we will see her, along with Burke and Winslow, again soon. In the meantime, this is an excellent summer read that should appeal to anyone who loves a great thriller.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Pursue a Legendary Nine-Tailed Fox

This is another very entertaining entry in Martin Limon's series featuring U.S. Army CID sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. The series is set in the South Korea of the 1970s, and this book, like the previous twelve, is interesting not only for the criminal investigation involved but for the portrayal of the Korean culture and the description of the relationship between the Koreans and the U.S. Army personnel. Limon is also particularly good at depicting the frustrations of life in the U.S. Army in South Korea at this time.

As the book opens, Sueno and Bascom are assigned to investigate the disappearances of three American GIs who have disappeared in South Korea. The three went missing at different times and in different places, but all three disappeared while out carousing in the Korean bar districts near their respective bases, and none of the cases appears to be that of a soldier who has simply gone temporarily AWOL.

As George and Ernie get deeper into the case, a number of complications appear, and the strangest among them is the rumor that an ancient legendary creature, the Nine-Tailed Fox, disguised as a beautiful woman, has lured the three missing men to their doom. The story also has some interesting relevance to the present-day, which I won’t reveal, and before it’s over, George Sueno will again wind up putting himself in grave danger in his determination to resolve the case. All in all, a very good read.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Jack Reacher Gets Sidetracked on a Trip from Maine to San Diego

I'm beginning to feel sorry for Jack Reacher. The poor guy can't even begin to take a trip somewhere without immediately running into a problem that demands his attention and derails his travel plans. The opening of this book finds Jack in Maine. With colder weather coming on, he decides to travel cross country, diagonally, from Maine to San Diego, California. 

As is his usual practice, once the spirit moves him, he sticks out his thumb and catches a ride, but it lasts only a few miles before Jack gets let out in the middle of the woods in New Hampshire. As he's contemplating which road to take next, he sees a road sign for Laconia, New Hampshire, the small town where he believes his father was born. Curious, and having never been there, he decides to delay his trip by a day and check out the town. Once there, the situation will immediately become complicated--big surprise!

At virtually the same time, a young Canadian couple sets out on a long road trip to Florida. They're carrying very valuable cargo in the trunk of their ancient car, which they hope will set them up in a new life in Florida. However, just as they're passing near Laconia, the car overheats; the engine begins to clank, and things are not looking good. They see a sign for a motel out in the middle of nowhere and decide that they'd better get a room while they figure out what's wrong with the car.

The motel is brand new, and not quite finished. It's run by four fairly creepy guys and it turns out that the young couple are the only guests. But once stopped, their car won't start again, and so the couple has no choice but to check in. Their situation too will immediately become complicated.

The two stories run on parallel tracks until they very end, when Reacher's story intersects with that of the young couple. The book moves along swiftly and readers familiar with the series will know exactly what to expect. It's a fun read--perfect for a day at the beach or at the lake with Jack Reacher and a cold six-pack of Trout Slayer Ale or some other suitable beverage.

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Virginal Young Woman Finds Herself in Jeopardy in This Early Novel from Charles Willeford

Originally published in 1957, this book has all the hallmarks of a potboiler that Charles Willeford churned out relatively quickly, perhaps because the rent was coming due or some such thing. Willeford would later become known for a series of excellent crime novels, most notably, Miami Blues and others featuring a protagonist named Hoke Mosley. This book isn't nearly up to the standards of his later work and, for that matter, it isn't really a crime novel in the traditional sense. Rather it's a titillating piece of soft-core porn, constrained of course, by the literary standards of 1957.

Back in the Fifties, a number of writers, including people like Lawrence Block, were turning out lurid novels like this one, sometimes under their own names and sometimes using pseudonyms, for the spinning paperback book racks that were so common at the time. They most often featured very suggestive covers, hinting that all sorts of interesting and often twisted sexual activity was to be found within the pages, and a common theme of these books involved a beautiful, but innocent young woman--usually a virgin--who accidentally winds up traveling in the wrong company and who is unfortunately led down the path to a life of degeneracy.

Such is the case here. Maria Duigan is a young secretary from New York who has saved her money for almost a full year so that she and a girlfriend can afford a vacation to Miami Beach. Maria is looking for excitement and attracts the attention of Ralph Tone, an art student who is working for the summer as an elevator operator in the hotel where Maria and her friend are staying.

One of the hotel's owners is a Mr. McKay, and he has taken a shine to Ralph for some reason or other. He invites Ralph to spend an afternoon cruising on his yacht, and in an attempt to impress Maria, Ralph impulsively invites her to come along as his date. Much to poor Ralph's dismay, McKay will turn out to be a pimp and a pornographer and once he sets his eyes on the beautiful Maria, her innocence and virginity will be in serious jeopardy.

Over sixty years down the road, this book is perhaps best read as an historical artifact--a reminder of a time when things were more innocent and unsullied, or at least a time when a lot of people wished that they were. The story is a bit overwrought and the conclusion is practically foregone. This is not Charles Willeford at his best, but it's still a fun read.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Another Excellent Novel frm Larry Watson, Author of MONTANA, 1948

Jack Nevelsen is the sheriff of a small county that is tucked into northeastern Montana--isolated from the larger world and very sparsely populated. Jack lives in the tiny town of Bentrock and is always very nervous on the night of the town's high school graduation. The new graduates are often tempted to drink and drive, which is always a dangerous combination, but especially so on a night like this in a county where the roads are not all that great to begin with. 

Up to now, Jack's always been pretty lucky, but it's graduation night, 1957, and his luck has just run out. Jack is called to the scene of a fatal accident and is shocked to find that the victims are June Moss, a young woman who just graduated from high school that night, and Leo Bauer, the high school principal. Bauer is a married man, a pillar of the community, and his son, Rick, just graduated in the same class as June.

There are three suitcases in the trunk and it's clear that Bauer and the young woman were running away together--a scandal that would devastate the small town. Jack believes that his principal duty as sheriff is to protect the town and the citizens who elected him. Accordingly, he begins to devise an alternative explanation for why Moss and Bauer might have been killed together.

Oh, the tangled webs we weave (to coin a phrase). Once Jack starts down this path, there will be no turning back. Inevitably, the situation will get increasingly complicated as time goes on, and Jack's story will quickly get away from him and turn in directions he never anticipated, with very serious consequences for the county, for the people that Jack was trying to protect and, most of all, for Jack himself.

This is a very engaging book that offers deep insights into the human condition and which also illustrates how actions taken with the best of intentions can sometimes go dramatically wrong. Larry Watson expertly describes the time and place in which this story takes place and has created solid, believable characters to populate it. One might strongly disagree with some of the decisions that Jack Nevelsen makes through the course of the story, but the book poses some very interesting questions and will leave readers thinking for a long time after the story has ended.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

A Great Debut Novel from Jordan Harper

Simply put, She Rides Shotgun is a fabulous debut novel. At its center is eleven-year-old Polly McClusky, a character that no reader is ever likely to ever forget. Polly has only dim memories of her father, Nate, who has been in prison for much of her life. But when he unexpectedly pops up in her schoolyard, demanding that Polly accompany him in a car that he's obviously stolen, Polly does as she's told, bringing along the small stuffed bear that is her best and perhaps only friend. 

At eleven, Polly is obviously too old to be having a stuffed bear as her constant companion, but it's not been an easy eleven years, and things are about to get exponentially worse. While in prison, Polly's father killed the brother of the head of a prison gang called Aryan Steel. Nate was due to be released, and the gang was attempting to coerce him into working for them on the outside. Nate resisted; the brother came at him with a shank; shit happens. 

Now the Aryan Steel has put a death sentence on Nate and, for good measure, on his ex-wife and daughter as well. Nate arrives back in his home town only to find that his ex and her new man have already been brutally murdered. He knows that Polly is next on the list and his only option is grab up his daughter and go on the run.

What follows is a story unlike any other in this history of father/daughter road trips. Nate and Polly McClusky are a combination unlike any other you've ever met, on the page, in the movies, or anywhere else, for that matter. Nate knows little or nothing about being a traditional father, which is a very good thing, because with a death threat from a vicious gang like the Aryan Steel hanging over her head, the last thing Polly needs is to be riding shotgun with Ward Cleaver. And, fortunately, Polly is not your run-of-the-mill eleven-year-old girl either. If she's going to survive, she's going to have to grow up quick and learn the kind of lessons that no one ever taught at the school she so recently left behind.

This is a beautifully-written book--dark, bloody and violent, with characters that will leave an indelible imprint on the mind of anyone who reads it. It rushes along, twisting and turning like a raging river, and once it grabs hold of you, all you can do is hang on for dear life and hope to somehow come out safely at the other end. A fantastic read.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Detective Harry McCoy Returns in this Riveting New Novel from Alan Parks

Glasgow police detective Harry McCoy, the protagonist of Alan Parks's debut novel, Bloody January, returns in February's Son. The story takes place during a freezing winter in the 1970s, and McCoy is still recovering from the events that occurred in the first book when he is assigned a new case involving the brutal murder of a promising young footballer. The victim has been hacked to death and a message has been carved into his chest.

It turns out that the murdered man was engaged to marry Elaine Scobie, the daughter of a major Glasgow drug dealer, and that adds an entirely new perspective to the case. The principal suspect is a man named Connolly, a vicious thug who works for Elaine's father and who apparently had a thing for Elaine himself. Connelly has disappeared, and as more corpses keep turning up, the pressure on Harry McCoy ratchets up as well.

McCoy has his own connection to the underworld in the form of his best friend, Stevie Cooper. The two have a history that dates back to the time when they were both young boys, and in spite of the pressure from his bosses, McCoy is not about to turn his back on Cooper who will play an instrumental role in this case.

This is a very dark, hard-boiled novel, with a cast of creepy and interesting characters. Harry McCoy is one of the most tortured protagonists in modern crime fiction, and watching him work this case is riveting. The plot is compelling; the settings are vividly rendered, and this book suggests that Alan Parks has a very bright future in crime fiction.