Thursday, December 7, 2017

Another Great Harry Bosch Novel from Michael Connelly

The eighth Harry Bosch novel, published in 2002, opens when a dog unearths a human bone in Laurel Canyon in the hills above Hollywood. The dog's owner, a retired doctor, recognizes the discovery immediately and calls the police. Harry Bosch responds, climbs the hill where the dog had been playing, and discovers the bones of a child that had been buried in a shallow grave more than twenty years earlier.

An autopsy reveals that the boy had been murdered, but there are precious few clues apart from the bones themselves. A case this cold will be almost impossible to solve, but for Bosch, this case, like virtually all his others, becomes personal and he simply won't let go of it. 

Harry is, ultimately, able to identify the victim, but tracking down the killer will take all of the skills he has honed through the years. Along the way, he will acquire a new love interest, and, as is almost always the case, will find himself in conflict with the department's brass who are, at least in Harry's view, much more interested in protecting the department's image than they are in achieving some sort of justice.

This is another very good entry in the series, featuring the level of detail and insight into police procedure that readers have come to expect from Connelly. One of the particular joys of this book lies in the minor characters, beginning with the doctor whose dog discovers the bones, all of whom are very well-drawn and unusually interesting. The book ends with a particularly shattering climax which will leave readers very anxious to get to the next book in the series.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Mother Driving Across the Country Runs into Terrible Trouble in Arizona

This is a suspense novel written by the Irish crime writer, Stuart Neville, using the pen name "Haylen Beck." It's another of those cases where the author's real name and picture are featured on the cover, raising the issue of why the author even bothers with the pen name. Perhaps Neville wanted to distinguish between his other books, which are set in Ireland, and this one, which is set in the U.S, but I'm not really sure I see the point.

This is one of those books that's especially difficult to review without giving away significant plot points, and I would argue that even the tease on the book cover goes too far in this regard. Suffice it to say that a troubled woman leaves New York, driving to California. She fears that the authorities may be looking for her, and so she's sticking to the back roads which are less traveled. She gets as far as a very small town out in rural Arizona, where everything goes terribly wrong. For my own part, I don't want to give away any more than that, except in a spoiler alert. Read the dust jacket if you wish, and do so at your own risk.

I've read several of Neville's Irish crime novels and have enjoyed them very much, but this one didn't quite work for me. I had a very difficult time buying into the underlying premise of the novel and the story really didn't seem to pick up much momentum until about halfway through. Once it did, I was turning the pages one after another, as quickly as I could; I only wish it hadn't taken quite that long to ramp up the action. It's certainly a fairly good read, but I didn't think it was quite on a par with the author's earlier work.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

DS Alan Banks and Di Annie Cabbot Draw Two Very Difficult Cases in This Novel From Peter Robinson

When Peter Robinson began the Alan Banks series in 1987, with Gallows View, Banks was a Detective Chief Inspector, and the early books followed him through the investigations of a number of crimes. Fairly early on, Robinson gave Banks a young subordinate named Annie Cabbot, who became a fixture of the series herself. Now, twenty nine years and twenty-three books into the series, Banks has been promoted to Detective Superintendent, supervising a number of investigators. Cabbot is now a Detective Inspector with a subordinate of her own, and therein lies the principal problem with this book.

Understandably, Robinson is reluctant to let go of either character, even briefly. But he's well past the point where he can have Cabbot simply trailing after Banks as he does all the heavy lifting in an investigation. His solution is to give both Banks and Cabbot their own separate cases and then follow the investigations.

Banks draws a fifty-year-old cold case involving a celebrated entertainer named Danny Caxton. Several women have now come forward, accusing Caxton of sexual improprieties. The most serious accusation comes from a woman who says that when she was only fourteen years old, Caxton lured her into his hotel room where he and another man raped her. The girl and her mother reported the case to the police, but the investigation went nowhere at the time. Given the new accusations that are being leveled against Caxton, the case is revived, but all of the evidence that might have been collected initially has disappeared, and Banks, who believes the woman's story, has a very difficult task ahead of him.

Cabbot's case is a contemporary one, also involving a fourteen-year-old girl who is gang-raped in a van and then pitched from the van into a roadside ditch. She crawls out of the ditch and only a few minutes later is murdered. The young woman comes from a very dysfunctional family and has fallen into bad company. The small town where she lived is racially divided, with tension simmering between the white residents and a large group of people with Pakistani ethnic origins, and the case may well blow the lid off the troubled relations between the two groups.

Robinson approaches the situation by dividing virtually every chapter in half. One half is devoted to the Banks or Cabbot case and then abruptly shifts to the other. The two cases have absolutely nothing that links them together, and Robinson attempts to bridge the problem by bringing Banks and Cabbot together for drinks a couple of times to kick around their respective investigations. But it's a very frustrating approach, or at least it was for me. Every time one of the stories would begin to gain a bit of momentum, the spell was broken while Robinson switched to the other.

In truth, Cabbot's case is much the more interesting and could easily have sustained a novel all by itself. The Banks case seems thin, and Robinson has to stretch it out quite a bit in order to fill the space needed. Realistically, he would have been better off simply to let this be Cabbot's book and let her run with the case under Banks's general supervision.

This is not a bad book, but it is a frustrating one. These are two appealing characters, and I understand the Robinson, like many readers, is very fond of them. But I hope he finds a more satisfactory way of dealing with them the next time out.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Gets Tangled Up in the Debate Over Gun Control

This is something of an odd entry in the Brady Coyne series, which the author, William G. Tapply, uses to explore the issue of gun control. Brady is having a solitary drink in his condo one evening when he gets a call from an old buddy named Wally Kinnick. Wally has come to Boston to testify at a hearing about a proposed state ban on assault weapons, but the guy who was supposed to meet him hasn't shown. Wally wants to know if Brady can pick him up and give him a couch to sleep on for the night. Naturally, Coyne agrees.

Kinnick is the host of a very popular TV show on the outdoors--hunting, fishing, environmental issues, and so forth. As a man well known for supporting the Second Amendment, he's been invited to speak to the committee considering the bill by a group called Second Amendment Forever, or SAFE. Apparently having nothing better to do, like going into his office and doing some work of his own, Brady accompanies Kinnick to the hearing. But there, Kinnick shocks everyone, particularly the member of SAFE who have jammed the hearing room, by testifying in favor of the bill, rather than against it.

Kinnick argues that a semi-automatic assault rifle is not an appropriate gun for a hunter, and following the hearing, Coyne and Kinnick have an unpleasant confrontation in a coffee shop with some of the aggrieved SAFE members. The group publishes a regular newsletter with an "Enemies" list in it and Wally Kinnick soon finds himself at #1 on the list. Apparently for the sin of hanging out with a traitor to the cause. Brady Coyne winds up at number 7 on the list.

Shortly thereafter, somebody shoots Kinnick out in the woods, and the game is on. Of course it could have been a simple hunting accident, but then again, maybe it wasn't, and perhaps everyone on the list is now a target. Brady pursues the matter out of loyalty to his friend and out of an instinct for self-preservation. But if the shooter begins taking the "enemies" out of order, Brady may not have much time in which to figure out what's going on here.

This is an okay read, but it's certainly not one of the better books in the series. Tapply spends a lot of time weighing the merits of the debate over gun control, or at least as that debate existed in 1995, when the book was published. Obviously the debate over guns has moved well beyond that point and as a result, some of the arguments presented in the book seem almost quaint. Completists will want to read this book, but more casual readers who simply want to dip into this series might look for another title.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Detective Donald Lam Is in Serious Trouble--Again

The thirteenth novel in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series begins with Lam hanging out in a hotel lobby. He's shadowed a man to the hotel on behalf of a client and is then distracted when a young woman is thrown out of the hotel's bar for being unescorted. (Back in 1949, many upscale establishments apparently refused service to women dining or drinking alone, figuring that the women might be of "ill repute.") The woman in question "was a small, well-formed package of dynamite. A pocket edition Venus--high breasted, thin-waisted, smooth-hipped--with large brown eyes and taffy-colored hair. She couldn't weigh much over a hundred pounds, but she was perfect, and she was buzzing like an angry hornet."

Who could resist such a woman? Certainly not Donald Lam. She introduces herself as Lucille Hart, and, ever the gentleman, Donald escorts her back into the bar and buys her a drink. One thing leads to another, and she asks him to drive her home. Donald agrees and on the way Lucille says she's suddenly feeling ill. She asks Donald to pull over and check into the Kozy Dell Slumber Court, so that she can rest for a bit.

Obviously, an evening at a place like the Kozy Dell Slumber Court is bound to be interesting, and sure enough, shortly after they arrive, Lucille disappears. While Donald is searching for her, three gunshots go off in another cabin and Donald realizes that he could be in Big Trouble. He wipes his prints from the cabin he rented with Lucille and makes his way back to town.

Well naturally, all hell breaks loose, and before long, Donald is the prime suspect in a couple of murders. His partner, the tough and mercenary Bertha Cool, is furious with him for getting into yet another mess; the bumbling police detective Frank Sellers is hot on Donald's trail determined to put Donald behind bars, and if Donald is going to avoid getting framed for murders he didn't commit, he's going to have to save himself.

This is another entertaining entry in the series. Lam remains nimble and clever as ever and the cast of characters is suitably pulpy, including a "cute little trick" who's "as supple as the greased cable out of a speedometer." They certainly don't make women (or speedometers) like that anymore, and they don't write books like this one anymore either. But every once in awhile it's fun to pull one of these books off the shelf and return to the early, formative years of crime fiction.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Henry Pierce Loses Focus When He Should Be Chasing the Dime

A couple of days ago, I wrote a review complaining because one of my favorite authors, John Lescroart, had set a plot into motion by having his protagonist do something incredibly stupid. Now, another of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly, has done exactly the same thing.

In Connelly's defense, this book was first published in 2002. It's his eleventh book overall, and does not feature Harry Bosch or any of the other series characters that Connelly has introduced through the years. The protagonist here is a guy named Henry Pierce, the head of of a tech startup firm called Amedeo Technologies. The company is doing pioneering work in molecular computing, and the ultimate objective is to produce a computer smaller than a dime, hence the title. Pierce is the genius behind the company and has made a major breakthrough that could put the firm well ahead of its competitors in the field.

The problem is that the company is very short of cash and in desperate need of finding a major investor--a "whale"-- who can write the check that will enable Pierce and company to move forward. Happily, they have such an investor on the hook. The guy is coming in for a dog and pony show, at the end of which, hopefully, he will write a huge check in return for a small stake in the company.

Unhappily, though, only a few days before the demonstration, Pierce breaks up with his girlfriend and moves out of the house they shared. His personal assistant helps him move into a new apartment and, among other things, signs him up for telephone service. (This is, obviously, back in the day when people still had land lines, and besides, Henry really doesn't trust these new-fangled cell phones.) 

Henry arrives at his new apartment, plugs in his phone, and immediately begins getting calls for a woman named Lilly. The calls are coming from men who are phoning from hotels and who sound very nervous, and Henry quickly realizes that his new phone number must have previously belonged to a hooker.

Any logical, sensible, intelligent person would unplug the phone, wait until Monday, call the phone company, and ask for a different number, especially if he had to finish a presentation that could mean the survival of his company and of his dream. But Pierce decides to investigate. He browses websites, looking for Lilly's ad, and finds her on a site called L.A. Darlings. He wonders why Lilly is no longer answering her number, and assumes that something bad may have happened to her. (It apparently never occurs to Henry that Lilly may simply have grown tired of selling herself, given up the number, resumed using her real name, and moved back to Omaha.) Inevitably, of course, Henry's search will bring him up against some very nasty characters and will get him into serious, maybe even fatal, trouble. But he soldiers on in spite of the risks.

Which makes absolutely no damned sense at all.

Henry needs to be in his lab, perfecting the demonstration that will propel him and his company into computer superstardom. His partners, employees and other investors have everything riding on him. What the hell is he doing, messing around trying to find this woman and putting himself and his company in serious jeopardy? Everyone who even gets a hint of what he is doing, tells him he's crazy and that he needs to get his head back into the game, but will he?

He will not, which simply leaves the reader, or at least this reader, shaking his head in disbelief. The character behaves so irrationally that in the end, it's impossible to care about him. If this novel had been written by somebody named Joe Blow, one might conclude that it's an "okay" book, but one expects more from a writer as talented as Michael Connelly. Interestingly, at an author event a couple of weeks ago, even Connelly himself could not remember the name he had given to the protagonist of this novel. And given that, perhaps the reader can be forgiven for fairly quickly forgetting it and the book as well.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A San Francisco Woman Makes a Potentially Fatal Mistake

While I'm a big fan of John Lescroart's Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitzky series, this stand-alone didn't do very much for me. The book and I got off on the wrong foot right from the start when the main protagonist did something incredibly stupid just for the sake of setting the plot into motion, and once that happened I simply couldn't generate much sympathy for her or much enthusiasm for the plot.

Kate Jameson is in her mid-forties, happily married to a great guy with two children and a generally wonderful life in San Francisco. At a dinner party, she meets a man named Peter Ash who, like Kate's husband, is a lawyer. Kate feels an immediate attraction to Peter, which she confesses to her best friend, Beth Tully, an SFPD homicide detective. Beth, like any other rational person, the reader included, understands that it would be extremely foolish for Kate to even think about getting involved with Peter Ash; the consequences could be devastating and might destroy her virtually perfect life.

Kate naturally agrees with this logic, right up until the point where she doesn't. She lures Ash into an encounter at a hotel where the two of them have a mind-blowing sexual experience, even though Ash also realizes that this is a Really Stupid Thing To Do. Kate insists that this is a one-time-only experience, and good luck with that idea. Inevitably, of course, the dominos begin to fall; a homicide will occur; the case will be assigned to Beth Tully; any number of lives will be destroyed, and the world will never be the same again.

I understand that normally intelligent people do really dumb things all the time, especially in the sexual arena. But the problem here, at least for me, is that the author gives us no good reason why either Kate Jameson or Peter Ash should do such a thing. If either, or both, were unhappy in their marriages, their actions would make more sense. But Lescroart sets them up in a nearly perfect world where both of them appear to be leading about the best lives anyone could possibly imagine. Again, I just couldn't buy into the premise that either one of them, let alone both of them, would so casually jeopardize the lives they had worked so hard to build up to that point. I'll look forward with a great deal of enthusiasm to the next Hardy/Glitzky novel, but I certainly don't need to meet these characters again.