Thursday, May 16, 2019

Perry Mason Tackles The Case of the Haunted Husband

When hatcheck girl Stephanie Claire is fired after refusing her boss's advances, she impulsively decides to hitchhike to Los Angles to see if she can break into the movies. She gets a ride to Bakersfield and there is picked up by a man in a powerful sedan. The man's been drinking and when he tries to get friendly, Stephanie she has a drink of whiskey to be a good sport, but otherwise resists his advances. In attempting to paw Stephanie, the man loses control of the car, which crashes. Stephanie is pulled from the wreck with liquor on her breath, only to find that the driver has disappeared, leaving her to take the rap for manslaughter.

The car belongs to a Hollywood mogul who claims that it was stolen, and if anybody ever needed a good lawyer, it's Stephanie. Fortunately, one of her girlfriends persuades Perry Mason to take the case, and it's a very good thing, because like so many of Mason's cases, this one will ultimately become so convoluted that only Perry could figure it out.

Inevitably, of course, a body or two will drop along the way and Perry will be locked in an intricate chess match with his new adversary, Lieutenant Tragg, who replaces the bumbling Sergeant Holcomb as Mason's principal antagonist. Interestingly, Tragg looks nothing like Ray Collins, the actor who played the character in the long-running TV series. In this novel, Tragg is described for one of the very few times: "Tragg was about Mason's age, an inch or two shorter, a pound or two lighter, but there was a certain similarity about the men which would impress a close observer. Tragg's high forehead, wavy black hair, clean-cut features and thoughtful eyes were at sharp variance with the bull-necked beef of Sergeant Holcomb, whose place on the homicide squad he had taken."

This is a fairly typical entry in the series, and a fun read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Young Writer Accepts an Interesting But Potentially Dangerous Assignment on Camino Island

When a gang of clever thieves breaks into a vault deep in the bowels of the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the prize is five original manuscripts from the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, including The Great Gatsby. The collection is priceless, and the problem, of course, is how to safely dispose of it while making a fortune in the process.

Naturally, Princeton would very much like to have the manuscripts back, and the initial F.B.I. investigation into the thefts yields some results but not the manuscripts themselves. Another agency, which is never named, is also searching for the manuscripts. They represent the insurance company that's going to have to fork over $20 million if the manuscripts are not recovered safely.

Naturally, they'd prefer not to have to do that, and the agency they've retained does not have the scrouples or the limitations of a law enforcement agency. The company convinces Mercer Mann, an English instructor who has just lost her college teaching job, to aid them in the search. Mercer has published one well-received novel, but is suffering from a serious case of writer's block brought on by the pressing obligations of her huge student loan debt. Her potential employer offers to pay her handsomely and to pay off the student debt, an offer that Mercer ultimately cannot refuse, even though she has reservations about the job she's being asked to do.

Mercer's employer points her at a very successful bookseller named Bruce Cable on Camino Island in Florida. The company believes that Cable, who is rumored to sometimes traffic in stolen novels, might be in possession of the Fitzgerald manuscripts. Mercer used to visit her aunt on the island and still has a partial interest in her aunt's home there. As a novelist, she should be easily able to penetrate Cable's inner circle and hopefully discover if he has the manuscripts and where he might be hiding them. But this may not be as easy as it sounds.

This is a reasonably fun read and I particularly enjoyed it for all the insights into the writing and book selling businesses. It's certainly not among Grisham's better books--the suspense is not nearly as heart-pounding as it is in The Firmor The Runaway Jury, for example, but it's an easy way to lose a summer afternoon.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Ian Ludlow Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Lee Goldberg

I was a big fan of Lee Goldberg's True Fiction, the first novel featuring Ian Ludlow. Ludlow is a novelist who writes thrillers featuring Clint Straker, an action hero on the order of James bond or Jack Reacher. In True Fiction, poor Ludlow was stunned to discover that someone had taken one of his ideas and turned it into a real, live terrorist plot. Ludlow is overweight, out of shape, and often terrified--in short, the polar opposite of the hero he created. But left with no other alternative, Ludlow was forced to leap into action himself, with the help of a dog walker and author escort named Margo French, in an effort to defeat the terrorists.

Happily, the crisis passed and things have now returned to normal. Ian is back at work, quietly working on a new Straker novel in which the Chinese, through multiple devious methods, are attempting to take over the United States and, by extension, the rest of the free world. 

As the book opens, Ludlow is preparing to go to Hong Kong to research his new novel and to visit the site where the new Clint Straker movie is being filmed. Margo, who was badly traumatized by the events of the first novel, has disappeared, attempting to regain control of her life. She hasn't had much success though, and shows up at Ian's door just as he's preparing to leave. She's terrified of being alone and insists that Ian take her to Hong Kong with him. 

Ludlow agrees and off they go. Sadly, though, he's done it again. He's written another novel in which the events he describes are really taking place. As he explains to Margo, "The basic premise of my novel is this. China is invading the United States with cash, not soldiers. They are buying key companies across our economy. Hotel chains, movie studios, drug companies, carmakers, agricultural seed companies, you name it." 

Ian explains that the Chinese are also hacking our computers, stealing our data and intellectual property, and threatening our way of life. The problem, though, is, that the Chinese actually do have such a master plan, and when they learn the premise of Ludlow's novel, they presume that he is an American spy, coming to Hong Kong to foil their plans. Obviously, he must be stopped at all costs.

The result is that Ian is once again thrown into the maelstrom and will have to somehow save himself, Margo, and the American Way of Life as well. It's a tall order, and while Clint Straker would be up for it, Ian Ludlow will need a lot of help and even more luck. 

This is another hilarious send up of the thriller genre while, at the same time, being a genuine thriller in and of itself. There's plenty of action and even more laugh-out-loud moments. The actor playing Clint Straker, for example, is an action hero named Damon Matthews. When Margo insists that Matthews is way to short to play Clint Straker, almost every fan of crime fiction will get the reference, and there's plenty more where that came from.

Lee Goldberg, who would appear to be even more prescient than Ian Ludlow, has had the wisdom or the good fortune, to launch this book just at the moment when relations between the U.S. and China appear to be going down the tubes, and for some of the very reasons that Ludlow articulates. If only the solution to our current problems were as simple as sending Clint Straker, or Ian Ludlow, or even Lee Goldberg to straighten them out. Sadly, that's probably not going to happen. The good news, though, is that we have this excellent novel to keep us entertained while we attempt to ride out the storm.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Virgil Flowers Investigates a Miracle in the Tiny Town of Wheatfield, Minnesota

The latest book in the Virgil Flowers series is much like the last, a fairly light and breezy entertainment that is neither as dark nor, frankly, as compelling as the earlier entries in the series. It takes place in the sleepy little town of Wheatfield, Minnesota, which is basically dying on the vine. But then, miraculously (?), the Blessed Virgin Mary appears to the worshippers at the town's Catholic church. All of a sudden, the town is swarming with pilgrims hoping to catch a glimpse of the Virgin. 

Happily, Wheatfield is now back on the road to recovery until a couple of the town's visitors are shot. Enter that F***in' Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota BCA who needs to quickly find the shooter before the pilgrims are driven away and the town is on the skids again. Even though a couple of people will ultimately be killed, there doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency in the task, though. The book is populated by quirky characters and it's fun to watch Virgil interact with them. You never really get the sense that Virgil won't solve the crime and you just sort of coast along with the ride until he does.

It's a fun read, but for me, and I suspect a lot of other readers, it's one you'll forget about practically the moment you're finished; there's nothing particularly memorable or weighty about it. Also, while Flowers has deservedly become one of the most popular figures in modern crime fiction, the character is not quite as interesting as he once was. 

While Virgil's always been an amusing character, in the earlier books he also had something of an edge that seems to have gradually slipped away. Moreover, he was always very attractive to the women who populate these books, and it was always a lot of fun watching him interact with them. However, a couple of books ago, Sandford settled him down into an ongoing relationship, and his girlfriend, Frankie, is now pregnant, which suggests that Virgil is going to remain settled down.

Sandford has argued that he needed to do this (as he also did with Lucas Davenport) because he fears that if his male characters are continually moving from one woman to another, they will appear to be predators. I would, very respectfully, of course, strongly disagree with him on this point, but the decision to do this has taken away one of the most attractive and interesting aspects of the character. It's still a lot of fun to watch Virgil in action, but, to me at any rate, not as much as it once was.

Holy Ghost is still a fun read, but I'm beginning to miss the "old" Virgil, just as I am missing the "old" Lucas Davenport. 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

BLACK CHERRY BLUES Is a Great Dave Robicheaux Novel from James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues is the third entry in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it remains my favorite of all of James Lee Burke's novels. As the book opens, Robicheaux, a former New Orleans homicide detective, is now running a bait and boat-rental shop in the Louisiana bayou. He's a recovering alcoholic who remains haunted by the brutal death of his wife, Annie, who was murdered by drug dealers. (Parenthetically, no man in the history of crime fiction has had worse luck with wives than poor Dave Robicheaux. I've lost track of how many wives he's now lost over the course of this long-running series, but it's an amazing number.)

Dave is struggling to raise his six-year-old daughter, Alafair, and to adjust to the loss of his wife, when an old college roommate named Dixie Lee Pugh comes back into his life. Pugh left college to become a rock and roll musician. Later, while driving drunk, he hit and killed a child and was sent to prison. Now out, he's working as a leaseman for an oil company up in Montana. One thing leads to another, and Pugh manages to involve Dave with some very unsavory characters. When one of those characters is murdered, Dave is set up to take the fall for the crime.

The principal witness against Dave is Harry Mapes, a scumbag who's associated with the crew that Pugh runs with up in Montana. Mapes has taken off to Montana and Dave decides that in order to clear his name and save himself from a long stretch in prison, he'll have to go to Montana and track the guy down. Accordingly, Dave packs up his daughter and drives up to Missoula. There he rents a house, puts Alafair in school and sets about trying to get himself out of this jam.

It won't be easy. Both Mapes and Pugh have tied in with a mobster named Sal Dio. Dio has a home on Flathead Lake, seventy miles north of Missoula, and when Dave shows up there, he discovers that Clete Purcell, his old partner from the N.O.P.D. Homicide Unit, is also working for Dio. Dio is attempting to expand his interests into Montana and he and his associates, Harry Mapes included, may have committed several murders in an attempt to protect their operations in the Treasure State. Dave's efforts to unscramble this mess and to somehow clear his name will lead him down a rabbit hole of horror.

This is a very dark, dense, violent novel. It's also beautifully written in a lyrical style that few other authors can match. Burke knows this territory intimately, and as in all of his books, the setting becomes a character in and of itself. Even this early in the series, Dave Robicheaux has become one of the most conflicted characters ever to populate a crime novel. The man is haunted by more demons than any rational person should be able to bear; he lives in a world so corrupt as to seem unsalvageable, and yet he somehow soldiers on. It can sometimes be hard to watch him do so, but at the same time, you can't pull your eye away from the page. A truly great read.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Reporter Jack McMorrow May Need a Lifeline in This Entertaining Novel from Gerry Boyle

Jack McMorrow was formerly a reporter for the New York Times, but his circumstances changed and he moved to Maine to take a job as the editor of a small town newspaper. Things there went bad as well, and now Jack has retreated deeper into the woods of the state with his girlfriend, Roxanne, who's a social worker. Jack is content for the moment to spend his days in the woods watching birds and his nights drinking beer, but Roxanne is losing patience with him and wants him to get off his dead end and make something of himself again.

Jack finally agrees to at least make an effort and takes a job two days a week as the court reporter for the Kennebec Observer. The editor expects Jack to sit in the courtroom all day and file a simple summary of the cases that go before the court. But on his first day on the job, Jack is intrigued by the case of Donna Marchant, a young woman who comes to the court seeking a restraining order against her abusive boyfriend.

Jack interviews the woman and then writes a story about her appearance without mentioning her name. But it's a small town and when the story hits the paper, Jack discovers that he's antagonized a lot of people, including his editor who didn't see the article before it was printed. He's also angered Donna's boyfriend who vows revenge against Jack for exposing his dirty linen. Things escalate from there and before long, someone's going to turn up dead and Jack is going to find himself in deep trouble on a lot of fronts, including in his relationship with Roxanne. But as readers of the previous two novels in this series are aware, Jack McMorrow is a tenacious kind of guy and once he gets his teeth into a problem, he won't let go, irrespective of the consequences, until he finds a resolution.

This is another very entertaining entry in this series and, as in the first two books, Gerry Boyle excels in particular at creating the setting. He's captured perfectly the people and the places of rural Maine, and this continues to be an excellent regional mystery series.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Great Sequel to BULL MOUNTAIN by Brian Panowich

This is an excellent sequel to Bull Mountain, which was one of my favorite books of 2015. Again at the heart of the novel is Clayton Burroughs, the last surviving member of a notorious rural Georgia crime family, and the only member of the clan who ever tried to walk the straight and narrow.

Clayton became the sheriff of the county where his family's criminal empire was located on Bull Mountain. This led the rest of the family to ostracize him, and the events that concluded Bull Mountain left him, in many ways, a broken man. Now he lives for his wife and his small child, and for his job as sheriff. 

But while Clayton would very much like to avoid any additional trouble, trouble will come looking for him. Sensing weakness in the remaining elements of the empire that Clayton's father had established, a rival gang is moving in on Bull Mountain, threatening Clayton, his family, and the peace he hoped he'd established there. After a particularly unfortunate incident, Clayton is pulled back into the life he'd hoped to escape and the bodies start falling left and right. In the end, as Clayton knows, family is everything, and in this case, the family that's most in danger is the only one that Clayton has left--his wife and his son. No matter what it takes, he'll stop at nothing to protect them.

This is a dark, violent, bloody book--"Hillbilly Noir" at its best. Panowich writes beautifully and brilliantly creates both the characters and the settings of this novel. The plot moves along at a breakneck pace, and once you're halfway through it, you'd better not have anything else planned for the rest of the day, because you won't be putting this book down until you've reached the explosive climax.

I was lucky enough to get a British edition of this book, which was released in 2017. It's just now coming out in an American edition and deserves a huge audience. While it certainly can be read as a stand-alone, do yourself a favor and read Bull Mountain first. It informs virtually everything that happens here and will give the the chance to read two really great books instead of one. You will thank me later.