Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Seasoned Prosecutor Finds Himself on the Other Side of the Legal System

This legal/family thriller is strongly reminiscent of Presumed Innocent, the novel by Scott Turow that basically set the standard for every legal thriller that would follow.

In this case, the main protagonist is a long-time assistant D.A. named Andy Barber. He's second in command to a D.A. with higher political aspirations. The two are friends; Andy gets all the high profile cases because he's very good at what he does. Andy is married to the love of his life, Laurie, and they have a teenaged son named Jacob.

When one of jacob's classmates is stabbed to death in a local park while on his way to school, the entire community is shocked. Andy immediately takes charge of the case, determined to see that the killer is severely punished once the police find him or her. But then, Andy is stunned when his own son becomes the principal suspect in the killing after classmates reveal that Jacob had a knife much like the one the police have described as the missing murder weapon.

Andy insists, of course, that Jacob is innocent. He simply knows this intuitively because he loves his son. But Jacob is indicted and eventually tried for the crime. Andy's boss distances herself; that friendship is ended, and the case is given over to the number two prosecutor behind Andy, an ambitious, insecure prosecutor who is determined to make his bones by successfully prosecuting the case against Andy's son. Inevitably, all of this takes a toll on Andy and Laura's marriage, and so this is also a portrait of a family in crisis.

I had fairly mixed emotions about this book. I did not like any of the characters, who all seemed flat and one-dimensional. None of them was very sympathetic, and I found that I frankly didn't care much whether Jacob was convicted or not. I also didn't care about what might happen to his parents' marriage. Where the book came alive for me, though, was in the courtroom scenes. These are very well done, and once the trial finally began, I couldn't put the book down

So a mixed review for me. I really enjoyed parts of this book a lot, but others troubled me. An okay read, but not a great one.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Two Thieves Hit an Armored Car in this Christmastime Novel from Hard Case Crime

This novel, from Hard Case Crime, was published in 2014, but it's set in the Christmas season of 1951 and has the feel of a classic pulp novel. The story is fairly simple: a crime boss hires two men, Walter and Eddie, to rob an armored car. But stealing the money is the easy part. As the crime goes down, a major blizzard hits the area complicating the getaway. Of course it also hinders the cops who are in not-so-hot pursuit because of the treacherous conditions.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time and among the various characters as the day of the robbery, December 20, unfolds. The changing points of view are interesting and keep the story moving along nicely. Walter and Eddie are entertaining characters, and the story will ultimately involve a female forest ranger and her demented Captain, a couple of unhappy wives and a few other unsavory characters. It's a quick and entertaining read that's sure to appeal to fans of the Hard Case novels.

A British SportsWriter Finds Himself in Serious Trouble

James Tyrone is a sports writer for a tabloid paper called The Blaze. It's not the most respectable paper in town, but it pays better than its more prestigious counterparts and Tyrone badly needs the money. 

Tyrone's principal beat is horseracing and one day after lunch he walks a fellow scribe back to his office. The other reporter, Burt Chekov, writes for a competitor, but he and Tyrone have been friends. Chekov has been drinking heavily of late and seems to be deeply troubled. He's also been touting horses in his column, encouraging readers to bet heavily on his picks, only to have some of the horses withdraw from the races at the last minute, leaving the people who bet on them out of luck. As Tyrone walks Chekov to his office, Chekov says something that leads Tyrone to believe he has been being blackmailed and then, shortly thereafter, Chekov "accidentally" falls out of the window of his office to his death.

Tyrone smells a story and begins digging into the horses that Chekov was touting. He ultimately discovers a nefarious scheme to cheat bettors out of their money. Before long, powerful forces are warning him to drop the story, "or else." Tyrone believes that he is impervious to the sorts of threats that doomed his friend, Chekov, but when the villains discover that Tyrone may have a weak spot after all, all bets may be off.

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis story that should appeal to anyone who has enjoyed his other books. James Tyrone is the usual stand-up Francis protagonist, and the bad guys are dependably powerful and villainous. The end result is a very good read.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?

This is one of the strangest and funniest crime novels I've read in a long time. It's also very endearing with a cast of oddball characters that you simply can't help rooting for.

The story is set in New London, Connecticut, and opens with a tragic incident. A would-be con man named Connor Raposo picks up a pair of shoes and walks out of the cobbler's shop to see a garbage truck suddenly back out into the street, right in front of a Harley-Davidson "Fat Bob" belonging to guy named Fat Bob. The bike slams into the truck and body parts, presumably belonging to Fat Bob, go flying everywhere. It's not a pretty sight. 

It's a terrible accident--or is it? Two bickering detectives named Manny Streeter and Benny Vickstrom are assigned to investigate and things rapidly become very confusing. Connor Raposo, the main witness is working for a gang of grifters called Bounty, Inc. They've appeared in town running a scam collecting donations for various charities like Prom Queens Anonymous, Free Beagles from Nicotine Addiction, and Orphans from Outer Space. Since there's obviously more than one sucker born every minute, it's a pretty good racket, but the last thing Connor needs to to get entangled with the cops.

Connor also runs into trouble with mob enforcers, angry wives, a sexy woman for hire, and his own brother. It's not an easy life. It does make for a very entertaining novel, however, one that should certainly appeal to readers who enjoyed the more comic novels of Donald Westlake, for example. All in all, a very good read.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Hotel Burglar Cassie Black Tries to Make One Last Score

Void Moon, which was published in 2000, is another standalone from Michael Connelly, the creator of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. The protagonist is Cassie Black, a beautiful young woman who was once a very skilled burglar who specialized in ripping off big marks in Vegas. But then a job went catastrophically wrong; Cassie's partner and lover was killed, and Cassie was arrested and sent to the pen for six years. Now free, she's living in L.A., selling Porches, and reporting regularly to her probation officer.

Cassie has a special reason for now walking the straight and narrow, but she still occasionally feels the outlaw juices flowing, and selling cars to rich guys doesn't do much to calm them. Then Cassie suddenly finds herself in desperate need of big money fast and so, with no other option, she agrees to do a job that will earn her enough money to flee the country and build a new life.

It means going back to Vegas and running some very high risks. It will also bring her into conflict with a very bad operator who has no compulsion whatsoever about killing the people who get in his path, even in a minor way. Inevitably, the best laid plans will go awry, and Cassie will be left to her own wits and considerable talents if she's going to survive and complete her larger mission.

This is a very taut, interesting book that grabs the reader from the beginning. Cassie is a very appealing character, and Connelly obviously did a lot of careful research for the book. The technical details, even though dated now, are especially intriguing, and after reading the book, I'm not going to feel safe in a hotel room again for a good long time. A very good read.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lam and Cool Take on a Case that Mixes Murder with a Pet Crow

The eleventh Donald Lam and Bertha Cool novel begins with a client who wants the detective agency to undertake a task that he will not stoop to do himself. The client, Harry Sharples, is one of two trustees who administer a trust with two beneficiaries. One of the beneficiaries, Sharples says, is an intelligent, responsible young woman who can be trusted with the money the trustees dole out to her. The other is a young man who is anything but responsible and who will gamble or otherwise fritter away whatever funds he is allowed. 

Sharples is worried because a pendant filled with valuable emeralds and which belongs to the young woman, has suddenly appeared on the market. Sharples can't imagine why the woman would be selling the pendant and wonders if she is in some sort of financial difficulty. But he can't bring himself to ask her what's going on and so he wants Lam and Cool to investigate and figure it out for him.

Cool and Lam take the case and Donald begins to investigate. Inevitably, the case will become almost impossibly convoluted, as only a plot by Erle Stanley Gardner can do. A murder will be committed; a pet crow will enter the picture, and Donald will have to fly off to Colombia to check out an emerald mine. None of it makes any sense at all, but it's still always fun to watch Lam in action, bickering with his partner, and conducting the investigation in his own inimitable way. Of course Donald will be a magnet for at least a couple of over-sexed women and all in all, reading the book is a pleasant way to lose two or three hours.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Classic Novel from Agatha Christie

This book, first published in 1939, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), are generally considered to be Agatha Christie's most outstanding achievements. Both are premier examples of the "locked room" mystery, and this book is perhaps the most elaborate puzzle mystery ever published. Christie noted later that it was the most difficult book she ever wrote and the one that pleased her the most.

As the book opens, eight people who are all strangers to each other, accept an invitation to spend the weekend at an island house. None of them is really familiar with their hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. Owen, but they accept the invitation just the same. However, on arriving on the island, they discover that their host and hostess have been delayed and will not arrive until the following day.

The guests are thus left in the care of the couple that runs the household. Oddly, they too have never met their employers and are carrying out instructions that were mailed to them when their services were retained. Counting the couple, there are now ten people effectively abandoned on the island, given that the boat that has brought them has returned to the mainland and will not be coming back to the island for several days due to rough seas.

In each of the guest rooms there is a copy of a blackface song, written in the 1860s, and titled variously as "Ten Little Niggers," or "Ten Little Injuns." (Christie's novel was first published as Ten Little Niggers, but later editions of the book were sanitized, and the title changed to reflect the last line of the song. In current editions, the song is titled "Ten Little Soldiers," which presumably will not offend anyone's sensibilities.) The song describes the activities of the ten little individuals who die, one by one, in various misadventures until the last one expires, "and then there were none."

As the ten people assemble on the first evening on the island, it is revealed that each of them has a dark secret. Each of them has effectively gotten away with causing the death of another person. And sure enough, the ten people begin to die, each in a way that reflects a death in the poem. After two or three deaths, panic sets in and the guests don't know what to do, whom to trust, or how to save themselves.

The story is best read as a classic example of a style of British mystery that was once very popular. Needless to say, crime fiction has come a long way in the last eighty years, and readers accustomed to more contemporary novels may find this one more than a bit odd. It's fun to watch the puzzle unfold, though, and to see Agatha Christie at her best. In that sense, this is a book that should interest a large number of crime fiction fans.