Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Is Up to His Neck in Trouble Again in This Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The twenty-fifth entry in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) series featuring private detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool finds Donald up to his neck in trouble, as usual, and Bertha in an uproar, also as usual.

The story opens when a businessman asks the detectives to prove twenty-four-hour protection to his secretary who has been getting threatening letters and unsettling phone calls. He wants a man to be on duty during the days and a woman to be on duty at nights, and Cool and Lam seem like the perfect answer to his problem.

Donald and Bertha accept the assignment and almost immediately, of course, things go sideways. Donald is curious about the setup from the beginning, and the closer he looks, the more suspicious he becomes. Ultimately, the case will involve a murder or two along with some conniving businessmen, a few sexy female "escorts" and a fairly clever madam. Practically everyone in the cast of characters is lying through his or her teeth; Donald's nemesis, Sergeant Frank Sellers, will be hard on Donald's case again, and all in all, it makes for a fun evening's read.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Joe Gunther's Vermont Bureau of Investigations Faces Three Complex Cases

This is another very entertaining entry in Archer Mayor’s long-running series featuring Joe Gunther, the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. It’s also somewhat unique in that Gunther himself plays only a small, supporting role in the investigations that make up the book’s crime stories.

As the book opens, Gunther’s elderly mother is suddenly taken seriously ill. She has a rare malady that requires that she be transferred for treatment to a facility in St. Louis, Missouri. Joe accompanies her and so will be missing in action until she recovers. He names Detective Sammie Martens to run the unit in his absence.

No sooner does this happen than the VBI is suddenly challenged by three unique and complex investigations—one for each member of the team that Joe has left in place. One falls to the troubled Willy Kunkle when a small girl discovers three broken teeth near a railroad track in Windsor, Vermont. Near the teeth is an electronic device of some sort which has been badly burned. Are the teeth and the device connected? Does either discovery mean anything of consequence? Is there any criminal activity involved?

Willy’s curiosity is aroused and so he begins poking into the matter in his own inimitable way, meaning that he will work the case alone and that he will keep his supervisor—in this case his wife, Sammie, rather than Joe Gunther—largely in the dark until he gets a handle on the investigation. Also, his methods may not be strictly kosher, but in the end the trail leads him to a potentially dangerous situation that may involve terrorists.

Meanwhile, in addition to commanding the squad, Sammie winds up with a murder case to handle. A young woman was beaten and killed by an intruder in her apartment. The woman’s roommate smacked the assailant with a frying pan and drove him off, but the case assumes additional importance because the surviving young woman is the daughter of Beverly Hillstrom, the state medical examiner, and Joe Gunther’s current girlfriend. It’s unclear if the attack was random or if the victim was targeted deliberately, but Sammie will have her hands full trying to sort it all out.

Finally, Lester Spinney, the third of Joe’s subordinates, inherits a cold case that’s suddenly not so cold any more. Two years earlier, a state trooper pulled a man over on a stretch of deserted road. A few minutes later, both men were dead, apparently having shot each other. It’s impossible to say how or why this happened, but the case seemed open and shut, and the world has moved on. But now a technician in the crime lab has taken a second look at the fingerprints on the gun belonging to the civilian involved and has found a strange anomaly. Maybe the case wasn’t so open and shut after all, and Spinney will have to move very delicately if he’s to get at the truth of what happened that night without ruffling a lot of feathers.

Mayor moves seamlessly among the three stories, each of which is fascinating in its own way. By now, the cast of characters in this series feels like a group of old friends and it’s fun to see what happens when Mayor turns them loose without the assistance of Joe Gunther. A very good addition to the series.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Investigator Virgil Flowers Finds Trouble in Another Small Minnesota Town

This is another hugely entertaining entry in John Sandford's series featuring Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Flowers usually works in the small communities of the rural parts of the state, and this case takes him back to Trippton, which was the scene of one of his earlier investigations.

In this case, a wealthy divorced woman was murdered in the wake of a committee meeting at her home. The committee members had been planning the 25th reunion of the Trippton High School class of 1992, and in a tiny town like this, high school pretty much lasts for the rest of your life. The friends and enemies you made and the rivalries and antagonisms that developed during those years simply continue to endure, and the only people who escape them are the ones who have sense enough to leave town and live somewhere else.

The reader knows who the killer is from the opening pages. Unfortunately, though, Virgil doesn't, and the search for the perpetrator will force him to dig deeply into the relationships, licit and otherwise, that bind and divide the citizens of Trippton and the class of '92 in particular. It will be an interesting journey to say the least.

There's also a hilarious subplot in which Virgil is instructed to assist a female P.I. from California who's trying to stop a case of patent infringement violating the rights of the Mattel corporation. A woman named Jesse McGovern is reconfiguring Ken and Barbie dolls into XXX-rated adult toys and distributing them over the Internet. The company has traced the source of the problem to Trippton and has sent the detective to serve a cease-and-desist order on McGovern. The problem is that everyone in town denies knowing Jesse McGovern and they are doing everything they can to prevent the P.I. from serving the papers. Virgil is not especially anxious to assist in this matter, but orders are orders.

As always, the book is a lot of fun and there are several laugh-out-loud moments. I was struck by one thing, though: Years ago, Sandford wrote a book in the Prey series, titled Winter Prey. As the title would suggest, the book took place in the middle of winter and Sandford's description of the winter cold was so brilliantly done, that I was shivering through the whole book. Other readers have made the same comment, and years later, I still feel cold every time I think of the book.

Deep Freeze also takes place in the middle of a very cold winter, and people are constantly bundling up, shoveling snow, and otherwise enduring the winter weather. But you don't (or at least I didn't) get nearly the same sensation of being out in the middle of the cold weather the way you did in the Prey book. Perhaps that's because while this book is mostly humorous, the Prey book was extremely menacing and thus even the weather came through as menacing. In any event, unlike the earlier book, this one, its title not withstanding, did not make me desperate to go in search of a giant hot buttered rum.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bryan Gruley Returns with a Great New Novel

Bleak Harbor marks the return of Bryan Gruley, and not a moment too soon. I was a big fan of his Starvation Lake trilogy, but the last book in that series, The Skeleton Box, appeared in 2012, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book ever since. It turns out, though, that the wait was well worth it. Bleak Harbor is a fast-paced, taut thriller that grabs the reader from the opening lines and refuses to let go until the final scenes have played out in the wake of a great climax.

At the center of the book is a troubled family living in Bleak Harbor, Michigan, a small town where the highlight of the summer tourist season is the annual Dragonfly Festival. Carey Peters, the wife and mother, is descended from the town’s founder. Her mother, Serenity Bleak, lives in a huge home overlooking the town, isolated from the rest of the residents, both geographically and economically. The Bleaks made a huge fortune from their various enterprises in the town, but the rest of the citizens have not done nearly as well, and many of them are experiencing hard times as several of the Bleaks’ businesses have closed, leaving their former employees high and dry. Carey is employed by a firm in Chicago and commutes back and forth to Bleak Harbor two or three times a week to see her family. She is estranged from her mother who has cut Carey out of her will.

Carey’s husband, Pete Peters, was once a high-flying commodities trader in Chicago, but he hit a bad streak and lost his job. He convinced Carey to move back to Bleak Harbor where he has opened a medical marijuana shop and is struggling to get the business up and running. Both Carey and Pete have dark secrets that they are hiding from each other, and their relationship is strained for a variety of reasons.

Carey’s son—Pete’s stepson—is fifteen-year-old Danny. Danny is on the autism spectrum and, while brilliant in some respects, can also be a “difficult” child. One thing that Carey and Pete do agree on is that they both love Danny very much. Danny and Pete have an excellent relationship, centered on fishing and other activities that they do together.

The book opens on the eve of Danny’s sixteenth birthday as the annual Dragonfly Festival is about to begin. Pete arrives home expecting to take Danny fishing. He finds that Danny has prepared the sandwiches and drinks they will be taking with them, but the boy himself is nowhere to be found. Shortly thereafter, Pete receives a photo of Danny bound to a chair with what appears to be a bruise on his cheek. Accompanying the photo is a demand for a huge ransom and with that, the book is off and running.

The plot is intricately designed; the characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn, and the tension is palpable throughout as Carey and Pete and a variety of law enforcement officials work to save Danny from a particularly fiendish and clever antagonist. In particular, as he demonstrated in the Starvation Lake series, Gruley excels at describing life in a small town like Bleak Harbor, where all sorts of secrets and machinations are at work beneath the surface. The setting is expertly rendered and becomes a character in and of itself. All in all, this is a very entertaining novel and the reader leaves the book very much hoping that it will not be another six years before we hear from Bryan Gruley again. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Jockey/Photographer Finds Trouble in This Novel from Dick Francis

Philip Nore is a professional jockey and an amateur photographer, and it's the latter interest that gets him into trouble in this novel. Nore was acquainted with George Millace, a very good sports photographer who often frequented the race courses where Nore rode. Millace has recently died in an auto accident and then, to add insult to injury, someone has burglarized and trashed his house while his wife and family were attending his funeral.

There seems no larger significance to these incidents until someone returns to the house and assaults Millace's widow, demanding to know where the safe is. The poor woman has no safe and, as far as she knows, neither did her husband. But it's clear that Millace apparently possessed something that someone considers to be a potential threat. Given his occupation as a photographer, it's not a huge leap to imagine that he might have had photographs that could pose a threat to someone else.

Philip Nore steps in to assist the widow and in the process discovers what appears to be her husband's junk box. It contains some scraps of exposed film and other items that are not immediately identifiable. Curious, Nore begins to experiment with the items in his own darkroom, and once he does, he puts himself directly in the sights of some very dangerous people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets.

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis novel and readers of the series will immediately recognize Philip Nore as the prototypical Francis protagonist. It's a good book, although not among Francis's best. In part this is because he spends a great deal of time in the novel describing the technical aspects of what Nore is doing in his darkroom to uncover Millace's secrets. Francis clearly did a lot of research in this respect and was apparently determined to get everything he had learned into the book. The problem is that is slows the pace of the novel, sometimes at crucial points, and the book would have been better if he had dealt with this material more concisely.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Another Great Novel from Wallace Stroby

I confess that I was a bit disappointed when I learned that Wallace Stroby's new novel would not feature Crissa Stone, the kick-ass female protagonist who has starred in his last four books and who has become one of my favorite characters in the crime fiction universe. Happily, though, my concerns were short-lived. Some Die Nameless features all of the qualities that readers have come to expect from one of Stoby's novels: great writing; well-drawn, memorable characters, and a plot that moves practically at warp speed.

The main protagonist is Ray Devlin, a man with a shadowy past who once worked for a private security firm, doing the sorts of things for which private security firms and other such contractors have become famous for in the years since 9/11. Devlin's last job was in a fictional Latin American country near Venezuela where his firm had been hired to help put a brutal dictator into power and then to keep him there. But something went terribly wrong, and in the wake of those developments, Devlin has retired and is attempting to live quietly under the radar on a boat in South Florida. One day, though, his past catches up with him and Devlin discovers that killers are hot on his trail, apparently attempting to clean up a potentially embarrassing situation for the company that once employed him and that now has its sights set on higher and much more lucrative goals.

As Devlin maneuvers to save his life, he crosses paths with a crime reporter named Tracy Quinn. Tracy works for a struggling newspaper in Philadelphia where the cost-cutters have taken over in the person of managers and editors who are much more interested in generating clicks on the paper's web page than they are in competent, old-fashioned reporting. Tracy is struggling to save her job while simultaneously attempting to maintain the high standards that once characterized the paper's mission. It's no easy task, especially when she stumbles across another element of the mystery that Devlin is pursuing, and once they meet and begin chasing the story and the bad guys together, things are going to get very, very dicey for both of them.

Both Devlin and Quinn are interesting and sympathetic characters, and watching them in action is hugely entertaining. But in addition to telling a great story, Stroby has also raised some very serious questions about the future of journalism in this country and about the ways in which the government has increasingly come to rely on private contractors to do its work, dirty and otherwise, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such hotspots. Some Die Nameless is another solid effort from Stroby--a very good book that will give readers a lot to think about.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Reporter Jack McEvoy and F.B.I. Agent Rachel Walling Track a Clever Killer in this Novel from Michael Connelly

Jack McEvoy, the reporter who earlier broke the case of The Poet returns in this novel. Jack is now working at the Los Angeles Times. But even back in 2008, when this book first appeared, the newspaper business had fallen into deep trouble, thanks largely to the arrival of the Internet. Even major papers like the Times are hemorrhaging money and have been forced to downsize. 

As the book opens, Jack learns the sad lesson that even a seasoned and gifted reporter is not exempt from the harsh realities of the new day and age. Jack is laid off, but is informed that he can keep his job for another two weeks if he will train his replacement, a young woman who has virtually no experience and who does not have the connections essential for a reporter to be successful on the crime beat, but who will do the job for a lot less money than McEvoy.

Having little or no choice, Jack reluctantly agrees, but he is determined to go out on a high note with a major story that will make his editors regret their decision. Jack had earlier written a relatively minor story about a gangbanger who had been arrested for the murder of an exotic dancer. The woman was found stuffed in the trunk of a car; the kid's fingerprints were found in the car, and after a few hours of interrogation, the kid allegedly confessed to the crime. Case closed.

Just after Jack learns he's been laid off, he gets a call from the banger's grandmother claiming, naturally, that the kid is innocent. Jack doesn't believe that, of course, but he sees a story in the tale of how this young man wound up committing such a horrendous crime. His young replacement, Angela Cook, is assigned to work the story with him, but in doing some preliminary research, the two discover a similar crime that had been committed in Las Vegas. Jack suddenly realizes that maybe the kid really isinnocent and has been set up to take the fall for a crime he didn't commit.

That turns the story in an entirely different direction, and before Jack can hardly begin working it, the F.B.I. suddenly appears on the scene in the person of Rachel Walling, who had worked the Poet case with Jack. With that the book is off and running and Jack and Rachel find themselves hard on the trail of a very clever and dangerous criminal. No one will be safe.

Michael Connelly is a very good writer, and this is a perfectly serviceable serial killer tale, although it's not among Connelly's best books. What struck me most about the book, though, was the depressing subplot about the sad state of journalism in the country in this day and age. The story of what is happening at the L. A. Times and, by extension, at other papers across the country was, for me, really the scariest part of the story. Any democracy, if it's going to thrive and prosper, depends on the foundation of a well-informed citizenry. That, in turn, depends on having a vigorous and thriving free press. In a day and age when journalists are under attack, when newspapers across the country are scaling back their operations and in some cases are disappearing altogether, serial killers may turn out to be the least of our worries.