Thursday, July 2, 2020

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Confront Another Dangerous and Delicate Case

Army CID sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom encounter one of their most delicate and dangerous cases yet when they are summoned to the scene of a murder in the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea during the 1970s, when tensions between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the United States are still very high. There they discover the body of a Korean soldier, Corporal Noh Jong-bei, who was working with the Americans. The victim had been murdered by a blow to the back of the head and left lying across the line separating North and South Korea.

The North Koreans try to claim the body, but on orders from a superior officer, Sueno and Bascom drag it onto the South Korean side of the border. In the process, they create an international incident that could ultimately spark a resumption of the hostilities between the warring parties. While the North Koreans insist that Jong-bei was murdered by an American, at least one American commander insists that the North Koreans were responsible and tensions begin to rise. As they do, Sueno and Bascom are unfairly blamed for instigating the trouble and the only way out of the mess is for them to solve the killing.

The investigation is taken away from Sueno and Bascom, though, and given to others who quickly "solve" the crime and defuse the international tension by arresting an American private named Teddy Fusterman and charging him with the murder. Sueno and Bascom had originally concluded that the weapon used to kill Jong-bei was a military entrenching tool and a bloody entrenching tool is found in Fusterman's locker. Case closed.

Although warned off the case, Sueno and Bascom continue to investigate and raise doubts about Festerman's guilt. In the meantime, they are ordered to investigate the disappearance of the American wife of a U.S. officer who has gone missing after being seen with a Korean woman known for recruiting women to work as "hostesses" in clubs that cater to wealthy businessmen.

Both cases are complex and, as often happens in these novels, will have Sueno and Bascom often skating on very thin ice. It's always fun to follow their adventures and misadventures and it's always interesting to learn about the Korean history and culture that is integral to these books. The Line is a solid entry in a very good series.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Career Criminal Parker Goes After The Outfit In This Great Novel From Richard Stark

This is the third novel in Richard Stark's (Donald Westlake's) great series featuring Parker, a completely amoral professional thief. Like all of the books in the series, this one is lean, mean, dark and gritty, and it opens when a professional hitman targets Parker. Not surprisingly, the hitman fails because he's not nearly as good as Parker, and Parker is enraged when he discovers that the would-be killer has been sent by someone connected with the Outfit--the group that controls organized crime in the United States.

Parker's rage, though, is not like most other people's. It's cold, rational and deadly, and you really don't want to be on the receiving end of what comes next. Normally, professional criminals like Parker give the Outfit a wide berth, and vice-versa. But Parker decides to teach them a lesson they'll never forget.

He knows that a lot of men in his profession have spotted weak points here and there in the Outfit's operations, but they don't act on that knowledge for fear of bringing the wrath of the Outfit down upon themselves. Parker's plan, though, is to turn a lot of these guys loose on the Outfit at once, effectively declaring war on them, while Parker himself goes after the head of the group. He aims to institute a change in the regime and to teach the Outfit that it's better to leave him alone than to antagonize him. It's an audacious plan, but if there's anyone who can pull it off, it's Parker.

Like all the other books in this long-running series, this is a great read, and Parker is in fine form. It was first published in 1963, and so the world has changed a great deal, particularly with respect to the technology that Parker and his adversaries are using. As a sign of the changing times, Parker and one of his confederates are driving down the streets of downtown Buffalo, New York early in December, bitching about the fact that the Christmas decorations are already up and Thanksgiving is barely over. One can only wonder what Parker would think of a world in which the Christmas decorations are already going up on Labor Day, and one can only wish that we had someone like Parker around to deal with the people who insist on doing such a thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A Great New Novel from Brian Panowich

Hard Cash Valley is, technically, the third novel in the Bull Mountain series by Brian Panowich. But while much of the landscape is the same, both geographically and psychically, and while the ghosts of some of the previous characters hang over the novel, this is an entirely new cast of characters. And as much as I loved both Bull Mountain and Like Lions, this book is even better.

At the heart of the novel is Dane Kirby, a former arson investigator who now works for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. As the novel opens, one of Kirby's boyhood friends is arrested for murder. Kirby is morally convinced that his friend could not be guilty, even though a lot of evidence points in that direction. Kirby promises to help his old friend, but before he can even lift a finger to do so, his boss loans him out to the F.B.I., which is investigating a particularly brutal murder in a seedy Florida motel.

A lowlife named Arnie Blackwell has been slowly tortured to death and his body then set on fire. Kirby assesses the scene, offers a few opinions, and then attempts to beg off the case, claiming that he can bring nothing of value to the investigation. The supervisor in charge refuses to let him off the hook, though, and pairs him with a caustic, hard-driving agent named Roselita Velasquez, displacing Velasquez's usual partner in the process.

It's a rocky start to their relationship, and things will not get better any time soon. Velasquez resents being assigned to work with Kirby and there seems to be nothing he can do to soften her attitude toward him or to most of the other people that they encounter during the course of the investigation.

It soon turns out that the murder of Arnie Blackwell is only the opening round of a very long and sordid trail of criminal activity. Blackwell had recently come into possession of a huge amount of money, which is now missing, and a lot of extremely nasty characters are searching for it. A young boy, close to Blackwell, is also missing. People are looking for him as well, and the hunt for both the money and the boy will take virtually all of the characters into some very dark and dangerous places.

Dane Kirby is a man with a lot of problems of his own. Years earlier, his life was shattered by an unspeakable tragedy, from which he has never recovered. He's having trouble relating to the woman in his life and has other issues as well. The last thing he needs at the moment is an investigation this complex and daunting, and watching him soldier on is a heart-wrenching experience.

This is a beautifully written book with sharply drawn characters who will remain with the reader for a very long time. Panowich is an hugely gifted storyteller, and the plot is electric. Even more impressive is the sense of place that he evokes, and the reader is immediately immersed in the world that Panowich has created. Hard Cash Valley is a dark, gritty, violent book that grabs you from the opening paragraph and is impossible to put down. All in all, it's one of the most impressive books I've read in a long time.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Once Upon a Time When Jack Reacher Was Still in the Army...

Although this is the eighth book to be published in the Jack Reacher series, it's a prequel to the others. It begins on New Year's Eve, as 1989 is turning into 1990. At the time, Reacher is still in the army and has just been transferred from Panama to Fort Bird, North Carolina. While almost everyone else is out celebrating, Reacher is the Military Police duty officer on the post when a two star general is found dead in a sleazy motel thirty miles from the base.

It appears that the married general has died of a heart attack while in the middle of having sex with a cheap hooker. By the time Reacher arrives, the hooker is long gone and so is the general's briefcase. Reacher's orders are to contain the situation so that the army will not be embarrassed. But what seems like a minor problem that can be solved relatively easily, turns into something much, much larger when Reacher finds the general's widow murdered miles away in Virginia. It also turns out that a very sensitive document is missing along with the general's briefcase.

The whole situation becomes very complicated and Reacher pairs up with a tough female M.P. named Summer to tackle the problem. He will find himself in a lot of trouble and in very grave danger as he digs into a situation that could ultimately threaten a lot of lives and careers, including his own. And, in the middle of all this, he has to deal with a critical family situation as well.

This is a very entertaining read that explains a lot about the army at the end of the Cold War and about the way in which the Military Police work. It also provides a lot of background about Reacher and his family that the reader hasn't learned before. (view spoiler) Reacher, while younger, is his usual self and will naturally have to break a few heads along the way as he battles a boatload of adversaries, most all of whom are in the army as well and some of whom are his superior officers. All in all, a fun book with lots of action.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

ISLE OF JOY Is a Great Early Novel from Don Winslow

Isle of Joy is an early novel (1996) from Don Winslow. The protagonist is Walter Withers, a CIA agent who has spent a career in Europe doing the agency's dirty work, principally trapping unsuspecting people in sexually compromising activities and then blackmailing them to spy for America. As the book opens in late 1958, Withers has returned home to New York, which he regards as the greatest city in the world. Walter loves New York, and he also loves his girlfriend, Anne Blanchard, a local jazz singer.

Walter is now working in the Personnel Security Department of a detective agency. His job is to do background checks for companies on people that they are thinking of hiring or promoting. But during the holiday season that year, he is assigned to work security for a United States senator named Joseph Keneally and his wife Madeleine. Keneally aspires to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1960 and the couple is in town for a series of holiday parties.

The Keneallys are obviously intended to be stand-ins for John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, and Walter's assignment will prove to be a delicate one, particularly because he is expected to stand in as the "date" for Keneally's girlfriend, a stunningly sexy blonde actress. But when the girlfriend winds up dead, all hell breaks loose and Withers finds himself in the middle of a major scandal.

This is a fun read, principally because Walter Withers is such a great character to hang out with. The book is also a major love note to the city of New York at a time when the city might have been at its prime, and reading it you find yourself wishing that you could have spent a night out on the town with Walter back during that era.

To say that this is not among the greatest of Winslow's books is no slight against Isle of Joy, but rather acknowledges the brilliance of much of his later work like The Winter of Frankie MachineThe Power of the DogThe Force, and others. Fans of the author will certainly want to seek out this book.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

An Insurance Adjuster Finds Serious Trouble in thie Debut Novel from the Great John D. MacDonald

The Brass Cupcake is John D. MacDonald's debut novel, and it provides a template for many of the others that would follow. The protagonist is a guy named Cliff Bartells, who might serve as an early version of MacDonald's great series hero, Travis McGee. Bartells was on the police force of the town of Florence City, Florida, but he was basically driven off the force for being too honest. Unlike virtually every other member of the city's totally corrupt police department, he refused to take bribes from the local mobsters for looking away from their illegal activities.

Bartells now works as a claims adjustor for an insurance company. When an elderly woman, visiting Florence City from Boston, is murdered and robbed of $750,000 worth of jewelry insured by Bartell's company, it's his job to get it back. This is somewhat familiar territory for Bartells in which professional thieves rip off somebody's jewels, then use underworld connections to contact the insurance company and sell the jewels back for a fraction of the amount for which they were insured.

Bartells has been the middleman in these sorts of transactions before, but this time it's different because there's a murder involved. Professional thieves don't usually murder people and it throws off the whole equation and makes Bartell's job that much harder and infinitely more dangerous. The local cops, who still hate Bartells, don't want him mucking around in their investigation, and Bartells must also contend with the beautiful blonde heiress who stands to inherit the murdered woman's estate. And, of course, there are a number of other shifty and inscrutable characters as well.

Municipal corruption was a standard theme in a lot of MacDonald's books, most of which are populated by tough, relatively incorruptible protagonists like Cliff Bartells who may bend the rules here and there, but always in the service of a good cause. It's always fun to watch someone like Bartells come up against bad guys of various stripes in MacDonald's novels, and this book sets a high standard in that regard.

As is the case with a lot of MacDonald's work, read forty or fifty (or in this case, seventy) years down the road, some of the sex scenes are pretty awful, and the treatment of the female characters is at times cringe-worthy. Still, this is an excellent hard-boiled novel, and it's very much a book of its time. Over the course of the thirty-five years to follow, MacDonald would write a lot of really great crime novels, and The Brass Cupcake was a great beginning to his career.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

An Intense and Complex Novel from William Bayer

At the center of this intense and complex psychological thriller is a forensic sketch artist named David Weiss. David is a native of Calista, a city in the Midwest, but he has lived for years in California. Twenty-five years earlier, a wealthy divorcee named Barbara Fulraine and her young lover were shotgunned to death in the seedy Flamingo Court motel on the outskirts of Calista. Fulraine was a troubled woman whose young daughter had been kidnapped several years earlier and is presumed dead. Her lover was a teacher at her sons' private school, and she was also having an affair with a local mobster. David Weiss's father was the therapist who was treating Barbara Fulraine and attempting to untangle all her erotic dreams and activities without becoming entangled in them himself.

If that all sounds pretty complicated, that's just for openers. For reasons of his own, David has always been haunted by the Flamingo Court murders. The killer was never identified and captured, and David's father committed suicide shortly after the murders. Now, a quarter of a century later, David returns to his hometown, working as a sketch artist for a TV network, covering a sensational local murder trial.

It's immediately clear, though, that Weiss is far more absorbed by the murder case from twenty-five years earlier than the one he's been hired to sketch, and he finds himself drawn inexorably back into the Calista of his youth, with all its dark, ugly and still dangerous secrets. His skill as a forensic sketch artist, particularly his uncanny ability to empathize with witnesses, may enable him to shed new light on a very old mystery. But it may also take him down some roads better left untraveled.

This is an intricately-plotted novel with well-drawn characters and an interesting plot. The story did seem to drag at points, but watching David Weiss fall increasingly under the spell of this old murder case was, at times, riveting. I'm giving this book 3.5 stars rounded down to 3 because I thought that after 450 very densely-packed pages, the climax was a bit disappointing and wasn't quite the payoff I'd been hoping for. Still, an enjoyable read.