Thursday, April 28, 2011

Matthew Scudder in Middle Age

I've long believed that Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series is the best PI series ever written. Some of the books individually stand with any of the classics produced by writers like Raymond Chandler et al., but Block has produced far more books in this series (sixteen and soon to be seventeen) than any of the other "Masters" of the genre. The books are consistently very good if not great, and in addition to writing a number of inventive and absorbing plots, Block has created a cast of memorable, fully-drawn characters in addition to Scudder, the main protagonist. He has also allowed them all to age and become more complex through the years so that reading one of these books is like returning to visit with a lot of old and very interesting friends. If that weren't enough, Block has also built a lushly-drawn set--Scudder's New York City--in which these stories take place.

Even the Wicked is the thirteenth book in the series. Scudder is in his middle fifties, now happily married and domesticated. He's a much more mellow character than he was in the early years, and this particular book is also a bit tamer than some of the earlier entries. The violence is not as gruesome and doesn't seem as threatening; the sex is not as hot and bothered, and Scudder doesn't have to get very violent with anyone.

Which is not to say that this isn't a very enjoyable read. Scudder is forced to deal with a series of complicated crimes, perpetrated by at least three separate characters. In the main case, a vigilante, inspired by a newspaper columnist, is ridding NYC of despicable characters that the legal system is unable to touch for one reason or another. After claiming three scumbag victims, he announced that his next target will be a criminal defense attorney who has won a number of high profile cases. The attorney hires Scudder to try to find the killer, even though the police are working night and day to find him as well.

Scudder arranges protection for the attorney and gets on the job. At the same time a friend asks Matt to look into the shooting death of an AIDS victim who was killed in a city park. The police are not pursuing the case very aggressively and are apparently ready to write it off as a random act of violence in the big city. Matt, of course, will not dismiss it so easily.

Scudder works the two investigations in and around evenings with his wife, Elaine, and again engages the services of TJ, the street kid who first appeared as Scudder's semi-sidekick a few books earlier. It's fun to watch him work and it's also fun to listen to the banter among the characters. And inevitably, Matt's dogged persistence will pay dividends in the end.

This book certainly doesn't have the hard edge of some of the earlier Scudder novels, but you wouldn't expect a fifty-five-year-old PI to be wrapped as tightly and to act as fiercely as the young, alcoholic ex-cop that we first met in The Sins of the Fathers. After a very long wait, we are about to finally get a new Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which is set earlier in Scudder's career. I would expect this book to resemble much more closely in tone some of the best books in the series, and I, for one, can hardly wait.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A New Milo Sturgis Novel

When a teacher at a very exclusive prep school is found dead in a tub of dry ice, L.A. Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis is assigned to the case. The murdered teacher has left behind a DVD on which she claims that she was subjected to relentless sexual harassment by three other members of the school's staff, whom she names on the video. Because it looks like an interesting case, Milo invites his old pal, Alex Delaware, to tag along during the investigation.

Logically, Milo's investigation should start with the school and the accused staffers. However, the Deputy Chief's son attends the school. The Deputy Chief very much wants his son to be admitted to Yale and fears that any whiff of scandal connected to the school might dim his son's chances. So the D.C. orders Milo to give the school a wide berth, except as a last resort and then only with the D.C.'s permission. The D.C. would prefer that Milo nail the victim's boyfriend for the crime, or anyone else not associated with the school.

Milo pursues the investigation in his own inimitable way, meaning that he will do things as he sees fit, irrespective of what the D.C. or any other Big Cheese might prefer. The faithful Alex will be at his side throughout to drive him, feed him, offer moral support, and occasionally ask the pertinent question. Inevitably there will be lots of twists and turns along the way to the conclusion of the case.

As crime novels go, this is not bad and it's better than a lot of others. My problem with this book, as it was with the last Jonathan Kellerman book that I read, is that it is billed as "An Alex Delaware Novel," when, in fact, Alex is basically just along for the ride, essentially serving as Dr. Watson to Milo's Sherlock Holmes. Even Delaware's domestic situation, which was once fairly interesting, has apparently settled into a bland, run-of-the-mill relationship. As a result, Robin, his girlfriend, gets an obligatory couple of paragraphs, but that's about it--just enough to say, "Hi," 'Bye," and "Have a great time investigating, Boys!"

In the beginning, this series was distinguished by the fact that the lead, Alex Delaware, was a brilliant child psychologist. The department asked him to consult on cases that involved children and where he had a legitimate role to play, Inevitably, Alex wound up in the middle of everything and was always the one to solve the case, but he was there for a logical reason--his presence always made sense. In these early books, Milo Sturgis was the second banana, there to provide an official police presence as needed.

In the last couple of books or more, Alex has had no legitimate reason to be involved whatsoever. He's not officially consulting and in the real world, no citizen would ever be allowed to tag along in an investigation like this. He occasionally does some grunt work for Milo on the computer--usually something that any competent high school kid could do equally well. He occasionally offers some psychological insight about one or another of the suspects, but never anything particularly deep, and certainly nothing that Milo would not be able to observe himself after hanging out with Alex for the better part of twenty friggin' years.

Again, this is a pretty good crime novel, but sooner or later the agency that regulates truth in advertising needs to get involved here. This is really "A Milo Sturgis Novel," and there's no reason at all for Alex Delaware to be involved. This used to be one of the really good crime series out there. The protagonist was interesting and unusual; the cases were different and compelling, and the series stood apart from anything that anyone else was writing. I'm not going to give up on this series, but it really would be nice to get a real Alex Delaware novel again sometime.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pascual Rose: In Love and on the Run

This is another thought-provoking book from Dominic Martell that grabs you by the throat and won't let go, even after you've finished reading it. Pascual Rose was once involved with a number of groups who committed terrorist acts across Europe. But then he abandoned these radical causes and ratted out all of his former associates, save one--his lover, the beautiful Katixa, to the C.I.A. in return for a new identity and a safe "retirement."

Six years later, Pascual is scratching out a meager existence in the slums of Barcelona, drinking too much, occasionally bedding an overripe widow, and trying to keep his head down so as to avoid being found by his old associates who would very much like to extract revenge for his defection. Then, from out of nowhere, Katixa bursts back into his life, on the run with five million francs that she has stolen. Katixa proposes that she and Pascual find a way to sneak out of Spain with the loot so that they can finally live happily ever after.

Pascual has never lost the passion and the love he felt for Katixa, and he is totally intoxicated by the idea of being reunited with her. His efforts to make this plan work and to realize his dream open the door to a complicated tale of intrigue and double-crosses, punctuated by a considerable amount of violence.

As is often the case in novels like this, it's ultimately hard to determine who the good guys are or if, indeed, there even are any good guys at all. But you instinctively root for Pascual. For all the terrible things he might have done in his earlier life, you want things to work out well for him in the end and once you've started the book, it's almost impossible to put it down until you know if they will or not. One thing you will know for sure, though, once you've finished the book, is that Dominic Martell is an author who deserves a much wider audience.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This is the book in which Michael Connelly introduced Michael Haller, a lawyer who works out of an "office" in the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car as he navigates the various courtrooms that dot Los Angeles County. Connelly got the idea for the character in a chance meeting at a Dodgers baseball game when he sat next to an attorney who did exactly that.

Mickey Haller is a bright guy who works all of the angles. Mostly he represents drug dealers, prostitutes and other low-lifes, but except for the very occasional pro bono case, he takes only those clients who can afford the price of his services. And like all criminal attorneys, he has his eye out for the "franchise" case--the one that can pay him humongous fees.

He believes he's found such a case when he's asked to defend Louis Roulet, the son of a wealthy family and of a mother who will do anything--and pay anything--to save her son from jail. Roulet is accused of assaulting a woman he met at a bar. Like all of Mickey's clients, he claims to be innocent. Specifically, he claims that the victim hit him over the head, beat herself up (or had someone else do it) and then planted evidence that would point the finger at Roulet so that after the criminal trial she could sue him for big bucks in civil court.

The case quickly turns into something much more complicated and sinister than it originally appeared. Haller suddenly understands that genuine evil is present in this case, and he finds himself in an impossible situation. Watching him confront the case and attempt to produce a satisfactory conclusion is great fun. Haller, who has two ex-wives and a small daughter, all of whom still love him, is a very appealing character, which is doubtless why Connelly has turned him into a series character and why Hollywood jumped at the chance to make a movie of the book. Connelly proves himself to be as adept at writing legal thrillers as he is at writing more traditional crime fiction, and it's hard to imagine that any reader who likes either would not enjoy this book.

*SPOILER ALERT* Do not read beyond this point if you want to read the book or see the movie without knowing the ending in advance.

I first read this book several years ago when it was initially released, and I wanted to read it again before seeing the movie. Although Matthew McConaughey does not look remotely like the Mickey Haller I imagined in the book, he's very good in the role and after watching the movie for forty-five minutes or so, I readily accepted him as Mickey Haller. In fact, everyone in the movie is very good, particularly Marisa Tomei who plays one of Haller's ex-wives. The movie is as much fun as the book. I don't remember my initial reaction to the book's ending but while it's very exciting, both in the book and on the screen, it's hopelessly implausible and really makes no sense at all.

Essentially what has happened is that Haller discovers that his client, Roulet, is actually guilty of the murder of a woman who was killed some years earlier. Haller defended the man accused of the murder and the evidence was stacked so heavily against him that Haller convinced the client to plead guilty to the crime as a way of getting a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Haller is furious when he discovers the truth and rigs the situation so that he gets Roulet acquitted on the assault charge but sets him up to be arrested for the original murder, thus freeing the former client from San Quentin.

How he manages to do this makes great theater, but in the real world it couldn't possibly happen. The fact is that the police and the D.A. have a killer in prison who has confessed to the murder and who had a mountain of evidence that proved his guilt. The thought that they would ignore all of that and arrest and prosecute Roulet for the crime is laughable, especially based upon the flimsy evidence against Roulet that Haller has uncovered. One wishes that the justice system would work that fairly--that in a case like this the police and prosecutors would recognize their mistake and repair it--but sadly that's not the way the world works.

All too often you read about some poor schmuck who's been railroaded into prison for a crime he probably did not commit--as often as not after a coerced confession--and then later someone else comes along and actually confesses to the crime. Even in such an extreme case, it practically takes an act of God to get the first guy exonerated, and often it doesn't ever happen. The thought that the police and D.A. would turn on a dime and act as they do at the end of this book and movie makes you shake your head.

Some other equally implausible things happen at the end of the book and especially at the end of the movie, but still, if you can suspend disbelief, both are fun rides. I've enjoyed the subsequent Mickey Haller books, and I would happily see another Mickey Haller movie if it were done as well as this one.