Friday, April 27, 2012

Bad Guys Beware: Valdez Is Coming!

Bob Valdez is a small-town constable who also rides shotgun for a stage coach company. He arrives home one Saturday afternoon to find that much of the town has gathered around a shack on the outskirts of town. The wealthiest man around--a Mr. Tanner--has identified a man he saw in town as an Army deserter and murderer. The accused has taken refuge in the shack along with his Indian woman who is pregnant.

Valdez attempts to defuse the situation but is forced to kill the accused man when one of the townspeople stupidly fires a shot and the accused man reacts by raising his gun against Valdez. Then Mr. Tanner says, "Oops, wrong guy!"

Valdez believes that the town and Mr. Tanner in particular should pay a little money to the Indian woman to compensate her for the loss of her man. But Mr. Tanner and virtually everyone else in town thinks that Indians are scum and that Valdez is an idiot for wanting to help her. Twice Valdez asks Mr. Tanner nicely for a little money. Each time Tanner refuses, the second time in somewhat spectacular fashion. The third time, Valdez will not ask politely. Valdez is coming, and the bad guys in his way had better start running for cover.

Elmore Leonard is much better known these days for his crime novels and for his work on the television show, "Justified." But he made his bones writing western novels, and this is an excellent example of his work in that genre. Bob Valdez is not as funny or as ironic as Raylan Givens, but he's just as compelling a character, and those who have enjoyed "Justified" and Leonard's other novels would probably enjoy this book as well.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dame

Alan Grofield first appeared as a character in Richard Stark's excellent series about Parker, the tough-as-nails heist man. Grofield, whose day job was as an actor in small, regional theater groups, moonlighted as a very competent thief. Parker could always depend on Grofield when the two worked together, and Grofield was one of the very few members of the crew that Parker (and the reader) knew would never be the one who screwed things up.

Stark (Donald Westlake) ultimately liked the character well enough to give him four books of his own. This is the second of the Grofield novels, first published in 1969. Grofield is much more relaxed than his more famous (or infamous) counterpart. In twenty-five novels, Parker probably never cracked a single smile. But Grofield is a very witty guy, which sometimes gets him into trouble, and he will often use humor in an attempt to defuse a tricky situation. One could never imagine Parker doing that; he'd be much more likely to get out of trouble by smashing a sledgehammer into some guy's forehead.

As a result, the Grofield books are a bit lighter than the Parker novels, but they're certainly very enjoyable in their own right. In this case, Grofield and Parker have just finished heisting the profits of a casino, and Grofield finds himself in Matamoros, Mexico, enjoying the company of a delightful young woman before heading home to his wife. He receives a message asking him to go to Puerto Rico as a favor to a friend to help out a woman in distress.

Curious, Grofield flies to Puerto Rico and meets the woman and her several houseguests at an isolated mansion out in the countryside. Grofield and the lady immediately annoy each other and he decides not to take the job. However, before he can leave someone in the house is murdered. It's clear that the killer must have either been a guest or a member of the staff, and Grofield is everyone's number one suspect.

As is usual in a case like this, the only way Grofield can save himself is to find the real guilty party. This is, in some ways, a variation on the old English manor murder mystery, and in that case, of course, someone like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot would produce the solution and save the day. Happily, neither Miss Marple nor the famous Belgian are among the guests and so the task falls to Grofield whose approach to the problem is a lot more fun.

Readers who have enjoyed the Parker series will doubtless like this book as well and will be grateful to the University of Chicago Press for resurrecting this and two of the other Grofield books. (The fourth, The Sour Lemon Score, was recently republished as part of the Hard Case Crime series.) Who could not love a book that contains a paragraph like the following:

"Eva Milford was an overwound mainspring. Her hairdo was so tight and rigid it looked as though it had been set by the Spanish Inquisition. Her torso didn't look girdled, it looked petrified, like an old forest. Her dark-brown suit and fussy coral blouse made her look like the mean old broad in the steno pool, and her face was as shut up as a bank on Sunday."


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Jack Reacher Origins Story

This is the sixteenth Jack Reacher novel and it's among the best of them all. For the second time, Lee Child goes back to tell a story from earlier in Reacher's life and this is the Jack Reacher origin story. It takes place back in 1997, when Reacher was still in the Army. Reacher loves the Army and it's the only home he's ever known, even as a child, when he grew up a military brat. But the Army is now in trouble. The Cold War has ended; the war on terror is yet to begin, and budget cutters are looking to downsize the Army. Lots of positions could be lost, even that of a career military man like Reacher.

More immediately, the Army faces a potential crisis down in the backwoods of Mississippi. A scandal could be brewing there that would hit the Army hard at a time when it is already vulnerable. Reacher is assigned to head south incognito to work as the outside man in a two-man investigating team that will try to define and resolve the crisis. But their most important mission is to protect the Army no matter the cost. The assignment, though, is very vague and it's clear that Reacher's commanding officer expects him to do a lot of reading between the lines.

The crisis--whatever its real nature--has been triggered by the savage murder of a young woman in Carter Crossing, Mississippi, a tiny town that exists to serve an Army base with a somewhat mysterious purpose. The Army's apparent fear is that a military man will be exposed as the killer, triggering a major scandal at a time when the Army can least afford it.

Reacher makes his way to the little town, but his cover is blown immediately by the local sheriff, a very tough, smart, sexy ex-Marine named Elizabeth Deveraux. The two form a wary partnership and it quickly becomes apparent that a huge conspiracy may be at work here. But what is the conspiracy? Who's involved? And, most important, who can Reacher trust?

Reacher being Reacher, he is determined to ferret out the truth. Along the way, he'll have to beat the crap out of some local bad boys and he'll also have to sort out his relationship with Sheriff Deveraux. Reacher being Reacher, he will also attempt to mete out justice, however rough. The real question is whether he can do so in a way that serves his mission and his determination to protect the Army without destroying himself in the process.

This is really an excellent addition to the series, much more nuanced than some of the other entries with a plot that builds to a great climax. Reacher's fans are sure to love it and those who have not yet made his acquaintance would find this an excellent place to start.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Bad Lawyer Takes a Very Unusual Case

This is not your usual legal thriller and Sid Kaplan is definitely not your usual legal thriller lawyer/protagonist. Sid--and the story he inhabits--are far removed from the cases and legal beagles created by authors like John Grisham, Scott Turow, John Lescroart and Michael Connelly.

Sid was once riding high as a prominent New York defense attorney, but then he crashed and burned in the wake of too much booze and coke. He's now cleaned up his act and is attempting to claw his way back, but his one-man practice is pitiful in the extreme. Then, however, a woman named Thelma Barrow begs Sid to take the case of her daughter, Priscilla, a white woman who is accused of murdering her drug-dealing black husband. Thelma can't afford to pay much, but Sid realizes that the publicity generated by a high-profile trial could put him back on the fast track to fame and fortune.

Sid agrees to meet with Priscilla who's in jail on Riker's Island and it's immediately clear that Priscilla, a tough, street-wise and very sexy babe, is going to be nothing but trouble. She admits to shooting her husband but is claiming self-defense. Actually, Sid couldn't care less whether she was justified or not in pulling the trigger, and as the evidence against his client accumulates, Sid carefully schools Priscilla in how the killing might have gone down in a way that will square her claim of self-defense with the evidence that is piling up against her.

Sid is assisted in the defense by his two closest friends, Caleb Talbot, who serves as his investigator, and Julie Gills, who works as his office manager. All three are badly wounded souls, but they form a bond so tight that they not only work together, they all live together.

To say much more would spoil the twists and turns of a tough, gritty and very surprising story. It doubtless goes without saying that things are not always what they seem and that in taking Priscilla's case, Sid Kaplan may get a lot more than he bargained for. This is a well-written book with interesting and quirky characters that are fully drawn. It should appeal to a wide range of readers who enjoy crime fiction.