Friday, August 31, 2012

This is another very good entry in Michael Connelly's series featuring L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch. The case opens in the middle of the night when Harry's team is called out to the scene of a double homicide. A man and a woman have been shot to death on a trolley called Angels Flight. Harry cannot figure out why he has been called since his team is out of the rotation that night.

He arrives at the scene to find that one of the victims is an African American attorney named Howard Elias. Elias has made a career and a name for himself by suing the L.A.P.D. in cases where Elias charges police abuse of the city's minority citizens. Elias is in the midst of preparing an explosive new case against several police detectives.

Obviously, this will be a high profile case, and Harry isn't certain whether he's been assigned to the case because of his excellent record or because he's being set up as the fall guy if the case isn't solved. The cynic in Harry speculates that he's been given the case because the other two members of his team are black and the department hopes that this will help tamp down the furor that is bound to explode in the black community when the victim's names are announced.

Given the way the shooting occurred, Harry quickly concludes that Elias was the principal target and that the poor female victim was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real difficulty in the case is that the most obvious suspects are the cops that Elias had sued or was in the process of suing.

Harry's team must thus navigate very treacherous waters. Lots of cops make it clear that they just want the crime written off as a robbery gone bad and swept under the rug. The black community wants "justice" which in their vew apparently means that they won't be satisfied until a cop is indicted and convicted for the killings. And, of course, Harry's bosses in the department seem more concerned about protecting the department's reputation than they do in seeking the real truth.

Harry being Harry, he is determined to solve the crime and let the chips fall where they may. The department throws all sorts of obstacles in the way of his investigation, and the black community is seething. Any spark could touch off a major riot. If all of this weren't bad enough, Harry is working through marital problems. The question is, can he push through all of this and solve the crime before the city explodes?

Connelly has written here a complex story with a number of flawed and well-drawn characters, principal among them Harry Bosch. He demonstrates once again his intimate knowledge of L.A., a city he obviously cares about deeply. Angels Flight makes an even stronger argument that no one is writing better police procedurals these days than Michael Connelly

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In this, his second outing, ex-Army Major Jack Reacher is minding his own business, walking past a dry cleaning shop in Chicago, when an attractive young woman emerges from the shop with nine bags of expensive clothes, a bad knee, and a crutch. She drops the crutch and Reacher jumps to her assistance. In the same moment, two armed kidnappers materialize and order Reacher and the woman into a waiting car.

As any crime fiction reader understands by now, Reacher could take these two thugs with no problem whatsoever. Unfortunately, there are a number of innocent bystanders who might be hurt if the kidnappers manage to get off any shots. Reacher makes this calculation and then follows the woman into the car and is taken along for the ride.

It turns out to be a very long ride in an Econoline van, all the way from Chicago to northwestern Montana, where a nutty but well-armed militia group is preparing to declare its independence from the United States. The kidnapped woman, Holly Johnson, is an FBI Special Agent. She is also the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the militia's psychopathic but charismatic leader intends to use her as a high profile hostage.

Under normal circumstances, Holly would be well-equipped to handle herself. She is one of the strongest female characters to appear in this series. But with her bum knee, which she injured in a soccer game, she could use a little help. Reacher, of course, is there to provide it, and he and Holly together will have to struggle mightily both to defend Holly's virtue and to prevent the militiamen from accomplishing thier objectives.

This is a fun read, and fans of the series certainly won't want to miss it. I would give it three stars rather than four because it requires more than just the usual suspension of disbelief. In the cold light of day, the whole plot is pretty implausible.

Also, it's clear that Lee Child did a lot of research for this book regarding the weaponry involved. And having done the research, he was apparently determined to use it all. There are a number of points in the book where the action slams to a halt while Child describes in exquisite detail the weapon in question. We then take several paragraphs to watch the powder ignite and the bullet slowly make its way through the barrel of the gun, out into the light of day and arc its way toward the target.

The first time this happens, it's kind of interesting and it does help to build the suspense. After that, you just want him to get on with it. Still, that's a relatively minor complaint, and inevitably, every series must have its weaker entries. To say that most of the Reacher novels are better than this one is not to suggest in any way that it's a bad book, but clearly at this point, Child was still working his way into what would become an excellent series.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Meet Alex Delaware

This is the first book in Jonathan Kellerman's long-running series featuring Alex Delaware, a child psychologist. Burned out, Alex has retired from his practice at the age of thirty-three after consulting in a particularly unsettling case involving the young victims of a serial pedophile. The children are well on the road to recovery, but Alex is in desperate need of some down time.

But then Dr. Morton Handler, a psychiatrist, is brutally murdered along with his girlfriend in the apartment that they shared. A little girl named Melody Quinn, who lives in a neighboring apartment, was up in the middle of the night and may have seen the killers. But the child is deeply troubled and is unable to give the police any useful help.

Alex's friend, homicide Detective Milo Sturgis, convinces Alex to examine the girl in the hope that Alex can get her to open up and give the police the description of the killers that they so desperately need. Alex reluctantly agrees and is immediately drawn into a dark and very dangerous world populated by wealthy, powerful and amoral men. But despite the threat to both his professional reputation and, ultimately, his personal safety, Alex cannot turn his back on the evil he's uncovered or on the little girl who has no one else to defend her.

This is really an excellent introduction to a series that may have lost its way a bit in later books. The idea of a child psychologist as the main protagonist in a series of crime novels was a brilliant stroke, and Kellerman, who was himself a child psychologist, created a very convincing character in Alex Delaware.

In this, and in most of the early books in the series, Alex's psychological skills were central to the stories. Alex was called in to consult, perfectly legitimately, by a police department that clearly needed his help. Alex was the central character and most of the others, including Milo Sturgis, rotated around him. As in this book, Alex spent a great deal of time investigating on his own, unraveling the mystery and dealing with the bad guys in a way that made perfect sense.

Perhaps there were only so many plots that would legitimately accommodate a main character like Alex Delaware, but in the last few novels especially, the character of Milo Sturgis has come much more to the fore and there really doesn't seem to be much of a legitimate reason for Alex to be tagging along. Milo will simply call Alex and say, "Hey, I've got an interesting case. Wanna ride along?" Alex may offer the occasional psychological insight, but often there's no credible reason for him to be involved in the investigation and even the casual reader understands that no police department would tolerate a civilian like Alex playing such a prominent role in a homicide investigation.

That may well be unjustified nitpicking, especially since I continue to enjoy these books. But going back to the beginning and re-reading this opening installment reminds one of how brilliant this series was initially and can only make you wish that the later books were still this good

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Creole Belle

James Lee Burke's sixteenth Dave Robicheaux novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown, took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Dave's beloved southern Louisiana had been devastated by the storm and the recovery had been badly bungled by inept government officials, some of whom cared very little about the people of the state and their lives that had been so terribly disrupted.

Creole Belle, the nineteenth book in the series takes place in the wake of the BP oil spill, and again, the state is under assault by forces beyond its control. As the book opens, Dave is hospitalized, recovering from a bad gunshot wound he suffered in a shootout a month earlier. While in the hospital and under the influence of morphine, which he's being given to dull the pain, Dave is visited by a beautiful young woman named Tee Jolie Melton. Tee Jolie is pregnant by a married man and spills out her troubles to Dave. She also suggests that she has knowledge about the problems that led to the explosion and spill in the Gulf. But did Dave really see the young woman, or was she only an apparition brought on by the morphine? Tee Jolie, who is a singer, leaves Dave an iPod and includes three of her own songs on the playlist. Dave has the iPod, but only he is able to hear Tee Jolie's three songs.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Tee Jolie disappeared several weeks before she allegedly visited Dave. Her sister is also missing. Dave believes that the two young women are in grave danger and is determined to find them. His search involves him in the lives of a number of rich and malevolent people who have lots of dirty secrets that they do not want revealed in the light of day. Before long, they will see Dave as a threat to their well-being and, as usual, this will not be good news for Dave.

As always, Dave enlists the aid of his long-time friend and alter-ego Clete Purcell. As readers of this series know well, to call Clete a loose cannon does not begin to scratch the surface of the man's character. Like Dave, Clete is a troubled man whose difficulties now stretch back to events that occurred decades ago. In this case, Clete has additional issues and problems of his own that may get in the way of his ability to assist Dave and that may even interfere with their long-time friendship.

After eighteen previous Robicheaux novels, there's little new that one can say about the series and even fewer fresh ways to praise the writing of James Lee Burke who is not only one of America's great crime writers but one of its best writers period. After all this time and after all these books, Burke is still at the top of his game. Sadly, both Dave Robicheax and Clete Purcell are feeling their age and know that their string cannot have much longer to play out. Happily, the same cannot be said for their creator.