Tuesday, September 25, 2012

As the tenth book in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series opens, McGee is once again called upon to restore a grieving widow to psychological and sexual health. The grateful woman, Helena Pearson, returns to her normal life, but several years later, she is dying of cancer and calls upon McGee for one last favor. Helena's daughter, Maurie, has become mysteriously suicidal and Helena would like McGee to diagnose the problem and find a solution.

McGee dutifully journeys to Fort Courtney, Florida, where Maurie lives with her husband, Tom, a high-flying local developer. Maurie's younger sister, Bridget, is also in residence, helping Tom look after Maurie. Sadly, by the time McGee arrives, Helena has succumbed to her cancer and so McGee is left to feel his way through a very complicated situation if he's going to be of any help.

As is usually the case in one of these novels, things get complicated in a big hurry. A number of folks seem to be very interested in McGee's arrival; a couple of people will have to die; everyone will be enormously confused and only McGee may be smart enough and devious enough to sort things out.

Like all of the McGee novels, this one is obviously dated, and McGee spends a lot of time philosophizing about the world around him. There's not as much action in this book as in most of the others in the series--things are a bit more cerebral--and there's not a hulking, giant, Neanderthalish brute of an adversary as there often is. The climax beggars belief a bit, but still, it's a fun read and anyone who enjoys the series will certainly want to find this entry.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Introducing Kinsey Millhone

This is the book that introduced Kinsey Millhone and helped inaugurate a new era in crime fiction when female investigators like Millhone and Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski could go toe-to-toe with the bad guys and more than hold their own with their male counterparts like Spenser, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

Millhone has a modest solo practice as a P.I. that she runs out of a small office in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. Orphaned as a child and twice divorced, she lives a quiet, solitary life, eschewing the kinds of possessions and personal connections that most people take for granted. But this is her life and she's perfectly happy with it. Certainly she would never be mistaken for Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher. And unlike any number of other female sleuths, she is perfectly capable of solving difficult mysteries without the assistance of a cat.

Enter Nikki Fife, recently released after an eight-year stint in prison for murdering her husband. One might wonder why Nikki got only eight years for a premeditated murder, but this is never explained. Nikki continues to insist that she was innocent and she hires Kinsey to find the Real Killer.

The husband, Laurence Fife, was a philandering attorney with a loose moral code who had antagonized any number of potential suspects. But the police and prosecutors argued that only Nikki could have poisoned one of Laurence's allergy capsules and she was thus convicted on this rather flimsy evidence.

Kinsey takes the case and almost immediately discovers that there was a lot more going on in the case than the police and prosecutors revealed at the time of the trial. To make matters worse, as soon as Millhone begins poking around, people with ties to the case start turning up dead, and before long, Kinsey may find herself in the line of fire.

This is a good introduction to a series that would develop very long legs and attract a huge fan base. Thirty years after the publication of "A" Is for Alibi, Kinsey Millhone still soldiers on and Grafton has nearly reached the end of the alphabet. Some have questioned Grafton's decision to leave her protagonist and these stories glued to the 1980s, and the books have become, as a practical matter, historical crime novels in which there are still no personal computers, cell phones or Internet and where the heroine remains perpetually in her middle thirties. But Grafton has attracted legions of fans to the series, so she must be doing something right. And certainly any fan of crime fiction should be at least marginally acquainted with Kinsey Millhone.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Fourteenth Matthew Scudder

I've long run out of superlatives to use when describing Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels which remain, easily, my favorite crime fiction series.

This is due entirely to the richly-drawn character that Block has created in Scudder who has continued to grow and evolve through seventeen novels and a number of short stories, published over a period of thirty-five years. It's hard to imagine a fan of crime fiction who has not yet encountered these books, but for those who might not know, Scudder is a former New York cop and recovering alcoholic who has spent most of his career as an unlicensed P.I. doing favors for "friends" who then pay him what they think the job is worth.

For most of this time, Matt lived alone in a tiny hotel room in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and the city has become a major character in the books. Now well into middle age, Matt has recently married Elaine Mardell, his longtime girlfriend, and moved into an apartment across the street from his old hotel room. He's also finally gotten a license as a private investigator, which enables him to work for attorneys and others from whom he can command a better rate of pay. The neighborhood is gentrifying which is both good and bad as Matt (along with the reader) mourns the passing of landmark institutions that had long populated his neighborhood.

In short, life is good, but then Matt's long-time best friend, the gangster and saloon owner Mick Ballou, comes under attack from a mysterious unidentified enemy. He appeals to Matt for help and almost immediately, Matt becomes a target as well.

As always, the real pleasure in this book is watching the interaction among the characters and listening in as Matt ruminates about the developments in the case and the changing world around him. This is one of the more violent books in the series, and the blood starts flowing early on. From almost the first page the bodies are dropping left and right, and the only question that matters is who will survive in a dangerous world where everybody dies.