Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Tense Thriller from S. G. Redling

A petite young data analyst named Dani works for a very secretive, exclusive security firm on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The firm is doing a job for a defense contractor, attempting to determine who in the firm might be leaking its industrial secrets. Then out of the blue one day, Dani's boss announces that the job is over. The client has called them off and the team is to assemble all the material it has collected so that the client can pick it up later that day.

Oops. Dani has taken some of the material related to the case home to her apartment so that she can work on it after hours. It's nothing critical, just routine scraps of paper and other such things that the target has thrown away. Dani's specialty is examining this sort of material and developing a profile of the subject.

She races home to gather up the material so that it can be included in the package that is being returned to the client. But she arrives back at the firm's headquarters, which is in a secluded rural area, to find a black van blocking the road that the employees use to access the back door.

In a thriller like this, it's never good news when a mysterious black van appears, and the knowledgeable reader is already yelling at Dani to turn around and get the hell out of there. Of course she doesn't, and when she enters the building, she finds that all of her co-workers have been killed. Even worse, the killers are still in the building and she is now effectively trapped.

Dani has no idea what in the hell is going on, and neither does the reader. But since this is still only the beginning of the book, she will manage a narrow escape from the building. Sadly, though, the killers have a roster of employees and they know that Dani is missing. They also believe that she is in possession of the critical item that they were supposed to be retrieving from the security firm, even though Dani has no idea what in the world it could be.

Now a skilled and savage hit man is on Dani's trail, determined to recapture the item and complete the job his team started earlier in the day and if Dani is going to survive, she's going to have to be very nimble, both of foot and mind.

S. G. Redling has created here a tense, taut thriller with a very intriguing protagonist. There's a lot of action; the plot moves swiftly and the reader may well wind up turning the pages of this story well into the night.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Welcome Back, Bernie!

After an absence of nearly ten years, Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar and bookstore owner, returns in The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. For those who haven't yet made his acquaintance, Bernie is the creation of Lawrence Block, who is also known for his hit man series featuring John Keller, and his brilliant P.I. series that features Matthew Scudder.

The Rhodenbarr books are much more light-hearted that the Scudder books, and Bernie is blessedly free of the demons that have haunted his stable mate through the years. Bernie thinks of himself as the last of the Gentlemen Burglars and he's much quicker with his wit than with his fists or with any other sort of weapon.

These books generally follow a formula in which Bernie is burgling a house or an apartment, almost always belonging to someone who can well-afford to lose whatever it might be that Bernie is about to relieve them of. Then, in the course of things, a body inconveniently appears, though never as a part of Bernie's handiwork.

The case will be investigated by Bernie's nemesis, the fumbling police detective, Ray Kirschmann. Ray always assumes that Bernie is responsible for the homicide and Bernie then has to solve the crime in order to save his own skin. Almost always this involves gathering all the potential subjects together at the end, in the style of Agatha Christie, so that Bernie can explain the logic of the crime and finally point the finger at the Real Killer.

It's always a lot of fun to watch the story unfold and while this book deviates slightly from the traditional formula, it's certain to entertain anyone who's enjoyed the series through the years.

In this case, a man named "Smith" hires Bernie to commit a series of burglaries to retrieve objects of value to the client which he cannot obtain legally. Meanwhile, Ray Kirschmann is investigating a puzzling homicide and no one will be surprised when the two cases intersect. As always, along the way there's a good deal of banter between Bernie and his best friend, Carolyn, who is a lesbian dog groomer.

Readers who have enjoyed the earlier books will certainly like this one as well. Readers who find the concept intriguing but who haven't read the earlier books might want to start at the beginning of the series with Burglars Can't Be Choosers. While neophytes would probably enjoy this new entry, there's a fair amount going on that would be better appreciated by those who have watched Bernie's career and his relationships develop through the years. We can only hope that Bernie is not now in for another ten-year vacation.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Twisted Set of Cases for Detective Sergeant Mulheisen

As a practical matter, this novel, which was first published in 1990, constitutes a stand-alone in Jon A. Jackson's series featuring Detective Sergeant "Fang" Mulheisen of the Detroit P.D. It does not involve either the Detroit mob or the character Joe Service, both of whom appear prominently in most of the other books. It doesn't build on the earlier stories, and nothing that happens here is essential to the books going forward.

Which is certainly not to say that it isn't a good book. The plot is fairly convoluted and involves a long-retired detective named Grootka, who was once Mulheisen's mentor. For most of his adult life, Grootka has been haunted by his failure to solve the rape and murder of a beautiful young girl back in the 1950s. Then, one afternoon when he's riding along with an old pal who tags abandoned vehicles for the department, Grootka discovers the body of and elderly pimp named "Books" Meldrin, who was also Grootka's snitch back in the day.

Poor old "Books" has met a sad end, shot and stuffed into the trunk of an abandoned car. The killing is added to Mulheisen's already bulging caseload, and Grootka is convinced that the killing is somehow related to the death of the girl years earlier.

Mulheisen's boss couldn't care less about the murder of an elderly pimp and wants him to focus on the much higher profile case of the murder of a society matron. But Mul is intrigued by the "Books" case and is soon devoting the bulk of his time to it.

Once the game is on, it's interesting and more than a little dangerous. Mulheisen demonstrates his usual disregard for authority and pursues the job in his own inimitable way. Pretty soon, more bodies are dropping; the evidence is twisted almost beyond imagination and there are startling surprises at almost every turn. This one is well worth looking for.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Great Piece of Pulp Fiction

This is a classic piece of pulp fiction that was first published in Britain in 1941, but which was deemed much too racy for the U.S. at that time. Accordingly, it was first published here in an sanitized version that glossed over all the parts that were too "adult" for the delicate sensibilities of the American reading public. The opening couple of sentences of the original version might suggest why:

"From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she'd be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and, brother, those are things I like in a woman."


Our intrepid narrator is a man named Karl Craven who's just arrived in a small, out-of-the-way Midwestern town on some mysterious errand. We learn that he's been preceded in town by a partner, or an accomplice; as Craven checks into the hotel, we're not yet sure which. Things get complicated right away, though,when it turns out that the man Craven is to meet has been shot to death. The killer is still at large.

The town is as corrupt as they come in a pulp novel of this sort, from the sheriff on down. But added to the mix is a mysterious religious retreat, know as Solomon's Vineyard, which sits just outside of town. No one is quite sure exactly what goes on behind the closed doors of the Vineyard, but you can bet it's titillating and maybe even dangerous.

Karl Craven is a large man with even larger appetites and he drinks and eats his way through this story at a mind-boggling pace. At one point, he has a four-pound steak for dinner, along with all the trimmings and a half an apple pie for dessert. His sexual appetites are pretty much on the same scale.

It would be unfair to reveal much of anything about the plot, but this is a story with lots of gunplay and other malicious violence. There's tough dames and a fair amount of rough, kinky sex, some grave-robbing and a bizarre religious cult headed by a princess who may be even too much for a man like Craven to handle.

If your a fan of the sort of trashy pulp fiction that was popular at the middle of the last century, you'll probably love this book which is so much over the top that it almost becomes a parody of the genre. Latimer, who would ultimately become a fairly successful Hollywood screenwriter walks you right up to the line but steps back just in time to give you a really fun read.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Ten Favorite Books from 2013

          It's that time of year again when everyone compiles their lists of favorite books, movies and music from the year just ending. So I thought I'd wade in and offer a quick look at my ten favorite books from 2013. Please note that these are not necessarily the "Best" books of the year, just the ones I enjoyed reading the most. Also note that most of these books were released prior to 2013--in some cases, years earlier--but I happened to read or re-read them this year, which is why they made it on the list. In no particular order, my favorite books of the year were:






1. Okay, so I lied right out of the box. William Kent Kruger's Ordinary Grace was easily my favorite book of the year. Set in a small Minnesota town in the summer of 1961, and populated with deftly-drawn characters, it's a brilliant meditation on the ties of family and community and on the nature of grace, whether granted (or withheld) by God or by frail and fallible human beings in times of crisis and terrible loss when any rational person might well doubt his faith in anyone or anything. This is a book that I'll be reading over again for years to come.





 




2. David Goldfield's America Aflame is an outstanding contemporary overview of the Civil War era, beginning in the 1830s and concluding with the nation's centennial celebration in 1876. What distinguishes Goldfield's treatment of the period from that of earlier historians, is his emphasis on the importance of evangelical Christianity in bringing on the crisis that produced the war. In essence, he argues that evangelical Christians, especially in the North, increasingly saw many of the important issues of the day, slavery in particular, as moral causes that could not be compromised. In consequence, American and their political leaders became increasingly inflexible and in the end, the nation was plunged into a disastrous civil war in which both northerners and southerners would be totally convinced that God was on their side. Goldfield eschews the notion of the war as a gallant, heroic effort and instead portrays in heart-rending and occasionally stomach-wrenching terms the brutal, ugly realities of this war that would cost 630,000 American lives--more than the lives lost in all of the nation's other wars combined.



3. Daniel Woodrell, The Maid's VersionIn 1928, the tiny town of West Table, Missouri, was shattered by the explosion of the Arbor Dance Hall. But although many explanations for the tragedy were put forward, the guilty party or parties were never identified and prosecuted. Alma Dunahew works as a domestic in the house of the town's leading banker. Alma's sister, Ruby, is a carefree young woman who uses and disposes of men as the spirit moves her, until the night she too becomes a victim of the dance hall tragedy. Alma has her own idea about what happened that night, and as the incident overwhelms her emotionally, she gradually loses touch with reality. She alienates members of her own family and many of the townspeople; she loses her job and has to cobble together a living as best she can. Years later, in 1965, her grandson Alek is sent to spend the summer with her and over the course of the summer, Alma slowly tells him the story of the events that led to the explosion of the dance hall. It's a riveting tale, told mostly in flashbacks and it grabs the reader from the brilliant opening line.



4. Joseph Hansen, A Country of Old Men.This is the twelfth and final entry in Joseph Hansen's excellent series featuring insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Published over a period of twenty-one years, from Fadeout in 1970, to this book in 1991, the series was witty and very well-written, with cleverly-plotted stories and well-drawn characters. Set in southern California, the books also captured perfectly the geography and the social and economic currents of the place and time. What really set these books apart was the fact that Hansen created in Dave Brandstetter the first openly gay P.I. to inhabit a series like this, and neither Hansen, not his protagonist ever made a big deal out of it. Dave's sexual orientation was made clear from the opening pages of the first book, and it was simply a fact of life, just like the sexual orientation of any other detective. Dave had a love life and was active sexually throughout the series, but it never seemed intrusive or in any way out of the ordinary. In fact, Dave's romantic attachments were much more believable than those of many of his heterosexual fictional contemporaries. This was an engrossing and fitting conclusion to the series.


5. James Ross, They Don't Dance Much. This Depression-era novel was first published in 1940. The protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald who is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s. The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank, and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes. Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunk. He buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan. Smut is an ambitious man, and he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house. He offers Jack a job as his cashier and, having no other viable prospects, Jack accepts the offer. Any reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future. Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion, Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes, taking one ill-advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetime. A great read.



6. Don Winslow, The Kings of Cool. A prequel to Winslow's wonderful book, Savages, that shows how the three principal characters in that book, Ben, Chon and O came to know each other and how they grew into the people they would ultimately become. In this case, as in Savages, the profitable business that Ben and Chon have built as growers of prime weed is in jeopardy. The book bounces back and forth between the present day and the counter-culture SOCAL of the 1960s. As Ben, Chon
and O deal with their respective problems, we meet a group of surfer dudes, hippies and people involved in the early days of the dope business, which at that point, simply involved moving grass into Southern California and selling it. Over time, of course, the early days of the counter culture will evolve into something entirely different while back in the present day, the threats to Ben, Chon and O will grow increasingly complicated. Winslow weaves his way through these narratives brilliantly and you simply cannot put the book down as one surprise after another unfolds. The writing itself is inventive, as it was in Savages, and ultimately, the book ends way too soon.









7. John Sandford, Certain Prey. One of my favorite crime fiction series is Sandford's Lucas Davenport series. This is the tenth book in the series, first published in 1999. Sandford excels at creating excellent villains, and this book introduces my favorite of all his bad guys, hit woman Clara Rinker. She's a fantastic character and this is one of the best stories that Sandford has crafted. Anyone new to the series would certainly want to start with the first book, Rules of Prey, but this is a great one to look forward to down the road.










8. Robert Caro, Means of Ascent.  This is the second volume (of four thus far) in Robert Caro's magisterial biography of former president Lyndon B. Johnson. It treats the period from mid-1941, when Johnson lost a special election for the U.S. Senate, through 1948, when Johnson won election to the Senate in a hotly contested and heatedly disputed primary election. Johnson was crushed by his loss in 1941, and believed that the election had been stolen from him by an opponent who was more clever than he. He vowed it would never happen again and Caro describes here the steps that Johnson took to make sure it didn't. I think there are problems with the case that Caro attempts to make here, which I've detailed in my long review of the book. Still, there's no denying that this is a tremendous accomplishment.





9. Jamie Harrison, On the Edge of the Crazies. Beginning in 1995, Jamie Harrison, the daughter of novelist Jim Harrison, wrote four novels set in the fictional town of Blue Deer, Montana, located on the edge of the Crazy Mountains, very near where the real town of Livingston, Montana would be found. The main protagonist was a young archaeologist, Jules Clement, who returned home to Blue Deer and was elected to the office of County Sheriff, a position that had once been held by his father. Blue Deer is populated with a mix of eccentric characters, some of whom are long-time residents and others of whom are more recent arrivals, including a number of writers, artists and other celebrities who have found their way to Big Sky Country in the last few years. Among other things, Harrison cleverly explores the tensions that have developed between native Montanans and the new arrivals. This book opens when someone takes a couple of shots at a screenwriter named George Blackwater. George is wounded but survives, and the chaos that ensues is great fun to follow.



10. Robert Sims Reid, The Red Corvette. Leo Banks is recently retired from the police department in Rozette, Montana. He's living quietly and happily alone, fishing and doing some amateur geology. Then his old friends from college, Sarah and Gerry Heyman, show up in Montana on vacation. Their reunion is awkward, and it's clear that Gerry is a troubled man. He's now a successful doctor in a tiny river town in southern Illinois, and he's recently acquired a new elderly patient who's just been released from prison and moved into the nursing home in Mauvaisterre. The new patient, Mickey Cochran, is mildly retarded, and fifty years earlier, he pled guilty to the murder of the wife of one of the town's most prominent citizens. Now Cochran insists that he did not commit the crime and Gerry Heyman believes him. Gerry wants Leo to come to Illinois and investigate the old case. When Banks refuses, Gerry returns to Illinois and attempts to investigate the case himself and a few weeks later is found on a lonely road, beaten to death. Sarah believes that the local cops are not up the challenge of solving the crime and begs Leo, an experienced homicide detective, to come investigate it himself. Reluctantly Leo agrees, and before long, he finds himself knee deep in two homicide cases, one new and one old, in a town where there are lots of buried secrets. This is a great book with an excellent cast of characters; the plot is intriguing and moves along at just the right pace. I've insisted earlier that Robert Sims Reid is one of those writers who, sadly, did not enjoy nearly the reputation he deserved. It's hard to imagine anyone who might read this book and think otherwise.



11. Johnny Shaw, Big Maria. Okay, so I can't count, either. But after spending way too much time trying to whittle the list down to ten books, I just said the hell with it because I couldn't leave this one off. This is Shaw's second novel, and again he demonstrates his gift for weaving pathos with drop-dead humor and his ability to create memorable characters who are very sympathetic even though most of them are total losers. Big Maria basically amounts to Treasure of Sierra Madre meets a Chevy Chase vacation movie. Three down-on-their-luck characters go searching for a long-lost gold mine, the Big Maria. They press ahead in spite of impossible odds, determined to find the fortune that will set all of their lives on a brighter path. It's an incredible journey, often touching and hilariously funny within the same paragraph. And it speaks volumes to the dreams and to the bonds that drive and inspire all of us.















Sunday, December 15, 2013

We're All in Big Trouble Now!

This book has the most intriguing premise of any that I've read in a long while. Set in the not-too-far-distant future, it features Hank Palace as a fledgling detective in Concord, New Hampshire. One night, Hank is called to the scene of a suspicious death in the restroom of a McDonald's restaurant. An insurance man named Peter Zell is lying on the floor with an expensive leather belt wrapped around his neck. The other end of the belt is tied to the handicap grip bar next to the toilet, and the officer who discovered the body has called it in as a 10-54S, that is, a suicide by hanging.

Sad to say, there's a lot of that going around these days, ever since astronomers discovered that a giant asteroid, designated 2011GV, is swinging around the sun in preparation for slamming into the earth at about a billion miles an hour six months hence.

The damned thing just came out of nowhere, one of those giant rocks that occasionally passes "near" to Earth but not close enough to be a concern. When 2011GV first appeared in distant space, all the "experts" insisted that it too would pass by harmlessly and that there was no need for concern. Turns out there was, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The friggin' planet is about to be destroyed.

As one might imagine, a lot of people are upset about this and some changes have occurred in the wake of the news. The world economy has collapsed; there's a lot of turmoil everywhere; governments have assumed emergency powers, and so forth.

Lots of people are killing themselves; a lot of others have quite their jobs and are devoting their last six months to fulfilling life-long dreams. Then there's Detective Hank Palace, who's doggedly determined to keep doing the job he always wanted for as long as he possibly can.

The truth is that, at this point in time, no one really gives a rip what happened to Peter Zell and how he wound up dead in the McDonald's restroom. But Hank does. The death looks suspicious to him and he is determined to investigate it as a murder until proven otherwise. the book details his investigation which is, as you might imagine, a little out of the norm for a police procedural, given the death sentence hanging over everyone on the planet.

It's interesting to watch Hank work, and one admires his determination. Either that, or you question his sanity. It's also intriguing to watch how the rest of Winters' cast reacts to the coming of the end of the world. Any fan of police procedurals and looming apocalyptic novels will probably enjoy this book.

[SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ FURTHER UNLESS YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW THE BOOK ENDS!]

I do have one complaint about this book. I am compulsive about never reading a book's tease before beginning the book. I don't want to know anything about the plot until it unfolds in the course of the story. As I approached the end of the book, I was very anxious to see how the author would treat the final moments before the big collision between the asteroid and the Earth.

Except that he didn't. The book ends with several months still to go before the big event, and only then did I read the back cover and realize that this is only the first volume in a projected trilogy. I was hugely disappointed to learn that I would have to wait two more books before getting to the moment I was anticipating, and I'm not sure if I'm willing to do that, in large part because, although the premise is very intriguing, I'm not sure that it can be sustained over the course of three books rather than the one I was expecting. Also, I'm not sure I was enamored enough of Hank Palace to want to read two more books with him as the central character. This is a case where I'll probably wait to read reviews of the next two before deciding if I want to continue with the series.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

We're Not in Cabot Cove Anymore, Toto

I was a big fan of Sara Gran's first novel featuring Claire DeWitt, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, which was set in post-Katrina New Orleans. To say that Claire is an unconventional detective would be the height of understatement, and the character was fresh, quirky and very intriguing. Additionally, Gran did an excellent job of portraying the city in the wake of the disaster, and she was particularly good at capturing the lives of the city's young, poverty-stricken African-American males, many of whom have no real prospects and very little hope.

For those who haven't yet encountered Claire, she's a disciple of the French detective, Jacques Silette, author of the book Detection, which changed Claire's life when she discovered the book as a young teenager. Claire later did her apprenticeship in New Orleans under the tutelage of Silette's most outstanding protégé, Constance Darling, and when Constance died, Claire advanced to the position of World's Greatest Detective.

Claire is heavily tattooed; she drinks and takes drugs to excess, as often as not stealing the drugs from the medicine cabinets of unsuspecting friends. To solve her mysteries, she relies on mysticism and dreams as much as on more traditional methods of investigation.

This case begins when a musician named Paul Casablancas is murdered in what appears to be a burglary gone wrong. His home has been invaded; several guitars are missing, and the police are ready to write off the murder as incidental to the burglary that Casablancas apparently interrupted. But Claire has a personal tie to the case; she and Paul were once lovers, and when Paul's widow asks Claire for help, Claire assumes the responsibility of attempting to determine what really happened.

Claire investigates for the next several months with the aid of her new assistant, Claude, a graduate school dropout. In and around the investigation, Claire ruminates on the disappearance years earlier of one of her best friends, a girl named Tracy. As teenagers, Claire, Tracy and a girl named Kelly were inseparable. They discovered Silette's book, Detection together and began investigating mysteries of their own. Then, shortly after they solved a particularly difficult case, Tracy simply disappeared and neither Claire nor Kelly ever heard from her again. Tracy's disappearance was a critical element in the first Claire DeWitt novel and we now get the backstory that fills in many of the blanks.

As the above will doubtless suggest, we're not in Cabot Cove anymore, Toto, and this is not your grandmother's traditional mystery novel. It may not appeal to every fan of crime fiction, but it will certainly intrigue those who are willing to take a chance on a story and a character who are more than a little bit out of the mainstream.

If I have a concern about this book, it would be simply that it suffers a bit by comparison to the first in the series. Claire no longer seems quite as fresh as she did in her first adventure, although this is probably to be expected. More than that, Gran did such a magnificent job with the setting of the first book, that this one inevitably suffers a bit by comparison. The disaster suffered by New Orleans allowed Gran a canvas to work with that simply doesn't exist in San Francisco, although it's a great city in its own right. It also struck me that the supporting cast here is not as interesting and well-drawn as the one in City of the Dead, but these are relatively minor complaints, and I'm looking forward to the third and apparently final installment of the Claire DeWitt trilogy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Travis McGee to the Rescue Again!

Pretend for a moment that it's 1968 and you're a shady, amoral, would-be land developer in some scraggly-ass county in the Middle of Nowhere, Florida. Assume further that you own a couple of hundred acres of land near a waterway and that a big company is looking to acquire the land to build a major plant.

Assume further that there's a guy who owns ten acres of land between you and the waterway that is critical to the plans of the big company. You make the marina operator an offer for his land, but he turns it down. He's working on his own version of the American Dream, which centers on developing his marina and a small motel.

Fortunately, you're well-connected with the local banker and politicians while the marina owner is a relative newcomer. So you pull some strings and get your pals to put pressure on the guy. Before he knows it, his loans are coming due; his business has dried up and his dream has turned to crap.

But the stubborn clown still won't sell and then one afternoon he turns up dead. It could have been an accident; the sheriff rules it a suicide, and who the hell really knows? The good thing about it, though, is that the guy's wife is really up against it now, giving you the chance to grab the land for virtually nothing while leaving her saddled with the huge remaining mortgage. Clearly, this is your lucky day.

Or maybe not. Because just when things are coming up roses, you slap yourself upside the head and say, "OMG; I really hope that damned marina guy wasn't one of Travis McGee's best friends!"

Sadly for you (and for a lot of your pals), it turns out that he was and you are about to find yourself in a huge stinking pile of steaming stuff.

McGee discovers what has happened and immediately sets out to more than even the score. As readers of the series know, McGee is a "salvage" expert who recovers things that have been taken from people who are left with no legal recourse. Normally, McGee's finder's fee is fifty percent of whatever he recovers, but this time it's personal and he's acting on behalf of his friend's widow.

As usual, there will be a psychologically damaged female who can only be saved by McGee's tender attention; as usual, there will be a dangerous sociopath lurking in the background ready to strike, and as usual, McGee will spend a fair amount of time ruminating on the state of his own life and of the world around him.

This is one of the better books in the series, mainly because of the very clever scheme that McGee creates with the help of his friend, Meyer. It's also not quite as cringe-inducing when it comes to McGee's treatment of women. This book, too, is certainly dated in that regard, but it's better than a number of others. All in all, a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Will There Be Honor Among Thieves?

Thick As Thieves is a densely plotted heist novel that locks you in quickly at the beginning of the story and then continues to ratchet up the tension as it races to a startling climax.

At the center of the story is an ex-CIA agent named Carr. He's the new leader of a small band of elite criminals who are planning a huge score. The mark is Curtis Prager, a former hedge fund manager who fell from grace and who now launders huge amounts of money for various criminal enterprises. Carr and company intend to relieve Mr. Prager of many of the millions of dollars he's holding for his various clients.

It won't be easy. Prager lives on a huge estate in south Florida and is protected by a network of top-flight, virtually impenetrable security, both physical and electronic. Breaking through those barriers will not be a job for amateurs or for the faint of heart.

If the job weren't tough enough already, Carr has problems with members of his own team. Their last leader, a man named Declan, was killed when the team's last job went south. This is Carr's first time at the helm and other members of the team worry about his ability to get the job done. They all have pretty massive egos of their own, and some of them may have plans of their own that don't exactly dovetail with Carr's. Especially interesting is the beautiful, sexy Valerie who is the team's honey trap and who appears to have fallen hard for Carr.
Or has she? Inevitably in a crew like this, there's always the issue of honor among thieves.

This is a riveting story that travels from Florida to the Caribbean, to Latin America and elsewhere. The details of the planned heist are extremely intriguing, as is the cast of characters. And every time you think you've just figured out what's going on, the story races off in a different direction.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes crime fiction, and I'd especially recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Richard Stark's Parker series. While there are obvious differences between this book and the Parker books, they have enough in common that Parker fans might well want to look for this one.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Meets a Very Attractive Redhead and Some of Her Interesting Friends...

This is the second novel in the series by Jon A. Jackson featuring Detroit Detective Sergeant "Fang" Mulheisen and his nemesis, hit man Joe Service. This early in the series, Service is still on the perimeter of the action; he's more aware of Mulheisen than Mulheisen is of him, but the detective is aware of the fact that some clever, sinister force is lurking out there on the edge of the action.

The case opens when a police patrolman answers a burglary call and shoots to death a man who had broken into a garage. The dead man has no ID and no one can figure out what he might have been looking for in the garage.

The garage in question belongs to an up and coming trucking executive named Jerry Vanni. Vanni is an ambitious young man who's also branching out into juke boxes and vending machines. The plot thickens when two gunmen come into a bar and shoot to death one of Vanni's jukeboxes and one of his cigarette machines.

Mulheisen wonders if Vanni has gotten on the wrong side of the mobsters who usually control things like juke boxes and vending machines in the Motor City. He's also very intrigued by Vanni's secretary, Mandy Cecil, a gorgeous young redhead who seldom wears foundation garments.

Things get even more curious when Mul encounters the charming Ms. Cecil in the middle of the night in the company of some would-be Cuban revolutionaries in a "blind pig," an after-hours club for people like Mulheisen who aren't always ready to go home when the regular bars close at 2:00 a.m.

Before long, all hell is breaking loose and it's a great ride for the reader. Jackson creates memorable characters and there's plenty of witty banter and lots of great action. Mulheisen is a great protagonist and at this point, the reader has seen enough of Joe Service to know that things are probably going to get very interesting later on down the road.

This book should appeal to any fan of crime fiction but anyone interested would be especially well-advised to start this series at the beginning with The Diehard: Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Mysteries.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dave Brandstetter: Hail and Farewell...

This is the twelfth and final entry in Joseph Hansen's excellent series featuring insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Published over a period of twenty-one years, from Fadeout in 1970, to this book in 1991, the series was witty and very well-written, with cleverly-plotted stories and well-drawn characters. Set in southern California, the books also captured perfectly the geography and the social and economic currents of the place and time.

What really set these books apart was the fact that Hansen created in Dave Brandstetter the first openly gay P.I. to inhabit a series like this, and neither Hansen, not his protagonist ever made a big deal out of it. Dave's sexual orientation was made clear from the opening pages of the first book, and it was simply a fact of life, just like the sexual orientation of any other detective. Dave had a love life and was active sexually throughout the series, but it never seemed intrusive or in any way out of the ordinary. In fact, Dave's romantic attachements were much more believable than those of many of his heterosexual fictional contemporaries.

As the series opened, Dave was already a middle-aged man and by the first pages of this one, he is nearing seventy. Many of the friends who populated the series with him are gone now; the others are all retired. Dave himself is not well; he tires easily and aches all over. His long-time lover, Cecil, begs him to see a doctor, but Dave dismisses the idea and claims he hasn't the time.

The story opens when a friend calls Dave in a panic. A young boy has apparently witnessed a murder and was then kidnapped by the woman he saw standing over the body. The boy, who has clearly been abused, manages to escape from his captor, whose name is Rachel Klein, and is found wandering along a beach by Dave's friend. The murdered victim, Cricket Shales, was a musician who has just been released from prison after serving time on a drug charge. He and Klein, who is also an addict, were once an item and she apparently feared he was coming back for her.

The cops arrest Klein and are ready to declare the case closed. But Dave is not so sure that Klein is guilty and so continues his own investigation of the case, even though he has allegedly been retired himself for a couple of years. In the process, he will put his own life and health in jeopardy.

The story itself is a good one, with lots of twists and turns, but in this book, the mystery takes a back seat to the health problems that are obviously ailing Dave. Along with Cecil, readers have worried over Dave's physical decline, especially in the last couple of books, and it's clear where this one is headed. As one nears the end of the book, it becomes especially hard to turn the pages and you want to linger over every last word.

When we finally reach the end of the case, and of Dave's career, it's a sad and elegiac moment. But one closes the book with a deep appreciation of what was a ground-breaking and very special series. Hansen was as good as any other crime writer of his era and this is a series that readers will remember long after they have forgotten most others.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

An Excellent-Depression-Era Novel by the Under-Appreciated James Ross

This Depression-era novel quickly sank from view when it was first published in 1940. A new edition was released in 1975, with an introduction by George V. Higgins, a crime novelist who was then at the peak of his career. But even with his endorsement, the book was still little-noticed. Perhaps the third time will be the charm and the book has now been re-released with an introduction by Daniel Woodrell, a great writer perhaps best known for his book, Winter's Bone.

The main protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald. Jack is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s. The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank, and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes. Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunk.

He buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan. Smut's joint is on the outskirts of the small town of Corinth at the junction of River Road and Lover's Lane. Smut sells gas and a little food along with his bootleg whiskey. He also has some gambling going on in the back room and he pays off the sheriff who looks the other way.

Smut is an ambitious man, and over a drink he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house and expand his operation to include a dance hall, tourist cabins and a real restaurant. He offers Jack a job as his cashier and, having no other viable prospects, Jack accepts the offer which includes room and board.

Any reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future. Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion, Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes, taking one ill-advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetime.

It's hard to imagine how a book this good could have possibly been overlooked for nearly seventy-five years. Ross writes beautifully and completely immerses the reader in the sordid world he creates. He's particularly good at portraying the class distinctions that existed in a small, rural southern community at this time, and he's created a cast of believable and very memorable characters.

This is a book that will remind many readers of the stories of James M. Cain, particularly The Postman Always Rings Twice. Ross is certainly in Cain's league; his story is just as gripping, and he certainly deserves to be remembered along with the other of the best writers of his generation. They Don't Dance Much will certainly appeal to any reader who likes his or her crime fiction dark and dirty. Thanks to Otto Penzler, the Mysterious Press and Daniel Woodrell for bringing it back to life.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spring in the 87th Precinct...

Spring finds the detectives of the 87th Precinct busy as usual. As the book opens, Detective Steve Carella has to deal with a beautiful young woman who decides she has nothing to live for and who has climbed out onto a ledge high above the street in her nightgown. She's ready to jump and in 1962, the PD doesn't yet have trained specialists to deal with a situation like this. Carella will do the best he can, but this really isn't his area of expertise.

Meanwhile, a hairbrush salesman is making his rounds. (Remember, it's 1962 when people other than the Girl Scouts apparently still sold things door-to-door.) The unsuspecting salesman rings the doorbell at an apartment which, unfortunately is filled with leaking natural gas. The electrical impulse from the bell touches off an explosion which blows the salesman and his hairbrushes all to hell.

When the dust settles, the police discover a man and a woman lying virtually naked in the bedroom dead from inhaling the gas. They also find a couple of empty Scotch bottles and a suicide note. But something seems off and most of the detectives believe that the deaths were really homicides.

Sadly, their investigation leads them nowhere. They discover some quirky facts about the case but nothing that absolutely disproves the apparent suicide and nothing that points the finger at a viable suspect. In the meantime, some unknown person has made it his hobby to periodically kick the crap out of Steve Carella, which does nothing to improve the detective's disposition. And unless the detectives catch a break soon, it appears that none of this will be resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

This is another very good entry in this series. As always, it's a pretty quick read and fans of the series are certain to enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Introducing Detective Sergeant Mulheisen

First published in 1977, this is the book that introduced Detective Sergeant "Fang" Mulheisen of the Detroit P.D., the protagonist in Jon A. Jackson's excellent series of crime novels. Also appearing for the first time is Joe Service, the mob hit man who would be Mulheisen's long-running nemesis.

The book takes place during a brutally cold and snowy December. As it opens, a beautiful and wealthy young housewife is savagely murdered during the course of an apparent burglary. I mean, one minute you're lounging in the tub with your aromatic bath salts and five minutes later, you're stumbling into the neighbor's house with a knife sticking out of your back. It's just that kind of a day.

Det. Sergeant Mulheisen is soon on the job and is intrigued to learn that the woman's husband is Arthur Clippert, a former gridiron star known as The Clipper back in his glory days. More recently, the Clipper is the last man standing when the Fidelity Trust Insurance Company goes under in an investment scandal of gargantuan proportions. Twenty million dollars is missing in the fraud and Clippert is the only member of the firm who hasn't yet been indicted.

Mulheisen begins doggedly pursuing the case and turns up a sexy young friend of the murdered woman who has some very interesting tales to tell. Things proceed as they naturally will and before you know it, it's Christmas Day; one of the biggest blizzards in history has hit Detroit; the city is basically closed down, and a bunch of really nasty villains are in the wind.

One really shouldn't say more for giving away too much of the plot, but Mulheisen is a very intriguing protagonist, and I'm very much looking forward to re-reading this series and following his career all over again. This story, like all of the others, is very well-told; the characters are well-drawn, and there's enough suspense and wry humor to satisfy virtually any crime fiction fan.

If you somehow missed this series, you might well want to look for it. But you should understand that Mulheisen and Joe Service have a long and complicated relationship that evolves over the course of the series. You'll definitely want to start at the beginning and watch it unfold.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Harry Bosch Searches for the Black Box That Will Solve a 20-Year-Old Crime

During the course of the L.A. riots in 1992, Harry Bosch, then a young detective, was the first investigator on the scene of the murder of Anneke Jespersen. Jespersen, an attractive photo-journalist from Denmark, was found executed in a dark ally in the middle of the riot zone by national guardsmen who were attempting to provide crowd control. But at the height of the rioting, Harry had no opportunity to do anything more than make a cursory examination of the scene before he was ordered away to another homicide. In the wake of the riots, the Jespersen killing was assigned to a special task force and the case was never solved.

This is one of those cases that has always haunted Harry and now, twenty years later, the same gun that killed the young journalist is used in another murder. Bosch, who is now assigned to the department's Open-and-Unsolved Unit, jumps at the chance to reopen the Jespersen case and finally provide a very belated justice for the victim.

It will not be easy. The chain of evidence is almost hopelessly murky and would frustrate any detective less tenacious than Bosch. In addition to confronting an almost impossible case, Harry is also soon up against department bureaucrats who are interested only in posting statistics that make them look good, who do not share Harry's sense of the Mission of a homicide detective, and who for their own nefarious reasons, would rather this particular case not be solved.

Bosh will not be deterred. He makes an end run around his supervisors and doggedly pursues the case as he believes he should. He's desperately searching for the "Black Box," which will provide the solution to the case, but in the end, the term will become much more than a metaphor as Harry uncovers a particularly dark and disturbing series of crimes.

As he investigates the case, Harry continues to grapple with the complex challenges involved in raising a teenage daughter by himself. He also has a new woman in his life and this relationship is difficult as well, but watching him juggle all of these responsibilities is a treat, as always. All in all, this is an excellent entry in one of the best crime series in the history of the genre. Twenty-five years after first introducing Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly just continues to keep getting better and better.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Joe Gunther Chases the Elusive Tag Man

It's always fun to return to Vermont for a visit with Joe Gunther, the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and the rest of the cast that populates this long-running series. With the twenty-fourth volume in the series just appearing, this remains one of the best regional mystery series going.

As this book opens, Gunther is on personal leave, checking in occasionally with the rest of his team while he struggles to recover from a significant emotional blow that he suffered at the end of the preceding book. Joe is not a young man any more and through the years he's had more than his share of heartache. This latest tragedy has hit him particularly hard.

While he recovers, the city of Brattleboro is intrigued by the antics of a cat burglar who becomes known as the Tag Man. Adept at breaking and entering and at defeating the most sophisticated security systems, the Tag Man enters the homes of wealthy people and skillfully picks through their possessions, in the process deconstructing their lives for his own amusement. He apparently never takes anything of value, although at each stop he eats something out of the refrigerator. His calling card is a simple post-it note with the word "TAG" which he leaves at each scene.

To the press and to many other observers, it seems like simple fun and games. But it's not so funny to the people whose privacy is violated or to the authorities who are attempting without much success to put an end to that Tag Man's escapades. But then the Tag Man breaks into the home of a guy who rubs him the wrong way, and in this case he does walk away with something of great value to a very nasty man. Then, on his next outing, the Tag Man discovers something even more alarming, and suddenly his seemingly harmless hobby is no longer fun and games.

The Tag Man now has some very dangerous people after him, including the agents of the VBI. As the case heats up, Joe Gunther gradually emerges from his shell and ultimately takes the lead in the investigation. What follows is a dangerous game of cat and mouse that puts any number of people at risk, and as always, Archer Mayor spins a very engrossing tale. Readers who have not yet discovered this series would be well-advised to start with the earlier books, but old fans of the series will welcome this addition.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dave Brandstetter Is Feeling His Age

Set in the late 1980s, the eleventh and penultimate entry in Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter series, is one of the best.

Dave is now officially retired and is showing and feeling his age. He's now on Medicare; other old friends who have populated this series are either dying or retiring themselves, and Dave is feeling the weight of his changing world bearing down on him, both physically and emotionally. But then Vaughn Thomas, an employee of a local television station, is shot and killed while engaged in a paintball game at a place called the Combat Zone.

The police conclude that Thomas was accidentally killed by a stray shot fired by a hunter from outside the Combat Zone and close the books on the case. But the victim was a fellow employee of Dave's lover, Cecil Harris, who also works at Channel 3. Cecil doesn't buy the official explanation of the death and asks Dave to look into it. Cecil would prefer, of course, that Dave do so quietly and without exposing himself to any sort of risk. But as any reader of crime fiction would say to that, "Fat chance," and in very short order, Dave is in deep trouble and grave danger.

Dave quickly discovers that Vaughn Thomas was a troubled young man with disturbing views about life. In particular, he was a virulent anti-Semite and a racist who longed to be a soldier of fortune and who had spent time training with a militia group in a small rural community named Winter Creek. As he investigates the case, Dave stirs up a hornets' nest and anger some pretty violent and reprehensible people. Other murders will follow and the case takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns.

Fans of the series will welcome this addition (or did, of course, since it first appeared twenty-two years ago) and crime fiction fans unfamiliar with the series would almost certainly enjoy it.

The only reservation I have about the book is the fact that Dave's lover, Cecil, would care enough about Vaughn Thomas's death to ask Dave to get involved in the first place, let alone risk life and limb to solve the mystery. Cecil is a black man and it's hard to imagine that he and Thomas could possibly have been friends at all, given the murdered man's racial views. But Dave needs some way into the case and this is as good as any. This is another very satisfying book from Hansen.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Marty Slack Must Take a Very Long Walk

Marty Slack is a failed writer-turned television executive. His job description is a bit elusive, but seems mainly to involve convincing other people that he's somehow essential to the process. He drives the requisite Mercedes; he lives in a gated community with an attractive wife who's a former actress, and he scores good tables at all the important restaurants. He's very solicitous of those people who can advance his career, not so much so of those who can't.

Despite his apparent success, Marty is nagged by self-doubt; his marriage is in trouble, and then one morning his problems really begin in earnest. He's just leaving the dilapidated warehouse in a run-down section of L.A. where his network is filming the pilot of a new show, "Go to Heller," when the BIG ONE hits southern California.

Following the quake, Marty comes to lying under the wreckage of his Mercedes and all around him the city lies in ruins. Buildings have toppled; freeways have buckled; fires are raging out of control, and the bodies are scattered everywhere. Like many L.A. residents, Marty has prepared for this day and he has stowed some water and other basic survival gear in his trunk. Otherwise, he's up that well-known tributary absent a paddle.

Overwhelmed with thoughts of his wife, Beth, Marty knows that his only choice is to begin the long and very dangerous walk from the shattered downtown to his home. As is inevitable in a book like this, his walk will be a journey of self-discovery and will allow Marty ample opportunity to examine his life, the choices he has made, and perhaps to become a better person in the end.

Walking along with him is enormously entertaining. Goldberg, who, in addition to writing novels, has himself had a long and very successful career in television, has created in Marty a complex character who turns out to be a very appealing companion for a journey of this magnitude. The other characters are also very well drawn and their collective story provides moments of great terror, humor and grace under fire. All in all, this is a book that should appeal to large numbers of readers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

BCA Agent Virgil Flowers Rides a Mad River

Jimmy Sharp is the de facto leader of two other loser kids from rural Minnesota, his girlfriend, Becky Welsh and a guy named Tom McCall who's hanging around with them because he's attracted to Becky and apparently because he has nothing better to do.

While working as a waitress at a homecoming dance, Becky spies a diamond necklace worn by the wealthiest woman in a small neighboring town. Now, Jimmy leads his two confederates on a middle-of-the-night mission to break into the woman's house and force her to give up the diamonds. But no sooner are the three in the house than all hell breaks loose and Jimmy shoots someone before there's a chance to grab the diamonds or anything else of value.

The three flee the scene only to discover that Jimmy's junker car won't start. But they spot a man walking toward a car in the parking lot where they've stashed the getaway car. Jimmy runs up behind the man, shoots him, and steals his car, and just that quickly their crime spree has begun.

Virgil Flowers, the laid-back, long-haired, rock and roll-loving agent of the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is assigned to the case. (When asked why Minnesota has a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as opposed to a Bureau of Criminal Investigations like many other states, Virgil's creator, John Sandford, responds that while other states may investigate criminals, in Minnesota, they apprehend them.)

In his efforts to track the three killers and end their spree, Virgil almost immediately locks horns with the local sheriff and his deputies who seem hell-bent on executing the three kids on the spot, rather than bringing them in. Virgil is the son of a Presbyterian minister and has a moral code somewhat stronger than that of the sheriff. He also takes his job as a lawman seriously, and so he's determined to capture the suspects and see that they get a proper trial.

It turns out that here's a lot of places to hide out in rural Minnesota, and the three fugitives also catch their fair share of lucky breaks, which means that their killing spree is going to go on for a while, frustrating Virgil and everyone else involved. From the selfish standpoint of the reader, though, it's great to watch the story unfold and as always, it's enormous fun to watch Virgil in action.

Even in the midst of a story this grim, Sandford works in a lot of wry humor that does not seem out of place or inappropriate. As always, it's fun listening in to the conversations between Virgil and his boss, the legendary Lucas Davenport. We even get to meet Virgil's parents in this book and they seem like very nice people. All in all, it's a great ride and fans of this series will eagerly devour the book. It's sure to make new fans for Virgil as well.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Another Excellent Book from the Author of Winter's Bone

This is another excellent book from Daniel Woodrell, who returns with his first novel since Winter's Bone in 2006.

In 1928, the tiny town of West Table, Missouri, was shattered by the explosion of the Arbor Dance Hall. Forty-two of the town's residents were killed in the explosion and in the fire that followed; dozens of others were injured. But although many explanations for the tragedy were put forward, the guilty party or parties were never identified and prosecuted.

Some townspeople blamed local gypsies; others thought that St. Louis mobsters were responsible. Some wondered if the explosion was the work of the local minister who preached hell and damnation and who railed against the "sinners" who patronized the dance hall.

Alma Dunahew is the mother of three boys and works as a domestic in the house of the town's leading banker. Alma's sister, Ruby, is a carefree young woman who uses and disposes of men as the spirit moves her, until the night she too becomes a victim of the dance hall tragedy.

Alma has her own idea about what happened that night, and as the incident overwhelms her emotionally, she gradually loses touch with reality. She alienates members of her own family and many of the townspeople; she loses her job and has to cobble together a living as best she can.

Years later, in 1965, her grandson Alek is sent to spend the summer with her and over the course of the summer, Alma slowly tells him the story of the events that led to the explosion of the dance hall. It's a riveting tale, told mostly in flashbacks and it grabs the reader from the opening line.

"She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her," young Alek later recalls. The reader can only be enormously impressed by the skill with which Daniel Woodrell tells Alma's story.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Perry Mason Tackles the Case of the Caretaker's Cat

First published in 1935, this is a very early entry in the Perry Mason series, back in the day when there were still cuspidors in the courtroom and when both the police and the lawyers could still cut the kind of corners that would get them arrested, disbarred and jailed in this day and age.

Perry is fresh off an exhausting murder case when Charles Ashton, a cantankerous, frail, elderly caretaker comes into the office and insists on seeing him. Curious, Perry sees the man who wants him to defend his cat, Clinker. Ashton's employer has recently died in a fire, but the employer's will provides that the caretaker has a job for life, looking after the place.

The dead employer's grandchildren move into the home, but one of them hates the cat and insists that the caretaker get rid of it. Otherwise, the snotty grandkid says he will poison it. The will does not specify that the caretaker gets to keep the cat, who is, naturally, the caretaker's best friend in the world.

Of course Perry will take the case; of course, someone will soon be murdered; of course the case will be convoluted beyond all belief; of course Clinker the Cat will turn out to be the most important witness, and of course just when Perry's client seems headed for a certain date with the hangman, Perry will pull a rabbit out of the hat and save the day.

If you've ever read any of these books, you'd expect nothing less and you won't be disappointed. These earlier books are among my favorites of the eighty-five novels that would ultimately detail Perry's adventures. The characters and the formula were still new, and Perry had a lot more freedom to maneuver, with his skeleton keys and a lot of other devices that the law and the Bar Association prohibited him from using in later years. The Case of the Caretaker's Cat is a quick, fun read and an enjoyable trip back to the early days of pulp fiction crime.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Detective Wade Jackson Pursues a Very Personal Case

Detective Wade Jackson's ex-wife, Renee, is having a very bad day. She's fallen off the wagon and needs a shot of vodka to get her through her A.A. meeting. She knows her drinking is getting out of control again, which not good, because she has an attractive new boyfriend who believes that she's cleaned up and is now sober.

When confronted by the meeting leader, Renee decides to bit the bullet and check herself into rehab again, but on the verge of walking into the sanitarium, she is kidnapped by two men. Detective Jackson gets the bad news while on vacation in Hawaii with his new girlfriend and races back home to Eugene, Oregon to assist in the investigation which will be led by FBI agent, Carla River.

Jackson's primary concern, in addition to securing Renee's safe release, is the effect that the kidnapping will have on their daughter, Katie, who has already suffered more than her fair share of trauma.

Meanwhile a young woman who has been badly beaten is dropped off naked at the door of a hospital emergency room. She is unconscious and unable even to identify herself, let alone explain what might have happened to her. This investigation falls to Detective Lara Evans, who has very little to go on, especially when the victim lapses into a coma.

L.J. Sellers adroitly weaves the strands of these two stories together in a very engrossing novel that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Jackson is a very sympathetic protagonist and one feels for his daughter as she struggles with the prospect of losing her mother. Lara Evans also proves to be a tenacious and talented investigator, and it's fun watching her pursue the thin leads that she is able to develop. I confess that I was not all that knocked out by the FBI agent, River, but that's a very minor complaint and this is a book that should appeal to a lot of readers who like suspenseful police procedurals.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Another Compelling Novel from Martin Limon

Over the last few years, I've become a huge fan of Martin Limon's series featuring Army CID Investigators, George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. Like a lot of other good crime novels, the characters are engaging and the stories are entertaining and compelling. But what makes these books so special is the setting, which is unique in crime fiction.

Sueno and Bascom are with the 8th United States Army, stationed in Seoul, Korea, in the middle 1970s And in addition to being excellent thrillers, the books provide a very interesting glimpse into the Korea of that time, into the inner workings of the U.S. Army stationed there, and particularly into the complicated relationships between and among the American military, the Korean civilian population, and the Korean authorities--particularly the Korean police force. Limon, who retired after a twenty-year career in the Army, including ten years in Korea, clearly knows the territory and writes about it beautifully.

This is the seventh book in the series and one of the best. It opens when a Korean woman is viciously raped on a train in front of her small children. The people on the train identify the attacker as an American and, although the perpetrator was in civilian clothing, he is almost certainly a military man.

Sueno and Bascom are sent to meet the train and the passengers are all held on board until they arrive. Theoretically, it should have been impossible for the rapist to leave the train, but somehow he has managed to do so. The two detectives interview the other Americans on the train but glean precious few clues to lead them in the right direction.

Understandably, the Korean people are outraged by the attack and demand swift justice. But, as is often the case in these books, the biggest obstacle in the way of Sueno and Bascom's investigation is the Army itself. The last thing the Army wants is for a U.S. serviceman to be identified and convicted as the rapist. They'd rather massage the case into disappearing rather than face the bad publicity.

The Powers That Be, make it clear that they want Sueno and Bascom to conduct a cursory investigation and to help insure that they do, the Army assigns them to babysit a group of female country and western singers who are touring U.S. bases in Korea as part of a USO tour.

Sueno, who provides the brains for the team while Bascom provides the muscle, refuses to be deterred. He and Bascom are determined to provide justice for the victim, irrespective of what the consequences might be for the Army. Sueno also fears that if the rapist isn't caught, he could strike again.

Battling a clever criminal, a paucity of evidence and their own bureaucracy, the two investigators cover a great deal of South Korean ground in their pursuit of justice. As always, it's enormous fun to watch them work, and very educational as well. The book has a lot of twists and turns and a very satisfying climax. Mr. Kill should appeal to any reader who enjoys well-written crime fiction.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dave Brandstetter Tries to Retire...

Dave Brandstetter, the insurance claims investigator who is the protagonist in Joseph Hansen's excellent series, is feeling his age. He's been threatening to retire for a while now and at the opening of this book, he officially pulls the plug. Dave sends letters to all of the insurance companies for which he has been a claims investigator announcing that he is calling it quits, much to the delight and relief of his lover, Cecil.

Unhappily for Cecil but happily for the reader, Dave's retirement lasts all of about two pages until a sympathetic young public defender comes begging for his help. A prominent Vietnamese businessman has been murdered. The victim owned an aging marina and was in the process of selling it to developers. The marina was basically the last stop for a group of aging boaters who live there on their even more dilapidated boats. Once the marina is sold, they will be kicked out with nowhere to go.

The marina residents have been protesting the sale and the group's spokesman, a particularly unpleasant man, has been arrested and charged with the murder. The young woman representing him believes that his is innocent and lays a guilt trip on Dave, claiming that he is the only one who can save her client.

Dave agrees to look into the case, which takes him into the heart of L.A.'s tightly knit and very secretive Vietnamese community. (The book is set in the late 1980s, when many Vietnamese had just moved to California in the wake of the fall of Saigon.) Dave uncovers a number of secrets that powerful people would like to protect and inevitably puts himself in grave danger.

This is another well-told story with a very engaging and sympathetic protagonist, and it's especially interesting for the glimpse it provides into the world of the Vietnamese who were coming to the U.S. at this time. Although the book is now over a quarter of a century old, it does not feel dated, and the reader is immediately immersed in this very interesting world. Another winner from Joseph Hansen.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Taut New Thriller from Simon Wood

Englishman Terry Sheffield and American Sarah Morton conduct a trans-Atlantic relationship after meeting on a vacation in Costa Rica. While Terry is visiting in the U.S., they get married in Vegas, but then Terry has to return to the U.K. to complete the paperwork that will allow him to live and work in the U.S.

Six months after Terry and Sarah last saw each other on their honeymoon, the paperwork is completed, Terry has left his old life and his job in England and has landed a new job at a biotech firm in California. He lands in San Francisco and hurries off the plane, anxious to be reunited with Sarah and to begin their new life together.

Except that Sarah doesn't show up at the airport.

Terry calls her cell phone several times, but gets no response. Finally, he reluctantly takes a shuttle to their new home, but Sarah isn't there either. Terry reports her missing, but the local sheriff is skeptical and wonders if Sarah is simply a bride who's already decided she made a mistake and run off. In the alternative, is it possible that Sarah, an investigative reporter, is working on a story that has taken her away from home?

None of those explanations make any sense to Terry, especially since Sarah has not even returned his phone calls. Obviously, he is thinking the worst. While waiting for something to break, Terry has no choice but to report to work at Genavax, his new employer. But after being heavily courted by the company, he gets a distinctly cool reception. He'd asked Sarah to check out the firm before accepting their job offer and he soon learns that in the process, Sarah had antagonized some of the company honchos. At the moment, they are not very happy with Terry or his wife.

To make matters worse, in sifting through the papers Sarah left at home, Terry discovers that she was investigating the murders of several women who apparently died at the hands of the same serial killer. Is it possible that Sarah fallen into the hands of the killer as well?

This is a very taut, well-told tale with any number of unexpected twists and turns. Even people who read a lot of thrillers are certain to be surprised on several occasions. Terry Sheffield is a very sympathetic character and the reader inevitably gets caught up in his struggle to find his missing wife while at the same time he tries to adapt to a new job and to life in a new country. Simon Wood should attract a lot of new fans with this book.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Blue Deer Thaw--But Will It Come In Time?

Winter is the cruelest season in the tiny town of Blue Deer, Montana. The weather is awful; Seasonal Affective Disorder is crushing the spirits of more than a few of the town's citizens; people are freezing to death in the snow or in the icy rivers; vehicular accidents are up; suicides are spiking, and everyone can hardly wait for spring to arrive.

Jules Clement, the sheriff of Absaroka County, is as anxious as anyone for the winter to be over, because he is the one who has to deal with all above-mentioned problems. But at least he has found a diversion: He's spending some of his off-duty hours cataloging the art collection belonging to the eccentric, millionaire owner of the Sacajawea Hotel. This gives him a chance to utilize his skills as an archaeologist, which was his profession before he returned home to Blue Deer to run for sheriff.

The hotel renovation is proceeding slowly and not so surely, which is a major concern for Jules' best friends, Alice and Peter, who are finally getting married after living together for the last ten years. They are planning to hold a party, the likes of which Blue Deer has never seen, but it all depends on the hotel being finished and ready to go. That's an iffy proposition and a lot of people are on edge as a result.

In the middle of all of this, a woman dies, drunk, during a major snowstorm only a few yards from her home. It may be an accident, but Jules is suspicious of the woman's husband who's a major pain in the ass and who seems not to care at all about the fact that his wife has died. Then, two bodies are pulled from local rivers, suicides or maybe not.

In addition, there's all the usual crap that goes down in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and Jules is sick and tired of dealing with it all. He's also developing feelings for his beautiful deputy, Caroline, which would be inappropriate given their professional relationship. But, this is Blue Deer after all, not some large city where the department might have a pain-in-the-ass HR director, and so who knows what might happen?

Jules is threatening to hang up his spurs and walk away from it all, but in the meantime he has to deal with these various crises, not the least of which is the question of whether the upcoming marriage between Peter and Alice will actually come off. As was the case in the previous three books in this series, it's great fun watching Jules deal with all of this and following the adventures of the town's other eccentric characters.

Each time I review one of these books, I feel compelled to point out that these are not cozy mysteries, even though on the surface they may sound like it. These are books that will entertain large numbers of readers across the crime fiction spectrum, and a reader closing in on the end of this one can only hope that Jules Clement will not make good on his threat to ride off into the sunset.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Another Great Thriller from John Rector

John Rector has a gift for creating noir stories in which ordinary people find themselves in difficult circumstances and are tempted into making one bad choice which then inevitably backfires, leaving them spiraling down inexorably into catastrophe.

In this case, a former Marine named Matt Caine has survived a tour in Afghanistan only to return to a civilian life that seems to assault him at almost every turn. The economy sucks and he can't find a decent job that will enable him to support his wife and daughter with any sort of dignity. Then his wife is killed in a tragic accident and his daughter is badly injured and now needs special care.

Caine can't afford the treatment his daughter needs; he can't make his mortgage payments and he's in danger of losing his house, sad as it is. Desperate, he borrows money from loan sharks and can't pay that back either. And if all of that weren't bad enough, his in-laws believe that they would do a better job of raising Caine's daughter and are threatening legal action to take her away from him.

With his back up against the wall on almost every front, Caine is approached by an old friend, recently released from prison, who has a guaranteed, can't-miss scheme that will make them both rich and solve all of Matt's problems. Matt knows it's a stupid idea and initially rejects it. But in the end, seeing no alternative, he agrees to go along.

Naturally, the can't-miss scheme almost certainly will be a disaster, and the repercussions are more severe than Matt could have possibly imagined, leaving him literally in a fight for his life. To say anymore would be to say too much, but this is a taut, spare thriller that will keep you awake well into the night. Rector creates believable, sympathetic characters and he paces the story brilliantly, keeping the reader on edge virtually from the first page to the last.

John Rector just keeps getting better and better, and this book will appeal to large numbers of readers who like their crime fiction dark and nasty.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Another Engrossing Novel from Jim Fusilli

This is another very entertaining novel from Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop music critic of the Wall Street Journal. As the book opens, we meet a nameless man, or really a man of many names, who is on the road, drifting across the country and through the remnants of his shattered life. His wife has been brutally murdered; his daughter refuses to speak to him. His needs are simple and he only wants to be left alone. But in the tiny mining town of Jerome, Arizona, he buys a drink for an attractive woman and is soon entangled in a web of murder and intrigue.

Leaving Arizona, the drifter makes his way to Memphis, trailed by the jealous boyfriend of the woman he bedded in Jerome. Once in Memphis, he falls for the charms of another attractive woman and soon finds himself framed for murder.

The only way for the drifter to clear his name is to track down the killer himself, but as he attempts to do so, he is being tracked himself by a Wall Street power broker who is manipulating events from a distance. The mogul has plans of his own for the drifter and is not above toying with the life of the drifter's estranged daughter in order to achieve his objective.

This is a taut, well-written story with a number of memorable characters. The drifter, who uses several different names through the course of the book, is an especially appealing protagonist. It takes a few chapters for the various threads of the novel to converge, but Fusilli weaves them together into a very engrossing story. Readers who have enjoyed his earlier work will certainly want to find this one.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Another Very Entertaining Novel from Jamie Harrison

This is the third of Jamie Harrison's novels set in the small town of Blue Deer, Montana, and featuring archeologist-turned county sheriff, Jules Clement. In the first two books, The Edge Of The Crazies and Going Local, a prominent theme was the interaction between the long-time residents of Absaroka County and the usually wealthy newcomers who were moving into the county, attracted by its beauty and recreational opportunities.

In this case, however, Harrison sets that conflict aside to examine the relationships that exist and the way that crime can affect those relationships, in a tiny community where everyone knows virtually everyone else and in which they are often related to each other by blood or marriage.

By now, Harrison has firmly established the basic cast of characters that inhabit Blue Deer and orbit around Jules, the principal character. The relationships among them are tested when a fisherman discovers a portion of a skeleton on an island in a nearby river. Much of the upper torso, including the head, is missing. But some hair has been preserved as has the man's ornate belt buckle. In addition, there's the two bullets that Jules discovers on the ground under the man's abdomen.

It seems clear that the body was buried on the island years earlier and only exposed now as the river gradually eroded away a portion of the island. Jules, who was an archeologist before returning to Blue Deer, is thrilled at the prospect of using his scientific skills to investigate the man's death.

Jules ultimately determines that the man was somewhere in his twenties at the time of his death and that he was killed sometime in the late 1930s, and he sets the elderly ladies of the town's historical society on the task of identifying someone who went missing about that time and who was never heard from again. In doing so, though, he inadvertently opens a can of worms that a lot of people, including members of his own family might wish had been left unexamined.

In the meantime, of course, Jules has to deal with the usual run of crimes that occur in a small town like his, including drunken driving, domestic abuse and juvenile delinquency. There's also a rapist attacking women who live alone and who seems to be increasing the frequency of his attacks.

A lot of eccentric characters populate this book and it's as much fun watching Jules navigate the complexities of the relationships among them as it is to watch him at work attempting to solve all these crimes. But the reader should not expect this to be a nice cozy mystery. It isn't, and Jules is no Miss Marple. Underneath the humor, there's a hard edge to these books.

The cast of characters is large, and sometimes it feels like you might need a flow chart to keep straight them and the relationships involved. A reader needs to pay attention, but the attention is well-rewarded by a solid, entertaining read. This is a book that would appeal to a large number of readers, but as is often the case, someone new to the series might well want to start with the first book rather than the third.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Lucas Davenport Up Against an Art History Professor

The twelfth entry in John Sandford's acclaimed Prey series finds the world of the protagonist, Lucas Davenport, undergoing some major changes. His boss, Police Chief Rose Marie Roux, is about to lose her job since the mayor who appointed her is leaving office. This means, in turn, that Davenport will almost certainly lose his job as Assistant Chief as well.

At the same time, Lucas's girlfriend, Weather Karkinnen, has decided that it's time for them to make a baby. Weather has been alienated from Lucas for a long while because of an incident that occurred at the end of a previous book, but now she's back. This does not mean that Weather has decided that she would like to be engaged to Davenport again, but her biological clock is ticking and she does need someone to father the child...

In the midst of all this, a young woman's decomposing body is discovered partially buried on a rural hillside. She's been missing for about a year, and there is virtually no evidence suggesting who her killer might have been. As Davenport attempts to untangle the mystery, a rural Wisconsin marshal appears with a file he's been keeping on missing young women who have disappeared much like Davenport's victim. One of the missing women is the marshal's niece and Lucas suddenly realizes that he may have a serial killer on his hands.

He does, of course, and Lucas rallies his usual team and sends them into action. The killer is a professor of art history named James Qatar. (This gives nothing away; as is almost always in the case in these books, the reader meets the killer before Davenport even appears on the scene.) Qatar has some particularly sick fantasies that he is acting out and is capable of some pretty unsettling violence. But he's also unusually clever and lucky, and Davenport will have to draw upon all of his legendary skills if he's going to run Qatar to ground.

I enjoyed this book a lot. As always, the banter is great; it's fun to watch Weather mess with Lucas, both mentally and physically; the pace is good, and the payoff at the end is rewarding. If I have any complaint about the book (and it's a small one), it's that I didn't think that James Qatar was in the same league as many of the other antagonists in this series.

The quality of these books almost always depends on the quality of the villain as well as that of the hero, Davenport. Sandford is capable of creating some truly nasty and memorable adversaries for Lucas, and to my mind, Qatar is not among the better of them. But then, Sandford did give us a fantastic character in Clara Rinker, who appears in two of the Prey books, and so I'm perfectly happy to forgive him if he can't measure up to that level of perfection every time out of the gate. An easy four stars for this one.