Sunday, July 28, 2013

Another Entertaing Entry in John Sandford's "Prey" Series

Minnesota native Sharon Olson has blossomed into supermodel Alie'e Maison, and she now returns to Minneapolis for a very sexy photo shoot. Following a hard day's work, she spends a hard night partying at the home of a wealthy socialite. Alie'e shoots a little heroin, enjoys some playful sex with two other women, and then suddenly turns up choked to death. When the cops arrive, they discover yet another woman who has been killed and stuffed into a closet. Things are going to get very dicey in a big hurry, which means it's time to call out Assistant Chief Lucas Davenport, the biggest gun in the Minneapolis PD.

As Lucas and his usual team members begin the investigation, there's precious little in the way of evidence and no real suspects. Perhaps eighty people passed through the party where the women were murdered, but none of them stands out as a potential killer. It's possible that a rejected lover killed Maison; perhaps a dope deal went wrong, but there's no way for Lucas to get a handle on it.

But then another person closely tied to Alie'e is murdered, and others will follow. It's possible that one killer is responsible for all of the crimes, but Lucas also realizes that two killers may be involved, working from different motives. The pressure to solve the case is immense. Because of Maison's notoriety as a superstar model, the national press and a variety of other vultures are circling the scene, demanding immediate results. But what evidence there is leads in several directions, presenting Davenport with one of the thorniest cases he's ever had to resolve.

Davenport's personal life is almost as complicated as his professional one. He's still estranged from Weather Karkinnen who had once planned to marry him and for whom he still has strong feelings. Then, out of nowhere, a chance meeting with an old college lover further complicates matters. If that weren't enough, an attractive and interesting woman involved in the case also demonstrates an interest.

If there is a tiny complaint to be made about this book, it would revolve about Davenport's juggling all of these romantic entanglements while in the midst of a complicated investigation where the bodies are falling left and right. That aside, this is another very good entry in an excellent series. As always, Sandford manages to mix just the right amount of humor, much of it politically incorrect, into a very suspenseful tale. It's always fun to spend time in the company of Lucas and his regular crew, and there are a number of other very interesting characters as well.

It's hard to imagine any fan of the series who would not enjoy this book. Lots of other readers would like it as well, but they would be best advised to start with the first in the series, Rules Of Prey, and work their way forward to this one. They won't regret doing so.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Another Enjoyable Trip to Blue Deer, Montana

This is the second of Jamie Harrison's quirky mysteries set in the small fictional town of Blue Deer, which is nestled up against the Crazy Mountains in southwestern Montana. All the principal characters from the first book, The Edge Of The Crazies, appear again, including the county's laid-back sheriff, Jules Clements, who is the main protagonist.

It's now the middle of summer, and Jules and his fellow townspeople are gearing up for the annual Wrangle, a rodeo that draws large numbers of tourists into the small community for a party that, even under the best of circumstances, can be a headache for the tiny sheriff's department.

Things begin to go downhill in a big way when someone reports a tent floating in a reservoir near Blue Deer. Jules heads out to investigate, anticipating a nice, lazy afternoon away from the office. But when it turns out that there are two bodies floating inside the tent, Jules' lazy afternoon quickly melts away.

The victims are a local environmental attorney, Otto Scobey, and his young girlfriend who had been camping near the reservoir. It quickly becomes apparent that their deaths were no accident; someone in a very large truck ran over the tent and then pushed it and its occupants into the water.

The dead lawyer had been a principal in the development of a major new resort complex. Everyone insists that Otto was well liked, that he had no problems, and that he was totally cool with the fact that his ex-wife, Sylvia, also a partner in the development, was now in a relationship with film director Hugh Lesy, the third major partner.

As Jules investigates, however, he senses problems below the surface of the relationship among the resort's developers. While he attempts to tease out the truth of the relationship and find the killer, he's also forced to deal with a wide variety of other eccentric characters who have made their way to Blue Deer, including a sexy blonde who quickly has Jules in her sights. Jules' problems will only multiply several times over when the Wrangle commences and the fun really begins.

Jamie Harrison has woven here another entertaining story set against the background of the new West where, in places like Blue Deer, Hollywood celebrities and other newcomers are mixing with long-time natives, not always harmoniously. Jules Clement would remind no one of Matt Dillon or of any other Old West lawman and it's great fun to get reacquainted with him and the other characters who populated the first book in this series. Anyone who enjoyed The Edge of the Crazies will certainly want to find Going Local.

Monday, July 22, 2013

An Excellent Irish Police Procedural

This is an excellent police procedural set in contemporary Ireland where the high-flying Irish economy has collapsed into a heap, leaving a trail of destruction and desperation in its wake.

As the book opens, Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey is caught in an act of perjury when he claims that he did not see an act of possible police brutality that occurred in a bar where he was having a drink. The consequences of his action remain to be determined. Meanwhile, a corrupt banker who was caught up in the financial collapse is shot to death in his expensive home and Tidey is assigned to the case. It's very quickly going to take him in a direction that his superiors would rather not go, leaving Tidey in yet another bind.

As Tidey wrestles with these problems, a minor criminal named Vincent Naylor is released from prison where he has been serving a sentence for assault. Naylor is a bit older and considerably wiser as a result of his stint in prison and he emerges with a new sense of discipline. With his older brother, he plots an audacious and clever crime, and he is determined to ignore any distraction that might have earlier compromised his chances of success.

At the same time, an elderly nun is wrestling with her conscience over actions she took years earlier in the service of the church. One afternoon, she sees something out her window that troubles her and she calls Bob Tidey, whom she knows from an earlier incident. This sets into motion a string of developments that will have enormous consequences for significant numbers of people.

It would be unfair to say anything beyond that, but Gene Kerrigan has created a great cast of very believable characters and inserted them into an especially intriguing plot. Additionally, his commentary about the current social and economic climate in Ireland seems dead-on. This is a book that won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers Association for Best Crime Novel of 2012 and it should appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The First Harry Hole Novel Is Finally Here

This is the book that introduced Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Crime Squad--or it least it would have been had not several of the later Harry Hole novels reached the U.S. ahead of it. The wait is finally over, though, and The Bat is now at last available in a U.S. edition.

It seems a bit odd that the first book in a series featuring a Norwegian police inspector would be set in Australia. Nonetheless, that's the case. A young Norwegian woman who had been something of a minor television celebrity back home, has been raped and murdered in Sydney. Harry is sent to Australia to act as a liasion with the Sydney police in the investigation. His instructions are clear: he is to be an observer and he is not to actually meddle in the investigation. The Sydney police clearly expect that Harry will spend most of his time seeing the sights and will be content to go home and report after a few days at most.

Even if you've never read another Harry Hole novel, if you've read any crime fiction at all, you know that's never going to happen. From practically the moment he arrives in Australia, Harry develops his own ideas about the case and is anything but shy about pursuing them.

The principal merit of this book is that the reader gets to meet a younger Harry Hole and to learn a bit more about his background. The case itself is intriguing and Harry meets a number of interesting characters along the way. If there is a problem with the book it rests with the fact that Nesbo spends quite a bit of time as a tour guide and cultural anthropologist, exploring the land, its mysteries and its peoples, and sometimes the travelogue gets in the way of the story itself.

Actually, The Bat seems more like one of those books that you would find much later in a series, at a time when the author has begun to run out of ideas and so sends his character off to an exotic land to mix things up a bit--and, not incidentally, to give the author a great vacation that he can deduct as a business expense.

Still, though it's not up to the standards of some of Nesbo's later Harry Hole novels, this is a fun story with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. And for those of us who are compulsive completists when it comes to our crime fiction, it gives us the chance to finally start reading this series in order. The problem remaining is that the second book in the series, The Cockroaches will not be released in the U.S. until December. At that point, all of the Harry Hole novels will finally be available here and all will be right with the world.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dave Brandstetter Is Back on the Job

When Adam Streeter, a famous foreign correspondent, is found shot to death in his study, it appears to be an open and shut case. The cops rule it a suicide and Streeter's blind seventeen-year-old daughter, Chrissie, who was in the house at the time, reluctantly agrees.

The Banner Insurance Company, which had insured Streeter's life, sends ace death-claims investigator Dave Brandstetter to check into the case, although why they do so is not exactly clear. If Streeter's death stands as a suicide, Banner will not have to pay the death claim, so one would think that they would not want to risk rocking the boat. But, of course, if Banner didn't send Dave to check things out, there wouldn't be any book.

Brandstetter is charmed by the daughter, Chrissie, who does not want to believe that her father killed himself, even though he apparently did. But within minutes of arriving on the scene, Dave begins to see problems with the police theory: There are a couple of broken flower pots that would suggest that an intruder was on the scene; the neighbors closest to the Streeter condo and who had an excellent view of the study in which Streeter died, have suddenly and uncharacteristically decided to take a vacation. Most important, all of the notes and other materials related to Adam Streeter's current project seem to be missing.

Streeter was investigating the turbulent situation in Los Inocentes, a Central American country where rebels are challenging the government. The rebels claim that the government is using death squads to target its opponents; the government claims that the rebels are communists, and the U.S. government is covertly attempting to support the government. (This book was published in 1986 at a time when there was a great deal of controversy about the Regan administration's efforts to combat alleged communist elements in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.)

Dave demonstrates early on that Streeter was actually murdered and the cops arrest a suspect. Banner Insurance declares the case closed since it's now clear that they will have to pay up. But Dave won't give it up; he thinks the cops are still on the wrong track. This angers Dave's lover, Cecil, who is upset becase Dave insists on putting himself in grave danger, rather than walking away from the case.

"Cecil reached for Dave, but Dave stepped back. 'Dave, why are you doing this? You're not getting paid. Lovejoy called you off the case. You want the truth? You're compulsive. You can't leave it alone. You're like Adam Streeter, you know that? You live for danger.'

'I live for justice," Dave said.'"

This exchange summarizes the approach that will guide Dave Brandstetter through all of the books that constitute this series. Like all of the others, this one is very well-written, with sharply defined characters and a carefully drawn setting. The plot in this one is a bit far-fetched and the climax requires a huge suspension of disbelief, which is why I'm giving the book three stars instead of four. But still, it's a very good read. and those readers who have enjoyed other books in the Brandstetter series will certainly want to find this one.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Another Visit to Starvation Lake

This is the third novel in Brian Gruley's Starvation Lake trilogy, following Starvation Lake and The Hanging Tree. The main protagonist is Gus Carpenter who was once a hot-shot reporter in Detroit, but who has now returned home to tiny Starvation Lake in northern Michigan to edit the town's twice-weekly newspaper.

Gus, like the paper, has seen better days. As a youth he was a major hockey star--a goalie who led the local team to the state championship game only to lose the game when he allowed the winning goal in a moment of inattention. Gus has never forgotten it; he's really never gotten over it, and there are any number of townspeople who won't let the memory die either. The championship game was Starvation Lake's moment in the sun and the team, and the town, fell one goal short of greatness.

The town, like Gus and its newspaper, has fallen on hard times. The local economy is in the dumpster and efforts to revive the town as a tourist destination have fallen woefully short. If that weren't bad enough, the town is now under threat from the "Bingo Night Burglar" who is breaking into homes while the occupants are away playing bingo. Oddly, the burglar doesn't ever seem to steal anything, but naturally the town's residents are nervous and more than a little angry with the local sheriff who seems incapable of bringing this crime spree to an end.

At the same time, a group of fundamentalist Christians have moved into town and are excavating land that they have recently purchased for reasons that no one can figure out. In addition, some mysterious purchaser is suddenly buying up land at the north end of the lake for which the town is named, hiding behind the cover of a law firm.

Things take a nasty turn when someone, presumably the Bingo Night Burglar, kills an elderly woman who was the best friend of Gus Carpenter's mother and who was also the mother of Gus's ex-girlfriend, Darlene. Gus's mother, Bea, was in the house at the time of the killing, but she is suffering from advancing dementia and doesn't remember much about what happened that night.

Gus puts on his investigative reporter's hat and attempts to sort out the multiple mysteries that are plaguing Starvation Lake, with the assistance of his new ace reporter, Luke Whistler. Before long, he's up to his neck in mysterious developments both ancient and current, and before things are settled out, some of these mysteries will hit way too close to home.

This is another very engaging book from a very good writer. Gruley is best at setting the scene and describing the nature of life in this small struggling town. He's also very good at developing the characters who populate Starvation Lake. If I have any complaint about the book, it would be that the plot seems unneccessarily convoluted and left me shaking my head a bit by the time I got to the climax. For that reason, I'd probably rate this book a 3.5 or a 3.75 if I had the chance, but not having the opportunity, I'm rounding it up to a 4 because of its obvious strengths.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Prequel to "Savages"

One of my favorite books of the last several years was Savages, by the incomparable Don Winslow. It was hip, cool, very funny and enormously engrossing. The trio at the heart of the book included three early-twenty-something Southern Californians: Ben and Chon, two life-long friends-turned-drug producers who grew the best weed available, and O, the enormously beautiful and appealing woman who loved both of them. The book was not only a great read, it was a compelling meditation on the nature of friendship, family and love.

Winslow now returns with The Kings of Cool, a prequel to Savages that shows how Ben, Chon and O came to know each other and how they grew into the people they would ultimately become. It is at least as good, if not better, than Savages.

As the book opens, Chon, who is still a Navy Seal, is headed back to Afghanistan. Ben has just received a visit from a mysterious man who wants to cut in on the profitable dope business that Ben and Chon have established. Ben, a pacifist at heart, chooses to deal with this problem in his own way and does not to tell Chon about this threat to their livelihood. He figures that Chon has enough on his plate as it is. Meanwhile, O's mother PAQU (Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe) is on O's case, insisting that she either get a job or go back to school.

From that point, 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.

I'm not a huge fan of the movie that was made from Savages and I sincerely hope that people who were not all that thrilled with the movie will still give the book a chance;it's a great read, infinitely better than the film, and I can't imagine that anyone who thrilled to the book will not want to read The Kings of Cool as well.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Enter the Deaf Man

This is the twelfth book in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series and the first in which a character known as the Deaf Man appears. The Deaf Man is a criminal mastermind who will appear in several subsequent books and who has a special gift for tormenting Steve Carella and the other detectives of the 87th.

The Heckler begins when a businessman reports that he has become the victim of an apparent practical joker who phones him repeatedly, warning him to vacate the loft where he runs a clothing business or he will be killed. Later, someone begins shipping the clothier paper supplies, furniture and other such things that he didn't order, causing chaos in the man's day-to-day affairs.

The detectives have no luck trying to determine who might be tormenting the businessman or why. Then other businessmen begin calling and reporting similar problems. Then, in a seemingly unrelated development, an elderly man is found murdered and left naked, save for his shoes, in a city park. Carella finds a burned uniform of some sort that may have belonged to the dead man, but who was the man and who would have killed him, stripped him and then burned his uniform?

The detectives work as best they can, trying to puzzle out solutions both to the killing and to the harassment that is being perpetrated upon the complaining businessmen. In the meantime, we watch the Deaf Man and his confederates planning a very carefully calculated crime. All of it will lead to an explosive climax and the reader will be treated to a very entertaining ride along the way. This is one of the better books in the series and fans of the 87th Precinct will not want to miss it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Murder and Mayhem 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.

The Edge of the Crazies, a wonderfully titled book, opens when someone takes a couple of shots at a screenwriter named George Blackwater. George is wounded but survives, and as Jules begins to investigage the shooting, it appears that there are any number of potential suspects, including George's wife, Mona.

Jules is unlike any other sheriff that the reader has likely encountered. But so, for that matter, are many of the characters in this book, many of whom are jumping in and out of bed with each other with little regard for the potential consequences. Watching the interactions among the characters is a great deal of fun and there seems little urgency in solving any of the crimes that occur as the story proceeds.

Before long, someone is murdered and it appears that the crimes now unsettling Blue Deer might relate back to a mysterious death that occurred years earlier. Jules clearly has his work cut out for him as he must negotiate his way through a minefield of quirky characters and grudges both ancient and more recent. Harrison clearly has a knack for creating unique characters and for understanding the dynamics of a small town in the midst of change. Virtually any fan of crime fiction should enjoy this book.