Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dismas Hardy Faces His Most Difficult Legal Challenge Yet

This is another very good entry in what has become my favorite legal thriller series. Over the thirteen books that precede this one, author John Lescroart has created a great cast of characters, centered on attorney Dismas Hardy, Homicide Lieutenant Abe Glitsky, and their families and friends, many of whom are active in San Francisco's relatively close-knit legal community.

By now, all of these people have a history together and some of them are haunted by events that occurred in an earlier novel and that, in the story line, occurred six years earlier. The developments of that day remain closely guarded, but it's clear that there's a weak link in the chain: Moses McGuire, Dismas Hardy's brother-in-law, a gregarious saloon keeper and an alcoholic who has been on the wagon for the last six years. Now, though, McGuire seems in danger of falling off the wagon and perhaps revealing the secrets that could destroy several lives.

If Moses wasn't on the edge already, he's pushed very close to it when his beautiful twenty-three year-old daughter, Brittany, is assaulted and then raped by an amoral jerk named Rick Jessup. After the first assault, Moses confronts Jessup and beats him up. He also warns Jessup that if he ever attempts to see Brittany again, Moses will kill him.

Well, every time a character in a novel utters a threat of that nature, the reader knows exactly what's going to happen in the next chapter. Sure enough, shortly after the rape, Jessup is savagely beaten to death and the prime suspect is, of course, Moses McGuire.

Moses retains his brother-in-law to defend him, but the evidence against Moses seems overwhelming and as it piles up, Dismas, though a brilliant attorney, seems powerless to counteract it. Should Moses be convicted, it would certainly be bad news for him, but it might also mean disaster for any number of others.

This is a very well-told story with solid, believable characters that many readers have come to know practically as family. Lescroart keeps the reader on edge from the opening pages, and the courtroom scenes, as always in one of these novels, are riveting.

As this review would suggest, though, this would not be the place for a new reader to jump into this series for a variety of reasons. One would not want to cheat him- or herself from watching these characters interact through the earlier novels, and some of the things one would learn in this book would give away more than a few surprises from the earlier ones. Most important, those who have not read The First Law might find themselves confused because there are any number of references in this book to developments that took place in that one.

If you are a fan of legal thrillers and if, somehow, you have not yet discovered John Lescroart, do yourself a favor and start with Dead Irish, the first in the series. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Classic Hard-Boiled Novel from Elliott Chaze

Black Wings Has My Angel was originally published in 1953 as a Gold Medal mass-market paperback, one of the hundreds of pulpish novels aimed at male readers that filled paperback book racks in drugstores and other such places all over the country in the Fifties. For whatever reason, though, and unlike so many of the other of these books that can still be found in used bookstores, this one has become extremely scarce, which is a tragedy because it's a classic of the hard-boiled school. Kudos, then, to the folks at Stark House who have reprinted the book in a new edition, along with One Is a Lonely Number, by Bruce Elliott.

The story is narrated by a man who’s initially calling himself Tim Sunblade. We quickly learn that Tim has recently broken out of prison and that he has a plan to pull off a crime that will leave him on easy street for the rest of his life. In a fleabag motel, he sends out for a ten-dollar hooker. The woman who arrives with the bellboy calls herself Virginia and appears to be much too beautiful and skilled at her trade to be working this low-rent circuit.

Sunblade is entranced by the woman and so takes her along when he hits the road. He tells himself that he will dump her before too long, but he never gets around to doing so. She’s gotten under his skin and in a novel like this, we know that's going to mean a whole lot of trouble not too far down the road. "I wanted Virginia," he says. "She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that."
Virginia has secrets of her own and in a relationship like this, neither party can afford to trust the other very far. It’s bound to be a rocky ride, and more than a little bit dangerous, but Tim ultimately concludes that Virginia is just the partner he needs for the big job he intends to pull off.

Through the early part of the book, we watch the two travel cross country and make the necessary preparations for the crime they intend to commit. In the interim, they see a lot of the country, vividly described by Chaze, and they also have a lot of fairly rough sex, which is also fairly vividly described, at least for 1953.

In many respects, of course, this is a fairly familiar story, but in the hands of Elliott Chaze, it rises to something extraordinary. The writing is visceral and cuts close to the bone. As my friend, William Johnson, has suggested, this is a book that you feel rather than simply read.

My only reservation has to do with the crime itself. Without giving anything away, there's a development that took me out of the story just enough to make me give this four stars rather than five. But still, it's an excellent read and one that any fan of classic crime fiction should race out and discover for him or herself.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Harrowing Tale of Life Below the Line

This is a post-apocalyptic tale that will remind many readers of Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road. It's set in a not too far-distant future when, presumably because of climate change, the Gulf Coast from Florida across to Texas has become a soggy, desolate area of constant rain and storms where the sun never shines. Katrina-like hurricanes have repeatedly devastated the region to the point where rebuilding no longer makes any sense.

Neither does living there, and so the government has drawn a line ninety miles north of the coast, and has abandoned the region south of The Line. The people have been ordered to evacuate permanently and the government assumes no responsibility for those who ignore the order and stay behind. There are no services and there is no law there.

Inevitably, some choose to remain behind. One of them is a man named Cohen who is mourning the loss of his wife and their unborn child who were killed before the family could escape. Cohen is shackled by his memories to what's left of the house that he and his wife shared and, crazy as it seems, he remains determined to build the room addition he had planned for the baby, even though the lumber is too wet to build with, and even though the wind blows down every wall he manages to erect.

In the meantime, he must contend with the scavengers and others who have remained behind, living by the primitive law of the jungle and ready to claim ownership of anything and anyone, simply by the power of possession, at a time and in a place where legal ownership no longer means anything.

Inevitably, the fortunes turn against Cohen and he must finally head north. It's an almost impossible journey with virtually every danger one can imagine along the way. It would be tough enough for one man to make it alone, but then Cohen encounters a group of survivors, mostly women and children. Now he must decide whether to abandon them or try to take them with him, which will make the journey infinitely more difficult.

This is a beautifully written book, but at times it's awfully depressing. Smith describes the rain and cold so vividly that the reader feels almost compelled to stop every fifty pages or so to dry off or, even better, to jump under a hot shower and then dry off. The characters are very well drawn, and immediately pull you into their struggle. It's a story one is not likely to forget any time soon, and one which made this reader even more grateful for the fact that he lives in the dry and sunny northern Sonoran Desert and not along the Gulf Coast.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Two Cases Confound the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

First published in 1966, this is a solid entry in the 87th Precinct series. It's tighter and more focused than many of the books that preceded it and which, while very entertaining, contain a lot of extended commentaries about the weather, life in the city, and other such things that might charitably be described as "filler," seemingly designed to stretch out the stories.

In this book, two totally disconnected investigations occupy the time of the detectives of the 87th. The larger of the two cases involves a comedian named Stan Gifford who hosts one of the most successful variety shows on network television. Forty million people tune in to watch every week and thus eighty million eyes are focused on Gifford when he suddenly drops dead one night, three-quarters of the way through the show.

It quickly becomes apparent that Gifford was poisoned by a particularly fast-acting drug. The only problem is that there seems to have been no point during the show when anyone would have had a chance to give the victim the capsule in which the poison was contained. It's also difficult to figure out who might have wanted him dead. There's the possibility that Gifford might have committed suicide, but Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer will be conducting a lot of interviews, running a lot of tests, and scratching their heads for quite a while before they figure this one out.

In the parallel case, a stalker is pursuing an attractive young woman and he beats up a police patrolman who comes to her assistance. It's clear that the stalker poses a definite threat and Detective Bert Kling is assigned to track him down and to protect the woman in the interim. The only problem here (or one of several, actually) is that Kling and the victim have a history together, which is going to complicate matters considerably.

The author bounces back and forth between the two cases and, as always, provides a very entertaining evening's diversion for the reader. These books are more than a little dated now, especially given the fact that technology and investigative procedures have evolved so much in the last fifty years, but still, they're a lot of fun.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Classic Suspense Novel from Margaret Millar

This is a fairly intense psychological thriller, set in Canada, that was first published in 1957, and which seems a bit dated at this point.

As the book opens, four men are preparing to go on a weekend fishing trip. The four, who are best friends, are to meet at a rural lodge which is owned by the wealthiest of the four and which is to be their weekend headquarters. However, Ron Galloway, the owner of the lodge, clearly has other plans as he is packing to leave his house in town, and he never makes it out to the lodge.

The other three men, including Galloway's best friend, Harry Breem, can't imagine what might have happened to him. Harry is a pharmaceutical rep, and is one of those mild mannered guys without much strength of character--the kind of guy who never seems to take charge of his life, but who rather helplessly watches it roll over him.

Harry married a bit late in life, and his wife, Thelma, is more than a little quirky herself. Esther, Galloway's wife doesn't like her at all. Galloway insists that he doesn't care much for Thelma either and claims that he tolerates her simply because she's the wife of his best friend.

When Galloway disappears, without ever reaching the lodge, his friends and the police begin an intensive search and in the process, Galloway's friends discover things about him--and about themselves--that they might have been better off not knowing. It would be unfair to say much more than that about the plot, and this is another case in which the tease for the book probably gives away too much. Suffice it to say that the tension builds to a surprising climax.

This is not a crime novel in the traditional sense; certainly it's not the sort of book that Millar's husband, Ross Macdonald would have written. But it's interesting to watch the principal characters in the book react to the developments that unfold. Millar had a long and distinguished career herself and this is a book that will appeal to those who want a broad understanding of how the crime fiction genre has evolved over the years.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Big Sky Badger Games

This is the ninth and penultimate book in Jon A. Jackson's excellent series featuring Detroit homicide detective "Fang" Mulheisen. Oddly, though, Mulheisen does not appear at all in this book, save for being mentioned by name a couple of times. Rather, the main protagonist in this entry is Mulheisen's long-time nemesis, Joe Service.

Service first appeared in the series as a troubleshooter/consultant who was employed by the mob to deal with problems that the mobsters couldn't deal with in-house. In the course of his activities in Detroit, Service and "Mul" crossed paths on a number of occasions.

At one point, Mulheisen finally caught up with Service and arrested him. At the time, though, Service had been badly injured and so was being held in custody in a hospital. For reasons far too complicated to explain here, Joe attracted the attention of a group of rogue government figures who were employed by the CIA and other such agencies. Upset by the way the bureaucracy often frustrated their efforts to achieve justice, these agents formed a group called the Lucani, and began administering "justice" to various miscreants as they saw fit. The Lucani determined that Joe might be useful to them for a specific mission and so helped him escape custody with the provision that he would "consult" with them on a case.

Now the Lucani have lost track of one of their members, a shadowy figure known only as Franko. When last seen, Franko was undercover in Serbia, investigating a group of drug smugglers. But then the conflict in that part of the world heated up and Frank disappeared. The Lucani have intelligence suggesting that Franko managed to escape and make his way to Butte, Montana, which has a small Serbian population. They very much want to talk to him and so commission Service and his lover, Helen Sedlacek, who also has ties to the Serbian community, to go to Montana and track Franko down.

Joe and Helen had lived briefly in the Butte area, and, like any sensible person, Joe is anxious to get back to Montana. The hunt for Franko seems a good excuse, even though it will be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

What follows is a very entertaining adventure populated by a lot of colorful characters. There are a number of twists and turns, and Joe and Helen have no idea who they can really trust outside of each other. It turns out that several other people are also desperately seeking Franko, including a nasty Serbian war criminal nicknamed The Badger. When all of these people wind up in Montana at the same time, the result is a great climax with lots of action, wry humor and playful sex. This is a book will surely appeal to a wide variety of readers, even if it is a "Fang" Mulheisen book sans Mulheisen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Into the Thicket with Joe R. Lansdale

By turns violent and hilarious, The Thicket is Joe R. Lansdale in peak form.

The book is set in East Texas, early in the Twentieth century, just as the oil boom is reaching that area. Sadly, a smallpox epidemic has swept through the region, and sixteen-year-old Jack Parker and his fourteen-year-old sister, Lula have lost their parents to the disease.

In the company of their grandfather, the children are leaving Texas to live with a relative in Kansas. But the journey has barely begun when a group of savage bank-robbing outlaws kills the grandfather and abducts Lula. Jack runs to the law, but the sheriff has been murdered; the deputy has been frightened into resigning, and so Jack his left to his own devices if he is to rescue his sister.

He teams up with a group of accomplices that only the mind of Joe R. Lansdale could conceive. They include a bounty-hunting midget, an alcoholic grave digger who keeps a feral pig as a pet, and Jimmie Sue, a prostitute who winds up sweet on young Jack. The villains they are pursuing are as dark and amoral as anyone could imagine, and Jack is constantly reminded by his new-found friends that even if they do recover Lula, she will doubtless have been very ill-used in the meantime. To say that the author has created a number of memorable characters here would be the understatement of the year.

The manhunt takes a number of twists and turns, and the story, which is vaguely reminiscent of True Grit, rolls along without the slightest boring moment to a smashing climax. From start to finish, it's a true Lansdale epic that will appeal to any of his fans, old or new.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Engrossing Tale from the Early Years of the "War on Drugs"

This is an excellent thriller set in the early days of the "War on Drugs." It's the Bicentennial year of 1976, and the cocaine epidemic that would soon sweep over the U.S. is looming just over the horizon. For the moment, at least, the drug business here is still a relatively laid-back industry, dominated by relatively small-timers most of whom are growing and selling pot.

The narrator, who remains unnamed for a good long time, is a Vietnam vet. He and his partner, Colt Freeman, have a small marijuana patch in northern California and have been making a comfortable living for several years. But they now face increased scrutiny from the law and worse, violent elements, tied to the Columbian drug cartels, are moving into the area, attempting to take over the marijuana business by force. Colt and his partner see the handwriting on the wall and are anxious to get in one last crop before closing up shop. But that will prove to be much easier said than done.

Far to the south, on the Mexican/California border, a couple of bent border patrol cops are in league with a Mexican drug kingpin who's been moving illegal aliens across the border. But the drug lord is now moving into cocaine, and he's anxious to begin shipping large amounts into the U.S. along with the illegals.

The drug lord, Miguel Zamora, is the local "King" of a small rural area that he dominates like a feudal lord. He holds his subjects in complete subservience and in partnership with corrupt Mexican government officials, he has opened business with the Columbians to move white powder through Mexico and into the U.S.

But Zamora has become a little too enamored of his own product and is becoming increasingly unstable. This poses problems for his partners, for his "subjects" and for his aristocratic wife who, in effect, has become his hostage.

Much of the book moves along parallel tracks, moving back and forth between the developments in northern California and those along the border and in Mexico, until both threads of the story converge in a brilliant climax. This is a great and often violent story with lots of interesting and well-drawn characters, and it's virtually guaranteed to hold your interest from the first page to the very last.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lucas Davenport Fights Crime in the Frozen North Country

The fourteenth installment in John Sandford's Prey series finds that some major changes have transformed the life of the series protagonist, former Minneapolis cop Lucas Davenport. Lucas is now married and the father of an infant son. And, in the wake of a political shakeup, Davenport's long-time boss, police chief Rose Marie Roux is now the head of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Rose Marie has taken Lucas along with her and he is now head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. (When asked recently why the agency was named the Bureau Criminal Apprehension rather than Bureau of Criminal Investigations, as is the case in many other states, Sandford responded that it's because the Bureau doesn't investigate criminals, it catches them.

The change allows Lucas to get out of the Minneapolis metro area, where he has mostly been confined until now, and conduct investigations anywhere in the state. He is basically in charge of handling politically sensitive investigations and he reports, through Rose Marie, directly to the governor. This case begins when Rose Marie calls Lucas early one cold winter morning to tell him that two people have been found hanged in the woods way up in an isolated region in the northern part of the state. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the victims is black, and some people are already tossing around the word "lynching."

A ghastly crime has been committed and a public relations disaster could be in the offing. The governor and Rose Marie order Lucas to take charge of the investigation and to defuse the situation before it gets completely out of hand. Lucas rounds up his most trusted sidekick, Del Capslock, who has accompanied him to the BCA, and the two head off into the frozen tundra.

The crime allows Lucas and Del to interact with a lot of colorful rural characters, including a bumbling sheriff with little or no actual law enforcement experience. The most interesting of the locals is twelve-year-old Letty West, a muskrat trapper who discovered the bodies while running her trap lines. Letty lives with her alcoholic mother out on the edge of town, basically in the middle of nowhere. She's tough beyond her years, extremely self-reliant and perhaps the smartest and most observant person in town. Certainly she's the most precocious, as Lucas quickly discovers.

Lucas also quickly discovers that there's a lot more to this situation than may have first met the eye. A number of curious residents inhabit the town, including a group of women known as the "nuns", who have taken over a former church and are ostensibly engaged in various charitable activities. Exactly what all of these people are doing, collected together in this town, becomes a critically important issue.

It also becomes apparent that the two victims of the hangings--certainly not the "lynchings" as Lucas keeps reminding people--were hardly stellar citizens. They were apparently involved in at least some minor, if not major, criminal activity, and this complicates the search for their killer.

As the book progresses, the situation becomes even more entangled; additional crimes are committed, and Lucas thus faces one of the more challenging cases of his career. As always, it's great fun watching him work, and the interactions between Lucas, Del, the locals, the media and the other law enforcement officials who are drawn to the scene are very entertaining. Ultimately, the action builds to a great climax, and the end result is another solid entry in a very fine series.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A New Jimmy Veeder Fiasco

Anthony Award winner Johnny Shaw returns to the Imperial Valley (“as far south and as far east as you could go in California”), for another Jimmy Veeder Fiasco. Shaw introduced Jimmy in 2010's Dove Season, and it's great to have him back.

The Imperial Valley is hard desert country full of tough, resilient people. It's a difficult place in which to try to eke out a living, but having returned home and taken over the family farm, Jimmy is determined to make a go of it, to provide for his family and to be as good a father as he can for his young son.

The biggest stumbling block in the path of Jimmy's road to solid citizenship is his long-time best friend, Bobby Maves. Bobby is recently single again, partying harder then ever, and all too often calling Jimmy in the middle of the night, luring him out of his home and away from his responsibilities, to go on another "Mavescapade." These adventures always involve a great deal of drinking, more than the occasional bar fight, and assorted general mischief such as "borrowing" a police car for a joyride. The hilarious opening chapter, which details the development of one such evening, is worth the price of the book all by itself.

As the story opens, Jimmy and Bobby are roused from a night of debauchery by the news that Bobby's sixteen-year-old daughter, Julie, has gone missing. Bobby barely knows the girl; he and Julie's mother, Becky, had a brief fling, and Bobby didn't know until a good deal later that he even had a daughter. Now that Julie is missing, though, Becky reaches out to Bobby for help and Bobby, in turn, reaches out to his best friend.

Bobby's idea of looking for his daughter seems to consist of creating the maximum amount of mayhem and seeing what shakes out. Julie has fallen in with a very bad crowd, and Bobby's basic plan is to beat the crap out of everyone she hung with until he finds out where she is. Jimmy tries to moderate Bobby's violent streak and take a more sensible approach to the search, but that ain't gonna happen.

Throughout the book, Jimmy is torn between his responsibilities to his own family and those he owes to Bobby, who has been his best friend since grade school, and a major theme of the novel involves the ties and the sometimes competing obligations that a person has to his family and to his friends. Being the best friend of a man like Bobby Maves is no picnic at times, and Jimmy is forced to make some impossibly hard choices.

As the search for Julie continues, both the violence and the hilarity escalate. There are some pretty serious villains in this book and some truly disturbing developments. But Shaw has a gift for walking a very fine line between humor and the genuinely darker side of life, and the result is a story that is often hilariously funny while at the same time extremely scary and often very touching.

In addition to being the author of three great novels, Shaw is also the editor of Blood & Tacos and the creator of another fantastic character, Chingon, "The World's Deadliest Mexican." It's clear that he knows the Imperial Valley and its people very well and that he has a deep affection for both. He's also a very talented writer who has created here a violent, bloody, drunken, rollicking adventure. Jimmy Veeder is a great character, and while I don't think I'd like to have Bobby Maves for a best friend myself, I'm eagerly looking forward to Jimmy's next fiasco. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Parable for Our Times

Brilliance is a captivating and thought-provoking thriller that serves at one level as a parable about the course of events in the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The premise of the plot is that beginning roughly in 1980, once percent of the babies born in the world were "Brilliants," highly-gifted geniuses with intellectual and other powers that dwarfed those of "Normals." The pattern was first recognized by a study in 1986, and since then, the world has watched with awe the accomplishments of the Brilliants. The most highly gifted among them--the Tier Ones--had incredible abilities. One of them, Erik Epstein, single-handedly proved to be so adept at anticipating the stock market that the government was force to close down the New York Stock Exchange after Epstein compiled a fortune of $300 billion, destroying the investments of countless others.

Inevitably many Normals feared that they were rapidly being shunted into obsolescence and that soon they would be irrelevant, perhaps even turned into the slaves of the Brilliants. Consequently some began to demand that the government should take steps to prevent the potential damage that the Brilliants might pose to the society and to the larger population.

Accordingly, the American government created a new agency, the Department of Analysis and Response (the DAR), to gauge the potential threat posed by the Brilliants and to react to it. The Brilliants insisted that they were American citizens and that the government had no right to curtail their freedoms simply because some Normals felt threatened by their gifts. Many Normals supported those arguments and the vast majority of Brilliants remained solid citizens, simply trying to live their lives without threatening anyone.

As the Brilliants began to dominate more and more aspects of the society though, even including the NFL, those who feared them grew louder and the government began limiting the freedom of the Brilliants. The Brilliants lobbied and marched for the maintenance of their rights, but a handful of them were ready to take more violent action in support of their rights.

For a number of years, the DAR limped along, underfunded and unable to get much traction in its campaign against the Brilliants. There were threats of a congressional investigation into the actions of the DAR, but then a Brilliant terrorist named John Smith led a brazen attack against a Washington, D.C. restaurant, assassinating a U.S. Senator and mercilessly gunning down 73 other men, women and children.

Surveillance video of the attack went viral, and the American public, stirred by the media, demanded revenge. Overnight, the DAR's budget was ramped up and its powers were greatly expanded, even to the point of giving some of its agents a license to kill. All children were now to be tested at the age of eight, and those testing as Tier One Brilliants would be removed from their families and sent to special "academies" in an effort to shape their gifts in a way that would not threaten the Normals.

Inevitably, many Brilliants felt threatened by these actions and acted to protect their rights as American citizens. A special unit of the DAR, the Equitable Response Unit, was commissioned to hunt down those perceived to be the greatest threats and who were branded as terrorists. Whether these "terrorists" were captured dead or alive seemed to be of little consequence.

One such agent is Nick Cooper. He's an ex-soldier, divorced with two small children. Cooper is himself a Brilliant, with a special talent for tracking down terrorists. He is appalled by their actions and, even though he supports traditional rights and liberties for the Brilliants, he believes that the extremists among them must be eliminated. The Holy Grail for Cooper and the rest of the Equitable Response Unit would be to kill John Smith, the mastermind of the attack in Washington.

After another terrorist attack, Cooper gets his chance to go after Smith. But at the same time, he discovers, much to his dismay, that his four-year-old daughter is almost certainly a Tier One Brilliant. This means that she will be taken from the family and sent to an academy--a thought that devastates Cooper who has seen the work of these academies up close and despises them.

Nick Cooper is now a man at war with himself, at once determined to kill the elusive John Smith while at the same time protecting his family. The result is a wild ride that leads to a shocking climax. Marcus Sakey has written a brilliant thriller both because it tells a terrifically engrossing story, and also because it raises some very troubling questions about the way in which a democratic society reacts to a perceived threat. The book should appeal to large numbers of readers.