Friday, May 30, 2014

The Deaf Man Returns to Bedevil the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

In Fuzz, a master criminal nicknamed the Deaf Man returns to bedevil the detectives of the 87th Precinct. As is often the case in this series, the weather plays an important part in the book. It's the middle of winter; the snow is deep, and the temperatures are freezing. It's not fit weather for man or beast, but the criminals are not taking the winter off and so neither can the police.

In one particularly aggravating series of crimes, someone is pouring gasoline on sleeping homeless men and then setting them on fire. Detective Steve Carella goes under cover in order to catch the killers, but this means he's going to spend a lot of time freezing in alleys and doorways, playing bait for the attackers. It won't be any fun at all, and it's going to be a particularly frustrating assignment.

While Carella is thus occupied, someone calls the 87th Precinct and demands that he be paid $5,000 or he will shoot the Parks Commissioner. Almost everyone, including the Parks Commissioner, assumes the call is a prank. Sadly it isn't, and after the Parks Commissioner is shot and killed, the caller, who turns out to be the old nemesis of the 87th, the Deaf Man, steps up his game and puts the city in a panic.

All in all, this is a very entertaining read that should appeal to the legions of fans who follow this series.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lucas Davenort is Waist-Deep in Political Corruption--and Murder

A tight race for a U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota is headed toward a nail-biter of a finish when a campaign aide accidentally discovers child porn on the office computer of the Republican incumbent, Porter Smalls. Smalls is obviously toast, and it seems certain that the discovery will lead to a victory by the beautiful, wealthy and determined Democratic challenger whose name is Taryn Grant.

The governor is a Democrat who normally would welcome a victory by his party in the Senate race. But he's known the Republican incumbent for years, and while he might abhor the guy's politics, he doesn't believe that he would be watching kiddie porn. And, more to the point, he doesn't believe that the guy could possibly be dumb enough to get caught doing it.

He suspects a frame-up and so calls in Lucas Davenport, head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and asks him to look into it. As Davenport begins to investigate, a Democratic political fixer, known to play the occasional dirty trick and who had access to Small's computer, turns up missing and presumed dead.

If, in fact, someone did plant the porn on Smalls' computer, the most logical suspects would be in the Grant campaign, but when Davenport interviews the candidate, he discovers that she is more than a little tightly wound. She also has some very curious characters on her security staff. As the investigation deepens, Lucas will call on a number of characters from other Sandford novels to help out, including that F***ing Virgil Flowers, the computer whiz, Kidd, and Kidd's extremely hot wife, Lauren.

The case develops in ways that are unusually frustrating for Davenport and winds up concluding in a way that is more than a little unsettling for a variety of reasons. This is the twenty-third book in this series and, inevitably in a series this long, some of the entries are bound to be a bit stronger than others. Given that the Davenport character is always consistently entertaining, the books in the Prey series tend to succeed basically on the strength of the villains.

Sandford has created some of the truly great villains in modern crime fiction, but I found this one to be a bit less compelling than some of his others and so enjoyed the book a bit less than others in the series. If pressed, I'd probably give this 3.8 stars for that reason. I certainly enjoyed the book, but when I'm lying on my deathbed, reaching out for one last great Lucas Davenport novel to read before shuffling off into the Great Beyond, it probably will not be this one.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Amy Dunne Is Missing...

This is a very good psychological thriller that begins on the fifth wedding anniversary of Nick and Amy Dunne. The couple has had some difficult times of late, and after living a charmed life in New York City, they have both recently lost their jobs and have moved back to Nick's childhood hometown in Missouri. In an effort to support them, Nick as borrowed the last of the money in Amy's trust fund to buy a bar that he's running with his sister, Go.

On the morning of the anniversary, Nick is at the bar when he receives a phone call from a neighbor; his front door is standing open and the cat has wandered out onto the porch. Nick races home to discover that Amy is missing and that furniture has been knocked over in the living room, apparently as the result of a struggle. The police arrive and begin to investigate, but what has happened is far from clear. The only thing certain is that Amy is gone, leaving behind the clues that will lead Nick to his anniversary present, something that has been her tradition on each of their anniversaries.

The story unfolds, alternating Nick's story in the wake of Amy's disappearance with diary entries that Amy wrote describing her life and the state of their marriage. Nick behaves in a manner that seems curious to many and before long, he will emerge as the prime suspect in the case. In the world of the 24/7 news cycle, the case becomes fodder for cable TV "journalists," and hovering over it all, are Amy's truly weird parents who have made a living writing children's books featuring a character named "Amazing Amy," loosely based on their daughter.

It's a gripping story, and the reader is whipped back and forth between Nick and the voice that emerges from Amy's diary until you don't know what to believe or whom to sympathize with. But the story will keep you on the edge of your seat right up to the shattering conclusion.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Classic Noir Novel Brought Back to Life by Stark House Press

This is a classic noir novel, originally published in 1952, that had long been virtually forgotten. Happily, it has been resurrected by the folks at Stark House Press and republished in a new double edition that also contains the excellent Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze.

The protagonist is Larry Camonille, who has just led a prison break in which ten cons have escaped from the state pen in Joliet, Illinois. Camonille makes his way to Chicago where his girlfriend is supposed to be waiting with the money that Camonille has entrusted to her. Inevitably, of course, he arrives in the Windy City only to find that both the girlfriend and the money are long gone.

Camonille is not in the best of health and has only one lung. He is determined to make his way to Mexico, where he believes that the weather will be better for his health. But he's broke in Chicago, and one by one, the cons he escaped with are making the mistakes that allow them to be recaptured and sent back to prison.

Camonille is determined to avoid that fate and so robs a dope house to get some traveling money. He loses that fairly quickly to a sadistic railroad detective and finds himself broke again and on the road outside a small town in Ohio. His luck seems to turn for the better when a woman named Vera picks him up in her Cadillac and gives him a ride to a roadhouse outside of town. Vera is a widow who has some miles on her, but she knows the manager of the roadhouse and convinces him to give Camonille a job as a dishwasher.

In the usual fashion of a book like this, Camonille's situation gets trickier as things move along, and before you know it, the plot involves crooked lawyers, bickering spouses and a young teenage girl who is strangely attracted to Camonille, just as is his patroness, the lush and randy Vera. It all makes for a very combustible mix that includes more than a little kinky sex, which is fairly vividly described for 1952. The poor hapless Camonille is determined to escape the lawmen who are still hunting for him and to make his way to Mexico, but all sorts of webs are tightening around him and the odds of his making it don't look good.

All fans of noir fiction should be grateful to Stark House for reprinting this book and it's companion. They are both great reads and true classics of the genre.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Introducing Applied Probablilities Analyst, Timothy Waverly

Timothy Waverly's business card describes him as an "Applied Probabilities Analyst," which is Waverly's idea of a little joke. Timothy is an ex-con out of Michigan who now makes his living in south Florida as a professional gambler, trimming the doctors, dentists and others who search out a little high-stakes action while on their Florida vacations.

Waverly did a stretch for accidentally killing his ex-wife's lawyer. The ex-wife is now remarried and living in Traverse City, Michigan, with the young son that Waverly never had a chance to know. Restless, and anxious to get out of the hot Florida sun for a while, Waverly decides to take a little vacation to Traverse City, which is a small resort community. He has no well-formulated plans; maybe he'll attempt to see his son and maybe he won't.

Meanwhile, in Traverse City, an amazingly stupid college kid named Clay Clemmons, has attempted to screw over some major drug dealers by ripping off $500,000 worth of their cocaine. Not surprisingly, the drug dealers want it back, and Clemmons, who is quickly in over his head and who has all the backbone of a chocolate ├ęclair, calls his sister in Chicago and pleads with her to come up and somehow bail him out of this mess.

The sister, Holly, is a stunner, and she should have sense enough to tell her brother to deal with his own messes. But she's been cleaning up after her little half-brother for so long now that it seems like second nature. So she pops into her Porsche and tools on up to Traverse City. By the time she gets there, however, things have gone from bad to worse. The drug kingpin has dispatched two particularly nasty creeps to deal with Clay, and he is now in hiding. Neither the creeps nor his sister can find him.

The creeps can't find Clay, but they do find Holly and attack her in a parking lot in an effort to make her give up her brother. Enter Timothy Waverly at exactly the opportune moment. He rescues Holly and in short order is caught up in the middle of this whole mess.

What follows is an entertaining story that will remind some readers of an Elmore Leonard novel. The characters are quirky and interesting; the plot moves along at just the right pace, and Timothy Waverly is a very engaging protagonist. The book should appeal to any reader who enjoys Elmore Leonard and is looking for something similar.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mickey Haller Again for the defense

This is another excellent Mickey Haller courtroom drama from Michael Connelly. As the book opens, Mickey is called to the L.A. jail to represent a pimp who is accused of killing one of the women he "represents" in a dispute over money. The pimp had booked a date for the woman at an expensive hotel. But the woman calls the pimp and tells him that there's no one in the room and that she has come home empty-handed.

The pimp admits going to her apartment and arguing with her, insisting that she was simply holding out the money on him. He even admits to putting his hands around the victim's throat, but insists that she was alive and well when he left her.

The cops believe they have an open-and-shut case, and when Mickey is called in, things are not looking good. They get even more complicated when it turns out that the victim was a former client of Mickey's. Mickey always had something of a soft spot for the woman, whom he knew by another name. He believed, mistakenly, that she had taken the stake Mickey gave her, left the life and started anew. He's embarrassed to discover that he's been played.

Mickey takes the case, and no reader will be surprised to learn that it quickly becomes even more complicated than it initially appeared on the surface. Even more surprisingly, Mickey's client may actually be innocent. Proving that, however, will not be all that easy and along the way, Mickey makes some very powerful enemies and may put himself and those around him in grave danger.

As always in a book by Michael Connelly, there's plenty of action, great dialogue and tension that builds to the proverbial shattering climax. The courtroom scenes are especially gripping and confirm Connelly's position as a major player in the legal thriller genre.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Raylan Givens on the Job in Kentucky

I've long been a huge fan of the books of Elmore Leonard, and I've also really enjoyed the television series, "Justified," which is based on Leonard's excellent short story, "Fire in the Hole." Given that, I was really anxious to finally have the chance to pull Raylan off my giant stack of Books-to-Read and have at it. I'm sorry to say, though, that the book did not live up to my (perhaps exaggerated) expectations of it.

Reading the book, it felt to me like Leonard might have decided to sit down over a long weekend and sketch out a few plot ideas that the writers could then use in the TV show or, less charitably, that he might have just decided to whip out a quick book and capitalize on the popularity of the show.

While I've not read a lot of his westerns, I've read every one of Leonard's crime novels and, strange at it might seem to say, this book did not feel to me like a real Elmore Leonard novel. Most of the characters who populate the book are drawn from the television show, but they seem thin, without the usual depth of Leonard's characters. Instead of seeming genuinely quirky, the way so many of Leonard's great characters do, these characters often feel like they're straining for quirky but falling short of liftoff. And perhaps most disappointing of all, the dialogue, which has always been one of the great entertaining strengths of an EL novel, here seems labored and not nearly as sharp as usual.

The book itself involves several subplots, all taking place in Kentucky and revolving around U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. In one, two dope-dealing Crowe brothers step up their game and hook up with a transplant nurse to steal human kidneys and sell them off. Another involves the efforts of a murderous female mining executive to clear the path for the destruction of a mountain allegedly full of coal, in spite of the environmental and human consequences of the action. In yet another, Raylan crosses paths with an attractive young college student who is attempting to make her fortune by playing high stakes poker.

Inevitably all of the women are bright and sexy and anxious to get it on with Raylan. Raylan, in turn, is quick on the draw and the body count in the book is fairly high. Upon completing the book, Leonard told the people involved with the TV show to strip out of it anything that they might like to use, and a couple of these plot lines did ultimately turn up in the show.

All of this is not to say that this is a bad book; in fact, it's a perfectly pleasant way to while away an evening, and if anyone else's name had been on the cover, one might put it down thinking it was a pretty damn good read. But when the name on the cover is Elmore Leonard, his long-time readers might have legitimately expected something a bit better. Readers who have not yet discovered Leonard's work might be better advised to begin with some of his earlier books like Get Shorty, or even Pronto, the book that first introduced Marshall Raylan Givens.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Farewell to Detroit's Detective Sergeant Mulheisen

This is the tenth and final book in Jon A. Jackson's series featuring Detroit homicide detective "Fang" Mulheisen. A bit player in the first book in the series was a mob contractor named Joe Service, and as the series progressed, Service gradually assumed an increasing role, even to the point of having one book in the series that was exclusively his own.

Through most of the series, Mulheisen was in pursuit of Service, though usually as an adjunct of some other investigation he was conducting at the time. He finally managed to arrest him, only to have Service escape with the assistance of a mysterious federal agent named Colonel Tucker. In the last couple of books, Mulheisen and Service reached a rapprochement of sorts, and in this last book, they are allied together in pursuit of the bad guys.

As the book opens, Mulheisen's elderly mother is badly injured in an explosion when terrorists attack a courthouse where she and some fellow bird-watchers are attempting to stop some developers from despoiling a local bird habitat. It's unclear whether the bombers were home-grown, right-wing terrorists, Islamic extremists, environmental activists, or maybe members of a drug cartel attempting to facilitate the escape of one of its members who was at the courthouse that day. Mulheisen, who is still only in his fifties, retires from the force to attend to his mother.

Meanwhile, Joe Service and his long-time lover, Helen Sedlaceck, are happily retired in an isolated spot in Montana when Colonel Tucker tracks Service down to tell him that a drug kingpin that Service thought he had killed in an earlier book, is in fact alive and attempting to hunt Service down in revenge. The drug kingpin has ties to groups in the Detroit area that may have been involved in the attack on the courthouse.

In consequence, Service, Mulheisen, Tucker and his agents all wind up in rural Michigan attempting to track down the bombers and, in Joe's case, to eliminate the threat to his life. At the center of all the activity is a backwoods militia group, led by a shadowy figure named "Imp" Luck. All of these people have their own objectives, sometimes working together and at others, working at cross-purposes. The plot gets a bit confusing in some places with all the intrigues piling up on one another, but, like the other books in the series, it's a entertaining tale with plenty of action and wry humor.

It's impossible to imagine what Jon A.Jackson might have done with these characters, given where he left them at the end of this book, and perhaps this was a good place to draw the curtain on them. But overall, this is a great series and, as I've suggested in an earlier review, Jackson is a writer who perhaps got lost a bit in the shadow cast by his fellow Detroit author Elmore Leonard. But that's a shame, because Jackson is an excellent writer who doubtless deserved to have found a larger audience than he did.

Monday, May 5, 2014

John Rain Returns -- And Just in the Nick of Time

After a four-year absence, assassin John Rain returns in The Detachment. Of late, Rain has been living quietly under the radar in Tokyo, visiting his favorite jazz clubs, coffee shops and whiskey bars, but he remains ever-vigilant and one night, while training at his local daidojo, he notices two Americans who seem strangely out of place. When he sees them a second time, he knows that he has fallen into someone's crosshairs.

That someone turns out to be Col Scott Horton, head of a secret military group of covert killers, who convinces Rain to meet with him in L.A. Once there, Horton lays out a chilling scheme in which a group of plotters is planning a coup against the United States government. Their plan is to make a series of "false flag" attacks against targets in the U.S. which will be blamed on Islamic extremists. In the wake of these attacks, the president will suspend the Constitution and rule the country under special executive powers, dispensing with such inconvenient obstacles such as the Congress, courts and voters. The assumption is that, scared witless by the attacks, the American people will happily surrender what little remains of their liberties for the sake of their safety.

Horton wants Rain to lead a team that will assassinate the three principal coup plotters and thus head off the threat. There's a big payday involved for Rain and the chance to do some good for the American people at the same time. Naturally, this won't be easy, which is why Horton needs someone like Rain. Rain accepts the challenge and calls in his old friend, Dox, to fill out the team which will also include two of Horton's hand-picked men.

What follows is a great thrill ride that is guaranteed to keep any reader awake well into the night and perhaps for a good long time thereafter. In addition to being an excellent thriller, this is a very scary and thought-provoking book as well. Given the way so many Americans were willing to compromise their fundamental freedoms in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it does not seem at all beyond the realm of possibility that a scheme like this might succeed. Eisler has done a lot of research on rendition, secret prisons, government torture of suspected terrorists, and other such unpleasant topics, and has woven this into the story to create a very plausible scenario in which a plot like this might be nothing more than the next logical step, given the developments that have occurred in the U.S. over the last decade.

Inevitably, the book contains a lot of twists and turns and enough action to satisfy any fan of the genre. There's a great deal of tension among the members of Rain's team and it's never really clear who can and cannot be trusted, both within and outside of the team. Eisler, who was once himself a covert op for the CIA, clearly knows his stuff. He's an excellent writer and has a gift for spinning a story that keeps you riveted and turning the pages. Fans of the series will be very happy to see Rain return and those who haven't yet made his acquaintance will likely be scurrying to find the earlier books in the series after reading this one.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Matthew Scudder, in Danger and in a Moral Quandry

This is the second book in Lawrence Block's excellent series featuring Matthew Scudder. It doesn't pack quite the emotional wallop of the first, The Sins of the Fathers, but it's a very good read nonetheless.

For those who don't know, Matthew Scudder is an ex cop who lives in New York City and who works as an unlicensed P.I. He left the force under tragic circumstances and has since developed a drinking problem which is here noticeably worse than it was in the first book. His "office" is in a saloon, where he passes most days and evenings drinking coffee laced with bourbon.

One afternoon an old acquaintance, "Spinner" Jablon, finds Matt in Armstrong's, the saloon where Matt spends much of his time. Spinner is a minor criminal that Matt knows from his days on the force. Jablon has apparently gotten himself into some sort of trouble and believes that his life may be in danger. He asks Matt to hold an envelope for him and to open it only in the event that something happens to him. Matt presses for an explanation, but Jablon tells him that he'll know what to do if and when he has to open the envelope.

Well, obviously, we all know what's going to happen next. Poor Spinner winds up floating in the East River, and when Matt opens the envelope, he discovers that Jablon had been blackmailing three fairly wealthy people. Jablon assumes that one of them will have been responsible for his death and leaves three thousand dollars in the envelope along with the blackmail materials. He wants Matt to discover who killed him and bring him or her to justice.

Matt could just stuff the three grand in his pocket and forget about it since his client is no longer around to complain about it. But Matt isn't that kind of guy, and Spinner knew it. Matt feels morally obligated to follow through and so develops a plan for smoking out the killer. But naturally, the best laid plans sometimes have unintended consequences. As a result, Matt finds himself in the middle of a moral quandary and discovers that his own life may now be on the line.

This book is now nearly forty years old, but the story is still as gripping as if it were written yesterday. One gets so caught up in it that you're only marginally aware of the fact that it takes place in an era when there were no cell phones or computers and when investigative techniques were significantly more primitive than they are today. Given that this is one of the most celebrated series in all of crime fiction, it's hard to imagine that there's any fan of the genre who has not yet discovered it, but if that should somehow be the case, do yourself a very great favor and look for it.