Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fat Ollie Weeks Joins the Bulls of the 87th Precinct

On a hot August afternoon, a man comes into the 87th Precinct demanding fast action on the investigation into a fire that destroyed his warehouse along with $500,000 worth of small carved wooden animals that were housed there. He insists that he has to get the insurance claim settled immediately so that he can afford to pay for the next shipment of animals that is already on the way from Germany.

About half of the precinct's detectives are on vacation, given that these are the dog days of summer, but Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes and the other detectives who are on duty promise to do what they can. The investigation turns out to be more complicated than your average arson case, though, especially when people start turning up dead. In addition to arsonists and killers, there are hookers and urban redevelopers running loose in the city and Carella and company have to get all these things sorted out before they can appease the guy who wants his insurance claim settled.

All in all, this is one of the more intriguing entries in this long-running series and this book is critical to the series because it introduces the character of Fat Ollie Weeks who will appear prominently in several books from here on out. Weeks is a miserable pig of a human being who does an awful impression of W. C. Fields, but he has great skills as a detective and so the other detectives of the 87th and the reader as well, will just have to grin and bear it. Another fun read from one of the masters.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Trouble Comes to Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania

A veteran of the Iraq war and a recent widower, Henry Farrell is a natural born loner who prefers his own company to that of anyone else. He's left rural Wyoming and taken a job as a township policeman in rural Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania. It's a sparsely settled area with a population that's mostly been in place for generations and that has more than a few deeply buried secrets. It's also an area in transition. The natural gas boom has come to northeastern Pennsylvania; the frackers are moving in and dividing the population into those who want to sell the rights to the gas below their property and those who simply want to be left alone.

In this midst of all this, a body is discovered on the property of an elderly man. It's winter, and there's no telling how long the young male victim has been there. The investigation is led by the county sheriff, but in a county and a township with very little money, the investigation is severely hampered by the lack of manpower and other resources.

Henry Farrell throws himself into the investigation full bore, at grave risk to his own health and personal safety. Then, when another body turns up, things are thoroughly confused. Are the two cases related, or is this simply a coincidence? Although Henry is a relative newcomer, he attempts to sort through the secrets and the tangled relationships of the community in an effort to uncover the truth.

Tom Bouman, expertly sets the stage and immerses the reader in the community of Wild Thyme, and that's the principal strength of the book. Tramping through the frozen woods with Henry Farrell, the reader gets to know the population and often feels that he's shivering right alongside Henry. If there's a problem, it lies in the fact that Henry is not a very interesting guy, and this reader, at least didn't really enjoy spending all that much time with him.

There's a lot of tromping through the frozen, desolate landscape in this book while the action proceeds at a very stately pace, and one wishes that Henry were a bit more engaging and that the plot moved a little more swiftly. This book is being billed as an entry in the new "country noir" genre, but it doesn't really fit into the noir mold and it's not quite on a par with books by writers like Daniel Woodrell.

Bouman is a talented writer who excels at creating the world in which this novel is set. It's a good book, but would have been better had the lead character and the story itself measured up to the setting.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lucas Davenport, Again on the Hunt

In any long-running series, even one as good as this one surely is, inevitably some books have to be better and some weaker than others, and although I certainly enjoyed reading Invisible Prey, it's not among the best books in John Sandford's Prey series.

In every one of the books, at least thus far, the lead character, Lucas Davenport, and his supporting cast have always been consistently excellent--witty, intelligent, and always a lot of fun to hang out with, even if only vicariously. Given that, these books always tend to rise or fall depending on the quality of the villains involved, and through the years, Sandford has created some truly unique, creepy and compelling bad guys. Unhappily, that's not the case here. The crimes at the heart of the book are fairly pedestrian and the villains are sort of ho-hum, not nearly as capable of engaging the reader or of scaring the living bejeesus out of him or her as is often the case with a Sandford antagonist.

As the book opens, an elderly and very wealthy woman in St. Paul is murdered in her home, along with her maid. The house is chock full of paintings, antiques and other such things, some of which are very valuable and some of which are not. The problem is that there's so much of the stuff that no one knows for sure whether anything valuable is missing. It's possible that some junkie broke in and killed the women, simply looking to score enough loot to finance his next fix, especially since there's a half-way house, filled with offenders, right across the street. Or, of course, there could be something more involved.

As the chief investigator of the Minnesota BCA, Lucas Davenport would not normally be involved in an investigation of this type, but the wealthy victim was politically connected and so the governor puts Lucas on the job. At the same time, Lucas, along with that f***ing Virgil Flowers is involved in the investigation of a state official who may have been having hot, kinky sex with an underage girl. This is a very sensitive investigation politically, and it's a lot more interesting than the murder case.

The plot of the book is somewhat convoluted and involves antiques, quilts, frauds perpetrated against museums, and other such things. The villains are revealed early on and part of the story is told from their point of view. But they aren't all that interesting and they're not all that much fun to watch. The book flags a bit whenever the scene switches away from Davenport to them. Certainly these people don't hold a candle to Clara Rinker or to most of the other Sandford villains.

Again, that's certainly not to say that this is a bad book; it isn't. And even a mediocre book by John Sandford is a lot more fun to read than a lot of other books that one might pick up. I enjoyed the book, but it certainly won't rank among my favorites in the series.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Gillian Flynn Explores Some Very Dark Places

Gillian Flynn has a talent for creating singularly unappealing characters and such is the case in this, her second novel.

Twenty-five years ago, a farm mother and two of her three daughters were slaughtered in what became known as the "Satan Sacrifice" of Kinnakee, Kansas. A third daughter, Libby, who was seven at the time, managed to get out of the house and escape from the killer by hiding in the nearby woods. Libby's brother Ben, a troubled boy of seventeen, was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison, largely on the basis of Libby's testimony.

Through the twenty-five years that followed, Libby grew into an extremely unattractive loner who alienates virtually everyone with whom she has contact. She has refused all contact with her imprisoned brother and throws his letters away unopened. She has supported herself by living off the donations that people made to support her in the wake of the killings. But now the money is running out and Libby can't stand the prospect of getting a real job.

To generate some income, she now accepts an invitation from a group known as the Kill Club. This is a secret group whose members are obsessed with famous crimes and particularly the victims of those crimes. The group pays Libby for the opportunity to talk to her and suggests that they will also pay to buy "souvenirs" relating to the crime.

The group has spent a great deal of time studying the murders of her mother and sisters, and Libby is stunned to learn that most members in the group believe that her brother is innocent of the crime. Some female members of the group have been corresponding with Ben and want Libby to recant her testimony and join the effort to free Ben.

What follows is a torturous journey as Libby delves deeper into the case and gradually begins to relive the fateful hours of that awful night. The story is told from Libby's perspective and, in flashback, from that of her mother and brother.

At one level, it's a very compelling story, but my main problem with the book is that I could not find a single character with whom I could sympathize. Libby, in particular, is such an unappealing protagonist that I simply couldn't care what happened to her and didn't even particularly care that she had survived the night that her mother and sisters had been killed. In consequence, I really didn't enjoy the book as much as I otherwise would have.

My other problem with the book is that (view spoiler). Gillian Flynn is an excellent writer, and I expect to read more of her work. My only hope is that next time around, unlike the case in this book or in Gone Girl, she'll give me a character I can really root for.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Patrick Hoffman Debuts with an Excellent Noir Novel

This is a very dark debut novel featuring druggies, loan sharks, Russian gangsters, bank robbers and crooked cops, all fighting desperately for turf on the very mean streets of contemporary San Francisco.

Emily Rosario is a lost soul who relies on booze and drugs to make it from one day to the next. One evening, she meets a Russian man in a seedy bar called the Kum Bak Club. After a few drinks, she accompanies him to a hotel for more booze and drugs, but once there, the Russian and his accomplices keep her drugged to the point of incoherence, paying her two hundred dollars a day for her help in what they insist will be an identity theft scheme.

Emily is so totally blitzed that she goes along for the ride, thinking of what she might do with her promised end of the money. Then one day she's loaded into a white van and sent into a bank, only to discover that she's been conned into what is really a bank robbery.

At that point, as it usually does in a noir novel like this, the excrement hits the proverbial fan and Emily finds herself on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the Russians and the cops all of whom are searching for her desperately. In particular, a troubled cop who's deeply in debt named Leo Elias, sees a chance to grab the money from the bank for himself and solve all of his financial problems.

What results is a wild ride where anything can happen to anyone and everyone. Patrick Hoffman has created a number of interesting characters and placed them into motion against a very well-rendered depiction of San Francisco. There are any number of twists and turns that the reader will not see coming and in the end, it's a very satisfying book that fits brilliantly into the noir tradition.

Perry Mason Takes a Case on Behalf of a Stuttering Bishop

This is an early entry from the Perry Mason series, first published in 1936, When Perry could still drive anywhere in Los Angeles and get there in about twenty minutes and when one still had no problems finding a cab in L.A.

A stuttering bishop from Australia appears in Perry's office one afternoon, hinting at an injustice that began twenty-two years earlier when a millionaire, angry because his son had married against his wishes, conspires to make the son's new bride a fugitive from justice, fleeing from a trumped-up manslaughter charge. Now the son has died and it turns out that before divorcing his wife on Dad's orders, the wife got pregnant and had a daughter. After the son dies, Grandad takes the twenty-year-old daughter into his home.

The bishop can't or won't give Perry the full story and says Perry will have to puzzle it out for himself and see that justice is served. Perry is very suspicious because he can't imagine a stutterer rising to the rank of a bishop. But Mason loves a good mystery above all else and so dives in with both feet. Inevitably, someone's going to die and the case will take all sorts of complicated twists and turns.

Reading this book, one is again particularly impressed with the abilities of Mason's detective, Paul Drake, and the size of the agency that Drake runs. Paul is always there when Perry calls; he's never out of the office, and he never has to tell Perry that he's busy with another case and will get back to him next week. And he's virtually never short of manpower.

The second the bishop leaves the office, Perry is on the horn to Paul, wanting every last scrap of information about the bishop and several other people. And of course he wants it immediately. This would be virtually impossible, even in the age of the Internet, but it poses no problem for Paul. Perry also instructs Drake to track down the bishop and have him followed. Perry also wants Paul to follow everyone who contacts the bishop. Again, this appears to be no problem and Paul will dispatch several of the thirty or forty operatives who are apparently hanging around the office and ready to go to work.

My father loved these books and they were the first "adult" novels I ever read as a child, thus I've always had a soft spot in my heart for them. It's always fun to pull one off the shelf and turn back the clock to the days of my youth. As implausible as Perry's cases always are, they never fail to entertain me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Gripping and Thought-Provoking Book from Cormac McCarthy

On a morning in 1980, a Texas welder named Llewellyn Moss goes out to hunt antelope and gets a lot more than he bargained for when he stumbles across the site of a drug deal gone very, very bad. Several men and a number of pickups have been shot to death and Moss discovers only one survivor who is very near death and who pleads for a drink of water.

Moss ignores the request and searches the site, discovering a large amount of heroin remaining in one of the trucks. There is no corresponding amount of money and so Moss deduces that at least one person got away. A very good tracker, he discovers the path of one wounded person leaving the site. He follows the track and comes across the man, dead, and clinging to a suitcase with a little over two million dollars in it. Anyone who's ever read a book like A Simple Plan or seen a noir movie made from that or another book like it would know damned good and well just to walk away. But if he did that, of course, there would be no story.

Llewellyn hikes out with the money, takes it home and hides it in his trailer home. So far, so good. But then, in the middle of the night, he's stricken by a pang of conscience and decides that he really should take some water out to the guy he left dying at the site of the shootout. Well, hell, a child of five knows that this is going to be a huge mistake. To his credit, so does Llewellyn. But he does it anyway.

Naturally, when he returns he runs into several bad guys who know that someone got away with their money and are damned anxious to know who it might be. They shoot up Llewellyn's pickup, but he manages to escape and make it back home. He quickly sends his wife out of town to what he hopes will be the safety of her mother and then hits the road himself in an effort to somehow escape the rain of crap that he knows is about to cascade down upon him.

On his trail is a particularly amoral and devious hit man named Chigurh who has a particularly awesome and deadly weapon and who seems to be almost prescient in determining where Moss will be. Also on the trail is an aging county sheriff named Bell. Bell is a veteran of World War II who is distressed about the changes taking place in the world around him and who speculates that in the drug warriors and especially in the person of Chigurh, there is a new sort of evil in the world that no one can hope to contain.

The result is a powerful story told by one of the great masters. Moss's efforts to extricate himself from the mess he knew he was getting himself into all along are compelling. Chigurh's apparent total lack of all human sensibilities are horrifying, and Sheriff Bell's meditations on his marriage and on the evolution of the world around him are thought-provoking and elegiac. All in all, a great novel.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Grace Humiston Proves a Formidable Adversary in this Excellent Novel

This is a very engaging and entertaining novel based on the life of Grace Humiston, a crusading attorney in the early Twentieth century. The real Mrs. Humiston earned a law degree at New York University and later became the first woman ever appointed as a United States Attorney. Humiston, who used her legal skills principally on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, was also known as a brilliant detective, particularly after she solved the case of a missing New York girl in 1917.

In Grace Humiston and the Vanishing, Charles Kelly has used the facts of that case to create a fictional investigation in which Humiston is persuaded to look into the disappearance of a young girl named Ruth Cruger. Grace's husband, who is also an attorney, worries about her safety and has urged her to focus her attention on the law and to forego the detective work. But Grace feels that she must take this case, in spite of her husband's objections, and she promises him that there will be little or no danger involved.

Famous last words.

Mrs. Huniston's principal assistant is a Transylvanian investigator named Julius Kron. Kron know his way around the mean streets of 1917 New York, and he is the principal narrator of the story. Through his eyes we watch the case unfold and we realize what a talented and determined investigator Grace Humiston can be.

Ruth Cruger was last seen near the shop of a mechanic named Alfredo Cocchi, where she was going to have her ice skates sharpened. But Grace's attention is drawn almost immediately to the jewelry shop next door, which seems to attract a significant number of attractive young women like Ruth Cruger who come from wealthy families.

Grace discovers that several other young women have disappeared in recent months and she becomes convinced that the two men who are principles in the jewelry story are running a con called the Uncle Game, in which the younger and more attractive partner seduces wealthy young women into eloping with him to his native Argentina. There he and his partner sell the women into sexual servitude.

The police are of no help at all, and so Grace, accompanied by Kron, must take matters into her own hands and solve the mystery of the missing women. It's a difficult and dangerous mission, but it's also a very gripping story. In Grace and Tron, Charles Kelly has created two very well-drawn and engaging characters. He has also expertly set the stage on which the drama plays out, principally in the New York City of 1917, at a time when the nation was gearing up to enter the First World War. This is a book that will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans, even to those who do not generally read historical mysteries. A very entertaining and satisfying story.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Another Christmas Homicide for the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

It's the Christmas season and in sharp contrast to the joyful tidings attendant to this time of year, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are called to an apartment occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Fletcher. Mr. Fletcher greets them by announcing that he's just returned from a business trip. Mrs. Fletcher is lying dead on the floor, having been savagely stabbed to death.

The kitchen window is open on a twelve-degree night and there are muddy footprints leading from the window to the bedroom. The bedroom window is broken and it appears that someone has gone out of the window in a big hurry. There's plenty of other evidence to suggest that a burglar has broken in and killed Mrs. Fletcher and that Mr. Fletcher walked into the scene just as it was playing out.

The lead detective, Steve Carella, offers his sympathies to Mr. Fletcher who replies by saying, "My wife was a no-good bitch and I'm glad that someone killed her."

Fletcher is a lawyer who certainly knows his rights, but his attitude leads Carella to suspect that he may have been involved in his wife's untimely demise. But early on, the detectives turn up a suspect who confesses to burglarizing the apartment in the hope of finding something to sell so that he could buy drugs. Mrs. Fletcher interrupted him, he says, and he wound up stabbing her.

Case closed. Or is it? Carella still has his nagging suspicions and refuses to let go of the investigation. The case takes a number of turns and in the end, this is one of the better books in this long-running series. Fans of the 87th Precinct will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Benjamin Black Attempts a Hommage to Raymond Chandler

As a general rule, I avoid reading books in which a new author takes over an established character from another author who has died or retired. The whole idea of taking over someone else's series seems somehow wrong to me on a number of levels, and I've never read one yet in which I thought that the new author really did justice to the series or the characters.

Given that, I would have totally ignored this book in which Benjamin Black resurrects Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe who is, of course, one of the icons of crime fiction. But then a book club to which I belong chose the book and I had no choice in the matter.

I really wish they hadn't. I've read a couple of Black's novels featuring his own series character, Quirke, a pathologist in the 1950's Dublin morgue, and I've enjoyed them. Even so, I approached this book with more than a little trepidation, and reading it did nothing to allay the concerns I had going in.

The book is set in the early 1950s and opens with Marlowe sitting in his office. A beautiful, leggy and mysterious black-eyed blonde wanders in and asks Marlowe to find a missing "friend," named Nico Peterson. The blonde is a little vague about the details of her relationship with the missing Nico and about why she is so anxious to find him.

Marlowe and the reader both know that the woman is not giving him the whole story, but of course that's the way things go in P.I. novels like this. Marlowe takes the case, which naturally takes any number of strange twists and turns before finally coming to a conclusion. Black attempts to imitate Chandler's style, but succeeds only marginally. The fact of the matter is that there was only one Raymond Chandler and in the seventy-five years since Philip Marlowe first appeared in The Big Sleep, no one's come close to matching what Chandler did.

If I'd picked up this book knowing nothing about it, and if the main character had been named something other than Philip Marlowe, I would have thought that someone had made yet another fairly game effort to imitate Chandler but had fallen short like everyone else who has attempted to do so. And before writing this review, I sat down and re-read The Big Sleep, which I reviewed here in March, 2010. Doing so simply confirmed my impression that this homage pales against the original.

The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a bad book, and, for what it's worth, it's better than Poodle Springs, the novel that Chandler left unfinished and which was then completed by Robert B. Parker. But it's not nearly as good as a Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler and, for that matter, it's not as good as a Quirke novel by Benjamin Black. I'll eagerly look forward to reading another of the latter, but when it comes to Philip Marlowe, I'll be sticking to the real thing.