Friday, December 30, 2016

Another Challenging Case for the Monkeewrench Gang

Minnesota certainly seems to be a very dangerous place to live, and the bodies seem to fall right and left in the North Star State. Happily, though, there seem to be a lot of homicide detectives up there to continually put things right, including of course, Lucas Davenport, Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, that F***ing Virgil Flowers, Cork O'Connor, and Leo Magozzi and Gino Roiseth, among others.

The last team inhabits the world of the Monkeewrench series, written by the mother-daughter team, P. J. Tracy. And for Magozzi and Roiseth, if for no one else, things have been a bit slow lately. After their last big case, the Twin Cities seem to have calmed considerably and murder has been taking a holiday. "Homicide is dead," one of the detectives complains.

Which, naturally, falls into the category of Be Careful What You Wish For.

The hiatus is interrupted when Magozzi and Roiseth are called to the scene of a very puzzling murder. An elderly man named Morey Gilbert is found shot to death in the back yard of the plant nursery that he has run for years. It's raining and so his wife, a small elderly woman, thoughtfully moves the body inside and wrestles it up on a table. She shaves the victim and dresses him up so he'll look his best and only then does she call the cops.

In the process, of course, she has (conveniently?) destroyed almost all of the evidence that the detectives might have hoped to find at the scene. Naturally, they wonder why she might have done this. They're also curious about the behavior of the couple's son, Jack. Jack is one of those obnoxious personal injury lawyers who advertises on late-night TV. He drinks heavily and has been estranged from his parents for over two years for reasons that no one will discuss. But, just as the detectives begin to narrow in on the victim's family members, another elderly person who lives just down the street is also murdered. And then another...

Well, you get the picture. Someone is running around this neighborhood, killing elderly citizens and neither Magozzi or Roiseth nor any of their fellow detectives can figure out who or why. All of the victims were much beloved. None of them had any enemies, and there isn't a clue to be found.

In the meantime, over the last few months, Magozzi has been pursuing the world's slowest-moving romance with the troubled computer genius, Grace MacBride, of the Monkeewrench outfit that figured so prominently in the first book in the series. When all other avenues have reached a dead end, Magozzi asks Grace if she will apply her computer skills to the problem, knowing that she will doubtless be prowling through databases where she and the police have no legal right to be. And what she discovers will turn this case upside down.

This is another very entertaining entry in this series. It has it's light and breezy moments and a fair amount of humor. The characters are appealing and the plot is engaging. All in all, a fun read.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Long-Lost Spenser Short Story by Robert B. Parker

Thanks to my friend, Anthony, for tipping me to this short story, "Surrogate," by Robert B. Parker. The story was apparently commissioned by Playboy magazine, but they rejected it because the editors thought it was too dark. 

Back in the day, Playboy did publish a lot of fiction by Lawrence Block and others, including many of Block's original stories featuring Keller, the hit man. (I don't know this first hand, of course, but in reading collections of the Keller stories, I noted that they were first published in some magazine by that name. I assume that this was just another of those small academic journals that I've otherwise never heard of.) 

The story is, admittedly, very dark, but I'm not sure that it's any darker than many of the Keller stories, and I can't imagine why the magazine would have been so prudish about this one. After all, being prudish was not something that Playboy was generally known for.

The other interesting thing about this story is that this was apparently the only rejection that Parker ever got, which certainly sets him apart from the vast majority of other writers. He then did sell the story to another magazine with a very small circulation. Later, it was reprinted in a limited collector's edition, but it has been almost unknown and very hard to find. Anthony sent me a link to the story, which you can find here:https://stchas.instructure.com/course....

The story involves Brenda Loring, who was one of Spenser's first girlfriends and who is the woman every fan of the series wishes Spenser had remained involved with, rather than hitching his star (or his whatever) to the insufferable Susan Silverman. Brenda has a problem and turns to Spenser for help. You really can't say much more about the problem without giving away the heart of the story, but Spenser will race to her side and help deal with the issue.

It's an okay story and will be of interest mostly to those ardent fans who insist on reading every one of Spenser's escapades. One of those people would be me and it was nice to have a fresh Spenser story to read for the first time, even if it was very short.

Thanks again, Anthony!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Introducing Harry Bosch

Published in 1992, this is the book that introduced L.A.P.D. homicide detective, Harry Bosch. The series, which runs twenty-four books thus far, has remained strong throughout and is, almost certainly, the gold standard of modern police procedurals.

When we first meet Harry, he's already forty-two years old and has been the product of one institution after another for virtually his entire life. His father left the family when Harry was very young and Harry never really knew him. Harry's mother turned to prostitution and was murdered when Harry was eleven. After her death, he was assigned to California's version of child protective services. He spent the rest of his youth in a series of foster homes, then joined the army and served in Vietnam. Upon leaving the service, he joined the L.A.P.D., eventually becoming something of a star in the Homicide Division.

The fact that Bosh was a Vietnam vet and already forty-two in his initial outing would ultimately put his creator, Michael Connelly, in something of a box. By the time the series was to the current halfway point, Harry was already in his middle fifties and staring at retirement, a situation which limited the author's options. Still, Connelly has addressed the problem in innovative ways, although one wonders whether, if he had it to do all over again, he might have dealt with the situation in a different fashion.

Given that he's forty-two, with a long career already behind him, Bosch appears in these pages as a character that's already almost fully formed. He's a rare animal in the L.A.P.D. in that he genuinely cares about the job and about achieving justice for the victims of the crimes he investigates. Later in the series, he will articulate his motto, which is that "Everybody counts or nobody counts." But it's clear that he's already driven by this principle when we first meet him.

For Harry, it's often a pretty lonely road in a department that basically seems to be filled with self-serving cops and bureaucrats who are much less interested in serving justice than they are in achieving their own ends. For example, Harry's partner has a side career in real estate and makes it very clear that the real estate job is much more important to him than being a cop. All he wants to do is put in his twenty years, collect his pension, and go into real estate full time. And if one of his current jobs gets in the way of the other, more likely it will be the police work that suffers.

If anything, the people in the chain of command above Harry are even worse. They're much more interested in advancing their own careers and protecting the image of the department than they are in the department's mission to serve and protect. And this means that Bosch is going to be in trouble almost all the time, in this book and throughout his career. Everybody admits that Harry is a brilliant detective, but he's not a team player and his actions occasionally embarrass the department. Accordingly, the Powers That Be would just as soon force Harry off the job and he's constantly battling against his superiors and against detectives from the Internal Affairs Division who will go to almost any lengths to dig up dirt against him.

Not that Harry is all that congenial himself. For whatever reason, perhaps because of his background, he doesn't relate very well to other people and it seems at times as though he goes out of his way to offend people, even when they're trying to get along with him. 

A prime example is his smoking. By 1992, the health hazards of smoking and of second-hand smoke were pretty well established and already, lots of offices, restaurants and other such places were supposed to be smoke-free. Harry could care less and assumes that the rules simply don't apply to him. He's constantly lighting up in places where smoking is prohibited and in the presence of people who specifically ask him not to smoke. Even in the company of a woman he's allegedly trying to impress, Bosch still insists on smoking, even though it clearly annoys her. In fact, he becomes something of an asshole on this issue. It's hardly the way to win friends and influence people, but Harry clearly doesn't care.

The Black Echo begins when Harry is called to a death site near a dam. It appears that a heroin addict has crawled into a large pipe and overdosed. The case should be open and shut, and Harry's partner, the real estate salesman, clearly wants to declare it an OD and get back to the open house that he's hosting. But the scene doesn't look right to Harry and he pushes forward with the investigation.

Things really get interesting when the body is finally pulled out of the pipe and Harry vaguely recognizes the victim as William Meadows who served with Bosch in Vietnam. The two were "tunnel rats" who went deep underground to explore and destroy enemy tunnels. As Harry presses forward he discovers any number of other incongruities and ties Meadows to a crime that is currently under investigation by the F.B.I.

Bosch contacts the F.B.I., hoping to link their two investigations in an attempt to solve both the murder case that Harry is pursuing and the crime that the Fibbies are investigating. But the Bureau is just as hide-bound and as self-serving as the L.A.P.D., and Harry runs into roadblocks there as well.

Any other detective would almost certainly give up and just follow orders to lay off. But not Harry Bosch. He will pursue this case to the bitter end, no matter who he has to alienate or what he has to sacrifice in the process. And in this case it takes him through a brilliantly plotted story that leads to a tremendous climax. 

From the very beginning Harry Bosch has been one of the most compelling figures ever to inhabit the world of crime fiction and he continues to fill that role twenty-four years down the road from this book. The Black Echo is a great beginning to what has become a fabulous series.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mitch Rapp Is the Third Option in This Thriller from the Late Vince Flynn

As a general rule, I often enjoy movies about super-stud, kick-ass spies like James Bond or Jason Bourne, who are often caught up in labyrinthian plots where everyone is betraying everyone else and you never know who to trust. But for whatever reason, I've never been very fond of books about these sorts of characters. The characters often seem very one-dimensional and the plots are so completely over the top that I just can't suspend disbelief long enough to spend three or four hours reading them. (I have no idea why I can do this for a movie but not a book; go figure.)

At any rate, for this reason I have never read a Vince Flynn book featuring his series character, Mitch Rapp. But then this month one of my book clubs selected Flynn's novel The Third Option and trooper that I am, I sat down and read it. I didn't hate the book, and I'm actually glad I read it just for the experience. I recognize that Flynn does (or did) what he does very well, and I know that this sort of book appeals to large numbers of readers. But again, I just couldn't buy into it, and my three-star rating may be unfair because it really reflects the fact that this book, however well done, is just not my cup of tea.

The book takes its title from the notion that the United States occasionally faces problems where diplomacy doesn't work and where full-scale military action would be inappropriate. In such cases, the C.I.A., or some other super-secret government agency, may resort to the "third option," which is to send in a highly-trained killer to deal secretly with the problem, even though such action may be illegal, immoral, or unconstitutional.

In this case, a German industrialist has been secretly selling equipment to Saddam Hussein which would enable Iraq to build a nuclear weapon. (This book was published in 2000, before we invaded Iraq and long before we realized that Hussein actually had no such weapons.) In this case, the C.I.A. resorts to the "third option," although naturally it would never admit to doing so. The director dispatches Mitch Rapp to kill the industrialist and other activities are also mapped out which will hopefully suggest that the Iraqis or some other nasty folks have assassinated the guy, deflecting any attention away from the U.S.

Inevitably, problems arise and it turns out that our hero is caught up in a nasty Washington, D.C. turf battle. The director of the C.I.A. is dying and there's a major struggle over his successor. Rapp's mission is compromised by forces in the government opposed to the director's chosen successor. Once this happens, all hell breaks loose and the bodies are going to be falling left and right. There's very little hope that this might turn out well, and what little hope there is rides on the broad shoulders of Mitch Rapp.

As I said, to my mind this is an "okay" book, but it could have been better. There are a ton of characters parading through the book and it's very hard to keep them all straight. Flynn complicates matters by naming one of the main characters Cameron and another Coleman. They're often on the scene together and every time one of them appears, the reader has to stop and try to remember which of the two is the really bad guy and which is the sort-of-okay guy. There's no excuse for an author complicating matters like that.

In books like this virtually all of the women are super-sexy vixens. Some of them are assassins too, and for some reason, most of these women seemed to have been trained by the Israelis. These women are cool customers and hardened killers, and most of them seem to have discovered that they love guns even better than sex. One such woman appears in this book and when we first meet her, she's walking down the streets in Milan in four-inch heels. The shoes are not particularly comfortable, but if a female character wants to appear in a book like this, she has to make the necessary sacrifices.

In this case, however, the woman walks into a building, and for no reason whatsoever, instead of taking the elevator, she climbs four flights of stairs in her four-inch heels! Only in a book like this would any woman do such a thing.

My major complaint about the book has to do with action that occurs very early on. Spoiler alert: Do not read beyond this point unless you want a major plot point revealed. 

When Rapp shows up at the mansion to kill the German industrialist, he's accompanied by a female partner. On the way out the door, she asks Rapp if he's wearing his Kevlar vest and he says no. Once Rapp has killed the industrialist and his bodyguard, the woman then turns and shoots Rapp twice in the chest. (She has double-crossed him for reasons too complicated to explain.) She then high-tails it out of the room, leaving Rapp dead on the floor behind her. But, of course, he really isn't dead, because, contrary to what he told her, he really is wearing Kevlar, and so he will rise up and wreak serious vengeance on those who set him up.

This development takes the reader right out of the story because anyone knows that even the most incompetent hit person on the planet always finishes off his victim with a shot to the head. But not this woman. Of course, she can't do that or the book will end on page 25, but the whole scene is totally nonsensical. Anybody who's ever read even a couple of these books could figure out a way that Flynn could have finessed this problem without having the character do something so stupid. But, for me at least, this scene, which was supposed to be one of great tension, turned into a laugh-out-loud moment, and it made it even harder to take any of the rest of the book even remotely seriously. (hide spoiler)]


Again, I'm glad I read the book, just for the experience. But I probably won't be lining up to read another.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Another Great Thriller from Jenny Siler

As was the case with her first three novels, Jenny Siler's fourth book features a strong, independent, courageous and intelligent female protagonist. Unlike the first three books, however, Flashback is set overseas, mostly in Morocco.

The story opens in Burgundy. A group of French nuns has found a badly injured young woman lying in a ditch. The woman has been shot in the head and has lost all memory of her past life. She remembers how to do a great many things, but she has no idea of her personal past. A scar indicates that he once gave birth to a child, and her excellent teeth strongly suggests that she is an American. Otherwise, the only clue to her past is a ticket from a Tangier ferry with some letters scribbled on it.

The nuns name the young woman "Eve" and take her into their convent where she works in the kitchen while working with a doctor to try to recover her memory. Then a tragedy drives her out of the convent and sends her on the run. With nothing to guide her but the ferry ticket which she found in her pocket, she heads to North Africa in an effort to find the woman she once was.

This will be no safe or easy task, and it quickly becomes clear that, whoever she was in her past life, "Eve" had pissed off some very dangerous people. The story is more than a little reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie in that neither Eve nor the reader can tell friend from foe as she pursues her quest and the suspense heightens at nearly every turn.

Siler writes beautifully and her descriptions of North Africa are nearly poetic. "Eve" is a well-drawn and very believable character; the puzzle she confronts is an engrossing one, and this is a book that will appeal to any reader who enjoys a compelling thriller with a dash of international intrigue.

Monday, December 12, 2016

An Excellent Stand-Alone Novel from the Creator of Harry Hole

This is a very good stand-alone novel from Jo Nesbo, author of the series featuring the brilliant Norwegian homicide detective, Harry Hole. This psychological thriller features two protagonists. The first is a young man named Sonny Loftus. Sonny's father was exposed as a corrupt cop and took his own life. Completely destroyed by the loss of the father he adored and disillusioned by the revelations about the man, Sonny turns to drugs. Now in his middle-thirties, Sonny has spend half his life in prison, and he's now serving time for crimes that he did not commit. As a reward for confessing to crimes perpetrated by others, he is given "easy" time and access to an on-going supply of heroin.

Sonny has a rare gift of empathy and has earned a reputation among his fellow prisoners as a figure who can absolve them of their sins. Whether he actually can or not is immaterial, but the prisoners who confess to him almost always feel a deep sense of relief once they have done so. But then one day Sonny receives information that turns his world upside down. His reaction is to make a very clever break from the prison and set out on a mission known only to himself.

The second major protagonist is Simon Kefas, the policeman who attempts to track Sonny down. Simon was Sonny's father's partner and best friend and, more than anything else, Simon wants to protect Sonny from the consequences of his own actions.

The story's point of view shifts back and forth between the two main characters and the tension mounts from start to finish. Both are flawed and very intriguing characters, and in the end the reader may have a tough time deciding which of them to root for. It's an absorbing story from Nesbo that will appeal to a variety of readers, especially to the fans of his Harry Hole novels.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Long-Lost Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner, Writing As A. A. Fair


This is the second novel in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series, which was written by "A.A. Fair," a pseudonym for Erle Stanley Gardner, who is much better known, of course, for his series featuring the lawyer, Perry Mason. 

Or, at least it was intended to be the second novel in the series. When Gardner turned the book into his publisher, they refused it, arguing that the book's approach to adultery and sex exceeded the limits of good taste. In the book, Bertha insists that virtually every man cheats on his wife--that it's the nature of the beast--and that an intelligent wife will simply accommodate herself to the fact and not get bent out of shape about it. But it's probably not an idea that a large number of people would have endorsed in that day and age.

Then there's the sex. At one point, Donald escorts a shapely young blonde home in the agency's car. As they sit outside the woman's apartment house, Donald reports that, "She didn't try to stop me in anything I did....She let my hands wander around the outside of her clothes, caressing her curves. I had a feeling she'd given me the key to the city, but I didn't try any doors that I thought she'd prefer to keep locked." Apparently pretty racy stuff, for 1939!

Gardner apparently never attempted to revise the book to make it more suitable for publication; he just moved on to other projects, which included twenty-nine books in the Lam-Cool series. But the Erle Stanley Gardner Trust has finally resurrected the book and the folks at Hard Case Crime have now published it, only seventy-seven years late, apparently concluding that the reading public will now be able to handle it without fainting in shock.

It's clear that Gardner is still feeling his way along here. Donald Lam is still only a junior operative in the firm and the character is still taking shape. Bertha Cool's character is already more firmly fixed--a big, tough, no-nonsense woman who squeezes every nickle until it bleeds and who believes that her firm exists solely to make money as opposed to pursuing justice, And if she has to bend a few rules along the way, that's perfectly fine.

The story opens, as they often do, when a new client appears at the office with a seemingly simple request. A woman comes in with her daughter; they believe that the daughter's husband is cheating, and they want the firm to investigate. Bertha wheedles as much money as she can out of the mother in the way of a fee and then sends Donald out to shadow the husband and get the evidence.

And, as always happens, of course, this seemingly innocuous case will morph into something much more sinister and dangerous. There will be a murder, naturally, and the case involves a lot of municipal corruption, which was a staple of pulp crime novels during this era. Through it all, Donald will struggle to survive and to solve the case, while Bertha plays all the angles in an effort to maximize her profit. It's a lot of fun and will appeal principally to fans who already know of and enjoy the series, which now rounds out at thirty books. It's nice to have this one in the collection.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Young, Inexperienced Sheriff Hunts the Killer of His Predecessor

The More They Disappear is a very spare and bleak novel that traces the events following the murder of a long-serving sheriff in a small town in rural Kentucky. The town and its people are clearly in decline; unemployment and drug addiction have taken a heavy toll, and political corruption has made matters even worse.

The murdered sheriff headed a small force of mostly ill-trained and apathetic deputies, and the job passes, at least temporarily, to perhaps the most capable of these, Harlan Dupee. Dupee has personal problems of his own and has never recovered from the death of the one woman who made his life complete. But he is determined to do the best he can with the limited resources he has available.

His most formidable challenge is to find the person who killed his predecessor, but this will not be an easy task. Harlan soon discovers that his former boss was a man of deep secrets and contradictions, as are many of his constituents. Another of the major characters is a young woman from a prominent local family who is lost in the grip of an addiction to OxyContin. And it doesn't help that her boyfriend is a low-level dealer.

The story of Harlan's hunt for the killer is an interesting one, but it basically takes a back seat to the larger story of the very heavy toll that drug addiction combined with the lack of economic opportunity can take on a small town. Donaldson paints the picture brilliantly, even if it is an enormously depressing one. This is not a book that's going to put a big smile on anyone's face, but it has the ring of truth and marks Jesse Donaldson as a writer to watch.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Jack Reacher Is Sent Back to Night School

The twenty-first entry in the Jack Reacher series is another flashback to an adventure that occurred while Reacher was still in the army. The year is 1996; Reacher is only thirty-five years old, and he's fresh off a very successful mission for which he has been awarded a medal. But immediately after the ceremony, he's issued new orders to attend a night school course--hardly the reward he was expecting after a job well done. He's now effectively off the rest of the Army's radar, at least for the time being.

Reacher arrives at the facility where the course is supposed to take place only to find two other "students," one from the CIA and the other from the FBI. They too have just come off successful missions and are wondering why they've been consigned to a duty like this. But the three are soon joined by a pair of very senior government officials who explain that they are not actually going back to school. Rather, they've been delegated to work on a very secret mission of extreme urgency.

All anyone seems to know at the moment is that a group of jihadists, with a cell in Hamburg, Germany, has offered to spent one hundred million dollars for something that an American proposes to sell to them. No one has any idea who the American is or what he could possibly have that would be worth that much money. But whatever it might be, if the jihadists want it that badly, the exchange has to be very bad news for the United States and probably for the rest of the western world as well.

Reacher will recruit his old compatriot, Sergeant Frances Neagley, to work with the team and Reacher and Neagley will spend most of their time in Hamburg, attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding this transaction. Unlike most of the Reacher novels, Reacher is obviously now back in uniform. He's part of a huge institution and, while fans of the series are used to watching Reacher act as a solitary individual, basically making up his own rules as he goes along, here he is compelled to work as a member of a team. Naturally, though, he will do so in a style that is uniquely his own and that will still enable him to beat the crap out of a lot of bad guys along the way.

This is an okay book, but it's not among the better ones in the series. In part this is because of the constraints that the plot places upon Reacher and also because the book has a tendency to bog down in places as Reacher, Neagley and the rest of the team race around Hamburg pursuing a lot of leads that will prove fruitless before they finally get on the right track. Fans of the series will certainly want to read it, but more casual fans of crime fiction who just occasionally check in on Jack Reacher might want to look for one of the other books in the series.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Brady Coyne Follows the Sharks

This is the third entry in William G. Tapply's series featuring Boston attorney, Brady Coyne, and it's the best in the series thus far. By this book, Tapply had fairly well established Coyne's basic personality and habits, which would not change in any significant way over the rest of the series. His relationship with his secretary, his ex-wife and his two boys was pretty well set, as were a number of friendships that Coyne would carry through his literary life.

Several years before this book opens, as a favor to a wealthy client, Brady had agreed to represent a young baseball phenom named Eddie Donagan. Donagan was a pitcher soon to be signed by the Boston Red Sox and also soon to be the son-in-law of Brady's client. For a while, things went swimmingly. Eddie rose through the farm system and had a brilliant debut with the Sox. But then, for no apparent reason, he lost his mojo, or his magic, or whatever, and suddenly he couldn't pitch worth a damn. Overnight, he was out of baseball and selling sneakers at a local mall. He also left his wife and young son, E.J.

The book opens a couple of years later when Brady's wealthy client calls him on a Saturday morning to tell him that E.J., now ten, has failed to return home from his paper route. Brady is sure that the kid is just playing in the park or some such thing and that he'll return home shortly. But the client and his daughter, the child's mother, are panicked and insist that Brady come over to hold their hands.

Well, of course, E.J. does not return home and eventually kidnappers will call demanding a ransom. Naturally, this sort of thing is best left to the police, but if that were to be the case here, we would have no story involving Brady Coyne. Against his wishes and his better judgment, Brady is soon mixed up in a very confusing and dangerous case. The tale takes lots of twists and turns and contains more than a few surprises. But it's an engaging story, and it's always fun to spend an evening in the company of Brady Coyne. This is a book that will appeal most to those who enjoy a fairly traditional mystery story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Owen Laukkanen Serves Up Another Compelling and Timely Thriller

In The Stolen Ones, the last entry in his excellent series featuring Carla Windermere of the F.B.I. and Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota BCA, Owen Laukkanen wove a tense thriller around the issue of sex-trafficking. In this, the fifth book in the series, the story centers on another very timely problem, the bullying of teenagers.

The story opens when Stevens's daughter, Andrea, urges her father to look into the suicide of one of her high school classmates. Stevens initially assumes that, while the teenager's death was certainly tragic, there was nothing criminal about it. The victim, Adrian Miller, was a lonely boy without any real friends. He was repeatedly harassed and embarrassed by the school jocks and others, and ultimately responded by taking his own life.

But then Andrea appears at her father's office with another teenager in tow. The boy, whose name is Lucas, tells Stevens and Windermere that Adrian had an online "friend," a girl who encourage him to take his own life and to record it on his webcam so that she could watch. Lucas says that the two had formed a suicide pact and that the girl intends to follow Lucas over to the "other side."

Even though there may not be a crime involved, a young girl's life is in danger, assuming that she hasn't already killed herself. Stevens and Windermere spring into action in an effort to find the girl. They confiscate Adrian Miller's computer and begin rooting through his online history in an effort to discover the girl's identity. The effort is especially urgent for Carla Windermere who is carrying some baggage of her own with respect to the issue of teenage bullying and who is determined to save this girl at any cost.

Without much trouble, they discover that the girl's name is Ashley Frey and they follow the haunting thread of the conversations between Adrian and Ashley up to the moment when Adrian records himself committing suicide. But the effort to find Ashley takes a very disturbing turn when the agents discover that "Ashley Frey" is really not a teenage girl planning to take her own life but rather a disturbed psychopath who is trolling the internet, recruiting depressed teenagers, and encouraging them to commit suicide while he watches. Stevens and Windermere are thus launched into a desperate race to identify and capture this predator before he can convince any additional victims to end their lives.

This is the darkest and most compelling book in the series thus far. Save for Andrea, who gets the story off and running, we see nothing of Stevens's family, the members of which have appeared prominently in each of the earlier books. The sexual tension between Stevens and Windermere that characterized the earlier books has also disappeared, and the novel remains tightly focused on the investigation at hand. The tension builds page after page before reaching a stunning climax that is likely to leave most any reader holding his or her breath for the last ten or fifteen pages.

All in all, this is another great entry in a very good series, one which also highlights a very important current social problem. The next Stevens and Windermere novel can't come any too soon.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Great New Collection of Stories, Edited by Patrick Millikin

In 2009, Patrick Millikin edited a great collection of short stories published as Phoenix Noir, which remains one of the best entries in the Noir series from Akashic. Millikin now returns with an excellent new collection of stories in The Highway Kind.

As was the case with Phoenix Noir, Millikin has recruited an all-star cast of writers, including Michael Connelly, Ace Atkins, George Pelecanos, C.J. Box, Gary Phillips, Wallace Stroby, Joe R. Lansdale and others. There's even a contribution from Patterson Hood, who is perhaps better known as a founding member of Drive-By Truckers, and whose contribution to this collection is a very noirish story featuring a Chevy Chevelle SS.

Millikin, who is currently restoring a 1960 Cadillac, notes in the preface that "Over the years, the automobile has come to represent not just our freedom, but our isolation.... When we're not checking our e-mail or text-messaging with our friends, we're driving and we're thinking.... Our cars facilitate our secret lives."

The vehicles featured in these stories are as wide-ranging as the authors who produced them. Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael Connelly's story, "Burnt Matches," takes place in Mickey Haller's Lincoln. C.J. Box's contribution, "Power Wagon," centers on a 1948 Dodge Power Wagon. George Pelecanos picks a 1970 E-body Plymouth Barracuda for his entry, "The Triple Black 'Cuda." Ace Atkins chose a vintage Ford Bronco, perfectly restored with a new Cleveland 321 engine and jacked up with a Pro Comp lift kit, Pro Comp wheels and big, chunky Goodrich tires. Luis Alberto Urrea, who won an Edgar for his story in Phoenix Noir, returns here with "The Pleasure of God," which features a tricked-out yellow VW van.

The vehicles are all interesting and the stories are all top-notch, as one would expect from a group of writers this talented. It's a collection that will appeal to anyone who loves excellent crime fiction, great cars and the open road. And with that combination, you can't possibly go wrong.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Perry Mason Comes to the Aid of an Elderly Shoplifter

The thirteenth entry in the Perry Mason series was published in 1938. It's still pretty early in the series and two of the major characters who would appear in virtually all of the books, D.A. Hamilton Burr and homicide detective Lieutenant Tragg, still have not been introduced. But the basic form of the novels has been established, and this is a very good example of the early books in the series.

As the book opens, Perry and his secretary, Della Street, duck out of a rain storm and have lunch in a department store tea room. The two observe what appears to be a refined, elderly woman, and Perry tells Della that the woman is a shoplifter. Sure enough, a store detective soon appears and begins bullying the poor old woman, whose name is Sarah Breel. 

Perry intervenes and the issue is settled, but almost as soon as he is back in his office, he's contacted by Breel's niece, Virginia Trent, a nervous young woman who is studying psychology. Virginia is convinced that her aunt has suddenly become a kleptomaniac. In particular, she's afraid that her aunt has stolen several very valuable diamonds that were left in the possession of Virginia's uncle, a jeweler.

Perry discounts the young woman's notion that her aunt has suddenly developed deep psychological problems but sure enough, the diamonds are missing. Before long, somebody will be dead and Sarah Breel will be found with blood on the heel of her shoe, a gun in her purse, and a handful of diamonds. As always, it looks like a slam-dunk victory for the D.A. who quickly charges Breel with murder in the first. But even this early in the game, the reader understands that it ain't over until Perry starts pulling rabbits out of a hat in the courtroom, and the book ends with one of the better courtroom scenes in the series.

This early on, the series was still heavily influenced by the pulp conventions of the day, and there are great scenes like this one: 

"Mason pushed his way through heavy green hangings and into an office. A man stared coldly at him from behind a desk. A woman, some years younger, her contours displayed by a clinging blue evening gown, stood near the corner of the desk. Her hair was glossy black and filled with highlights. Her full lips held no smile. Her brilliant black eyes blazed with emotions she strove to suppress. Full-throated, well-nourished, she seemed seductively full of life, in striking contrast to the man who sat behind the desk, his waxy skin stretched so tightly across his prominent cheekbones that there hardly seemed to be enough left to cover the teeth, which showed in that ghastly grin seen on starving people...."

Wow, all that and contours too! They don't write 'em like this anymore...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Chief Inspector Morse Is Bedeviled By the Daughters of Cain

Chief Inspector Morse's eleventh outing finds the brilliant, if unconventional, detective ailing, out of shape, and thinking about retirement and his own mortality. He'd be in a lot better health at this point if he'd only give up cigarettes and cut back on the amount of alcohol that he consumes. But of course, that's a lot easier said than done, and any long-time reader of this series knows that it's not going to happen.

As the book opens, Morse inherits a murder investigation from a colleague who claims that he needs to attend to his sickly wife. Morse assumes that the colleague is simply trying to duck out of a complicated case that he's been unable to solve, but he's happy to assume the responsibility nonetheless. 

The victim was a retired academic named Felix McClure. By all accounts, McClure was reasonably well liked and no one would have had a motive to stab him to death. Morse and his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, begin their inquiries at the college from which the victim had recently retired. There they discover that some untoward activities had been taking place at the college and that, in fact, there might have been someone, or perhaps several someones, who wanted the good professor dead.

The case is further complicated when another murder occurs, and mixed up in all of this are three women, two of whom Morse will find very attractive. As is always the case in a novel by Colin Dexter, it's a complex puzzle and the reader can only be thankful that someone with the ability of Chief Inspector Morse is around to put all the pieces into place. Another good entry in a very engaging series.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Widow and a Journalist Combine Forces to Chase Down the Secret of a Company Called Bioflux

Kevin Burns is a journalist who has just lost his job with MSNBC for faking a report. He's trying to determine what he should do next when out of the blue, he's contacted by an old high school acquaintance named Carl Greene. The call is something of a surprise because Kevin and Carl were never close and Carl wound up marrying Kevin's old girlfriend, Lucy. 

Carl insists that he has a very important story that Kevin needs to hear. Naturally, since this is a thriller and not real life, Carl refuses to give Kevin even a hint over the phone but insists that they meet at a baseball game in Denver. And, of course, since this is a thriller and not real life, Carl will die in a mysterious car crash before he can meet with Kevin. But the appointment does serve to brink Kevin back to the Denver area where the three grew up.

Shortly after Carl's death, an intruder breaks into his house where Lucy, now his widow, is sleeping. Lucy wakes up and finds the intruder riffling through the files in Carl's study. She chases the intruder off and assumes it was simply a burglar, even though the intruder bypassed several very valuable items on the way to the study.

Of course the reader knows, as Lucy should know, that something much more sinister is going on here. Kevin and Lucy reconnect and the files in Carl's study are removed by a couple of guys from Bioflux, the company he works for. Shortly thereafter, the intruder returns and is extremely upset to discover that the files are gone.

Naturally, very dark and mysterious things are going on here. (How could they not be when you're dealing with a company called Bioflux?) Lucy, Kevin and an associate that I won't name for fear of giving away a plot point, join forces and go on the road in pursuit of whatever the secret was that Carl had uncovered. Very bad people will attempt to prevent them from succeeding in their mission.

I'm a huge fan of Jenny Siler's first two books, Easy Money and Iced, which both have very gritty, realistic plots and feature tough, edgy female protagonists. Shot is not a bad book, but it pales a bit by comparison to Siler's first two novels. It feels a little formulaic; the main protagonist, Lucy, is not nearly as compelling as the ones in the first two books, and the story seems a bit far-fetched. Three stars, if only because my expectations were set so high after the first two books.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom: The Collected Storeis

I've long been a fan of Martin Limon's series featuring Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. The two are U.S. Army detectives, stationed in the South Korea of the 1970s. They are assigned to investigate crimes involving U.S. military personnel, which often places them at odds with the Korean National Police and with their own bosses. 

The U.S. Army and the North Koreans are principally concerned with maintaining good relations between our two countries, even if this occasionally means sweeping some unpleasantness, like the occasional odd murder, under the rug. However, Sueno, who is the brains of the pair, and Bascom who provides the muscle, are concerned first and foremost with securing whatever justice can be wrung out of a situation. And if somebody's toes get stepped on in the process, that's just too damn bad. This means that they often wind up pursuing an investigation to its logical conclusion over the objections of both the KNP and the Army brass. It also means that they are often in hot water with both.

Through the years, Limon has published a number of short stories featuring the pair, and this book brings them all together. There are seventeen stories in the collection and, like the novels, these stories provide a rich insight into the society and culture of both South Korea and the U.S. Army of the period. Limon spent twenty years in the Army, including ten in South Korea, and so he knows the country and the people well, not to mention the Army itself. These stories will appeal principally to people who enjoy the novels, but if you're a fan of crime fiction and haven't met Sergeants Sueno and Bascom yet, you should probably do yourself a favor and seek them out.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Joe Gunther Faces the Most Delicate Case of His Long Career

A pair of tourists gets a horrific surprise when they get out of their car to photograph a scenic Vermont mountainside and find a woman's body hanging from one of the mountain cliffs. The woman has been brutally murdered; her clothes have been ripped open, and the word "dyke"has been carved into her chest. The case becomes even more sensitive and complicated when the victim turns out to be a state senator and a close ally of the state's governor, Gail Zigman.

As long-time fans of this series are well aware, Gail Zigman was once the Significant Other of Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Gail and Joe have both moved on romantically, but devastated and outraged, the governor demands that Gunther take charge of the investigation personally and that he and the rest of his team at the VBI find the killer--and quickly.

That will be easier said than done. The victim, Susan Raffner, was a long-time activist who had alienated large numbers of people through the years. Was this a hate crime, committed by someone who opposed the senator's sexual orientation, or was this a murder disguised as a hate crime, committed by someone who was angry at Raffner for political or personal reasons? 

The investigation is complicated by the fact that the physical evidence is not much help, at least initially, and further by the fact that the victim left hundreds of pages of files and other data that the police will have to sort through, looking for a possible motive. The case attracts a good deal of attention and Gunther and his team are under the gun not only from the governor but from the general public to close the case.

By now, Gunther fully understands the abilities of the members of his team, most of whom have been with him through all twenty-six books in the series, and he deploys them in the most intelligent way possible. Willy Kunkle has always been the loose cannon in the outfit, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Joe basically tells Willy to do his own thing, hoping that Willy's unconventional approach to things might point the way to a solution that might not occur to the team members pursuing a more conventional approach to the investigation. The only problem is that Willy may lead Samantha Martens, his "other half" and the team member that Gunther has assigned to ride general herd on the investigation, over to the Dark Side.

This remains one of the best regional mystery series out there and certainly one of the longest running. Through the years, Archer Mayor has maintained the high quality of the books while weaving together the lives of the cast he has created. He knows Vermont inside and out and the descriptions of the state and of its inhabitants are always very well done. This is another very good addition to the series, even if the ending does feel a bit rushed. Readers coming to the series for the first time, though, will certainly not want to start here. There are plenty of great books in the Joe Gunther saga leading up to this one.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New York P.I. Harry Angel Takes On a Routine Case That Proves to Be Anything But

First published in 1978, this is a novel that combines a fairly traditional hard-boiled detective story with supernatural horror elements. In brief, I enjoyed the hard-boiled side of the story, the supernatural parts not so much.

The story is set in 1959. New York City P.I. Harry Angel is hired by a mysterious man named Louis Cyphre to track down a former popular singer named Johnny Favorite. As the Second World War began, Favorite was becoming a major star on the order of what Frank Sinatra would become only a few years later, but Favorite was drafted and severely wounded overseas. He was shipped home and hospitalized in upstate New York, basically left to spend the rest of his life as a vegetable.

Or at least that's the story. Cypher tells Harry Angel that he had a contract with Favorite, providing that in the event of Favorite's death, Cypher would be due a significant payment. Cypher wants to know that Favorite is, in fact, still alive and that he's not being cheated out of his due. Harry takes the case and inevitably will find a major mystery on his hands.

So far, so good. It's a great setup and Hjortsberg brilliantly describes the New York City of the late 1950s. One feels like you're in the bars and jazz clubs sitting right beside Angel and walking down the streets along side him. The author also turns an excellent phrase on virtually every page. But halfway through the book, the story slides into the world of voodoo, black magic, carnival freaks, fevered dreams, and supernatural developments, and if this is your cup of tea, so much the better.

But it isn't mine, which is no doubt my fault and not the author's. That is to say that this is not a bad book at all, just one that wasn't in my wheelhouse. As an added concern, I can usually stomach almost any gruesome development that I read in a crime novel, but in this case there's a scene that totally grossed me out. I would argue that the scene wasn't even really necessary to the plot, and it was so over the top that I was truly offended.

This book was ultimately made into a movie called "Angel Heart," that featured an excellent cast, including Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke, Charlotte Rampling and Lisa Bonet. I remember liking the movie and was disappointed that I didn't like the book as well. The movie moves the story from New York to New Orleans, though, and in that respect, the black magic and other supernatural elements may make more sense. 

I'm going to dig out the movie and watch it again, just to check myself. But as for the book, I have a really split impression. An easy four stars for the hard-boiled parts, for the great writing and for the New York setting; two stars for the supernatural parts that I couldn't buy into and for the gruesome scene that turned my stomach, averaging out to three stars.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Ghostman Returns in Another High-Octane Thriller

I really enjoyed Ghostman, the debut novel by Roger Hobbs, and the second installment in the series is just as intriguing and fast-paced. It begins when a small band of highly organized crooks attacks a yacht in the South China Sea. The crew of the yacht is smuggling millions of dollars worth of uncut sapphires, and the robbers intend to relieve the smugglers of the gems. But once on board the yacht, the robbers get a huge surprise and from that moment, the carefully planned scheme quickly flies off the rails.

The jugmarker who spent months planning this operation and picking the crew is a very tough, clever woman named Angela, and when everything goes sideways, she knows that not only the operation but her life as well is now at serious risk. There's only one person that she can turn to for help--the Ghostman, a former confederate that she first discovered as a young man and trained up to be a master criminal. 

It's been five years since the two have seen each other. Angela vanished at the tail end of a bank job gone bad and the Ghostman doesn't even know if she's still alive. But he misses her every day and when he receives her coded distress message, he's off and running, determined to help in any way that he can. He grabs the first flight out for Macau and on arriving, finds himself smack in the middle of a very complex and dangerous situation. Angela's--and now, his--adversaries are brilliant and ruthless, and if the Ghostman is going to save the day, he's going to have to draw on every last resource he possesses.

You really can't say much more about the plot without giving too much away, but this is a high-octane ride that moves at a breakneck pace. Realistically, you need to read it at a breakneck pace as well, otherwise the implausibility of it all might catch up and overwhelm you. But this isn't a problem. The first scene is a real grabber and once you're into it, you're not going to want to put this one down for any silly reason like eating, sleeping, working, or whatever else you might otherwise be doing. I'm already looking forward to the next installment.