Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Inspector Morse Gets Tangled Up with a Group of American Tourists

When a group of wealthy Americans appears in Oxford on a guided tour, one of the women in the tour is on a special mission. A rare and historically valuable jewel had come into the possession of her late husband. It was his wish that that the jewel be donated to a museum in Oxford and, in the company of her new husband, the woman has carried the jewel to Great Britain to deliver it herself. However, the night before she is to donate the gift, she dies of an apparent heart attack and her purse containing the jewel is stolen.

This would hardly seem to merit the attention of Chief Inspector Morse; after all, there is no homicide involved and he's not about to waste his time investigating a simple theft. But after determining that the lady did, indeed, die of natural causes, Morse can't help but think that something very odd is going on here.

When another person associated with the tour is found dead, it clearly is a homicide and Morse and his faithful sergeant, Lewis, are on the job. As is always the case when Morse confronts a killing, the puzzle is very complex and it's going to take a very keen mind to sort this one out. But, of course, as readers of this series know full well, Morse has exactly that sort of mind, and, as always, it's fun to watch him sort through the issues and the characters involved until he's satisfied that things have properly fallen into place.

This is another of those intricate English mysteries that could never occur in real life. But it's entertaining to suspend disbelief and watch Morse work his magic once again. This is a book that will appeal to lots of those who love traditional British mysteries

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Harrowing Look into the World of Gymnastics from Megan Abbott

Following Dare Me, a brilliant novel set in the world of teenage cheerleaders, Megan Abbot turns her eye in the direction of another exclusive arena of young girls, gymnastics. This is a very dark, thought-provoking book; brilliantly written as always. And after reading it, you will never watch the Olympic Games, or many other such sporting events, in the same way again. While there is a crime at the heart of this book, this is not a crime novel in the traditional sense. Truth to tell, the crimes perpetrated here are of a much larger variety than those one usually expects to encounter in a "crime" novel.

In Dare Me, Abbott's focus was largely on the young cheerleaders themselves. Here, though, the focus is on the parents and other boosters who sacrifice virtually everything in the pursuit of making a champion out of a gifted child. At the center of the book is the Knox family: Eric, the father; Katie, the mother; Drew, the younger brother; and Devon, the child prodigy who becomes practically the family's sole reason for existence.

The Knox family is stuck somewhere in the lower reaches of the middle classes, essentially because they have pinned all their hopes on making their daughter a champion. They buy into a years-long dream, starting when Devon is a tiny child, aimed at ultimately making her an Olympic star, even though they barely dare to mention this ultimate dream out loud. 

And they sacrifice everything for that dream. They live in a house that is falling apart. Their aging automobiles are always in the shop. Practically every dime they can scrape together, including a second mortgage that they can't afford, is spent on coaches, gym fees, outfits and travel. They spend hours every week, watching their daughter train; they're forever on the road to meets and conferences. Their social circle consists only of the other parents with similar dreams and with the all-important boosters who raise money to support those dreams. This is a family that has no life outside of their focus on Devon, and your heart breaks for little Drew whose entire existence seems to be an after thought. And in the end, this is one of the scariest books I've ever read. 

As Devon prepares for the event that will finally make or break her future as a gymnast, a tragedy occurs within the tight knit group that constitutes the Knox Family's inner circle and it threatens to destroy everything that they have aimed at, not just for Devon, but for all the other children and families as well. The aftershocks cascade through the Knox family and those around them, with no telling what they will ultimately produce. Abbott is a master at this sort of psychological drama, and watching the events unfold, you realize that you're in the hands of an Olympic-sized talent. This is a book that will stay with the reader for a very long time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Hotel Night Manager Finds Himself in a World of Danger

Jonathan Pine is the night manager at a hotel in Cairo. A beautiful woman named Sophie, who is the mistress of an Arab playboy and would-be arms dealer named Freddie Hamid, asks him to photocopy some documents for her and then to keep the copy in the hotel safe. Pine reluctantly agrees to do so and speed-reads the documents as he does.

The papers describe an arms deal that Hamid is attempting to orchestrate with a very wealthy and very bad man named Richard Roper. Pine is a patriotic Englishman and a former soldier. Thus he makes an extra copy of the documents and slips it to an official in the British Embassy with whom he goes sailing. But British intelligence obviously can't be trusted and someone gets word back to Freddie Hamid that the documents have been leaked. Hamid assumes that the leak came from Sophie and she is soon found savagely beaten to death.

Jonathan Pine, who by now has fallen in love with Sophie, blames himself for her death. He leaves Cairo and takes a position a night manager of a hotel in Switzerland. And then, six months later, Richard Roper checks into the hotel with a large party, allowing Pine a close-up look at the man Sophie once described as "the worst man in the world."

Pine decides that his life up to this point has largely been wasted, and, still blaming himself for Sophie's death, he offers his services to British Intelligence in an effort to bring Roper down. A clever plan is devised to get Pine into Roper's inner circle so that Pine can provide intelligence from within.

Pine is operating at great risk to himself, but it turns out that the greatest threat to his well-being comes probably not from Dickie Roper and his minions but from the people who are supposed to be supporting him. The book was published in 1993, when the Cold War had just ended and the world's intelligence services were in a state of flux, looking for new targets and, more importantly, for ways to ensure their own survival.

Pine and his mission get caught up in a turf war among and between intelligence agencies both in Britain and the U.S. No one wants anyone else to get the credit for an impressive accomplishment. Worse, some of these agencies have uses for a gun-runner like Richard Roper and don't want to see him brought down.

The result is a book that is very compelling and at the same time very depressing. Le Carre is very convincing when he describes the battles between these competing agencies and when he suggests that the officials in these agencies are much more interested in protecting their respective turfs and advancing their own personal agendas than they are in securing anything like the Greater Good. There is the strong ring of truth in this tale and one closes the book thinking that there are very few "good guys" involved here, and perhaps in the real world of intelligence as well.

This book was recently produced as an excellent six-part mini-series by the BBC, with Tom Hiddleston as Pine and Hugh Laurie as Roper. Both are excellent in the parts and the story has been updated and set in the modern day, rather than in the early 1990s. I enjoyed the book very much, but this may be one of those rare incidents in which the film adaptation is even better. Both are well worth a reader/viewer's time.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Great Debut Novel from Jenny Siler

Alison Kerry's childhood was anything but normal. Raised in the Florida Keys by her father, a Vietnam vet-turned-barkeeper and smuggler, Allie learned early on the skills necessary to survive on the wrong side of the American dream. As a young girl, she learned how to drink and fight and shoot and joined her father and his partner on their drug smuggling expeditions before falling into the grip of a nasty cocaine habit. Now in recovery, she has become a courier, driving packages from one part of the country to another.

Allie is not working for UPS or FedEx, but rather for any number of shadowy figures who pay her well for her services. Most often, she doesn't even know what she's delivering; she simply drives the package from point A to point B, collects her pay and moves on to the next job.

A former lover named Joe calls her with a simple assignment: pick up a package near Seattle and deliver it to Houston. No muss, no fuss; Easy Money. It turns out to be anything but, and everything that could go wrong does go wrong, right from the git go. The pickup site is a seedy bar and Allie barely has the package in hand (well, surreptitiously slipped into her back pocket), when two guys come into the bar and kill the guy who delivered it to her.

Things go sideways in a big hurry. Allie is lucky to get out alive, and from there things only get worse. She hops into her Mustang and begins a long odyssey that will take her from Seattle across the country with both the bad guys and the cops hot on her trail. The package she's carrying has the potential to disrupt the lives of some Very Important People and could expose secrets that were supposed to have been buried decades earlier. 

It's a compelling trip through the proverbial sordid underbelly of American life, and it's hard to imagine that this book was Jenny Siler's debut novel. It's even harder to believe that she was only in her mid-twenties when she wrote it. It has the depth and the wisdom that one would expect to find in a book from a much more seasoned author in the middle of his or her career. It should appeal to readers who like their tales hard boiled and on the dark and gritty side, on the order of authors like James Crumley who wrote a very strong blurb for the book.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Engaging--and Creepy--Crime Thriller from the Master of Horror

Bill Hodges is a retired detective in a city that's seen better days. For that matter, Bill has seen better days himself. He's divorced, living alone, and now spends most of his time in his recliner watching dopey daytime television shows while playing with his gun and wondering what it might be like to just stick it in his mouth and end it all. He's let himself go to seed and is now twenty pounds overweight; clearly, he's on the downhill side of life.

Like a lot of retired detectives, though, Hodges is haunted by a handful of cases that he investigated but never solved. The one that pains him most involves a killer who stole a large Mercedes sedan and then deliberately drove it at high speed into a crowd of people who were lined up outside an auditorium, waiting for a job fair to begin. Eight people were brutally killed; many others were injured, and the driver got away cleanly.

Now, several months later, Hodges receives a letter from the killer, taunting him and threatening to commit another act of atrocity. Of course, Hodges should turn the letter over to his former fellow detectives who are still investigating the massacre. But the letter stirs something in him and, rather than doing what logic and the law both require, he decides to investigate the matter himself.

The reader soon learns the name of the killer, Brady Harstfield, and this story is as much his as it is Hodges. Hartsfield is a demented young man with some serious mommy issues. But he's very good with computers and has a certain native intelligence. He has a plan for Bill Hodges and a larger one for himself, stemming from the rush he got by killing all those innocent victims at the job fair.

What follows is a great contest of wits and physical skills, pitting Hodges and a couple of unlikely allies against Hartsfield. In Hodges, Stephen King has created a flawed but convincing and engaging protagonist. In Harstfield he has created the epitome of an evil man. Books like this almost always rise or fall based on the qualities of the bad guy, and King provides us here with a believable and genuinely scary villain. Readers will not soon forget either Bill Hodges or Brady Hartsfield.

If the book has a flaw, it rests with the fact that the reader has to buy into Bill's reasons for refusing to turn this matter over to the cops so that the entire police force can be deployed against Brady Hartsfield before a lot more innocent people are killed. There are several places in the book where the reader may wind up shaking his or her head at the notion that Hodges would continue to go it basically alone. But a lot of thrillers like this require a suspension of disbelief and the story moves along rapidly enough that it's easy enough to do so here. Bottom line, this is a great read from a man who obviously knows how to tell a story.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Introducing Boston Attorney Brady Coyne

First published in 1984, this is the book that introduced Boston attorney, Brady Coyne. His creator, William G. Tapply, would ultimately go on to write another twenty-seven books in the series, ending with Outwitting Trolls, which was published in 2010, shortly after Tapply's death. It's a very good series, sort of medium-boiled, with a likable protagonist and well-developed plots.

Unlike a lot of series characters, Brady Coyne was almost fully developed by the time he first appeared. He has a small, one-man firm and a faithful secretary named Julie. More by accident than by design, he has developed a client list that consists of mostly elderly, wealthy people. Brady does a lot of wills and estate planning, and he spends a lot of time holding the hands of his clients and giving them personal service.

He's also a dedicated fisherman who loves to sneak out of the office for a late afternoon on a river somewhere. (Tapply was an ardent outdoors man who, in addition to writing novels, contributed articles to magazines likeField & Stream.) Brady is in is mid-thirties when we first meet him, and he doesn't age much as the series progresses. He'd divorced with two sons and has a somewhat awkward relationship with his ex-wife and his children. He's a ladies' man and usually has his eye out for an attractive woman.

One thing he's definitely not is a gourmet cook. In creating the character, Tapply decided that there were already too many such characters in crime fiction and so he decided to go totally in the opposite direction. Coyne eats a lot of meals at places like Burger King, and when dining at home, his preference is for Dinty Moore Beef Stew straight out of the can. Unlike a certain famous Boston P.I., no one will ever get a great recipe from Brady Coyne.

This being a crime fiction series, even the business of Brady's elderly clients will sometimes land him in big trouble and personal danger, and such is the case here in his maiden effort. A wealthy client named Florence Gresham has, or had, two sons. The elder, Winchester, is missing and presumed dead, a victim of the war in Vietnam, but his body was never found. Mrs. Gresham wants Brady to investigate and determine once and for all what happened to him. Brady protests that, as an attorney, he's not really equipped to make an investigation like this, but his client is insistent and you don't say no to someone like Florence Gresham.

No sooner does Brady begin his investigation when Mrs. Gresham's only other child plunges off a cliff and is killed. George Gresham was a mild-mannered history teacher at an elite prep school, and when his body is discovered in the waters off Charity's Point, his death is ruled a suicide. Mrs. Gresham refuses to accept the verdict and demands that Brady investigate.

What follows is a fairly standard sort of mid-1980s mystery novel. It's a good book but not a great one, and it shows the signs of being the author's first novel. But from the seed planted here, Tapply would gain his footing and produce a number of very good books. In all, this turns out to be a fine regional mystery series, and it's always fun to pull one off the shelf and re-read it on a quiet afternoon at the lake when Brady Coyne would be off fishing.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Another Dark, Gritty Tale of Northern Ireland from Stuart Neville

One of my favorite novels of the last few years was Stuart Neville's brilliant debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, a dark, violent and moody tale of life in Northern Ireland in the wake of "The Troubles." This sequel picks up the tale a bit down the road, but many of the same characters appear and issues raised in the first book are still playing out here.

Although the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland may be officially over, there's certainly no such thing as peace in the land. Violent men still have scores to settle and innocent people are still getting caught in the crossfire.

At the center of this novel is Detective Inspector Jack Lennon of the Ulster police force. Lennon, a Catholic, was disowned by his family after joining the force even though he made what many would think was a compelling argument for doing so: How could the Catholics continue to complain that they were being persecuted by the police unless and until at least some of them were willing to join the force and attempt to moderate it?

Two people central to Jack's life get caught up in the effort by a number of vicious men to settle old scores. Jack is determined to protect them at any cost, even if it means defying his bosses, perhaps losing his job and maybe even sacrificing his own life. Beyond that, it's very difficult to say much more about the plot because it would spoil the suspense of this book and would convey too much information about The Ghosts of Belfast for those who haven't had the pleasure of reading it yet.

Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book that should appeal to any fan of crime fiction who likes his or her action in the noirish vein and who might be looking for a book placed in an excellently-rendered setting. Neville obviously knows the landscape very well, both physically and psychologically. These are great characters in a well-told story, but I would encourage anyone thinking about reading it to read Ghosts first. After reading this one, you will almost certainly want to, and reading the two in order will save you from knowing a lot of spoilers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

An Introduction and a Farewell to Casino Gambling Consultant, Tony Valentine

This is the ninth and final installment in James Swain's series featuring Tony Valentine. For those unacquainted with the character, Valentine is a widower and an ex-cop from Atlantic City. Upon leaving the police force, he moved to Florida and opened his own consulting business, Grift Sense, in which he works with casinos to identify and deter cheaters. There's a good supporting cast of characters, including his son, Gerry, who has been a problem child from day one, and Bill Higgins, head of the Nevada Gaming Control Board's investigative unit, who frequently requests Tony's help and who has become one of his best friends. It's a very interesting and entertaining series; Valentine is a totally unique protagonist, and one of the fun things about reading the books is that they are chock full of tricks that grifters use to scam gambling games.

While this is the last book in the series, it could really be the first. This is a prequel to the other eight books and tells Tony's origins story. It opens back in 1979. Tony is still a young man in his late thirties. He's still married to his wife, Lois, and Gerry, his son, is only thirteen--an occasional pain in the ass on his way to becoming a major pain in the ass.

At this point, Tony is still a detective on the Atlantic City PD, investigating the normal run of criminal activities. But casino gambling has just arrived in A.C., and Resorts International, the first large casino, has just opened. Tony's boss details him to deal with criminal activity in the casino, including cheaters. Though his boss has a good reason for assigning him, Tony feels like this is a demotion and he's not happy about it.

Tony assumes his new responsibilities, but at the same time quietly attempts to keep a hand in an investigation he was involved with earlier. A serial killer is targeting hookers, and Tony was trying to track him down. His boss has ordered him away from the investigation, but Tony can't let it go.

As the book progresses, Tony continues to track the investigation into the serial murders while at the same time he begins to get an education into the ways in which cheaters try to con gambling games. It's a fun read, but frankly, it's not quite on a par with the other books in the series. This one will appeal principally to people who are well-acquainted with the series and who are curious about Tony's back story. Readers fresh to the series would be well-advised to begin with the first book, Grift Sense.

I've followed this series from the beginning and, as is always the case, I hate to let go of a character I've really come to enjoy. I'd hoped for a really strong ending to the series, but this book really doesn't work that well in that regard. It's somewhat disorienting to have the final book in the series set before all the others and there's a twist at the end of the book that was very hard to take seriously. For that reason, I'm giving this book three stars rather than four. It's still a good book, but the other eight in the series are better, and I'm happy to have them sitting on the shelf so that I can revisit them periodically.

A final note: For some reason, this book and the eighth in the series, Jackpot, are available only as e-books.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Another Very Entertaining Legal Thriller from John Lescroart

The sixteenth entry in John Lescroart's series featuring lawyer Dismas Hardy and homicide detective Abe Glitsky marks something of a turning point in the series. One of the pleasures of reading these books through the years has been watching the respective families of the two main characters evolve. Over time, we've come to know their wives and children almost as well as we know Hardy and Glitsky.

Many of those children that we have watched growing up are now young adults, including Hardy's daughter, Rebecca, or "The Beck" as he has called from from the time she was a small child. The Beck is now an attorney herself and has just joined her father's firm. By an act of coincidence, she becomes acquainted with a young man named Greg Treadway. Treadway is a school teacher and also volunteers as a court-appointed advocate for foster children.

Treadway and Rebecca meet one night in her father's bar. (Hardy owns half interest in the bar and moonlights a couple nights a week tending bar, simply because he enjoys it.) While the two are sitting there getting acquainted, a news story appears on the television noting that a seventeen-year-old African-American woman named Tanya Morgan has died. Either she has jumped, accidentally fallen or been pushed from overpass into traffic.

Treadway is stunned. The young woman is one of the girls for whom he is an advocate and he and Tanya had dinner together only hours before her death. The Beck insists that he call the police and offer whatever information he can. Naturally, he does. But when the police find inconsistencies in Treadway's story, they arrest him for murder and suddenly Rebecca Hardy finds herself defending him on the murder charge.

It's the first homicide case she's ever handled and, as nervous as she naturally is, her father is even more nervous for her. John Lescroart is famous for writing great courtroom scenes and this case is no exception. A picky reviewer might point out that no law firm worth its salt would probably ever allow a fresh young attorney like The Beck to handle his or her own murder trial alone, but the fact that she's allowed to do so heightens the tension. (The alleged reason is that Treadway can't afford to pay to have Dismas Hardy sitting as second chair.) As usual in these books, there are a lot of political machinations going on in the background and there's a fair amount of wry humor.

It's a great read, and one that will appeal to virtually anyone who enjoys a well-drafted legal thriller. And while it's nice to see The Beck get her moment in the sun, I do hope that in the next installment her father will have the opportunity to be back in court.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Another Great Thrill Ride from Owen Laukkanen

This, the third novel in the Stevens-Windermere series, begins with the two protagonists, Minnesota BCA agent, Kirk Stevens, and his occasional partner, FBI agent Carla Windermere, enjoying a cup of coffee and a quiet conversation in a St. Paul park. They casually watch a luxurious Bentley sedan pull up in front of the hotel across the street from the park and speculate about who might be in it--Prince, maybe?

They watch as an elderly, white-haired man steps out of the car. An instant later, the man is shot by a sniper and with that, Stevens and Windermere's relaxing afternoon is pretty much at an end. The two race into a tower across the street from which the shot was fired and catch a brief glimpse of a slight, brown-haired man descending the steps as they are racing up. Only a few minutes later do they realize that the man they saw was the shooter. Windermere gets a closer look at the guy in a parking lot a few minutes later and is momentarily frozen by the vacant look in his eyes. Looking virtually straight through Windermere, he casually gets into his car and drives away.

Windermere is unarmed; all she can do is note the license plate and watch helplessly as the killer escapes. But with that, the story is off and running at a frantic pace that refuses to allow Stevens, Windermere or the reader any sort of a break over the course of the next 490 pages.

In addition to creating two very appealing protagonists, Laukkanen excels at inventing truly interesting and compelling villains, as he demonstrated in both The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise. In this case, a shadowy businessman has created a website called Kill Shot, in which customers can conveniently order a murder on line. The executive recruits and "trains" ex-soldiers who are suffering from PTSD to actually carry out the killings, and neither the executive or his agents are leaving Stevens, Windermere and the rest of the authorities any sort of useful evidence that might help them break the case.

It's another page-turner from Laukkanen, with well-drawn settings, an intriguing cast of characters, and a clever plot that moves at the proverbial break-neck pace. And as it does, the relationship between Stevens and Windermere becomes increasingly interesting. Windermere is a very attractive African-American woman, ten years younger than her partner. Stevens is married to a beautiful, intelligent woman, who is almost too perfect and too understanding to be believed--especially when it comes to her husband's relationship with his F.B.I. partner. Notwithstanding that, there's clearly a growing sexual attraction between Stevens and Windermere and the question of how the two will deal with it constitutes an interesting subplot.

All in all, Kill Fee is another very entertaining novel from a writer who's clearly establishing himself as one of the best new thriller writers on the scene today.

A Great New Tale from Jay Stringer

One of my favorite characters in Jay Stringer’s Ways to Die in Glasgow was Sam Ireland. Sam is a young female detective who also operates a messenger service in Glasgow along with her brother, Phil. Phil basically spends his time in the office managing both concerns while Sam cycles around Glasgow, detecting and delivering packages. Sam returns in Stringer’s new book, How to Kill Friends and Implicate People, which is subtitled “A Love Story.”


It’s a very entertaining novel with a cast of great characters. The other main protagonist is a hit man named Fergus, and he and Sam both get caught up in what amounts to a gang war to see which criminal elements will control the city. As one might expect, Fergus becomes involved when certain of the parties hire him to do some work on their behalf. Sam gets caught up in this rolling disaster when she innocently accepts a package for delivery from someone who’s mixed up in this contest. It doesn’t help that some of the city’s cops are also involved the battle and the end result is that a girl doesn’t know who she can trust.

Fergus is also hired not to kill someone which opens up a very funny subplot involving the dissolution of a marriage. Suffice it to say that no sensible person would want to be married to either party in this domestic Armageddon.

In their spare time (not like they have a lot of it), Sam and Fergus have both reluctantly signed up for an on-line dating site. The results are amusing and interesting; mostly they make those of us who are not out on these sites very grateful.

To say much more about the plot would be to give too much away. But this is a great ride—violent, funny and sexy—and it will keep readers turning the pages quickly, while at the same time hoping that Jay Stringer is not wasting too much time riding his own bike around Glasgow rather than working on his next novel.