Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Carla Windermere and Kirk Stevens Team Up Again to Go After a Clever Bank Robber

Two books in, this is rapidly becoming one of my favorite new series. In their first outing, The Professionals, Minnesota BCA agent Kirk Stevens, and FBI agent Carla Windermere joined forces to track down an especially clever band of kidnappers. They then returned to their respective law enforcement agencies, expecting never to work together again. Happily, though, at least for the reader, the two are teamed up again in a case that strikes particularly close to home for Stevens.

Carter Tomlin, a Minneapolis accounting executive, has recently been laid off from his well-paying job because of the firm's declining fortunes. The loss of the job is devastating for Tomlin who is highly leveraged with a very expensive house and a wife and children who have become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle. He's unable to find another job that pays nearly as well and his world is about to come crashing down around him.

Tomlin's image of himself as a man, a husband and a father are also under assault. He's desperate to prove that he can continue to provide for his family as he believes a man should. At wit's end, he impulsively robs a bank. The take is small--certainly not worth the risk--but it plants a seed in Tomlin's mind and he becomes convinced that done carefully and properly, bank robbing could become his new profession. It turns out that he's pretty good a this and, surprisingly, he discovers that he enjoys it. The rush he gets is fantastic, and before long, robbing banks becomes his new drug of choice as well as a means of supporting his family.

Naturally, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are not as enthused. Carla Windermere and her partner are assigned to the case, but it's not a happy professional marriage. The partner is an insecure jerk who is about half as bright as Windermere. He's arrogant; he's determined to be in charge; he's usually wrong, and he's not about to be overshadowed by a female partner. Windermere is hugely frustrated and she yearns for the brief period of time when she was working with Kirk Stevens.

Meanwhile, Stevens, whose teenage daughter plays on a basketball team coached by Carter Tomlin, is coming at the investigation from an entirely different angle and as the action ramps up, his investigation begins to parallel that of Windermere and the two of them may have the opportunity to renew their partnership once again. 

This is another great read from Owen Laukkanen. The action is non-stop and the characters, even the minor ones, are all well-drawn and very compelling. Additionally, Laukkanen expertly develops the plot in a way that sucks the reader in and keeps him or her turning the pages as rapidly as possible. One would think that there would be only so many opportunities for BCA and FBI agents to be working together in Minnesota, but one can only hope that Laukkanen can keep inventing them.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

"Shake" Bouchon Returns in Another Excellent Tale from Lou Berney

This is the second very entertaining novel from Lou Berney featuring Charles "Shake" Bouchon, who first appeared inGutshot Straight in 2010. Shake is a former wheel man and ex-con who's determined to put his checkered past behind him. He's made his way to the Caribbean paradise of Belize and realized his life-long dream of opening a restaurant. 

It's a lot of work, and building a successful enterprise like this takes time and money. To make ends meet, Shake has borrowed money from a violent drug lord known as Baby Jesus. He's in danger of missing his next payment, and this could lead to serious problems. But this restaurant is a labor of love, and Shake couldn't be happier until one night a gunman barges into the restaurant in the middle of the dinner hour and attempts to shoot an elderly customer. Shake intervenes and saves the customer, breaking the gunman's nose in the process. But in doing so, he effectively blows up his own island dreams and puts himself in considerable jeopardy.

The assassin's target is a gentleman of the old school named Quinn who appears to have stepped directly out of the pages of a Ross Thomas novel and onto the stage in this book. He claims to have been involved in nefarious adventures in various parts of the world over the years. Maybe he was with the C.I.A.; maybe he was on the other side of the law; maybe both. It's not exactly clear.

Quinn attempts to enlist Shake in his next grand scheme and, against his better judgement, Shake agrees. What follows is an excellent adventure that sounds like a mash-up of Elmore Leonard and the aforementioned Mr. Thomas. There's action galore, exotic locales, interesting and very dangerous adversaries, and--even better--some interesting and very dangerous women. It's a lot of fun and a worthy sequel to Gutshot Straight, although any reader contemplating this book would certainly want to read "Gutshot" first.

Lou Berney won the coveted Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for his novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, and he's clearly a rising star in the crime fiction field. The guy can't write books fast enough to suit me, and any fan of crime fiction who hasn't yet discovered him will be very happy to make his acquaintance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tony Valentine Attempts to Disrupt a Scheme that Could Bankrupt Las Vegas

This is the eighth entry in James Swain's excellent series featuring Tony Valentine and, unfortunately, for some reason it currently exists only as an e-book.

For those who haven't yet made his acquaintance, Valentine is a former cop from Atlantic City. Upon retirement, Tony moved to Florida and opened a consulting business called Grift Sense. Basically, he consults with casinos, attempting to protect them from cheaters who are attempting to rip them off.

In this case, someone is rigging slot machines in Nevada casinos and stealing thousands of dollars. Tony gets a call from an old friend in Vegas asking for help. For reasons explained in earlier books, Tony has vowed not to work in Vegas again, but then his friend drops the bomb: the man suspected of being at the heart of the scheme is Bronco Marchese. Years ago, Marchese murdered Tony's brother-in-law in New Jersey and was never brought to justice. The opportunity to nab Marchese and settle this score after all these years is bait that Tony can't refuse.

Tony heads to Nevada with his son Gerry in tow. Gerry is now a partner in Grift Sense, but he and Tony have had a troubled relationship through the years and Tony worries that Gerry is still not totally reliable. He continues to hope that his son is finally on the straight and narrow and that he can depend upon him, but the matter is still clearly in doubt.

Once the two arrive, Tony discovers that he has waded into one of the most complex and dangerous cases he's ever confronted. The chances that he'll even survive, let alone resolve this case and deal effectively with Bruno Marchese, are very much in doubt.

As always, this is a very entertaining story with well-drawn characters, many of whom are very appealing. And, as always, Swain provides a lot of insider information about the way cheaters operate, and that too is one of the pleasures of this series. Any fan of crime fiction who happens to own a Kindle, might want to look for this one.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ace Atkins Finds Robert B. Parker's Spenser in Wonderland

This is the second novel written by Ace Atkins featuring Boston P.I. Spenser, the late Robert B. Parker's best-known and best-loved series character. As the story opens, Spenser is approached by his long-time friend and trainer, Henry Cimoli, who owns the gym where Spenser works out. Henry has never before asked Spenser for a favor, but he needs one now.

Henry lives in a condo complex near an abandoned dog racing track called Wonderland. The units in the complex are owned mostly by elderly citizens like Henry and someone is making a play to buy them out. The developers are working through dummy agents, and when Henry and some others refuse to sell, the developers or their agents send in some thugs to intimidate them.

Naturally Spenser agrees to help. His long-time sidekick, Hawk, is out of town and so Spenser recruits his new apprentice, Zebulon Sixkill, a Cree from Box Elder, Montana to assist. Sixkill is no Hawk, at least not yet, but Spenser has high hopes for the young man and feels an obligation to pass on the knowledge and skills he has acquired through the years to someone who might follow in his footsteps.

Spenser and Sixkill deal pretty easily and effectively with the two hoods that have been threatening Henry and his pals, but of course the developers who want the land will not surrender the field nearly that easily. Upon further investigation, Spenser discovers that the developers have ambitions of bringing casino gambling to Boston and have settled on the Wonderland site for their development. Henry's condo complex is the last piece of property that they need to acquire, and so Spenser negotiates with the developers, as only he can, to get Henry and the other residents a much better price for their property. Now everyone is happy--until everything turns to crap. All of a sudden, people are dying and a sinister web of greed, ambition and violence threatens to ensnare and take down Spenser, Sixkill, Henry, and a whole lot of others.

With this book, Atkins hits the sweet spot that Robert B. Parker had achieved about halfway through the series. By then, the characters and their relationships were pretty well established and Parker was still writing complex and interesting plots. That's a polite way of saying thatWonderland is, frankly, a better book than some of the ones that Parker himself was churning out later in the series. By then, Parker seemed to be writing these stories about as fast as he could type. The plots were thin and not very believable, and the books seemed to exist largely as an excuse for Parker to write witty dialogue. And by then, the relationship between Spenser and his main squeeze, Susan Silverman, had become so saccharine as to seriously antagonize lots of long-time fans.

In this case, Atkins provides a lot of snappy dialogue but gives us a great plot and a number of interesting characters to go along with it. In particular, he handles the development of Zebulon Sixkill very nicely. Sixkill may not yet be ready for prime time and watching him react to the challenges that face him as the action progresses is one of the pleasures of this novel. And, mercifully, Atkins has also sent Susan out of town for the duration of the book. Readers have to endure a few telephone calls between the two and one weekend spent together, but virtually all of us I'm sure are in Atkins's debt for sparing us any more of this.

I'm a huge fan of Ace Atkins's other work, particularly his Quinn Colson series which has become one of my current favorites. It's nice to see that another of my favorite series characters has been left in such capable hands. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Introducing Plucky Detective Cordelia Gray,

This book, which was first published in 1977 (and not 1972, as Goodreads suggests) reads like it was written in 1947, if not earlier. It's very much in the tradition of English mysteries that were set in country houses in the years between the two world wars, and there's nothing in the book to suggest the time period in which it is supposed to actually take place. There are a number of young men and women in the book, but they don't sound remotely like the young people who were living in England in the '60s and '70s; rather they sound much more like characters who would ultimately become the parents of those young people. P. D. James was 57 at the time this book appeared, which suggests that she probably didn't have a lot of contact with the young people of that era and didn't begin to understand them.

The protagonist is a plucky female detective named Cordelia Gray, who also sounds like she just stepped out of the 1940s. She inherits the detective agency where she's worked for only a brief period, when her partner commits suicide after learning that he has cancer. 

Following the partner's funeral, Cordelia is asked to investigate the suicide of a young college dropout named Mark Callender. Callender's father is a prominent scientist who didn't have much contact with his son, but he tells Cordelia that he needs to know why his son would have hanged himself. Cordelia accepts the case and promptly moves into the primitive country cottage where the boy took his life, apparently to be as close as possible to the investigation.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever read a crime novel, let alone one in this particular sub-genre, that before long our intrepid heroine will begin to suspect that Mark Callender didn't actually kill himself but rather was murdered. Cordelia will question a number of the young man's friends and will go to parties and outings with them as her investigation proceeds. And before long, she will find herself in serious danger.

This is a book that could have been shorter by a good thirty percent. There are endless descriptions of landscapes, houses, clothing and characters that go on and on and on and on unnecessarily. It's also very hard to take the story seriously because it unfolds in ways that often make no sense at all. 

That said, this is a pretty good example of a type of book that was once very popular in the mystery genre. Clearly the author had immersed herself in this field before writing the book and she then produced a novel that would have appealed to lots of readers "back in the day." It's hard to imagine, though, that this book would find much of an audience in the modern era. James would later abandon this character after only a few outings and turn to her much more successful and enjoyable (and believable) protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh, who makes a cameo appearance here. Readers curious to sample the work of P.D. James would be much better served by trying one of those novels.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Inspector Morse Must Sort Out the Secrets of Annexe 3

A New Year's Eve costume ball at an Oxford hotel ends unhappily when the grand prize winner is found murdered in his bed in the hotel annex the next day. Complicating matters is the fact that most of the guests and the staff as well imbibed rather heavily at the party and their memories of the evening aren't all that an investigator might wish. And further complicating matters is that the other five guests who were staying in the hotel annex, including the victim's wife, have all fled the scene, leaving behind only the registration cards on which they filled out their false names and addresses.

Not to worry. Chief Inspector Morse of the Oxford Homicide Division will get it all sorted out eventually. First, of course, there's the matter of identifying the unfortunate victim. Then Morse and his faithful sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, will have to wade through the complicated marital and extra-marital relationships of the three couples who were staying in the annex that night. It's a pretty complicated affair, with little evidence to go on. But Morse's keen intelligence eventually focuses in on the critical clues and the only remaining question is whether or not he can trap the killer before he or she evades his grasp once and for all.

This is the seventh entry in Colin Dexter's popular series and by now the characters and the relationships among them are very well established. Picking up one of these books is like falling instantly back into pleasant company. The mystery itself becomes almost secondary; the pleasure in these books derives from watching Morse and Lewis at work, and fans of the series will certainly enjoy this entry.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Compelling New Novel from the author of THE WHEELMAN

Set in Philadelphia, this is a gripping tale of crime, family and race that stretches over three generations. It begins with the murder of two cops, one white and one black, who are sitting in a bar in civilian clothes one afternoon in 1965. Dead are Stan Walczak and his partner, George Wildey.

Walczak leaves a young son, Jimmy, who grows up to be a cop like his father. Thirty years later, he's a homicide detective who's still obsessed by his father's murder. No one was ever charged and convicted of the two killings, but Jim Walczak is firmly convinced that the shooter was a snitch named Terrill Lee Stanton was supposed to meet his father and Wildey in the bar that afternoon. Stanton has been in jail for a very long time, tried and convicted of another crime, but he has recently been released and is living in a halfway house. What, if anything, to do with Stanton is now the question that haunts Jim Walczak.

Jim Walczak, in turn, has a son named Stas who will follow him into the department. He also has a daughter, Audrey, and by 2005, Audrey is enrolled in CSI school and is set on becoming a forensic scientist. Along the way, though, she's become the black sheep of the family. She's living in Houston, is drinking way too much, and has pretty much screwed up her life. But in 2005, the city of Philadelphia decides to erect a plaque on the site where her grandfather and his partner were killed. It's going to be an important moment for the family and, against her better judgment, Audrey flies back to Philadelphia for the ceremony.

As the novel progresses, Swierczynski follows the progress of the three main characters, moving back in time to the point where Stan Walczak and George Wildey were first partnered together during riots in the 1960s. He jumps back and forth from 1965 to 1995 to 2005, alternating chapters among the three main characters.

It's a fascinating story about the way in which a single event can affect the trajectory of a family's life for several generations and about the ways in which the various members of the family deal with the consequences of those few fatal moments that still reverberate fifty years later. It's also a very compelling crime drama that will involve several different investigations. The characters are very well drawn; the settings and the history seem right on target, and all in all, this is another great read from the man who burst onto the scene ten years ago with The Wheelman: A Novel.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

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

The penultimate book in this long-running series is something of a disappointment. A clever career criminal named the Deaf Man, who has been bedeviling the detectives of the 87th Precinct for a very long time, returns to taunt them again.

After killing a woman who had previously betrayed him, the Deaf Man begins sending a large number of cryptic messages to Detective Steve Carella who has been his principal nemesis through the years. The messages are mostly quotations from the plays of William Shakespeare and some of them are coded in a variety of ways. The detectives correctly interpret the first of the messages as a confession of the murder that the Deaf Man has committed, but the rest of them are beyond confusing.

Carella and the other detectives assume that the Deaf Man is taunting them with the plans of an upcoming crime, and in the past, he's planned and executed some huge plots. But will the detectives be able to decipher the clues in time to disrupt their adversary's plans?

It's an interesting plot, at least initially. But it runs on and on and on as the deaf Man sends message after message after message, and by the time the reader is halfway through the book (well, this reader at least), you're screaming for McBain to get the hell on with things. Then, by the time the great caper is revealed it's more than a little anticlimactic and you're thinking, "Wow, I came all the way through this book just for this?"

The more interesting parts of the book involve stories of the personal lives of the characters that have been running on for the last few books in the series. Fat Ollie Weeks is still looking for his stolen novel; Steve Carella is still depressed about the upcoming double wedding of his mother and his sister, especially now that he's paying for it, and a couple of the other detectives are experiencing problems in their relationships. These diversions are fun and often very amusing, but the rest of the book really doesn't measure up to the high standards that McBain had established earlier. It's as though he came up with a clever idea and then got too carried away with it. This isn't a bad book, but it's certainly not one of his best.