Sunday, July 31, 2016

Chief Inspector Morse Attacks a Complicated Puzzle from His Hospital Bed

This is among my favorites of the books in Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series, mainly because the conceit is so clever. In the other Morse novels, as is the case with virtually all police procedurals, a crime is committed--usually a murder--and then Morse appears on the scene, begins an investigation and hopefully brings the guilty party to justice.

In this case, though, Morse is laid up in the hospital with a perforated ulcer and is confined to bed for a couple of weeks. While lying there, he reads a short publication detailing the brutal rape and murder of a woman named Joanna Franks and the subsequent trial and execution of her alleged killers. The crime occurred a hundred and thirty years earlier, in 1859. Mrs. Franks, who apparently could not afford a ticket on the train or on a stage, had booked passage on a canal boat, journeying from Preston Brook south to Oxford. The sensual young woman was the only passenger on the boat, which was carrying freight, and according to the testimony at the trial, she immediately aroused the animal passions of the four drunken, derelict crewmen who ultimately forced themselves upon her, killed her and then dumped her body into the canal.

Morse is fascinated by the story, but his keen investigative mind is troubled by some of the details of the alleged crime. He's also bothered by the fact that the defendants were immediately presumed to be guilty and were not allowed the presumption of innocence. From his hospital bed, Morse begins his own investigation of the incident, assisted as always, by his able sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, and by a sexy young librarian who's visiting her father who is in the next bed. Lewis and the librarian dig through the available old records at Morse's instruction, and by the time he leaves the hospital, Morse is convinced that he has the real solution to the crime.

Again, it's a very clever idea and it's very well executed. It's a fun tale and fans of Chief Inspector Morse will certainly want to seek it out.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

An Epic Conclusion to Dennis Lehane's Coughlin Family Trilogy

This excellent novel concludes the Coughlin Family trilogy that Dennis Lehane began with The Given Day. Through the three books, the story ultimately comes to focus on Joe Coughlin and is set against background of the nation's turbulent history from the end of World War I to the middle of World War II. Joe is the son of a Boston cop, Danny Coughlin, but he ultimately rises to become a major crime boss with principal interests in Tampa and in Cuba. He's associated with the noted gangsters of the day, including Meyer Lansky and Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

As this book opens in the spring of 1943, Joe, though still a young man, has essentially retired from active duty and now acts as a consigliere to the Bartolo crime family. He's the man who mediates disputes and smooths the path so that other criminals can play well together. He's a major earner who fronts a number of legitimate businesses and plays a critical role as organized crime makes a fortune out of the raging world war.

As a practical matter, Joe is the Essential Man, and as a result, he's untouchable--or at least that's what everyone thinks. But then someone tells Joe that there's a contract out on his life. At first he can't believe it, but then he gradually comes to realize that it may be true. Even more than fearing for his own life, Joe worries about the fate of his young son. Joe is a widower and naturally wonders what would become of his son were he to be killed.

Joe has precious little time to determine who might want him dead or why and even less time to figure out what he might do about it. And as we watch him sort through his options and react to the forces arrayed against him, the reader finds him or herself in a serious moral dilemma: Why are we rooting so hard for a man who is pretty much the essence of evil?

This is a gripping, thought-provoking story with a great protagonist and a very well-drawn set of supporting characters. As he has demonstrated in so many books by now, Dennis Lehane is a very powerful and gifted writer, and this is easily my favorite of his books since Mystic River. It's a great conclusion to the Coughlin family trilogy. I usually give very little weight to author blurbs, but in this case I would make an exception. Stephen King calls this "The best gangster novel since The Godfather," and he'll get no argument from me. 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Introducing Donald Lam and Bertha Cool

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for his series of eighty-five novels featuring Los Angeles attorney, Perry Mason. But beginning with The Bigger They Come in 1939, he wrote a second series under the pen name A. A. Fair, featuring a mismatched pair of detectives named Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. The series, which was lighter in tone than the Mason series, ultimately ran to twenty-nine books, the last of which, All Grass Isn't Green, was published in 1970.

As the series opens, the Great Depression was still under way in the United States and Donald Lam was twenty-nine years old and out of work. A lawyer with a quick mind, he had been suspended from practice for suggesting that he knew a full-proof way of committing a murder and getting away with it. Down to his last dime, he answers an ad placed by the Cool Detective Agency in Los Angeles. The agency is owned by Mrs. Bertha Cool who inherited the firm from her philandering husband.

While Donald Lam is a slight young man who barely weighs 130 pounds, Bertha is in her midle-sixties and somewhere north of 275 pounds.Describing herself to a client, she says, "I like profanity, loose clothes, and loose talk. I want to be comfortable. Nature intended me to be fat. I put in ten years eating salads, drinking skimmed milk, and toying with dry toast. I wore girdles that pinched my waist, form-building brassieres, and spent half my time standing on bathroom scales. And what the hell did I do it for?"

Bertha is notoriously cheap and demanding. She's constantly ragging at Donald for something or other that displeases her, but nonetheless, she will ultimately take him into the firm as a partner. She largely confines herself to the office, trying to drum up business and attempting to wring the maximum amount of money out of any potential client, while Donald is the brains of the outfit, doing all of the investigations and usually skating along the thin line that separates him from trouble with the law.

We meet the characters here for the first time. Bertha hires Donald and immediately assigns him to what appears to be a fairly straightforward case. A woman is seeking a divorce and wants the firm to serve her husband with the appropriate papers. But as always happens in these books, what seems to be a fairly simple case turns into something much more complex and deadly.

The soon-to-be ex-husband is on the run from the law and finding him will be no easy task, especially when the cops can't find him either. But Donald has an advantage that the police do not and before long there will be action galore; people will be getting hoodwinked, beat up and murdered, and poor Donald Lam will be in the toughest spot of his life.

This is a fairly classic, soft-boiled pulp novel and it's a great introduction to the series. Crime fiction fans who enjoy books of this sort (and who can lay their hands on a copy at this late date) are sure to enjoy it.

Inspector Kurt Wallander Finds Himself in the Middle of an International Conspiracy

This, the third entry in Henning Mankell's series featuring Swedish Inspector Kurt Wallander, appeared in 1993, and is a very ambitious effort--in the end, perhaps overly so. The story starts simply enough with the murder of a real estate agent who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it quickly spins into a major international conspiracy involving a plot by die-hard South African whites to assassinate Nelson Mandela, shortly after he was released from prison.

The plotters have recruited a black assassin to murder Mandela, hoping to spark a race war that will enable the whites to continue to control the country. They've recruited a former KGB agent to train the assassin and have concluded for some reason that the training would best be done secretly in Sweden, which is how Wallander's murder investigation becomes mixed up with the conspiracy.

The story is told from several different points of view and jumps back and forth from Sweden to South Africa. It's quite a long and complicated book with a fairly large cast of characters. In many ways it's a very intriguing story, somewhat along the lines of The Day of the Jackal. But it drags on a bit too long, and it's hard for Mankell to maintain the suspense throughout the book.

I'm rating this three stars rather than four because over the course of the story, Kurt Wallander occasionally takes actions that make no sense. The maverick cop who follows his own trail and sometimes takes shortcuts while ignoring the orders of his superiors is a staple of crime fiction, and most of us love these characters, at least as long as what they are doing seems logical. In these case though, on at least a couple of occasions, Wallander does things that seem totally illogical and which leave the reader, as well as his colleagues, wondering if he might be having some sort of mental breakdown.

Still, in all, I enjoyed the story and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Spenser is on the Hunt for a Kidnapped Child

This is the third book in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series since Ace Atkins took over the franchise, and each of the entries continues to demonstrate the wisdom of the Parker family in turning to Atkins. He's definitely breathed new life into a series that needed it, while maintaining an allegiance to the characters and to the world that Parker created.

In this outing, Spenser is hired by Kinjo Heywood, a ferocious linebacker for the New England Patriots. Someone's been following Heywood; he assumes they're not adoring fans, and he wants Spenser to discourage them. This certainly wouldn't appear to be a major problem for a guy like Spenser, but the game changes dramatically when Heywood's young son, Akira, is kidnapped.

Heywood is devoted to the child and devastated by the fact that someone has taken him. The cops and the F.B.I. are on the job, but Heywood wants Spenser involved as well. Of course Spenser has his own ways of dealing with a situation like this, and he recruits Hawk and Zebulon Sixkill to assist.

The result is another tale with just the right balance of dark humor, violence, thrills and chills. It's always a lot of fun to watch Spenser dealing with a situation like this, and Atkins has created another solid plot for Spencer and the reader to immerse themselves in--much more so than some of the ones crafted in the last few books written by Mr. Parker himself. Clearly Spenser and his legions of fans are in very good hands.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Farewell to the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

This is the fifty-fifth and last installment in Ed McBain's epic series featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct. Set in the fictional city of Isola, which is closely modeled after New York City, the series began in 1956 with Cop Hater and would run for for forty-nine years to the publication of Fiddlers in 2005.

The series focused on a group of detectives who investigated a variety of crimes, but the stories almost inevitably involved homicide--often several of them within the same novel. McBain originally intended to rotate characters through the precinct, just as would occur in real life, but early on, when he attempted to kill off the person who had been the lead detective in the first couple of books, his publisher thankfully threw a fit and refused to allow him to do so. As a result the cast of characters remained pretty well fixed through the years, and it was always fun to pick up one of these books and meet a lot of old friends again. 

Through the years, the world of the police detective changed in significant ways, or at least the tools of the job did. Early on, the detectives of the 87th relied on pencils and paper records, and they were lucky to lift the occasional finger print from a crime scene or to find a bullet that ballistics could attempt to match. Tracking down records and information took forever, and they were always in search of the nearest pay phone or police call box. By the end of the series, of course, computers and cell phones were common; detectives could easily tap into federal databases, and crime scene forensics had made dramatic advances, particularly with the introduction of DNA gathering and testing. The rights of the accused had also advanced significantly with the introduction of the Miranda warning.

But while the technology might have advanced dramatically, the detectives of the squad remained fairly static. Over the course of nearly fifty years, the characters aged only about five. The lead character, Detective Steve Carella, was in his middle thirties when the series began and he had just turned forty when it ended. And for all the technological advances that the passing of time had brought, legwork, dogged persistence and intuition remained the detectives' principal tools.

It's a great cast and, while there were a few books that didn't quite measure up to the standards of the series generally, most of them were very good and some of them were downright excellent. McBain wrote with a wry sense of humor and with a clear attachment to the characters and to the city he had created. Through a very long career, he wrote a boatload of other novels and stories, but the 87th Precinct series was clearly his crowning achievement and millions of crime fiction fans have cherished these books. And even though some of these books are now over forty years old, they stand the test of time very well. While they might be dated, they're not "dated;" they're just as readable today as the were when they first appeared.

But, to invoke one of the oldest of all cliches, all good things must come to an end, and thus we arrive at Fiddlers. The book opens with the murder of a blind violinist who steps out for a cigarette break and takes two bullets in the face. The case falls to Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer of the 87th, but there are precious few clues and no witnesses. Everyone insists that the victim was beloved and that no one had any reason to kill him.

Then, before the detectives can make any progress at all on the killing, a cosmetics saleswoman is also shot twice in the face with the same Glock pistol that was used to murder the violinist. Nothing appears to link the victims to each other or to any of the other poor souls who will fall to the "Glock Killer" over the space of the next two weeks. The only thing the victims have in common is that they were all over fifty years old. The press, the mayor and the police brass are naturally in a state of panic and demand an immediate solution to the case, but it's going to take a lot of shoe leather and more than a little luck if the detectives of the 87th Precinct are going to bag their last killer and bring him to justice.

This completes my assignment of reading and reviewing all of the fifty-five books in this series. It's really been a lot of fun reading many of them for the first time and re-reading ones that I first enjoyed years ago, and I doubt that it will be all that long before I'm picking one of them off the shelf again. Four stars for Fiddlers and an enthusiastic five stars for one of the best and most enduring crime fiction series of all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Attorney Rachel Gold Searches for Contents Missing From a Grave

This is a light entertainment that no one will take very seriously with a plucky heroine and an amusing supporting cast.

Rachel Gold once worked for the huge law firm of Abbot & Windsor in Chicago, but decided to go out on her own. She's happy in her own small practice, but is then asked to look into a matter by the managing partner of her old firm. One of the senior partners, Graham Anderson Marshall III has just died, allegedly at his desk but actually in the apartment of a high-priced call girl where he was wrapped up on some sort of leather outfit.

It turns out that the late Mr. Marshall had added a very strange codicil to his will, providing $40,000 in trust for the maintenance of a grave at a local pet cemetery. Oddly, Marshall never owned any pets and apparently never knew anyone who did. The managing partner is baffled and wants Rachel to quietly check into the matter to see what is actually buried in the grave.

Inevitably, someone beats her to it and steals the coffin from the grave before Rachel can get to it. This poses a serious problem for Rachel and for Maggie Sullivan, the woman who owns the pet cemetery. Sullivan is hoping to land the funeral and burial for a hippo who has just recently died at a local zoo and is worried that the bad publicity from the stolen coffin could nix her chances. (This will give you some idea of the general tenor of the book.)

At any rate, Rachel soldiers on and finds herself in the middle of a very complex and dangerous situation. There's a somewhat wacky supporting cast, including the hooker in whose arms Graham Marshall expired. There's the requisite hunky boyfriend who has betrayed Rachel and is trying to worm his way back into her good graces, not to mention her bed. All this leads to a very convoluted ending which climaxes at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

This is one of those books that leaves me somewhat at odds with myself. Michael A. Kahn has written a book that will appeal to a large number of readers who enjoy novels like this, and I can appreciate that he has done a very good job of it. On the other hand, this is not the sort of novel that normally appeals to me and I would not have read it save for the fact that one of my book clubs picked it for this month. And while I don't regret having read it, I doubt that I will be following the misadventures of Rachel Gold any farther.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Elvis Cole Joins Forces with Scott James and His K-9 Partner, Maggie

In this novel, Robert Crais's long-time series protagonist, Elvis Cole, teams up with Scott James and his K-9 partner, Maggie, who were first introduced in Suspect. A woman named Meryl Lawrence hires Elvis, swearing him to unusually tight secrecy. She says she's worried about a woman named Amy Breslyn, who's missing from the firm where they both work and which produces classified explosive materials for the government. $460,000 dollars is also missing from Breslyn's department.

Breslyn's son, Jacob, a journalist, was recently killed by terrorists in Nigeria, and naturally, Breslin was devastated. Lawrence worries that Breslyn has fallen under the spell of a man named Charles who may have convinced Breslyn to steal the money. Lawrence wants to find Breslyn and get the money returned quietly, before Breslyn is caught by the authorities.

Lawrence can offer only one lead to help Cole get started. She gives him the address of a house in L.A.'s Echo Park. Jacob Breslyn's best friend lives or lived there recently, and the friend may be able to point Cole in the direction of Jacob's mother. But when Elvis arrives at the house, all hell breaks loose. Foul deeds are being consummated inside and the cops, including Scott James and Maggie, are arriving in force. Elvis finds himself in the middle of the chaos and catches a look at a suspect fleeing the scene.

From that point on, the book takes off like a rocket, and Elvis soon finds himself in the middle of a very dark conspiracy. The cops are all over him, but he is determined to protect his client and refuses to tell them what he knows. He effectively winds up running an investigation parallel to that of the authorities, and Scott James and his faithful K-9 companion wind up with a foot and a couple of paws in each camp.

It's a fun read, and you just have to surrender yourself to the ride and not stop to think too closely about what is actually going on. If I have any quibble with the book, it lies in the fact that the character of Elvis Cole is becoming increasingly divorced from reality. In the early novels in this series, he was a wise-cracking P.I. who investigated fairly normal cases and solved them in a reasonably rational way. Occasionally he needed a bit of extra muscle and so called on his mostly silent partner, Joe Pike. But the books were sufficiently anchored in the Real World that they did not overly strain credulity.

That's pretty much out the window now. While Cole remains a reasonably normal human being, at the drop of a hat he seems to be able to summon people to help who have powers beyond those of mere mortals. In this case, Pike is along for the ride, but Cole depends more on another ex-military guy named Jon Stone. Stone has contacts and technical skills far beyond those, apparently, of the LAPD, Homeland Security and other such organizations. At the drop of a hat, Cole can dial the phone and find someone who can instantly give him info that the cops and the Feds can't seem to find. After a while, if you pause to take a breath, you wind up shaking your head at the audacity of it all.

As I said, it was a fun read, but part of the fun was lost because of the increasingly implausibility of the action as the story went on. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to 4.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Merry Christmas from the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

The late Ed McBain is best remembered for his novels of the 87th Precinct, which ultimately stretched to fifty-four books. Additionally, McBain wrote an 87th Precinct short story called "And All Through the House: Christmas Eve At the 87th Precinct," which was first published in Playboy in December, 1984. Ten years later, Warner books reprinted the story in a small hardback edition with illustrations. Several sources list it as the 46th book in the series based on its publication in book form, although strictly speaking, based on its initial publication, it would be the 38th, followingLightning. (Is this pedantic enough? Could I possibly be more compulsive about these things?)

It's a cute little story that one can read in about twenty minutes, even when distracted by the antics of his or her kitten. It opens with Steve Carella sitting alone in an otherwise empty squad room a little before midnight on Christmas Eve. Gradually, the other main detectives drift in, each of them with suspects in tow, and various clever things happen in the aftermath.

This really isn't a "crime" story in the conventional sense; there's no mystery involved and only a tiny amount of violence. It isn't really a novel, either, and one wonders why Goodreads and the Ed McBain website would list it among the books of the 87th Precinct. Only a dedicated 87th Precinct completist would want to take the time to search it out, read and review it, but what can I say? I guess I must be that guy...

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Alan Grofield Is Offered the Chance to Become a Spy

As virtually all crime fiction fans know, "Richard Stark" was one of the several pseudonyms used by the prolific author, Donald Westlake. Writing as Stark, he was best known for his series featuring the amoral criminal known as Parker which ultimately ran to twenty-four novels. As Stark, Westlake also wrote four novels featuring Alan Grofield who appeared in several of the Parker novels as Parker's sidekick.

The Blackbird is the third of the Grofield novels and, in an interesting move, shares a first chapter with the Parker novel Slayground. In the chapter, Parker, Grofield and a third man are racing away from an armored car robbery when their car flips over with the cops in hot pursuit. InSlayground, Parker manages to get away and we watch what happens with him in the aftermath of his escape.

Grofield is not so lucky, and in this book we see what happens to him. He's captured by the police and is in the hospital recovering from the minor injuries he suffered in the crash. He's been caught red-handed and is staring at a long prison sentence. But then some mysterious government agents appear and offer him a way out.

A group of third-world leaders has gathered for a mysterious meeting and the G-men would like to know what they're up to. As it happens, Grofield is acquainted with two of the men who will be at the meeting and the agents want him to infiltrate the meeting and report back. This is a highly dangerous task, but if he completes it, the government will give him a pass on the armored car robbery.

Grofield is not remotely attracted by the idea of becoming a spy, but he's also not very enthused about spending the next several years in prison. So he agrees to go along, figuring that he'll devise a way to escape and worm his way out of the situation. The story that follows strains credulity beyond any reasonable or even unreasonable limits, but that doesn't really matter. Grofield is a much lighter and more amusing character than Parker, and it's a lot of fun just watching him maneuver his way through this mess. This is a light and very entertaining read that should appeal to anyone who has met Alan Grofield through the Parker novels and would like to see him working on his own.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Though Out of Office, Quinn Colson Is Still on the Job in Tibbehah County

I'm a huge fan of this series, which just seems to get better with every book. The protagonist, Quinn Colson, is a former Army Ranger who served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now in his middle thirties, Colson has mustered out and returned to his home in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, where he was elected County Sheriff, succeeding his uncle in the office. He's done a very good job as Sheriff--too good in the eyes of some people like Johnny Stagg, a corrupt local businessman. Stagg, who owns a truck stop along with a strip club called the Bobby Trap, dominates the politics of the county and hates the fact that Colson is trying to clean things up.

When Colson comes up for re-election, Stagg throws his influence behind a local insurance agent named Rusty Wise, a mild-mannered lightweight whom Stagg believes he can control. Wise wins a narrow victory and as the book opens, it's New Year's Eve, Quinn Colson's last night on the job, and he's saying his farewells.

As fate would have it, a small band of thieves picks that night to break into the house of a local businessman who has ties to Johnny Stagg. The businessman is out of town for the holiday and is reputed to have nearly a million dollars in a gun safe hidden in a closet in his house. The thieves are barely competent but are nonetheless extremely dangerous, and the fallout from the robbery reverberates far and wide through Tibbehah County with serious consequences for all the major characters in the novel.

The Redeemers is a riveting story populated by a great cast of characters. In particular, the two would-be safe crackers are very well drawn and enormously entertaining. It's also fun to meet again the familiar characters we've come to know through the years, including the members of Quinn Colson's family. Those who follow the series will know that Colson has more than his share of family issues and those problems continue to bedevil him here, as does his love life. And even though he's now out of office, he still finds himself dragged into this very dangerous case. 

As always, Atkins writes beautifully and he has created such a fully-imagined setting for these stories that the reader feels as though he or she is living among the people of the county. It's a place of great beauty sullied by more than its fair share of vice and corruption, and Quinn Colson sees and understands all of it better than anyone else. The central question of the series continues to be the extent to which he or anyone else can effectively address the problems of Tibbehah County and, as several characters wonder, why he would even want to stick around and try. Happily the next installment in this series is due to be released in a couple of weeks; I can hardly wait to get to it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Introducing Washington D.C. P.I. Frank Marr

Frank Marr is a retired Washington D.C. detective with two excellent skill sets: he's a great investigator and he's also very good at managing and concealing his long-time drug addiction. After leaving the force early, Frank is now a P.I. who works most often for a defense attorney. To support his addiction, he also rips off drug dealers and in the process of doing so as the novel opens, Frank accidentally discovers a young girl who is being held captive in a drug house.

Frank takes the girl out of the house, but what does he do with her? How does he take her to a hospital or turn her over to the cops without having to explain how he found her in the first place? He comes up with an alternative solution and, in the process, sets into motion forces that are soon out of his control.

It's impossible to say any more about the plot without giving away details that readers will want to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say, that this is a great read. Frank Marr is one of the most unique and compelling protagonists to appear in a long time, and the story moves at a breakneck pace. David Swinson, who served sixteen years with the D.C. police, clearly knows the territory. His prose is spare and beautiful, and this is a book that's going to appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans. Over the last couple of years, it's become almost S.O.P. to expect a big summer book with the word "Girl" somewhere in the title. For my money, this is the best of the bunch so far.