Friday, September 30, 2016

A Gritty Look At the Dark Side of Life in Post-World War II California

Originally published in 1939, this dark novel describes the struggles of a second-generation immigrant named Nick Garcos to improve his lot in life and the obstacles that stand in his way and in the way of so many others like him who are attempting to climb the economic ladder and grasp a slightly larger share of the American dream.

The book is set in post World War II California. Nick's father dreamed of owning his own trucking business, but died a long, slow death from an illness, beaten down by life and in particular by his wife, Nick's mother, who is one of the most unpleasant characters a reader is ever likely to encounter in a novel.

Nick, who worshiped his father and who hates his mother, is determined to do better and to fulfill his father's dreams. Through rather dubious means, Nick acquires the money to purchase a used truck. He hooks up with a veteran trucker named Ed who agrees to show Nick the ropes and, using Nick's money, they buy two truckloads of apples in the Central Valley which they hope to sell at the market in San Francisco.

In detailing their struggles to do so, Bezzerides attempts to expose the dark side of American capitalism in the late 1940's. It seems impossible for an honest man to have a chance in this system, and corrupt people of every stripe attempt to take advantage of Nick at virtually every turn. Nick and Ed are hardly paragons of virtue themselves, but the crooks that they encounter, especially at the San Francisco market, are villains of the first magnitude and Nick is the quintessential sheep being led to slaughter.

This is a beautifully written book. Bezzerides has a talent for description that draws the reader immediately into the setting. One feels totally immersed in the atmospherics of the scenes that Bezzerides describes and there's the ring of truth in the descriptions of the hard scrabble lives of the characters that populate them. Even the minor characters are very well drawn.

If I have any complaint about the book it lies in the fact that there are no sympathetic characters for one to care about. Nick, the main protagonist, has so many flaws of his own that it's really hard to root for him, even as the system grinds him down. Still, this is a very good read which would make an excellent companion piece to Leonard Gardner's Fat City. The books are set in roughly the same time and place and are populated by many of the same sorts of characters. I like Fat City better, mostly because there are more appealing characters in it, but Thieves Market is definitely a book to look for if this type of novel appeals to you.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Serial Killer Creates Complications for the Secretive Game Developers At Monkeewrench

One of the advantages of belonging to a good book club, in addition to the camaraderie and the great food and booze every month, is that you occasionally wind up reading and enjoying very much a book that otherwise would have flown under your radar. And such is the case here.

For a long time I've been vaguely aware of the mother-daughter writing team, P. J. Tracy, but for whatever reason, I'd never picked up one of their books. Then this month, one of my book clubs picked Monkeewrench, the first in Tracy's Monkeewrench series. I was drawn into the book immediately and read it through about as fast as I could turn the pages.

The book opens with the murder of an elderly husband and wife who are shot to death in a Catholic church in rural Wisconsin. The parish pastor discovers the bodies very early in the morning and calls the local sheriff, Michael Halloran, who was formally an altar boy in the parish. The couple lived very simply, but when Sheriff Halloran learns that the couple left an estate worth more than seven million dollars, he immediately assumes that this might be a pretty good motive for the double murder. Then he discovers that the money was all left to the church, and that's one good motive out the window.

Meanwhile, police in Minneapolis are confronted with two seemingly unrelated murders of a male jogger and a young woman who is killed and ritualistically displayed in a cemetery. These killings fall to detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth who initially have no idea that the two killings might be related. But a small group of game developers known as Monkeewrench, understand from the jump that the killings are tied together because the murderer is imitating the killings in a new serial killer game that they have under development.

This poses a huge problem for the people at Monkeewrench because they have their own secrets to hide and their own very personal interests to protect. Principal among them is Grace MacBride, the inventor of the game, who is extremely reclusive, more than a bit paranoid, and who won't even sit in her well-protected back yard without a gun in the pocket of her bathrobe. There are eighteen more killings in the game; how long should Grace and her fellow developers wait to alert the police?

As the two investigations proceed, it quickly becomes apparent that a very dark force is at work here and that many more lives may be at risk. But how many of their own secrets will the Monkeewrench developers be willing to reveal in order to bring a killer down and how effective will the law enforcement officers in Wisconsin and Minnesota be when push comes to shove?

All in all, this is a very entertaining and compelling thriller, set mostly in Minnesota, the land where Owen Laukkanen and John Sandford have also set very successful series. There must be something in the water up there, or wherever these authors are writing these books. Tracy, like Laukkanen and Sandford, has created some extremely interesting and unique characters and set them loose in a page-turning plot. These more than a little wry humor here, a lot of action, and a conclusion that will have any reader on the edge of his or her seat. I've already bought the second book in the series and expect that I will be making my way through all of them at a pretty swift pace. Thanks to whomever it was in my book club that suggested we should make this a pick.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Finds Trouble When He Tries to Buy a Stamp

Boston attorney Brady Coyne has a small, one-man practice and a short list of very wealthy and mostly elderly clients. They generally need advice about their taxes, wills and estate planning and so Brady's life is generally pretty sedate. Occasionally he's asked to do something a bit out of the ordinary, and such is the case when one of his clients, Oliver H. P. Weston, consults Brady about a stamp.

The item in question is the Dutch Blue Error, one of the most valuable stamps in the world. Weston owns the stamp but has received a letter from someone claiming to have another. If, in fact, a second stamp exists, the value of Weston's stamp would drop dramatically and, perhaps even worse, he would no longer be able to brag about owning the only copy of the stamp in the world.

Weston wants Brady to represent him and buy the second copy of the stamp. This will involve getting the stamp verified and setting up the exchange with the seller who prefers to remain anonymous. Brady and the mysterious seller come to an agreement, but then a killer enters the picture, seriously complicating matters. Before long, this whole business becomes very deadly and Brady finds himself on the firing line. Suddenly his practice is not that sedate at all.

This is the second book in this series and it's very well done. These are sort of medium-boiled books and Brady Coyne is a very good protagonist--a guy you'd like to have a drink with, or go fishing with, or just spend a relaxing evening with, reading about one of his cases. These are not legal thrillers--we almost never see Brady Coyne in a courtroom--but as traditional mystery series go, this is a pretty good one.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Jenny Siler Tells a gritty, Riveting Tale Set Against the Backdrop of a Brutal Montana Winter

Meg Gardner is in her middle thirties and recently released from prison in New Mexico where she served time for stabbing her boyfriend. Now free, she returns home to Missoula, Montana, and takes a job as a repo woman for GMAC. During a bitterly cold Christmas season, she's told to repossess the Jeep belonging to a pilot named Clayton Bennett. She arrives at the fleabag motel where Bennett is in residence only to discover that he had just been knifed to death. The cops are swarming all over the place but, not to be deterred, Meg locates the victim's Jeep and drives off with it. On arriving home en route to turning in the Jeep, Meg notices that Bennett has left his briefcase in the backseat.

Well, crap.

Any reader of crime fiction understands that when a guy's just been murdered and his briefcase turns up in the backseat of the car you're driving, you're probably all of a sudden in deep, deep trouble, and such is the case here. Practically before she can draw a breath, a vicious woman and a couple of Russian gangsters are at Meg's door, demanding the briefcase. She surrenders it, but whatever the bad guys and girl are looking for isn't in it. They naturally assume that Meg has removed it and demand it back.

This all turns out to be a very complicated situation which seems to turn on the fact that the murdered Mr. Bennett had years earlier crashed a plane into the Montana wilderness in the dead of winter. Bennett miraculously survived and had spent the bulk of his time in the intervening years attempting to find the crash site and the remains of his plane. Meg has no idea what might have been in the plane, but an awful lot of nasty people are interested in finding out.

Meg Gardner is certainly not Miss Marple or anyone like her. She's her own woman, a hard-drinking loner with a very complicated family background, and she doesn't take crap from anyone. In order to survive, she's got to dig her way down to the bottom of this sordid mess and it won't be easy or pretty. This is a dark, gritty novel, reminiscent of James Crumley, another Missoula author. Siler writes beautifully and is particularly adept at conveying the dark underside of this small university town and the brutal weather that can assault it during the winter. Readers will want to bundle up; it's goddamn cold out there in the still-wild West.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Boston P.I. Spenser Takes on the Private Prison Racket in This Excellent Novel from Ace Atkins

This may well be the best Spenser novel in a good long time, including many of the last books in the series that were written by Robert B. Parker himself. 

As most fans of crime fiction know, the series is now being written by Ace Atkins, who currently has an excellent series of his own featuring a Mississippi sheriff named Quinn Colson. This book has all the familiar touchstones of a Spenser novel, including the Boston setting; Hawk, the very dangerous sidekick; Susan, the romantic interest that so many fans of the series love to hate; Pearl, the wonder dog; a lot of beer, donuts and other culinary delights; and, of course, the irrepressible wisecracking P.I., Spenser himself.

What sets this novel apart from so many of the recent books in the series is that this one tackles head-on a major problem of the modern era, the private prison racket that is doing so much damage to the nation's penal system and which is also corrupting the politics in so many states. 

As the book opens a woman appears in Spenser's office asking for help. Her son has been sentenced to nine months in a tough-love juvenile facility that is run by a private prison company. The boy's offense was to ridicule the vice principal of his high school on a fake Twitter account, and it turns out that he's only one of hundreds of young people sentenced to this prison for relatively minor offenses by a judge who poses as a strict law-and-order guy, but who has suspiciously close ties to the company that runs the juvenile facility.

The boy and his mother, as well as a lot of the other young victims of this system, live in a small, down-at-the-heels town near Boston. Most of the people are poor; they can't afford attorneys, and they don't really understand what they are doing when they agree to consign their children to the horrors of this system. But once Spenser starts poking around, he discovers a great deal of rot at the core of this whole mess and, being Spenser, he won't let go until he has thoroughly roiled the pot.

It's a very compelling and entertaining story that allows Spenser to shoot off his mouth with great frequency as he takes on corrupt judges, venal lawyers and other powerful figures, as well as any number of "organized" crime members. There's enough action and other violence to keep things interesting and a plot that will leave any reader with a conscience seething. All in all, it's another great installment in the Spenser saga from an author who has made Spenser and the world he inhabits his own.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

P. I. Donald Lam Goes Looking for a Woman Who's Been Missing Since the End of World War I

First published in 1940, this is the second book in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen name, A. A. Fair. As the book opens, a man calling himself Mr. Smith hires Bertha Cool's firm to track down a woman named Amelia Lintig. Mrs. Lintig has been missing from the small California town of Oakview for the better part of twenty-two years. Mr. Smith seems to know very little about Mrs. Lintig, other than the fact that he wants Bertha to notify him as soon as the agency has found her. Bertha assures the client that Donald, her chief investigator, is a brainy little devil who will have no trouble tracking down the missing woman.

Donald drives up to Oakview and discovers that Mrs. Lintig disappeared in the midst of a local scandal that occurred shortly after the First World War. He husband, a prominent local eye doctor, ran off with his secretary and was never seen again. Mrs. Lintig filed for divorce, received a significant settlement, and soon thereafter disappeared herself. The trail is stone cold. But, as Bertha insisted, Donald is way smarter than your average detective and he's soon piecing together the elements of a very puzzling situation.

Any fan of crime fiction understands that when a guy walks into a detective agency claiming to be "Mr. Smith" and gives them a mysterious assignment, things are never going to be as they appear., and that's certainly the case here. Some bad people clearly don't want Donald poking around in Oakview; pretty soon someone is going to get murdered, and, as always happens in these books, Donald Lam is going to be up to his neck in trouble and headed off to prison unless he can pull a rabbit out of a hat in a big hurry.

This is, obviously, a very dated story, but it's a fun read and it's always entertaining to watch Donald Lam match wits with his adversaries. This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys the pulp fiction from the middle of the last century.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Owen Laukkanen Serves Up Another Gripping Thriller

This is another fast-paced thriller from Owen Laukkanen featuring Minnesota B.C.A. agent, Kirk Stevens, and Carla Windermere, the F.B.I. agent with whom Stevens is always partnered in these novels. The story is set in the world of sex trafficking and opens in a dark, steamy, rancid shipping container. A number of young women from eastern Europe are locked in the box, having been shipped to America on a freighter, unloaded on the east coast, and then trucked across the country. At stops along the way, the box is briefly unlocked and a few more women are dragged out and sold to American buyers who will enslave them in strip clubs and low-end brothels.

By the time the container and the truck it is riding on arrive in Minnesota, two of the young women remaining captive in the container are sisters named Irina and Catalina Milosovici. Irina had fallen for the charms of an American hustler named Mike who promised that he would smuggle her into the U.S. where she would find glamorous work as a model or a movie star. Her sister decided to follow in her footsteps, only to discover too late the horror that was to be their real fate.

As the truck stops in Minnesota, Irina and Catalina mange to break free, surprising the two thugs who are transporting them. A deputy sheriff happens upon the scene and one of the thugs shoots him to death. The two bad guys manage to recapture Catalina and pitch her back into the box. Irina grabs the deputy's gun and fruitlessly empties the clip against the back of the truck that is now racing away from the scene, carrying her sister and the other remaining captives.

Enter Stevens and Windermere who embark on a cross-country marathon to find the truck and rescue the women who have fallen victim to these smugglers. It's a race against time and against a ruthless group of traffickers who will stop at nothing to protect the business they have built and the profits they are reaping from it. The two sisters are principal characters and refuse to meekly submit to their fate. They and all of the other characters are very well drawn and emerge vividly from the page.

The relationship between Stevens and Windermere continues to be one of the most interesting among the male/female partnerships in crime fiction, and the developments within Stevens's continue to be of importance, especially as his sixteen-year-old daughter begins to exhibit many of the normal interests of a girl of that age while her father reacts to these interests as most fathers always have through the ages.

This is another page-turner from Owen Laukkanen that also provides an eye-opening look into a pretty awful corner of human commerce. Plan on being awake well into the night.