Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Seasoned Prosecutor Finds Himself on the Other Side of the Legal System

This legal/family thriller is strongly reminiscent of Presumed Innocent, the novel by Scott Turow that basically set the standard for every legal thriller that would follow.

In this case, the main protagonist is a long-time assistant D.A. named Andy Barber. He's second in command to a D.A. with higher political aspirations. The two are friends; Andy gets all the high profile cases because he's very good at what he does. Andy is married to the love of his life, Laurie, and they have a teenaged son named Jacob.

When one of jacob's classmates is stabbed to death in a local park while on his way to school, the entire community is shocked. Andy immediately takes charge of the case, determined to see that the killer is severely punished once the police find him or her. But then, Andy is stunned when his own son becomes the principal suspect in the killing after classmates reveal that Jacob had a knife much like the one the police have described as the missing murder weapon.

Andy insists, of course, that Jacob is innocent. He simply knows this intuitively because he loves his son. But Jacob is indicted and eventually tried for the crime. Andy's boss distances herself; that friendship is ended, and the case is given over to the number two prosecutor behind Andy, an ambitious, insecure prosecutor who is determined to make his bones by successfully prosecuting the case against Andy's son. Inevitably, all of this takes a toll on Andy and Laura's marriage, and so this is also a portrait of a family in crisis.

I had fairly mixed emotions about this book. I did not like any of the characters, who all seemed flat and one-dimensional. None of them was very sympathetic, and I found that I frankly didn't care much whether Jacob was convicted or not. I also didn't care about what might happen to his parents' marriage. Where the book came alive for me, though, was in the courtroom scenes. These are very well done, and once the trial finally began, I couldn't put the book down

So a mixed review for me. I really enjoyed parts of this book a lot, but others troubled me. An okay read, but not a great one.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Two Thieves Hit an Armored Car in this Christmastime Novel from Hard Case Crime

This novel, from Hard Case Crime, was published in 2014, but it's set in the Christmas season of 1951 and has the feel of a classic pulp novel. The story is fairly simple: a crime boss hires two men, Walter and Eddie, to rob an armored car. But stealing the money is the easy part. As the crime goes down, a major blizzard hits the area complicating the getaway. Of course it also hinders the cops who are in not-so-hot pursuit because of the treacherous conditions.

The narrative jumps back and forth in time and among the various characters as the day of the robbery, December 20, unfolds. The changing points of view are interesting and keep the story moving along nicely. Walter and Eddie are entertaining characters, and the story will ultimately involve a female forest ranger and her demented Captain, a couple of unhappy wives and a few other unsavory characters. It's a quick and entertaining read that's sure to appeal to fans of the Hard Case novels.

A British SportsWriter Finds Himself in Serious Trouble

James Tyrone is a sports writer for a tabloid paper called The Blaze. It's not the most respectable paper in town, but it pays better than its more prestigious counterparts and Tyrone badly needs the money. 

Tyrone's principal beat is horseracing and one day after lunch he walks a fellow scribe back to his office. The other reporter, Burt Chekov, writes for a competitor, but he and Tyrone have been friends. Chekov has been drinking heavily of late and seems to be deeply troubled. He's also been touting horses in his column, encouraging readers to bet heavily on his picks, only to have some of the horses withdraw from the races at the last minute, leaving the people who bet on them out of luck. As Tyrone walks Chekov to his office, Chekov says something that leads Tyrone to believe he has been being blackmailed and then, shortly thereafter, Chekov "accidentally" falls out of the window of his office to his death.

Tyrone smells a story and begins digging into the horses that Chekov was touting. He ultimately discovers a nefarious scheme to cheat bettors out of their money. Before long, powerful forces are warning him to drop the story, "or else." Tyrone believes that he is impervious to the sorts of threats that doomed his friend, Chekov, but when the villains discover that Tyrone may have a weak spot after all, all bets may be off.

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis story that should appeal to anyone who has enjoyed his other books. James Tyrone is the usual stand-up Francis protagonist, and the bad guys are dependably powerful and villainous. The end result is a very good read.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?

This is one of the strangest and funniest crime novels I've read in a long time. It's also very endearing with a cast of oddball characters that you simply can't help rooting for.

The story is set in New London, Connecticut, and opens with a tragic incident. A would-be con man named Connor Raposo picks up a pair of shoes and walks out of the cobbler's shop to see a garbage truck suddenly back out into the street, right in front of a Harley-Davidson "Fat Bob" belonging to guy named Fat Bob. The bike slams into the truck and body parts, presumably belonging to Fat Bob, go flying everywhere. It's not a pretty sight. 

It's a terrible accident--or is it? Two bickering detectives named Manny Streeter and Benny Vickstrom are assigned to investigate and things rapidly become very confusing. Connor Raposo, the main witness is working for a gang of grifters called Bounty, Inc. They've appeared in town running a scam collecting donations for various charities like Prom Queens Anonymous, Free Beagles from Nicotine Addiction, and Orphans from Outer Space. Since there's obviously more than one sucker born every minute, it's a pretty good racket, but the last thing Connor needs to to get entangled with the cops.

Connor also runs into trouble with mob enforcers, angry wives, a sexy woman for hire, and his own brother. It's not an easy life. It does make for a very entertaining novel, however, one that should certainly appeal to readers who enjoyed the more comic novels of Donald Westlake, for example. All in all, a very good read.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Hotel Burglar Cassie Black Tries to Make One Last Score

Void Moon, which was published in 2000, is another standalone from Michael Connelly, the creator of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. The protagonist is Cassie Black, a beautiful young woman who was once a very skilled burglar who specialized in ripping off big marks in Vegas. But then a job went catastrophically wrong; Cassie's partner and lover was killed, and Cassie was arrested and sent to the pen for six years. Now free, she's living in L.A., selling Porches, and reporting regularly to her probation officer.

Cassie has a special reason for now walking the straight and narrow, but she still occasionally feels the outlaw juices flowing, and selling cars to rich guys doesn't do much to calm them. Then Cassie suddenly finds herself in desperate need of big money fast and so, with no other option, she agrees to do a job that will earn her enough money to flee the country and build a new life.

It means going back to Vegas and running some very high risks. It will also bring her into conflict with a very bad operator who has no compulsion whatsoever about killing the people who get in his path, even in a minor way. Inevitably, the best laid plans will go awry, and Cassie will be left to her own wits and considerable talents if she's going to survive and complete her larger mission.

This is a very taut, interesting book that grabs the reader from the beginning. Cassie is a very appealing character, and Connelly obviously did a lot of careful research for the book. The technical details, even though dated now, are especially intriguing, and after reading the book, I'm not going to feel safe in a hotel room again for a good long time. A very good read.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lam and Cool Take on a Case that Mixes Murder with a Pet Crow

The eleventh Donald Lam and Bertha Cool novel begins with a client who wants the detective agency to undertake a task that he will not stoop to do himself. The client, Harry Sharples, is one of two trustees who administer a trust with two beneficiaries. One of the beneficiaries, Sharples says, is an intelligent, responsible young woman who can be trusted with the money the trustees dole out to her. The other is a young man who is anything but responsible and who will gamble or otherwise fritter away whatever funds he is allowed. 

Sharples is worried because a pendant filled with valuable emeralds and which belongs to the young woman, has suddenly appeared on the market. Sharples can't imagine why the woman would be selling the pendant and wonders if she is in some sort of financial difficulty. But he can't bring himself to ask her what's going on and so he wants Lam and Cool to investigate and figure it out for him.

Cool and Lam take the case and Donald begins to investigate. Inevitably, the case will become almost impossibly convoluted, as only a plot by Erle Stanley Gardner can do. A murder will be committed; a pet crow will enter the picture, and Donald will have to fly off to Colombia to check out an emerald mine. None of it makes any sense at all, but it's still always fun to watch Lam in action, bickering with his partner, and conducting the investigation in his own inimitable way. Of course Donald will be a magnet for at least a couple of over-sexed women and all in all, reading the book is a pleasant way to lose two or three hours.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Classic Novel from Agatha Christie

This book, first published in 1939, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), are generally considered to be Agatha Christie's most outstanding achievements. Both are premier examples of the "locked room" mystery, and this book is perhaps the most elaborate puzzle mystery ever published. Christie noted later that it was the most difficult book she ever wrote and the one that pleased her the most.

As the book opens, eight people who are all strangers to each other, accept an invitation to spend the weekend at an island house. None of them is really familiar with their hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. Owen, but they accept the invitation just the same. However, on arriving on the island, they discover that their host and hostess have been delayed and will not arrive until the following day.

The guests are thus left in the care of the couple that runs the household. Oddly, they too have never met their employers and are carrying out instructions that were mailed to them when their services were retained. Counting the couple, there are now ten people effectively abandoned on the island, given that the boat that has brought them has returned to the mainland and will not be coming back to the island for several days due to rough seas.

In each of the guest rooms there is a copy of a blackface song, written in the 1860s, and titled variously as "Ten Little Niggers," or "Ten Little Injuns." (Christie's novel was first published as Ten Little Niggers, but later editions of the book were sanitized, and the title changed to reflect the last line of the song. In current editions, the song is titled "Ten Little Soldiers," which presumably will not offend anyone's sensibilities.) The song describes the activities of the ten little individuals who die, one by one, in various misadventures until the last one expires, "and then there were none."

As the ten people assemble on the first evening on the island, it is revealed that each of them has a dark secret. Each of them has effectively gotten away with causing the death of another person. And sure enough, the ten people begin to die, each in a way that reflects a death in the poem. After two or three deaths, panic sets in and the guests don't know what to do, whom to trust, or how to save themselves.

The story is best read as a classic example of a style of British mystery that was once very popular. Needless to say, crime fiction has come a long way in the last eighty years, and readers accustomed to more contemporary novels may find this one more than a bit odd. It's fun to watch the puzzle unfold, though, and to see Agatha Christie at her best. In that sense, this is a book that should interest a large number of crime fiction fans.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Brady Coyne Searches for a Missing Heiress and Finds More Trouble Than He Bargained For

It's autumn in New England when Boston attorney Brady Coyne drives out to historic Concord, Massachusetts to visit another of his very wealthy and very elderly clients, Susan Ames. Sadly, Susan, a widow, is dying of cancer and has only a month or so to live. For the last eleven years, she's been estranged from her only child, Mary Ellen, who went away to college shortly after her father died and who has never returned or contacted her mother since.

Mary Ellen had been devoted to her father, who indulged her every whim, and never had a good relationship with her mother, who was the family disciplinarian. Hence her long absence. But Susan's death will have practical consequences. The Ames family has lived in the same historic house since 1748. It's a national treasure and it will now go to Mary Ellen. There's a fair amount of money in the estate as well, and these matters have to be addressed before Susan passes on. Beyond that, Susan simply wants the chance to reconnect with her daughter before she dies.

Susan informs Brady that the Ames family does not hire "sleazy private eyes," and so she assigns him the task of finding her daughter. Brady fairly quickly locates the town home where Mary Ellen lives, but finding Mary Ellen herself proves to be a more difficult proposition. Before long, there will be the inevitable murder, followed by a couple more for good measure, and Brady is soon up to his neck in complications and in physical danger.

This is among the better books in the series with an intriguing plot and an interesting cast of characters. Brady is his usual subdued but very effective self and, as usual, he'll find time in and around his investigations for a new romantic entanglement. A very good read for those who prefer fairly classic mystery novels.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Lucas Davenport Confronts a Unique and Especially Dangerous Set of Opponents in "Shadow Prey"

The second entry in John Sandford's Prey series barrels along at the same breakneck pace as the first, Rules of Prey. It opens with the ritualistic murder of a Minneapolis slumlord by one of his Indian tenants. That is quickly followed by the similar slaying of three other men known for their prejudicial treatment of American Indians. Lucas Davenport is assigned to lead the investigation, but he's hampered by the fact that he has few contacts in the Indian community.

The killings are being orchestrated by two elderly Indian men known as the Crows, who have developed a plan to settle some long-standing scores, particularly with a high-level government official whom they are attempting to lure into their trap. But can Davenport and his colleagues foil the scheme before it comes to fruition?

The investigation pits Davenport against the Crows and their son, a particularly twisted man named Shadow Love. (Both of the Crows were sleeping with his mother when Shadow Love was conceived and so they both act as his father.) But Shadow Love has an agenda of his own and even the Crows may not be able to deal with him.

This is a high-energy novel with a lot of great scenes as well as the particular brand of humor that would come to mark this series. Davenport's character is still taking shape, but his love life is front and center here. He's still involved with Jennifer Carey, the mother of his infant daughter, but he's also enormously attracted to Lily Rothenberg, a New York cop who comes out to Minnestota to assist in the investigation. Complications will ensue.

The plot moves very swiftly, and the plot of Indians redressing their legitimate grievances in this fashion is unique and interesting. Rereading the book, it's also great fun to go back and see Lucas Davenport in the early stages of his development. It's hard to imagine that there's a fan of crime fiction out there somewhere who still has not stumbled across this series, but if you are that rare creature, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Monkeewrench Gang Stumbles into a Developing Disaster

The third entry in the Monkeewrench series finds Monkeewrench founders Annie Belinsky and Grace MacBride on their way to a conference in Green Bay, along with Wisconsin deputy sheriff, Sharon Mueller. As they make their way north, they take several scenic detours to see interesting barns and other such attractions. The authors suggest that this is something that women do on a fairly regular basis, and before long the trio is way off course and hopelessly lost near Four Corners, a town so tiny that it actually only has two corners.

As fate would have it, earlier in the day a tanker truck has overturned in Four Corners, with catastrophic consequences. A team of sinister men is busy attempting to conceal the matter when the women's SUV breaks down and they wind up walking right into the disaster. 

It's quickly apparent that something very bad has happened in the little town and that the women might be in very grave danger. Matters are complicated when, for some inexplicable reason, the women leave their purses in the local cafe for the bad guys to find, alerting the BGs that the women have intruded into their midst. The women also inexplicably leave most of their cell phones in their purses, which means that they have no way to communicate with the outside world. 

The male members of the Monkeewrench gang soon become alarmed when the women haven't reported in and so pile into the Monkeewrench RV and go chasing after them. As the book unfolds, it turns out that the gang has stumbled into a massive plot that, if not nipped in the bud, could cause a disaster of epic proportions.

I generally enjoyed the first two books in this series, but, for me at least, this one stretched credulity way out of bounds, practically from the git go. I found the plot to be very implausible and the actions of the characters often seemed equally inexplicable. It may be a while before I return to the series.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Another Difficult and Dangerous Case for Detective Sean Duffy

Adrian McKinty's second novel featuring Detective Sean Duffy is set in 1982, during the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. As the novel opens, a man's torso is found abandoned in a suitcase. Duffy manages to identify the victim as an American tourist--a retired IRS employee who had come to Ireland to visit his roots.

The autopsy reveals that the man was poisoned by a very rare plant, and Duffy can't find a hint of it anywhere in Northern Ireland. His only viable lead comes when he discovers the identity of the man who owned the suitcase. But the investigation hits an apparent dead end when it turns out that the man who owned the suitcase has himself been murdered, apparently by IRA assassins. His widow gave the suitcase to the Salvation Army, and there's no way of knowing who might have gotten it from them.

Both cases effectively wind up on the back burner. But Duffy continues to be bothered by apparent inconsistencies in both murders and, even though he's been ordered off the case, he continues to poke and prod, antagonizing some very dangerous people in the process and putting himself at serious risk of life and limb.

This is another extremely well-told tale with a very likable and savvy protagonist. McKinty sets the stage beautifully, and the violence and the sadness of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland lurks behind virtually every scene. This book justly won the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on the third book in the series. 4.5 stars.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Detroit P.I. Amos Walker Returns for the Twenty-Third Time

This is the twenty-third entry in Loren Estleman's series featuring Detroit P.I., Amos Walker. Walker is an old-school detective and this is an old-school, hard-boiled series in the best sense of the tradition. Walker is a direct descendant of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and the Detroit streets that he drives in his souped-up Oldsmobile Cutlass are at least as mean as the ones in L.A. that were once walked by his erstwhile predecessors.

As the book opens, Walker is hired by a wealthy financier to find his much-younger wife who has left him for the second time. The wife, Cecelia Wynn, has left a note that is short and to the point: "Don't look for me." Walker agrees to do so in spite of the note, and ascertains fairly quickly that the missing spouse was unhappy and masking her despondency with shopping, lunches with her girlfriends, drinking heavily, and taking herbal remedies.

On leaving, Cecelia seems to have left behind her stash of supplements and so Walker begins by visiting the shop where she got them. There's a very interesting woman behind the counter and a dead body in the basement, and from here things get both very interesting and extremely confusing. Drug runners, porn stars, the Mafia and a couple of foreign agents all make an appearance while poor Amos attempts to somehow stay alive, stay out of jail and complete his mission.

Thirty-four years after his initial appearance in Motor City Blue, Amos is more than a little world-weary, and who can blame the poor guy? He's had to endure a great deal through the years, investigating any number of dangerous and complex cases, getting beat up, jailed, and otherwise abused, and all the while holding up the traditions of one of the most sacred sub-genres in the crime fiction business. It's a nasty job, but crime fiction fans can be grateful for the fact that Amos and his creator are still on the job and at the top of their games all these years down the road.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Follows a Case All the Way to Montana

Although he'd rather not, Boston attorney Brady Coyne agrees to spend the weekend at the Cape Cod home of one of his clients, Jeff Newton. Newton was once a very successful hunting guide in Africa, but six years ago, he was attacked by a wounded leopard and left an embittered invalid. He now lives alone with a voluptuous housekeeper in an isolated home guarded by two trained Doberman watch dogs. Two or three times a year, he summons Coyne to deal with his various legal matters.

Brady arrives on a Friday night to find Newton in a surly mood. After dinner with the housekeeper, the three of them go off to bed in their respective rooms. In the middle of the night, Brady is awakened by two men who tie him to his bed, threaten to kill him, and then knock him unconscious. When he wakes up the next morning, he manages to free himself and discovers that the two guard dogs have been killed; Jeff Newton has been badly beaten and lies unconscious at death's door, and a very valuable collection of solid gold Pre-Columbian leopards has been stolen. The housekeeper is unharmed.

The local investigators haven't a clue and initially suspect that Brady and/or the housekeeper were involved. For Brady the crime has become personal and he sets out to investigate it himself. The trail will ultimately take him to Montana and will place him in grave danger, and the chances that this will all end well are not very good.

This is another solid entry in the Brady Coyne series, and as always, along the way, Brady will find some time to fish, to bed a seductive woman, and to ruminate on the mysteries of life. Another enjoyable read for fans of the series.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A British Investigator Searches for a Horse Missing in the U.S.

AGene Hawkins is an English civil servant--actually a very astute investigator for a department that is never named. He's also severely depressed following the end of a love affair and is toying with the idea of suicide. He has a three-week vacation coming, and this is probably not good news for a man who has no life outside of his work and who is thinking of ending his own life.

Just as his vacation begins though, Hawkins's boss asks him to accompany him and his family on a Sunday afternoon boating outing. This is very odd, since the boss has never before asked Hawkins to socialize outside of work. The boss's precocious young daughter picks Hawkins up and drives him to the boat. They cast off and the boss introduces Gene to the rest of his family and to his other guest, a man named Dave Teller.

Obviously, there's an ulterior motive lurking behind the invitation, and it turns out that Teller is part of a syndicate that has just lost a very expensive horse in the United States. This is the third such horse that has gone missing, the boss wonders if Hawkins would mind using his vacation to go to the U.S. and investigate the matter as a favor to Teller. 

Hawkins has no interest in undertaking such a mission and turns the offer down. But then, while the party is still on the river, an incident occurs that convinces Hawkins to change his mind. Before long he's on his way to the U.S. and begins tracking the latest missing horse. Obviously, this is going to be a very dangerous mission, But his adversaries have no idea that Hawkins is already contemplating ending his own life, so what does he have to lose?

This book is a bit unusual for a Dick Francis novel in that most of it takes place in the U.S., rather than the U.K. And, while there are horses involved, the main protagonist is not actually part of the racing world. It's a fun, quick read, but maybe not quite on a par with a lot of other Dick Francis books. Hawkins is an OK protagonist, but one of the things that usually characterizes a Dick Francis novel is an especially menacing bad guy who's controlling things from behind the scenes. The villains here are not as scary as usual, but that's a relatively small complaint and fans of Dick Francis should certainly enjoy this effort.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Detective Jackson Faces Multiple Challenges in "Deadly Bonds"

Deadly Bonds is another excellent entry in the Detective Jackson series by L. J. Sellers. Jackson is a detective in the Eugene, Oregon P.D. and the book opens as he is called to the scene of a murder. A young woman lies dead in a run-down house, although the cause of death is not immediately apparent. In searching the house, Jackson finds a terrified three-year-old boy hiding in a crawl space under the house. Jackson convinces the child to trust him enough to come out of his hiding space and the boy immediately bonds with Jackson and won't let go of him.

Jackson naturally attempts to pass the child off to Child Services, but that goes badly and so Jackson agrees to hang on to the child temporarily while he searches for relatives who can take the boy. This may not be the best idea in the world, because at the moment, Jackson is especially vulnerable in the family department. His own daughter, Katie, is estranged and living away from home. At the same time, the daughter-in-law of Kera Kollmorgan, Jackson's Significant Other, has been badly injured in an auto accident and is not expected to live. Needless to say, Jackson's personal responsibilities to his family are thus basically colliding head-on with his obligations to the job.

Jackson's efforts to keep all these balls in the air at the same time is hindered by the city's budget crisis, which has led to staffing cuts in the P.D. In consequence, Detective Lara Evans, one of Jackson's most valuable teammates, is pulled off the investigation into the woman's murder to investigate the death of a star college football player. This makes the investigation into the original victim's death all that more difficult and places even more responsibility on Jackson's shoulders.

Sellers very deftly moves back and forth between the two death investigations and the multiple crises in Jackson's personal life. It makes for a swift-moving and very enjoyable read. The tension grows as the book progresses and ends in a great climax. Jackson is a very capable and sympathetic protagonist, and Deadly Bonds is another winner from this prolific author.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bill Hodges Reaches the End of Watch

This is the concluding volume of Stephen King's trilogy featuring ex-cop and P.I., Bill Hodges. The cast of characters from the first two books has returned mostly intact, including Hodges; his partner, Holly Gibney, and Brady Hartsfield, the maniac whose crime spree set the trilogy in motion. For almost six years, Hartsfield has been hospitalized, apparently in a persistent vegetative state, but Hodges still suspects that Hartsfield might be faking his illness in an effort to avoid prosecution for his crimes.

As this book opens, Bill and Holly are called to a death scene by Bill's former partner, Pete Huntley. Two women are dead in an apparent murder-suicide, and Huntley believes that Hodges may be interested in the scene because one of the women was one of Brady Hartsfield's original victims. The cops, or at least Pete's new partner, are ready to close the case, but Hodges is not so sure that there's not more to the women's deaths. He and Holly begin their own investigation and the game is on. It's really hard to say much more without giving too much away, and I would recommend that anyone considering the book, ignore the tease on the cover, which does give way too much away.

I enjoyed the first two books in this series, but this one not so much. I hasten to say that this is certainly much more my fault than the author's. This is one of those books where I can recognize that the book is generally well done and that it will appeal to a large number of readers. But, unlike the first two books in the trilogy which were fairly straight-forward crime novels, this one bends the genre in ways that just didn't work for me. In short, I'm really not the audience for this book.

I would argue that the book is about a hundred pages too long. It seemed to drag and to get a bit repetitive, but again, that may just reflect the fact that I wasn't really enjoying it and was waiting for it to be over. Certainly no one should avoid this book because it didn't work for me; the scores of other much more favorable reviews would certainly indicate that it did work for a lot of other readers.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Another Taut Thriller from Michael Connelly

Terry McCaleb was once a top-ranked F.B.I. agent, but then a heart attack brought him down and forced him into early retirement. After an interminable wait because of his very rare blood type, McCaleb has finally had a heart transplant and is recuperating aboard his boat which is docked in the harbor at San Pedro, California. 

Terry is still early in his recovery when a beautiful woman named Graciella Rivers shows up at his boat and begs him to investigate the murder of her sister, Gloria, who was shot to death in the robbery of a convenience store. Terry explains that this would be impossible and that his condition would not permit it. Then Graciella drops the bomb that leaves him no choice.

Against the advice of his doctor who is enormously upset with him, McCaleb agrees to investigate Gloria's death. It's going to be an uphill battle, given that he's now a private citizen and, ex-F.B.I. agent or not, the local cops who investigated the crime originally are going to stonewall him. They've written off the case as a run-of-the-mill homicide in the course of an armed robbery. They have no suspects and aren't looking particularly hard to find any. The last thing they want is for some outsider to come in and show them up.

McCaleb pretty quickly concludes that there is probably more to this crime than a simple robbery gone wrong and his investigation turns up several interesting developments. He's a unique and sympathetic protagonist, and it's fun watching him work his way through all of the obstacles thrown in his path. It's a taut compelling story--basically what anyone who reads him would expect from Michael Connelly.

I'm giving this three stars rather than four, however, because of something incredibly stupid that happens near the end of the book. (WARNING: Do not read the following unless you want a good idea how the book ends.)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Don Winslow Serves UP the Summer's Best Book

This is another brilliant novel from Don Winslow, author of The Power of the Dog and The Winter of Frankie Machine. At the heart of the story is Detective Sergeant Denny Malone of the N.Y.P.D, a deeply flawed character in a corrupt and brutally flawed system.

Malone runs a small elite task force charged with chasing down drug dealers, gun runners, gang members and other such scum. He thinks of himself as the "King of Manhattan North," and to Malone's way of thinking, the ends almost always justify the means. He and his team often act outside of the law in order to "police" the city, and for the most part, their superiors and the Powers That Be turn a blind eye. In a city riven by race and class, the P.D.'s brass want good statistics and the citizens just want the criminals kept away from their doorsteps. How that happens is not much of a concern to any of them.

Denny Malone comes from a long line of policemen, and all he ever wanted was to be a good cop. But from almost the moment he left the Academy, Malone allowed himself to be slowly corrupted until now, he's not any better than and not much different from the thugs he's supposed to be chasing. He and his team administer justice as they see fit, and along the way they rip off cash and drugs, making themselves a fortune in the process. They live like princes, but the day of reckoning is surely coming and when it does, Denny Malone will be sorely tested.

Malone is one of the most compelling figures in crime fiction to come along in years, and Winslow's indictment of the police force, the prosecutors, the lawyers and the politicians who run New York City is searing. This is one of the most depressing stories you'll ever read, and one of the most beautifully written. It's like watching a train wreck unfolding in slow motion. You can't take your eyes off it, and once you pick up this book you cannot put it down until you've reluctantly read the final page. This is easily the book of the summer and one can only wonder where Don Winslow might go from here.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"The Wrong Side of Goodbye" Is Another Great Novel from Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch has finally left the L.A.P.D. behind for good, but his mission as a homicide detective remains in his blood--it still defines who he is. Accordingly, while he's now working as a P.I., he's also volunteering as a reserve officer in the small, understaffed and underfunded police department in San Fernando. Harry is basically the department's Cold Case unit, investigating still unsolved crimes. There's no paycheck, but Harry still gets to carry a detective's badge and he still gets to do the work that gives meaning to his life.

In his capacity as a P.I., Harry is summoned to the mansion of an elderly tycoon named Whitney Vance. Vance is now a billionaire in charge of a huge company. But when he was a young college student in Southern California, he had a brief affair with a Mexican girl who became pregnant. But Vance's father drove the young woman away and Vance never saw her again. He also never knew whether she had his baby and if so, what might have happened to it.

Now on the verge of his death, Vance is embarrassed by the cowardice of his youth and wants, at long last, to make amends if at all possible. He hires Harry to find out if he does have an heir. He warns Bosch that powerful forces would be upset if this should turn out to be the case. If he has no heir, his board of directors effectively inherits his company, and the board members would not look kindly on any competition to their claim. Vance swears Bosch to secrecy and sends him on his way.

At the same time, in his capacity as a reserve detective in San Fernando, Harry has discovered a disturbing pattern in some old case files, suggesting that a serial rapist was working in the area and may, in fact, still be attacking women there. The attacker becomes known as the "Screen Cutter" because of the way in which he gains entry into the women's homes. And finding the man and getting him off the streets is a must.

As the novel progresses, Harry bounces back and forth between the two cases and each is extremely urgent. The rapist must be caught before any more women are victimized, but Vance's heir--if, indeed, there is one--must be found before the old man dies. 

Connelly tells this story as only he can, and the reader is engrossed in both cases practically from the opening paragraph of the book. Bosh remains one of the most compelling characters in modern crime fiction, and no living crime writer captures the city of Los Angeles as well as his creator. Twenty-six books into the world of Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly has solidified his claim as the logical heir of Raymond Chandler, and this is a book that will certainly appeal to anyone who loves great crime fiction.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Hamstrung by Client Privilege

The ninth Brady Coyne novel opens when his client and long-time friend, Chester "Pops" Popowski, calls Brady with a problem. Already a distinguished jurist, "Pops" has been nominated for a seat on a federal court, and he has ambitions of one day sitting on the Supreme Court. But, as fate would have it, someone has chosen this rather inopportune moment to blackmail him over an incident that happened years earlier.

If the incident were to become public knowledge, it would almost certainly derail Popowski's judicial ambitions, and the blackmailer wants ten grand to keep the secret. He also wants to meet with Pops at a somewhat seedy bar to discuss the deal. Pops refuses to tell Brady what the incident involves and insists that it was nothing all that serious--just potentially embarrassing. He wants Brady to take the meet and tell the blackmailer that he's not going to pay.

As instructed, Brady meets the guy and delivers the message. The blackmailer gets huffy about it and they exchange some words. The blackmailer leaves the bar. Brady leaves the bar. The blackmailer gets murdered. Oh, crap.

The police identify the blackmailer and trace his movements to the bar where the cooperative bartender identifies both the victim and Brady, and tells the cops that he saw them arguing. The cops want to know what they were talking about and why they met, but Brady is bound by client privilege to protect Pops and can't tell them. Not surprisingly, he becomes the prime suspect.

Through the rest of the novel, then, we watch Brady attempt to extricate himself from this mess without breaking his obligation to his client. This means that he will have to find the Real Killer himself. It's an interesting hunt, but this is not one of the more compelling books in the series. Brady wanders here and there, attempting to solve the crime, but there's not a lot of suspense. He's never in any physical danger and the reader realizes that he's probably not really going to be arrested and convicted of the murder, and so we watch him go about his business, feeling pretty confident that things will all work out in the end.

It's an okay book, and those readers who are fans of the series and who are as compulsive about these things as I, will certainly want to read it. More casual readers who want to sample the series would be best advised to dip into other entries, and this will not be a problem. There are a lot of good Brady Coyne novels out there.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Norwegian Detective Harry Hole Chases a Particularly Fiendish Killer

The opening of the eleventh entry in the Harry Hole series finds the famed Norwegian detective happily retired from the homicide division and teaching at the police academy. He's clean, sober and recently married, building his relationship with his wife and his stepson. Hard as is may be to believe, Harry Hole is actually happy.

Any fan of the series knows that this can't possibly last long, and Harry fears it as well--he knows that his life is too good to be true. Sure enough, when two women are murdered in a particularly fiendish way after accepting Tinder dates, it's clear that a new serial killer is haunting Oslo. And, of course, Harry Hole has built his reputation on hunting serial killers. No one does it better. But when the Police Chief asks Harry to return to homicide and help track down the killer, Harry refuses, insisting that he will not sink back into that swamp again. The chief, though, brings pressure to bear, effectively making Harry an offer that he cannot refuse, and soon Hole is back on the job, running his own small team in an effort parallel to the main investigation.

The plot thickens when Harry realizes that the person most likely guilty of the crimes is an old nemesis who eluded capture a few years earlier, and soon the chase is one with Harry and his old antagonist battling it out. 

The killer is a monster of the first magnitude and this novel flirts with crossing into the realm of the horror genre. Like all of the books in this series, psychological themes are front and center, and the most interesting case study is Harry Hole himself, who remains one of the most complicated and compelling figures in crime fiction. A lot of the earlier cast members are present for this outing, and as always, the tension is thick.

It's very hard to say more about the plot without giving too much away; suffice it to say that the plot is complex and turns in a number of unexpected ways. It's another page-turner from Jo Nesbo that will keep readers up well into the night and scare the living daylights out of a lot of them in the process.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Introducing Boston P.I., Spenser

"The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse."

Thus opens the novel that introduced Robert B. Parker's most famous creation, Boston P.I., Spenser. Spenser was a former cop who'd been fired for insubordination, and he was also a veteran of the Korean War. When The Godwulf Manuscript was published in 1973, he was apparently somewhere in his middle forties, which means that when Parker wrote his last contribution to the series in 2011, Spenser would have been in his early eighties. With the publication this year of the latest book in the series, written by Ace Atkins, Spenser would be pushing ninety.

For a guy that old, he still does amazingly well. More important, for a series this long--now forty-five books--the character and the concept have held up very well. Truth to tell, the series had begun to falter a bit toward the end of Parker's life, but Atkins has put it back on track and restored it to its former glory.

From the beginning, as suggested by the opening sentence above, Spenser was a world-class smart ass. He was also a very tough guy, wise to the ways of the world, and, naturally, hugely attractive to the ladies. He worked by his own rules, and for Spenser, the ends almost always justified the means. He was a very worthy successor to the generation of tough-guy P.I.s who had come before him.

In this case, a very valuable manuscript has been stolen from a Boston University. The manuscriptnappers are asking $100,000 for its safe return, but this is not one of the more stellar universities for which Boston is known. They don't have a hundred grand, and so the university president hires Spenser to get the manuscript back.

Spenser's main lead is to a group of campus radicals. Almost immediately, someone is murdered and the stakes are raised significantly. The murder and the theft are obviously related, and Spenser soon finds himself caught between the university officials, the cops, some local mobsters, a lot of uncooperative students and a particularly nasty faculty wife. Naturally, none of these will pose any significant problem for Spenser, but things will get very dicey along the way.

Rereading the book after a very long time was a lot of fun, and it's held up very well, especially for a book that's now forty-three years old. Mainly that's because the character of Spenser seems somehow almost timeless and the story moves along so well that you don't even stop to think about all the modern technology that Spenser doesn't have at his beck and call.

The character is obviously not fully formed yet. A couple of characters are introduced who will accompany Spenser through the entire run of the series, but Parker is still feeling his way along here, and it was interesting to go back and see the character again as he initially appeared. 

This is the book in which Spenser meets Brenda Loring, who will be his first significant love interest. I liked Brenda a lot, and like many another fan of this series, I rue the day when she disappeared from the series only to have Spenser wind up with the insufferable Susan Silverman. Happily, that doesn't happen for a while, which is one of the reasons why so many of the early books in this series are among the best of the lot. All in all, this was a great trip back down Memory Lane.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Kurt Wallander Attempts to Solve Two Perplexing Mysteries

As the fifth entry in this series opens, Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander is looking forward to his upcoming vacation, but then he answers a call to a farmer's field where a young girl has been standing all day in what appears to be a catatonic state. Just as Wallander arrives, the girl douses herself in gasoline and burns herself to death. Wallander is naturally horrified and cannot imagine why the girl would have chosen to end her life, especially in such a painful manner. His task now is to identify the young woman and notify her family of her fate. This will prove to be a difficult process.

Shortly after the girl's death a retired Swedish Minister of Justice is murdered by someone who smashes his head with an ax and then takes his scalp. Wallander and his team are on the case, but have no obvious suspects. For the remainder of the book, the P.O.V. switches back and forth between Wallander and the killer who is on a mission that becomes clearer as the book progresses. As it does, a couple more men will be murdered and scalped and it becomes pretty clear that neither Wallander nor anyone else on his team will be going on vacation anytime soon.

This is another very intriguing and entertaining entry in the series and, as always, it allows Mankell to make observations about a number of social issues. There are a number of troubled families in this book, for example, including Wallander's own. His difficult relationship with his daughter, Linda, has significantly improved, but his father is slowly sinking into dementia and Wallander realizes that they will have little time to repair their fragile relationship.

The plot is compelling and moves along swiftly; as always the characters are very interesting, and all in all, this is a book that should appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans.
 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Henry Grey Races to a Flying Finish

In this Dick Francis novel the protagonist is an amateur jockey. However, unlike most of Francis's novels, our hero spends very little time on horseback, and racing constitutes a very minor part of the story. Henry Grey is heir to a British title but would prefer not to be. The last child and the only son in his family, he was largely ignored as a child and developed into something of a loner with few social skills. He's happiest when he's piloting a small rented plane on his days off, alone in the skies over Britain.

Like many of Britain's noble families, Henry's has fallen on hard times financially. The massive family home is ancient and falling into disrepair. His parents and elder sisters expect Henry to do the right thing and marry some wealthy heiress who will bail out the family, but Henry wants no part of it and constantly avoids the young women that his mother keeps throwing at him.

He works in an office that arranges for the transportation of racing horses to countries near and far, but he's bored with that and so takes a job on the planes that actually fly the horses from one destination to another. The man who owns the company humors Henry by giving him the job, but he's sure that the titled nobleman won't stick it out for very long.

Obviously, though, the employer has never read a Dick Francis novel and doesn't know the kind of man he's really dealing with here. Like most Francis protagonists, Henry Grey is a quiet but very intelligent and capable man. He's also very determined and once he sets his mind to something, it's virtually impossible to change his course. Before long, Henry will discover that something very odd is going on in the horse transport business, and his discovery could well cost him his life.

Like most Dick Francis novels, this one is well-plotted and moves along at a brisk pace. The climax is riveting and if I have any reservations it's only because Henry Grey is not quite as interesting as the protagonists in most of the other books. Still, I enjoyed the book, and I'm sure that most Dick Francis fans will as well.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Introducing Ellie Stone

Set in 1960, Styx & Stone introduces Ellie Stone, a reporter for a small newspaper in upstate New York and the daughter of a renowned Dante scholar, Professor Abraham Stone. The elder Stone, a distinguished professor, has been found unconscious in his New York City apartment after having been beaten about the head. It may be a burglary gone bad, but then again, it may not be.

Ellie and her widowed father have long been estranged, but she races home to New York City and to the family apartment where she grew up. Professor Stone remains hospitalized, unconscious and in critical condition, obviously unable to shed any light on what happened the night he was assaulted. Not content simply to sit by his bedside, Ellie begins her own investigation into the attack.

The investigation leads her to the Italian department at the University where her father taught. Like many another academic department, this one is a sea of intrigue, with any number of matters large and small dividing its members. When another member of the department dies in an apparent accident shortly after the attack on her father, Ellie is certain that something sinister is going on above and beyond a simple burglary gone bad and a subsequent "accident." 

Ellie is extremely tenacious and joins ranks with the detective investigating the assault on her father, a sergeant named McKeever. She's determined to unravel the mystery and along the way, McKeever pays her what he believes to be the ultimate compliment for that day and age, when he observes that, "If you were a man, you'd make a good detective." 

Ellie thinks of herself as a "modern woman," who enjoys her whiskey and her men, and one of the strengths of the book is that the author has so deftly placed Ellie in her own time. Often in a book like this, the tendency of a good many authors is to simply transplant a woman of the Twenty-First Century back into the middle of the Twentieth, giving her values and attitudes that simply don't ring true for the time and place. In consequence the character often seems ultimately unbelievable.

Not so here. Ellie is a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own. But she is, clearly, a woman of the early 1960s. Ziskin, a linguist by training, has clearly done his homework, and the characters and the sense of place ring very true. Ellie is a very attractive protagonist and Ziskin is particularly good at capturing the jealousies, conflicting ambitions, and squabbles large and small that exist within Professor Stone's department, All in all, this is a very promising start to the Ellie Stone series.