Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Introducing St. Paul Homicide Detective John Santana

This book introduces yet another Minnesota homicide detective, this one named John Santana. (There must be something in the water up there in the Land of 10,000 lakes, what with all the fictional crime that happens in the state and what with all the detectives who are running around attempting to solve all those crimes. One suspects that if you eliminated the crime novels set in Minnesota, the genre would suddenly be reduced by about ten percent. But I digress...)

Santana is a native of Colombia and left that country under tragic circumstances, which would color the rest of his life. Like any other moody homicide detective, he is a natural loner and has issues with his bosses. And, of course, his love life is complicated and/or non existent because he's so aloof and hard to get along with.

A furor results when two prominent Hispanic citizens of St. Paul are murdered on the same afternoon in the middle of a brutal winter. Santana and his partner are investigating the first homicide and on their way to question the man who will soon become the second. As they are about to walk into the second man's apartment, his body comes flying off a balcony above and nearly lands on them.

Santana and his partner chase a potential suspect and the partner, who has been drinking, shoots the fleeing man who happens to be carrying the gun that was used in the first killing. The brass are anxious to tie a bow around this one and declare it solved, but Santana has doubts and continues the investigation at great peril to his career and maybe to his life.

This is a pretty entertaining tale, even if it does seem like it hits a lot of the usual cliches. The most interesting thing about it is the insight that the book provides into the St. Paul Hispanic community. I would suggest that the plot is a bit more convoluted than it really needs to be, but I enjoyed meeting John Santana and I'll look forward to his next outing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

L.A.P.D. Detective Harry Bosch Takes on the Ultimate Cold Case

The fourth Harry Bosch novel finds the L.A.P.D. homicide detective depressed and in a world of trouble. In a fit of anger, he pushed his boss's head through a window and has been suspended from the force. His badge and gun are gone and he's forced to undergo counseling if he has any hope of getting his job back. To make matters worse, the woman he's been involved with recently has left him, and his house has been badly damaged in an earthquake. The building inspector has condemned the house.

Angry and depressed on several fronts, Harry is using some of his free time to try to make repairs to the house and save it from destruction. He also decides to investigate a very cold case--the murder years earlier of his own mother, who was working as a prostitute. Her death was the turning point of Harry's life. He knew his mother loved him but had never met his father. As a young boy, he was thus condemned to a life in an orphanage and a series of foster homes until he could finally escape into the Army.

Harry goes to the department archives and pulls the material relating to his mother's case. In and around his visits to the police psychologist who is assigned to work with him, he begins digging into the case and before long has stirred up a veritable hornets' nest.

This is another gripping story in the Bosch saga, one that goes a long way in explaining how Harry turned in to the man he has become. One would think that a thirty-year-old case would be too cold ever to clear, and it's fun to watch the inventive approaches that Bosch takes as he attempts to solve the crime.

If I have a complaint about this book and about the character, it is that Bosh sometimes seems to go deliberately out of his way to insult or anger people when there's no good reason to do so. Sometimes these are people who are actually trying to help him, but Harry treats them like crap, which is pretty much the same way he treats everyone. I understand that Connelly is trying to create a hard, dark character here--a loner with a chip on his shoulder who is reminiscent of the last coyote--but he may overdo it just a bit. Sometimes Harry reacts in a way that takes the reader, or at least this one, right out of the story, wondering why in the hell Harry would act that way when there was simply no cause to do so. 

It's always fun to watch Bosch give some jerk exactly what he's got coming to him, but it's mystifying when he turns around and does it to someone who clearly doesn't deserve it. Still, this is a relatively small complaint and on the whole, I really enjoyed reading this book again.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kurt Wallander Confronts a Very Clever and Dangerous Adversary

The opening of the fourth novel in this series finds Kurt Wallander in a deep depression. At the conclusion of the last book, he shot a man to death, and even though it was clearly a case of self-defense, he's devastated by the fact that he has taken another man's life. After brooding over the incident for more than a year, Wallander resolves to quit the police force and is at the point of turning in his papers when a very bizarre case grabs his attention.

An elderly lawyer has died. The reader knows right away that the man was murdered, but the murder is successfully disguised as an auto accident and fools the initial investigation. The man's son, also a lawyer, makes a clandestine visit to Kurt Wallander, who is still recovering, and tries to convince him to investigate his father's death. 

Wallander refuses and presses ahead with his intention to resign. But then the son is murdered and Wallander determines to investigate. He returns to the force, and quickly proves that the father's death was a homicide and not accident. But trying to identify the killer will take all of Wallander's considerable skills--that is, if he survives that long.

This is another very good entry in the series. The characters are fully developed; the plot is engaging, and the police investigation seems very realistic. Fans of the series will enjoy it and it should appeal to any fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. Kurt Wallander is the polar opposite of someone like Lucas Davenport who could easily kill a couple of bad guys before breakfast and not worry about it any longer than lunch. He's the prototypical Scandinavian detective--introspective, depressed, and relatively humorless, which makes him an occasionally nice change of pace from his American counterparts.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Hardy Boys Attempt to Solve the Mystery of The Tower Treasure

Published in 1927, The Tower Treasure is the book that introduced the teenage heroes, Frank and Joe Hardy, and which also began the series that would introduce generations of young boys to the world of crime fiction. The series ran until 2005 and consists of one hundred and ninety volumes, although some purists insist that only the first fifty-eight novels constitute the real Hardy Boy Mysteries. The books were written by "Franklin W. Dixon," the pen name used by a stable of writers who worked for the publisher that produced the books. This first volume was written by a Canadian author, Leslie McFarlane.

As the book opens, Frank and Joe, sixteen and fifteen respectively, are riding their motorcycles down a narrow road, when a speeding car nearly runs them off the road. Later, the car is found wrecked and the driver has apparently stolen a yellow roadster belonging to one of the Hardy boys' chums. (There are a lot of "chums" and "lads" in these books.) 

The first mystery to be resolved in the book then, involves finding the stolen car. But soon, another more serious crime is committed when the house of one of the town's wealthy families is robbed. the caretaker, who is the father of one of Frank and Joe's sons, is the prime suspect. He's fired and later arrested, with devastating consequences for his family. The Hardy boys are the sons of the famous detective, Fenton Hardy, who agrees to look into the case. But when he can't come up with a solution, it appears that only his sons may be able to solve the crime and save the family of their friend.

This is the sort of tale, along with others like it, that prompted many a young lad to race home from the third or fourth grade on a winter afternoon, grab a couple of cookies and a glass of Kool-Aid, and curl up with a book for the rest of the day, sometimes ignoring his own chums who were outside playing at one thing or another. 

Later that lad might get to be eleven or twelve years old and discover in his father's library Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Vagabond Virgin. And sadly, once a lad has moved on to books with titles like that, there's no going back to the Hardy Boys. One can only move forward to Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and a host of other writers that might well tempt a man in his thirties or forties to bag work early in the afternoon, pour himself a beer or two, and settle in with a good book. But whatever his age, he'll always owe a debt of gratitude to those authors who got him started.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lucas Davenport Races to Prevent the Assassination of a Presidential Candidate

Following the events of the twenty-fifth book in this series, Gathering Prey, Lucas Davenport decided to hang up his spurs and leave his job at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. For the first time in years, and for the first time in this long-running series, Lucas is no longer a lawman of any kind. He's very contentedly spending the summer adding an addition to his cabin in Wisconsin, with the assistance of a carpenter named Jimi. Lucas's former subordinate, that F***in' Virgil Flowers, observes that Jimi "has the best ass north of Highway 8." Lucas insists that he never even noticed.

As if.

The job is nearing completion when Lucas gets a call from his former boss, Minnesota Governor Elmer Henderson. Elmer is running for the presidency and is out in Iowa, campaigning for the state's upcoming Democratic party caucus. The leading contender for the Democratic nomination is a woman named Michaela Bowden, and truth to tell, Henderson doesn't expect that he can win the nomination. He's actually hoping that Bowden will pick him as her vice-presidential running mate.

Out on the trail, though, Henderson hears some disturbing news, suggesting that there may be an attempt on Bowden's life. Both campaigns, naturally, are knee-deep in security, but Davenport has always been Henderson's go-to guy when facing a difficult problem like this. Henderson convinces Davenport to come to Iowa and investigate. Lucas will have the assistance of various law enforcement agencies, but when push comes to shove, he's only a private citizen and the lack of a badge will cause him all kinds of complications that he never experienced before.

Lucas discovers an aging band of Iowa political radicals that have been protesting since the Sixties, and he comes to believe that some members of the group may actually have plans to assassinate Bowden. There are a couple of murders early on which muddy the waters, but which also convince Lucas that the assassination scheme is probably real.

Through the course of the book, Davenport races around the state of Iowa attempting to foil the scheme before it's too late. Sadly, though, he doesn't have the assistance of his old teammates like Del, Jenkins and Shrake. Much of the action centers around Iowa City, Des Moines and Davenport's namesake city on the Mississippi. As always, there's a great deal of witty humor in and around a very serious series of crimes, and the tension ratchets up to a great and bloody climax.

I especially enjoyed this particular entry in the series because I lived for many years in Illinois, right across the river from Davenport, Iowa and graduated from the University in Iowa City. I've driven about a million miles along these same Iowa roads, and it was great fun watching Lucas moving through such familiar territory.

Living in western Illinois, I was also subjected every four years to the circus that revolves around the Iowa caucuses. For well over a year, presidential candidates inhabit the state and the local news media devote tons of newsprint and hour after hour of radio and television coverage to their appearances and exploits. For months on end, the citizens of Iowa and western Illinois are barraged with ads for the various candidates, and so the story seemed very familiar in that regard as well. I can only wish that Lucas Davenport had been racing around during the real caucus season to provide some badly needed levity and intelligence to the scene.

Naturally, the media in Iowa and western Illinois love this setup; they make millions of dollars every four years selling ads to the various candidates. But the end result, of course, is that one very small state, which is not remotely representative of the nation as a whole, has a hugely outsized effect on the selection of a president. If only Davenport could have found a solution to that problem while he was on the job out in the Hawkeye State...

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Noirish Tale Set in the Dark Underbelly of Northern Florida

All things considered, Judah Cannon probably should have just stayed in prison. Instead, once released, he discovers that no one has come to pick him up, which should be the first clue as to where he ranks with his bottom-feeding family and his on-again, off-again wife. That notwithstanding, he makes his way home to the small rural town of Silas in northern Florida. His preference would be to make an honest life for himself and for the woman he has loved all his life, his childhood friend, Ramey Barrow.

Fat chance.

As soon as Judah arrives home, his low-life father and brothers rope him into another of their half-baked criminal schemes. It involves robbing a down-at-the-heels biker gang called the Scorpions of $150,000 in drug money. The bikers are in league with a charismatic preacher named Sister Tulah, and when the Cannons rip off the bikers, Sister Tulah determines to bring down the wrath of God--or at least the wrath of Sister Tulah--upon both the Cannons and the hapless bikers who lost her money.

What follows is a dark gritty tale that explores the bonds of family ties and the compelling desire for retribution. The Cannons, Sister Tulah and the Scorpions are thrown into a bloody Mixmaster of violence and revenge that will take a very heavy toll on the innocent and the guilty alike. The story brings to mind the backwoods noir of writers like Daniel Woodrell, and while it's hard to find any sympathetic characters in this tale, it's also impossible to look away.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Donald Lam Wrestles with a Malfunctioning Garage Door in this Classic Mystery from Erle Stanley Gardner

Whether in his Perry Mason series or in this Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series, Erle Stanley Gardner was fond of creating plots that revolved around extended wealthy families, living in large houses with chauffeurs and a couple of maids. Usually, there was a patriarch of some sort, often with a wife that he didn't relate to very well. There were almost always a couple of shirt-tail relatives living in the house, usually from the wife's side of the family, and usually, even though young and able-bodied, too damned lazy to go out, get a job and support themselves.

Such is the case in Double Or Quits, the sixth novel in the Lam/Cool series, published in 1941. In this case, the patriarch is a doctor who wants the firm to quietly investigate the disappearance of some jewels from the safe in his home study. A young woman who was employed in the home mysteriously disappeared at the same time the jewels went missing, and she's the obvious suspect. The plan is that Donald will go out to the doctor's home, posing as a family friend, and investigate the situation from the inside.

Of course, as anyone who's read two or three of these books knows full well, nothing is as it appears. Before long, there's a murder; there's a confidence game going on; the garage door is malfunctioning; someone is poisoning the Scotch, and things are getting downright confusing--for everyone except Donald Lam, of course.

Like a lot of the Perry Masons, most of the Lam/Cool books have plots that are so convoluted that they're impossible to follow. Better to not even try. It's a lot more fun just to go along for the ride and let Donald Lam ultimately sort everything out in the end.

This book is significant to the series because in the first five books, Donald Lam has only been Bertha Cool's employee. This is the book in which he forces Bertha to take him in as a partner and from now on, the firm will be known as Cool and Lam.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Father and Son Find Themselves on the Road to Perdition

This is a novel with a very unusual history. It began as a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, which was adapted for film, with the screenplay written by David Self. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman starred in the film, which was very good. Collins then wrote a novelization of the screenplay and now has written an expanded novel, which adheres very closely to the movie.

The story is set in Illinois in the early 1930s. The Great Depression is well underway, and times are grim for virtually everyone. One exception seems to be the criminal gangs, which are continuing to prosper at a time when Prohibition is still the law of the land.

A gangster named John Looney controls most of the vice in Rock Island, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, about a hundred and seventy miles directly west of Chicago. Looney runs his empire in league with the Capone organization in Chicago. Michael O'Sullivan is a happily married man and the father of two young boys. O'Sullivan is also a feared enforcer for Looney and is nicknamed "The Angel of Death." Looney looks at O'Sullivan as a surrogate son and spoils O'Sullivans's children as if they were his own grandchildren. The problem arises from the fact that Looney has one real son, a hot headed, self-indulgent jerk known as "Crazy" Connor. 

O'Sullivan's twelve-year-old son, Michael Jr., is curious to know what his father actually does when on his missions for Mr. Looney. A devoted reader of comics, Michael Jr. envisions that his father is some sort of secret agent. One night Michael Jr. hides in his father's car, when Dad leaves on a "mission," and he sees "Crazy" Connor Looney shoot a man to death. Connor turns and sees the boy, and from that moment, everyone's world is thrown into turmoil. In consequence, the O'Sullivans, father and son, find themselves on the deadly road to Perdition in an effort to survive the forces that have suddenly been unleashed against them.

This is a gripping novel that moves at a very quick pace. Collins based the idea on the real-life gangster, John Looney, who did rule a criminal empire in Rock Island in the 1920s. The O'Sullivans are fictional characters and Collins has moved Looney into the 1930s, even though Looney actually fled to New Mexico in the middle Twenties. Still, this is a minor matter in a book like this, and having lived in Rock Island for a number of years, I enjoyed reading about the city and its colorful past. Both the book and the movie will appeal to large numbers of people.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Detective Inspector Jack Lennon Races to Save a Stolen Soul

Stuart Neville's Detective Inspector Jack Lennon must be one of the most tortured cops on the planet. He alienated many members of his family by joining the Belfast police force during the time of the "Troubles," and his life since has been filled with tragedy. But he pushes doggedly forward, doing the best he can to resolve the crimes that come his way while at the same time attempting to raise his young daughter, Ellen, as a single parent.

It's no easy job and it becomes increasingly complicated at Christmastime. A young woman named Galya Petrova had been lured to Ireland by Lithuanian gangsters who promised her a job as a nanny. Once in Ireland, though, the gangsters intend to put her to work as a prostitute along with any number of other stolen souls. But Gayla manages to kill one of the gangsters who has decided to "break her in." She escapes the apartment where she was being held and is on the run. 

The man she killed was the brother of a major Lithuanian crime boss named Arturas Strazdas. A furious Strazdas orders Gayla hunted down and killed, but she then manages to fall into the hands of a man who may be even more dangerous than Strazdas, at least in the near term. As the hunt for Gayla goes on, the bodies begin falling left and right, and Lennon's plans for a happy, quiet Christmas with his daughter go out the window as well.

It's a harrowing story that takes the reader deep into the tragedy of the modern-day trade in sex slaves. Gayla proves to be a smart and determined young woman, but the odds against her are overwhelming and those weighing against Jack Lennon aren't all that much better. This is another very good entry in this series.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Drawn into a Case Involving Murder, Drugs and Politics

Boston attorney Brady Coyne has a very small practice consisting of a number of extremely wealthy clients. One of those clients, Tom Baron, is running for the governorship of Massachusetts. Brady won't vote for him, but he will be happy to keep representing him.

In the middle of the campaign, a young high school honor student is strangled to death after having sex with two different men. There's cocaine in her bloodstream, and it's possible that she might not have been the prim little lass that everyone thought they knew. Inconveniently, the victim is the girlfriend of Tom Baron's son. Even more inconveniently, the son, Buddy, has gone missing, and the cops think he might be guilty of murder.

Tom Baron appeals to Brady to help find Buddy. Is Dad more worried about his son, or about the disastrous effect all of this might have on his campaign? Either way, Brady agrees to do what he can and before long, he's up to his neck in trouble. 

This is a well-plotted story that moves along swiftly. It's Brady Coyne's sixth outing, and by now the character is well-established. We know what to expect of him, and it's fun watching him weave his way through the tangled mess he encounters here. As always, there are two or three women competing for Brady's attention, and fortunately, one of them is not Susan Silverman who's entangled with another Boston sleuth of some note. For that, we can all be thankful.

Two Guys and a Very Sexy Woman Play the Long Con Against a Cocky Real Estate Investor

First published in 1965, this is another pulp classic from Lawrence Block, now resurrected by the folks at Hard Case Crime. The main protagonist, Johnny Hayden, is fresh out of the slammer and determined to never go back. He's toiling away at a job in a bowling alley, making peanuts but attempting to save what he can in the hope of one day owning his own restaurant. All he needs is thirty grand or so, and at the rate he's going, it should only take him about thirty years to save that much.

But then along comes an old pal named Doug Rance who has a plan to work a sure-fire long con on a real estate investor named Wallace Gunderman. Gunderman is one of those self-confident guys who's so full of himself it's amazing that he can stand up straight. Some time back, Gunderman got suckered into buying some virtually worthless Canadian land, and he's been steaming about it ever since.

Rance proposes a plan to play off Gunderson's anger and his inflated sense of his own intelligence by offering to buy the land that Gunderson was suckered into purchasing. Gunderson will naturally wonder why anyone would want the land and will suspect that maybe the land is more valuable than he thought. Perhaps he should buy even more!

Rance wants his old pal Johnny to be the "roper" who will lure Gunderman into the deal. He insists that it's a can't-miss proposition and the best part is that it will net Johnny the thirty grand he needs to buy his restaurant. Rance has also enlisted in the scheme Gunderman's lover and personal secretary, the very sexy Evelyn Stone, and once Johnny meets her, there's no turning back.

It's really fun to watch this scheme play out; the con itself is pretty ingenious and the characters are very well done. Gunderman is a complete jerk, and you find yourself inevitably rooting for the con artists to pick him dry. A great way to waste away an evening.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere Seek Justice for the Forgotten Girls

This is another excellent entry in Owen Laukkanen's series featuring Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota BCA and Carla Windermere of the F.B.I. This case finds the pair far from the comforts of home in Minnesota, working along the "High Line" of western Montana, Idaho and Washington in the middle of a brutally cold and snowy winter.

Over the space of several years, a number of women and girls have gone missing or have turned up dead along the route of what was, historically, the Great Northern Railroad and which Laukkanen fictionalizes as the Northwestern Railroad, running along the northern rim of the U.S., from Chicago to Seattle. The victims were mostly from the lower classes--Native Americans, waitresses, prostitutes, addicts and others--women that few people would miss and that a lot of people, including their friends and families, always assumed would come to a bad end.

No one sees a pattern here, though, until Stevens and Windermere begin tracking the case of a young "train hopper," one of a group of men and women who travel around the country by hopping rides on trains. Rumors have long spread among among female hoppers that bad things happen to women riding the High Line, and the conventional wisdom is that no woman should ever ride the High Line alone.

Stevens and Windermere come into the case when a photo surfaces on the phone of a Minnesota man showing the body of a young woman who has been attacked, killed and abandoned along the High Line. The two then learn that a girlfriend of the young victim is headed toward the site where the body was found, determined to smoke out the killer and ignoring all the warnings about riding the High Line by herself. Stevens and Windermere are soon hot on the trail of the young woman, and of the killer known as The Rider, hoping against all odds that they can smoke out the killer before another young woman falls into his clutches.

Complicating matters considerably is the fact that the story takes place in the dead of a brutal winter with freezing temperatures and one blizzard after another. For a while, Steven and Windermere find themselves trapped in a tiny town with no Internet or cell phone access, unable to move while the killer is closing in on another victim.

It's a riveting tale with a number of well-drawn and interesting characters. As always, it's fun to watch Stevens and Windermere work the case, and Laukkanen does a fantastic job setting the scene. His description of the snow storms and the freezing weather are especially vivid and even though I was reading the book outdoors on an eighty-five-degree day in the Arizona desert, I still felt like I ought to be making myself a large hot chocolate or at least pouring a tumbler of whisky to ward off the cold. All in all, another very good read.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Has Steeplechase Jockey Rob Finn Lost His Nerve?

This, the second novel by Dick Francis, was first published in 1964, and like most of his books, this one is set in the world of British horse racing. The protagonist, Rob Finn, shares all the usual characteristics and the same sort of frustrated love life as the typical Francis protagonist. He's quiet and self-effacing, which often leads people to underestimate him. But underneath, he's clever and resourceful and he has a steely resolve that does not bode well for anyone who would do an injustice to Finn or to someone he cares about.

As the book opens, Finn is a struggling young steeplechase jockey trying to work his way up the ladder to better mounts and more success. It's a tough climb, made even harder by the fact that someone is spreading stories about some jockeys that may or may not be true, but which nonetheless are causing them to lose their jobs. One fired jockey even commits suicide.

When Rob becomes the target of false rumors, though, he doesn't chuck it all and kill himself or leave racing for another profession. Rather, he begins an investigation in an effort to clear his own name and those of his friends. It's a very dangerous undertaking and he's up against an especially determined opponent. The result is a very tense story that has the reader turning the pages rapidly. 

Re-reading the first Francis novel, Dead Cert, I was a bit disappointed because the book didn't seem to be up to the standards I'd come to expect from Francis. But this one is spot-on and makes me glad that I decided to work my way through his novels again.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Rogue Lawyer Finds Himself Under Fire from People on Both Sides of the Law

I've always been a fan of John Grisham's legal thrillers, but I was a bit disappointed in the last one that I read, Gray Mountain, which I thought was a bit preachy with characters that weren't all that interesting. This book is, to my mind at least, a lot more fun, and I devoured it in a couple of sessions.

The protagonist is a lawyer named Sebastian Rudd who works out of a bulletproof van after his last "real" office was firebombed. He has one employee, a bodyguard and general assistant, who drives him from appointment to appointment and who attempts to protect him from the large numbers of people on both sides of the law who would like to do him harm. He has an ex-wife to whom he was briefly married before she left him for her gay lover. But the two did manage to conceive a son that Rudd gets to see for a few hours a month, and one of his principal legal challenges is to fend off his vindictive ex-wife who would prefer that Rudd not get to see their son at all. He is also invested in a young cage fighter who appears to have a very bright future.

The cops and prosecutors hate Rudd because he usually defends the scum of the earth. For example, as the book opens, he's defending a tattooed kid with multiple piercings and a very low IQ, who's been accused of the brutal murder of two little girls. There's precious little evidence to actually link the kid to the crime, but the cops and the prosecutors are determined to railroad him to a death sentence and they've convinced practically everyone in town that the kid is guilty.

In another case, Rudd is defending a brutal killer who has already been convicted and is on death row, and in consequence he's not a very popular guy with the general public either. Truth to tell, the argument that in America everyone deserves a fair trial and legal representation is generally lost on a large segment of the public who assume that the police would never arrest the wrong person and that the accused parties should just be strung from the nearest tree ASAP, constitutional niceties be damned.

Unlike a lot of legal thrillers that focus on a single case throughout, this book follows Rudd from one case to another and the cases bleed into each other as they would in the real world. I found Rudd to be a fascinating character, flaws and all, and I loved watching him work in and out of court. The cases themselves were very interesting and I really hope that Grisham has another Sebastian Rudd novel in his future.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Concrete Blonde Bedevils L. A. Homicide Detective Harry Bosch

Four years ago, L. A. homicide detective, Harry Bosch, was part of a task force hunting a sadistic serial killer known as the Dollmaker. The killer preyed on vulnerable women and was blamed for taking the lives of eleven victims. Late one night, after the rest of the team had gone home, Bosch took a frantic call from a prostitute who said that she had just escaped from the Dollmaker. Harry assumed this was probably just another false lead and decided to meet the woman on his way home, without notifying anyone else.

Upon meeting the victim, though, Bosch concluded that she was credible, especially when she led him back to the small apartment where she said the killer had held her. Through the window, Bosch could see a man moving about in the apartment. He thought about calling for backup, but realized that the Dollmaker might have already lured another victim into the apartment and that he might kill her before reinforcements could arrive. Accordingly, Bosch kicked in the door and found a naked man standing across the floor. Bosch ordered him to freeze, but instead the man reached under a pillow, as if going for a weapon. Bosch fired once, killing the man instantly. Then, lifting up the pillow, he saw that the man had been reaching for a toupee.

Once Harry called it in, reinforcements arrived and found solid evidence linking the victim to nine of the eleven killings. The case was declared closed, and in spite of his role in bringing the case to a successful conclusion, Bosch was demoted from the elite Robbery-Homicide Division for failing to call for backup before entering the apartment.

Now, four years later, the family of the man Bosch killed is suing him and the department, claiming that Bosch acted recklessly and without cause in shooting the man he believed to be the killer. The trial has barely begun, however, when a new victim is discovered--a blonde who had been killed and encased in concrete. The killing bears all the signature touches of the Dollmaker, but this victim has only been dead for two years. Is it possible after all, that Bosch shot an innocent man?

Bosh insists that he did not, and that the new killer must be a copycat. The book thus proceeds along two tracks as Harry stands trial for his actions four years earlier while at the same time hunting a sadistic killer who may or may not have been the real Dollmaker all along. It's a riveting story on both fronts. The courtroom scenes are very well done and will appeal to readers who enjoy legal thrillers. Harry's adversary in court, a female attorney nicknamed "Money" Chandler is a great character in her own right. The hunt for the killer is also edge-of-your-seat stuff, and through it all, Harry is forced to examine the deep, inner darkness of his own soul. All in all, a very solid early entry in a great series.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Leonard Mitchell Gets a Great New Job, But Can He Live Long Enough to Keep It?

Leonard Mitchell is the new acting director of New York City's Department to Investigate Misconduct and Corruption. In particular, it's the job of his office to root out and punish corrupt cops. Mitchell is very anxious to get the job on a full-time basis and so it's important that he make a big score right out of the gate.

He gets his chance with a case involving a veteran detective named Ralph Mulino. Mulino is fifty-three years old, a cop with a bad knee and a shadow that's dogged his career for years. He's called out in the middle of a hot night to investigate an alarm from a ship at anchor in the harbor. He's not really the logical person to respond to such a call and can't imagine why he captain has insisted that he should go. But once ordered to do so, he naturally agrees.

When the Harbor Patrol delivers him to the vessel, Mulino climbs a long slippery ladder and makes his way up onto a deck that appears deserted. After a few minutes, though, he discovers a body lying on the deck and suddenly realizes that he is not alone. He tracks down a man moving through the containers and orders him to freeze. The man raises a gun in his direction and Mulino fires a single shot, dropping the man in his tracks. As the man lays dying, Mulino pulls a lanyard from under the guy's shirt and discovers a detective's badge.

At which point, all hell breaks loose.

A swarm of cops arrives and Mulino tells his story. The only problem is that no one can find the gun that Molino saw in the dead man's hand. Thus the case falls to Leonard Mitchell who sees a chance to make his bones by bringing down Molino. But as he digs further into the case, Mitchell finds that he's pulled back the curtain on a web of corruption and financial intrigue, and the more he presses the case the more complicated--and dangerous--it becomes.

This is a taut thriller with a unique protagonist and a very clever set of crimes. The author, a playwright, is himself a veteran of New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, and he clearly knows the territory. The city itself is a major character in the novel, and Case puts you right in the middle of it. For example, there's a garbage strike going on during the course of the book, and by the time the author gets through describing it, you could swear that there was a bag of rotting garbage sitting right next to your Barcalounger.

This is a book that will appeal to a large group of crime fiction fans, especially those who enjoy complex and fast-paced stories set on the Mean Streets of the country's most important city--an excellent debut novel.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Take a Gamble in Vegas

The fourth novel to feature Los Angeles P.I. Donald Lam and his boss, Bertha Cool, takes place in 1941. Donald has just picked up Bertha from a sanitarium in San Francisco where she has been treated for various ailments. In the process, she has shed over a hundred pounds and is down to a hundred and sixty. The doctor has stressed to both Bertha and Donald that it is essential that she keep off the weight that she has lost, but Bertha, Donald and anyone who reads this series all know what the chances of that are.

Flying back to L.A., Donald and Bertha stop off in Las Vegas to meet with a potential client. (Times are still so innocent that you can get to the airport ten minutes before the plane is scheduled to depart. Once seated, you can still get off the plane two minutes before flight time to get a candy bar in the terminal, and still be back in your seat with time to spare. But I digress...)

The client, who is also from L.A., has a problem. His son's fiancee has abruptly disappeared and the son is heartbroken. The young woman's trail leads to Las Vegas. The father, a big-shot businessman, was not all that knocked about the forthcoming nuptials, but he loves his son. He wants Bertha and Donald to find the missing fiancee; in the alternative, he hopes they can find some proof that she left of her own volition, which will perhaps help repair the poor boy's broken heart.

All of the action in the book takes place in Vegas and Reno. As is always the case with these books, the plot is pretty convoluted and doesn't make much sense in the harsh light of day. But it's always fun to watch Lam at work and to monitor his relationship with Bertha. Readers who enjoy spending time in Las Vegas or Reno in the present day, should enjoy the descriptions of the two cities from seventy-five years ago, well before the age of Siegfried and Roy and Circqe du soleil.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Virgil Tibbs Confronts the Racism of a Small Southern Town In the Heat of the Night

This is the novel upon which the movie In the Heat of the Night was based. Set in a small town in South Carolina in the early 1960s, the book opens with the discovery of a body lying in the highway late one night. The victim is a prominent musician who had been active in organizing a music festival which many hoped would revive the fading fortunes of the town. His death is thus a blow to the hopes of the entire community.

The police chief, a man named Gillespie, is new to the job. Previously a jailer in Texas, he was hired by the town council basically because they could hire him cheap. He's never been a police officer before and has no experience as a homicide investigator, so he's basically clueless here. Not knowing what else to do, he orders his principal deputy to look for anyone attempting to leave town. In checking the train station, the deputy discovers a black man waiting for the next train. The deputy puts the man up against the wall, frisks him, and discovers a wallet full of money.

Looking no further, the deputy takes the man to the station and presents him to the chief as the logical murderer. The chief joins in the assumption, principally because he believes that no black man could have ever honestly earned the amount of money in the wallet. But then it turns out that the suspect, Virgil Tibbs, is, in fact, a police officer from Pasadena, California. He's on his way home after visiting his mother.

The chief calls his counterpart in Pasadena and discovers that Tibbs is not only a police officer, but a skilled homicide investigator. The Pasadena chief offers to loan Virgil's services to Gillespie, if he can be of any help. The notion that he might accept help from a black man is clearly anathema to Gillespie, but he has no idea how to solve this crime on his own and, given the high profile of the victim, Gillespie knows that if the murder is not solved he will most likely be out of a job. Accordingly, he swallows his pride and allows that Virgil might "assist" him in his investigation.

Virgil himself is torn. At one level he simply wants to get out of town as quickly as possible and get back to Pasadena where he doesn't face the kind of prejudice and discrimination that confronts him in South Carolina. On the other hand, though, he's obviously tempted to show up these racists and solve the crime when they will never be able to do so. In the end, he agrees to stay long enough to see the case through, and this book winds up being not nearly as much of a murder mystery as it is an examination of the implications of race in the deep South in the early 1960s. Virgil will suffer repeated insults and will face grave physical danger because of his race, but the dignity and intelligence with which he responds is really a timeless example for people of any race.

Inevitably, the movie takes some liberties with the book, but overall, it's a very good adaptation. Sidney Poitier is brilliant in the role of Virgil Tibbs, but plays the character with a bit more of an edge than the Tibbs of the novel. Rod Steiger is also perfect as Gillespie, and reading the book after seeing the film, it's impossible not to see the two actors when thinking of the characters. 

Both the book and the movie move swiftly with no wasted time or space, but one wonders whether it would be possible to publish this book or make this movie in the present day. Would audiences be willing to accept a black character who responds as calmly as Tibbs does to the discrimination that confronts him? Would they not insist that he react much more forcefully against it? Whatever the case, both the book and the movie have held up very well and are still as entertaining and as instructive as they were in the middle 1960s.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Confronts a Multitude of Mysteries in the Woods of Northern Maine

The fifth novel featuring Boston attorney Brady Coyne opens when Brady gets a call from one of his very wealthy clients, a guy named Vern Wheeler. With his brother, Tiny, Wheeler owns an exclusive hunting lodge on Raven Lake in the remote woods of northern Main. Tiny Wheeler runs the place with a staff of guides and others. It's pretty rustic--no phones or TV, and as a practical matter, the only way in and out if by seaplane. The fishing there is excellent and so naturally, Brady, who is an avid fisherman, has occasionally been a guest at the lodge, particularly at the time when the salmon are biting like flies. In addition to being Vern's attorney, he's an old friend of Tiny, Tiny's wife, and the rest of the staff.

But now, Vern and Tiny have a problem. A group of Indians has offered to buy the resort and when the Wheelers refuse to sell, the Indians claim that there is a sacred burial ground on the property and that they will sue to force the Wheelers out. Vern sends Brady up to investigate, not that it's all that hard to get Brady out of the office for a week or so when there's fishing to be done.

Brady arrives at the lodge to discover that the Wheelers' problems are multiplying. A guest has vanished in the woods and no one can find him. The missing guest's brother is on his way up to the lodge to demand answers, and Tiny Wheeler is concerned about his liability in the event of a lawsuit. Then another guest is murdered and scalped and Brady and the Wheelers are up to their necks in trouble. Meanwhile, Brady's also got to contend with a couple of randy females and it's going to be a miracle if he finds any time to go fishing at all.

This is another solid, entertaining entry in the series that should appeal to readers who enjoy a fairly traditional mystery set in the great outdoors.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Two Badly Damaged Characters Find Themselves on Desperation Road

When Russell Gaines returns home to McComb, Mississippi after an eleven-year stretch in Parchman Penitentiary, he believes that he's paid his debt to society. Unfortunately for Russell, not everyone else agrees, and even before he can step off the bus, he sees two brothers waiting for him. The two attack him viciously before being interrupted by a citizen who threatens to call the police. The brothers leave Russell injured on the ground, promising that this won't be the last he'll see of them.

At virtually the same time, a woman named Maben, who has been used very hard by life, is trudging down the highway toward McComb, encouraging her young daughter to keep up, and struggling to carry the heavy garbage bag that contains all their worldly possessions. At this point, the reader has no idea why Russell was in prison, why the two brothers are so intent on doing him harm, or why Maben and her child are out on the road. But it's clear that they are both damaged souls and that their long-term survival is very much in doubt.

Maben's circumstances are about to get much worse in a very big hurry. She settles her daughter into a shabby truck stop motel and then, down to her last few dollars, she attempts to make a few more by resorting to a practice that many desperate women before her have adopted. The attempt has catastrophic results both for Maben and for her daughter.

Meanwhile, Russell has settled into a small house and reconnected with his father and his father's new female companion. He will attempt to make a living as a handyman, but is constantly looking over his shoulder for the trouble that is never very far behind. Inevitably, of course, his own life will intersect with Maben's and the combined weight of their problems may well sink them both.

This is a beautifully written book that captures the setting and these characters as sharply as a finely honed blade. It's impossible not to sympathize with Russell and with Maben as they struggle to achieve some level of peace at a time when the odds are so heavily stacked against them, and even the minor characters are very vividly drawn. This is not a book that's going to make you smile very often (it is, after all, titled Desperation Road), but these are characters and this is a setting that will remain with the reader for a very long time.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

John Sandford Leaves His Usual Haunts for a Saturn Run

When I heard John Sandford announce a couple of years ago that he was writing a science-fiction novel, my first reaction was to be disappointed, principally because that meant there would be no Virgil Flowers novel published in 2015. I'm a big fan of Virgil's and I'm not that big a fan of sci-fi, so I figured that, on balance, this would be a loss. As is so often the case, though, it turns out that I was wrong. Even though this is a sci-fi tale, it has all the trademarks of a John Sandford novel, which means that it's enormously entertaining.

This is not a story featuring strange alien creatures from distant worlds set far out into the future. Rather, it focuses principally on people from earth on a journey through space in the relatively near future. In 2066, the United States has sophisticated space stations orbiting the earth and China, now the nation's principal superpower rival, is preparing a mission to colonize Mars. But then an intern at Caltech, running a routine check after adjustments to a space telescope, discovers an anomaly in some photographs taken in the direction of Saturn. And even someone who doesn't normally read science fiction realizes that when somebody discovers an anomaly, this is probably a pretty big deal.

And so it is.

The computers confirm that some giant object is approaching Saturn and, more important, that it's decelerating. The fact that it's slowing down can only mean that it's a spaceship of some sort--natural objects don't behave this way in space. Since this was a totally random discovery, for the moment only the U.S. realizes what has happened. Very quietly, under directions from the president, a U.S. space station is reconfigured as a space ship to go to Saturn and figure out what the hell is going on out there. The official story is that we've decided to join the Chinese on their mission to Mars, and the hope is that before the Chinese or anyone else discovers what we're really doing, the U.S. will have a head start toward Saturn and no one else will be able to do anything about it.

Those plans are upended, though, when the mysterious space vehicle leaves Saturn in a blaze of propulsion that is noticed around the world. The secret is out and the Chinese quickly repurpose their Mars expedition to go to Saturn. Thus the race is on as the two superpowers compete to see which can get to Saturn first and perhaps gain an advance in knowledge that would give them world domination for years to come and, perhaps, forever.

Sandford and his co-author Ctein, have created a great cast of characters. Fans of Sandford's will recognize the type of characters that he likes to create and will bond with them pretty quickly. Sandford's quirky humor is also on display and, while none of the cast is on a level with that F***in' Flowers, at least a couple of them are a lot of fun. The technology involved is, for the most part, based on science that is readily available now and does not require any real suspension of disbelief. No one in this book, for example, will suddenly be going into Warp Drive.

As is the case with any novel by John Sandford, the story moves at a rapid pace and the suspense is palpable. The stakes in this race are very high, and the payoff at the end is well worth waiting for. I'm really glad that I finally got around to reading this book, but that said, I'm also very happy to know that I now have a new Virgil Flowers novel waiting in the wings as well.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Jockey Alan York Finds Himself in Grave Danger in the First Novel by Dick Francis

First published in 1962, this is the book that started Dick Francis on his career as a novelist. 
Francis was forty-two at the time, a veteran of World War II, and a former steeplechase jockey himself. Virtually all of his novels take place in and around the world of British horseracing. While he repeats the same character only a couple of times, virtually all of his protagonists are the same sort of man--relatively young, intelligent, determined, courageous, and somewhat aloof--at least until the point where they might the right woman and then, often as not, it's love at first sight.

Early on in the course of each novel, the protagonist discovers some glaring injustice and determines to investigate. Inevitably, he antagonizes the wrong person and finds his own health and well-being in grave jeopardy. Often there is some powerful, sinister force, directing events from behind the scene, and our hero must root him out. 

In this case, the protagonist is Alan York, an amateur steeplechase rider. He comes from a moneyed family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and when he's not riding, he works in this father's shipping firm in London.

As the book opens, York is riding in a race alongside his best friend, Bill Davidson, who is riding a horse called Admiral. Davidson and Admiral are the heavy favorites in the race, a "dead cert" to win. But then, at the back of the course, Admiral trips over a fence. The horse goes down on top of Davidson, who will die as the result of the injury. York, riding right behind Davidson, saw something suspicious just before his friend fell. After the race, York goes back to the jump where Davidson fell and discovers that someone had stretched a wire across the top of the jump, causing the horse to fall and Davidson to be fatally injured.

By the time York can get someone in authority to examine the scene, the wire has been removed and there is no evidence that the horse was deliberately tripped. York knows this to be the case, however, and begins his own investigation. He discovers that someone has been attempting to fix races and the deeper he gets into the investigation, the more trouble he finds himself in. Before long, he discovers that he's in a contest of wills against a very dangerous adversary who will stop at nothing to preserve his criminal enterprise.

All in all, it's a good story. As in all of these books, one learns a great deal about the world of British horse racing, and the novel should appeal to anyone who enjoys classic British crime fiction.