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.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A True Classic from Michael Connelly

Trunk Music is Michael Connelly's sixth novel and the fifth of those books to feature L.A. homicide detective, Harry Bosch. It remains my favorite of Connelly's books and my favorite of all police procedurals--an inspiration to me and, I assume, to a good many other authors who write crime fiction.

Harry has been serving time on an administrative leave, which resulted from actions he took in The Last Coyote. He's just returned to the Homicide Desk when he's called to the scene of an apparent murder. Tony Aliso, a Hollywood producer who turns out low-rent, titillating, straight-to-DVD movies, has been found shot to death and stuffed into the trunk of his Rolls Royce, which has been left in a wooded area in the Hollywood Hills. 

While Harry was on leave, the homicide teams were reorganized. Each team now consists of three detectives rather than two, and so in addition to his long-time partner, Jerry Edgar, Bosch is now also teamed with a female African American named Kizmin Rider. As the senior detective, Harry is the team leader and must direct the effort to find Aliso's killer.

This is Harry's first crack at a homicide in a while, and he desperately wants the case. However, the style of the killing clearly suggests that this might have been a mob hit and so Harry has no choice other than to call the department's Organized Crime Investigative Division and inform them of the crime. He fully expects that the O.C.I.D. will examine the case and almost certainly move in and take it away from him, but they insist that they have no interest in the case at all. Harry is relieved, but the fact that O.C.I.D. doesn't even want to look at it sets off the first alarm bell suggesting to Bosch that there may be more to this case than a simple murder.

And, of course, there is. Before long the trail will take Harry and his team back and forth between L.A. and Las Vegas, where the victim was a frequent visitor. And before long, Harry will be butting heads with his perennial nemeses, the F.B.I. and the department's Internal Affairs Division, as well as the Vegas P.D. and, ultimately, the O.C.I.D., which decides that maybe it is interested in the case after all.

Happily, though, he won't be in conflict with his immediate supervisor. Harvey Pounds, the lieutenant who was such a thorn in Bosch's side in the earlier books, has been replaced by Lieutenant Grace Billets, who is much more supportive of Harry and his team. This is a very good thing, because Harry is going to need all the help he can get. 

It's a byzantine case, with all kinds of angles and competing interests playing out against each other, and against Bosch. This remains, I think, the best of all of Connelly's plots--very cleverly designed, and populated with one of his best casts. Bosch is at his peak here, and by this book is a fully-formed character--tough, smart, prickly, and single-minded in the pursuit of his mission. This book grabs me from the first paragraph every time I read it, and it never lets go.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Chilling Mystery About Commercial Fishing from Martin Cruz Smith

In the first major case of his literary career, Gorky Park, Moscow detective Arkady Renko antagonized too many powerful people. As a consequence, he lost his job and his Communist party membership and was shuffled off into oblivion. He then disappeared from view for eight years before returning in Polar Star

Renko's fallen about as far as a man possibly can. From being at the top of his profession as a criminal investigator, he's now working on the slime line on a Russian factory fishing ship in the Bering Sea. It's a joint Russian-American venture in which American trawlers catch the fish and dump them on the deck of the Polar Star. The crew on the factory ship then process the fish and freeze them so that they can ultimately get to the marketplace. It's a dirty, disgusting job and freezing cold to boot. Working on the slime line is a job for men who have fallen about as far as they possibly can.

Renko has been working the line in obscurity for quite some time, but then one day, one of the American trawlers lowers a net full of fish onto the deck of the Polar Star and caught up in the net is the body of a sexy young woman named Zina who had worked on the factory ship. The woman had last been seen standing by the rail of the ship during a dance which had been attended by the ship's crew along with some crew members from one of the American trawlers.

The ship's captain knows that Renko was once a top criminal investigator and so pulls him off the slime line and asks him to investigate the death. All of the Powers That Be are hoping that Renko will come up with a simple explanation that will not embarrass anyone other than the dead woman. The best verdict would be that she fell accidentally into the sea or, in the alternative, that she committed suicide and was then caught up in the trawler's net.

It's clear to Renko, though, that the woman was murdered and he is determined to get to the truth of the matter. Again, that's going to antagonize a lot of people, some for political reasons and others for reasons far more sinister, and before long, Renko's life will be in danger. The Polar Star is a large ship, but it's not that big and there are not that many places to hide. If he's going to complete his mission, Renko is going to have to be very careful and very, very lucky.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. Renko is a very intriguing and sympathetic protagonist, and there are a lot of other interesting and well-drawn characters as well. The mystery is compelling and there's a lot of tension throughout the story. Smith excels at describing the setting, which is at once bleak and beautiful. One also learns a great deal about the commercial fishing industry in this book; happily I'm having pork chops for dinner tonight.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

L. A. Detective Bertha Cool Is Left on Her Own. Trouble Ensues...

The eighth entry in the series featuring L. A. detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool is set in 1942. World War II is under way and Donald, the firm's junior partner, is at sea in the Navy, battling America's enemies. Bertha, the senior partner, is at sea too, even though her feet are firmly planted on the ground back in Los Angeles. In spite of what Bertha might often think, Donald is really the brains of the outfit, and without him around, she's floundering badly.

As the book opens, a blind man comes into the office. A young woman who is always very nice to him was struck by a car right in front of the spot where the man sits selling pencils and other things. He's never known the woman's name and he would like Bertha to track her down and make sure that she's all right. When the guy flashes a thick wad of bills to pay the retainer, Bertha figures that this will be easy money in the bank--something that always interests her very much.

But, of course, the job won't be nearly as easy as it seems, especially when Bertha begins scheming to make some extra cash out of the deal. Donald would have this figured out over the lunch hour, but before long, Bertha is in way over her head. Bodies are falling left and right, and who's going to save her now?

This is another entertaining book in the series and it's the first in which police sergeant Frank Sellers makes an appearance. He will become a regular character and Donald's principal nemesis in the later books, much like Sergeant Holcomb is Perry Mason's nemesis in that series. No one will ever confuse Erle Stanley Gardner's novels with great literature, but they are, almost always, a fun way to lose two or three hours in an evening. This book is no exception.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

DCI Alan Banks Leads Two Complex Investigations

When DCI Alan Banks returns from vacation, he finds the members of his team investigating a variety of crimes. Someone has stolen a farmer's valuable tractor, which by itself would probably not be the crime of the century. But other farmers in the area have also had equipment and livestock stolen, and it appears that a sophisticated gang of thieves may be operating in the area, stealing the equipment and shipping it to buyers in eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, other members of the team are investigating a mysterious blood stain on the floor of an abandoned airport hangar. It would appear that someone may have been murdered there and the body removed. But who was the victim and where is the body? At virtually the same time, two men are reported missing, and naturally, one of them may be the victim. 

Back on the job, Banks takes the leading role in all of these cases, assigning his team members and supervising their work. All of the cases are immediately complicated when a delivery van plunges off a mountain pass in inclement weather. The van is carrying the carcases of animals that have died on local farms, have been packaged up, and have then been collected to be delivered to the disposal site where they will be incinerated. The packages are now scattered all over the landscape around the wreck, and investigators are shocked to discover that not all of the bodies packaged for incineration were those of lambs or pigs.

This is one of Banks's more interesting cases and the supporting members of the cast get a lot of time on the page while Banks generally directs them. It's a clever and convoluted plot with some pretty nasty actors lurking in the background, and all in all, it's a very enjoyable read that will certainly appeal to the fans of this long-running series and to a lot of other readers as well.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Drawn into Another Complex and Dangerous Case

Boston lawyer Brady Coyne has a client list that consists almost exclusively of wealthy elderly people from Boston's Upper Crust, and when he's not off fishing somewhere, the bulk of his work lies in drawing their wills and planning their estates. For an attorney who has such an apparently quiet practice, though, Coyne does seem to find himself in the middle of a lot of murder cases.

Given that, when Brady's phone rings at two o'clock in the morning, the news is probably not going to be good. On the other end of the line is one of those wealthy clients, a retired Unitarian minister named Desmond Winter. Winter has already had more than his fair share of bad luck. Seventeen years ago, his wife took his daughter and left him, promising to be back at some point. Ultimately, his daughter returned, but his wife never did, and Winter has no idea what became of her. Her loss haunts him still. 

To further complicate Winter's life his ne'er-do-well son, Marc, went off and married a stripper named Maggie. To his surprise, though, Desmond becomes quite fond of his daughter-in-law and then one night she's found naked and beaten to death on the family's boat, hence the phone call at two in the A.M. Naturally, the husband, Marc, is the principal suspect, especially since he was observed near the scene at the time of the killing and has no apparent alibi. Desmond wants Brady to protect his son's interests and before long the whole thing spirals into a very messy and dangerous affair.

This is another very good addition to the series. It's a clever plot that moves swiftly along. Brady Coyne remains a plausible and attractive protagonist, and the rest of the characters are pretty interesting as well. Although nearly thirty years old at this point, the book has aged well, and the reader is only occasionally pulled momentarily out of the plot when someone has to go searching for a pay phone rather than simply pulling out their iPhone or some such thing. All in all, a fun read.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Hunt a Brutal Killer in the Korea of the 1970s

This is another very good entry in Martin Limon's series featuring Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom of the United States 8th Army CID. The series is set in the South Korea of the 1970s, and Limon, who spent ten years in the army in Korea, excels at describing the Korean countryside, people, and culture, as well as the interaction between the Koreans and the American Army. Sueno and Bascom are particularly appealing protagonists. They're smart, tough, and when the chips are down, they almost always follow their own instincts rather than their orders. This often gets them into trouble, but it almost always leads them to the truth.

This novel opens with the discovery of the body of a beautiful young Korean woman who has been murdered and left near the icy Sonyu River in the dead of winter. The Korean police ask Sueno and Bascom to assist in the investigation since the body is discovered near the headquarters of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division and it appears that an American serviceman may have been involved in the woman's death.

The two investigators are repulsed by the brutal murder and are happy to help, but the officers and men of the 2nd Infantry Division are a clannish bunch who refuse to cooperate. Stonewalled, Sueno and Bascom are initially frustrated in their investigation, but then another case brings them back to the region and gives them a way into the murder case. Powerful forces are threatened in the process and the two face not only a great deal of pressure but a serious threat to their own health and well-being as they pursue the investigation. This has never stopped them before, and it won't certainly stop them now, assuming they survive.

This is an interesting, fast-moving tale, and it's always fun to watch Sueno and Bascom at work. Readers who haven't found this series yet might well want to give it a try.
 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Another Entertaining Tale from Dick Francis

This book introduces Sid Halley who, if memory serves, is the only protagonist that Dick Francis ever used more than once. Halley was a very successful jockey until he fell from a horse which trampled his left hand, abruptly ending his career. He accepts a job with a detective agency that has a racing division, but he spends a couple of years simply hanging around the office without being given any meaningful assignments. But he's willing to go with the flow, or the not-flow, as the case may be, because he's still trying to figure out what his future is going to be now that the one thing he really loved has been taken from him.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of the detectives in the office asks Halley to assist him in a minor sting and Halley winds up being shot. Now he has a crippled hand and a ventilated stomach, which will take some time to heal. His wealthy father-in-law asks Sid to visit over a weekend and Halley agrees to do so. (Sid's wife has left him, which is not at all uncommon for a protagonist in a Dick Francis novel, but he's still on good terms with her father.)

The father-in-law has an ulterior motive, which Halley soon discovers. The other weekend guests are a particularly obnoxious man and his equally disagreeable wife who enjoys being knocked about while having sex. Without telling Halley what he's up to, the father-in-law cleverly manipulates things so that Halley will wind up investigating the disagreeable guest.

The bad guy is apparently involved in a nasty scheme to sabotage a race course so that he can gain a controlling interest and turn the place into a housing development. Well, of course, we can't allow something that horrifying to happen, but once Halley is on the job, a lot of other very horrifying things will happen--most all of them to him.

Dick Francis is a very dependable author who almost always tells an interesting tale that moves swiftly along, and this book is certainly no exception. Although the protagonists do vary in nearly every book, there is a certain formula at work in these novels, and the principal characters are almost always of a type. That's certainly not a problem, and any fan of the series will want to look for this entry.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Another Great Entry in the Crissa Stone Series from Wallace Stroby

I'm a huge fan of Wallace Stroby's Crissa Stone series, and even though I've owned this book for ages, I've put off reading it because there's not another one in the series to look forward to, at least not yet. I finally couldn't resist any longer, though, and basically devoured it in one sitting.

For those who haven't yet made her acquaintance, Stone is a professional criminal. She most often works as part of a crew, and trouble almost always ensues when one of her carefully-planned jobs doesn't come off quite as expected. She's been described as a female Parker and the description is apt. She's a tough, no-nonsense, hardened criminal and every one of the four books in which she's appeared thus far has been a great read.

In this case, Crissa has been laying low for a year or so following her last job. But she could use some excitement and another payday is always very welcome too. Accordingly, she listenes to a pitch from a wealthy art collector in L.A. The guy has come into possession of some antiquities that were smuggled out of Iraq during the confusion surrounding the war there. But the authorities know that he has them and have demanded their return if the guy wants to avoid prosecution.

As fate would have it, just at that moment another wealthy collector has made a nice offer for the pieces. The guy in L.A. would much rather sell the antiquities and ship them overseas rather than having to return them and gain nothing for all his time and trouble. The pieces are being stored in a warehouse in Las Vegas. The collector is supposed to move them to California and from there the pieces will be repatriated.

Rather than do that, the guy wants Crissa to put together a crew and steal the antiquities while they are enroute from Vegas to the coast. They will then deliver the pieces to a dock where they will be shipped to the overseas collector. The collector in L.A. will tell the authorities that he's very sorry the pieces were stolen, but it was hardly his fault. In the meantime, he'll pocket a very large payout from the overseas collector. Crissa's payout promises to be huge as well, and the job will be simple as pie. Save for the planning, the actual heist will only take a few minutes and will not be at all dangerous. What could possibly go wrong?

Crissa is a very compelling character and it's fascinating watching her plan the heist. The way she's worked it out, the job does seem extremely simple and foolproof. Watching the way it all plays out is even more fun. This is a very good hard-boiled novel that should appeal to practically anyone who enjoys their crime fiction with an edge to it. And I hate the fact that I don't have another one of them waiting in the wings.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Crooked Dice Are the Least of Perry Mason's Problems in this Complicated Case

As the fifteenth Perry Mason novel opens, we find the attorney at his desk, desperately attempting to avoid answering the morning mail, the task which he hates above all others. Fortunately, his secretary, Della Street, come to the rescue at the last moment, telling Mason that there are three people waiting to see him about a situation involving a wealthy man. Mason responds, telling Della, "I don't like rich people....I like poor people."

He goes on to explain that rich people only have boring problems, while poor people are mixed up in the muck of life, which is much more interesting. This is (I assume unintentionally) hilarious. In the eighty-five books in this series, Mason's clients are virtually all very wealthy people, living in large houses with all kinds of servants and extended family members. (It's the extended family members that are usually the problem.) Only in a handful of books does Perry ever represent someone who is genuinely poor, and even then, there's almost always a rich person lurking in the background who will write Mason a very generous check once the case is over.

Which is a very good thing, because Perry's monthly nut must be enormous. Leaving aside the expense of running his own office, his monthly tab at the Drake Detective Agency is always astronomical. Without all those rich people to pay the bill, Perry would probably never get anyone acquitted.

In this case, Perry agrees to see the three potential clients, wealthy or not. (It's better than having to answer the mail.) The case involves a wealthy and eccentric seventy-two-year-old man who has decided to marry for the first time. His niece, who runs his household, thinks her uncle should be able to do whatever he wishes, but other, much more greedy relatives are afraid they will be cut off and so want to have the poor guy declared incompetent so that they can prevent him from getting married and take over his finances.

Perry agrees to handle the case and, before long, of course, someone will be murdered and Perry's client will be the prime suspect. The evidence appears incontrovertible and things are looking bleak. This is one case, though, where Erle Stanley Gardner gets a bit too cute. He places so much emphasis on the main piece of evidence against the client that the reader very early on figures out what has almost certainly happened, even before Perry does. Still, it's a fun read that will appeal to any fan of the series.

As another aside, towards the middle of the book, Perry is having lunch in a restaurant somewhere in downtown L.A. when Della calls him in a panic. There's been a major development in the case and it's essential that Perry immediately fly to Seattle. Della has booked him a ticket on the next flight, which leaves in thirty minutes. Perry spends another five minutes or so giving Della instructions, then drives to the airport, finds a parking place, and makes the flight! 

When this book was first published in 1939, I guess that a person could probably still do this, but almost eighty years later, the reader nearly falls out of his or her chair laughing at the absurdity of the idea. (Of course, I suppose it's always possible that Perry enrolled very early in the TSA PreCheck program...)

Another Excellent Glacier National Park Novel from Christine Carbo

Following her first two Glacier Park novels, Mortal Fall and The Wild Inside, Christine Carbo returns with The Weight of Night. The third book in the series finds the national park under siege from wildfires that are burning largely out of control in several sections of the park. Dense smoke hangs heavily over the park and the surrounding countryside, making it difficult to breathe. The sun has largely disappeared from view, and the fires themselves are ravaging the forests, which are tinder-dry as the result of a prolonged drought. People are being evacuated, and firefighters are trying desperately to save their homes and livestock.

As firefighters dig a break in front of an oncoming fire, one of the fire crew members uncovers the bones of a body which had been buried in a shallow grave. Park police officer Monty Harris arrives to investigate, but with the fire bearing down on the gravesite, there's simply no time to wait for a forensics team to arrive and properly unearth the body. Harris thus turns to Gretchen Larson, a crime scene investigator for the Flathead County Sheriff's office. Larson insists that she is not properly trained for such a situation, but with no other alternative, she unearths as much of the skeleton as time and the raging fire will allow.

Monty and Gretchen must now attempt to identify the body, but at virtually the same time the body is discovered, a child goes missing from a park campground. It's possible that the young boy simply wandered away and got lost in the woods, in which case he's not only in danger from exposure, starvation, drowning, falling and breaking a limb, getting eaten by a bear, and all of the other hazards that might befall a child in such a situation, but in this case, there's also the fire danger to consider. In the alternative, of course, it's possible that someone may have abducted the boy, in which case he could be facing an entirely different set of dangers. In either event, though, it's imperative that the child be found ASAP.

Ultimately, it will be Monty's responsibility to try to find the missing child, while Gretchen attempts to identify the body that's been unearthed. The story is then told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of each of the two protagonists. Monty and Gretchen both have demons of their own to contend with, which will impinge on their investigations and so, as in the case of her first two books, Carbo has combined a compelling psychological story with a tense criminal investigation that will keep readers turning the pages at a brisk pace.

As in the first two books, Carbo also excels at describing the setting. Glacier National Park is one of the most scenic places in the entire country, if not the world, and she describes it beautifully. She also captures very well the fires that threaten both the park itself and the characters in the novel. A couple of summers ago, there was a horrible fire season in the park and in the surrounding area, and Carbo captures the effects of the fires perfectly. Reading the book immediately took me back to that summer, standing out on the deck in the thick smoke, with the fire ash falling out of the sky, wondering if there would be any real relief before the snow began falling in September. As I'm packing to return to the Flathead for the summer, I'm very much hoping that I won't ever have to experience a scene like that again outside the pages of this very fine book.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Excellent Stand-Alone Novel from Jo Nesbo, Creator of the Harry Hole Series

This relatively slim novel is a stand-alone from Jo Nesbo, the creator of the great series featuring Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole. The protagonist is a contract killer named Olav who works for a crime boss in Oslo. Olav is one of the best "fixers" in the business and approaches his work with a cold-blooded efficiency until he is given the job of killing a woman who has taken a lover, thus infuriating her husband.

In preparation for the hit, Olav watches the woman for several days from an apartment across the street from hers and finds himself feeling sympathy and some affection for his target. This doubtless violates virtually all of the guidelines in the Hitman's Handbook, but of course, it's great for the reader because of the conflict it creates in Olav.

The story is narrated by Olav, and the reader can't help but feel a tinge of sympathy for the guy, in spite of his profession. The choices that he makes will have significant consequences for himself as well as for his targets, and that's really all one can say about the plot without giving away significant developments.

One can say that this book is up to the high standards that Nesbo has set in the Harry Hole series. As always, the characters are well drawn, and the setting--here, Olso in the dead of winter--is rendered very well. The moral issues are also very interesting, and this is a book that should appeal to any serious fan of crime fiction.

Parenthetically, I had the opportunity to hear Nesbo at a book event this week while he's touring for the new Harry Hole novel, The Thirst. He's a very interesting guy and it was a lot of fun listening to him talk about the origin of the series and about his own life as a writer. If he makes it to your town, he's definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Are on the Job in New Orleans

This entry in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series, finds the pair in the French Quarter in New Orleans in 1942. A New York client has hired them to come from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of a missing heiress. Donald is immediately suspicious because the task seems way too easy, and the logical thing for the client to do would have been to simply hire a P.I. in New Orleans to do the job.

Well, as always, Donald is right to be suspicious, and the case immediately blows up into something much larger, involving divorces gone bad, women who may not be what they appear, B-girls in New Orleans night clubs, and ultimately, of course, murder.

And also, as always, Donald skates on very thin ice, one short step ahead of the police, much to the consternation of his partner, the inimitable Mrs. Cool, who spends much of the book blowing her fuse with Donald. Like a lot of these books, the plot is nearly impenetrable, but that hardly matters. It's always fun to watch Donald in action, and it's even more fun watching Bertha lose her cool (pun intended). Another entertaining addition to the series.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Timely Story of Family and Community from T. Jefferson Parker

This is a very moving and beautifully written novel of a family and a community under siege. Patrick Norris's family has been growing avocados near the town of Fallbrook in southern California for decades, but the farm and the region have been suffering the effects of a long-running drought that has taken a particularly hard toll on the Norris family farm and on many others as well. 

Avocado trees are very sensitive plants and only about a million things can go wrong before the avocados are harvested. The last thing they need in addition to the lack of rainfall is a wildfire that sweeps through the region and destroys many of the trees. Patrick has been away from home, fighting with the Marines in Afghanistan, and he returns to find the farm on the brink of failing. The crops are ruined; his father and mother are already extended almost to the limit, and the banks will not loan any more money.

Patrick has long made it clear that he has no interest in farming. His dream in life is to own a small boat and guide sport fishermen. But he agrees to put his dreams on hold in an effort to help his parents and his brother try to save the farm.

Patrick is very happy to be back from Afghanistan, but like a lot of other returning servicemen and women, he carries a considerable amount of baggage from the war. In addition to all the other problems confronting him is his older brother, Ted.

Ted is a tormented soul who seems incapable of doing anything right, certainly in the eyes of his father. He firmly believes that government at every level is his enemy and everyone else's. This extends all the way to the mayor of the small community that is suffering so badly. Ted, who was carrying "a solid D average," has been kicked out of college for drawing and posting a nasty cartoon critical of the mayor, and he's fallen in with a rough crowd of white supremacists. Patrick loves his brother and does everything he can to save him, but the challenge is an enormous one.

In a way, the Norris family and the town of Fallbrook can be seen as stand-ins for any number of individuals and communities who are struggling to adapt to changing times and circumstances in the United States of the early twenty-first century. Parker writes elegantly and sympathetically of these characters, their community, and their precarious place in the world. He draws you into their lives and gives you a ringside seat as the community and each of these characters attempts to make their way under extremely difficult circumstances. It can be hard to watch at times, but it's a beautifully written and very timely story.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Another Fast-Paced Novel from Twist Master Harlan Coben

NYPD detective Kat Donovan hasn't had a meaningful relationship since the love of her life walked out on her eighteen years ago. She seems to spend a lot of time brooding, not only about her long-lost love, but also about the death of her father, a cop who was shot to death at virtually the same time. The man who confessed to killing her father is now dying in prison and Kat is hoping against hope that the man will finally explain why he pulled the trigger and who ordered the hit.

To cheer her up and to get some romance back in her life, Kat's best friend secretly enrolls her on an online dating site. (This hardly seems like something any sort of friend would do to a person, but the plot depends on it.) Rather than being angered by her "friend's" temerity, Kat logs onto the site and --lo and behold!!, miracle of miracles!!--practically the first face she sees is that of Jeff, the lover who abandoned her all those years ago. Jeff is now, conveniently, a widower who is thus available again.

Kat sends him a message, referencing their favorite song, which just happens to be "Missing You," by John Waite, and then sits on pins and needles, waiting for a response. When it comes, Jeff appears not to remember her, which crushes Kat. She sends him another message, identifying herself, and Jeff replies telling her that the past is past, and she should just leave him alone.

Something doesn't seem quite right, and so Kat begins to investigate and stumbles onto an Internet dating scam where innocent victims are going of on dates with people they met online and are never heard from again. And--horror of horrors!--Kat's old boyfriend seems to be right in the middle of the scam.

Meanwhile, Kat bursts into the prison hospital and confronts the man who confessed to killing her father, but the visit leaves her more confused than ever. Her superiors tell her to let it rest and stop torturing herself, but of course, she's not going to do that.

As the book progresses, Kat divides her attention between the two great mysteries of her life, trying to resolve at least one, if not both of them. It's going to be a very dangerous ride, and, as is usually the case in a Harlan Coben novel, the reader will be virtually whipsawed by all of the violent twists and turns that the novel takes. 

It's not a bad way to spend a few hours, but there's really no reason to combine these two very disparate plot ideas into one book. As Kat veers back and forth between the two investigations, the book tends to lose momentum every time we switch from one to the other. My other concern, which is not unique to this novel, is that Coben ultimately tosses in one last plot twist that simply takes the whole thing over the top. It's clear that he enjoys doing this sort of thing, and apparently a lot of his readers enjoy it too, but for me it's a twist too far and inevitably leaves me a bit disgruntled every time I finish one these novels. 

It's an okay read, but to my mind it would have been a lot better if Coben had focused on one or the other of the two main plot lines and if he had resisted the urge to throw in the final twist.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Perry Mason May Have to Cross-Examine a Parrot in this Complex Case

The fourteenth Perry Mason novel (published in 1939) opens when a new client comes to Perry's office. The client's father has been murdered, and the client fears that his father's new wife may attempt to cheat him out of his inheritance. (For some reason, there seem to be a number of Perry Mason books in which an older man has remarried to a woman who seemed very loving and terrific before the marriage but who then turns out to be a greedy, unpleasant shrew, usually with greedy, grasping, unpleasant children, immediately after the vows. Then, when the man attempts to get out of the marriage, bad things always happen.)

In this case, the father has arranged to get a divorce. He's written a new will, disinheriting the shrewish wife, but the son fears that the wife will destroy the will, attempting to leave in force an earlier will that gave most everything to her. (A curious reader wonders why, having decided to divorce and disinherit the wife, the guy would leave the new will with her rather than, say, leaving it safely with his son or his lawyer. But in that event, of course, there would be no case, and Perry would be left to sit in his office playing Tetris or whatever.)

Perry agrees to get on the job but, of course, within a few pages it turns out that this will be much more than a simple contest over a will. Before you know it, Perry has a client charged with murder and the most critical witness turns out to be a Parrot. As always in these books, there are a lot of surprising twists and turns and Perry has to skate along the thin edge of the law. (One of the things that's most fun about these earlier books is that legal ethics were much less strict.)

All in all, it's a fun read that will appeal to fans of the series and to other readers who occasionally enjoy a trip down memory lane to the earlier days of crime fiction.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Challenged by a Void in Hearts

This is another solid entry in the Brady Coyne series. A private eye that Brady sometimes uses comes to him for advice. The P.I., Les Katz, has been hired by a woman to see if the woman's husband is having an affair. Katz gets some pictures of the husband in the company of another woman, but the pictures do not conclusively prove that the two are romantically or sexually involved. 

Katz assumes that the wife is looking for proof of her husband's infidelity so that she can take him to the cleaners in a divorce, but these pictures aren't going to do the trick and so Katz tells her that he's found no evidence that her husband is cheating on her. He then meets with the husband and suggests that the husband might want to buy the pictures that Katz has taken, just to ensure that they don't fall into the wrong hands, innocent though they may be. Now Katz's conscience is bothering him and he asks Brady for his advice. Brady, of course, tells Katz to see his client and admit what he has done, but almost immediately thereafter, Katz is killed by a hit-and-run driver.

At this point, the reader must wonder why, six books into this series, have we never met Les Katz before if he's a P.I. that Coyne uses regularly and, even more more important, why would Brady be using a P.I. whose ethics are as bad as this?

Those issues notwithstanding, Brady feels obligated to dig into the mess that Katz has left behind and soon finds himself confronted by a mysterious and dangerous set of circumstances. It's an interesting plot that moves right along and winds up in a satisfying climax. Seven books into the series, Brady still has issues with his ex-wife,Gloria, that prove critical to the case, and, naturally, a new woman will appear in his life. It all adds up to an entertaining read that will appeal to fans of the series and to those who enjoy fairly traditional mystery novels.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Detroit P.I. Amos Walker Is on the Job Again

Amos Walker is one of the last old-school private eyes--a tough guy with a cruddy office in a dilapidated old building, and the ever-reliable bottle in the desk drawer. In the tradition of the genre, Walker take a licking and keep on ticking, which is increasingly remarkable, given his advancing age and the fact that this is his twenty-second misadventure.

Walker's beat is Detroit, a city about as run down and beaten up as Walker himself, and one of the pleasures of reading this series through the years has been Estleman's brilliant portrayal of the city and all of its problems.

As this book opens, a friend tells Walker that the friend's son's teenage brother-in-law is being recruited by a local gang and is in danger of getting caught up in the warfare between this gang and another. The friend would like Walker to extricate the kid from the situation.

This will be easier said than done. The kid will prove hard to find and the journey takes Walker deep into Detroit's Mexicantown, where most of the major players have agendas of their own, some of them hidden and some not. Inevitably, of course, the first dead body will fall, followed by the next. In addition to several killings, Walker has to negotiate his way through arson, the drug business, cockfighting and a host of other problems, and before it's all over he may well be in serious trouble himself.

I enjoyed this book, but it's not among my favorite of the series. After twenty-one previous books, the reader certainly understands that Walker knows his city like the back of his hand. But the way in which a middle-aged white guy is suddenly able to move so easily through the Mexican community here stretched credulity a bit, at least for me, especially because I don't remember Walker demonstrating even the hint of such a facility in any of the earlier novels. Of course, that may simply be a failure of memory on my part, but I did keep wondering how Walker knew so many of the key players and why so many of them seemed indebted to him. Still, it's nice to see Walker back in action, and I'll certainly look forward to the twenty-third Amos Walker novel.