Monday, May 29, 2017

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.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Very Good Long-Lost Novel from the Master, Lawrence Block

This is the first crime novel ever written by Lawrence Block, the creator of Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Keller, and others, and one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Block wrote the book sometime around 1960, sold it to a publisher, and then never saw or heard of it again. It was ultimately published years later with a different title and under a different name, and the publisher didn't even send the author a copy. Block only vaguely remembered the book among all the others he was churning out at that point, but fifty years later the book surfaced again and Block recognized it as his long-lost creation. The folks at Hard Case Crime have now published the book with the original title and with Block restored as the real author.

It's a very good example of the sort of pulp novel that was popular back in the 1950s and '60s. A Connecticut executive named Don Barshter accidentally kills his wife in an argument. Rather than turning himself in, he goes on the run to Buffalo, New York, and reinvents himself as a mobster named Nate Crowley. 

This sort of thing was much easier to do in 1960 than it would be today, and Nate Crowley is a very different kind of man than Don Barshter. He works his way into the local crime scene and finds himself a woman. Naturally, there will be complications and before long, Nate Crowley could find himself in nearly as much trouble as the late Mr. Barshter.

This book is not the equal of most of Block's later work, but only because much of that later work is so exceptional. When he wrote Sinner Man, Block was a very young author, still honing his chops. Clearly, though, he was already as good as many of his much older contemporaries, and he would only get better as the years wore on. This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys early pulp fiction and is a must read for Mr. Block's legion of fans.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Daniel Roke Takes a Very Dangerous Job For Kicks

Daniel Roke owns a stud farm in Australia. He and his siblings were orphaned at an early age and Daniel, the eldest, has assumed the responsibility for raising his brother and two sisters, even though it means sacrificing his own dreams in the process. The farm is thriving, but it and the beautiful country in which it sits constitute a veritable prison for Daniel who yearns for other things.

Along comes a prosperous British Earl who is one of a handful of men who oversee the world of British horse racing. Someone is fixing races, but the Powers That Be are unable to figure out how the manipulation is being done, and the future of British racing may be on the line. The Earl hopes to hire one of Daniel's stable boys to go to England and provide intelligence by working undercover.

Sadly, the man that the Earl hoped to hire is clearly not up to the task, and the Earl shocks Daniel by asking if he would be willing to undertake the mission. Daniel's immediate reaction is to refuse, but as the Earl points out, Daniel's siblings are off at school and he can hire someone to run the farm while he is away. The Earl makes a financial offer that he believes Daniel could not refuse, but the Earl fails to realize that when Daniel accepts the job, he does so for reasons that have nothing to do with the money.

This is very much a typical Dick Francis novel, and Daniel Roke is very much a typical Francis protagonist--a stubborn, clever and intelligent man who will subject himself to any number of indignities and who will put himself in very grave danger if that's what's necessary to complete the assignment. It's a clever plot and the pages turn rapidly; any fan of the series will not want to miss this one.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Introducing Dr. Knox

Dr. Adam Knox has spent his entire professional life tending to the needs of patients on the margins of society. After a stint in Africa with Doctors Without Borders, he now runs a clinic in the slums of L.A., seeing patients that few other doctors would. It's a shoe-string operation clinging to life in a run-down building that may be sold out from under him at any given moment, and Dr. Knox pays the bills by working for cash under the table at night, meeting the needs of patients who don't dare go near a hospital.

When a panicked woman brings a desperately sick child to the clinic, Dr. Knox realizes that the boy is suffering an allergic reaction to peanuts. He treats the child and the crisis passes, but in the midst of it all, the young woman who brought the child to the clinic, and whom Dr. Knox believes to be the child's mother, disappears.

Dr. Knox's nurse, who may be the only adult in the room, tells him to do the right--and legal--thing, and turn the child over to the Department of Children and Family Services. But Dr. Knox doesn't trust the bureaucrats and convinces the nurse that they--meaning she--should hold onto the child at least for a couple of days, so that his mother has a chance to reclaim him.

Like the nurse, any astute reader realizes immediately that this is a BIG MISTAKE. Before long, some very nasty people are visiting the clinic. Some of them are looking for the boy; some of them are looking for his mother, and they all pose a very serious danger to Dr. Knox, to his clinic, to his staff, and to practically anyone and anything else that the doctor might care about.

Well, in for a penny...

Dr. Knox is not about to cave into the threats, even though he puts a lot of people he cares about at risk. He attempts to track down the mother on his own and reunite her with her son, and the chips will fall where they may.

The result is a high-octane thriller that will keep most any reader riveted to the page. Adam Knox is a great protagonist, and the bad guys are truly scary. Spiegelman writes beautiful prose, and his descriptions of L.A. and its residents put the reader right in the middle of every scene. There's some suggestion that Dr. Knox might appear in a subsequent novel, and I really hope he does. If so, I'll be standing in line to buy the book hot off the press.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Young Police Sergeant Confronts a Difficult Case During the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland


The Cold Cold Ground introduces Sean Duffy, a Catholic police sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As a Catholic who joined the mostly Protestant police force, Duffy is essentially under suspicion--and threat--from both sides in the long-running "Troubles" pitting Catholics and Protestants against each other in Northern Ireland.

The story is set at the height of the Troubles, in 1981. IRA prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike in protest to recent actions of the hated British government, and each time a "martyr" dies, the riots, bombings and other protests accelerate. The British have flooded Northern Ireland with troops, but that only increases the tension and the violence.

Against that backdrop, Sean Duffy is assigned to investigate the murders of two gay men, each of whom had one of his hands chopped off. It initially appears that a serial killer is targeting gay men. (Gay sex was still illegal in Ireland at the time.) But as Duffy pushes his investigation it becomes clear that something larger and more sinister may be at work, and the young detective will have to buck his superiors and risk his own health and well-being if he's going to find a solution.

Sean Duffy is a very attractive protagonist--smart, witty, and a bit subversive, and this is a first-rate novel. The plot is complex and intelligent, and it moves along at a very brisk pace. Even the minor characters are well-drawn and interesting, but what really sets the book apart is the way in which McKinty sets the scene. His description of Northern Ireland in these turbulent times is outstanding, and the way in which these otherwise ordinary people conduct their lives in the face of the violence and unrest is compelling. I'm late getting to this series, but I'll be catching up very quickly. 4.5 stars for this one.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Travis McGee Takes a Long Lavendar Look

The twelfth Travis McGee novel finds McGee and his closest friend, Meyer, the economist, returning to Fort Lauderdale from a wedding. It's late at night; they've taken a wrong turn and are driving down a narrow road in Cypress County, out in the boondocks, trying to make their way back to the Tamiami Trail and home. Out of nowhere, a woman runs right out in front of Miss Agnes, McGee's venerable blue Rolls Royce pickup. McGee swerves and misses the woman by inches, but he loses control of the truck and it winds up underwater in a ditch.

McGee and Meyer manage to escape, but there's no sign of the woman they nearly hit. With no other choice, they begin walking back up the road to a garage they passed earlier. And, as if the night's not gone badly enough already, as they're walking back up the highway, some jerk takes a couple of shots at them. They manage to escape that menace as well and make it back to the garage, where the local sheriff appears and promptly arrests them on suspicion of murder.

Well, crap.

It's a long and involved story involving an armored truck robbery several years earlier. The thieves and the money disappeared, but the sheriff seems to think that the murdered man was involved in the robbery, that McGee and Meyer were his accomplices, and that they killed the guy after a falling out.

Naturally, it's going to take some time to sort this out, and obviously, the only guy to do it is Travis McGee. Along the way, there will, of course, be a woman in desperate need of the kind of attention that only McGee can provide, and McGee will have to spend a lot of time philosophizing about his conquest of the woman and examining his conscience and his character.

This is a pretty good tale and, although it's clearly dated, it's not quite as bad as some of the others in the series. As is the case with all of the McGee novels, the reader has to check his or her twenty-first century sensibilities at the door, especially those regarding gender. But if you can allow yourself to do so for two or three hours, this is a fun way to spend an evening.

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.