Wednesday, December 27, 2017

An Excellent Hard-Boiled Novel Set in Scotland

This is a deliciously nasty, noirish, early entry in the Hard Case Crime series. The protagonist, Joe Hope, walks the mean streets of Edinburgh, working as an enforcer for a loan shark named Cooper. Joe is especially effective wielding his baseball bat, the sight of which leaves delinquent borrowers terrorized. 

Joe's a heavy drinker, especially when he's been out collecting with his buddy, Cooper, and after one of these all-night sessions, Joe returns home to discover that his teenage daughter is dead. She has apparently killed herself after going to stay with an uncle in northern Scotland.

Joe is devastated and furious, and he vows to take revenge against the uncle who, in Joe's view, did not sufficiently protect his daughter. But Joe has barely begun to take his revenge when he is arrested for a murder that he did not commit. The evidence is heavily stacked against him and it's clear that someone is attempting to put him into the frame.

As the book progresses, Joe must sort out what happened with his daughter and at the same time stay one step ahead of the cops who are in hot pursuit. Neither will be easy, and his efforts align him with some pretty hard characters. One doesn't normally think of Scotland as prime territory for traditional noir crime stories, but by the time Guthrie gets through, he has produced a story worthy of the masters of the genre. This is a book that should appeal to any fan of hard-boiled crime novels.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Investigates the Disappearance of a Friend

The Constitution guarantees that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a defense--even though he or she might actually have committed the offense for which they have been charged. This is bound to cause difficulties for many attorneys--at least for those with a conscience--who find that they must mount the best defense they can even for clients that they personally find reprehensible.

Boston attorney Brady Coyne finds himself in this situation when the son of one of his clients is charged with killing two people while driving drunk. There's no question about the fact that the son was driving the car, that he was legally drunk, that he hit another car and killed two people. But the wealthy father wants his son off the hook.

As readers of this series know, Coyne's one-man law practice is largely confined to administering the affairs of wealthy, mostly elderly clients. He doesn't do criminal defense himself, but acting on the instructions of his client, Coyne finds an excellent defense attorney named Paul Cizek to take the case. Cizek, who is one of Brady's friends, was once a prosecuting attorney with an outstanding record. Since going into private practice he has successfully defended a number of high-profile defendants who have been acquitted as the result of his efforts, which certainly does not mean that they were not guilty.

Such is the case here, and against seemingly impossible odds, Cizek wins an acquittal for the drunk driver who was surely as guilty as sin. But Cizek is troubled by the fact that he is now helping guilty clients escape the consequences of their actions. His marriage is also in trouble and one night, shortly after the trial, he disappears off his boat which he has taken out into a storm.

Did Cizek die by accident? Was he so depressed that he took his own life? Brady Coyne is haunted by the death of his friend and goes searching for answers. Naturally, his quest will stir up all kinds of additional problems that Brady never anticipated, and before long, he will be in considerable trouble himself.

If that weren't bad enough, Brady's own love life has hit a troubled patch. For some time, he has been in a relationship with a newspaper reporter who seems to be his ideal mate. But when she get a chance for a big advancement, it may mean moving away from Boston and may, in turn, have serious consequences for her relationship with Brady.

This is a very good entry in this series. The case is an interesting one, and the reporter, Alex Shaw, is one of Brady's more appealing love interests, and so the reader winds up rooting for them to succeed. All in all, a good read.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Joe Gunther and the VBI Must Unravel the Mystery Surrounding a Forty-Year-Old Skeleton

This is another solid entry in Archer Mayor's series featuring Joe Gunther, the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Twenty-seven books into the series, the formula and the cast of characters are very well set, but the formula remains strong and the characters are still uniformly interesting, even though by now, long-time readers of the series know these people almost as well as members of their own families.

As the story opens, a Vermont nuclear power plant is being decommissioned forty years after its construction in the mid-1970s. Workers are jackhammering the concrete floor of a warehouse that was part of the complex when they discover a skeleton encased in the concrete. It's readily apparent that the victim was murdered and the job of investigating the death naturally falls to the VBI. 

Gunther and his team are able to identify the body fairly quickly as that of Hank Mitchell, one of the principal figures in a roofing company that was working on the nuclear site. There were problems in Mitchell's marriage, and his family and friends had long assumed that he had simply abandoned his old life and moved on to greener pastures. They are shocked to discover that he has been dead all this time.

Gunther and the other investigators begin digging back into Mitchell's life in an effort to discover who might have wanted him dead, but then this old, cold case heats up dramatically when someone who had been close to Mitchell is murdered days after the discovery of the skeleton. It quickly becomes apparent that the discovery of Mitchell's body has set off a chain reaction of events and has brought back to the surface secrets that many people thought had been buried with Mitchell forty years earlier. The only question now is whether Joe Gunther can contain the fallout and get to the bottom of this long-simmering mystery.

I've long been a fan of this series and enjoyed this entry a lot. I assume that it will appeal to lots of others who have been following the series, but I would strongly advise anyone interested and new to the series to start at the beginning with Open Season. Part of the joy of following this series is watching the evolution of the characters, and beginning with this book would be the wrong move in that respect.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Boston Bike Messenger Headlines a Great Cast in this Debut Novel from Adam Abramowitz

In the tradition of great Boston crime novels by people like Robert B. Parker, Dennis Lehane, et al., now comes Bosstown, the debut novel from Adam Abramowitz. The main protagonist is Zesty Myers who is, by his own admission, Boston's fastest bike messenger. The only thing faster than Zesty's bike is his mouth. He's a major smart-ass, even in circumstances when he should know well enough to stay quiet.

Zesty's father, Will, once ran heavy-duty backroom poker games and was a major behind-the-scenes Boston political fixer. But Will is now old, suffering from Alzheimer's, and in need of constant care. Zesty's brother, Zero, runs a moving service that employs a lot of ex-cons, and their mother, Diane, was a former radical bombmaker, who disappeared years earlier after allegedly helping to rob a bank.

All in all, it's quite the family, and this is quite the story, involving crimes that span two generations. The novel kicks off when Zesty agrees to substitute for another courrier and picks up a package from a record producer's office. But as Zesty races to deliver the package, he's blindsided by a Buick. He and his package go flying; the package bursts open, and all of a sudden, $20,000 in currency is flying through the air.

Passers-by quickly scoop up most of the dough and run off with it, but the cops arrive and it quickly becomes apparent that the remaining money was part of a major bank heist a few days earlier. Zesty soon finds himself in the middle of a huge and dangerous mess, involving sex, drugs, rock and roll, and two major bank robberies that are separated by nearly forty years.

It's a great ride, funny, scary, and compelling, and the reader finds him or herself racing through the pages of this novel at the speed of Zesty's messenger bike, careening through the streets of Beantown. I loved the Zesty Meyers character, and all of the supporting characters are very well drawn and interesting too. Abramowitz has a great voice, and I eagerly await his second novel. 4.5 stars for this one.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Another Dick Francis Protagonist Finds Himself in Serious Jeopardy

My edition of this book quotes a review from The Atlantic Monthly, indicating that the book is "guaranteed to drive the reader to hysterical dithers and jotters." I confess that I have absolutely no idea what even regular dithers and jotters might amount to, let alone hysterical ones, and while I enjoyed the book, I was not especially moved to any unusual emotional reactions.

Neil Griffon's profession is consulting with troubled companies and restoring them to good health. But then his father, who owns a large stable operation with eight-five horses in his care, is badly injured in an auto accident, and Neil is temporarily forced to leave his own job and take over the stables. Neil's relations with his father have never been good (a frequent problem for Dick Francis's protagonists), and the last thing he wants to do is assume this responsibility. Sadly, he has no choice.

No sooner does Griffon settle in than he is kidnapped by a couple of professional thugs and delivered to a rich and powerful criminal. The criminal's son, who has no experience in these matters, wishes to become a champion jockey, preferably starting tomorrow. The crook instructs Griffon to take the son into his operation and set him up on the best horse in the place in the coming race season. Should Griffon fail to do so, the crook will destroy the stables and inflict great bodily harm on Griffon himself.

Obviously, this seriously bad guy has never read a Dick Francis novel or he would have had sense enough to take his son and his threats to another stable. Anyone who ever hasread one of these books understands immediately that any Dick Francis protagonist will face such threats stoically, bravely, and intelligently. Most of all, he will never, EVER, give into such threats irrespective of the harm that will inevitably be inflicted upon him along the way.

Griffon's challenge, then, is to diffuse the situation without ever speaking of it to anyone else, the police included. Bringing them into this matter simply wouldn't be fair to the poor bad guy who has no idea who he's dealing with or what he's getting himself into. And even though I wasn't reduced to hysterical dithers and jotters (at least as far as I know), I did enjoy watching Neil Griffon wrestle with this challenge and I expect that most other readers who like this series will as well.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Minnesota BCI Agent Virgil Flowers Races to save Two Kidnapped Tigers

Minnesota BCI agent Virgil Flowers returns in another entertaining novel from John Sandford. Flowers is a laid-back guy who dresses in jeans and the tee shirts of obscure rock bands and who spends the bulk of his time investigating rural crime. He loves fishing and women, though not necessarily in that order, and is currently in a relationship with a woman named Frankie.

When two rare tigers are stolen from the Minnesota Zoo, Virgil is assigned to lead the investigation. Time is of the essence here, for the fear is that the animals will be killed and that their body parts will be harvested for the Asian market in non traditional medicinal supplements. At virtually the same moment, Frankie's sister, Sparkle, comes to spend the summer with Frankie while she finishes the research for her dissertation. The dissertation involves the exploitation of workers at a local canning factory, and when Sparkle attempts to interview employees of the factory, she quickly becomes the target of people who would rather that her investigation not be completed.

Virgil will have to devote some time to the problems that result from Sparkle's investigation, but the bulk of his time is consumed in the hunt for the tigers and the tigernappers. As usual in a Sandford novel, the point of view shifts back and forth between Virgil and the gang that has taken the tigers, and while there's a fair amount of violence in this book, there's also a great deal of the humor that readers have come to expect from a novel featuring "That F***in' Flowers."

If I have any complaint about this book, it lies in the fact that Sandford seems to be straining just a bit too hard with the humor elements of the book, at the risk of becoming a bit too cute. Also, the subplot involving Sparkle's investigation didn't really add much to the book. Still, it's always fun to hang out with Virgil and this is a very entertaining way to lose a few hours. 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Another Great Harry Bosch Novel from Michael Connelly

The eighth Harry Bosch novel, published in 2002, opens when a dog unearths a human bone in Laurel Canyon in the hills above Hollywood. The dog's owner, a retired doctor, recognizes the discovery immediately and calls the police. Harry Bosch responds, climbs the hill where the dog had been playing, and discovers the bones of a child that had been buried in a shallow grave more than twenty years earlier.

An autopsy reveals that the boy had been murdered, but there are precious few clues apart from the bones themselves. A case this cold will be almost impossible to solve, but for Bosch, this case, like virtually all his others, becomes personal and he simply won't let go of it. 

Harry is, ultimately, able to identify the victim, but tracking down the killer will take all of the skills he has honed through the years. Along the way, he will acquire a new love interest, and, as is almost always the case, will find himself in conflict with the department's brass who are, at least in Harry's view, much more interested in protecting the department's image than they are in achieving some sort of justice.

This is another very good entry in the series, featuring the level of detail and insight into police procedure that readers have come to expect from Connelly. One of the particular joys of this book lies in the minor characters, beginning with the doctor whose dog discovers the bones, all of whom are very well-drawn and unusually interesting. The book ends with a particularly shattering climax which will leave readers very anxious to get to the next book in the series.

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Mother Driving Across the Country Runs into Terrible Trouble in Arizona

This is a suspense novel written by the Irish crime writer, Stuart Neville, using the pen name "Haylen Beck." It's another of those cases where the author's real name and picture are featured on the cover, raising the issue of why the author even bothers with the pen name. Perhaps Neville wanted to distinguish between his other books, which are set in Ireland, and this one, which is set in the U.S, but I'm not really sure I see the point.

This is one of those books that's especially difficult to review without giving away significant plot points, and I would argue that even the tease on the book cover goes too far in this regard. Suffice it to say that a troubled woman leaves New York, driving to California. She fears that the authorities may be looking for her, and so she's sticking to the back roads which are less traveled. She gets as far as a very small town out in rural Arizona, where everything goes terribly wrong. For my own part, I don't want to give away any more than that, except in a spoiler alert. Read the dust jacket if you wish, and do so at your own risk.

I've read several of Neville's Irish crime novels and have enjoyed them very much, but this one didn't quite work for me. I had a very difficult time buying into the underlying premise of the novel and the story really didn't seem to pick up much momentum until about halfway through. Once it did, I was turning the pages one after another, as quickly as I could; I only wish it hadn't taken quite that long to ramp up the action. It's certainly a fairly good read, but I didn't think it was quite on a par with the author's earlier work.