Friday, March 24, 2017

Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere Seek Justice for the Forgotten Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Has Steeplechase Jockey Rob Finn Lost His Nerve?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

At which point, all hell breaks loose.

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

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

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