Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Harry Bosch Meets Mickey Haller in This Great Novel from Michael Connelly

The Brass Verdict is, I think, one of Michael Connelly's best books, and it reinforces the notion that in this genre, virtually nobody does it better. It's Connelly's eighteenth book and is significant because it is the first to feature both his long-time L.A. homicide detective, Harry Bosch, and the defense lawyer, Mickey Haller. It's principally Haller's book, but Bosch plays a prominent role.

As the book opens, Haller is just returning to work after a prolonged absence. At the close of the last book in which he appeared, The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller was wounded. He then wound up addicted to drugs following his surgery and has been through rehab, and is now making a comeback. He intends to do so slowly, but then another attorney, Jerry Vincent, is murdered in the parking garage of his office building. Vincent and Haller were friends of a sort and occasionally pinch-hit for each other. Vincent had named Haller as his legal successor, and on the morning of Vincent's murder, a judge calls Haller to inform him that he now has in excess of thirty new cases, including a couple that demand immediate appearances in court.

Among the cases that Haller inherits is an especially high profile murder case. A major Hollywood executive has been accused of killing his wife and her lover. The evidence against him seems fairly strong, and the trial is due to start the following week. Most of Vincent's case notes have disappeared, along with his computer, and Mickey has no idea how Vincent planned to structure the executive's defense.

Logically, Haller wants to file a motion to delay the trial so that he can get up to speed and plan a defense. But his client seems totally unconcerned about all of this and insists that there be no delay. He is innocent, he says, and wants his good name restored ASAP. If Haller can't be ready to go, he will get someone who can. Given no choice in the matter, Haller plunges in, determined to do the best he can.

Meanwhile, Harry Bosch is investigating the murder of Jerry Vincent, which brings Bosch and Mickey Haller into contact and conflict. Bosch suspects that there might be information in Vincent's files suggesting who might have a motive to kill him, but Haller insists on protecting the confidentiality of the clients he has just inherited. Bosch suggest that by doing so, Haller might make himself a target, and thus the dance is on.

Watching these two work their respective parts of the criminal system is great fun. The case is an intriguing one and gives Connelly an opportunity to further develop the Haller character. The legal maneuverings are interesting and it's always entertaining to watch Harry Bosch investigate a murder. I found the combination irresistible and when I first read it, it immediately became one of my favorites of all of Connelly's books. It's hard to imagine that there's any fan of crime fiction that would not enjoy it.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Whistle-Blower Attempts to Bring Down a Corrupt Florida Judge and Her Cronies in This Thriller from John Grisham

This is another entertaining legal thriller from John Grisham and it involves a corrupt Florida judge who has been taking humongous bribes to advance the interests of a crooked real estate developer. A shadowy figure using an assumed name contacts the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct claiming that he has incontrovertible evidence of the judge's crimes. He's blowing the whistle in hopes of claiming the millions of dollars in reward money that would accrue to someone who could bring the judge and her co-conspirators down.

The case is assigned to Lacy Stoltz, who has been investigating cases for the Board for nine years. Most of the cases that the Board investigates involve incompetent judges and are relatively slam-dunk affairs. Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, have never had a case involving corruption on a scale this large, but in truth, hardly any investigator ever has.

It quickly becomes apparent that corruption on this level can also lead to danger of a similar magnitude. All sorts of very nasty people have been lining their pockets with the proceeds of this activity, and they will go to any lengths to protect themselves and the scheme that is enriching them. 

Grisham excels at creating legal labyrinths that are really more like gauntlets, and then running his protagonists--and his readers--through them, often at breakneck speed. This book is no exception, and it's an entertaining ride, although I don't think it's on a par with his best novels like The Runaway Jury or The Firm. For whatever reason, it's not quite as compelling, and the climax is not quite as tense or satisfying. But these are relatively small complaints, and fans of Grisham's work are certain to enjoy The Whistler.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Find Themselves Up to Their Necks in Trouble Again

The twenty-third novel in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series tracks very closely to the pattern that has now been well-established through the first twenty-two. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there are now very few surprises in store for anyone who's read several of the books in the series.

As always, a client comes into the agency's offices to retain their services. As is usually the pattern, Bertha will believe that the new client is a step up from the problem clients that the agency so often sees. She has already convinced herself and will attempt to convince her partner, Donald, that this is the case that will put the firm on the road to respectability and will keep them out of all the trouble in which they usually find themselves.

And, as always of course, she will be dead wrong.

In this case, the client is the representative of a large insurance company. One of their clients has been in an automobile accident. There is no doubt that the client is at fault; he rear-ended the other car and has admitted responsibility. The other driver, though--the victim--seems to have disappeared. The insurance company would like Cool & Lam to find her so that the case can be settled.

Donald and any other sensible person wonders why the company simply doesn't use its own investigators for this job, but Bertha can only see the dollar signs involved. The firm takes the case and almost immediately, of course, it blows up in their face. Everybody is lying; blackmail, murder and a variety of other offenses are involved, and only Donald Lam can sort it all out. Or at least we hope so; otherwise he's going to be left in very serious trouble, if he's not left seriously dead.

As I suggested above, anyone who has read a few of these novels knows exactly what there getting when they pick up another. This is a fun read, as good as most in the series, and it won't disappoint the fans of Cool & Lam.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Swedish Detective Kurt Wallander Finds Himself One Step Behind a Clever Killer

This is another dense, intricately plotted crime novel featuring Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. Three young people, dressed in costumes and celebrating Midsummer's Eve, are brutally murdered. The killer buries the bodies and while they remain undiscovered, the victim's parents are led to believe that their children are off touring Europe. However, the mother of one of the victims refuses to believe this and insists that the police should be investigating the disappearance of the three. But the evidence, such as it is, suggests that the three are in fact alive and well, and the police do not take the mother's claims seriously.

The one official who does believe that something might be amiss, is Kurt Wallander's colleague, Svedberg. For some unknown reason, though, Svedberg does not share his suspicions with Wallander or anyone else. Rather, he takes vacation time and begins to quietly investigate the case on his own. Shortly thereafter, Svedberg dies under mysterious circumstances and almost immediately thereafter, it becomes clear that the three young people have indeed been murdered.

Kurt Wallander now faces the most baffling case of his career. He realizes that the death of Svedberg must be connected to the murders of the three young people, but how? And the deeper he digs into the mystery, the more elusive a solution appears to be.

This is not a break-neck thriller. It proceeds at a very stately pace, as a real investigation of this magnitude would. There's a great deal of soul-searching and second-guessing from practically everyone involved, Wallander most of all. The story takes place against a society that's in transition, and a lot of people are wondering if things are spinning out of control. Although the novel takes place during an unusually warm summer, the overall tone of the book could not be more dreary.

Throughout the book, Wallander suffers from what almost seems to be clinical depression. He has major health issues; he's not sleeping well; he has hardly any energy, and for all the world, you would think he was a man approaching seventy. It's almost jarring when the author reminds us on several occasions, that Wallander is not even fifty yet. He questions his own ability and we are left to wonder through much of the book whether he will be able to see this case through to a successful conclusion.

This is probably not a book that will appeal to readers looking for a bright, uplifting story to take them away from the cares and woes of their daily existence. But for those who enjoy dark, gritty, believable police procedurals, One Step Behind will be just what the doctor ordered.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Goes Fishing with His Uncle Moze. Trouble Ensues.

It's always a bit surprising to open a book that's around the twentieth in a series and suddenly discover a family and a backstory of the protagonist that you've never heard before. William G. Tapply's previous Brady Coyne novels (this is the twenty-first or the twenty-third, depending on how you're counting) have always focused on Coyne in the present day. There's been no mention of any family aside from his ex-wife, his two sons, and the various girlfriends he's had along the way.

Now we suddenly learn that Brady's father was also a Boston lawyer. Unlike Brady who has a small, quiet solo practice and who flies mostly under the radar, his father was a high-powered lawyer in a large firm who drove a big, black Cadillac apparently in the hope of impressing people. Brady's mother came from a small town in rural Maine and occasionally the family would jump into the Cadillac and drive up for a visit with his mother's brother--Brady's uncle--Moze.

The young Brady loved these excursions because Uncle Moze was a lobster fisherman who would take Brady out fishing with him. But then, for whatever reason, they fell out of touch and Brady hasn't seen Uncle Moze for thirty years. Not only that, but as much as he loved fishing with him, through twenty-three novels, Brady hasn't given the poor old guy even a single thought!

But never mind all that. When Uncle Moze calls Brady out of the blue, thirty years down the road, and asks him if he wants to come up and go fishing, of course Brady is only too happy to do so. He realizes, of course, that Uncle Moze has a reason for inviting him up, and it turns out that Moze is unable to contact his daughter, Cassie, Brady's cousin. Cassie is several years younger than Brady, and he barely remembers her.

Cassie and her father were once very close, but then had a falling out for reasons that Moze won't get into. He hasn't heard from her in a year and a half and is anxious to contact her, also for reasons he won't get into. He wants Brady to find Cassie and put them back in touch. It seems like a relatively easy task for a lawyer like Brady, but of course, it won't be easy at all. Mysteries, family secrets, and danger abound as Brady takes up the hunt.

It's always fun to settle in with one of Tapply's novels and this is among the better ones in the series. The reader can't help feeling a bit blindsided by all the information that Tapply has withheld for so long about Brady's origins, but you can't hold that against a guy who produces a book as entertaining as this one.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Another Very Entertaining Entry in the Tracy Crosswhite Series from Robert Dugoni

Fresh off a very difficult case, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite finds herself entangled in two new cases, one contemporary and the other a forty-year-old cold case. In the first instance, a man is found shot to death in the home he once shared with his wife from whom he is now separated. The wife and their teenage son are present in the home when officers first arrive. They claim that the husband/father was abusive, that he attacked his wife, and that she shot him in self-defense. But what appears at first to be a fairly straightforward case soon turns out to be a lot more complicated.

At virtually the same time, Jenny Almond, who had been a classmate of Tracy's in the police academy, asks Tracy to take over the investigation of a cold case in rural Klickitat County. Forty years earlier, a Native American high school student went missing while walking home from work one night. She was later found dead floating in a river. The official verdict was suicide, the explanation being that the victim, Kimi Kanasket, was distraught because her boyfriend had just broken up with her.

Jenny Almond is now the sheriff of Klickitat County, following in the footsteps of her father, Buzz Almond. As a newbie sheriff's deputy, Buzz Almond had investigated the case of Kanasket's death, but was never satisfied with the official verdict. Given his position at the time, he couldn't challenge the conclusions of his superiors, but the case bothered him enough that he kept the file for all those years and his daughter found it after Buzz died. She'd like Tracy to review the file and see if anything can be done.

Once the book is underway, Dugoni allows the other members of Crosswhite's unit to pursue the contemporary case, and the bulk of the novel is devoted to Tracy's investigation of the cold case. It turns out to be a fascinating case and Dugoni very convincingly demonstrates how Tracy, with a lot of help, is able to apply new investigative techniques and technologies to a case that originally seems cut and dried and devoid of any new insights.

Like the first two books in the series, it's a very entertaining read that should appeal especially to any fan of police procedurals. I'm anxious to get to the next book in the series.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A British Jockey finds Himself in a Dangerous and Claustrophobic Situation in This Novel from Dick Francis

This is another fairly typical Dick Francis novel. The protagonist, Roland Britten, is an accountant by trade and an amateur jockey who loves to race. Like most Francis lead characters, Britten is single, a man who lives within himself and who few people know really well. He shares the courage and steel will of his fellow Francis protagonists--a man who will not be bullied or bribed and who will withstand almost any amount of pain or suffering rather than surrendering to the will of his adversaries.

As the book opens, Britten unexpectedly wins a very prestigious race. But even before he has a chance to celebrate his unlikely victory, he is kidnapped and rendered unconscious. He awakens to find himself bound in a sail locker of a yacht that is obviously out on the high seas. 

It's a dark, uncomfortable and claustrophobic situation, and Britten cannot figure out how or why he wound up there. "There was no one to pay millions for my release, no parents rich or poor ... I had no political significance and no special knowledge: I couldn't be bartered, didn't know any secrets, had no access to government papers or defense plans or scientific discoveries. No one would care more than a passing pang whether I lived or died ..."

Of course, he will live, at least for a while, or the novel would end after the second chapter. Britten will spend the rest of the book attempting to figure out how he wound up in the locker and who was responsible for putting him there. It's a good read although not one of Francis's best efforts, and fans of the author will know exactly what to expect.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Very Good Mystery Set in South Africa

This novel was published in 1971 and is set in the South Africa of the Apartheid era. It features a biracial team of detectives, Lieutenant Kramer, an Afrikaner, and Sergeant Zondi, a Bantu who assists him. As the book opens, a beautiful blonde music teacher in her mid-twenties has been murdered by someone who poked a sharpened bicycle spoke into her heart. This is the technique of a Bantu gangster, but is this a gang-related killing, or is it just supposed to look that way in an effort to throw off the investigators?

The case turns out to be very complex and takes a number of unforeseen twists and turns before building to a very surprising conclusion. The strength of the book lies in its portrayal of life in South Africa during this era, and the relationship between Kramer and Zondi is especially revealing. In a society as carefully delineated as this one, each has a very specific role to play, and there can be no hope of solving this crime unless the two work in close harmony.

With the growing interest in international mysteries, it's nice to see an entry from South Africa. James McClure ultimately wrote eight books in this series, and I'll be looking forward to reading more of them.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Belfast Detective Sean Duffy Returns in Another Great Novel from Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty's series featuring Belfast detective Sean Duffy was originally conceived as a trilogy. Happily, McKinty changed his mind and has continued the series beyond the third book, In the Morning I'll be GoneGun Street Girl is the fourth in the series and is set in 1985. The Troubles still bedevil Northern Ireland and complicate enormously the lives of all the citizens, most especially that of Sean Duffy, a Catholic who had nerve enough (or who was crazy enough) to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The novel opens with the discovery of two bodies, a man and his wife, who have been shot to death in their home. Their son, Michael, is missing and there is evidence to suggest that Michael killed his parents and fled after having a series of arguments with his father. A couple of days later, Michael turns up dead, having apparently committed suicide and leaving a note of confession behind.

The cases now appear to be concluded, but Duffy is not so sure. He and his team continue to poke and prod and discover that Michael left Oxford abruptly, just short of getting his degree, after attending a party where the daughter of a cabinet minister died of an overdose of heroin. The deeper Duffy digs, the more complicated the case becomes--and the more dangerous for Duffy himself. Along the way, he's managed to antagonize some powerful forces who don't want him mucking around in their business and who are determined to make him stop doing so, one way or another.

It's another great read from McKinty. Sean Duffy is a very engaging character--smart, witty, irreverent, and often funny as hell, even in the very difficult conditions under which he must live and work. His romantic life continues to be problematic and there's a long, hilarious scene in which he's persuaded to go to a social mixer where he might meet an eligible young lady. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and I can hardly wait to get to the next entry in the series.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Detective Harry Bosch Is Consumed by a Thirteen-Year-Old Case

This is another excellent entry in the Harry Bosch series. At this point in his career, Harry is working Open and Unsolved cases with his partner, Kiz Rider. One of the cases that has haunted him for years is the disappearance of a young woman named Marie Gesto, who disappeared after walking out of a market where she'd bought carrots to feed the horses she was going to tend. She was never seen again and, although her body was never found, Bosch has long assumed that she is dead, especially after her car was found in an apartment house garage with her clothes folded neatly inside.

Bosch has long suspected that the killer was the son of a wealthy and powerful man, though there was no solid evidence to connect the man to Gesto. Through the years, Harry has periodically returned to the case and questioned the suspect, to the point where the suspect's father has secured a restraining order against Bosch.

Now, out of the blue, a man arrested for a series of murders has admitted to killing Gesto as well. The man and his attorney are attempting to work out a deal with a politically ambitious prosecuting attorney that will enable the killer to escape the death penalty for his crimes. As the principal investigator in the Gesto case, Harry is involved in the negotiations and is stunned to learn that he may have missed an important clue years earlier that could have prevented several additional murders.

With that, the book is off and running, and it's another great ride. As always, Harry is determined to find the truth, no matter the consequences for the politicians, for the department, or for himself. The case reunites him with F.B.I. agent Rachel Walling and it's nice to see them working together again. As always in one of these novels, there are plenty of surprising twists and turns and lots of great action. I set everything else aside and devoured this book in a day, and it just made me that much more anxious to get back and re-read the next one in the series.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Detective John Rebus May Be Retired, But He Refuses to Give Up the Job

Edinburg detective John Rebus is officially retired and in the middle of a health scare. He's quit smoking and cut back on his drinking, but then a forty-year-old murder that was never solved captures his attention and he's off to the races again, even if he's not running quite as fast as he used to.

The victim was a beautiful married woman named Maria Turquand who had a date to meet her lover in a luxurious hotel. She was found strangled to death, but most of the obvious suspects had iron-clad alibis. Adding to the confusion was the fact that a famous rock star was staying at the hotel that day, and the place was a circus. In the end, there were too many possible suspects and too little evidence, and the case was never solved.

Rebus is recounting the mystery to his new lover over dinner one night in the restaurant of the hotel where the murder happened. This piques his curiosity and he starts digging into the old files on his own. No sooner does he do so, than someone close to the original crime is killed. Someone, it appears, would not like to see Maria's killer found.

At the same time Rebus begins digging into the Turquand case, an up and coming mobster named Darryl Christie is badly beaten outside his home. The case falls to Rebus's former understudy, Siobahn Clarke, and it appears that Rebus's old nemesis Big Ger Cafferty might have been involved. Rebus thus worms his was into Siobahn's investigation and is soon back on the job, albeit without a badge.

Finally, Rebus's adversary-turned grudging friend, Malcolm Fox, has received a big promotion and is working financial crimes. He's assigned to a money laundering investigation that appears to involve the aforementioned Darryl Christie. Almost immediately, his case is tied into Clarke's, and Rebus invites himself into that investigation as well.

The result is a very intricate but intriguing plot in which Rebus, Clarke and Fox combine forces in an effort to chase down any number of bad guys and resolve a number of complicated crimes. It's great fun watching them work together and the interaction among the three and their various targets is the highlight of the book. Rebus may be retired, but he still just keeps getting better and better.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Bachelors Get Lonely--and Sometimes Killed--in this Novel from A. A. Fair

This is a fairly typical entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series. Bertha is delighted to have found a new client for the firm--a fine, upstanding businessman named Montrose Carson. Bertha believes that the kind of clients they usually recruit keep getting the firm into trouble. A substantial, impeccable client like Carson will raise them above all that.

Carson is a developer who is suddenly facing a new competitor. Carson believes that someone in his office is leaking information to the competitor who is then stealing deals out from under Carson. Even before Donald can enter the picture, Bertha has already designed a plan to root out the leaker and is extremely proud of herself for doing so.

Inevitably, of course, the case will blow up; someone will be murdered; Donald will be left to pull the chestnuts out of the fire; Detective Frank Sellers will be in hot pursuit of Donald for any number of alleged infractions, and Bertha will be freaking out, believing Seller's accusations and accusing Donald of betraying her and the firm. The only question that remains is whether this will finally be the time when Donald is unable to do so.

It's a quick read that should appeal to any fan of the series. The plot is horribly convoluted, but no more so than most of those created by Erle Stanley Gardner. The edition I read was published in 1963. The book itself was first published in 1961, although it reads like a book written in the late 1940s. 

I believe I inherited this copy from my father, and bound in with the book is an opportunity to join the Detective Book Club. By doing so, you can get nine "great mysteries," including seven Perry Masons, for only a dollar. It's a "treasure chest of crackling, high-voltage mysteries at a sensational low introductory price," and so how could I resist? I've torn off the attached post card, filled it out, and will be dropping it into the mail tomorrow. 

I'm a little nervous because this offer seems to predate the invention of zip codes. The address is only "The Detective Book Club, Roslyn, L.I., New York." On the other hand, though, how many detective book clubs could there possibly be in Roslyn? I imagine the mail carrier will have no difficulty in finding them, and I can hardly wait to get my new books and have the chance to read and review them!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Lawyer Searching for a Lost Heir Finds Trouble in the Northern Sonoran Desert

This is the second novel from John Robert Schmierer, following Ocean Boulevard, and as good as that book was, this one is even better. At the center of the novel is Benjamin Holt, a partner in a law firm in Newport Beach, California. Holt's wife, Susan, has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and, although the doctors insist that they caught it in time and that Susan will need only minor surgery, this is never good news.

Then, at a time when Holt should be tightly focused on his family situation, one of the firm's extremely wealthy clients, Logan Bigelow, is killed when his private plane crashes on approach into O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Holt had just drawn an addendum to Bigelow's trust, setting aside ten million dollars for an unnamed beneficiary. It turns out that thirty years earlier, Bigelow had an illegitimate daughter who was given up for adoption upon her birth. Bigelow's wife has died a few months earlier and, since she is no longer alive to be hurt by the disclosure, Bigelow wanted to provide for his daughter, assuming that she is still alive and can be found. If not, the ten million goes to Bigelow's foundation.

Not surprisingly, the foundation will not be too happy about potentially losing the money should the heir be found. Holt's partners are even less happy, because Holt had not yet had a chance to bring them up to speed on this development and they fear that the foundation's board will be angry with them. Holt is thus charged with finding either the daughter or proof of the fact that she has died, and it's clear that his job is on the line. If he doesn't quickly produce a solution to this dilemma, he will be out of work at the worst possible time. Naturally, he would prefer to remain by his wife's side until her surgery is over, but given that his family's economic security is on the line, that is not an option. 

Holt's investigation takes him to Phoenix, Arizona where the child was born. The trail is very thin, and simply by asking questions about the girl's mother, Holt exposes his mission and himself to some very unsavory and dangerous characters. The money at stake here is ultimately far larger than ten million dollars and certainly more than enough to put a lot of people, Benjamin Holt in particular, in very grave danger.

Holt is a very sympathetic protagonist, and Schmierer captures perfectly the strain that he is under, squeezed between his family obligations on the one hand and the demands of his job on the other. The rest of the characters are very well drawn, good guys and bad guys alike. Schmierer clearly knows the territory, and the settings in and around the Phoenix metro area are a strength of the book. The plot moves swiftly, with lots of great twists and turns, and all in all, this book is a very good read.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Finds Trouble in Rural New Hampshire

The twentieth (or twenty-first, depending on how your counting) Brady Coyne novel finds the Boston attorney much more settled than ever before. He has a new home, a live-in girlfriend, and a new dog named Henry. However, his serene existence is interrupted when he gets an early-morning phone call from a political fixer who's managing the Senate campaign of a woman named Ellen Stoddard. Ellen's mother is one of Brady's clients, and Ellen's husband, Albert, is one of Brady's occasional fishing buddies.

The senate campaign is coming into the home stretch and of late, Albert has been acting "weirdly." Now he's disappeared altogether and Ellen has no idea where he might be. Obviously, this could cause problems for the campaign. The campaign manager, Jimmy D'Ambrosio, wants Brady to discretely hire a private investigator to figure out where in the hell Albert is and what he's been up to, so that they can contain the damage, if necessary.

Brady hires a friend name Gordon Cahill who begins digging into the case. The investigation takes Cahill to a tiny town named Southwick in rural New Hampshire. Cahill calls Brady and requests a meeting so that Cahill can bring Brady up to date. Shortly thereafter, the State Police contact Brady to tell him that Cahill has been murdered.

Brady is bound by attorney-client privilege, and as much as he might want to, he can't reveal to the police who his client is or what he was working on. This leaves Brady to investigate the matter himself, and off he goes to Southwick. Every seasoned reader of crime fiction understands that when the protagonist takes off to one of these quiet, scenic, quaint, little rural towns, things will not remain quiet and quaint for very long. In short order, Brady will find himself in the middle of a perplexing mystery and in grave danger, and he will need all of his wits to extricate himself from the situation.

This is a very good entry in the series, and by now Brady Coyne is like an old friend. It's good to see him a bit more settled; one can only hope that he will remain so.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Group of Elmore Leonard Characters Gets Freaky Deaky

There's no such thing as a bad Elmore Leonard novel, but inevitably, some of them have to be better than others, and to my mind, this book is not as successful as most of his other efforts. As virtually every reader of crime fiction knows, Leonard's principal strengths are the characters he invents and the great dialog that he gives them. In this case, though, none of the characters really appealed to me, and the dialog did not seem to flow as effortlessly, as intelligently, or as humorously as it does in most of his other books.

At the center of the novel are Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, two aging radicals from the late Sixties and early Seventies. Back in the day, when they weren't doing drugs and having sex with everyone in sight, Skip and Robin were blowing things up in the name of peace and justice. Ultimately, they wound up in prison and now that they're out, they're thinking of putting Skip's expertise with explosives to more practical use. (This book was published in 1988, and so the two are some fifteen years or so removed from their Glory Days.)

The other main character is a Detroit cop named Chris Mankowski. The book opens on Mankowski's last day as a member of the Bomb Squad before he transfers to the Sex Crimes unit. Also along for the ride are two brothers, Mark and Woody Ricks. The brothers were acquaintances of Robin and Skip's when they were in the movement. Mark now produces plays while his brother, who inherited the family's huge fortune, basically eats, drinks, and drugs himself into oblivion on a daily basis.

There's also Donnell, a former Black Panther, who now serves as Woody's driver and general factotum, and who's angling to cut himself a slice of Woody's fortune. Finally, there's an aspiring actress named Greta Wyatt, sometimes known as Ginger Jones. Greta attends a party at Woody's mansion where Woody takes her upstairs and rapes her. When she shows up at the Detroit P.D. to file a complaint, she meets Chris Mankowski who's on his first day on the job in Sex Crimes.

Once all the characters are on stage, the plot meanders all over the place as the plots in Elmore Leonard novels often do. The objectives and strategies of the various characters evolve over time and inevitably a lot of people will be double crossed and left angered and confused. There will also be a lot of explosions.

It's a fun read but, as I said, I found it less entertaining than most of Leonard's other crime novels, basically because I just didn't care about any of the characters or what might have happened to them along the way. After finishing this book yesterday, I sat down and watched "Jackie Brown," which was based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch. It's a great movie, based on a wonderful book, with lots of fantastic and memorable characters that I really did care a lot about. 
Freaky Deaky is a good book, but I don't think it's in the same league as Rum Punch and any number of other Elmore Leonard novels.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Another Great Summer Read from Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry has produced here another excellent thriller, perfectly suited for reading at the lake on a lazy summer day--or, for that matter, at any other time or place. A very clever bomb maker, who is in league with some shadowy characters that we don't really meet until late in the book, is engaged in a deadly contest with the L.A.P.D.'s bomb squad. As the book opens, he lures a large number of the squad's members into a trap and kills fourteen of them--nearly half the entire squad--with one blow.

With an obviously talented and determined bomber on the loose and with the bomb squad devastated, the department turns to Dick Stahl, who was once perhaps the most gifted member of the squad. Stahl has retired and is now operating a security firm, but given the emergency, he agrees to step in and take over what's left of the squad until permanent replacements can be found.

Stahl realizes immediately that he's up against a very skilled and unique adversary. The bomb maker clearly understands the steps that the bomb squad would take to defuse a device, and so he builds bombs that will tempt the experts to attempt to defuse them by the book. But when they do so, rather than rendering the device harmless, they will set it off, killing themselves and anyone else in the vicinity.

The bomb maker's objective is to wipe out the entire squad, although his motive does not become clear until late in the game. The result is that Stahl and his team members are in deep, deep trouble. While the bomb maker can put together a large number of devices and leave them around town to threaten the population, Stahl and his team can't afford to make even a single tiny mistake and still survive.

Not surprisingly, the tension in this book is about as high as one can imagine, beginning with the first page. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse, and Dick Stahl proves to be a very appealing protagonist. You can't help but hold your breath, every time he gets near one of the bomb makers inventions.

The technical material in the book is very impressive, and Perry obviously did a great deal of research on this subject. I saw him when he appeared at my local bookstore with this book, and it was very interesting to hear him talk about its development and about the work that went into. I've enjoyed virtually all of his earlier novels and this is clearly another winner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Hit Man You Can't Help Rooting For

Aside from Matthew Scudder, J. P. Keller has always been my favorite of the characters created by Lawrence Block. Keller is just your basic guy, living alone in New York City and doing the sorts of things that a lonely, single guy would do. But every once in a while, his phone rings and it's Dot on the line, summoning him to White Plains to meet with the Old Man. After reporting in and receiving his instructions, Keller then goes off somewhere and kills somebody.

As the book's title would imply, Keller is a hit man, and logically, we readers should be repelled by him and his actions. But as is the case with Richard Stark's amoral thief, Parker, you can't help but root for the guy, even though you know you shouldn't. He's the BAD guy, for god's sake, and we should despise him, but he's just too damned likable.

This is a collection of stories, many of which originally appeared in Playboy magazine, and which were the reason why so many people read the magazine back in the day. They trace the arc of Keller's life through a series of assignments and entanglements, romantic and otherwise. 

What makes the character so appealing are his inner musings about life in general and his own in particular. He has a habit of traveling to a small town somewhere and wondering what it would be like to live there permanently; he goes into analysis, but naturally, he can't really reveal anything about himself to the analyst--he has to make it all up. He gets a dog and a girlfriend, both of which complicate his life. He sometimes gets too close to his targets and has trouble carrying out his mission.

It's a complicated life, and in the hands of any writer less skilled than Lawrence Block, the premise would never work. But this is a great collection of stories, and Keller is a character that no fan of crime fiction will want to miss. It's interesting that Block and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) were close friends and collaborated on a couple of books, and that they would create two great characters like Keller and Parker, protagonists that any right-minded person should revile but that reader can help but love.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A Great Modern-Day Noir Novel from Laura Lippman

This is a modern noir novel that pays homage to the great books of James M. Cain. Like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, it focuses on two lovers, Polly and Adam, each of whom has closely held secrets that are revealed very slowly as the book progresses.

The story takes place in Belleville, a small town in Delaware, forty-five miles from the beach, and where nearly everyone is simply passing through. As the book opens, a sunburned Polly is nursing a drink in the High-Ho, a bar/restaurant that, like most of the town, is down at the heels. Adam spots her and moves in slowly, but the connection is made, and the two of them will wind up staying in Belleville and working at the High-Ho, long after each of them had planned to be well down the road.

As the summer progresses, someone will die, and the death will have critical implications for Adam and Polly and for their relationship. Other than that, I'm really reluctant to say anything more about the book. Lippman has constructed the plot very carefully, and peels back the curtain slowly and deliberately. To say more would reveal things that the reader should delight in discovering for him- or herself.

Suffice it to say that I think this is Lippman's best book yet and one that actually stands the comparison to those of James M. Cain. Anyone who is a fan of those classic novels will not want to miss this one. One of my favorite reads of the summer thus far.
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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Detective Harry Bosch Investigates a Homicide That May Be Linked to a Deadly Terrorist Plot

I first read this story when it was serialized in the New York Times Magazine. Following that, Connelly expanded the story and published it as a novel. I remember enjoying the serialized version, but, as one would expect, the novel winds up being a fuller and richer experience.

As the story opens, Detective Harry Bosch has just been reassigned to the L.A.P.D.'s prestigious Homicide Special Squad. He's sitting up at midnight, waiting for his first call out. When it comes, he's directed to a homicide on an overlook above the city. He arrives to find that a doctor, Stanley Kent, has been murdered execution-style, next to his Porsche, which is has been left with its luggage compartment standing open.

As Harry examines the scene, he is surprised by the arrival of F.B.I. agent Rachel Walling. Walling indicates that the victim, Kent, was a medical physicist who was on a list kept by the federal government. She initially refuses to tell Bosch why Kent was on the list or why she is interested in the case, and insists that they should get to Kent's house A.S.A.P.

Bosch concurs and, on arriving at the house, they discover the victim's wife, naked and tied up on a bed. She tells them that two men invaded the house, forced her to strip, then tied her up and took pictures of her. It appears that terrorists may have used the pictures to force Stanley Kent to give them extremely dangerous radioactive material.

The Feds, of course, want to take over the case and are, logically, pursuing it as part of a dangerous terrorist plot. The material in question could cause thousands of deaths and that is their priority. While Bosch recognizes the threat, from his perspective this is principally a homicide investigation and he insists on being allowed to pursue it. His rational is, find the killers and you find the material they stole.

It's a gripping story that moves very swiftly. Connelly excels at portraying the bureaucratic infighting between the Feds and the local police and it's really fun to watch. The fact that Bosch and Rachel Walling were once lovers only adds fuel to the mix. Bosch, being Bosch, is not about to take a back seat to anyone, especially not the F.B.I. This story first appeared only a few years after the attacks of 9/11, when the threat posed by potential terrorists was even more frightening. Twelve years later, the threat still feels palpable, especially in the hands of a writer as skillful as Michael Connelly, and fans of the series will not want to miss this one.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Spenser, Boston's Iconic Detective, Tangles with a Gang of Arsonists

This is the forty-fourth book in the Spenser series and the fifth to be written by Ace Atkins in the wake of Robert B. Parker's death. As any number of other reviewers have noted, Atkins has pretty effectively restored the series to its glory years, and with this many books under his belt, he is beginning to make the series his own. 

With Atkins at the helm, Spenser's universe is slowly changing. New characters are appearing, and the man himself is now moving into the modern day, particularly with regard to technology. Spenser long ago stopped aging somewhere in his early fifties, which is a very good thing. When the detective first appeared in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he was a veteran of the Korean War. He would thus now be somewhere in his middle eighties and might have some difficulty beating up large, well-muscled bad guys who are only in their twenties. At one point in this novel, Spenser notes that he once served in the Army. He says that he didn't do much in the Army, but Atkins gives us no hint as to when or where Parker might have served, and in this case has clearly learned a valuable lesson from his predecessor.

As this book opens, Spenser is approached by a Boston firefighter named Jack McGee. A year earlier, an abandoned Catholic church in Boston's South End went up in an inferno. Three firefighters who were friends of McGee's died fighting the blaze. McGee insists that the fire was deliberately set, although the arson investigators have been unable to determine a cause for the fire. McGee also believes that the fire may well have been connected to a series of arsons that have plagued the city in the past year.

McGee believes that the fire and police departments have given up too easily in attempting to solve the fire at the church and he wants Spenser to look into it. Spenser has no training as an arson investigator and one might well wonder how he could possibly turn up evidence that has eluded the seasoned arson and homicide investigators. McGee believes, though, that Spenser has connections in Boston's underworld that aren't available to the police and fire department investigators and that by probing these sources, Spenser might find the guilty party or parties.

It is, frankly, a pretty thin excuse upon which to build a plot, but who really cares? The story is off and running and it's great to see Spenser back in action. From the reader's perspective, there is no real mystery about who's responsible for the fires. The bad guys are revealed even before the first chapter begins, and the tension depends on the rising stakes, for the fire department, for the city of Boston, and for Spenser personally, as the fires rage out of control. It's another very good read and further proof of the fact that the Parker estate knew exactly what it was doing when it entrusted this iconic series to Ace Atkins.

Monday, June 25, 2018

An Atmospheric Novel of Brooklyn from William Boyle

The protagonist is this novel is a young woman named Amy who lives in a tiny, dingy basement apartment in Brooklyn. Amy used to party hard, but after her lover breaks up with her, she retreats into a much different, much quieter, and much more lonely life. She now does volunteer work, principally for her church, and among other things, she delivers communion to elderly shut-ins. 

One morning she delivers communion to a Mrs. Epifanio who tells Amy that she hasn't seen her usual caretaker, a woman named Diane, in several days. Moments later, a man who identifies himself as Diane's son, Vincent, walks in on the two women, having let himself in with a key that he apparently got from his mother. He tells Amy that his mother is sick and that he is checking in on Mrs. Epifanio until she gets better.

Amy is very unsettled by Vincent's appearance, especially when Mrs. Epifanio tells her that Vincent has been rooting around in her bedroom on his earlier visits. Determined to discover what might be going on, Amy takes to following Vincent and then witnesses something that she wasn't meant to see. The remainder of the book unfolds as Amy deals with the consequences of what she has seen and what she has done--and not done--in consequence.

I have very mixed emotions about this book. For me, it's principal strength is the setting. Boyle clearly knows the neighborhoods in which he has set the novel and the sense of place is outstanding. The reader feels as though he, or she, is walking right alongside Amy as she makes her way along, even though, personally, I don't think I'd want to visit many of these scenes, let alone live in them.

On the downside, I simply could not relate to the character of Amy who, to my way of thinking, made one incredibly bad decision after another. In the end, many of her actions left me simply shaking my head. As a result, I couldn't develop any real empathy for her and, ultimately, I really didn't care very much what happened to her. Also, some of the criminal activity at the heart of the book is pretty hard to believe and so in the end, three and a half stars for me, rounded up to four for the great job Boyle does at setting the scene.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Gets Caught Up in the Aftermath of an Armored Car Robbery

The twenty-first Donald Lam and Bertha Cool mystery opens in the wake of a brazened armored car robbery that netted the two thieves a cool $100,000 in thousand-dollar bills. Lam's police force nemesis, Sergeant Frank Sellers, believes he is close to a solution of the mystery. He has recovered half of the loot and has a lead on a woman named Hazel Downer, who is associated with one of the men suspected of the robbery.

Sellers confronts Downer and searches her apartment. He doesn't find the other half of the missing money, but in her purse, he does find a napkin with the name and number of the Cool & Lam agency. Downer manages to give Sellers the slip and he now demands to know what Donald and Bertha have to do with the woman. They both insist that they've never heard of her, but of course Sellers doesn't believe them. Bertha insists that if anyone has had contact with the woman, it would be Donald, and naturally, the second he leaves Bertha and Sellers in Bertha's office, he goes into his own only to find Hazel Downer waiting for him.

Hazel wants to hire Donald to find a man named Stanley Downer who she says is her husband. She claims that Stanley has run off with $60,000 of her money, all in thousand-dollar bills. She says that an uncle left her the money, although she has no way of proving it. She offers Donald a percentage of the money if he can recover it. Of course, she insists that HER sixty thousand dollar bills have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the thousand-dollar bills still missing from the armored car robbery that Seller is so hot about.

Inevitably, a plot that's already this complicated by page 16 will get only moreso. The case takes Donald to San Francisco, where he will find himself in a world of trouble and danger, and it will take all of his skill and a great deal of luck if he's going to sort out this mess.

This book was published in 1960, twenty-one years after the first in the series, The Bigger They Come, and yet it might well have been published twenty-one months later. Like virtually all of the other books in this series, there are no specific dates and no references to any contemporary events. Twenty-one years after they first appeared, the characters have not aged a day. Bertha is still a hard sixty-five and Donald remains in his middle thirties. More than that, the books retain the feel of pulp fiction from the 1940s. An attractive woman still has shapely "gams;" cars haven't gotten any more dependable, and the police still operate like they did in the '30s and '40s. This is not really a complaint, merely an observation, and this book and the others in the series allow the reader to return to the age of the classic pulps, which, when done well, can still be a lot of fun.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Another Great Jack Reacher Novel from Lee Child

This is another very good entry in the Jack Reacher series. By now the formula is fairly well set, and as this book opens, Reacher is strolling through a small town in Wisconsin. Looking into the window of a pawnshop, he happens to notice in the display a class ring from West Point. Such a ring is very hard to earn and Reacher wonders why someone might pawn one.

His curiosity aroused, Reacher buys the ring and attempts to trace it back to its original owner, a task that will be much easier said than done. It's a small ring, and Reacher concludes that the original owner was a woman. Engraved in the ring are the initials S.R.S., and the year 2005, suggesting that the woman graduated just in time to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such troubled and dangerous places.

The pawnshop owner initially refuses to tell Reacher where he got the ring, but when Jack Reacher is looking for information, it's generally a bad idea not to provide it. The guy ultimately tells Reacher that he bought the ring, with a bunch of other jewelry, from a biker. 

Initially, the biker is no more cooperative than the guy in the pawnshop. (Will these people never learn?) But eventually, Reacher winds up tracing the ring from Wisconsin to Rapid City, South Dakota, and from there to the Middle of Nowhere in Wyoming. The further he gets into this quest, the more difficult and dark the mystery becomes. 

As is often the case, Reacher finds himself touring through the underbelly of the country, and it's not a pretty picture. Mixed in and around a very good mystery, this book has some fairly sad things to say about the contemporary United States. As always, though, it's a very engaging and exciting story, populated by some interesting characters and some great settings, and it gives Reacher a lot of opportunities to be the Jack Reacher we all know and love. 

As a side note, early in the book, one of the characters describes Reacher as "Bigfoot," and the name follows him through the story. It's not exactly the image one would conjure up thinking of Tom Cruise, and one wonders what, if anything, the author might be insinuating by doing this so deliberately.

I always look forward to the summer because it means that I will have a new Reacher novel to read and now I'm already looking forward to next year's book.