Monday, October 15, 2018

NOVEMBER ROAD is a Great New Novel from Lou Berney

I’ve long been a huge fan of Lou Berney’s novels, especially The Long and Faraway Gone, which won an Edgar in 2016, along with several other prestigious awards, and which remains one of my favorite books of the last few years. Consequently, I’ve been very anxious to finally get my hands on his new book, November Road, which was released last week, and which has gotten rave notices in advance of the publication date. Simply put, the wait was more than worth it. November Road is a great novel and, like its predecessor, it’s one of those books that I’ll be rereading often in years to come. 

The story is set in November 1963, in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it features two expertly-drawn protagonists. The first is Frank Guidry, a ranking member of the New Orleans mob, under the command of Carmen Marcello. A couple of weeks before the assassination, Guidry ran what seemed at the time to be a fairly inconsequential errand for Marcello. But the moment Guidry learns that the president has been shot in Dallas, he realizes that the task he performed was anything but inconsequential. 

Guidry has always been loyal to Marcello and has been a valuable lieutenant to the mob boss; he should have no reason for concern. But then other people close to the Marcello family who had tenuous connections to the errand that Guidry ran are suddenly turning up dead and Guidry is reluctantly forced to recognize the fact that, in a situation as explosive as this, anyone can be deemed expendable.

Guidry decides that he has no choice other than to run. With a deadly killer hard on his trail, he heads for Vegas, hoping to connect with an old friend who becomes his only hope of escaping the fate that Marcello wants to deal him. But the mob has eyes and ears practically everywhere, and the challenge of reaching Vegas alive will be a daunting one.

The book’s second protagonist is Charlotte Roy, a housewife from Woodrow, Oklahoma, who was once the most adventurous eleven-year-old girl in her tiny town. But that was seventeen years ago, and in a place like Woodrow, life happens—especially if you’re a young woman and most especially if it’s still the middle of the Twentieth Century. Charlotte is married now with two young, precocious daughters. Her husband, Dooley, drinks, has trouble holding down a job, and has even more trouble supporting his family.

Charlotte wonders if she’s selfish to want more out of life, both for herself and for her daughters. “Woodrow was idyllic in many ways. Quaint, safe, friendly. But it was also interminably dull, as locked in its stubborn, small-minded ways, as resistant to new things and ideas, as Mr. Hotchkiss [her boss]. Charlotte longed to live in a place where it wasn’t so hard to tell the past from the future.”

Her husband would never consider the idea of moving to a larger city and, Charlotte knows that he’s never going to stop drinking and become the kind of husband and father that she and their daughters deserve. And so, practically on a whim, a few days after the Kennedy assassination, Charlotte quickly packs up some things, gathers up her daughters, and hits the road for Los Angeles, planning to stay with a distant relative for a short time while she begins a new life for the three of them in California. Along the way, her path will intersect with that of Frank Guidry and when it does, everything will change—for Frank, for Charlotte, and for her daughters.

It would be unfair to reveal any more, but suffice it to say that this is a richly textured novel with characters that are fully realized. Berney has clearly done a great deal of research, and the reader finds him- or herself fully immersed in the early 1960s. The settings, the attitudes, and the atmosphere feel exactly right, and the story grabs you from the opening page and then refuses to let go. Frank Guidry and Charlotte Roy are characters that will remain with the reader for a very long time, as will this excellent novel. A great read, and an easy five stars.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Montana Brand Inspector and Occasional Deputy Sheriff Gabriel Du Pre Returns, and Not a Moment Too Soon

After a three-year absence, author Peter Bowen returns with the fifteenth novel in his series featuring Gabriel Du Pre, a Metis Indian living in Montana who has worked as a brand inspector and occasional deputy sheriff. Du Pre is now well along in life, with adult grandchildren, but it hasn't slowed him down a bit. He still drinks and smokes and plays the fiddle with the best of them, and it's great to have him back.

In this novel, Du Pre comes to the assistance of a decorated former soldier named Hoyt Poe. While serving as a guard at a prison in Kabul, Poe witnessed the employees of a private contractor abusing prisoners. Poe did the right thing and reported the abuse. He then testified against the men he saw committing the crimes. 

His efforts earned him the enmity of the thugs who run the contracting firm and of their powerful political masters in the nation's capital. Poe is now running for his life and is resettled out in Du Pre's home town of Toussaint in rural Montana. But Poe's enemies are relentless and well-connected, and even out in the middle of nowhere and even with the assistance of Gabriel Du Pre, Poe and his family may not be safe.

This is a compelling story that, given the current political climate, has more than a little ring of truth about it. But above and beyond that, this and the other books in the series are character-driven novels, and Bowen has created a wonderful supporting cast surrounding his protagonist. The sense of place is so sharp that the fictional Toussaint comes fully to life, and returning to the community after a three-year absence is like returning home again. I very much hope that it will not be another three years before we get a chance to go back.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Boston P.I. Spenser Hunts a Con Man

Spenser, Robert B. Parker's iconic Boston P.I., appears here for the forty-fifth time, now in the very capable hands of Ace Atkins who has revived the series and made it fresh again.

As the book opens, Spenser's Significant Other, the therapist Susan Silverman, refers one of her clients, Connie Kelly, to Spenser. Kelly has fallen hard for a guy named M. Brooks Welles who claims to be a former high-ranking secret agent for the U. S. government. Welles has impressed not only Kelly, but a number of cable news networks who have regularly featured him as a noted authority on military matters and international developments.

Welles convinces Kelly to give him nearly $300,000, which he is going to invest in a sure-fire scheme that will make her a fortune. But then Welles disappears and Kelly realizes that she has been conned. Embarrassed, she wants Spenser to find Welles and recover her money.

That will turn out to be a complicated process. Welles is involved in a complex web of mischief with a bunch of gun runners and other bad actors, none of whom want Spenser messing around in their business. Federal agents are also involved in the hunt, and they don't want Spenser messing around in their business, either.

Naturally, Spenser could not care less what either the Bad Guys or the Good Guys want. He's on a mission, with the assistance of his best friend, Hawk, and he's not about to be deterred. The result is a very entertaining novel that is sure to please any fan of the series and practically anyone else who enjoys crime fiction.

If I have one nit to pick with the book, it involves the fact that in his earlier Spenser novels, Atkins had seriously toned down the sappy, saccharine byplay between Spenser and Susan Silverman that so annoyed many readers, this one included. He seems to have stepped it back up a notch in this book, and thus left me cringing at several of their scenes together. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book enormously.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Detective Sid Halley Returns in This Thriller from Dick Francis

The protagonists in Dick Francis novels rarely ever made repeat appearances, but one of the exceptions is Sid Halley who we see for the second time in Whip Hand. Halley is a former jockey whose career was ended when a horse rolled over on him, crushing his left hand. The hand was ultimately amputated and he now has a prosthesis. But it's impossible for him to continue riding under these circumstances.

Halley has thus become a private investigator and, not surprisingly, a number of his cases involve the racing world. In this instance the wife of a trainer approaches him and asks him to ensure the safety of one of her husband's prize race horses. In the past couple of years, two of his horses which were virtually guaranteed to win major races, fell way short and ultimately developed health problems and had to be retired from racing. 

The woman is afraid that it's going to happen again with a horse that's set for a big race in a couple of weeks or so. She wants Halley to make sure that no one interferes with the horse, but she also wants him to do so without letting her husband know that she has hired him. Naturally, this might be somewhat difficult, but Halley accepts the assignment.

Inevitably, of course, there is something rotten, if not in Denmark, then at least in the racing world, and vicious, malevolent forces will attempt to prevent Halley from completing his appointed mission. As usual, Francis spins an entertaining tale and this book will appeal to his loyal readers and to others who might find a mystery set in the English racing world intriguing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

P. I. Amos Walker Is Back on the Mean Streets of Detroit in this Novel from Loren D. Estleman

Published in 2014, this is the twenty-fourth entry in Loren D. Estleman's venerable series featuring Detroit P.I. Amos Walker. The first, Motor City Blue, appeared in 1980, and even back then, Amos was the last of the true hardboiled detectives of the Old School--wise cracking, world weary, constantly running afoul of the cops, but dedicated to his mission and to his clients. 
Thirty-four years later, the guy has seen it all. Even worse, he's experienced it all. He's been beat up, shot, and thrown to the side of the road so many times that a lesser man would have never survived. But he keeps plugging along, nonetheless. 

Walker has not aged in real time, but he has aged, and if anything, the Mean Streets of Detroit have gotten even meaner. As this book opens, he's just out of rehab, recovering from addiction to booze and pain pills. He's contacted by Ray Henty, a lieutenant in the County Sheriff's Department, who's been temporarily placed in charge of the corruption-riddled police department in the suburb of Iroquois Heights. 

A man named Donald Gates has been murdered in the basement of his home, and the department has made no progress in solving the crime. Someone unhappy with the pace of the investigation has put up billboards around the city shouting "You Know Who Killed Me," prodding the police to act. To make matters worse, someone, acting through a local church, has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. (This plot will, of course, sound familiar to those people who have seen the movie, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," but it's worth noting that this book was published three years before the release of the movie.)

The billboards and the reward have put a lot of pressure on the police. They've also brought a ton of calls to the tip line and someone has to sort through them. Henty hires Walker to listen to the calls and try to discover if there's anything useful there. Henty emphasizes that Walker is not supposed to be investigating the murder himself; he's only to listen to calls. But you don't have to be a regular reader of this series to guess how well those instructions are going to work.

Before long, Walker is up to his neck in the case, which turns out to be hugely complex, involving Ukrainian mobsters and a lot of other unsavory types. Other murders will follow, and Walker himself will be in serious jeopardy from a variety of sources before this all plays out.

One might argue that this plot ultimately winds up being way too convoluted for its own good, but after all this time, Amos Walker has become a very old friend and it's always fun to check in and watch him chase down a case as only he can. Readers who have somehow missed this series might be better off checking out some of the earlier books, but fans of the series will not want to miss this one.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Belfast Detective Sean Duffy Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Adrian Mckinty

Adrian McKinty's series featuring Belfast detective Sean Duffy just keeps getting better and better with each entry. This is the fifth in the series and it opens when a young woman named Lily Bigelow is found dead in the courtyard of Carrickfergus Castle. Bigelow was a newbie journalist accompanying a group of Finnish businessmen on a visit to Northern Ireland. She entered the castle with a tour group late one afternoon and the next morning was found by the castle's caretaker at the base of a tower some one hundred feet high.

The caretaker swears that the castle was securely locked after the last visitors left, and it's clear that no one was able to get in or out of the castle overnight. In the morning, the only people there are the elderly caretaker and the victim. All the evidence suggests that Bigelow hid somewhere in the castle and then, sometime around midnight, climbed the tower and jumped off, committing suicide.

It's a classic locked room mystery and a thorough investigation makes it almost certain that there was no opportunity for any foul play. This cannot be a murder; it's suicide, plain and simple. Beyond that, Sean Duffy has already had one locked room murder in his career, and the chances of getting a second, he thinks, would be astronomical. Still, while everyone else is willing to write off the young woman's death as a suicide, Duffy continues to be troubled by niggling doubts, and when he continues to probe into the case the more puzzling and the more dangerous it becomes.

This series takes place during the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland when Catholics and Protestants were battling each other and when most citizens and the authorities were caught in the middle of what amounted to a civil war. The previous entries in the series have all been set very squarely against this background. This book is set in 1987, and while the battle still rages, it plays much less of a role here. This is much more a straightforward crime novel, and Duffy is much less involved in the island's larger struggles than in the earlier books.

Sean Duffy continues to be one of the most appealing protagonists in crime fiction--funny, wise and personally vulnerable. I'm closing in on the end of the series--at least the end of the books that exist thus far, and I'm really dreading the moment when I will have to wait interminably for the next new Sean Duffy novel. This series was originally set to run for only three novels; I can only hope that it goes on for much, much longer than that.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Is Offered $1500 to Spend a Night in a Motel Room with a Sexy Young Woman

Maybe I was just in the right mood for this book, but it struck me as one of the better entries in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series. 

It begins, unusually, with a client coming into the office and actually telling the truth, or a close approximation thereof. On a night when his wife was out of town, the prospective client, Carleton Allen, took a sexy young woman named Sharon Barker to the Bide-a-Wee-Bit Motel for a little fun and games. The young lady registered for the couple while Allen hunkered down in the car, hoping that no one would recognize him. Naturally, she used a phony name and address and made up a license plate number for the motel register.

Allen claims that nothing happened after that, at least not in his room. Before anything did, the young lady took offense at something Allen did and left. Sadly, though, a deputy district attorney named Rolney Fisher wound up dead at the bottom of the motel's pool that night. Now the police are attempting to interview everyone who was registered there at the time.

One would think that Carleton Allen would be in the clear. The cops don't have his real name, his real address or his actual license plate number, and nobody there got a good look at him. For some reason, though, he's nervous and offers to pay $1500.00 to have Donald go back and spend a night in the motel with the sexy Sharon, pretending that he was the man with her on the night the deputy D. A. went head-first into the pool. The cops will interview them, conclude that they know nothing about the death, and that will be the end of it.

Naturally, Bertha's eyes are lighting up at the prospect of an easy $1500.00 payday for the firm, but Donald is leery of getting mixed up in a murder investigation that might cost the firm its license. In the end, he agrees to spend the night with Sharon at the motel, but only on his own terms. And, of course, before the night is out, the fireworks will have begun and as usual, Donald will have to pull every trick he has out of the bag to save himself and the firm

I thought this was a fun read, and it will appeal principally to people who enjoy reading Gardner's work or occasionally going back in time to read a pulp novel from the Golden Age of the genre.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Another Story from Harlan Coben of Life and Death on the Mean Streets of Suburban New Jersey

Harlan Coben long ago cornered the market on the New Jersey Suburban Family Thriller sub-genre, which involves average, ordinary American folks--almost always wonderful people with great families--who are suddenly thrown into chaos and danger when some powerful negative force intrudes into their daily lives. Such is the case here.

Our protagonist is a New Jersey lawyer named Adam Price. He and his wife, Corinne, are living the American dream with excellent jobs, a very nice, comfortable home, and two great sons. Their principal worries seem to revolve around whether or not their elder son is being treated fairly by his lacrosse coach and whether the kid will get enough playing time.

Then, out of nowhere, Adam's world is abruptly turned upside down when a stranger approaches him in a bar and reveals a devastating secret about Corinne. At first, Adam refuses to believe the story, but the stranger offers evidence to support the allegation he has made and when Adam finally confronts Corinne, she evades the discussion he so desperately wants to have. She insists that they meet at a restaurant for dinner so they can discuss the matter in a place where there sons can't overhear the conversation. 

Adam appears at the restaurant, but Corinne never does. Instead, he gets a text from her phone, saying the she needs some time alone and will come back when she can. In the meantime, Adam should take good care of the kids. Adam assumes that the police will do little or nothing to find his wife under these circumstances and so he launches his own search for her. Along the way, he hears several other troubling allegations about the woman he thought he knew so well. 

Meanwhile, other poor victims are receiving visits from the stranger and his confederates, and a lot more lives are being upended. As Adam's search draws him closer to the center of this troubling mystery, he antagonizes some dangerous and desperate adversaries, and it becomes entirely possible that even if Corinne should finally return home, her husband may have lost his life in his desperate effort to find her.

I thought that this book was okay--an entertaining way to spend a couple of nights, but a story that is quickly forgettable. The plot requires a very strong suspension of disbelief, and I found it hard to take the story very seriously. I enjoyed it, although not as much as several of Coben's other novels, but you can't argue with success. Millions of people are clearly hooked by Coben's tales, and so even though this book didn't work for me as well as I would have wished, I'm glad that so many other readers have enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Finds a Young Girl Dying in His Yard

By my count, this is the twenty-fifth Brady Coyne novel, but this is another of those cases where compulsive readers disagree slightly. It opens in the middle of winter, when the Boston attorney opens his back door early one morning to discover a young girl dying in the snow in his yard. Brady brings the girl into the house and calls 911, but it's too late. The girl has had a miscarriage and dies.

The girl, who appears to be about fifteen, has no identification, but the police do find a piece of paper in her pocket with Brady's address. Clearly, she was looking for his house but died before she could get to the door. Brady is heartsick and, when the police prove to be not as interested in the case as he would like, he begins his own investigation in an attempt to determine who the girl was and why she might have been looking for him.

Brady gets a copy of the morgue photo and begins showing it around to anyone who will take a look at it. He also distributes a few copies to street people, thinking that the dead girl might have been on the streets and that someone in that milieu would recognize her. Then, a couple of days later, Brady's Significant Other, Evie, returns from a conference of hospital administrators. She recognizes the girl in the photo as the daughter of a woman who died at the hospital where Evie works. She had counseled the young woman and it now becomes clear that the dead girl was really looking for Evie and not for Brady.

Brady is still determined to find out what happened to the poor girl and then one of the street people who has been showing the girl's picture around for Brady suddenly turns up murdered. A coincidence???

Not hardly, of course, and now Brady feels a double obligation to see this case through to its conclusion. It will be a complicated, surprising and dangerous path to follow, but Brady Coyne is nothing if not determined and will follow his tenuous leads wherever they might take him. The result is another entertaining entry that will appeal particularly to those readers who are steeped in the series.

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Classic Noir Novel from Jada M. Davis

Jada M. Davis wrote two pulp novels in the 1950s. The first, One for Hell, was published by Gold Medal in 1952, and was then reprinted by Stark House in 2010 as part of their Noir Classics series. The main protagonist is a hustler named Willa Ree. Ree is a rough and clever man who is riding the rails while attempting to determine where he might land next. When the train stops in the booming oil town of Breton, Texas, Ree hops out of the boxcar and decides to look over the town.

Almost immediately, he senses its possibilities. Not long ago, Breton was a small town, but the population has now exploded as a result of the oil boom. It's rough, raw, and ripe for the picking. Soon after landing in town, Ree hooks up with Ben Halliday, who is one of the town leaders. Halliday would like to exploit the town's possibilities as well, but to his view the current chief of police is not compliant enough to maximize the graft for the town's leaders.

Halliday contrives to place Ree in the police department as the new chief of detectives. The plan is that Ree will gain control of the town's prostitutes, gambling dens and other vice, forcing the practitioners to pay a cut to Ree who will then pass most of the spoils up the chain to Halliday and his cohorts.

Ree is just the man for the job, except for the fact that he quickly proves to be too independent. The only person Ree is interested in is Willa Ree himself, and as he attempts to maximize his own opportunities, Breton may well be turned upside down and inside out.

If not a true pulp classic, this book is a good example of the hundreds of such novels that were published in the middle of the last century. There's plenty of violence; there's a lot of sex, although given the restrictions of the day, it's anything but explicit. Virtually everyone in the book is on the make in one way or another, and like a lot of pulp literature, this novel paints a pretty depressing picture of society as a whole. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who occasionally likes to dip into this genre.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Army Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Investigate the Murder of an Army Major in the South Korea of 1974

The eleventh entry in Martin Limon's series featuring U. S. Army Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom begins with a minor theft. An army major named Schulz accuses a bar girl of stealing the Korean equivalent of about fifty dollars from him. Apparently the two had a "date" but the poor major was unable to perform and demanded his money back. 

When the woman refuses to give him his money back, the major accuses her of theft and demands that she be forced to return the money. CID investigators Sueno and Bascom launch an investigation, but before they can complete it, Major Schulz is found hacked to death behind a bar. The young woman he accused of theft has disappeared.

The U. S. Army and the South Korean police force want this matter resolved ASAP, and neither is particularly concerned that genuine justice might be served. As far as they're concerned, the bar girl is almost certainly guilty of the murder. They would prefer that she be captured, tried, convicted and sentenced immediately.

Sueno and Bascom aren't so easily convinced and, as they have demonstrated repeatedly through the ten novels preceding this one, they don't particularly care what the Army and the South Koreans might prefer. They find it hard to believe that the bar girl, Miss Jo Kyong-ja, could have committed the crime--at least not without help. They are determined to find her before the South Koreans can seal her fate, and figure out what actually happened. Doing so will make some powerful and dangerous enemies, and Sueno and Bascom will have to step quickly and smartly if they're going to save both Miss Jo and themselves.

This novel is set in the South Korea of 1974, and as always, one of the principal delights of the book is Limon's description of the South Korean culture and the interaction between the U.S. Army and South Koreans at a variety of levels. It's always fun to ride along with Sueno and Bascom, and it's especially entertaining to watch them weave their way in and around their own commanding officers and the officials of the Korean National Police. This book is another very good addition to the series.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Detective Virgil Flowers Chases a Case from Minnesota Back to the War in Vietnam

This is the second entry in John Sandford's series featuring Virgil Flowers, an investigator with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Virgil is an unconventional detective, who looks more like a surfer than a gifted investigator. He wears his blond hair down to his shoulders, dresses in tee shirts bearing the names of often-obscure rock bands, and rarely carries a gun.

Virgil loves to fish, writes articles for outdoor magazines, and often tows his boat behind his pickup as he roams about the rural Minnesota countryside, chasing killers. He also loves women and is attracted to lots of them, many of whom return his interest. His principal method of investigating crimes involves walking around and talking to lots of people, and out of these conversations a solution usually occurs, often with deadly consequences.

This case begins when a man walking his dog is killed by a sniper who is assisted by a spotter. The body is then left in front of a veterans' memorial in Stillwater, Minnesota, with a lemon stuck in the victim's mouth. Several other men are killed in the same fashion and left at other veterans' monuments around the state. Virgil discovers that the victims had connections back to the war in Vietnam, and that becomes the thread that he will follow through to the end of the chase. (This book was published in 2008, thirty-five years after the events in Vietnam, and the victims are middle-aged men.)

Truth to tell, the plot is pretty far-fetched, but that doesn't really matter here. Most people read these books in order to spend a few hours in the company of "That F***in' Flowers," and it's always a joy to do so. Virgil's boss, Lucas Davenport, makes several cameo appearances here as to Shrake and Jenkins, two other members of Davenport's crew, and it's fun to see them all in action together. A very entertaining novel.

Friday, August 24, 2018

A Brilliant Police Procedural from Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson's Sympathy for the Devil, which was published in 1987, remains, I think, one of the best, if not the best of the novels to come out of the Vietnam War. It was a searing account of the war as seen through the eyes of one soldier, a young man named Hanson, who very closely resembles the author.

Anderson's second novel, Night Dogs, appeared in 1996, and certainly ranks among the best police procedurals I've ever read. The book is set in the middle Seventies, shortly after the end of the war. The protgonist is again Hanson, now home from Vietnam and working as a patrol officer for the Portland, Oregon Police Bureau.

Hanson has survived the war, physically at least, but it haunts his every moment, and he now finds himself in the middle of a new war, which is just as hard to decipher as the old one. Hanson is assigned to Portland's North Precinct, the ghetto and the worst precinct in the city. The commanding officers are all men who screwed up in other areas of the department and who were exiled to the North Precinct. The patrol officers are mostly cowboys looking for the rush that the action in the precinct provides on a daily basis.

The book has only the loosest of plots. One of the principal threads involves one of Hanson's closest friends from the war who has come to Portland and become a drug dealer and a killer. Rather than arresting him, though, Hanson attempts to help him, given that they bonded while in the Special Forces together and given that he remains the only man Hanson really trusts. 

The other thread involves one of Hanson's fellow officers in the precinct, a guy named Fox, who hates Hanson and spends most of the book attempting to undermine Hanson's career. For the most part, though, the novel is a chronicle of the daily interaction between the police and the criminals, mostly small-time, who inhabit the North Precinct. It's a daily battle and an endless revolving door, with the cops confronting the same scumbags day in and day out, without making any progress at all in the war on crime. "Justice" is a very elusive concept here, in a world where the cops dispense what is largely their own brand of very rough justice.

At one point, Hanson confronts a guy who's giving him grief and shoots him The Look, which "was full of knees and elbows and night sticks, car hoods and concrete, broken noses, broken collarbones and concussions."

It's not a pretty sight, and this is not a book for the squeamish reader. Beautifully written, it's tough, gritty and ugly, but it has the ring of authenticity--much more so than virtually any other crime novel I've ever read. Anderson himself worked as a patrol cop in Portland in the Seventies, and one would imagine that, like his first book, this one is based very closely on his experiences there. It's a great novel and one that you won't forget soon. 4.5 stars.

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Somewhat Disappointing Effort from the Usually Reliable Dick Francis

This has to be, to my mind at least, the weakest of the novels written by Dick Francis. And, at least in the editions I own, it also has to win the prize for weirdest cover art.

The story opens when an amateur jockey and horse trainer named Randall Drew is approached by a member of the royal family with a special assignment. The prince's brother-in-law, a jockey named Johnny Farrington, would like to ride in the upcoming Olympic Games which are to be held in Moscow. But rumors are circulating that if Farrington should go to Russia, he might be entrapped in a scandal involving someone named Alyosha. The prince wants Drew to go to Moscow and nose around to see what the scandal might involve and determine whether Farrington or the royal family might be potentially embarrassed.

Apparently, there are no British agents already in the Soviet Union that might check out these rumors and so Drew reluctantly agrees to go. He gets to Moscow, meets some people, asks some questions, and gets beaten up a lot. The plot is preposterous and much more resembles a spy novel than a typical Dick Francis thriller. It strongly suggests that Francis wanted to take a trip to Moscow and write it off as a business expense, and thus attempted to get a book out of his vacation.

I had a great deal of difficulty following the plot and sorting out the characters after I was about a third of the way into the book, although this may well be because by then I had simply stopped caring about any of it and finished it only out of a sense of duty. A generous 2.5 stars, rounded up to three because I can't bring myself to give Dick Francis 2.5.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Detective Elvis Cole Is Hard on the Trail of a Trio of Young Thieves

One of the blurbs for this book insists that this may be the "deadliest case" that Elvis Cole and Joe Pike have ever taken on. Considering some of the previous cases that they've barely survived, that may be a bit of a stretch, but The Wanted is still a very engrossing thriller and it's a lot of fun to read.

The book opens when Elvis is hired by Devon Connor, a hard-working single mother who's trying to raise a teenage son on her own. Under the best of circumstances, this is not an easy task, but Devon freaks out when she finds her son in possession of a Rolex watch worth several thousand dollars. The kid, Tyson, claims that the watch is a knockoff, that it's not worth anything, and that his mom shouldn't worry.

Fat chance.

Devon worries that her kid might be dealing drugs and calls in Elvis to figure out what's actually going on. It turns out that Tyson, previously a shy and withdrawn boy, has fallen under the spell of a sexy new girlfriend. Elvis fairly quickly discovers that the problem is much worse than drugs. Tyson, his new main squeeze, and another boy have been ripping off the houses of wealthy people who are away from their homes. They've converted the things they've stolen into a pile of cash which they are flashing around and spending like crazy at trendy clubs. And when Mom starts asking too many question, Tyson disappears.

Unfortunately, the trio of thieves has inadvertently stolen something particularly meaningful to a very rich man who has no scruples whatsoever. He, in turn, has hired a couple of particularly nasty characters to track down the thieves and recover his property before it falls into the wrong hands. At this point, these kids had better pray that Elvis and his partner, Joe Pike, find them first.

The only problem I had with the book was that, for me at least, it strained credulity to think that these three high school kids could have such a long successful string of ripping off the houses of such wealthy people, virtually all of which have very elaborate security systems, and especially given the way in which the thieves are lavishly spending the proceeds of their burglaries. Realistically, the cops should have had them very early on, and it was hard to believe that they hadn't found these kids long before Cole was even called into action. But setting aside that concern, I really enjoyed the book. Elvis Cole is one of my favorite crime fiction characters and I always enjoy following his adventures.

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.