Monday, June 18, 2018

An Anthropologist Confronts Life and Death on the Body Farm

This is the first entry in the "Body Farm" series. The author, "Jefferson Bass," is actually a team consisting of Bill Bass, the founder of the "Body Farm" at the University of Tennessee, and Jon Jefferson, a journalist. The protagonist, Dr. Bill Brockton, supervises the Body Farm (actually, the Anthropology Research Facility) where anthropologists study the ways in which corpses decompose. Brockton has a heavy teaching and research load and is still grieving the loss of his wife who died two years earlier.

Brockton's routine is interrupted by an appeal from a rural sheriff for help with a body that has just been discovered in a mountain cave. The victim--a young woman--has been dead for years, but her body has been eerily preserved by the conditions within the cave. Brockton removes the body to the lab where he begins his examination in an effort to determine who the victim might have been and how she might have died.

The anthropological challenges that Brockton faces pale, however, compared to the other problems he has brought down upon himself by opening this can of worms. The isolated, rural mountain community where the victim was discovered is very tightly knit and has secrets and rivalries that go back generations. And as Brockton begins digging into the past as well as the present, his prodigious anthropological skills may not be enough to save him from the trouble and the danger to which he's exposed himself.

The strength of this book clearly lies in the science, and watching Brockton work and make his deductions from the corpses he's presented is fascinating stuff. The story itself is okay, but the strength of the book is also, in some ways, its weakness, because everytime the plot begins to build a little head of steam, it's interrupted by another dissertation on anthropology. Additionally, even without examining the bones, most readers will deduce what happened here well ahead of Dr. Brockton.

The book is a bit clunky in parts, and the authors make several strained attempts at humor which simply don't work at all. This is a relatively minor complaint, but it did interrupt the flow of the book for me. Those concerns aside, I enjoyed the book. Again, I found the science very interesting and I would probably read another book in the series to learn more about this field.

Ken Corning, the Prototype for Perry Mason, Appears in Erle Stanley Gardner's HONEST MONEY

In the beginning, there was attorney Ken Corning and his faithful secretary, Helen Vail.

Shortly before he created Perry Mason and Della Street, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a series of six novellas that were published in Black Mask magazine in 1932 and 1933. Corning was a young attorney who was just setting up his practice in the fictional York City. The town is totally corrupt and is run by a group of insiders for their own benefit. The cops and most of the other attorneys in town are content to work with the city's bosses and close their eyes to all the terrible things going on around them.

Not Ken Corning, of course. He's young and idealistic. He's just hung out his shingle and is struggling to get by. His sole employee is his secretary, Helen Vail. Corning can barely afford to pay her and yet when she looks at him, her eyes glisten "with a softness that held a touch of the maternal." It's quickly apparent that her feelings for her boss are anything but maternal, but although the two are attracted to each other, they will be content to work side by side, never acting on their feelings.

Through the series of the six stories that constitute the Ken Corning collection, the odds will always be heavily against the young attorney. The cops will frame his clients; the Powers That Be will make his witnesses disappear; clients and others will constantly lie to him and betray him. But Corning will persevere, fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and will somehow always come out on top, frustrating the corrupt cops and all the other crooked people who run York City. Like Mason, Corning will spend most of his time out of the office, doing his own investigations and taking the fight to his enemies. Helen Vail will constantly be taking chances and exposing herself to danger to assist him.

The last of these stories appeared in August of 1933. In the meantime, in March of that year, Gardner published The Case of the Velvet Claws, which was the first of eighty-five novels that would feature Perry Mason and Della Street. It seems clear that the Corning stories set the pattern for the Mason books, but by the time he decided to write a novel of this type, Gardner decided not to use the Ken Corning character. Rather, he would create a new protagonist and set him in a real city, Los Angeles. 

In the early days, Mason would occasionally have to deal with cops who were at least on the edge of being bent, but he did not have to fight an entire corrupt city establishment. Of course clients and others would lie to him repeatedly and sometimes betray him, but that was all part of the game, and Mason could devote his time and attention to dealing with one murder case after another. In the process, Gardner would sell millions of books and Perry Mason would become one of the most popular fictional characters of the Twentieth Century.

Honest Money is a book that will appeal primarily to fans of the Mason series, because it's clear that these stories were the template for the characters of Perry Mason and Della Street. The stories themselves don't really rise above the average stories that appeared in crime fiction magazines of this era, but for those who still enjoy the Perry Mason novels, they will be a lot of fun.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Gets Dragged into a Murder and a Possible Abduction

The twentieth novel in the Brady Coyne series falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, quality wise--better than some, but not as good as others in the series. The story begins when Brady gets a call from one of his clients, Walt Duffy. Duffy is an internationally-renowned birder and has traveled the world photographing birds of every description. But then he had an accident which left him unable to walk, and for the last two years he's been confined to his home in Boston and to the bird sanctuary that he created in his backyard.

Duffy also collects rare books and manuscripts relating to birds, and one afternoon he asks Brady to stop by. Duffy has some letters purported to have been written by Meriwether Lewis to a famed ornithologist of his day, describing the birds that Lewis saw while exploring the Far West for President Thomas Jefferson. If the letters are authentic, they would be worth a fortune. Duffy wants Brady to take the letters to a colleague who will appraise them. Brady agrees, but shortly thereafter, Walt Duffy is murdered and his son, Ethan, who lived with him, disappears. Brady discovers the body and so naturally finds himself in the middle of the investigation and the search for Ethan.

So far, so good, and we have the setup for what could be a pretty intriguing novel. But the book then takes a turn in a direction that was, at least for me, much less interesting and exciting than the early pages of the book would have suggested. Bad things continue to happen; Brady Coyne increasingly gets sucked deeper into the vortex and pretty soon, his life may be on the line. Along the way, his relationship with his new girlfriend, Evie Banyon continues to develop and it gives nothing away to reveal that there's a pretty interesting sex scene that take place in the middle of a thunderstorm. Oh, the symbolism!

This is certainly not a bad book, and I enjoyed reading it. But after the opening pages I had high hopes for it that were not entirely born out. A solid three stars for me, but no more than that.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Another Great Novel from Thomas Mullen

This is an excellent sequel to Darktown, which was one of my favorite books from 2016. Set in 1950, it continues to follow the experiences of the first African-American police officers who were allowed to join the Atlanta, Georgia, P. D. Ten in number, they are assigned the daunting responsibility of patrolling all of the black areas of the city. They continue to be taunted by white officers, who refuse to accept them as "real" policemen, and are caught between white citizens who do not respect them at all, and some black citizens who count them as traitors for policing their own people.

The story is set in a time of racial turmoil, particularly with regard to housing. The city continues to be rigidly segregated, but there are not nearly enough decent homes for the black population, which is growing rapidly. When a handful of black citizens "dare" to buy homes in a previously all-white area, they touch off a battle that engulfs many of the novel's characters, both white and black.

The two principal black policeman in the novel are Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. Smith's sister and brother-in-law have just bought a home in a previously all-white neighborhood and have immediately become targets for white neighbors who fear their arrival and who want them out of their neighborhood at any cost and "back where they belong." Also living the the neighborhood is a white policeman, Denny Rakestraw, who is much more tolerant than many of his fellow white officers and many of his white neighbors. Rakestraw and Boggs have helped each other previously and have a tentative relationship that falls just short of friendship. But that relationship will be tested as this very combustible situation unfolds.

Also in the mix are criminals who are smuggling dope into the black areas of Atlanta, with the knowledge and assistance of some corrupt white cops who are taking payoffs and looking the other way. One night Smith and Boggs interrupt some of the smugglers, and a gunfight ensues that will complicate their lives and a lot of others as well.

There are many other strands to this richly-textured story. The characters are incredibly well drawn, and virtually all of them are flawed in one way or another. Many are good men and women who are struggling simply to find their way through very difficult times and circumstances, and who discover along the way that they sometimes have to make agonizing compromises. Thomas Mullen has created here a gripping story set against a pivotal moment in the history of Atlanta and of the larger nation as well. It's beautifully written and totally absorbing, and I can hardly wait for the third installment of this series.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Another Solid Suspense Novel from Dick Francis

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis novel. In this case, the protagonist is Charles Todd, an artist who specializes in painting horses. He goes to spend a weekend with his cousin and the cousin's wife, only to arrive and find that the cousin's house has been burglarized. The cousin's wife, who apparently surprised the burglars by coming home unexpectedly, has been murdered. The cousin, Donald, is a wine merchant and is currently having some financial difficulties. The police suspect that he may have had his own home burgled and his wife killed in order to collect a large insurance settlement.

Todd, of course, knows that this is a nonsensical idea. In talking with his cousin, he discovers that the cousin recently bought a very valuable painting while on vacation in Australia. The painting, of course, is missing along with everything else of value in the house. In something of a lucky accident, Todd then discovers that someone else he knows had recently bought a similar painting in Australia. Her house has been robbed as well and burned to the ground for good measure.

The coincidence strikes Todd as simply too improbable. His cousin Donald has turned basically catatonic as a result of the death of his wife and in an effort to help him and to get him out from under the suspicions of the police, Todd flies to Australia and begins investigating the events from that angle. Inevitably, of course, he stirs up a hornets' nest and puts himself in danger of losing life and limb. But like a true Dick Francis protagonist, he will stubbornly battle through tremendous odd to see justice done or die trying.

Like virtually any Dick Francis novels, this is a fairly quick and entertaining read. Once you've read a number of these books, you always know what you're going to get, and so returning to one of them is like reuniting with an old friend. There won't be any big surprises, but it will be an enjoyable experience all the same.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Seattle DetectiveTracy Crosswhite Hunts a Serial Killer Called the Cowboy

Clearly, Robert Dugoni suffered no sophomore slump with the second book in his series featuring Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. Like the first, My Sister's Grave, the author hits the ground running and never looks back.

As the book opens, Crosswhite has just come back to work after dealing with the retrial of the man who killed her sister several years earlier. Once back, Crosswhite is given charge of a task force investigating a serial killer who becomes known as the Cowboy, and who is killing exotic dancers in crummy motels in the north part of the city. 

Crosswhite is given the job by her boss, Captain Johnny Nolasco, who is setting her up to fail. The two have a history and Nolasco is looking for a way to get Tracy kicked off the job. But as she digs into the murder of the Cowboy's first victim, Crosswhite notices some similarities to a case nine years earlier. In that case a woman was strangled to death and the crime was investigated by none other than Johnny Nolasco and his partner. A man was arrested and tried for the crime and ultimately pled guilty in a deal that would allow him to escape the death penalty. Reviewing the case, Crosswhite wonders if Nolasco arrested the wrong man, something that will hardly endear her to a supervisor who already has her in his sights.

As the number of victims mounts, so does the pressure on Tracy and her team to find the killer. The odds against her are impressive: The killer is clever and leaving very few clues in his wake. Her boss is out to subvert the investigation to make Tracy look bad, and if that weren't enough, Tracy herself may have become a target for the killer.

Tracy Crosswhite is a very sympathetic protagonist; the case is a compelling one, and the author clearly knows his police procedure. The story moves along at a fast clip with plenty of suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats and turning the pages quickly. All in all, a very good read, and I'm anxiously looking forward to the third volume in the series.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Another Great Harry Bosch Novel from Michael Connelly

I concluded long ago that Michael Connelly is incapable of writing a bad book, and Two Kinds of Truth demonstrates once again that no one writes better police procedurals than he. Connelly has now written some thirty novels, most of which feature his main protagonist, Harry Bosch. For most of his career, Bosch worked as a homicide detective in the L.A.P.D. He was a gifted investigator, dedicated to his mission. But he often found himself at odds with his bosses for one reason or another, and after almost forty years of service, he left the department under less than amicable circumstances.

Now in his middle sixties, Harry is working part-time for the tiny San Fernando P.D., specializing in cold cases. But when two pharmacists are brutally murdered in their small, independent farmacia, Harry is pressed into service. Given that he has far more experience than anyone else on the force, he is asked to take charge of the investigation.

At virtually the same moment, two L.A.P.D. detectives, one of them a former partner of Harry's, show up and tell him that one of his old cases is being reopened. Thirty years earlier, Bosch investigated the murder of a young woman who had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Harry found evidence in the killer's home that linked him solidly to the crime and that evidence and Harry's testimony sent the perpetrator away for life.

Now, though, the killer is claiming that Harry planted the evidence and framed him. Much more important, re-examination of the physical evidence in the case has turned up a DNA sample showing that the woman's assailant was actually a man who had been convicted of a similar crime and who has recently died. The man Harry put behind bars is now demanding his release and intends to sue everyone in sight for false imprisonment. The police and prosecutors are content to take the new evidence at face value and will not contest the man's release. 

Bosch must handle both of these very difficult challenges simultaneously, and his livelihood, his reputation and even his very life will wind up on the line. The pharmacy murders pull back a curtain on the opioid crisis that is having such catastrophic effects on the country and which involve some very dangerous characters. The challenge from the imprisoned killer is a personal affront to Bosch and takes on the characteristics of a locked-room murder mystery. Both cases are exciting and compelling and as Bosh weaves back and forth between the two, the reader can only race along beside him, anxiously awaiting the resolution of both. Once you've started this book, putting it down is not really an option.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Another Excellent Glacier National Park Mystery from Christine Carbo

A Sharp Solitude is Christine Carbo’s fourth novel. All of the books have been set in and around Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of Montana, and to my mind, this one is her best yet.

The book opens in Florida with a tragedy that would forever scar the life of Reeve Landon, who is one of the two main protagonists in the novel. Reeve ultimately winds up in Montana, working in the wilderness with his chocolate lab, McKay, for the University of Montana’s detection-canine research program. Essentially, McKay sniffs out the scat of bears and other wild creatures. Reeve then bags it up, labels it, and sends it to be analyzed by researchers who will extract the animals’ DNA and thus expand their knowledge of the wildlife living in the area.

Reeve lives alone with McKay in an isolated cabin and prefers the company of his dog to most people. The exception is his young daughter, Emily, who lives most of the time with her mother in Kalispell, a few miles away. Reeve and Emily’s mother were together only briefly, but they both love the little girl and share custody.

Out in the woods, Reeve and McKay almost always work alone, which is exactly what Reeve prefers. But late one fall, Reeve’s boss persuades him to allow a journalist named Anne Marie Johnson to accompany him and McKay. Anne Marie is writing an article for a magazine on the university’s detection-canine research program, and Reeve’s boss convinces him that the publicity would be good for the program. 

Anne Marie spends a long day with Reeve and McKay, working through very difficult, mountainous terrain. Hours later, she turns up shot to death. Reeve was the last person to be seen with her and the local police bring him in for questioning. It’s apparent early on that they have convinced themselves that Reeve is guilty of Anne Marie’s murder.

Enter FBI agent Ali Paige, who claims an interest in the case because the murder happened close to Glacier National Park, which would have put the case in the FBI’s jurisdiction. More to the point, although most people don’t know it, she is Reeve Landon’s former girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. Like Reeve, Ali had a troubled past. She believes that Reeve could not be guilty of murder and, naturally, she does not want Emily to lose her father and to be branded as the daughter of a killer. In consequence, Ali begins working the case, even though she has no real jurisdiction and no authorization, and even though doing so could have grave consequences for her career.

Carbo excels at creating a sense of place. As these characters make their way along, the reader feels as though he or she is moving side by side along with them in this rugged, beautiful, and often treacherous environment. The scenes with Reeve out in the wilderness are alone worth the price of the book and will resonate especially with anyone who has been lucky enough to visit this part of the country.

The author is also very good at writing damaged characters, and both Reeve and Ali are expertly drawn. The story is told in alternating chapters first from one point of view and then the other, and by the time the book is over the reader knows these characters intimately. The story moves briskly and becomes increasingly gripping, so that by the end of the novel, the tension has built to a fever pitch and it’s virtually impossible to put it down. Readers who haven’t yet discovered this series are in for a treat, and A Sharp Solitudewould be an excellent place to start. 4.5 stars.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Another Hilarious Tale from Johnny Shaw

Johnny Shaw is a very, very funny guy, as anyone who has read his Jimmy Veeder "Fiascos" can attest. He was also the creator of the magazine Blood & Tacos, the first volume of which includes what remains one of the most hilarious short stories of all time, featuring Chingon, "The World's Deadliest Mexican."

Shaw's new book, The Upper Hand, features the Uckers, a dysfunctional family the likes of which you have never met. Two brothers and a sister--Axel, Kurt, and Gretchen--are the progeny of a thief who simply couldn't change his ways. When he died, fifteen years before the book opens, he left behind his three very young children and their mother who quickly went off the rails and turned to religion for her solace. In particular, she became enamored of a television evangelist named Brother Tobin Floom, whom she has watched religiously ever since (pun intended).

When he died, Dad also allegedly left behind a pile of loot from the last job he pulled, but it's never been found. Now, as the book opens, Mom dies, leaving her children adrift in the world, but not before leaving her home and all of her money to the Reverend Floom.

At this darkest moment, "Mother" Ucker, an aunt that the children never knew, suddenly appears on the scene. Their mother had closed off any contact with their father's family because they were all a bunch of swindlers and cheats, but it turns out that Axel, Gretchen and Kurt have a fairly large, if hugely disreputable, extended family. Even more shockingly, "Mother" announces that the Reverend Floom is actually their grandfather and has managed to cheat them out of their inheritance!

"Mother" invites the three Ucker children into a scheme to fleece the not-so-good Reverend and get their inheritance back. The three agree and at that point, the story dissolves into one of the funniest caper novels I've ever read. All of the characters are inspired and could only have come from a mind as profoundly warped as Johnny Shaw's; the plot is pure pandemonium, and the soundtrack is provided by Skinripper, the worst metal band you fortunately never heard.

As much as I've enjoyed his earlier work, this may be Shaw's best. I literally laughed out loud at virtually every scene and the entire enterprise left me shaking my head in amazement. I can hardly wait to see what the author does next.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Fantastic New Novel from Boston Teran

I became a huge fan of Boston Teran when I first read The Creed of Violence, and my admiration for the author only grew with God Is a Bullet and The Country I Lived In. The author remains a mysterious figure. Some speculate that this is another author writing under a pseudonym, or perhaps a group of writers working together on these projects. Whatever the case, Teran's new novel, A Child Went Forth, may be the best book I've read in a long time.

The book's title comes from a poem by Walt Whitman, and Whitman himself makes a cameo appearance as "Walt, the poet." The book is set in the United States of 1855, a time when the raging debates over slavery, immigration and other issues were tearing at the fabric of the nation. Into this setting step thirteen-year-old Charlemagne Ezekiel Griffin, "Charlie," and his father, Zacharia. The two are running a con on the famous abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose book Uncle Tom's Cabin has contributed mightily to the argument over slavery.

Zacharia, with the help of his son, plans to con Beecher and his followers out of several thousand dollars, claiming that they are going to funnel the money to abolitionists in Kansas. Charlie believes that they are really going to use the money to rescue his mother from an asylum in Ohio and then live happily ever after. Zacharia, who is running a con on his own son as well as on Beecher, actually has other plans for the money. But as often happens in a case like this, in fairly short order the plan goes awry and Charlie finds himself alone and on the run across the continent, pursued by some very dangerous enemies. 

It would be a huge disservice to say anything more about the plot, but this is a gorgeous novel with characters that will remain with me for a very long time. Heroes and villains alike, they are all wonderfully imagined, Charlie Griffin in particular. This is in some respects a coming of age novel, but it is much, much more than that, and it captures brilliantly a time in the nation's history when the future of the country was truly in doubt. It's an exciting, gripping, and beautifully-rendered story--a book I'll be reading again and again in the years to come.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Goes Searching for a Missing Husband and a Wayward Uncle

This entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series opens when a fifteen-year-old girl comes into the office hoping that the firm will find her missing Uncle Amos. Uncle Amos occasionally goes off on a bender. When he does, he mails his car keys to the girl's mother and when the bender is over, he hitchhikes home, usually catching a ride with a brother Elk. The girl is worried because this time Uncle Amos has been gone for an unusually long time. The girl and her mother depend on Amos for support and her mother needs an operation and things are generally grim. 

Adding to the mystery is the fact that Amos is a couple of weeks short of his thirty-fifth birthday, at which time he will inherit a boatload of money unless he has been convicted of a serious crime. In that event, the fortune will be divided among a number of charities. 

Despite this terribly sad tale, Bertha kicks the kid out of the office because there's no money in it for the firm. Instead, she sends Donald out to meet with a fairly wealthy woman whose husband has disappeared. The woman is offering the firm a substantial bonus if they can find the husband.

Before meeting the wealthy wife, Donald interviews the poor young girl and her mother and promises to try to find the missing Uncle Amos. He also gives them some money from the firm's expense account to tide them over until Amos reappears. He then talks to the very sexy woman whose husband is missing and who is quick to put the moves on Donald. 

Donald discovers that the missing husband and the missing Uncle Amos both sent postcards from the same rural service station just before they disappeared. This "coincidence" is, of course. too much to be believed, and it propels Donald into another very entertaining investigation. As is common in these books, the twists and turns will leave virtually any reader reeling, but it's a fun ride, and this is one of the better books in the series.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Great Summer Thriller from Owen Laukkanen

I've long been a big fan of Owen Laukkanen's series featuring F.B.I. agent Karla Windermere and Minnesota B.C.A. agent, Kirk Stevens, and as a result, I was a bit disappointed to learn that his new book, Gale Force, would be a thriller rather than another entry in the Stevens and Windermere series. However, that disappointment lasted only about three pages into the prologue of the new book, by which point I was thoroughly hooked.

At the center of the novel is a woman named McKenna Rhodes. As the result of a tragic accident which took her father's life, McKenna has become the captain of a salvage vessel named the Gale Force. As a woman in what is most definitely a man's world, she faces any number of serious obstacles, but in addition to that, she still bears the psychological scars of the accident in which she lost her father. As a result, she's been playing things very close to the vest and taking relatively small, safe jobs. Sadly, though, small, safe jobs are not enough to pay the bills and keep a boat like the Gale Force in business.

An opportunity for McKenna to save the business and to prove herself arrives when a huge Japanese cargo ship, the Pacific Lion, rolls over and begins sinking in a heavy storm two hundred miles off the Alaska coast. The ship, which is carrying five thousand Japanese automobiles, is abandoned, making her fair game for salvage hunters, including McKenna, if she has the nerve to tackle the job. 

It's a huge gamble, given that just getting to the Lion would basically put McKenna on the brink of bankruptcy. And while the potential payoff would be worth millions, any number of things could easily go wrong: Another salvage team might beat the Gale Force to the sinking ship. Even if McKenna doesget there first, saving the ship and towing it safely to port would be a daunting, dangerous, and perhaps impossible task. The weather could easily turn against her and doom the mission. In any such event, there would be no payout at all, and she would lose everything.

McKenna decides to gamble on this one last chance, not knowing that there's another element of risk involved. A thief has stolen $50 million worth of bearer bonds from a group of gangsters and smuggled himself aboard the Pacific Lion. When the ship founders, he is forced to leave the bonds on the ship, The gangsters to whom the bonds belong are resourceful and merciless, and they will stop at nothing to reclaim their property.

Laukkanen, who descends from a family of boat builders and commercial fishermen, obviously knows his stuff, and he takes these disperate elements and very skillfully weaves them into a gripping, heart-pounding story. He's especially good at developing plot twists and crises large and small, and then expertly manipulating the tension level. It's a wild, roller coaster ride that kept me glued to the pages well into the night. All of the characters are very well drawn, and McKenna Rhodes is a very appealing protagonist. I certainly hope that we'll see more of her (and of Stevens and Windermere, of course), but Gale Force is a book that will be right at home in the beach bag of anyone looking for a great summer read. An easy 4+ stars.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

An Underwhelming Entry In a Series That Is Otherwise Very Good

Of the twenty-eight novels in the Brady Coyne series, this, the nineteenth, is for me the strangest and least successful of them all. It's a joint effort between William G. Tapply and Philip R. Craig, who writes a series set on Martha's Vineyard featuring an investigator named J. W. Jackson. They, or their publisher, apparently decided that it would be an excellent idea to bring Tapply's Boston lawyer and Craig's island detective together in a book that would be set on Martha's Vineyard.

Both Coyne and Jackson are avid fishermen, and the setup is that Coyne and Jackson are also old friends. Jackson has invited Brady to come visit for a week so that they can compete in a major fishing contest that is held a couple of times a year on the island. This is serendipitous because one of Brady's elderly clients, a woman named Sarah Fairchild, is dying of cancer. She has a large estate on the island and is trying to decide whether to sell it to a golf course development company or to a conservation group that would like to preserve the land as it is. She wants Brady to investigate the two proposals and advise her which would be best. Jackson, meanwhile, has been hired by a man to find his wife who has gone missing from the island.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one narrated by Jackson and the next by Coyne, but the collaboration did not work very well at all, at least for me. To begin with, it's an awkward construction. Each time the narrator changes, we have to take time to review what happened in the last chapter so that the current narrator is caught up on the action. So we get a lot of passages that go something like, "After Brady told me what he had learned from the police chief and what he had done at the liquor store, etc., etc., etc." As a result there's a lot of repetetive narrative here that you have to read from the POV of each character.

Another problem is that, for a mystery novel, there's way too much fishing going on. I've never read the Craig series, but readers of the Coyne series know that Brady loves to fish and there's always some discussion of fishing in each of the books. (The author, William G. Tapply, was an avid outdoorsman and a contributing editor to Field and Streammagazine.) But it doesn't ever get in the way of the story. Here it does, and in a big way. If you eliminated all the fishing scenes, you'd probably lose about a third of the book, and none of them really advances the story in any interesting or meaningful way. These scenes drain what little tension there is out of the story, and by the time I was halfway through the book, I was thinking, "Oh no; not another damned fishing scene!)

The last major problem with the book is that both Jackson and Coyne should both be sued for malpractice. Though he has a very worried client, Jackson spends very little time actually looking for the missing woman. In addition to all the time he wastes fishing, he also takes time out to build an elaborate three house for his kids!

Coyne's dereliction of duty may be even worse. He has a client at death's door who needs to make a quick decision about what to do with her property. She also has two greedy children and a grandson who are hoping that she dies before selling the property so that they can inherit it and do with it what they please. Brady's response is to take a couple of meetings in and around his fishing, and that's about the extent of his effort. He shows no sense of urgency at all.

There actually is a mystery buried in the middle of all this other activity, and it involves a number of women who seem to have gone missing from the island. Coyne and Jackson will both wind up working on the case, but only when it doesn't interfere with more important matters like fishing and building tree houses. And most readers will get to the solution a lot faster than Coyne and Jackson.

As I've suggested in my reviews of the previous eighteen books in this series, I really like the series and I really like the Brady Coyne character. But this one was a disappointment and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in dipping into the series to pick another entry. 2.5 stars, very generously rounded up to 3.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Riveting Tale of Love, Loss, and Murder from Kent Harrington

This is a great crime novel with a badly damaged protagonist at its core. A year ago, San Francisco homicide detective Michael O'Higgins lost his wife in a tragic boating accident. He blames himself for the accident and in the months since, he has basically been unable to function. He's sent his daughter off to live with relatives; he's on a stress leave from his job, and he's seeing a young psychiatrist who is trying her best but who seems unable to help him.

Since the accident, O'Higgins has been deathly afraid of the water and, as part of the therapy, his psychiatrist encourages him to take a ferry ride. He is barely able to function on the ferry, but is comforted by an Indian family that he meets on the vessel. Shortly thereafter, he tentatively returns to work, only to land a very high-profile case. A woman arrrives at her very expensive home on Nob Hill to discover that her wealthy husband and the family's nanny have been brutally murdered. On arriving at the scene, O'Higgins is stunned to discover that the male victim is the Indian man who had been so kind to him on the ferry.

Early on, the evidence points to the victim's wife, Asha, a beautiful young woman whose marriage to the victim had been arranged. The operating theory is that Asha discovered the her husband and the nanny were having an affair and that she killed them both in a fit of jealous rage. This accusation is supported by Asha's father-in-law, an extremely wealthy and very well-connected Indian politician who has been living briefly with the family.

The Powers That Be, both in the U.S. and in India, want this case resolved as expeditiously as possible and insist that O'Higgins and his partner make the case against Asha. But O'Higgins is not convinced that she's guilty and he is strongly drawn to the woman for reasons that he cannot explain. Thus he pushes back against his bosses and his own partner in an effort to ensure that justice is actually done in the case.

It's a riveting story, beautifully written with very well-drawn and sympathetic characters. O'Higgins's struggle to recover and to put his life back into some sort of order is as compelling as the murder investigation itself, and if he fails in one effort, he will almost certainly fail at the other. This is a book that should appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans, and it's one of the best novels I've read thus far this year.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Travis McGee Goes Looking for a Missing Woman and Naturally Finds Trouble

Had I rated this book when I first read it twenty-five or thirty years ago, I no doubt would have given it a solid four stars plus. I loved this series when I first discovered it and couldn't devour the books fast enough. But the times have changed, and so have I, no doubt, and these novels no longer appeal to me nearly as much as they once did.

The story at the core of the book is fine. As it opens, Travis McGee is in something of an emotional slump and fears that he may be losing a step or two to Father Time and to the Bad Guys who always seem to be hovering around McGee's neighborhood in South Florida. He's at least entertaining the possibilty of entering into some sort of a relationship with a very wealthy British widow who's extremely good in bed and who would like McGee to sail off into the sunset with her on her fabulous yacht. 

McGee's best friend, Meyer the Economist, is actively promoting the idea out of fear that McGee may in fact be slipping a bit and should no longer be leading such a dangerous existence. In his heart of hearts, McGee knows that he would never do such a thing, and the reader knows it too. But the fact that the thought has even entered his mind is scary as hell, both for McGee and for the reader.

Fortunately, a new problem will shortly demand McGee's attention and put an end to all this silliness. The problem appears in the person of Harry Dolan who is now the husband of Mary Dolan. Back when she was Mary Dillon, Mrs. Dolan was one of those tragically wounded women that McGee had taken on a long cruise, healed and restored to health as only he can. Dolan says his wife has disappeared and he accuses McGee of taking up with her again and hiding her from him.

McGee assures Dolan that this is nonsense and that he hasn't seen Mary in three years. Dolan responds by pulling out a small gun and firing several shots in McGee's direction. Fortunately, they all miss and McGee disarms Dolan, but the fact that the angry husband was even able to get close to McGee with a gun confirms McGee's suspicion that he has lost a step or two.

McGee sends Dolan on his way, but is worried about Mary, whom he really liked. He's also concerned because he believes that if Mary were in trouble again, she would have reached out to him. He wonders why she hasn't. Accordingly, McGee goes searching for the missing woman on a quest that will take him to Grenada and back. Inevitably, along the way he will encounter some especially sick, nasty and dangerous people who are working a particularly wicked scheme, and he will be challenged as perhaps never before.

This is all well and good, and again, the bones of this story are fine. But as was always the case in these books, the action is frequently interrupted while McGee takes time out to wax philosophically about the problems of the world and to do a considerable amount of navel-gazing, analyzing his own personal psyche.

When I first read these books, I wasn't bothered by this and in fact, I found some of McGee's musings to be very interesting. Now, though, I find them to be awfully dated and overly pompous, and I feel that they simply get in the way of a good story. As other reviewers have repeatedly noted, McGee's attitude about women is often cringe-worthy in this day and age as well; however this book is not quite as bad as some of the others in that regard. 

Every time I pick up one of these Travis McGee novels I desperately want to love it as much as I did when I first read it, and I'm inevitably disappointed. It occurs to me that I may be being overly harsh in this regard and that I should not expect that a book written nearly fifty years ago is going to seem as fresh as it once did. But, at least to my mind, other series from this time period seem to have aged much more gracefully than this one. Thus three stars rather than the four and a half my younger self would have given A Tan and Sandy Silence.

Friday, May 4, 2018

An Inventor Runs into Trouble When He Enters the World of British Horse Racing

I would argue that this is one of the best books in the Dick Francis catalog. The protagonist, Steven Scott, is somewhat unusual for a Dick Francis novel in that he is a relatively wealthy man who made a fortune designing a very popular line of children's toys. As a sideline, he has bought a number of race horses, even though he knows next to nothing about horses.

Scott entrusts the horses to the care of a trainer named Jody Leeds, and the horses enjoy some success at the races. But after some time has passed, Scott realizes that Leeds has been defrauding him in a fairly significant way. The fraud is clever enought that Scott can't actually prove the offense but he confronts Leeds and informs him that he is removing his horses from Leeds and taking them to another trainer. Leeds has expanded his operation at some expense to accommodate Scott's horses and explodes at the thought that Scott is going to leave him high and dry. In fairly short order, violence and other chicanery will ensue.

While the law will be no help in this case, Scott is determined to protect his interests as best he can. He thus concocts a scheme that will have to move as flawlessly as the gears in the toys he has invented in the hope of righting the wrongs that have been done against him. It's a very clever plot with a lot of the usual Francis touches, and it's a lot of fun watching it unfold. Again, one of the best of the novels from Dick Francis.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Anotoher Excellent Southern Noir Novel from Michael Farris Smith

At the age of two, Jack Boucher was abandoned at a Salvation Army thrift store like a bag of old clothes that nobody wanted anymore. In the years after, he would be passed from hand to hand, through one foster home after another, until finally, at the age of twelve, he was adopted by a woman named Maryann from Clarksdale, Mississippi, who might have felt even lonlier than he.

As the novel opens, Jack is now about forty-five, going on seventy-five. At eighteen, he decided to leave the home that Maryann had made for him and follow the southern circuit as a cage fighter. Early on, he had some good years, but those are far behind. He's now a crippled wreck of a man, dependent on booze and illegal pain pills just to make it through the day. And if that weren't bad enough, he now owes $12,000 to a gangster named Big Momma Sweet who is the queen of vice in the Mississippi Delta. 

Maryann is now suffering from dementia and dying in a nursing home. Jack has mortgaged the home and the property she entrusted to him in a failed effort to get ahead of the game one last time. He hates himself for letting her down and then, in a miracle stroke of luck, he wins enough money in a casino to pay off Big Momma Sweet. He hopes that this will be a first step toward paying off the mortgage on Maryann's house and bringing her home again so that she can die there in peace. But fate turns against him once again and in a cruel accident, he loses the money on his way to pay the debt.

What follows is a beautifully-written story that is occasionally as heart-breaking to read as are the characters who inhabit it. As evidenced by his previous book, Desperation Road, nobody does down-and-out quite like Michael Farris Smith. Smith's Mississippi is a hard, stark land where nothing comes easily to anyone, certainly not to people like Jack Boucher, his foster mother, and the other memorable characters that Smith has created here. Jack Boucher, in particular, is so vividly written that the reader can practically feel every ache and pain and disappointment that he endures. This is a character and a book that no reader will soon forget.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Harry Bosch Returns to the L.A.P.D. As a "Closer"

Three years ago, Harry Bosch abruptly walked away from his job as an L. A. Homicide detective, largely because he couldn't take the politics and the cynicism of the department any longer. He tried being a P.I., but without his gun and his badge, he felt "out of balance." And so now he's back, taking advantage of an opportunity allowed by a new department program that would allow ex-cops like himself to return. He's reunited with his old partner, Kiz Rider, and is assigned to the Open/Unsolved Unit. They are to be "The Closers," resolving cold cases that, for one reason or another, haven't ever been cleared.

On his first day back, Harry and Kiz are handed the case of a sixteen-year-old girl who was taken from her house seventeen years ago and shot to death. The initial investigation went nowhere, but DNA evidence from the murder weapon has now been linked to an ex-con named Roland Mackey. Mackey is now a tow-truck driver and has long had associates in white supremacy groups. The victim, Becky Verloren, was the daughter of a white mother and a black father. Is it possible that her race was the reason for her murder?

As often happens, Becky's death had catastrophic effects for her parents. Her father, a restaurateur, left home soon after her murder and disappeared into the city's homeless population. Her mother has remained in the house from which Becky was taken and has preserved the girl's room as a shrine, leaving it exactly as it was on the night her daughter disappeared. Harry is determined to give them the justice that has eluded them for so long.

The DNA evidence gives Harry and Kiz a good head start on finally solving the murder. But Harry knows that the DNA alone will never be enough to convict Mackey of the crime, and as the two detectives dig deeper into the case, it's apparent that the original investigation may have been compromised by some of the same forces that earlier drove Harry to retire.

This is a very good book with an interesting plot and a very heavy dose of police procedure. It's good to have Harry back in harness; he just wasn't the same character apart from his mission as a homicide detective. Harry, being Harry, will still make waves and ruffle a lot of feathers, but that's what readers have come to expect and this book should appeal to any fan of the series.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Gripping "Border Noir" from James Carlos Blake

Billed as "A Border noir," this is a testosterone-driven wild ride of a novel. As it opens, a group of audacious kidnappers grabs several members of a wealthy wedding party from a mansion in Mexico City. They divide the members of the party into two groups and take them to separate run-down houses in the city's slums. The man in charge of the operation is an young gangster named El Galan, who has ambitions of using this kidnapping as a stepping stone to climb up the ladder of organized crime in Mexico.

El Galan contacts the parents of the young people he has kidnapped and demands five million American dollars for their safe return. He gives the parents very careful instructions about how to raise and deliver the money and gives them twenty-four hours to pay up. As one might expect, he warns the parents that if they contact the authorities, he will kill the kidnapped victims.

El Galan warns the parents that he will be monitoring their every move and insists that he has contacts within the police department who will alert him if the parents should violate his mandate not to call the police. This being Mexico City, this might well be the case, and the parents insist that they will follow El Galan's instructions to the letter. They simply want their children back safely.

What the kidnappers do not know is that one of members of the wedding party, a bridesmaid named Jessica Juliet Wolfe, is actually unrelated to any of the others. She is a close friend of the bride-to-be and belongs to a criminal family known as the House of Wolfe, with operations on both sides of the border. Jessica is from the American side of the family and when the Wolfe's get word that she has been kidnapped, several members of her family fly south to join the Mexican side of the family in an effort to rescue Jessica.

The Wolfes realize that, in all likelihood, once the kidnappers have their money, they will release the victims unharmed. But, of course, maybe they won't, and that is the fear that drives them to attempt the rescue. Jessica herself is no passive victim, which further complicates the situation.

The result is a story that hurtles from the kidnapping to a surprising climax. Blake has created a believable and very scary vision of Mexico City and populated it with a cast of well-drawn and intriguing characters. The Wolfes, in particular, make for compelling protagonists. This is a great read that will appeal to anyone who likes dark, hard-charging crime novels.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Investigate the Murder of a Big Game Hunter

When a wealthy client hires the firm of Cool & Lam to ensure that nothing gets stolen from his home on the night of a big party that he's throwing, Bertha Cool insists that she can handle the job all by herself--it will be a piece of cake. Of course anyone who's ever read one of the books in this series understands immediately that something very valuable WILL inevitably be stolen from the party, and Bertha will have gotten the firm into a jam. The reader also realizes, of course, that it will be up to Donald Lam to right the ship. Donald ("that brainy little bastard") fairly quickly recovers the stolen items but then somebody gets killed and the stakes are suddenly raised dramatically.

This is a fairly typical entry in this series. Bertha is her usual greedy, irascible self and Donald will get beaten up a lot while attempting to solve the mysteries involved. He will also attract the attention of several women, including a particularly amorous and adventurous nude model. There's big game hunters, blow guns, poisonous darts, pushy cops and Cool & Lam. A quick, entertaining read.
 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Tries to Save His Girlfriend from a Murder Rap

Although Brady Coyne, the protagonist in this series, is a Boston lawyer, these books are not really legal thrillers. Brady almost never sees the inside of a courtroom and actually dispenses very little legal advice. Rather, he seems to spend most of the time attempting to resolve the trouble that one or another of his clients has gotten into, and this almost always seems to involve solving a murder or two. Such is the case here, and in this instance, the case is very personal.

Brady is now dating a woman named Evie and takes her on a weekend vacation to Cape Cod. He's rented a secluded cabin and is planning a very romantic weekend. But on their first night there, Evie gets into physical altercation with a man whom she claims has been stalking her. The next morning, Evie goes out for a run and when Brady gets up a little later, he finds Evie out in the yard, standing over the body of her alleged stalker. The man has been stabbed to death with a knife from the kitchen of the cabin where Brady and Evie are staying. Not surprisingly, the cops tag Evie as their number one suspect in the killing.

Brady insists that, no matter the evidence, Evie could never kill anyone. But Evie doesn't help her situation much when she runs away and disappears. Brady now begins his own hunt for the killer, with the cops shadowing his every move in the hope that he will lead them to his girlfriend. But whether she's guilty or not, it's clear that some very strange things are going on here, and the deeper Brady digs into the case, the more confusing--and dangerous--it becomes.

This is one of the better books in what I think, overall, is a very good regional mystery series. By now the series characters have been well defined, and Tapply continues to demonstrate that he's a master at describing the physical setting. The plot is a good one, and this is a book that should appeal to a lot of readers who enjoy a good traditional mystery.