Sunday, January 28, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Finds a Dark Mystery in the Scenic Maine Woods

The fifteenth entry in the Brady Coyne series finds the Boston lawyer visiting his girlfriend, Alex Shaw, at her home in Maine. Alex has taken a leave of absence from her job as a reporter in Boston and has rented a home out in the Maine woods while she writes a book. Brady is driving up to spend most weekends with her there, but it's not clear what this separation bodes for the future of the relationship.

While driving back to Alex's home from the tiny town nearby, Brady happens upon a middle-aged African-American woman named Charlotte Gillespie walking along the road, carrying her very sick dog in the direction of town. Brady gives the woman a lift to the vet's where the vet tells them that the dog has gotten into some sort of poison. The vet will keep the dog for the time being, and Brady gives Charlotte a ride back to the primitive cabin that she has rented out in the woods.

On arriving there, Brady sees that the woman has posted a "No Hunting" sign at the entrance to the property that she is renting. He also sees that someone has spray-painted a swastika over the sign. Charlotte dismisses the act as vandalism, but clearly she's troubled about something, although she initially rebuffs Brady's concern.

Any reader of crime fiction will understand, of course, that the poisoning of Charlotte's poor dog and the appearance of swastikas, portend very ominous developments in the immediate future. Sure enough, the dog dies and someone makes off with its body. Then Charlotte disappears and Brady feels compelled to investigate. Pretty soon he's up to his neck in trouble and danger in a place where the great scenic beauty conceals some pretty dastardly deeds. 

William G. Tapply, who also wrote articles for a variety of outdoors magazines like Field and Stream, is especially good at describing the setting here, and also introduces a number of interesting supporting characters. All in all, this is another very good entry in an excellent regional mystery series.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

An Excellent Novel about Race and Justice in Today's United States

Darren Mathews is a rarity in that he's a black Texas Ranger. He also has troubles of his own that may cost him his career and his marriage. While his future, both professional and personal, hangs in the balance, Darren finds himself in Lark, a tiny East Texas town out in the middle of nowhere, where the local sheriff suddenly has two homicides on his hands. The first victim was thirty-five-year-old Michael Wright, a black lawyer from Chicago who was found floating in a bayou after being beaten to death. The second, Melissa Dale, was a twenty-year-old married white woman who worked as a waitress at a roadhouse, and who had been seen talking to Wright just before he was killed. 

Lark is a town with racial divisions and and relationships that go back for decades, and the bar where the waitress worked and where she was seen talking to the black victim, is home to a number of members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Shelby County hasn't had a homicide in years, and when Missy's body is pulled from the bayou three days after Wright's, it's clear that the two crimes must be connected. 

The logical and and all-too-traditional conclusion that many are ready to jump to, is that a black man committed an act of violence against a white woman and has been summarily punished for his crime. But as Darren realizes, the order in this case is wrong: The black man was killed first. As a second alternative, it's possible that someone was upset about seeing a black man and a white woman "fraternizing" together and thus decided to punish both of them. Or, in fact, the situation could be much more complicated than either of these scenarios.

The local hick sheriff would like to see both homicides swept under the rug ASAP, and the last thing he wants is outside interference in his "investigation." But he's forced to allow Darren access, and the Ranger is not about to let this case go until he's satisfied that the solution is correct. Given the forces arrayed against him, however, this will be a virtually impossible and a very dangerous task.

This is a beautifully written book with an excellent sense of place. Locke obviously knows the territory very well, and the reader is immediately immersed in this tiny, troubled town. The characters, Darren Mathews in particular, are complex and believable, and the web of relationships between and among them is expertly woven. The story is compelling and tragic, and Locke has a great deal to say about race, class and justice in today's United States. One of the best books I've read in quite a while, and a solid 4.5 stars.

Monday, January 22, 2018

An Old Man Is on the Run in this Gripping Novel from Thomas Perry

This is another excellent stand-alone novel from Thomas Perry, author of the Butcher's Boy and Jane Whitefield series. The protagonist, whom we meet as "Dan Chase," is a sixty-something retired guy, a widower with two dogs named Dave and Carol, who is otherwise alone and attempting to mind his own business, living under the radar in Vermont. Chase is a man with a past, though, who's been looking over his shoulder for more than thirty years, hoping that it won't catch up with him. But, of course, it finally does; otherwise there would be no novel.

As a young army intelligence officer, Chase was assigned to funnel $20 million to a Libyan warlord thought to be friendly to the United States. The warlord, in turn, was to give the money to a group of insurgents who would advance American interests in the country. But the operation went south, and when it did, Chase acted in a way that he thought best to protect the interests of the U.S. Not everyone agreed with his course of action though, and Chase thus became a marked man, waiting for the ax to fall. When it finally does, he has spent years preparing for the moment, assembling new identities and stockpiling weapons and cash. Dan Chase may be an old man, but he's not going down without a fight.

As he's demonstrated in earlier novels, Perry is the master of explaining how people can go on the run and elude, at least temporarily, very skilled and determined adversaries who are in pursuit. Of course, that's becoming increasingly hard to do in this day and age, when virtually everything a person does, seems to leave a digital trail. As always, though, Perry protagonist is ahead of the game, at least in the beginning, and the result is a gripping story that leaves the reader glued to his seat, rooting for the Old Man to succeed when the odds suggest that he never can. All in all, a great character, a great plot, and a great read.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Classic Noir Novel from Lionel White

Originally published in 1955, this is a classic noir novel from the prolific pulp writer, Lionel White. The main protagonist, Johnny Clay, is fresh out of prison with what he believes to be a foolproof plan for a robbery that will net a huge score. Clay plans to hit a horse racing track on the day of a big race and grab the day's proceeds just before they would be loaded into an armored truck to be taken to the bank.

The plan is so audacious and seemingly impossible, that no one has ever tried it before. But Clay has calculated the plan down to the last second and has recruited an unusual crew to assist him. Johnny believes that using professional crooks would be the mistake that would doom the plan. Rather, he has brought into the scheme a group of men, all of whom have regular jobs and all of whom have money problems that could be resolved by getting their share of the loot.

As the story unfolds, the point of view shifts among the various members of the crew and a few others as well. We watch them plan the robbery, and almost immediately, we see the weak point in the scheme. This is, after all, a noir novel and in these sorts of books things never go according to plan, and they generally don't turn out well. The characters are well-drawn, and the plot sucks the reader in from the beginning. It's a great example of the genre.

Stanley Kubrick made an excellent movie from this novel called The Killing, starring Sterling Hayden as Johnny, and Stark House has just released a new edition of the novel, joined with another of White's books, The Snatchers. There's a couple of great evenings to be had here, first reading the novel and then watching the film.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The First Effort from Crime Fiction Master, Ed McBain

This pulp novel from the early 1950s is of interest principally because it was the first crime novel ever published by Ed McBain, who would go on to become one of the masters of crime fiction, best known for his 87th Precinct series. This book first appeared in 1952 as The Evil Sleep!, under the pen name Evan Hunter. It was then reissued in 1956 as So Nude, So Dead, by "Richard Marsten." It was then revived in 2015 by Hard Case Crime with the authorship finally credited to Ed McBain.

As the book opens, a hophead named Ray Stone wakes up next to a nightclub singer who is lying next to him in bed, nude and dead, having been shot sometime during the night. That's a fairly lousy way for a guy to start his day, but even worse, at least as far as Stone is concerned, is the fact that sixteen ounces of pure heroine, which had been in the apartment earlier, is now missing and Stone is in desperate need of his next fix.

The story follows Stone as he orders his priorities and sets about his day. First he needs to score some H, and then he somehow needs to get out from under the murder rap that is hanging over his head. Neither will be easy. The cops have tagged him as the killer and his face is on the front page of every paper in the city. The dealers are avoiding him like the plague and he's running out of places to hide, let alone score.

This is a fairly typical pulp novel from this era, and it's really not all that special, save for the fact that it was McBain's first effort. As such, it will appeal principally to McBain's fans who would like to see how he got started. For that reason, I'm glad I read it, but if you're looking for a good pulp novel from the Fifties, there are better books out there, and McBain would go on to write a lot of them.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Retired LAPD Detective Harry Bosch Pursues Justice for the Victim of an Unsolved Murder

The ninth Harry Bosch novel is unique in a couple of ways. To begin with, Harry is no longer a cop. He has abruptly resigned from the LAPD and is now a private citizen again. Secondly, while virtually all of the other novels in the series are told from the third-person point-of-view, this story is narrated in the first person by Harry himself.

Harry has been off the job for several months by the time the book opens. He has gone through the motions of getting a license as a P.I., but he's not actively pursuing it as a career. Mostly, he's just sleeping late and wondering what to do with himself. He finally decides to get busy by digging into an old, unsolved case that has haunted him for years.

While still a homicide detective, Bosch had been called to the scene of the murder of a young woman named Angella Benton. Benton had been violated before being killed, and in death, she was found lying on the floor with her hands outstretched, as if in prayer. Bosh discovered that the victim was a production assistant for a movie studio, and only a few days after Benton's murder, a brazen gang stole $2 million from a movie set belonging to the studio where Benton worked. The police brass quickly jumped to the conclusion that the young woman's murder was linked to the robbery. Thus the homicide investigation was taken away from Bosch, rolled into the investigation of the robbery, and assigned to other detectives. But neither case was ever solved.

Bosch has never forgotten the image of Benton's body lying on the floor and thus decides to investigate the case on his own in the hope of providing some justice, however belated, for the young victim. He's at an obvious disadvantage, though. Without a badge and the power of the city behind him, the investigation will be much more difficult, if not impossible. But then the task becomes infinitely harder when the Powers That Be in the police department discover that Bosch is nosing around the case and order him to stand down for reasons they will not explain.

Those who've read this series know that Bosch was never very fond of authority while employed by the LAPD and that he often disregarded orders and went his own way in search of the truth. In this case, of course, Harry will will persist in his investigation and soon finds himself in very serious trouble and in very grave danger.

This is a very good entry in the series, and it's especially fun to watch Harry work from outside of the system rather than from within. The book, which was published in 2003, also raises some very troubling questions about civil liberties in the post 9/11 era, and is critically important in other ways to the development of the main character. Lost Light should appeal to anyone who enjoys crime fiction, and no fan of the Harry Bosch series will want to miss it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Perry Mason Is Asking for Trouble When He Agrees to Represent a Mysterious Masked Client

On a cold, rainy night in 1940, Perry Mason is awakened out of a sound sleep by a man who offers to give Mason $1,000.00 if he'll come into his office immediately. They guy gives Perry a name that the lawyer immediately recognizes is phony and after Mason agrees to come in, he calls the Drake Detective Agency and gets them on the job. Drake's people are so efficient that by the time Perry gets to his office, he knows that the mysterious caller is actually an architect named Robert Peltham.

Peltham is accompanied by a mysterious young woman who is wearing a mask and who refuses to speak, making it impossible for Mason to identify her. Peltham wants the woman to be protected against any legal danger. He removes a $10,000.00 bill from his wallet, cuts a piece off of it and gives it to Mason as a retainer. He gives the other piece to the woman and says that if she ever needs Mason's services, she will give him the rest of the bill.

Adjusted for inflation, the $10,000.00 bill would be worth just under $175,000.00 in 2018. (Actually, $174,847.14, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but who's going to quibble over a hundred and fifty bucks or so?) Still, Mason initially refuses the case, pointing out all the problems involved in attempting to represent the interests of a client he can't even recognize. But in the end he agrees to the proposition.

Over the next several days, Mason sits around the office waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the meantime, he takes on a couple of other clients and before long, bodies are dropping, people are suing, and Mason still doesn't know what, if anything he should be doing. 

The setup alone makes this among the most entertaining novels in this series. It's a lot of fun watching Perry trying to figure out what in the world is going on here and what he should be doing. In addition to a murder or two, there's also a scheming would-be heiress and a complicated stock sale that gives Perry an opportunity to trot out the Law of Agency, something that always spices up any mystery novel.

This is one of the few novels in the series that does not wind up in a courtroom. Things move so dramatically and so quickly, that Perry never even gets a chance to cross-examine anyone and expose them as lying fools on the stand. Still, it's a lot of fun and will appeal to anyone who enjoys this series.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Kurt Wallander Faces One of His Most Formidable Opponents in "The Fifth Woman"

After spending much of the summer in an exhausting search for a serial killer, Kurt Wallander gets away to Italy on an idyllic vacation with his father. He returns home to Sweden tanned, relaxed and rejuvenated, but that won't last for long. An elderly car dealer, who writes poetry about birds in his spare time, is reported missing. His body is later found impaled on bamboo spikes in a trap that has obviously been deliberately set for him. It took a long time for the victim to die, and it seems apparent that someone was really angry with him.

Wallander and his team begin the investigation, but there are precious few clues to point them in the direction of the killer. In the meantime, another man, this one a florist, goes missing, and it seems clear that a diabolical killer is on the loose. This is especially scary, because serial killers are very rare in Sweden.

Nothing seems to link the victims, and Wallander and his team are pressed to the limit. Before long, everyone is exhausted from the long hours spent on the investigation, and it seems as though every time the slightest hint of a break in the case emerges, they have to go back to square one and rethink the entire thing. 

This is a dark, brooding police procedural with a unique and clever antagonist matched against Wallander and his team. It's often said that a crime novel succeeds only to the extent that the villain is a worthy match for the protagonist, and that's certainly the case here. The killer has a long list of potential victims, and Wallander will be sorely tested if he and his team are going to save them. This is another very good entry in the series and should appeal to any fan of Scandinavian mysteries.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Are on the Job in Hawaii

The fifteenth entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series begins in the firm's offices in L.A., but quickly moves to a cruise ship and, ultimately, to the Hawaiian Islands. A client whom Bertha described as a "fragile little pipsqueak," appears in the office. Lam guesses the man to be about forty-five, but he appears very infirm. He also appears to be loaded with dough, however, and in Bertha's mind, that's all that counts.

The man, whose name is Bicknell, is concerned about a young woman names Miriam Woodford. Miriam, or Mira, was formerly married to Bicknell's partner Ezra Woodford. Woodford was sixty-nine, and Mira, who's an absolute knockout, was twenty-seven. Ezra was able to enjoy six months of wedded bliss before he died suddenly, leaving a fortune to his young widow. 

Bicknell, who seems unduly solicitous of the widow, believes that she may be being blackmailed. Mira is about to sail for Hawaii, and Bicknell wants Bertha to sail on the ship with her and protect her. Bertha is dead-set against the idea and wants Donald to go instead. Bicknell insists that he wants a woman on the job and in the end, both Donald and Bertha make the trip.

Inevitably, of course, one thing leads to several others. Donald manages to work his way into Mira's circle while on board the ship and will maintain the relationship once in the islands. Before long, someone will be dead and Donald and Bertha will be in the soup up to their necks. As always, it will take some pretty clever thinking and some very fancy footwork on Donald's part it they're going to get out of the mess.

Whenever I read a book in a series like this where the protagonist suddenly leaves his or her familiar surroundings and goes off to someplace exotic, I assume that the author is looking for a way to write off a great vacation as a research expense. Whatever the case, this is a very entertaining novel and it's fun to see Cool and Lam out of their element. A good, quick read.