Sunday, March 25, 2018

Donald Lam Tries to Save the Marriage of a Wayward Conventioneer

Barclay Fisher may have been indiscreet. He isn't completely sure though, because he went to a convention in San Francisco, got really drunk, and woke up the next morning on the couch in an apartment belonging to a gorgeous young babe named Lois Marlow. Barclay may or may not have been unfaithful to his wife in the strictest sense of the word, but the technicalities won't matter all that much to his wife, who apparently has no sense of humor about these sorts of things. If she finds out that Barclay spent the night in Lois's apartment, it will probably be "Adios, Barclay."

Unfortunately, someone has threatened to send a letter to Mrs. Fisher, detailing how her husband spent his time at the convention, when he was supposed to be selling boats. Barclay offers Bertha Cool and Donald Lam five hundred dollars (no small sum in 1957) to get him out of this mess.

The firm agrees to take the case, which appears to be a fairly straightforward instance of blackmail. Donald flies to San Francisco and meets with the lovely Lois. There he discovers that something altogether different may be going on. Naturally, someone is going to get killed before all of this is over, and equally inevitably, Donald Lam will be up to his neck in trouble and may be headed to jail before all is said and done.

This is another solid entry in this entertaining series, and as always it's fun to watch Bertha and Donald spar with each other while Donald tries to pull all these chestnuts out of the fire. If you're curious about this series, this would be a good one to sample.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Young Taiwanese Man finds Heartache and Danger During Ghost Month

Ghost Month is set mostly in the bustling night market in Taipei. The protagonist, Jing-nan runs a food stand there, which he inherited from his parents. He also inherited a huge debt that was initially incurred by Jing-nan's grandfather and which has been passed down to him along with the food stand. Jing-nan once had dreams of escaping to America, going to college there, and then remaining in the U.S., along with his girlfriend, Julia, who has been the love of his life since high school. But the death of Jing-nan's parents has left him with no choice but to drop out of college, return to Taiwan, and take over the family business.

His dreams shattered, Jing-nan returns home, still harboring the faint dream that he will someday, somehow escape this destiny and reunite with Julia. He has told her, though, that he will have no contact with her until he is able to do so. Several years have now passed, and his dream has largely disappeared.

Ghost Month, which generally falls in August, is a very superstitious time for many residents of Taiwan. They are particularly attentive to the spirits during the month, and their conduct is circumscribed by the traditions that accompany the month. Jing-nan is not religious and believes in none of this "nonsense." But reading the paper one morning, he is shocked to see that Julia has been murdered. Without his knowing it, Julia too had returned to Taiwan and had been working as a "betel nut beauty"--a scantily clad woman who sits in a roadside stand and sells betel nuts to passing motorists. The job is only a small step short of prostitution and Jing-nan is stunned to learn that Julia has returned and that she has been reduced to these circumstances.

Grieving, Jing-nan pays a courtesy call to Julia's parents. They believe that the police are making no significant effort to find Julia's killer and ask Jing-nan to see what he can discover. Jing-nan agrees and soon finds that he's stirred up a hornets' nest and that he's now in serious danger himself.

This is on the whole, a very good book. My only complaint is that Lin has spent so much time developing the setting that the story suffers in the process. He devotes a great deal of time to the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions on Taiwan, and as a result the reader feels as if he or she were actually on the island, riding behind Jing-nan on his moped. The problem, though, is that every time the story begins to gain momentum, Ling detours off into a discussion of local customs or some such thing, and the tension drops about four levels.

Reading this book, I kept thinking about Martin Limon and his excellent series which is set in South Korea. Those books are also excellent in describing the setting in which the plots play out. But Limon has a way of working these details into the stories so that they don't interfere with the action. Lin's book suffers a bit by comparison and thus three stars for me rather than four.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Gets Tangled Up in a Small-Town Mystery

Scar Tissue is among the best of the books in William G. Tapply's series featuring Boston attorney Brady coyne, largely because it features one of the best plots that Tapply ever developed for the series. Coyne has a small, one-man practice, and focuses mostly on writing wills and doing other such mundane tasks for a small group of generally very wealthy clients. 

In line with the personal service he provides, Brady has become close friends with a number of his clients and, as a friend rather than as their lawyer, Brady rushes to the side of Jake and Sharon Gold when their son, Brian, is involved in a fatal traffic accident. Brian was riding in a car driven by his girlfriend, when the car veered off a slick highway in the middle of winter and plunged down the bank into an icy river. The girlfriend was killed immediately; Brian, who was not wearing his seatbelt, was apparently thrown from the car and and swept away.

The Golds live in the small town of Reddington, and hour or so away from Boston, and the accident occurred on the outskirts of town. Brady sits with the Golds while waiting for Brian's body to be recovered, but his curiosity gets the better of him and he decides to examine the site of the accident for himself. He also talks to the local police chief and gets the distinct impression that the chief does not want him to be interfering with the investigation.

Of course, as any reader knows, you should never tell the protagonist in a book like this to butt out of your business, and sure enough, Brady continues poking around. Almost immediately, the wheels start turning, and Brady had better be looking over his shoulder for the trouble that is about to rain down on him.

As I've said in earlier reviews, Brady Coyne is an engaging protagonist and this is a solid regional mystery series. In and around his investigation, Brady's personal life continues to develop, and no one who enjoys the series will want to miss this entry.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Gripping Novel of Crime and Family from Brian Panowich

This is another excellent crime novel in which family ties are a critical theme. For several generations, the Burroughs family has controlled Bull Mountain in rural North Georgia. Their criminal empire was built first on moonshine and then graduated into weed and, finally, meth. The family's leader in each generation has been tough, brutal, amoral, and willing to do anything to protect the family and its enterprises. Murder is simply one of many tools for advancing and protecting the family's fortunes, and most Burroughs men will kill without giving it a second thought.

The exception is Clayton Burroughs, the youngest brother of the current generation, who has determined to take another path. Clayton has won election as sheriff in a small neighboring town and is attempting to carve out a life for himself and his wife, different from that of his brothers. Not surprisingly, there's no love lost between Clayton and his brothers, particularly Halford, the current leader of the clan. At one point, Halford tells his Clayton that he's the sheriff only because Halford allows him to be--not meaning that he could see Clayton defeated at the ballot box, but rather meaning that he simply hasn't given the order to have his little brother killed yet.

Into this combustible mix comes a rogue F.B.I. agent named Simon Holly who has an agenda of his own. The Burroughs have entered into an alliance with an outlaw Florida biker gang to run their product and their money back and forth between Florida and Georgia. Holly shows up in Clayton's office, claiming that he wants to shut down the biker gang and their network of illegal activities. This would impinge on the Burroughs family operation, and Holly wants Clayton to cooperate with the investigation. Clayton now finds himself trapped between the proverbial rock and the hardest of all spots, and there's simply no way that this can end well.

The story is told from shifting points of view, and Panowich writes beautifully. He creates a wonderful sense of place, and the reader can practically feel him- or herself climbing Bull Mountain and being sucked into the roiling catastrophe that is the Burroughs family. This is a great read that will keep you turning the pages well beyond your bedtime.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A British Racing Investigator Tackles a Complex Case in Norway

When a British jockey named Richard Sherman disappears from a racecourse in Norway, he leaves behind a pregnant wife and a huge mystery. At the same time Sherman went missing, so did sixteen thousand kroner--the day's take at the racecourse where Sherman had been riding that afternoon. Sherman was last seen near the room where the money was inexplicably left unguarded, and the assumption is that he has run off with it.

But how? 

Norwegian investigators have drawn a blank; neither Sherman nor the money have surfaced and there's no record of him leaving the country. Accordingly, the racetrack officials call in David Cleveland, an investigator from the Jockey Club in England. Cleveland pairs up with a Norwegian investigator named Arne Kristiansen, who tells David that he hopes the Englishman can pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.

Almost as soon as Cleveland arrives in Norway, however, it becomes very clear that someone doesn't want him poking around, and the deeper he digs, the more dangerous things become. But Cleveland is a typical Dick Francis protagonist, and he's not about to back down, irrespective of the possible consequences.

This is a fairly typical novel from Dick Francis. There's lots of intrigue, danger and action. In this case there's not much romance, although at one point our intrepid hero causes a woman to have an orgasm just by dancing with her! With that kind of talent, it's hard to imagine that even the most diabolical criminals will escape his reach for long. 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Beautiful Novel of Crime and Family from Urban Waite

Disgraced former sheriff Patrick Drake is paroled after twelve years in prison and returns home to the small town in Washington state where his life went south and where his son and daughter-in-law still live in the house that used to be his. His son, Bobby, is still embarrassed about the crimes his father committed and the relationship between the two is seriously strained. Still Bobby invites his father to stay with him and his wife while Patrick figures out what to do with the rest of his life and while father and son try to determine what, if any, sort of relationship they might have going forward.

Complicating matters is the fact that Patrick was convicted of a robbery from which the money was never recovered. There's $200,000 out there somewhere, and while Patrick claims he knows nothing about it, some determined people on both sides of the law refuse to believe that and will not let Patrick or his family rest until the money turns up.

In the especially nasty department are two convicts who knew Patrick inside. As an ex-lawman, Patrick was especially vulnerable in prison and "bought" protection by promising to pay off the two once he was released if they would keep him safe inside. They weren't supposed to be out for another ten years or so, but once Patrick is free, the two manage an escape. They are now hot on the trail of Patrick and the money.

At one level, this is a gripping crime novel with plenty of action. But more than anything, it's a story about family and the relationships that exist among family members. Patrick's son, Bobby, has been enormously conflicted ever since his father was accused of the crime. But rather than moving away and attempting to create a new life for himself, he remains in the small town where he grew up. Though now married himself, he continues to live in the house where he was raised, with all of the memories it holds. And if that weren't enough, he has followed in his father's footsteps and is now a deputy sheriff in the department his father betrayed.

Also in the mix is Patrick's own father, who lives a hermit-like existence out in the middle of nowhere, and Bobby's wife, Sheri. Bobby and Sheri have suffered a tragedy of their own; their relationship is troubled as well, and the last thing they need are the emotional complications and the danger that Patrick will bring into their home.

Waite writes beautifully; the characters are expertly created, and the sense of place is overpowering. When I finally pulled this book off the shelf and finally got around to reading it, the sales receipt fell out and I realized that I'd had this book on my TBR shelf since November of 2014. I really wish I'd gotten to it a lot sooner.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

L. A. Detective Harry Bosch Teams Up with F.B.I.Agent Rachel Walling to Chase an Especially Nasty Killer

The Narrows brings together several of Michael Connelly's characters, including L.A. detective Harry bosch, Connelly's main protagonist; F.B.I. agent Rachel Walling from The Poet; and Terry McCaleb, a former F.B.I. profiler, who first appeared in Blood Work.

Actually, as this book opens, McCaleb has just died. He was the survivor of a heart transplant and apparently died when his new heart failed him while he was out at sea on the charter fishing boat that he operated. It all seems pretty straightforward, but McCaleb's widow, Graciela, asks Bosch to look into it. Bosch, who has left the L.A.P.D. and is now a private investigator, agrees to do so because McCaleb once saved his life when the two were working together on an earlier case.

McCaleb had never been able to let go of his career as a profiler, and although he was no longer with the F.B.I., he occasionally consulted with other law enforcement agencies. He also followed cases that he personally found interesting and left several boxes of files when he died. Bosch begins reviewing the files and finds a relatively new case that had grabbed McCaleb's attention. The case had caused McCaleb to travel to a desolate part of Nevada, but his notes are fairly cryptic, and Bosch can't figure out what McCaleb might have been looking for there.

Virtually at the same time, an unidentified person sends a GPS unit to the F.B.I. addressed to Rachel Walling. Walling has been exiled to hardship duty in North and South Dakota because she fell out of favor with the Powers That Be at the end of the case where she was chasing the Poet. The Poet was presumed to be dead at the end of that book, but it was impossible to confirm the identification of the body that was found, and anyone who's ever read a novel about a serial killer knows what that means.

The Fibbies have no choice but to bring Rachel back into the fold, at least until they can figure out why the GPS was sent to her, and as it turns out, the coordinates on the GPS send them to the exact same desolate spot in the Nevada desert where Bosch is headed. Oops!

It quickly becomes apparent that a very bad hombre is on the loose and, naturally, the stuffed shirts at the F.B.I. will have their heads in a position where it will be very difficult for them to think clearly. This means that it will be up to Harry and Rachel to save civilization as we know it, if only it's not too late.

This is a very entertaining novel and it's great fun watching Bosch and Walling work together, especially with all the odds that are stacked against them. It's hard to imagine a fan of crime fiction who would not enjoy this book.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Introducing Tracy Crosswhite

My Sister's Grave introduces Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. Twenty years earlier, her younger sister, Sarah, who was then eighteen, disappeared after the two had participated in a shooting competition. As Tracy went off to dinner with her boyfriend, Sarah left to drive home in the rain and was never seen again. 

The two sisters had been best of friends and Tracy has never forgiven herself for allowing Sarah to drive home alone. Twenty years later, the pain is still sharp and ultimately led Tracy to give up her career as a teacher to become a homicide detective. 

A previously convicted rapist named Edmund House was arrested and convicted of Sarah's murder, largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence and on the testimony of the local sheriff who claimed that House had confessed to killing Sarah, even though there was no tape recording or witness to back up the sheriff's claim. Tracy has never been totally convinced of House's guilt and has continued digging into the case in an effort to satisfy herself of the fact that justice either was or was not done.

As the book opens, Sarah's remains are finally found by two hunters in a heavily wooded area that had previously been covered by a lake. The discovery of the body raises even more questions about the case against Edmund House and makes Tracy even more determined to make sure that the person who killed her sister pays the price. Her efforts will antagonize a good number of people in the small town where she grew up and where the crime occurred. They will also place Tracy herself in a considerable amount of jeopardy.

This is a very compelling story that combines the best elements of a legal thriller with that of a gripping police procedural. Tracy Crosswhite makes a very engaging protagonist and the story moves at such a fast clip that it's almost impossible to put the book down once it gets rolling. All in all, a very good introduction to this series.