Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Is Up to His Neck in Trouble Again in This Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The twenty-fifth entry in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) series featuring private detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool finds Donald up to his neck in trouble, as usual, and Bertha in an uproar, also as usual.

The story opens when a businessman asks the detectives to prove twenty-four-hour protection to his secretary who has been getting threatening letters and unsettling phone calls. He wants a man to be on duty during the days and a woman to be on duty at nights, and Cool and Lam seem like the perfect answer to his problem.

Donald and Bertha accept the assignment and almost immediately, of course, things go sideways. Donald is curious about the setup from the beginning, and the closer he looks, the more suspicious he becomes. Ultimately, the case will involve a murder or two along with some conniving businessmen, a few sexy female "escorts" and a fairly clever madam. Practically everyone in the cast of characters is lying through his or her teeth; Donald's nemesis, Sergeant Frank Sellers, will be hard on Donald's case again, and all in all, it makes for a fun evening's read.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Joe Gunther's Vermont Bureau of Investigations Faces Three Complex Cases

This is another very entertaining entry in Archer Mayor’s long-running series featuring Joe Gunther, the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. It’s also somewhat unique in that Gunther himself plays only a small, supporting role in the investigations that make up the book’s crime stories.

As the book opens, Gunther’s elderly mother is suddenly taken seriously ill. She has a rare malady that requires that she be transferred for treatment to a facility in St. Louis, Missouri. Joe accompanies her and so will be missing in action until she recovers. He names Detective Sammie Martens to run the unit in his absence.

No sooner does this happen than the VBI is suddenly challenged by three unique and complex investigations—one for each member of the team that Joe has left in place. One falls to the troubled Willy Kunkle when a small girl discovers three broken teeth near a railroad track in Windsor, Vermont. Near the teeth is an electronic device of some sort which has been badly burned. Are the teeth and the device connected? Does either discovery mean anything of consequence? Is there any criminal activity involved?

Willy’s curiosity is aroused and so he begins poking into the matter in his own inimitable way, meaning that he will work the case alone and that he will keep his supervisor—in this case his wife, Sammie, rather than Joe Gunther—largely in the dark until he gets a handle on the investigation. Also, his methods may not be strictly kosher, but in the end the trail leads him to a potentially dangerous situation that may involve terrorists.

Meanwhile, in addition to commanding the squad, Sammie winds up with a murder case to handle. A young woman was beaten and killed by an intruder in her apartment. The woman’s roommate smacked the assailant with a frying pan and drove him off, but the case assumes additional importance because the surviving young woman is the daughter of Beverly Hillstrom, the state medical examiner, and Joe Gunther’s current girlfriend. It’s unclear if the attack was random or if the victim was targeted deliberately, but Sammie will have her hands full trying to sort it all out.

Finally, Lester Spinney, the third of Joe’s subordinates, inherits a cold case that’s suddenly not so cold any more. Two years earlier, a state trooper pulled a man over on a stretch of deserted road. A few minutes later, both men were dead, apparently having shot each other. It’s impossible to say how or why this happened, but the case seemed open and shut, and the world has moved on. But now a technician in the crime lab has taken a second look at the fingerprints on the gun belonging to the civilian involved and has found a strange anomaly. Maybe the case wasn’t so open and shut after all, and Spinney will have to move very delicately if he’s to get at the truth of what happened that night without ruffling a lot of feathers.

Mayor moves seamlessly among the three stories, each of which is fascinating in its own way. By now, the cast of characters in this series feels like a group of old friends and it’s fun to see what happens when Mayor turns them loose without the assistance of Joe Gunther. A very good addition to the series.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Investigator Virgil Flowers Finds Trouble in Another Small Minnesota Town

This is another hugely entertaining entry in John Sandford's series featuring Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Flowers usually works in the small communities of the rural parts of the state, and this case takes him back to Trippton, which was the scene of one of his earlier investigations.

In this case, a wealthy divorced woman was murdered in the wake of a committee meeting at her home. The committee members had been planning the 25th reunion of the Trippton High School class of 1992, and in a tiny town like this, high school pretty much lasts for the rest of your life. The friends and enemies you made and the rivalries and antagonisms that developed during those years simply continue to endure, and the only people who escape them are the ones who have sense enough to leave town and live somewhere else.

The reader knows who the killer is from the opening pages. Unfortunately, though, Virgil doesn't, and the search for the perpetrator will force him to dig deeply into the relationships, licit and otherwise, that bind and divide the citizens of Trippton and the class of '92 in particular. It will be an interesting journey to say the least.

There's also a hilarious subplot in which Virgil is instructed to assist a female P.I. from California who's trying to stop a case of patent infringement violating the rights of the Mattel corporation. A woman named Jesse McGovern is reconfiguring Ken and Barbie dolls into XXX-rated adult toys and distributing them over the Internet. The company has traced the source of the problem to Trippton and has sent the detective to serve a cease-and-desist order on McGovern. The problem is that everyone in town denies knowing Jesse McGovern and they are doing everything they can to prevent the P.I. from serving the papers. Virgil is not especially anxious to assist in this matter, but orders are orders.

As always, the book is a lot of fun and there are several laugh-out-loud moments. I was struck by one thing, though: Years ago, Sandford wrote a book in the Prey series, titled Winter Prey. As the title would suggest, the book took place in the middle of winter and Sandford's description of the winter cold was so brilliantly done, that I was shivering through the whole book. Other readers have made the same comment, and years later, I still feel cold every time I think of the book.

Deep Freeze also takes place in the middle of a very cold winter, and people are constantly bundling up, shoveling snow, and otherwise enduring the winter weather. But you don't (or at least I didn't) get nearly the same sensation of being out in the middle of the cold weather the way you did in the Prey book. Perhaps that's because while this book is mostly humorous, the Prey book was extremely menacing and thus even the weather came through as menacing. In any event, unlike the earlier book, this one, its title not withstanding, did not make me desperate to go in search of a giant hot buttered rum.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bryan Gruley Returns with a Great New Novel

Bleak Harbor marks the return of Bryan Gruley, and not a moment too soon. I was a big fan of his Starvation Lake trilogy, but the last book in that series, The Skeleton Box, appeared in 2012, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book ever since. It turns out, though, that the wait was well worth it. Bleak Harbor is a fast-paced, taut thriller that grabs the reader from the opening lines and refuses to let go until the final scenes have played out in the wake of a great climax.

At the center of the book is a troubled family living in Bleak Harbor, Michigan, a small town where the highlight of the summer tourist season is the annual Dragonfly Festival. Carey Peters, the wife and mother, is descended from the town’s founder. Her mother, Serenity Bleak, lives in a huge home overlooking the town, isolated from the rest of the residents, both geographically and economically. The Bleaks made a huge fortune from their various enterprises in the town, but the rest of the citizens have not done nearly as well, and many of them are experiencing hard times as several of the Bleaks’ businesses have closed, leaving their former employees high and dry. Carey is employed by a firm in Chicago and commutes back and forth to Bleak Harbor two or three times a week to see her family. She is estranged from her mother who has cut Carey out of her will.

Carey’s husband, Pete Peters, was once a high-flying commodities trader in Chicago, but he hit a bad streak and lost his job. He convinced Carey to move back to Bleak Harbor where he has opened a medical marijuana shop and is struggling to get the business up and running. Both Carey and Pete have dark secrets that they are hiding from each other, and their relationship is strained for a variety of reasons.

Carey’s son—Pete’s stepson—is fifteen-year-old Danny. Danny is on the autism spectrum and, while brilliant in some respects, can also be a “difficult” child. One thing that Carey and Pete do agree on is that they both love Danny very much. Danny and Pete have an excellent relationship, centered on fishing and other activities that they do together.

The book opens on the eve of Danny’s sixteenth birthday as the annual Dragonfly Festival is about to begin. Pete arrives home expecting to take Danny fishing. He finds that Danny has prepared the sandwiches and drinks they will be taking with them, but the boy himself is nowhere to be found. Shortly thereafter, Pete receives a photo of Danny bound to a chair with what appears to be a bruise on his cheek. Accompanying the photo is a demand for a huge ransom and with that, the book is off and running.

The plot is intricately designed; the characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn, and the tension is palpable throughout as Carey and Pete and a variety of law enforcement officials work to save Danny from a particularly fiendish and clever antagonist. In particular, as he demonstrated in the Starvation Lake series, Gruley excels at describing life in a small town like Bleak Harbor, where all sorts of secrets and machinations are at work beneath the surface. The setting is expertly rendered and becomes a character in and of itself. All in all, this is a very entertaining novel and the reader leaves the book very much hoping that it will not be another six years before we hear from Bryan Gruley again. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.