Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Great Early Novel from Don Winslow

This is another excellent, fast-moving novel from Don Winslow. The protagonist is a lifelong loser named Tim Kearney who is doing a stint in San Quentin when he gets into a beef with a Hells Angel named Stinkdog. Knowing that Stinkdog will be looking to kill him, Kearney, a former Marine, makes a preemptive strike, cutting Stinkdog's throat with a sharpened license plate. Kearney knows, however, that his reprieve will be short-lived. The murder makes him a three-time loser. He can expect to spend the rest of his life as a guest of the state of California, but that's of little consequence. Kearney knows that it will only be a matter of days or weeks until the Hells Angels take their revenge and kill him for murdering one of their own.

Just in the nick of time, though, Kearney gets the luckiest break of his life when a DEA agent named Tad Gruza offers to get him out of jail permanently in return for doing the DEA a small favor. Gruza explains that a notorious Mexican drug dealer named Don Huertero is holding a DEA agent captive. Huertero has offered to exchange the agent for a drug dealer named Bobby Z that the feds are holding. Sadly, though, unbeknownst to anyone outside of the DEA, Bobby Z has died of a heart attack while in custody and so it looks like the exchange is off.

It turns out, however, that Tim Kearney is the spitting image of Bobby Z and Gruza proposes that Kearney impersonate Bobby Z for the purpose of the exchange. Once the swap has been made, Gruza promises to extricate Kearney and let him run away and start his life anew. It's a scary idea, but a lot more palatable than sitting around in prison waiting for the Hells Angels to execute him and so Kearney agrees.

Inevitably, of course, as the exchange is to be made, the grand plan goes to hell in a handbasket. Kearney winds up in the hands of Huertero's people who treat him like royalty while awaiting the boss's arrival at a luxurious compound belonging to one of his henchmen. Kearney discovers, though, that Huertero actually intends to torture and kill him because the real Bobby Z apparently stole a large sum of money from him.

Kearny now finds himself on the run from the drug dealers, the cops and, of course the Hells Angels who still want his hide as well. His chances of survival look pretty grim, but he intends to give it his best shot and wreak as much havoc on his enemies as he can before he succumbs.

This is a very entertaining novel and Kearney, for all is faults, is a tremendously appealing protagonist. Winslow tells the story in staccato bursts of narrative and dialog that seem perfectly suited to the subject and that keep you turning the pages. Winslow has gone on to even bigger and much better things since this book first appeared twenty-three years ago, but fans of the author who don't know this book will certainly want to search it out.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Maine Reporter Jack McMorrow Finds Trouble in the Big City

Jack McMorrow was a veteran reporter for the New York Times before he made a significant change and left the big city for life in the woods of Maine. Now he's back, briefly, to interview about a job as a stringer for the Times, working from Maine. It's supposed to be a quick trip--in and out overnight--but Jack takes the time to have a drink with an old friend named Butch Casey. Casey is an ex-cop whose wife was brutally murdered. Jack covered the story for the Times, and Casey has never gotten over the loss. He's also never forgiven the D.A., John Fiore, who failed to prosecute the case aggressively.

Jack and Casey have a couple of drinks and when they go their separate ways, Casey seems to be in good spirits. But the next morning, before Jack can get out of town and back to Maine, the cops are at his hotel room door. Casey has been arrested for murdering Fiore, who is now a very popular mayor, and the cops want to know if Jack was involved.

Before long, the city is in an uproar over the death of a beloved mayor and the press is all over Jack, speculating about his involvement in all of this. Beyond that, Jack discovers that, before allegedly stabbing the mayor to death, Casey left an envelope for Jack with the hotel desk. In it are papers regarding an investigation that Casey was making on his own and that he now begs Jack to pursue.

Jack feels an obligation to his long-time friend, but it quickly becomes apparent that some very powerful and dangerous people do not want Jack poking into their affairs. As readers of this very good series learned a long time ago, Jack McMorrow does not scare easily and he can be extremely stubborn when on the trail of a good story, especially one that involves an injustice that needs to be made right. In this case, though, Jack may have taken on more than he can handle and the odds that he will survive long enough to make it back home to Maine are not looking good.

This is another very good story from Gerry Boyle, who seems to know New York City as well as he clearly knows the backwoods of Maine. The tension is palpable from beginning to end and once the action ramps up, it's impossible to put this book down. A very good read.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Another Excellent Novel from Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is not the most prolific of writers, but he certainly is one of the best, and he demonstrates this again with Green Sun, which was released last year. This is the third novel featuring a Vietnam-era Special Forces soldier-turned-cop named Hanson, following Sympathy For The Devil (1987) and Night Dogs (1996).

The first book detailed Hanson's experiences in the Vietnam War. The second followed his stint as a cop in Portland, Oregon. The new book, set in 1983, finds him as a thirty-eight-year-old rookie cop in Oakland, California, a city torn apart by crime and racial divisions. The city's police department doesn't begin to have the money or the manpower to police the streets effectively, let alone humanely. Hanson patrols some of the meanest streets in the city all by himself in squad car that is barely functional and rarely with any backup.

The police force is still overwhelmingly white, and the approach of most of the other white cops who patrol the black areas of the city is to impose their will on the citizens by brutal force, intimidating anyone who would dare challenge their authority. They are much less concerned about justice than they are about maintaining control and, inevitably of course, they have alienated the city's black population.

Especially in a situation like this, Hanson is a fish out of water. He's older than most of the other patrolman and even though he has experience as a cop in Portland, he's forced to start at the bottom of the department in Oakland. As a liberal arts graduate who briefly taught college before joining the Oakland force, he takes a different view of the job--one that immediately alienates his superiors and most of his fellow cops. Hanson is more of a social worker than a typical Oakland cop. Unlike his fellow officers, he'd much rather defuse a situation and send everyone home peacefully rather than breaking heads. Given that he is a white cop, he's automatically suspect and while he tries to build a rapport with the black citizens whom he is supposed to serve and protect, it's a hard uphill climb.

Hanson is mostly on duty at night, and the book follows him from one incident to another as he patrols his sector of the city, tries to serve the citizens as best he can, and attempts to keep his own bosses from coming down on him. It's a thankless and virtually impossible task, and in parts, the story is horribly bleak and depressing.

What lifts it up though, and what makes this such an engaging book, is Hanson's character. He's among the most solitary protagonists you will ever meet in crime fiction these days--a loner's loner. But at heart he is such a good and decent man, in spite of all of the problems he faces, that you can't help but root for the man and be inspired by him. Even above and beyond that is the quality of Kent Anderson's writing, which is simply beautiful even in spite of the horrors that unfold in the story.

Anderson was himself a Special Forces soldier and a beat cop both in Portland and in Oakland. Clearly he knows the territory, and this book, along with Night Dogs, are probably the most authentic novels about police work that you will ever read. Anderson's biography says that he may be the only person in the country's history to have been awarded two NEA grants as well as two Combat Bronze Stars, and clearly these experiences have served him and his readers well. A fantastic book and a great character than no reader will soon forget.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Another Hilarious South Florida Romp from Carl Hiaasen

This is another hilariously funny south Florida romp by Carl Hiaasen with a great cast of odd, strange and curious characters. At the heart of the story is Andrew Yancey who was formerly a police detective. Sadly, Yancy was booted from his job and demoted to being a pest inspector for the health department after he got into an altercation with a girlfriend's husband.

Yancy is desperate to get back his detective rank, and sees his opportunity when he becomes entangled in a web of disasters that involves a missing reality TV star, a self-absorbed Hollywood agent, a would-be reality star named Blister, an unscrupulous attorney who stupidly becomes addicted to a dangerous male-enhancement product produced by a company he's suing, a guy who owns a firm called Sedimental Journeys that steals pristine sand from one Florida beach and sells it on another, a handful of mobsters, a herd of giant rats, and a woman named Merry Mansfield who is working a racket in which she fakes vehicular accidents while shaving herself in parts best left undescribed in a family-friendly review like this.

Hiassen walks a very narrow tightrope here in weaving a story that sometimes veers very close to going over the edge, and some readers may feel that he has actually done so. But if you're in the right mood, this may well be the funniest book you've read in a long time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Jack Reacher Finds Trouble in West Texas

After he accidentally beats up a cop in a small west Texas town, Jack Reacher need to get out of town in a hurry. (Of course, he didn't accidentally beat up the cop; he did it on purpose. But when the guy picked a fight with Reacher, Jack didn't know he was a cop.) Happily, only a few minutes after sticking out his thumb, Reacher is picked up by an attractive Hispanic woman named Carmen Greer in an air-conditioned Cadillac.

Poor Mrs. Greer has a problem. (Wouldn't you just know it?) She tells Jack that she was born into an upper class family in northern California, but her family disowned her after she married into a very strange and wealthy Texas family. (Her family didn't like the fact that she had married a white guy, let alone a Texan.)

The Greers own a huge ranch out in the middle of nowhere, and practically from the day she married him, Carmen's husband has been beating her. He stopped a year and a half ago when the husband went to prison for tax evasion, but he's getting out in a couple of days and Carmen is terrified because she knows that the beatings will begin all over again. Isn't there some way that Jack could help her?

Reacher is drawn into the mess by Carmen's sad story, particularly after he meets Carmen's charming little daughter. The daughter is the reason why Carmen can't just take off and leave her husband, and so Jack gets a job on the ranch as a hand to assess the situation and see what he can to do protect Greer.

In the meantime, there's a group of hired assassins running around, making life difficult for a lot of people and complicating Reacher's problem as well. When all these ingredients are thrown into the mix, Reacher will have to be on his toes if he's going to survive this mess, let alone save Carmen and her daughter.

This is a fairly typical Reacher novel. It moves along at a good clip and keeps the reader riveted to the page. There are a lot of fun twists and turns and a great climax--all in all, a very good read.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Perry Mason Tackles a Particularly Complex Case

First published in 1941, this is, to my mind at least, one of the least successful of the Perry Mason novels. But then, in a series that runs to eighty-five books, I suppose there's bound to be a clunker now and then.

A murder may have been committed on the ground floor of an apartment building. (There's no body, but there is a lot of blood and Lieutenant Tragg and the rest of the force are treating it as a potential homicide.) The guy who lives in the upstairs apartment is an invalid and a recluse and he does not want to get involved in the investigation. So he hires Perry Mason to come over and shield him from the cops. One would think that, if you're attempting to deflect attention away from yourself, it would NOT be a good idea to have the city's most famous defense attorney standing in your living room when the cops come calling, but that's just my humble opinion.

It takes a long time to determine if a murder actually has been committed, and in this case, Perry will spend no time in court at all. Rather, he will spend the entire book running around attempting to decipher a plot that makes absolutely no sense at all. It involves a suspicious boarder, a house with a lot of mysterious doors leading here and there, a nosey spinster, guys wearing wigs, people running guns in China, and other people scratching coded messages on the lids of tin cans. At one point, Perry is attempting to explain part of what is happening to his secretary, Della Street, when she throws up her hands and says, "I'm sorry, Chief, but I'm all topsy turvy!" To which, the reader can only reply, "Don't worry, Della, you're not the only one..."

Of course, Perry will ultimately get it all sorted out and given a couple of critical clues, most readers will actually get there ahead of him. Still, this book is something of a mess, and a person probably would not want to spend a lot of time attempting to make sense out of it. It's much better just to sit back and let Perry, Della and Paul go about their business and enjoy the various exchanges that take place.

My favorite part of the book occurs a little over halfway through. A little after five o'clock on a busy afternoon, Perry suddenly decides that he needs to make a quick trip to San Francisco. From downtown L.A., he calls the airport and books tickets on a flight leaving at six o'clock. He then calls Della and tells her to meet him at the plane. Della replies that she'll just take time to put on some makeup and then head on out from downtown to the airport. Perry tells her to "Make it snappy," and hangs up. Even though the late afternoon rush is on at the airport, they both make it and are relaxing in their seats when the plane leaves on time at six o'clock! Those must have been the days...

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Wilma Rathjen Is a Troubled Woman on a Roof in This Novel from Helen Nielsen

The Woman on the Roof was first published in 1954 and has now been published in a new edition by Stark House. At the center of the story is a woman named Wilma Rathjen who has just returned home from a sanitarium following a nervous breakdown. Her brother, Curtis, is a landlord and he has created a home for Wilma in a small apartment above a garage in a complex that he owns. Wilma lives there with her cat and has taken a job at a bakery, but she's still clearly nervous and unsettled.

Wilma is particularly unnerved when she looks down from her apartment one night into the window of one of the other units in the complex and sees a young woman lying dead in a bathtub. Or does she? Wilma fears that she might be imagining the sight and worries that if she reports it and it turns out not to be true, she could be taken back to the sanitarium.

Accordingly, she makes no mention of what she has seen and when the body is discovered, two days later, Wilma feigns ignorance. Initially it appears that the woman died accidentally when her hair dryer fell into the tub and electrocuted her. But then the detective investigating the death, a Sergeant Osgood, begins to notice a number of strange things going on in and around the complex where the young woman died. He also notes that poor Wilma Rathjen is not the only odd, strange and curious character who's living there. As Osgood digs deeper into the mystery, Wilma finds herself, or imagines herself, in increasing trouble and her own survival may be at stake.

This is a mystery that seems very much of its time, and as a crime novel it really hasn't aged all that well. There are no clues that would really enable a reader to anticipate the guilty party and, frankly, by the end of the book, it really didn't seem to matter, at least not to this reader, who the guilty party was. However, the book is a fairly interesting psychological portrait of a woman who may or may not be imagining the dangers that surround her. The author has very skillfully drawn the character of Wilma Rathjen, and the reader can't help caring about her and wondering what might become of her. An interesting read both for that and as a glance back to the nature of the mystery novel three-quarters of a century ago.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

P.I. Roland Ford Is the Last Good Guy in This Novel from T. Jefferson Parker

The third novel in T. Jefferson Parker's Roland Ford series finds the Southern California P.I. sitting in his office when--lo and behold!--an attractive woman walks in looking for help. The woman is Penelope Rideout, and her younger sister, Daley, is missing. Their parents died years earlier and Penelope, who is fourteen years older than Daley, became her sister's legal guardian. Daley, who is now nearing fourteen, has become something of a handful, as teenagers are wont to do. She has fallen in with what Penelope deems to be "bad company," and has now disappeared.

Roland agrees to try to find the girl, which should be a piece of cake for a reasonably competent P.I., but in a book like this, nothing is ever as it seems, and a simple case will quickly turn difficult, confusing and deadly.

Bad things are happening in the Southern California desert, involving white supremacists, a creepy but very popular televangelist, and secrets that go back for years. Somehow, Daley Rideout has gotten mixed up in their plots and schemes. Ford has no idea who he can trust--his own client included--and he's going to have to endure a lot of pain, physical and otherwise, if he's going to survive this mess and complete his assignment.

Roland Ford is an attractive and unique protagonist. Like several other protagonists of his age in books like this these days, he's a veteran of the wars in the Middle East, and has been seriously affected by his experiences there. He's still mourning the death of his wife who was killed in a plane crash and lives in a compound with several other interesting but wounded characters. But like the first P.I. in the first novel where such a character was sitting in his office when a beautiful, troubled woman walked in, Ford will stop at nothing to see that justice is finally served. A good read that should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good hard-boiled P.I. Novel.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

A Recent Widow Finds Herself in Peril in This Psychological Thriller from Lisa Unger

Poppy Lang and her husband, Jack, were successful photographers who traveled the world before settling in New York and opening an agency. On the surface, they appear to be living a charmed life, although as is often the case, especially in a psychological thriller like this, there may be problems lurking just below the surface. But when Jack is killed, apparently at random while out for an early morning jog, Poppy descends into a year-long depression and her life begins to come apart at the seams.

Shortly after the funeral, Poppy disappears, leaving her mother, her best friend, and everyone else who cares about her worried sick. She surfaces a few days later, wearing a red party dress, with no memory of where she has been or what she has done. Even with the help of caring friends and a therapist, she's having trouble putting her life back together and a year after her husband's death, she still appears to be on a downward spiral.

Part of the problem is that, in addition to the small dose of sleeping pills that the therapist has prescribed, Poppy is self-medicating with pills given to her by her best friend, Layla. She's also drinking heavily and thus, not surprisingly, her sleep is disturbed by powerful and troubling dreams. Even worse, she seems to be dreaming and perhaps imagining things while she's allegedly awake. She becomes convinced that a mysterious hooded man is following her. She begins to "see" Jack, and before long, she no longer knows what's real and what is not.

Neither do we. Poppy is a classic unreliable narrator, and as the story progresses the reader sometimes has a hard time distinguishing between Poppy's dreams and reality, just as she does. One would hope, as Poppy does, that if the police could only clear the case and find Jack's killer, this would provide some closure. The only question is whether or not Poppy will survive and remain sane until this can happen.

On the whole I enjoyed this book, although I thought it ran on a bit and was perhaps fifty to a hundred pages longer than it needed to be. For much of the book, Poppy seemed to be going around in circles and, as a reader, I thought there might have been one or two many trips around the same track. I also really disliked Layla, Poppy's best friend since they were children. She was way too domineering and I kept waiting for Poppy to finally tell her to back off a bit. I also wonder what kind of a "friend" keeps pushing pills and alcohol on a woman in such a fragile state.

By the time the climax finally arrived, I was pretty sure I knew where it was going; still the pace picked up significantly in last one-third of the book or so and in the end, I enjoyed it. 3.5 stars rounded up to four.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Philip Marlowe Goes Looking for a Missing Man in This Classic from Raymond Chandler

The fifth full-length novel featuring Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe opens with the private investigator bored nearly to death when a young woman named Orfamay Quest from Manhattan, Kansas comes into the office and asks Marlowe to find her older brother, Orrin. Orrin came out to California and has recently disappeared. Naturally, all the folks back home are very worried.

Orfamay appears to be a timid young woman who has led a very sheltered life and who is like a fish out of water in California. Naturally, though, behind that shy and mousy exterior, there lurks a potentially very sexy and beautiful young woman. She seems desperate and down on her luck, especially what with with poor Ma and Pa back home in Kansas wondering what has become of their son, so Marlowe takes the case for a fee of twenty bucks and starts with Orrin's last known address, a seedy hotel in Bay City, a fictional suburb. The brother has left the hotel but before Marlowe can get out of the dump, someone will be stabbed with an ice pick and Marlowe will already be in deep trouble.

As is usually the case in these novels, the bodies will continue to pile up. There's murder, blackmail, drugs, sex and a plot that will become convoluted almost to the point of being indecipherable. But who cares? As always, one reads a Raymond Chandler novel not for the plot, but for the characters and the great dialogue and narrative descriptions as, for example, when we first meet Orfamay:

"She didn't have to open her mouth for me to know who she was. And nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth. She was a small, neat, rather prissy-looking girl with primly smooth brown hair and rimless glasses. She was wearing a brown tailor-made and from a strap over her shoulder hung one of those awkward-looking square bags that made you think of a Sister of Mercy taking first aid to the wounded. On the smooth brown hair was a had that had been taken from its mother too young. She had no make-up, no lipstick and no jewelry. The rimless glasses gave her that librarian's look."

Like all Raymond Chandler novels, this one is a great read and it's hard to imagine a fan of classic, hard-boiled crime novels that wouldn't love it.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Photojournalist Finds Himself in Big Trouble Out in Sunny Arizona

The protagonist of this dark, hard boiled novel is a guy known simply as Macky who works for a newspaper in Tucson, Arizona. Macky is a photojournalist who specializes in exposing corruption and he'll do basically whatever it takes to get the story he's looking for.

Fresh off a story exposing corruption in the mining industry, Macky gets a call from a mysterious woman who wants him to investigate a local dog fighting ring and, in the process, take down a powerful, sanctimonious, hypocritical judge. Macky agrees to do so and thereby makes the classic mistake that every protagonist always seems to make in a novel like this by getting involved with The Wrong Woman.

In this case, the woman is Alice Malone. She's in an abusive relationship with the aforementioned judge and basically wants Macky to rescue her and give the judge his just desserts. Naturally, Alice is damaged goods, and, of course, she's also extremely sexy and very nasty. In short, there's no way Macky will be able to resist her and once they've met, you know that the poor boy is in for a very rocky ride.

Arizona Kiss is a sleazy, gritty tale--like a twenty car pile up that's taking place right in front of your eyes that you can't look away from. Ring's writing is raw and visceral, and his descriptions of Arizona will not have endeared him to the State Tourism Board. The plot moves at a brisk pace, descending as it must, into an inevitable sort of hell, and the book should appeal to any reader who likes hard boiled crime novels. It may be hard to find, but the search is well worth it. Thanks to my GR friend Jeffrey Keeten for alerting me to it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

At one time or another, I've read all of the novels written by Dick Francis, and I'm now working my way through them again in order and reviewing them here. I'm sorry to say that Hot Money did not work for me at all.

A Dick Francis novel usually follows a fairly definite pattern: The protagonist is a single male, almost always associated in some way or other with the world of horse racing. He's almost always single, although there may be a woman working her way into his life. He's usually quiet, but tough, smart and very resourceful. People almost always underestimate him. In most cases he's up against a tough, ruthless, vicious villain who almost always remains in the background until the end of the book. Usually, the protagonist will have to be severely tested, often through a gruesome physical ordeal, before he triumphs over his adversary and order is restored.

In this case, though, Francis departs from the formula and, to my mind, both the story and the reader suffer as a result. The protagonist is Ian Pembroke, an amateur jockey who somewhat resembles the usual Francis hero. He's the son of a very wealthy metals investor named Malcolm Pembroke. The elder Pembroke has been married five times and has produced nine children. All of them, save for Ian, appear to be severely maladjusted, as are the people to whom they are married.

Ian is unmarried and has no woman in his life, save for a married woman with whom he has an occasional tryst. There may be psychological issues involved here, but then it would seem that everyone in this novel could benefit from a few hours spent on the couch of a capable analyst. Ian and his father haven't spoken in three years. Ian made a critical comment about his father's latest wife and Malcolm punched him, breaking his nose and severing the relationship.

Now, someone has murdered the wife and is attempting to kill Malcolm, so Malcolm turns to Ian for help. (Naturally, his father has now realized that Ian was correct in his assessment of the woman's character.) For whatever reason, Ian still loves his father and is the only one of his children who is not grasping after the old man's money. He will spend the rest of the novel moving Malcolm around, trying to keep him out of harm's while he figures out who's attempting to kill him.

In this case though, it's no shadowy, malevolent figure. It seems clear from the beginning that the villain is someone in Malcolm's own family. Although he has settled trusts on all of his adult children, they are, for the most part, irresponsible, not very capable, greedy, grasping, ungrateful slobs, desperate for more money from their father. They all seem to hate Ian, believing for some inexplicable reason that he is their father's favorite and that he's attempting to cut them out of the will.

My problem with this book is that all of the characters seemed particularly unattractive and unappealing. Apart from Ian and Malcolm, I disliked all of them intensely and so really didn't care what happened to them. Ian was okay, but not nearly as appealing as most Francis protagonists. There was very little tension in the novel and very little suspense. Even though someone was apparently attempting to kill Malcolm and maybe even Ian, I was never really worried about them, and when the whole business was finally resolved I found the conclusion to be laughably absurd and unbelievable.

Anyone who writes as many books as Dick Francis did is bound to produce a clunker or two now and then and IMHO, that's the case here. That said, I realise that I am out of step with most of the other people who have reviewed this book here. I'm glad it worked for them, but a generous two and a half stars for me, rounded up, knowing that the next Dick Francis novel I read is bound to be better than this one.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

San Francisco Attorney Dismas Hardy Takes on a Complicated Case in This Novel from John Lescroart

This is a fairly decent entry in John Lescroart's long-running series featuring San Francisco defense attorney Dismas Hardy and the cast of characters that has grown up around him through the years. Hardy has aged through the books, and is recovering from a couple of gunshot wounds that he suffered on his last case. He's contemplating retirement but then a former client, Abby Jarvis, is charged with poisoning her boss, Grant Wagner, the owner of a successful family business. Dismas feels compelled to take Abby's case, at least initially, even though the cops and the D.A. seem to think that they have an iron-clad case against her.

The early books in this series are among my favorite legal thrillers of all. They are smart, witty, and hugely suspenseful. This book, though, is much more of a police procedural and there are relatively few courtroom scenes. The plot at once seems both thin and convoluted and didn't have the sense of urgency that so many of the earlier books did. And, I confess, I'm growing a bit tired of Hardy's children who are now young adults and who seem to keep blundering into these novels in ways that don't make a lot of sense to me. Hardy's wife, Frannie, is also something of a pain in this outing.

Hardy will persevere and attempt to sort through all the complicated issues that this case presents, while at the same time attempting to deal with the family drama that results. I enjoyed the book, but couldn't help comparing it to the earlier books in the series that got my blood pumping a lot more than this one did.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Introducing Bernie Rhodenbarr, Gentleman Burglar

This is the first book in Lawrence Block's "Burglar" series featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr. Block is perhaps best known for his Matthew Scudder series which is often dark, violent, and humorless. Like the Scudder series, the Bernie books are also set in New York City; otherwise they're the polar opposite of the Scudders. They're light, not at all violent, and often hilariously funny. The fact that the two series could be written by the same author is simply another testament to the skill of Lawrence Block (not that he needs any further testament in this regard.)

Bernie is a gentleman in the truest sense. He only burgles places that he expects to be empty and he would never commit any act of physical violence against his victims. He generally chooses well-heeled targets who can afford the losses. He's an expert at picking locks, and is one of the few in his profession who can defeat the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art Rabson lock which rich people often choose as their principle line of defense against burglary. He never makes a mess, and leaves the places he burgles exactly as he found them, save for the items he's taken with him.

Bernie only does a few jobs a year, which allows him to live comfortably. But in almost every recorded adventure, Bernie stumbles across a body. The cops discover the body, occasionally with Bernie still on the premises, and immediately assume that he is the killer. Bernie then must use all his skills and intelligence to get himself off the hook and point the police at the Real Killer. He's a very charming and appealing protagonist--just the sort of guy that a crime fiction fan would love to spend an evening with every once in a while.

In this case, Bernie takes a job for hire. Someone offers him $5,000 (still a considerable sum of money when the book first appeared in 1977) to break into an apartment and steal a small blue box. Bernie has no idea what might be in the box, only that it's supposed to be in an antique roll-top desk. The man who lives in the apartment is supposed to be out at the theatre for the evening.

Bernie gets into the apartment without any difficulty and goes directly to the desk. He opens that without a problem either, but the box is nowhere in sight. While Bernie is still standing there, pondering the situation, two cops arrive at the door. Someone has reported hearing a noise in the apartment and they've arrived to investigate.

Of course, Bernie is mystified. He hasn't made a sound since he arrived but, nonetheless he's in deep trouble. Fortunately, one of the cops recognizes Bernie and when Bernie offers them a quick thousand dollars, they agree to let him go and pretend they never saw him. But then one of the cops goes to use the john and discovers a dead body in the bedroom. Suddenly the entire picture has changed and before the cops can react, Bernie rushes out the door and goes into hiding. A city-wide manhunt is soon on, with Bernie's picture splashed across the pages of all the papers, identifying him as a cold-blooded murderer. With that, the race is on and Bernie will have to work fast and furiously to get out of this mess.

I've really enjoyed all the books in the series, along with everything else that Block has ever written. I reread this book this week for one of my book clubs and really enjoyed Bernie's origin story all over again. Now I just have to somehow find the time to go back and reread a lot more of them.

Friday, September 6, 2019

HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY WERE Is Another Brilliant Novel from Boston Teran

I’m always tremendously excited whenever I get my hands on a new novel by Boston Teran. I first fell in love with the author’s work several years ago when one of my book clubs picked The Creed of Violence as our monthly selection. The book was a revelation—intelligent and beautifully written with a compelling plot and unforgettable characters.

I quickly discovered that the same could be said of any of Teran’s other novels, and that continues to be the case with the author’s latest book, How Beautiful They Were. This novel completes Teran’s “The Defiant American Series,” which began with The Cloud and the Fire and A Child Went Forth.

The three novels are set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, when the United States was still being formed and when the future of the nation could have realistically taken any number of turns. The books are not chronological in order, but together they paint a wonderful portrait of the forces shaping the nation at that time and raise several critically important questions about the country’s past, present and future.

This latest novel is set in the world of the theater and begins in London where an actor named John James Beaufort is forced to flee the country for reasons that I won’t give away. Like so many others of his day, he makes his way to New York and there attempts to reinvent himself as an actor named Nathaniel Luck.

With a disfigured playwright named Robert Harrison, Luck forms Colonel Tearwood’s American Theatre Company. The two assemble a company of actors and begin searching for audiences. In particular, they hope to write and produce plays that will speak to the everyday lives of the working-class people who are their principal audience. The enterprise enjoys some success, but the company and the individual actors, Luck in particular, are soon confronted by the brutal realities of the American economy and society of the day and by the secrets that they all carry with them.

It’s impossible to do justice to a book this good. The characters are so finely drawn that the reader cannot help but become caught up in the ebb and flow of their lives. You share the joy of their triumphs and your heart breaks when tragedy overwhelms them. This is a very wise book with much to say about the theater and the world beyond it. Indeed, all the world is a stage, and this book is as beautiful and will be as enduring as the characters who inhabit it. Five stars are not nearly enough.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Reporter Jack McMorrow Finds Big Trouble in a Small Town

Freelance reporter Jack McMorrow is minding his own business, doing an article for a travel magazine about Benedict Arnold's ill-fated expedition against Quebec in 1775, when he stumbles onto a minor mystery in the small town of Scanesett, Maine. A man on a bus tour headed for Quebec has failed to return to the bus which has stopped briefly in the small town. The bus driver waits as long as he can before heading off down the road, leaving the missing man, P. Ray Mantis, behind.

The local police chief, a small-minded man who hates reporters, seems totally unconcerned about the fact that a man has gone missing in his community. But Jack sees a potential story that he might be able to sell, perhaps to the Boston Globe, and so in and around his research about Benedict Arnold's expedition, he begins a search for the missing Mantis.

Jack's investigation gets him tangled up with a mentally-challenged brother and sister who may have briefly hidden Mantis in their ramshackle home. The two seem to think that both Mantis and Jack McMorrow are somehow connected to the CIA, and this mistaken impression leads a trio of violent low-lifes to take after McMorrow.

Jack's life is already complicated at the moment because his girlfriend, Roxanne, is down in Florida, attending to her ailing mother and is having a bad time of it. Jack's normally reliable neighbor, Claire Varney is also down south with his wife, recovering from surgery, and so Jack is left entirely alone.

As the book progresses, Jack alternates between doing the research for his article on Benedict Arnold and his hunt for the missing Mantis. As usually happens when Jack relentlessly pursues an investigation like this, he's ultimately going to find himself in big trouble and will need all of his skills if he's going to escape it. Another good addition to an excellent regional mystery series.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

ATLANTA DEATHWATCH Is Classic Hardboiled Crime Fiction At Its Best

This is old-fashioned crime fiction in the best sense of the term. Originally published in 1974, the first novel in the Hardman series is a lean, gritty, hardboiled novel that would have been perfectly at home on the spinning racks of men's adventure novels that populated the nation's drug and book stores back in the day.

Jim Hardman is an ex-Atlanta cop who was railroaded off the force on trumped up corruption charges. He now works as an unlicensed P.I. Hardman, who is white, has an African American partner named Hump. Hump played for a time in the NFL and provides the muscle and intimidation where needed. He's also Hardman's guide into the city's African-American neighborhoods.

As the novel opens, a businessman named Arch Campbell has hired Hardman to trail his daughter, Emily, and see how she's spending her time. Emily attends a local college and has been an outstanding student until recently when her grades and her attendance have begun to slide. It seems like a simple task, and Hardman trails the young woman to a seedy bar on the black side of town. But while he's watching Emily, two thugs jump him, beat him up badly, and warn him off the case.

Hardman agrees to drop the case, telling Emily's father that he's not getting paid enough to absorb that kind of punishment. But then Emily is murdered and it turns out that she's been dating a black crime boss known as The Man. The Man now summons Hardman and hires him to find Emily's killer. With Hump at his side, the two work and fight their way through Atlanta's dark underbelly, following the trail of a brutal crime that's not nearly as simple as it might appear on the surface.

This is a quick and entertaining read with lots of action and violence, and it will appeal to those readers who enjoy classic hardboiled novels. Be forewarned, however: this book reflects the language and cultural and sexual attitudes of the early 1970's. It's not remotely politically correct.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Bryan Gruley Returns with an Excellent Novel that Will Keep Readers Up Well into the Night

In Purgatory bay, author Bryan Gruley has created a deliciously intricate and complex puzzle that will keep readers guessing from beginning to end while furiously turning the pages along the way.

Twelve years ago, Jubilee Rathman's family was brutally murdered by Detroit mobsters who had ensnared Jubilee's father into laundering money for them and who then slaughtered the family and set their home aflame, believing that Jubilee's father had ratted them out to the authorities and to two newspaper reporters. Only Jubilee and her brother Joshua, who was badly burned in the attack, survived.

Jubilee, who was once a model student and a star high school soccer player bound for the Ivy League, has spent the years since the attack plotting her revenge against those she blames for the deaths of her father, mother and sister and for the maiming of her brother. She has reinvented herself and her brother, and she’s built a large, fortress-like complex on Purgatory Bay, protected by the latest technological devices and administered by a digital assistant named Frances, who is basically Alexa on steroids.

Jubilee sets her plan into motion on a weekend when a prestigious girls’ hockey tournament is scheduled to be played in neighboring Bleak Harbor. She has used the tournament as an opportunity to draw into her web Michaela “Mikey” Deming who, as a young reporter, wrote a story that Jubilee believes betrayed her father and put him in the sights of the mob killers. Her other targets include a member of the crime family that attacked her family, another reporter, a former cop and others. But Jubilee intends to hit most of these people indirectly in a way that will cause them to suffer the same pain that she has endured since that night twelve years ago.

As I suggested above, this is a very intricately plotted novel, and Gruley reveals the vital information slowly, in bits and pieces, as the story progresses. For much of the book, the reader is unsure exactly what is happening or why, and the tension builds to a great climax where everything finally falls into place. Gruley has demonstrated his considerable talent in four previous books, the Starvation Lake series and last year’s Bleak Harbor, but Purgatory Bay is his best yet and is sure to win him large numbers of new fans.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sheriff Quinn Colson Faces a Barrage of Problems in This Novel from Quinn Colson

As the eighth novel in this great series opens, wedding bells are about to ring for Tibbehah County Sheriff Quinn Colson. But before we can get to the nuptials, Quinn will have to deal with various drug runners, sex traffickers, strip club owners, outlaw bikers, and other assorted losers who make being sheriff of this Mississippi county such a pain in the butt.

As the book opens, a degenerate old reprobate named Heath Pritchard has just been released from prison. Years earlier Quinn's uncle, Sheriff Hamp Beckett, had arrested Pritchard for running a major marijuana operation, and Pritchard went off to the pen. In his absence, his two nephews, Cody and Tyler, have taken over the business and brought it into the modern era. They've built an extensive underground marijuana farm under the floor of their barn where it's safely out of the view of law enforcement officials and other curious folks, and they are growing some premium weed.

The boys also love racing cars and imagine themselves as modern-day Dukes of Hazard. One Saturday night they return from a race to discover that their pathetic excuse for an uncle is back at the farm, expecting to take over the operation. Even worse, he's managed to kill a spy who was checking out the operation for the competition. Cody and Tyler barely even know their uncle and they're not about to let him waltz back in and take over the business that they've worked so hard to build. But while they try to figure out what to do with the old man, he gets them caught up in one major disaster after another.

Meanwhile, outsiders are also moving in on Fannie Hathcock, who owns the local strip club. In consequence, she's no happier than the Pritchard boys, and when all these various lowlifes begin scheming and maneuvering to protect their individual interests, it's going to make a lot of work for Quinn Colson at a time when he's supposed to be making more critical decisions about things like hiring a wedding band, helping his mother with floral arrangements, and other such things.

All in all, this is another very fun entry in this series. Atkins has created a distinctive world here that readers have come to know as well as their own neighborhoods, and it's great to see all these familiar characters back in play.
 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Jack Reacher Goes Looking for a Man Missing in Action from the Vietnam War

After tangling with an extremist militia group in far northwestern Montana in his last outing, the third Jack Reacher novel finds the ex-MP digging swimming pools in Key West--about as far away from Northwestern Montana as one can get without leaving the United States. When a private investigator from New York named Costello shows up in Key West looking for him, Reacher has no idea who might have sent the guy looking for him or for what purpose, and so he tells Costello that he never heard of Jack Reacher.

Reacher is also working as security at a strip club and that same night two extremely unpleasant-looking guys come in looking for Jack Reacher. Again, Reacher denies knowing the guy. But then Costello, the P.I., turns up murdered with his fingertips cut off, and Reacher decides he'd better hightail it to New York to figure out what's going on here.

He quickly discovers that the client who hired Costello was none other than Reacher's old Army mentor and close friend, General Leon Garber. But Garber has just died and Reacher arrives as the funeral is underway. Garber's deliciously beautiful daughter, Jodie, tells Reacher that her father had been looking into the case of an MIA from the Vietnam War. The man, Victor Hobie, was piloting a helicopter that crashed in an inaccessible mountain region, and everyone on board was presumed dead, even though their remains were not recovered. For some reason, though, the military refuses to acknowledge Hobie as MIA, and they will not put his name on the memorial wall in Washington, D.C. Hobie's elderly parents are still grieving and Garber was attempting to resolve the mystery for them. Naturally, Reacher will take up the crusade.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a nasty corporate loan shark named "Hook" Hobie has gotten his hooks, literally and figuratively, into a desperate businessman named Chester Stone, who badly needs eleven million bucks on a short-term loan in order to save his company. Stone has no inkling that Hobie has every intention of stripping him of everything he possesses, right down to his boxer shorts.

Inevitably, of course, these two stories will intersect in a massive and very inventive climax. Along the way, there will be lots of action and violence and Reacher will have to be on top of his game all the way along. "Hook" Hobie is truly a deliciously nasty villain and, all in all, Tripwire is a lot of fun.

Friday, August 9, 2019

SINCE WE FELL Falls a Bit Short of Dennis Lehane's Usual High Standards

I have always been a big fan of Dennis Lehane's series featuring Boston P.I.s Patrick Kenze and Angie Genarro, and Mystic River remains one of my favorite books of all time. For me, at least, the problem is that Lehane set such a very high standard in these books, that whenever he writes something that's a bit more average, I'm inevitably disappointed. Such is the case here.

For openers, I confess that I had a lot of trouble deciding what this book was supposed to be--the story of a young woman searching for the father she never knew; the tale of a rising TV news reporter who has it all only to lose it and then go half nuts, or a thriller featuring the same woman who finally meets another perfect man only to find herself trapped in something closely resembling an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Rachel Childs grew up the only child of an emotionally abusive mother who refused to tell Rachel who her father was. She kept insisting that she would at some point, but then, like Lucy pulling away the football, she kept delaying doing so. Thus Rachel spends much of the first part of the book searching for the man, working from the pathetically few clues that her mother has chosen to give her.

Then, all of a sudden, the focus shifts to Rachel's rising stardom as a reporter. She's found a great and similarly ambitious husband and she's set for big things until something inexplicable happens (something that I had a hard time buying into) and she crashes and burns and winds up psychologically damaged and afraid to leave her house. (I'm not really giving anything away here; most of this is in the tease on the back of the book.) Then Rachel gets a second shot at the brass ring and shortly thereafter her life blows up again and the book moves off in an entirely different direction.

By this time, I was suffering whiplash trying to follow all of this. In fact, Lehane may have crammed into this one book the plots for two or three really good books. But jammed together into one story, it all leaves the reader (at least this reader) just shaking his or her head in disbelief. There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, although at times Rachel began to get on my nerves, but taken as a whole it just didn't work as well as it might have. It's not a bad book, but as I suggested above, I've set a very high (and perhaps unfair) standard for Dennis Lehane based on his earlier work and Since We Fell falls short of the mark.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Jack McMorrow's Attempt to Write a Simple Newspaper Article Turns Complicated and Dangerous

Potshot is another solid entry in Gerry Boyle's excellent series featuring former New York Times reporter Jack McMorrow. Several years ago, Jack opted out of the big city rat race in favor of living in the bucolic woods of central Maine. It turned out, though, that, up close and personal, the woods weren't nearly as peaceful and bucolic as Jack might have hoped, and in three previous novels he's already had some pretty hair-raising experiences living up among the rural folks.

Potshot starts out innocently enough when Jack and his girlfriend, Roxanne, are enjoying a day at a small county fair. Jack is approached by some hippies who ask him to sign a petition urging the government to legalize marijuana. They make all the usual arguments in favor of legalization, and Jack sees the potential for a story here. He's now working as a free-lancer and figures that he can meet with these people for a few hours, crank out a story about them and their crusade, and pick up a quick three hundred bucks or so by peddling the story to the Boston Globe.

If only.

Jack drives out into the Middle of Nowhere to meet with the group's leader, Bobby Mullaney, Mullaney's wife and stepson, and Mullaney's current best friend, a creepy sort of a guy who calls himself Coyote. Mullaney and Coyote walk Jack out into the woods and proudly show him their secret marijuana patch. Then, as Jack is driving off back through the woods, someone takes a shot at his truck and the game is afoot. Before long, Jack will be mixed up with a bunch of nasty drug dealers and gangbangers, and that three hundred bucks will be pretty heard-earned, assuming that Jack can survive long enough to write the story and cash the check.

As always in Boyle's novels, the plot is very good and one of the principal strengths of these novels is the sense of place and the people who inhabit it. Boyle knows this territory very well and writes about it beautifully. The relationship between Jack and Roxanne, a social worker who daily deals with horrors of her own is also very well done, and this book should certainly appeal to a broad audience of crime fiction readers.