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...