Saturday, May 16, 2020

An Intense and Complex Novel from William Bayer

At the center of this intense and complex psychological thriller is a forensic sketch artist named David Weiss. David is a native of Calista, a city in the Midwest, but he has lived for years in California. Twenty-five years earlier, a wealthy divorcee named Barbara Fulraine and her young lover were shotgunned to death in the seedy Flamingo Court motel on the outskirts of Calista. Fulraine was a troubled woman whose young daughter had been kidnapped several years earlier and is presumed dead. Her lover was a teacher at her sons' private school, and she was also having an affair with a local mobster. David Weiss's father was the therapist who was treating Barbara Fulraine and attempting to untangle all her erotic dreams and activities without becoming entangled in them himself.

If that all sounds pretty complicated, that's just for openers. For reasons of his own, David has always been haunted by the Flamingo Court murders. The killer was never identified and captured, and David's father committed suicide shortly after the murders. Now, a quarter of a century later, David returns to his hometown, working as a sketch artist for a TV network, covering a sensational local murder trial.

It's immediately clear, though, that Weiss is far more absorbed by the murder case from twenty-five years earlier than the one he's been hired to sketch, and he finds himself drawn inexorably back into the Calista of his youth, with all its dark, ugly and still dangerous secrets. His skill as a forensic sketch artist, particularly his uncanny ability to empathize with witnesses, may enable him to shed new light on a very old mystery. But it may also take him down some roads better left untraveled.

This is an intricately-plotted novel with well-drawn characters and an interesting plot. The story did seem to drag at points, but watching David Weiss fall increasingly under the spell of this old murder case was, at times, riveting. I'm giving this book 3.5 stars rounded down to 3 because I thought that after 450 very densely-packed pages, the climax was a bit disappointing and wasn't quite the payoff I'd been hoping for. Still, an enjoyable read.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Michael Hudson Is Out of Prison and Moving Up Town in This Great Novel

This is another excellent novel from George Pelecanos, who's been spending a lot of time in recent years working in television and consequently writing fewer books. On the one hand, I've really admired his work on programs like "The Wire," "Treme," and "The Deuce," but I've really missed having new books from him on a more regular basis, particularly when they're as good as this one.

At the center of the book is a young man named Michael Hudson who is now in prison thanks to a stupid mistake, or perhaps a couple of them. (As a hint, it's probably a bad idea to borrow your mother's car for the purpose of committing an armed robbery.) In prison, though, Michael's life is changed dramatically when he's introduced to the world of reading by Anna, the young prison librarian.

A new world opens up to Michael through the books that Anna is giving him, and then suddenly and unexpectedly, he's freed from prison when the principal witness against him changes his testimony. This is thanks to the intervention of a private investigator named Phil Ornazian who is barely making ends meet with his regular job. But Ornazian is supplementing his income by ripping off criminals, principally pimps who are exploiting women, and naturally he's going to expect something in return for having secured Michael's freedom.

Determined to get his life on the right track, Michael takes a job washing dishes in a D.C. restaurant, but he continues to read in his spare time and dreams of slowly building his own library. But then Phil Ornazian shows up, insisting that Michael's marker is due. Ornazian wants Michael to be the wheelman in a robbery he's planning to commit and his demand forces Michael to make some very hard choices.

In addition to being a great character study and a very compelling story, this book is a testament to the joys and the redemptive power of reading, and through Anna and Michael, Pelecanos takes the time to sing the praises of some excellent novels. The book is a bit shorter than some of the author's earlier work and it's so addictive that you find yourself wishing that it could have been longer. Most of all, it leaves you hoping that Pelecanos will not wait nearly this long again before writing another.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Newspaperman Jack McMorrow Comes to the Aid of a Street Kid and Gets More Than He Bargained For in this Novel from Gerry Boyle

Veteran newspaperman Jack McMorrow is now working as an editor at a small Maine newspaper. The job doesn't pay much, but Jack is there for the health insurance. His long-time girlfriend, Roxanne, is pregnant with their first child and, obviously, they need the coverage. But while Jack awaits the birth of his own child, he becomes entangled in the problems of a young street kid named Rocky.

As the book opens, Jack rescues Rocky from a beating. Rocky is a small kid, totally defenseless, and thus a natural target for bullies. Some other street kids are kicking the daylights out of him when Jack chases them away and saves Rocky. Rocky obviously has no business being out on the street, but he won't tell Jack where his home is. Jack attempts to take the kid to the emergency room, but Rocky bolts and runs away.

Later that night, Rocky shows up at Jack's house which is out in the middle of nowhere. It's snowing; it's brutally cold; Rocky is not dressed for the elements, and he's obviously in trouble. Jack is home alone that night and so brings Rocky into the house, feeds him, gives him a change of clothes and tells him to sleep on the couch.

The next morning, Rocky runs off again and when a couple of sheriff's deputies arrive to investigate the situation, they strongly suggest that Jack is some sort of pedophile who invited Rocky into his home so that he could molest him. Jack insists that he did no such thing and that he was only trying to save the kid, first from a beating and then from freezing to death. The deputies aren't sure whether to believe him or not and then the poor kid's clearly abusive stepfather shows up, repeating the charges and threatening to kick the crap out of Jack.

At this point, almost anyone else would step aside and let the authorities handle the matter. But Jack is genuinely concerned about Rocky and fears that no one else really cares about him. It's clear by now, at least to Jack, that there's some very scary reason why Rocky is so afraid to go home to his mother and stepfather, and Jack is determined to discover what that might be. In the course of doing so, he may place his own life, and the future of his yet-unborn child on the line.

This is a very absorbing mystery that demonstrates what can sometimes be the costs of acting with good intentions. Jack McMorrow is clearly a decent guy, and that decency again gets him into deep trouble here as it has in earlier books. Another very good entry in a great regional mystery series.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Writer John Kendall Finds Trouble When He Agrees to Write an Authorized Biography

Writer John Kendall has always specialized in writing non-fiction survival guides, teaching people how to survive in the most rugged and unforgiving circumstances. Now, he has finally written a novel and his agent has sold it to a publisher. However, it will still be months before the book is actually released and begins to earn royalties (assuming it ever does). In the meantime, even living very frugally, Kendall has gone through the advance for the book and is in desperate need of money.

His agent hooks him up with a wealthy horse trainer, Tremayne Vickers, who would like to hire Kendall to write his biography. Kendall agrees to take the job, especially since it includes lodging in Vickers' large home while Kendall interviews Vickers and begins writing the book.

Kendall arrives at the Vickers farm to find a large and very interesting family living in or near Vickers' home. Most all of them are involved in the racing world in one way or another and very quickly Kendall is introduced to it as well. Some of the family members are very welcoming and nice; a couple of them are jerks, and the family has suffered a recent blow when one of the family members has been convicted of manslaughter. He somehow accidentally strangled a young woman at a party, but apparently in this jurisdiction, the crime is not enough to merit a term in prison because the guy is still footloose and fancy free and generally being a pain in the butt, especially to Kendall.

It soon turns out that another young woman associated with the farm--a trainer--has also been strangled to death and then buried in the woods nearby. Once her remains are discovered, the police will be looking closely at the Vickers family to see if there is a link between the two crimes. Inevitably, poor John Kendall will get caught up in the mess and will almost certainly need all of those survival skills he's been writing about if he's going to survive.

Kendall is a typical Dick Francis hero--bright, resilient, strong, pleasant, and a man that others almost always underestimate. This book is a bit unusual in that, unlike virtually all other Dick Francis novels, the hero has no love interest. There are a number of attractive women about, but they are all taken and so there is no one to whom Kendall might turn.

The book is fine and it's a quick read. I'm giving it three stars rather than four because it falls short of most other Francis novels in the quality of the villain. There clearly is a villain lurking here, but he's not nearly as mean, nasty, dangerous, degenerate, or threatening as most of the others that Francis has created, and the book suffers a bit as a result.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Perry Mason Must Solve a Convoluted Case Involving a Careless Kitten

Not to be confused with The Case of the Caretaker's Cat, this is the twenty-first entry in the Perry Mason series, first published in 1942. As the book opens a young woman named Helen Kendal receives a mysterious phone call from a man claiming to be her beloved uncle, Franklin Shore, who disappeared ten years earlier. Shore, a prosperous banker, simply disappeared from his desk one night while in the middle of writing a check, and hasn't been seen or heard from since, save for a postcard that he sent to young Helen from Florida.

Uncle Franklin's wife, a grizzled old battle axe named Matilda, claims that Franklin ran off with a younger woman and that she's hated him ever since. She refuses to divorce him and insists that one day he will come crawling back to her and she will gleefully take her revenge. In the meantime, she also refuses to petition the court to declare him dead so that his will can be probated. This means that poor young Helen, who's in line for $20,000 in the will, can't afford to kiss off Aunt Matilda and marry the soldier that she loves.

The man claiming to be Uncle Franklin wants Helen to contact Perry Mason and bring him to meet a man who will then lead the two of them to him. It's all very mysterious and hush-hush, and Mason, who loves a good mystery, naturally agrees. In fairly short order, someone will be murdered; Helen's poor little cat will be poisoned, and Helen's miserable Aunt Matilda will also apparently be poisoned. Nobody cares about Aunt Matilda, of course, but we're all rooting for the poor little kitten to make a speedy and full recovery.

The plot of this novel is even more convoluted than usual for these books. Naturally, Perry will get into deep trouble and the nasty D.A., Hamilton Burger, will gleefully insist that this time he has Perry dead to rights and will be sending him to jail. Readers will dislike Burger even more than they dislike Aunt Matilda and will be thrilled to see Perry throttle the D.A. again. (This gives nothing away. If anyone reads one of these books expecting that Mason might actually lose a case, then they are clearly reading the wrong series.)

The solution to this all these developments will leave any logical reader shaking his or her head at the tangled web that Gardner has woven here and at the way he tries to make some sense out of it at the end. It simply can't be done, but still, it's always fun to watch Perry in action, and this is a quick, entertaining read.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Boston P.I. Spenser Searches for Some OLD BLACK MAGIC in This Novel from Ace Atkins

This is another very entertaining Spenser novel, written by Ace Atkins who took over the series following the death of Robert B. Parker. This is the seventh of the novels that Atkins has written, and he long ago established his bona fides as the right person to take over from the master. It's not an exaggeration to say that the series now belongs to him almost as much as it does to Parker.

This story is based on an actual art theft that occurred in Boston in 1990, and as the book opens, Spenser is asked to help recover a hugely valuable painting The Gentleman in Black, by the Spanish master, El Greco, which was stolen twenty years earlier from the Winthrop Museum. The request comes from another detective, an old friend named Locke. Locke has been pursuing the painting practically since its theft, but now Locke is dying and wants Spenser to take over the quest.

New evidence has recently come to light that the painting may still be in the Boston area, and the Winthrop is offering a five million dollar reward for its safe return. But Spenser doesn't agree to take the case for the reward; he's doing it for an old friend.

The people at the museum are generally priggish pains in the butt, and they blow hot and cold on Spenser's efforts to find their missing painting. They're more a hindrance than a help, but still, of course, he perseveres. His sidekick, Hawk, is out of town, and Sixkill has moved to California, so Spenser will turn to an old criminal acquaintance, Vinnie Morris, to serve as his backup this time around.

The quest will take Spenser through a maze of the Boston underworld, with a short side trip to the King's hometown of Memphis. There's a lot of double-crossing and dirty dealing, and Spenser has no idea who he can really trust, save for Morris who has his own reason for joining the crusade.

Through it all, Spenser remains the tough, wise-cracking P.I. that readers of the series have come to love and, as an added bonus, we see very little of Spenser's girlfriend, Susan Silverman, in this novel.There's hardly any of the smarmy, nausea-inducing interplay between the two that disrupts so many of the books in this series, and for that, this reader is especially grateful. An extra half of a star just for that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Philip Marlowe Reaches the End of the Road in PLAYBACK

Published in 1958, Playback is the seventh and last of the full-length Philip Marlowe novels written by Raymond Chandler. It appeared five years after The Long Goodbye, which was the sixth book in the series and which many would argue is the best book of them all. Playback is a fairly good read, but sadly, it's not on a par with many of the others in the series.

Although released five years later, the events in the novel occur about a year and a half after the end of The Long Goodbye. A lawyer named Clyde Umney, acting on instructions from a law firm in Washington, D.C., hires Marlowe to meet a train when it arrives in L.A. and to shadow a passenger from the train, a woman named Betty Mayfield who is traveling under an assumed name. Once Mayfield settles in somewhere, Marlowe is supposed to report back. Umney is unable or unwilling to explain why the client wants Mayfield followed.

Marlowe trails the young woman to Esmeralda, a small resort town, and manages to take the room next to her in a hotel. He discovers that an apparent blackmailer has some sort of hold on Mayfield. He also learns that another P.I., a piece of rough work from Kansas City, is also on Betty's trail. It seems clear that the young woman is in desperate need of a friend, even though she blows hot and cold on Marlowe's efforts to be of assistance. When Umney can't or won't give Marlowe a satisfactory explanation for his assignment, Marlowe returns his retainer and, forsaking his obligation to his client, tries to protect the young woman from the forces that are arrayed against her.

This is a relatively brief novel that Chandler adapted from a screenplay that he was unable to sell. There's not much of a mystery involved, and Marlowe is not quite as witty and philosophical as he was in the earlier novels. Still it's fun to watch him in action, and it's sad to ring down the curtain on what remains one of the best and most influential series in the history of crime fiction. 3.5 stars, rounded up just because it's Raymond Chandler.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Seductive Young Woman Winds Up Pretty Dead in This Thriller from Gerry Boyle

This is another very entertaining entry in this series, featuring reporter Jack McMorrow. McMorrow is a stringer for the New York Times, even though he lives way off the grid in the woods near Prosperity, Maine. But Jack stumbles into a potentially explosive story when his girlfriend, Roxanne, a social worker, is sent to investigate a case of possible child abuse involving a very wealthy and prominent Boston family.

A church worker reports that the child, a little girl, has complained of being locked in a dark closet as punishment and there is bruising on the child's shoulders. Jack drives Roxanne to the couple's vacation mansion in Blue Harbor and waits outside while Roxanne goes in to interview the child and her mother. While Jack is waiting, he is discovered by the child's father, the wealthy and very personable David Connelly.

Connelly invites Jack into the house and before long, both Jack and Roxanne appear to have fallen under the spell of the Connellys. The mother, Maddie, blames the child's abuse on a nanny who has been fired and sent packing. Roxanne will have to chase down the nanny to hear her side of the story, but both she and Jack find the Connellys charming and believable.

The Connellys invite Jack and Roxanne to a party at their luxurious home. One of the other guests is an attractive and very seductive young woman named Angel Moretti. Angel works for the charitable foundation that the Connellys run and seems to have a strange power over the men who work there, David Connelly included.

Shortly thereafter, a body is discovered in the woods not far from Jack's home. As a reporter, he naturally senses a story and goes to the scene. He's shocked when he sees that the victim is Angel Moretti, and her death puts Jack in a very difficult position. As a reporter, he feels obligated to follow the story wherever it leads, but as a new friend of the Connellys, he's reluctant to draw them into what would certainly become a major scandal. As he tries to walk the fine line between his duty to his job and his obligations to his new friends, some seriously dangerous people will attempt to turn him away from the story and Jack will soon discover that he's head over heels in trouble and that he may be dragging Roxanne right along with him.

The books in this series just seem to keep getting better with each new entry. Again, Boyle has written a gripping story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats, right up to the powerful climax. An easy four stars.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Joe Pike and Elvis Cole Attempt to Rescue a Young Kidnap Victim in This Novel from Robert Crais

This entry in the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series is billed as "An Elvis Cole and Joe Pike Novel," but really it's a Pike novel with Elvis in a supporting role. It opens when Pike makes a routine trip to the bank. As he leaves, he sees two men abduct Isabel Roland, the young teller who has just assisted him, as she walks out of the bank headed to lunch.

Naturally, Pike gives chase and rescues Izzy. The two kidnappers are arrested and briefly jailed, but no sooner are they out than they are found murdered. Pike will be questioned about this but manages to convince the police, at least for the moment, that he was not involved in the killings.

Meanwhile, poor Isabel disappears, and it quickly becomes apparent that she's been kidnapped again. The original kidnappers are dead and so there's obviously a lot going on beneath the surface here. Why would this young bank teller be a target for a group of desperate criminals? Pike calls on Elvis who puts his detective skills to work trying to figure out why anyone would be after Izzy while Joe attempts to rescue her again. And, as often happens in these books, things are going to get pretty bloody and violent before justice is served, Elvis and Joe-style.

This was a fairly light, quick read that seemed to be missing some of the heft and complexity of earlier books in the series. The plot is pretty straightforward and there's plenty of action--an enjoyable read, but in my view, not one of the better books in a long-running series. 3.5 stars sounded up.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Train Trip Across Canada Leads to Trouble in This Novel By Dick Francis

Tor Kelsey is young, single, and independently wealthy, which leaves him free to do virtually whatever he wants. He chooses to work as an undercover agent for the English Jockey Club, ferreting out threats to the English racing world. Kelsey is particularly gifted at disguising himself, blending into whatever circumstances in which he might find himself, and sneaking up on his quarry who never even notice that he's there.

In this case, a thuggish blackmailer named Julius Apollo Filmer has insinuated himself into the world of British racing so cleverly that the Powers That Be have no way of driving him out. Kelsey is assigned to get the needed evidence, which becomes increasingly important when Filmer joins an expedition called the Great Transcontinental Mystery Race.

In this case, the continent in question is North America, and a group of very wealthy and socially prominent owners are taking their horses on a week-long trip across Canada. The trip is designed to promote Canadian horse racing and it will be a very lavish party with some important horse races along the way. Kelsey will join the party on the train masquerading as a waiter, while he attempts to prevent whatever disaster Filmer intends to cause along the way. As always, an attractive woman will enter the picture, and Tor and the woman will do the slow dance leading to romance that is a hallmark of these novels.

The story is okay and will remind the reader in some respects of Agatha Christie's great novel, Murder on the Orient Express. The journey across Canada is interesting, and the scenery along the way is well-described. To my mind, though, this is not among the best of the Dick Francis novels because it lacks the tension that usually exists between the protagonist and the (always) nasty villain. Without giving anything away, the climax of the novel isn't quite up to the author's usual standards and thus this book seems a bit flat compared to many of the others. It's enjoyable, but a three-star read rather than anything more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

LOST TOMORROWS Is another Excellent Novel from Matt Coyle

The sixth entry in Matt Coyle's Rick Cahill series is another very entertaining novel and ties up some of the threads that the author has developed in the earlier books in the series. Cahill is now a P.I. in San Diego, but years earlier, when he was a cop in Santa Barbara, his wife was murdered there. Cahill was the prime suspect in the killing, but there was not enough evidence to charge him and he left Santa Barbara with the reputation of a cop who had gotten away with murder.

Now, Krista Landingham, Rick's former partner on the Santa Barbara force, has been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Krista's sister, Leah, invites Cahill to the funeral. Rick figures that he has to go to honor Krista's memory, even though he knows that he's going to face a world of trouble from other Santa Barbara cops who still hate him for allegedly disgracing the department.

Once at the funeral, Leah tells Rick that she believes her sister was murdered, even though the police have classified the case as a hit and run accident. She wants Cahill to investigate, and when he takes the case, Cahill is stunned to learn that just before she died, Krista had reopened the case of his wife's murder.

In Cahill's mind then, his wife's death and that of his former partner are clearly linked, and his investigation into the two killings will take him down a very dark path and entangle him with some very nasty adversaries. Cahill continues to be a very appealing protagonist and, like the others in the series, this book is very well-plotted with lots of action and plenty of twists and turns that will keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat. All in all, a very good read.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Jack Reacher Is Hired to Find Assassins Who Are Determined to Kill the VP-Elect in This Thriller from Lee Child

The sixth Jack Reacher novel opens when a woman named M. E. Froelich, who is the Secret Service agent in charge of security for Vice President-Elect Brook Armstrong, asks Reacher to assassinate Armstrong--in theory, of course. Someone has been sending death threats to Armstrong, which have been intercepted by the Secret Service, and Froelich wants Reacher to test the security arrangements that they have designed for the VP-Elect.

Reacher recruits his ex-army sergeant Frances Neagley, and together they demonstrate that a determined, skilled assassin could easily get through the safety net that the Service has erected around Armstrong and kill him with no trouble at all. Properly chagrined, Froelich and her boss then hire Reacher and Neagley to help protect Armstrong and track down the potential assassins.

Reacher's task is complicated by the fact that Froelich was the ex-lover of Reacher's brother, Joe. As readers of the series will remember, Joe Reacher, who worked in the Treasury Department, was killed at the very beginning of the series. Froelich still has unresolved feelings for Joe--she still has his suits hanging in her closet--and some of these feelings may be transferred to Jack.

It's quickly apparent that the would-be assassins are clever and resourceful and that they may be more than a match for Reacher, even with Neagley's help and that of the entire Secret Service. It's a chess match on a large scale, and one that moves like a rocket. There are a lot of great scenes in the book that keep the reader turning the pages rapidly, and it covers a lot of ground, geographically and otherwise. All in all, this may be one of the best books in this series.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Lucas Davenport Chases a Man Eater in this Novel from John Sandford

I've said in previous reviews that I think this long-running series has lost a bit of its luster now that Lucas Davenport has left Minnesota and joined the Marshal's Service, and there's nothing about this book that would lead me to alter my opinion. I continue to believe that Davenport's new running buddies, Bob and Rae, are a pale substitute for the rich characters like Sloan, Del, Shrake and others who inhabited the earlier novels. Additionally, Sandford has long been known for creating complex, interesting and scary villains--antagonists who were worthy of a matchup with Lucas Davenport. That, too, is missing here.

The villain in this novel is a guy named Clayton Deese, who works as a leg-breaker for a New Orleans loan shark. But when an attempt to intimidate a late-paying customer goes wrong, Deese winds up in jail. He promptly skips bail and the marshalls are on his trail. They don't really care all that much about Deese; they're trying to build a case against his boss. But all that changes when the marshals raid Deesse's cabin in the woods and find a number of bodies buried behind the house. Even worse, it appears that Deese has been feasting on the more delectable parts of his victims.

Now a full-scale manhunt is underway with Lucas Davenport leading the search. Deese runs to California where he joins up with his brother and a couple of other guys who are doing brutal but profitable home invasions. Davenport, Bob and Rae will track Deese to California but will lose him and spend the rest of the book trying to track him down.

Deese is not a very interesting villain and, even allowing for the cannibalism, he doesn't come off as particularly scary. He doesn't remotely measure up to some of Sandford's earlier villains and hardly seems worthy of Davenport's attention. He also disappears for much of the time while the story focuses instead on the people he's teamed up with.

The book has its amusing and exciting moments, but there's no mystery about it, and very little tension. The whole story amounts to one extended manhunt and every reader knows that Davenport will get his man in the end, which raises the question, So what? Again, it's not a bad book, but it's not nearly in a league with the earlier Prey novels and a reader fresh to the series, if there is such a person among crime fiction fans, would be well advised to start at the beginning of the series rather that with Neon Prey.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Jim Chee Hunts for Missing Diamonds in This Novel from Tony Hillerman

In 1956, two airliners crashed over the Grand Canyon, killing 172 people and leaving their remains scattered along the Canyon. In Skeleton Man, Tony Hillerman has created a novel based off the event and set nearly fifty years later. This is the seventeenth novel in the series, featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police force. By this time, Leaphorn has retired, but pops in occasionally to assist Chee in his investigations, and in this book, he basically plays a small cameo role.

These novels are set on the borderlands between New Mexico and Arizona, and this one takes place mostly in the area around the Grand Canyon. It opens when a young Indian man named Billy Tuve attempts to pawn a diamond that’s worth $20,000 for $20.00. As a young boy, Billy suffered a head injury in a rodeo accident that left him somewhat mentally challenged, and he’s arrested and charged with stealing the diamond from a trading post.

Billy claims that the diamond was given to him by a mysterious old man at the bottom of the
Grand Canyon in trade for a shovel. He also says that the old man had many other diamonds just like it.

Enter a woman named Joanna Craig. Craig’s father, a diamond courier, was on one of the planes that crashed into the canyon in 1956. Handcuffed to his wrist was a briefcase containing a fortune in valuable diamonds. Many years later, someone floating down the river reported seeing an arm sticking out of the water with a handcuff attached to it. But before they could retrieve it, it was swept away by the water and never found.

Joanna’s father was also flying home with a special diamond to give her mother who was then pregnant with Joanna. The two were not yet married and the diamond was to be her mother’s wedding gift. Joanna’s mother had letters from her father documenting the relationship, rejoicing in the pregnancy, and confirming the marriage plans. But the father’s very wealthy family refused to accept this evidence and refused to acknowledge either Joanna or her mother and the two were left to fend for themselves.

Joanna has always borne a grievance for the way her mother was treated and wants the link to her father confirmed. When news of the diamond surfaces, she races to Arizona in the slim hope that the diamonds might lead her to what’s left of her father’s arm. DNA tests on the arm could prove paternity.

Jim Chee steps into the case in an effort to protect Billy Tuve and to determine how he actually came into possession of the diamond, especially after someone else tells a similar story. Could there really be an old man passing our diamonds at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?

Unfortunately, of course, the news of the discovery will also attract some unsavory characters who hope to find the diamonds and otherwise profit themselves, and all of this will come to a stunning climax at the bottom of the canyon in the middle of a tremendous monsoon rain storm.

The attraction of these books lies in large part in the settings, which Hillerman so vividly creates and in the Navajo and Hopi customs and beliefs which are integral to the stories. This is not the strongest book in the series; personally, I prefer the earlier books where Leaphorn was the central character, but it’s still a good one and should not be missed by fans of the series.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

DOUBLE WIDE Is an Amusing and Entertaining Debut Novel from Leo W. Banks

Prospero "Whip" Stark was once an up-and-coming phenom, pitching in the major leagues. But then he blew out his shoulder and, following surgery, his career never recovered. From there it was all downhill until he found himself in a Mexican jail doing time on drug charges. Now free and back home in the U.S., he's settled into an aging Airstream trailer, living the simple life in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona.

A handful of other misfits have joined him in the tiny community known as Double Wide, and Stark is the unofficial mayor of the settlement, watching over his charges. Life is more or less copacetic in Double Wide until one afternoon Stark comes home to find that someone has left a box on his porch. In the box is a severed human hand, and from the tattoo on the back of the hand, Stark recognizes it as a hand that was once attached to the arm of his former catcher, Rolando Molina.

The last Stark saw of Molina, the man had developed a serious cocaine addiction and was entering treatment. Stark is determined to discover what might have happened to his friend, and he suspects that Molina's death is connected to a cartel that's running drugs through an old mining camp on nearby Paradise Mountain. In the course of his investigation, Stark will become entangled with vicious and dangerous drug runners, money launderers, baseball players, aspiring sports agents, and a sexy stripper-turned-television news reporter named Roxanne Santa Cruz. And by the time it's over, only the strong, wily and smart will survive to see the end of the tale.

This is a very entertaining debut novel with a cast of offbeat characters and a great lead protagonist in Whip Stark. It's by turns scary and funny; the dialogue is great, and the story moves along at just the right pace. A veteran Arizona journalist, Banks knows the territory well, and the setting is vividly described. You can feel the desert heat burning into your skin and the monsoon rains pelting down so hard that a person can't see three feet ahead into the night. The story's various threads all come together in a great climax, and this is a book that should appeal to a broad audience.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

THE KILLER IS DYING Is a Great Novel from James Sallis

This is by no means a traditional crime novel, although there is a criminal--a contract killer named Christian--at the heart of the book. The killer is dying and he has taken one last assignment. His target is an unassuming man who works in the office of an insurance company in Phoenix. Christian scouts the man, learning his patterns, and then, just as he is about to strike, someone else shoots the man. Totally confused, Christian watches as the ambulance screams away, taking the victim to the hospital.

Christian is amazed by the coincidence that someone else would shoot the target just as Christian was closing in on him. But how could this possibly be a coincidence, and what could be going on here? Christian feels a professional obligation to complete the assignment and now must figure out how to get at the target who is hospitalized in an ICU. Meanwhile, as a man who has always lived a solitary life, he must deal alone with his own illness and confront his inevitable mortality.

At the same time, a detective named Sayles is investigating the shooting and tracking Christian. As he does, Sayles is confronting his own existential dilemma. His wife, Josie, is deathly ill and with no warning has left him to die in a hospice, without even saying goodbye. When he left for work in the morning, she was there; when he returns from work, she is gone.

Josie leaves a note specifically asking Sayles not to try to find her but to let her die in peace. he is gutted by the experience and must now try to figure out how to confront the new realities of his life. His partner, a detective named Graves, will try to give him the support and the space to work through this crisis, but for the first time in his life, Sayles is in many ways completely alone.

The final character in the story is a young boy named Jimmie whose parents, first his mother and then his father, have abandoned him. He is still living in the house that they shared, paying the bills by buying and selling things online, trying to prevent the authorities or anyone else from discovering that he is living alone, and attempting to come to grips with his circumstances. And, in addition to all of his other problems, he seems somehow to be having the killer's--Christian's--dreams.

The stories are interwoven, moving from one of the three characters to another sometimes from one paragraph to the next. This can be a bit confusing until you get into the rhythm of the book, which then becomes totally captivating and impossible to put down. This is a beautifully written novel about three men of varying ages adjusting to the solitude and changing circumstances of their lives, and it's one that I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

It's a Long Goodbye for P.I. Philip Marlowe in This Classic Novel from Raymond Chandler

This is the sixth and last of the full-length novels that Raymond Chandler wrote featuring his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe. It's also the most personal in that Chandler seems to have based two of the characters, Terry Lennox and Roger Wade, at least in part on himself.

At the book opens, Marlowe meets a man named Terry Lennox outside of a nightclub. Lennox is very drunk and his date drives off and leaves him. Marlowe, being a good samaritan, takes Lennox to his own home, sobers him up and then drives him home to the mansion that Lennox shares with his very promiscuous and extremely wealthy wife. On the basis of this incident, Marlowe and Lennox strike up a friendship of sorts and occasionally get together for drinks. Then one night, Lennox turns up and asks Marlow to give him a ride to Mexico, no questions asked.

Well, what are friends for?

Marlowe gives Lennox a ride and from that point, things generally go to hell in a handbasket. It's very difficult to say anything else about the plot of the novel without giving things away that the reader will want to find out for him or herself. This is, though, one of Chandler's best novels, full of the social commentary and great prose for which Chandler was so deservedly famous. This plot is actually a little less convoluted than some of the others and it's fun to watch it unfold. I finished the book this time around, after reading the other Chandler novels in order, regretting even more than ever the fact that there are only six of these novels along with a number of short stories. I could have used a lot more.

On a side note, this novel was published in 1953 and is set sometime around 1950. It was finally filmed by Robert Altman in 1973, starring Elliot Gould as Marlowe and the story is set in the early 1970s rather than the early 1950s. A lot of people like the movie a lot, but I've seen it twice and have never been able to warm up to it. Given the way that Humphrey Bogart inhabited the role of Marlowe and really made it his own, I just couldn't buy Gould as Marlowe. Also, Marlowe, who seemed to perfectly belong to the late 1940s and early '50s, seemed out of place in the 1970s--almost anachronistic. For my part, then, when I need a Philip Marlowe film fix, I'll stick with the Bogart version of "The Big Sleep," and I'm sure I'll be coming back to this and the other novels again and again in the coming years.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Michael Vickers Is a Stranger in His Own Home in This Hard Boiled Novel from Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett was known principally as a prolific writer of science fiction and she also wrote a number of screenplays. She worked on the screenplay for "The Big Sleep" and "Rio Bravo," among others, and at the end of her career worked on the screenplay for "The Empire Strikes Back." She ghost wrote this book in 1946 for the actor George Sanders. It's now been republished by Black Gat Books under Brackett's name.

The protagonist is a businessman named Michael Vickers. Four years earlier, Vickers disappeared in Mexico while on a fishing trip with three of his best friends. His body was never recovered and he has been presumed dead. Now, however, to the shock of virtually everyone he knows, Vickers suddenly returns on a night when his wife is throwing a party at their beach house.

When Vickers strolls nonchalantly into the party, he discovers that his wife has taken their boat out for a cruise. He makes himself at home and greets the three old friends with whom he had been in Mexico on that fateful night. He explains that someone hit him over the head and left him for dead. For a long time he lost his memory and had no idea who he was. During this period, he was effectively kidnapped and forced to work on a tramp freighter. He finally recovered his memory, made his escape, and found his way back home to California.

During his absence, all three of his "best friends," though married themselves, have been trying to make time with Vicker's very delectable wife, Angie. Vickers assumes that one of the three assaulted him in Mexico in order to have a chance with Angie. He also wonders if maybe his wife might have encouraged the attack.

Even before Vickers's wife returns to the party, one of the three men that Vickers suspects of attacking him turns up murdered, and Vickers becomes the principal subject. Is he a killer taking revenge? If so, does he have other targets in mind?

This is a very well done classic hard boiled mystery. Vickers is a very interesting protagonist, and the relationships that unfold between him, his wife, and the other survivors of the trip to Mexico are fun to watch unfold. More than seventy years after its original publication, this is still a book that fans of the hard boiled genre might want to seek out.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Perry Mason Tackles a Complex Case Involving a Drowning Duck

This is the twentieth Perry Mason novel, about a quarter of the way through the series. It's set in 1942, just as the U.S. has entered the Second World War, and as always, reflects the standards and the attitudes of its time.

As the book opens, Perry and his secretary are away from the office on vacation in Palm Springs. Why Perry and Della are vacationing together is something that the author doesn't bother to explain, but it turns out to be fortuitous when Mason is approached by a very wealthy local man, named Witherspoon, who has a strange request.

Witherspoon's daughter has fallen in love with a young, penniless college student named Marvin, who will soon be going off to fight in the war. Marvin and the daughter believe that he was kidnapped as a baby and was raised by the woman he thought was his mother, until she died making a deathbed confession about the kidnapping. However Witherspoon has conducted an investigation and knows that the story was false. The boy's father was hanged for murder years earlier and the mother made up the lie to spare the boy the embarrassment of knowing that he was the son of a convicted killer.

Witherspoon is determined to protect his family's good name at all cost and is determined that his daughter will not marry the son of a man rightfully convicted of murder. He has a copy of the trial transcript and wants Mason to review it. If Mason can convince Witherspoon that the man was wrongly convicted, Witherspoon will say nothing and will allow his daughter to marry Marvin. But if there's even a breath of suspicion left, Witherspoon will expose the secret and forbid the marriage.

Mason thus faces several seemingly impossible tasks, the most important of which is saving the young lovers from the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of the girl's father. It won't be easy. More people are going to die, a poor little duck is going to be put in mortal danger, and in the end, only Perry Mason could sort out all the complex strands of this mystery.

All in all, it's a fairly typical Mason story, save for the fact that it does not take place in L.A. Perry will not see all that much time in court, but will ultimately wind up in a judge's chamber trying to explain all the evidence in a way that won't leave the judge and the readers shaking their heads in dismay. A fun read.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE Is an Excellent Early Novel from Wallace Stroby

This is an excellent early novel from Wallace Stroby who would go on to write the Crissa Stone series, which remains one of my all-time favorites. The protagonist here is Harry Rane, a former New Jersey state trooper. The woman he loves has gone off to Seattle "to think things over," and Harry is left to bide his time, medicating himself with whatever will help him make it through the night, while praying that she ultimately decides to come back to him.

While killing time, Harry goes to work for a P.I. firm owned by another ex-trooper and takes on a case involving a woman named Nikki Ellis, a former "adult entertainer." Nikki was once in a relationship with a thug named Johnny Harrow. Shortly after Harrow went away to prison for attempted murder, Nikki gave birth to their son and, in an effort to do what was best for the child, gave it up for adoption.

The problem is that she didn't consult Johnny about her decision and he's furious about it. Now, after seven years, Harrow is out of prison two years early and is on his way back to Jersey to claim what's his and to settle some old scores with Nikki and with a mobster he once worked for, among others. He has dreams of tracking down and taking his son and riding off into the sunset once he's accomplished his objectives. Nikki comes to the agency, desperately afraid that somehow, Harrow will break the code of secrecy that was supposed to surround the adoption process and find her son. She wants Harry to protect her and to ensure that Harrow won't find the boy.

It's going to be a lot harder than it sounds. Harrow is totally amoral, very resourceful and seems to have a powerful patron who just might be able to break through the red tape and find the boy. Harrow casually disposes of anyone who stands in his path, and before the dust has settled, Harry Ranes will be his number one target.

This is a very bleak, hard-boiled novel with desperate characters living on the thin edge of disaster. The story moves at a rapid clip and one of the things that struck me most about the book was the humanity of the characters, Harry and Nikki in particular. These are real, believable people, trapped in circumstances that threaten to overwhelm them at almost any moment. You care for them immediately and that significantly ratchets up the tension in the novel. All of it builds to a stunning climax and this book demonstrates all over again why Wallace Stroby is one of the true bright lights in contemporary crime fiction. A must for fans of the hard-boiled genre.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Boston P. I. Spenser Puts Together a Gang to Clean Up a Small Arizona Town

The twenty-eighth Spenser novel finds the intrepid Boston detective on the road again. A beautiful blonde widow named Mary Lou Buckman has hired Spenser to get the person or persons who recently killed her husband.

The Buckmans owned a business in the small, fictional resort community of Potshot, near the Sawtooth Mountains, about fifty miles south of Phoenix, Arizona. The former mining community has become a haven for wealthy Californians seeking to escape the rat race, but trouble has found them, nonetheless. A gang of cretins and thugs, led by a charismatic man known as the Preacher, has taken over the old mining grounds in the hills outside of Potshot. The bad guys are extorting money from the town's business people and are otherwise terrorizing the community. People are leaving town; real estate prices are plummeting, and Potshot is going to hell in a handbasket.

Buckman's husband, Steve, had attempted to stand up against the gang and one of its leaders had publicly threatened him and warned him that he was "a dead man." When Buckman is shot to death, everyone in Potshot simply assumes that the Preacher or one of his henchmen was responsible. But the local police chief is useless. He's intimidated by the gang and is cowed into taking no action to investigate the murder or to bring the killers to justice. Thus the widow has no place to turn other than Spenser.

Spenser travels out to Potshot to get the lay of the land and quickly concludes that this job is too big for one man, even if the one man is Spenser himself and even if he has his faithful sidekick, Hawk, to assist him. So Spenser recruits his own gang, comprised of killers and other tough guys that readers will readily recognize from earlier Spenser novels. The gang, seven in all, heads out to Potshot, determined to clean up the town and run out the bad guys. Once they get there, however, the situation suddenly becomes a lot more complicated and even more dangerous than Spenser had imagined.

This is an entertaining novel which owes a great deal to "The Magnificent Seven." It's an atypical Spenser novel in that all of the action takes place far from his home turf, and the book is really as much of a western as it is a typical detective novel. But Spenser is the same, wise-cracking tough guy that readers of the series have come to expect and even though the whole scenario is beyond belief, it's still a quick fun read.

As always, at least in my opinion, the principal downside of the book is Spenser's constant mooning over the impossibly irritating Susan Silverman. Even though the action takes place far from Boston, there's still way too much interaction between the two, and the dialog between them is sappy, silly, and annoying in the extreme. As always in these novels, if you skim all the scenes with Susan, you are bound to enjoy the book all that much more.