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.