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.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Keller, a Professional Hit Man, Finds Big Trouble in This Excellent Novel from Lawrence Block

As I'm sure I've said before, after Matthew Scudder, my favorite of the characters created by Lawrence Block is Keller, the affable and otherwise somewhat boring hit man. Keller first appeared in a series of short stories, most of which were initially published in Playboy. A number of the stories were then gathered into the collection Hit Man, which was published in 1999. A year later, Keller returned in this novel, which I've just reread for the first time since it came out.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of discovering this character, Keller lives quietly in New York. He's single and occasionally enjoys a relationship with a woman, but for whatever reason, the relationships don't seem to last very long. He eats out a lot and spends most of his spare cash on his stamp collection. And, every once in a while, he takes the train out to White Plains, where he meets with his agent, Dot, who gives him his next assignment. Then he goes off somewhere and kills someone.

Early in this book, Keller flies off to Louisville to do a job, but even before he can get out of the airport, he has a bad feeling about the whole thing. Of course, professional that he is, he completes the mission, and in the course of things has to change his motel room because of noisy neighbors. Soon after, he discovers that the couple that had been given his original room--a pair of adulterers--has been shot to death in the room. This only feeds Keller's belief that the whole job was jinxed from the start.

When something similar happens at the conclusion of Keller's next job, it's Dot who finally figures out what is going on: Another professional hit man is trying to weed out the competition and he has Keller in his sights. Keller has luckily escaped him twice, but how long will he be able to do so?

Keller is a professional killer and of course, the reader should not be rooting for him. But you just can't help yourself--the guy is otherwise just too likable. He's also very clever in the way he goes about his business, and one can't help but admire that. He's also a good citizen who even does jury duty, without complaining about it. The fact that the Keller stories and novels are so lighthearted also makes it easier to ignore the fact that you're cheering for a killer for hire. Clearly, these stories are not designed to be taken very seriously, but they are great fun and I always look forward to returning to them.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Tracy Crosswhite Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Robert Dugoni

This is another very good addition to Robert Dugoni's popular series featuring Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. As the book opens, the reader discovers that Tracy is pregnant--something she has not yet revealed to her boss or to the other members of her team.

The first member of the squad to actually notice Tracy's pregnancy is a woman named Andrea Gonzalez. While Tracy has been busy testifying at a trial, her boss has brought Gonzalez into the unit, allegedly to replace another member who has transferred out. But when Tracy discovers Gonzalez working at her desk and going through the files on her computer, she immediately wonders if her boss, with whom she's crossed paths previously, has realized that Tracy is pregnant and is lining up a replacement in the hope that Tracy will not come back to the unit.

But Tracy has little time to deal with this issue because she is immediately drawn into the case of a young Indian woman named Kavita Mukherjee who has gone missing. The woman's parents and brothers are very traditional, and her mother has been set on arranging a marriage for Kavita, as is still customary in many Indian families, even here in America. Kavita, though, has ideas of her own. She is studying to become a doctor and is determined to pick her own husband when and if the time arrives. Tracy joins the investigation into the woman's disappearance, but as time passes, the chance of a happy outcome do not look good. 

Meanwhile, two other members of Tracy's unit, Vic Fazio and Del Castigliano are charged with investigating the murder of a mother and community activist named Monique Rogers who has been shot to death on a playground in a crime-ridden part of the city where she was actively mobilizing the community against the drug dealers and gangbangers who threaten the neighborhood. Their investigation will take them into dangerous territory at a time when Fazio faces critical personal problems.

Dugoni weaves all of these various threads together into a very compelling narrative that focuses on the personal lives of the characters as well as the investigations that they are pursuing. By now, readers of the series will have come to know these characters well and will be very happy to follow them through the pages of this engrossing novel.

Monday, July 29, 2019

MADBALL Is a Classic Pulp Novel from 1953 Now Available Again

Originally published in 1953, this great hard boiled pulp novel has just been reprinted by Black Gat Books, a division of Stark House, which has reprinted a number of pulp classics over the last few years.

Set in a traveling carnival that's stopped in a small town for a few weeks before its season ends, the book is populated by carnival barkers, strippers, fortune tellers, grifters, roustabouts and a host of the other seedy types that were associated with outfits like this in the middle of the last century. Everyone around the operation is on the make and seems to have his or her own con, and if there aren't enough marks among the square johns who come out to the carnival from town, a lot of the carnies are not above taking advantage of each other, in nightly poker games and other diversions.

The stakes are raised dramatically when two of the carnies hit a bank and get away with $42,000. Before they have a chance to enjoy the money, though, they're in a car accident. One of the robbers is killed; the other is laid up in the hospital for several weeks, recovering from his injuries. By the time the second robber is able to return to the carnival, others among the carnival's crew are beginning to put two and two together. Some of them will now be looking for the stolen money, which they assume that the robbers must have hidden nearby, and once the hunt begins, no one will be safe.

The search for the stolen loot sets off a cascading series of events that constitute the novel's story. It's an intricate plot, and watching the pieces come together is hugely enjoyable. The cast of characters is also expertly devised, and Brown creates a truly believable world. Just watching the inner workings of the carnival is fun in and of itself and, all in all, this is a book that will appeal to large numbers of readers who love classic pulp fiction.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

James Ellroy's THE BLACK DAHLIA Is a True Classic in the Genre of Crime Fiction

Everyman's Library has just published a new hardback volume containing all four of the novels that comprise James Ellroy's first L.A. Quartet. Ellroy was at my local bookstore a few weeks ago promoting this book and his new novel, This Storm, which is the second novel in his new L. A. Quartet. With signed copies of both books in hand, it seemed like a good time to return to The Black Dahlia, the first novel in the original series.

Set in booming and corrupt post-World War II Los Angeles, it takes as its starting point one of the most famous unsolved murders in the history of L.A., or of the rest of the country for that matter. The victim was a promiscuous young woman named Betty Short, who seemed to captivate everyone who fell into her orbit, at least as Ellroy imagines it. Short was tortured over several days before her body was cut in half, disemboweled, and abandoned in a vacant lot.

Short was only one of a number of young women who came to Hollywood at this time, dreaming of success, only to come to bad end. But the press dubs Short The Black Dahlia, and the discovery of her brutalized body turns into a sensational murder case that captures the city's attention--a case that can make or break reputations. Spearheaded by an ambitious deputy D.A., the police devote thousands of man hours interviewing witnesses, potential subjects, and tracking down leads. 

Caught up in the maelstrom are two young cops, Lee Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert. Former boxers, the two men bond over the murder case. They become partners and ultimately fall in love with the same woman. They also fall in love with the Black Dahlia, and the case consumes both of them with irrevocable consequences for them and for the woman, Kay, with whom they are involved.

This novel is in many respects a coming of age story for Bucky Bleichert, who is at the center of the novel. Beginning as an idealistic young patrolman, Bleichert will be tested and corrupted by the Dahlia case in ways he never could have imagined, and the reader watches in awe and horror as he descends into the hell of his obsession with Betty Short.

Mixing fictional characters with real ones, The Black Dahlia is also a stunning portrait of postwar Los Angeles and of the people and the forces that were shaping the city at that time. James Ellroy's own mother was raped and murdered a decade or so after Betty Short, when Ellroy was still a young boy. As in the case of Betty Short, the killer was never found, and this may explain Ellroy's fascination with the Black Dahlia. Blunt, brutal and beautifully written, this is a riveting story and a true classic in the field of crime fiction.