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.

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.