Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Very Cold Kiss...

Nate and his pregnant girlfriend Sara are driving from Minnesota to Reno, seeking a new life for themselves and their baby. On a snowy night in Nebraska, they see a man in a cafe who is obviously very sick. Sara takes pity on the man and when the stranger offers them $500 for a ride into Omaha, the kids accept.

The three drive off into a major winter storm and are forced to seek refuge in a run-down motel out in the middle of nowhere. On getting out of the car, Nate and Sara discover to their horror that their passenger has died. They are further stunned to discover that the passenger, Syl, has over $2 million in cash in his suitcase. Of course the kids should call the cops, report the tragic death of their passenger and hand over the money. But then, of course, the book would end at the conclusion of chapter two.

Tempted by the sight of all that money, Nate and Sara begin to imagine the life they might have if they were to simply dump Syl's body, wait for the plows to clear the roads and take off with the cash. Unfortunately for them, apparently neither Nate nor Sara has read Scott Smith's, A Simple Plan. Nor has either one of them ever seen the movie that was made from Smith's book, and thus they have no idea that keeping the money is a really, really, really bad idea.

Needless to say, complications ensue. As one might expect, the other stranded guests consist of the usual group of fine folks that one expects to encounter when stranded in a third-rate motel, miles from civilization trapped by the blizzard of the century.

The plot is hardly new, but Rector makes it seem fresh. This is a taut, lean book that grabs you early on and refuses to let go. Practically from page one, you're screaming at Nate and Sara, begging them not to make one bad decision after another. But even though they consistently reject your sound advice, you can't abandon them, and you can't rest until you see where the consequences of their actions finally take them.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jane Whitefield Returns (Finally)

In a series of five books, published from the mid- to late-1990s, Thomas Perry detailed the adventures of Jane Whitefield, a tough, clever, contemporary Native American woman who lived in western New York. Jane came to the rescue of people who were in serious trouble, guiding them out of their old lives and into new ones. In the process, she almost always had to help her clients to escape from brutal thugs who were hot on the trail. This usually put both Jane and her client in mortal danger and demanded that Jane use all of her wits and considerable physical skills to disable or eliminate the bad guys. Along the way, Jane created a new identity for the client and taught him or her how to survive in a new life.

Jane finally retired, married a doctor, and created a happy, fulfilling new life for herself, flawed only by her inability to conceive a child. Now, five years after her last adventure (nine years in real time), a pregnant young girl turns up at the hospital where Jane's husband works in Buffalo. The girl is looking for Jane, but only knows her maiden name, which the hospital staff does not recognize.

Coincidentally, Jane is heading a fundraiser at the hospital that evening, and in the middle of the soiree, a bomb goes off, interrupting the festivities. Jane and the young girl are thrown together in the confusion and it turns out that the bomb has been set by a team of hunters who have been hired to capture the girl and return her and her baby to the girl's abusive boyfriend and his seriously weird parents.

Naturally, Jane will have to come out of retirement and help the poor woman escape. She quickly discovers that because of technological advances, it's a lot harder--and a lot more expensive--to create a new identity for someone in the post-9/11 era. If that's not bad enough, Jane also discovers that the crew in pursuit of her new client is easily the toughest group of adversaries that she has ever faced.

The result is a book that begins, literally, with a bang and continues to move at a breakneck pace from start to finish. As always, it’s fun to watch Jane work, and it’s particularly interesting to see the details of how she creates a new identity for Christine, the woman she’s assisting. Inevitably, perhaps, Christine will make the exercise a lot more difficult than it otherwise might have been, but this simply means more fun for the reader who gets to watch Jane react to the added threat.

This book does require the suspension of some disbelief. For example, even after being out of the business for several years, Jane seems to have a huge supply of fake identities squirreled away, along with an inexhaustible stash of hundred dollar bills hidden in her basement. Without them, the book would come to a pretty abrupt halt on about page three.

Readers who have waited not-so-patiently for Perry to resurrect Jane Whitefield will be very happy to have her back. But those who’ve never read this series and who have missed all of the backstory might be better off starting with the first book in the series, Vanishing Act, and working their way forward. They won’t be disappointed and, unlike the rest of us, they won’t have to wait nine years to get to Runner.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Travis McGee Spends a Winter in Illinois

The eighth installment of the Travis McGee series takes place in Chicago rather than in Florida, and thus most of the usual cast, save for McGee himself of course, is MIA. This is not a book that would have endeared MacDonald to the Chicago Chamber of Commerce. The author was obviously not very fond of the city, and through McGee makes some fairly cutting comments about the Windy City and its inhabitants.

For those unfamiliar with the series, McGee is a self-styled "salvage" expert. If someone is defrauded and has no legal recourse, McGee will use his considerable talents to recover what has been lost. His fee is fifty percent of the recovery; expenses come off the top.

In these books there is always a fragile woman who has been badly treated, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, and often both. In addition to recovering what has been stolen by the bad guys, it will be McGee's job to restore the poor woman to a state of health and physical well-being--unless, of course, she manages to get killed along the way.

In this case, one of these previously broken birds (the book's description, not mine), Glory Doyle, turns to McGee for help a second time. Her husband, a respected Chicago physician, has recently died and Glory discovers that during the last year of her husband's life, someone had managed to bleed him of his entire fortune. McGee comes to Chicago to chase down the money and punish the evil-doers. In the normal course of things, he will also have to rescue a beautiful but frigid blonde who has no idea why she hates sex. Can McGee cure the poor woman and turn her into a sexual dynamo while at the same time he deals out justice to the bad guys? Is the Pope Catholic?

As the book progresses, we also get a heavy dose of McGee's philosophy as he ponders the mysteries of the universe and the failings of his fellow man. He's particularly hard on Chicago legend Hugh Hefner and the Playboy lifestyle.

This was in its day, one of the most popular mystery/suspense series ever written. But sadly, it has not held up very well over time. One naturally expects that a book that was originally published in 1966 is going to show its age, but these books now sound positively archaic and re-reading them is almost always disappointing. When I first discovered the paperback reprints of these books back in my youth, I devoured them and couldn't wait to find another. Every couple of years or so, I pull one off the shelf, hoping to discover again some of the magic that first drew me to McGee and his adventures. Unhappily, I haven't found it again in a long time. But that won't stop me from trying again in another couple of years.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Angela McCready is Gone Again

At the beginning of his writing career, Dennis Lehane wrote an excellent series of gritty P.I. novels set in Boston and featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, detectives who operated out of an office in a church bell tower. The 1998 entry was Gone, Baby, Gone, in which the detectives mounted a long search for a missing four-year-old girl named Amanda McCready. The girl had been kidnapped from an abusive mother and a generally miserable home environment and left in the care of a stable, middle class couple who loved Amanda and provided her with an excellent home. Once having found Amanda, Patrick and Angie disagreed about whether they should return the girl to her awful mother or leave her in the home of the people who were obviously much better prepared to care for her. Ultimately, they returned Amanda to her biological mother, but the decision to do so drove a wedge into the relationship between the two detectives.

Lehane would write one more Kenzie/Gennaro book, Prayers for Rain, published in 1999, before leaving the series to write a number of stand-alones, including Mystic River and Shutter Island. He now returns to the series with Moonlight Mile, a book that Kenzie/Gennaro fans have long awaited.

Much has changed in the eleven years that have elapsed. Patrick and Angie are now married and the parents of their own four-year-old daughter. (This gives nothing away. It's in the promotional material and is revealed in the opening of the book.) Patrick is still working as a P.I., but the cases are few and far between. Angie has gone back to school and the family is struggling financially, victims of the recession. The office in the bell tower is gone--a casualty of the Catholic church's financial crisis--and now Amanda McCready has gone missing again.

The case has haunted Patrick and Angie for twelve years and Patrick agrees to try to find Amanda for a second time. The hunt takes Patrick and Angie into a tangled world of Russian mobsters, irresponsible parents, and a young woman who is wise way beyond her years. In addition to the intellectual and physical challenges that the case poses for Patrick, he faces a number of ethical and moral dilemmas that are not easily resolved.

This is a very good book--both highly entertaining and thought-provoking. But as a long-time fan who has read this series from the very beginning, I had a couple of quibbles. First, I regret, to some extent, the fact that Lehane simply picked up the series eleven years down the road. Major changes have occurred in the lives of characters that fans of the series have come to care about. And I feel somewhat cheated by the fact that I didn't get to watch those changes as they happened. It would be as if Lawrence Block had simply skipped over the book in which Matthew Scudder stopped drinking and became sober.

My other concern is that Patrick makes choices in this book that would have been perfectly logical for a single detective in his early thirties, possessed of a strong moral code. Patrick still has a strong moral code, but I'm not sure that some of his choices are appropriate for a man with a wife and child who may well be seriously affected by those choices. He has other people to think about now, and I found myself questioning the logic of his actions at a couple of points.

Those admittedly minor reservations aside, I enjoyed this book very much and it was very nice to see Patrick and Angie back again.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Plague of Secrets

A Plague of Secrets reunites John Lescroart's main series characters, Dismas Hardy, Abe Glitsky and Wyatt Hunt, along with the cast of minor characters that populates this very engaging series. The book opens with a personal tragedy that afflicts Glitsky, Hardy's best friend and the head of the San Francisco Homicide unit. Not surprisingly, the tragedy will distract Glitsky's attention from his duties in the department, and it probably goes without saying that this will not be a good thing.

Immediately thereafter, Dylan Vogler, the manager of a very popular coffee shop, is found shot to death at the back door of the shop. Vogler is wearing a backpack filled with high quality weed that he's also selling out of the coffee shop. His client list, which includes some very prominent names quickly becomes public, causing no end of embarrassment for a number of people.

Suspicion falls almost immediately upon the coffee shop's absentee owner, wealthy socialite Maya Townshend, who knew Vogler in college. Townshend claims she felt sorry for her former classmate when he finished a stint in prison and needed a job. Thus she made him the manager of her coffee shop at the rather astonishing salary of $90,000 a year.

Townshend is well connected politically and the case provides the opportunity for a number of ambitious and very scary politicians and others to advance their own careers and agendas by prosecuting her. Maya retains Dismas Hardy to defend her, and the game is on.

Last week, I reviewed one of the very early Perry Mason mysteries, and I always think of Mason and his creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, when I read one of Lescroart's Dismas Hardy books. As fond as I am of the Mason books, it always strikes me that Dismas Hardy is a defense lawyer for grown-ups. Reading Lescroart, you get an excellent impression of what a defense lawyer's life is really like and how a murder trial really works, especially with a high profile client. Not surprisingly, I suppose, it doesn't look much like a Perry Mason novel.

Lescroart's court room scenes are always enormously compelling, and once one of his cases gets to trial you know you're in for a long night because from that point on, it's always impossible to put one of these books down. Certainly, that's the case here.

As the title suggests, this is a book in which an awful lot of people have buried secrets, and Dismas Hardy is forced to uncover and understand the meaning of any number of them if he's going to have any chance at all of saving his client. Watching him attempt to do so is a great treat.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Perry Mason in His Literary Youth

First published in 1934, The Case of the Howling Dog was the fourth entry in Erle Stanley Gardner's long-running series featuring Perry Mason.

At this point, Gardner was still in the process of establishing the formula that he would adhere to once the series hit its stride. Lieutenant Tragg, the intelligent and sympathetic homicide detective, and Hamilton Burger, the D.A. who would become Mason's principal adversary had not yet been introduced. The police department is still represented by the oafish Sergeant Holcomb, who wouldn't recognize a clue if it bit him in the backside. The D.A.'s office is represented by an assistant D.A., Claude Drumm who immediately falls into every trap that Mason so cleverly baits for him.

Della Street, the faithful and adoring secretary, Paul Drake, the reliable detective, and Perry Mason himself are still evolving into the characters they would ultimately become. Mason is a bit rougher around the edges than the suave attorney that most crime fiction readers would recognize, and at this stage of the game he's much more willing to severely bend, if not actually break the law in the interest of serving what he sees as the greater good.

As is often the case in this series, the plot becomes almost hopelessly convoluted: A man comes to see Mason about his neighbor's howling dog and about writing a will. Complications ensue.

Suffice it to say that there will be a murder. Inevitably, Mason's client will be the prime suspect, and inevitably the case against the client will appear to be open and shut. As always, the D. A.'s office will be salivating at the chance to finally beat Mason after suffering so many ignominious defeats at his hands. And of course, as always Mason will pull the rabbit out of the hat and save the day at the very end.

Obviously, this story is a bit dated and is clearly a product of its times, but it's still a fun read and an opportunity to see Perry Mason and these other characters in their formative stages.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Busses always seem to be dropping Jack Reacher off in the oddest of places where, inevitably, trouble is brewing.

In this case, Jack has hitched a ride on a tour bus filled with elderly folks who, for whatever insane reason, have decided to visit scenic South Dakota in the middle of winter. The bus hits an icy patch and skids off the road leaving Jack and the other passengers stranded out in the middle of nowhere in Bolton, South Dakota, a tiny town with huge problems.

A pint-sized Mexican drug lord has created a meth lab on an abandoned federal installation just outside of town. The outlaw bikers who run the lab are generally on their best behavior while in town and have given the local cops no reason to roust them. But just before Reacher arrives in town, one of the bikers is caught selling meth to a dealer from Chicago. An elderly woman witnesses the sale and the biker is arrested. The woman is determined to do her civic duty and testify against the biker, irrespective of the danger to herself.

The local police know that the drug cartel has dispatched a killer to eliminate the witness so that their operation will not be endangered. But the Bolton P.D. is not really up to the task of taking on a wily drug lord and his biker henchmen and the situation is looking grim. Enter Jack Reacher.

Jack will spend the next 61 hours attempting to do what he does best--outsmarting nasty villains while protecting helpless but civic-minded librarians. This is a book that moves at a somewhat slower pace than many other Reacher novels, but there are some very interesting characters, some plot twists that you don't expect, and as always, it's fun to watch Reacher in action. The action slowly builds to a great climax that will reward careful reading

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Harry Bosch in Hong Kong...

9 Dragons opens with the murder of John Li, the Chinese owner of a liquor store in south L.A. Connelly's long-running protagonist, Detective Harry Bosch, is assigned the investigation and quickly concludes that the murder is more complicated than it might initially appear on the surface.

Displaying his excellent skills and dogged determination, Bosch discovers that Li had been paying protection money to one of the ancient Chinese triads that now operates in the United States as well as in China. Harry identifies a suspect and begins the process of arresting and charging him with the crime. As he does, Harry receives an anonymous phone call warning him off the case. If he persists, the caller warns, there will be consequences. Harry naturally ignores the warning and proceeds to make the case against his suspect, and then Harry's world is completely upended.

As readers of the series know, Harry has a daughter with Eleanor Wish, a former F.B.I. agent. Madeline, the daughter, is now thirteen and living in Hong Kong with her mother. Harry visits her regularly and otherwise maintains close ties with Madeline through phone calls and emails. As Harry continues to put together his case, ignoring the warning, he receives a video on his phone. Madeline has been kidnapped and is being held somewhere in Hong Kong, apparently in an effort to force Harry to back off.

Harry flies to Hong Kong in a desperate effort to locate and rescue Maddie and now must operate in what is, almost literally, a different world. The Hong Kong scenes are expertly written and it's virtually impossible to put this book down once Harry arrives there.

In 9 Dragons, Bosch's professional and personal lives intersect as never before; he is at once both the desperate father that one would expect to find under these circumstances and the consummate professional detective that he must be if he is to have any hope of rescuing his daughter.

As the book opens, Harry is clearly frustrated with his new partner, Ignacio Ferris. Bosch, who is almost fanatically devoted to his mission as a homicide detective, believes that Ignacio lacks the fire in the gut that the job demands. In particular, Harry believes that Ignacio spends too much time attending to the demands of his family. And then, in a twist of fate, Harry's family becomes absolutely the only thing that matters in his life. Once that happens, he will travel, if not to the ends of the earth, at least to Hong Kong, and he will bend, if not break, virtually every rule in the book to ensure his daughter's safe return.

While not the equal of some of the earlier books in the series, 9 Dragons is still a great read, and it's going to be very fascinating to see where Connelly takes Harry Bosch in its wake.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Richard North Patterson's "Eclipse"

Recently divorced, California lawyer Damon Pierce receives an urgent message from Marissa Brand, a woman he once loved (and perhaps still does), asking him to come to the West African country of Luandia. Marissa's husband, an activist named Bobby Okari has been accused of murder by the corrupt, brutal regime that runs the country.

Luandia sits on an oil of ocean and lots of outsiders, Americans included, are anxious to get their hands on it. None of them are much concerned about the way in which Luandia's government exploits and abuses its own people. Nor do they care about the catastrophic environmental consequences of the oil production.

Pierce is determined to save Bobby and so becomes his lawyer at great personal risk. Patterson weaves a complicated web of intrigue that is at once scary and terribly disheartening, and by the time you finish the book, you want to swear off ever using a drop of oil again.

I have always been a huge fan of Patterson's work, especially his political thrillers, and I really wanted to like this book as well. There is a terrible earnestness about it; in addition to telling a riveting story, Patterson is obviously determined to open our eyes to the consequences of our addiction to oil.

And therein lies the problem, such as there is one. A lot of the book is spent in an effort to educate the reader to the situation in Luandia, which is a stand-in for Nigeria, and to the larger implications of our dependency on the resources of countries like it. In consequence, the book seems almost preachy at times, and it takes a fair amount for time for the book to really gather steam. Once it does, though, you can't put it down.

I'm giving this book three stars, which to me means that it's really very good, but not excellent. I respect the book's good intentions and it's an appropriate reminder of the fact that our continued addiction to oil--and to low oil prices--has a cost that goes well beyond that which we pay at the pump. And, once it does get rolling, it's very compelling. But I don't think it's as riveting as a lot of Patterson's other work.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Review of John Sandford's "The Eyes of Prey"

This is the third book in John Sandford's long-running series featuring Lucas Davenport, and it features probably the most vile and complex villain of the entire series. Actually, there are two major bad guys. One is much more intelligent and much scarier than the other and, not surprisingly, he is the one pulling the strings in a series of murders inspired by the old Alfred Hitchcock film, "Strangers on a Train."

The mastermind's plan goes awry right from the start and the bad guys are left scrambling to clean up the mess and stay one step ahead of the cops. That will not be easy, because Lucas Davenport is hard on their trail and he's getting really pissed.

This is probably the most gruesome book in the series, and Davenport is at his darkest and most violent here. He's working out of a major depression that has virtually paralyzed him and acting out as a rogue cop ala Dirty Harry, without even a twinge of conscience.

As always, Sandford puts the reader right in the middle of the action. The writing is crisp; the plot is fast-paced, and the action is non-stop. And, even in a book this grim, there is a fair amount of the humor that characterizes the series.

It's hard to imagine that there could possibly be a fan of crime fiction who has not sampled this series yet, but if that person should exist, he or she should probably not begin with this book because, while it is a very good read, it's not really representative of the series as a whole. Some readers who might otherwise enjoy the series might be put off by the violence that permeates this particular book. As always, but especially in this case, the best place to begin would be at the beginning with the first book, Rules Of Prey. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

While in Hong Kong, photojournalist Jordan Glass wanders into an exhibit of paintings called "The Sleeping Women," and is unable to imagine why her presence is causing such a stir among the patrons and staff of the museum. The paintings alone are unsettling, because it appears to her trained eye that the women are not merely sleeping but are, in fact, dead. And then Jordan gets the shock of her life when she sees her own mirror image staring lifelessly back at her from one of the paintings.

More than a year ago, Jordan's twin sister, Jane, was kidnapped near her home in New Orleans, one of a string of women to be abducted in the city. None of the women, Jane included, has ever been seen again and now the victims have surfaced in this series of paintings, which are selling for upwards of a million dollars apiece. But who is the artist, and what has become of the women he has abducted and used as his models?

Jordan's discovery is the first major break in the case, and the FBI suggests that they might use Jordan to bait the killer into revealing himself. Haunted by the memory of her lost sister, Jordan readily agrees and soon finds herself at the center of a complex and absorbing investigation.

This is, really, a first-rate, complex, psychological thriller that grabs you from the opening chapter and keeps you enthralled through the final sentence. The characters are well-imagined and expertly fleshed out. The plot is taut and gripping and the action is well staged. It's hard to imagine that any fan of crime fiction would not be immediately seduced by this book.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Another Winner from George Pelecanos

"The Big Blowdown" is one of George Pelecanos's earlier books (1996), which explores the lives of a number of boys, descendants of Greek and Italian immigrants, who are friends during the depression years of the 1930s and who then grow into adulthood. Most of the book takes place in the post-war years as these men, now young adults, search for their places in the world.

Some of them, of course, make better choices than others. Two of the principal characters, Pete Karras and Joe Recevo come home from World War II and turn to organized crime. But Pete doesn't have the heart to be a shakedown artist picking on poor immigrants and he is brutally separated from the mob and from his friend Joe. Several years later, Pete and Joe cross paths again when the mob attempts to move in on the restaurant where Pete is working and the results will be explosive.

Along the way, Pete also befriends a young kid who has come to the city searching for his sister who has turned to prostitution to support a heroin habit, and this gives some meaning and purpose to a life that Pete feels he has largely wasted. Finally, running through much of the book is a series of prostitute killings that bedevils another of Pete's boyhood friends, policeman Jimmy Boyle. All of these threads are woven together to produce a stunning climax.

Like virtually all of Pelecanos's books, this one is set in Washington D.C. and provides a vivid portrayal of the city at a certain point in time. Like all of Pelecanos's books, this one is also infused with sex, violence and with the music of the era. The book begins a bit slowly as Pelecanos introduces the characters, but once it gets rolling, it's hard to put it down. All of the characters are expertly drawn and they are placed in perfectly believable settings. This is another winner from a very gifted writer.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fools Rush In

Ed Gorman's long-running series featuring Sam McCain, a somewhat naive, small town Iowa attorney and sometime private detective, has now advanced to 1963. In the South, the civil rights crusade is gathering momentum and in Black River Falls, Iowa, a black student named David Leeds has created a furor by dating the daughter of a white Republican Senator.

When Leeds is found murdered along with a white photographer, there is no shortage of suspects. Any number of Iowans, including the Senator who is running for re-election, were furious with Leeds. The bumbling police chief hasn't a clue and so McCain enters the fray. Sam is forced to mix it up with smarmy politicians, outlaw bikers, and the unsavory brothers of the blackmailing photographer. On the bright side though, the new female district attorney is bright, beautiful, and attracted to McCain.

Despite the violence, this is a gentle, nostalgic series that attempts to recapture the mood of an earlier, less complicated era. Even though we are now in the increasingly turbulent sixties, McCain is still the same innocent likable guy he was in The Day the Music Died, the series debut from 1999. McCain's caught up in the music and the culture of the age, and his love life reflects the standards of a different era. It's fun to watch him investigate the crime, even though it's hard to take his "investigation" all that seriously. But the real pleasure in reading these books comes from the era that they evoke.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Should Someone Finish and Publish Stieg Larsson's Fourth Book?

Millions of people world-wide have now read Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy consisting of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Tragically, of course, Larsson died shortly after delivering the manuscripts of the three books without being able to savor and almost certainly never anticipating the huge success the books would enjoy.

Unhappily Larsson also died without leaving a will, which has generated a nasty dispute pitting Eva Gabrielsson, the woman with whom he lived for over thirty years, against his brother and father. At issue is the division of the royalties from the books and from the recent film based on the books. Gabrielsson's principal bargaining chip in this battle lies in the fact that she is in possession of Larsson's computer, which apparently contains three-quarters of a fourth novel and outlines for several more.

Leaving aside the argument over royalties, the question arises as to whether some other writer should now step in and finish the fourth book and perhaps write others from the outlines that Larsson left behind. Given the potential profits involved, I am not naive enough to think that this might not happen, but I'd really prefer that it didn't.

Like millions of others who have devoured these books, I am hugely disappointed by the fact that Larsson did not live long enough to write others. But I've always felt very uneasy about the idea of one writer appropriating the characters and continuing the series of another who has died, whether prematurely or not. And I'm doubly disturbed when this involves a writer completing and publishing another writer's unfinished work.

For a writer to do so seems astonishingly selfish, arrogant, and inappropriate to me. No matter how detailed an outline the deceased writer might have left behind, there is simply no way of knowing what the original writer might have decided to do with the work.

Perhaps he (or she) would have thought that the work he had done thus far on the book was not remotely ready to be published. Perhaps, in spite of any outline, the writer still might have changed his mind about the shape the book would ultimately take. Perhaps in the end, the writer might have finished the book and then concluded that it wasn't up to his usual standards and that he didn't want it to ever see the light of day. And absent specific instructions about these matters (which would seem to be the case in Larsson's situation), it seems to me that for one writer to appropriate and presume to "finish" the work of another, is an inexcusable violation of the first author's rights and of his memory.

I understand, of course, that all too often in such cases, the heirs are only too anxious to exploit the situation and wring every last dime out of the deceased writer's memory that they possibly can, no matter the effect that this might have on the writer's enduring reputation. And while I wouldn't read the resulting book or books myself, I have no problem with a case in which the deceased writer has left specific instructions authorizing his heirs to loot the remains of his literary estate for whatever they can get. But in a case where the writer has left no instructions at all, I believe that a decent respect to his memory requires that his unfinished works remain unfinished.

As I suggested above, I am under no illusion that this will happen in the case of Stieg Larsson. But as much as I would love to read additional books featuring Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, I won't be doing so, given that Larsson is no longer around to write them himself. I'd be interested to know what you think...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Hard Rain Falling": An Appreciation

"Hard Rain Falling" first appeared in 1966, but was resurrected by George Pelecanos and republished in 2009 by New York Review Books as part of its Classics series. In his introduction, Pelecanos suggests that it "might be the most unheralded important American novel of the 1960s."

I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but it is a very good book with brilliantly drawn characters. The main protagonist is Jack Levitt, an orphan whom we first meet on the streets of Portland, Oregon, in 1947. Jack is 17 at the time and has fallen in with a gang of rough boys who live by their wits on the margins of society.

The book follows Jack's life until 1960, and it's not a pretty picture. Jack is in and out of trouble and, as a consequence, is also in and out of jail through most of this time. Some of the prison scenes are harrowing but, for that matter, so are many of the scenes when Jack is out on the streets, technically a "free" man.

Early on, Jack meets Billy Lancing, a young black pool hustler from Seattle. Jack, who has no special skills or talents, envies Billy who has a great natural gift as a pool player. Initially, Jack targets Billy as a mark, but the two form a bond that will sustain them both as they continue to cross paths through the years.

Jack and Billy both spend a great deal of time contemplating their own lives and the nature of life in general, and even though they raise important questions, there are times when Carpenter extends these ruminations for a bit longer than he should. But that is really the only flaw in this book, whose principal strength lies in the characters. Even the most minor of whom are fully realized and totally unforgettable.

There is not a single phony or contrived moment in this book, and from start to finish, the reader is immersed into a story that seems completely real and that is totally compelling. This is not a pretty world, but once Carpenter has grabbed hold of you, you can't turn away from watching it.

This is very much a book of the early 1960s, and the universe that Carpenter has recreated here is long since gone. He serves up a slice of American life that few of us would want to experience first hand. But readers will be grateful to George Pelecanos and to New York Review Books for giving them the opportunity to visit it from a safe distance.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Trouble in Paradise: A Review of Ken Mercer's "Slow Fire"

Will Magowan is an ex-cop who left the L.A.P.D. under a cloud and in the wake of an enormous personal tragedy. He’s unemployed, estranged from his wife, and reduced to living in a broken-down Airstream trailer when he receives a letter, offering him a job as the Chief of Police in Haydenville, California. Will is perplexed by the offer, especially since he hadn’t even applied for the job. But he has no other prospects and so accepts the call.

Haydenville is situated in a majestic national forest in the northern part of the state. But on arriving there, Will finds that the once-idyllic town is in the grip of a virtual plague that has plunged the community into nothing short of a death spiral. He also quickly discovers that he has very few allies, other than Thomas, his rookie deputy, who has no formal training whatsoever. Nonetheless, Will decides to stick it out, hoping that by attempting to resolve the town’s problems, he might also find some measure of personal redemption.

Will is only briefly on the job when he’s called to the scene of an apparent accident. A young woman has been found dead near a river, lying next to her overturned kayak. Will is troubled by what he finds, and refuses to agree with the conclusion that the victim died by accident.

Will fairly quickly discovers the source of the town’s difficulties and identifies his prime suspect. But in attempting to address the issue, he’s stymied at every turn. Even the mayor who hired him stubbornly refuses to cooperate and will not give any credence to Will’s well-founded suspicions.

The death of the young kayaker inaugurates a wave of horrific violence, and Magowan finds himself up against some genuinely creepy, malevolent and amoral villains. A lesser man would say the hell with it and leave Haydenville to the fate it probably deserves. But Will Magowan is not a lesser man. Against nearly insurmountable odds and in the face of grave danger to himself and the handful of people who support him, Will soldiers on, determined to redeem both himself and his newly adopted home town.

By naming his fictional town Haydenville, Mercer would appear to be paying an obvious homage to the film, High Noon, which was set in the town of Hadleyville, New Mexico. And Will Magowan’s struggle to save a small town that is threatened by grave danger and inhabited by an ungrateful and unsupportive population is, of course, strongly reminiscent of Marshall Will Kane’s efforts on behalf of his own small town.

The story of the flawed but ultimately virtuous outsider who rides into town and saves the day against overwhelming odds has long been a staple both of westerns and of crime fiction. But Ken Mercer provides a fresh take on the idea and creates strong, believable characters in a beautifully rendered setting. The plot moves swiftly. And even though the villain is identified fairly early on, the suspense builds to a great climax.

Slow Fire was another excellent First Mystery pick by the staff of The Poisoned Pen bookstore ( ), and happily it is the first of a new series. With this book, Ken Mercer is off to a great start.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lawrence Block/Matthew Scudder: An Appreciation

I first met Matthew Scudder sometime in the latter 1980s when I stumbled across a paperback copy of When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. I was hooked from the opening paragraph and when I finished the book, I set quickly about the task of finding every other Lawrence Block novel I could lay my hands on.

Thankfully, there were a lot of them. Beginning in the middle 1950s, Block has had a very prolific career, producing something in the neighborhood of fifty novels and a hefty collection of short stories. Through the middle 1960s, he wrote a number of stand alone pulp novels with titles like A Diet of Treacle and Grifter’s Game. Happily, some of these earlier books have now been revived and reprinted as part of the Hard Case Crime series and are thus available again for the first time in years.

In 1967, Block created his first series character, Evan Tanner, in The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep. Three years later, he produced the first of four books featuring Chip Harrison in a series that was obviously a tribute to the work of Rex Stout. And then, in 1976, Block introduced Matthew Scudder in The Sins of the Fathers.

Scudder, a divorced alcoholic ex-cop who had left the force after a tragic accident, is an unlicensed private detective who does “favors for friends” who pay him for his time and efforts. He lives in a tiny hotel room, “the size of a walk-in closet,” in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and through the early books in the series, he wrestles with his demons, particularly his alcoholism.

By far the darkest of Block’s series characters, Scudder spends the bulk of his time in saloons, denying—mostly to himself—that he has a drinking problem. When he does take a case, he tithes ten percent of the fee, most of which goes into the poor boxes of Catholic churches where he will often light a candle in memory of someone he’s lost. Matt is not a religious man, and he’s not entirely certain why he feels compelled to do this, but it allows him time to reflect in the quiet solitude of the churches he visits. The Catholics get most of his business simply because their churches are open more often than anyone else’s.

The cases he takes are always interesting and Scudder almost always resolves them, not by making great intuitive leaps, but rather by doing the hard, plodding work of the determined detective. You enjoy watching him do it, but mostly you read these books because of the great cast of characters that Block has assembled in this series, beginning with Scudder himself. As the series progresses, Block introduces a small supporting cast and then makes you care a great deal about each of their lives and their respective fates.

Block allows these people to age in real time so that by the time we see them in the sixteenth book, All The Flowers Are Dying, the survivors have all grown and changed, in some cases dramatically, from the characters that we first met as long as thirty years earlier. Most important, Scudder himself comes to a major transformational moment at the conclusion of the fourth book, Eight Million Ways To Die, and in the wake of that moment becomes a richer, fuller, and even more interesting protagonist.

I’ve read this series from first book to last any number of times now, and my own personal favorite is the eleventh, The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Matt is asked to investigate the murder of a young attorney, Glenn Holtzmann. The case appears to be open and shut: Holtzmann was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot and killed by a mentally unbalanced street person. But the brother of the man the police have arrested asks Scudder to look into the case, and Matt discovers that, while the police have apparently arrested the right man, the victim was a man of many unexplained secrets. Once captured by the case, Scudder will not give it up until he has unraveled all of those secrets.

The mystery itself is fine, but what I love about this book is that it comes at a very important point in Matthew Scudder’s life, probably the most significant since the closing pages of Eight Million Ways To Die. The times are changing, and so are the people that surround Matt. Scudder is personally conflicted in a variety of ways that will resonate deeply with a lot of readers. And the way he reacts to those changes and conflicts is what makes him one of the most intriguing characters ever to inhabit the pages of crime fiction.

The sixteenth book in this series appeared in 2005, and Block has suggested that he may not write another. I hate to think that might be true. I’ve spent scores of hours in the company of these characters and the thought that they might not appear again is enormously sad. I understand that, ultimately, there will have to be a final Matthew Scudder novel; I just don’t want to have to face the prospect for a good long time.

Block would go on to create two additional series characters, Bernie Rhodenbarr who is a bookseller by day and a burglar by night, and Keller, a stamp-collecting hit man who would appear in a series of short stories and in one full-length novel. Bernie and Keller are much lighter and funnier characters, and they are both enjoyable reads. But Matthew Scudder remains Block’s greatest achievement.

Standing firmly in the company of the all-time greats, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder will endure for as long as people read detective fiction. Every reader has his or her own favorite author and protagonist; these guys will always be mine.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

D.C. Noir

George Pelecanos owns Washington, D .C. in the same way that Raymond Chandler once owned Los Angeles. In a series of books, many of them featuring his protagonist, Derek Strange, Pelecanos has mined the city's dark side for riveting stories that often also highlight the pathologies that afflict it.

Shoedog is an early (1994) stand-alone that features a young drifter named Constantine, who's traveled the world and now finds himself hitchhiking outside of his native Washington, D.C. He accepts a ride from an older man named Polk, who is heading to Florida and encourages Constantine to go along. Polk just has to make one quick stop and then they'll be on their way.

Any reader of noir fiction will immediately understand, that "the one quick stop" will inevitably lead to trouble, and as a consequence, the young drifter finds himself recruited into a gang of minor thugs who are planning a couple of armed robberies. Constantine goes along for the ride, in part because he feels some sympathy for Polk, in part because he has nothing better to do, and in part because he has fallen for the attractive young woman who belongs to the gang's boss.

The situation immediately becomes combustible and explodes into violence, leading to a shattering conclusion. As in all of Pelecanos's work, the writing is crisp; the characters and the D.C. settings are perfectly drawn, and the music is evocative. For those who have enjoyed his later work, the reissue of Shoedog offers a glimpse of a younger Pelecanos just hitting his stride.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Worth Looking For: California Fire and Life

Browsing the shelves of the Poisoned Pen, my favorite mystery bookstore, I recently found a reprint of Don Winslow's 1999 novel, California Fire and Life. Winslow's The Power of the Dog is one of my favorite books of all time, and I've thoroughly enjoyed everything else of his that I've read. This is an earlier book, but it's an excellent read that will also teach you everything you ever wanted to know about arson investigation.

In an effort to protect a witness from certain death, Orange County Sheriff's Department arson investigator Jack Wade fabricated evidence and then lied under oath. Betrayed by a fellow deputy, "Accidently" Bently, Jack is convicted of perjury and bounced from the department.

Twelve years later, Jack is a claims investigator for California Fire and Life. A multi-million dollar home and furniture collection belonging to a Russian immigrant, Nicky Vale, goes up in smoke. Sadly, Nicky's beautiful young wife goes up along with it. Jack's old nemisis, "Accidently" spends about fifteen minutes investigating and rules the fire accidental.

Jack's investigation quickly points to a lot of problelms with Bently's verdict, including the fact that the victim had no smoke in her lungs. Beyond that, Jack finds the family dog locked outside of the house, and Jack knows full well that, while an arsonist might burn up his wife, he will never burn his dog along with her.

It's clear to Jack that the fire was deliberately set. Nicky Vale claims to have a solid alibi--he was home with Mama all night. But Jack quickly breaks the alibi and discovers that Nicky had the means, motive and opportunity to set the blaze. Jack denies the claim, only to discover that this sets him in conflict not only with Nicky Vale but with his own employer as well.

From that point on, the book is a wild ride with Jack battling Russian mobsters, Vietnamese hoods, insurance scammers, and the executives of California Fire and Life. Don't expect to get any sleep until you've finished the book.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dick Francis, R.I.P.

Not even a month after the death of Robert B. Parker, the world of crime fiction loses another giant with the death Sunday of Dick Francis. The retired jockey, who turned to writing thrillers in his middle thirties, produced a steady stream of books over the next forty-plus years that never failed to entertain.

Most of the books were set in the world of British horse racing that Francis knew and obviously loved so well. Though he only rarely featured the same protagonist from one book to another, virtually all of his heroes shared the same characteristics. Typically they were in their mid-to-late thirties, as Francis was when injuries forced his retirement from racing. Often, like their creator, they were in the midst of some career change that had been forced upon them. They were quiet, modest, but extremely clever and capable men; almost always they were single, and inevitably the right women found them attractive and compelling.

Lurking in the background, and usually exposed only near the end of the book, was a deliciously malevolent villain, pulling strings from behind the curtain in pursuit of some grand scheme that often threatened to inflict gruesome damage on any number of victims and upon the world of horse racing as a whole.

In the end, of course, Francis's hero always exposed and thwarted the evildoer, albeit usually at great personal cost. While Francis's sex scenes were always fairly tame, he wrote great scenes of gut-wrenching violence that could give a reader nightmares for weeks after.

Best of all, Francis's work has stood the test of time, unlike the work of some other writers of his generation that already seems dated and uninteresting. Even now, nearly fifty years after its initial publication, one can pick up his first novel,DEAD CERT, or any of the many that followed and it will seem as fresh and new as it did on the weekend that you first read it.

Dick Francis leaves behind a body of work that will entertain readers for years to come. He will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Joining the Game

Since creating this blog in August, I’ve been caught up in all of the activities essential to the launch of my new book, No Place To Die, while at the same time working on the book that will follow. (Perhaps) needless to say, this has left me no time at all to attend to this blog.

Happily, the release date for NPTD for is set for July 27, and my website is now live at I am still caught up in the effort to prepare for marketing the book, and, of course, I still need to be working on the next one, which is tentatively titled, Until Death. That said, I now feel like I have a little more breathing room, and I hope that I will now have time to blog, at least occasionally.

This is, I think, a very interesting time in which to be appearing with a debut novel. The state of the general economy is obviously not good, and in consequence one worries that potential readers who, in better times, might have been willing to gamble on a new author, will now stick to buying the books of better-known writers or, even worse, might stop buying any books at all.

Additionally, the publishing industry is in a fair amount of turmoil, battered by the recession and roiled by the growing competition between the smaller independent booksellers and the larger chains, between these more traditional bookstores and the giant discounters like Costco and Wal-Mart, and between “brick and mortar” bookstores and the online retailers led by

Beyond that, of course, publishers who have, since the days of Johannes Gutenberg, built an industry based on paper and ink and on a business model that has been essentially unchanged for years, are now confronted with an entirely new paradigm in a digital world of Kindles and iPads.

How book publishing will work in this brave new world is very much in question. Certainly no one expects that the traditional book will disappear anytime soon. Still, it is also apparent that growing numbers of readers are migrating to e-books, for at least some of their reading, and one can only assume that this trend will continue, especially as more e-readers come to the market and as the price for these devices falls.

But while the technology for delivering e-books is evolving almost at warp speed, the business model for their sale and distribution is still very much up in the air, and a number of issues are being debated heatedly out here in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

For example, should e-books be released simultaneously with the first edition of the printed book, or should their release be delayed, and if so, for how long?

How should e-books be priced when the cost of producing and distributing them is virtually nothing compared to the cost of printing and distributing a traditional book?

Are readers paying principally for the content of the book (which would suggest that the price for an e-book should not be that much different than that of a printed book), or are they paying for the physical object that constitutes the book (which would suggest that the price of an e-book might be significantly less than that of a printed book)?

Who will set the price of e-books, the publishers or the retailers?

As demonstrated by last week’s brawl between Macmillan and, opinions are strongly held on all sides of these questions, and I certainly would not pretend to have definitive answers to any of them. But I confess that I am concerned by those people who argue that even $9.99 is too much to pay for an e-book that consists of nothing more than a few lines of digital code that can be conveyed from the seller to the buyer for virtually nothing.

The problem with this argument, I think, is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that the price of a traditional book includes much more than just the cost of the paper, the ink and the diesel fuel required to truck the book from the printing plant to your local bookstore.

Long before the book even got to the publisher, a literary agent had to wade through perhaps several hundred query letters and submissions to discover the book in the first place. He or she then had to invest a considerable amount of time, energy and money, first working with the author to polish the book and then submitting it to publishers.

At the publishing company, someone had to review lord-knows how many manuscripts before selecting the book for publication, and in the wake of that decision, an editor had to work with the author to further refine the book and shepherd it through the publication process. The art department had to create and produce cover art that would make the book attractive to readers; the marketing department had to develop a strategy for selling the book; and the sales force had to get out and sell it. And all along the way, these people had to pay rent, salaries, utilities, insurance, and all the other costs necessary to keep their staffs employed and the lights on long enough to get the book out into the world.

Leaving aside the whole issue of what the author should be paid for conceiving the book in the first place, then spending perhaps a year of his or her life writing the book, only to suffer through the daunting and often discouraging process of trying to find an agent and a publisher, certainly the rest of the people involved in this process deserve to be fairly compensated for their efforts. And, certainly, the owners of and shareholders in these companies should be able to expect at least some minimal return on the money they’ve invested.

There are those who suggest that, in the new digital world, all of these “middle men” are now superfluous, and that we no longer need literary agents and traditional publishers standing as gatekeepers between authors and their potential audiences. The assumption is that anyone with a computer can now pound out a book, offer it for sale as an e-book for $1.99, or whatever other price he or she might choose, and thus launch a literary career.

Certainly this will happen, and indeed it is already happening. And I imagine that for some authors, being “published” in this fashion will be sufficiently rewarding, psychologically and perhaps even financially. But this trend will almost certainly result in waves of e-books coming into the market place. Some of these books may well be treasures that otherwise might never have found an audience. But I suspect that many more of them may not live up to that description, and as a reader, even more than a writer, I think it’s critically important that someone continues to sort through the “slush” pile to discover and produce books that are deserving of a wide audience. Agents and publishers have performed that function for a good many years, and for the most part, I think, they have done it very well.

Whether one prefers to read a book in a hardcover edition, a mass market paperback or on his or her e-reader, is ultimately of little consequence to the larger debate. Irrespective of the format, we all want to read great books that are well edited and attractively produced, and this almost certainly cannot be accomplished in an environment where the books are virtually given away (no pun intended).

Obviously, everyone involved—authors, agents, and publishers—will have to adapt to the realities of this new age, but I believe that all of them still have very important roles to play. And in spite of the daunting challenges presented by the current environment, I’m very happy to be joining the game.