Friday, December 30, 2011

It Was a Dark and (Very) Stormy Night...

The first of Elmore Leonard's famous ten rules for writing is, "Never open a book with weather." In Winter Prey, the fifth book in John Sandford's excellent Prey series, the author ignores the rule and opens the book with a blistering winter storm. Indeed, the severe weather that permeates the novel virtually becomes a character in and of itself, to the point that the reader might well want to be sitting in front of a blazing fire with a snifter of fine Brandy close at hand.

The book finds Sandford's protagonist, Lucas Davenport, separated from the Minneapolis PD and virtually hiding out in his Wisconsin cabin. Then a family is brutally murdered and their house is torched in a neighboring county. The small town sheriff knows that he is in way over his head and appeals to Davenport for help. Lucas is growing restless and agrees to take the lead in the investigation after he is sworn in as a deputy.

From the opening scene, the book takes off like a shot. The antagonist, "The Iceman," has a secret that he is determined to keep, no matter how many bodies might fall in the process and regardless of how many innocent people may be hurt. And the bodies do keep falling as the Iceman becomes increasingly desperate. Davenport is initially stumped and what precious little evidence there is points him in a puzzling direction. Happily, though, in the course of the investigation, Lucas meets a local doctor, Weather Karkinnen. "Is that Weather, like 'Stormy Weather'?" Lucas asks. "'Exactly,' the doctor said." Little does Lucas know...

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there are a number of nasty characters in addition to the Iceman in this small town and some pretty nasty secrets as well. Lucas will naturally do his best to sort it out, but it turns out that this tiny town may hold more of a threat to Davenport than any he ever faced in the Big City.

This is another very compelling entry in this series, compete with the plot twists, engaging characters and black humor that Sandford's fans have come to expect. A great read for any cold winter night, but keep the Brandy close at hand; it's very cold out there.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Stories from the Grand Master

This book contains seventy-one short stories written by Lawrence Block--virtually all of the stories he had written through 1999, when the book appeared. The principal exception would be some of the Keller stories which had just been published in Hit Man.

There are several Matthew Scudder stories in the volume, all of which appear with other stories in The Night and The Music, which was released in 2011. The volume also includes a few stories featuring Chip Harrison, Bernie Rhodenbarr and Martin Ehrengraf, the dapper defense attorney whose clients are always innocent, simply by virtue of the fact that they are represented by Ehrengraf. Evan Tanner, Block's other series character apparently had not appeared in any short stories by the time this collection was published.

The bulk of the collection, though, consists of stories that do not feature any of Block's familiar characters and, like the others, they are uniformly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed "Like a Bone in the Throat," in which a man testifies against the killer who murdered his sister but then begins a correspondence with him once the killer has gone to prison. In "The Tulsa Experience," two brothers take a vacation to Oklahoma, which turns out to be more exciting than one might expect of the average Oklahoma vacation. "Like a Bug on a Windshield" will make anyone think twice before flipping off an obnoxious truck driver again.

Another of my favorites is "Three in the Side Pocket," in which a man walks into a bar and meets an attractive woman. Interesting and unexpected things follow. The same is true of virtually all of the characters and situations that Block has created in these stories. They originally appeared in a variety of places through the years and most are virtually impossible to find in the original sources. It's great to have them collected in this large volume and any fan of Lawrence Block will want to have this book in his or her collection.(

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer Returns

In a difficult economy, the criminal defense business is not all that it used to be and so Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, is reduced to defending clients who are about to lose their homes to foreclosure. One of his clients, a not very pleasant woman named Lisa Trammel is not content simply to let Mickey wage the legal battle on her behalf. She begins her own campaign on line and in the streets to defend herself and others against what she perceives to be the villainy of the greedy bankers who are attempting to kick them out of their homes.

Lisa becomes enough of a nuisance that WestLand Financial, the bank that is attempting to foreclose on her home, secures a restraining order against her. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell Bondurant, the banker who heads the mortgage department at WestLand, is savagely killed in the bank's parking garage. Critical evidence points to Lisa Trammel as the killer, but she insists that she has respected the restraining order and that she was nowhere near the bank the morning that Bondurant was murdered.

Lisa retains Mickey to defend her against the murder charge and Mickey suddenly finds himself back in court, doing what he loves. He can hardly love his client, though, who turns out to be a major pain in the neck and who complicates the defense in a variety of ways. Mickey constructs an alternate theory to explain the crime and the question is whether he can get a jury to buy his suggestion before his client torpedoes the case and Mickey along with it.

This is another cleverly constructed legal thriller from Michael Connelly with a "ripped-from-the-headlines" storyline. The courtroom scenes, in particular, are very well done and will keep you on the edge of your seat. As in all of the Haller books, there is also an ongoing subplot involving Mickey's relationship with his ex-wife and their daughter. Connelly's fans and others who enjoy legal thrillers but who have not yet made Mickey Haller's acquaintance are sure to enjoy this page-turner of a book.


As a side note, one of the things that intrigues me about this series is the fact that in these books, as in real life, virtually all of the clients that Mickey Haller sees as a defense attorney are actually guilty. This is still a fairly unusual thing to happen in a legal thriller. This genre originated, as a practical matter, with Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series. Mason remains probably the most famous fictional criminal defense attorney of all, and yet amazingly all eighty-five of the clients he defended in this series were actually innocent!

This has continued to be the case with most other books like this. As the book progresses, our defense attorney hero must not only conduct a brilliant defense of his or her client, but he or she must also expose the Real Killer in the process.

To Connelly's credit, he doesn't do this. Still, though, he seems uncomfortable with the idea of allowing his hero, Attorney Haller, to exercise his considerable talents in the service of allowing a bad person to escape his or her just desserts. In the last Haller novel, Connelly addressed the issue by allowing Haller to switch sides and join the prosecution. In this book, as in The Lincoln Lawyer, we have another twist at the end that allows Mickey to achieve justice in spite of the brilliant defense he has mounted. To my mind, this tactic worked well the first time around, but I'm not so sure it's as plausible here. Connelly may have resolved the issue with another totally unexpected twist at the end of this book, and it will be interesting to see the direction that the author takes Haller in the future.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On the Seamy Side of Galveston

Roy Cady is having what can only be described as an especially bad day. In the afternoon, he discovers that he is terminally ill. Later that evening, he realizes that his boss, a New Orleans loan shark, is almost certainly setting him up to be killed. Roy manages to turn the tables on his would-be assassins and winds up on the run with a sexy young girl and her infant sister.

The trio makes its way to Galveston and holes up in a fleabag motel. There, Roy's larger story unfolds along with that of Rocky, the older of the two girls that Roy is attempting to rescue. Roy and Rocky face insurmountable odds, and Roy debates throughout the wiser course of action: Should he remain with the girls or abandon them and head out on his own? The headstrong Rocky does not make matters any easier and before long, Roy finds himself drawn inexorably into a world of emotional and physical turmoil.

This is a very well-written, carefully constructed novel with some unique characters. The settings are particularly memorable and, probably needless to say, this is not Jimmy Webb or Glen Campbell's "Galveston." Fans of noir-ish crime fiction should enjoy it a great deal.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Introducing Jack Reacher

This is the book that introduced Lee Child's popular character, Jack Reacher in 1997. Reacher is a former military cop who's been made redundant by the end of the cold war. After spending his entire life in the military (Reacher grew up in a military family), he's now completely on his own, footloose and fancy-free. After spending much of his life abroad, he's wandering about the country, getting to know the U.S. up close and personal. As will continue to be the case, Reacher travels light, with nothing more than the clothes on his back, paying cash, traveling by bus and staying off the grid.

On a whim, Reacher has a bus driver drop him off at the interchange for tiny Margrave, Georgia. Reacher has heard a story about an ancient Blues man who once spent time in the town and decides to check it out. He walks fourteen miles into town, orders a cup of coffee in a diner, and is promptly arrested for murder.

Reacher knows that he hasn't killed anyone, at least not in Margrave and not for some time, so he's obviously mystified. He soon discovers that there are a lot of weird things going on in this tiny, pristine town where the townfolk, or at least a good number of them, are harboring some strange secrets. Reacher couldn't care less. He just wants to get clear of the murder charges, get back on the bus, and resume his wandering life. But he quickly develops a personal stake in the murder case, which is decidedly bad news for the evildoers.

Before long, the bodies are piling up left and right, and Reacher is contributing more than his fair share to the carnage. This is a cleverly-plotted book, although it does depend on a coincidence that's almost too huge to swallow. Still, it's a fun read that sets the template for the future books in the series. This is essentially "Shane" brought forward into the Twentieth (and now the Twenty-first) century. Jack Reacher is the mysterious stranger with something approaching mystical powers, who rides into a troubled town, albeit on a Greyhound rather than a horse. He cleans up the town, disposes of the bad guys, dallies briefly with a beautiful, sexy woman that he will have to abandon in the end, and then, once his job is done, he rides off into the sunset.

What's not to like? The formula has worked very well through sixteen books now, and Jack Reacher has become an international favorite. Those who have somehow missed him would do well to start with Killing Floor.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another Early Classic from Lawrence Block

This is among the best of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series, which is saying quite a lot. Set in the mid-1970s, it finds Scudder divorced, working as an unlicensed P.I. in New York City and essentially living in the bars that dot the neighborhood around his small hotel room.

The book opens with the brazen robbery of an after-hours saloon that happens to be owned by some scary Irish brothers that no smart person would ever think to screw around with. Matt is present at the time of the robbery and the owners ask him to look into it, offering a $10,000.00 reward for info leading to the robbers. At virtually the same time, the wife of a casual barroom acquaintance, Tommy Tillary, is murdered. Tillary becomes a suspect and asks Matt to help clear him. If all that weren't bad enough, another of Scudder's friends is being blackmailed and wants Matt to help arrange the payoff.

As the book progresses, Scudder works on each of the three problems with varying degrees of commitment and interest. Each of the three cases is interesting in and of itself, but as always in these books, it's the setting and the characters, especially Scudder himself, that keep you coming back and that make you regret it every time you come to the last page. Lawrence Block has created in these novels a world and a cast unlike any other--for my money easily the best, the most vivid and most interesting of any in crime fiction. I've read this book at least three or four times by now, and I'll be anxiously waiting for it again the next time I make my way through this series.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alone on the Triple Border

Triple Crossing: A Novel takes place mostly at the intersection of politics and the "war" on drugs along the perilous U.S. border with Mexico. It's a book that will probably cause you to throw your hands up in despair; it may also break your heart.

Valentine Pescatore is a young man who has escaped a troubled past in Chicago and joined the Border Patrol. He's still trying to figure out who he is and what his place in life might be. More sympathetic to the illegal immigrants he encounters than many other agents, Valentine bridles at the callous, macho attitude of his direct supervisor. Unsure of himself and trying to fit in, Valentine will party with the man and follow his orders, but he's still uncomfortable about the situation in which he finds himself.

Leo Mendez, a former journalist, has been appointed head of a special Mexican task force, known as the Diogenes Group, and has been charged with the seemingly impossible task of rooting out corruption within the Mexican police. Isabel Puente is a U.S. federal agent who joins forces with Mendez in an effort to bring down a powerful Mexican family that has strong ties both to the government and to the Mexican criminal network.

When Pescatore illegally chases an immigrant back across the border into Mexico, he falls into the clutches of Puente who gives him a stark choice: he can either be punished and perhaps jailed for crossing the border in violation of the law, or he can join her team as an undercover agent.

Pescatore takes door number two, in part because he is strongly attracted to Puente. A reader knows that in any normal thriller, things will immediately go terribly wrong and poor Valentine will find himself in deep, deep trouble. But this is no ordinary thriller. The author, Sebastian Rotella, is an award-winning reporter and a Pulitzer finalist who has covered the U.S.-Mexican border for over twenty years. He is the author of a previous, non-fiction book, Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border, and he obviously knows the territory. This book has the ring of truth, and given the setup, the reader knows that Valentine's troubles are going to be way beyond those of the normal thriller's protagonist.

When things do go sideways, Pescatore finds himself alone in South America's infamous Triple Border, a lawless no-man's land of smugglers and violent criminals. The bad guys don't completely trust him; his own people think he's gone over to the other side, and the prospect of any sort of justice--for Valentine or for anyone else--seems as remote as the Triple Border itself.

This book makes an excellent companion piece to Don Winslow's excellent book, The Power of the Dog. It's not quite on a par with Winslow's book but it's close, and anyone who enjoyed The Power of the Dog and anyone interested in the situation along the nation's border with Mexico should find it an enormously worthwhile and enjoyable read.        

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All He Does Is Drive

This is an excellent contemporary noir novel in which a character becomes caught up by circumstances largely beyond his control and must then struggle to somehow survive.

The main protagonist, Driver, is a stunt driver for the movies, and there's none better. But he also moonlights driving for robberies, and the thrill is principally in the driving itself rather than in the monetary rewards. He makes his position clear to anyone who wants to employ his services: "I drive. That's all I do. I don't sit in while you're planning the score or while you're running it down. You tell me where we start, where we're headed, where we'll be going afterwards, what time of day. I don't take part, I don't know anyone, I don't carry weapons. I drive."

Apart from his driving, Driver leads a minimalist existence, moving frequently, paying cash, leaving virtually no trail. But then, as must always happen in a book like this, things go wrong on a number of levels; Driver winds up alienating some very bad people and the game is on.

This is a beautifuly written book, lean and taut without a single wasted word. One hopes that the release of the movie made from the book will finally garner for it and for James Sallis the wider attention that both he and this book certainly deserve.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Goodbye to the Assassin

Set in 2045, this is the concluding volume in Robert Ferrigno's Assassin trilogy. A devious and ambitious one hundred and fifty year-old character called the Old One dreams of creating a Muslim Caliphate under his own rule. He's been laboring on the project for years (and through the two previous books in this series, Prayers for the Assassin and Sins of the Assassin). As part of the scheme, years earlier, he planted suitcase nukes in New York, Washington, D.C. and Mecca.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the United States crumbled and was divided, essentially, into two-parts, the Belt, dominated by Christians, and the Republic, dominated by Muslims. As this book opens, both regions are threatened by the powerful Aztlan Empire to the south, which is nibbling away at the former U.S., determined at a minimum to regain the territory that the U.S. annexed from Mexico in the middle of the 19th century.

While the Old One manipulates events from behind the scenes, sowing chaos in a fashion calculated to advance his own ambitions, some strategically placed people in the Republic are developing plans to reunite the Belt and the Republic in the hope of restoring the glory of the former U.S. While the politicians and others maneuver, Rakkim Epps, a moderate Muslim and genetically enhanced warrior fights the evil-doers (as he has in the previous books) and attempts to support all things good and virtuous in a decaying world. Rakkim is married to Sarah, a gifted historian who is key to the reunification plans, but in this book, he is also sorely tempted by Baby, the scheming, voluptuous daughter of the Old One.

Ferrigno has created in these books a chilling vision of the near future and a memorable cast of characters. Readers who find the premise appealing will certainly want to read the books in order, although any one of them could be read as a stand-alone.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Parker in a Vise

This is the fourteenth entry in Richard Stark's excellent series about Parker, the amoral criminal whose carefully-laid plans almost always come undone because of some unforeseen accident or because of an act of carelessness by one of the other crooks involved in the plan. In this case, it's the getaway driver who screws everything up. This is not the driver that Parker would have prefered, but it's the driver that Parker had to settle for. And it's Parker who will now have to pay the price.

Parker and two accomplices hit an armored car for $70,000. (This is back in 1969, when $70,000 was still a lot of money.) The overconfident driver loses control of the getaway car and rolls it only a couple of blocks from the scene of the crime. With the cops hot on his tail, Parker grabs the loot and escapes into an amusement park across the street that is closed for the winter.

Parker fully expects an army of cops to surround the park and flush him out, but then several hours pass and nothing happens. It turns out that the two patrolmen who saw Parker go over the fence are corrupt cops in league with local mobsters. Rather than bringing Parker to justice, they intend to hunt him down, kill him and keep the cash for themselves. The result is a great cat-and-mouse chase in which Parker, out-manned and out-gunned, must use every trick in the bag to save himself. He's even more inventive and resourceful than usual, and Stark (Donald Westlake) produces a taut, gripping story with a great climax. Fans of this series will be very grateful to the University of Chicago Press for resurrecting this title which has been unavailable for a good number of years.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Will Magowan Returns

Will Magowan simply cannot catch a break.

Readers first met Will in Slow Fire, Ken Mercer's excellent debut novel. At the time, Will was a disgraced former L.A. cop who had lost his wife along with his job and who had also suffered a horrible personal tragedy. With no other prospects, Will accepted an offer that came from out of the blue to be the police chief in Haydenville, a small town in northern California. To all outward appearances, Haydenville appeared to be an idyllic spot, but Will soon discovered that the little town was in the grip of a plague and that its well-being was threatened by some very unsavory characters.

By the end of Slow Fire, Will had largely straightened out the problems in Haydenville, and in East on Sunset: A Crime Novel, we find him back in L.A. and no longer interested in a career in law enforcement. Instead, he is perfectly content to accept a job as a security officer for the L.A. Dodgers. Will and his estranged wife, Laurie have reunited; they have a nice new home, and it appears that life is finally working out for Will.

Enter Erik Crandall, whom Will busted years ago when he was still working undercover narcotics. Recently freed from prison, Crandall is determined to wreak revenge on Will. In particular, he believes that Will stole some $500,000 worth of drugs that belonged to Crandall and that never made it into the evidence locker when Magowan and his colleagues arrested Crandall.

Crandall arrives in L.A., tracks down Will and confronts him. Will knows that he didn't steal Crandall's drugs and points out the obvious: If Crandall had been arrested in possession of that much dope, instead of the relatively small amount that did reach the evidence locker, his sentence would have been much longer.

This sort of logic is totally lost on Crandall who has turned into a massive steroid freak and who is obsessed with the idea that Will has wronged him and that he must pay. Crandall threatens harm to Will and his wife, and when Will cannot get the police to take Crandall's threats seriously, he has no choice other than to deal with the threat himself. Will is thus forced to revisit a past he had long thought buried, and before long, Erik Crandall is not the only threat that Magowan will have to confront.

In this, his second outing, Ken Mercer has written another faced-paced novel with a very sympathetic protagnist. One feels for Will Magowan as the odds again seem to be stacked so heavily against him. And in Erik Crandall, Mercer has created a truly creepy and frightening antagonist who seems at times to be more than a match for Will.

One hopes that the next time around, Mercer will allow Magowan at least a bit of well-deserved peace and quiet, but based on the evidence of these first two books, Will probably shouldn't hold out much hope.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Charlie Hood Drives Again

Charlie Hood, a veteran of the Iraq War, is a modern-day lawman with the soul of a 19th century western sheriff. Charlie is a deputy in the L.A. Sheriff's Department, and he cruises the Antelope Valley in the desert north of the city. Charlie loves to drive, preferably alone, and preferably late at night.

One night however, Charlie is paired with another deputy, Terry Laws, known to the rest of the department as "Mr. Wonderful," because of the great job he's done raising his daughters, because of his dedication to the job, the bodybuilding titles he's won, and the charitable work he does in his off-duty hours. Hood and Laws respond to a routine Housing Authority complaint and as they are returning to the patrol car, a gunman appears from behind a tree and murders Laws in a hail of bullets. Hood survives, perhaps because the gun jammed or perhaps the gunman deliberately spared him.

Shortly thereafter, Hood receives a visit from Internal Affairs. The IA people suggest that perhaps "Mr. Wonderful" wasn't so wonderful at all and they want to add Hood to the team and have him investigate Laws. Hood is reluctant; he wants to patrol the county and catch bad guys. He has no taste for investigating fellow cops. But IA offers the usual rejoinder: somebody's got to police the police and, sadly, not all of the bad guys are civilians.

Hood begins his investigation and soon discovers that Laws had an awful lot of money for someone earning a deputy's wages. As he probes deeper into the situation, Charlie is drawn into a sordid world of drugs, money laundering and other illegal activities. But Hood is resolute; he has a strong moral compass, and he will pursue this mess to its conclusion, no matter how distasteful or violent.

This is the second of Parker's books to feature Charlie Hood, and as is always the case in Parker's books, the characters are unique, interesting and sharply drawn. The investigation is intriguing and the climax suitably violent and hair-raising. Parker has written a third book in the Charlie Hood series, Iron River, and one hopes that he will write a lot more.        

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lucas Davenport Returns to His First Case

This is the twenty-first John Sandford novel to feature Minnesota detective Lucas Davenport, and it's one of the best books in a truly great series.

Twenty-five years ago, Davenport was a beat cop with a taste for fine clothes, fast cars and attractive women. He was also smart, ambitious and determined to excell, preferably as a detective, but if not, perhaps as a lawyer. He gets the chance to prove himself when two young girls go missing. Lucas, along with some other patrolmen, is assigned temporarily to plain clothes to assist in the investigation.

Davenport is determined to make the most of the opportunity and he attracts the attention of a powerful patron who's impressed with Davenport's early work on the case. Sadly, though, the missing girls are never found. A suspect is identified and the case is declared closed, although Davenport is not entirely comfortable with the official solution to the crime.

In the years that follow, Lucas becomes a local legend and becomes the most brilliant detective the state of Minnesota has ever produced, occasionally bending the rules and sometimes meting out his own rough justice, but always getting results. Through the years, he has risen through the ranks and is now head of the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. And finally, after all that time, the bodies of the two missing girls are uncovered, buried under a concrete slab in a building that is being demolished.

Davenport finally has the chance to revisit the crime that got him started as a detective and the solution to which has always bothered him. This time, he will let nothing stand between himself and the truth, no matter the consequences.

The consequences are indeed painful, and those readers who have followed this series since Rules of Prey are in for a great ride. Like all of Sandford's books, this one has great comic moments that never detract from the serious business at hand. It has some great action scenes, a very interesting climax, and in the end, it may just break your heart. But once you start it, you won't put it down and you'll never forget it.        

Saturday, July 2, 2011

John Rebus: Hail and Farewell

This is the seventeenth and allegedly last book in Ian Rankin's excellent series featuring Edinburgh Inspector John Rebus. Rebus was already nearly sixty years old before his creator was stunned to discover that sixty was the mandatory retirement age for detectives in Scotland. Accordingly, this book finds Rebus in the autumn of the year and of his career as well.

Rebus has ten days do go when Alexander Todorov, a Russian poet, is brutally murdered after a reading. To all appearances Todorov was the victim of a run-of-the-mill mugging, but Rebus and his long-time understudy, Siobhan Clarke, discover a number of anomalies that make them wonder if the case is really as simple as it appears.

Todorov's murder coincides with the visit of a group of Russian businessmen who are looking to make large investments in Scotland. Naturally, the local politicos, bankers and other bigwigs fear that the killing might unsettle the Russians and discourage their interest, and inevitably the Powers-That-Be want the case buttoned up and swept under the carpet.

Those who have followed this series know full well that John Rebus is not a man who usually follows orders with which he does not agree. And so instead of going quietly into that good night, Rebus presses the investigation full-bore, alienating large numbers of Very Important People in the process, including his own superiors. This too, is hardly unheard of for Rebus, and when a second murder occurs, Rebus is certain that the case is more complicated that it appears on the surface. The case then takes a particularly interesting turn with the appearance of Rebus's long-time nemesis, Big Ger Cafferty.

This is a very good book with a complex and interesting plot, in what has been an outstanding series. And it's more than a little bittersweet, watching Rebus count down the days to his retirement while he wonders if he can possibly close his last case before he is put out to pasture. I saw Ian Rankin at an event a few months ago, and as any of his fans will imagine, there were a lot of people in the audience pleading with him to somehow bring the character back. Rankin seemed as reluctant to let go of Rebus as his fans were, and so I'm hoping that this will not really be the last book in the series. But if it should be, Exit Music is an excellent valediction for one of the truly great characters in detective fiction.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Stuart Neville, who formerly worked as a hand double for a "well-known Irish comedian," has written a brilliant, atmospheric first novel set against the continuing "troubles" in Northern Ireland.

In the public eye at least, the men who fought the brutal battles of the long struggle have now given way to the politicians and peace is in the wind. But behind the scenes there are still scores to be settled and discipline to be maintained. Additionally, some of the men who might have once been idealists fighting for a sacred cause have now degenerated into common thugs. And while peace may be at hand, they are determined to protect themselves, their profits and the criminal enterprises they have created.

Into this combustible mix steps Gerry Fegan, an IRA killer who has recently been released from prison. Fegan, who was once one of the most feared men in Northern Ireland, is now drinking heavily, apparently slipping into psychosis, and losing his edge. He is now more pitied than feared by those who knew him in the old days.

But Fegan is a changed man. More important, he finds himself haunted by the ghosts of twelve innocent people that he killed while carrying out his missions for the IRA. These ghosts of Belfast will not let Fegan rest until he has avenged their deaths by killing the men who gave the orders that led to their deaths.

In an effort to salve his conscience, and in the hope of getting the ghosts to leave him in peace, Fegan sets about the task of taking revenge against the men who were once his masters. By doing so, he threatens not only his targets, but the entire peace process itself.

Inevitably, then, Fegan becomes a target himself, of his former bosses and of the establishment authorities who are willing to go to any lengths to keep the peace agreement from unraveling. Fairly quickly the question becomes whether Fegan can complete his mission and satisfy the spirits who torment him before his enemies catch up to him. And along the way, Fegan also begins a very tentative relationship with a woman and her young daughter who may represent his last chance at redemption.

Stuart Neville has a rare gift with language, and this book is beautifully written. The scenes are well set; the characters are expertly drawn, and you will not soon forget them. This is a bloody, violent, and ultimately heart-breaking book, and once it takes hold of you, it will not let go.        

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Brady Coyne's 24th Case

"Hell Bent" is the twenty-fourth book to feature Boston attorney Brady Coyne, and it ranks among the best of the entries. For those who haven't met him, Coyne is a sole practitioner with a client list that consists mostly of fairly well-heeled Bostonians and a secretary named Julie, who keeps his professional life in some semblance of order. He's long divorced and usually involved with an attractive female.

As Brady comments in this book, he was trained to be a lawyer, but his DNA programmed him to be a fisherman. In this book, though, unlike most of the others, Brady has no time for fishing. After an absence of several years, an old girlfriend, Alex Shaw, walks back into Brady's life and asks him to represent her brother, Gus. Gus is a photojournalist who lost a hand, and thus his profession, in an explosion in Iraq. Not surprisingly he comes back a changed man and the changes are not for the better.

Gus is suffering from PTSD; he's a stranger to his wife and daughters, and a menace to them and to himself as well. His wife sues for divorce and secures a restraining order against him, but Gus doesn't care. He's perfectly willing to give her everything; nothing matters to him any more. Alex wants Brady to protect Gus's interests in the divorce, and Gus reluctantly agrees to let Brady represent him.

Almost immediately thereafter, though, Gus is found shot to death, the victim of an apparent suicide. The cops and everyone else sign off on the case, but Alex refuses to believe that her brother would kill himself. Brady isn't sure, but Alex has walked back into his life four months after his latest girlfriend walked out of it. There's still a spark between Alex and Brady and so he agrees to investigate.

Inevitably, things are more complicated than they initially appear, and Brady finds himself drawn into a complex and dangerous situation. The result is a book in which the urgency mounts and which is increasingly difficult to put down. Long-time fans of the series will enjoy "Hell Bent", but it will also appeal to fans of crime fiction who have never sampled Tapply's work before.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Parker Needs a Deadly Edge

This is another of Richard Stark's (Donald Westlake's) Parker series that has been out of print and unavailable for a good number of years. Happily, the University of Chicago Press has recently published a new edition of the book with an introduction by Charles Ardai, the man behind the Hard Case Crime series.

The basic framework of the novel will be familiar to most fans of the series. Parker and a crew of men execute a carefully planned heist, in this case at a rock concert. Then, almost immediately, things go awry and Parker has to spend the rest of the book extricating himself from the resulting jam, hoping to get away with both his life and his share of the loot. As always, it's great fun to watch Parker at work both on the caper and in the aftermath.

At this point in the series, Parker is settling into a relationship with Claire, the woman he met a few books earlier in The Rare Coin Score. After living in hotels, Claire has found a house for them to share, which she hopes will be a haven for Parker between jobs. This is important to her, less so to him. Parker "didn't think about houses, they had as much to do with his life as apple trees." But Claire is important to him and so he feigns more enthusiasm than he actually feels.

This book is unique in the series, because a good portion of it is told from Claire's perspective. But it's an interesting approach, and given the importance that Claire assumes in Parker's life and, thus, in the series, it's nice to have this more complete introduction to her character.

A number of fans of this series have been extremely frustrated through the years because these books have been impossible to find. But with the books published by the University of Chicago Press over the last couple of years, the entire series is at long last available again. All of Parker's (and Richard Stark's) fans are enormously grateful.        

Monday, May 30, 2011

Reacher Rides Again

Happily, Jack Reacher has survived the catastrophic explosion that ended his last adventure, 61 Hours. (This gives nothing away for those who haven't read the book. The fact that there is a fifteenth Reacher book is a pretty good sign that he must have survived the fourteenth, although that was not entirely clear at the time.)

Jack now finds himself out in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Nebraska, still recuperating from his injuries and attempting to find a ride to Virginia. As often happens in these books, a small and totally unexpected incident propels Reacher into a major and life-threatening adventure. In this case, Reacher meets a drunken doctor in a bar. The doctor gets a phone call from a woman who has a nose bleed that will not stop. The doctor refuses to go treat the woman and so Reacher, ever the White Knight, compels him to do so.

Once at the woman's home, Reacher quickly deduces that the woman is the victim of domestic abuse. Once the doctor has treated the woman, Reacher goes looking for the husband and punches his lights out to teach the guy a lesson. But, inevitably of course, Reacher has inadvertently stumbled into the briar patch. The husband, in concert with his father and his two uncles, have a stranglehold on the farmers and other residents who inhabit this small and isolated corner of the world. They have intimidated and dominated the kindly folk much in the same way that the Rykers had earlier intimidated and dominated the sod busters of Wyoming before Shane came to the rescue.

In essence, virtually all of the Reacher novels are modern versions of Jack Schaefer's classic novel. Our hero, who has powers beyond those of most mortal men, rides into town (usually on a bus or in a car where he has hitched a ride, rather than on a stallion), and discovers some fundamental injustice. Often the townfolk recognize that the injustice exists, but they are too weak or too scared or too disorganized to do anything about it. Reacher analyzes the problem, steps up to the plate and deals with the bad guys thus saving the town. He then rides off into the sunset (or in this case, actually, into the sunrise). Thus far, no sweet little boy has been dogging his heels begging him to stay, although occasionally there is a beautiful and usually well-sated woman who wishes that he would.

The villains in this book are among the best that Child has created, and they have a dark secret that is well hidden through virtually the entire book. There is also an old mystery that needs to be solved here and the result is another Reacher book that you can't put down. It consists of 62 tightly-written chapters, each of which just short enough to convince you that you can read "just one more" before giving it up for the night. Then before you know it, it's three o'clock in the morning and your wife is waking up again for the fifth or sixth time wondering when in the hell you're going to turn the damned light off so that she can get some sleep. By then, though, you're far enough along that she's just going to have to tough it out for another thirty minutes or so.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Master in His Latter Years

After a long six years, Lawrence Block finally delivers A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the seventeenth book featuring New York P.I., Matthew Scudder. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers in 1976, Block has parceled the Scudder books out over a period of thirty-five years, much to the frustration of fans who can't get enough of them. But each book has been worth the wait, and this one is no exception.

By now, Matthew Scudder would be in his middle seventies, and so Block cleverly sets this book back in the early 1980s, when Scudder is still in his middle forties and at a critical point in his life. As virtually every fan of crime fiction knows, in the early books in the series, Scudder, a divorced ex-cop, had a serious problem with alcohol. In the nick of time, he found AA and saved himself, and in A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Block returns to the first year of Matt's sobriety, when he's still struggling with temptation and adjusting to a new way of life that involves attending an awful lot of AA meetings.

At one such meeting, Scudder re-connects with Jack Ellery. The two knew each other briefly as boys, but haven't seen each other in years. Ellery has followed an even tougher road than Scudder. While young Matt grew up to be a cop, young Jack grew up to become a criminal and has spent time in jail as a result.

Ellery is now clean and sober as well and is working his way through AA's famous Twelve Steps. Matt is just beginning this journey and is in no particular hurry. Jack has reached the latter stages of the process and is at the point where he has made a list of the people whom he has harmed and is attempting to apologize and make amends. When Ellery is found murdered, with a bullet in his mouth, his friends in AA leap to the logical conclusion that someone that Jack harmed was not content simply to accept an apology. Either that, or someone feared the consequences of Jack's apologies and wanted to silence him.

Ellery's AA sponsor hires Matt to look into the murder which sets Matt on a course that will lead to even more violence and place Matt himself at great personal risk.

As always, the real treat in these books is watching Scudder at work, especially since this book takes place before personal computers were commonplace, long before Al Gore invented the Internet, and when the only person who had something approaching a cell phone was still Dick Tracy. It's also fun to meet again some of the characters that Block had introduced early in the series and who had then disappeared from the books for one reason or another. And, as always, the setting in New York City is a major part of the book, and Block is clearly nostalgic for a time and a place that has long since disappeared.

Any long-time fan is also going to read this book with a fair sense of nostalgia. You can't help but wonder if this might finally be the last book in a truly great series. One desperately hopes that this will not be the case, but if it is, then this is certainly a good book for Block--and Scudder--to go out on. But in truth, the same could be said for any of the recent entries in this series, and one can't help but point out that A Drop of the Hard Stuff proves that Block certainly has the chops to keep writing it. The book is as engaging and as entertaining as virtually any of the other Scudder books and one can only hope that we will not have to wait another six years to see Matthew Scudder again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Two Masters in Their Formative Years

In the late 1950s, two young fledgling writers, Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake were learning their craft, writing articles and books, including soft-core sex novels that were published under a variety of pseudonyms. Their common link was the Scott Meredith Literary Agency where they met and became fast friends.

Early on in their friendship, they decided to try collaborating on a novel titled "A Girl Called Honey." The plan was that one of the two would write a chapter and ship it off to the other who would then write the next. They would alternate in this fashion until the book was done and they would then split the proceeds from the sale. They had no discussions at all about the characters, the plot, or the direction the book might take; they simply winged it, each writer working off of the developments that had occurred in the previous chapter. They enjoyed it so much that they ultimately collaborated on two similar projects, and the three books have been collected into this edition, with an introduction by Lawrence Block.

The first book, "A Girl Called Honey," describes the long slide of a lovely young Kentucky girl into the grip of prostitution and drug addiction. In the second, "So Willing," a teenager named Vince is determined to discover and deflower a virgin. Vince seems to have an awful lot of sex for a teenager in the early 1960s, but he discovers much to his sorrow that there are, apparently, no virgins left on the planet. In the third book, "Sin Hellcat," a New York advertising executive, trapped in a sexless marriage, reunites with a college girlfriend who is now a high class hooker. The two have a lot of great sex and a fantastic adventure as well. These books were doubtless considered to be pretty "racy" by the standards of their day, although they seem pretty tame now, and would hardly cause an eyebrow to be raised in most circles.

 Hellcats and Honeygirls is a book that will appeal mostly to ardent fans of Block and Westlake who would graduate from these humble beginnings to become two of the giants in crime fiction. Westlake, of course, is now deceased, but in the introduction, Block has written a very entertaining account of their friendship that is worth the price of the book all by itself.

The fun in reading these stories lies mostly in the fact that it is obvious that the two authors had an enormous amount of fun writing them. Particularly in the second and third books, they each tried to paint the other into a corner at the end of virtually every chapter. One can almost see either Block or Westlake gleefully ripping the last page of a chapter out of the typewriter and sending it off, rubbing his hands together wondering how the other would ever worm his way out of the situation just created.

 I've read a fair number of Westlake's books, and through the years I've read virtually everything that Block has written and that is still in print, including his short stories and his articles on the craft of writing. I've long considered him to be one of the most entertaining writers around--I bet that even his grocery lists are fun--and I enjoyed very much the opportunity to read these books from his formative years as a writer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

CSI Vermont

This is the twenty-first entry into one of the longest running--and best--regional mystery series out there. Beginning with Open Season in 1988, Archer Mayor has created a memorable cast of characters, headed by the series protagonist, Joe Gunther.

When the series began, Joe was a detective with the Brattleboro, Vermont P.D. Twenty-three years later, he is head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, a state agency that investigates major crimes anywhere within the state. He has taken with him into the VBI a number of the investigators who worked with him in Brattleboro, and readers who have been with this series from the beginning have watched most of these characters grow from young adulthood into something approaching middle age. How close they are to middle age is a bit unclear. Mayor has allowed them to age, but has not tied them strictly to the actual calendar. This is a good thing, because when the series opened, Gunther had already been widowed for eighteen years after being married for eight, which would put him somewhere in his middle seventies by the time he was forced to investigate the crimes in this new book. No wonder the poor guy is tired!

Early in Red Herring, Gunther and his team are confronted with three confusing incidents. One is clearly a murder; another is an apparent suicide, and the third appears to be a drunk-driving accident. Gunther's investigation soon reveals, however, that all three incidents are clearly murder, almost certainly committed by the same serial killer who has left a calling card at each scene--a large drop of blood that obviously does not belong either to the victims or to the killer himself.

Joe and his team turn to forensics experts who will examine the blood samples using equipment far more sophisticated than that available to your average crime lab in the hope of teasing out of the samples some clue that will point the detectives in the right direction. In the meantime, Joe and his team will do the traditional grunt work of an investigation in the hope of producing results.

As is usual in these books, particularly in the later entries, the investigation will take Joe across much of Vermont. And as usual, Mayor's descriptions of his native state, its people, geography and climate are part of the joy of reading the book. By now, Mayor's long-time readers must feel as though they know Vermont nearly as intimately as half of the people who live there.

My one quibble with this book is all of the science that Mayor parades before us. The book involves a good deal of cutting-edge technology and science, and it includes several trips to crime labs, including the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Mayor has obviously spent a lot of time researching the science involved here and apparently spent time at the BNL himself while researching the book.

But like a graduate student who's determined to cram every last note he's taken into his dissertation, Mayor feels compelled to explain all of the science at great length to the point where your eyes glaze over. The plot slows dramatically at these points, and one is reminded of Elmore Leonard's famous advice to writers, encouraging them to leave out the parts that the readers are going to skip over anyway. The science is important to the solution of the crime, but certainly some of this could have been condensed.

Still, that's a relatively small complaint and while this will not rank among my favorite books in the series, it's still a very welcome addition. In some ways, returning to Vermont to visit Gunther and the rest of the cast always feels like coming home.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Matthew Scudder in Middle Age

I've long believed that Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series is the best PI series ever written. Some of the books individually stand with any of the classics produced by writers like Raymond Chandler et al., but Block has produced far more books in this series (sixteen and soon to be seventeen) than any of the other "Masters" of the genre. The books are consistently very good if not great, and in addition to writing a number of inventive and absorbing plots, Block has created a cast of memorable, fully-drawn characters in addition to Scudder, the main protagonist. He has also allowed them all to age and become more complex through the years so that reading one of these books is like returning to visit with a lot of old and very interesting friends. If that weren't enough, Block has also built a lushly-drawn set--Scudder's New York City--in which these stories take place.

Even the Wicked is the thirteenth book in the series. Scudder is in his middle fifties, now happily married and domesticated. He's a much more mellow character than he was in the early years, and this particular book is also a bit tamer than some of the earlier entries. The violence is not as gruesome and doesn't seem as threatening; the sex is not as hot and bothered, and Scudder doesn't have to get very violent with anyone.

Which is not to say that this isn't a very enjoyable read. Scudder is forced to deal with a series of complicated crimes, perpetrated by at least three separate characters. In the main case, a vigilante, inspired by a newspaper columnist, is ridding NYC of despicable characters that the legal system is unable to touch for one reason or another. After claiming three scumbag victims, he announced that his next target will be a criminal defense attorney who has won a number of high profile cases. The attorney hires Scudder to try to find the killer, even though the police are working night and day to find him as well.

Scudder arranges protection for the attorney and gets on the job. At the same time a friend asks Matt to look into the shooting death of an AIDS victim who was killed in a city park. The police are not pursuing the case very aggressively and are apparently ready to write it off as a random act of violence in the big city. Matt, of course, will not dismiss it so easily.

Scudder works the two investigations in and around evenings with his wife, Elaine, and again engages the services of TJ, the street kid who first appeared as Scudder's semi-sidekick a few books earlier. It's fun to watch him work and it's also fun to listen to the banter among the characters. And inevitably, Matt's dogged persistence will pay dividends in the end.

This book certainly doesn't have the hard edge of some of the earlier Scudder novels, but you wouldn't expect a fifty-five-year-old PI to be wrapped as tightly and to act as fiercely as the young, alcoholic ex-cop that we first met in The Sins of the Fathers. After a very long wait, we are about to finally get a new Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which is set earlier in Scudder's career. I would expect this book to resemble much more closely in tone some of the best books in the series, and I, for one, can hardly wait.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A New Milo Sturgis Novel

When a teacher at a very exclusive prep school is found dead in a tub of dry ice, L.A. Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis is assigned to the case. The murdered teacher has left behind a DVD on which she claims that she was subjected to relentless sexual harassment by three other members of the school's staff, whom she names on the video. Because it looks like an interesting case, Milo invites his old pal, Alex Delaware, to tag along during the investigation.

Logically, Milo's investigation should start with the school and the accused staffers. However, the Deputy Chief's son attends the school. The Deputy Chief very much wants his son to be admitted to Yale and fears that any whiff of scandal connected to the school might dim his son's chances. So the D.C. orders Milo to give the school a wide berth, except as a last resort and then only with the D.C.'s permission. The D.C. would prefer that Milo nail the victim's boyfriend for the crime, or anyone else not associated with the school.

Milo pursues the investigation in his own inimitable way, meaning that he will do things as he sees fit, irrespective of what the D.C. or any other Big Cheese might prefer. The faithful Alex will be at his side throughout to drive him, feed him, offer moral support, and occasionally ask the pertinent question. Inevitably there will be lots of twists and turns along the way to the conclusion of the case.

As crime novels go, this is not bad and it's better than a lot of others. My problem with this book, as it was with the last Jonathan Kellerman book that I read, is that it is billed as "An Alex Delaware Novel," when, in fact, Alex is basically just along for the ride, essentially serving as Dr. Watson to Milo's Sherlock Holmes. Even Delaware's domestic situation, which was once fairly interesting, has apparently settled into a bland, run-of-the-mill relationship. As a result, Robin, his girlfriend, gets an obligatory couple of paragraphs, but that's about it--just enough to say, "Hi," 'Bye," and "Have a great time investigating, Boys!"

In the beginning, this series was distinguished by the fact that the lead, Alex Delaware, was a brilliant child psychologist. The department asked him to consult on cases that involved children and where he had a legitimate role to play, Inevitably, Alex wound up in the middle of everything and was always the one to solve the case, but he was there for a logical reason--his presence always made sense. In these early books, Milo Sturgis was the second banana, there to provide an official police presence as needed.

In the last couple of books or more, Alex has had no legitimate reason to be involved whatsoever. He's not officially consulting and in the real world, no citizen would ever be allowed to tag along in an investigation like this. He occasionally does some grunt work for Milo on the computer--usually something that any competent high school kid could do equally well. He occasionally offers some psychological insight about one or another of the suspects, but never anything particularly deep, and certainly nothing that Milo would not be able to observe himself after hanging out with Alex for the better part of twenty friggin' years.

Again, this is a pretty good crime novel, but sooner or later the agency that regulates truth in advertising needs to get involved here. This is really "A Milo Sturgis Novel," and there's no reason at all for Alex Delaware to be involved. This used to be one of the really good crime series out there. The protagonist was interesting and unusual; the cases were different and compelling, and the series stood apart from anything that anyone else was writing. I'm not going to give up on this series, but it really would be nice to get a real Alex Delaware novel again sometime.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pascual Rose: In Love and on the Run

This is another thought-provoking book from Dominic Martell that grabs you by the throat and won't let go, even after you've finished reading it. Pascual Rose was once involved with a number of groups who committed terrorist acts across Europe. But then he abandoned these radical causes and ratted out all of his former associates, save one--his lover, the beautiful Katixa, to the C.I.A. in return for a new identity and a safe "retirement."

Six years later, Pascual is scratching out a meager existence in the slums of Barcelona, drinking too much, occasionally bedding an overripe widow, and trying to keep his head down so as to avoid being found by his old associates who would very much like to extract revenge for his defection. Then, from out of nowhere, Katixa bursts back into his life, on the run with five million francs that she has stolen. Katixa proposes that she and Pascual find a way to sneak out of Spain with the loot so that they can finally live happily ever after.

Pascual has never lost the passion and the love he felt for Katixa, and he is totally intoxicated by the idea of being reunited with her. His efforts to make this plan work and to realize his dream open the door to a complicated tale of intrigue and double-crosses, punctuated by a considerable amount of violence.

As is often the case in novels like this, it's ultimately hard to determine who the good guys are or if, indeed, there even are any good guys at all. But you instinctively root for Pascual. For all the terrible things he might have done in his earlier life, you want things to work out well for him in the end and once you've started the book, it's almost impossible to put it down until you know if they will or not. One thing you will know for sure, though, once you've finished the book, is that Dominic Martell is an author who deserves a much wider audience.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This is the book in which Michael Connelly introduced Michael Haller, a lawyer who works out of an "office" in the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car as he navigates the various courtrooms that dot Los Angeles County. Connelly got the idea for the character in a chance meeting at a Dodgers baseball game when he sat next to an attorney who did exactly that.

Mickey Haller is a bright guy who works all of the angles. Mostly he represents drug dealers, prostitutes and other low-lifes, but except for the very occasional pro bono case, he takes only those clients who can afford the price of his services. And like all criminal attorneys, he has his eye out for the "franchise" case--the one that can pay him humongous fees.

He believes he's found such a case when he's asked to defend Louis Roulet, the son of a wealthy family and of a mother who will do anything--and pay anything--to save her son from jail. Roulet is accused of assaulting a woman he met at a bar. Like all of Mickey's clients, he claims to be innocent. Specifically, he claims that the victim hit him over the head, beat herself up (or had someone else do it) and then planted evidence that would point the finger at Roulet so that after the criminal trial she could sue him for big bucks in civil court.

The case quickly turns into something much more complicated and sinister than it originally appeared. Haller suddenly understands that genuine evil is present in this case, and he finds himself in an impossible situation. Watching him confront the case and attempt to produce a satisfactory conclusion is great fun. Haller, who has two ex-wives and a small daughter, all of whom still love him, is a very appealing character, which is doubtless why Connelly has turned him into a series character and why Hollywood jumped at the chance to make a movie of the book. Connelly proves himself to be as adept at writing legal thrillers as he is at writing more traditional crime fiction, and it's hard to imagine that any reader who likes either would not enjoy this book.

*SPOILER ALERT* Do not read beyond this point if you want to read the book or see the movie without knowing the ending in advance.

I first read this book several years ago when it was initially released, and I wanted to read it again before seeing the movie. Although Matthew McConaughey does not look remotely like the Mickey Haller I imagined in the book, he's very good in the role and after watching the movie for forty-five minutes or so, I readily accepted him as Mickey Haller. In fact, everyone in the movie is very good, particularly Marisa Tomei who plays one of Haller's ex-wives. The movie is as much fun as the book. I don't remember my initial reaction to the book's ending but while it's very exciting, both in the book and on the screen, it's hopelessly implausible and really makes no sense at all.

Essentially what has happened is that Haller discovers that his client, Roulet, is actually guilty of the murder of a woman who was killed some years earlier. Haller defended the man accused of the murder and the evidence was stacked so heavily against him that Haller convinced the client to plead guilty to the crime as a way of getting a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Haller is furious when he discovers the truth and rigs the situation so that he gets Roulet acquitted on the assault charge but sets him up to be arrested for the original murder, thus freeing the former client from San Quentin.

How he manages to do this makes great theater, but in the real world it couldn't possibly happen. The fact is that the police and the D.A. have a killer in prison who has confessed to the murder and who had a mountain of evidence that proved his guilt. The thought that they would ignore all of that and arrest and prosecute Roulet for the crime is laughable, especially based upon the flimsy evidence against Roulet that Haller has uncovered. One wishes that the justice system would work that fairly--that in a case like this the police and prosecutors would recognize their mistake and repair it--but sadly that's not the way the world works.

All too often you read about some poor schmuck who's been railroaded into prison for a crime he probably did not commit--as often as not after a coerced confession--and then later someone else comes along and actually confesses to the crime. Even in such an extreme case, it practically takes an act of God to get the first guy exonerated, and often it doesn't ever happen. The thought that the police and D.A. would turn on a dime and act as they do at the end of this book and movie makes you shake your head.

Some other equally implausible things happen at the end of the book and especially at the end of the movie, but still, if you can suspend disbelief, both are fun rides. I've enjoyed the subsequent Mickey Haller books, and I would happily see another Mickey Haller movie if it were done as well as this one.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Two SoCal Boys Take on a Mexican Cartel

Don Winslow scores again with Savages. Two Laguna Beach buddies, Ben and Chon, operate a top-of-the-line marijuana business. Ben is a laid-back environmentalist and philanthropist; Chon is an ex-Navy Seal and former mercenary. They grow their own product, which is much desired, and they have a loyal and exclusive clientele. Both Ben and Chon are in love with the beautiful Ophelia, a spoiled local rich girl who loves both of them in return.

There have been occasional minor threats to the business, but they have been quickly dealt with by Chon. Now, though, a Mexican cartel has decided to take over Ben and Chon's operation and the Mexicans also insist that Ben and Chon continue to grow the product for them, effectively becoming the cartel's employees. When Ben and Chon refuse, the cartel kidnaps Ophelia, insisting that they will hold her captive until Ben and Chon agree to the cartel's "offer." Should they continue to refuse, gruesome things will be done to Ophelia. Ben and Chon, determined to rescue Ophelia and to preserve their independence, declare war on the cartel.

"Savages" is, by turn, very funny and extremely violent. Winslow who wrote perhaps the best fictional account of the drug trade ever published, the classic The Power of the Dog, is in great form. As usual, he captures brilliantly the Southern California lifestyle while at the same time skewering the misadventure that is the "war" on drugs. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but for anyone who might not yet have discovered Winslow, it's a great place to start.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Donald Lam, On Top of the Heap

I first encountered Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A. A. Fair, while a young boy growing up in the wilderness of northwestern Montana. My father was a big fan of Gardner’s Perry Mason series, but occasionally he brought home one of the Fair books, and eventually he would pass it along to me if he deemed the subject matter appropriate for a lad of my tender years. Of course the ones I most looked forward to were the ones that he did not pass along and that I had to read on the sly.

I can’t remember into which category Top of the Heap might have fallen. There is a stripper in the book, along with a couple of other women of questionable virtue, and so I’m betting that this is one that Dad didn’t recommend.

The A. A. Fair series featured a team of detectives, Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. Lam was the brainy, pint-sized detective who did all of the work, while the bejeweled, avaricious, and considerably overweight Bertha, who had founded the agency, mainly sat behind the desk and gave her partner grief. Donald had a gift when it came to the fairer sex, and women usually fell for him fast and hard. As a small boy myself, I found it very encouraging to think that a guy who was only about five-six and 135 pounds could still do so well with the ladies.

Occasionally, though, Donald would encounter a woman who, for some inexplicable reason, was immune to his charms and needed to have the living bejesus scared out of her. At that point, he would call in the reinforcements, and Bertha would bestir herself and swing into action. Before long, the woman in question would be reduced to a sniveling mass of quivering flesh, willing and anxious to provide any information or assistance that the firm of Cool and Lam might require.

As I recall, these books usually followed a predictable pattern. A new client would appear in the office with a job for the agency. The client always had a story of some sort and usually offered a large bonus for quick results. Bertha, who handled the money and the administrative details, would grow wide-eyed at the apparent simplicity of the assignment and at the size of the potential bonus.

She would then call Donald in and give him instructions. Donald, of course, would immediately recognize that the client was not on the level and that something much deeper was going on. Bertha would instruct him to ignore his doubts and do the job as quickly as possible so that the agency could collect the bonus. Donald would generally agree, but then once out of the office would follow his own intuition.

Inevitably, of course, the client was always lying; there was always something deeper and very sinister going on, and again inevitably someone would get murdered. Determined to ferret out the truth, Donald would always be up to his neck in trouble with the police and with a furious Bertha who was breathing down his neck, often threatening to dissolve the partnership and kick Donald out. But then in the nick of time, Donald would solve the case, often generating a bigger fee than Bertha had ever imagined, and in the end everyone was happy again until the next client walked into the office.

Top of the Heap falls into the middle of the series and follows the usual pattern. By now Donald has become a partner in the agency when a wealthy client appears. The client wants the firm to identify and find a couple of women the client met casually a few nights earlier so that they confirm that they were with him on the evening in question. Their evidence will provide the client with an alibi in a relatively minor matter and of course the client offers the usual large bonus for quick results.

Although Donald advises against it, Bertha eagerly agrees to take the case. Donald quickly discovers that the client is a fraud and that he desperately needs an alibi for something much larger than the minor matter he alleges. The book takes off from there and involves gangsters, crooked gamblers, lonely women, wealthy bankers, suspicious miners and two or three murders in a plot that’s almost too convoluted to follow, let alone describe.

Suffice it to say that the fun in these books always lay in watching Donald Lam work, rather than in the plots themselves. As in the Perry Mason series, Gardner here too often wove together impossible and totally implausible plots and then had either Mason or Lam sort things out in the last few pages in a way that left the reader shaking his head trying to follow it all.

The A. A. Fair books have been out of print for years and are virtually impossible to find anymore (unless, of course, you inherited your father’s collection), and Top of the Heap may be the only entry that is readily available. Fans of crime fiction, particularly those who enjoy pulp fiction would probably enjoy reading this book as an example of a series that was once enormously popular, even though it is now hopelessly dated.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

This is, to my mind, probably the least successful of John Sandford's Prey series. That's not to say that I didn't like it, but inevitably in any long-running series, I suppose, one book has to be the best and another has to be the worst, even if they are all quite good.

At the end of the book that preceded this one, Sandford's protagonist, Lucas Davenport, was forced to leave the Minneapolis police force. As this book opens, Davenport is at loose ends and his other activities are not filling the empty spaces or giving him the rush that he got out of being a cop. Then Dr. Michael Bekker, a particularly sadistic killer that Davenport had previously arrested, escapes from custody and begins a new killing spree in New York.

The NYPD brings Davenport in as a consultant to help catch the guy and give the PD some media cover. But the New York cops have a deeper agenda as well. A group of vigilantes has been taking bad guys off the street and may have claimed as many as forty victims. Thus far, only a handful of top cops have realized that the deaths may be the work of a single killer or group of killers. Almost certainly, the vigilantes have inroads deep into police intelligence and may be cops themselves. Under the cover of consulting on the Bekker case, the NY brass want Davenport to track down the vigilantes who have been given the name the Robin Hoods. Davenport is eager for the challenge which brings him back into the orbit of an old lover, Lily Rothenberg, and a potential new one in the female detective with whom he is paired.

Davenport is as tough and as witty as usual, but he's also something of a fish out of water in the big city, especially since this book is missing the usual cast of characters that surrounds Lucas. As a result, this book has a much different feel than most of the others in the series and doesn't feel quite "right."

Compounding matters is the fact that Sandford had already written one book with Bekker as the creepy villain, and unfortunately, Bekker is not one of Sandford's better bad guys. One book with him was more than enough; two was at least one too many. Later in the series, Sandford would carry another villain over from one book to another very successfully, but it doesn't really work here.

Still, this is a good read--several notches above a lot of the other books in this genre. As always, it's fun to watch Lucas in action, even if in New York. But it's even nicer to see him get back to the Twin Cities where he belongs in the next book.