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.