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.(