Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This is another very good installment in John Sandford's Prey series, featuring Minneapolis police detective Lucas Davenport. As the book opens, Davenport's team takes down a crew that's been holding up credit unions. In the shootout, two women are killed--the wife and sister of a violent criminal named Dick LaChaise.

LaChaise is halfway through a nine-year prison term and is not thought to be a major flight risk. He's allowed to attend his wife's funeral with only one escort. As any reader will understand the moment he or she is introduced to LaChaise, this is going to be bad news for the escort, who's soon lying dead on the floor of the funeral parlor.

LaChaise is in the wind with two equally messed up associates, determined to wreak revenge on the members of Davenport's team whom he blames for the death of his wife. He will attack and kill their loved ones as they have killed his, an eye for an eye as he says.

The principal target, of course, will be Davenport's fiance, surgeon Weather Karkinnen. What follows is a particularly gripping game of cat and mouse as the cops attempt to fend off the attacks and recapture LaChaise and his associates. And before it's over, virtually all of the characters, good guys and bad, will become sudden prey.

There's a great cast of characters in this book. Lucas, Del, Sloan and the other members of the team are all in fine form. Weather reacts to the situation exactly as readers of the series would imagine, which only adds to the tension and the fun. As always, Sandford does a great job with the villains, and Dick LaChaise is one of his most inspired creations. All of the action leads to a great climax and both long-time fans and first-time readers will be turning pages well into the night, racing to get there.

Monday, December 3, 2012

This is another excellent entry in Michael Connelly's series featuring LAPD homicide detective, Harry Bosch.

Bosch, who had earlier retired from the department is now back under the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). He has a little more than three years left before he will be forced to retire for good and he is anxious to accomplish as much as he possibly can in the time he has remaining.

Harry is now working in the Open/Unsolved Unit, investigating cold cases, and as the book opens, he and his partner, David Chu, are assigned a particularly interesting case from over twenty years earlier. A child was sexually assaulted and murdered and now DNA evidence has linked the crime to a convicted sex offender. It seems like an open and shut case, except for one small problem: at the time of the crime, the offender whose DNA was found on the body was only eight years old.

While Harry pursues this puzzling cold case, he's assigned to a new live case by special request. The son of an old nemesis, city councilman Irvin Irving, has dropped to his death from a balcony at a posh hotel. The councilman insists that Bosch investigate the death personally. While he and Harry may have at times been bitter opponents, Irving knows that Harry is a man of integrity and that he will find the real truth, irrespective of whether the son's death was an accident, suicide or murder.

Inevitably, Harry will face any number of obstacles in both investigations and in the end, he has to wonder whom, if anyone, he can trust. Both cases are very interesting and as always, it's enormous fun to watch Harry work. Michael Connelly, like his fictional detective, seems to just be getting better and better with age. This is a real page-turner that should appeal to anyone who enjoys crime fiction and that will be treasured by fans of this great series.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fame and fortune came much too early and much too quickly to Kip Weiler who became a star of the 1980s New York literary scene while still in his early twenties. He quickly became "the Kipster," running through money, dope and women as if there were no tomorrow.

Unhappily for Kip, there was. And having squandered his talent and his young life, he's spiraled down to rock bottom, teaching English at a tiny rural community college to dead-end students whose futures are even darker than his. But then one afternoon, as Kip is returning the first assignments of the semester, a disgruntled student takes him and the class hostage. Acting purely on instinct, Kip saves the day and earns another fifteen minutes of fame. He also earns the attention of Renee Svoboda, a stunningly beautiful coed, and of another student, Jim Trimble, who has long been an unabashed fan of Weiler's work.

Before long, Kip is sexually involved with the lovely Renee and she and Trimble together introduce him into a group of gun aficionados that had turned into a semi-religious cult. For the people caught in the dead-end existence of this small rural community, the Gun Church provides the only excitement and escape that they are likely to find.

Kip is quickly caught up and finds that these new relationships have reinvigorated his literary imagination. He starts writing again and is suddenly producing the best work of his life. But then things take a very unexpected turn and suddenly that life is in serious jeopardy.

This is a gripping, well-written novel with a lot of discussion about the writing life and the business of writing, and it should appeal to a wide audience. Readers who like crime fiction and those looking for insights into the writing life should certainly enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

This is the twenty-sixth and last of the books in William G. Tapply's long-running series featuring Boston attorney Brady Coyne, published in 2010, a year after Tapply's death. The series began in 1984 with Death at Charity's Point, and Coyne also appeared in two other novels that Tapply wrote with Philip R. Craig. These two books featured Brady Coyne and Craig's series protagonist, J. W. Jackson, working in tandem.

Coyne did not appear to age much over the twenty-six years, although his ex-wife two sons did grow a bit older. He remained attractive to women and was usually involved in a relationship. While certainly no super-hero, he also remained perfectly capable of holding his own when things got rough.

That did not happen all that often. Brady ran a fairly genteel one-man practice with his long-suffering secretary, Julie, who tried, without much success, to introduce some discipline into Brady's regimen. His clients were mostly older, well-heeled types who came to him seeking advice about their financial matters. Truth to tell, Brady appeared to be much more interested in fishing than in the law and virtually every book found him sneaking away, or at least planning to sneak away from his office for some isolated but inviting fishing stream.

Inevitably, of course, some unusual problem occasionally appeared that required Brady to extricate a client from matters more serious than the usual drafting of a will. In this case, Brady gets a surprise call from Ken Nichols, an old friend and neighbor that he hasn't seen in years. Back in the old days, Brady and his wife Gloria had been close to Ken and his wife, Sharon. But then both couples divorced. Nichols moved away and the four lost contact with each other.

Now Nichols is in town for a convention and asks Brady to meet him for a drink. When they do, Brady senses that Nichols is in some sort of trouble, although Nichols insists that everything is fine. The next evening, Brady gets a call from Nichols' ex-wife, Sharon, who is in Ken's hotel room. Ken has been murdered; Sharon is the logical prime suspect, and she wants Brady to come to the rescue.

He does, in his usual low-key but competent fashion. He guides Sharon through the initial interviews with the police and then sets about trying to determine what actually happened before his client winds up taking the fall for a crime she insists that she did not commit. In and around his efforts to solve the crime, Brady must deal with some family issues of his own and with and old flame who has come back into his life but who seems reluctant to commit fully.

Opening the pages of a Brady Coyne novel was always like meeting an old friend. He was bright and interesting but he was also a regular guy and you could easily imagine sitting down and having a beer with him, talking about fishing or the Red Sox, another of his passions. The settings in these books were very well drawn; the plots were engaging and the action did not require a significant suspension of disbelief. A fan who has followed Brady Coyne through all of these adventures reads the last paragraphs of Outwitting Trolls with a profound sense of regret. Brady Coyne and William G. Tapply will both be missed.
On a rainy day, Rebecca Harris is shot to death at long range in the parking lot of the southern California newspaper where she works as the assistant to a liberal columnist. It quickly becomes apparent that Harris was almost certainly not the intended target. Rather, it was the columnist herself who had antagonized large numbers of conservative readers with her outspoken opinions.

Rebecca leaves in her wake a tangled emotional mess, including her fiance, Josh Weinstein, an FBI agent, and her lover John Menden, a fellow newspaperman. At the time of her death, Rebecca was in the process of leaving Josh for Menden. Both men are devastated by her loss, and Weinstein is naturally further hurt and angered by her betrayal. Menden responds to the tragedy by quitting his job, withdrawing from society, and taking another job at a tiny newspaper out in the boondocks. Josh's response is to throw himself into the task of finding Rebecca's killer.

Weinstein ultimately concludes that the killer is the powerful head of a private security company--a former FBI agent himself who went off the rails when his son was killed and his wife critically injured in a shooting incident. The ex-agent was infuriated by a series of columns written by Rachel's boss suggesting that his son was a rapist, hence the botched attempt to kill her.

The problem is that Josh does not have enough evidence to charge the killer and so, in a bizarre twist, he recruits Menden, Rebecca's lover, to go under cover and get it. The two men will put aside their feelings about each other in the larger interest of catching the man who killed the woman they both loved.

This is a very good book that keeps the reader on edge, particularly after John infiltrates the killer's inner circle. The tension rises not only over the issue of whether John will survive long enough succeed but also over the lingering question about whether Josh might still want to ultimately punish Menden for stealing Rebecca's heart. Another winner from T. Jefferson Parker.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

First published in 1974, this is the sixteenth book in Richard Stark's acclaimed series featuring Parker, the amoral antihero criminal mastermind. While the book can be read as a stand-alone, it is really the capstone of the series to that point and the last Parker novel that would appear until Comeback, a full twenty-three years later.

The original plan seems simple enough: Two years earlier (in Slayground), Parker and several confederates hit an armored car in the Midwestern town of Tyler for $73,000. But before they could get away, the cops closed in and Parker was forced to hide out in an amusement park that was closed for the winter. A group of mobsters and a few corrupt cops laid siege to the park in the hope of separating Parker from the money. Ultimately, Parker hid the money in the park and managed to escape.

Now, after another job has come up empty, Parker decides to go back to Tyler and retrieve the $73,000. He recruits Alan Grofield, one of his long-time associates, and the two of them quietly go to Tyler, wait for the amusement park to close for the night, and head for the spot where Parker hid the loot.

It isn't there.

This will come as no great surprise to the reader because this is the longest of the Parker novels and Parker and Grofield discover that the money is gone on page 21, which means that they will have to spend the rest of the book attempting to get the money back.

Parker is not really surprised to find the money missing either. He reaches the logical conclusion that, in the wake of his escape, the mobsters searched the park until they found the money and appropriated it for their own purposes.

Parker explains to Grofield that he knows who the boss of the local mob is. Parker calls the guy and politely asks that he return Parker's money. Not surprisingly, the mobster claims that he doesn't have it. He insists that his men did search the park but couldn't find it. Parker naturally refuses to believe him and takes several steps to demonstrate that the mobster should not take his threats lightly.

As it happens, Parker and Grofield have arrived in town at a critical time for the local mob. A gang war is brewing and Parker decides that he'll show the locals what a real gang war looks like. He recruits his own gang, composed of a number of characters from the earlier Parker novels, and goes after the mobsters, leading to a sensational climax befitting what Stark originally intended to be the last book in the series.

This is a gripping and very entertaining book that will appeal especially to those who have read the earlier Parker books and who will recognize so many of the characters that Stark resurrects. But it's hard to imagine that anyone who loves crime fiction will not thoroughly enjoy Butcher's Moon.

Friday, October 12, 2012

This is a beautifully-written, captivating book about a number of mostly poverty-stricken rural characters, some of whom are down on their luck and others of whom are simply bad to the bone.

Set in rural Ohio and West Virginia, the story takes place over a period from the end of World War II until the middle of the 1960s. It weaves together the strands of several different stories, and the characters include a husband and wife team of serial killers who hunt their male "models" along the nation's highways. There are a couple of seriously screwed-up preachers, a totally bent sheriff, a war veteran who spends hours at his "prayer log" sacrificing and pleading with God to save his wife who is dying of cancer, and their son, Arvin, who pulls the various parts of the story together. The supporting cast includes a number of minor, but equally well-drawn characters, all of whom are unforgettable.

Also unforgettable is the setting. Pollock paints a vivid portrait of these small towns and isolated farms where hope and opportunity are totally foreign concepts. To say that these people lead often desperate, hard scrabble lives would be an understatement. Although the book is set in the middle of the Twentieth Century, in some respects many of these people are still living as though it were the beginning of the century.

There is a lot of brutal action in this book, but the story is so well-told that Pollock draws you in from virtually the first line. And even though it's very hard to sympathize with a lot of the characters, you turn the last page with a deep sense of regret that the book has ended. Donald Ray Pollock is also the author of the acclaimed Knockemstiff and he is definitely a writer to look for.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

I know absolutely nothing about teenage girls--something that, sadly, was also true back when I was a teenage boy. Megan Abbott, on the other hand, either has a very good memory or has done prodigious research into the subject. Actually, I suspect that it's a combination of both, and the result is her excellent new novel, Dare Me.

The book is a meditation on the nature of friendship, love, competition, betrayal and young girls coming of age, set in the world of cheerleading. In it, Abbott exposes the dark underside of the cheerleaders' world and describes a culture that would have me quaking in my boots if I had a teenage daughter.

Beth Cassidy and Addy Hanlon have been best friends since childhood. Beth is the tough-as-nails, natural born leader and Addy is her able lieutenant. They are both tanned and beautiful and are the stars of their high school's cheerleader squad.

Until now, this has required little more effort than the occasional lackadaisical practice, maintaining their hairdos and shaking their assets come game time. But suddenly there's a new sheriff in town or, actually, a new coach who takes cheerleading seriously as an athletic competition. The coach, Colette French, is not that much older than the girls themselves, but she drills them like Marines and whips their bodies and their attitudes into shape. Before long, they're doing routines they never would have dreamed of before.

Most of the girls, Addy included, buy into the program enthusiastically. But Beth is not happy. Coach or no coach, she has always been the team's natural leader, and she detests even the suggestion that she might be eclipsed by the new coach. She is particularly unhappy about the fact that in her view, Addy has turned against her by aligning herself with the coach, and Beth is not a girl who will take this lying down.

The coach is a woman with troubles of her own, which soon bubble to the surface with dire consequences for the young charges she has drawn into her orbit. To say anymore would probably be to say too much. Suffice it to say that these characters are fully drawn, eminently believable, and may of them are scary as hell. But watching the story unfold is mesmerizing--you cannot turn away. Megan Abbott has delivered another very good book that will linger a long time in the reader's memory.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

As the tenth book in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series opens, McGee is once again called upon to restore a grieving widow to psychological and sexual health. The grateful woman, Helena Pearson, returns to her normal life, but several years later, she is dying of cancer and calls upon McGee for one last favor. Helena's daughter, Maurie, has become mysteriously suicidal and Helena would like McGee to diagnose the problem and find a solution.

McGee dutifully journeys to Fort Courtney, Florida, where Maurie lives with her husband, Tom, a high-flying local developer. Maurie's younger sister, Bridget, is also in residence, helping Tom look after Maurie. Sadly, by the time McGee arrives, Helena has succumbed to her cancer and so McGee is left to feel his way through a very complicated situation if he's going to be of any help.

As is usually the case in one of these novels, things get complicated in a big hurry. A number of folks seem to be very interested in McGee's arrival; a couple of people will have to die; everyone will be enormously confused and only McGee may be smart enough and devious enough to sort things out.

Like all of the McGee novels, this one is obviously dated, and McGee spends a lot of time philosophizing about the world around him. There's not as much action in this book as in most of the others in the series--things are a bit more cerebral--and there's not a hulking, giant, Neanderthalish brute of an adversary as there often is. The climax beggars belief a bit, but still, it's a fun read and anyone who enjoys the series will certainly want to find this entry.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Introducing Kinsey Millhone

This is the book that introduced Kinsey Millhone and helped inaugurate a new era in crime fiction when female investigators like Millhone and Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski could go toe-to-toe with the bad guys and more than hold their own with their male counterparts like Spenser, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

Millhone has a modest solo practice as a P.I. that she runs out of a small office in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. Orphaned as a child and twice divorced, she lives a quiet, solitary life, eschewing the kinds of possessions and personal connections that most people take for granted. But this is her life and she's perfectly happy with it. Certainly she would never be mistaken for Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher. And unlike any number of other female sleuths, she is perfectly capable of solving difficult mysteries without the assistance of a cat.

Enter Nikki Fife, recently released after an eight-year stint in prison for murdering her husband. One might wonder why Nikki got only eight years for a premeditated murder, but this is never explained. Nikki continues to insist that she was innocent and she hires Kinsey to find the Real Killer.

The husband, Laurence Fife, was a philandering attorney with a loose moral code who had antagonized any number of potential suspects. But the police and prosecutors argued that only Nikki could have poisoned one of Laurence's allergy capsules and she was thus convicted on this rather flimsy evidence.

Kinsey takes the case and almost immediately discovers that there was a lot more going on in the case than the police and prosecutors revealed at the time of the trial. To make matters worse, as soon as Millhone begins poking around, people with ties to the case start turning up dead, and before long, Kinsey may find herself in the line of fire.

This is a good introduction to a series that would develop very long legs and attract a huge fan base. Thirty years after the publication of "A" Is for Alibi, Kinsey Millhone still soldiers on and Grafton has nearly reached the end of the alphabet. Some have questioned Grafton's decision to leave her protagonist and these stories glued to the 1980s, and the books have become, as a practical matter, historical crime novels in which there are still no personal computers, cell phones or Internet and where the heroine remains perpetually in her middle thirties. But Grafton has attracted legions of fans to the series, so she must be doing something right. And certainly any fan of crime fiction should be at least marginally acquainted with Kinsey Millhone.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Fourteenth Matthew Scudder

I've long run out of superlatives to use when describing Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels which remain, easily, my favorite crime fiction series.

This is due entirely to the richly-drawn character that Block has created in Scudder who has continued to grow and evolve through seventeen novels and a number of short stories, published over a period of thirty-five years. It's hard to imagine a fan of crime fiction who has not yet encountered these books, but for those who might not know, Scudder is a former New York cop and recovering alcoholic who has spent most of his career as an unlicensed P.I. doing favors for "friends" who then pay him what they think the job is worth.

For most of this time, Matt lived alone in a tiny hotel room in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York, and the city has become a major character in the books. Now well into middle age, Matt has recently married Elaine Mardell, his longtime girlfriend, and moved into an apartment across the street from his old hotel room. He's also finally gotten a license as a private investigator, which enables him to work for attorneys and others from whom he can command a better rate of pay. The neighborhood is gentrifying which is both good and bad as Matt (along with the reader) mourns the passing of landmark institutions that had long populated his neighborhood.

In short, life is good, but then Matt's long-time best friend, the gangster and saloon owner Mick Ballou, comes under attack from a mysterious unidentified enemy. He appeals to Matt for help and almost immediately, Matt becomes a target as well.

As always, the real pleasure in this book is watching the interaction among the characters and listening in as Matt ruminates about the developments in the case and the changing world around him. This is one of the more violent books in the series, and the blood starts flowing early on. From almost the first page the bodies are dropping left and right, and the only question that matters is who will survive in a dangerous world where everybody dies.

Friday, August 31, 2012

This is another very good entry in Michael Connelly's series featuring L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch. The case opens in the middle of the night when Harry's team is called out to the scene of a double homicide. A man and a woman have been shot to death on a trolley called Angels Flight. Harry cannot figure out why he has been called since his team is out of the rotation that night.

He arrives at the scene to find that one of the victims is an African American attorney named Howard Elias. Elias has made a career and a name for himself by suing the L.A.P.D. in cases where Elias charges police abuse of the city's minority citizens. Elias is in the midst of preparing an explosive new case against several police detectives.

Obviously, this will be a high profile case, and Harry isn't certain whether he's been assigned to the case because of his excellent record or because he's being set up as the fall guy if the case isn't solved. The cynic in Harry speculates that he's been given the case because the other two members of his team are black and the department hopes that this will help tamp down the furor that is bound to explode in the black community when the victim's names are announced.

Given the way the shooting occurred, Harry quickly concludes that Elias was the principal target and that the poor female victim was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real difficulty in the case is that the most obvious suspects are the cops that Elias had sued or was in the process of suing.

Harry's team must thus navigate very treacherous waters. Lots of cops make it clear that they just want the crime written off as a robbery gone bad and swept under the rug. The black community wants "justice" which in their vew apparently means that they won't be satisfied until a cop is indicted and convicted for the killings. And, of course, Harry's bosses in the department seem more concerned about protecting the department's reputation than they do in seeking the real truth.

Harry being Harry, he is determined to solve the crime and let the chips fall where they may. The department throws all sorts of obstacles in the way of his investigation, and the black community is seething. Any spark could touch off a major riot. If all of this weren't bad enough, Harry is working through marital problems. The question is, can he push through all of this and solve the crime before the city explodes?

Connelly has written here a complex story with a number of flawed and well-drawn characters, principal among them Harry Bosch. He demonstrates once again his intimate knowledge of L.A., a city he obviously cares about deeply. Angels Flight makes an even stronger argument that no one is writing better police procedurals these days than Michael Connelly

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In this, his second outing, ex-Army Major Jack Reacher is minding his own business, walking past a dry cleaning shop in Chicago, when an attractive young woman emerges from the shop with nine bags of expensive clothes, a bad knee, and a crutch. She drops the crutch and Reacher jumps to her assistance. In the same moment, two armed kidnappers materialize and order Reacher and the woman into a waiting car.

As any crime fiction reader understands by now, Reacher could take these two thugs with no problem whatsoever. Unfortunately, there are a number of innocent bystanders who might be hurt if the kidnappers manage to get off any shots. Reacher makes this calculation and then follows the woman into the car and is taken along for the ride.

It turns out to be a very long ride in an Econoline van, all the way from Chicago to northwestern Montana, where a nutty but well-armed militia group is preparing to declare its independence from the United States. The kidnapped woman, Holly Johnson, is an FBI Special Agent. She is also the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the militia's psychopathic but charismatic leader intends to use her as a high profile hostage.

Under normal circumstances, Holly would be well-equipped to handle herself. She is one of the strongest female characters to appear in this series. But with her bum knee, which she injured in a soccer game, she could use a little help. Reacher, of course, is there to provide it, and he and Holly together will have to struggle mightily both to defend Holly's virtue and to prevent the militiamen from accomplishing thier objectives.

This is a fun read, and fans of the series certainly won't want to miss it. I would give it three stars rather than four because it requires more than just the usual suspension of disbelief. In the cold light of day, the whole plot is pretty implausible.

Also, it's clear that Lee Child did a lot of research for this book regarding the weaponry involved. And having done the research, he was apparently determined to use it all. There are a number of points in the book where the action slams to a halt while Child describes in exquisite detail the weapon in question. We then take several paragraphs to watch the powder ignite and the bullet slowly make its way through the barrel of the gun, out into the light of day and arc its way toward the target.

The first time this happens, it's kind of interesting and it does help to build the suspense. After that, you just want him to get on with it. Still, that's a relatively minor complaint, and inevitably, every series must have its weaker entries. To say that most of the Reacher novels are better than this one is not to suggest in any way that it's a bad book, but clearly at this point, Child was still working his way into what would become an excellent series.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Meet Alex Delaware

This is the first book in Jonathan Kellerman's long-running series featuring Alex Delaware, a child psychologist. Burned out, Alex has retired from his practice at the age of thirty-three after consulting in a particularly unsettling case involving the young victims of a serial pedophile. The children are well on the road to recovery, but Alex is in desperate need of some down time.

But then Dr. Morton Handler, a psychiatrist, is brutally murdered along with his girlfriend in the apartment that they shared. A little girl named Melody Quinn, who lives in a neighboring apartment, was up in the middle of the night and may have seen the killers. But the child is deeply troubled and is unable to give the police any useful help.

Alex's friend, homicide Detective Milo Sturgis, convinces Alex to examine the girl in the hope that Alex can get her to open up and give the police the description of the killers that they so desperately need. Alex reluctantly agrees and is immediately drawn into a dark and very dangerous world populated by wealthy, powerful and amoral men. But despite the threat to both his professional reputation and, ultimately, his personal safety, Alex cannot turn his back on the evil he's uncovered or on the little girl who has no one else to defend her.

This is really an excellent introduction to a series that may have lost its way a bit in later books. The idea of a child psychologist as the main protagonist in a series of crime novels was a brilliant stroke, and Kellerman, who was himself a child psychologist, created a very convincing character in Alex Delaware.

In this, and in most of the early books in the series, Alex's psychological skills were central to the stories. Alex was called in to consult, perfectly legitimately, by a police department that clearly needed his help. Alex was the central character and most of the others, including Milo Sturgis, rotated around him. As in this book, Alex spent a great deal of time investigating on his own, unraveling the mystery and dealing with the bad guys in a way that made perfect sense.

Perhaps there were only so many plots that would legitimately accommodate a main character like Alex Delaware, but in the last few novels especially, the character of Milo Sturgis has come much more to the fore and there really doesn't seem to be much of a legitimate reason for Alex to be tagging along. Milo will simply call Alex and say, "Hey, I've got an interesting case. Wanna ride along?" Alex may offer the occasional psychological insight, but often there's no credible reason for him to be involved in the investigation and even the casual reader understands that no police department would tolerate a civilian like Alex playing such a prominent role in a homicide investigation.

That may well be unjustified nitpicking, especially since I continue to enjoy these books. But going back to the beginning and re-reading this opening installment reminds one of how brilliant this series was initially and can only make you wish that the later books were still this good

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Creole Belle

James Lee Burke's sixteenth Dave Robicheaux novel, The Tin Roof Blowdown, took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Dave's beloved southern Louisiana had been devastated by the storm and the recovery had been badly bungled by inept government officials, some of whom cared very little about the people of the state and their lives that had been so terribly disrupted.

Creole Belle, the nineteenth book in the series takes place in the wake of the BP oil spill, and again, the state is under assault by forces beyond its control. As the book opens, Dave is hospitalized, recovering from a bad gunshot wound he suffered in a shootout a month earlier. While in the hospital and under the influence of morphine, which he's being given to dull the pain, Dave is visited by a beautiful young woman named Tee Jolie Melton. Tee Jolie is pregnant by a married man and spills out her troubles to Dave. She also suggests that she has knowledge about the problems that led to the explosion and spill in the Gulf. But did Dave really see the young woman, or was she only an apparition brought on by the morphine? Tee Jolie, who is a singer, leaves Dave an iPod and includes three of her own songs on the playlist. Dave has the iPod, but only he is able to hear Tee Jolie's three songs.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Tee Jolie disappeared several weeks before she allegedly visited Dave. Her sister is also missing. Dave believes that the two young women are in grave danger and is determined to find them. His search involves him in the lives of a number of rich and malevolent people who have lots of dirty secrets that they do not want revealed in the light of day. Before long, they will see Dave as a threat to their well-being and, as usual, this will not be good news for Dave.

As always, Dave enlists the aid of his long-time friend and alter-ego Clete Purcell. As readers of this series know well, to call Clete a loose cannon does not begin to scratch the surface of the man's character. Like Dave, Clete is a troubled man whose difficulties now stretch back to events that occurred decades ago. In this case, Clete has additional issues and problems of his own that may get in the way of his ability to assist Dave and that may even interfere with their long-time friendship.

After eighteen previous Robicheaux novels, there's little new that one can say about the series and even fewer fresh ways to praise the writing of James Lee Burke who is not only one of America's great crime writers but one of its best writers period. After all this time and after all these books, Burke is still at the top of his game. Sadly, both Dave Robicheax and Clete Purcell are feeling their age and know that their string cannot have much longer to play out. Happily, the same cannot be said for their creator.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Return to Starvation Lake

Bryan Gruley returns to Starvation Lake, a small Michigan town that's clearly seen better days, in the second Gus Carpenter novel, The Hanging Tree. As was apparent in Gruley's debut novel, Starvation Lake, Gus has seen better days as well. One of the great goalies ever to come out of a hockey-crazed town, Gus failed the team at a critical moment years earlier and neither the town nor Gus have ever forgotten. Gus once left Starvation Lake to become a hotshot reporter at a major Detroit newspaper, but that job ended ignominiously as well, and so Gus is now back home, living with his mother, and working as the executive editor of the local newspaper. The paper is owned by a media company that cares almost nothing for traditional journalism; it publishes only twice a week, and it is most often scooped on any major story by the local television station.

Gus is now dating a deputy sheriff, the almost ex-wife of another former Starvation Lake hockey great who has now left town. Gus and the deputy, Darlene, are interrupted one night when Darlene is called to the scene of a tragedy. As the town's intrepid reporter, Gus follows her to the scene only to find a woman named Gracie McBride hanging from a tree limb. Gracie was once Darlene's best friend. She was also Gus's second cousin, though they really didn't get along. Gracie recently returned to Starvation Lake after a long and mysterious absence.

The coroner rules Gracie's death a suicide, but neither Gus nor Darlene is convinced of the verdict. Gus decides to trace Gracie's mysterious past in an effort to discover what lay behind her death. At the same time, he's caught up in an investigation of the town's effort to build a new hockey rink. The rink is a tremendously popular project, but Gus uncovers problems with the development that no one else in town apparently wants to hear about.

Gus's investigations entangle him with a number of shady and very scary characters, and there's obviously a lot going on below the surface of this placid little town. Before his investigation is finished, both Gus and the reader will be in for a very wild ride.

These two books are the start of what promises to be an excellent series with an unusual and engaging protagonist. More than that, Gruley, who is the Chicago bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, has brilliantly captured here the dynamics of a small town that is obviously on the ropes and desperate to recapture some of its former glory. In relating Gus's struggles as the editor of the Pine County Pilot, he also makes some very telling comments about the state of contemporary journalism.

Readers who might be attracted to this series would be well-advised to begin with the first book, Starvation Lake, which introduces Gus Carpenter and describes in some detail his history in Starvation Lake.

Friday, July 20, 2012

This early book from George Pelecanos introduces Nick Stephanos. Nick has worked his way up from the sales floor to become advertising director for an electronics retailer named Nutty Nathan's. But he's drifting, drinking too much and still hasn't found his real niche in life. When a stock boy at the Nutty Nathan's warehouse named Jimmy Broda goes missing, the boy's grandfather asks Nick to try to find him. (Broda has apparently spoken favorably of Nick to his grandfather, hence the request.)

Stephanos agrees to look for the boy and is inspired to apply for a license as a P.I. Until his application is approved, he will use a forged license in his efforts. It initially appears that Broda was fired for failing to come in to work, but Nick soon learns that something deeper is going on. Jimmy has fallen into bad company and may be in trouble that is way over his head.

To facilitate his search for the missing boy, Nick takes a leave from the executive suite to return to the sales floor, which will give him more flexibility. As he does, the reader gets an eyeful of the sales practices at Nutty Nathan's, and is bound to be as lot more careful the next time he or she wanders into an electronics store in search of a new TV or other appliance.

Nick's search for Jimmy Brody leads him to question the direction of his own life and gets him into trouble with some fairly vicious people who don't want Nick poking his nose into other peoples' business. Naturally, Nick will ignore the warning to give up his search and this, in turn, will lead to an explosive climax.

Even though this is one of the author's earlier efforts, it's a great ride with an intriguing protagonist and fans of George Pelecanos's later work who have not yet found this book will want to search it out.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

This is the second of Tony Hillerman's celebrated books featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. Later, Leaphorn would be assisted by a younger officer, Jim Chee, but this book, which won The Edgar Award, belongs to Leaphorn alone.

A young Zuni Indian boy, Ernesto Cata, disappears while training for his important role in an upcoming tribal ceremony. A large pool of blood suggests that something very bad has happened to Ernesto, and Joe Leaphorn is assigned to fine Ernesto's best friend, George Bowlegs, a Navajo. George has disappeared and the authorities believe that he might have important information about the fate that has befallen Ernesto. It is even possible, they believe, that George might have been responsible for the crime committed against Ernesto.

In his pursuit of the boy, Leaphorn crosses paths with George's alcoholic father, a group of hippies in a rather peculiar commune, and a determined archeologist who's working on a dig that may significantly change what we know about early man in what is now the southwestern United States. Along the way, Leaphorn reveals and in return discovers a great deal about the cultural and religious traditions of both the Navajo and the Zuni peoples.

This is among the most unique crime fiction series of the last fifty years. Hillerman, who died in 2008, wrote seventeen books featuring Leaphorn and Chee. The mysteries themselves are always captivating, but what set the series apart was the window it provided into the culture of the Indian people of the Southwest and the way in which Hillerman captured the physical setting in which these people live. This is truly a fascinating book in an excellent series

Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Early Classic from One of the Masters

Originally published in 1929, Red Harvest is a classic crime novel that helped established the hard-boiled genre. This is most definitely not a polite, parlor mystery where most of the blood is spilled off of the page. As the title suggests, this book is filled with mayhem and the bodies are falling left and right.

The main protagonist is the Continental Op, who doesn't remotely resemble the genteel Hercule Poirot or any of the other fictional detectives who were so popular in the 1920s. The Op is certainly smart and skilled, but he's a squat, overweight man who's more than willing to cut whatever corners are necessary in order to achieve what he believes to be the greater good.

The Op, who is employed by the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco, is detailed to the Personville, a mining town known to most as Poisonville. The town was, for a long time, under the thumb of Elihu Willsson who owned the Personville Mining Corporation, the local newspapers, and a number of other businesses as well. He also controlled all of the politicians of any consequence, up to and including the state governor.

During the First World War, Willsson had made whatever deals were necessary with the miners' unions to ensure that the company's operations were unimpeded. But once the war ended, he determined to break the unions and in doing so, invited in a number of thugs and crooks to assist him. The unions were effectively cowed, but the thugs and crooks stayed in town and carved out interests for themselves, effectively reducing Willsson's authority.

As the book opens, Elihu's son, Donald, has asked the Continental Detective Agency for assistance. Elihu has now turned the town's newspapers over to his son and the son is something of a reformer. But before the Op can even meet with Donald, Donald is murdered. The Op believes that it is his obligation to identify the killer. As he attempts to do so, old Elihu Willsson offers the Op $10,000.00 to clean up Personville. In reality, he wants to get rid of the gangs that are competing for control of the town so that he can dominate it unchallenged once again.

The Op is repulsed by the level of corruption in the town and by Elihu himself. But he decides to take the job so that he can indulge his own desire to clean up the town and cleverly drafts his agreement with Willsson to effectively give himself carte blanche, even if Willsson should ultimately change his mind about turning the Op loose on the problem.

The plot that unfolds is dense and convoluted, but the strength of the book lies in Hammett's prose style, in the characters he develops, and in picture he paints of Personville. As a practical matter, there is not a single moral, selfless person in the entire town, the Continental Op included. He quickly proves that he's ready to get down in the muck with the croooks, grafters and corrupt city officials and do whatever is necessary to complete the quest he's assigned himself.

As a young man, Hammett had worked as a detective for the Pinkerton agency in San Francisco and had spent some time during the war in the mining town of Butte, Montana as a strikebreaker. People have long speculated that "Poisonville" was modeled on Butte, a company town controlled by the Anaconda Mining Company. People have also speculated about Hammett's motives for writing the book, suggesting that he might have been seeking some redemption for the actions he had taken in Butte. Whatever the case, the result is a seminal work that stands as one of the great classics of American crime fiction and that has influenced scores of writers who have attempted to follow in Hammett's footsteps.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Enter Virgil Flowers

Dark of the Moon is the book that introduces Virgil Flowers, the second major series character to be created by John Sandford. Virgil is an investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is run by Lucas Davenport, Sandford's better-known protagonist.

Virgil is pretty laid-back for a cop. His wears his hair long and his standard uniform is a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt sporting the name of some (often) obscure rock band. When he needs to dress it up for a special occasion, he throws a sport coat on over the tee-shirt. Married and divorced three times before we even meet him, Virgil is attractive to the ladies and is more than a little attracted to them. Virgil leaves the CSI aspects of an investigation to others; his technique is to drift into town, chat up the locals, and stir the pot a bit. Once he sets things into motion, he watches the pieces fall into place and eventually grasps a solution to the problem. Most of Virgil's cases take place in the state's smaller towns and Virgil is assigned to assist the local sheriff's office which is often overwhelmed by a criminal problem more serious than the locals usually see.

In this case, a particularly brutal murder occurs in Bluestem, a small rural community. Virgil is driving in to assist when he comes across a roaring house fire. Bill Judd, the richest, and perhaps most hated man in town, has apparently died in the fire, and it's clear that the fire did not occur accidentally. Virgil realizes that the two crimes must be connected and begins probing into the history of the town and of the victims, looking for a connection that might point in the direction of the killer.

Virgil finds any number of such connections in a tiny town that appears to have a surprisingly robust sexual and economic history. And almost immediately, he finds himself in a relationship with a very attractive woman who has a number of tangled ties to the victims herself. Before Virgil can deduce a solution, other Bluestem residents will fall victim to an especially clever killer and it will take all of Virgil's physical and mental agility if he's going to save the day.

This is a fun read and an excellent beginning to what has turned out to be a very entertaining series. There's lots of action and a very clever, convoluted plot. As in the case of Sandford's Prey novels, featuring Lucas Davenport, there's also a fair amount of wry humor that does not seem at all inappropriate, despite the serious nature of the crimes that Virgil is investigating. Sandford's legions of fans will certainly not be disappointed.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

This is another entry in John Lescroart's long-running series featuring San Franciso attorney Dismas Hardy and the head of the city PD's homicide squad, Abe Glitsky, although in this book Hardy makes only a couple of token appearances.

The book focuses instead on Glitsky and on Wes Farrell, another member of the cast who has been a partner in Hardy's law practice. Farrell has just been elected District Attorney with the backing of the super-wealthy Curtlee family, owners and publishers of one of the city's major newspapers. Ten years earlier, the Curtlee's son, Ro, was convicted and sentenced to prison for rape and homicide. Now his conviction has been overturned on appeal and he must stand trial again.

The Curtlees appeal to Farrell, asking that he not oppose bail which would allow Ro to be released until he is tried a second time. Farrell, who is still feeling his way into the job, makes no promises. He personally believes that Ro should remain in prison and knows that he could make a back-channel contact with the judge that would assure this. But he believes, perhaps naively, that this is the judge's prerogative and that he will do the right thing.

The judge, though, sets bail at $10,000,000 and the Curtlees post it. But no sooner is Ro back on the streets than one of the principal witnesses against him is brutally murdered. It soon becomes apparent that Ro is a menace to society and that he should never have been allowed the opportunity to make bail.

Farrell and Glitsky very badly want him back in prison where he belongs, but there is no hard evidence to support their suspicions against him. Complicating matters is the fact that Ro's parents use the very large megaphone of their newspaper to defend their son and to portray any police interest in him as brutality.

This is a gripping book that poses the question of how far the police and the D.A. can stretch the boundaries of the law to apprehend someone they are certain poses a threat to society when they have no solid evidence to back up their suppositions. As is the case with a lot of Lescroart's books, you don't want to start it on an evening when you think you're going to want to get to bed early.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rivers Of Gold

Rivers of Gold was published in 2010, and was presumably written in 2008-2009, when the Great Recession was just beginning to take hold in the U.S. Set in the near future of 2013, the book presumes that the efforts taken by the Bush and Obama administrations to rescue the economy have failed. The Great Recession has become the Second Great Depression, and New York City has been hit especially hard. Banks and businesses are shuttered; unemployment is rampant; the few people who still have money have walled themselves off from the rest of the society that is slowly sinking into poverty and despair.

An underground economy has taken root and a twenty-five year-old fashion photographer named Renny is attempting to make the best of a bad situation. In addition to shooting his pictures, Renny is a mid-level drug dealer working for a vicious crime boss named Reza who in turn reports to an even more shadowy figure known only as the Slav, who is attempting to corner much of the city's criminal activity. Renny's distribution network is a fleet of taxicabs that he uses to float from one illegal underground club to another, distributing his wares. Along the way, he has a great deal of hot sex with the beautiful women who model for him and who frequent the clubs where he distributes his product.

Sixto Santiago is an ambitious detective who's anxious to help shut down the drug trade and advance through the ranks of the NYPD. As the book opens, he's teamed up with a strange new partner who hardly ever talks, who possesses amazing physical and mental skills, who has a very mysterious background and who refuses to take any of the credit for the arrests that he and Santiago make. It's clear that the new partner, More, has an agenda of his own, and Santiago is increasingly non-pulsed when he cannot figure it out. Inevitably Santiago and Renny's paths will cross and when they do all hell will break loose.

The story itself falters at points and Dunn is a bit too cute at times, especially when naming some of his characters. But Renny and Santiago are both very interesting and well-conceived, and Dunn is at his best in describing the bleak, dystopian world of the near-future. It's not a pretty picture. But it's so well drawn that the reader cannot look away and can only hope in the end that our current economic difficulties do not yet deteriorate into something resembling the grim and desperate picture that Dunn has drawn here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A New Series from Ace Atkins

Quinn Colson is an Army Ranger who returns on leave to his home in Tibbehah County in northeastern Mississippi, to attend the funeral of his uncle who had been the local sheriff. Upon arriving, he is shocked to learn that his uncle apparently committed suicide. He is even more upset when Lillie Virgil, a deputy sheriff, suggests that his uncle was actually murdered.

Quinn is also troubled by the fact that while he has been overseas defending his country, both his family and his home town have badly deteriorated. His father, a former movie stuntman, had abandoned the family years earlier. Now his sister, Caddy, has left home as well, tumbling into a sordid world of drugs and other vices. Caddy has left her small child with Quinn's mom, who is not coping with the world all that well herself. Meanwhile, Tibbehah County is sadly overrun with schemers, thugs, and corrupt local officials and is sinking under the tide of a meth epidemic.

Quinn's uncle has left his home and farm to Quinn, but then a local would-be wheeler-dealer named Johnny Stagg shows up, claiming that he has liens against the property and that he intends to take possession. Quinn has only a few days before he's due back at his Army post, and clearly he's got a lot of work to do before then to sort all of this out. As he probes more deeply into his uncle's death and the other problems of the county, he stirs up a proverbial hornets' nest and the blood begins to flow.

This is the first book in a new series and Ace Atkins has created here a very intriguing protagonist. He has also surrounded him with a great cast of characters both good and bad and set them in a very well-drawn world that is interesting in and of itself. The book is somewhat reminiscent of Ken Mercer's Slow Fire, which also portrays the way in which the scourge of meth can eat away at a small town and its inhabitants.

Ace Atkins has been much in the book news lately for taking over Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, and his first Spenser book, Robert B. Parker's Lullaby, has just been released. But Quinn Colson is at least as compelling a character as Spenser and I'm looking forward to the coming books in the series.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

For many years, I've been a fan of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, and even though many of the later books in the series do not measure up to the standards that Parker set earlier, I've still enjoyed most of them. Parker died a couple of years ago, and I've been reluctant to read Painted Ladies and Sixkill, which are the last two book in the series, because it's like saying goodbye to an old friend. But I finally pulled Painted Ladies off the shelf and read it this week.

Like many of the later entries in the series, the plot is fairly thin and serves mostly as a framework for a lot of witty banter between Spenser and the other characters. Sadly, Spenser's long-time sidekick, Hawk, is again MIA. Even more sadly, Spenser's long-time lover, Susan Silverman is not.

The story opens when an art historian with the improbable name of Ashton Prince approaches Spenser asking for protection. Prince has been selected as the go-between in the return of a priceless painting that has been stolen and is being ransomed back by the museum to which it belongs. Prince wants Spenser to accompany him to the exchange.

Things do not go well and, through no fault of Spenser's, his client is killed. Though Spenser has fulfilled his end of the bargain and no longer has a client, the PI's code demands that he avenge Prince's death and bring the bad guys to justice. His investigation leads him into a world of art theft and fraud, and it quickly becomes apparent that Spenser's client might not have been quite what he claimed, which of course the reader knew well would be the case when Prince first walked through Spenser's door.

As things progress, Spenser's own life is threatened--something that has happened pretty routinely in each of the thirty-eight books that preceded this one. As always, Spenser is unfazed by this and will deal with the bad guys as they come. In and around the investigation, Spenser will cook a good number of meals and share way too many tender, icky moments with Susan, a woman only Spenser could love.

All it's a quick, fun read and those who have followed this series from the beginning will know exactly what to expect. Those who have not and who are thinking about dipping into this series for the first time, would be much better advised to read one of the earlier books like The Godwulf Manuscript or Early Autumn

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trouble on the Border

This is an excellent novel set in the Imperial Valley on the border between California and Mexico. Jimmy Veeder, the main protagonist, grew up there but put the Valley in his rearview mirror years ago and has never looked back. Since then, he's been drifting from one place and one job to another, rootless and with no real ambition beyond taking each day as it comes. But then Jimmy learns that his father, Big Jack Veeder, is dying of cancer and Jimmy returns home to be with his father and to offer what comfort he can during Big Jack's last days on earth.

On arriving, Jimmy finds that his father's house has fallen into disrepair, although a relative is tending to the farm fields that belong to Big Jack. Father and son have a heartfelt reunion, and the principal bond between them is humor. But Big Jack surprises Jimmy with a strange request: he wants Jimmy to bring him a prostitute named Yolanda that Big Jack apparently knew some years ago. Big Jack has no idea where Yolanda might be found, except that she's probably across the border in the town of Mexicali. Big Jack does not explain the reason behind the request, and Jimmy simply assumes that his father is looking for one last night of happiness with a woman whose company he had once enjoyed.

Jimmy recruits his childhood friend and drinking buddy, Bobby Maves, and together they cross the border into the seedy, depressing and dangerous world of Mexicali. From that point the story moves back and forth across the border and involves a variety of characters all of whom Shaw renders vividly. Along the way, Jimmy Veeder will discover that there's much he never knew about his father and about himself.

There are many things to recommend about this book, including the story and the characters. But Shaw perhaps excels most of all in his description of the Imperial Valley, which becomes a central character in and of itself. The subtitle of the book is "A Jimmy Veeder Fiasco," but while Jimmy's somewhat delayed journey to adulthood might involve any number of fiascos, his story is anything but. Johnny Shaw has created here a setting and a group of characters that will linger a long time in the memory of those who join in Jimmy Veeder's quest.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Amos Walker, Back on the Job

In the 20th book in Loren D. Estleman's Amos Walker series, the Detroit detective faces a serious dilemma. Lucille Lettermore, a bull dog of a defense attorney known as "Lefty Lucy" because she specializes in defending unsympathetic clients, most often against the government, is attempting to free Joey Ballistic, a mobster known for his penchant for blowing things up. Joey's about to do a long stretch in prison as a repeat offender and Lucy's legal strategy is to get Joey's very first conviction overturned. This will bring down the rest of his convictions like a row of dominos and Lettermore wants to hire Amos to help overturn the first conviction.

The problem is that Joey's first conviction was for setting off a bomb that blew the leg off of Barry Stackpole, a journalist who made his reputation by investigating mobsters. Stackpole also just happens to be Amos Walker's best and, as a practical matter, only friend. Walker hesitates for about thirty seconds before taking the case anyway. Things are slow, as they always seem to be for Amos, and he rationalizes the decision by convincing himself that he's really doing his friend a favor. If Joey wasn't actually responsible for the bomb that seriously injured Stackpole, then perhaps Amos can find The Real Bomber.

Walker's first step is to try to identify the confidential informant who pointed the police in Joey's direction in the first place. But as soon as Amos begins digging into the old case, it quickly becomes apparent that he's stirred up a hornet's nest and that the old case maybe isn't so cold after all. The action picks up quickly and the bodies start piling up all around Walker.

Amos Walker is a classic, hard-boiled detective out of the Old School of crime fiction, and he's been prowling the mean streets of Detroit for a long time now. In these books, Estleman has been especially good at describing the ongoing decay that has been eating away at Detroit since the 1960's, and I've enjoyed reading all of the books in the series. I enjoyed this one as well, but not to the extent I expected because I had great difficulty buying into the premise.

Walker and Barry Stackpole have been close friends for a long time, and Stackpole has often been Amos's go-to guy for info on the mob and other such subjects. The fact that Amos would so easily agree to help an attorney who is attempting to free the man who crippled Stackpole and nearly killed him just didn't sit right with me. It didn't seem like something Amos would do, and I had a hard time buying into the idea that, of all the detectives in Detroit, Lettermore would ask Stackpole's closest friend to assist in this task. On the other hand, though, none of the other detectives in Detroit have someone as capable as Loren D. Estleman chronicling their adventures and so from the readers's standpoint, it's a good thing she did. My reservation about this one issue notwithstanding, this continues to be one of the best detective series out there.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bad Guys Beware: Valdez Is Coming!

Bob Valdez is a small-town constable who also rides shotgun for a stage coach company. He arrives home one Saturday afternoon to find that much of the town has gathered around a shack on the outskirts of town. The wealthiest man around--a Mr. Tanner--has identified a man he saw in town as an Army deserter and murderer. The accused has taken refuge in the shack along with his Indian woman who is pregnant.

Valdez attempts to defuse the situation but is forced to kill the accused man when one of the townspeople stupidly fires a shot and the accused man reacts by raising his gun against Valdez. Then Mr. Tanner says, "Oops, wrong guy!"

Valdez believes that the town and Mr. Tanner in particular should pay a little money to the Indian woman to compensate her for the loss of her man. But Mr. Tanner and virtually everyone else in town thinks that Indians are scum and that Valdez is an idiot for wanting to help her. Twice Valdez asks Mr. Tanner nicely for a little money. Each time Tanner refuses, the second time in somewhat spectacular fashion. The third time, Valdez will not ask politely. Valdez is coming, and the bad guys in his way had better start running for cover.

Elmore Leonard is much better known these days for his crime novels and for his work on the television show, "Justified." But he made his bones writing western novels, and this is an excellent example of his work in that genre. Bob Valdez is not as funny or as ironic as Raylan Givens, but he's just as compelling a character, and those who have enjoyed "Justified" and Leonard's other novels would probably enjoy this book as well.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dame

Alan Grofield first appeared as a character in Richard Stark's excellent series about Parker, the tough-as-nails heist man. Grofield, whose day job was as an actor in small, regional theater groups, moonlighted as a very competent thief. Parker could always depend on Grofield when the two worked together, and Grofield was one of the very few members of the crew that Parker (and the reader) knew would never be the one who screwed things up.

Stark (Donald Westlake) ultimately liked the character well enough to give him four books of his own. This is the second of the Grofield novels, first published in 1969. Grofield is much more relaxed than his more famous (or infamous) counterpart. In twenty-five novels, Parker probably never cracked a single smile. But Grofield is a very witty guy, which sometimes gets him into trouble, and he will often use humor in an attempt to defuse a tricky situation. One could never imagine Parker doing that; he'd be much more likely to get out of trouble by smashing a sledgehammer into some guy's forehead.

As a result, the Grofield books are a bit lighter than the Parker novels, but they're certainly very enjoyable in their own right. In this case, Grofield and Parker have just finished heisting the profits of a casino, and Grofield finds himself in Matamoros, Mexico, enjoying the company of a delightful young woman before heading home to his wife. He receives a message asking him to go to Puerto Rico as a favor to a friend to help out a woman in distress.

Curious, Grofield flies to Puerto Rico and meets the woman and her several houseguests at an isolated mansion out in the countryside. Grofield and the lady immediately annoy each other and he decides not to take the job. However, before he can leave someone in the house is murdered. It's clear that the killer must have either been a guest or a member of the staff, and Grofield is everyone's number one suspect.

As is usual in a case like this, the only way Grofield can save himself is to find the real guilty party. This is, in some ways, a variation on the old English manor murder mystery, and in that case, of course, someone like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot would produce the solution and save the day. Happily, neither Miss Marple nor the famous Belgian are among the guests and so the task falls to Grofield whose approach to the problem is a lot more fun.

Readers who have enjoyed the Parker series will doubtless like this book as well and will be grateful to the University of Chicago Press for resurrecting this and two of the other Grofield books. (The fourth, The Sour Lemon Score, was recently republished as part of the Hard Case Crime series.) Who could not love a book that contains a paragraph like the following:

"Eva Milford was an overwound mainspring. Her hairdo was so tight and rigid it looked as though it had been set by the Spanish Inquisition. Her torso didn't look girdled, it looked petrified, like an old forest. Her dark-brown suit and fussy coral blouse made her look like the mean old broad in the steno pool, and her face was as shut up as a bank on Sunday."


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Jack Reacher Origins Story

This is the sixteenth Jack Reacher novel and it's among the best of them all. For the second time, Lee Child goes back to tell a story from earlier in Reacher's life and this is the Jack Reacher origin story. It takes place back in 1997, when Reacher was still in the Army. Reacher loves the Army and it's the only home he's ever known, even as a child, when he grew up a military brat. But the Army is now in trouble. The Cold War has ended; the war on terror is yet to begin, and budget cutters are looking to downsize the Army. Lots of positions could be lost, even that of a career military man like Reacher.

More immediately, the Army faces a potential crisis down in the backwoods of Mississippi. A scandal could be brewing there that would hit the Army hard at a time when it is already vulnerable. Reacher is assigned to head south incognito to work as the outside man in a two-man investigating team that will try to define and resolve the crisis. But their most important mission is to protect the Army no matter the cost. The assignment, though, is very vague and it's clear that Reacher's commanding officer expects him to do a lot of reading between the lines.

The crisis--whatever its real nature--has been triggered by the savage murder of a young woman in Carter Crossing, Mississippi, a tiny town that exists to serve an Army base with a somewhat mysterious purpose. The Army's apparent fear is that a military man will be exposed as the killer, triggering a major scandal at a time when the Army can least afford it.

Reacher makes his way to the little town, but his cover is blown immediately by the local sheriff, a very tough, smart, sexy ex-Marine named Elizabeth Deveraux. The two form a wary partnership and it quickly becomes apparent that a huge conspiracy may be at work here. But what is the conspiracy? Who's involved? And, most important, who can Reacher trust?

Reacher being Reacher, he is determined to ferret out the truth. Along the way, he'll have to beat the crap out of some local bad boys and he'll also have to sort out his relationship with Sheriff Deveraux. Reacher being Reacher, he will also attempt to mete out justice, however rough. The real question is whether he can do so in a way that serves his mission and his determination to protect the Army without destroying himself in the process.

This is really an excellent addition to the series, much more nuanced than some of the other entries with a plot that builds to a great climax. Reacher's fans are sure to love it and those who have not yet made his acquaintance would find this an excellent place to start.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Bad Lawyer Takes a Very Unusual Case

This is not your usual legal thriller and Sid Kaplan is definitely not your usual legal thriller lawyer/protagonist. Sid--and the story he inhabits--are far removed from the cases and legal beagles created by authors like John Grisham, Scott Turow, John Lescroart and Michael Connelly.

Sid was once riding high as a prominent New York defense attorney, but then he crashed and burned in the wake of too much booze and coke. He's now cleaned up his act and is attempting to claw his way back, but his one-man practice is pitiful in the extreme. Then, however, a woman named Thelma Barrow begs Sid to take the case of her daughter, Priscilla, a white woman who is accused of murdering her drug-dealing black husband. Thelma can't afford to pay much, but Sid realizes that the publicity generated by a high-profile trial could put him back on the fast track to fame and fortune.

Sid agrees to meet with Priscilla who's in jail on Riker's Island and it's immediately clear that Priscilla, a tough, street-wise and very sexy babe, is going to be nothing but trouble. She admits to shooting her husband but is claiming self-defense. Actually, Sid couldn't care less whether she was justified or not in pulling the trigger, and as the evidence against his client accumulates, Sid carefully schools Priscilla in how the killing might have gone down in a way that will square her claim of self-defense with the evidence that is piling up against her.

Sid is assisted in the defense by his two closest friends, Caleb Talbot, who serves as his investigator, and Julie Gills, who works as his office manager. All three are badly wounded souls, but they form a bond so tight that they not only work together, they all live together.

To say much more would spoil the twists and turns of a tough, gritty and very surprising story. It doubtless goes without saying that things are not always what they seem and that in taking Priscilla's case, Sid Kaplan may get a lot more than he bargained for. This is a well-written book with interesting and quirky characters that are fully drawn. It should appeal to a wide range of readers who enjoy crime fiction.        

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Serialist

The Serialist is one of the most unusual and entertaining books that I've read in a long time. The protagonist and narrator is Harry Bloch, an aspiring writer who barely eeks out a living by grinding out pulp novels in a variety of genres under various pseudonyms. One of his most successful is a vampire series that he writes under his mother's maiden name, Sybilline Lorindo-Gold. Harry gets his mom to pose for the author photo and then, when his mother dies, he has no choice but to don a wig, put on his mother's clothes and begin posing for the photos himself.

Harry supplements his income by writing term papers for wealthy students he is supposed to be tutoring. This aspect of his career is managed by a precocious and very appealing teenage girl named Claire who was the first student to be tutored by Harry and who conceived the idea of expanding the enterprise. Before long, Claire is managing most other aspects of Harry's life and doing a much better job of it than Harry had done himself.

Then, apparently out of the blue, Harry get a chance to take a gigantic step up in the writing biz when serial killer Darian Clay, who is a little more than eighty days away from being executed, asks Harry to ghost his memoir. Given Clay's fame, and the particularly sensational nature of his crimes, the book would doubtless be a huge best seller with all sorts of ancillary benefits. Harry has some reservations about accepting the offer, but Claire beats some sense into him and Harry begins visiting the prison to meet the brutal killer and get his story.

As the price for his cooperation, though, Clay demands that Harry visit some of the women who have been writing him in prison. Harry must then craft stories for Clay's amusement, describing the sort of lurid sex that Clay would have with the women if only he were free. Slimy as the task is, Harry agrees, but then the women he visits begin turning up dead, murdered in the same gruesome manner that was Clay's signature.

Harry now finds himself caught up in an enormously creepy and dangerous mystery. His own pulp novel detective hero would naturally break the case without breaking a sweat. But this is real life and Harry hasn't a clue as to how to proceed. The only thing he knows is that needs to come up with an idea ASAP or he may well become the next victim of a very disturbed killer.

It's impossible, really, to convey in a review the full measure of this very clever and appealing novel which is, as the cover suggests, a love letter to books and especially to genre fiction. The author, David Gordon, sprinkles through the book sample chapters of Harry's genre novels which are absolutely hilarious. Through Harry, he also has some very wise things to say about the reasons why so many readers love these books.

At one point, Harry notes that, "In its tropes and types, genre fiction is close to myth, or to what the myths and classics once were. Just as a century or two ago, one could refer to Ulysses or Jason and hid a deep vein of common understanding in your reader, now we touch that place when we think of a lone figure riding in the desert, or a stranger in a long coat and hat coming down a corridor with a gun, or a bat wheeling above the city at night. Reduced to their essence, boiled down, the turns and returns of genre unfold like dreams, like the dreams that we all share and trade with one another and that, clumsy and unrealistic as they are, point us toward the truth."

This book was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and is sure to delight anyone who can easily lose an afternoon or stay up half the night devouring a genre novel.(

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Two Minute Rule

Robert Crais is best known for his series featuring L.A. private-eye Elvis Cole and Cole's partner, the inscrutable Joe Pike. But while I like those books, this stand-alone, originally published in 2006, remains my favorite of Crais's novels.

Two thugs named Marchenko and Parsons are stricly amateur, if brutal, bank robbers. They do not know the Two Minute Rule, which holds that a robber only has a two minute window to be in and out of a bank before the law is almost certainly going to be on the scene. The two get lucky long enough to score almost $17 million in a string of robberies, but their luck runs out when they walk out of their last bank into a hail of police bullets.

Max Holman is, or was, a professional bank robber who knew and scrupulously observed the Two Minute Rule. But in a moment of weakness, he broke the rule and was arrested in the middle of a robbery by a team led by FBI agent, Katherine Pollard. Ten years down the road, Max is finally being released from prison and his dream is to be reconciled with his son, Richie, who in rejecting his father has gone all the way in the other direction to become an L.A. cop.

Just as Max is being processed out, though, he receives the worst possible news imaginable: Richie has been murdered, along with three other police officers. The detectives investigating the killings quickly pin the crime on a gangbanger who then conveniently commits suicide, closing the case--at least as far as the cops are concerned.

A devastated Max, thinks the whole package is all too neat. His cursory inspection of the murder site convinces him that the killings could not have occurred as the police have theorized and he is determined to find the truth. For help, he turns to Katherine Pollard, the agent who arrested him. Pollard has left the Bureau and is now a widow with two small children. Reluctantly, she agrees to assist Max and it quickly becomes apparent that their efforts to discover what really happened the night of the murders is stirring up the proverbial hornets' nest. The cops and the Feebs insist that Max and Pollard step down and accept the police version of the crime. When the two refuse to do so, they suddenly find themselves in very grave danger with no apparent way out.

This is a book with well-developed characters and a fast-paced plot that seems perfectly believable. Readers who have enjoyed Crais's Cole/Pike books will certainly want to look for this one.(

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Another Gem from George Pelecanos

This is another excellent novel from George Pelecanos who demonstrates once again that he knows the seamier side of Washington, D.C. inside and out and can portray it better than anyone else. Even better are the characters who populate this novel--some good, some bad, some still making up their minds, but virtually all of them struggling in one way or another.

The main protagonist, Lorenzo Brown, once ran with a rough gang headed by his best boyhood friend. But after serving eight years in prison on a drug charge, Lorenzo is back on the street, determined to stay on the straight and narrow and make a new life for himself. He finds a job as a "dog man," working for the Humane Society, attempting to rescue mistreated dogs.

Lorenzo must report periodically to his parole officer, an attractive but troubled woman named Rachel Lopez. By day, Rachel is very conscientious and does her job well. But by night, she drinks too much and picks up strangers in hotel bars for rough sex. Outside of their scheduled sessions, Lorenzo and Rachel also occasionally run into each other at a mid-day meeting of a Narcotics Anonymous chapter.

Lorenzo is doing well, content in his humble job and steering clear of his former bad associates, when a simple mistake by a stupid gang banger threatens to set off a conflict between two of D.C.'s major drug lords, one of whom is still Lorenzo's friend. The incident threatens both Lorenzo and Rachel and forces Lorenzo to make an agonizing choice.

These characters are beautifully drawn and their story pulls you in from the first page. These are real people in a setting that is totally believable and flawed or not, you can't help but sympathize with virtually all of them. Certainly you won't soon forget them.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Doors Open

Ian Rankin's Doors Open is a stand-alone, set in Edinburgh that does not feature the author's long-time protagonist, John Rebus. It originally appeared as a weekly serial in the New York Times Magazine, and was perhaps inspired by Rankin's enthusiasm for heist films. (He lists ten of his favorite such movies at the end of the book.)

The book opens at an art auction where three friends meet. Not surprisingly, they all share an interest in fine art. Mike Mackenzie made a fortune with his software company, but after selling the company he finds himself bored and looking for some excitement in his life. Robert Gissing is an art professor who is miffed by the fact that so many pieces of great art are hidden away in private collections, unavailable to the general public. Alan Cruickshank is a successful banker with a taste for art that he can't afford.

Over drinks after the auction, Professor Gissing suggests that it would be enormous fun to "liberate" a few priceless works of art from the National Gallery's storage warehouse. Mike Mackenzie, in particular, is intrigued by the idea. He's rich enough to afford virtually any painting he might want, but he particularly covets a portrait that is in the Gallery's collection and that he knows will never come up for sale.

Before long, a discussion that apparently began as a light-hearted fantasy evolves into a serious plan to steal a handful of priceless paintings from the Gallery. Mackenzie brings into the scheme an old high school mate who has grown up to become a local crime boss, and the game is on.

The men construct what they hope will be a fool-proof scheme to steal the paintings without getting caught. But as complicated as the plan is and with as many people as there are involved in its execution, the potential for disaster looms large.

This is a very enjoyable book with lots of twists and turns. It's not as dark as most of the books in the Rebus series, and fans of great heist movies like "The Thomas Crown Affair" will probably enjoy reading it almost as much as Ranking obviously enjoyed writing it.