Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Parker with a Getaway Face

This is the second book in Richard Stark's series about the amoral criminal, Parker. At the end of the first, The Hunter, Parker is on the run from the organized crime syndicate, the Outfit. At the opening of this book, he has made his way to Nebraska, where he successfully undergoes surgery to change his face to such an extent that even his old associates don't recognize him.

At the conclusion of the operation, Parker returns to the East, desperately in need of a score. An old acquaintance proposes an armored car heist, but Parker is extremely leary of the job. He's not all that confident in the old acquaintance and he likes even less the fact that the job is the bright idea of a waitress that the old acquaintance is living with. Parker's even more discouraged once he meets the woman in question, but he really needs the money and so agrees to the plan. He brings in another old friend, one in whom he has complete confidence, and redesigns the plan in the hope that he can get away with the loot before everything turns to crap.

As readers of this series will well know, that's never going to happen. Complications arise at nearly every turn and, as always, much of the fun in reading these books is watching the way in which Parker deals with one crisis after another. At this point, Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, was just beginning to hit his stride with this character. Happily, the series would run for a good number of years and nearly twenty-five books. This one, though, contains perhaps the best description of Parker, who "looked like a man who'd made money, but who'd made it without sitting behind a desk."

This book will appeal to any fan of crime fiction who likes his or her books lean, mean and captivating.(

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Introducing Dave Brandstetter

Originally published in 1970, this was the first book in Joseph Hansen's series featuring private eye Dave Brandstetter. The series would ultimately run for twelve books, through A Country of Old Men, which appeared in 1991. Dave Brandstetter was an insurance company investigator, but, inevitably, he wound up investigating a murder or two in each of the books in the series. What set this series apart was the fact that Brandstetter was, if not the first, then certainly one of the first openly gay detectives to populate the world of the private eye novel. At a time when the genre was still populated by macho, tough guy and often homophobic detectives like Mike Hammer, Brandstetter stood apart as a tough, smart private dick whose love life was a major theme of the series.

Entertainer Fox Olson had just achieved his life-long dream of success with a successful radio program and a certain best-selling book in the offing when his car plunged off a bridge during a violent storm. The car is found under the bridge, but Olson's body is not. Olson's widow insists that the body has simply washed down the river and will be discovered in due course. She adamantly insists that Dave Brandstetter's company should pay the insurance benefit. Virtually everyone agrees with the grieving widow, but Dave is reluctant to pay a claim when there is no body. Brandstetter ultimately comes to believe that Olson is still alive and that his death was faked. And in spite of the obstacles that virtually everyone places in his wake, he is determined to find the truth at the bottom of Fox Olson's disappearance.

At the same time, Dave is grieving the death of Rod, his long-time lover, who has recently succumbed to cancer. The question becomes whether Dave can fight through the pain and heartache that threatens to immoblilize him to follow the threads of a complicated case. This is a book that should appeal to anyone who enjoys private-eye novels and who is looking for a well-written and unique approach to the genre.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A (True?) Confession

In The Appeal, John Grisham took on the important issue of electing state judges and allowing them to collect huge campaign contributions from people and institutions who might have business before the courts to which they are elected. Now, in The Confession, he takes on an even more important issue in the death penalty.

Keith Schroeder, a Lutheran minister in Kansas, is working in his study one morning when Travis Boyette, a career criminal currently out on parole and residing in a local half-way house, asks to see him. Boyette had attended services at Schroeder's church the previous Sunday and had been impressed by the minister's sermon on forgiveness. Boyette claims to be suffering from a terminal illness and has something that he'd like to get off his chest before he shuffles off into that long good night. He's decided that Keith is the man to hear his confession.

Boyette claims that nine years earlier, he had kidnapped, raped and murdered Nicole Yarber, a popular high school cheerleader in the small town of Sloan, Texas. He left Texas shortly thereafter and then was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for a subsequent crime. In the meantime, officials in Sloan arrested a young black man, Donte Drumm, a classmate of Nicole's, who confessed to the murder that Boyette claims to have committed. Complicating matters is that fact that Nicole's body was never recovered.

Donte Drumm quickly repudiated his confession, claiming that it had been coerced. He was defended by a bulldog of an attorney, Robbie Flak. But in spite of all of Flak's efforts and in spite of the fact that there was no body and no proof that Nicole was even dead, a judge and jury convicted Drumm of the killing on the basis of his confession and sentenced him to death. For the last nine years, Flak has done everything possible to delay the execution, but all of Donte's appeals have been exhausted and he is scheduled to die within days.

After his confession to Keith Schroeder, Boyette suggests that he might be willing to go to Texas and tell his story in the hope of saving Donte. But then again, maybe he wouldn't. He vacillates back and forth while the minister attempts to determine whether Boyette is telling the truth or if he is just another one of the nutcases or publicity seekers who turn up on such occasions looking for their fifteen minutes in the limelight.

The story takes off from that point as the clock rapidly ticks down toward Donte Drumm's execution, and as the story progresses, the reader gets a vivid look at the death penalty and the machinery by which it operates, especially in the state of Texas, which executes far more people than any other state in the Union. Irrespective of how one might feel about the issue, this book is bound to provoke some soul-searching on the matter.

In truth, while this is a very good book, it does lag at some points. Grisham obviously feels strongly about this issue and he sometimes overloads the reader with a bit too much detail and slows the momentum of the story. Some of the characters are also a bit one-dimensional in service of the argument that Grisham wants to make. Still it's a compelling story and once it grabs your attention, you're likely to keep reading well into the day or night in order to see the conclusion.