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.