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