Tuesday, January 29, 2013

This is an early entry (number six) in Robert B. Parker's long-running series featuring Spenser, the tough, wise-cracking Boston P.I. It's also one of the best, before the plots became less compelling and before Spenser's relationship with his long-time lover, Susan Silverman, became virtually insufferable. Susan appears in the book, but she's not at it's center and she and Spenser are not constantly cooing over each other in a manner that would embarrass the average junior high school couple.

In this case, Spenser is hired to act as a bodyguard for Rachel Wallace. Ms. Wallace is an outspoken gay, feminist author whose new book is bound to antagonize a good number of people. The advance reading copies have barely been distributed when Wallace begins to receive threats against her life.

Enter Spenser.

As a determined feminist, Wallace seems suspicious of most men and hates the thought that she might be dependent upon one, even for her own safety. Spenser is a large, tough guy and Wallace makes some snap judgments about him that are not strictly justified. She also does not appreciate Spenser's brand of humor and the relationship gets off to a somewhat prickly start. Wallace lays down some basic ground rules, but Spenser makes it clear that he will defend her as he sees best, irrespective of her directives.

Early on, Spenser acts in a way that displeases Wallace and she fires him. Shortly after that, she is kidnapped, apparently by the people who threatened her initially. Spenser is angry with himself, even though he was no longer on the job, and his moral code demands that he rescue her. This will take some doing.

This is an intriguing plot with one of Parker's better casts of characters. Rachel Wallace is an well-drawn character and watching her and Spenser spar with each other is a lot of fun. There are other interesting characters as well, although Spenser's sidekick, Hawk, is only briefly mentioned and does not make an appearance. Rereading the book reminds one of what a great series this was in its prime and makes a fan of the series more than a little sad that many of the later books did not begin to measure up to this one.

Monday, January 28, 2013

James M. Cain is best known for his three classic novels: Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. The Cocktail Waitress is his last book and was unpublished at the time of his death. Cain was still working on the book, although he had completed several drafts of it, and there is no way of knowing at this point whether he was happy with the work he had done and whether he thought it was ready for publication. The fact that he had not yet submitted it by the time he died, would suggest, though, that he was probably not yet ready to send it out into the world.

The manuscript disappeared for a number of years and was later discovered by Charles Ardai, the editor of the Hard Case Crime series. Ardai assembled from Cain's various drafts the version that now appears.

The book contains echoes of Cain's three classics, most notably Mildred Pierce. In both cases, the protagonist is a younger woman, suddenly left alone to fend for herself and her children as best she can. Thankfully, in this case the child in question is not nearly as intolerable as Mildred Pierce's daughter, Veda.

The book opens with the death of a man named Ron Medford. He leaves a widow, Joan, and a young son. Medford was a drunk and an abusive husband and Joan is not going to waste a lot of tears on his passing. She finds herself in trouble, however, because a young, ambitious detective believes that she was somehow complicit in her husband's death, even though he died, drunk, smashing a borrowed car into an abutment.

In addition to being hounded by the police, Joan has no way of supporting herself. Reluctantly, she farms her young son out to her sister and takes a job as a cocktail waitress, wearing suggestive clothing and doing what it takes to survive. Before long, two men are competing for her affections. One is an elderly rich widower; the other is a handsome but penniless schemer. This sets the stage for a great deal of mischief as Joan struggles to make the best of a bad situation and put her life back on the track to happiness. As is usually the case in a novel by James M. Cain, good luck with that.

This is a good read, though it is not nearly the equal of his three classics. But those who have enjoyed Cain's earlier books will certainly want to look for it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Cold Shot to the Heart

If the late Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) and Christa Faust had ever collaborated on a novel, it probably would have sounded a lot like A Cold Shot to the Heart, by Wallace Stroby. Which also means that it doubtless would have been a damn fine book.

It's also a very hard book to review. This is one of those novels where you don't want to spoil anything. You want every other reader to discover each delicious twist and turn for himself or herself. So, bare bones: Crissa Stone is a criminal. A middle man hooks her up with a crew that is planning a major score. As almost always happens in one of Stark's Parker novels, something goes wrong and Crissa finds herself in deep trouble.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story, a truly creepy low-level mobster named Eddie the Saint is fresh out of prison. After five years inside, he thinks he has some money coming. He is determined to get it.

'Nuff said. If you like hard-boiled, noirish reads and kick-ass female protagonists, find this book and read it yourself. You won't regret it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Informant, by Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry's character, the Butcher's Boy, is one of my favorite characters in crime fiction. Sadly, the series in which he is featured encompasses only three books published over a span of thirty years.

The character, who first appeared in The Butcher's Boy in 1982, was orphaned as a tender youth and apprenticed to Eddie, a butcher who also happened to be an elite killer. Eddie trained his young ward well in both professions and as a young man, the Butcher's Boy was already making his mark as a talented assassin, best known for the gang hits he carried out.

After writing a great novel that introduced the character, Perry left him to his own devices for ten years while he (Perry) wrote a number of other books, most notably his Jane Whitefield series, which is also excellent. The Butcher's Boy then returned in 1992 in Sleeping Dogs. By then he was in retirement in England, but the mobsters he alienated before leaving the U.S. are still hunting him. A visiting mobster recognizes him and the Butcher's Boy must come out of retirement to deal with the problem.

Twenty years after that, still attempting to live a quiet retired life in England, he is spotted again. The mobsters are still after him and have raised the stakes, leading teams of hit men searching him out. The Butcher's Boy is now married and living as Michael Schaeffer. He's also not as young as he used to be, but to save himself and his wife, he must return to the U.S. and eliminate this threat at the source.

To do so, he enlists the help of Elizabeth Waring, a powerful official in the Justice Department. For thirty years, most of the analysts in the department have assumed that the Butcher's Boy was a mythical character and that the kills attributed to him were actually the work of several men. Waring has argued from the beginning that the man actually exists, but no one will listen to her.

The Butcher's Boy recruits her help by offering her a quid pro quo that she cannot refuse. Waring, in turn, sees a chance to recruit him as an informant whose testimony could virtually destroy the mob single-handedly. But she has an idiot political appointee for a boss who frustrates her at every turn and will not give her the support she needs to get the job done.

The result is a very clever novel in which The Butcher's Boy takes on the mob chieftains who want him eliminated while Waring defies her boss and attempts to bring him in. There's a lot of great action leading to the proverbial shattering climax at the end of a most satisfying read. Those who have not yet made the acquaintance of the Butcher's Boy might well want to start with the first of the three books, but those who have read the first two will almost certainly agree that the twenty-year gap between the second and third books was well worth the wait.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Faithful Place by Tana French

I enjoyed very much Tana French's first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness, but I think that this book, her third, is by far her best work. It's another atmospheric character-driven story, featuring Frank Mackey, the Dublin police detective that French first introduced in The Likeness.

As a nineteen-year-old boy, Mackey was living in Faithful Place, one of Dublin's poorer neighborhoods, jammed into a tiny home with his brothers, sisters and ever-battling parents. It was a grim, depressing place, and few people ever seemed to escape from it. The culture of poverty being what it is, most of the young people in Faithful Place simply grew up to turn into their parents.

Young Frank, though, was desperately in love with Rosie Daly, a neighbor whose father forbid the romance, assuming that his own family, poor as it might be, was well above the Mackeys. Frank and Rosie determined to escape their families and their destinies by running away to London. They saved their money, bought the tickets, and on the night they were to leave, Frank sneaked out of his house to wait for Rosie.

She never showed up.

Late that night, Frank found a note from Rosie, apparently intended for him, indicating that she had decided to leave alone. Broken hearted, Frank never returned home but rather left without a word himself and ultimately wound up in the Guard, the Dublin police force, something that would have made him an outcast in his old neighborhood and in his family as well.

Frank married, had a child of his own, and divorced without ever telling his family of the marriage or the child. Now, twenty-two years after that fateful night, Frank's sister Jackie, the one family member with whom he has remained in contact, calls him to say that Rosie Daly's suitcase has been found in an abandoned home in Faithful Place.

The discovery upends Frank's life. For all those years he assumed that Rosie had simply ditched him and gone to England alone. But the discovery of the suitcase suggests that something much different might have happened.

For the first time after all those years, Frank returns home to examine the suitcase and launch a personal investigation into Rosie's disappearance. Once again, he find himself deeply immersed in the affairs of the dysfunctional family into which he was born and from which he thought he had escaped forever. And along the way, he will discover some hard, shocking truths about himself and the people of Faithful Place.

In addition to being a compelling suspense novel, this book is a powerful meditation on the nature of family life and on the obligations that one either assumes or has forced upon him simply by the act of being born into a family. It's beautifully written with great characters and it's hard to imagine any reader that would not treasure this book. I can hardly wait to get my hands on Tana French's next novel.