Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ed McBain is probably best known among crime fiction fans for his 87th Precinct series, but over a twenty-year stretch from 1978 to 1998, he also wrote a series featuring an attorney named Matthew Hope who lived in Calusa, Florida. Hope mostly dealt with routine issues like divorces and real estate closings, but every once in a while he got tangled up in a juicy murder case and whenever that happened, McBain stepped in to tell the tale.

In this case, Matthew is called by a young woman named Sarah Whittaker, the only child of a very wealthy man who has recently died. Shortly after the death of her father, Sarah's mother had her committed against her will to a mental hospital. The mother, the family attorney and a psychiatrist they have drummed up claim that Sarah is delusional and suicidal and that they have committed her for her own good. Sarah insists that she is perfectly sane, that there is a conspiracy against her, and that her mother is really after the $650,000 that her father left to Sarah. She wants Matthew to spring her from the asylum.

The young woman seems perfectly sane to Matthew, but he is the careful sort and investigates further before taking any precipitous action. Meanwhile, Matthew's friend, Calusa detective Morris Bloom, is knee-deep in a homicide case. The body of a young woman has surfaced out of the swamp after apparently being there for six months or so. The victim had been shot in the throat and her tongue had been cut out, all of which suggests foul play.

Matthew and Bloom commiserate with each other as they each pursue their respective investigations. In the meantime, Matthew has to deal with his troublesome ex-wife and with a particularly brash and sexy woman who wants to cook him fried chicken and jump his bones, although not necessarily in that order.

This is an entertaining book in an enjoyable series that doesn't take itself too seriously. Fans of the 87th Precinct novels might want to give Matthew Hope a try.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Welcome Back, Keller

Of all the characters that Lawrence Block has created, my second-favorite (after Matthew Scudder) is John Paul Keller, philatelist and hit man. Keller orginially appeared in a series of short stories that were published in Playboy and other magazines. Later, some of the stories were collected in Hit Man, and since then Keller's adventures have been chronicled in three other books. This is the fifth in the series.

Keller had earlier attempted to retire. He had moved from New York, his long-time home base, to New Orleans. There he became Nicholas Edwards, acquiring along the way a wife and fathering a young daughter. As Edwards, Keller created a business rehabbing houses that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. But then the Great Recession hit New Orleans along with the rest of the country, and the rehabbing business dried up to virtually nothing.

Keller is not destitute by any means. After a long and successful career as a hit man, he has off shore accounts, after all. But he is accustomed to a certain lifestyle which is now crimped by the lack of income. In particular, he has a growing stamp collection that is expensive to maintain.

Fortuitously, he receives a call from Dot, the woman who used to give Keller his assignments back in New York. Dot has also retired and moved to Sedona, Arizona. She's grown bored, though, and has gone back into business, scheduling hits. She wonders is Keller might be interested in an assignment.

He is. And thus begins a series of jobs that will take Keller to a variety of cities and even on a cruise as he carries out his appointed duties. Often, he is able to work in stops at stamp conventions and dealers, growing his collection with the money he is now earning.

It's all a great deal of fun and Keller is a very engaging character. He is, by turn, wistful, melancholy, reflective and playful. Even though is is an assassin for hire, he has his own moral code and he remains true to himself. The addition of a wife and child make him an even more interesting and well-rounded character, and it's great to have him back. My only regret about the book is that I liked it so much I devoured it over the course of one afternoon and evening, rather than taking the time to savor it over several days.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

This is the ninth book in Robert B. Parker's series featuring Jesse Stone, the police chief in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Also featured prominently is another of Parker's series protagonists, P.I. Sunny Randall. In previous books, Stone and Randall have gradually become involved with each other romantically, and this book seems to exist principally so that their relationship can continue to evolve. The two are both freshly out of relationships that ended badly; both are still at least a bit hung up on their exes, and both are in analysis, so at least they have something in common.

Two cases develop simultaneously, allowing Jesse and Sunny to interact. Sunny has been hired by a wealthy couple to retrieve their daughter from a religious cult in Paradise. The cult seems pretty mild, and so, although some townspeople are unhappy about its existence in their quaint little town, Jesse has had no reason to harass the cult members.

Meanwhile, a low-level mobster has been found in the back of his Escalade, parked in Paradise, with a bullet in his head. This leads Jesse to question two allegedly retired mobsters who are living next door to each other in virtually identical houses. They also have identical wives--twin sisters that apparently the husbands cannot even tell apart. Another dead mobster will soon join the first, and Jess has a very puzzling case on his hands. Save for the inspired actions of a grieving widow, it may never be solved.

Both Sunny's case and Jesse's investigation are fairly insubstantial affairs, but it seems that the main purpose of all of the cases in Parker's later books, the Spenser novels included, was simply to provide some action onto which Parker could hang a lot of witty dialogue. There's certainly no shortage of it here, and while this is a book that no one is likely to long remember, it certainly provides a very pleasant escape on a rainy afternoon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

This is the fifth book in Martin Limon's excellent series set in the South Korea of the 1970s and featuring George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, two Army officers from the Criminal Investigations Division. Sueno, the narrator, is the brains of the pair and the one who will usually attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the difficult situations in which he and his partner all too often find themselves. Bascom has the shorter fuse and would sooner use his brawn rather than his brains, and together they made a powerful team.

In this case, the two are dispatched to Camp Casey, near the DMZ, to find Corporal Jill Matthewson, the only female MP on the base and one of the few in the Army at that time. Matthewson has disappeared; the investigators on the base itself have been unable to find her; Matthewson's mother has written to her congressmen seeking his help, and thus Sueno and Bascom have been dispatched from HQ in Seoul to assist in the investigation.

Upon arriving at the base, they get a pretty frigid reception and it soon becomes clear that the Powers That Be don't seem to be all that interested in finding Matthewson. As usual, Sueno and Bascom are less than impressed by the PTB, and are determined to complete their mission in spite of the obstacles that are thrown up in their way.

Before long, it becomes clear that the Case of the Missing Corporal is only the tip of a very rotten iceberg at Camp Casey. Sueno and Bascom are resolved to unearth and expose the corruption and other crimes that seem to permeate the base and to find Jill Matthewson as well. But before long, their own careers and lives are in grave danger as they press ahead with an investigation that a lot of people would rather be short circuited.

This is a very entertaining story, and as usual, the real pleasure of the book lies in the setting that Limon creates. His descriptions of the culture and geography of South Korea and of the relations between the Koreans and the G.I.s are extremely interesting and have the ring of truth. Limon has created a world unlike any other in contemporary crime fiction and it's hard to imagine any fan of the genre who would not enjoy visiting it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

This is Johnny Shaw's second novel, following his excellent debut, Dove Season. Again Shaw demonstrates his gift for weaving pathos with drop-dead humor and his ability to create memorable characters who are very sympathetic even though most of them are total losers.

Big Maria basically amounts to Treasure of Sierra Madre meets a Chevy Chase vacation movie. Harry Schmittberger is on medical leave from his job as a guard at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. He is living on his disability checks and prolonging his return to work as long as humanly possible--preferably forever.

Rickey McBride is barely cobbling together an existence, attempting to provide a living for his wife and infant daughter by driving a dilapidated bus, transporting southern California senior citizens across the Mexican border where they can score cheap prescription drugs. Frank Pacheo is an aging Indian, struggling to beat cancer and other medical problems or at least hold them at bay for as long as possible.

When Harry accidentally overhears a conversation about a long-lost gold mine, the Big Maria, he sees what he believes might be his last real chance to escape his miserable life. Rickey and Frank are drawn into the plan which seems ridiculously simple, save for a few minor problems. To begin with, the map to the lost mine is buried under an abandoned house and the house in turn is at the bottom of a lake that has been created by the construction of a dam. If that weren't bad enough, the mine itself is now smack in the middle of a military artillery range.

While obstacles like this might deter lesser men, Harry, Rickey and Frank press on against all odds, determined to find the fortune that will set their lives on a brighter path. It's an incredible journey, often touching and hilariously funny within the same paragraph. And it speaks volumes to the dreams and to the bonds that drive and inspire all of us.