Monday, April 29, 2013

Alan Banks Is After a Bad Boy...

[Please note: This review contains some minor spoilers, but nothing beyond what is described in the tease on the back of the book.]

Bad Boy is a book that, had it been set in the U.S. instead of in the U.K. would have ended on page three.

A woman comes into the Eastvale police station, looking for DCI Alan Banks who was once her neighbor. The woman's daughter has come home for a visit and while cleaning the daughter's room, the woman discovers a hand gun hidden away. Being a good citizen, she races to the police station to report it, apparently hoping that Banks can safely get the gun out of the house and minimize the legal trouble her daughter will be in for having it in the first place.

In the U.S., of course, the desk sergeant would doubtless just tell the woman to go home and to stop trampling all over her daughter's Second Amendment rights. In the U.K., they take this sort of thing more seriously and, although the woman doesn't know it, her daughter could be facing five years in the slammer for possessing the gun.

Unfortunately for the woman, her old friend Banks is on holiday in America and so the woman is referred to Banks' colleague, Annie Cabbot. Following protocol, the police send a SWAT team to the house to remove the weapon, but things go badly wrong and a tragedy ensues.

Erin, the young woman who brought the gun to her mother's house, is the roomate of Banks' daughter, Tracy. Erin and Tracy are both attracted to a sexy Bad Boy named Jaff who owned the gun in the first place. As events unfold, Tracy realizes that Jaff could be in serious trouble and so goes to warn him. Knowing that her father is going to be out of town for the better part of a week yet, she then volunteers that the two of them could lay low in her father's vacant cottage for a while.

This is a seriously bad idea, but Tracy, who is obviously not the brightest woman on the planet, won't realize that until it's too late. By the time Banks returns, Jaff will be on the run, taking Tracy as his hostage. Lots of bad things are going to happen along the way and Banks will face one of the most difficult and most personal challenges of his long career.

This was a good read, and the story moves right along, but I did have a couple of problems with it. First of all, this is an Alan Banks story in which Alan Banks is basically AWOL for the first half of the book. By the time he arrives back in the UK, his daughter is on the run with a known criminal and yet his superiors still allow him to work the case. That stretches credulity a bit when he has such a personal stake in the situation.

Also, as a person of the male persuasion, I might find it harder than some other readers to really appreciate the attraction that some women have for dangerous "Bad Boys." I understand the concept, but Tracy's actions in the beginning of the story simply left me shaking my head. I had some difficulty feeling much sympathy for her later in the book when she had so stupidly gotten herself into this situation to begin with.

One minor note that jarred me and took me out of the story for a moment: While vacationing in San Francisco, Banks begins reading Dashiell Hammett's classic book, The Maltese Falcon, which takes place there. Later, he flies from San Francisco to the UK and on arriving notes that he continued to read the book on the flight," until his eyes got too tired" to continue.

Say, what? The Maltese Falcon is 229 pages long and a non-stop flight from San Francisco to Heathrow is ten and a half hours. Plus, he'd already started the book! Banks must be the slowest reader on the planet.

A final note: The moral of this story is, obviously, that once your kids are grown and have left home, change the locks and, NEVER, under any circumstances, give them a key to your house.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dave Brandstetter Returns in Skinflick

This is the fifth of Joseph Hansen's series featuring insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter, and it's among the best in the bunch. As the book opens, Dave is going through some significant changes in his life but, as with any good P.I., the job always comes first.

Dave's company has insured the life of Gerald Dawson, a man with deeply held religious convictions who was convinced that the world around him was going to hell in a hand basket. Dawson was determined to do what he could to at least slow the rate of decline, even if it meant breaking the law. He and associates from his fundamentalist church believed that they answered to a Higher Law and so felt no guilt about things like bashing gays and trashing bookstores that sold pornography.

When Dawson is found in front of his garage with a broken neck, the police arrest the owner of a porn shop that had been vandalized by Dawson and his fellow vigilantes. The evidence against the shop owner seems slight, but it's good enough for the cops.

Enter Dave whose company is about to be out a lot of money and who doesn't believe that the evidence against the store owner is all that compelling. Dave wants to know why the cops didn't find the victim's keys, especially since the guy was killed at his doorstep. Dave would also like to know why he found the victim's son burning kiddie porn in the back yard.

The deeper Dave gets into the case, the more questions he has, and before long, he's wading through a cesspool of soft-core porn films, drugs, missing persons and religious fanatics. It's a thankless job, but somebody's got to do it, and before Dave is finished, it's going to be a very dangerous one as well.

As I suggested above, this is one of the best books in the Brandstetter series. It's a tight plot; the characters are interesting and, as always, Dave's humanity shows through from beginning to end. The series was published between 1970 and 1991, and it established itself early on as one of the best of the P.I. series set in L.A. to follow Raymond Chandler.

What set the series apart more than anything else was the fact that Dave Brandstetter was openly gay. Hansen presents this simply as a fact of life and in many of the books, Brandstetter's love life constitutes a theme of the novel, just as any other P.I.'s love life might. But there's little time for that here; Dave is awfully busy with the case at hand. As always, it's fun watching him work.

John X. Shade Is Going Home

This is the third and final entry in Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy featuring St. Bruno, Louisiana police detective Rene Shade. In this book, though, Rene has been suspended from the department and appears only occasionally. The main protagonist is actually Rene's father, John X. Shade, a pool hustler who had abandoned the family years earlier.

John is now well into his sixties and living in Mobile, Alabama. His vision is getting blurry; he's got the shakes, and his days of making serious money as a pool sharp are well behind him. He's reduced to working at a rib joint to support himself, his new much younger wife, and their very precocious ten-year-old daughter, Etta.

John's wife, Randi, "The 'Bama Butterfly," is an aspiring singer, and as the book opens, she's decided to pursue her destiny in Europe where she feels that her talent will be more appreciated. She leaves Etta behind to deliver a note to John informing him of the situation.

To make matters worse, Randi finances her trip by stealing $47,000 from the safe of John's boss, a five-foot, six-inch psychopath named Lunch Pumphery. Lunch is totally nuts and Shade knows that Lunch will hold him responsible for the money. Shade figures that the only sensible thing to do, then, is to whack Lunch over the head a couple of times with a bottle of Maker's Mark, gather up Etta and hit the road.

Shade decides to return to his old home in St. Bruno where he was once the most handsome man in town, for a reunion with his three sons, Rene among them. Lunch Pumphrey is in hot pursuit, and things are bound to get dicey.

This is a hugely entertaining read with engaging characters, great dialogue and interesting observations about family ties and Cajun life. The daughter, Etta, is brilliantly conceived and steals virtually every scene in which she appears. Given the lifestyle of her parents she's obviously old beyond her years and is curious about a great many things. She wonders, for example, "what would've happened if they hadn't killed Christ for our sins? I mean, if instead they'd just dragged Him out back and slapped Him around some?"

Daniel Woodrell is obviously incapable of writing a bad book and it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't enjoy this one.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Jack Carter Returns Home

This book was originally published in 1970 as Jack's Return Home. Then in 1971, it was filmed as Get Carter starring Michael Cain, and the book was subsequently re-released with the new title. This is a very dark, hard-boiled novel and it is credited with helping start the noir school of British crime fiction.

The main protagonist, Jack Carter, works for a pair of dodgy blokes named Gerald and Les who skate along the edges of the law. Jack is skating right out there with them on ice that's even thinner, given that Jack is also conducting a clandestine affair with Gerald's wife, Audrey.

As the book opens, we find Jack on a train, returning to his home town of Doncaster. He's going back to attend the funeral of his only brother, Frank. The authorities report that Frank died, driving drunk and crashing his car after drinking most of a bottle of Scotch. The only problem with the official scenario is, as Jack well knows, that Frank didn't drink Scotch.

Jack and Frank have been estranged for years, but Frank was still his little brother and Jack still carries very fond memories of the time they spent growing up together. Jack is also concerned about the fate of Frank's fifteen-year old daughter, Doreen, who is now orphaned. Mostly Jack is enormously pissed at the people who killed his brother and who didn't even trouble themselves enough to make the "accident" look legitimate.

Once the funeral is over, Jack begins poking around the dark underbelly of Doncaster in an effort to determine what Frank might have been involved in and who might have been angry enough with him to kill him. In the process, he's going to have to deal with a lot of lowlifes and upset more than a few apple carts. Jack couldn't care less, and when the local crime bosses decide that it's time to get Carter, Jack will only be too happy to meet them halfway.

This is a lean, spare novel that's very well written and which should appeal to anyone who likes their crime fiction dark and unnerving, populated with few, if any, redeemable characters.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Matthew Scudder's Last Case?

This, the sixteenth Matthew Scudder novel, opens as a psychologist comes to a Virginia prison to visit a man condemned to death for the brutal murders of three young boys. Although the evidence against him was overwhelming, the prisoner continues to protest his innocence. The psychologist claims to believe in the man's innocence, and he's the only one who does. The two men develop something of a relationship over the course of several visits and, at the end, the condemned man asks his new friend to witness his execution.

Meanwhile, up in New York City, P.I. Matthew Scudder is now in his middle sixties and in semi-retirement. He's given up the license he briefly held and no longer actively solicits business. But he will take the occasional client if one seeks him out. After all, no one in his or her right mind could imagine Matthew Scudder living in Florida, playing golf and lining up for the 4:30 p.m. early bird buffet.

A woman pays Matt $500.00 for what seems like a fairly simple task. She's dating a new man. She likes him, but he's a bit on the mysterious side. For example, they always go to her place and she's never been to his. She's worried that the guy might be a serial killer or--even worse--married, and she wants Matt to check him out.

Matt takes the case and he and his sidekick, T.J., immediately run into a brick wall. The guy has a fairly common name, and they can't get a whiff of him. They attempt to tail him one night after he leaves the client's apartment, but the guy gives them the slip.

Meanwhile, the psychiatrist from Virginia has evaporated into thin air and bad things begin to happen to unsuspecting people in New York. Matt will ultimately realize that something very bizarre and extremely dangerous is afoot. Even worse, a serial killer from a previous case may have Matt and his wife, Elaine, dead in his sights.

This book continues some unfinished business from the previous Scudder novel, Hope to Die, and it's great to see Matthew Scudder back in action. Many familiar characters put in an appearance, and the book has an elegiac feel about it. Matt realizes that he's getting close to the end of the line, and after following him for nearly forty years, readers are bound to feel as unsettled about that as Matt does.

This is a very good read and, when first published, had the feel that it might be the last of the Scudder series. Happily, that turned out not to be the case, but still, even re-reading the book one is torn between the temptation to devour it whole and the desire to stretch it out for as long as possible rather than let it go.

My only objection to the book is that here again, as he did in Hope to Die, Block alternates between Scudder's POV and that of the villain. After fourteen books in which the only voice was Scudder's, it's still more than a little jarring to have another one intrude, but still, I enjoyed this book immensely.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Detective of the 87th Precinct (and Their Creator) Work Under Enormous Pressure

First published in 1958, this is the eighth entry in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. By this point, the main characters were fairly well-established and needed no introduction, but the book itself is something of an oddity in the series in that most of the books have the detectives of the 87th working at least a couple of cases. This book focuses on a single case, worked by all of the detectives over a the course of a long and frustrating twelve-hour day.

As the team assembles in the morning, a young boy delivers a printed message to the desk sergeant. The man who wrote the message announces that he is going to kill "the Lady" at 8:00 that evening. The detectives have no idea if this is a practical joke or not, but naturally, they have to take the threat seriously.

In a desperate race against time the detectives work along parallel tracks, trying to determine the identity of the victim and that of the man who intends to kill her. As always, McBain provides an interesting and entertaining ride, although this would not rank among the better books in the series.

In a new introduction, McBain explains that he wrote the book under a deadline, in just nine days. His contract provided that he had to produce a manuscript of 180 pages--no more, no less--and that is exactly what he did. In order to do so, though, he added a lot of filler to what otherwise could have been a fairly short novella. There are a lot of extended descriptions of the weather and of various characters where McBain is obviously just attempting to fill space in an effort to hit his 180-page target and to get the book done as quickly as possible.

In less capable hands, this schedule would have almost certainly produced a book that would hardly be worth reading. But McBain is so good that even a book written under this kind of pressure turns out to be very entertaining and demonstrates what a talented and prolific writer could do "back in the day" when pulp novelists regularly produced several books a year. I wouldn't recommend that someone new to the series start with this book, but fans of the series will want to seek it out.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Once upon a time, a drug dealer named Sky King Hudson stabbed an undercover cop named Leo Banks in the small town of Rozette, Montana. Banks nearly died and was saved only by the intervention of Hudson's girlfriend, a sexy young woman named Marian Tawney. Fifteen years later, Banks, now a detective, is called to the scene of a homicide, only to discover that the victim is none other than his old assailant, Mr. Hudson, who has recently been released from prison. Marian is still on the scene as well, with a baby in tow. She clearly has something that she wants to say to Banks, but backs off at the last moment.

While Hudson's murder remains unresolved, the body of a young woman is found buried in a city park. For a town that only has a handful of homicides in a year, and most of those among acquaintances, two unsolved murders in the space of a couple of weeks constitutes a serious crime wave.

Banks and his fellow detectives finally develop a small lead in the second murder, but they have just begun to puruse it when a mysterious government operative arrives in town and tell them to back off for "national security" reasons.

Small chance of that. Leo Banks may be a small-town cop, but he's just as tough and stubborn as Harry Bosch or any other big-time detective. Banks is determined to discover the truth no matter the cost to himself or to the Feds. The result is a gripping tale that is going to end badly for a lot of people. Leo Banks can only hope that one of them won't be him.

This is another page-turning novel from a writer who never got the attention he deserved. Robert Sims Reid wrote only a handful of books, most of which are now very difficult to find but which are well worth the effort involved. This is a crime novel written by a long-time police officer who knows the job inside and out and who writes about it very eloquently. As this book makes clear, he also knows how to tell a story.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Farewell to Parker

This is the twenty-fourth and final volume in Richard Stark's excellent long-running series featuring Parker, a cold, amoral, methodical criminal. Parker was almost always involved in a gang of crooks that had been pulled together for some specific job, usually a robbery of some sort. In each of these capers, it always turned out that some of the gang members were more dependable than others; there was usually a weak link or a turn of bad luck somewhere along the way, and Parker would have to scramble, using all of his resources, to save himself and as much of the loot as possible.

Parker was always the most competent and often the deadliest man among the thieves and others he partnered with. He did what needed to be done, and if that involved leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, well then, that was just what the job demanded. No hard feelings.

Along the way, Stark (a pseudonym for master crime writer Donald Westlake) took an extented break from the Parker books between 1974's Butcher's Moon, the sixteenth book in the series, and 1997's Comeback, the seventeenth. The earlier books tended to be leaner and cut closer to the bone. The later ones are not quite so spare and Parker might be just a tad softer. They are still a lot of fun, but the first sixteen are grittier and generally better.

In the twenty second book, Nobody Runs Forever, Parker and his confederates knocked over an armored car that was carrying a little over two million dollars from one bank to another. But the law moved in so swiftly that the gang could not get away with the money. They were forced to stash it in the choir loft of an abandoned rurual church.

In the twenty-third book, Ask The Parrot, Parker is still struggling to save himself in the days after the robbery, and Dirty Money takes place shortly thereafter. Things are still hot; the cops still have roadblocks up searching for the robbers, and they are circulating sketches of the criminals.

To make matters worse, it turns out that the serial numbers on all of the bills the gang stole had been recorded. One of the robbers, Nick Daliesa, attempted to pass one of the bills and was caught. He then killed a deputy marshal and escaped again. Parker knows if Dalesia is caught he will try to trade the stolen money, or worse the identity of the other gang members, in order to obtain leniency.

As much as he hates to do it, Parker must return to the scene of the crime in an effort to recover the money and deal with his ex-confederate before Parker himself is compromised. To make matters worse, a female bounty hunter now inserts herself into the situation, demanding a share of the loot.

It's a lot of fun watching Parker jump from one crisis to another in an effort to keep his life from going completely off the rails, especially when he knows that, even under the best of circumstances, the money will be worth only ten cents on the dollar. A harsher man than I might argue that the book could have been a bit tighter, more along the lines of the earlier entries in the series, but that would be a small complaint and I'm certainly not going to make it at this point.

I put off reading this book for over two years, simply because I couldn't bear the thought that I would never have another fresh Parker waiting for me, and I hated getting to the last page. The book itself may rate four stars, but the series overall is five stars all the way. It's one of the best crime fiction series ever published and I'm already looking forward to starting it all over again.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

This is one of the best books in John Sandford's Prey series, featuring Minneapolis police detective Lucas Davenport, with a complex, intelligent plot and a clever, unique villain who pushes Davenport to the limit.

As the book opens, a wealthy banker, who is about to become even wealthier due to the bank merger he has engineered, is shot out of a deer stand in the Minnesota woods. There are any number of people who might have wanted him dead, including the three colleagues who are hunting with him, all of whom had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime. But there's precious little evidence to point the finger at anyone.

Davenport begins the investigation in the midst of a personal crisis. His love life is in a shambles and he's slipping back into the depression that had nearly crippled him some time earlier. Even the thrill of a particularly interesting and dangerous chase is not enough to pull him out of it his dark mood.

The investigation focuses initially on the merger that the banker was bringing to fruition. The merger will affect a lot of other lives, perhaps derailing the careers of some while offering opportunities for a handful of others. The jockeying begins even before the body is cold and Lucas and his team must sort through a veritable chess match of moves and counter moves by those left in the wake of the banker's demise, all of whom are maneuvering for position.

Inevitably, the infighting will get serious--and deadly. Another victim will fall, and again there's very little evidence pointing to the killer. But as Lucas pushes the investigation forward, things suddenly get very personal. As other villains have learned, it's generally a very bad idea to piss off Lucas Davenport, but in this case, a diabolical killer might just get away with it.

There are a number of intriguing characters in this book on both sides of the law. The dialog is especially witty and there's a lot of great action. Any fan of the Prey series who has not yet gotten to this book will want to do so ASAP--but only after reading all of the books leading up to it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ordinary Grace

At the beginning of the summer of 1961, Frank Drum is thirteen years old and living in the small community of New Bremen, Minnesota. It's a summer that will change his life forever, and his story, told from Frank's perspective forty years later, will resonate with readers for a very long time.

Ordinary Grace is a stand-alone from William Kent Krueger, an author best known for his Cork O'Connor mystery series. But this is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, although a number of crimes are committed and investigated during the course of the story. Rather, it's a brilliantly written meditation on the ties of family and community and on the nature of grace, whether granted (or withheld) by God or by frail and fallible human beings in times of crisis and terrible loss when any rational person might well doubt his faith in anyone or anything.

Frank's family includes his father, a Methodist minister and veteran of World War II who still harbors secrets and regrets from the war. Frank's mother has an artistic nature and seems vaguely disappointed in the life that she has found. Additionally, Frank has an older and very talented sister who is headed for Julliard and a younger brother, Jake, who suffers from a disorder that makes him stutter badly.

The book opens with the death of a young boy who is accidentally killed while playing near the railroad tracks and this is the first in a series of tragedies that will befall the people of New Bremen as the summer progresses. Each of the members of Frank's family will react in different ways to the events of the summer, as will the other members of the community.

Krueger has vividly recreated the time and place in which this story is set--an obviously simpler and much more trusting age, and he has populated it with a cast of deftly-drawn characters each of whom is totally believable and engaging. The story is moving and elegiac, and calls to mind both Larry Watson's, Montana 1948 and Norman Macean's A River Runs Through It. Each of these books was also set in a small community in an earlier age. In each case the narrator is also a young man on the cusp of adulthood, and in each book families and the challenges they face are also critically important themes.

With Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger joins a very select group of authors in the brilliance with which he explores these subjects. This is, truly, a wonderful book and no review can really do it justice; it's one that a reader needs to experience for himself of herself. Certainly, though, it's the best book I've read thus far this year.