Monday, August 26, 2013

Lucas Davenport Up Against an Art History Professor

The twelfth entry in John Sandford's acclaimed Prey series finds the world of the protagonist, Lucas Davenport, undergoing some major changes. His boss, Police Chief Rose Marie Roux, is about to lose her job since the mayor who appointed her is leaving office. This means, in turn, that Davenport will almost certainly lose his job as Assistant Chief as well.

At the same time, Lucas's girlfriend, Weather Karkinnen, has decided that it's time for them to make a baby. Weather has been alienated from Lucas for a long while because of an incident that occurred at the end of a previous book, but now she's back. This does not mean that Weather has decided that she would like to be engaged to Davenport again, but her biological clock is ticking and she does need someone to father the child...

In the midst of all this, a young woman's decomposing body is discovered partially buried on a rural hillside. She's been missing for about a year, and there is virtually no evidence suggesting who her killer might have been. As Davenport attempts to untangle the mystery, a rural Wisconsin marshal appears with a file he's been keeping on missing young women who have disappeared much like Davenport's victim. One of the missing women is the marshal's niece and Lucas suddenly realizes that he may have a serial killer on his hands.

He does, of course, and Lucas rallies his usual team and sends them into action. The killer is a professor of art history named James Qatar. (This gives nothing away; as is almost always in the case in these books, the reader meets the killer before Davenport even appears on the scene.) Qatar has some particularly sick fantasies that he is acting out and is capable of some pretty unsettling violence. But he's also unusually clever and lucky, and Davenport will have to draw upon all of his legendary skills if he's going to run Qatar to ground.

I enjoyed this book a lot. As always, the banter is great; it's fun to watch Weather mess with Lucas, both mentally and physically; the pace is good, and the payoff at the end is rewarding. If I have any complaint about the book (and it's a small one), it's that I didn't think that James Qatar was in the same league as many of the other antagonists in this series.

The quality of these books almost always depends on the quality of the villain as well as that of the hero, Davenport. Sandford is capable of creating some truly nasty and memorable adversaries for Lucas, and to my mind, Qatar is not among the better of them. But then, Sandford did give us a fantastic character in Clara Rinker, who appears in two of the Prey books, and so I'm perfectly happy to forgive him if he can't measure up to that level of perfection every time out of the gate. An easy four stars for this one.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Another Excellent Dave Brandstetter Story

This is another very good book in Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter series. The series has now moved into the mid-1980s, and the AIDS epidemic is gathering momentum, a matter of obvious concern to Dave who is gay.

Dave returns home from a business trip to find a man who has been knifed to death in his courtyard. Dave's business card is lying at the man's feet, but Dave does not recognize him. The man appears to be the latest victim of a killer who has been targeting young gay men who are dying of AIDS.

This particular victim turns out to be a developer named Drew Dodge. Since Dodge died at his doorstep, Dave feels a responsibility to investigate the crime. Dave's personal life is also in turmoil, given that his lover, Cecil, is now involved with someone else. Dave is feeling adrift and tired and is thinking it's about time to hang up his license.

The investigation takes Dave across the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area, into neighborhoods good and bad. It quickly becomes apparent that someone, most likely the killer, does not want Dave pursuing the investigation, and Dave soon finds himself at risk. That will not deter him, of course, and he will doggedly pursue the case, no matter the personal cost.

Hansen never disappoints and certainly does not do so here. He's excellent at plotting a story, setting a scene and developing in the reader a real sense of the humanity of all the characters. This is a particularly gripping book because of the fact that the scourge of AIDS has now been introduced into American life and into the lives of Dave and his friends. As if life wasn't hard enough for gay people like Dave, it's about to get even more difficult and emotionally devastating. In a book that's allegedly about a series of horrific crimes, Hansen captures this situation expertly and with deep feeling.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Another Excellent Chicago Story from Sam Reaves

Homicide 69 is another excellent book from Sam Reaves, an author who doesn't have nearly the following nor the reputation that he deserves.

The book is set in the summer of 1969. Richard Nixon is in the White House; war is raging in Vietnam; Neal Armstrong is walking on the moon; the Manson family is on its murderous rampage, and American society is in the process of being torn apart.

Against that backdrop, Mike Dooley, a solid, decent homicide detective, is doing what he can to redress the injustices committed by his fellow Chicago residents against each other. He's also trying, with marginal success, to navigate the treacherous waters of his own personal life. And a veteran of World War II, Dooley worries day and night about the safety of his son Kevin, a Marine who has been deployed to Vietnam.

Late one night, Dooley and his partner are called to the scene of an especially horrific homicide. A young woman, Sally Kotowski, has been brutally tortured and murdered. Kotowski was a former Playboy Bunny who hung out with mobsters, and Dooley quickly concludes that her death was mob-related.

A solution to the murder appears almost magically, and Dooley's bosses are happy to sign off on the case and declare it closed. Dooley is not. He believes that the solution is too neat and tidy and that the real killers are still at large. Through a long and difficult summer, he pursues the case relentlessly, often on his own time and at the risk of destroying his own career. And his journey takes him deep into the dark side of Chicago life in the late 1960s.

Homicide 69 is much more than a conventional crime novel. The reader knows fairly early on who the guilty parties are and so this is not a "mystery" novel in the traditional sense. It is, at heart, the story of one lone man, struggling against seemingly impossible odds, to do the right thing and to achieve one very small measure of justice in a world gone mad.

It's a story brilliantly told. Reaves has captured perfectly the tenor of the time in which the story is set and he has created an absolutely riveting protagonist in Mike Dooley. Even at nearly 600 pages, the story is way too short, and one closes the book wishing that you could follow Dooley's career indefinitely.

After being hard to find for some time, Homicide 69 is now available in a new e-book edition. It's hard to imagine any fan of crime fiction who would not enjoy it.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Festival of Food and Murder in Jewel Bay, Montana

When Erin Murphy returns home from Seattle to Jewel Bay, Montana, to take over the family business, she can't begin to anticipate the obstacles that stand in the way of her potential success.

The business is the Glacier Mercantile, known locally as "The Merc," and it was established a hundred years earlier by Erin's great-grandfather. Recently the store has been run by Erin's mother, Fresca, but Mom has appealed to Erin to come home and take over. Erin is ready and anxious to do so, but the first problem she encounters is her mother who, in spite of asking Erin to take over the business, has some trouble letting go of the command and control function.

Jewel Bay, loosely modeled after Bigfork, Montana, is known as a food lovers' village and Erin wants to reinvent the Merc into an artisan market for local and regional foods. Mom, though, wants to keep stacking boxes of gooey, huckleberry-filled chocolates, loaded with chemicals, preservatives and God-know-what-else, right by the register as a featured draw. She has difficulty accepting the fact that this sort of thing doesn't exactly mesh with Erin's new marketing plan.

Erin is determined to make a success of the store and of her vision for it. As a means to that end, she has convinced the Chamber of Commerce and a number of other local businesses to sponsor a new festival--Festa di Pasta--to kick off the summer season in Jewel Bay, which does a huge tourist business in the summer months.

The festival is poised to be a huge success until on the opening night, one of the Merc's former employees is found stabbed to death. Rumors abound that there was bad blood between the murdered employee and Erin's mother, and before the festival is even over, Fresca emerges as a prime suspect.

Worried that her mother has been targeted unjustly, Erin begins her own investigation of the events that occurred on the day of the murder. In the process, she turns up a jealous rival chef, a spurned wife, a really bad Elvis impersonator, and a host of other quirky characters who seem to populate small towns like Jewel Bay. Along the way, Erin must struggle to keep her business on an even keel and may even find herself a target of violence as she attempts to sniff out a killer and restore a sense of peace and calm to her family and to the village of Jewel Bay.

This is a book that will appeal to large number of people who enjoy an entertaining and well-written cozy mystery. In Jewel Bay, Budewitz has created a particularly well-drawn setting that would entice loads of visitors, and she has populated it with a cast of memorable characters, led by Erin Murphy who serves as a very appealing protagonist.

My only complaint about the book is that it probably caused me to gain about five pounds. It seems like every other page contains a reference to some mouth-watering gourmet treat, and reading it I was up and down every fifteen minutes, raiding the cupboards or the refrigerator. Tomorrow I may have to run all the way to Jewel Bay and back to burn off the calories.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Another Glimpse of the Young Derek Strange

In 2001, in Right as Rain, George Pelecanos introduced Derek Strange, an ex-cop turned private detective in Washington D.C., where virtually all of Pelecanos's books are set. Strange would ultimately appear in three other novels, and this book makes the fifth.

On a rainy afternoon in 2011, Strange, who is now on the wrong side of sixty, is sitting in a bar with his pal, Nick Stefanos. A song comes up on the jukebox, as songs are wont to do in a George Pelecanos novel, and it sets Strange to reminiscing about events in the summer of 1972, the summer of the Watergate burglary that would ultimately bring down the Nixon presidency.

Over a long afternoon and several drinks, Strange proceeds to tell Stefanos the story of Red "Fury" Jones. At the time, Strange was just off the police force, beginning his own agency, and so strapped for cash that he couldn't even afford a proper sign out front. A sexy young woman walks into his office and hires Strange to recover a ring that she claims to have inherited from her grandmother. It's just cheap costume jewelry, she says, but it has great sentimental value.

For some reason, the woman had given the ring to a friend who is also a drug addict so that he could have it appraised for her. The story sounds more than a little fishy, but then these stories always do, and Strange agrees to track down the ring.

Strange discovers that the addict to whom the woman had entrusted the ring has been murdered and the ring has gone missing. In pursuit of the missing ring, Strange reconnects with his old partner, Frank Vaughn, the detective in charge of investigating the addict's murder.

What follows is an entertaining tale as Vaughn pursues a multiple murderer while Strange attempt to recover the ring which turns out to be as elusive as the infamous black bird from The Maltese Falcon. The story includes a lot of colorful characters and contains all the trademark Pelecanos references to cars, "decks" of cigarettes, and about eight thousand different songs. There's a fair amount of sex and violence, and it's fun to watch the young Derek Strange in action again. This book will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction readers and fans of Pelecanos will not want to miss it.