Sunday, October 27, 2013

Joe Gunther Chases the Elusive Tag Man

It's always fun to return to Vermont for a visit with Joe Gunther, the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and the rest of the cast that populates this long-running series. With the twenty-fourth volume in the series just appearing, this remains one of the best regional mystery series going.

As this book opens, Gunther is on personal leave, checking in occasionally with the rest of his team while he struggles to recover from a significant emotional blow that he suffered at the end of the preceding book. Joe is not a young man any more and through the years he's had more than his share of heartache. This latest tragedy has hit him particularly hard.

While he recovers, the city of Brattleboro is intrigued by the antics of a cat burglar who becomes known as the Tag Man. Adept at breaking and entering and at defeating the most sophisticated security systems, the Tag Man enters the homes of wealthy people and skillfully picks through their possessions, in the process deconstructing their lives for his own amusement. He apparently never takes anything of value, although at each stop he eats something out of the refrigerator. His calling card is a simple post-it note with the word "TAG" which he leaves at each scene.

To the press and to many other observers, it seems like simple fun and games. But it's not so funny to the people whose privacy is violated or to the authorities who are attempting without much success to put an end to that Tag Man's escapades. But then the Tag Man breaks into the home of a guy who rubs him the wrong way, and in this case he does walk away with something of great value to a very nasty man. Then, on his next outing, the Tag Man discovers something even more alarming, and suddenly his seemingly harmless hobby is no longer fun and games.

The Tag Man now has some very dangerous people after him, including the agents of the VBI. As the case heats up, Joe Gunther gradually emerges from his shell and ultimately takes the lead in the investigation. What follows is a dangerous game of cat and mouse that puts any number of people at risk, and as always, Archer Mayor spins a very engrossing tale. Readers who have not yet discovered this series would be well-advised to start with the earlier books, but old fans of the series will welcome this addition.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dave Brandstetter Is Feeling His Age

Set in the late 1980s, the eleventh and penultimate entry in Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter series, is one of the best.

Dave is now officially retired and is showing and feeling his age. He's now on Medicare; other old friends who have populated this series are either dying or retiring themselves, and Dave is feeling the weight of his changing world bearing down on him, both physically and emotionally. But then Vaughn Thomas, an employee of a local television station, is shot and killed while engaged in a paintball game at a place called the Combat Zone.

The police conclude that Thomas was accidentally killed by a stray shot fired by a hunter from outside the Combat Zone and close the books on the case. But the victim was a fellow employee of Dave's lover, Cecil Harris, who also works at Channel 3. Cecil doesn't buy the official explanation of the death and asks Dave to look into it. Cecil would prefer, of course, that Dave do so quietly and without exposing himself to any sort of risk. But as any reader of crime fiction would say to that, "Fat chance," and in very short order, Dave is in deep trouble and grave danger.

Dave quickly discovers that Vaughn Thomas was a troubled young man with disturbing views about life. In particular, he was a virulent anti-Semite and a racist who longed to be a soldier of fortune and who had spent time training with a militia group in a small rural community named Winter Creek. As he investigates the case, Dave stirs up a hornets' nest and anger some pretty violent and reprehensible people. Other murders will follow and the case takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns.

Fans of the series will welcome this addition (or did, of course, since it first appeared twenty-two years ago) and crime fiction fans unfamiliar with the series would almost certainly enjoy it.

The only reservation I have about the book is the fact that Dave's lover, Cecil, would care enough about Vaughn Thomas's death to ask Dave to get involved in the first place, let alone risk life and limb to solve the mystery. Cecil is a black man and it's hard to imagine that he and Thomas could possibly have been friends at all, given the murdered man's racial views. But Dave needs some way into the case and this is as good as any. This is another very satisfying book from Hansen.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Marty Slack Must Take a Very Long Walk

Marty Slack is a failed writer-turned television executive. His job description is a bit elusive, but seems mainly to involve convincing other people that he's somehow essential to the process. He drives the requisite Mercedes; he lives in a gated community with an attractive wife who's a former actress, and he scores good tables at all the important restaurants. He's very solicitous of those people who can advance his career, not so much so of those who can't.

Despite his apparent success, Marty is nagged by self-doubt; his marriage is in trouble, and then one morning his problems really begin in earnest. He's just leaving the dilapidated warehouse in a run-down section of L.A. where his network is filming the pilot of a new show, "Go to Heller," when the BIG ONE hits southern California.

Following the quake, Marty comes to lying under the wreckage of his Mercedes and all around him the city lies in ruins. Buildings have toppled; freeways have buckled; fires are raging out of control, and the bodies are scattered everywhere. Like many L.A. residents, Marty has prepared for this day and he has stowed some water and other basic survival gear in his trunk. Otherwise, he's up that well-known tributary absent a paddle.

Overwhelmed with thoughts of his wife, Beth, Marty knows that his only choice is to begin the long and very dangerous walk from the shattered downtown to his home. As is inevitable in a book like this, his walk will be a journey of self-discovery and will allow Marty ample opportunity to examine his life, the choices he has made, and perhaps to become a better person in the end.

Walking along with him is enormously entertaining. Goldberg, who, in addition to writing novels, has himself had a long and very successful career in television, has created in Marty a complex character who turns out to be a very appealing companion for a journey of this magnitude. The other characters are also very well drawn and their collective story provides moments of great terror, humor and grace under fire. All in all, this is a book that should appeal to large numbers of readers.

Monday, October 14, 2013

BCA Agent Virgil Flowers Rides a Mad River

Jimmy Sharp is the de facto leader of two other loser kids from rural Minnesota, his girlfriend, Becky Welsh and a guy named Tom McCall who's hanging around with them because he's attracted to Becky and apparently because he has nothing better to do.

While working as a waitress at a homecoming dance, Becky spies a diamond necklace worn by the wealthiest woman in a small neighboring town. Now, Jimmy leads his two confederates on a middle-of-the-night mission to break into the woman's house and force her to give up the diamonds. But no sooner are the three in the house than all hell breaks loose and Jimmy shoots someone before there's a chance to grab the diamonds or anything else of value.

The three flee the scene only to discover that Jimmy's junker car won't start. But they spot a man walking toward a car in the parking lot where they've stashed the getaway car. Jimmy runs up behind the man, shoots him, and steals his car, and just that quickly their crime spree has begun.

Virgil Flowers, the laid-back, long-haired, rock and roll-loving agent of the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is assigned to the case. (When asked why Minnesota has a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as opposed to a Bureau of Criminal Investigations like many other states, Virgil's creator, John Sandford, responds that while other states may investigate criminals, in Minnesota, they apprehend them.)

In his efforts to track the three killers and end their spree, Virgil almost immediately locks horns with the local sheriff and his deputies who seem hell-bent on executing the three kids on the spot, rather than bringing them in. Virgil is the son of a Presbyterian minister and has a moral code somewhat stronger than that of the sheriff. He also takes his job as a lawman seriously, and so he's determined to capture the suspects and see that they get a proper trial.

It turns out that here's a lot of places to hide out in rural Minnesota, and the three fugitives also catch their fair share of lucky breaks, which means that their killing spree is going to go on for a while, frustrating Virgil and everyone else involved. From the selfish standpoint of the reader, though, it's great to watch the story unfold and as always, it's enormous fun to watch Virgil in action.

Even in the midst of a story this grim, Sandford works in a lot of wry humor that does not seem out of place or inappropriate. As always, it's fun listening in to the conversations between Virgil and his boss, the legendary Lucas Davenport. We even get to meet Virgil's parents in this book and they seem like very nice people. All in all, it's a great ride and fans of this series will eagerly devour the book. It's sure to make new fans for Virgil as well.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Another Excellent Book from the Author of Winter's Bone

This is another excellent book from Daniel Woodrell, who returns with his first novel since Winter's Bone in 2006.

In 1928, the tiny town of West Table, Missouri, was shattered by the explosion of the Arbor Dance Hall. Forty-two of the town's residents were killed in the explosion and in the fire that followed; dozens of others were injured. But although many explanations for the tragedy were put forward, the guilty party or parties were never identified and prosecuted.

Some townspeople blamed local gypsies; others thought that St. Louis mobsters were responsible. Some wondered if the explosion was the work of the local minister who preached hell and damnation and who railed against the "sinners" who patronized the dance hall.

Alma Dunahew is the mother of three boys and works as a domestic in the house of the town's leading banker. Alma's sister, Ruby, is a carefree young woman who uses and disposes of men as the spirit moves her, until the night she too becomes a victim of the dance hall tragedy.

Alma has her own idea about what happened that night, and as the incident overwhelms her emotionally, she gradually loses touch with reality. She alienates members of her own family and many of the townspeople; she loses her job and has to cobble together a living as best she can.

Years later, in 1965, her grandson Alek is sent to spend the summer with her and over the course of the summer, Alma slowly tells him the story of the events that led to the explosion of the dance hall. It's a riveting tale, told mostly in flashbacks and it grabs the reader from the opening line.

"She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her," young Alek later recalls. The reader can only be enormously impressed by the skill with which Daniel Woodrell tells Alma's story.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Perry Mason Tackles the Case of the Caretaker's Cat

First published in 1935, this is a very early entry in the Perry Mason series, back in the day when there were still cuspidors in the courtroom and when both the police and the lawyers could still cut the kind of corners that would get them arrested, disbarred and jailed in this day and age.

Perry is fresh off an exhausting murder case when Charles Ashton, a cantankerous, frail, elderly caretaker comes into the office and insists on seeing him. Curious, Perry sees the man who wants him to defend his cat, Clinker. Ashton's employer has recently died in a fire, but the employer's will provides that the caretaker has a job for life, looking after the place.

The dead employer's grandchildren move into the home, but one of them hates the cat and insists that the caretaker get rid of it. Otherwise, the snotty grandkid says he will poison it. The will does not specify that the caretaker gets to keep the cat, who is, naturally, the caretaker's best friend in the world.

Of course Perry will take the case; of course, someone will soon be murdered; of course the case will be convoluted beyond all belief; of course Clinker the Cat will turn out to be the most important witness, and of course just when Perry's client seems headed for a certain date with the hangman, Perry will pull a rabbit out of the hat and save the day.

If you've ever read any of these books, you'd expect nothing less and you won't be disappointed. These earlier books are among my favorites of the eighty-five novels that would ultimately detail Perry's adventures. The characters and the formula were still new, and Perry had a lot more freedom to maneuver, with his skeleton keys and a lot of other devices that the law and the Bar Association prohibited him from using in later years. The Case of the Caretaker's Cat is a quick, fun read and an enjoyable trip back to the early days of pulp fiction crime.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Detective Wade Jackson Pursues a Very Personal Case

Detective Wade Jackson's ex-wife, Renee, is having a very bad day. She's fallen off the wagon and needs a shot of vodka to get her through her A.A. meeting. She knows her drinking is getting out of control again, which not good, because she has an attractive new boyfriend who believes that she's cleaned up and is now sober.

When confronted by the meeting leader, Renee decides to bit the bullet and check herself into rehab again, but on the verge of walking into the sanitarium, she is kidnapped by two men. Detective Jackson gets the bad news while on vacation in Hawaii with his new girlfriend and races back home to Eugene, Oregon to assist in the investigation which will be led by FBI agent, Carla River.

Jackson's primary concern, in addition to securing Renee's safe release, is the effect that the kidnapping will have on their daughter, Katie, who has already suffered more than her fair share of trauma.

Meanwhile a young woman who has been badly beaten is dropped off naked at the door of a hospital emergency room. She is unconscious and unable even to identify herself, let alone explain what might have happened to her. This investigation falls to Detective Lara Evans, who has very little to go on, especially when the victim lapses into a coma.

L.J. Sellers adroitly weaves the strands of these two stories together in a very engrossing novel that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Jackson is a very sympathetic protagonist and one feels for his daughter as she struggles with the prospect of losing her mother. Lara Evans also proves to be a tenacious and talented investigator, and it's fun watching her pursue the thin leads that she is able to develop. I confess that I was not all that knocked out by the FBI agent, River, but that's a very minor complaint and this is a book that should appeal to a lot of readers who like suspenseful police procedurals.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Another Compelling Novel from Martin Limon

Over the last few years, I've become a huge fan of Martin Limon's series featuring Army CID Investigators, George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. Like a lot of other good crime novels, the characters are engaging and the stories are entertaining and compelling. But what makes these books so special is the setting, which is unique in crime fiction.

Sueno and Bascom are with the 8th United States Army, stationed in Seoul, Korea, in the middle 1970s And in addition to being excellent thrillers, the books provide a very interesting glimpse into the Korea of that time, into the inner workings of the U.S. Army stationed there, and particularly into the complicated relationships between and among the American military, the Korean civilian population, and the Korean authorities--particularly the Korean police force. Limon, who retired after a twenty-year career in the Army, including ten years in Korea, clearly knows the territory and writes about it beautifully.

This is the seventh book in the series and one of the best. It opens when a Korean woman is viciously raped on a train in front of her small children. The people on the train identify the attacker as an American and, although the perpetrator was in civilian clothing, he is almost certainly a military man.

Sueno and Bascom are sent to meet the train and the passengers are all held on board until they arrive. Theoretically, it should have been impossible for the rapist to leave the train, but somehow he has managed to do so. The two detectives interview the other Americans on the train but glean precious few clues to lead them in the right direction.

Understandably, the Korean people are outraged by the attack and demand swift justice. But, as is often the case in these books, the biggest obstacle in the way of Sueno and Bascom's investigation is the Army itself. The last thing the Army wants is for a U.S. serviceman to be identified and convicted as the rapist. They'd rather massage the case into disappearing rather than face the bad publicity.

The Powers That Be, make it clear that they want Sueno and Bascom to conduct a cursory investigation and to help insure that they do, the Army assigns them to babysit a group of female country and western singers who are touring U.S. bases in Korea as part of a USO tour.

Sueno, who provides the brains for the team while Bascom provides the muscle, refuses to be deterred. He and Bascom are determined to provide justice for the victim, irrespective of what the consequences might be for the Army. Sueno also fears that if the rapist isn't caught, he could strike again.

Battling a clever criminal, a paucity of evidence and their own bureaucracy, the two investigators cover a great deal of South Korean ground in their pursuit of justice. As always, it's enormous fun to watch them work, and very educational as well. The book has a lot of twists and turns and a very satisfying climax. Mr. Kill should appeal to any reader who enjoys well-written crime fiction.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dave Brandstetter Tries to Retire...

Dave Brandstetter, the insurance claims investigator who is the protagonist in Joseph Hansen's excellent series, is feeling his age. He's been threatening to retire for a while now and at the opening of this book, he officially pulls the plug. Dave sends letters to all of the insurance companies for which he has been a claims investigator announcing that he is calling it quits, much to the delight and relief of his lover, Cecil.

Unhappily for Cecil but happily for the reader, Dave's retirement lasts all of about two pages until a sympathetic young public defender comes begging for his help. A prominent Vietnamese businessman has been murdered. The victim owned an aging marina and was in the process of selling it to developers. The marina was basically the last stop for a group of aging boaters who live there on their even more dilapidated boats. Once the marina is sold, they will be kicked out with nowhere to go.

The marina residents have been protesting the sale and the group's spokesman, a particularly unpleasant man, has been arrested and charged with the murder. The young woman representing him believes that his is innocent and lays a guilt trip on Dave, claiming that he is the only one who can save her client.

Dave agrees to look into the case, which takes him into the heart of L.A.'s tightly knit and very secretive Vietnamese community. (The book is set in the late 1980s, when many Vietnamese had just moved to California in the wake of the fall of Saigon.) Dave uncovers a number of secrets that powerful people would like to protect and inevitably puts himself in grave danger.

This is another well-told story with a very engaging and sympathetic protagonist, and it's especially interesting for the glimpse it provides into the world of the Vietnamese who were coming to the U.S. at this time. Although the book is now over a quarter of a century old, it does not feel dated, and the reader is immediately immersed in this very interesting world. Another winner from Joseph Hansen.