Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dave Brandstetter: Hail and Farewell...

This is the twelfth and final entry in Joseph Hansen's excellent series featuring insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Published over a period of twenty-one years, from Fadeout in 1970, to this book in 1991, the series was witty and very well-written, with cleverly-plotted stories and well-drawn characters. Set in southern California, the books also captured perfectly the geography and the social and economic currents of the place and time.

What really set these books apart was the fact that Hansen created in Dave Brandstetter the first openly gay P.I. to inhabit a series like this, and neither Hansen, not his protagonist ever made a big deal out of it. Dave's sexual orientation was made clear from the opening pages of the first book, and it was simply a fact of life, just like the sexual orientation of any other detective. Dave had a love life and was active sexually throughout the series, but it never seemed intrusive or in any way out of the ordinary. In fact, Dave's romantic attachements were much more believable than those of many of his heterosexual fictional contemporaries.

As the series opened, Dave was already a middle-aged man and by the first pages of this one, he is nearing seventy. Many of the friends who populated the series with him are gone now; the others are all retired. Dave himself is not well; he tires easily and aches all over. His long-time lover, Cecil, begs him to see a doctor, but Dave dismisses the idea and claims he hasn't the time.

The story opens when a friend calls Dave in a panic. A young boy has apparently witnessed a murder and was then kidnapped by the woman he saw standing over the body. The boy, who has clearly been abused, manages to escape from his captor, whose name is Rachel Klein, and is found wandering along a beach by Dave's friend. The murdered victim, Cricket Shales, was a musician who has just been released from prison after serving time on a drug charge. He and Klein, who is also an addict, were once an item and she apparently feared he was coming back for her.

The cops arrest Klein and are ready to declare the case closed. But Dave is not so sure that Klein is guilty and so continues his own investigation of the case, even though he has allegedly been retired himself for a couple of years. In the process, he will put his own life and health in jeopardy.

The story itself is a good one, with lots of twists and turns, but in this book, the mystery takes a back seat to the health problems that are obviously ailing Dave. Along with Cecil, readers have worried over Dave's physical decline, especially in the last couple of books, and it's clear where this one is headed. As one nears the end of the book, it becomes especially hard to turn the pages and you want to linger over every last word.

When we finally reach the end of the case, and of Dave's career, it's a sad and elegiac moment. But one closes the book with a deep appreciation of what was a ground-breaking and very special series. Hansen was as good as any other crime writer of his era and this is a series that readers will remember long after they have forgotten most others.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

An Excellent-Depression-Era Novel by the Under-Appreciated James Ross

This Depression-era novel quickly sank from view when it was first published in 1940. A new edition was released in 1975, with an introduction by George V. Higgins, a crime novelist who was then at the peak of his career. But even with his endorsement, the book was still little-noticed. Perhaps the third time will be the charm and the book has now been re-released with an introduction by Daniel Woodrell, a great writer perhaps best known for his book, Winter's Bone.

The main protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald. Jack is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s. The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank, and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes. Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunk.

He buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan. Smut's joint is on the outskirts of the small town of Corinth at the junction of River Road and Lover's Lane. Smut sells gas and a little food along with his bootleg whiskey. He also has some gambling going on in the back room and he pays off the sheriff who looks the other way.

Smut is an ambitious man, and over a drink he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house and expand his operation to include a dance hall, tourist cabins and a real restaurant. He offers Jack a job as his cashier and, having no other viable prospects, Jack accepts the offer which includes room and board.

Any reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future. Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion, Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes, taking one ill-advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetime.

It's hard to imagine how a book this good could have possibly been overlooked for nearly seventy-five years. Ross writes beautifully and completely immerses the reader in the sordid world he creates. He's particularly good at portraying the class distinctions that existed in a small, rural southern community at this time, and he's created a cast of believable and very memorable characters.

This is a book that will remind many readers of the stories of James M. Cain, particularly The Postman Always Rings Twice. Ross is certainly in Cain's league; his story is just as gripping, and he certainly deserves to be remembered along with the other of the best writers of his generation. They Don't Dance Much will certainly appeal to any reader who likes his or her crime fiction dark and dirty. Thanks to Otto Penzler, the Mysterious Press and Daniel Woodrell for bringing it back to life.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spring in the 87th Precinct...

Spring finds the detectives of the 87th Precinct busy as usual. As the book opens, Detective Steve Carella has to deal with a beautiful young woman who decides she has nothing to live for and who has climbed out onto a ledge high above the street in her nightgown. She's ready to jump and in 1962, the PD doesn't yet have trained specialists to deal with a situation like this. Carella will do the best he can, but this really isn't his area of expertise.

Meanwhile, a hairbrush salesman is making his rounds. (Remember, it's 1962 when people other than the Girl Scouts apparently still sold things door-to-door.) The unsuspecting salesman rings the doorbell at an apartment which, unfortunately is filled with leaking natural gas. The electrical impulse from the bell touches off an explosion which blows the salesman and his hairbrushes all to hell.

When the dust settles, the police discover a man and a woman lying virtually naked in the bedroom dead from inhaling the gas. They also find a couple of empty Scotch bottles and a suicide note. But something seems off and most of the detectives believe that the deaths were really homicides.

Sadly, their investigation leads them nowhere. They discover some quirky facts about the case but nothing that absolutely disproves the apparent suicide and nothing that points the finger at a viable suspect. In the meantime, some unknown person has made it his hobby to periodically kick the crap out of Steve Carella, which does nothing to improve the detective's disposition. And unless the detectives catch a break soon, it appears that none of this will be resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

This is another very good entry in this series. As always, it's a pretty quick read and fans of the series are certain to enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Introducing Detective Sergeant Mulheisen

First published in 1977, this is the book that introduced Detective Sergeant "Fang" Mulheisen of the Detroit P.D., the protagonist in Jon A. Jackson's excellent series of crime novels. Also appearing for the first time is Joe Service, the mob hit man who would be Mulheisen's long-running nemesis.

The book takes place during a brutally cold and snowy December. As it opens, a beautiful and wealthy young housewife is savagely murdered during the course of an apparent burglary. I mean, one minute you're lounging in the tub with your aromatic bath salts and five minutes later, you're stumbling into the neighbor's house with a knife sticking out of your back. It's just that kind of a day.

Det. Sergeant Mulheisen is soon on the job and is intrigued to learn that the woman's husband is Arthur Clippert, a former gridiron star known as The Clipper back in his glory days. More recently, the Clipper is the last man standing when the Fidelity Trust Insurance Company goes under in an investment scandal of gargantuan proportions. Twenty million dollars is missing in the fraud and Clippert is the only member of the firm who hasn't yet been indicted.

Mulheisen begins doggedly pursuing the case and turns up a sexy young friend of the murdered woman who has some very interesting tales to tell. Things proceed as they naturally will and before you know it, it's Christmas Day; one of the biggest blizzards in history has hit Detroit; the city is basically closed down, and a bunch of really nasty villains are in the wind.

One really shouldn't say more for giving away too much of the plot, but Mulheisen is a very intriguing protagonist, and I'm very much looking forward to re-reading this series and following his career all over again. This story, like all of the others, is very well-told; the characters are well-drawn, and there's enough suspense and wry humor to satisfy virtually any crime fiction fan.

If you somehow missed this series, you might well want to look for it. But you should understand that Mulheisen and Joe Service have a long and complicated relationship that evolves over the course of the series. You'll definitely want to start at the beginning and watch it unfold.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Harry Bosch Searches for the Black Box That Will Solve a 20-Year-Old Crime

During the course of the L.A. riots in 1992, Harry Bosch, then a young detective, was the first investigator on the scene of the murder of Anneke Jespersen. Jespersen, an attractive photo-journalist from Denmark, was found executed in a dark ally in the middle of the riot zone by national guardsmen who were attempting to provide crowd control. But at the height of the rioting, Harry had no opportunity to do anything more than make a cursory examination of the scene before he was ordered away to another homicide. In the wake of the riots, the Jespersen killing was assigned to a special task force and the case was never solved.

This is one of those cases that has always haunted Harry and now, twenty years later, the same gun that killed the young journalist is used in another murder. Bosch, who is now assigned to the department's Open-and-Unsolved Unit, jumps at the chance to reopen the Jespersen case and finally provide a very belated justice for the victim.

It will not be easy. The chain of evidence is almost hopelessly murky and would frustrate any detective less tenacious than Bosch. In addition to confronting an almost impossible case, Harry is also soon up against department bureaucrats who are interested only in posting statistics that make them look good, who do not share Harry's sense of the Mission of a homicide detective, and who for their own nefarious reasons, would rather this particular case not be solved.

Bosh will not be deterred. He makes an end run around his supervisors and doggedly pursues the case as he believes he should. He's desperately searching for the "Black Box," which will provide the solution to the case, but in the end, the term will become much more than a metaphor as Harry uncovers a particularly dark and disturbing series of crimes.

As he investigates the case, Harry continues to grapple with the complex challenges involved in raising a teenage daughter by himself. He also has a new woman in his life and this relationship is difficult as well, but watching him juggle all of these responsibilities is a treat, as always. All in all, this is an excellent entry in one of the best crime series in the history of the genre. Twenty-five years after first introducing Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly just continues to keep getting better and better.