Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fat Ollie Weeks Joins the Bulls of the 87th Precinct

On a hot August afternoon, a man comes into the 87th Precinct demanding fast action on the investigation into a fire that destroyed his warehouse along with $500,000 worth of small carved wooden animals that were housed there. He insists that he has to get the insurance claim settled immediately so that he can afford to pay for the next shipment of animals that is already on the way from Germany.

About half of the precinct's detectives are on vacation, given that these are the dog days of summer, but Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes and the other detectives who are on duty promise to do what they can. The investigation turns out to be more complicated than your average arson case, though, especially when people start turning up dead. In addition to arsonists and killers, there are hookers and urban redevelopers running loose in the city and Carella and company have to get all these things sorted out before they can appease the guy who wants his insurance claim settled.

All in all, this is one of the more intriguing entries in this long-running series and this book is critical to the series because it introduces the character of Fat Ollie Weeks who will appear prominently in several books from here on out. Weeks is a miserable pig of a human being who does an awful impression of W. C. Fields, but he has great skills as a detective and so the other detectives of the 87th and the reader as well, will just have to grin and bear it. Another fun read from one of the masters.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Trouble Comes to Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania

A veteran of the Iraq war and a recent widower, Henry Farrell is a natural born loner who prefers his own company to that of anyone else. He's left rural Wyoming and taken a job as a township policeman in rural Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania. It's a sparsely settled area with a population that's mostly been in place for generations and that has more than a few deeply buried secrets. It's also an area in transition. The natural gas boom has come to northeastern Pennsylvania; the frackers are moving in and dividing the population into those who want to sell the rights to the gas below their property and those who simply want to be left alone.

In this midst of all this, a body is discovered on the property of an elderly man. It's winter, and there's no telling how long the young male victim has been there. The investigation is led by the county sheriff, but in a county and a township with very little money, the investigation is severely hampered by the lack of manpower and other resources.

Henry Farrell throws himself into the investigation full bore, at grave risk to his own health and personal safety. Then, when another body turns up, things are thoroughly confused. Are the two cases related, or is this simply a coincidence? Although Henry is a relative newcomer, he attempts to sort through the secrets and the tangled relationships of the community in an effort to uncover the truth.

Tom Bouman, expertly sets the stage and immerses the reader in the community of Wild Thyme, and that's the principal strength of the book. Tramping through the frozen woods with Henry Farrell, the reader gets to know the population and often feels that he's shivering right alongside Henry. If there's a problem, it lies in the fact that Henry is not a very interesting guy, and this reader, at least didn't really enjoy spending all that much time with him.

There's a lot of tromping through the frozen, desolate landscape in this book while the action proceeds at a very stately pace, and one wishes that Henry were a bit more engaging and that the plot moved a little more swiftly. This book is being billed as an entry in the new "country noir" genre, but it doesn't really fit into the noir mold and it's not quite on a par with books by writers like Daniel Woodrell.

Bouman is a talented writer who excels at creating the world in which this novel is set. It's a good book, but would have been better had the lead character and the story itself measured up to the setting.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lucas Davenport, Again on the Hunt

In any long-running series, even one as good as this one surely is, inevitably some books have to be better and some weaker than others, and although I certainly enjoyed reading Invisible Prey, it's not among the best books in John Sandford's Prey series.

In every one of the books, at least thus far, the lead character, Lucas Davenport, and his supporting cast have always been consistently excellent--witty, intelligent, and always a lot of fun to hang out with, even if only vicariously. Given that, these books always tend to rise or fall depending on the quality of the villains involved, and through the years, Sandford has created some truly unique, creepy and compelling bad guys. Unhappily, that's not the case here. The crimes at the heart of the book are fairly pedestrian and the villains are sort of ho-hum, not nearly as capable of engaging the reader or of scaring the living bejeesus out of him or her as is often the case with a Sandford antagonist.

As the book opens, an elderly and very wealthy woman in St. Paul is murdered in her home, along with her maid. The house is chock full of paintings, antiques and other such things, some of which are very valuable and some of which are not. The problem is that there's so much of the stuff that no one knows for sure whether anything valuable is missing. It's possible that some junkie broke in and killed the women, simply looking to score enough loot to finance his next fix, especially since there's a half-way house, filled with offenders, right across the street. Or, of course, there could be something more involved.

As the chief investigator of the Minnesota BCA, Lucas Davenport would not normally be involved in an investigation of this type, but the wealthy victim was politically connected and so the governor puts Lucas on the job. At the same time, Lucas, along with that f***ing Virgil Flowers is involved in the investigation of a state official who may have been having hot, kinky sex with an underage girl. This is a very sensitive investigation politically, and it's a lot more interesting than the murder case.

The plot of the book is somewhat convoluted and involves antiques, quilts, frauds perpetrated against museums, and other such things. The villains are revealed early on and part of the story is told from their point of view. But they aren't all that interesting and they're not all that much fun to watch. The book flags a bit whenever the scene switches away from Davenport to them. Certainly these people don't hold a candle to Clara Rinker or to most of the other Sandford villains.

Again, that's certainly not to say that this is a bad book; it isn't. And even a mediocre book by John Sandford is a lot more fun to read than a lot of other books that one might pick up. I enjoyed the book, but it certainly won't rank among my favorites in the series.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Gillian Flynn Explores Some Very Dark Places

Gillian Flynn has a talent for creating singularly unappealing characters and such is the case in this, her second novel.

Twenty-five years ago, a farm mother and two of her three daughters were slaughtered in what became known as the "Satan Sacrifice" of Kinnakee, Kansas. A third daughter, Libby, who was seven at the time, managed to get out of the house and escape from the killer by hiding in the nearby woods. Libby's brother Ben, a troubled boy of seventeen, was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison, largely on the basis of Libby's testimony.

Through the twenty-five years that followed, Libby grew into an extremely unattractive loner who alienates virtually everyone with whom she has contact. She has refused all contact with her imprisoned brother and throws his letters away unopened. She has supported herself by living off the donations that people made to support her in the wake of the killings. But now the money is running out and Libby can't stand the prospect of getting a real job.

To generate some income, she now accepts an invitation from a group known as the Kill Club. This is a secret group whose members are obsessed with famous crimes and particularly the victims of those crimes. The group pays Libby for the opportunity to talk to her and suggests that they will also pay to buy "souvenirs" relating to the crime.

The group has spent a great deal of time studying the murders of her mother and sisters, and Libby is stunned to learn that most members in the group believe that her brother is innocent of the crime. Some female members of the group have been corresponding with Ben and want Libby to recant her testimony and join the effort to free Ben.

What follows is a torturous journey as Libby delves deeper into the case and gradually begins to relive the fateful hours of that awful night. The story is told from Libby's perspective and, in flashback, from that of her mother and brother.

At one level, it's a very compelling story, but my main problem with the book is that I could not find a single character with whom I could sympathize. Libby, in particular, is such an unappealing protagonist that I simply couldn't care what happened to her and didn't even particularly care that she had survived the night that her mother and sisters had been killed. In consequence, I really didn't enjoy the book as much as I otherwise would have.

My other problem with the book is that (view spoiler). Gillian Flynn is an excellent writer, and I expect to read more of her work. My only hope is that next time around, unlike the case in this book or in Gone Girl, she'll give me a character I can really root for.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Patrick Hoffman Debuts with an Excellent Noir Novel

This is a very dark debut novel featuring druggies, loan sharks, Russian gangsters, bank robbers and crooked cops, all fighting desperately for turf on the very mean streets of contemporary San Francisco.

Emily Rosario is a lost soul who relies on booze and drugs to make it from one day to the next. One evening, she meets a Russian man in a seedy bar called the Kum Bak Club. After a few drinks, she accompanies him to a hotel for more booze and drugs, but once there, the Russian and his accomplices keep her drugged to the point of incoherence, paying her two hundred dollars a day for her help in what they insist will be an identity theft scheme.

Emily is so totally blitzed that she goes along for the ride, thinking of what she might do with her promised end of the money. Then one day she's loaded into a white van and sent into a bank, only to discover that she's been conned into what is really a bank robbery.

At that point, as it usually does in a noir novel like this, the excrement hits the proverbial fan and Emily finds herself on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the Russians and the cops all of whom are searching for her desperately. In particular, a troubled cop who's deeply in debt named Leo Elias, sees a chance to grab the money from the bank for himself and solve all of his financial problems.

What results is a wild ride where anything can happen to anyone and everyone. Patrick Hoffman has created a number of interesting characters and placed them into motion against a very well-rendered depiction of San Francisco. There are any number of twists and turns that the reader will not see coming and in the end, it's a very satisfying book that fits brilliantly into the noir tradition.

Perry Mason Takes a Case on Behalf of a Stuttering Bishop

This is an early entry from the Perry Mason series, first published in 1936, When Perry could still drive anywhere in Los Angeles and get there in about twenty minutes and when one still had no problems finding a cab in L.A.

A stuttering bishop from Australia appears in Perry's office one afternoon, hinting at an injustice that began twenty-two years earlier when a millionaire, angry because his son had married against his wishes, conspires to make the son's new bride a fugitive from justice, fleeing from a trumped-up manslaughter charge. Now the son has died and it turns out that before divorcing his wife on Dad's orders, the wife got pregnant and had a daughter. After the son dies, Grandad takes the twenty-year-old daughter into his home.

The bishop can't or won't give Perry the full story and says Perry will have to puzzle it out for himself and see that justice is served. Perry is very suspicious because he can't imagine a stutterer rising to the rank of a bishop. But Mason loves a good mystery above all else and so dives in with both feet. Inevitably, someone's going to die and the case will take all sorts of complicated twists and turns.

Reading this book, one is again particularly impressed with the abilities of Mason's detective, Paul Drake, and the size of the agency that Drake runs. Paul is always there when Perry calls; he's never out of the office, and he never has to tell Perry that he's busy with another case and will get back to him next week. And he's virtually never short of manpower.

The second the bishop leaves the office, Perry is on the horn to Paul, wanting every last scrap of information about the bishop and several other people. And of course he wants it immediately. This would be virtually impossible, even in the age of the Internet, but it poses no problem for Paul. Perry also instructs Drake to track down the bishop and have him followed. Perry also wants Paul to follow everyone who contacts the bishop. Again, this appears to be no problem and Paul will dispatch several of the thirty or forty operatives who are apparently hanging around the office and ready to go to work.

My father loved these books and they were the first "adult" novels I ever read as a child, thus I've always had a soft spot in my heart for them. It's always fun to pull one off the shelf and turn back the clock to the days of my youth. As implausible as Perry's cases always are, they never fail to entertain me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Gripping and Thought-Provoking Book from Cormac McCarthy

On a morning in 1980, a Texas welder named Llewellyn Moss goes out to hunt antelope and gets a lot more than he bargained for when he stumbles across the site of a drug deal gone very, very bad. Several men and a number of pickups have been shot to death and Moss discovers only one survivor who is very near death and who pleads for a drink of water.

Moss ignores the request and searches the site, discovering a large amount of heroin remaining in one of the trucks. There is no corresponding amount of money and so Moss deduces that at least one person got away. A very good tracker, he discovers the path of one wounded person leaving the site. He follows the track and comes across the man, dead, and clinging to a suitcase with a little over two million dollars in it. Anyone who's ever read a book like A Simple Plan or seen a noir movie made from that or another book like it would know damned good and well just to walk away. But if he did that, of course, there would be no story.

Llewellyn hikes out with the money, takes it home and hides it in his trailer home. So far, so good. But then, in the middle of the night, he's stricken by a pang of conscience and decides that he really should take some water out to the guy he left dying at the site of the shootout. Well, hell, a child of five knows that this is going to be a huge mistake. To his credit, so does Llewellyn. But he does it anyway.

Naturally, when he returns he runs into several bad guys who know that someone got away with their money and are damned anxious to know who it might be. They shoot up Llewellyn's pickup, but he manages to escape and make it back home. He quickly sends his wife out of town to what he hopes will be the safety of her mother and then hits the road himself in an effort to somehow escape the rain of crap that he knows is about to cascade down upon him.

On his trail is a particularly amoral and devious hit man named Chigurh who has a particularly awesome and deadly weapon and who seems to be almost prescient in determining where Moss will be. Also on the trail is an aging county sheriff named Bell. Bell is a veteran of World War II who is distressed about the changes taking place in the world around him and who speculates that in the drug warriors and especially in the person of Chigurh, there is a new sort of evil in the world that no one can hope to contain.

The result is a powerful story told by one of the great masters. Moss's efforts to extricate himself from the mess he knew he was getting himself into all along are compelling. Chigurh's apparent total lack of all human sensibilities are horrifying, and Sheriff Bell's meditations on his marriage and on the evolution of the world around him are thought-provoking and elegiac. All in all, a great novel.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Grace Humiston Proves a Formidable Adversary in this Excellent Novel

This is a very engaging and entertaining novel based on the life of Grace Humiston, a crusading attorney in the early Twentieth century. The real Mrs. Humiston earned a law degree at New York University and later became the first woman ever appointed as a United States Attorney. Humiston, who used her legal skills principally on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, was also known as a brilliant detective, particularly after she solved the case of a missing New York girl in 1917.

In Grace Humiston and the Vanishing, Charles Kelly has used the facts of that case to create a fictional investigation in which Humiston is persuaded to look into the disappearance of a young girl named Ruth Cruger. Grace's husband, who is also an attorney, worries about her safety and has urged her to focus her attention on the law and to forego the detective work. But Grace feels that she must take this case, in spite of her husband's objections, and she promises him that there will be little or no danger involved.

Famous last words.

Mrs. Huniston's principal assistant is a Transylvanian investigator named Julius Kron. Kron know his way around the mean streets of 1917 New York, and he is the principal narrator of the story. Through his eyes we watch the case unfold and we realize what a talented and determined investigator Grace Humiston can be.

Ruth Cruger was last seen near the shop of a mechanic named Alfredo Cocchi, where she was going to have her ice skates sharpened. But Grace's attention is drawn almost immediately to the jewelry shop next door, which seems to attract a significant number of attractive young women like Ruth Cruger who come from wealthy families.

Grace discovers that several other young women have disappeared in recent months and she becomes convinced that the two men who are principles in the jewelry story are running a con called the Uncle Game, in which the younger and more attractive partner seduces wealthy young women into eloping with him to his native Argentina. There he and his partner sell the women into sexual servitude.

The police are of no help at all, and so Grace, accompanied by Kron, must take matters into her own hands and solve the mystery of the missing women. It's a difficult and dangerous mission, but it's also a very gripping story. In Grace and Tron, Charles Kelly has created two very well-drawn and engaging characters. He has also expertly set the stage on which the drama plays out, principally in the New York City of 1917, at a time when the nation was gearing up to enter the First World War. This is a book that will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans, even to those who do not generally read historical mysteries. A very entertaining and satisfying story.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Another Christmas Homicide for the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

It's the Christmas season and in sharp contrast to the joyful tidings attendant to this time of year, the detectives of the 87th Precinct are called to an apartment occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Fletcher. Mr. Fletcher greets them by announcing that he's just returned from a business trip. Mrs. Fletcher is lying dead on the floor, having been savagely stabbed to death.

The kitchen window is open on a twelve-degree night and there are muddy footprints leading from the window to the bedroom. The bedroom window is broken and it appears that someone has gone out of the window in a big hurry. There's plenty of other evidence to suggest that a burglar has broken in and killed Mrs. Fletcher and that Mr. Fletcher walked into the scene just as it was playing out.

The lead detective, Steve Carella, offers his sympathies to Mr. Fletcher who replies by saying, "My wife was a no-good bitch and I'm glad that someone killed her."

Fletcher is a lawyer who certainly knows his rights, but his attitude leads Carella to suspect that he may have been involved in his wife's untimely demise. But early on, the detectives turn up a suspect who confesses to burglarizing the apartment in the hope of finding something to sell so that he could buy drugs. Mrs. Fletcher interrupted him, he says, and he wound up stabbing her.

Case closed. Or is it? Carella still has his nagging suspicions and refuses to let go of the investigation. The case takes a number of turns and in the end, this is one of the better books in this long-running series. Fans of the 87th Precinct will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Benjamin Black Attempts a Hommage to Raymond Chandler

As a general rule, I avoid reading books in which a new author takes over an established character from another author who has died or retired. The whole idea of taking over someone else's series seems somehow wrong to me on a number of levels, and I've never read one yet in which I thought that the new author really did justice to the series or the characters.

Given that, I would have totally ignored this book in which Benjamin Black resurrects Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe who is, of course, one of the icons of crime fiction. But then a book club to which I belong chose the book and I had no choice in the matter.

I really wish they hadn't. I've read a couple of Black's novels featuring his own series character, Quirke, a pathologist in the 1950's Dublin morgue, and I've enjoyed them. Even so, I approached this book with more than a little trepidation, and reading it did nothing to allay the concerns I had going in.

The book is set in the early 1950s and opens with Marlowe sitting in his office. A beautiful, leggy and mysterious black-eyed blonde wanders in and asks Marlowe to find a missing "friend," named Nico Peterson. The blonde is a little vague about the details of her relationship with the missing Nico and about why she is so anxious to find him.

Marlowe and the reader both know that the woman is not giving him the whole story, but of course that's the way things go in P.I. novels like this. Marlowe takes the case, which naturally takes any number of strange twists and turns before finally coming to a conclusion. Black attempts to imitate Chandler's style, but succeeds only marginally. The fact of the matter is that there was only one Raymond Chandler and in the seventy-five years since Philip Marlowe first appeared in The Big Sleep, no one's come close to matching what Chandler did.

If I'd picked up this book knowing nothing about it, and if the main character had been named something other than Philip Marlowe, I would have thought that someone had made yet another fairly game effort to imitate Chandler but had fallen short like everyone else who has attempted to do so. And before writing this review, I sat down and re-read The Big Sleep, which I reviewed here in March, 2010. Doing so simply confirmed my impression that this homage pales against the original.

The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a bad book, and, for what it's worth, it's better than Poodle Springs, the novel that Chandler left unfinished and which was then completed by Robert B. Parker. But it's not nearly as good as a Philip Marlowe novel by Raymond Chandler and, for that matter, it's not as good as a Quirke novel by Benjamin Black. I'll eagerly look forward to reading another of the latter, but when it comes to Philip Marlowe, I'll be sticking to the real thing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Introducing Charlie Hood

In this excellent introduction to his Charlie Hood series, T. Jefferson Parker creates two very memorable and intriguing characters. The first is the protagonist, Charlie Hood, a veteran of the war in Iraq who is now an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy. The second is Allison Murrieta, who claims to directly descended from the famous California outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta, who was shot and beheaded in 1853. The original Murrieta was famous, or infamous, enough that his head was preserved in a jar of alcohol and sent on tour.

No one knows exactly what might have become of this gruesome token; some say it was lost in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but Allison claims to have it hidden in her barn, along with some other keepsakes of Joaquin's. More important, Allison has now picked up Joaquin's mantle, and in a wig and mask has set out on a crime spree that involves boosting cars (Allison is a real gearhead) and robbing fast food joints.

Allison donates a fair share of her proceeds to various local charities, including one run by the L.A.P.D. The cops are not amused, but in this media-besotted age, Allison becomes a folk hero and a local celebrity. Then she tumbles to a score in which a local diamond dealer is planning to pay off a loan to some gangsters with $450,000 worth of diamonds. The street value would be around forty-five grand and so Allison sets up to take off the dealer. But she arrives late to the scene and finds ten men dead in the building where the exchange was to be made.

She also finds the diamonds, gathers them up and is screaming away from the scene in a yellow Corvette Z06-505, when Deputy Charlie Hood pulls her over. By now, Allison has ditched her disguise and the diamonds are out of sight. Hood demands to see her license which reveals Allison to be Suzanne Jones, a mild-mannered eighth-grade history teacher. Suzanne comes up clean on the computer and claims to have been in the area visiting a relative and so Hood lets her go. But as he does, a very bad man named Luperico, who is also looking for the diamonds, drives by and gets a very good look at Allison/Suzanne.

And with that, the story is off and running. Suzanne is drop-dead gorgeous, very smart and a woman who's not about to let anyone stand in the way of what she wants. Hood is smitten immediately, and the attraction is mutual. But when Hood discovers the ten bodies almost immediately after he lets Suzanne go on her way, he can't help but wonder if she might have been involved in the shoot-out.

Because he discovered the bodies, Hood is temporarily promoted to the Homicide team that is investigating the killings and he and Suzanne begin a delicate dance as Hood becomes increasingly suspicious and begins to put two and two together. In the meantime, Luperico is hot on Suzanne's trail and seems to be almost clairvoyant in knowing where she's going to be at any given time. He's determined not to stop until he recovers the diamonds, no matter how much blood might be shed along the way.

All in all, it's a great ride. T. Jefferson Parker has written any number of outstanding books and this perhaps his best since Silent Joe, which was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. It's fast-paced, deftly plotted, both funny and bittersweet, and populated with a great cast of characters. It's a winner all the way around.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Gritty Look Back at the Detroit Drug Scene of the 1970s

This dark, gritty novel is the only one ever written by Vern E. Smith, which is really too bad. If the guy was capable of writing books like this one, then fans of crime fiction are that much poorer for not having more of them.

Originally published in 1974, the book is set in the seedy underworld of Detroit where dope addicts struggle to find their next fix and the dealers jockey for position on the supply chain. The Jones Men are the heroin dealers and the current king of the hill is Willis McDaniel. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that sort of thing. There are always other ruthless and ambitious men ready to kick the king out of the way and wear the crown themselves.

At a party one night, McDaniel carelessly makes a remark about a big incoming shipment of dope that he's expecting. The word filters through the drug community to a kid named Lennie Jack who's fresh home from the war in Vietnam and looking to step up in the world.

Lennie Jack and a couple of buddies hit the exchange and make off with McDaneil's shipment. McDaniel, naturally, is furious both because of the dope he has lost and, even more important, because the robbery makes him look vulnerable in a world where the most dangerous thing that can happen to a drug kingpin is to look weak.

McDaniel launches an "investigation" into the theft and before long, the blood is flowing like a river. It's a brutal world where mercy, trust and security are unknown commodities, where today's ally may be tonight's enemy, and where it's every man for himself.

Smith writes a very compelling story set in a very believable world where, before the days of Escalades and Lincoln Navigators, the dealers drive tricked-out Cadillacs and dress like Super Fly. The Jones Men is a trip back in time that any fan of nourish crime fiction is almost certain to enjoy.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cooper MacLeish Finds Himself Up Against a Nasty Group of Drug Dealers

This is my favorite of Same Reaves' excellent series featuring the cab driving philosopher, Cooper MacLeish. In the first three books, driving a hack has found MacLeish getting into an awful lot of dangerous trouble and so he's now left the cab behind and taken what would appear to be a fairly safe and sensible job as the driver for a major Chicago real estate developer named Regis Swanson. This is a huge relief to Cooper's long-time girlfriend, Diana, who has suffered through his earlier troubles and stood by him when many other women might have bailed on the relationship.

Cooper and Diana are now newly married, but trouble seems to have a knack for finding MacLeish, no matter where he might be. A low-life scumbag sees a chance to rip off a group of drug dealers for a million dollars in cash. Naturally, the scumbag would prefer that the drug dealers not be hot on his trail, and so to throw them off the track, he frames Nate Swanson, the son of Regis, who owns a music club. The bad guys take the bait, track down Nate and kill him when he doesn't produce the money that he never had in the first place.

Regis Swanson is naturally devastated by the death of his son, and the bad guys now assume that Regis has their million dollars. This means that Regis and everyone around him, including Cooper MacLeish, are now in the line of fire. Much to Diana's consternation, her new husband refuses to just quit and walk away from the situation. He's determined to sort things out and provide some sort of justice, now matter how rough it might be. Naturally a lot of violence will ensue, and MacLeish may wind up risking everything, including his marriage and his life, before he can get things sorted out.

Again, Sam Reaves has created here a unique and very compelling protagonist, and he's built around him a very interesting and gripping story with lots of unexpected twists and turns. As always in these books, the city of Chicago plays a major role in the story and Reaves clearly loves the city and knows it very well. Crime fiction fans who have somehow failed to discover Sam Reaves should do themselves a great favor and hunt down all four of the books in this series. It's a winner from start to finish.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rachel Howzell Hall Intriduces a Great New Protagonist in a Gripping Tale

Twenty-five years ago, Elouise Norton's older sister, Tori, was caught stealing candy from a neighborhood store owned by a man named Napoleon Crase. In a panic, Elouise ran from the store and never saw her sister again. The police conducted a perfunctory investigation but never discovered what might have happened to Tori.

Perhaps the investigation was so slipshod because the cops were lazy or perhaps because they were overburdened. Perhaps it was because the victim, Tori, was a black teenager who did not have a sterling reputation to begin with. But whatever the case, a quarter of a century later, Elouise remains haunted by the loss of her sister and has become a homicide detective herself, having promised her mother that she would yet bring Tori home.

Elouise (Lou) and her newbie white male partner are called to the scene of a condominium construction site, where a seventeen-year-old girl named Monique Dawson has been found hanging in a closet. Lou's new partner, Colin Taggert, jumps to the conclusion that the dead girl was a suicide, but Lou quickly disabuses him of that notion and insists, correctly, that Monique is the victim of a homicide.

Interestingly, the condo development project is owned by Napoleon Crase who, in the years since Tori's disappearance, has pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a millionaire developer, and the site of the project is very near the site of the store where Tori disappeared.

Inevitably, these coincidences will weigh on Lou, but will they compromise her ability to conduct a full and fair investigation into the death of Monique Dawson? And as if she doesn't have enough on her mind to begin with, Lou's husband, a game developer, is in Japan. He's calling Lou infrequently and is generally staying out of touch. Lou wonders if he's cheating; if so, it wouldn't be the first time. The last time Lou caught him, he "apologized" by buying her a $90,000 Porsche SUV, but that may not be enough if he's straying again.

Lou pursues the case, which takes a variety of twists and turns and involves some pretty sleazy characters. But she's a detective driven by the need to know the truth and she pursues it with a grim determination. She's a new and original character, and Rachel Howzell Hall introduces her in a very compelling story. Hall also creates a very convincing and intriguing setting in an area of south L.A. that's undergoing a black gentrification, and the end result is a book that will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction readers. I'm looking forward eagerly to Lou's next case.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Virgil Flowers Is on the Hunt for an Ancient Artifact that Could Change Religious History

Elijah Jones is a minister and college professor working on an archeological dig in Israel. He's also dying of cancer and about to leave behind him a wife with Alzheimer's who may wind up living for years with minimal care. Then one day, Jones's team uncovers an ancient stele--a stone with inscriptions carved into it. A preliminary examination suggests that the information on the stele, if accurate, could require a significant reinterpretation of the Bible and could also radically undermine some long-held religious beliefs.

While the rest of the team sleeps, Jones smuggles the stone out of the camp and makes his way back to Mankato, Minnesota. The theft causes an uproar and the Israeli government sends an attractive female antiquities expert to help American authorities recover the stone.

The American authorities in question would be that F****ing Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota BCI. Virgil is hip deep in an investigation involving fraudulent antique lumber and his prime suspect is a very sexy woman named "Ma" Nobles. When Virgil's boss, Lucas Davenport, pulls him off the case and tells him to pick up the Israeli expert and recover the artifact, he's not at all pleased, but figures it should be a fairly easy and simple assignment.

Wrong again, Virgil.

The case immediately takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and tracking down either the Reverend Jones or the stele is hardly a piece of cake. Things are complicated because, as word of the discovery spreads, an awful lot of other people both foreign and domestic are anxious to get their hands on the stele. Virgil just wants to recover the damned thing and return it to its rightful owners before anyone gets killed so that he can get back to Ma Nobles and the Case of the Fraudulent Lumber. But that may be easier said than done.

As always, it's great fun to spend time in the company of Virgil Flowers, and this is a pretty entertaining book. To my mind, though, it's not up to the standards set by the earlier Virgil books. The plot is way way out in Dan Brown land and is so implausible that a reader, or at least this one, simply can't suspend disbelief enough to really get into the book. I never for a moment bought into the plot, but I did laugh a lot as Virgil investigated the case as only he can. I'll look forward to the next book in the series, hoping that it returns to form.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Down the Mean Streets of the Neon Jungle

This is an early stand-alone from John D. MacDonald, a writer best known for his series featuring Travis McGee. MacDonald was a prolific writer, but he was also very widely read and often incorporated social and economic themes into his books as he does here.

The book, which was first published in 1953, is set in a declining industrial city somewhere in the Midwest. At the center of the story is the family that runs the Varaki Quality Market. The patriarch, Gus Varaki, once ruled the family and the business with a strong but benevolent hand, bringing into the business and the family outsiders who had fallen on hard times and who needed a helping hand. In particular, Gus has a close relationship with Paul Darmond, the local parole officer, and Gus has offered jobs and a home to two parolees that Darmond has recommended.

But the family has fallen on hard times, emotionally if not financially. Gus's wife dies and that places a huge emotional strain on him. He later marries again, this time to a much younger woman, and his spirits are briefly revived. But then his middle child, Henry, is killed in the Korean war, and the loss saps Gus of his energy and attention.

In consequence, both the family and the business begin to drift. Gus's other son, Walter, is deeply dissatisfied with his wife and with his life in general and takes advantage of his father's distraction. Gus's only other child, a daughter named Teena, falls in with the wrong crowd and soon has serious problems of her own.

Now joining the family is another troubled young woman named Bonnie, whom Henry had married in California before leaving for Korea. Bonnie sees how things are dissolving around the family, but the question is can she do anything to stem the tide of trouble. More important, does she even care enough to want to?

MacDonald teases out of all of these relationships a compelling story that touches on themes that were particularly relevant in the early 1950s, like juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, social and economic decay, and the place of family in the larger society. The criminal activities that occur in the book are of somewhat lesser importance than these larger issues, and at the heart of the novel is its central question: Are some people simply born bad and beyond redemption, or can people who might once have made a mistake truly change, reform their lives and become productive members of society?

The Neon Jungle is a fascinating and entertaining read and it is one of a number of MacDonald's novels that have now been republished in great new trade paperback editions by Random House. This is very welcome news for long-time fans of MacDonald's who will now be able to fill out their collections, and it's also an opportunity for people unacquainted with MacDonald's work to be introduced to one of the masters of crime fiction in the second half of the Twentieth century.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Bounty Hunter Named Streeter Heads Down the Low End of Nowhere

This is a very entertaining, hard-boiled novel featuring a skip tracer/bounty hunter who goes by the name of Streeter. He's a former football player, bouncer and accountant with four ex-wives. He now lives and works out of a room in a former church in Denver and tries to maintain as low a profile as possible while working principally for a bail bondsman named Frank Dazzler who also has his home and office in the church.

As the book opens, Streeter is in pursuit of a very sexy woman named Story Moffatt. She's the hard-charging owner of an advertising agency, and she's claiming debilitating injuries suffered in an accident. She's hoping to cash in on a big insurance settlement, but her plans go down the tubes when Streeter snaps pictures of her playing a mean game of squash with no apparent difficulty at all.

Story is disappointed, of course, but she's also a realist. And she could use a man like Streeter. Her boyfriend, a realtor and drug dealer, has recently died in a car crash. His will left everything to Story and she knows that he had a huge stash of cash concealed somewhere. She's been unable to find it but figures that someone as resourceful as Streeter might be able to get the job done. She offers him a third of whatever he can find.

Streeter agrees. The problem is that he and Story are not the only ones looking for the missing loot. Also on the hunt are an impossibly sleazy lawyer, his scheming and sexy receptionist/girlfriend, the lawyer's thuggish "investigators," and a seriously bent cop.

It's a great cast of characters and Stone really puts them through their paces. The story moves along swiftly and there's plenty of action along with a fair bit of wry humor. This book should appeal to readers who enjoy authors like Elmore Leonard and Tom Kakonis--all in all, a very pleasant way to spend a long evening.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

John Marquez Hunts a Vicious Drug Cartel Money-Man and Poacher

In the summer of 1989, John Marquez was a Special Agent working as the leader of a DEA team along the border between California and Mexico. It's a brutal, dangerous job and you never know who you can trust. As part of an undercover operation, Marquez picks up an informant named Billy Takedo and sets off to meet representatives of a vicious Mexican drug cartel in a bull ring near Tijuana. But the operation goes awry and the Mexicans shoot Takedo point-blank in front of Marquez. The Mexican Federal Judicial Police, who are supposed to be backing up Marquez, are nowhere in evidence.

Marquez understands that the man behind Takedo's murder is a mysterious figure named Emrahin Stoval, who moves money and performs other services for the cartels. Marquez is determined to bring Stoval down, but is hampered by bureaucracy and red tape. Additionally, someone has to be the fall guy for the failed operation and, not surprisingly, it turns out to be Marquez. He resigns from the DEA before he can be fired, but his career in the DEA is over.

Marquez ultimately finds a home in the California Department of Fish and Game and builds a second successful career in the Special Operations Unit, tracking poachers. But eighteen years after the debacle in Tijuana, Emrahain Stoval intrudes again into Marquez's life.

Even after all this time, the FBI has been unable to arrest and prosecute Stoval for his drug-related activities. But they've learned that Stoval is a passionate hunter and animal trafficker, and they hope to be able to make a case against him for these activities that will finally bring him to justice. This is on the order, I guess, of finally nailing Al Capone for income tax evasion.

Given his expertise, the Feds convince Marquez to sign on as a special agent to go after Stoval. Marquez, who is still smarting from his failure to get Stovall years earlier, thus begins a chase that will take him around the world in pursuit of an eighteen-year-old grievance.

This is an excellent suspense novel--very well-plotted with an engaging and totally plausible protagonist. John Marquez is a unique character and it's great fun riding along with him and watching him rise to the myriad of challenges that are thrown in his way. The plot takes a number of very interesting twists and turns and, as a bonus, Russell places much of the action in wilderness settings that are beautifully rendered. This is a very good book that will appeal to readers on a variety of levels.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Another Excellent Novel from the Author of "Pike"

I was a big fan of Benjamin Whitmer's Pike, and I like his new book even better. It's a tough, gritty examination of the relationship between fathers and sons: violent, profane, and beautifully written.

The characters are all compelling, principal among them Patterson Wells. Wells leads a tough existence by any standard, working as a member of a crew that goes in and cleans out fallen trees in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. It's a brutal job, consisting of long hours in the company of other rough men, hard on the body and even harder on the soul.

As if life hadn't handed him a plate that was full enough to begin with, Wells is devastated by the death of his young son. He blames himself for not spending enough time with the boy and writes him long letters as a way of coping with the loss and attempting to make up for the time they should have spent together while they could. Wells is estranged from his wife who insists that they have to try to move on in the wake of the tragedy. Wells is simply incapable of doing so.

In the off season, Wells retreats to a small cabin out in a remote area of Colorado. There he drinks heavily and broods on what his life has become. While there, he develops a relationship with a guy named Junior, the son of Wells' nearest neighbor. Junior and his father have issues of their own, and Junior supports himself by running drugs. Wells and Junior are a potent combination and as they team up, all hell breaks loose.

To say any more would be to reveal too much. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book that should appeal to large number of readers who like their stories on the (very) dark side. Benjamin Whitmer is definitely an author to watch for.                           

Monday, October 13, 2014

Something's Smelling Rotten in Flowertown

Seven years ago, the folks at Feno Chemical developed a new pesticide that was designed, as always, to improve the lives of all Americans--Better Living Through Chemistry, and all that.

Well, as it turns out, maybe not so much in this case. When Feno accidentally spills the new pesticide near a small town in rural Iowa, the results are catastrophic. Scores of people die immediately; hundreds of others are left extremely sick and contagious, and there is no immediate cure for the diseases that now ravage the survivors.

Said survivors are herded into a camp, sealed off from the rest of the country, and guarded by the U.S. Army while scientists attempt to discover a cure that will allow them to be integrated back into the general U.S. population. The camp becomes known as Flowertown because of the sickly sweet smell that the survivors give off. The soldiers, medical personnel and others who interact with the residents are inoculated to protect them from being contaminated by the Flowertownians.

Seven years down the road, there's still no cure and conditions in Flowertown are rapidly deteriorating. Some residents still hope for a cure and for the chance to leave the camp; others are resigned to their fate and assume that they will die in Flowertown; others believe that a massive conspiracy is at work, or maybe several conspiracies, and that they are all only pawns in the hands of Feno Chemical and other larger, sinister forces.

Ellie Cauley simply doesn't care anymore. She knows she's never going to get out of the camp and she copes by getting high and by having torrid sex with an army officer who should be off limits. Her behavior is against the rules, of course, but Ellie is long past caring about rules.

Suddenly, though, conditions in Flowertown go from bad to worse. Feno Chemical and the army begin cracking down hard on the residents; Ellie finds herself under intense scrutiny, and the town is rocked by a series of unanticipated and seemingly inexplicable developments. Maybe those conspiracy nuts aren't so nutty after all, and as events spiral out of control, Ellie is drawn into a storm of intrigue and violence that may drag her down with the rest of Flowertown, just as she decides that there may be things she cares about after all.

In Flowertown, S. G. Redling, author of The Widow File: A Thriller and Redemption Key, has created another great protagonist and turned her loose in a unique and intriguing story. In many ways, Ellie is not a very appealing person, but she's an irresistible character in a story like this. The plot has more than enough satisfying twists and turns, and as has been the case with Redling's other books, this one will have readers turning the pages late into the night.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Fitting Conclusion to a Great Series

This is the third and final volume in Ben H. Winters' series featuring Hank Palace, the Last Policeman. When the first volume, The Last Policeman, opened, Hank had just been promoted into his dream job of being a detective on the police force in Concord, New Hampshire. Sadly, though, the job is not going to last very long because in only six month's time, a giant asteroid is going to slam into the earth, ending Life As We Know It.

The Last Policeman and Countdown City detailed Hank's activities for the first five and a half months of the asteroid's approach. As civilization rapidly unravels all around him, Hank works as diligently as he can to remain a decent and responsible man, continuing his investigations at a time when many, including not a few readers, might wonder if he has lost his senses.

There are now two weeks left before impact. Food is scarce, potable water even more so. Things like the Internet, electricity, working phones, and gasoline are a dim, distant memory. Hank is reduced to traveling by bicycle and scrounging for food and water where he can find it.

His last investigation is his most personal. His sister, Nico, is his last remaining relative, but the two have become estranged for reasons described in the first two books, and Nico has disappeared. Hank is desperate to find her so that they might spend their last few days on earth together.

The search takes him to a small town in Ohio. In a world that has arrived at a post-apocalyptic state a few days ahead of schedule, hardly anything will surprise Hank or the reader, until Hank arrives in Ohio and discovers that things may have gotten even stranger than he could possibly have imagined.

I thought that the second book in the series was a bit weak, especially when compared with the first, but Winters returns to form here and provides a very fitting conclusion to what was, overall, a very unique and entertaining series. The story itself is gripping and the larger questions that have hung over the entire series grow even more important here. Readers contemplating the matter might well decide that they would have chosen to spend their last few weeks on Earth is ways far different than Hank Palace, but hanging out with the guy for the last six months has been a helluva ride.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cooper MacLeish Discovers that Fear Will Do It

Cooper MacLeish is a Vietnam vet who is now content driving a cab in Chicago. He's in love with a woman named Diana Froelich and, all in all, life is good. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an old friend of Diana's named Tommy Thorne shows up on her doorstep. The two were lovers a few years earlier when they both worked on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Diana hasn't been completely straight with Cooper when it comes to Tommy and when the two encounter him as they come back to Diana's after a date, Diana simply introduces Tommy as an "old friend."

Tommy insists that he's tired of the island life and wants to try his luck as a musician in Chicago. He'd like to bunk at Diana's just long enough to find a place of his own. Diana agrees and Cooper believes her when she insists that this amounts to nothing more.

But it soon becomes apparent that Tommy has much bolder ambitions than playing the blues in Chicago. He's concocted a scheme to blackmail a Chicago skin mag publisher named Moss Wetzel who apparently committed some sort of indiscretion while visiting the islands. He wants Diana to aid in the scheme, promising to split the payoff with her.

When Diana says thanks but no thanks, Tommy coerces her into helping him by holding over her head evidence of her own youthful indiscretions which neither the cops nor Cooper MacLeish would be very happy to see. But in the end, the whole scheme blows up and Diana and Cooper are now in the crosshairs of some very unpleasant characters.

This is an excellent, fast-paced suspense novel. Reaves has created a number of memorable characters and turned them loose into a very gritty, down-and-dirty story that will keep readers turning the pages well into the proverbial night. This book was first published in 1992, and copies can be a bit hard to find these days, but the search will be well worth the effort.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Lover Man Finds Himself in Deep. Deep Trouble

Artie Deemer has a life that many would envy. He spends the bulk of his time sitting in his New York apartment, smoking dope and listening to classic jazz. He can afford to do so because he’s supported in luxurious style by his dog, Jellyroll, the spokesdog for R-r-ruff Dog Food and a famous star of movies and television. Artie occasionally has to take Jellyroll to a studio and put him through his paces, but it’s hardly the most demanding job in the world.

Until a year ago, Artie was madly in love with a beautiful woman named Billie Burke, an artist/photographer. He’s still a bit madly in love with Billie, but to no avail since she ditched him for another lover (or two or three). Artie is stunned when the cops interrupt one of his relaxing afternoons to tell him that Billie has been found, bound and drowned in her bathtub. The cops suggest that Artie might be a suspect in the killing and then, to make matters worse, Artie discovers that he’s overlooked a message that Billie left on his answering machine just before she was killed. In the message, she begs him to come see her at her studio and tells him that she has something for him there.

Artie decides that he has to find whatever it is she might have left for him. This means, of course, that he will have to slip into the crime scene and search it, in violation of all sorts of laws. He tracks down his lawyer, who’s hard at work losing money in a pool hall and who advises Artie not to do it. Happily, Artie ignores this sound advice; if he didn’t there would be no book, and that would be a shame because it turns out to be a pretty good one.

Artie is a very engaging protagonist and naturally, once he sneaks into the studio and discovers what Billie left him, he puts himself in the crosshairs of the NYPD and the FBI, as well as an assorted group of mobsters, con men and aging World War II fighter pilots. (The book was first published in 1987, when these flyboys would have been in their late sixties.) Artie struggles to stay one step ahead of them all as he attempts to unravel the complex mystery that led to the death of his ex-lover. He doesn’t always succeed, which means that his life expectancy may not be all that great.

This is a very entertaining book, laced with a wry humor and populated by a quirky cast of characters. It’s now available in new trade paperback and e-book editions, and readers who seek it out are sure to enjoy it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Return of the Deaf Man

It's always fun when the Deaf Man returns to taunt the detectives of the 87th Precinct. The twenty-seventh book in the series marks his third appearance, and thus far he's managed to escape unscathed even though the detectives have thwarted his plans, at least to some extent.

The Deaf Man has an especial affinity with Detective Steve Carella, given that they've each shot the other and lived to tell the tale. The Deaf Man now ruins a perfectly good day at the 87th by announcing that he's going to rob a bank and that, like it or not, Carella will be assisting him in the job. The Deaf Man begins mailing clues regarding his intentions as a means of daring the detectives to stop him. One of the clues involves a picture of Martin Van Buren, but none of the detectives can figure out what in the hell the Deaf Man is up to.

Meanwhile, a cat burglar is also causing the detectives grief. The burglar is hitting apartments while their well-to-do owners are away on vacation. He's entering, but not breaking, and the detectives cannot figure out how he's managing that or how to stop him.

Finally, a particularly brutal murder in which a man has been left crucified rounds out the action in this book. As the three investigations continue, the clock is winding down to the Deaf Man's planned robbery and thus far, the detectives haven't been able to decipher the clues he is sending them. All in all, it's a lot of fun and adds up to one of the better books in the series.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Matthew Scudder Takes a Walk Among the Tombstones

For the last thirty years or so, I've been reading Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series which, for me at least, is hands down the best P.I. series that anyone's ever done. I mean no disrespect to authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom I admire greatly. But their body of work is relatively small by comparison. Block, on the other hand, created a fantastic character right out of the box, put him in a great, gritty setting, surrounded him with an excellent supporting cast, and then only continued to get better and better, book after book.

I normally read one about every four months or so, working my way back through the series in order. But I'd only just worked my way back to the beginning of the series when, suddenly, the release of the movie based on A Walk Among the Tombstones was imminent. I've been reading at a much quicker pace over the last couple of months so that I'd be caught up by Friday when the movie opens at a theater near me, as they say.

I confess that I have serious reservations about the whole idea of making a movie from this series. I've studiously avoided seeing the film adaptation of Eight Million Ways to Die, in which Jeff Bridges played Scudder and in which the plot was transferred to L.A., which as any fan of the series could tell you is beyond sacrilegious to the power of about ten. After spending so much time with these books, I have my own very fixed ideas about all the characters, Scudder in particular, and about the setting. And I don't want any movie, no matter how brilliant the people involved, screwing them up.

That said, I'm probably going to see the movie adaptation of this one, assuming that the early reviews are good. I like Liam Neeson, and he's probably about as close to my idea of Scudder physically as any actor could be. Plus, the movie is set in New York and, from what I've read is faithful to the setting. Finally, of course, Mr. Block himself seems genuinely enthused about the film and I trust that he wouldn't lead me down a wrong path. But still...

As this book opens, a drug dealer's wife is kidnapped, brutally raped and tortured, then killed and returned to the drug dealer in pieces. The drug dealer is actually a fairly nice guy as drug dealers go, which is to say that he's way up high in the food chain and is not personally peddling crack to small school children. The dealer's brother knows Matt Scudder from AA, and Matt agrees to investigate the case and try to determine who the guilty parties might be.

Scudder doggedly pursues the case, as he usually does, doing research and interviewing people who might be able to shed light on the situation. He discovers that the drug dealer's wife was not the first victim of these killers and doubtless won't be the last. But will he be able to close the net around them before they claim another victim? And what will happen if he does?

The tension mounts throughout the story, leading to a great climax. But, as always, the character development is key to these stories. The street kid, TJ, who first appeared in the last book, A Ticket to the Boneyard plays a larger role here, as does Matt's main squeeze, Elaine Mardell. Fans of the series know that Elaine is a high-end prostitute that Matt first met back in the days when he was still on the job as a cop. But the relationship has reached something of a critical juncture, and the tension involved in that subplot is almost as great as that in the main plot.

As ever, it's a great ride; I can only hope that the movie comes even close to doing it justice. Wish me luck...

The Return of Peter Bragg

Peter Bragg is an ex-military man and a former reporter. Upon leaving the newspaper business, he decides to use the skills he acquired as an investigative reporter to become a private investigator in San Francisco. He’s approached by an agent of a man named Armando Barker, a mobster who claims to now be retired. Someone has sent threatening messages to Barker and then backed up the messages by firing shots at him late one night as Barker was leaving a club that he owns. Barker wants Bragg to deal with the situation, and when Bragg asks him why he doesn’t just call the cops, Barker explains that he doesn’t relate well to the police.

Bragg takes the job and then Barker’s adversary ups the ante by threatening to go after Barker’s eleven-year-old step-daughter. The girl is safely away at a boarding school which allegedly has great security, but Barker is naturally worried nonetheless. Then the noose tightens even more when someone close to Barker is murdered.

Before “retiring,” Barker was a mob boss in a wide-open town called Sand Valley where gambling, women and various other recreational pursuits are widely and readily available. He claims he has no enemies left there, but Bragg concludes that the threat may well originate in Sand Valley and so moves his investigation in that direction. Once he arrives the action really heats up on a variety of fronts, leading to a surprising climax.

This is a hard-boiled novel of the old school, first published in 1981, and it launched a series of books featuring Peter Bragg. Like the other detectives who star in hard-boiled novels, Bragg can take a licking and keep on ticking. He’s bright, witty, and very attractive to the ladies, and it’s fun to ride along with him as he pokes around the underside of tacky casinos and whorehouses. This is a well-written and entertaining story, populated by the sorts of characters one would have expected to meet in a novel like this in 1981. The book holds up very well and has now been republished as an e-book and in a very nice trade paperback edition. It will appeal to a lot of readers who are fans of this genre.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Introducing Cork O'Connor

After working a number of years as a Chicago cop, Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor moves his wife and children back to Auora, Minnesota, his tiny home town in the northern part of the state. His objective is to provide his family with a better quality of life, but those dreams go up in smoke very early on, both in his professional and personal lives.

Aurora borders the Anishinaabe Indian reservation, which is enjoying a newfound prosperity as a result of the casino that has just been built on the reservation and which is practically minting money. O'Connor is part Anishinaabe himself and would seem to be the ideal bridge between the two societies. But when things take a decidedly bad turn, O'Connor is forced to stand in a recall election and is booted out of office. As the book opens, he's reduced to eking out a living running a seasonal hamburger stand. Meanwhile, his wife has become a very successful attorney and the two are now estranged.

When the town's most prominent citizen, a political boss named Judge Parrant, is found dead from a shotgun blast, the new sheriff declares it a suicide, but O'Connor isn't so sure. On the same evening that the judge dies, a young Indian boy goes missing from his paper route in a huge blizzard. Is there a possible connection between the two events?

Though no longer having any legal authority to do so, O'Connor begins investigating both developments. This will inevitably get him in hot water with a lot of people, and in the meantime, his family situation continues to deteriorate. O'Connor is also feeling guilty because, in the wake of the separation from his wife, he has secretly begun seeing a beautiful waitress with a hot sauna and a bad reputation.

The strength of the book lies principally in Krueger's description of the brutal winter landscape in which the story plays out. He's also carefully researched this history of the Anishinaabe and describes their culture and society sympathetically and knowledgeably. It's a complex story with lots of twists and turns, and a reader would be well-advised to have a hot toddy or two close at hand as a remedy for the freezing Minnesota winter.

If I have a concern about the book it lies principally with the whole idea of Cork O'Connor conducting this investigation with no legal authority to do so. This involves him meddling in crime scenes and breaking and entering into several buildings in search of evidence, legal niceties be damned. The new sheriff is something of a Casper Milquetoast, who occasionally warns O'Connor off, but who at other times works with him. It's hard to imaging this scenario ever playing out in real life, and virtually all of the evidence that O'Connor gathers would be inadmissible in any court, given that it was obtained illegally and without the benefit of warrants, proper chain of custody and other such minor matters. But if one can suspend disbelief long enough to overlook these issues, this is a very solid start to the Cork O'Connor series.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tom Kakonis Returns with a Very Entertaining Romp Along Florida's Treasure Coast

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Tom Kakonis established himself as a writer who created very good plots but who was especially gifted at populating each of his books with a cast of eccentric, interesting characters and then setting them into motion with sometimes truly inspired results. Now twenty years later, he returns with Treasure Coast, a book which clearly demonstrates that he hasn't lost a step in his time away.

The book is set on Florida's Treasure Coast, basically the Palm Beach area along the Atlantic. It opens as Jim Merriman, a compulsive gambler whose luck has turned so bad that he's now barely eking out a living as a bookstore clerk, travels cross country to visit his sister who is near death. Jim and his sister have not been particularly close for years, but as she expires she makes him promise to watch after her son, Leon.

Leon is twenty-one but appears to be much younger. His mother has left him $25,000, and so Merriman figures that the kid should be in pretty good shape, at least until Leon reluctantly confesses that he owes $45,000 to a loan shark. The debt is long overdue and even as Leon outlines his problem, two particularly nasty enforcers are on their way to collect. It was Uncle Jim who taught the kid how to gamble in the first place and that, along with the promise he made to Leon's mom, persuades Jim that he can't abandon his nephew in this time of crisis.

On the brighter side, while sneaking a cigarette outside the medical center, Jim encounters the very beautiful and sexy Billie Swett. Like Jim, Billie hails from the Dakotas and has had an "interesting" past, culminating in a job where she gave manicures at a place called Get Nailed. There she fortunately met a client named Lonnie Swett. Lonnie is an older, gross, pig of a man, but he's also enormously wealthy and when he offers make Billie the fifth Mrs. Swett, she readily agrees to swap her nail files for a huge diamond wedding set. Jim and Billie are clearly attracted to each other, though, and probably no good will come of that.

Kakonis adds to the cast a "preacher" with a mail order degree who, with a young female assistant, is selling mail order tombstones and helping bereaved and gullible rubes send and receive messages to and from their loved ones in the Great Beyond. Kakonis then turns all of these people loose in pursuit of their various objectives, most of which involve a quick score of one sort or another. As all of their paths intersect, the plot becomes increasingly roiled but Kakonis has a great deal of fun with these characters, and so does the reader.

The characters are all very well defined, and, with perhaps one exception, each is sympathetic in his or her own way. The story is very engaging and often hilariously funny. As another Michigan writer, Kakonis has often been favorably compared to Elmore Leonard and, on the strength of his earlier series featuring Timothy Waverly, I thought it was a very fair comparison. With Treasure Coast, Kakonis demonstrates that he clearly deserves to be considered in the same league as Leonard, certainly in the quality of his output if not in the quantity. Set in Florida, Treasure Coast also evokes comparisons to Carl Hiaasen, and fans of either author are sure to enjoy this book very much.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

British D.C.I. Alan Banks Detects in Estonia

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his protégé, D.I. Annie Cabbot return for the twentieth time in this excellent British crime series. The case opens when a police detective who is convalescing at a center for the treatment of injured police officers, is murdered, shot to death by someone armed with a crossbow. The victim is a recent widower named Bill Quinn who six years earlier had been involved in a high-profile case involving a young British woman, Rachel Hewitt, who went missing in Estonia and was never seen again.

As Banks begins the investigation, he discovers that Quinn had secreted several photos showing him in an apparent compromising position with a young woman. This brings the Professional Standards division into the picture, in the person of an icy blonde named Joanna Passero. She is assigned to shadow Banks's investigation in an effort to determine if Quinn was a corrupt cop. Banks is not at all happy about this, but he has no recourse.

In the process of the investigation, the team traces the victim's recent phone calls and this leads them to the body of a man who had been water boarded and then drowned. The second victim appears to have been involved in some way with a group smuggling impoverished eastern Europeans into the UK and then exploiting them there. The trail leads back to Estonia where, six years earlier, Bill Quinn had investigated the disappearance of Rachel Hewitt.

If it all sounds a bit complex, it is; fortunately, we have Alan Banks to sort it all out for us. While Annie Cabbot heads up the investigation in the UK, Banks and Passero head off to Estonia where things get increasingly curious--and dangerous.

It's an entertaining mystery with several twists and turns. It's fun to watch Banks in action again and to watch the relationship between him and Joanna Passero as well. The investigation is an intriguing one, and all in all, this is a nice addition to the series.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Kinky and Violent Tale from the Master, Lawrence Block

A wealthy New York couple, Richard and Amanda Thurman, arrives home at their upscale apartment after a night on the town. Several hours later, Richard punches out 9-1-1 with a pipe tool between his teeth, and the police arrive to find him beaten and tied up in the neighbors' apartment immediately below his own. Amanda Thurman, who was pregnant with the couple's first child, has been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

Thurman tells detectives that two men who had burgled the neighbors' apartment were just leaving when the Thurmans were coming up the stairs. The burglars forced the Thurmans into the apartment, bound and gagged him and committed the savage assault on his wife. Hours later, Thurman was able to partially undo the gag and call the police. The responding patrolmen found him with his hands and feet still bound. Something doesn't sit right about his story with the detectives, but there's no evidence to contradict it.

The story doesn't sit right with Amanda Thurman's brother, either. As a practical matter, all the money in the family belonged to Amanda who was also heavily insured. The brother believes that Richard Thurman killed Amanda, and the brother hires Matthew Scudder to look into the matter.

Richard Thurman is a producer for a cable television company. Scudder follows Thurman to a boxing arena where Thurman is producing a televised match. While there, Scudder sees something apparently unrelated but deeply disturbing. A few months earlier, another recovering alcoholic had approached Matt at an AA meeting, seeking his advice about a snuff film that had been taped over the middle of a commercial copy of "The Dirty Dozen." Matt looked into the matter but hit a dead end. Then, at the boxing match, he sees a man whom he believes was the "star" of the snuff film.

From that point on, Matt divides his time between investigating Richard Thurman and the man in the snuff film. As always, it's a gripping tale and a tour of what are, in this book especially, New York's very mean streets. It's a very kinky and violent tale with some particularly nasty villains and a shattering conclusion.

A number of familiar characters put in an appearance, including Elaine Mardell and Mick Ballou, and Matt's relationship with both of them is growing deeper. This is also the novel in which the street kid, TJ, first appears, and all-in-all, it's another great ride from Lawrence Block. This book deservedly won the MWA's Edgar Award for best novel and is a terrific addition to the series.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Alex Delaware Tags Along on Two Investigations, One Old and One New

I've been a fan of this series from the very beginning and thought that the early entries were really very good. I have mixed emotions about the later books in the series, some of which are still pretty good and others of which just don't work very well for me. The 28th, Guilt, falls into the latter category.

The story opens with the discovery of a child's skeleton that was buried in a strong box beneath a tree in a wealthy L.A. neighborhood. When the tree goes over in a storm, the box is unearthed and Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis is called to the scene. As often happens, he drags along his pal, Alex Delaware. Delaware is a psychologist who occasionally consults with the department.

It's apparent early on that the child was buried nearly sixty years earlier. It's impossible to determine the cause of death and investigating the case is going to be a nightmare. Then, a few days later, another child's skeleton is discovered in a nearby park near the body of a young woman who has been shot to death. This skeleton is much more recent and so, of course, is the body of the murdered woman.

The more recent murders become the prime focus of the investigation and Delaware shoulders a great deal of the load. The trail leads into the highest echelons of the Hollywood community and is going to require a great deal of finesse. Before it's over, some very gruesome crimes and behavior will be exposed.

Neither of the investigations in this book really grabbed me, and the second seemed pretty far-fetched. But what really bothers me about this and several of the other more recent books in the series is the way in which Alex Delaware, who is after all a civilian, becomes so deeply involved in cases where he has no professional expertise to lend.

In this book, Alex will go through the motions of providing psychological counseling to a couple of the people involved. But this is really tangential to the investigations and in no way justifies his involvement in the larger investigations. When Sturgis is called to the first scene, he and Alex are having lunch and Milo invites Alex to tag along because the case sounds "interesting." But no real police detective would ever do such a thing. He would tell Alex to grab a cab home and would leave the investigation to the professionals.

To have Alex up to his neck in these cases simply defies logic and makes it impossible, for this reader anyway, to suspend disbelief. At one point, Alex uncovers what could be a very critical piece of evidence and, instead of turning it over to Milo, goes off to follow up the discovery himself, something that could seriously compromise the investigation.

I loved these books when Alex was legitimately involved and his services as a psychologist were critical to the cases and their solutions. Now that he's just tagging along in many cases with no legitimate reason for being involved, these books aren't nearly as interesting or unique. I confess, I'm also losing patience with Milo's piggish eating habits, which helped define the character early on but which, after all this time, are simply becoming gross.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Dick Lochte Creates a Very Entertaining Mystery with Two Quirky Characters

Precocious doesn’t begin to describe fourteen-and-a-half year-old Serendipity Dahlquist who’s wise well beyond her years. Neither of her parents is in the picture and so Serendipity, or Sarah, lives in L.A. with her grandmother, a famous day-time television soap opera star. Sarah’s treasured companion is her dog, Groucho, a bullterrier that was a gift from Sarah’s late father thirteen years earlier, before he went off to meet his fate in the Vietnam War.

Sarah is devastated when she returns home one afternoon to find the front door standing open and Groucho gone. She appeals to the police for help to no avail, but a police detective refers her to a P.I. named Leo “the Bloodhound” Bloodworth. Sarah straps on her roller balls and skates over to Bloodworth’s office, but Bloodworth has no tolerance for kids and even less interest in the case of the missing Groucho. When Sarah refuses to take no for an answer, Bloodworth’s office mate, a P.I. named Roy Kaspar, offers to help. He takes a retainer from Sarah, drives her home and looks over the scene. He then promises to report back in three days.

When Kaspar fails to report as promised, Sarah tracks down Bloodworth is a sleazy bar and informs him that she’s just been to his office which has been ransacked. After assessing the damage in the office, the two then go in search of Kaspar and find him murdered. Bloodworth didn’t like Kaspar very much, but Sarah insists that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t matter if he liked him or not, he’s supposed to do something about it.” The Bloodhound tells Sarah that she’s been watching too many old movies and that he’s perfectly content to let the cops handle the investigation.

In fairly short order, though, it turns out that Kaspar’s murder and the disappearance of Groucho are almost certainly related and for reasons way too complicated to explain, Sarah and Bloodworth wind up joined at the hip, on the road, and up to their necks in trouble with a particularly vicious band of Mexican criminals. It’s a very entertaining romp, principally because Lochte has created in Sarah and Bloodworth two unique, intriguing and very amusing characters. The dialogue between them is often hilarious.

The story is told through their alternating views so that the reader sees each development through the eyes of both Sarah and Bloodworth, and the end result is a great deal of fun. This book was first published in 1985, and was nominated for virtually all of the major crime fiction awards. The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association named it one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Twentieth Century, but it has been out of print and largely unavailable for a number of years. Happily, it has just been re-released in a new trade paperback edition as well as in an e-book edition and so it’s now available to an entirely new audience of readers who are sure to enjoy it as much as the original audience did.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

From Out of Matthew Scudder's Past, a Dangerous Psycho Returns...

Like the previous seven novels in this series, A Ticket to the Boneyard is a great read. Unlike its predecessors, though, this one is more of a thriller than a mystery novel. And unlike the others, in this case Matthew Scudder is effectively his own client.

Twelve years earlier, while Scudder was still a detective in the NYPD, a psycho named James Leo Motley assaulted an escort named Elaine Mardell and insisted that she now belonged to him. Elaine was a friend of Scudder's; the two had been intimate, and Elaine turned to Matt for help. Motley then broke into Elaine's apartment while Scudder was there and threatened both of them while holding Elaine hostage.

Matt realized that Motley was one sick S.O.B. and that arresting him for a simple assault wouldn't put him away for nearly long enough. So Matt planted a gun on Motley and framed him for assaulting a police officer. Motley then went to the Big House, threatening along the way to kill Scudder and "all his women" once he got out.

Twelve years down the road, Elaine calls Matt. They haven't seen each other in years, but Elaine has just hear from Motley who intends to make good on his threat and has already killed a woman once associated with Scudder and Elaine.

From that point on, Scudder and Motley play a hair-raising game of cat and mouse. Motley has vowed to kill Scudder last and as the death toll rises, the cops seem unable to do anything about it. The only man with a chance to get Motley would seem to be someone willing to work outside of the law. Is Scudder willing to go that far? And how many innocent people might have to die in the meantime?

This is another great novel from Lawrence Block that will keep any reader up well into the night. And when it's finally time to go to sleep, you're really not going to want to turn off the light...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tom Kakonis and Timothy Waverly Score Again

This is the third and final volume in Tom Kakonis’s excellent series featuring Timothy Waverly, a professional card player who has found nothing but trouble ever since Kakonis first introduced him in Michigan Roll. At the end of that book, Waverly had to flee Michigan with some especially nasty characters on his trail.

At the end of the second book, Double Down, he and his long-time partner Bennie Epstein had to race away from another dicey situation in Florida. It’s now 1993, and they’ve landed in Vegas, living in a pitiful house and trying to fly under the radar while they attempt to cobble together the stake that will put them back on Easy Street.

Waverly is playing Blackjack, very carefully and for very small stakes. Carefully, because he knows that if he gets branded as a card counter, he’ll be banned from every casino in town; for very small stakes, because that’s all he has and because Bennie is losing their money on “sure thing” sports bets about as fast as Waverly can make it at the tables.

This being Vegas, there are a lot of other dreamers and schemers in town, among them, Wyman Brewster, a self-proclaimed “healer” who believes that virtually any illness, no matter how severe, can be cured by cleansing the body of impurities and replacing them with natural ingredients. Brewster is working out of a storefront center where he counsels patients and sells his natural products, but he dreams of opening a beautiful clinic, somewhere far away from Vegas, where he can chart a new future for the deadly sick.

Also in town is Ignatius “Eggs” La Revere, a sadistic con man who not only loves to fleece his victims but to do great and imaginative bodily harm to them as well. Both Brewster and La Revere are in desperate need of money, and each thinks that the other might be able to supply it. Normally, this would have nothing to do with the fortunes of Timothy Waverly and Bennie Epstein, but as fate would have it, Waverly’s very naïve sister, Valerie, lands in town from South Dakota.

Valerie, who lives a “natural” life herself, is enamored of Brewster’s reputation and is determined to join his team. That puts her smack in the middle of the maneuvering between Brewster and La Revere, and Waverly believes he has an obligation to step in and save his sister from disaster, even though she refuses to believe his wise counsel. What follows is a great story with a cast of marvelous and very quirky characters. Vegas is on display at its shabbiest best and Timothy Waverly continues to be a great protagonist.

This book, along with the first two books in the series, have long been out of print but are now being re-released in great new trade paperback editions by Brash Books. All three of the books have held up very well and seem as fresh as they were when they first appeared in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It’s hard to imagine that there’s any fan of crime fiction that would not enjoy them, but do yourself a favor and start with Michigan Roll. Trust me, you won’t regret it.