Friday, February 28, 2014

Harry Hole, Loose in Thailand

I confess that I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It’s the second in Jo Nesbo’s series featuring Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole, and as those who follow the series know, for whatever reason, Nesbo’s publishers did not release the books in order here in the U.S. Rather, they jumped into the middle of the series first. I assumed that this was because they felt that the first couple of books were not as good as the latter ones and so wanted to put Nesbo’s (and Harry’s) best foot forward first.

The first book in the series, The Bat, was finally released here last year and seemed to confirm the suspicion. It’s a solid effort, and not bad for a first book, but it’s not up to the standards of the later ones. I expected the same from Cockroaches, which was finally released here last month, but as I suggested above, I was surprised by how much I liked it.

The book opens when Norway’s ambassador to Thailand is found stabbed to death in a sleazy motel in Bangkok, while apparently awaiting the arrival of a young prostitute. This is not the sort of thing that reflects favorably on an ambassador or on the government that posted him to Thailand. The Powers That Be in the Norwegian government are much more concerned about avoiding a scandal than they are in finding the guilty party, but they have to put up a good front.

To accomplish these ends, the government assigns Detective Harry Hole to go to Bangkok and assist the locals in the investigation. Hole has just gained some notoriety for solving a difficult case involving the death of a Norwegian citizen in Australia and thus to all outward appearances, seems an ideal choice. At the moment, however, Harry can most often be found in an alcoholic daze and not at his detecting best. The expectation is that Harry will go to Thailand for a few days, drink himself into a stupor, and allow the locals to sweep the whole embarrassing incident under the rug.

Of course, as everyone who’s ever read a crime novel understands, that’s not about to happen. Our intrepid hero will instead sober up and pursue the case to the ends of the earth, or at least to the ends of Thailand, no matter where the chips may fall. And in the process, of course, he will exasperate the hell out of his superiors.

The ambassador’s death turns out to be a murky and complex case, involving a large cast of intriguing and well-drawn characters. Hole is a great protagonist, and there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns. There are also a lot of interesting insights into the people, culture and geography of Thailand. The story moves along at a good clip, and all in all, it was a very entertaining read. As I suggested in my review of The Bat, it does seem a little odd that a series involving a Norwegian detective would begin with two books set in foreign countries, but in the end, I enjoyed them both and am relieved that I can finally read all of the books in this series in order. I’m going to enjoy Harry’s journey.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Introducing Matt Helm

Death of a Citizen was first published in 1960, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and introduced Matt Helm, a secret agent on the order of James Bond, but without all the gadgets and the British mannerisms. During the Second World War, Helm had belonged to a super-secret group of agents/assassins, headed by a guy named Mac, and once the war ended, he left that life and became a private citizen. By 1960, he had established himself as a husband, father and writer, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

One night Helm and his wife go to a cocktail party in Santa Fe, and Matt is stunned to see there a woman named Tina, who had also been an agent during the war and who, for a brief period following one of their assignments, had been Matt’s lover. Tina gives Matt the old secret handshake, but he refuses to play along and doesn’t acknowledge her. Tina is accompanied by a rough-around-the-edges sort of guy who attempts to intimidate Matt, but naturally he’s not going to fall for that either.

Matt knows that Tina has recognized him and assumes that she’s in town on some sort of assignment with Mr. Tough Guy. He wonders if the meeting was an accident or not. He discovers the answer to that question when he goes home after the party and finds a woman shot to death in his study. The gun he keeps in the study is missing, and Matt knows full well that it must be the murder weapon and that he is in the frame. Even before Tina appears in his doorway to make the point clear, he knows he has a choice: cooperate with her on whatever the assignment might be or take the fall for a murder he did not commit.

What follows is an entertaining story that unfolds as Helm attempts to extricate himself from this trap. As one would expect, there’s a lot of action as well as some very discreetly described sex. There are also, inevitably, some great twists and turns. It’s a good read that will appeal to anyone who enjoys the kind of pulpish men’s adventure stories that were so common fifty years ago. Some may know this character only from the Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin that used to pop up on late-night television. As is often the case in these matters, it would appear that the movie people took a lot of license with the character, and I would point out that the book is much grittier and much better than the couple of the movies that I dimly remember seeing.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Alex Morrow Battles to Solve a Kidnapping Gone Wrong

This novel features a cast of tortured characters, some good, some bad, and others somewhere in between. It opens when two relatively incompetent thugs named Pat and Eddy burst into a home in Glasgow, intent on kidnapping some guy named Bob. But there’s no Bob there, and the panicked family in the home insists that they don’t know anyone named Bob. The thugs refuse to believe them and, since Bob isn’t available, they kidnap the family’s elderly father instead, this after Pat accidentally shoots the family’s daughter in the hand. Pat and Eddie promise to bring the father back as soon as the family forks over two million pounds in ransom.

By rights, the case should be assigned to DI Alex Morrow, but for any number of flimsy reasons, her sexist, dimwitted boss assigns the case to Morrow’s sexist, dimwitted associate, a guy named Bannerman, and then instructs Morrow to follow Bannerman’s lead on the case. Morrow is not a very pleasant person to begin with and she’s deeply troubled herself for reasons we do not learn until very late in the book. She’s also the smartest cop on the beat, with a big mouth and a quick temper. Needless to say, this will not sit very well with her.

The crime and the case seem screwed up from the start. The kidnap victim is a Ugandan immigrant who owns a convenience store. The family is middle class at best and has only about forty thousand pounds in the bank—a far cry from the two million that the kidnappers have demanded. At first glance, it appears that Pat and Eddy have attacked the wrong home, but acting on her own initiative, Morrow discovers an important clue that suggests that there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.

The story is told from the viewpoints of several different characters and the bulk of it is a psychological study of them and their various problems. The investigation of the kidnapping proceeds at a very slow pace and, while it appears that other crimes may be involved, it’s hard for Morrow or anyone else to get a handle on them.

I enjoyed this book up to a point, but it didn’t work for me as much as I had hoped. For starters, I had great difficulty warming up to any of the characters. It was hard to feel any real sympathy for the family that was victimized, because they all seemed to be a bunch of losers. The sole exception was the kidnapped father who was my favorite character in the book. Whenever the story shifted to his point of view, I found it much more interesting.

I also had trouble liking Alex Morrow who was simply too abrasive to engender any empathy even when, at long last, I learned what her problem was. By then, I was completely out of patience with her and it was too late for me to reverse my opinion of her. Additionally, the crimes at the heart of the story, didn’t seem all that substantial, and, save for the hope that the kidnapped father would be saved, it didn’t seem all that important that the crimes be solved. Finally, there’s a love story in the book that I found totally implausible and could not buy into.

Mina is best at setting the scene, and her descriptions of Glasgow and the Scottish countryside are first-rate. She also does a very good job of creating and fleshing out these characters; I only wish that she had created at least one or two that I could have really cared about.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

An Entertaining Psychological Thriller from John Verdon

When Dave Gurney retired from the NYPD as a decorated homicide detective and moved to an isolated country farm, he thought he was putting his old life behind him. Certainly his wife, Madeleine, hoped that was the case, and she loves their new life of peace, quiet and long walks in the countryside. She delights in her flowers, the wild life that abounds around the farm, and in her various hobbies.

Dave, not so much. Gurney discovers that he misses the hunt. His job had energized and challenged him, and he finds that sitting around watching the asparagus grow is not all that fulfilling.

A few months earlier, much to Madeleine's chagrin, Dave agreed to consult on a murder investigation, known as the Mellery case (Think of a Number), and his doing so threatened his marriage and his life. Once the case was concluded, Dave determined to put homicide investigations behind him once and for all, but now he's asked to consult again on a particularly difficult and gruesome case.

A young bride has married a very successful psychiatrist and then, only moments before the wedding toast, the bride is discovered in a small cabin on the property where the wedding is being held. She has been decapitated and her head is left, sitting on a table, staring back at the rest of her body.

The prime suspect is a mysterious Mexican gardener who was working on the property, who allegedly opposed the marriage and who has now disappeared. The police have launched a massive manhunt for the missing man, but he has vanished, along with the neighbor lady with whom he was allegedly having an affair.

The bride's wealthy mother is not happy with the way the police are handling the case and she offers Gurney a huge fee if he will look into it. Naturally, Madeleine opposes the idea, but Dave is intrigued and finally suggests a compromise in which he will give the investigation a couple of weeks and will then bow out, irrespective of the state of the investigation at that point.

Well, of course we all know how that's going to work out. Before long, Dave will be deeply entangled in the most intellectually challenging case he's ever confronted, and no matter what his wife thinks, he will have to see it through.

To say much more about the plot would probably be unfair; suffice it to say that this is a complex, densely plotted and very entertaining novel with more than the usual number of unexpected twists and turns. The characters are intriguing and the crimes are challenging. The book should appeal to anyone who enjoys a well-written psychological thriller.

I have two reservations about this book. The first has to do with the relationship between Dave Gurney and his wife, Madeleine. Watching the way Dave's first case impacted their relationship was interesting, but watching the same story a second time was less entertaining. Clearly the two are at cross-purposes regarding the way in which Dave will spend his retirement and one of them needs to give in to the other. Either that, or they need to go their separate ways, but I would not want to read a third novel in which the two are constantly at odds over Dave's work.

My second concern involves a development that occurs when Dave engages a particularly nasty character about midway through the book. Dave is drugged and wakes up later with no memory of what has occurred over the last several hours. There is a serious possibility that he may have been photographed or filmed in a compromising situation. Dave thinks about the possibility of going to a hospital and having them run a tox screen to see what drug he might have been given. But then he decides against doing so.

SAY WHAT??? He has no idea what he might have been doing for the last few hours. He could have been set up for a very serious crime, and his only defense would be that he had been drugged and photographed in a compromising situation without his knowledge. The tox screen could confirm that he had been drugged and this is his only practical defense against whatever might be coming at him. Once the drugs are out of his system, he will have no defense. Dave is a brilliant guy and an experienced police detective. It's inconceivable that he wouldn't take this logical step to protect himself, and this colored the rest of the book for me. I still enjoyed the book a lot, but I would have enjoyed it more had it not been for these two irritating factors.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Basketball and the Drug Epidemic Intersect in D.C.

This is another great novel from George Pelecanos which captures brilliantly the disintegration of Washington, D.C., a city that Pelecanos obviously knows very well and loves even more. The book is set in March, 1986. The NCAA tourney seems to be playing on virtually every television set in town and on the streets of D.C. the big game is drugs, particularly the crack cocaine epidemic that seems to blanket much of the city.

The story contains a great cast of characters, many of whom have appeared in other Pelecanos novels. Some of these are good people; others are very bad, and a lot of them fall somewhere in between the lines. Here, their lives intersect in a lot of tangled and troubled ways.

Marcus Clay is the owner of a small chain of record stores, which he proudly describes as "African American Owned and Operated." One of the stores is located on the edge of the ghetto and from the doorstep of the store, Marcus and his employees have a window on the flourishing drug trade.

Then one night a drug-runner's car crashes in front of the store and the driver is decapitated. Marcus sees the crash as does a young white man who runs to the car, initially intending to assist the victim. He sees that is impossible, but he also sees a pillowcase full of drug money. Without thinking about the consequences, he grabs the cash, jumps in his car and races away.

In doing so, he sets into motion a complex chain of events, involving crooked cops, drug lords, innocent bystanders and at least a handful of decent people who are just trying to do the Right Thing. The story is both compelling and heart-breaking, and the reader's heart goes out to a city that seems to be collapsing into itself and to the people who are trapped in the wreckage with no apparent hope of salvation. A very Good Read, indeed.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Good Samaritan Detours from the Road to Nowhere

A man who sometimes calls himself Sam is on the road after a tragedy that destroyed his family and alienated him from his only child. He moves across the country, never staying very long in one place, a rootless man who is tethered only to the cell phone on which he hopes in vain that he will one day hear the voice of his daughter.

Then one rainy evening, while riding the elevated train through the streets of Chicago, he chances to look out the window and sees a young woman being assaulted in a parking garage. Instinctively, he leaves the train at the next stop and races back to the scene where he finds the woman unconscious on the floor of the garage. The assailant has fled, leaving in his wake a clue that gives “Sam” a pretty good idea of where the guy is headed.

After calling 911, Sam takes off after the attacker. There’s no reason for him to be involved, and for a long time now, he has made a habit of remaining uninvolved with the world as a whole. But his moral underpinnings have been outraged by the brutal attack, and almost instinctively he determines to mete out some justice, if at all possible.

Following the lead, Sam surprises the assailant and gives the thug a taste of his own medicine, but in doing so, he unwittingly inserts himself into a mysterious and very dangerous drama that is playing out between the victim of the original attack and the powerful forces that are arrayed against her. And once he has done so, he makes a target of himself and others as well.

What follows is an engrossing tale that plays out in unexpected ways. “Sam” is a very intriguing protagonist, and Jim Fusilli has placed him in a well-written, clever and compelling story. This is the first book in a new series from the author of the excellent Closing Time, and readers will look forward to the next installment in Sam’s story, Billboard Man.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Spanish-American War Vet Gets the Ax

On a bitterly cold January afternoon, the detectives of the 87th precinct are called to the basement of an apartment building where the building super is Mr. George Lasser. Lasser is eighty-six years old and a veteran of the Spanish American War. Lasser managed to survive the encounter with the Spanish and a whole host of other difficulties that beset the planet between 1898 and 1963, when this story was written. But when someone plants an ax in the middle of his skull, it's pretty much lights out for George.

There's no evidence pointing at the killer and all of the early suspects have what appear to be iron-clad alibis. This means that Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes and the other bulls are going to have to put in a lot of time and use up a lot of shoe leather, trying to determine who might have had it in for the old man. The guy's wife is totally nuts; his son refuses to leave the house; his three old buddies from the war have nothing to offer, and so there's not a lot of help there.

But Carella is nothing of not persistent, and pushing his network of snitches and other acquaintances, he finally begins to tease out a picture of the victim that may lead to the killer, though maybe not before he or she strikes again.

This is another solid entry in the 87th Precinct series and follows the formula that McBain had worked out in the previous seventeen books. Nothing wrong with that--it's a pretty entertaining formula.