Monday, March 31, 2014

Steve Carella Investigates Another Perplexing Case

Number 20 in the 87th Precinct series opens with a woman being brutally slashed to death while her young daughter cowers in the next room, playing with her favorite doll. The victim is a beautiful model who would have naturally attracted the attention of a good many men, but why would one of them want her dead?

Meanwhile, back in the squad room of the 87th Precinct, trouble is brewing as well. Detective Bert Kling is still grieving the loss of his fiancé and is alienating everyone on the squad, including the lieutenant, with his surly behavior. The Lieutenant has decided to transfer Kling out, and Kling's only remaining defender is Steve Carella. Carella asks the Lieutenant to partner him with Kling in an effort to solve the murder of the beautiful model.

Carella hopes that there's still time to salvage Kling, who was once a productive member of the squad. But early on in the case, Kling manages to alienate even the last friend he has in the precinct, and Carella orders him to go home. Just then, Carella discovers a clue that may break the case wide open, but absent a partner, he decides to pursue it alone.

Well, every reader knows this is going to be a huge mistake and the result is a very gripping tale with some interesting twists and turns. The result is one of the more entertaining books in this long-running series. A quick but very satisfying read.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Great New Protagonist from George Pelecanos

The Cut introduces Spero Lucas, a new protagonist from George Pelecanos, the creator of such venerable characters as Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos. And as much as I've enjoyed those other characters, I can't wait to read more books featuring this one.

Spero Lucas is in his late twenties, an ex-Marine recently returned home to Washington, D.C. from the war in Iraq. He grew up in a racially mixed household where his Greek-American parents adopted three of their four children. He's devoted to the memory of his late father, who was clearly the strongest influence in his life; he visits his mother regularly and is close to his brother, Leo, a school teacher. His relations with his other two siblings are strained.

Like many other young people who spent much of their twenties in the military service, Spero is anxious to make up for lost time, and he has an eye for attractive women, even though he still may have some things to learn about relating to them. He remains fit and strong and is an avid cyclist and kayaker.

Lucas has no desire to be confined to an office and prefers working for himself. He's now an investigator, working principally for a defense attorney, but he takes on the occasional job recovering stolen property. His cut is forty-percent of whatever he recovers, which makes him a bargain relative to the legendary Travis McGee who always took fifty percent.

As the book opens, an imprisoned drug dealer hires Spero to recover three marijuana shipments that have been stolen from the D.C. crew that he runs from his cell. The crew cleverly Fed-Exes the dope to addresses where then know that the occupants will be away for the day. They then track the shipments on their smart phones and swoop in to pick them off the porches minutes after Fed Ex drops them off.

However, someone's managed to beat the crew to three deliveries within a matter of weeks, and the drug lord wants the thieves tracked down and the dope recovered. Lucas has no moral qualms about people who smoke weed--he smokes the occasional joint himself--and so takes the job. Given the value of the shipments involved, it could mean a huge payday for him.

Naturally, Lucas is now plunged into a world of seedy, amoral drug dealers, and before long, what seemed like a relatively simple investigation has become a complicated and very dangerous morass. A number of innocent parties get caught in the crossfire, and there's a very real chance that Spero's first major case may also be his last.

As usual, Pelecanos is at his best describing the D.C. environs that he knows and loves so well. There are, as always, a large number of musical references, most of them even more obscure than usual. (Or perhaps it just seems so to this reader who doesn't listen to much reggae. Happily, though, I am up to speed on The Hold Steady.) The dialogue is pitch perfect; the characters are all well-developed and the story carries you right along. I've been a huge fan of Pelecanos for years and, as I suggested above, I'm really looking forward to reading more of Spero Lucas.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Beautiful and Desperate Niece Begs Perry Mason to Save the Day

Peter B. Kent has more problems than a monkey on a rock. His greedy, grasping, avaricious wife wants to take him to the cleaners in a divorce. His business partner is a crooked S.O.B. who's trying to con Kent into paying him a ton of dough. And If that weren't bad enough, Kent has taken to sleepwalking, wandering through the house in the dead of night carrying a carving knife.

Thankfully, he's got Perry Mason on the job to alleviate all these problems. On the advice of his beautiful and concerned niece, Kent has consulted Mason because the niece is afraid her uncle might stab somebody while wandering loose through the house in a trance. And fortunately, Mason has Paul Drake, his faithful detective, to back him up. No task is ever too great for Paul; if Perry needs six hundred people tailed at once, Paul always has enough operatives to get the job done, and there's no piece of vital information that he can't miraculously produce almost in an instant.

Sure enough, Mason is no sooner on the case than someone in the extended Kent household turns up stabbed to death, and the bloody carving knife that did the deed is found under Kent's pillow. The D.A. insists that Kent is guilty of premeditated murder and that he invented the whole sleepwalking story as a defense. The evidence would strongly suggest that the D.A. has an airtight case, but can Mason still somehow save his client? Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow?

This is another fun entry in the long-running series. In the end, it doesn't really make any more sense than 95% of the other Perry Mason novels, but nobody cares about that. The enjoyment comes from watching Perry cut corners (always legally, of course) and run circles around poor Hamilton Burger. And he's not about to disappoint his legion of fans in this case.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Det. Sergeant Mulheisen Attempts to Corral a Very Slippery Mob Boss

Detective Sergeant “Fang” Mulheisen continues his campaign against the Detroit mob, in this, the eighth entry in the series. In this case, though, Mulheisen remains off-stage until the book is nearly finished when he finally appears and attempts to sort out the chaos that has resulted from developments earlier in the novel.

As a practical matter, the main character in La Donna Detroit is mob boss Humphrey DiEbola. Humphrey ascended to the top spot following the timely (or untimely, depending on your point of view) death of his predecessor. But the times they are a-changin’ and the responsibilities of the job are beginning to weigh on DiEbola. He’s haunted by memories of the past, and while he’s managed thus far, to stay a step ahead of Mulheisen and the representatives of other law enforcement agencies, he may be living on borrowed time. In consequence, Humphrey has begun moving into more legitimate enterprises and is suggesting, at least to some confidants, that he is thinking of retirement. But who might succeed him?

The person responsible for the death of Humphrey’s predecessor was Humphrey’s surrogate niece, Helen Sedlaceck, who not only whacked Carmine, the former mob boss, but ran off to Montana with her lover, a mob consultant named Joe Service, and several million dollars of the mob’s money.

Humphrey made an unsuccessful attempt to get the money back and now offers to forgive Helen. She returns to Detroit and it appears that Humphrey might be grooming Helen, who was the daughter of one of his most trusted lieutenants, to succeed him. What follows is a complicated scheme involving Humphrey, Helen and Joe. One can never be sure what is actually happening or who one might really be able to trust. But it’s an extremely enjoyable romp with a surprising climax, and another solid entry in a very engaging series.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Life and Death in Narrows Gate

This is a sprawling, epic novel set in a fictional New Jersey town that sounds a lot like Hoboken. It takes place in the years surrounding the Second World War, a time when this waterfront community was deeply infested by the mob. Different Mafia factions are struggling for power and place, and against that backdrop, the lives of a number of characters play out.

The three principal characters have known each other since childhood. The first, Leo Bell, is anxious to escape the boundaries of the community in which he's lived all his young life. He's bright, determined to get a good education, and sees a path to the future during the war when he joins the fledgling agency that would become the CIA.

Leo's best friend, Sal Benno, has no such ambitions. He had no appetite for school and became an errand boy for the local mobsters, but without climbing very far up the ladder of the criminal clique he serves. Sal and Leo have each others' backs, but the world they live in will ultimately serve up some harsh tests.

The third major character is Bebe Marsala, a gifted singer, but a deeply flawed character. Bebe rises to national prominence during the war, but gradually sells his soul in the hope of grasping the fame and fortune to which he aspires. On a good night, in front of a responsive and adoring audience, Bebe experiences the highest of the highs. But when things don't go so well, he basically becomes a jumbled up mess.

There's a rich class of supporting characters, and Fusilli portrays them all with great sensitivity. He's also expertly drawn the time and place in which the story is set. It's an engrossing tale that will appeal to a large number of readers who enjoy books like The Godfather and who relish a story vividly told.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Introducing Matthew Scudder

The Sins of the Fathers would be a solid four stars from me on any day. I'm giving it five because it's the first book in what I've always believed to be the best P.I. series that anyone's ever done, if not the best crime fiction series that anyone's ever done. The Matthew Scudder saga now runs to seventeen books and a large number of short stories, and it's hard to think of any other writer who has done a series consisting of this many books over this many years while maintaining this standard of excellence. And for as many times as I've read this book by now, and for as well as I know the story, it's always a treat to pick it up and read it all over again.

In particular, the first chapter is excellent. In a lean, crisp thirteen pages, Block not only sets up the mystery to be resolved but provides a brilliant introduction to the character of Matthew Scudder. Although the character will continue to grow and develop over the course of the series, the first chapter essentially tells you everything you would ever need to know about the man.

Scudder is an ex-cop who left the force for very personal reasons. He now works as an unlicensed P.I. Clients don't hire him in any traditional sense, but occasionally he does a favor for someone and they show their appreciation by giving him monetary gifts.

In this case, the someone is a businessman from upstate New York named Cale Hanniford. A few days earlier, Hanniford's daughter, Wendy, had been savagely murdered in the apartment she shared with a young man named Richard Vanderpoel. Minutes after the killing, Vanderpoel was found covered in the victim's blood, exposing himself and shouting obscenities in the street in front of the apartment. The police arrested him and less than forty-eight hours later, the young man hanged himself in his cell.

The police have closed the case and Hanniford accepts their obvious conclusion that Vanderpoel killed his daughter. But he wants to know why. Hanniford and Wendy had been estranged for several years and he knows nothing of her life during that period. He now knows that she was living in an expensive apartment with no visible means of support, which suggests the obvious to everyone involved. Still, no matter how sordid the details, Hanniford wants Matt to dig into Wendy's life so that he will know how she came to such a tragic end.

Scudder accepts the job and begins investigating in his usual methodical way, turning up one thing after another, asking one question after another, and in the process learning things about both Wendy and Vanderpoel that no parent might ever want to know.

The story is spare and lean--there's not a wasted word, and it draws you inexorably into the lives of all the characters, but especially into that of Matthew Scudder. It's a haunting and intoxicating introduction that sets the stage for all of the great books and stories to follow.

A Gritty, Noir Tale Set in England's "Second City"

Eoin Miller is the right-hand man of his childhood friend, Veronica Gaines, who has now taken over from her father as the leader of Birmingham's most powerful crime family. Neither Eoin nor Veronica has an easy job, and Eoin is basically the troubleshooter who cleans up the messy situations that can often result when one pursues a life in crime.

Lost City opens with a terrific scene that finds Eoin in bed with Veronica's younger sister, Claire. But Veronica phones at the most critical of moments to call him away to deal with a disaster at a sleazy hotel where the third floor is reserved for various criminal enterprises. Eoin, who is also an ex-cop, arrives on the scene to find a small-time hustler named Jellyfish, who's been stabbed to death. With Jellyfish is a hooker, who's apparently stoned or in shock, or maybe a combination of the two, and who appears to be responsible for bringing Jellyfish to his bloody and untimely end.

Eoin is left to deal with the mess, but right off the bat, he makes a critical mistake and before he can even get the room cleaned up, the hooker has disappeared, another body has been added to the mix, and the entire situation is spinning out of his control.

With that, Eoin is launched into a dark and complex web of danger and intrigue, where he can never be certain who he can trust. The cast includes the aforementioned Gaines sisters and their father, along with Eoin's estranged wife, Laura, who is herself a cop, and Eoin's gypsy father who has problems of his own. There are a number of very scary gangsters who seem to have no scruples at all, and if Eoin is even going to survive, let alone sort out this ever-expanding mess, he will need to keep his wits about him and stay at least a half a step ahead of an awful lot of people who would be happy to put him permanently out of the picture.

This is a very dark, engrossing tale with a great group of characters. Stringer also excels at setting the scenes in and around England's "second city," and this is a book that should appeal to large numbers of noir fans.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mul and Grookta Togeher Again (Even if Grookta Is Dead)

With this book, Detective Sergeant "Fang" Mulheisen returns from his adventures in Montana involving his old adversary, Joe Service, to his hometown of Detroit. The book begins when a young couple pulls into the parking lot of the Red Fox restaurant in suburban Detroit at about 2:30 on the afternoon of July 30, 1975.

Those familiar with the history of the Motor City will recall that on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, famed Teamsters' Union leader, Jimmy Hoffa, disappeared from that very parking lot. Imagine the reader's surprise then, not to mention that of the young couple, when Hoffa jumps into the back of their VW van and demands that they drive off, preferably faster than the two hoods who are chasing him.

With that the book is off and running--literally. Our intrepid hero, Mulheisen, is too young to be on the police force yet, but his mentor, the infamous Grookta, is on the force and becomes entangled in a series of events that follow Hoffa's disappearance. But Grookta's actions remain a secret and over twenty years later, Hoffa is still missing and no one knows how he disappeared or where he went.

Enter Mulheisen, who's minding his own business in the late 1990s, when a sexy young female historian approaches him. She's got a grant to do some research into the history of the Detroit PD, and she wants to interview Mul about Grookta, who's been dead for a number of years by this time.

One thing leads to another, and Mulheisen discovers a set of journals left for him by Grookta, detailing the developments of that long-ago summer in 1975. Mulheisen has to go on a scavenger hunt of sorts to find the journals one at a time, and the mystery unfolds along the lines of an onion gradually being peeled back.

It's a very intriguing story involving a number of jazz musicians, both real and fictional. The author, Jackson, is a jazz aficionado, and the book reveals his depth of knowledge about the jazz scene, particularly in Detroit. It also differs from the earlier books in the series in that this one is told from Mulheisen's first-person POV, rather than from the third-person POV of several characters as was the case earlier.

The L. A. Times dubbed this a "Best Book of the Year," and it's easy to see why. It's a captivating story populated with a great cast of characters, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Another Gripping Story from Dennis Lehane

Live By Night tells a broad, sweeping tale that stretches from 1926 to 1935, and from Boston to Tampa, Florida and on to Cuba. It includes a number of historical figures as well as fictional characters and follows the story that Lehane began several years ago in The Given Day.

At the center of the story is Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of Boston police captain, Thomas Coughlin. The Coughlin home was not a happy one, at least not for young Joe, who early on amused himself by doping out the combinations to the household safes where his father squirreled away the payoffs and other money that accrued to a corrupt police official at the height of Prohibition.

As a boy, Joe reacted by joining a gang that committed minor crimes, including the arson-for-hire of competing newsstands. Then one night, in the midst of robbing a poker game that is allegedly protected by one of the city's most important mobsters, Joe has the bad luck to fall in love at first sight with the woman who just happens to be the girlfriend of the aforementioned mobster. The affair will launch young Joe on the journey of his lifetime, or at least the next nine years of it, which would seem like a lifetime to any normal person.

It would be unfair to say any more about the plot, but this is a captivating story, filled with memorable characters. Lehane captures brilliantly the spirit of the age and the settings are so well rendered that at times the reader feels as though he or she is actually circulating through Boston, Tampa or Cuba along with the characters.

This is a book that should appeal to a wide range of readers and not just to fans of crime fiction. It also makes a wonderful companion piece to White Shadow, a very good book by Ace Atkins that is set in the underworld of Tampa in the 1950s and which centers on Charlie Wall, the man who was then the city's mob boss.