Monday, June 30, 2014

Timothy Waverly Is Forced to Double Down

This is the second book in Tom Kakonis's excellent short series featuring Timothy Waverly, a professional gambler whose business card wryly describes him as an "Applied Probabilities Analyst."

The end of the first book, Michigan Roll, found Waverly in a world of hurt after he accidentally stumbled into a drug deal that went bad. When all was said and done, $500,000 worth of drugs wound up destroyed. The drugs belonged to a crime boss named Gunter Dietz who blames Waverly for the loss of the drugs and who expects to be repaid. Waverly and his best friend and mentor, Bennie Epstein, manage to raise the $500,000, and Bennie meets with Dietz in Chicago and pays him off. But Dietz now insists on an additional $50,000 in interest and another $250,000 on top of that to compensate him for all his trouble. Generously, he gives Bennie and Waverly two weeks to come up with the rest of the money, Or Else.

Bennie and Waverly have been lying low in Palm Beach, Florida and have scraped up every last dime they can just to pay the first $550,000. Raising another $250,000 is an impossibility, especially in such a short span of time. They know that Dietz will kill them if they don't come up with the money and they're pretty sure that he intends to kill them even if they do.

And with that set-up, the book is off and running. Just when the situation seems darkest, Waverly accidentally runs into an old friend named Caroline, who is now married to another of Waverly's childhood friends who is in Palm Beach putting together a huge investment deal. Involved in the deal are a number of wealthy men including an Arab prince, who fancy themselves to be pretty good poker players. Waverly hopes that he might somehow finagle his way into their games and, by some miracle, raise the money he and Bernie so desperately need. Meanwhile, of course, Dietz has put not one but two supremely mismatched hit men on the trail of Bennie and Waverly with instructions to kill them, no matter how things turn out.

As always, Kakonis weaves a great story, but the real strength of his books lies in his ability to create fantastic characters, as is evidenced here. Timothy Waverly makes a great protagonist, extremely talented, deeply flawed and ultimately very human. The two hit men are the mobsters' equivalent of Oscar and Felix, and Waverly's old girlfriend complicates his problems by suggesting that she might like to be more than just his old friend. There are a number of very good poker scenes and all of it leads up to a smashing climax.

This book was first published in 1991, and like most of Kakonis's other work, has been difficult to find for some time now. Happily, the folks at Brash Books are now in the process of bringing out handsome new editions of all of the author's earlier work and are publishing his new book, Treasure Coast. For this, all crime fiction fans are in their debt.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fighting the War on Drugs in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez

This is another story that focuses on the "war" on drugs. It's centered at the point on the U.S.-Mexico border where the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are in many ways joined together, even though they are divided by the international border that runs between them. A street gang called the Aztecas works both sides of the line, causing serious problems both for civilians and for law enforcement personnel.

The story is told through the perspectives of several characters. Principal among them is a young man named "Flip" Morales, who has been indoctrinated into the Aztecas while in prison. As the book opens, he is released from prison and makes his way back to his mother's home in El Paso. He'd like to be left alone, but they Aztecas make it clear that they have plans for him on the outside, and almost as soon as Flip is home, the Azteca leader in El Paso, Jose Martinez, reaches out to him.

Also at the center of the story are several law enforcement officers. On the Mexican side of the border, the principal character is a federal officer named Matias Seguro. On the American side are two members of the El Paso P.D.'s anti-gang unit, Christina Salas and her partner, a guy named Robinson. There's also the almost-obligatory obnoxious F.B.I. agent who wants to trample all over the toes of the local cops and take over their investigation.

As the Aztecas seek to increase their influence over the cross-border drug trade, law enforcement officials on both sides of the border are mounting a large-scale effort to take down the gang. Caught up in the middle are the smaller fish like Flip, as well as a number of people who have no affiliation with the gang.

Through the eyes of these characters Hawken tells a fairly familiar tale and describes the consequences of the drug wars on the larger society and on the individuals who are caught up in them. The fact that the story is familiar makes it no less depressing, especially when one thinks of the millions upon millions of dollars that have been spent in this "war" over the last forty years to no discernable effect.

If I have a concern about the book, it lies in the fact that, hard as Hawken might try, none of the characters really resonates. Most of them do not have much depth, which may be a result of the fact that Hawken has created such a large cast that we don't really get to know any one of them as well as we might.

Also from a personal standpoint, I inevitably wind up comparing any book on this subject to Don Winslow's magnificent book, The Power of the Dog, which stands head and shoulders above any other book I've ever read on this subject. That might not be entirely fair to the other authors who have tackled this subject, but the truth is that anyone who does so, for better or worse, winds up standing in Winslow's shadow. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to 4.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Detective Hank Palace Counts Down the Last Days of Planet Earth

This is the second volume in Ben H. Winters' "Last Policeman" series, featuring Detective Hank Palace, lately of the Concord, New Hampshire PD. Lately, because in just seventy-seven days, a giant asteroid named Maia is going to slam into the earth, ending life as Hank and everyone else knows it. Naturally, things are now a bit discombobulated.

In the course of things, all the Concord police detectives have been fired since there's really no point in investigating anything when the world won't survive long enough for the courts (were there any left) to try anyone. A few patrolman have been kept on duty in an effort to maintain some sort of order. But not surprisingly, civilization is unraveling at a pretty rapid clip, and there's precious little order left to be preserved.

Most utilities and other public services have disappeared and it's pretty much gotten to the point of everyone for him or herself. Lots of people are armed to the teeth to protect the precious water and other supplies that they've managed to hoard. Some have taken off, determined to complete their "Bucket Lists;" others have fallen prey to zealots, religious and otherwise, who promise some sort of miraculous escape once the Last Day arrives. Lots of people have given up already and simply taken their own lives, rather than wait for the inevitable end.

Then there's Hank Palace.

Even in the face of the end of the world, Hank simply cannot give up his dream of being a detective, and when an old friend begs Hank to find her missing husband, he signs on for the job, even though he no longer has any official standing. He also doesn't have much hope. As one might imagine, millions of people have simply wandered off or otherwise just gone missing, and without gasoline, electricity, phones, working computers and other such amenities, tracking someone is not as easy as it once was.

Hank is thus reduced to riding around New Hampshire on this bicycle, pulling his trusty dog in a trailer behind him, trying to find the missing man whose name is Brett Cavatone. The search takes Hank to some interesting places and introduces him to a varied cast of characters, but in the end, Winters' depiction of what the country might look like in the face of such an impending catastrophe is much more interesting than either Hank Palace or his mission.

Virtually everyone Hank meets wonders why he would persist in looking for a missing person, given the circumstances. Frankly, so does the reader, or at least so did this reader. In the first book of this trilogy, The Last Policeman, Hank doggedly pursued what he believed to be a murder case. At that point, he actually still was a police detective and it was easy to sympathize with him as a man determined to do his job as best he can, even as the world disintegrates around him.

In this case, though, he comes off much less as the last noble man and much more like someone who's lost touch with reality. Hank has a family situation of his own that might more deservingly demand his attention under the circumstances than the case of a man who almost certainly went missing of his own volition. That would probably have been a more interesting story as well.

The concluding volume in this trilogy is due out shortly, and I'm anxiously awaiting it. But I confess that I'm much less interested in the fate of Hank Palace than I am in seeing how Winters describes the final days of Planet Earth.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Thriller from the Creator of Law and Order

This thriller is the first novel from Dick Wolf, the creator of the television series, Law and Order, and it introduces NYC police detective Jeremy Fisk. Fisk is a member of the department's Intelligence Division, New York City's mini-CIA, which is designed to combat terror threats to the most attractive target in the world.

The book opens with a flashback to an angry Osama Bin Laden trying to persuade his henchmen that in the wake of the 9/11 attack, they have to be smarter than your average stupid shoe bomber. Rather than repeating themselves, they have to take the infidel Americans by surprise and hit them at a point where they will least expect it and which will do the maximum amount of damage.

Some time later, a terrorist claiming to have a bomb attempts to break into the cockpit of a jetliner bound for NYC. It's a clever scheme that exploits a weakness in the airlines' cockpit security system, but the plot is foiled when several passengers attack and subdue the terrorist who, happily, turns out not to have a bomb after all.

The brave passengers become instant celebrities and everyone seems to be falling all over themselves, thankful that another terrorist plot has been foiled. But not Jeremy Fisk. To him, the whole incident of the ineffective hijacker seems a bit too easy and he speculates that it might just be a diversion from another attack that no one sees coming yet.

Fisk's concerns are made more anxious because the Fourth of July is approaching and along with it is coming the dedication of the new One World Trade Center at Ground Zero, which he realizes would make an excellent terrorist target. With his partner, Krina Gersten, Fisk mounts an around-the-clock effort to determine if, in fact, there's more to this episode than meets the eye. Of course, there will be.

This is a timely thriller and Wolf keeps the tension mounting and the reader turning the pages. The back cover suggests that this book is reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal, which is an all-time classic of this genre. The Intercept does not really rise to that level, but it is a very good read--perfect for a lazy summer's day at the beach.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Shotgun Murders Bedevil the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

This is another sold entry from the middle of the 87th Precinct series. As the book opens, detectives Steve Carella and Bert Kling are assigned a particularly messy case. A couple has died from shotgun blasts. The first cops on the scene are ready to close the case and rule it a routine murder/suicide. Carella, though, points out that both victims have been shot twice and that it's highly unlikely that any suicide victim would be able to accomplish that feat after first blowing off half of his or her own head with a shotgun.

The victims are identified as a traveling salesman and his wife who were shot in the middle of the night. Amazingly, though, no one else in their apartment building heard the shots and was concerned enough to call it in. The bodies were thus discovered the next morning by the milkman.

There are precious few clues and even fewer suspects; no one seem to have even mildly disliked either the man or his wife. But when Carella and Kling interview the staff of the company where the man worked, a particularly hot and ready receptionist is attracted to Kling. She is not remotely bashful about pursuing him, which will cause serious problems with Kling's girlfriend, Cindy.

Meanwhile, in an equally baffling case, a woman is killed in her apartment, again in the middle of the night, after meeting a stranger in a bar. But who was the stranger, and did he kill the woman? Detectives Hawes and Meyer are left to sort that one out and in the end, McBain again provides the reader with an excellent excuse for ignoring his or her responsibilities and losing an evening in a book.

Kurt Wallander: A Fish Out of Water in Latvia

Swedish detective Kurt Wallander is plunged into another depressing mystery when two bodies wash ashore on the Swedish coast in a life raft. The two male victims have been shot to death and then wrapped in an embrace in the lifeboat and cast adrift. They are carrying no identification, but their dental work suggests that they are from somewhere in Eastern Europe.

The victims are finally traced to Latvia and a police official from Riga named Major Liepa comes to Sweden to participate in the investigation. It seems clear that the crime did not occur on Swedish soil and so Wallander is happy to pass the case on to his Latvian counterpart and assume that his job is done.

In fairly short order, however, complications ensue and Wallander winds up going to Latvia to assist in the continuing investigation. The story is set in the early 1990s in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union is teetering and this has major implications for the satellite countries that have been dragged into its orbit, Latvia included.

The tension in the country is palpable. Native Latvians hope to take advantage of the international situation to win their freedom from the Soviets, but many Soviet transplants to the country want to maintain ties to the Soviet Union. The police force itself is divided and no one knows who to trust.

The bulk of the book, then, takes place in Latvia against the backdrop of these tensions. Wallander is basically a fish out of water, especially since he cannot speak Latvian. The case he is investigating becomes increasingly complex, and Wallander is soon at the mercy of forces beyond his control.

Wallander continues to be a fairly dour character who is now plunged into a very depressing situation. In other words, although well-written, this is not a book likely to brighten anyone's day. The situation in Latvia is described very believably, and Mankell has clearly done a lot of research. My problem with the book is that, in the end, I could not sustain the level of disbelief required to make the story work.

Wallander makes some decisions along the way that left me scratching my head and which were so illogical as to take me out of the story. And I found the climax to be way too implausible. This is one of those series that I read fairly infrequently. Wallander is an interesting character, but he works best for me if I visit him sparingly.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Penn Cage Confronts the Death Factory

Between 1999 and 2009, Greg Iles wrote three very good books featuring Penn Cage, a former assistant D.A. in Houston who returned home to his native Natchez, Mississippi and who ultimately became the city's mayor. Now, on the eve of the release of the new Penn Cage novel, Natchez Burning, Iles has written this brief novella which fills in some of the back story surrounding Cage's return to Mississippi.

As the story opens, Cage's father, a Natchez physician, has suffered a heart attack and may not live. He has called Cage to his bedside from Houston for the purpose of telling him some dark secret that he apparently needs to get off his chest before he dies. However, by the time the younger Cage arrives, his father has rallied and now insists that he has no recollection of asking Penn to come. He also claims that he has no secret to share.

Other family members rally to the bedside, including Penn Cage's uncle. They go for a ride, which gives Penn the opportunity to tell a long story about the events that caused him to leave the D.A.'s office and return home. It's an interesting tale, involving the infamous "Death Factory," in the Houston D.A.'s office that sent large numbers of alleged killers to death row on the basis of evidence, some of which may have been tainted.

This is a novella that will appeal principally to fans of the series of which there are a great number, and it may not be that interesting to people who have not yet discovered this series. It is a very good one, but people approaching it for the first time would be much better advised to begin with The Quiet Game and then get to this novella in the natural order of things.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dani Britton Is on the Run in Redemption Key

In The Widow File: A Thriller, S. G. Redling introduced a young data analyst named Dani Britton who worked for an exclusive and secretive security company near Washington, D.C. One afternoon, while Dani was away from the office, virtually all of her co-workers were murdered in an effort to conceal some of the work that the company was doing. The villains behind the attack on Dani's firm then sent a savage hit man named Tom Booker to finish the job by eliminating Dani. Booker failed in the effort, and both he and Dani wound up badly injured in the course of his attack on her.

Nine months later, Dani is now mostly healed, but she still bears both the physical and psychological scars of the attack. Determined to put her past as far behind her as physically possible, Dani takes a job at a fishing camp called Jinky's on Redemption Key in south Florida. She's basically doing grunt work--cleaning rooms, making repairs, wrangling kayaks and tending bar. She's also vigorously working out, attempting to get back into shape and otherwise trying to keep her head as far down as possible.

A place like Redemption Key naturally attracts a lot of odd, strange and curious characters. Many of them, like Dani, are on the run; not all of them live within the strict confines of the law. The owner of the place where Dani works is a guy named Oren Randolph. Randolph is basically a good guy and a good boss, but he does provide a service to various criminal elements. His fishing camp, far off the beaten track, is an excellent place for people to do deals that they'd rather not consummate in the light of day. For a fee, of course, Randolph provides the meeting room and serves as a facilitator, keeping the peace between and among parties who are not always peaceful and who do not always trust each other.

Dani's area of expertise while working for the security company involved her uncanny ability to "read" people. Randolph soon recognizes her talent in this regard and begins assigning her to tend bar and serve food and drinks at the meetings he's facilitating. She can read the mood of the room and of the meeting participants and help Randolph keep things on an even keel.

Inevitably, though, sooner or later one of these complex negotiations is bound to blow up, causing major problems for everyone involved, Dani included. And when it does finally happen, it couldn't come at a worse time, because other dangerous threats from the life Dani fought so hard to leave behind are suddenly converging on her once again.

It would not be fair to say any more about the plot, but Redling has created here a cast of very intriguing, off-beat characters and dropped them into a well-drawn setting and a riveting story. The tension mounts with every page, and the climax is as unexpected as it is heart-pounding. This is another excellent entry in this young series.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Men Behind Television's Third Golden Age

As the subtitle of this book suggests, Brett Martin sets out to describe the story of a creative revolution in television that began in the late 1990s and early 2000s and produced what Martin describes as the third Golden Age of television.

This revolution occurred principally on cable and was led by the amazing success of "The Sopranos" on HBO. In the wake of that success came shows like "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "The Shield," "Six Feet Under," and others. These shows were riskier, more literate, and more challenging than most of the television shows that preceded them, although glimmerings of what was to come could be seen earlier in shows like "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue."

The characters that populated these shows also differed dramatically from most of those that had inhabited earlier shows. The leads in these programs were almost exclusively male. They were often seriously flawed, morally complex, deeply human characters who looked nothing like traditional leading men, save perhaps for Jon Hamm who portrays the advertising executive, Don Draper, in "Mad Men."

In another departure from tradition, viewers were often expected to sympathize and root for the bad guys--people like Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Walter White, and even Vince Mackey, a seriously corrupt cop who cold-bloodedly sets up and murders another cop in the very first episode of the series.

The men behind these series (and those in charge were nearly always men) were often almost as troubled and as complicated as the characters they created. These were the powerful writers and show runners like David Chase, Ed Burns, David Simon, David Milch, Alan Ball and others who were given the power to create and develop these shows. Many of these men imagined themselves as auteurs, along the lines of the great film directors that many of them idolized. Martin suggests that while most of these men were gifted writers, producers and directors, they could be, at times, impossible to work with.

Martin tells a very engaging story, that will appeal to the large numbers of fans of these various shows. He has interviewed virtually all of the principals involved in these programs, along with a host of other people, and one finishes the book feeling like he or she has been given a look deep inside this revolution.

One caveat: Inevitably in a book like this, there are a lot of spoilers. In discussing and dissecting these shows, Martin gives away a lot of important plot points and so if you are late getting to some of these programs and still intend to do so, it might be a good idea to save this book until you've actually finished watching them.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Getting to Easy Street Is No Easy Trick

In this, his second novel, Tom Kakonis brings together a disparate cast of odd, strange and curious characters who come together very uneasily in the hope of making one big score. Principal among them is Mitchell Morse, a former college football player and ex-cop who's spiraled downhill to the point where he's now employed as a security guard at a Fleets superstore in Grand Rapids, Michigan, chasing down shoplifters.

Before being fired from his last job, Mitch had met a fellow security guard named Jean Satterfield. Mitch has not had a lot of success in long-term relationships, but he recognizes that Jean is a special woman who appeals to him in ways that most other women haven't. Once at Fleets, though, he meets a cashier named Starla Hudek. Starla is no great beauty, but there's a sexual energy about her that Mitch cannot resist and before long, he's juggling the two women and hoping that neither finds out about the other.

As this happens, Starla's husband, a bruiser nicknamed "Meat", is released after eight years in Prison. After all those years, Meat and his former cellmate, Ducky, are anxious to make a big score. Starla wants nothing to do with her husband and desperately wishes that she'd finalized their divorce while she had the chance. But Meat forces his way back into her life and you don't say no to a guy that large and intimidating.

Meat soon decides that knocking over the Fleets store where Starla works could be his ticket to a life of luxury. He connects with an alleged criminal mastermind named Kasperson whose job it will be to formulate the actual plan. Kasperson, at the moment, is posing as a doctor who specializes in reversing male baldness. The conspirators soon decide that they will need an inside man to help pull off the job, and Meat orders Starla to use her considerable sexual prowess to lure Mitch into joining the team.

What follows is an hilarious and entertaining romp, filled with double and triple crosses. Three million dollars is at stake here and with a score that large, you never know who you can trust. This is a book that should appeal to a lot of crime fiction fans, especially those who enjoy the work of writers like Kakonis's fellow Detroit author, Elmore Leonard.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Charlie Siringo and Dashiell Hammett Are on the Case for Wyatt Earp

This very entertaining novel opens with real-life ex-Pinkerton agent Charlie Siringo, sitting in his Los Angeles home near the Hollywoodland sign one rainy night in 1921. He's trying to protect his typewriter and the novel he's attempting to write from the rain that's leaking through the several holes in his roof when Wyatt Earp comes knocking on the door.

Siringo had a long and illustrious career with the Pinkertons, and is credited with being the first detective to go undercover in an effort to capture criminals. Most famously, Siringo infiltrated Butch Cassidy's gang, leading to the arrest of some of the gang's members. After leaving the agency, Siringo ultimately wound up in California where he attempted to support himself by writing novels based on his experiences. In the meantime, after his own adventures in Tombstone and other such places, Wyatt Earp wound up in L.A., working as an advisor to directors making western movies.

Someone has stolen a prize thoroughbred belonging to Earp and Earp hires Siringo to find it. Siringo badly needs the money and so accepts the case. The trail leads north to San Francisco, where Charlie recruits another ex-Pinkerton agent and struggling novelist named Dashiell Hammett to assist in the case.

The pair winds up interviewing an important witness on the northern California ranch belonging to the widow of the famous writer, Jack London. At that point the case suddenly becomes much more complex and infinitely more dangerous. Before it's done, Siringo and Hammett will be up against a devious cast of characters which includes Joseph P. Kennedy who, even in 1921, has ambitions of seeing his son in the White House. The infamous Tea Pot Dome scandal is coming to a boil; prohibition is just under way, and all of this will ultimately come into play.

A host of historical figures like Will Rogers will put in appearances as the book progresses and in and around the action, the very conservative Siringo and the anarchist Hammett will wage an ongoing verbal battle over the events of the day. All in all, it's great fun and Estleman has brought this historical figures back to life in fine style.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Classic Hard Boiled Novel from John D. MacDonald

This is a stand-alone novel, first published in 1955, and written by John D. MacDonald, who is best known for his Travis McGee series. It's a classic Fawcett/Gold Medal novel in which the protagonist starts out with an apparently reasonable objective but soon finds himself in over his head and in danger of losing his life in some very unpleasant way.

In this case, the protagonist is a man named Tal Howard, who had the misfortune first of going off to war and then of being captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. The camp, of course, was a horrible experience and while there, Tal became friends with another prisoner named Timmy Warden who came from a small town named Hillston.

Sadly, Timmy died in the camp, but before he did so, he confessed to Tal that he had stolen $60,000 (at a time when that was still a lot of money). He had embezzled the money from his brother, George. To add insult to injury, Timmy had also been sleeping with George's trampy wife, Eloise. Timmy tells Howard that he buried the money and that only a woman named Cindy would know where to find it. Timmy regrets all of this now, and hopes only to survive long enough to return to Hillston and make things right with his brother.

Timmy dies before he get a chance to make amends. Tal Howard is eventually rescued from the camp and after he recovers is at loose ends. After his experience in the war, he has no interest in resuming his old life and so decides to go to Hillston, find the mysterious Cindy, dig up the money and live happily ever after.

Naturally, this won't be easy. And once Howard reaches Hillston, he realizes just how complicated a task he has set himself. To make matters worse, there's already another ex-POW from the camp named Fitzmartin, who apparently heard part of Timmy's story and who's arrived in town ahead of Howard, also determined to find the money. Fitzmartin is a psycho S.O.B., typical of the villains that MacDonald tended to create, and obviously he's going to pose a formidable obstacle in the way of Howard's objective.

If all that weren't bad enough, little Hillston proves to be a town with a lot of dark secrets and mysteries, and the deeper Howard digs, both literally and figuratively, the more trouble he's going to be in. Along the way, naturally, he'll also encounter any number of interesting females, and the end result is an engaging tale that should appeal to any fan of classic hard-boiled crime fiction.