Thursday, July 31, 2014

John Rebus Returns and Readers Are in for a Treat

At the end of Exit Music in 2008, Ian Rankin was forced to retire his cantankerous Scottish detective, John Rebus, because Rebus had hit sixty, which is (or was) the mandatory retirement age for detectives in Scotland. Happily, Rebus now returns, albeit as a civilian assisting a cold case squad rather than as a full-fledged detective.

After writing a couple of novels featuring Malcolm Fox, who is in the "Complaints" or Internal Affairs Division and who is as sober and straight-laced as Rebus is not, Rankin discovered that there was a small unit in Edinburgh comprised of three retired detectives led by one active detective who looked into cold cases.

Rebus is now assigned to the unit and is visited by a woman named Nina Hazlitt. Ten years earlier, her daughter, Sally, had disappeared, but Nina has not been able to get anyone to revive the case. Rebus agrees to look at it and in digging through the musty files, discovers that a number of other young women have disappeared in much the same way from virtually the same location. Now another girl has gone missing and Rebus believes that he's looking at the actions of a single serial killer.

Rebus manages to work his way into the current investigation, which also involves his long-time understudy, Siobhan Clarke, even though he still has no official standing. He doggedly pursues the case, taking it in directions that the team leader doesn't necessarily believe fruitful, and along the way, he manages to antagonize a large number of people, just as he did in the old days.

In an interesting sub-plot, the retirement age has now been raised, and Rebus is considering applying for a return to active duty. In the process, he runs head-on into Malcolm Fox, who'd prefer to see Rebus dead and buried, at least officially.

All in all, it's a very entertaining story, and it's great to see Rebus back in the saddle again. Rankin writes, as always, with a great sense of place, and it's fun to watch Rebus as the old dog who's trying to cope with a new age and with new ways of policing. Long-time fans of the series are in for a treat, as is any other fan of crime fiction who happens to come across this book.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Matthew Scudder Takes a Stab in the Dark

Matthew Scudder prowls the streets of New York City for the fourth time in A Stab in the Dark. By now the character has been firmly established: Matt is an ex-cop who left the force under tragic circumstances and who now works unofficially as a private detective. He doesn't have a license; he doesn't pay taxes, and he doesn't fill out paperwork. But sometimes he does a "favor" for a friend and the "friend" shows her or her gratitude by giving Matt money.

He also drinks. Heavily by this point. But he refuses to consider himself an alcoholic and insists that he could stop anytime he wants to. He doesn't want to yet, even though he now experiences periodic blackouts. But still, his drinking is not yet interfering with his ability to get the job done.

Insurance executive Charles F. London needs a "favor." Nine years earlier, his daughter, Barbara Ettinger, was viciously stabbed to death, apparently by a maniac who was known as the Ice Pick Killer and who claimed seven other victims. Finally, by a stroke of luck, the madman has now been captured. The only problem is that, while he admits to the seven other killings, he insists that he did not kill Ettinger. He also has an iron-clad alibi for the time Ettinger was murdered, given that he was in custody on that day.

London had come to whatever peace he could find, assuming that his daughter's death was simply an inexplicable piece of bad luck. Now, though, his world is upended again when it appears that Barbara was killed perhaps for a reason and that the murderer is still at large. The cops claim there's nothing they can do, given the time that has elapsed, and so London walks into Armstrong's saloon and asks Scudder to take on the job. Scudder agrees, although he tells London that the odds are very slight. The trail will be just as cold for him as it is for the cops, and he doesn't even have their official standing.

Scudder then does what Scudder does. After depositing ten percent of the fee in a church's Poor Box, he begins pounding the streets, tracking down his pathetically thin leads and fortifying himself with more than the occasional drink, for "maintenance" purposes of course. He's an enormously intriguing character and, as is always the case in this series, the plot is interesting and well-developed. As in the first three books, it's great fun walking the streets of the big city with Matthew Scudder, although by this point one can't help but be increasingly concerned for his health and well-being.

A word of caution: Anyone interested in dipping into this series would be very well-advised to start with the first book, The Sins of the Fathers. Trust me when I say that you want to be on this ride from the very beginning.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lucas Davenport Investigates a Communist Spy Ring (in Minnesota!)

Having followed his long-time boss, Rose Marie Roux, out of Minneapolis and into the Minnesota State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas Davenport has become a roving troubleshooter who takes on difficult criminal cases statewide. Basically, he "fixes shit" for the governor and attempts to prevent high profile cases from having any adverse political fallout.

When a Russian sailor is shot and killed on the shores of Lake Superior near Duluth, it initially appears to be a relatively insignificant crime. But then it turns out that the sailor may have actually been a Russian spy. Even worse, the victim's father is very well-connected in Moscow and so suddenly the case may have international ramifications.

Lucas is assigned to the investigation as is Major Nadezhda Kalin, allegedly a Russian police official, who is sent by Moscow to observe the investigation and to assist where possible. Nadya is very attractive and engaging, but from the git go, Lucas believes that she is not actually a cop, but probably a spy herself.

The case plays out largely in northern Minnesota, up on "The Range," where workers in a string of small communities once mined enormous amounts of iron ore. The residents are hard scrabble, no-nonsense sorts of people, with a tradition of labor activism and radical politics. Unlikely as it seems, some of them may have not yet heard that the Soviet Union has imploded and that the Cold War is over.

As is almost always the case in these books, the reader knows almost immediately the identity of the killer and what unfolds is a game of cat and mouse as Davenport matches wits with the killer. It's a very entertaining story with a unique plot, unlike that of any other Davenport novel. There's plenty of tension and suspense, and the by-play between Lucas and Nadya is worth the price of the book all by itself. There's also a very minor subplot involving Lucas's wife, Weather, and the garage door on their new house that is hilarious. All in all, another great entry in the series.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Terrific Story from Robert Crais with a Great New Protagonist

MWD Maggie T415 is an eighty-five pound black and tan German shepherd; she's also a Marine halfway through her second deployment in Afghanistan. With her handler, Pete Gibbs, she works as part of a patrol and explosives detection team. The two are devoted to each other and then one morning, while out on patrol, Maggie is sniffing out IEDs, when the unit comes under enemy fire. Pete is killed; Maggie is badly wounded and when they are choppered out together, Maggie is left with no one.

Scott James is a patrolman on the LAPD. Late one night out of nowhere, he and his partner, Stephanie Anders, suddenly find themselves in the middle of a shooting war when a gang of masked men attacks a Bentley rolling down the street in front of them. Two victims in the Bentley are killed as is Stephanie Anders. Scott James is very badly wounded and the killers get away clean.

Ten months later, Scott is back on the job, if only barely. He's in therapy, attempting to deal with the trauma that still haunts him and hoping to recover memories of that night, no matter how small, that might somehow jumpstart the investigation and lead to the men who killed his partner.

Scott's goal in the LAPD had always been to join the elite SWAT team, but there's no chance of that now. Instead, he's assigned to the K-9 unit. After an initial training period, he'll be paired with a dog. His new "partner" is still to be determined, but while in training he bonds with Maggie who has now mostly recovered from her physical wounds and is being retrained to work as a police dog.

Both Scott and Maggie still bear the scars, physical and mental, of their traumatic experiences. The sergeant who leads the training unit doesn't have much faith either man or beast, but reluctantly agrees to give them a couple of weeks to prove themselves.

In the meantime, Scott has managed to insert himself into the ongoing investigation of the crime that took his first partner's life. In therapy, he remembers a small but vital clue that reinvigorates the investigation and from that point the story progresses as we watch the progress of the investigation and the developing relationship between Maggie and Scott.

It's a terrific story, which will come as no surprise to people who have read earlier books by Robert Crais. But what is astounding is the development of Maggie, who becomes perhaps the book's central character. Certainly, she's the most intriguing character and at several points, the story unfolds from her point of view. It sounds sappy, but Crais makes it work brilliantly.

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, one of those dopey books where dogs and cats think like human beings and are almost always smarter than most of the humans in the book. Maggie thinks like a dog, and she's totally believable; her role in the story requires not the slightest suspension of disbelief. She's one of the most unique and interesting characters to come along in crime fiction in a long time, and we can only hope that this won't be the last time we see her.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Terry Orr Faces Closing Time in New York City

Two years ago, writer Terry Orr was living a charmed life in Manhattan with his wife, Marina, a beautiful and accomplished artist, their young daughter and their infant son. And then in a heartbeat, all their lives were brutally shattered with the senseless murder of Marina and the baby by an insane man named Raymond Weisz.

Two years after the killings, Weisz remains at large. Frustrated by what he believes to be the incompetence and/or inattention of the police department, Terry abandons his career as a writer and becomes a private investigator. He's his own principal client and his obsession is to capture Weisz.

In the meantime, he has a twelve-year-old daughter to raise. The daughter, Bella, is an enormously attractive character, perhaps wise beyond her years and in some ways, perhaps even more mature than her own father. As an example, the two have been separately seeing the same therapist who is attempting to help them deal with their grief. Bella is open to the idea and seems to be making progress; her father not so much.

Happily, the success that Terry and Marina enjoyed in their respective professions has left Terry with enough money to pursue his investigation while at the same time placing Bella in an excellent school and hiring a housekeeper/cook/babysitter to help him raise her.

One evening, Bella convinces her father to take her to an opening at the gallery where her mother's paintings were exhibited. During the show, a bomb goes off, wounding the gallery owner who had represented Marina. Terry begins investigating the bombing and at the same time becomes virtually obsessed with the story of an African-American cab driver who was savagely murdered in a seedy part of town. When the police seem unwilling to devote much time to the crime, Terry takes on that investigation too.

This is a complex and very entertaining novel that works at several levels. It's interesting to watch Terry pursue his investigations, and it's even more fascinating to observe the relationship between him and his daughter. It's clear that he loves her very much, and yet he seems incapable of understanding the danger that his choices pose for Bella. The poor girl has already lost her mother and her brother; she has only her father left. And yet, as much as he loves her, Terry often places himself in considerable peril, risking the chance that Bella will lose him too.

All of the characters in the book, even the minor ones, are very deftly drawn, and Mr. Fusilli, who is himself the pop and rock music critic for the Wall Street Journal has included in the cast a very entertaining music critic.

One of the best things about the novel is the way in which Fusilli has described the city of New York. Interestingly, this book was first published the day before the attacks of 9/11, and in his hands, the city comes brilliantly to life in all its glory and despair. It's obvious that Fusilli knows the city inside and out, and the reader feels like he or she is walking the streets right along side Terry Orr--not always the most comfortable feeling when he's picking his way through abandoned buildings in the dead of night.

For some reason, this novel is apparently not yet available as an e-book, but print copies are still readily available, and anyone looking for an entertaining and thought-provoking read would do him or herself a very great favor by seeking it out.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hector Diaz Attempts to Solve a Death in Mexico

Amanda Smallwood is a young, attractive and sensuous artists' model who leaves her home in Texas and eventually winds up in San Miguel de Allende, a backwater Mexican town that seems to attract a lot of foreign artists and drifters. She settles into the community, posing for a number of artists, sleeping around here and there, and developing a number of friends, acquaintances and lovers.

When Amanda's mutilated body is discovered just off the town square late one night, the job of tracking down her killer falls to the local police inspector, Hector Diaz. Diaz immediately understands that he will be under the gun to solve the murder ASAP. If the victim were a fellow Mexican, there would be much less pressure, but the brutal killing of an attractive American woman will be very bad for the tourist business which is central to the town's economy. To reinforce the point, the mayor is on the phone demanding a quick solution to the crime barely minutes after Diaz learns of it.

Such a solution will be difficult. Diaz must penetrate the American expat community to learn who Amanda Smallwood was, what she might have been up to, and who might have wanted to kill her. Was it simply a jealous lover? Was it a would-be lover that she had rejected? Could it have been a drifter or a serial killer who was simply passing through, or could it have been something much more sinister?

Diaz is determined to solve the crime, but his small police force is not very well trained or disciplined and most of the officers will not be of much help. For that matter, Diaz himself occasionally gets distracted by the promise of a drink or an attractive woman.

This is a very gritty, hard-boiled story that pulls very few punches. The reader is forced to get down and dirty with Diaz and a lot of other rather sleazy characters, and the end result is a lot of fun for readers like me who enjoy this sort of thing.

I confess to having two relatively minor complaints about the book: Hector Diaz is an intriguing protagonist and I liked him a lot. But he's also one of those characters who drinks his way through the book to a point where the reader can no longer suspend disbelief. The truth is that anyone who drinks as much as this character would be down for the count on any given day, long before he was able to do anything productive, let alone solve a complicated crime.

My other complaint has to do with the author's abuse of similes. Raymond Chandler was the master of this particular art form and while a lot of writers have attempted to imitate him, very few have managed to pull it off as well as he did. Woods is trying way too hard here and after a while some of his efforts just seem silly. At one point our intrepid hero comes under a hail of gunfire, and "too young to die, he hugged the earth like a lusty whore."

I have no idea how any whore, lusty or otherwise, might hug the earth, but by this point my patience with this sort of thing was really wearing thin. As I say, though, these are minor issues. On the whole, I really enjoyed the book and I expect that most other hard-boiled readers will as well.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Puzzling Case for the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

When two men turn up dead in a sleazy apartment, one shot and the other stabbed, detectives Brown and Carella conclude that the man who lived in the apartment surprised a burglar and killed him, but not before the burglar was able to inflict a fatal blow on the tenant. It seems like an open-and-shut case until the detectives discover that one of the men is holding a small piece torn from a photograph. What could that be all about?

Shortly thereafter, an insurance investigator shows up in the squad room and says that the two victims were loosely tied to a bank robbery several years earlier. $750,000 was taken and is still missing. The investigator's company had to pay off the claim and the investigator is still on the hunt.

It turns out that most of the men who committed the robbery are dead, but when they hid the loot, they took a photograph of the location. They then tore the picture into pieces and distributed them to trusted acquaintances as an insurance policy. The detectives now have one of the eight pieces of the photo; the investigator has leads on a couple of others and suggests they cooperate in finding the others and recovering the stolen money.

Well one thing leads to another, as it almost always does, but a clever killer seems to be one step ahead of Carella and the other detectives. Will they be able to recover the missing pieces of the picture, and how many people will die before they can?

This is a fairly typical 87th Precinct novel; it's relatively short and a good way to lose an evening. The series has now progressed to 1970; the sexual revolution is in the air, and not all of the detectives are comfortable with the fact. This makes for some amusing moments is what is, all in all, another entertaining entry in the series.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Return of P.I. Jack Till

Catherine Hamilton is an extremely attractive young woman who's making a very good living as "Tamera Sanders," an upscale L.A. escort. But when Catherine/Tamera turns up shot to death in her apartment, the police conduct a fairly cursory investigation before concluding that the young woman's death was simply one of the occupational hazards of her chosen career and that they'll never be able to find the killer.

Perhaps understandably, Catherine's parents are not willing to give up so easily. Naturally, they're shocked to discover how their daughter was earning a living, but they loved her nonetheless and will not rest until her killer is brought to justice.

The Hamiltons turn to Jack Till who's retired from the LAPD after a distinguished career as a homicide detective. He's now a P.I. who works mainly on civil cases. But someone refers the grieving parents to him and he reluctantly agrees to take the case, in part because he has a daughter himself who is about the age of Catherine Hamilton.

As he digs into the case, Jack realizes that Catherine was only the latest victim of a serial killer who has targeted escorts in several other cities and killed them in exactly the same way. The women are all eerily similar in appearance--all strawberry blondes with very pale skin--and each was shot to death in her home.

Jack determines that the only way to catch the killer is to find his next potential victim. Thus he begins a long and tedious Internet search, looking for an escort in a major city who fits the profile. The principal thing working in his favor is the fact that several of the victims were each wearing the same piece of very distinctive jewelry in the pictures that they posted on line--apparently a gift from the man who would eventually kill them.

Jack soon realizes that he's on the trail of a very clever killer who may be much more than the average run-of-the-mill psycho who gets his kicks by murdering hookers. The story is ultimately told in alternating points of view between Jack and the killer, and it makes for a very gripping and entertaining tale.

Jack Till is an especially interesting protagonist. In addition to being a talented investigator, he's also the divorced father of a daughter with Down's Syndrome. The daughter, Holly, is also an interesting character and the scenes between father and daughter are very well done.

Thomas Perry is well known as a gifted writer and has previously created two great series characters in the Butcher's Boy and Jane Whitefield. One hopes this won't be the last we see of Jack Till.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Matthew Scudder Wanders into the Midst of Death

This is the third book in Lawrence Block's excellent Matthew Scudder series. For those who may not know, Scudder is a former cop who now works as an unlicensed private detective, doing "favors" for people who show their appreciation by giving him money. Scudder, who has more than his share of demons, lives alone in a tiny hotel room in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. He spends most of his time in saloons and has a drinking problem that is obviously getting worse as the series progresses.

In this case, Scudder is asked to work on behalf of a cop named Jerry Boradfield. Broadfield makes no secret of the fact that he's a bent cop, and he practically flaunts the money he's taking as a result. But suddenly, for reasons that no one can imagine, Broadfield is cooperating with an investigation of police corruption. As a consequence, he's made a lot of enemies in the police department, and very few cops are unhappy when an expensive hooker emerges, claiming that Broadbent, a married man, is not only extorting her for sex but for money as well.

Broadfield claims that the charge is untrue and is an attempt to smear him and discredit him with the anti-corruption committee. He wants Scudder to investigate and knock down the charges. The situation escalates dramatically, though, when the hooker turns up dead in Broadfield's hideaway apartment and he gets charged with the murder. The cops are happy to see him jammed up and they're not about to investigate any further.

Scudder will, even though he's not at all fond of Broadfield. What follows is an very good story in which Matt does what he's best at--walking around the city of New York, talking to people, sorting out their stories, and otherwise doing the grunt work that will make the case. He's an extremely compelling character and it's great fun to watch him wander the city, which is, as always, a major part of the story in its own right.

This is a very solid piece of work that holds up amazingly well, even though it's now nearly forty years old, and it's a sure bet that it will still be entertaining crime fiction fans forty years from now and beyond.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ed Darnell Has Serious Problems in This Noir Story from the 1950s

First published in 1956, and written by Wade Miller, the pseudonym of the writing team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller, this is a noir story of a man trapped by circumstances beyond his control, but with a twist.

As the book opens we meet a twenty-eight year-old Ed Darnell who's on the road with a very sexy eighteen-year-old girl named Emily. Clearly, they're on the run from something, but we don't know what. At a stop at a gas station, Ed's temper flares when the pump jockey pays what Ed deems to be too much attention to Emily. He's mad both at the attendant for leering and at Emily for posing in what Ed deems to be a seductive fashion.

Shortly thereafter, Ed and Emily check into a ratty motel in a small town named Jimmock, not far from Bakersfield, California, and when the fat slob of a motel owner gives Ed a knowing glance, Ed insists that he and Emily are brother and sister. The motel guy says it's no skin off his nose and so Ed pulls out the birth certificates to prove it. Once in the room, he sets up the wooden screen that he always carries with them to divide his twin bed from Emily's.

It turns out that they really are brother and sister and that their parents are both dead. Emily, sadly, is mentally challenged--an eighteen-year-old woman with the body of a sex kitten and the mind of an unsophisticated twelve-year-old. Emily is innocent and out-going and the boys are naturally crazy about her. But then whenever one of them makes a move on her, Emily acts out in a way that puts her and her brother on the run again.

It seems like a never-ending cycle. Ed loves his sister but has no idea how to handle these situations, except to hit the road. Now, in Jimmock, he senses a chance for them to put down roots, but can this really be possible?

This is not a crime novel in any traditional sense, but it is an interesting story and one really feels for the dilemma in which Ed finds himself. He has essentially sacrificed his own life so that he can care for his sister, but the obstacles in his path seem overwhelming. The book has been reprinted by Stark House press in a volume along with another Miller book, Kitten With A Whip, and fans of this genre might want to seek out this edition.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Another Great Read from Megan Abbott

On the heels of her excellent last novel, Dare Me, Megan Abbott again plunges into the mysterious and often troubled world of teenage girls, where even the smallest of incidents can assume a monumental importance.

At the heart of the novel are three high school girls and best friends, Deenie, Lise and Gabby. As the novel opens, Deenie watches in horror as Lise suffers a mysterious seizure while in class one morning. Lise is immediately hospitalized and falls into a coma, but no one, including the medical professionals, can figure out what's happened to her.

In fairly short order, other girls at the school begin to exhibit bizarre symptoms that also go unexplained, and what follows is a panic that spreads from Lise's friends through their school and ultimately through their entire community. In the age of the Internet, YouTube, and the 24/7 cable "news" cycle, all sorts of theories inevitably abound and none of them seems too looney to receive consideration.

Have the girls been affected by some toxic poison that's lurking in their school? Was their illness caused by the foul but beautiful lake nearby? Perhaps it resulted from the HPV vaccination that the school required the girls to receive.

The story unfolds principally through the eyes of Deenie, her hunky hockey-playing brother, Eli, and their divorced father, Tom, who is a teacher at Deenie and Eli's high school. All of the characters in the book, but especially these three, are finely drawn. In the hands of many another author, the father, Tom, would be totally clueless, but Abbott portrays him as an intelligent, complex man who cares deeply about the children he is raising alone. He worries about his skills at a parent and he's terrified at the thought that soon he will have to send his daughter out into a larger and sometimes dangerous world.

The brother, Eli, is also very well done--not at all the stereotypical high school jock that one might expect. He's a three-dimensional character who's very interesting and sympathetic in his own right.

This book is very loosely based on the Salem, Massachusetts witch scare that began in 1692, and Abbott creates a vivid, scary and ultimately very believable story of a community in panic. It's a great read and upon finishing it, one is struck by the thought that, as a society, maybe we're not as far removed from the Seventeenth Century as we'd like to think.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jack Reacher Is Suddenly Back in the Army

While traveling through South Dakota in 61 Hours, ex-military cop Jack Reacher had occasion to call in to his old office in Washington, D.C, the headquarters of the 110th MP. Reacher once commanded the unit but it now belongs to Major Susan Turner. Reacher decided that Turner had a very nice voice and, on the strength of that impression, he has slowly been making his way in the direction of D.C. in the hope that she will go out to dinner with him.

As this book opens, he finally arrives only to discover that Turner has just been arrested. His old unit is now under the command of an acting head named Morgan. Morgan not only tells Reacher that Turner is in the slammer but that Reacher himself is being charged with two relatively ancient crimes. Reacher claims to be totally innocent and to have little or no memory of either alleged incident. Nonetheless, the acting commander invokes some arcane regulation and informs Reacher that he is now back in the army and under Morgan's command, at least until the charges are cleared up. Morgan orders Reacher to go to a motel and to then report for duty first thing in the morning.

At this point, neither Reacher nor the reader has the slightest idea what in the hell might be going on, but obviously something very unseemly is in the works. Reacher is determined to discover what it might be and so dutifully checks into the motel as ordered.

As soon as he does two musclemen, clearly military me out of uniform, arrive at the motel and tell Reacher to get out of town, promising that no one will come looking for him if he does, and that they will beat the crap out of him if he refuses to do so.

Well, of course, no one threatens to beat the crap out of Jack Reacher, let alone actually do it, and before long the two musclemen are lying comatose next to their car which now has two new dents in the sheet metal from where Reacher has introduced their heads to the side of their ride. The next morning, Reacher gets up and reports to the unit as ordered, which is going to be very bad news for the people who are screwing with him.

It wouldn't be fair to say any more; needless to say the story proceeds as long-time Reacher fans will expect. The conspiracy at hand is deep and complex and, as always, Reacher will have to kick the crap out of any number of people who continue to underestimate him in spite of his size. (He is, of course, considerably larger and more intimidating than Tom Cruise.)

This is one of the better entries in this long-running series and would make a great summer read--or any other season, for that matter. This particular edition also includes an entertaining Reacher short story called "High Heat," which features a very mature sixteen-year-old Jack Reacher.