Sunday, October 26, 2014

Down the Mean Streets of the Neon Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Another Excellent Novel from the Author of "Pike"

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Something's Smelling Rotten in Flowertown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Fitting Conclusion to a Great Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cooper MacLeish Discovers that Fear Will Do It

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

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

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

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

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