Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Excellent Debut Novel Set in the Louisiana Bayou

The denizens of Jeanette, a dying community in the Louisiana bayou, have never really recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And then, as they are struggling to get back on their feet, they are walloped again by the disaster that flows to their shores in the wake of the BP oil spill. Many of the citizens of the tiny community barely eek out a hard scrabble living as shrimpers and as the oil fouls the waters for miles around, the already beleaguered shrimping industry is dealt a devastating blow.

But these are not the sort of people who will bow to the fates and give up easily. Fiercely proud and independent, they struggle on in a variety of ways, both legal and illegal, to preserve the way of life they've known for generations. The cast of characters includes a teenage boy named Wes Trench who has been estranged from his father since his mother was lost in Katrina. Wes and his father barely communicate any more, but tradition and the circumstances of fate decree that the two must continue to work side-by-side on the father's shrimp boat, falling further and further behind both emotionally and financially.

Meanwhile, a one-armed, pill-popping treasure hunter named Lindquist, when not working his own shrimp boat, pores over maps and spends countless hours roaming the bayous with his metal detector, searching for the long-lost pirate treasure that he's certain will allow him to finally fulfill his dreams. The cast also includes a pair of seriously twisted twins who are farming high grade marijuana on an island that they guard against all comers and a couple of small-time crooks on the lookout for an easy dollar.

Throw in a smarmy oil company representative who's trying to buy off for a pittance those who were harmed by the oil spill, including even his own mother, mix thoroughly, and the result is a great read that is at times hilariously funny and at others heart-breakingly sad.

Tom Cooper has gathered together a great cast of characters and set them loose in a perfectly rendered setting. He obviously knows the people and the landscape of this region very well; he writes beautifully and the story moves along at exactly the right pace. This is a wonderful debut novel that evokes echoes of writers like Carl Hiassen, Elmore Leonard and Daniel Woodrell, and I'm already looking forward to Cooper's next book.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What the Bell Boy Saw

Dusty Rhodes is one seriously screwed-up dude. Of course when this book was first published in 1954, no one would have thought to call him a "dude," but no one would have disputed the fact that he was a young man with some pretty nasty problems--in other words, just the sort of protagonist that you'd expect to find in a novel by Jim Thompson.

Dusty has a little bit of college behind him--how much is not exactly clear--and he had once hoped to go to medical school. But he had to drop out of school after his mother died and his father lost his job at the local high school. This is back in the days of the Red Scare, and the local crusaders have accused the elder Mr. Rhodes of signing a petition upholding the right of free speech in America. And back in that day and age, such an accusation was more than enough to get one fired from a position of such responsibility, at least in a small conservative town in Texas where the story is apparently set.

Dusty thus takes a job as the night bell boy at the Manton Hotel. He could have chosen another job at the hotel, but figuring the tips involved, this is the one that pays the most money and Dusty needs all he can get now that he's the sole support of both himself and his father who, in addition to being unemployed, is also in failing health.

Dusty is a very attractive young man, but he's only ever loved one woman and that relationship turned out very badly. He's convinced that there will never be another woman in his life but then, early one morning, Marcia Hillis checks into the hotel. She's the most beautiful woman Dusty has ever seen and he concludes fairly quickly that she is now the only woman in whom he will ever be interested again.

The Manton is a high class hotel, and they have very strict rules about bell boys fraternizing with the female guests. Up to this point, Dusty has never been tempted to chance breaking the rule, but he might make an exception in this case, especially after the delectable Ms. Hillis indicates an interest in him.

Also residing in the hotel is a small-time gangster named Tug Trowbridge. Trowbridge befriends Dusty and tips him handsomely, and any well-seasoned crime fiction reader understands that the combination of the arrival of Marcia Hillis along with the friendship of Tug Trowbridge is bound to mean trouble for poor Dusty. Dusty ultimately realizes it too, but not before he takes that fatal first step down the wrong path that always spells doom for the poor mope who finds himself the main character in a noir novel.

This book is not the equal of some of Thompson's better-known work like Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, but it's a lot of fun nonetheless. Watching poor Dusty unravel is as gripping as watching the evil schemes that some of the characters have plotted unfold, and to no one's great surprise, before long Dusty Rhodes may well rue the day he ever encountered a swell-looking babe like Marcia Hillis.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Intriducing the Butcher's Boy

The Butcher's Boy is an extremely clever and talented professional hit man. He takes a contract to eliminate the officer of a union and a United States senator because both of them are suspicious about the activities of a shady investment firm headquartered in Las Vegas. He cleverly pulls off both jobs in a way that makes one death look like an accident and the other like natural causes.

But the deaths do not escape the notice of Elizabeth Waring who is a smart young analyst in the Justice Department. Elizabeth is studying unusual deaths, looking for a pattern that would suggest the involvement of professional killers, and she sees something that attracts her attention in the death of the union officer.

Although she is an analyst and not a field agent, Elizabeth and her boss are sent out to southern California to take a closer look at the death of the union man. Then, when the senator turns up dead in a hotel room in Denver, they are sent to Colorado to assist in that investigation.

Meanwhile, the Butcher's Boy is headed to Las Vegas to collect the payment due for the services he has rendered. But he runs into unexpected problems, and it soon appears that the men who hired him would rather kill him than pay him.

Big mistake.

As the story plays out, we watch as the Butcher's Boy attempts to save both his life and his professional reputation, while Elizabeth sorts through her data, hoping to get a line on the elusive killer. Watching both of them at work is a lot of fun, and Perry is very inventive and creative in the way that developments unfold and in the way in which the two characters, the Butcher's Boy in particular, react and adjust on the fly.

When it first appeared in 1982, this novel won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and deservedly so. It was the first book in what has become a three-book series and was followed by Sleeping Dogs in 1992, and The Informant in 2011. The series thus spans a period of thirty years even though there are only three installments. The Butcher's Boy now reads almost like an historical novel and it's fun watching the character do all kinds of things that one could never get away with in 2015. As an example, just before a flight is to leave the airport, he is still able to race to the ticket counter, pay cash for a ticket using any name he wants, and then race immediately to the plane and board, and no one blinks an eye.

Other such examples abound, and by the time he gets to 2011, the Butcher's Boy is going to have to change his game significantly. But his debut is still a gripping story and great fun to read--a wonderful start to an excellent series and to a very successful career for Thomas Perry, who is perhaps best known as the author of the extremely popular Jane Whitefield series.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Another Great Read from Dennis Lehane

This is a very engaging novel that follows the life of a bartender named Bob Saginowski. Bob has very few friends; he lives alone in the house where he was raised and he still regularly attends church at St. Dominic's, the Catholic church where he's been going all his life, and which is now slowly dying on the vine. But Bob never takes communion.

He works at a bar called Cousin Marv's, which was once owned by Bob's real cousin, Marv. But several years ago, Marv lost to bar to a bunch of Chechen gangsters and it is now a "drop," or a spot through which the gangsters funnel money. Marv supervises the bar, but he's about as disillusioned as Bob is lonely.

One night on his way home, Bob stumbles across a puppy that's been badly beaten and stuffed into a trash can. Bob knows nothing about dogs, but rescues the puppy and almost immediately bonds with him. That in turn leads him to connect with a mysterious woman named Nadia who once worked at an animal shelter and who schools Bob in how to care for the dog.

Bob's world is then upset again when a couple of stick-up artists rob him and Cousin Marv, getting away with the five thousand dollars they still had in the bar at the end of the night. Fortunately, the Chechens had stopped by earlier and picked up the large sum of money that had been "dropped" there that night, but still, this is not the sort of thing that will endear either Bob or Cousin Marv to their gangster overlords.

From that point, we watch the characters, Bob in particular, play out the hands that the fates have dealt them. The story is set in Boston, which Dennis Lehane obviously knows very well; the characters are very well drawn, and it's great fun watching the story unfold. This is, in effect, the novelization of a film for which Lehane wrote the screenplay which, in turn, was based on a short story that he had written. Lehane's work usually translates very well to the screen, as exhibited by the Academy Award-winning "Mystic River," and I'm anxious to see this one as soon as I get the chance.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Charlie Hood: The Final Chapter

I yield to no one in my admiration of T. Jefferson Parker, and his Edgar Award-winning novel, Silent Joe ranks high on the list of my ten favorite books of all time. I also very much enjoyed the first three books in this series, but the series began to slip off the rails for me with the introduction of the character Mike Finnegan in the third book, Iron River.

It gives nothing away (at least nothing that hasn't been given away in the teases on the book covers) to say that Finnegan seemed to possess mysterious knowledge and powers that bordered on the supernatural. The issue of whether he did or not was left unresolved in that book, but the fourth and fifth books left it clear that Finnegan was, in fact, some sort of supernatural being, and the series protagonist, Charlie Hood became increasingly obsessed with the notion of tracking down Finnegan and somehow bringing him to heel.

Still, there was the faint chance that in this, this sixth and concluding volume of the series, Parker would finally provide some explanation for Finnegan's actions that would seem rational, logical and ultimately human after all. But that was not to be the case. Instead, we have Finnegan, who actually is a devil and who has lived on earth for generations spreading his mischief, in conflict not only with Charlie Hood and other human beings but with at least one angel and a number of other devils as well.

On a more temporal level, Charlie Hood, an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy, is still on loan to the ATF, stationed on the southern border in California, attempting to staunch the flow of guns from the U.S. into Mexico. Three corrupt cops from Missouri show up on the border attempting to sell machine guns and rocket launchers to the highest bidder. Hood goes undercover in an effort to trap the men and learn the source of their weapons.

Meanwhile, Bradley Jones, the corrupt son of the late Suzanne Jones, continues to work as a Sheriff's deputy while at the same time he's still in the employ of a notorious Mexican drug lord named Carlos Herredia. Bradley is also trying to work his way back into the good graces of his pregnant wife Erin, from whom he was estranged in the last book in the series. Meanwhile, the devil, Mike Finnegan, attempts to seduce and further corrupt Bradley and to make as much trouble for Charlie Hood as he possibly can. Charlie will not rest until he has tamed the menace that Finnegan represents.

Parker is a very graceful writer, and I really like the character of Charlie Hood. The story of Hood and other law enforcement officers struggling to stem the flow of weapons along the so-called Iron River is a timely and compelling one, and Charlie's tortured relationship with Bradley Jones is gripping. But I confess that I was totally unable to buy into the occult and supernatural aspects of this story.

I like my crime fiction to be logical and rational, even though at times it may require a significant suspension of disbelief. I can't buy into vampire detectives, dogs and cats solving mysteries and all that sort of thing. And as much as I admire T. Jefferson Parker, I just couldn't follow him down this path. This is still, overall, an excellent series, but to my mind it would have been even better without the introduction of the angels and demons.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lucas Davenport Goes to the Republican National Convention

It's the summer of 2008, and the Republicans have selected Minneapolis as the host city of the convention where they will nominate John McCain for the presidency. Inevitably, the convention will bring to the Twin Cities, in addition to all the politicians, a gaggle of protestors, potential assassins and terrorists, street people, con artists, grifters and other assorted crooks. The cops will have their hands full, as will Lucas Davenport's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Slipping into town amidst the lesser criminal talents is a high-powered gang of robbers headed by Rosie Cruz and Brutus Cohn. They have several targets mapped out, including a number of political operatives who will be sitting in their luxury hotel rooms with suitcases full of cash--in each case, over a million bucks. This is dirty money that will be passed out in blocks of untraceable cash to be used for paying street expenses during the campaign. The men with the money are sitting ducks and the best part is that, once the crew has ripped them off, they can't even report the crime because what they're doing is illegal.

Davenport, though, is alerted to the presence of the crew in town and begins the process of trying to track them down. But it won't be easy, especially in the general chaos that surrounds the convention, and when bodies start falling unexpectedly, the task becomes all that more urgent.

And, as if Davenport weren't busy enough, an old nemesis and Davenport's young ward, Letty, combine to cause even more trouble. Some years earlier, a small-time pimp named Randy Whitcomb, disfigured one of Davenport's snitches, who was a hooker in Whitcomb's stable. In retaliation, Davenport beat Whitcomb within an inch of his life and for that Davenport was forced to leave the Minneapolis PD, at least temporarily. Later, Whitcomb was shot and paralyzed by another police officer, but Davenport was on the scene for that development as well, and Whitcomb has been seething with rage ever since.

Now confined to a wheelchair and attended to by his one remaining hooker and a drug-addled sidekick, Whitcomb decides to take his revenge on Davenport by attacking Letty. Letty, who is now fourteen going on thirty-seven, trips to the plan. She's afraid that if she tells her father, Lucas will go ape-shit and kill Whitcomb, something that she thinks would not be good either for Lucas or for herself. She thus decides to handle the Whitcomb problem on her own.

All of this makes for a hugely entertaining book that's at times both terrifying and hilarious. Sandford is the master of mixing these elements, and as usual, the characters and dialog are great; the plot rolls along at a rapid clip, and you can't put the damned thing down. Another great entry in an outstanding series.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

From Tom Kakonis, A Trio of Characters Who Are Anything But Flawless

Sometime back in the late 1990s, I stumbled across Tom Kakonis's great three-book series featuring professional gambler Timothy Waverly, whose business card billed him as an "Applied Probabilities Analyst." Waverly was a unique and very interesting protagonist; the plots were intriguing with a lot of action and just enough droll humor to remind the reader of Kakonis's fellow Michigan author, Elmore Leonard.

I devoured the Waverly trilogy and then found Criss Cross, an equally entertaining standalone from 1990. And then, much to my dismay, I discovered that Kakonis had apparently retired after the last Waverly novel and had not written anything else. I was very pleased to learn then, a number of months ago, that the folks at Brash Books were re-releasing Kakonis's four novels in beautiful new trade paperback editions. Even better, they were also publishing a new Kakonis book, Treasure Coast, which I read as soon as I could get my hands on a copy and which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

It now turns out that Kakonis did, in fact, write two additional novels in the mid-1990s, that were published under the pseudonym, Adam Barrow. Happily, Brash books is republishing these title too, now under Mr. Kakonis's name. The first of the two, which was first published in 1995, is Flawless.

This is a very intriguing tale that focuses principally on three major characters who are anything but flawless. The first is Michael Woodrow, whose appearance, at least, might well be described as flawless. Michael is a young corporate consultant who specializes in healing ailing companies, mainly by axing large numbers of their employees. To say that he's a bit tightly wound would be a gross understatement. He excels at his job, is unmarried and appears to have little interest in women. The problem is that he's enormously attractive to women, especially to a certain kind of woman--ripe, early forties, married and who likes to play around. Once in a very great while, Michael will allow such a woman to pick him up and take him home. But the evening always turns out very badly for the lady involved.

The second principal character is Michael's father, Norman. Once a professor of English literature, Norman is fresh out of prison and now lives with Michael in Michael's condominium near Chicago. As a practical matter, Norman lives there alone, given that Michael is always on the road and often is not home for weeks at a time. Unemployed and on his own, Norman is driven by an inner muse to set down on paper the circumstances of his life, focusing on the events that led to his imprisonment. He spends his days smoking up a storm while staring at a blank page and waiting for inspiration to strike.

Finally, there's Victor Flam, a somewhat seedy, mid-forties private investigator from Palm Beach Florida, who is hired by a wealthy woman named Mrs. Roland Swales. Her daughter, Shelley, was savagely murdered and the police have had no luck in turning up a suspect. Flam takes the case and begins digging into Shelley's life. He too finds little to go on, and none of Shelley's friends or co-workers is able to be of help.

Flam notices that the one thing out of the ordinary that appeared to be going on in the victim's life at the time of her death was the fact that Michael Woodrow's consulting firm had a team working at the place where Shelley was employed. Hoping that one of the team members might have noticed something that no one else did, Flam begins tracking them down.

In the meantime, Norman Woodrow is working on his narrative one morning when he's interrupted by a knock on the door. He opens the door to find the new next-door neighbor, Lizabeth Seaver. The attractive young woman is a school teacher, newly arrived in town, and is just moving into her condo. She's having a problem with her hot water heater and has no phone yet with which to call a repairman.

Norman, normally a solitary soul, is somehow taken with the young woman and agrees to take a look at the problem. The pilot light has died, gas is leaking, and oblivious to the danger, Lizabeth attempts to illuminate the situation by snapping her lighter. Norman snuffs out the flame with his palm, saving both of their lives, and the two begin a curious friendship.

Kakonis sets these characters into motion and the end result is a very unusual and interesting crime novel. I found it riveting and loved watching the way the characters interacted and the way the plot moved toward its surprising conclusion. For most readers, I suspect, the book will rise or fall principally with the character of Norman Woodrow. Norman speaks and writes like the professor of English literature he once was, often to the confusion of the other characters, and he gets a lot of page time, particularly as he reconstructs the story of his life. Personally, I found the character fascinating and totally unique. I was a long time finally getting to this book, but it was well worth the wait.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Steve Carella Tries to Determine Who Killed the Calypso King

George Chadderton is a musician who bills himself as the "Calypso King." Late one rainy September night, he leaves a gig with his manager and as the two are walking down the street someone comes up from behind them and shoots George to death. The killer also wounds George's manager in the shoulder. The manager falls to the ground and the killer stands over him and fires directly at his head. But the gun is empty and the killer is forced to flee, leaving the manager still alive.

A few hours later, it's still pouring rain, and a hooker who's looking for one last trick is shot to death with the same gun that killed Chadderton. Chadderton's murder took place in Isola's 87th Precinct and the case falls to veteran detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer. They wake up the newly-widowed Mrs. Chadderton to give her the bad news while surreptitiously checking to see if she might have been the shooter herself. (They don't yet know that there is a second victim because the hooker was killed in another precinct and it will take a while before anyone realizes that the ballistics match.)

Mrs. Chadderton is a very attractive woman who works at a topless club. She appears to be devastated by her husband's death and has no idea who might have wanted to kill him. Sadly, there appear to be no leads at all, and in investigating the victim's background, the detectives discover nothing of interest save for the fact that Chadderton's brother, Santo, seems to have disappeared into thin air seven years earlier.

That's neither here nor there, and the case presents one of the toughest challenges to confront Carella and friends in any of the first thirty-three books in this series. This is also one of the best books in the series, and it first appeared in 1979. By then, McBain had really hit his stride and this is one that any fan of the series will not want to miss.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Saga of Charlie Hood Continues

This is the fifth out of six books in T. Jefferson Parker's series featuring Charlie Hood, an L. A. County Sheriff's deputy, and the deeper one gets into the series the more difficult the books are to review, at least for me. I find that this one is virtually impossible to discuss without giving away critical information that might spoil the earlier books for people who haven't read them yet.

What differentiates this series from most others is that the six books in the series constitute a single long narrative that has been divided into six separate volumes. In most other series you have a continuing series character, usually with a small supporting cast, but the stories themselves are almost always discrete. If you're reading John Sandford's Lucas Davenport series, for example, you know going in that there are now twenty-three books in the series and so, obviously, Lucas must have survived whatever challenges and dangers he might have faced in the first twenty-two. But you know nothing of the fate of the rest of the characters.

Since there are six books in the Charlie Hood series, the reader understands that Hood has somehow survived the first five. But the problem one faces when attempting to review any of the later books in the series is that you inevitably have to refer to other characters who have also survived the earlier books when they well might not have. And this, I think, is bound to spoil the tension is some of the earlier books for readers who haven't gotten to them yet. I would argue that the tease on the book's jacket does exactly that as well.

And so, attempting to be as circumspect as possible, I will simply note that for a while now, Charlie Hood has been on loan to an ATF task force that is attempting to staunch the flow of guns and other weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. This has brought Charlie and other characters into direct conflict with the drug lords that run Mexico's infamous cartels.

In this case, one of those drug lords kidnaps someone close to Hood and demands that a million dollars in ransom be delivered deep into Mexico. The clock is ticking and if the money is not delivered on time, the victim will be skinned alive. Charlie assumes the task of delivering the money, even though he has a history with the drug lord in question that is almost certain to put Charlie in grave danger. And that's all I'm comfortable in saying about the plot even though, as I said above, the publisher apparently feels comfortable in giving away quite a bit more.

I've really enjoyed this series from the beginning, but this book was something of a disappointment by comparison especially to the first and second books. Beginning in the third book, Parker introduced a non-conventional character and since that time, I don't think that the books have worked as well. I find that I'm increasingly unable to suspend disbelief to the extent that the later books have required, and so I haven't enjoyed them quite as much. Parker is a very gifted writer and it's still a lot of fun to read his prose, but I wish it were in service of a plot that I could buy into more easily.

I'm looking forward very much to Famous and the Dead, The, which is the last book in the series, and I hope that it returns the series to the very high note on which it opened.

One last note: As anyone who reads my reviews knows, I am constantly urging people to read a series in order. I would only add that it is absolutely essential in this case. A reader who begins in the middle of the series will have a great deal of difficulty really appreciating the complexity of the story and will cheat him or herself out of enjoying this long and involved story to the fullest extent.