Monday, April 27, 2015

In the Dead of Winter, Citizens of Isola Are Getting Iced

This is another very good entry in the 87th Precinct series. The title has multiple meanings and, as it would suggest, the story takes place during a brutally cold winter. As it opens, a dancer from a big show is walking home late at night. As she nears her apartment, someone steps out of the shadows and shoots her to death with a .38.

As it turns out, the same gun was used in the murder of a small-time drug dealer a week or so earlier. That case belongs to Steve Carella of the 87th Precinct, and since the two cases are obviously linked, the detectives of the 87th inherit the murder of the young woman as well, even though the crime did not occur within the boundaries of their precinct.

The detectives work diligently, but they can find no link between the two victims and no plausible suspects in either killing. Then another person is shot with the same gun and this victim would appear to have no relationship with either of the first two. It's all very confusing and suggests to the detectives that perhaps a crazy person is running around the city, killing people at random, which would be the worst possible thing that could happen.

In the meantime, Detective Bert Kling is still recovering from his recent divorce. He is definitely in emotional and psychological difficulty and is spending way too much time in the wee hours of the morning, lying awake and staring at his gun on the nightstand beside him.

All in all, it's a great tale. Thirty-six books into the series, McBain was clearly on a roll and fans of the series won't want to miss this one.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Great Debut Novel from David Joy

This is a fantastic debut novel, beautifully written with great characters and a wonderful sense of place. Set in the rural area of Cashiers, North Carolina, the protagonist is eighteen-year-old Jacob McNeely, whom we meet one night as he climbs the town's water tower to look down on the high school parking lot as his former classmates leave the building from their graduation ceremony. In particular, Jacob is searching for Maggie, the girl he loves and whose heart he broke two years earlier.

Jacob is not graduating with his class because he left school the first moment he could to join his father in the family meth business. Jacob's father is the kingpin of the local meth industry. He launders his cash through his auto body shop and pays off the cops to look the other way. In truth, Jacob comes from a long line of outlaws and he knew at an early age that he destiny was predetermined. He's been assisting his father for a good many years already, and even if he had higher aspirations, he understands that he hasn't a prayer of achieving them.

Jacob's mother lives alone in a cabin in the woods, surrounded by Jack Pines, having long ago become addicted to her husband's product line. Jacob laments that "I wasn't old enough to remember the day Daddy sent her there. The way he told it, she was stealing crank and spent most of her time climbing around the peter tree. So he sent her to this place. Loved her too much to give her nothing, but giving her anything at all squared things so he'd never have to love her again."

While Jacob knows he'll never escape from Cashiers, he hopes that Maggie will. She's the brightest and most beautiful girl in town, and Jacob know that she's one of the few who has a chance to escape, go to college and make a real future for herself. Accordingly, though they had loved each other since they were children, he broke off the relationship two years earlier so that she would not feel trapped, bound to Cashiers through him. He still cares for her very much, though, and when he sees that the future he envisions for her might be threatened, he acts in a way to protect her, irrespective of the consequences for himself.

In the meantime, his relationship with his father becomes increasingly rocky. His father is a strict disciplinarian who expects Jacob to obey his orders without question. Jacob is not cut from the same cloth, however, and when problems arise in the meth business and things get increasingly violent, Jacob will have some hard decisions to make.

As I suggested above, this is a great read, easily on a par with the best of Daniel Woodrell's books, and I promise that anyone who enjoyed Winter's Bone, for example, is going to love this one. 4.5 stars for me, and I eagerly await David Joy's next book.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Lawyer Matthew Sardlake Attemps to Solve a Murder at the Monastary

Even though I read a lot of history, I've never been a fan of historical fiction and so when one of the book clubs to which I belong picked this novel as a monthly read, I approached it with some trepidation. For the most part, though, I was pleasantly surprised and I enjoyed the book more than I expected to.

Dissolution is set in England and the action takes place over a couple of extremely cold and snowy weeks in 1537. This is shortly after King Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic church and created the Church of England, with himself as the head of the church. At this point, of course, religious freedom is only a dim, distant dream, and all English people are required by law to follow Henry into the new Anglican church, whether they like it or not.

Many of them don't like it. They remain true to the Catholic church and continue to give their religious allegiance to the Pope. Many of these people will be persecuted for their beliefs and not a few will be executed. In many respects, these are not the sunniest of times.

Once establishing himself as head of the English church, Henry conveniently grants himself a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he can marry Ann Boleyn. The Pope had refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine and this precipitated the break between Henry and the Pope.

Henry also moves expeditiously to confiscate property in England that had belonged to the Catholic church. Most important, there were many Catholic monasteries in England that controlled vast amounts of valuable land. Henry began the process of dissolving the monasteries (the Dissolution) and appropriating their wealth. His principal ally in this effort was his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, who was much feared by Henry's opponents.

Cromwell sends a commissioner to begin the process of dissolving the monastery of Scarnsea on the southern coast of England, but shortly after arriving at Scarnsea the commissioner is murdered. Cromwell now sends one of his protégés, a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake to investigate the murder and to conclude the dissolution of the monastery.

Shardlake is a brilliant lawyer and is devoted to the reform of the church. He is also a hunchback who has always been self-conscious and socially ostracized to some extent because of his handicap. Shardlake is accompanied by a handsome young assistant named Mark Poer, and the two make their way through the snow to Scarnsea to find a tangled web of murder and intrigue along with financial and sexual irregularities. More murders will follow their arrival and it's clear that Shardlake and his young assistant are also in grave danger every moment that they remain in the monastery. The burning question is whether or not Matthew Shardlake can accomplish his mission before both he and Mark become victims themselves of the evil that seems to infuse Scarnsea.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the atmosphere that Sansom creates. He vividly recreates the turmoil of the period along with the sights, sounds and smells of the era. The reader feels the chill in his or her own bones as the characters struggle to stay warm in the middle of the freezing cold weather. This historical detail is engrossing and the story is a compelling one.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that about halfway through the book, the story started to drag a bit. Shardlake spends an awful lot of time wandering through the snow from one part of the monastery to another in order to interview people and it starts to get a bit repetitious. I found myself encouraging Shadlake to pick up the pace a bit. This is a book that runs 385 pages which, in my estimation, would have been much better at about 325 pages. But that is a relatively small complaint, and this is a book that should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to four.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Detective Steve Carella Turns Up the Heat in this Novel of the 87th Precinct

As the title suggests, this installment in the 87th Precinct series takes place during a stifling heat wave that simply will not let up. The heat and humidity are torturing everyone as are the problems, both professional and personal, confronting the Precinct's detectives.

As the book opens, detectives Steve Carella and Bert Kling are called to a death scene. A woman has arrived home from a week-long trip to London to discover the body of her husband decomposing on the floor of their apartment. The air conditioner in the apartment has been turned off and the temperature inside the apartment is 109 degrees. The guy has been dead for some time and so, needless to say, things are a bit ripe.

The dead man was an alcoholic and not a very nice person generally. There are no signs of violence and twenty-nine Seconal tablets are missing from the medicine cabinet. It appears that the man has committed suicide, but the law requires that the death be investigated as a possible homicide until officially ruled a suicide. Everything points in that direction, but Carella can't help wondering why the air conditioner was turned off in the middle of a heat wave.

As they investigate the case, Kling tells Carella that he fears that his wife Augusta, a beautiful and highly-paid fashion model, is having an affair. Carella counsels that the best thing to do would be for Kling to discuss his suspicions with Augusta. Kling promises to do so, but instead begins a private investigation into his wife's life. Obviously, this is an action that could have any number of potentially very bad outcomes.

The death investigation is one of the more interesting ones in this series and one feels for poor Bert Kling, who is clearly suffering the tortures of the damned. Together, the two investigations make for a very entertaining read--another good entry in this long-running series.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Introducing P.I. Jack Flippo

Jack Flippo is a young man with a bright future. He's married, living in a nice home and is a rising star in the Dallas, Texas DA's office, where Jack is employed as an Assistant DA. Then he makes the age-old mistake of sleeping with the wrong woman, who, unbeknownst to Jack, is actually the wife of a drug dealer currently being prosecuted by the DA. Suddenly, Jack is divorced, living in a crappy excuse for a house, and attempting to eek out a living as a wedding photographer and part-time unlicensed PI.

A sleezeball attorney attorney named Hal is retained by a woman claiming to be the wife of Buddy George, Jr., a motivational speaker who's making a pile of money encouraging people to improve their lot in life. The woman gives the attorney the room number of the hotel where Buddy will be entertaining a Sweet Young Thing named Sharronda following his evening's motivational presentation, and the attorney hires Jack to take the room next door and get the recordings that will enable the voluptuous Mrs. George to sue for divorce.

Jack is up for the challenge and sets up his equipment. But then things suddenly go wrong on a number of fronts and Jack finds himself under serious threat from the police, from the aforementioned Mr. George, from the lawyer's stunning client, and from a would-be tough guy and aspiring talk show host named Teddy Deuce who serves as muscle for Hal, the attorney.

It all makes for a very entertaining romp. Even though Jack's life is in the crapper, he still has his standards; he's still smart and funny as hell, and you can't help rooting for the guy. The supporting cast feels like it stepped out of a Carl Hiaasen novel by way of Elmore Leonard, and the story moves along at just the right pace.

First published in 1994, this is the first in what would ultimately become a six-book series featuring Jack Flippo. All in all, it's a fun read that will appeal to large numbers of people who enjoy their crime fiction on the somewhat lighter side.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

P.I. Jake Blake goes for a Wild Ride

First published in 1956, Wild Wives is a short but very entertaining novel from Charles Willeford, the author of Miami Blues and a number of other crime novels.

Jake Blake is a struggling San Francisco P.I. who lives in the same cheap hotel where he has his office. One slow afternoon, Florence Weintraub, the inevitable Hot Babe essential to the beginning of practically any classic P.I. story, waltzes into his office insisting that she's desperately in need of his help. Even though she's twenty-six years old, her father allows her absolutely no freedom whatsoever and has her accompanied wherever she goes by two goons who are allegedly there to protect her. She'd just like a couple of hours to herself, she says. Could Jake possibly help her lose the two thugs?

Well, of course he can, for twenty-five bucks a day plus expenses. And when the lovely Florence agrees to the terms, one thing inevitably leads to another. Florence is very attracted to Jake and once they finally elude her guardians, they go out to dinner, which Jake naturally adds to the expense account. Other more interesting activities accompany the dinner, and Florence insists that she'd like to see Jake again the following day.

Complications ensue and poor Jake soon finds himself entangled in a mess he never envisioned when he accepted Florence's seemingly simple assignment. It's an engaging story with plenty of Willeford's deadpan humor and enough action to propel the story forward at a fairly rapid clip. While not quite on a par with some of Willeford's better known books, it's still a fun read and will appeal especially to those who have read and enjoyed the author's other work.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Harry Bosch Confronts a New Partner and a Ten-Year-Old Homicide

Ten years ago, a mariachi musician was shot and critically wounded in what the police then assumed was a drive-by shooting, perhaps a stray bullet from a gang-related incident. When the musician dies, with the bullet still lodged against his spine, his death is ruled a homicide and the ten-year-old case falls to Detective Harry Bosch of the LAPD's Open-Unsolved unit and Bosch's young new partner, Lucy Soto.

Harry is still getting to know Soto, who is known as "Lucky" Lucy and whose rapid rise through the department was accelerated by her heroic action in a shoot-out with armed robbers that left her partner dead. He's not yet sure whether she's detective-grade material or not and will be watching her closely.

Their only real chance of solving the murder rests on the hope that new technology will provide them leads that were unavailable to the team of detectives that first investigated the shooting. In particular, will it be possible to enhance the video that was taken that day so as to provide additional information about the crime?

As Harry and Lucy begin digging into the investigation, Harry discovers that Lucy is secretly conducting an investigation of her own into another old cold case involving a fire that took the lives of several children and a caretaker at an unlicensed day-car center. The case has great personal relevance for Soto, and Harry has to decide whether to shut down her efforts or assist her in attempting to solve this case as well. All of this is of tremendous personal importance to Bosch as well, because he's coming up against his mandatory retirement date and in less than a year will have to leave the LAPD for good. He is determined to go out on a high note.

The result is another excellent entry in what is probably the best police procedural series being written today. By now the Bosch character has been firmly set and Harry remains as grimly dedicated to the cause of justice and as fiercely determined to do things as he sees fit as he has been for some time now. Soto is a great addition to the cast and is one of the most interesting people with whom Bosch has ever been partnered. The cases involved are complex and interesting and the sum of it all will keep readers turning the pages of this book long into the night. One closes the book desperately hoping that Michael Connelly will somehow be able to keep Harry on the job for years to come in spite of his looming retirement date.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Poor Jack Reacher Just Wants a Ride

Late one night in the middle of winter, Jack Reacher is standing by the road on an Interstate highway cloverleaf in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. It's cold, there's very little traffic, and he's trying to hitch a ride that will get him to Chicago, from where he can make his way by bus or train to Virginia, which is his ultimate destination.

Catching a ride under these circumstances could be difficult in the best of times, but Reacher is a huge guy (much, much bigger than Tiny Tom Cruise), and he's sporting a recently broken nose that makes him look even more intimidating. Most reasonably normal travelers aren't going to take a chance on a guy who looks like this, especially at this time of night, and fifty-odd cars pass by without stopping. Finally, ninety-three minutes after Reacher first stuck out his thumb, a car finally stops.

The car is carrying two men and one woman who are wearing matching shirts and whom Reacher initially decides are on some sort of corporate team-building exercise. He accepts their offered ride and they speed off into the night. But as Reacher listens to them talk and watches their body language, he realizes that something is clearly off-norm here.

Meanwhile, back up the road, a man has been stabbed to death in an old pumping station by what would clearly appear to be a professional killer. Two men were seen leaving the scene and the local sheriff puts out an APB. Almost immediately, though, the FBI swoops onto the scene along with some other very secretive government types. Clearly, this is more than your average, run-of-the-mill homicide.

Thus begins another action-packed page turner from Lee Child. Reacher is on top of his game, broken nose or not, and there are two very interesting female characters along with an assortment of bad guys and government bureaucrats who, as we all know, should simply get the hell out of the way and let Reacher get the job done right.

I really enjoyed the first three-quarters of the book, but this is three stars for me, rather than four, because the last quarter of the book didn't measure up to the setup. I don't want to give anything away, and so I'll simply note that the payoff seemed a bit drawn out and even a little tedious.

One always has to suspend a great deal of disbelief when reading a book like this, and I have no problem doing so. But the end of the book seemed a little over the top even for a Reacher novel and not nearly as inventive or as interesting as the climaxes of most of the other books in this series. Still a fun read, but the first sixteen Reacher novels have perhaps set my expectations a bit too high for this one.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Steve Carella Is Seeing Ghosts in this Novel of the 87th Precinct

This is another very entertaining entry in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series and one of several through the years that take place during the holiday season.

As Christmas approaches, Steve Carella is called to the scene of a murder. A woman, on her way home from work, stops by the grocery store and is then stabbed to death on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. As Carella and other detectives gather at the scene, a second call comes in, reporting another murder in the apartment house itself.

The detectives enter the building and find that a best-selling writer has been bound and then repeatedly stabbed to death. They conclude that the woman killed in the street outside was most likely an innocent bystander who got a look at the killer as he or she raced out of the building and was murdered so that she couldn't identify the killer.

The dead writer specialized in ghost stories and his very attractive girlfriend claims to be a medium who communicates with the spirit world. At the apartment she shared with the victim, she picks up strange vibrations that prove eerily prescient. Strangely, the medium very closely resembles Carella's wife, Teddy, which Carella finds very disorienting. Even more troublesome, the medium has a twin sister who seems to be starved for sex, which presents problems for Carella as the case progresses.

McBain deviates from his usual formula to include a bit of supernaturalism in this story, but it's all in good fun and this turns out to be one of the more interesting books in a very entertaining series. McBain is getting better and better as the series progresses, and now, thirty-four books into it, he's hitting the mark with virtually every effort. Fans of the series will want to be sure to find this one.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

John Rebus Is Reunited with the Saints of the Shadow Bible

Scottish detective John Rebus returns for the nineteenth time in this gripping tale in which both the character and the story are as fresh and entertaining as they were in the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which was published in 1987.

Rebus is considerably older by now, but just as cantankerous and just as grimly determined to pursue his own path to justice irrespective of what his superiors might think. A few years ago, Rebus reached mandatory retirement age and had to leave the force, but he managed to return as the member of a cold case squad, which was open to retired detectives. Now that the law has been changed, he is able to return to the regular force, albeit at a lower rank. The latter matters little to Rebus who is simply grateful to be back in the game.

As the book opens, Rebus is charged with investigating an auto accident involving the daughter of a wealthy and powerful businessman. The daughter, who is dating the son of a prominent politician, was found in the driver's seat of the wrecked car and insists that she was driving, that she was alone, and that she simply lost control of the car. But the circumstances surrounding the accident raise Rebus's suspicions, and he's convinced that there's something more sinister going on.

At the same time, investigators have reopened a thirty-year-old case involving murder and possible police corruption that centers on a group of police detectives who were known as the Saints of the Shadow Bible back in their heyday in the 1980s. It was a different day and age, one in which detectives sometimes coerced confessions, planted evidence and administered their own brand of justice. As a young detective, Rebus was initiated into the Saints, although as the newbie in the group he was not told all of their secrets.

Rebus winds up being both a potential target of the investigation into the Saints as well as part of the team investigating their activities. In this, he's teamed with Malcolm Fox, a member of the Complaints--the Scottish equivalent of Internal Affairs--and the protagonist of another excellent Ian Rankin novel, The Complaints.

Needless to say, the relationship between Rebus and Fox is a complicated one. Rebus shares the distain that most regular police feel for cops like Fox, and Fox doesn't know how far he can trust Rebus or if he can trust him at all. Rebus doesn't know if he's been included in the investigation simply as a means of incriminating himself along with his old pals or if Fox genuinely expects him to help solve the case.

Rebus is naturally caught between the rock and the proverbial hard place. He's the only member of the Saints still on the force and his old comrades expect that he's going to be true to his oath and protect them from being exposed. Rebus, though, is his own man and will follow his own path in both of these cases, irrespective of what Fox, his other superiors or the aging Saints might want.

All in all, it's a great read and one of the best books in this series. The dynamic between Rebus and Fox is very complicated and interesting, as is the relationship between Rebus and Siobhan Clarke, the woman he mentored for so many years and who now outranks him. The investigations are complex and Rankin keeps the tension building at just the right pace. No fan of the series will want to miss this installment and readers who have somehow missed the series will enjoy the book as well, although naturally they will want to read the first eighteen Rebus novels along with The Complaints before tackling this one.