Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Another Great Noirish Tale from John Rector

Nick White is having a pretty crappy couple of months. He's lost his job; his efforts to make money as a card player are not going well, and his wife has recently kicked him out. So one can readily understand why the poor guy might be sitting in a bar on a rainy night, sucking down Scotch.

It appears that Nick's luck might finally be changing for the better, though, when an attractive blonde walks into the bar, steps over to Nick and asks, "Are you him?"

Nick decides that he has nothing to lose by playing along and responds by saying, "That depends. Are you her?"

This leads to some witty repartee, but it quickly becomes apparent that the two are talking past each other and that Nick has totally misjudged the situation. If he didn't realize it initially, he gets the picture pretty quickly when the blonde walks back out the door but not before giving him an envelope containing a flash drive, $20,000 in cash, and a photo of the young woman he's supposed to kill before he gets a second twenty thousand.

Once he gathers his wits and realizes what has just happened, Nick races out of the bar after the woman, but she has disappeared into the night and is nowhere to be seen. Totally confused, Nick returns to the bar, finishes his drink, and, of course, is still sitting there, dazed and confused, when the REAL hit man arrives and gets a good look at him.

Of course the logical thing for Nick to do would be to call the cops and turn the whole mess over to them, but then the story would stop dead in its tracks and we wouldn't have the guilty pleasure of watching poor Nick get put through the wringer.

John Rector is a master of taking ordinary people like Nick White, who are usually down on their luck anyhow, putting them into situations like this, letting them make the wrong decisions, usually one after another, and then letting it all play out. It's always great fun watching him do this and Ruthless is a very worthy successor to Rector's earlier books like The Cold Kiss and The Grove.

Suffice it to say that Nick decides not to go to the police but that he should at least warn the young woman who has been targeted for death. And as any fan of noir fiction knows, that means that the excrement is about to hit the fan. This is a book with any number of diabolical twists and turns, one that will keep readers turning the pages very quickly. It's a great summer read.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Jack Flippo Is Back on the Job in Big D

This is the third installment in Doug J. Swanson's series featuring an engaging, down-on-his-luck Dallas P.I. named Jack Flippo. Divorced, living in a crummy apartment and working out of an even more down-at-the-heels office located above a 24-hour coffee shop, Jack has a client list that few other P.I.s would envy. Things begin to look up though, when Jack is hired by a former stripper named Sherri Plunkett. Sherri had the good sense to marry well and her elderly husband has lately died leaving her three million dollars.

Sherri has recently reconnected with the daughter that she gave up for adoption many years ago. The daughter, Sandi, is a frisky blonde actress from L.A. who had a bit part in a syndicated detective series that was found mostly on late-night cable channels. Sandi has come to Dallas to get to know her birth mother, but someone seems to be stalking Sandi. Sherri is naturally worried and offers Jack much more than his usual daily fee to keep an eye on Sandi while trying to find out who is after her.

At the same time, Jack himself is being stalked by two relatively hapless criminals. One is a giant thug named Fred Mertts; the other is Teddy Tunstra II, who refers to himself as Teddy Deuce. Jack was instrumental in sending Teddy to prison a couple of years ago, and Teddy and Fred met while incarcerated. Now released well ahead of schedule, Teddy is determined to take revenge on Jack. Teddy and Fred have more than a little trouble getting their act together but you certainly don't want to be the poor mope that gets between them and their target.

Swanson has created here a great cast of well-drawn comic characters and there are any number of laugh-out-loud moments. This is not a book intended to be taken very seriously, but it's witty in an intelligent way and it's really fun to just sit back and go along for the ride. In the end, of course, poor Jack Flippo has no idea who he can trust or how he's going to find his way out of any number of tricky situations, but he's not one to ever let down a client, even one as ditzy as Sherri Plunkett. The reader will certainly not feel let down either.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Hoke Moseley Has a Mid-Life Crisis

This is the third book in Charles Willeford's excellent series featuring Miami homicide detective Hoke Moseley. As the book opens, Hoke, although still only in his forties, wakes up to a full-blown mid-life crisis. He's completely unable to function irrespective of his responsibilities to his two teenage daughters who live with him, to his department, and to his partner, Ellita Sanchez, who is eight months pregnant (not by Hoke) and who also lives in Hoke's home.

Unable to cope, Hoke takes a leave of absence from his job and retreats to Singer Island, where his wealthy father lives. He takes a job running a small apartment building for his father and vows that he will never leave the island again.

In the meantime, Stanley Sinkiewicz, an elderly retiree who has moved to Florida from Detroit has a brush with the law and, although he is completely innocent, he is briefly forced to share a jail cell with a man claiming to be Robert Smith.

"Smith" is really a psychopathic career criminal named Troy Louden. He has a gift for reading people and immediately pegs Stanley for the sad, lonely man he is at heart. Louden befriends Stanley, schooling him in the way to best deal with the authorities, and before long, Stanley is convinced that Troy is his new best friend.

Louden is desperately hoping to have the charges against him dropped before a fingerprint check is returned and the police discover his real identity. To this end, he asks Stanley to do him a "small favor" once he is released, and, totally won over by his new buddy, the old man agrees. The ploy works and Louden, now free, enlists Stanley to help him pull off a big job he is planning.

Meanwhile, Hoke Mosley is discovering that it's a lot harder to simplify his life than he had hoped. His father is determined to help him get a new job with the local police force, although Hoke has absolutely no interest in the job. His younger daughter joins him on the island further complicating matters, and the tenants in the apartment house generally prove to be a major pain in the butt.

The Mosley story and the Stanley/Louden story proceed along parallel tracks and for a while the reader is left to wonder how Willeford is ever going to link them up. But it really doesn't matter because both stories are very entertaining.

Willeford has populated this book with a number of unique and very interesting characters and between the lines, he has a great deal to say about the nature of family and about the workings of the capitalist system in the United States. All in all, it's a very entertaining book that should appeal to large numbers of readers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Deaf Man Returns to Taunt the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

When a beautiful young woman is found naked and shot to death in the park across the street from the 87th Precinct station house, the Detectives of the 87th assume that this is just another tragic homicide and begin their investigation by attempting to identify the victim. Shortly thereafter, though, the detectives receive a communication from their old adversary, the Deaf Man, and the murder takes on a whole new significance.

Twice before, the Deaf Man has orchestrated elaborate criminal plots within the boundaries of the 87th, each with a huge payday at the end for the Deaf Man. And twice his plans have been foiled, in each case more by accident than by the conscious efforts of the detectives who always seem to be one step behind him.

Now the Deaf Man has contrived another convoluted plot--this during the festive holiday season--that will both make him a fortune and at the same time will take deadly revenge on Steve Carella and his other adversaries in the 87th.

As the story progresses, the Deaf Man continues to send envelopes to the detectives with mysterious clues that probably point to his ultimate objective, but the detectives are unable to decipher the clues. In the meantime, the Deaf Man draws into his orbit a number of other actors, some innocent and others not so innocent, as he puts his scheme into motion.

At times the story tantalizes, but at others it seems as if McBain is just playing an elaborate game for his own amusement, both at the expense of his characters and of the reader. There's very little police work done in this police procedural; mostly we watch the detectives sit around speculating about what the Deaf Man is attempting to do. For me, this is a middle-of-the-road entry in this series; I prefer the books in which the detectives actually do a little detecting.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Another Brilliant Effort from Don Winslow

The Power of the Dog is my favorite novel by Don Winslow and it's on a very short list of my favorite books of all time. But The Winter of Frankie Machine is easily my second favorite of Winslow's books while all of the others are tied for third.

What I love most about the book is the character that Winslow has created in the protagonist, Frank Machianno. The first chapter, in which Frank rises and goes through the routine of beginning his day, is alone worth the price of admission. You'll never find a better example of an author using a few deftly-described scenes to establish his or her main character, and after reading that single chapter, it really doesn't matter what it is that Machianno does for a living or what he might do with the rest of his life. You already know that this is going to be a great character and that you'd follow him happily, no matter what path he might choose to take.

As it happens, Frank is a Vietnam vet, now in his early sixties and living in San Diego. He runs a bait shop down on the pier; he wholesales fish, and he has a few rental properties. He's on good terms with his daughter and his ex-wife; he's got a fantastic girlfriend, and he's usually in the water most every morning for the Gentlemen's Hour, which is when the older surfers paddle out on their boards, maybe catch a wave or two, and otherwise remind each other of how great they were back in the good old days.

In other words, life is pretty damned good until suddenly the bad old days rear their ugly head. Before he retired and turned legit, Frank Machianno was a hit man for the local chapter of the mob--a legend in his own time who earned the nickname "Frankie Machine" for the efficient manner with which he carried out his assigned duties. Now, an old mob boss asks Frank to referee a dispute that involves the mobster's son.

Frank agrees to do the favor, principally out of respect, only to discover that he's been set up to be killed. Someone out of his past wants him dead, and Frank has no idea who or why. His only recourse is to follow the trail of the assigned hit back up the chain and see where it leads. The only question is whether or not he can stay alive long enough to figure out what's going on and put an end to it.

In the process of tracking down the person who ordered him dead, Frank has to sort through any number of jobs he was involved in back in the day, trying to determine who he might have offended and why. It all makes for a gripping and very entertaining tale from start to finish. I loved this book when it was first published in 2006, and I enjoyed it even more, re-reading it nine years later. This is one of those books and Frankie Machine is one of those characters that will remain with me for a very long time. I can hardly wait to read this book again in another few years.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An excellent debut novel set in Montana's Glacier National Park

The Wild Inside is an excellent debut novel with a unique and very sympathetic protagonist.

As a fourteen-year-old boy in the Fall of 1987, Ted Systead went camping with his father in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. While the two of them slept that night, a large grizzly bear attacked their tent, dragged Systead’s father away and mauled him to death. Fortunately, the bear did not return to attack Ted, but the boy, though physically safe, was very badly traumatized by the episode.

Twenty years later, Ted Systead is still haunted by the events of that night. He now lives in Denver and works as a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior, investigating crimes that occur in the national park system. But when he’s assigned to lead a death investigation in Glacier National Park, he’s forced to confront not only a complex criminal case, but the personal demons he still harbors inside as well.

The victim of the crime is a low-life meth addict named Victor Lance. Lance was found duct-taped to a tree in the park and shot. While he was still alive and unable to defend himself, a grizzly bear found him and finished off the job that the killer had left undone.

The fact that the death was so horrific, that it occurred in Glacier, and that a grizzly was involved, all hit a bit too close to home for Systead, and at times seem to compromise his ability to function effectively. He’s also hampered by a lack of evidence, by uncooperative witnesses, and by a park supervisor who’s more concerned about avoiding bad publicity than he is in assisting the investigation. But Systead forges ahead, determined to see justice done, no matter the personal and other obstacles that confront him.

Carbo, who lives in Whitefish, Montana, obviously knows the park, the surrounding area and the people of the region very well. She’s at her best in describing the great scenic beauty of the park as well as the small and sometimes not-so-scenic communities that surround it. Many of the people of the area are loners, suspicious of outsiders, and are especially wary of federal authorities. Sad to say, there is an ongoing problem with meth and other drugs in northwestern Montana, and Carbo doesn’t shy away from showing us the toll that drug abuse is taking on these people and their communities. The end result is a gripping story that explores both the wilderness of the natural world and that of the human psyche. Readers will finish the book looking forward eagerly to Carbo’s next effort.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Another Great Novel from Stuart Neville

This is the fourth book in Stuart Neville's excellent series which is set in Belfast in the long and complicated shadows of "The Troubles." It opens with the death, by natural causes, of a haunted man named Raymond Drew. Raymond knew he was dying and indeed was anxious to go, but he did not have either the strength or the will to first clean out the secrets that are hiding behind a locked door in the house he left behind.

The house is inherited by his sister, Ida Carlisle, the wife of an ambitious Northern Irish politician named Graham Carlisle. Graham has been clawing his way toward the top of the political ladder for a good number of years, sacrificing anything that stood in his way, including his wife and their only child, Rea, who is now in her early thirties.

Rea never really knew her Uncle Raymond and only has very dim memories of him from a funeral that took place when she was little more than a child. She helps her mother pack up and dispose of the meager belongings that Raymond left behind and is thrilled when her mother tells her that her mother and father are giving the house to her. It needs a lot of work, but for a young woman who never dreamed of owning her own home, it's a tremendous gift.

There remains the problem of getting through the locked door upstairs leading to the only room that Rea and her mother were unable to get into. Ida assumes that the room is empty and that her brother closed it off because he wasn't using it. But after her mother leaves, Rea forces the door open and stumbles onto a secret that will seriously disrupt her life and the lives of many others as well.

In the meantime, the life of former police inspector Jack Lennon is falling to pieces. He has left the police force in disgrace; he has alienated the one woman who believed in and loved him in spite of his faults and, worst of all, he is in danger of losing his daughter who is the only person he truly loves.

Years ago, Lennon and Rea Carlisle had a brief relationship and now circumstances conspire to bring them together again. It's going to be a fateful ride for everyone involved.

It wouldn't be fair to say more, but be advised: once you pick up this book, it's virtually impossible to put it down. The characters are well-drawn and engaging; the story is gripping, and Neville demonstrates here once again the truth of the old axiom that the past is never dead; it isn't even past. The Final Silence is a terrific read.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Another Very Engaging Tale from Jack Lynch

Somehow I managed to miss Jack Lunch's series of crime novels featuring San Francisco P.I. Peter Bragg when they were first published some thirty years ago, and so I'm especially grateful to the folks at Brash Books for discovering and re-releasing these titles.

Pieces of Death is the third book in the series, following The Dead Never Forget and The Missing and The Dead. In this case, a friend that Bragg knows from a local newspaper asks him to serve as a bodyguard for a guy named Buddy Polaski, who's flying into San Francisco International Airport from New York that afternoon. The friend is a little vague as to why Polaski might need someone to protect him and so Bragg takes his .45 along just in case.

A lot of good that does him. He meets Polaski; they have a quick drink and then go to the baggage carousel to pick up Polaski's luggage. As Polaski grabs his suitcase, two guys race up and pump him full of lead. There's not much that Bragg can do; understandably, pandemonium ensues in the baggage claim area and Bragg doesn't dare return fire for fear of hitting an innocent bystander. He chases after the hit men, but they jump into a waiting car and make their escape.

Why would the men have targeted Polaski and what would they have wanted? There's nothing in his luggage that would suggest a reason for his murder. With his dying breath, the man leaves Bragg with a cryptic message but he expires before Bragg can figure out what in the hell the guy was trying to say.

Bragg's client, Harry Shank, is equally cryptic. He and the departed Mr. Polaski were working some sort of a deal and Harry won't trust Bragg with the details. But Polaski was supposed to be bringing something very important for the consummation of their deal and it wasn't in his luggage. Harry wants Bragg to stay on the job, decipher the message that Polaski was trying to give him, and recover the missing items.

Bragg agrees and sets off on an investigation that very vaguely suggests overtones of The Maltese Falcon. It turns out that there are a lot of other players in this drama, including someone's very sexy wife who has designs on Bragg, and a younger, more innocent, woman who has something of the same idea. Naturally, Bragg can't trust any of these people and the story takes any number of unexpected twists and turns.

The result is another very enjoyable tale from an author who has since died but who nonetheless deserves a wider audience. Peter Bragg is a great protagonist: tough, smart and witty, and this is a book that will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Philip Marlowe Searches for the Long-Lost Little Velma

It's impossible to think of anything that might be remotely fresh and interesting to say about this book. It's a classic of crime fiction; it was first published in 1940, and it's been reviewed thousands of times, mostly by people far more competent than I.

Suffice it to say that this is the second full-length novel featuring Los Angeles detective Philip Marlowe, following The Big Sleep, which had been published in 1939. Marlowe was the prototype for all the tough, wise-cracking P.I.s that would follow, and Chandler was really the first crime fiction writer to fully exploit the setting of Los Angeles. Scores of writers have followed in his footsteps, but very few have succeeded as well as Chandler did.

As the book opens, Marlowe is searching for a missing husband when he encounters a mountain of a man named Moose Malloy who is staring up at a bar above the barber shop where Marlowe had hoped to find the aforementioned missing husband. Malloy, fresh out of prison after an eight-year stretch, is looking for his lost love, Velma. Malloy hasn't heard from Velma in all of that time, but that has not quenched his affections for the woman who used to work in the bar.

Eight years is a long time, and in the interim, the bar, which used to be a white establishment, has now become an African-American one, although in 1940, no one would have described the place quite that politely. Well, one thing leads to another and Malloy drags Marlowe up the stairs and begins demanding answers from the people in the bar who, not surprisingly, have never heard of Velma.

Malloy winds up killing someone in the bar and takes off, leaving Marlowe to explain things to the cops. From that point on, Marlowe is entangled in Malloy's search. As a sideline, he also takes a job body guarding a guy who is trying to exchange cash for a valuable jade necklace that was stolen from a friend.

Neither job is simple and neither turns out very well, and before long, Marlowe is up to his neck in trouble with the cops and a whole lot of other people as well. Before it's all over, he'll be beat up, doped up, pushed around, and lied to, but it's all in the nature of the job.

The plot really doesn't make a lot of sense, but nobody reads Chandler for the plot. The book is beautifully written with one great line following another. Through Marlowe, Chandler rolls back the curtain and exposes the seamy side of pre-war L.A. It's not a pretty sight, and you sometimes get the impression that Marlowe might be the only honest, decent man in the state.

The Big Sleep may be one of the greatest crime novels ever written, and it's an impossible act to follow, even for Raymond Chandler. I like this book a lot, but I don't think it's quite on a par with the first book in the series. A solid 4.5 stars for me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Introducing Sheriff Walt Longmire

This is the first book in Craig Johnson's long-running series featuring Walt Longmire, the middle-aged sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming. The books, in turn, would later inspire the television program that was named for the sheriff.

This book opens with the shooting death of a young man named Cody Pritchard. It's possible that Pritchard's death was the result of a hunting accident, but it soon appears that it was actually an act of deliberate homicide.

The list of suspects is unusually long. Two years earlier, Pritchard and three of his high school classmates had been tried on charges of sexually assaulting a mentally challenged Native American girl. The four were convicted but received only minimal punishment and a lot of local people, including the victim's family, are still hoping that justice will be served, one way or the other. It now appears that someone seeking revenge may have all four of the young perpetrators lined up in the sights of a Sharps .45-70 rifle.

For a sheriff's office that is small and short-handed, an investigation of this magnitude poses a serious challenge. And, as if he didn't have enough problems in his professional life, Walt's personal life is a total mess. He's been widowed for a number of years and is living in a partially-built home that he never got around to finishing after his wife died. His friends, especially Henry Standing Bear, the owner of the local saloon, are encouraging Walt to get on with his life, but he doesn't seem to have much interest in doing so. He'd rather just do his job, drink a few cans of Rainier beer and let it go at that.

In Longmire, Craig Johnson has created a character that obviously appeals to a large number of readers and television viewers. The Wyoming setting is beautifully constructed and there's a solid cast of supporting characters. The mystery itself is a good one, although I thought the solution came basically out of left field.

All that said, this is not the sort of book that normally appeals to me. The whole enterprise is just a bit too folksy for my taste, what with the aw-shucks sheriff who names his truck the Silver Bullet and the cast of eccentric townspeople who are just a bit too odd, strange and curious. As much as I can admire what Johnson has accomplished here, I prefer my crime fiction just a bit more hard-boiled, though obviously there are thousands of other readers for whom Longmire hits the mark perfectly.