Saturday, October 24, 2015

Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes Investigate the Savage Murder of a Parish Priest

When Father Michael Birney is savagely knifed to death in the middle of saying his vespers, there's a veritable laundry list of suspects, not the least of which is a satanic cult that's opened a competing "church" only a few blocks away. Additionally, some gangbangers have been fighting in the church and ran afoul of the priest. There's also a very irate parishioner who's been arguing vehemently with Father Birney over the collection plate. Detectives Steve Carella and Collon Hawes of the 87th Precinct are going to have their work cut out for them trying to nail this killer.

At the same time, Hal Willis's girlfriend, who happens to be a former prostitute, is threatened by a couple of very evil thugs from out of her past. She keeps Willis largely in the dark and attempts to deal with the situation herself, which may or may not be such a great idea.

The investigation of the priest's murder is complex and entertaining; the subplot involving Willis's girlfriend, not so much. Part of my problem with this subplot is that the girlfriend's actions don't make a lot of sense to me and are not all that believable. Beyond that, this is a novel about the detectives of the 87th precinct who really have no role in the subplot. As a practical matter, the only two members of the squad who get real any face time here are Carella and Hawes, which is a bit unusual for this series.

I enjoyed the book, but it didn't grab me to the extent that most of the others in the series have, so three stars for me.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Joe Gunther Investigates the Death of a Reclusive Vietnam War Vet

Joe Gunther and his team of detectives from the Vermont Bureau of Investigation return for the twenty-fifth time in Proof Positive. The story opens with the death of a reclusive Vietnam war vet named Ben Kendall. Kendall, though actually an army photographer rather than a combat soldier, had nonetheless been wounded in the war and, after returning home, had largely kept to himself in his secluded rural home.

He had also become a hoarder, and every room in his house was filled with newspapers, magazines and other things that he had collected through the years. When he's found dead under a pile of debris that had collapsed on him, he appears to be the victim of a tragic household accident. But Kendall's cousin is the state Medical Examiner, Beverly Hillstrom and Beverly, in turn, is the current Main Squeeze of Joe Gunther, the head of the VBI.

Beverly performs the autopsy on her cousin and it leaves her feeling uneasy, though she can't point to anything definitely amiss. Joe agrees to look into the situation for her and when a second body is discovered deep among the piles of stuff that Kendall had crammed into the house, things definitely get more interesting.

The second body is that of a minor criminal and it now appears that buried in the mountains of stuff that Kendall had hoarded over the years may lie a secret that could be very damaging to a very powerful person. That person will stop at nothing to protect the secret and before long a whole list of people associated with Ben Kendall may be in very deep trouble.

This is a clever and entertaining plot; the cast of characters is now very well-developed and settling in with this book is like picking up with a group of old friends. This is one of the best regional mystery series that a reader might find and Archer Mayor has sustained a very high level of quality throughout the entire series. This book could be read as a stand-alone but be forewarned; it may well make you want to go back and read all of the previous twenty-four Joe Gunther books.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Crissa Stone Is Back and on the Run Again

This is another excellent entry in Wallace Stroby's series featuring Crissa Stone. Stone is a career criminal and, as any number of people have suggested, she might well be the female version of Richard Stark's Parker. She's tough, smart and nimble--qualities that have served her well in each of her outings.

This story is set in Detroit and opens when an insider provides Crissa and her team with the low-down on the way in which a drug kingpin moves his money. There's a point where the money is vulnerable and Stone, working with three men, plans to relieve the kingpin of $500,000. Crissa has worked with two of the men before; the fourth member of the crew is a cousin of one of the two and a virgin who's pulling his first job.

The heist goes as planned, but everything turns to crap immediately thereafter. There's a firefight in which several people die and Crissa escapes with about half of the money from the job. Crissa was fairly close to one of the crew that didn't make it, Larry Black, and once safe, she figures that she has a moral responsibility to get Black's share of the loot to his family.

This will be way easier said than done because naturally the drug lord wants his money back and is hot on her trail. So is a corrupt former Detroit cop who's particularly good at tracking down bad guys and who would like to add the money from the robbery to his retirement fund. It all makes for a heart-pounding ride. Stroby writes a spare story that's stripped to the bones and moves at a breakneck pace. The characters are all well-drawn and Crissa Stone is a particularly engaging protagonist. One can't help but root for her, even though she is on the wrong side of the law. This is three winners in a row for Stroby and Crissa; I'm eagerly looking forward to the fourth.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Chris Harper, an attractive and popular teenage boy, was found murdered with his head bashed in on the grounds of St. Kilda's, the girls' boarding school near the boys' boarding school that Chris attended. An intensive investigation produced only one possible suspect and no real evidence and a year later, the case remains unsolved. Now, Holly Mackey, a sixteen-year-old student at St. Kilda's and the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey of the Dublin Murder Squad, appears at police headquarters with a photo of the dead boy. The caption on the photo claims, "I know who killed him."

Holly found the photo on the Secret Place, a bulletin board at the school where students are allowed to make anonymous postings. Rather than giving the photo to her father, Holly delivers it to Detective Stephen Moran who is on the Cold Case Squad. Holly had been a witness in an earlier case that Moran had handled and apparently feels more comfortable entrusting him with the information that could finally produce a solution to the case.

Moran is anxious to get out of the Cold Case unit and into Homicide, and he sees this as an opportunity to make the jump. He takes the photo to Detective Antoinette Conway, the primary on the Harper case and convinces Conway to let him tag along as she goes out to the school to reopen the investigation by attempting to determine who might have posted the photo on the Secret Place and what that person might really know.

Through the course of a very long day and night, Conway and Moran interview the staff and students at St. Kilda's and gradually suspicion focuses on two rival groups of students, one of which includes Holly Mackey. The girls have agendas of their own, and it's quickly apparent that none of them can be trusted as truthful.

Tana French clearly understands the world of these young girls--or at least it appears that she does--and the portrait that she paints makes me very glad of the fact that I am not and never was a teenage girl. The cat and mouse game between the young women and the detectives is a thing to behold and the relationship between the detectives themselves is very interesting and fraught with potential problems. And whether any solution to the murder will ever be forthcoming is very much in doubt.

French writes beautifully and, for me, that was the saving grace of this book. I've really enjoyed most of the other books in this series, but this one seemed to drag on longer than it should have--or at least longer than I wanted it to. It's a very dense 452 pages and the main problem for me was that I couldn't find a single character sympathetic enough to care about. 

The girls, Holly Mackey included, are mostly a bunch of conniving little snots and watching the way their friendships and rivalries played out was interesting for a while, but after about 300 pages, I'd had about enough of it. Each of the two detectives is emotionally damaged; neither of them has good social skills; they both have problems relating to other people, and I personally didn't care much about them either.

In her earlier novels, French has created a number of very interesting characters, both cops and victims that I really did care about, including Holly Mackey's father, Frank, who is a much more intriguing than any of the characters who populate this book. Sadly, that isn't the case here and thus three stars for me rather than four.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Perry Mason Gets Dragged into a Mystery by a Lame Bird

In this outing, Perry gets suckered into taking a divorce case when a young woman shows up in his office carrying a cage with a lame canary in it.

Under normal circumstances of course , Perry would never touch something as boring as a routine divorce suit and the woman insists that the lame canary is incidental to the whole business and that she just happened to have it along with her. But Perry is so damned curious about the injured bird that he takes the woman's case against his better judgment.

Happily for Perry--and for the reader--this messy divorce case soon turns into a nasty murder and, naturally, Perry's client is the principal suspect. Even worse, the cops take possession of the poor canary and God only knows what's going to happen to it.

As is always the case in these books, things get terribly convoluted. But happily, Perry is on the case assisted by Della Street, his beautiful and efficient secretary, and by Paul Drake, who continues to run the most amazing detective agency in all of crime fiction. Mason can call at any hour of the day or night with a list of 147 people who need to be followed 24/7 and reams of information that need to be dug up within the hour. Drake always has enough operatives hanging around the office to get the job done and he always comes up with the information that Perry desperately needs. One can only marvel at what the guy might have been able to do with a high speed Internet connection!

This book first appeared seventy-eight years ago and the times, as they say, have definitely changed. Still these books are always a lot of fun--a nice way to while away an evening with a glass of good wine in hand.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Introducing Hoke Moseley of the Miami P.D.

With Miami Blues, veteran crime fiction writer Charles Willeford introduces Miami Homicide detective Hoke Moseley who has to rank as one of the most unique and interesting fictional homicide cops ever to work a case. He's middle-aged, divorced, poverty-stricken (because of the divorce) and living in a crappy hotel room. He's not particularly attractive and has little luck with women. (Did I mention that he wears dentures which he seems to be losing all too often?) Still, for all that, he's a very sympathetic character and you can't help rooting for the guy.

As the book opens, an ex-con named Junior Frenger arrives at Miami International. Junior is a psychopath with big ambitions and as he's walking through the airport, he accidentally kills a Hare Krishna who has annoyed him. Junior steals some luggage, checks into a hotel and makes a date with a hooker. The hooker turns out to be a fairly spacey community college student named Suzie Waggoner who immediately falls for Junior's line of B.S. and moves in with him.

Hoke Moseley is assigned the murder case and manages to track down Suzie and Junior whom he suspects of the crime. Proving it will be another matter altogether, and the dynamics among the three principal characters are very interesting and entertaining.

This is an off-beat crime novel with moments both serious and hilariously funny, and fans of crime fiction who haven't yet discovered Willeford might want to search out this book. Fortunately, the entire Hoke Moseley series has recently been released in brand-new editions which are easy to find.

As a final note, an excellent movie was made from this novel, starring Alec Baldwin as Junior and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Suzie. Fred Ward plays Hoke and is perfectly cast in the role. This is one of those rare cases when the movie really does do justice to the book.

Inspector Morse Searches for a Long-Missing Girl

Last seen wearing her school uniform, Valerie Taylor disappeared a little over two years ago on her way back to her school in a small town near Oxford after having eaten lunch at home. Seventeen and very well-developed, Valerie had a taste for older men and after her parents reported her missing, Valerie was never seen again and her body was never found.

The police detective originally assigned to the case has continued to work it periodically, even though what little trail there was has long since gone cold. He may have turned up a new lead, but before he could report back to his superiors, the detective was killed in an auto accident, and only a few days later, Valerie’s parents receive a letter, allegedly from their missing daughter, saying only that she is still alive and well and that her parents should not worry about her.

The Superintendent now assigns the case to Chief Inspector Morse. Morse, whose principal interest is homicide, has no interest whatsoever in pursuing the case of a missing person. But he quickly convinces himself that, letter or no letter, Valerie Taylor has long since been dead and he sets himself to the task of finding her killer, assisted by his faithful sidekick, Sergeant Lewis.

It won’t be an easy job. There’s no physical evidence of any kind, especially after so much time has passed, and Morse quickly discovers that the people closest to Valerie may all have their reasons for wishing that the case would stay unresolved. Morse will be forced to formulate and discard any number of theories and as he turns up the heat, someone else will have to die so that the secret of what happened to Valerie Taylor will remain a mystery. It’s a tangled mess and only someone as clever and as unconventional as Morse will have a chance of resolving the mystery. Chief Inspector Morse is one of the most unique and compelling characters in British crime fiction, and it’s always fun to spend an afternoon watching him work. 

I do have one minor nit to pick which is that, as the climax nears, Morse completely overlooks a major clue that is literally right in front of his face. As he struggles to make sense of something that seems to make no sense, the reader is left to holler at him to pay attention to what he’s seen with his own eyes. If he doesn’t snap to by the end of the book, the reader will be left knowing the solution while Morse is still at sea. Still, this is a minor quibble and Last Seen Wearing is a very enjoyable read.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

It's Trick or Treat for the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

First published in 1986, Tricks is the 40th book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. This entry is somewhat unique in that all of the action takes place during the course of a single day and night, a Halloween that is packed with more than a few tricks and not a lot of treats for the detectives of the 87th.

One of the cases involves the disappearance of a magician who finishes a performance in a high school auditorium late in the afternoon. His wife, who is also his sexy assistant, changes out of her costume, goes out into the parking lot and discovers that her husband’s props are scattered all over the place and he is nowhere in sight. When random male body parts then start appearing in garbage cans all over the precinct later than night, the news is not going to be good.

The second case involves a series of liquor store robberies and murders that first appear to be carried out by a group of children in their holiday disguises. Mom drops them off in front of the store; they race in and demand the money from the register and then shoot the person on duty. There seems to be a pattern to the crimes, but can the detectives anticipate from that where the next robbery will be in time to stop it?

Finally, Detective Eileen Burke is back working undercover after being seriously injured on her last assignment. She’s posing as a hooker in an attempt to snare a killer who’s picked up three women in the same bar and then murdered them. Burke is understandably nervous, even though she expects that the other members of her team will have her back. But will that really be the case if and when she needs them?

This is a very entertaining book, one of the better ones in the series, and fans of the series will certainly want to search it out. An easy four stars.

Tony Valentine Is Back in Atlantic City and Back in Trouble Again

Sixty-two year-old Tony Valentine is retired from the police force in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He now lives in Florida and runs his own consulting service, Grift Sense. Tony has an uncanny ability to spot “crossroaders”—people who are cheating at casino games, and he is often hired by casinos to spot cheaters that are outwitting the casinos’ own personnel.

Often Tony can do this from the comfort of his Florida home. A casino security team sends Tony a video recording of the suspected cheater and Tony can analyze the recording, spot the cheater’s moves and report back by phone. But then Tony gets a call from his long-time police department partner, Doyle Flanagan, who has also gone out on his own and who is investigating a blackjack player who has hit an Atlantic City casino for six million dollars. Flanagan is stumped and could use some help, but before Tony hardly has a chance to look at the video, Flanagan is killed in a bomb blast, presumably set by the people he was investigating.

So this time, it’s personal. Tony flies up to A.C. and takes over the investigation. It’s clear that some very strange things are going on in this casino, especially at the blackjack tables, but Tony is initially baffled. He knows that the big winner is playing with a partner and that they have to be cheating—no one could be either that good or that lucky. But even with all his experience, Tony can’t figure out how the cheaters are working the scam and before long, he finds himself in the sights of the same people who killed his friend.

If all of that weren’t bad enough, Tony also continues to have problems with his practically worthless excuse for a son, Gerry. Tony has bailed out his son time after time, and even though he attempts to practice something approaching tough love with the stupid kid, Gerry just keeps digging himself deeper and deeper into trouble. In this case, Gerry has lost $50,000 to some mobsters who are threatening him with great bodily harm—or worse—if he doesn’t pay up. As always, unable to stand on his own two feet, Gerry comes running home to Papa, hoping that Dear Old Dad will pull his chestnuts out of the fire one more time. In consequence, Tony will find himself under fire from this front as well.

All in all, this book is a lot of fun. Valentine is a great character; there’s a lot of humor, and along the way, the reader learns a great deal about the myriad of ways in which cheaters try to find an edge against the casinos. This is a very worthy sequel to the first Valentine novel, Grift Sense, and one looks forward eagerly to Valentine’s next appearance.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Return of Peter Bowen and Gabriel Du Pre

After an absence of eight years, Peter Bowen returns with the fourteenth installment of his excellent series featuring Gabriel Du Pre, a Metis brand inspector, fiddle player and investigator who lives in the fictional town of Toussaint, Montana.

As the book opens, two severely wounded veterans of the Iraq war meet in Toussaint. One is Chappie Plaquemines, the son of Du Pre’s long-time significant other, Madeline. The other is John Patchen, who served under Chappie, and who is trying to persuade him to accept the Navy Cross. In the process of trying to sober Chappie up long enough so that Patchen can make the argument, the two men go to a sweat lodge owned by a mysterious and elusive old medicine man.

In the sweat lodge, the two hear mysterious voices hinting at a massacre of a number of Metis people in the early Twentieth Century by U.S. Army soldiers and a handful of local citizens. (The Metis are descendants of the unions of Native American women and Europeans, principally French fur traders, that occurred along what is now the U.S.-Canadian border in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. The Metis have a unique culture and one of the pleasures of these books is the way in which the author immerses the characters and the reader in this culture.)

Chappie, Patchen and Du Pre launch an investigation of this incident which is little known and which has been largely covered up by the descendants of the people involve in perpetrating the crime. Inevitably, of course, a lot of feathers will be ruffled in the process and a fair amount of violence will ensue. The three men remain undaunted by the threats directed against them, however, and are determined to discover the truth about this century-old mystery.

It’s an excellent tale, made all the more enjoyable by the great cast of characters that Bowen has assembled through the years. Even in the face of the grim story that unfolds here, there’s a lot of wry humor, and this is a book that will appeal to readers who have enjoyed the novels of people like Tony Hillerman and Craig Johnson. If you haven’t run across this series before, it’s definitely worth looking for; for old friends of the series, it’s great to finally have Du Pre and the rest of these characters back. One closes the book hoping that it will not be another eight years before we see them again.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Another Great Read from the Master of Crime Fiction

Life doesn't get a whole lot better than a day when you have a brand new book from Lawrence Block to read fresh for the first time, and The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes proves that Block is still at the top of his game. With this book, Block updates the steamy pulp novels of yesteryear and demonstrates that, even in the age of computers, cell phones and the Internet, there's still a lot of life that can be wrung out of the genre.

At the heart of the book is Doak Miller, a retired cop from New York City who moves to a small town in Florida where his pension dollars will stretch a bit farther than in NYC. Once settled, he takes the occasional job as a private investigator to supplement the pension. He befriends the local sheriff and even does an occasional job for the county. A divorced man, Doak also cultivates the local ladies and engages in some very hot sex. Early in his career, Block wrote "adult" novels under various pen names and in writing the sex scenes, he channels his younger self and goes beyond the limits he or his editors set for Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr.

As the book opens, Doak agrees to take an undercover job for the sheriff, William Radburn. A woman named Lisa Otterbein is looking to hire a hit man to kill her very wealthy husband, and the lowlife that she first approached in a bar has reported her to the sheriff. (Obviously, the woman should have called Dot and hired Keller, but that would have been another story all together.)

The sheriff wants Doak to play the part of the hired killer (Frank from Jersey) and record Lisa attempting to hire him. Once they have the poor woman on tape, she will be convicted of soliciting murder and sent to prison. 

Doak agrees, but he doesn't count on the fact that Lisa will turn out to be the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. He's not about to entrap her and cleverly warns her away from the scheme. Lisa shows her gratitude in a particularly nice way, and before long we're headed into James M. Cain country.

Lisa convinces Doak that she's madly in love with him and Doak, of course, is totally smitten with her. He's soon concocting plans to eliminate Lisa's husband, but will he have any better luck than Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice?

As always, Block has created interesting and believable characters and then inserted them into a steamy and complex plot that's enormously entertaining. Doak Miller knows his crime fiction and like any other literate fan of the genre, he also knows how these schemes inevitably end up. But like the aforementioned Messrs. Neff and Chambers, the poor guy just can't walk away. One can only hope that Lawrence Block is not yet ready to walk away either from what has already been a very long and distinguished career. Every time you read one of his last few books, you can only desperately hope that there will yet be at least one more.