Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Detectives of the 87th Precinct Are Confronted by Three Complex Cases Involving a Great Deal of Mischief

This book, which was first published in 1993, is the 45th entry in the 87th Precinct series. A lot has changed in the thirty-seven years since Cop Hater, the first in the series, was released, and as the books progress, one can watch the evolution of the technology used by police to fight crime from index cards and penciled notes to the advent of computers and much more sophisticated forensics.

The books themselves have changed as well. Cop Hater was very much a book of the old-school pulp novel tradition from an age when books like this were mostly sold of off spinning racks in the neighborhood drug store. Many of these books were little longer than a novella, and could easily be consumed in a single evening. Cop Hater, for example, told a gripping story in a bare 236 pages.

By the early 1990s, though, crime novels had become a more respectable form of entertainment, now enjoyed even by relatively sophisticated readers, many of whom would have never admitted to reading the "trashy" pulp novels of the Fifties. The books themselves had begun to bulk up, perhaps as a sign of their growing respectability, and Mischief weighs in at 420 pages--almost twice as long as the book that first introduced the detectives of the 87th Precinct. This was not necessarily a bad thing; a good book is a good book irrespective of its length, while a bad one is still going to suck no matter how brief it might be.

Judging by this book though, McBain might have been better off sticking to the shorter form. He winds up producing a much longer book not by telling a more complex story, but rather by cramming together three entirely separate investigations into one novel. Even this wouldn't necessarily be a problem; in the earlier books, the detectives were often working a couple of cases at a time.

The difficulty lies in the fact is that all three of these cases are very convoluted and McBain leaps from one investigation to another, often several times in the same chapter, sometimes devoting only a few short paragraphs to one case before jumping on to the next. This is further complicated by the fact that there's a large cast of characters involved and several different teams of detectives investigating the cases, and in the end it all gets extremely confusing at points. There's no relaxing into this book; you've got to be constantly paying attention to keep everything straight.

One thing that hasn't changed involves the detectives themselves. In thirty-seven years, they haven't changed a bit. Casting an eye around the squad room, McBain notes that all of the detectives are in their middle thirties, which is pretty much where they were when the series began. (In fairness, this is not entirely McBain's fault. His initial plan was to have a rotating cast of characters, and detectives would come and go just as one would expect to see on a real police force. Very early in the series, he killed off one of the detectives who had become the lead protagonist up to that point, and his publisher threw a fit. They made him rewrite the ending of the book so that the detective would live and could go on to star in another fifty-odd books. Like most fans of this series, I've grown to really enjoy this cast of characters and so I'm glad McBain was forced to deviate from his original plan, but it might have been interesting to see how the series would have evolved had he stuck to his guns.)

The first of the disparate plots in the book involves the 87th Precinct's persistent nemesis, the Deaf Man, who returns to taunt the detectives with a great new scheme. He spends most of the book running them around in circles and, as always, it's fun to watch the battle of wits that results.

In another case, someone is killing graffiti writers who are defacing the walls and other blank spaces of the city. Naturally, some citizens are applauding the killer and feel that the "writers" are getting exactly what they deserve. But the cops still feel the need to track down the killer and put a stop to his vigilante justice. Finally, someone is dumping elderly people with dementia in public places around the city and attempting to destroy any means of identifying these people who will then have to be cared for by the general public. Some of these poor people are being left out in the elements and after one elderly woman dies, the case becomes increasingly serious.

This is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but McBain has clearly padded the daylights out of it, perhaps to accommodate emerging trends. It would have been a much more entertaining read at 320 pages than at 420. Of the three investigations, the one involving elder dumping is the least interesting and it has the feel of being tacked on to the rest of the story. The book would have been much tighter and more enjoyable had this whole plot line been left on the cutting room floor. In the end, Mischief falls into the middle of the pack of the books in this series, not the worst, but certainly not among the best.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Another Excellent Tale from Jay Stringer

This is a darkly funny and violent story in which Jay Stringer creates a number of disparate characters, sets them largely at odds against each other, and then steps back and watches while they attempt to somehow find their way out of the mess he’s left them in.

As the story opens, two killers set upon a drunken man named Mackie, catching him in a whorehouse at the most indelicate of moments. They shoot him in the leg, but Mackie manages to escape and makes his way to his Uncle Rab’s. Rab Anderson is a gangster-turned-author and when Mackie arrives at his home, he discovers that Uncle Rab is nowhere to be found. Worse, Uncle Rab’s dog has been killed, suggesting that things are going downhill in a big hurry, both for Mackie and for his uncle.

Sam Ireland is a female P.I. who has taken over her father’s one-man shop. Dad’s in the nursing home and his memory wanders in and out. Mostly it’s out and while Sam would like to fill the old man’s shoes and make him proud, it would sure as hell help if all his secrets weren’t locked away in a mind that’s only occasionally open for business.

A firm of mysterious but apparently very well-to-do lawyers hires Sam to track down Mackie’s Uncle Rab and deliver some legal documents to him. The lawyers hint that this is a test case and if Sam does well, there may be a lot of profitable business headed her way. This is Sam’s big chance and she wants to make the most of it. But the search for Rab takes her into some very sleazy places and antagonizes some very nasty people. And the closer she gets to finding Rab, the more likely it is that this will not only be her biggest case, but also her last.

Detective Inspector Andy Lambert is a cop with some very scary friends and relations. He’s hip deep in the whole Rab Anderson situation and with both Mackie and Sam attempting to find the elusive uncle, Andy’s life is also getting a lot more complicated and dangerous. His personal life is at a critical point as well and he’s going to have to maneuver very carefully if the house of cards he’s created is not going to come tumbling down around him.

All of the action takes place in the seamy underside of Glasgow. There are some great dive bars and other such establishments here and a cast of warped but very interesting characters, many of whom have deep secrets that they do not want exposed. Stringer heightens the tension from start to finish by turning from one character to the next and by rapid shifts from one scene to another. It’s a gripping story, outrageous (in a very good way), with some nasty humor as well. Mackie, in particular, is a character with an interesting world view—a guy you’d like to have a beer with sometime when he wasn’t leaking blood all over the place and being pursued by guys you’d rather not have a beer or anything else to do with. All in all, Ways to Die in Glasgow is a great noir-ish read that will appeal to large numbers of readers who enjoy their crime fiction a bit on the quirky side.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Parker Henchman Alan Grofield Gets a Book of His Own

One of my favorite crime fiction series is the Parker series, written by Donald Westlake under the name Richard Stark. Stark wrote twenty-four of these novels featuring the humorless, amoral professional criminal, Parker, who usually recruited or was recruited by other professionals to pull off robberies of banks, armored cars and other such targets.

One of Parker's most dependable henchmen was Alan Grofield who appears in several of the novels. Grofield is an actor by profession and he owns a small theater company. But there's not enough money in acting to keep hearth and home together, and so a couple of times a year Grofield joins Parker and others in a heist of some sort to bring in additional cash. Grofield is a somewhat lighter and more reflective man than Parker, and in 1967, Stark decided to give Grofield a book of his own, The Damsel.

The eighth of the Parker novels is The Handle. At the end of that book, Grofield is wounded. Parker gets him safely to a hotel in Mexico City and has a doctor tend to the wound. Then Parker returns to the U.S., leaving Grofield with his share of the cash from the job, to recover.

The Damsel opens at that point. Grofield is lying in bed in his fourth floor hotel room when, seemingly out of nowhere, a very attractive young woman climbs through the window. She's apparently fleeing from someone and thinks the room is empty because it is dark. Grofield surprises her and demands to know what she's doing. She tells him a few obvious lies; he tells her a few in return, and the story is off and running.

It turns out that the woman, Elly, is on a mission, and some very bad men are attempting to stop her from accomplishing it. The mission itself is beside the point, and the plot is pretty far-fetched. But that doesn't really matter either. There's a lot of witty banter and a great deal of sexual chemistry between Grofield and Elly, and their adventure together allows Grofield to demonstrate some very clever moves as they attempt to evade the goons who are now pursuing both of them as they race from Mexico City to Acapulco which is where Elly's mission will end. All in all, it's a lot of fun, and this is a book that should certainly appeal to the legion of Parker fans and to a lot of other readers as well.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Another Brilliant Novel from Richard Price

For whatever reason, the acclaimed novelist Richard Price, author of Clockers and Lush Life, among other books, decided to write this novel as "Harry Brandt." He must have changed his mind in mid-stream, however, because the fiction of the pen name didn't even last until the pub date and, in consequence, both names appear on the cover.

Whatever the case, The Whites is among the absolute best crime novels of the year. The main protagonist is a middle-aged New York City detective named Billy Graves. In his younger days, Billy was a member of a celebrated anti-crime unit that became known as the Wild Geese, and the members of the group were not above bending the law from time to time to administer a rough justice to the scumbags that they encountered.

Most of the other members of the group have now retired and moved on to other jobs. Billy remains on the force as a sergeant in the Manhattan Night Watch, a group of detectives that catches cases overnight and then passes them on to detectives on the day shift. It's not a particularly exciting or fulfilling job, but at this point in his career, it's just what Billy needs.

Billy remains in touch with the other former members of the Wild Geese, and they occasionally get together for a reunion dinner or some such thing. But all of them, Billy included, are troubled individuals, unhappy both in their careers and in their personal lives. Each of them has a case from the past that continues to haunt him or her, usually because a perp who committed a horrible crime got away with it. In each case, the detectives know who did it, but they just never had enough proof to make the case. These cases are know as the "Whites," the name taken from a great white whale that once famously bedeviled a nineteenth-century sea captain.

Billy Graves is absolutely in love with his wife, Carmen, who is a nurse. But Carmen has deep secrets of her own from long ago, and she is as troubled in her own way as Billy is in his. This is one reason why he prefers the night shift, because it minimizes the time they have to spend together. Then in the middle of the night, Billy catches a case in which a man has been stabbed to death in Penn Station. But this is no ordinary slaying because the victim is one of the Whites that has for so many years dogged one of the other members of the Wild Geese. The slaying changes Billy's life and resurrects a lot of trouble that would have been better left buried deep in the past. And from that point on, Billy's life descends into the proverbial hell on earth.

Richard Price is truly a gifted writer who has a great way with language and who uses this story as an opportunity to probe into the hidden corners of the souls of the characters he has created here. They're all vividly drawn and the story sucks you in practically from the opening page. The Whites is a story that works at many different levels and if it's not the best book I read in 20015, then it's very close.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Great Early Crime Novel from Elmore Leonard

Frank Ryan is working as a used car salesman when he catches Ernest Stickly, Jr.--"Stick"--boosting a car from the lot. Frank picks Stick out of a lineup, and the cops seem to have Stick dead to rights, but when the case comes to trial, Frank takes the stand and claims that he's no longer sure about his identification. Without Frank's testimony, the case collapses and Stick goes free.

Frank later catches up with Stick and says that he admires his talent and the only reason that he even called the cops was because he felt like Stick was punking him by stealing a car right under his nose. Frank is looking for a partner to go into the armed robbery business together. He's made a careful study of crime and has concluded that armed robbery provides the best returns with the least amount of risk. He's also compiled a list of ten rules that he believes will guarantee success in this endeavor. (This book was first published as Ryan's Rules.)

Stick signs on and the pair pull a string of successful robberies in the Detroit suburbs during a very profitable summer. The two are living large in an apartment complex where there are always nubile women around the pool and where there's always a party going on. But then Frank comes up with a grand scheme to knock over a department store. This would by a large step up from the liquor and grocery stores that have been their principal targets thus far. More important, it would require that they violate at least a couple of Ryan's Rules. Stick is reluctant, but Frank says that now they are experienced criminals they can adjust the rules to take advantage of new opportunities.

This may or may not be a good idea for Frank and Stick, but it's great fun for the reader. This is one of Leonard's earlier crime novels after a career of writing westerns, and it may not be quite the equal of some of the books that Leonard would write later, but it contains all the traits that one looks for in a book by EL, including great characters and dialogue that could only be written by Leonard.

Leonard was much more interested in writing about bad guys than good ones, at least until he created Raylan Givens, and he excelled at creating small-time crooks who lived on the margins and dreamed of making a big score. Frank Ryan and Ernest Stickly, Jr. are great examples, and this is a book that will appeal to virtually any fan of crime fiction.

Monday, December 14, 2015

More Murder and Mayhem in the 87th Precinct

Two plots thread their way through this novel of the 87th Precinct. In the first, a beautiful woman named Emma Bowles appears at the station house to report that a man has attempted to kill her. Twice. 

Emma recognizes the attacker as a man who used to drive for the limo service that her husband uses. Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer go looking for the man Emma has accused only to find him shot to death and hanged, apparently for good measure, in the basement of the apartment house where he lived.

Emma's husband, a wealthy stockbroker, professes to be horrified by the attempts on his wife's life and he insists on hiring a private detective from out of town to protect his wife, even though the man who attempted to kill her is now dead. All of this seems pretty strange to Steve Carella and as he and Meyer investigate the case, it becomes even more convoluted.

Meanwhile, in a plot line carried over from the previous McBain novel, Widows, the man accused of killing Carella's father goes on trial. Against Carella's advice, his mother insists on attending the trial and the chapters detailing the trial are interspersed with the chapters describing the investigation. Both take a toll on Carella, but both are interesting and this is a very good entry in the 87th Precinct series.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Lee Child and the Writing of "Make Me"

On September 1, 1994, an aspiring author went to the store and bought the paper on which he would write Killing Floor, the first novel to feature the protagonist who would become the legendary Jack Reacher. 

Oh, what a difference a couple of decades can make. On that date in 1994, Jim Grant had been recently fired from British television and was virtually broke. Hoping desperately that he might find something he could do to support himself and his family, he sat down with a pencil and a pad of paper, attempting to reinvent himself as a novelist. Twenty years later, having created one of the most successful franchises in the history of thriller novels, "Lee Child" sat down at his sleek Apple computer in his very expensive home in New York City (one of several that he has around the world) to begin the twentieth book in the series.

In this case, he was accompanied by Andy Martin, a literary scholar from the University of Cambridge who also happens to be a huge fan of both Jack Reacher and the man who created him. From the first line to the last, Martin would shadow Child through the process of writing the book that became Make Me

I came to this book, immediately after reading Make Me, both as a fan of the Reacher series and as a writer who was very interested to see how someone much more successful than I at this business approached his craft. It's both encouraging and at the same time very frustrating to see that Lee Child and I work in much the same way, although he obviously makes it work much better than I. 

It's nice to see, for example, that his work habits are at least as loose as my own--actually maybe even worse. He allows himself to be constantly distracted, especially in the early stages of the process. There's always email to check, coffee to drink, and a fair amount of time spent doing things totally unrelated to the project at hand.

Like me, and like most other writers, I suspect, Child would argue that even when he's watching soccer or doing something equally mindless, the novel is constantly working itself out somewhere in the subconscious regions of his mind. As with most of us, that's probably true some of the time and not so much true at others.

Fledgling writers who've gone out and bought five or six of those books that purport to tell you the formula for writing a novel, will probably be gravely disappointed to learn that one of the most commercially successful writers of the modern age does virtually none of the things that those books advise: He doesn't outline; he doesn't create complex biographies for each of his characters; he doesn't post notes all over the place tracking the plot; the man just sits down and starts writing without the slightest idea where the book might be going. He figures that it will all work itself out somehow, and so far it has, for the most part brilliantly.

It's a lot of fun to watch the new Reacher novel take shape but certainly no fan of the series would want to read this book without first reading Make Me. There are way too many spoilers, which is no doubt inevitable in a book like this. One might argue that Martin sometimes gets carried away discussing literary theory and other such matters that might be of interest principally to academics like himself, but that's a fairly small complaint.

Martin devotes one chapter of the book to a trip on which he accompanied Child to the 2014 Bouchercon Convention in Long Beach, California. Bouchercon is a Major Deal--a huge convention that annually brings together several hundred crime fiction writers and fans. 

Child was still in the process of promoting Personal, the nineteenth of the Reacher novels, and he was very much in evidence as the convention progressed. I remember that we had a drink together in the hotel bar at that Bouchercon--along with about eight thousand other people, of course. As always, there were a lot of other big names in attendance--people like Michael Connelly, for example--but watching Child and the crowd of writers and fans orbiting around him, I remember thinking that Child was something like a supernova while the rest of us, especially people like me, were rank pretenders who had drifted in from some galaxy far, far away.

I doubt very much that reading this book is going to make me a better or more successful writer. But in the several times I have seen him, Lee Child has always impressed me as a genuinely nice guy, and it's good to see that someone who, like so many of the rest of us, was once down on his luck and only dreaming of being a hugely successful author was smart enough--and lucky enough--to make it work. Reacher Said Nothing is a very interesting book that should appeal to large numbers of "Reacher Creatures" and other writers as well.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Jack Reacher Finds No Rest in Mother's Rest

Pity poor Jack Reacher. It's like the guy can never get even ten minutes to himself to relax and enjoy life before he stumbles into some grave crisis that only someone as talented as Jack Reacher could ever hope to sort out and set right.

In this case, Reacher is riding in a train through the vast heartland of America, on his way to Chicago. He wants to get to the city before it gets too cold to enjoy it. Out in the middle of nowhere, though, the train stops in a little town called Mother's Rest. Reacher is a curious kind of guy and he wants to know how the town got its name. So he gets off the train, expecting to spend a day or two unraveling the mystery, before continuing on to the Windy City.

As he gets off the train, he's approached by a woman who's obviously expecting to meet someone from the train and who, in the dark, initially mistakes Reacher for her party. She backs off when she realizes her mistake, but Reacher assures her that no other man of his size was even riding on the train, let alone getting off of it. The woman's name is Michelle Chang, and Reacher walks her back to her motel where he takes a room for himself.

But creepy things are afoot in the tiny town and some seriously bad guys are watching Chang's every move. When Reacher accompanies her back to the motel, they automatically assume that Chang was meeting him and that the two are working together. The next day, as Reacher is walking through the town, looking for a monument or something that would explain how the town got its name, the bad guys have a spy dogging Reacher's every step and become convinced that he is assisting Chang in investigating the town's dark secret.

Chang has no clue what that secret might be. She's simply there to meet a fellow investigator who asked for her assistance without explaining the case he was on. Now he's disappeared and Reacher agrees to help Chang look for him. Before long the two are up to their necks in trouble, with the Bad Guys hot on their trail. The search takes them to Chicago, to Arizona and to California and the more they pursue the case, the murkier and the more dangerous it becomes.

Inevitably, there is a lot of action and some great fight scenes. A lesser man would have never made it out of Mother's Rest to begin with, but as every fan of this series understands, Jack Reacher is not a lesser man. It's fun watching Reacher and Chang dig into this ever-expanding conspiracy, and by the time they finally return to Mother's Rest, you know that all hell is about to break loose.

I would argue that the book drags a bit in the second half and it maybe takes a bit too long for the reader to realize the full nature--and the horror--of the problem that Reacher and Chang confront here. But it's a pretty gruesome one, and when push comes to shove, we can all be thankful that Jack Reacher is on the job. This is another very good entry in this popular series.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Chief Inspector Morse Finds Himself in the Service of All the Dead--Or at Least Several of Them

Chief Inspector Morse of the Oxford Homicide Division is supposed to be on vacation and he's thinking about a trip to the Greek Isles. But then he stumbles onto a pair of mysterious deaths at a church in another division nearby. The local officials have already written off the deaths as a murder followed by the suicide of the perpetrator. They've closed the books on both deaths, but something seems odd to Morse and so he begins digging into the situation, even though he's on vacation and even though the detectives who originally investigated the case are not at all happy with his interference.

Morse recruits his faithful sergeant, Lewis, and manages to take over the investigation. It's an intriguing one in that the murder victim was a guy with a gambling problem who was also responsible for counting the collection plate every Sunday. His alleged murderer was the pastor of the church. There are adulterers running loose in the parish, a missing boy, a church organist who's disappeared, and a very attractive woman who scrubs the floors in the church.

Although a confirmed bachelor, Morse is a man with an eye for the ladies. He loves his classical music, his beer and his mysteries, and by the time he gets through sorting through this complicated situation, it could turn out to be the best vacation he's ever had. Either that or the last.

This is a very good book in one of my favorite British mystery series. Morse is a great, if prickly, protagonist, and this book should appeal to those who like an intelligent, complex mystery novel.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A New Yuletide Classic Featuring the World's Deadliest Mexican

The world owes a huge debt of gratitude to Johnny Shaw for “discovering” a new story by the brilliant Brace Godfrey, featuring Chignón, the World’s Deadliest Mexican. “Feliz Navidead” appears in CRUEL YULE: HOLIDAY TALES OF CRIME FOR PEOPLE ON THE NAUGHTY LIST, recently released from the gentle folks at THUGLIT. It’s a simple, heartwarming, sentimental, timely and inspirational tale that reduced me to tears within the first few paragraphs. A cynical person, like that Jay Stringer guy, for example, might insist that the tears were flowing so freely down my cheeks only because I was laughing so hard as the story unfolded. But that would be wrong. This is a story that drills deep down into the holiday spirit and captures the true meaning of Christmas as few others do. Chignón now takes his rightful place in the pantheon of Holiday Superstars like St. Nick, Charlie Brown and Tiny Tim. This is a story that generations of readers will return to over and over again as a part of their most sacred holiday traditions. Thanks again, Mr. Shaw, for this most precious gift.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Mystery and Intrigue at the Never-Open Desert Diner

This is a mystery novel unlike virtually any other--original, and captivating with a very intriguing cast of characters. At the center of the book is Ben Jones, a thirty-eight year-old trucker who runs a one-man outfit, hauling freight up and down an isolated highway in the middle of the Utah desert. 

The illegitimate son of a Jewish mother and and American Indian father, Ben lives alone, has no friends to speak of, and is at the end of his rope financially. He hasn't made a profit in years, if ever; he's drowning in debt, and the finance company is about to repossess his truck and put him out of business. But in spite of it all, Ben can't bring himself to abandon the route and the odd collection of desert rats who make up his customer list. It's his life, and it's all he's got.

Principal among his customers is Walt Butterfield, the owner of the Well-Known Desert Diner. Walt served his last meal years ago and then abruptly closed the restaurant. Fading billboards advertising the place can still be seen along the highway and occasionally an unsuspecting tourist will pull in to find the place closed, but the locals know it as the Never-Open Desert Diner. 

Walt, like many of the others who choose to live in this beautiful but remote part of the world, is a hard man of few words. And, like many of the others along Ben's route, more than a few mysteries surround him.

Just as Ben is approaching the end of his rope financially, a mysterious woman appears in the desert and uproots the lives of both Ben and Walt. Ben is strongly attracted to the woman, but as he becomes entangled in her life he finds himself enmeshed in a mystery that dates back years and that almost inevitably is going to put him is serious danger.

To say much more would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say that this is one of those books that draws you in slowly. It takes a while to figure out exactly where the story is going, but that's not really a problem. While you're figuring it out, you're perfectly content to ride along with Ben and watch the tale unfold. James Anderson tells a great story and does so beautifully. It's a book and a group of characters that will remain with the reader long after you've turned the last page and put it back on the shelf.