Monday, January 25, 2016

Romance Is in the Air in the 87th Precinct

The 47th entry in the 87th Precinct series begins with Detective Bert Kling standing at a phone kiosk in the pouring rain, getting soaking wet making a call that he didn't want to make from the station house. He's calling a woman to ask her for a date and doesn't want to make the call in front of any of his colleagues, especially if the woman turns him down. He'd be nervous enough as it is, but the woman he's calling, Sharyn Cooke, is also a cop. And she outranks him. And she's black. Kling is a white man who's never dated a black woman before and he has no idea what the woman is going to think when he asks her out.

Shortly thereafter, a young actress named Michelle Cassidy appears at the station house after first calling Detective Steve Carella to report that someone is threatening to stab her to death. Oddly, she's currently in rehearsals for a really bad play called Romance in which she plays the female lead whom someone is threatening to stab to death. It's bad enough to be cast in a play that stinks, she says, but it really sucks when life imitates art and someone is threatening to kill you for real.

The detectives take her information, but they have very little to go on and, practically before they can take any action at all, someone stabs the poor woman as she's passing an alley. Happily, the wound is not fatal, but shortly thereafter Cassidy opens her apartment door to someone who finishes the job in fine style.

The two stories, Kling's attempts to romance Sharyn Cooke and the investigation into Ms. Cassidy's murder, constitute the backbone of the book. It's a very entertaining story, with some especially amusing scenes involving the self-important actors, writer, producers and others involved with the lousy play. They allege that they are heartbroken about the death of their leading lady, but truth to tell, the sordid details of her death are great publicity which will virtually guarantee that even a play this bad will be a hit.

My only reservation about the book is that is runs on a bit long and drains some of the fun out of the story in the process. As I noted in reviewing the last book in the series,Mischief, this book appeared in the mid-1990s, a time when the pulp crime novels of an earlier era that ran 60,000 words or so, were exploding into books a third again as long. Unfortunately, this didn't always mean that the stories were necessarily a third again as good. I enjoyed Romance, but it would have been better had it been a bit shorte

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Letters of Ian Fleming

In 1952, to celebrate the publication of In 1952, to celebrate the publication of Casino Royale, his first novel featuring James Bond, Ian Fleming ordered a gold-plated Royal typewriter from New York. It cost $174.00, or about $1600.00 in 2016 dollars, and he had a friend smuggle the machine into England so that he wouldn't have to pay the custom duties on it. Over the coming years, he used the typewriter to complete the remainder of his Bond adventures plus a couple of nonfiction books and various assorted columns and stories. He also used it to write a huge collection of letters to friends, relatives, fans, publishers and others. His nephew, Fergus Fleming, has now gathered many of these letters into this collection.

After a brief introduction that provides the salient details of Fleming's life, the book is organized into seventeen chapters, most of which are titled for and organized around the details of each of the fourteen Bond novels. Three additional chapters involve letters exchanged between Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd, the man who would advise him on Bond's armaments; letters between Fleming and Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, and letters between Fleming and Herman W. Liebert, a scholar who advised Fleming on the differences between British and American English.

The collection will be of principal interest to devoted fans of James Bond, who will be interested to see the way in which these novels took shape, and to other writers, who will be relieved to learn that even an author as successful as Ian Fleming obsessed about the same sort of small details that bedevil virtually all writers. How large would his print runs be? (Almost never large enough to please him, at least early on.) How much money would the publisher be spending to promote the books. (Again, never enough.) As with most other authors, Fleming was very much concerned with the cover art for his novels along with the amount of his royalties. He fretted about negative reviews and lamented the movie and television deals that never came to fruition. Other writers reading these letters will, for the most part, simply nod in agreement and sigh heavily.

If these letters are any indication, Fleming also enjoyed hearing from readers and was always very gracious in responding to their concerns, even when they were critical of something he had written. The letters that passed between him and Chandler are also very interesting for the light that they shed on both men.

In a day and age before email and when long-distance telephoning was still fairly expensive, Fleming (like many others, of course) was a prolific letter writer. It's impossible to know how selectively Fergus Fleming has pruned his uncle's correspondence and to know if the letters reproduced here are representative of the totality of Ian Fleming's letters. Still, this is an entertaining volume that provides an interesting glimpse into the life of the man who created one of the world's most durable super spies.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Introducing V. I. Warshawski

This is the novel that introduced Chicago private investigator V. I. Warshawski back in 1982. At that time, the book was something of a revelation. Female P.I.s were few and far between, especially hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners types. There were, of course, plenty of Miss Marples and the like, solving mostly gentile puzzle mysteries, sometimes with the assistance of their cats. But hardly any women P.I.s were out there kicking ass and taking names.

Then, in 1982, readers were introduced to both Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone and Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, and the world of crime fiction was never the same again. Thirty-four years later, though, this book does not seem nearly as special as it once did. Thanks largely to the efforts of Paretsky and Grafton, there are any number of hard-boiled female investigators out there, and so reading a book like this is no longer nearly as eye-opening and exciting as it was back then.

As the story opens, a mysterious client insists on a late night meeting with V.I., assuming that she is a male. Once he discovers that she's a "girl," he's not so sure that he wants to entrust her with something serious. But V.I. is tired after a long day and isn't about to take any sexist crap from the guy. She convinces him that she can get the job done and he finally identifies himself as the wealthy officer of a large bank in downtown Chicago. He's concerned that his son, Peter, has fallen in love with the "wrong" girl and is living in a hovel with a bunch of unwashed hippies or other such riff-raff. The girl is now missing; the son blames his father for scaring her away and insists that he will never come home again until he is reunited with his lost love.

The man hires V. I. to find the missing young woman so that peace can be restored between him and his son. However, V. I. no sooner begins her investigation than she discovers the body of Peter, the young lover, shot to death in the kitchen of his apartment. Inevitably all hell breaks loose. V. I. is determined to find the killer because she discovered the body. The cops, naturally, want her the hell off the case, but she tells them to shove it and goes about her business--much more in the fashion of Phillip Marlowe than Jessica Fletcher. There are a lot of nasty customers involved in this case; V.I. is in serious physical danger, and virtually no one takes her seriously because of her gender. The odds, to say the least, are long.

Truth to tell, the story itself has some serious holes in it, and the resolution depends on more than a couple of amazing coincidences that stretch credulity to the limit. In a day and age when tough female detectives are virtually a dime a dozen, the reader starts to notice such things, but when this book initially appeared, the character of V. I. Warshawski was such a revelation that one didn't notice them. This book would launch a long series of novels featuring Warshawski; both she and her creator were true trailblazers in the world of crime fiction, and the fact that the world has caught up with V. I. is a tribute to both of them. Three stars for the story itself; five stars for being instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling in crime fiction.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Perry Mason Is on the Job Even Out at Sea

Immediately after Perry Mason's triumph in The Case of the Lame Canary, his secretary, Della Street, persuades him that the two of them should take a long ocean voyage together--an enforced vacation where no client could possibly reach Perry. (Naturally, they're in separate cabins. Perry and Della would never, ever... Don't even go there!)

The last stop on the voyage is Hawaii and by now, Perry is itching to get back into harness and deal with an exciting case. Fortunately, he doesn't have to wait long because as soon as the ship leaves port, a woman named Mrs. Newberry approaches him with a problem. She's traveling back to the mainland with her husband, Carl, and her daughter by her first marriage, Belle, who is in her early twenties.

Mrs. Newberry is worried about her husband's behavior. Two months ago, her husband quit his job as a bookkeeper at a large company and changed the family name. He's also suddenly come into a good deal of money, which is financing the family's vacation. Mr. Newberry, whose real name is Carl Moar, insists that he won the money in a lottery, but Mrs. Newberry isn't sure she believes him. She confesses to Mason the fear that her husband might have embezzled the $25,000, he's been carrying around in a money belt. And, of course, in 1938, $25,000 was no small amount.

Mrs. Newberry is most concerned about her daughter who is, naturally, young, beautiful, intelligent, outgoing and delightful. Belle has taken an interest in the son of a very wealthy family and the son, in turn, is quite interested in Belle. She's also a plucky girl, but naturally is way below the young man's station in life, which will become readily apparent when the ship docks in San Francisco. Mrs. Newberry doesn't want Belle to be embarrassed when it becomes apparent that the two families don't really move in the same social circle, and she really doesn't want Belle to suffer if it turns out that her stepfather is a crook.

Mason agrees to look into the matter and is soon burning up the airwaves with ship-to-shore telegrams. Sure enough, the company that Carl Newberry worked for seems to be short $25,000 and the company is looking for him. In a twist of fate, the president of the company is also on board the ship with Perry, Della and the Newberrys. Even more ironically, the young man that Belle is enamored of is the son of the company president!

Well, before very long a huge storm blows up; someone goes overboard and all of a sudden, someone else is accused of murder and appeals to Perry for help. It's a huge complex mess, of course, and things look awfully dark for virtually everyone involved. One can only hope that Perry can somehow work out a solution. (Does anyone really doubt that he will???)

This is another fun entry from the earliest days of this series and certainly an enjoyable way to lose an evening.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tony Valentine Is Back in Vegas

Readers who follow this series will certainly not be surprised to learn that Tony Valentine's son, Gerry is in big trouble. Again. Time after time, Tony has bailed Gerry out of dangerous situations; time after time, Gerry has promised to reform, and time after time, his promise is very short-lived.

Gerry is now married to a beautiful woman, much better than he deserves, and they are expecting their first child. If anything is going to cause Gerry to straighten out and fly right, you'd think this would be it, and he now agrees to take a job working for his father.

For those who haven't read this series yet, Tony Valentine is an ex-New Jersey detective and gambling expert. He retired from the police force and created a consulting business called Grift Sense. Working from his base in Florida, Tony advises casinos how to avoid getting ripped off and he specializes in catching cheaters who are attempting to defraud casinos.

So that Gerry may be better able to work in the business, Tony sends him to an underground card-counting school in Vegas. The idea, of course, is that this will enable Gerry to be better able to spot card counters. But Gerry being Gerry, it takes all of about ten minutes before he surrenders to the Dark Side, becomes involved in a scheme to rip off casinos and drops out of sight.

Gerry's wife, Yolanda, is about to give birth and of course is very worried, especially when people begin calling the house demanding that Gerry pay the money he allegedly owes them and when Yolanda finds a bag of unpaid bills hidden under the bed. Naturally she appeals to Tony who is also worried, even more so when he discovers that Gerry has charged a gun to Tony's AmEx card.

Tony heads out to Vegas, ostensibly to advise some casino owners about a new high-tech device designed to make it easy to rip off blackjack tables, but really to find Gerry and get him back on the straight and narrow. Once there, he discovers that his old friend Nick Nicocropolis is also in trouble. Nick owns an aging resort and casino and a couple of competitors are trying to run him out of business so that they can buy his casino on the cheap and bulldoze it. To this end, they've hired a gang of cheaters to bankrupt him. Nick appeals to Tony for help and, as long as Tony is in town, of course he'll do what he can.

In the meantime, Gerry is refusing to answer his phone and it quickly becomes clear that he's fallen in with some very bad and dangerous people. Not only his freedom but his very life may be in danger, and even his father may not be able to rescue him this time.

Like the first three entries in this series, this is a breezy and very entertaining novel. The characters and the dialog are great and, as always, it's a lot of fun watching Tony uncover and explain the various ways that people attempt to cheat at gambling. I'm giving the book three stars rather than four because at the end the plot veers off in a way that seems not only implausible but totally inappropriate for a book in this series. Overall, though, the book is a lot of fun and fans of Tony Valentine will certainly want to find it. Other potential readers who might be curious about the series would be better off looking for Grift Sense, the book that introduces Tony Valentine.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

CID Agents Sueno and Bascom Chase a Desperate Killer Armed with an Iron Sickle

This is the ninth entry in Martin Limon's excellent series featuring U. S. Army CID agents, George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. The series is set in the Korea of the 1970s, and the crimes that the two investigate often involve both U.S. Army personnel and Korean citizens. In consequence, Sueno and Bascom often find themselves locking horns with both the South Korean military and civilian authorities and with their own superior officers.

Such is the case here when a Korean man bluffs his way onto a U.S. base in Seoul and, using a small iron sickle that he has concealed beneath his coat, viciously murders the officer who is in charge of the 8th United States Army Claims Office. The office handles claims for damages done to South Korean citizens and their property by the U.S. Army. These claims run the gamut from the relatively small, say in the case of a farmer's field damaged by Army maneuvers, to the relatively large, say in the case of a Korean who is injured or killed being run over by an Army jeep.

The logical assumption would be that the killer might be someone who was disgruntled by the rejection of a claim against the Army. But both the U.S. and South Korean authorities do not appear at all anxious to dig very deeply into the case for fear that it might damage relations between the two countries. This is often an overriding consideration while things like truth and justice are deemed to be less important. Accordingly, those in command, both in the Army and in South Korea, insist that the attacker must be a mentally deranged person or perhaps a North Korean agent attempting to stir up trouble. In either case, the Power That Be would prefer that the killer be found ASAP and preferably killed while resisting arrest.

As usual, Sueno and Bascom refuse to take the easy way out and are not at all opposed to ignoring orders. They're determined to get to the truth of the matter no matter whose feelings might be hurt or whose interests might be damaged. They pursue a number of avenues that other investigators, both American and Korean, are ignoring, and the urgency of the investigation is heightened when the killer strikes again.

The investigation takes Sueno and Bascom out of Seoul and into the South Korean countryside and, as always, the real appeal of these novels lies in Limon's descriptions of the South Korean people, the countryside, and the relations between the Americans and South Koreans. Limon served for twenty years in the Army and was stationed in South Korea for ten of those years, so he knows the setting very well. The tension mounts rapidly as the story proceeds, and the climax is one of Limon's best yet. This is another excellent addition to a wonderful series.