Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ivan Monk Is on the Trail fo Crimes Old and New

This is the fourth novel by Gary Phillips to feature L.A. private investigator Ivan Monk. The story starts innocently enough when an elderly man named Marshall Spears keels over and dies in front of Monk and a number of other friends at the Abyssinia Barber Shop & Shine Parlor. Only belatedly does Monk discover that, as a younger man, Spears played in the Negro baseball leagues with Monk's cousin, Kennesaw Riles.

Most of Monk's family has had little to do with Riles in the years since Riles' testimony was largely responsible for the conviction in the 1960s of a black civil rights leader named Damon Creel. Creel had been accused of killing two white female civil rights workers in Tennessee, one of whom he'd been sleeping with. The evidence against him was relatively weak, but an all-white jury convicted him largely because of the testimony offered by Riles. Not surprisingly, many blacks, including members of his own family, dismissed Riles as a turncoat informant.

Shortly after the funeral for Marshall Spears, Riles dies under mysterious circumstances and Monk begins an investigation of Riles' death which also leads him to look into the case against Damon Creel. The trail takes him from California to Tennessee and Mississippi, where even at the end of the Millennium, relations between the races remain relatively raw even though there's now something of a polite veneer on the surface.

The longer the case goes on, the more complex and dangerous it becomes. Even Monk's mother is attacked, perhaps in an effort to send him a message, and Monk suddenly finds himself alone in unfamiliar and hostile territory. It will take all his skills, mental and physical, if he's going to survive and ultimately find solutions to the very complicated questions that confront him.

This is a very engaging and well-written book that hooks the reader early on. Monk is a great protagonist and the insights that Phillips provides into black culture and society are riveting. In this case, I violated my rule of always beginning a series with the first book because one of my book clubs selected this book to read this month, but I'll be putting the first three on my TBR list.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Haunting Crime Novel that Explores the Power of Memory

This is a very unique and beautifully written crime novel that examines the ways in which a single incident can alter the course of a life, the ways in which the past is always with us, and the power that our memories can hold over us. 

Two separate tragedies occur in Oklahoma City in the summer of 1986. In the first, six young employees of a movie theater are shot to death in a robbery. One employee survives and is haunted by the memory of that night and by the question of why he alone was left to live. The second incident involves the disappearance of a teenage girl named Genevieve from the Oklahoma State Fair. She leaves her younger sister, Julianna, promising that she will only be gone for a few minutes. Twenty-five years later, Julianna is still waiting for her sister to return with her own life basically on hold until she can resolve the mystery of what happened that night.

Meanwhile, the boy who survived the theater massacre has changed his name and become Wyatt Rivers, a P.I. working in Las Vegas. As a favor to an important customer, who is also a friend, Wyatt agrees to investigate a case that takes him back to Oklahoma City for the first time in twenty-five years. A young woman named Candace Kilkenny has inherited a music club there and someone is harassing her, perhaps attempting to drive her out of the club and out of town. 

Wyatt agrees to attempt to identify the culprit and put a stop to the harassment. But from the moment he arrives back in Oklahoma, his memories pull him back to the night of the massacre and, in addition to investigating Candace's problems, he finds himself desperately attempting to find answers to the questions about that night that have followed him ever since.

Meanwhile, Julianna is working as a nurse, her thoughts never straying far from the memory of her lost sister. She continues to hound the detective who was in charge of the case and he patiently continues to answer her questions. The principal suspect in Genevieve's disappearance was a carnival worker who had hit on Genevieve. Julianna told the police that her sister was going to meet the guy, but it turns out that he had an iron-clad alibi: he was arrested for petty theft that evening, and Genevieve was seen alive by a witness following the arrest.

The detective lets it slip the the ex-carny is back in town. When Julianna expresses a desire to talk to him, the detective warns her away. This is a seriously bad guy and she should keep her distance. But Julianna will never be able to move forward with her life until she knows that happened to her sister and so, in spite of the detective's advice, she determines to try to make contact with the guy.

Both Wyatt and Julianna are very appealing characters. Wyatt in particular, is smart and funny and lights up every page on which he appears. His relationship with Candace, who gives at least as good as she gets, is very entertaining, and both of these stories pull the reader in and refuse to let go.

Again, Berney writes beautifully; the book is very well plotted and this is one of those cases where you want to race through the book to find out what happens and then go back and re-read it very slowly to savor the experience. An easy 4.5 stars for me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

San Francisco P.I. Peter Bragg Is Up to His Neck in Trouble Again

This is the fourth entry in the late Jack Lynch's series featuring San Francisco P.I., Peter Bragg. Originally published in 1984 as Sausalito, it has recently been brought back into print by the people at Brash Books who are re-releasing a number of classic crime novels that have sadly fallen out of print.

The case begins when someone sends racy photographs of a young woman named Melody Moss to her father, Samuel. The father, who is a widower and who has no child other than Melody, is naturally distressed. He's not sure who sent the photos or why, and so he hires Bragg to get him the answers. Bragg suggests that Moss might simply ask his daughter about the pictures, but Moss declines, telling Bragg that he and his daughter don't have the kind of relationship that would allow him to ask such questions. He also forbids Bragg from approaching his daughter about the matter.

Bragg thus approaches the case with one hand effectively tied behind his back. Moss tells him that Melody is engaged to marry a young man named Duffy Anderson, who is the son of Paul Anderson, a rich and powerful local developer. To complicate matters further, Moss's brother, Arthur, is involved in a project with the elder Mr. Anderson to develop a big convention center and resort called Marinship Shores in Sausalito.

The only lead that Moss is able to give Bragg is that he recognizes the place where the photos were taken, a small vacation cabin that he owns up the Pacific Coast. Bragg goes up to check the place out and quickly discovers that Melody and her friends aren't using the cabin only for the purpose of taking racy photographs. 

From there, a relatively simple case mushrooms into something much more complex. Most of it centers on the Marinship Shores development, the construction of which will have serious consequences for those people living in Marin County near the site of the development. In particular, a small group of people who live on houseboats close to the project are being intimidated into leaving their homes, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out who might be behind these actions.

Before long, the bodies are dropping and Peter Bragg is racing as fast as he can to stay one step ahead of the chaos, trying to protect any number of people to whom he has become attached during the course of his investigation. It's a gripping story that races along to a fairly violent conclusion. 

Set in the early 1980s, the book is also a reflection of an earlier time in America, particularly with regard to race relations. Melody Moss and her father are black, as are a couple of other key characters. Melody's fiance and his family are white, and critical to the original premise of the Marinship Shores development is that it will provide jobs to low-income residents of the area, principally blacks. But is the intention genuine or are these people simply being used as pawns in a larger and more nefarious scheme?

All in all, this is a very good read that should appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans, especially those who relish a good P.I. story where brains, guts and shoe leather are still a detective's principle assets rather than computers, GPS, and cell phones.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Complex and Entertaining Police Prodedural

Sarah Burke is a homicide detective in Tucson, Arizona, with an unconventional family life. She lives with her boyfriend, who is also a cop, along with her mother and her niece. It's not a common arrangement, but it seems to work for all of them, and it gives Sarah the support she needs to do a very difficult and demanding job.

On a Saturday morning, Sarah's plans to go shopping with her niece are interrupted when she's called to an officer-involved shooting. A patrolman, relatively new to the force, has interrupted a burglary in process, and the perpetrator drew down on him. The patrolman reacted instinctively, drew his own weapon and fired three shots, killing the thief.

It seems to be a perfectly straightforward case of a justifiable shooting. Video from the officer's dashboard camera clearly shows that the incident played out exactly has the patrolman has described it. But the detectives are shocked when they get a closer look at the victim and realize that it's an ex-cop named Ed Lacey. Lacey used to be a training officer and was known as the Red Man because of the red protective headgear that he wore while training recruits in hand-to-hand combat.

As Sarah and the rest of the unit delve into the case, it seems clear that Ed Lacey's life had gone completely off the rails in the last couple of years and that he ultimately committed suicide by cop. The spark that touched off this disaster came when the uncle who had raised Lacey, and to whom he was devoted, committed suicide two years earlier after being accused of embezzling nearly $90,000 from the credit union where he worked. The uncle insisted that he was innocent and Lacey supported him vehemently. They money was never recovered.

What initially seemed like a relatively simple situation thus quickly evolves into something much more sinister and complex. Sarah and the other detectives probe deeply into the lives of Ed Lacey and the members of his extended family and the deeper they dig the murkier and more dangerous the case becomes.

This is a very well-plotted book and it moves swiftly along. It's billed as "a Sarah Burke Police procedural," and Gunn clearly knows her stuff. The police procedure is by the book and very believable. Gunn uses the Tucson setting to excellent advantage and, all in all, this is a very entertaining story.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Harry Hole Hunts Another Sadistic Serial Killer

At the end of the seventh book in this series, The Snowman, Inspector Harry Hole was an emotional wreck. The case had taken a very heavy toll on him personally and his reaction to it all was to quit the Oslo police force and run away to Hong Kong where he lost himself in the city's notorious opium dens. But now a new serial killer may be stalking victims back in Norway and Harry is the most experienced policeman in the country in dealing with such criminals.

Harry's boss sends Kaja Solness, an attractive young female detective, to Hong Kong to track Harry down and bring him back. She does manage to find him, but Harry insists that there's no way he's going back. Then Solness drops the bomb: Harry's father is in the hospital, close to death. Harry now agrees to return, but insists that he's going back only to see his father and that he has no intention of returning to the police force.

Famous last words. Shortly after he returns to Oslo, a third victim is killed. Like the first two victims, this one is murdered in a particularly unusual and brutal way. Harry is at heart, of course, a born murder investigator. His curiosity is aroused and so he now agrees to hunt the killer. But he immediately finds himself in the middle of a turf war over who is going to be responsible for investigating homicides in Norway in the future. Will these crimes continue to be investigated locally, or will murder investigations now effectively be nationalized under the direction of a single agency? 

Complicating matters is the fact that Mikael Bellman, the second in command of Kripos, the national agency involved, is a glory hound who wants all the credit for a successful investigation to accrue to himself. He's jealous of Harry and afraid that Harry might outshine him. And so, although Harry's local boss, Gunnar Hagen, desperately wants him investigating the case, Bellman bars him from the investigation. 

But Harry has the scent now, and no incompetent bureaucrat is going to keep him from the trail. Harry ultimately discovers a thread that links the seemingly random victims together. In fact there is a very clever and very dangerous killer at work here, and the hunt will take Harry as far away as Africa. Harry's investigation and the turf battle with Mikael Bellman are both compelling plots that run through the book, and this winds up being one of the best entries in the series thus far. Again, it will take a very heavy personal toll on Harry, who also has to deal with the problem of his father's decline. But as hard as it might be on Harry, it's great fun for the reader. Nesbo writes beautifully; twists and turns abound, and the story is likely to keep one up very late into the night.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Introducing Gus Murphy

This is the first novel in a projected new series by the very gifted writer, Reed Farrel Coleman. The protagonist is Gus Murphy, a former cop in Suffolk County on Long Island. Murphy had a great life and was perfectly content until, out of the blue, a tragedy destroyed him and blew his family apart. Now Murphy is trudging through life, caring about virtually nothing and no one. He works two crappy jobs, one as a courtesy van driver for a third-rate hotel and the other as a bouncer in the hotel's bar. He lives in a room in the hotel and his world has been reduced to this work that he performs mostly by rote and to a tiny and rapidly diminishing number of friends.

Two years into this miserable existence, Murphy is approached by a former low-life and ex-convict named Tommy Delcamino. In his earlier life, Murphy had arrested Delcamino, but even so, Delcamino insists that Murphy is the only cop he ever trusted. Four months earlier, Delcamino's son, TJ, had been tortured and killed. Like his father, the younger Delcamino had a bad reputation and was often in trouble with the law. Accordingly, the cops aren't exactly breaking a sweat in an effort to bring TJ's killers to justice--this in spite of the fact that Tommy Delcamino has given the detectives in charge of the case a number of promising leads.

Delcamino begs Murphy to investigate the murder and, for a set of complex reasons, Murphy ultimately agrees to do so. But he soon discovers that he's blundered into a very complex and dangerous set of circumstances. A lot of powerful and influential people would rather see this case die quietly and as Murphy presses ahead, it's soon apparent that his own health and well-being may be on the line as well.

The story of the down-and-out ex-cop, P.I., or other such character who reluctantly agrees to take on a difficult and dangerous case and who, by doing so, may ultimately and inadvertently find his own redemption is hardly a new one. But Reed Farrel Coleman makes it seem fresh and compelling. He writes beautifully and the characters and the setting in this story are both excellent. Coleman hooks the reader early on and makes you care very much about what might happen to Gus Murphy. This is a really strong beginning to this series and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next installment.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Inspector Morse Investigates Mysterious Deaths in Jericho

Jericho is a down-at-the-heels residential area of Oxford, England. One night at a party, Chief Inspector Morse of the Oxford Homicide Division meets an attractive resident of Jericho named Anne Scott. There's clearly some chemistry between the two of them, but before anything can happen that night, Morse is called away to a murder investigation. Anne gives him her address and he thinks of her from time to time, but she's a married woman, and so he decides not to pursue her.

A few months later, Morse is in the neighborhood on another matter. He still has her address and, on an impulse, he decides to stop by. He gets no answer when he knocks on the door and is somewhat surprised to find the door unlocked. He steps into the home and calls her name but gets no response. He leaves and is shocked to hear later that evening that Anne had been home when he called. Unfortunately, she'd been hanging from her kitchen ceiling, an apparent suicide.

A coroner's inquest confirms the suicide verdict, but Morse is troubled by it. Even though it's not his case, he begins to poke around at the edges of it and soon finds tangled threads leading everywhere. Then one of Anne's neighbors is murdered and Morse is charged with leading an investigation into the mysterious deaths of Jericho.

This is another very good entry in the Inspector Morse series, even though the reader does have to get beyond the unbelievable coincidence of the fact that Anne Scott dies on the very day that Morse finally decides to come visiting. But it's fun to watch Morse at work, puzzling out secrets that no one else can divine and fans of the series won't want to miss this one.