Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Harry Bosch Might Be Retired, But He's Still on the Job

The twenty-third entry in this excellent series is among the very best, and that's saying quite a lot. As an L.A.P.D. homicide detective, Harry Bosch has pretty much always gone his own way, often alienating his bosses, partners and others, but almost always producing results in the end that no one else could have achieved. Finally, though, he goes a step too far and, although he solves a particularly complex case, his methods give his snarky boss a chance to finally get rid of him. Harry pulls the pin and takes retirement before that can happen and he then sues the department for its actions against him.

Harry is now off the job and rebuilding a vintage motorcycle, when his half-brother, Mickey Haller--the "Lincoln Lawyer"-- tries to hire him. Mickey has a client who's about to go on trial for a particularly viscous rape and murder. Haller insists that his client is innocent, even though the evidence against him seems a lock.

Haller wants Harry to join the defense team and investigate the case in an effort to save his client. To do so goes against the grain of everything Bosch has stood for in his career and he has no interest in helping his brother get a guilty man off on a technicality because of something he might discover. Harry thus refuses, but Mickey convinces him to at least take a look at the Murder Book--the log of the investigation that the police have turned over to the defense. Reading the material, Harry notes a number of minor inconsistencies in the evidence, and once he does, he's hooked. Against his better judgement, he agrees to investigate the case and the deeper he gets, the more complex and dangerous things becomes.

This is a very well-written and well-plotted novel. Nobody does police procedural as well as Connelly, and it's a lot of fun watching Harry attempt to pursue the case from outside the police department. It's a standard trope in this sort of novel that the P.I. always has a "friend" in the P.D. who looks things up in the computer and who does other favors for him. There's always another "friend" in the phone company and so on and so forth, enabling the P.I. to gain access to information that no other outsider could get.

Connelly doesn't cheat that way. Harry asks one favor of his old partner who gets him some inside info, but otherwise Harry is on is own and is hugely inventive in developing ways to get the material he needs. He basically starts by pulling at one small loose thread and then follows where it leads him. Watching Bosch work is always a lot of fun, but watching him do so with these limitations is even more so. 

The plot is gripping and moves like the proverbial runaway train, and it's interesting to see Harry Bosch working at odds against the institution he has served for his entire life. It's also very intriguing to see the two half brothers at work and to watch Harry struggle with his conscience throughout the book. All Mickey really needs is for Harry to find something that will raise a reasonable doubt with the prosecution's case. But Bosch will never forgive himself if that's all he does. If Mickey's client isn't guilty, then someone else is, and Harry Bosch won't rest until he finds him. A great read.

Monty Harris of the Park Police Confronts a Troubling Death in Glacier National Park

On the heels of her excellent debut novel, The Wild Inside, Christine Carbo returns with another suspense-filled book,Mortal Fall, which also takes place in and around the majestic setting of northwestern Montana’s Glacier National Park. The protagonist is a park police officer named Monty Harris who somehow survived an extremely dysfunctional family life as a child to graduate college and become a productive citizen. But he’s haunted by specters from the past which continue to affect his current life, both personally and professionally. He’s now separated from his wife, Lara, due in large part to issues springing from his childhood, and his work is now basically his life. He strives to do the best he possibly can, focusing on the job almost exclusively.

As the book opens, Monty is called to a scene off the park’s main highway, Going-to-the-Sun Road, where a body has been discovered at the bottom of a deep ravine below a very popular hiking trail. The victim is a wildlife biologist named Paul “Wolfie” Sedgewick who was studying the wolverine population in and around the park. It’s possible that Sedgewick fell accidentally, as hikers sometimes do in a moment of carelessness. But Monty has trouble imagining such a thing. Sedgewick was no ill-prepared tourist from the flatlands; he was an experienced mountain hiker and the fact that he could have fallen seems incomprehensible. 

It’s possible that Sedgewick might have committed suicide, but did he have a plausible reason for doing so? As for other alternatives, as one of the characters observes, the most fool-proof way to murder someone would be to push them off a mountain cliff when no one else is looking. But who might have wanted Sedgewick dead? Harris has no evidence at all to suggest that Sedgewick’s death might be either a suicide or a homicide and, if the latter, he also has no plausible suspects, at least initially. But then, when Monty discovers portions of another body near the site where Sedgewick died, it appears to be too much of a coincidence, even though it very well might be.

Hikers are anxious to have this business laid to rest so that the trail can be reopened. It’s clear that Monty’s boss would prefer that Harris rule these deaths accidental, so that things can get back to normal and so that the tourists won’t be scared away by concerns of a killer roaming the park. But Harris doggedly pursues his investigation while at the same time he deals with complicated family issues. The deeper he digs, the more sinister these deaths appear and before long, Harris may be in serious danger himself.

Monty Harris is a deeply conflicted and multi-layered protagonist, and one of the pleasures of reading the story lies in watching the way Carbo develops him and the other characters. This is almost as much a character study as it is a crime novel. As in her first book, Carbo writes beautifully about the awesome physical setting in which this story plays out. At the same time, though, she captures the dark undercurrent of the environment around the park where significant numbers of people have no use for environmentalists, for the park service, the park police, or the government generally. The suspense builds from the opening pages and pays off with a great climax that few readers will see coming. This is another sure winner.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

L.A. Homicide Detective Lou Norton Returns in Another Very Good Outing

L.A. Homicide detective Elouise "Lou" Norton returns here in her second outing, following her debut in 2014's Land of Shadows. As the book opens, Lou and her still relatively new partner, Collin Taggert, are called to the scene of a raging house fire. A woman named Julia Chatman and two of her children have died in the late-night blaze, and Julia's husband, Christopher, a commodities broker, has been injured in a vain attempt to rescue his family when he arrived home in the middle of the night and discovered the fire after having allegedly worked late in his office.

It's much to early to tell if the fire started accidentally or if it was set deliberately. It's also to early to know if the three victims were murdered or if their deaths were solely the result of the fire. But from the jump, Lou is suspicious and the focus of her suspicion is the family's sole survivor, Christopher Chatman.

On the surface, the family appears to have had it all. They were well-to-do, living in an upscale neighborhood, with lots of clothes, cars and toys. But even before the fire is out, Lou is hearing stories suggesting that all might not have been well with this family and that relations beyween Julia and Christopher Chatman were severely strained.

Lou would know something about that. Her own marriage has been circling the drain for some time now. Her husband, Greg, designs video games and travels extensively for his job. He's also a serial philanderer, and the last time he got caught, he bought his way out of it by apologizing and giving Lou a Porsche. But it's clear he hasn't changed his ways, and this time around, a Porsche probably isn't going to be enough to save his sorry ass.

It's a complex case that will strain Lou's relationship with her partner and with her supervisor. The clues lead in any number of directions and sold evidence is hard to come by. But Lou will soldier on, following her own instincts both on the case and in her personal life, letting the chips fall where they may. All in all, it's a very entertaining novel, featuring one of the freshest and most intriguing new protagonists in crime fiction. Hall writes very well and has clearly done her research. The end result is a book that will keep readers turning the pages at a pace almost as blistering as the fire that lies at the heart of this story.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Alex Delaware Searches for the Motive in a Series of Brutal Killings

Police consultant/psychologist Alex Delaware and his sidekick, Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis, return for the thirtieth time in this novel, and perhaps my lack of real enthusiasm for the book simply reflects the fact that I've read all of the twenty-nine earlier entries and the formula seems to have gotten somewhat repetitive and stale, at least for me.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the characters have not grown, developed or changed in any significant way for a very long time. The two main characters have been settled in their respective committed relationships for a long time now; there's no news there, and each of their partners makes a token appearance or two in the book, for no real apparent reason, save to remind us, I guess, that they're still around.

I've also grown really tired of Milo Sturgis who may be a fairly good detective but who otherwise is really an unlikable slob. I long ago tired of the way he stuffs himself like a pig at every opportunity and he really doesn't seem to have any especially appealing characteristics. This is not a guy I would like to hang out with in real life for any length of time, and I don't especially enjoy hanging around with him in these books much any more.

Also, as I've complained before, unlike the earlier books in this series, there often seems to be no real need for Milo to be dragging Delaware along on these cases. He's no longer being paid by the department to officially consult, at least in this book. So what's he doing getting involved?

As this book opens, Milo has a case he hasn't been able to solve involving the murder of a young woman and so, rather than turning to other detectives or experts in the department he decides to ask Alex to take a look at it, which really isn't very logical. There is an aspect of the case that might benefit from some psychological analysis, but it's a pretty thin reed upon which to hang Delaware's involvement.

Alex is of no real help and then another woman is killed. Initially, there's no apparent connection between the two cases, but nonetheless, Alex is along for the ride here too. As the book progresses, other victims will fall and it soon becomes apparent that there are at least a few pretty sick people around the fringes of this case. Alex will offer some psychological insights, but if the killer or killers are to be found, what's really going to be needed is some good, basic, old-fashioned police work, and there's simply no plausible reason why Delaware should be doing it, save for the fact that he's the main protagonist in the series.

The story itself is OK, but it doesn't rise to the standards of the earlier books in the series and really didn't get my heart racing as much as a thriller should. I'm still holding out hope, though, that sooner or later we'll get a new book that recaptures the mojo that made this series and Alex Delaware so compelling early on.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Frumious Bandersnatch has to be the strangest title of any of the fifty-four novels in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. For that matter, it has to be one of the strangest titles in all of crime fiction. It comes from a poem by Lewis Carroll and refers to a monster of some sort that is never clearly defined. The book was published in 2004, and McBain may have also been influenced by a psychedelic rock band from the 1960s of the same name.

In this case, "Bandersnatch" is the title of the debut record by an up-and-coming Hispanic diva named Tamar Valpariso. A man named Barney Loomis owns the company that is releasing the record, and he has very high hopes for it. To that end, he's made a very dark and sexy music video in which Valpariso sings the title song while being assaulted by an evil monster--the Bandersnatch. At the end of the video, Valpariso manages to triumph over the monster and everyone seems to have his or her own opinion about the message that the video actually conveys, but there's no doubt about the fact that it's an attention-getter.

To celebrate the launch of the record, Loomis has rented a luxury yacht and invited a lot of news people and other guests to a huge party cruising along the River Dix. The highlight of the party comes when Tamr Valpariso and a male dancer dressed as the Bandersnatch recreate the sensuous video. Things are going swimmingly until two masked men descend down the stairs to the dance floor. Armed with automatic weapons, they kidnap the young singer and carry her away in a waiting launch.

As fate would have it, the kidnapping occurs in waters that are the province of the 87th Precinct and the case falls to Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes. Inevitably, the party guests are in various stages of inebriation and tell conflicting stories. The kidnappers seem to be very professional and leave no fingerprints or other evidence that will be of immediate assistance.

Ultimately, there will be a ransom demand; the F.B.I. will come barging in and a huge circus will result. In the meantime, Fat Ollie Weeks of the neighboring 88th Precinct is pursuing a new romance and is still attempting to recover the only copy of his novel, which was stolen in the previous book in the series. All in all, its a very entertaining story with lots of action and humorous insights into the record business. It's sure to appeal to fans of the series and to a large audience of crime fiction fans.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Young L. A. Gang Banger Goes On the Road

This is a haunting, beautifully written book about a young Los Angeles gang banger named East. As the book opens, East is the head of a crew of sentries who are guarding the approach to a drug den. But when the police suddenly raid the place, something goes wrong, and the boys East has placed on the perimeter to sound the first alarm fail to do so. The house gets hit with only East's last-second panicked warning to those inside.

East's uncle, Fin, who runs this and other drug houses, is naturally unhappy. But instead of punishing East, Fin sends him on a new mission. With three other young men, including his younger brother, East is to drive cross-county to Wisconsin and kill a man who is prepared to testify against Fin.

For East, who has never been out of his neighborhood in L.A., it's like being asked to go to the dark side of the moon. But he accepts the task and rolls out of the city with his compatriots. What follows is a dark crime novel bolted to a coming-of age story/road trip. Despite the criminal record he has already built as a very young boy, East is a sympathetic character and Beverly tells his story with a great deal of empathy. As the boys cross the country a new world unfolds before East and the journey takes him to places physically and emotionally that he never could have imagined.

This is a book that appeal to large numbers of crime fiction readers, especially to those who are fans of Richard Price and Bill Beverly is clearly an author to be watching for.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Fat Ollie Weeks Writes a Book--And Then Manages to Lose It

Those who follow the 87th Precinct series know that Fat Ollie Weeks is a bigoted, misogynistic, sloppy and (considerably) overweight detective from the neighboring 88th Precinct. He has an inflated sense of his own importance, and is a living, breathing, mass of contradictions, blind to his own considerable faults. This is best illustrated when we occasionally see Ollie waddling down the street and noticing a person who is overweight. Ollie, who often eats two large pizzas at a single sitting, prefers to think of himself as a "large" man and, for the life of him, he can't understand why these fat slobs don't have enough pride in themselves and enough self-discipline to lose some weight.

Ollie's only saving grace is that he's a pretty good detective. Although no one at the 87th precinct likes him, Ollie has horned in on a few of the detectives' cases there, usually when jurisdictions overlap, and he has often been of considerable assistance in solving difficult cases.

In this instance, a city councilman who is planning to run for the Mayor's office is assassinated while preparing for a campaign rally. Ollie joins Steve Carella and the other detectives of the 87th in an effort to solve the case.

At the same time, Ollie, who imagines himself as a brilliant author has written a novel. The novel is only thirty-seven pages long, but Ollie has labored hard over its creation and he assumes that the quality of the book will more than make up for its brevity. Ollie is en route to a copy shop and makes a quick stop, leaving his only copy of the manuscript in a briefcase in his car. He returns to the car to discover that some perp has done a smash and grab and has stolen the briefcase along with Oliie's precious manuscript.

Ollie is determined to catch the thief and recover his book, and his search, along with the hunt for the councilman's killer constitutes the plot of Fat Ollie's Book. Interspersed within the pages of McBain's novel are the pages of Ollie's novel which is flat out hilariously bad. It all makes for another entertaining read from the master of the police procedural.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Lucas Davenport Does a Favor for His Daughter and Winds Up on the Trail of a Gang of Killers

The twenty-fifth book in John Sandford's Prey series opens when his adopted daughter, Letty, befriends a pair of Travelers while at college in California. The two are a couple and, like other Travelers, they move from place to place, most often camping out and living as cheaply as possible, sometimes panhandling to make ends meet. The two tell Letty that they are planning to be in Minnesota later in the summer en route to a series of festivals. After treating them to lunch, Letty gives them her phone number and tell them to call if they go through the Twin Cities.

Later, the two Travelers fall in with bad company, a group somewhat resembling the Manson family and led by a charismatic figure named Pilate. Sometime later, the female Traveler, Skye, calls Letty in a panic, afraid that Pilate and his gang have murdered her boyfriend. Letty arranges a bus ticket for Skye and convinces her father, Lucas Davenport of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, to meet the bus with her.

Davenport is initially skeptical, but as Skye tells the story, he comes to believe that there might be something to it. At Letty's urging, he begins to investigate and soon he will be wandering all over the Upper Midwest in pursuit of Pilate and his obnoxious associates.

I'm a huge fan of this series, but this book did not work for me nearly as well as most of the others have. In the first place, the first portion of the book is largely a Letty Davenport novel, rather than a Lucas Davenport novel. No offense to the kid; she's been a great minor character in novels up to this point, but she's not nearly as compelling a protagonist as her father, and no one buys the Prey series to follow her adventures.

Also, the story takes Davenport pretty far afield from his usual haunts into the rural areas of the Upper Midwest. One of the BCA bureaucrats up the chain of command wonders why Lucas is racing all over the place attempting to solve crimes in other states rather than tending to business at home. Lucas gets angry with the guy, but he raises a legitimate point. The reader also wonders what in the hell Lucas is doing, other than simply trying to do his daughter a big favor.

The story also suffers a bit because the villains in this story are not nearly up to Sandford's usual standards. These books rise and fall to a considerable extent based upon the antagonists that Lucas has to track down. Sandford has created some great ones in the past, but Pilate and his confederates don't seem nearly that interesting and, frankly, don't seem worthy of having someone the caliber of Lucas Davenport hard on their trail. 

If that's not bad enough, this is one of those stories in which a couple of the characters routinely do REALLY STUPID THINGS, in spite of being warned not to. These are things that no sensible person would do and which advance the story but which also cause the reader to shake his or her head and lose patience both with the characters and with the story.

Additionally, Davenport is basically out there on his own, without his usual compatriots. And, partly as a consequence, this book is not nearly as funny as most of the others in the series. Sanford has a very rare gift in that he can drop hilariously funny scenes into a story that is otherwise dark and disturbing, and somehow it works--it doesn't seem inappropriate or out of place as it does when many other authors attempt it. This story has a few such moments, but not nearly as many as usual. This book needs the presence of people like Del, Shake and Jenkins who are absent from the scene. That F***ing Virgil Flowers makes a cameo appearance and when he does, the book really comes alive for a couple of chapters; otherwise it seems awfully flat for a Lucas Davenport book.

I really don't want to think that this series might be running out of gas, and I hope that this is just a slight bump along the way. There have been signs for a while that Sandford might be thinking about taking the character in another direction, and if Lucas has come to that proverbial fork in the road, then it's probably time for him to take it. I'm not really worried yet; my intuition tells me that Lucas will be back up to speed by the time the next novel rolls around, butGathering Prey will never rank among my favorite books in what is, overall, one of my favorite series of all time.

Monday, May 2, 2016

James Swain Concludes the Story He Began in "Deadman's Poker"

This concludes the story that Swain started in Deadman's Poker. As I mentioned in my review of the first book , Swain abruptly ended the book without concluding the story and simply leaving the reader hanging.

In Deadman's Poker consultant Tony Valentine was hired to figure out how a virtually blind poker player named Skip DeMarco was cheating his way to victory in the World Poker Showdown in Vegas. Complications abound and when the book ended, Tony was no closer to figuring out the scam than he had been at the beginning. The story continues here and (finally) concludes.

I really have nothing to add to my review of the earlier book. Again, as much as I have enjoyed this series, I thought that the author cheated his readers by spreading the story out over two books, and having now read the second, I don't think he needed to do so. It's a good story, but the truth is that it would have been much better had the material been condensed into one book. Stretching it out into two volumes means that it drags a bit and loses at least some of the tension that the story would have had were it shorter.

In particular, one of the subplots in the book involves an old-time con man who runs several cons on gamblers who, inexplicably, keep coming back to bet against him time after time. This was amusing in the first volume, but it frankly got tiresome early in the second. I don't know whose idea it was to stretch this story out like this, but Swain's publisher did not do either him or his readers any favors by allowing him to do so.