Monday, October 31, 2016

Joe Gunther Faces the Most Delicate Case of His Long Career

A pair of tourists gets a horrific surprise when they get out of their car to photograph a scenic Vermont mountainside and find a woman's body hanging from one of the mountain cliffs. The woman has been brutally murdered; her clothes have been ripped open, and the word "dyke"has been carved into her chest. The case becomes even more sensitive and complicated when the victim turns out to be a state senator and a close ally of the state's governor, Gail Zigman.

As long-time fans of this series are well aware, Gail Zigman was once the Significant Other of Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Gail and Joe have both moved on romantically, but devastated and outraged, the governor demands that Gunther take charge of the investigation personally and that he and the rest of his team at the VBI find the killer--and quickly.

That will be easier said than done. The victim, Susan Raffner, was a long-time activist who had alienated large numbers of people through the years. Was this a hate crime, committed by someone who opposed the senator's sexual orientation, or was this a murder disguised as a hate crime, committed by someone who was angry at Raffner for political or personal reasons? 

The investigation is complicated by the fact that the physical evidence is not much help, at least initially, and further by the fact that the victim left hundreds of pages of files and other data that the police will have to sort through, looking for a possible motive. The case attracts a good deal of attention and Gunther and his team are under the gun not only from the governor but from the general public to close the case.

By now, Gunther fully understands the abilities of the members of his team, most of whom have been with him through all twenty-six books in the series, and he deploys them in the most intelligent way possible. Willy Kunkle has always been the loose cannon in the outfit, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Joe basically tells Willy to do his own thing, hoping that Willy's unconventional approach to things might point the way to a solution that might not occur to the team members pursuing a more conventional approach to the investigation. The only problem is that Willy may lead Samantha Martens, his "other half" and the team member that Gunther has assigned to ride general herd on the investigation, over to the Dark Side.

This remains one of the best regional mystery series out there and certainly one of the longest running. Through the years, Archer Mayor has maintained the high quality of the books while weaving together the lives of the cast he has created. He knows Vermont inside and out and the descriptions of the state and of its inhabitants are always very well done. This is another very good addition to the series, even if the ending does feel a bit rushed. Readers coming to the series for the first time, though, will certainly not want to start here. There are plenty of great books in the Joe Gunther saga leading up to this one.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New York P.I. Harry Angel Takes On a Routine Case That Proves to Be Anything But

First published in 1978, this is a novel that combines a fairly traditional hard-boiled detective story with supernatural horror elements. In brief, I enjoyed the hard-boiled side of the story, the supernatural parts not so much.

The story is set in 1959. New York City P.I. Harry Angel is hired by a mysterious man named Louis Cyphre to track down a former popular singer named Johnny Favorite. As the Second World War began, Favorite was becoming a major star on the order of what Frank Sinatra would become only a few years later, but Favorite was drafted and severely wounded overseas. He was shipped home and hospitalized in upstate New York, basically left to spend the rest of his life as a vegetable.

Or at least that's the story. Cypher tells Harry Angel that he had a contract with Favorite, providing that in the event of Favorite's death, Cypher would be due a significant payment. Cypher wants to know that Favorite is, in fact, still alive and that he's not being cheated out of his due. Harry takes the case and inevitably will find a major mystery on his hands.

So far, so good. It's a great setup and Hjortsberg brilliantly describes the New York City of the late 1950s. One feels like you're in the bars and jazz clubs sitting right beside Angel and walking down the streets along side him. The author also turns an excellent phrase on virtually every page. But halfway through the book, the story slides into the world of voodoo, black magic, carnival freaks, fevered dreams, and supernatural developments, and if this is your cup of tea, so much the better.

But it isn't mine, which is no doubt my fault and not the author's. That is to say that this is not a bad book at all, just one that wasn't in my wheelhouse. As an added concern, I can usually stomach almost any gruesome development that I read in a crime novel, but in this case there's a scene that totally grossed me out. I would argue that the scene wasn't even really necessary to the plot, and it was so over the top that I was truly offended.

This book was ultimately made into a movie called "Angel Heart," that featured an excellent cast, including Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke, Charlotte Rampling and Lisa Bonet. I remember liking the movie and was disappointed that I didn't like the book as well. The movie moves the story from New York to New Orleans, though, and in that respect, the black magic and other supernatural elements may make more sense. 

I'm going to dig out the movie and watch it again, just to check myself. But as for the book, I have a really split impression. An easy four stars for the hard-boiled parts, for the great writing and for the New York setting; two stars for the supernatural parts that I couldn't buy into and for the gruesome scene that turned my stomach, averaging out to three stars.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Ghostman Returns in Another High-Octane Thriller

I really enjoyed Ghostman, the debut novel by Roger Hobbs, and the second installment in the series is just as intriguing and fast-paced. It begins when a small band of highly organized crooks attacks a yacht in the South China Sea. The crew of the yacht is smuggling millions of dollars worth of uncut sapphires, and the robbers intend to relieve the smugglers of the gems. But once on board the yacht, the robbers get a huge surprise and from that moment, the carefully planned scheme quickly flies off the rails.

The jugmarker who spent months planning this operation and picking the crew is a very tough, clever woman named Angela, and when everything goes sideways, she knows that not only the operation but her life as well is now at serious risk. There's only one person that she can turn to for help--the Ghostman, a former confederate that she first discovered as a young man and trained up to be a master criminal. 

It's been five years since the two have seen each other. Angela vanished at the tail end of a bank job gone bad and the Ghostman doesn't even know if she's still alive. But he misses her every day and when he receives her coded distress message, he's off and running, determined to help in any way that he can. He grabs the first flight out for Macau and on arriving, finds himself smack in the middle of a very complex and dangerous situation. Angela's--and now, his--adversaries are brilliant and ruthless, and if the Ghostman is going to save the day, he's going to have to draw on every last resource he possesses.

You really can't say much more about the plot without giving too much away, but this is a high-octane ride that moves at a breakneck pace. Realistically, you need to read it at a breakneck pace as well, otherwise the implausibility of it all might catch up and overwhelm you. But this isn't a problem. The first scene is a real grabber and once you're into it, you're not going to want to put this one down for any silly reason like eating, sleeping, working, or whatever else you might otherwise be doing. I'm already looking forward to the next installment.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Introducing Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks

First published in 1987, this is the novel that introduced Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Banks is a former London policeman who relocated to Yorkshire, assuming that the pace of life and the crime rate would both be slower. That may be the case, but he quickly discovers that there's more than enough crime to keep him busy, even out here in the hinterlands. This is a good thing, of course; otherwise there would be no point in writing or reading about his adventures. The series has now reached twenty-three books, with the latest published this year. A lot has changed over that period for Banks, but he's never wanted for mysteries to unravel and criminals to pursue. 

When we first meet him, Banks is apparently somewhere in his early to mid-thirties. He's happily married and has two children who are nearing their teens. He's a solid, dedicated husband, father and policeman. He's certainly not as flashy as Lucas Davenport or as complex as John Rebus, but if you were in need of a detective, he's probably just the sort of guy you'd want on the job.

In this instance, Banks faces three complex criminal cases and some personal issues as well. In the first case, an elderly woman is killed, apparently by someone she admitted to her home. It may have been a burglary gone wrong, although little seems to be missing. Unfortunately, there are few clues; there's no one with an obvious motive, and there are apparently no witnesses.

Additionally, a Peeping Tom is spying on local women. He seems to prefer shapely blondes and apparently wants them to know that he has been watching them. Several outraged and frightened women have reported the guy, but no one's gotten a good look at him and he's gotten away cleanly every time, at least thus far.

Finally, someone, or maybe two someones, are burglarizing houses. They apparently know when people are going to be away from home and what sort of valuables they might have. It's all very frustrating, both for the victims and for the police, but at least initially, the burglars have been careful and clever enough to leave no clues pointing in their direction.

Banks must juggle all these cases and pressure is building for solutions in each. In an effort to catch the Peeping Tom, the police bring in a psychologist to consult with Banks and develop a profile of the peeper. The psychologist turns out the be a young, intelligent and very sexy woman. Although happily married, Banks is strongly attracted to her and his feelings are obviously reciprocated, which may wind up causing problems on the home front.

This novel moves at its own, relatively quiet pace. There's not a great deal of violence and it's not one of those thrillers that grabs you by the throat and won't let go. Still, it has attractions of its own. Banks is an interesting protagonist and as a detective he's probably perfectly suited for the job he's taken. It's fun to watch him at work and, twenty-three books down the road, fans of the series still look forward to the new installments. By now, it's like settling in with a familiar cast of characters that you look forward to meeting again once every year or so.

Over twenty-three books Banks's personal life has steadily evolved, and this is one of those series where a reader would probably be well advised to start at the beginning rather than picking up the latest installment and learning a lot of things that you might well not want to know. But for people who enjoy more realistic British mystery series, this is among the best.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"X" Misses the Spot

The first entry in this series, A is for Alibi, appeared in 1982. It's a taut 192 pages long, written close to the bone. The suspense builds from the first page to the last and pays off with a great climax. It was a fantastic introduction to the Kinsey Millhone series. By comparison, X is 498 pages long and feels more like 698. It wanders all over the landscape; it's filled with boring minutia, and it's about as suspenseful as watching paint dry.

As the book opens, Kinsey is hired by a woman to find the son that the woman says she gave up for adoption years earlier. Kinsey assumes that the case will be a piece of cake and charges the woman a minimal fee. It then turns out that the woman has paid Kinsey in marked bills and that things are not at all what they appear to be.

Meanwhile, Kinsey is still attempting to wrap up the affairs of an old colleague, Pete Wolinsky. Pete's widow has received a demand from the IRS for some old documents and Kinsey agrees to look for them. In doing so, she discovers a mystery that she feels compelled to track down, even though no one is paying her to do so, either with marked bills or anything else.

And finally, Kinsey's elderly but still spry neighbor, eighty-nine year-old Henry Pitts, is concerned about the drought that is plaguing California. He's gone slightly nuts trying to conserve every drop of water possible, even to the extent of tearing out his lawn and ripping up all his shrubs. If that weren't bad enough, an elderly couple has moved into the house next door, and Kinsey feels that they are taking advantage of Henry's kindness by having him to their grocery shopping for them and a variety of other things.

The story meanders about, dealing first with one of these issues and then with another. None of them is remotely interesting, and the reader is subjected to what seem like endless discussions about irrigation, gray water and other such things when dealing with Henry's water problems. The book is filled with Kinsey's observations about this, that and the other thing, none of which does anything to advance the plot. 

As one example, Kinsey meets an elderly church secretary with curly hair, which for some reason reminds her of of the ads she saw as a child for Toni Home Permanent kits. This sparks a very long paragraph about home permanents back in the day, which is enough to make a reader want to tear his or her hair out. The book is filled with incidents like this and one can only wonder whether Grafton has now reached a point in her career where she can demand that no one edit her work. Certainly any competent editor would have cut out about a third of this one. A competent editor would have probably also told Grafton to lose at least one of the distracting plot lines and to tighten up the book and create some suspense. But alas, no one did.

My other principal concern about this and the other later books in the series is that Grafton chose to leave the series set in the 1980s. (We're now up to 1989.) As a practical matter, the setting has stayed the same; all of the characters have remained in place; none of them has changed in any significant way, and they've all become pretty boring. Henry doesn't seem to be baking as much as he did back in 1982, but he's still basically the same guy, as are all of the other ancillary characters. 

I can certainly understand that when a series is thirty-five years old and you're twenty-four books into it, it might be hard to find something fresh to do with the characters. But Grafton made it doubly hard on herself by leaving the series--and the characters--essentially frozen in time. The truth is that most of the recent books in the series are thus interchangeable and immediately forgettable.

If it seems like I'm being hard on this book, it's only because I was such a huge fan of this series in the beginning. Reading A Is for Alibi was a revelation back in the early 1980s, when there were virtually no serious female P.I.s and when Kinsey Millhone was a ground breaking protagonist. 

Certainly one can't argue with success. Grafton has accumulated millions of fans and made gazzillions of dollars writing this series. Still, when I think back to the promise of the early books in this series, I can only be personally disheartened by what it's become. 

2.5 stars, rounded up to three only because I used to like this series so much. And if you want to read a really great book featuring a tough, smart female P.I. set in the 1980s, don't read this one. Do yourself a favor and find a copy of A Is for Alibi. Believe me, you'll thank me.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A College Professor Finds Serious Trouble While Searching for His Long-Lost Love

This is another of Harlan Coben's stand-alones, filled with his patented twists and turns. It opens as a college professor named Jake Fisher watches the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man. Jake and Natalie had met at a retreat in Vermont where he was completing his doctoral dissertation and she was an artist. They had a whirlwind romance and were seemingly made for each other when Natalie suddenly tells Jake that she has decided to marry an old boyfriend named Todd. The wedding is held a week later. Natalie invites Jake to make sure he gets the message, and after the ceremony she begs him to leave them alone and never to contact her again.

Jake is completely crushed, but honors Natalie's wish. For the next six years, he devotes himself to his job as a professor in a small liberal arts college while continuing to pine away for his lost love. Then one day, almost by accident, Jake notices an obituary for Natalie's husband, Todd. By some miraculous coincidence, it turns out that Todd was a graduate of the college where Jake teaches and the obit is published on the college website.

Now Jake determines to contact Natalie, if only to offer his condolences. He rationalizes this by telling himself that he had promised to leave "them" alone. He has honored his promise for six years, but he figures that they is no "them" anymore and so he's not really breaking his word. Jake flies south to the funeral, only to discover that Todd's widow is someone else entirely. The widow claims that Todd was never married to anyone else, and certainly not to anyone named Natalie.

This is a novel by Harlan Coben and so naturally, things will get increasingly stranger as the story progresses. Jake launches a determined effort to find Natalie, only to discover that powerful forces are arrayed against him and that he and any number of others may be in deadly danger if he persists in his search.

This is an interesting, if not quite believable premise, and Coben jacks up the tension as the story progresses. I enjoyed it up to a point, but as often happens in these novels, Coben threw in so many abrupt twists that the whole edifice of the story simply collapsed, at least for me, and I could no longer continue to suspend disbelief and take the story seriously. I've enjoyed a lot of Coben's books, especially the Myron Bolitar series, and it's hard to argue that a guy who sells a gazillion books every time out of the gate could possibly be doing anything wrong. But I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the story had been a bit more believable.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Tragedy Has Stunning Consequences for a Small Down Down on Its Luck in This Atmospheric Tale

Ronny Forbert is a rookie patrolmen on a small rural police force. On a cold winter night, he's parked in his ancient Crown Vic, running radar, when a vehicle comes down the road, speeding and with one headlight out. Ronny hits the lights and gives chase, only to have his heart sink when he recognizes the vehicle as it pulls to the side of the road.

The driver is Matt Laferiere. In the Jeep with Matt are three other members of his posse; all four are drunk and stoned. Ronny knows this crew all too well because he used to run with them. At one time, he and Matt were close to being best friends, but then Ronny saw the light and determined to make something of himself. He joined the police force and now is face-to-face with an ex-friend who has become his bitter enemy.

Ronny tries to play it by the book, but Laferiere is having none of it. He resists arrest; the two men struggle and a tragedy occurs. Ronny is briefly suspended from the force as a matter of form, but it seems clear that he did nothing wrong. But this is a small town, down on its heels, and there are people in town with their own agendas who attempt to exploit this situation for their own advantage. Ronny Forbert gets caught up in the middle of it all and before long, things have escalated in a way that no one wanted or could have foreseen.

This is a beautifully written, very atmospheric book. The setting is very well detailed and the characters are deftly drawn. The story has the ring of larger truths and the reader feels if he or she has been helicoptered into this community to watch this tragedy play out all around you. A great read.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Chief Inspector Morse Returns from Vacation to Confront a Particularly Knotty Problem

Oxford's Chief Inspector Morse rarely ever takes a holiday but here we find him vacationing in Dorset when a letter appears in The Times offering a clue to the whereabouts of a young female Swedish student, Karin Erikksson, who disappeared in Oxfordshire nearly a year earlier. She was never seen again and is presumed dead. The letter writer suggests where the body might be found. This leads to a series of letters published in the paper attempting to interpret the clues that the original writer has offered.

Morse sees the letters and is, of course, intrigued. Back from vacation, he manages to get assigned to the case along with his faithful sergeant, Lewis. From the clues in the paper, Morse determines where the body must be. Sure enough, searchers find the remains of a body but from that point on, things become even more baffling than they were before.

It soon appears that Ms. Erikksson was very short of cash and may have been willing to make some compromises in order to get some money. Morse discovers a cast of creepy characters who may have been involved in her disappearance and slowly sorts things out to a startling conclusion.

This is one of the better books in this series, and Morse continues to be a very appealing protagonist, especially when he's got a pint in his hand and his thinking cap on. As usually happens, there's a randy woman or two who will come his way, brightening his day and the reader's as well. Fans of the series will not want to miss this one.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Against Overwhelming Odds, Two of Atlanta's First Black Policemen Attempt to Solve a Murder

Darktown is an excellent book that works at many levels. At heart, it's a crime novel, but beyond that, it has a great deal to say about the time and place in which the story plays out.

Set in Atlanta shortly after World War II, the book opens just after the city government has forced the police department to hire its first eight black officers. But their professional lives are closely circumscribed. Their precinct "headquarters" is in the Negro Y.M.C.A., and they are not allowed to come into the "real" police station. They may only wear their uniforms when they are on patrol and may not even wear them to and from work. They are not allowed to investigate crimes, but must refer the crimes they discover to white detectives who will follow up if and when they feel like it.

As one might expect, particularly in 1948, there's a great deal of resentment directed against these officers from the white community in general and from white police officers in particular, and this plays out in incidents large and small on a daily basis. But even many members of the African-American community are not sure what to think of these eight men. Some are proud to see black men on the force, but others resent the fact that these eight officers are assigned to patrol black neighborhoods and that they are arresting other black people for the crimes they have committed. Some fear that these new black police officers are little better than the white officers who have been harassing them for years.

Two of the new officers are Lucius Boggs, a veteran of the war, and Tommy Smith. On patrol one night, they stop a white man who has driven into "Darktown" and crashed his car into a light pole. In the car with the man is an attractive young black woman who appears to have been beaten up. But when Boggs and Smith attempt to detain the man for white detectives, he simply laughs at them and drives off. Shortly thereafter, the young woman who had been with him turns up dead.

White detectives have little interest in pursuing the case, and so Boggs and Smith decide to do so themselves. But they are severely hamstrung in that they are not authorized to make such an investigation and if they are discovered doing so, they may be fired or worse. Their particular nemesis is a racist white detective named Dunlow, a veteran cop with a long record of brutality, particularly against blacks. Dunlow has a young new partner named Rakestraw, and it remains to be seen whether Rakestraw will follow in Dunlow's footsteps or whether he might be open to newer and more progressive ideas.

This is a beautifully written book with a strong sense of history. The Atlanta P.D. was forced to hire its first eight black officers in 1948, and their mission was circumscribed almost exactly as Mullen describes it here. The story is gripping and the characters, good, bad and in between, are very well developed. The setting is excellent and one can only marvel at the determination of Boggs and Smith to persist in their investigation and in their larger and more important mission of blazing a trail for the black policeman who would follow them. A strong 4.5 stars.