Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Jack Reacher Is Sent Back to Night School

The twenty-first entry in the Jack Reacher series is another flashback to an adventure that occurred while Reacher was still in the army. The year is 1996; Reacher is only thirty-five years old, and he's fresh off a very successful mission for which he has been awarded a medal. But immediately after the ceremony, he's issued new orders to attend a night school course--hardly the reward he was expecting after a job well done. He's now effectively off the rest of the Army's radar, at least for the time being.

Reacher arrives at the facility where the course is supposed to take place only to find two other "students," one from the CIA and the other from the FBI. They too have just come off successful missions and are wondering why they've been consigned to a duty like this. But the three are soon joined by a pair of very senior government officials who explain that they are not actually going back to school. Rather, they've been delegated to work on a very secret mission of extreme urgency.

All anyone seems to know at the moment is that a group of jihadists, with a cell in Hamburg, Germany, has offered to spent one hundred million dollars for something that an American proposes to sell to them. No one has any idea who the American is or what he could possibly have that would be worth that much money. But whatever it might be, if the jihadists want it that badly, the exchange has to be very bad news for the United States and probably for the rest of the western world as well.

Reacher will recruit his old compatriot, Sergeant Frances Neagley, to work with the team and Reacher and Neagley will spend most of their time in Hamburg, attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding this transaction. Unlike most of the Reacher novels, Reacher is obviously now back in uniform. He's part of a huge institution and, while fans of the series are used to watching Reacher act as a solitary individual, basically making up his own rules as he goes along, here he is compelled to work as a member of a team. Naturally, though, he will do so in a style that is uniquely his own and that will still enable him to beat the crap out of a lot of bad guys along the way.

This is an okay book, but it's not among the better ones in the series. In part this is because of the constraints that the plot places upon Reacher and also because the book has a tendency to bog down in places as Reacher, Neagley and the rest of the team race around Hamburg pursuing a lot of leads that will prove fruitless before they finally get on the right track. Fans of the series will certainly want to read it, but more casual fans of crime fiction who just occasionally check in on Jack Reacher might want to look for one of the other books in the series.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Brady Coyne Follows the Sharks

This is the third entry in William G. Tapply's series featuring Boston attorney, Brady Coyne, and it's the best in the series thus far. By this book, Tapply had fairly well established Coyne's basic personality and habits, which would not change in any significant way over the rest of the series. His relationship with his secretary, his ex-wife and his two boys was pretty well set, as were a number of friendships that Coyne would carry through his literary life.

Several years before this book opens, as a favor to a wealthy client, Brady had agreed to represent a young baseball phenom named Eddie Donagan. Donagan was a pitcher soon to be signed by the Boston Red Sox and also soon to be the son-in-law of Brady's client. For a while, things went swimmingly. Eddie rose through the farm system and had a brilliant debut with the Sox. But then, for no apparent reason, he lost his mojo, or his magic, or whatever, and suddenly he couldn't pitch worth a damn. Overnight, he was out of baseball and selling sneakers at a local mall. He also left his wife and young son, E.J.

The book opens a couple of years later when Brady's wealthy client calls him on a Saturday morning to tell him that E.J., now ten, has failed to return home from his paper route. Brady is sure that the kid is just playing in the park or some such thing and that he'll return home shortly. But the client and his daughter, the child's mother, are panicked and insist that Brady come over to hold their hands.

Well, of course, E.J. does not return home and eventually kidnappers will call demanding a ransom. Naturally, this sort of thing is best left to the police, but if that were to be the case here, we would have no story involving Brady Coyne. Against his wishes and his better judgment, Brady is soon mixed up in a very confusing and dangerous case. The tale takes lots of twists and turns and contains more than a few surprises. But it's an engaging story, and it's always fun to spend an evening in the company of Brady Coyne. This is a book that will appeal most to those who enjoy a fairly traditional mystery story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Owen Laukkanen Serves Up Another Compelling and Timely Thriller

In The Stolen Ones, the last entry in his excellent series featuring Carla Windermere of the F.B.I. and Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota BCA, Owen Laukkanen wove a tense thriller around the issue of sex-trafficking. In this, the fifth book in the series, the story centers on another very timely problem, the bullying of teenagers.

The story opens when Stevens's daughter, Andrea, urges her father to look into the suicide of one of her high school classmates. Stevens initially assumes that, while the teenager's death was certainly tragic, there was nothing criminal about it. The victim, Adrian Miller, was a lonely boy without any real friends. He was repeatedly harassed and embarrassed by the school jocks and others, and ultimately responded by taking his own life.

But then Andrea appears at her father's office with another teenager in tow. The boy, whose name is Lucas, tells Stevens and Windermere that Adrian had an online "friend," a girl who encourage him to take his own life and to record it on his webcam so that she could watch. Lucas says that the two had formed a suicide pact and that the girl intends to follow Lucas over to the "other side."

Even though there may not be a crime involved, a young girl's life is in danger, assuming that she hasn't already killed herself. Stevens and Windermere spring into action in an effort to find the girl. They confiscate Adrian Miller's computer and begin rooting through his online history in an effort to discover the girl's identity. The effort is especially urgent for Carla Windermere who is carrying some baggage of her own with respect to the issue of teenage bullying and who is determined to save this girl at any cost.

Without much trouble, they discover that the girl's name is Ashley Frey and they follow the haunting thread of the conversations between Adrian and Ashley up to the moment when Adrian records himself committing suicide. But the effort to find Ashley takes a very disturbing turn when the agents discover that "Ashley Frey" is really not a teenage girl planning to take her own life but rather a disturbed psychopath who is trolling the internet, recruiting depressed teenagers, and encouraging them to commit suicide while he watches. Stevens and Windermere are thus launched into a desperate race to identify and capture this predator before he can convince any additional victims to end their lives.

This is the darkest and most compelling book in the series thus far. Save for Andrea, who gets the story off and running, we see nothing of Stevens's family, the members of which have appeared prominently in each of the earlier books. The sexual tension between Stevens and Windermere that characterized the earlier books has also disappeared, and the novel remains tightly focused on the investigation at hand. The tension builds page after page before reaching a stunning climax that is likely to leave most any reader holding his or her breath for the last ten or fifteen pages.

All in all, this is another great entry in a very good series, one which also highlights a very important current social problem. The next Stevens and Windermere novel can't come any too soon.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Great New Collection of Stories, Edited by Patrick Millikin

In 2009, Patrick Millikin edited a great collection of short stories published as Phoenix Noir, which remains one of the best entries in the Noir series from Akashic. Millikin now returns with an excellent new collection of stories in The Highway Kind.

As was the case with Phoenix Noir, Millikin has recruited an all-star cast of writers, including Michael Connelly, Ace Atkins, George Pelecanos, C.J. Box, Gary Phillips, Wallace Stroby, Joe R. Lansdale and others. There's even a contribution from Patterson Hood, who is perhaps better known as a founding member of Drive-By Truckers, and whose contribution to this collection is a very noirish story featuring a Chevy Chevelle SS.

Millikin, who is currently restoring a 1960 Cadillac, notes in the preface that "Over the years, the automobile has come to represent not just our freedom, but our isolation.... When we're not checking our e-mail or text-messaging with our friends, we're driving and we're thinking.... Our cars facilitate our secret lives."

The vehicles featured in these stories are as wide-ranging as the authors who produced them. Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael Connelly's story, "Burnt Matches," takes place in Mickey Haller's Lincoln. C.J. Box's contribution, "Power Wagon," centers on a 1948 Dodge Power Wagon. George Pelecanos picks a 1970 E-body Plymouth Barracuda for his entry, "The Triple Black 'Cuda." Ace Atkins chose a vintage Ford Bronco, perfectly restored with a new Cleveland 321 engine and jacked up with a Pro Comp lift kit, Pro Comp wheels and big, chunky Goodrich tires. Luis Alberto Urrea, who won an Edgar for his story in Phoenix Noir, returns here with "The Pleasure of God," which features a tricked-out yellow VW van.

The vehicles are all interesting and the stories are all top-notch, as one would expect from a group of writers this talented. It's a collection that will appeal to anyone who loves excellent crime fiction, great cars and the open road. And with that combination, you can't possibly go wrong.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Perry Mason Comes to the Aid of an Elderly Shoplifter

The thirteenth entry in the Perry Mason series was published in 1938. It's still pretty early in the series and two of the major characters who would appear in virtually all of the books, D.A. Hamilton Burr and homicide detective Lieutenant Tragg, still have not been introduced. But the basic form of the novels has been established, and this is a very good example of the early books in the series.

As the book opens, Perry and his secretary, Della Street, duck out of a rain storm and have lunch in a department store tea room. The two observe what appears to be a refined, elderly woman, and Perry tells Della that the woman is a shoplifter. Sure enough, a store detective soon appears and begins bullying the poor old woman, whose name is Sarah Breel. 

Perry intervenes and the issue is settled, but almost as soon as he is back in his office, he's contacted by Breel's niece, Virginia Trent, a nervous young woman who is studying psychology. Virginia is convinced that her aunt has suddenly become a kleptomaniac. In particular, she's afraid that her aunt has stolen several very valuable diamonds that were left in the possession of Virginia's uncle, a jeweler.

Perry discounts the young woman's notion that her aunt has suddenly developed deep psychological problems but sure enough, the diamonds are missing. Before long, somebody will be dead and Sarah Breel will be found with blood on the heel of her shoe, a gun in her purse, and a handful of diamonds. As always, it looks like a slam-dunk victory for the D.A. who quickly charges Breel with murder in the first. But even this early in the game, the reader understands that it ain't over until Perry starts pulling rabbits out of a hat in the courtroom, and the book ends with one of the better courtroom scenes in the series.

This early on, the series was still heavily influenced by the pulp conventions of the day, and there are great scenes like this one: 

"Mason pushed his way through heavy green hangings and into an office. A man stared coldly at him from behind a desk. A woman, some years younger, her contours displayed by a clinging blue evening gown, stood near the corner of the desk. Her hair was glossy black and filled with highlights. Her full lips held no smile. Her brilliant black eyes blazed with emotions she strove to suppress. Full-throated, well-nourished, she seemed seductively full of life, in striking contrast to the man who sat behind the desk, his waxy skin stretched so tightly across his prominent cheekbones that there hardly seemed to be enough left to cover the teeth, which showed in that ghastly grin seen on starving people...."

Wow, all that and contours too! They don't write 'em like this anymore...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Chief Inspector Morse Is Bedeviled By the Daughters of Cain

Chief Inspector Morse's eleventh outing finds the brilliant, if unconventional, detective ailing, out of shape, and thinking about retirement and his own mortality. He'd be in a lot better health at this point if he'd only give up cigarettes and cut back on the amount of alcohol that he consumes. But of course, that's a lot easier said than done, and any long-time reader of this series knows that it's not going to happen.

As the book opens, Morse inherits a murder investigation from a colleague who claims that he needs to attend to his sickly wife. Morse assumes that the colleague is simply trying to duck out of a complicated case that he's been unable to solve, but he's happy to assume the responsibility nonetheless. 

The victim was a retired academic named Felix McClure. By all accounts, McClure was reasonably well liked and no one would have had a motive to stab him to death. Morse and his sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, begin their inquiries at the college from which the victim had recently retired. There they discover that some untoward activities had been taking place at the college and that, in fact, there might have been someone, or perhaps several someones, who wanted the good professor dead.

The case is further complicated when another murder occurs, and mixed up in all of this are three women, two of whom Morse will find very attractive. As is always the case in a novel by Colin Dexter, it's a complex puzzle and the reader can only be thankful that someone with the ability of Chief Inspector Morse is around to put all the pieces into place. Another good entry in a very engaging series.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Widow and a Journalist Combine Forces to Chase Down the Secret of a Company Called Bioflux

Kevin Burns is a journalist who has just lost his job with MSNBC for faking a report. He's trying to determine what he should do next when out of the blue, he's contacted by an old high school acquaintance named Carl Greene. The call is something of a surprise because Kevin and Carl were never close and Carl wound up marrying Kevin's old girlfriend, Lucy. 

Carl insists that he has a very important story that Kevin needs to hear. Naturally, since this is a thriller and not real life, Carl refuses to give Kevin even a hint over the phone but insists that they meet at a baseball game in Denver. And, of course, since this is a thriller and not real life, Carl will die in a mysterious car crash before he can meet with Kevin. But the appointment does serve to brink Kevin back to the Denver area where the three grew up.

Shortly after Carl's death, an intruder breaks into his house where Lucy, now his widow, is sleeping. Lucy wakes up and finds the intruder riffling through the files in Carl's study. She chases the intruder off and assumes it was simply a burglar, even though the intruder bypassed several very valuable items on the way to the study.

Of course the reader knows, as Lucy should know, that something much more sinister is going on here. Kevin and Lucy reconnect and the files in Carl's study are removed by a couple of guys from Bioflux, the company he works for. Shortly thereafter, the intruder returns and is extremely upset to discover that the files are gone.

Naturally, very dark and mysterious things are going on here. (How could they not be when you're dealing with a company called Bioflux?) Lucy, Kevin and an associate that I won't name for fear of giving away a plot point, join forces and go on the road in pursuit of whatever the secret was that Carl had uncovered. Very bad people will attempt to prevent them from succeeding in their mission.

I'm a huge fan of Jenny Siler's first two books, Easy Money and Iced, which both have very gritty, realistic plots and feature tough, edgy female protagonists. Shot is not a bad book, but it pales a bit by comparison to Siler's first two novels. It feels a little formulaic; the main protagonist, Lucy, is not nearly as compelling as the ones in the first two books, and the story seems a bit far-fetched. Three stars, if only because my expectations were set so high after the first two books.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom: The Collected Storeis

I've long been a fan of Martin Limon's series featuring Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom. The two are U.S. Army detectives, stationed in the South Korea of the 1970s. They are assigned to investigate crimes involving U.S. military personnel, which often places them at odds with the Korean National Police and with their own bosses. 

The U.S. Army and the North Koreans are principally concerned with maintaining good relations between our two countries, even if this occasionally means sweeping some unpleasantness, like the occasional odd murder, under the rug. However, Sueno, who is the brains of the pair, and Bascom who provides the muscle, are concerned first and foremost with securing whatever justice can be wrung out of a situation. And if somebody's toes get stepped on in the process, that's just too damn bad. This means that they often wind up pursuing an investigation to its logical conclusion over the objections of both the KNP and the Army brass. It also means that they are often in hot water with both.

Through the years, Limon has published a number of short stories featuring the pair, and this book brings them all together. There are seventeen stories in the collection and, like the novels, these stories provide a rich insight into the society and culture of both South Korea and the U.S. Army of the period. Limon spent twenty years in the Army, including ten in South Korea, and so he knows the country and the people well, not to mention the Army itself. These stories will appeal principally to people who enjoy the novels, but if you're a fan of crime fiction and haven't met Sergeants Sueno and Bascom yet, you should probably do yourself a favor and seek them out.