Friday, December 30, 2016

Another Challenging Case for the Monkeewrench Gang

Minnesota certainly seems to be a very dangerous place to live, and the bodies seem to fall right and left in the North Star State. Happily, though, there seem to be a lot of homicide detectives up there to continually put things right, including of course, Lucas Davenport, Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, that F***ing Virgil Flowers, Cork O'Connor, and Leo Magozzi and Gino Roiseth, among others.

The last team inhabits the world of the Monkeewrench series, written by the mother-daughter team, P. J. Tracy. And for Magozzi and Roiseth, if for no one else, things have been a bit slow lately. After their last big case, the Twin Cities seem to have calmed considerably and murder has been taking a holiday. "Homicide is dead," one of the detectives complains.

Which, naturally, falls into the category of Be Careful What You Wish For.

The hiatus is interrupted when Magozzi and Roiseth are called to the scene of a very puzzling murder. An elderly man named Morey Gilbert is found shot to death in the back yard of the plant nursery that he has run for years. It's raining and so his wife, a small elderly woman, thoughtfully moves the body inside and wrestles it up on a table. She shaves the victim and dresses him up so he'll look his best and only then does she call the cops.

In the process, of course, she has (conveniently?) destroyed almost all of the evidence that the detectives might have hoped to find at the scene. Naturally, they wonder why she might have done this. They're also curious about the behavior of the couple's son, Jack. Jack is one of those obnoxious personal injury lawyers who advertises on late-night TV. He drinks heavily and has been estranged from his parents for over two years for reasons that no one will discuss. But, just as the detectives begin to narrow in on the victim's family members, another elderly person who lives just down the street is also murdered. And then another...

Well, you get the picture. Someone is running around this neighborhood, killing elderly citizens and neither Magozzi or Roiseth nor any of their fellow detectives can figure out who or why. All of the victims were much beloved. None of them had any enemies, and there isn't a clue to be found.

In the meantime, over the last few months, Magozzi has been pursuing the world's slowest-moving romance with the troubled computer genius, Grace MacBride, of the Monkeewrench outfit that figured so prominently in the first book in the series. When all other avenues have reached a dead end, Magozzi asks Grace if she will apply her computer skills to the problem, knowing that she will doubtless be prowling through databases where she and the police have no legal right to be. And what she discovers will turn this case upside down.

This is another very entertaining entry in this series. It has it's light and breezy moments and a fair amount of humor. The characters are appealing and the plot is engaging. All in all, a fun read.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Long-Lost Spenser Short Story by Robert B. Parker

Thanks to my friend, Anthony, for tipping me to this short story, "Surrogate," by Robert B. Parker. The story was apparently commissioned by Playboy magazine, but they rejected it because the editors thought it was too dark. 

Back in the day, Playboy did publish a lot of fiction by Lawrence Block and others, including many of Block's original stories featuring Keller, the hit man. (I don't know this first hand, of course, but in reading collections of the Keller stories, I noted that they were first published in some magazine by that name. I assume that this was just another of those small academic journals that I've otherwise never heard of.) 

The story is, admittedly, very dark, but I'm not sure that it's any darker than many of the Keller stories, and I can't imagine why the magazine would have been so prudish about this one. After all, being prudish was not something that Playboy was generally known for.

The other interesting thing about this story is that this was apparently the only rejection that Parker ever got, which certainly sets him apart from the vast majority of other writers. He then did sell the story to another magazine with a very small circulation. Later, it was reprinted in a limited collector's edition, but it has been almost unknown and very hard to find. Anthony sent me a link to the story, which you can find here:

The story involves Brenda Loring, who was one of Spenser's first girlfriends and who is the woman every fan of the series wishes Spenser had remained involved with, rather than hitching his star (or his whatever) to the insufferable Susan Silverman. Brenda has a problem and turns to Spenser for help. You really can't say much more about the problem without giving away the heart of the story, but Spenser will race to her side and help deal with the issue.

It's an okay story and will be of interest mostly to those ardent fans who insist on reading every one of Spenser's escapades. One of those people would be me and it was nice to have a fresh Spenser story to read for the first time, even if it was very short.

Thanks again, Anthony!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Introducing Harry Bosch

Published in 1992, this is the book that introduced L.A.P.D. homicide detective, Harry Bosch. The series, which runs twenty-four books thus far, has remained strong throughout and is, almost certainly, the gold standard of modern police procedurals.

When we first meet Harry, he's already forty-two years old and has been the product of one institution after another for virtually his entire life. His father left the family when Harry was very young and Harry never really knew him. Harry's mother turned to prostitution and was murdered when Harry was eleven. After her death, he was assigned to California's version of child protective services. He spent the rest of his youth in a series of foster homes, then joined the army and served in Vietnam. Upon leaving the service, he joined the L.A.P.D., eventually becoming something of a star in the Homicide Division.

The fact that Bosh was a Vietnam vet and already forty-two in his initial outing would ultimately put his creator, Michael Connelly, in something of a box. By the time the series was to the current halfway point, Harry was already in his middle fifties and staring at retirement, a situation which limited the author's options. Still, Connelly has addressed the problem in innovative ways, although one wonders whether, if he had it to do all over again, he might have dealt with the situation in a different fashion.

Given that he's forty-two, with a long career already behind him, Bosch appears in these pages as a character that's already almost fully formed. He's a rare animal in the L.A.P.D. in that he genuinely cares about the job and about achieving justice for the victims of the crimes he investigates. Later in the series, he will articulate his motto, which is that "Everybody counts or nobody counts." But it's clear that he's already driven by this principle when we first meet him.

For Harry, it's often a pretty lonely road in a department that basically seems to be filled with self-serving cops and bureaucrats who are much less interested in serving justice than they are in achieving their own ends. For example, Harry's partner has a side career in real estate and makes it very clear that the real estate job is much more important to him than being a cop. All he wants to do is put in his twenty years, collect his pension, and go into real estate full time. And if one of his current jobs gets in the way of the other, more likely it will be the police work that suffers.

If anything, the people in the chain of command above Harry are even worse. They're much more interested in advancing their own careers and protecting the image of the department than they are in the department's mission to serve and protect. And this means that Bosch is going to be in trouble almost all the time, in this book and throughout his career. Everybody admits that Harry is a brilliant detective, but he's not a team player and his actions occasionally embarrass the department. Accordingly, the Powers That Be would just as soon force Harry off the job and he's constantly battling against his superiors and against detectives from the Internal Affairs Division who will go to almost any lengths to dig up dirt against him.

Not that Harry is all that congenial himself. For whatever reason, perhaps because of his background, he doesn't relate very well to other people and it seems at times as though he goes out of his way to offend people, even when they're trying to get along with him. 

A prime example is his smoking. By 1992, the health hazards of smoking and of second-hand smoke were pretty well established and already, lots of offices, restaurants and other such places were supposed to be smoke-free. Harry could care less and assumes that the rules simply don't apply to him. He's constantly lighting up in places where smoking is prohibited and in the presence of people who specifically ask him not to smoke. Even in the company of a woman he's allegedly trying to impress, Bosch still insists on smoking, even though it clearly annoys her. In fact, he becomes something of an asshole on this issue. It's hardly the way to win friends and influence people, but Harry clearly doesn't care.

The Black Echo begins when Harry is called to a death site near a dam. It appears that a heroin addict has crawled into a large pipe and overdosed. The case should be open and shut, and Harry's partner, the real estate salesman, clearly wants to declare it an OD and get back to the open house that he's hosting. But the scene doesn't look right to Harry and he pushes forward with the investigation.

Things really get interesting when the body is finally pulled out of the pipe and Harry vaguely recognizes the victim as William Meadows who served with Bosch in Vietnam. The two were "tunnel rats" who went deep underground to explore and destroy enemy tunnels. As Harry presses forward he discovers any number of other incongruities and ties Meadows to a crime that is currently under investigation by the F.B.I.

Bosch contacts the F.B.I., hoping to link their two investigations in an attempt to solve both the murder case that Harry is pursuing and the crime that the Fibbies are investigating. But the Bureau is just as hide-bound and as self-serving as the L.A.P.D., and Harry runs into roadblocks there as well.

Any other detective would almost certainly give up and just follow orders to lay off. But not Harry Bosch. He will pursue this case to the bitter end, no matter who he has to alienate or what he has to sacrifice in the process. And in this case it takes him through a brilliantly plotted story that leads to a tremendous climax. 

From the very beginning Harry Bosch has been one of the most compelling figures ever to inhabit the world of crime fiction and he continues to fill that role twenty-four years down the road from this book. The Black Echo is a great beginning to what has become a fabulous series.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mitch Rapp Is the Third Option in This Thriller from the Late Vince Flynn

As a general rule, I often enjoy movies about super-stud, kick-ass spies like James Bond or Jason Bourne, who are often caught up in labyrinthian plots where everyone is betraying everyone else and you never know who to trust. But for whatever reason, I've never been very fond of books about these sorts of characters. The characters often seem very one-dimensional and the plots are so completely over the top that I just can't suspend disbelief long enough to spend three or four hours reading them. (I have no idea why I can do this for a movie but not a book; go figure.)

At any rate, for this reason I have never read a Vince Flynn book featuring his series character, Mitch Rapp. But then this month one of my book clubs selected Flynn's novel The Third Option and trooper that I am, I sat down and read it. I didn't hate the book, and I'm actually glad I read it just for the experience. I recognize that Flynn does (or did) what he does very well, and I know that this sort of book appeals to large numbers of readers. But again, I just couldn't buy into it, and my three-star rating may be unfair because it really reflects the fact that this book, however well done, is just not my cup of tea.

The book takes its title from the notion that the United States occasionally faces problems where diplomacy doesn't work and where full-scale military action would be inappropriate. In such cases, the C.I.A., or some other super-secret government agency, may resort to the "third option," which is to send in a highly-trained killer to deal secretly with the problem, even though such action may be illegal, immoral, or unconstitutional.

In this case, a German industrialist has been secretly selling equipment to Saddam Hussein which would enable Iraq to build a nuclear weapon. (This book was published in 2000, before we invaded Iraq and long before we realized that Hussein actually had no such weapons.) In this case, the C.I.A. resorts to the "third option," although naturally it would never admit to doing so. The director dispatches Mitch Rapp to kill the industrialist and other activities are also mapped out which will hopefully suggest that the Iraqis or some other nasty folks have assassinated the guy, deflecting any attention away from the U.S.

Inevitably, problems arise and it turns out that our hero is caught up in a nasty Washington, D.C. turf battle. The director of the C.I.A. is dying and there's a major struggle over his successor. Rapp's mission is compromised by forces in the government opposed to the director's chosen successor. Once this happens, all hell breaks loose and the bodies are going to be falling left and right. There's very little hope that this might turn out well, and what little hope there is rides on the broad shoulders of Mitch Rapp.

As I said, to my mind this is an "okay" book, but it could have been better. There are a ton of characters parading through the book and it's very hard to keep them all straight. Flynn complicates matters by naming one of the main characters Cameron and another Coleman. They're often on the scene together and every time one of them appears, the reader has to stop and try to remember which of the two is the really bad guy and which is the sort-of-okay guy. There's no excuse for an author complicating matters like that.

In books like this virtually all of the women are super-sexy vixens. Some of them are assassins too, and for some reason, most of these women seemed to have been trained by the Israelis. These women are cool customers and hardened killers, and most of them seem to have discovered that they love guns even better than sex. One such woman appears in this book and when we first meet her, she's walking down the streets in Milan in four-inch heels. The shoes are not particularly comfortable, but if a female character wants to appear in a book like this, she has to make the necessary sacrifices.

In this case, however, the woman walks into a building, and for no reason whatsoever, instead of taking the elevator, she climbs four flights of stairs in her four-inch heels! Only in a book like this would any woman do such a thing.

My major complaint about the book has to do with action that occurs very early on. Spoiler alert: Do not read beyond this point unless you want a major plot point revealed. 

When Rapp shows up at the mansion to kill the German industrialist, he's accompanied by a female partner. On the way out the door, she asks Rapp if he's wearing his Kevlar vest and he says no. Once Rapp has killed the industrialist and his bodyguard, the woman then turns and shoots Rapp twice in the chest. (She has double-crossed him for reasons too complicated to explain.) She then high-tails it out of the room, leaving Rapp dead on the floor behind her. But, of course, he really isn't dead, because, contrary to what he told her, he really is wearing Kevlar, and so he will rise up and wreak serious vengeance on those who set him up.

This development takes the reader right out of the story because anyone knows that even the most incompetent hit person on the planet always finishes off his victim with a shot to the head. But not this woman. Of course, she can't do that or the book will end on page 25, but the whole scene is totally nonsensical. Anybody who's ever read even a couple of these books could figure out a way that Flynn could have finessed this problem without having the character do something so stupid. But, for me at least, this scene, which was supposed to be one of great tension, turned into a laugh-out-loud moment, and it made it even harder to take any of the rest of the book even remotely seriously. (hide spoiler)]

Again, I'm glad I read the book, just for the experience. But I probably won't be lining up to read another.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Another Great Thriller from Jenny Siler

As was the case with her first three novels, Jenny Siler's fourth book features a strong, independent, courageous and intelligent female protagonist. Unlike the first three books, however, Flashback is set overseas, mostly in Morocco.

The story opens in Burgundy. A group of French nuns has found a badly injured young woman lying in a ditch. The woman has been shot in the head and has lost all memory of her past life. She remembers how to do a great many things, but she has no idea of her personal past. A scar indicates that he once gave birth to a child, and her excellent teeth strongly suggests that she is an American. Otherwise, the only clue to her past is a ticket from a Tangier ferry with some letters scribbled on it.

The nuns name the young woman "Eve" and take her into their convent where she works in the kitchen while working with a doctor to try to recover her memory. Then a tragedy drives her out of the convent and sends her on the run. With nothing to guide her but the ferry ticket which she found in her pocket, she heads to North Africa in an effort to find the woman she once was.

This will be no safe or easy task, and it quickly becomes clear that, whoever she was in her past life, "Eve" had pissed off some very dangerous people. The story is more than a little reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie in that neither Eve nor the reader can tell friend from foe as she pursues her quest and the suspense heightens at nearly every turn.

Siler writes beautifully and her descriptions of North Africa are nearly poetic. "Eve" is a well-drawn and very believable character; the puzzle she confronts is an engrossing one, and this is a book that will appeal to any reader who enjoys a compelling thriller with a dash of international intrigue.

Monday, December 12, 2016

An Excellent Stand-Alone Novel from the Creator of Harry Hole

This is a very good stand-alone novel from Jo Nesbo, author of the series featuring the brilliant Norwegian homicide detective, Harry Hole. This psychological thriller features two protagonists. The first is a young man named Sonny Loftus. Sonny's father was exposed as a corrupt cop and took his own life. Completely destroyed by the loss of the father he adored and disillusioned by the revelations about the man, Sonny turns to drugs. Now in his middle-thirties, Sonny has spend half his life in prison, and he's now serving time for crimes that he did not commit. As a reward for confessing to crimes perpetrated by others, he is given "easy" time and access to an on-going supply of heroin.

Sonny has a rare gift of empathy and has earned a reputation among his fellow prisoners as a figure who can absolve them of their sins. Whether he actually can or not is immaterial, but the prisoners who confess to him almost always feel a deep sense of relief once they have done so. But then one day Sonny receives information that turns his world upside down. His reaction is to make a very clever break from the prison and set out on a mission known only to himself.

The second major protagonist is Simon Kefas, the policeman who attempts to track Sonny down. Simon was Sonny's father's partner and best friend and, more than anything else, Simon wants to protect Sonny from the consequences of his own actions.

The story's point of view shifts back and forth between the two main characters and the tension mounts from start to finish. Both are flawed and very intriguing characters, and in the end the reader may have a tough time deciding which of them to root for. It's an absorbing story from Nesbo that will appeal to a variety of readers, especially to the fans of his Harry Hole novels.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Long-Lost Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner, Writing As A. A. Fair

This is the second novel in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series, which was written by "A.A. Fair," a pseudonym for Erle Stanley Gardner, who is much better known, of course, for his series featuring the lawyer, Perry Mason. 

Or, at least it was intended to be the second novel in the series. When Gardner turned the book into his publisher, they refused it, arguing that the book's approach to adultery and sex exceeded the limits of good taste. In the book, Bertha insists that virtually every man cheats on his wife--that it's the nature of the beast--and that an intelligent wife will simply accommodate herself to the fact and not get bent out of shape about it. But it's probably not an idea that a large number of people would have endorsed in that day and age.

Then there's the sex. At one point, Donald escorts a shapely young blonde home in the agency's car. As they sit outside the woman's apartment house, Donald reports that, "She didn't try to stop me in anything I did....She let my hands wander around the outside of her clothes, caressing her curves. I had a feeling she'd given me the key to the city, but I didn't try any doors that I thought she'd prefer to keep locked." Apparently pretty racy stuff, for 1939!

Gardner apparently never attempted to revise the book to make it more suitable for publication; he just moved on to other projects, which included twenty-nine books in the Lam-Cool series. But the Erle Stanley Gardner Trust has finally resurrected the book and the folks at Hard Case Crime have now published it, only seventy-seven years late, apparently concluding that the reading public will now be able to handle it without fainting in shock.

It's clear that Gardner is still feeling his way along here. Donald Lam is still only a junior operative in the firm and the character is still taking shape. Bertha Cool's character is already more firmly fixed--a big, tough, no-nonsense woman who squeezes every nickle until it bleeds and who believes that her firm exists solely to make money as opposed to pursuing justice, And if she has to bend a few rules along the way, that's perfectly fine.

The story opens, as they often do, when a new client appears at the office with a seemingly simple request. A woman comes in with her daughter; they believe that the daughter's husband is cheating, and they want the firm to investigate. Bertha wheedles as much money as she can out of the mother in the way of a fee and then sends Donald out to shadow the husband and get the evidence.

And, as always happens, of course, this seemingly innocuous case will morph into something much more sinister and dangerous. There will be a murder, naturally, and the case involves a lot of municipal corruption, which was a staple of pulp crime novels during this era. Through it all, Donald will struggle to survive and to solve the case, while Bertha plays all the angles in an effort to maximize her profit. It's a lot of fun and will appeal principally to fans who already know of and enjoy the series, which now rounds out at thirty books. It's nice to have this one in the collection.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Young, Inexperienced Sheriff Hunts the Killer of His Predecessor

The More They Disappear is a very spare and bleak novel that traces the events following the murder of a long-serving sheriff in a small town in rural Kentucky. The town and its people are clearly in decline; unemployment and drug addiction have taken a heavy toll, and political corruption has made matters even worse.

The murdered sheriff headed a small force of mostly ill-trained and apathetic deputies, and the job passes, at least temporarily, to perhaps the most capable of these, Harlan Dupee. Dupee has personal problems of his own and has never recovered from the death of the one woman who made his life complete. But he is determined to do the best he can with the limited resources he has available.

His most formidable challenge is to find the person who killed his predecessor, but this will not be an easy task. Harlan soon discovers that his former boss was a man of deep secrets and contradictions, as are many of his constituents. Another of the major characters is a young woman from a prominent local family who is lost in the grip of an addiction to OxyContin. And it doesn't help that her boyfriend is a low-level dealer.

The story of Harlan's hunt for the killer is an interesting one, but it basically takes a back seat to the larger story of the very heavy toll that drug addiction combined with the lack of economic opportunity can take on a small town. Donaldson paints the picture brilliantly, even if it is an enormously depressing one. This is not a book that's going to put a big smile on anyone's face, but it has the ring of truth and marks Jesse Donaldson as a writer to watch.