Monday, January 30, 2017

Harry Bosch Confronts a Host of Enemies and Dangers in "The Black Ice"

It's Christmas night and L.A.P.D homicide detective Harry Bosch is eating his Christmas dinner alone at home, with only a jazz CD and the police scanner to keep him company. He doesn't mind spending the holiday alone; in fact, he prefers it. Harry is a loner who identifies with a solitary coyote that hangs out near his house.

Harry's evening is interrupted when he picks up chatter on the police scanner regarding a suspicious death in a down-at-the-heels Hollywood motel. It's clear from the scanner that department brass are assembling at the scene and Harry can't help but wonder what in the hell is going on. He's on call and should have been the first one notified of the death. He calls in only to discover that the brass are taking control of the situation and that he is supposed to stay well away.

Fat chance. 

Harry goes to the scene and discovers that the body is that of a missing narcotics cop, Calexico Moore, who may have gone over to the dark side. It appears that Moore has committed suicide in the bathroom of the seedy motel. It's also clear that the brass want to close the case ASAP, sweep the bad news under the rug, and limit any damage to the department's reputation.

Harry is specifically ordered to stay well away from the case, and shortly thereafter his boss assigns him a pile of homicide cases that belonged to a useless detective who has suddenly quit the department. Harry's boss is anxious to see an improvement in the unit's clearance rate by the end of the year, which is only a week away. He begs Harry to pick through the cases in an effort to solve the easiest one or two of them in time to sweeten up the stat sheet.

Reluctantly, Harry begins digging into the cases only to find one homicide that crosses the trail of Calexico Moore, the dead narcotics detective. Even though he's been instructed to stay clear of the Moore case, Harry begins digging into the ties that seem to link the two cases. In the process, he will stumble into a web of intrigue and will also mightily antagonize his superiors. But Harry Bosch serves justice first, and has absolutely no time or respect for a bunch of self-serving bureaucrats. 

Harry will follow the trail wherever it leads no matter the dangers to his career or to his personal safety. It's a great ride with lots of surprising twists and turns, a novel that will appeal to a large number of crime fiction fans and that will also further establish the reputation of this series as the best police procedural series of the modern era.

Shell Scott Searches for a Vanished Beauty in This Classic Pulp Novel from Gold Medal

First published in 1950, this short novel introduced Shell Scott, a private investigator in the old, classic pulp mold. He's a man's man who is also, naturally, irresistible to women--the kind of a guy who eats a two-inch-thick steak for breakfast, who keeps a bottle of whiskey in the office desk drawer, who's quick on his feet and who's a tough guy to fight against.

The book opens when a (naturally) beautiful woman named Georgia Martin appears in Scott's office and hires him to accompany her to a night club. She won't say why she wants Scott to escort her, but he learns pretty quickly that Georgia is looking for her younger sister, Tracy, who is missing. 

The floor show at the club involves a knife-throwing act. The target is a very sexy Latin woman who is (naturally) immediately attracted to our intrepid hero. There are also some gangsters lurking about and the woman who runs the place is an interesting piece of work.

Things happen, as they must in a book like this, and soon the game is on. The whole thing is pretty preposterous, but a fair amount of fun just the same. The book reflects the attitudes of the post-World War II era, and so if you're uncomfortable with a book in which women are often treated like "dames," and where the racial assumptions of the era were different than those of our own, then this might not be the book for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the occasional stroll down memory lane back to a time when pulp novels like this could be found on the spinning racks of virtually any drugstore or news stand, this can be a very enjoyable way to waste a couple of hours some evening.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Farewell to Chief Inspector Morse

Reading the last novel in a series that you've really enjoyed is always something of a bittersweet experience, and such is the case with this, the thirteenth and last entry in Colin Dexter's series featuring Chief Inspector Morse. Through it all, Morse has remained his brilliant, cheap, curmudgeonly self, often irritating many of those around him, but nonetheless always producing a solution to a very complicated crime. And, standing by his side through it all, has been his faithful and often put-upon sergeant, Lewis, who loves working with Morse even if the man can often be a selfish pain in the butt.

Throughout the years, Morse has always consumed way too much alcohol and tobacco for his own good, while lying to his doctors and to everyone else about his bad habits. But inevitably, those bad habits are catching up with him and even though his health has taken a decided turn for the worse, he refuses to make any real concessions to his health problems.

As this book opens, Morse is on a temporary leave, resting up, when his boss, Superintendent Strange, asks him to take on a new case, or an old one, actually. A year earlier, a woman named Yvonnne Harrison was found murdered in her home, naked and handcuffed in her bed. Mrs. Harrison was reputed to be a woman of interesting sexual habits, but all of the obvious suspects, including Mr. Harrison, seemed to have iron-clad alibis, and the original investigation got nowhere. 

But now, Strange tells Morse that he has received two anonymous phone calls with new leads in the case and he wants Morse, his most brilliant investigator, to take it over. Morse is almost always keen to take on a complicated case, but in this instance he refuses, claiming that his health is bad and that he's not interested in the case. Strange assigns Sergeant Lewis to run down some leads, but Lewis discovers that Morse, although claiming not to be interested, is already about two steps ahead of him.

As the situation unfolds, additional bodies will fall by the wayside; Morse will finally be drawn into the case, and, fitting for the climax of the series, it's one of the most complex of his career. As always, the plot is extremely convoluted and one wonders if even Chief Inspector Morse will be able to sort it all out.

This is a book that will appeal to those who like traditional British mysteries or who have enjoyed the television series featuring John Thaw as Morse. It's been great fun working my way through them all again.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Quinn Colson Returns in Another Great Novel from Ace Atkins

There's a new sheriff in town, or in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, to be more precise. Ex-Army Ranger, Quinn Colson, who had returned from Afghanistan, been elected sheriff and begun cleaning up the county, has been voted out of office, the victim of a smear campaign conducted by his opponent. Colson's successor is murdered almost immediately upon assuming the office, and this leaves Quinn's trusted deputy, Lillie Virgil, as acting sheriff.

Looking for a change, Quinn goes back to Afghanistan to help train the government's forces. But after a year, he's back in Mississippi only to discover that a number of other changes have occurred. Thanks to Colson, Johnny Stagg, the crime boss and county commissioner who had run the county as his private fiefdom, is now in jail. The truck stop and strip club that Stagg had owned and operated is under new management in the person of Fannie Hathcock, a tough, no nonsense woman who is determined to hold her own against both Sheriff Lillie Virgil and the outsiders who want to muscle in on her operation.

Quinn returns to find that both his family and his love life are about as dysfunctional as they were when he left. In particular, his father, ex-Hollywood stuntman Jason Colson, has grandiose dreams of building a dude ranch on land adjoining Quinn's farm. The issue is complicated by the fact that the land in question is owned by none other than the imprisoned Johnny Stagg, who continues to be Quinn Colson's bitter enemy. The elder Colson attempts to entice his son into joining his grand schemes, and the reader can only hope that Quinn has better sense.

As all of this plays out, a young woman who was once the top cheerleader at the local high school takes a job working at Fannie Hathcock's renovated strip club. She's a natural on the pole and is pulling down huge tips until she is brutally murdered. The investigation into her death turns into a three-ring circus, and Lillie Virgil recruits Quinn Colson to come back to work for the county, this time as her deputy. As things spin out of control, even Lillie and Quinn working together may not be enough to hold back the chaos.

This is another very good entry in an excellent series. In his fictional Tibbehah County, Atkins has created a fully-formed world with believable characters who range from being extremely sympathetic to downright loathsome. Quinn Colson, in particular, is a very appealing protagonist, and it's always fun spending a few hours with him in his home county, even if it might not be a place where I'd enjoy living on a permanent basis.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Investigates the Death of an Apparent Homeless Man

Published in 1987, this is the fourth novel in the series featuring Boston attorney, Brady Coyne. The most unusual thing about this series is that, in the twenty-eight books that constitute the series, we never once saw Brady Coyne in court. And, for that matter, there's very little legal argument in any of the books. Almost always, as in this case, one of Coyne's very wealthy clients asks for his assistance with a problem that has very little to do with legal matters.

In this instance, Senator Ben Woodhouse, a rare Massachusetts Republican, asks Brady to look into the death of his nephew, Stu Carver. Carver was found dead in an alley in freezing weather, dressed in the rags of a homeless man. There was no identification on the man and no apparent trauma to his body, and so the police are ready to dismiss the case as the accidental death of yet another bum who froze to death on a cold Boston night.

But then, the victim is identified and it turns out that he's the nephew of an important politician. So the cops decide to pay closer attention. They order up an autopsy, which they otherwise would not have done, and it turns out that Carver was stabbed to death by someone who stuck an icepick into his left ear. (Ouch!)

Even with this new evidence, the police are inclined to write off the case as an attack on a homeless man. It's too bad; regrettably, it happens all too often; they have no leads at all, and so they aren't inclined to do much about it. Thus the senator contacts Brady Coyne and asks him to look into the case.

Brady quickly learns that Stu Carver was not just your average homeless person. He was actually a successful author who was doing a book on the homeless. To thoroughly immerse himself in the problem, he actually became a homeless person. Digging deeper into the killing, Brady discovers that Carver may have discovered something that he shouldn't have. Perhaps even worse, he may have written about it in his notebooks. And this, in turn, may put a lot of other people in mortal danger, not least among them, his uncle's attorney.

This is another very good entry in the series. The book is a bit dated, of course, but it's fun to spend a few hours in the company of Brady Coyne. And once you're immersed in the story, it doesn't even occur to you that nobody has an i-Phone or a tablet, or even much of a computer. This series never achieved the prominence of, say, Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, which was also set in Boston, but nonetheless, most of the books in it, this one included, will appeal to a lot of crime fiction fans.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Married Private Detectives Confront Married Hired Killers in This Entertaining Novel from Thomas Perry

This is another very enjoyable stand-alone novel from Thomas Perry, author of the Butcher's Boy and Jane Whitefield series. It's unique in that it has two sets of married couples who serve as the book's protagonists. The first, Sid and Ronnie Abel, have been married for thirty years. They're retired L.A.P.D. detectives who have opened their own agency. The other couple is Ed and Nicole Hoyt. They Hoyts are younger and they work as hired killers. Both couples are smart and funny in a wry sort of way. And all four individuals appear to be excellent shots.

A year before the book opens, the body of a man named James Ballentine was found in an overflowing sewer drain. Ballentine was a scientist working for a private company, and everyone told the police that he was a very nice guy with no enemies at all. Presumably, they weren't including the person who shot Ballentine twice before shoving him into the sewer drain.

A year down the road, the case remains open. The detective who was principally assigned to the case has died and the investigation is going nowhere. Anxious to see justice done, the board of directors of the company that employed Ballentine hires the Ables to dig into the case. They've barely begun, however, before someone is taking shots at them. That "someone" turns out to be the Hoyts who have been hired to eliminate the Abels. The Hoyts don't know why their employer wants the Ables dead, and it doesn't really matter. They're happy to have the work.

The book alternates between the P.O.V. of the Abels and the Hoyts. The relationships are a lot of fun to watch, and it's also fun watching each couple go about its business while trying very hard not to fail at their own missions because of the other couple. Perry is a master of weaving clever plots, and he puts both couples through their paces before the book reaches a great climax. This book is further evidence of the fact that a reader can always depend on Perry for a thoroughly entertaining reading experience.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Former Detective John Rebus Returns to the Force As a Consultant in This Excellent Tale

The twentieth book in this great series finds the protagonist, former Edinburgh police detective John Rebus, finally retired. The hard work of detecting has been turned over to younger men and women like Rebus's long-time protege, Siobhan Clarke, and his one-time nemesis, Malcolm Fox. Fox, a former member of the Complaints division (Scotland's version of Internal Affairs) is still distrusted by almost every other police officer, and has been assigned to a relatively useless role assisting a surveillance team visiting from Glasgow. The team has spent months attempting to take down a major Glasgow crime family and has followed the father and son to Edinburgh, where the criminals are allegedly attempting to find a man who has stolen valuable property from them.

At the same time, Siobhan is investigating the murder of Lord David Minton an elderly, influential former prosecutor. The initial assumption is that the victim was killed during a burglary, even though nothing appears to have been taken. But then Clarke discovers that Minton had received a note threatening his life just before he was killed. Shortly thereafter, someone takes a shot at "Big Ger" Cafferty, an infamous Edinburgh crime boss. The only cop, or ex-cop, that Cafferty will even think about discussing the matter with is his long-time nemesis, John Rebus. Over the years, the two adversaries have developed a grudging respect for each other, and Rebus agrees to be the intermediary between Cafferty and the police.

The plot thickens considerably when it turns out that Cafferty received the same threatening note that Lord Minton had gotten. The case also seems to tie into the surveillance that Malcolm Fox is working, and retired or not, once John Rebus has the bit between his teeth, nothing is going to stop him from immersing himself in the investigation.

The result is one of the best entries in what has been a consistently excellent series. Rebus is in top form, and it's great to see him back in harness, working alongside Clarke and Fox. Of course, as any fan of the series knows, for John Rebus, "working alongside" his colleagues should be interpreted very loosely. Rebus has always been his own man, and he's not at all reluctant to stray off the reservation in the pursuit of an investigation, irrespective of what his supervisors or his colleagues might think. Working with him, even in "retirement," can be a very taxing exercise for those around him. But for the reader, it's enormous fun. I can only hope John Rebus is still investigating cases and frustrating his superiors for years to come.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Take On Another Very Dangerous and Mystifying Case

The fourth entry in A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)'s Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series is set in 1940. It's still early in the game for Donald and Bertha, but the series is hitting its stride, and while there are still a couple of wrinkles to be worked out, the general parameters of the series are now in place. Bertha is the big, tough, cheap, no-nonsense half of the team, while Donald is the small, brainy guy who is irresistible to women and who always seems to be half a step ahead of everyone else in the game, most especially, Bertha, who constantly nags and questions whatever he's doing until he inevitably pulls a rabbit out of the hat and saves everyone's bacon.

The case opens when Bertha hires a Japanese judo instructor to teach Donald how to defend himself. He's a small guy and is constantly getting beaten up. He's also a valuable asset, and Bertha would like to see him survive. (It's 1940, and so there are a lot of politically incorrect references to the "Jap" instuctor.) This proves to be a difficult proposition, and the lessons aren't going very well, but then a potential client drops by in the middle of one of Donald's lessons. The guy needs a private detective to check up on his daughter and conceives of the notion of having Donald come out to his house on the pretense of giving him physical fitness tips as a means of getting Donald close to the daughter.

It's a hare-brained scheme, especially since Donald is failing miserably at his his own lessons, but for a hundred bucks a day, Bertha thinks it's a great idea. Once in the household, Donald quickly concludes that the beautiful, feisty daughter is being blackmailed. All sorts of other shenanigans are taking place, and pretty quickly, somebody gets killed and all hell breaks loose. Donald will have to think very quickly to survive this case and save everyone involved, including the client and his boss.

Like virtually every other book written by Gardner, the Perry Masons included, the whole thing gets pretty preposterous, but it's still a lot of fun. And if you just suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, it's a very entertaining way to spend a winter evening.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A New York Hit Man Runs into Trouble in Shaky Town

This is a very good first novel from screenwriter Scott Frank who wrote the scripts for "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight," and a number of other very entertaining movies. It's at times bloody, amusing, and heart-breaking, and it features a great cast of memorable characters.

Principal among them is a New York hit man named Roy Cooper who flies to L.A. to carry out an assignment but who then gets caught up in an earthquake and any number of other potential disasters before he can safely get out of town after completing his mission.

Roy sensibly parks his rental car a couple of blocks away from the home of his target, but once the job is done, he gets turned around and can't find the car. As he's searching for it, he stumbles onto a group of young gangbangers who are robbing an elderly jogger. Frank intervenes, but disaster ensues and Frank winds up shot. 

A witness sees it all go down from his window above but, not surprisingly in this day and age, instead of calling the cops, the idiot films the whole thing with his phone and then sells the video. The video goes viral, and Roy is mistaken for a hero, which leaves him hospitalized and in deep trouble. Roy had been off the grid for a very long time and now suddenly he's on everyone's radar, including that of several people who would very much like to see him removed from the scene altogether.

In fairly short order, Roy has both the cops and a lot of bad guys hunting him down. One cop in particular, Kelly Maguire, has problems of her own that are almost at least as bad as Roy's, but nevertheless, she will soon be hot on his trail. Also in (more or less) hot pursuit are a couple of the young gangbangers who feel dissed by Roy's interruption of their crime and who are determined to build their own reps, in part at Roy's expense.

Meanwhile, the damned city is still shaking from aftershocks and it's almost impossible to get anywhere, at least very quickly, because of the damage to the roads and bridges. This complicates matters for all concerned. This is a very well-told tale with crisp dialog, great plotting and very well-drawn characters. All in all, a story that seems to end a lot sooner than the reader might wish.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Chief Inspector Morse Conducts His Penultimate Investigation

Chief Inspector Morse returns for his twelfth outing more than a little worse for the wear. His drinking and smoking, in particular, are now catching up with him and he's beginning to pay the price for all of the years through which he's neglected his physical well-being. Any number of people, including his faithful sergeant, Lewis, urge him to reform before it's too late, but any long-time reader of the series understands, like Lewis, that it isn't going to happen.

The demands of another complex and demanding case certainly won't help. As the book opens, the Master of Lonsdale College in Oxford has announced his retirement. Two candidates stand for election to the position. Each man wants the job very badly, although perhaps neither man wants to be the Master as much as his wife wants to be the First Lady of the college.

One would expect that the academics would get all of this sorted out within the confines of their own small world, but the larger universe intrudes when a young woman is found shot to death early one morning. There would appear to be no motive, but as Morse begins his investigation of the crime, he will discover that the poor woman did have a connection to one of the candidates in the college election. There's also a journalist involved, and the demands of the investigation will require poor Morse to have to work his way through a number of tacky strip clubs in Soho, a task he would never think to assign to his poor, overworked sergeant.

Like all of the Morse mysteries, this one is densely complicated, and only someone as gifted as the Chief Inspector will ever be able to sort it out--assuming that he lives long enough to do so. This penultimate addition to the series is another very very entertaining read, even if a little bittersweet, knowing that we're approaching the end of the line. It should certainly appeal to any fan of the series.