Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Take a Gamble in Vegas

The fourth novel to feature Los Angeles P.I. Donald Lam and his boss, Bertha Cool, takes place in 1941. Donald has just picked up Bertha from a sanitarium in San Francisco where she has been treated for various ailments. In the process, she has shed over a hundred pounds and is down to a hundred and sixty. The doctor has stressed to both Bertha and Donald that it is essential that she keep off the weight that she has lost, but Bertha, Donald and anyone who reads this series all know what the chances of that are.

Flying back to L.A., Donald and Bertha stop off in Las Vegas to meet with a potential client. (Times are still so innocent that you can get to the airport ten minutes before the plane is scheduled to depart. Once seated, you can still get off the plane two minutes before flight time to get a candy bar in the terminal, and still be back in your seat with time to spare. But I digress...)

The client, who is also from L.A., has a problem. His son's fiancee has abruptly disappeared and the son is heartbroken. The young woman's trail leads to Las Vegas. The father, a big-shot businessman, was not all that knocked about the forthcoming nuptials, but he loves his son. He wants Bertha and Donald to find the missing fiancee; in the alternative, he hopes they can find some proof that she left of her own volition, which will perhaps help repair the poor boy's broken heart.

All of the action in the book takes place in Vegas and Reno. As is always the case with these books, the plot is pretty convoluted and doesn't make much sense in the harsh light of day. But it's always fun to watch Lam at work and to monitor his relationship with Bertha. Readers who enjoy spending time in Las Vegas or Reno in the present day, should enjoy the descriptions of the two cities from seventy-five years ago, well before the age of Siegfried and Roy and Circqe du soleil.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Virgil Tibbs Confronts the Racism of a Small Southern Town In the Heat of the Night

This is the novel upon which the movie In the Heat of the Night was based. Set in a small town in South Carolina in the early 1960s, the book opens with the discovery of a body lying in the highway late one night. The victim is a prominent musician who had been active in organizing a music festival which many hoped would revive the fading fortunes of the town. His death is thus a blow to the hopes of the entire community.

The police chief, a man named Gillespie, is new to the job. Previously a jailer in Texas, he was hired by the town council basically because they could hire him cheap. He's never been a police officer before and has no experience as a homicide investigator, so he's basically clueless here. Not knowing what else to do, he orders his principal deputy to look for anyone attempting to leave town. In checking the train station, the deputy discovers a black man waiting for the next train. The deputy puts the man up against the wall, frisks him, and discovers a wallet full of money.

Looking no further, the deputy takes the man to the station and presents him to the chief as the logical murderer. The chief joins in the assumption, principally because he believes that no black man could have ever honestly earned the amount of money in the wallet. But then it turns out that the suspect, Virgil Tibbs, is, in fact, a police officer from Pasadena, California. He's on his way home after visiting his mother.

The chief calls his counterpart in Pasadena and discovers that Tibbs is not only a police officer, but a skilled homicide investigator. The Pasadena chief offers to loan Virgil's services to Gillespie, if he can be of any help. The notion that he might accept help from a black man is clearly anathema to Gillespie, but he has no idea how to solve this crime on his own and, given the high profile of the victim, Gillespie knows that if the murder is not solved he will most likely be out of a job. Accordingly, he swallows his pride and allows that Virgil might "assist" him in his investigation.

Virgil himself is torn. At one level he simply wants to get out of town as quickly as possible and get back to Pasadena where he doesn't face the kind of prejudice and discrimination that confronts him in South Carolina. On the other hand, though, he's obviously tempted to show up these racists and solve the crime when they will never be able to do so. In the end, he agrees to stay long enough to see the case through, and this book winds up being not nearly as much of a murder mystery as it is an examination of the implications of race in the deep South in the early 1960s. Virgil will suffer repeated insults and will face grave physical danger because of his race, but the dignity and intelligence with which he responds is really a timeless example for people of any race.

Inevitably, the movie takes some liberties with the book, but overall, it's a very good adaptation. Sidney Poitier is brilliant in the role of Virgil Tibbs, but plays the character with a bit more of an edge than the Tibbs of the novel. Rod Steiger is also perfect as Gillespie, and reading the book after seeing the film, it's impossible not to see the two actors when thinking of the characters. 

Both the book and the movie move swiftly with no wasted time or space, but one wonders whether it would be possible to publish this book or make this movie in the present day. Would audiences be willing to accept a black character who responds as calmly as Tibbs does to the discrimination that confronts him? Would they not insist that he react much more forcefully against it? Whatever the case, both the book and the movie have held up very well and are still as entertaining and as instructive as they were in the middle 1960s.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Confronts a Multitude of Mysteries in the Woods of Northern Maine

The fifth novel featuring Boston attorney Brady Coyne opens when Brady gets a call from one of his very wealthy clients, a guy named Vern Wheeler. With his brother, Tiny, Wheeler owns an exclusive hunting lodge on Raven Lake in the remote woods of northern Main. Tiny Wheeler runs the place with a staff of guides and others. It's pretty rustic--no phones or TV, and as a practical matter, the only way in and out if by seaplane. The fishing there is excellent and so naturally, Brady, who is an avid fisherman, has occasionally been a guest at the lodge, particularly at the time when the salmon are biting like flies. In addition to being Vern's attorney, he's an old friend of Tiny, Tiny's wife, and the rest of the staff.

But now, Vern and Tiny have a problem. A group of Indians has offered to buy the resort and when the Wheelers refuse to sell, the Indians claim that there is a sacred burial ground on the property and that they will sue to force the Wheelers out. Vern sends Brady up to investigate, not that it's all that hard to get Brady out of the office for a week or so when there's fishing to be done.

Brady arrives at the lodge to discover that the Wheelers' problems are multiplying. A guest has vanished in the woods and no one can find him. The missing guest's brother is on his way up to the lodge to demand answers, and Tiny Wheeler is concerned about his liability in the event of a lawsuit. Then another guest is murdered and scalped and Brady and the Wheelers are up to their necks in trouble. Meanwhile, Brady's also got to contend with a couple of randy females and it's going to be a miracle if he finds any time to go fishing at all.

This is another solid, entertaining entry in the series that should appeal to readers who enjoy a fairly traditional mystery set in the great outdoors.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Two Badly Damaged Characters Find Themselves on Desperation Road

When Russell Gaines returns home to McComb, Mississippi after an eleven-year stretch in Parchman Penitentiary, he believes that he's paid his debt to society. Unfortunately for Russell, not everyone else agrees, and even before he can step off the bus, he sees two brothers waiting for him. The two attack him viciously before being interrupted by a citizen who threatens to call the police. The brothers leave Russell injured on the ground, promising that this won't be the last he'll see of them.

At virtually the same time, a woman named Maben, who has been used very hard by life, is trudging down the highway toward McComb, encouraging her young daughter to keep up, and struggling to carry the heavy garbage bag that contains all their worldly possessions. At this point, the reader has no idea why Russell was in prison, why the two brothers are so intent on doing him harm, or why Maben and her child are out on the road. But it's clear that they are both damaged souls and that their long-term survival is very much in doubt.

Maben's circumstances are about to get much worse in a very big hurry. She settles her daughter into a shabby truck stop motel and then, down to her last few dollars, she attempts to make a few more by resorting to a practice that many desperate women before her have adopted. The attempt has catastrophic results both for Maben and for her daughter.

Meanwhile, Russell has settled into a small house and reconnected with his father and his father's new female companion. He will attempt to make a living as a handyman, but is constantly looking over his shoulder for the trouble that is never very far behind. Inevitably, of course, his own life will intersect with Maben's and the combined weight of their problems may well sink them both.

This is a beautifully written book that captures the setting and these characters as sharply as a finely honed blade. It's impossible not to sympathize with Russell and with Maben as they struggle to achieve some level of peace at a time when the odds are so heavily stacked against them, and even the minor characters are very vividly drawn. This is not a book that's going to make you smile very often (it is, after all, titled Desperation Road), but these are characters and this is a setting that will remain with the reader for a very long time.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

John Sandford Leaves His Usual Haunts for a Saturn Run

When I heard John Sandford announce a couple of years ago that he was writing a science-fiction novel, my first reaction was to be disappointed, principally because that meant there would be no Virgil Flowers novel published in 2015. I'm a big fan of Virgil's and I'm not that big a fan of sci-fi, so I figured that, on balance, this would be a loss. As is so often the case, though, it turns out that I was wrong. Even though this is a sci-fi tale, it has all the trademarks of a John Sandford novel, which means that it's enormously entertaining.

This is not a story featuring strange alien creatures from distant worlds set far out into the future. Rather, it focuses principally on people from earth on a journey through space in the relatively near future. In 2066, the United States has sophisticated space stations orbiting the earth and China, now the nation's principal superpower rival, is preparing a mission to colonize Mars. But then an intern at Caltech, running a routine check after adjustments to a space telescope, discovers an anomaly in some photographs taken in the direction of Saturn. And even someone who doesn't normally read science fiction realizes that when somebody discovers an anomaly, this is probably a pretty big deal.

And so it is.

The computers confirm that some giant object is approaching Saturn and, more important, that it's decelerating. The fact that it's slowing down can only mean that it's a spaceship of some sort--natural objects don't behave this way in space. Since this was a totally random discovery, for the moment only the U.S. realizes what has happened. Very quietly, under directions from the president, a U.S. space station is reconfigured as a space ship to go to Saturn and figure out what the hell is going on out there. The official story is that we've decided to join the Chinese on their mission to Mars, and the hope is that before the Chinese or anyone else discovers what we're really doing, the U.S. will have a head start toward Saturn and no one else will be able to do anything about it.

Those plans are upended, though, when the mysterious space vehicle leaves Saturn in a blaze of propulsion that is noticed around the world. The secret is out and the Chinese quickly repurpose their Mars expedition to go to Saturn. Thus the race is on as the two superpowers compete to see which can get to Saturn first and perhaps gain an advance in knowledge that would give them world domination for years to come and, perhaps, forever.

Sandford and his co-author Ctein, have created a great cast of characters. Fans of Sandford's will recognize the type of characters that he likes to create and will bond with them pretty quickly. Sandford's quirky humor is also on display and, while none of the cast is on a level with that F***in' Flowers, at least a couple of them are a lot of fun. The technology involved is, for the most part, based on science that is readily available now and does not require any real suspension of disbelief. No one in this book, for example, will suddenly be going into Warp Drive.

As is the case with any novel by John Sandford, the story moves at a rapid pace and the suspense is palpable. The stakes in this race are very high, and the payoff at the end is well worth waiting for. I'm really glad that I finally got around to reading this book, but that said, I'm also very happy to know that I now have a new Virgil Flowers novel waiting in the wings as well.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Jockey Alan York Finds Himself in Grave Danger in the First Novel by Dick Francis

First published in 1962, this is the book that started Dick Francis on his career as a novelist. 
Francis was forty-two at the time, a veteran of World War II, and a former steeplechase jockey himself. Virtually all of his novels take place in and around the world of British horseracing. While he repeats the same character only a couple of times, virtually all of his protagonists are the same sort of man--relatively young, intelligent, determined, courageous, and somewhat aloof--at least until the point where they might the right woman and then, often as not, it's love at first sight.

Early on in the course of each novel, the protagonist discovers some glaring injustice and determines to investigate. Inevitably, he antagonizes the wrong person and finds his own health and well-being in grave jeopardy. Often there is some powerful, sinister force, directing events from behind the scene, and our hero must root him out. 

In this case, the protagonist is Alan York, an amateur steeplechase rider. He comes from a moneyed family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and when he's not riding, he works in this father's shipping firm in London.

As the book opens, York is riding in a race alongside his best friend, Bill Davidson, who is riding a horse called Admiral. Davidson and Admiral are the heavy favorites in the race, a "dead cert" to win. But then, at the back of the course, Admiral trips over a fence. The horse goes down on top of Davidson, who will die as the result of the injury. York, riding right behind Davidson, saw something suspicious just before his friend fell. After the race, York goes back to the jump where Davidson fell and discovers that someone had stretched a wire across the top of the jump, causing the horse to fall and Davidson to be fatally injured.

By the time York can get someone in authority to examine the scene, the wire has been removed and there is no evidence that the horse was deliberately tripped. York knows this to be the case, however, and begins his own investigation. He discovers that someone has been attempting to fix races and the deeper he gets into the investigation, the more trouble he finds himself in. Before long, he discovers that he's in a contest of wills against a very dangerous adversary who will stop at nothing to preserve his criminal enterprise.

All in all, it's a good story. As in all of these books, one learns a great deal about the world of British horse racing, and the novel should appeal to anyone who enjoys classic British crime fiction.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

With the second novel in the Bill Hodges trilogy, Stephen King returns to an exploration of the sometimes obsessive ties that bind authors and readers together, a topic that he explored so chillingly nearly thirty years earlier in Misery.

In this case a writer named John Rothstein has retired to the seclusion of an isolated home in the country after creating a fabulous character named Jimmy Gold who appealed particularly to large numbers of young men who were trying to find their way in the world. Decades later, rumors swirl that Rothstein has continued to write even though he hasn't published anything since the last Jimmy Gold novel, which disappointed many of his readers who felt that, at the end, Rothstein had allowed Jimmy to sell out to the establishment.

One of those disappointed readers is a young man named Morris Bellamy. Bellamy is so outraged by the perceived injustice of it all, that he recruits a couple of marginal criminals and the three of them break into Rothstein's house late one night. Bellamy has promised his illiterate confederates who wouldn't know John Rothstein from Jacqueline Susann, that the author has a large sum of money hidden in the house, but Bellamy himself is determined to find the notebooks in which Rothstein has allegedly been writing since he withdrew from public life. Rumor has it that Rothstein may have even written another Jimmy Gold novel and, if so, Bellamy is determined to have it all for himself.

Things do not go exactly as planned, and Bellamy winds up killing his literary idol, but not before making Rothstein open his large safe. The safe contains about $20,000 in cash and a trove of notebooks. Bellamy buries the cash and the notebooks in what he hopes will be a safe place behind the house in which he grew up. But before he even has a chance to look at the notebooks, fate intervenes and he gets sent to prison for a crime totally unrelated to the murder of John Rothstein. It will be thirty-five years before he has a chance to dig up the cash and the notebooks.

Well, as we all know, a lot can happen in thirty-five years. Another family will move into the old Bellamy home. Hard times will descend on the family, which is headed by a man who was badly injured in the massacre that opened Mr. Mercedes, the first book in this trilogy. In the family is a bright young son named Pete Saubers who will stumble across an old buried trunk that has been exposed by a storm.

When Pete opens the trunk, what he discovers will change the course of his life, along with that of a large number of other people, including Bill Hodges, the retired detective who was the principal protagonist in Mr. Mercedes. This is a gripping tale from first page to last, and it will appeal particularly to readers who are obsessive in their own ways, although one hopes, not to the extent of Morris Bellamy. The characters are very well drawn; Pete Saubers is especially sympathetic, and it's nice to see Bill Hodges and some of the other characters from the first book again. As in most Stephen King novels, there are lots of thrills and chills, and having read it, I'm very anxious to finally get to the concluding volume of the trilogy, even though I understand that, due to the size of my TBR stack, I'm already well behind most other readers in this regard.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Introducing Lucas Davenport, Who By Now Certainly Needs No Introduction

This is the book that introduced Minneapolis homicide detective Lucas Davenport, a cunning, tough, and intelligent cop who is willing to bend the rules, if necessary, to get a dangerous killer off the streets. Davenport is independently wealthy, thanks to the fact that he writes video games in his off-duty hours. He drives a Porsche, wears Italian suits and reads Emily Dickinson. A former college hockey player, he's a man's man who is also very attractive to women. But he does have his standards. When one of his lovers suggests that Lucas is willing to bed virtually any attractive female who comes along, he corrects her by pointing out that he never sleeps with dumb women. That said, his best female friend is a nun.

By the time he first appears, Davenport has already established his reputation as a gifted detective, and when a serial killer known as the Mad Dog, begins killing women in the Twin Cities, the Chief of Police assigns Lucas to the case. Initially, at least, the Mad Dog is a very worthy adversary. He's careful, intelligent, and he follows a set of basic rules, one of which he leaves on the body of each of his victims. For example, "Never kill anyone you know;" Never have a motive;" "Don't follow a discernable pattern," etc. The battle of wits is an engaging one and the reader is caught up in the game immediately.

Lucas Davenport has gone on to become one of the most popular characters in modern crime fiction, and this is an excellent introduction both to the character and to the series. The book is cleverly plotted; the action moves swiftly, and Davenport is a very appealing protagonist. The supporting cast is well drawn and will grow increasingly important as the series progresses. Although often darkly violent, all of the books, beginning with this one, also have a very dark sense of humor as well. Sandford knows exactly how to straddle the line here, a talent that very few other authors illustrate better than he.

It's hard to imagine that there's any fan of crime fiction who has not made Davenport's acquaintance by now, but if you've just returned from a twenty-eight-year sojourn on Neptune or some such place where these books haven't yet been published, by all means, race out to your local bookstore and buy them all. As is the case with a lot of series, it's important that you read this one in order, simply to enjoy the development of these characters as they move through the years.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Restaurateur Rick Cahill Is Haunted by Yesterday's Echo

Rick Cahill is a former cop from Santa Barbara who left the force under a cloud when his wife was found murdered. The detective investigating the crime believes that Cahill was guilty of the murder, but did not have enough evidence to make the case. The cloud of suspicion has followed Cahill for the last eight years, even down to La Jolla, the beautiful seaside community that exists within the city of San Diego. Cahill is now the managing partner of an upscale restaurant there and is attempting to maintain a low profile while he builds his life anew.

That's easier said than done, because Cahill is one of those guys who simply seems to draw trouble like a magnet. One night the wife of the mayor of San Diego gets obnoxiously drunk in the restaurant. Her husband is making a run for the California governorship, and Cahill attempts to get the woman out of the restaurant without creating a scandal, either for her or her husband. He puts her in a cab and sends her home. 

That same night, a beautiful TV reporter named Melody Malana shows up, perhaps in pursuit of a story about the governor's wife. Melody winds up in Cahill's bed that night, and he thinks this could be his chance to find true love again. But then a murder occurs and Cahill gets tangled up in an awful mess. It's like deja vu all over again, and Cahill finds himself a principal suspect.

This is one of those novels in which a man is trapped in a bad situation by circumstances beyond his control and in which he can't trust anyone other than himself. The only way to salvation is for Cahill to unravel a very tangled web of deceit, but very clever and deadly forces are arrayed against him. It will take all his wits and a lot of good luck if he's to avoid winding up either dead or in jail this time around.

This book moves along at a breakneck pace, and the character of Rick Cahill is gradually revealed as the story unfolds. He's an interesting guy and you feel for the situation in which he finds himself. That said, I had a bit of trouble buying into the story because Cahill continued to make decisions that I found questionable. Still, it's an entertaining novel--the first in the Rick Cahill series--and if you can suspend disbelief, it's quite a ride.