Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Young Police Sergeant Confronts a Difficult Case During the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland

The Cold Cold Ground introduces Sean Duffy, a Catholic police sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As a Catholic who joined the mostly Protestant police force, Duffy is essentially under suspicion--and threat--from both sides in the long-running "Troubles" pitting Catholics and Protestants against each other in Northern Ireland.

The story is set at the height of the Troubles, in 1981. IRA prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike in protest to recent actions of the hated British government, and each time a "martyr" dies, the riots, bombings and other protests accelerate. The British have flooded Northern Ireland with troops, but that only increases the tension and the violence.

Against that backdrop, Sean Duffy is assigned to investigate the murders of two gay men, each of whom had one of his hands chopped off. It initially appears that a serial killer is targeting gay men. (Gay sex was still illegal in Ireland at the time.) But as Duffy pushes his investigation it becomes clear that something larger and more sinister may be at work, and the young detective will have to buck his superiors and risk his own health and well-being if he's going to find a solution.

Sean Duffy is a very attractive protagonist--smart, witty, and a bit subversive, and this is a first-rate novel. The plot is complex and intelligent, and it moves along at a very brisk pace. Even the minor characters are well-drawn and interesting, but what really sets the book apart is the way in which McKinty sets the scene. His description of Northern Ireland in these turbulent times is outstanding, and the way in which these otherwise ordinary people conduct their lives in the face of the violence and unrest is compelling. I'm late getting to this series, but I'll be catching up very quickly. 4.5 stars for this one.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Travis McGee Takes a Long Lavendar Look

The twelfth Travis McGee novel finds McGee and his closest friend, Meyer, the economist, returning to Fort Lauderdale from a wedding. It's late at night; they've taken a wrong turn and are driving down a narrow road in Cypress County, out in the boondocks, trying to make their way back to the Tamiami Trail and home. Out of nowhere, a woman runs right out in front of Miss Agnes, McGee's venerable blue Rolls Royce pickup. McGee swerves and misses the woman by inches, but he loses control of the truck and it winds up underwater in a ditch.

McGee and Meyer manage to escape, but there's no sign of the woman they nearly hit. With no other choice, they begin walking back up the road to a garage they passed earlier. And, as if the night's not gone badly enough already, as they're walking back up the highway, some jerk takes a couple of shots at them. They manage to escape that menace as well and make it back to the garage, where the local sheriff appears and promptly arrests them on suspicion of murder.

Well, crap.

It's a long and involved story involving an armored truck robbery several years earlier. The thieves and the money disappeared, but the sheriff seems to think that the murdered man was involved in the robbery, that McGee and Meyer were his accomplices, and that they killed the guy after a falling out.

Naturally, it's going to take some time to sort this out, and obviously, the only guy to do it is Travis McGee. Along the way, there will, of course, be a woman in desperate need of the kind of attention that only McGee can provide, and McGee will have to spend a lot of time philosophizing about his conquest of the woman and examining his conscience and his character.

This is a pretty good tale and, although it's clearly dated, it's not quite as bad as some of the others in the series. As is the case with all of the McGee novels, the reader has to check his or her twenty-first century sensibilities at the door, especially those regarding gender. But if you can allow yourself to do so for two or three hours, this is a fun way to spend an evening.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Introducing St. Paul Homicide Detective John Santana

This book introduces yet another Minnesota homicide detective, this one named John Santana. (There must be something in the water up there in the Land of 10,000 lakes, what with all the fictional crime that happens in the state and what with all the detectives who are running around attempting to solve all those crimes. One suspects that if you eliminated the crime novels set in Minnesota, the genre would suddenly be reduced by about ten percent. But I digress...)

Santana is a native of Colombia and left that country under tragic circumstances, which would color the rest of his life. Like any other moody homicide detective, he is a natural loner and has issues with his bosses. And, of course, his love life is complicated and/or non existent because he's so aloof and hard to get along with.

A furor results when two prominent Hispanic citizens of St. Paul are murdered on the same afternoon in the middle of a brutal winter. Santana and his partner are investigating the first homicide and on their way to question the man who will soon become the second. As they are about to walk into the second man's apartment, his body comes flying off a balcony above and nearly lands on them.

Santana and his partner chase a potential suspect and the partner, who has been drinking, shoots the fleeing man who happens to be carrying the gun that was used in the first killing. The brass are anxious to tie a bow around this one and declare it solved, but Santana has doubts and continues the investigation at great peril to his career and maybe to his life.

This is a pretty entertaining tale, even if it does seem like it hits a lot of the usual cliches. The most interesting thing about it is the insight that the book provides into the St. Paul Hispanic community. I would suggest that the plot is a bit more convoluted than it really needs to be, but I enjoyed meeting John Santana and I'll look forward to his next outing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

L.A.P.D. Detective Harry Bosch Takes on the Ultimate Cold Case

The fourth Harry Bosch novel finds the L.A.P.D. homicide detective depressed and in a world of trouble. In a fit of anger, he pushed his boss's head through a window and has been suspended from the force. His badge and gun are gone and he's forced to undergo counseling if he has any hope of getting his job back. To make matters worse, the woman he's been involved with recently has left him, and his house has been badly damaged in an earthquake. The building inspector has condemned the house.

Angry and depressed on several fronts, Harry is using some of his free time to try to make repairs to the house and save it from destruction. He also decides to investigate a very cold case--the murder years earlier of his own mother, who was working as a prostitute. Her death was the turning point of Harry's life. He knew his mother loved him but had never met his father. As a young boy, he was thus condemned to a life in an orphanage and a series of foster homes until he could finally escape into the Army.

Harry goes to the department archives and pulls the material relating to his mother's case. In and around his visits to the police psychologist who is assigned to work with him, he begins digging into the case and before long has stirred up a veritable hornets' nest.

This is another gripping story in the Bosch saga, one that goes a long way in explaining how Harry turned in to the man he has become. One would think that a thirty-year-old case would be too cold ever to clear, and it's fun to watch the inventive approaches that Bosch takes as he attempts to solve the crime.

If I have a complaint about this book and about the character, it is that Bosh sometimes seems to go deliberately out of his way to insult or anger people when there's no good reason to do so. Sometimes these are people who are actually trying to help him, but Harry treats them like crap, which is pretty much the same way he treats everyone. I understand that Connelly is trying to create a hard, dark character here--a loner with a chip on his shoulder who is reminiscent of the last coyote--but he may overdo it just a bit. Sometimes Harry reacts in a way that takes the reader, or at least this one, right out of the story, wondering why in the hell Harry would act that way when there was simply no cause to do so. 

It's always fun to watch Bosch give some jerk exactly what he's got coming to him, but it's mystifying when he turns around and does it to someone who clearly doesn't deserve it. Still, this is a relatively small complaint and on the whole, I really enjoyed reading this book again.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kurt Wallander Confronts a Very Clever and Dangerous Adversary

The opening of the fourth novel in this series finds Kurt Wallander in a deep depression. At the conclusion of the last book, he shot a man to death, and even though it was clearly a case of self-defense, he's devastated by the fact that he has taken another man's life. After brooding over the incident for more than a year, Wallander resolves to quit the police force and is at the point of turning in his papers when a very bizarre case grabs his attention.

An elderly lawyer has died. The reader knows right away that the man was murdered, but the murder is successfully disguised as an auto accident and fools the initial investigation. The man's son, also a lawyer, makes a clandestine visit to Kurt Wallander, who is still recovering, and tries to convince him to investigate his father's death. 

Wallander refuses and presses ahead with his intention to resign. But then the son is murdered and Wallander determines to investigate. He returns to the force, and quickly proves that the father's death was a homicide and not accident. But trying to identify the killer will take all of Wallander's considerable skills--that is, if he survives that long.

This is another very good entry in the series. The characters are fully developed; the plot is engaging, and the police investigation seems very realistic. Fans of the series will enjoy it and it should appeal to any fan of Scandinavian crime fiction. Kurt Wallander is the polar opposite of someone like Lucas Davenport who could easily kill a couple of bad guys before breakfast and not worry about it any longer than lunch. He's the prototypical Scandinavian detective--introspective, depressed, and relatively humorless, which makes him an occasionally nice change of pace from his American counterparts.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Hardy Boys Attempt to Solve the Mystery of The Tower Treasure

Published in 1927, The Tower Treasure is the book that introduced the teenage heroes, Frank and Joe Hardy, and which also began the series that would introduce generations of young boys to the world of crime fiction. The series ran until 2005 and consists of one hundred and ninety volumes, although some purists insist that only the first fifty-eight novels constitute the real Hardy Boy Mysteries. The books were written by "Franklin W. Dixon," the pen name used by a stable of writers who worked for the publisher that produced the books. This first volume was written by a Canadian author, Leslie McFarlane.

As the book opens, Frank and Joe, sixteen and fifteen respectively, are riding their motorcycles down a narrow road, when a speeding car nearly runs them off the road. Later, the car is found wrecked and the driver has apparently stolen a yellow roadster belonging to one of the Hardy boys' chums. (There are a lot of "chums" and "lads" in these books.) 

The first mystery to be resolved in the book then, involves finding the stolen car. But soon, another more serious crime is committed when the house of one of the town's wealthy families is robbed. the caretaker, who is the father of one of Frank and Joe's sons, is the prime suspect. He's fired and later arrested, with devastating consequences for his family. The Hardy boys are the sons of the famous detective, Fenton Hardy, who agrees to look into the case. But when he can't come up with a solution, it appears that only his sons may be able to solve the crime and save the family of their friend.

This is the sort of tale, along with others like it, that prompted many a young lad to race home from the third or fourth grade on a winter afternoon, grab a couple of cookies and a glass of Kool-Aid, and curl up with a book for the rest of the day, sometimes ignoring his own chums who were outside playing at one thing or another. 

Later that lad might get to be eleven or twelve years old and discover in his father's library Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Vagabond Virgin. And sadly, once a lad has moved on to books with titles like that, there's no going back to the Hardy Boys. One can only move forward to Raymond Chandler, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and a host of other writers that might well tempt a man in his thirties or forties to bag work early in the afternoon, pour himself a beer or two, and settle in with a good book. But whatever his age, he'll always owe a debt of gratitude to those authors who got him started.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lucas Davenport Races to Prevent the Assassination of a Presidential Candidate

Following the events of the twenty-fifth book in this series, Gathering Prey, Lucas Davenport decided to hang up his spurs and leave his job at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. For the first time in years, and for the first time in this long-running series, Lucas is no longer a lawman of any kind. He's very contentedly spending the summer adding an addition to his cabin in Wisconsin, with the assistance of a carpenter named Jimi. Lucas's former subordinate, that F***in' Virgil Flowers, observes that Jimi "has the best ass north of Highway 8." Lucas insists that he never even noticed.

As if.

The job is nearing completion when Lucas gets a call from his former boss, Minnesota Governor Elmer Henderson. Elmer is running for the presidency and is out in Iowa, campaigning for the state's upcoming Democratic party caucus. The leading contender for the Democratic nomination is a woman named Michaela Bowden, and truth to tell, Henderson doesn't expect that he can win the nomination. He's actually hoping that Bowden will pick him as her vice-presidential running mate.

Out on the trail, though, Henderson hears some disturbing news, suggesting that there may be an attempt on Bowden's life. Both campaigns, naturally, are knee-deep in security, but Davenport has always been Henderson's go-to guy when facing a difficult problem like this. Henderson convinces Davenport to come to Iowa and investigate. Lucas will have the assistance of various law enforcement agencies, but when push comes to shove, he's only a private citizen and the lack of a badge will cause him all kinds of complications that he never experienced before.

Lucas discovers an aging band of Iowa political radicals that have been protesting since the Sixties, and he comes to believe that some members of the group may actually have plans to assassinate Bowden. There are a couple of murders early on which muddy the waters, but which also convince Lucas that the assassination scheme is probably real.

Through the course of the book, Davenport races around the state of Iowa attempting to foil the scheme before it's too late. Sadly, though, he doesn't have the assistance of his old teammates like Del, Jenkins and Shrake. Much of the action centers around Iowa City, Des Moines and Davenport's namesake city on the Mississippi. As always, there's a great deal of witty humor in and around a very serious series of crimes, and the tension ratchets up to a great and bloody climax.

I especially enjoyed this particular entry in the series because I lived for many years in Illinois, right across the river from Davenport, Iowa and graduated from the University in Iowa City. I've driven about a million miles along these same Iowa roads, and it was great fun watching Lucas moving through such familiar territory.

Living in western Illinois, I was also subjected every four years to the circus that revolves around the Iowa caucuses. For well over a year, presidential candidates inhabit the state and the local news media devote tons of newsprint and hour after hour of radio and television coverage to their appearances and exploits. For months on end, the citizens of Iowa and western Illinois are barraged with ads for the various candidates, and so the story seemed very familiar in that regard as well. I can only wish that Lucas Davenport had been racing around during the real caucus season to provide some badly needed levity and intelligence to the scene.

Naturally, the media in Iowa and western Illinois love this setup; they make millions of dollars every four years selling ads to the various candidates. But the end result, of course, is that one very small state, which is not remotely representative of the nation as a whole, has a hugely outsized effect on the selection of a president. If only Davenport could have found a solution to that problem while he was on the job out in the Hawkeye State...

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Noirish Tale Set in the Dark Underbelly of Northern Florida

All things considered, Judah Cannon probably should have just stayed in prison. Instead, once released, he discovers that no one has come to pick him up, which should be the first clue as to where he ranks with his bottom-feeding family and his on-again, off-again wife. That notwithstanding, he makes his way home to the small rural town of Silas in northern Florida. His preference would be to make an honest life for himself and for the woman he has loved all his life, his childhood friend, Ramey Barrow.

Fat chance.

As soon as Judah arrives home, his low-life father and brothers rope him into another of their half-baked criminal schemes. It involves robbing a down-at-the-heels biker gang called the Scorpions of $150,000 in drug money. The bikers are in league with a charismatic preacher named Sister Tulah, and when the Cannons rip off the bikers, Sister Tulah determines to bring down the wrath of God--or at least the wrath of Sister Tulah--upon both the Cannons and the hapless bikers who lost her money.

What follows is a dark gritty tale that explores the bonds of family ties and the compelling desire for retribution. The Cannons, Sister Tulah and the Scorpions are thrown into a bloody Mixmaster of violence and revenge that will take a very heavy toll on the innocent and the guilty alike. The story brings to mind the backwoods noir of writers like Daniel Woodrell, and while it's hard to find any sympathetic characters in this tale, it's also impossible to look away.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Donald Lam Wrestles with a Malfunctioning Garage Door in this Classic Mystery from Erle Stanley Gardner

Whether in his Perry Mason series or in this Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series, Erle Stanley Gardner was fond of creating plots that revolved around extended wealthy families, living in large houses with chauffeurs and a couple of maids. Usually, there was a patriarch of some sort, often with a wife that he didn't relate to very well. There were almost always a couple of shirt-tail relatives living in the house, usually from the wife's side of the family, and usually, even though young and able-bodied, too damned lazy to go out, get a job and support themselves.

Such is the case in Double Or Quits, the sixth novel in the Lam/Cool series, published in 1941. In this case, the patriarch is a doctor who wants the firm to quietly investigate the disappearance of some jewels from the safe in his home study. A young woman who was employed in the home mysteriously disappeared at the same time the jewels went missing, and she's the obvious suspect. The plan is that Donald will go out to the doctor's home, posing as a family friend, and investigate the situation from the inside.

Of course, as anyone who's read two or three of these books knows full well, nothing is as it appears. Before long, there's a murder; there's a confidence game going on; the garage door is malfunctioning; someone is poisoning the Scotch, and things are getting downright confusing--for everyone except Donald Lam, of course.

Like a lot of the Perry Masons, most of the Lam/Cool books have plots that are so convoluted that they're impossible to follow. Better to not even try. It's a lot more fun just to go along for the ride and let Donald Lam ultimately sort everything out in the end.

This book is significant to the series because in the first five books, Donald Lam has only been Bertha Cool's employee. This is the book in which he forces Bertha to take him in as a partner and from now on, the firm will be known as Cool and Lam.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Father and Son Find Themselves on the Road to Perdition

This is a novel with a very unusual history. It began as a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, which was adapted for film, with the screenplay written by David Self. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman starred in the film, which was very good. Collins then wrote a novelization of the screenplay and now has written an expanded novel, which adheres very closely to the movie.

The story is set in Illinois in the early 1930s. The Great Depression is well underway, and times are grim for virtually everyone. One exception seems to be the criminal gangs, which are continuing to prosper at a time when Prohibition is still the law of the land.

A gangster named John Looney controls most of the vice in Rock Island, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, about a hundred and seventy miles directly west of Chicago. Looney runs his empire in league with the Capone organization in Chicago. Michael O'Sullivan is a happily married man and the father of two young boys. O'Sullivan is also a feared enforcer for Looney and is nicknamed "The Angel of Death." Looney looks at O'Sullivan as a surrogate son and spoils O'Sullivans's children as if they were his own grandchildren. The problem arises from the fact that Looney has one real son, a hot headed, self-indulgent jerk known as "Crazy" Connor. 

O'Sullivan's twelve-year-old son, Michael Jr., is curious to know what his father actually does when on his missions for Mr. Looney. A devoted reader of comics, Michael Jr. envisions that his father is some sort of secret agent. One night Michael Jr. hides in his father's car, when Dad leaves on a "mission," and he sees "Crazy" Connor Looney shoot a man to death. Connor turns and sees the boy, and from that moment, everyone's world is thrown into turmoil. In consequence, the O'Sullivans, father and son, find themselves on the deadly road to Perdition in an effort to survive the forces that have suddenly been unleashed against them.

This is a gripping novel that moves at a very quick pace. Collins based the idea on the real-life gangster, John Looney, who did rule a criminal empire in Rock Island in the 1920s. The O'Sullivans are fictional characters and Collins has moved Looney into the 1930s, even though Looney actually fled to New Mexico in the middle Twenties. Still, this is a minor matter in a book like this, and having lived in Rock Island for a number of years, I enjoyed reading about the city and its colorful past. Both the book and the movie will appeal to large numbers of people.