Monday, May 29, 2017

Crooked Dice Are the Least of Perry Mason's Problems in this Complicated Case

As the fifteenth Perry Mason novel opens, we find the attorney at his desk, desperately attempting to avoid answering the morning mail, the task which he hates above all others. Fortunately, his secretary, Della Street, come to the rescue at the last moment, telling Mason that there are three people waiting to see him about a situation involving a wealthy man. Mason responds, telling Della, "I don't like rich people....I like poor people."

He goes on to explain that rich people only have boring problems, while poor people are mixed up in the muck of life, which is much more interesting. This is (I assume unintentionally) hilarious. In the eighty-five books in this series, Mason's clients are virtually all very wealthy people, living in large houses with all kinds of servants and extended family members. (It's the extended family members that are usually the problem.) Only in a handful of books does Perry ever represent someone who is genuinely poor, and even then, there's almost always a rich person lurking in the background who will write Mason a very generous check once the case is over.

Which is a very good thing, because Perry's monthly nut must be enormous. Leaving aside the expense of running his own office, his monthly tab at the Drake Detective Agency is always astronomical. Without all those rich people to pay the bill, Perry would probably never get anyone acquitted.

In this case, Perry agrees to see the three potential clients, wealthy or not. (It's better than having to answer the mail.) The case involves a wealthy and eccentric seventy-two-year-old man who has decided to marry for the first time. His niece, who runs his household, thinks her uncle should be able to do whatever he wishes, but other, much more greedy relatives are afraid they will be cut off and so want to have the poor guy declared incompetent so that they can prevent him from getting married and take over his finances.

Perry agrees to handle the case and, before long, of course, someone will be murdered and Perry's client will be the prime suspect. The evidence appears incontrovertible and things are looking bleak. This is one case, though, where Erle Stanley Gardner gets a bit too cute. He places so much emphasis on the main piece of evidence against the client that the reader very early on figures out what has almost certainly happened, even before Perry does. Still, it's a fun read that will appeal to any fan of the series.

As another aside, towards the middle of the book, Perry is having lunch in a restaurant somewhere in downtown L.A. when Della calls him in a panic. There's been a major development in the case and it's essential that Perry immediately fly to Seattle. Della has booked him a ticket on the next flight, which leaves in thirty minutes. Perry spends another five minutes or so giving Della instructions, then drives to the airport, finds a parking place, and makes the flight! 

When this book was first published in 1939, I guess that a person could probably still do this, but almost eighty years later, the reader nearly falls out of his or her chair laughing at the absurdity of the idea. (Of course, I suppose it's always possible that Perry enrolled very early in the TSA PreCheck program...)

Another Excellent Glacier National Park Novel from Christine Carbo

Following her first two Glacier Park novels, Mortal Fall and The Wild Inside, Christine Carbo returns with The Weight of Night. The third book in the series finds the national park under siege from wildfires that are burning largely out of control in several sections of the park. Dense smoke hangs heavily over the park and the surrounding countryside, making it difficult to breathe. The sun has largely disappeared from view, and the fires themselves are ravaging the forests, which are tinder-dry as the result of a prolonged drought. People are being evacuated, and firefighters are trying desperately to save their homes and livestock.

As firefighters dig a break in front of an oncoming fire, one of the fire crew members uncovers the bones of a body which had been buried in a shallow grave. Park police officer Monty Harris arrives to investigate, but with the fire bearing down on the gravesite, there's simply no time to wait for a forensics team to arrive and properly unearth the body. Harris thus turns to Gretchen Larson, a crime scene investigator for the Flathead County Sheriff's office. Larson insists that she is not properly trained for such a situation, but with no other alternative, she unearths as much of the skeleton as time and the raging fire will allow.

Monty and Gretchen must now attempt to identify the body, but at virtually the same time the body is discovered, a child goes missing from a park campground. It's possible that the young boy simply wandered away and got lost in the woods, in which case he's not only in danger from exposure, starvation, drowning, falling and breaking a limb, getting eaten by a bear, and all of the other hazards that might befall a child in such a situation, but in this case, there's also the fire danger to consider. In the alternative, of course, it's possible that someone may have abducted the boy, in which case he could be facing an entirely different set of dangers. In either event, though, it's imperative that the child be found ASAP.

Ultimately, it will be Monty's responsibility to try to find the missing child, while Gretchen attempts to identify the body that's been unearthed. The story is then told in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of each of the two protagonists. Monty and Gretchen both have demons of their own to contend with, which will impinge on their investigations and so, as in the case of her first two books, Carbo has combined a compelling psychological story with a tense criminal investigation that will keep readers turning the pages at a brisk pace.

As in the first two books, Carbo also excels at describing the setting. Glacier National Park is one of the most scenic places in the entire country, if not the world, and she describes it beautifully. She also captures very well the fires that threaten both the park itself and the characters in the novel. A couple of summers ago, there was a horrible fire season in the park and in the surrounding area, and Carbo captures the effects of the fires perfectly. Reading the book immediately took me back to that summer, standing out on the deck in the thick smoke, with the fire ash falling out of the sky, wondering if there would be any real relief before the snow began falling in September. As I'm packing to return to the Flathead for the summer, I'm very much hoping that I won't ever have to experience a scene like that again outside the pages of this very fine book.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

An Excellent Stand-Alone Novel from Jo Nesbo, Creator of the Harry Hole Series

This relatively slim novel is a stand-alone from Jo Nesbo, the creator of the great series featuring Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole. The protagonist is a contract killer named Olav who works for a crime boss in Oslo. Olav is one of the best "fixers" in the business and approaches his work with a cold-blooded efficiency until he is given the job of killing a woman who has taken a lover, thus infuriating her husband.

In preparation for the hit, Olav watches the woman for several days from an apartment across the street from hers and finds himself feeling sympathy and some affection for his target. This doubtless violates virtually all of the guidelines in the Hitman's Handbook, but of course, it's great for the reader because of the conflict it creates in Olav.

The story is narrated by Olav, and the reader can't help but feel a tinge of sympathy for the guy, in spite of his profession. The choices that he makes will have significant consequences for himself as well as for his targets, and that's really all one can say about the plot without giving away significant developments.

One can say that this book is up to the high standards that Nesbo has set in the Harry Hole series. As always, the characters are well drawn, and the setting--here, Olso in the dead of winter--is rendered very well. The moral issues are also very interesting, and this is a book that should appeal to any serious fan of crime fiction.

Parenthetically, I had the opportunity to hear Nesbo at a book event this week while he's touring for the new Harry Hole novel, The Thirst. He's a very interesting guy and it was a lot of fun listening to him talk about the origin of the series and about his own life as a writer. If he makes it to your town, he's definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Are on the Job in New Orleans

This entry in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series, finds the pair in the French Quarter in New Orleans in 1942. A New York client has hired them to come from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of a missing heiress. Donald is immediately suspicious because the task seems way too easy, and the logical thing for the client to do would have been to simply hire a P.I. in New Orleans to do the job.

Well, as always, Donald is right to be suspicious, and the case immediately blows up into something much larger, involving divorces gone bad, women who may not be what they appear, B-girls in New Orleans night clubs, and ultimately, of course, murder.

And also, as always, Donald skates on very thin ice, one short step ahead of the police, much to the consternation of his partner, the inimitable Mrs. Cool, who spends much of the book blowing her fuse with Donald. Like a lot of these books, the plot is nearly impenetrable, but that hardly matters. It's always fun to watch Donald in action, and it's even more fun watching Bertha lose her cool (pun intended). Another entertaining addition to the series.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Timely Story of Family and Community from T. Jefferson Parker

This is a very moving and beautifully written novel of a family and a community under siege. Patrick Norris's family has been growing avocados near the town of Fallbrook in southern California for decades, but the farm and the region have been suffering the effects of a long-running drought that has taken a particularly hard toll on the Norris family farm and on many others as well. 

Avocado trees are very sensitive plants and only about a million things can go wrong before the avocados are harvested. The last thing they need in addition to the lack of rainfall is a wildfire that sweeps through the region and destroys many of the trees. Patrick has been away from home, fighting with the Marines in Afghanistan, and he returns to find the farm on the brink of failing. The crops are ruined; his father and mother are already extended almost to the limit, and the banks will not loan any more money.

Patrick has long made it clear that he has no interest in farming. His dream in life is to own a small boat and guide sport fishermen. But he agrees to put his dreams on hold in an effort to help his parents and his brother try to save the farm.

Patrick is very happy to be back from Afghanistan, but like a lot of other returning servicemen and women, he carries a considerable amount of baggage from the war. In addition to all the other problems confronting him is his older brother, Ted.

Ted is a tormented soul who seems incapable of doing anything right, certainly in the eyes of his father. He firmly believes that government at every level is his enemy and everyone else's. This extends all the way to the mayor of the small community that is suffering so badly. Ted, who was carrying "a solid D average," has been kicked out of college for drawing and posting a nasty cartoon critical of the mayor, and he's fallen in with a rough crowd of white supremacists. Patrick loves his brother and does everything he can to save him, but the challenge is an enormous one.

In a way, the Norris family and the town of Fallbrook can be seen as stand-ins for any number of individuals and communities who are struggling to adapt to changing times and circumstances in the United States of the early twenty-first century. Parker writes elegantly and sympathetically of these characters, their community, and their precarious place in the world. He draws you into their lives and gives you a ringside seat as the community and each of these characters attempts to make their way under extremely difficult circumstances. It can be hard to watch at times, but it's a beautifully written and very timely story.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Another Fast-Paced Novel from Twist Master Harlan Coben

NYPD detective Kat Donovan hasn't had a meaningful relationship since the love of her life walked out on her eighteen years ago. She seems to spend a lot of time brooding, not only about her long-lost love, but also about the death of her father, a cop who was shot to death at virtually the same time. The man who confessed to killing her father is now dying in prison and Kat is hoping against hope that the man will finally explain why he pulled the trigger and who ordered the hit.

To cheer her up and to get some romance back in her life, Kat's best friend secretly enrolls her on an online dating site. (This hardly seems like something any sort of friend would do to a person, but the plot depends on it.) Rather than being angered by her "friend's" temerity, Kat logs onto the site and --lo and behold!!, miracle of miracles!!--practically the first face she sees is that of Jeff, the lover who abandoned her all those years ago. Jeff is now, conveniently, a widower who is thus available again.

Kat sends him a message, referencing their favorite song, which just happens to be "Missing You," by John Waite, and then sits on pins and needles, waiting for a response. When it comes, Jeff appears not to remember her, which crushes Kat. She sends him another message, identifying herself, and Jeff replies telling her that the past is past, and she should just leave him alone.

Something doesn't seem quite right, and so Kat begins to investigate and stumbles onto an Internet dating scam where innocent victims are going of on dates with people they met online and are never heard from again. And--horror of horrors!--Kat's old boyfriend seems to be right in the middle of the scam.

Meanwhile, Kat bursts into the prison hospital and confronts the man who confessed to killing her father, but the visit leaves her more confused than ever. Her superiors tell her to let it rest and stop torturing herself, but of course, she's not going to do that.

As the book progresses, Kat divides her attention between the two great mysteries of her life, trying to resolve at least one, if not both of them. It's going to be a very dangerous ride, and, as is usually the case in a Harlan Coben novel, the reader will be virtually whipsawed by all of the violent twists and turns that the novel takes. 

It's not a bad way to spend a few hours, but there's really no reason to combine these two very disparate plot ideas into one book. As Kat veers back and forth between the two investigations, the book tends to lose momentum every time we switch from one to the other. My other concern, which is not unique to this novel, is that Coben ultimately tosses in one last plot twist that simply takes the whole thing over the top. It's clear that he enjoys doing this sort of thing, and apparently a lot of his readers enjoy it too, but for me it's a twist too far and inevitably leaves me a bit disgruntled every time I finish one these novels. 

It's an okay read, but to my mind it would have been a lot better if Coben had focused on one or the other of the two main plot lines and if he had resisted the urge to throw in the final twist.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Perry Mason May Have to Cross-Examine a Parrot in this Complex Case

The fourteenth Perry Mason novel (published in 1939) opens when a new client comes to Perry's office. The client's father has been murdered, and the client fears that his father's new wife may attempt to cheat him out of his inheritance. (For some reason, there seem to be a number of Perry Mason books in which an older man has remarried to a woman who seemed very loving and terrific before the marriage but who then turns out to be a greedy, unpleasant shrew, usually with greedy, grasping, unpleasant children, immediately after the vows. Then, when the man attempts to get out of the marriage, bad things always happen.)

In this case, the father has arranged to get a divorce. He's written a new will, disinheriting the shrewish wife, but the son fears that the wife will destroy the will, attempting to leave in force an earlier will that gave most everything to her. (A curious reader wonders why, having decided to divorce and disinherit the wife, the guy would leave the new will with her rather than, say, leaving it safely with his son or his lawyer. But in that event, of course, there would be no case, and Perry would be left to sit in his office playing Tetris or whatever.)

Perry agrees to get on the job but, of course, within a few pages it turns out that this will be much more than a simple contest over a will. Before you know it, Perry has a client charged with murder and the most critical witness turns out to be a Parrot. As always in these books, there are a lot of surprising twists and turns and Perry has to skate along the thin edge of the law. (One of the things that's most fun about these earlier books is that legal ethics were much less strict.)

All in all, it's a fun read that will appeal to fans of the series and to other readers who occasionally enjoy a trip down memory lane to the earlier days of crime fiction.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Challenged by a Void in Hearts

This is another solid entry in the Brady Coyne series. A private eye that Brady sometimes uses comes to him for advice. The P.I., Les Katz, has been hired by a woman to see if the woman's husband is having an affair. Katz gets some pictures of the husband in the company of another woman, but the pictures do not conclusively prove that the two are romantically or sexually involved. 

Katz assumes that the wife is looking for proof of her husband's infidelity so that she can take him to the cleaners in a divorce, but these pictures aren't going to do the trick and so Katz tells her that he's found no evidence that her husband is cheating on her. He then meets with the husband and suggests that the husband might want to buy the pictures that Katz has taken, just to ensure that they don't fall into the wrong hands, innocent though they may be. Now Katz's conscience is bothering him and he asks Brady for his advice. Brady, of course, tells Katz to see his client and admit what he has done, but almost immediately thereafter, Katz is killed by a hit-and-run driver.

At this point, the reader must wonder why, six books into this series, have we never met Les Katz before if he's a P.I. that Coyne uses regularly and, even more more important, why would Brady be using a P.I. whose ethics are as bad as this?

Those issues notwithstanding, Brady feels obligated to dig into the mess that Katz has left behind and soon finds himself confronted by a mysterious and dangerous set of circumstances. It's an interesting plot that moves right along and winds up in a satisfying climax. Seven books into the series, Brady still has issues with his ex-wife,Gloria, that prove critical to the case, and, naturally, a new woman will appear in his life. It all adds up to an entertaining read that will appeal to fans of the series and to those who enjoy fairly traditional mystery novels.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Detroit P.I. Amos Walker Is on the Job Again

Amos Walker is one of the last old-school private eyes--a tough guy with a cruddy office in a dilapidated old building, and the ever-reliable bottle in the desk drawer. In the tradition of the genre, Walker take a licking and keep on ticking, which is increasingly remarkable, given his advancing age and the fact that this is his twenty-second misadventure.

Walker's beat is Detroit, a city about as run down and beaten up as Walker himself, and one of the pleasures of reading this series through the years has been Estleman's brilliant portrayal of the city and all of its problems.

As this book opens, a friend tells Walker that the friend's son's teenage brother-in-law is being recruited by a local gang and is in danger of getting caught up in the warfare between this gang and another. The friend would like Walker to extricate the kid from the situation.

This will be easier said than done. The kid will prove hard to find and the journey takes Walker deep into Detroit's Mexicantown, where most of the major players have agendas of their own, some of them hidden and some not. Inevitably, of course, the first dead body will fall, followed by the next. In addition to several killings, Walker has to negotiate his way through arson, the drug business, cockfighting and a host of other problems, and before it's all over he may well be in serious trouble himself.

I enjoyed this book, but it's not among my favorite of the series. After twenty-one previous books, the reader certainly understands that Walker knows his city like the back of his hand. But the way in which a middle-aged white guy is suddenly able to move so easily through the Mexican community here stretched credulity a bit, at least for me, especially because I don't remember Walker demonstrating even the hint of such a facility in any of the earlier novels. Of course, that may simply be a failure of memory on my part, but I did keep wondering how Walker knew so many of the key players and why so many of them seemed indebted to him. Still, it's nice to see Walker back in action, and I'll certainly look forward to the twenty-third Amos Walker novel.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Very Good Long-Lost Novel from the Master, Lawrence Block

This is the first crime novel ever written by Lawrence Block, the creator of Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Keller, and others, and one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Block wrote the book sometime around 1960, sold it to a publisher, and then never saw or heard of it again. It was ultimately published years later with a different title and under a different name, and the publisher didn't even send the author a copy. Block only vaguely remembered the book among all the others he was churning out at that point, but fifty years later the book surfaced again and Block recognized it as his long-lost creation. The folks at Hard Case Crime have now published the book with the original title and with Block restored as the real author.

It's a very good example of the sort of pulp novel that was popular back in the 1950s and '60s. A Connecticut executive named Don Barshter accidentally kills his wife in an argument. Rather than turning himself in, he goes on the run to Buffalo, New York, and reinvents himself as a mobster named Nate Crowley. 

This sort of thing was much easier to do in 1960 than it would be today, and Nate Crowley is a very different kind of man than Don Barshter. He works his way into the local crime scene and finds himself a woman. Naturally, there will be complications and before long, Nate Crowley could find himself in nearly as much trouble as the late Mr. Barshter.

This book is not the equal of most of Block's later work, but only because much of that later work is so exceptional. When he wrote Sinner Man, Block was a very young author, still honing his chops. Clearly, though, he was already as good as many of his much older contemporaries, and he would only get better as the years wore on. This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys early pulp fiction and is a must read for Mr. Block's legion of fans.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Daniel Roke Takes a Very Dangerous Job For Kicks

Daniel Roke owns a stud farm in Australia. He and his siblings were orphaned at an early age and Daniel, the eldest, has assumed the responsibility for raising his brother and two sisters, even though it means sacrificing his own dreams in the process. The farm is thriving, but it and the beautiful country in which it sits constitute a veritable prison for Daniel who yearns for other things.

Along comes a prosperous British Earl who is one of a handful of men who oversee the world of British horse racing. Someone is fixing races, but the Powers That Be are unable to figure out how the manipulation is being done, and the future of British racing may be on the line. The Earl hopes to hire one of Daniel's stable boys to go to England and provide intelligence by working undercover.

Sadly, the man that the Earl hoped to hire is clearly not up to the task, and the Earl shocks Daniel by asking if he would be willing to undertake the mission. Daniel's immediate reaction is to refuse, but as the Earl points out, Daniel's siblings are off at school and he can hire someone to run the farm while he is away. The Earl makes a financial offer that he believes Daniel could not refuse, but the Earl fails to realize that when Daniel accepts the job, he does so for reasons that have nothing to do with the money.

This is very much a typical Dick Francis novel, and Daniel Roke is very much a typical Francis protagonist--a stubborn, clever and intelligent man who will subject himself to any number of indignities and who will put himself in very grave danger if that's what's necessary to complete the assignment. It's a clever plot and the pages turn rapidly; any fan of the series will not want to miss this one.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Introducing Dr. Knox

Dr. Adam Knox has spent his entire professional life tending to the needs of patients on the margins of society. After a stint in Africa with Doctors Without Borders, he now runs a clinic in the slums of L.A., seeing patients that few other doctors would. It's a shoe-string operation clinging to life in a run-down building that may be sold out from under him at any given moment, and Dr. Knox pays the bills by working for cash under the table at night, meeting the needs of patients who don't dare go near a hospital.

When a panicked woman brings a desperately sick child to the clinic, Dr. Knox realizes that the boy is suffering an allergic reaction to peanuts. He treats the child and the crisis passes, but in the midst of it all, the young woman who brought the child to the clinic, and whom Dr. Knox believes to be the child's mother, disappears.

Dr. Knox's nurse, who may be the only adult in the room, tells him to do the right--and legal--thing, and turn the child over to the Department of Children and Family Services. But Dr. Knox doesn't trust the bureaucrats and convinces the nurse that they--meaning she--should hold onto the child at least for a couple of days, so that his mother has a chance to reclaim him.

Like the nurse, any astute reader realizes immediately that this is a BIG MISTAKE. Before long, some very nasty people are visiting the clinic. Some of them are looking for the boy; some of them are looking for his mother, and they all pose a very serious danger to Dr. Knox, to his clinic, to his staff, and to practically anyone and anything else that the doctor might care about.

Well, in for a penny...

Dr. Knox is not about to cave into the threats, even though he puts a lot of people he cares about at risk. He attempts to track down the mother on his own and reunite her with her son, and the chips will fall where they may.

The result is a high-octane thriller that will keep most any reader riveted to the page. Adam Knox is a great protagonist, and the bad guys are truly scary. Spiegelman writes beautiful prose, and his descriptions of L.A. and its residents put the reader right in the middle of every scene. There's some suggestion that Dr. Knox might appear in a subsequent novel, and I really hope he does. If so, I'll be standing in line to buy the book hot off the press.