Monday, June 26, 2017

Introducing Ellie Stone

Set in 1960, Styx & Stone introduces Ellie Stone, a reporter for a small newspaper in upstate New York and the daughter of a renowned Dante scholar, Professor Abraham Stone. The elder Stone, a distinguished professor, has been found unconscious in his New York City apartment after having been beaten about the head. It may be a burglary gone bad, but then again, it may not be.

Ellie and her widowed father have long been estranged, but she races home to New York City and to the family apartment where she grew up. Professor Stone remains hospitalized, unconscious and in critical condition, obviously unable to shed any light on what happened the night he was assaulted. Not content simply to sit by his bedside, Ellie begins her own investigation into the attack.

The investigation leads her to the Italian department at the University where her father taught. Like many another academic department, this one is a sea of intrigue, with any number of matters large and small dividing its members. When another member of the department dies in an apparent accident shortly after the attack on her father, Ellie is certain that something sinister is going on above and beyond a simple burglary gone bad and a subsequent "accident." 

Ellie is extremely tenacious and joins ranks with the detective investigating the assault on her father, a sergeant named McKeever. She's determined to unravel the mystery and along the way, McKeever pays her what he believes to be the ultimate compliment for that day and age, when he observes that, "If you were a man, you'd make a good detective." 

Ellie thinks of herself as a "modern woman," who enjoys her whiskey and her men, and one of the strengths of the book is that the author has so deftly placed Ellie in her own time. Often in a book like this, the tendency of a good many authors is to simply transplant a woman of the Twenty-First Century back into the middle of the Twentieth, giving her values and attitudes that simply don't ring true for the time and place. In consequence the character often seems ultimately unbelievable.

Not so here. Ellie is a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own. But she is, clearly, a woman of the early 1960s. Ziskin, a linguist by training, has clearly done his homework, and the characters and the sense of place ring very true. Ellie is a very attractive protagonist and Ziskin is particularly good at capturing the jealousies, conflicting ambitions, and squabbles large and small that exist within Professor Stone's department, All in all, this is a very promising start to the Ellie Stone series.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A True Classic from Michael Connelly

Trunk Music is Michael Connelly's sixth novel and the fifth of those books to feature L.A. homicide detective, Harry Bosch. It remains my favorite of Connelly's books and my favorite of all police procedurals--an inspiration to me and, I assume, to a good many other authors who write crime fiction.

Harry has been serving time on an administrative leave, which resulted from actions he took in The Last Coyote. He's just returned to the Homicide Desk when he's called to the scene of an apparent murder. Tony Aliso, a Hollywood producer who turns out low-rent, titillating, straight-to-DVD movies, has been found shot to death and stuffed into the trunk of his Rolls Royce, which has been left in a wooded area in the Hollywood Hills. 

While Harry was on leave, the homicide teams were reorganized. Each team now consists of three detectives rather than two, and so in addition to his long-time partner, Jerry Edgar, Bosch is now also teamed with a female African American named Kizmin Rider. As the senior detective, Harry is the team leader and must direct the effort to find Aliso's killer.

This is Harry's first crack at a homicide in a while, and he desperately wants the case. However, the style of the killing clearly suggests that this might have been a mob hit and so Harry has no choice other than to call the department's Organized Crime Investigative Division and inform them of the crime. He fully expects that the O.C.I.D. will examine the case and almost certainly move in and take it away from him, but they insist that they have no interest in the case at all. Harry is relieved, but the fact that O.C.I.D. doesn't even want to look at it sets off the first alarm bell suggesting to Bosch that there may be more to this case than a simple murder.

And, of course, there is. Before long the trail will take Harry and his team back and forth between L.A. and Las Vegas, where the victim was a frequent visitor. And before long, Harry will be butting heads with his perennial nemeses, the F.B.I. and the department's Internal Affairs Division, as well as the Vegas P.D. and, ultimately, the O.C.I.D., which decides that maybe it is interested in the case after all.

Happily, though, he won't be in conflict with his immediate supervisor. Harvey Pounds, the lieutenant who was such a thorn in Bosch's side in the earlier books, has been replaced by Lieutenant Grace Billets, who is much more supportive of Harry and his team. This is a very good thing, because Harry is going to need all the help he can get. 

It's a byzantine case, with all kinds of angles and competing interests playing out against each other, and against Bosch. This remains, I think, the best of all of Connelly's plots--very cleverly designed, and populated with one of his best casts. Bosch is at his peak here, and by this book is a fully-formed character--tough, smart, prickly, and single-minded in the pursuit of his mission. This book grabs me from the first paragraph every time I read it, and it never lets go.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Chilling Mystery About Commercial Fishing from Martin Cruz Smith

In the first major case of his literary career, Gorky Park, Moscow detective Arkady Renko antagonized too many powerful people. As a consequence, he lost his job and his Communist party membership and was shuffled off into oblivion. He then disappeared from view for eight years before returning in Polar Star

Renko's fallen about as far as a man possibly can. From being at the top of his profession as a criminal investigator, he's now working on the slime line on a Russian factory fishing ship in the Bering Sea. It's a joint Russian-American venture in which American trawlers catch the fish and dump them on the deck of the Polar Star. The crew on the factory ship then process the fish and freeze them so that they can ultimately get to the marketplace. It's a dirty, disgusting job and freezing cold to boot. Working on the slime line is a job for men who have fallen about as far as they possibly can.

Renko has been working the line in obscurity for quite some time, but then one day, one of the American trawlers lowers a net full of fish onto the deck of the Polar Star and caught up in the net is the body of a sexy young woman named Zina who had worked on the factory ship. The woman had last been seen standing by the rail of the ship during a dance which had been attended by the ship's crew along with some crew members from one of the American trawlers.

The ship's captain knows that Renko was once a top criminal investigator and so pulls him off the slime line and asks him to investigate the death. All of the Powers That Be are hoping that Renko will come up with a simple explanation that will not embarrass anyone other than the dead woman. The best verdict would be that she fell accidentally into the sea or, in the alternative, that she committed suicide and was then caught up in the trawler's net.

It's clear to Renko, though, that the woman was murdered and he is determined to get to the truth of the matter. Again, that's going to antagonize a lot of people, some for political reasons and others for reasons far more sinister, and before long, Renko's life will be in danger. The Polar Star is a large ship, but it's not that big and there are not that many places to hide. If he's going to complete his mission, Renko is going to have to be very careful and very, very lucky.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. Renko is a very intriguing and sympathetic protagonist, and there are a lot of other interesting and well-drawn characters as well. The mystery is compelling and there's a lot of tension throughout the story. Smith excels at describing the setting, which is at once bleak and beautiful. One also learns a great deal about the commercial fishing industry in this book; happily I'm having pork chops for dinner tonight.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

L. A. Detective Bertha Cool Is Left on Her Own. Trouble Ensues...

The eighth entry in the series featuring L. A. detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool is set in 1942. World War II is under way and Donald, the firm's junior partner, is at sea in the Navy, battling America's enemies. Bertha, the senior partner, is at sea too, even though her feet are firmly planted on the ground back in Los Angeles. In spite of what Bertha might often think, Donald is really the brains of the outfit, and without him around, she's floundering badly.

As the book opens, a blind man comes into the office. A young woman who is always very nice to him was struck by a car right in front of the spot where the man sits selling pencils and other things. He's never known the woman's name and he would like Bertha to track her down and make sure that she's all right. When the guy flashes a thick wad of bills to pay the retainer, Bertha figures that this will be easy money in the bank--something that always interests her very much.

But, of course, the job won't be nearly as easy as it seems, especially when Bertha begins scheming to make some extra cash out of the deal. Donald would have this figured out over the lunch hour, but before long, Bertha is in way over her head. Bodies are falling left and right, and who's going to save her now?

This is another entertaining book in the series and it's the first in which police sergeant Frank Sellers makes an appearance. He will become a regular character and Donald's principal nemesis in the later books, much like Sergeant Holcomb is Perry Mason's nemesis in that series. No one will ever confuse Erle Stanley Gardner's novels with great literature, but they are, almost always, a fun way to lose two or three hours in an evening. This book is no exception.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

DCI Alan Banks Leads Two Complex Investigations

When DCI Alan Banks returns from vacation, he finds the members of his team investigating a variety of crimes. Someone has stolen a farmer's valuable tractor, which by itself would probably not be the crime of the century. But other farmers in the area have also had equipment and livestock stolen, and it appears that a sophisticated gang of thieves may be operating in the area, stealing the equipment and shipping it to buyers in eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, other members of the team are investigating a mysterious blood stain on the floor of an abandoned airport hangar. It would appear that someone may have been murdered there and the body removed. But who was the victim and where is the body? At virtually the same time, two men are reported missing, and naturally, one of them may be the victim. 

Back on the job, Banks takes the leading role in all of these cases, assigning his team members and supervising their work. All of the cases are immediately complicated when a delivery van plunges off a mountain pass in inclement weather. The van is carrying the carcases of animals that have died on local farms, have been packaged up, and have then been collected to be delivered to the disposal site where they will be incinerated. The packages are now scattered all over the landscape around the wreck, and investigators are shocked to discover that not all of the bodies packaged for incineration were those of lambs or pigs.

This is one of Banks's more interesting cases and the supporting members of the cast get a lot of time on the page while Banks generally directs them. It's a clever and convoluted plot with some pretty nasty actors lurking in the background, and all in all, it's a very enjoyable read that will certainly appeal to the fans of this long-running series and to a lot of other readers as well.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Drawn into Another Complex and Dangerous Case

Boston lawyer Brady Coyne has a client list that consists almost exclusively of wealthy elderly people from Boston's Upper Crust, and when he's not off fishing somewhere, the bulk of his work lies in drawing their wills and planning their estates. For an attorney who has such an apparently quiet practice, though, Coyne does seem to find himself in the middle of a lot of murder cases.

Given that, when Brady's phone rings at two o'clock in the morning, the news is probably not going to be good. On the other end of the line is one of those wealthy clients, a retired Unitarian minister named Desmond Winter. Winter has already had more than his fair share of bad luck. Seventeen years ago, his wife took his daughter and left him, promising to be back at some point. Ultimately, his daughter returned, but his wife never did, and Winter has no idea what became of her. Her loss haunts him still. 

To further complicate Winter's life his ne'er-do-well son, Marc, went off and married a stripper named Maggie. To his surprise, though, Desmond becomes quite fond of his daughter-in-law and then one night she's found naked and beaten to death on the family's boat, hence the phone call at two in the A.M. Naturally, the husband, Marc, is the principal suspect, especially since he was observed near the scene at the time of the killing and has no apparent alibi. Desmond wants Brady to protect his son's interests and before long the whole thing spirals into a very messy and dangerous affair.

This is another very good addition to the series. It's a clever plot that moves swiftly along. Brady Coyne remains a plausible and attractive protagonist, and the rest of the characters are pretty interesting as well. Although nearly thirty years old at this point, the book has aged well, and the reader is only occasionally pulled momentarily out of the plot when someone has to go searching for a pay phone rather than simply pulling out their iPhone or some such thing. All in all, a fun read.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Hunt a Brutal Killer in the Korea of the 1970s

This is another very good entry in Martin Limon's series featuring Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom of the United States 8th Army CID. The series is set in the South Korea of the 1970s, and Limon, who spent ten years in the army in Korea, excels at describing the Korean countryside, people, and culture, as well as the interaction between the Koreans and the American Army. Sueno and Bascom are particularly appealing protagonists. They're smart, tough, and when the chips are down, they almost always follow their own instincts rather than their orders. This often gets them into trouble, but it almost always leads them to the truth.

This novel opens with the discovery of the body of a beautiful young Korean woman who has been murdered and left near the icy Sonyu River in the dead of winter. The Korean police ask Sueno and Bascom to assist in the investigation since the body is discovered near the headquarters of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division and it appears that an American serviceman may have been involved in the woman's death.

The two investigators are repulsed by the brutal murder and are happy to help, but the officers and men of the 2nd Infantry Division are a clannish bunch who refuse to cooperate. Stonewalled, Sueno and Bascom are initially frustrated in their investigation, but then another case brings them back to the region and gives them a way into the murder case. Powerful forces are threatened in the process and the two face not only a great deal of pressure but a serious threat to their own health and well-being as they pursue the investigation. This has never stopped them before, and it won't certainly stop them now, assuming they survive.

This is an interesting, fast-moving tale, and it's always fun to watch Sueno and Bascom at work. Readers who haven't found this series yet might well want to give it a try.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Another Entertaining Tale from Dick Francis

This book introduces Sid Halley who, if memory serves, is the only protagonist that Dick Francis ever used more than once. Halley was a very successful jockey until he fell from a horse which trampled his left hand, abruptly ending his career. He accepts a job with a detective agency that has a racing division, but he spends a couple of years simply hanging around the office without being given any meaningful assignments. But he's willing to go with the flow, or the not-flow, as the case may be, because he's still trying to figure out what his future is going to be now that the one thing he really loved has been taken from him.

Things take a turn for the worse when one of the detectives in the office asks Halley to assist him in a minor sting and Halley winds up being shot. Now he has a crippled hand and a ventilated stomach, which will take some time to heal. His wealthy father-in-law asks Sid to visit over a weekend and Halley agrees to do so. (Sid's wife has left him, which is not at all uncommon for a protagonist in a Dick Francis novel, but he's still on good terms with her father.)

The father-in-law has an ulterior motive, which Halley soon discovers. The other weekend guests are a particularly obnoxious man and his equally disagreeable wife who enjoys being knocked about while having sex. Without telling Halley what he's up to, the father-in-law cleverly manipulates things so that Halley will wind up investigating the disagreeable guest.

The bad guy is apparently involved in a nasty scheme to sabotage a race course so that he can gain a controlling interest and turn the place into a housing development. Well, of course, we can't allow something that horrifying to happen, but once Halley is on the job, a lot of other very horrifying things will happen--most all of them to him.

Dick Francis is a very dependable author who almost always tells an interesting tale that moves swiftly along, and this book is certainly no exception. Although the protagonists do vary in nearly every book, there is a certain formula at work in these novels, and the principal characters are almost always of a type. That's certainly not a problem, and any fan of the series will want to look for this entry.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Another Great Entry in the Crissa Stone Series from Wallace Stroby

I'm a huge fan of Wallace Stroby's Crissa Stone series, and even though I've owned this book for ages, I've put off reading it because there's not another one in the series to look forward to, at least not yet. I finally couldn't resist any longer, though, and basically devoured it in one sitting.

For those who haven't yet made her acquaintance, Stone is a professional criminal. She most often works as part of a crew, and trouble almost always ensues when one of her carefully-planned jobs doesn't come off quite as expected. She's been described as a female Parker and the description is apt. She's a tough, no-nonsense, hardened criminal and every one of the four books in which she's appeared thus far has been a great read.

In this case, Crissa has been laying low for a year or so following her last job. But she could use some excitement and another payday is always very welcome too. Accordingly, she listenes to a pitch from a wealthy art collector in L.A. The guy has come into possession of some antiquities that were smuggled out of Iraq during the confusion surrounding the war there. But the authorities know that he has them and have demanded their return if the guy wants to avoid prosecution.

As fate would have it, just at that moment another wealthy collector has made a nice offer for the pieces. The guy in L.A. would much rather sell the antiquities and ship them overseas rather than having to return them and gain nothing for all his time and trouble. The pieces are being stored in a warehouse in Las Vegas. The collector is supposed to move them to California and from there the pieces will be repatriated.

Rather than do that, the guy wants Crissa to put together a crew and steal the antiquities while they are enroute from Vegas to the coast. They will then deliver the pieces to a dock where they will be shipped to the overseas collector. The collector in L.A. will tell the authorities that he's very sorry the pieces were stolen, but it was hardly his fault. In the meantime, he'll pocket a very large payout from the overseas collector. Crissa's payout promises to be huge as well, and the job will be simple as pie. Save for the planning, the actual heist will only take a few minutes and will not be at all dangerous. What could possibly go wrong?

Crissa is a very compelling character and it's fascinating watching her plan the heist. The way she's worked it out, the job does seem extremely simple and foolproof. Watching the way it all plays out is even more fun. This is a very good hard-boiled novel that should appeal to practically anyone who enjoys their crime fiction with an edge to it. And I hate the fact that I don't have another one of them waiting in the wings.