Saturday, July 29, 2017

Another Taut Thriller from Michael Connelly

Terry McCaleb was once a top-ranked F.B.I. agent, but then a heart attack brought him down and forced him into early retirement. After an interminable wait because of his very rare blood type, McCaleb has finally had a heart transplant and is recuperating aboard his boat which is docked in the harbor at San Pedro, California. 

Terry is still early in his recovery when a beautiful woman named Graciella Rivers shows up at his boat and begs him to investigate the murder of her sister, Gloria, who was shot to death in the robbery of a convenience store. Terry explains that this would be impossible and that his condition would not permit it. Then Graciella drops the bomb that leaves him no choice.

Against the advice of his doctor who is enormously upset with him, McCaleb agrees to investigate Gloria's death. It's going to be an uphill battle, given that he's now a private citizen and, ex-F.B.I. agent or not, the local cops who investigated the crime originally are going to stonewall him. They've written off the case as a run-of-the-mill homicide in the course of an armed robbery. They have no suspects and aren't looking particularly hard to find any. The last thing they want is for some outsider to come in and show them up.

McCaleb pretty quickly concludes that there is probably more to this crime than a simple robbery gone wrong and his investigation turns up several interesting developments. He's a unique and sympathetic protagonist, and it's fun watching him work his way through all of the obstacles thrown in his path. It's a taut compelling story--basically what anyone who reads him would expect from Michael Connelly.

I'm giving this three stars rather than four, however, because of something incredibly stupid that happens near the end of the book. (WARNING: Do not read the following unless you want a good idea how the book ends.)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Don Winslow Serves UP the Summer's Best Book

This is another brilliant novel from Don Winslow, author of The Power of the Dog and The Winter of Frankie Machine. At the heart of the story is Detective Sergeant Denny Malone of the N.Y.P.D, a deeply flawed character in a corrupt and brutally flawed system.

Malone runs a small elite task force charged with chasing down drug dealers, gun runners, gang members and other such scum. He thinks of himself as the "King of Manhattan North," and to Malone's way of thinking, the ends almost always justify the means. He and his team often act outside of the law in order to "police" the city, and for the most part, their superiors and the Powers That Be turn a blind eye. In a city riven by race and class, the P.D.'s brass want good statistics and the citizens just want the criminals kept away from their doorsteps. How that happens is not much of a concern to any of them.

Denny Malone comes from a long line of policemen, and all he ever wanted was to be a good cop. But from almost the moment he left the Academy, Malone allowed himself to be slowly corrupted until now, he's not any better than and not much different from the thugs he's supposed to be chasing. He and his team administer justice as they see fit, and along the way they rip off cash and drugs, making themselves a fortune in the process. They live like princes, but the day of reckoning is surely coming and when it does, Denny Malone will be sorely tested.

Malone is one of the most compelling figures in crime fiction to come along in years, and Winslow's indictment of the police force, the prosecutors, the lawyers and the politicians who run New York City is searing. This is one of the most depressing stories you'll ever read, and one of the most beautifully written. It's like watching a train wreck unfolding in slow motion. You can't take your eyes off it, and once you pick up this book you cannot put it down until you've reluctantly read the final page. This is easily the book of the summer and one can only wonder where Don Winslow might go from here.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"The Wrong Side of Goodbye" Is Another Great Novel from Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch has finally left the L.A.P.D. behind for good, but his mission as a homicide detective remains in his blood--it still defines who he is. Accordingly, while he's now working as a P.I., he's also volunteering as a reserve officer in the small, understaffed and underfunded police department in San Fernando. Harry is basically the department's Cold Case unit, investigating still unsolved crimes. There's no paycheck, but Harry still gets to carry a detective's badge and he still gets to do the work that gives meaning to his life.

In his capacity as a P.I., Harry is summoned to the mansion of an elderly tycoon named Whitney Vance. Vance is now a billionaire in charge of a huge company. But when he was a young college student in Southern California, he had a brief affair with a Mexican girl who became pregnant. But Vance's father drove the young woman away and Vance never saw her again. He also never knew whether she had his baby and if so, what might have happened to it.

Now on the verge of his death, Vance is embarrassed by the cowardice of his youth and wants, at long last, to make amends if at all possible. He hires Harry to find out if he does have an heir. He warns Bosch that powerful forces would be upset if this should turn out to be the case. If he has no heir, his board of directors effectively inherits his company, and the board members would not look kindly on any competition to their claim. Vance swears Bosch to secrecy and sends him on his way.

At the same time, in his capacity as a reserve detective in San Fernando, Harry has discovered a disturbing pattern in some old case files, suggesting that a serial rapist was working in the area and may, in fact, still be attacking women there. The attacker becomes known as the "Screen Cutter" because of the way in which he gains entry into the women's homes. And finding the man and getting him off the streets is a must.

As the novel progresses, Harry bounces back and forth between the two cases and each is extremely urgent. The rapist must be caught before any more women are victimized, but Vance's heir--if, indeed, there is one--must be found before the old man dies. 

Connelly tells this story as only he can, and the reader is engrossed in both cases practically from the opening paragraph of the book. Bosh remains one of the most compelling characters in modern crime fiction, and no living crime writer captures the city of Los Angeles as well as his creator. Twenty-six books into the world of Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly has solidified his claim as the logical heir of Raymond Chandler, and this is a book that will certainly appeal to anyone who loves great crime fiction.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Is Hamstrung by Client Privilege

The ninth Brady Coyne novel opens when his client and long-time friend, Chester "Pops" Popowski, calls Brady with a problem. Already a distinguished jurist, "Pops" has been nominated for a seat on a federal court, and he has ambitions of one day sitting on the Supreme Court. But, as fate would have it, someone has chosen this rather inopportune moment to blackmail him over an incident that happened years earlier.

If the incident were to become public knowledge, it would almost certainly derail Popowski's judicial ambitions, and the blackmailer wants ten grand to keep the secret. He also wants to meet with Pops at a somewhat seedy bar to discuss the deal. Pops refuses to tell Brady what the incident involves and insists that it was nothing all that serious--just potentially embarrassing. He wants Brady to take the meet and tell the blackmailer that he's not going to pay.

As instructed, Brady meets the guy and delivers the message. The blackmailer gets huffy about it and they exchange some words. The blackmailer leaves the bar. Brady leaves the bar. The blackmailer gets murdered. Oh, crap.

The police identify the blackmailer and trace his movements to the bar where the cooperative bartender identifies both the victim and Brady, and tells the cops that he saw them arguing. The cops want to know what they were talking about and why they met, but Brady is bound by client privilege to protect Pops and can't tell them. Not surprisingly, he becomes the prime suspect.

Through the rest of the novel, then, we watch Brady attempt to extricate himself from this mess without breaking his obligation to his client. This means that he will have to find the Real Killer himself. It's an interesting hunt, but this is not one of the more compelling books in the series. Brady wanders here and there, attempting to solve the crime, but there's not a lot of suspense. He's never in any physical danger and the reader realizes that he's probably not really going to be arrested and convicted of the murder, and so we watch him go about his business, feeling pretty confident that things will all work out in the end.

It's an okay book, and those readers who are fans of the series and who are as compulsive about these things as I, will certainly want to read it. More casual readers who want to sample the series would be best advised to dip into other entries, and this will not be a problem. There are a lot of good Brady Coyne novels out there.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Norwegian Detective Harry Hole Chases a Particularly Fiendish Killer

The opening of the eleventh entry in the Harry Hole series finds the famed Norwegian detective happily retired from the homicide division and teaching at the police academy. He's clean, sober and recently married, building his relationship with his wife and his stepson. Hard as is may be to believe, Harry Hole is actually happy.

Any fan of the series knows that this can't possibly last long, and Harry fears it as well--he knows that his life is too good to be true. Sure enough, when two women are murdered in a particularly fiendish way after accepting Tinder dates, it's clear that a new serial killer is haunting Oslo. And, of course, Harry Hole has built his reputation on hunting serial killers. No one does it better. But when the Police Chief asks Harry to return to homicide and help track down the killer, Harry refuses, insisting that he will not sink back into that swamp again. The chief, though, brings pressure to bear, effectively making Harry an offer that he cannot refuse, and soon Hole is back on the job, running his own small team in an effort parallel to the main investigation.

The plot thickens when Harry realizes that the person most likely guilty of the crimes is an old nemesis who eluded capture a few years earlier, and soon the chase is one with Harry and his old antagonist battling it out. 

The killer is a monster of the first magnitude and this novel flirts with crossing into the realm of the horror genre. Like all of the books in this series, psychological themes are front and center, and the most interesting case study is Harry Hole himself, who remains one of the most complicated and compelling figures in crime fiction. A lot of the earlier cast members are present for this outing, and as always, the tension is thick.

It's very hard to say more about the plot without giving too much away; suffice it to say that the plot is complex and turns in a number of unexpected ways. It's another page-turner from Jo Nesbo that will keep readers up well into the night and scare the living daylights out of a lot of them in the process.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Introducing Boston P.I., Spenser

"The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse."

Thus opens the novel that introduced Robert B. Parker's most famous creation, Boston P.I., Spenser. Spenser was a former cop who'd been fired for insubordination, and he was also a veteran of the Korean War. When The Godwulf Manuscript was published in 1973, he was apparently somewhere in his middle forties, which means that when Parker wrote his last contribution to the series in 2011, Spenser would have been in his early eighties. With the publication this year of the latest book in the series, written by Ace Atkins, Spenser would be pushing ninety.

For a guy that old, he still does amazingly well. More important, for a series this long--now forty-five books--the character and the concept have held up very well. Truth to tell, the series had begun to falter a bit toward the end of Parker's life, but Atkins has put it back on track and restored it to its former glory.

From the beginning, as suggested by the opening sentence above, Spenser was a world-class smart ass. He was also a very tough guy, wise to the ways of the world, and, naturally, hugely attractive to the ladies. He worked by his own rules, and for Spenser, the ends almost always justified the means. He was a very worthy successor to the generation of tough-guy P.I.s who had come before him.

In this case, a very valuable manuscript has been stolen from a Boston University. The manuscriptnappers are asking $100,000 for its safe return, but this is not one of the more stellar universities for which Boston is known. They don't have a hundred grand, and so the university president hires Spenser to get the manuscript back.

Spenser's main lead is to a group of campus radicals. Almost immediately, someone is murdered and the stakes are raised significantly. The murder and the theft are obviously related, and Spenser soon finds himself caught between the university officials, the cops, some local mobsters, a lot of uncooperative students and a particularly nasty faculty wife. Naturally, none of these will pose any significant problem for Spenser, but things will get very dicey along the way.

Rereading the book after a very long time was a lot of fun, and it's held up very well, especially for a book that's now forty-three years old. Mainly that's because the character of Spenser seems somehow almost timeless and the story moves along so well that you don't even stop to think about all the modern technology that Spenser doesn't have at his beck and call.

The character is obviously not fully formed yet. A couple of characters are introduced who will accompany Spenser through the entire run of the series, but Parker is still feeling his way along here, and it was interesting to go back and see the character again as he initially appeared. 

This is the book in which Spenser meets Brenda Loring, who will be his first significant love interest. I liked Brenda a lot, and like many another fan of this series, I rue the day when she disappeared from the series only to have Spenser wind up with the insufferable Susan Silverman. Happily, that doesn't happen for a while, which is one of the reasons why so many of the early books in this series are among the best of the lot. All in all, this was a great trip back down Memory Lane.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Kurt Wallander Attempts to Solve Two Perplexing Mysteries

As the fifth entry in this series opens, Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander is looking forward to his upcoming vacation, but then he answers a call to a farmer's field where a young girl has been standing all day in what appears to be a catatonic state. Just as Wallander arrives, the girl douses herself in gasoline and burns herself to death. Wallander is naturally horrified and cannot imagine why the girl would have chosen to end her life, especially in such a painful manner. His task now is to identify the young woman and notify her family of her fate. This will prove to be a difficult process.

Shortly after the girl's death a retired Swedish Minister of Justice is murdered by someone who smashes his head with an ax and then takes his scalp. Wallander and his team are on the case, but have no obvious suspects. For the remainder of the book, the P.O.V. switches back and forth between Wallander and the killer who is on a mission that becomes clearer as the book progresses. As it does, a couple more men will be murdered and scalped and it becomes pretty clear that neither Wallander nor anyone else on his team will be going on vacation anytime soon.

This is another very intriguing and entertaining entry in the series and, as always, it allows Mankell to make observations about a number of social issues. There are a number of troubled families in this book, for example, including Wallander's own. His difficult relationship with his daughter, Linda, has significantly improved, but his father is slowly sinking into dementia and Wallander realizes that they will have little time to repair their fragile relationship.

The plot is compelling and moves along swiftly; as always the characters are very interesting, and all in all, this is a book that should appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Henry Grey Races to a Flying Finish

In this Dick Francis novel the protagonist is an amateur jockey. However, unlike most of Francis's novels, our hero spends very little time on horseback, and racing constitutes a very minor part of the story. Henry Grey is heir to a British title but would prefer not to be. The last child and the only son in his family, he was largely ignored as a child and developed into something of a loner with few social skills. He's happiest when he's piloting a small rented plane on his days off, alone in the skies over Britain.

Like many of Britain's noble families, Henry's has fallen on hard times financially. The massive family home is ancient and falling into disrepair. His parents and elder sisters expect Henry to do the right thing and marry some wealthy heiress who will bail out the family, but Henry wants no part of it and constantly avoids the young women that his mother keeps throwing at him.

He works in an office that arranges for the transportation of racing horses to countries near and far, but he's bored with that and so takes a job on the planes that actually fly the horses from one destination to another. The man who owns the company humors Henry by giving him the job, but he's sure that the titled nobleman won't stick it out for very long.

Obviously, though, the employer has never read a Dick Francis novel and doesn't know the kind of man he's really dealing with here. Like most Francis protagonists, Henry Grey is a quiet but very intelligent and capable man. He's also very determined and once he sets his mind to something, it's virtually impossible to change his course. Before long, Henry will discover that something very odd is going on in the horse transport business, and his discovery could well cost him his life.

Like most Dick Francis novels, this one is well-plotted and moves along at a brisk pace. The climax is riveting and if I have any reservations it's only because Henry Grey is not quite as interesting as the protagonists in most of the other books. Still, I enjoyed the book, and I'm sure that most Dick Francis fans will as well.