Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Lam and Cool Take on a Case that Mixes Murder with a Pet Crow

The eleventh Donald Lam and Bertha Cool novel begins with a client who wants the detective agency to undertake a task that he will not stoop to do himself. The client, Harry Sharples, is one of two trustees who administer a trust with two beneficiaries. One of the beneficiaries, Sharples says, is an intelligent, responsible young woman who can be trusted with the money the trustees dole out to her. The other is a young man who is anything but responsible and who will gamble or otherwise fritter away whatever funds he is allowed. 

Sharples is worried because a pendant filled with valuable emeralds and which belongs to the young woman, has suddenly appeared on the market. Sharples can't imagine why the woman would be selling the pendant and wonders if she is in some sort of financial difficulty. But he can't bring himself to ask her what's going on and so he wants Lam and Cool to investigate and figure it out for him.

Cool and Lam take the case and Donald begins to investigate. Inevitably, the case will become almost impossibly convoluted, as only a plot by Erle Stanley Gardner can do. A murder will be committed; a pet crow will enter the picture, and Donald will have to fly off to Colombia to check out an emerald mine. None of it makes any sense at all, but it's still always fun to watch Lam in action, bickering with his partner, and conducting the investigation in his own inimitable way. Of course Donald will be a magnet for at least a couple of over-sexed women and all in all, reading the book is a pleasant way to lose two or three hours.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Classic Novel from Agatha Christie

This book, first published in 1939, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), are generally considered to be Agatha Christie's most outstanding achievements. Both are premier examples of the "locked room" mystery, and this book is perhaps the most elaborate puzzle mystery ever published. Christie noted later that it was the most difficult book she ever wrote and the one that pleased her the most.

As the book opens, eight people who are all strangers to each other, accept an invitation to spend the weekend at an island house. None of them is really familiar with their hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. Owen, but they accept the invitation just the same. However, on arriving on the island, they discover that their host and hostess have been delayed and will not arrive until the following day.

The guests are thus left in the care of the couple that runs the household. Oddly, they too have never met their employers and are carrying out instructions that were mailed to them when their services were retained. Counting the couple, there are now ten people effectively abandoned on the island, given that the boat that has brought them has returned to the mainland and will not be coming back to the island for several days due to rough seas.

In each of the guest rooms there is a copy of a blackface song, written in the 1860s, and titled variously as "Ten Little Niggers," or "Ten Little Injuns." (Christie's novel was first published as Ten Little Niggers, but later editions of the book were sanitized, and the title changed to reflect the last line of the song. In current editions, the song is titled "Ten Little Soldiers," which presumably will not offend anyone's sensibilities.) The song describes the activities of the ten little individuals who die, one by one, in various misadventures until the last one expires, "and then there were none."

As the ten people assemble on the first evening on the island, it is revealed that each of them has a dark secret. Each of them has effectively gotten away with causing the death of another person. And sure enough, the ten people begin to die, each in a way that reflects a death in the poem. After two or three deaths, panic sets in and the guests don't know what to do, whom to trust, or how to save themselves.

The story is best read as a classic example of a style of British mystery that was once very popular. Needless to say, crime fiction has come a long way in the last eighty years, and readers accustomed to more contemporary novels may find this one more than a bit odd. It's fun to watch the puzzle unfold, though, and to see Agatha Christie at her best. In that sense, this is a book that should interest a large number of crime fiction fans.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Brady Coyne Searches for a Missing Heiress and Finds More Trouble Than He Bargained For

It's autumn in New England when Boston attorney Brady Coyne drives out to historic Concord, Massachusetts to visit another of his very wealthy and very elderly clients, Susan Ames. Sadly, Susan, a widow, is dying of cancer and has only a month or so to live. For the last eleven years, she's been estranged from her only child, Mary Ellen, who went away to college shortly after her father died and who has never returned or contacted her mother since.

Mary Ellen had been devoted to her father, who indulged her every whim, and never had a good relationship with her mother, who was the family disciplinarian. Hence her long absence. But Susan's death will have practical consequences. The Ames family has lived in the same historic house since 1748. It's a national treasure and it will now go to Mary Ellen. There's a fair amount of money in the estate as well, and these matters have to be addressed before Susan passes on. Beyond that, Susan simply wants the chance to reconnect with her daughter before she dies.

Susan informs Brady that the Ames family does not hire "sleazy private eyes," and so she assigns him the task of finding her daughter. Brady fairly quickly locates the town home where Mary Ellen lives, but finding Mary Ellen herself proves to be a more difficult proposition. Before long, there will be the inevitable murder, followed by a couple more for good measure, and Brady is soon up to his neck in complications and in physical danger.

This is among the better books in the series with an intriguing plot and an interesting cast of characters. Brady is his usual subdued but very effective self and, as usual, he'll find time in and around his investigations for a new romantic entanglement. A very good read for those who prefer fairly classic mystery novels.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Lucas Davenport Confronts a Unique and Especially Dangerous Set of Opponents in "Shadow Prey"

The second entry in John Sandford's Prey series barrels along at the same breakneck pace as the first, Rules of Prey. It opens with the ritualistic murder of a Minneapolis slumlord by one of his Indian tenants. That is quickly followed by the similar slaying of three other men known for their prejudicial treatment of American Indians. Lucas Davenport is assigned to lead the investigation, but he's hampered by the fact that he has few contacts in the Indian community.

The killings are being orchestrated by two elderly Indian men known as the Crows, who have developed a plan to settle some long-standing scores, particularly with a high-level government official whom they are attempting to lure into their trap. But can Davenport and his colleagues foil the scheme before it comes to fruition?

The investigation pits Davenport against the Crows and their son, a particularly twisted man named Shadow Love. (Both of the Crows were sleeping with his mother when Shadow Love was conceived and so they both act as his father.) But Shadow Love has an agenda of his own and even the Crows may not be able to deal with him.

This is a high-energy novel with a lot of great scenes as well as the particular brand of humor that would come to mark this series. Davenport's character is still taking shape, but his love life is front and center here. He's still involved with Jennifer Carey, the mother of his infant daughter, but he's also enormously attracted to Lily Rothenberg, a New York cop who comes out to Minnestota to assist in the investigation. Complications will ensue.

The plot moves very swiftly, and the plot of Indians redressing their legitimate grievances in this fashion is unique and interesting. Rereading the book, it's also great fun to go back and see Lucas Davenport in the early stages of his development. It's hard to imagine that there's a fan of crime fiction out there somewhere who still has not stumbled across this series, but if you are that rare creature, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Monkeewrench Gang Stumbles into a Developing Disaster

The third entry in the Monkeewrench series finds Monkeewrench founders Annie Belinsky and Grace MacBride on their way to a conference in Green Bay, along with Wisconsin deputy sheriff, Sharon Mueller. As they make their way north, they take several scenic detours to see interesting barns and other such attractions. The authors suggest that this is something that women do on a fairly regular basis, and before long the trio is way off course and hopelessly lost near Four Corners, a town so tiny that it actually only has two corners.

As fate would have it, earlier in the day a tanker truck has overturned in Four Corners, with catastrophic consequences. A team of sinister men is busy attempting to conceal the matter when the women's SUV breaks down and they wind up walking right into the disaster. 

It's quickly apparent that something very bad has happened in the little town and that the women might be in very grave danger. Matters are complicated when, for some inexplicable reason, the women leave their purses in the local cafe for the bad guys to find, alerting the BGs that the women have intruded into their midst. The women also inexplicably leave most of their cell phones in their purses, which means that they have no way to communicate with the outside world. 

The male members of the Monkeewrench gang soon become alarmed when the women haven't reported in and so pile into the Monkeewrench RV and go chasing after them. As the book unfolds, it turns out that the gang has stumbled into a massive plot that, if not nipped in the bud, could cause a disaster of epic proportions.

I generally enjoyed the first two books in this series, but, for me at least, this one stretched credulity way out of bounds, practically from the git go. I found the plot to be very implausible and the actions of the characters often seemed equally inexplicable. It may be a while before I return to the series.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Another Difficult and Dangerous Case for Detective Sean Duffy

Adrian McKinty's second novel featuring Detective Sean Duffy is set in 1982, during the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. As the novel opens, a man's torso is found abandoned in a suitcase. Duffy manages to identify the victim as an American tourist--a retired IRS employee who had come to Ireland to visit his roots.

The autopsy reveals that the man was poisoned by a very rare plant, and Duffy can't find a hint of it anywhere in Northern Ireland. His only viable lead comes when he discovers the identity of the man who owned the suitcase. But the investigation hits an apparent dead end when it turns out that the man who owned the suitcase has himself been murdered, apparently by IRA assassins. His widow gave the suitcase to the Salvation Army, and there's no way of knowing who might have gotten it from them.

Both cases effectively wind up on the back burner. But Duffy continues to be bothered by apparent inconsistencies in both murders and, even though he's been ordered off the case, he continues to poke and prod, antagonizing some very dangerous people in the process and putting himself at serious risk of life and limb.

This is another extremely well-told tale with a very likable and savvy protagonist. McKinty sets the stage beautifully, and the violence and the sadness of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland lurks behind virtually every scene. This book justly won the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on the third book in the series. 4.5 stars.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Detroit P.I. Amos Walker Returns for the Twenty-Third Time

This is the twenty-third entry in Loren Estleman's series featuring Detroit P.I., Amos Walker. Walker is an old-school detective and this is an old-school, hard-boiled series in the best sense of the tradition. Walker is a direct descendant of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and the Detroit streets that he drives in his souped-up Oldsmobile Cutlass are at least as mean as the ones in L.A. that were once walked by his erstwhile predecessors.

As the book opens, Walker is hired by a wealthy financier to find his much-younger wife who has left him for the second time. The wife, Cecelia Wynn, has left a note that is short and to the point: "Don't look for me." Walker agrees to do so in spite of the note, and ascertains fairly quickly that the missing spouse was unhappy and masking her despondency with shopping, lunches with her girlfriends, drinking heavily, and taking herbal remedies.

On leaving, Cecelia seems to have left behind her stash of supplements and so Walker begins by visiting the shop where she got them. There's a very interesting woman behind the counter and a dead body in the basement, and from here things get both very interesting and extremely confusing. Drug runners, porn stars, the Mafia and a couple of foreign agents all make an appearance while poor Amos attempts to somehow stay alive, stay out of jail and complete his mission.

Thirty-four years after his initial appearance in Motor City Blue, Amos is more than a little world-weary, and who can blame the poor guy? He's had to endure a great deal through the years, investigating any number of dangerous and complex cases, getting beat up, jailed, and otherwise abused, and all the while holding up the traditions of one of the most sacred sub-genres in the crime fiction business. It's a nasty job, but crime fiction fans can be grateful for the fact that Amos and his creator are still on the job and at the top of their games all these years down the road.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Follows a Case All the Way to Montana

Although he'd rather not, Boston attorney Brady Coyne agrees to spend the weekend at the Cape Cod home of one of his clients, Jeff Newton. Newton was once a very successful hunting guide in Africa, but six years ago, he was attacked by a wounded leopard and left an embittered invalid. He now lives alone with a voluptuous housekeeper in an isolated home guarded by two trained Doberman watch dogs. Two or three times a year, he summons Coyne to deal with his various legal matters.

Brady arrives on a Friday night to find Newton in a surly mood. After dinner with the housekeeper, the three of them go off to bed in their respective rooms. In the middle of the night, Brady is awakened by two men who tie him to his bed, threaten to kill him, and then knock him unconscious. When he wakes up the next morning, he manages to free himself and discovers that the two guard dogs have been killed; Jeff Newton has been badly beaten and lies unconscious at death's door, and a very valuable collection of solid gold Pre-Columbian leopards has been stolen. The housekeeper is unharmed.

The local investigators haven't a clue and initially suspect that Brady and/or the housekeeper were involved. For Brady the crime has become personal and he sets out to investigate it himself. The trail will ultimately take him to Montana and will place him in grave danger, and the chances that this will all end well are not very good.

This is another solid entry in the Brady Coyne series, and as always, along the way, Brady will find some time to fish, to bed a seductive woman, and to ruminate on the mysteries of life. Another enjoyable read for fans of the series.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A British Investigator Searches for a Horse Missing in the U.S.

AGene Hawkins is an English civil servant--actually a very astute investigator for a department that is never named. He's also severely depressed following the end of a love affair and is toying with the idea of suicide. He has a three-week vacation coming, and this is probably not good news for a man who has no life outside of his work and who is thinking of ending his own life.

Just as his vacation begins though, Hawkins's boss asks him to accompany him and his family on a Sunday afternoon boating outing. This is very odd, since the boss has never before asked Hawkins to socialize outside of work. The boss's precocious young daughter picks Hawkins up and drives him to the boat. They cast off and the boss introduces Gene to the rest of his family and to his other guest, a man named Dave Teller.

Obviously, there's an ulterior motive lurking behind the invitation, and it turns out that Teller is part of a syndicate that has just lost a very expensive horse in the United States. This is the third such horse that has gone missing, the boss wonders if Hawkins would mind using his vacation to go to the U.S. and investigate the matter as a favor to Teller. 

Hawkins has no interest in undertaking such a mission and turns the offer down. But then, while the party is still on the river, an incident occurs that convinces Hawkins to change his mind. Before long he's on his way to the U.S. and begins tracking the latest missing horse. Obviously, this is going to be a very dangerous mission, But his adversaries have no idea that Hawkins is already contemplating ending his own life, so what does he have to lose?

This book is a bit unusual for a Dick Francis novel in that most of it takes place in the U.S., rather than the U.K. And, while there are horses involved, the main protagonist is not actually part of the racing world. It's a fun, quick read, but maybe not quite on a par with a lot of other Dick Francis books. Hawkins is an OK protagonist, but one of the things that usually characterizes a Dick Francis novel is an especially menacing bad guy who's controlling things from behind the scenes. The villains here are not as scary as usual, but that's a relatively small complaint and fans of Dick Francis should certainly enjoy this effort.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Detective Jackson Faces Multiple Challenges in "Deadly Bonds"

Deadly Bonds is another excellent entry in the Detective Jackson series by L. J. Sellers. Jackson is a detective in the Eugene, Oregon P.D. and the book opens as he is called to the scene of a murder. A young woman lies dead in a run-down house, although the cause of death is not immediately apparent. In searching the house, Jackson finds a terrified three-year-old boy hiding in a crawl space under the house. Jackson convinces the child to trust him enough to come out of his hiding space and the boy immediately bonds with Jackson and won't let go of him.

Jackson naturally attempts to pass the child off to Child Services, but that goes badly and so Jackson agrees to hang on to the child temporarily while he searches for relatives who can take the boy. This may not be the best idea in the world, because at the moment, Jackson is especially vulnerable in the family department. His own daughter, Katie, is estranged and living away from home. At the same time, the daughter-in-law of Kera Kollmorgan, Jackson's Significant Other, has been badly injured in an auto accident and is not expected to live. Needless to say, Jackson's personal responsibilities to his family are thus basically colliding head-on with his obligations to the job.

Jackson's efforts to keep all these balls in the air at the same time is hindered by the city's budget crisis, which has led to staffing cuts in the P.D. In consequence, Detective Lara Evans, one of Jackson's most valuable teammates, is pulled off the investigation into the woman's murder to investigate the death of a star college football player. This makes the investigation into the original victim's death all that more difficult and places even more responsibility on Jackson's shoulders.

Sellers very deftly moves back and forth between the two death investigations and the multiple crises in Jackson's personal life. It makes for a swift-moving and very enjoyable read. The tension grows as the book progresses and ends in a great climax. Jackson is a very capable and sympathetic protagonist, and Deadly Bonds is another winner from this prolific author.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bill Hodges Reaches the End of Watch

This is the concluding volume of Stephen King's trilogy featuring ex-cop and P.I., Bill Hodges. The cast of characters from the first two books has returned mostly intact, including Hodges; his partner, Holly Gibney, and Brady Hartsfield, the maniac whose crime spree set the trilogy in motion. For almost six years, Hartsfield has been hospitalized, apparently in a persistent vegetative state, but Hodges still suspects that Hartsfield might be faking his illness in an effort to avoid prosecution for his crimes.

As this book opens, Bill and Holly are called to a death scene by Bill's former partner, Pete Huntley. Two women are dead in an apparent murder-suicide, and Huntley believes that Hodges may be interested in the scene because one of the women was one of Brady Hartsfield's original victims. The cops, or at least Pete's new partner, are ready to close the case, but Hodges is not so sure that there's not more to the women's deaths. He and Holly begin their own investigation and the game is on. It's really hard to say much more without giving too much away, and I would recommend that anyone considering the book, ignore the tease on the cover, which does give way too much away.

I enjoyed the first two books in this series, but this one not so much. I hasten to say that this is certainly much more my fault than the author's. This is one of those books where I can recognize that the book is generally well done and that it will appeal to a large number of readers. But, unlike the first two books in the trilogy which were fairly straight-forward crime novels, this one bends the genre in ways that just didn't work for me. In short, I'm really not the audience for this book.

I would argue that the book is about a hundred pages too long. It seemed to drag and to get a bit repetitive, but again, that may just reflect the fact that I wasn't really enjoying it and was waiting for it to be over. Certainly no one should avoid this book because it didn't work for me; the scores of other much more favorable reviews would certainly indicate that it did work for a lot of other readers.