Friday, December 28, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Attempts to Uncover an Insurance Fraud in This Novel from A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

Quality-wise, this book is somewhere in the middle of the pack for A. A. Fair's series featuring Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. This deep into the series Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner) was clearly writing on autopilot and not about to deviate from the formula he had established twenty-five years earlier in 1939. In fact, this book could have been written in 1939. Save for the fact that Donald takes a trip on a jet airplane rather than on a prop plane, there's really nothing here to suggest that the book might have been written in 1964 or in any year close to that.

The story opens when an insurance company executive hires the firm of Cool and Lam to try to get the goods on someone the executive believes is attempting to defraud the company. The man claims to have suffered a whiplash injury when his car was hit from behind by a driver insured by the company.

Whiplash pain is almost impossible to prove and the company fears that it's going to have to make a big settlement. The company has arranged for the man to "win" a trip to a dude ranch in Arizona in a contest. The idea is that Donald will go to the ranch and attempt to get film of the claimant riding horses, playing golf, and doing all sorts of things that would be impossible were he as seriously injured as he claims.

Naturally, the situation will almost immediately become much more complicated and, as usual, Donald will find himself in a serious mess. He will then have to extricate himself and unravel another very complex mystery before his usual adversary, Sergeant Frank Sellers, can screw things up entirely.

Those who follow the series will know exactly what to expect from the opening pages of the book. Those who are interested in sampling the series would be better off seeking out one of the first few books from the 1940s, which were fresher and truer to the time period in which they were written.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

An Entertaining Debut Novel from Steven Max Russo

This very good debut novel is set in New Jersey and features three main protagonists, only one of whom is even a bit sympathetic. But all three are very compelling, and once you enter their world you are hooked through to the end.

Principal among the three is a young Hispanic woman named Esmeralda. She's responsible for supporting her mother and two young siblings. Her ambition is to save enough money to go to school, become a cosmetologist, and open her own upscale salon. But the truth is that, even working day and night virtually every day of the week, there's no way she'll ever be able to afford her dream.

During the day, Esmeralda works for a house cleaning service and at nights she's a hostess in a restaurant. She strikes up a friendship with a young man named Ray who also works at the restaurant and on a break one night, she mentions to Ray that one of the houses she cleans in a very upscale community is empty for a month while the wealthy owners are away at another of their homes. Having spent a great deal of time in the house, Esmeralda knows that there's a lot of loose cash, jewelry, and other such things just lying around waiting for someone to help themselves.

Ray, in turn, mentions this to a very shady character named Skooley who is just up from Florida and who is washing dishes at the restaurant. Although neither Esmeralda nor Ray are aware of it, Skooley is on the run from some Very Bad People that he has screwed over in the Sunshine State. Skooley and Ray decided to rob the house and they bring Esmeralda into the scheme to provide them the intelligence they need about the house. She is reluctant, but she sees this as the one real chance she may ever have to actually end up living her dream.

Well, the best laid plans and all of that...

Once the scheme is in motion, all sorts of complications will occur and the three would-be burglars will all be challenged in a variety of ways. It would be unfair to say any more about the plot, but it is a captivating tale that keeps you turning the pages, waiting to see how it's all going to turn out. It's a very good read and Steve Russo has a bright future ahead of him.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

An Investment Banker Finds Intrigue and Trouble in this Novel from Dick Francis

This is among the better novels written by Dick Francis. The protagonist, Tim Ekaterin, is an investment banker at a large and venerable firm. The firm is approached by Oliver Knowles who owns a stud farm. Knowles wants to borrow $5 million to buy a racehorse named Sandcastle and put him out to stud. The horse has run brilliantly and, on form, would probably do equally well at stud. This is not the sort of a loan that a staid, conservative bank would normally even consider, but several of the bank's directors, including Tim and his boss, have seen the horse run and are intrigued by the proposition.

Tim is assigned to investigate Knowles, his operation, and his finances and make a recommendation to the board. Tim develops an immediate affinity for Knowles, is impressed with his operation, and recommends that the bank make the loan with all sorts of precautions being taken. The bank agrees with Tim and makes the loan over the strong objections of one director who insists that this will be a very costly mistake. Tim is assigned as the case manager and is to stay in touch with Knowles and monitor the situation.

Since this is a Dick Francis novel, something will go horribly wrong, of course. (A word to the wise, don't read the teaser on the book cover which gives way too much away in this regard.) Tim will have to try to sort it out in an effort to save both Knowles and the bank's investment. Naturally, there will be some very sinister people involved and things will ultimately get very dicey for virtually everyone, but mostly for Tim Ekaterin.

This novel is a bit unique in that it takes place over a period of three years. Ekaterin is a fairly typical Francis protagonist who has fallen in love with the wrong woman, but it's very interesting to watch him work. He is forced to learn a great deal about how champion horses are bought, sold and protected, and about the business of putting a champion like Sandcastle out to stud. He also has to learn a great deal about pharmaceuticals, and as he learns all of this, the reader learns it all too.

Some of it is really fascinating but, as in the book before this one, Reflex, Francis lays it on a bit too thick. Again, having done all of the research for the book, he apparently didn't want to leave any of it in his file drawer. As a result, this is a fairly long novel that could have been trimmed a bit and still have been every bit as entertaining and informative. But that's a small complaint in this case, and this book should appeal to anyone who enjoys the novels of this former jockey.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Canadian P.I. Mike Garfin Has Trouble with Blondes--and with Virtually Everyone Else, for that Matter

This novel, first published in 1950, is an interesting example of the hard-boiled pulp genre in that it's set in Montreal, rather than in the U.S. The protagonist, Mike Garfin, is a hard-drinking P.I. who can take a beating, over and over and over again, and keep on ticking.

The story opens, as so many of these novels do, when a stunningly beautiful blonde walks into Garfin's office and complains that a man is following her. She wants Garfin to figure out who the guy is and what he wants. She can't go to the police for reasons that will become clear a short while later. Garfin accepts the case, figuring that it should pose no real problem. At the same time, he has taken another seemingly easy assignment for that evening, which involves guarding the presents at a high-toned birthday party in a ritzy section of town.

Naturally, things will go to hell in a handbasket in pretty short order. At the party, Garfin observes an old coot manhandling an attractive young girl who obviously wants to get away. Garfin helps her escape the house but only a few hours later, the poor girl winds up dead and Garfin gets the first of the many beatings that he will have to endure through the course of this novel.

It turns out that, oddly, both of these cases get Garfin mixed up with a bunch of very dangerous people who are running a high-class prostitution ring in Montreal and who are willing to go to any lengths to protect it. It will all get pretty confusing, both for Garfin and for the reader, but watching the poor guy try to muddle through this predicament is pretty entertaining.

Ricochet Books in Montreal has now released a new edition of this book with a great new cover and with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts. I'm assuming that there are any number of people who might raise their eyebrows at the notion of a Council for the Arts supporting the rerelease of a trashy pulp novel like this one that focuses on such artsy activities as hooking, beating people up, blackmailing them and in some cases shooting them, but I'm glad they did. It's a fun read that will appeal to people who enjoy classic hard-boiled crime novels.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Perry Mason Comes to the Aid of a Troubled Florist in thie 1940 Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The seventeenth novel in Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series stands out in some respects from the other eighty-four books in the series. Most importantly, this is the book that finally introduces Lieutenant Tragg of Homicide, who will become Mason's principal adversary on the police force from now on. 

Previously, Mason's foil in the police department had been the bumbling Sergeant Holcomb. Holcomb was a very physical guy who often attempted to get his way by pushing people around. He wasn't above manipulating evidence if he thought it would improve his chances of making a case, and he really wasn't very bright. Mason generally ran circles around him without even breaking a sweat.

Gardner apparently decided that Mason needed a more worthy adversary and so introduced Tragg who in many ways is Holcomb's polar opposite. He uses his brains rather than his physical strength. He's clever, soft spoken and is able to sneak up on a suspect and get him or her in hot water before the suspect even realizes what has happened. He and Mason respect each other and Tragg always plays above board. But he's bright and determined, and Mason will have to step up his game a bit after dealing with Holcomb.

This story is also a bit unique in that it takes a while for Mason to finally appear. Most of these novels begin with a potential client showing up at Perry's office looking to retain his services and so Mason is most often present from the very first page. In this case, though, there's quite a bit of activity before Mason steps into the situation. 

Also, Mason's detective, Paul Drake, basically has no role in this book. Mason calls him and asks him to run down some information for him, but otherwise he does not appear. Finally, unlike most of the other books in the series, there's only one very minor court scene in this book. Mason demonstrates his brilliance, not by cross examining witnesses and pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the courtroom, but rather by doing his own detecting and solving the case himself.

The case involves a woman named Mildred Faulkner who owns and operates three successful flower shops. Her partner in the stores is her sister, Carlotta, but Carlotta has been ill and out of action for several months, leaving Mildred to run things by herself. Mildred and Carlotta own all the stock in the corporation, save for a few shares that they gave to an early employee. Now, one of their competitors has managed to get his hands on those shares and intends to use them to chisel his way into their business.

Obviously concerned, Mildred goes to see Carlotta. Her sister's affairs are now being handled by her husband, Bob, who Mildred never liked. Bob is an irresponsible lout who plays the horses and who may be playing around on his sick wife, but Carlotta is blinded by love and can't see through Bob the way Mildred does.

Mildred tells Bob that she want's Carlotta's stock certificates so that she can take all the certificates to a lawyer and attempt to deal with the threat to her company. But Bob weasels around and Mildred suddenly realizes that he may have turned Carlotta's certificates over to a gambler as collateral for a debt. Now thoroughly panicked, Mildred contacts Perry Mason and gets him on the case. But before you can say, "Della Street," somebody's dead and Mildred is in even more trouble than she could have possibly imagined. We can only hope that Mason will be able to save the day.

This is one of the better books in the series and it moves along at a good pace. It's nice to finally have Lieutenant Tragg on the job and watching him and Mason match wits through the rest of the books is one of the pleasures of the series. A fun reread.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

San Diego P.I. Rick Cahill Returns in a great New Novel from Matt Coyle

San Diego P.I. Rick Cahill is among the most tortured protagonists in modern crime fiction. He's haunted by events from his past; he's on the outs with virtually every law enforcement agency he encounters; as a practical matter, he has no one in his life, save for his faithful dog, and there always seems to be a group of Very Bad People who are intent on doing him serious harm. And yet, fortunately for his clients and even more so for the readers who follow his cases, Cahill soldiers on, trying as best he can to do right by his clients while at the same time struggling to survive and to somehow maintain a very tenuous grip on his place in the world. 

In this case, Cahill is hired by a radio station to protect its most valuable personality, the sultry host of "Naomi At Night," who has a huge following. Inevitably, though, that following also includes any number of creeps and weirdos who imagine that Naomi is speaking directly to them individually and who would like to get to know her in person. When one of them sends a message to the station that appears to threaten the star if she does not comply with his demands, the station manager steps in and hires Cahill.

Rick moves immediately to provide direct protection for Naomi while at the same time he attempts to identify and neutralize the potential threat. This will not be easy. Cahill understands that the threat could come from someone who just recently tuned in to Naomi's radio show. On the other hand, it could also have come from someone out of her past. But the radio star effectively handcuffs Rick by initially refusing to tell him anything about her life before she suddenly showed up on the radio only a couple of years earlier. She also refuses to allow him to involve the police, even though it's apparent early on that they should be involved.

Just as Cahill takes this assignment, though, his past jumps up to grab him in the form of some Russian mobsters to whom he is indebted because of action that took place in an earlier novel. These are not people who take "no" for an answer, and they give Cahill a task which seems simple on the one hand but very confusing on the other. In order to protect himself, Rick will now have to dig into the mystery in an effort to determine what it is that the Russians are really attempting to accomplish.

As the book progresses, Cahill is pulled back and forth between the two cases, attempting to do the best he can, especially for Naomi, and getting virtually no sleep in the process. Both investigations turn out to be very complex, and each will take a number of unexpected twists and turns.

Matt Coyle has earlier demonstrated that he is a master of the modern noir novel, and Wrong Light will only enhance his reputation in this regard. This is a very dark story with a flawed but very appealing protagonist at its center. It will appeal to anyone who likes his or her crime fiction with a sharp, hard edge. 4.5 stars.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

LAPD Homicide Detective Davie Richards Draws To Complex Cases in This Novel from Patricia Smiley

Happily, the Pacific Area of the LAPD has gone a few weeks without a new homicide case to investigate. Accordingly, the division's boss, Frank Giordano, has compiled a list of cold cases and assigned his detectives to work the cases until something fresh comes in. 

Detective Davina "Davie" Richards draws two cases. The first involves the stabbing death two years earlier of a gangbanger named Javier Hernandez. The detectives who initially investigated the case concluded that Hernandez had been killed as the result of a drug dispute, but not surprisingly, none of Hernandez's neighbors or associates were willing or able to tell the police anything about the crime. Richards decides to re-interview some of the people close to Hernandez, most importantly, his girlfriend who was present on the day of his death, but she's not holding out a lot of hope about closing this one.

Richards finds the second case assigned her immediately more interesting. The potential victim was a thirty-four-year-old woman named Sara Montaine. Montaine walked into a gun store at a time when she was the only customer present. While the store owner was distracted, Montaine allegedly took a gun from a showcase and used it to kill herself. The initial investigation concluded that the death was a suicide, but there were inconsistencies in the evidence and so Davie's boss, tells her to take a fresh look at the case if she can find the time.

Of course she can.

Both Davie and the reader immediately understand that Montaine's apparent suicide will be a much more interesting case than that of a murdered drug dealer. In fairness, Richards will investigate both cases vigorously, but clearly the one that has hooked her is the Montaine case which will ultimately prove to be very complex. 

Davie Richards is bright, determined, and virtually tireless. She makes a very appealing protagonist and the reader is immediately drawn into her world and into the cases she's pursuing. The Montaine case takes a lot of surprising twists and turns, while the gangbanger's murder investigation is a bit more straightforward. But as Richards works her way deeper into each of the cases, she will antagonize some very dangerous people who have no qualms about taking whatever steps are necessary to prevent her from closing these cases. 

All in all, The Second Goodbye is a cleverly plotted and very entertaining novel that will keep a reader turning the pages quickly.

Monday, November 26, 2018

SWEET LITTLE LIES Is a Great Debut Novel from Cas Frear

At the center of this excellent debut novel is a twenty-six-year-old London police woman named Cat Kinsella. Estranged from her family, her father in particular, she lives alone in a tiny room, devoting her life to her work as a homicide detective while she's haunted by developments that occurred eighteen years earlier when she was a child on vacation with her family in Ireland.

While on that vacation, Cat and her older sister, Jacqui, struck up a friendship with a budding teenage girl named Maryanne Doyle. Just before Cat's family left Ireland, Maryanne suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again. Cat knows that her randy father, a tavern owner and a minor fixer for a crime boss, had been with Maryanne just before she disappeared, although her father steadfastly denied it when the family was questioned by the police in the wake of Maryanne's disappearance. In the years since, Cat has been tormented by the fear that her father may have had something to do with the girl going missing. This has been the source of a great deal of tension between her and her father, even though she has never really articulated her suspicions to him.

Fast forward to the present day when a young married woman named Alice Lapaine is found strangled in London, not far from the tavern that Cat's father still operates. Cat's team is assigned to investigate the case, and initially the victim's husband looks like an excellent suspect. But Cat is stunned when the investigation reveals that "Alice Lapaine" is really none other than the long-lost Maryanne Doyle.

Cat knows that she should immediately come clean with her supervisors about her link to the victim, especially since the body was found so close to her father's establishment. But no one else on the team makes the connection and Cat struggles to maintain the secret while she attempts to unravel the twin mysteries of where Maryanne Doyle has been all these years and how she's wound up murdered now.

This is a very dark and moody story, part psychological suspense novel and part police procedural. Cat Kinsella is a complex and interesting protagonist, and Frear expertly weaves a complex plot that offers up one surprise after another. The settings are very well done. My only concern about the book was the huge coincidence that would have the long-gone girl, Maryanne Doyle, turn up dead and Cat Kinsella be assigned the case. ("Of all the gin joints in all the world...")

Still, that's a minor complaint, and I really enjoyed this book a lot. I see it's billed as "Cat Kinsella #1," and I very much hope that we will not have to wait long for #2. This is a fresh and unique character, and I can hardly wait to see where Frear takes her next.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Is Up to His Neck in Trouble Again in This Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The twenty-fifth entry in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) series featuring private detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool finds Donald up to his neck in trouble, as usual, and Bertha in an uproar, also as usual.

The story opens when a businessman asks the detectives to prove twenty-four-hour protection to his secretary who has been getting threatening letters and unsettling phone calls. He wants a man to be on duty during the days and a woman to be on duty at nights, and Cool and Lam seem like the perfect answer to his problem.

Donald and Bertha accept the assignment and almost immediately, of course, things go sideways. Donald is curious about the setup from the beginning, and the closer he looks, the more suspicious he becomes. Ultimately, the case will involve a murder or two along with some conniving businessmen, a few sexy female "escorts" and a fairly clever madam. Practically everyone in the cast of characters is lying through his or her teeth; Donald's nemesis, Sergeant Frank Sellers, will be hard on Donald's case again, and all in all, it makes for a fun evening's read.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Joe Gunther's Vermont Bureau of Investigations Faces Three Complex Cases

This is another very entertaining entry in Archer Mayor’s long-running series featuring Joe Gunther, the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. It’s also somewhat unique in that Gunther himself plays only a small, supporting role in the investigations that make up the book’s crime stories.

As the book opens, Gunther’s elderly mother is suddenly taken seriously ill. She has a rare malady that requires that she be transferred for treatment to a facility in St. Louis, Missouri. Joe accompanies her and so will be missing in action until she recovers. He names Detective Sammie Martens to run the unit in his absence.

No sooner does this happen than the VBI is suddenly challenged by three unique and complex investigations—one for each member of the team that Joe has left in place. One falls to the troubled Willy Kunkle when a small girl discovers three broken teeth near a railroad track in Windsor, Vermont. Near the teeth is an electronic device of some sort which has been badly burned. Are the teeth and the device connected? Does either discovery mean anything of consequence? Is there any criminal activity involved?

Willy’s curiosity is aroused and so he begins poking into the matter in his own inimitable way, meaning that he will work the case alone and that he will keep his supervisor—in this case his wife, Sammie, rather than Joe Gunther—largely in the dark until he gets a handle on the investigation. Also, his methods may not be strictly kosher, but in the end the trail leads him to a potentially dangerous situation that may involve terrorists.

Meanwhile, in addition to commanding the squad, Sammie winds up with a murder case to handle. A young woman was beaten and killed by an intruder in her apartment. The woman’s roommate smacked the assailant with a frying pan and drove him off, but the case assumes additional importance because the surviving young woman is the daughter of Beverly Hillstrom, the state medical examiner, and Joe Gunther’s current girlfriend. It’s unclear if the attack was random or if the victim was targeted deliberately, but Sammie will have her hands full trying to sort it all out.

Finally, Lester Spinney, the third of Joe’s subordinates, inherits a cold case that’s suddenly not so cold any more. Two years earlier, a state trooper pulled a man over on a stretch of deserted road. A few minutes later, both men were dead, apparently having shot each other. It’s impossible to say how or why this happened, but the case seemed open and shut, and the world has moved on. But now a technician in the crime lab has taken a second look at the fingerprints on the gun belonging to the civilian involved and has found a strange anomaly. Maybe the case wasn’t so open and shut after all, and Spinney will have to move very delicately if he’s to get at the truth of what happened that night without ruffling a lot of feathers.

Mayor moves seamlessly among the three stories, each of which is fascinating in its own way. By now, the cast of characters in this series feels like a group of old friends and it’s fun to see what happens when Mayor turns them loose without the assistance of Joe Gunther. A very good addition to the series.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Investigator Virgil Flowers Finds Trouble in Another Small Minnesota Town

This is another hugely entertaining entry in John Sandford's series featuring Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Flowers usually works in the small communities of the rural parts of the state, and this case takes him back to Trippton, which was the scene of one of his earlier investigations.

In this case, a wealthy divorced woman was murdered in the wake of a committee meeting at her home. The committee members had been planning the 25th reunion of the Trippton High School class of 1992, and in a tiny town like this, high school pretty much lasts for the rest of your life. The friends and enemies you made and the rivalries and antagonisms that developed during those years simply continue to endure, and the only people who escape them are the ones who have sense enough to leave town and live somewhere else.

The reader knows who the killer is from the opening pages. Unfortunately, though, Virgil doesn't, and the search for the perpetrator will force him to dig deeply into the relationships, licit and otherwise, that bind and divide the citizens of Trippton and the class of '92 in particular. It will be an interesting journey to say the least.

There's also a hilarious subplot in which Virgil is instructed to assist a female P.I. from California who's trying to stop a case of patent infringement violating the rights of the Mattel corporation. A woman named Jesse McGovern is reconfiguring Ken and Barbie dolls into XXX-rated adult toys and distributing them over the Internet. The company has traced the source of the problem to Trippton and has sent the detective to serve a cease-and-desist order on McGovern. The problem is that everyone in town denies knowing Jesse McGovern and they are doing everything they can to prevent the P.I. from serving the papers. Virgil is not especially anxious to assist in this matter, but orders are orders.

As always, the book is a lot of fun and there are several laugh-out-loud moments. I was struck by one thing, though: Years ago, Sandford wrote a book in the Prey series, titled Winter Prey. As the title would suggest, the book took place in the middle of winter and Sandford's description of the winter cold was so brilliantly done, that I was shivering through the whole book. Other readers have made the same comment, and years later, I still feel cold every time I think of the book.

Deep Freeze also takes place in the middle of a very cold winter, and people are constantly bundling up, shoveling snow, and otherwise enduring the winter weather. But you don't (or at least I didn't) get nearly the same sensation of being out in the middle of the cold weather the way you did in the Prey book. Perhaps that's because while this book is mostly humorous, the Prey book was extremely menacing and thus even the weather came through as menacing. In any event, unlike the earlier book, this one, its title not withstanding, did not make me desperate to go in search of a giant hot buttered rum.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bryan Gruley Returns with a Great New Novel

Bleak Harbor marks the return of Bryan Gruley, and not a moment too soon. I was a big fan of his Starvation Lake trilogy, but the last book in that series, The Skeleton Box, appeared in 2012, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book ever since. It turns out, though, that the wait was well worth it. Bleak Harbor is a fast-paced, taut thriller that grabs the reader from the opening lines and refuses to let go until the final scenes have played out in the wake of a great climax.

At the center of the book is a troubled family living in Bleak Harbor, Michigan, a small town where the highlight of the summer tourist season is the annual Dragonfly Festival. Carey Peters, the wife and mother, is descended from the town’s founder. Her mother, Serenity Bleak, lives in a huge home overlooking the town, isolated from the rest of the residents, both geographically and economically. The Bleaks made a huge fortune from their various enterprises in the town, but the rest of the citizens have not done nearly as well, and many of them are experiencing hard times as several of the Bleaks’ businesses have closed, leaving their former employees high and dry. Carey is employed by a firm in Chicago and commutes back and forth to Bleak Harbor two or three times a week to see her family. She is estranged from her mother who has cut Carey out of her will.

Carey’s husband, Pete Peters, was once a high-flying commodities trader in Chicago, but he hit a bad streak and lost his job. He convinced Carey to move back to Bleak Harbor where he has opened a medical marijuana shop and is struggling to get the business up and running. Both Carey and Pete have dark secrets that they are hiding from each other, and their relationship is strained for a variety of reasons.

Carey’s son—Pete’s stepson—is fifteen-year-old Danny. Danny is on the autism spectrum and, while brilliant in some respects, can also be a “difficult” child. One thing that Carey and Pete do agree on is that they both love Danny very much. Danny and Pete have an excellent relationship, centered on fishing and other activities that they do together.

The book opens on the eve of Danny’s sixteenth birthday as the annual Dragonfly Festival is about to begin. Pete arrives home expecting to take Danny fishing. He finds that Danny has prepared the sandwiches and drinks they will be taking with them, but the boy himself is nowhere to be found. Shortly thereafter, Pete receives a photo of Danny bound to a chair with what appears to be a bruise on his cheek. Accompanying the photo is a demand for a huge ransom and with that, the book is off and running.

The plot is intricately designed; the characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn, and the tension is palpable throughout as Carey and Pete and a variety of law enforcement officials work to save Danny from a particularly fiendish and clever antagonist. In particular, as he demonstrated in the Starvation Lake series, Gruley excels at describing life in a small town like Bleak Harbor, where all sorts of secrets and machinations are at work beneath the surface. The setting is expertly rendered and becomes a character in and of itself. All in all, this is a very entertaining novel and the reader leaves the book very much hoping that it will not be another six years before we hear from Bryan Gruley again. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Jockey/Photographer Finds Trouble in This Novel from Dick Francis

Philip Nore is a professional jockey and an amateur photographer, and it's the latter interest that gets him into trouble in this novel. Nore was acquainted with George Millace, a very good sports photographer who often frequented the race courses where Nore rode. Millace has recently died in an auto accident and then, to add insult to injury, someone has burglarized and trashed his house while his wife and family were attending his funeral.

There seems no larger significance to these incidents until someone returns to the house and assaults Millace's widow, demanding to know where the safe is. The poor woman has no safe and, as far as she knows, neither did her husband. But it's clear that Millace apparently possessed something that someone considers to be a potential threat. Given his occupation as a photographer, it's not a huge leap to imagine that he might have had photographs that could pose a threat to someone else.

Philip Nore steps in to assist the widow and in the process discovers what appears to be her husband's junk box. It contains some scraps of exposed film and other items that are not immediately identifiable. Curious, Nore begins to experiment with the items in his own darkroom, and once he does, he puts himself directly in the sights of some very dangerous people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets.

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis novel and readers of the series will immediately recognize Philip Nore as the prototypical Francis protagonist. It's a good book, although not among Francis's best. In part this is because he spends a great deal of time in the novel describing the technical aspects of what Nore is doing in his darkroom to uncover Millace's secrets. Francis clearly did a lot of research in this respect and was apparently determined to get everything he had learned into the book. The problem is that is slows the pace of the novel, sometimes at crucial points, and the book would have been better if he had dealt with this material more concisely.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Another Great Novel from Wallace Stroby

I confess that I was a bit disappointed when I learned that Wallace Stroby's new novel would not feature Crissa Stone, the kick-ass female protagonist who has starred in his last four books and who has become one of my favorite characters in the crime fiction universe. Happily, though, my concerns were short-lived. Some Die Nameless features all of the qualities that readers have come to expect from one of Stoby's novels: great writing; well-drawn, memorable characters, and a plot that moves practically at warp speed.

The main protagonist is Ray Devlin, a man with a shadowy past who once worked for a private security firm, doing the sorts of things for which private security firms and other such contractors have become famous for in the years since 9/11. Devlin's last job was in a fictional Latin American country near Venezuela where his firm had been hired to help put a brutal dictator into power and then to keep him there. But something went terribly wrong, and in the wake of those developments, Devlin has retired and is attempting to live quietly under the radar on a boat in South Florida. One day, though, his past catches up with him and Devlin discovers that killers are hot on his trail, apparently attempting to clean up a potentially embarrassing situation for the company that once employed him and that now has its sights set on higher and much more lucrative goals.

As Devlin maneuvers to save his life, he crosses paths with a crime reporter named Tracy Quinn. Tracy works for a struggling newspaper in Philadelphia where the cost-cutters have taken over in the person of managers and editors who are much more interested in generating clicks on the paper's web page than they are in competent, old-fashioned reporting. Tracy is struggling to save her job while simultaneously attempting to maintain the high standards that once characterized the paper's mission. It's no easy task, especially when she stumbles across another element of the mystery that Devlin is pursuing, and once they meet and begin chasing the story and the bad guys together, things are going to get very, very dicey for both of them.

Both Devlin and Quinn are interesting and sympathetic characters, and watching them in action is hugely entertaining. But in addition to telling a great story, Stroby has also raised some very serious questions about the future of journalism in this country and about the ways in which the government has increasingly come to rely on private contractors to do its work, dirty and otherwise, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such hotspots. Some Die Nameless is another solid effort from Stroby--a very good book that will give readers a lot to think about.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Reporter Jack McEvoy and F.B.I. Agent Rachel Walling Track a Clever Killer in this Novel from Michael Connelly

Jack McEvoy, the reporter who earlier broke the case of The Poet returns in this novel. Jack is now working at the Los Angeles Times. But even back in 2008, when this book first appeared, the newspaper business had fallen into deep trouble, thanks largely to the arrival of the Internet. Even major papers like the Times are hemorrhaging money and have been forced to downsize. 

As the book opens, Jack learns the sad lesson that even a seasoned and gifted reporter is not exempt from the harsh realities of the new day and age. Jack is laid off, but is informed that he can keep his job for another two weeks if he will train his replacement, a young woman who has virtually no experience and who does not have the connections essential for a reporter to be successful on the crime beat, but who will do the job for a lot less money than McEvoy.

Having little or no choice, Jack reluctantly agrees, but he is determined to go out on a high note with a major story that will make his editors regret their decision. Jack had earlier written a relatively minor story about a gangbanger who had been arrested for the murder of an exotic dancer. The woman was found stuffed in the trunk of a car; the kid's fingerprints were found in the car, and after a few hours of interrogation, the kid allegedly confessed to the crime. Case closed.

Just after Jack learns he's been laid off, he gets a call from the banger's grandmother claiming, naturally, that the kid is innocent. Jack doesn't believe that, of course, but he sees a story in the tale of how this young man wound up committing such a horrendous crime. His young replacement, Angela Cook, is assigned to work the story with him, but in doing some preliminary research, the two discover a similar crime that had been committed in Las Vegas. Jack suddenly realizes that maybe the kid really isinnocent and has been set up to take the fall for a crime he didn't commit.

That turns the story in an entirely different direction, and before Jack can hardly begin working it, the F.B.I. suddenly appears on the scene in the person of Rachel Walling, who had worked the Poet case with Jack. With that the book is off and running and Jack and Rachel find themselves hard on the trail of a very clever and dangerous criminal. No one will be safe.

Michael Connelly is a very good writer, and this is a perfectly serviceable serial killer tale, although it's not among Connelly's best books. What struck me most about the book, though, was the depressing subplot about the sad state of journalism in the country in this day and age. The story of what is happening at the L. A. Times and, by extension, at other papers across the country was, for me, really the scariest part of the story. Any democracy, if it's going to thrive and prosper, depends on the foundation of a well-informed citizenry. That, in turn, depends on having a vigorous and thriving free press. In a day and age when journalists are under attack, when newspapers across the country are scaling back their operations and in some cases are disappearing altogether, serial killers may turn out to be the least of our worries.

Monday, October 15, 2018

NOVEMBER ROAD is a Great New Novel from Lou Berney

I’ve long been a huge fan of Lou Berney’s novels, especially The Long and Faraway Gone, which won an Edgar in 2016, along with several other prestigious awards, and which remains one of my favorite books of the last few years. Consequently, I’ve been very anxious to finally get my hands on his new book, November Road, which was released last week, and which has gotten rave notices in advance of the publication date. Simply put, the wait was more than worth it. November Road is a great novel and, like its predecessor, it’s one of those books that I’ll be rereading often in years to come. 

The story is set in November 1963, in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it features two expertly-drawn protagonists. The first is Frank Guidry, a ranking member of the New Orleans mob, under the command of Carmen Marcello. A couple of weeks before the assassination, Guidry ran what seemed at the time to be a fairly inconsequential errand for Marcello. But the moment Guidry learns that the president has been shot in Dallas, he realizes that the task he performed was anything but inconsequential. 

Guidry has always been loyal to Marcello and has been a valuable lieutenant to the mob boss; he should have no reason for concern. But then other people close to the Marcello family who had tenuous connections to the errand that Guidry ran are suddenly turning up dead and Guidry is reluctantly forced to recognize the fact that, in a situation as explosive as this, anyone can be deemed expendable.

Guidry decides that he has no choice other than to run. With a deadly killer hard on his trail, he heads for Vegas, hoping to connect with an old friend who becomes his only hope of escaping the fate that Marcello wants to deal him. But the mob has eyes and ears practically everywhere, and the challenge of reaching Vegas alive will be a daunting one.

The book’s second protagonist is Charlotte Roy, a housewife from Woodrow, Oklahoma, who was once the most adventurous eleven-year-old girl in her tiny town. But that was seventeen years ago, and in a place like Woodrow, life happens—especially if you’re a young woman and most especially if it’s still the middle of the Twentieth Century. Charlotte is married now with two young, precocious daughters. Her husband, Dooley, drinks, has trouble holding down a job, and has even more trouble supporting his family.

Charlotte wonders if she’s selfish to want more out of life, both for herself and for her daughters. “Woodrow was idyllic in many ways. Quaint, safe, friendly. But it was also interminably dull, as locked in its stubborn, small-minded ways, as resistant to new things and ideas, as Mr. Hotchkiss [her boss]. Charlotte longed to live in a place where it wasn’t so hard to tell the past from the future.”

Her husband would never consider the idea of moving to a larger city and, Charlotte knows that he’s never going to stop drinking and become the kind of husband and father that she and their daughters deserve. And so, practically on a whim, a few days after the Kennedy assassination, Charlotte quickly packs up some things, gathers up her daughters, and hits the road for Los Angeles, planning to stay with a distant relative for a short time while she begins a new life for the three of them in California. Along the way, her path will intersect with that of Frank Guidry and when it does, everything will change—for Frank, for Charlotte, and for her daughters.

It would be unfair to reveal any more, but suffice it to say that this is a richly textured novel with characters that are fully realized. Berney has clearly done a great deal of research, and the reader finds him- or herself fully immersed in the early 1960s. The settings, the attitudes, and the atmosphere feel exactly right, and the story grabs you from the opening page and then refuses to let go. Frank Guidry and Charlotte Roy are characters that will remain with the reader for a very long time, as will this excellent novel. A great read, and an easy five stars.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Montana Brand Inspector and Occasional Deputy Sheriff Gabriel Du Pre Returns, and Not a Moment Too Soon

After a three-year absence, author Peter Bowen returns with the fifteenth novel in his series featuring Gabriel Du Pre, a Metis Indian living in Montana who has worked as a brand inspector and occasional deputy sheriff. Du Pre is now well along in life, with adult grandchildren, but it hasn't slowed him down a bit. He still drinks and smokes and plays the fiddle with the best of them, and it's great to have him back.

In this novel, Du Pre comes to the assistance of a decorated former soldier named Hoyt Poe. While serving as a guard at a prison in Kabul, Poe witnessed the employees of a private contractor abusing prisoners. Poe did the right thing and reported the abuse. He then testified against the men he saw committing the crimes. 

His efforts earned him the enmity of the thugs who run the contracting firm and of their powerful political masters in the nation's capital. Poe is now running for his life and is resettled out in Du Pre's home town of Toussaint in rural Montana. But Poe's enemies are relentless and well-connected, and even out in the middle of nowhere and even with the assistance of Gabriel Du Pre, Poe and his family may not be safe.

This is a compelling story that, given the current political climate, has more than a little ring of truth about it. But above and beyond that, this and the other books in the series are character-driven novels, and Bowen has created a wonderful supporting cast surrounding his protagonist. The sense of place is so sharp that the fictional Toussaint comes fully to life, and returning to the community after a three-year absence is like returning home again. I very much hope that it will not be another three years before we get a chance to go back.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Boston P.I. Spenser Hunts a Con Man

Spenser, Robert B. Parker's iconic Boston P.I., appears here for the forty-fifth time, now in the very capable hands of Ace Atkins who has revived the series and made it fresh again.

As the book opens, Spenser's Significant Other, the therapist Susan Silverman, refers one of her clients, Connie Kelly, to Spenser. Kelly has fallen hard for a guy named M. Brooks Welles who claims to be a former high-ranking secret agent for the U. S. government. Welles has impressed not only Kelly, but a number of cable news networks who have regularly featured him as a noted authority on military matters and international developments.

Welles convinces Kelly to give him nearly $300,000, which he is going to invest in a sure-fire scheme that will make her a fortune. But then Welles disappears and Kelly realizes that she has been conned. Embarrassed, she wants Spenser to find Welles and recover her money.

That will turn out to be a complicated process. Welles is involved in a complex web of mischief with a bunch of gun runners and other bad actors, none of whom want Spenser messing around in their business. Federal agents are also involved in the hunt, and they don't want Spenser messing around in their business, either.

Naturally, Spenser could not care less what either the Bad Guys or the Good Guys want. He's on a mission, with the assistance of his best friend, Hawk, and he's not about to be deterred. The result is a very entertaining novel that is sure to please any fan of the series and practically anyone else who enjoys crime fiction.

If I have one nit to pick with the book, it involves the fact that in his earlier Spenser novels, Atkins had seriously toned down the sappy, saccharine byplay between Spenser and Susan Silverman that so annoyed many readers, this one included. He seems to have stepped it back up a notch in this book, and thus left me cringing at several of their scenes together. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book enormously.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Detective Sid Halley Returns in This Thriller from Dick Francis

The protagonists in Dick Francis novels rarely ever made repeat appearances, but one of the exceptions is Sid Halley who we see for the second time in Whip Hand. Halley is a former jockey whose career was ended when a horse rolled over on him, crushing his left hand. The hand was ultimately amputated and he now has a prosthesis. But it's impossible for him to continue riding under these circumstances.

Halley has thus become a private investigator and, not surprisingly, a number of his cases involve the racing world. In this instance the wife of a trainer approaches him and asks him to ensure the safety of one of her husband's prize race horses. In the past couple of years, two of his horses which were virtually guaranteed to win major races, fell way short and ultimately developed health problems and had to be retired from racing. 

The woman is afraid that it's going to happen again with a horse that's set for a big race in a couple of weeks or so. She wants Halley to make sure that no one interferes with the horse, but she also wants him to do so without letting her husband know that she has hired him. Naturally, this might be somewhat difficult, but Halley accepts the assignment.

Inevitably, of course, there is something rotten, if not in Denmark, then at least in the racing world, and vicious, malevolent forces will attempt to prevent Halley from completing his appointed mission. As usual, Francis spins an entertaining tale and this book will appeal to his loyal readers and to others who might find a mystery set in the English racing world intriguing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

P. I. Amos Walker Is Back on the Mean Streets of Detroit in this Novel from Loren D. Estleman

Published in 2014, this is the twenty-fourth entry in Loren D. Estleman's venerable series featuring Detroit P.I. Amos Walker. The first, Motor City Blue, appeared in 1980, and even back then, Amos was the last of the true hardboiled detectives of the Old School--wise cracking, world weary, constantly running afoul of the cops, but dedicated to his mission and to his clients. 
Thirty-four years later, the guy has seen it all. Even worse, he's experienced it all. He's been beat up, shot, and thrown to the side of the road so many times that a lesser man would have never survived. But he keeps plugging along, nonetheless. 

Walker has not aged in real time, but he has aged, and if anything, the Mean Streets of Detroit have gotten even meaner. As this book opens, he's just out of rehab, recovering from addiction to booze and pain pills. He's contacted by Ray Henty, a lieutenant in the County Sheriff's Department, who's been temporarily placed in charge of the corruption-riddled police department in the suburb of Iroquois Heights. 

A man named Donald Gates has been murdered in the basement of his home, and the department has made no progress in solving the crime. Someone unhappy with the pace of the investigation has put up billboards around the city shouting "You Know Who Killed Me," prodding the police to act. To make matters worse, someone, acting through a local church, has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. (This plot will, of course, sound familiar to those people who have seen the movie, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," but it's worth noting that this book was published three years before the release of the movie.)

The billboards and the reward have put a lot of pressure on the police. They've also brought a ton of calls to the tip line and someone has to sort through them. Henty hires Walker to listen to the calls and try to discover if there's anything useful there. Henty emphasizes that Walker is not supposed to be investigating the murder himself; he's only to listen to calls. But you don't have to be a regular reader of this series to guess how well those instructions are going to work.

Before long, Walker is up to his neck in the case, which turns out to be hugely complex, involving Ukrainian mobsters and a lot of other unsavory types. Other murders will follow, and Walker himself will be in serious jeopardy from a variety of sources before this all plays out.

One might argue that this plot ultimately winds up being way too convoluted for its own good, but after all this time, Amos Walker has become a very old friend and it's always fun to check in and watch him chase down a case as only he can. Readers who have somehow missed this series might be better off checking out some of the earlier books, but fans of the series will not want to miss this one.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Belfast Detective Sean Duffy Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Adrian Mckinty

Adrian McKinty's series featuring Belfast detective Sean Duffy just keeps getting better and better with each entry. This is the fifth in the series and it opens when a young woman named Lily Bigelow is found dead in the courtyard of Carrickfergus Castle. Bigelow was a newbie journalist accompanying a group of Finnish businessmen on a visit to Northern Ireland. She entered the castle with a tour group late one afternoon and the next morning was found by the castle's caretaker at the base of a tower some one hundred feet high.

The caretaker swears that the castle was securely locked after the last visitors left, and it's clear that no one was able to get in or out of the castle overnight. In the morning, the only people there are the elderly caretaker and the victim. All the evidence suggests that Bigelow hid somewhere in the castle and then, sometime around midnight, climbed the tower and jumped off, committing suicide.

It's a classic locked room mystery and a thorough investigation makes it almost certain that there was no opportunity for any foul play. This cannot be a murder; it's suicide, plain and simple. Beyond that, Sean Duffy has already had one locked room murder in his career, and the chances of getting a second, he thinks, would be astronomical. Still, while everyone else is willing to write off the young woman's death as a suicide, Duffy continues to be troubled by niggling doubts, and when he continues to probe into the case the more puzzling and the more dangerous it becomes.

This series takes place during the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland when Catholics and Protestants were battling each other and when most citizens and the authorities were caught in the middle of what amounted to a civil war. The previous entries in the series have all been set very squarely against this background. This book is set in 1987, and while the battle still rages, it plays much less of a role here. This is much more a straightforward crime novel, and Duffy is much less involved in the island's larger struggles than in the earlier books.

Sean Duffy continues to be one of the most appealing protagonists in crime fiction--funny, wise and personally vulnerable. I'm closing in on the end of the series--at least the end of the books that exist thus far, and I'm really dreading the moment when I will have to wait interminably for the next new Sean Duffy novel. This series was originally set to run for only three novels; I can only hope that it goes on for much, much longer than that.