Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Korean War Vet Finds Love and Trouble in the Early 1950s

Tom Decker is a Korean War vet and an ex-con. Now back from the war, he mixes paint for customers in a small New York town in a hardware store that once belonged to his father. But his father went broke during the Depression and was forced to sell the store at a huge loss to a wealthy man named Smith before hanging himself in the basement of the family home. The hardware store is still named Decker's, but instead of owning the business, Tom is forced to work for the sniveling son of the man who swindled his father out of it.

Understandably, Tom has a huge chip on his shoulder. Since his father lost the business, Tom has served time in prison and distinguished himself as a Marine in the Korean War. Now, when he's not mixing paint, in his spare time he's robbing banks in an effort to accumulate enough money to buy the store back.

When a beautiful, sexy woman, walks into the store one day in need of a gallon of paint, Tom mixes it up. He also falls head over heels for the customer. She's immediately attracted to him as well; the fireworks begin, and only after the fact does Decker discover the the woman is the ex-wife of a New York City gangster who's currently in jail. Ex-wife or not, Decker is soon in hot water on that score.

Decker's partner in most of his robberies is a bar owner named O'Neil, and when one of their heists goes wrong, Decker finds himself in even deeper trouble with both the cops and the mob anxious to get their hands on him. In consequence, he's going to have to be particularly resourceful and especially lucky if he even hopes to stay alive, let alone fulfill his dreams.

This is an especially good debut novel from Kevin Roberts who is himself an ex-Marine. The setting in the early 1950s is very well-rendered; the characters are interesting and believable; there's plenty of action, and the plot moves swiftly along. I really enjoyed spending time in Decker's world and in his company, and I'm looking forward to the second book in the series.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

L. A. Detective Donald Lam Finds Trouble While Searching for a Missing Woman

First published in 1957, You Can Die Laughing falls roughly into the middle of the series featuring L.A. detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. By now, the characters and the formula are basically set, and the reader knows exactly what to expect when picking up one of these novels.

Bertha Cool is the senior partner, having inherited the firm from her late husband. At one hundred and sixty-five pounds, she’s all “hard flesh, and … as unyielding as barbed wire.” She claims to be “just as rough, just as tough, just as hard-boiled, [and} just as two-fisted as any man in the country." Lam, on the other hand, barely weighs a hundred and thirty-five pounds soaking wet, and, as Bertha observes, he’s never won a fight in his life. But he’s a “brainy little bastard,” who, while on a case, often skates very close to, if not over, the edge of the law. He generally drives his partner to distraction, at least until the end of a case when he usually serves up the solution, and a generous payment for the firm’s efforts.

This case begins when a Texan named Lawton C. Corning asks the firm to locate a woman who seems to have disappeared. Earlier, Corning has suggested to Bertha that there may be oil leases involved somehow, and she has visions of a big payday. But once in the office with Donald, he claims that nothing like that is at stake and he simply wants to find this woman for reasons of his own.

Of course, no potential client has ever walked into the offices of Cool and Lam and told the truth, meaning that matters will prove to be much more complicated and dangerous than a simple missing persons case. Donald has no trouble finding the woman, and that’s when the fireworks really begin.

This plot is a little more straight-forward and a lot less convoluted than some of the books in this series, and it’s a relatively short and entertaining read. All in all, a good addition to the series.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Psychologist Alex Delaware Checks into the Heartbreak Hotel

Thalia Mars is a couple weeks short of her one hundredth birthday, and so when she calls psychologist Alex Delaware and asks for an appointment, Delaware can hardly refuse. Delaware calls to see Thalia at the aging L.A. luxury hotel where she has been in residence for years. She knows that Alex specializes in child psychology and also knows that he often consults with the police, and the combination of these things is why she has called upon him. She doesn't want to be analyzed herself, she says, but she has some general questions about criminal behavior, the nature of guilt and that sort of thing. After a relatively brief first appointment, she writes Alex a check for $6,000.00, and asks him to drop by the following day.

Alex has some questions of his own, like how did a woman who spent her life as an accountant working for the county amass a fortune that would allow her to live in an expensive hotel, make generous contributions to charity, and retain psychologists at six grand a pop? Sadly, he never gets the chance to ask them, because when he returns the following day, he discovers that Thalia has been found dead. Superficially, it appears that she has died in her sleep, but the first responder and Alex both see some anomalies, and so Alex calles his buddy, homicide detective Milo Sturgis.

Well, of course, it turns out that Thalia has been murdered, but who would want to kill the woman and why? There's no evidence of a burglary; there are no heirs who might have been anxious to get their hands on the estate, and as a result, everyone is baffled. Milo asks Alex to assist in the investigation and before long the two are digging into a pattern of crimes both current and ancient and will wind up in the crosshairs of some very clever and dangers adversaries.

The story itself is okay, though it's certainly not the best plot that Jonathan Kellerman has ever devised. I also understand that I'm obsessing about something that probably doesn't bother a lot of other readers, but I'm disappointed that again, as has been the case with so many of the later books in this series, there is no logical reason for Delaware to be involved in the case.

Delaware is a child psychologist and what made the early books in this series so great was that he actually practiced his profession and the crimes in the novels grew naturally out of the patients' cases that he was treating. In many of the later novels, though, this one included, there's only the most tangential tie to Delaware's profession. His buddy Milo simply keeps inviting him along because a particular case is interesting and because he apparently enjoys Delaware's company.

In this case, Delaware is involved early on because the victim was someone who had consulted him one time. But once it's clear that she's been murdered, there's absolutely no logical reason for a civilian like him to be involved. And in real life, of course, he never would be. Real homicide detectives would take over and follow the case to its ultimate conclusion, and then Milo would call Alex and say, "Hey, Bud, we finally got the guy who offed your elderly client."

But Delaware is front and center, waving his police consultant's card around like a magic wand, and basically leading the investigation. At one point, he even goes charging into a house on the heels of a swat team. It's ridiculous, and basically, unlike the early books in this series, there's nothing to distinguish this book from the large run of novels in which police detectives solve crimes.

If Kellerman really wanted to write novels like this, he should have had Delaware make a career change about fifteen books ago, enroll in the police academy, and become an actual homicide detective. Then he and Milo could work side-by-side, chasing killers, and pedants like me wouldn't be complaining about things like this. I've followed this series since the beginning, and I won't be bullied into quitting now. I will hope against hope, however, that Kellerman will return to form and that these books will start making more sense sooner rather than later.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Gets Tangled Up in a Messy Murder Case

This is another good addition to William G. Tapply's long-running series featuring Boston attorney Brady Coyne. As the book opens, Coyne is romantically unentangled and enjoying a burger, onion rings and beer for dinner at Skeeter's Infield, his favorite dive bar. Alongside is a former major league basketball star named Mick Fallon, whom Brady knows slightly.

Fallon is down in the dumps because his wife, whom he claims to love madly, has just filed for divorce. Fallon wants Brady to represent him, and although Brady's one-man practice generally involves wills and estates, Coyne agrees. Brady gets a nasty surprise at the deposition, though, because his client has not been honest with him. 

Brady tells Fallon that he's going to drop him as a client and will recommend someone else to represent him. But then Fallon's soon-to-be ex-wife is murdered and Fallon is the principal suspect. He begs Brady to forgive him and to represent him. Brady agrees to do so and sets about trying to find the Real Killer, assuming, of course, that his client isn't guilty.

It's a perilous and interesting undertaking and I enjoyed the story with a couple of reservations: Brady and Fallon are only casual acquaintances; they aren't Major Buds. I can understand why Coyne would agree to represent him in the divorce, but once Fallon has lied to him and basically left him hanging out to dry at the deposition, it didn't make much sense to me that Coyne would so rapidly forgive him and agree to represent him on the murder rap.

And therein lies the second problem. As I indicated above, Coyne has a very small, quiet practice that focuses on the financial needs of a few wealthy clients. He doesn't do criminal defense law and in earlier books, when one of his clients has been charged with a crime, Brady immediately has immediately hooked the client up with an excellent defense attorney. It's completely out of character for him to so casually and readily agree to defend someone on a murder charge. I enjoyed the book, but these two concerns kept nagging at me as I read it, and so three stars instead of four.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A British Movie Star Encounters Serious Trouble in South Africa

This novel is a bit unique in that the main character, Edward Lincoln, doesn't fit the usual mold of a Dick Francis protagonist. Almost always these men live alone and within themselves. They are taciturn, but steely and determined. When challenged, they always rise to the occasion. They almost always have a close association with the world of horse racing, and often, they have been in relationships with women that didn't work out. Sometimes a new love interest appears, but it's almost never clear that our hero will at long last find meaningful and lasting love. 

In this case, though, Lincoln is a happily married man with three adorable children. He's also a major movie star, usually filling the role of a death-defying action hero. He's on hiatus between films when an elderly friend named Nerissa announces that she is dying. She owns a string of race horses in South Africa that she will be leaving to her nephew, but for some reason, the horses are suddenly falling well short of their potential and are rapidly declining in value. Nerissa asks Lincoln if he would mind popping over to go to South Africa in an effort to discover what the problem might be.

Lincoln's father was a trainer and Lincoln himself had dreams of becoming a jockey before he grew too tall for the profession. He still owns a horse of his own and so knows something about the animals. Given that his friend is dying, he can't refuse the request and so gins up a reason to go to South Africa, allegedly to promote his new film. While there, he will discreetly look into the problem of the underperforming horses.

One he arrives in South Africa, though, Lincoln suddenly seems to become accident-prone and narrowly escapes two potentially fatal mishaps. Could something sinister be at work here? Well, of course it is, and Lincoln can only hope that his experience in making action movies will serve him in good stead when he really needs it. This is also a bit different than most Dick Francis novels in that the majority of the book takes place out of the UK, but it's a solid piece of work and an enjoyable read.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Another Fine Entry in Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy Series

Early in the third novel in the Sean Duffy series, Duffy, a detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is booted off the force for an offence he didn't commit. Duffy is a brilliant detective, but he's also a wiseass of the first magnitude who prefers to work in his own way and who has little tolerance for his superiors, especially when they don't see things the way he does. In consequence, his superiors take advantage of a trumped-up charge to get him out of their hair.

The series takes place in the Northern Ireland of the early 1980s--the time of the "Troubles," when Protestants and Catholics were at open war with each other. Duffy, a Catholic, has always been a fish out of water in the Protestant RUC. Most Catholics think he's a turncoat and the Protestants aren't sure they can trust him, but Duffy has always held the naive belief that the two intractable opponents should be able to work together.

Now off the force, Duffy spends his days drinking, listening to music, and attempting to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. But then Dermot McCann, an IRA explosives expert, escapes from a high security prison with a number of other IRA members. British intelligence services fear that McCann and his comrades may be planning a major campaign of terrorist bombings directed against the English. Duffy and McCann were childhood friends and thus agents from MI5 show up at Duffy's door and ask him to help hunt down McCann. Duffy uses the situation to leverage an apology for his mistreatment and a restoration of his job.

The hunt is a challenging one, and along the way, Duffy finds himself entangled in the death of a young woman who died inside a locked room. The mother of the young woman believes that her daughter was murdered and if Duffy can prove it, the woman may be able to help him in his hunt for McCann when virtually no one else will.

This is another very good entry in this series. Sean Duffy continues to be a very appealing character and McKinty spins a very entertaining and gripping tale. If you haven't yet discovered this series, it would be better to start with the first, The Cold Cold Ground, and work your way forward. This is a character and a series worth getting to know.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

An LAPD Detective Chafes Under the Restraints of the Late Show

With this book, Michael Connelly adds yet another character to the Harry Bosch Universe, LAPD detective Renee Ballard. Ballard has much in common with Bosch who remains Connelly's principal protagonist. Like Bosch, Ballard is a loner. Like Bosh, she had a difficult childhood and lost her mother early. Like Bosch, her partners are sometimes unreliable; like Bosch, she has problems with people up the chain of command. Like Bosch, she has trouble following orders, particularly when she's told to stand down from an investigation. Like Bosch, she's not reluctant to bend the law a bit in the service of a higher cause, and like Bosch, once she gets her teeth into a case, she refuses to let go.

Because of an incident earlier in her career, Ballard has been assigned to the "Late Show." She's a detective on the midnight shift and her job is to begin an investigation at the scene of a crime and then turn it over to other detectives in the morning. She almost never gets to follow a case through to its conclusion. This is perfectly fine with her partner, who has no such ambitions, but it grates on Ballard.

As the book opens, Ballard is among the first on the scene at two crimes. The first involves a transexual prostitute who has been tortured, badly beaten, and left for dead. Ballard fears that the woman may be the victim of a predator who will attack others, but she seems to be the only one who really cares about the case.

The second case involves a mass shooting in a nightclub. Four men are sitting in a booth when suddenly one of them opens fire and kills the other three. While running out the door, the shooter also kills a waitress and a bouncer. A supervising detective with whom Ballard has clashed is in charge of this case and warns her to stay well away from it. Ballard, though, is reluctant to let go of either case and so, against direct orders, continues to pursue them in her off-duty hours. In doing so, she winds up putting both her career and her life on the line as these cases heat up.

This is another very compelling novel from Michael Connelly, who clearly writes the best police procedurals of his generation. Under normal circumstances, I'd happily give it four stars. I'm downgrading it to three because I'm disappointed in the fact that Connelly didn't make Ballard a more distinct character. 

The truth of the matter is that, with minor changes, this could have easily been a Harry Bosch novel. In point of fact, it really is a Harry Bosch novel, with Ballard playing the role of Bosch. I can understand that Connelly might have wanted to create a new character and that he might have wanted to write a female detective for a change. I have no problem with that at all, but I wish he would have differentiated Ballard from Bosch at least a little.

Certainly, Michael Connelly knows the LAPD much better than I, but are there no supervisors in the department who aren't complete jerks? Is there nobody in the department other than Bosch and Ballard who doesn't put departmental politics above all else? Are there no detectives who actually enjoy working with each other? Are there no detectives who are reasonably well-adjusted and trusting of others?

I realize that I'm exaggerating a bit in order to make a point. Occasionally, Bosch has had a supervisor who was reasonably supportive and occasionally he has had a partner he could rely on, even if only briefly. But for the most part, Bosch has been at war with his own department almost constantly, and the department has much more often frustrated rather than assisted him in carrying out his mission to provide justice for the victims of crimes. Introducing Ballard allowed Connelly the opportunity to show another side of the LAPD and to create a truly distinct character. I'm sorry that he chose not to do so.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Another Challenging Case for Donald Lam and Bertha Cool

This is a fairly standard entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series. It begins when a man appears in the detectives' offices and asks them to locate a man named Karl that he met in Paris several years earlier. He can't remember the Karl's last name but remembers that he was on his honeymoon with his bride, Elizabeth, and that he came from Citrus Grove, a small town in California. The client, John Ditttmar Ansel, claims to be a writer and says that Karl gave him a terrific idea for a book. Before he writes the book, he'd like to locate Karl and get his permission to use the story.

As usual, Bertha falls for the client's story and sees the chance to make some easy money. And, also as usual, both Donald and the reader know that the story is ridiculous and that Ansel has some other, darker, motive for trying to find good old Karl.

It takes Donald only a few hours to establish that the new client has never written a book or a story that's appeared in any magazine and to also identify Karl as Karl Carver Endicott, the heir to a large fortune. Donald also discovers that Karl Endicott was murdered in Citrus Grove several years ago, at just about the time Ansel claims to have met him in Paris. The crime remains unsolved and the principal suspect, described by a cabbie who drove the suspect to the victim's house, very closely resembles John Dittmar Ansel.

Donald is thus almost immediately up to his neck in another complicated mystery filled with cops who want him off the case and several sexy women who want other things of him. As always, it will take some pretty fancy footwork for Donald to stay ahead of the police while juggling the women and attempting to solve the crime. The solution to this case is one of the more interesting in the series, and in all, Beware the Curves is another entertaining entry in it.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Can't Miss Scheme Goes Badly Wrong in This Taut Thriller from Glen Erik Hamilton

Van Shaw is an ex-Army Ranger and the grandson of a career criminal who taught him all the tricks of the trade. But Shaw is trying to stay on the straight and narrow these days. He's working a part-time job and attempting to rebuild the family home in Seattle. Money is tight, though; taxes are due, and Shaw is in danger of losing the house to the tax collector before he can even finish rebuilding it.

Given these circumstances, Shaw is especially vulnerable when a terminally ill ex-con, fresh out of the pen, tempts him with a deal that seems just too good to be true. The ex-con, who was an acquaintance of Shaw's deceased grandfather, claims to know the location of a large stash of gold that was hidden in office building by a thief who couldn't ever get back to it. The building is abandoned and about to be demolished, and the ex-con insists that he and Shaw could waltz into the building and walk right out with the gold, leaving no one the wiser.

The ex-con needs the younger Shaw, because the gold is in a safe that was welded into the floor of the building. The ex-con can't crack the safe, but he's sure that Shaw can. Badly in need of the money he could score from the job, Shaw agrees, although he's very skeptical of the notion that $4 million in gold has simply been abandoned and forgotten.

And, of course, he's right. 

The fundamental rule that any bent guy should learn right off the bat is that if a scheme sounds too good to be true, it always is! That said, if people in crime novels ever did the smart, sensible thing, there would be very few crime novels. In this case, the gold is there, all right, but the second Shaw cracks the safe, all hell breaks loose, and Shaw is going to have to spend the next three hundred and fifty pages trying to get out from under the shitstorm he's unleashed upon himself.

This is a gripping story, and Van Shaw makes an attractive, if flawed, protagonist. Hamilton writes cleanly and knows how to move a plot along. You might find yourself raising an eyebrow at the plausibility of some of the twists and turns in the book, but it's a fun ride and if you go with the flow, you'll be well entertained.