Monday, April 30, 2018

Anotoher Excellent Southern Noir Novel from Michael Farris Smith

At the age of two, Jack Boucher was abandoned at a Salvation Army thrift store like a bag of old clothes that nobody wanted anymore. In the years after, he would be passed from hand to hand, through one foster home after another, until finally, at the age of twelve, he was adopted by a woman named Maryann from Clarksdale, Mississippi, who might have felt even lonlier than he.

As the novel opens, Jack is now about forty-five, going on seventy-five. At eighteen, he decided to leave the home that Maryann had made for him and follow the southern circuit as a cage fighter. Early on, he had some good years, but those are far behind. He's now a crippled wreck of a man, dependent on booze and illegal pain pills just to make it through the day. And if that weren't bad enough, he now owes $12,000 to a gangster named Big Momma Sweet who is the queen of vice in the Mississippi Delta. 

Maryann is now suffering from dementia and dying in a nursing home. Jack has mortgaged the home and the property she entrusted to him in a failed effort to get ahead of the game one last time. He hates himself for letting her down and then, in a miracle stroke of luck, he wins enough money in a casino to pay off Big Momma Sweet. He hopes that this will be a first step toward paying off the mortgage on Maryann's house and bringing her home again so that she can die there in peace. But fate turns against him once again and in a cruel accident, he loses the money on his way to pay the debt.

What follows is a beautifully-written story that is occasionally as heart-breaking to read as are the characters who inhabit it. As evidenced by his previous book, Desperation Road, nobody does down-and-out quite like Michael Farris Smith. Smith's Mississippi is a hard, stark land where nothing comes easily to anyone, certainly not to people like Jack Boucher, his foster mother, and the other memorable characters that Smith has created here. Jack Boucher, in particular, is so vividly written that the reader can practically feel every ache and pain and disappointment that he endures. This is a character and a book that no reader will soon forget.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Harry Bosch Returns to the L.A.P.D. As a "Closer"

Three years ago, Harry Bosch abruptly walked away from his job as an L. A. Homicide detective, largely because he couldn't take the politics and the cynicism of the department any longer. He tried being a P.I., but without his gun and his badge, he felt "out of balance." And so now he's back, taking advantage of an opportunity allowed by a new department program that would allow ex-cops like himself to return. He's reunited with his old partner, Kiz Rider, and is assigned to the Open/Unsolved Unit. They are to be "The Closers," resolving cold cases that, for one reason or another, haven't ever been cleared.

On his first day back, Harry and Kiz are handed the case of a sixteen-year-old girl who was taken from her house seventeen years ago and shot to death. The initial investigation went nowhere, but DNA evidence from the murder weapon has now been linked to an ex-con named Roland Mackey. Mackey is now a tow-truck driver and has long had associates in white supremacy groups. The victim, Becky Verloren, was the daughter of a white mother and a black father. Is it possible that her race was the reason for her murder?

As often happens, Becky's death had catastrophic effects for her parents. Her father, a restaurateur, left home soon after her murder and disappeared into the city's homeless population. Her mother has remained in the house from which Becky was taken and has preserved the girl's room as a shrine, leaving it exactly as it was on the night her daughter disappeared. Harry is determined to give them the justice that has eluded them for so long.

The DNA evidence gives Harry and Kiz a good head start on finally solving the murder. But Harry knows that the DNA alone will never be enough to convict Mackey of the crime, and as the two detectives dig deeper into the case, it's apparent that the original investigation may have been compromised by some of the same forces that earlier drove Harry to retire.

This is a very good book with an interesting plot and a very heavy dose of police procedure. It's good to have Harry back in harness; he just wasn't the same character apart from his mission as a homicide detective. Harry, being Harry, will still make waves and ruffle a lot of feathers, but that's what readers have come to expect and this book should appeal to any fan of the series.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Gripping "Border Noir" from James Carlos Blake

Billed as "A Border noir," this is a testosterone-driven wild ride of a novel. As it opens, a group of audacious kidnappers grabs several members of a wealthy wedding party from a mansion in Mexico City. They divide the members of the party into two groups and take them to separate run-down houses in the city's slums. The man in charge of the operation is an young gangster named El Galan, who has ambitions of using this kidnapping as a stepping stone to climb up the ladder of organized crime in Mexico.

El Galan contacts the parents of the young people he has kidnapped and demands five million American dollars for their safe return. He gives the parents very careful instructions about how to raise and deliver the money and gives them twenty-four hours to pay up. As one might expect, he warns the parents that if they contact the authorities, he will kill the kidnapped victims.

El Galan warns the parents that he will be monitoring their every move and insists that he has contacts within the police department who will alert him if the parents should violate his mandate not to call the police. This being Mexico City, this might well be the case, and the parents insist that they will follow El Galan's instructions to the letter. They simply want their children back safely.

What the kidnappers do not know is that one of members of the wedding party, a bridesmaid named Jessica Juliet Wolfe, is actually unrelated to any of the others. She is a close friend of the bride-to-be and belongs to a criminal family known as the House of Wolfe, with operations on both sides of the border. Jessica is from the American side of the family and when the Wolfe's get word that she has been kidnapped, several members of her family fly south to join the Mexican side of the family in an effort to rescue Jessica.

The Wolfes realize that, in all likelihood, once the kidnappers have their money, they will release the victims unharmed. But, of course, maybe they won't, and that is the fear that drives them to attempt the rescue. Jessica herself is no passive victim, which further complicates the situation.

The result is a story that hurtles from the kidnapping to a surprising climax. Blake has created a believable and very scary vision of Mexico City and populated it with a cast of well-drawn and intriguing characters. The Wolfes, in particular, make for compelling protagonists. This is a great read that will appeal to anyone who likes dark, hard-charging crime novels.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Investigate the Murder of a Big Game Hunter

When a wealthy client hires the firm of Cool & Lam to ensure that nothing gets stolen from his home on the night of a big party that he's throwing, Bertha Cool insists that she can handle the job all by herself--it will be a piece of cake. Of course anyone who's ever read one of the books in this series understands immediately that something very valuable WILL inevitably be stolen from the party, and Bertha will have gotten the firm into a jam. The reader also realizes, of course, that it will be up to Donald Lam to right the ship. Donald ("that brainy little bastard") fairly quickly recovers the stolen items but then somebody gets killed and the stakes are suddenly raised dramatically.

This is a fairly typical entry in this series. Bertha is her usual greedy, irascible self and Donald will get beaten up a lot while attempting to solve the mysteries involved. He will also attract the attention of several women, including a particularly amorous and adventurous nude model. There's big game hunters, blow guns, poisonous darts, pushy cops and Cool & Lam. A quick, entertaining read.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Tries to Save His Girlfriend from a Murder Rap

Although Brady Coyne, the protagonist in this series, is a Boston lawyer, these books are not really legal thrillers. Brady almost never sees the inside of a courtroom and actually dispenses very little legal advice. Rather, he seems to spend most of the time attempting to resolve the trouble that one or another of his clients has gotten into, and this almost always seems to involve solving a murder or two. Such is the case here, and in this instance, the case is very personal.

Brady is now dating a woman named Evie and takes her on a weekend vacation to Cape Cod. He's rented a secluded cabin and is planning a very romantic weekend. But on their first night there, Evie gets into physical altercation with a man whom she claims has been stalking her. The next morning, Evie goes out for a run and when Brady gets up a little later, he finds Evie out in the yard, standing over the body of her alleged stalker. The man has been stabbed to death with a knife from the kitchen of the cabin where Brady and Evie are staying. Not surprisingly, the cops tag Evie as their number one suspect in the killing.

Brady insists that, no matter the evidence, Evie could never kill anyone. But Evie doesn't help her situation much when she runs away and disappears. Brady now begins his own hunt for the killer, with the cops shadowing his every move in the hope that he will lead them to his girlfriend. But whether she's guilty or not, it's clear that some very strange things are going on here, and the deeper Brady digs into the case, the more confusing--and dangerous--it becomes.

This is one of the better books in what I think, overall, is a very good regional mystery series. By now the series characters have been well defined, and Tapply continues to demonstrate that he's a master at describing the physical setting. The plot is a good one, and this is a book that should appeal to a lot of readers who enjoy a good traditional mystery.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

In His First Case As a U.S. Marshal, Lucas Davenport Chases a Particularly Nasty Killer

I confess to feeling enormously conflicted about this book, which features John Sandford's principal protagonist, Lucas Davenport. Through the twenty-six books that precede this one, Davenport has been first a detective on the Minneapolis P.D. and then head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. In each instance, he took on only the most challenging and interesting cases. At the end of the book preceding this one, he saved the life of a Very Important Person and was rewarded with a new, prime job with the U.S. Marshals Service.

Now in his new job, Lucas takes on a particularly difficult and nasty case. A pair of robbers hit the counting house of a drug cartel in Biloxi, Mississippi, and escaped with several million dollars. In the process, they killed five people, including a six-year-old girl who was the granddaughter of one of the drug runners. The authorities believe that the man behind the robbery and murders was Garvin Poole, a particularly elusive killer who has managed to evade capture for years. Lucas now accepts the assignment of finding Poole and bringing him to justice.

The Feds are not the only one looking for Poole and his accomplices. The head of the drug cartel wants his money back and he also expects to make an example of anyone who would dare to attack his operation in this fashion. He sends a couple of assassins to begin working their way through Poole's family members and acquaintances, in an effort to force someone to give up his location. One of the assassins is a particularly large, ugly woman who enjoys torturing people with power tools.

Fairly soon, of course, Lucas and the assassins will cross paths, and the race is on to see who will get to Poole and the money he stole first, assuming that anyone can. It's a great chase across several states, with lots of action and plenty of intrigue, and in that respect, it's a hugely entertaining read. The problem, at least for me, is that, while we have here a character named Lucas Davenport--a guy who looks like Lucas Davenport and who dresses like Lucas Davenport, this does not seem remotely like a Lucas Davenport novel. 

Early in the book, Davenport notes that in Minnesota he knew the state and its criminal element intimately. He had sources everywhere. He also had a team around him that he had depended on for years and with whom he had worked very closely. He confesses that, now out on the road, he's something of a fish out of water. So is the reader, and therein lies the rub.

Through the twenty-six Prey novels and Sandford's eleven Virgil Flowers books, the reader had also developed a fairly good understanding of the criminal world in Minnesota. The reader had also grown very well acquainted with, and often very fond of, the supporting cast that surrounded Davenport. As much of a cliche as it is, picking up one of these novels always was like meeting old friends on familiar ground. You knew what you were getting, and you couldn't wait to turn the first page.

As good as this book is, you get none of that here, and as a long-time reader, you can't help but feel a bit disappointed--or at least I couldn't. All of the old supporting cast is back up in Minnesota, along with Lucas's Porsche, and without them the book feels decidedly empty. In particular, Davenport has always had an interesting love life, even after his marriage, and one of the fun things about these books has always been the sexual banter between Lucas and the various women with whom he's been involved. That too is totally absent here. While there are a couple of female characters who doubtless would have interested Davenport while he was a single man, now that he's happily and faithfully married, the reader can only imagine the sparks that might have flown between Lucas and these women under different circumstances.

As an additional concern, Sandford sometimes strains a bit too hard to be cute. Too many of the southern males in this book have names that sound too distinctively like backwoods country bumpkins. A group of criminals is called the Dixie Hicks. Sandford does give Lucas a couple of new partners, two U.S. marshals who are, unbelievably, named Bob and Rae. If that weren't bad enough, Rae is a female whose last name is Givens.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. The truth is that this could be a book featuring any U.S. Marshal. The protagonist could be John Smith, or Joe Jones, or practically anyone else. It could be Raylan Givens. But the hard fact is that there's little or nothing here that makes this book uniquely a Lucas Davenport novel.

I've been a huge fan of this series from the beginning and I can understand that Sandford might be tired of writing the character or that he may be running out of ideas for plots that leave Lucas in Minnesota. I can only say that as a significantly less-than-best-selling author, I can only dream about having those kinds of problems. But if that really is the case, maybe the better solution would have been for Sandford to put Davenport on the shelf for a while until he came up with a new inspiration for the character. In the meantime, he could have created an entirely new character, made him a federal marshal and put him in the middle of this plot. Unrestrained by the fact that he was writing Lucas Davenport, Sandford might have written here a book that was even more entertaining.

I have no idea where this series is going to go from here, and in some respects Sandford--and Lucas--may have burned their bridges. I'll keep my fingers crossed that the series somehow gets back to "normal" or that it quickly develops in a way that makes up for that. In the meantime, I'm very happy about the fact that I have all those earlier books on the shelf that I can reread at any time. The bottom line is that, while this is a very good book, I wish it had been a realLucas Davenport novel. 3.5 stars.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Very Entertaining Sendup of the Thriller Genre from Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg is a very funny guy. He's also a prolific writer with something on the order of five dozen books to his credit, along with a host of television shows for which he has written scripts, and he's brought all of that experience to bear on his newest book, True Fiction, which is a terrific read.

The protagonist, Ian Ludlow, is, like Goldberg, a very successful writer. Ludlow has build a career around a series of novels featuring Clint Straker, an action hero in the mold of Jack Reacher or James Bond. Clint is an incredibly handsome, tough guy who thinks quickly on his feet and who has multiple ways of disposing of the villains who challenge him, no matter how great their numbers. And as scores of women can attest, he's also fantastic in bed.

Ludlow is nothing like his hero at all. He's an insecure schlub who exists largely on junk food and who hasn't had a meaningful relationship with a woman in ages. He's terribly out of shape and couldn't fight his way out of the proverbial wet paper bag. (He's obviously unlike his creator in this respect in that, as anyone can tell from his author photo, Mr. Goldberg is something of an international sex symbol.)

As the book opens, Ludlow is having trouble getting traction on his new book when someone remotely takes control of a passenger plane and crashes it into a hotel on Waikiki Beach. Watching the news, Ludlow is horrified because several years earlier, in an effort to stay a step ahead of the terrorist threat to America, the CIA had gathered together a group of thriller writers and asked them to dream up scenarios that bad guys might use to attack the U.S. Ludlow recognizes this plan as his very own and then discovers that all of the other writers who were at the meeting have had fatal "accidents" within the last few months.

A few weeks ago, Ludlow himself narrowly escaped death when his house blew up. Investigators determined that the explosion was an accident, but Ludlow suddenly realizes that it was no accident at all. Out of nowhere, he's been catapulted into a scenario straight out of one of his own novels.

When the realization hits him, Ludlow is in Seattle on a book tour, accompanied by a feisty young dog sitter named Margo who doubles as a book tour escort. Ludlow and Margo must go on the run in a desperate effort to stay one step ahead of the villains who are in hot pursuit and who are using every modern technological tool to track them down and kill them. Defeating these guys would all be in a day's work for Clint Straker, but sadly, Ian Ludlow is no Clint Straker--or is he? If he and Margo are going to survive, Ludlow will have to dig deep and plot a new scenario in which a thriller writer, rather than his superhero, can rise and save the day.

This is a hugely entertaining romp and a fairly quick read. The book is laugh-out-loud funny and is a great sendup of the thriller genre. Given his experience in television, Goldberg knows how to strip a scene down to its essence and how to keep the action moving at a breakneck pace. Ludlow and Margo are very appealing characters and I loved spending an evening in their company. I'm already looking forward to the second installment in this series.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Great Legal Thriller from John Lescroart

This is the fourth entry in John Lescroart's series featuring attorney Dismas Hardy, and the one in which the series really hits its stride. In the earlier books, Hardy had suffered a devastating family tragedy and had become somewhat unmoored. He'd abandoned his life as a policeman and a lawyer to become a bartender. He ultimately wound up working as a prosecutor in the district attorney's office and as this book opens, he has left that job and gone into private practice as a defense attorney, where he will remain through the rest of the books.

As this book opens, Hardy has rented office space in a firm headed by a flamboyant attorney named David Freeman. Forty-three days into this new arrangement, Freeman takes on a sensational murder case and asks Hardy to assist him with it. The defendant is a beautiful woman named Jennifer Witt. Jennifer is the daughter of a man who routinely beat her mother and she has married not one, but two men who have routinely beat her.

Jennifer's first husband was a drug addict who died of an apparent overdose. She then married a successful doctor who is a total control freak. He closely circumscribes Jennifer's life, and everything in his house, Jennifer included, must be perfect. If not, there will be hell to pay and Jennifer will be in for another beating. The two have a young son who is the one bright spot in Jennifer's life.

Jennifer must stay in good physical shape in order to please her husband and one morning when she returns from a run, she finds a policeman at her door. Someone has reported shots fired inside the house and when Jennifer reluctantly allows to policeman to enter the house ahead of her, they discover that her husband and son have been shot to death with a gun that was kept in Jennifer's bedroom.

Jennifer, who stands to gain five million dollars out of her husband's death, quickly becomes the prime suspect and, as the evidence against her mounts, she is arrested and charged with the murders. David Freeman believes that she is probably guilty and wants to use a battered wife defense. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, Jennifer insists that she wasn't abused and that she is innocent. She will not allow Freeman to go in that direction. Hardy can't decide if Jennifer is guilty or not but he will do the best he can to help Freeman defend her. It will be an increasingly uphill battle, and the major stumbling block will be the defendant herself.

This is a gripping story with well-drawn characters and an interesting subplot is the effect that the case has on the relationship between Hardy and his wife, who increasingly resents all of the time that Hardy is spending on the case, leaving her to care for the house and their two small children, virtually by herself. The book really kicks into gear once the trial begins, and the courtroom scenes are very good. This is a book and a series that should appeal to anyone who enjoys a taut, exciting legal thriller.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Another Poor Victim Falls for the Wrong Woman in this Classic Pulp Novel

This is a hardboiled novel from 1955, in which the protagonist, Joe Hooper, falls into the classic noir spiral from which hardly any man ever recovers. Hooper owns a gas station and a rundown motel in a small town in Oklahoma. The tourists only stay at his place when all the good motels are full, and even though he only has five cabins, he's never yet had to hang out the "No Vacancy" sign.

Hooper's in something of a relationship with a good woman, and most of the people in town, including his own father, expect him to marry her. But Hooper isn't really happy in the relationship; he's about to lose his business to the bank; he's at loose ends, and he has no idea what he's going to do. And then, of course, as in every novel of this type, SHE shows up.

In this case, SHE is Paula, the sexy, sultry wife of a guy named Karl Sheldon. The couple shows up to buy gas and to rent a cabin, and from the moment Hooper sees the woman through the windshield of her Buick, he's done for. Prowling around the Sheldons' cabin that night, he hears them planning the robbery of a local factory. Hooper insists on cutting himself into the plan, mainly so that he can get next to Paula, and in an instant, he's in so deep that he'll never get out.

Things unfold from there as they usually do in a book like this, and even though anyone who's read many of these novels knows almost with certainty how it's going to end, it's a great ride. Paula Sheldon is the archetypal Hardboiled Bad Girl; Joe Hooper is the typical noir protagonist who's sucked into a trap he can't possibly escape, and the plot moves along swiftly from beginning to tragic end. A somewhat atypical theme in a novel like this is Hooper's relationship with his father, which helps set this book a bit above the standard for a mid-1950s Gold Medal pulp read. Black Curtain Press brought out a new edition of the book in 2013, and fans who enjoy this genre might well want to look for it.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A British Bloodstock Agent Finds Trouble and Danger in this Novel from Dick Francis

I'm generally a fan of the novels of Dick Francis, most of which are set in the world of British horse racing. This one, though, was something of a disappointment. It fits the mold of most Francis novels: the protagonist is in his mid-thirties--a man who has been damaged but who is tough, determined, smart, and who refuses to back down in the face of any threat. As usual, a young woman appears who will be attracted to the protagonist, but who will not be interested in marrying him. Bad things will happen and, as is almost always the case, there will be an amoral shadowy figure who will be behind the villainy and who will stop at nothing to protect his interests.

Our hero in this case is Jonah Dereham, an ex-jockey who has been injured one too many times and can no longer race. He is now a bloodstock agent and runs afoul of a scheme that some unscrupulous agents are using to inflate their fees. They want Jonah to fall in with them and when he refuses, they determine to teach him a lesson. It's always a very bad idea to threaten a Dick Francis protagonist in this fashion and, more likely than not, they will pay a price for doing so.

By comparison to most other Francis novels, though, this one felt flat to me, or maybe just a bit too predictable. I didn't find Dereham to be a particularly attractive protagonist and the scheme here was not as inventive as the ones you most often find in a Francis novel. And to cap it off, the villain was not nearly as scary or as vicious as the ones you usually encounter in these books. Perhaps my expectations for this book were simply too high, based on the other Francis novels that I've read, but to me, this one rates only 2.75 stars, rounded up.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Harrowing and Unstinting Look At the War in Vietnam

Sympathy for the Devil is a brilliant look at the war in Vietnam as seen through the eyes of one very literate Special Forces soldier. Like the war itself, it's a nasty, brutish, profane examination of the way in which men approach combat and at the ways in which it affects and transforms them.

The protagonist, a "college boy" named Hanson, was drafted into the war three years into his college experience, as was the author, Kent Anderson. And having had the opportunity to hear Hanson discuss his experiences in the war, it's clear that much of this book is based very closely on those experiences.

It's not a pretty sight. And it's clear that, while Hanson and his closest compatriots may be fighting for a variety of different reasons, patriotism and a belief in the American mission in Vietnam have little or nothing to do with it. Mostly, they're fighting to protect each other and because to a large extent, they've become intoxicated by the experience of war. They have virtually no sympathy for the South Vietnamese soldiers whom they are supposed to be assisting in the war. They don't like them; they don't trust them; and they think that the South Vietnamese forces are lazy and generally useless.

The same is pretty much true of the officers and politicians who lead their effort, most of whom appear to be interested only in advancing their own careers and other interests at the expense of the troops they command. From beginning to end, from Basic Training to the end of Hanson's second tour, this is a harrowing, beautifully written and gut-wrenching ride that builds to an unbelievable climax. Although a novel, this book has the solid ring of truth, and it's probably the best book I've read yet about the war in Vietnam. 4.5 stars.