Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Another Excellent Glacier National Park Mystery from Christine Carbo

A Sharp Solitude is Christine Carbo’s fourth novel. All of the books have been set in and around Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of Montana, and to my mind, this one is her best yet.

The book opens in Florida with a tragedy that would forever scar the life of Reeve Landon, who is one of the two main protagonists in the novel. Reeve ultimately winds up in Montana, working in the wilderness with his chocolate lab, McKay, for the University of Montana’s detection-canine research program. Essentially, McKay sniffs out the scat of bears and other wild creatures. Reeve then bags it up, labels it, and sends it to be analyzed by researchers who will extract the animals’ DNA and thus expand their knowledge of the wildlife living in the area.

Reeve lives alone with McKay in an isolated cabin and prefers the company of his dog to most people. The exception is his young daughter, Emily, who lives most of the time with her mother in Kalispell, a few miles away. Reeve and Emily’s mother were together only briefly, but they both love the little girl and share custody.

Out in the woods, Reeve and McKay almost always work alone, which is exactly what Reeve prefers. But late one fall, Reeve’s boss persuades him to allow a journalist named Anne Marie Johnson to accompany him and McKay. Anne Marie is writing an article for a magazine on the university’s detection-canine research program, and Reeve’s boss convinces him that the publicity would be good for the program. 

Anne Marie spends a long day with Reeve and McKay, working through very difficult, mountainous terrain. Hours later, she turns up shot to death. Reeve was the last person to be seen with her and the local police bring him in for questioning. It’s apparent early on that they have convinced themselves that Reeve is guilty of Anne Marie’s murder.

Enter FBI agent Ali Paige, who claims an interest in the case because the murder happened close to Glacier National Park, which would have put the case in the FBI’s jurisdiction. More to the point, although most people don’t know it, she is Reeve Landon’s former girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. Like Reeve, Ali had a troubled past. She believes that Reeve could not be guilty of murder and, naturally, she does not want Emily to lose her father and to be branded as the daughter of a killer. In consequence, Ali begins working the case, even though she has no real jurisdiction and no authorization, and even though doing so could have grave consequences for her career.

Carbo excels at creating a sense of place. As these characters make their way along, the reader feels as though he or she is moving side by side along with them in this rugged, beautiful, and often treacherous environment. The scenes with Reeve out in the wilderness are alone worth the price of the book and will resonate especially with anyone who has been lucky enough to visit this part of the country.

The author is also very good at writing damaged characters, and both Reeve and Ali are expertly drawn. The story is told in alternating chapters first from one point of view and then the other, and by the time the book is over the reader knows these characters intimately. The story moves briskly and becomes increasingly gripping, so that by the end of the novel, the tension has built to a fever pitch and it’s virtually impossible to put it down. Readers who haven’t yet discovered this series are in for a treat, and A Sharp Solitudewould be an excellent place to start. 4.5 stars.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Another Hilarious Tale from Johnny Shaw

Johnny Shaw is a very, very funny guy, as anyone who has read his Jimmy Veeder "Fiascos" can attest. He was also the creator of the magazine Blood & Tacos, the first volume of which includes what remains one of the most hilarious short stories of all time, featuring Chingon, "The World's Deadliest Mexican."

Shaw's new book, The Upper Hand, features the Uckers, a dysfunctional family the likes of which you have never met. Two brothers and a sister--Axel, Kurt, and Gretchen--are the progeny of a thief who simply couldn't change his ways. When he died, fifteen years before the book opens, he left behind his three very young children and their mother who quickly went off the rails and turned to religion for her solace. In particular, she became enamored of a television evangelist named Brother Tobin Floom, whom she has watched religiously ever since (pun intended).

When he died, Dad also allegedly left behind a pile of loot from the last job he pulled, but it's never been found. Now, as the book opens, Mom dies, leaving her children adrift in the world, but not before leaving her home and all of her money to the Reverend Floom.

At this darkest moment, "Mother" Ucker, an aunt that the children never knew, suddenly appears on the scene. Their mother had closed off any contact with their father's family because they were all a bunch of swindlers and cheats, but it turns out that Axel, Gretchen and Kurt have a fairly large, if hugely disreputable, extended family. Even more shockingly, "Mother" announces that the Reverend Floom is actually their grandfather and has managed to cheat them out of their inheritance!

"Mother" invites the three Ucker children into a scheme to fleece the not-so-good Reverend and get their inheritance back. The three agree and at that point, the story dissolves into one of the funniest caper novels I've ever read. All of the characters are inspired and could only have come from a mind as profoundly warped as Johnny Shaw's; the plot is pure pandemonium, and the soundtrack is provided by Skinripper, the worst metal band you fortunately never heard.

As much as I've enjoyed his earlier work, this may be Shaw's best. I literally laughed out loud at virtually every scene and the entire enterprise left me shaking my head in amazement. I can hardly wait to see what the author does next.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Fantastic New Novel from Boston Teran

I became a huge fan of Boston Teran when I first read The Creed of Violence, and my admiration for the author only grew with God Is a Bullet and The Country I Lived In. The author remains a mysterious figure. Some speculate that this is another author writing under a pseudonym, or perhaps a group of writers working together on these projects. Whatever the case, Teran's new novel, A Child Went Forth, may be the best book I've read in a long time.

The book's title comes from a poem by Walt Whitman, and Whitman himself makes a cameo appearance as "Walt, the poet." The book is set in the United States of 1855, a time when the raging debates over slavery, immigration and other issues were tearing at the fabric of the nation. Into this setting step thirteen-year-old Charlemagne Ezekiel Griffin, "Charlie," and his father, Zacharia. The two are running a con on the famous abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose book Uncle Tom's Cabin has contributed mightily to the argument over slavery.

Zacharia, with the help of his son, plans to con Beecher and his followers out of several thousand dollars, claiming that they are going to funnel the money to abolitionists in Kansas. Charlie believes that they are really going to use the money to rescue his mother from an asylum in Ohio and then live happily ever after. Zacharia, who is running a con on his own son as well as on Beecher, actually has other plans for the money. But as often happens in a case like this, in fairly short order the plan goes awry and Charlie finds himself alone and on the run across the continent, pursued by some very dangerous enemies. 

It would be a huge disservice to say anything more about the plot, but this is a gorgeous novel with characters that will remain with me for a very long time. Heroes and villains alike, they are all wonderfully imagined, Charlie Griffin in particular. This is in some respects a coming of age novel, but it is much, much more than that, and it captures brilliantly a time in the nation's history when the future of the country was truly in doubt. It's an exciting, gripping, and beautifully-rendered story--a book I'll be reading again and again in the years to come.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Goes Searching for a Missing Husband and a Wayward Uncle

This entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series opens when a fifteen-year-old girl comes into the office hoping that the firm will find her missing Uncle Amos. Uncle Amos occasionally goes off on a bender. When he does, he mails his car keys to the girl's mother and when the bender is over, he hitchhikes home, usually catching a ride with a brother Elk. The girl is worried because this time Uncle Amos has been gone for an unusually long time. The girl and her mother depend on Amos for support and her mother needs an operation and things are generally grim. 

Adding to the mystery is the fact that Amos is a couple of weeks short of his thirty-fifth birthday, at which time he will inherit a boatload of money unless he has been convicted of a serious crime. In that event, the fortune will be divided among a number of charities. 

Despite this terribly sad tale, Bertha kicks the kid out of the office because there's no money in it for the firm. Instead, she sends Donald out to meet with a fairly wealthy woman whose husband has disappeared. The woman is offering the firm a substantial bonus if they can find the husband.

Before meeting the wealthy wife, Donald interviews the poor young girl and her mother and promises to try to find the missing Uncle Amos. He also gives them some money from the firm's expense account to tide them over until Amos reappears. He then talks to the very sexy woman whose husband is missing and who is quick to put the moves on Donald. 

Donald discovers that the missing husband and the missing Uncle Amos both sent postcards from the same rural service station just before they disappeared. This "coincidence" is, of course. too much to be believed, and it propels Donald into another very entertaining investigation. As is common in these books, the twists and turns will leave virtually any reader reeling, but it's a fun ride, and this is one of the better books in the series.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Great Summer Thriller from Owen Laukkanen

I've long been a big fan of Owen Laukkanen's series featuring F.B.I. agent Karla Windermere and Minnesota B.C.A. agent, Kirk Stevens, and as a result, I was a bit disappointed to learn that his new book, Gale Force, would be a thriller rather than another entry in the Stevens and Windermere series. However, that disappointment lasted only about three pages into the prologue of the new book, by which point I was thoroughly hooked.

At the center of the novel is a woman named McKenna Rhodes. As the result of a tragic accident which took her father's life, McKenna has become the captain of a salvage vessel named the Gale Force. As a woman in what is most definitely a man's world, she faces any number of serious obstacles, but in addition to that, she still bears the psychological scars of the accident in which she lost her father. As a result, she's been playing things very close to the vest and taking relatively small, safe jobs. Sadly, though, small, safe jobs are not enough to pay the bills and keep a boat like the Gale Force in business.

An opportunity for McKenna to save the business and to prove herself arrives when a huge Japanese cargo ship, the Pacific Lion, rolls over and begins sinking in a heavy storm two hundred miles off the Alaska coast. The ship, which is carrying five thousand Japanese automobiles, is abandoned, making her fair game for salvage hunters, including McKenna, if she has the nerve to tackle the job. 

It's a huge gamble, given that just getting to the Lion would basically put McKenna on the brink of bankruptcy. And while the potential payoff would be worth millions, any number of things could easily go wrong: Another salvage team might beat the Gale Force to the sinking ship. Even if McKenna doesget there first, saving the ship and towing it safely to port would be a daunting, dangerous, and perhaps impossible task. The weather could easily turn against her and doom the mission. In any such event, there would be no payout at all, and she would lose everything.

McKenna decides to gamble on this one last chance, not knowing that there's another element of risk involved. A thief has stolen $50 million worth of bearer bonds from a group of gangsters and smuggled himself aboard the Pacific Lion. When the ship founders, he is forced to leave the bonds on the ship, The gangsters to whom the bonds belong are resourceful and merciless, and they will stop at nothing to reclaim their property.

Laukkanen, who descends from a family of boat builders and commercial fishermen, obviously knows his stuff, and he takes these disperate elements and very skillfully weaves them into a gripping, heart-pounding story. He's especially good at developing plot twists and crises large and small, and then expertly manipulating the tension level. It's a wild, roller coaster ride that kept me glued to the pages well into the night. All of the characters are very well drawn, and McKenna Rhodes is a very appealing protagonist. I certainly hope that we'll see more of her (and of Stevens and Windermere, of course), but Gale Force is a book that will be right at home in the beach bag of anyone looking for a great summer read. An easy 4+ stars.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

An Underwhelming Entry In a Series That Is Otherwise Very Good

Of the twenty-eight novels in the Brady Coyne series, this, the nineteenth, is for me the strangest and least successful of them all. It's a joint effort between William G. Tapply and Philip R. Craig, who writes a series set on Martha's Vineyard featuring an investigator named J. W. Jackson. They, or their publisher, apparently decided that it would be an excellent idea to bring Tapply's Boston lawyer and Craig's island detective together in a book that would be set on Martha's Vineyard.

Both Coyne and Jackson are avid fishermen, and the setup is that Coyne and Jackson are also old friends. Jackson has invited Brady to come visit for a week so that they can compete in a major fishing contest that is held a couple of times a year on the island. This is serendipitous because one of Brady's elderly clients, a woman named Sarah Fairchild, is dying of cancer. She has a large estate on the island and is trying to decide whether to sell it to a golf course development company or to a conservation group that would like to preserve the land as it is. She wants Brady to investigate the two proposals and advise her which would be best. Jackson, meanwhile, has been hired by a man to find his wife who has gone missing from the island.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one narrated by Jackson and the next by Coyne, but the collaboration did not work very well at all, at least for me. To begin with, it's an awkward construction. Each time the narrator changes, we have to take time to review what happened in the last chapter so that the current narrator is caught up on the action. So we get a lot of passages that go something like, "After Brady told me what he had learned from the police chief and what he had done at the liquor store, etc., etc., etc." As a result there's a lot of repetetive narrative here that you have to read from the POV of each character.

Another problem is that, for a mystery novel, there's way too much fishing going on. I've never read the Craig series, but readers of the Coyne series know that Brady loves to fish and there's always some discussion of fishing in each of the books. (The author, William G. Tapply, was an avid outdoorsman and a contributing editor to Field and Streammagazine.) But it doesn't ever get in the way of the story. Here it does, and in a big way. If you eliminated all the fishing scenes, you'd probably lose about a third of the book, and none of them really advances the story in any interesting or meaningful way. These scenes drain what little tension there is out of the story, and by the time I was halfway through the book, I was thinking, "Oh no; not another damned fishing scene!)

The last major problem with the book is that both Jackson and Coyne should both be sued for malpractice. Though he has a very worried client, Jackson spends very little time actually looking for the missing woman. In addition to all the time he wastes fishing, he also takes time out to build an elaborate three house for his kids!

Coyne's dereliction of duty may be even worse. He has a client at death's door who needs to make a quick decision about what to do with her property. She also has two greedy children and a grandson who are hoping that she dies before selling the property so that they can inherit it and do with it what they please. Brady's response is to take a couple of meetings in and around his fishing, and that's about the extent of his effort. He shows no sense of urgency at all.

There actually is a mystery buried in the middle of all this other activity, and it involves a number of women who seem to have gone missing from the island. Coyne and Jackson will both wind up working on the case, but only when it doesn't interfere with more important matters like fishing and building tree houses. And most readers will get to the solution a lot faster than Coyne and Jackson.

As I've suggested in my reviews of the previous eighteen books in this series, I really like the series and I really like the Brady Coyne character. But this one was a disappointment and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in dipping into the series to pick another entry. 2.5 stars, very generously rounded up to 3.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Riveting Tale of Love, Loss, and Murder from Kent Harrington

This is a great crime novel with a badly damaged protagonist at its core. A year ago, San Francisco homicide detective Michael O'Higgins lost his wife in a tragic boating accident. He blames himself for the accident and in the months since, he has basically been unable to function. He's sent his daughter off to live with relatives; he's on a stress leave from his job, and he's seeing a young psychiatrist who is trying her best but who seems unable to help him.

Since the accident, O'Higgins has been deathly afraid of the water and, as part of the therapy, his psychiatrist encourages him to take a ferry ride. He is barely able to function on the ferry, but is comforted by an Indian family that he meets on the vessel. Shortly thereafter, he tentatively returns to work, only to land a very high-profile case. A woman arrrives at her very expensive home on Nob Hill to discover that her wealthy husband and the family's nanny have been brutally murdered. On arriving at the scene, O'Higgins is stunned to discover that the male victim is the Indian man who had been so kind to him on the ferry.

Early on, the evidence points to the victim's wife, Asha, a beautiful young woman whose marriage to the victim had been arranged. The operating theory is that Asha discovered the her husband and the nanny were having an affair and that she killed them both in a fit of jealous rage. This accusation is supported by Asha's father-in-law, an extremely wealthy and very well-connected Indian politician who has been living briefly with the family.

The Powers That Be, both in the U.S. and in India, want this case resolved as expeditiously as possible and insist that O'Higgins and his partner make the case against Asha. But O'Higgins is not convinced that she's guilty and he is strongly drawn to the woman for reasons that he cannot explain. Thus he pushes back against his bosses and his own partner in an effort to ensure that justice is actually done in the case.

It's a riveting story, beautifully written with very well-drawn and sympathetic characters. O'Higgins's struggle to recover and to put his life back into some sort of order is as compelling as the murder investigation itself, and if he fails in one effort, he will almost certainly fail at the other. This is a book that should appeal to large numbers of crime fiction fans, and it's one of the best novels I've read thus far this year.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Travis McGee Goes Looking for a Missing Woman and Naturally Finds Trouble

Had I rated this book when I first read it twenty-five or thirty years ago, I no doubt would have given it a solid four stars plus. I loved this series when I first discovered it and couldn't devour the books fast enough. But the times have changed, and so have I, no doubt, and these novels no longer appeal to me nearly as much as they once did.

The story at the core of the book is fine. As it opens, Travis McGee is in something of an emotional slump and fears that he may be losing a step or two to Father Time and to the Bad Guys who always seem to be hovering around McGee's neighborhood in South Florida. He's at least entertaining the possibilty of entering into some sort of a relationship with a very wealthy British widow who's extremely good in bed and who would like McGee to sail off into the sunset with her on her fabulous yacht. 

McGee's best friend, Meyer the Economist, is actively promoting the idea out of fear that McGee may in fact be slipping a bit and should no longer be leading such a dangerous existence. In his heart of hearts, McGee knows that he would never do such a thing, and the reader knows it too. But the fact that the thought has even entered his mind is scary as hell, both for McGee and for the reader.

Fortunately, a new problem will shortly demand McGee's attention and put an end to all this silliness. The problem appears in the person of Harry Dolan who is now the husband of Mary Dolan. Back when she was Mary Dillon, Mrs. Dolan was one of those tragically wounded women that McGee had taken on a long cruise, healed and restored to health as only he can. Dolan says his wife has disappeared and he accuses McGee of taking up with her again and hiding her from him.

McGee assures Dolan that this is nonsense and that he hasn't seen Mary in three years. Dolan responds by pulling out a small gun and firing several shots in McGee's direction. Fortunately, they all miss and McGee disarms Dolan, but the fact that the angry husband was even able to get close to McGee with a gun confirms McGee's suspicion that he has lost a step or two.

McGee sends Dolan on his way, but is worried about Mary, whom he really liked. He's also concerned because he believes that if Mary were in trouble again, she would have reached out to him. He wonders why she hasn't. Accordingly, McGee goes searching for the missing woman on a quest that will take him to Grenada and back. Inevitably, along the way he will encounter some especially sick, nasty and dangerous people who are working a particularly wicked scheme, and he will be challenged as perhaps never before.

This is all well and good, and again, the bones of this story are fine. But as was always the case in these books, the action is frequently interrupted while McGee takes time out to wax philosophically about the problems of the world and to do a considerable amount of navel-gazing, analyzing his own personal psyche.

When I first read these books, I wasn't bothered by this and in fact, I found some of McGee's musings to be very interesting. Now, though, I find them to be awfully dated and overly pompous, and I feel that they simply get in the way of a good story. As other reviewers have repeatedly noted, McGee's attitude about women is often cringe-worthy in this day and age as well; however this book is not quite as bad as some of the others in that regard. 

Every time I pick up one of these Travis McGee novels I desperately want to love it as much as I did when I first read it, and I'm inevitably disappointed. It occurs to me that I may be being overly harsh in this regard and that I should not expect that a book written nearly fifty years ago is going to seem as fresh as it once did. But, at least to my mind, other series from this time period seem to have aged much more gracefully than this one. Thus three stars rather than the four and a half my younger self would have given A Tan and Sandy Silence.

Friday, May 4, 2018

An Inventor Runs into Trouble When He Enters the World of British Horse Racing

I would argue that this is one of the best books in the Dick Francis catalog. The protagonist, Steven Scott, is somewhat unusual for a Dick Francis novel in that he is a relatively wealthy man who made a fortune designing a very popular line of children's toys. As a sideline, he has bought a number of race horses, even though he knows next to nothing about horses.

Scott entrusts the horses to the care of a trainer named Jody Leeds, and the horses enjoy some success at the races. But after some time has passed, Scott realizes that Leeds has been defrauding him in a fairly significant way. The fraud is clever enought that Scott can't actually prove the offense but he confronts Leeds and informs him that he is removing his horses from Leeds and taking them to another trainer. Leeds has expanded his operation at some expense to accommodate Scott's horses and explodes at the thought that Scott is going to leave him high and dry. In fairly short order, violence and other chicanery will ensue.

While the law will be no help in this case, Scott is determined to protect his interests as best he can. He thus concocts a scheme that will have to move as flawlessly as the gears in the toys he has invented in the hope of righting the wrongs that have been done against him. It's a very clever plot with a lot of the usual Francis touches, and it's a lot of fun watching it unfold. Again, one of the best of the novels from Dick Francis.