Thursday, June 28, 2018

Spenser, Boston's Iconic Detective, Tangles with a Gang of Arsonists

This is the forty-fourth book in the Spenser series and the fifth to be written by Ace Atkins in the wake of Robert B. Parker's death. As any number of other reviewers have noted, Atkins has pretty effectively restored the series to its glory years, and with this many books under his belt, he is beginning to make the series his own. 

With Atkins at the helm, Spenser's universe is slowly changing. New characters are appearing, and the man himself is now moving into the modern day, particularly with regard to technology. Spenser long ago stopped aging somewhere in his early fifties, which is a very good thing. When the detective first appeared in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he was a veteran of the Korean War. He would thus now be somewhere in his middle eighties and might have some difficulty beating up large, well-muscled bad guys who are only in their twenties. At one point in this novel, Spenser notes that he once served in the Army. He says that he didn't do much in the Army, but Atkins gives us no hint as to when or where Parker might have served, and in this case has clearly learned a valuable lesson from his predecessor.

As this book opens, Spenser is approached by a Boston firefighter named Jack McGee. A year earlier, an abandoned Catholic church in Boston's South End went up in an inferno. Three firefighters who were friends of McGee's died fighting the blaze. McGee insists that the fire was deliberately set, although the arson investigators have been unable to determine a cause for the fire. McGee also believes that the fire may well have been connected to a series of arsons that have plagued the city in the past year.

McGee believes that the fire and police departments have given up too easily in attempting to solve the fire at the church and he wants Spenser to look into it. Spenser has no training as an arson investigator and one might well wonder how he could possibly turn up evidence that has eluded the seasoned arson and homicide investigators. McGee believes, though, that Spenser has connections in Boston's underworld that aren't available to the police and fire department investigators and that by probing these sources, Spenser might find the guilty party or parties.

It is, frankly, a pretty thin excuse upon which to build a plot, but who really cares? The story is off and running and it's great to see Spenser back in action. From the reader's perspective, there is no real mystery about who's responsible for the fires. The bad guys are revealed even before the first chapter begins, and the tension depends on the rising stakes, for the fire department, for the city of Boston, and for Spenser personally, as the fires rage out of control. It's another very good read and further proof of the fact that the Parker estate knew exactly what it was doing when it entrusted this iconic series to Ace Atkins.

Monday, June 25, 2018

An Atmospheric Novel of Brooklyn from William Boyle

The protagonist is this novel is a young woman named Amy who lives in a tiny, dingy basement apartment in Brooklyn. Amy used to party hard, but after her lover breaks up with her, she retreats into a much different, much quieter, and much more lonely life. She now does volunteer work, principally for her church, and among other things, she delivers communion to elderly shut-ins. 

One morning she delivers communion to a Mrs. Epifanio who tells Amy that she hasn't seen her usual caretaker, a woman named Diane, in several days. Moments later, a man who identifies himself as Diane's son, Vincent, walks in on the two women, having let himself in with a key that he apparently got from his mother. He tells Amy that his mother is sick and that he is checking in on Mrs. Epifanio until she gets better.

Amy is very unsettled by Vincent's appearance, especially when Mrs. Epifanio tells her that Vincent has been rooting around in her bedroom on his earlier visits. Determined to discover what might be going on, Amy takes to following Vincent and then witnesses something that she wasn't meant to see. The remainder of the book unfolds as Amy deals with the consequences of what she has seen and what she has done--and not done--in consequence.

I have very mixed emotions about this book. For me, it's principal strength is the setting. Boyle clearly knows the neighborhoods in which he has set the novel and the sense of place is outstanding. The reader feels as though he, or she, is walking right alongside Amy as she makes her way along, even though, personally, I don't think I'd want to visit many of these scenes, let alone live in them.

On the downside, I simply could not relate to the character of Amy who, to my way of thinking, made one incredibly bad decision after another. In the end, many of her actions left me simply shaking my head. As a result, I couldn't develop any real empathy for her and, ultimately, I really didn't care very much what happened to her. Also, some of the criminal activity at the heart of the book is pretty hard to believe and so in the end, three and a half stars for me, rounded up to four for the great job Boyle does at setting the scene.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Gets Caught Up in the Aftermath of an Armored Car Robbery

The twenty-first Donald Lam and Bertha Cool mystery opens in the wake of a brazened armored car robbery that netted the two thieves a cool $100,000 in thousand-dollar bills. Lam's police force nemesis, Sergeant Frank Sellers, believes he is close to a solution of the mystery. He has recovered half of the loot and has a lead on a woman named Hazel Downer, who is associated with one of the men suspected of the robbery.

Sellers confronts Downer and searches her apartment. He doesn't find the other half of the missing money, but in her purse, he does find a napkin with the name and number of the Cool & Lam agency. Downer manages to give Sellers the slip and he now demands to know what Donald and Bertha have to do with the woman. They both insist that they've never heard of her, but of course Sellers doesn't believe them. Bertha insists that if anyone has had contact with the woman, it would be Donald, and naturally, the second he leaves Bertha and Sellers in Bertha's office, he goes into his own only to find Hazel Downer waiting for him.

Hazel wants to hire Donald to find a man named Stanley Downer who she says is her husband. She claims that Stanley has run off with $60,000 of her money, all in thousand-dollar bills. She says that an uncle left her the money, although she has no way of proving it. She offers Donald a percentage of the money if he can recover it. Of course, she insists that HER sixty thousand dollar bills have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the thousand-dollar bills still missing from the armored car robbery that Seller is so hot about.

Inevitably, a plot that's already this complicated by page 16 will get only moreso. The case takes Donald to San Francisco, where he will find himself in a world of trouble and danger, and it will take all of his skill and a great deal of luck if he's going to sort out this mess.

This book was published in 1960, twenty-one years after the first in the series, The Bigger They Come, and yet it might well have been published twenty-one months later. Like virtually all of the other books in this series, there are no specific dates and no references to any contemporary events. Twenty-one years after they first appeared, the characters have not aged a day. Bertha is still a hard sixty-five and Donald remains in his middle thirties. More than that, the books retain the feel of pulp fiction from the 1940s. An attractive woman still has shapely "gams;" cars haven't gotten any more dependable, and the police still operate like they did in the '30s and '40s. This is not really a complaint, merely an observation, and this book and the others in the series allow the reader to return to the age of the classic pulps, which, when done well, can still be a lot of fun.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Another Great Jack Reacher Novel from Lee Child

This is another very good entry in the Jack Reacher series. By now the formula is fairly well set, and as this book opens, Reacher is strolling through a small town in Wisconsin. Looking into the window of a pawnshop, he happens to notice in the display a class ring from West Point. Such a ring is very hard to earn and Reacher wonders why someone might pawn one.

His curiosity aroused, Reacher buys the ring and attempts to trace it back to its original owner, a task that will be much easier said than done. It's a small ring, and Reacher concludes that the original owner was a woman. Engraved in the ring are the initials S.R.S., and the year 2005, suggesting that the woman graduated just in time to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such troubled and dangerous places.

The pawnshop owner initially refuses to tell Reacher where he got the ring, but when Jack Reacher is looking for information, it's generally a bad idea not to provide it. The guy ultimately tells Reacher that he bought the ring, with a bunch of other jewelry, from a biker. 

Initially, the biker is no more cooperative than the guy in the pawnshop. (Will these people never learn?) But eventually, Reacher winds up tracing the ring from Wisconsin to Rapid City, South Dakota, and from there to the Middle of Nowhere in Wyoming. The further he gets into this quest, the more difficult and dark the mystery becomes. 

As is often the case, Reacher finds himself touring through the underbelly of the country, and it's not a pretty picture. Mixed in and around a very good mystery, this book has some fairly sad things to say about the contemporary United States. As always, though, it's a very engaging and exciting story, populated by some interesting characters and some great settings, and it gives Reacher a lot of opportunities to be the Jack Reacher we all know and love. 

As a side note, early in the book, one of the characters describes Reacher as "Bigfoot," and the name follows him through the story. It's not exactly the image one would conjure up thinking of Tom Cruise, and one wonders what, if anything, the author might be insinuating by doing this so deliberately.

I always look forward to the summer because it means that I will have a new Reacher novel to read and now I'm already looking forward to next year's book.

Monday, June 18, 2018

An Anthropologist Confronts Life and Death on the Body Farm

This is the first entry in the "Body Farm" series. The author, "Jefferson Bass," is actually a team consisting of Bill Bass, the founder of the "Body Farm" at the University of Tennessee, and Jon Jefferson, a journalist. The protagonist, Dr. Bill Brockton, supervises the Body Farm (actually, the Anthropology Research Facility) where anthropologists study the ways in which corpses decompose. Brockton has a heavy teaching and research load and is still grieving the loss of his wife who died two years earlier.

Brockton's routine is interrupted by an appeal from a rural sheriff for help with a body that has just been discovered in a mountain cave. The victim--a young woman--has been dead for years, but her body has been eerily preserved by the conditions within the cave. Brockton removes the body to the lab where he begins his examination in an effort to determine who the victim might have been and how she might have died.

The anthropological challenges that Brockton faces pale, however, compared to the other problems he has brought down upon himself by opening this can of worms. The isolated, rural mountain community where the victim was discovered is very tightly knit and has secrets and rivalries that go back generations. And as Brockton begins digging into the past as well as the present, his prodigious anthropological skills may not be enough to save him from the trouble and the danger to which he's exposed himself.

The strength of this book clearly lies in the science, and watching Brockton work and make his deductions from the corpses he's presented is fascinating stuff. The story itself is okay, but the strength of the book is also, in some ways, its weakness, because everytime the plot begins to build a little head of steam, it's interrupted by another dissertation on anthropology. Additionally, even without examining the bones, most readers will deduce what happened here well ahead of Dr. Brockton.

The book is a bit clunky in parts, and the authors make several strained attempts at humor which simply don't work at all. This is a relatively minor complaint, but it did interrupt the flow of the book for me. Those concerns aside, I enjoyed the book. Again, I found the science very interesting and I would probably read another book in the series to learn more about this field.

Ken Corning, the Prototype for Perry Mason, Appears in Erle Stanley Gardner's HONEST MONEY

In the beginning, there was attorney Ken Corning and his faithful secretary, Helen Vail.

Shortly before he created Perry Mason and Della Street, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a series of six novellas that were published in Black Mask magazine in 1932 and 1933. Corning was a young attorney who was just setting up his practice in the fictional York City. The town is totally corrupt and is run by a group of insiders for their own benefit. The cops and most of the other attorneys in town are content to work with the city's bosses and close their eyes to all the terrible things going on around them.

Not Ken Corning, of course. He's young and idealistic. He's just hung out his shingle and is struggling to get by. His sole employee is his secretary, Helen Vail. Corning can barely afford to pay her and yet when she looks at him, her eyes glisten "with a softness that held a touch of the maternal." It's quickly apparent that her feelings for her boss are anything but maternal, but although the two are attracted to each other, they will be content to work side by side, never acting on their feelings.

Through the series of the six stories that constitute the Ken Corning collection, the odds will always be heavily against the young attorney. The cops will frame his clients; the Powers That Be will make his witnesses disappear; clients and others will constantly lie to him and betray him. But Corning will persevere, fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and will somehow always come out on top, frustrating the corrupt cops and all the other crooked people who run York City. Like Mason, Corning will spend most of his time out of the office, doing his own investigations and taking the fight to his enemies. Helen Vail will constantly be taking chances and exposing herself to danger to assist him.

The last of these stories appeared in August of 1933. In the meantime, in March of that year, Gardner published The Case of the Velvet Claws, which was the first of eighty-five novels that would feature Perry Mason and Della Street. It seems clear that the Corning stories set the pattern for the Mason books, but by the time he decided to write a novel of this type, Gardner decided not to use the Ken Corning character. Rather, he would create a new protagonist and set him in a real city, Los Angeles. 

In the early days, Mason would occasionally have to deal with cops who were at least on the edge of being bent, but he did not have to fight an entire corrupt city establishment. Of course clients and others would lie to him repeatedly and sometimes betray him, but that was all part of the game, and Mason could devote his time and attention to dealing with one murder case after another. In the process, Gardner would sell millions of books and Perry Mason would become one of the most popular fictional characters of the Twentieth Century.

Honest Money is a book that will appeal primarily to fans of the Mason series, because it's clear that these stories were the template for the characters of Perry Mason and Della Street. The stories themselves don't really rise above the average stories that appeared in crime fiction magazines of this era, but for those who still enjoy the Perry Mason novels, they will be a lot of fun.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Gets Dragged into a Murder and a Possible Abduction

The twentieth novel in the Brady Coyne series falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, quality wise--better than some, but not as good as others in the series. The story begins when Brady gets a call from one of his clients, Walt Duffy. Duffy is an internationally-renowned birder and has traveled the world photographing birds of every description. But then he had an accident which left him unable to walk, and for the last two years he's been confined to his home in Boston and to the bird sanctuary that he created in his backyard.

Duffy also collects rare books and manuscripts relating to birds, and one afternoon he asks Brady to stop by. Duffy has some letters purported to have been written by Meriwether Lewis to a famed ornithologist of his day, describing the birds that Lewis saw while exploring the Far West for President Thomas Jefferson. If the letters are authentic, they would be worth a fortune. Duffy wants Brady to take the letters to a colleague who will appraise them. Brady agrees, but shortly thereafter, Walt Duffy is murdered and his son, Ethan, who lived with him, disappears. Brady discovers the body and so naturally finds himself in the middle of the investigation and the search for Ethan.

So far, so good, and we have the setup for what could be a pretty intriguing novel. But the book then takes a turn in a direction that was, at least for me, much less interesting and exciting than the early pages of the book would have suggested. Bad things continue to happen; Brady Coyne increasingly gets sucked deeper into the vortex and pretty soon, his life may be on the line. Along the way, his relationship with his new girlfriend, Evie Banyon continues to develop and it gives nothing away to reveal that there's a pretty interesting sex scene that take place in the middle of a thunderstorm. Oh, the symbolism!

This is certainly not a bad book, and I enjoyed reading it. But after the opening pages I had high hopes for it that were not entirely born out. A solid three stars for me, but no more than that.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Another Great Novel from Thomas Mullen

This is an excellent sequel to Darktown, which was one of my favorite books from 2016. Set in 1950, it continues to follow the experiences of the first African-American police officers who were allowed to join the Atlanta, Georgia, P. D. Ten in number, they are assigned the daunting responsibility of patrolling all of the black areas of the city. They continue to be taunted by white officers, who refuse to accept them as "real" policemen, and are caught between white citizens who do not respect them at all, and some black citizens who count them as traitors for policing their own people.

The story is set in a time of racial turmoil, particularly with regard to housing. The city continues to be rigidly segregated, but there are not nearly enough decent homes for the black population, which is growing rapidly. When a handful of black citizens "dare" to buy homes in a previously all-white area, they touch off a battle that engulfs many of the novel's characters, both white and black.

The two principal black policeman in the novel are Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. Smith's sister and brother-in-law have just bought a home in a previously all-white neighborhood and have immediately become targets for white neighbors who fear their arrival and who want them out of their neighborhood at any cost and "back where they belong." Also living the the neighborhood is a white policeman, Denny Rakestraw, who is much more tolerant than many of his fellow white officers and many of his white neighbors. Rakestraw and Boggs have helped each other previously and have a tentative relationship that falls just short of friendship. But that relationship will be tested as this very combustible situation unfolds.

Also in the mix are criminals who are smuggling dope into the black areas of Atlanta, with the knowledge and assistance of some corrupt white cops who are taking payoffs and looking the other way. One night Smith and Boggs interrupt some of the smugglers, and a gunfight ensues that will complicate their lives and a lot of others as well.

There are many other strands to this richly-textured story. The characters are incredibly well drawn, and virtually all of them are flawed in one way or another. Many are good men and women who are struggling simply to find their way through very difficult times and circumstances, and who discover along the way that they sometimes have to make agonizing compromises. Thomas Mullen has created here a gripping story set against a pivotal moment in the history of Atlanta and of the larger nation as well. It's beautifully written and totally absorbing, and I can hardly wait for the third installment of this series.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Another Solid Suspense Novel from Dick Francis

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis novel. In this case, the protagonist is Charles Todd, an artist who specializes in painting horses. He goes to spend a weekend with his cousin and the cousin's wife, only to arrive and find that the cousin's house has been burglarized. The cousin's wife, who apparently surprised the burglars by coming home unexpectedly, has been murdered. The cousin, Donald, is a wine merchant and is currently having some financial difficulties. The police suspect that he may have had his own home burgled and his wife killed in order to collect a large insurance settlement.

Todd, of course, knows that this is a nonsensical idea. In talking with his cousin, he discovers that the cousin recently bought a very valuable painting while on vacation in Australia. The painting, of course, is missing along with everything else of value in the house. In something of a lucky accident, Todd then discovers that someone else he knows had recently bought a similar painting in Australia. Her house has been robbed as well and burned to the ground for good measure.

The coincidence strikes Todd as simply too improbable. His cousin Donald has turned basically catatonic as a result of the death of his wife and in an effort to help him and to get him out from under the suspicions of the police, Todd flies to Australia and begins investigating the events from that angle. Inevitably, of course, he stirs up a hornets' nest and puts himself in danger of losing life and limb. But like a true Dick Francis protagonist, he will stubbornly battle through tremendous odd to see justice done or die trying.

Like virtually any Dick Francis novels, this is a fairly quick and entertaining read. Once you've read a number of these books, you always know what you're going to get, and so returning to one of them is like reuniting with an old friend. There won't be any big surprises, but it will be an enjoyable experience all the same.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Seattle DetectiveTracy Crosswhite Hunts a Serial Killer Called the Cowboy

Clearly, Robert Dugoni suffered no sophomore slump with the second book in his series featuring Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. Like the first, My Sister's Grave, the author hits the ground running and never looks back.

As the book opens, Crosswhite has just come back to work after dealing with the retrial of the man who killed her sister several years earlier. Once back, Crosswhite is given charge of a task force investigating a serial killer who becomes known as the Cowboy, and who is killing exotic dancers in crummy motels in the north part of the city. 

Crosswhite is given the job by her boss, Captain Johnny Nolasco, who is setting her up to fail. The two have a history and Nolasco is looking for a way to get Tracy kicked off the job. But as she digs into the murder of the Cowboy's first victim, Crosswhite notices some similarities to a case nine years earlier. In that case a woman was strangled to death and the crime was investigated by none other than Johnny Nolasco and his partner. A man was arrested and tried for the crime and ultimately pled guilty in a deal that would allow him to escape the death penalty. Reviewing the case, Crosswhite wonders if Nolasco arrested the wrong man, something that will hardly endear her to a supervisor who already has her in his sights.

As the number of victims mounts, so does the pressure on Tracy and her team to find the killer. The odds against her are impressive: The killer is clever and leaving very few clues in his wake. Her boss is out to subvert the investigation to make Tracy look bad, and if that weren't enough, Tracy herself may have become a target for the killer.

Tracy Crosswhite is a very sympathetic protagonist; the case is a compelling one, and the author clearly knows his police procedure. The story moves along at a fast clip with plenty of suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats and turning the pages quickly. All in all, a very good read, and I'm anxiously looking forward to the third volume in the series.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Another Great Harry Bosch Novel from Michael Connelly

I concluded long ago that Michael Connelly is incapable of writing a bad book, and Two Kinds of Truth demonstrates once again that no one writes better police procedurals than he. Connelly has now written some thirty novels, most of which feature his main protagonist, Harry Bosch. For most of his career, Bosch worked as a homicide detective in the L.A.P.D. He was a gifted investigator, dedicated to his mission. But he often found himself at odds with his bosses for one reason or another, and after almost forty years of service, he left the department under less than amicable circumstances.

Now in his middle sixties, Harry is working part-time for the tiny San Fernando P.D., specializing in cold cases. But when two pharmacists are brutally murdered in their small, independent farmacia, Harry is pressed into service. Given that he has far more experience than anyone else on the force, he is asked to take charge of the investigation.

At virtually the same moment, two L.A.P.D. detectives, one of them a former partner of Harry's, show up and tell him that one of his old cases is being reopened. Thirty years earlier, Bosch investigated the murder of a young woman who had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Harry found evidence in the killer's home that linked him solidly to the crime and that evidence and Harry's testimony sent the perpetrator away for life.

Now, though, the killer is claiming that Harry planted the evidence and framed him. Much more important, re-examination of the physical evidence in the case has turned up a DNA sample showing that the woman's assailant was actually a man who had been convicted of a similar crime and who has recently died. The man Harry put behind bars is now demanding his release and intends to sue everyone in sight for false imprisonment. The police and prosecutors are content to take the new evidence at face value and will not contest the man's release. 

Bosch must handle both of these very difficult challenges simultaneously, and his livelihood, his reputation and even his very life will wind up on the line. The pharmacy murders pull back a curtain on the opioid crisis that is having such catastrophic effects on the country and which involve some very dangerous characters. The challenge from the imprisoned killer is a personal affront to Bosch and takes on the characteristics of a locked-room murder mystery. Both cases are exciting and compelling and as Bosh weaves back and forth between the two, the reader can only race along beside him, anxiously awaiting the resolution of both. Once you've started this book, putting it down is not really an option.