Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A British Jockey finds Himself in a Dangerous and Claustrophobic Situation in This Novel from Dick Francis

This is another fairly typical Dick Francis novel. The protagonist, Roland Britten, is an accountant by trade and an amateur jockey who loves to race. Like most Francis lead characters, Britten is single, a man who lives within himself and who few people know really well. He shares the courage and steel will of his fellow Francis protagonists--a man who will not be bullied or bribed and who will withstand almost any amount of pain or suffering rather than surrendering to the will of his adversaries.

As the book opens, Britten unexpectedly wins a very prestigious race. But even before he has a chance to celebrate his unlikely victory, he is kidnapped and rendered unconscious. He awakens to find himself bound in a sail locker of a yacht that is obviously out on the high seas. 

It's a dark, uncomfortable and claustrophobic situation, and Britten cannot figure out how or why he wound up there. "There was no one to pay millions for my release, no parents rich or poor ... I had no political significance and no special knowledge: I couldn't be bartered, didn't know any secrets, had no access to government papers or defense plans or scientific discoveries. No one would care more than a passing pang whether I lived or died ..."

Of course, he will live, at least for a while, or the novel would end after the second chapter. Britten will spend the rest of the book attempting to figure out how he wound up in the locker and who was responsible for putting him there. It's a good read although not one of Francis's best efforts, and fans of the author will know exactly what to expect.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Very Good Mystery Set in South Africa

This novel was published in 1971 and is set in the South Africa of the Apartheid era. It features a biracial team of detectives, Lieutenant Kramer, an Afrikaner, and Sergeant Zondi, a Bantu who assists him. As the book opens, a beautiful blonde music teacher in her mid-twenties has been murdered by someone who poked a sharpened bicycle spoke into her heart. This is the technique of a Bantu gangster, but is this a gang-related killing, or is it just supposed to look that way in an effort to throw off the investigators?

The case turns out to be very complex and takes a number of unforeseen twists and turns before building to a very surprising conclusion. The strength of the book lies in its portrayal of life in South Africa during this era, and the relationship between Kramer and Zondi is especially revealing. In a society as carefully delineated as this one, each has a very specific role to play, and there can be no hope of solving this crime unless the two work in close harmony.

With the growing interest in international mysteries, it's nice to see an entry from South Africa. James McClure ultimately wrote eight books in this series, and I'll be looking forward to reading more of them.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Belfast Detective Sean Duffy Returns in Another Great Novel from Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty's series featuring Belfast detective Sean Duffy was originally conceived as a trilogy. Happily, McKinty changed his mind and has continued the series beyond the third book, In the Morning I'll be GoneGun Street Girl is the fourth in the series and is set in 1985. The Troubles still bedevil Northern Ireland and complicate enormously the lives of all the citizens, most especially that of Sean Duffy, a Catholic who had nerve enough (or who was crazy enough) to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The novel opens with the discovery of two bodies, a man and his wife, who have been shot to death in their home. Their son, Michael, is missing and there is evidence to suggest that Michael killed his parents and fled after having a series of arguments with his father. A couple of days later, Michael turns up dead, having apparently committed suicide and leaving a note of confession behind.

The cases now appear to be concluded, but Duffy is not so sure. He and his team continue to poke and prod and discover that Michael left Oxford abruptly, just short of getting his degree, after attending a party where the daughter of a cabinet minister died of an overdose of heroin. The deeper Duffy digs, the more complicated the case becomes--and the more dangerous for Duffy himself. Along the way, he's managed to antagonize some powerful forces who don't want him mucking around in their business and who are determined to make him stop doing so, one way or another.

It's another great read from McKinty. Sean Duffy is a very engaging character--smart, witty, irreverent, and often funny as hell, even in the very difficult conditions under which he must live and work. His romantic life continues to be problematic and there's a long, hilarious scene in which he's persuaded to go to a social mixer where he might meet an eligible young lady. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and I can hardly wait to get to the next entry in the series.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Detective Harry Bosch Is Consumed by a Thirteen-Year-Old Case

This is another excellent entry in the Harry Bosch series. At this point in his career, Harry is working Open and Unsolved cases with his partner, Kiz Rider. One of the cases that has haunted him for years is the disappearance of a young woman named Marie Gesto, who disappeared after walking out of a market where she'd bought carrots to feed the horses she was going to tend. She was never seen again and, although her body was never found, Bosch has long assumed that she is dead, especially after her car was found in an apartment house garage with her clothes folded neatly inside.

Bosch has long suspected that the killer was the son of a wealthy and powerful man, though there was no solid evidence to connect the man to Gesto. Through the years, Harry has periodically returned to the case and questioned the suspect, to the point where the suspect's father has secured a restraining order against Bosch.

Now, out of the blue, a man arrested for a series of murders has admitted to killing Gesto as well. The man and his attorney are attempting to work out a deal with a politically ambitious prosecuting attorney that will enable the killer to escape the death penalty for his crimes. As the principal investigator in the Gesto case, Harry is involved in the negotiations and is stunned to learn that he may have missed an important clue years earlier that could have prevented several additional murders.

With that, the book is off and running, and it's another great ride. As always, Harry is determined to find the truth, no matter the consequences for the politicians, for the department, or for himself. The case reunites him with F.B.I. agent Rachel Walling and it's nice to see them working together again. As always in one of these novels, there are plenty of surprising twists and turns and lots of great action. I set everything else aside and devoured this book in a day, and it just made me that much more anxious to get back and re-read the next one in the series.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Detective John Rebus May Be Retired, But He Refuses to Give Up the Job

Edinburg detective John Rebus is officially retired and in the middle of a health scare. He's quit smoking and cut back on his drinking, but then a forty-year-old murder that was never solved captures his attention and he's off to the races again, even if he's not running quite as fast as he used to.

The victim was a beautiful married woman named Maria Turquand who had a date to meet her lover in a luxurious hotel. She was found strangled to death, but most of the obvious suspects had iron-clad alibis. Adding to the confusion was the fact that a famous rock star was staying at the hotel that day, and the place was a circus. In the end, there were too many possible suspects and too little evidence, and the case was never solved.

Rebus is recounting the mystery to his new lover over dinner one night in the restaurant of the hotel where the murder happened. This piques his curiosity and he starts digging into the old files on his own. No sooner does he do so, than someone close to the original crime is killed. Someone, it appears, would not like to see Maria's killer found.

At the same time Rebus begins digging into the Turquand case, an up and coming mobster named Darryl Christie is badly beaten outside his home. The case falls to Rebus's former understudy, Siobahn Clarke, and it appears that Rebus's old nemesis Big Ger Cafferty might have been involved. Rebus thus worms his was into Siobahn's investigation and is soon back on the job, albeit without a badge.

Finally, Rebus's adversary-turned grudging friend, Malcolm Fox, has received a big promotion and is working financial crimes. He's assigned to a money laundering investigation that appears to involve the aforementioned Darryl Christie. Almost immediately, his case is tied into Clarke's, and Rebus invites himself into that investigation as well.

The result is a very intricate but intriguing plot in which Rebus, Clarke and Fox combine forces in an effort to chase down any number of bad guys and resolve a number of complicated crimes. It's great fun watching them work together and the interaction among the three and their various targets is the highlight of the book. Rebus may be retired, but he still just keeps getting better and better.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Bachelors Get Lonely--and Sometimes Killed--in this Novel from A. A. Fair

This is a fairly typical entry in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series. Bertha is delighted to have found a new client for the firm--a fine, upstanding businessman named Montrose Carson. Bertha believes that the kind of clients they usually recruit keep getting the firm into trouble. A substantial, impeccable client like Carson will raise them above all that.

Carson is a developer who is suddenly facing a new competitor. Carson believes that someone in his office is leaking information to the competitor who is then stealing deals out from under Carson. Even before Donald can enter the picture, Bertha has already designed a plan to root out the leaker and is extremely proud of herself for doing so.

Inevitably, of course, the case will blow up; someone will be murdered; Donald will be left to pull the chestnuts out of the fire; Detective Frank Sellers will be in hot pursuit of Donald for any number of alleged infractions, and Bertha will be freaking out, believing Seller's accusations and accusing Donald of betraying her and the firm. The only question that remains is whether this will finally be the time when Donald is unable to do so.

It's a quick read that should appeal to any fan of the series. The plot is horribly convoluted, but no more so than most of those created by Erle Stanley Gardner. The edition I read was published in 1963. The book itself was first published in 1961, although it reads like a book written in the late 1940s. 

I believe I inherited this copy from my father, and bound in with the book is an opportunity to join the Detective Book Club. By doing so, you can get nine "great mysteries," including seven Perry Masons, for only a dollar. It's a "treasure chest of crackling, high-voltage mysteries at a sensational low introductory price," and so how could I resist? I've torn off the attached post card, filled it out, and will be dropping it into the mail tomorrow. 

I'm a little nervous because this offer seems to predate the invention of zip codes. The address is only "The Detective Book Club, Roslyn, L.I., New York." On the other hand, though, how many detective book clubs could there possibly be in Roslyn? I imagine the mail carrier will have no difficulty in finding them, and I can hardly wait to get my new books and have the chance to read and review them!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Lawyer Searching for a Lost Heir Finds Trouble in the Northern Sonoran Desert

This is the second novel from John Robert Schmierer, following Ocean Boulevard, and as good as that book was, this one is even better. At the center of the novel is Benjamin Holt, a partner in a law firm in Newport Beach, California. Holt's wife, Susan, has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and, although the doctors insist that they caught it in time and that Susan will need only minor surgery, this is never good news.

Then, at a time when Holt should be tightly focused on his family situation, one of the firm's extremely wealthy clients, Logan Bigelow, is killed when his private plane crashes on approach into O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Holt had just drawn an addendum to Bigelow's trust, setting aside ten million dollars for an unnamed beneficiary. It turns out that thirty years earlier, Bigelow had an illegitimate daughter who was given up for adoption upon her birth. Bigelow's wife has died a few months earlier and, since she is no longer alive to be hurt by the disclosure, Bigelow wanted to provide for his daughter, assuming that she is still alive and can be found. If not, the ten million goes to Bigelow's foundation.

Not surprisingly, the foundation will not be too happy about potentially losing the money should the heir be found. Holt's partners are even less happy, because Holt had not yet had a chance to bring them up to speed on this development and they fear that the foundation's board will be angry with them. Holt is thus charged with finding either the daughter or proof of the fact that she has died, and it's clear that his job is on the line. If he doesn't quickly produce a solution to this dilemma, he will be out of work at the worst possible time. Naturally, he would prefer to remain by his wife's side until her surgery is over, but given that his family's economic security is on the line, that is not an option. 

Holt's investigation takes him to Phoenix, Arizona where the child was born. The trail is very thin, and simply by asking questions about the girl's mother, Holt exposes his mission and himself to some very unsavory and dangerous characters. The money at stake here is ultimately far larger than ten million dollars and certainly more than enough to put a lot of people, Benjamin Holt in particular, in very grave danger.

Holt is a very sympathetic protagonist, and Schmierer captures perfectly the strain that he is under, squeezed between his family obligations on the one hand and the demands of his job on the other. The rest of the characters are very well drawn, good guys and bad guys alike. Schmierer clearly knows the territory, and the settings in and around the Phoenix metro area are a strength of the book. The plot moves swiftly, with lots of great twists and turns, and all in all, this book is a very good read.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Finds Trouble in Rural New Hampshire

The twentieth (or twenty-first, depending on how your counting) Brady Coyne novel finds the Boston attorney much more settled than ever before. He has a new home, a live-in girlfriend, and a new dog named Henry. However, his serene existence is interrupted when he gets an early-morning phone call from a political fixer who's managing the Senate campaign of a woman named Ellen Stoddard. Ellen's mother is one of Brady's clients, and Ellen's husband, Albert, is one of Brady's occasional fishing buddies.

The senate campaign is coming into the home stretch and of late, Albert has been acting "weirdly." Now he's disappeared altogether and Ellen has no idea where he might be. Obviously, this could cause problems for the campaign. The campaign manager, Jimmy D'Ambrosio, wants Brady to discretely hire a private investigator to figure out where in the hell Albert is and what he's been up to, so that they can contain the damage, if necessary.

Brady hires a friend name Gordon Cahill who begins digging into the case. The investigation takes Cahill to a tiny town named Southwick in rural New Hampshire. Cahill calls Brady and requests a meeting so that Cahill can bring Brady up to date. Shortly thereafter, the State Police contact Brady to tell him that Cahill has been murdered.

Brady is bound by attorney-client privilege, and as much as he might want to, he can't reveal to the police who his client is or what he was working on. This leaves Brady to investigate the matter himself, and off he goes to Southwick. Every seasoned reader of crime fiction understands that when the protagonist takes off to one of these quiet, scenic, quaint, little rural towns, things will not remain quiet and quaint for very long. In short order, Brady will find himself in the middle of a perplexing mystery and in grave danger, and he will need all of his wits to extricate himself from the situation.

This is a very good entry in the series, and by now Brady Coyne is like an old friend. It's good to see him a bit more settled; one can only hope that he will remain so.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Group of Elmore Leonard Characters Gets Freaky Deaky

There's no such thing as a bad Elmore Leonard novel, but inevitably, some of them have to be better than others, and to my mind, this book is not as successful as most of his other efforts. As virtually every reader of crime fiction knows, Leonard's principal strengths are the characters he invents and the great dialog that he gives them. In this case, though, none of the characters really appealed to me, and the dialog did not seem to flow as effortlessly, as intelligently, or as humorously as it does in most of his other books.

At the center of the novel are Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, two aging radicals from the late Sixties and early Seventies. Back in the day, when they weren't doing drugs and having sex with everyone in sight, Skip and Robin were blowing things up in the name of peace and justice. Ultimately, they wound up in prison and now that they're out, they're thinking of putting Skip's expertise with explosives to more practical use. (This book was published in 1988, and so the two are some fifteen years or so removed from their Glory Days.)

The other main character is a Detroit cop named Chris Mankowski. The book opens on Mankowski's last day as a member of the Bomb Squad before he transfers to the Sex Crimes unit. Also along for the ride are two brothers, Mark and Woody Ricks. The brothers were acquaintances of Robin and Skip's when they were in the movement. Mark now produces plays while his brother, who inherited the family's huge fortune, basically eats, drinks, and drugs himself into oblivion on a daily basis.

There's also Donnell, a former Black Panther, who now serves as Woody's driver and general factotum, and who's angling to cut himself a slice of Woody's fortune. Finally, there's an aspiring actress named Greta Wyatt, sometimes known as Ginger Jones. Greta attends a party at Woody's mansion where Woody takes her upstairs and rapes her. When she shows up at the Detroit P.D. to file a complaint, she meets Chris Mankowski who's on his first day on the job in Sex Crimes.

Once all the characters are on stage, the plot meanders all over the place as the plots in Elmore Leonard novels often do. The objectives and strategies of the various characters evolve over time and inevitably a lot of people will be double crossed and left angered and confused. There will also be a lot of explosions.

It's a fun read but, as I said, I found it less entertaining than most of Leonard's other crime novels, basically because I just didn't care about any of the characters or what might have happened to them along the way. After finishing this book yesterday, I sat down and watched "Jackie Brown," which was based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch. It's a great movie, based on a wonderful book, with lots of fantastic and memorable characters that I really did care a lot about. 
Freaky Deaky is a good book, but I don't think it's in the same league as Rum Punch and any number of other Elmore Leonard novels.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Another Great Summer Read from Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry has produced here another excellent thriller, perfectly suited for reading at the lake on a lazy summer day--or, for that matter, at any other time or place. A very clever bomb maker, who is in league with some shadowy characters that we don't really meet until late in the book, is engaged in a deadly contest with the L.A.P.D.'s bomb squad. As the book opens, he lures a large number of the squad's members into a trap and kills fourteen of them--nearly half the entire squad--with one blow.

With an obviously talented and determined bomber on the loose and with the bomb squad devastated, the department turns to Dick Stahl, who was once perhaps the most gifted member of the squad. Stahl has retired and is now operating a security firm, but given the emergency, he agrees to step in and take over what's left of the squad until permanent replacements can be found.

Stahl realizes immediately that he's up against a very skilled and unique adversary. The bomb maker clearly understands the steps that the bomb squad would take to defuse a device, and so he builds bombs that will tempt the experts to attempt to defuse them by the book. But when they do so, rather than rendering the device harmless, they will set it off, killing themselves and anyone else in the vicinity.

The bomb maker's objective is to wipe out the entire squad, although his motive does not become clear until late in the game. The result is that Stahl and his team members are in deep, deep trouble. While the bomb maker can put together a large number of devices and leave them around town to threaten the population, Stahl and his team can't afford to make even a single tiny mistake and still survive.

Not surprisingly, the tension in this book is about as high as one can imagine, beginning with the first page. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse, and Dick Stahl proves to be a very appealing protagonist. You can't help but hold your breath, every time he gets near one of the bomb makers inventions.

The technical material in the book is very impressive, and Perry obviously did a great deal of research on this subject. I saw him when he appeared at my local bookstore with this book, and it was very interesting to hear him talk about its development and about the work that went into. I've enjoyed virtually all of his earlier novels and this is clearly another winner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

A Hit Man You Can't Help Rooting For

Aside from Matthew Scudder, J. P. Keller has always been my favorite of the characters created by Lawrence Block. Keller is just your basic guy, living alone in New York City and doing the sorts of things that a lonely, single guy would do. But every once in a while, his phone rings and it's Dot on the line, summoning him to White Plains to meet with the Old Man. After reporting in and receiving his instructions, Keller then goes off somewhere and kills somebody.

As the book's title would imply, Keller is a hit man, and logically, we readers should be repelled by him and his actions. But as is the case with Richard Stark's amoral thief, Parker, you can't help but root for the guy, even though you know you shouldn't. He's the BAD guy, for god's sake, and we should despise him, but he's just too damned likable.

This is a collection of stories, many of which originally appeared in Playboy magazine, and which were the reason why so many people read the magazine back in the day. They trace the arc of Keller's life through a series of assignments and entanglements, romantic and otherwise. 

What makes the character so appealing are his inner musings about life in general and his own in particular. He has a habit of traveling to a small town somewhere and wondering what it would be like to live there permanently; he goes into analysis, but naturally, he can't really reveal anything about himself to the analyst--he has to make it all up. He gets a dog and a girlfriend, both of which complicate his life. He sometimes gets too close to his targets and has trouble carrying out his mission.

It's a complicated life, and in the hands of any writer less skilled than Lawrence Block, the premise would never work. But this is a great collection of stories, and Keller is a character that no fan of crime fiction will want to miss. It's interesting that Block and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) were close friends and collaborated on a couple of books, and that they would create two great characters like Keller and Parker, protagonists that any right-minded person should revile but that reader can help but love.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

A Great Modern-Day Noir Novel from Laura Lippman

This is a modern noir novel that pays homage to the great books of James M. Cain. Like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, it focuses on two lovers, Polly and Adam, each of whom has closely held secrets that are revealed very slowly as the book progresses.

The story takes place in Belleville, a small town in Delaware, forty-five miles from the beach, and where nearly everyone is simply passing through. As the book opens, a sunburned Polly is nursing a drink in the High-Ho, a bar/restaurant that, like most of the town, is down at the heels. Adam spots her and moves in slowly, but the connection is made, and the two of them will wind up staying in Belleville and working at the High-Ho, long after each of them had planned to be well down the road.

As the summer progresses, someone will die, and the death will have critical implications for Adam and Polly and for their relationship. Other than that, I'm really reluctant to say anything more about the book. Lippman has constructed the plot very carefully, and peels back the curtain slowly and deliberately. To say more would reveal things that the reader should delight in discovering for him- or herself.

Suffice it to say that I think this is Lippman's best book yet and one that actually stands the comparison to those of James M. Cain. Anyone who is a fan of those classic novels will not want to miss this one. One of my favorite reads of the summer thus far.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Detective Harry Bosch Investigates a Homicide That May Be Linked to a Deadly Terrorist Plot

I first read this story when it was serialized in the New York Times Magazine. Following that, Connelly expanded the story and published it as a novel. I remember enjoying the serialized version, but, as one would expect, the novel winds up being a fuller and richer experience.

As the story opens, Detective Harry Bosch has just been reassigned to the L.A.P.D.'s prestigious Homicide Special Squad. He's sitting up at midnight, waiting for his first call out. When it comes, he's directed to a homicide on an overlook above the city. He arrives to find that a doctor, Stanley Kent, has been murdered execution-style, next to his Porsche, which is has been left with its luggage compartment standing open.

As Harry examines the scene, he is surprised by the arrival of F.B.I. agent Rachel Walling. Walling indicates that the victim, Kent, was a medical physicist who was on a list kept by the federal government. She initially refuses to tell Bosch why Kent was on the list or why she is interested in the case, and insists that they should get to Kent's house A.S.A.P.

Bosch concurs and, on arriving at the house, they discover the victim's wife, naked and tied up on a bed. She tells them that two men invaded the house, forced her to strip, then tied her up and took pictures of her. It appears that terrorists may have used the pictures to force Stanley Kent to give them extremely dangerous radioactive material.

The Feds, of course, want to take over the case and are, logically, pursuing it as part of a dangerous terrorist plot. The material in question could cause thousands of deaths and that is their priority. While Bosch recognizes the threat, from his perspective this is principally a homicide investigation and he insists on being allowed to pursue it. His rational is, find the killers and you find the material they stole.

It's a gripping story that moves very swiftly. Connelly excels at portraying the bureaucratic infighting between the Feds and the local police and it's really fun to watch. The fact that Bosch and Rachel Walling were once lovers only adds fuel to the mix. Bosch, being Bosch, is not about to take a back seat to anyone, especially not the F.B.I. This story first appeared only a few years after the attacks of 9/11, when the threat posed by potential terrorists was even more frightening. Twelve years later, the threat still feels palpable, especially in the hands of a writer as skillful as Michael Connelly, and fans of the series will not want to miss this one.