Friday, August 31, 2018

A Classic Noir Novel from Jada M. Davis

Jada M. Davis wrote two pulp novels in the 1950s. The first, One for Hell, was published by Gold Medal in 1952, and was then reprinted by Stark House in 2010 as part of their Noir Classics series. The main protagonist is a hustler named Willa Ree. Ree is a rough and clever man who is riding the rails while attempting to determine where he might land next. When the train stops in the booming oil town of Breton, Texas, Ree hops out of the boxcar and decides to look over the town.

Almost immediately, he senses its possibilities. Not long ago, Breton was a small town, but the population has now exploded as a result of the oil boom. It's rough, raw, and ripe for the picking. Soon after landing in town, Ree hooks up with Ben Halliday, who is one of the town leaders. Halliday would like to exploit the town's possibilities as well, but to his view the current chief of police is not compliant enough to maximize the graft for the town's leaders.

Halliday contrives to place Ree in the police department as the new chief of detectives. The plan is that Ree will gain control of the town's prostitutes, gambling dens and other vice, forcing the practitioners to pay a cut to Ree who will then pass most of the spoils up the chain to Halliday and his cohorts.

Ree is just the man for the job, except for the fact that he quickly proves to be too independent. The only person Ree is interested in is Willa Ree himself, and as he attempts to maximize his own opportunities, Breton may well be turned upside down and inside out.

If not a true pulp classic, this book is a good example of the hundreds of such novels that were published in the middle of the last century. There's plenty of violence; there's a lot of sex, although given the restrictions of the day, it's anything but explicit. Virtually everyone in the book is on the make in one way or another, and like a lot of pulp literature, this novel paints a pretty depressing picture of society as a whole. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who occasionally likes to dip into this genre.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Army Sergeants Sueno and Bascom Investigate the Murder of an Army Major in the South Korea of 1974

The eleventh entry in Martin Limon's series featuring U. S. Army Sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom begins with a minor theft. An army major named Schulz accuses a bar girl of stealing the Korean equivalent of about fifty dollars from him. Apparently the two had a "date" but the poor major was unable to perform and demanded his money back. 

When the woman refuses to give him his money back, the major accuses her of theft and demands that she be forced to return the money. CID investigators Sueno and Bascom launch an investigation, but before they can complete it, Major Schulz is found hacked to death behind a bar. The young woman he accused of theft has disappeared.

The U. S. Army and the South Korean police force want this matter resolved ASAP, and neither is particularly concerned that genuine justice might be served. As far as they're concerned, the bar girl is almost certainly guilty of the murder. They would prefer that she be captured, tried, convicted and sentenced immediately.

Sueno and Bascom aren't so easily convinced and, as they have demonstrated repeatedly through the ten novels preceding this one, they don't particularly care what the Army and the South Koreans might prefer. They find it hard to believe that the bar girl, Miss Jo Kyong-ja, could have committed the crime--at least not without help. They are determined to find her before the South Koreans can seal her fate, and figure out what actually happened. Doing so will make some powerful and dangerous enemies, and Sueno and Bascom will have to step quickly and smartly if they're going to save both Miss Jo and themselves.

This novel is set in the South Korea of 1974, and as always, one of the principal delights of the book is Limon's description of the South Korean culture and the interaction between the U.S. Army and South Koreans at a variety of levels. It's always fun to ride along with Sueno and Bascom, and it's especially entertaining to watch them weave their way in and around their own commanding officers and the officials of the Korean National Police. This book is another very good addition to the series.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Detective Virgil Flowers Chases a Case from Minnesota Back to the War in Vietnam

This is the second entry in John Sandford's series featuring Virgil Flowers, an investigator with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Virgil is an unconventional detective, who looks more like a surfer than a gifted investigator. He wears his blond hair down to his shoulders, dresses in tee shirts bearing the names of often-obscure rock bands, and rarely carries a gun.

Virgil loves to fish, writes articles for outdoor magazines, and often tows his boat behind his pickup as he roams about the rural Minnesota countryside, chasing killers. He also loves women and is attracted to lots of them, many of whom return his interest. His principal method of investigating crimes involves walking around and talking to lots of people, and out of these conversations a solution usually occurs, often with deadly consequences.

This case begins when a man walking his dog is killed by a sniper who is assisted by a spotter. The body is then left in front of a veterans' memorial in Stillwater, Minnesota, with a lemon stuck in the victim's mouth. Several other men are killed in the same fashion and left at other veterans' monuments around the state. Virgil discovers that the victims had connections back to the war in Vietnam, and that becomes the thread that he will follow through to the end of the chase. (This book was published in 2008, thirty-five years after the events in Vietnam, and the victims are middle-aged men.)

Truth to tell, the plot is pretty far-fetched, but that doesn't really matter here. Most people read these books in order to spend a few hours in the company of "That F***in' Flowers," and it's always a joy to do so. Virgil's boss, Lucas Davenport, makes several cameo appearances here as to Shrake and Jenkins, two other members of Davenport's crew, and it's fun to see them all in action together. A very entertaining novel.

Friday, August 24, 2018

A Brilliant Police Procedural from Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson's Sympathy for the Devil, which was published in 1987, remains, I think, one of the best, if not the best of the novels to come out of the Vietnam War. It was a searing account of the war as seen through the eyes of one soldier, a young man named Hanson, who very closely resembles the author.

Anderson's second novel, Night Dogs, appeared in 1996, and certainly ranks among the best police procedurals I've ever read. The book is set in the middle Seventies, shortly after the end of the war. The protgonist is again Hanson, now home from Vietnam and working as a patrol officer for the Portland, Oregon Police Bureau.

Hanson has survived the war, physically at least, but it haunts his every moment, and he now finds himself in the middle of a new war, which is just as hard to decipher as the old one. Hanson is assigned to Portland's North Precinct, the ghetto and the worst precinct in the city. The commanding officers are all men who screwed up in other areas of the department and who were exiled to the North Precinct. The patrol officers are mostly cowboys looking for the rush that the action in the precinct provides on a daily basis.

The book has only the loosest of plots. One of the principal threads involves one of Hanson's closest friends from the war who has come to Portland and become a drug dealer and a killer. Rather than arresting him, though, Hanson attempts to help him, given that they bonded while in the Special Forces together and given that he remains the only man Hanson really trusts. 

The other thread involves one of Hanson's fellow officers in the precinct, a guy named Fox, who hates Hanson and spends most of the book attempting to undermine Hanson's career. For the most part, though, the novel is a chronicle of the daily interaction between the police and the criminals, mostly small-time, who inhabit the North Precinct. It's a daily battle and an endless revolving door, with the cops confronting the same scumbags day in and day out, without making any progress at all in the war on crime. "Justice" is a very elusive concept here, in a world where the cops dispense what is largely their own brand of very rough justice.

At one point, Hanson confronts a guy who's giving him grief and shoots him The Look, which "was full of knees and elbows and night sticks, car hoods and concrete, broken noses, broken collarbones and concussions."

It's not a pretty sight, and this is not a book for the squeamish reader. Beautifully written, it's tough, gritty and ugly, but it has the ring of authenticity--much more so than virtually any other crime novel I've ever read. Anderson himself worked as a patrol cop in Portland in the Seventies, and one would imagine that, like his first book, this one is based very closely on his experiences there. It's a great novel and one that you won't forget soon. 4.5 stars.

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Somewhat Disappointing Effort from the Usually Reliable Dick Francis

This has to be, to my mind at least, the weakest of the novels written by Dick Francis. And, at least in the editions I own, it also has to win the prize for weirdest cover art.

The story opens when an amateur jockey and horse trainer named Randall Drew is approached by a member of the royal family with a special assignment. The prince's brother-in-law, a jockey named Johnny Farrington, would like to ride in the upcoming Olympic Games which are to be held in Moscow. But rumors are circulating that if Farrington should go to Russia, he might be entrapped in a scandal involving someone named Alyosha. The prince wants Drew to go to Moscow and nose around to see what the scandal might involve and determine whether Farrington or the royal family might be potentially embarrassed.

Apparently, there are no British agents already in the Soviet Union that might check out these rumors and so Drew reluctantly agrees to go. He gets to Moscow, meets some people, asks some questions, and gets beaten up a lot. The plot is preposterous and much more resembles a spy novel than a typical Dick Francis thriller. It strongly suggests that Francis wanted to take a trip to Moscow and write it off as a business expense, and thus attempted to get a book out of his vacation.

I had a great deal of difficulty following the plot and sorting out the characters after I was about a third of the way into the book, although this may well be because by then I had simply stopped caring about any of it and finished it only out of a sense of duty. A generous 2.5 stars, rounded up to three because I can't bring myself to give Dick Francis 2.5.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Detective Elvis Cole Is Hard on the Trail of a Trio of Young Thieves

One of the blurbs for this book insists that this may be the "deadliest case" that Elvis Cole and Joe Pike have ever taken on. Considering some of the previous cases that they've barely survived, that may be a bit of a stretch, but The Wanted is still a very engrossing thriller and it's a lot of fun to read.

The book opens when Elvis is hired by Devon Connor, a hard-working single mother who's trying to raise a teenage son on her own. Under the best of circumstances, this is not an easy task, but Devon freaks out when she finds her son in possession of a Rolex watch worth several thousand dollars. The kid, Tyson, claims that the watch is a knockoff, that it's not worth anything, and that his mom shouldn't worry.

Fat chance.

Devon worries that her kid might be dealing drugs and calls in Elvis to figure out what's actually going on. It turns out that Tyson, previously a shy and withdrawn boy, has fallen under the spell of a sexy new girlfriend. Elvis fairly quickly discovers that the problem is much worse than drugs. Tyson, his new main squeeze, and another boy have been ripping off the houses of wealthy people who are away from their homes. They've converted the things they've stolen into a pile of cash which they are flashing around and spending like crazy at trendy clubs. And when Mom starts asking too many question, Tyson disappears.

Unfortunately, the trio of thieves has inadvertently stolen something particularly meaningful to a very rich man who has no scruples whatsoever. He, in turn, has hired a couple of particularly nasty characters to track down the thieves and recover his property before it falls into the wrong hands. At this point, these kids had better pray that Elvis and his partner, Joe Pike, find them first.

The only problem I had with the book was that, for me at least, it strained credulity to think that these three high school kids could have such a long successful string of ripping off the houses of such wealthy people, virtually all of which have very elaborate security systems, and especially given the way in which the thieves are lavishly spending the proceeds of their burglaries. Realistically, the cops should have had them very early on, and it was hard to believe that they hadn't found these kids long before Cole was even called into action. But setting aside that concern, I really enjoyed the book. Elvis Cole is one of my favorite crime fiction characters and I always enjoy following his adventures.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Harry Bosch Meets Mickey Haller in This Great Novel from Michael Connelly

The Brass Verdict is, I think, one of Michael Connelly's best books, and it reinforces the notion that in this genre, virtually nobody does it better. It's Connelly's eighteenth book and is significant because it is the first to feature both his long-time L.A. homicide detective, Harry Bosch, and the defense lawyer, Mickey Haller. It's principally Haller's book, but Bosch plays a prominent role.

As the book opens, Haller is just returning to work after a prolonged absence. At the close of the last book in which he appeared, The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller was wounded. He then wound up addicted to drugs following his surgery and has been through rehab, and is now making a comeback. He intends to do so slowly, but then another attorney, Jerry Vincent, is murdered in the parking garage of his office building. Vincent and Haller were friends of a sort and occasionally pinch-hit for each other. Vincent had named Haller as his legal successor, and on the morning of Vincent's murder, a judge calls Haller to inform him that he now has in excess of thirty new cases, including a couple that demand immediate appearances in court.

Among the cases that Haller inherits is an especially high profile murder case. A major Hollywood executive has been accused of killing his wife and her lover. The evidence against him seems fairly strong, and the trial is due to start the following week. Most of Vincent's case notes have disappeared, along with his computer, and Mickey has no idea how Vincent planned to structure the executive's defense.

Logically, Haller wants to file a motion to delay the trial so that he can get up to speed and plan a defense. But his client seems totally unconcerned about all of this and insists that there be no delay. He is innocent, he says, and wants his good name restored ASAP. If Haller can't be ready to go, he will get someone who can. Given no choice in the matter, Haller plunges in, determined to do the best he can.

Meanwhile, Harry Bosch is investigating the murder of Jerry Vincent, which brings Bosch and Mickey Haller into contact and conflict. Bosch suspects that there might be information in Vincent's files suggesting who might have a motive to kill him, but Haller insists on protecting the confidentiality of the clients he has just inherited. Bosch suggest that by doing so, Haller might make himself a target, and thus the dance is on.

Watching these two work their respective parts of the criminal system is great fun. The case is an intriguing one and gives Connelly an opportunity to further develop the Haller character. The legal maneuverings are interesting and it's always entertaining to watch Harry Bosch investigate a murder. I found the combination irresistible and when I first read it, it immediately became one of my favorites of all of Connelly's books. It's hard to imagine that there's any fan of crime fiction that would not enjoy it.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Whistle-Blower Attempts to Bring Down a Corrupt Florida Judge and Her Cronies in This Thriller from John Grisham

This is another entertaining legal thriller from John Grisham and it involves a corrupt Florida judge who has been taking humongous bribes to advance the interests of a crooked real estate developer. A shadowy figure using an assumed name contacts the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct claiming that he has incontrovertible evidence of the judge's crimes. He's blowing the whistle in hopes of claiming the millions of dollars in reward money that would accrue to someone who could bring the judge and her co-conspirators down.

The case is assigned to Lacy Stoltz, who has been investigating cases for the Board for nine years. Most of the cases that the Board investigates involve incompetent judges and are relatively slam-dunk affairs. Lacy and her partner, Hugo Hatch, have never had a case involving corruption on a scale this large, but in truth, hardly any investigator ever has.

It quickly becomes apparent that corruption on this level can also lead to danger of a similar magnitude. All sorts of very nasty people have been lining their pockets with the proceeds of this activity, and they will go to any lengths to protect themselves and the scheme that is enriching them. 

Grisham excels at creating legal labyrinths that are really more like gauntlets, and then running his protagonists--and his readers--through them, often at breakneck speed. This book is no exception, and it's an entertaining ride, although I don't think it's on a par with his best novels like The Runaway Jury or The Firm. For whatever reason, it's not quite as compelling, and the climax is not quite as tense or satisfying. But these are relatively small complaints, and fans of Grisham's work are certain to enjoy The Whistler.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Find Themselves Up to Their Necks in Trouble Again

The twenty-third novel in the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series tracks very closely to the pattern that has now been well-established through the first twenty-two. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there are now very few surprises in store for anyone who's read several of the books in the series.

As always, a client comes into the agency's offices to retain their services. As is usually the pattern, Bertha will believe that the new client is a step up from the problem clients that the agency so often sees. She has already convinced herself and will attempt to convince her partner, Donald, that this is the case that will put the firm on the road to respectability and will keep them out of all the trouble in which they usually find themselves.

And, as always of course, she will be dead wrong.

In this case, the client is the representative of a large insurance company. One of their clients has been in an automobile accident. There is no doubt that the client is at fault; he rear-ended the other car and has admitted responsibility. The other driver, though--the victim--seems to have disappeared. The insurance company would like Cool & Lam to find her so that the case can be settled.

Donald and any other sensible person wonders why the company simply doesn't use its own investigators for this job, but Bertha can only see the dollar signs involved. The firm takes the case and almost immediately, of course, it blows up in their face. Everybody is lying; blackmail, murder and a variety of other offenses are involved, and only Donald Lam can sort it all out. Or at least we hope so; otherwise he's going to be left in very serious trouble, if he's not left seriously dead.

As I suggested above, anyone who has read a few of these novels knows exactly what there getting when they pick up another. This is a fun read, as good as most in the series, and it won't disappoint the fans of Cool & Lam.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Swedish Detective Kurt Wallander Finds Himself One Step Behind a Clever Killer

This is another dense, intricately plotted crime novel featuring Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. Three young people, dressed in costumes and celebrating Midsummer's Eve, are brutally murdered. The killer buries the bodies and while they remain undiscovered, the victim's parents are led to believe that their children are off touring Europe. However, the mother of one of the victims refuses to believe this and insists that the police should be investigating the disappearance of the three. But the evidence, such as it is, suggests that the three are in fact alive and well, and the police do not take the mother's claims seriously.

The one official who does believe that something might be amiss, is Kurt Wallander's colleague, Svedberg. For some unknown reason, though, Svedberg does not share his suspicions with Wallander or anyone else. Rather, he takes vacation time and begins to quietly investigate the case on his own. Shortly thereafter, Svedberg dies under mysterious circumstances and almost immediately thereafter, it becomes clear that the three young people have indeed been murdered.

Kurt Wallander now faces the most baffling case of his career. He realizes that the death of Svedberg must be connected to the murders of the three young people, but how? And the deeper he digs into the mystery, the more elusive a solution appears to be.

This is not a break-neck thriller. It proceeds at a very stately pace, as a real investigation of this magnitude would. There's a great deal of soul-searching and second-guessing from practically everyone involved, Wallander most of all. The story takes place against a society that's in transition, and a lot of people are wondering if things are spinning out of control. Although the novel takes place during an unusually warm summer, the overall tone of the book could not be more dreary.

Throughout the book, Wallander suffers from what almost seems to be clinical depression. He has major health issues; he's not sleeping well; he has hardly any energy, and for all the world, you would think he was a man approaching seventy. It's almost jarring when the author reminds us on several occasions, that Wallander is not even fifty yet. He questions his own ability and we are left to wonder through much of the book whether he will be able to see this case through to a successful conclusion.

This is probably not a book that will appeal to readers looking for a bright, uplifting story to take them away from the cares and woes of their daily existence. But for those who enjoy dark, gritty, believable police procedurals, One Step Behind will be just what the doctor ordered.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Boston Attorney Brady Coyne Goes Fishing with His Uncle Moze. Trouble Ensues.

It's always a bit surprising to open a book that's around the twentieth in a series and suddenly discover a family and a backstory of the protagonist that you've never heard before. William G. Tapply's previous Brady Coyne novels (this is the twenty-first or the twenty-third, depending on how you're counting) have always focused on Coyne in the present day. There's been no mention of any family aside from his ex-wife, his two sons, and the various girlfriends he's had along the way.

Now we suddenly learn that Brady's father was also a Boston lawyer. Unlike Brady who has a small, quiet solo practice and who flies mostly under the radar, his father was a high-powered lawyer in a large firm who drove a big, black Cadillac apparently in the hope of impressing people. Brady's mother came from a small town in rural Maine and occasionally the family would jump into the Cadillac and drive up for a visit with his mother's brother--Brady's uncle--Moze.

The young Brady loved these excursions because Uncle Moze was a lobster fisherman who would take Brady out fishing with him. But then, for whatever reason, they fell out of touch and Brady hasn't seen Uncle Moze for thirty years. Not only that, but as much as he loved fishing with him, through twenty-three novels, Brady hasn't given the poor old guy even a single thought!

But never mind all that. When Uncle Moze calls Brady out of the blue, thirty years down the road, and asks him if he wants to come up and go fishing, of course Brady is only too happy to do so. He realizes, of course, that Uncle Moze has a reason for inviting him up, and it turns out that Moze is unable to contact his daughter, Cassie, Brady's cousin. Cassie is several years younger than Brady, and he barely remembers her.

Cassie and her father were once very close, but then had a falling out for reasons that Moze won't get into. He hasn't heard from her in a year and a half and is anxious to contact her, also for reasons he won't get into. He wants Brady to find Cassie and put them back in touch. It seems like a relatively easy task for a lawyer like Brady, but of course, it won't be easy at all. Mysteries, family secrets, and danger abound as Brady takes up the hunt.

It's always fun to settle in with one of Tapply's novels and this is among the better ones in the series. The reader can't help feeling a bit blindsided by all the information that Tapply has withheld for so long about Brady's origins, but you can't hold that against a guy who produces a book as entertaining as this one.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Another Very Entertaining Entry in the Tracy Crosswhite Series from Robert Dugoni

Fresh off a very difficult case, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite finds herself entangled in two new cases, one contemporary and the other a forty-year-old cold case. In the first instance, a man is found shot to death in the home he once shared with his wife from whom he is now separated. The wife and their teenage son are present in the home when officers first arrive. They claim that the husband/father was abusive, that he attacked his wife, and that she shot him in self-defense. But what appears at first to be a fairly straightforward case soon turns out to be a lot more complicated.

At virtually the same time, Jenny Almond, who had been a classmate of Tracy's in the police academy, asks Tracy to take over the investigation of a cold case in rural Klickitat County. Forty years earlier, a Native American high school student went missing while walking home from work one night. She was later found dead floating in a river. The official verdict was suicide, the explanation being that the victim, Kimi Kanasket, was distraught because her boyfriend had just broken up with her.

Jenny Almond is now the sheriff of Klickitat County, following in the footsteps of her father, Buzz Almond. As a newbie sheriff's deputy, Buzz Almond had investigated the case of Kanasket's death, but was never satisfied with the official verdict. Given his position at the time, he couldn't challenge the conclusions of his superiors, but the case bothered him enough that he kept the file for all those years and his daughter found it after Buzz died. She'd like Tracy to review the file and see if anything can be done.

Once the book is underway, Dugoni allows the other members of Crosswhite's unit to pursue the contemporary case, and the bulk of the novel is devoted to Tracy's investigation of the cold case. It turns out to be a fascinating case and Dugoni very convincingly demonstrates how Tracy, with a lot of help, is able to apply new investigative techniques and technologies to a case that originally seems cut and dried and devoid of any new insights.

Like the first two books in the series, it's a very entertaining read that should appeal especially to any fan of police procedurals. I'm anxious to get to the next book in the series.