Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Jockey/Photographer Finds Trouble in This Novel from Dick Francis

Philip Nore is a professional jockey and an amateur photographer, and it's the latter interest that gets him into trouble in this novel. Nore was acquainted with George Millace, a very good sports photographer who often frequented the race courses where Nore rode. Millace has recently died in an auto accident and then, to add insult to injury, someone has burglarized and trashed his house while his wife and family were attending his funeral.

There seems no larger significance to these incidents until someone returns to the house and assaults Millace's widow, demanding to know where the safe is. The poor woman has no safe and, as far as she knows, neither did her husband. But it's clear that Millace apparently possessed something that someone considers to be a potential threat. Given his occupation as a photographer, it's not a huge leap to imagine that he might have had photographs that could pose a threat to someone else.

Philip Nore steps in to assist the widow and in the process discovers what appears to be her husband's junk box. It contains some scraps of exposed film and other items that are not immediately identifiable. Curious, Nore begins to experiment with the items in his own darkroom, and once he does, he puts himself directly in the sights of some very dangerous people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets.

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis novel and readers of the series will immediately recognize Philip Nore as the prototypical Francis protagonist. It's a good book, although not among Francis's best. In part this is because he spends a great deal of time in the novel describing the technical aspects of what Nore is doing in his darkroom to uncover Millace's secrets. Francis clearly did a lot of research in this respect and was apparently determined to get everything he had learned into the book. The problem is that is slows the pace of the novel, sometimes at crucial points, and the book would have been better if he had dealt with this material more concisely.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Another Great Novel from Wallace Stroby

I confess that I was a bit disappointed when I learned that Wallace Stroby's new novel would not feature Crissa Stone, the kick-ass female protagonist who has starred in his last four books and who has become one of my favorite characters in the crime fiction universe. Happily, though, my concerns were short-lived. Some Die Nameless features all of the qualities that readers have come to expect from one of Stoby's novels: great writing; well-drawn, memorable characters, and a plot that moves practically at warp speed.

The main protagonist is Ray Devlin, a man with a shadowy past who once worked for a private security firm, doing the sorts of things for which private security firms and other such contractors have become famous for in the years since 9/11. Devlin's last job was in a fictional Latin American country near Venezuela where his firm had been hired to help put a brutal dictator into power and then to keep him there. But something went terribly wrong, and in the wake of those developments, Devlin has retired and is attempting to live quietly under the radar on a boat in South Florida. One day, though, his past catches up with him and Devlin discovers that killers are hot on his trail, apparently attempting to clean up a potentially embarrassing situation for the company that once employed him and that now has its sights set on higher and much more lucrative goals.

As Devlin maneuvers to save his life, he crosses paths with a crime reporter named Tracy Quinn. Tracy works for a struggling newspaper in Philadelphia where the cost-cutters have taken over in the person of managers and editors who are much more interested in generating clicks on the paper's web page than they are in competent, old-fashioned reporting. Tracy is struggling to save her job while simultaneously attempting to maintain the high standards that once characterized the paper's mission. It's no easy task, especially when she stumbles across another element of the mystery that Devlin is pursuing, and once they meet and begin chasing the story and the bad guys together, things are going to get very, very dicey for both of them.

Both Devlin and Quinn are interesting and sympathetic characters, and watching them in action is hugely entertaining. But in addition to telling a great story, Stroby has also raised some very serious questions about the future of journalism in this country and about the ways in which the government has increasingly come to rely on private contractors to do its work, dirty and otherwise, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and other such hotspots. Some Die Nameless is another solid effort from Stroby--a very good book that will give readers a lot to think about.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Reporter Jack McEvoy and F.B.I. Agent Rachel Walling Track a Clever Killer in this Novel from Michael Connelly

Jack McEvoy, the reporter who earlier broke the case of The Poet returns in this novel. Jack is now working at the Los Angeles Times. But even back in 2008, when this book first appeared, the newspaper business had fallen into deep trouble, thanks largely to the arrival of the Internet. Even major papers like the Times are hemorrhaging money and have been forced to downsize. 

As the book opens, Jack learns the sad lesson that even a seasoned and gifted reporter is not exempt from the harsh realities of the new day and age. Jack is laid off, but is informed that he can keep his job for another two weeks if he will train his replacement, a young woman who has virtually no experience and who does not have the connections essential for a reporter to be successful on the crime beat, but who will do the job for a lot less money than McEvoy.

Having little or no choice, Jack reluctantly agrees, but he is determined to go out on a high note with a major story that will make his editors regret their decision. Jack had earlier written a relatively minor story about a gangbanger who had been arrested for the murder of an exotic dancer. The woman was found stuffed in the trunk of a car; the kid's fingerprints were found in the car, and after a few hours of interrogation, the kid allegedly confessed to the crime. Case closed.

Just after Jack learns he's been laid off, he gets a call from the banger's grandmother claiming, naturally, that the kid is innocent. Jack doesn't believe that, of course, but he sees a story in the tale of how this young man wound up committing such a horrendous crime. His young replacement, Angela Cook, is assigned to work the story with him, but in doing some preliminary research, the two discover a similar crime that had been committed in Las Vegas. Jack suddenly realizes that maybe the kid really isinnocent and has been set up to take the fall for a crime he didn't commit.

That turns the story in an entirely different direction, and before Jack can hardly begin working it, the F.B.I. suddenly appears on the scene in the person of Rachel Walling, who had worked the Poet case with Jack. With that the book is off and running and Jack and Rachel find themselves hard on the trail of a very clever and dangerous criminal. No one will be safe.

Michael Connelly is a very good writer, and this is a perfectly serviceable serial killer tale, although it's not among Connelly's best books. What struck me most about the book, though, was the depressing subplot about the sad state of journalism in the country in this day and age. The story of what is happening at the L. A. Times and, by extension, at other papers across the country was, for me, really the scariest part of the story. Any democracy, if it's going to thrive and prosper, depends on the foundation of a well-informed citizenry. That, in turn, depends on having a vigorous and thriving free press. In a day and age when journalists are under attack, when newspapers across the country are scaling back their operations and in some cases are disappearing altogether, serial killers may turn out to be the least of our worries.

Monday, October 15, 2018

NOVEMBER ROAD is a Great New Novel from Lou Berney

I’ve long been a huge fan of Lou Berney’s novels, especially The Long and Faraway Gone, which won an Edgar in 2016, along with several other prestigious awards, and which remains one of my favorite books of the last few years. Consequently, I’ve been very anxious to finally get my hands on his new book, November Road, which was released last week, and which has gotten rave notices in advance of the publication date. Simply put, the wait was more than worth it. November Road is a great novel and, like its predecessor, it’s one of those books that I’ll be rereading often in years to come. 

The story is set in November 1963, in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it features two expertly-drawn protagonists. The first is Frank Guidry, a ranking member of the New Orleans mob, under the command of Carmen Marcello. A couple of weeks before the assassination, Guidry ran what seemed at the time to be a fairly inconsequential errand for Marcello. But the moment Guidry learns that the president has been shot in Dallas, he realizes that the task he performed was anything but inconsequential. 

Guidry has always been loyal to Marcello and has been a valuable lieutenant to the mob boss; he should have no reason for concern. But then other people close to the Marcello family who had tenuous connections to the errand that Guidry ran are suddenly turning up dead and Guidry is reluctantly forced to recognize the fact that, in a situation as explosive as this, anyone can be deemed expendable.

Guidry decides that he has no choice other than to run. With a deadly killer hard on his trail, he heads for Vegas, hoping to connect with an old friend who becomes his only hope of escaping the fate that Marcello wants to deal him. But the mob has eyes and ears practically everywhere, and the challenge of reaching Vegas alive will be a daunting one.

The book’s second protagonist is Charlotte Roy, a housewife from Woodrow, Oklahoma, who was once the most adventurous eleven-year-old girl in her tiny town. But that was seventeen years ago, and in a place like Woodrow, life happens—especially if you’re a young woman and most especially if it’s still the middle of the Twentieth Century. Charlotte is married now with two young, precocious daughters. Her husband, Dooley, drinks, has trouble holding down a job, and has even more trouble supporting his family.

Charlotte wonders if she’s selfish to want more out of life, both for herself and for her daughters. “Woodrow was idyllic in many ways. Quaint, safe, friendly. But it was also interminably dull, as locked in its stubborn, small-minded ways, as resistant to new things and ideas, as Mr. Hotchkiss [her boss]. Charlotte longed to live in a place where it wasn’t so hard to tell the past from the future.”

Her husband would never consider the idea of moving to a larger city and, Charlotte knows that he’s never going to stop drinking and become the kind of husband and father that she and their daughters deserve. And so, practically on a whim, a few days after the Kennedy assassination, Charlotte quickly packs up some things, gathers up her daughters, and hits the road for Los Angeles, planning to stay with a distant relative for a short time while she begins a new life for the three of them in California. Along the way, her path will intersect with that of Frank Guidry and when it does, everything will change—for Frank, for Charlotte, and for her daughters.

It would be unfair to reveal any more, but suffice it to say that this is a richly textured novel with characters that are fully realized. Berney has clearly done a great deal of research, and the reader finds him- or herself fully immersed in the early 1960s. The settings, the attitudes, and the atmosphere feel exactly right, and the story grabs you from the opening page and then refuses to let go. Frank Guidry and Charlotte Roy are characters that will remain with the reader for a very long time, as will this excellent novel. A great read, and an easy five stars.