Friday, December 28, 2018

Detective Donald Lam Attempts to Uncover an Insurance Fraud in This Novel from A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

Quality-wise, this book is somewhere in the middle of the pack for A. A. Fair's series featuring Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. This deep into the series Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner) was clearly writing on autopilot and not about to deviate from the formula he had established twenty-five years earlier in 1939. In fact, this book could have been written in 1939. Save for the fact that Donald takes a trip on a jet airplane rather than on a prop plane, there's really nothing here to suggest that the book might have been written in 1964 or in any year close to that.

The story opens when an insurance company executive hires the firm of Cool and Lam to try to get the goods on someone the executive believes is attempting to defraud the company. The man claims to have suffered a whiplash injury when his car was hit from behind by a driver insured by the company.

Whiplash pain is almost impossible to prove and the company fears that it's going to have to make a big settlement. The company has arranged for the man to "win" a trip to a dude ranch in Arizona in a contest. The idea is that Donald will go to the ranch and attempt to get film of the claimant riding horses, playing golf, and doing all sorts of things that would be impossible were he as seriously injured as he claims.

Naturally, the situation will almost immediately become much more complicated and, as usual, Donald will find himself in a serious mess. He will then have to extricate himself and unravel another very complex mystery before his usual adversary, Sergeant Frank Sellers, can screw things up entirely.

Those who follow the series will know exactly what to expect from the opening pages of the book. Those who are interested in sampling the series would be better off seeking out one of the first few books from the 1940s, which were fresher and truer to the time period in which they were written.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

An Entertaining Debut Novel from Steven Max Russo

This very good debut novel is set in New Jersey and features three main protagonists, only one of whom is even a bit sympathetic. But all three are very compelling, and once you enter their world you are hooked through to the end.

Principal among the three is a young Hispanic woman named Esmeralda. She's responsible for supporting her mother and two young siblings. Her ambition is to save enough money to go to school, become a cosmetologist, and open her own upscale salon. But the truth is that, even working day and night virtually every day of the week, there's no way she'll ever be able to afford her dream.

During the day, Esmeralda works for a house cleaning service and at nights she's a hostess in a restaurant. She strikes up a friendship with a young man named Ray who also works at the restaurant and on a break one night, she mentions to Ray that one of the houses she cleans in a very upscale community is empty for a month while the wealthy owners are away at another of their homes. Having spent a great deal of time in the house, Esmeralda knows that there's a lot of loose cash, jewelry, and other such things just lying around waiting for someone to help themselves.

Ray, in turn, mentions this to a very shady character named Skooley who is just up from Florida and who is washing dishes at the restaurant. Although neither Esmeralda nor Ray are aware of it, Skooley is on the run from some Very Bad People that he has screwed over in the Sunshine State. Skooley and Ray decided to rob the house and they bring Esmeralda into the scheme to provide them the intelligence they need about the house. She is reluctant, but she sees this as the one real chance she may ever have to actually end up living her dream.

Well, the best laid plans and all of that...

Once the scheme is in motion, all sorts of complications will occur and the three would-be burglars will all be challenged in a variety of ways. It would be unfair to say any more about the plot, but it is a captivating tale that keeps you turning the pages, waiting to see how it's all going to turn out. It's a very good read and Steve Russo has a bright future ahead of him.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

An Investment Banker Finds Intrigue and Trouble in this Novel from Dick Francis

This is among the better novels written by Dick Francis. The protagonist, Tim Ekaterin, is an investment banker at a large and venerable firm. The firm is approached by Oliver Knowles who owns a stud farm. Knowles wants to borrow $5 million to buy a racehorse named Sandcastle and put him out to stud. The horse has run brilliantly and, on form, would probably do equally well at stud. This is not the sort of a loan that a staid, conservative bank would normally even consider, but several of the bank's directors, including Tim and his boss, have seen the horse run and are intrigued by the proposition.

Tim is assigned to investigate Knowles, his operation, and his finances and make a recommendation to the board. Tim develops an immediate affinity for Knowles, is impressed with his operation, and recommends that the bank make the loan with all sorts of precautions being taken. The bank agrees with Tim and makes the loan over the strong objections of one director who insists that this will be a very costly mistake. Tim is assigned as the case manager and is to stay in touch with Knowles and monitor the situation.

Since this is a Dick Francis novel, something will go horribly wrong, of course. (A word to the wise, don't read the teaser on the book cover which gives way too much away in this regard.) Tim will have to try to sort it out in an effort to save both Knowles and the bank's investment. Naturally, there will be some very sinister people involved and things will ultimately get very dicey for virtually everyone, but mostly for Tim Ekaterin.

This novel is a bit unique in that it takes place over a period of three years. Ekaterin is a fairly typical Francis protagonist who has fallen in love with the wrong woman, but it's very interesting to watch him work. He is forced to learn a great deal about how champion horses are bought, sold and protected, and about the business of putting a champion like Sandcastle out to stud. He also has to learn a great deal about pharmaceuticals, and as he learns all of this, the reader learns it all too.

Some of it is really fascinating but, as in the book before this one, Reflex, Francis lays it on a bit too thick. Again, having done all of the research for the book, he apparently didn't want to leave any of it in his file drawer. As a result, this is a fairly long novel that could have been trimmed a bit and still have been every bit as entertaining and informative. But that's a small complaint in this case, and this book should appeal to anyone who enjoys the novels of this former jockey.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Canadian P.I. Mike Garfin Has Trouble with Blondes--and with Virtually Everyone Else, for that Matter

This novel, first published in 1950, is an interesting example of the hard-boiled pulp genre in that it's set in Montreal, rather than in the U.S. The protagonist, Mike Garfin, is a hard-drinking P.I. who can take a beating, over and over and over again, and keep on ticking.

The story opens, as so many of these novels do, when a stunningly beautiful blonde walks into Garfin's office and complains that a man is following her. She wants Garfin to figure out who the guy is and what he wants. She can't go to the police for reasons that will become clear a short while later. Garfin accepts the case, figuring that it should pose no real problem. At the same time, he has taken another seemingly easy assignment for that evening, which involves guarding the presents at a high-toned birthday party in a ritzy section of town.

Naturally, things will go to hell in a handbasket in pretty short order. At the party, Garfin observes an old coot manhandling an attractive young girl who obviously wants to get away. Garfin helps her escape the house but only a few hours later, the poor girl winds up dead and Garfin gets the first of the many beatings that he will have to endure through the course of this novel.

It turns out that, oddly, both of these cases get Garfin mixed up with a bunch of very dangerous people who are running a high-class prostitution ring in Montreal and who are willing to go to any lengths to protect it. It will all get pretty confusing, both for Garfin and for the reader, but watching the poor guy try to muddle through this predicament is pretty entertaining.

Ricochet Books in Montreal has now released a new edition of this book with a great new cover and with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts. I'm assuming that there are any number of people who might raise their eyebrows at the notion of a Council for the Arts supporting the rerelease of a trashy pulp novel like this one that focuses on such artsy activities as hooking, beating people up, blackmailing them and in some cases shooting them, but I'm glad they did. It's a fun read that will appeal to people who enjoy classic hard-boiled crime novels.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Perry Mason Comes to the Aid of a Troubled Florist in thie 1940 Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The seventeenth novel in Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series stands out in some respects from the other eighty-four books in the series. Most importantly, this is the book that finally introduces Lieutenant Tragg of Homicide, who will become Mason's principal adversary on the police force from now on. 

Previously, Mason's foil in the police department had been the bumbling Sergeant Holcomb. Holcomb was a very physical guy who often attempted to get his way by pushing people around. He wasn't above manipulating evidence if he thought it would improve his chances of making a case, and he really wasn't very bright. Mason generally ran circles around him without even breaking a sweat.

Gardner apparently decided that Mason needed a more worthy adversary and so introduced Tragg who in many ways is Holcomb's polar opposite. He uses his brains rather than his physical strength. He's clever, soft spoken and is able to sneak up on a suspect and get him or her in hot water before the suspect even realizes what has happened. He and Mason respect each other and Tragg always plays above board. But he's bright and determined, and Mason will have to step up his game a bit after dealing with Holcomb.

This story is also a bit unique in that it takes a while for Mason to finally appear. Most of these novels begin with a potential client showing up at Perry's office looking to retain his services and so Mason is most often present from the very first page. In this case, though, there's quite a bit of activity before Mason steps into the situation. 

Also, Mason's detective, Paul Drake, basically has no role in this book. Mason calls him and asks him to run down some information for him, but otherwise he does not appear. Finally, unlike most of the other books in the series, there's only one very minor court scene in this book. Mason demonstrates his brilliance, not by cross examining witnesses and pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the courtroom, but rather by doing his own detecting and solving the case himself.

The case involves a woman named Mildred Faulkner who owns and operates three successful flower shops. Her partner in the stores is her sister, Carlotta, but Carlotta has been ill and out of action for several months, leaving Mildred to run things by herself. Mildred and Carlotta own all the stock in the corporation, save for a few shares that they gave to an early employee. Now, one of their competitors has managed to get his hands on those shares and intends to use them to chisel his way into their business.

Obviously concerned, Mildred goes to see Carlotta. Her sister's affairs are now being handled by her husband, Bob, who Mildred never liked. Bob is an irresponsible lout who plays the horses and who may be playing around on his sick wife, but Carlotta is blinded by love and can't see through Bob the way Mildred does.

Mildred tells Bob that she want's Carlotta's stock certificates so that she can take all the certificates to a lawyer and attempt to deal with the threat to her company. But Bob weasels around and Mildred suddenly realizes that he may have turned Carlotta's certificates over to a gambler as collateral for a debt. Now thoroughly panicked, Mildred contacts Perry Mason and gets him on the case. But before you can say, "Della Street," somebody's dead and Mildred is in even more trouble than she could have possibly imagined. We can only hope that Mason will be able to save the day.

This is one of the better books in the series and it moves along at a good pace. It's nice to finally have Lieutenant Tragg on the job and watching him and Mason match wits through the rest of the books is one of the pleasures of the series. A fun reread.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

San Diego P.I. Rick Cahill Returns in a great New Novel from Matt Coyle

San Diego P.I. Rick Cahill is among the most tortured protagonists in modern crime fiction. He's haunted by events from his past; he's on the outs with virtually every law enforcement agency he encounters; as a practical matter, he has no one in his life, save for his faithful dog, and there always seems to be a group of Very Bad People who are intent on doing him serious harm. And yet, fortunately for his clients and even more so for the readers who follow his cases, Cahill soldiers on, trying as best he can to do right by his clients while at the same time struggling to survive and to somehow maintain a very tenuous grip on his place in the world. 

In this case, Cahill is hired by a radio station to protect its most valuable personality, the sultry host of "Naomi At Night," who has a huge following. Inevitably, though, that following also includes any number of creeps and weirdos who imagine that Naomi is speaking directly to them individually and who would like to get to know her in person. When one of them sends a message to the station that appears to threaten the star if she does not comply with his demands, the station manager steps in and hires Cahill.

Rick moves immediately to provide direct protection for Naomi while at the same time he attempts to identify and neutralize the potential threat. This will not be easy. Cahill understands that the threat could come from someone who just recently tuned in to Naomi's radio show. On the other hand, it could also have come from someone out of her past. But the radio star effectively handcuffs Rick by initially refusing to tell him anything about her life before she suddenly showed up on the radio only a couple of years earlier. She also refuses to allow him to involve the police, even though it's apparent early on that they should be involved.

Just as Cahill takes this assignment, though, his past jumps up to grab him in the form of some Russian mobsters to whom he is indebted because of action that took place in an earlier novel. These are not people who take "no" for an answer, and they give Cahill a task which seems simple on the one hand but very confusing on the other. In order to protect himself, Rick will now have to dig into the mystery in an effort to determine what it is that the Russians are really attempting to accomplish.

As the book progresses, Cahill is pulled back and forth between the two cases, attempting to do the best he can, especially for Naomi, and getting virtually no sleep in the process. Both investigations turn out to be very complex, and each will take a number of unexpected twists and turns.

Matt Coyle has earlier demonstrated that he is a master of the modern noir novel, and Wrong Light will only enhance his reputation in this regard. This is a very dark story with a flawed but very appealing protagonist at its center. It will appeal to anyone who likes his or her crime fiction with a sharp, hard edge. 4.5 stars.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

LAPD Homicide Detective Davie Richards Draws To Complex Cases in This Novel from Patricia Smiley

Happily, the Pacific Area of the LAPD has gone a few weeks without a new homicide case to investigate. Accordingly, the division's boss, Frank Giordano, has compiled a list of cold cases and assigned his detectives to work the cases until something fresh comes in. 

Detective Davina "Davie" Richards draws two cases. The first involves the stabbing death two years earlier of a gangbanger named Javier Hernandez. The detectives who initially investigated the case concluded that Hernandez had been killed as the result of a drug dispute, but not surprisingly, none of Hernandez's neighbors or associates were willing or able to tell the police anything about the crime. Richards decides to re-interview some of the people close to Hernandez, most importantly, his girlfriend who was present on the day of his death, but she's not holding out a lot of hope about closing this one.

Richards finds the second case assigned her immediately more interesting. The potential victim was a thirty-four-year-old woman named Sara Montaine. Montaine walked into a gun store at a time when she was the only customer present. While the store owner was distracted, Montaine allegedly took a gun from a showcase and used it to kill herself. The initial investigation concluded that the death was a suicide, but there were inconsistencies in the evidence and so Davie's boss, tells her to take a fresh look at the case if she can find the time.

Of course she can.

Both Davie and the reader immediately understand that Montaine's apparent suicide will be a much more interesting case than that of a murdered drug dealer. In fairness, Richards will investigate both cases vigorously, but clearly the one that has hooked her is the Montaine case which will ultimately prove to be very complex. 

Davie Richards is bright, determined, and virtually tireless. She makes a very appealing protagonist and the reader is immediately drawn into her world and into the cases she's pursuing. The Montaine case takes a lot of surprising twists and turns, while the gangbanger's murder investigation is a bit more straightforward. But as Richards works her way deeper into each of the cases, she will antagonize some very dangerous people who have no qualms about taking whatever steps are necessary to prevent her from closing these cases. 

All in all, The Second Goodbye is a cleverly plotted and very entertaining novel that will keep a reader turning the pages quickly.