Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Farewell to Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone

With the publication of "A" Is for Alibi in 1982, Sue Grafton introduced Kinsey Millhone, a private detective who lived and worked in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. The book was a revelation at a time when most medium- to hard-boiled detective fiction was still being written by men and when the protagonists of virtually all such novels were almost always men. Grafton and Millhone were a breath of fresh air and helped transform the genre. Now, thirty-five years and twenty-four entries later, we come to the final book in the series, Y Is for Yesterday. Sue Grafton died at the end of that year and was thus unable to complete the series with the book she had once planned to title Z Is for Zero.

Although the world changed considerably between 1982 and 2017, Kinsey Millhone did not. This last book is set in 1989, only seven years after the first. Through the series, Millhone remained essentially the same character, living in the same world, and surrounded by the same circle of friends and acquaintances that she knew in 1982. A few boyfriends came and went through the series and occasionally a new relative appeared, most often briefly, but otherwise, the cast of characters was firmly fixed early on and like Kinsey, most of the other characters changed little or not at all. The books themselves grew longer but not necessarily better. The earliest books in the series were, to my mind at least, easily the best while the latter ones were largely hit or miss. And sadly Y is mostly a miss.

The book follows two parallel tracks, one set in 1979 and the other in 1989. In 1979, a group of high school students made a video tape in which a fourteen-year-old girl passed out after binge drinking and was then sexually assaulted by several boys. The tape was somehow lost and shortly thereafter a girl in the circle of friends was shot to death after another raucous party. Two of the boys in the group were sent to prison as a result of the crime.

Fast-forward to 1989 when one of the boys who participated both in the sexual assault and the killing is released from prison. No sooner is he back home than he and his parents receive a copy of the missing videotape and a note demanding $25,000. If the demand is not met the blackmailer threatens to turn the videotape over to the police, which will almost certainly result in the boy going straight back to prison, this time for the sexual assault.

The parents hire Kinsey Millhone to find the blackmailer and eliminate the threat. From that point on, the book alternates between 1979 and 1989. We watch Kinsey conduct her investigation and in a number of flashback chapters, we see the events of 1979 that lead to the death of the young woman. Several of the 1989 chapters are also devoted to the P.O.V. of the blackmailers rather than that of Millhone. If all that weren't enough, we have a third major issue, involving a man named Ned Lowe who had assaulted Kinsey in an earlier book and is now back to finish the job. So while Kinsey investigates the blackmail case, she also has to take self-defense classes and fight off Lowe on several occasions.

There's no easy way to say this, but the end result is largely a mess in desperate need of a good editor. "A" Is for Alibi was a lean, spare book that clocked in at 191 pages. The tension built from the very first paragraph and didn't release the reader until the last. Y, by comparison, is a bloated 543 pages, and there's not a single moment of real tension in the entire novel.

The chapters flashing back to 1979 add nothing of any consequence to the story and could have easily been eliminated, allowing Millhone to discover any relevant information revealed in those chapters during the course of her investigation. The whole saga of Ned Lowe also adds nothing to the story could have also been eliminated, producing a much leaner and more focused novel.

In the end, when all of this business is finally and mercifully resolved, one can only breathe a sigh of relief and feel a profound sense of regret for what might have been. I understand that a cardinal rule of reviewing is that you are supposed to review the book that the author wrote and not the one you wish she might have written. But as someone who loved the early books in this series, I've long been saddened by the course the series took or, more accurately, did not take.

I understand that Sue Grafton had millions of fans who love the character and the series exactly as they are, and I suppose that one should never argue with success. But I truly regret the fact that Grafton decided to leave Kinsey Millhone stranded in the 1980s, never to age or evolve or to confront the challenges of the years that followed. Frankly, after fifteen or sixteen books I got tired of reading about Henry, Kinsey's ninety-year-old landlord, about Rosie the Hungarian bar owner and about all the rest of these characters who, like Kinsey, never changed at all.

By comparison, I can't help but think of two of Kinsey's contemporaries, Lucas Davenport who first appeared in 1989, and Harry Bosch, who first appeared in 1992. Both of those series now exceed the number of books in the Kinsey Millhone series, and over the years those two characters have evolved and changed with the times, meeting the challenges of the changing years. They've become infinitely richer, as have the worlds and the casts of characters around them, and to my mind at least, it's a shame that Kinsey Millhone didn't have that same opportunity. At least in the early years, Sue Grafton was just as good a writer as either John Sandford or Michael Connelly, and I would love to see what she might have done with the character had she made different choices.

As a reader who's stayed with this series through thick and thin and from "A" to "Y", I'm sorry to see it end, especially on this note. I only had the opportunity to meet Sue Grafton a couple of times, but she was a very nice woman with a fabulous sense of humor, and I very much wish she would have had the chance to formally end this series on her own terms. Three stars for Y Is for Yesterday, and four sentimental stars for a long-running series and for what might have been.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Detective Donald Lam Pays Off a Blackmailer and Trouble Follows in This Novel from A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

A restaurant owner named Nicholas Baffin approaches detective Donald Lam and wants to hire him to pay off a blackmailer. Donald very patiently explains that paying off a blackmailer is always a bad idea that will open the door to all kinds of future problems. Baffin insists that this case is different and that after Donald makes the payoff, Baffin would like to host him, his partner Bertha Cool, and police sergeant Frank Sellers, for an luxurious dinner at his restaurant. This, of course, would be in addition to the large fee that Bertha has set for taking the case.

Donald and the reader both understand that something is way off about Baffin's proposal, but Bertha can see only the money involved and the epicurean feast to follow. The firm takes the case and Donald makes the payoff, attempting to tie up the blackmailer in such a way that he can never come back for a second taste. But all hell breaks loose the next night at the big celebratory dinner, and the whole case goes sideways. Even worse, before all is said and done, the unimaginative Frank Sellers may try to pin a murder rap on Donald.

This is a fairly typical Cool and Lam mystery and those have read many of the twenty-seven earlier books in the series will know exactly what to expect. This is among the better of the latter books in the series, and I enjoyed spending an evening watching Donald try to stay one step ahead of his adversaries and of his own partner.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Introducing Vermont Detective Joe Gunther

This is the novel that introduced Vermont detective Joe Gunther, the lead character in a series by Archer Mayor that has now reached twenty-nine books and counting. When we first meet Gunther, he's a detective on the Brattleboro, Vermont P.D. He has bigger things ahead of him, but for now he's assigned to investigate a rare murder in a town that hardly ever sees one.

The victim is a man named Jamie Phillips who has walked into the home of an elderly woman in the dead of night. The woman has been receiving threatening messages; her cat has been murdered, and the person responsible has warned her that he will be coming to give her the same treatment that he gave the cat. Frightened out of her wits, the woman, Thelma Reitz, is sitting in her darkened home with a shotgun in her lap, and when Phillips walks through the door, she lets him have it.

Gunther immediately senses that something is out of whack here, and he becomes convinced of it when he discovers that Phillips and Reitz had both served together on the jury in an infamous murder case three years earlier. A young woman had been sexually assaulted and then murdered in her apartment. A ton of evidence pointed at the building's janitor, a young, black Vietnam War vet named Harris. Harris was tried, convicted and sentenced to prison, and everyone assumed that justice had been served.

In the wake of the Phillips/Reitz incident, though, several other jurors are targeted and Gunther realizes that someone is trying to draw attention back to the Harris case. He begins digging back into the case and discovers that maybe it wasn't so open-and-shut after all. This is potentially embarrassing to his department and to the others who were involved in the case, but Gunther persists, being driven along by a mysterious man in a ski mask who seems to be orchestrating events and who also appears to be one step ahead of Joe and his colleagues all along the line.

It's an interesting and cleverly-plotted story, and Gunther is an immediately sympathetic protagonist. One of the strengths of this series is that Mayor has a gift for establishing his settings, and even in this first novel, the town of Brattleboro and the surrounding environs are expertly rendered. The reader feels as if he or she had been plunged into the middle of a Vermont winter.

A couple of the characters who will accompany Gunther through the series are introduced here, and it's fun to see them all once again as we first met them. This is a series that has remained consistently excellent throughout, and anyone looking for a very good regional mystery series would be hard-pressed to find a better one.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Two Brothers Find Themselves in the Crosshairs of Some Very Bad People in This Novel from Dick Francis

Twice Shy is a somewhat unusual novel. As a practical matter, it really consists of two short novels that share a pair of villains but which have different main protagonists. The two stories are set fourteen years apart, and the first is set in the early 1980s. The lead character here is Jonathan Derry, a young physics teacher who is also a crack shot who once had hopes of competing in the Olympics. 

Jonathan is trapped in a loveless marriage that is failing because his wife desperately wants to have children but is unable to do so. He's at loose ends when a friend gives him three cassette tapes. But instead of the music he expects to find, he discovers that the cassettes contain computer programs. The programs constitute a horse betting system that, when used properly, could make a person a fortune.

The first part of the book is obviously set in the very early days of personal computing when PCs had very little internal memory and when even the operating system had to be loaded into the computer before you could use it. Francis spends a great deal of time explaining all of this, but it's all very dated. I imagine this was fascinating, at least to some people, when the book was first published in 1982, but thirty-seven years later, it tends to take the reader out of the story, at least a bit.

Once Derry comes into possession of the tapes, he finds himself in considerable danger because some ruthless and unscrupulous people know about the tapes and want them for themselves. Some bad things happen and then fourteen years pass out of the sight of the reader. When the story resumes, our new lead is Jonathan's younger brother, William Derry, a horse trainer. It turns out that the nasty people from the first half of the book are still hot on the trail of the computer tapes and now William is in their sights. More bad things will happen and the question is whether either of the Derry brothers can survive.

Even leaving aside the business about the outdated computers, this is not one of my favorite Dick Francis novels. It's serviceable enough, but neither the plot nor the characters seemed up to Francis's usual standards, and the idea that the bad guys would still be on the hunt for these computer tapes fourteen years down the road seemed a stretch. Given the advances in computers over that period of time, one would certainly think that the system contained on the tapes would be obsolete, assuming that you could even still find a computer to run them on, and I had trouble buying into the characters' motivations. An okay read, but not a great one.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Seattle Detective Tracy Crosswhite Faces Another Very Challenging and Dangerous Case

The Trapped Girl is another excellent entry in Robert Dugoni's series featuring Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. The story opens when a high school boy, illegally trapping crabs out of season, pulls up a trap and finds trapped in it the body of a young woman. Crosswhite and her unit are assigned to the case, but even identifying the victim proves difficult, especially when it turns out that the woman had undergone a series of plastic surgeries in an apparent effort to conceal her identity. 

The victim is finally identified as a woman who went missing several months earlier, and the deeper Crosswhite digs into the woman's past, the more confusing the case becomes. As it unfolds, Tracy discovers that there is also a lot of missing money involved in this case and that there are any number of people who want to get their hands on it. Some of them will go to any lengths to do so, and Tracy Crosswhite may find herself squarely in their sights before all is said and done.

Like the other entries in this series, this one moves along at a rapid pace. In attempting to solve this puzzle, Crosswhite will be forced to endure even more than the usual bureaucratic and jurisdictional interference, and she will be reminded once again of the case involving the murder of her own sister that initially set her on the path to becoming a homicide detective.

As Dugoni tells the story, he intersperses chapters from the viewpoint of the victim that gradually reveal the reasons why she found herself in an impossible predicament. This information is doled out at just the right pace and helps keep the pages turning rapidly to yet another explosive climax. Another very good read from Dugoni.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Claire DeWitt, the World's Greatest Detective, Returns with a New Mission

The Infinite Blacktop is the third novel in Sara Gran's series featuring Claire DeWitt, The World's Greatest Detective, and it's another excellent read. DeWitt is, by almost any standard, the most unique protagonist in modern crime fiction, and it's virtually impossible to adequately capture the depth and complexity of the character in a review. Suffice it to say, she's not your grandmother's Miss Marple.

Claire was drawn to detection as a young girl, and along with her friends, Tracy and Kelly, she began solving mysteries in the middle 1980s. There was never a case the trio couldn't crack. But then one day Tracy simply disappeared, never to be seen again, and her friend's disappearance remains the only case that Claire has never been able to solve. She and Kelly came to a parting of the ways and in the years after, Claire drifted around the country, living on the margins and solving mysteries as they were presented to her. "I didn't want a steady job and I didn't want a steady life and I didn't want to love anyone," she explains.

Claire is a disciple of the famous Jacques Silette, the French author of the book Detection the bible that has guided her life and career since the time she was a teen. Only a handful of detectives are wise enough and skilled enough to understand and apply the lessons that Silette provided, but they have served Claire well.

1999 found Claire in Los Angeles, trying to accumulate enough hours under the supervision of a licensed P.I. to qualify for her own license. She takes on an unsaved cold case involving the death of an artist who died in an apparent auto accident only a few months after the death of his girlfriend who was also an artist. Twelve years later, Claire will find herself in Oakland where someone attempts to kill her by deliberately slamming his Lincoln into her smaller car. Claire wakes up in the hospital, injured and confused, but clear headed enough to know that she needs to escape the hospital and find out who wants her dead before he tries again.

Gran weaves all three tales into a narrative that jumps repeatedly from 2011 to 1985 to 1999 and back again. It can be difficult at times to follow the action, but there's never anything linear about a book featuring Claire DeWitt. You simply have to surrender to the story, let it wash over you, and go with the flow, as the kids used to say back in the day. Like the first two books in the series, it's a great trip.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Sheriff Quinn Colson Chases a Trio of Bank Robbers in this Novel from Ace Atkins

There's an awful lot of stuff going down in the seventh novel by Ace Atkins, featuring Tibbehah County, Mississippi Sheriff Quinn Colson. In particular, a trio of bank robbers is wreaking havoc in the area. Disguising themselves by wearing Donald Trump masks, they hit their targets with military precision, their leader warning the bank's employees and customers that, "Anyone moves and I'll grab 'em by the pussy!"

The team is in and out in minutes flat; their escape routes are meticulously planned, and they leave no evidence of any consequence behind. The Tibbehah County Sheriff's Office and the other law enforcement agencies involved will have a tough time bringing these guys to heel.

While Quinn is busy chasing bank robbers and other ne'er-do-wells, his sister, Caddy, continues to run the mission and shelter that she established several books earlier. She's particularly worried about the fate of two teenage girls who have disappeared from the area after becoming involved in the local sex trades. She recruits Quinn's best friend, Boom, to help her search for the girls, and her search will ultimately get a lot of people into trouble.

Meanwhile, in the background, Tibbehah County remains, sadly, a cesspool of corruption and shady maneuverings, driven mostly by forces that remain in the shadows. Johnny Stagg, who used to run the county's vice out of his truck stop and his strip club, the Booby Trap, is now in prison. This does not mean, though, that the county is cleaning up its act. A tough-as-nails woman named Fannie Hathcock has taken over Stagg's operation and reopened the strip club as Vienna's Place. Having an operation like this in the middle of your county will tax the patience of any local sheriff, and Quinn Colson will be no exception.

I was hooked from the first scene and raced through this book. One of the pleasures of this series is that Atkins has created such a rich setting in the fictional Tibbehah County and has developed such a great cast of characters to populate it. The reader is immediately drawn into Quinn Colson's world and it's always great to be back. There's plenty of action and lots of tension; all in all a very good read.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Detective Donald Lam Cuts Thin to Win in this Entertaining Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner

The twenty-seventh entry in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series is one of the better books in the series. It opens with something of a twist in that a potential client comes into the office with a case that Donald wants to take and Bertha doesn't. Usually, the reverse is true.

The client, Clayton Dawson, is the assistant to the manager of a re-debenture discount security company (whatever in the world that is). Dawson has a daughter with a wild side. He presents the detectives with a scrap of cloth. Someone, he says, might claim that the scrap of cloth was found stuck in the undercarriage of a car which people might falsely claim his daughter was driving while under the influence. The car, which he insists his daughter was not driving might have been involved in a hit-and-run accident with the woman who was wearing the dress.

Dawson would like to see his daughter clear of the mess and, without saying so directly, he wants Donald to find the victim of the hit and run and make a settlement that would prevent his daughter from facing any criminal charges. Bertha is nervous as hell because this would be skating right up against the edge of the law and could cost the firm its license. Donald, though, very skillfully walks Dawson through the interview, ascertaining what the client wants without coming right out and saying it. Over Bertha's objections, he takes the case.

As is always the case with the books in this series, nothing is as it originally seems, and in taking the case, Donald opens up a huge can of worms. The plot is especially clever and interesting and is one of the few in the series that the reader can actually follow. The fun in reading these books is watching Donald in action, particularly in regard to his relationship with his partner. Like some of Gardner's Perry Mason novels, the plots are generally so convoluted that they make no sense at all, even when Donald lays it all out in the end. That is not the case here, and this book demonstrates that near the end of what was a very long run, Gardner was still capable of returning to his top form.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Joe Gunther Returns in Another Excellent Story from Archer Mayor

This is another excellent entry in the long-running series by Archer Mayor featuring Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. The story opens when the body of a young woman is found at the top of a ski trail. Joe's team fairly quickly and easily identifies the man who dumped the body and they fairly quickly and easily secure his confession to the woman's murder. The problem is that this all happens almost too quickly and too easily, and Joe suspects that something is off about the whole business.

While Joe and his team investigate the killing, someone inaugurates a string of actions targeting a giant food distribution warehouse. The vandalism begins with a few small fires but quickly escalates to the point where people are dying. Investigating the crimes is a daunting task because there are so many potential suspects and so very few good leads. But then a connection appears linking the murder of the young woman to the crimes committed at the warehouse, and things get even more complicated--and much more dangerous--in a big hurry. 

Both the original murder and the subsequent vandalism and murders are cleverly designed, and watching the VBI agents attempt to untangle the various threads of these problems is especially entertaining. By now this cast of characters is entirely familiar; readers of the series have watched them grow and develop over the course of twenty-nine books, beginning with Open Season in 1988. Returning to the series is like dropping in on a cast of intimate friends and acquaintances, and while the mysteries in this series are always first-rate, the real joy in reading these books is checking in to see how Joe and the extended cast are getting along. This has long been one of the best regional mystery series going and Bury the Lead continues that fine tradition.