Thursday, February 28, 2019

P. I. Matthew Scudder Returns in A TIME TO SCATTER STONES

I yield to no one in my admiration for Lawrence Block, and I firmly believe that his Matthew Scudder series is the best P.I. series that anyone has ever done, including the earlier masters Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Through the novels and the short stories that constitute this series, Block created an indelible portrait of New York City and of a haunted and flawed but ultimately unforgettable protagonist.

Scudder last appeared eight years ago in a collection of short stories, The Night and the Music, and the elegiac final story, "One Last Night at Grogan's," seemed the perfect place to leave Scudder who was now happily married, well into his sixties and, sadly, no longer able to walk the mean streets of NYC in the way that he once had as a younger man.

Many of us hoped, however, that Block might still have at least one more Matthew Scudder novel in his future, preferably something along the lines of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which was the last book to appear in the series, but in which Scudder looked back to recount the story of a case he had investigated years earlier as a much younger man. Thus, like many other die-hard fans of the series, I was elated to learn that Block would be releasing a new Matthew Scudder novella in early 2019.

I really wish he hadn't.

A Time to Scatter Stones is a relatively short novella principally featuring Scudder and his wife of many years, Elaine. Some of the other characters who populated the Scudder novels are mentioned in passing, but they are all long gone or MIA for the case that Scudder now accepts.

It begins when Elaine, who Matt first met when she was a young call girl, suddenly joins a support group for prostitutes--something like Matt's A.A. groups, but not exactly. Elaine has been out of the game for a good many years now and has to be approaching seventy herself. One might wonder why she would suddenly decide to join such a support group but, as it turns out, it serves to get the plot started.

One day after a meeting, Elaine brings home a young woman named Ellen, who has been working as a prostitute but who has decided to leave the profession. The problem is that one of her clients, who she knows only as "Paul," won't take no for an answer and insists on still seeing her. Elaine hopes that Matt might be able to find the guy and set him straight.

Matt accepts the challenge and works the problem the best way he can, given his age and his lack of contacts on the police force now. Meanwhile, there's an underlying subplot that I won't describe for fear of spoiling the story, but which really did not work for me, especially at the end of the book. As a result, I have really mixed emotions about this novella.

On the one hand, it's not a bad story and, in fact, it would have been a fine story for Block to have included somewhere in the middle of The Night and the Music. And if it would have been placed ahead of "One Last Night at Grogan's," I would have been perfectly fine with it. Reading it now, though somewhat spoils what I assumed would be my lasting final memory of Matthew Scudder, and unfortunately, once you've rung the bell, you can't unring it.

I'm giving this novella four stars because I think that's a fair assessment, and because that's certainly what I would have given it had I read it under other circumstances. But having bought a copy of the signed, special limited edition of the book, I'm going to tuck it away with my other treasures and leave it there. When I next work my way through the Matthew Scudder series, I will be stopping with "One Last Night at Grogans."

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Novel By Oakley Hall Resurfaces After Sixty Years

Oakley Hall's So many Doors, first published in 1950, seems an odd choice for the Hard Case Crime series because, while there is a murder in the book, this is not by any means a crime novel in the traditional sense. It immediately reminded me of Understudy for Death, by Charles Willeford, an excellent crime novelist. But that particular Willeford book was not a crime novel either. Originally published as Understudy for Love, it was really a psychological study of the characters who populated the novel. Hard Case Crime published it for the first time in over fifty years, changing the title and clearly implying that it was one of Willeford's crime novels.

Like the Willeford book, So Many Doors is another "long lost manuscript," that's being republished for the first time in fifty or sixty years, It opens with a prologue in which we find a man named Jack Ward in jail for a murder to which he has confessed. When his court-appointed lawyer arrives, Jack refuses to cooperate and kicks the guy out, claiming that he's anxious to be punished for his crime and simply wants to get it over with. 

With that, the main story begins, told from the perspective of five different people, the last of which is Jack Ward. At the center of the story is a young woman named V, whom we first meet when she is seventeen. V. lives alone with her father on a struggling ranch near Bakersfield, California in the 1930s. Her mother has died years earlier and her father has done the best he can to raise V, but clearly he hasn't a clue as to how to go about it.

We we first meet V, she is a very attractive girl who is on the brink of becoming a woman that no man can resist. That includes an elderly and wealthy man named Denton who lives on the property that adjoins that of V's father. Denton likes to entertain V and gives her a valuable horse. He tells V's father that when the girl graduates from high school, he would like to pay for her college education. Ultimately, he would like to marry her. (Yeah; it's beyond creepy.)

Oddly V's father is not as upset about Denton's proposal as one might expect. It is the Depression; times are hard and V's prospects for the future are not all that great. Ultimately, marrying Denton might be a good thing for her, but it will have to be her choice. 

Shortly thereafter, V's father hires a bulldozer operator, Jack Ward, to clear some stumps from his property. Jack is young, virile, and very attractive, and the reader immediately understands what's about to happen. The story unfolds from that point, through the eyes of people who are clearly captivated by V, for better or for worse. 

This is, at heart, a story of star-crossed lovers that simply cannot end well. Reading the book is like watching some natural disaster unfold from which you simply can't avert your eyes. Parts of the book are fascinating, particularly the insights that it offers into lower-class life in the United States through the years of the Depression and World War II. The story is clearly dated, though, and Hall sometimes tries too hard to get into the heads of these characters. 

In the end, then, I have mixed feelings about the book. I don't regret having spent the time it took to read it, but I really didn't enjoy it as much as I would have liked. Most of all, though, I wish that the folks at Hard Case Crime would get back to their original mission of publishing excellent crime novels and leave books like this one in the dusty bins of antiquity where they probably best belong.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool Take on a Case of Insurance Fraud

The second-to-the-last novel in A. A. Fair's (Erle Stanley Gardner's) Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series is not among the best. By the time this book appeared early in 1967, Gardner was approaching the end of a long and very productive career, and it would appear that he had run out of fresh ideas.

Anyone who has read several of these novels will know the basic formula: a potential client will appear at the offices of Cool and Lam, looking perfectly respectable and allegedly representing some big business. Bertha will take the client at face value and insist that this is finally the firm's opportunity to take on respectable, prosperous clients who can provide healthy fees without all the risks of the usual cases that the firm takes. Donald, as always, will be on guard and will generally see through the story told by the new client.

In this case, a man appears with a crisp, embossed business card, claiming to be a vice president of a major insurance agency. He shows Bertha and Donald a newspaper classified ad in which someone is looking for a witness to an automobile accident. The client says he fears that the ad is really an effort to suborn perjury in the case and then "accidentally" lets it slip that he's actually representing a consortium of insurance companies who are having problems in this regard.

Naturally, that sets Bertha's heart a flutter, and she and Donald take the case. Donald determines almost immediately, of course, that the new client is not on the up and up and that serious mischief is afoot. And naturally, of course, he and by extension the firm, will very quickly be up to their necks in trouble again. As always, Donald will have to act quickly and intelligently to save the firm's bacon, if it's not already too late.

This is not a bad book, but people who have read a lot of the entries in this series will realize that they have seen all this before and that it's probably not a bad thing that the series has almost run its course.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

An Excellent Debut Novel from Jane Harper

Twenty years ago, Aaron Falk and his father were driven out of the small town in Australia where they lived. Now, Luke Hadler, Aaron's best friend from his childhood, is dead, along with Hadler's wife and young son. Falk, now a federal agent who investigates financial crimes, is finally pulled back home to attend the funeral after getting a cryptic message from Hadler's father.

The community is in the midst of the worst drought in decades, and everyone is on edge. It would appear that Luke, a farmer, finally snapped and murdered his wife and son with a shotgun before turning the weapon on himself. The case appears cut and dried, but Hadler's parents plead with Falk to at least look at the case. Aaron agrees to stay a couple of extra days, but at a price to himself. It's clear that the local animosity that drove him and his father out of town has not abated to any degree, and he finds himself the victim of a great deal of hostility.

As the story unfolds, we learn a great deal about this small community and about the events years earlier that would ultimately cause so much grief for so many people. Harper skillfully follows the stories past and present, and the tension rises to a great climax. She is particularly good at describing the setting, and one can practically feel the heat and the desperation of a farm community on edge because of the murders and because of the drought that may well seal the community's fate. This is a very good debut novel.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Classic Mystery Novel from Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroydremains a classic of crime fiction. Written early in her career, this was the third novel to feature the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. (Goodreads list this as #4 in the series, but most other sources have it as the third.)

The book takes place in the small English village of King's Abbot, and opens with the death of a widow named Mrs. Ferrars. Rumors quickly spread among the villagers that she has committed suicide and that she had earlier murdered her husband by poisoning him. Following the death of her husband, she has also been rumored to have been carrying on a secret relationship with Roger Ackroyd, the wealthiest man in King's Abbot.

That same night, Ackroyd is found murdered, stabbed to death in his study. Ackroyd's family and staff had been instructed that he did not wish to be disturbed that evening and when his body was discovered about ten o'clock that night, the door to his study was locked from the inside. A study window was found open, and muddy boot prints suggest that someone entered and left the study by climbing through the window.

We learn all of this from the story's narrator, Dr. James Sheppard. the quiet country doctor who attended Mrs. Ferrars and who is a close friend of Ackroyd's. Ackroyd is distraught by the woman's death and asks Sheppard to visit him that evening. Ackroyd is burdened by a terrible secret that he reveals to the doctor. In fact, Mrs. Ferrars hadpoisoned her abusive husband and had confessed her secret to Ackroyd the day of her death. Ackroyd now fears that the woman may have killed herself because of his reaction to her confession. Sheppard counsels Ackroyd and then leaves the house a little after 9:00. A little less than an hour later, Sheppard gets a phone call which sends him racing back to Ackroyd's house. He and the butler break down the study door and find Ackroyd dead.

There are any number of potential suspects, including houseguests, family members and the large household staff. Several of these people are having money problems; most of them are in Ackroyd's will and will be financially better off now that he's gone.

The local constable is clearly not up to the task of sorting this out and finding the killer. Fortunately, the renowned detective, Hercule Poirot, has recently retired and is living quietly in King's Abbot, growing vegetable marrow. He agrees to be pressed into service and begins an investigation with the good Dr. Sheppard at his side, chronicling the investigation in the manner of Dr. Watson, or of Poirot's old friend, Hastings.

This is, basically, the typical English manor house mystery raised to classic status by the brilliant design of the plot. Even early in her career, Christie was a master of setting a book like this in motion, giving the reader all of the necessary clues, and then daring them to divine the solution before Hercule Poirot could reveal all. If you're only ever going to read one novel by Agatha Christie, it should be this one, and even if you're not a fan of this sort of mystery, it's one that any fan of crime fiction should certainly have read.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Kidnapping Specialist Andrew Douglas Gets More Than He Bargained for in THE DANGER, by Dick Francis

To my mind, The Danger is among the best of the novels by Dick Francis. While most of the others are set firmly in the world of horseracing, this is one of his books where the world of horseracing is somewhat tangential to the rest of the book.

The protagonist is Andrew Douglas, a partner in a firm called Liberty Market, Ltd. The firm specializes in handling high-stakes kidnapping cases. They attempt to ensure that the kidnapped victim is safely recovered. With that accomplished, they also work to recover the ransom and see that the kidnappers are captured and punished. Andrew and the other partners in the firm prefer to keep a low profile and work behind the scenes in concert with the police and the victim's family, and often the kidnappers don't even realize that Liberty Market or a firm like it has been involved in the case.

When a hugely popular Italian jockey named Alessia Cenci is kidnapped, her family immediately calls upon Liberty Market, and Andrew races to Bologna to take charge of the situation on behalf of the family. It's a very delicate and demanding task. In a case like this, Andrew must keep the family focused on taking the proper steps to ensure the safe return of their loved one. Even more delicate is the relationship with the local police. Sometimes the police welcome the assistance of Liberty Market, but in other cases, they are driven by ego and view the Liberty Market representatives as interlopers and competitors. Naturally, this will always complicate the situation.

Watching Andre Douglas at work is fascinating, and the dance he conducts between the family, the kidnappers and the police is very entertaining. Apparently there really are firms like Liberty Market that specialize in this sort of thing, and reading the book, one learns a great deal about the subject of kidnapping and the responses the crime elicits.

As Andrew works the case, things become increasingly complicated, but it's hard to say much more about the book without giving too much away, and to my mind, the blurb on the cover gives away way too much. Suffice it to say that the villain in this book is also something of a departure of the usual stock villain that Francis almost always gives us. That too makes this book stand out above many of his others. All in all, a very fun read.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Another Excellent Thriller from Baron R. Birtcher

Hard Latitudes is another excellent thriller from Baron R. Birtcher. At the heart of the story is Mike Travis, scion of a wealthy family who turned his back on the soulless, empty life of wealth to become a cop in L.A. After leaving the police force, Mike has moved to Hawaii and bought a yacht, which he uses to ferry tourists on trips around the islands.

It's a laid-back, stress-free life, exactly what Mike desires, until one day he gets a call from his brother Valden, who desperately needs his help back in California. Valden is a total jerk--exactly the sort of shallow, privileged, self-absorbed clown that Mike was trying to leave behind. But Valden is Mike's brother, and so against his better judgement, Mike grabs the next plane back to the mainland.

Valden is the sort of guy who routinely cheats on his wife, but this time it seems that someone has taken video of him in a compromising situation with a girl who is most likely under age. The people who have the video are blackmailing Valden and threatening to make the video public if he doesn't pay up. This would be a major embarrassment, which would probably cost Valden his marriage. Perhaps even more important, Valden is heavily involved in politics as a fundraiser for a congressman, who is about to be feted at a major event. If Valden's situation becomes public, it might seriously compromise the congressman as well.

The congressman is a scumbag, and Mike Travis couldn't care less about him or his fat cat friends. But he does like Valden's wife and family and is anxious to protect them from the fallout of his brother's stupid mistake. Accordingly, Mike recruits a couple of friends from his days on the force and begins an effort to track down the blackmailers and put them out of commission. The timeline is short; the odds are long, and truth to tell, his brother probably isn't worth saving, but Mike will give it his best shot and put himself at considerable risk in the process.

It's a cleverly-plotted story with an appealing protagonist who carries his own share of baggage. The book moves along swiftly, and Birtcher excels at describing the settings, both in Hawaii and in L.A. It turns out to be a complex tale with lots of unexpected twists and turns--all in all, a very good read.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Detective Superintendent Alan Banks Takes Charge of a Particularly Complex Investigation

This is the twenty-fourth entry in Peter Robinson's series featuring Inspector Alan Banks a member of the police department in the fictional town of Eastvale in the north of England. Through the years, Banks has risen through the ranks and is now a Detective Superintendent, overseeing a group of detectives. 

As the book opens, Banks is at a funeral. It's a particularly difficult one for him, since the woman who has died was the first girl he ever loved. While they were still in college, she broke up with him, refusing to explain why, and he had not seen or heard from her in over forty years. But as is so often the case with your first real love, Banks has never forgotten her and is deeply saddened by her death.

Banks had turned his cell phone off for the funeral and in his melancholy, forgets to turn it on until he leaves the train after arriving back home. When he turns it back on, the phone explodes with texts and voicemail messages demanding his urgent attention. A sniper has opened fire on a wedding party leaving a church in a small village near Eastvale. Seven or eight victims are down and the gunman who fired from a hillside overlooking the entrance to the church has escaped. In the confusion, only one person even caught a fleeting glimpse of him.

Banks arrives on the scene to find total chaos. Four people will ultimately die of their wounds, including the bride and the groom. One of Banks's detective who was in the party has suffered a minor wound but will recover. Banks now takes charge of an investigation that will naturally unfold under intense media pressure. Many questions need to be answered: Was this a terrorist attack? Did the gunman have an intended target or targets, or was he just firing randomly into the wedding party? Why did he select this particular wedding party?

Inevitably, this will be a very broad investigation which must look into the background of all of the victims in an effort to determine if any of them had an enemy who might have attacked them. Banks will be reunited with Jenny Fuller, a profiler from an earlier case, who will join the investigation in and effort to point them in the direction of the sort of person who might have committed such an horrendous crime. Throughout the book, he will continue to be haunted by the death of the woman he had loved.

As with any long-running series, the cast of characters is now fully familiar and it's fun to see them all back again interacting with each other. The case is an interesting one and it takes some unexpected twist and turns. The police work is solid, and the story proceeds at exactly the right pace before ending with a great climax. Another solid addition to the series.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

An Excellent Debut Novel from Gerry Boyle

First published in 1993, this is the debut novel in an excellent series featuring newspaperman Jack McMorrow. As a young man, Jack worked his way up the ladder of the newspaper business until he reached the pinnacle of the profession, working as a metro reporter for the New York Times. But by the time he reached his middle thirties, he realized, sadly, that he was being eclipsed by younger and more energetic reporters and that his best days as a reporter might well be behind him.

Accordingly, McMorrow turned his life in another direction and accepted the job as editor of the Androscoggin Review, a small weekly newspaper published in Androscoggin, Maine. Androscoggin is a tiny county, located in a heavily-wooded area in the southwestern corner of the state. The Reviewpublishes a lot of stories about the local high school sports teams, about the meetings of local clubs, about elderly citizens celebrating milestone birthdays and that sort of thing.

One thing that the Androscoggin Review does not do is make waves, or at least it didn't until Jack McMorrow comes along. McMorrow still believes in the values of excellent journalism and in the importance of publishing stories that are significant to the community. Thus, when the town's largest employer, a wood pulp mill, demands a significant tax break, rather than simply rolling over and supporting the request as the previous editor might have done, Jack digs into issue in an effort to determine if there's any justification for the request.

Jack's investigation upsets not only the mill owners, but a lot of workers and others in the town who depend on the wages and other money that the mill brings to the town. The mill has suggested that if the tax break is not granted, they may close their operations in Androscoggin and move the jobs elsewhere, so a lot of people in the county wish that Jack would just keep his big mouth shut. And some of them appear determined to make sure that he does.

While this debate rages, the newspaper's photographer suddenly turns up dead, drowned in a remote canal on a freezing winter night. Nobody knows how the photographer got to the canal or how he wound up in it, and nobody, save for Jack McMorrow, seems to care. The cops and the county coroner quickly rule the case closed, ruling it a death by accident or suicide. Jack refuses to accept the verdict without at least a minimal investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death, and this too will get him into trouble. Along the way, McMorrow has plenty of chances to simply surrender and give in to the pressures around him, but he's driven by a desire to know the truth, no matter the consequences of discovering it.

Gerry Boyle clearly knows the newspaper business well, and he's created a very appealing protagonist in Jack McMorrow. The plot moves along at just the right pace with the level of suspense ebbing and flowing until it builds to a great climax. In particular, Boyle excels at creating the setting. The small community of Androscoggin and its residents come alive in these pages, and one almost literally feels the freezing cold as McMorrow makes his way about the town and through the woods that surround it. I first discovered this series in the late 1990s, and I'm really looking forward to making my way through it again. 4.5 stars.