Monday, April 29, 2019

A Great Sequel to BULL MOUNTAIN by Brian Panowich

This is an excellent sequel to Bull Mountain, which was one of my favorite books of 2015. Again at the heart of the novel is Clayton Burroughs, the last surviving member of a notorious rural Georgia crime family, and the only member of the clan who ever tried to walk the straight and narrow.

Clayton became the sheriff of the county where his family's criminal empire was located on Bull Mountain. This led the rest of the family to ostracize him, and the events that concluded Bull Mountain left him, in many ways, a broken man. Now he lives for his wife and his small child, and for his job as sheriff. 

But while Clayton would very much like to avoid any additional trouble, trouble will come looking for him. Sensing weakness in the remaining elements of the empire that Clayton's father had established, a rival gang is moving in on Bull Mountain, threatening Clayton, his family, and the peace he hoped he'd established there. After a particularly unfortunate incident, Clayton is pulled back into the life he'd hoped to escape and the bodies start falling left and right. In the end, as Clayton knows, family is everything, and in this case, the family that's most in danger is the only one that Clayton has left--his wife and his son. No matter what it takes, he'll stop at nothing to protect them.

This is a dark, violent, bloody book--"Hillbilly Noir" at its best. Panowich writes beautifully and brilliantly creates both the characters and the settings of this novel. The plot moves along at a breakneck pace, and once you're halfway through it, you'd better not have anything else planned for the rest of the day, because you won't be putting this book down until you've reached the explosive climax.

I was lucky enough to get a British edition of this book, which was released in 2017. It's just now coming out in an American edition and deserves a huge audience. While it certainly can be read as a stand-alone, do yourself a favor and read Bull Mountain first. It informs virtually everything that happens here and will give the the chance to read two really great books instead of one. You will thank me later.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Jockey Kit Fielding Faces a Multitude of Problems in this Novel from Dick Francis

Jockey Kit Fielding returns for a second appearance in this novel from Dick Francis, and he faces all sorts of problems. He's engaged to the love of his life, Danielle, but he fears that she is slipping away from him and that she may be losing enthusiasm for the prospect of life as a jockey's wife. The fact that she's gone of to Italy in the company of a sophisticated prince to look at Italian Renaissance paintings, isn't helping Kit's mood much.

But, while he worries about his future with Danielle, Kit is suddenly faced with more pressing problems. He rides several horses owned by Danielle's aunt, Princess Casilia. The princess, in turn, is married to Roland de Brescou, a member of the French aristocracy, who is a partner in a French construction company. De Brescou is an elderly man with a debilitating illness and he rarely leaves his room in the couple's London mansion.

Sadly, de Brescou's original partner has died, and the partner's shares in the company have been inherited by a particularly nasty character named Henri Nanterre. Nanterre wants the company to go into business of manufacturing guns for the world arms trade, but de Brescou steadfastly refuses, thinking that such a move would be immoral.

Nanterre can take no action without de Brescou's signature on the contract and he is determined to get it at any cost. He threatens everyone in the family, Kit included, with great bodily harm, or worse. He also threatens to kill the horses belonging to the Princess. In short, this is not a very genteel kind of a guy.

It will be up to Kit to try to foil Nanterre's scheme and to protect de Brescou's family and himself in the process. He will also have to foil the prince who may have designs on Danielle, and so he's in for a few hectic days.

This is a fairly good book, typical of most Dick Francis novels. Kit Fielding is a worthy protagonist, and the plot moves quickly along. If I have any complaint, it lies in the fact that, for all of the dire threats leveled by Henri Nanterre, and in spite of the truly despicable things that he actually does, there didn't seem to be as much tension in this book as there usually is in a novel by Dick Francis. This may result from that fact that, unlike in most of Francis's novels, here we know who the bad guy is from the start, and that drains some of the usual mystery and suspense from the book. A solid 3.5 stars, but not quite as good as the best books in the series.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

COUNTRY DARK Is an Excellent Novel from Chris Offutt

This is a very atmospheric tale, set mostly in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The protagonist, Tucker, is eighteen years old when the novel opens in 1954. After serving in the Korean War, he is freshly out of the army and is making his way back home. 

He's camping out along the way, living off the land, when he comes across a man attempting to rape a fourteen-year-old girl. Tucker pulls the man off the girl and beats him badly before discovering that the man is the girl's uncle and that they are on the way home from her father's funeral. The man is also a deputy sheriff, which complicates matters even further. 

Thinking quickly, Tucker forces the man to sell him his car, which has been modified into a vehicle for running moonshine whiskey. Tucker then leaves with the car and with the young girl, Rhonda, who is strongly attracted to him. As a practical matter, Tucker has had no experience with women and is in some ways, little more than a boy himself. But within hours, the two agree to marry, and Rhonda is speculating about what their children will be like.

At this point, the story jumps forward ten years. The couple is living a hardscrabble life on a mountaintop in Eastern Kentucky and Tucker is driving 'shine for a local bootlegger. The couple already has five children but only one of them is normal. The others are all severely handicapped in some way or other. 

Moving forward, Offutt describes the triumphs and tribulations that constitute the life that Tucker and Rhonda have built for themselves. The couple faces one challenge after another, and as the story progresses, both Tucker and Rhonda will be sorely tested. Country Darkis a beautifully written story that evokes a way of life few of us can imagine. Tucker, in particular, is a very compelling character, and his story is one that few readers will quickly forget. This is the first novel that Chris Offutt has written in a number of years, and I can only hope that his next one appears very soon.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Lola Vasquez Is a Kick-Ass Woman Trying to Make Her Way in a Very Tough World

Lola Vasquez is a stone-cold killer. She leads the Crenshaw Six, a street gang in South Central L.A. She deals heroin which is taking a terrible toll on her neighborhood and on the country as a whole. Her brother is serving time in prison for a murder that Lola committed, and by almost any definition, she's a terrible excuse for a human being. And yet, in a very perverse sort of way, you can't help rooting for her, or at least I couldn't.

Lola is also the mother of a young daughter, and she's trying desperately to make a better life for her than the one that Lola endured as the child of an addicted mother who pimped her out for drugs. Lola came up the hard way, and is living life the only way that she knows how. It's impossible to know who to trust, and in Lola's world, alliances may shift in a heartbeat. But when a rival gang attempts to move in on her territory, Lola is forced to lead her gang to war in a conflict that will have grave consequences for herself, for her gang, and most especially for her family.

It's refreshing to see a book like this with a kick-ass female protagonist who is also a leader of men. The story speeds along at a rocket's pace but at the same time it also provokes the reader to slow down and to think very carefully about Lola and her story and about the moral implications of it all. 

I'm sorry to say that I came to this book not knowing that it was the second in a series until it was too late, and so I'm sure I missed a lot about the character's development that would have helped a lot in reading this one. In particular, I'm curious about how Lola came to lead the Crenshaw Six. I would have assumed that a group of tough, macho, male street gang members would have never accepted a woman as a leader, and I'd love to know how that came about. I'll be looking eagerly now for Lola, the first book in the series. In the meantime, I really loved this book and, in many ways, I really admired Lola too, in spite of her obvious flaws.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

U. S. Marshal Lucas Davenport Tries to Unravel an Attempted Assassination

I confess that I'm having more trouble than I would have expected warming up to the idea of U.S. Marshal Lucas Davenport. When I first heard John Sandford explain his rationale for moving Davenport out of Minnesota and freeing him up to move about the country taking on interesting cases, it sounded like an appealing idea. And apparently, for many readers, the approach is working. But not so much for me, at least not yet.

While Davenport is still much the same character, I find that once he's unmoored from his traditional surroundings and especially from his usual supporting cast, the stories just aren't working as well for me. As in the previous book, Sandford has given Lucas a pair of new sidekicks, marshal Rae Givens and her partner Bob. But the idea of Bob and Rae, and of naming a female marshal Rae Givens seems too cute by half, and the two are a pale shade of Shrake and Jenkins, and the rest of the cast that previously surrounded Davenport.

In an earlier book, Davenport saved the bacon, political and otherwise, of a United States Senator named Porter Smalls. As this book opens, someone attempts to kill Smalls but winds up killing instead a woman he was riding with, leaving Smalls relatively unhurt. Smalls demands that Davenport be assigned to the investigation, hoping that he can track down whoever was behind the attempt before they try again.

Both Lucas and Smalls have a pretty good idea who might have been attempting to kill Smalls, another U. S. Senator named Taryn Grant. The both believe that she is psychotic and Lucas is convinced that Grant was responsible for at least three earlier murders. But he couldn't prove his suspicions and so she remains untouched in the Senate.

The book thus becomes something of a cat and mouse game between Lucas and other federal officers and Grant and a handful of other evil-doers. Grant and her pals determine early on that Lucas needs to be removed from the investigation one way or another, and so the battle will quickly become personal.

I don't mean to suggest that this is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, but to my mind it's not nearly on a par with the best books in this long-running series. A particular problem I had in this case was the character of Taryn Grant. Through the years, Sandford has excelled at creating excellent villains, and the success of the books in this series has largely depended on Sandford creating a worthy antagonist for Davenport. I really had trouble, though, buying into Grant who seemed more a cartoon villain than a credible character. She's certainly no Clara Rinker who remains, in my book at least, the gold standard of Sanford villains.

I understand that Sandford decided that it might be time after more than twenty-five books to take this series in a different direction, but the last two books haven't felt to me like real Lucas Davenport novels. Maybe I will ultimately get with the new program, but I'm sorry to say that I'm just not there yet.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Private Detective C. W. Sughrue Goes Looking for THE LAST GOOD KISS

Published in 1978, The Last Good Kiss is James Crumley's third novel and the first to feature C. W. Sughrue, an alcoholic former army officer who is now a P.I. in the fictional town of Meriwether, Montana. It is generally regarded as Crumley's best novel, and any number of contemporary crime writers have described it as their favorite crime novel of all. The town of Meriwether is based loosely on Missoula, Montana, where Crumley, a Texas native, taught at the University of Montana in the 1960s. He then moved to Missoula permanently in the mid-1980s, and was a larger-than-life-character who was very well-known in the town's seedier bars until his death in 2008. 

Crumley's protagonist, C. W., is no Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. He spends most of his professional time repossessing cars and tracking down cheating spouses. When he's not investigating, he can often be found tending bar in a topless joint. As the book opens, Sughrue has been hired to track down a famous writer who has gone off the rails. The writer's ex-wife wants him back at his desk, cranking out his next great novel, and so she sends Sughrue to find him.

Sughrue tracks the guy from Montana to Sonoma, California, where the book opens with what is often described as the best opening line in all of crime fiction: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

Before Sughrue can get Trahearne out of the bar, a fight breaks out. Trahearne is injured and will have to spend a few days in a hospital before he's fit to travel. Learning that Sughrue is a detective, the woman who owns the ramshackle joint hires him for $87.00 to try to find her daughter who disappeared in San Francisco ten years earlier. Sughrue tells the woman that it's an impossible task but that he will give it a shot while waiting for Trahearne to recover. 

The investigation will take Sughrue into some very dark places, often accompanied by Trahearne, as they gradually make their way back to Montana. Once he has deposited the writer with his wife, his ex-wife, and his former mother-in-law (No wonder the guy was on the run, these are some seriously weird relationships...), C. W. continues the investigation. It's an often violent, funny, and tragic booze-driven ride, which ultimately arrives at a stunning climax. 

As the first sentence would suggest, Crumley was a seriously good writer, and this is a beautifully-written book, which needs to be read slowly and savored. It's reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, and Crumley really is, or deserves to be, remembered with the same respect. For whatever reason, his books were ultimately more successful in Europe and in Japan, at least during his lifetime, than they were in the U.S. Only after his death, did he begin to get the recognition here at home that he certainly deserved, but any fan of hard-boiled crime fiction will definitely want to look for this one.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

THE BORDER Is a Brilliant Conclusion to the Trilogy that Don Winslow Began with POWER OF THE DOG

They have not yet invented a sufficient number of superlatives to describe how much I loved this book. It's an absolute masterpiece and a very worthy conclusion to the trilogy that Winslow began with The Power of the Dog in 2005. It's a sweeping epic with a huge cast that clocks in at 720 pages, and there's not a single wasted word in the entire book.

At the center of the story again is Art Keller who, in one capacity or another, has been fighting the war on drugs for forty years. It's taken a very heavy toll on Keller--physically, psychologically, mentally, emotionally and morally. It's also clearly been a losing battle, and for all the money and effort expended, the scourge of drugs plaguing the United States and its southern neighbors has only gotten worse instead of better. By now, though, too many players from the cartels, to the dealers, to the politicians, to the people owning and running the corrections system, et al., have too big a stake in the "war" and are making far too much money and other capital from it, to give it up.

Art Keller has seen this war up close and personal from literally every angle, and as the book opens, he realizes that it's time to fight it on another front. As long as there's a huge demand for illegal drugs in the U.S., and as long as there's so much money to be made from trafficking those drugs, the flow will never stop. And a border wall is certainly no answer, given that ninety percent of the drugs entering the U.S. from Mexico come through legal ports of entry.

Keller gets his chance when he's appointed Director of the DEA, and he determines that, instead of going after the drugs, he will go after the money, assuming that if the profit disappears, so will the drugs. Keller now mounts his own war, with a few trusted confederates and mostly in secret, to take down those who profit most from the profits of illegal drug sales. It's a new front in the war that poses grave dangers to those who would wage it, Art Keller perhaps most of all.

Keller's efforts play out against a huge increase in the violence associated with the drug trade and at a time when a new scourge--heroin--is exploding into the marketplace. The Sinaloa Cartel, which had imposed at least a rough order on the drug trade with the tacit cooperation of both the Mexican and American governments, is breaking up. Several factions are now struggling to dominate all or at least a part of the trade, and the violence associated with the trade has increased significantly, which will make Keller's task all that much more difficult.

While Keller is the main protagonist, Winslow tells this story through the eyes of drug lords, undercover cops, crooked politicians, drug users, financiers, money-launderers and reporters, as well as the immigrants who are struggling to make their way from Central America to a better life in the United States and who often become collateral damage in the drug war.

The story is beautifully written and the cast of characters, though large, contains many individuals who will remain with the reader for a long time to come. It also has a great deal to say about the country we've become in the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century, and Americans from across the political spectrum could learn a great deal from it. This is a book, along with its two predecessors, that I will be returning to, at least occasionally, for as long as I'm still able to read books--one of the best I've read in a very long time.