Thursday, May 30, 2019

Introducing Gabriel Du Pre, Fiddler, Brand Inspector and Part-Time Deputy Sheriff

Published in 1994, this is the novel that introduced Gabriel Du Pre, a fiddle player, brand inspector and part-time deputy sheriff who lives in the fictional town of Toussaint on the eastern plains of Montana. Du Pre is somewhere in his middle forties when we first meet him, a widower with two daughters and a rapidly growing number of grandchildren. Every once in a while, he goes to church and confesses that he's still living in sin with his girlfriend, Madeline, whose husband abandoned her three years earlier. "Good," says the local parish priest before giving Du Pre absolution. Say a "couple Hail Marys. The words are pretty, you'll like them."

Du Pres is a Metis, descended from the French fur trappers who married Native American women in Canada in the nineteenth century. Some Metis later moved south into Montana and when another character asks him early on what sort of an Indian he is, Du Pre says that, fortunately, he's one with just enough French in him that the anthropologists leave him alone.

As the book opens, a ranch hand calls the sheriff's office to report that he's come across a plane wreck high in the Wolf mountains. The sheriff asks Du Pre to check it out and, reluctantly, Du Pre agrees. It turns out that the wreck is over thirty years old. There are a couple of skeletons lying near the wreck, but there's also a spare skull and a few other bones that don't seem to belong with the wreckage.

The discovery sets off an investigation with significant ramifications for a lot of people, and it's up to Du Pre to get it all sorted out, if and when he can, in and around looking at cows' asses, as he puts it, ensuring that their brands are in order before they are shipped off to market. Du Pre is surrounded by a great cast of characters who will endure through most of the long-running series, and Bowen expertly puts them all in a beautifully-rendered setting. 

Gabriel Du Pre is one of the most unique characters in all of crime fiction, and the novels in this series are uniformly very good. If you're a fan of crime fiction and haven't tripped to them yet, do yourself a favor and find them. If you can, it's best to read this series in order to follow the development of the characters, all of whom have rich, full lives that continue to evolve as the series progresses.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Cassidy's Girl Turns Out to Be Big Trouble in This Pulp Novel by David Goodis

Cassidy's Girl was first published in 1951, and was written by David Goodis, a prolific author of pulp paperback originals. Goodis is perhaps best known for his novel, Dark Passage, which was later turned into a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Near the end of his life (Goodis died when he was only forty-nine), he would insist that the concept for the television series, "The Fugitive," had been stolen from Dark Passage.

Goodis specialized in writing about characters that were down on their luck and had basically been kicked to the curb by polite, mainstream society, and Cassidy's Girl is filled with such people. At the center of the novel is Cassidy, who was once a respected, high-flying airline captain, living the good life. But then a passenger plane he was piloting crashed on takeoff and a number of people were killed. 

Although Cassidy was not at fault, he was blamed for the crash. As a consequence, he lost his job and his life began the downward spiral that ultimately finds him working as a bus driver in Philadelphia. He lives in a rundown apartment on the waterfront in the seediest part of town with his wife, Mildred. Theirs is a very rough, dysfunctional relationship with lots of drunken physical abuse on both sides. Their fights most often end in bouts of very rough, wild sex to which both Cassidy and Mildred seem addicted, but no wonder, given that "Mildred was a wild animal, a living chunk of dynamite that exploded periodically and caused Cassidy to explode, and these rooms were more of a battleground than a home."

Cassidy and Mildred have a small circle of friends, all of whom are serious alcoholics. These people spend virtually all of their waking hours at a dive bar called Lundy's where they drink themselves into oblivion, and as the book opens the reader can only wonder where Goodis is going to take these characters.

Not very far, it turns out, which is really too bad. I loved the first half of this book, which I thought had a great set up for the kind of really dark, nasty, sexy plot that leads people to read pulp novels in the first place. But sadly, there's no payoff of any consequence. These characters drink and smoke and fight and have sex and then drink some more. Cassidy will become disenchanted with Mildred and infatuated with another woman. Bad luck will continued to be his constant companion, and his life will continue to disintegrate even further. Meanwhile, the other minor characters around him will continue to drink themselves blind and offer very bad advice.

This really isn't a crime novel, since no crime of any consequence actually occurs. Rather it turns out to be something of a sociological study of a group of people that you'd never want to hang out with. The plot, such as it is, becomes increasingly unbelievable as the book progresses, until it reaches a climax which will simply leave a lot of readers shaking their heads in frustration.

I think there was a lot of unrealized potential in this story and, as I said, there were parts of it that I really enjoyed. But in the end, the book failed to live up to the promise of the opening pages and by the time it was over, I'm sorry to say that I no longer wanted to spend any additional time with either Cassidy or his girl.

Monday, May 27, 2019

P.I. Philip Marlowe Searches for a Missing Wife in Another Very Good Novel from Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler's fourth novel to feature Los Angeles P.I. Philip Marlowe involves two missing wives. One is the independently wealthy spouse of Derace Kingsley, an executive in a large firm. His wife, Crystal, who disappeared a month ago after sending him a telegram from Texas announcing that she was divorcing him and marrying her boyfriend, Chris Lavery, who has a reputation as a Don Juan.

Kingsley isn't particularly concerned about that. He doesn't really love his wife; he knows that she plays around, and he also knows that Lavery is one of her conquests. But then he happens to run into Lavery who tells him that he hasn't seen Crystal in a month and certainly didn't run off to Texas or anywhere else with her. Now worried, Kingsley hires Marlowe to find her.

Inevitably, of course, this will lead Marlowe into a complex series of events that's hugely convoluted, even for a Raymond Chandler novel. Several people will be murdered; some will be blackmailed. Almost everybody will lie to Marlowe, making his job even more difficult, and corrupt cops will keep beating him up and threatening to frame him for all sorts of crimes. But, as always, Marlowe will soldier on, irrespective of the odds, determined to root out the truth, even though he really doesn't like his client or virtually anyone else with whom he will come into contact on this case. It's his job, damnit, and he's going to do it the best he can.

As with practically any novel by Raymond Chandler, the plot is almost impossible to follow, but then nobody reads Chandler for his plots. Like the best of his books, this one is beautifully written in the spare, lean tone that set the early standard for hard boiled crime novels. This is not my favorite of Chandler's novels by any means, but it's still a very good read.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Detectives Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard Team Up to Investigate the Murder of a Young Girl

Dark Sacred Night unites Michael Connelly's long-running protagonist, Harry Bosch, with newcomer Renee Ballard, whom Connelly introduced in The Late Show. Ballard is a detective working the night shift--the late show--and late one night she encounters Bosch rifling through the filing cabinets at the Hollywood station where she works. Bosch, who is now working cold cases as a reserve for the San Fernando P.D., is looking for records relating to the murder of Daisy Clayton, a fifteen-year-old runaway who was killed nine years earlier.

After some initial sparring, the two join forces to work the case in their spare time. Bosch is also investigating an old gang murder for the San Fernando department while Ballard is otherwise occupied by the usual calls that come in on her shift. But in and around their other responsibilities, the two will try to find justice for Daisy Clayton.

I'm a huge fan of Michael Connelly's novels, but this book just did not work as well for me as most of his others. For some reason, I'm having trouble warming up to Renee Ballard. After two books, I still don't find the character as interesting or as compelling as most of Connelly's other protagonists. The structure of the story didn't help either. It's told in alternating sections, one from Ballards P.O.V. and then the next from Bosch's. I found it disorienting, and it also seemed to drain some of the tension out of the story. Just as things were heating up from one character's P.O.V., it switched to the other's and the tension was dissipated.

Another problem was the fact that the two detectives were working this case in and around their other responsibilities. So, in effect, the search for Daisy's killer is constantly interrupted, particularly by the other incidents that Ballard is sent out to investigate. Some of these are interesting in and of themselves, but again they distract the reader's attention away from the main story.

The end result is that, at least for me, the book is not nearly as compelling as most of Connelly's other novels. Once one of his books gets its hooks into me, I usually can't bear to put it down until I've finished it. I had no problem putting this book down fairly frequently, though, because Connelly gave me plenty of opportunities to do so with all the breaks he inserted into the action. Dark Sacred Night is really not a bad book; I certainly enjoyed reading it, but it won't rank as one of my favorites among Connelly's many great books.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Perry Mason Tackles The Case of the Haunted Husband

When hatcheck girl Stephanie Claire is fired after refusing her boss's advances, she impulsively decides to hitchhike to Los Angles to see if she can break into the movies. She gets a ride to Bakersfield and there is picked up by a man in a powerful sedan. The man's been drinking and when he tries to get friendly, Stephanie she has a drink of whiskey to be a good sport, but otherwise resists his advances. In attempting to paw Stephanie, the man loses control of the car, which crashes. Stephanie is pulled from the wreck with liquor on her breath, only to find that the driver has disappeared, leaving her to take the rap for manslaughter.

The car belongs to a Hollywood mogul who claims that it was stolen, and if anybody ever needed a good lawyer, it's Stephanie. Fortunately, one of her girlfriends persuades Perry Mason to take the case, and it's a very good thing, because like so many of Mason's cases, this one will ultimately become so convoluted that only Perry could figure it out.

Inevitably, of course, a body or two will drop along the way and Perry will be locked in an intricate chess match with his new adversary, Lieutenant Tragg, who replaces the bumbling Sergeant Holcomb as Mason's principal antagonist. Interestingly, Tragg looks nothing like Ray Collins, the actor who played the character in the long-running TV series. In this novel, Tragg is described for one of the very few times: "Tragg was about Mason's age, an inch or two shorter, a pound or two lighter, but there was a certain similarity about the men which would impress a close observer. Tragg's high forehead, wavy black hair, clean-cut features and thoughtful eyes were at sharp variance with the bull-necked beef of Sergeant Holcomb, whose place on the homicide squad he had taken."

This is a fairly typical entry in the series, and a fun read.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Young Writer Accepts an Interesting But Potentially Dangerous Assignment on Camino Island

When a gang of clever thieves breaks into a vault deep in the bowels of the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the prize is five original manuscripts from the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, including The Great Gatsby. The collection is priceless, and the problem, of course, is how to safely dispose of it while making a fortune in the process.

Naturally, Princeton would very much like to have the manuscripts back, and the initial F.B.I. investigation into the thefts yields some results but not the manuscripts themselves. Another agency, which is never named, is also searching for the manuscripts. They represent the insurance company that's going to have to fork over $20 million if the manuscripts are not recovered safely.

Naturally, they'd prefer not to have to do that, and the agency they've retained does not have the scrouples or the limitations of a law enforcement agency. The company convinces Mercer Mann, an English instructor who has just lost her college teaching job, to aid them in the search. Mercer has published one well-received novel, but is suffering from a serious case of writer's block brought on by the pressing obligations of her huge student loan debt. Her potential employer offers to pay her handsomely and to pay off the student debt, an offer that Mercer ultimately cannot refuse, even though she has reservations about the job she's being asked to do.

Mercer's employer points her at a very successful bookseller named Bruce Cable on Camino Island in Florida. The company believes that Cable, who is rumored to sometimes traffic in stolen novels, might be in possession of the Fitzgerald manuscripts. Mercer used to visit her aunt on the island and still has a partial interest in her aunt's home there. As a novelist, she should be easily able to penetrate Cable's inner circle and hopefully discover if he has the manuscripts and where he might be hiding them. But this may not be as easy as it sounds.

This is a reasonably fun read and I particularly enjoyed it for all the insights into the writing and book selling businesses. It's certainly not among Grisham's better books--the suspense is not nearly as heart-pounding as it is in The Firmor The Runaway Jury, for example, but it's an easy way to lose a summer afternoon.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Ian Ludlow Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Lee Goldberg

I was a big fan of Lee Goldberg's True Fiction, the first novel featuring Ian Ludlow. Ludlow is a novelist who writes thrillers featuring Clint Straker, an action hero on the order of James bond or Jack Reacher. In True Fiction, poor Ludlow was stunned to discover that someone had taken one of his ideas and turned it into a real, live terrorist plot. Ludlow is overweight, out of shape, and often terrified--in short, the polar opposite of the hero he created. But left with no other alternative, Ludlow was forced to leap into action himself, with the help of a dog walker and author escort named Margo French, in an effort to defeat the terrorists.

Happily, the crisis passed and things have now returned to normal. Ian is back at work, quietly working on a new Straker novel in which the Chinese, through multiple devious methods, are attempting to take over the United States and, by extension, the rest of the free world. 

As the book opens, Ludlow is preparing to go to Hong Kong to research his new novel and to visit the site where the new Clint Straker movie is being filmed. Margo, who was badly traumatized by the events of the first novel, has disappeared, attempting to regain control of her life. She hasn't had much success though, and shows up at Ian's door just as he's preparing to leave. She's terrified of being alone and insists that Ian take her to Hong Kong with him. 

Ludlow agrees and off they go. Sadly, though, he's done it again. He's written another novel in which the events he describes are really taking place. As he explains to Margo, "The basic premise of my novel is this. China is invading the United States with cash, not soldiers. They are buying key companies across our economy. Hotel chains, movie studios, drug companies, carmakers, agricultural seed companies, you name it." 

Ian explains that the Chinese are also hacking our computers, stealing our data and intellectual property, and threatening our way of life. The problem, though, is, that the Chinese actually do have such a master plan, and when they learn the premise of Ludlow's novel, they presume that he is an American spy, coming to Hong Kong to foil their plans. Obviously, he must be stopped at all costs.

The result is that Ian is once again thrown into the maelstrom and will have to somehow save himself, Margo, and the American Way of Life as well. It's a tall order, and while Clint Straker would be up for it, Ian Ludlow will need a lot of help and even more luck. 

This is another hilarious send up of the thriller genre while, at the same time, being a genuine thriller in and of itself. There's plenty of action and even more laugh-out-loud moments. The actor playing Clint Straker, for example, is an action hero named Damon Matthews. When Margo insists that Matthews is way to short to play Clint Straker, almost every fan of crime fiction will get the reference, and there's plenty more where that came from.

Lee Goldberg, who would appear to be even more prescient than Ian Ludlow, has had the wisdom or the good fortune, to launch this book just at the moment when relations between the U.S. and China appear to be going down the tubes, and for some of the very reasons that Ludlow articulates. If only the solution to our current problems were as simple as sending Clint Straker, or Ian Ludlow, or even Lee Goldberg to straighten them out. Sadly, that's probably not going to happen. The good news, though, is that we have this excellent novel to keep us entertained while we attempt to ride out the storm.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Virgil Flowers Investigates a Miracle in the Tiny Town of Wheatfield, Minnesota

The latest book in the Virgil Flowers series is much like the last, a fairly light and breezy entertainment that is neither as dark nor, frankly, as compelling as the earlier entries in the series. It takes place in the sleepy little town of Wheatfield, Minnesota, which is basically dying on the vine. But then, miraculously (?), the Blessed Virgin Mary appears to the worshippers at the town's Catholic church. All of a sudden, the town is swarming with pilgrims hoping to catch a glimpse of the Virgin. 

Happily, Wheatfield is now back on the road to recovery until a couple of the town's visitors are shot. Enter that F***in' Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota BCA who needs to quickly find the shooter before the pilgrims are driven away and the town is on the skids again. Even though a couple of people will ultimately be killed, there doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency in the task, though. The book is populated by quirky characters and it's fun to watch Virgil interact with them. You never really get the sense that Virgil won't solve the crime and you just sort of coast along with the ride until he does.

It's a fun read, but for me, and I suspect a lot of other readers, it's one you'll forget about practically the moment you're finished; there's nothing particularly memorable or weighty about it. Also, while Flowers has deservedly become one of the most popular figures in modern crime fiction, the character is not quite as interesting as he once was. 

While Virgil's always been an amusing character, in the earlier books he also had something of an edge that seems to have gradually slipped away. Moreover, he was always very attractive to the women who populate these books, and it was always a lot of fun watching him interact with them. However, a couple of books ago, Sandford settled him down into an ongoing relationship, and his girlfriend, Frankie, is now pregnant, which suggests that Virgil is going to remain settled down.

Sandford has argued that he needed to do this (as he also did with Lucas Davenport) because he fears that if his male characters are continually moving from one woman to another, they will appear to be predators. I would, very respectfully, of course, strongly disagree with him on this point, but the decision to do this has taken away one of the most attractive and interesting aspects of the character. It's still a lot of fun to watch Virgil in action, but, to me at any rate, not as much as it once was.

Holy Ghost is still a fun read, but I'm beginning to miss the "old" Virgil, just as I am missing the "old" Lucas Davenport. 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

BLACK CHERRY BLUES Is a Great Dave Robicheaux Novel from James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues is the third entry in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it remains my favorite of all of James Lee Burke's novels. As the book opens, Robicheaux, a former New Orleans homicide detective, is now running a bait and boat-rental shop in the Louisiana bayou. He's a recovering alcoholic who remains haunted by the brutal death of his wife, Annie, who was murdered by drug dealers. (Parenthetically, no man in the history of crime fiction has had worse luck with wives than poor Dave Robicheaux. I've lost track of how many wives he's now lost over the course of this long-running series, but it's an amazing number.)

Dave is struggling to raise his six-year-old daughter, Alafair, and to adjust to the loss of his wife, when an old college roommate named Dixie Lee Pugh comes back into his life. Pugh left college to become a rock and roll musician. Later, while driving drunk, he hit and killed a child and was sent to prison. Now out, he's working as a leaseman for an oil company up in Montana. One thing leads to another, and Pugh manages to involve Dave with some very unsavory characters. When one of those characters is murdered, Dave is set up to take the fall for the crime.

The principal witness against Dave is Harry Mapes, a scumbag who's associated with the crew that Pugh runs with up in Montana. Mapes has taken off to Montana and Dave decides that in order to clear his name and save himself from a long stretch in prison, he'll have to go to Montana and track the guy down. Accordingly, Dave packs up his daughter and drives up to Missoula. There he rents a house, puts Alafair in school and sets about trying to get himself out of this jam.

It won't be easy. Both Mapes and Pugh have tied in with a mobster named Sal Dio. Dio has a home on Flathead Lake, seventy miles north of Missoula, and when Dave shows up there, he discovers that Clete Purcell, his old partner from the N.O.P.D. Homicide Unit, is also working for Dio. Dio is attempting to expand his interests into Montana and he and his associates, Harry Mapes included, may have committed several murders in an attempt to protect their operations in the Treasure State. Dave's efforts to unscramble this mess and to somehow clear his name will lead him down a rabbit hole of horror.

This is a very dark, dense, violent novel. It's also beautifully written in a lyrical style that few other authors can match. Burke knows this territory intimately, and as in all of his books, the setting becomes a character in and of itself. Even this early in the series, Dave Robicheaux has become one of the most conflicted characters ever to populate a crime novel. The man is haunted by more demons than any rational person should be able to bear; he lives in a world so corrupt as to seem unsalvageable, and yet he somehow soldiers on. It can sometimes be hard to watch him do so, but at the same time, you can't pull your eye away from the page. A truly great read.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Reporter Jack McMorrow May Need a Lifeline in This Entertaining Novel from Gerry Boyle

Jack McMorrow was formerly a reporter for the New York Times, but his circumstances changed and he moved to Maine to take a job as the editor of a small town newspaper. Things there went bad as well, and now Jack has retreated deeper into the woods of the state with his girlfriend, Roxanne, who's a social worker. Jack is content for the moment to spend his days in the woods watching birds and his nights drinking beer, but Roxanne is losing patience with him and wants him to get off his dead end and make something of himself again.

Jack finally agrees to at least make an effort and takes a job two days a week as the court reporter for the Kennebec Observer. The editor expects Jack to sit in the courtroom all day and file a simple summary of the cases that go before the court. But on his first day on the job, Jack is intrigued by the case of Donna Marchant, a young woman who comes to the court seeking a restraining order against her abusive boyfriend.

Jack interviews the woman and then writes a story about her appearance without mentioning her name. But it's a small town and when the story hits the paper, Jack discovers that he's antagonized a lot of people, including his editor who didn't see the article before it was printed. He's also angered Donna's boyfriend who vows revenge against Jack for exposing his dirty linen. Things escalate from there and before long, someone's going to turn up dead and Jack is going to find himself in deep trouble on a lot of fronts, including in his relationship with Roxanne. But as readers of the previous two novels in this series are aware, Jack McMorrow is a tenacious kind of guy and once he gets his teeth into a problem, he won't let go, irrespective of the consequences, until he finds a resolution.

This is another very entertaining entry in this series and, as in the first two books, Gerry Boyle excels in particular at creating the setting. He's captured perfectly the people and the places of rural Maine, and this continues to be an excellent regional mystery series.