Wednesday, August 28, 2019

ATLANTA DEATHWATCH Is Classic Hardboiled Crime Fiction At Its Best

This is old-fashioned crime fiction in the best sense of the term. Originally published in 1974, the first novel in the Hardman series is a lean, gritty, hardboiled novel that would have been perfectly at home on the spinning racks of men's adventure novels that populated the nation's drug and book stores back in the day.

Jim Hardman is an ex-Atlanta cop who was railroaded off the force on trumped up corruption charges. He now works as an unlicensed P.I. Hardman, who is white, has an African American partner named Hump. Hump played for a time in the NFL and provides the muscle and intimidation where needed. He's also Hardman's guide into the city's African-American neighborhoods.

As the novel opens, a businessman named Arch Campbell has hired Hardman to trail his daughter, Emily, and see how she's spending her time. Emily attends a local college and has been an outstanding student until recently when her grades and her attendance have begun to slide. It seems like a simple task, and Hardman trails the young woman to a seedy bar on the black side of town. But while he's watching Emily, two thugs jump him, beat him up badly, and warn him off the case.

Hardman agrees to drop the case, telling Emily's father that he's not getting paid enough to absorb that kind of punishment. But then Emily is murdered and it turns out that she's been dating a black crime boss known as The Man. The Man now summons Hardman and hires him to find Emily's killer. With Hump at his side, the two work and fight their way through Atlanta's dark underbelly, following the trail of a brutal crime that's not nearly as simple as it might appear on the surface.

This is a quick and entertaining read with lots of action and violence, and it will appeal to those readers who enjoy classic hardboiled novels. Be forewarned, however: this book reflects the language and cultural and sexual attitudes of the early 1970's. It's not remotely politically correct.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Bryan Gruley Returns with an Excellent Novel that Will Keep Readers Up Well into the Night

In Purgatory bay, author Bryan Gruley has created a deliciously intricate and complex puzzle that will keep readers guessing from beginning to end while furiously turning the pages along the way.

Twelve years ago, Jubilee Rathman's family was brutally murdered by Detroit mobsters who had ensnared Jubilee's father into laundering money for them and who then slaughtered the family and set their home aflame, believing that Jubilee's father had ratted them out to the authorities and to two newspaper reporters. Only Jubilee and her brother Joshua, who was badly burned in the attack, survived.

Jubilee, who was once a model student and a star high school soccer player bound for the Ivy League, has spent the years since the attack plotting her revenge against those she blames for the deaths of her father, mother and sister and for the maiming of her brother. She has reinvented herself and her brother, and she’s built a large, fortress-like complex on Purgatory Bay, protected by the latest technological devices and administered by a digital assistant named Frances, who is basically Alexa on steroids.

Jubilee sets her plan into motion on a weekend when a prestigious girls’ hockey tournament is scheduled to be played in neighboring Bleak Harbor. She has used the tournament as an opportunity to draw into her web Michaela “Mikey” Deming who, as a young reporter, wrote a story that Jubilee believes betrayed her father and put him in the sights of the mob killers. Her other targets include a member of the crime family that attacked her family, another reporter, a former cop and others. But Jubilee intends to hit most of these people indirectly in a way that will cause them to suffer the same pain that she has endured since that night twelve years ago.

As I suggested above, this is a very intricately plotted novel, and Gruley reveals the vital information slowly, in bits and pieces, as the story progresses. For much of the book, the reader is unsure exactly what is happening or why, and the tension builds to a great climax where everything finally falls into place. Gruley has demonstrated his considerable talent in four previous books, the Starvation Lake series and last year’s Bleak Harbor, but Purgatory Bay is his best yet and is sure to win him large numbers of new fans.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sheriff Quinn Colson Faces a Barrage of Problems in This Novel from Quinn Colson

As the eighth novel in this great series opens, wedding bells are about to ring for Tibbehah County Sheriff Quinn Colson. But before we can get to the nuptials, Quinn will have to deal with various drug runners, sex traffickers, strip club owners, outlaw bikers, and other assorted losers who make being sheriff of this Mississippi county such a pain in the butt.

As the book opens, a degenerate old reprobate named Heath Pritchard has just been released from prison. Years earlier Quinn's uncle, Sheriff Hamp Beckett, had arrested Pritchard for running a major marijuana operation, and Pritchard went off to the pen. In his absence, his two nephews, Cody and Tyler, have taken over the business and brought it into the modern era. They've built an extensive underground marijuana farm under the floor of their barn where it's safely out of the view of law enforcement officials and other curious folks, and they are growing some premium weed.

The boys also love racing cars and imagine themselves as modern-day Dukes of Hazard. One Saturday night they return from a race to discover that their pathetic excuse for an uncle is back at the farm, expecting to take over the operation. Even worse, he's managed to kill a spy who was checking out the operation for the competition. Cody and Tyler barely even know their uncle and they're not about to let him waltz back in and take over the business that they've worked so hard to build. But while they try to figure out what to do with the old man, he gets them caught up in one major disaster after another.

Meanwhile, outsiders are also moving in on Fannie Hathcock, who owns the local strip club. In consequence, she's no happier than the Pritchard boys, and when all these various lowlifes begin scheming and maneuvering to protect their individual interests, it's going to make a lot of work for Quinn Colson at a time when he's supposed to be making more critical decisions about things like hiring a wedding band, helping his mother with floral arrangements, and other such things.

All in all, this is another very fun entry in this series. Atkins has created a distinctive world here that readers have come to know as well as their own neighborhoods, and it's great to see all these familiar characters back in play.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Jack Reacher Goes Looking for a Man Missing in Action from the Vietnam War

After tangling with an extremist militia group in far northwestern Montana in his last outing, the third Jack Reacher novel finds the ex-MP digging swimming pools in Key West--about as far away from Northwestern Montana as one can get without leaving the United States. When a private investigator from New York named Costello shows up in Key West looking for him, Reacher has no idea who might have sent the guy looking for him or for what purpose, and so he tells Costello that he never heard of Jack Reacher.

Reacher is also working as security at a strip club and that same night two extremely unpleasant-looking guys come in looking for Jack Reacher. Again, Reacher denies knowing the guy. But then Costello, the P.I., turns up murdered with his fingertips cut off, and Reacher decides he'd better hightail it to New York to figure out what's going on here.

He quickly discovers that the client who hired Costello was none other than Reacher's old Army mentor and close friend, General Leon Garber. But Garber has just died and Reacher arrives as the funeral is underway. Garber's deliciously beautiful daughter, Jodie, tells Reacher that her father had been looking into the case of an MIA from the Vietnam War. The man, Victor Hobie, was piloting a helicopter that crashed in an inaccessible mountain region, and everyone on board was presumed dead, even though their remains were not recovered. For some reason, though, the military refuses to acknowledge Hobie as MIA, and they will not put his name on the memorial wall in Washington, D.C. Hobie's elderly parents are still grieving and Garber was attempting to resolve the mystery for them. Naturally, Reacher will take up the crusade.

Meanwhile, in New York City, a nasty corporate loan shark named "Hook" Hobie has gotten his hooks, literally and figuratively, into a desperate businessman named Chester Stone, who badly needs eleven million bucks on a short-term loan in order to save his company. Stone has no inkling that Hobie has every intention of stripping him of everything he possesses, right down to his boxer shorts.

Inevitably, of course, these two stories will intersect in a massive and very inventive climax. Along the way, there will be lots of action and violence and Reacher will have to be on top of his game all the way along. "Hook" Hobie is truly a deliciously nasty villain and, all in all, Tripwire is a lot of fun.

Friday, August 9, 2019

SINCE WE FELL Falls a Bit Short of Dennis Lehane's Usual High Standards

I have always been a big fan of Dennis Lehane's series featuring Boston P.I.s Patrick Kenze and Angie Genarro, and Mystic River remains one of my favorite books of all time. For me, at least, the problem is that Lehane set such a very high standard in these books, that whenever he writes something that's a bit more average, I'm inevitably disappointed. Such is the case here.

For openers, I confess that I had a lot of trouble deciding what this book was supposed to be--the story of a young woman searching for the father she never knew; the tale of a rising TV news reporter who has it all only to lose it and then go half nuts, or a thriller featuring the same woman who finally meets another perfect man only to find herself trapped in something closely resembling an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Rachel Childs grew up the only child of an emotionally abusive mother who refused to tell Rachel who her father was. She kept insisting that she would at some point, but then, like Lucy pulling away the football, she kept delaying doing so. Thus Rachel spends much of the first part of the book searching for the man, working from the pathetically few clues that her mother has chosen to give her.

Then, all of a sudden, the focus shifts to Rachel's rising stardom as a reporter. She's found a great and similarly ambitious husband and she's set for big things until something inexplicable happens (something that I had a hard time buying into) and she crashes and burns and winds up psychologically damaged and afraid to leave her house. (I'm not really giving anything away here; most of this is in the tease on the back of the book.) Then Rachel gets a second shot at the brass ring and shortly thereafter her life blows up again and the book moves off in an entirely different direction.

By this time, I was suffering whiplash trying to follow all of this. In fact, Lehane may have crammed into this one book the plots for two or three really good books. But jammed together into one story, it all leaves the reader (at least this reader) just shaking his or her head in disbelief. There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, although at times Rachel began to get on my nerves, but taken as a whole it just didn't work as well as it might have. It's not a bad book, but as I suggested above, I've set a very high (and perhaps unfair) standard for Dennis Lehane based on his earlier work and Since We Fell falls short of the mark.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Jack McMorrow's Attempt to Write a Simple Newspaper Article Turns Complicated and Dangerous

Potshot is another solid entry in Gerry Boyle's excellent series featuring former New York Times reporter Jack McMorrow. Several years ago, Jack opted out of the big city rat race in favor of living in the bucolic woods of central Maine. It turned out, though, that, up close and personal, the woods weren't nearly as peaceful and bucolic as Jack might have hoped, and in three previous novels he's already had some pretty hair-raising experiences living up among the rural folks.

Potshot starts out innocently enough when Jack and his girlfriend, Roxanne, are enjoying a day at a small county fair. Jack is approached by some hippies who ask him to sign a petition urging the government to legalize marijuana. They make all the usual arguments in favor of legalization, and Jack sees the potential for a story here. He's now working as a free-lancer and figures that he can meet with these people for a few hours, crank out a story about them and their crusade, and pick up a quick three hundred bucks or so by peddling the story to the Boston Globe.

If only.

Jack drives out into the Middle of Nowhere to meet with the group's leader, Bobby Mullaney, Mullaney's wife and stepson, and Mullaney's current best friend, a creepy sort of a guy who calls himself Coyote. Mullaney and Coyote walk Jack out into the woods and proudly show him their secret marijuana patch. Then, as Jack is driving off back through the woods, someone takes a shot at his truck and the game is afoot. Before long, Jack will be mixed up with a bunch of nasty drug dealers and gangbangers, and that three hundred bucks will be pretty heard-earned, assuming that Jack can survive long enough to write the story and cash the check.

As always in Boyle's novels, the plot is very good and one of the principal strengths of these novels is the sense of place and the people who inhabit it. Boyle knows this territory very well and writes about it beautifully. The relationship between Jack and Roxanne, a social worker who daily deals with horrors of her own is also very well done, and this book should certainly appeal to a broad audience of crime fiction readers.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Keller, a Professional Hit Man, Finds Big Trouble in This Excellent Novel from Lawrence Block

As I'm sure I've said before, after Matthew Scudder, my favorite of the characters created by Lawrence Block is Keller, the affable and otherwise somewhat boring hit man. Keller first appeared in a series of short stories, most of which were initially published in Playboy. A number of the stories were then gathered into the collection Hit Man, which was published in 1999. A year later, Keller returned in this novel, which I've just reread for the first time since it came out.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of discovering this character, Keller lives quietly in New York. He's single and occasionally enjoys a relationship with a woman, but for whatever reason, the relationships don't seem to last very long. He eats out a lot and spends most of his spare cash on his stamp collection. And, every once in a while, he takes the train out to White Plains, where he meets with his agent, Dot, who gives him his next assignment. Then he goes off somewhere and kills someone.

Early in this book, Keller flies off to Louisville to do a job, but even before he can get out of the airport, he has a bad feeling about the whole thing. Of course, professional that he is, he completes the mission, and in the course of things has to change his motel room because of noisy neighbors. Soon after, he discovers that the couple that had been given his original room--a pair of adulterers--has been shot to death in the room. This only feeds Keller's belief that the whole job was jinxed from the start.

When something similar happens at the conclusion of Keller's next job, it's Dot who finally figures out what is going on: Another professional hit man is trying to weed out the competition and he has Keller in his sights. Keller has luckily escaped him twice, but how long will he be able to do so?

Keller is a professional killer and of course, the reader should not be rooting for him. But you just can't help yourself--the guy is otherwise just too likable. He's also very clever in the way he goes about his business, and one can't help but admire that. He's also a good citizen who even does jury duty, without complaining about it. The fact that the Keller stories and novels are so lighthearted also makes it easier to ignore the fact that you're cheering for a killer for hire. Clearly, these stories are not designed to be taken very seriously, but they are great fun and I always look forward to returning to them.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Tracy Crosswhite Returns in Another Excellent Novel from Robert Dugoni

This is another very good addition to Robert Dugoni's popular series featuring Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. As the book opens, the reader discovers that Tracy is pregnant--something she has not yet revealed to her boss or to the other members of her team.

The first member of the squad to actually notice Tracy's pregnancy is a woman named Andrea Gonzalez. While Tracy has been busy testifying at a trial, her boss has brought Gonzalez into the unit, allegedly to replace another member who has transferred out. But when Tracy discovers Gonzalez working at her desk and going through the files on her computer, she immediately wonders if her boss, with whom she's crossed paths previously, has realized that Tracy is pregnant and is lining up a replacement in the hope that Tracy will not come back to the unit.

But Tracy has little time to deal with this issue because she is immediately drawn into the case of a young Indian woman named Kavita Mukherjee who has gone missing. The woman's parents and brothers are very traditional, and her mother has been set on arranging a marriage for Kavita, as is still customary in many Indian families, even here in America. Kavita, though, has ideas of her own. She is studying to become a doctor and is determined to pick her own husband when and if the time arrives. Tracy joins the investigation into the woman's disappearance, but as time passes, the chance of a happy outcome do not look good. 

Meanwhile, two other members of Tracy's unit, Vic Fazio and Del Castigliano are charged with investigating the murder of a mother and community activist named Monique Rogers who has been shot to death on a playground in a crime-ridden part of the city where she was actively mobilizing the community against the drug dealers and gangbangers who threaten the neighborhood. Their investigation will take them into dangerous territory at a time when Fazio faces critical personal problems.

Dugoni weaves all of these various threads together into a very compelling narrative that focuses on the personal lives of the characters as well as the investigations that they are pursuing. By now, readers of the series will have come to know these characters well and will be very happy to follow them through the pages of this engrossing novel.