Monday, November 16, 2020

A Diminished Inspector John Rebus Returns in this novel from Ian Rankin

This is the twenty-second novel featuring Scottish police detective Inspector John Rebus. It appears thirty-one years after the first book in the series, 
Knots and Crosses, and Rebus, who was no spring chicken when readers first met him, has been allowed to age in real time. He's now nearing seventy and is in poor health with COPD. He's had to give up liquor and cigarettes, and even worse, he's been forced to retire. He spends a lot of his time now walking his dog, Brillo.

This presents the author with a difficult problem that's been confronted by other authors who have allowed their series characters to age over time, and in particular one also thinks of Michael Connelly's Detective Harry Bosch who is basically the same age as Rebus. What do you do with a beloved character who has obviously lost much of his physical prowess and who has been pushed to the sidelines by his department's retirement regulations?

Both Rankin and Connelly have attempted to keep their protagonists engaged by finding roles that they could legitimately fill in retirement and by giving them younger sidekicks who can do much of the heavy lifting, especially in an official capacity. The problem with that approach, though, is that a book billed as "An Inspector Rebus novel" really becomes a novel featuring Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox and others, with Rebus forcing himself into their investigation as much as he is able. In the end, he still plays a fairly consequential role in this book, but it's not nearly the same as the Good Old Days when he was basically carrying the story solo.

The book opens when a car is found concealed at the bottom of a gully in the woods. In the trunk is the body of a man whose ankles have been handcuffed together. The case is assigned to Rebus's former protege, Siobhan Clarke, and when the news of the discovery is reported, Rebus contacts Clarke, suggesting that he might know who the victim is.

Sure enough, the body turns out to be that of a private investigator who was reported missing years earlier while on a very sensitive case. The investigation into his disappearance was worked by Rebus and others but went nowhere. The victim's family has long maintained that the police botched the investigation and covered up critical details to avoid embarrassing themselves and others. Now that the body has finally surfaced, there will be a new investigation into the crime itself and into the circumstances surrounding the original investigation, which may not bode well for Rebus and for some of his former associates in the department.

Clarke is having problems of her own with the ACU--the branch of the department that investigates police corruption. She's also getting mysterious phone calls and asks Rebus for his assistance. Rebus also manages to insert himself into the new investigation and is soon working with Clarke and his old adversary Malcolm Fox in an effort to sort out some very complex developments both old and new. It's a good story with a heavily-layered plot and the principal characters are by now old friends. I enjoyed reading it but feel somewhat sad about the fact that Rebus has deteriorated to such an extent and is no longer front and center. Having finished In a House of Lies, I feel almost obligated to go back and reread one of the earlier novel is the series when he was younger and in full vigor.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Jack Reacher Faces Very Bad Luck and Serious Trouble in This Novel from Lee Child

The eleventh entry in the Jack Reacher series opens with a man being thrown out of a helicopter three thousand feet over the California desert. Shortly thereafter, Jack Reacher receives a rather innovative call for help from Frances Neagley, who was once a member of an elite Army team headed by Reacher. The eight-member team was very skilled and very close, but they gradually lost touch as they all left the military and transitioned into civilian life.

Post-Army, most of the team members have become private investigators or have joined security teams of one kind or another. But now one of them is dead and several others are missing. Reacher and Neagley team up in an attempt to locate the rest of the team and to discover what kind of trouble they might have gotten into. One thing is for sure, though, nobody messes with Reacher's team without paying a very high price.

The hunt will take the surviving members of the team from California to Las Vegas and back and will pull them deep into a terrorist conspiracy that has severely compromised national security. Reacher is in fine form and it's fun to see him working with the rest of this team. The conspiracy unfolds very slowly at first and then explodes into a major crisis in which Reacher will have to make some very tough choices. All in all, another very satisfying page-turner in a great series.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Introducing P. I. Elvis Cole

First published in 1987, this is the novel that introduced Los Angeles P.I. Elvis Cole and his taciturn sidekick, Joe Pike. As seems to be the case in eighty-five percent of P.I. novels, Cole is whiling away a quiet afternoon in his office when a woman appears who is in desperate need of his help. In this case, though, the woman, Ellen Lang, isn't exactly convinced that she needs Cole's help, but her friend, Janet Simon, is determined that Ellen does need help and that Cole may be the man to provide it.

Lang's husband, Mort, is a B-list Hollywood agent who's fallen on hard times. Mort and the Langs' young son, Perry, have disappeared. Simon believes that Ellen should hire Cole to find them, but Mort has always made all of the family's decisions. Ellen, who is thirty-nine years old, doesn't even know how to write a check and has no idea what to do about her husband's disappearance. Perhaps he had a good reason for leaving with the boy and she should just go home and wait for him to show up again. Absent Mort, her friend Janet is doing all the thinking for her though, and Lang ultimately agrees to hire Elvis to track down her husband and son.

Before long, Ellen's house is ransacked by people obviously looking for something they believe to have been in the house. Mort Lang will turn up murdered, and the son, Perry, will not turn up at all. Cole's job now is to find the missing boy and rescue Ellen Lang from the dangers and other trials and tribulations that have descended upon her. It will lead Elvis on a journey through the seamier side of Hollywood and ultimately to an explosive climax involving a gang of drug dealers and some very bad actors.

This is a book that owes a lot to the P.I. novels that went before it, particularly to Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. Like Spenser, Cole constantly cracks wise, even when it would be a lot smarter not to, and, like Parker, Crais has a tendency to overdue this at times, leading the reader to think that neither Crais nor his protagonist are nearly as funny as they think they are. Like Spenser, Cole has a strong and silent sidekick who seems to have abilities greater than those of most mortal men. There's also a touch of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee here in that over the course of the book Cole will have to restore a very damaged woman to psychological good health. Inevitably, of course, Cole will also be at odds with the cops through the entire story but will ultimately have to follow his own course, irrespective of the consequences.

For all of that, though, once the plot gets rolling, the book takes on a life of its own and becomes a pretty compulsive page-turner, leading to a violent and very well-choreographed climax. Elvis Cole has always been a little too cute and full of himself for my taste, and I found it hard to imagine that any adult woman could be so naive and incapable of thinking for herself as the Ellen Lang we meet as the book opens. Still, I found The Monkey's Raincoat to be a pretty good read and a nice introduction to a series I've long enjoyed.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Another Excellent Novel from J. Todd Scott

Lost River
 is an outstanding novel from J. Todd Scott who has been a federal DEA agent for more than twenty years and who thus has had a front row seat watching the ravages of drug addiction and the toll it has taken on millions of Americans and on the country as a whole. This book, his fourth, is set in the dying community of Angel in eastern Kentucky.

The fictional town of Angel once thrived on the business of coal mining, and the substance most often abused there was moonshine whiskey. But after raping the land and leaving it devastated, the mining companies have moved on, taking the jobs with them, and leaving the town and its remaining inhabitants as badly bruised and damaged as the land itself.

Few of the people left in Angel have any sort of jobs at all, let alone anything that might be construed as meaningful or rewarding, and way too many of them have turned for comfort, first to opioids and then to heroin. A criminal clan controlled by a large family known as the Glassers now controls the local drug supply and much of the town itself. The local police force has been hopelessly corrupted, and in consequence, no one is about to challenge the Glassers and no one is able to deal with the destruction they've left in their wake.

As the book opens, a particularly potent and deadly heroin mix is working its way through the community, courtesy of the Glassers, and people are dying left and right. As this happens, Scott introduces the reader to a few of the characters still hanging on in Angel, including Dobie and Trey, the two young men who constitute what passes for the local ambulance service, and through their eyes, we get a gut-wrenching view of the toll that the drug epidemic is taking on the small community.

Suddenly, though, on a day when Dobie and Trey are racing from one call to the next, the word goes out that there's been a massacre at the Glasser family compound. Virtually all of the Glassers appear to have been slaughtered and this brings the DEA to Angel, in the person of Agent Casey Alexander, a woman with a past and scars of her own.

The story plays out over the span of twenty-four hours as Alexander and her partner attempt to make sense out of the developments at the Glasser compound while trying to sort through the tangled relationships of the people in Angel. The story is brilliantly written and populated with a cast of well-drawn and believable characters. The setting is very well done and as the tension builds through the second half of the book, it's almost impossible to put down.

This is not a story that's going to leave any reader in excellent spirits. It's an impossibly depressing tale, all the more so for the truth it exposes about the opioid crisis that is currently taking such a heavy toll, particularly in some parts of rural America. Still, for all the tragedy that inhabits this story, it's impossible to look away, and this is a book that will haunt readers for a long time after they've read the final pages.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Virgil Flowers Searches for the Killer of a Bloody Genius

I've been a huge fan of the Virgil Flowers series from the very beginning, and I always eagerly await a new entry. Unfortunately, though, I don't think that Bloody Genius measures up to many of the other, better, books in the series. That's certainly not to say that I thought it was a bad book--I genuinely enjoyed reading it--but only that it didn't meet the high expectations that I have for this author and this series.

As the book opens, a wealthy and distinguished professor at the University of Minnesota is murdered late one night while sneaking into one of the university's libraries in the company of an unidentified woman. It appears that the professor may be using his private carrel in the library for a little late night clandestine "research" when he encounters an intruder. The intruder smacks the professor over the head with the professor's heavy laptop computer, leaving him dead on the floor. The professor's female friend hides in the stacks, hoping that the killer won't discover her and then, once the killer is gone, she hightails it out of the library without bothering to call the police.

As a practical matter, there are no clues and the police are completely baffled. The professor has been involved in a battle with the members of another department--one of those conflicts that could only seem important within the confines of academia--but there's little evidence to suggest that this brouhaha is the cause of his murder. The professor's family is well-connected politically and so, with the case stalled, the governor reaches out to the Minnesota BCA and has Virgil Flowers assigned to the case. Virgil joins the lead detective on the case, Margaret Trane, and spends a couple of weeks poking around, asking questions and trying to find a solution to the case.

As always, it's great fun to watch Virgil in action, and the interactions between Virgil and the other characters are often very witty and amusing. But that's par for the course in these books. The problem, at least for me, is that this case really doesn't seem worthy of Virgil's attention. Also, there's not nearly as much danger and tension in this book as there is in most of the others in the series. This case seems more like a parlor game of sorts, or maybe an old Agatha Christie whodunit, and there's not nearly as much at stake as there is in most Flowers novels.

As readers of the series know, a few books ago, Sandford decided to have Virgil settle down with a woman named Frankie who is now pregnant with twins. Up until then, one of the great pleasures of reading these books was watching Virgil flirt and otherwise interact with the attractive women who often populate these books. Sometimes these interactions led to something and sometimes they didn't, but they were always a lot of fun to read. Virgil is now effectively neutered, though, because he's not the sort of guy who would cheat on a woman to whom he has made a long-term commitment. There are at least a couple of women in this book who are attracted to Virgil and with whom, in earlier novels, he might have developed some chemistry. But we know from the jump that while Virgil might admire them, he's not going to pursue them and, for me at least, it feels like readers are being cheated out of one of the most enjoyable aspects of the earlier books.

Sandford has indicated that he's going to be taking a break from the Flowers novels if not abandoning the character altogether, save for an occasional appearance in a Lucas Davenport novel. If that's true, perhaps it's just as well to leave Virgil settled and about to become a father. I wish he had gone out at the end of a more interesting case, but I take comfort in the fact that I have a shelf full of great Virgil Flowers novels that I can always go back to and enjoy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Tibbehah County Sheriff Quinn Colson Faces His Toughest Challenge Yet

Over the course of the last few years, this has become one of my favorite series, principally because through the nine books to date, author Ace Atkins has created such a beautifully imagined setting in Tibbehah County, Mississippi and populated it with a great cast of characters.

That is not to say that the county, in the northeastern part of the state, is beautiful in and of itself. The rolling hills of the county may be naturally beautiful, but sadly the county continues to be a cesspool of crime and corruption, ruled by greedy and corrupt politicians, and populated by a lot of people who appear to be on a downward slide. For years a criminal syndicate has been running drugs and women through the county, often with the complicity of at least some county officials. A truck stop madam named Fannie Hathcock, the owner of a strip club formerly known as the Booby Hatch, now represents the syndicate in Tibbehah, at least for the moment, while a sleazy state senator named Jimmy Vardaman is the syndicate's candidate for the state's governorship. Vardaman insists that he wants to restore traditional Mississippi values, but his candidacy could mean that the state, Tibbehah County in particular, would be wide open territory for the criminal elements.

Standing against them is a former army ranger, Quinn Colson, who is again serving as county sheriff and who is determined to clean up the county, no matter the odds against him. Over the course of the first eight books in the series, Colson has been fighting what could best be described as a holding action. While he's sent a few of the criminals off to prison and dispatched a few more of them permanently, there always seem to be new recruits, like Fannie Hathcock, waiting to step up and take over the action.

This entry revolves around the death of a young boy named Brandon Taylor who died in the woods twenty years earlier. His death was ruled a suicide, but there have always been questions about that, and now two young female journalists arrive in Tibbehah County determined to reopen the case. Unfortunately, Quinn Colson, who was only a boy himself at the time Taylor died, is in the journalists' crosshairs as a person of interest in the case. The situation becomes even more complicated when Colson's wife, Maggie, who was Taylor's girlfriend in high school, suddenly begins receiving mysterious messages about the boy's death.

While Colson tries to deal with all of that, various factions of the state's criminal elements are jockeying for position. The one thing that they all seem to share is their belief that Quinn Colson is a threat to their activities and that he needs to be neutralized. It all adds up to a potentially explosive situation for Quinn Colson, and for the family and the county that he loves. This is one of the best books in an excellent series. Five stars, principally for the complex and very believable world that Atkins has created here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Used Car Salesman Russell Haxby Is the High Priest of California in This Early Novel from the Great Charles Willeford

Published in 1953, this curious little book is the first novel by Charles Willeford who would ultimately go on to write a number of excellent hard-boiled crime novels, including a great series featuring Florida homicide detective Hoke Moseley. This is not a crime novel in any traditional sense, although there are a number of crimes committed during course of the story, the bulk of them by the protagonist, a very sleazy San Francisco used car salesman named Russell Haxby.

By day, Haxby cheats both his customers and his boss at the used car lot where he works. By night, he pursues a mysterious and apparently frigid married woman named Alyce Vitale. He is determined to get her into bed by any means, fair or foul. The blurb on the cover of the book promises that "No woman could resist his strange cult of lechery!", but Alyce manages to do so for quite some time.

Haxby is a truly repulsive protagonist who exploits, cheats, and demeans practically everyone he meets. It's impossible to root for the man in any way, shape or form, but it's still a very interesting and entertaining read if just for the glimpse we get of Willeford in his early career. Even then the guy clearly had the chops, and the book is well worth reading simply for some of the great lines he offers, as in, "I took her elbow and guided her through the crowd to the floor. We began to dance. She was a terrible dancer, and as stiff and difficult to shove around as a St. Bernard."

Or, "She was a tall woman with shoulder-length brown hair parted in the center. She looked as out of place in that smokey atmosphere as I would have looked in a Salinas lettuce-pickers camp."

They just don't write 'em like that any more...

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

LONE JACK TRAIL Is Another Excellent Thriller from Owen Laukkanen

Lone Jack Trail is the second novel from Owen Laukkanen featuring Mason Burke, Jess Winslow, and Lucy, the pit bull mix that first brought Burke and Winslow together. It follows the excellent Deception Cove, which was published in 2019, and, as good as that book was, this one is even better.

Burke is an ex-con who did fifteen years in prison as an accessory to murder. Winslow, recently widowed, is a former Marine who returned home to Deception Cove with PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. A small town in Makah County on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Deception Cove is on a downhill slide and most of the people who live there are barely hanging on. Some are living on the margins of the law while others have already crossed over the line in an effort to keep body and soul together.

While in prison, Burke participated in a program where convicts trained service dogs which then went to people who needed them. As part of the program, he trained Lucy who was then given to Jess Winslow as a comfort animal. Once out of prison, Burke went to Deception Cove to ensure that Lucy was being treated well. He and Winslow became involved in a mess that involved Lucy, and once those matters were resolved, Burke remained in Deception Cove, tentatively beginning a relationship with Winslow that might or might not have a future.

As this book opens, Winslow has become a Makah County deputy sheriff and Burke is living in a cheap motel, working for a contractor who is rebuilding Winslow’s house. Their relationship is progressing slowly and it’s still not clear if the two have a real future together. They do share a love for Lucy, though, and both are very protective of the dog.

This creates a problem when a former professional hockey player named “Bad” Brock Boyd returns home after serving a prison sentence for dogfighting. Boyd is a local hero—the most famous person ever to come out of Deception Cove—and he remains very popular, his conviction notwithstanding. Given that Lucy had been rescued from a dogfighting ring before coming to Mason Burke, Burke is naturally suspicious and resentful of Boyd. The two circle each other for a couple of days and after Burke sees Boyd harassing Lucy, the two men have a huge fight.

A couple of days after that, Boyd’s body washes up on the beach with a bullet hole in his forehead. Burke, already having served time for murder and having fought with Boyd, is the natural prime suspect. He’s still an outsider in Deception Cove; many people are suspicious of him anyway, and most people have no problem assuming that he’s guilty of killing Boyd.

Even though she cares for him, even Jess Winslow can’t be totally certain that Burke is innocent, and with all of the cards seemingly stacked against him, Burke goes on the run in the hope of proving his innocence. Winslow, of course, is badly compromised, torn between her job and her affection for Burke.

As usually happens in a thriller like this, one thing leads to another and the tension and the action ramp up significantly. It’s a great plot, and as in his previous books, Laukkanen creates believable and very sympathetic characters, both human and canine. In particular, he excels at creating a great setting, and from the opening pages, Deception Cove and the surrounding county feel absolutely real.

As evidenced by my reviews of Laukkanen’s earlier books, I’ve been hugely impressed with his work from the very beginning, and Lone Jack Trail is another terrific novel that will keep readers turning the pages well into the night. I’m already looking forward to his next book.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Fiddle Player Alexander Roth Takes an Unfortunate Detour on the Way to California During the Great Depression

Towards the end of the Great Depression in the late 1930s, fiddle player Alexander Roth leaves New York City, hitchhiking to Los Angeles. Sue, a night club singer with whom he was living in New York has decided to follow her dreams and go out to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a star. Still in love with Sue, after a few weeks of living without her, Roth decides to follow her to the Coast. He hopes to reconnect with Sue and to find a job himself. He's been told that it's easy for musicians to find work in Hollywood.

In the meantime, he's almost flat broke and is having trouble getting rides. Finally somewhere out in New Mexico, he's offered a ride by a well-dressed man driving a powerful and expensive roadster. Even better, the guy says that he's going all the way to L.A. Roth figures that he's now got it made and will soon be reunited with Sue. Just out of Phoenix, though, the driver says he's not feeling well. They switch places and while Roth is driving, the guys dies. Roth has no intention of taking illegal advantage of the situation, but in attempting to help the man out of the car, the guy slips out of Roth's grip and his head cracks off the pavement in such a way that it now looks like Roth may have hit him over the head and killed him.

In short, this is a classic noir setup in which an innocent man suddenly finds himself in an impossible situation. Roth fears that if he tries to tell his story to the cops, they won't believe him and will arrest him. So he attempts to make the best of a bad situation by hiding the guy's body, appropriating his car, his money and his identity and heading off to California.

Things will naturally go from bad to worse.

The story is told mostly from Roth's point of view with some alternating chapters describing Sue's life in California. She still loves Roth and is having trouble being discovered. We learn about her problems attempting to make a success of her life, and Goldsmith describes very well the nasty underside of the Hollywood dream which consumes most of the innocents like Sue who come to the Coast seeking fame and fortune.

The Sue chapters are interesting, but they tend to break the tension of the chapters describing the trials and tribulations that Roth is enduring, and the book is a bit weaker for that. Still, it's a very entertaining read and fans of noir fiction are sure to enjoy it. It's nice to see the book back in print.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Child Psychiatrist Alex Delaware Returns to His Roots in BREAKDOWN

I've been critical of several of the recent books in this series because many of them have not involved Alex Delaware's role as a psychologist in any significant way. The stories have almost always featured a murder case which is assigned to Delaware's friend, Detective Milo Sturgis. Sturgis then calls Delaware and says, in effect, "I just got assigned a really cool murder case. Would you like to tag along and help me investigate it?"

That premise is, of course, not remotely believable. No police homicide detective would so casually invite a civilian to play a critical role in a murder investigation, and while the author has stretched to find some plausible reason for Delaware to be involved in these cases, I've never been able to buy into the idea and thus have been disappointed in many of the recent entries.

Happily, this book reverts to the origins of the series where the critical role is played by Delaware as a child psychologist and Sturgis is along to assist him. The book opens when a former television actress named Zelda Chase turns up crazed and living on the streets. Checking her history, a social worker (of sorts) discovers that five years earlier, Delaware had treated the actress's five-year-old son, Ovid. She thus calls Delaware and asks him to check out the woman.

Delaware is tempted to beg off. The woman was never his patient and he has no relationship to her. He is concerned, though, about the boy he treated and who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Accordingly, he agrees to meet with Chase in the hope of finding out where her son might be and ensuring his safety.

Before long, though, Chase turns up dead, apparently of natural causes, but under mysterious circumstances. Delaware thus recruits Sturgis to help him investigate, in the hope of tracking down young Ovid. One thing leads to another; more people will die, and this will turn out to be a very complex case. It mostly involves Delaware, with Milo's assistance, tracking people down and interviewing them. There's not a great deal of tension in the book, but it is an interesting puzzle with a great conclusion. All in all, then, a significant improvement over some of the later books in this long-running series.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

This is the fourth and final entry in William Bayer's series featuring NYPD homicide detective Frank Janek. As in the other three, this book features an antagonist with deep psychological issues and in order to solve the case, Janek will have to prove himself a brilliant analyst. Janek is a detective who relies on the excellent team of detectives he leads. He also utilizes science and the normal routine of a police homicide investigation, but principally he relies on his brain as he attempts to sort through the evidence of a case and get into the mind of the perpetrator.

This case may be his toughest challenge yet. A profoundly damaged young woman named Gelsey lives above a very elaborate mirror maze that her now-dead father constructed when she was a young girl. We learn early on that on occasion her father took Gelsey down into the maze and abused her. Now on rainy nights, she visits the maze and then drives from her home in New Jersey into Manhattan. There she goes into a bar and tricks a target who appears well-to-do into asking her up to his room or to his home. Once there, she drugs the man and then robs him. Before leaving, she always writes a mirror-imaged message on the guy's chest, insulting him in some way. This will be the first thing he sees when he wakes.

Now, though, one of her targets has been found shot to death and robbed of something extremely valuable. Janek and his team are assigned the case. Hotel employees describe Gelsey say that she left the bar with the victim. Thus she becomes the prime suspect. Janek realizes almost immediately, though, that there's a lot more to this case than meets the eye, and the whole situation will very rapidly become decidedly more complex and a lot more violent.

Meanwhile, Janek will also be assigned to reopen a murder case, known simply as "Mendoza," which has haunted the department and damaged careers for nine years. Mendoza, a very wealthy "player," was convicted of having his wife murdered in a spectacular fashion and is now in prison. The case also involved the assassination of a police detective in a car bombing and there have long been accusations that, in their determination to bring down a cop killer, the detective investigating the case manufactured evidence against Mendoza to ensure his conviction. A new lead in the case now appears, though, and as he attempts to unravel the case, Janek will find himself in mortal danger and aggravating a lot of his fellow cops along the way.

The two investigations are very compelling and thus the book moves along at a brisk pace. Janek continues to be a very appealing protagonist and it's too bad that Bayer decided to end the series this quickly. This book was published in 1994, and like the others, may be a bit hard to find. But for readers who enjoy complex psychological crime novels, the series is definitely worth seeking out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Jockey-Turned-Detective Sid Halley Returns in COME TO GRIEF

In his long and very successful career as a writer of crime fiction, Dick Francis only used two protagonists in more than one book. One of them was Sid Halley who appears here for the third time, following Odds Against and Whip Hand. Halley was a former champion jockey who had a terrible accident that basically destroyed his left hand and ended his career. He then became a private investigator and, in the course of an earlier case, a psychopath further damaged the hand, rendering it completely useless. Halley now wears a prosthesis and has nightmares about possibly losing the use of his other hand.

In this case, Halley has been hired to track down a sadistic monster who has been lopping off the hooves of young horses, leaving them crippled and useless. The attacker usually chooses the left front hoof, and although there's no mention of it, one has to wonder if Halley, who has lost his own left hand, might feel an especial affinity for the poor horses who are thus damaged.

Sid's client is the mother of a young girl whose horse was thus attacked. To complicate matters, the little girl is suffering from a rare disease and needs a bone marrow transplant if she is to survive. She and Halley develop a special bond, and some of the best scenes in the book are of the two characters together.

As his investigation progresses, Halley is shocked to discover that the attacker is, almost certainly, one of his best friends, another former jockey who has become a very popular television interviewer. Indeed, the friend, Ellis Quint, did a very heart-warming program about Rachel, the sick little girl whose horse he had effectively destroyed himself. (This gives nothing away; the reader learns very early on who the villain is.)

Sid's discovery causes him an enormous amount of personal pain and anxiety. It also subjects him to savage personal attacks in the press and elsewhere. Quint is an enormously popular public figure, and even Sid's own client can't believe that he would be guilty of such horrendous crimes. People insist that Halley is jealous of Quint's success and is attempting to destroy his reputation.

In consequence, Halley will be up against the wall for most of the book, unable to effectively defend his actions and his reputation. As is often the case in a Dick Francis novel, there are other, larger forces lurking behind the scenes and before it's all over, poor Sid Halley will be subjected to some very extreme tests.

This is one of the better of the later books in the series. It moves along quickly and has all of the hallmarks that readers of the series expect. Fans of the series should be sure to look for it.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Keller, the World''s Most Engaging Hit Man, Is Back on the Job

This is another very entertaining collection of stories featuring a hit man named John Keller. Like his creator, Keller is a New Yorker through and through, and his love of the city shows through here, particularly as Keller wrestles with the aftermath of the 911 attacks on the city. The attacks take an emotional toll on Keller, who responds by volunteering to feed meals to those responding to the crisis. The attacks also impact Keller professionally, though, because the new security measures that go into effect after the attacks will make it much harder for him to move around the country as he works professionally.

Keller's associate, Dot, lives in White Plains and every once in a while, Keller takes the train up to see her and Dot gives him a new assignment that she has accepted, usually through a series of intermediaries that act as shields to protect the two of them. In this book, Keller takes a variety of assignments involving a wide range of targets, including an aging baseball player, a couple of businessmen, a few adulterers, and even a dog that has been attacking and killing other peoples' pets.

Keller's been at this game for a while now, though, and both he and Dot are thinking about retirement. An avid stamp collector, Keller has been spending his money on stamps in recent years about as fast as it's been coming in, and he has no nest egg to speak of. Suddenly concerned about his future, he asks Dot to step up his "bookings" so that he can accumulate enough money to fund his retirement.

This flurry of activity will expose Keller to some risks that he would usually avoid, but he remains as nimble and as quick-thinking as usual and so generally manages to still get the jobs safely done. In a conventional world, we should be appalled at the idea of rooting for a man who is a cold-blooded murderer, but Keller is such an engaging character that you can't help but enjoy the time you spend in his company, watching him work and listening to him reflect on the world around him. These stories are treasures.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

NYPD Detective Frank Janek Confronts Another Very Damaged Killer in WALLFLOWER

Published in 1991, Wallflower is the third entry in William Bayer's relatively short series featuring New York City homicide detective Frank Janek. Like the first two, Peregrine, and Switch, the story centers on a killer with deep psychological issues and on Janek's ability to effectively get into the mind of the killer and bring that person to justice. 

This case, though, is deeply personal. Janek is enjoying a vacation in Italy when he receives terrible news: his goddaughter, a college student, has been stabbed to death while jogging at night in a New York City Park. It initially appears that this was a sick, random killing by someone who stabbed the young woman with an ice pick and then mutilated her body in a particularly gruesome way, and Janek promises the victim's parents that he will somehow find the killer. 

The case has been assigned to a plodding homicide detective who is clearly in way over his head and whose chances of solving the case are virtually nil. An additional problem is that the detective assigned to the case is extremely jealous of Frank Janek and doesn't want him anywhere near the investigation. 

Naturally, given his relationship to the victim, the department doesn't want Janek anywhere near the case either, at least not openly and officially. But Janek soon learns that his goddaughter's death was almost certainly not a random killing but rather was part of a series of killings that the F.B.I. is calling the Wallflower murders. The F.B.I. invites Janek to join the team investigating the crimes, but convinced that the fibbies are headed in the wrong direction, he devises a way to effectively checkmate both them and his own department and to pursue the investigation basically on his own. 

These novels, at least the first three in the series, are somewhat different than the usual police procedurals that dominate the marketplace in that Bayer does not feel compelled to keep his main protagonist constantly at the center of the story. In each of these books, but particularly this one, the antagonist takes over the book for long stretches at a time. All of the villains in these books are seriously damaged characters, often brilliant in some limited ways, and it takes an equally brilliant detective to eventually understand them. 

The villain and the crimes committed in this novel are unique and horrifying, but the book is riveting and expertly done. I'm eagerly looking forward to the fourth, and last, book in the series.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

San Francisco Attorney Dismas Hardy Finds Himself Up Against a Determined Opponent

The eighteenth Dismas Hardy novel takes time to do a little housekeeping and clean up some story threads from earlier in the series. While it can be read as a stand-alone, it's another excellent argument for reading a series in order.

Those who have read at least some of the earlier books in the series will be happy to see that the usual cast of characters is back in place. As the book opens, Wes Farrell, a former partner in Hardy's law firm, is returning to the firm after having been defeated for reelection as San Francisco District Attorney. Dismas is very happy to have him back and to be reconstituting the firm, but the new D.A., Ron Jameson, has a chip on his shoulder with regard to Farrell and, apparently by extension, Dismas Hardy and the rest of the firm as well. Hardy did support Farrell for reelection, but he assumes that this was just politics as usual and that there's no reason for Jameson to get all bent out of shape about it.

Jameson, though, has delusions of grandeur and is a man who knows how to carry a grudge. He opens his campaign by arresting Hardy's long-time personal assistant, Phyllis, and charging her as an accessory to murder. To make his declaration of war as dramatic as possible, Jameson has his goons arrest Phyllis at her desk, handcuffing her and marching her off to jail, dislocating her shoulder in the process.

Hardy, of course, is furious and immediately races to assist Phyllis and to fire back at the new D.A. From there the battle will escalate into an all-out war, which may result in Hardy and a number of his colleagues winding up in jail as well.

As always with Lescroart, this is a very well-written and well-plotted book. The tension builds from the first page, and Ron Jameson proves to be a particularly detestable villain. It's always fun to see Dismas Hardy and his associates in action and although this book does not have the brilliantly-drawn and tension-filled courtroom scenes of most of the Hardy novels, it makes up for it in other ways. I had a little trouble with the ending, which I thought was just a bit too convenient, but I otherwise enjoyed the book very much.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Move Director Thomas Lyon Faces Major Trouble in Wild Horses

This is among the better of the later Dick Francis novels. The protagonist is a young film director, Thomas Lyon, who finally has the chance to make a major motion picture. It's is big chance, and if he screws it up, he most likely won't get another. Lyon is clearly talented enough to make a very good movie, but there are all sorts of obstacles in his way, including people who desperately do not want this movie to be made and who will stop at nothing to see that it isn't.

The movie is being filmed on location in Newmarket, a major horse racing center, and is loosely based on a scandal and an unsolved mystery that occurred in the local racing world twenty-six years earlier. A beautiful young woman was found hanged, and it was never determined whether she was murdered or committed suicide.

Newmarket is also home to Valentine Clark, a former blacksmith-turned-newspaperman who had once shod the horses trained by Lyon's grandfather. Lyon has known Clark since he was a small boy. Clark is now dying and is largely incoherent, but mistaking Thomas for a priest, he makes a confusing deathbed confession.

Lyon has no idea what the confession means and, of course, is preoccupied with trying to make his movie on time and under budget. But then Clark dies and this sets off a chain of events that will seriously impact Thomas Lyon and the film he is attempting to make.

Lyon is an appealing protagonist and I found the details of the film making business to be interesting. The plot is entertaining and credible, although it lacks the malevolent villain that is so key to many of Francis's novels. All in all, a good, quick read.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Jack Reacher Attempts to Rescue a Couple of Kidnap Victims the Hard Way

For a guy who is often simply minding his own business, Jack Reacher seems to get into a lot of trouble. In this, the tenth installment in the series, Reacher is enjoying a quiet cup of coffee, sitting at a table outside of the coffee shop in New York City. It's late at night and as Reacher is sitting there, a man gets into a car across the street and drives away.

It's nothing out of the ordinary, but Reacher is a guy who notices things. and so when he's sitting in the same spot the next night and is approached by a man looking for information, Reacher is able to describe perfectly the man he saw for an instant twenty-four hours earlier. It's a remarkable ability, but then Reacher is a guy who also always knows exactly what time it is without wearing a watch.

The guy who approaches Reacher convinces him to accompany him to the Dakota, the famous residential building where John Lennon once lived. There the guy introduces Reacher to his boss, Edward Lane, a very wealthy man who runs a group of "security consultants." Lane explains that his wife and stepdaughter have been kidnapped. The ransom, a million dollars, was left in the trunk of the car that Reacher saw being driven away. Lane isn't worried so much about the money, but he would very much like to get his wife back, alive and unharmed.

Of course Lane is not supposed to involve the cops and, as an ex-army investigator, Reacher has a skill set that Lane's other employees do not. Lane convinces Reacher to sign on and help get his wife back, offering Reacher a million dollars for a successful rescue.

From there we're off and running, or rather, Reacher is, of course, while we sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a clever plot and Reacher is sometimes ahead of the game and at other times behind, but whichever the case, he's always fun to watch. This is another very addictive novel from one of the best in the business.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

NYPD Detective Frank Janek Confronts a Most Unusual Case

First published in 1984, this is the second novel by William Bayer to feature NYPD homicide detective Frank Janek. As the book opens, Janek gets some very bad news; his “rabbi” in the department, a retired detective named Al DiMona has committed suicide. DiMona’s widow believes that her husband was tracking down an old case and can’t imagine why he would have taken his own life in the middle of it.

Janek promises to look into the situation and try to figure out what case DiMona might have resurrected. But before he can even begin to do so, as he is leaving DiMona’s funeral, the chief of detectives assigns him to a new and very bizarre murder case. A hooker and an apparently prim and proper female schoolteacher have both been knifed to death in their respective apartments within a few hours of each other. The killer then decapitated the two victims and switched their heads, doing so in such an artful manner that at first the people discovering the bodies don’t even realize that the heads have been switched.

Janek leads the team of detectives investigating the killings, but there are very few clues and the solution to the case will depend upon Frank Janek’s ability to get into the mind of a very clever and demented killer. At the same time he discovers and begins to pursue the case that Al DiMona had been following at the time of his death, and both investigations may put Janaek and the people he cares about in very grave danger.

This is an excellent police procedural from a time before cell phones and computers and when the technology of crime scene investigation was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today. Janek is a very appealing protagonist, and this book inspired a series of made-for-TV movies starring Richard Crenna as Janek. The book may be a bit hard to find at this late date, but it’s certainly worth looking for.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

BROKEN Is Another Great Book from the Best in the Business

This collection of six novellas constitutes another excellent book from Don Winslow, who for my money is the best crime writer working these days. The stories feature cops, crooks, bounty hunters, a bail bondsman, border patrol agents, dope dealers and others, all of whom are expertly drawn. Every one of these stories is cleverly plotted and sucks the reader in from the opening lines, refusing to let go. The stories and the characters are clever and compelling, by turns violent, witty, funny, and ultimately heart-breaking.

Long-time fans of Winslow's work will recognize some familiar characters, most notably weed growers Ben, Chon and O, who first appeared in 2012 in The Kings of Cool. Here, in what the author describes as an "intermediate adventure," the three best friends are vacationing in Hawaii where they run into a battle with some local gangsters while attempting to expand their area of production.

All of the stories are first-rate, but my favorite is "Crime 101", which Winslow dedicates to "Mr. Steve McQueen," and which perfectly evokes the sense of cool that characterized the late, great actor. The story pits a very clever and successful jewel robber who haunts California Highway 101 and who is looking for that fabled one last score. He's pitted against a detective who, contrary to the perceived wisdom of the various police agencies investigating the string of robberies, believes that they are all the work of a single criminal.

Both the robber and the detective are great characters as are all the minor players who inhabit this and the rest of the stories. As always, Winslow writes beautifully and these stories and these characters immediately get into your head and into your heart. As is so often the case with a novel by Don Winslow, I can hardly wait to read it again.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

NYC Detective Frank Janek Confronts a Killer Bird in PEREGRINE

Peregrine, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1982, is the book that introduced New York City homicide detective Frank Janek. Divorced for a number of years, Janek lives alone and repairs old accordions in his spare time. But most of all, Janek is devoted to his job and gets consumed by this first case which has to be one of the oddest in the history of crime fiction.

The book opens when a reporter for a New York City TV station, Pamela Barrett is struggling to hold on to her job. By chance, she happens to be at the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center when a giant peregrine falcon drops out of the sky and knocks a young female skater to the ice. The bird then slashes the woman's throat and flies off into the sky.

Amidst the panic, Pam notices that some Japanese tourists have been filming the skaters and captured the attack on film. She persuades them to give her the film, races back to the studio and reports the scoop of the year. She does this so successfully that she becomes an overnight sensation, breathlessly reporting to terrified New Yorkers the latest news about the killer bird.

Most people initially assume that the attack was just a bizarre act of nature but then the falcon strikes again, killing another young woman and it now appears that some madman has actually trained this bird to kill human beings and is controlling the bird's action. Pam thus takes a deep dive into the world of falconry, attempting to discover how the bird could be trained to kill a human and, more important, who is responsible for the bird's actions.

Enter Frank Janek, who's in charge of the police investigation of the murders. He too would like to know who trained and is controlling the bird. But Janek and Pam are adversaries in the sense that each wants the other to freely share information, but neither of them wants to do so. Janek wants to solve the crimes; Pam wants to maintain her ratings and build her career. She wants credit for bringing the falconer down.

As the book progresses, we meet the killer and learn a great deal about falconry. The book devolves into a psychological study of all three of the main protagonists, but especially the killer who is seriously weird.

The book has an interesting premise, but forty years after its original publication, it doesn't have the impact that it might have had originally. Or, to be fair, it didn't work for me as well as I might have hoped. The book seemed to get bogged down a bit with all the psychological analysis, and the premise requires perhaps too much a suspension of disbelief. The climax is more than a bit bizarre and left me shaking my head. That said, I enjoyed the character of Frank Janek and so will still go ahead to read the second book in the series.

Friday, July 24, 2020

DRIVING FORCE Is a Solid Novel from Dick Francis, But Not One of His Best

Freddie Croft is an ex-jockey who, since retiring, has built a very profitable business transporting horses to races and back for their owners. Freddie loved being a jockey and this is a way of keeping his hand in the game, at least to some extent. He runs a pretty tight ship, but his whole enterprise is placed in jeopardy when one of his drivers violates one of Freddie's most important rules and picks up a hitchhiker. When the driver reaches the point where his passenger was to leave the horse van, the driver discovers that the passenger has died. Not knowing what else to do, he drives the van and the body back to Freddie's farm and has to face the music.

The dead body in the truck opens the door to a run of mysteries and bad fortune for Croft and his operation. He discovers that someone has been using his vans to smuggle something, but he doesn't know what it is or was. As the mystery deepens, someone else will die and Freddie Croft will find himself in mortal danger.

This is a fairly typical Dick Francis novel although it lacks the tension of many of the better books in the series. This may result from the fact that there is no nasty, violent, amoral villain operating behind the scenes as there often is in these novels. In consequence, although some bad things happen to Freddie, the reader doesn't sense the danger here that you usually do in one of these books.

Francis often uses these novels to explore various aspects of the racing world and in this case, we get a thorough education about the business of transporting horses back and forth between races and other venues. It's something so mundane that most people wouldn't even think about it and yet, of course, it's an absolutely vital function. We also learn a fair deal--perhaps too much, actually, about viruses, computer and otherwise, although this information is now somewhat dated. Still, it's a pleasant read, and fans of the series will no doubt enjoy it.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Jack Reacher Finds Himself in the Middle of an Intricate Puzzle

The ninth installment in the Jack Reacher series is one of the better books in the series. It opens when a highly efficient sniper sets up in a parking garage in a Midwestern city and shoots five people dead, missing with only one of six shots. The shooter gets away clean but leaves what appears to be a boatload of evidence in his wake. Following the forensic trail, the police quickly arrest an ex-army sniper named James Barr. The evidence against him is overwhelming, but once arrested, the only thing Barr says is, "Get me Jack Reacher."

Reacher, it turns out, is already on his way. Reacher has been whiling away his time in Miami Beach when he sees a news report about the incident. He and James Barr have ancient history between them and immediately upon seeing the report Reacher is on a bus, headed in Barr's direction. Upon arriving in the city, Reacher checks in with the D.A. and with the lawyer who's defending Barr and who just happens to also be the D.A.'s daughter, and from that point on, everything turns topsy-turvey.

This is a very intricately plotted book, with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that make it hard to review the book without giving away critical information that readers should be left to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that the book is action-packed with a lot of interesting characters. Reacher himself is in top form and it's a lot of fun watching him reason his way through the puzzle that's been presented him. It's even more fun to then watch him periodically kick the crap out of some truly bad guys who really deserve it. Fans of the series will not want to miss this one, and people looking to try the series would do well to begin here.