Thursday, June 25, 2020

Career Criminal Parker Goes After The Outfit In This Great Novel From Richard Stark

This is the third novel in Richard Stark's (Donald Westlake's) great series featuring Parker, a completely amoral professional thief. Like all of the books in the series, this one is lean, mean, dark and gritty, and it opens when a professional hitman targets Parker. Not surprisingly, the hitman fails because he's not nearly as good as Parker, and Parker is enraged when he discovers that the would-be killer has been sent by someone connected with the Outfit--the group that controls organized crime in the United States.

Parker's rage, though, is not like most other people's. It's cold, rational and deadly, and you really don't want to be on the receiving end of what comes next. Normally, professional criminals like Parker give the Outfit a wide berth, and vice-versa. But Parker decides to teach them a lesson they'll never forget.

He knows that a lot of men in his profession have spotted weak points here and there in the Outfit's operations, but they don't act on that knowledge for fear of bringing the wrath of the Outfit down upon themselves. Parker's plan, though, is to turn a lot of these guys loose on the Outfit at once, effectively declaring war on them, while Parker himself goes after the head of the group. He aims to institute a change in the regime and to teach the Outfit that it's better to leave him alone than to antagonize him. It's an audacious plan, but if there's anyone who can pull it off, it's Parker.

Like all the other books in this long-running series, this is a great read, and Parker is in fine form. It was first published in 1963, and so the world has changed a great deal, particularly with respect to the technology that Parker and his adversaries are using. As a sign of the changing times, Parker and one of his confederates are driving down the streets of downtown Buffalo, New York early in December, bitching about the fact that the Christmas decorations are already up and Thanksgiving is barely over. One can only wonder what Parker would think of a world in which the Christmas decorations are already going up on Labor Day, and one can only wish that we had someone like Parker around to deal with the people who insist on doing such a thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A Great New Novel from Brian Panowich

Hard Cash Valley is, technically, the third novel in the Bull Mountain series by Brian Panowich. But while much of the landscape is the same, both geographically and psychically, and while the ghosts of some of the previous characters hang over the novel, this is an entirely new cast of characters. And as much as I loved both Bull Mountain and Like Lions, this book is even better.

At the heart of the novel is Dane Kirby, a former arson investigator who now works for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. As the novel opens, one of Kirby's boyhood friends is arrested for murder. Kirby is morally convinced that his friend could not be guilty, even though a lot of evidence points in that direction. Kirby promises to help his old friend, but before he can even lift a finger to do so, his boss loans him out to the F.B.I., which is investigating a particularly brutal murder in a seedy Florida motel.

A lowlife named Arnie Blackwell has been slowly tortured to death and his body then set on fire. Kirby assesses the scene, offers a few opinions, and then attempts to beg off the case, claiming that he can bring nothing of value to the investigation. The supervisor in charge refuses to let him off the hook, though, and pairs him with a caustic, hard-driving agent named Roselita Velasquez, displacing Velasquez's usual partner in the process.

It's a rocky start to their relationship, and things will not get better any time soon. Velasquez resents being assigned to work with Kirby and there seems to be nothing he can do to soften her attitude toward him or to most of the other people that they encounter during the course of the investigation.

It soon turns out that the murder of Arnie Blackwell is only the opening round of a very long and sordid trail of criminal activity. Blackwell had recently come into possession of a huge amount of money, which is now missing, and a lot of extremely nasty characters are searching for it. A young boy, close to Blackwell, is also missing. People are looking for him as well, and the hunt for both the money and the boy will take virtually all of the characters into some very dark and dangerous places.

Dane Kirby is a man with a lot of problems of his own. Years earlier, his life was shattered by an unspeakable tragedy, from which he has never recovered. He's having trouble relating to the woman in his life and has other issues as well. The last thing he needs at the moment is an investigation this complex and daunting, and watching him soldier on is a heart-wrenching experience.

This is a beautifully written book with sharply drawn characters who will remain with the reader for a very long time. Panowich is an hugely gifted storyteller, and the plot is electric. Even more impressive is the sense of place that he evokes, and the reader is immediately immersed in the world that Panowich has created. Hard Cash Valley is a dark, gritty, violent book that grabs you from the opening paragraph and is impossible to put down. All in all, it's one of the most impressive books I've read in a long time.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Once Upon a Time When Jack Reacher Was Still in the Army...

Although this is the eighth book to be published in the Jack Reacher series, it's a prequel to the others. It begins on New Year's Eve, as 1989 is turning into 1990. At the time, Reacher is still in the army and has just been transferred from Panama to Fort Bird, North Carolina. While almost everyone else is out celebrating, Reacher is the Military Police duty officer on the post when a two star general is found dead in a sleazy motel thirty miles from the base.

It appears that the married general has died of a heart attack while in the middle of having sex with a cheap hooker. By the time Reacher arrives, the hooker is long gone and so is the general's briefcase. Reacher's orders are to contain the situation so that the army will not be embarrassed. But what seems like a minor problem that can be solved relatively easily, turns into something much, much larger when Reacher finds the general's widow murdered miles away in Virginia. It also turns out that a very sensitive document is missing along with the general's briefcase.

The whole situation becomes very complicated and Reacher pairs up with a tough female M.P. named Summer to tackle the problem. He will find himself in a lot of trouble and in very grave danger as he digs into a situation that could ultimately threaten a lot of lives and careers, including his own. And, in the middle of all this, he has to deal with a critical family situation as well.

This is a very entertaining read that explains a lot about the army at the end of the Cold War and about the way in which the Military Police work. It also provides a lot of background about Reacher and his family that the reader hasn't learned before. (view spoiler) Reacher, while younger, is his usual self and will naturally have to break a few heads along the way as he battles a boatload of adversaries, most all of whom are in the army as well and some of whom are his superior officers. All in all, a fun book with lots of action.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

ISLE OF JOY Is a Great Early Novel from Don Winslow

Isle of Joy is an early novel (1996) from Don Winslow. The protagonist is Walter Withers, a CIA agent who has spent a career in Europe doing the agency's dirty work, principally trapping unsuspecting people in sexually compromising activities and then blackmailing them to spy for America. As the book opens in late 1958, Withers has returned home to New York, which he regards as the greatest city in the world. Walter loves New York, and he also loves his girlfriend, Anne Blanchard, a local jazz singer.

Walter is now working in the Personnel Security Department of a detective agency. His job is to do background checks for companies on people that they are thinking of hiring or promoting. But during the holiday season that year, he is assigned to work security for a United States senator named Joseph Keneally and his wife Madeleine. Keneally aspires to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1960 and the couple is in town for a series of holiday parties.

The Keneallys are obviously intended to be stand-ins for John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie, and Walter's assignment will prove to be a delicate one, particularly because he is expected to stand in as the "date" for Keneally's girlfriend, a stunningly sexy blonde actress. But when the girlfriend winds up dead, all hell breaks loose and Withers finds himself in the middle of a major scandal.

This is a fun read, principally because Walter Withers is such a great character to hang out with. The book is also a major love note to the city of New York at a time when the city might have been at its prime, and reading it you find yourself wishing that you could have spent a night out on the town with Walter back during that era.

To say that this is not among the greatest of Winslow's books is no slight against Isle of Joy, but rather acknowledges the brilliance of much of his later work like The Winter of Frankie MachineThe Power of the DogThe Force, and others. Fans of the author will certainly want to seek out this book.