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.