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.