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...