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If you like enigmatic characters, you'll really enjoy "the man who calls himself" David Loogan. (He sometimes also calls himself Ted Carmady.) He's either the hero, or the villain, or both, or neither, of this compulsively readable first novel. He shows up in Ann Arbor, MI, and takes free-lance work editing crime noir stories for Tom Kristoll, publisher of Grey Streets mystery magazine. (Asked to describe a typical Gray Streets story, Tom says, "Plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die.")
Before long, Tom asks David to help him with another chore: bury a dead body in the woods. We begin to see that noir stories can have a lot of gray areas. (There are a couple of Chandlerian references here; did you catch them? I didn't, until prompted.) The thing that struck me from the outset was that whatever David is, he's uncommonly likeable. And Tom is likeable, and Tom's wife, and the Ann Arbor police -- one detective especially. There's no one here particularly un-likeable, although some very unlikeable deeds are done.
There's not much reflection of Ann Arbor's distinctiveness here, but it's not really needed. Plot and puzzle and character are plenty to propel this story without a strong sense of place. I think of it as a "crime gris" novel, and I'm eager to see if Harry Dolan can come up with another one.
I know a lot of people just plain don’t read short stories. I don’t read that many myself, which is odd, as I was fetched up on O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant. As Connelly notes in the introduction, these are not stories of police procedure, they’re stories about police people. We get inside the minds of a lot of cops, and see a lot of cop family dynamics. I like short stories because there’s usually a surprise in them, generally a plot twist.
For me, in this volume, the biggest surprise was that amongst solid stories by some of the best known names – Laurie King, T. Jefferson Parker, Leslie Glass, John Harvey, Greg Rucka, Paula Woods, Alafair Burke, and Connelly of course – the three stories that grabbed me most were by writers I’d never heard of: John Buentello, Bev Vincent, and Paul Guyot. Buentello’s is about a cop with Alzheimer’s who’s lost his memory but not his instinct. Vincent’s features a ride-along novelist. Guyot’s is about a cop who becomes too motivated to solve a murder. (This story involves Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” which has also appeared in three Connelly novels, and on a CD of Michael’s favorite jazz. Coincidence?)
Note: Other published work by John Buentello is science fiction; by Bev Vincent, mostly horror and SF plus some Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine stories; Paul Guyot writes primarily for TV. I’m going to watch for these writers in mystery anthologies, and hope for crime novels from them. Let me know if you find them before I do!
Boca Knights, by Steven M. Forman, is a feel-good novel about Eddie Perlmutter, a Golden Gloves champion-turned Boston cop, who, at age 60, retires to Boca Raton, FL, and becomes a private eye. (Boca is very upscale: a “Boca Volkswagen” is a Bentley Continental GT.) Eddie tells his own story in a voice that could belong to a borscht belt stand-up comic: mildly funny wisecracks told with a transparent eagerness to please, punctuated by an occasional solid jab to the emotions. Small of stature, but with a fearlessness inherited from his grandfather, Eddie tangles with everything from golf-course hoggers to counterfeiters to neo-Nazis with gratifying success. Even with a few detours, such as a treatise on the history of Haiti, I enjoyed tagging along with him.
P.D. James has called this “a highly original and elegantly written novel.” She put the words right into my mouth!
In the 1930’s Josephine Tey was better known as a playwright than as a mystery writer. Traveling to London by train for the final week of the record-breaking run of her hit play, she meets a young woman heading to see the play again for the umpteenth time. Shortly after arrival the young woman is found murdered, surrounded by artifacts from the play. Miss Tey becomes concerned that she may have unwittingly caused the death. Her friend Archie Penrose, the Inspector in charge of the case, is more concerned that Tey may have been the intended victim. (Penrose is an appealing character, fit to join Tey’s Alan Grant and James’s Adam Dalgliesh in the ranks of fictional Inspectors; I hope he’ll appear again.) Inevitably the action moves to the theater, and the story takes on a large cast of characters, connected by a wide variety of relationships. As Penrose reminds himself, there are many kinds of love.
This authentic 1930’s style whodunit has a surprising amount of substance. I recommend it to fans of classic mysteries.
I’ve been a fan of Ed Wright ever since JB pointed me to the dazzling debut, Clea’s Moon, set in 1940’s Los Angeles and featuring John Ray Horn, a washed-up movie cowboy. After two more excellent Horn novels, Wright switched to a more traditional mystery with Damnation Falls, set in present-day Tennessee. Now he’s back out West, still in the present day, with a stirring combination of whodunit and thriller in From Blood. (At first glance I thought it an easily forgettable title, but after reading the book it won’t be.)
Wright introduces the lead character in an unusual setting, as the bruised and battered loser in a bar fight – with her female best friend. Shannon Fairchild is an ex-Ph.D. candidate, now cleaning houses for a living. Obviously she has some emotional issues. These go back to her childhood (no surprise there), when she felt that she somehow didn’t “belong.”
When her parents are fatally attacked, her mother makes a dying statement which galvanizes Shannon to search for the killer, and the Ph.D. drive and intelligence re-assert themselves. She finds that her parents were political activists in the 1960’s, and here we see why Edward Wright is known as a writer who “stirs up old memories.”
Although From Blood is full of suspense, and a compelling read, it’s somewhat far-fetched, and occasionally veers close to melodrama. But it’s an unusual story, with a spectacular ending (in Seattle!).
I have just one thing to say about Lawrence Block’s Getting Off.
This is the 6th book about two U.S. servicemen in Korea in the 1970's. Ever since the first book, Jade Lady Burning, was a New York Times Notable Book, each one in the series has been a Bill Farley Notable Book.
Sgts. George Sueno and Ernie Bascom are Criminal Investigation Division agents, which puts them uniquely at the intersection of American army lifestyle and the centuries-old Korean culture. George, who was a Mexican-American orphan brought up in foster homes in L.A., is something of an idealist (although it's never mentioned that "sueno" in Spanish means "sleep" or "dream.") Ernie, from Detroit, is a hot-headed man of action. The American military mentality is caught perfectly, as, being investigators, the two are required to wear civilian clothes so they'll blend in, but American civvies, not Korean, so they stand out unmistakably.
This time the two are challenged to find the remains of a G.I. who is thought to have been murdered some 20 years earlier. He had crossed paths with a group of Korean gangsters. Now he's haunting the dreams of a traditionalist fortune teller, and suddenly several of the gangsters are murdered. As usual the plot is intricate, narrated by George in beautiful language ("her smile was brighter than the sun coming up over the Eastern Sea and filled whoever was lucky enough to see it with a sense of vibrant optimism") and with subtle humor ("she was... the only person I knew who... I was certain was more intelligent than me.") George gets a surprise at the end of the story, which makes raises interesting possibilities about the future of the series.
George and Ernie don't expect us to become Korean, but they invite us to be American visitors to Korea. An entertaining and educational opportunity too good to miss.
If you've been reading and enjoying Block, Crais, Child, Pelecanos, Winslow, et al, you should also be reading Mike Lawson. He’s not as well known, but definitely belongs among these heavy-hitters.
Mike happens to live in Seattle, but his books are primarily about "the other Washington," dealing mercilessly with the shenanigans that go on there. The protagonist of the series, Joe DeMarco, is a beneath-the-radar aide to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, an old-school politician named John Mahoney. Mike's a lawyer, but his father had mob ties, so Mike's not a good candidate for traditional law practice. Instead he handles delicate situations which Mahoney needs to keep out of the news. And Mahoney gets into a lot of delicate situations.
In House Odds, Mahoney's daughter has been accused of insider trading. In addition to giving him private distress as a parent, this may give Mahoney public distress as a politician whose rivals will surely use it in attempts to discredit him. So of course Mahoney turns to DeMarco to clean up the mess. And the scheme that Mahoney suggests is a wild one.
Mike Lawson is a very fine writer. His plots are devious and intriguing, and his characters are well developed. One of them, the mysterious retired spy-or-something Emma, often nearly takes over the story. (In fact she wouldn't let me end these comments without mentioning her.) Best of all, Mike writes with a barely contained chuckle in his voice.
House Odds is the 8th in this excellent series. I think it's the best one yet, based on its ingenious plot and on DeMarco's recognition that the one upright character (who fares badly in the story) is the sort we need most in our government. That said, my favorite is House Divided, which I think of as intra-national intrigue (a cat-and-mouse story about the FBI versus the CIA). Read them all, in order if you can but sequence is not terribly important.
This is the true story of an American family who went to live in Berlin in 1933.
Seattle author Larson (Erik, not Stieg) is expert at writing non-fiction works which read like novels. And several of them have involved killers. Thunderstruck is about the convergence of wireless inventor Marconi’s efforts to establish transoceanic messaging, with the infamous wife-killer Dr. Crippen’s fleeing to America pursued by Scotland Yard. (The Crippen story is also told, without Marconi, in the wonderful novel, The False Inspector Dew, by Peter Lovesey Soho tp, $13.00.) My favorite earlier book by Erik Larson is Isaac’s Storm, about a killer hurricane in Galveston in 1900, which killed 10,000 people and effectively killed Galveston’s future as a major city. Larson’s best known book, until now anyway, is The Devil in the White City (Vintage tp, $15.95) which tells of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and steps up from wife-killer or killer storm to serial killer, with “Dr. H. H. Holmes” lurking murderously around the Fair grounds.
Now Larson has moved up from serial killer to mass murderer, with a naïve but principled American college professor trying to practice diplomacy on Adolph Hitler.
William E. Dodd was a professor at the University of Chicago who was trying to write a heavy-weight book, and finding that his academic schedule wasn’t leaving him enough time to write. Thinking that the U.S. Foreign Service would offer more free time, he applied for a position there. He got more than he bargained for when FDR appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Germany. But he took the job, and moved to Berlin with his wife and grown son and daughter. On arrival there he quickly learned that conditions under the Nazi regime were much harsher than anyone in the U.S. or elsewhere outside Germany had realized. Treatment of Jews was already inhumane, and criticism of the government by any German citizen was punishable by confiscation of property, imprisonment, or death.
Ambassador Dodd was in an impossible position. As a diplomat, he was charged with creating amicable relations between America and Germany, even to press for payment of war debts owed to us from WWI. At the same time, as a principled man he felt compelled to increase American and world awareness of the Nazi excesses. In this he met significant resistance: within the Foreign Service, a natural rivalry between career officers and an outside appointee; in America, from strong feelings of isolationism and even anti-Semitism.
This book did much to further my understanding of the forces that enabled the Nazis to solidify their position of power. And as true-crime international intrigue, it’s a fascinating read.
When I saw the West Virginia setting of this book, I thought of how much I have enjoyed the Appalachian novels of Sharyn McCrumb and the WVA procedurals of John Billheimer. When I saw that it was about the killing of three old men, being an old man myself I was hooked. Julia Keller’s prose is not quite as lyrical as McCrumb’s, but it’s pretty good, and for a first novel this book is very good.
It was interesting to go back to this little-known state. (I remember driving across mountainous West Virginia years ago, learning that when something is 10 miles ahead it is likely 5 miles up, 5 miles down, and very little distance forward.)
Bell Elkins was brought up in fictional Acker’s Gap in incredibly bad circumstances, which, remarkably, inspired her to become a lawyer and ultimately Prosecuting Attorney of her home county. Although the shooting of three men (OK, old men) having coffee together in the local diner was a case for the Sheriff, it became personal for Bell when she discovered that her teen-aged daughter was a witness to the crime. We observe that mother-daughter tensions in WVA sound pretty much the same as elsewhere, and that grinding poverty in WVA is the same as elsewhere but more so.
This is partly a whodunit and partly a why-dunit; overall a tense, gripping up-to-date but traditional mystery. I hope there will be more by Julia Keller. With or without old men.
Well, Michael Connelly has gone back to beating up on Harry Bosch again. Just a few books ago it seemed like the author wouldn't let anything go right for his leading character, giving him all manner of grief through two or three books. But Harry's troubles this time give new meaning to the word. "grief." The story starts on a low key, if murder during a liquor store hold-up can be considered low key -- ugly, but in the line of duty for a big city cop. But from the outset Harry seems to be not at his best; several times he acknowledges that he has embarrassed himself. Not usual for our self-confident hero. He will soon mortify himself with a truly stupid but understandable mistake.
The case seems to involve an Asian triad, a lethal crime ring that follows many immigrants to the U.S. The triad is called "9 Dragons" which in Chinese is "Kowloon," a suburb of Hong Kong. Soon Harry is on a plane to Hong Kong, where his daughter and ex-wife, former FBI agent Eleanor Wish (introduced in the first book, The Black Echo) now live. (This type of coincidence normally puts me off, but Connelly makes it work here.) Predictably, job and personal ties intersect, and we have a white-knuckle thriller inside a police procedural. And Connelly demonstrates that he can still write a thriller very well. Before it's over he reminds us that he's still good at whodunit-type plot twists, too.
There's a casual mention that Bosch has been doing this kind of work for 40 years (!). We know from The Black Echo that he was a "tunnel rat" in Vietnam, and we're reminded of it here. If he was 18 then, he's 58 now -- or maybe he's 60 already. And Connelly's been at it for a while, too: this is his 21st novel (!). Bosch is off his pace this time, but Connelly isn't. 9 Dragons has suspense, some humorous touches, and some interesting glimpses of Hong Kong. A side plot involving Bosch's partner on the force, I could have lived without, but overall the book is a grabber. The advance copy I read now has several food stains, as I couldn't put it down at mealtime.
Seattle author Larry Karp first caught my attention about 20 years ago with a light, entertaining series of mysteries involving music boxes. Then he kept me reading with a not-quite-so-light but still entertaining trilogy involving ragtime music and especially composer Scott Joplin. Now he returns to his erstwhile day job as an obstetrician with A Perilous Conception (in TP or HB).
It’s 1976 when Joyce and James Kennett, a couple in Emerald, WA (where could that be?) struggling with infertility, consult OB Dr. Colin Sanford, who, as it happens, is eager to perform the world’s first in vitro fertilization. With the aid of PhD embryologist Giselle Hearn, Dr. Sanford succeeds, and Joyce Kennett delivers a healthy baby. But then James Kennett pulls a gun and fatally shoots Dr. Hearn and himself! What’s going on here?
Well, in addition to IVF and murder, there’s blackmail, a disappearing lab supervisor, illicit affairs, and ultimately a whodunit plot worthy of Agatha Christie, all told with Larry Karp’s characteristic dry wit. In the process we meet Emerald Police Detective Bernie Baumgartner, who deserves several more books. But is this the first book in a Detective Baumgartner series?
That’s a mystery for Larry Karp to solve.
Rosarito Beach is a compelling story, well written, accessible, and entertaining -- especially if you like to read about Mexican drug lords. The only flaw I noticed was that the plot depended at one point on an essentially random happenstance. Not a unique problem with thrillers. I enjoyed the book, and can recommend it. But it seemed rather generic: any of a number of competent authors could have written it. A competent author with a very facile mind, that is. No author's voice comes through, though, which is a shame because the guy who wrote this -- a very thinly disguised Mike Lawson -- possesses a very distinctive voice.
Mike's DeMarco novels sparkle with his obvious joy in telling the story. Not many writers convey this kind of enthusiasm. But apparently the DeMarco books don't achieve the numbers that are needed in publishing today. So, having proven that he can write something truly different, he has now demonstrated he can excellently write something that is not very different. Alas.
This is evidently the first book in a new series featuring Kay Hamilton, a kick-ass Drug Enforcement Agent. She's edgy, which makes her interesting, but it also makes her not terribly likeable, which may become a problem over several books. She's not Emma (a wonderful character in the DeMarco books).
I don't like to penalize Mr. Lawson for having written such great books in the past, but I can't help hoping, now that he's proven he can do what others do just as well as they can, he'll be able to go back to the kind of books that only he can do so well.
Something for Nothing, by David Anthony .
[We’re indebted to Adam Woog for bringing this wonderful book, from a publisher which rarely does crime fiction, to our attention in his recent column in The Seattle Times.]
Martin Anderson is a 44-year-old adolescent. He’s married to a good woman, father of two appealing kids, and owner of a business which buys and sells used private airplanes, and he’s a really nice guy, but he has never grown up. It’s 1974, and times are not as tough as in 2011, but surprisingly similar: oil is scarce and the economy is in the doldrums. Anderson Aircrafts is what we’d call today “under water.” Martin’s biggest problem, though, is that he’s an habitual liar – lying to himself as well as to everyone else. His idea of an explanation is to come up with a “cover story.” And as a liar himself, he suspects everyone else of lying, which complicates his life significantly.
When he’s offered big money to make a few quick flights to Mexico to pick up illicit drugs, what’s a guy who has never learned to make responsible decisions going to do? How else can he hold onto his upscale home, Cadillac, private boat, race horse (!), etc.?
In 300+ pages we get pretty deeply inside this guy’s head, and I think most readers will, like me, recognize a little residual adolescence in ourselves, and somehow hope for a happy ending here. We come to understand why Publishers Weekly calls Martin Anderson “the most lovable drug smuggler in ages.”
A brilliant debut novel.
Here's another one for the surprisingly large number of us who enjoy reading about the wrong side of the law. And, ironically, it's one for those seeking an entertaining story without a murder.
Martin Railsback is a career sneak-thief with an unusual business plan. He works only with "clients" whose predictable work hours and secluded residence locations allow him to get inside their homes unobserved repeatedly over a long period of time to learn their living patterns. His careful, not to say obsessive-compulsive, study of their photo albums, diaries, and refrigerator contents, enables him to predict which items can be removed without arousing suspicion. Who would miss a couple of bananas from a large bunch, a roll of toilet paper from a stack of spares, and so on.
In the beginning his job as a Starbucks barista paid his basic living costs, but never left him with money for groceries, so his goal was to acquire enough supermarket items from his clients that he didn't need to go to the store. But he soon realized there are more expensive items which would not be missed -- seldom worn jewelry; various designer items, etc. So he expanded into taking these -- but never obvious things like computers, TV's, or the like. And only occasionally, as keeping the clients unaware of his presence is the whole idea.
Just as most businesses benefit from repeat clientele, so can sneak-thievery as practiced by Martin. A random smash-and-grab (such as breaking our shop window) would be anathema to him.
After a couple of instances where his intimate knowledge of his clients gives him a chance to keep disasters from befalling them, he begins to think of himself as their guardian angel. He turns out to be a pretty good guy -- for, okay, I'll say it, an obsessive compulsive.
Martin's adventures are laugh-out-loud funny in a few instances, but mostly the humor is in watching his elaborate steps to avoid even being noticed, much less detected. The author seems to be saying we can laugh if we want to, but this is serious business.
Thanks to the long-time customer who brought this overlooked jewel to our attention. Another good book about thievery beneath-the-radar is Slicky Boys, by Martin Limon.
Readers of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series (Readers of Reachers?) may recall that last year’s entry, The Affair, ended with Reacher ready (this “rea” business has got to stop) to hitchhike from Nebraska to Virginia. It’s the middle of the night, in winter. Within an hour and a half he has a ride. There is, of course, a story behind why this particular car stopped for him.
At this point I got to wondering, did the author visualize the entire arc of the novel all at once, or did he simply think up the hitchhiking, which could almost be a short story, and then decide to follow that and see where it led? Next time Janine lures Lee out to Seattle with baseball tickets I’ll have to ask him.
Well, no surprise, it leads to a long story made entertaining by Reacher’s fascination with numbers, including Area Codes, and general trivia about the U.S. (Remember, he’s an American who had never lived here until recently, and he’s still roaming the country, learning about it.)
And soon enough things turn serious, not to say convoluted, as the plot unfolds. Some attempts to mislead us are easily seen through – Lee Child is very generous at letting us, as readers, think we’re smarter than Reacher. Briefly. And he’s such a good writer, that certain paragraphs shine like jewels. For example, faced by challengers, Reacher thinks “Decision time, boys. Either break eye contact and walk away, or don’t.” Which is followed by this gem:
“They didn’t… A challenge. Some kind of a brainless hormonal imperative. Reacher felt his own kick in. Involuntary, but inevitable. Adrenaline, seasoned with an extra component, something dark and warm and primitive, something ancient and prehistoric and predatory, something that took out all the jitters and left all the power and all the calm confidence and all the absolute certainty of victory. Not like bringing a gun to a knife fight. Like bringing a plutonium bomb.”
This is a fast-paced novel, figuratively and literally, with lots of driving up and down interstates at 100 mph. With Reacher at the helm, if not the wheel, it’s a wild and enjoyable ride.
Set in Australia, by an Australian author I’ve long admired, this is the 6th Hal Challis novel. But it’s not really about Insp. Hal Challis, it’s about Grace. (“Grace was as good a name as any…”) She’s one of those characters that only the most insightful authors can create: a charming, mysterious and intelligent free-thinker not bound by conventional standards. A slightly more mature Holly Golightly. When you meet her she immediately becomes your favorite person, and you immediately want to become hers. (This happened to me on page one.)
Meanwhile Challis has problems everywhere. He’s in trouble with his superiors for having spoken out, rightfully, about the underfunding of local law enforcement; his right-hand man on the force is a woman with personal problems of her own; his lover Ellen Destry is off on a long trip to Europe; and there’s a cat-burglar working very effectively in the area.
A skillful writer can have a field day with all of this, and Garry Disher is a very skillful writer. And a reader can have a very good time reading this book.