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Better Dead is the new Nate Heller book from Max Allan Collins. 18th in this terrific series that mixes a fictional private eye with real crimes, real historical figures, and real events. Here’s how we wrote it up for the Spring newsletter: “The Red Scare is at full throttle and a Chicago PI is trying to work both sides of the fight. McCarthy’s scorched earth tactics have sickened Heller but a client is a client. At the same time, a leftist group lead by Dashiell Hammett asks for help proving the Rosenbergs are innocent. If this wasn’t complicated enough, McCarthy wants Nate to find out what the CIA has on him. It is a time of paranoia and backstabbing and A-1 Investigations outta Chi is in the heart of it.”
The book is split in two – in the first part, Heller works to find evidence that will cause a new trial for the Rosenbergs. In the second, he tangles with the CIA over mind-control experiments, the MKULTRA program that used unwitting civilians and employees as guinea pigs. This is just before McCarthy turns to attacking the Army, the move that doomed him.
Heller deals with the Rosenbergs, McCarthy and Roy Cohn, Betty Page and Dash Hammett - and Frank Olsen, a CIA official who died under strange circumstances. There are goons, guns and gals, paranoia and puzzles, rough stuff and romance as Heller navigates his way through this ugly period at our mid-Century, both in DC and NYC.
Better Dead is great, lurid, hardboiled fun!
Brian Panowich's debut, Bull Mountain is a dazzling book about the multi-generational machinations of the Burroughs family in North Georgia. They're a tough batch, onery and violent, and they don't tolerate outsiders or the law. The story skips around in time, from the great-grandfathers to the current crop, back to their fathers, grandfathers, and back around to the brothers who hold each other in contempt but have reached a peace by simply leaving one another alone: Hal, the oldest, runs the family business on the mountain; Clayton, the youngest, is the county sheriff down in town. After all - they're family and family is paramount.
What's the family business? Well, it used to be moonshine. Then it was dope. Now it is meth. The generations have built up a powerful network of trafficking around the East Coast. They're hooked into gun manufacturers and biker gangs and no one dares enter their territory. The Burroughs have ruled it with iron fist, stout stick and gunshot for decades.
Into this peace comes Special Agent Holly who has an offer to the Burrough brothers: If Clayton can get Hal to give up his connection in Florida, the Feds will allow him to retire in peace - he can keep what he has, they won't bother him, but he's got to stop dealing drugs.
And that's when all hell breaks lose. If they like you, you're buried with the family. If they don't - you're buried in some forgotten hole.
The various time frame structure can be a little disconcerting - there are a lot of Burroughs to keep track of. You almost need a family tree. But it all evens out and roars to a violent and bloody ending. It has to. With these people there's no easy way out. Like Woodrell, these folks are born to die badly and, like Woodrell, Panowich tells their story with a lyrical hand. You get the sense and scents of the place in technicolor.
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. He's an author to follow.
Don Winslow’s books are always terrific. But there are two that are a step above terrific, and he’ll be here to sign them.
Back in 2005, he published The Power of the Dog, an opus about the bloody drug violence along the US/Mexico border. He concentrated on three figues – Art Keller of the DEA and the Barrera brothers who run the most powerful cartel south of the border. It was a heartbreaking book, following these characters as stand-ins for larger horror of the drug war. The toll the war takes on them and their loved ones mirrors the toll it has taken on the countries. One reviewer refered to it as a ‘biblical’ saga, and I think that’s right. If it were to have been filmed, it would have to have been tackled by Lean or Coppala.
Now he’s returned to this despoiled and destroyed land with The Cartel, and the personal war between Keller and Adán Barrera. Both carry on a crusade to stop the other with any means possible and to kill the other in the end. Can they? The book is filled with scheming and maneuvering, with double-crosses and duplicity, as they dance toward one another, lying to themselves and deceiving anyone they need to to meet their ends. Around them swirls the corruption and infighting endemic to such a battle. As the leaders take their worlds into warfair, the collateral damage is catastrophic, inevitably.
The wonderment of the book is that these two figures are neither angels nor demons. It is a remarkable achievement that Winslow has crafted such fully sculpted humans out of words. And his words are clear and cutting, leaving no one – not Mexico and not the US – spared of guilt for the death and horror. About a narcothug’s send-off he writes:“Alberto’s funeral was ridiculous, a display of hypocrisy that would have made a Louisiana televangelist blush.”
The Cartel covers the last decade of the border’s war on drugs – the kidnappings, the beheadings, the bombings and firefights. Death and destruction and doom. Storylines will sound familiar to you if you’ve been paying attention to the news. There’s a nauseating déjà vu to the book in that as bad as things are as the novel opens, you know it is going to get much, much worse. No one can get out of the horror. No one can escape.“Satan can only tempt you with what you already have.” There is just too much money at stake, too much power, and too much hatred.
Winslow spares no one – not the gunmen, not the cartel lords, not the DEA, not the police, the governments, the users, and not us readers. He shows us what has happened and, inevitably, what will continue. There’s no past or future, in The Cartel, there is just whatis.“He’s heard it said that life is a river, that the past flows downstream. It isn’t true – if it flows, it flows through the blood in your veins. You can no more cut yourself away from the past than you can cut out your own heart.”
Read The Cartel, it’s a killer of a story, beautiful, bloody and belligerently brave. It will be in your face and in your head where it deserves to be. But read The Power of the Dog first. Read it now so you can start reading The Cartel as soon as he’s signed your hardcover.
Last year, I enjoyed Rob Hart’s debut, New Yorked.His hero, Ash McKenna, is an unofficial private eye, helping those who need help and who can’t go to the cops. Ash and the story were so tied up in NYC that I assumed any follow up book would also be set there. But he’s done the unlikely and taken Ash out of his native city and plopped him down near us. City of Rose takes place in Portland, OR – the Rose City. It’s a nice play on words and place.
The fun here is that Ash is completely out of his element. The city is so quiet, so polite – so cloudy! He’s trying to get used to it but it isn’t easy for him. He’s working as a bouncer and jack-of-all trades at a vegan strip joint (yep – Ash has landed in Portlandia). One of the dancers asks him for help – her ex-boyfriend has taken off with their daughter, a toddler named Rose.
Ash is in the lineage of the classic American hero who well understands that what’s most important is to act tough, to bluff your way through the mess, even when you know you’re crazy to be doing it.
“And I’m a native New Yorker with a bad attitude. Anything else is bush league.”
“You’re not looking at me right now,“ Crystal says. “But you need to know I rolled my eyes so hard I pulled something. “Do you have a death wish?”
He’s been working at the club for six months and has, so far, been able to stay out of trouble and to stay unknown to anyone. But, as he and Crystal, the girl’s mother, begin their search, they all get to know one another. Ash is without allies, without any support, so he reluctantly needs to reach out if he’s to find the girl. And the people around him are not sure what to make of him but they begin to see him for what and who he is.
The book is full of biting wit and lyrical writing. Hart has done a great job of catching the atmosphere and lunacy of Portland and make full use of it as the setting for this fine book.
The back of the book refers to Ash as having a “bent moral compass”. I’d disagree with that. He’s a man who has suffered great loss, is trying his best to stop being the violent man he’s been and to talk his way out of more trouble that always seems to be screaming at him, and to be someone others can rely on. After all, his first reaction to Crystal’s plea for help is to say no, that he can’t do what she asks any longer. He’s not that guy anymore. The thing is, he is.
I have low tolerance for main characters who have to do the dumb thing to keep the story going – you know, the people who have to keep poking at the devil, the people who have to open that door behind which evil lurks. You want to scream at them to STOP IT!
I had thought with a sinking feeling that Peter Spiegelman’s new book was falling into this trap until I realized he’d turned it on its head.
Adam Knox, the doctor at the center of his new thriller, runs a medical clinic in a LA neighborhood that deals with everything from sexual diseases to gunshots, from the flu to horrors of bad hygiene. He and his crew see it all and do their best to deal effectively with it all. At some point, they all understand they’re just holding off the collapse of their world.
One day a woman comes in with a young boy who can’t breathe. It’s relatively minor – a reaction to a peanut – but the woman runs off and Dr. Knox decides to go one step further. And that step takes him and his staff into the crosshairs of two different and dangerous factions who want the boy and the woman.
“Bray wasn’t handing down law just then, but listening to a man’s voice from a phone speaker. I couldn’t make out the words, but the voice was pleading and desperate, which seemed to make Bray angry. His jaw was rigid, and his large mottled hands clutched at each other. His own replies were curt and chilly – ice on a windowpane. His words too were lost to me, but his scorn hung like a fog in the air.”
So what is it that saves Dr. Knox from being the irritating sort of story where carelessness keeps the story moving? Knox is a danger junkie. He lost his repuation working in a hospital in war-torn Africa, he now works in a dangerous part of the city where the people he’s trying to help are often violent, he earns extra money administering to those – the rich and famous – who can’t go to a hospital, and he keeps risking his own skin, as well as his staff, by continuing to dig into the background of these strangers, this boy and woman. Why? Not only does he need to be the savior, I think he also needs the tickle of danger to feel alive. And that makes him an interesting and dangerous character – as those factions will discover.
Knox has a friend who watches out for him, a soldier of fortune/security expert, named Sutter, a guy he got to know in Africa. They’re two sides of a coin, though Sutter is himself more dangerous than Knox: “You forgot. You took things for granted. You climbed up so high you thought there was no more gravity. You thought you were immune. I get that – it’s a very human thing. But tonight I’m gravity’s representative…”
This is said to be the start of a series. It’ll be interesting to see where he takes Adam Knox – and us.
I’ve read and enjoyed all of Spiegelman’s books. You will, too. They’re in the Hammett/Block school of noir, with spare writing, unique characters, and surprising plots. He won the Shamus Award for Best first novel and he’s not lost a step.
The only good thing about air travel any more is that you do get plenty of time to read. Otherwise…
Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones was a joy, just like all of his other books. This one seems to be a bridge book. He’s taking us and the characters somewhere else, somewhere darker, I think, in a book to come. It all has to do with a certain knife-wielding hotshot from a couple of books ago – and I’ll leave it there.
Dry Bones puts Walt and crew into the legal thicket of invaluable archeological finds and who has rights to them versus who lays claims to them. The book opens with an oddly comic scene at a fishinghole with Omar throwing rocks at turtles. It fairly quickly turns serious and the story continues to ricochet between the two – as only Craig can pull off – for the remainder of the book. All of the usual suspects are here – Henry, Lonnie, Dog, Cady, Vic, Lucien - as well as some too long missing – Double Tough, Chief Long, Omar as mentioned. There’s a mix of new folks who are peppered in with the regulars as the population of Absaroka County gets continually filled in.
There’s ear-splitting thunder storms, truck-denting hail, flash floods, childhood memories of an abandoned mine, and self-doubting questions of spirits in the storms.
Boy Howdy. Makes me want to start re-reading them all again, for the fourth time.
I have the same reaction when I hear of any author being engaged to continue a series started by a dead author. At least one of the corners of my mouth is pulled back – maybe both – in that “ohIdunnoaboutthis” grimace. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it works out well.
Case in point: David Lagercrantz’s continuation of the “Girl Who” books by Stieg Larsson. I was surprised and delighted with his addition. I really liked Larsson’s trilogy. I didn’t find it too dark or violent. Considering the subject matter, they were as dark and bloody as they should have been. I enjoyed everything about them and can tell you I thought Lagercrantz did a fine job capturing the characters, the tones, the themes, and the pacing of those books for his continuation, The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Computers are, of course, central to the book. Not just hacking the questions of advanced computers and artificial intelligence. That vein is juxtaposed against the mysteries of the human brain – in this case, the unique talents of autistics. There’s Salandar’s pursuit of her father’s crime empire whose web (hence the spiders of the title) reaches far – and that web infiltrates the other web – the internet.
All of the usual suspects from the trilogy are there, as is the anger coursing through the background, anger and hatred aimed at women and the anger and fury the women and men send back in return.
Salandar may not be in a lot of the action but she’st here throughout and it is her book. I hope Lagercrantz does more. It was great to be back in the offices of Millenium and Lisbeth’s computer.
I was completely caught up in it.
Like all great noir, Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes is a steamy story of lust, greed and murder. It is a wonderful read but be aware it is explicit, X-rated, adult-calibre steam. Just so no one is surprised.
Doak Miller is a retired NYPD detective now living in Florida and stretching his pension by doing low-key private eye work. Occasionally, he does undercover work for the county sheriff for some extra dough. He’s asked to act the part of a hitman to get the goods on a local woman who is interested in having her wealthy husband whacked.
As with all classic noir, the femme fatale and the dude fall for each other in the most horizontal of fashions and are soon planning to make it happen. The trick is Doak was a cop so he knows how tough it will be AND he’s a fan of film noir (during the story, he’s watching the great old ones on TCM) so he’s been doubly warped into thinking they’ll never gets away with it. But, lust being lust, they have to try.
A few years ago, Block announced he was retiring from writing. A collective shudder when through this place, I can tell you. (Thought Bill was going to cry.) We should have taken to heart the title of his book on writing, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I get the idea that this Master of Mystery is far from done spinning tales and we are all the richer for it.
There’s always a bit of leeriness about the second book by an author whose first book was a treat. They spent significant time polishing the debut, it was met with praise, and the stakes on the second book were raised. That’s the so-called “sophomore slump”. Some writers fail at it.
Then there’s Glen Erik Hamilton who has skipped from freshman book to graduate level with his second book, Hard Cold Winter.
Book #2 picks up six months after the action of Past Crimes. Van Shaw is still trying to figure out where he fits now that he’s officially mustered out of the Army. He’s been living on money he had and that’s running out. He knows he could pick up illegal work from his grandfather’s old cohorts but he’d rather stay on the free side of the law. Then he gets a call from one of those cohorts – and we’re off.
Willard’s neice has vanished. Though she’s a free spirit, she’s not called in for a few days and has missed work at her uncle’s floating and illegal gambling games. He asks Van to try to find her.
What Van finds in the remote Olympic Mountains is a dead woman and a bear-chewed male corpse. Who exactly were they, what were they up to, what did the other tire tracks left in the snow mean? Quickly we’re into a world of stolen explosives, Russian gangsters, vivid memories from Van’s youth and one of his former Ranger teamates who could be an asset to Van if he’s able to stay sane. It’s clear there are some very scary people behind it all.
“His eyes had the bright, unadulterated terror of a child who is certain that the boogey-man lives in his closet. And who has just seen the closet door move.” Hamilton’s writing has kicked up a notch – as fine as it was in his debut. He notes of a cigarette, “The busy fans caught the smoke as it trailed upward, yanked it from the air to vanish like a small startled ghost.”
Hard Cold Winter has a complicated plot. But that’s the fun of it. You won’t be the only one confused by the puzzle as the action moves quickly around Seattle, using the city as a vivid setting and nearly as a character. Late in the book, as Van has worked through the story to understand what’s going on and the pieces begin to lock into place, he turns to his buddy Leo to say “If there’s a race for stupid, I’m in the lead.”
It’s a wild ride. I urge you to take it. Chandler once said that the importance of Hammett was that he wrote scenes that had never been written before. Hard Cold Winter has that freshness to it, due to the characters, the writing, the plot – the whole damn thing. You’ll find yourself speeding through it, impatient to find out how it all will end. One character buckles under the tension. “Said it was like being in the middle of an inhale, waiting for the scream.”
His first book, Past Crimes will be out in paperback Feb 23. For it, he’s just received a Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel by an American.
It’s only the end of January and I may’ve just read the best book of the year.
Mike Lawson’s House Revenge is a more straightforward thriller. We all – DeMarco, Mahoney, we readers – know who the bad guy is. But how’s DeMarco going to make him fall?
One of Mahoney’s constituents in Boston is being driven out of her apartment by a ruthless developer. Elinore is a tough old lady who insists she’s going to stick out the remainder of her lease. She’s holding up the progress on a massive re-development and the real estate mogul is using a couple of psycho brothers that he’s known since high school to make the lives of those still in the building a nightmare. DeMarco’s order are pretty simple – get the developer to back off.
‘Course we’re dealing with a number of people with very strong wills who have dug in their heels and refuse to budge. Something’s got to give and, unfortunately, that will be the skulls of Elinore and DeMarco – and that’s when the gloves come off.
DeMarco’s plans are not without risk of going sideways. Improvising as best he can, his plans are inventive and original – though not without their own problems. Still, the fun is watching DeMarco work it all out as he goes and seeing what his solutions are.
As usual, the book is full of his interiour commentaries, letting us in on his fussing and fuming over his boss, his job, his life, and the absurdities of the powerful.11th in this wonderful series.
On the other hand, Mike Lawson’s House Rivals takes DeMarco far out of his comfort zone (really, if he even has one) and plants him down in the upper Great Plains. Mahoney’s sent him West to help the granddaughter of an old war buddy. She’s fighting the corruption fostered by a slippery rich guy who is into “energy extraction”.
DeMarco, of course, understands nothing about what is going on – except for the corruption. Joe understands that very well.
Pretty quickly, things get ugly and it becomes a personal crusade for him. The fun is watching him shake things up with his “own” FBI agent intow and aghast at his antics. When your boss is John Mahoney, a guy can pretty much do what he thinks is right, and DeMarco’s sense of justice is his guide, and it’s as sharp and sure as ever.
To some extent, DeMarco is up against his polar opposites – fixers who work for the tycoon. The reason DeMarco understands the corruption is that what they do is not so far from what he does, and that is the moral edge of the book. There are a few times in the story where others refer to DeMarco as a thug and he resents it. He doesn’t see himself as one. So the question becomes is corruption in the eye of the beholder? I don’t think so, I don’t think Lawson or DeMarco think so, but it is an interesting and dangerous knife edge. Glad DeMarco is our guide.
If there’s one fault to the book – and, really, there isn’t – is that Emma does not appear in the story. I don’t think I’m giving anything away. There’s really no place for her this time out.
But, Mike – you owe us a mess of Emma in the next story.
House Rivals is the 10th in the DeMarco series, as fine and smooth a series of thrillers as you are ever going to find. Though Mike lives here in Seattle, the series is based in DC. Looking for a confident and cynical series of books about how power is used and abused in American? Read Mike Lawson. Now. They’re a hellovalotta fun.
Fran was absolutely right when she said Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind was a terrific book that I needed to read. Though he’s published short stories for year, this is his debut crime novel and it is a smooth first novel that zips along at rapid pace, laced with dark humor and fully-fleshed characters.
The gist of the book is assassins hunting assassins. Michael Hendricks was an American Special Forces special ops guy who was thought killed in Afghanistan. He’s played dead ever since, making himself known to only one guy – a former squad mate. Guilt over bad things done in the name of country leads Hendricks to attempt to make amends by protecting those targeted for assassination. For a fee, he promises to kill the assassin before the killer can kill the target. Nearly all of the killers have been working for the Corporation, the governing alliance of America’s organized crime, and these crime bosses are not happy at having their plans thwarted, let alone losing a hefty number of valuable professional killers over the last couple of years. They don’t know who Hendricks is, but they know he’s out there and they hire the best assassin in the business to stop him. Thus begins the deadly dance – made even more complicated by the FBI agent who has been after “her ghost” (as she refers to Hendricks).
Holm has a lively style. “The bass-drum thud of an approaching helicopter roused him slightly. A news chopper, likely peeling off from the swarm that hovered over Pendelton’s like blowflies over carrion when they caught wind on their scanner of yet another juicy morsel from their never-ending misery buffet just down the road.” Black humor is threaded through the gunsmoke and blood. In that, Holm’s writing reminded me of Don Winslow’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z, the crime novels of Charlie Huston, James W. Hall, and Gillian Flynn. It’s the laughter of the hangman, acknowledging the ludicrousness of human schemes and frailities. Still, The Killing Kind is grounded in the real trauma of personal loss - of lost love, lost friends and lost ideals.
The Killing Kind by Chris Holm comes out next week. Believe Fran on this one – a bloody and funny thrill ride not to be missed.
Of late, the Jack Reacher books have been found to be, well, uneven. Customers still grouse about the ending of 61 Hours. Most agreed that with The Affair, the stories recovered their believability. I thought the last one, Personal, had an ending that didn't work and began to wonder if it was time to stop reading Reacher.
I'm happy to report that that concern was unwarranted. Lee Child's 20th Reacher thriller, Make Me, is back to being top notch. From the start, it crackles with dangerous energy and momentum. There's not much I can tell you about the plot - don't want to ruin it for you - it begins as most Reacher tales do, innocuously, with Reacher getting off a train in the middle of Oklahoma wheatfields because he's curious about the name of the town at which the Chicago-bound train stops... and we're off.
As always, we're treated to Reacher's incontrovertable logic and his ability to see moves ahead of his opponents. From the start he meets a woman who has a problem and solving that problem will take them to Chicago, LA, the Bay area, and back to the empty flats of the wheat fields. Except it isn't empty, is it - it's jammed with evil and horrors.
There's a significant difference to this entry in the series, though. For a chunk of the book, Reacher is hurt, his effectiveness dangerously compromised. And, for the first time in the series, Reacher doesn't ride off into the sunset alone. Jack, it appears, is smitten!
So if you've wondered if the series still had traction or impact, or thrills, don't worry. Make Me is among the best of the Reachers. #20 and counting.
Bring it on.
Lee Child’s new Reacher, Night School is his best in years. This one, the 21st (hard to believe) goes back to 1996, when Army CID Major Jack Reacher is detailed to a special operation. Intelligence sources have picked up a strange bit of info and a small group working out of the White House puts together a team of investigators (CIA, FBI, Military) to track it down.
The plot is tight – he does a great job keeping the maguffin a mystery - the characters interesting, and the action rarely slows down for much. When it does it feels natural, not a drag on the story. I read it in one day, staying up far too late on a Sunday night. There was no way to put it down with 50 pages to go!
Craig Johnson’s next full Longmire novel An Obvious Fact is one of the lighter stories in this favorite series. Walt never ends up in the hospital, no icy glares from Ruby or Dorothy. Walt’s biggest problem is Henry’s continual quoting Sherlock Holmes since he’s borrowed a big volume of the stories from Walt’s cabin.
Walt and Henry (and Dog, of course) have traveled up to the territory of the Devil’s Tower at the time of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle rally over in South Dakota. A rider has gone off the bend of an isolated highway and the local cops ask for Walt’s help. That’s the easy part. The hard part? Ever wondered who Henry named his car after? We finally get to meet Lola.
Bikers, neo-Nazis, a huge, white military vehicle Walt dubs the Pequod, Vic kicking ass in a skeet-shooting competition… all great fun.
It does leave me wondering what’s next. His pattern has been to follow a lighter story with a deadly serious book. This book is set in August. The next will be in Autumn, as Winter nears. Cue the ominous bass notes….
Every now and then, each of us needs to take a break from reading mysteries. Last week, I found myself between mysteries and nothing on the piles was catching my eye. At times like that I go to a different pile in a different room – a pile of histories or biographies that I’ve taken home. The book I’m going to write about is in no way shape or form a mystery so feel free to skip this. I won’t be offended!
What did the trick this time was a book that came out at the end of June: Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: An American Journey (with maps, drawings and photos). Rinker narrates his “crazyass” (a family term) decision to drive a covered wagon across the Oregon Trail in 2011. He’s accompanied by his brother Nick, Nick’s dog Olive Oyl, and the mule team that pulls them across the continent (Jake, Beck and Bute – everyone is a full-fledged character in this story). The journey took them four months, from Missouri to eastern Oregon and it is a hellova story.
Along the way, Buck provides a wonderful series of histories – of the trail itself, of the evolution of wagons, of the husbandry of mules, America’s first great project of littering – as well as laying out the economic and social impacts of the great migration. He does this all with style and wit. Along the way he comments on the country’s vacation culture (“Apparently, there is a considerable gassing off of formaldehydes and vinyl parts inside a moving RV that causes aggressively boring men to consider themselves wildly funny.”) religions, politics and pretty much anything else that you can think of. Sitting on that wagon gave him lots of time for mulling over his own life and family.
He makes interesting points as the wagon sways across bottom land, climbs steep slopes, burns across deserts, and nerve-wrackingly makes way down narrow steep grades. You’ll learn the toll cholera took on the migrants, how the forests of the East helped build the shelters of the West, how scoundrels would help families lighten their wagons for perilous terrain and then take those barrels back to sell to the next yokel. He comments that we’ve preserved the history of the Oregon Trail by sanitizing it (“Everything was as orderley and well-appointed as the campus of a wealthy New England college.”) but he and Nick demonstrate that the trail is still there, it can be ridden, that the history is there for us all too if we just look for it.
“I was comfortable about my own western quest. The wrong outcome, or no outcome at all, is often the only result of a journey. Walkabouts and odysseys have always been common, and we needn’t search too hard to tangible returns. Journey for jouney’s sake is enough.” He wonders at the end if he got anything out of the journey – well he got a great book out of it and we’re enriched by it.
The book reminded me of William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways (another great American travel story if you haven’t read it.) It’s an entertaining philosophical meditation on America, how we got to be who we are, how the country got to be how it is and, maybe, where we’re going.
We will not be stocking this book but I’ll be elated to order one for you. If it isn’t your thing, keep it in mind as a gift for someone who might. It was a joy to read.
Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther, The Other Side of Silence, finds the retired cop/private eye on the Riviera, working in a hotel as the consierge. It’s a quiet life, one that suits him for where he is in his life. There’s little intrigue involved, little gunfire, little danger. But this is a Gunther novel so that’s about to change. The 11th in the series opens with Bernie smarting from another broken marriage. His wife has recently left him. But this is a Gunther novel so things are going to get worse. He’s learning bridge, playing with a set group. But this is a Gunther novel so things are going to get complicated.
How complicated? Well, his bridge partner is murdered, he meets a British writer who wants to meet Somerset Maugham so that she can write his biography, and, of course, someone from Berlin before the war, someone who could blow his new false identity. Through bridge, Gunther is drawn into the intrigue that seems to always surround Maugham – blackmail, questions about his espionage past. From there, we’re into questions of identity, questions of loyalties, questions of treachery and the gamesmanship of the early Cold War. The present in the book (though we do go back to an unknown period in Berney’s life) is 1956. The defections of Burgess and MacLean are just a few years in the past but the doubts and paranoia still hover, as does the tension of the Suez Canal trouble.
There are serpents in paradise and Bernie is the guide for us as well as Maugham.
“As I drove up the gravel drive, the tall green door was opened by Ernest, the butler, and a moment later there was Maugham wearing an open-necked blue shirt, white linen trousers, and espadrilles. He was carrying a Pan American flight bag over one shoulder. I didn’t get out of the car. I switched off the engine, wound down the window and then Maugham leaned in. It was a beautiful deep summer evening – the kind of evening for talk of love, not blackmail money and an incriminating photograph.
Behind a hedge of thick pink and white oleaners I could hear water trickling into the swimming pool, and the air was thick with the smell of orange blossom, which was preferable to the absinth martini and cigarette corrupting the old man’s mephitic breath, which now poured over me like chlorine gas drifting across No Man’s Land.”
As always, Kerr is at his Chandlerian best with Bernie’s noirish narration painting a vivid picture of the people and the settings.
Philip Kerr has never signed with us before and we’re thrilled to finally have him in. The Other Side of Silence is the new book and we’ll do our best to have all of the earlier ones on hand. That’s not always easy as we keep selling the damn thing
Once again, in Ping-Pong Heart, Martin Limón’s released a firecracker of a book. 8th Army CID investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom begin with a case of an officer who claims to have been fleeced by a bar girl. From there we’re into a case that’s sparkling with malice – accusations, murder, attacks, and treason. As usual, Sueño and Bascom are caught in the midst of the mess trying to keep their superiors playcated and their enemies off balance.
There’s Mr. Kill the revered and feared investigator for the South Korean national police. There’s Miss Kim, the Korean national who keeps the CID office humming, and with whom Ernie does a delicate dance. There’s Doctor Yong and Dr. Prevault – the past and present paramours of George’s. There’s the added danger of love in this mix, treason of the heart as well as treason of country.
There’s the danger of going off-base, off the reservation, off kilter and off balanace. And, as with any situation these two steady detectives find themselves in, there’s the danger of perception and what the Army is or is not willing to sweep under the rug to, in the parlance of the East, save face.
Buzz for Steve Hamilton’s The Second Life of Nick Mason has been building for years – literally. It was announced as a St. Martin’s hardcover some time ago, then Hamilton left the publisher and went with Putnam. The book was being talked about way back then – probably two years ago - and the switch of publishers just extended the buzz. It was well worth the wait.
Nick Mason is a felon on a 25-year bounce when he’s released due to the machinations of a crime boss after 5 years. The catch is he has to do whatever his new master says, whenever he’s told to do it, with no hesitation. Nick’s not a violent guy, though he did graduate from boosting cars in teens to safe cracking in his twenties. His second life will be bloody.
This is a fast read with spare writing and rapid action. If you want lots of atmosphere and description you won’t get it. This is in the stream-lined school of Hammett, Block and Pelecanos and deserves the comparison. The cars have muscles and jump at the touch of the gas pedal, the bullets wipe out life, the knives are sharp, the emotions raw, the fear pulses through the pages like the bass in one of the car’s radios.
Edgar-winner and Steel Dagger- winner Steve Hamilton will be here to sign what is said to be the start of a series, on Wed, June 1st.
It’s a hell of a ride, a nightmare of noir rocketing into the rainy dark streets of Chicago. It’s going to be fun watching Nick make his way through his new life, trying his best – hoplessly I fear – to find a way into a better, third life.
The Second Life of Nick Mason - It’s one of the year’s best.
Sometimes, after having written up a book for a newsletter months before, the book arrives and I think “Oh yeah – that one sounded pretty good…” This happened recently when the publisher sent us a reading copy of Scott Frank’s debut novel, Shaker. There was the plot, of course, but there was also his history as a screenwriter: He wrote Little Man Tate, Dead Again, Heaven’s Prisoners, Minority Report and he wrote and directed the adaptation of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones (a very good movie with Liam Neeson as Scudder). The man has credits not only as a writer but as a writer of crime movies.
The plot sounded interesting back when I wrote it up: a hit man is sent to LA to whack a guy in the days after a catastrophic earthquake has made a hash of the area. Streets and highways are a mess, cell phone coverage is spotty, a mayoral election is going on, crime is rampant, and what little civic civility LA possesses is stressed.
What the publisher’s early write up may’ve mentioned but couldn’t really convey was how savagely satirical the book is. Think Hiaasen’s sharp skewering of everything Floridian and transport that to La-La Land. No one is safe and nothing is sacred.
The bare bones of the story are that Roy is sent from NYC to whack a guy. He’s a very competent guy tossed into an impossible landscape. After the job, he gets turned around and ends up in an alley where some teen gangster wannabes are torturing an old man who was jogging by. Everything goes to hell from there. Add into the mix an alcoholic woman cop who is the city’s foremost authority on gang members – but who is on the city’s shit list for nearly killing a rapist/murderer – a dim-witted but pretty-boy mayor, old pals of Roy’s who recognize him from the country-wide media circus and come for revenge… well the entire soup of lunacy comes down to a baseball game at Dodgers’ stadium, one of the few places in the city undamaged by the initial quake and the aftershocks.
Great writing, well-drawn characters, laughs at every turn, and a scathing comentary on Modern LA (read US) and you’ve got a wonderfully entertaining crime novel about our world gone mad.
Shaker by Scott Frank. A terrific debut, one of many in the last couple of years.
John Connolly’s A Time of Torment is a thick book befitting an epic story. It’s a significant shift in the Parker series and it takes a healthy stack of pages to adequately tell it.
The basic tale is of a man who is just out of prison, a man whose heroism saved others but whose life crashed due to a conviction he insists was unjust. Parker, Louis and Angel tend to believe the man. When he disappears a day after their meeting, they know he was correct in predicting his own demise.
But that’s just the skeleton on which the story is hung. For now that he’s recovered (mostly) from the attack that nearly stopped him, Parker is clearly a dedicated hunter of the evil people and beings who are afraid of him. Allied with Louis and Angel – and his two daughters – this group scares the hell out of the dark side and with good reason.
More than anything, this book reminded me of Stephen King’s It, in which a group of innocents battles the force of a great demon. Of course, neither book is that simple, but the scale of them and the evil at the center of each makes them bookends. And like It, even the minor characters are well drawn.
“Griffin didn’t read the papers much, the occasional big-game coverage apart, or watch news bulletins on TV. He wasn’t a complete moron, but he was intellectually lazy and incurious, as well as the eternally fixed center of his own universe. Every individual spends a lifetime trying to disprove Copernicus by placing himself – or herself - at the heart of existence, but a small core of diehards manages to turn in into an art. Harpur Griffin was just such a man, spurred on by a suspicion, although he could never have expressed it in so many words, that he was just an empitness with a name.”
A Time of Torment is a scary book, an unnerving book, and engrossing book, and a hopeful book. Evil is stopped, but evil is never vanquished. And that gives us reason to look forward to the continuing story of Charlie Parker and his hunt.
In Trigger Mortis, Athony Horowtiz pulls off a neat trick. He’s written a book in 2014 (figure that’s when it was written though it was just published in 2015) that reads as if it was written and published in 1959/60, when it is set – just weeks after the end of the Goldfinger affair.
Does that mean it is dated? Yes and no. Yes, it reads as a book from that time would but, no, that doesn’t date it. If anything, I thought it made it read even more like an Ian Fleming novel.
James Bond, Pussy Galore, M, Moneypenny and Major Boothroyd, housekeeper May and his Bentley with the hidden Walther – and SMERSH. About the only missing regular was Felix Leiter. What the hell, you can’t have it all!
In true Bond fashion, his mission is to do one thing (which he does exceedingly well, of course) but he notices something else and by pulling that string he’s lead into an even larger bit of ugliness. As with the Fleming novels, the gadetry is minimul, the action is hardboiled, the dames are willing yet self-reliant, the villians tough and unrelenting.
As an aside – Fleming wrote a number of scripts for a possible 007 television show. When the movies took off, there was no point to the TV version. Some of the scripts became Bond short stories. Trigger Mortis comes from that time. One of the scripts had Bond involved in Grand Prix racing and the estate allowed Horowitz to use that script as a basis for the novel, even allowing him to use some passages written by Fleming. So this is as close as we’re going to come to getting “new Fleming” as we’re ever likely to get.
And Horowitz has made the most of it. The pace is as quick as the Mazeratti Bond drives in the German race, or the subway tunnels where he battles to the death with Sin.
Yeah – that’s a tease.
Lastly, back to the question, is the book dated: Horowitz manages to get one thing amusingly right. Even the allure of the dynamic 007 can’t change Pussy Galore. We may scoff at the end of the book and movie but here she rides off into the sunset with another woman. Modern and timeless at once. It’ll more than hold you til the new movie this winter.
“From the moment I first saw her, Angela looked like she could talk her way out of the rain.”
Angela is the woman who taught Ghostman Jack to do what he does and to do it as well as he does. They were so close they could be thought of as family. Certainly, they felt like family. But six years ago, as that job in Kuala Lumpur went south, they split up and though he’s searched for signs of her around the planet he’s not known what happened to her. Well, after all – that’s what people like Jack and Angela do: they vanish – they’re ghosts.
After 40 tense pages of Roger Hobbs’ second book, Vanishing Games, he receives a message from her.
And we’re off.
Macau, sapphires, nameless assassins, schemes, plots, scams, fast boats, smugglers and Triad dragons. As with his debut, Hobbs provides a walking tour through crime and cons. Did you know that wet, shredded newspaper in an empty quart pop bottle can make a handy, improvised silencer for your handgun? Learn something new every day.
The action is non-stop as various actors maneuver to get the load of stolen sapphires, unaware until they have them that there is a second treasure that comes with them, one that ups the danger and rewards considerably. There’s plenty of blood and gunsmoke. There’s plenty of desperation and destruction, as well as gamesmanship and guile. Who’s got the stones? Who is who working for or with, whom? Who knows what? Who is going to get away with it? Will anyone get out alive?
Vanishing Games is a worthy addition to his debut, Ghostman and proves that his first book was no fluke. Roger Hobbs is the real deal, spinning a tight and thrilling story that seems both seasoned and fresh.
T.J. English’s Where the Bodies Were Buried is one of those books that are both terrific and terrible. It is terrific because it clearly and completely lifts the lid off the cesspool of Boston’s criminal world in the last half of the 20th Century but terrible in that it will infuriate and depress you once you get to the end.
English details the trial of James “Whitey” Bulger, the Irish-American boss of Boston in the 80s and 90s. He became a cult figure for a number of reasons: he was “on the lam” for about 20 years and no one knew if he’d ever be found; he’s been portrayed in film (Nicholson in The Departed was based on him and the new Johnny Depp movie Black Mask, is about him and this swamp); and there’s always been speculation that the Gardner Heist was pulled off under his watch.
Where the Bodies Were Buried not only chronicles Bulger’s trial for racketeering and murder but also lays out the decades of corruption within the Federal government that supported and allowed Bulger to thrive as well as others like him in Boston.
That’s the disgusting part – that the corruption of the ‘good guys’ (cooperation to a not-small degree) protected and nurished the actions of the ‘bad guys’. But, really, it is a story of a half-century of corruption that began well before Bulger and leaves the question of whether it had ended – or even if it ever can. The story, after all, is one of human failings and those will never end. Driving home the weariness are English’s stories of the few people who tried to stop what was going on and how badly they were – and are – treated by the system that was supposed to be working to stop what they saw going on.
This is an entrancing book, fascinating and lurid, fresh and timeless, heartbreaking and astonishing.
T.J. English, Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him (Sept., Morrow hc, 28.99). The long and ugly history of the slow dance between New England mobsters and local and Federal “crime fighters”, and how the pervasive corruption of the “good guys” aided and abetted the bad guys.
What you think happened didn’t.
I’ve now read four of Alan Furst’s books and I intend to read them all. All four have been outstanding.
His books takes place between the world wars, usually in the mid-to-very late 30s, as Europe is beginning to spin out of control. Sometimes the war has started, sometimes you know, from our perspective, that it is very close. His books are populated with people trying to figure out where they fit in this new and dangerous world. Most of the time they’re not professional spies or soldiers but their era does not allow for them to do nothing. There’s a quality of moral questioning as people are forced into situations and alliances they never would have chosen before.
His characters are well drawn and very real. They almost seem familiar they’re so well established – be they male or female. There’s an interesting obliqueness to the stories, as if there’s more going on than he’s telling you. Not ever moment in the story is related. He’s also very good at writing an erotic love scene that at no time becomes lurid.
And while this period is becoming more and more violent, these books are not bloody or violent themselves. Yes, there’s death and menace and gunfire. Yet he manages to invest the stories with a creeping dread and suspense without detailing the real horror of what is going on or happening within the individual book. Very masterful.
I know that he has a couple of characters who resurface in more than one book but so far I’ve not run into them. The four I’ve read have been chosen randomly by what used ones have come into the shop in trade. I could tell you the titles but, from what I can tell, the man hasn’t written a bad book yet. So I’d recommend you start him anywhere.
And I’d recommend you read them all, as I intend to.
My wonderful mother gave me a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life for Christmas. It’s a terrific, fast read, covering his entire life but, obviously, devoting most pages for his work as a director in England and then the US. While not being overly analytical, Ackroyd does a good job of tying his story selection and thematic imagery to his subject’s childhood and emotional make-up. He doesn’t bore you with a dissection of the man or his movies but ties everything together smoothly and clearly, from the colors of the actors’ attire on camera to the lighting of the scenes.
Mom and I share a fondess for Hitchcock’s films (not The Birds – she can’t take wild birds) such as To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, and, of course, Rear Window. It was a delightful gift and a fun way to spend many cold winter hours.
Following on the heels of The Other Side of Silence, someone from Bernie Gunther’s past comes back to haunt him in person. It’s 1956 and the East German secret police want Bernie to travel to London to kill a female British agent he danced with in the last book. While Bernie has hard feelings for the woman, he’s not an assassin. He flees the Stasi group and takes off for Germany.
Philip Kerr’s new Gunther thriller, Prussian Blue as with most of the recent novels in this hardboiled and historical series, splits its time between Bernie’s present and his past. One of the Stasi agents is a former colleague he worked with on a dangerous case in April of 1939, just months before the war started. Someone has been killed by a sniper at a new retreat that’s been built for Hitler. It’s just a couple of weeks before The Leader’s birthday and, well, the high fiends in control want the murder solved – now. Known for his doggedness and talent as a detective, Gunther is sent down to Bavaria to find the killer. What he finds is rampant corruption, betrayal, treachery, and suspicion. How to do you find one killer amongst a small mountain town populated with them?
The book flips back and forth between his efforts in 1939 and his desperation to leave France without being caught by the police or the Stasi who have put out the word that he’s a killer. What’s a fellow to do? Crack wise and keep moving.
It’s hard to pin a target on your back when you’re in motion.
Prussian Blue is the 12th in this superb, Chandlerian series. I would recommend that you read the first three first (March Violets/1936, The Pale Criminal/1938, and A German Requiem/1947). After them, you can skip around as that’s what Kerr does, moving Bernie backwards and forwards in time, inserting him into historical events and amongst historical figures. The stories are told with great wit and great heartbreak as we know where it is all going. As per Chandler’s dictum, Bernie’s the best man in his own world and a good enough man for any other.
Years ago, Portland’s Lono Waiwaiole published three terrific crime novels featuring Wiley, a professional poker player who lived on, and was capable of being safe on, both sides of the law. The first book, Wiley’s Lament, came out in 2003, Wiley’s Shuffle in 2004, and the “last one”, Wiley’s Refrain, in 2005. We loved the books. They’re good, solid noir, well written with characters who lived and breathed. Plus here was a PNW author we could recommend. What else did we need? Well, we could’ve used paperbacks. Lono had none so it was hard to get readers who didn’t go for hardcovers to try his books.
Now, after no books in a dozen years, there’s a fourth to the series, a prequel, Leon’s Legacy. It follows Wiley and his new friend Leon as Leon arrives in Portland during their senior year in high school. It’s the late 80s and the LA gangs have just brought their drugs and warfare to Portland. Wiley and Leon become tangled in that while trying to take the school’s baseketball team to the State championship.
Lono was a high school teacher in Portland at that time, as well as a basketball coach. He obviously knew the kids well as he injects the book with the lively sass and hormonal gamesmanship of teenagers. Each chapter is told from a rotating group of figures in the story: boys and girls, gang-bangers and ballers. The story has the thump and whoosh of the court and the raucous crowding of the students. But not lost is the threat to the kids by the bangers – the threats of the bullets as well as the easy money of the drugs. Will they make it to State, will they win the tournament? Or will grudges and guns get in the way?
I really like Steve Hamilton’s The Second Life of Nick Mason. Nice premise (thief is released from prison after 5 years by the power of Chicago’s crime boss with the catch that he has to do whatever is asked of him by the man), interesting characters, smooth plot. Mason’s an interesting guy; he’s not by nature a violent criminal but he’s being forced into being an assassin in exchange for being out of prison. It isn’t in his nature but he has no choice. He has to figure a way out of his bargain with the devil.
My question was how he could turn this into a series as promised. I needn’t have worried.
Exit Strategy opens with a powerful and stunning job given to Nick – infiltrate a downtown highrise and kill a witness being protected by US Marshals. Unlike many crime novels, Hamilton is continually showing the toll this takes on his people. No one is safe, no one is guaranteed to survive any given chapter. This makes the entire book wobble on the edge of suspense, a real treat for us readers.
And while Nick plots to escape his prison, and to carry out his orders, we’re along for the ride, experiencing the horror of Nick’s life and hoping against reason that he can and will escape his new prison. How can Hamilton keep up the suspense? By showing us the boxes every character is in and expanding the number of boxes. It’s a masterful story, with surprises and shocks.
When the first book, The Second Life of Nick Mason is out, start with it. This is a dynamite series that must be read in order.