Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Book With the Deep Dark Noir

The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes
by Lawrence Block
Hard Case Crime

4 out of 5 movies on TCM.

The title of this one makes it sound as if Lisbeth Salander and Travis McGee had a baby, but it’s far more like James Cain than Stieg Larsson or John D. MacDonald. Actually, let’s just skip the comparisons and say that it’s 100% Lawrence Block, and his fans know that this is a very good thing. 

Doak Miller is a retired NYPD detective who moved to Florida where he now does the odd job as a private detective. A local sheriff has gotten word that beautiful Lisa has tried to hire a hit man to do away with her wealthy husband, and now the sheriff asks Doak to meet with Lisa as the hired killer to record evidence of her conspiracy to commit murder. However, Doak becomes infatuated with Lisa’s picture and instead cooks up a way to warn her off which is the start of a steamy affair between the two of them. It’s also got Doak thinking of ways that he could actually pull off the murder so that he and Lisa could get all that money. 

That sounds like a familiar set-up, but this isn’t just your typical story of the adulterous couple trying to kill off a spouse. From it’s traditional start the story morphs into what would can only be described as metafiction in the way that Doak acknowledges that he’s essentially living in a noir story as he watches movies like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings while planning his crime. (I’m a little surprised that Body Heat wasn’t mentioned because the plot, Florida setting, and steamy sex scenes seem like it’d be a natural one to bring up, but maybe Block was worried about Doak catching that one on TCM.)

However, this never feels like a flashy gimmick because it’s a compelling story told to us from the third party perspective of Doak. At first it seems like Doak could be another version of Block’s Matt Scudder. A retired police detective with some some regrets about his past living a low-rent life as he works as a PI is very Scudder-esque, but Doak is a different kind of animal which we learn from his willingness to turn killer as well as his interactions with Lisa and other women.

Those interactions include several graphic sexual encounters. Block has never been shy about throwing kinky scenes into some of his books, and as the cover indicates this one has no shortage of them. He uses them very effectively to a way of establishing Doak’s character as well as providing a believable twisted bond between him and Lisa beyond just some kind of insta-love thing which probably would have seemed hokey. Despite the lurid potential of some of this Block does a great job of portraying it in a matter of fact way that trusts that his characters and readers are adults who can handle it.

This is a master crime writer doing a sharp and clever take on noir tropes, and it’s a great read for fans of the genre.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Friday, October 2, 2015

An Artistic Apocalypse

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

4 out of 5 snow globes.

This is one well written apocalypse.

Arthur Leander is a famous actor who suffers a heart attack and dies on stage just before a deadly version of the swine flu kills most of humanity. Station Eleven then uses Arthur as the center of a web of connections that we learn from the people in his life before, during and after the disease wipes out the world as we know it. Kirsten sees Arthur die as a child actor, and years later she’s part of the Traveling Symphony that tours the small towns of the post-apocalyptic landscape. Jeevan is an ex-paparazzo turned paramedic who once stalked Arthur, but he is in the audience when the actor keels over and tries to save his life. Miranda is Arthur’s first wife who could never adjust to the spotlight his fame brought and wrote a comic book about a space station as a hobby. Clark was one of Arthur’s best friends who gets stranded far from home when things really start to fall apart. 

The thing that astonishes me most about his is just how deftly Emily St. John Mandel portrays the end of the world. There’s no shortage of post-apocalyptic scenarios out there, but whether the culprits are zombies or nuclear weapons or killer viruses the aftermath is generally as brutal as an ax blow to the face. Mandel writes with such an understated elegance that there’s a dark beauty and grace to her fallen world even as she acknowledges all the hardship and horrors of it. 

She also does a masterful job of managing the structure with its shifting third party perspectives at various times. All the links and coincidences could have felt very forced and ultimately pointless, but again it’s her skill at making us interested in all of these people at their various stages of pre and post apocalypse that make it all work so that the connections feel organic and not simply plot points.

While the post-apocalyptic world seems believable for the most part there are some quibbles I could make. Mandel writes this as if a flu with a near 100% mortality rate would essentially wipe out all the accumulated knowledge and technical ability of the survivors and takes everyone back to an almost medieval way of life.

It’s weird that everything has been so ransacked just fifteen years later because the math doesn’t seem right there. If 99% of the US died within days so that there was no prolonged destructive cycle to use up resources, that'd be roughly 3 million people left in a country that had all the crap that 300 million people accumulated. Yet, Kristen is amazed to find a house in the woods that had not been searched where she finds a dress to replace hers that is worn out. Or guns and ammo are portrayed as being increasingly rare even though America has enough guns that each survivor could have about 1000 each. Books also seem to be in short supply as if the libraries were also killed by the flu. 

So those would be some serious flaws in the premise if you were judging this solely on criteria like world building (Or world destroying.) and plausibility, but it didn’t lower my opinion much because this just isn’t that kind of book. It’s more interested at exploring human connections as well as providing a reminder that we’re living in an age of unappreciated wonders that is a lot more fragile than we want to admit, and at that Mandel succeeds exceedingly well.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Space Race

Saturn Run
by John Sandford & Ctein
G.P. Putnam's Sons

3.5 out of 5 rings around a planet.

(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for this review.)

I’ve read a lot of John Sandford novels so I was a little confused at first when there wasn’t a serial killer on the spaceship.

In the year 2066 telescopes spot what can only be an alien ship near Saturn as it docks with a previously unknown object in orbit. The governments of the United States and China both want to get there first which leads to a rushed program to quickly put together ships capable of making the long journey. Political tension and potential sabotage make the voyage into space even more dangerous as crews from both nations race to Saturn.

Sandford (Real name John Cook.) regularly puts two new crime thrillers on the best seller’s list every year so it seems a little odd that he’d forgo one of them to team up with photo-artist Ctein to do a pure sci-fi novel. However, Sandford’s bio and his books have also highlighted his interest and knowledge of subjects like art, photography, archaeology, surgery, and computer technology so it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that his mind might turn to this kind of book outside his normal genre. 

There’s an authors’ note at the end in which they explain that the core of the idea was based on needing to get to Saturn in a certain time frame. From the details in that you can tell it was the focus of their thinking on how come up with some realistic near-future spaceship propulsion methods. By working up a couple of different ways to accomplish this they set up a kind of tortoise and the hare race between the Americans and Chinese which also helps set up the drama to the story. (The authors’ note also provides a very satisfactory answer as to why they decided to name the US ship after Richard Nixon.)

It also helps that Sandford has had a lot of practice in setting up characters in familiar genre situations while still making them seem like real people who all work, bitch, commiserate, screw, take drugs, drink, scheme, and joke while risking their lives to head as part of a potentially disastrous contest with a rival nation to try and meet some aliens. 

There are a few things here that make clear that Sandford’s not working on his usual turf. One of his strengths is writing scenes in which people have to act fast when things start going wrong, and generally his pacing is nearly flawless when it comes to building tension. However, the nature of this story requires a timeline in which months of boring traveling is involved, and while they do their best to use this downtime to set up story, build characters, develop the setting, and add humor, it just doesn’t have the sense of frantic momentum that Sandford can usually deliver except for a few scenes. 

Plus, this is the only book of Sandford’s I’ve read which doesn’t focus on one single lead. While Sandy Darlington seems like he’s going to be the main character at first this actually turns into much more of an ensemble book, and that added to a sense that the story is drifting at times. I also question how much time and effort was spent describing the various cameras and the best way of using them, but that’s what happens when one of your authors is a photographer.

There’s also a slight letdown related to what they discover when they get to the alien object. It’s not a complete fumble, but it does show that Sandford and Ctein put more thought into how they’d get to Saturn rather than what the characters would find when they got there.

It’s still an entertaining read with some exciting fast paced parts, but those not interested in problems like how you vent excess heat from a spaceship engine might find it a bit dull at times.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What Happens Outside Las Vegas, Stays Outside Las Vegas...

The Devil's Share
by Wallace Stroby
Minotaur Books

4 out of 5 bottles of wine.

It’s gotta be hard for anyone writing the main character as a professional thief in crime fiction because the comparisons to Richard Stark’s Parker are going to be unavoidable and most are going to fall short of that very high bar. However, with this fourth book in the series it’s past time where Wallace Stroby’s Crissa Stone is judged on her own merits, and she easily passes that test.

Crissa is contacted by a rich man named Cota who needs a thief. He had gotten his hands on valuable statues illegally taken from the Middle East during America’s recent military actions, but he got found out and is being forced to return them. With a buyer ready to fork over big money for the statues, Cota wants her to steal them as they are being transported so that he can double dip by selling them and claiming the insurance money while also being absolved of the blame of them not being returned. Hey, rich people didn’t get rich by not being greedy.

Cota wants Crissa to work with his guy Hicks, a former soldier turned gun for hire. Things begin smoothly enough as Crissa comes up with a plan, and she and Hicks recruit a team to pull it off. If you think that things don’t go off the rails at some point then I’m guessing that you’re unfamiliar with how these types of stories work.

All the tropes of these kind of novels are in play with the thief just trying to do the job but facing betrayals and complications. From the standpoint of a heist novel it’s a solid example of the genre, but it’s the character of Crissa that makes it more than that.

She continues to be the pragmatic and competent professional who wants to do the job without anyone getting hurt, but a life outside the normal boundaries of society continues to take a toll on her emotionally. The man she loves is in prison, her daughter is being raised by a relative, and the number of people she can trust shrinks with every book. The question of whether she’s really doing it for the money or the thrill are also raised in this one. All of these factors make Crissa far more sympathetic and interesting than the anti-hero characters you generally get in these type of books.

As usual in this series Stroby has written a top notch crime novel without an ounce of fat in it that still finds time to develop its characters in the midst of its fast paced action.

Also posted on Goodreads.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Forever War

The Cartel
by Don Winslow

4 out of 5 hand stitched soccer balls.

There’s a scene in this book in which a Mexican drug lord essentially strolls out of prison thanks to a corrupt system.  Reality imitated art a few weeks after it released when a Mexican drug lord escaped prison via a tunnel so elaborate that it’s very hard to believe it could have been built unnoticed by prison officials.

Don Winslow isn’t a prophet.* He’s just a very talented crime writer who has spent years researching the war on drugs, and he knows all too well how the same mistakes have been repeated since it started.  He gave us the fictionalized version of its shady history in Mexico from the 1970s through the end of the century in The Power of the Dog, and he returns with this sequel to tell how much worse it's gotten in the years since.
Art Keller is a DEA agent who has been at war with cartel kingpin Adan Barrera for over 3 decades.  As Keller and Barrera continue their long blood feud there’s a new power rising in the Mexican drug business.  The Zetas were founded by former soldiers who train their members to military standards, and they escalate the turf wars to an astounding level of violence in which murder is routine and decapitations, dismemberment and burning people alive all become standard operating procedure as part of their campaign to terrorize the government, the police, the ordinary citizens, and the rival cartels.
As with The Power of the Dog, Winslow isn’t just using the drug war in Mexico as a colorful backdrop to a crime story.  The drug war in Mexico is the story, and every corner of it is probed as we get a glimpse behind the curtain of the ultimate futility of it through many characters including a high school football star who becomes a high level narco dealer, a burned out journalist covering the carnage in his beloved hometown, a child whose desperate poverty compels him to become a soldier in the Zeta’s army, a former beauty queen who gets into  the drug trade to assert her independence, and a variety of others who put faces on the multiple tragedies and horrors inflicted on Mexico.
Winslow spares no one in this clear eyed assessment that looks at the problem from every angle. The US is called to account for its hypocrisy in being both the market for these drugs and the hysterical voice demanding that Mexico stop the flow of narcotics. The corruption of Mexican institutions allows the trade to flourish and the violence to escalate.  Big business is in the mix with the flow of trade and oil production in Mexico.  US and Mexican police forces have become increasingly militarized because of the drug war. Winslow is making a very ambitious case with this book that the war on drugs has fundamentally changed both countries for the worse and done incalculable damage in the process.
It’s that big picture theme and the dedication to using fiction to tell some very harsh truths where the book really shines.  Unfortunately, his commitment to that cause does hurt the novel a bit in terms of it’s characters, particularly the female ones who often seem to exist only to act as the conscience or counterweight to the male ones, but all of them are definitely in place to serve a specific plot purpose. Winslow is so good that his natural talent keeps them all interesting and  from seeming like cardboard cut-outs,but you can tell where the bulk of his energy was focused.
Another aspect that started to wear on me a bit was how repetitive the violence got after a while.  This isn’t necessarily Winslow’s failure because he is depicting reality here, and he has his characters becoming numb to the most vicious atrocities as well as commenting several times on how even the unthinkable can become routine if you see a enough of it. So I can understand why he didn’t skimp on that aspect, but it does start to grind you down as a reader after a while.
Those are minor nitpicks that I think kept me from liking this one a shade less than The Power of the Dog. Still, Winslow has written a fascinating and horrifying sequel that comes within spitting distance of living up to the first one, and it’s also a book that has some very important things to say about the true cost of the war on drugs as well as being an ambitious crime story told on an epic scale.

* Don Winslow wrote this editorial for CNN about the escape of Joaquin Guzman, and it highlights just how much knowledge he's accumulated about the drug trade in Mexico.

This review was also posted on Goodreads.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Atkins Diet

The Redeemers
by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam's Sons

4 out of 5 slabs of barbecued ribs bought at a truck stop.

(I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.)

I love being on the Atkins diet…

No, not that Atkins diet.  (You can have my carbs when you pry them from pudgy dead hands.)  I’m talking about the Ace Atkins reading diet in which you get to gorge yourself on two of his books a year. The first course is the Spenser book he does for the Robert B. Parker estate which keeps the iconic detective alive and well.  The second is Atkins’ own creation of Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger who returned to his Mississippi hometown and became the sheriff.

Or at least Quinn was the sheriff.  The Redeemers begins with Quinn voted out thanks to Johnny Stagg, the local power broker who has his fingers in just about every crooked and corrupt scheme going on in Tibbehah County.  While Quinn ponders his next move he’s also dealing with a variety of family matters including the return of his estranged father, his drug addicted sister, and his increasingly messy love life.  

Meanwhile, a local businessman named Mickey Walls has a grudge against his former father-in-law Larry Cobb that he intends to settle by stealing the large amount of cash that Cobb amassed through various shady business deals.  Walls asks his friend Kyle to help loot Cobb's safe, and he also recruits two small time crooks to crack it open.  The robbery kicks off a chain of consequences that Quinn gets pulled into even though it’s not his job.

One of the strengths of this serious is the portrayal of small town life by Atkins, who currently resides in Oxford, Mississippi.  He knows the rhythms of a rural community, and he uses that along with his writing talent to build an intricate web of connections that tie the locals together.  He does this with a clear eye, that both celebrates and critiques the lifestyle as he weaves first rate crime stories through it all.

He’s also got a knack for creating memorable characters, and my favorites this time were the two lowlife thieves that Walls hires to crack the safe.  Peewee Sparks is a disgusting pig of a man who steals to fund his trips to New Orleans where he can binge of strippers and prostitutes.  His apprentice is his dimwitted nephew whose life lesson all come from being an Alabama football fanatic.  These two scumbags provide a lot of entertainment as they roll around in Peewee’s van which has portraits of Alabama pigskin legends painted on it.  You have to think that Atkins, who played football at rival Auburn, took great delight in creating these morons.

The plot also provides a lot of resolution to some of the on-going storylines that have been built up over the previous four books so that this is a series that feels like it’s going somewhere while introducing new complications that can be explored in future books.  

Also posted at Goodreads.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Smartest Guy In The Room

The Fold
by Peter Clines

3 1/2 out of 5 chocolate croissants.

Mike Erikson might be the smartest person on Earth, but he’s content to use his high IQ and eidetic memory as a small town school teacher. However, his friend Reggie is a big deal at DARPA and has been trying to hire Mike for years, and now he finally finds a job that Mike can’t resist because of its groundbreaking nature. 

DARPA has been funding a top secret project called the Albuquerque Door* in which a small group of scientists have successfully been able to fold space-time so that a long distance could be traveled by a person taking a single step. The scientists claim that the Door is working perfectly but want more testing, and they have insisted on not providing any of the work behind their discovery until it’s ready to be taken public. Reggie thinks that there’s something not quite right with the project and sends Mike out to investigate in the hopes that he can use his unique talents to sniff out what’s wrong. 

*(Is it just me or does an Albuquerque Door sound like the kind of thing you’d be scared to look up on Urban Dictionary at work?)

I’m tempted to say that this is like Sherlock Holmes showing up on an episode of Fringe, but Mike is a lot nicer than Sherlock and there isn’t a cow in the lab. Mike himself is one of the biggest selling points of this story because the way that his mind works is well done and fascinating in its own right. There’s also some really compelling reasons as to why he’s downplayed his gifts and stuck to being a school teacher. Putting a unique character like this in a situation with a huge scientific breakthrough and a group of people who seem to be hiding something makes for an entertaining story that eventually makes the most of its premise.

While Mike makes for a sympathetic guy that you want to root for, the scientists he deals with are a bunch of jerkfaces. The way that they act for most of the book is one of the things that irked me about it. For quite a while every question or statement that Mike makes is usually met with a hostile question or snarky challenge even as he’s being as polite and accommodating as possible. In fact, I thought Mike was being just a little too nice because as the government guy who is determining whether their new budget will get approved, he should be throwing a little weight around instead of just eating all the crap sandwiches that get flung at him regularly.

There is an argument to be made that since Mike is essentially a rookie and that the scientists have reasons for acting this way that it makes sense for the plot. However, just the way that they respond to almost everything Mike says becomes a bit tiresome. For a bunch of people tearing a hole in the fabric of reality, there are a lot of arrogant and dismissive comments along the lines of “That’s unpossible!” even after Mike has been shown to be right time after time. 

Despite those irritations with the secondary characters, this is still a fun and kinda kooky sci-fi thriller with an intriguing main character that mostly delivers on the potential of its main premise. There’s an indication that this may not be the last we see of Mike, and I’ll be willing to check out more. 

Also posted on Goodreads.

Losers Weepers

Finders Keepers
by Stephen King

3 out of 5 Moleskine notebooks

The good news is that it isn’t as bad as Mr. Mercedes, and that there’s actually a halfway decent plot lurking in here. The bad news is that this makes it more clear than ever that Stephen King does horror a helluva lot better than he does crime thrillers.

The story starts out with an acclaimed author named John Rothstein who pulled a J.D. Salinger and hasn’t published anything in decades. Morris Bellamy is a huge fan of Rothstein’s most famous creation, a disaffected rebel without a cause named Jimmy Gold, but he thinks that Rothstein ruined the character in the final book of a trilogy by having him become just another suburbanite working in advertising. Since this is occurring in the ‘70s, Morris can’t go on Goodreads to complain about it so instead he breaks into Rothstein’s house and murders him. He also takes over 160 notebooks filled with all the writing that Rothstein has done since quitting public life as well as over $20,000. Before Morris can read the notebooks, which include new material about his favorite character, he gets waylaid on another charge and sent to prison. For 35 years Morris dreams of getting out and reading the notebooks that he had hidden before being arrested.

In 2009 a teenage boy named Peter Saubers and his family move into Morris’ old house. The Saubers have fallen on hard times after his father lost his real estate job in the market crash of ‘08 and then had the bad luck to get run over and badly injured while standing in line at a job fair. Pete stumbles across the notebooks and the cash, and he uses the money to help his family through their financial crisis. He also reads the notebooks which turn him into a nut for literature and another fan of Jimmy Gold. Several years pass, and Morris is released from prison which puts him on a collision course with Pete. That’s when retired police detective Bill Hodges gets involved along with his trusty assistants, Holly and Jerome.

One thing that Stephen King knows how to do very well (Other than spoiling major character deaths on Game of Thrones via Twitter. Thanks again, Uncle Stevie…) is writing about books. He’s often examined them from both sides in his work: as the act of writing/creating and from the standpoint of being a fan of reading. King knows there something magical in both aspects, but in his world there’s also black magic so he's also looked into that from both angles as well. 

With Morris Bellamy, King has created what’s probably his own worst nightmare, the fan who feels an ownership of a character and becomes violently angry when he feels like the author is mistreating him. There are shades of Annie Wilkes in this although the key difference is that Annie understood that her favorite character was a creation and wanted to control what happened to her while Morris sees Jimmy Gold as a real person that Rothstein has been a poor guardian of. This contrasts with Pete, the reader who is content to fall under the spell of an author and admire well-written things, and who feels guilty that he’s had to hide this literary treasure from the world in order to help his family.

The book is at it’s best when it’s about these two as polar opposites because it isn’t just about the conflict and tension of who possesses the notebooks, it’s King writing about the love of reading, and that’s a subject he does very well. I did question the coincidence of Morris and Pete both growing up in the same house years apart and both being the kind of guys who will absolutely fall in love with a literary character like Jimmy Gold, but that’s a minor quibble. 

The real issues come when King tries to take this story and make it part of his on-going trilogy featuring Bill Hodges. I found Mr. Mercedes to be a mess, and Hodges was a big part of that as a hodge-podge (Pun intended.) of poorly conceived motivations and plot twists that made the character seem irresponsible and reckless. (Something that King even acknowledges in this one when Hodges reflects on his backstory and admits that he nearly got a bunch of people killed “by going Lone Ranger”.) He doesn’t do anything that egregious here, but the problem is that he is completely unnecessary.

Hodges doesn’t even appear in the story until almost halfway through the book, and when he does the main plot comes to a screeching halt as King has to explain exactly who he and his friends are as well as the backstory of Mr. Mercedes. Then his only real contribution comes at the very end and could have easily been done by a new character. The main reason that Hodges is in this book at all seems to be to set up the third book, and there’s even an element at the end that feels like the bonus post-credits scene in a Marvel movie. 

In fact, the appearance of Hodges underlines that King, for all his vast storytelling talents, just really doesn’t have a handle on the kind of plotting and pacing required for a tense crime thriller. I’ve joked before that King has two speeds: dead slow and all-hell-breaks-loose. He very often can make that work, but it’s telling that a lot of his books take place over extended periods of time from weeks to months to years. King is at his best doing a slow burn, and there’s no question that he knows how to do suspense and a sense of dread in his usual kind of stories, However, he just has no natural feel for making that work in crime fiction.

For example, this plot is structured around two characters, Morris and Pete, and the readers know their whole story and can see where the trains are going to collide. However, once he brings Hodges and his friends into the story, he tries to turn it into a mystery with them trying to solve the riddle of what Pete has been doing. As the action ramps up at the end, a big chunk of the story is Hodges trying to figure out what we already read so there’s absolutely no tension to it. A good thriller often has the hero trying to figure out something the reader knows, but there should be some kind of climatic pay off. Like some bit of info held back, the revelation of which should provide a satisfying A-HA! kind of breakthrough that is critical to driving the plot forward. (The pivotal clue in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is a great example of making this work.) But here we’ve just got Hodges putting together what we already know and trailing uselessly in the wake of the real action.

King also sometimes has trouble with plotting when he can’t say that some supernatural force is helping push things along. There’s a great illustration of that here when Morris is trying to clean up a particularly nasty mess he’s made at one point, and he has every reason to remove a certain item. He even thinks that he should take it with him, but then he leaves it only because of a powerful hunch. Sure enough, he later has an opportunity to use that object to his advantage through events he could not have predicted, but the mere fact that it’s in the room shows that King decided to disregard the logic of the crime genre which dictate that you should always get rid of the evidence just to use it as a plot point later. Then to add insult to injury that object almost immediately become irrelevant after this twist which highlights how it wasn’t really necessary to begin with. So King introduced an element that he knew didn’t make a lot of sense, didn’t bother to come up with a convincing reason that it could have been logically kept in play, and then immediately dropped the whole thing so it was pointless anyhow.

King himself has even gone on record in a recent interview about how he’s had a hard time with these books and doesn’t understand how mystery writers do it regularly. While I like that he gave something new a try, I also think that he’s just not suited to doing this genre, and that he’s usually at his best when he has some kind of fantastic element to lean on.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

"What We Got Here Is Failure To Communicate....."

Robert B. Parker's Kickback
by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam's Sons

4 out of 5 bottles of Sam Adams.

“On the first day of February, the coldest day of the year so far, I took it as a very good omen that a woman I’d never met brought me a sandwich.”

This may be the smartest client that Spenser has ever had because one sure way to motivate the private detective is to offer him food.  It also helps if you’re hiring him to help an innocent person who got royally screwed over by powerful people because Spenser enjoys sinking his teeth into a case like that almost as much as biting into a free sandwich.

In a rundown old mill town a judge has sentenced a young man to nine months in a juvenile detention facility for making fun of a school official on Twitter.  (And if making fun of people on Twitter is a jailable offense then I’m in a lot of trouble because my mocking of former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli would probably have been enough to get me the death penalty.)  

Spenser investigates and finds a pattern of the judge throwing every kid he can into jail for minor infractions, and some more digging reveals ties between the judge and the private company getting paid by the government to run the prison as well as a dangerous mobster. Spenser soon finds himself threatened by both the local cops and thugs.  

This is the fourth Spenser novel that Ace Atkins has done after being hired by the estate of Robert B. Parker to carry on the series, and he’s done an exceptional job of writing these in a way that feels like his own style while still being true to the character.  This one has scenes and dialogue that really feel reminiscent of the early Spenser, and I especially like how Hawk has regained some of the rougher edges he used to have that had gotten sanded off in the later RBP books.

One of the more interesting changes is that while the Atkins books are still self-contained stories that he’s been leaving plot threads hanging to be addressed later, and this gives the series more of a sense of on-going serialized continuity than it typically had before.  Spenser still exists in a kind of ageless limbo, but there’s been changes to his world since Atkins took over that are adding layers to the stories.  

So we’ve got all those elements along with the kind of plot in which Spenser can really shine as he takes on corrupt officials and criminals with his usual mix of tough guy stubbornness and smart ass comments. That makes for a great read that any fan of the private eye genre should enjoy.

Also reviewed at Goodreads.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

On the Road Again

Gathering Prey
by John Sandford
G.P. Putnam's Son

4 out of 5 bottles of Faygo

Lucas Davenport relentlessly tracks down a murderous gang of hippies?!?  It’s not even my birthday!

Davenport’s adopted daughter Letty befriends a young woman, Skye, who is part of a subculture called Travelers  who wander around the country living like hoboes.  After her  friend is murdered Skye contacts Letty for help and tells her that the people responsible are a pack of jackals led by a guy named Pilate.  Skye is convinced that Pilate’s gang roams around in an RV torturing and killing people.

Letty gets Lucas involved, and his initial skepticism fades as they find evidence that indicates that Pilate and his people have left a trail of bodies in their wake.  Davenport starts tracking them across the upper Midwest through small towns and the weirdness of Juggalo gatherings.  (You can do a Google image search if you want to an idea of what that looks like, but don‘t say I didn't warn you.) Things get messy as usually happens when Lucas starts trying to run down killers, and he also has to deal with a nagging middle manager who wants to know why he’s wasting the taxpayer money trying to stop murderers who aren’t killing anyone in their state?

OK, so I guess they’re not technically hippies although there is a certain Charles Manson family type vibe going on here.  I still like to think of them as murderous hippies although even Manson would probably hesitate to sign up with this crew considering how crazily blood thirsty they are.

While most Prey novels generally feature Lucas trying to figure out who the bad guy is for at least part of the book, this plays out a little differently in that Lucas almost immediately knows who he’s looking for and what they've done.  The challenge here is in trying to find a group of people living off the grid as they roam around.  Things soon escalate and since the majority of the book is a straight up manhunt that allows Sandford to play to his strength of building the sense of momentum and tension that make his books such page turners.

The one slightly off-key note in this is Letty.  Sandford has made her an increasing part of the story in some of the recent novels, and she does make for a great smart-ass foil for Lucas.  However, it seems like she’s being set up to star in her own series at some point soon, and sometimes the ways she’s inserted into the plot feel forced.  She makes for a fun sidekick generally, but it’s always more fun to read about Batman than Robin. So it was a bit of relief when she fades into the background when the story really gets rolling, and Lucas becomes the center of the book’s attention.

There’s also a sense of Lucas getting fed up with his position in a government agency.  While he’s always had a natural feel for helping out his bosses with the media, Lucas has never had much patience with office politics or bureaucratic rules, and he’s seriously frustrated at the current American institutional mentality of being more concerned with the budget than in actually doing the job.  Throw in him dealing with turning 50, and Lucas is one grumpy individual at the start of this one.  All of this gives the book the feeling that it’s about to boil over, and that Davenport will have to consider making some changes in his life.

But whenever Lucas is in a funk, he can always count on the adrenaline rush of hunting bad guys to cheer him up, and he’s certainly one cheerful bastard by the end of this one.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Making Crime Pay

by Lawrence Block

4 out of 5 rejection letters with suggestions on how to improve the plot.

Lawrence Block is one of those authors that I’ve often wished I could spend some time with just to hear him reminisce  about his long career as well as get his opinions on other crime writers. I haven’t gotten a dinner invitation yet (Although I did get to meet him when he was touring for Hope to Die.), but until that day reading The Crime of Our Lives is damn fine substitute.

Through this collection of introductions and essays he’s done over the years, you get a sense of what Block thinks about the mystery genre as a whole as well as specific things about various writers including some very humorous stories like the time Charles Willeford asked him if he had ever eaten cat.

Some of the more interesting stories come from the early days of his career when Block was working for a shady literary agent where he’d read submissions all day and write up rejections that would encourage the suckers to submit more work for a fee.  Block believes that slogging through that much bad fiction was a better education than reading masterpieces of literature because it taught him what not to do rather to admire what most everyone already agreed was great.

The most moving parts come in several things Block wrote about his late friend Donald Westlake.  (It’s probably a safe bet that Block was inspired to do this by the similar collection of Westlake material in the posthumously published The Getaway Car.  Block also wrote  that the introduction for that is reprinted here.)  Through the various pieces you get a real sense of the long friendship between the two writers as well as the deep respect that Block holds for his work. There’s also some intriguing musings as to how he thinks Westlake’s career and legacy might have been different if his early book Memory would have been published at the beginning of his career.  The story of how Block helped get it into print after Westlake’s death that he relates here shows just how much Block thought of that particular work.

Because there are some different pieces on the same subject, there’s a little bit of repetition, but even that becomes interesting if you pay attention to the different ways that Block can relate the same story.  Fans of Block or of the crime genre in general will find a lot of interesting tidbits as well as probably adding a few writers to their To-Read lists.

(Also posted at Goodreads.)

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Good Old Days

World Gone By
by Dennis Lehane
William Morrow & Company

3 out of 5 stars.

I like crime stories set back in the days of fedoras and trench coats, and I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane’s. So this should be perfect, right? Sadly, the best I can say is that it isn’t bad.

Set 10 years after the previous book, Live By Night, Joe Coughlin has left behind his days of building a criminal empire based on bootlegging to the more respectable position of being a prominent man in Tampa. Joe runs several successful businesses but his real job is to work as an adviser and fixer for the Mob. As World War II rages, the same shortages of men and resources have hit even organized crime. Thanks in part to Joe’s help the drugs, gambling, prostitution, and various other criminal enterprises are still doing well as he splits time between Florida and Cuba.

As a man who makes no enemies and is a cash cow for the Mob, Joe’s days of danger seem to be behind him so he’s shocked to get a tip that a contract has been put out on his life. As Joe tries to find out if there’s any truth to the rumor he also has to deal with an escalating conflict between a white mobster trying to muscle in on the turf controlled by a black man as well as being leaned on by the war department to help them try to root out spies on the docks.

I wanted to love this one, and I found Joe a fascinating character in a lot of ways, this really comes across as kind of a generic gangster story. The last book was Joe’s rise to power and made for the more interesting of the two as he fought to build a bootlegging empire, and this one just didn’t do anything that adds anything new or different to the genre.

The whole trilogy is a little weird because the first one, The Given Day, was more of a look at post-World War I Boston from a social and economic perspective with elements of a crime story that focused on Joe’s family when he was supporting character as a kid. Shifting from that to Joe as a reckless bootlegger and then into the older, wiser counselor was a good story, but didn’t really seem to match up to the first book.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Shaken, Not Stirred

The Martini Shot: A Novella and Stories
by George Pelecanos
Little, Brown and Company

3 out of 5 stars.

I might have liked this martini more if it came with some blue cheese olives.

One of the things I love about Pelecanos is that he creates a great sense of time and place which makes his characters come alive, and I was slightly worried about reading this collection because I wasn’t sure how well he could pull that off in short stories rather than novels. The way he builds a character by describing the streets they walk, the liquor they drink, the music they hear, and the restaurants they eat in didn’t seem like seemed like something that he could condense down easily. 

However, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well he was able to almost instantly create characters you felt like you understood whether it was a middle-aged loser in an inner city trying to get his father’s respect by turning into a confidential informant to the cops or a ruthless insurance investigator chasing a lead to South America.

My favorite aspect was The Martini Shot novella which is the first person account of a TV writer working on a cop show in a rundown city who feels the need to get some justice for a friend who has been murdered. Pelecanos’ has done some TV and film work (Most notably his time as a producer and writer on The Wire.), and he made the whole day-to-day routine of working on a show interesting. He also does some clever stuff with the main character blending the real and fictional together while giving us the idea that he kind of sees himself as the lead in a crime story he’s writing. I’d be more than happy to read an entire book with this setting and character. My only complaint is that the sex scenes provided a graphic amount of detail that seem to cross over into soft core porn. Maybe he was going for some of those50 Shades of Grey readers.

The short story I liked most provided the background of one Pelecanos' lead characters in a series, Spero Lucas, by telling us how he came to be adopted by his parents and what their family was like when he was a kid. Those are things that have been touched on in the Lucas books, but this added a lot of details that I enjoyed. However, the problem is that like the rest of this collection, it really just made hungry for another Spero Lucas novel.

So while Pelecanos has the ability to write short stories, what I really wanted from almost everything I read here was more. (Except for those sex scenes. Then less would have been better.) It’s like Pelecanos is great chef who makes entrees that make my mouth water, but here he’s only offering a tray of appetizers. They’re great to pop in your mouth with that martini, but they don’t make for a full meal. 

Also posted at Goodreads.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Calculating the Odds

Michigan Roll
by Tom Kakonis
Brash Books

(I received a free copy of this via NetGalley in exchange for this review.)

A crime novel set in Michigan? A slightly shady hero? A woman roped into doing something against her better judgement? A lowlife with delusions of grandeur thinking he can steal a fortune in drugs and get away with it? A couple of thug characters, one of which likes to engaging in long rambling conversations that function as veiled threats as a way to intimidate people?

Seriously, how is this NOT an Elmore Leonard novel? It isn’t, but that’s the obvious comparison to this reprint published by the new Brash Books of Tom Kakonis’s 1988 novel. 

Tim Waverly is an ex-con turned professional gambler who gets bored cleaning out suckers in Florida and takes a trip to revisit his old stomping grounds of Traverse City, Michigan. There he meets Holly Clemmons, a/k/a Midnight, who has come to town to help her dumb-ass half-brother who thought it’d be a brilliant idea to rip off a bunch of dope from the man he was working for. Now he has the chatty sex-crazed Shadow and his partner, the quiet Native American Gleep, after him. Although Waverly is a guy who knows all the odds and sees getting involved as a bad move, he’s so intrigued by Holly that he gets drawn into the shenanigans. 

This is a solid crime novel with a colorful cast of characters that does a lot of shifting viewpoints to let you know how they all see one another and themselves along with some clever dialogue. Again, it sounds like Elmore Leonard, but Kakonis does enough to differentiate his own style. Waverly is a bit more introspective and philosophical than you’d usually see in an EL hero, and the bad guys have a bit more of nastiness to them. 

The biggest problem I had with this is that it doesn’t really do much with the idea that Waverly is a professional gambler, which I thought was one of the more interesting aspects. Rather than come up with some kind of plot based around that, it’s just part of his background for the stolen drugs story which seems kind of run-of-the-mill these days. So while I liked the characters and the set-up, the story just didn’t do enough to lift it above average.

Also posted at Goodreads.