Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Review: The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bernie Rhodenbarr is not happy about the state of the world. As a used bookseller his business has been pretty much destroyed by Amazon, and that used to be less of a problem because he made most of his money in his second job as a burglar. However, the modern world is now filled with surveillance cameras and various forms of electronic security that can’t be cracked with old school lockpicking. When a rich jerk buys a priceless diamond and brags about keeping it in a nearby penthouse, it’s a score that Bernie would have once jumped at, but one quick look convinces him that he wouldn’t even be able to get into the building.

Bernie grumbles about all this to his best friend Carol over drinks one night, and after going home he then tries to take his mind off it by reading a book by Fredric Brown about alternate universes. Something strange happens the next day though.

The world seems mostly the same, but Bernie’s Metrocard has now been changed to a Subway Card. Even weirder, his bookstore is now doing a brisk business and Amazon doesn’t exist. Bernie also quickly notices that there are far less security cameras and high tech locks around. Only he and Carol seem aware that there’s been any changes, and Bernie can only guess that somehow they’ve shifted to an alternate universe that is lot more hospitable to a guy who sells books and breaks into places. Maybe he could even now manage to steal a priceless diamond.

Getting a new <i>Burglar</i> novel at this point feels like a real treat precisely because of what Bernie himself is saying at the start of the story. It’s nigh on impossible to be a bookseller who just runs an actual store or be a professional burglar in modern times. So when the series is oriented around those as key traits of the main character, you’d think it’d be time to retire or maybe set the book in the past.

So it’s a delight that Lawrence Block found a loophole with the idea of alternate realities, and then just transplants the whole concept to one in which Bernie can not only exist, but thrive. It’s a little odd because Mr. Block isn’t really associated with sci-fi, and to just have this happen in a series that’s been set in ‘reality’ requires a regular reader to shift into a different gear. 

Yet it completely worked for me because the alt-universe thing isn’t the point, it’s just a way for Mr. Block to tell us a story with Bernie again. Not only that, the story eventually becomes a kind of meta-commentary in which Bernie starts to become self-aware about how a lot of his burglary jobs become complicated and involve him playing an amatuer sleuth. Most importantly, this still feels like a Bernie book with him having his conservations with Carol, trying to steal something, and solving a mystery in a low-key grounded kind of way.

Mr. Block has said that he’s retired from writing novels, but fortunately we exist in a reality where a new book like this can appear.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Real Bad Things

Real Bad Things Real Bad Things by Kelly J. Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a good rule of thumb that you shouldn’t talk to the cops if you’re suspected of a crime, and you really should NOT confess to murder if they haven’t found the body yet.

As a teenager Jane Mooney admitted to murdering her abusive step-father before the cops were even sure that he was dead, and she was released when no body turned up. Jane then fled the small Arkansas town of Maud Bottoms, and she left behind her angry mother, her brother, her best friend, and her girlfriend in doing so. Twenty-five years later, the stepfather’s body has finally been discovered, and Jane has returned home believing that she’ll most likely be arrested immediately. She finds that her mother is still angry, her brother and best friend seem to want nothing to do with her, and her old girlfriend, Georgia Lee, is now a married woman as well as on the town council. And for some reason, the cops don’t seem to be in any hurry to arrest her.

Kelly Ford makes their most of the setting which feels lived in and authentic. From the trailer parks to the backyard barbecue of the more well-to-do folks, this nails all the traits of small town life. Against this backdrop we learn what actually happened with Jane, Georgia Lee and the stepfather back then as well as see how those events shaped their lives in the aftermath. Jane left and lived in other places as an openly gay women but has had a shadow over her adult life. Georgia Lee stayed in place and threw herself so fully into the role of a wife, mother, and local politician that she’s never bothered to ask the question of who she really is and what would make her actually happy, and Jane’s return forces her to finally address all of this.

It’s an excellent character based crime story with solid twists and turns.

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Review: The Fixer

The Fixer The Fixer by Joseph Finder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know how many times we gotta go over this, people. If you find a bag of money then you should just leave it there. If you take it, bad things will happen.

But since we are a race of slow learners I guess it doesn’t hurt to go over it again.

Rick Hoffman was once an investigative reporter with a promising career, but he left that behind to take a high profile job with a swanky magazine specializing in fluff pieces. Unfortunately, when the magazine downsizes Rick is left unemployed, in debt, and with zero career prospects. He’s so broke that he’s staying in his father’s house which has been falling apart after years of neglect since a stroke put his dad in a nursing home two decades ago.

When Rick discovers over $3 million in cash hidden in one of the walls, he can’t help but give into temptation. He stashes the cash and goes on an ill-advised spending spree at first, but then he’s suddenly kidnapped by some people who threaten him if doesn’t hand it over to them. Rick scrambles for answers by digging into his father’s past as a shady lawyer who acted as a bagman/fixer for a huge construction project just before the stroke left him completely unable to communicate. The more Rick digs, the more dark secrets come out, and the danger gets worse all the time.

I’m a sucker for both stories about finding illicit cash and sleazy fixers so this should have been right in my wheelhouse, but I ultimately found it disappointing. That’s mainly because I didn’t care for the main character at all.

Yeah, I know that this is supposed to be an arc of Rick starting out as kind of jerk who once had potential to be something better and discovering his better nature again. This kind of story demands that the lead character either be so flawed or desperate that they are the kind of person who would take money that will surely bring trouble.

Yet Rick was just too stupid for my taste. He starts off pretty well in his early moves of stashing the money, but when the danger starts he behaves like a moron. Sure, he does some moves like moving around to different hotels and renting different cars, but this is a guy who gets kidnapped and nearly murdered not once, but twice. But he never does anything like get a weapon, hire bodyguards, leave town, or any other thing that having $3 million in cash would allow you to do.

Instead he just bumbles along while surviving mainly by luck. I also didn’t much care for the way he investigates all this. He’s supposed to be a former hot shit reporter who knows how to dig up dirt, and there is some stuff about him pulling records and finding clues. Yet his interactions with the people he tries to question are these incredibly lame efforts of him trying to trick them into believing he’s working on other stories, and yet when his flimsy lies collapse he just starts demanding answers which they have no real reason to give and usually don’t.

Overall, it was OK as a crime story, but never came close to really getting me interested after the money was found.

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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Review: Things We Do in the Dark

Things We Do in the Dark Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

A wealthy actor/comedian named Jimmy Peralta is found dead in his bathroom. His much younger wife, Paris, is found by police standing beside the bathtub, and she’s covered in blood with a straight razor in her hand.

You wouldn’t think it would take Sherlock Holmes to solve this one.

However, there’s a lot more to the story than it would seem at first glance, and Paris has more problems then just a murder charge to worry about. She’s a woman with secrets, and the publicity surrounding the celebrity death may expose them. Meanwhile, a true crime podcaster is digging into the story of a notorious murderer dubbed the Ice Queen who is about to be released from prison, and his investigation is very personal.

This is the third Jennifer Hillier novel I’ve read, and like her others, I enjoyed it quite a bit. She has a real knack for coming up with plots that seem like they could be Lifetime movies, but she’s got the ability to ground them with enough realism and emotion to keep them from seeming silly. Hillier also doesn’t shy away from including some genuinely nasty edges in the work, and that also gives her books more weight than a similar story might have in lesser hands. She’s also good at distracting a reader by dangling an obvious twist but then revealing it early while keeping the bigger surprises hidden for later.

It's another dark and tangled story from a woman who really knows how to write ‘em.

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Monday, June 20, 2022

Review: City on Fire

City on Fire City on Fire by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: Don't Know Tough

Don't Know Tough Don't Know Tough by Eli Cranor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a whole bunch of the writers you’re a fan of are recommending a book, you should probably read it. I did, and they did not steer me wrong. This is a great one.

Billy Lowe is the star player of his high school football team in Denton, Arkansas, but he’s a dirt-poor kid with an abusive step-father, little understanding of social norms, and severe anger issues. When Billy assaults a teammate just as his team is getting ready for the state play-offs, it puts Coach Trent Powers in a tough spot. Trent is a born-again Christian who screwed up his last coaching job in California so he’s brought his family to small town Arkansas to try and quickly win and get a better job elsewhere. If Billy is suspended or arrested, Trent has no chance of winning a state championship so even as pressure mounts, he continues to insist that Billy can be transformed through reason and patience. Things get even more complicated when Billy’s step-father is found dead in their trailer.

That’s an excellent set-up for a crime novel, but what boosts this one up to the next level is the outstanding character work that’s done. We get shifting perspectives, mainly from Billy and his coach, and the differences are stark. In some ways, Billy is little more than an abused animal who has gone feral. His entire family is viewed as trash by the town, and nobody thinks he has any value outside of a football field. For Billy, the only thing he puts any value on is toughness, and he has nothing but constant for those around him he sees as soft. He has his own reasons for lashing out, but to anyone not any Billy’s head, he just seems violent and dangerous.

Powers isn’t exactly the win-at-any-cost type of coach you’d expect either. While he’s in a bad situation he also has his own tough background as a foster kid, and he tries to turn Billy into a decent young man by using the same sort of methods that worked on him. Yes, he’s rationalizing a lot to justify keeping Billy on the team, but he also seems to be buying what he’s selling even as everyone around him thinks he’s crazy to try because you can’t appeal to a rabid dog with reason.
There are several other complex and well-developed characters, and the whole atmosphere of a small town that was happy to use Billy to win football games even as they all treated him like shit on their shoes is incredibly authentic.

Overall, it’s a riveting character-based story that always zigs when you think it’s going to zag.

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