Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review: Briarpatch

Briarpatch Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Benjamin Dill is investigating some shady international arms dealers for a US Senate subcommittee when he gets a call that his younger sister Felicity, a police detective in their Southern hometown, has been killed by a car bomb. Since Ben’s old buddy Jake Spivey just so happens to be one of the arms dealers they want to talk to, the ambitious senator that Ben reports to offers to pay his travel expenses if he deposes Spivey while he’s there.

Hey, dead sister or not, if you get a chance to travel on the company credit card instead of your own dime, you gotta take it.

When Ben gets back home, he learns that his sister had bought some real estate she shouldn’t be able to afford on her salary and that she had named him as the beneficiary on a large life insurance policy she took out just weeks before. With the implication that Felicity might have been a dirty cop, Ben starts to ask questions even as the police department assures him that they’ll find her killer soon. As he digs into his sister’s death, Ben also meets Jake Spivey who hints that his arms dealing had been done for the CIA, and that he’ll deliver information on another dealer who is now an international fugitive in exchange for immunity. Ben finds himself trying to sort out both local and national political agendas while dealing with the various agendas and lies of all the people around him.

The only other Ross Thomas novel I’ve read is The Porkchoppers, but I already love the way he mixes grungy back-room politics with crime. This was published just a few years before the Iran-Contra scandal so the backdrop of shady arms deals seems perfectly plausible, as is the local good-ole-boy-network of the local town. Thomas also makes every place feel authentic by building up the fictional history of this town as Dill visits various locations, and there’s a story attached to every place he goes. The whole atmosphere is delightfully squalid in a Reagan-era kind of way.

There’s also a colorful cast of characters, and Ben Dill is a great lead who is determined to avenge his sister even if he has few illusions about the moral character of everyone, including himself. Jake Spivey is a lot of fun as a poor redneck who went looking for a fortune, and after making it returns to his hometown to flaunt his wealth and build a power base.

This won the 1985 Edgar Award for Best Novel, and it absolutely deserved it.

(Oh, and I’ve also watched the recent TV show based on the book, and while it isn’t as good as this, it had a lot of things I liked about it.)


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Review: Gangsterland

Gangsterland Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A rabbi and a Mafia hitman walk into a bar. The joke is that they’re the same person.

Sal Cupertine is a contract killer for the mob in Chicago, and for decades he managed to remain in the shadows. That all changes after he walks into a FBI sting operation and ends up killing several agents. Now at the top of the most wanted list, Sal is smuggled to Las Vegas by the mob who also fake his death.

After plastic surgery, Sal learns that he’s expected to take on the identity of Rabbi David Cohen as part of the organization for a local gangster who is running schemes connected to a synagogue including disposing of bodies in the Jewish cemetery. With a near photographic memory and an instinct for reading people, Sal quickly falls into the role of a rabbi even as he is making is own plans to somehow reunite with the wife and son he left back in Chicago. However, Jeff Hopper was scapegoated for Sal’s murders of his fellow FBI agents in Chicago, and Jeff is convinced that Sal is still alive and is determined to find him. Sal/David also finds that he’s still got to deal with the dangerous web of mob politics.

I had mixed feelings on this one. There was a lot I liked with a unique story, good characterizations, and some black humor. The idea of a mob hitman pretending to be a rabbi sounds like a goofy plot from an ‘80s action-comedy movie, but Goldberg sets up the premise well and makes it seem plausible. There’s some interesting stuff with Sal learning things about Jewish culture, but this isn’t a story of a bad guy who gets a change of heart. More like Sal is still a killer deep down, he’s just adopting to a new community he has respect for.

However, it also seemed just a little drawn out and slow with a lot of time spent on the internal reflections of both Sal/David and Jeff Hopper with both men piling up regrets by their choices that led them to that point. It got a little repetitive with points rehashed again and again.

I started to feel like the entire books could have been a prologue, and in the end, you find out that this is indeed only the start of a story. I knew there was at least a second book to this, but I wasn’t prepared for how little gets resolved here. So the whole novel just felt like sequel set-up.

Still, I liked it enough that I will check out the next one, but if it doesn’t give me more sense of resolution and satisfaction than this one did, I’ll be very disappointed.


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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review: The Investigator

The Investigator The Investigator by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

And so begin the adventures of Lucas Davenport Jr.

Wait, I guess it’s technically the adventures of Letty, the adopted daughter of super-cop Lucas Davenport, but calling her Davenport Jr. is still accurate because she is definitely a chip off the old block. In fact, she may be even more dangerous than her father.

Letty has come a long way since we first met her when she was a desperately poor kid who had to depend on herself rather than her alcoholic mother. Her life got much better once Lucas Davenport and his wife took her in, but she’s remained an independent pragmatist capable of making tough choices and taking action when its needed. Now in her early ‘20s and just out of college, Letty is working in the office of a US senator, but she’s bored with it and thinking of moving on. After she pulls a couple of bold moves to help catch an embezzler, the senator wants Letty to check into an odd problem and offers her a spot with Homeland Security as an investigator.

Some petroleum companies in west Texas think that someone has been stealing crude oil from them, and there’s a suspicion that a right-wing militia group might be responsible. The amount of money involved is small for an oil company, but it’d fund a lot of domestic terrorism so Letty gets teamed up with an ex-soldier named John Kaiser to try and sort it out. Letty and Kaiser start by investigating the disappearance of an oil company employee who had been looking into the thefts. Soon enough Letty and Kaiser figure out that something big is in the works, and they may be the only people who might be able to stop a catastrophic attack.

Letty was introduced as a character in the Prey novels almost 20 years ago, and I’ve often suspected that Sandford would someday do a book or series with her in the lead. (In reality, Letty would be in her 30s by now, but Sandford characters exist in a slowed down version of reality.) She’s been a big part of several of the books, often driving her adopted father crazy by her stubborn insistence on doing things her way, but also saving the day a couple of times. Despite the Prey books having one successful spin-off series with the Virgil Flower novels, I was always a little uneasy about how Letty seemed destined to be the hero of a Sandford thriller someday. I’m not sure why, it just seemed like nepotism even if these are all fictional characters.

However, at one point in one of the recent books Lucas and Letty had a conversation which indicated that she wasn’t interested in a career in law enforcement so it seemed like maybe Sandford was letting us know that the long teased Letty-book would never happen. Yet here we are so I don’t know if this was always the plan, or if something changed, but it did seem a little odd to me.
 
I got nervous right at the start of this one when Letty is pulling a break-in to investigate the embezzling going on at one of the senator’s campaign offices. She has several tricks to get into an office building that Sandford has used before in both the Davenport and Kidd novels, so I was instantly worried that this was just going to be a rehash of things done before with just a new character in the lead.

As usual, I was wrong to doubt Sandford.

While that opening was familiar, Letty quickly establishes herself as a different person than Lucas, Virgil Flowers, Kidd, or any other Sandford hero. Like all of them, Letty is smart, resourceful, and capable of pulling a sneaky and/or illegal move when necessary, but what sets her apart is that Letty has what might best be described as a mean streak. Yeah, Lucas could be a real bastard when necessary, and capable of outright murder when the situation calls for it. But Letty takes that a step further and seems even more ruthless than her father at times.

The plot of this one also seems like Sandford kicked things up a notch. There’s the usual cat-and-mouse thing where he follows the bad guys for part of the book and tells us some of what they’re planning, but just enough is held back to give us some twists and turns. The last act is one of the biggest and most ambitious things to happen in any of the books. A few years back, I might have said that it seemed unlikely, but these days, it sounds horrifyingly plausible.

Through it all, we’ve got Letty doing a lot of good detective work as she’s hot on the trail of the militia, and while she’s already a force to be reckoned with, there are still things for her to learn as well so she doesn’t seem too perfect as an action hero. The partner Kaiser provides a nice counterpoint to her as a veteran soldier who knows a lot about some aspects of the job, but he isn’t really an investigator so lets Letty take point.

It's just once again Sandford doing what he does so well, creating a high-octane mystery-thriller that keeps you turning pages. If the next book also stars Letty, I won’t be disappointed.


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Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Chasing the Boogeyman

Chasing the Boogeyman Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going back to your old hometown can be murder.

In 1988, Richard Chizmar graduates from college and moves back in with his parents while waiting for his fiancĂ©e to finish a medical internship before they get married. Chizmar is an aspiring writer and while living with his folks he plans on working on several stories as well as publishing a new horror magazine he’s developed. Just as he’s moving home, a teenage girl is abducted from her bedroom and killed just outside her house. This begins a string of young girls being murdered by a serial killer who become known as The Boogeyman.

As a fan of mystery and horror, Chizmar becomes fascinated with the murders, and he has a friend at the local newspaper who gives him details that haven’t been revealed to the public. When he starts receiving prank phone calls and has a couple of scary incidents, Chizmar eventually comes to believe that The Boogeyman has to be somebody he knows.

This is an odd duck because Chizmar is a real person who uses an actual period in his life as the setting for a fictional plot inspired by true crime. It’s also the nostalgic love-letter to Chirzmar’s old hometown as well as a way of paying tribute to his parents who he obviously loved a great deal. All of that is nice and sweet, and then here comes the MURDERS!

The fictional killings and their effect on the town is genuinely horrifying and chilling at times. It really does read like a true crime book with Chizmar cutting back from his own life and experiences to a dispassionate reporting style based on witness accounts of the crimes themselves. The true crime influence is obvious in these parts, and it seems like a lot of this was inspired by the Golden State Killer case which had its own tragic ending for author Michelle McNamara when she wrote about it in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

While I was reading it all, I was fascinated and completely engrossed for the most part. However, over the course of the book I realized that Chizmar as a character in this story really wasn’t doing much of anything other than talking to people and getting the hell scared out of him a couple of times. While he is very curious about it and does end up talking to a police detective on several occasions, he’s not actively trying to play detective.

And in the end, Chizmar doesn’t actually DO anything. Even when the final revelation of the killer comes it’s not really all that shocking. (I figured it out by plot logic rather than clues in the book.) Even with a wrap-up scene there’s a lot of loose threads left dangling.

If this all had really happened, and it actually was a true crime story, then this account of Chizmer being there at the time would be pretty stunning. It’d also be understandable if not everything is explained. And again, I get that Chizmer was going for that true crime feel, but knowing that it’s fiction made it feel in the end that this was weak sauce and kind of pointless.

To his credit, there’s a theme that plays off the fictional Chizmer’s fascination with the murders to highlight one of the unsavory aspects of true crime in the way that far too often real tragedies that shatter lives are treated as puzzles to be solved for entertainment. Still, since the character doesn’t take that too far, I was once again left shrugging my shoulders about why I was supposed to care.

Despite all these misgivings, I enjoyed myself for the most part while reading. I was just left feeling dissatisfied after finishing it. I’d understand if somebody absolutely loved it, and I’d equally understand if someone hated it. I think it’ll work for some, but may fall short for others.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Review: Like a Sister

Like a Sister Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

When a woman’s sister is killed, she’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of her. She was your sister, and you’re supposed to do something about it…. OK, so Lena Scott isn’t Sam Spade, but the sentiment remains the same.

Lena is a grad student in New York who has issues with her family. Her father, Mel Pierce, is a bigwig in the music business, but Lena wants nothing to do with him. Lena used to be close with her half-sister Desiree Pierce despite their differences in personality. Lena shuns the spotlight that comes with being Mel’s daughter, but Desiree embraced it to become a minor celebrity thanks to reality TV and her Instagram account. Desiree’s party lifestyle also included the usual bad habits, and after one close call too many, Lena had enough and cut off all contact with her sister.

When Desiree is found dead all indications point to an overdose, but Lena is sure that there’s more to her sister’s death then that. Following a trail of clues from social media as well as her personal knowledge of her sister, Lena starts trying to learn the truth as she deals with cops, music stars, Instagram influencers, reporters, and her own father.

I loved a lot about this one, starting with the character of Lena herself. Naturally she’s got guilt and thinks that maybe she wasn’t there when Desiree needed her. However, she’s also being incredible stoic and refusing to show her grief which she calls “…putting on the Super Black Woman cape” as she keeps a brave face to deal with both the practical matters one has to handle when a loved one dies as well as doggedly chasing any clue about really happened to Desiree.

Through the first-person narration we follow along as Lena seems to set everything aside to bluntly deal with whatever is in front of her in the moment even as we know how torn up she is by all of it. Despite the dark circumstances, Lena can also be a very funny narrator at times with sly observations and a dry wit, and there were several laugh-out-loud lines.

The mystery of is also handled in intriguing fashion. This isn’t a murder that will be solved in the drawing room of an English mansion or the mean streets of New York. Instead, Lena uses her sister’s Instagram account to track Desiree’s activities before she died and figure out who might have the answers she’s looking for as well as using social media to research and track suspects. Trying to find Desiree’s phone becomes a critical piece that Lena desperately wants to find because she knows that her sister’s whole life revolved around the device.

The plot has a lot of twists and turns to it, and I was fooled at several points as to where the book was going. None of the red herrings seem like cheats though, and when all is revealed, you realize that even the misdirects mattered. It’s a solid story that plays fair with its clues and ends in a satisfying fashion.

Kellye Garret did an admirable job of writing a mystery that mixes heart and humor and has a great lead character you can’t help but like. It’s also a solid template for how to do a 21st century whodunit.

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Review: The Apollo Murders

The Apollo Murders The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In reality, the last manned mission to the moon was America’s Apollo 17, but the jumping off point for this story is that there was actually an Apollo 18 done as a secret military operation. How do you keep a space mission involving thousands of people a secret?

Look, if you’re gonna read this book, you need to stop asking questions like that.

Kaz Zemickis was a test pilot who was also training to be an astronaut when an unfortunate collision between his plane and a seagull leaves him with one eye. Now Kaz is working as a liaison between Washington and the Apollo 18 mission. This is challenging because he’s essentially changing their whole mission plan at the last minute.

Instead of just going to the moon and collecting some rocks, the astronauts need to photograph and hopefully sabotage a Soviet space station equipped with new cameras that will be able to take high resolution spy pictures of the US once it’s manned. Once that’s accomplished, they’re supposed to go to the moon and check out a previously unexplored site that the Soviets are investigating with a lunar rover, and if possible, the astronauts are supposed to sabotage the rover as well. If they can squeeze in a little science in between all this sabotage, scientists have discovered some weird holes in the moon that they’d like checked if possible.

Unfortunately, one of the astronauts dies in a training accident, and must be replaced with a back-up. Meanwhile, the Soviets have made an interesting discovery on the moon with their rover, that they’d very much like to keep to themselves. The Russians also have some leverage over one of the astronauts on Apollo 18.

This book was written by a former test pilot and astronaut who has a ton of experience in space and in working with the Russian space agency. I am NOT a former test pilot and astronaut, but I am a giant space nerd who has checked out a bunch of books and documentaries about manned space flight. I’ve also seen Apollo 13 like 12 times.

So while not an expert like the author, I’d like to think I know a little more than the average bear about the subject, but I wouldn’t presume to say that the author got any of the technical or historical details wrong about this. In fact, per his notes at the end some of the things I thought were insane were true.

What I will question is the basic premise and way this book is structured just from a thriller standpoint. For starters, we’re told from the jump that Apollo 18 is a military mission that is going to be a secret. Yet, we’re never told what that mission was. (Bear in mind that the stuff about the Soviet spy station and rover comes into the picture when they change their mission at the last minute.) The world knows that the US is going back to the moon, but the details of the mission aren't being revealed. Yet, the training seems to be about doing the standard moon stuff of grabbing some rocks, making some observations, taking some samples, setting up some experiments, and trying to get back to Earth without dying. The story tells us that Nixon got funding for another moon launch by using military funding, but we're never told what they were originally going to do that was different from other moon missions.

I also question that NOBODY in this story ever brings up a legal, political, or ethical concern that the US is essentially going into space to sabotage Soviet property. Since this is the Nixon administration making this call, I’m not saying that they wouldn’t try it, but it seems odd that absolutely nobody ever brings up that we’re essentially using a ultra-expensive Apollo mission to commit an act of war.

Also, nobody brings up that they're launching a rocket they told the world would be going to the moon to do secret military things. So when a Soviet space station fails immediately after the US capsule hits orbit, and the a Soviet rover fails right after Apollo astronauts land nearby, it's pretty obvious what happened. Maybe Russia couldn't prove it, but it would certainly cause accusations to be made and an international incident.

The next part is where it really gets messy, but I’ll keep it vague to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that things don’t go well when Apollo 18 tries to sabotage the Soviet station, and there is absolute chaos for a few minutes as well a high probability that the space capsule has been damaged. A bunch of other shit has gone wrong as well, but despite it all, the astronauts go ahead and hit the Go-To-The-Moon button to do their burn for lunar orbit. Even when NASA gets involved again, they learn that the capsule has so many issues that it makes the Apollo 13 mission look like a cakewalk by comparison.

And yet they still decide to land on the fucking moon rather than just orbiting once and coming back immediately!

There’s a lot more that happens and other than the technical details, most of it seems so outlandish that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously. Plus, much like most action movies these days the ending seems way to long and drawn out with even more utterly unbelievable twists and turns with a bunch of events occurring that would most likely result in the US and Soviet Union immediately launching nukes at each other. There’s also some blatant sequel set-up that makes me pretty sure that the author plans for this to be some kind of Tom Clancy style thrillers using spaceflight as the hook with the Kaz character acting as Jack Ryan.

I should be the kind of reader who would go nuts for a historical-fiction/alt-history/conspiracy-thriller/set-in-space kind of book, and I was more than willing to go along with some of it at first. But there’s just too much of everything in this. Too many characters, too much detail, too many plot twists, too many outlandish events, etc. It’s all just too much for me to suspend disbelief and roll with it, and that’s what this kind of story needs for it to really work.

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Review: The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What if there was an Agatha Christie style mystery, but without a Hercule Poroit or Miss Marple style character around to solve it?

A group of people in their 30s have been friends since their days at Oxford, and one of their traditions is having an annual get together over the New Year holiday. This year they go to an exclusive and remote Scottish hunting lodge. As a huge snowstorm moves in and cuts them off from the rest of the world, one of them is found dead. It’s obviously murder, and the list of suspects isn’t long.

This is a pretty standard set-up, but as I said at the start, the interesting thing is that there’s nobody really playing detective here. Instead the plot is unraveled via a series of shifting perspectives that also jump around in time from the trip to the lodge until the day after the murder. Slowly we start to get the whole picture of how this group is filled with secrets, old grudges, and several reasons not to trust each other. There’s also a few other people around like the strange couple from Finland, the manager of the lodge who has fled to this job as a way of not dealing with a recent tragic loss she’s suffered, and the surly gamekeeper who is a combat veteran suffering from PTSD which has left him with a hair trigger temper. So the suspect pool isn’t just limited to the Oxford buddies.

The structure of it is really the star of the show with author Lucy Foley doing a very good job of providing different voices to several characters who become the ones guiding us through the current story and histories. She pulls off several tricky things such as keeping the identity of the victim a secret for a good chunk of a book without seeming clunky so for a while we’re not ever sure who might be dead and who might be the killer. There’s a lot of red herrings in the mix which are necessary for a book like this although there are a few too many. However, none seem obvious, and it helps keep the reader from guessing which way the plot is going for a good long while.

The ending plays fair and has a satisfying answer, but again, there’s just a bit too much to all of it. I also had a big problem with the aftermath detailed in an extended epilogue in which the author seems to forget a couple of huge things from the climatic moment of the story when wrapping it all up.

Still, it’s a really solid mystery with some good character work. I’d give it 3 and half stars if I could, but…..you know. I also listened to the Audible version which had some great narrators doing various parts.

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