Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review: I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Update 4/26/2018 - When this book was published it was an unsolved mystery. It got a happy ending yesterday.**

I'd heard about Michelle McNamara before I even knew her name or that she was a true crime writer. She was married to comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, who I’m a big fan of, and several of his bits over the years have involved his wife. Per Patton’s descriptions in his routines she was a brilliant woman, far smarter than him, who was always operating at a whole other level.

Now I know what he was talking about after reading this book. It’s about a pure monster that should be one of the best known unsolved crime cases in American history, but many people have probably never heard of the Golden State Killer. It began in 1976 with a serial rapist terrorizing the suburbs of Sacramento. His MO was to break into homes in the middle of the night and surprise sleeping victims who he’d threaten with knives or guns. He often targeted couples or families and would rape a woman while her husband or boyfriend was tied up helpless in the next room. He’s also believed to have shot and killed a couple who had the misfortune to encounter him while out walking their dog.

His attacks spread to communities outside of San Francisco, but seemed to stop in mid-1979. Unfortunately, GSK had just moved south to the LA area where he started up again, but his first known attempt was thwarted when the couple fought back, and he narrowly escaped capture. Instead of scaring him off this triggered an escalation after which GSK would kill those he attacked until stopping in 1986, ten years after he began.

The full extent of the damage he’d done wasn’t known until DNA typing of cold cases was done in 2001. This confirmed what several detectives in various jurisdictions had suspected for years. The man called the East Area Rapist (EAR) during his crime spree in northern California was the same man who’d become known as the Original Night Stalker (ONS) in the southern part of the state. The statistics of his victims alone are staggering with 50 women sexually assaulted and 12 murders, and those are just the ones that are confirmed. He may have also been responsible for a series of break-ins in Visalia a few years earlier, and if so there’s another murder to hang on him there for shooting a man who stopped an intruder from abducting his daughter in the middle of the night from their home.

It was Michelle McNamara who branded him the Golden State Killer after she began writing about the case on her blog and in magazine articles. She had became interested in true crime as a teenager after an unsolved murder of a young girl happened near her home. A big part of this story is about how this case came to obsess her, and she does not make an attempt to gloss over how much it took over her life. She has one story of asking her husband to leave a movie premiere party because of a new lead she was given that she couldn’t wait to get back to her laptop to start working on it. There’s another heartbreaking moment when she describes an anniversary dinner with Patton where she realized that not only had he given her gifts two years in a row based on her on-going work on GSK, but that she had been so consumed that she’d forgotten to get him anything at all.

Unfortunately, Michelle died unexpectedly in 2016 while in the middle of writing this book. Two of her fellow researchers finished it at Patton’s urging, and I’m incredibly glad that happened because it would have been a shame if the work she did on this hadn’t been revealed so fully.

She was an incredibly gifted writer who can provide detail about GSK’s crime in such a way that we feel the full weight of what he did, and how incredibly scary this story is. It’s there as she details the evidence the police found that showed that GSK was a relentless night prowler who crept over fences, through backyards, across rooftops, and peeped windows from the shadows. It’s in the way she tells us the stories from the victims who were very often sound asleep in their beds and were awoken by a man wearing a ski mask shining a light in their eyes, showing them a knife, and telling them that he’d kill them if they didn’t do exactly what he said. While it never feels exploitive she conveys all the ways that the surviving victim’s lives were changed by the attacks on them. When she describes a detective’s years of chasing dead ends you can feel the frustration, and when she tells the story of a new lead you also start tapping into the hope that this might be the one to break the case.

In addition to being a great writer Michelle was a relentless researcher. I sometimes have issues with books or documentaries about true crime cases because I think it too often it shows confirmation bias or prefers wild conspiracy theories to more likely mundane facts and scenarios. She avoids those by imposing clear and logical standards to this which depended on fact checking and interviews rather than indulging in hunches or pet theories.

It’s very clear from what she wrote here that Michelle believed that this case could be solved with technology. The cops have the DNA of the Golden State Killer to use as the ultimate determination of guilt or innocence. Geo-Mapping his crime scenes should give an approximate location of where he lived. Scanning old case files and using key word recognition and data sorting can bring previously hidden connections to life. DNA databases are growing all the time, and all it takes is one hit from a relative to narrow it down to the family. Michelle was convinced that GSK’s identity was in the existing evidence somewhere, and it’s just a matter of sifting through all the clues to find it.

Because of her death there several parts that rely on her early drafts, notes, old magazine articles, and even a tape she made of the conversation between her and a police detective while showing her some of the GSK’s crime scenes. That gives the book a bit of a disjointed feeling and makes you wish even more that she’d been able to finish it herself, but considering the circumstances it’s unavoidable and doesn’t prevent the full story from being told.

This will be going on my Best-of-True-Crime shelf, right next to In Cold Blood. And if they do ever catch the Golden State Killer I’ll bet it’s going to be due in no small part to the work of Michelle McNamara.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Review: Gathering Prey

Gathering Prey Gathering Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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 hobos. 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 the majority of the story 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. (view spoiler)

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 Kemper's Book Blog.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: Husk

Husk Husk by J. Kent Messum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this for review from the author.

**I'm reposting the review because this is now being published as a Kindle e-book on May 1, and it's only $2.99 if you pre-order.**

In a dystopian near future a handsome young man named Rhodes has a lucrative illegal business as a Husk which means that he essentially rents out his body to rich people No, not like that, you perverts. These are dead rich people…OK, now I'm gonna have to ask you to leave because that’s just sick. Go on. Close the door on your way out.

Where were we? Right, so the deal is that the richest people have found a way to cheat death and download their consciousness into computers, but playing Halo and trolling on Twitter gets boring after a while so they can rent a Husk and have a human body for a few days. Rhodes enjoys the money plus it’s a lot better than being one of the millions of suckers who can’t earn a living at a regular job, but his clients seem to be increasingly less concerned with damaging the merchandise. (You know how nobody really cares what happens to a rental car they’re driving? Same principle.) Plus, he’s started having weird flashes to things that aren’t his memories.

Most of the book is essentially a sci-fi conspiracy thriller, and it functions pretty well as that. I was a little let down that it didn’t do a bit more contemplation about identity and its relation to the physical body. However, Messum does a lot in the first person narrative that has Rhodes becomingly increasingly aware that while he thought he was just renting out his physical self that he might have been peddling something far more precious so essentially it becomes an extended metaphor on prostitution. So we do get some deeper themes on the idea that you can’t entirely separate the body from the mind.

The third act seemed like it was in jeopardy of turning into a pretty standard action and revelation style plot, but it swung back around to deliver some genuine surprise at the end. Overall, even though some elements are familiar it ends up being an entertaining story with enough meat on the bone to give your brain something to chew on.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: Robert B. Parker's Old Black Magic

Robert B. Parker's Old Black Magic Robert B. Parker's Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. And I like books by Ace Atkins.

Spenser is asked to look into a famous unsolved art heist, but since it occurred twenty years ago the trail is very cold and the museum people he’d be working for are couple of overbearing snobs guaranteed to be a pain in the ass. The only reasons to take the case are a five million dollar reward for the return of one particular painting, and that Spenser has been asked to finish the job by another private investigator who is dying from cancer. Spenser greatly respects this detective who spent years trying to track down the lost art, and if you know anything about spenser you can probably guess that he cares a lot more about fulfilling this guy’s last request than the money.

While the heist was successful it was the work of clumsy smash-and-grab thieves, not a highly skilled Ocean’s 11 kind of crew, and there are rumors that the painting has been floating around Boston’s organized crime underworld for two decades. As Spenser looks for the long lost Gentlemen in Black he’ll find that the painting has left a bloody trail in its wake since it was taken off a museum wall. He’s also got competition in the form of another unscrupulous investigator trying to get the reward.

This is the seventh Spenser novel that Ace Atkins has done since taking over the series after the death of Robert B. Parker, and Atkins has long since proven that the he was the right writer for the job. He still has Spenser behaving very much like the guy fans have known and loved for years with the detective trying to solve the case while cracking wise as well as cracking heads, and there is plenty of eating and drinking and general banter along the way. Atkins has kept all those familiar elements while subtly refreshing the series by not being afraid to incorporate some changes in the lives of Spenser and his supporting cast.

Most of that updating this time comes in the form of Vinnie Morris. Vinnie has long been one of Spenser’s ‘good’ criminals who is an occasional ally, and as he’s done for others in the series Atkins adds some depth and personality that makes Vinnie more of a unique character than just another version of Spenser with a few differing surface traits. While Hawk is off in South America on one of his secret missions (And I really want a spin-off series about Hawk’s adventures.) Vinnie more than fills the role of Spenser’s back-up buddy here. Atkins also now has the confidence to add some Southern touches with Spenser making his versions of a few country style dishes as well as taking a trip to Memphis where he gets some barbecue and works in a few Elvis references along the way.

The story was obviously inspired by the real heist of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, and it’s a juicy concept of a case with plenty of good twists and turns. We also get a lot of fun interactions of Spenser irritating all kinds of unpleasant people from an angry police captain to a murderous mobster to a snooty stuffed shirt on the museum board. Overall, it’s another remarkably solid outing that most fans of Spenser and PI novels in general would enjoy.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Review: Flashfire

Flashfire Flashfire by Richard Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you ask Parker for a loan you’d better make sure that he agrees with the terms or else he’ll really make you pay.

It’s not unusual for Parker’s accomplices to try to rip him off after they pull a robbery, but this one plays out differently from the typical stab in the back. Instead of just trying to kill him and take all the loot these guys first try to talk Parker into coming in with them and using all the money they just stole to finance their next job which they claim will be a highly lucrative jewel heist in Palm Beach. It’s only when Parker refuses and demands his cut that these guys reluctantly take all the money, but they promise that it’s only a loan which they will repay as soon as they complete this other robbery. It’s all very civilized as far as ripping off a partner goes, but of course they didn’t realize that they’re messing with the wrong guy. Parker promptly starts building a fake identity as a rich guy looking to buy a house in Palm Beach as part of his revenge scheme. He’s got a solid plan, but as usual things never run smoothly for Parker.

A plot about Parker being betrayed by his partners and setting out to get his money back is pretty standard for the series, and it’s all done as well as you’d expect from Richard Stark (a/k/a Donald Westlake). As a Parker novel this is a solid 3 stars, but there’s two things that I found absolutely delightful in this book.

First, Parker’s share of the original score is $20,000. He doesn’t want to throw in with the jewel heist and potentially make a lot more because he doesn’t like about the plan. After the other thieves take the money Parker then goes on a crime spree to build up the funds he’ll need to establish a whole new identity as a rich man. During this he probably makes well over $200,000 in a string of quick robberies. The fact that he is so peeved about losing 20 grand that he makes over 10 times that amount without breaking a sweat and still feels the need to use it to go after the guys who ripped him off rather than just take that money and call it a day is quintessential Parker, and I love it.

The second thing that I gave this one bonus points for is a scene that occurs while Parker is playing the part of a wealthy man looking to buy a house, and he has a real estate lady showing him around Palm Beach. This woman talks a ton of trash about a certain orange shitbag buying an estate there including this gem: "I think a place must be a little déclassé if Donald Trump has even heard of it."

Donald Westlake was so cool he can throw shade from beyond the grave.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Review: Twisted Prey

Twisted Prey Twisted Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

Me in 2013: “I love John Sandford novels, but this Silken Prey seems a bit outlandish. Could a rich person with a narcissistic personality disorder who engages in criminal behavior really hope to win an election to an important position in the US government? That seems highly unlikely.”

Me on Election Night 2016: “Why didn’t we heed John Sandford’s warning?!?”

Back in Silken Prey Lucas Davenport tangled with a crazy woman named Taryn Grant who was running for the Senate. She was capable of framing a rival for child pornography and then forming a conspiracy to commit murder to cover it all up. Since she was rich and this is America, she gets away with it.

Now a rival of Grant’s is almost killed in a car accident which he is positive was an attempt to murder him, and Lucas Davenport is asked to check into the case. Davenport is off to D.C. and is quickly convinced that the accident was indeed a professional attempted hit, and he suspects that Grant’s friends at a military contractor filled with ex-special forces members were responsible for it on her orders. Getting evidence on trained killers who know how to cover their tracks and are backed by a powerful rich woman with her eye on the White House won’t be easy though.

Despite the DC setting and Davenport facing off against a crew of bad ass ex-soldiers this all feels like pretty standard stuff for Sandford. Not that it’s a bad thing. Sandford at his worst can write circles around most of the thriller writers on the best seller list, and this is has a lot of intriguing elements like figuring out how the bad guys could have rigged the car accident without leaving a trace. Davenport joined the US Marshals in the last book, and that change has enabled the series to do some interesting new stuff like this.

However, I think this one fell a little short of high potential in a few areas. For starters, even though this is set in DC and involves members of Congress it just doesn’t seem like the circus it would be. I also thought that Grant's response to being investigated would be more politically vicious and involve her trying to do more to smear Davenport in the media rather than going after him with more direct methods. It all just seems a little naïve and optimistic in that the system pretty much works and Davenport is free to investigate without having to worry about the press or the politics of it much at all.

And bear in mind that what I’m essentially saying here is the biggest problem with a plot that involves a member of the US Congress trying to assassinate a political rival and cover it up with the help of shady intelligence connections is that IT'S NOT CYNICAL ENOUGH!

Welcome to America 2018.

There’s a few other issues too, but most of them fall into the category of spoilers. 

While I was a little let down by some of this it was still a solid page turner, and I very much enjoyed the ending which went a long way towards making me forget about some of my quibbles.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: The Infinity War

The Infinity War The Infinity War by Jim Starlin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

WAR! What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing except for comic book crossovers and as the climactic film in a cinematic universe.

If you’re one of those folks who like the Marvel movies but haven’t read the comics then you might think that this would be the basis for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War movie. However, it seems Infinity Gauntlet, the first in this set of big event stories based around the Infinity Stones, will be template the movie works off of. This is actually the sequel to that.

Confusing, isn’t it?

This is fairly decent as Marvel’s big cosmic crossovers go. This time Thanos is kinda sorta a good guy who is helping Adam Warlock and the Infinity Watch try to stop the Magus from essentially becoming god by getting his hands on that bedazzled glove. Earth’s superheroes are also pawns in Magus’ game while Dr. Doom and Kang the Conqueror make for some interesting wildcards.
Overall the story is pretty ambitious with some decent layers to it.

However, the superheroes really don’t serve any purpose other than as selling points to put on the covers. That’s the problem when there’s a threat this powerful. What’s Daredevil supposed to do against an enemy that can defeat Galactus without breaking a sweat? So they mostly end up in a side plot where they fight evil versions of themselves created by Magus as a distraction while the real action is centered on characters like Thanos and Adam Warlock.

Unfortunately, giant crossovers that involve every character in the Marvel universe whether it makes story sense or not would become the norm in the 25 years since this came out.

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Review: The Last Kind Words

The Last Kind Words The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s hard to be a black sheep in a family of thieves and swindlers, but Collie Rand managed to pull it off by going on a murder spree during which he killed several innocent people including a child.

Terrier Rand couldn’t cope with what his brother did and took off for five years, but with the execution date approaching he reluctantly comes home when Collie asks to see him. Collie tells Terry that while he’s guilty of most of crimes that he didn’t kill one young woman that was pinned on him, and that he fears that a serial killer may be out there commiting more murders.

Collie has a long history of play mind games as well as being a homicidal jerkface so Terry doubts his brother, and his homecoming isn’t a pleasant trip down memory lane. He finds his family still reeling with the shock and shame of Collie’s crimes as well as other issues, and he’s still in love with the woman he skipped out on even though she married one of his best friends. As he tries to help his family pull the pieces back together and come to terms with his past Terry begins looking into the possibility that Collie is telling the truth about another killer.

I’ve heard a lot of good things about the late Tom Piccirilli, but while there was a lot I liked in this it also had a lot of elements that didn’t work for me. The idea of a guy raised by a family of criminals coming home and investigating a murder is a nice hook, and the writing is very solid overall. However, I had a lot of problems with the tone of the book.

As our first person narrator we spend the entire book with Terry’s angst, and that’s understandable to some extent. If this was straight-up character based crime fiction, like from a Richard Price type of ultra realistic story, then it’d be fine and Piccirilli kinda gets there. Yet it’s also got this kind of gimmicky criminal underworld thing that seems more like something that belong in a Richard Stark novel or a John Wick movie. There’s so much stuff like that from the way the whole Rand family is named after types of dogs to the descriptions of their house being stuffed with hidden spaces filled with loot from heists over the years. (You’d think a family of known thieves wouldn’t want a house filled with evidence of their crimes.) Again, if that’s what you’re going for and you put a criminal playing detective in that world then that’s a solid idea.

But trying to mix serious character drama with a guy brooding about his family and his regrets doesn’t sync up with a story about thieves who seem to have been imported from a pulp novel. Then you add in the serial killer story which gets pretty stupid and melodramatic in the end, and it just feels like a lot of scattered elements that don’t work well together.

It’s also possible that I’m still so creeped out from reading I'll Be Gone in the Dark a few weeks ago that I refuse to sympathize with a guy who breaks into people’s houses when they’re sleeping. Whatever the reason, this one didn’t live up to a strong start for me.

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