Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Review: Heaven's a Lie

Heaven's a Lie Heaven's a Lie by Wallace Stroby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Crime fiction fans know this rule well: If you come across a bag of money, don’t take it.

Fortunately, Joette Harper is apparently unfamiliar with stories like No Country For Old Men and A Simple Plan. Otherwise she would have known better, and we wouldn’t have this great book to read.

Joette has been riding an epic streak of bad luck. Her husband died, she lost her job at a bank when it got bought out, and her mother is fading fast in a nursing home. With a mountain of medical bills to pay she’s lost her house, and the only job she can find near her mother is as a desk clerk at a crappy motel. While working one night she witnesses and a car accident and while futilely trying to save the driver’s life, she finds a bag with almost $300,000 in the flaming wreckage. Acting on impulse, Joette takes the bag and hides it from the police, but she doesn’t realize that it’s drug money stolen from a very dangerous man named Travis Clay who wants it back.

Once he’s established the set-up, author Wallace Stroby then takes us through a story that is familiar, but he manages to subvert expectations at several points. It’s mainly the character work that sets this one apart, and with Joette in the lead we’ve got a smart woman who is the kind of person who would risk her own life to try and save a stranger from a burning car, but her circumstances have made her desperate enough to take the cash. This isn’t a greedy person, she’s just someone who really needs this money, and that makes you sympathize with her from the jump. She’s also smarter than a lot of the characters we get in these situations as she immediately stashes the cash in secure locations and does a good job of covering her tracks.

The antagonist Travis Clay could have been a cliché or an Anton Chigurh rip-off as a violent man seeking his money, but while he fits that profile in some ways, there’s again a sly nudging of things off the typical beats. Usually there’s a kind of pragmatic ruthlessness to characters like these, but Clay gets obsessed with the idea of recovering the money which leads him down increasingly bloody avenues that start to cut off his options even as he is pressuring Joette.

It all works and builds a nice tension so that even as the book builds tensions and seems headed towards an expectable outcome, you start to realize that things aren’t going to work for anybody like they planned.

Wallace Stroby is a writer I like a lot and who I think should be getting a lot more attention. His Chrissa Stone novels starting with Cold Shot to the Heart was one of the better series about a professional thief you’ll find this side of a Richard Stark novel, and his last book Some Die Nameless was a great thriller as well. This is just the latest example of why crime fiction fans should be reading him.

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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: Five Decembers

Five Decembers Five Decembers by James Kestrel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from the author.

It’s a Hard Case Crime novel set in Hawaii just weeks before the infamous Pearl Harbor attack occurs on December 7, 1941. I pretty much feel like that’s all I need to say to convince people to check it out.

But fine, if you want to know a little more, then keep reading…

Joe McGrady is a police detective in Honolulu who is called to a gruesome double murder. Things get complicated when one of the victims turns out to be a relative of a prominent Navy admiral and the other is a young Japanese woman. With tensions high, Joe’s boss just wants the case solved as quickly and quietly as possible, and McGrady ends up hot on the trail of the killer across the Pacific. However, the outbreak of World War II derails the investigation as well as Joe’s life.

This is one of those books that’s tricky to review because I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it takes some surprising twists that end up being the best part of the of the story. So I don’t want to spoil those, but then I can’t really dig into some of the particulars.

What I can say is that this is a novel built on making readers feel like they’re in a particular time and place, and James Kestrel does a superior job of that. From describing the streets and people of Honolulu in 1941 to several other locations, you get all of the atmosphere without it feeling like a bunch of regurgitated facts from a history class.

The plotting is also very well done as it mixes the realistic grind of detective work with some of the historical details of the setting. For example, one clue revolves around how there were no Packard dealerships in Hawaii at the time so that type of car was very rare on the islands, but trying to track down a particular one means spending hours reviewing car registration records. There’s a lot of great procedural bits about trying to track down a killer in the era before computer databases and modern forensics. Even the methods of communication play a part with cables being a key element to how things unfold.

Character work is another strong element with Joe McGrady being the kind of complex figure you want at the center of this kind of story. As an ex-soldier with no family to speak of, Joe is a loner who didn’t grow up in Hawaii so he’s seen as an outsider even by his fellow cops, and it’s evident from the start that he’s not entirely trusted by them. The feeling goes both ways as Joe deals with the agenda of his boss and others. His one real connection is his growing feelings towards the woman he’s been seeing, Molly.

The story also plays off the readers knowing that World War II is about to start to good effect. Kestrel drops a few well-placed ominous hints that foreshadow that the whole world is about to go sideways even as Joe is hoping to get the case wrapped up in time to spend a romantic Christmas with Molly. It makes the whole thing one of those books where you’re tensed up the entire time, and just wish that you could warn everyone in it what’s coming.

It’s a fantastic crime novel that takes the classic tale of a determined detective hunting a killer and turns it into the tragedy of one man who gets caught up in epic historical events.

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Monday, April 19, 2021

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For over a year now a lot of us have been working from home, and now I feel like a real rube because what I should have done was get a Lincoln and have somebody drive me around all day while I did my job.

Mick Haller is a defense attorney who uses his car as an office as he shuttles between courts and jails seeing various clients. While not not completely crooked, Mick is certainly bent, and he has no problem using every trick he knows to keep his clients out of prison. When a wealthy young man is accused of brutally assualting a woman during an attempted rape, he hires Haller and insists that he’s innocent despite the evidence. At first, Mick sees this new client as nothing more than a big pay day, but as new things come to light Mick finds himself personally involved in ways he could never have dreamed of.

I’ve got a weird thing going with Michael Connelly. He’s an incredibly popular crime writer, and I’m a guy who loves crime fiction. His ideas and characters seem like they should be right in my wheelhouse, and this is another example of that. Yet, despite having several of my reading buddies cite Connelly as a favorite of theirs I remain mostly immune to his charms. Which is weird because I like plenty of other books that are similar in tone and concepts to what Connelly does. I guess it’s just like J.K. Simmons said in Whiplash, it’s not quite my tempo.

So while I enjoyed this one and found the character of Mick Haller intriguing, I just kind of wish that there was something MORE to the book, even if I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is I found lacking. I guess one point was that I was more into the angles that Haller played in the early part of the book than I was once the main plot got rolling. In fairness, the whole last act does hinge on Haller pulling off an unorthodox courtroom stunt so it’s not like Connelly just forgot that Haller was a lawyer. It’s more like he got more interested in the crime plot than the character, and so I wished Mick was a little bit less of a standard male lead in a thriller and more sleazy lawyer in the last act.

Still, I got no major complaints, and it’s got some aspects I really liked.

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Review: A Writer Prepares

A Writer Prepares A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

First there was Batman Begins and now we have Block Begins.

Lawrence Block seems like a permanent fixture in crime fiction to me so it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when someone couldn’t wander into any bookstore or library and find several shelves filled with his works. However, everybody has to start somewhere, and in this memoir of the early days of his writing life Mr. Block tells us how he got his.

It wasn’t exactly a straight line even if he knew what he wanted to do from the time he was fifteen years old and got encouragement from an English teacher. A job at a shady literary agency provided invaluable experience and contacts to start his career churning out material under various pen names, most of it erotica, but even after he had his start Mr. Block bounced around between college and sometimes worked other jobs even as he was paying the bills with his writing.

This isn’t a traditional memoir. As Mr. Block explains, he began it in 1994 and wrote most of it one quick burst, but even though he had a publisher for it he set it aside and didn’t pick it up again until late in 2019 when he was going through old material to donate to a college. Rereading it sparked his interest, and he finished it up while leaving most of what he wrote back then intact.

A writer looking back at his career in his 50s, and then revisiting that in his 80s is unique and fascinating. One of the more interesting aspects is how Mr. Block’s attitude towards his early work-for-hire output has changed. Back in the ‘90s he refused to acknowledge or sign anything he’d written back then. These days, he cheerfully has these books reprinted either via e-books or via publishers like Hard Case Crimes. While never going so far as to say that he was ashamed of this early writing, he had various reasons for not wanting to take credit for it either back then. So explaining that shift is one of the things that benefits from letting the book sit for that long.

This is also most definitely NOT a biography. While certain aspects of his personal life come it’s always in relation to explaining something related to his writing. So there are some things mentioned like the death of his father and starting a family during his first marriage, but those aren’t the focus. It’s treated mainly as the backdrop to give a reader an understanding of what the situation was when Mr. Block made a choice regarding his writing.

There’s also a lot of fun stories and details about things like how the work-for-hire game was played, and how the Scott Meredith agency profited off of keeping wannabe writers on the hook for more reading fees. One trick that Mr. Block shares is how he sometimes used dialogue which often features a character wandering off the point as a a way to easily stretch out a page count for a book. This ultimately became part of his writing style.

Hard core fans should also be aware there isn’t anything about how he came up with his later creations like Matt Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, or Keller. Here, the culmination of the story is how he was originally inspired to start his Evan Tanner novels, and how they became the next stage where he left

What we end up with isn’t so much a full historical account of Mr. Block’s life or writing. Rather it’s him looking back at his youth from two different perspectives, and how the experiences then shaped him into the write he would become. What I loved about is the casual and sometimes wandering nature of it. It’s as if a reader sat down with Mr. Block over a cup of coffee and got to listen to him tell a bunch of stories about the old days. As a longtime fan of his, that’s a real treat.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Review: Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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


A man wakes up from an extended induced coma on-board a spaceship alongside two corpses, and he no idea of who he is or how he got there. As he explores the ship, he slowly begins to get his memory back and realizes that he’s Ryland Grace, the sole survivor of a desperate mission to reach another solar system and hopefully find the answers to save Earth from a cosmic catastrophe. With only a sketchy idea of how the ship works Ryland must rely on basic science and improvisation to try and accomplish his mission, but he’ll find more than a few surprises waiting for him when he reaches his destination.

Since The Martian was such a sensation I think Andy Weir is doomed to be one of those authors whose later work is always compared to his debut, and there’s no doubt of some similarities here. The most obvious one is that they both feature smart and funny main characters being alone and having to science the shit out of what they have on hand to get the job done. In fact, it’d be easy to see this as just flipping The Martian’s plot because in it you had pretty much the entire world banding together to save one isolated man, and Project Hail Mary is about one isolated man trying to save the entire world.

However, while it seems at first that both books are working off the same template, Weir only relies on that hook for a while before seriously changing things up and getting very creative. In fact, I suspect that some fans of The Martian are going to dislike this because of how it seems to start out in that near-future type of hard sci-fi that the mainstream is quicker to accept, but then it takes a hard turn into weirder concepts.

I don’t want to say too much because I feel like this is one that benefits from going in knowing as little as possible. Rest assured that even when things get strange that Weir still relies on a funny narrator working off a foundation of real science so that it stays grounded and relatable.

It also has a couple of really good twists, and actually ends up being a far more moving book than I thought it would be. It’s not as good as The Martian because part of the appeal was Weir’s ability to make science entertaining, but now that's part of his brand so it doesn't feel as new and inventive as it did before. It's still a supremely entertaining book that blends a realistic approach with sci-fi and comes up with something that again feels fresh.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Review: Hidden Prey

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

As a top agent for Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas Davenport has mastered the art of introducing himself to local law enforcement so that they won’t resent him as an outsider coming in to tell them how to do their job:

The cop who’d followed Lucas in said, “Hey, when I’m talking to you…”

Lucas pointed his finger at him and snarled, “Shut the fuck up. Who’s running this clown factory?”

As a plain-clothes cop, Lucas is also well aware of the danger of running across other police officers during a pursuit and the proper way to identify himself:

Both the cops were screaming at him and Lucas shouted, “BCA, you dumb motherfuckers,” and finally one of the cops waved a hand at his partner and said, “Put the gun in the street.”

“Fuck you,” Lucas yelled back. “My hands are over my head, I’m not touching the gun again because you dumb motherfuckers’ll shoot me sure as shit.”

Lucas can also demonstrate his gift of diplomacy and calm persuasion when dealing with a reluctant witness who is in danger but still refuses to reveal anything about the criminal enterprise he’s involved in:

The sat in silence for a moment, and then Lucas said, “Well, fuck ya. We told ya.”

As these quotes show, Lucas is a little grumpy in this one. Despite everything going well on the personal front, he’s chafing a bit at the blatant political nature of his new state job as the governor’s guy who ‘fixes shit’, and he’s also starting to worry that being surrounded by violent death for over twenty years has started to take a toll.

But when a Russian is killed at a dock on Lake Superior, the international pressure demands some kind of solution so Lucas finds himself teamed up with a pretty woman sent from Moscow to observe the investigation. Nadya claims to be a Russian cop, but Lucas is pretty sure she’s actually an intelligence agent and her agenda may be different from his. The FBI is also sniffing around, but they’re far more worried about terrorists than revisiting the Cold War. Lucas cares little about the ‘spy shit’, but he does get irked when more bodies start dropping all over Minnesota.

The spy angle and Davenport’s dissatisfaction with the job are a departure from the usual Prey books, but a grumpy Lucas is also a funny Lucas. Sandford has been making noises about ending the series for some time, but this as the first clear idea in the books that Lucas might be thinking about quitting law enforcement for good. Since there’s been about 10 more books since then, he apparently got over it although Sandford still talks about wrapping up Lucas’ story at some point.

This one also features another interesting twist on the villain with a Soviet era spy who is still a true believer in Communism and has raised his grandson to follow in his murderous footsteps. It’s another good step away from the typical serial killer we usually get in thrillers.

Next: Lucas goes to the nut house in Broken Prey.

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