Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Gritty Look Back at the Detroit Drug Scene of the 1970s

This dark, gritty novel is the only one ever written by Vern E. Smith, which is really too bad. If the guy was capable of writing books like this one, then fans of crime fiction are that much poorer for not having more of them.

Originally published in 1974, the book is set in the seedy underworld of Detroit where dope addicts struggle to find their next fix and the dealers jockey for position on the supply chain. The Jones Men are the heroin dealers and the current king of the hill is Willis McDaniel. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that sort of thing. There are always other ruthless and ambitious men ready to kick the king out of the way and wear the crown themselves.

At a party one night, McDaniel carelessly makes a remark about a big incoming shipment of dope that he's expecting. The word filters through the drug community to a kid named Lennie Jack who's fresh home from the war in Vietnam and looking to step up in the world.

Lennie Jack and a couple of buddies hit the exchange and make off with McDaneil's shipment. McDaniel, naturally, is furious both because of the dope he has lost and, even more important, because the robbery makes him look vulnerable in a world where the most dangerous thing that can happen to a drug kingpin is to look weak.

McDaniel launches an "investigation" into the theft and before long, the blood is flowing like a river. It's a brutal world where mercy, trust and security are unknown commodities, where today's ally may be tonight's enemy, and where it's every man for himself.

Smith writes a very compelling story set in a very believable world where, before the days of Escalades and Lincoln Navigators, the dealers drive tricked-out Cadillacs and dress like Super Fly. The Jones Men is a trip back in time that any fan of nourish crime fiction is almost certain to enjoy.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cooper MacLeish Finds Himself Up Against a Nasty Group of Drug Dealers

This is my favorite of Same Reaves' excellent series featuring the cab driving philosopher, Cooper MacLeish. In the first three books, driving a hack has found MacLeish getting into an awful lot of dangerous trouble and so he's now left the cab behind and taken what would appear to be a fairly safe and sensible job as the driver for a major Chicago real estate developer named Regis Swanson. This is a huge relief to Cooper's long-time girlfriend, Diana, who has suffered through his earlier troubles and stood by him when many other women might have bailed on the relationship.

Cooper and Diana are now newly married, but trouble seems to have a knack for finding MacLeish, no matter where he might be. A low-life scumbag sees a chance to rip off a group of drug dealers for a million dollars in cash. Naturally, the scumbag would prefer that the drug dealers not be hot on his trail, and so to throw them off the track, he frames Nate Swanson, the son of Regis, who owns a music club. The bad guys take the bait, track down Nate and kill him when he doesn't produce the money that he never had in the first place.

Regis Swanson is naturally devastated by the death of his son, and the bad guys now assume that Regis has their million dollars. This means that Regis and everyone around him, including Cooper MacLeish, are now in the line of fire. Much to Diana's consternation, her new husband refuses to just quit and walk away from the situation. He's determined to sort things out and provide some sort of justice, now matter how rough it might be. Naturally a lot of violence will ensue, and MacLeish may wind up risking everything, including his marriage and his life, before he can get things sorted out.

Again, Sam Reaves has created here a unique and very compelling protagonist, and he's built around him a very interesting and gripping story with lots of unexpected twists and turns. As always in these books, the city of Chicago plays a major role in the story and Reaves clearly loves the city and knows it very well. Crime fiction fans who have somehow failed to discover Sam Reaves should do themselves a great favor and hunt down all four of the books in this series. It's a winner from start to finish.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rachel Howzell Hall Intriduces a Great New Protagonist in a Gripping Tale

Twenty-five years ago, Elouise Norton's older sister, Tori, was caught stealing candy from a neighborhood store owned by a man named Napoleon Crase. In a panic, Elouise ran from the store and never saw her sister again. The police conducted a perfunctory investigation but never discovered what might have happened to Tori.

Perhaps the investigation was so slipshod because the cops were lazy or perhaps because they were overburdened. Perhaps it was because the victim, Tori, was a black teenager who did not have a sterling reputation to begin with. But whatever the case, a quarter of a century later, Elouise remains haunted by the loss of her sister and has become a homicide detective herself, having promised her mother that she would yet bring Tori home.

Elouise (Lou) and her newbie white male partner are called to the scene of a condominium construction site, where a seventeen-year-old girl named Monique Dawson has been found hanging in a closet. Lou's new partner, Colin Taggert, jumps to the conclusion that the dead girl was a suicide, but Lou quickly disabuses him of that notion and insists, correctly, that Monique is the victim of a homicide.

Interestingly, the condo development project is owned by Napoleon Crase who, in the years since Tori's disappearance, has pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a millionaire developer, and the site of the project is very near the site of the store where Tori disappeared.

Inevitably, these coincidences will weigh on Lou, but will they compromise her ability to conduct a full and fair investigation into the death of Monique Dawson? And as if she doesn't have enough on her mind to begin with, Lou's husband, a game developer, is in Japan. He's calling Lou infrequently and is generally staying out of touch. Lou wonders if he's cheating; if so, it wouldn't be the first time. The last time Lou caught him, he "apologized" by buying her a $90,000 Porsche SUV, but that may not be enough if he's straying again.

Lou pursues the case, which takes a variety of twists and turns and involves some pretty sleazy characters. But she's a detective driven by the need to know the truth and she pursues it with a grim determination. She's a new and original character, and Rachel Howzell Hall introduces her in a very compelling story. Hall also creates a very convincing and intriguing setting in an area of south L.A. that's undergoing a black gentrification, and the end result is a book that will appeal to large numbers of crime fiction readers. I'm looking forward eagerly to Lou's next case.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Virgil Flowers Is on the Hunt for an Ancient Artifact that Could Change Religious History

Elijah Jones is a minister and college professor working on an archeological dig in Israel. He's also dying of cancer and about to leave behind him a wife with Alzheimer's who may wind up living for years with minimal care. Then one day, Jones's team uncovers an ancient stele--a stone with inscriptions carved into it. A preliminary examination suggests that the information on the stele, if accurate, could require a significant reinterpretation of the Bible and could also radically undermine some long-held religious beliefs.

While the rest of the team sleeps, Jones smuggles the stone out of the camp and makes his way back to Mankato, Minnesota. The theft causes an uproar and the Israeli government sends an attractive female antiquities expert to help American authorities recover the stone.

The American authorities in question would be that F****ing Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota BCI. Virgil is hip deep in an investigation involving fraudulent antique lumber and his prime suspect is a very sexy woman named "Ma" Nobles. When Virgil's boss, Lucas Davenport, pulls him off the case and tells him to pick up the Israeli expert and recover the artifact, he's not at all pleased, but figures it should be a fairly easy and simple assignment.

Wrong again, Virgil.

The case immediately takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and tracking down either the Reverend Jones or the stele is hardly a piece of cake. Things are complicated because, as word of the discovery spreads, an awful lot of other people both foreign and domestic are anxious to get their hands on the stele. Virgil just wants to recover the damned thing and return it to its rightful owners before anyone gets killed so that he can get back to Ma Nobles and the Case of the Fraudulent Lumber. But that may be easier said than done.

As always, it's great fun to spend time in the company of Virgil Flowers, and this is a pretty entertaining book. To my mind, though, it's not up to the standards set by the earlier Virgil books. The plot is way way out in Dan Brown land and is so implausible that a reader, or at least this one, simply can't suspend disbelief enough to really get into the book. I never for a moment bought into the plot, but I did laugh a lot as Virgil investigated the case as only he can. I'll look forward to the next book in the series, hoping that it returns to form.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Down the Mean Streets of the Neon Jungle

This is an early stand-alone from John D. MacDonald, a writer best known for his series featuring Travis McGee. MacDonald was a prolific writer, but he was also very widely read and often incorporated social and economic themes into his books as he does here.

The book, which was first published in 1953, is set in a declining industrial city somewhere in the Midwest. At the center of the story is the family that runs the Varaki Quality Market. The patriarch, Gus Varaki, once ruled the family and the business with a strong but benevolent hand, bringing into the business and the family outsiders who had fallen on hard times and who needed a helping hand. In particular, Gus has a close relationship with Paul Darmond, the local parole officer, and Gus has offered jobs and a home to two parolees that Darmond has recommended.

But the family has fallen on hard times, emotionally if not financially. Gus's wife dies and that places a huge emotional strain on him. He later marries again, this time to a much younger woman, and his spirits are briefly revived. But then his middle child, Henry, is killed in the Korean war, and the loss saps Gus of his energy and attention.

In consequence, both the family and the business begin to drift. Gus's other son, Walter, is deeply dissatisfied with his wife and with his life in general and takes advantage of his father's distraction. Gus's only other child, a daughter named Teena, falls in with the wrong crowd and soon has serious problems of her own.

Now joining the family is another troubled young woman named Bonnie, whom Henry had married in California before leaving for Korea. Bonnie sees how things are dissolving around the family, but the question is can she do anything to stem the tide of trouble. More important, does she even care enough to want to?

MacDonald teases out of all of these relationships a compelling story that touches on themes that were particularly relevant in the early 1950s, like juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, social and economic decay, and the place of family in the larger society. The criminal activities that occur in the book are of somewhat lesser importance than these larger issues, and at the heart of the novel is its central question: Are some people simply born bad and beyond redemption, or can people who might once have made a mistake truly change, reform their lives and become productive members of society?

The Neon Jungle is a fascinating and entertaining read and it is one of a number of MacDonald's novels that have now been republished in great new trade paperback editions by Random House. This is very welcome news for long-time fans of MacDonald's who will now be able to fill out their collections, and it's also an opportunity for people unacquainted with MacDonald's work to be introduced to one of the masters of crime fiction in the second half of the Twentieth century.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Bounty Hunter Named Streeter Heads Down the Low End of Nowhere

This is a very entertaining, hard-boiled novel featuring a skip tracer/bounty hunter who goes by the name of Streeter. He's a former football player, bouncer and accountant with four ex-wives. He now lives and works out of a room in a former church in Denver and tries to maintain as low a profile as possible while working principally for a bail bondsman named Frank Dazzler who also has his home and office in the church.

As the book opens, Streeter is in pursuit of a very sexy woman named Story Moffatt. She's the hard-charging owner of an advertising agency, and she's claiming debilitating injuries suffered in an accident. She's hoping to cash in on a big insurance settlement, but her plans go down the tubes when Streeter snaps pictures of her playing a mean game of squash with no apparent difficulty at all.

Story is disappointed, of course, but she's also a realist. And she could use a man like Streeter. Her boyfriend, a realtor and drug dealer, has recently died in a car crash. His will left everything to Story and she knows that he had a huge stash of cash concealed somewhere. She's been unable to find it but figures that someone as resourceful as Streeter might be able to get the job done. She offers him a third of whatever he can find.

Streeter agrees. The problem is that he and Story are not the only ones looking for the missing loot. Also on the hunt are an impossibly sleazy lawyer, his scheming and sexy receptionist/girlfriend, the lawyer's thuggish "investigators," and a seriously bent cop.

It's a great cast of characters and Stone really puts them through their paces. The story moves along swiftly and there's plenty of action along with a fair bit of wry humor. This book should appeal to readers who enjoy authors like Elmore Leonard and Tom Kakonis--all in all, a very pleasant way to spend a long evening.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

John Marquez Hunts a Vicious Drug Cartel Money-Man and Poacher

In the summer of 1989, John Marquez was a Special Agent working as the leader of a DEA team along the border between California and Mexico. It's a brutal, dangerous job and you never know who you can trust. As part of an undercover operation, Marquez picks up an informant named Billy Takedo and sets off to meet representatives of a vicious Mexican drug cartel in a bull ring near Tijuana. But the operation goes awry and the Mexicans shoot Takedo point-blank in front of Marquez. The Mexican Federal Judicial Police, who are supposed to be backing up Marquez, are nowhere in evidence.

Marquez understands that the man behind Takedo's murder is a mysterious figure named Emrahin Stoval, who moves money and performs other services for the cartels. Marquez is determined to bring Stoval down, but is hampered by bureaucracy and red tape. Additionally, someone has to be the fall guy for the failed operation and, not surprisingly, it turns out to be Marquez. He resigns from the DEA before he can be fired, but his career in the DEA is over.

Marquez ultimately finds a home in the California Department of Fish and Game and builds a second successful career in the Special Operations Unit, tracking poachers. But eighteen years after the debacle in Tijuana, Emrahain Stoval intrudes again into Marquez's life.

Even after all this time, the FBI has been unable to arrest and prosecute Stoval for his drug-related activities. But they've learned that Stoval is a passionate hunter and animal trafficker, and they hope to be able to make a case against him for these activities that will finally bring him to justice. This is on the order, I guess, of finally nailing Al Capone for income tax evasion.

Given his expertise, the Feds convince Marquez to sign on as a special agent to go after Stoval. Marquez, who is still smarting from his failure to get Stovall years earlier, thus begins a chase that will take him around the world in pursuit of an eighteen-year-old grievance.

This is an excellent suspense novel--very well-plotted with an engaging and totally plausible protagonist. John Marquez is a unique character and it's great fun riding along with him and watching him rise to the myriad of challenges that are thrown in his way. The plot takes a number of very interesting twists and turns and, as a bonus, Russell places much of the action in wilderness settings that are beautifully rendered. This is a very good book that will appeal to readers on a variety of levels.