Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Murder and Mayhem in the Dead of Winter

This is an atmospheric novel set in the middle of winter in a tiny town in eastern Pennsylvania named Wyalusing. At the center of the story is Danny Bedford, a giant of a man who was left severely challenged mentally in an accident in which both of his parents died while Danny was still a young boy.

Since that time, Danny's life has been a stern trial. He was raised by a bitter hard-drinking uncle and after the death of the uncle supports himself by tending to a laundromat. He lives in a tiny room above the laundromat which is part of his compensation. Most other residents in the small community either ignore Danny or mock him both because of his size and his disability.

The only person who's ever been kind to Danny is a waitress named Mindy who shares his birthday and who is angered by the way the rest of the town treats him. But when Mindy turns up murdered, Danny suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs of a number of people who immediately jump to the conclusion that he has killed her.

In particular, Danny is pursued by a vicious deputy sheriff who has bullied Danny all their lives and who is now ready to shoot him on sight. Danny is only vaguely aware of what is going on around him and his chances of surviving the night of the murder seem small indeed.

As the title implies, the story takes place in the dead of winter, and Gailey is at his best in setting the frigid scene in which the action takes place. The characters are well-drawn, if a bit one-dimensional, and one feels a great deal of sympathy for Danny and the tragic situation in which he finds himself. But the story did not resonate with me quite as much as I had hoped, in part because some of the characters did not seem all that believable.

This is another of those novels in which some of the characters drink very heavily in addition to taking drugs. As a result, any normal person would be totally incapacitated very early on, although these characters continue to forge on for hours, committing mayhem on a massive scale. This ultimately took me out of the story because I kept thinking that at least one or two of these characters should have been not just dead drunk, but simply dead from alcohol poisoning long before the climax of the novel.

There's another development at the end of the book which allows the narrative to spin out for another few chapters but that simply made no sense to me, and so while I enjoyed parts of this book, it winds up being three stars for me rather than four.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Detectives of the 87th Precinct Attempt to Solve a Puzzling Case Involving Blood Relatives

This book, which first appeared in 1975, is about halfway through the 87th Precinct series and it's one of the better books in the series. Two young female cousins, seventeen and fifteen, are walking home late one night after a party in a driving rainstorm. As they take refuge from the rain in an abandoned building, the elder of the two is viciously stabbed to death. The younger, though cut in several places, manages to run to the 87th Precinct station house where she reports the crime.

The younger girl is able to give the detectives a fairly detailed description of the man she says attacked them, and the detectives' first step is to interview known sex offenders. They find one who closely matches the description the girl has given them and the guy has the world's worst alibi for the time of the attack. But when the young girl looks at a lineup, instead of identifying the known perv, she mistakenly picks out a detective.

Her mistake totally destroys the girl's value as an eyewitness and so Steve Carella and the other detectives on the case are forced to fall back on other, much more pain-staking and difficult methods in their attempt to capture the guilty party. There's more than the usual amount of police procedure in this book, and it's fascinating to watch the way in which the detectives would work a case like this--or at least the way they would have worked it forty years ago, before the advent of DNA testing and other more modern investigatory tools.

It's a very entertaining book that takes a number of totally unexpected twists and turns, one that's sure to appeal to any fan of the series and to most readers who enjoy crime fiction.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Charlie Hood Attempts to Stem the Flow of the Iron River

This is the third installment in T. Jefferson Parker's excellent series featuring Charlie Hood. Hood is an Army vet who has become an L.A. County deputy sheriff. Here he joins a taskforce called Operation Blowdown, which is assigned the virtually impossible task of slowing the flow of guns from the southwestern United States into Mexico along the so-called "Iron River."

Early on, Hood and the other agents assigned to the operation wind up in a firefight with some gun runners and a young bystander is killed in the crossfire by a bullet fired by one of Hood's team members. Unfortunately, the victim is the son of Benjamin Armenta, who is the powerful and violent head of the Mexican Gulf Cartel. Armenta swears revenge against the task force, even to the extent of sending his forces into the U.S. to kidnap one of the task force members.

At the same time, a man named Ron Pace is presiding over the demise of his family's gun manufacturing company, Pace Arms. The firm manufactured a gun that malfunctioned and killed a child. The resulting lawsuit bankrupted the company and Pace is winding down the business. But he is approached by young Bradley Jones, the son of the bandit known as Allison Murrietta, the antagonist of L.A. Outlaws, the first book in the series. Allison and Charlie Hood were lovers for a time and Hood still feels a strong connection to her son.

Bradley is now running money into Mexico for one of the cartel drug lords, and he proposes that Pace secretly reopen his assembly line to make guns that the drug lord can use against his enemies. Pace will be very well paid for the effort and he readily agrees.

Also in the mix is a mysterious man named Mike Finnegan, who is hit by a car and left for dead while changing a flat tire along the side of the road. He somehow survives and, although badly injured, is slowly recovering in a hospital in the tiny town of Buenavista. Finnegan has a note in his pocket instructing him to contact Charlie Hood. Hood has never heard of the man, but he comes to the hospital and his visit begins a curious relationship between the two men. Finnegan, who appears to be something of an idiot savant, somehow knows things about Hood and about the case Hood is investigating that seem impossible.

The mix of all these threads results in a very entertaining story. Parker has obviously done a lot of research for the book, and the reader is almost overwhelmed by the violence of the drug wars, which are conducted with weapons imported almost exclusively from the U.S. One is also left with the impression that the efforts to control the flow of guns along the "Iron River" are the equivalent of the efforts of the legendary Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood waters by sticking his finger into the dike.

Charlie Hood soldiers on as best he can, but you can't help but feel that he's fighting a losing battle. Iron River is a book that will appeal to large numbers of readers and which will leave them thinking about the issues that Parker raises here long after they have turned the final page.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Classic Soft-Core Erotica from Don Elliott

As a young man in the late 1950s, Robert Silverberg was enjoying a rising career as a science fiction writer. Then, suddenly, the sci-fi market collapsed and Silverberg, like many of his counterparts, found himself facing serious financial difficulty. As a solution, and to keep the rent paid, Silverberg turned to writing soft-core erotica--books that seem pretty tame by the standards of 2015, but which were definitely pushing the envelope in the early 1960s.

Over the space of five years, working at a break-neck pace, Silverberg wrote 150 of these novels, under the pseudonym of Don Elliott. The standard formula demanded 50,000 words, and his efforts included such unforgettable masterpieces as Passion Patsy, Sin Hellion, and The Orgy Boys.

By 1964, the market for science fiction had improved once again, and "Don Elliott" retired so that Robert Silverberg could go back the work he really loved. Now, fifty years later, Stark House Mystery Classics has republished two of "Elliott's" books, including Lust Queen, which first appeared in 1961. Fifty-three years after that, the publisher included the book in a gift bag that I recently received at a convention, and naturally, I felt honor-bound to read and review it.

The book's protagonist is a young pulp-fiction writer named Joey Baldwin who, like Don Elliott, writes like mad, though Joey writes mostly detective stories. Like everyone who writes crime fiction, Joey is young, handsome, and incredibly sexy. He has a fantastically beautiful girlfriend named Lisa and they have mind-boggling sex on a regular basis, all of which is very tastefully described.

Joey gets a huge break when his agent brings him a new project. He's offered the chance to ghost write the autobiography of a famous Hollywood actress. The job could put Joey on Easy Street, relatively speaking, even though it would mean leaving Lisa in New York and living in a spartan hotel room in L.A. for a couple of months while he interviews the actress, Mona Thorne, and begins working on the book.

Joey takes the job with Lisa's blessing and flies to California. There he meets Mona Thorne who is fantastically beautiful and who insists that Joey should live, not in a spartan hotel room, but in her Hollywood mansion, which will facilitate their working together. Joey agrees and they spend his first afternoon in L.A., lounging around her pool while Mona displays her fantastically beautiful assets, her nipples "tipping sharply upward," and all that sort of thing.

After a great dinner at Mona's home, Joey goes to his room which, by some strange coincidence, connects with Mona's. Shortly after he turns out the lights, Mona slips into the room, slips out of her negligee, and climbs into Joey's bed. Joey can't imagine the thought of being unfaithful to Lisa, but he assumes that if he rejects Mona's advances, she might fire him from the project and his dreams of financial independence will go up in smoke.

Joey wrestles with this dilemma for a good five or ten seconds before concluding that sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. He swallows his reservations and he and Mona have mind-boggling sex, all of which is very tastefully described. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, poor Joey finds himself becoming increasingly entangled in Mona's world. The work on the book goes well, and the sex is beyond belief, but Joey is increasingly troubled. Whatever will he do?

Lust Queen seems pretty dated now, and given the sort of thing one reads in even the tamest of books these days, it's hard to imagine that only fifty years ago, a novelist who dared to write scenes like these was pushing the boundaries and tempting a jail sentence. Certainly the book must have seemed a lot more titillating in 1961 than it does today; still, it's a fun read if you're in the mood for this sort of thing--a genuine blast from the past.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"The Devil Knows You're Dead:" My Favorite Matthew Scudder Novel

This is the eleventh entry in Lawrence Block's excellent Matthew Scudder series, and it remains my favorite book in the series. As the story opens, Scudder and his girlfriend, Elaine, are thrown together with a young couple named Glenn and Lisa Holtzmann. Elaine and Lisa are taking a class together; the Holtzmanns live in the same neighborhood as the hotel where Matt lives, and the two couples wind up going out to dinner one night.

Matt is not overly impressed. He and Elaine have little in common with the younger couple and there's something about Glenn that puts Matt off. Given that they're something like neighbors, Matt runs into Holtzmann occasionally on the street and Holtzmann keeps proposing that they get together for lunch. Matt always manages to find a reason for refusing the offer and then, suddenly, he no longer needs one when Holtzmann is gunned down while using a pay phone a couple of blocks from his apartment.

The police immediately charge a street person named George Sadecki with the killing, and the evidence seems overwhelming. The police do not recover the weapon used, but Sadecki, a Vietnam vet, has policed the area and the police find the shell casings in his jacket pocket. Sadecki, who has never been quite "right" mentally, admits that he might have killed Holtzmann, but he doesn't remember one way or the other.

Sadecki's brother, Tom, knows Matt from AA, and doesn't believe that George would have been capable of killing anyone. He knows the odds are long, but he convinces Matt to look into the case in the hope of giving him some sort of closure. Matt agrees, although the case looks open-and-shut, and he warns Tom Sadecki not to expect much.

In a case like this, SOP is to start by investigating the victim to see who, if anyone, might have had cause to wish him harm. On the surface, Glenn Holtzmann appears to be a pretty straightforward yuppie lawyer, but as Scudder begins poking around, he uncovers some secrets about the late Mr. Holtzmann that are troubling, to say the least.

The case itself is intriguing, but what sets this book apart for me, above all the others in the series, is that Scudder is presented with two very critical moral issues that are not really directly related to the case itself. The real strength of this series has always been the development of the characters, Scudder in particular, and it's extremely interesting to watch him wrestle with these two issues.

To describe either dilemma would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that neither is easy, and both will require that Matt look deeply into his own soul in the hope of finding some sort of resolution. Fair warning: watching him do so may well require the reader to examine his or her own conscience as well. This is at least the third time I've read this book, and I'll eagerly look forward to it again as I make my way through this series the next time--one of my favorite crime novels of all.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Crissa Stone Is on the Hunt and on the Run

Crissa Stone returns in another excellent hard-boiled novel from Wallace Stroby. Crissa is a career criminal who reminds many readers of a female version of Richard Stark's Parker. She certainly seems to have the same sort of luck that often bedevils Parker when even the best-laid plans often go awry.

Things have not been going particularly well for Crissa of late, but she has two objectives that continue to propel her forward. She is determined to provide for her daughter, who is now ten. The girl lives with Crissa's sister and believes that Crissa's sister is her mother and that Crissa is her aunt. For Crissa, that's extremely painful emotionally, but the world is what it is, and Stone understands that the girl is much better off living with Crissa's sister and believing what she does.

Crissa also looks forward to being reunited soon with her lover, Wayne, who is currently doing a stretch in the pen. Wayne is quite a bit older than Crissa and believes that she should move on without him. But Crissa loves him very much and is hoping that he will soon be paroled. To that end, Crissa has been spreading her hard-earned cash around where it will do the most good.

As a result of all of this, Crissa has expenses to meet and as the book opens, she and two associates have just finished pulling off a string of surprisingly profitable ATM thefts. But as they divvy up the money from the last job, the two associates have a falling out and wind up dead. Crissa is now on the run with the money, trying to avoid the fallout from her confederates' stupidity.

Meanwhile, a former criminal named Benny Roth has a plan to hunt down several million dollars still missing from a robbery in the 1970s and that was allegedly hidden by a mobster who has recently died. A mutual friend hooks Benny up with Crissa and she ultimately agrees to join the hunt. Inevitably, of course, there are others interested in finding the money, and some of them are pretty badly bent. The result is that Crissa is soon in very serious trouble and there may be no way out.

This is a spare, stripped-to-the-bones story that is guaranteed to keep a reader's heartbeat elevated from the first page to the last. Stroby is a gifted writer who has created in Crissa Stone a memorable and intriguing character. It's hard to imagine any fan of hard-boiled crime fiction that will not enjoy this book.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fat Ollie Weeks Joins the Bulls of the 87th Precinct

On a hot August afternoon, a man comes into the 87th Precinct demanding fast action on the investigation into a fire that destroyed his warehouse along with $500,000 worth of small carved wooden animals that were housed there. He insists that he has to get the insurance claim settled immediately so that he can afford to pay for the next shipment of animals that is already on the way from Germany.

About half of the precinct's detectives are on vacation, given that these are the dog days of summer, but Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes and the other detectives who are on duty promise to do what they can. The investigation turns out to be more complicated than your average arson case, though, especially when people start turning up dead. In addition to arsonists and killers, there are hookers and urban redevelopers running loose in the city and Carella and company have to get all these things sorted out before they can appease the guy who wants his insurance claim settled.

All in all, this is one of the more intriguing entries in this long-running series and this book is critical to the series because it introduces the character of Fat Ollie Weeks who will appear prominently in several books from here on out. Weeks is a miserable pig of a human being who does an awful impression of W. C. Fields, but he has great skills as a detective and so the other detectives of the 87th and the reader as well, will just have to grin and bear it. Another fun read from one of the masters.