Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Great Rediscovered Novel from Tom Kakonis

I confess that I approached this book with more than a little regret because it’s the last book written by Tom Kakonis that I hadn’t had a chance to read yet and I hated the thought that I might not ever have another of his books to come to fresh for the first time.

I first discovered Kakonis in the late 1980s when I read an excellent review of his first book, Michigan Roll, featuring a professional gambler named Timothy Waverly, who described himself as an “Applied Probabilities Analyst.” I immediately went looking for the book and absolutely loved it. Two more Waverly novels followed along with a stand-alone titled Criss Cross. They were all very good books, somewhat reminiscent of Elmore Leonard with very quirky characters and great dialogue. And then, as quickly as Kakonis had crossed my radar, he vanished, and after finishing the third Waverly novel, I was never able to find another book by him.

Which made absolutely no sense at all. All of the books were great reads; the Waverly novels in particular received a great deal of critical acclaim. But as anyone with any experience in these matters can tell you, publishing can be a very strange business. Only years later did I discover that, critical acclaim or not, Mr. Kakonis’s publisher was apparently not happy with the sales numbers for the first four books he had written. Accordingly, the publisher insisted that if Kakonis wanted to continue his career, he would have to change his name.

Kakonis agreed and wrote two additional suspense novels,Flawless and Blind Spot, under the name Adam Barrow. But, having convinced the author to make this sacrifice, the publisher failed to promote the books with any energy whatsoever and no one, myself included, ever made the connection between “Adam Barrow” and one of my favorite authors.

Fast forward to the present day when a new imprint, Brash Books, stepped up to the plate and published great new editions of all three of the Timothy Waverly novels as well as Criss Cross, along with a brand new Kakonis novel called Treasure Coast that the author had written years earlier but which had never been published. Brash Books has also now republished the two Adam Barrow novels, deleting “Barrow’s” author credit and restoring the books to the name of Tom Kakonis. Flawless was released last February and Blind Spot is officially available starting today. 

The book’s protagonist is a Chicago-area college professor named Marshall Quinn. On a hot and humid summer day, Quinn and his wife, Lori, take their young son, Jeff, on a family outing to the Adler Planetarium. To cap the day’s activities, while Lori wanders through some other exhibits, Marshall takes their son to see a film about the galaxy that is geared to small children. Finally off his feet and out of the heat, Quinn settles into the nice comfortable theater chair and falls asleep in the middle of the film. When he wakens at the end of the film, his son is gone.

Like any frantic parent, Quinn runs through the theater and the surrounding area, calling Jeff’s name but getting no response. He alerts the Planetarium staff who assure him that this sort of thing happens all the time—the boy doubtless just wandered off and they’ll find him in a jiffy.

Well, of course, they don’t. The police step in but are unable to find any trace of Jeff. There are no ransom demands and no leads whatsoever; it’s as if the boy has simply fallen off the face of the earth. The police insist that they are doing everything they can, but under the circumstances there isn’t much that they can do and the Quinns rapidly become frustrated with the police effort.

In the wake of the loss of their child, Lori Quinn is virtually unable to function. Her husband, who has lost all confidence in the police, takes matters into his own hands. He prints up brochures appealing for help and maps out a plan for blanketing the city with them. He tapes a poster-sized photo of Jeff to the window of the family Volvo with a tag asking if anyone has seen the boy.

And then one day, while the Quinns are stuck in a traffic jam at an expressway toll booth, a female passenger in a car in the next lane sees the photo and turns her head in shock. Marshall sees her mouth the words, “I know that kid.”

At that moment, the traffic in the adjoining lane clears and the woman’s car is gone. The Quinns are still stuck and by the time they get through the toll booth and break free of the congestion, the other car and the woman have disappeared. Marshall Quinn is left with only two letters from the license plate and an already-fading mental image of a bumper sticker on the back of the car. The police insist that there’s nothing they can do with so little information and so Marshall Quinn is left to mount his own hunt for the car—and the woman—without even knowing whether the woman might simply have been taunting him.

It’s a thoroughly gripping story. Kakonis takes what must surely be every parent’s worst nightmare and turns it into a taut suspense novel, sending his protagonist out on a seemingly impossible quest. There are some very bad people lurking around the edges of this drama and a somewhat timid college professor with very little “real world” experience would not appear to be the most logical person to send up against them. But Kakonis does it nonetheless. Very early on he drags the readers to the edge of their seats and pins them there until the final page, although no reader is going to be complaining about that. Fans of Kakonis’s earlier work will be very happy to finally have the chance to read this book; we’ve waited long enough.

Four stars for Blind Spot; five stars for the career of an excellent writer who should have had the chance to tell a lot more stories.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Philip Marlowe Finds Himself in Another Very Tangled Mess

The High Window is another excellent novel featuring Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled L.A. detective, Philip Marlowe, although to my mind it's not quite on a par with Chandler's masterpieces, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

The case opens when a wealthy, twice-widowed Pasadena woman named Elizabeth Bright Murdock hires Marlowe to discreetly recover a valuable coin that has been stolen from her first's husband's collection. The client insists that her daughter-in-law, whom she hates, has taken the coin although she has no proof. The daughter-in-law has either left or been driven from the home. Mrs. Murdock wants Marlowe to quietly find the woman and get the coin back. The police are most certainly not to be involved.

All in all, this is a pretty strange household that also includes Mrs. Murdock's wimpy son and a severely repressed young secretary whom the widow treats like a doormat. Marlowe takes the case, although he pretty much knows from the git-go that everyone is lying to him, including his client.

Well of course they are, and before long poor Marlowe is up to his neck in a case that involves gambling, infidelity, blackmail and a small handful of murders. As is the case with any Raymond Chandler plot, it's all pretty confusing, although in the end, this one gets sorted out better than most.

As always, it's great fun to follow Marlowe through these tangled webs and, as always, the book is beautifully written in a style that has often been imitated but never matched. Raymond Chandler and his tattered detective were each one of a kind.

A Classic crime Novel from George V. Higgins

The strength of this brilliant crime novel lies in the dialog, which constitutes about eighty percent of the book. George V. Higgins had an excellent ear and captures perfectly the voices of all of the characters who populate the book. I really have no idea what a group of typical run-of-the-mill criminals would actually sound like, but this is about the most realistic sounding group of crooks--and cops--that I've ever encountered in a novel.

At the center of the book is a small-time Boston criminal named Eddie Coyle, and the conceit of the book is that Eddie really doesn't have any friends. He has guys that he hangs out with and guys that he works with, and cops that he negotiates with, but none of them really gives a good goddamn about Eddie and anyone of them would sell him out for a tired dime.

Of course Eddie's not above dealing his "friends" either. He's in a real jam, having been convicted of driving a truck filled with stolen booze and he's looking at a long stretch in the pen. Eddie's convinced that he really can't do the time and he's looking to make a trade with the authorities that will get him off the hook.

Eddie's been supplying guns to a group of bank robbers. Perhaps he could give up the guy who's supplying him with the guns; perhaps he could give up the robbers themselves, but would either or both be enough to get the prosecutor to back off?

Clearly there's no honor among thieves, or among the cops, for that matter. These guys are all working stiffs, just trying to get through the day, irrespective of which side of the law they happen to reside on. There are no good guys and no bad guys in this tale; you find yourself rooting for Eddie simply because you sympathize with the poor mope and not because he embodies any recognizable virtues.

Again, it's the dialog that makes this book a classic. It has the ring of authenticity and listening to these guys scheme, negotiate, plead and promise becomes almost an intimate experience. It's a book that no fan of the crime genre should miss.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Another Great Noirish Tale from John Rector

Nick White is having a pretty crappy couple of months. He's lost his job; his efforts to make money as a card player are not going well, and his wife has recently kicked him out. So one can readily understand why the poor guy might be sitting in a bar on a rainy night, sucking down Scotch.

It appears that Nick's luck might finally be changing for the better, though, when an attractive blonde walks into the bar, steps over to Nick and asks, "Are you him?"

Nick decides that he has nothing to lose by playing along and responds by saying, "That depends. Are you her?"

This leads to some witty repartee, but it quickly becomes apparent that the two are talking past each other and that Nick has totally misjudged the situation. If he didn't realize it initially, he gets the picture pretty quickly when the blonde walks back out the door but not before giving him an envelope containing a flash drive, $20,000 in cash, and a photo of the young woman he's supposed to kill before he gets a second twenty thousand.

Once he gathers his wits and realizes what has just happened, Nick races out of the bar after the woman, but she has disappeared into the night and is nowhere to be seen. Totally confused, Nick returns to the bar, finishes his drink, and, of course, is still sitting there, dazed and confused, when the REAL hit man arrives and gets a good look at him.

Of course the logical thing for Nick to do would be to call the cops and turn the whole mess over to them, but then the story would stop dead in its tracks and we wouldn't have the guilty pleasure of watching poor Nick get put through the wringer.

John Rector is a master of taking ordinary people like Nick White, who are usually down on their luck anyhow, putting them into situations like this, letting them make the wrong decisions, usually one after another, and then letting it all play out. It's always great fun watching him do this and Ruthless is a very worthy successor to Rector's earlier books like The Cold Kiss and The Grove.

Suffice it to say that Nick decides not to go to the police but that he should at least warn the young woman who has been targeted for death. And as any fan of noir fiction knows, that means that the excrement is about to hit the fan. This is a book with any number of diabolical twists and turns, one that will keep readers turning the pages very quickly. It's a great summer read.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Jack Flippo Is Back on the Job in Big D

This is the third installment in Doug J. Swanson's series featuring an engaging, down-on-his-luck Dallas P.I. named Jack Flippo. Divorced, living in a crummy apartment and working out of an even more down-at-the-heels office located above a 24-hour coffee shop, Jack has a client list that few other P.I.s would envy. Things begin to look up though, when Jack is hired by a former stripper named Sherri Plunkett. Sherri had the good sense to marry well and her elderly husband has lately died leaving her three million dollars.

Sherri has recently reconnected with the daughter that she gave up for adoption many years ago. The daughter, Sandi, is a frisky blonde actress from L.A. who had a bit part in a syndicated detective series that was found mostly on late-night cable channels. Sandi has come to Dallas to get to know her birth mother, but someone seems to be stalking Sandi. Sherri is naturally worried and offers Jack much more than his usual daily fee to keep an eye on Sandi while trying to find out who is after her.

At the same time, Jack himself is being stalked by two relatively hapless criminals. One is a giant thug named Fred Mertts; the other is Teddy Tunstra II, who refers to himself as Teddy Deuce. Jack was instrumental in sending Teddy to prison a couple of years ago, and Teddy and Fred met while incarcerated. Now released well ahead of schedule, Teddy is determined to take revenge on Jack. Teddy and Fred have more than a little trouble getting their act together but you certainly don't want to be the poor mope that gets between them and their target.

Swanson has created here a great cast of well-drawn comic characters and there are any number of laugh-out-loud moments. This is not a book intended to be taken very seriously, but it's witty in an intelligent way and it's really fun to just sit back and go along for the ride. In the end, of course, poor Jack Flippo has no idea who he can trust or how he's going to find his way out of any number of tricky situations, but he's not one to ever let down a client, even one as ditzy as Sherri Plunkett. The reader will certainly not feel let down either.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Hoke Moseley Has a Mid-Life Crisis

This is the third book in Charles Willeford's excellent series featuring Miami homicide detective Hoke Moseley. As the book opens, Hoke, although still only in his forties, wakes up to a full-blown mid-life crisis. He's completely unable to function irrespective of his responsibilities to his two teenage daughters who live with him, to his department, and to his partner, Ellita Sanchez, who is eight months pregnant (not by Hoke) and who also lives in Hoke's home.

Unable to cope, Hoke takes a leave of absence from his job and retreats to Singer Island, where his wealthy father lives. He takes a job running a small apartment building for his father and vows that he will never leave the island again.

In the meantime, Stanley Sinkiewicz, an elderly retiree who has moved to Florida from Detroit has a brush with the law and, although he is completely innocent, he is briefly forced to share a jail cell with a man claiming to be Robert Smith.

"Smith" is really a psychopathic career criminal named Troy Louden. He has a gift for reading people and immediately pegs Stanley for the sad, lonely man he is at heart. Louden befriends Stanley, schooling him in the way to best deal with the authorities, and before long, Stanley is convinced that Troy is his new best friend.

Louden is desperately hoping to have the charges against him dropped before a fingerprint check is returned and the police discover his real identity. To this end, he asks Stanley to do him a "small favor" once he is released, and, totally won over by his new buddy, the old man agrees. The ploy works and Louden, now free, enlists Stanley to help him pull off a big job he is planning.

Meanwhile, Hoke Mosley is discovering that it's a lot harder to simplify his life than he had hoped. His father is determined to help him get a new job with the local police force, although Hoke has absolutely no interest in the job. His younger daughter joins him on the island further complicating matters, and the tenants in the apartment house generally prove to be a major pain in the butt.

The Mosley story and the Stanley/Louden story proceed along parallel tracks and for a while the reader is left to wonder how Willeford is ever going to link them up. But it really doesn't matter because both stories are very entertaining.

Willeford has populated this book with a number of unique and very interesting characters and between the lines, he has a great deal to say about the nature of family and about the workings of the capitalist system in the United States. All in all, it's a very entertaining book that should appeal to large numbers of readers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Deaf Man Returns to Taunt the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

When a beautiful young woman is found naked and shot to death in the park across the street from the 87th Precinct station house, the Detectives of the 87th assume that this is just another tragic homicide and begin their investigation by attempting to identify the victim. Shortly thereafter, though, the detectives receive a communication from their old adversary, the Deaf Man, and the murder takes on a whole new significance.

Twice before, the Deaf Man has orchestrated elaborate criminal plots within the boundaries of the 87th, each with a huge payday at the end for the Deaf Man. And twice his plans have been foiled, in each case more by accident than by the conscious efforts of the detectives who always seem to be one step behind him.

Now the Deaf Man has contrived another convoluted plot--this during the festive holiday season--that will both make him a fortune and at the same time will take deadly revenge on Steve Carella and his other adversaries in the 87th.

As the story progresses, the Deaf Man continues to send envelopes to the detectives with mysterious clues that probably point to his ultimate objective, but the detectives are unable to decipher the clues. In the meantime, the Deaf Man draws into his orbit a number of other actors, some innocent and others not so innocent, as he puts his scheme into motion.

At times the story tantalizes, but at others it seems as if McBain is just playing an elaborate game for his own amusement, both at the expense of his characters and of the reader. There's very little police work done in this police procedural; mostly we watch the detectives sit around speculating about what the Deaf Man is attempting to do. For me, this is a middle-of-the-road entry in this series; I prefer the books in which the detectives actually do a little detecting.