Thursday, October 8, 2015

Inspector Morse Searches for a Long-Missing Girl

Last seen wearing her school uniform, Valerie Taylor disappeared a little over two years ago on her way back to her school in a small town near Oxford after having eaten lunch at home. Seventeen and very well-developed, Valerie had a taste for older men and after her parents reported her missing, Valerie was never seen again and her body was never found.

The police detective originally assigned to the case has continued to work it periodically, even though what little trail there was has long since gone cold. He may have turned up a new lead, but before he could report back to his superiors, the detective was killed in an auto accident, and only a few days later, Valerie’s parents receive a letter, allegedly from their missing daughter, saying only that she is still alive and well and that her parents should not worry about her.

The Superintendent now assigns the case to Chief Inspector Morse. Morse, whose principal interest is homicide, has no interest whatsoever in pursuing the case of a missing person. But he quickly convinces himself that, letter or no letter, Valerie Taylor has long since been dead and he sets himself to the task of finding her killer, assisted by his faithful sidekick, Sergeant Lewis.

It won’t be an easy job. There’s no physical evidence of any kind, especially after so much time has passed, and Morse quickly discovers that the people closest to Valerie may all have their reasons for wishing that the case would stay unresolved. Morse will be forced to formulate and discard any number of theories and as he turns up the heat, someone else will have to die so that the secret of what happened to Valerie Taylor will remain a mystery. It’s a tangled mess and only someone as clever and as unconventional as Morse will have a chance of resolving the mystery. Chief Inspector Morse is one of the most unique and compelling characters in British crime fiction, and it’s always fun to spend an afternoon watching him work. 

I do have one minor nit to pick which is that, as the climax nears, Morse completely overlooks a major clue that is literally right in front of his face. As he struggles to make sense of something that seems to make no sense, the reader is left to holler at him to pay attention to what he’s seen with his own eyes. If he doesn’t snap to by the end of the book, the reader will be left knowing the solution while Morse is still at sea. Still, this is a minor quibble and Last Seen Wearing is a very enjoyable read.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

It's Trick or Treat for the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

First published in 1986, Tricks is the 40th book in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. This entry is somewhat unique in that all of the action takes place during the course of a single day and night, a Halloween that is packed with more than a few tricks and not a lot of treats for the detectives of the 87th.

One of the cases involves the disappearance of a magician who finishes a performance in a high school auditorium late in the afternoon. His wife, who is also his sexy assistant, changes out of her costume, goes out into the parking lot and discovers that her husband’s props are scattered all over the place and he is nowhere in sight. When random male body parts then start appearing in garbage cans all over the precinct later than night, the news is not going to be good.

The second case involves a series of liquor store robberies and murders that first appear to be carried out by a group of children in their holiday disguises. Mom drops them off in front of the store; they race in and demand the money from the register and then shoot the person on duty. There seems to be a pattern to the crimes, but can the detectives anticipate from that where the next robbery will be in time to stop it?

Finally, Detective Eileen Burke is back working undercover after being seriously injured on her last assignment. She’s posing as a hooker in an attempt to snare a killer who’s picked up three women in the same bar and then murdered them. Burke is understandably nervous, even though she expects that the other members of her team will have her back. But will that really be the case if and when she needs them?

This is a very entertaining book, one of the better ones in the series, and fans of the series will certainly want to search it out. An easy four stars.

Tony Valentine Is Back in Atlantic City and Back in Trouble Again

Sixty-two year-old Tony Valentine is retired from the police force in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He now lives in Florida and runs his own consulting service, Grift Sense. Tony has an uncanny ability to spot “crossroaders”—people who are cheating at casino games, and he is often hired by casinos to spot cheaters that are outwitting the casinos’ own personnel.

Often Tony can do this from the comfort of his Florida home. A casino security team sends Tony a video recording of the suspected cheater and Tony can analyze the recording, spot the cheater’s moves and report back by phone. But then Tony gets a call from his long-time police department partner, Doyle Flanagan, who has also gone out on his own and who is investigating a blackjack player who has hit an Atlantic City casino for six million dollars. Flanagan is stumped and could use some help, but before Tony hardly has a chance to look at the video, Flanagan is killed in a bomb blast, presumably set by the people he was investigating.

So this time, it’s personal. Tony flies up to A.C. and takes over the investigation. It’s clear that some very strange things are going on in this casino, especially at the blackjack tables, but Tony is initially baffled. He knows that the big winner is playing with a partner and that they have to be cheating—no one could be either that good or that lucky. But even with all his experience, Tony can’t figure out how the cheaters are working the scam and before long, he finds himself in the sights of the same people who killed his friend.

If all of that weren’t bad enough, Tony also continues to have problems with his practically worthless excuse for a son, Gerry. Tony has bailed out his son time after time, and even though he attempts to practice something approaching tough love with the stupid kid, Gerry just keeps digging himself deeper and deeper into trouble. In this case, Gerry has lost $50,000 to some mobsters who are threatening him with great bodily harm—or worse—if he doesn’t pay up. As always, unable to stand on his own two feet, Gerry comes running home to Papa, hoping that Dear Old Dad will pull his chestnuts out of the fire one more time. In consequence, Tony will find himself under fire from this front as well.

All in all, this book is a lot of fun. Valentine is a great character; there’s a lot of humor, and along the way, the reader learns a great deal about the myriad of ways in which cheaters try to find an edge against the casinos. This is a very worthy sequel to the first Valentine novel, Grift Sense, and one looks forward eagerly to Valentine’s next appearance.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Return of Peter Bowen and Gabriel Du Pre

After an absence of eight years, Peter Bowen returns with the fourteenth installment of his excellent series featuring Gabriel Du Pre, a Metis brand inspector, fiddle player and investigator who lives in the fictional town of Toussaint, Montana.

As the book opens, two severely wounded veterans of the Iraq war meet in Toussaint. One is Chappie Plaquemines, the son of Du Pre’s long-time significant other, Madeline. The other is John Patchen, who served under Chappie, and who is trying to persuade him to accept the Navy Cross. In the process of trying to sober Chappie up long enough so that Patchen can make the argument, the two men go to a sweat lodge owned by a mysterious and elusive old medicine man.

In the sweat lodge, the two hear mysterious voices hinting at a massacre of a number of Metis people in the early Twentieth Century by U.S. Army soldiers and a handful of local citizens. (The Metis are descendants of the unions of Native American women and Europeans, principally French fur traders, that occurred along what is now the U.S.-Canadian border in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. The Metis have a unique culture and one of the pleasures of these books is the way in which the author immerses the characters and the reader in this culture.)

Chappie, Patchen and Du Pre launch an investigation of this incident which is little known and which has been largely covered up by the descendants of the people involve in perpetrating the crime. Inevitably, of course, a lot of feathers will be ruffled in the process and a fair amount of violence will ensue. The three men remain undaunted by the threats directed against them, however, and are determined to discover the truth about this century-old mystery.

It’s an excellent tale, made all the more enjoyable by the great cast of characters that Bowen has assembled through the years. Even in the face of the grim story that unfolds here, there’s a lot of wry humor, and this is a book that will appeal to readers who have enjoyed the novels of people like Tony Hillerman and Craig Johnson. If you haven’t run across this series before, it’s definitely worth looking for; for old friends of the series, it’s great to finally have Du Pre and the rest of these characters back. One closes the book hoping that it will not be another eight years before we see them again.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Another Great Read from the Master of Crime Fiction

Life doesn't get a whole lot better than a day when you have a brand new book from Lawrence Block to read fresh for the first time, and The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes proves that Block is still at the top of his game. With this book, Block updates the steamy pulp novels of yesteryear and demonstrates that, even in the age of computers, cell phones and the Internet, there's still a lot of life that can be wrung out of the genre.

At the heart of the book is Doak Miller, a retired cop from New York City who moves to a small town in Florida where his pension dollars will stretch a bit farther than in NYC. Once settled, he takes the occasional job as a private investigator to supplement the pension. He befriends the local sheriff and even does an occasional job for the county. A divorced man, Doak also cultivates the local ladies and engages in some very hot sex. Early in his career, Block wrote "adult" novels under various pen names and in writing the sex scenes, he channels his younger self and goes beyond the limits he or his editors set for Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr.

As the book opens, Doak agrees to take an undercover job for the sheriff, William Radburn. A woman named Lisa Otterbein is looking to hire a hit man to kill her very wealthy husband, and the lowlife that she first approached in a bar has reported her to the sheriff. (Obviously, the woman should have called Dot and hired Keller, but that would have been another story all together.)

The sheriff wants Doak to play the part of the hired killer (Frank from Jersey) and record Lisa attempting to hire him. Once they have the poor woman on tape, she will be convicted of soliciting murder and sent to prison. 

Doak agrees, but he doesn't count on the fact that Lisa will turn out to be the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. He's not about to entrap her and cleverly warns her away from the scheme. Lisa shows her gratitude in a particularly nice way, and before long we're headed into James M. Cain country.

Lisa convinces Doak that she's madly in love with him and Doak, of course, is totally smitten with her. He's soon concocting plans to eliminate Lisa's husband, but will he have any better luck than Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice?

As always, Block has created interesting and believable characters and then inserted them into a steamy and complex plot that's enormously entertaining. Doak Miller knows his crime fiction and like any other literate fan of the genre, he also knows how these schemes inevitably end up. But like the aforementioned Messrs. Neff and Chambers, the poor guy just can't walk away. One can only hope that Lawrence Block is not yet ready to walk away either from what has already been a very long and distinguished career. Every time you read one of his last few books, you can only desperately hope that there will yet be at least one more.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Introducing Chief Inspector Morse

This is the book that introduced Colin Dexter's famous protagonist, Chief Inspector Morse of the Oxford Homicide Division. Morse is a confirmed bachelor who is attracted to women, liquor and complex homicide investigations. Here we also meet the man who would be Morse's sidekick throughout the series, the much put-upon Sergeant Lewis.

As the book opens, two attractive young women are waiting for a bus. One of them, Sylvia Kaye, grows impatient and decides to hitch a ride instead. She is later discovered murdered in the parking lot of a pub in Woodstock. Morse is assigned to the case and his first challenge is to find the young woman who was waiting for the bus with the victim. The woman turns out to be particularly elusive and when Morse narrows down the list to the woman he KNOWS must be Sylvia's friend, the young woman steadfastly insists that Morse is wrong. Why won't she own up to the obvious truth?

Other obstacles block Morse's investigation and along the way, he will become enamored with one of the women central to the case. He will be forced to discard one theory after another until it seems possible that there will never be a solution to the case, but Morse will never be one to give up.

This is a solid introduction to the series and the characters of Morse and Lewis, once established here, will remain virtually constant through the remainder of the series. Many Americans first met Morse when this series was adapted for television and exported to the U.S. and those who enjoy British crime fiction are almost certainly guaranteed to like this book and the rest that follow. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Another Very Entertaining Novel of the 87th Precinct

Marilyn Hollis is drop-dead gorgeous and financially independent, thanks, she says, to her wealthy father in Texas. When a man she is dating is poisoned to death, Detective Steve Carella and his associates from the 87th Precinct come calling on Ms. Hollis. She’s sorry to hear the news, but informs the detectives that the victim is only one of the men that she dates. She is very open-minded and free-spirited and expects the same sort of attitude on the part of her beaus.

As almost always happens early on in these books, the detectives are stumped. They prowl through the victim’s life but can’t find anyone who might have wished him harm. Then a second man in Marilyn Hollis’s life comes to an untimely end as does a third. Sensing a pattern here, the detectives hone in on Ms. Hollis and those around her, looking for the perpetrator.

Detective Hal Willis, in particular, hones in on the lovely Ms. Hollis and before long, in violation of what we hope would be department regulations and certainly in violation of common sense, Willis moves in with her, even though she’s a suspect in an ongoing investigation. Willis insists that Marilyn is an innocent victim in all of this and couldn’t possibly be guilty of anything. Steve Carella is not so sure, but Willis seems to be beyond reason in this matter.

This is another good entry in the 87th Precinct series and it’s fun to watch it all play out. Fans of the series will certainly want to look for it.