Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Daniel Byrne Is in a Deadly Race with some Seriously Bad People

Occasionally, you pick up a thriller that grabs you by the throat on the first page and refuses to let go until the last. This is not one of those books. Rather, The Devil's Game grabs you at the outset and doesn't let go, period. Sean Chercover has written here a book that is so in tune with the dangerous and confusing world that we live in today that once you finish the book, you're still scared to death.

The protagonist is Daniel Byrne, a former priest, who cut his teeth as an investigator for the Vatican probing into the details of alleged miracles, attempting to discern the false from the true. In his entire career, Daniel never found a "miracle" that proved to be genuine, and then his own uncle, Tim Trinity, proved to be the apparent exception.

Trinity was a scam artist, working as an evangelist, who suddenly developed the genuine ability to predict the future. The development shook Daniel's faith to the core and, when Trinity was assassinated, Daniel was drawn into a world of deadly international conspiracies where wealthy and powerful people work behind the scenes, manipulating human affairs for their own benefit, irrespective of the consequences for the rest of humanity as a whole.

Daniel joins the Fleur-de-Lis Foundation, which is in mortal combat with a group known as the Council for World Peace. Each group is desperate to control the phenomenon that took possession of Tim Trinity before his death, and each is willing to do anything to win the race, no matter the cost. The members of the Fleur-de-Lis Foundation are allegedly the good guys, but in fairly short order, Daniel is left to wonder if he's been recruited by the guys who are merely less-bad.

The phenomenon that Tim Trinity experienced before his death is known as Anomalous Information Transfer, or AIT, and it may be induced by a certain strain of plague. This is not good news for the poor souls who may wind up as the guinea pigs in this experiment. The Council for World Peace may have plans to infect a large population with the plague in order to gain control of those victims who develop AIT. Daniel's job is to stop them, and it's going to be no small task. 

Once Daniel is set on the trail of the Council for World Peace and its nefarious minions, the tension never lets up and you find yourself turning page after page as quickly as you can. This is a very cleverly plotted and well-written book with interesting characters, and it's a terrific read. But what makes the book so compelling is that it seems so timely given the developments around the world, even in the last few weeks. 

On the one hand, the plot may seem a bit over the top, but on the other, it makes one really wonder about the way in which governments respond to terrorist threats and about what's really going on behind the scenes. Checover describes a scenario that is plausible enough to make a reader at least think about the extent to which one can really trust the government agencies that are assigned to protect us, and that is the scariest part of all. All in all, a great read.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Another Very Entertaining Tale of the 87th Precinct

A string of murders has suddenly left a proliferation of widows in the 87th Precinct, and one of the cases hits especially close to home for the detectives of the precinct.

The first victim is a beautiful young woman named Susan Brauer, who is viciously stabbed to death with a small knife. She leaves no widow behind, but she does leave a collection of intensely erotic letters, from her lover, a married lawyer. When the lawyer is then killed, he does leave a beautiful widow along with a safe deposit box full of erotic letters that apparently constitute the other half of Susan Brauer's correspondence. 

Most of the obvious suspects, including the lawyer's widow and daughters, seem to have solid alibis, and detectives Carella and Brown suddenly have a very knotty case on their hands. Then, Carella's father, a baker, is shot to death in his store, leaving Carella grieving and his mother a widow.

Carella's father was murdered in another neighborhood, and Carella is forced to let the detectives of that precinct work the case. But naturally, he is desperate to see that the case is pursued to a successful conclusion. The narrative moves back and forth between the two investigations, each of which is difficult and complex in its own way, and this turns out to be another very engaging story. Another winner from one of the masters of crime fiction.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Introducing Sports Agent and Fearless Investigator Myron Bolitar

Myron Bolitar was once a very promising NBA rookie out of Duke, where his team won two NCAA national championships. But a freak accident early in his rookie year abruptly ended his basketball career and changed the course of his life. He went to law school, then did a brief stint with the F.B.I., and has just embarked on a new career as a sports agent.

Thus far, Myron has a small and fairly insignificant client list. But his prospects are brightened considerably when he signs quarterback Christian Steele, the number one NFL draft pick. Christian is not only a star athlete but also a good kid who has overcome a lot of obstacles to reach this point in his life. Among the tragedies in his young life was the disappearance of his college sweetheart, Kathy Culver, who has been missing and presumed dead for a year and a half. Kathy was the younger sister of Myron's former girlfriend, Jessica Culver, hence the connection between Myron and Christian.

Myron is in the process of negotiating Christian's first NFL contact, and the process is proving difficult. Then Myron gets a panicked call from Christian. Someone has sent him a pornographic magazine, and in the magazine is a picture of Kathy Culver, suggesting strongly that she may still be alive.

The photo raises any number of questions: Is Kathy still alive; if so, why hasn't she contacted Christian or her family? Why would her picture appear in this disgusting magazine, and why has some anonymous person sent the magazine to the young quarterback?

Myron attempts to answer these questions and quickly finds himself ensnared in a very complex mystery with a lot of unreliable and dangerous characters lurking about. Fortunately, Myron is assisted by his secretary, the gorgeous Esperanza, who used to wrestle under the name "Little Pocahontas."

Myron's main sidekick is his best friend and former college roommate, Windsor Horne Lockwood III, or "Win." Win is super-rich, super attractive, super-smart, and super-dangerous--all in all, a good man to have at your back.

The resulting story is an engrossing tale with snappy dialogue and humorous moments that do not seem out of place in a book where a lot of truly nasty things are happening. Coben has a deft touch in this regard, unlike some authors who are totally unable to pull off the mix of humor and gritty violence. The story requires some suspension of disbelief, especially with regard to the character of Win who is a bit over the top as the super-sidekick who is able to magically bail Myron out of any confrontation. But he's fun to watch, and the relationship between Myron and Win is one of the better such relationships in contemporary crime fiction.

I have a slight quibble with the book in that the climax seemed more than a bit implausible, as if the author had painted himself into a corner and couldn't quite figure out how to end the book. But this is a minor complaint, and Deal Breaker is a very good first entry in what has become a fairly long-running series.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Introducing Eddy Harkness

This taut, gritty novel introduces Eddy Harkness, who was once the young, rising star of the Boston P.D.'s narcotics unit. But a tragic incident cost him his career in the big city, and Eddy, now twenty-nine, is reduced to working on the police force of Nagog, Massachusetts, the small town outside of Boston where he was born and raised.

For Eddy, it's been a particularly long and humbling fall, especially given his assignment for the Nagog P.D., which is emptying the town's parking meters. Then, to compound matters, on the anniversary of the event that cost him his job in Boston, Eddy gets roaring drunk, behaves very badly and, sometime during the course of the evening, loses the service revolver that the town has issued him.

Eddy is determined to recover the weapon and his effort to do so turns into a desperate quest to find some sort of redemption. The search drags him down into the seamy underside of this community that appears so bucolic on the surface and ensnares him in a web of crime and corruption along with an unusual mix of characters, some of whom are very badly bent, and many of whom are as desperate, each in his or her own way, as Eddy Harkness.

It's a gripping story, populated by characters that are fresh and intriguing. One of the blurbs on the cover suggests that Eddy Harkness is a "worthy successor" to Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone. But as much as I admired Parker's work, and as much as I enjoyed most of the Jesse Stone novels, I think that this book is much more complex and ultimately a much better read than some of the later Jesse Stone books. I'm really looking forward to the second book in the series.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Farewell to Hoke Moseley

This is the fourth and, sadly, the last entry in Charles Willeford’s series featuring Miami homicide detective Hoke Moseley. Hoke, to put it mildly, does not remotely resemble the homicide detectives that one usually encounters in crime fiction. Certainly, he’s nothing like Sonny Crockett and the other detectives of the television show, Miami Vice, which was so wildly popular at the same time this series was written.

Hoke is middle-aged and overweight; he dresses in leisure suits that be buys on the cheap. He has no teeth and is plagued by an ill-fitting set of dentures that constantly cause him problems. He lives in a small home that he shares with his two teenage daughters, the woman who was once his partner, and the ex-partner’s infant son. Hoke and his ex-partner are not romantically involved; they are both challenged financially and are sharing the house as a way of saving money. It’s a difficult arrangement which severely limits Hoke’s sex life, assuming that he had one. Obviously, it’s nothing like living alone on a great bachelor-pad houseboat with an alligator named Elvis.

Hoke is now working cold cases and is pursuing the case of a doctor who was murdered several years ago. He’s enjoying the challenge and is reasonably content until a man named Donald Hutton leases the house directly across the street. Years earlier, Hoke had arrested Hutton for first-degree murder. On the basis of the Hoke’s testimony, Hutton was sentenced to life in prison and publicly swore revenge against Hoke. But then ten years down the road, the conviction was overturned on a technicality; Hutton was freed and the D.A. decided not to retry the case. So now Hutton is living across the street from Hoke, sitting out in the yard all day, watching the comings and goings of Hoke’s daughters and his ex-partner, Ellita.

Hoke is obviously concerned about Hutton’s intentions, but there isn’t much he can do about the situation. Then, in the middle of all this, his boss assigns him to a very dangerous, one-man undercover operation in a neighboring county. Haitian immigrants are disappearing and the local sheriff fears that a particularly nasty farmer is employing the Haitians as migrant labor and then killing them rather than paying them off at the end of the season. As a favor to the sheriff, Hoke’s boss agrees to loan Hoke out to investigate.

All of these diverse strands come together to create another very entertaining story. Willeford invented some truly unique characters; the story is well-plotted, and there’s a fair amount of humor. The question that hangs over it all is whether Hoke will weather all the threats he suddenly faces to produce a solution to any of the crimes on his plate.

Charles Willeford toiled in the crime fiction genre for a number of years without getting the attention and respect that he genuinely deserved. That changed, finally, when he began the Hoke Moseley series. The books were critically acclaimed and sold much better than his earlier efforts. Sadly, though, Willeford died in 1988, the same year that this book appeared and didn’t get the chance to enjoy this success for very long. His passing was a loss for fans of crime fiction as well; it would have been great fun to follow Hoke Moseley through at least a few more books. But we are fortunate to have these four, and readers who haven’t yet discovered Willeford and Hoke Moseley might want to look for Miami Blues, the book that introduced this great character.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It's Anything But a Happy New Year in the 87th Precinct

In the forty-first installment of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, the detectives of the 87th ring in the New Year with a particularly gruesome crime when a couple returns home from a New Year’s Eve party to find the sixteen-year-old babysitter knifed to death and their baby smothered. The likeliest suspect appears to be the boyfriend that the babysitter threw over a few weeks earlier, but he’s proving hard to find and, given the fact that the crimes occurred on the hardest-partying night of the year, witness statements are not as reliable as they otherwise might be.

While Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer try to find the party responsible for the killings, Detective Bert Kling finds himself in the middle of a war between two drug gangs that is becoming increasingly vicious. Both sides seem to be very well-armed and Kling, unfortunately seems to be right in the middle of the crossfire.

Finally, another detective who had a very unsettling experience in the last novel in the series is determined to quit the force but is having trouble convincing the department’s psychiatrist to sign off on the resignation. It all adds up to another fast-paced and compelling story from one of the masters of the genre.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tony Valentine Is Up to His Neck in Trouble Once Again

Tony Valentine is a former cop who now chases after people who cheat casinos. When a player wins eighty-four hands in a row at a blackjack table in a casino on Florida’s Micanopy Indian Reservation, it seems clear that something is badly out of whack and Tony is called in to consult.

It’s obvious to Valentine that no one could possibly win that many hands in a row without the connivance of a crooked dealer, but initially Tony can’t figure out how the scam was worked. Naturally, the people working the scam would prefer that Tony not figure out the scheme and track them down, and they initially attempt to diminish his enthusiasm for the job by planting a particularly nasty and hungry alligator in Tony’s Honda.

Meanwhile, a hustler named Rico Blanco, who has ties to the former mob boss John Gotti, is running a scheme of his own that involves the Micanopy casino. Tony and Blanco have crossed paths earlier, when Blanco cheated Tony’s errant son, Gerry, out of a bar that Tony had purchased for his son in an ill-fated effort to put the kid on the straight and narrow. Blanco’s current hustle involves an aging drummer for a once-famous rock band and a hooker with the improbable name of Candy Hart, and Tony soon finds himself entangled in this mess as well.

James Swain mixes all these characters into a very entertaining tale that is something of a mash-up of a story that might have been written by the team of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. The characters are all a bit off-norm; the story moves along at a quick pace, and the payoff is a lot of fun. As was the case in the first two entries in the Tony Valentine series, a good portion of the entertainment value lies in Tony’s explanations of the numerous schemes that hustlers use to cheat casinos. It’s all very enlightening and a very good read.