Monday, March 2, 2015

The Saga of Charlie Hood Continues

This is the fifth out of six books in T. Jefferson Parker's series featuring Charlie Hood, an L. A. County Sheriff's deputy, and the deeper one gets into the series the more difficult the books are to review, at least for me. I find that this one is virtually impossible to discuss without giving away critical information that might spoil the earlier books for people who haven't read them yet.

What differentiates this series from most others is that the six books in the series constitute a single long narrative that has been divided into six separate volumes. In most other series you have a continuing series character, usually with a small supporting cast, but the stories themselves are almost always discrete. If you're reading John Sandford's Lucas Davenport series, for example, you know going in that there are now twenty-three books in the series and so, obviously, Lucas must have survived whatever challenges and dangers he might have faced in the first twenty-two. But you know nothing of the fate of the rest of the characters.

Since there are six books in the Charlie Hood series, the reader understands that Hood has somehow survived the first five. But the problem one faces when attempting to review any of the later books in the series is that you inevitably have to refer to other characters who have also survived the earlier books when they well might not have. And this, I think, is bound to spoil the tension is some of the earlier books for readers who haven't gotten to them yet. I would argue that the tease on the book's jacket does exactly that as well.

And so, attempting to be as circumspect as possible, I will simply note that for a while now, Charlie Hood has been on loan to an ATF task force that is attempting to staunch the flow of guns and other weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. This has brought Charlie and other characters into direct conflict with the drug lords that run Mexico's infamous cartels.

In this case, one of those drug lords kidnaps someone close to Hood and demands that a million dollars in ransom be delivered deep into Mexico. The clock is ticking and if the money is not delivered on time, the victim will be skinned alive. Charlie assumes the task of delivering the money, even though he has a history with the drug lord in question that is almost certain to put Charlie in grave danger. And that's all I'm comfortable in saying about the plot even though, as I said above, the publisher apparently feels comfortable in giving away quite a bit more.

I've really enjoyed this series from the beginning, but this book was something of a disappointment by comparison especially to the first and second books. Beginning in the third book, Parker introduced a non-conventional character and since that time, I don't think that the books have worked as well. I find that I'm increasingly unable to suspend disbelief to the extent that the later books have required, and so I haven't enjoyed them quite as much. Parker is a very gifted writer and it's still a lot of fun to read his prose, but I wish it were in service of a plot that I could buy into more easily.

I'm looking forward very much to Famous and the Dead, The, which is the last book in the series, and I hope that it returns the series to the very high note on which it opened.

One last note: As anyone who reads my reviews knows, I am constantly urging people to read a series in order. I would only add that it is absolutely essential in this case. A reader who begins in the middle of the series will have a great deal of difficulty really appreciating the complexity of the story and will cheat him or herself out of enjoying this long and involved story to the fullest extent.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sebastian Rotella Delivers a Gripping Tale from the War on Terror

This is a gripping thriller with a "ripped-from-the-headlines" plot that focuses on international terrorism. At the heart of the story are two longtime friends--virtually brothers--named Valentine Pescatore and Raymond Mercer. The two grew up together in Chicago, and Raymond, who loves the glamorous, high-risk life he sees in movies like "Carlito's Way," leads his younger friend into some increasingly dangerous situations. Finally one night, Raymond asks Valentine to back him up as he attempts to rip off a drug dealer. For Valentine, that's one step too far and he walks away.

The two do not see each other again for years. Valentine goes to work for the Border Patrol and later winds up working for a private investigator in Argentina. Then, out of the blue one afternoon as Valentine is at the airport, he suddenly encounters his old friend Raymond. Is this by accident, or has Raymond contrived to engineer the meeting?

The two catch up over a meal and Valentine discovers that Raymond has converted to Islam. But what he's doing these days isn't exactly clear. The two exchange phone numbers and go on their separate ways. Only a few days later, there's a horrific terrorist attack at a Buenos Aires shopping center.

Almost immediately, the evidence points to Valentine's buddy Raymond as a possible mastermind of the attack and of others that are yet in the planning stages. With that the book is off and running as Valentine races around the globe attempting to find Raymond and head off the future attacks he may be planning. Along the way, Valentine hooks up with a sexy French agent and the chase takes them from Latin America to France to Bagdad and beyond.

It's a compelling story, mostly because it has the ring of truth about it--or at least the terrorist plots seem scarily realistic. One might debate whether a lone agent like Valentine could realistically play such a leading role in trying to break up the plots, but that's a minor point, and the story will leave readers glued to their chairs watching the action unfold. This is another solid effort from the author of Triple Crossing.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lawrence Block Heads Across the Borderline in This Classic from the Pulp Era

Borderline is a recent release from the folks at Hard Case Crime that brings together a relatively short novel and three short stories by Lawrence Block that were first published in the late 1950s and early '60s, while Block was still cutting his teeth in the crime fiction business. The novel is one that reader would have found on the rotating rack of paperback "pulp" novels down at the local drugstore back in the day, while the short stories originally appeared in the men's magazines of the era.

The crimes at the heart of these stories all basically involve human beings exploiting each other in one way or another, most often sexually. The only real "crime" story here is the last, "Stag Party Girl," in which a young woman jumps out of a cake at a bachelor party and is shot to death. A private detective, who happened to be at the party, must then sort through the other guests to determine who might have killed the poor woman and why.

The short novel, Borderline, takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border where the cities of El Paso and Juarez lie astride the border only yards apart from each other. The story is set in a much earlier day and age when people crossed back and forth across the border pretty much at will, with only an occasional cursory glance from the border patrol.

A number of characters are thrown together in the two cities, including a gambler named Marty, a recent divorcee named Meg, and a young hitchhiker named Lily who has recently arrived from San Francisco and taken up hooking in Juarez as a means of earning enough money to go to New York and live out her dreams. Finally, there's a psycho named Weaver, an ugly man who's never had a friend and who now buys a straight razor and begins to live out the violent fantasies that, until now, he's only entertained in his mind.

There's a lot of sex and violence in the book, reflecting the fact that Block first cut his writing chops by turning out soft-core porn. Meg, in particular, has come out of a sexless marriage and arrives in El Paso hot and ready to experiment with virtually no holds barred. Marty, the cynical gambler, is only too happy to oblige and takes her across the border into Mexico for some experiences she'll never forget. The real borderlines here are mostly psychological, of course, and once the protagonists begin crossing them, they soon discover that sometimes there's no crossing back.

This is a book that will appeal principally to fans of Lawrence Block who, like this one, are only too happy to read virtually anything that the MWA Grand Master ever wrote. But no one should expect that it's on a par with the material he wrote later, beginning with his brilliant Matthew Scudder series. And certainly it will appeal to those who enjoy the pulp novels of this era and continue to seek them out in used bookstores everywhere. All will be grateful to Hard Case Crime for presenting these stories in this fresh edition, complete with one of the classic pulp covers that the publisher does so well.

Steve Carella Hunts a Killer Who's Targeting Blind Victims

When James Harris left the army after a stint in Vietnam, he had been blinded and was suffering from serious psychological problems. Ten years later, he's living on his disability pension, on the small amount of money his wife makes, and on the pan-handling he does every day on the streets of Isola. Then, one cold winter evening, he and his seeing-eye dog, Stanley are making their way home when someone--a lunatic, perhaps?--chloroforms Stanley, then slashes Harris's throat and leaves him bleeding to death on the street.

Steve Carella of the 87th Precinct lands the case and begins the job of trying to determine who might have wanted the blind man dead. He and Detective Meyer Meyer interview Harris's widow, who is also blind, but she appears to have no information that might be of any help.

Later, Carella and Meyer return to the Harris apartment to escort Mrs. Harris to the morgue so that she can officially identify her husband's body. But they now discover Mrs. Harris dead, also with her throat slashed, and someone has tossed the apartment, obviously looking for something.

The detectives begin digging into the relative pasts of both Mr. and Mrs. Harris in the hope of finding something that might shed some light on their murders. They turn up some interesting background on each of the victims and some potential suspects, but the deeper they dig into the case, the more confusing--and hopeless--it seems to become.

This book, which first appeared in 1982, is a little more than halfway through the long-running 87th Precinct series, and it's a pretty good read. McBain still has a habit of including perhaps a bit too much of the penal code in the narrative and he occasionally wanders a bit too far off on a tangent, but those are small complaints. The plot is a clever one, and Steve Carella will need all his wits about him if he's going to find a solution to this case. As always, it's fun to watch him in action.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Introducing Ricard Stark's Parker

This is a classic hard-boiled novel, the first book in a series that would ultimately run to twenty-four books published between 1962 and 2008. The series featured a brutal, smart, amoral professional criminal known only as Parker who worked with crews of other professional criminals and usually focused on robbing banks, armored cars or other such targets. Parker was not a professional killer, although he never balked at killing anyone who got in the way of the job at hand.

He also never hesitated to kill anyone who double-crossed him, and as the book and the series open, Parker has been double-crossed in the worst possible way, shot by his wife at the end of a job and left for dead. The wife then ran off with one of Parker's partners from the job, along with Parker's share of the loot. Needless to say, Parker, who luckily survived the attempt on his life, is not in a good mood when we first meet him, and Stark's introduction of his protagonist ranks as one of the best in crime fiction.

Pissed at the world and determined to get revenge, Parker is stalking across the George Washington Bridge into New York City, a "big and shaggy" man, with "flat square shoulders and arms too long in sleeves too short....His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx. His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless."

"Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons....They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree."

Parker has traced his wife to New York and arrived there virtually penniless. He's determined to deal with her and, through her, to find the partner who betrayed him and stole the money that was Parker's share of the job they had pulled.

It won't be easy, and complications ensue, one after the other. But Parker will not be deterred, even when he learns that the man who betrayed him has used his money to repay a debt to the Outfit and is now protected by them. To get his revenge, Parker will have to take on the Outfit all by himself. But what the hell does he care; he won't rest until he gets what he's owed.

Richard Stark is the pen name of Donald Westlake, a prolific writer who is otherwise best known for the comedic Dortmunder crime novels that he wrote under his own name. But the Parker novels are really his crowing achievement. They are taut, spare stories cut close to the bone and without a wasted word. And there's absolutely nothing funny or redemptive about them. Parker's is a tough, brutal and dangerous world; there's no room any sentimental nonsense and watching him make his way through that world is one of the most enjoyable experiences in the world of crime fiction.

As a side note, this book was ultimately filmed twice, once as "Point Blank," in 1967, starring Lee Marvin as Parker, and again in 1999, as "The Hunter," with Mel Gibson in the role. The Lee Marvin Version is much the better of the two, and Marvin captures the character about as well as anyone could.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Back on the Borderlands with Deputy Charlie Hood

This is the fourth book in T. Jefferson Parker's Charlie Hood series, and it takes off right where the third, Iron River, concluded. L.A. County Deputy Sheriff Charlie Hood is on loan to Operation Blowdown, which is essentially an ATF operation aimed at shutting down the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico.

Another member of the Blowdown team is Sean Ozburn who has been deep under cover for well over a year, posing as a gun and meth dealer. The ATF has purchased some homes in Southern California and, acting as the owner, Ozburn has rented out the homes to members of the North Baja Cartel. The houses are wired for sound and video, and the task force is using the houses to gather intel about the cartel's operations.

One morning while Hood and other team members are watching the live feed from one of the houses, the equipment suddenly goes dark. It's quickly apparent that this is not a simple malfunction and when the team races to the scene, they discover that the four renters have all been shot to death. Later, reviewing the last moments of the video feed, frame-by-frame, Charlie notices something enormously unsettling.

Meanwhile, Sean Ozburn, the "landlord" has gone dark as well. He is still communicating sporadically with his wife, but he has abandoned contact with his ATF teammates. Clearly something bad has happened. Has he cracked under the strain of being undercover in such a dangerous setting for so long or is something more involved? As his best friend on the team, Charlie Hood leads the effort to reel Sean back in, but it's going to be a very difficult task, especially as Ozburn grows increasingly erratic.

Meanwhile, Bradley Jones, the son of Suzanne Jones with whom Hood had a brief relationship as the series opened, has joined the Sheriff's Department as well. At the same time, the young man continues to work for one of the fiercest of the Mexican drug cartel leaders. Jones is very bright and very ambitious, and he's determined to advance his objectives by working both sides of the law. Those ambitions will lead him into conflict with Charlie Hood and into the middle of the mess created by the renegade Sean Ozburn.

T. Jefferson Parker is a very skilled writer, and the tension in this book is palpable from beginning to end. Charlie Hood remains an engaging character as well, and it's both fun and enlightening to watch him work his way through the series of problems presented in the book.

That said, this book, like the previous entry, relies heavily on some supernatural elements that I just couldn't buy into, and that diminished my enjoyment of the book. I couldn't suspend disbelief to the level that was required here, and given as much as I enjoy this series, I hope that in the next book, it returns to more rational terrain.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Hurricane Irene Causes a Flood of Problems for Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation

The twenty-fourth entry in Archer Mayor's series featuring Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation is among the best books in the series.

When Hurricane Irene blows through Vermont, it does millions of dollars worth of damage and causes enormous headaches for virtually all of the series' familiar cast of characters. Gunther's former love interest, Gail Zigman, is now the state's governor and has to deal with the mess and the political fallout that results. Gunther and his team must deal with a number of more specific issues.

As an example, the Vermont State Hospital is flooded and an elderly mental patient who has been confined there for years manages to escape. The woman, Carolyn Barber, is known as "The Governor" because forty years earlier, she was indeed the state's governor for a day as the result of a PR stunt that didn't turn out so well. Gunther and his team go looking for the woman but are unable to find any trace of her, save for a slipper that she lost while making her escape.

Meanwhile, the torrential rains have torn through a cemetery, exposing several coffins, one of which breaks open. The deceased who had been laid to rest in the coffin years earlier, turns out to be a pile of rocks, leaving Gunther's team to figure out what in the hell ever happened to the guy who was supposed to be in the coffin.

As if those weren't problems enough, a former state politician suddenly turns up dead at his very expensive retirement/nursing home. The doctor on the scene attributes the death to natural causes, but when Gunther learns that the former pol was connected to the missing "Governor for a Day," the coincidence seems just too great and he orders an autopsy and a full investigation.

From that point, the story proceeds along two tracks as the acerbic Willy Kunkle investigates the case of the missing body, which will turn out to have important ramifications for Willy himself. Meanwhile, the rest of the team tackles the case of the missing "Governor" and the death of the former politician. All in all, it's an interesting and entertaining read. By this point, for those who have followed this series for years, any new entry is like renewing old friendships and here, as is almost always the case, Archer Mayor never disappoints.