Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Matthew Scudder Takes a Walk Among the Tombstones

For the last thirty years or so, I've been reading Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series which, for me at least, is hands down the best P.I. series that anyone's ever done. I mean no disrespect to authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom I admire greatly. But their body of work is relatively small by comparison. Block, on the other hand, created a fantastic character right out of the box, put him in a great, gritty setting, surrounded him with an excellent supporting cast, and then only continued to get better and better, book after book.

I normally read one about every four months or so, working my way back through the series in order. But I'd only just worked my way back to the beginning of the series when, suddenly, the release of the movie based on A Walk Among the Tombstones was imminent. I've been reading at a much quicker pace over the last couple of months so that I'd be caught up by Friday when the movie opens at a theater near me, as they say.

I confess that I have serious reservations about the whole idea of making a movie from this series. I've studiously avoided seeing the film adaptation of Eight Million Ways to Die, in which Jeff Bridges played Scudder and in which the plot was transferred to L.A., which as any fan of the series could tell you is beyond sacrilegious to the power of about ten. After spending so much time with these books, I have my own very fixed ideas about all the characters, Scudder in particular, and about the setting. And I don't want any movie, no matter how brilliant the people involved, screwing them up.

That said, I'm probably going to see the movie adaptation of this one, assuming that the early reviews are good. I like Liam Neeson, and he's probably about as close to my idea of Scudder physically as any actor could be. Plus, the movie is set in New York and, from what I've read is faithful to the setting. Finally, of course, Mr. Block himself seems genuinely enthused about the film and I trust that he wouldn't lead me down a wrong path. But still...

As this book opens, a drug dealer's wife is kidnapped, brutally raped and tortured, then killed and returned to the drug dealer in pieces. The drug dealer is actually a fairly nice guy as drug dealers go, which is to say that he's way up high in the food chain and is not personally peddling crack to small school children. The dealer's brother knows Matt Scudder from AA, and Matt agrees to investigate the case and try to determine who the guilty parties might be.

Scudder doggedly pursues the case, as he usually does, doing research and interviewing people who might be able to shed light on the situation. He discovers that the drug dealer's wife was not the first victim of these killers and doubtless won't be the last. But will he be able to close the net around them before they claim another victim? And what will happen if he does?

The tension mounts throughout the story, leading to a great climax. But, as always, the character development is key to these stories. The street kid, TJ, who first appeared in the last book, A Ticket to the Boneyard plays a larger role here, as does Matt's main squeeze, Elaine Mardell. Fans of the series know that Elaine is a high-end prostitute that Matt first met back in the days when he was still on the job as a cop. But the relationship has reached something of a critical juncture, and the tension involved in that subplot is almost as great as that in the main plot.

As ever, it's a great ride; I can only hope that the movie comes even close to doing it justice. Wish me luck...

The Return of Peter Bragg

Peter Bragg is an ex-military man and a former reporter. Upon leaving the newspaper business, he decides to use the skills he acquired as an investigative reporter to become a private investigator in San Francisco. He’s approached by an agent of a man named Armando Barker, a mobster who claims to now be retired. Someone has sent threatening messages to Barker and then backed up the messages by firing shots at him late one night as Barker was leaving a club that he owns. Barker wants Bragg to deal with the situation, and when Bragg asks him why he doesn’t just call the cops, Barker explains that he doesn’t relate well to the police.

Bragg takes the job and then Barker’s adversary ups the ante by threatening to go after Barker’s eleven-year-old step-daughter. The girl is safely away at a boarding school which allegedly has great security, but Barker is naturally worried nonetheless. Then the noose tightens even more when someone close to Barker is murdered.

Before “retiring,” Barker was a mob boss in a wide-open town called Sand Valley where gambling, women and various other recreational pursuits are widely and readily available. He claims he has no enemies left there, but Bragg concludes that the threat may well originate in Sand Valley and so moves his investigation in that direction. Once he arrives the action really heats up on a variety of fronts, leading to a surprising climax.

This is a hard-boiled novel of the old school, first published in 1981, and it launched a series of books featuring Peter Bragg. Like the other detectives who star in hard-boiled novels, Bragg can take a licking and keep on ticking. He’s bright, witty, and very attractive to the ladies, and it’s fun to ride along with him as he pokes around the underside of tacky casinos and whorehouses. This is a well-written and entertaining story, populated by the sorts of characters one would have expected to meet in a novel like this in 1981. The book holds up very well and has now been republished as an e-book and in a very nice trade paperback edition. It will appeal to a lot of readers who are fans of this genre.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Introducing Cork O'Connor

After working a number of years as a Chicago cop, Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor moves his wife and children back to Auora, Minnesota, his tiny home town in the northern part of the state. His objective is to provide his family with a better quality of life, but those dreams go up in smoke very early on, both in his professional and personal lives.

Aurora borders the Anishinaabe Indian reservation, which is enjoying a newfound prosperity as a result of the casino that has just been built on the reservation and which is practically minting money. O'Connor is part Anishinaabe himself and would seem to be the ideal bridge between the two societies. But when things take a decidedly bad turn, O'Connor is forced to stand in a recall election and is booted out of office. As the book opens, he's reduced to eking out a living running a seasonal hamburger stand. Meanwhile, his wife has become a very successful attorney and the two are now estranged.

When the town's most prominent citizen, a political boss named Judge Parrant, is found dead from a shotgun blast, the new sheriff declares it a suicide, but O'Connor isn't so sure. On the same evening that the judge dies, a young Indian boy goes missing from his paper route in a huge blizzard. Is there a possible connection between the two events?

Though no longer having any legal authority to do so, O'Connor begins investigating both developments. This will inevitably get him in hot water with a lot of people, and in the meantime, his family situation continues to deteriorate. O'Connor is also feeling guilty because, in the wake of the separation from his wife, he has secretly begun seeing a beautiful waitress with a hot sauna and a bad reputation.

The strength of the book lies principally in Krueger's description of the brutal winter landscape in which the story plays out. He's also carefully researched this history of the Anishinaabe and describes their culture and society sympathetically and knowledgeably. It's a complex story with lots of twists and turns, and a reader would be well-advised to have a hot toddy or two close at hand as a remedy for the freezing Minnesota winter.

If I have a concern about the book it lies principally with the whole idea of Cork O'Connor conducting this investigation with no legal authority to do so. This involves him meddling in crime scenes and breaking and entering into several buildings in search of evidence, legal niceties be damned. The new sheriff is something of a Casper Milquetoast, who occasionally warns O'Connor off, but who at other times works with him. It's hard to imaging this scenario ever playing out in real life, and virtually all of the evidence that O'Connor gathers would be inadmissible in any court, given that it was obtained illegally and without the benefit of warrants, proper chain of custody and other such minor matters. But if one can suspend disbelief long enough to overlook these issues, this is a very solid start to the Cork O'Connor series.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tom Kakonis Returns with a Very Entertaining Romp Along Florida's Treasure Coast

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Tom Kakonis established himself as a writer who created very good plots but who was especially gifted at populating each of his books with a cast of eccentric, interesting characters and then setting them into motion with sometimes truly inspired results. Now twenty years later, he returns with Treasure Coast, a book which clearly demonstrates that he hasn't lost a step in his time away.

The book is set on Florida's Treasure Coast, basically the Palm Beach area along the Atlantic. It opens as Jim Merriman, a compulsive gambler whose luck has turned so bad that he's now barely eking out a living as a bookstore clerk, travels cross country to visit his sister who is near death. Jim and his sister have not been particularly close for years, but as she expires she makes him promise to watch after her son, Leon.

Leon is twenty-one but appears to be much younger. His mother has left him $25,000, and so Merriman figures that the kid should be in pretty good shape, at least until Leon reluctantly confesses that he owes $45,000 to a loan shark. The debt is long overdue and even as Leon outlines his problem, two particularly nasty enforcers are on their way to collect. It was Uncle Jim who taught the kid how to gamble in the first place and that, along with the promise he made to Leon's mom, persuades Jim that he can't abandon his nephew in this time of crisis.

On the brighter side, while sneaking a cigarette outside the medical center, Jim encounters the very beautiful and sexy Billie Swett. Like Jim, Billie hails from the Dakotas and has had an "interesting" past, culminating in a job where she gave manicures at a place called Get Nailed. There she fortunately met a client named Lonnie Swett. Lonnie is an older, gross, pig of a man, but he's also enormously wealthy and when he offers make Billie the fifth Mrs. Swett, she readily agrees to swap her nail files for a huge diamond wedding set. Jim and Billie are clearly attracted to each other, though, and probably no good will come of that.

Kakonis adds to the cast a "preacher" with a mail order degree who, with a young female assistant, is selling mail order tombstones and helping bereaved and gullible rubes send and receive messages to and from their loved ones in the Great Beyond. Kakonis then turns all of these people loose in pursuit of their various objectives, most of which involve a quick score of one sort or another. As all of their paths intersect, the plot becomes increasingly roiled but Kakonis has a great deal of fun with these characters, and so does the reader.

The characters are all very well defined, and, with perhaps one exception, each is sympathetic in his or her own way. The story is very engaging and often hilariously funny. As another Michigan writer, Kakonis has often been favorably compared to Elmore Leonard and, on the strength of his earlier series featuring Timothy Waverly, I thought it was a very fair comparison. With Treasure Coast, Kakonis demonstrates that he clearly deserves to be considered in the same league as Leonard, certainly in the quality of his output if not in the quantity. Set in Florida, Treasure Coast also evokes comparisons to Carl Hiaasen, and fans of either author are sure to enjoy this book very much.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

British D.C.I. Alan Banks Detects in Estonia

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his protégé, D.I. Annie Cabbot return for the twentieth time in this excellent British crime series. The case opens when a police detective who is convalescing at a center for the treatment of injured police officers, is murdered, shot to death by someone armed with a crossbow. The victim is a recent widower named Bill Quinn who six years earlier had been involved in a high-profile case involving a young British woman, Rachel Hewitt, who went missing in Estonia and was never seen again.

As Banks begins the investigation, he discovers that Quinn had secreted several photos showing him in an apparent compromising position with a young woman. This brings the Professional Standards division into the picture, in the person of an icy blonde named Joanna Passero. She is assigned to shadow Banks's investigation in an effort to determine if Quinn was a corrupt cop. Banks is not at all happy about this, but he has no recourse.

In the process of the investigation, the team traces the victim's recent phone calls and this leads them to the body of a man who had been water boarded and then drowned. The second victim appears to have been involved in some way with a group smuggling impoverished eastern Europeans into the UK and then exploiting them there. The trail leads back to Estonia where, six years earlier, Bill Quinn had investigated the disappearance of Rachel Hewitt.

If it all sounds a bit complex, it is; fortunately, we have Alan Banks to sort it all out for us. While Annie Cabbot heads up the investigation in the UK, Banks and Passero head off to Estonia where things get increasingly curious--and dangerous.

It's an entertaining mystery with several twists and turns. It's fun to watch Banks in action again and to watch the relationship between him and Joanna Passero as well. The investigation is an intriguing one, and all in all, this is a nice addition to the series.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Kinky and Violent Tale from the Master, Lawrence Block

A wealthy New York couple, Richard and Amanda Thurman, arrives home at their upscale apartment after a night on the town. Several hours later, Richard punches out 9-1-1 with a pipe tool between his teeth, and the police arrive to find him beaten and tied up in the neighbors' apartment immediately below his own. Amanda Thurman, who was pregnant with the couple's first child, has been raped, beaten and strangled to death.

Thurman tells detectives that two men who had burgled the neighbors' apartment were just leaving when the Thurmans were coming up the stairs. The burglars forced the Thurmans into the apartment, bound and gagged him and committed the savage assault on his wife. Hours later, Thurman was able to partially undo the gag and call the police. The responding patrolmen found him with his hands and feet still bound. Something doesn't sit right about his story with the detectives, but there's no evidence to contradict it.

The story doesn't sit right with Amanda Thurman's brother, either. As a practical matter, all the money in the family belonged to Amanda who was also heavily insured. The brother believes that Richard Thurman killed Amanda, and the brother hires Matthew Scudder to look into the matter.

Richard Thurman is a producer for a cable television company. Scudder follows Thurman to a boxing arena where Thurman is producing a televised match. While there, Scudder sees something apparently unrelated but deeply disturbing. A few months earlier, another recovering alcoholic had approached Matt at an AA meeting, seeking his advice about a snuff film that had been taped over the middle of a commercial copy of "The Dirty Dozen." Matt looked into the matter but hit a dead end. Then, at the boxing match, he sees a man whom he believes was the "star" of the snuff film.

From that point on, Matt divides his time between investigating Richard Thurman and the man in the snuff film. As always, it's a gripping tale and a tour of what are, in this book especially, New York's very mean streets. It's a very kinky and violent tale with some particularly nasty villains and a shattering conclusion.

A number of familiar characters put in an appearance, including Elaine Mardell and Mick Ballou, and Matt's relationship with both of them is growing deeper. This is also the novel in which the street kid, TJ, first appears, and all-in-all, it's another great ride from Lawrence Block. This book deservedly won the MWA's Edgar Award for best novel and is a terrific addition to the series.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Alex Delaware Tags Along on Two Investigations, One Old and One New

I've been a fan of this series from the very beginning and thought that the early entries were really very good. I have mixed emotions about the later books in the series, some of which are still pretty good and others of which just don't work very well for me. The 28th, Guilt, falls into the latter category.

The story opens with the discovery of a child's skeleton that was buried in a strong box beneath a tree in a wealthy L.A. neighborhood. When the tree goes over in a storm, the box is unearthed and Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis is called to the scene. As often happens, he drags along his pal, Alex Delaware. Delaware is a psychologist who occasionally consults with the department.

It's apparent early on that the child was buried nearly sixty years earlier. It's impossible to determine the cause of death and investigating the case is going to be a nightmare. Then, a few days later, another child's skeleton is discovered in a nearby park near the body of a young woman who has been shot to death. This skeleton is much more recent and so, of course, is the body of the murdered woman.

The more recent murders become the prime focus of the investigation and Delaware shoulders a great deal of the load. The trail leads into the highest echelons of the Hollywood community and is going to require a great deal of finesse. Before it's over, some very gruesome crimes and behavior will be exposed.

Neither of the investigations in this book really grabbed me, and the second seemed pretty far-fetched. But what really bothers me about this and several of the other more recent books in the series is the way in which Alex Delaware, who is after all a civilian, becomes so deeply involved in cases where he has no professional expertise to lend.

In this book, Alex will go through the motions of providing psychological counseling to a couple of the people involved. But this is really tangential to the investigations and in no way justifies his involvement in the larger investigations. When Sturgis is called to the first scene, he and Alex are having lunch and Milo invites Alex to tag along because the case sounds "interesting." But no real police detective would ever do such a thing. He would tell Alex to grab a cab home and would leave the investigation to the professionals.

To have Alex up to his neck in these cases simply defies logic and makes it impossible, for this reader anyway, to suspend disbelief. At one point, Alex uncovers what could be a very critical piece of evidence and, instead of turning it over to Milo, goes off to follow up the discovery himself, something that could seriously compromise the investigation.

I loved these books when Alex was legitimately involved and his services as a psychologist were critical to the cases and their solutions. Now that he's just tagging along in many cases with no legitimate reason for being involved, these books aren't nearly as interesting or unique. I confess, I'm also losing patience with Milo's piggish eating habits, which helped define the character early on but which, after all this time, are simply becoming gross.