Saturday, April 30, 2016

Another Great Novel of Urban Corruption from W. R. Burnett

This is a book that will have strong appeal for readers who enjoy classic, hard-boiled novels from the early 1950's. W. R. Burnett, who was also a prolific screenwriter, was a master of the genre, and among his other books are Little Caeser,High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle, all of which were made into classic films.

Burnett specialized in novels about urban corruption, andVanity Row is set in an unspecified large city, perhaps modeled after Chicago. The city is tightly controlled by bosses tied to a criminal syndicate, and as the book opens, a powerful lawyer named Frank Hobart is gunned down. The initial impression is that mobsters associated with the syndicate may have killed Hobart.

The city's political boss calls in Captain Roy Hargis, a brilliant and powerful policeman who deals with sensitive matters. The orders for Hargis are clear: Find someone to take the rap for the killing; get the heat off the bosses and get things back to normal ASAP. Hobart was in a stormy relationship with Ilona Vance, a woman of questionable character, as they used to say back in the day. The Powers That Be suggest that Ilona might make an excellent fall guy (or woman).

Hargis appears to have no problem with this idea until he meets the lady in question. Ilona is a large but exceptionally beautiful woman who seems to exert a strange power over every man she meets. And once Hargis lays eyes on her, all bets are out the window.

It's a great story and Burnett creates a wonderful cast of characters to populate it, beginning with a young newsboy who witnesses the killing and who doesn't take crap from anyone, including the cops. All in all, a fine way to spend an evening.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

James Swain and Tony Valentine Leave the Reader Hanging

I've been a huge fan of James Swain's Tony Valentine series from the time the first book in the series, Grift Sense, was published. But the first time I read this entry, it really annoyed me and then it annoyed me all over again the second time around, even though I knew what was coming.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Valentine is an ex-cop from Atlantic City who retired and opened a firm called Grift Sense. Tony is a consultant who helps casinos combat "grifters" who attempt to cheat at casino games. Tony excels at spotting the myriad of ways in which unscrupulous people attempt to gain an illegal edge over the casinos. He's a unique and very engaging protagonist, and in telling these stories, James M. Swain exposes a variety of interesting cons that grifters have used over the years.

Tony also has a son, Gerry, who has been a pain in the ass from day one. But Tony loves his son; he constantly supports him and has given him chance after chance after chance to straighten up and fly right. He's now even taken Gerry into the business with him in the hope that this will encourage the kid to grow up. The best one can say is that Gerry is making progress, but as this book suggests, he's still got a long way to go.

The story opens with Gerry in the hospital, comforting a friend who is dying. The friend insists that he has developed a fool-proof way to cheat at poker. He taught the system to some guys who are going to use it in a poker tournament in Vegas, only now they're refusing to pay him. Someone else has offered to buy the system for $100,000. Gerry's dying friend wants him to make the sale and give the money to the dying man's mother.

Gerry knows that his father would definitely not approve, but a friend's a friend and so Gerry agrees. But while Gerry steps out of the room, someone slips in, finishes off the dying friend and steals the bag containing the secret system. The only thing remaining is a card that the dying man is clutching from the Celebrity Casino in Vegas.

Gerry appeals to his father for help in avenging the murder of his friend. Tony reluctantly agrees, with the understanding that Gerry will take his wife and child on a vacation while Tony sorts things out. Tony goes to Vegas and checks into the Celebrity, which is hosting the World Poker Showdown. A novice player named Skip DeMarco is beating the pants off of seasoned players and advancing rapidly toward the finals of the tournament. One of the other professional players insists that DeMarco is cheating. Tony agrees that it would be virtually impossible for anyone to be as good or as lucky as DeMarco appears, but if he is cheating, Tony can't figure out how.

The situation is quickly complicated by the fact that Gerry being Gerry, he breaks his promise to his father and flies to Vegas instead of going on vacation. He's determined to figure out who killed his friend, but before long he's in a world of trouble and this time even his father may not be able to save him.

The story progresses along several tracks as Tony attempts to save his son while at the same time trying to figure out how Skip DeMarco is cheating his way through the poker tournament. It's a very entertaining romp and then suddenly, with absolutely no notice, the book simply ends. Swain wraps up the thread relating to Gerry's situation, but as the reader turns the last page of the book, the poker tournament is still underway and Tony still has absolutely no idea how DeMarco might be gaming the system.

This is why I and, I suspect, an awful lot of other readers were left so frustrated with the book. The main plot ends right in the middle of the damned story and the next book in the series, Deadman's Bluff, picks up right where this one left off. There's absolutely no indication on the cover that this novel is part of a two-book series and that the reader will be left hanging until the second book appears.

Like most readers, I don't expect every thread of a crime novel to be neatly tied off at the end of the book, but I don't think it unreasonable to expect that the main plot will somehow be resolved. The fact that Swain leaves the reader hanging like this really angered me when I first read the book and, as I suggested above, it angered me all over again this time, even though this time the next book is sitting right next to this one on my shelf and I can turn to it immediately. Four stars reduced to three for initially making me wait several months to see how the story would end.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska Face a Clever Killer and a Tragic Victim

There's a very good story lurking somewhere in here, but unfortunately it's buried in a 500-page book that's about 150 pages too long. It gets off to a roaring start on a New Year's Eve, when a Lexus sedan hits a pothole, of which there are apparently many in Minneapolis. The trunk springs open and a young woman, who's dead or nearly dead, is thrown out of the trunk and is hit by a stretch hummer carrying a group of inebriated and half-naked party goers. At first sight, the victim resembles a zombie and while the police attempt to establish her identity, she becomes known as Zombie Doe.

The case falls to detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. Their first instinct is to think that the young woman might have been the ninth victim of a serial killer named Doc Holiday who has been murdering young women and scattering their bodies around the Midwest. Three of them have been left in the Minneapolis area.

Kovac and Liska must first identify the victim and then determine how she might have fallen into the clutches of her killer, whether it's Doc Holiday or not. Then, of course, they will have to catch the killer, and none of these will be easy tasks. For Liska, the problem is complicated by the fact that she is a single mother of two sons, one of whom is a teenager going through a very difficult time. The boy is being bullied in school and frankly needs more attention from his mother than she can provide at the moment. Meanwhile, Doc Holiday is following the investigation from a distance and has already selected his next victim.

Again, there's a gripping story here, but Hoag spends a great deal of time detailing the problems of Liska and her troubled son. And every time Hoag turns to that subplot, the book comes to a screeching halt. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was already tired of Liksa and her son, and I was growing increasingly impatient with Hoag for not getting on with the story. It gives nothing away to say that her son's problems may be germane to the larger plot of the book. But those sections could have been significantly condensed without doing any harm to the story and it would have made for a much more taut and suspenseful book.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Chief Inspector Alan Banks Confronts the Children of the Revolution

The twenty-first entry in this long-running series pits Chief Inspector Alan Banks against his own superiors as well as a clever killer and a group of reluctant witnesses. 

The body of a man who is obviously down and out is found under a bridge near an abandoned railway line. He has all the hallmarks of a man who is virtually homeless, save for the fact that he's got five thousand pounds in his pocket.

It turns out that the victim, Gavin Miller, was once a college professor who was forced out of his position after allegations of sexual misconduct. He's been on the skids ever since. Banks and his subordinates discover that, in his youth as a college student, Miller was connected to people who have now moved into the upper crust of British society. The evidence suggest that some of these people may have played a role in Miller's death, but when Banks asks these people some relatively innocuous questions, they complain and his supervisors warn him off and tell him to look elsewhere for his suspects. 

Well, what's a copper to do? If you're Alan Banks, of course, you're going to follow the trail wherever it might lead you and if that gets you into trouble, so be it. While his supervisors insist that Miller's death probably had something to do with drug dealing, Banks becomes increasingly convinced that the real cause of his murder stems back to things that happened years earlier. 

The case takes a lot of interesting twists and turns and in the meantime, of course, Banks will listen to a lot of music, much of it from his own days as a younger person. But in the end, of course, truth will out and this turns out to be another very good addition to this series.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

An Awful Lot of Money Is Causing Headaches for the Detectives of the 87th Precinct

In one of those odd twists of fate, this book was first published on September 6, 2001, and one of the threads in the book involves a terrorist plot against a target in Isola, which is the author's thinly veiled stand-in for New York City. Five days later, McBain was out touring in support of the book and in the wake of the terrorists' attacks of that day, he was forced to abandon the tour, rent a car and drive back home to NYC.

The book opens with a former combat pilot who flew missions in the Gulf War named Cassandra Jean Ridley. Cassandra is now making a series of secret flights back and forth across the Mexican border, serving as a courier between drug buyers and sellers. It's a very lucrative endeavor, and after completing her last mission, Cassandra moves east to the Big City, with a profit of $210,000.

The book really gets rolling when a burglar breaks into Cassandra's apartment and steals a couple of her newly-purchased fur coats along with $8500 that she was keeping in a shoe box. Cassandra calls the cops and reports the theft of the coats, but she then discovers that the burglar has accidentally left what amounts to a calling card behind. She tracks the guy down herself and recovers her coats and most of her money at gunpoint, but not before the burglar has spent one of her hundred dollar bills in a bar. In fairly short order, the Secret Service also shows up at the burglar's door, suggesting that the hundred dollar bill he spent might have been counterfeit.

Not long after, bodies are dropping left and right and detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer are attempting to sort things out. Then to further complicate matters, someone wanders naked into the zoo and gets eaten by a pack of lions. One of the lions is inconsiderate enough to drag one of the victim's legs across the imaginary line that divides the 87th Precinct from the 88th, and that, in turn, much to Carella's consternation, allows detective Fat Ollie Weeks from the 88th to horn in on the investigation. 

McBain has created an especially good cast of characters for this novel and some of the action takes place in a publishing firm. Fat Ollie, who is now taking piano lessons, decides that in addition to being a world-class pianist, he could also be a best-selling author. McBain has a great deal of fun with the idea, and indeed, the next book in the series is Fat Ollie's Book. And, in the middle of it all, there's the above-mentioned attack that terrorists are planning against the city.

All in all, it's another very good addition to the series and a book that will appeal, not only to fans of the series, but also to lots of readers who have not yet discovered the 87th Precinct.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Quinn Colson Faces Problems Both Personal and Professional

This is another excellent addition to Ace Atkins' Quinn Colson series. In the first book, The Ranger, Colson, who served as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq, returned home to Tibbehah County in northeastern Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, he was elected County Sheriff, and he has spent the first three books in the series wrestling with a series of challenges confronting the county and a number of personal problems as well, involving his immediate family.

These problems continue into the present volume. Because of their actions at the conclusion of the previous book, Quinn and his lead deputy, Lillie Virgil, are facing trumped up criminal charges that could cost them their jobs and send them both to prison. At the same time, County Commissioner Johnny Stagg, a corrupt old reprobate who controls virtually all of the vice in Tibbehah County faces a worrisome problem of his own. Twenty years ago, most criminal behavior in the area was run by a man named Chains LeDoux, the leader of an outlaw biker gang. Stagg was instrumental in sending LeDoux to prison before taking over most of the criminal activity in the area, but now LeDoux is finally being paroled and has made it clear that he intends to return home and take revenge against Stagg. Stagg has been a thorn in the side of Quinn Colson ever since Colson became sheriff and he now concocts a scheme attempting to use Colson to send LeDoux right back to prison.

Finally, an ugly incident from the county's past has now also reared its head again. Thirty-six years earlier, two young girls were attacked one night. One girl was raped; the other was murdered. While sheriff's deputies stood aside and watched, a mob trapped a man they believed to be guilty of the crime, then lynched him and set fire to the body. The girl who survived the attack has now returned home as a mature woman and has asked that the case be reopened, suggesting that the mob may have killed the wrong man.

Quinn Colson must wrestle with all of these problems while at the same time attempting to protect his own freedom and to sort out some very serious family issues that also have their roots deep in the past. It's a complex job and Atkins brilliantly weaves the threads of the story in a way that keeps the reader on edge from beginning to end. These are all engaging and believable characters and the setting of Tibbehah County is expertly rendered. The reader feels that he is riding right along side Colson as he drives the dusty county roads, fighting against the various corrupt forces that threaten both him and his home county. A great read.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Young Attorney Takes on Big Coal in Appalachia

I've been a long-time fan of John Grisham's legal thrillers, but this book didn't grab me the way most of them have. The characters were not nearly as interesting as they usually are and the story was not nearly as compelling. Grisham has written earlier about the economic, social and political problems caused in Appalachia by the big coal companies that have been so critical to the economies of the states in this region, and this book serves principally as a caution about the problems caused by mountain top removal--strip mining on a giant scale to get at the coal embedded in the mountains--which has devastating consequences for the environment and for the people who live in these regions.

Certainly the problem is a legitimate one and might be worthy of any number of novels that might treat it. But Grisham seems so determined to lay out the issues that the story often seems to take a back seat to his expose and the book suffers as a result.

At the center of the action is a young attorney named Samantha Kofer. She's on the fast track at a giant Wall Street law firm, but then the recession of 2008 hits and she finds herself on the street with hundreds of other young lawyers. Her firm offers her the chance to take an unpaid internship out of the city, with the hope that she will ultimately be able to return to the firm when the economy recovers.

Samantha winds up taking a job at a legal aid clinic in Brady, Virginia, a tiny town and a law firm light years away from the life she enjoyed in NYC. Her clients are very poor people who suffer from a variety of problems like domestic abuse, debt, and criminal charges both major and minor. Samantha is a fish totally out of water and has never encountered issues like this before in her career. As a practical matter, until now she's never even seen the inside of a court room.

The community of Brady lives and dies with the coal industry, and the companies that dominate the region are guilty of the most malicious actions against the people and the environment. Even at the federal level, the laws have been written largely to accommodate the coal companies and even then they violate the law right and left, rarely even suffering a slap on the wrist if and when they get caught. Black lung disease and other health problems take a terrible toll on the people of Appalachia, but the companies eat them up, spit them out and couldn't care less about the consequences of their actions. Their only concern is maximizing the numbers on the bottom line. The people of the region are deeply divided about the coal companies. Some are fed up and want to bring the companies to heel, but the majority are grateful for the jobs the companies provide, irrespective of the damage they do.

Early on, Samantha takes a case involving a miner with an advanced case of Black Lung disease. The company for which he works is attempting to screw him out of even the modest benefits that the law provides him as a victim of Black Lung and Samantha agrees to try to help. She soon becomes involved with a pair of brothers, one of whom is also a lawyer, and who are attempting to bring the coal companies to heel by means both fair and foul. Through the course of the book, we watch as the Good Guys attempt to score even a few relatively minor victories against Big Coal. The Bad Guys will fight them tooth and nail and they have a lot more money and other resources to bring to the contest. Before long, peoples' lives will be in danger and the question becomes whether Samantha will even survive, let alone score any sort of a legal victory here.

It's not a bad book, and it may be instructive for people who haven't followed the battle over the activity of coal companies in Appalachia through the years. But Grisham is so determined to make the case against Big Coal that the story suffers. It's an OK read, but not one of his better efforts.