Friday, August 22, 2014

George Sueno, Super-Spy (Or Not)

This is the eighth entry in Martin Limon's series featuring U.S. Army Sergeants Sueno and Bascom, and the first of the books that left me only lukewarm.

The series is set in South Korea in the 1970s. Sueno and Bascom are army detectives; their job is to investigate crimes involving American soldiers and also to ensure that the American forces in South Korea are never embarrassed. For the army brass, the second half of the job description is much the more important, but Sueno and Bascom are always much more interested in finding the truth, irrespective of how the army might look when their investigation is concluded.

Sueno and Bascom are great characters; Sueno is more cerebral while Bascom is more physical and so they make a terrific team. Their investigations area always great fun to follow, especially when they run afoul of their army bosses and their counterparts in the Korean police forces. Most important is the setting, which Limon brilliantly re-creates in book after book. The reader always feels as though he or she had been dropped down in the middle of South Korea to watch the events unfold first hand.

For whatever reason, though, this book deviates from the pattern established in the series in a number of ways, none of them for the better. To begin with, Sueno carries the story alone, and Bascom makes only a very brief token appearance. The interaction between the two is one of the great strengths of these books and it's missing altogether here.

Beyond that, this isn't even a crime novel; rather it's a spy thriller and only a moderately successful one at that. The premise of the book is the belief that the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, is determined to launch a military offensive against the South to unite the two halves of Korea before he hands control over to his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il (and, as David Letterman would say, his brother, Menta Li-Il).

Rumors are circulating that there is an ancient map depicting a series of tunnels that run beneath the DMZ and that could be used as a secret passage through which the army might move men and equipment into the North behind the front lines established by the North Koreans. Sueno is sent on a secret mission into North Korea to find the map, check out the tunnel route, and report back.

The story that follows is completely implausible. Sueno, who speaks no Romanian, is smuggled into North Korea disguised as a Romanian military officer. His job is to infiltrate the North Korean military as an officer of a fellow Warsaw Pact nation. He faces one complication after another, and manages to barely escape each only by the skin of his teeth. After about the fifth or sixth time this happens, the reader is simply left shaking his or her head in disbelief, which simply cannot be suspended.

The book is saved to some extent by Limon's excellent rendering of the Korean Peninsula, it's people, society and culture. As always, this is very entertaining, but for me at least, this book lacked the charm, humor and believable intrigue that has characterized the series up to this point. I'll be very relieved to get on to the next book in the series wherein, I hope, Sueno and Bascom will be back on the job together, doing what they do best, policing the mean streets of Seoul.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

This is a very well done atmospheric novel set in rural Mississippi. The story is told in scenes that alternate between the 1970s and the present day. At the heart of the story are two men, one white, the other black, who for a brief period of time as boys were secretly close friends in a time and place where their friendship, if public, would have only brought them trouble.

The white man is Larry Ott, the only child of a lower class family. His father was a mechanic who seemed to have little patience for or interest in his son. Even as a boy, Larry was quiet and withdrawn. With no athletic or social skills, he had no friends at all, was ridiculed at school, and gradually withdrew into a world of books. In high school he had only one date, which ended tragically when the girl he had taken out disappeared and was never seen again.

The entire county believes that Larry raped and killed the girl and then buried her body. Since the body was never recovered and since there was no physical evidence to connect Larry to her disappearance, he was never prosecuted. But now derided as "Scary Larry," he is even more ostracized and his family disintegrates in the wake of the tragedy.

Twenty-five years later, Larry is still living in the family home, alone now, tending to the chickens and still reading his books. Every day, he drives into the garage he inherited from his father and waits in vain for any customer to appear, but no one in the small community will have anything to do with him. Then another young woman disappears and all eyes turn to Larry as the obvious suspect.

Larry's black boyhood friend was Silas Jones, a gifted athlete known as "32," the number he wore on his baseball uniform. Silas was raised as the only son of a black single mother and never knew who his father might have been. For a brief time, Silas and his mother lived in an abandoned shack on property owned by Larry's father, which is how the two boys briefly became friends.

Shortly after the first young woman went missing, Silas left the area to go to college and pursue his dream of a career in baseball. Now he's back, serving as the town constable, and he sees no reason to make an effort to renew his friendship with Larry Ott. But the disappearance of the second woman will throw the two men together again, whether they like it or not.

The crimes at the heart of the story serve principally as a backdrop for the larger story of the relationship between Larry and "32," and watching that story unfold is a very rich and rewarding reading experience--one of my favorite books of the year thus far.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Matthew Scudder Finds Eight Million Ways to Die

Every time I post a review of one of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels, my strong temptation is always to begin by saying that this is one of my favorite books in the series. The problem is that I love every last one of them and so they're all my favorites, which I guess makes Eight Million Ways to Die one of my Most Favorites.

The story at the heart of the novel is fairly simple and straightforward. A beautiful young call girl named Kim Dakkinen wants to leave the business, but she's worried that her pimp might object and perhaps harm her if she tells him that she's abandoning ship. So, on the recommendation of Elaine Mardell, a call girl with whom Scudder has been intimate, Kim asks Scudder to intercede and speak to the pimp on her behalf.

As most crime fiction fans know, Scudder is an ex-cop who now works as an unlicensed P.I. He also has a problem with alcohol that is getting progressively more serious, which is why, when the young woman first consults him, she finds Scudder in his "office" at Armstrong's saloon.

Scudder agrees to take the case and tracks down the pimp, whose name is Chance and who seems to be unusually wise and sophisticated for someone in his profession. Chance assures Matt that Kim is perfectly free to leave if she so pleases. Chance insists that hookers are a dime a dozen, and that he'll have no problem at all replacing her in his string.

Everything seems copacetic, but then, a couple of nights later, poor Kim turns up savagely hacked to death in a hotel bedroom. Scudder assumes that he's been betrayed by the pimp and feels a moral obligation to bring the killer to justice. From there the story takes more than a few interesting turns before ending in one of the best conclusions of any book in the series.

It's always fun to watch Scudder investigate a crime. This story is set in the early 1980s, before the invention of all the technological innovations that are now available to a P.I., and so Matt will spend a lot of time walking around town, talking to people and attempting to sort things out. He also spends a lot of time looking for working pay phones. But what sets this series apart from virtually any other is the fantastic job that Lawrence Block does in developing the character of Matthew Scudder.

Scudder's descent into alcoholism began with the very first book in the series, The Sins of the Fathers, and as I suggested above, it has grown progressively worse until by this point Scudder's health and, indeed, his very life are seriously at risk. Scudder wrestles with the problem as he struggles to solve the murder and watching him do so is as gripping as the plot of any crime novel. Block handles it brilliantly, and the way he does so, for me at least, makes this book one of the true standouts in what remains my favorite series of crime novels.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sheriff Quinn Colson Faces Storms both Personal and Professional

The Broken Places is the third installment in Ace Atkins' Quinn Colson series, and it's the best one yet, which is saying something given that the first two were really very good.

Colson, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, has returned home to the small rural town of Jericho, Mississippi, and has become the county sheriff. A year into the job, he's still feeling his way along and adjusting into his new life. Also returning home is Quinn's sister, Caddy, a troubled young single mother with a small son--a woman who's lived a hard life already and is struggling to gain some purchase.

The problem is that Caddy has taken up with an ex-con named Jamey Dixon. Dixon, also from Jericho, was convicted of murder and sent to Mississippi's infamous Parchman Farm. There, he claimed to have had a conversion experience and managed to earn a theology degree in a prison program. Shortly thereafter, he somehow managed to get a very mysterious pardon from the state governor. He's now back in Jericho, claiming to be redeemed and starting his own church.

Virtually no one is buying into his program, certainly not Quinn Colson and most certainly not the family of the woman Dixon was accused of killing. The one exception is Caddy Colson, who seems to be blinded by love and who believes that Dixon is completely sincere and that he was railroaded into prison to begin with.

As the story opens, two hardened criminals, imprisoned for an armored car robbery escape from Parchman and head to Jericho to rendezvous with Jamey Dixon. Dixon had befriended them in prison and they believe he is holding the money for the robbery in trust for them.

Inevitably, all sorts of devious complications ensue, causing a variety of headaches both personal and professional for Quinn Colson. And if that were not enough, a major storm is bearing down on Jericho, threatening the town's very survival. It all makes for a great, page-turning story with a terrific climax.

Atkins writes beautifully and creates believable and memorable characters. He also creates a very strong sense of place, and as all of these storms, natural and man-made, begin to descend on Jericho, the reader feels as if he or she were directly in the line of fire. It's a great read, and I can hardly wait for the next book in the series.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Detective Danny Beckett Anchors This Excellent Police Procedural

On a hot late summer night in Long Beach, California, three teenage gang members chase down a homeless man, douse him with gasoline and burn him to death. They're captured within minutes of committing the crime and the case against them seems open and shut, especially since one of the three recorded the horrific crime on video.

Homicide detective Danny Beckett leads the investigation and is determined to build as strong a case as possible. The three young killers have lawyered up and refuse to offer any explanation for their action. Even when each of them is offered the possibility of a lighter sentence for giving evidence against the other two, they all refuse. What could they be hiding? An even more likely question: Who could they be so afraid of that they would maintain their wall of silence?

Beyond determining the motive for the crime, Danny is driven even more by the desire to identify the victim, who is known only by the street name, "Bishop," and to flesh out the events of his life. This will help personalize the victim for a jury and increase the chances of a conviction. But before long the quest to know "Bishop" becomes something of an obsession for Danny who will not rest until he has the answers he now feels compelled to seek. And the deeper he delves into the case, the more complex--and dangerous--it becomes.

This is a very well done police procedural, with authentic and sympathetic characters in an expertly-drawn setting. Dilts is a very good writer, and what sets this book apart from so many others is his--and Beckett's--concern for the victim. In so many crime novels, the victim is often the least important character in the story and is often virtually forgotten once the book is under way. But Dilts reminds us here that the victims may be the most important characters of all and that they need to be understood and respected, perhaps even more so than any of the rest of us.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Easy Rawlins Is Back From the Dead

At the end of his last outing, 2007's Blonde Faith, Easy Rawlins went flying off a cliff in his car, presumably plunging to his death on the rocks below. Happily, that proved not to be the case. After everyone else had given up hope, Easy's best friend, Raymond, "Mouse" Alexander, comes struggling back up to the highway, bearing Easy's broken body on his shoulders. Easy remains in a semi-coma for some time, and when he finally awakens, he's really not sure whether he's dead or alive.

As one might imagine, after being so badly injured and after being in bed for so long, Easy is weak as a kitten and still in a lot of pain. Nonetheless, Mouse persuades Easy to rise from his sickbed, against the advice of everyone else, and go searching for a missing boy, Evander Noon, whom Mouse refers to as "Little Green." The relationship between Mouse and Little Green is more than a little mysterious, but Easy agrees to take on the job.

Given that he can hardly walk more than a few steps at a time, it would appear that Easy has his work cut out for him. Fortunately, a witchy woman named Mama Jo fixes him up with several vials of a "medicine" she calls Gator's Blood. One shot in the morning will restore Easy's strength for an entire day and so he's good to go.

Little Green was last seen headed for the Sunset Strip and so that's where Easy begins his investigation. It's 1967, the dawn of a new age in America. Hippies are everywhere; free love and the smell of good dope are in the air, and Easy isn't sure what to make of it all. Of course it's also shortly after the infamous Watts Riots and Easy is still well aware of his tenuous place as a black man in a white society, where many, including a lot of cops, are not yet ready to recognize him as an equal citizen.

Inevitably, the disappearance of Little Green will turn into a much larger and more sinister affair. The case itself is only marginally interesting, but as is always the case in these books, the real pleasure lies in watching Easy navigate his way through the larger world around him. Mosley writes brilliantly and, through his protagonist, has a great deal to say about the culture and society of the Sixties. It's great to have Easy and his surrounding cast finally back again.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Introducing Eli Sharpe

Almario “Go Go” Gato is a teenage baseball sensation, one of the best prospects that professional scouts have seen in years. The young man manages to escape from his home in Cuba and ultimately make his way to the U.S., where he signs a huge contract with the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies send him to their Class A club in Asheville, North Carolina, and midway through a disappointing rookie season, Go Go goes missing.

Enter Eli Sharpe, himself a former major league player turned private detective. Eli, who lives in Asheville, makes his living doing background checks on prospective players for a variety of baseball clubs. Four days after Gato disappears, Eli is contacted by Gato’s agent, the very tall and sexy Veronica Craven. Craven, like Eli, is fairly cool under fire, but she is understandably desperate to find her most important client before his career is jeopardized beyond repair. She figures that Eli is the man best equipped to find him.

The natural place to start the search is with Go Go’s only other relative, his twin sister, Maria. When Go Go signed his contract, the first thing he did was to send money to have Maria and their parents smuggled out of Cuba to the U.S. But in an accident on the way, the parents drowned. Maria is now living with Go Go in an expensive high-rise apartment and, having lost her parents so tragically, she pleads with Eli to find the only family member she has left.

Sadly, it would appear that the young phenom has fallen in with bad company. He may be abusing drugs and alcohol; it appears that he has ditched his very attractive and willing girlfriend for a rather slutty and conniving waitress, and the deeper Eli gets into the case, the more perplexing it becomes. Fortunately he has several ex-fianc├ęs who are still attracted to him and some of whom are in a position to help further the investigation. And, like any other successful P.I., Eli has a contact in the police department who can funnel to him information that otherwise would not be available to a member of the general public. But in the end, it will be down to Eli himself to solve this very puzzling case.

Go Go Gato is the debut entry in a promising new series by Max Everhart, and it’s a fast-paced, entertaining tale. Eli Sharpe is a very appealing character who combines just the right amounts of wit, humor, intelligence and courage, and it will be fun to watch him in action as the series continues to grow and develop.