Monday, April 14, 2014

Into the Thicket with Joe R. Lansdale

By turns violent and hilarious, The Thicket is Joe R. Lansdale in peak form.

The book is set in East Texas, early in the Twentieth century, just as the oil boom is reaching that area. Sadly, a smallpox epidemic has swept through the region, and sixteen-year-old Jack Parker and his fourteen-year-old sister, Lula have lost their parents to the disease.

In the company of their grandfather, the children are leaving Texas to live with a relative in Kansas. But the journey has barely begun when a group of savage bank-robbing outlaws kills the grandfather and abducts Lula. Jack runs to the law, but the sheriff has been murdered; the deputy has been frightened into resigning, and so Jack his left to his own devices if he is to rescue his sister.

He teams up with a group of accomplices that only the mind of Joe R. Lansdale could conceive. They include a bounty-hunting midget, an alcoholic grave digger who keeps a feral pig as a pet, and Jimmie Sue, a prostitute who winds up sweet on young Jack. The villains they are pursuing are as dark and amoral as anyone could imagine, and Jack is constantly reminded by his new-found friends that even if they do recover Lula, she will doubtless have been very ill-used in the meantime. To say that the author has created a number of memorable characters here would be the understatement of the year.

The manhunt takes a number of twists and turns, and the story, which is vaguely reminiscent of True Grit, rolls along without the slightest boring moment to a smashing climax. From start to finish, it's a true Lansdale epic that will appeal to any of his fans, old or new.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Engrossing Tale from the Early Years of the "War on Drugs"

This is an excellent thriller set in the early days of the "War on Drugs." It's the Bicentennial year of 1976, and the cocaine epidemic that would soon sweep over the U.S. is looming just over the horizon. For the moment, at least, the drug business here is still a relatively laid-back industry, dominated by relatively small-timers most of whom are growing and selling pot.

The narrator, who remains unnamed for a good long time, is a Vietnam vet. He and his partner, Colt Freeman, have a small marijuana patch in northern California and have been making a comfortable living for several years. But they now face increased scrutiny from the law and worse, violent elements, tied to the Columbian drug cartels, are moving into the area, attempting to take over the marijuana business by force. Colt and his partner see the handwriting on the wall and are anxious to get in one last crop before closing up shop. But that will prove to be much easier said than done.

Far to the south, on the Mexican/California border, a couple of bent border patrol cops are in league with a Mexican drug kingpin who's been moving illegal aliens across the border. But the drug lord is now moving into cocaine, and he's anxious to begin shipping large amounts into the U.S. along with the illegals.

The drug lord, Miguel Zamora, is the local "King" of a small rural area that he dominates like a feudal lord. He holds his subjects in complete subservience and in partnership with corrupt Mexican government officials, he has opened business with the Columbians to move white powder through Mexico and into the U.S.

But Zamora has become a little too enamored of his own product and is becoming increasingly unstable. This poses problems for his partners, for his "subjects" and for his aristocratic wife who, in effect, has become his hostage.

Much of the book moves along parallel tracks, moving back and forth between the developments in northern California and those along the border and in Mexico, until both threads of the story converge in a brilliant climax. This is a great and often violent story with lots of interesting and well-drawn characters, and it's virtually guaranteed to hold your interest from the first page to the very last.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lucas Davenport Fights Crime in the Frozen North Country

The fourteenth installment in John Sandford's Prey series finds that some major changes have transformed the life of the series protagonist, former Minneapolis cop Lucas Davenport. Lucas is now married and the father of an infant son. And, in the wake of a political shakeup, Davenport's long-time boss, police chief Rose Marie Roux is now the head of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Rose Marie has taken Lucas along with her and he is now head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. (When asked recently why the agency was named the Bureau Criminal Apprehension rather than Bureau of Criminal Investigations, as is the case in many other states, Sandford responded that it's because the Bureau doesn't investigate criminals, it catches them.

The change allows Lucas to get out of the Minneapolis metro area, where he has mostly been confined until now, and conduct investigations anywhere in the state. He is basically in charge of handling politically sensitive investigations and he reports, through Rose Marie, directly to the governor. This case begins when Rose Marie calls Lucas early one cold winter morning to tell him that two people have been found hanged in the woods way up in an isolated region in the northern part of the state. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the victims is black, and some people are already tossing around the word "lynching."

A ghastly crime has been committed and a public relations disaster could be in the offing. The governor and Rose Marie order Lucas to take charge of the investigation and to defuse the situation before it gets completely out of hand. Lucas rounds up his most trusted sidekick, Del Capslock, who has accompanied him to the BCA, and the two head off into the frozen tundra.

The crime allows Lucas and Del to interact with a lot of colorful rural characters, including a bumbling sheriff with little or no actual law enforcement experience. The most interesting of the locals is twelve-year-old Letty West, a muskrat trapper who discovered the bodies while running her trap lines. Letty lives with her alcoholic mother out on the edge of town, basically in the middle of nowhere. She's tough beyond her years, extremely self-reliant and perhaps the smartest and most observant person in town. Certainly she's the most precocious, as Lucas quickly discovers.

Lucas also quickly discovers that there's a lot more to this situation than may have first met the eye. A number of curious residents inhabit the town, including a group of women known as the "nuns", who have taken over a former church and are ostensibly engaged in various charitable activities. Exactly what all of these people are doing, collected together in this town, becomes a critically important issue.

It also becomes apparent that the two victims of the hangings--certainly not the "lynchings" as Lucas keeps reminding people--were hardly stellar citizens. They were apparently involved in at least some minor, if not major, criminal activity, and this complicates the search for their killer.

As the book progresses, the situation becomes even more entangled; additional crimes are committed, and Lucas thus faces one of the more challenging cases of his career. As always, it's great fun watching him work, and the interactions between Lucas, Del, the locals, the media and the other law enforcement officials who are drawn to the scene are very entertaining. Ultimately, the action builds to a great climax, and the end result is another solid entry in a very fine series.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A New Jimmy Veeder Fiasco

Anthony Award winner Johnny Shaw returns to the Imperial Valley (“as far south and as far east as you could go in California”), for another Jimmy Veeder Fiasco. Shaw introduced Jimmy in 2010's Dove Season, and it's great to have him back.

The Imperial Valley is hard desert country full of tough, resilient people. It's a difficult place in which to try to eke out a living, but having returned home and taken over the family farm, Jimmy is determined to make a go of it, to provide for his family and to be as good a father as he can for his young son.

The biggest stumbling block in the path of Jimmy's road to solid citizenship is his long-time best friend, Bobby Maves. Bobby is recently single again, partying harder then ever, and all too often calling Jimmy in the middle of the night, luring him out of his home and away from his responsibilities, to go on another "Mavescapade." These adventures always involve a great deal of drinking, more than the occasional bar fight, and assorted general mischief such as "borrowing" a police car for a joyride. The hilarious opening chapter, which details the development of one such evening, is worth the price of the book all by itself.

As the story opens, Jimmy and Bobby are roused from a night of debauchery by the news that Bobby's sixteen-year-old daughter, Julie, has gone missing. Bobby barely knows the girl; he and Julie's mother, Becky, had a brief fling, and Bobby didn't know until a good deal later that he even had a daughter. Now that Julie is missing, though, Becky reaches out to Bobby for help and Bobby, in turn, reaches out to his best friend.

Bobby's idea of looking for his daughter seems to consist of creating the maximum amount of mayhem and seeing what shakes out. Julie has fallen in with a very bad crowd, and Bobby's basic plan is to beat the crap out of everyone she hung with until he finds out where she is. Jimmy tries to moderate Bobby's violent streak and take a more sensible approach to the search, but that ain't gonna happen.

Throughout the book, Jimmy is torn between his responsibilities to his own family and those he owes to Bobby, who has been his best friend since grade school, and a major theme of the novel involves the ties and the sometimes competing obligations that a person has to his family and to his friends. Being the best friend of a man like Bobby Maves is no picnic at times, and Jimmy is forced to make some impossibly hard choices.

As the search for Julie continues, both the violence and the hilarity escalate. There are some pretty serious villains in this book and some truly disturbing developments. But Shaw has a gift for walking a very fine line between humor and the genuinely darker side of life, and the result is a story that is often hilariously funny while at the same time extremely scary and often very touching.

In addition to being the author of three great novels, Shaw is also the editor of Blood & Tacos and the creator of another fantastic character, Chingon, "The World's Deadliest Mexican." It's clear that he knows the Imperial Valley and its people very well and that he has a deep affection for both. He's also a very talented writer who has created here a violent, bloody, drunken, rollicking adventure. Jimmy Veeder is a great character, and while I don't think I'd like to have Bobby Maves for a best friend myself, I'm eagerly looking forward to Jimmy's next fiasco. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Parable for Our Times

Brilliance is a captivating and thought-provoking thriller that serves at one level as a parable about the course of events in the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The premise of the plot is that beginning roughly in 1980, once percent of the babies born in the world were "Brilliants," highly-gifted geniuses with intellectual and other powers that dwarfed those of "Normals." The pattern was first recognized by a study in 1986, and since then, the world has watched with awe the accomplishments of the Brilliants. The most highly gifted among them--the Tier Ones--had incredible abilities. One of them, Erik Epstein, single-handedly proved to be so adept at anticipating the stock market that the government was force to close down the New York Stock Exchange after Epstein compiled a fortune of $300 billion, destroying the investments of countless others.

Inevitably many Normals feared that they were rapidly being shunted into obsolescence and that soon they would be irrelevant, perhaps even turned into the slaves of the Brilliants. Consequently some began to demand that the government should take steps to prevent the potential damage that the Brilliants might pose to the society and to the larger population.

Accordingly, the American government created a new agency, the Department of Analysis and Response (the DAR), to gauge the potential threat posed by the Brilliants and to react to it. The Brilliants insisted that they were American citizens and that the government had no right to curtail their freedoms simply because some Normals felt threatened by their gifts. Many Normals supported those arguments and the vast majority of Brilliants remained solid citizens, simply trying to live their lives without threatening anyone.

As the Brilliants began to dominate more and more aspects of the society though, even including the NFL, those who feared them grew louder and the government began limiting the freedom of the Brilliants. The Brilliants lobbied and marched for the maintenance of their rights, but a handful of them were ready to take more violent action in support of their rights.

For a number of years, the DAR limped along, underfunded and unable to get much traction in its campaign against the Brilliants. There were threats of a congressional investigation into the actions of the DAR, but then a Brilliant terrorist named John Smith led a brazen attack against a Washington, D.C. restaurant, assassinating a U.S. Senator and mercilessly gunning down 73 other men, women and children.

Surveillance video of the attack went viral, and the American public, stirred by the media, demanded revenge. Overnight, the DAR's budget was ramped up and its powers were greatly expanded, even to the point of giving some of its agents a license to kill. All children were now to be tested at the age of eight, and those testing as Tier One Brilliants would be removed from their families and sent to special "academies" in an effort to shape their gifts in a way that would not threaten the Normals.

Inevitably, many Brilliants felt threatened by these actions and acted to protect their rights as American citizens. A special unit of the DAR, the Equitable Response Unit, was commissioned to hunt down those perceived to be the greatest threats and who were branded as terrorists. Whether these "terrorists" were captured dead or alive seemed to be of little consequence.

One such agent is Nick Cooper. He's an ex-soldier, divorced with two small children. Cooper is himself a Brilliant, with a special talent for tracking down terrorists. He is appalled by their actions and, even though he supports traditional rights and liberties for the Brilliants, he believes that the extremists among them must be eliminated. The Holy Grail for Cooper and the rest of the Equitable Response Unit would be to kill John Smith, the mastermind of the attack in Washington.

After another terrorist attack, Cooper gets his chance to go after Smith. But at the same time, he discovers, much to his dismay, that his four-year-old daughter is almost certainly a Tier One Brilliant. This means that she will be taken from the family and sent to an academy--a thought that devastates Cooper who has seen the work of these academies up close and despises them.

Nick Cooper is now a man at war with himself, at once determined to kill the elusive John Smith while at the same time protecting his family. The result is a wild ride that leads to a shocking climax. Marcus Sakey has written a brilliant thriller both because it tells a terrifically engrossing story, and also because it raises some very troubling questions about the way in which a democratic society reacts to a perceived threat. The book should appeal to large numbers of readers.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Steve Carella Investigates Another Perplexing Case

Number 20 in the 87th Precinct series opens with a woman being brutally slashed to death while her young daughter cowers in the next room, playing with her favorite doll. The victim is a beautiful model who would have naturally attracted the attention of a good many men, but why would one of them want her dead?

Meanwhile, back in the squad room of the 87th Precinct, trouble is brewing as well. Detective Bert Kling is still grieving the loss of his fiancé and is alienating everyone on the squad, including the lieutenant, with his surly behavior. The Lieutenant has decided to transfer Kling out, and Kling's only remaining defender is Steve Carella. Carella asks the Lieutenant to partner him with Kling in an effort to solve the murder of the beautiful model.

Carella hopes that there's still time to salvage Kling, who was once a productive member of the squad. But early on in the case, Kling manages to alienate even the last friend he has in the precinct, and Carella orders him to go home. Just then, Carella discovers a clue that may break the case wide open, but absent a partner, he decides to pursue it alone.

Well, every reader knows this is going to be a huge mistake and the result is a very gripping tale with some interesting twists and turns. The result is one of the more entertaining books in this long-running series. A quick but very satisfying read.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Great New Protagonist from George Pelecanos

The Cut introduces Spero Lucas, a new protagonist from George Pelecanos, the creator of such venerable characters as Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos. And as much as I've enjoyed those other characters, I can't wait to read more books featuring this one.

Spero Lucas is in his late twenties, an ex-Marine recently returned home to Washington, D.C. from the war in Iraq. He grew up in a racially mixed household where his Greek-American parents adopted three of their four children. He's devoted to the memory of his late father, who was clearly the strongest influence in his life; he visits his mother regularly and is close to his brother, Leo, a school teacher. His relations with his other two siblings are strained.

Like many other young people who spent much of their twenties in the military service, Spero is anxious to make up for lost time, and he has an eye for attractive women, even though he still may have some things to learn about relating to them. He remains fit and strong and is an avid cyclist and kayaker.

Lucas has no desire to be confined to an office and prefers working for himself. He's now an investigator, working principally for a defense attorney, but he takes on the occasional job recovering stolen property. His cut is forty-percent of whatever he recovers, which makes him a bargain relative to the legendary Travis McGee who always took fifty percent.

As the book opens, an imprisoned drug dealer hires Spero to recover three marijuana shipments that have been stolen from the D.C. crew that he runs from his cell. The crew cleverly Fed-Exes the dope to addresses where then know that the occupants will be away for the day. They then track the shipments on their smart phones and swoop in to pick them off the porches minutes after Fed Ex drops them off.

However, someone's managed to beat the crew to three deliveries within a matter of weeks, and the drug lord wants the thieves tracked down and the dope recovered. Lucas has no moral qualms about people who smoke weed--he smokes the occasional joint himself--and so takes the job. Given the value of the shipments involved, it could mean a huge payday for him.

Naturally, Lucas is now plunged into a world of seedy, amoral drug dealers, and before long, what seemed like a relatively simple investigation has become a complicated and very dangerous morass. A number of innocent parties get caught in the crossfire, and there's a very real chance that Spero's first major case may also be his last.

As usual, Pelecanos is at his best describing the D.C. environs that he knows and loves so well. There are, as always, a large number of musical references, most of them even more obscure than usual. (Or perhaps it just seems so to this reader who doesn't listen to much reggae. Happily, though, I am up to speed on The Hold Steady.) The dialogue is pitch perfect; the characters are all well-developed and the story carries you right along. I've been a huge fan of Pelecanos for years and, as I suggested above, I'm really looking forward to reading more of Spero Lucas.