Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lucas Davenport Chases a Fiendish Kille and Debates the 100 Best Songs of the Rock Era

This is another very entertaining entry in John Sandford's long-running Prey series, featuring Lucas Davenport. As most crime fiction fans know, Lucas worked his way up through the Minneapolis P.D. chasing a variety of twisted, violent killers. Now he's followed his boss, Rose Marie Roux, into a state job that allows, or requires, him to work high profile cases all over the state.

This one poses a serious challenge and pits Davenport against one of the most clever and ruthless killers he's ever faced. And unlike most of the Prey novels, even the reader doesn't know who the killer is until Davenport learns the truth very near the end of the book.

The case begins when a young woman is found murdered. The victim had been been sadistically whipped with what appears to be a barbed-wire lash before her throat was cut. Her body was then left naked and on display near a river bank. It's clear that a violent maniac is at work and the case is high profile enough to demand Davenport's attention, assisted by his long-time team member, Sloan, who is still working homicide for the Minneapolis PD and who draws the case.

Shortly thereafter, another victim, this time a male, is found raped, scourged and murdered in a similar fashion. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, though, blood found under the fingernails of the second victim provides a DNA match with a sex offender named Charlie Pope who was recently released from a state mental institution. Pope is now in the wind and the chase is on.

What follows is a genuine page-turner with a variety of unexpected twists and turns. The tension rises from the git-go and is broken only by one of Sandford's most entertaining subplots. Davenport's wife, Weather, has given him a new iPod. (The book was first published in 2005, only a few years after the device was introduced.) She's also given him a gift certificate for 100 songs. Lucas is determined to load the iPod with the one hundred best songs of the Rock Era and throughout the book, everyone has suggestions for the list. The discussions are often hilarious and one could debate the final list, which is added as an appendix, into eternity. All in all, it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Matthew Scudder Is Out on the Cutting Edge

Matthew Scudder is now three years sober, but he's still living in his tiny Hell's Kitchen hotel room and prowling the increasingly mean streets of New York as an unlicensed P.I. Crime is rising; the city seems dirtier than ever, and the number of homeless and other street people seems to be rising dramatically.

Into all of this steps Warren Hoeldtke, a Subaru dealer from Muncie, Indiana. His beautiful young daughter, Paula, graduated with a degree in Theater Arts from Ball State, and then set out for New York with stars in her eyes. Like so many other wide-eyed innocents from the Midwest, Paula got a job waiting tables, enrolled in acting classes and managed to land a few small roles in very Off-Off-Broadway productions.

As a faithful daughter, she also called home on a regular basis, right up until the time she didn't. After a month or so of silence, her father came to New York to find that Paula had apparently moved out of her apartment, had her phone disconnected and vanished without leaving a forwarding address. Hoeldtke goes to the police, but Paula is an adult; there's no suggestion of foul play, and there's nothing they can do.

Hoeldtke thus shows up on Scudder's doorstep and asks for Matt's help. Scudder insists that there's not much he can do either, especially given the time that's elapsed since Hoeldtke last heard from his daughter. But when Hoeldtke pleads with him, Matt reluctantly accepts the man's check and goes to work, pounding the pavement, talking to people and distributing Paula's photo in the hope that someone will point him in the right direction.

In the meantime, Scudder is staying sober, one day at a time, and attending a lot of AA meetings. He gets to know another recovering alcoholic named Eddie Dunphy. Dunphy is clearly troubled about something and says that he wants to get his thoughts in order and then talk to Scudder about it. But then Dunphy is found dead, apparently having hanged himself during a bit of auto-erotic sex play.

Dunphy's death is an open and shut matter, but Scudder is troubled, wanting to know what Dunphy intended to tell him. Thus he winds up poking into the last few months of Dunphy's life while he simultaneously searches for Paula Hoeldtke.

The twin investigations make for another compelling story and the principal point of interest in this book is that in it, Matt meets Mick Ballou, the owner of Grogan's Open House, an infamous Hell's Kitchen saloon. Beginning with this book, Matt and Mick will gradually become close friends and will spend a good many nights spinning tales until all hours. It's another great read as well as the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Engrossing Tale of a Life in Crime

This book, newly reissued in a very nice trade paperback edition by Feral House, was first published in 1926, written by Jack Black, a drifter, hobo, small-time criminal, drug addict and jailbird who finally went straight and wound up with a job at a newspaper in San Francisco.

Black left home as a young boy and took to the road. Falling in with other drifters, he was apprenticed in a life of crime that included valuable lessons in casing a job, breaking and entering, cracking safes, fencing stolen goods, coping with the law and other such skills. He sometimes operated alone and sometimes with a partner, but he always considered himself an "honorable" thief who would never run out on a bill for his room and who would never think of betraying a friend.

Some of his best lessons were learned in the jails and prisons of the far West, both in the U.S. and in Canada, where he networked with other criminals and polished his skills. Black writes movingly of the conditions he suffered in some prisons, and later in life he would become an advocate of prison reform.

For much of his early life, spending time in confinement was simply part of the cost of doing business. He accepted it stoically, but until the very end, he never left prison a "reformed" man.

As often as not, it seems, his carefully planned jobs failed for one reason or other. In one instance, for example, he blew a safe only to use too much explosive. Instead of blowing the door open, the blast blew the door completely off, tipping the heavy safe over on its front side, and sealing the valuables away from Black as surely as if the safe's door had remained intact.

Black had spent a long time planning the job and was extremely depressed when it failed, not to mention virtually broke. A friend offered him a "straight" job washing dishes to tide him over, but Black refused, explaining his philosophy of life as follows: "[T]he thought of working to me was a foreign as the thought of burglary or robbery would be to a settled printer of plumber after ten years at his trade. I wasn't lazy or indolent. I knew there were lots of easier and safer ways of making a living, but they were the ways of other people, people I didn't know or understand, and didn't want to. I didn't call them suckers or saps because they were different and worked for a living. They represented society. Society represented law, order, discipline, punishment. Society was a machine geared to grind me to pieces. Society was an enemy. There was a high wall between me and society; a wall reared by myself, maybe--I wasn't sure. Anyway I wasn't going to crawl over the wall and join the enemy just because I had taken a few jolts of hard luck."

In the end, Black does "join the enemy," after a judge and the corrections system unexpectedly gives him a break he never expected and treats him humanely for the first time. This experience sets him on the straight and narrow and convinces him that a more enlightened justice system could deter a lot of men from lives of crime, rather than condemning them to such lives.

All in all, this is a very interesting and engrossing tale, and it's nice to know that a new generation of readers will now have a chance to enjoy it.

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.