April 9, 2018

The CIA LSD and a drug-addled alien from the planet Utorb

The CIA LSD and a 3-foot alien: Project HALFSHEEP by Susan HaslerProject HALFSHEEP: Or How the CIA’s Alien Got High by Susan Hasler (2015) 399 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In 1953, the fledgling CIA under Director Allen Dulles launched a mind-control program called MKUltra. The project was an experiment on human subjects with drugs that included LSD years before Timothy Leary turned on and dropped out. Caught up in the anti-Communist hysteria of the time, the CIA was searching for new ways to interrogate and ultimately control prisoners, just as they imagined “the Communists” were already doing. These illegal experiments resulted in several deaths, most famously that of a US Army biological weapons researcher named Frank Olsen. Only two decades later did word of MKUltra, the CIA and LSD reach the public through an expose in the New York Times and subsequent Congressional investigations.

In Project HALFSHEEP, 21-year CIA veteran Susan Hasler satirizes MKUltra in a fanciful science fiction novel about an alien captured by the Agency and subjected to years of experiments with mind-altering drugs. Like her earlier novel, IntelligenceProject HALFSHEEP refers to the CIA as “the Mines” and peoples the Agency with a misbegotten collection of rich, entitled misfits, undercover officers suffering from PTSD, and long-suffering bureaucrats.

The central character in the novel is a three-foot-tall creature from the planet Utorb who has been sent unwillingly on a mission to scout out Earth as a possible new home for her dying race. The alien has enormous eyes, webbed fingers, ears in her palms, wool on her butt, and a nine-inch nose that causes her to be known by many of her captors as Dick-Face. She quacks like a duck. Her name is unclear. When “volunteered” for the mission to Earth, “they took my humble name away and called me ‘Piyat,’ which in the high language means ‘brave one,’ and in the common tongue, ‘idiot.'” She prefers to be called Alice Webster, after what become her two favorite books, Alice in Wonderland and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Oh, and she’s a great chess player.

Project HALFSHEEP also tackles the perennial conspiracy theory about an alien landing at Roswell, New Mexico. Piyat crash-lands in New Mexico in 1947 far from Roswell. To prevent discovery of the real crash site, the CIA sets up a fake site near the town.

As an analyst at the CIA, Susan Hasler was involved in tracking down Osama bin Laden. She held other positions at the Agency, among them serving as a Russian linguist and speechwriter for three CIA Directors. Project HALFSHEEP was the second of her three novels.

You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels or My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

January 15, 2018

The strangest tale I’ve read in years

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWittUndermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s hard to know what to make of this curious little novel by Patrick DeWitt. Undermajordomo Minor is unquestionably the strangest tale I’ve read in years—and I read a great deal of science fiction, much of which is surpassingly strange. (No, this is not science fiction.)

Here we have a young man named Lucien (“Lucy”) Minor who lives unhappily in a village called Bury. To escape the boredom and ridicule of his contemporaries there, Lucy accepts a position as Undermajordomo at the castle of the Baron Von Aux far across the country. Traveling by train in a third-class cabin he encounters a thief named Memel. He soon discovers that Memel lives in the village below the Baron’s castle—and he has a gorgeous young daughter named Klara. Lucy is smitten. Much of the action that follows after he joins the castle staff involves Lucy’s pursuit of Klara. But so much else is going on that it’s difficult to summarize. For one thing, a seesaw war is underway nearby between two factions for some undetermined and apparently senseless reason. A soldier in one of the two armies considers himself engaged to marry Klara. And Lucy quickly finds himself in a confrontation with the man.

Even days after Lucy’s arrival, the Baron is nowhere to be seen. Lucy asks his boss, Mr. Olderglough, where he is to be found.

“The Baron goes where the Baron wishes. And often as not he wishes to go nowhere at all . . . Six days out of seven he won’t even leave his room. Seven days out of seven.”

“And what does he do in there, sir?”

“I suspect it involves a degree of brooding. But this is not your problem to ponder; it’ll be months before you lay eyes on the man, if you lay eyes on him.”

But Lucy does in fact encounter the Baron rather quickly. He discovers that the man is even stranger than his boss had implied. And what follows Lucy’s discovery moves the tale out of the realm of strangeness and into surrealism.

Undermajordomo Minor is at times very, very funny. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of DeWitt’s earlier novel, The Sisters Brothers, a hilarious tale of criminals at work during the California Gold Rush. I loved that book. This one, not so much.

My (favorable) review of The Sisters Brothers is at Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprisesUndermajordomo Minor is not historical fiction, as you should have guessed. But I’m sure you would find novels in that genre more satisfying. Check out My 15 favorite funny novels and 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

November 27, 2017

Christopher Buckley’s satire on the U.S. Supreme Court

Christopher Buckley's satire: Supreme Courtship by Christopher BuckleySupreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

The President of the United States, Donald P. Vanderdamp, has an approval rating barely above twenty. Congress, and politicians of both parties, despise him, because he has vetoed every spending bill that reached his desk. In retaliation, the Senate has rejected the two eminently qualified jurists he nominated for an open seat on the Supreme Court. All he wants to do is move back home to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he can go bowling as often as he wishes. His term is almost up. About all that remains is to find someone who can gain the approval of the Senate for that Supreme Court slot.

Enter Judge Perdita “Pepper” Cartwright, star of the top-rated reality TV show, Courtroom Six. While searching for a bowling show on television over a weekend at Camp David, President Vanderdamp chances upon Pepper’s show and is immediately enchanted. Now in her mid-thirties, Pepper is uncommonly facile with the English language—and uncommonly attractive. The President is convinced the Senate won’t dare reject her nomination, given her sky-high Q rating.

This is the set-up in Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley‘s satirical treatment of the U.S. Supreme Court. No reader will be surprised to learn that Pepper is, in fact, named to the Court. Then, of course, the real fun begins. The novel is amusing and even hilarious at times. On the whole, though, it’s not one of Buckley’s best.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours laughing over Christopher Buckley’s novels. Here, for example, is my review of one I loved, The Relic MasterAn irreligious take on Catholic history. My review of Little Green Men is at Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer. You’ll find God Is My Broker: A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7-1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth reviewed at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley.

Check out My 15 favorite funny novels.

November 20, 2017

Carl Hiaasen skewers newspaper publishers and rock musicians

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Carl Hiaasen is a very funny man. His comic novels about life in Florida are always amusing and sometimes hilarious. Inept criminals, corrupt politicians, and bumbling police officers populate his books. Few come off well. For example, “A disagreement over lane-changing etiquette has resulted in two motorists pulling semiautomatics and inconsiderately shooting each other in the diamond lane of the interstate.” And here he is in Basket Case (2002) writing about one of his protagonist’s ex-girlfriends: “Among Alicia’s multiple symptoms were aversion to sleep, employment, punctuality, sobriety, and monogamy. On the positive side, she volunteered weekends at an animal shelter.”

Most of Hiaasen’s novels involve the destruction of Florida’s environment. However, in Basket Case, the author wades into a subject that is clearly at least as close to his heart: the steady decline of the newspaper industry. Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald, where he has worked since 1976. Here he is musing about the damage wrought to a small-town paper by its profit-mad, self-indulgent young publisher: “Only two types of journalists choose to stay at a paper that’s being gutted by Wall Street whorehoppers. One faction is comprised of editors and reporters whose skills are so marginal that they’re lucky to be employed, and they know it. Unencumbered by any sense of duty to the readers, they’re pleased to forego the pursuit of actual news in order to cut expenses and score points with the suits . . . The other journalists who remain at slow-strangling dailies such as the Union-Register are those too spiteful or stubborn to quit.”

Jack Tagger, 46, is one of the latter. He writes the obituaries for the Union-Register, a small-town Florida newspaper. He is obsessed with death, primarily his own. Hardly an hour goes by without his thinking of some famous person who died when he was Jack’s age. He blames his mother for this obsession, because she stubbornly refuses to tell him at what age his father died. (Jack has no memory of the man, who left them when he was an infant.) He is terrified that he won’t outlive his father. However, he’s not happy thinking about anyone else’s death, either. Funerals upset him. Autopsies are much worse. All this is highly unfortunate in a man who writes obituaries for a living.

Jack’s preoccupation with death may go back many years, even before his consignment to the obituary page. But his present position “at the top of the shit list” at the Union-Register began only three years ago. He doesn’t like to talk about why an award-winning investigative journalist was demoted so ignominiously to celebrate the lives of pet store owners, insurance salesmen, and fishermen. (Suffice to say, it was a very colorful incident.) But now a familiar-looking name has turned up in a fax from the local funeral home that may give Jack a way out.

Jack is almost as obsessive about rock music as he is about death. So he quickly realizes that the deceased, James Bradley Stomarti, 39, was better known years ago as Jimmy Stoma of the superstar band, Jimmy and the Slut Puppies. Jack sees his byline back on the front page if he can keep the story of Jimmy’s death to himself long enough to gather the facts.

As Jack launches into the interviews that will serve as background to Jimmy Stoma’s obituary, he quickly comes to understand that all is not as it seems. Perhaps the young musician didn’t accidentally die while diving in the Bahamas. Perhaps the man’s 24-year-old wife had a motive of some sort to kill him. And why are she and the people around her so eager to prevent Jack from learning what really happened?

These circumstances could be the basis of a serious thriller. But Basket Case is anything but serious. (Except when Hiaasen muses about the sad story of the newspaper industry.) For instance, here’s where Jack meets Cleo Rio, Jimmy’s widow: “The club’s motif combines the exotic ambience of a Costa Rican brothel with the cozy, down-home charm of a methamphetamine lab.”

The cast of characters in Basket Case includes several of Jimmy’s ex-bandmates, who display a wide array of colorful behavior, usually involving drugs; Jimmy’s sister, who earns her living dressing up as a cop on a SWAT team and stripping in front of a webcam; Jack’s inept and beautiful 27-year-old boss at the Union-Register, whom he is attempting to persuade to leave journalism; MacArthur Polk, 88, the former owner of the paper who has been dying at regular intervals for many years but somehow always continues to rally; and Race Maggad III, the profit-obsessed head of the company that owns 27 newspapers, including Jack’s.

I’ve also reviewed Hiaasen’s Star Island (2010) at Carl Hiaasen skewers celebrities; Bad Monkey (2013) at A severed arm, a detective on the roach patrol, and a bad monkey; Razor Girl (2016) at Reality TV, African rodents, the roach patrol; and two of his young adult novels, both of which I found disappointing. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

This book is one of 36 great popular novels reviewed here.

November 13, 2017

A comic novel from the 1950s about nuclear madness

The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberleynuclear madness: The Mouse That Roared by Leonard WibberleyThe Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maybe it’s a mistake to reread books I loved as a kid. Recently, I’ve done that with several—and found myself disappointed. Just now I’ve had a similar (if less extreme) experience with a 1955 bestseller about nuclear madness, The Mouse That Roared, by the Irish-American writer Leonard Wibberley. The book was the first in a series of five comic novels, but it made a bigger splash four years later when Peter Sellers starred in a popular film adaptation of the same name. And that may be the problem I had in reading the book: I kept seeing Sellers’ face on several of the key characters in the story. (He played multiple characters in the film. More famously, Sellers was Chief Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.) I remember having laughed hysterically when I read the book at the age of 14 or so. But Sellers overacted as usual, and the film was less satisfying.

Here’s the story . . . Nestled in the Alps is a diminutive principality known as the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Its 6,000 people live in portions of three valleys that together are five miles long and three miles wide. Founded in 1370 by a small group of English knights who broke away from the army they were serving, the Duchy has been independent ever since. Its sole source of income is the sale of Pinot Grand Fenwick, a wine that is prized by connoisseurs throughout the world. Unfortunately, a winery in California is now marketing an inferior wine called Pinot Grand Enwick, using a label that is otherwise identical to that of the real thing. So, the livelihood of the people of the Duchy is now threatened—and the only way the 22-year-old Duchess and her advisers can see to put a stop to the ripoff and raise more revenue is . . . get this . . .  to declare war on the United States and lose. Since the US is always generous with the nations it vanquishes, the Duchess figures they’ll come out ahead.

Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t take the Duchy’s declaration of war seriously—until the little country’s two-dozen-man expeditionary force invades New York City. In fact, it’s only several days later, once the Fenwickians have kidnapped the nation’s top nuclear scientist, the four-star general who heads US civil defense, and four New York City cops, that the US government even figures out it’s at war. And to the chagrin of the Duchess and her advisers, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick didn’t lose. It won.

So it goes.

If you’re interested in a more recent comic novel that’s funnier as well as more timely, look to Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Buckley. Hiaasen’s Razor Girl is reviewed at Reality TV, African rodents, the roach patrol. My review of The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley is An irreligious take on Catholic history.  I found both books hilarious, as I did others that both authors have written. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels. And check out My 15 favorite funny novels.

This book is one of 36 great popular novels reviewed here.

October 23, 2017

Another uncommonly funny caper novel featuring John Dortmunder

Caper novel: What's the Worst That Could Happen? by Donald E. WestlakeWhat’s the Worst That Could Happen? (Dortmunder #9) by Donald E. Westlake

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’ve never encountered John Dortmunder and you feel a need to cheer up, immerse yourself in the series of fourteen books about the dubious criminal career of this marvelous character. These stories are among the more than one hundred novels and nonfiction books Donald E. Westlake wrote in a career spanning fifty years. What’s the Worst That Could Happen? is the ninth caper novel in the Dortmunder series. It may be one of the best.

John Dortmunder is “a slope-shouldered defeated-looking fellow in dark clothing and thinning hair, who had an air of such dejection and collapse there seemed no need to point anything at him more threatening than a banana.” He is a New Yorker, a professional burglar with a supportive live-in girlfriend named May and a large circle of criminal friends with a variety of useful skills. Dortmunder “picks things up when people aren’t looking” simply to support himself and May. “All of finance was too much for him. His understanding of economics was, you go out and steal money and use it to buy food. Alternatively, you steal the food. Beyond that, it got too complex.”

The inner circle of Dortmunder’s fraternity includes Andy Kelp (information maven), Stan Murch (getaway driver), and Tiny Bulger, “the mountain shaped something like a man” (intimidating presence).

Here, for example, is Tiny speaking to Stan. “I want to thank you. This is a roomy car. I’m not used to roomy in a car. I remember one time I had to make a couple people ride on the roof, I got so cramped in the car.”

“How’d they like that?” Stan asked.

“I never asked them,” Tiny said.

From time to time, whenever Dortmunder has an inspired idea, or simply feels the need to make money, they get together in the back room of the O. J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue to plot their next caper. Sometimes Dortmunder sits in the front room, entertained by the spectacularly ignorant dialogue of the regulars who hang out at the bar. Here’s one example of that witty repartée: “[D]own at the other end of the bar the regulars had segued in a natural progression into consideration of cold cures. At the moment, they were trying to decide if the honey was supposed to be spread on the body or injected into a vein.”

In What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, Dortmunder and Gus Brock (“a longtime associate in this and that”) travel to the south shore of Long Island to burgle the second (or third or fourth) home of a billionaire named Max Fairbanks. Fairbanks has declared bankruptcy, and the judge has declared his Long Island home off-limits to him, so Dortmunder and Gus enter without worry. Unfortunately, Max has chosen that night to take his current mistress, Miss September, for fun and frolic at that very house. When Dortmunder heads upstairs to retrieve pillow cases to carry all the loot, he meets Max on the stairway, holding a pistol. Gus escapes, but Dortmunder is left to be arrested by the local police. Then Max makes a very big mistake.

As Dortmunder is handcuffed and held by the two cops, Max announces that the ring Dortmunder is wearing is, in fact, his—and takes it off his finger. This ring was a gift from May, and losing it infuriates Dortmunder. In fact, he is so angry that, after escaping from the police, he single-mindedly sets out to get even with Max—and get the ring back. Thus ensues a series of ever-more-ambitious burglaries ultimately involving two dozen of Dortmunder’s friends and acquaintances in a spectacular heist in Las Vegas.

Will Dortmunder get the ring back? What do you think?

I’ve also reviewed Watch Your Back! at A hilarious novel from Donald E. Westlake, and Get Real, the final novel in the series, at Dortmunder’s last caper, funny to the end. If you crave reading a clever caper novel, you’ll love these books. And check out My 15 favorite funny novels.

This book is one of 36 great popular novels reviewed here.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

August 21, 2017

From Timothy Hallinan, a very funny crime novel set in Hollywood

funny-crime-novel-king-maybe-timothy-hallinanKing Maybe (Junior Bender #5) by Timothy Hallinan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Junior Bender is the most ethical burglar you’ll ever meet (assuming you ever meet burglars). You’re just as likely to find him declining to steal something he knows the owner truly loves, because he really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. Mostly he steals from other criminals.

Junior operates in Los Angeles in a comic universe populated by such characters as Stinky Tetweiler, “the San Fernando Valley’s top premium-swag fence,” and Louie the Lost, an erstwhile getaway driver who once went the wrong direction following a heist and now makes his way through life as a source of sensitive information of special interest to crooks. Louie’s the guy who asserts that “Kings . . . are just crooks with better hats.”

King Maybe, a character at the center of the story in Hallinan’s novel of the same name, is “the most powerful man in Hollywood.” He’s a producer with options on every worthwhile project in sight, and he sits on them to keep everyone else in suspense. He’s also a thoroughly rotten SOB. Junior is forced to deal with King Maybe as a way to avoid being killed by several hitmen, most of whom appear to be pursuing him because he has stolen a postage stamp worth a quarter-million dollars from their boss, who is himself a hitman. (No, that doesn’t make sense to me, either.)

There’s no point summing up the plot of King Maybe. It’s a cockamamie story, of course. But it’s very, very funny.

Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender series, has an unsurpassed way with words. Here he is describing Junior’s one-night accommodations in flight from a hitman: “. . .the Dew Drop Inn was a dump, worthy of three stars in The Masochist’s Guide to Sleepless Nights. The carpet, which had apparently been shampooed with petroleum jelly, made an alarming little blown-kiss sound every time I lifted my shoe. The wallpaper was in the midst of a long and acrimonious divorce with the walls; it had developed big, unsettling blisters, as though something gelatinous, something straight out of H. P. Lovecraft, were trying to bloom its way through.” And here he is commenting on a neighborhood where the Dew Drop Inn would never have been built: “We were in a neighborhood where even the weeds were expensive.”

Timothy Hallinan has written nineteen novels to date. King Maybe is the fifth of the six novels in his Junior Bender series. In two other series, he features an L.A. private eye (Simeon Grist) and a travel writer living in Bangkok (Poke Rafferty), where Hallinan spends half of each year.

I reviewed Crashed, the first of the books in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. For links to my reviews of other series of crime novels, see 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

I reviewed Crashed, the first novel in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. The second novel, Little Elvises, in the Junior Bender series is at A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley. You’ll find my review of the third book, The Fame Thief, here: A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob. The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is at A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

This book is one of 36 great popular novels reviewed here.

March 16, 2017

A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley

hitman-herbie's-game-timothy-hallinanHerbie’s Game (Junior Bender #4) by Timothy Hallinan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

After writing three very funny crime novels featuring the professional burglar Junior Bender, Timothy Hallinan produced Herbie’s Game. It’s not as funny. In this fourth novel in the series, Hallinan waxes philosophical in lengthy contemplative passages that show Junior’s serious side. It’s well written, as were its predecessors, and the story is engaging (if improbable). Despite the relative lack of laugh-out-loud material, Herbie’s Game is a fun read.

Junior Bender lives in a world populated by characters with names such as Louie the Lost, Stinky Tetwiler, Wattles, Handkerchief Harrison, Monty Carlo, and Burt the Gut. Every one of these individuals, all criminals to a fault, enters into the tale Hallinan tells in Herbie’s Game. The Herbie of the title is Junior’s mentor and surrogate father, the man who taught him the burglary trade. “If I were ever sufficiently misguided to write my own life story,” he muses, “the hero of most of Act One would be a burglar named Herbie Mott.”

The game of the title is, of course, burglary. But it’s not run-of-the-mill, hit-and-run burglary of the sort perpetrated by drug addicts. This is a thoroughly professional approach, and Junior;s name has never surfaced in police files. For example, one of Herbie’s precepts is never to take everything valuable when burglarizing a home. Always leave the one item that its owners are likely to find most precious. That way they’ll think “At least, they didn’t take that.”

Junior’s misfortune is to be known among the criminal class in the Los Angeles world as a crack investigator, the equal of the best that any police force can offer. Thus, when some clueless malefactor commits a crime against a powerful crook, Junior is likely to be called in to track down the perpetrator. Asking the police for help is, obviously, not a good idea. Herbie’s Game tells the story of Junior’s latest venture into investigative work.

A criminal go-between named Wattles has called for Junior’s help because someone has stolen the list of people who serve as a sequence of cut-outs in what he calls a “chain.” For example, if someone contacts Wattles to arrange a hit, he will pass a huge envelope to the first person in a chain, who in turn will pass along the large envelope inside the one he received, who in turn will pass the somewhat smaller envelope inside it to a third person, and so forth. Every envelope contains a large sum of cash. In theory, no person knows the identity of anyone other than the one who passed along the envelope and the one he or she, in turn, passes to. That way, no one can connect the hitman (or hitwoman) who may be the sixth or seventh person at the end of the chain to Wattles, much less to the person who ordered the hit. Though Junior is aghast that Wattles should have written down all these names, he is forced to take on the job because Wattles threatens to set his own hitman on Junior if he doesn’t.

Junior’s investigation turns deadly as soon as he learns that Herbie, the likeliest suspect, has been brutally murdered. As Junior pursues his inquiry, working gradually down the chain in hopes of identifying the hitman, threats against his life come to light. Even worse, there are threats against his ex-wife and the 13-year-old daughter they both dote on. The mounting danger leads Junior into rethinking the choices he’s made in his life. Feeling ambivalent about his work, he muses that “those of us who chose Herbie’s Game faced a lifetime of wearing a mask, of lying, or making—sooner or later—the kind of decision that had cost me my wife and daughter. I probably hadn’t even figured out yet all the things that choosing Herbie’s Game had cost me.”

I reviewed Crashed, the first novel in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. The second novel, Little Elvises, in the Junior Bender series is here: A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley. You’ll find my review of the third book, The Fame Thief, here: A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob. And check out My 15 favorite funny novels.

November 18, 2016

Carl Hiaasen’s latest is disappointing

Carl Hiaasen's novel, SkinkSkink: No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Carl Hiaasen‘s love for nature comes to the fore on every page of his latest novel, Skink: No Surrender. Unfortunately, his outsize talent for humor rarely comes to the surface. This is a young adult novel of suspense with a fourteen-year-old protagonist. Maybe the kid’s sense of humor simply hasn’t grown up yet.

Carl Hiaasen is usually funny

Set in Florida like all of Hiaasen’s novels, Skink is the story of a kidnapping, an elaborate and protracted rescue, and one of the author’s cherished characters in old age. “Skink” is the nickname of a deranged former Governor of Florida who has fled to the Everglades and lived on roadkill for decades. There, he wages war on polluters, litterers, and poachers. His only connection to the outside world is Jim Tile, now retired from the Florida State Police. Tile served on Skink’s bodyguard detail when he lived in the governor’s mansion. The ex-Governor is considered to be dead because Tile reported his passing to the press — at his request.

A poacher, a crazed ex-Governor, a kidnapper, and two 14-year-olds

The novel opens as fourteen-year-old Richard Spence stumbles across a pit on the beach where Skink has dug in, lying in wait for a notorious poacher who steals the eggs of endangered turtles. Richard is puzzled why his cousin Malley hasn’t shown up and can’t be reached by phone as they had agreed to meet. Later it transpires that she has run away with an older man she met in a chat room. Malley is nine days younger than Richard, so this spells trouble. In fact, the older man has kidnapped her. No evidence turns up despite a statewide Amber Alert and an intensive police investigation. So Skink volunteers to find and rescue Malley. Richard tags along. Their search takes them through vast stretches of Florida’s lush beauty and exposes them to life-threatening danger on several occasions. Naturally, everything turns out fine in the end.

For a review of a Carl Hiaasen novel that I enjoyed immensely, see Reality TV, African rodents, and the roach patrol. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

November 14, 2016

Cocaine, the CIA, and a Central American revolution

central american revolution: Missionary Stew by Ross ThomasMissionary Stew by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Start with a hapless French-American journalist imprisoned by the Emperor-President of a small African country. The Emperor is a cannibal, which is admittedly worrisome, but the journalist is rescued by Amnesty International and returned to the United States. He’s penniless but makes his way to Los Angeles. Through a freak connection, which as it happens is no coincidence at all, he meets a movie star who offers him on the spot a job as superintendent of an apartment building she owns in Santa Monica. And all this merely sets up one of two major strands of the plot.

A private war in Central America over tons of cocaine

Meanwhile, a political “money man” — a direct mail specialist — has flown to Denver to meet with a rich old man for advice about the upcoming 1984 presidential elections. The money man’s client, the Governor-elect of California (but not Ronald Reagan), has decided he’s ready to be President and has sent him around the country to discourage other potential candidates. But the rich old man tells him a story that sets him off on a wholly different path. A notorious former CIA agent turned heroin-smuggler has been killed in Singapore, apparently by agents of the CIA and the FBI. The story has something to do with a private war in Central America between the two agencies involving tons of cocaine and tens of millions of dollars.

Enter The National Investigator

Oh, and by the way, the journalist I mentioned? His estranged mother is the editor of a scandal sheet that is The National Inquirer in disguise. We’ll find out later that it’s secretly owned by an aging drug-runner in Florida.

And all this is just the beginning! Somehow, all these improbable characters are mixed up in a Central American crisis that bears uneasy similarities to the Iran-Contra Affair. (The book was published in 1983.)  Missionary Stew is another one of Ross Thomas’ gorgeously convoluted tales. Call it a thriller, or satire — whatever you call it, it’s fun from beginning to end.

A word about the author

In an introduction to the Kindle edition by the screenwriter and mystery novelist Roger L. Simon, some interesting speculation about Ross Thomas comes to the fore. As Simon writes, “I often speculated that Ross Thomas had been a spy, although it was hard to think of any government good enough for his deeply moral convictions. Still, his pre-crime writing career took him all over the world, including Africa and havens of the espionage game like Bonn. He worked for NGOs with odd-sounding names and did public relations for labor union officials in sore need of a sprucing up. Those are classical spook gigs, and I’ll never know for sure if he was one. I never had the nerve to ask . . .” (Thomas died in 1995.)

After reading quite a number of Thomas’ novels, I find Simon’s speculation right on-target. The man had an extraordinary grasp of the workings of politics here and abroad and of the espionage business. But, as Simon says, we’ll never know.

This book is one of 36 great popular novels reviewed here. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels, of which Missionary Stew is one.

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