Tag Archives for " Crime "
The Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels about crime, espionage, politics, and corruption between 1966 and his death at age sixty-nine in 1995. No two are alike, and every one of them is a gem. They brim over with wit, insight, brilliant characterization, and Thomas’ distinctively spare writing style. In recent years, St. Martin’s Griffin has brought out new paperback editions which are also available for the Kindle. Many of these titles include introductions by Thomas’ contemporaries and successors in the crime genre. Among them are such successful practitioners of the craft as Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Joe Gores, and the late Donald E. Westlake. Every introduction is a paean to Thomas’ consummate writing skill.
The Fourth Durango, published in 1989, was one of Thomas’ last contributions to his many fans. As in nearly all his other novels, the characters are entirely new. Unlike most successful mystery writers, Ross Thomas didn’t make things easy on himself by adopting a formula and a fixed cast of characters in a series. (However, there are a few who appear in more than one novel, including Cyril “Mac” McCorkle and Michael Padillo, who own a pub together and become involved in nefarious activities involving spies and a mysterious government agency; con men Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, and Washington lawyer Howard Mott.)
In The Fourth Durango, disbarred attorney Kelly Vines reunites with his friend Jack Adair, formerly chief justice of the supreme court of an unnamed state who is leaving behind a stretch in the federal maximum-security penitentiary near Lompoc, California. Jack had been convicted on the bogus grounds of tax evasion because the feds couldn’t prove a bribery charge. Now, someone is trying to kill him for reasons unknown. Kelly spirits him off to the nearby town of Durango, California, “the city that God forgot.” (It’s the fourth Durango because it isn’t any of the ones in Mexico, Colorado, or Spain.) There, Kelly and Jack seek help from the beauteous Mayor B. D. Huckins and her boyfriend, Chief of Police Sid Fork. The two are delighted to hide the pair away indefinitely for a considerable cash consideration. Skullduggery of the highest order is afoot. In fact, hiding away fugitives is the town’s major industry and provides the revenue to keep open the schools and the VD clinic.
Once the two men begin settling in at Durango, we slowly begin to learn the backstory that explains Kelly’s disbarment and Jack’s conviction. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose as first one, then other murders crop up, and numerous other complications ensue. It’s all a glorious clusterf**k. And it’s fun all the way.
Recently, I also reviewed Thomas’ Out on the Rim and Briarpatch. See From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion and It’s hard to beat this political thriller.
@@ (2 out of 5)
For some reason I cannot fathom, Marilyn Stasio raved about Earthly Remains. Stasio has been editing a column on crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review—forever, it seems. Her recommendations are often good. But this one wasn’t. She called this novel, the 26th in Donna Leon’s long-running Commissario Brunetti series, “one of her best.” I don’t agree.
Though there is a mystery underlying the action in Earthly Remains, it doesn’t even begin to surface until one-third of the way into the novel. And the investigation undertaken by Commissario Brunetti isn’t undertaken in earnest until more than two-thirds of the way.
Many of Leon’s signature themes are prominent in this curious book. She rhapsodizes about Venice, the surrounding communities, and the Laguna Veneta, the extension of the Adriatic Sea on which the islands of the city are located. In Earthly Remains, the romance of the Laguna comes in for special praise. Predictably, too, the corruption rampant in Italian society emerges clearly in the story. Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is, as always, obsequious with authority and disdainful of those who report to him. If anyone in a position of power in Venice is under investigation by Brunetti or his colleagues, Patta will surely intervene in the suspect’s favor. And, once the plot of the novel finally becomes clear, Leon spotlights the illegal activity that has helped to poison the Laguna and surrounding territory. In Donna Leon’s Italy, corruption engulfs business as well as government, the police, and the Church.
One of Leon’s bad writing habits is to describe action in excruciating detail. I have no idea whether she picked up the habit writing for magazines that pay by the word, but Earthly Remains and many of her other novels read that way. Here’s a representative example from one of the first pages in the novel: “Brunetti had apologized for the heat in the room, explaining that the ongoing heatwave had forced the Questura to choose between using its reduced supply of energy for the computers or for air conditioning and had chosen the former. Ruggieri had been gracious and had said only that he’d remove his jacket if he might. Brunetti, who kept his jacket on, had begun by making it amply clear . . .” That was 68 words. How many words do you think Elmore Leonard might have used to convey the essential information in that passage? In fact, is there any essential information there?
If you are a die-hard Donna Leon fan, you might want to read Earthly Remains. If you’re not, be forewarned: not a lot happens in this novel. It’s very slow going.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
After decades of reading mysteries and thrillers, I still frequently encounter authors whose names are new to me—but are described as “bestselling” and sometimes have dozens of novels to their credit. Reed Farrel Coleman is the latest example. Author of at least 23 books divided among six series of crime novels, Coleman is the recipient of half a dozen literary awards. His latest series features John Augustus “Gus” Murphy, a retired cop in suburban Suffolk County on Long Island. Where It Hurts is the first in the series.
For most outsiders, Long Island is identified with the Hamptons and other wealthy New York suburbs. But, as Coleman writes, “most of the island isn’t about Gatsby. A current of poverty and violence roils beneath the surface here, too. A lot of senseless blood gets spilled. What off-islanders see is the 24-carat gilding along the edges where the money flows, not the fool’s gold in the middle where the rats race as hard as in the city and where the stray dogs lie in wait.” This is the territory Gus Murphy worked in uniform for 20 years in the Suffolk County Police Department. It’s also where his life has been unraveling for the two years since his teenage son died, his wife left him, and he resigned from the department. Now Gus works nights at a third-rate hotel driving a courtesy van to and from the local airport and serving as house detective.
When a pathetic ex-con approaches him about looking into the murder of his own son, Gus resists. Eventually, though, he is drawn into opening the case, which police have failed to investigate. As Gus begins to ask questions, he quickly comes up against a wall of resistance from his old department. First, he’s warned away. Then the violence starts, and more bodies begin to fall. Few of even his best friends on the force are willing to lift a hand to help him. Evidence of police corruption soon becomes obvious—and it may go all the way to the top, to the very popular Chief of Police, Jimmy Regan. Repeatedly risking his life, Gus persists in his investigation and gradually begins to recover interest in living. Along the way, he gets help from an old priest who has lost his faith and a woman who is ready to love him despite his wounds and flaws.
Where It Hurts is the first of what are now two novels in Coleman’s new Gus Murphy series.
@@ (2 out of 5)
Blind Goddess is the first of nine entries to date in Anne Holt’s series of detective novels featuring Oslo Detective Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen. I don’t plan to read any of the rest of them.
When Jo Nesbø proclaimed Holt “the godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction,” he was surely referring to the Norwegian editions. Apparently, they’ve lost a lot in translation. A lot. While Holt gets high marks for a gripping plot in this murder mystery, she falls down in almost every other respect.
First, the writing style is as flat as it could be. It’s hard to understand how she could be considered an accomplished professional writer, much less the godmother.
Second, Holt overuses coincidence and misdirection to confuse the reader and obscure the resolution of her plot until the very end of the book. When I read a story—yes, even a detective novel—I don’t want to stumble on every other page on the hidden identity of a character. She uses proper names rarely, and only about a few of her characters.
Third, the device used to resolve the mystery in Blind Goddess is hard to believe. I won’t reveal it here, just in case you may be planning to read the novel yourself. But you can be assured that I was shaking my head in disbelief when I arrived at the book’s conclusion. Clearly, I was mystified by the plot because the resolution was so unlikely.
All this is a pity. I would have expected a lot more from Anne Holt, not just because of Jo Nesbø’s endorsement but because of her own life story. Her background includes training and practice as a lawyer, two years with the Oslo Police Department, and service as Minister of Justice for two years. She must have learned a lot from all that experience. Too bad it wasn’t well reflected in her novel.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Veteran detective Dave Robicheaux of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department is reluctantly drawn into a case involving the decades-old assassination of Louisiana’s leading NAACP leader. Aaron Crown is serving time for the murder but protests his innocence, and a Hollywood film crew seems bent on exposing the injustice of the case. Crown wants Dave to investigate. Simply visiting the man in prison opens up a hornet’s nest of mobsters, crooked politicians, and other assorted lowlife. This is Louisiana noir by James Lee Burke, the masterful stylist of the craft, who can equal anything written by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Elmore Leonard.
In Cadillac Jukebox, the ninth in the Dave Robicheaux series, Burke’s familiar characters all reappear. Dave’s second wife, Bootsie, and their adopted Salvadoran daughter, Alafair, now 14, and the three-legged raccoon she keeps as a pet. Batist, Dave’s African-American partner in the bait and boat-rental business they operate on Dave’s bayou-facing home property. His violence-prone former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Clete Purcel, now operating on the fringes of society as a bond enforcer and private investigator. As always, the notorious Giacano crime family lurks in the background. But the novel features a host of unique new characters as well, from former KKK member Aaron Crown to the probable new Governor and his wife to a large collection of lowlife characters with names like Mookie Zerrang, Short Boy Jerry, Mingo Bloomberg, No Duh Dolowitz, and Wee Willie Bimstine.
Burke’s facility with the English language never falters, whether describing the lush landscape of his home state or musing about Dave’s lot in life. “As a police officer,” he writes, “you accept the fact that, in all probability, you will become the instrument that delivers irreparable harm to a variety of individuals. Granted, they design their own destinies, are intractable in their attitudes, and live with the asp at their breasts; but the fact remains that it is you who will appear at some point in their lives, like the headsman with his broad ax on the medieval scaffold, and serve up a fate to them that has the same degree of mercy as that dealt out by your historical predecessor.”
And here is Burke describing the family of an incidental character in the tale. “His twin sister achieved a brief national notoriety when she was arrested for murdering seven men who picked her up hitchhiking on the Florida Turnpike. The mother, an obese, choleric woman with heavy facial hair, was interviewed by CBS on the porch of the shack where the Hatcher children were raised. I’ll never forget her words: ‘It ain’t my fault. She was born that way. I whipped her every day when she was little. It didn’t do no good.”
No wonder Stephen King gushes about Burke’s prose style! The Dave Robicheaux novels transcend the bounds of the detective novel. If anything can properly be called literature, this is it.
I suppose sixty-five seems like a lot of books to most people, but it’s far from all the books I’ve read in 2016. Listed here are only those that I rated @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5). Keep in mind that I’m very selective in choosing books (emphasis on very), and I review only those that I read from start to finish.
I’ve grouped these 65 books (a little arbitrarily) into five sections: new entries in mystery and espionage series; politics and current affairs; trade fiction; history; and science. The titles below are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each section.
You won’t find any poetry here, or books about sports, the arts, or cooking. As you can see, a disproportionate share of these books are nonfiction. The explanation is simple: in 2016, I began reading from the beginning of my favorite mystery and thriller series; that accounts for a large share of the books I’ve read this year, yet none of those early titles are included in this list. All those listed here were published in 2016 or during the last half of 2015 at the earliest. In any case, I hope you’ll find at least one or two that reflect your own interests.
New entries in mystery and espionage series
The nine titles listed here represent a broad range of style, subject matter, and locale. Tana French writes thrillers set in Ireland, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis in Denmark, Stella Rimington and Edward Wilson in England. Michael Connolly’s novels are set in Los Angeles, John Sandford’s in Minnesota, Karin Slaughter’s in Georgia, and Joseph Finder’s in Boston or Washington, DC. Rimington and Wilson explore the realm of intelligence. The rest focus on crime. Of these nine books, my favorite is The Considerate Killer by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.
Biography and autobiography
The only thing these twelve books have in common is that their subjects lived in the 19th or 20th century. Some of the subjects are familiar to nearly all Americans: Jonas Salk, Allen Dulles, George Armstrong Custer, Patricia Hearst, and Bobby Kennedy. The others are less well known. In the case of the three autobiographies—those by Antonio Garcia Martinez, William J. Perry, and J.D. Vance—all the subjects are still alive. (So, for that matter, are those of two of the others: Paul English (Tracy Kidder’s subject) and Patricia Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin’s). David Talbot’s biography of Allen Dulles is the best of this lot, in my opinion; it’s certainly the most important.
The twenty-one novels listed represent a very wide range of styles and subject matter. Eleven are works of historical fiction: Matthew Carr, Helen Dunmore, Louise Erdrich, Alan Furst, Yaa Gyasi, Kristin Hannah, Robert Harris, Thomas Mallon, Simon Mawer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Stewart O’Nan. However, the topics of these eleven books could hardly be more different from one another. The other books range from science fiction, religion, and humor to crime and politics. It’s extremely difficult for me to pick a favorite from among these twenty novels. If I’m forced to do so, however, I have to name The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Politics and current affairs
The ten titles in this section cover a lot of territory. They explore the Great Recession, urban poverty, liberal politics, Right-Wing politics, drug cartels, and federal whistleblowers, as well as developments in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money struck me as the most powerful of these ten books.
In the ten books listed below, you can learn how Earth’s geological history has shaped the course of human affairs . . . how an Egyptian spy saved Israel from destruction in the Yom Kippur War . . . how the world’s largest construction company has acted as a law unto itself . . . how espionage failed to achieve much of anything of note in World War II . . . how Americans fought and died in the Spanish Civil War . . . how the United States Postal Service became the crippled giant it is today . . . how Britain’s Special Air Service in World War II became the model for special forces the world over . . . how today’s Right-Wing politics grew out of resistance to labor organizing in California’s fruit and cotton fields in the 1930s . . . how American advertising evolved from Snake Oil promotions to pop-up ads . . . and how FDR’s decision to take the US off the gold standard played a far more significant role in ending the Depression than anything else in the New Deal. The Secret War by Max Hastings strikes me as the most significant of these ten books.
These three titles have nothing in common other than that they’re all grounded in science. Mary Roach is a humorist who finds a way to laugh about the absurdities that abound in military science. Sonia Shah examines the history of epidemic disease—and the existential threat it poses to the world’s people. Steve Silberman writes about the slow and painful development of psychiatrists’ understanding of the autism spectrum. Though it seems pointless to pick a favorite from among just three books, I’ll do it anyway. I choose Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes.
@@@ (3 out of 5)
Look around carefully. Find three despicable human beings. Start with a confused and weak-willed young man, a male model with no other marketable skills who is helpless in the face of authority. Then find a lay preacher whose oratorical skills have gotten him a seat in Parliament despite a continuing string of failed business ventures and a willingness to sleep with every attractive woman he meets. Finally, pick up a wealthy, self-indulgent aristocrat with the charisma and charm that have carried him into a prominent role in Parliament despite his reckless habit of picking up young men for sex. Be sure that all three men are incorrigible liars. Now mix all three together, and you’ve got A Very English Scandal.
This book is nonfiction, improbable though the story may seem. It’s subtitled Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment. The plot in question was at the heart of what some London newspapers were calling “the Trial of the Century” in the late 1970s. One of the three men — the head of the Liberal Party — faced off in court accused of conspiracy to murder and related crimes by the other two.
If you have a long memory and an interest in English politics, you’re sure to know the name Jeremy Thorpe. For more than a decade, Thorpe was one of the most prominent and popular politicians in Britain. He rose to the head of the Liberal Party and, for a time, fantasized about reaching 10 Downing Street. A Very English Scandal is the story of his downfall, which his own reprehensible behavior had long foretold.
John Preston’s account of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal is minutely detailed. The book reveals far more about the lives and crimes of the three men at the center of the story than any casual reader outside the UK would ever want to read. Along the way, the author reveals the horrific price gay men paid in Britain before homosexuality was decriminalized. He also brings to light a jaw-dropping story of judicial misconduct at the heart of the English Establishment. If you admire British Parliamentary government, A Very English Scandal may make you wonder why.
John Preston is the arts editor and television critic of the Sunday Telegraph. A Londoner, he has written several novels. A Very English Scandal is his first nonfiction book.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
I find historical fiction grounded in fact irresistible. When a plot rests on events that really took place and characters who really lived, I’m prepared to give the author a little slack if the writing style is less than engaging.
Fortunately, I don’t have to make any such compromise when it comes to Philip Kerr’s series of novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. I’ve just finished reading Prague Fatale, the eighth book in the series. I’m still in thrall to the author and his protagonist. Bernie stands comparison to Philip Marlowe or any other fictional hard-boiled detective in mid-century America. Yet his beat was Berlin under Hitler.
In more ways than one, Bernie resembles Marlowe. He’s tough, of course. He’s a big guy who appeals to women. And his wisecracks are nonstop. For example, he refers to Nazi Germany as “the least democratic European state since Vlad III impaled his first Wallachian Boyar.” And this: “Investigating a murder in the autumn of 1941 was like arresting a man for vagrancy during the Depression.” Then there’s this about his relationship with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust: “from time to time I’m useful to him in the same way a toothpick might be useful to a cannibal.” And Bernie actually talks like this. His wisecracks aren’t limited to the narrative. Admittedly, some of this humor is far from universal, but I find it supremely entertaining.
Prague Fatale opens with Bernie on a train from Prague to Berlin, accompanying Heydrich’s corpse. It’s June 1942, and Czech partisans have finally succeeded in killing him. Against this background, the action shifts back to the autumn of 1941. Heydrich has summoned Bernie to Prague to protect him against an assassination attempt — from within his own ranks. Bernie learns that the assassin might be any one among the large assembly of high-ranking Nazi officers the General has brought together in the country villa he commandeered. This brings him face to face with many of the leading war criminals in the Nazi hierarchy, each seemingly more monstrous than the last.
The plot in Prague Fatale revolves around the murder of a Dutch “guest worker,” the death of a presumed Czech spy, and Bernie’s affair with a beautiful prostitute. (There’s always a beautiful woman at Bernie’s side.) As his investigation proceeds in the villa, all these threads of the story eventually come together. The suspense builds, and the surprises mount. This is truly a superior crime thriller. It’s also well worthwhile reading as historical fiction alone. Philip Kerr does great research.
Razor Girl: A Novel by Carl Hiassen
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Imagine this: a beautiful young redheaded woman crashes into the back of a luxurious rental car driven by a high-flying Hollywood talent agent. The agent, Lane Coolman, has distinguished himself by assembling the cast of a spectacularly successful reality TV show that bears a suspicious resemblance to Duck Dynasty. The redhead, Merry Mansfield (“like the movie star”), is the Razor Girl of the title. Her skirt is hiked up, her panties lowered, and she is holding a razor after having used it in the obvious way. Naturally, since this is a Carl Hiassen novel, she has engineered the crash so an accomplice can kidnap Coolman. Thus begins another of Carl Hiassen’s wildly improbable and hilarious tales of crime in Florida.
Razor Girl is set in the Florida Keys, where Hiassen’s favorite protagonist, former police Detective Andrew Yancy, is now an investigator on the roach patrol. He checks out reports of vermin in local restaurants and very rarely, if his boss allows him, orders them shut down. Yancy has two overarching goals in life: to prevent anyone from building a large house on the lot adjoining his home and thus spoiling his view, and to regain his job as a detective in the Sheriff’s Department. You won’t be surprised to learn that he reaches one goal but not the other.
And it’s no surprise that Yancy will become entangled with Merry Mansfield, along with a wider cast of some of the most astonishing characters ever to appear in works of fiction (perhaps other than in the novels of Charles Dickens). Merely to describe these creatures would spoil the story. It’s enough to say that Hiassen can take a stereotype and spin it 180 degrees into a parody of itself. Crime in Florida, and every species of criminal, human and animal, will never be the same again. Nor will reality TV, which Hiassen lampoons with delicious wit.
For my review of another outstanding (and very funny) novel by Carl Hiaasen, go to A severed arm, a voodoo lady, and a detective on the roach patrol — and, oh yes, a very bad monkey. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels, of which Razor Girl is one.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
John le Carre established his well-deserved fame in the early 1960s on the basis of the espionage fiction that reflected his career in Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Over the five decades since then, he has returned again and again to the world of spies. But to stay relevant in the years since the end of the Cold War, he has also ventured into other areas such as corporate crime, terrorism, and high-stakes finance. Single & Single, published in 1999, explores the dark recesses of international money-laundering.
In the 1990s, once the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia entered into a period with the trappings of democracy. The change did not run deep, however. Effective control of Russian society shifted from a Communist hierarchy to criminal gangs widely known as “mafias.” There was no “Russian mob” as such. (However, that term may apply to Coney Island — and it might even be an apt description of Vladimir Putin and his cronies.) With connections to Boris Yeltsin‘s government, the most entrepreneurial of the mafias made their fortunes by snapping up formerly state-owned companies at bargain-basement rates through privatization. Le Carre writes about one such well-connected gang in Single & Single.
The novel’s title is the name of a wealthy and powerful London-based financial services firm. As we learn early in the story, the Single fortune is built on money-laundering for Russian criminals. The firm’s founder, Tiger Single, is ruthless. But his son, Oliver, gradually develops a conscience after he joins the company. Oliver’s agreement to serve as an informant for Her Majesty’s Customs Service is the linchpin on which the novel hangs.
The story opens with the brutal execution of Tiger’s attorney on a field in Western Turkey. That murder reflects the Russian gang’s mistaken belief that Tiger has been stealing from them. Meanwhile, Oliver’s relationship has deepened with Brock, the veteran senior Customs agent who is handling him. To gather evidence against the Russians and his father, and to identify the corrupt British police officers who have sold out to Tiger, Oliver becomes deeply involved in dealings with the Russian gangsters and their families. The scene shifts from Turkey to England to Armenia, where the gangsters are based. The tale is fast-moving, suspenseful, and shocking. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that it’s dangerous to get involved with money-laundering for criminals. But some of us knew that already, right?