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Flat Spin by David Freed

April 20, 2014 3 comments

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Flat Spin by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2012) is the first in the Cordell Logan series and brings ex-wife Savannah Carlisle back into his life after six years of divorced bliss and just as he had begun more seriously to scrape along the bottom of the financial barrel — earning any kind of a living as a flight instructor when you only have a beat-up Cessna 172 is never going to be easy. As the title says, his life’s in a flat spin. Fortunately, he’s now adopted the Buddhist way (and its vegetarianism except when his Jewish landlady cooks for him or he’s not in the mood) so he’s feeling less bad about himself as he resets the Karmic balance in his life. This means he remains calm when Savannah tells him of the murder of her “new” husband (and Logan’s ex-boss) — the idea of a Karma payback never occurs to him. Particularly when he learns the couple had already separated due to her infidelity. At first, of course, he wants nothing to do with this murder and the idea of him going to the police to tell them what his ex-boss and betrayer used to do for a living is not appealing. But nothing ever stays that way in books like this.

So then we’re off on one of these pleasingly informal investigations. Our man was in one of these plausible deniability, top-secret units that would go anywhere and do whatever was necessary to protect the interests of America as defined by those who know of the unit’s existence. He left when he discovered his boss’s interest in his wife. It’s therefore somewhat ironic to find him taking his ex-father-in-law’s money to help the police catch the killer. Fortunately, he still has Buzz, a contact from the good old days who can do a little research for him. Other than that, the pace of the investigation is set by the wattage in his charm each time he talks with people who might just know something.

David Freed

David Freed

It starts to get more serious when Buzz produces the somewhat annoying negative. The murder does not look like a professional hit by one of the many people or organisations the “team” might have upset over the years. That forces our hero to look closer to home — a look that necessarily includes his ex-wife since she might have resented being dumped (yes, not the best of motives, but our man believes in being thorough). The most pleasing feature of this book is not just the plot although that does prove to be rather delightful when the motives of those involved become clear. It’s the sense that the author was actually having fun when he wrote it. This needs a word of explanation. If you look at the nature of the plot, this is not a comedy. People die, some more bloodily than others. There are car chases and, given our man is a pilot, a mid-air incident that leads to him being grounded and threatened with prosecution. So this is not exactly a walk-in-the park thriller. We tick all the boxes in the Thriller Writing for Dummies Guide and come up smelling of roses (or whichever flowers you associate with death and mayhem).

Rather we have moments as we read when there’s a note of humour at work. Let’s ignore the wry view of the world expressed through our hero’s comments and the stereotypical Jewish grandmother as his landlady. This is not simply a matter of wit in the dialogue. It’s just the sense of absurdity in some of the situations. Most authors, particularly those writing their first novel, prefer to play safe. If they are going to introduce anything even faintly surreal, it can come in later books when they have established themselves with a strong brand image for straight thrillers or up-and-at-’em adventure stories. They think that’s where the money is to be made and that absurdism has no place in the “bestseller”. Flat Spin succeeds in the main because it fails to match current marketing expectations. The author rather admirably thought he would allow some of the characters we encounter to act with the level of stupidity we find in the real world. These characters may have reputations as husbands and wives, or spies, or gangsters, or hitmen, or lawyers, or businessmen, but that doesn’t stop them from getting into situations everyone with any common sense would avoid. The end result, therefore, is not only an excellent first novel, but also an excellent springboard from which to launch into the other two in the series. If you have not read David Freed, start with this and work your way through to Voodoo Ridge which is outstanding.

For reviews of other books by David Freed, see:
Fangs Out
Voodoo Ridge.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Voodoo Ridge by David Freed

March 21, 2014 9 comments

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For reasons not relevant to this review, I’ve been spending time recently thinking about the different ways in which people view the world. One of the most common questions that seems to emerge is the extent to which there is any equity, fairness or justice in society. In societies which claim to be more democratic than not, there are certain expectations about equality of access to basic services and protections for “human rights”. Sadly such expectations rarely play out in the real world where increasingly severe income disparities mean differential access to services can be bought by the wealthy and the legal system can be manipulated for the benefit of those with power. For many have-nots, this can mean life is brutish and short. Except this is not what we see in the average book. Authors sugarcoat the pill. Even though dystopian fiction is popular in the YA market, the vast majority of fiction titles have feel-good intentions. They pander to a section of the market that wants to feel inspired by protagonists who prevail against the odds or find redemption in some way. It’s the “happy ever after” syndrome. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Bringing realism into fiction tends to produce a darker tone and more depressing outcomes. Not everyone wants to be reminded how awful life can be for the less fortunate.

Voodoo Ridge by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2014) finds our hero, Cordell Logan, in an emotionally equivocal state. In the back story, his wife left him for a colleague. In the last book, that colleague was killed and she asked her ex to find out who did it. In the reunion under difficult circumstances, a spark was briefly kindled. The result was an announcement of pregnancy. Neither side had thought they were still fertile (age can often deceive the unwary) so no precautions were taken. Now they have to confront the new reality. Somewhat improbably, they decide to remarry. Such are the mistakes people make when emotions are running high. This persuades them to fly up to South Lake Tahoe for a snap wedding — all the advantages of Las Vegas but without the temptation to gamble (not that remarriage is anything but a gamble). As they approach the small airport, our hero spots what could be the wreckage of a plane. As a concerned citizen, he reports the sighting when he lands. This news is greeted with some degree of incredulity. No planes have been reported lost or missing in recent times. Nevertheless, he persists in his assertion, pointing adamantly to a spot on a high-definition map.

David Freed

David Freed

Of course he ends up guiding the police to the place he saw as he flew in. He’s frustrated by the general air of scepticism and his natural sense of duty kicks in. That this means postponing the wedding is not a major consideration in his mind. The love between the couple seems to have returned but not the romance. To him, the symbolism of a marriage ceremony to confirm the resumption of love as usual can be fitted in when it’s convenient — a typically male-centric point of view. When they find the plane, it turns out to be “old”. The dead body of one of the people from the airport who had heard the initial report is the first complication. The second complication comes when the FAA declares all information about the plane classified. Why would a plane lost in 1956 still be subject to an official secrets ruling? None of this should immediately set alarm bells ringing. There’s no need for Cordell to increase his level of vigilance. That way lies paranoia and, as a Buddhist, he’s committed to seeing the good in people and the surrounding situation.

Of course all this traipsing around the landscape and Cordell’s involvement in the investigation is not appreciated by his bride-to-be who spends the day moping about in the cold of the town. To make things worse, the sheriff’s deputy calls Cordell out of the boutique hotel at the crack of dawn the next day. Perhaps Cordell should not be surprised his intended is not in evidence when he returns. Except this doesn’t feel right. She hasn’t gone out: both her jogging and the ordinary clothes she would have worn outdoors are still in the room. Later his cellphone rings. It’s not good news.

This is the start of an economically told thriller which makes the simplicity of a linear plot a delight to watch. The tension is skillfully maintained as we watch Cordell’s sense of duty collide with his love for his ex-wife. Needless to say, there can only be one outcome. My delight in Voodoo Ridge is not saying I want all my books to be grim, but there does come a point when the endless sunlight of modern fiction becomes tiring and a healthy dose of reality is appreciated. If you enjoy thrillers with a darker edge, this is a superb example of the form and you should snap it up.

For reviews of other books by David Freed, see:
Fangs Out
Flat Spin.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Fangs Out by David Freed

April 17, 2013 2 comments

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We need to start out by laying down a few criteria for deciding when a thriller is a success. For these purposes, we should recognise that genres are actually irrelevant. There’s no reason why thriller elements cannot underpin science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and so on. All that’s required is either a single protagonist or a small group that finds itself under threat of attack. This may be with a view to capture the hero or group, or with more fatal consequences in mind. For our immediate purposes, we’re straddling the mystery, crime, adventure fences with vague spy and or military overtones because of the backstory. From this, you will understand we’re not dealing with an “ordinary” hero who earns reader sympathies by being an Everyman figure. Rather we have someone who’s had specialist training and must therefore win our sympathies by having a ready wit and, perhaps more importantly, dilemmas about whether to rescue his failed marriage. If in doubt, our hero should be tempted to stray but hold himself back on the off-chance his wife may return to his side (and bed).

In the classic thriller, our hero is outgunned, often threatened by a mysterious organisation making it difficult to know who to trust. In Fangs Out by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2013) A Cordell Logan Mystery, the “enemy” is unknown. Our hero is given money to investigate and refute a dying declaration that the head of a US defence contractor corporation has been cooking the books and is a murderer. So when someone tries to kill our hero, it’s obvious there must be something to investigate, but it’s uncertain which of those he’s questioned might have attempted his murder. So we’re principally into mystery thriller adventure territory as our heroic pilot and ex-National Security agent struggles to stay alive and work out exactly who’s hiding what from whom.

David Freer checking the pier for his next landing

David Freed checking the pier for his next landing

We start off with the necessary trigger event. As he’s about to be executed for murder, the condemned man uses his chance at a few last words to reassert his innocence and names the man he says is responsible. We then move to the selection of our hero as the one chosen to solve the mystery. In this case, Cordell Logan guides a plane into a safe landing and, as a form of reward, is given the job of finding the evidence to show the right man was executed. This moves us into the “search” phase where our hero beats the grass to see how many snakes emerge (it’s an old Chinese proverb, often applied to combat situations). Naturally this brings him into contact with the love interest. In this case, there are two women who try to get him into bed and so break his emotional commitment to his ex-wife. As he beats the grass, key pieces of information come his way and, with determination and a little unofficial help from a certain national agency, he pieces the information together into a hypothesis. He should, of course, trust the cops with all this information but, by then, he’s in revenge mode because the attempt on his life also wrecked his beloved old aircraft. He therefore prefers to find the villain and discuss matters before the police arrive. Naturally, this all leads to a “happily ever after” resolution which confirms the essential fairytale subtext to all adventure stories, namely that our hero confirms his relationship with the love interest (until the next book in the series comes along, of course).

This is the second thriller I’ve read this month built around flying and, as a complete package, this is significantly better. Both the situation to investigate and the mechanics of midflight emergencies are beautifully captured here. Apart from the section where Logan and Dutch Holland fly off in an attempt to find Al Demaerschalk, Fangs Out is a fast-paced, lean plot which positively crackles with wit and invention.

For review of other books by David Freed, see:
Flat Spin
Voodoo Ridge.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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