For those of you who enjoy adding another notch to your reading gun, Strangers by Bill Pronzini (Tor-Forge, 2014), is the forty-first book in the series featuring the Nameless Detective (remembering, of course, that we now know him to be called Bill — not so nameless after all). This time, we find our heroic ex-cop and now PI has left his wife Kerry to continue her slow rehabilitation from the PTSD. After receiving a blast from the past and somewhat against his better judgement, he’s off to Mineral Springs, a small mining town that’s surviving but hardly ever going to feature on America’s most welcoming holiday destination lists. The source of this blast was Cheryl Rosmond (now going by her married name Hatcher). To fill in a little of the backstory, they had a relationship twenty years ago when Bill was a serving police officer. In those days, Bill was an even more hardline by-the-book individual and, as the regulations required, he passed on the good news that her brother Doug was a murderer. Said Doug committed suicide and Cheryl left him. You may wonder why she would contact him twenty years later. Even more, you may wonder why he should react by leaving immediately. The problem is Cheryl’s son, Cody. No! Let me stop here. This is not some good seed run bad. Although they had a sexual relationship, this is not Bill’s secret love child now grown up. Yet when a desperate mother calls out for his help, some measure of guilt sends him out to the car and the long drive to Nevada. This boy has been charged with committing three vicious rapes and needs help. Cheryl has no money and no-one else with the right level of expertise she can turn to.
When he arrives, he discovers that the reputation of mother and son could not be any lower. Her husband died of a heart attack four years ago and she has to work all hours as a waitress to cover living expenses. The son’s attitude has not made him any friends and he’s been unemployed for about six months. As far as the police and local DA are concerned, they have their man. Although the DNA results are in a long queue, they don’t feel they need wait for confirmatory evidence. He was seen in the area, he has no alibi, and both a ski-mask and bloodstained knife were found in his Jeep. Indeed, the entire neighbourhood is convinced the nineteen-year-old is guilty and a small campaign is in progress to drive the mother out of town as well. This is small-town America and there’s no compassion or forgiveness on display anywhere. The only people who seem to doubt Cody’s guilt are a girlfriend and the sheriff’s young nephew who was a fair-weather friend (when his disapproving parents were looking the other way). Needless to say, once Bill announces his mission in town, he rapidly acquires a fan club intent on encouraging him to take his unwanted carcass back where it came from.
What makes the resulting investigation so satisfying is the confrontation between stubborn professionalism and a prejudiced township saddened they stopped lynching young men like Cody as soon as they were satisfied of his guilt. As our not-easily-deterred investigator moves forward, chinks of light emerge. After talking with one of the rape victims, there may even be circumstantial evidence confirming Cody’s innocence. But, in default of DNA exoneration, probable cause for doubting guilt is not going to fly. As PI novels go, this strays rather pleasingly into noir territory as the small town’s secrets prove to be just as dark as those found in the bigger cities. I’ll leave it to you to read and so discover whether Cody is guilty. Needless to say, there must also be a resolution of the hanging thread of relationship between Bill and his ex. This proves rather sad as, for reasons which emerge during the course of the book, Cheryl is somewhat more dysfunctional that we might have suspected. The outcome is Bill’s departure from the town. This is necessary so the serial can proceed. You’ll have to decide whether you think the realism of the result hits the mark. I think it does, making this one of the better books in the serial for some time.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Over the last two years, I’ve reviewed a few mystery novels with an agenda to deal with issues of contemporary importance. This has included the abnormally high murder rate in some Mexican towns, people trafficking, and so on. It may be significant that many of these novels dealing with the darker side of human nature are Scandinavian. The literal darkness that descends in the northern latitudes during their longer winters often seems to be matched by a fascination with human depravity in its various forms. This experience has led me, on some occasions, to feel somewhat manipulated. It’s not exactly that I’m beginning to suffer compassion fatigue. I haven’t yet lost my sense of the horror and real injustice suffered by the victims of these crimes. I’ve simply found the themes overly dominant, feeling as if these crimes are themselves being presented as a form of entertainment as we watch the not unnaturally depressed detectives follow the clues to trap the killers and imprison the abusers.
Thematically, River of Glass by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2014) is dealing with people trafficking. A number of young women have been induced to travel to America from Asia only to find themselves trapped in a living hell where they are taught to be submissive and then sold on to rich johns. All this comes to Jared McKean courtesy of a body in the dumpster at the back of the building where he has his office. The next day an Asian woman is waiting outside his office. She claims to be his half-sister. Backed up by a number of photographs, she explains his father went through a form of local marriage when he was serving in Vietnam. They were expecting him to go back after the war, but he never did. Now her daughter has gone missing in America. She had insisted on coming to find her grandfather. Once he overcomes his scepticism, this sets Jared off on a search for his niece.
Under normal circumstances, he would call on the help of his old friend in the local police force. But he’s somewhat distracted. This leaves his main point of contact the temperamental Malone who has yet to warm up to Jared’s approach to investigating crime. Unfortunately, although he begins to make progress thanks to all his friends, the local law enforcement focus shifts to investigate the activities of a bomber who claims to be exterminating people who have shown themselves to be enemies of justice. This leaves Jared and his half-sister in the driving seat of the investigation without official support.
Although we have scenes embedded in the broad narrative explaining what’s happening to those kept imprisoned, the reader’s eye is kept squarely on the characters of those in pursuit. Since Jared’s disabled son goes through a health crisis, the emotional complexities of his life are laid bare. At a time when he wants and needs to be there for his son, he discovers he has another previously unsuspected part of the family to worry about. In the end the compromises he makes persuade his half-sister into greater recklessness than is prudent. It’s at this point we discover the significance of the book’s title which is appropriately vicious.
What makes this book so satisfying is the balance between the awfulness of the treatment endured by those in captivity, and the determination of those in pursuit to find out who’s responsible. The result is a proper context for the darkness which offers depth and some affirmation for the essential resilience of the human spirit. Those who endure, find some redemption. Those who fight for what’s right find themselves the victim of their own naïveté, but nevertheless can still draw enough strength to continue when the truth emerges. This makes River of Glass one of the best thrillers of the year so far. It’s powerful without overwhelming the sense of compassion we should all feel for those victimised in this way. I strongly recommend this book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Having had some issues with the narrative pacing of the first in the series, I metaphorically pick up a digital copy of A Cup Full of Midnight by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012) featuring ex-cop and now PI Jared McKean. This continues in the best raditions of a serial with characters who were slightly less prominent in the first book, now stepping into the limelight. This time, the focus of attention is Josh, our hero’s nephew. Much to the despair (if not anger of his father), the young sprog comes out as gay and, to add insult to injury, becomes involved with the Goth scene. Except, even this version of the Goth scene is tainted with darker colours as he moves into the world of vampires, witches and others who claim some kind of supernatural status or powers. This leads to him becoming involved with a manipulative man who claims to be a real vampire. A short while after the young man loses his appeal, said vampire is killed in what seems to have been a ritualistic way. Except it’s not at all clear what the ritual might have been, so mixed up is all the symbology. What’s particularly clear is the depth of anger in the killing. Normally, this would not be a problem, but the sprog and a young woman were in the neighbourhood about the time and, worse, the young girl makes a generalised confession that she was responsible for the death. When two less than caring police officers come to interview the sprog, they frighten him and he attempts suicide. This inspires McKean to investigate. He may have thought the man deserved to die for abusing minors, but the suggestion his nephew might have had something to do with it passes a red line.
So this book adheres more closely to the optimal PI narrative pacing model. We have a gentle introduction to the problem and then our PI sets off to investigate. The first hurdle he meets is the number of people the victim had angered in his relatively short lifetime. It was probably something he worked at consciously, seeing how far he could push a real talent for upsetting others. One person describes the victim as a man who’d dipped into the Great Darkness and scooped out a cup full of midnight. So whether it was others in the Goth scene, or the gay scene, or the parents of the young kids he slept with, or the locals in the neighborhood where he lived, there were probably a lot of people waiting in line for their chance to kill him. Anyway, after doing the first round of talking with all the possibles, he knows he’s on the right track because someone with supernatural powers materialises a rattlesnake in his truck in that cold interstitial period before Christmas becomes New Year.
Very much as the first book, this is primarily interested in relationships. You may think you know people, but even those you’ve known for years can surprise you. Take your best friend who’s dying of AIDS. He has a steady boyfriend but he’s prepared to sacrifice that relationship to help an ex-boyfriend who’s that much closer to death. It’s all about priorities and the sacrifices you’re prepared to take to help others or just fit in with the crowd. That’s why Josh is something of an enigma. This is a boy McKean has known from birth, except just how well does he know him? It’s not just a simple matter of him running with the wrong crowd, meeting up with them on a casual basis. He’d been a willing catamite for the victim and who can be entirely sure what he might have done while under that man’s influence. The result as described here is full of resolutions (it’s almost New Year, after all). Some of these endings are tragic, others merely sad. For those left standing, life goes on for now but little in life is ever certain. A traffic accident or some other unexpected event could end it tomorrow. The young never have enough experience to understand how short their lives are. The older people have enough experience to be able to live with the knowledge they will die one day (some sooner than others).
A Cup Full of Midnight turns out to be something of a tour-de-force. The pacing is just right and, more importantly, the people ring true. No matter whether we’re dealing with the more extreme or marginalised members of society, or those whose middle class status is supposed to make them more law-abiding and less dangerous, everyone reacts in the moment. It’s the fallibility of humanity that everyone can be tempted or manipulated into doing the wrong thing. All it takes is someone with sufficient insight and determination to cause chaos, and the world can fall apart. Then it takes someone like McKean to help stick plaster on the wounds and hope people can recover. If that means, sometimes, he has to look the other way, that’s a price worth paying to protect the weak and vulnerable from doing further damage to themselves. Protect and serve doesn’t just apply to police officers. It also applies to PIs and concerned citizens like McKean. Overall, this is an impressive character study and recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When putting together a PI novel with thriller pretensions, one of the key considerations is narrative pacing. Not to put too fine a point on it, if a reader is expecting action, being slow to introduce it will result in boredom and a switch-off. But equally, having non-stop action can become tedious. Even in the most high-adrenaline adventures, people do take short breathers. So, for example, the James Bond franchise has developed the introductory blast of action lasting five to ten minutes. This captures the attention of viewers by showing a sample of what they can expect when they get to the climax. The plot proper can then begin and slowly escalate up to said climax when all the major stunts are played out. This reflects the general danger that if events are flashing by too quickly, neither viewers nor readers may gain a clear understanding of what’s happening. Of course, cultural anthropologists may suggest Western people with digital inputs are developing very short attention spans and need constant restimulation if they are going to reach the end of the film or book. This may persuade authors to aim for a mini-cliffhanger at the end of every chapter to persuade readers to turn the pages more quickly to resolve their feelings of fear and anxiety. But the dilemma for authors could not be more clearly seen than in Racing the Devil by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2012).
This is the first of the Jared McKean mysteries. He has an eight-year-old son with Down Syndrome, an ex-wife, and an array of very interesting and supportive friends. The opening sixty or so pages of this book flash by with incidents of note occurring on a regular basis. So: goes into pub, meets woman who has been battered and seems in need of protection; has sex with said woman; wakes up to find himself framed for a murder; makes a bad decision, and is arrested; is beaten up in prison; and then has time to draw breath when his friends bail him out. Now he can begin trying to discover who the mastermind is. Yet even at this early stage, there are problems. To take but two examples, he’s fuzzy when he wakes up after being drugged, but that’s no reason to leave his vehicle untouched. Anyone who thinks someone may be framing them should take the chance to search the vehicle to see whether there’s any other evidence left to be found. To walk away is simply idiotic (or perhaps it isn’t, who knows?). It’s also strange, given the victim apparently kept a diary of where she met the fake McKean, that the real deal does not try to prove the negatives, i.e. that he was not present at all those times. Ah well, you don’t read these books for their logic.
So having our hero back on the mean streets, he has to earn enough to pay the bills and investigate who’s set him up. Although we continue to make progress, the pace now drops quite dramatically (as you would expect). So we’re trying to interview the neighbours and then off to see the deceased’s sister for a little horse massage (no, really, all he does is rub the horse). As the investigation proceeds, we get time for friends and, more importantly, family as he meets his newly-pregnant ex and her new husband on the occasion of his son’s eighth birthday. Indeed, one of the features of this book is the time devoted to exploring this PI’s psychology through the extended backstory that emerges. This makes the book slightly nonstandard. In the conventional PI novel, our noirish protagonist gets out there to investigate. He gets hit a few times, and hands out a beating when it’s deserved or in self-defence. There’s at least one dame that he falls for but, more often than not, she proves unsuitable for one reason or another. This leaves him alone at the end of the book. But Jared McKean is instinctively both a loyal friend and a “family man”. Under normal circumstances, this would mean he lives a suburban life with wife and children. Except his life has not been kind to him. He was married and they have a disabled son whom they both continue to love. He currently shares accommodation with a gay man, but their relationship is entirely platonic. Our hero is straight, but a strong friend. In other words, this hero can only be understood by watching the way in which his relationships ebb and flow. This makes the book distinctly more interesting to read than many more conventional PI novels. Thus, although I might have preferred some of the plot elements to be a little more tightly put together, Racing the Devil proves to be a highly engaging read with a reasonably satisfying explanation of why our hero is the one chosen to be framed, and what the broader motivations are. It will be interesting to see if later books in this series improve on this opening novel.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Beware Beware by Steph Cha (Minotaur, 2014) has an immediate point of interest. When it comes to characterisation, I’m completely indifferent as to who the author picks as the point of view. My only requirement is that the individual feels reasonably credible and that I can learn something about what it feels like to be that person. So, as a now semi-fossilised man who first got a clear understanding of the world before the excitement of feminism moved the 1960s forward in the debate about liberation and gender equality, I often find myself depressed by the failure of contemporary writers to show the appalling discrimination still visited on women and the other marginalised sexual communities. With seminal books like The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer becoming best-sellers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had hoped for better.
So this is the second book to feature Juniper Song. In theory, this is my chance to learn something of the life of a Korean American woman and about Koreatown in LA. She has completed the transition from Yale graduate into a job learning the ropes as a private investigator. For those of you who missed Follow Her Home (2013), her efforts as an amateur sleuth got her best friend killed. Now, under the supposed guidance of Chaz Lindley, she’s handed-off to Daphne Freamon, a painter who lives in New York. It seems the client’s boyfriend, Jamie Landon, is currently in LA acting as a ghostwriter for film star Joe Tilley. That he may either be snorting coke or dealing it, is offered as a possible explanation for him failing to stay in touch with Daphne. When Joe Tilley is found dead in his hotel bath tub after what seems to have been one of his traditionally debauched parties, Jamie becomes a person of interest. This brings Daphne to town and the show can get on the road. As a subplot, a sinister man is stalking Lori, Song’s roommate. Fortunately, he’s shot before he can do any serious damage. This gives us two deaths to think about.
First as to the plot: this is one of these deceptively simple stories. I suppose it follows in the classic PI novel tradition of having a dogged detective go round the town talking with people. Some our detective manages to extract useful information from. Others clam up when the wrong questions are asked. Such are the highs and lows when you pound the mean streets. The point of the exercise is, of course, to work out who everyone is and, more importantly, what their history is. This all works well as our PI slowly peels away the layers of onion, all the while finding the tears beginning to flow. Indeed, at one point, her questions are the direct cause of another death. This is chastening (i.e. psychologically traumatic). When you look back, this is nicely constructed and elegantly simple both as a mystery and a thriller.
But I have a problem with the Korean connection. I recognise the physical places and, in more recent years, I too have sipped my way through some high ABV soju with appropriately pleasing results. To that extent, the book does justice to the transplanted food and alcohol. But apart from one brief mention of racial tension, there’s no effort made to deal with the sometimes difficult relationship between the Korean community and the surrounding cultures, nor between the older and younger generations of Koreans. We do get some indication of both alliances between Koreans and Mexicans in gang culture, and involvement in more general crime by some in the Korean community. The author, however, prefers not to deal with the often quite serious racism afflicting the non-white communities, save that there’s some reference to the difficulty African Americans have in gaining acceptance by Hollywood. But it’s when we come to the sexism the author steps out of the real and into a fantasy PI world.
In the interests of balance, I admit one of the themes of the book is the willful failure of male-dominated organisations including police forces to investigate allegations of rape. Even at the best of times, it’s assumed the women are partly to blame even though it’s the men who force women to wear sexualised clothing. This is also seen in the failure of the courts to give priority to Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” to create real sex discrimination provisions, e.g. to prevent decisions as in the Hobby Holly case which makes the notion of a woman’s autonomy over her own body subject the the religious scruples of others. With the disapproving allowed to picket outside clinics providing abortion services to discourage women from entering, even rape victims find it difficult to terminate the unwanted child.
It may be bad for women in general, but Juniper Song is a Korean American woman who’s trying to navigate her way through the currents of Korean culture, the slightly rarified world of Hollywood stardom and the agents and managers who protect the illusion of magic, and the sceptical world of the police. Let’s start in Korean culture. This is one of the more extreme examples of patriarchal control. Despite the modernity of the country, South Korea has not progressed very far beyond mediaeval times when it comes to the question of gender equality. This male dominance has come under pressure through the move to America. The older Koreans have therefore resorted to ghettoisation in an attempt to retain the old values by holding themselves aloof from the surrounding world. But the young inevitably mix outside the ghetto walls and are infected by Western ideas of equality. This produces sometimes quite violent responses. When it comes to the police, our hero is given a female homicide detective to deal with. How convenient! No-one of any race or gender refuses to speak with her or is less than polite to her (at least, when she’s sober). The only feature that marks her out from the norm is her willingness to drink excessive amounts of alcohol and thereby put herself in danger. Sadly, this recklessness is not limited to Korean American women.
Put all this together and Beware Beware is a good story (the title referring to a painting), but I’m greatly saddened by the failure to be honest about the problems faced by non-white women in a fundamentally racist and sexist society. Just singling out rape and the problems faced by women who try to complain of sexual assault highlights the tip of the iceberg. This is not to say I’m for a more literary style of books that examine social issues at a deeper level. I’m just against the idea books by women, presumably written for a mainly female readership, should conform to patriarchal expectations. Unless, of course, I’m perversely undervaluing the message of this book. Perhaps this book is really a rallying cry for women of the world to rise up in a wave of vigilanteism and, whenever a women is raped, advocating she and her sisters seek out the man responsible and string him up from the nearest tree (or street lamp if in a city). Now that would be radical feminism in action.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Mike Resnick (Seventh Street, 2014) is the third outing for Eli Paxton who’s one of these throwback PIs. For no terribly good reason other than he’s getting on in years, this is a man who has studiously avoided the adoption of any of the modern technology the rest of the world takes for granted. That means no cellphone, no computer or internet connection, no GPS in his clunker, and so on. Like one of these actors waiting for the next bit part to break his name into the big time, he spends most of his time watching classic Hollywood noir movies on cable while keeping his dog, appropriately named Marlowe, by his side. Fortunately, he has a stellar reputation with some of his buddies in the local Cincinnati police department, and this leads to him being called out at an unGodly hour of the morning to attend the scene of a homicide. Jim Simmons believes in his own power to solve the murder, but the distinctly unhappy widow (not grieving, you understand) wants her cat, Fluffy, found ASAP if not before. This sets our dogged detective off on the trail. When Marlowe finds other cats but not the missing moggy, the angry widow has him arrested. Apparently she thinks Paxton must be finagling with the feline (possibly for ransom purposes). Having talked his way out of the calaboose, he decides to persist in tracking down the kitty, wondering why the widow thinks it so valuable. The answers are very entertaining.
One of the reasons I enjoy first-person PI novels is the opportunity to watch a mind thinking through a problem. While this has no pretensions to apply strictly deductive reasoning to the analysis of facts and the process of investigating, the common sense approach on display here is a positive delight. To get the best value out of the situation, Paxton gets a sidekick. While by no means stupid, this individual is there largely to make all the elementary mistakes and to sit there applauding as Paxton sets him right. Since he’s a mob enforcer from Chicago, he’s hardly the most reliable of partners when it comes to slapping the manacles on the mouser but, in the end, he does prove his worth when the Bolivian connection comes out to play.
The first two Paxton novels are tied fairly directly to a competition or sporting event involving animals. This allows Resnick to show off his considerable knowledge of dogs and horses. This novel features a tabby as the catalyst for the whole shooting match to get underway, but the whole is really a classic PI novel with no inside knowledge of felines required (although some state law might be useful). Putting the whole package together with considerable wit and style, Resnick delivers a genuinely amusing trail of breadcrumbs for our hero to follow, and although he might not end up rich on the fees earned, he does at least get the see a Bengal and live to tell the tail (sic).
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Ask Not by Max Allan Collins (Forge, 2013) (Nathan Heller Mystery 17) If you look back over the last fifty years, the most talked about event in conspiracy circles has been the JFK assassination. Over the years, everyone and his/her dog has had a theory about who might really have been behind the killing and why. So here we have a well-researched book with guest appearances from Bobby Kennedy, Jack Ruby, Jim Garrison and others. It begins with what most people take to be the agreed facts and then spins the author’s own interpretation on top. Frankly, I’m not really into the mythology of this sad incident. It comes of being born and raised on the other side of the Pond. I remember the British current events satire show called That Was the Week That Was, devoted all its running time to a commentary and tribute to JFK but, in 1963, it was just one more thing in a busy world to think about. To Americans, of course, it came as a shock that someone would be bold enough to kill the President in such a public way. Alongside the assassination of William McKinley, the combined shock effect was the equivalent of this century’s 9/11, scarring the psyche of America.
This is the final book in the JFK trilogy sequence of Heller novels and short story collections, and a direct sequel to Target Lancer. It starts in September 1964 immediately after a concert given by the Beatles. As Heller, the PI to the stars, and his sixteen-year-old son are crossing a Chicago street, a Cuban tries to run them down. The PI knows this man was involved in an attempt on JFK’s life in Chicago three weeks before Dallas and may also have been involved in “Operation Mongoose”, the failed attempt by the CIA, Cuban exiles and the mob to take down Fidel Castro. Since there are a number of reasons why interested parties would have a motive for killing him, Heller spends his money to place protection for his ex-wife and son, and begins to research who might be behind the attempted hit.
So what we have here is a PI novel which is playing the true crime game in a historical mystery format. I confess a lot of the history was completely new to be. Blame thousands of miles and a lack of motivation for my ignorance. I therefore have no idea how much of the content is rehashing what’s already in the common domain. All I can say is that, after a while, I thought the facts rather drowned out the action. If I’m going to sit down with a PI novel boasting potentially noir overtones, then that’s what I want. I felt this was trying too hard to fit into the straightjacket of history. Yes, there are no doubt some wildly speculative bits in there, but I neither know nor really care where the facts stop and the fiction begins. This has the assassination and the Warren Commission’s botched attempt to clarify matters as the backdrop. There are a surprising number of bodies. The majority are probably victims of a clean-up squad which is touring the country eliminating those who might be able to disturb the cover-story of a lone gunman. Assuming this to be a true recital of the number of deaths, it’s a sad indictment of the willingness of the powerful to sacrifice the innocent. Towards the end, there are other victims who more immediately surround our hero and may be killed because of his investigation. Heller joins forces with journalist Flo Kilgore, a fictionalized version of Dorothy Kilgallen (1913–1965). As the date shows, she also died in the real world while investigating the assassination.
I wanted to like this. The writing style is engaging and when we’re purely into fictional PI novel territory, the effect is very pleasing. But I felt submerged in factual information, much of which was not directly advancing the fictional PI story being told. Background which tends to suggest conspiracy and cover-up has a particular interest to those who want to consider whether the alleged conspiracy is real. PI novel readers want to see their hero fight his way through to the end and beat the bad guy. Because no-one actually knows the “truth”, there can’t be a convenient “Heller catches the bad guy” ending. The best he can do is survive. So Ask Not is less satisfying as fiction and too heavy on real-world history for a Brit like me.
The the review of another book by Max Allan Collins, see Supreme Justice.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.