I’ve been on a reading binge lately, mostly devouring a lot of crime fiction novels. I try to balance out my reading with some non-fiction and what might be called more “serious” novels, but when it comes down to it, crime fiction is usually my main entrée. Here are some short reviews of what I’ve read lately: a few recently published novels, along with older titles from the vaults. Some qualify as traditional mysteries or police procedurals, while others drift into spy and espionage territory. Just don’t dare call them thrillers!
Michael Connelly – The Burning Room
This is another strong entry in Connelly’s beloved Harry Bosch series. I’ve read them all up to this point and I ain’t stopping now. Connelly remains one of the best in the crime fiction business. This time around Bosch is paired with a new partner, a young Hispanic woman who is on the rise in the police department. My favorite part of this book, as in all Connelly novels, is the investigative thread. I enjoy the way that Bosch picks up seemingly random clues and finds something buried in there that turns out to be crucial to the case that he is investigating. Another cool aspect to the Bosch novels is the way the Connelly weaves a music thread into the story. Bosch is a traditional jazz fan and finds that listening to music helps him to maintain a certain “momentum” when investigating a case. At one point in this novel, Bosch puts on a Ron Carter CD, Dear Miles, because he “was looking for rhythm, and Carter’s vibrant bass line leading the quartet would certainly bring it.” My only complaint about this book was the climax to the story. After so much digging and perseverance, not to mention copious amounts of good luck, the ending came much too soon and left me unsatisfied. But, as typical of Connelly, there is a final twist at the very end of the novel that will leave you pondering: what will Bosch do next?
John Sandford – Deadline
I thought that this was one of the better recent entries in Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series of novels set in Minnesota. In all of the other books in this series there was a disclaimer of sorts in the book’s preface, something along the lines of how Sandford wrote the novel in collaboration with a fishing buddy, friend, or someone else. But this time around there is no such notice, so it appears that this novel was written entirely by Sandford with no outside help. Like his novels in the “Prey” series, this is a well-paced story with a few sub-plots amidst all the murders, and this time around some dog-napping. Despite the blood and body count, Virgil’s antics and the witty dialogue keep things on the lighter side. In fact, I thought that this was one of Sandford’s funniest books yet. Yet another strong point to this novel was the cast of interesting if not bizarre characters. I would love to see the likes of Johnson Johnson and young Muddy turn up again in future novels. But of course the star remains “That fuckin’ Flowers”, the goofy but canny investigator who always gets his man — along with a few women. Fans of this series will find this one to be another engaging, page-turning delight.
Walter Mosley – Rose Gold
There is not much deviation in formula or style for Mosley in this latest entry in the long-running Easy Rawlins series. And for fans of Easy and company that’s a comforting notion. As a storyteller, Mosley does a good job of sustaining interest, but I found parts of the plot, and the various sub-plots, either implausible or confusing to follow. Plus, there were far too many characters to keep track of. All those names became a mental jumble after a while. As usual, Easy Rawlins himself is a mess of contradictions and emotions. Sometimes he is an astute, thoughtful fellow, a caring and kind parent, possessing a rare intellectual curiosity and insight into people’s problems. But at other times he is a rash, headstrong, even violent man, unable to control his emotions or actions. Nevertheless, Rawlins and his friends and characters such as Mouse, Jackson Blue, and Jewelle remain enjoyable company, and the story moves along at a brisk pace, taking you back to Los Angeles in 1967, in all its glory and strife.
Tom Franklin – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
I read this novel on the recommendation of a friend and I need to write him a thank you letter; I totally loved this book. I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best books that I’ve read in a year or more. It’s that special. Tom Franklin weaves an intriguing story — one that qualifies as a true mystery, but also as a solid work of literature — and populates his novel with very well-sketched characters. The dialogue is crisp and believable, and the story is carefully paced. In every aspect, this is simply an outstanding novel. Such a wealth of emotions, complex relationships, and sub-plots at work in this novel, that I could write a full essay on it. Suffice to say, this is a memorable read.
Ed McBain – Alice in Jeopardy
For most fans of Ed McBain, those who have enjoyed the fine Matthew Hope series and the outstanding 87th Precinct series, this novel will be a huge disappointment. It’s populated by shallow, unlikeable characters, an unbelievable police investigation, and some totally unnecessary sex scenes. There are moments — very brief ones — where the old magical McBain style jumps off the page, particularly in the second half of the book when it seems like McBain finally hits his stride, only to lapse into ridiculous scenarios and lame dialogue once again. I realize that this was one of the last books he wrote before he passed away in 2005, but it’s really not up to the quality of work that earned him such praise and devotion from readers. If you’re a McBain fan you might want to read this one anyway, but don’t have high expectations.
Alex Berenson – The Counterfeit Agent
I have mixed feelings about this latest installment in Berenson’s John Wells series. On one level, it’s another addictive, gripping read, a solid addition to a very good series. On another level, it’s predictable and offers pretty much the same formula and action that Berenson has used in his other books: an “impossible” assignment that can only be saved by the heroic efforts of John Wells; a bleak situation which looks like the end for our hero; Wells dispersing cash like he is a walking ATM. Some of it gets tedious, but Berenson still has a flair for storytelling and crisp dialogue, all of which help to keep the pages turning. The biggest strike against this novel is the ending … or rather a lack of one. It’s not quite the tidy climax you might expect, or at least hope for. Instead, the story is “to be continued” in yet another novel next year, Twelve Days. I realize that this is a “shrewd” move on the part of the publisher and their marketing weasels, but I think other readers will be as annoyed with this tactic as I am. And yet, I’ll most likely read the next installment … at some point.
John R. Maxim – Whistler’s Angel
This novel is a good companion to Maxim’s excellent “Bannerman” series. Although Bannerman doesn’t actually appear in this book, he’s mentioned several times and some of his associates pop up for cameo appearances. This Whistler novel, however, doesn’t have as hard an edge as the Bannerman series. In fact, there are times when the characters, especially the villains, are so bizarre that it reminds me of a Carl Hiaasen tale. One bad guy in particular fits the Hiaasen mold: a raving right-wing religious nut, sporting gashes in his face from cut glass (but telling people that the cuts were from wasp stings!), who totes around a golf bag that is packed with bombs, sandwiches and bottles of Snapple. Maxim’s writing is so descriptive that you can picture this crazed yahoo walking unsteadily down the street in his golf spikes. The protagonist of this novel, Adam Whistler is a also very memorable character, as are Adam’s father, the curious “twins”, and the angel herself, Adam’s girlfriend Claudia. Maxim is truly a top-shelf crime fiction writer and this is a worthy companion to his other books.
Peter Spiegelman – Thick as Thieves
This is a novel that requires a bit of patience. Frankly, I almost gave up on it several times, putting it down and going back to it a few days later. But I kept plugging away and plowed through it, saved by the fact that the plot finally became more focused and gripping in the second half of the book. I think a good edit would have helped prune some of the sluggish parts of the book and made this a tauter tale. Another problem is that there were far too many characters in the story, most of whom I didn’t care about or like. This was actually an intelligent, well-written novel for the most part, but too much time and effort — too many pages — were spent on detailing the planned heist and not enough on character development.
Joseph Hansen – Nightwork
I’ve read about a half-dozen books in Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter series and like them, but I usually end up thinking I should have liked them more than I did. Hansen’s prose is lean and tight, a style that has earned him comparisons to classic mystery writers such as Ross MacDonald, and the big “twist” to this series is that the main character, Dave Brandstetter, is a gay private detective (specifically, an insurance claims investigator) and a tough, hard-nosed one at that (bucking against at least one stereotype). This novel has its share of interesting characters, as Dave investigates a series of troubling “accidental” deaths. Sometimes I marvel at Hansen’s deft writing style, and other times I groan at the way he succumbs to stereotypes when portraying a minority character (such as Cecil, his young black live-in boyfriend, or the Hispanic gang-banger in this novel). So no, it’s not all fantastic, but still well worth a read, especially for mystery fans looking for something a bit different than the usual crime caper.
Les Standiford – Black Mountain
I’ve read most of the books in Standiford’s “Deal” series and have enjoyed them all. This novel, however, is not part of that series and introduces us to some new characters. The story is not set in Florida as the Deal novels are, but drifts from the concrete jungle of New York City (in particular, the underground corridors of the subway system) to the beautiful and dangerous splendors of the Wyoming wilderness. Some scary stuff, some funny stuff, plenty of interesting characters, and Standiford does an outstanding job of describing the beauty and danger of the Wyoming mountain terrain. Parts of the story fall into cliché story at times (particularly one aspect of the story’s climax), but overall I thought this was a really good novel, a nice departure from Standiford’s typical fare.
Greg Hurwitz – Trust No One
The first book I ever read by Greg Hurwitz was The Crime Writer, a clever and compulsive read. This stand-alone novel proved to be another very excellent read. The main character, Nick Horrigan, doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting protagonist at first, but the more the novel evolves, the more you find yourself rooting for Horrigan and getting into the flow of the story. In addition to the plot twists — and this one will indeed keep you guessing until the end — I like the way that Hurwitz develops the characters and their relationships in this book. There is the complex relationship between Horrigan and his mother, plus the special bond he had with his late step-father. Throw in a beautiful, brilliant ex-girlfriend and a mysterious homeless man whom Horrigan befriends, and you have a fascinating cast of characters that help to make this novel quite a treat.