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Posts tagged ‘Michael Connelly’

Crime Always Pays

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!

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.
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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Finding good new authors

Anyone who reads a lot of books, particularly novels that feature a series with the same characters, runs into the problem of running out of new authors to read. You find an author you like and end up reading every book they’ve written, becoming attached to the characters and their lives. But after you’ve finished the entire series, then what? You find another author that writes equally gripping tales and read all of those books, and then try to find other authors in a similar vein. For whatever reasons, some click and some don’t. I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years, but sometimes I can’t make it past the 50-page mark without becoming either bored or annoyed. Those are the books I don’t finish.

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In the past six months or so I’ve devoured the latest novels from favorite authors such as John Sandford, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, and Lee Child. Loved them all. I’ve recently started reading Daniel Silva’s series of novels featuring the Gabriel Allon character, and find those to be top-shelf fare too. Allon is certainly one of the more unusual and multi-dimensional characters in crime/espionage fiction these days. He’s an artist who works as an art restorer in various locations around Europe. But he’s also an Israeli citizen who is employed by that government in various spy-related activities, including the assassinations of “bad guys.” An intellectual hit-man with artistic skills.  Not your normal plot premise, but seriously addictive stuff.

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Among the new authors that I’ve discovered — and liked— this year are Jess Walter and Greg Hurwitz. I’d actually read one Jess Walter novel, Over Tumbled Graves, about a year ago and enjoyed it. It was more of a standard crime fiction story, but two others that I’ve read since then are even better and have more depth than the usual mystery. One novel, The Zero, is set in New York City, shortly after the Twin Towers disaster of 9/11. The main character is a police officer who was hailed as a hero after 9/11 and becomes a minor celebrity around town. But depression soon takes its toll and the man wakes up one day to discover that he had shot himself in the head the night before during a drinking binge. The wound wasn’t fatal, of course, but he can’t remember exactly what happened that night, and in the days and months afterwards he continues to have memory lapses, at times not even sure why he is at a certain location or what he is supposed to be doing, or who he is talking with. Walter’s skillful prose takes the reader inside the mind of this troubled man as he deals with his frustrating issues. Some passages are moving, others totally hilarious, and some quite frightening. Altogether, a very powerful and moving novel.  

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I read a third Walter novel earlier this month, Citizen Vince, that I also thought was superlative. In this novel the main character, Vince, is a career criminal who somehow gets involved in a mafia scheme. He ends up testifying against the mob and enters a witness protection program, given a new identity, and relocated to Spokane, Washington. Vince trains to be a baker and ends up working at a donut shop, a job he actually enjoys very much. But to supplement his income he also starts dealing in forged credit cards again. This novel is set in the fall of 1980, in the days before the US Presidential election between Carter and Reagan. The idea of voting in the election becomes an exciting prospect for Vince; due to his previous convictions he has never been able to vote in previous elections. Adding to the election fervor, a person from his criminal past discovers Vince living in Spokane. Lots of intrigue, a few laughs, and more great writing from Jess Walter. He has written several other books too, so I’m excited that there are more waiting to discover.

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As for Greg Hurwitz, he’s one of those names I’ve seen on the shelf for years but I’d never read anything until I started a novel called The Crime Writer last month. The basic plot is a twist on the typical whodunit: a fellow who writes crime fiction novels is charged with murdering his girlfriend. The evidence at the scene of the crime suggests that this is a no-brainer: this guy definitely did it. But due to a brain tumor he had at the time, the man really can’t remember if he had done it or not. Some things about the crime don’t add up in his mind, so he ends up investigating his own case, turning up some baffling and disturbing facts. In addition to the clever plot, the novel is populated by some very interesting characters (ones that are so engaging that you hope Hurwitz does a sequel), and some seriously funny dialogue. On top of that, Hurwitz is one of those crime fiction authors — like Jess Walter — who also a very good writer; a definite step above the rest of the mystery pack. I just started a new novel by Hurwitz, Trouble Shooter, more of a traditional cops and robbers tale, but still very well written and absorbing. He’s also written more than a handful of books, so I look forward to reading those also.

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Reading List: December 2011

Jo Nesbo – Nemesis

Another installment in Nesbo’s increasingly popular Harry Hole series of detective novels, all set in the author’s native Norway. Harry Hole reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus character; a real maverick police office that delightfully annoys his colleagues. I’ve read three of Nesbo’s books now and plan to keep going. He has been compared to another popular Scandinavian mystery writer, Stieg Larsson, but Nesbo is a much better writer.

 

 

Robert Hicks – Widow of the South

Picked this up to read just because it looked interesting and had a nice blurb on the cover, comparing it to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which was an excellent novel indeed. I’m not a big Civil War buff (unlike one guy I knew back in Florida, who sold most of his record collection to buy a musket for Civil War re-enactment events!), but I found this combination of historical fiction and a love story to be very gripping. I’ll be eager to read more by this author.

 

Laura Hillenbrand – Seabiscuit

I’ve never been a big horse racing fan, or even a fan of horses for that matter, but this novel is about much more than horses and racing. Hillenbrand is a skillful writer and she keeps the reader’s interest throughout this great book, merging 1930s history with a fascinating cast of real people that were devoted to an amazing horse. Hillenbrand’s research and writing skills help to make the reader feel like they really knew these people.

 

Martin Cruz Smith – Stalin’s Ghost

I hadn’t read a book by this author since Gorky Park many years ago, but after hearing many customers rave about his writing, I felt it was time to try another one. This recently written novel features the same protagonist, police investigator Arkady Renko, and is once again set in Russia. Smith is certainly a very gifted writer, but his storytelling style, use of too many characters (maybe it’s all the Russian names that trip me up!) and convoluted subplots often left me confused and not so eager to keep turning the pages. The story was far from boring, but after finishing this one I’m not compelled to read more books in the Renko series right away.

 

Eric Newby – What the Traveller Saw

This is a collection of essays by the famed travel writer, covering a variety of unusual destinations around the world over several decades. Newby’s writing is both informative and amusing; he truly has a special eye for people and details. The book is also illustrated with many striking Black & White photos taken by Newby.

 

 

K.C. Constantine – Always a Body to Trade

This is one of Constantine’s delightful Mario Balzic crime novels, featuring the cranky, profanity-spewing Rocksburg, Pennsylvania police chief. First published in 1983, this one is a delight, as are all of the Mario Balzic novels; little gems that need to be rediscovered.

 

Michael Connelly – The Drop

The latest Harry Bosch mystery, this one finds the hard-headed L.A. detective wresting with investigations — old and new — and trying to raise his increasingly independent teenage daughter. Biggest surprise; the kid like some of her father’s favorite jazz albums! Another strong novel by one of the best in the business.

 

Danny Goldberg – Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life in the Rock and Roll Business

Goldberg reflects on his many years in the music business, from starting as a young rock magazine writer, to being tour manager for Led Zeppelin in the early 70s, running a record label in the 90s, and working with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana during the Nevermind period. A fascinating memoir with plenty of good tales. I especially enjoyed the chapter about Warren Zevon, one of rock’s most underrated geniuses.

 

James McBride – The Color of Water

This famous, bestselling memoir is about a mixed race man whose mother was white. McBride tells his own tale, while interspersing his mother’s own reminiscences between chapters. His mother grew up in a very conservative Jewish family but later became a Christian. The author also seems to have deep religious beliefs, thus there’s a bit too much Jesus babbling in the book for my tastes. But overall this is an unusual and interesting read.

 

Ed McBain – Ghosts

I’ve loved reading McBain’s 87th Precinct series of police procedural mysteries — I read three or four of them each year and still have a dozen or so to go — and this one is another good one. It’s very short, at under 200 pages, but a very fun, and sometimes funny, read.

 

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