**Without Fear or Favor

NYCity  police officer

photo: scubacopper, creative commons license

By Robert K. Tanenbaum – Among many other legal posts, Tanenbaum has been a prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney, has taught law, and served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills, California. This book-jacket terms him “a New York Times bestselling author,” although many readers have learned that doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. This is the 29th book in the long-running series of legal thrillers featuring New York City District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp and his wife, investigator Marlene Ciampi. How could one man do all that? Easy. He didn’t.

In a rather notorious (in writing circles) revelation in 2003, Tanenbaum’s cousin, Michael Gruber revealed he had ghostwritten the “bestselling author’s” novels, the two had parted ways, and he was pursuing his own writing career. Followed by a rather inexpert successor, the quality of Tanenbaum’s books reportedly suffered, then for a while it appeared more skilled hands were at the computer keyboard. I knew none of this when I read Without Fear or Favor, but Tanenbaum’s hunt for a good ghostwriter should continue.

The new novel tells the story of a white cop murdered by a black militant who uses the nom de guerre, Nat X. Nat X proclaims that there’s a war on black people, and cops are the enemy. He does murder a policeman early in the story, then entices a teenager to shoot another one, and the remainder of the book is about bringing him to justice.

In some respects, this book is the antithesis of Don Winslow’s The Force, also about black-white relations in New York City as they collide within the criminal justice system. In Winslow’s book, corruption is rampant; in Tanenbaum’s, aside from three vigilante cops, duly punished, the police, the investigators, and the prosecutors are models of probity. Their solid ideals are revealed in unrealistic lengthy statements, more like essays than realistic conversations.

If these editorial opinions were confined to one or two characters, you might accept that they reflect a particular character’s point of view and bombastic communications style, but they also appear in the narration, which becomes indistinguishable from the characters’ “good citizenship” and “flaws in the system” lectures.

In addition to constant editorializing, the writer has a bad habit of introducing a bolus of superficial backstory every time a new character is introduced. It doesn’t explore the individual at all, and you’re left to apply whatever assumptions you may have about someone described as a product of “only the finest prep schools.”

Unsurprisingly, the story is loaded with clichés and stereotyped and cardboard characters. Perhaps most puzzling are the courtroom scenes of Nat X’s trial. I wonder whether Tanenbaum even read them. The defense attorney is not a worthy adversary for protagonist Karp, which greatly undercuts the tension of the trial. Not to mention that her deceptive behavior might well subject her to an ethics investigation.

Instead, How About . . .

If you like legal thrillers, you may find more believable courtroom drama in Steve Cavanagh’s The Liar or The Plea or Brad Parks’s recent Say Nothing. Or, come to Richardson Auditorium on October to hear John Grisham, Wednesday October 25, 2017, 4:30 p.m. Tickets on sale at the Auditorium website at noon October 19.

Weekend Movie Pick: Logan Lucky

Need a 119-minute break from the news headlines? This Steven Soderbergh caper comedy, script by Rebecca Blunt, may be just the thing (trailer). There’s nothing too serious going on (a planned heist at NASCAR’s big Memorial Day weekend race), but the characters are so well-developed and their robbery plot so complicated and devious, your attention is captured from the outset.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, out of work and, if his ex-wife has her way, out of his young daughter’s life. He needs money. He proposes the theft to his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), the serious one, a bartender who lost an arm in Afghanistan. Clyde is reluctant, because he’s convinced every family enterprise is destined for disaster—“the curse of the Logans.” Love how he whips up a martini one-handed to quiet a mouthy British patron (Seth MacFarlane)! Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), a beautician, is in on it too and gets sweet revenge on an irritating client who drives a purple Caddy. See that for yourself.

To pull off this daring crime, the brothers need help. Unfortunately, the one man they know who really knows how to blow a safe is in prison. Part of their plan is to spring him for a day. Daniel Craig plays prisoner Joe Bang, in “a wonderfully wacky, show-stealing turn,” said Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter. Joe insists his two brothers (Jack Quaid and Briain Gleeson) be brought into the plot, and the likelihood of success appears to plummet as these two slouch onto the scene. Prison warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) is also a treat.

Many funny moments, some relatively subtle. I particularly enjoyed the big race’s opening ceremony, which deployed all the worst excesses of American sports jingoism.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 76%.

****The Ex

photo: Mr. Nixter, creative commons license

Written by Alafair Burke – Even two decades later, New York criminal defense lawyer Olivia Randall has never quite forgiven herself for the unnecessarily cruel way she broke up with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Subsequently, however, Jack seems to have found happiness in his career as a best-selling novelist and on the family front with his wife Molly and teenage daughter Buckley. But that happiness was merely a respite. Three years before the novel begins, a mentally disturbed fifteen-year-old murdered thirteen people and injured many more in a Penn Station shooting. One of the dead was Molly Harris.

The boy was the son of prominent investment banker Malcolm Neeley, who’d refused to get the boy treatment or do “anything that would label his son as ‘sick.’” The outraged families of the victims, led by Harris, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Neeley, a suit recently dismissed by the court.

The book opens with the transcript of a police station interview with Harris. An NYPD detective is looking for information about a shooting that occurred earlier in the day: “Boyle: Okay, I’ve turned on the machine, Mr. Harris. Just to make clear, are you here at the First Precinct voluntarily?” Then, “And you’re willing to speak to me of your own accord?” You know immediately that Jack has already made a colossal mistake. He’s talking to the police without a lawyer.

Their flimsy excuse for taking him to the station for the interview, the pretense of needing to put the interview on tape because they’re talking to so many potential witnesses, all are bright flashing neon letters reading, “you’re in the deep water now, Jack!” The interview tells you a lot about Jack as well as the trouble he’s likely in. when the police reveal that one of the three people killed in that morning’s shootings is Malcolm Neeley.

Partly out of her own past guilt and partly because she can’t imagine Jack committing any crime remotely close to a triple murder, Olivia takes on Jack’s case. One of her first challenges is trying to unravel the puzzling sequence of events that lured Jack to the vicinity of the shootings in the first place. It seems to have been an elaborate ruse involving a woman, a book, and a picnic basket, with a big assist from social media. Did this woman even exist?

In her Internet research, especially, Olivia is aided by her office assistant Einer, a smart and savvy young man with a gift for sarcasm. Many of the other secondary characters come across strongly too in Burke’s skilled hands.

In the face of mounting evidence and doubts about Jack, Olivia can’t help but wonder, is this the same man I knew two decades ago? Can you ever really know what someone else is capable of? These are not uncommon questions, and the final reveal is fairly familiar territory as well.

In The Ex, you see a civilized, realistic New York City—not the city of top-to-bottom corruption in Don Winslow’s summer hit, The Force. Burke’s is a city of private schools, functioning public services, trendy night spots, and Armani.

On the short list for an Edgar Award in 2017, this is Alafair Burke’s eleventh crime thriller. She is a professor of criminal law in New York, a former prosecutor and has good genes. She’s the daughter of acclaimed thriller writer James Lee Burke.

****The Place of Refuge

orchid-leis

photo: Emilia, creative commons license

By Al Tucher – This 160-page novella takes great advantage of its setting on the Big Island of Hawai`i. For those who’ve visited the islands (or wanted to), this is a low-cost, no-jet-lag trip full of adventure.

For some time, Detective Errol Coutinho of the Hawai`i County Police and his partner, Detective Kim, have been on the trail of a serial killer of prostitutes. The murders stopped for a period of months, but now a Filipino hotel maid has discovered what appears to be the renewal of working-girl carnage. They need a decoy.

On the island of Oahu, undercover police officer Jessie Hokoana of the Honolulu Police Department is working to expose a major drug dealer, getting close to him and gaining his confidence using the oldest trick in the book. Jessie grew up on the Big Island, daughter of the owner of a small Korean barbeque place and Hosea Hokoana, an enormous Hawaiian man who feared nothing and no one, except perhaps Jessie’s mother. Hosea decamped from the family twenty years ago, when Jessie was young.

Jessie’s investigative target and boyfriend, Teddy Dias, is persuaded to go to Mexico to try to make a marijuana-supply deal with the leader of a Mexican cartel. Pakalolo—nicknamed Kona Gold or Puna Butter—could be supplied by Teddy and fed into the Mexicans’ distribution network. He takes Jessie with him. She agrees, mainly because she’s heard about a cage fighter there whom she believes may be her father.

In Hawai`i the police can give her only minimal protection, but in Mexico, none at all. And when the hoped-for drug deal goes south, only her father can save her. If he realizes who she is. If he wants to.  The story of Jessie’s family, especially of Hosea and his return to Hawaiian society and the consequences of that, ultimately involving Coutinho and Kim, predominate in the story.

This book provides a great flavor for the rich multi-cultural society in Hawai’i. Coutinho’s ancestors were Portuguese, while Kim is Korean; their boss, Tanaka, is Japanese. Jessie is half Hawaiian and half Anglo. In author Tucher’s hands, these characters are interesting and unique individuals, not bending to stereotype.

There’s also humor in the book, especially among the detectives. Tucher resolves the big plot questions, but not the human relationship questions, which is probably more realistic than an excessively tidy ending and holds the door open for further installments, which will be as welcome as a trip to the islands!

Wind River

Wind RiverI know a lot of people who would not like this remarkable movie, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (trailer). If you don’t like violence, you might as well stop reading now. If you oppose hunting, you can stop. If thoughts of a child being lost are too troubling, stop.

But if you want to see a powerful tale about achieving retribution despite the forces aligned against that possibility, you may appreciate Wind River. So many easy mistakes this movie could have made, but didn’t. There was no unconvincing romance, despite the respect and understated chemistry between the main characters. There were no long quasi-editorials about the plight of reservation Indians. The filmmakers show you that. There was no pretending that people simply get over soul-wounds by the next scene. These characters carry their pain with them and it helps shape who they are and what they will do.

What the filmmakers do give you is beautiful, treacherous mountain scenery (the Wind River Indian Reservation is in Wyoming, though the film was shot in Utah), where blizzards are blinding and it’s so cold that breathing can burst a person’s lungs. They give you snowmobiles racing across the fields, forests whose sounds could be branches breaking or a family of stalking cougars.

Best of all, they give you several profound cinematic moments, achieved not when the characters say a lot, but when they say almost nothing. “At times, Sheridan has his characters spell out a little too clearly what they’re thinking and feeling . . . but the words are so beautiful and come from such a place of deep truth, it’s hard not to be moved,” says Christy Lemire in her review for RogerEbert.com.

I don’t want to say too much about the actual story, so as not to take away from your experiencing it fresh. Suffice it to say it’s about the investigation of a murder; it’s about gun culture and drug culture and their inevitable consequences; and it’s about survival. And it’s about loving and safeguarding your children. Once you have them, a father says, “You can’t blink. Not once. Not ever.”

Put everything else aside and concentrate on the fine acting. Jeremy Renner plays the protagonist, fish & wildlife employee Cory Lambert (“I hunt predators”) who has many reasons for trying to solve this killing; Elizabeth Olsen is the FBI agent who learns more in a week in the snow than in her FBI Academy training, that’s for sure; Graham Greene is the laconic, seen-it-all tribal police chief; and Gil Birmingham is the father of the murdered girl.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 86% ; audiences: 92%.

*****I.Q.

wild dog

photo: numb photo, creative commons license

Written by Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Japanese-American author Joe Ide grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and it’s obvious he kept his ears open. He has a remarkable ability to capture the cadences, the vocabulary, the put-downs, and the jiving of the mostly African-American characters in his debut novel, deservedly  nominated for numerous awards. Sullivan Jones’s stellar narration of the audio version truly does Ide’s rich dialog justice.

Growing up, Ide’s favorite books were Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and in his book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old prodigy Isaiah Quintabe, he’s created a new kind of superbly logical Holmes in an unlikely urban California setting, East Long Beach.

The teen lives with his older brother and legal guardian Marcus, the only family member he knows. He idolizes Marcus, who badgers Isaiah to excel. When Marcus is killed in a hit-and-run accident right in front of him, Isaiah is so bereft he drops out of high school. Although he’s underage, he’s determined to keep Marcus’s apartment, in some sense to keep Marcus close and to avoid the foster care system.

The low-level jobs he can snag aren’t bringing in the income he needs, though, and he takes in a roommate—the irrepressible, dope-dealing, trash-talking, rap-music-loving Juanell Dodson, who is soon joined by his girlfriend Deronda . If you’re easily put off by four-letter words or black folks calling each other nigga, this is probably not the book for you, though the language is absolutely true to the characters.

Dodson comes to IQ with a proposal for a high-profile gig that’s fallen into his lap: to figure out who’s behind a strange attack on a leading rap star. They watch a security video of the night when the rapper is alone in his mansion and a huge and superbly trained attack dog bursts through the doggie door. The people are threatening enough, but this dog . . .

Dodson is a bundle of barely controlled emotions, while Isaiah maintains his calm demeanor, whether he’s dealing with the star-personality rapper and his entourage, the bad guys, the neighborhood lady whose daughter’s wedding presents were stolen, the former auto-racing owner of TK’s Wrecking Yard who teaches him to really drive, or high-maintenance Dodson and Deronda.

I.Q. was nominated for Edgar, Barry, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards for a best first novel, won a Shamus Award, and was named by numerous publications (New York Times, Washington Post, Amazon, Suspense Magazine), as one of the best books of 2017.

Narrator Sullivan Jones is a California-based actor who brings a gift for humor and a lively understanding of the characters in this novel that makes his reading both perceptive and entertaining. An excellent choice for audio.

A longer version of this review appeared on crimefictionlover.com.

****They All Fall Down

caramelized sugar

photo: Serene Vannoy, creative commons license

By Tammy Cohen – Hannah is a new patient in a women’s low-security psychiatric facility called The Meadows outside London, the result of an incident Cohen takes some time to reveal.

In the several weeks before this psychological thriller opens, two of the facility’s dozen or so patients have committed suicide. In fact, the first line is, “Charlie cut her wrists last week with a shard of caramelized sugar.” Hannah doesn’t believe Charlie killed herself. She believes both of the so-called suicides were murder. But who will believe her?

Most of the short chapters are told in either Hannah’s first-person point of view or that of her mother Corinne, in third-person. Corinne isn’t sure what to make of Hannah’s accusations. She wants to believe her daughter, but Hannah’s done some strange things lately that weaken her credibility.

At the same time, Corinne is desperate to believe her daughter is safe at The Meadows. And the director, Dr. Oliver Roberts, and the art therapist, the supportive Laura, as well as most of the other staff seem capable and conscientious, don’t they? Are these people who they say they are? Their contention that their patients are high-risk, with histories of suicide attempts, never quite reassures her.

Author Cohen has assembled an interesting group of patients: Odelle, thin as a stick with serious eating disorders; Stella, whose otherworldly appearance results from too many cosmetic surgeries, including removal of a rib to achieve a smaller waistline; and Judith, who says she’s just being “honest” when she makes her intentionally cruel remarks. As events unfold and confidences are shared, these patients form a kind of lamenting Greek chorus.

The characters are mostly well developed; however, it was jarring when the patients’ ages would be mentioned. They were in their mid-thirties or so (Hannah is 32), but they came across like teenagers. Perhaps this is because they are highly dependent, vulnerable personalities.

Throw into the mix a lurking filmmaker and his cameraman working on a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary. The filmmakers were a nice touch (with the director Justin “doused in self-absorption like cheap cologne”), since an underlying theme of the book is perception. What does the “neutral” eye of the camera perceive? What do each of the characters perceive about each other, and do they trust each others’ perceptions—they certainly share doubts about Hannah’s—and does she even trust her own?

In general, the writing style is effective and the pace is good and varied. Cohen uses cliffhangers to keep you reading “one more chapter”—mysterious items and messages turn up in the hospital, a red baby hat on Corinne’s doorstep. Eventually these are all explained, but the repeated technique begins to feel artificial. On the whole, an intriguing psychological thriller.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

Simpatico

Simpatico, Sam Shepard

John Judd & Guy Van Swearingen, photo: Richard Termine

Sam Shepard’s death in late July was “a stunning personal loss to all of us who knew him and a devastating loss for the theater,” said Artistic Director Emily Mann. Months earlier, the McCarter Theatre Center had scheduled Shephard’s Simpatico to open its 2017-2018 season, and the production has been dedicated to him. Running through October 15, it originated with Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s directed by Red Orchid’s Dado and retains much of the Windy City cast.

Fifteen years before the story begins, two longtime friends from Cucamonga, California, conspired to fix horse races. A prominent racing official tumbled to their scam, and they silenced him by threatening to reveal photos proving a particularly degraded sexual liaison, details of which are left to the audience’s imagination. One friend, Vinnie, still lives in California in squalor and an alcoholic haze, supported by his friend Carter, now a successful Kentucky horseman. Though they are tied together by the past and its criminal secrets, there’s bad blood between them, too, mostly because Carter stole Vinnie’s wife Rosie.

When the play starts, down-and-outer Vinnie (played by Guy Van Swearingen) has called Carter (Michael Shannon) in a panic, and Carter flies to California to try to calm him down. It seems the trouble is a woman Vinnie met, Cecelia (Mierka Girten), who has had Vinnie arrested. It takes quite a while to get the story out of Vinnie, because it keeps changing and because Vinnie’s preoccupation with Rosie keeps bubbling up. Carter agrees to help Vinnie with Cecilia, and when he meets her, Vinnie’s lies become apparent.

Vinnie learns that the former racing official (John Judd) is living quietly in Kentucky with his equine pedigree charts—another beneficiary of Carter’s guilt-money. Vinnie flies there with his shoebox full of blackmail pictures and offers them for sale. What was scandalous pornography some years ago is pale stuff now, and the wonderfully garrulous official isn’t interested. Nor is Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom).

The lines crackle along, and many are laugh-out-loud funny, despite the lies and deceit everywhere and the intensifying power struggle between Vinnie and Carter. Van Swearingen and Shannon play their relationship in a way that you may alternately sympathize with and loathe first one then the other. Girten is sweet cluelessness itself (“Why didn’t you tell me the Kentucky Derby is in May?”), and Engstrom’s Rosie is her polar opposite. Judd is so comfortable in his role as the racing official, he might have been recruited direct from a back room at Churchill Downs.

Shepard intended this play in part to be an homage to film noir. Characters reference classics like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, and Vinnie often poses as a private eye. In perhaps the most illuminating line regarding his character, Vinnie tells Carter he enjoys his fake stake-outs so much because you can see everything about people’s lives, like “someone cutting someone else’s throat.” One way or another.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

****Fateful Mornings

police car

photo: Highway Patrol Images, creative commons license

By Tom Bouman – Henry Farrell is the lone policeman who patrols the back roads of Wild Thyme township in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mostly his job isn’t too demanding. He can park his vehicle and spend time enjoying the local lakes and forests without anyone much missing him. He can even take on an illegal after-hours job. He helps dismantle old barns and salvage the wood for new barns designed by his best friend, word-working genius Ed Brennan.

In Bouman’s fine descriptions of Henry’s world, you can just about smell the trees and ponds along with Henry, who narrates most chapters. In Henry and several other principal characters in this rural noir novel, Bouman has created well-rounded, complex individuals. Henry also plays fiddle in a roots music trio, for example.

These bucolic images coexist uneasily alongside the dirty business of hydraulic fracking and the even dirtier practice of drug dealing, which are ravaging the natural and human resources of Wild Thyme. As a result, law enforcement in the township is about to face some serious challenges. At first, it’s an uptick in burglaries and motor vehicle accidents, which Henry attributes to the rise in drug abuse.

But then a young woman goes missing. Penny Pellings is a sometimes heroin user who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. The pair has lost custody of their infant daughter. Though they want her back, they aren’t on a road that can lead to that outcome.

The search for Penny Pellings requires the casting of a rather wide net, which takes Henry out of his jurisdiction. He has a thoughtful, amiable demeanor that helps him interact well with nearby departments that have many more resources than he does in Wild Thyme. So many crime novels focus on the turf battles and stonewalling between police agencies, it’s refreshing to see real cooperation.

Investigating Penny’s fate is an almost geological endeavor. Each layer excavated reveals another, with its own mysteries. In the end, the resolution of her story seems almost secondary to the 360-degree picture of the community of Wild Thyme that the author has created.

Bouman won an Edgar Award in 2015 for his first novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, also featuring Henry Farrell.

A longer version of this review appeared recently on CrimeFictionLover.com.