*****101

By Tom Pitts – Book publicists are fond of the awkward adjective “unputdownable,”but in the case of Tom Pitts’s new California crime thriller, this enthusiastic description is wholly justified. Those familiar with California will recognize 101 as the highway that runs the length of California from Los Angeles—where it’s part of the world’s busiest and most nightmarish freeway interchange—north to the Oregon border and beyond. Pitts’s book focuses on that northern bit, from the Bay Area up to Humboldt County, where a different kind of traffic is all-important: weed.

The book is set in mid-2016, six months before California voters will legalize marijuana, and the impending vote has made the Humboldt County growers more paranoid than usual. They’re accustomed to warding off rustlers and junkies and deer and water-thieves, but unsure how to arm themselves for a massive market shift. Pitts’s description of the steep hillside partly covered in redwoods and brambles and the long, rutted dirt track up to where the nervous growers live is so vivid you could almost choke on the dust of their ATVs.

Vic Thomas runs one of these hillside growing operations, out of the sight of most people, which is exactly how he likes it. Twenty years before, he and a woman he’d never met before, Barbara Bertram, witnessed a horrible crime and, in self-defense, meted out a little on-the-spot justice. The experience bonded them forever. The police totally misunderstood what went on in that charnel-house and have been trying to track down Barbara and Vic ever since.

The story opens with a middle-of-the-night call from Barbara. She tells Vic her son Jerry is in trouble again, and she wants to send him to Vic so he can lie low awhile among the marijuana growers. Vic can’t tell her no. Alas, Jerry is a serial screw-up with less sense than Vic’s dogs.

Vic is not pleased when he discovers that Jerry and his girlfriend Piper stole a considerable amount of cash from a Russian who runs a Bay Area weed club. His name is Vlad—“Vlad the Inhaler”—and he and his mobsters are determined to get their money back and make an example of Jerry.

When Piper finds her way up the hill to Jerry’s “hideout,” Vic recognizes that his unwelcome guest can’t keep his mouth shut. He’s even more alarmed when he realizes Piper’s stepfather is the head of the Dead BBs, a vicious outlaw motorcycle gang. Vlad has a financial relationship with the BBs, which makes them equally determined to find Jerry and Piper and reclaim the money. The stepfather considers Jerry completely expendable and Piper only slightly less so. Pitts shifts the narrative point of view frequently, so you know not only what Vic is thinking, but also what Vlad and the Dead BBs are up to. You’re never in doubt about the danger heading up the 101 toward Vic, Jerry, Piper, and anyone else who gets in the way.

With three sets of determined antagonists—the Russians, the Dead BBs, and the cops—looking for some combination of Jerry, Piper, and Vic, the opportunities for mayhem expand exponentially, and Pitts has deftly orchestrated the chase. There’s no time here for literary flourishes, maybe just a dash to the fridge for a beer, right in step with the denizens of 101. AMAZON LINK HERE.

*****Wrecked

razor wire fenceBy Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones –Joe Ide is a master at conveying distinctive personalities and subcultures, and Sullivan Jones brings them vividly to life. In his newest book, Ide deftly weaves together his principal plotline and engaging subplots into a masterful tale of escape, revenge, pursuit, and retribution.

As in Ide’s previous two books, IQ and Righteous, the story centers on East Long Beach investigator and righter-of-wrongs Isaiah Quintabe and his sometime friend—and in this book, new business partner—Juanel Dodson. Isaiah is called IQ not only because those are his initials, but also because he’s a brilliant strategist, who saves situations with brainpower more often than firepower.

Neighbors in his low-income community need a burglar caught or an ex-husband warned off? Isaiah’s their man. A school club needs help with a bully? Isaiah again. Unfortunately, these clients pay him in roof repairs, cakes and pies, and a promised handknit reindeer sweater. Once, a live chicken. These exchanges do not pay the bills, and Dodson plans to change all that. The slivers of insight Ide provides about the East Los Angeles community create an almost tangible sense of place.

In front of the local art supply store, Isaiah spots the woman he’s attracted to—Grace Monorova. Tongue-tied, he lets his gray pit bull Ruffin make the initial contact. Grace is great with the dog, but her reaction to Isaiah isn’t nearly as warm. Unexpectedly, she calls him one night to ask for help finding her mom, Sarah, missing for a decade. She pays him with one of her paintings, to Dodson’s disgust.

It emerges that Sarah is the target of a trio of ex-military who participated in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison and the CIA operative who egged them on, Stan Walczak. Bad as the photos were that documented the depraved treatment of Iraqi prisoners, there are worse photos out there, and Sarah has them. She’ll sell them to Walczak for a million dollars. He has that kind of cash, but his scorched-earth modus operandi won’t let him buy them back. He wants her dead. Grace too, if necessary. And, if he interferes, Isaiah.

Meanwhile, Isaiah’s business partner Dodson decides to take care of a different situation himself, without putting Isaiah wise. The old case involves the 21st century Malaprop of hip-hop, Junior, “who sounds like he swallowed a dictionary sideways” and brings Dodson’s former girlfriend Deronda into the story in full whackdown mode. Dodson’s reactions to new fatherhood and his live-in mother-in-law left me grinning. Jive-talking, slick operator though this father is, baby Micah has obviously seized control of the household.

While author Ide captures the sometimes skewed thought processes and humor of all his characters and Jones delivers them with spot-on narration, Dodson may be the sentimental favorite of them both.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!

****The Cold Summer

Giovanni Falcone tree

Memorial tree for Giovanni Falcone; Dedda71, creative commons license

By Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis – The Cold Summer is a fascinating police procedural involves the amputation of one small arm of the Mafia in Apulia, a region that constitutes the heel of Italy’s boot. Marshal Pietro Fenoglio is a carabinieri officer in the region’s capital, Bari, investigating the kidnapping and death of the young son of local mafia leader Nicola Grimaldi.

Speculation is that rivalries within the ranks of Grimaldi’s organization precipitated the kidnapping, as it’s one of a wave of occurrences linked to organized crime sweeping the area. “Probably the most respected and certainly the most intelligent” of Grimaldi’s lieutenants, Vito Lopez, has disappeared. His wife and son have disappeared, too,which suggests the family is in hiding and makes Lopez a prime suspect in the kidnapping. Certainly, the Grimaldi family believes Lopez is the culprit. The growing rift in the Grimaldi organization could be a way to bring the family down, if only Fenoglio can figure out how to do it.

The story is set in mid-1992, the “cold summer,” infamous in Italian law enforcement. First came the murders of prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three members of their police escort in a bomb blast outside Palermo. Less than two months later, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino and five members of his police escort also were murdered. These real-life events shake up not only Carofiglio’s fictional characters, but the Italian people as well, leading to a crackdown on the mafia and new, harsher penalties for convicted mafiosi. Carofiglio thus places his story in an era that was particularly dangerous and high-stakes for police, prosecutors, and criminals alike.

Carofiglio’s characters are believable, flawed, and interesting. The carabinieri, never free from the oppressive danger around them, move forward cautiously, but with purpose. Fenoglio is especially articulate in his musings about the “grey areas” in society in which many people, including his colleagues and even himself and his investigation, often operate.

To everyone’s surprise, Lopez turns himself in. He knows he’s a dead man without police protection and maybe even with it. The interviews of him by Assistant Prosecutor Gemma D’Angelo are presented as question-and-answer transcripts, devoid of editorial comment, gesture, or any emotion. This dry style is remarkably effective and makes Lopez’s confession even more powerful by its simplicity. Despite the many crimes he confesses to, he is adamant in denying involvement in the Grimaldi boy’s kidnapping. On that crime, Fenoglio and Pellecchia appear back to square one.

When reading a book that has been translated, you can never be certain how closely the style adheres to the original. In this case, Howard Curtis has produced an English-language text that reads exceedingly smoothly, yet manages to convey the aura of the original Italian. You never feel as if you are reading a translation, but the original.

Carofiglio is an award-winning novelist and a Bari native. He has long experience as a prosecutor specializing in organized crime, which informs this well-crafted novel beginning to end. It’s a pleasure to read and to spend a little time (safely) in Fenoglio’s perilous world.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!

****Countdown to Osaka

Osaka, lanterns, Japan

creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – Today we see more crime fiction set in Japan, Korea, and other countries of the Far East, with Western authors also probing these cultures’ perplexities. Joe Hefferon’s latest novel, Countdown to Osaka, is an exciting addition to the mix. His main characters—female yakuza assassin Koi and French illegal gun merchant Le Sauvage—are larger-than-life, but such interesting characters you gladly accept their unerring skills in martial arts and criminal strategy.

In the beginning of the story, Koi is disillusioned with life in the organized crime syndicate to which she belongs and tired of killing at its behest. She wants out. But there is no easy out of the yakuza. In a satisfying hero’s journey move, her mentor in the organization, an “aging jackal named Hayato,” gives her one last mission—kill Le Sauvage and stop his plan to steal a fortune in Japanese gold, lost since the fall of the Shoguns. No one is sure where it is, but Le Sauvage, it seems, is closing in on it.

If she fails, Hayato will kill her. Of course, Le Sauvage and his heavy guard of former French Foreign Legionnaires and special operations soldiers may beat him to it. If she succeeds, she can have her freedom. So he says. In the distance, a dogged Interpol inspector lags several steps behind the action.

Koi is a tough cookie on the outside, though another dimension of her is revealed through her devotion to her dying mother. It is her mother’s wish that she free herself from the yakuza, which adds to Koi’s determination. Koi’s mother had many struggles raising her half-European daughter as an unmarried woman. Many of the novel’s situations are influenced by the social and cultural mores of Japan. Although I am not an expert on Japanese culture, these descriptions and sometimes subtle reflections of what is and is not possible in daily behavior ring true.

Le Sauvage’s network soon realizes an “Asian woman” is after him, but she manages to outwit them for a while, including seeking refuge in the apartment of a theater-loving gay bartender in Nice, Le Sauvage’s home turf. Hefferon includes numerous comic touches in this encounter, and you may regret when it races to a close. In fact, many of the secondary characters—including members of the Frenchman’s gang and a dissolute British scholar of Asian literature—are interesting in their own right and not just in place to fill out a scene.

The treasure hunt moves back and forth from Saigon to France to Osaka, and while multi-time-zone jet-setting is sometimes not especially believable, Koi and the yakuza on one hand and Le Sauvage and his team on the other have almost unlimited funds, keeping the travel at least financially plausible.

The clues to where the Japanese gold may have been hidden are scattered, some in a quite unexpected place. Puzzle elements are a staple of mystery fiction, and the way the team puts that aspect of the story together is complicated and lost me a couple of times, but nevertheless great fun. Hefferon has deployed the tropes of crime and mystery fiction with exceeding skill here, creating characters to believe in and a crackerjack plot, but don’t be lulled into thinking you know how it will all end.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!

***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.

**Love Me Not

Motorcycle

photo: Chris Jefferson, creative commons license

By M J ArlidgeThis contemporary crime thriller set in Southampton, England, pits the local police force against a pair of serial killers. It’s a multiple point-of-view novel, told mostly from the perspective of DI Helen Grace, newly returned to her job, but also from the perspective of numerous other characters, including DS Charlene (Charlie) Brooks, various witnesses, and sleazy and irritating journalist Emilia Garanita.

Although many of the principal characters are women, they seem no more than superficially female. Grace rushes into situations on her Kawasaki without analyzing them or indicating the police department has any procedural requirements. Well along in the story, the author writes that she is now being propelled by instinct, whereas it seems that instinct is what has driven her all along. And, though the author refers to Grace’s feelings about her work, her emotions tend to be expressed in clichéd, rather than insightful, ways. There’s an unsatisfying pop psychology analysis of the killers’ motivations that does not evolve as new information is gained.

Perhaps police and school administrators’ paranoia about shooting incidents is markedly less in the U.K. than in the States, but when the serial killer invades a middle school, you have to wonder whether there should be more of a protocol or official response than having Grace calmly saying to a bunch of bemused teachers and students, “You should leave.”

Authors are constantly told “show, don’t tell,” especially when it comes to emotions. A worse pitfall is showing then telling, which suggests the author doesn’t trust the reader to understand what has taken place and needs him to explain it. Arlidge does this repeatedly. One example: A man is numb with shock about his wife’s murder until his dogs bound into the room and affectionately greet him. As he pets them, he comes near to tears. The author can’t resist explaining that the dogs’ love and devotion has penetrated the husband’s shock, revealing how devastated he is, which of course takes all the wind out of the emotional moment.

The action of the novel occurs over the course of a single jam-packed day, with flashbacks as necessary. Surprisingly, the police determine the identity of one of the killers less than a third of the way into the novel and the other, less than half-way in. This means the entire last half the book is an extended chase scenario as the police struggle to get one step ahead of the perpetrators.

This last half is fast-paced, of course, and readers attracted to entertainment rich with car chases may find it just the ticket. According to Amazon, this is Arlidge’s seventh novel featuring DI Grace, and he has been producing two of them a year since 2014, plus a pair of short stories. That’s a pretty fast pace too!

***Freefall

cyberspace

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

By Brian Lutterman – Pen Wilkinson has appeared in two previous books in this contemporary amateur sleuth series, and author Lutterman gets points for creating a protagonist who uses a wheelchair. Pen has solid contacts in law enforcement and strings she can pull when she needs investigatory assistance, but everyday issues are a challenge. Lutterman acknowledges the practical aspects of her disability, as well as its impact on her relationships with others.

Pen lost her mobility as an adult, the result of an auto accident, so is acutely aware of how people treat her differently than before. Fine, empathetic work. Pen is a get-on-with-it kind of gal and, at least in this novel, has come to terms with her situation.

Pen was driving when the accident occurred, and her sister’s young daughter was killed. Although she was not held responsible, she blames herself. And so, apparently, does the girl’s mother, Pen’s older sister Marsha. The rupture between them has brought to the surface Marsha’s longstanding resentment of Pen, and guilt over this resentment has led to hostility. Now Marsha needs Pen.

About a year before the book begins, Marsha’s son Kenny, a computer prodigy, left Marsha’s Tampa home to live with his father and stepmother. He then convinced them to move to Minneapolis. Why people would leave sunny Florida for the notorious icy winters of Minnesota, Marsha can’t understand and no one has adequately explained. Now Kenny has gone missing.

Given the settings he’s chosen—Minnesota and Tampa—Lutterman had considerable opportunity to explore how such vastly different urban cultures shape people and events, but this story could have played out just about anywhere, only changing the street names.

Pen agrees to help find him, since the police—and his father—seem unconcerned. It appears Kenny was doing some hacking for a mysterious person called Z. Z is well known to Pen’s old friends in the banking industry for a string of ransomware exploits, but has been strangely quiet of late. The book takes advantage of the growing appreciation of the vulnerability of systems and institutions to cybercrime, financial institutions in particular.

This is a multiple point-of-view novel, and you know Z is planning something big. The risks to Kenny are coming from at least two directions, since Z believes Kenny is expendable and a highly trained team of mercenaries is on his trail.

Lutterman’s complex plot is peopled by members of the Russian mafia, the mercenaries, the hackers, banking insiders, the FBI and local law enforcement, plus Kenny’s friends and family. Many of them are not behaving as Pen would expect them to. Yet she repeatedly arrives at conclusions without much indication of how she reached them.

If you like cybercrime plots and don’t think too hard about it, Lutterman’s fast-paced story will carry you forward. However, the book would greatly benefit from more realistic dialog. The heart of the book is Pen, Lutterman’s captivating protagonist, dealing with her significant challenges and urgent desire to reconnect her family.

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

*****Ed’s Dead

Bookstore

photo: Kate Mereand-Sinha, creative commons license

By Russel D. McLean – Jen Carter, the young Glaswegian bookstore clerk who narrates this book, makes one tiny mistake at the novel’s outset.

When she comes home late at night to find her apartment broken into, she searches the place, holding a kitchen knife. She panics when the hall closet door opens and the person inside stumbles out onto her knife. Her boyfriend Ed has just stabbed himself. And now he’s dead.

Confused and wracked with guilt, she compounds her dilemma. Instead of calling the police, she calls Ed’s nerdy roommate Dave. Dave gets into the spirit of concealment and, while Jen sleeps, he dismembers the corpse to make it easier to dispose of. He even cleans up. After that, there’s no going back, no possibility of bringing in the cops after all. Dave and Jen deposit poor Ed—that is, the pieces of him—in a remote stretch of Loch Lomond.

A closer examination of Jen’s messy hall closet reveals what Ed was doing in there. He’d concealed two duffel bags among her disorderly belongings. One contains an enormous stash of money and the other an enormous stash. Dave takes the drugs and Jen takes the cash. Why not, really? Really? And the hunt is on. Glasgow’s crime lords want their money and their drugs, and soon the cops are on Jen’s trail too.

Though the body count is high, McLean writes this first-person story with a light touch and a bit of heartbroken bemusement, if those two words can live in the same sentence. In Jen, McLean has created an appealing protagonist, with a strong and consistent voice.

Jen can’t understand how her relatively orderly life has gotten so out of control and never expects to have the resources, internal or otherwise, to foil the determined criminals, led by the evil old man, Solomon Buchan. Nevertheless, she keeps trying to rise to the occasion.

Though you may see some of the plot twists coming, and some may not bear close examination, the writing is so silky smooth it focuses your attention on whether Jen can slip out of trouble again and how she will try to do it.

*****What You Break

Long Island

photo: Shinya Suzuki, creative commons license

By Reed Farrel Coleman – Coleman’s latest crime novel is the second to feature retired Suffolk County cop John Augustus (Gus) Murphy. Coleman portrays his Long Island environment so well that his books carry a gritty realism and his characters live real, if doggedly unglamorous, lives. Says Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, “His Long Island is scruffy, blue-collar, corrupt, choked by traffic and fueled by fast food, cheap beer and unrelenting anger. Jay Gatsby isn’t in the picture.”

Murphy is the security detail and after-hours van driver for the ironically named Paragon Hotel, located near Long Island’s MacArthur airport, and its night spot, the Full Flaps Lounge. His girlfriend Magdalena calls it a third-class hotel—“Second-class,” he corrects her. The job’s easy and doesn’t require any emotional investment. In other words, he can stay on auto-pilot, as he has been in almost every arena of his life since the sudden death of his 20-year-old son, a centerpiece of the earlier book.

The pain of losing his son and all the consequent chaos in his personal life has not gone away, but he’s managing it better now. The downside is that Murphy’s a bit less conscientious about his own safety than he perhaps ought to be, with two separate catastrophes looming on his personal horizon. He’s called in to investigate the apparently motiveless death of a young Vietnamese woman and he fingers one of the hotel guests as potential trouble. Correctly.

Murphy pokes the beast with inquiries into Linh Trang’s past and the hotel guest’s intentions, which puts him and possibly even Magdalena in jeopardy from rough and  determined characters. The plot moves quickly as the circle of people involved in both cases widens, ultimately reaching an inspired conclusion.

Award-winning author Coleman is also a poet, so it’s no surprise he’s been called the “noir poet laureate.” He paints compelling scenes and circumstances, as well as complex psychological portraits.  If you like non-stop action thrillers that nevertheless have some intellectual weight, this is a book to pick up and enjoy.

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities: