See You Next Tuesday

In See You Next Tuesday, former US FBI agent Ken Harris has brought back his entertaining private investigator Steve Rockfish and his young assistant—now partner—Jawnie McGee. This is the second of a series, following his debut with The Pine Barrens Stratagem earlier this year. In this novel, Jawnie has passed her PI exam, and the two of them have established a bare-bones office in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, just south of Baltimore.

When this fast-moving story begins, the duo is faced with three separate quandaries. Most puzzling is the yellow Nissan Xterra parked across the street with a woman in it who appears to be spying on their office. Most annoying is their new client, the wealthy Claudia Coyne, who’s convinced her husband Roan is stepping out on her and insists they find out who the floozy is. And, most alarming, Rockfish’s father Mack is rushed to the hospital with a possible heart attack.

With his father in the hospital, Rockfish bequeaths the Coyne case to Jawnie and spends time with his father, whose heart is fine, but he’s stressed out, having lost $17,000 in a phony investment scheme.

Jawnie begins following Roan Coyne on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the nights he regularly arrives home late. At first, his actions seem completely above-board, even admirable. On Tuesday evenings, he buys dozens of McDonald’s meals and distributes them to the homeless; on Thursdays, he staffs a soup kitchen. Following these charitable endeavours, he attends meetings in the basement of Allison’s Adult Super Store. When Jawnie peeks in a window, the gathering looks to her like some kind of self-help or religious session. She suspects something shady.

Jawnie trips over a woman camped out in the alley behind the adult store. Some cash waved around convinces the woman—Lynn—to attend the next meeting. One thing they figure out quickly is the several plays on the phrase “See You Next Tuesday,” a bit of risqué wordplay.

Rockfish is determined to get his father’s money back and follows a sketchy clue to the scammers base of operations. When he and Jawnie both turn up in the parking lot behind Allison’s Adult Super Store, they realize they’re working on different dimensions of the same case.

As in the earlier book, Rockfish and Jawnie’s relationship is a work-in-progress. He admires her skills with the computer and with people, and she admires his ability to keep going, in the face of seemingly impossible odds. I like watching them work.

Lynn definitely adds to the team’s strengths and Rockfish’s long-time friend Raffi, who’s also brought on board, will always be a wild card. Destroy and repair describes Rockfish’s relationship with the authorities, and he’s constantly skating somewhere out there on the thin ice. The humorous elements and overall entertainment value of this sequel suggests author Harris has found a winning formula for his cast of interesting characters, and we can look forward to more.

The Goodbye Coast

In Joe Ide’s newest crime thriller, The Goodbye Coast, he abandons his popular crime-solver Isaiah Quintabe, in favor of a twenty-first century private investigator Philip Marlowe (yes!) who’s working on two compelling missing persons cases at once. 

In his acknowledgements, Ide quotes Chandler himself, who once claimed there are no classics of crime and detection fiction, but Ide maintains that Chandler came closer than anyone. He was Ide’s original writing inspiration, and that of many other writers, and attracted millions of fans. Movies made from his books helped define film noir, with Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe an indelible representation of the cynical, world-weary p.i. of hardboiled crime fiction.

Undertaking to write what’s billed as a modern version of such an icon is more than a bit cheeky. How well did Ide do? He succeeds to some extent—he has the cynicism and wisecracking down and the occasional skewering of the Establishment. He leaves most of the hard drinking to a character invented for this story, Philip’s father, Emmet Marlowe, a Los Angeles homicide detective on leave to dry out after the death of his wife, Philip’s mother. The modern Marlowe shares his namesake’s tendency for insubordination, which cost him his place in the police academy and led him to a mentorship with low-rent private detective, Basilio Ignacia.

Marlowe’s new client is fading movie star Kendra James, whose husband Terry was shot dead on the beach in front of their Malibu home a few weeks earlier. Terry was a failed movie producer desperately trying for one last big score. His seventeen-year-old daughter Cody has gone missing, and Kendra wants Marlowe to find her.

Before long Basilio drops another case in Marlowe’s lap—unwanted, but there it is. A woman has flown in from London to search for her son Jeremy, kidnapped by her ex-husband.

The theme of parents and children—and how these relationships can go terribly wrong, warping a person’s actions and reactions—permeates the book. In the case of Ren and her kidnapped son, the ex-husband is the problem, and she’s become monomaniacal about getting Jeremy back; in the case of Kendra and Cody, neither has a compassionate or generous bone in their bodies. No way could a healthy relationship evolve. Marlowe gets along with his dad, mostly, because he’s repressed his anger about his father’s neglect of his mother as she was dying. Emmet’s drinking shows he feels that shortcoming too, of course.

While you can chuckle at the relentless snark of Cody, only because it’s not directed at you, and enjoy the more civilized jibes of Ren (who’s English, after all), neither one of these females listens to Marlowe or takes his advice. Stay in your car until I get there? Not a chance. Don’t go there by yourself? Already out the door. Needless to say, their incautious behavior causes worlds of trouble.

Marlowe uses his connections in the film industry, mostly in the form of past clients who are still speaking to him, to try to get a lead on Jeremy. Once he’s found Cody, he’s suspicious of her stepmother’s intentions and stashes her at his dad’s house until he can sort things out. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated and deadly than he anticipates, involving the Russian mob, Armenian hitmen, a Bosnian assassin, and Cody’s brother, a gay minor league baseball player.

As a big fan of Ide’s I.Q. books, I think he misses the mark here. There are just too many violent confrontations and climaxes. It’s like a movie with endless car chases and shootouts. Non-stop action is tiring. At the end, I felt like somebody just beat me up.

In a rare period of quiet near the story’s end, Marlowe takes some time to review his notes and comes up with a theory about who killed Terry that he thinks holds water. His conclusions come very close to violating a basic principle of mystery-writing: Don’t introduce new clues at the end of the story. At least two pieces of his explanation relied on information I did not have. Possibly I missed these elements in the reading, but I don’t think so.

Finally, one of the pleasures of reading Chandler is his unforgettable deployment of metaphor. (My favorite: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”) Ide is quite skilled with the language, and writes in an effective, forceful way, but, as this is a homage, I expected a few high-flown metaphors. Maybe they wouldn’t feel right in 2022, but I missed them.

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The Pine Barrens Stratagem

New Jersey has hosted a run of excellent (and humorous) crime thrillers in the past year. The latest example is Ken Harris’s high-octane thriller, in which investigator Steve Rockfish tackles a series of 1943 crimes in rural southern New Jersey. The healthy young men were going to war, and they left behind quite a few pregnant girlfriends. Unfortunately, many families considered pregnant unmarried daughters an embarrassment, sent them away, kept them out of sight, or cut them off completely. If they and their babies disappeared, that may have seemed like the best outcome. One local police officer, Edward McGee, persisted in investigating these disappearances. When he disappeared too, the questions stopped.

This chilling history lesson is the prologue of The Pine Barrens Stratagem. From that point, the story fast-forwards to 2020. An unlikely crusader for justice—a Los Angeles-based true crime podcaster named Angel Davenport—hears tantalizing threads of this story and decides it could be his ticket to a lucrative, high-profile Netflix television series.

Temperamentally allergic to hard work, not to mention being located 2700 miles from the scene of action and in pandemic lockdown, Davenport hires Baltimore’s Steve Rockfish to pursue the case. It could be murder, it could be child trafficking, it could be both. At least Davenport’s dramatic instincts are correct: it has all the makings of a compelling story.

Rockfish has something of a drinking problem—a trait he shares with the man who hired him—but it turns out he’s a good investigator, and it’s entertaining to see him smoothly work the system, talking his way into places to conduct interviews and making allies as well as enemies as his investigation proceeds. He has a wicked sense of humor (there’s a coarseness in the early part of the book that mostly disappears as the story goes along) and locks onto the politics of the people he meets, using their prejudices against them. They never realize what he’s doing, but I was laughing.

He teams up with Jawnie McGee, great-granddaughter of the long-ago missing and presumed dead policeman, who turns out to be an excellent partner. Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing for this pair. Lots of people have a stake in keeping the lid on those long ago events—the local cops, the Mafia, the Catholic Church. Will Steve and Jawnie be able to evade them all?

Harris is a retiree from more than three decades as a cybersecurity executive with the FB, and his affection for his home state of New Jersey shines through. An epilogue reveals this is the first of a series. A sequel is expected in July.

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Weekend Movie Pick: Death on the Nile

If you’re hesitating to see Death on the Nile because you remember Kenneth Branagh’s previous expedition into the world of Dame Agatha—Murder on the Orient Express—and its tepid reviews, reconsider. The new film is enormous fun (trailer). You also may remember that many viewers couldn’t get past the super-sized mustache worn by Branagh (who plays Hercule Poirot)—such a contrast to David Suchet’s neat, restrained, Poirot-like pencil-line.

The extravagant facial hair just didn’t seem to fit, but the producers aren’t giving up. Instead, they give Poirot a touching back story that explains not only why he has the mustache, but links his adoption of it to his own heroism. Regardless, they’ve attracted a stellar cast to this new film, which includes Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Dawn French, Sophie Okenedo, and a whole array of memorable supporting players.

There’s been a British society wedding. A beautiful young woman of great wealth (Israeli actor Gal Gadot) has married a man well below her financial station (Armie Hammer). His vengeful ex-girlfriend (Emma Mackey) follows them throughout their Egyptian honeymoon, making the new bride increasingly uneasy. To escape their pursuer, the couple entice the whole party of hangers-on to board a luxury Nile cruise boat where, as one gleefully anticipates, mayhem ensues.

Christie was a master at creating a closed world—a stranded railway car, a party on a remote island—throwing people with barely-masked resentments together, and letting audiences anticipate what happens next. In this film, the unraveling of motives, opportunity, and nerve doesn’t disappoint.

Loved the CGI scenery though, as you probably know, the Nile River does not run alongside the pyramids, but more than five miles west. A bit of geographic and artistic license, but gorgeous throughout. The scenes of the sun rising over the river were spectacular, bringing back memories of my own Nile cruise with my friend Nancy in 2019. Memorable, but many fewer dead bodies.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 64%; audiences 82%.

Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

From Page to (Sound) Stage

A book that authors especially may find intriguing is Fallen Angels, from 1993. I found it sitting on my sister-in-law’s bookshelf just waiting for me to pounce. It’s a collection of six original noir stories by the masters, each followed by a half-hour script developed from it that aired on Showtime almost 30 years ago (still available on YouTube).

You’ll see from the directors and cast members involved that this was an ambitious project, with Sydney Pollack as executive producer. The hallmarks of noir—jazzy scores, cigarette-smoke veils, shoulder pads—they’re all there.

James Ellroy’s preface explains the stories’ appeal this way: “Hard-boiled fiction, spawned in the violent and flush 1920s, began as a prophecy: This country will most likely crash and burn. If it doesn’t, the price of the political accommodations and human sacrifices made in order to retain a corrupt system will be very, very high. Hard-boiled fiction is about that price.” Something to think about.

The Stories

“I’ll be Waiting” by Raymond Chandler. The teleplay by C Gaby Mitchell clarified some ambiguity in the original, adding significant detail at the end. Tom Hanks directed, and it starred Bruno Kirby as a hotel dick with a deadly dilemma.

“The Frightening Frammis” by Jim Thompson, teleplay by Jon Robin Baitz and Howard A Rodman. Directed by Tom Cruise, it featured Peter Gallagher and Isabella Rossellini. Con artists and grifters lock horns, and the two stories play out differently. I liked the original story better, but the ending might have seemed too pat.

“Dead-End for Delia” by William Campbell Gault, teleplay by Scott Frank. Phil Joanou directed with Gary Oldman, Meg Tilly, Gabrielle Anwar, and Paul Guilfoyle in the leads. A cop’s estranged wife is murdered, and he strikes out with an investigation of his own.

“Murder, Obliquely” by Cornell Woolrich, teleplay by Amanda Silver. Alfonso Cuaron directed stars Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, and Diane Lane. This story of a relationship gone bad was about twice as long as the preceding ones. To fit it into the half-hour format, a lot of cuts were needed. It was interesting to see how they focused on the main event–what stayed and what didn’t. A nice exercise in concision.

“The Quiet Room” by Jonathan Craig, teleplay by Howard A Rodman. Steven Soderbergh directed. Joe Mantegna played a dirty cop and Bonnie Bedelia his equally larcenous partner. This story was about half the length of the others, so had to be drawn out. But it lost no dynamism in the process.

“Since I Don’t Have You” by James Ellroy, teleplay by Steven Katz. Gary Busey plays a Hollywood fixer who serves two masters—real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (James Woods) and Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson). Inevitably, this work “had to produce what lawyers nowadays would call a ‘conflict a’ interest’ Of course it was over a woman” (Aimee Graham). Meeks is from small-town Oklahoma, and the teleplay gives him “country yokel” diction, which the original story did not have (nor need).

If you’ve ever thought about seeing your stories make the leap from page to stage or screen, here’s a chance to see that process in action.

Blood Like Rain

By Albert Tucher – In Al Tucher’s latest Big Island Mystery, Hawai`i County police detective Errol Coutinho has his hands full from the first page. He’s called out on a homicide case and discovers the victim is his wife’s best friend, Eleanor Swieczak. He wasn’t crazy about the woman, but his wife will be devastated.

Coutinho and his partner, Harlan Kim, have a lead suspect: Eleanor’s new boyfriend, Jerry Wyatt. Not only does he have a murky past, he’s disappeared along with Eleanor’s Mercedes. Coutinho’s wife Lucy is the best crime lab technician the department has, and she really wants to dig into this one. Over the course of the story, her science and her insights about her friend prove invaluable.

Coutinho and Kim suspect a connection to the drug trade. Pakalolo—Hawaiian weed—believed by many to be the world’s finest. At the top of the island’s significant pakalolo enterprise is a well-established drug entrepreneur named Morrison, in his late middle age. If Wyatt’s involved, Morrison will know. But he seems to have cleared out too. Rumor has it that he and another drug lord—the violent but elusive Trondheim—are waging a war off the coast.

These rumors are substantiated when a body washes ashore on the once-lovely Kamilo beach. It’s now caught in the gyre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the area’s unique currents deposit a constant stream of trash there. A volunteer cleanup crew discovered the body atop a pile of plastic garbage.

Author Tucher’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Hawaiian Islands comes constantly into play in these novels. They aren’t stories that could happen just anywhere, and he does a great job weaving the unique settings into his plots. A body on a garbagy beach is just the start. A breakneck trip down the steep and narrow road into Waipi’o Valley is enough to give you vertigo.

Was Eleanor’s death the first indication of a new drug war? Or, was her death a one-off, a car-theft gone wrong? The pieces start to look like they’ll fit together when she’s tangentially linked to the deaths of two reporters investigating the pakalolo business some twenty years earlier. The murders have started up again, and, as their investigation proceeds, Coutinho and Kim have an increasing number of bodies in the morgue that attest to the continuing trail of violence.

So, Coutinho and Kim are trying to figure out an organized crime drug smuggling operation with ties to the mainland, reopening a double homicide everyone had given up on, and, getting back to the original subject, attempting to explain the death of Lucy’s friend Eleanor.

Tucher has a knack for creating interesting characters, and may go a bit overboard here, with several sets of siblings and an improbable number of twins. Even a former wife of Coutinho’s makes an unwelcome appearance. She is, of course, a twin. Family feuds are always the worst and seeing how the several families tangled up in this story treat each other, it will make you grateful if you’re an only child.

You can read Tucher’s novels for their complicated plots or for characters you’ll come to enjoy—Coutinho and Kim are solid partners, you’ll like their boss, Lieutenant Tanaka, and a young female officer, Jenny Freitas, who “had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”

Her Sister’s Shadow

If you’re a fan of books with an unreliable narrator, you’re in luck with Catherine Wimpeney’s debut thriller. She draws on her experiences and insights as a psychotherapist to create a nuanced portrait of a woman with profound and initially unappreciated mental health challenges.

Kay is a Senior Investigating Officer in the Manchester police force, a bit uneasy with her partner, DI Matt Anderson, whom she believes is too ambitious (wants her job), and with their commanding officer, Barbara Dean (may give it to him). Granted, Kay seems more than a bit paranoid when she sees Matt and Barbara talking with each other. But she’s been in a shaky mental state since her older sister Helen’s suicide.

About ten months earlier, Helen jumped to her death from a parking structure. Helen suffered from depression for many years, but Kay never anticipated she’d do this. Kay knows she played a role in Helen’s troubled psychiatric history, which contributes to her grief and guilt over Helen’s death. Kay has missed a number of appointments with the therapist her department hoped would get her back on track. That, combined with Kay’s current somewhat erratic mental state, convinces Barbara to require that she take some time off.

Fate seems to play a cruel trick on Kay when she spots another woman at the top of a parking structure, looking prepared to jump. She rushes to the woman’s aid. If she couldn’t save her sister, perhaps she can save this woman. The woman’s name is Ava, and Kay finally talks her down. Ava’s reveals she’s being tormented by her ex-husband, Adrian McGrath, a wealthy property developer. She is terrified of him and the men he has following her. To Kay’s surprise, she knows McGrath, whom she holds partly responsible for the torture death of a young boy.

Kay planned to pursue her mental health recovery in Scotland at a vacation home that’s been in her family for generations. Quiet. Fabulous views. Now, she invites Ava to join her. No one will have a clue that’s where she’s hiding.

Author Wimpeney delves into a lot of backstory, not just about Kay, but Adrian too, and I’m not sure all of it was necessary. She made a good choice in letting Kay narrate most of the story in first-person. You get a strong sense of her perspective, which makes the book work. A few very short chapters take other points of view, but make the narration feel choppy.

When Kay finds Helen’s journal in the vacation house and begins to read, her mental state is stressed almost beyond endurance. The pressure on Kay continues to mount—protecting Ava, salvaging her career, repairing relationships, dealing with Adrian, heading off a nosy reporter.

Her Sister’s Shadow is unquestionably a psychological thriller, and you may conclude it emphasizes the psychological elements at the expense of the thriller elements. Yet, the unpredictable consequences of Kay’s mental state will keep the pages turning.

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One P.I.’s Life

Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.

Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).

Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.

No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.

Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.

She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.

These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.

She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.