Archive for Michigan

Loren D. Estleman: Black and White Ball

Deep into a now 80 book and counting career, and 27 in to his iconic Amos Walker series, what is Loren Estleman going to come up with that might be new? You might be surprised. In this novel Walker crosses paths with one of Estleman’s other characters, Peter Macklin, who hires Walker to look after his ex-wife. She’s being stalked by his son, Roger, who has gone into the family business – contract killing.

Dividing the segments of the novel into “Me” (Walker), “Him” (Macklin), as well as “Her” (the ex-wife) and “Them” (various, but often Roger) has injected a fresh energy into this novel. As always, Estleman writes tight – this book clocks in at 240 pages – and also as always, his prose and expression are absolute treasures. Reading an Estleman novel is almost like eating a too rich slice of chocolate cake – you have to read slowly, because if you don’t you won’t be able to savor the prose and the witty sleight of hand that comprises Estleman’s dialogue. People in an Estleman novel speak like you wish you could and maybe the way you would if you had a long time to come up with the perfect turn of phrase. Alas, I think there are few human brains that actually operate on that elevated scale, but it’s certainly a delight to encounter it in print.

The set-up is a pretty simple one and Estleman, a writer who hews closely to genre convention, includes a smart dame who can handle trouble. He really writes women well and his women are always worth reading about, another reason I enjoy his books so much. Like all of us, Amos is aging – he has trouble climbing the fire escape and hoping out a window, and at the end he’s too much of a gentleman to hit on a much younger woman (which I also appreciated) but even though he’s older he’s still operating at a high level.

The scenes between Walker and Macklin are charged with electricity as each man takes the other’s measure. Even though he’s a hitman Macklin has a certain code of behavior; Walker, who definitely has a code of behavior and has the much more impoverished lifestyle to prove it, is reluctant to take Macklin’s money but he’s really not given much of a choice. Almost more than anything else, the meeting between these two characters is the meeting between two practical realists.

This novel, mostly set in the smallish town of Milford, has the precise explication of small town life, especially during a Michigan winter, that Estleman readers have come to expect. While we may not be running around heavily armed, slipping through locked doors with a credit card or paying transients to watch our cars, just about every Michigander will relate to the white-knuckle drive Amos takes on a snow-swept highway during the height of a blizzard.

In every way this novel was delicious, and even if you’re new to Walker’s Detroit, it’s a trip well worth making. Jumping in at novel 27 won’t be too unsettling – you should be able to slide right in to Amos’ world. It’s a little gritty, but it’s full of honor.

Karen Dionne: The Marsh King’s Daughter

Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.

The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it.

But flash forward to when Helena is a grown, married woman with two daughters of her own, and she learns that her father, the “Marsh King” of the title, has escaped from prison. When the cops show up on her doorstep at the same time as her husband, who has no idea of Helena’s backstory, his first impulse is to get the girls in the car and get out of dodge. Helena refuses to go with him – this is her quest, but she fears she’s lost her husband forever. Trust is not a concept she’s familiar with, and as the story evolves, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The story weaves together the past and the present, so we learn of Helena’s childhood where her mild mother was very much a background figure to the devotion and kinship of Helena and her father as he teaches her to hunt and survive in a remote area with no running water, electricity, or any means of communication. Everything the tiny family has is a product of their hard work, from the leather Helena’s mother softens and makes into gloves and hats to the snowshoes made by Helena’s father. Helena’s only frame of reference for the world are an old stack of National Geographics.

In the present she’s hunting her father in the wilderness they both know so well, and it’s clear that while he’s an expert woodsman, so is she, thanks to his training. They are lethal equals, and Helena’s task is made more urgent when she starts finding bodies.

In the past, while the young Helena clearly loves her father and loves the things he teaches her, she’s also subjected to beatings and punishments (being locked in a well, for example) and her mother is basically being raped every night, with Helena being a product of a rape. These things are only clear to Helena as she gets older, however – when she is a young girl she holds her mother in contempt.

This story could be set nowhere else but the UP, and Dionne is an amazingly evocative and vivid writer describing her setting. While I grew up in Michigan and spent my summers “up north,” entering the UP always felt like I was going to a different country, and Dionne is expert in portraying that feeling.

As Helena grows older and becomes ready, naturally, for the next phase of her life, her growing rebellion and strength makes her father angry and leads to a showdown. As the two of them in the present race toward one another for another show down, it puts this intimate story on an almost epic scale. Everything about this novel is perfect: the writing, which is not too flowery but is memorable and clear; the characters – Helena and her parents will stay in my mind for a very long time; the vivid setting, and finally, the story that doesn’t let up. If there’s a better novel written this year I would be very surprised. Don’t miss it.

Stephen Mack Jones: August Snow

As I started this book I have to admit I was a tad suspicious – the author is a poet and a playwright, not always the recipe for creating a down and dirty private eye novel. But as I read this novel set in Detroit’s Mexicantown and featuring half African American, half Mexican ex-cop August Snow, I found instead that the book fitted neatly in with work by Loren Estleman and Steve Hamilton, being a refreshingly straightforward, if gritty, private eye novel and making no bones about it.

Like David Housewright’s Minnesota P.I. Mackenzie, who has a ton of money at his disposal, so does August Snow, who won a settlement against the Detroit Police Department and is using the money in his own way to recreate the warm Mexicantown neighborhood he fondly remembers from his childhood. He’s been on the run – more or less – for a year and is back home, settling into his life in Detroit, when he gets a call from an old client, one who helped cause much of the ruckus that got him on the outs with the Detroit cops. Reluctantly, he makes the trek across town to the woman’s Grosse Pointe mansion to see what he can help her with.

He turns down her request to look into possibly shady happenings at the wealth management firm and bank she owns, but when she’s discovered dead shortly after they’ve talked, August, being the true white knight private eye hero, thinks there’s something wrong about her apparent suicide and can’t get it out of his head.

The back and forth of the street characters and hackers August deals with, contrasted with the ultra wealthy banker types, creates a good back and forth dynamic as the book unfolds. And even the name of this detective – August Snow – summer, winter, two opposites in the same name – helps define the way he’s able to straddle the street, the FBI and police and his wealthy clients.

I thought this book took a bit of time to get warmed up – as though Mack Jones was finding his footing and establishing his bonafides, but once he gets rolling, this is a wonderfully plotted P.I. novel, full of action and great characters. As readers we also meet the one of the few African American private eyes on the scene, so this is a welcome book and I hope the start of a series. There just aren’t enough books like this one being written at the moment.

Doug Allyn: The Jukebox Kings

Doug Allyn has long been known as one of the masters of the modern mystery short story—it’s probably harder to find an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine that doesn’t have an Allyn story in it than to find one that does, and it’s a rare year that he’s not nominated for an Edgar award. But he’s also a fine novelist as well, my personal favorite being the the Mitch Mitchell series, which feature a female Michigan based deepwater diver.

The latest exhibit of his mastery in the longer form is called The Jukebox Kings. It’s not so much a mystery as a crime novel, a story of the rise of a gangster in the Little Caesar tradition. Mick Shannon is a boxer, fresh out of prison, who, after losing a tough fight, finds himself deeply in debt to the mob, in the person of Moishe Abrams, an extremely dangerous relic of the Purple Gang era, who still controls jukeboxes and collections in the black parts of Detroit. Things get rough quickly, and soon Mick finds himself taking the place of Moishe in an extremely fraught environment.

At first the book is reminiscent of early Elmore Leonard (not the worst thing to be reminiscent of!) in its portrayal of a tough, canny protagonist dealing with the changing Detroit of the early sixties. Allyn puts his own stamp on it by introducing another element of his expertise, music.

Mick seizes a tiny music studio from a deadbeat then dead client, and proceeds to learn the ins and outs of the exploding Motown scene with the help of Martika, a savvy and attractive soul sister who happens to harbor a performing talent herself. The synergy between the studio, the jukeboxes that play the products of the studio and a soon acquired nightclub creates a new and successful operation, but also one that attracts the attention of the new look but just as brutal Mafia whose “takeover and acquisition” strategy Mick and his new associates must resist.

There’s plenty of action, atmosphere and snappy dialogue in The Jukebox Kings, as well as an insightful look at the music business and a changing Detroit. The long sweep of the story, which reaches from the Supremes to rap, must have been liberating for an author used to a more restricted form. Although Mick is a violent man who turns to violent means when necessary, he’s a sympathetic character and his story is a winning one.

D.E. Johnson: Detroit Shuffle

D.E. Johnson’s fourth novel in his dark chronicle of 1912 Detroit and the frequently unlucky life of protagonist Will Anderson is also a look at the Women’s Suffrage movement.  These novels are tight and move quickly, with lots of action sequences – this has a notable section set in an actual salt mine – that keep the pages flying even if, as I do, you frequently feel squeamish about what’s happening to Will.

detroitshuffleIn the last novel, Detroit Breakdown, Will went undercover in the giant Eloise mental hospital where his girlfriend’s brother was a resident.  This has left him with some residual issues, and it’s left his girlfriend, Elizabeth, not only with a mother who has dementia at home but her brother Robert and his friend Francis, both of whom seem to suffer from, at the very least, some form of Asperger’s.

Will includes Robert and Francis on a few of his adventures as they have a mechanical aptitude as well as some skill in lock picking (Robert).  The main thrust of the story concerns an attempt on Elizabeth’s life at a Suffrage rally – which no-one believes, because of the radium poisoning Will suffered at Eloise.  Elizabeth loves him, but she thinks he’s still not right in the head.

As Will doggedly pursues the possible assassin of his beloved Elizabeth, he starts to unravel a conspiracy of corruption involving the upcoming election, which includes a chance to vote for Women’s Sufffrage.  He has to go to some lengths to prove this, however.

For a writer of such dark material, Johnson also writes sensitively about addiction, mental illness, and the fate of women, while writing about them not as objects or victims but as valiant fighters and equal (if not superior) players in life.  It brings a real richness and depth to his work, and it makes Will not a noir hero, but a real hero – one who is always proved to be right, despite the way things always look at the beginning of his stories.

I loved the inclusion of Robert and Francis, too.  They bring some comic relief to this complex story.  My favorite scene in the whole book has the two of them, along with Will, eating dinner at what’s called a “Self Serv” but which sounds like a cafeteria. I’m sure Johnson doesn’t want his two main characters to settle down happily ever after, but they’re lurching in that direction.  This is an interesting series and Johnson has a unique voice.  I hope there are many more installments to come.

P.J. Parrish: Heart of Ice

P.J. Parrish – or the sisters who write as P.J. Parrish – are paperback writers in the very best sense of the word.  They deliver a good story, well told, with reliable characters and settings, asking only that their readers enjoy the journey they deliver. Almost always, they fulfill this promise.  With their new novel, set on Mackinac Island, I was holding my opinion in reserve.

heartoficeFull disclosure:  I grew up on Mackinac Island, so I wasn’t so sure they could get it right, having read other novels set on the island that had a misfire or two (or more).  I was at first cautious but then more and more delighted as they really seemed to “get” the island (and it may help that one of the sisters lives in nearby Petoskey), but after awhile the story they were telling was simply so good, the island details really didn’t matter.

Their series hero, Louis Kincaid, has returned to Michigan after his last adventure in Florida, coming back to connect with a small daughter he didn’t know he had.  His daughter, Lily, is the entry point to the story, as Louis is out exploring the island with her when she darts away and disappears in an old house where she takes a tumble and lands on some old bones.  That sets off a string of events that has Louis working in his capacity as a private investigator with the island police chief, who isn’t too familiar with homicide procedure.

The novel weaves its spell with several threads.  One of them is the opening prologue, which finds a young man falling through the ice bridge – the part of frozen Lake Huron marked off with islanders’ Christmas trees to show a safe passage back to the mainland – and it seems he has a story to tell.  So too does Danny Dancer, living alone in the island woods with a cabin full of animal skulls – and one human one.

The bones Lily falls on are also human, and Louis and the Mackinac Island Chief, Flowers, think they might be the remains of the long missing Julie Chapman.  The only problem is, the skeleton they’ve discovered has no skull, so they can’t use simple identification methods like dental records.  They’re going on the evidence, instead, of a class ring from an exclusive Detroit area private school found with the bones.  Julie’s family still has a cottage on the island, and Louis’s trail leads him there.

There are some missteps, some misunderstandings and some just plain politics as Louis, Flowers, and a state investigator with uncomfortable ties to Louis’ girlfriend, Joe, try and work together.  The different investigation techniques of the three men sometimes slow progress rather than advance it, but slowly they begin to lurch toward a solution.

As Louis continues to be drawn into the case, he also starts to realize he has more ties to Michigan than he had imagined.  It’s a kind of stopping point for him where he’s figuring out where his life might be going, and in fact all three men are at different crossroads in their lives.  As it turns out, the missing and presumed dead Julie Chapman was also at some kind of life crossroad, and it’s that mystery that the men focus on as they unravel her family’s secrets.  The ultimate solution to the mystery is a twisty and riveting one, worth any ending ever delivered by Jeffrey Deaver or Harlan Coben.  By the end of the novel I couldn’t stop reading, which is maybe the best compliment you can give any book, paperback or no.

D.E. Johnson: Detroit Breakdown

Sometimes when an author is writing an historical series, his or her rhythm gets so in tune with the time they are writing about, that the story they are telling takes on the tone of the actual time period.  D.E. Johnson’s third novel set in 1912 Detroit takes on a gothic feel and the whole tenor of the story is enriched by it.  The first two books were set inside the automobile industry, this one takes the scion of the electric car company, Will Anderson, and sets him inside the gigantic mental hospital known as Eloise.

Eloise, on the outskirts of Detroit, was so huge it had its own police and fire stations, farm, bakery, and school.  At one point it housed 10,000 people.  When Will and his lady friend Elizabeth encounter Eloise, they have been called there in the middle of the night because Robert, Elizabeth’s brother, who has been an inmate there for many years, has been accused of murder.  They’ve been called not by a doctor but some mysterious “other,” and the doctors and staff are in fact annoyed when Will and Elizabeth show up, and reluctant to let them see or talk to Robert.

Will decides that the best way to help prove Robert is no murderer is to go undercover as a patient.  Elizabeth is hampered by the fact that her mother is losing memory rapidly and can’t be left alone.  When she is able to find some help with her mother, Elizabeth feels free to get herself into Eloise as a volunteer.  When Will disappears Elizabeth is pretty sure he’s succeeded in going undercover, but she’s not positive, and it’s with a great deal of trepidation that she begins her work at the hospital, worried about her brother and Will.

It’s at this point that the story assumes both its true voice and a real gothic tone – courtesy of Phantom of the Opera and a serial killer on the grounds who seems to be using the Phantom’s killing technique (the Punjab lasso).  As the victims add up and Will is sure he can’t escape or help Robert (who is stuck in solitary) the tension and suspense of the story also mounts.

Alternating voices between Elizabeth’s and Will’s, Johnson is able to tell all the parts of the story – what Will discovers on the inside, and Elizabeth on the outside – that helps the entire narrative hang together.  Johnson has become a very deft storyteller in the course of three books, and my affection as a reader for both Will and Elizabeth has grown as well.  I’m happy to say Johnson leaves a pretty large thread hanging to follow up in his fourth book, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Steve Hamilton: Die a Stranger

Steve Hamilton keeps getting better and better, and in this latest Alex McKnight novel he seems to have hit a fast paced groove.  This book is so spare and so elegantly assembled it seems effortless.  The dialogue snaps and crackles, the action doesn’t let up, and underneath it all is the drumbeat of Alex’s heart as he searches for his friend, Vinnie.

Vinnie, as readers of this series will know, is Alex’s nearest neighbor, an Ojibwe who has moved off the reservation to be on his own.  His family is a bit puzzled by this behavior but things are in a state of uneasy truce, though Vinnie’s sisters aren’t big Alex fans.

The book begins with the funeral of Vinnie’s mother, a lynch pin of the Ojibwe community.  She had raised Vinnie and his siblings single handed.  After the funeral Vinnie disappears, but Alex becomes concerned pretty quickly, knowing Vinnie’s routines and behaviors well.

The other incident that jump starts the book is a drug deal on a tiny Michigan airstrip which has left several people dead.  The two events – Vinnie’s disappearance and the fatal drug deal – seem unrelated, but when a slacker cousin of Vinnie’s turns up missing Alex knows the two events are tied together.

While Hamilton hasn’t structured his books exactly like a traditional private eye series – i.e., the  private eye has a lethal, if cool, sidekick – in each book there’s still a partner of one kind or another.  In some books, it’s been Vinnie; in some, the wanna be P.I., Leon, and in the last book, Alex’s frenemy from the Soo, Chief Maven.  In this novel his partner turns out to be Vinnie’s long lost father, recently released from prison.  Whether Alex likes it or not, Lou is on the hunt with him all over Michigan to find the missing men.

The way the story is told – and it’s a dark one, full of violence and the underlying issues that separated Lou from his family for so many years – is completely unsentimental.  Yet in his way Hamilton cuts to the heart of things as surely as any writer of psychological suspense, he just gets there differently.  The emotional punch is still a strong one.

The fragile and frequently hostile ties Lou has to his former community and family are never emphasized but at the same time they are what underlies his frantic search for his son.  While Alex thinks like the former cop that he is, Lou thinks like the ex-con that he is, and their two ways of thinking somehow complement each other.

This book has enough twists, emotional and otherwise, for me not to want to give away too much other than to say this is a powerful, and powerfully told, story by a writer who is at the peak of his narrative powers.  At this point in his career Steve Hamilton hardly needs my rave review, but it’s been such a pleasure to watch his career grow and to see his books accelerate and get better and better that I can’t help myself.  In every way, this is an exciting ride.

Bryan Gruley: The Skeleton Box

I guess I believe in doing my best, trying to be a good guy, be nice to my mom, take care of the people I love.  Is that good enough?

One of my favorite things about selling books is watching an author grow not just career-wise, but grow as a writer.  Each book of Bryan Gruley’s is better than the last, and this third in his Gus Carpenter series really hits it out of the park.

His first novel, Starvation Lake, established Gruley’s character.  Gus has come back to Starvation Lake from a big time Detroit paper to run the tiny Pilot.  The balance of kinship, friendship, and community ties and history are finely drawn in the first two novels (the second is The Hanging Tree), but in this third installment Gruley goes to the heart of the matter: family.

Usually a book that has lots of hockey in it isn’t one that will make me cry, but this book really got me.  The amount of hockey in the books (a personal and life long passion of Gruley’s) has been declining, just as Gruley the storyteller amps up his game.  This one has the least amount of hockey, and there’s a redemptive quality to it.  It also is tied into the essential story line, so the book without the hockey wouldn’t make sense.  And that’s how it should be.

Hockey of course gives a specific flavor and zip to the stories, and a real note of authenticity.  In this book, though, the true focus is on Gus’s mother.  Gus speeds to his mother’s house in the opening scenes to discover that her best friend, Phyllis, has been attacked and rushed to the hospital and his mother in a state of shock.

Gruley unsentimentally lays out his mother’s increasing memory related struggles; she has good days and bad days, but the death of her best friend begins to bring the past to life, as does her friend’s last word.  Gus’ love for his mother is clear; she pushes him to investigate more.  Helping Gus is his crusty ace reporter, Luke Whistler, who hustles the story for all he’s worth.

It becomes evident early on in the story that whatever happened to Phyllis is related somehow to the Catholic Church and the long ago disappearance of a nun.  Gruley bases the bones of his story on a true incident (see Mardi Link’s fine Isadore’s Secret) where a nun disappeared and a long cloud of suspicion settled in over the parish.  While Gruley utilizes the bare bones concept, there the similarity ends.  Like any good story teller, he twists the narrative to suit the needs of the story he has chosen to tell.

What’s really powerful and moving is the connection not only between Gus and his mother, but his mother’s connection to her long time best friends, both of whom are now dead.  As Gus races toward a resolution, one his mother has nudged him into finding, he discovers things even she didn’t know, though the ultimate revelation really belongs to her.  The way Gruley honors this character without hitting the reader over the head with it is really well done.

The details of life in Michigan – down to the Better Made potato chips served up at the local bar – add lots to the story.  So do the hockey details, which are just enough, and just specific enough, to give you a real flavor of the ice.  This is a wonderfully told story and a moving novel.

Loren D. Estleman: Burning Midnight

In olden times Loren Estleman would have been regarded as a master craftsman.  He’s sixty plus books into a more than impressive career, setting the bar high in both the Western and the Private Eye genres, while also writing the occasional standalone as well as a couple other mystery series (Peter Macklin, Valentino).  This outing is the 22nd in his Amos Walker franchise, the present gold standard for private eye mysteries.  Sure, there are other private eye masters at work right now – Robert Crais, Steve Hamilton, and S. J. Rozan come to mind – but for the pure, traditional private eye experience no one can beat Estleman.

His prose is only one reason, but it’s a big one.  Laced with sly humor and original descriptions of both people and places, reading an Estleman novel is a rich experience.  For a novel on the short side, the reader gets a lot of bang for their buck.  This one is set in the Mexicantown area of Detroit.  While it’s “Mexicantown” there’s a reference to the coiled and dark world of “Chinatown” (the film), and the overhanging, deteriorating beauty that is Detroit suffuses the book with atmosphere and menace.

Walker is strictly old school, smoking cigarettes, swigging vodka and tequila when he comes across it, getting around town in a beat up muscle car, unencumbered by familial baggage.  He’s the classic loner, working in the white knight mode dear to every P.I. from Lew Archer and  Phillip Marlowe down to the present.

He’s asked by an old frenemy, Inspector John Aldercyce,  to try and find the missing teenage brother of his son’s wife.  The kid, Nesto, appears to be caught up in a Mexicantown gang, and Alderdyce is hoping both to find him and scare him away from the gang life.  The understanding way Estleman writes about this particular teenager is dead on, with their mixture of lying, fear, bravery and stupidity.  Walker is more forgiving and understanding than some of the other folks in the Nesto’s life.

Things take a wrong turn when one of the Mexicantown leaders is gunned down – the death of El Tigre doesn’t go unnoticed by anyone, and Nesto seems like he’s in the frame for it.

In reality, every P.I. novel has a certain trajectory – the detective squeals around town interviewing suspects and looking for clues – what sets any of them apart is the point of view, the writing, and the characters.  Estleman’s writing always sparkles.  He also gets in a few digs at present technology.  Here’s a favorite:  “…you can become dependent on technology of you have constant access to it.  That made me the most independent detective in the 313 area code.”  And this of course underscores Walker’s good old fashioned detective work – like Holmes, Poirot and Nero Wolfe,  he relies on logical deduction and plain brain power.

The plot is suitably tricky, I was surprised at the end, and I enjoyed the Amos Walker guided tour of Mexicantown.  Twenty-two books in, this is still a fresh, vibrant, and classic series.