Archive for P.I.

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.

Ingrid Thoft: Loyalty

I have heard the buzz about Ingrid Thoft for awhile now and finally got around to picking up this first novel in her series, and boy, is the hype justified. The central character, a female P.I. who works for the family law firm, bears some similarity to the kick-ass Kalinda on The Good Wife, one of my all time favorite TV characters. Josefina “Fina” Ludlow also has a passing resemblance to Spenser, and as this series is set in Boston, that seems only right. The family law firm is run with an iron fist by her father Carl and staffed by her high powered brothers. While Fina found the law wasn’t for her, she found investigative work was. It’s very much put to the test in this first outing. She runs a business “separate” from the family law firm, but they bring her most of her clients.

Unfortunately, her skills are needed when her sister-in-law disappears, and while her brother seems not that troubled by her disappearance, Fina increasingly is, and the outcome (this is a mystery novel, after all) is predictably tragic. When her brother becomes the prime suspect in what’s pretty clear is a homicide, Fina is also trying to help out her now-grieving teenaged niece who is resisting all attempts at either help or emotional support.

“The next hour of canvassing was like a greatest hits tour for the worried well. Yoga, Pilates, massage, energy healing, and Rolfing specialists occupied space next to an optometrist, nutritionist, and a variety of MDs. You could have your aura checked, get your spine realigned, and have a colonoscopy, all without moving your car.”
― Loyalty, Ingrid Thoft

There’s a parallel story involving a businesswoman whose business, it becomes clear, is that of a high class madam. The madam is dealing with an incapacitated husband and a son who has moved back home because of a trauma that’s only identified later in the novel.

Thoft’s brisk, entertaining, matter of fact and frequently humorous storytelling style makes this novel a great read. Her skill at weaving together disparate plot threads is indeed reminiscent of the great Robert B. Parker. She also grounds and creates her character and the entire Ludlow family, setting the stage nicely for future installments, of which I hope there are many. This is a fantastic series.

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.

William Kent Krueger: Manitou Canyon

manitoucanyon-200This is a long awaited return for Krueger’s beloved Cork O’Connor. Two years between books is really too long for the rabid fan, of which there are many (I live with two of them). One of the things Krueger has done really beautifully with this series is to paint a long portrait of a family – when we first meet Cork, in Iron Lake (1998), he and his wife Jo are separated. They get back together and then Jo is killed in Heaven’s Keep (2009), literally about half way through this long, now 15 novel series.

During the course of the books, Cork and Jo’s children grow and in Northwest Angle (2011) Cork and his daughter Jenny find a baby. Wauboo. Wauboo, or Little Rabbit, is now a firmly established member of the O’Connor household. The older daughter is away; and little Stevie, as probably many Krueger readers think of him, is growing into a Shaman much like the beloved (and very, very elderly) Henry Meloux. In this novel, it’s almost the eve of Jenny’s wedding and Aunt Rose, Jo’s sister, is back in Aurora for the festivities.

Of course things aren’t going quite as planned as Cork is approached by the grandchildren of a man who had recently disappeared in the Boundary Waters while on a late season camping trip with them. The sheriff’s department has given up the search but Cork agrees to accompany the granddaughter, Lindsey, for one last look around.

The month is November and any search will be halted when the snow starts to fly; it’s also a month filled with heartbreak for the O’Connor family, as it’s the month they lost Jo. While Cork is now with another woman, Rainy, and happily so, all his family members sense some heaviness in his spirit that he can’t or won’t explain.

When Cork and Lindsey hit the Boundary Waters and the area of the disappearance, things begin to go terribly wrong. This becomes a stripped down chase novel, reminiscent of the excellent Boundary Waters (1999). Cork is stuck with a brutal group of people and his family, hearing nothing from him and unable to reach him, shift quickly into full panic mode. More alarmingly Stevie comes home from his spiritual journey in Utah saying he feels something is very wrong with his father.

This ominous sense of foreboding hangs over this novel like a November storm cloud, infusing this action packed story with dread and atmosphere. Crime novels are especially good at exposing the true nature of the people involved in the stories told, as well as the true nature of their relationships, as when everything is on the line there’s no space for falsity. The end of the novel, suitably action packed, also brings to light an issue of concern to Native Americans, as each novel in this series has done so well. This one is no exception. I also love the geographic areas highlighted by Krueger. Most I have never heard of, and he brings them to life on the page.

I finished this book as I have every other one, in tears, as the resolution contains all of life – joy, sadness, regret, tragedy. But mostly joy.

Michael Harvey: The Governor’s Wife

governorswifeThis is a welcome return of Michael Harvey’s now virtually classic Michael Kelly series. Kelly is a Chicago P.I. who reads classical literature to relax (he loves Ovid) and the series is a lean, mean private eye juggernaut that takes no prisoners. There are very few actual private eyes left on the landscape—the remaining P.I.’s are often reluctant like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight, though there are a few holdouts: Loren D. Estelman, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky. All of those series are aging honorably, but the Kelly series is still in full bloom.

Ripping his story from the headlines, the story concerns the corrupt Governor of Illinois who has disappeared before heading to jail to serve a 30 year sentence. He has literally disappeared from the elevator on the way to the parking lot, and now two years later, Kelly gets an anonymous request to find the missing Governor along with a preposterous amount of money wired into his account. The biggest clue seems to be the wife he left behind.

When Kelly talks to her she claims to have no knowledge of what happened to him, but advances the theory that he’s probably dead. Kelly gets caught up observing one of her charities—underprivileged babies and mothers—and then begins to delve into the Governor’s ties to building roads around the state to the tune of billions of dollars.

An unsentimental writer, Harvey nevertheless cuts to the heart of his loner detective’s emotions and follows him so closely on his journey you’ll feel like a P.I. yourself. He doesn’t waste a word on anything unnecessary, and his complex plot with many threads is effortlessly pulled together at the end of the novel with a bad guy worthy of the name.

There are as many reasons to admire Harvey as a writer as to enjoy his books. His clear, concise storytelling style, his grasp of plot and character, and his clean way with a line of prose all add up to a spectacular read. Once you encounter Michael Kelly, you won’t soon forget him.

Tim O’Mara: Dead Red

Dead RedThe Private Eye novel is a purely American invention, and was long the backbone of U.S. mystery writing. The form waxes and wanes – at the moment pure private eyes are almost being co-opted by the reluctant private eye or the private eye who is also something else, like Tim O’Mara’s guy, who is a teacher.

Ray Donne is a teacher who used to be a cop, with an uncle very high up in the police force who makes it more likely that Ray will not only sometimes get inside information but also a bit of a pass. He dates a reporter, which is an occasional conflict with what Ray knows but can’t tell, but all in all Ray is a genuinely good guy who often finds himself at the heart of a problem.

In this novel, an old buddy, Ricky, another ex-cop, calls Ray out of the blue in the middle of the night “to talk”; Ricky ends up shot and killed while Ray escapes with a concussion. It makes him pretty invested in finding out what’s going on. This is a complex novel that finds Ray moonlighting for an old frenemy, Jack Knight, who Ricky had been working for before he was killed.

O’Mara takes the reader on a trail that includes Ricky’s grief-shattered brother, a missing rich girl, an uncle who is reminding Ray constantly to stay out of trouble, and a number of near misses and scrapes, though Ray still manages to buy a new suit, take his girlfriend to a fancy party, and avoid calling his mother. Ray Donne is truly an old school character – he’s basically a working stiff who has a strong sense of both decency and what’s right. When he’s surrounded by various forms of corruption and actual immorality, Ray knows how to behave, even if it’s not always the easiest path.

Like the old “Andy Griffith Show” where the sensible Andy was the calm center of the action, so it is with Ray. He may be surrounded by chaotic actions and scary consequences, but he’s not going to be done in by it, even when someone takes a shot at him (more than once in this novel).

The contemporary twist O’Mara brings to his brisk and capable storytelling is his New York City setting, the details of school teaching and administration, and the memorable web of friends and characters that surround Ray. This is a wonderful series that seems to be ageing well, and I hope there are many more installments.

Reed Farrel Coleman: The Hollow Girl

hollowgirlWhen Reed Farrel Coleman decided to wrap up his now classic Moe Prager Private Eye series, he didn’t mess around.  This moving novel ties up many threads in beleaguered P.I. Prager’s life and sets him on his retirement path.  The story that goes along with this last entry is a show stopper, hard to put down and a joy to read.

For those readers unfamiliar with Coleman, he’s been a small press sensation, beloved in the mystery universe for his straight up, old school private eye novels featuring Moe Prager, set in Brooklyn.  Fittingly, Coleman has just been tapped to write Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, and his writing owes a huge debt to Parker’s ground breaking, wisecracking story telling style.

This book has the bittersweet acknowledgement of the benefits of age and life experience, while lamenting the physical slowdown that accompanies that state of being (“I headed for Giorgio at full speed, which, at my age, was only slightly faster than standing still.”)  And more appropriately, Moe’s last case comes from his past.

At the request of an old acquaintance, Nancy Lustig, Moe is asked to consult on the case of Nancy’s missing daughter, a woman more infamous than famous as “The Hollow Girl”, a 90’s internet sensation who faked her suicide online and had a huge following of the lost and lonely who turned to her blog posts to see what was happening in the Hollow Girl’s life.  While Moe has never heard of the Hollow Girl, in a typical generational divide, his daughter has.  However, Moe is more than willing to hunt for someone’s missing daughter.

As the details of Moe’s life form a picture of the man – he’s recently widowed, recently recovered from cancer, been drinking too much, is estranged from his daughter and missing his only grandson – that is really only the background to what is really a kick ass story of Moe’s hunt for the Hollow Girl.

Like any P.I. worth his salt Moe’s gut tells him a different story from the sometimes accepted party line, and when the Hollow Girl starts re-broadcasting while including a disclaimer that everything on screen is performance art, Moe has a different feeling.  There are some red herrings but this well-constructed story ends in a well laid out and thought out conclusion.

While it’s absolutely unnecessary to have read all the other novels in this series to enjoy this one, you may want to head to the shelf and make a more detailed acquaintance with Moe Prager.  He’s well worth it.

Brett Halliday: Murder Is My Business

Murder Is My BusinessHard as it is to believe, there’s a detective out there who has been the protagonist in novels that sold over 30 million copies, starred in hundreds of short stories, radio shows, movies, a television series, had his own digest magazine that lasted almost 30 years, and who at present has exactly one book in print. His name is Mike Shayne, his creator was Brett Halliday and I’ll wager that many of you have never heard of him, much less read any of his books.

I’d seen copies of Shayne paperbacks around, but it wasn’t until one of our faithful book scouts brought in (literally) a boxful of them that I really examined the phenomena. At first I was drawn to the covers, the early ones by master pulp artist Robert McGinnis, little paintings with a dramatic title like Violence Is Golden superimposed over a vivid image of a lush babe, work that if presented in a museum could easily pass for Pop Art. The later covers were much less art and much more camp, the kind of ridiculously posed photographs of random models that were inexplicably popular in the 70s and 80s.

As I enjoyed the front covers, I started reading the back ones too, and found that the novels themselves seemed somewhat intriguing, or at least diverting, the kind of short, small paperbacks you can jam in your pocket and read in snatches without missing much. I started one and, reader, I was hooked. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of – without a doubt a Shayne novel is literary junk food, a Big Mac in book form – you know it’s not really that good, but somehow you just can’t put it down.

Although tough and rangy redhead Shayne is in some respects the stereotypical P.I. in his non-stop booze swilling, cigarette smoking and instant attractiveness to women, the books really aren’t as pulpy as I expected. There’s moderate violence and a respectable body count, but Mike often neglects packing his gun, and never blasts his way to a resolution, preferring a more cerebral approach. He’s often surrounded by more than willing dames who he strings along for the sake of the case, but his true heart lies with his wife (a staggering inconvenience in the shamus game who was eliminated early in the series) and then his devoted secretary, and the dames have the habit of conveniently passing out or being murdered before anything truly steamy can be consummated. The cases he’s involved in are less straightforward than most, involving a host of suspects, twists and turns galore, and are often resolved by assembling all involved for a talkfest a la Poirot.

Unfortunately, due to the pace of production, Halliday (real name Davis Dresser), who wrote thirty-one books in seventeen years before turning to ghostwriters, it often seems as if Mike, when he invariably tugs his earlobe in mid-narrative and wonders what the heck is going to happen, is only giving voice to his creator’s quandary. The settings, particularly when Mike operates out of postwar Miami, are often novel, but the prose is flat and Mike frequently pulling his earlobe and preferring Cognac is about as deep as the characterization gets.

The single Mike Shayne title still in print out of almost seventy published is 1945’s Murder Is My Business, and I have to give the noir masters at Hard Case Crime credit, because of the fraction of the oeuvre I’ve read, it’s the best.

Like most of the series, it has an intriguing set-up. A little old lady comes into Mike’s office with a letter from her son, who, after years working in mines in Mexico, has decided to return to the States and enlist in the Army. On his way to El Paso, he writes, he encountered a man who convinced him to join under a fake name so he could assist in investigating a spy ring. She also has a newspaper article about a recent recruit who died under the wheels of the limousine of Mr. Jefferson Towne, a local mining tycoon and candidate for mayor. Although the lady is not only little and old but also poor, and Mike always makes a point of profiting from his efforts, he has a history with Towne and figures he can collect somewhere along the line, so he heads to El Paso.

This is good news for the narrative, as it removes him from his usual setting and supporting cast of cardboard characters. Though he ends up with basically the same group – a reporter, a police chief, a hard partying gal with the hots for him, a manipulative rich guy/politician and an out and out mobster – at least they have different names and slightly different personalities. It also helps that, lacking his usual antagonist and comic foil, the preening Miami Beach police chief Peter Painter, he actually can work with the cops to unravel a case that includes an ever growing collection of complications and corpses. The wartime milieu and a few trips across the border also add spice, and the denouement, although only slightly less farfetched than most, is taut and satisfying.

Murder Is My Business isn’t really nasty enough to qualify as vintage pulp fiction, or refined enough to be a classic mystery, but, like its hero, it defiantly is what it is, a fast read, with a certain undefinable and once enormously popular something, pretty much the very thing they invented paperbacks for. (Jamie)

Tim O’Mara: Crooked Numbers

I loved O’Mara’s first book, Sacrifice Fly, and I think I like this one even more.  His main character is Brooklyn teacher (now dean) Raymond Donne, who used to be a cop but thanks to an injury sustained on the job is now a teacher.  Ray gets involved with different crimes because (so far at least) they’ve involved his students.

crookednumbersOne of the strongest elements in this new series is not only the very Brooklyn specific setting, but the school setting.  The parts O’Mara the real life teacher adds to his novels about his fictional teacher Ray ring with authenticity and add real emotional texture to his stories.  It’s a weird comparison, but the way cozy writer Denise Swanson brings her school psychology experience to her books, adding detail and interest,  O’Mara is setting his books apart in the same way Swanson has.

O’Mara also embraces – as does Swanson – his chosen part of the genre, which turns out to be the private eye.  While Ray is not technically a private eye, he certainly functions as one, and when the mother of a murdered former student of Ray’s asks for his help he can’t say no.  Dougie’s mom is sure that he couldn’t have been involved in either gangs or drugs, and she wants Ray to help her prove it, as the police have taken everything they’ve found at face value.

Ray is in agreement – Dougie had been a particularly promising student that Ray had helped get admitted into a posh private school – and he agrees to call a reporter acquaintance and see if a story in the paper might prompt the police into more action.  The cops aren’t happy but the story does cause them to take another look, though Ray’s uncle, a high up mucky muck in the police, comes by in his town car to chew Ray out and tell him to cut out his investigative “help”.

When two more students from Dougie’s school suffer weird accidents (one fatal) Ray starts to think everything is connected.  O’Mara is a deft storyteller, intertwining several complex threads to tell his heartbreaking tale.  While this story is certainly a dark and sad one, O’Mara leavens it with the deepening relationship between Ray and the reporter and with the real humanity and goodness of Ray himself.

In a sophomore effort, I always hope not just for a continuation of what made the first book special, but for a deepening and expansion of what’s been started.  O’Mara delivers.  Ray Donne is a wonderful character with a great setting, and O’Mara’s storytelling skills have only seemed to sharpen with this newest book.  I look forward to many more in this wonderful series.

William Kent Krueger: Tamarack County

Despite the fact that it’s a few days before Christmas, and the snow is deep on the ground, things are pretty hot in Tamarack County. The book seems to take its temperature from series protagonist Cork O’Connor’s son Stephen, who is burning with teenage lust for his new girlfriend Marlee, even though their gropes toward fulfillment are twice interrupted by macabre and possibly deadly attacks. With love interest Rainy out of town indefinitely, Cork finds himself eyeing the prettier women he encounters with appreciative, if somewhat impure, thoughts.  Even daughter Anne, the putative novitiate nun, has apparently renounced her long cherished vocation for, well, that same old thing.

Tamarack-CountyDoes all this mean that William Kent Krueger, one of the finest writers around, has decided to go all Shades of Grey on us? No, far from it, because like all truly superior novelists, he provides not only the difficult but obvious stuff like plot, character, setting, suspense, style and pacing but also elevates his endeavor to the next level with an overriding theme.

What really powers this novel is L-O-V-E, in all its many and varied manifestations for good or ill, beginning with the brutal knifing of a judge’s wife that rips open the many complexities and betrayals of a long and outwardly successful marriage. The apparently pattern less crimes that follow all strike at different kinds of profound affection, like a lonely person’s bond with a treasured pet, or a father’s strong but occasionally helpless ties to a growing son. Even the despicable villain when unmasked proves to be acting from an extremely twisted idea of love.

In my opinion Kent has never received the kind of acclaim and success he deserves (especially with his recent transcendent stand-alone Ordinary Grace), but happily I have noticed more people coming into the store who have discovered his work on their own without having had it pressed into their hands by someone from Aunt Agatha’s. Tamarack County continues his impressive streak of truly outstanding Cork O’Connor novels, each one another installment in the series while at the same time maintaining a clear individual identity in plot and, yes, theme. It’s no accident that the last word of this fine book is – you guessed it – love. (Jamie)