Archive for P.I. – Page 2

Sara Gran: Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

When Annie Hall first came out, I saw it with my mother.  I was a senior in high school, and I was absolutely transported.  It’s still one of my favorite movies.  My mother, on the other hand, was disturbed by it.  She was dismayed by the easy way Annie moved in with Woody Allen’s character, without being married, and the casual nature of the sexual relationships throughout the movie.  It seemed like a sea-change to her.

Sara Gran’s novel, while I liked and appreciated it, feels like a sea-change to me, a generation later.  I guess I’m the now the older person reading about a younger one; about a younger person whose choices I don’t always understand and whose “lifestyle” is foreign to me.  That’s a good reason to read books, of course, and while Claire has a drug issue – it’s presented as almost normal for her to be snorting cocaine off her house keys – it turns out that her drug use, like everything else in this novel, is a journey of self-discovery for her.clairebohemian

I was mostly captivated by this novel.  Gran’s voice is an original, witty, and at times, deeply profound one.  And as an enthusiastic customer pointed out recently, “her prose sings.”  It does.  She calls on tropes from mystery’s long and varied history, referring obliquely to both Raymond Chandler and Nancy Drew, while at the same time telling an up to the minute story of a murdered musician whose devastated wife comes home and finds him, a robbery gone awry.  Claire doesn’t think it was a robbery.

Curiously, Claire also resembles Jacqueline Winspear’s Maise Dobbs in that she brings a kind of spiritual, empathic sensitivity to solving a case.  She apparently studied with a great (sadly fictional, though a brilliant creation on the part of Gran) detective named Jacques Silette, whose followers are devoted utterly to the truth at all cost.

Claire had a prior relationship with the dead man and is devastated by it as well as wanting to find out who killed him.  Interspersed with her search for Paul’s killer is a recollection of her first case with a high school friend – they searched for a missing friend of theirs.  That story is resolved before the denouement of the main story, but it helps to tell Claire’s backstory.  While much of Gran’s writing is layered with irony and self-conscious wit, she also brings her character of Claire very vividly to life.

It’s also told in a very episodic way.  Looking at Gran’s biography, she writes for television (notably Southland, a real favorite of mine, in part because of Regina King’s kick-ass character on the show) so it may make sense that she writes in episodes.  Everything is in brief, digestible pieces.  Gran is for sure a talented writer; she actually does bring emotion into her resolution, which isn’t unexpected, but it’s heartbreaking.  But while telling the story this way keeps Claire a bit of a mystery, it also left this reader, at least, wanting just a bit more. I personally prefer a more sustained narrative – but maybe that’s a generational thing.  Either way, episodic or sustained,  this is a welcome new voice to mystery fiction.

David Housewright: The Last Kind Word

There are seriously few writers who can beat David Housewright for sheer storytelling power.  His books hit the ground running and don’t let up until the last page.  This is the latest Rushmore “Mac” MacKenzie novel, and Housewright has taken a slightly new tack.  Mac is undercover as desperate criminal Dyson  in order to help catch a band of robbers and more importantly, the gunrunners who are supplying them with weapons at the Canadian border.

thelastkindwordThe opening chapter is pure, classic Housewright.  The only other author who can match his opening chapter skills is Barbara D’Amato, who has several first chapters that remain my favorites of all time,  her ultimate being the baby crawling across Chicago’s Dan Ryan expressway in 2010’s Other Eyes.

Housewright’s book opens with two prisoners being transported through the wilds of Minnesota’s back woods and their ultimate escape.  Of course the mastermind is MacKenzie, but his identity is under wraps as you race through the first chapter waiting to see what unfolds.  That’s the great things about Housewright – every story he tells feels fresh, even if he’s using old and well used tropes, as he often is.

“Dyson” goes undercover with the other escapee, Dave’s, family.  Known to the media as “The Iron Range Bandits,” they are in reality a sad group of desperate folks blindsided by a bad economy in a traditionally hard scrabble area.  MacKenzie has a very well developed Robin Hood/White Knight complex – in this novel, the Robin Hood part gets in the way of the job he’s trying to do.

As Dyson, he’s a bit of a hard ass.  As MacKenzie, not so much.  As he and the bandits plan an elaborate robbery, he starts to feel bad for almost every member of the family, all of whom Housewright has delineated in a crisp and memorable manner.  He finds himself in the uncomfortable role of the “boss”, and in truth, he’s much more sophisticated that just about all of the bandits, though like any newcomer to any group, he makes his share of wrong assumptions.

The title comes from the last kind word spoken to Christ by his fellow sufferer, who was a robber.  While the moral isn’t exactly there’s good in everyone (there are definite bad guys here) it might be that there’s good in very unexpected places.  Dyson/Mac is challenging our own assumptions.

While I’ve made the comparison before, it bears repeating:  if you are missing the snappiness of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, look no further.  David Housewright, in all his Minnesota glory (and wouldn’t Spenser have enjoyed a “Leinie” right along with Mac?) is Parker’s direct descendant.  This is another terrific story – I can’t wait for the next one.

Steve Ulfelder: Purgatory Chasm

When is a P.I. not a P.I.?  Today’s rash of younger male writers are taking a look at that question, and they all have a different answer.  Tim O’Brien has a teacher; Brad Parks, a reporter.  Steve Ulfelder has an auto mechanic AA member whose main motive is revenge.  Really, though, the motives of the P.I. haven’t changed:  to a man, the new P.I.s  are interested in putting things right simply because it’s the right thing to do.  It looks like what’s surviving from the long standing P.I. trope is not the private eye aspect itself, but the white knight aspect.  That’s something I can get behind.

purgatorychasmUlfelder’s Conway Sax is definitely one of the new breed of detective.  Ulfelder’s real life race car and mechanic experience is integrated very nicely into this novel, as is the AA aspect.  I’m not sure the AA aspect is as real as the car stuff, but it feels real. Conway’s AA group calls itself the “Barnburners” and they don’t take affronts to their tight circle lightly, so when one Tander Phigg, a fellow Barnburner, approaches Conway about money owed to him by a sketchy car restoration place, Conway feels he has to check it out even though he’s not all that fond of Tander.

Of course the novel isn’t really about car restoration (though it plays a small part), it instead turns out, as all good books do, to be about the ties between families and friends and what holds them together or, more importantly, divides them.  Tander’s complicated family history emerges after he’s inevitably found dead by Conway, an apparent suicide.  Anyone who has ever read a mystery novel will know that Tander’s death is no suicide – but who is responsible turns out to be a real puzzle.

In this first novel, Ulfelder gives his main character a lot of depth by talking about his AA involvement and then introducing his family backstory and the way he got into car racing.  Lots of the detail is unique.  Though the story hews to some well established tropes, Ulfelder makes it fresh by making his character very firmly a member of the 21st century.  He’s far from an old school P.I., but I’m interested in how the new school P.I.s are going to shape.  If Ulfelder is any indication, I’m looking forward to the journey.

Michael Harvey: The Chicago Way

This is a stunning debut novel.  Featuring Chicago P.I. Michael Kelly, Harvey manages to take the very tired old formula, initiated by Raymond Chandler, and somehow make it fresh and new.  His P.I. is a tough Irish ex-cop, with an educated heart of gold.  He reads Aeschylus in his spare time.  The vengeful, bloodthirsty stories told by the ancient Greeks have plenty of relevance in Kelly’s 21st century life.

chicago-wayWe’re introduced to Kelly in the most classic of ways: his old partner walks into his office and asks for his help.  Neither the P.I. or the cop code of honor allows not helping out an old partner, and Kelly is all in.  The story his old buddy, Gibbons, has to tell is horrible and gripping enough to get anyone’s attention.  Gibbons has always been haunted by the brutal rape of a young woman who was stabbed while it happened and left for dead.  She’s reached out to him and asked for his help in finding her rapist, who was never caught. Gibbons had been talked into forgetting the rape by his superiors, but a letter from the victim is a whole other story.  He wants someone from outside the department to help.

Kelly takes the file Gibbons gives him and begins to turn over rocks.  Much like the ancient Greek stories that inspire him, Harvey’s story is both simple and complex.  The emotional strands are dark, strong, and twisted; the surface story is basic private eye.  Gibbons, of course, turns up dead in chapter two and Kelly is initially accused of the crime, though of course he’s been framed.  Who has framed him and why is at the heart of the story though it takes the whole book to get you there.

Harvey also has some things to say about rape.  Maybe they’ve been said before, but they’re said very effectively here, and they give the book a very honed point of view that gives it a real edge.  Sexual assault seems to turn up everywhere and no matter how it turns up, it’s gut wrenchingly terrible.  The thing is that Harvey manages to write about it in such a non-prurient and matter of fact way that what he’s saying really sticks with you.  The only other book I’ve read about rape that was as effective and moving was by Harvey’s fellow Chicagoan, Theresa Schwegel, whose brilliant Last Known Address (2009) is a punishing look at the investigative side of rape.

Being about rape also means this book is about violence and betrayal.  The creepy way the original victim comes out of the woodwork makes your skin crawl even while you feel for her, and Harvey has a beautiful piece of writing where he considers the choices and decisions this woman might make and the different directions they might take her:  “Lung cancer in a trailer park or a home in La Jolla.  The choice was there.”  Somehow you feel in your gut that the trailer park is the eventual destination.

Meanwhile Kelly continues to turn over rocks, leading him to different discoveries of corruption both high and low.  The connections he has with the various women in his life are complicated and multi-dimensional.  The story is fast paced and brutal, and it doesn’t let up until the very last page.  It’s energized by Harvey’s clear, crisp, and memorable prose.  Luckily there are three more books in the Michael Kelly series and a new stand alone novel to look forward to from this very gifted writer.

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.

Brad Parks: The Good Cop

In 2010 Brad Parks won the Shamus award for first P.I. Novel for Faces of the Gone. It’s a really good book, deserving of all sorts of accolades, but the interesting thing is that Parks’s protagonist isn’t a private investigator, he’s an investigative journalist. I’ll take this as evidence that the traditional P.I. novel ain’t what it used to be – as James Crumley said, no fault divorce really took the wind out of the sails of the profession, which was never really the way it was portrayed in books anyway. A few masterful old masters keep writing in the traditional vein, but these days most private eyes, like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight, are more often of the reluctant variety.

Today many of the somewhat shabby white knights who walk the mean streets of crime fiction asking dangerous questions, uncovering corrupt conspiracies, leading somewhat spontaneous love lives, and getting beat up, have slid over to other professions, like Carter Ross, the hero of the new Brad Parks book The Good Cop. If you think about it, an investigative journalist is a great whodunit protagonist, a professional motivated to ferret out the truth who possesses contacts in the judicial system, someone not hidebound by legal protocol, yet also not fully empowered or protected by it.

Parks makes the most of the possibilities in the excellent The Good Cop. The narrative starts with a cop getting killed by a gun shot. After talking to the grieving widow and family, Ross begins to work on a moving piece about a good cop and family man tragically struck down on the job. Given what he’s already learned it comes as quite a shock when word comes down that the killing is being classified as the suicide of a corrupt drunk. Neither his newspaper or the authorities seem interested in pursuing the case much further, so Carter takes it upon himself to uncover the truth.

In addition to this compelling set-up, The Good Cop has a lot going for it, including a timely plot strand about the illegal gun trade, and a fascinating look at life in the increasingly unsteady newspaper trade, but to me the best part is the character of Carter Ross himself. Ross is a prep school graduate, not exactly a natural fit with gritty Newark, New Jersey, and the witty, wise, self-deprecating voice he uses to narrate his adventures is consistently engaging.

After a lifetime of never once being handcuffed, it had now happened to me twice in one day. Suddenly I knew what it was like to be a character in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Along with the wisecracking, there’s plenty of action and suspense in The Good Cop, following the template of a good P.I. novel while still feeling fresh. It’s reassuring to know that no matter what the changes in society or the genre, the most entertaining books are still to be found in the mystery genre.  (Jamie)

Tim O’Mara: Sacrifice Fly

It’s not too hard to deduce that old Mr. Private Eye is getting a little long in the tooth. Modern day masters such as Loren D. Estleman are able to cook up a delicious P.I. novel every year, but many of the older crowd, like Robert B. Parker, are no longer with us, while the newer contenders, such as Dennis Lehane and Michael Koryta, seem to have hit the wall. The game’s been going on since Hammett after all, and it seems like most of the gumshoe combinations have been played out. Women writers gave the genre a burst of vitality not long ago when they made Sam Spade into Samantha, but even that sex change has lost its novelty.

The private eyes that seem to have some pop these days are the reluctant ones, like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight, or those that, while operating in similar ways, aren’t private eyes at all. Brad Parks has begun an excellent series featuring a reporter, allowing his protagonist proximity to crime and mayhem, while still denying him the power and occasionally boring and restrictive paraphernalia of official procedural law enforcement. Now Tim O’Mara has arrived with an excellent first novel called Sacrifice Fly, which is not only one of the year’s best debuts, but one of the year’s best, period.

O’Mara’s hero, Raymond Donne, is a teacher in a bad neighborhood of Brooklyn, providing crime and violence aplenty, but he’s not just a cozy style amateur, blundering into official business, but an ex-cop with a fascinating back story and friends, family and a few enemies still on the force. His earnest attempt to put his past and thirst for justice behind him starts to become derailed when one of his students, a baseball phenom who has a chance to escape the mean streets, suddenly starts cutting class. Ray begins with inquiries only slightly above and beyond the call of duty, but quickly finds himself knee deep in a deadly situation and interfering in a police investigation he finds dangerously halfhearted.

First books in a series are tricky – a neophyte must set up a fictional universe with plenty of room for further growth while still creating a compelling stand-alone experience. O’Mara does all this and more, covering all the bases and swatting a home run in his first at bat. Ray is a complex, wounded, first person protagonist, tormented yet likeable, narrating the events clearly, concisely and with self-deprecating humor. His supporting cast is similarly strong, multi-dimensional and ripe for further development. Ray’s closeness to the situation allows for an emotional wallop that the usual P.I. novel lacks, and I also appreciated that a public school teacher, a favorite punching bag of a certain stripe of politician, can once again be seen as a hero.

So buy a ticket for Sacrifice Fly, an excellent first effort by Tim O’Mara, a rookie who may just prove to be an all-star.  (Jamie)

William Kent Krueger: Vermilion Drift

William Kent Krueger’s streak is intact – this is another wonderful book in his Cork O’Connor series, one which picks up with the recently widowed Cork attempting to move forward in his life.  While last year’s Heaven’s Keep felt like an elegy, this one is all rocket powered story telling, with Krueger utilizing his well developed trademark gifts: setting, character, and story.

The Vermilion Drift is part of an old iron mine, one the federal government is studying for use as a nuclear waste site.  As you might imagine, this has stirred up some fervent activism in tiny Aurora, Minnesota, especially among the Native American community.  When Cork is hired as part of the security detail, lots of the natives see the half Ojibwe Cork as a turncoat.

Alongside the security detail, Cork has also been hired by Max Cavanaugh, owner of the working mines in the county, to search for his missing sister, a free spirit named Lauren.  Lauren had run an art center and artist’s colony in town.

When Cork goes along to check out the mine shaft – there’s been a security breach (some threatening graffiti) – he and the geologists and other officials find not only graffiti, but an old stash of bodies.  One of them, fresher than the others, appears to be the body of the missing Lauren Cavanaugh.  The older stash appears to be tied to the “Vanishings” – long ago disappearances of young women from the reservation and town, one of them Cork’s cousin Fern.  As Cork begins to unravel both the secrets behind Lauren’s death and the ones behind the older bodies, he uncovers more than he bargained for.

His old friend Henry Meloux, guarded by an unfriendly niece who has come to town to take care of him, is being especially cryptic with Cork and it’s causing him lots of frustration.  When the gun that killed not only Lauren Cavanaugh but one of the girls proves to be Cork’s father’s old gun, one Cork himself had used and put away, things get even more complicated.

The ties to Cork’s family and to the Native community go very deep, and Cork is forced to examine his own parent’s marriage and re-examine the feelings he thought he had for his father.  Meanwhile, he’s trying to adjust to life as a widower, one whose children are also scattered, starting their own lives.  One of the most moving passages describes Cork’s desk – the desk that had belonged to, and been restored by, his dead wife.  It’s lightly done but it’s very affecting.

As always Krueger manages to combine suspense, complicated storytelling and real psychological depth in the portrayals of his characters.  This book is another in a long and unbroken line of excellence.

William Kent Krueger: Thunder Bay

William Kent Krueger genuinely has one of the more remarkable, and beautifully written, of all contemporary mystery series. I don’t know if he would agree, but he’s in a league with writers like James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, and Michael Connelly. He hasn’t gotten quite their degree of popularity in the marketplace, though he certainly deserves it. One of my favorite things to do as a bookseller is to press into someone’s hands a copy of Kent’s first book, Iron Lake, and simply wait.

Whoever it is will inevitably return to read the rest of the series and they soon become one of those annoying people who demand a new book every couple of months. I put myself in that category, and I’ve been lucky enough to know Kent since he invited himself to Aunt Agatha’s to sign Iron Lake, the beginning of a long and happy association that has resulted in the sale of many books.

One of Krueger’s strengths as a writer is to change up each book a little bit, something that has served to keep his series very fresh and interesting. He even recently took the somewhat daring tack of linking two stories together in two different novels, Mercy Falls and Copper River, a move that resulted in back to back Anthony wins for Best Novel. In his latest outing he turns to one of his series’ most interesting characters, Henry Meloux, and he builds a book around Henry’s backstory. Cork O’Connor takes a backseat to Henry in this book. I would equate this to Robert Crais turning to Elvis Cole’s mysterious sidekick, Joe Pike, for an installment, something that generated one of Crais’ masterpieces, L.A. Requiem. Henry Meloux is just as interesting and mysterious as Joe Pike and his story is just as well told.

Each of Krueger’s novels has a theme – lightly touched on, but there – and the theme of Thunder Bay is love. There’s the love Cork’s son, Stevie, has for a dog; there’s the love Cork’s daughter, Jenny, has for her boyfriend; there’s the love and worry Cork and Jo have for their children; and there’s the love that propels most of the plot, the love Henry Meloux had long ago for a woman and for the son they had together. Henry asks Cork to find his son and Cork, who can refuse Henry nothing, sets out to find him. Meanwhile, we learn the story of Henry’s youth, a story so vivid and compelling that Cork’s absence is hardly felt as we are immersed in the 1920’s and Henry’s adventures in Canada. To tell much more would be to give away too much – you should discover the delights of this novel yourself – but I will tell you that Krueger, as usual, is able to deftly handle Cork’s story and family problems (with his daughter Jenny) and lace it together with Henry’s story in a completely masterful way. It leads to an end that’s at the same time heartbreaking and satisfying, and the last paragraph is so lovely it had me thinking about it for months afterwards. I’m tempted to quote it here, but it’s something each reader should be lucky enough to discover for themselves. It’ll probably stay with you too, when you finish this wonderful book.

William Kent Krueger: Red Knife

Kent Krueger may have one of the longer streaks in series history. Book after book, his series remains fresh, thoughtful, and beautifully written, his newest novel, Red Knife, being no exception. I’d thought after last year’s beautiful Thunder Bay that he wouldn’t be able to top himself — but if that book’s theme was love, the theme of Red Knife is violence, and the destructive path it invariably, and irrevocably, takes. As the series has progressed the Ojibwe elements of the stories have grown; in this one, I think the theme is the most tied into the Native culture of any of the novels so far.

The book opens with a powerful scene of an Ojibwe war party 200 years ago. As Krueger tells his story, the elements of violence in the opening scene remain unchanged and are unhappily mirrored throughout the novel. The novel quickly fast forwards to the present and the life of Cork O’Connor, former sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, and Cork’s new role as a P.I. for hire. Cork gets a note with a retainer and an invitation to meet with Alexander Kingbird, the leader of an Ojibwe gang known as the Red Boyz. Cork is reluctant but willing to meet Kingbird merely to see what he wants.

Cork is sure Kingbird’s desire for a meeting has to do with the recent death of Kristi Reinhardt, a drug related death her parents and many others in the community blame on the missing Lonnie Thunder, one of the Red Boyz. Alex wants Cork to set a meeting with Kristi’s father, Buck, in order for Buck to “have justice.” Cork reluctantly agrees, but finding Buck proves more difficult than he had anticipated. Before his hunt for Buck can truly get underway, the violence begins, and the community of Aurora begins to spin out of control.

Cork has never felt like more an outsider to me than he does in this novel. Of course the outsider is a classic mystery trope, and Krueger uses every inch of Cork’s betwixt and between position for emotional, and thematic, leverage. I think in writing terms this might be called taking no prisoners. Cork of course is the former sheriff, and though the department is friendly to him, he’s still not privy to every detail of their investigations. While white, he’s also half Ojibwe, the reason both the Natives and the Sheriff are willing to trust him to investigate things on the rez. And his wife, Jo, wants him to leave the whole thing to the police. But as Cork says to her:

“Jo, can’t you feel it? It’s like we’re standing on an ocean shore watching a tidal wave come at us. Something big and awful is taking shape and it’s going to hit this county and everyone in it. I can’t just stand by and let that happen.”

Of course the most classic of mystery tropes is the white knight, but Krueger has a thoughtful, compassionate and realistic point of view to apply to the white knight’s quest; no one comes through this story unscathed, and nor does this particular writer especially want you to. I think he wants us to truly consider the effects of all kinds of violence, whether it’s for a “good reason”, or part of a war, or merely out of the more traditional motives of revenge, lust and greed.

The measure of a truly good writer, however, is not that he makes you consider these themes as you’re reading the novel — as you’re reading the novel, you’re completely caught up in the story and the characters. But a truly good writer also doesn’t leave you alone after you close the book; he gives you something to think about and go back to. As one of the characters says “Life is war.” Krueger wants you to think about that statement as you read this book.