Book Review: The Fools in Town Are on Our Side by Ross Thomas

The Fools in Town Are on Our Side
Ross Thomas
Thomas Dunne Books, May 2003
ISBN 978-0-312-31582-5
Trade Paperback

Ross Thomas was a skilled and highly accomplished novelist and storyteller.  He wrote a lot of mysteries, most excellent,  Morrow originally published this one in 1971.  Except for a few words and some financial stuff in which the amounts are way too low, this suspense thriller could have been written yesterday.

Thomas is able to keep us grounded in a story that moves back and forth through three separate time periods in the life of protagonist Lucifer Dye, born in Montana in December, 1933.  He comes of age a few years later on the streets of Shanghai when his father is blown apart by a bomb, leaving this American boy, fluent in Chinese but not in English, holding the bloody stump of an arm with his father’s wristwatch still attached.

He is rescued by the owner and operator of Shanghai’s most prestigious sporting house, where he learns several other languages, a good deal about variant sexual tastes and the venality of most people in high places.  Lucifer C. Dye goes on to experience more war as a soldier in Korea, then higher education, espionage and graft.

The core story focuses on a strange group of individuals brought together by a wealthy genius-level young man named Victor Orrcutt who makes money by corrupting already corrupt public officials in order to inflame the good citizens to revolt and throw the original thieves out of town.  A most interesting concept.  There is Carol Thackerty, ex-whore, Homer Necessary, ex-police chief with one brown and one blue eye, Victor and then, Lucifer Clarence Dye, man of all tools, an accomplished raconteur, cynic and wise manipulator of people and systems.

None of these central characters are the fine upstanding and highly moral individuals we’d like them to be.  On the other hand, their illegal and questionable immorality are a far cry from those of their adversaries. Homer and Dye in particular throughout this fine novel manipulate their greedy and power-hungry enemies in ways that eventually lead to their defeat and destruction.  But, they are the bad guys, right?  So we wink and feel, at least a little, that it’s okay.  Sorta.

The action moves briskly along, and this novel is excellent in all aspects.  Thomas’ genius lies not only in his exceedingly strong writing and compelling characters, but in his ability to carry these separate plots in Lucifer’s life forward with interest and clarity for the reader.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Book Review: August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

August Snow
Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-718-6
Hardcover

August Snow is the third book I’ve read so far this year that’s going on my “Best Reads of 2017” list. Yes, I’ve read other good ones, but the “best” are special in some way.

What’s special about August Snow, is August Snow. Jones has created a truly excellent character, heroic, honest, blessed with his friends and he knows it. The problem may lie in figuring out who his friends are. His enemies are pretty obvious.

August has been gone from Detroit for a year, trying to drown painful memories in travel and booze. He’s got plenty of money, having won a $12 million dollar case against the city after he lost his job as a cop. August, you see, blew the whistle on corrupt politicians and the police force running the city and they had him wrongfully dismissed from the force. But now he’s come home to live in his parents’ old home in Mexicantown.

All too soon he’s asked to investigate what may be embezzled funds from Eleanor Paget’s wealth management bank. He turns her plea for help down, only to learn that the very next day she’s committed suicide. Or has she? August doesn’t believe it, which soon lands him right in the midst of murder and more corruption than you can shake a stick at.

You may think you’ve read this plot before⏤Lord knows there’s enough corruption in the real world to make the premise almost commonplace⏤but you won’t have had a hero like August Snow.

Twists and turns carry the reader on a wild ride. The good guys keep you hoping for justice. The bad guys will twist you in knots.

Author Stephen Mack Jones is a novelist to watch!

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: The Gone Dead Train by Lisa Turner

The Gone Dead Train
Detective Billy Able Series #2

Lisa Turner
William Morrow, July 2014
ISBN 978-0-06-213619-0
Trade Paperback

Memphis detective Billy Able investigates the death of two legendary bluesmen—sax player Little Man Lacy and Red Davis. Little Man falls into a construction dig and Red Davis dies waiting for a train—he is found dead on a bench outside the station.  An incompetent detective, a year away from retirement, caught the case and he’s not interested in a couple of old men who were staying at the local homeless shelter. A voodoo bag was found on Davis and female patrol officer Frankie Malone, who grew up in Key West and is familiar with the Santeria religion, sees a connection between the religion and the deaths.

Able, who is returning to active duty after an extended leave, is contacted by a friend, former St. Louis Cardinal’s catcher Augie Poston. Poston, whose career was cut short by mental illness, contacts Able about investigating the death of his mother.  Augie’s mother Dahlia Poston was a civil rights worker who died not long after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Supposedly she was killed trapped in a burning car, but Augie wants to know more about her death. He found scrapbooks of his mother and he hired an investigative journalist to look into her death.

Much of the action takes place around the blues clubs and bars of Beale Street. Readers of Kris Nelscott, Walter Mosley, and Robert Crais may want to check out Detective Billy Able’s latest adventure.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2017.

Book Review: The Will to Kill by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

The Will to Kill
A Mike Hammer Novel

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Titan Books, March 2017
ISBN: 978-1-7832-9142-7
Hardcover

Another uncompleted Mickey Spillane manuscript finished by Max Collins finds Mike Hammer walking along the Hudson River in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and discovering half a body, the upper torso, on an ice floe.  It turns out the half a corpse was the trusted butler of a wealthy inventor who was the captain of Pat Chambers, Mike’s homicide detective buddy, when he first joined the police force.  Pat suspects his friend’s death may have been a murder and “retains” Mike to investigate.

Mike travels to dead man’s Sullivan County estate where he meets the various members of the man’s dysfunctional family and employees.  The daughter also retains Mike, who suspects not only that the father was murdered, but that the butler was as well.  Each of the grown children, two older brothers, and their younger half siblings (the daughter and a brother) has a motive to murder the others.  Under the terms of their father’s will, the inheritances don’t kick in until age 40 and in the event of a death, that portion reverts to the corpus, fattening the eventual amount for the survivors.

The novel is slightly different from the accustomed Spillane genre: it is more akin to a traditional detective mystery, albeit with Mike Hammer wisecracks, a smattering of sex and firearms.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach.  But somehow it left this reader with a desire for something more.  In any event, it is a good read and can be recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2017.

Book Reviews: The Killers Are Coming by Jack Bludis and Unreasonable Doubt by Vicki Delany

The Killers Are Coming
A Ken Sligo Mystery
Jack Bludis
Bold Venture Press, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-5410-9677-6
Trade Paperback

Killers is a throwback to the old-fashioned, hard-boiled PI noir genre told in the first person.  Ken Sligo returns home to Baltimore from overseas at the end of WW II and has no wish to go to work in the family business operating a butcher shop in a local market.  Instead, his estranged brother arranges an introduction to a local bail bondsman (and possibly a low-level gangster) and he becomes a private eye tracing bail skippers.

Then one day, he is asked to follow a woman dancer at a local theater, reporting on who she sees, talks to and any other activities.  This assignment leads Sligo far from the original purpose as the trail becomes more convoluted. Also complicating his life is his pending testimony in a murder trial of one of the men working for the bondsman.  Naturally, Sligo’s testimony is unwanted either by his erstwhile employer, or by the accused.

Having lived in Baltimore for a time, I found it nostalgic to read about the city, and especially the notorious East Baltimore Street which housed the seedier elements of the burg, including bars, burlesque houses and strip joints.  For those who enjoy this type of novel, it is an excellent example of light reading, with some aspects of a Mickey Spillane mystery, especially the violence and sex, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2017.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Unreasonable Doubt
A Constable Molly Smith Novel #8
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0513-2
Hardcover

The author turns her attention in this entry in the Constable Molly Smith Mystery series to a wrongful conviction controversy in the form of a character named Walter Desmond, who was found guilty of murdering a young woman, and remanded to the penitentiary.  After 25 years, an appeal exonerates him based on new evidence and a sloppy police investigation.  Upon his release, he decides to return to the little town of Trafalgar, British Columbia, where he encounters considerable resentment.

Complicating his visit, a number of attacks on women occur: on the wife of Police Sergeant John Winters; on Molly’s mother, Lucky; and a visiting Dragon Boat team member.  Naturally, suspicion falls on Desmond.  Meanwhile, the original murder case is reopened, and Winters investigates the cold case with little hope of finding the killer.

The novel demonstrates how the mindset of a largely insulated population works. Most minds are made up; the police said Desmond was guilty and, despite the appeals court saying he is innocent, they still believe him to be guilty.  And it also shows the dramatic difference between old-time cops and modern professionals.  This is the tenth novel in the series, although Molly plays a small (but crucial) part in it. Winters occupies a central role.

The author has written an interesting take on the subject, especially with regard to the advisability of whether Desmond should, so to speak, return to the scene of the crime to find out why he was picked to be the murderer, or just remain in Vancouver and not face a hostile population.

An excellent series, well-written and always thought-provoking, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2017.

Book Review: Quarry’s Vote by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Vote
The Quarry Novels #5
Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime, March 2016
ISBN: 978-1-7832-9891-4
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher:  Now retired and happily married, Quarry turns down a million-dollar contract to assassinate a presidential candidate. It’s not the sort of assignment you can just walk away from without consequences – – but coming after Quarry has consequences, too.  The longest-running series from Max Allan Collins, author of Road to Perdition and the first ever to feature a hitman as the main character, the Quarry novels tell the story of a paid assassin with a rebellious streak and an unlikely taste for justice. Once a Marine sniper, Quarry found a new home stateside with a group of contract killers. But some men aren’t made for taking orders – – and when Quarry strikes off, on his own, God help the man on the other side of his nine-millimeter.

Quarry, who thinks of himself as a Vietnam-era relic, looks at himself at this stage of his life thusly:  “I was thirty-five.  I was getting bored with one-night stands and my own microwave cooking, I wanted some company and she seemed pleasant enough. She talked too much, but most people do.  She was beautiful, a terrific cook, and she kept out of my way.  What more could I ask?”  He’s been retired for nearly ten years, having used the name “Quarry” during those years when he was a paid assassin.  Written in 1987, the book at times seems prescient:  “We are coming into a fascinating election year.  The two parties – – depending upon whom they choose as their standard bearers of course – – should be in for a real battle. Think of it:  the highest office in the land up for grabs…we could have a true conservative in the White House . . .”   He turns down the offer, despite the big bucks involved.  And the situation leaves him deeply unsettled, threatening the life he has come to love, as people such as the ones making this offer don’t like to leave any loose ends.  Thinking of his wife, he muses “She was a sweet kid. I didn’t deserve her, but then who does deserve what they get in this life, good or bad?”

The ensuing tale of killers chasing a killer, who is in turn chasing them, is wonderfully well written.  A target is described as a “wealthy paranoid political crackpot who thinks the Soviets are after him.” When Quarry is asked “Are you a detective or an assassin,” he responds “Necessity has turned me into a little of both.”  When Quarry enters an upper-middle-class residence, he thinks  “It was the home of somebody who used to bowl but now golfs.”  His writing has been called “classic pulp fiction,” but my own take on it is that it is as enjoyable as anything being written contemporaneously.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2017.

Book Review: What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman

What You Break
A Gus Murphy Novel #2
Reed Farrel Coleman
Putnam, February 2017
ISBN 978-0-3991-7304-2
Hardcover

Michael Connolly has Los Angeles, Ian Rankin Edinburgh, Laura Lippman Baltimore; the late Robert Parker Boston; Tim Hallinan Bangkok.  Others write about localities they know.  And Reed Farrel Coleman not only lives in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, but takes us on a guided tour, in this novel featuring his somewhat flawed ex-cop Gus Murphy, still suffering after the death of his 20-year-old son, John Jr.  Gus, divorced after the death blew up his marriage, lives and works at a second-rate motel, driving a van to and from MacArthur airport and a LIRR station, picking up and dropping off passengers to and from the Paragon and providing security services in exchange for a free room.

The night bellman, Slava, who had once saved Gus’s life, is a close friend. When his friend’s past catches up with him and his life is threatened Gus is faced with a dilemma: sacrifice his friend or attempt to help him.   Meanwhile, another of Gus’s friends, the ex-priest Bill Kilkenny, asks him to take on finding out why wealthy Miceh Spears’ granddaughter was murdered.  The two plots move along simultaneously along the highways and byways  stretching from Queens County and Brooklyn right across Long Island.

Coleman even delves into the social and economic differences between various localities, with the Long Island Expressway sort of dividing north (white and wealthy) and south (for the most part poorer) and how enclaves protect the richer from others.  The novel takes a penetrating look at Gus, his personality and psyche, his assets and flaws.

A good read, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2017.