Book Reviews: Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley and Past Reason Hated by Peter Robinson

Charcoal Joe
An Easy Rawlins Mystery #14
Walter Mosley
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-3855-3920-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Easy Rawlins has started a new detective agency with two trusted partners and has a diamond ring in his pocket for his longtime girlfriend Bonnie Shay. Finally, Easy’s life seems to be heading towards something that looks like normalcy, but, inevitably, a case gets in the way. Easy’s friend Mouse calls in a favor—he wants Easy to meet with Rufus Tyler, an aging convict whom everyone calls Charcoal Joe. Joe’s friend’s son, Seymour, has been charged with the murder of two white men. Joe is convinced the young man is innocent and wants Easy to prove it no matter what the cost. But seeing as how Seymour was found standing over the dead bodies, and considering the racially charged nature of the crime, that will surely prove to be a tall order.

One of his two partners, Tinsford “Whisper” Natly, is described as “a Negro from St. Louis who could find anyone, anywhere, given the time and resources.  Easy describes himself as a “poor black man from the deep South . . . lucky not to be dead and buried, much less a living, breathing independent businessman.”  Their receptionist, Niska Redman:  “Butter-skinned, biracial, and quite beautiful . . .  twenty-four and filled with dreams of a world in which all humans were happy and well fed.”  Easy says of himself “I had two great kids, a perfect island woman that I would soon propose to, a profession I was good at, friends that I liked, and access to powers that most people in Los Angeles (white and black) didn’t even know existed.”

Easy’s friend Mouse is a welcome presence in these pages.  Forty-seven, he still has never worked “an honest job” and is accused by Etta as having been an outlaw since he was five, which he cannot deny.  When Mouse asks Easy to help him out with Charcoal Joe, he cannot refuse. Fearless Jones (who Easy calls “the black Prince Charming”) also plays a big role in the tale.

Another wonderful entry in this series, and another one which is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2017.

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Past Reason Hated
An Inspector Banks Novel #5
Peter Robinson
William Morrow, March 2016
ISBN: 978-0-0624-3117-29-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Chief Inspector Alan Banks knows that secrets can prove fatal, and secrets were the driving force behind Caroline Hartley’s life . . . and death.  She was brutally stabbed in her own home three days prior to Christmas. Leaving her past behind for a forbidden love affair, she mystified more than a few.  And now she is dead.  In this season of giving and forgiving, Banks is eager to absolve the innocent of their sins.  But that must wait until the dark circle of his investigation finally closes . . . and when a killer makes the next move.

Since she was the only member of the CID on duty that night, newly promoted Detective Constable Susan Gay, on only her second day on the job at the CID at Eastvale Regional Headquarters, finds the challenge quite exciting. A call had come in from a neighbor of the dead woman, who had gone rushing into the street screaming.  As the tale proceeds, there are references to the current public image of the force, tarnished by race riots, sex scandals and accusations of high-level corruption.  As the investigation unfolds, there are quite a number of suspects among the various friends, family and colleagues of the dead woman, which after a while made it a little difficult to differentiate among them.  Banks’ erudition in matters of classical music comes in very handy, as a piece of music, playing on an old-fashioned phonograph at the murder scene, becomes a disturbing clue that he feels is very significant as his investigation continues.  And then they realize that the dead woman was in a lesbian relationship.

Banks, now 39 years old, had only been promoted to Detective Superintendent only a few weeks ago, is still “learning the ropes,” and is always a fascinating protagonist who has come to trust his instincts, as has the reader.

Susan has also been tasked with looking into a series of vandalisms that have taken place in the area, and the author switches p.o.v. from Banks to that of Susan from time to time, making for some very interesting reading.  But that’s something we have come to expect from Mr. Robinson; this book is as beautifully written as his numerous prior novels.  This is the fifth of what is now 22 entries in the series.  Although I must admit that I found it a slow read in the early going as the case plods along, the pace soon picks up.  I must add that the many wonderfully descriptive sections of the wintry weather that prevails and its effects on driving and walking had me going to my closet for a warm sweater!

The book concludes with an excerpt from the next book in the series to follow this one, When the Music’s Over, and I have no doubt that that entry, as is this one, will be highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2017.

Book Reviews: And Sometimes I Wonder About You by Walter Mosley and Fallout by Paul Thomas

And Sometimes I Wonder About YouAnd Sometimes I Wonder About You
A Leonid McGill Mystery #5
Walter Mosley
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, April 2016
ISBN 978-0-8041-7209-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter McGill’s New York City office now officially answers its phone “McGill and Son detective agency,” a recent development.  One of his sons, Twilliam (usually just “Twill”), is a new addition.  His relationships with just about all his nearest and dearest being fraught with complexities:  He hasn’t seen his father, Clarence, the charismatic revolutionary who calls himself “Tolstoy” McGill, in years; his wife has recently attempted suicide.  His “blood son” and daughter are Dmitri and Tatyana; Twill and Shelly are the two sired by other men but who Leonid raised exactly the same as his own offspring.  And then there is Gordo, his mentor, boxing trainer, and the man who he considers “his true father.”

Those relationships, and the assorted women who cross his path, either professionally or otherwise, (with several of whom he falls in love or lust, or both) are a major part of this novel, the balance of which are the several cases that come to him.  These multiple plot lines arise in different parts of the book, which is as complex as these may make it sound.  But with this master storyteller, that is not a deficit.  The first of these is introduced in the first pages of the book, and she is a gorgeous woman named Marella Herzog, who fits both definitions:  Client and lover.  Their first meeting, when he is aware of a scent she is wearing, causes “a strong reaction in a section of my heart that had almost been forgotten.”   He describes his secretary as having “gray-blue eyes [which] carried all the sadness of the last days of autumn and her voice was so soft that it could have been a memory.”    Another sometime lover is the “color of pure gold that hadn’t been polished for some years,” with hair that was “naturally wavy and darkly blond.”

He thinks “sadness had as many striations as a rainbow – – only in grays.”  The writing is replete with lines like these:  When McGill visits his wife in the hospital, he thinks “I wanted to say something kind, to slap her and tell her to snap out of it.  I would have torn out my hair if I wasn’t already bald.”  McGill, 55, is self-described as an “old, off-the-rack straphanger;” and “it has always amazed me how a woman’s eyes and her words can find a direct line to my animal heart;” when he speaks to a waitress, she smiles at him, and he muses “as had been its purpose since humans became a species, the smile socialized me.”  I briefly had a difficult time recognizing the quote that provides the title of the book, but the author kindly reminded me:  “Sometimes I think that everybody in the world in crazy, except for me and you – – and sometimes I wonder about you.”  The writing throughout is wonderful, but then we expect nothing less from this author, who carries the reader along swiftly on the ride through his newest, 49th novel, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2016.

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FalloutFallout
A Tito Ihaka Novel #5
Paul Thomas
Bitter Lemon Press, April 2015
ISBN: 978-1-908-52449-2
Trade Paperback

This sequel to Death on Demand brings the reader back to New Zealand and the Central Police Dept.  There are a number of cops who alternate in prominence in the plot, among them District Commander Finbar McGrail, who, we are told, became Auckland District Commander and developed an appreciation for wine pretty much at the same time.   McGrail is still haunted by a 27-year-old case, his first, when as a new D.I. he investigated the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Polly Stenson.  The investigation comes to a halt less than a year later when the police still have no viable suspects in her killing, coming to the conclusion that she was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Only a year from retirement, he is approached one day by a man who was present at the murder scene at the time in question, and given a lead as to who might have killed Polly.

We then meet former D.I. Johan Van Roon, and the man who had at one time been his mentor:  Maori cop Tito Ihaka, described as “unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane” and “the brown Sherlock Holmes,” the latter having been banished to the hinterlands several years ago after a case which he had stubbornly insisted was a murder, not, as everyone else was convinced, a ‘simple’ hit-and-run accident.  Now a Detective Sergeant, he is asked by McGrail to follow up on the new lead.  Van Roon has left the force in disgrace, now a pariah in the police force and working, when he can find employment, as a private investigator and security consultant.  He is hired to find a man who disappeared right after the Stenson murder, for a very attractive fee.  Events occur in such a way that both Ihaka and Van Roon reopen the cold case to try to find the murderer.

At the same time, Ihaka starts a completely different investigation, one that involves the death of his father, “a union firebrand and renegade Marxist,” decades ago, thought to have been of natural causes.  To make things even more complex, a man with whom his father was involved died in a supposed accident one week later.  Coincidence?  He thinks not.

The author was born in the UK but has lived for most of his life in New Zealand, which is the setting for his novels.  The biggest hurdle for me in this book was with the local vernacular/regional jargon/idiom, as well as the many political discussions, making it somewhat slow reading.  But the complex plot was very interesting, and on the whole the book was enjoyable.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2016.

Book Reviews: Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss and Shrapnel by Marie Manilla

Mortal LockMortal Lock 
Andrew Vachss
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-95083-3
Trade Paperback

This is a Black Lizard Original. It sits here on my desk as I write, a smooth cover in deep purple and black with strong, bright, white lettering. The cover draws one’s eye. You sense you might be in for a difficult, intense and very dark ride with this one. You would be right.

This author is known for his un-deviating, straight-shooting, portrayals of often subtly-twisted characters and stories. Readers who are attracted to hard-boiled uncompromising language, and tough, relentless writing, will find the stories in this collection disturbing and sometimes hard to believe. Yet each stands on a hard concrete foundation of reality and truth.

Some of the stories have been previously published and are decades old. Occasionally a reader may detect the aging prose, but rarely. Some of the stories are in first person, some in third. All are up close and personal. They detail murders, drug dealing, prostitution, corruption and other ills of our human experience. Any of them could be drawn directly from the experiences of the author. Here you will find stories of revenge, retribution and occasionally, an uplifting sense of satisfaction that the good guys won. “Ghostwriter,” is one of the most intriguing.

Andrew Vachss is a lawyer who has specialized for many years in child protection. His words have the solid ring of authenticity and truth. His uncompromising view is that child predators are unredeemable. If his stories here collected are to be believed, most should be shot, the rest locked away forever. This reviewer does not disagree. The book is difficult to read, it is far from a pleasant afternoon on the beach. The aberrant behavior displayed throughout is upsetting, yet there are those characters, in almost all the stories, that will lead a reader toward hope. Hope for human society.

A quick visit to the author’s web site is a direct clue to understanding the author’s context. He is represented in Chicago by an agency called Ten Angry Pitbulls, Inc. The collection was supplied to me free of charge in exchange for an opinion. No other effort to influence the outcome has been offered.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

 

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ShrapnelShrapnel
Marie Manilla
River City Publishing, August 2012
ISBN 978-1-57966-084-0
Hardcover

I adore a classic theme with a twist, my favourite motif is self-discovery.  As I marvel at the courage and strength possessed by a character forging his own path, I feel proud and genuinely happy for the accomplishment.  I tend to close these books feeling satisfied.   Usually, the person that I’m admiring is a teen, or a young adult.  Things change dramatically when the person embarking on this journey is a seventy-seven year old, WWII veteran.

Recently widowed and forced to leave his home in Texas to live with his daughter and her family in West Virginia, Bing has absolutely no idea that he is about to question beliefs held and enforced for a lifetime.  He is not a fool.  He knows he will be terribly home-sick.  A chilly reception is the best that he can hope for.  Well, that and indoor plumbing.

At a blush, Bing is just a grumpy old man, set in his ways.   But, there are certain things about “old folks” that tend to be forgotten. First, they are tougher than nails.  These folks were forced to grow up quickly and deal with real problems.  There was no time to pontificate; work had to be done to keep food on the table during the bleakest of times.  Ideas and thoughts weren’t questioned or challenged; people simply put their heads down to work for their families and homes, as well as to fight for their countries.  Times may have been simpler, but not easier.

This is how Bing was raised.  He had been taught to see things as black or white, wrong or right.  That philosophy served him just fine for the past seventy-odd years, it would surely see him through. So, when he learns ‘the secret’ about his new friend Ellen, they can no longer be acquainted.  It isn’t his doing, not his decision—it is simply The Way Things Are.  Never mind that he misses her terribly, or that he desperately needs a friend.

Searching his meager belongings for a way to strengthen the tentative bond forming with his granddaughter; Bing uncovers a newspaper clipping that threatens to shatter all he has ever known.  Questions asked during typically formative years become his internal struggles. Suddenly, he has to make choices.  Rather than being told what is right or wrong, Bing will have to decide for himself; apparently, alone.

Ms. Manilla’s portrayal of the traditional, grumpy old curmudgeon is astonishingly real.  With a seemingly simple plot, she reveals to the reader that sometimes, people are the way they are for good reason. Without feeling chastised, I felt humbled as I accompanied Bing on his transformative journey.   As I read the final pages of this book, I wept.  I shed tears of sorrow for missed opportunities, mixed with tears of happiness for new beginnings.  If you’ve ever had a Bing in your life, well, this book’s for you.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2013.