Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Roger Zelazny, Jack of Shadows

Roger Zelazny, Jack of Shadows
Chicago Review Press, 2016 reprint of © 1971 original
ISBN 978-1-61373-524-4

A mess.  The story is set on a planet on which one half is turned permanently toward the sun, and the other half is permanently in shadow (I think Asimov has a story like this somewhere).  Jack, our protagonist, is out to achieve something, although we do not learn what until very near the end.  Jack is somewhat reminiscent of Corwin in the Amber books, in that he moves between the shadow and the light, but Jack is, to my mind, a thoroughly unpleasant person.  Also, although magic is invoked, we mostly don't get a sense of it.  Much as I like Zelazny, this was just barely worth my time.

Helen MacInnes, Cloak of Darkness

Helen MacInnes, Cloak of Darkness
Titan Books (ebook)
ISBN 978-1-7811-64310

A competent espionage novel.  Robert Renwick, the founding partner of a private intelligence outfit (InterIntell) located in London is drawn into an investigation of two businesses, Exports Consolidated and Klingfield & Sons, and the hunt for a radical-leftist terrorist (Erik) who has escaped from prison.  The businesses have moved from legitimate activities into smuggling weapons (and arming terrorists); Eric seems to be hooked up with the boss of Klingfield, Klaus Sudak.  The investigation and the chase take us from London to Washington to Geneva to Zurich.  MacInnes always did this sort of thing well, and although I am somewhat skeptical of two longstanding businesses with good reputations (and obviously not corporations, probably proprietorships) getting involved in something like this, the narrative moves right along, providing a sufficient amount of suspense to make it worthwhile.  The pace is not as frantic as in a couple of this sort of book I've read lately (and I’m not sure where the title came from), but neither does it drag.  Worth the time.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Felonious Friend

E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, The Question of the Felonious Friend
Midnight Ink Books, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7387-4351-6

One of the pleasures of reading an excellent series is having a new one to read.  The problem, of course, if that I can read faster than the authors can write (except maybe for John Creasy), so now I have about a year to wait for the fourth book in the Copperman-Cohen Asperger’s mystery series [The Question of the Missing Head (2014), The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband (2015)].

Samuel Hoenig is the owner of Questions Answered, a company that will, for a price, answer (or try to answer) any question within reason.  He has one employee, Janet Washburn, whom he met in the course of answering the question of the missing head.  What starts us off in this installment is than a young man, Tyler Clayton, sends Samuel a text message asking if he can answer a question.  As it happens, Tyler is right outside, in the parking lot.  He comes in, and his question is a rather odd one…”Is Richard Handy really my friend?”  Handy, as it turns out, works at a convenience store at which Tyler buys soft drinks; they have—once—played role-playing games together.  And the book title is a hint that there is something going on.

What complicates this is that Tyler is on the Asperger spectrum (as is Samuel), which turns out to be both an advantage and a disadvantage in answering his question.  Samuel rather quickly comes to a conclusion, and informs Tyler.  And then things take a decidedly lethal turn—someone shoots Handy, and the police arrest Tyler.  Somewhat against his will, Samuel takes on the task of answering the question of “Who Killed Richard Handy?” (which sounds like a book title).  The path to an answer is not clear, and involves RPGs, a rather curious special RPG die, Ms. Washburn’s divorce, and some other side and central issues.

Samuel has grown, and continues to grow, as a character, and one of the appealing aspects of the books (which he narrates) is that he is both extremely self-aware and occasionally somewhat clueless about people to whom he refers (to himself) as neurotypicals.  His relationship with Janet Washburn is also a work in progress, and this is handled beautifully.  (I will add that this title reminds me so strongly of the way Erle Stanley Gardner titled his Perry Mason books, which, if intentional (or even if it is not), is a nice hip-of-the-hat to the mystery genre.)

This is a fine book in a series I cannot recommend highly enough.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Susan Spann, Claws of the Cat

Susan Spann, Claws of the Cat
Minotaur/A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin’s Press, 1913
ISBN 978-1-250-02702-3

I have, over the years, read three mystery series set in Japan (from the  11th to the 17th centuries), by Dale Furutani, I.J. Parker, and Laura Joh Rowland.  All three are excellent.  Susan Spann’s debut book in a series featuring Matsui (an alias)Hiro (a shinobi, or what Hollywood calls a ninja) and Father Mateo, a Portuguese Catholic priest, in Kyoto during the late 16th century, makes it look like we have a fourth winning series.

Hiro and Father Mateo are summoned to a tea house where a retired army general, Akechi Hideoyoshi, has been rather hideously slain.  Suspicion has fallen on Sayuri, an entertainer in the tea house, known to Father Mateo and a convert to Catholicism, whom Hideoyoshi had been visiting the night before.  Akechi Nobuhide, Hideyoshi’s son, and in charge of a local police outpost, claims the right, as a Samurai, to avenge his father’s death by killing Sayuri—And Father Mateo, if he insists on meddling.  Nobuhide is talked into a two day delay, for Mateo and Hiro to find the true murderer, if there is one other than Sayuri,

Hiro has been sent by his family, for reasons not made clear as yet, to be Mateo’s bodyguard (Hiro says, as he is getting his swords before they leave Mateo’s house/church, “Mine [his swords] are paid to protect you.”).  But he is also highly intelligent, inquisitive, and skilled in fighting, and tracking, among other talents.  Mateo is devout, kind, and determined that justice be done.  For me, the presence of a Portuguese Catholic priest was an interesting, and useful, feature of the book.  The Portuguese, as the only Europeans allowed into Japan, provide us with an outsider’s perspective which complements Hiro’s insider knowledge.

The investigation is well handled and sufficiently complex to hold our attention and interest, and to provide sufficient tension to keep us well in the dark.  Along the way, we learn a fair amount about the customs of a Japanese Samurai family, about Japanese inheritance laws, and about the place and role of tea houses and tea house entertainers in society.  Spann has created a number of interesting and complex characters—both Hiro and Mateo, but also some of the subordinate characters, including Hideoyoshi’s brother, wife, and daughter (I have to say, I found Nobuhide fairly one-note through most of the book, but, then, some people really are pretty much one-note), and the owner of the tea house, Mayuri.  I look forward to reading the subsequent books in the series.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall, Smooth Operator

Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall, Smooth OperatorPutnam, 2016
ISBN 978-0399-18526-7

Smooth Operator is definitely not my kind of book; I really don’t read thrillers much, and that’s definitely how I would categorize this one.  Co-written by Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall, it begins with Woods’ long-time (30+ books so far) series character, New York lawyer Stone Barrington, being hauled off a yacht in New York and flown to Washington to meet with the President.  Before he can even get to the White House, someone takes a shot at him.  The problem is that the daughter of the Speaker of the House has been kidnapped and the kidnappers are insisting that he (a conservative Republican) force a vote on a veterans’ benefit bill with no amendments and no riders.  (Why is a good question.)  Barrington calls in his old friend Teddy Fay, now (under the name Billy Barnett) a line producer working on a movie Barrington’s son is producing).  Fay is an ex-CIA agent with a dicey record.

After much travail, and an astounding body count, all ends more or less well.  As I said, this is not really my kind of book.  I found the characters, including Barrington, Fay and the principal bad guys, under-developed and one-dimensional.  (In general, and the authors deserve credit for this, the women in the book are all strong and capable people, including the Speaker’s kidnapped daughter, who never gives up on an escape.)  I had a particular problem with Fay, whose basic approach seems to be to kill whoever is in his way right now, without much in the way of thought and with absolutely no hesitation, consideration of alternatives, or remorse.  I just cannot identify with or feel that the character is serving some good end.

But what I had the most trouble with were a number of plot devices that just didn’t work for me.  I’m not going to go through all of them, but will mention just a couple.

Early on, a congressman is killed by a sniper, who (providentially) leaves a shell casing at the scene.  We subsequently get this report from a CIA forensic technician who is handling the analysis of the casing (I have omitted the CIA director’s part of the conversation, which is not really relevant:

“It’s Jenson at ballistics, sir.  I’m running tests on the shell casing found on the rooftop across the street…I noticed something I thought you’d want to know…The cartridge was standard CIA issue…It’s an exact match for the rounds we issue…”

Now, I find this implausible.  If I were running the CIA, I would not want the ammunition we used in out handguns and rifles to be easily identifiable (or identifiable at all) as CIA issue.  Absent the need for some unique sort of ammunition, I’d want to use plain, off-the-shelf ammo.  If for no other reason, it would mean that, should a CIA operative have to shoot at someone or something, the agent would not have to worry about collecting the shell casings.

But in many ways, the biggest problem is what seems to me to be a misunderstanding of how Congress—and the House of Representatives in particular—works.  The kidnappers want the Speaker to force a vote on a “clean” veterans’ benefits bill.  So, how does a bill get to the floor?  It gets drafted.  It gets referred to the relevant committee (or committees).  It gets worked over, possibly re-written or amended.  Then it is placed on the calendar for a vote.  The Speaker cannot just create a bill for a vote, or take an existing bill and re-write it.  And, given the way the House has been operating—and is shown to be operating in this book—there is no way a “clean” bill of this sort would be reported out of committee.  And even if it were, there’s the problem that the vote in the House does not send it to the President—there’s another House of Congress involved.  This sort of makes the kidnappers’ demand silly.  They demand that the Speaker do something that he literally cannot do, and, if one assumes for the immediate moment that their desire is to get the bill passed (it’s not, but that’s a different issue), getting it through the House is not the end.

There are a couple of other plot devices I had trouble with, because, in both cases, they conflicted with my understanding what one can find in an autopsy in one instance and what one can discover by tracking cell phone calls in another.

The narrative moves right along, though, and it’s certainly easy to continue reading it.  I believe this is the first book by Woods I have ever read.   Having met Parnell Hall, and had some pleasant conversations with him at mystery conventions (and having purchased all his mysteries), I hope the book does well and makes him rich.  But I really can’t recommend that anyone buy it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Steve Brewer, Boost

Steve Brewer, Boost
Originally published 2005
Available as an ebook

Sam Hill makes a living stealing cars to order, and has been quite successful at it.  But not today. Having boosted a 1965 T-bird with gold metal-flake paint, he stops at a convenience store to get something to drink, and as he and a cop are entering the store, a cell phone goes off…in the car’s trunk.  Hill manages to open the trunk and get the phone without anyone else looking on, which is just as well—there’s a dead man in there.

So what’s going on?  Has he been set up?  And, if so, by whom? 

In the course of finding out, and getting out of the predicament that the corpse (which turns out to be that of a DEA snitch) has caused him, we encounter Robin Mitchell (who coordinates his thefts and takes care of the cars; she’s the daughter of the guy Hill had worked with for years), a bad cop (Stanton), a sort-of-good (or at least amused) cop (Delgado), another person in the stolen car racket (an no friend of Hill, Ernesto Moreles), two DEA agents, and a builder with a million dollar car collection (Ortiz, from whom Hill stole a Barracuda with the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the hood).  Also Billy (Hill’s “apprentice) and Way-Way (a very large, very tough bouncer, and a high school friend of Hill’s).

Brewer does this sort of thing very well, and the path from the beginning to the end is not, of course, very smooth.  The setting (New Mexico) is nicely handled, and all of the actors behave in the ways we might expect.  It’s hard to say justice is done (after all, our protagonist is a professional thief), but the conclusion is nicely set up and realized.  Very much worth your time.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

James R. Benn, Rag and Bone

James R. Benn, Rag and Bone
Soho Crime, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-1569479964

The fifth Billy Boyle book finds Boyle being sent to London in December 1943 (where he is reunited with his old adversary Major Cosgrove) to investigate the murder of a Russian diplomat.  The dead man was shot after having his hands tied behind his back, a circumstance that will become of some importance.  This assignment also reunites him with his good friend Kaz, a Polish lieutenant (and a minor member of the rapidly-becoming-extinct Polish nobility) and with Big Mike, who in civilian life was a detective on the Detroit police force.
A number of factors complicate the investigation.  Kaz is involved in trying to get the US and UK governments to recognize Soviet responsibility for the slaughter of nearly 40,000 Polish soldiers (and civilians) after the partition of Poland between Germany and the USSR).  The Allies are reluctant to do so for fear of Russia pulling out of the war.  Billy’s investigation leads him to a (poetry-quoting) kingpin of the London black market, with all those attendant dangers.  And a member of the staff in the hotel in which the Polish resistance army is headquartered seems to be working for the Soviets.
Nothing seems to be going right, and Boyle is drinking way to much.  Kaz is arrested on suspicion of murder, and there seem to be two big deals going on that no one will talk about.  One involves the USAF and Russian air bases, and the other is a major black market scam (also involving the Russians.  And more people die.  (Kim Philby has a walk-on role as well.)
Meanwhile, Boyle’s love, Diana has gone an undercover mission somewhere for MI6—and apparently the Russians know about it.

Benn does the historical setting to perfection (as far as I can tell) and re-creates the atmosphere of wartime Britain extraordinarily well.  Boyle finally finds a path to the solution of the various crimes, both already committed and planned.  And 64 cases of canned peaches play a major role.  Another very good entry in a fine, fine series.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Bill Crider, Survivors Will Be Shot Again

Bill Crider, Survivors Will Be Shot Again
Minotaur/A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin’s Press, 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-07852-0

The 23rd entry in Crider’s Dan Rhodes series, and as good an example of the series as you are likely to find.  Which means it’s an extremely well-plotted, fair-play mystery with a collection of realistic and interesting characters.  (One of the strengths of this series is that even the bad guys are believable and often seem like fairly sympathetic characters; in general, there’s no one you really dislike.)

We begin with Sheriff Rhodes foiling a robbery at the local Pak-a-Sak convenience store, on his day off, and proceed to his going out—still on his day off—to investigate a reported robbery on the property of Billy Bacon (loan officer at the local bank, half-assed cattle rancher, and former local high school football star).  There is, as it turns out, a cardboard sign in the back of Bacon’s pick-up that’s relevant, and a body in the barn.  The dead man, Melvin Hunt, earned—scraped—a living doing welding jobs and any other work he could pick up.

There are also small plots of marijuana scattered around the vicinity, with a unique method of protecting them from disturbance.

The usual characters appear (Hack, the dispatcher, and Lawton, the jailer, continue to make Rhodes’ job something of a trial; Jennifer Loam’s on-line news service gets a boost from the investigation; and Seepy Benton—math teacher, songwriter, ghost hunter, and, now, advocate for marijuana legalization; deputies Ruth and Buddy) and it’s nice to see them.  The subordinate characters (Hunt’s wife, her sister, and her sister’s husband; Bacon himself and his wife—who has a medical problem; Able Terrell and his separatist compound; Gene Gunnison) are well conceived, well developed, and important parts of the story.  And Hunt’s dogs (Gus-Gus and Jackie) behave like real dogs, and also turn out to be important.

Rhodes muses somewhat more than usual on his growing-up years, which I found interesting.

These books are sometimes considered to be somewhat “cozy,” which I, to be honest, don’t entirely understand.  Rhodes is a settled, well-adjusted person, with a stable and, more than that, happy, home life.  The recurring characters are either quirky or interesting.  But the murders are not sugar-coated, there are real deaths of real people, and we see the results in clear (and clear-eyed) fashion.  The investigations are carried out realistically and often place Rhodes in some jeopardy, and he needs both his wits and his willingness to respond with force, to get himself out of trouble.  So while there’s not a lot of blood-and-gore, these are books with a fairly substantial core, in which real people die unpleasant deaths, in which a real cop pursues real investigations (with risks that must be faced and overcome), and in which real people, with whom we may have some sympathy, face the very real consequences of their actions. 

The books are very well written, very readable, but with steel at their core.  And I love them.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet:  Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-178
Vintage Books/Random House, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8042-7248-8 (paperback)

This is almost certainly the best book on American history I have ever read—not the longest, by any means; not the most sweeping, just the best.  In 220 pages, Ellis takes us from a, well, it’s not yet a nation, a combination of states, with no effective central focus, in danger of fragmenting into individual states (or, at best, smaller combinations of states) to a nation, with a strong (if not yet well-defined) central focus and government, well-placed to take advantage of its opportunities.

He does so by focusing on four central figures in the creation of the Constitutional Convention—John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the colossus of early America, George Washington.  (The more I read about Washington, the more I am struck by his ability to think, not days or years, but decades ahead.  He remains, in my mind, the single greatest figure in American History.

It’s 1783, and the Confederation established at the end of the War of Independence is in danger of crumbling into nothing.  It has no authority to raise funds to operate a government, or even to pay off the debts from the Revolution; it can only request funds from the states.  Members of the Congress often do not show up, leaving it unable to transact any business.  Which would be difficult in any event, because transacting business requires the concurrence of 9 of the 13 states (one state, one vote), and obtaining the concurrence of a state’s delegation (always more than one person) can be confounded by divisions within the delegation.

Madison, Hamilton, and Jay have become nationalists, believers in the need for a strong central government, with a focus not on local or state issues, but on truly national issues—diplomacy, defense, and, more immediately, how to deal with the vast territory between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi River that has come with independence.  In the background is Washington, who has also become quietly convinced of the need for a national perspective, even as he is reluctant to leave Mt. Vernon.

The broad outlines of the story I knew; the details, I did not.  For instance…when a convention at Annapolis to revise the Articles of Confederation failed (only 5 state delegations even showed up), Hamilton prevails on the delegates to agree (unanimously) to claim that the Convention has called for a convention, to meet in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787 to devise a new structure for the government—not to amend the Articles of Confederation, but to replace them.  For instance…Gouvenor Morris (who apparently drafted most of the text of what became the US Constitution) changed the wording of the preamble from its original text [“The States (enumerated by name) in order to.] to the text we now know:  “We, the People of the United States of America, in order to establish a more perfect Union, Establish Justice, in domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.”

I had not known that the Ordinances of 1784 and 1787 not only laid out the basic contours of the West, but established a clear and direct path to statehood:  Once a territory had a population of 30,000, it could establish its own territorial government, and once its population equaled that of the least populous state, it could petition Congress to be admitted as a state (with the presumption that admission would be, essentially, automatic).

I knew that the Convention did its best to avoid the issue of slavery; I had not known that Thomas Jefferson had included in the Ordinance of 1784 a clause that would have required the end of slavery in the US by 1800—it failed in the Confederation Congress by 1 vote (which means 8 of the 13 states were willing, but 5—Virginia, North and South Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—were not.

I knew that the votes to accept the Constitution were close in many states (these votes were of state conventions; the closest vote was in New York, which voted 30-27 in favor), but not how strenuously they were contested and how close they were in some of the states.  I knew states proposed changes (amendments) to the document, but I did not know the process by which Madison cut them down from over 100 to 12 that were submitted to the first Congress…and that several states had proposed amendments that would make revenues from the states voluntary, as they had been under the Articles of Confederation.

And I knew how we feel today about the Federalist Papers; I had not realized how little, perhaps, they affected the state votes to accept (or not) the Constitution.

Finally, I was struck by this, written by Thomas Jefferson in the 1820s, when he was asked for his reflections on the Constitution and its adoption (p. 219):

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them to be like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.  They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose that what they did to be beyond amendment.  I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it.  It deserved well of its country…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in h and with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…Institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.  We might as well require a man to wear still the coat w=that fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

So much for “original intent.”

Thursday, August 4, 2016

James R. Benn,Evil For Evil

James R. Benn, Evil For Evil
Soho Press, Inc. 2009
ISBN 978-1-56947-593-5 (Hardcover)
Also available as an ebook.

Romans 12:17: "Recompense no man evil for evil."  Hard words to abide by in 1943 in Ireland. 

Billy Boyle has been sent to northern Ireland to discover who has stolen 50 BAR rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition from a US army base,  (Just before he leaves Palestine, where he and Diana have been recovering from the traumas of their recent assignments, his relationship with her has a major disruption.) 

He will be working with Subaltern Slaine O'Brien, a woman from the Republic of Ireland who is working for MI5.  He finds a tangle of wrongdoing, some related to the missing weapons, some not; he befriends an older man (Grady O'Brick) who had been an IRA member, and was tortured by the English, in the early 1920s.  He will also be working with a Royal Ulster Constabulary detective, Hugh Carrick (a protestant, and a member of a society composed of relatively powerful men).

One of the themes deals with the claims of family and of religion, and is quite nicely done. 

And people begin dying, including an IRA member (shot during or after the theft), an enlisted man who was on duty when the weapons were stolen, and an American officer. 

It is quite a tangled web, and, if the book begins somewhat slowly, it picks up speed--and tension--as we move along.  With help from an unexpected source, Boyle. O'Brien, and Carrick discover what has happened, and why. 

Not the best in the series (but since the first three were all brilliant, this is not a criticism), still very, very good.  And watch out for the Pig.