Saturday, 18 October 2014

Lady, Lady, I Did It!

McBain delivers a scorcher for the series, emphatically leaving the last book's city fable indulgences behind. This one is 87th Precinct to the core; short, hard hitting and full of character.
A multiple shooting at a book store has every cop in the precinct searching for the killer as one of the fallen belongs to one of their own. Carella and Meyer lead the investigation as they delve into the backgrounds of all of the victims looking for a lead. Kling, Wilis and Brown aid with the leg work.
Written at the start of the 1960s, long before any State legalised abortion, McBain drags the thorny subject into the light as various closets are emptied of their skeletons.
Loss and grief are explored thoughtfully too, stripped of any histrionics, deepening the characters by shared familiar emotions.
The little linguistic puzzle set by one of the victim's deathbed words kept me busy for a good five seconds. But you can't really blame Carella and co for being distracted.   

Monday, 18 August 2014

See Them Die

The 13th book with 87th Precinct on the cover is a bit of a curate's egg. McBain is sometimes experimental with his writing and the   formula sometimes gets a bit bent out of shape but this one is barely recognisably part of the series. There are a few scenes, mainly in the squad room, that are pure 87th but for the most part McBain chooses to tell a morality fable from the street. I don't think it surprises me that this was written not long after West Side Story had exploded with nuclear impact on Broadway for the first time. Although the story kicks off with the chance meeting of three guys, all cut off from their roots, from different walks and stages of life, the story really only follows one of them. Zip is a young trouble maker who has moved to a new neighbourhood and having been bullied at his old one sets out to be top dog of his own little street gang.- The Latin Purples. He's sort of the very small cog by which the larger story turns. Unfortunately he's chosen a very bad role model in Pepe Miranda and so believes that the best way to make a reputation is by killing someone. He's gong to kill another young kid who was unlucky enough to say "Hello." to a girl that Zip likes.
Meanwhile, lest we forget who are heroes are, the cops have cornered Pepe in some apartments and lay siege. Lieutenant Pete Byrnes gets to dust off his megaphone and lead his troop of beat cops and bulls to winkle Pepe out and nobody on either side is looking to spare their bullets. Carella backs him up, but it's Frankie Fernandez, the precinct's only Puerto Rican bull and Andy Parker who are the main players on the law side of the tale. Parker is a cop who hits first and doesn't bother much listening to questions answered later. He's also racist as hell but doesn't understand why the objects of his racism are so touchy. With everything heating up at the height of summer it all makes for a boiling pot that's got too hot not to explode and the tough end of fate is going to decide who gets to walk away alive. Along with the sometimes preachy diatribe against racism McBain takes a hard look at fate and asks 'why can't things always turn out for the good?'.  I gave the book four stars for a story well told but if I was to score it as an 87th Precinct story I might only give it two or maybe three, the extra star only because it does have some pivotal plot action for some of the boys from the 87th.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Noir Chic: French Detective

Tight-Lipped is the fifth detective novel to feature Franck Guerin of the Brigade Criminelle from the pen of David Barrie. It's a good two years since I shared a few expressos with Franck and I was beginning to think I'd seen the last of him. But like all good detectives they always turn up when you aren't expecting them. In fact it's Franck who is rudely awakened in the middle of the night and whisked off to a location somewhere rural, without so much as a few moments to bolt back his ritual morning expresso. His old job has come back to haunt him as the DCRI (counter espionage/terrorism), led by his old boss the steely chain smoking Catherine Vautrin, try to close in on eco-terrorist Grabriel Agostini, an elusive character who doesn't flinch at murder to advance his ideals and whose escape four years ago at the infamous Corsican Incident resulted in Franck's forced career change. Agostini is nowhere to be seen but the scene of the tip-off is found to be occupied by famed intellectual Jean-Jacques Marsay, who it turns out is writing a book about the terrorist and his organisation. On returning to Paris Franck is called to a murder scene with Marsay's editor Virginie Desmoulins, lying in a pool of her own blood and tied to her bed.
As ever the investigation follows Franck's gathering of the threads that connect the victims and their potential killers. Franck isn't one for car chases or gratuitous action scenes, instead he meets for probing conversations in Paris' multitude of cafes, empty expresso cup already cooling at his elbow, as he seeks out the chinks in everyone's armour, collecting secrets and contradictions like ammunition for the fight.  Agostini has lurked in the background of several of Frank's investigations in the past but none so much as this one. Franck's search for Virginie's killer brings him into territory that Vautrin and her DCRI occupy, but with both parties believing that their own target takes precedence inter-departmental cooperation isn't to the fore. 
The intellectual world of Marsay, his voice and philosophies come across well, which isn't always the case when an author creates a character who is supposedly more intellectual than themselves. France treats its philosophers and big thinkers differently than many cultures, giving them status and veneration akin to celebrities elsewhere. It makes for an interesting background for the investigation with Marsay's notoriety overlapping his wife's profile in the French film industry as a respected actress and the inner workings of the publishing world behind Marsay's upcoming controversial book.
Barrie's plot is intricate enough to keep folk guessing until the 'pages remaining' grows thin. Though the clues are all there if you backtrack. Apart from Franck's official team working under the judicial eye of  Yves de Chaumont, he sometimes consults Sylvie Thomas on matters with a monetary factor, finance and big business being one of the detective's blind spots. And Sonia Delemazure, a model, usually turns up, sometimes with a troop. Think the antithesis of the Baker Street Irregulars with an access all areas pass to the high and the famous. She also has some of the lighter scenes with Franck as we learn the level of knowledge he has of bras and his proficiency at P├ętanque (a type of Boules).
The strengths of the previous books are all there as usual; strong sense of place, good characterisation and intelligent plotting. Paris is brought alive throughout with the backstreets and nooks featuring just as much as the tourist traps.
Tight-Lipped is out in paperback in October 2014. If you pick up a copy fire up the expresso machine, and find a quiet spot but just remember.... don't try to keep up with Franck.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Monkey's Raincoat

I was unsure if I was going to like this one. A first look at Elvis Cole in chapter one, quipping his way through what should have been a standard private eye office/client opening ,he mainly comes across as highly random and off the charts rude. What kept me reading was being intrigued by Cole's mysteriously absent partner Joe Pike, or to give him his full title; that bastard Pike. While I waited for that sonofabitch Pike ( it takes a while) I started to become aware that Cole had more to him than being an annoying wise-ass. He's a complex character who likes to think of himself as 'thoughtful, smart and sensitive'. In reality he's highly reckless and suffers from a rampaging hero complex that douses failure in booze and plunges him in love or lust with a speed that Cotton Hawes would envy. It's a persona shaped by dealing with war (tours in Viet Nam) at an early age.
Written in the late 80s the book is a goldmine for nostalgia of that time, the script is riddled with all sorts of pop culture that will be familiar with people like me who grew up in the 70s and 80s. Cole has a bit of a nostalgia addiction, surrounding himself with favourite books, music and items from his youth that he employs as comfort props to his psyche.
The aforementioned Pike remains a voice on the phone until things start to get hot. He turns out to be a laconic Rambo type who thinks Clint Eastwood talks too much.
In the end I was very impressed with the book and will look forward to the further adventures of the chalk and cheese duo Cole and Pike. We'll see how the series goes.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Heckler

'She came in like a lady, that April.'
McBain follows the poetic line with a calm, hopeful beginning in this 12th visit to Isola. He brings an air of shy innocence to the intro chapter with the cool, pale personification of the early Spring month being a gentle lady that cheers the populace with her approach. But on with the mayhem.
Carella is trying to solve the case of a close range shotgun killing - the victim stripped down to his socks. Meyer Meyer investigates a spate of threatening calls. It's good to see Frankie Hernandez getting a fairer crack of the whip than his first appearance.
This one really is a corker, with a villain who towers above the usual brand of none to smart lawbreakers, a Moriarty figure, a master of probability and percentages, who flaunts his complex scheme, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes stories, one of which Detective Kling coincidentally reads in the squad room -  "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League".
 McBain's writing is great here with so much going on from the absurdly intricate caper to the captivating collection of characters that doesn't end with just the regulars. Speaking of regulars - where's Cotton Hawes got to? Not that I'm missing him at all. From the gentle beginning, through the tangled investigation, true suspenseful tension and climactic finale I've got to say this was one of the best so far.
My edition had a fascinating little afterword by McBain on the book and the series so far. Miss at your peril.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Hell is Empty

 When you open the show with some law enforcement types transporting a bunch of psycho killers across country in a van you pretty well know what's coming. One of those law enforcement types is my old buddy Sheriff Walt Longmire and the country is the foothills of the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming, alreaded well blanketed in winter's snow and there's more on the way. Deputy Saizarbitoria (Sancho) is working his way through a bunch of book lists provided by his friends and colleagues (the full set of lists is published at the back). Currently he's mired in the substantially weighty tome of Inferno. Before long the prisoners turn the tables and wreak havoc before high-tailing it into the mountains. Walt sets off in pursuit, with Dante's masterwork his most constant companion. Now at this stage I'd usually start grumbling about Johnson breaking the Longmire formula again by dropping the usual ensemble cast into their off stage limbo waiting for their curtain call at the epilogue but this one is really well done. Yeah it's pretty much a solo piece following Walt's pov, with a few cameos from a few familiar faces but it's far from being a cliched thriller despite the somewhat stock-plot opening. It's actually very well realised, fusing the themes and philosophical ideas of Dante's allegorical satire with Walt's relentless strivings to save the innocent, get up close and personal with his spirituality and basically come to terms with his own place in the world. It's a voyage of self discovery as much as a cops and bad guys chase through the snow. 
It works on both levels though. It's also a big plus that the chase up the mountainside actually takes place in a real place. There really is a Cloud Peak and it's just as Johnson describes.
In the previous book the author gave the readers what they wanted; a full ensemble, a light humourous tone and no damn flashbacks. Walt's propensity for getting a bit beaten up was duly sent up but in Hell is Empty Johnson takes things to a new level and it's no joke. But Walt's wry style of humour is still there. Walt wouldn't be Walt without it. 
I do wonder though how things would have turned out if Sancho had plumped for The Poems of Emily Dickinson.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady

Enola Holmes returns, hunted by day by the Great Detective and haunting London's befogged cobbles by night in her alter ego as the Sister of the Streets, doling out charity disguised as a nun. She maintains daytime alter egos as Miss Ivy Meshle, and Mrs Ragostin the young wife of the imaginary Doctor Ragostin - seeker of things lost. One of the first consultee's turns out to Doctor John Watson in connection with a missing girl. The story incorporates plenty of Victorian talking points regarding social issues for young readers to discuss or investigate further; social Darwinism, Marxism, emancipation. Mesmerism and some not fully developed theories about the dangers of correcting which hand the Lady Cecily uses and connections with multiple personality disorders aren't perhaps as clearly expounded as they could be. Beyond the social horror of poverty in Victorian England Enola cuts a rather lonely figure herself. She has few confidantes and those she has are handled with caution lest she give herself away to her brothers. Her skills with codes and cyphers almost surpass Sherlock and her sketching of caricatures help her along like early mug-shots. A much improved adventure that tries to be fun, establishing a fresh identity amongst so much obvious historical hardship.