Archive for category Book Reviews (By Author)

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

thegivendayIf you haven’t read a novel by Dennis Lehane, it’s likely you’ve seen a movie adapted from one of his books: The literary gems Mystic River and Shutter Island are two of the most noteworthy. Lehane also wrote episodes for a pair of acclaimed HBO crime dramas, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. (In Season 3 of The Wire, the show paid homage to Lehane by having Mayor Carcetti’s wife read a paperback copy of Shutter Island during Episode 10.)

While Boardwalk Empire wasn’t based on The Given Day, which was published two years before the series first aired on HBO, they both take place around the time of Prohibition and feature plot and character similarities, as well as fictional characters mixed with historical figures.

Published in 2008, The Given Day is set during 1918 and the main character is Danny Coughlin, a member of the Boston Police Department. Baseball plays a key role in the book after Babe Ruth, then with the Boston Red Sox, has a chance encounter with the other main character, Luther Laurence, the star of a local Ohio Negro League team.

Lehane does an excellent job examining Danny’s difficult relationship with his family — both parents are Irish immigrants and his father is a veteran police captain. He looks deeply into Danny and Luther’s friendship, as well as the daily challenges faced by Laurence. And Lehane meticulously chronicles Coughlin’s role as a beat patrolman and budding union organizer during a period that includes a police station bombing, a flu epidemic and rising ethnic, racial and political tensions.

But my favorite scenes are the ones involving Ruth. Lehane does an incredible job going inside the jumbled mind of the 23-year-old unworldly truant/budding superstar known as Babe, which he prefers or Gidge, which he hates. In several scenes, Ruth unwittingly becomes involved in the course of history, but he would rather play baseball, drink and chase women — and not necessarily in that order. (Similar to Boardwalk Empire, The Given Day foreshadows the Black Sox Scandal that involved the Chicago White Sox throwing/intentionally losing the 1919 World Series.)

In the fabulous prologue, The Babe is on a train carrying both the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox back to Boston for Games 4-7 of the 1918 World Series. The train breaks down during a stop in Columbus, Ohio and while killing time, Ruth stumbles upon a baseball game between local teams who happen to be black. A year before the birth of Jackie Robinson, Ruth — a notoriously bad student — learns a very important life lesson.

When it comes to historical fiction, Lehane takes a Ruthian swing with The Given Day. And he connects.

Robert Crais 15: Chasing Darkness

The other day, I was telling a friend that Robert Crais had evolved from writing novels that reminded me of Jeffrey MacDonald’s Fletch to writing novels that reminded me of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. After reading Chasing Darkness, I may be little off with the Connelly comparison. This was another real good book, but there were some plot twists that left me shaking my head, something I never do with Connelly. Without giving things away, the book features detective Elvis Cole, an awesome character, like Bosch. Cole becomes involved in the investigation of an old murder and things progress nicely. Toward the end of the book, Cole does something that could land him in prison, but the aftermath of the incident just doesn’t work for me.

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Daniel Silva 14: Portrait of a Spy

I have to admit, Portrait of a Spy confused me. The opening sequence where Israeli spy Gabriel Allon was relaxing on the Cornwall coast in Southwest England was similar enough to the opening of The Rembrandt Affair, I thought I was re-reading Daniel Silva’s last novel. Once I realized it was indeed the new novel, I settled down for what is always an enjoyable Silva spy novel. In Portrait of a Spy, Europe is hit by suicide bombers and retired Mossad agent Allon once again becomes involved in the hunt for the terrorists. Silva portrays the CIA as a once-strong but now ineffective agency where things are so bad, one of its directors, Adrian Carter, must to personally finance his legal defense against a justice department investigation into actions during the war on terror. Carter must also rely on Allon and his elite Mossad team to determine who in fact is the mastermind behind the bombings. Allon, of course, has previously crossed paths with the leader of the terrorist group, and he recruits an unlikely ally in the operation. Not much can be said without spoiling things, other than when I finished the book, I felt much the same as I did after watching the movie Evita, starring Madonna. An unexpected emotion following another great Silva spy thriller.

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J.A. Jance 16: Name Withheld

Name Withheld is the 16th book I’ve read by J.A. Jance and one would think I’m a huge fan of her. Granted she is a New York Times best-selling author, but there’s just something about her books featuring Seattle homicide detective J.P. Beaumont that rubs me the wrong way. And it has to do with Jance’s inability to pen a believable male lead character. Beaumont is a macho cop that reminds me of Tom Sellick in Magnum P.I. — except for the fact that he often does and says things that make him look like a pussy. Case in point: Beau, as he’s known, has the worst time with those darn newfangled gadgets like a pager, computer, answering machine or TV remote control. This acknowledged ineptitude and anti-technology rant is constantly repeated to the point where I’m starting to think this old school stud wears Old Spice, sports white Fruit of the Loom briefs and parts his long feathered hair down the middle. Lead character pet peeve aside, I have to admit this book — like its 15 predecessors — is a good read if you like mystery novels. They are definitely not the police procedural you’ll get from Michael Connelly, but the plots are solid and the female characters are at least believable. As the story unfolds, we follow Beaumont around the SeaTac area in his Porsche 928 as he looks for the killer. (Thankfully, Jance can’t have Beau mispronounce the name of his German sports car — Porsche owners use the correct two syllable pronunciation — but she does make old school Beau recite this mind-boggling phrase: “I was sitting in my cubicle using the Ethernet card on my computer to send files to the printer on our local area network….”) There are several twists and turns, and in true Jance fashion, things build to a nice and tidy ending.

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Anthony Bourdain 1: Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain’s New York Times best-selling novel from a decade ago, Kitchen Confidential, is very similar to his current Travel Channel TV show, No Reservations. Bourdain is at his spectacular and entertaining best when it comes to giving a glimpse of the culinary life — and the food, drugs and alcohol that are the main ingredients. But, like a kid in a candy store, Bourdain can’t help himself with his fan-boy worship of gourmet chefs — and restaurant name-dropping — known only to the New York foodie crowd. He writes about the importance of the food and culture of immigrants of various nationalities who work in his kitchen and his TV show features globe-trotting trips with numerous scenes in working-class markets, restaurants and food trucks. Yet the one thing Bourdain seems to relish the most is a chef’s tasting and ass-kissing session in the most upscale and pretentious restaurant in that particular city’s foodie-insider landscape. Of course, one must give Bourdain credit for his chameleon-like ability to fit in perfectly at dive bar in a back alley and Michelin Four Star restaurant — all in the same afternoon. Confidentially and without reservation, I’ll take the Bourdain in the leather jacket who is slamming bourbon, munching on chili dogs and talking about tattoos and body piercings with a bunch of seedy locals, the same Bourdain of the 80s and 90s we see in Kitchen Confidential.


Ken Bruen 12: Vixen

There’s nothing like a good dose of Ken Bruen every now and then — especially if that dose includes a big helping of Brant. In Vixen, we follow Brant and his police cronies as they investigate a series of bombings perpetrated by a beautiful Vixen and her two underworld cronies. The investigation goes as one would suspect, but it’s the “police work” outside of the investigation that sets this author — and his character Detective Inspector Brant — apart from the others. When a new muscle-bound pimp starts roughing up the girls, they turn to Brant to take care of him — much to the delight of the London cop and his steel-tip boots. As a token of their thanks, the hookers throw him a party. Brant, of course, brings his boss, Chief Inspector Roberts, who has a bloody good time in Brant’s world, where a badge is simply a shield for a thug. It’s a world that I’ll keep turning to, one where it’s not about the plot but rather the story and the characters who are all characters with a story.

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Michael Connelly 20: The Scarecrow

After making a brief appearance in Michael Connelly’s previous novel, The Brass Verdict, Los Angeles Times reporter Jack McEvoy returns with a novel of his own in The Scarecrow. It’s hard to believe it’s been 13 years since Connelly — and presumably McEvoy — published The Poet, a case McEvoy solved while looking into the death of his brother. Similar to The Poet, where homicides of law enforcement officers were made to look like suicides, The Scarecrow features a trunk murder where the killer frames an unwitting suspect. Again, McEvoy makes the connection and once again, FBI agent Rachel Walling risks her job as she helps McEvoy investigate and falls in love with him. In true Connelly fashion, the Times newsroom scenes are totally realistic as Connelly worked as a crime reporter for the paper in the late 1980s before leaving the profession to become a novelist. As someone who left the newspaper industry in 2001, Connelly’s portrayal of the dying print business strikes a chord, as does the book’s polar opposite setting, a high-tech data center in Arizona. As Connelly and McEvoy turn the page on print journalism, I look forward to a future novel where we can see Connelly’s take on — and McEvoy’s work in — Web journalism.

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Robert Parker 12: Love And Glory

The HBO series Bored To Death features a quirky New York detective named Jonathan Ames, a lead character totally different than those in the detective genre I enjoy reading. In a recent episode, Ames tracks down his grifter father, played by Stacy Keach. The casting for this show is brilliant, as Keach portrayed rugged detective Mike Hammer in a mid-1980s TV series that was based upon the character created by legendary pulp fiction novelist Mickey Spillane. After seeing Keach, I wanted to read some detective fiction and that meant Robert Parker. I picked up Love And Glory expecting gritty gumshoe Spenser. Instead, I got a male romance novel featuring a guy named Boone Adams. The story starts in 1950 at Colby College in Maine as freshman Boone falls in love. We then follow Boone over the next two decades as he serves a tour in Korea, followed by various jobs across the country including a stint at a Madison Avenue ad agency straight out of the TV series Mad Men. During this time, alcohol takes its tool on Boone, who eventually becomes homeless drifter. Boone finally turns his life around, returning to school, earning a degree and continuing the romance. Like Bored To Death, Love And Glory wasn’t at all what I intended, but I still enjoyed the diversion. With that being said, I still can’t wait to read Parker’s next Spenser novel.

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Elmore Leonard 8: Valdez Is Coming

I’ve never really been a fan of Westerns, either in print or on the screen. But that’s changing thanks to the HBO series Deadwood and the Elmore Leonard novel Valdez Is Coming. Both, of course, feature a clash between a villain and a lawman. The Valdez in Valdez Is Coming is the friendly and likable Bob Valdez, the part-time constable whose day job is stagecoach driver. (Nobody in town, with the exception of the Madam, knows that Bob Valdez used to be Roberto Valdez, a former member of the Army who was very adept as both an Indian tracker and a marksman.) When Valdez inadvertently plays a part in the death of a local man, Bob turns back into Roberto as he tries to make things right. Naturally, there is an ample amount of gunplay in this novel, as things build to a final showdown between Valdez and crime boss Frank Tanner. I love Leonard’s modern crime novels and this Western set in the late 1800s features those same characters, just one century earlier.


Ace Atkins 2: Leavin’ Trunk Blues

I read Crossroad Blues, the debut novel by Ace Atkins, several years back and even though I know little about music — and even less about the Blues — I really enjoyed the musical mystery starring ex-New Orleans Saint turned Blues historian Nick Travers. Since then, I’ve discovered that not only did Atkins play football at Auburn, but he also was pictured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated issue commemorating the perfect ’93 season by the Tigers. And, most recently, it was announced that Atkins would continue writing the legendary Spenser novels following the death of prolific author Robert Parker. After reading Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Atkins’ second novel, both of those accolades come as no surprise. The story begins in New Orleans before moving to Chicago — both cities, of course, are Blues meccas — as Travers looks into a murder from the 1960s that has kept a famous female singer in prison for the past 40 years. As Travers tracks down several musicians from that time period — now in their 60s — he runs into a pair of female assassins working for mysterious mob leader and enforcer Stagger Lee. Atkins’ portrayal of Lee, a former pro wrestler from Memphis — another Blues city — reminds me of street fighter turned mixed martial arts fighter Kimbo Slice. (In an interesting coincidence, legendary pro wrestler, The Junkyard Dog, wore a mask and was known as Stagger Lee during a period in the 1980s. This character was widely known in the South during a time when both Atkins and his character Travers would have been teenagers living in that region.) In Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Atkins delivers with a combination of mystery and music history — along with a dash of romance — that will leave you Wantin’ more.

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Sara Paretsky 5: Blood Shot

V.I. Warshawski, the 1981 movie starring Kathleen Turner, was a barely-memorable flop. So when I picked up my first Sara Paretsky novel several years back, I wasn’t expecting much. My thought then, and all the way to her fifth book, Blood Shot, is this: How the hell did Hollywood screw things up so badly? While Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich pen likable female detectives, Paretsky brings to life a whiskey-drinking, die-hard Chicago sports fan that happens to be a female detective. She’s tough and sexy and also a damn good gumshoe. In Blood Shot, Vickie, as she’s known to her friends, seeks the long-lost father of a friend, but soon finds herself in the middle of an industrial cover-up. She crosses paths with a rich Chicago industrialist, the mob and a South Chicago alderman with myriad Windy City political connections. The result? Warshawki delivers on a case that many of her male counterparts would have either turned down or quit and Paretsky once again shows that Hollywood’s loss is the mystery reader’s gain.


Robert Parker 11: The Widening Gyre

I grew up watching Spenser: For Hire on TV and it wasn’t until many years later that I started reading Robert Parker‘s Spenser novels. I have no idea why I waited so long since I have a soft spot in my heart for novels featuring rugged detectives. The Widening Gyre, Parker’s 11th novel and 10th featuring Spenser, finds the rough-and-tumble Boston gumshoe investigating the blackmail of one of his state’s candidates for U.S. Senate. Similar to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, which I also watched as a kid and read years later, Spenser uses his considerable brawn and fists as he works his way through the case, which predictably takes him from Beantown to the Nation’s Capital. (My small criticism of the book is that Parker messes up a couple of D.C. street names and has Spenser correctly driving the wrong way down a one-way street.) In addition to some fisticuffs, the book includes small doses of sex and drugs to go with a hefty helping of food and drink. We also catch a glimpse of Spenser’s friend and enigmatic partner, Hawk, a bad-ass character reminiscent of John Shaft. In typical Parker fashion, the book is short and the read is quick and entertaining. Sadly, Parker passed away last year, but another one of my favorite authors, Ace Atkins, will carry on the tradition of the Spenser series.

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Tom Rob Smith 1: Child 44

It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since Martin Cruz Smith‘s epic novel, Gorky Park, which was set in 1970s Cold War Russia and featured Moscow detective Arkady Renko investigating a murder in his frozen city’s famous park. Fast forward to modern day where British author Tom Rob Smith‘s outstanding first novel, Child 44, features a chilling murder mystery set two decades before Renko in the post-Stalin and pre-Kruschev Russia of the early 1950s. What makes Child 44 and its lead character Leo Demidov so interesting is that under Stalinst Communism there was no such thing as a murder nor a police force to investigate murder. When a child in Moscow dies under suspicious circumstances, it is labeled as suicide by investigators — including Demidov. However, Demidov — a war hero turned MGB officer — soon realizes that similar deaths have happened across the country and he begins an investigation that risks not only his job, but also his life. Not only do the authors share a surname, but both of their Russian investigators also share a devotion to their job, their community and their conscience when it comes to solving gruesome murders that puts them into danger. The older Smith set the standard and followed with several outstanding Renko novels. It’s safe to say the younger Smith and Demidov are following in those footsteps.


Richard Price 4: The Breaks

In the fourth novel by Richard Price, The Breaks, we meet Peter Keller, a recent college graduate who tries to figure out what to do with his life after not being accepted into law school. He moves back to New York City and lives at home while working various jobs, before returning to his college town, which has changed in the couple of years since he left. At first, this book reminded me of the early George Pelecanos series featuring Nick Stefanos, who was also a young adult trying to figure out what he was going to do in life. And while some of the urban New York City scenes featuring drugs and alcohol were Pelecanos-esque, to me the book hit the breaks in the middle when Keller entered a relationship with the ex-wife of a colleague and pal. After reading previous Price novels featuring gritty urban action, I expected more of the same. But Price, like Keller, seems to searching for his identity as he matures. The Breaks is similar to this review: Decent, but could have been better.


Lee Child 4: Running Blind

Lee Child has outdone himself in his fourth novel, Running Blind. Sure, sure his enigmatic hero, Jack Reacher, is still the solitary figure with a sense of justice who protects the Everyday Joe. In this installment, he viciously takes out a couple of thugs trying to shake down the owner of his favorite Italian joint in New York City. And when he is done with the beating, Jack sends a clever message to their boss. But this book isn’t just the hard-boiled Reacher we know and love. Instead, Child takes this novel to another level — to Michael Connelly levels of mystery writing — and we follow Reacher as uses his training as a military policeman to help the Feds solve a string of murders. Crimes for which Reacher would be the prime suspect, if he hadn’t been in the Big Apple at the time and under surveillance. All in all, this is a first-rate mystery novel and nothing more can really said about the plot without giving it away. After reading a lion’s share of mystery novels, I’m not usually surprised by the ending. I have to admit, Child and Reacher totally got me on this one and I can’t wait for the next adventure.


Ken Bruen 11: The Magdalen Martyrs

Having been to Ireland and driven through Galway, I take particular interest in Ken Bruen’s novels featuring Jack Taylor, a Galway private investigator in a town that doesn’t really have any gumshoes. What the town does have is a seedy underbelly, one which Taylor knows very well. In The Magdalen Martyrs, Taylor is “hired” by crime boss Bill Cassell to find an old Magdalen woman. He’s also hired by the son of a dead man who thinks his stepmother killed his father. Taylor responds by sleeping with her. Finally, Taylor cleans up his act and learns the truth about both the old women he was hired to find and the younger women he has befriended. Let’s just say that the ending is typical Bruen. If you haven’t read him before, you likely won’t see this one coming. If you’ve read the 10 previous books by Bruen, you’ll just shake your head as you close the book. In The Magdalen Martyrs, the master urban storyteller has done it again and it’s a joy to read.

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Ken Bruen 10: Blitz

Bad-ass old school British cop Brant is back in Ken Bruen’s ninth novel, Blitz, and this time he’s chasing a cop killer. A cop killer who, not surprisingly, was roughed up by Brant several years earlier. The premise of this book is simple: As the cop killings continue, Brant and his mates track down the suspect and some heads — both good and bad — get cracked in the process. Let’s face it, if you are looking for an elaborate police procedural, this is not it. In fact, if it was any author other than Bruen, I’d rip him for the lack of detective work and the crazy coincidences that lead to leads. But since we are talking Bruen, don’t worry about it, just enjoy the rugged characters and the wonderful urban dialogue as the story unfolds. There’s not much more to say, other than if you haven’t read one of Bruen’s books featuring Brant, you’re in for an interesting treat, one akin to the Club Milk biscuit he is so fond of.

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Joseph Finder 1: The Moscow Club

Every now-and-then, I find a book that takes months to read — I struggle through the first part, before finally hunkering down and finishing it. The debut novel by former intelligence officer Joseph Finder, The Moscow Club is one of those books. It’s not a bad book — it’s far from that — it’s just a very heavy book. It has the furious action scenes that are reminiscent of Robert Ludlum and international intrigue that will remind you of Frederick Forsythe. But it also has a slow, methodical and often scholarly feel to it when it comes to the historical and political and Cold War aspects, both Russian and American. As someone who is a huge fan of Cold War novels, it took some time to warm up, but once things were in motion, I really started to enjoy it. Unfortunately, if you have not read John le Carre or Forsythe or Daniel Silva and don’t appreciate the art of the espionage and counter-espionage storyline, this 500-page story may be a little much for you. But then again, if you are curious about the Cold War or world politics near the end of the Cold War or Russia during the time of Gorbachev, this novel would be of great interest to you.

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Alex Berenson 1: The Faithful Spy

Several months back, I read The Faithful Spy, the Edgar Award winning debut novel by Alex Berenson, and I have to admit, I was torn. Part of me really liked the book, but another part of me — the part that loves espionage master Frederick Forsythe — couldn’t help but thinking of Forsythe’s 1994 novel The Fist of God and Forsythe’s 2006 novel The Afghan while reading Berenson’s 2006 novel The Faithful Spy. In The Fist of God, a British officer in the Special Air Service named Mike Martin — who grew up in Iraq, looks Middle Eastern and speaks Arabic perfectly — is embedded in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. In The Afghan, Martin is sent into Afghanistan to impersonate an Afghani freedom fighter held in captivity in Guantanamo Bay and infiltrate al Queda. After reading those two spectacular books, I was a bit skeptical about an American farm boy from Montana, named John Wells, who is now a devout Muslim and member of al Queda, in The Faithful Spy. While Forsythe may have done the Arab infiltrator bit a little better, Berenson still delivers. Especially in the scenes in the U.S. as Wells must defend his birth country from terrorists with a similar Muslim devotion. And at the same time, Wells must convince his CIA superiors that he is on their side after all that time in the Middle East. Forsythe is still the best, but for a first novel, Berenson is one to watch.

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Daniel Silva 13: The Rembrandt Affair

In my review of Daniel Silva‘s last novel, The Defector, I suggested that both Silva and his lead character, Gabriel Allon, take a break. Silva listened to my suggestion — sort of. When the Rembrandt Affair opens, we find Allon in the middle of long rest and relaxation period in a remote coastal town in Cornwall, UK. He passes the day with long walks along the cliffs of the Celtic Sea. One day an old friend, art dealer Julian Isherwood, asks Allon for a small favor — to track down a stolen Rembrandt. I’m sure the same thing passes through Allon’s mind as it does mine: An investigation into a stolen painting probably means a break from your standard espionage adventure. We were both wrong. Allon’s investigation leads to a Nazi sub-plot, which then leads to a beloved German businessman known for his philanthropy who happens to be involved in selling nukes to the bad guys. Naturally, Allon’s Mossad team and espionage leaders from the Israeli, U.S. and U.K. government enter the fray as another mission unfolds. I have to admit that Silva surprised me in the first part of the book and hooked me in the second part. And I’m proud to report that the spymaster supreme is back — and so is the supreme spy he so wonderfully writes about.

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Stieg Larsson 2 & 3: The Girl Who Played With Fire & The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

I’m doing a combination review of Stieg Larsson’s second and third novels, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, for one simple reason — the second book was so good, I immediately started reading the third. And speaking of combinations, things quickly turn from a mystery novel into a mystery/espionage novel, which just happen to be my favorite two genres. While not much can be said without giving away the many twists and turns of the plot, Mikael Blomkvist and Lizbeth Salander both use their investigative and hacking skills, respectively, to learn the truth about a sex trafficking operation and the involvement of the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), a group similar to the CIA. There is a police investigation and many surveillance and counter-surveillance tactics to keep things moving until the end of this spectacular trilogy, which is the sad part since Larsson’s death means there won’t be a fourth book.

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Elmore Leonard 7: The Moonshine War

I started reading The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard right around the same time I started watching HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and I couldn’t help thinking about the TV series while reading the novel. The common thread between the two stories set on opposite ends of the Prohibition time line is one of corruption among public officials. In Boardwalk Empire, it is Atlantic City treasurer Nookie Thompson and his younger brother, Eli, the sheriff. In The Moonshine War, set in the fictitious town of Marlett, Kentucky, it’s Mr. Baylor, the sheriff, and government Prohibition agent Frank Long. The story opens with a “raid” by Mr. Baylor and his thirsty deputies at the property of Son Martin, who happens to make the best moonshine in the county. All is well until Long, an Army buddy of Martin’s, turns up in town and starts raiding the stills in the hills. Long enlists a bunch of lowlifes to serve his his deputies, as they try to find the hidden stash of whiskey made by Martin’s father — over 100 barrels worth over $100,000 in 1930s money. Among those working for Long are an interesting pair of villains — Dr. Taulbee, a physician turned felon who specializes in bootlegging, and his psychopathic sidekick, Dual Meaders. In one scene, Meaders sees a seersucker suit he likes and makes the guy wearing it sell it and disrobe — on the spot. From the title of the book, one can surmise that things get nasty toward the end and similar to Leonard’s last book, The Big Bounce, there are a couple of twists and turns before a nice, tidy ending.


T. Jefferson Parker 16: The Renegades

After introducing Charlie Hood in his last novel, L.A. Outlaws, T. Jefferson Parker brings Hood back for a second-straight appearance, something Parker has done rarely — possibly ever — in his 15 previous novels. While I may have nit-picked some things in my reviews of Parker’s last three novels, which I liked but didn’t love, I can emphatically say that The Renegades was a damn good book that I damn much enjoyed. The premise is straight-forward: Hood’s partner, Terry Laws, is killed in the line of duty and Charlie is the one who is chosen to find the killer of a cop known as Mr. Wonderful. In typical police procedural fashion, the standard question comes up: Is Laws as perfect as everyone thinks he is? Hood’s investigation takes him into the California desert as well as an equally desolate area near the Mexican border, home to the obligatory drug smugglers. (Allison Murietta, the lead character and Charlie’s love interest in L.A. Outlaws, is referenced several times in the book while her son, Bradley, is featured in the book. Unlike previous Parker novels that were of the stand-alone variety, it would be advisable to read L.A. Outlaws prior to The Renegades to truly understand the plot.) While Hood may have played more of a supporting role in the previous book, in The Renegades there is no question that he is the lead character. And Parker likely has set the stage for Hood — and the desert he patrols — to return, a decision that should delight readers of the first two Charlie Hood novels.


John Shannon 2: The Cracked Earth

In my review of The Concrete River, John Shannon‘s debut novel, I used the word “zany” to describe the characters in that book. In The Cracked Earth, Shannon’s second novel, we are once again treated to some rather odd characters, but this time it was the plot — in particular, the ending — that proved to be zany. Missing child detective Jack Liffey is hired to find the daughter of Lori Bright, a sex-starved 1960s movie starlet who still longs for the spotlight. Liffey’s search takes him across Los Angeles where he avoids both earthquakes and a Jamaican hit man whose accent is so thick, it’s unintelligible even in print. Liffey finds the runaway without too much trouble, but gets in the middle of a feud between rival video game companies. And that’s pretty much it, except for the ending, which features a bunch of cracked earth in the City of Angels. Personally, when I read a mystery novel, I’m not in the mood for a natural disaster and characters trying to survive it. There were numerous explanations of how each city block looked afterward, but after a while, it just got to be too much and I was relieved when I finally got to the end of the book. Part of me likes Shannon’s wacky — and possibly whacked out — writing style, but the other part of me only puts up with this type of thing when the author is Hunter S. Thompson.


Ken Bruen 9: The Killing of the Tinkers

After having my first taste of Jack Taylor in The Guards, I was ready for some more from Ken Bruen. And thus came The Killing of the Tinkers, where Taylor reads voraciously and he actually talks about two of my favorite authors, Lawrence Block and George Pelecanos. Which makes sense, since similar to Block’s Matt Scudder character, Taylor is a drunk former cop turned detective with some shady friends. And similar to Pelacanos, Bruen has a film noir writing style that perfectly captures the hip local underground in the place in which he lives, including the drugs that often exist but are rarely written about in mainstream fiction. As I mentioned before, Bruen is an acquired taste. Pelecanos, T. Jefferson Parker and Mark Billingham sing his praises so I know I am in good company as I enjoy the ride. Which, basically is a mystery which involves a social worker and some gypsies. And includes some vicious violence to go along with drunken debauchery. Enough said.

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Ken Bruen 8: London Boulevard

In Ken Bruen‘s eighth installment, London Boulevard, we are once again introduced to a main character who is an ex-con. Since Bruen specializes in urban fiction set in the British and Irish underworld, it would almost seem wrong if we weren’t following the exploits of a convict. This time it is Mitchell, who spent three years in the clink for an assault that he doesn’t remember. We pick up the story as his jail term ends and he immediately is recruited back into the criminal life. Mitchell doesn’t seem to mind the illegal stuff, it’s just that he doesn’t want to be forced into committing crimes. His troubles begin when he makes a stand against a crime boss and instead takes a job doing handyman work for a famous actress. Her butler has a past as equally as questionable as Mitchell and they wind up involved in some rough stuff. Mitchell also breaks some laws with his former gang and does some solo vigilante work, including seeking revenge against a young soccer star who is known for wearing a Beckham jersey. Like all Bruen books, Mitchell lives in a world where it’s an eye for eye and there aren’t any happy endings — at least not in the storyline. And like his American urban crime-writing counterpart George Pelecanos, the ending always seems to build violently. You know it’s coming, but you can’t help but enjoy the carnage you witness as the story comes to a powder keg of a ending.

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Elmore Leonard 6: The Big Bounce

I pride myself on reading a book prior to watching a movie based upon upon a book, but I have to admit that The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard threw me. In this case, I watched the remake of the movie prior to reading the novel. Usually I’m not a fan of a movie based upon a great book. This time, I enjoyed them both and look forward to watching the original movie. But first thing first. The sixth novel by Leonard, I’m reading this one first since I’m not a fan of Westerns (although I’m sure those first five books were pretty good). In this book, we have the classic mystery novel built upon the typical scheme to rob someone of a large sum of money. But Leonard pulls it off — both with the plot and the characters. Long before Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was saving the world, this Jack Ryan was a former minor league baseball player turned drifter who is helped by a local magistrate named Mr. Majestyk. (I actually saw the movie Mr. Majestyk when I was a kid and the movie character played by Charles Bronson doesn’t really jibe with the book character Mr. Majestyk. The novel Mr. Majestyk is four books later and I’m curious how Leonard portrays him in print.) Not much can be said about the plot without giving things away, other than there’s good reason not one but two movies have been made from the book (and a total of 22 movies or TV shows are based upon Leonard’s novels). Majestyk makes another appearance but will we see Ryan again? Regardless, I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.


Richard Price 3: Ladies’ Man

Richard Price returns again with another gritty portrayal of New York City in the 1970s. In Ladies’ Man, the main character is Kenny Becker, a door-to-door salesman with a golden tongue and a gift for relationship problems. We follow a week in Kenny’s life as he tries to repair one relationship while looking for others in various different Big Apple nightlife scenarios. Kenny visits singles bars, peep shows, massage parlors and even ventures down to Christopher Street — home of the seedy alternative lifestyle bars — but the most memorable locale may be Fantasia, which was the scene of a talent contest and reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about famous Studio 54 nightclub. While in line for Fantasia, Kenny meets a cat named Jackie di Paris, who is described as: “A big solid blond dude….He’s built like a fullback and wore a black vinyl, lightweight, wet-look jacket over a floral body shirt open to the sternum. He had enough chest hair for a national park and six strands of gold chains were crisscrossing under his collarbone….His dark brown chest fur clashed with his metallic blond hairdo.” While 70s retro may be cool in today’s movies, there’s just no topping Price’s narrative on the 70s people and places that he wrote in the 70s. Like Price’s first two books, Ladies’ Man is an eye opener when it comes to the seedy side of the city, and once again, the main character comes to the realization that he needs to grow up and escape the temptation of the Big Apple.


Jim Fusilli 1: Closing Time

The debut novel by Jim Fusilli, Closing Time a features a rugged New York private investigator named Terry Orr. Sounds like your standard detective fare, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. Orr, at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, is built like a linebacker and he does get into several skirmishes in the book. But what sets Orr apart from your typical gumshoe is his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, Gabriella. Still mourning the murder of his wife and infant son, Orr struggles to return to his writing career and cope with the fact that he must now raise his soon-to-be teenage daughter. When a cab driver is murdered and Orr finds the body, he is driven to investigate the homicide as he identifies with the crime all too well. The investigation takes Orr into the dangerous underworld of the Big Apple, as well as what I’d call a rather unique art scene that seems limited to New York City. Along the way, we meet a couple of Orr’s rather interesting friends — Leo, a corpulent bartender from New Orleans who reads Times-Picayune religiously and Diddio, a hippie music critic who takes Orr to several night spots around town. Like Lawrence Sanders and Lawrence Block before him, Fusilli is able to capture the culture and essence of New York while weaving together an intriguing story filled with interesting characters. While I can’t identify with the city and doubt I could live there, I enjoyed peeking into the Big Apple and watching Orr unravel this mystery. Kudos to Fusilli for showing the character of the city through the city and its characters.


Ian Rankin 1: Knots And Crosses

I have to admit, I had never heard of Ian Rankin before I picked up one of his novels at a used bookstore. And I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started on the first novel in the Inspector Rebus series, Knots And Crosses. Since I’ve been reading a lot of Irish author Ken Bruen lately, another plot set in the United Kingdom didn’t faze me. In fact, I was somewhat pleased with the setting being Scotland and not New York or Los Angeles once again. As the story starts, we are introduced to John Rebus, a Detective Sergeant in the Lothian and Borders Police in Edinburgh. We learn that Rebus was in the British Army and trained for the elite Special Air Service. (This tidbit proves important as Rebus struggles throughout the book with memory loss and other issues that came about because of his training.) When several young girls are murdered, Rebus is part of the team that investigates the crime. And it turns out an incident in his past has a bearing on the case. Not much else can be said without giving things away. Other than this being only  his second novel, Rankin does a real good job, and the story flows well. (The book is not perfect, though. As things move toward the climax, Rankin telegraphs the killer’s next target. Also, to help solve the case, we need some information from the repressed memory of Rebus and his younger brother just happens to be a famous hypnotist.) Small flaws aside, Rankin is off to a great start and I look forward to watching Rankin mature as the series unfolds and the his Tartan Noir style of writing starts to take shape.

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Sean Doolittle 1: Dirt

Dirt, the debut novel by Sean Doolittle, drew rave reviews and was chosen as a Top 100 Editor’s Pick by in 2001. That mean’s I loved the book, right? Well, not so fast. The book was well-written and Doolittle obviously did meticulous research when it came to cemeteries and mortuaries, which was the setting for this book. All-in-in it was a damn good book. However, there was something about it that just didn’t click with me. It was as if something was missing. In trying to figure out how I felt about Dirt, I checked out Doolittle’s Web site and here is what his bio says: “Sean Doolittle is the award-winning author of Dirt, Burn, Rain Dogs, and The Cleanup. His latest book is Safer. He lives in western Iowa with his family.” Well, there you go. Like the bio, Dirt is technically sound but it just didn’t have the charisma, character or soul I expected. Has Doolittle ever been to Los Angeles, where the book takes place? Probably. But I just don’t think he’s lived there or experienced the city enough to take this book to the next level. The main character, Quince Bishop, is a slacker and Doolittle pretty much nailed that character. But when it came to ex-cons Billy Guilder and Carl Rosen, I wasn’t sold. The story starts as Bishop is at the funeral of his best friend. Through a series of events, Bishop gets involved in a mystery involving the cemetery and also gets involved with Marie Casteneda, a funeral rights activist. The relationship between Bishop and Casteneda is interesting. Things progress nicely until we learn Casteneda is hiding a secret. But since Bishop never finds out and there isn’t a confrontation, what’s the point of mentioning it? Bottom line, if you’re looking for realistic, bad ass characters, Pelecanos or Bruen are for you; if you don’t mind the obvious flaw of your typical good guy from the Midwest trying to write about bad guys and bad things and want a very solid, well-written mystery novel, Dirt is worth reading.


Charles McCarry 1: The Miernik Dossier

The Miernik Dossier is what its name suggests: A dossier from the early 1960s that you’d likely find in a folder in a filling cabinet in the basement of one of the intelligence services. A compilation of reports is definitely a unique way to tell a spy story, and if you like the early Cold War classics of Frederick Forsyth or John Le Carre, this book is for you. And if you enjoy the political overtones in early James Bond movies such as From Russia With Love, you’ll get a kick out of this book. The subject of the dossier is Tadeusz Miernik, an outspoken and often-animated Pole who works for the World Research Organization, a NATO agency based in Geneva. We learn the WRO provides perfect cover for spies from various NATO countries and the dossier contains information and theories from all the various intelligence agencies watching Miernik, as well as passages from Miernik’s diary. The premise of the book is simple: Is Miernik a spy? This basic question works, of course, since in the world of espionage, nothing is black and white, while everything is a different shade of gray. As we ponder the question, we follow Miernik and several WRO colleagues as they take a Cadillac on a road trip from Geneva to Sudan via Vienna and Egypt. One of the passengers is Paul Christopher, an American spy who is the main character in future books. Christopher seems torn as to whether or not Miernik is a spy and I, too, wavered over that question. In a nutshell, that’s the extent of the book, although it is more interesting than it may sound. For a first novel, Charles McCarry — a former intelligence officer himself — delivers on a subject he knows very well, although I was kind of surprised there wasn’t more of a twist at the end like your typical spy story. In fact, there wasn’t a twist at all and maybe that was by design since in the world of espionage, one is taught to expect the unexpected.

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Paul Eddy 1: Flint

When I heard Paul Eddy’s debut novel was called Flint, I couldn’t help but think of the James Coburn spy spoof movies Our Man Flint and In Like Flint. But instead of a male James Bond character from the 1960s, this Flint is, well, a female James Bond character from modern day. The story opens with Grace Flint as a British undercover police officer in a sting that goes horribly wrong. We then pick up the story as Flint is working undercover for the Americans, seeking the man who got away from that sting one year earlier. Like several elements in the book, things aren’t explained right away. And, in this case, I can’t exactly remember why Flint came to the U.S. (Another pet peeve: A couple of times, I had to re-read several pages to figure out which character was which and figure out what happened.) In addition to Amsterdam and Paris, the book takes us to a fictitious Caribbean country, as well as Kyrenia, in Northern Cyprus as Flint tracks down leads and the story proceeds and concludes in true spy story style. While the locales may sound interesting, I just couldn’t always get a feel for them. Same with the Flint character and the massive amount of emotional baggage that she is carrying. (I found it odd that as a house guest, Grace had little to no female dialogue with her best friend, but had a massive amount of professional dialogue with her best friend’s husband, a French inspector that she was working with on the case.) Did I enjoy the book? For a first spy novel, it wasn’t bad. But several days after reading the book, I just can’t seem to recall much, and the only memorable thing may be that this book isn’t very memorable.

Richard Price 2: Bloodbrothers

Similar to The Wanderers, Richard Price‘s first novel that was later made into a movie, Bloodbrothers is another intense and somewhat graphic look at a New York City teenager from a working-class family, this time set in the mid-1970s. As you can tell from his name, Stony De Coco is a rugged 18-year-old, torn between following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an electrician or following his heart and working with kids in a hospital. Why the soft spot for children? Well, it turns out Stony’s eight-year-old brother, Albert, is anorexic due to physical and emotional abuse from his mother. Stony’s job is to protect Albert and helping children comes to natural to him. Stony is also a natural when it comes to adapting to the adult lifestyle, as he already smokes and drinks, often with his father and uncle Chubby, who is also an electrician. Scenes involving the trio often show the seedy side of the Big Apple. Times Square porn shops, hookers and muggers in Spanish Harlem are all on display, as well as typical old-school things everyone remembers from the ’70s such as large Afros, platform shoes, kung fu and even a discussion of who would win a fight between Bruce Lee and Shaft. Another interesting aspect of the book is the portrayal of the construction site. If you’ve seen the Soprano’s, this is a very similar construction site, minus the mob. A lot of money is being made and very little work is being done. Thanks to his old man, Stony gets into the union but if he gives up his apprentice job, he may not get another chance. Similar to his first novel, the language used by Price’s characters can be course, obscene and often racist. There is also a hearty dose of sex in the book and none of the characters seem to have much in the way of morals, which makes this another gritty, urban novel that is enjoyable but also eye-opening at times.


Stieg Larsson 1: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Several years ago, I saw a couple of subtitled movies featuring Swedish detective Martin Beck. While the culture was different — as was the language — at the end of the day, a mystery is still a mystery. And I got a kick out of those Swedish mystery flicks. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is another enjoyable Swedish mystery, this time a novel that has been translated into English. Well, the Queen’s English that is. Harbour and centre are easy words to decipher, as is tyres, but what about gaol? That word is used fairly often in the book as the main character, journalist Mikael Blomqvist, is forced to spend some time behind bars after losing a libel trial to a rich Swedish industrialist. Meanwhile another rich Swedish industrialist, this one retired, hires Blomqvist to look into a family mystery. Blomqvist moves from very cold Stockholm to even colder Hedeby, a fictitious island town several hours to the north, to begin his investigation. Blomqvist is soon joined by the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who looks like a punk rocker, but has a photographic memory and possesses rather unique investigative skills. Together, the two set out to unravel a 40-year-old mystery and also resolve the issues behind the libel charge. As an ex-journalist, I enjoyed the ethics discussion in the book. As a mystery fan, I enjoyed the meticulous whodunit, which included references to several Swedish mysteries — which went over my head — but also American mystery writers Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, who I enjoy reading. The book is long and the book is detailed, and if you can get through it, the ending is satisfying. Sadly, Larsson died in 2004 before finishing the fourth book in what he planned to be a series of 10. Only three books were published — all posthumously — and I look forward to reading the other two.

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Michael Connelly 19: The Brass Verdict

When attorney Mickey Haller first appeared in Michael Connelly‘s 16th novel, The Lincoln Lawyer, I was a bit skeptical. I just didn’t think I would enjoy a lawyer mystery. Naturally, Connelly delivered and when I saw that Haller was returning three books later, there was no apprehension on my part. Again, The Brass Verdict delivers and long-time readers are not only rewarded with a significant role by LAPD detective Harry Bosch, but writer Jack McEvoy also makes an appearance. Since we last saw him in the Lincoln Lawyer, Haller has battled a pain-killer addiction while recovering from his gunshot wounds. A colleague and rival, Jerry Vincent, is murdered and it turns out that Vincent’s active caseload has been bequeathed to Haller, including a high-profile murder trial involving a Hollywood producer. Haller butts heads with the detective investigating Vincent’s murder, which happens to be Bosch. In addition to the standard murder mystery, the story also examines legal ethics and focuses on the rocky relationship between Haller and Bosch. The human part of the book doesn’t end there as we also look at Haller’s relationship with his daughter and see him take one of his clients – a troubled, ex-surfer facing prison time — under his wing. Great stuff once again from Connelly, who keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout this legal/mystery/police thriller.


Lawrence Block 29: The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams

Like just about every kid born in the 1970s, I collected baseball cards in my youth. (In fact, with a quick glance, I know that the two prominent cards on the book’s cover are Don Mattingly and Ryne Sandberg Topps rookie cards.) In the 1980s, people made fortunes from cardboard as the prices for certain rookie cards skyrocketed. That market crashed in the 1990s and today, most cards are worth a fraction of what they were in their heyday. As you might suspect from the title, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams focuses on the theft of several valuable baseball cards. Enter Bernie Rhodenbarr, the book’s main character, who just happens to be a burglar. Only Bernie didn’t steal the cards. As in the previous five books in the series, Bernie tries to clear his name from one heist, while committing several others. Like baseball and baseball cards, this book is old school, similar to other Lawrence Block novels. A drink at lunch, coffee with every meal and cops on the take, this New York City is just as one would suspect it was before Rudy Giuliani cleaned things up. Block also flaunts the intellectual side of the Big Apple, as there are numerous references to literature and the arts and Bernie’s best friend is a female with an alternative lifestyle. (In an interesting touch, Rhodenbarr owns a used bookstore, which gives Block the ability to freely write about other authors. The running joke encompassing pages of dialogue in this book is Sue Grafton‘s Alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.) As in all Block novels, the pace is steady and never frantic, the story builds to a climax and then things wrap up very nicely in the end. And while you may think you know where things are headed, there is always a twist or turn that you just hadn’t thought of. Which, of course, makes you keep coming back for more.


T. Jefferson Parker 15: L.A. Outlaws

In my review of Storm Runners, the previous novel by T. Jefferson Parker, I hoped for the return of a somewhat normal lead character. In L.A. Outlaws, Parker obeys my wish. Sort of. The book focuses on Allison Murietta, a modern day bandit that steals cars, robs fast food joints and gives much of her criminal proceeds to various charities. Imagine a female version of Robin Hood with Spanish ancestry and you get the idea. While it may appear that way in the first half of the book, it turns out the not-so-normal Murietta is not the main character. That distinction belongs to Charlie Hood, a member of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who previously served in the military with Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Hood becomes involved in the search for some missing diamonds that left several MS-13 and Asian gang members dead. Not much else can said without giving things away other than the fact that I was a little perplexed when I finished this book. I kept expecting some kind of plot twist as the book wrapped up. There wasn’t one. In fact, not only did things end as expected, they just kind of ended. Maybe I’m spoiled from reading the likes of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, but in retrospect, this book simply seemed a bit flat to me. Well written and well researched, it does a great job chronicling the legend of Wild West L.A. Outlaw Joaquin Murietta, an ancestor of Allison’s. But it just seems that most of Parker’s effort went into telling a compelling history lesson kind and things were somewhat lacking when it came to the modern day mystery part of the book.


Ace Atkins 1: Crossroad Blues

The debut novel by Ace Atkins, Crossroad Blues introduces Nick Travers, a Tulane University blues music historian who happens to be a former professional football player with the New Orleans Saints. As a non-Southerner not in to blues or jazz, the main theme of the book didn’t really appeal to me at first. And at times, the book seemed to drag, which isn’t uncommon for a first novel. But the more I read, the more I started to enjoy the book. You can tell it was well-researched and you get the sense that both the author and the main character are in store for bigger and better things. And of course there is New Orleans. While I can’t identify with a Southern roadhouse in the backwoods of Mississippi, I sure can with Bourbon Street.  And the New Orleans Atkins captures is the New Orleans I remember, both vividly and somewhat hazily: the vibe, the live music and, of course, the sun coming up while you’re still drinking in a back alley, after-hours club that you cannot find the next day during daylight hours. If you’re into music and like mysteries, this book is definitely for you. Even if you’re musically illiterate like myself, you’ll still appreciate the story and you may even gain a greater appreciate for Elvis Presley and the pioneers who originated his style of music.


Daniel Silva 12: The Defector

In my review of Daniel Silva‘s last book, Moscow Rules, I was happy about the return of the Russians. Russians, as in Russian spies, which are the staple of traditional espionage fare. Well, the Russians return once again in The Defector and this time around, I’m not so sure. The Defector picks up where Moscow Rules left off as ex-KGB and current gun runner Ivan Kharkov goes after the man who took his money and broke up his family in the previous novel. That man, of course, is Gabriel Allon, the Mossad agent/artist making his ninth appearance for Silva. In true espionage fashion, Kharkov seeks revenge against Allon and we visit many countries, including Mother Russia. Like the characters, I’m not sure about returning there so quickly. Why the apprehension? Well, it’s not that the book is bad, because it is not. In fact, it’s a pretty good book that reads very quickly. It just feels forced to me. As is usually the case, the book starts with Allon working on an art restoration project. Those scenes seem rushed. Silva does meticulous research for his books and there is always a lesson in history, politics and even religion. However, in this case, the main Russian history lesson seems to be crammed into one of the final scenes. And speaking of final scenes, the epilogue covers a summer of covert action in a matter of pages. In the acknowledgments, Silva thanks his children for helping him make his deadline. I’m guessing that wasn’t any easy task. Meanwhile, it looks like Allon’s clandestine duties may be coming to an end, although I don’t really believe it nor does he. (It’s pointed out to Allon that his first assignment in 1972 had 11 targets as did all two pages of his final assignment in the epilogue.) One wonders if Silva will also take a break when it comes to the Allon series. Let’s face it, both have done great work and have earned a well-deserved vacation. I think it would be best served if they both took some time off from each other and then returned nice and refreshed.

George Pelecanos 16: The Way Home

A friend recently gave me a Kindle for my birthday so naturally the first “e-book” I purchased was that of my favorite author, George Pelecanos, and his latest novel, The Way Home. Once again, Pelecanos delivers. And he does so using the same, simple formula he uses in just about about all of his books. We meet the main character and his friends and family. Then we meet the bad guys. Then there is a build-up to an eventual confrontation between the main character and the bad guys. While the premise sounds basic, it always seems to work. My only criticism, and a small one at that, is that as a long-time reader, you may anticipate the direction and eventual outcome of certain things. But the story is good and the dialogue is so crisp that it really doesn’t matter. The Way Home focuses on Chris Flynn, a troubled teen who winds up in a Washington, D.C. juvenile detention facility. As one of the few white inmates, Flynn faces some serious challenges, but he also develops some surprising friendships. We then fast forward several years and check up on Flynn and some of his pals from juvie as they are in their mid-20s and trying to sort out their lives and make a living. In true Pelecanos form, his characters drink, they smoke and several do drugs. In fact, marijuana usage is a staple of this book just as smoking a joint is an everyday urban occurrence rarely depicted in print. But the point is also made that the myriad legal problems faced by Flynn can be directly traced to his recreational pot use as a teenager. (Similar to the consequences of war shown in The Turnaround, Pelecanos also shows the perils of drinking and drunk driving.) Another Pelecanos trademark is his extensive knowledge of people, places and things in D.C. In this case, one of his locales is the U.S. National Arboretum, which I had never heard of. Ben’s Chili Bowl also gets a mention in the book, but in uncharacteristic Pelecanos fashion, Murry’s is mistakenly called Murray’s. Food faux pas aside, The Way Home was a worthy first addition to my Kindle. It wasn’t the best Pelecanos book, but still damn good and a notch above the standard fare out there.


Lawrence Block 5: Tanner’s Tiger

Leave it to Lawrence Block to pen a spy novel set at the World’s Fair. That’s exactly what he does in Tanner’s Tiger, where sleep-deprived spy and political scholar/activist Evan Tanner travels to Montreal for the 1968 Expo to investigate the Cuban exhibit. Getting into the Great White North proves difficult for Tanner, who has snuck into numerous unfriendly countries across the world. On his first attempt, he is turned away at Montreal Duval airport. His second attempt via car from Buffalo draws a tail, which leads to his arrest by the Canadian Mounties. In an entertaining twist, Tanner escapes on horseback and leads the police on a chase through downtown Montreal. With nowhere to run, Tanner turns to the Quebec separatist movement, where he meets a tiger named Arlette Sazerac and is drawn into a political assassination plot. Like the other Tanner books, one must use a James Bond-esque suspension of reality as the plot beautifully winds to a close. But if you can overlook the zany plot and focus on the artful dialogue and characters, you’ll enjoy the Block character that brings the political 1970s back to life.

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George Pelecanos 15: The Turnaround

Back in the late 1990’s, I read a Washington City Paper cover story about this cool local author named George Pelecanos, who wrote noir fiction that took place in the District. I searched and searched, but I just couldn’t find any Pelecanos novels in area bookstores. Finally, I went the mail order route, and purchased the Nick Stefanos trilogy: A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go, which had been published in Great Britain of all places. I’ve been hooked on Pelecanos ever since. In the genre of “urban fiction,” it just doesn’t get any better. Except when Pelecanos cranks out a new novel, which always seems to be a little better than the last one. The Turnaround is a prime example. Based upon a fictional racial incident in the ’70s, Pelecanos picks up the story some 35 years later in modern D.C. As always, Pelecanos features a cast of characters that are not just good and bad, black and white, but good and bad folks who happen to be white and good and bad folks who happen to be black. But what ultimately sets Pelecanos apart from other authors is his ear for conversation. Sure, Pelacanos nails the speaking parts of his trademark Greek character Alex Pappas. But where Pelecanos takes it to another level is the dialogue of his inner city characters. Brothers James and Raymond Monroe — who were New York Knicks fans back when D.C. didn’t have an NBA team — are brought to life in the book, as are young drug dealers Deon Brown and Cody Kruger, and old school felon Charles Baker. Pelecanos also works two of his passions, cars and music, into the story, which — as always — features various doses of drugs, alcohol and violence. (The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is also a topic, but instead of Pelecanos making a political statement, he simply has a couple of his characters emotionally tied to soldiers, both dead and wounded.) The Turnaround is ultimately about family, friends and second chances. In typical Pelecanos fashion, the book will make you laugh and it will also bring a tear to your eye. And once you finish, you’ll realize that you just read a damn good, feel good novel.


Daniel Silva 11: Moscow Rules

Maybe I’m an espionage snob, but the genre just hasn’t been the same since the end of the Cold War. Thankfully, that is about to change. Israeli spy/artist Gabriel Allon returns in Moscow Rules and as the title suggests, the book features Russians — both good and bad — and boy am I happy. I don’t know what it is, but the perfect spy book just has to include the Russians. In Moscow Rules, not only do we have the traditional Russian bad guy, but we also have the new breed of ultra rich Russians who vacation in the French Riviera and the Swiss Alps and are lividly hated by the locals. We know about the Russian mafia, but the protagonist in this book is a KGB agent turned gun runner who is about to sell some nasty weapons to terrorists. And it’s up to Allon to thwart the plot. As always, the plot revolves around Allon’s uniquely gifted talents as an artist, and it also features several Mossad agents who have been with Allon since he hunted down and assassinated the terrorists responsible for the death of several Israeli Olympians in Munich in the early 1970s. Other cameos from previous books include some colorful British art collectors, as well as fellow spies from the U.S., Great Britain and France. As I mentioned in my review of The Secret Servent, Daniel Silva is the best in the business right now. And the return of the Russians puts Moscow Rules atop Silva’s list of wonderful novels.

T. Jefferson Parker 14: Storm Runners

I really like T. Jefferson Parker. He’s a damn good writer who keeps getting better and better. But his novels are starting to bug me. The last book of his that I reviewed, The Fallen, featured a cop who survived a fall from a tall building. I noted that this reminded me of a previous book about a sympathetic character, Silent Joe, which featured a cop who was disfigured. So what happens in Storm Runners? Parker comes right back with a cop turned private investigator who survived a bomb blast and lost an eye and finger, among other injuries. Parker pet peeve aside, this is another really good book. In the first sentence, Parker establishes that a high school friend killed Stromsoe’s wife and young child. From there, the tale unfolds and you can probably figure out the direction in which things are headed. In keeping with the title, one of the interesting topics in the book is meteorology, as Stromsoe’s romantic interest is a TV weather forecaster whose hobby and life’s work is cloud seeding or making it rain, as Pacman Jones would say. (While reading about the rainmaking, I couldn’t help but remember a book I read as a kid, The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club, which was written in the late 1960’s and was well before its time. In that book, a bunch of teenagers used rockets filled with chemicals to make it rain in their town, which was having a drought. In Storm Runners, a similar fate happens once the characters mess with Mother Nature.) Another interesting topic in the book is the Mexican Mafia and ways they are able to communicate with their leader, who is serving time in prison. (Harvard won’t be too happy that the vicious leader of La Eme is a graduate of their school.) Even though there are more similarities and less originality than I prefer in a book, I enjoyed Storm Runners. With that said, I hope Parker returns to a more normal lead character in his next novel.

Michael Connelly 18: The Overlook

I’m not a big believer in coincidences. Maybe it’s my background in journalism or maybe I just over-analyze things. Whatever the case, I need to stop reading too much into things when I’m reading. Case in point: The Overlook by Michael Connelly. The 13th book in the Harry Bosch series, it was originally written as a 16-part series for the New York Times Magazine. A year later, Connelly expanded it into a novel. The story focuses on a murder that is being investigated by Bosch and his young new partner, Iggy Ferras. Before long, the FBI takes an interest in the case and Bosch is reunited with Rachel Walling, a former flame who appeared in the previous novel, Echo Park. As the case unravels, the plot takes an abrupt turn, which is where the coincidences come into play. (In the last book I reviewed, The Watchman by Robert Crais, the story was set in Los Angeles and it also involved the feds and took a similar abrupt turn near then end.) But enough about coincidences. Both writers are writing about crime in post 9/11 Los Angeles and obviously the feds are a big part of that equation. (In fact, Cold Hit by Stephen J. Cannell, written prior to both books, also features a crime story set in Los Angeles and involves the feds.) Like The Watchman (and coincidences aside), I thought The Overlook was very good, but not great. My only real criticism is the brevity of the book, which obviously is due to the fact that was originally written as a serial. I noticed the book was a bit thinner than usual, but what hit me afterwards was the feeling that the book felt rushed and seemed to climax very quickly. The other thing I’m not sure about is the bonus chapter, which was published in the paperback edition. To me, I would feel cheated if I had purchased the hardcover edition which was missing the chapter.


Robert Crais 14: The Watchman

After taking a break with a standalone novel, Robert Crais returns to his signature Elvis Cole-Joe Pike duo in The Watchman. While previous books in the series focus on private eye Cole and his Fletch-like one-liners, this one features the enigmatic Pike. From the 10 previous books in the series, we know Pike is a tough ex-cop who owns a gun store and skirts the law as he helps Cole solve cases. In this book, we learn why Pike left the LAPD and became a mercenary. We also find out Pike has a soft spot beneath his rugged exterior, something that comes to light while Pike serves as the bodyguard for a young woman, which is the premise of the book. As Pike uses his training to keep the woman alive, Cole uses his investigation skills to find out why she is being targeted by assassins and who is responsible. (Pike also enlists the help of LAPD forensic criminalist John Chen, whose hilarious, scene-stealing character reminds me a lot of Vince Masuka, the sex-crazed forensic technician in Showtime’s outstanding series, Dexter.) The result is a book that is enjoyable, although things don’t add up for me. I raved about Crais’ last book, The Two Minute Rule, which I really liked. But an abrupt plot turn near the end of the book followed by an unlikely, unexplained coincidence puts this book in the very good but not great category, despite the awards it has won.


Sue Grafton 17: Q is for Quarry

When I want a break from the standard fare of spy and detective novels, I’ll often pick up a book by either Sue Grafton or Janet Evanovich. Maybe it’s because they’re female authors, maybe it’s the female lead characters in their novels or maybe it’s a combination of both, but I welcome this periodic shift in perspective. Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is heavy on the mystery, but it also adds a dose of humanity. The early Millhone books were a casual read, but as Grafton grows as a seasoned writer, not only do Millhone’s cases become more complex, but so too does her character. In Q is for Quarry, Millhone is not only trying to solve a murder, but one from the cold case file that’s been gathering dust for nearly 20 years. And on top of this being one of her toughest cases, she is also dealing with family issues that have been evident since the series debut, but have been building in recent novels. Kinsey’s normal support system, her 81-year-old landlord and friend, is on vacation with his even older siblings. Thus her interaction is limited to her two partners on the case, a pair of grizzled ex-cops with health issues who receive emotional support from Kinsey and each other. This odd trio travels to barren and windy California desert towns with names like Creosote seeking the identity of a Jane Doe whose body was found in a quarry. The clues mount and the typical small town atmosphere both helps and hinders the investigation at times. As the case nears its conclusion, the real solution seems to be the importance of friends and family.

Richard Price 1: The Wanderers

I’m a huge fan of the HBO series, The Wire, and a writer friend recently loaned me a couple of books by Richard Price, one of the show’s magnificent writers. Since George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane are two of my favorite novelists, and since those two also wrote episodes of The Wire, it seems to reason that I will also like the works of Price. So far, things are looking promising. Several years ago, I saw the movie The Wanderers and thought it was decent. As is usually the case, the book turned out to be better than the movie. Was it a masterpiece? Many will say yes, although I don’t normally read “urban” fiction and my bias toward mystery and espionage leads me to label the book as pretty good, especially for a first novel. Similar to Pelecanos (Washington, D.C.) and Lehane (Boston), Price writes about a city he grew up in and knows intimately, in this case the Bronx borough of New York City. Set in 1963, the book follows the everyday lives of several members of The Wanderers, a teenage street gang. Disturbing at times, the book’s raw sex, extreme violence and often racist dialogue can be eye-opening and not surprisingly, the movie was toned down a bit. (Speaking of movies, for some reason I kept thinking of A Bronx Tale, set in the same time period.) Naturally, the book features gangs fighting each other. But the toughest battle for The Wanderers — and all of their rivals — seems to be gang cohesion as members mature and ultimately leave the group. As Price becomes a more seasoned writer, I can’t wait to read some of his later books, including Clockers, which was made into a movie by Spike Lee.


Daniel Silva 10: The Secret Servant

As someone who grew up reading – and idolizing – the outstanding espionage writer Frederick Forsyth, I never thought there would come a day when I had a new favorite. But as Forsyth has aged and understandably slowed down in his writing, I now look to Daniel Silva for my fix when it comes to spy novels. And does he ever deliver. The Secret Servant is the seventh book in the series featuring Israeli spy Gabriel Allon. And like all of Silva’s works, this is one damn good read. In the recommendation on the front of the book, USA TODAY compares Allon to Jack Bauer. I completely disagree. The thing that sets Allon apart from traditional spies like Bauer or Jack Ryan or even James Bond is his intellect, not to mention his spectacular cover story, which isn’t really a cover. Allon is a world renowned artist who specializes in the restoration of masterpieces. Unfortunately for Allon, he also happens to be a world class spy who keeps getting called back into service for his country. In The Secret Servant, Allon is sent to Europe for some routine clean-up work and he quickly becomes involved in a kidnapping/terrorist plot which takes him to Amsterdam, London, Cairo and Copenhagen. Like every Silva novel, the story moves quickly and features meticulous research on both the political and religious ideals of the story’s main characters. In the end, Allon’s identity is no longer a secret, something that sadly hinders both of his jobs, but he will no doubt return to both worlds in future novels. (Follow The Secret Servant on Google Maps)

Lawrence Block 4: The Scoreless Thai

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 40 years since Lawrence Block wrote The Scoreless Thai, his fourth book featuring ultra-intellectual master spy Evan Tanner. As one can surmise from the title, most of the book takes place in Thailand, where Tanner comes to the rescue of a Kenyan princess who has been taken hostage. Tanner also befriends a sex-starved native whose lack of success is the basis for the title. In addition to Thailand, Tanner’s travels also take him to Laos and Korea, which were not popular destinations in 1968. (Two things struck me about Tanner’s travels. I recently spent 17 hours in the air flying from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo to Bangkok. Tanner’s 1968 flight from New York to San Francisco to Honolulu to Tokyo to Bangkok must have taken twice as much time. Once in Bangkok, Tanner was greeted by a customs agent who searched his suitcase. In modern day Bangkok, there were no customs agents.) Like previous books in the series, Block pens a zany espionage adventure featuring a lead character who cannot sleep thanks to a brain injury. Not to worry, Tanner uses this extra time for intellectual pursuits such as writing a doctoral thesis on “the socioeconomic implications of the Boxer Rebellion” for a lazy NYU grad student or writing articles for a variety of ethnic newsletters. Like his lead character Tanner, Block is a prolific writer and I always enjoy his novels featuring a variety of New York City-based lead characters with interesting quirks and lives.

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Robert Crais 13: The Two Minute Rule

The early works of Robert Crais featured wise-cracking detective Elvis Cole, who reminded me a lot of Gregory Mcdonald‘s hilarious book and movie character Fletch, and Cole’s bad ass sidekick Joe Pike. After eight novels of smooth sailing featuring the duo, Crais shifted into another gear with a couple of standalone novels, including Hostage, which was made into a movie starring Bruce Willis, and Demolition Angel, which was probably too gritty and realistic to become a movie, even though it should have been. The Two Minute Rule is the third novel without Cole and it may be Crais’ best work to date. The story centers around Max Holman, a bank robber just out of prison who joins forces with Katherine Pollard, the FBI agent who put him away. That idea may sound far-fetched but don’t let that scare you. Everything about this novel works, from the characters which could be in a George Pelecanos novel to the story, which brilliantly unfolds and beautifully comes together. The book made me laugh and it also brought tears to my eyes, it was that good. I know Crais goes back to the awesome Cole and Pike duo, but I really hope he brings back Holman and Pollard for a future novel — even if it’s only for a cameo appearance.


Mark Billingham 2: Scaredy Cat

After reading two books in a row by British authors, some of the Queen’s English seems to have made it’s way into my head. “Boy, am I knackered,” I thought to myself the other day after some strenuous exercise. What the hell got into me? The answer is Mark Billingham and his second novel, Scaredy Cat, which features Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. Thorne and his team investigate of series of murders that don’t seem to be connected. But are they? Billingham’s first book, Sleepyhead, shows how Thorne thinks outside the box when it comes to solving a mystery. He continues this in the second novel, as the childhood and hometown of a potential suspect comes into play, while the pressure mounts from the media and Thorne’s superiors to close the case. I can’t say that I go out of my way to read Billingham, but he’s very good, very early and I look forward to his later work as he becomes more seasoned. (Mark Billingham books and reviews)

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Stephen J. Cannell 11: Cold Hit

Like just about every kid who grew up during the 1980’s, I was a fan of the A-Team. Along with Riptide. And 21 Jump Street. And Hunter. All of those TV series were created by Stephen J. Cannell. And one day in the book store, I recognized his name and decided to buy one of his books, The Plan. Like his TV shows, I got a kick out of his first novel. Whether it is TV or a book, the guy can flat out write. And his characters are always great, not to mention the fact that they always have the perfect name. For example, Cold Hit is the fifth book in the series featuring L.A. detective Shane Scully. From that name alone, you can tell he is a rugged, bad ass and it doesn’t surprise you that he is married to a smoking hottie — who happens to be his boss at the LAPD. In Cold Hit, Cannell combines the detective novel, which he does so well in the Scully series, with the espionage novel, which he does so well in a couple of non-Scully novels. (My favorite non-Scully book is King Con, which features a bunch of gypsy con men who cross the mafia.) The mob is also featured in Cold Hit, but this time it is the ruthless Russian mafia. And some equally as ruthless FBI and DHS agents. Not much else can said about the book without giving things away. Other than just like his TV shows and his first 10 novels, I laughed, I was engrossed and I totally enjoyed Cold Hit.


T. Jefferson Parker 13: The Fallen

I have to admit, I picked up a T. Jefferson Parker novel years ago since it was right next to veteran author Robert Parker’s large section of books. His early books were decent, but in the last four or five, he’s really hit his stride and I can’t walk by his books without picking up the latest. (Ironically, since then, I haven’t bought a Robert Parker novel, although I really enjoy his work, as well.) Four books ago, in the novel Silent Joe, the main character was a cop who was disfigured in a childhood accident. When I read the prologue and the first chapter of The Fallen, whose main character is a cop who survived a six-story fall, I was ready to rip on Parker for using the same sympathetic character modus operandi once again. However, the more I read, the more I really got into this novel. And how the accident has affected the life and job of the main character, Robbie Brownlaw. Similar to Silent Joe, Parker weaves a great murder mystery. And one that also includes a look into local politics — fictitious, of course, but likely with a huge semblance of truth. Parker has written three books with female lead Merci Rayborn. Brownlaw is much more compelling — and human — in my opinion, and here’s hoping Parker keeps his m.o. and brings back Brownlaw for a future novel.

Carl Hiaasen 4: Native Tongue

There’s really only one word to describe a Carl Hiaasen novel: Zany. Whether it is the premise or the people, Hiaasen is outlandish — and funny as hell. In Native Tongue, Hiaasen centers the action around Amazing Kingdom, a ripoff of Walt Disney World run by sleazy madman Francis X. Kingsbury. (And speaking of madmen, the book re-introduces a hippie and roadkill-eating character named Skink, who happens to be the former governor of Florida.) The book centers around Joe Wilder, a lovable former newspaper reporter turned public relations employee at Amazing Kingdom. Wilder quickly tires of the p.r. shenanigans and joins Skink in a wacky adventure to save the Florida wilderness. Side characters include a couple of dimwitted burglars, working for a crazy old woman with a propensity for violence in the name of ecology. And long before baseball had its steroid problem, Amazing Kingdom had its head security, Pedro Luz, jacked on the juice and taking the muscle-enhancing drugs intravenously using a dispenser on wheels. But the real gem of a character, in my mind, is Kingsbury. Whether it is the x-rated tattoo of Mickey and Minnie on his forearm or the topless photograph of his wife in the living room of his mansion, I started looking forward to the Kingsbury scenes to see what kind of crazy shit he would say or do next. Bottom line: Yes, the book is absurd, but if you can suspend disbelief, this is a highly entertaining novel with a very unique writing style — and one worth checking out.

Michael Connelly 17: Echo Park

What can you say about a Michael Connelly novel that hasn’t already been written before? Good question. But I’ll give it a try. Echo Park is the 12th book in the Harry Bosch series (and his 17th work of fiction) and like a lot of people, I’ve read them all. Unlike a lot of people, I stop reading a popular series when the author gets a big head or his main character becomes an unbelievable super hero — Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan, raise your hand. I also stop reading when the Hollywood ending is 10 times better than the book’s ending — John Grisham, you lost me at The Firm. Bosch, meanwhile, is the same crime-fighting bastard he’s always been. And Connelly still refuses to sell Hollywood the rights to his famous character based in Hollywood. And, of course, he keeps pumping out quality stuff. In Echo Park, Connelly starts with a flashback to a case Harry and Jerry Edgar worked in 1993, one that still haunts Bosch 13 years later. And it’s Bosch’s pig-headed persistence that puts things into motion in this story. In addition to the cameo by Edgar — and the far-too-coincidental introduction of his cousin, Gary — reporter Keisha Russell and long-time nemesis Irving Irving make appearances. Connelly obviously enjoys having Bosch interact with a top-notch Los Angeles Times crime reporter, which he himself once was. The mention of Irving, meanwhile, reminds me of how Connelly has grown as a writer. In one early book, Connelly described Irving in cartoon character-like form — as a buffoon who clenched his jaws and golf balls formed. That character is now a strong, very serious nemesis to Bosch, just as Connelly is a strong, very serious player in the crime fiction arena.


Kyle Mills 4: Burn Factor

I really liked the first three novels by Kyle Mills — featuring brilliant but irreverent FBI agent Mark Beamon — and I was a bit disappointed when Mills changed gears in Burn Factor and introduced female FBI computer programmer/agent-wannabe Quinn Barry. But as the book progressed, I became more and more into Barry, not to mention another great criminal fiction plot by Beamon. The book also features reclusive, former child genius Eric Twain who carries a good deal baggage — both emotional and otherwise. And while the brain power shared between Barry and Twain is immense, Mills finds a way to portray them not as nerds, but attractive, relatively normal characters who are simply very damn smart. And my reward for accepting Barry? Beamon makes a cameo appearance in the book. Could this mean a book with both of them in it, or is it simply back to Beamon series for Mills?

Olen Steinhauer 1: The Bridge of Sighs

Set in an anonymous Eastern European country a few years after the end of World War II, The Bridge of Sighs is the debut of novelist Olen Steinhauer, who chronicles the first case of 22-year-old rookie detective Emil Brod. At first, the use of a fictitious country seems a bit strange to someone like myself who has been to Eastern Europe but, admittedly, is not an expert in the geography of that region. (Steinhauer wrote this book while on a Fullbright Fellowship in Romania and that country obviously gave him inspiration.) However, when you think about it, the use of a fictional country is a smart move in that it allowed the first-time novelist to concentrate on his story, rather than the endless research needed to properly document the political and culture history of a real country. Instead, Steinhauer’s creation is a melting pot of characters from several different countries who interact with Brod during his murder investigation. Brod grows as both a man and detective during this story. And he slowly earns the admiration of his colleagues, even the mysterious Brano Sev, a state security officer attached to the homicide unit. Just like Brod on his first case, Steinhauer shines in his debut. The Bridge of Sighs is a trip worth taking, especially if you like European and war history, as well as detective fiction — together in one book.

Ken Bruen 7: The Guards

Just like beer, Ken Bruen is an acquired taste. My first exposure to Bruen was in The White Trilogy, which featured British detective Brant in three novels: A White Arrest; Taming the Alien; and The McDead. Irish detective Jack Taylor is the focus of this book. A former member of the Irish Guards militia, Taylor takes shit the entire book since there aren’t really any private eyes in Ireland. He also has major issues with alcohol and hangs around with some shady characters, which is your standard detective fare. What isn’t standard, is the prose of Bruen. Not only are you hit with the Queen’s English, but Bruen has a unique writing style in which he sometimes uses poetry. In the middle of a paragraph. Or he makes a list and puts it in the form of poetry. Similar to your first sip of beer, at the start of the novel, you are a little skeptical. But as you continue to read, it starts to make sense. And you find yourself enjoying his quirky style. Not to mention his characters. Bruen is compared to Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos for this reason. Taylor and his criminal friend, Sutton, are both a dichotomy between good and bad, normal and abnormal. And just like Pelecanos, Bruen is a mix between detective fiction and book noir. A literary cocktail worth trying.

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Lee Child 3: Tripwire

When you pick up a Lee Child novel, you know what you’re getting. Mystery and some violence to go along with your mystery. In Tripwire, the third installment of the Jack Reacher series, the hero is in Key West hanging out, digging ditches and working as a bouncer in a strip club. In typical Reacher fashion, he vastly enjoys this drifter lifestyle. Soon, his peaceful existence is interrupted when he is sought out by a private detective and a couple of tough guys. Reacher winds up in New York City, where he reacquaints himself with the daughter of his mentor in the military police. And they unearth a plot that involves the military and MIA soldiers in Vietnam. (The movie Basic, with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, has some very similar — almost identical — plot elements and if screenwriter James Vanderbilt didn’t read this book, I’d be very surprised.) Reacher has an uncanny way of finding trouble, and by this third installment, the reader is hip to the modus operandi in this series — the drifter is minding is own business until some criminal makes the mistake of awakening the sleeping giant, so to speak. Despite the predicitibility of the violence, this book — and the two previous novels — are entertaining in a Rambo meets Die Hard sort of way. And when I’m in the mood for more of this molotov cocktail style of writing, I’ll pick up the next Jack Reacher novel.

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Boris Starling 3: Vodka

I really enjoyed the first two books written by Boris StarlingMessiah and Storm — and I was expecting more of the same in Vodka, especially after one of the reviewers compared Starling to Martin Cruz Smith, obviously since the spectacular crime novel Gorky Park was also set in Moscow. However, for the first 300 pages of Vodka, crime took a backseat to an unlikely romance between American banker Alice Liddell and Russian mafia kingpin — and politician — Lev (no last name given). Somehow, the beautiful Liddell falls for the nearly seven foot tall tattooed not very handsome member of the Russian vory. In addition to the romance, the story also focuses on the Russian economy following the end of communism as Liddell is hired to privatize Lev’s Vodka distillery, Red October. The book dragged for me for those 300 pages and I considered not finishing it. However, after several attempts, I finally continued — and finished — the book and I’m glad I did. Things pick up in the last 300 pages as crime takes front seat to finance as Estonian detective Juku Irk tracks the killer of several young orphans. If you like reading about business and the economy, this book will explain those concepts from the Russian perspective, where the black market under communism may have given them a better understanding of capitalism than those of us who have lived under it for our entire lives. If you like vodka, this book is a guide to the myriad different types and flavors of the drink that is the fabric of Russia. And finally, if you love crime — and especially international crime — this book provides a glimpse into the struggles of fighting crime in a country where the police receive little or no equipment, resources or pay. Things are even worse for Irk, who is not considered a Russian by most of those he meets. Hopefully, Starling will revive the Irk character in a future novel, similar to Arkady Renko appearing in a subsequent Smith novel.

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John Shannon 1: The Concrete River

In The Concrete River, author John Shannon introduces us to an atypical gumshoe, who specializes in finding missing children. In typical detective fashion, Jack Liffey is divorced, has a child and is behind on his child support payments. He is also a Vietnam vet, who had a real job before his current gig. Set in Los Angeles, the grandmother of one of the children Jack found several years earlier asks him to look into the disappearance of the child’s mother. When the woman is found dead, Liffey becomes a “full-fledged” detective and has run-ins with some unsavory characters on both sides of the law. Similar to a Carl Hiaasen novel, the book features some zany characters. In one scene, a midget and a very skinny guy trade jokes in a bar. Of course, when the midget makes a Nietzche reference — which goes over my head — I start to wonder if I’m enough of an intellectual to read this book. I was also taken back a bit by Liffey’s romantic interludes with two middle-aged women — one with humongous breasts and one who is a virgin. As the first novel in the series, the book was a bit rough in places and I even found a typo. But I liked the Jack Liffey character and there were interesting supporting characters in addition to the aforementioned zany characters. The story wasn’t the most imaginative nor did it feature a huge plot twist, but things tied up nicely at the end. And it was entertaining enough that I’ll keep reading.


Ken Bruen 3: Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice

Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice, the third novel by Ken Bruen, is more of the same from Bruen: A rugged, main character straight out of the seedy London underworld. On this go-around, we meet Cooper, an ex-con who did his time for grievous bodily harm. Cooper and one of his former cellmates called Doc — due to his penchant for Doc Marten boots — put their criminal skills to use as both repo men and bank robbers. The first is on the up-and-up and makes good money, but the two keep getting drawn to the second and its adrenaline rush and enormous cash windfall. Things are going well for the bandits until Cooper meets a crazy American woman named Cassie. With Cassie in the picture, Cooper and Doc start to have personal and professional issues. Similar to the main character in the previous books, Cooper is long on brawn and short on brains, although Cooper’s choice of a Subaru Impreza as his everyday vehicle is a smart move according to this WRX owner. And similar to the other two books, we see Cooper on the run and attempting to hide in a London full of nooks and cranny’s. All-in-all, another gritty and enjoyable urban novel by Bruen, who seemingly atones for a mistake he made in The Hackman Blues — he mentions The Untouchables again, and this time he correctly says Kevin Costner played Elliott Ness.

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Ken Bruen 2: The Hackman Blues

As you may know by now, I love reading Ken Bruen. When it comes to urban fiction set in the United Kingdom, there is no one better — at least that I’ve found. And The Hackman Blues is another spectacular, gritty story. Unfortunately, there are a couple of slight issues. In Bruen’s previous book, Rilke on Black, the main character was a thug who got involved in a kidnapping plot. One book later, we’ve got the same exact plot. But what saves things this time are the twists — Tony Brady is not only a thug, but he’s one who battles manic depression. And Brady has an even larger flaw when it comes to the underworld — he lives an alternate lifestyle. But what really struck me were a couple of factual mistakes that an American proof reader would have caught but a British one didn’t, obviously. Bruen talks about the Chicago mayor who was arrested for drugs and then re-elected. He meant D.C. mayor Marion Barry. Bruen also talks about Kevin Kline’s role in The Untouchables. He meant Kevin Costner. Errors aside, it was still a damn good book. Brady is a sleazeball playing relationship Russian roulette, but neither he nor Bruen apologize for it, although there are consequences. And again we are shown the seedy underbelly of London and learn terms such as rent boy, which is British slang for a male prostitute. British gangsters and thugs again come to life and if you enjoy authentic urban fiction, The Hackman Blues is worth checking out.

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Ken Bruen 1: Rilke on Black

On the cover of Rilke on Black, American author George Pelecanos lauds the work of British author Ken Bruen. I have to say it’s fitting since Pelecanos is my favorite American author and Bruen is my favorite British author. The reason, of course, is quite simple. When it comes to gritty, noir fiction filled with wonderful dialogue, excellent characters and a realistic dose of drugs, sex and violence, these two are the best in the business right now. Rilke on Black is Bruen’s third novel, but since the first two are out of print, for my purposes, we will call this Book No. 1. The story is told in first person by Nick, a massive bouncer short on smarts who lists “Thuggery” as his occupation. We are introduced to Dex, a psychopathic neighbor who gets saved from a beating by Nick, and Lisa, a saucy black woman who Nick picked up in a bar. This odd trio decides to commit a crime and, as one would suspect, things start to unravel in the aftermath. The book is damn entertaining once you get accustomed to Bruen’s unique writing style and the Queen’s English, and my only complaint is that the book is a bit short. (Lisa gets Nick hooked on drugs and he goes into a slide, but things move so quickly it fails to make an impression.) Brevity aside, as Pelecanos says — and I second — if you like realistic crime novels, Bruen is the one to read.

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David Kent 1: Department Thirty

I don’t know what it was, but Department Thirty by David Kent took me a very long time to finish. Longer than any other book I’ve ever read. Some books you pick up and can’t put down. This book, on the other hand, took an incredible amount of small readings to complete. It wasn’t a bad book, in fact, for a first novel, it was pretty decent. But the main character, Ryan Elder, and his female companion, Cass Chambers, just didn’t do it for me. By day, Author David Kent is actually Kent Anderson, a music director at a classical music station in Oklahoma City. And it just so happens that Elder is a broadcast journalist and Chambers is an ex-concert pianist and they both are fans of classical music. But enough about that. Department Thirty focuses on Elder’s search for the true identity of his parents and is a classic espionage novel filled with several twists and turns that even a veteran like myself didn’t see coming. Assassination, corruption and psychopathic zealots all play a role in this book, which I liked once I forced myself to finish it.