Old mysteries and thrillers gathering dust and adding to your clutter? Donate them to the Burrito Boyz and they'll distribute to the homeless of San Diego.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rage of Angels by Sidney Sheldon

Sidney Sheldon is listed as the seventh best selling fiction writer ever, and none of his books have been previously reviewed in this blog – what a significant omission. After a prolific career writing musicals, screenplays, and television shows (which earned him a Tony Award and an Oscar, and a nomination for an Emmy), he turned to fiction writing after he turned 50. He was subsequently nominated for an Edgar Award for his first novel in 1970, The Naked Face. He wrote 18 novels between 1970 and 2004, and he died in 2007. Rage of Angels was his fifth novel, published in 1980 and was one of his most famous works.

Rage of Angels is a classic story about love and power. Jennifer Parker was a newly minted attorney who was hired by the Robert Di Silva, the District Attorney for the County of New York. She was thrust into the trial that Di Silva had long waited for. She was only there as an errand runner, a gofer. Michael Moretti was the head of the most powerful Mafia family in New York, and Di Silva finally had an informant that would put Moretti away for life. After a morning on the witness stand when Camillo Stela ratted out Moretti, there was a lunch break before the cross examination could occur. In the courtroom, a man seemed to break away from the group with Di Silva and handed Parker an envelope for Stela with instructions that it contained information from Di Silva that he wanted Stela to review before the start of the afternoon session. She was too trusting and was only able to get the envelope to Stela because she was with the DA, and when Stela opened it, he found a dead cannery. The message was clear, that Stela was not safe anywhere, and he refused to submit to cross examination. A mistrial was declared and Moretti was free. Di Silva was furious and he assumed Parker had been paid off, not that she was simply too naïve to have known better. His attempt to get her disbarred was unsuccessful, only because of the honest investigation of another rising legal star, Adam Warner. So she began her legal career at the lowest level possible since no firm would hire her. But, she was a talented and resourceful woman, and she would gradually rise to prominence, time and again successfully defending people against Di Silva who worked tirelessly to find a way to get her.

Meanwhile, Warner was on his way to become Senator, and eventually President, but he was attracted to Parker. The problem was that he was married. Moretti also wanted to have a relationship with her, but she would have nothing to do with him, at first. Di Silva continued his long career as New York’s DA. This was a story of their intertwined lives. It’s a fast paced book, very difficult to put down. It depicted the depth to which the Mafia had infiltrated all aspects of life in New York.

In some ways, the story is a bit dated, and perhaps that’s because we have all been exposed to so much of Sheldon’s work: ten movies including Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun; nine television shows including The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie; six Broadway plays; and 18 novels. For the most part, I was able to anticipate the plot as it unfolded although I was surprised to what happened to some of the main characters. Still, the character development was skillful. The booked grabbed me and I would gladly read another Sidney Sheldon book. If had been reading this much fiction during the 70s and 80s, I surely would have read all of his books.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Echo Burning by Lee Child

Echo Burning is number five in Lee Child’s popular Jack Reacher series.  In this book, Echo, Texas is a sparely populated town and county south of Pecos.  Pecos serves as the governmental administrative center for several counties in West Texas including Echo.

Reacher is hitchhiking in the smothering hot sun in West Texas when a young Hispanic woman in a Cadillac picks him up.  Carmen Greer tells Reacher she is a victim of spousal abuse and is looking for someone to protect her… even if it means killing her husband.  Sloop Greer, Carmen’s husband owns a ranch in Echo, Texas along with his very white mother and brother.  Sloop was convicted of income tax fraud two years earlier and is about to be released from prison.  Carmen is terrified for herself and for her six year old daughter, Ellie. Reacher listens to her story through his MP detective filters and though he questions some of her story, it is 110 degrees outside and the Caddy is air conditioned.  He accompanies Carmen to the Greer ranch and hires on as a wrangler without committing anything to Carmen.  Meanwhile, Sloop’s lawyer and childhood pal is murdered by professional killers.  The first day at the ranch, Reacher teaches Carmen to shoot a pistol, discovers the ranch is under surveillance, and runs off the other two hired hands.

The following day, Sloop is brought home from prison by his other childhood pal and now DA, Hack Walker.  Sloop calls the state police and tells them Reacher is trespassing.  Two Texas Rangers arrive and as they are transporting Reacher to Pecos are called back to the Greer Ranch.  Sloop has been shot in the head… twice… execution style and Carmen is arrested and taken to the Pecos jail.  Carmen has no money of her own so Reacher arranges for a pro bono lawyer named Alice Aaron to represent Carmen.  Ellie is supposedly picked up by Social Services except upon double checking, the agency has no record of Ellie Greer.  Carmen then refuses legal representation and agrees to life in prison.  Reacher smells a rat and decides he must hunt down the professional kill team, the kidnappers and whoever hired them… after all, this is what he knows.

I discovered Lee Child only about five years ago and have read mostly his recent Jack Reacher books.  He quickly established himself into my power rotation.  In many ways, the books in this series are much the same… invincible, righteous hero saves the damsel in distress.  But I never tire of this magnanimous persona that is Jack Reacher… simplistic in creature comforts, physically massive and well trained in hand to hand combat, empathetic to and protective of the defenseless, and fearless and tenacious against any foe.  He is the epitome of the genre we love at MRB.

And ok, the elephant in the room, Tom Cruise just doesn’t fulfill the Jack Reacher aura… it’s like he’s wearing a suit three sizes too big complete with clown shoes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Recommended to me by my wife, The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins is a murder mystery, a story about the remarkable intertwining of psychopathologies. Tom and Rachel were married, but their marriage fell apart when she couldn’t get pregnant. Rachel became depressed, and descended into blackout alcoholism. Tom started an affair with Anna who quickly became pregnant, and he moved Rachel out of the house so he could move Anna in. Their row house, on the outskirts of London, was next to the same railroad tracks that Rachel used to commute to her job everyday, and then she continued commuting after she was fired for drunkenness on the job, just so she could look at her home where she was once happy. She kept having fantasies about the lives of one of the couples in another of the row houses, just a few doors down from where she had lived with Tom, and she could see into their house as the train came to a stop there everyday. She thought of them as Jess and Jason, and Rachel imagined that they had a perfect love for one another. But they were really Megan and Scott, and they too had their troubles. Megan suddenly disappeared, and so the mystery began.

It took me a little while to figure out who the characters were and to understand where the author was going with this story. The story was about the three women, Rachel, Anna, and Megan, but also the spouses, Tom and Scott. None of these people were emotionally healthy and Megan had a particularly dark past. Hawkins writes with remarkable skill about the life of a blackout drunk who is struggling to deal with her disease and to distinguish reality from her own fantasies. Within about 75 pages, I was well in the grip of the story. It definitely gets my recommendation.

Line of Vision by David Ellis

David Ellis won the 2002 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author for Line of Vision.  His lead character, Marty Kalish is a young real estate developer who hates his mother.  As a child he discovered his mother was unfaithful to his father but kept this knowledge to himself.  Now both his parents are gone and his divorced sister and her two kids are his only family.  This has left him cynical about the world and distrustful of most people, particularly women.

Marty works extremely hard for a real estate development firm and is on the fast track to a partnership.  He does some charity work only as a resume builder and most of his extracurricular activities involve guy pals.  Then he becomes involved with Rachel, the wife of the doctor who heads the charity where Marty volunteers.  Rachel tells Marty that her husband abuses her and she is in fear of her life.  Marty catches the doctor in the act, kills him, and hides the body.  A couple days later an anonymous caller tells Marty that he witnessed the murder. The police interview Marty only because he worked at the charity with the deceased.  Marty ends up confessing and is arrested.  He hires a high powered defense attorney and while waiting for trial, also hires a PI to find the anonymous caller.

At the trial, most of the evidence is circumstantial but means, motive and opportunity all stack up against Marty.  Then Rachel takes the stand and paints a picture even more damning for him.  Doesn’t seem like there is much Marty can do to save himself from life in prison or even execution… or is there?

David Ellis writes a very convincing tale in Line of Vision.  He is clearly no stranger to the courtroom.  Formerly a prosecutor, Ellis was recently appointed a justice in the Illinois Appellate Court.  While much of the legal process can be mundane, Ellis builds suspense and inserts enough twists and turns to hold the reader’s interest.  His lead character, Marty Kalish is hard to like initially but as events unfold, you find yourself rooting for him.  Nice work for a first time writer.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Breach of Power by Chuck Barrett

In the waning days of WWII, an American major who processes the remains of soldiers for burial in the US is being chased down a mountain, falls into a snow crevice, and dies. In his hands, a journal. 

Current day. Ashley Regan and Sam Connors are hiking the mountains on the Germany-Austria border; an annual event commemorating their first trip together. Ashley is in the lead and spots a cave, wanders deep inside and uncovers the corpse. Yes, she should tell the cops, but the body is clutching a book. Obviously important to the individual. First, grab the journal. Then tell the authorities. 

It's in German, so a friend translates. The information sets Ashley on a trail of cemeteries digging up caskets of servicemen so mutilated by war that an open casket funeral was not possible. 

Jake Pendelton and his partner Francesca Catanzaro work one of those ubiquitous 'government contractors'. They are called for a private audience with President Rudd. America's first woman president who is riding high in the polls, a shoo-in for a 2nd term, and set to host a summit that should stabilize a wounded worldwide economy. She has a few problems she needs handled quietly and quickly by someone who would guarantee discretion- Jack and Francesca. President Rudd has evidence that one of the most senior Senators is a child predator. Someone is trying to blackmail her. And graves of black soldiers are being desecrated; she needs to know if this is a hate crime and solved before the press gets hold of the story.

And why does the Chief of Staff have an assassin on speed dial? The investigation jumps from Arlington to Charleston to the Pensacola area, and Butler, TN. Graves are dug up, caskets opened, but the remains are undisturbed.

Barrett explores what should the President do if clues about her ancestry become public when she didn't even know about the details until this investigation concludes. Thought the premise was interesting, the plot was entertaining and the Pendelton character was believable. So, while I liked it, don't expect any awards to come its way. As West Coast Don says, this would be a good airplane read. Or on a cruise. Or a long car ride.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mine by Robert McCammon

Early 1970’s. Symbionese Liberation Army. Weather Underground. Storm Front. Domestic terror groups are at war against ‘the man’. Bombs, murder, arson are their tools in an attempt to keep up the movement. The eight core members of the Storm Front are cornered in a NJ apartment building. The resulting firefight leaves four dead and numerous cops and FBI either dead or on medical disability. Lord Jack, Mary Terror (pregnant with Jack’s child), DeDe, and John escape and go to ground in separate directions. “Nobody cared much about the Movement anymore. It was a dry and dusty thing, like the air in the graves or Hendrix and Joplin and God.” Her God - Jim Morrison.

Late 80’s. Mary Terrell has been a fugitive, living mostly in squalor doing menial jobs. “The clock of the Age of Aquarius had turned, hippies and yippies had become preppies and yuppies. The Chicago 7 were old men. The Black Panthers’ had turned gray. The Grateful Dead were the darlings of MTV.” Mary’s working in a Burger King near Atlanta. She still mourns the death of the Storm Front and the movement . . . and her lost child. Years of drugs and no doubt some PTSD have taken their toll on Mary. She lives a fantasy in her shabby apartment with a doll. Make that dolls. When the baby cries on, Mary tips over the edge of sanity to teach her child a lesson, usually with fire, a knife, or the burner on the stove. She has a closet full of mutilated dolls.

On a foray for supplies, her paranoia forces her to duck behind a copy of Rolling Stone magazine (now just another tool of 'the mindfuck state'). She sees a personal ad calling for true believers to meet at the weeping lady on February 18 at 2pm. That was Lord Jack’s name for the Statue of Liberty. He’s calling on the remaining Strom Front to meet, to take up the fight again.

But the last time she saw Lord Jack, she was carrying his baby. He’ll want to know. Mary’s diseased mind works out a plan. Find the right hospital, case it out, dress like a nurse who is really “a six-foot time bomb ticking steadily toward explosion” and steal a newborn, a baby she “’can call mine,’ to give to Jack for them to raise and resurrect a new Storm Front.

The baby she steals belongs to Laura Clayborne. Affluent, nice house, cars, clothers, job. Even gets to review books for the Atlanta Constitution, like her current task, Burn This Book, by a hippie who has stayed loyal to his beliefs. Laura really has everything she needs, except a faithful husband who’s been in an affair for the last 4 months of her pregnancy. Screw Doug. She has her baby, David. that she ‘can call mine.’  But just like that, this big nurse snatches David.

The police, FBI, and national media are all over the kidnapping. They track back to Mary’s apartment and find the tortured dolls, and 3 dead bodies. National news. Mary Terror has resurfaced and the entire country is seeing Mary Terror’s face everywhere, including by one of the FBI agents she thought she’d killed back at the firefight.  Over the next week, she works her way to Jersey, to the Statue of Liberty.

What she finds in not Lord Jack. DeDe and John show up. And for different reasons.

Laura remembers the author of Burn This Book mentioned having met one of the surviving Storm Front, DeDe. So she and her stitches hauls up to Chattanooga to find out where DeDe might be. From these 3 directions – Mary/DeDe/John, Laura, and the disfigured FBI agent – all converge at DeDe’s small home outside Ann Arbor.

Jack’s alive. Living in northern California, near the old safe house where the Storm Front was born so long ago. Mary and the baby, Drummer, are tracked by Laura and DeDe (who wants to help save the baby, the hell with Mary, she’s nuts), and the FBI agent. Less a chase and more a journey to get to a known destination hopefully before Mary arrives.

I read this 1990 copyright a couple years after it was just published. I had picked up McCammon’s ‘Gone South’ on a lark and was intrigued. The library had ‘Mine’, so I picked it up. Couldn’t have been any more different from Gone South. A wacked out 60’s radical, a kidnapping, a silver spoon girl, and a cross-country chase. And throw in a high body count. A few months ago, the Kindle store had this for free (kudos to being on McCammon’s mailing list via his website) so I jumped at it.

While I remembered the gist of the story, I had forgotten just how far gone Mary Terror was. Or the single-minded obsession of Laura. Or Mary’s viciousness when her mind flipped.

In the late 90’s, director/writer Frank Darabont (screenplay and director for Shawshank, and The Green Mile) wrote a screenplay for Mine, but to date, no studio has picked it up. Which is crazy because we get hammered about the lack of leading roles for women. Ok, so it’s violent. But this is a book with women in all lead and supporting roles. What more do they want? I don’t get it.

I wouldn’t call this book of redemption ‘entertaining’ because of its dark subject matter. But, like all of McCammon’s books, it is highly readable and grabs you by the throat daring you to put it down. McCammon doesn't sit at the top of my power rotation for nothing. 

So, the Storm Front is dead. Today, it lives on as the pre and post game radio show for the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL. What has life come to? 


Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler along with Dashiell Hammett, are considered the fathers of the literary genre known as hardboiled detective fiction.  Dubbed hardboiled because like the hard-boiled egg, the protagonist is tougher than most and is therefore wary and distrustful of the world and everyone in it.  The lead character is typically a private detective who confronts violence on a routine basis, has a moral code unique to himself, and is cynical about criminals, law enforcement, the establishment, and just life in general.  He sees the bad in those society deems as good, and the good in those who are behaving badly.  The story is told by the protagonist and therefore from his viewpoint and in his tough-guy street vernacular of the time.  The Long Goodbye was written in 1953 and features Chandler’s favorite fictional hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe.

The story opens outside a club in LA in the fall of 1949.  Marlowe meets a drunk with a scared face named Terry Lennox who is struggling to get into his silver Rolls Royce.  Terry’s beautiful wife shoves him aside and drives off.  Marlowe takes Lennox home to sober him up and a friendship of sorts ensues.  Late one night Lennox appears unannounced at Marlowe’s home and says he is in trouble and needs a ride to the Tijuana airport.  To protect his PI license, Marlowe asks Lennox for no details and accommodates his friend.  Upon returning home, Marlowe learns Lennox’s wife was found dead in her guest house and the police arrest him for aiding a fugitive.  Three days later, Lennox is reported dead from a suicide in Otatoclan, Mexico and because his wife was the daughter of wealthy publishing magnate, Harlan Potter, the investigation ends quickly and quietly and Marlowe is released.  A letter arrives at Marlowe’s office with a note from Lennox and a ‘portrait of Madison,’ a five thousand dollar bill enclosed.  But Lennox’s suicide doesn’t feel right to Marlowe.

Then Marlowe takes a case to find the missing Roger Wade, a best-selling fiction writer with a drinking problem.  Marlowe finds Wade at a make shift detox facility but refuses offers from both Wade and his wife, Eileen to move in to their estate and watch Wade full time.  Nonetheless, Marlowe is called on more than once when Wade’s drinking gets out of hand.

Meanwhile, Marlowe keeps sniffing around into his friend Lennox’s death even after repeated warnings to leave it alone.  He learns that Lennox was a British war hero by the name of Paul Marston and was at one time married to the now Eileen Wade.  Now Marlowe is in deep.  His code tells him to continue chasing the truth behind his friend’s death regardless of who ends up embarrassed or even dead in the process.

The Long Goodbye was one of only six novels written by Raymond Chandler yet he paved the way for many writers who followed him.  Chandler was the topic of the late Robert B. Parker’s master’s thesis in 1971 and Parker’s Spenser character was born from the shadow of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.  Much of modern day fiction in books, movies and television was inspired by this great pioneer, Raymond Chandler.