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Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

You can almost hear that kid’s jingle, “Michael and Evie sitting in a tree . . . .” Evie is the daughter of a UVa prof. Michael is a child of the Virginia foster care system. To say Evie’s parents don’t approve is an understatement. In spite of that, both bolt from Charlottesville after high school graduation and migrate into New England. She manages to get through college, but Michael enlists and heads for Afghanistan. The plan: one tour, discharge, home, wedding, family, life. 

An IED changed all that. One survivor, and it wasn’t Michael Hendricks. Michael crawled out of the wreckage, hid for days to avoid the Taliban, then limped into Pakistan to heal. According to the Army, Michael was KIA. Evie had to move on and a few years after college got married, moved to a rural farmhouse outside of the DC suburbs in Virginia . . . and is now pregnant. Thus endeth that chapter (you think). 

Michael, on the other hand, stayed dead, managed to slip back into the US via Canada and lives in a cabin outside of Portland, Maine. His best friend Lester from the Army, the only survivor of that mission, owns a waterside bar/bait shop in Portland. He is wheelchair bound after the IED, but still maintains his skills as a hacker for Michael in his new venture.

Michael is a hitman. 

But not just your garden variety hitman. Michael is very specialized. He uses Lester’s skills to find out who is being targeted for elimination. The reason for the contract doesn’t matter. And with ‘organized crime’ now being multinational and somewhat connected with each other (via “The Council”), there is no shortage of potential targets. Once they isolate a potential target, Michael makes contact, tells the tale, and offers the target his life, at the princely sum of 10X the contract, to take out the hired hitman.

Michael is a hitman who takes out hitmen. And on more than one occasion, Michael saved a target slated for elimination by The Council. So Michael isn’t getting a Christmas card from The Council anytime soon.

And he manages to steal away part of his fee into a ‘fund’ that helps Evie stay solvent.

A major player in The Council was betrayed by one of his accountants. Eric (or Eddie. depends on which end of WitSec one is) testified and was then quickly hidden by the DOJ outside of Kansas City. Eric/Eddie was bored and mostly broke (if he tried to access the money he jacked from his former employers, both The Council and DOJ would know and Eric/Eddie’s world would  crash around him). So, Eric/Eddie hacked into a local casino’s slot machine system so he would win one of those mega-jackpots. 

The problem is when winning something like that, the casino wants to milk the publicity around the awarding of the $6 million check. That means pictures, media, and lots of attention. The Council has found Eric/Eddie and sends their own hitman, Leonwood, to KC to kill Eric/Eddie in a very public and messy fashion - the awarding of the check. Michael tells Eric/Eddie and gets hired to take out Leonwood. 

But The Council has another plan - use the hit on Eric/Eddie to draw out this ghost who has been a thorn in their side. They hire another hitman, a Swiss gunman (Englemann) who has his own legendary reputation. 

So, we have hitman #1 (Michael) looking for hitman #2 (Leonwood) while hitman #3 follows hitman #2 in order to flush out hitman #1. And all this culminates at the ceremony to award Eric/Eddie his big $6 million check. And the FBI is on the sidelines without a program that identifies the players.

To say things go south at the ceremony would be an understatement. Dozens upon dozens are killed at the ceremony, hundreds are injured. Michael is both on the run and chasing Englemann on the road to where much of what is important to Michael is now a potential target. 

Holm has fashioned a wham-bam thriller, which is presented at a breakneck pace right up to the last page. This probably qualifies as one of WCD’s airplane reads as it would be a welcome distraction on a coast-coast flight. Holm has written a previous trilogy (not a thriller, I don’t think) and based on the way this ended, I would suspect there will be other Michael Hendricks’ books in our future. Excellent escapism. 

Available September 15, 2015

East Coast Don

Friday, August 28, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

So much has been written about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I hesitate to even bother to review it here.  So I’ll be brief.

It’s 1955 and “Scout” Jean Louise Finch is now 26 years old and has moved to New York.  She comes home to Alabama to visit her aging father, Atticus and learns he has more bigoted views than she thought he did.  They argue about it and she decides she loves him anyway.  That’s it.  There’s more plot in a Kardashian reality TV show.

This is no To Kill a Mockingbird.  In fact Harper Lee wrote it before To Kill a Mockingbird and thought it not worthy of being published.  She was right.  Apparently someone very close to the now 89 year old Harper Lee needed some cash and knew something about marketing.  What a scam.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Soil by Jamie Kornegay

Soil is not my usual preferred genre but could be classed as dark contemporary fiction.  Our protagonist, Jay Mize carries a lot of baggage.  His grandfather served prison time for racial crimes and his father committed suicide unable to cope with his legacy.  Jay attempts to leave all this behind by submerging himself in his work.  He is an environmental scientist employed by the Farm Service Agency but becomes so obsessed with soil composting and environmentally safe but not economical farming practices that he is fired.

Jay moves his wife, Sandy and young son, Jacob to a farm in a river bottom in Mississippi.  Here he puts his organic farming skills to work hoping to reinvent accepted modern farming practices.  But a spring flood followed by a summer drought wipes out his crops and his savings the first year.  Sandy is frightened by the toll failure takes on Jay and moves her son back to town and takes a teaching job.

As the flood waters recede, Jay finds a dead body on this property.  In his present emotional and physical state, Jay convinces himself that local law enforcement will try to pin a murder on him… the filthy wacko tree hugger.  His paranoia is enflamed when good old boy deputy Danny Shoals shows up to inquire about a missing tourist from Ohio thought to be in the area.  What Jay doesn’t know is Danny has a reputation as a womanizer, has targeted Sandy as his next conquest, and needs a big arrest to save his floundering career.  Maybe Jay’s paranoia has some legitimacy.

Jay decides to dispose of the corpse in a way that leaves no trace.  He chops it up and incinerates it piece by piece resulting only in charcoal for his compost beds.  But this desperate act leads to one delusional act after another to cover up his crime and threatens to destroy what is left of his pitiful life.

I was drawn to Soil by the backdrop of production agriculture along the Mississippi River, an area that enveloped my career as a grain trader.  But that connection was quickly left behind as the humanity that accompanies failure came to the forefront.  Observing how one man’s obsession and paranoia drove him to desperate acts in an effort to save himself makes for a fascinating story.  This first time published author has great potential.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang by edward abbey

I clicked on a Facebook link to a story about which I am unable to recall. This led to another link. Click. A story about Doug Peacock - an eco-activist of the southwest. In this rather long story is the mention that Peacock served as the basis for one of the more colorful characters of American literature, George Washington Hayduke, a member of The Monkey Wrench Gang whose own version of anarchy was about 'opposition to the organized violence of the state' (that's Tolstoy) with specific targets being developers, oil speculators, strip miners, and in general, any industry that threatened their wish that the southwest "Keep it like it was."

The story begins at the end. A bridge over the Colorado River connecting Utah and Arizona is set for a grand opening, but suddenly it starts to sway sending those in attendance scampering toward either end before collapsing. 

Four oddballs: Dr. A.K. Sarvis is a widowed general surgeon in Albuquerque. Bonnie Abbzug is a Jewish transplant from NY to NM who, after various attempts at gainful employment, now works in the Dr. Sarvis' front office, splits time between her geodesic dome and with the good doctor; he's around 50, she's 28. Seldom Seen Smith, a Mormon with three wives, runs float trips down the various rivers. George Hayduke is a Vietnam vet. A medic who was also a POW for 14 months. He sort of works for Seldom Seen.  Doc has been promising Bonnie a river trip for months and finally books an outing with Seldom Seen Smith.

Over the course of the next few nights around the campfire, well lit with beer and weed, they bond on their belief that there are so many people on the rivers because there are too damn many people everywhere else and the victim is the wilderness. "The wilderness once offered men a plausible way of life. Now it a psychiatric refuge. Once there is no wilderness, there will be no place to go. The madness becomes universal and the universe goes mad." So sayeth the Doc.

So they form a loose gang to perpetuate mischief. Target no people or workers, but do what's necessary to slow down the pace of development. "Always pull up survey stakes. That's the first general order in the monkey wrench business. Always pull up survey stakes."

Add to that the draining of lubricants from earth movers, pouring sand and sugar into fuel tanks, cutting communication lines, burning down billboards, driving Caterpillar trucks over ledges to tumble down into canyons, bulldozing worksite offices, sabotaging automated rail lines transporting coal, damaging bridges just enough. Their penultimate target: The Glen Canyon Dam. A pork-laced public works project that even one of the prime supporters (Barry Goldwater) later said was a mistake.

Interesting how a couple clicks resulted in an interlibrary loan request for this fascinating 1975 book and author, who I come to find out, is mentioned in the same breath as Thoreau and Muir. Also learned that this book served as a sort of launch pad for future eco-activists, notably EarthFirst. Think of The Monkey Wrench Gang as a primer to civil disobedience designed to halt the mad-dash industrialization of the southwest - hell, east of the Mississippi is already a lost cause so a stand has to be taken in the desert southwest.

Abbey's history is well documented in places like Wikipedia. How he left Pennsylvania to hitchhike west and witness what was happening in his beloved Four Corners region of the US. While the book is presented as a fictional narrative, the events described apparently actually happened. Did Abbey really want to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam? No, "but if someone else wanted to do it, I'd be there holding the flashlight." Abbey presents a proactive defense of the wilderness. The book is not intended for lecture halls or learned analysis. Rather, it's audience is hunkered in tents and makeshift shelters on isolated trails and campsites planning ways to "Keep it like it was."

East Coast Don

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Lightning Stones

I first learned of Jack Du Brul as a co-author with Clive Cussler, and he’s written a number of books on his own with Philip Mercer as his Dirk Pitt-like protagonist. The Lightning Stones is his latest grand adventure in true Cussler style. The mystery begins back in 1937 with the disappearance of Emilia Earhart, the cause of which was attributed to a mysterious cargo she took on board on the leg before her airplane disappeared. Fast forward to the present time when Mercer, a geologist by training and a man with many other skills, goes to visit an old mentor, Abe Jacobs, in a deep mine in Minnesota. However, he finds that Jacob has just been killed and the chase is on, but Mercer fails in his initial pursuit to grab the killers. You can already see the connection, a senior geologist, the mysterious cargo, and the title of the book. Mercer is surrounded by the usual cast of characters, including his special forces pal Sykes, and Du Brul introduces some great new bad guys. The book is fast-paced and mostly believable, although some of the science that Du Brul uses to explain the plot is a bit suspect. This one would entertain you on a cross-country flight, so I would put it in my category of airplane books, not great literature, but definitely a fun fantasy. Many thanks to John Pitts at Doubleday for sending this book my way.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Son of a Sharecropper's Son

The Son of a Sharecropper’s Son is the fifth book I’ve read from Thomas K. Matthews, and as inferred by the title, it’s a three-generational story. This is a very different murder mystery. Rather, it’s about a man, Kyle Lee Bradley, who is already a husband and father, trying to tract his own family history as a means of understanding his own emotional struggles. He has a psychologist who suggested this journey. Kyle know his family’s origins were in Alabama, that his grandfather had abruptly moved the family to Michigan, and then his own father had migrated to California, completely cutting himself off from the family he left behind. Kyle’s own father would talk about none of it, but he had become like his own abusive father, so he had only run away geographically and not emotionally. Kyle wanted to know more. As a psychiatrist, I thought this story captured exactly what I do with patients when I do a psychic archeological dig. The goal is not to find someone to blame, but to see patterns in the past so those patterns can be recognized in the present – and then managed differently. Matthews insights are remarkable. This is a story worth reading – best done in a single session. Where’s the murder and who was killed? You’ll have to read the book to find out, and it should be released by the publisher in the next few months.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

I, Ripper by Stephen Hunter

Fall, 1888. The London slum known at Whitechapel is a breeding ground of Judys (prostitutes) and their Johns, a cesspool of gin, manure, and rotting animal carasses, a target-rich environment for thieves. For a thrupence, a Judy would guide a John into an alley, bend over, and give her John a couple minutes of release from whatever drove him to such a place. 

But over the course of 4 or 5 months, a new visitor to Whitechapel made a name from himself. He would make his bargain with a Judy, follow her into an alley, may or may not take advantage of the agreed upon services, whip out a blade, draw a back and forth slice out of her throat before, then, carved up her torso from groin to throat, stringing out her entrails before slipping away in the darkness. 

Five Judys. The display of his artwork with a blade becoming more extensive and dramatic with each successive Judy. “Here is the message I deliver for you to contemplate. I am anarchy. I am fear. I am carnage, slaughter, destruction for its own sake . . . I am you.”

The coppers are unable to come up with a clue, at least until the killer leaves a note in which JEWS is misspelled as JUWES. 

Late 19th century London has dozens of newspapers and tabloids, each eager to be the first to present something new on the killer. George is a reasonable reviewer of the arts and music, literate and knowledgable, not the typical hack reporter who works the streets. The publisher of The Star senses that the first killing is the beginning of a message to London and sends George out to the murder scene. 

George uses the Star’s reputation to squeeze past the penny-a-line freelancers (that era’s paparazzi), identifying himself to the detectives as ‘Jeb’ (to avoid confusion with his critic identity) and forms a cautious working relationship with the police, even to the point of them looking for him in the crowd of reporters after future killings to bring him in to view an untainted crime scene.

In one of those meeting within a newspaper between reporter, editors and publisher, the decision is made that to help boost sales even more, the killer needs a name, Something that will be associated with the paper, strike some lingering gut level horror in their readers, and just maybe, something that might stand the test of time. Jeb takes a while (“I was a pickle absent the brine, a desiccated raisin . . . my brain was bereft of electricity.”), but Jeb uses all his creative juices:

Jack The Ripper.

At a party for the well heeled elite of London, The Star’s publisher brings Jeb along  so that Jeb might get some material for how the upper crust views the murders in Whitechapel, a part of town none of the partygoers would frequent. Here, Jeb meets the illustrious Professor Thomas Dare, a professor of linguistics and phonetics - language. 

Dare is a bit of a dandy amongst academics, loved and admired, well dressed and well off, but also abhorred by some in academe for some of his research history and methods. But he had his convictions. He hoped to “convert the world to one language that all would speak without accent or indication of geography, class or origin.” Further, he “wanted to do away with tribalism, nationalism, paternalism, capitalism, communism, militarism, vegetarianism, colonialism, ismism, anything that could take an -ism as its tail end.” because  “Voice is communication, communication is civilization. Without the one, we lose the other as those festivals of slaughter called wars attest.” (were Professor Dare a real person and alive today, I suspect he’d be a charter member of the Bilderberg Group). 

Nonetheless, Professor Dare is taken with both the killings and with reporter Jeb, together they form a sort of real life version of that emerging English detective duo, Holmes and Watson. Professor Dare sees little clues in the language of notes left by the killer and, with Jeb’s first hand account of the murder scene, starts to formulate a portrait in his head, maybe the first real attempt at a criminal profile. 

Based on the profile, Jeb and Dare have produced a list of three possibles and start surveilling without a clue what to do if they happen to catch Jack in the act.

Regular readers of MRB know that Stephen Hunter is firmly entrenched in our power rotation - he writes it, we read it. Well known for his series on the Swagger family (father Earle of the Arkansas State Police of the early 50s and son Bob Lee, the #2 sniper in Vietnam and go-to investigator for the FBI’s Nick Memphis when Nick needs results that the law might make it difficult for the FBI to get). He also has a few standalone novels as well as some non-fiction. What Hunter is really known for is his encyclopedic knowledge of rifles, especially those used by snipers. Hunter is to rifles what Clancy was to more destructive tools of the military. 

He as sort of ventured into historical novels based on actual occurrences. The Third Bullet sent Bob Lee to Dallas to investigate JFK’s murder. Snipers Honor was about a (real) Russian sniper in WWII (OK, Bob Lee was sort of source material for a reporter doing a story on WWII). 

No Bob Lee here. Hunter presents the story in two parts. The views of the circumstances are the notes Jeb is assembling for a book 24 years after Jack’s reign in London. The second part is made up of Jack’s journal. So Hunter takes the two and assembles his tale, going back and forth between Jeb’s memoir and Jack’s journal to assemble a chronological presentation. 

And it’s not just the back and forth that solidifies Hunter as one of today’s very best storytellers. Hunter’s research of the era is not just about facts (provided in eight concluding pages of books, documents, newspapers, websites, etc.), it’s also about the language of Victorian era London, language that was still heavily influenced by Dickens and other notable authors of the mid-late 19th century England. That means, prepare to be immersed in the dialogue and description reminiscent not of today, but of nearly 150 years ago. It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the writing, but once the presentation was no longer so complex, the lyricism became second nature. Don’t give up after the first couple chapters. Let Hunter take you back in time. The journey is well worth it. 

Two final thoughts. First, Jeb is what George’s little sister used to call him when both were children. Keep going because Hunter reveals “Jeb’s” identity, if you read close. Second, Hunter’s last line in the acknowledgements (you do read those, don’t you?) may give a clue to a future title: “ . . . since you’ve done all this research for a novel on Jack The Ripper, do you know who he really was?” to which Hunter replies, “Of course I do. Watch for it. It’s going to be fun.”

We will.