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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Junkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson

The Durant Municipal Solid Waste Disposal Center has started receiving human body parts. Make that a finger. OK, make that a part of a thumb. Found in a styrofoam cooler someone just dropped off.

Dead winter in Absaroka County Wyoming, 2nd week of subzero high temps, the 3rd go around; a winter that "was stretching out like a really long Russian novel." Sancho, his Basque deputy, is thinking about quitting (bullet fever after a too-close call in a recent confrontation).  Daughter Cady is engaged to the brother of his deputy/friend with benefits, Vic(toria). Vic wants to buy a house and Longmire never seems to have time to help her look. Given that Vic looks like "one of those women draped over the hoods at car shows . . . the ones with an attitude and a 17-shot Glock," Longmire seems to continually trip over his own self around her. He continually ponders "the damage we all did in life simply by getting up in the morning."

You have to wonder what the weather does to people on the high prairie when Duane Stewart and his wife Gina are taking Duane's grandfather Geo out for a ride . . . by tying Geo to the back bumper of a 1968 Toronado with 100 ft of nylon rope. 

Geo is a decent enough sort, for a guy whose body hair has grown through his long underwear. He is a 2nd generation keeper of the Durant dump, ah, make that the Municipal Solid Waste Disposal center. Their main house used to be a cathouse in the late 1890s, complete with a 100 yard tunnel to help people escape the periodic busts of the place. But Geo is a bit pissed off at developer Ozzie Dobbs whose new megabuck project is on schedule, except the part where Geo moves the dump out of sight of the new McMansions going up.

Oh, and I failed to mention that old man Geo is bumping uglies with Ozzie's 80yo mother.

Longmire's trying to figure out who is missing part of a finger. But then Ozzie and Geo go at it over Geo messing with Ozzie's mother. Geo is hurt pretty bad, but he's one tough ol' buck. Heads out in the snow to walk home, gets turned around, uses an old junk Chevy for shelter and dies.

Just another day in Absaroka County. Starts off with good natured, double-entendre verbal jabs, gets side tracked by the thumb and next thing you know Longmire's got 3 bodies piled up, an Aryan Brotherhood hermit deep in a mountain valley, a mass production farm of hydroponic weed, an encounter with bear-strength pepper spray, and another 2 feet of snow over the week; one thing mounts on top of another that he "feels like a baby seal in a Louisville Slugger factory."

Six books into the Longmire series with no chance of slowing down. Having watched the show (3 cheers for Netflix for having the good sense to pick up the 4th season after the idiot suits at A&E dropped the show), the voices of the show fill my head while reading. Every gesture, quip, rebuke, whatever, rings with a known voice. OK, so the show is not an exact reproduction of the books. That's OK. Robert Taylor's portrayal is, to me, spot on and brings Johnson's character even more to life in my head. I'm extremely impressed with Johnson's ability to bring the bleak high prairie to life. One of my power rotation authors is George Pelecanos, in part because of his skill at making Washington, DC a critical character in his books; Johnson is to the Wyoming prairie as Pelecanos is to DC. From my corner as a DC native, that's some high praise.

#7 is Hell is Empty. On the shelf at the library, but not for long.

East Coast Don

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dark Spies by Matthew Dunn

Now here is an interesting 'what if' scenario. What if an old hard line Soviet spy used the US-Muslim extremist war to effectively cut off the head of the US, now leaving Russia to waltz in as the new alpha dog on the planet? Then, what if you had a pretty good notion what was behind it all? To borrow a line from a classic Johnny Carson bit where he skewered Karl Maulden, 'What would you do? What WOULD you do?"

Will Cochrane, son of a Brit spy, now works as a joint MI6 and CIA asset. He and most of the intelligence agencies in the western world are on the trail of Cobra, thought to be the primary source of money for Muslim terrorist groups around the world. He gets yanked off the search for some reason and is assigned to cover the possible defection of a Russian agent to the West. He's is settled under cover in the wintry backwoods of Norway. CIA deepdeepdeep cover agent Ellie Fellowes is bringing in this asset, code name Herald. Will spots a team of Russians moving on the house. They are commanded by a major Russian officer, code named Antaeus. 

Can't be. Last time Will saw Antaeus was seconds before a bomb Will planted blew Antaeus' car to kingdom come. Antaeus is dead! No, he's in his crosshairs. Will is in contact with Langley and requests the go code to kill Antaeus for good. His handler says that Antaeus is not to be touched. There is no info on why to anyone who does not have Ferryman clearance. Only 4 or 5 people in DC have such clearance and they are willing to let Fellowes and her asset be killed.

Will's gut tells him to protect his comrade and starts to take out the Russian intruders, but not before Herald is killed and Antaeus escapes.

Now what? Will has gone from being perhaps a most trusted and effective operative to being the object of a massive manhunt in the matter of a few seconds. He and Fellowes figure the only real way to get out of this mess is to find out what project Ferryman is and who is running it.

Off he walks . . . to the Norwegian coast . . . over water to Greenland where he walks . . . to the western shore . . . where he gets help from some undercover Russians watching Canada . . . then a flight in a little prop plane in some dangerous weather . . . to Nova Scotia . . . to the Maine border . . . beat the border guards where he winged a guard . . . eventually down to DC, mostly by bus despite his name and face being plastered across every print and electronic outlet out there.

The FBIs most tenacious manhunter is Marsha Gage who is put in charge of the most exhaustive manhunt in history drawing in the entire DC metro police force, every FBI agent not in the hospital, every CIA asset in town, and the renowned Hostage Rescue Team of the FBI, effectively turning DC into a police state to catch this one very dangerous man.

Will needs info on the project Ferryman and those with access. The primary players with access are Senator Colby Jellicoe, Ed Parker, former CIA field officer now a CIA Director, (just below THE director), and Charles Sheridan (one ruthless spook). And Will's going to get what he needs, put it together with what he's learned while crawling around DC, and see if it all adds up to the US being successful at killing Cobalt or becoming an international pariah, if Antaeus has anything to say about it . . . but not before a massive running firefight along Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown.

I finished this over a late dinner. When I closed the book, I said aloud to no one, "Damn that was good."

The jacket blurb says that Dunn is a former MI6 operative with extensive covert and deep cover experience. This is the 4th book in his Spycatcher series and seeing as book 1 features Will Cochrane,  my keen intellect tells me that Cochrane is to Dunn what John Wells is to Alex Berenson or Mitch Rapp is to Vince Flynn, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Any fan of Thor, Flynn, Berenson, Steinhauer, Child, Fesperman, et al. will find a friend in Dunn. A guy with amazing skills and mind is cornered by both good and bad forces while he wrestles with what he's learning and how to handle the darkness building within him . . . not too mention a fascinating twist at the end that I've no doubt will come back in book #5. Last time I thought this highly of a new author (at least to us here at MRB) was Alex Berensen and we blazed our way right through his catalogue in no time.

Puts me in a quandary: what's next? Continue with the next Longmire mystery or root out Dunn's first, The Spycatcher, and see if my reading pace can keep up with the frantic pace of Dunn's stories? And he's been putting out books at a rate of 2/year. Either way I can't lose.

East Coast Don

available from Amazon

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson

Walt Longmire, part 5.

Neighboring Campbell County does its part to help Absaroka County's budget by paying Longmire's office to house the occasional prisoner. Mary Barsad has been transferred to await trial for murdering her husband, Wade. But she's bordering on being catatonic and says little if anything in her defense. Walt tries to get her to eat, but she just nibbles, remaining so thin she could make the wind whistle. 

Mary was a champion equestrian athlete. Rumor has it that Wade started her barn on fire killing 8 horses and also took her prize mare Wahoo Sue out to a distant mesa and killed her. Everyone assumes Mary went into a rage and put 6 bullets into his head. For no other reason than a hunch, Walt doesn't think that Mary is guilty, but she just won't speak in her own defense. 

Longmire goes into Campbell County to the Barsad's home town of Absolam under the guise of an insurance investigator looking into a claim on the burned barn. Leave it to Longmire. Over the course of maybe 4 or 5 days, his tracks can be found around 2 dead men, 1 man bleeding out, a terrorized boy, a beaten up bartender, the tormented Mary, and a tortured horse. 

Wade Barsad wasn't what you might call 'well-liked'. A Jersey native who was an 'accountant' in Youngstown, Ohio (that's code for 'mob'). Not too many people are sad to see him go. Three days of questions end up with Walt, the Barsad's caretaker, and a young boy headed up to a remote mesa in search of some clues to Mary's behavior. What started out as a bit of an overnight camping trip turns into a struggle for survival and a chase on a horse so fast it'll pin your own ears behind your head.

The complex interplay amongst the residents of Absolam and Walt play out over a quick week where Johnson brings the vastness of Wyoming and the quirks of the locals alive. This episode is largely Longmire vs. Absolam with little presence of the Longmire family (Cady, Henry Standing Bear, Vic, et al.). Simply put . . . another winner. Can't get enough of Longmire.

next up: Junkyard Dogs

East Coast Don

Available from Amazon.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat is a nonfiction story about the University of Washington crew team in 1936 which won the gold medal. The well-written story begins in 1932 as the boys enter the University of Washington in Seattle, a school with a long history of doing well at crew, but the coach, Al Ulbrickson, had never taken a team to the Olympics. The book is about the life of Ulbrickson, but more so of the boys he chose to lead his team. As much as their ultimate success at Munich was already known, Daniel James Brown has created an intense drama in which the outcome seemed uncertain. Clearly, the characters who would finally be in the Olympic boat were not known until the very end.

Brown successfully takes the reader through an education about this unique sport by focusing on the rich lives of the people in the boat, especially Joe Rantz, a quiet man who’s mother who died when he was only three, and then was abandoned by his father, stepmother and half-siblings when he was only 15 years old. Totally poor, Joe became a quiet man who was determined to find a way to get himself through college, and making the crew team was his means of doing so. Brown also focused on the life of the boat builder, poet, and crew savant, George Yeoman Pocock whose cedar sculls were the best in the world.

Of course, the story culminates in Germany, the Olympics of Jesse Owens (who was never mentioned in this book). Brown did a marvelous job of describing Germany in the 1930s and the importance of the Olympics to the Third Reich. He described it Germany’s attempt to show the world an illusion of itself as a progressive people, not the truth of their hatred that was already developing. He accurately captured the anti-Semitism which was sweeping the country. Hitler actually attended the finals of the eight-man race from which he walked away so disappointed, a defeat that Brown said portended the outcome of the war.

If you’re a fan of the history of World War II or of the Holocaust, this is a book for you. My report about this book is but a dry review of what was an exciting book. You certainly don’t have to be a sports fan or know anything about crew to love this work. Brown captured the beauty of teamwork at its finest.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pacific Beat by T. Jefferson Parker

Jim Weir is a former detective in the Newport Beach police department and after several years on the force turned to deep sea treasure hunting for some adventure.  His first expedition is more adventure than he’d bargained for and he ends up in a Mexican jail.  After his release Jim is welcomed home like the prodigal son by his mother, his sister Ann, Ann’s husband, Ray who is also his best friend and a Newport cop, and Becky, his ex-girlfriend.  Their joyous reunion is short lived because on the night of Jim’s return, Ann is brutally murdered.  Her body washes ashore with multiple stab wounds indicating a violent, passionate attack.  The Newport police investigation uncovers one witness, a homeless guy who saw a squad car leaving the crime scene about the time of the murder.  The police chief chooses not to implicate his own officers and asks Weir to conduct his own covert investigation.
Jim’s investigation leads him to places he’d rather not go.  Seems his sister had a dark private side beginning with an affair as a teenager with David Cantrell, a wealthy local businessman.  Ann became pregnant and her parents arranged a secret birth and adoption far away from Newport Beach.  Since that time Ann’s mother and Becky have joined forces to become political enemies of Cantrell with opposing views on environmental and real estate development issues involving Newport Beach and the Balboa Peninsula.  Though Ann loved her husband Ray, she had become restless of late.  She started secretly seeing Cantrell again and was paranoid someone was watching her.  So Jim unearths his family’s unpleasant past and must cope with that while mourning the death of his sister.  Meanwhile the killer watches his every move.

T. Jefferson Parker was in my power rotation throughout the nineties before I knew what a power rotation was.  I was captivated by Pacific Beat, Laguna Heat, and Summer of Fear and was always searching for more in this genre.  Somewhere in the early 2000’s however, Parker’s work crossed a line for me.  His plots grew darker, more violent, and sometimes delved into pure evil. I just didn’t enjoy reading his stuff anymore.  But these earlier works are worth a look.  They hold their own against the likes of Michael Connelly and Jonathan Kellerman, two long-term members of my power rotation. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room is Michael Connelly’s 19th installment in his popular Harry Bosch series.  With only a year left on his DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Program) contract as part of the Open Unsolved Unit of the LAPD, Bosch has developed a melancholy spirit with many flashbacks to days gone by.  His latest partner, the young intense Lucia Soto is dubbed ‘Lucky Lucy’ for her heroic involvement in a police shoot out a year earlier.  Lucy has a lot to learn and Harry is just the right teacher.  Melancholy spirit aside, Harry still has the instinct to sort out the clues and the skill to extract information from relevant players.  Plus he still enjoys riding the adrenalin fueled momentum that occurs just before he solves a case.

Harry and Lucy are assigned to a high profile case involving the murder of a mariachi musician.  The shooting occurred ten years earlier in the busy Mariachi Plaza but the victim dies just recently of lead poisoning brought on by the bullet being lodged in his spine for a decade.  To Harry’s chagrin, the former mayor who currently has gubernatorial aspirations offers a fifty thousand dollar reward for information leading to an arrest.  Harry has to manipulate the department bureaucrats to get help answering the barrage of nuisance calls brought on by the reward.  He does this by asking the receptionist to transfer all these calls to the Captain in his unit responsible for manpower… clever.

A review of the old case files combined with ballistics on the extracted bullet lead Bosch and Soto in a completely different direction from the original investigation.  They see from public surveillance videos that the dead musician was not the intended target.  The ballistics report shows the bullet was fired from a hunting rifle probably from a nearby hotel window.  After running down each of the other band members, the intended victim is found in Tulsa now running a bar.  The musician reveals that he was having an affair with a powerful business owner’s wife and had left L.A. because of threats from the husband.  Interestingly, Soto finds that the business owner is a strong financial supporter of the former mayor… the one offering the reward.

Meanwhile Bosch discovers the root of his young partner’s passion for police work.  As a child she nearly died in an apartment building fire.  The names of her childhood friends who died of smoke inhalation in the building’s basement daycare (the burning room) are tattooed on her arm.  Her purpose in life is to find who set this fire.  Harry agrees to help her but on his terms and under the radar of department bureaucracy.

In both cases Harry is long on suspicion and short on evidence.  He calls in favors from contacts in the FBI and in city government as well as from a reporter at the L.A. Times.  A pro at department politics, Bosch discriminately withholds information about his cases from his superiors.  Harry knows that implicating the former mayor without sufficient evidence would end his involvement in the case and probably his career.

The Burning Room firmly defends Michael Connelly’s position at the top of my power rotation.  This is Harry Bosch at his best.  With retirement pending Harry’s past is on his mind.  He frequently flashes back to old cases, former partners and past lovers, rationalizing the sacrifices he has made for the job.  Yet he stays focused on his current dynamic caseload.  Harry has retained his old school values and methods and has embraced technology well enough to remain highly effective.  But will his cynicism and lack of respect for authority finally end his career?  Apparently Connelly has great plans for Harry as evidenced by his new series, ‘Bosch’ produced by Amazon Studios and starring Titus Welliver.  Let’s hope the print version continues as well.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

Remember Clint Eastwood's late 60's Coogan's Bluff? Eastwood as an Arizona cop in NYC?  Johnson's take is Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire in Philadelphia. 

Henry Standing Bear has uncovered a whole pile of Mennonite photographs that document the late 19th century high plains Indians. A museum in Philadelphia wants Henry to put them on display and attend the opening. Longmire sees this as an excuse to go see his daughter Cady in her new world as a big city lawyer and joins Henry in his vintage T-bird for a cross country drive. Plus he needs to find out about Cady's new beau, Devon Conliffe, son of an appellate court judge. And what Sheriff worth his salt leaves his dog behind, especially a beastly mutt named Dog, but does leave his dress clothes in his cabin, preferring his normal Carhartts, boots, hat, and .45 sidearm. 

Oh, and don't forget, Walt's foul mouthed deputy. Victoria Moretti (Vic) tells Walt that her parents (Lena and opera loving dad Victor) and family of 4 brothers want Walt and Cady out for dinner; to be a male Moretti means you are a cop. 

As they arrive in Philly, Cady says she has a couple things to finish and will meet them at her apartment later in the evening. Next thing Walt and Henry learn is that Cady is being admitted to the HUP (Hospital of the Univ of Pennsylvania) with dangerous swelling in her brain and in a coma. She had fallen (pushed?) down and hit her head on a concrete step. Now begins the constant vigil around Cady's bed by Walt, Henry, Lena, and one of the Moretti brothers, Michael.

The last messages on Cady's phone were from an enraged Devon so Walt tracks down this trust fund baby, sure that in a argument gone bad, he was responsible for Cady's current condition. Walt corners Devon in a bathroom at a Phillies game and gets Devon's side of the story, which Walt assumes is mostly fiction.

Funny thing, the next morning, Walt notices a newspaper headline along the lines of "Judge's son dies in fall from the BFB." (that's the Ben Franklin Bridge for the Philly-challenged readers). This brings out the local cops, Moretti's included. Walt joins the detectives at the bridge and quickly learns this was no suicide.

On the way back to the hospital, Walt stops for a coffee . . . and delivered my favorite line:
""Here, you go, Tex." I let him live."

From here, it's one body after another headed either for the morgue or Longmire's personal wing at the HUP. If it's not a lawyer with an excessive taste for nose candy, money launderers, less than ethical accountants, then it's the local drug kingpins trying to clean up loose ends of a profitable scheme that has started to fall apart. At least one lawyer was on the up and up, but she's lying in the HUP ICU.

I've now gone through books 1-4 of Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series, which is now up to 13 titles I think. Sitting on my desk now is book #5;  gonna read these in order. Guess I'm just a sucker finally tickling my fancy for books about the old west, no matter how cliche some might conclude. The strong, quiet solitary lawman with a black/white definition of right/wrong living far our there in the high plains. A Cheyenne for a best friend. Quirky locals (who make only a token appearance in this outing). And a terrific writer to deliver the narrative. Are you a friend of CJ Box's Joe Pickett in Montana? Then it's time you got to know Walt Longmire.

East Coast Don

P.S. So Longmire had a 3-season run on the A&E Network, but got cancelled. Probably schedule some ridiculous reality show instead and that royally sux. Quality TV it was. But I've read that it may be getting picked up by Netflix for the 4th season. So, here's my suggestion for MRB friend, the infamous Knucksmeister hisself: If the producers decide to put this story in the fast lane for production, you need to audition for the part of Victor Moretti, the father of deputy Vic(toria) - Philly detective and quasi-professional opera baritone in the local production of Rigoletto. How quickly can you say type casting?

available from Amazon