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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Being Mortal

I saw this book on an AMA list of the 10 books that physicians should read. Atul Gawande is a Harvard-educated physician, and he has produced a remarkable book that looks at end-of-life treatment issues and how we’ve gotten so much wrong, both within the medical establishment and in our families. He provides specific and poignant case examples, and he supports his arguments with excellent data. This is a remarkably compassionate book about this most difficult matter. I vividly remember the extreme awkwardness of trying to deal with these issues during my medical school, internship, and residency years – but attending doctors, hospital administrators, and families all struggle to face decisions about the end of mortality, problems that they’ve been ignoring or avoiding all along. Gawande’s book is important, not only to physicians, but to all of us as we get older and face our inevitable age-related decline. By not directly facing the reality of aging and dying, we only end up doing more harm. Take the time to read this book.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos

I’ve been waiting for months for my name to come up on the wait list for the latest from one of my power rotation authors.

“the martini shot”. (n). Hollywood term for the last shot of the day, because the next shot is out of a glass.

For the uninitiated, George Pelecanos is a Washington, DC based mystery writer of 19 previous books, all based in Washington, DC (my home through high school) over different eras in the 20th century. He is also an Emmy-nominated writer/producer for HBO’s magnificent Baltimore-based The Wire. If you are familiar with IMDB, you know just how persnickety the readers are when it comes to rating movies and television shows. The average viewer rating for The Wire is a whopping 9.4 out of 10. That’s #4 on IMDB’s list of the top 250 TV series (behind Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and The World at War; I know you were wondering). He has written and produced for HBO’s New Orleans-based Treme. This guy delivers the goods . . . consistently.

And I think he graduated from my high school in suburban Maryland. I know his older sister did.

His latest effort contains 7 short stories and a novella. Pelecanos is known for his gritty street stories of crime in DC with nary a mention of the US government. Better than anyone I’ve ever read, he captures the rhythm of the time, the people, and especially, the dialogue. For some, me included, the first taste of his books can be challenging because of the street dialect, language, and the in-the-gutter stories of drugs, crime, and both the humanity and inhumanity that exists in neighborhoods many of us avoid.

And in The Martini Shot, he delivers again . . . a couple of days in the life of a confidential informant . . . the problems between a good playground high school basketball player, with a chance to escape the neighborhood, and some street punks he helped whip in a pick-up game . . . just over the DC line millennials looking for drugs.

But Pelcanos takes us elsewhere, too, well out of his comfort zone that readers expect . . . a sweet tale of a Greek immigrant, his wife, their natural born child, and their three African-American adoptees . . . a Miami-based insurance investigator tracking an insurance scam in Recife, Brazil . . . an off-the-boat Greek immigrant trying to make it in DC between the wars.

The novella that gives the book its title appears to draw from his time working on Treme. It, too, is based in Louisiana (unstated, but seems obvious) on the set of a TV mystery where he gives us a behind the scenes look at the day-to-day, and after hours, goings on of the show.

As I said, every story delivers. And while the locales change and some seem almost cherubic in comparison with his novels, death still lurks. Pelecanos is not one of the mainstream, grocery store rack writers who frequent the couches of the talk shows. Check out some interviews or his readings on YouTube.  Even after watching some, I suspect that some might still be on the sideline, unsure about attempting one of his street-smart novels. If so, this would be a good place to sort of ease in. I suspect that those who choose this as their first Pelecanos title will want to jump right in to his novels.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Detective Lessons

Bill Larkin has mostly written short stories and novellas, but this is a full-length crime novel set in Los Angeles. Orange County Deputy Kevin Schmidt (Schmitty) is essentially on the outs with his department, having been parked on a patrol boat in Newport Harbor where he is supposedly safe from seeing any meaningful action. Of course, things don’t work out that way. Billionaire real estate developer Mac Whelan can’t find his son, Jimmy, who Schmitty knew from high school, and Mac enlists him to help. He accepts even though it is against the rules to do such work outside the department. Mac demands that Schmitty team up with the beautiful private investigator Megan McCann who plays by her own set of rules, and neither of them is initially happy about this partnership. In the process of looking for Jimmy, they uncover a complex real estate scheme against Mac, but they also uncover Mac’s dark history that dates back to some illegal activities in the 80s in Cabo San Lucas. In the course of the story, the ultimately heroic Schmitty alienates just about everyone except Megan.

This is a plot-driven story which is well conceived. At times, the dialogue gets a little cheesy, but it’s funny and it helps create Schmitty as a law enforcement outcast, a do-it-my-own-way kind of guy. For example, in his initial encounter with Megan, Schmitty says, “Let’s take your car. Hey, girls always know within two minutes whether they want to sleep with a guy, marry him, or kick him in the balls. So tell me, how am I doing?” Megan responds, “Get yourself a cup.” When Schmitty later asks Megan about a low-life they’ve just encountered, she said, “Throw out the sliminess and the fact that you can’t trust him, and he’s a really sweet guy.”

The story is entertaining and the protagonists are likeable. The book could keep you entertained on a cross country flight. This one could be the start of a series of novels about these characters – I hope so. I’ll stay tuned for another book by Larkin.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

#11 in the Longmire series.

Walt's daughter is due to give birth the first week of January and she wants her dad, Vic, and Henry Standing Bear in Philly. But former sheriff Lucian Connelly asks Walt for a favor. The former Campbell County sheriff, now doing cold case work in his semi-retirement, checked into a motel, stuck his service weapon in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Lucian says his friend wouldn't do that without some strong provocation. The guy had never broken a law or cheated on anything, ever. 

Walt's got a few days cushion before his flight so he and Lucian head east, but are told by the locals that it's a black and white conclusion - suicide. His wife doesn't believe it any more than does Lucian. Best place to start is the cases he was working on. 

A Basque woman had disappeared and her sister was doing her best to keep the case on everyone's mind by posting missing person posters all over town. Shouldn't matter that she worked at as an 'exotic dancer.' The case file seems a bit thin for an investigator as seasoned as Lucian's friend. He was also looking into the disappearance of two other women. All vanished within 6 months of the suicide. Without a trace. Here one day. Gone the next. No clues. No warning. 

Walt sticks his nose into the operation of the strip joint, the local K-mart, post office, city police, relatives of the missing . . . due diligence. They all just vanished. But he must've pissed someone off because when he checks back in at the strip joint, the bouncer tries to bounce him but Walt manages to handcuff him to the dance pole while the club owner used a .357 to encourage the bouncer to fess up.

The bouncer says that one of the missing women is due to be taken to a remote hunting lodge deep within a national park so Walt heads out and follows the trail through knee deep snow to the lodge to confront the perps.

Well, that confrontation doesn't go all that well, but Walt does learn of a make-shift 'girls for sale' ring run from Campbell County where he returns only to have to fight off not only the bad guys but also a hundred-car coal train trying to get one more run in before a snowstorm all the while keeping an eye on the clock to the very last minute before having to catch a flight to Philadelphia.

So, did Lucian's friend commit suicide? Well, yes. But that's not important. The forensics are clear. It's the  'why' that throws Walt and Lucian for a loop. Oh yeah, and don't be surprised to learn that someone has put out a contract on Walt.

Whew. Walt can cram in a lot in a couple days. Unlike other Longmire books, our hero's main battle isn't against the forces of nature. This time it's a coal train loading up. Amazing how well Johnson brings Longmire's challenges to life - raises your heart rate he does.

It goes without saying that Johnson consistently delivers a story of warmth and tension, of camaraderie and conflict. I can't imagine anyone saying anything other than they want more. If you are convinced that the Longmire series is worthy of your commitment, I suggest starting at that the beginning as there are numerous common threads that connect and leap frog this highly readable series.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Last Days of the Condor by James Grady

Remember the Robert Redford movie in the seventies called Three Days of the Condor?  It was based on James Grady’s book, Six Days of the Condor which I remember reading in 1976 and wishing for a larger selection in this genre.  Nearly forty years later, Grady surfaces again with his Condor character in Last Days of The Condor. Condor is a silver haired, broken down ex-CIA whistle blower now living with all the physical ailments of a modern day baby boomer plus a mental struggle to sort fiction from reality.

The Condor’s civilian name is Vin.  After a heart attack and some problems with his memory, Vin is assigned to the Library of Congress to sort through books from military bases, deciding what to archive and what to pitch.  He frequently feels he is being followed and sometimes he is since a Homeland Security team is assigned to monitor him.  One day one of the Federal agents assigned to him is murdered in his Washington D.C. apartment.  Vin goes on the run with only a few dollars and a pocket full of prescription pills.  Faye Dozier, the other Homeland Security agent assigned to his keeping quickly finds him but they are attacked by unknown assailants.  She becomes suspicious of her superiors and their motives.  With nowhere to run, they impose on a fifty something woman, Merle who also works at the Library of Congress.  They invade her apartment and she surprisingly welcomes the intrusion… deja vu for Six Days of the Condor fans. Now Vin and Faye must go on the offensive to figure out who is after them and why before the assassins find them.

Last Days of the Condor is a thrilling page turner and believable Washington conspiracy tale.  Yet in many ways it is a rewrite of Six Days of the Condor, forty years later.  So I ask you, would you rather read about a young, na├»ve hero cleverly out smarting the intelligence community or a sixty something hero burdened with a heart condition, an enlarged prostate, and memory loss?  I’m afraid youth wins out again.

Thanks to Net Galley for the advance copy.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson

Tuesday, the day before Christmas. Walt Longmire is mostly alone in Durant, Wyoming. Deputies on vacation. Daughter Cady is expecting and can’t travel home from Philly. So Walt does what he does most every Christmas. Re-reads Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

A sort of ghost of Christmas past walks into his office. A young woman, with some Asian in her, has a package she wants to deliver to one Lucian Connelly, Walt’s mentor and Absaroka County sheriff before Walt. They ride over to the Durant Assisted Living facility and barge in on Lucian.

The woman has some unique features like a scar across her forehead and she sort of whistles when she talks. She asks, but neither Walt nor Lucian recognizes her. The only clue she whistles is ‘Steamboat.’

Flashback: December 24, 1988. Walt’s first year as Sheriff and a blizzard is bearing down on Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.  There has been a car wreck. The parents are dead and a 9-year old girl is severely burned. She is being air lifted to the closest airport for transport to Denver, and that’s Durant. Problem is the coming storm is too strong for all the little Piper Cub-type planes in Durant much less that 'copter.

Off in the corner of a hanger sits a relic being ‘restored’ by a runway rat. A WWII VB-25J bomber. Just like the planes that Jimmy Doolittle led on the infamous 30 seconds Over Tokyo raid. Named Steamboat. OK, they got the plane (sort of, considering it’s questionable condition). But no pilot.

Or maybe they do. Sitting in Durant’s assisted living home is Lucian Connelly, who just happened to have piloted one of those bombers on Doolittle’s raid. The EMT won’t make the trip so the town doc reluctantly volunteers. Add the girl’s grandmother, a co-pilot, and Walt for the planned 1.5hr flight to Denver trying to beat the arrival of the storm’s leading edge.

From here, Johnson takes us on the harrowing journey and all the mechanical and medical problems the team and the girl must overcome. This is Johnson’s 10th (or 9.1 per one reviewer) Longmire story. Why 9.1? Because this started out as a short story that blew up into a novella. This little book, easily read in about 2 hours, just bristles with the tension of the flight; edge of your seat stuff.  Makes me really look forward to Johnson's most recent book (Wait For Signs) that contains 12 Longmire short stories. 

But while reading this story, one thing dawned on me about why I like this series so much. It’s not the obstacles that Longmire has to overcome. It’s his simple and overwhelming humanity. His desire to do the right thing, make the right decision, reach the righteous outcome or die trying. And you know he’ll do it. As Johnson says, Longmire’s like a loaded gun, once he's pulled the trigger, he can’t change his mind.  

Where does the title come from? 'Steamboat' is the name of the horse that was the inspiration for the Wyoming license plate. The resemblance is obvious.

East Coast Don

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Gone, But Not Forgotten by Phillip Margolin

Phillip Margolin practiced law in Portland, Oregon for many years before devoting full time to writing novels in the mid 1990’s.  Many of his works including his third novel, Gone, But Not Forgotten made the New York Times Best Seller list.

In this novel, protagonist Betsy Tannenbaum is an up and coming criminal defense attorney in Portland, Oregon.  Wealthy businessman, Martin Darius walks into her office one day and gives her a healthy retainer with no indication for why he needs legal representation.  Soon after, the bodies of women who’ve been kidnapped, tortured and murdered are found on a construction site owned by Darius.  Left behind at each of the women’s homes are a black rose and a note that reads “Gone, But Not Forgotten.”   No physical evidence ties Darius to the crimes and he is released on bail.  Then information surfaces tying Darius to similar crimes in New York state ten years earlier… but he was never charged.
Tannenbaum is caught in a moral dilemma.  She believes everyone deserves legal representation whether guilty or innocent but she can’t bring herself to defend Darius if he truly committed these heinous acts.  Then Darius’ wife is murdered while Martin is under surveillance so he is innocent of at least that crime.  But Tannenbaum’s investigator uncovers damning information about Darius concerning the New York crimes.  Could he be guilty of the crimes a decade earlier and be innocent of the recent Portland crimes?  Could there be a copycat killer? The more Tannenbaum learns the more she is drawn to the case and the more the lives of her and her family are in jeopardy.

This is the second time I’ve read Gone, But Not Forgotten… the first nearly twenty years ago.  I’ve read several of Margolin’s novels since that time but of late find myself disappointed by comparison to his earlier books.  Re-reading Gone, But Not Forgotten reaffirms for me that Margolin’s earlier works were as good as I remembered.  Gone, But Not Forgotten has the disturbing grit of Connelly’s Concrete Blond and the startling spin of Turow’s Presumed Innocence… two of my other favorites of the nineties.