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.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Risky Undertaking by Mark de Castrique

Like most any small mountain town, the locals are involved in a number of ways to scratch out a living. For example, the local real estate developer, mayor, and insurance salesman of Gainesville, NC are all partners in a cemetery. And they are excited to have added some neighboring acreage. When opening the ground for their first burial, some Cherokee artifacts are unearthed as well as human remains. That sets in motion of series of state mandates regarding native American relics. The mandates involve local law, archeologists, historians, Cherokee tribal council as well as some federal oversight. 

The find also triggers some protests from Cherokee nation. Native activists protest the potential desecration of hallowed ground to the point of disrupting the planned funeral. Upon approach to the burial, the widower assaults Jimmy Panther, the leader of the leader of the protest. But the burial, in another part of the old cemetery, goes on. 

Problem is that the next morning, Jimmy Panther is found sprawled on the fresh grave with a bullet hole in his head. Sheriff Tommy Lee Watkins and his deputy Barry Clayton start their investigation with the obvious suspect, the grieving widower. 

That appears to go nowhere despite one obvious lie. Barry, who also has 2 jobs (deputy sheriff and 2nd generation undertaker - thus his nickname Buryin’ Barry), follows up on the lie and Jimmy Panther’s background that leads to Cherokee, NC. An old Vietnam buddy (and current Boston detective) of Sheriff Tommy Lee shows up while tracking a Boston-based hit man. And a 12-year old Cherokee boy seems to have run off into the mountains. 

What appears on the surface to be entirely unconnected issues eventually come to be tied together where the low hanging fruit are the lucrative construction contracts for a new proposed casino to compete with the current sole Cherokee-owned operation. Jimmy Panther and his #2 end up dead (and one openly presented clue that I will bet every reader misses) bringing unsuspected perps up the ranking of suspects.

A couple weeks ago, my local library set up a table of NC authors where I found JD Rhoades latest book. When I picked up another book at the library, I looked at the table again and thought the jacket blurb was interesting enough to pick up this book. I was pleasantly surprised at the skill of de Castrique to wind numerous clues that really looked like they could’ve happened into a coherent and complex narrative. Characters were fleshed out in such a way that they could actually be real people in a small town and not some former Delta killer leading a quiet life or some other unlikely backstory. Not a long book, 250 pages, that was a decent diversion for a couple days. What surprised me a bit is that this is the 6th Buryin’ Barry novel (all have the term ‘undertaking’ in the title) to go along with 9 other titles. Obviously, de Castrique has a loyal following. I think I just might return when I find a lull and need a well thought out mystery. 

East Coast Don

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Night Crew by Brian Haig

Sean Drummond, US Army lite colonel attorney, has been tasked to the CIA working some legal corner of the Global War on Terror. OK gig, but he’d rather be back at the JAG office. At a reasonably quiet dinner, his former co-attorney and perpetual antagonist Katherine Carlson plops herself at his table and offers him 2nd chair in what is likely to be the trial of the century. 

Two male soldiers, guards of the most despicable inmates at the worst prison in Iraq and three female soldiers have had their pictures splashed around the world performing some of the most disgusting and degrading acts with and to Iraqi prisoners. All done after hours giving them the moniker "The Night Crew." And one prisoner, one of Saddam's most trusted and brutal generals, was murdered, bludgeoned to death in his cell. Had to look up how to spell "Abu Ghraib."

They are to defend Lydia Eddelston, a less than stellar representative of an end of the road town in West Virginia. She has become the poster child for prisoner abuse based on photos of her . . .  let’s just say she wasn’t wishing anyone Happy Birthday. Katherine and Sean have the unenviable chore of finding a defense strategy in the face of worldwide condemnation. 

On top of that, his legendary battles with Carlson continue. Katherine made her legal rep by defending homosexual soldiers against the Army. So Sean has to balance her agenda, which is to embarrass the Army with his, which is to defend Lydia to the best of his ability. Katherine could care less about guilt or innocence as long as she can stick it to the Army. 

It doesn’t help that two previous lawyers have died in ‘accidents’ and the primary interrogator in the prison died from an IED shortly after the pictures went public. Sean’s dogged investigation digs into Lydia’s family, her relationship with one of the male guards, classified Army personnel records, and of course, the CIA. His first task is to separate Lydia from the murder charge, then find the extenuating circumstances that resulted in her outrageous behavior in the prison so that Lydia doesn’t spend the rest of her life in Leavenworth.

This is the 7th Sean Drummond novel in Haig’s library of 9 titles. It’s been a while for Haig. His most recent book was 2010 and his last Drummond novel was 2007. And I’ve missed Haig’s books because his books are, in a word, terrific. The Drummond series has some of the most clever, wise ass, dialogue today. Drummond just doesn’t give a damn. He’s good, gets results for his clients, and to hell with anyone in his path. We all wish we had the stones to say what Drummond says. And he’s funny and incredibly sarcastic. 

Makes one wonder where Haig has been.He published 8 books between 2002 and 2010, but its been going on 5 years to get to this book. HIs earlier books were published by more mainstream publishers, but this one is published by Thomas & Mercer, a subsidiary of Amazon. Makes one wonder if he had bad experiences with his former publishers and decided to (sort of) go it alone. 

Haig knows the Army. He’s a West Point graduate, was a career officer, and served as a special assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And if you are under maybe 45 years of age, you probably never heard of the name Haig. His dad, Alexander, was a highly decorated General, Secretary of State for Reagan, Chief of Staff for Nixon and Ford, and famous for his “I’m in charge” line during the confusion immediately after the assassination attempt on President Reagan. So, I would say that Brian Haig has sufficient history in both the military and public service to present a convoluted story that will keep any lover of this genre firmly glued to their chair. 

Haig and Drummond? I sure have missed you. Don’t be a stranger. Please.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Rogue Island

Rogue Island is actually Rhode Island, so named by the author, Bruce DiSilva because he describes the government and businesses being so dominated by the mafia and corruption. This is a good crime novel about a serial arsonist, who just happened to kill a number of people along the way as he tried to burn down the slum section of Providence. The protagonist is Liam Mulligan, an investigative newspaper reporter who is determined to solve the crime despite the inadequacies of Policki, Chief Arson Investigator, and Policki, his assistant. Mulligan kept publishing articles about the fires in which he referred to them as Dumb and Dumber. It’s a good story and the author didn’t give away the plot until the end. His writing was good and the character development was good. He had a variety of supporting characters, all of whom were believable, if not compelling.

I found this book when I read the novel Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto. I was very impressed with that one. It got my highest recommendation, but it was only a finalist for the Edgar Award for first time American crime novelists in 2011, and Rogue Island won that category. So, I had to read this one too. I’m surprised the award when to DiSilva because the drama in this book did not approach what was written in Galveston. Still, this is a solid and entertaining book, and the writing about such horrible crimes was lighthearted and often times humorous. For example, when he wrote about the choice to become a reporter in an age when newspapers and dying, DiSilva wrote, “Why does anyone do it? Because it’s a calling – like the priesthood but without the sex.” The book was filled with such anecdotes. I would put this novel along with the best of my airplane novels, one which would keep me amused on a flight from LAX to O’Hare, but not one that would interfere with a needed nap along the way.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Broken Harbor

I’ve now read all five of Tana French’s novels, and Broken Harbor is the fourth one she wrote. I’ve favorably reviewed the others, and raved about two of them (see the blog), but this effort did not live up to the others. It does not get my recommendation as a good and entertaining crime novel.

Mick Scorcher Kennedy was a senior detective on the Murder Squad who had the highest solve rate of anyone in the department. But, he had just had come back to the Murder Squad after some time away, and the grisly murders of three of four family members in Broken Harbor was his first new case. He accepted as his partner Richie Curran who, after years of being a policeman, had just been promoted to the Murder Squad. This was his first case. Much of the action had to do with reconstructing the crime scene and trying to understand what happened. Only the mother survived the knife wounds of the assailant, and her survival was in question for the first half of the book. Curran and Kennedy seemed to work as a good team who had an intuitive feel for one another, a quick partnership that allowed for arguing about the details and possibilities, something that usually does not come so quickly to detective partners. Kennedy was well supported by his boss, but he had an antagonist, an inadequate and jealous detective whose presence made Kennedy’s work so much harder.

French took us to the details of the lives of everyone involved, including Kennedy. It was important that his mother had committed suicide at the same seaside village where the new murders took place. But, there were too many details, especially with the notion that there was a wild animal in the attic in the home where the murders took place. The details interfered with the flow of the story. Had I not been a very big fan of French from her prior novels, I would not have stayed with this book to the end.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

White Plague by James Abel

As a new army captain in Iraq, Joe Rush received a rush of intel that forced a decision at a cost of 8 Marines but saved hundreds. His reputation has followed him throughout his career.

Rush is now a physician-colonel with special interest in biowarfare and assigned to perhaps the most underfunded outpost in Alaska. He got assigned there after his memo to military management suggested that the next bug to surface naturally was as likely to surface as the polar caps melted as it was to come from the more widely acknowledged tropics. 

His director is a DC politico (“Hollywood for ugly people”) whose call tells him a Virginia-class sub is mired in ice, on fire, with a large number of sailers either sick or dead from a rapid and deadly germ, stranded some 500 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. He is to assemble a team fast, fly up to Barrow, board the only icebreaker in the arctic, a Coast Guard ship, and take command of the mission. Get up there and determine the problems and possible courses of action.

And do it fast because a Chinese sub is also en route. If they get there first, they will board the sub and make every attempt to glean as much technical intel as possible. When Rush gets to the sub, he has to assess the problem and might have to make a number of difficult decisions, the easiest of which will probably be whether to scuttle the sub to keep it out of Chinese hands. 

Headed to the sub, the ice breaker becomes stuck to the final miles will have to be done over the masses of ice. Once they arrive at the sub, it’s still smoldering and the surviving crew are protected against the elements in a makeshift tent city. Inspection of the dead, the sick, and the dying bring Rush’s fears expressed in his memo to reality - some frozen biologic has thawed and once it really warms up in the body, can kill in less than 24 hours. And because it’s an unknown strain, no one has a clue about treatment.

This was really frightening. That a bug frozen for who knows how long could actually survive and infect any humans in its path. The tension of the various scenarios presented is palpable and the decisions that Rush must make at each confrontation, be it human or biologic, resonates to the reader. Abel presents a medical thriller way better than I remember from the late Michael Crichton. The story borders on relentless and I found myself holding my breath on more occasions than I can count as Joe Rush has to be right in order to save the crew and prevent the spread of a disease with the potential to carve a wide path through whatever population it infects. Terrific, suspenseful, relentless, tense. What more can I say?

East Coast Don

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto

This is the first novel by Nic Pizzolatto, and it was a finalist for an Edgar Award in 2011. Pizzolatta is better known for having written the HBO series True Detective starring Matthews McConaughey and Woodie Harrelson. I’m impressed with this crime novel, and if it was not as good as the 2011 winner for first time American novelists, then I’ll have to read that one too (Bruce DeSilva: Rogue Island).

Roy Cady, 43 years old, had been a bagman until he realized that his boss Stan Ptitko was setting up for being killed, just because Roy was a mess and Stan had stolen his girl, the beautiful Carmen. This all happens on the same day Roy has been told by his doctor that he is dying from lung cancer. The character development of Roy was remarkable, as the author bounces to his prior relationships, the current story, and then 20 years into the future as Roy reflects back on these events and his life. Obviously, Roy survives the cancer, but he doesn’t know that during the essential action in this story. After killing the men who Stan sent to do him in, Roy rescued an 18-year-old prostitute, Raquel, known as Rocky. The main theme of the story has to do with getting safely away from Stan and saving this girl, as well as the nearly 4-year-old girl she said was her sister. A hint to the story line: Stan was a powerful guy and people don’t easily get away from him, not ever.

Some examples of Pizzolatto’s prose, as Roy and Rocky were thinking about stopping for the night in Lake Charles, Louisiana: “Lake Charles was one of the easiest places to get your ass kicked on the Gulf coast. And any place south of here was a white-trash terror camp.” With regard to his surviving the cancer: “Certain experiences you can’t survive, and afterward you don’t fully exist, even if you failed to die. Everything that happened in May of 1987 is still happening, only now it’s 20 years later, and what happened is just a story. In 2008, I’m walking my dog on the beach. Trying to. I can’t walk fast or well.” In thinking about Rocky: “I’ve found that all weak people share a basic obsession – they fixate on the idea of satisfaction. Anywhere you go men and women are like crows drawn by shiny objects. For some folks, the shiny objects are other people, and you’d be better off developing a drug habit.”

I’m a fan of Pizzolatto– this one gets my max recommendation.

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

In The Long and Faraway Gone, Lou Berney tells an intimate story of two psychologically scarred yet unrelated people and by doing so takes a look at the impact of violence on its survivors.

In the summer of 1986, two tragedies made headlines in Oklahoma City.  Six movie theater employees were murdered in an armed robbery and one employee was unharmed.  Then a teenage girl disappeared from the midway at the State Fair leaving her younger sister abandoned.  Neither crime is ever solved and the surviving victim of each crime is left disturbed.  Wyatt, the surviving theater employee is haunted by why he was spared and Julianna, the younger sister of the missing teenager can’t accept that she was deserted by someone she loved.  Now twenty five years later, these questions still haunt the survivors and have defined their lives.

After the ordeal, Wyatt changed his name, moved to Las Vegas and became a private investigator.  He could not stand being recognized and singled out as ‘the lucky one’ with no idea why the gunmen chose to spare only him.  Then his best client sends him on a case back to Oklahoma City.  While there he feels drawn to use his professional skills to re-investigate the crime that altered his life.

Julianna became a nurse but ironically could never truly trust anyone enough to form more than a superficial relationship.  Then a carnival worker who was a person of interest the night her sister disappeared moves back to the area.  Julianna stalks the guy hoping to extract some morsel of information that could ease her mind.

While Wyatt and Julianna never actually know each other, they share a desperation in their broken, parallel lives that drives them to try and solve crimes a quarter century old.

I found this book fascinating.  I’ve always heard that children are resilient and can handle psychological trauma well.  But clearly some violent events are so life altering, particularly when there is no closure and no apparent logical explanation, that the question, “Why me?” haunts them to the grave and impacts every part of their lives.  The author communicates this well and as a tease he keeps you wondering when/if his two protagonists will ever cross paths... nice work.