Tag Archives for " Crime "

From Ross Thomas, another take on small-town skullduggery

skullduggery - The Fourth Durango by Ross ThomasThe Fourth Durango by Ross Thomas

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels about crime, espionage, politics, and corruption between 1966 and his death at age sixty-nine in 1995. No two are alike, and every one of them is a gem. They brim over with wit, insight, brilliant characterization, and Thomas’ distinctively spare writing style. In recent years, St. Martin’s Griffin has brought out new paperback editions which are also available for the Kindle. Many of these titles include introductions by Thomas’ contemporaries and successors in the crime genre. Among them are such successful practitioners of the craft as Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Joe Gores, and the late Donald E. Westlake. Every introduction is a paean to Thomas’ consummate writing skill.

The Fourth Durango, published in 1989, was one of Thomas’ last contributions to his many fans. As in nearly all his other novels, the characters are entirely new. Unlike most successful mystery writers, Ross Thomas didn’t make things easy on himself by adopting a formula and a fixed cast of characters in a series. (However, there are a few who appear in more than one novel, including Cyril “Mac” McCorkle and Michael Padillo, who own a pub together and become involved in nefarious activities involving spies and a mysterious government agency; con men Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, and Washington lawyer Howard Mott.)

In The Fourth Durango, disbarred attorney Kelly Vines reunites with his friend Jack Adair, formerly chief justice of the supreme court of an unnamed state who is leaving behind a stretch in the federal maximum-security penitentiary near Lompoc, California. Jack had been convicted on the bogus grounds of tax evasion because the feds couldn’t prove a bribery charge. Now, someone is trying to kill him for reasons unknown. Kelly spirits him off to the nearby town of Durango, California, “the city that God forgot.” (It’s the fourth Durango because it isn’t any of the ones in Mexico, Colorado, or Spain.) There, Kelly and Jack seek help from the beauteous Mayor B. D. Huckins and her boyfriend, Chief of Police Sid Fork. The two are delighted to hide the pair away indefinitely for a considerable cash consideration. Skullduggery of the highest order is afoot. In fact, hiding away fugitives is the town’s major industry and provides the revenue to keep open the schools and the VD clinic.

Once the two men begin settling in at Durango, we slowly begin to learn the backstory that explains Kelly’s disbarment and Jack’s conviction. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose as first one, then other murders crop up, and numerous other complications ensue. It’s all a glorious clusterf**k. And it’s fun all the way.

Recently, I also reviewed Thomas’ Out on the Rim and Briarpatch. See From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion and It’s hard to beat this political thriller.


Tough female cop takes on a Mexican cartel

tough female copThe Dime, by Kathleen Kent

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Elizabeth (“Betty”) Rhyzyk is a narcotics detective on the Dallas Police Force. She’s a ten-year veteran, transplanted from Brooklyn. Betty comes from a family of Polish-American cops and is proud of her heritage. She has bright red hair, is nearly six feet tall—and graduated at the top of her class in the police academy back in Brooklyn. Betty is a lesbian and lives with her girlfriend, Jackie, a pediatric radiologist in a large Dallas hospital. But the male cops who work with her have long since learned that she won’t take any crap from them. In truth, she can probably best almost any of them in a fight.

Betty and her partner, Seth, are on a long stakeout at the home of a major cocaine and meth distributor. They’re “waiting for the arrival of the biggest cocaine supplier to North Texas, one Tomás ‘El Gitano’ (Gypsy) Ruiz, a Mexican national” representing the second-largest cartel south of the border. But the situation quickly spins out of control when one of the distributor’s neighbors calls the cops because he’s locked his dog in the back of his car on a fiercely hot day. So, when El Gitano finally arrives, he sees the distributor talking to a patrolman on his front porch—and machine-guns the two men, the neighbor, and one of the surveillance vans. The result: three dead, and one wounded young narcotics officer in the van.

These circumstances set off a complex investigation involving not just the narcotics squad but the homicide bureau as well—and the body count mounts steadily as Betty and her colleagues slowly make progress toward tracking down Ruiz. Little do they know, however, that they are about to stumble into a truly nightmarish encounter with a drug supplier even more fearsome than the cartel.

So goes the tale in The Dime, a crime thriller by Dallas author Kathleen Kent. As she explains in an author’s note, she had previously written only historical fiction. But a friend talked her into contributing a story to an anthology he was editing of local crime stories. And that short story gave rise to The Dime. Readers of police dramas can be thankful it did. The Dime is powerfully written, beautifully plotted, and suspenseful to the end.

For reviews of other novels in the same genre, see My 15 favorite detective novels. You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.


Pedophiles, serial murder, and the Holocaust in a Swedish psychological thriller

pedophilesThe Crow Girl: A Novel, by Erik Axl Sund

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages.

To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how complicated this story is. It’s a tale about pedophilia, serial murder, unhappy marriages, dissociative identity disorder, a fundamentalist Christian sect in Lapland, the Great Famine in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, and Swedish police procedures. Got that? No? I understand. I could never have imagined a single story linking all these themes.

The Crow Girl opens like so many other crime stories. The mutilated body of a young immigrant boy is discovered, and Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg from the Stockholm police is assigned to the case. But neither the police chief nor the prosecutor who both have authority over her will provide her with the necessary resources. Then the bodies of two other young boys are found nearby. Evidence links the three murders, so Kihlberg is faced with tracking down a serial killer, on her own time when necessary.

To gain insight into the psychopathology of serial murderers, the Superintendent enlists the help of a brilliant psychologist, Sofia Zetterlund. It soon develops that both women are stuck in unhappy marriages, so you’ll quickly begin to wonder where that will lead. And that’s only the first of a long list of complications and surprises that come to light again and again in this masterful tale.

The Crow Girl is the first book in the Victoria Bergman trilogy. The remaining two books in the trilogy are not yet available in English translation, nor is the authors’ fourth novel.



Donna Leon’s latest is not “one of her best”

donna leonEarthly Remains (Commissario Brunetti #26), by Donna Leon

@@ (2 out of 5)

For some reason I cannot fathom, Marilyn Stasio raved about Earthly Remains. Stasio has been editing a column on crime fiction for the New York Times Book Review—forever, it seems. Her recommendations are often good. But this one wasn’t. She called this novel, the 26th in Donna Leon’s long-running Commissario Brunetti series, “one of her best.” I don’t agree.

Though there is a mystery underlying the action in Earthly Remains, it doesn’t even begin to surface until one-third of the way into the novel. And the investigation undertaken by Commissario Brunetti isn’t undertaken in earnest until more than two-thirds of the way.

Many of Leon’s signature themes are prominent in this curious book. She rhapsodizes about Venice, the surrounding communities, and the Laguna Veneta, the extension of the Adriatic Sea on which the islands of the city are located. In Earthly Remains, the romance of the Laguna comes in for special praise. Predictably, too, the corruption rampant in Italian society emerges clearly in the story. Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is, as always, obsequious with authority and disdainful of those who report to him. If anyone in a position of power in Venice is under investigation by Brunetti or his colleagues, Patta will surely intervene in the suspect’s favor. And, once the plot of the novel finally becomes clear, Leon spotlights the illegal activity that has helped to poison the Laguna and surrounding territory. In Donna Leon’s Italy, corruption engulfs business as well as government, the police, and the Church.

One of Leon’s bad writing habits is to describe action in excruciating detail. I have no idea whether she picked up the habit writing for magazines that pay by the word, but Earthly Remains and many of her other novels read that way. Here’s a representative example from one of the first pages in the novel: “Brunetti had apologized for the heat in the room, explaining that the ongoing heatwave had forced the Questura to choose between using its reduced supply of energy for the computers or for air conditioning and had chosen the former. Ruggieri had been gracious and had said only that he’d remove his jacket if he might. Brunetti, who kept his jacket on, had begun by making it amply clear . . .” That was 68 words. How many words do you think Elmore Leonard might have used to convey the essential information in that passage? In fact, is there any essential information there?

If you are a die-hard Donna Leon fan, you might want to read Earthly Remains. If you’re not, be forewarned: not a lot happens in this novel. It’s very slow going.

A Nazi medal in Sweden triggers a journey into the past

Nazi medalThe Hidden Child (Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck #5), by Camilla Läckberg

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Once upon a time French classicists derived the principles of drama from Aristotle’s Poetics, proclaiming the “three unities.” This restrictive concept required that a play depict only a single action that takes place in a single location within a single day. These rules didn’t last long. But modern crime novelists sometimes inadvertently mimic them. They tell stories in which “something happens,” and not much else. They write about a single case and its solution by one or more investigators. Other characters, and other events, serve primarily as background to make the tale more believable. The bestselling Swedish detective novelist Camilla Läckberg does not write books that way. A case in point is The Hidden Child, the fifth in her series of novels featuring small-town police detective Patrik Hedström and his wife, Erica Falck, who writes popular true-crime books.

What sets off Läckberg’s work from that of so many other crime novelists is the sheer complexity of her plots and the large number of well-defined characters that appear in her stories. What’s more, many of those characters, even some incidental to the principal plot, learn and grow in the course of the book. “Something happens” to each of them. In The Hidden Child, Patrik and Erica are both central to the story. Their lives are eventful, and they gain new insight from what they’re experiencing. But that’s also true of many of their colleagues, family, and friends, as well as a number of characters who play roles in the case that brings them all together. And Läckberg’s account of the case rockets back and forth from the present day to 1944 and 1945, when circumstances set in motion a tragic course of events that lead to latter-day murders.

To oversimplify the story, Erica discovers a World War II Nazi medal among the few items that remain from the life of her mother, who died in an automobile crash four years earlier. While she succumbs to curiosity and sets out to learn how and why that medal came into her mother’s possession, Patrik becomes independently involved in helping his colleagues in the police investigate the brutal murder of the old man to whom Erica turned for information about the Nazi medal. (He was an historian and a collector of Nazi artifacts.) Meanwhile, Patrik’s insufferable boss, Mellberg, becomes involved in an affair that—finally, for the first time in the series—proves that he isn’t just stupid, lazy, and self-important (although he is all of those things.) Lots else happens, too. Lots. Yet I didn’t often find it necessary to turn back to earlier pages to sort out the identity of the other characters, each of them with their own storyline.

Camilla Läckberg is a very talented writer. The Hidden Child is a superior piece of work—suspenseful, captivating, and believable.

A great start to John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series

Dismas HardyThe Vig (Dismas Hardy #2), by John Lescroart

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Dismas Hardy’s resumé is a little difficult to understand: former Marine (combat in Vietnam), former San Francisco cop, former Assistant DA, now one-quarter owner of the Shamrock and full-time bartender there. The explanation is simple, though. The events that induced him to leave a promising legal career began when his infant son died as a result of an oversight on his father’s part. Then his marriage dissolved, and there ensued a 10-year period of self-loathing and aimlessness. Dismas had only begun to come back around recently when he was forced to re-use his investigative skills to discover who’d murdered his partner’s brother-in-law. Two years have passed since then. Now, as he nears 40, Dismas is drinking less and has even reconnected with his ex-wife.

Then one day his former office-mate in the DA’s office shows up at the Shamrock to inform him that a man the two of them had helped send to prison for a 13-year term has just gotten out early. And he had sworn to murder both of them. Thus begins The Vig, the second book in the bestselling Dismas Hardy series (now 16 strong) by San Francisco crime novelist John Lescroart.

The Vig is a murder mystery with a large cast of characters and lots of moving parts. In addition to Dismas, there’s Abe Glitsky, the African-American police officer who is his best friend; Abe’s wife, Frannie Cochran; Moses McGuire, Dismas’ partner at the Shamrock; Moses’ widowed sister, Frannie; Rusty Shanahan, the former office-mate; Louis Baker, the murderous ex-con, and three younger criminals who hang around the neighborhood where he’s staying; Dismas’ ex-wife, Jane; loanshark Angelo “the Angel” Tortoni and his thuggish enforcer, Johnny LaGuardia; plus several hangers-on. Lescroart makes the whole thing work beautifully. Despite the large cast and the complicated plot, The Vig isn’t hard to follow. The principal characters emerge whole from the page. Suspense builds. And the novel wraps up with Dismas having emerged much further into the light of day.

The title, The Vig, is puzzling. The word (short for vigorish) is the usurious interest that a loanshark extorts from borrowers on a weekly or monthly basis that typically tie them to him for many years, often making it impossible for them ever to repay the principal. The concept enters the story, but it’s not central. But I guess many readers would find the word intriguing.

A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley

hitman-herbie's-game-timothy-hallinanHerbie’s Game (Junior Bender #4), by Timothy Hallinan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

After writing three very funny crime novels featuring the professional burglar Junior Bender, Timothy Hallinan produced Herbie’s Game. It’s not as funny. In this fourth novel in the series, Hallinan waxes philosophical in lengthy contemplative passages that show Junior’s serious side. It’s well written, as were its predecessors, and the story is engaging (if improbable). Despite the relative lack of laugh-out-loud material, Herbie’s Game is a fun read.

Junior Bender lives in a world populated by characters with names such as Louie the Lost, Stinky Tetwiler, Wattles, Handkerchief Harrison, Monty Carlo, and Burt the Gut. Every one of these individuals, all criminals to a fault, enters into the tale Hallinan tells in Herbie’s Game. The Herbie of the title is Junior’s mentor and surrogate father, the man who taught him the burglary trade. “If I were ever sufficiently misguided to write my own life story,” he muses, “the hero of most of Act One would be a burglar named Herbie Mott.”

The game of the title is, of course, burglary. But it’s not run-of-the-mill, hit-and-run burglary of the sort perpetrated by drug addicts. This is a thoroughly professional approach, and Junior;s name has never surfaced in police files. For example, one of Herbie’s precepts is never to take everything valuable when burglarizing a home. Always leave the one item that its owners are likely to find most precious. That way they’ll think “At least, they didn’t take that.”

Junior’s misfortune is to be known among the criminal class in the Los Angeles world as a crack investigator, the equal of the best that any police force can offer. Thus, when some clueless malefactor commits a crime against a powerful crook, Junior is likely to be called in to track down the perpetrator. Asking the police for help is, obviously, not a good idea. Herbie’s Game tells the story of Junior’s latest venture into investigative work.

A criminal go-between named Wattles has called for Junior’s help because someone has stolen the list of people who serve as a sequence of cut-outs in what he calls a “chain.” For example, if someone contacts Wattles to arrange a hit, he will pass a huge envelope to the first person in a chain, who in turn will pass along the large envelope inside the one he received, who in turn will pass the somewhat smaller envelope inside it to a third person, and so forth. Every envelope contains a large sum of cash. In theory, no person knows the identity of anyone other than the one who passed along the envelope and the one he or she, in turn, passes to. That way, no one can connect the hitman (or hitwoman) who may be the sixth or seventh person at the end of the chain to Wattles, much less to the person who ordered the hit. Though Junior is aghast that Wattles should have written down all these names, he is forced to take on the job because Wattles threatens to set his own hitman on Junior if he doesn’t.

Junior’s investigation turns deadly as soon as he learns that Herbie, the likeliest suspect, has been brutally murdered. As Junior pursues his inquiry, working gradually down the chain in hopes of identifying the hitman, threats against his life come to light. Even worse, there are threats against his ex-wife and the 13-year-old daughter they both dote on. The mounting danger leads Junior into rethinking the choices he’s made in his life. Feeling ambivalent about his work, he muses that “those of us who chose Herbie’s Game faced a lifetime of wearing a mask, of lying, or making—sooner or later—the kind of decision that had cost me my wife and daughter. I probably hadn’t even figured out yet all the things that choosing Herbie’s Game had cost me.”

I reviewed Crashed, the first novel in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. The second novel, Little Elvises, in the Junior Bender series is here: A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley. You’ll find my review of the third book, The Fame Thief, here: A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob.

Forced sterilization, fascists, and serial murder—in Denmark

Forced sterilizationThe Purity of Vengeance (Department Q #4), by Jussi Adler-Olsen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Many Americans harbor an image of Denmark as one of the most progressive and livable countries in the world. That may well be the case—the country’s rankings on global indexes support it—but you might well gain a different impression of Denmark if you read the crime thrillers written by Jussi Adler-Olsen. The (s0 far) seven novels in his Department Q series introduce readers to Denmark’s underclass, the struggles of its immigrant population, its ruthless anti-immigrant right wing, and violent crime much like what plagues every other wealthy country. The Purity of Vengeance, the fourth in Adler-Olsen’s series, revolves around the country’s shameful history of forced sterilization and the fascists who promoted it for many decades.

Three brilliant misfits

Department Q, the cold case unit of the Copenhagen Police, is staffed by three brilliant misfits. Detective Carl Mørck is still wrestling with guilt and pain two years after one of his partners was killed and the other paralyzed from the neck down in a shootout he thought he should have prevented. He is a disagreeable sort, disliked by most of his colleagues. Carl’s assistant, Asaad, is a physically imposing Syrian immigrant with a mysterious past and a tendency to violence. Rose, the unit’s “secretary,” is a bossy schizophrenic with awesome research skills. She has little respect for Carl and regularly shows it. These three mismatched people hold forth from former storage closets in the basement of Copenhagen Police HQ. This is the motley team that initiates an investigation into the simultaneous disappearance of four seemingly unconnected people in 1987 in The Purity of Vengeance.

Two parallel plotlines

While Department Q begins its slow inquiry into the curious case of the disappearing Danes, a new fascist organization called the Purity Party is readying itself for the upcoming elections, when it hopes to gain seats for the first time. The party’s autocratic leader is an 87-year-old physician named Curt Wad. He’s a fertility doctor who is widely rumored to have performed a great many abortions over the years, most of them unauthorized. Wad is a clever and articulate spokesperson for the party and is steadily gaining adherents through frequent television and radio interviews.

No reader of crime fiction will be surprised to learn that these two plotlines—the 25-year-old disappearances and the rise of the fascist party—will eventually intersect. However, there is a great deal of action along the way, and lots of surprises. Adler-Olsen has written a top-flight thriller, with palpable suspense until the very end.

Forced sterilization in Denmark’s recent history

As The Economist explained in a 1997 article entitled “Here, of all places,” Nazi Germany was not the only place where dark-skinned and mentally or physically disabled people were classified as inferior and sometimes forcibly sterilized. “All four main Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden—brought in eugenics laws in the 1930s. More remarkably, some of those laws stayed on the statute books until the mid-1970s, though apparently they were not latterly used very often.” About 11,000 Danish women were forcibly sterilized under such laws between 1929 and 1967. The plot in The Purity of Vengeance rests on this disgraceful history.


Police corruption in suburbia

Police corruptionWhere It Hurts (Gus Murphy #1), by Reed Farrel Coleman

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

After decades of reading mysteries and thrillers, I still frequently encounter authors whose names are new to me—but are described as “bestselling” and sometimes have dozens of novels to their credit. Reed Farrel Coleman is the latest example. Author of at least 23 books divided among six series of crime novels, Coleman is the recipient of half a dozen literary awards. His latest series features John Augustus “Gus” Murphy, a retired cop in suburban Suffolk County on Long Island. Where It Hurts is the first in the series.

For most outsiders, Long Island is identified with the Hamptons and other wealthy New York suburbs. But, as Coleman writes, “most of the island isn’t about Gatsby. A current of poverty and violence roils beneath the surface here, too. A lot of senseless blood gets spilled. What off-islanders see is the 24-carat gilding along the edges where the money flows, not the fool’s gold in the middle where the rats race as hard as in the city and where the stray dogs lie in wait.” This is the territory Gus Murphy worked in uniform for 20 years in the Suffolk County Police Department. It’s also where his life has been unraveling for the two years since his teenage son died, his wife left him, and he resigned from the department. Now Gus works nights at a third-rate hotel driving a courtesy van to and from the local airport and serving as house detective.

When a pathetic ex-con approaches him about looking into the murder of his own son, Gus resists. Eventually, though, he is drawn into opening the case, which police have failed to investigate. As Gus begins to ask questions, he quickly comes up against a wall of resistance from his old department. First, he’s warned away. Then the violence starts, and more bodies begin to fall. Few of even his best friends on the force are willing to lift a hand to help him. Evidence of police corruption soon becomes obvious—and it may go all the way to the top, to the very popular Chief of Police, Jimmy Regan. Repeatedly risking his life, Gus persists in his investigation and gradually begins to recover interest in living. Along the way, he gets help from an old priest who has lost his faith and a woman who is ready to love him despite his wounds and flaws.

Where It Hurts is the first of what are now two novels in Coleman’s new Gus Murphy series.


Karin Slaughter’s tale of neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia

Karin SlaughterBeyond Reach (Grant County #6), by Karin Slaughter

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Detective Lena Adams of the Grant County Police is in trouble again. On a visit to her home town, she witnesses the gruesome murder of a friend on the back seat of a car she has been forced to drive. While sitting in shock near the scene of the murder, she is arrested for the crime. The man who was responsible is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, back in Grant County, Dr. Sara Linton is facing her own brand of trouble. She is facing a malpractice suit by the grief-ridden parents of a young boy whose leukemia had killed him despite all Sara’s efforts. She is pulled out of her guilt and self-doubt only when her husband, Grant County Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver, takes her with him on the long drive to Lena’s home town. They are rushing south through hundreds of miles of rural Georgia to rescue the trouble-prone detective.

Thus opens Karin Slaughter’s Beyond Reach. As the story advances, Lena, Sara, and Jeffrey become involved in a high-tension case involving neo-Nazis, the methamphetamine trade, and police corruption. Once again, Slaughter delivers a convincing tale grounded in the sad reality of many rural counties across America. Her command of plotting and character development is accomplished. And few writers can equal her ability to build suspense to a fever pitch—and then continue to surprise at the very end.

Karin Slaughter’s writing in context

How many murders and other atrocities can you cram into one small town and continue to persuade readers to suspend disbelief? Surely, there’s a limit. Louise Penny long ago passed that limit with the murder mysteries she placed in the Quebec village of Three Pines. There are 13 books to date in the Inspector Armand Gamache series of detective novels, which I found hard to swallow after reading three. I found the same problem with Donna Leon‘s detective novels set in the small town of Venice. There are 26 in her Commissario Guido Brunetti series. I gave up after four or five.

This isn’t just a problem for readers. It’s difficult for the writers as well. If you read the latest entries in either of these series and compare them to the earliest novels, you may find that the author’s boredom shows clearly. But that’s not the case with every thriller author. Karin Slaughter is one of the exceptions.

Karin Slaughter has written 23 crime thrillers. In addition to 10 Will Trent novels and six standalone books, there are six that constitute the Grant County series. Dr. Sara Linton and Police Chief Jeffrey Tolliver operate in one small Georgia county. (Georgia’s 10 million people are spread among 159 counties, of which Grant must be one of the smallest. That doesn’t leave a lot of latitude for shocking crimes to be committed there.) Beyond Reach is the sixth. At that point, the series clearly had run its course: Slaughter ran out of characters to rape, torture, murder, or expose their secrets. (She has written no additional novels in the series in the past 10 years, so I’m assuming there will be no more.) It’s refreshing to read an author who doesn’t overdo a good thing.


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