Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Fall Guy by Archer Mayor

First Sentence: Joe Gunther crested the hill overlooking a small cluster of flashing, multihued vehicles below.

Special Agent Joe Gunther, head of the VBI (Vermont Bureau of Investigation), and his team are confronted with a case that initially seems straightforward. An expensive car with New Hampshire plates, reported stolen by Lemuel Shaw, is found in Vermont near the scene of two burglaries. In the trunk is the body of the suspected burglar, Don Kalfus. Evidence suggests he was killed in New Hampshire. Also in the trunk are several stolen cell phones, one containing child porn, and another which belonged to a boy who disappeared years ago. The VBI team follows the clues as the body count continues to rise.

Rather than a prologue, Mayor begins with a description that is both dramatic and evocative. His literary style is always a pleasure to read--”…specialist teams delicately work around one another like dancers of a minuet…” The author is thorough in his description of the activity which occurs at a crime scene and explains how multi-jurisdictional teams can work together cooperatively and without grandstanding. There are a lot of acronyms used, but each is quickly explained.

Mayor has developed a cast of central characters that are always a pleasure to rejoin, especially as we’ve seen them grow and develop with the series. They are a cohesive unit, knowing how each works while trusting and supporting one another with occasional flashes of humor.

The investigative team runs through the details of the case and offer theories providing the realism one hopes for in a police procedural; they follow the clues rather than making an assumption of guilt and fitting the clues to that assumption. Willie, who has been with Joe and the VBI from the beginning, is the one, occasional, maverick among the group, sometimes taking someone else with him—Willy…“I want to tail ‘em.”… “Sniper-style,” Lester suggested neutrally…”Without authorization, without backup, and without pay, if I’m reading this right.” Willy’s enthusiasm was unaffected. “Yup. Sounds like fun, don’t it?”

Child kidnapping, sex trafficking, and kiddy porn are exceedingly difficult subjects. Mayor handles it with great sensitivity and understanding for the victims. In thinking about the child’s interview with social services, Joe had—"been caught by the metaphor of each victim becoming traumatically transformed into conjoined twins, one destined to lug around the corpse of the other until death.”

FALL GUY is a police procedural that begins as burglary and murder, develops to include at least two cold cases of missing children, a suspicious death, an abused child, spousal abuse, and a life-threatening situation no one could have predicted. Even then, it’s all topped off with a very unexpected case of, “but wait, there’s more.” Once again, Archer Mayor has come through with a first-rate read.

(PolProc-Joe Gunther-Vermont/New Hampshire-Contemp)
Archer Mayor – 33rd in series
Minotaur Books, Sept 2022, 304 pp.
Rating: VG+ / A


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Blood Covenant by Chris Nickson

First Sentence: His footsteps rang and echoed off the walls.

Thief-taker Simon Westow remembers the years of punishment and torture he'd received as a child working in the mill, a prisoner of the workhouse. When his friend, Dr. Hey, has him read the report of two young boys who died at the hand of a mill overseer, it brings Simon back to those memories. A man is pulled from the river with his throat slit and one hand removed. Simon and his assistant Jane are drawn into a dark and dangerous case of fighting for justice against the town's most powerful and wealthy men.

The strength of Nickson's book, and his series, are the characters. Simon may be tough, but it's Simon's wife Rosie, and his assistant Jane, who truly stand out. One doesn't know how realistic they'd have been for the time, but they are wonderful here. Jane, the most dimensional of all the characters, while being someone truly terrifying—small reminders of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce, but far more dangerous—also shows great compassion and love. Jane's relationship with Mrs. Shields, the elderly lady with whom she lives, and her growth at the end, is heartwarming.

The story moves between Simon and Jane. Rather than disruptive, as this style can be, it is seamless under Nickson's pen as there is no disruption of time.

The depiction of the period is stark. This isn't the charm of drawing rooms and balls. This shows the realities of the beginnings of industrialization, child labor, and poverty—"…a desperately poor area…a court where the piss and shit settled ankle deep. No clean air, everything coated in grime and soot…nothing was ever going to stay clean for more than five minutes around here." 

This was a time when a breath of sickness could decimate one's life; when thief-takers took the cases in which the authorities weren't interested and when "justice" was harsh and unmerciful, and when the rich and powerful were in control—"It's never going to change until the laws gives them no option. Even then, they'll try to find a way around it. The rich will grow richer and the poor will stay desperate."

Beyond the harshness, the author includes an element of thoughtfulness—"All the dead. What has happened to their souls? He wondered. Where had they gone? Heaven? Hell? Or was there nothing at all?" One can tell that Nickson, who lives in Leeds, has done thorough research on his city and the time.

THE BLOOD COVENANT is a hard, violent book with excellent suspense set in a hard, violent time. After all, as Nickson says in his worth-reading Afterword: "History is cruel." However, the book is honest and the principal characters are sympathetic and compelling.

THE BLOOD COVENANT (HistMys-Simon Westow/Jane-Leeds, England-1823)
Chris Nickson – 4th in series
Severn House, Mar 2022, 224 pp.
Rating: VG+/A

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Fierce Poison by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  Scotland Yard is of the opinion that we at the Barker and Llewelyn Agency are barking mad.

Private Enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn have had a wide assortment of cases. This is something new. Roland Fitzhugh, a Member of Parliament, was rebuffed by the police over his claim that someone was trying to kill him.  Entering the office of Barker and Llewelyn, he falls to the floor, dead. Baker feels obligated to find the killer and more deaths follow.  The threat becomes personal and enters Barker’s house.  Can the Agency uncover the killer in time?

Because Thomas writes from the point of view of young Thomas Llewelyn provides an intimacy to the story and an introspection. At times, Llewelyn's observations also provide an element of humor—"Later, I found out I'd got it all wrong.  There's more than porridge in the old Llewelyn noggin."

The opening of the book is both clever and interesting. It’s well done that we meet the ensemble of policemen in very short order and understand their rankings. Sergeant Kirkwood quickly becomes one’s favorite. By the police not believing Fitzhugh, it moves the crime to its critical location, establishes the rank of the victim, and creates an important historical link.  An interesting factual tidbit is that in those times, members of parliament had originally been barristers.

Thomas cleverly establishes Llewellyn as one who is trying to be the practical Welshman and look after the business side by questioning spending time on a case for which they won’t get paid, while Barker is looking at the moral side of feeling obligated to a man who asked for their help before he died. That Thomas includes Llewelyn’s introspection adds depth and humanity to the character.  Adding actual historic characters and events, such as William Gladstone introducing a bill for universal health care and rearranging the country into smaller, self-government districts, called town councils on which women would be allowed to serve.  And who doesn’t love the inclusions of Shakespeare?

An ensemble cast, when done well, gives a sense of depth and realism.  No one operates in the vacuum, either professionally or personally.  Thomas surrounds his protagonists with police contacts, their co-workers, household members, employees, friends, and Llewellyn’s wife Rebecca. 

Despite this being the thirteenth book in the series, Thomas hasn’t allowed the characters to stagnate.  Instead, they have developed, grown, and their lives have changed.  This keeps them real, interesting and gives them greater depth with each book.

Thomas demonstrates the way a book should be done with a case that grows threat by threat, victim by victim.  The reader doesn’t know the identity or the killer, nor for a while, even who is the actual intended victim. When the killer is revealed, one is caught off guard, yet delighted by the character who uncovers the truth. Thomas doesn’t resort to the overused devices of prologues or portents.  What exposition there is, and it’s not much, isn’t there to expand the page count, but to provide historical clarity. 

FIERCE POISON is 292 pages of mystery and intrigue with a very clever plot.  An excellent final chapter plays with one’s emotions and leaves one anxious for the next book.

Will Thomas – 13th in series
Minotaur Books, Apr 2022, 292 pp.
Rating:  VG+/A

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Shadows Reel by C.J. Box

First Sentence: Lorne Trumley had called dispatch to report a dead moose on his ranch.

Game Warden Joe Pickett goes to the scene where allegedly a moose has been burned. Instead, he finds the tortured and burned body of a local fishing guide. Librarian Marybeth Pickett receives an anonymous package containing the photo album of a former Nazi officer. The Pickett's friend, falconer Nate Romanowski, is tracking the man who attacked his family and stole his falcons. "This won't end well."

It is challenging when an author whose entire catalogue of books one has loved writes one that is painful to read, and not in a literary sense. All the elements one normally loves are missing. What happened to the warm, supportive relationship between Joe and his wife, Marybeth? Where is the subtle humor that has been a trademark of Box's writing?

Political viewpoints seem to be the theme de jour, and certainly, not everyone will agree with various points of view. However, a writer is usually expected to maintain some objectivity or, at the very least, do their research. Box missed both these marks by an extremely wide margin. The author's usual high-quality storytelling is painfully absent. The crass, sexist descriptions of the woman in the bar would embarrass pulp fiction authors of the 1940s.

SHADOWS REEL could have been a good book with an intriguing plot, particularly as related to the photo album. Unfortunately, there was so much about this book that was cringeworthy, it wasn't worth spending the time to finish. The only bright spot was the Pickett daughters. The worst part is that it causes one to question even reading the next book.

SHADOWS REEL (LicInves-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) - DNF
C.J. Box – 22nd in series
G.P. Putnam's Sons / Mar 2022 / 368 pp.