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We're Ken Hebenstreit and Sharlan Douglas, blogging here about the books we love: Mysteries, suspense, crime fiction. If you want to comment on one of our postings, click on its headline.

Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Triple Crossing by Sebastian Rotella

Every so often, Shar reads a review of a book that really gets her attention.  The next thing you know she’s off to the library and back home reading it in her favorite chair.  It didn’t take her long to finish this one and tell me I had to read it.  She is rarely wrong and certainly isn’t on this one!

This is a gritty, fast-paced thriller about the criminal underworld and corruption at work along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  At the center of the story is Valentine Pescatore, a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to survive the trenches of The Line in San Diego.  He gets in trouble and finds himself recruited as an informant.  Things spiral out of control and he finds himself deeply involved with the smugglers in Mexico and South America’s Triple Border area.

The writing is terrific, with great pacing and many well drawn, complex and ambiguous characters.   I felt completely immersed is this world and happy that I live in the midwest.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan

One of the perks of being a book dealer is discovering authors you’ve never heard of before.  This past Labor Day weekend, while of a trip to NYC, I’m looking for good stock at The Strand Bookstore and come across a couple of titles by this author.  Now, they weren’t in the best of shape, but they sounded interesting.  An hour later, when I decided to buy the paperback copy of his first book to give it a try, I couldn’t remember his name.  So, after getting home and doing a little research, I brought home a copy from our local library and I’m glad I did.

Our protagonist is Charlie Howard, a globe-trotting author who writes suspense novels about an intrepid burglar named Faulks.  Of course, Charlie has a side business stealing for a very discreet clientele on commission.  The humor seemed a bit forced at times, but was amusing most of the time.  The seemingly simple plot had enough twists and danger to keep this reader interested.  My favorite part of the book may have been Charlie’s conversations with his literary agent, Victoria, who picks at the flaws in his latest manuscript and serves as a sounding board for his problems.

For me, this kind of book is just the thing to read between bouts of suspense and thriller novels.  It kind of clears the palate.  I’ll be looking for The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris in a couple of weeks.

Snow Angels by James Thompson

What is it about Scandinavia that makes its mystery novels so dark and melancholy and turns their protagonists into gloomy alcoholics?   I see it in the works of Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo and now James Thompson.  Only Stieg Larson seems immune.  His characters eat sandwiches and drinks lots of coffee.

Kari Vaara is a brooding Lapland police chief (did I mention he drinks too much?) investigating the  gruesome murder of a Somolian pop star during the sunless, bitterly cold winter.  The sources and suspects include Vaara’s ex wife and her boyfriend, a dissolute playboy and the simple folk in his district.  The solution comes a bit too conveniently, but the overall story and atmosphere are compelling.

Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva

You saw it here first:  Keep your eye out for this new author.  He’s one to watch.

A book about a traditional, hard-boiled, big city reporter will always tug at the heartstrings of this journalism school graduate but it better keep pulling me in after that initial tug.  Rogue Island delivers.

Reporter Liam Mulligan grew up in the working class neighborhood of Provincetown, RI which is now beset with a series of deadly arsons. He drives a beat-up car with a name, smokes Cuban cigars and loves the Red Sox beyond all reason.   DeSilva’s other characters are right out of noir’s central casting — a bookie who is the neighborhood philanthropist, mobsters in shiny suits, the beautiful, young ambitious girl reporter and the eager beaver copy  boy.

The plot is tight, the prose is spare but sufficient.

The fact that the book refers gratuitously to Loren Estleman early on gave it a leg up.  And what could be more Estleman-esque than the following?

“Polecki lit a cheap black stogie with a disposable lighter, leaned back in his oak office chair, and thunked his weary wingtips on a green blotter scarred with tobacco burns.  The chair groaned under the weight he’d packed on since the wife left and Kentucky Fried wasn’t just for breakfast anymore.  His assistant, a bum named Roselli, who got the job because he was first cousin to the mayor,  sat stiffly on a gray metal chair under a cracked window skimmed over with ice on the inside.”

Vermilion Drift by William Kent Kruger

The federal government wants to store spent nuclear fuel in the vacant iron mines of northern Minnesota.  A gruesome discovery in a remote portion of the mine quickly shifts the focus of Vermilion Drift to private eye and former sheriff Corcoran O’Connor, who straddles the worlds of town and the Indian reservation.

Cork battles his own memories and demons while slowly discovering that something approaching pure evil walked the fields and roads a generation ago, and may still.

I rarely think that a book should be longer, but Kruger uses a lot of exposition at the beginning of the book to set up the characters and circumstances.  It’s a little too economical.  Some  flashbacks would have added color in a manner consistent with of the Indian mysticism we see later in the book.

Reading list status and reviews

So, a month ago I stacked up a pile of books to read next. I had a lull in my musical activities and figured to get through the seven books in three or four weeks. Five weeks later, I still have one left. Here’s what I read and what I think of them:

Don Winslow – The Winter of Frankie Machine
This isn’t the Don Winslow who writes Victorian erotica. This Don Winslow started with a series featuring PI/agent Neal Carey and then branched out to stand alone novels. The Winter of Frankie Machine is about an ex-hit man getting caught in a mob turf war in San Diego. I really enjoyed it. As Shar noted in an earlier comment, Winslow has a knack of making every character memorable in just a few words. Rumor has it that this may show up as a movie with Robert DeNiro.

Robert Crais – The First Rule
I’ve always enjoyed the Elvis Cole novels, particularly when Joe Pike showed up, so I was happy when Crais started writing books with Joe as the main character. I thoroughly enjoyed The First Rule. A good, complicated plot and some Elvis Cole!

Peter Steiner – L’Assassin: A Thriller
I picked this one up at the library because it looked interesting. The setting is a small town in France where a former CIA agent has settled after being set up and disgraced years before. Interesting characters and plot and an old protagonist with more skills than expected.

John Burdett – The Godfather of Kathmandu
I flew through the first three books in this series and looked forward to a fourth trip to Bangkok. This one took me a long time to get into and, even then, never satisfied as the first three did. Perhaps Sonchai spent too much time looking for enlightenment and not enough time investigating.

Michael Connelly – Nine Dragons
Even on an off day, Connelly is terrific. I’m not sure this was an off day, but I would prefer that family not be so involved in the plot. It always makes things more out of control.

Charlie Huston – My Dead Body
Everything from Huston is brutal and relentless and I want more. My Dead Body is the fifth in the Joe Pitt vampire noir series. Our hero is in even more trouble than before and still manages to resolve a lot of issues. Will there be another book? Hard to tell.

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
This is the one I didn’t get to, but I will as soon as I finish Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (gotta read that before I see the movie!) and Barry Eisler’s Inside Out.

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen

I’m still reading this book, snorting helplessly with laughter on almost every page.  Ken says if I do it one more time he’s going to make me leave the room.

NY Times reviews Estleman’s new Amos Walker collection

Loren Estleman has published a collection of 33 Amos Walker stories and Marilyn Stasio reviewed them in the October 17 NY Times Book Review.

I just can’t figure out why Estleman hasn’t achieved the level of recognition of a Michael Connelly or a John Sandford.  He’s every bit as good, writing in multiple genres:  Crime/detective, western, historical fiction.   I love watching Amos Walker prowl the  mean streets of Detroit, my adopted home town, and the thinly-disguised avenues of the Grosse Pointes and Bloomfield Hills.

Stasio writes:  “While Amos often finds himself on foreign turf … and out of his social depth … , his comfort zone is the industrial heart of his city and the battered working-class neighborhoods that feed it the souls it needs to keep on pumping.”

Ken has 51 Loren Estleman books in stock,  many of them signed.

Thomas Perry’s “Death Benefits”

I’ve long admired Thomas Perry.  He gives us fast-moving, compelling plots, peppered with smart, pithy dialog.  Jane Whitefield is one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered in fiction.  Ken just read the first in that series, Vanishing Act, and, like me, was enthralled by the chase scene at the end.

But even top authors stumble once in a while, and Perry tripped in 2001’s Death Benefits.  It feels like two books stitched together into one.  In the first half, San Francisco insurance analyst John Walker gets recruited by a private eye to track down an incident of fraud.  In the second, Walker gets sent to Florida to process post-hurricane claims and stumbles on similar cases of fraud.  He and the PI follow the trail to a New Hampshire village, where they blunder about, missing clues the size of billboards.  The geography of the village alone is so contrived as to defy credulity.

In other books, Perry has built suspense by using parallel plot lines as a device, with alternating chapters telling the stories of the hunters and the hunted.  He couldn’t get away with that here, because the bad guys would have had our two heroes tied up 30 minutes after they hit town.

My personal suspicion is that Perry just wanted to vacation in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and New England and write off the trips as location research.

The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey

by Ken Hebenstreit

I try to keep up with new authors, but there are so many and I’m not a fast reader. Here is one that I am glad that I tried. The Blade Itself is Sakey’s first book (he now has two more published) and is a terrific debut. Danny has made a new life for himself in the seven years since his life as a petty criminal ended, but that event has come back to haunt him and extract retribution. Uncontrollable circumstances and consequences follow reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. Highly recommended! Has anyone else read this or his other books?