The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 23, 2012

TAKEN by Robert Crais

Elvis Cole is the World's Greatest Detective. So when he takes a case involving a missing couple, it doesn't take him long to discover that the two unfortunates were taken by bajadores: brutal gangs of thieves who steal illegal immigrants (or anything valuable) from the coyotes smuggling them into the USA. But the World's Greatest finds himself up against a very powerful and cunning operator known only as The Syrian. And it isn't long before Elvis, too, is taken, and Joe Pike must race against the clock to find his friend. You see, the modus operandi of the bajadores is to hold their victims (pollos) for ransom. When there is no money to be made from a hostage, the pollo is killed.

Law of averages says that at some point Robert Crais is going to write a bad book. TAKEN is not it.

What this is, is the book I've been waiting for ever since Joe Pike started getting his own name on the dust jackets. This is the book where Elvis and Joe share equal billing, where the strengths of each man, and the depths of their friendship, are demonstrated to the fullest. And the icing on the cake? The reader gets to know more about the fascinating and entertaining Jon Stone character than has been revealed in previous books.

Crais's talent for characterization and setting is used to optimal effect, supported by white-hot pacing. The constant tension is spurred by the construction of the book, sliding back and forth in time, allowing the reader to anticipate some, but not too much, of the action while allowing the author enough space to surprise the reader with the twists and turns of the story. Rarely is such construction both necessary and highly effective, but Crais is the master of the time shift (remember LA REQUIEM?), wielding the tool with wisdom and restraint.

But it is the characters: Cole, Pike, Stone, the pollos and the bajadores themselves, who draw the reader in and refuse to let go until their story is resolved: Cole, who goes a little too far trying to help a client. Pike, well, how far won't Pike go for a friend? Stone, a brilliant and loud character who goes as far as he damn well pleases, and who is just begging to get his own name on a dust jacket. The pollos, those victims who risk all for a chance at a better life and those who are trying to escape the consequences of their own deeds. The bajadores, those who are just hired help, those who don't even see their victims as people, and those who positively relish the nastier aspects of their work.

TAKEN has its share of metaphors and symbols, but Crais writes in such an "of the moment" style, that such niceties tend to be camouflaged by the story's action. It lends to his books a subtlety missing in much of today's crime fiction. For example, a killing ground is not made horrific to the reader through graphic detail; it becomes horrific when such a scene can make a character as tough as Jon Stone cry out in rage. Or when the mother of the missing woman gives Cole a tiny figure of Jiminy Cricket, the reader understands what that figure represents to each of them: she is putting everything in life she values in  Elvis's hands, and for Elvis, the little plastic figure that was Pinocchio's conscience is, in essence, his own conscience. Elvis has always wanted to be a real boy, hasn't he?

I have to say that I've enjoyed all of Robert Crais's novels, but TAKEN is, for me, the most deeply satisfying book since 2005's THE FORGOTTEN MAN. Thematically, Crais sums up the book with an apt pair of epigraphs right at the beginning:
"Cut you,
I bleed.
Our name is love."
                 -- Tattooed Beach Sluts

Jiminy Cricket: Hey, where ya goin'?
Pinocchio: I'm going to find him!

If you're wondering, then yes, you can read this book without having read the others in the series. TAKEN stands all on its own as an outstanding example of the action thriller. But it's only fair to say that the best way to experience the deeper richness of these characters is by learning more of Elvis's and Joe's history, so I urge you to read the entire series.


January 17, 2012

A pair worth perusing.

Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, Vol. II, is a solid follow up to the debut collection of Western short stories. The opening story, Origin of White Deer, is a terrific introduction to the young Cash and lays the foundation for the more mature hero in the other stories. The final story, Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye (first published here courtesy of author Edward A. Grainger), is a particularly fine tale, a dark episode that reveals a more human, more fallible Cash, but a man to whom the reader can still relate. Only one Gideon Miles story in this volume, sadly, but it's a dandy. Fans of tales of western justice won't go wrong by saddling up and riding with Laramie and Miles.

The most recent installment in Arnaldur Indriðason's Erlandur series, Hypothermia, may well be the best book in an already fine series. The theme running throughout the series, that of being lost and in search of, is beautifully rendered as Erlandur studies a clear cut case of suicide while following up on a pair of decades-old missing persons cases. The suicide case fascinates Erlandur: the victim was consumed by the possibility of communicating with the dead; she had dreams and visions of the dead mother to whom she was unusually close. The two cold cases are particularly poignant, as both of the missing persons were young people and their families are dead or dying without knowing what ever became of their loved ones. As always, the chill beauty of Iceland stands as backdrop to a story grim but gentle.

January 9, 2012

START SHOOTING by Charlie Newton

Chicago cop Bobby Vargas and aspiring actress Arleen Brennan were childhood sweethearts, but the brutal rape/murder of Arleen's twin sister at age 14 exploded their world and their innocence. Fast forward 29 years: Arleen has a shot at playing the lead opposite Jude Law in A Streetcar Named Desire if she just goes along with a pair of crooked cops who are putting the screws to the Korean Mafia. And if she can stay one step ahead of those two cops who see her as a loose end that needs tying off. Bobby awakes one morning to find his brother and fellow cop, Ruben, is under investigation for the murder of Arleen's sister. And Bobby, well, to make his week one to remember Bobby has been identified by multiple children as a pedophile. When a Federal agent dies during one of Bobby's vice stings, the hole someone is digging for him gets a hell of a lot deeper. But what do Arleen and Bobby have to do with germ warfare? Or with Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics? And can either of them stay alive long enough to find out?

Charlie Newton's second novel is a rampaging rogue elephant of a story, dense in its complexity, with a slam-bang on almost every page. The unexpected violence and the tense character dynamics keep the reader so on edge that frequent breaks are necessary in order to just remember to breathe. Chapter by chapter, page by page, the author weaves an airtight frame of doom around his two protagonists. Justice they don't expect. The law is a tool for the rich and powerful to become even more rich and powerful. Justice is whatever the newspapers say it is. Happy endings, who gets those? Maybe the dead. Maybe. Good guys? Bobby would scoff at the term, even as he wants desperately to be one, to be a real straight-arrow, stand-up cop. But it's tough when everybody -- everybody -- is double-dealing, lying, and manipulating the truth for their own purposes. Trust has been taken out of the dictionary. Survival might be on its way out, too.

The story rips along at light speed, and the reader must pay attention.  Not only do Bobby and Arleen have little breathing space, the same is true for the reader, and it's exhausting. But their lives, the events of that one week are never less than compelling, and along the way the reader starts rooting for Bobby and Arleen to see even one of their small, small dreams come true. Think of this book as a Michael Mann movie on speed. Now make it more complex, more unexpected, more cynical, and yes, anybody can die. Yeah, you're starting to get the picture now.

The story is told in first person, present tense (which adds to the tension), over the course of one week, by Bobby and Arleen alternately.  Bobby's voice in particular is magnificent, as that of a young cop who has seen too much to retain his idealism, but clings to the last shreds of it all the same. In the opening paragraphs Bobby describes for you the Chicago he knows, a city intimately bound up in race, violence, and politics:
Black, white, brown or yellow, on Chicago's South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit. or a nun's habit, and all you did was accessorize.

For those of you exiting the 'L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the "2016 Olympic city." We're glad you're here.

How Olympic? We have the best hot dogs, best pizza, worst baseball team, six months of weather that would give pause to a statue, and a river we dye green on St. Patrick's Day because we can. If the IOC could possibly require more, page two is fourteen miles of sandy beaches, blues bars that actually play the blues, icebergs in the winter, four race-tracks, and street gangs with twenty thousand members. Think of Chicago as Club Med, but with issues. Wear clean underwear and socks in case there's an accident, and you're good to go.

On a good day.

Which, unfortunately, today isn't.
No, and the six days following aren't going to be kind to Bobby or Arleen either.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (January 10, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0385534698
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385534697

January 4, 2012

"...something scary and washed in the blood..."

"The beautiful and tragic saga of The Louvin Brothers—one of the most legendary country duos of all time—is one of America’s great untold stories. Charlie Louvin was a good, god-fearing, churchgoing singer, but his brother Ira had the devil in him, and was known for smashing his mandolin to splinters onstage, cussing out Elvis Presley, and trying to strangle his third wife with a telephone cord. Satan is Real is the incredible tale of Charlie Louvin’s sixty-five-year career, the timeless murder ballads of  The Louvin Brothers, and an epic tale of two brothers bound together by love, hate, alcohol, blood, and music." (From

I could talk forever about the music of The Louvin Brothers, and how, like The Beatles' music, it has been a soundtrack to my life. The Louvins wrote and played the kind of country music that modern Nashville pretty well tries to pretend it has outgrown, somewhat like a self-conscious teenager who is ashamed of his uncool parents. Emmylou Harris may have said it best: “There was something scary and washed in the blood about the sound of the Louvin Brothers.”

For those who know their music, beyond the melodies, beyond Ira Louvin's incredible songwriting talent, beyond the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, beyond all of it lie the most incredible vocal harmonies in American music. The two brothers sang gospel, folk ballads, bluegrass, honky tonk, and they sang all of it with conviction. And their impact on other musicians was bigger than they could have realized. From the Everly Brothers to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Raul Malo, Alison Krauss, and so many more -- Vince Gill said, "You can’t find anybody, I don’t think, that was not inspired by them.” My dad sure was. My dad had a beautiful old Martin guitar, a 00021 I think, from about 1947, and my siblings and I grew up singing old-timey gospel songs at home and at church as he sang and played along. There weren't many songs by the Louvins we didn't know, and their songs were always our favorites whenever we sang at revivals or songfests or just sat around the living room with relatives and friends, telling family stories and singing as the mood took us.

Time never dimmed our love for and appreciation of their music. Although my dad rarely traveled after us kids started coming along, in the early 1990s I convinced my parents to make the long drive to Alabama with me to visit one of my siblings. My persuasion took the form of "maybe we could drive over to Sand Mountain and see the Louvins' old homestead." Having said as much to someone like my dad, 'maybe' became a certainty.  It's no exaggeration to say that meeting Charlie Louvin and his wife, Betty, and finding them to be as genuine as the music Charlie made, was the greatest thrill of my dad's life, outside of his marriage and the birth of his children. My dad didn't want to leave, and if he'd brought his guitar I feel certain he would have done everything in his power to persuade Charlie to play with him. And only three or four years ago, I made my way over to the little opera house in Nelsonville, Ohio, to see an aged-in-body, young-in-spirit Charlie in concert. The voice had been roughened and shrunk by time, but he still had the magic. You should've seen that audience when he launched into "The Great Atomic Power."

I wish, oh, how I wish that my dad could have read this new book, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, by Charlie Louvin and Benjamin Whitmer. He always wanted to know more about Ira and Charlie, about what went wrong between the brothers that caused the duo to break up, about what it was like to be a country star in the days when 'country music' meant exactly that and not something pop/rock dressed up with a twang to pass as country. With this book, I know he would have found a lot of the answers he sought, because this book is pure Charlie: candid, rough-hewn, unpretentious, thoughtful. Charlie's honesty about the brutality visited upon Ira (and himself, but more Ira) by their father, about Ira's nasty, alcohol-fueled behavior, about the hard times in general, is breathtaking. Charlie doesn't sugarcoat anything, but his simple recollections carry no taint of scandalmongering in order to sell a book either. Here, he says, is just how it was.

Co-writer Benjamin Whitmer (of Pike fame) has done a superlative job of eliciting and organizing the stories of Charlie's life, clarifying and illustrating his words without ever once getting in the way of Charlie's natural voice. Thus, not only the music and the brothers are revealed here, but also there is a glimpse into mid-century rural Appalachian culture, a time when small family farms were worked by hand, a time when communities came together around a single radio. And also a time when a man could with impugnity beat his children senseless; when a sixth-grade education was all most children of Appalachia could aspire to; when racial slurs were accepted conversation; a time and place of grinding poverty that could yet yield the finest of vocal harmonies. Along the way, Charlie talks about the celebrities of his day and industry, not namedropping but recognizing the roles these people played in his life: Roy Acuff, Fred Rose, Hank Williams, Elvis (don't need a last name here, do I?), Colonel Tom Parker ("a fourteen-carat asshole"), and Kris Kristofferson. And the chapter about the loan Johnny Cash made to Charlie is worth the price of the book all by itself. Charlie testifies to Cash's character in a way that the biopic, Walk the Line, never does.

Through all of it, Charlie's own character, not perfect but perfectly human, emerges. My dad would've treasured this book. I will, too.

Available at all the major bookstore chains and independents, in hardcover and ebook:
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Igniter (January 3, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0062069039
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062069030

January 2, 2012

MONKEY JUSTICE by Patti Abbott

The holidays have at last provided a chance for me to catch up on some of the ebooks on my reader. Tops on my list is MONKEY JUSTICE, Patti Abbott's collection of short stories. Why? Because every story contains characters I can relate to, yet no two of her stories are remotely alike. A small paradox, but a pleasant one. And also because Abbott never treats the short story form as an easy route to getting her name in front of readers. Too often writers, even very good writers, are heavy handed with the short story, beating the characters, the plot -- if any -- and the reader into submission. Every short story should be unpredictable; yet every short story need not shock. A good short story may sometimes have to be coaxed as much as it is written. And this is where Abbott's strength lies. She doesn't write crime fiction per se; she writes character fiction. And this collections boasts some superlative examples:

 Like a Hawk Rising - When a gimpy housebreaker, Bernie, and his hard-as-nails wife, Marsha, witness the neighbor's kid being abused by his absentee father, what should they do about it? Call the law? Not a good idea because of Bernie's occupation. But Marsha isn't about to just turn a blind eye. And she has other scores that need to be settled as well. Can she hit upon a one-size-fits-all solution, and still keep Bernie and herself safe?

The Instrument of Their Desire - An elderly woman confronts her brother about the childhood abuse of their late sister, with surprising and sad results. A wrenching story and one of Abbott’s best, it initially appeared in the excellent 2010 anthology, BETWEEN THE DARK AND THE DAYLIGHT and 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg.

Monkey Justice - Recognition that one is being treated unfairly is the mark of higher intelligence. That isn’t the same thing as being civilized, as scientist Cheryl learns the hard way. Abbott has a deft touch with dysfunctional family dynamics, and nicely correlates the human dynamics with those of the monkeys Cheryl is studying. This is the kind of story that brings out the latent anger in a lot of women.

The Squatter - A cautionary tale about who you allow into your life, this chilling story could easily be the basis for a novel-length thriller. 

Raising the Dead - You really can lose sight of moral boundaries when you’re all wrapped up in your art. Just ask the woman who photographs the dead.

Those are my favorites but there are another 18 excellent stories in this collection, available in digital format from amazon. I'm looking forward to reading more from Patti Abbott in 2012.