About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Flying Directly Into the Cuckoo's Nest

By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
717 KB (464 pages)
Mulholland Books (April 30, 2013)

Someplace on high, the spirit of Agatha Christie is smiling down on J.K. Rowling these days. Probably the spirits of Ngaio Marsh, Dot Sayers and Margery Allingham as well. The Cuckoo's Calling, written by Rowling under the pseudonym "Robert Galbraith," is as good a "tea cozy" mystery as any written by those grande dames in their prime.

I write mysteries myself. If some day I manage a book that is even three-quarters as good as this one, the undertaker will need two weeks to get the smile off my face for my funeral.

"Wait just a damn minute, Wallace," I can hear you say out there. "I thought you were an Elmore Leonard/George V. Higgins kind of guy, the sort of mystery fan who likes to see murder in the hands of people who do it for a living?  I thought you liked your crime stories from the perpetrators' perspective, the kind of stories where the most common solution to problems is to blow them away with a .44 magnum?"

If that's what you said, you're right: I like noir-ish thrillers with a nihilistic edge, in which the protagonist falls victim to his own greed, lust or arrogance, and his struggle to pull himself out of the morass just digs him in deeper.  I spent 30-plus years writing about La Cosa Nostra, the Russian Mafiya, Chinese Triads, Vietnamese microchip robbery rings, street gangs, prison crime syndicates and many, many drug dealers and their organizations. During that time I ran across dozens of cops that abused their authority, took money to ignore criminals or simply looked the other way when serious illegality occurred. 

All those years researching all those crimes, criminals and law enforcement officers has convinced me that the doomed losers of novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Mr. Paradise correspond more closely to the reality I am familiar with than the duplicitous, well-bred, public school-educated killers in Have His CarcaseMore Work for the Undertaker, or Murder on the Orient Express.

But I also like horror stories and occasionally write them, even though I don't believe in ghosts, witches or demons.  And I like sword and sorceror yarns like the ones written by Robert Howard, even though the Hyperborian Age never actually existed except in Howard's mind. I once spent most of a summer reading everything I could find by Andre Norton, despite the fact that I have never met a human being who could use ESP to communicate with animals. And I read so much science fiction by A. E. Van Vogt -- whose mutant humans had supernormal abilities that went far beyond simple ESP -- that I tackled Science and Sanity, the tome on general semantics and non-Aristotelian thought that inspired much of Van Vogt's work.

What I am saying here is, sure: my preference is for a story in which the criminal is just another working class slob toiling at a particular variant of capitalism where a business mistake can have more disastrous consequences than getting a slap on the wrist from the Securities Exchange Commission or being fired by the board of directors at a shareholder meeting.  But that doesn't keep me from enjoying the occasional locked room mystery, or a Freeman Wills Croft-style thriller in which the solution depends on, say, reconciling discrepancies between ship and railway timetables.
J.K. Rowling, best known for her Harry Potter books,
has written a "tea cozy" mystery story that is about as good as any on the market today.

The Cuckoo's Calling, Rowling's latest, is one of those cozies that noir aficionados like Raymond Chandler are inclined to deride. There is no criminal gang that sets in motion the events of the novel, no obvious motive that immediately explains the villain's motivation. The police are pretty bright in this story, although their eagerness to clear the case leads them to miss some fairly significant evidence.

In a way, it is a throwback to the sort of suspense novel that Agatha Christie used to write -- except that Rowling is considerably hipper than Christie and populates her story with such exotic Twenty First Century creatures as supermodels, rock stars and gangster rappers from L.A. -- all of which hadn't been invented when Christie was banging out novels and shorter fiction about Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Hercule Poirot, and Tommy and Tuppence.

Having identified it as a throwback, it is worth noting that The Calling of the Cuckoo is a very, VERY good throwback -- better in many ways than a lot of the stuff by Allingham, Marsh and Christie.

There isn't a single false note in the entire novel: the characters are just about as fully realized as any I have ever come across in a crime thriller; Rowling's plot -- though devious -- is highly believable; her characters each have distinct voices, pet phrases and vocabularies which give them depth and add immensely to the story's verisimilitude; her inside understanding of police agencies, the military, the daily dealings of celebrities is acute; and she  uses a light touch in developing the back stories of our characters, but tells us precisely what we need to know about them.

Her private detective, Comoran Strike, is a broken man, not because he lost his leg in Afghanistan, (although he did) or because his mother was a celebrated rock 'n' roll groupie that died of a heroin overdose (which she was); No, what has put Strike on the edge of the precipice is the fact that he in love with a woman who is as fraudulent as the Piltdown Man. As the novel begins, he is down to only one client, thrown out of his ex-girlfriend's apartment and sleeping on a camp bed in the back of the office he is soon to be evicted from.

Rowling sketches Strike with a deft hand, making him one of those memorable characters that the reader will remember long after forgetting whodunit.

Strike's temporary secretary and dog's-body, Robin, is just as finely drawn. The pair -- a decidedly odd couple -- enhance each other's strengths as individuals and compensate for each other's weaknesses. Together, they make a formidable team that should have the reader thinking "sequel, if you please" before they get very far into the story.  And though Robin ends up reluctantly becoming much more intimately involved in her new employer's personal life than she intends to, Rowling does not put the two into a romance, even though it would have been easy to do so.

Even the conclusion of the story is on the money: the villain comes as a surprise, despite the neat trail of clues Rowling leaves, and the denouement is thrilling enough to make the reader worry whether our flawed protagonist will come through it unharmed.

Rowling gets it all one hundred percent right. As one of Harry Potter's instructors might well put it: "Well done, J.K. Rowling!"

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Singapore Police Inspector Sam Tay Smokes, Keeps His Partner in the Dark and has Visions While Investigating a Bombing

By Jake Needham
Kindle edition: 666 KB
Print Length: 382 pages
Publisher: Half Penny Ltd (December 20, 2012)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English

In Jake Needham's latest mystery, The Umbrella Man, his sleuth, Inspector Sam Tay of the Singapore police, has something in common with Arthur Conan Doyle's famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes: both smoke like chimneys. Holmes puzzled out his deductions while smoking a Meerschaum pipe; Tay, who seems to be the last smoker in Singapore, puffs on Marlboros.

That is pretty much where the resemblance ends, however. Holmes used his incredible powers of observation and his keen deductive mind to ferret out the solutions to his mysteries. A mere glance at a crime scene is enough to give him all the facts he needs to bring a a murderer, master thief or other heinous malefactor to book.

Tay, on the other hand, seems far more interested in finding spots where he can grab a cigarette than in the clues that lie behind that plastic tape cops use to mark a spot where a felony has been committed.  In this book, at least, his powers of observation go largely unobserved and his deductions seem defective.

In fact, Tay, the central figure in two of Needham's Asia-centered mysteries, should have to give back a healthy part of his paycheck every week: he seems to spend most of his time on the clock avoiding physical confrontations, dodging assignments from his superiors and lounging around his little garden smoking Marlboros.

At least, that is the impression that one gets from this, Needham's second Tay mystery. I haven't read the first Tay novel,  The Ambassador's Wife, or any of his Jack Shepherd thrillers so far, and I will be interested to see if The Umbrella Man is a deviation or Needham's norm.

Jake Needham, Creator of Inspector Tay

Basically, the story is this: terrorists bomb Singapore's biggest hotels, taking out a multi-block section of the island nation's main commercial district in a 9-11 style attack.   To his outrage and disgust, Tay, whose modest inherited wealth gives him the freedom to be a royal pain in the  ass to his superiors, is shunted aside from the main investigation of the bombing by Singapore's internal security police. Instead, he and his handful of troops are put in charge of the mysterious death of a foreigner.

With the assistance of a shadowy American spook who apparently was introduced in The Ambassador's Wife, Tay uncovers the link between the bombings and the dead foreigner.  But he works out the connection with glacial slowness, factoring in time-outs during which he is physically threatened by another U.S. covert operator, knocked out twice at inopportune moments, and given the runaround by the secret police.

And smokes Marlboros. Lots and lots of Marlboros.

The tectonic pace of the book is annoying to begin with, but it is also hampered by a plot driven by one of the most miraculous coincidences in the history of crime fiction, a coincidence so problematic that it is impossible to even mention an aspect of it without completely turning this review into a spoiler. Suffice to say that it is the sort of coincidence that seems to be at the center of every Jack Reacher book Lee Childs has ever written. What's more, this particular twist is never really adequately explained: we never learn who is behind the bombing, their motivation or how they enlisted the aid of the dead foreigner in the first place.

Even more annoying is the fact that on at least two occasions, Tay's mother confers with him and kindly points him toward critical clues. Unfortunately, his mother has been dead at least two years, so these conferences are essentially hallucinations. Having supernatural agents help an investigator would be fine if this book was advertised as a supernatural thriller, but it isn't. The Umbrella Man is presented as a straightforward mystery story and the sudden appearance of a ghost who plays a lead role in the solution smacks of an author who wrote himself into a corner and was desperate to find a way out.

With all the weaknesses, the story still would have been worth reading if it had given us a more vivid look at Singapore, a country that few Americans know anything about except that it gives long prison sentences for minor crimes and relies heavily on caning as an instrument of judicial corporal punishment.

Unfortunately, other than one or two geographical references, we learn next to nothing about the country besides the fact that Inspector Tay believes its people, a ployglot collection of Malaysians, Chinese, Indians, Southeast Asians and others, are obsessively deferential to authority and driven by a single-minded pursuit of wealth.

If a change of pace from the normal mystery is what you are looking for, The Umbrella Man may satisfy you.  But it didn't satisfy me.  Perhaps one or more of his other novels will, and if it does, I will definitely let you know about it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

More Fun than a Barrel of Bad Monkeys

By Carl Hiaasen

1317 KB
Print Length: 336 pages
Publisher: Knopf (June 11, 2013)
Sold by: Random House LLC
Language: English

Take one trouble-prone sheriff's detective who has been demoted to inspecting restaurants for vermin. Add one hairless, pipe-smoking monkey, a Voodoo Queen, a Medicare scammer turned crooked resort developer and a libidinous grammar school teacher with a taste for outlaw sex. Fold in one female medical examiner who likes making love on autopsy tables. Half bake until extraordinarily well done.

You may be wondering if this is some tasty treat concocted by a trailer trash Martha Stewart. Not really. What it is, is a recipe for a good time a la Carl Hiaasen (Tourist Season, Skin Tight, Double Whammy), the Miami Herald writer and novelist who regularly turns out stories set in South Florida that are a winning combination of high jinks and low crimes.

Bad Monkey is Hiaasen's fourteenth solo adult novel (he has also written four books for young adults and co-authored three standard thrillers with the late Bill Montalbano, a journalistic colleague). The book's plot revolves around the misadventures of Andrew Yancey, a former member of the Miami police who is now a deputy sheriff for Monroe County, home of the Florida Keys.  

Carl Hiaasen

Yancey can't stay out of trouble: he lost his badge in Miami while blowing the whistle on a crooked police colleague ripping off a secret witness whistle-blower's fund; he is clinging to his job in Monroe County by the tips of his fingernails because he gave his girlfriend Bonnie's doctor husband a public colonoscopy with a small shop vacuum cleaner.

Desperate to save his law enforcement career, Yancey is persuaded by the publicity-conscious county sheriff to dispose of an unwanted piece of evidence from an apparent boating mishap: a man's arm that was hooked at sea by a fishing crew. The sheriff, who is planning to run for higher office, doesn't want the grisly prize in his jurisdiction because it could interfere with tourism, the island chain's number one industry. So he talks Yancey into transporting the severed limb to the Miami coroner's office while the soon-to-be-ex-detective is still nominally on the department's payroll.

The catch is, the assistant Dade County medical examiner, Dr. Rosa Ambesino, refuses to accept it.  Yancey is forced to return to his house in the keys with his trophy. He plunks the arm in his freezer and forgets about it.

Temporarily, at least: Yancey quickly uncovers enough discrepancies in the story of what happened to the arm's original owner that he decides the limb is actually evidence in a homicide case. As he investigates, two other murders are committed and he is nearly killed himself. Forging a bond with Dr. Ambesino, a pathologist with enough kinks to stop up a Home Depot garden hose, he works the case during the down time from inspecting restaurants that are so disgustingly unsanitary he has lost his appetite and fourteen pounds.

In the meantime, his relationship with his ex-girlfriend deteriorates, a new one springs up involving Dr. Ambesino, he encounters two hapless FBI agents investigating a multi-million dollar Medicare fraud, and travels to the Bahamas where he encounters the hairless simian that gives the book its name. Watch that bad monkey, incidentally -- he plays a critical role at several points in the story.

Amid this insanity, Yancey still manages to find the time to use a dead raccoon, swarming bees and a pack of mythical feral dogs to sabotage the developer of a house that blocks his view. What ultimately happens to the house is surprising, but if you share any of Hiaasen's attitudes about development or real estate scammers, you should find it quite satisfying.

Eventually, the true story of the severed arm is laid bare, the miscreants are dealt a sort of rough justice, Yancey manages to work out his tangled romantic relationships and there seems a possibility -- however remote -- that he will get his badge back sometime in the not-so-distant future.

The solution to the mystery becomes obvious about three-quarters of the way through the story, but "whodunit" is not the point of a Hiaasen novel; the author promises you hilarity with the first lines of the book and he delivers on that promise faithfully, summoning up a collection of memorable characters who are nearly as wacky as Skin Tight's Chemo, the hit-man with the Weed-Whacker prosthetic, "Skink," the former Florida governor who subsists on road kill, or Congressman David Lane Dilbeck, the corrupt legislator and lap-dancing enthusiast who is a central figure in Strip Tease.

So forget the traditional mystery. What you are here for is an air boat ride through a mangrove swamp with a skipper high on nitrous oxide. Sit back and enjoy it -- this is a perfect novel for what's left of this summer.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Thriller Without Thrills About an Intelligence Operation Without a Modicum of Intelligence

Directed by Isaac Florentine
Starring Christian Slater, Donald Sutherland, Elika Portney, Timothy Spall.

Sometimes a film has a lot of things going for it but still falls short. There can be many reasons for the failure, including miscast characters, poor pacing or a story with obvious plot holes.

For Assassin's Bullet, a spy thriller that has good camerawork, terrific Bulgarian settings, a promising cast and a dark sensibility, all of the above is true: it's star power and fabulous locations are both wasted and the film lacks a story that is remotely credible.

The plot follows a series of murders in Sofia, Bulgaria in which the targets are known terrorists. There is no suspense about who is doing the killing because her identity (Elika Portnoy) is  revealed almost as soon as the credits roll.
Despite feeble attempts at disguise, the film builds no real suspense because we know Elika Portnoy is the assassin almost as soon as the opening credits roll.

For reasons that are never adequately explained, U.S. Ambassador Ashdown (Donald Sutherland) assigns Robert (Christian Slater), a former FBI agent who joined the State Department as a legal attaché after his wife was killed by criminals, to investigate the killings.

This is the first Grand Canyon-sized plot hole for two reasons: first, the people who are being murdered are people the U.S. would rather see dead anyway, so why would an American ambassador care who was pulling the trigger? Second, why would a political appointee posted to the Embassy in a foreign country involve his own staff in what to all appearances is a local police investigation? 

Questions of national sovereignty aside, the local man wouldn't have the equipment or staff to evaluate the evidence, so all he would be doing is following in the footsteps of the local cops.

None of these rather obvious questions are answered in this film, which plods along as if the contradictions didn't exist. What is more surprising, Robert doesn't raise them when the ambassador makes his request; in fact, he doesn't even seem particularly curious.

In any case, during his investigation Robert comes in contact with a mysterious young woman named Vicky (Portnoy) who is being treated for a host of psychiatric problems by Dr. Kahn (Timothy Spall).

Timothy Spall is more believable as the death eater who masquerades as Ron Weasely's pet mouse in the Harry Potter movies than as Vicky's shrink in Assassin's Bullet.

Vicky seems to be living out multiple identities, including one of a grammar school teacher and another of a belly dancer at a local nightclub. Only the most cretinous and myopic viewer will fail to notice that Vicky is also the assassin who is gunning down all the terrorists in the city of Sofia.

The motivation for Vicky becoming an international murderess is explained in a series of heavy-handed flashbacks: her parents, we learn, were killed by a terrorist's bomb; the trauma of witnessing their deaths apparently gave her amnesia and set her up as an easily controlled homicidal maniac.

Of course, everyone knows that if you have a sensitive intelligence task to perform -- like executing highly trained terrorists, you don't want to find an experienced spy or professional killer to do the job; you want to recruit an amnesiac suffering from schizophrenia whose past life makes her spectacularly mentally unstable.

For his part, Robert is terribly horny, apparently because he hasn't had a date with a woman since his wife died. For reasons that are never explained he buys a shemagh, one of the patterned scarfs favored by PLO fighters and Arab nationalists, then wears it constantly while he wanders the streets of Sofia looking for clues. He falls for Vicky, whom he meets in her belly dancer guise. 

She seems to be attracted to him, too, but her duty as an assassin takes first priority over her private love life. So she pops a few more swarthy terrorists while Robert mopes around looking for clues. Also she seems to have a pathological aversion to Robert's shemagh -- probably because the man who killed her parents wore one.

The scarf becomes a sort of unintentional running joke: every time Robert puts it around his neck, Vicky runs away, making him wonder if her attraction to him is real -- or if he might be using the wrong aftershave and deodorant.

The climax of the film is a fight between Robert and Vicky after she murders an entire nest of Middle Eastern terrorists. She easily defeats him, even though she is probably half his weight, which raises serious questions about the adequacy of the training FBI agents get in hand-to-hand combat. 

Then she vanishes, leaving him to mull his unhappy history with women. In the final scene, there is a pathetic reveal on a train heading out of Sofia that supposedly makes it clear who has been running Vicky as an assassin from the very beginning. Their identity is supposed to come as a surprise, but most viewers will have figured it out at least halfway through the picture.

As former FBI Agent Robert, Christopher Slater gives a weak performance characterized primarily by his bad eyesight: he doesn't recognize that his new girlfriend Vicky is the assassin even after he loses a mixed martial arts duel with her.

I viewed the film via Netflix largely on the basis of its genre and the fact that some members of the cast have done pictures I enjoyed in the past. But the cast appears to have been hired for name value alone: Slater is flat and affectless, Spall is corny (bag that accent, buddy!) and Sutherland simply mails in his performance -- third-class.

In my view, there are two dependable ways that an espionage film (or novel, for that matter) can be constructed. One of them is to build it along the lines of a traditional "cozy" mystery with all its clues laid out in plain sight. This would be the technique used in the television miniseries of Smiley's People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John LeCarre, in which the "proofs," to use the term favored by The General (Curt Jurgens), an antique Russian spy of Cold War vintage, are arranged neatly and challenge the viewer (or reader) to follow them through to conclusion.

Or a spy thriller can concentrate on the thrill factor, sweeping the viewer along in a torrent of action that invites her or him to ignore factual discrepancies, plot holes and other flaws. In other words, it can depend on that willing suspension of disbelief on which all speculative storytelling leans heavily. Probably the best example of this school would be the Bourne films starring Matt Damon: so long as the action is hot and heavy, the audience is unlikely to reflect on the impossibility of such a perfectly tuned killing machine -- or a conspiracy so vast that no word of it has previously slipped out.

Assassin's Bullet follows neither of these paths. The script is not only marred by the gaping plot holes mentioned earlier -- a major fail for the type of traditional spy thriller that depends on a clean, logical clockwork plot -- but the film's pace is too slow and its action sequences too far apart to keep the viewer from dwelling on its inanities.

Portnoy, whose real name is Elena Trifonova, seems to be the key. In addition to playing the leading role, she co-authored the script and served as its executive producer. Portnoy is an attractive but not particularly talented young woman who apparently made so much money in her earlier career as a model and television host that she can now afford to dabble in cinema. This picture, like at least two other films produced by her Boston-based company, Mutressa Movies, has vanity project written all over it.

Assassin's Bullet is a forgettable film that any serious fan of espionage dramas is likely to find extremely disappointing. It has been unfavorably compared to Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, but any such comparison is a slur on Besson's reputation.

Save the money you'd blow on Assassin's Bullet and rent La Femme Nikita, instead; while the two movies have similarities, one is good. Unfortunately, it's not  Assassin's Bullet.

Two nooses.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Plenty of Action -- Just Not What I Expected!

By Jennifer Zane
  • 357 pages
  • ISBN: 1490331220
  • Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
The Amazon summary for The Lady and the Lawman made it sound like a rock-em-sock-em western novel with plenty of action holding together a traditional romance. 

The story, which focuses on runaway bride Margaret Atwater, seems to offer just that: "Outlaws are trying to kill her.  The brothel owner wants her back. And a man from her past is willing to do anything to reclaim what he lost. Will bullets and brawn be enough to save her?"

The book was written by Jennifer Zane, the author of the Gnome Romance series. I'd just published my own western adventure (Tamer: An Amos Kuttner Novel, also available at Amazon) and was interested to see how a woman handled the genre, so I bought Zane's novel largely on a whim.

Jennifer Zane, author of The Lady and the Lawman

Unfortunately, The Lady and the Lawman turned out to be a disappointment. The action sequences, which are brief and not terribly convincing, occur at the beginning and toward the end of the book, and the core of the novel deals with the evolution of the uneasy relationship between Atwater and the lawman of the title, Sheriff Grant Masterson, a hunk that Atwater finds breathtakingly attractive in a physical sense, but whose moodiness and hot temper frighten her.

In summary, the story sounds promising. The novel, which is set in Colorado in 1878, opens with Atwater on a stage coach bound for San Francisco, fleeing from a bloodless engagement to a man she fears intends to kill her for her money after they are wed. Her escape is foiled when a pair of bloodletters rob the stage, killing everyone on board but Margaret. 

One of the bandits kills the other so he can rape the woman, but she fends off his attack. To punish her for her resistance, the bandit sells her to the owner of a saloon and brothel in the nearest town.

Through a quirk, Margaret becomes the prize in a poker game between the brothel owner, town sheriff Masterson and his long-time rival, Dalton. The sheriff wins the woman, but learns of her plight when he takes her to her room for a sexual encounter.

After she is kidnapped twice, almost drowned in a wild river and nearly killed by a sniper firing from the second floor of the whorehouse, Margaret emerges triumphant, safely wed to her lawman lover and free to claim her sizable inheritance back in Philadelphia if she chooses.

The book is a very quick read in part because large sections are devoted to heavy-breathing clinches between the hero and heroine that are never actually consummated. It is clear that Zane knows how to grind out a story, but her complicated plot is really the best part of her book: her dialog is rather flat and stilted, anachronistic phrases slip into her characters' speeches, and only Atwater and Masterson really come to life as multi-dimensional human beings in this 353-page tale.

Too me, the biggest flaw in the book is its failure to offer much in the way of excitement: Zane doesn't make us feel that her hero and heroine are ever in serious danger and the novel's two villains, wealthy and unscrupulous Robert Dalton and Margaret's murderous fiance, William Grant fail to generate much real menace. Worse yet, the book's  denouement can be seen coming more than 50 pages before it occurs, a fact that virtually eliminates the possibility of catharsis.

These are significant problems for a book that is being marketed as a romantic thriller. The Lady and the Lawman has plenty of romance, but the thrills it offers are few and far between.