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, November 30, 2013

A Serial Killer Menaces an Ohio Family in John Burley's Debut Thriller

By John Burley
355 pages
ISBN: 0062227378
(William Morrow Paperbacks, Nov. 19, 2013)
Sold by: Harper Collins Publishers
ASIN: B00BATKQR­­­­­­­­
Ben and Susan Stevenson live in Wintersville, Ohio, with their two sons, Thomas and Julian, a close-knit family in a village where everybody seems to know their neighbors and few secrets go undiscovered.

Their small-town life is so low-key and excitement free that it seems to be patterned on a Norman Rockwell painting: Ben is the county coroner, a medical examiner charged with determining the cause of death in cases where the victim is not under a doctor's care; Susan is a respected physician at a local hospital. They are important figures in the community -- well-known and highly valued by their fellow residents.

And then a grisly, savage murder occurs that shatters the illusion of their idyllic life and threatens to tear the family apart. It will soon be followed by another hideous attack more violent than the first – and a third which is even worse.

As medical examiner, Ben must work closely with County Sheriff Sam Garson and two of Garson’s investigators, Detectives Carl Schroeder and Danny Hunt, to gather and analyze the forensic evidence in the case and identify the killer. It’s no easy task as a number of red herrings quickly appear to complicate the case; for example, one of them, a powerfully built and severely mentally ill man who identifies himself as "Harold Matthews," shows up immediately after the second victim is attacked.

Adding to the suspense, the murderer seems to be stalking Stevenson’s own family; he even leaves the dismembered hand of one of his victims in a bag leaning against the wall of the coroner’s office as a direct challenge to the pathologist.

The astute reader will very likely realize who the killer is before the cops and Stevenson do, but just knowing whodunit will not reduce the book's thrills: this is one of those suspense novels in which the reader is literally kept on the edge of his or her seat right up through the last page.

Author Burley is an emergency room physician in Northern California who once worked in a small town like Wintersville. Although he is not a pathologist, he brings considerable story-telling talent and medical expertise to bear on this gripping debut thriller that holds the reader's interest from its very first  page. With one exception his characters are well-wrought and his narrative is solidly constructed and believable.

John Burley's first thriller, The Absence of Mercy holds the reader's interest from its very first  page.  

Still, Absence of Mercy is a first book and Burley makes a number of rookie errors in it.

To begin with, on two different occasions he drifts into the “Gray’s Anatomy” school of mystery: piling up unnecessary medical detail until the reader begins to founder. This copious technical information adds little to the story and could just as easily be glossed over. It is almost as if Burley doesn't trust his readers and feels he must help them along by feeding them a diet rich in Greek and Latin medical terminology to make them believe he knows what he is writing about.

Burley also tends to repeat himself, particularly at the beginning of the story. For example, after introducing Sam Gargan, Burley reminds us how tall, powerfully built and formidable the sheriff is five times in less than ten pages. He manages to get control over his repetitious style as the story continues, but it initially gives the reader the impression that Burley is stumbling and unsure of where he wants his story to go next.

Finally there are small technical glitches in Burley's novel that tend to distract the reader from his otherwise first-rate story-telling. For example, in his introductory passages about Gargan, Burley can't seem to decide whether the lawman is Wintersville's chief of police or the county sheriff.

As anyone who has read much American crime fiction is aware, there is a major difference between the two jobs: sheriffs are county-wide officials who patrol and enforce the law in unincorporated areas; police chiefs are municipal department heads who have primary authority in a specific incorporated city within a county.

When he refers to Gargan by both titles, Burley forces the reader to backtrack to determine whether he has simply misidentified the man or is talking about a new character who was not mentioned earlier in the story.  In a thriller like this one that largely depends on pace to sustain its suspense, anything that draws the reader away from the story line, even for a moment, tends to sabotage the narrative.

Setting aside these errors, Absence of Mercy is a first-rate page-turner -- good enough, at any rate, to receive the National Black Ribbon Award from Book-of-the-Month Club.  Burley handles descriptive passages well, especially in his account of the first murder, a scene setter that could easily have sabotaged the entire novel if rendered poorly. He conjures a real sense of the community in which the action takes place and -- with one exception -- does an excellent job of investing his characters with real personalities that make them rise up off the page.

His dialog is generally solid except for a couple of passages that are rendered in rather clumsy dialect that lack the verisimilitude of the rest of the book.

What really sells the novel to me are passages of fine writing that are sprinkled throughout the text like little surprise packages for discerning readers.

In the passage introducing Sam Gargan, for example, Burley writes, "the large man seemed to lean against the building with enough purpose to make one wonder whether he perhaps moonlighted as a structural support beam for the [coroner's office's] front exterior facade."

Later a man shows up to identify the body of the first victim and suddenly realizes he is going to have to tell his wife that their son is dead, his face ripped to pieces by the killer's teeth: "The intrusive ringing of the phone at the front desk had finally stopped and the [office] was quiet and still, at least for the time being," Burley writes. "The only sound in the room was the shushing cadence of breath that slid slowly in and out of each chest but one."

These are excellent touches that move the novel from the category of workmanlike thriller into the more rarified realm of literature. If Burley takes the time to insert more of them in his story while avoiding the repetitions, technical mistakes and overdependence on medical jargon that occasionally characterize his first novel, he could easily collect the same sort of specialized fan base as Scott Thurow or John Grisham, except writing from the medical perspective rather than the legal point of view.

I suspect that Burley spotted the weak points in his novel as it was rolling off the presses and will avoid similar errors in the future. We will know for sure when his next book appears sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.

I certainly hope this is the case because Absence of Mercy, despite its flaws, is a fine first effort that has much to recommend it.

Burley will appear at a book signing and reading at the Capitola Book Cafe in Capitola, California on Dec. 12th, 2013. He will read from The Absence of Mercy, sign books and answer questions about his debut thriller beginning at 7 p.m. that evening.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn Return in Spider Woman's Daughter

By Anne Hillerman
(325 pages)
ISBN: 0062270486
(Harper Collins Publishers, Oct. 1, 2013)

Marriage seems to agree with Navajo Nation Police Sergeant Jim Chee: in Spider Woman's Daughter, the latest in the series of adventures featuring Chee and his former boss, retired police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, he is lighter-hearted, wittier and less solemn and full of self-doubt than he has been in the duo's earlier stories.

You can credit the change to new management: the Chee-Leaphorn franchise was begun by Tony Hillerman with The Blessing Way, a book that focused on Leaphorn alone, in 1970; Chee joined the series in 1986 in the novel Skinwalkers, and the pairing continued until Hillerman's last book, The Shape Shifter, which appeared in 2006, three years before Hillerman died.

Now the continuing saga of Chee and Leaphorn is continuing under the capable stewardship of Hillerman's daughter, Anne, whose first novel is Spider Woman. Ms. Hillerman says she allowed herself to be coaxed into picking up her father's franchise "when I emerged from the worst of my grief after Dad’s death [and] realized that I was also mourning the end of his mystery series. I missed those detectives."

Anne Hillerman, photo courtesy of http://www.annehillerman.com 

Sometimes change is beneficial. In Spider Woman's Daughter, Anne Hillerman continues the thread begun by her father ably, building on his original collection of characters and adding to them in a sure-handed fashion that gives the reader hope the series will continue for many more years.

Of particular note is the fact that the new book builds on the character of Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito, a Navajo Nation police officer who became Sergeant Chee's romantic interest in The Wailing Wind and married him just before the events described in The Shape Shifter. Much of the action of Spider Woman transpires from Bernie's point of view, and both she and her husband play a critical role in its resolution.

The two newlyweds have plenty to keep them busy in this novel, which begins with a deadly shooting in the parking lot of a coffee shop where members of the Navajo police meet regularly to discuss cases and brainstorm investigative techniques. Bernie is on the phone with Chee at the time and sees the crime committed. Because she is a witness, she is precluded from helping in the investigation, but finds ways to do so nonetheless.

In the course of the novel, Manuelito and her husband search for the killer while dealing with a missing friend, untruthful witnesses, family relationships and a cat that unexpectedly adopts them.

We are introduced to members of Bernie's family, including her resentful and alcoholic younger sister and her aged and somewhat infirm mother. The fractious relationship between the two sisters -- who share unequal burdens of caring for their mother -- is deftly handled and will surely remain a running plot element if Hillerman continues the series beyond this novel.

One or two characters appear to have been included primarily to provide mild comedy relief.

One of them is Gloria Benally, whose car originally appears to be a significant clue to the shooting mystery, but eventually is revealed to be relatively unimportant.  The officer's contact with Benally and her continuing effort to recover her vehicle -- which has been booked as evidence -- provides a running gag in Spider Woman.

Benally could have been mentioned and quickly dropped: remember that her vehicle is a dead end for the investigators. That she isn't quickly shuffled in and out of the book is worth noting: Anne Hillerman's father knew there is more to police work than efficiently tracking down suspects and witnesses. Sometimes a cop's encounters are utterly random, but demonstrate the strangeness of a job in which one routinely becomes injected into other people's secret lives. 

This is the phenomenon that one of James Ellroy's characters refers to as "the wonder," and it is one of the elements that professional snoops like police officers and news reporters find completely addictive.

Tony Hillerman was familiar with "the wonder," and his daughter understands it, too. She has no fear in examining quirky events and characters who make her story unfold at what may seem to some readers a leisurely pace. Not every clue in a mystery should lead to an arrest, and not every interview turns up critical evidence. Sometimes these things simply provide the background necessary to understand the circumstances of the story and the place where it occurs.

In the Chee-Leaphorn universe, that sense of place is critical: Tony Hillerman, a transplanted midwesterner who resettled in the Southwest and used it as the backdrop for his stories, conjured the setting admirably in his novels and his daughter does the same in this, her premiere novel. The reader can almost see Shiprock, the massive paleolith that dominates the landscape, smell the dry dust stirred by windstorms and hear the startled yelp of a hidden coyote as the breeze rustles the silence of the Southwestern desert.

Not that Spider Woman consists solely of colorful scenery, quirky characters, humorous situations or investigative dead-ends. There is plenty of action that plays out against the background of a fraudulent trade in precious indian artifacts and the sort of Navajo tribal lore and mythology that Hillerman fans have grown to expect and love.

The plotting is solid and the story rolls along at a sufficiently breakneck pace that I sat in bed and glommed it in a single sitting, starting at 11 in the evening and ending around four the next morning. There also is plenty of head-scratching mystery, although a couple of the red-herrings that have been inserted to mislead readers will probably fail to throw them very far off the track.

There are also flaws, though none of them prove fatal to enjoying the novel.

As a first-time novelist, Anne Hillerman leaves some plot holes that probably would have been eliminated by her father. One of them involves a villain's back story which is too wildly coincidental for my comfort. Another is the fact that a key character was tangentially involved in an earlier murder case that is referred to in the story line, but for some reason, Chee fails to make the connection.

Finally -- and perhaps most tellingly -- Jim Chee becomes suspicious of a key character toward the end of the book but inexplicably is caught unprepared when the villain pulls a weapon on him, temporarily taking him out of the action. Bear in mind that this is a seasoned lawman who has been involved in fifteen other adventures, some of which involved considerable danger. Despite this he is utterly unprepared when the villain strikes.

Equally unlikely, only a few pages further on, his wife Bernie -- who has worked for the Border Patrol as well as the tribal police -- does almost exactly the same thing. These errors are out of character and necessitate a nail-biting rescue sequence that seems rather clumsy and unbelievable in retrospect.

Fortunately, the author manages to find a way for her protagonists to wriggle out of the jams and avoid tumbling into the plot gaps. The novel's conclusion is completely satisfactory and ties up all the loose ends neatly. More importantly, it leaves the reader with the sense that the series will continue. 

For Chee and Leaphorn fans, this is good news, indeed.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Letter from a Dead Man Plunges Jack Brigance into A Bloody Chapter in Southern History

466 pages
ISBN: 0385537131
( Doubleday, Oct. 22, 2013)
Random House LLC

Jack Brigance, the small town attorney created by John Grisham in his first book, ATime to Kill, is back. Even though the holiday is more than a month away, Grisham fans should be walking around with big Christmas grins on their faces.

Grisham's latest novel, Sycamore Row, a sequel of sorts to his first book, is set three years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial that brought Brigance a measure of notoriety but little else. The young lawyer still lives with his wife, Carla, and daughter, Hannah, in Ford County, Mississippi, in a rural redoubt called Clanton. The Brigances are wedged into a cramped rental because their family home, firebombed by Klansmen during the first book, has never been replaced: Jake's insurance carrier didn't even offer him enough money to pay off the two outstanding mortgages on the property, let alone rebuild it.

Brigance is hustling work where he can: "chasing ambulances" as he puts it in hope of turning up a client or two. He spends his time defending drunk drivers, handling minor civil disputes and pursuing a lawsuit against the insurance company that covered the home that was destroyed by Klansmen in A Time to Kill

Carla, a teacher, holds the family together with her salary -- barely -- and Jake is depressed and discouraged. He is literally living from hand to mouth, and is behind in his rent to Lucien Willibanks, the disbarred alcoholic who owns the building that houses his offices.

Then out of the blue Jake gets a posthumous letter from a dead man, Seth Hubbard, a man he never even meet when Hubbard was alive. Hubbard, a businessman and terminal cancer victim who has just hanged himself to end his pain and misery, says in the note that he wants Brigance to defend a will he wrote secretly only a few days earlier in which he leaves almost his entire $24 million estate to Lettie Lang, the black woman who has worked as his housekeeper for the last three years.

Jake takes the case, looking forward to a temporary respite from his financial problems. But almost immediately vultures begin to circle in the form of a veritable army of lawyers representing the dead man's children and grandchildren, all of whom have been cut out of the Hubbard will without a penny.

In order to defend the will and insure the dead man's wishes are enforced, Jake must not only learn why Hubbard left almost his entire fortune to Lettie, but he must try to track down Ancil Hubbard, the dead man's brother, who fled the area when he was only sixteen after he and Seth were witnesses to something so shocking and horrible that Ancil could no longer bear to remain in Ford County.

Much of Sycamore Row is taken up exploring the strained relationships between Hubbard and his kin and describing the often fractious nature of Lettie Lang's marriage to Simeon, her petty criminal husband. Lucien, fascinated by the case, emerges from his self-imposed exile from the community and the law to research the property transactions behind Seth Hubbard's massive holdings and to search for Hubbard's long-missing brother. 

There is plenty of jousting between Jake and the other lawyers, who engineer a legal bushwhacking by withholding the identity of two key witnesses until late in the trial -- a dirty trick, incidentally, that would probably be blocked by the trial judge in almost any jurisdiction.

The last thirty pages of the book is largely taken up with courtroom maneuverings and Grisham, as usual, handles them superbly. One surprise twist is piled on another as the book dashes to its conclusion, and, although Jake is able to take advantage of a last minute development that would be even less likely to be tolerated by a trial judge, the book rolls to a shocking but satisfying conclusion.

John Grisham returns to tiny Clanton, Mississippi in his latest, "Sycamore Row."

As I have already noted, to call some of the legal stratagems described in Sycamore Row fantastic is an understatement. Key elements of the plot turn on sheer coincidence, which weakens the story and distracts the reader from what is otherwise an excellent bit of storytelling.

On the other hand, this is fiction, not a how-to on court procedure, and Grisham makes a real effort to make the unlikelier elements of his novel believable by crafting the book's back story carefully, making the main characters' motivations clear and acknowledging the occasions when he stretches the reader's credulity.  This effort ameliorates the story's weaknesses considerably.

But what really sells Sycamore Row is the careful manner in which Grisham has drawn his characters. Even those who have minor cameo roles are presented as individuals with personal quirks and idiosyncratic speech patterns. It would have been easy to write the novel without these bits of detail and description, sticking more strictly to the legal procedure and dumping in a platoon of characters whose roles in moving the story forward are relatively minor. 

But if he had followed that path, Sycamore Row wouldn't be the same book -- and it wouldn't be nearly as good.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cop and Victim of Killer-Rapist Team Up in Max Allen Collins's Latest Thriller

What Doesn't Kill Her
By Max Allen Collins
266 pages
ISBN: 1612185290
(Thomas & Mercer, September 17, 2013)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Jordan Rivera's parents and brother are brutally murdered as she looks on, helplessly. Then the killer piles insult on injury by raping Jordan brutally.

The experience is extraordinarily traumatic. The teenage girl spends the next decade in a Cleveland mental facility, marking time in silence as she waits for the killer to strike again.

She knows he will, eventually; he as much as told her so while he was sexually assaulting her.

Jordan might have remained in the mental institution where she was locked up if she had not seen a television news report on a mass murder similar to the one that took her family. But Jordan wants revenge and the only way to get it is by getting back out on the street to confront the killer. And that means facing a frightening new world that in some ways has left her behind.

As she vegetates in the psychiatric clinic, Jordan's classmate Mark Pryor nurses the secret crush he had on her in high school. Her victimization inspires him to become a police detective. As a rookie investigator, he goes over the evidence from the horrific crime that robbed her of her youth and closest kin, conducting his own private probe of the murders and rape and concluding that a gymnastic coach she once took classes from is the architect of her misery.

His theory turns out to be wrong. But it leads him to the actual murderer, a psychopath whose bizarre religious beliefs have compelled him to kill those he considers impure, and sets up the final confrontation between Jordan and the man who stole her family and childhood innocence.

Author Max Allan Collins has crafted a fast-paced satisfying thriller in "What Doesn't Kill Her."

Max Collins, the author of this nicely paced, well-plotted thriller, is perhaps best known as the writer who became friends with Mickey Spillane toward the end of his life, served as literary executor of Spillane's estate and finished several of the Mickster's  novels, including The Big Bang, TheConsummata and the Mike Hammer stories Lady, Go Die!, and The Goliath Bone.

But Collins is a prolific writer under his own byline, author of 47 novels including the Nathan Heller series, creator of the Ms. Tree comic book and the graphic novel The Road to Perdition, which formed the basis of a film starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks.

In What Doesn't Kill Her he has crafted a solid murder tale that features a memorable heroine. 

The identity of the killer will probably quickly be identified by any reader who is familiar with the genre, but the novel's denouement is satisfying despite this weakness.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

An Innocent Man Pulls a Triple Cross

By John Grisham
352 pages
(Dell, October 23, 2012)
Sold by: Random House LLC

Malcolm Bannister, 43, a partner in a small town law practice, got scooped up in the federal racketeering investigation of a crooked Washington, D.C. lobbyist and ended up "drawing a dime" -- a ten-year prison sentence -- in a federal prison camp.
At worst Bannister's crime was picking a bad client, but his innocence has been little comfort to him as the first half of his sentence dragged by.

But Bannister knows who is behind the murder of a federal judge -- only the fifth such slaying in U.S. history. He hopes to trade the killer's identity for his own early release through a Rule 35 proceeding, which allows a federal prison to be freed for providing the authorities with substantive help in solving another crime.

All Bannister has to do is convince the feds he isn't running a scam on them, provide them with the killer's name, and change his own name, face, and work history to stay alive long enough to testify. Complicating these already difficult tasks is the fact that early in the maneuvering, Bannister has ratted out Quinn Rucker, a former inmate friend, and Rucker wants Bannister's liver on a stick. This is no small matter: Rucker is a member of a drug trafficking family that apparently has excellent sources inside the FBI, Justice Department, Marshall's Service or Bureau of Prisons.

Are you getting this all down? Good. This is the set-up of The Racketeer, a John Grisham thriller that has one of the most skillfully managed double and triple crosses in recent crime fiction. As a tale of suspense, it is first rate, and the reader is kept guessing whether Bannister can pull it off -- and how -- until the book's final pages.

I have to admit that I didn't start out as a Grisham fan. The Client  was the first thriller by the lawyer-turned-crime- author that I read and at the time the plot struck me as far-fetched and the characters weak and poorly drawn.

But his next couple of his stories seemed workmanlike, fast-paced and entertaining, and while I didn't exactly become a Grisham aficionado, I began to understand why his fans are legion and at least nine of his stories have formed the basis for popular motion pictures.

Now that I have read The Racketeer, you can list me among the author's most ardent admirers. In terms of plot, alone, The Racketeer is simply one of the cleverest thrillers I have read in a long, long time.

John Grisham

There isn't much that can be said about the book without spoiling it for readers. The one secret that can be divulged is the fact that Bannister is factually innocent of the money laundering charges that put him behind bars for five long years: his name was simply picked out of the Yellow Pages by the crooked lobbyist who was the FBI's real target, and his unwitting involvement in the financial transactions that led to his conviction for money laundering was completely incidental to the lobbyist's real crimes.

But Bannister's wrongful conviction -- which cost him his wife, son and livelihood -- provides a solid motivation for his complicated revenge. In prison he works in the camp's library and advises inmates (and the occasional prison staffer) as a jailhouse lawyer. Both occupations give him the contacts, tools and knowledge he needs to set the book's intricate plot in motion.

In the course of getting his revenge against the system that screwed him, Bannister wins his release, then travels to Florida, Virginia, Antigua and other locales in the Caribbean, sets up a phony motion picture company and goes through identities the way some men change socks. He also manages to trick Nathan Cooley, an ex-con who plays a pivotal role in the scheme, into entering Jamaica with a counterfeit passport, a handgun and enough cocaine to earn him a twenty-year prison sentence.

At this point, the average reader will be completely flummoxed about why Grisham has created this convoluted and time-consuming subplot; never fear: it ends up being a major part of the machinery of the story, and engineers the payoff Bannister has been planning all along. If you figure out what that payoff is before the end of the book, you are a lot more alert than I was.

There are a lot of different ways to manufacture thrills in a suspense story and The Racketeer falls back on the tried and true gimmick of making it appear that the likeable protagonist is getting in over his head: as assassins seem to be on the verge of tracking him down, he burns up precious time by dallying with Vanessa Young, a women he met when she was visiting a relative at the prison camp; more alarming yet, he trusts her and puts her in a key role in his revenge scheme; he seems to spend days setting up his fake motion picture production outfit when he should be finding a place to hide from the dope dealer he has betrayed; he travels; he connives; he gets revenge for his own betrayal by the legal system he serves by engaging in a series of double crosses. At every step he seems closer to being recaptured by the feds or capped by drug dealers.

It's a hell of a ride!

Not that The Racketeer is flawless. It suffers little errors here and there that had me scratching me head and rolling my eyes. At one point, for example, FBI hotshot Victor Westlake (whose name may be a sly tip of the fedora to the late Donald E. Westlake, a veritable one-man mystery factory) reminisces about the good old days he spent chasing embezzlers and counterfeiters.

Sound the warning buzzer here, fans: the Secret Service, part of the U.S. Treasury Department, chases manufacturers of funny money. Counterfeiting is one area well outside the FBI's area of responsibility.

But little clangers like this are acceptable, given that Grisham acknowledges in his afterword that he did no real research for the book and that "almost nothing in these pages is based on reality."  

A perhaps bigger problem is the imprecise way in which Grisham handles the time frame of the murder of U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Fawcett, the jurist whose assassination sets the entire plot in motion.

Sometimes it seems that Fawcett was slain in the distant past, sometimes only a few weeks earlier. If Bannister knew about it years earlier, why does he wait until the period in which the novel transpires to take action? And if it happened more recently, how did Bannister learn the chain of events in the past that led up to it? 

Alas, the answers to these questions were never made sufficiently clear to me, and they leave a gaping hole in the plot.

I hasten to add, however, that negative points like these did not ruin the story for me. In fact, I hardly noticed them while I was reading, in large part because I was more interested in finding out what was going to happen next than I was in poring over what had already taken place.  I suspect most readers will feel the same -- and will take just as much pleasure from The Racketeer as I did.