Tag Archives: mystery novels

‘Longmire’ canceled; book series hits new peak

longmire any other name

I’ve got good news and bad news.

Despite its status as A&E’s top-rated drama series, “Longmire” has been canceled by the cable channel.

We heard a variety of explanations given when the news broke a few days ago. A&E didn’t value the older-than-the-most-coveted-demographic age of the audience. A&E didn’t own the series and thus made less money from it.

TV is a totally screwed up industry.

So with the finish of the third season still fresh and the possibility that the series might continue on another channel or even online, we’ll mourn “Longmire” and hope for more adventures of the crusty Wyoming sheriff and his posse.

Longmire Season 2

“Longmire” the TV series had a great cast and average-to-above-average stories that settled into author Craig Johnson’s characters and settings more as the series progressed.

But the series never topped Johnson’s stories. And I don’t think I’ve ready any 10th book in a series that felt as assured as “Any Other Name,” Johnson’s latest Longmire novel.

Sure, Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are dependably, consistently fun. And maybe Johnson just hit a high point with “Any Other Name.” But the book series feels like it’s gotten a second wind, so compelling and accomplished does “Any Other Name” feel.

Johnson can’t go too far wrong when he focuses on Walt Longmire, of course. Select members of his supporting cast bring a lot to the stories, and he includes three of them here: Walt’s longtime best friend, Henry Standing Bear; Vic Moretti, Walt’s chief deputy and sometime paramour, and Lucian Connally, Walt’s predecessor as sheriff.

Lucian asks Walt’s help in finding out why his old friend, a cop in another county, killed himself. Before long, they determine that the cop’s death was caught up in a scheme involving missing women and human trafficking.

Johnson’s writing is so heartfelt but so wry, so funny but so hard-nosed, that it didn’t seem likely that he could top his previous books.

But I really think he did with “Any Other Name.” The story has the quirky charm of all of the author’s previous modern-day westerns with a clear and concise mystery.

And it feels like Johnson had a hell of a time writing “Any Other Name.” I just hope he had as good a time writing it as I had reading it.

Appalachian mystery: ‘A Killing in the Hills’

a killing in the hills julia keller

Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (who won for stories in the Chicago Tribune about an Illinois tornado and its effects on a small town), has begun an appealing new mystery novel series with “A Killing in the Hills” and its sequel, “Bitter River.”

So far I’ve read “A Killing in the Hills” and, as someone whose family hails from Appalachia, I recognized and appreciated the characters and situations in the book. It’s a world of good people and beautiful places poisoned by poverty, lack of education and the easy opportunity of drugs.

Set in a small West Virginia town, “A Killing in the Hills” introduces Bell (short, kinda, for Belfa) Elkins, a native of Acker’s Gap with a haunted past of childhood abuse who came back to town just a few years ago and was elected prosecuting attorney. Along with her ally, Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, Bell is pushing back hard at the illicit sale and abuse of prescription drugs, which have replaced meth and other illegally manufactured drugs in many towns.

Bell is trying to balance her long days as prosecutor with her role as mom to teenage daughter Carla. Bell’s two worlds collide when Carla, hanging out at a restaurant, sees the assassinations of three old men.

While Bell worries about her daughter and works with the sheriff to try to track down the killer, Carla does something incredibly wrong-headed but typically teenage: She realizes she has seen the killer before, at a drug-fueled party, and goes about trying to find him herself.

One element of the books that rings true is the animosity between Bell and Carla. The girl resents her mother and wants to flee Acker’s Gap to live with her father in D.C. When she decides to help solve the case, it’s almost like her decision is made to spite her mother.

Keller’s book rings true on other levels, too. Acker’s Gap will be familiar to anyone conversant with southern towns that didn’t have much to begin with but have lost even that in the plant closings and economic downturn of recent years. There’s not a lot to keep people in Acker’s Gap, and the people who do stay seem to be heading toward a dead end at quite a clip.

I thought I had the book’s central mystery figured out, but Keller surprised me. Maybe her resolution isn’t as likely as some would be, but it brings a nice bit of shock to the story, which had up to that point played out with greatly readable and realistically disheartening inevitability.

I’m up for another trip to Acker’s Gap.

 

Ellis’ ‘Gun Machine’ a good cop thriller

gun machine warren ellis

Warren Ellis is best known for comic books like “Red” and “Planetary,” but his book “Gun Machine” is a good and offbeat New York police thriller.

 

The book follows NYPD detective John Tallow in the days following the on-the-job killing of his partner. The two had been responding to a call about a man in a run-down apartment building with a gun when the unhinged man shot and killed the partner. Tallow looks through a hole blown in an apartment wall and finds the place is full of guns – and not ones that belonged to the unhinged man who took out Tallow’s partner. The elaborate display of guns from over a couple hundred years is fetishistic, almost a temple dedicated to the firearms within. But who could their owner be?

 

In a city plagued by too much violence and too many cases to clear, Tallow’s fellow cops and CSIs greet this discovery with scorn and hostility, all of it directed at Tallow. That’s because every one of the discovered guns tested in police labs turns out to be a gun used in a separate, unsolved murder case. Tallow has stumbled across a horrific secret: The lair of a particularly prolific and bent hit man.

 

Working with CSIs Scarly and Bat, Tallow pulls at threads and tests limitations, including those of himself and his superiors. That’s because when some of the guns turn out to have been used in historic crimes, it becomes obvious that someone hasn’t just been hoarding random guns. Someone has been funneling guns – including the revolver used by Son of Sam – to the killer.

 

Although the plot is grim and involves not only high-level corruption between the police department and some high-level NYC corporations, there’s a lot of humor here. Most of that comes from Bat and Scarly, Tallow’s initially reluctant but increasingly enthusiastic partners. Bat is something of a geek cliche but one that’s well done. Scarly is a lipstick lesbian in a deeply committed but deeply odd relationship with a formidable partner.

 

I’ve read that there’s some thought to making “Gun Machine” into a TV series and I suppose that’s fine. But I wouldn’t want the book to be turned into TV’s typical police procedural with quirky characters. There’s a lot of potential for more stories about Tallow, Bat and Scarly if they do them right.

 

 

‘Criminal Enterprise’ a top-notch thriller

criminal enterprise owen laukkanen

Owen Laukkanen is just a couple of years into life as a published author of crime novels, but he’s already created one of the most enjoyable series in bookstores.

His two books – so far – about FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota police investigator Kirk Stevens are immensely readable stories of cops and crooks.

the professionals owen laukkanen

The first, “The Professionals,” would seem to be in the vanguard of books inspired by the Great Recession. Its criminal foursome are young people fresh out of school and unable to get hired. They decide to become professional kidnappers. Their modus operandi? Kidnap well-off but low-profile targets and ask $60,000 on the assumption that the kidnap victim’s family will easily be able to pay that small an amount. It works for a while but goes awry when they stumble upon the wrong target: A businessman connected to the mob.

In “Criminal Enterprise,” the central bad guy is Carter Tomlin, an accountant with a wife and kids who gets in over his head, financially, and decides to make money the old fashioned way: Bank robbery. Tomlin’s a different case than the four somewhat sympathetic anti-heroes of “The Professionals,” however: He not only enjoys the influx of cash from his robberies but gets off on the violence, particularly when committed in the company of his alterna-girl assistant and fellow robber.

Into the mix in both cases come Windermere, young and tough and an outsider in the FBI, and Stevens, happily married and settled into middle age and a long career in the Minnesota state police’s criminal investigations bureau.

The two cops, who end up working together by happenstance, are a good fit. Stevens balances out Windermere’s fiery demeanor with his cool calm.

Laukkanen doesn’t dip into the criminal world quite the way Elmore Leonard does, but his bad guys are compelling and relatable. Windermere and Stevens are the anchors of these books but Tomlin in the second book and the four kidnappers in the first book are absorbing characters. The author is working on the third book in the series, which is good news for fans of contemporary crime thrillers.

 

Andersen’s ‘True Believers’ a great narrative of the ’60s

true believers kurt andersen

I wasn’t familiar with Kurt Andersen before I read “True Believers,” his recent decades-spanning novel. I didn’t know he’d written other books or hosted an NPR show or co-founded Spy magazine. For that last reason alone, Andersen should go down in the snark hall of fame.

But I wouldn’t have guessed any of those things, really, about Andersen from reading “True Believers.” Actually, I don’t think I would have guessed the author was male. The narrative voice of the story – a 60-something female lawyer, remembering her days as an earnest young girl and would-be political anarchist – is that authentic.

Andersen tells the story of Karen Hollander, aforementioned attorney and one-time-potential Obama nominee to the Supreme Court. As the story opens, Hollander tells the readers she’s working on an autobiography. But she teases that it’s unlikely to be the book that people who’ve seen her on TV talk shows would expect.

That’s because, as Hollander weaves her modern-day efforts to solve one mystery of her past, she recounts her time growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, her relationship with her liberal parents in the Chicagoland area and her two best friends, Chuck and Alex.

Karen, Chuck and Alex are fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, devouring them as they are published. Then they act out scenes that, if not really from the books, are in the spirit of the books.

The boys might play Bond and CIA operative friend Felix Leiter, for example, while Karen plays a female operative or femme fatale, like the narrator of “The Spy Who Loved Me.” They aren’t slaves to the stories and come up with their own funny variations. In one escapade, Karen mixes sugar into her Coke at a restaurant and cajoles a man at another table into sipping it to see if there’s anything wrong with it. Mission accomplished: Karen reports to the boys that she’s just poisoned James Bond.

As the three get older, inevitably, other considerations come into play. Karen and Chuck begin to see each other, leaving Alex feeling like the odd man out. As they go to college, other friends enter their small circle.

But they are fated to take on a mission that rivals any of their pretend-spy adventures. The socially conscious three decide to commit an act of protest – or domestic terrorism – that Karen finds haunts her even in the present day.

Andersen does a fine job moving back and forth from the adult Hollander’s investigation into secrets even she didn’t know from her college years to those years and the shocking plot the friends undertake.

“True Believers” is a – strangely enough – charming story, largely because of Andersen’s ability to write the smart, funny and vulnerable Hollander with such an authentic voice.

It won’t happen, and it probably wouldn’t be appropriate, but “True Believers” makes me wish Andersen would give us other adventures of Karen Hollander. She’s a brave and appealing character and I was sad to say goodbye to her at the end.

Koryta’s ‘The Prophet’ a good crime tale

michael koryta the prophet

Michael Koryta is considered something of a wunderkind. After a background in newspapering here in Indiana and a turn as a private investigator, Koryta began writing books and has turned out several best-selling crime dramas and thrillers. I’ve tried a couple of his previous books but never found his work captivating until “The Prophet.”

Set in an Ohio town that’s seen better days, the book is the story of two brothers, Adam and Kent Austin. Adam is a bail bondsman with a private investigator’s license he never uses. Adam is good at what he does, though. He’s turned the risky bail agent job into a winning one, bonding out and keeping his thumb on his customers. In his personal life, Adam is in a relationship with the woman he fell in love with in high school, although she’s married to a guy who is perpetually in jail.

Kent is the local high school football coach, a beloved, straight-arrow figure who is leading his team to a state championship. He’s married, has kids and the stable home life that Adam doesn’t have.

The brothers haven’t had a strong relationship most of their adult lives, however. When they were in high school, they let their sister walk home by herself from a late night at school. Adam in particular accepted the blame after their sister was killed because he had chosen his girlfriend over taking his sister home. She fell victim to a brutal killer and the Austin family was broken.

Now, as Adam goes about his somewhat sordid business and Kent’s team advances in post-season play, another high school girl turns up murdered. It can’t be the same killer, because their sister’s murderer died in prison. But the new killing is linked to both brothers.

Koryta’s story is smooth and streamlined, introducing some memorable characters but keeping things moving toward its undeniably tragic conclusion.

The author does a good job of mixing football and gritty crime drama. He paints a good portrait of a failing Midwestern town.

I finished “The Prophet” wishing there was more and wondering about what seems like the inevitable: A movie version. A story this concise and sharply drawn almost begs for one.

‘The Cut’ is a cool crime novel

There are a couple of moments in George Pelecanos’ crime novel “The Cut” when his protagonist, solider-turned-investigator Spero Lucas, finds his heart beating and blood racing, usually when he’s confronted with horrific violence.

But most of the time, Lucas is the epitome of cool. And that makes “The Cut” cool reading.

Somebody with better oversight of the world of crime novels would know the answer to this question, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing a slew of new thrillers and hard-boiled PI books featuring capable young heroes newly back in the US after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Another good series, Ace Atkins’ books about Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson, comes to mind.

Pelecanos is planning on turning Spero Lucas’ adventures in gritty DC into a series and it feels like a natural.

“The Cut” finds Lucas back home after his tour of duty in Iraq. He’s working for a defense attorney and distinguishing himself for his no-nonsense investigations.

Between cases, he’s contacted by an imprisoned drug dealer who wants to hire him to find packages of marijuana that have been stolen. The dealer was using that tried-and-true method of moving illegal materials: Shipping packages to houses that are vacant during the day, then sending his men to get the packages off the doorstep. Except that the packages are being stolen.

Lucas, who has a moral code but doesn’t frown on associating with criminals, decides he can work for the dealer for a 40 percent cut of the money recovered.

While chasing down leads, Lucas finds the case is a little too close to home for members of his family, including his brother, a school teacher. Lucas and a small circle of cohorts put themselves on the line to save a promising young student and avenge the deaths of a couple of likable guys who should have known better but didn’t.

Some readers might be perturbed by the way Pelecanos has Lucas so damn casual about everything, including working with less-than-savory characters and, frankly, murder. But the character is ideally drawn considering his military background and his “you or them” matter-of-fact attitude.

While the story is as straightforward as a Robert Parker Spenser novel, Pelecanos fills “The Cut” with a lot of nice little touches, from Lucas’ way with women to his love of food to his blended Greek-and-African-American family.

Pelecanos has written several books but may be best known as one of the creative types behind “The Wire,” the highly-regarded HBO series.

“The Cut” is my first chance to sample Pelecanos’ work. You can bet it won’t be my last.