Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Two Rediscovered Gems for Crime Fiction Readers

On occasion, this blog does fresh reviews of older novels that are great reads, but many people don't know about them. Here are two Crime fiction gems that deserve to be rediscovered by new readers:

The Crime Writer by Greg Hurwitz - An inventive neo-noir take on the murder mystery, set against a glossy Los Angeles backdrop.

Drew Danner is a best selling crime novelist diagnosed with a brain tumor that causes seizures and blackouts. He wakes up in the hospital after emergency surgery to remove the tumor, accused of his fiancé's murder just before a blackout.

Drew can't believe he's a killer and opens his own investigation of himself, framing it as if he was a character in one of his own murder novel plots. But the plot he tries to follow twists continually out of his control. When a second murder points again toward Drew as the killer, he fears someone else is writing his story.

The Crime Writer is a treat to read for its witty, cynical commentary on the artfully posed façade of L.A. culture. The wry narrative voice of Drew Danner is as entertaining as the novel's postmodern remake of the murder mystery plot structure.


The Tutor by Peter Abrahams - A sinister suburban drama that opens innocently enough, then builds slowly and relentlessly to a horrific outcome.

The Gardner family decides to hire a tutor to help sullen teenage son Brandon prep for SAT tests. An agency sends them Julian Sawyer, a brainy, sophisticated young man who seems to be the perfect fit for the job.

But Julian is instead a manipulative sociopath hiding behind a false personal resume. He views the Gardner family as lab specimens to be clinically experimented upon for his own purposes. Like a snake, he inserts himself into their home and begins his sadistic campaign to wreck the family. The only one to suspect his intentions is eleven year-old Ruby, but how can she ever stop him?

The Tutor is a disturbing picture of the amoral working of the sociopathic mind. We know bad things are coming, but we still can't help watching.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

BROADCHURCH Returns With Season 2 Mystery

Broadchurch (BBC America Cable) is back for Season 2 of this gripping British mystery series.

Season 1 dealt with the investigation of a boy's murder in the small English seaside town of Broadchurch. Teamed on the case were detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller. Hardy was an outsider assigned to the case, Miller a local native of the town. Miller personally knew many of the town residents, one of whom was secretly a killer.

The first season ended with a shocker: Detective Miller's own husband, Joe, turned out to be the killer. He was arrested and confessed to the crime as his wife reacted with stunned fury. She was sleeping right next to the killer all the time and never knew it. Case closed, right? Not so fast, it seems.

In the new season, Joe Miller suddenly pleads not guilty in  court, throwing the case into renewed chaos. A full criminal trial is begun, forcing the town, and Detective Miller, to relive all the agonizing emotions of the boy's murder.

The trial threatens to expose previously unknown revelations about the murder case and suggests new trouble ahead for detectives Hardy and Miller. The unexpected trial is a wrenching plot twist on a case that viewers thought was solved and done with. But there seems to be more coming that we never knew about before.

Another bonus is the prickly, entertaining chemistry between the two detectives as they face the pressures around them. With a cast of characters with hidden secrets of their own, Broadchurch is an engrossing drama of sinister psychological mystery at its best.

Friday, February 20, 2015

NIGHTCRAWLER A Social Drama of Obsession

Nightcrawler (Now on DVD) is neither a suspense movie nor a crime movie, although it contains strong elements of each.  Rather, the movie is a disturbing social commentary on the endless drive for visceral video footage in TV news coverage.

Lou Bloom is a freelance video shooter who makes a living selling raw video footage of car crashes, fires, and violent crime scenes to local TV stations in Los Angeles. He makes contact with a female news director eager to buy the most sensational footage Bloom can supply.

Bloom is a manipulative, ruthless competitor. He is  essentially a sociopathic personality with no internal moral workings beyond his own obsessive personal goals. He begins to cross all ethical and legal boundaries in his pursuit of the most graphic video images to sell.

Bloom's manic conduct builds tensely, with ominous foreboding of a bad end point coming. When it does happen, the violent results are sudden and hideous.

 Nightcrawler is also a biting commentary on the TV news culture itself. The daily news cycle is a ravenous beast that must be constantly fed with new red meat stories in order to attract viewers and gain ratings. Viewers are drawn to the most sensational video material. We can't look away from the graphic scenes of carnage in spite of ourselves.  TV news exploits this for its own commercial benefit.

The cycle goes on, day after day, always seeking the next new raw spectacle to report. This is the other side of the screen from Lou Bloom's amoral camera lens. And it all never stops coming.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

BETTER CALL SAUL a New Crime Series Gem

Better Call Saul (AMC Network) had an entertaining two episode debut that showed strong future promise. The new series is a prequel spinoff from the classic series Breaking Bad, and features sleaze ball criminal lawyer Saul Goodman.

The new series begins while Saul is still named Jimmy McGill and trying to survive while doing public defender cases for peanuts. But the seeds of the future Saul Goodman are already being planted.

Jimmy sets up a phony pedestrian injury scam with two skateboarding brothers, but the plan goes grotesquely wrong. The subsequent leg breaking scene in the desert is a blackly comic gem that's as outrageous as the wildest scenes in Breaking Bad.

Another plus is the return of two familiar characters from Breaking Bad -- tough oldster Mike Ehrmantraut and drug thug psycho Tuco.

Still in process is Jimmy McGill's transition into Saul Goodman. He changes his name because he thinks it gives him more credibility if clients believe he is a shrewd Jewish lawyer. Later to come are the shoddy TV ads, "Better Call Saul!" and the strip mall office.

The fun of Better Call Saul will be seeing Saul's ongoing character transition while he tries to survive entanglements with various dangerous criminal clients. It looks like a great ride is in store for viewers.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Uneasy Suspense in TWO FACES OF JANUARY

Two Faces of January, now out on DVD, is a deceptive movie that mixes intriguing character drama with uneasy, slow building suspense.

Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, the movie is set in Greece in the early Sixties. Three main characters come into accidental contact. Chester McFarland, middle-aged, and his much younger wife, Collette, are seemingly normal tourists in Athens. Rydal Keener is a young American ex-pat working as a tour guide while running minor money cons on the side.

In reality, Chester is an embezzler on the run after stealing investment funds from clients. Rydal is openly attracted to Collette as the three of them become acquainted. When Chester gets involved in an unexpected death, Rydal impulsively agrees to abet the couple's hasty flight to Crete to avoid the police.

Why does Rydal get himself entangled in a crime? Why does Chester allow Rydal to hang around with them, despite his obvious flirtation with Collette? This unstable triangle moves tensely toward an outcome we are never sure of. The plot has an edgy unpredictability that generates apprehension of something dangerous coming, but what is it?

Whether you read the Highsmith novel or see the movie version, Two Faces of January is a nice choice for fans of chilly, ominous suspense dramas.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

SHOTS FIRED - Harsh Crimes in Western Country

Shots Fired by C.J. Box is a collection of Crime short stories set against the rugged landscape of Wyoming. Box is the author of a popular series of novels featuring Joe Pickett, a state game warden and sometimes special investigator for the state's governor.

For those who haven't read any of the novel series, Shots Fired is a nice introduction to the Joe Pickett character and the sprawling Wyoming country that he works in. Four of the stories in this collection star Pickett. Other stories feature a variety of characters caught up in volatile situations they didn't want to be in.

The author's style is lean and austere, in keeping with the scenic, but unforgiving conditions of the western landscape. The descriptive picture of the Wyoming countryside feels true. The crimes in these stories are unexpected, the consequences harsh and chilling. The events often take place in the middle of nowhere, with only the wild rivers and snowy mountains as bleak witnesses. The stories "One-Car Bridge," "Dull Knife," "Shots Fired," and "Every Day's a Good Day on the River" are particularly unsettling.

Shots Fired is an entertaining, highly readable collection for those who like crime stories seasoned with a tough, open-country flavor.

BEACH RATING:  4 Palm Trees

Friday, January 9, 2015

THE BIG FINISH an Environmental Crime Thriller

The Big Finish by James W. Hall is a gripping crime thriller in its own right. But the novel is also a graphic depiction of the damage done to the natural environment and to human health by reckless industrial waste pollution.

The novel is part of the continuing series to feature main character, Thorn, a rugged outdoorsman loner who often finds himself entangled in dangerous situations. The setting for this novel is rural North Carolina. Thorn's son is missing there after joining some militant environmental activists who are battling a large hog livestock farm operation. The hogs are being maltreated in truly horrendous conditions and the waste byproducts are poisoning the local land, river, and populace. The farm owners are a brutal lot who stage a fatal armed attack to stop the activist group.

Thorn leaves his native Florida and heads north to find out what happened to his son. In the process, he comes into violent conflict with some coldly vicious enemies.

The Big Finish was written to be the finale to the Thorn novel series. The Thorn books have always been outstanding for their descriptive depiction of the natural ecology of Florida, where Thorn lives. Thorn's deep disgust at the way the state's lands and habitats are being lost to relentless development is an ongoing theme in the novel series.

The Big Finish is a great read as a Crime thriller and as a sometimes stomach-turning picture of how livestock industry pollution can damage a local community and its residents.