Saturday, December 6, 2014

Best Mystery & Crime Novels of 2014

This was another strong year for new books in the Mystery and Crime genre. These are the best books reviewed by this Blog in 2014:

The Drop by Dennis Lehane - A hard-edged crime story set on the bleak streets of South Boston. The rough, blue collar characters speak in terse, streetwise dialogue that reflects the worn hardness of the neighborhood around them. It all moves inexorably toward a violent end, as if the characters are hopelessly fated by their own warped natures.

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly - LAPD detective Harry Bosch is back in the latest novel in a highly popular continuing series. Bosch is his typical tenacious, maverick self as he digs into a politically charged cold case. The chemistry between the wily veteran Bosch and the new young partner he is training, Lucia Soto, brings added depth to the novel. A compelling, first rate police procedural.

Perfidia by James Ellroy - A lurid noir crime epic set in post-war Los Angeles, and a prequel to Ellroy's famed Black Dahlia-Big Nowhere-L.A. Confidential trilogy. This novel portrays an LAPD awash in corruption, dirty politics, and bone-splintering cop beat-downs. It's all written in Ellroy's trademark manic, machine gun style, and salted with sleazy Hollywood dirt. A wild whirlwind of a ride that just skirts the dark rim of craziness.

The Son by Jo Nesbo - A tale of revenge set in Oslo, Norway. An escaped prison inmate, a ghost-like figure known as The Son, goes after those responsible for the death of his policeman father. The cop tracking The Son is Simon Kefas, a balding, tired man nearing retirement and an unlikely hero. Offbeat and eerie at times, with a wrenching final plot twist.

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin - Inspector John Rebus of the Edinburgh, Scotland police returns from short lived retirement. He takes on an auto accident case that turns into a cover-up by powerful people. Rebus is at his gruff best with his tactless rudeness and deep-held cynicism. An intriguing plot puzzle for mystery readers.

Field of Prey by John Sandford - Minnesota State Police investigator Lucas Davenport pursues a grisly new serial killer case. The bodies of twenty young women are discovered in an old, buried cistern on a vacant farm. A killer has been at work for years and he's still living in one of the small towns in the area. A dark, relentless thriller that drives toward a brutal climax.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Stephen King's REVIVAL a Tale of Dark Healing Forces

Revival by Stephen King is almost an homage to the classic Horror genre authors who dared test the boundaries of true darkness --- writers like Poe, H.R. James, Blackwood, and Lovecraft.

But most especially, Revival is a modern echo of the Arthur Machen classic, The Great God Pan, about a woman who undergoes a brain surgery experiment and then dies after glimpsing the monstrous shadow world of evil she is suddenly able to see.

The King novel revolves around another obsessive experimenter with the healing force of electrical shock therapy --- the one-time minister Charles Jacobs. The story is narrated by Jamie Morton, who was a child the first time he encountered Jacobs. Over the decades, the two of them reconnect intermittently. Jacobs becomes a carny show healer, whose fame grows as he appears to evoke miraculous cures with his secret electrical therapy inventions.

But the cures Jacobs provides may have horrifying after-effects for his subjects. As he ages in later years, Jacobs persists in his research nevertheless, pushing ever closer toward the ultimate boundary of revival from death itself.

Revival is one of the darkest novels in all of Stephen King's Horror fiction. It's closest precursor would be the grotesque Pet Sematary. The novel builds slowly to a truly hideous climax and the blackest of visions about human mortality. Even seasoned Horror fiction readers may close the last pages of this tale with an involuntary shudder.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THE BURNING ROOM by Michael Connelly a Top Crime Read

LAPD Detective Harry Bosch returns in The Burning Room, a new crime novel by Michael Connelly. Bosch is a hard nosed, tenacious murder cop in a highly popular continuing series of books by Connelly.

Bosch is now a veteran detective nearing retirement. He is currently assigned to the Open-Unsolved Unit that handles cold cases.

His new case involves a shooting victim who recently died from a bullet lodged in his body ten years earlier. As Bosch investigates, the original shooting may link to an earlier arson fire that took the lives of several children trapped in a smoke-filled room.

The novel's plot moves like a relentless machine as Bosch follows threads of old evidence that lead toward a powerful political figure who wants the case dropped permanently. But that's not how Bosch operates.

Another strong story element is the teaming of Bosch with a young new partner, Lucia Soto. It's a great combination as the energetic rookie detective Soto gains valuable learning from the hardened veteran Bosch.

The Burning Room is an outstanding crime read. Michael Connelly continues to be the best writer of police procedurals working today. Highly recommended.

BEACH RATING: 4 Palm Trees

Thursday, October 30, 2014

DEADLINE by John Sandford a Backwoods Crime Thriller

Deadline by John Sandford is a new crime thriller set in the rural, wooded country of southeast Minnesota. The novel is the latest in the series to feature Virgil Flowers, a state police investigator.

In the small town of Trippton, a local reporter uncovers a hidden embezzlement scheme that is stealing huge funds from the schools budget. The entire school board is in on the criminal scheme. To stop the reporter from exposing them, the board members take a secret vote to have him murdered. The vote is unanimous.

That's the chilling set-up for the novel. Virgil Flowers is in the same local area to investigate a dog stealing ring that's taking valuable hunting dogs from their owners. When the reporter's body is found shot in the back, Flowers takes on that case as well. He soon finds himself the target of a cold blooded conspiracy by treacherous country folks who aren't going to be stopped.

Deadline is an entertaining crime read filled with startling plot twists and colorful characters and dialogue. John Sandford continues to be one of the best crime fiction writers working today.

BEACH RATING: 4 Palm trees

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE DROP by Dennis Lehane a Hard-Edged Crime Piece

The Drop by Dennis Lehane is a tough, grim crime story set on the hard-scrabble streets of south Boston. This short novel features rough, blue collar characters whose terse dialogue reflects the worn bleakness of the neighborhood around them.

Bob Saginowski is a bartender at a run down local bar. His older, bitter cousin Marv Stipler, a minor mobster, once owned the bar until the tougher Chechen mob took it away from him. The bar is now used as a money drop for the Chechens' illegal activities.

When the bar is robbed one night and the mob money stolen, the violent Chechens want answers from Bob and Marv. Another problem emerges for Bob when he finds an abused puppy in a trashcan and takes the dog home to care for it. Then a sociopath ex-con named Eric Deeds shows up and says the dog is his and he wants it back or else.

Once set in motion along these lines, the story moves inexorably toward violent events, as if its characters are hopelessly locked in by their own warped natures. The Drop is a fast reading, gripping tale that will be appreciated by those who like hard nosed crime fiction.

BEACH RATING: 4 palm Trees

Friday, September 26, 2014

PERFIDIA by James Ellroy a Lurid Noir Crime Epic

Perfidia by James Ellroy is a lurid, sprawling juggernaut of a crime novel that pre-dates Ellroy's famed Black Dahlia-L.A. Confidential noir trilogy of Los Angeles in the late 1940s to mid 1950s.

This new novel begins in late 1941, just before the Pearl harbor bombing by Japan. The looming war and anti-Japanese fever serves as a backdrop to a politically hot murder case: the gruesome deaths of a local Japanese family by unknown killers.

Ellroy brings back familiar characters from his earlier L.A. novels. Captain William Parker, a morally ambivalent figure, later to become LAPD Chief. Detective Dudley Smith, the brutal, corrupt leader of an in-house police strong-arm squad. New character Hideo Ashida, a Japanese LAPD criminologist, is torn by internal conflicts as he works the murder case of the Japanese family.

Perfidia portrays an LAPD awash in corruption, dirty politics, and off-the-books cop beat-downs. The police are at their dirtiest during the cruel, indiscriminate roundups of local Japanese-Americans for internment as war breaks out. Captain Parker and Dudley Smith use all of it to pursue their own private agendas within the LAPD, and against each other.

Perfidia is an epic read, written in the author's trademark machine-gun style -- raunchy, driven, at times near-manic. The novel is salted with sleazy Hollywood dirt and scenes of raw, broken-teeth violence.

Crime fiction readers should find this one compelling and sure to be on the Best-of-2014 list.

BEACH RATING: 4 Palm Trees

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

THE SON a New Crime Thriller By Jo Nesbo

The Son by Jo Nesbo is the latest work by the Norwegian crime novelist, best known for his popular series of books featuring Oslo police inspector Harry Hole.

The Son is a departure by Nesbo, to a story about an escaped prison inmate and his trail of vengeful acts. The inmate is Sonny Loftus, known as The Son, who exacts violent revenge against people who he believes were responsible for the death of his policeman father. At times, the movements of The Son seem almost superhuman as he attacks his enemies from out of nowhere.

But the character at the heart of the novel is Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, who tracks The Son along his relentless rampage. Balding, out of shape, and near retirement, Kefas is an unlikely hero. In his private life, he agonizes over his younger wife's growing blindness and her need for an expensive operation to save her eyesight.

In his police work, Kefas is methodical and steady, qualities that make him an effective investigator. Simon Kefas is a striking contrast to Nesbo's long-running main character --- the obsessive, haunted, psychologically unstable Harry Hole.

The Son is a fast paced, gripping read with a wrenching late plot twist. The novel confirms Jo Nesbo's place as one of the most entertaining crime novelists writing today.

BEACH RATING:  4 Palm Trees

Thursday, June 5, 2014

MR. MERCEDES a Twisted Crime Tale From Stephen King

Stephen King's new novel, Mr. Mercedes, is a dark crime tale that involves a twisted, murderous contest of wits between a retired cop and a manipulative sociopath.

The retired cop is former Detective Bill Hodges. His sociopath adversary is Brady Hartsfield, a mass murderer who drives an ice cream truck. Brady had earlier plowed a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of people, doing horrendous damage before escaping. It was a case that Detective Hodges never closed before retiring.

The killer is back again with a taunting new letter to Hodges that reopens his investigation and sets off a new battle between the cop and the killer that moves inexorably toward another coming mass murder event.

The plot of Mr. Mercedes is not all that original, but it's a chilling, fast-reading work narrated in the author's usual sprawling, colloquial, "Big Mac and fries" style. Another familiar King touch is the joining of an oddball team of allies to stop an evil enemy. King has always excelled at the creation of offbeat characters. The most interesting one here turns out to be Holly Gibney, a middle-aged child-woman with mental stability issues, who nearly takes over the last part of the novel.

Stephen King is at his best in his Horror fiction, but he has tried his hand at other types of fiction as well. Mr. Mercedes is the best of the handful of Crime novels he has done, and is much more satisfying than last year's slow, tepid Joyland.

BEACH RATING:  3 Palm Trees

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

John Grisham Deals With Race in SYCAMORE ROW

Sycamore Row by John Grisham is the author's only novel to deal largely with race relations in the South since his first published work, A Time To Kill.

That early novel recounted the racially-charged trial of a black man who killed two white men after they had raped his daughter. The story was tense with racial prejudice, a cross burning, and a murder plot by violent Klansmen.

The defense lawyer in A Time To Kill, Jake Brigance, returns in Sycamore Row. But this time he's trying to execute the last will of a rich white man who inexplicably left his fortune to his black female housekeeper.

The black-white conflict in this case is now over money, not murder, which represents progress of a sort in the New South. But as the civil court trial unfolds, new revelations show that the ugly,violent secrets of the Old South can still come back to haunt the present.

As William Faulkner once wrote: "The past is never really dead. It's not even past."

Sycamore Row is set in the town of Clanton in Ford County, Mississippi, the site of much of Grisham's fiction. The novel brings back colorful local characters from past Grisham works, in particular The Summons, The Last Juror, and Ford County.

In Sycamore Row, the author continues his usual sardonic depiction of the seamier antics of the legal profession, as well as his wry commentary on the culture of his native South.

Sycamore Row is one of the best novels John Grisham has written during his long career.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

FARGO TV Series a Dark, Quirky Crime Drama

The movie Fargo, from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a Neo-Noir masterpiece with a stupid criminal plan gone wrong, deadpan black humor, and dumbly out-of-control violence.

That's a lot for the new TV series based on the movie to live up to. But based on the first season so far, the new series is off to a promising start.

Familiar plot elements from the movie are present: The snowy, white blank landscape of rural Minnesota; earnest, slow thinking small town cops; a hapless local businessman, Lester Nygard, who gets himself ensnared in a web of lies and criminal acts.

At the center of it all is a sinister figure -- a cold blooded contract killer named Loren Malvo, whose presence is like an amoral catalyst that triggers a chain of violent events wherever he travels.

The great theme of the Coen Brothers has always been their bleak, fatalistic view of humanity, and the misguided acts people undertake which lead inexorably to their own downfalls.

The Fargo TV series is faithful to that theme, offering a pitch black, quirky crime drama, and moments of wild, spontaneous violence that change all that follows.

Beach Rating: 4 Palm Trees

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Inspector Rebus Returns in SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin marks the return of the iconic character John Rebus of the Edinburgh, Scotland police in a dark new mystery.

Rebus was formerly retired, but couldn't stay away from police work for long. He's back working an investigation of a suspicious car crash, along with his long-time partner, Siobhan Clarke. The crash details don't add up and Rebus senses a cover-up of something crucial. His dogged pursuit leads him into conflict with powerful people, a scuffle the testy Rebus clearly relishes.

At the same time, a police Internal Affairs unit, led by Rebus nemesis, Malcolm Fox, is digging into a cold case from decades earlier. It's an open murder case in which a close-knit group of Rebus police pals may be involved, and Rebus may find his own loyalties tested.

The plot is intriguing and John Rebus is at his entertaining best with his trademark blunt rudeness and deep cynicism. Saints of the Shadow Bible is a first rate read and will certainly be on the list of the best mystery novels of this year.