Thursday, October 14, 2021

#50: The Darkness Knows by Arnaldur Indridason

A body shows up in the ice melt of a glacier, and a retired Reykjavik police detective starts to try again to finish out a long-unsolved case, in Arnaldur Indridason's The Darkness Knows.

Indridason is one of my favorite crime writers, not just one of my favorite Scandinavian authors.  His Erlendur novels, beginning with Jar City, are all strong.

This is the second novel featuring Konrad, the retired detective, following on The Shadow District.  Some of his own sometimes troubling backstory comes out more in this one, and a third seems likely in the offing as his father's murder (a part of both novels) still remains unsolved at the end.

The Darkness Knows is a very solidly-assembled puzzle with interesting characters and situations, and that dash of inky blackness known to fans of Scandinavian noir.

I got this from New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it steadily.

Monday, October 11, 2021

#49: Time Clock of Death by Nick Carter

The Russians blame the Americans for a stolen Russian plane, so Killmaster Nick Carter swings into action to find out where it really went in Time Clock of Death.

This edition of the long-running spy series comes from the early 70s and was written by George Snyder, who chopped away at all kinds of men's adventure and western novels.  

I have been doing a casual re-read of some of the series, which I loved as a teenager, and I especially remember having this one from the curious title.  I'm surprised I don't remember more of it, as it opens with a woman getting shot while having sex with Nick Carter, and I think that would have stuck in my teenaged brain.

From there Nick Carter teams up with a sexy female agent to hunt "The Colonel," ending up at a Bond-style castle on an island filled with traps and shenanigans.  A leather-clad, whip-wielding villainess and her army of female bodyguards are also right out of this era of Bond villainy.  

Sits squarely in a less sophisticated era of race and gender relations, but a solid (though unremarkable) spy outing.

I got this from a big stack of Nick Carter books I got somewhere and read this quickly on a camping trip, the best possible way to consume it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

#48: A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

 A former cop turned private eye is chucked headfirst into dangerous waters when another retired cop shows up needing a kidney in Jonathan Ames' violent, loopy detective novel A Man Named Doll.

Ames has an eclectic bibliography, but this one veers closer to his comedy-flavored private eye TV show Bored to Death.  

There is plenty of action, and our protagonist is responsible for lots of (accidental) deaths, but the core of it is pretty dark humor.  Doll gets colossally, somewhat accidentally, stoned during long passages of the novel in which he is in immense danger, which is quite funny.

Ames writes a solid detective novel with a lot of twists and turns and a likeable protagonist; it is apparently the first of a new series, and I am looking forward to the next.

I checked this out from the Morrisson-Reeves Public Library in Richmond, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

#47: Faithful Place by Tana French

A cop returns to the old neighborhood when the body of his lost love is found, triggering buried secrets, in Tana French's Faithful Place, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.

The cop reluctantly reconnects with his brothers, sisters, and parents, whose fractured family dynamics--the father is a dangerous alcoholic--had driven him away several decades before.  But another killing, much closer to his family center, forces him to stay and try to find out what happened to both people.

I had seen the first season of the TV show but not read the related novels; though the connections between the novels are somewhat tenuous, with minor characters in previous books becoming main protagonists in subsequent ones.

French's strengths are her writing about the family, and the deep psychological trauma that spins out from the poisonous center.  Her sense of place--so to speak--in this case a working-class neighborhood, adds value.

My wife is a big fan of French, but this is the first I've read.  I listened to a very good audiobook reading by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  I will definitely look for more of her writing.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

#46: Ride Reckless by Marshall Grover

Two easygoing, but deadly, Texas cowpokes drift into a town ready to explode after a prospector hides a fortune in gold--and promptly dies--in Marshall Grover's Ride Reckless.

Grover was Australian Leonard Meares, who wrote literally hundreds of fast-paced westerns over several decades.  Somewhat inexplicably he is called Marshall McCoy in the States, and his two laconic protagonists Larry and Stretch are called Larry and Streak.  

Under either name, Larry and Streak take a bit of a backseat to a story about a western town under the thrall of a criminally-inclined mayor and a crooked sheriff.  The arrival of a crotchety old lady--who is the mother of the town lawyer's wife--and the niece of the dead prospector--conveniently married to a town-taming lawman--sets the whole machine of the narrative running.

Larry and Streak are a bit of a comedic Greek chorus, with the added benefit of fist fights and gun play when the story needs moving along.

I find Grover's books fast and easy reading; I knocked this one out on a weekend camping trip, and would recommend Larry and Streak to any western fans.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

#45: The Guide by Peter Heller

A fishing guide tries to reconcile his unsettling past by taking a job at a remote fishing lodge for affluent patrons, but almost immediately discovers all is not what it seems to be, in Peter Heller's The Guide.

The guide quickly finds an ally in a pop singer who has her own reasons for being there as a guest, and in short order the two are thrown together in an ever-tightening noose.

I found the thriller aspect to be compelling without being surprising, but the nature writing--with long passages about fly fishing and being in the wilderness--to be superb.  It is easy for a reader to see that Heller has a background in the outdoor lifestyle, and it makes great writing.

Heller's post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars is one of my favorites of the last several years and I was happy to come across this one at the public library.  

I was compelled to read this very quickly and thought the writing and storytelling were crisp throughout.  Recommended for thriller readers.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

#44: The Valdez Horses by Lee Hoffman

An aspiring young cowhand forms an uneasy friendship with an older, expert horse breeder with a troubling inner life in Lee Hoffman's The Valdez Horses.

I discovered Hoffman for the first time earlier this summer, finding a book of hers in a Little Free Library while camping in Michigan.  I immediately sought out what is considered her masterwork, this novel, right after.

This book was popular enough that it became the movie Chino starring Charles Bronson, but Hoffman wasn't on my radar nor seems to be on the radar of a lot of readers.  A shame, because this is another very solid western whose psychological elements outweigh the trappings of a standard oater.

The Valdez Horses has a very bleak ending, with a surprising uptick of hope in literally the last few words.  Just really solid writing that plumbs a lot of emotional depths.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

#43: The Hollywood Spiral by Paul Neilan

An old-fashioned private eye in a near-future L.A. hunts a missing woman in Paul Neilan's The Hollywood Spiral.

Our throwback gumshoe crosses paths with organized crime, street gangs, a doomsday cult, and various factions serving the Grid, a hybrid of Big Brother and social media influencers about to be potentially disrupted by a program called Mirror, Mirror.

Written in a literary fashion--visits to a bizarre stand-up comedy bar, and to a dying mentor remembering surreal childhood traumas, both resonate--but the world-building isn't particularly ground-breaking.  A kind of bleak, hazy ending doesn't add value.

This is Neilan's second novel, with about a decade in between.  It's a solid dystopian read that doesn't hold a lot of surprises but kept me entertained.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

#42: West of Cheyenne by Lee Hoffman

A Civil War vet goes looking for his brother, only to find him dead under suspicious circumstances and his widow (and her farm) under siege in Lee Hoffman's West of Cheyenne.

I picked this up from a Little Free Library in Angola, Indiana to read on a camping trip and was genuinely surprised by the novel.  

The plot is somewhat of a standard oater, with a quickly-resolved ending, but the protagonist is especially finely shaded for a western written in the late 60s.  He's a troubled, emotionally scarred person obviously suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and it makes for a more well-rounded story.

I was also surprised to find that Lee Hoffman was really Shirley Hoffman, a well-known figure in science fiction fandom who wrote westerns, sci-fi, and romances (as Georgia York).  She edited her own magazines dedicated to sci-fi and also folk music.

West of Cheyenne was a cut above the standard western and recommended for those who haven't tried Hoffman's writing.  I'm going hunting for more.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

#41: Duel for Cannons by Dane Hartman

Dirty Harry lets the bullets fly when a Texas lawman friend is killed by an assassin in Duel for Cannons, the first in the 80s  paperback spin-off series from the films, .

The novels are all credited to "Dane Hartman," but this is by Ric Meyers, who has written all kinds of things from non-fiction about martial arts to comic books to various paperback genres.  Various others tackled Dirty Harry under the Hartman name as well, but I was glad to find this was by Meyers, whose work I have read before.

I was very mixed about Duel for Cannons; there were a lot of clever touches, like a vegetarian villain, and some set pieces around San Antonio, but there was a lot of dumb plotting, like a guy picking up a prop gun on a movie set and thinking it had real bullets.  

There is also sort of a general unpleasantness about it, with Dirty Harry solving even modest conflict by shooting people dead.  Overall, though, Meyers writes an accurate Dirty Harry and sets it in the world of the films.

I know these paperbacks are somewhat collectible, but this one I bought for a dollar at a junk shop, read in a single day camping, and left at a Little Free Library.  For undiscriminating fans of the movies.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

#40: The Hang-Up Kid by Carter Brown

Swingin' Hollywood P.I. Rick Holman tries to help a morose film star whose Astrology signs point to his murder in Carter Brown's The Hang-Up Kid.

Carter Brown was Australian author Alan Yates, who wrote hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks from the 50s-80s and could have written thousands probably if he hadn't died fairly young.

Holman figures out that there might be a good reason the film star is afraid of being killed, and it might have something to do with a car accident that killed his wife.

This one was written in 1970, and has all the plotting and characterization of that era, some of which doesn't jibe with contemporary tastes.  

Obviously Brown wrote lickety-split, and this one shows, as the plot is fairly quippy and not overly demanding.

I grabbed this at a rummage sale for a quarter and read it in a single day camping, then left it at a Little Free Library.  I think Carter Brown is good for exactly this kind of thing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

#39: Assassin: Code Name Vulture by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter loses a friend to a suspicious plane accident (that he himself walks away from), only to learn the friend had found out about a coup attempt growing in Greece, in Nick Carter's Assassin: Code Name Vulture.

I have recently, perhaps whimsically, been revisiting this fave spy series of my teen years.  This one, by veteran paperback scribe Ralph Hayes, is a decent enough second-tier spy novel.  

Carter finds out there is an affluent businessman apparently pulling the strings on the coup, but quickly learns that the real person has been kidnapped and replaced, with plenty of action forthcoming.

I think my biggest problem with this one, and it's not Hayes' fault, is the back copy, which promises an assassin with mechanical claws (there aren't any claws) named The Vulture (he is only called A vulture, not THE Vulture, and that's not until the end) and a bizarre double (it's just two brothers that look alike).

I got this in a big stack of Nick Carters somewhere and, fittingly, read it in a single day camping in Michigan.

Monday, July 19, 2021

#38: Guns of Durango by Lou Cameron

 A frontier doctor gets into a lot of bloody confrontations trying to clear his name in Lou Cameron's Guns of Durango.

Cameron was a prolific writer across a number of genres but was perhaps best known for creating the "Longarm" adult western series, as well as a number of film and television novelizations.

Guns of Durango is written in a humorous first-person dialect which mixes light comedic undertones with plenty of western action.  

Our wry protagonist is trying to find his former military commander, who could clear him of the false charge of desertion during the Civil War; but that former commander has unfortunately gotten mixed up in the Mexican Revolution, with a lot of hard road filled with hostile Indians between the two men.

There seems to be a lot of Lou Cameron fans out there, though I had not dipped much of a toe into his work; but this was full of energy and fun, and I should go looking for more.

I picked this up at a yard sale for a quarter, read it in a single day camping in Michigan and was very satisfied, then left it in a Little Free Library.  Recommended for western fans.

Friday, July 16, 2021

#37: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

 A gay, mixed-race couple is murdered, and a biker gang is involved; to the gang's great misfortune, the fathers of both men are ex-cons with murderous histories in S.A. Cosby's Razorblade Tears.

One of the fathers is trying to stay out of trouble, the other isn't trying very hard; both agree to basically a suicide pact to stop at nothing until the killers of their sons are in the ground.  

And they don't take their promise lightly, with plenty of broken bones, gun and knife wounds (fatal and mostly fatal), and the liberal use of equipment and materials from one of the father's lawn care service all in play.

This is as tough a noir as you can find, with flashes of humor but a bleak undertone; if it wasn't for all the frank discussion of race, gender, and sexuality, it would fit squarely in a 1950s spinner rack full of Gold Medal paperbacks.

I thought Cosby's first novel, Blacktop Wasteland--full of muscle cars and antiheroes--was one of the best reads I'd found in a while, but this one is even better.  

I also thought though the first seemed ready-built for the movies, this one was even more so, with a graveside coda that seems right out of a screenplay.  I wouldn't be surprised to see either at the multiplex one day.

Recommended, especially for fans of hard-boiled contemporary noir.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

#36: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quintin Tarantino

 A fading cowboy star, with his laconic stuntman in tow, turns to television as Hollywood begins to change in Quintin Tarantino's novelization of his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

There's a lot of buzz around Tarantino's book, cleverly published as a cheap paperback with the stylings of that era.  It's both an expansion and a reimagining of the movie, with the bloody denouement of the film basically dismissed and long noodlings about Tarantino's classic film and television interests expanded.

My mileage with Tarantino really varies; for instance, in his film The Hateful Eight, I loved the spaghetti western influences from The Great Silence to including Morricone; but disliked the the constant punching of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the face for what I thought was humorous intent.  

I actually liked a lot of the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood film, but again was confounded by a couple of choices.

Same with this novel; lots of neat digressions and and musings on movies, but also some maddening elements, like a kind of unpleasant revision of the Brad Pitt character as well as Tarantino's long-standing insistence on being politically incorrect in various ways.

If you're a fan of Tarantino or the movie, it's a must-read; I think most casual readers who don't have an opinion on Tarantino might find their mileage varies.

I pre-ordered this from Amazon and read it quickly.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

#35: The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin

Ming Tsu is a Chinese orphan, raised to be a killer, who marries a white woman and sets out to go straight; but when she is kidnapped, and he is conscripted into building the railroads going westward, nothing but revenge is on his mind in Tom Lin's debut The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu.

Lin writes an offbeat genre-bender; it starts off as a pretty bleak western, with a high body count of men and horses, but takes a turn into the supernatural when Ming Tsu meets up with a blind prophet and a traveling sideshow of people with varying powers (from shape-shifting to pyrokinesis).  There are also intelligent animals and at least two characters seemingly raised from the dead.

Although there is a lot of heavy foreshadowing, a grim and bloody finale still surprises.  

Lyrically written, but doesn't fit in a single groove; for very discerning fans of traditional westerns, or for fantasy fans who don't mind a lot of cowboys.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Monday, June 28, 2021

#34: Ice Bomb Zero by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter hunts for a secret Chinese base in the Arctic, with a sexy Russian spy (there never seems to be any homely ones) as a lover and rival, in Ice Bomb Zero.

Ice Bomb Zero is part of a casual re-read I have been doing of this long-running series, which I consumed voraciously as a teen.  I picked this one by George Snyder, as he seems to be one of the pseudonymous authors favored by other readers.  Snyder had a long career as a scribe of burly men's adventure and, late in life, westerns.

This is a perfectly agreeable but unremarkable spy outing from the early 70s, with race and sexual relations not portrayed in a particularly nuanced way, as one might suspect.  The finale in the underground base unravels quickly at sort of a mid-range Roger Moore level.

The closeness in title to the popular Alistair MacLean novel Ice Station Zebra doesn't pass without notice.

I liked George Snyder's take on Nick Carter perfectly fine and would seek out another of his books.

I got this in a big lot of Nick Carters and read quickly.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

#33: The Summer of Kim Novak by Hakan Nesser

In early 60s Sweden, two teenage boys plan to spend an idyllic summer at a ramshackle lake cabin, but the real world intrudes with a mysterious murder in Hakan Nesser's The Summer of Kim Novak.

Nesser has written a popular series of police procedurals over the years; but this novel is a departure, more of a coming-of-age story and a portrait of Swedish life, with the murder unsolved but wrapped up rather enigmatically in the denouement.

Although the teens swim, bicycle, and meet girls (including the one from the title, a substitute teacher at the school who looks like Kim Novak and ends up dating an older brother), the storytelling is infused with melancholy and dread.  One kids' mom is an alcoholic, and his dad abusive; the other's mother is terminally ill.  The wide cast of characters include people on the margins, for various reasons.  The tension cranks up when the older brother is accused of the murder.

As much an exercise in literary fiction as a mystery; worthwhile for fans of either.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Friday, June 25, 2021

#32: The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

An army investigator returns from overseas and heads into the hills of Kentucky to help his sister, a local sheriff, while trying to save his fractured marriage in Chris Offut's tough-minded rural noir The Killing Hills.

A woman's murder, her body found at a remote location, sets off a chain of retribution through the community that puts our protagonist square in the center.

Offutt writes with the authenticity of having grown up in this environment, with scenes that range from sorrowful to surreal to super-charged with danger.

This novel will undoubtedly be compared to Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens stories (and accompanying television show Justified), but where Raylan Givens seems to easily master his environment, Mick Hardin is subsumed and overcome by it, leading to a melancholy coda.

The Killing Hills is a literate, fast-paced story with memorable characters and situations; recommended for crime fans.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Monday, June 14, 2021

#31: Lesson in Red by Maria Hummel

Maggie Richter is a writer/editor at a floundering art museum in L.A., from which she is on leave after helping solve an artist's murder; but the apparent suicide of a rising student artist at a top-flight L.A. art school puts her back in the mix in Maria Hummel's explosive novel Lesson in Red.

Hummel's first novel with Maggie Richter, Still Lives, was a literate thriller with a corrosive take on the art world; this one punches even harder in the underlying discussion of women in that culture.

I enjoyed this novel, but I suspect it was helped by the fact that I finished Hummel's first novel very recently.  The events of Still Lives are so closely ingrained in Lesson in Red that I don't think it would be as rewarding reading as a standalone.  And in fact there are still a number of plot threads from the first book--specifically the unusual death of one of the character's brother--that seem to be obvious fodder to make this a trilogy. 

Both of Hummel's books are hitting enough Book Clubs as to give her the chance to write another one, and I hope she does.  Recommended for those who have already read Still Lives.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it very quickly.

Monday, May 31, 2021

#30: Northern Spy by Flynn Berry

A BBC radio producer in Belfast sees on television that her sister appears to be part of an IRA terrorist cell, and ends up in extreme danger learning how and why, in Flynn Berry's Northern Spy.

The latest from Berry has all of her hallmarks; it's a high-octane thriller set against the backdrop of family dynamics, with a sudden, explosive climax.  

I have liked all three of Berry's novels, which I read this year almost back to back, but the political background adds value to the storytelling in this case.  

And the words "page turning" is thrown around a lot, but this one genuinely is, as the last chapters really kept me glued to the fate of the protagonist, a single mom trying to help her sister while keeping her son and her mother out of harm's way.

Reese Witherspoon and I both recommend this one.  I checked it out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it very quickly.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

#29: Still Lives by Maria Hummel

 A failing art museum is pinning its hopes on a challenging art show featuring paintings of murdered LA women; but when the artist disappears on the night of the opening, the stakes become even higher in Maria Hummel's Still Lives.

Hummel writes a highly literary thriller that is as much a searing indictment on the California art scene as it is a mystery.  In fact, our protagonist--a writer/editor at the museum with a background in investigative journalism, which she left after a traumatic experience--doesn't really knuckle down and get into finding the artist until about halfway through.

Hummel's background seems to be literary fiction, and she is a professor of English, but even though there are highly interesting characters and relationships and vivid writing,  it is in the end just a crackling good thriller.  It's rare that I have trouble putting a book down, but the last fifty pages or so had me locked in.

I really enjoyed this book and will recommend it readily.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana, and read it very quickly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

#28: Pursuit of the Eagle by Nick Carter

 Killmaster Nick Carter is tracking an intelligent dog (!) when he finds what looks to be a missing American plane, and is soon on the trail of a kidnapped scientist in Pursuit of the Eagle.

This novel is part of my careful re-read of a favorite series as a youth, before I knew that Nick Carter wasn't a real person but a full slate of authors of various abilities.  I selected this one because it was written by Gayle Lynds, a thriller writer whose work I also read steadily--under her own name--as a young man.

This is a meat-and-potatoes thriller, but feels kind of low-stakes, with Carter being chased by Bulgarian spies and a not particularly adept German terrorist group while being helped by a Macedonian freedom fighter and a jolly French spy.

The mid-80s Eastern European politics seems about right, and the action comes steadily, so a solid entry for fans of the series.  Lynds wrote a handful of these--as did her husband, Dennis Lynds--and I would read another if I found one.

I've been steadily picking these Nick Carter books up here and there and read this one quickly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

#27: A Double Life by Flynn Berry

A child survives a murderous night in her own home, and her affluent father disappears afterwards and becomes the prime suspect; as an adult, she tries to find out if he is dead or alive, and uncovers a wide-ranging connection to his upper-crust friends in Flynn Berry's A Double Life.

This is Berry's follow-up to the superb Under the Harrow, and I picked this one up quickly thereafter because I enjoyed the first so much.  I think this novel suffers a bit from such close comparison; both feature a troubled protagonist, and a close family member with hidden motives.  The denouement here unravels very quickly, and is not quite as satisfying.

But A Double Life is still a cut above the standard thriller fare, and I am sure I will continue to read Berry's work.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

#26: Northern Heist by Richard O'Rawe

A gang of robbers knock over a Belfast bank, and soon have the cops and the IRA out hunting them, in Richard O'Rawe's Northern Heist.

This is O'Rawe's first foray into fiction after writing several nonfiction accounts based around his own experiences in the IRA.  Northern Heist is a bit of both, fictionalized but based on a true-life large-scale bank robbery in Belfast in the early 2000s.

Of course, there is almost immediately double-crossings, close calls, and other shenanigans, otherwise it would be a short story and not a novel.

O'Rawe writes a very hard-boiled heist novel, and hits all the right beats on par with a Donald Westlake outing.  

I thought the biggest shortcoming is O'Rawe invites the reader to root for the main characters, which I struggled with when they kidnapped two families and terrorized them, forcing two bank employees to carry out the biggest aspect of the heist (called a "tiger kidnapping").

A good heist novel overall, for fans of this type of fiction.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

#25: We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

More than twenty years after a nuclear apocalypse, a submarine with a single working warhead (and a shipboard culture that has morphed strangely over time) waits to unleash Final Judgment in Andrew Kelly Stewart's We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep.

As the signs for the End Times accelerate, a single crewmember--rescued from "Topside" years ago for a secret reason--begins to question everything that is going on in the rapidly declining ship.

As curious a genre mash-up that I've read, riffing on elements of The Hunt for Red October, The Caine Mutiny, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, all top of mind but not an exclusive list, as the story zooms along at a breakneck pace.

A slender read, but chock full of ideas, with an enigmatic but satisfying ending.  Recommended.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

#24: Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

A young woman stumbles upon her sister's dead body, then starts an investigation of her own when the police seem stalled, in Flynn Berry's debut Under the Harrow.

Berry writes my favorite kind of crime story--one featuring an unreliable narrator, whose complex relationship with her sister leads to some troubling reveals in the storytelling.  

Both the protagonist and her sister prove to be complicated, deeply flawed characters, which plays out in various ways, including a genuinely surprising ending.  The reader gets the sneaking suspicion that they really don't know any of the characters at all, and are left guessing what really happened right to the last few pages.

Under the Harrow is a very compelling, literate thriller that I read quickly, on loan from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.  

One of my favorite reads of the year to date and recommended for thriller fans.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

#23: The Romantics by Peter Brandvold

 A semi-retired gun-hand leads a newlywed couple into hostile territory with a map to a lost treasure, fighting Apaches, Mexican soldiers, and cold-blooded killers on one hand while fighting off the temptations of the heart with the other in Peter Brandvold's The Romantics.

Brandvold has written scores of what he calls "fast action" westerns, adult-oriented paperbacks with plenty of killing and sex, but he paints on a much broader canvas in this one.  The Romantics hearkens back to the old-fashioned western movies, one part The Searchers and one part The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The Romantics refers to both the romance of finding a lost treasure, and the blossoming romance between the gunman, with his own troubled past, and the bride in a marriage of convenience.

This one features an absolutely rip-roaring third act with a memorable set-piece in a series of caves.

I always pick up Brandvold when I find him and enjoy his writing, but this is my favorite thus far of his large bibliography.  Recommended for western fans.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Friday, April 16, 2021

#22: Later by Stephen King

 A kid sees dead people, but when one starts taking an interest to him, he and his mother are in a dangerous spot in Stephen King's Later.

King has now written a couple of these crime-flavored, supernatural-tinged novels for the Hard Case Crime line.  Hard Case Crime has largely printed reprints of forgotten noir novels, or contemporary novels in that classic vein, but King has somehow forged a relationship with them, and who would turn down a Stephen King novel?

I hate to say, if I did not know King wrote it, I would say it was a second-tier Stephen King knockoff.  The story of a kid with powers and a troubled single parent is not unfamiliar to King fans.

I think what really took me out of the story is that the narrator is in his 20s, in contemporary time, talking about his childhood in the early 2000s, but uses the slang of a guy in his 70s (like the author).  It was surprisingly tone deaf to how modern kids and teenagers talk.

For people who read everything Stephen King writes.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

#21: The Cairo Mafia by Nick Carter

 A spy accidentally switches a briefcase with Russian plans for a briefcase full of drugs, leading to his death and bringing the incident to the attention of Killmaster Nick Carter in The Cairo Mafia.

I've been revisiting some Nick Carters through adult eyes, after binge-reading through them as a teenager.  I decided to give veteran wordslinger Ralph Hayes another chance, after being disappointed in Agent Counter Agent.

This has a slam-bang open, with Carter breaking into an African prison to kill somebody, then breaking out again.  Once he finds out about the death of his fellow agent, he races his Russian counterparts into Cairo to find the plans and dismantle the crime ring that started it all.

Carter has the help of an Interpol agent/belly dancer and the hindrance of many, many foes.

While still a second-tier spy novel, this one was a more enjoyable read than the last, and much better plotted.  

I picked this up in a lot of Nick Carters somewhere and read it quickly.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

#20: Agent Counter-Agent by Nick Carter

Killmaster Nick Carter gets captured and brainwashed by Soviet agents intent on disrupting a South American conference in Agent Counter-Agent, penned by hard-working pulp writer Ralph Hayes.

Hayes has written across all genres from men's adventure to western to romance over a long period of time.  He did a handful in this extensive spy series that I read steadily as a teenager and have decided to revisit here and there with adult eyes.

At the time, I did not know Nick Carter was not a single person but a large cadre of writers, generally thought to have worked with mixed results.  Even as a teenager I thought some were markedly better than others.

This one has a pretty rickety plot, where the spies break into the AXE training center to taunt Carter into catching them in their plans, which his espionage colleagues don't seem to believe for whatever reason.  Naturally it's a female double agent with a knockout lipstick that causes Carter's downfall.  Curiously, Carter is brainwashed into thinking he is an assassin pretending to be Nick Carter, a baroque ruse, and sent to kill the Venezuelan President and American Vice President. 

Fortunately his brainwashing is broken by a jet flying overhead, too complicated to explain, and is able to break the spy ring.

Definitely a second-tier spy novel, but written in an interesting enough way to give Hayes another try.  I got this one in a big batch of Nick Carters from a friend and have another Hayes standing by.

Friday, April 2, 2021

#19: Too Rough for San Remo by Marshall Grover

Two amiable but dangerous Texas cowpokes drift into a small town about to explode in a deadly double-cross in Marshall Grover's Too Rough for San Remo.

Grover was Australian Leonard Meares, who clocked hundreds and hundreds of westerns in his time, with a number landing on these shores.  Confusing is that he is called Marshall McCoy here, for some reason, and his easygoing protagonists Larry and Stretch are called Larry and Streak.  He is also wrote another, more sober series called Big Jim which was christened Nevada Jim here.

These slender volumes are hard to find in the wild, so I have a tendency to buy any I find for under ten dollars, anywhere.  This one relies less on comedy and more on a large ensemble cast of outlaws, including a batch passing themselves off as soldiers to steal some gold.

After an opening scene where Larry and Stretch are skinny-dipping and left to wander naked after all of their clothes--as well as their guns and horses--are stolen, they seem to take a bit of a back seat to the action, signing on as reluctant deputies to catch the owlhoots.

I enjoy these fast-moving and fast-reading westerns and think it is a series worth seeking out.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

#18: The Vultures of Sierra Madre by Louis Masterson

U.S. Marshall Morgan Kane reluctantly teams up with a formerly imprisoned Apache scout to hunt a bloodthirsty band of white and Mexican scalphunters in The Vultures of Sierra Madre, part of the long-running western series by Louis Masterson.

Masterson was actually Norwegian Kjell Hallbing, who wrote close to 100 books featuring Kane over an extended period of time, with a number translated into English.  I find them difficult to come across in the wild, and if I see one online for less than ten dollars I will grab it up.

This was a sturdy western and seems to offer more continuity between novels than what is the norm in the usual action-driven western series.  Kane talks about the death of a former love, and we see the return of an old enemy and an old friend from previous installments.

I think Masterson's westerns are a cut above and are recommended for genre fans.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

#17: The Historians by Cecilia Ekbäck

In World War II-era Sweden, a young woman finds her old college friend's death is tied to an ugly national conspiracy in Cecilia Ekback's The Historians.

Ekback's historical thriller explores Sweden's status in the war, trying to balance the steadily encroaching Nazis with the needs of the Allies as well as the shifting politics of their own country.  It's a different perspective than I often see in war stories.

But it's also a crackling good thriller with a steady body count, as our protagonist teams up with a government official in hot water, and ends up at a mysterious mountaintop mining operation before finding out how deep the conspiracy runs.  

Spying, treachery, and murder are all in play, and even if the reader sees the denouement coming quicker than the characters it is still fun.

Satisfactory on all counts, with some unsettling true-life elements.  A worthwhile read I checked out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

#16: Assignment Star Stealers by Edward S. Aarons

Agent Sam Durell, called The Cajun, hunts a rogue group stealing satellite secrets in Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Star Stealers.

Durell ends up having to (sort of) team up with his Russian and Chinese counterparts as well as team up (so to speak) with a childhood friend and sudden widow/heiress.  As these things often do, it all ends up in a hidden base in the desert, with not too many left standing.

Aarons wrote a durable, I think underrated, spy series for several decades.  I read these as a teen and then revisited a big batch a few years ago.  This one came in a mixed box from a friend, and since I had not read one in a long while picked it up.  

This is probably the latest in the series I have read, from 1970, but still as sober and fast-moving as ever.  Features a pretty downbeat ending.

A great 50s-70s spy series, with elements from all those eras, and worth a look for espionage fans.

Friday, March 5, 2021

#15: The Trap by Melanie Raabe

A bestselling author arrives at the scene of her sister's murder, in time to catch a glimpse of the killer escaping; years later, after being homebound by trauma, she gets a glimpse of the person again on television and plots her revenge in Melanie Raabe's The Trap.

Raabe's debut novel, translated from German, has a classic unreliable narrator whose motivations and memories will leave a reader guessing throughout.

Raabe's damaged protagonist writes a thriller novel with intimate details of the crime, designed to draw the killer to her; when the suspect arrives, a cat and mouse game ensues.

I felt the book was a little overlong at 300 pages, based on a plot largely consisting of two characters circling each other in a house over a single long night.  I would have trimmed out the "novel within the novel" chapters, which were just okay. to keep it speeding along.

The Trap is a solidly-plotted thriller and of interest to genre fans.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

#14: Night in Tehran by Philip Kaplan

A diplomat in late 70s Iran navigates the end of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah in Philip Kaplan's Night in Tehran.

Kaplan is a former ambassador writing his first fiction, though it is heavily populated with real figures and situations.  He writes more of a political chess game than an espionage novel (there is only one solitary karate chop, delivered late in the narrative).  But it reads like a World War II spy novel, and even has a mysterious French journalist/spy love interest.

Kaplan's narrative is stone sober and moves at a funeral pace until the last one hundred pages or so, which have the mounting terror of a slow-motion car crash.  Readers with an interest in this time and its politics will be engaged here.

Kaplan's debut belongs in the same family as the writing of Alan Furst and John LeCarre and is a worthwhile addition to genre.

I got this from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

#13: Walk Tall, Ride Tall by Burt and Budd Arthur

Canavan is a former lawman who just wants to settle down with a new wife and a new ranch; but when he immediately gets into a gunfight with a trio of youths whose family runs the town, things get rough quickly in Burt and Budd Arthur's Walk Tall, Ride Tall.

Burt and Budd Arthur were father and son, and prolific western writers on their own and together.  

This is a pretty standard oater in the "one man against a crooked town" vein.  To me the biggest drawback is that Canavan is not particularly likeable; he is aggressive and belligerent throughout and it occurred to me more than once that the townspeople were right, and he wouldn't make a very good neighbor.

I got this from a stash of books in a Secret Santa exchange and read it quickly.

Friday, February 19, 2021

#12: The Tenant by Katrine Engberg

Two mismatched cops (is there any other kind?) look for the killer of a young Copenhagen woman with strange carvings in her face in Katrine Engberg's debut The Tenant.

The young woman's landlord was writing a murder mystery featuring a character--and murder--very much mirroring real life, leading the detectives to look into her writing group, among other leads.

Engberg comes from an arts background, and it shows in interesting details, from a subsequent dead body found in a chandelier during a ballet performance to a famous artist with a penchant for manipulating his assistants.

Otherwise this is a pretty straightforward, though fast-moving, police procedural, for fans of Scandinavian crime novels.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it quickly.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

#11: The Westside Park Murders by Keith Roysdon and Douglas Walker

The Westside Park Murders is a nonfiction account about the notorious double homicide of two high schoolers in 1980s Indiana, with an extensive summary of past events and some speculation as to what happened by two local newspaper reporters.

I was extremely conflicted about reading this, as I went to high school with these students (though they were younger than me).  But it was interesting to revisit the people and places that I knew at the time.

This account is written in a very clear-eyed, journalistic style and appears to be made up of some prior newspaper articles as well as new information and interviews.  The case remains unsolved--it is occasionally revisited locally and appears to still be open--so does not really wrap up as continue to explore questions.

Although it has been featured in other articles, television programs, and podcasts over the years, this is a good read for fans of true crime.

I bought this from Amazon and read it very quickly.

Monday, February 8, 2021

#10: The Missing American by Kwei Quartey

An American goes to Ghana to meet a woman he connected to online and disappears; soon it's up to a straight-laced private investigator to find out what really happened in the first entry of Kwei Quartey's new series featuring Emma Djan, The Missing American.

Although Djan is the protagonist, there is a wide net of interesting characters, from enterprising streetwise internet scammers, to crooked cops and priests, to the highest politicians in the land.

The internet scam the American falls for is threaded all through the culture of Ghana, and Djan ends up brushing elbows with her former police colleagues (she quit after being targeted for sexual harassment), a charismatic priest with a pet alligator in a tub, and a mysterious masked journalist targeted for assassination for his writing, among others.  

This is an expansive, fast-moving crime novel with unique characters and situations.  For readers who wants to read something different.

I checked this out from the Henry County-New Castle Public Library in New Castle, Indiana and read it quickly.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

#9: The Preserve by Ariel S. Winter

A small-town cop and his big-city ex-partner--who happens to be a robot--try to solve a murder that seems to lead to a mysterious drug-trafficking network in Ariel S. Winter's The Preserve.

Winter writes a real genre-buster; it is a hard-nosed buddy-cop crime novel, but in a dystopian future where the human race has been reduced by plague (!) and has ceded control to robot overlords.  What few humans remain live in a vast self-governed preserve that functions somewhat like a reservation, with the robot government always sniffing around the borders.

What I liked about it was that the world-building is in the far background; the mystery is grounded in two cops chasing bad guys over 24 hours, with the clock ticking on a dangerous drug getting out.  There's no planet-shattering change in the status quo by the end of the fast-paced story.

Highly enjoyable and offbeat police procedural/science fiction mashup.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library and read it quickly.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

#8: Nympho Lodge by Jack Lynn

Swingin' PI Tokey Wedge goes to a resort to bodyguard a woman afraid of being murdered by her husband, only to find his list of suspects--and potential love interests--continuing to grow exponentially in Jack Lynn's Nympho Lodge.

Jack Lynn was Max Van DerVeer, a working mystery writer who penned these "spicy" mysteries under a different name for reasons that were probably more obvious in 1959.  By today's standards, the spiciness is very mild indeed and more implied than anything.

And it is all presented in a fairly comedic manner reminiscent of a low-grade version of Richard Prather's Shell Scott (and I don't think that's a coincidence). 

To put it politely, the characters are not finely shaded by contemporary standards; every woman is eager to jump into bed with Wedge, and he never pauses for self reflection, even when he ends up shooting one five times at the denouement.

This is the first in a new line of reprints by Grizzly Pulp, a company committed to putting out at least a half dozen of the hard-to-find Tokey Wedge books.  

I will get the next one as well, but would hope they would work more closely on editing, as there were a lot of mistakes in the text that threw me for a loop a time or two.

For fans of pulp paperbacks.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

#7: Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

 A space salvage crew finds a powerful alien weapon at the center of a galactic war, pitting human against alien and corporation against corporation, in Karen Osborne's Architects of Memory.

The spine of Osborne's plot is not unfamiliar; a future run by megacorporations rather than governments, and a perhaps misunderstood first contact with a mysterious alien race, but the central characters are well-rounded and interesting.

And it's high-octane space opera most of the way, to an action-packed finale that leaves open the door for a sequel that is reportedly in the works.

Osborne's debut novel didn't break new ground, but was interesting and enjoyable throughout.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library Bookmobile and read it steadily.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

#6: Zero Zone by Scott O'Connor

In 70s Los Angeles, an artist built an outdoor installation to honor a dead lover--only to find it taken over by a handful of disenfranchised people with a dangerous agenda--and has to live with the fallout in Scott O'Connor's Zero Zone.

We see the artist's backstory unspool over several chapters, which includes the death of her parents and estrangement from her cinephile brother, threaded with the lives of the people who hole up in the installation--including an affluent teenage runaway, a Las Vegas waitress, a recent parolee, and a charismatic but physically and emotionally scarred young man.

The last chapters have a more cinematic feel, as several untimely prison releases threaten to heighten the danger around the artist again. 

This is the kind of literate thriller I have always enjoyed, with musings on the art and film worlds and how a creative life can work for and against people.  Recommended.

I checked this out from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library Bookmobile and read it quickly.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

#5: Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann

 A therapist at the end of his career seems to find life again when taking on a lively young patient in Anne Cathrine Bomann's debut Agatha.

This is Danish author Bomann's first novel--she has previously been a therapist as well, and a table tennis national champion--and it is a warm-hearted story, though the basic plot--an older person finding the will to live through a vibrant younger person--is familiar.

Well-drawn characters, including the therapist's strict secretary who has a surprising home life, and a long-time neighbor who turns out to have an interesting backstory, add value to the slender but engaging volume.

My wife got this for Christmas and I picked it up myself and read it quickly.  Recommended for those who want a light, literary novel.  I'll be interested to see what Bomann does next.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

#4: Babysitter Massacre: Daddy's Little Killer by David O'Hanlon

In the past, a babysitter is killed in a night of passion and rage; years later, a group of babysitters face the fallout of this killing over several terrible days in David O'Hanlon's first installment in the new "Babysitter Massacre" paperback series, Daddy's Little Killer.

Babysitter Massacre was a 2013 b-movie directed by my friend Henrique Couto, who I have workedwith on several films, including two of my own.  Couto set his film squarely in the 80s-90s slasher film genre, and having a book series to accompany it falls right into that era as well.  Couto is working with O'Hanlon on the first trilogy of stories.

Readers who cut their teeth on those slasher franchises will find all the familiar beats here, with sexually-charged situations and a passel of gruesome killings.  There are callbacks to the Ohio-based film, but its storytelling is self-contained in an Arkansas setting that includes some escaped mental patients, a stalker ex, and the seen-it-all cop who is, naturally, a step behind the intrepid babysitter protagonist trying to save two children in her charge.

I ordered this book online and read it quickly.  Recommended for slasher movie fans.

Monday, January 11, 2021

#3: Amnesty by Aravid Adiga

In Sydney, an illegal immigrant who works as a cleaner begins to suspect that one of his customers killed another, but calling the police could lead to his deportation, in Aravind Adiga's Amnesty.

Throughout a single long day the cleaner debates about what to do, all the time being goaded via cell phone by the suspected killer to come clean his apartment before he decamps.  

He relives his experiences in Sydney, from hiding in a storeroom above a grocery to meeting his girlfriend on a vegan dating website to getting too involved in the explosive relationship between his two clients, who pay cash and know his status is precarious.

Adiga's novel has a thread of thriller woven through it, but really is a literary novel focusing on the immigrant experience in all its facets.

I had previously read Adiga's Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger which deals with an Indian cab driver who carries on a one-sided correspondence with the Premier of China; the protagonist here also is an eccentric character and somewhat unreliable narrator prone to flights of fancy, which makes for an interesting read.

A worthwhile literary work that I checked out from the New Castle-Henry County Bookmobile and read quickly.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

#2: The Last Quarter Hour by Jean Bruce

In 1950s Argentina, a cell of escaped Nazis have wiped out two networks of American agents, sending OSS-117 into action in Jean Bruce's The Last Quarter Hour.

OSS-117, along with a partner with a garrote and a genial disregard for human life, changes up the spy formula and sets the sex aside to focus all on violence in speedily dispatching the villains.

French writer Jean Bruce's OSS-117 predates Ian Fleming's James Bond, and ran hundreds of installments from the 50s to the 90s, the pseudonym first used by Jean Brochet, then his wife Josette upon his death in a car crash, and ultimately by their children aftet Josette's death, a true writing family.

This series also spawned a film franchise in France, but neither the handful of books translated into English (by a British publishing house) nor the movie franchise ever seemed to catch on here.

However, I am a big fan of French noir, and this installment is as hard-hearted and tough-minded as any of them, and would come recommended if it wasn't so very hard to find any of these in the wild.  I actually got this one in a batch of books I purchased from the web and was genuinely surprised to get this single one in the lot at a goodbye price.

The Last Quarter Hour is a cool spy entry in an interesting series, if one goes hunting.

Monday, January 4, 2021

#1: Echo on the Bay by Masatsugu Ono

 An officer is assigned to a seemingly tranquil coastal police station, but his teenaged daughter sees its comings and goings through different eyes in Masatsugu Ono's Echo on the Bay.

Ono's story starts out a bit whimsical, with comical and colorful characters, but pretty soon we uncover backstories that involve dark themes, including child abuse, sexual abuse, and murder.

This makes for an unsettling, enigmatic read.

Ono offers a lot to think about, including a deer--or something else?--hit by the policeman on a late night, and the origins of a "ghost ship" that appears offshore after a red tide.

Echo on the Bay has elements of the crime novel, but is most successful as a literary work with dark undertones for discerning readers.

I got this for Christmas and read it quickly.  

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Best Reads of 2020

Passed my goal of reading 50 books in 2020 and topped out at 66 in a strange year.  Here are my favorites, if you are looking for a new read.


The Black Jersey by Jorge Zepeda Patterson

These Women by Ivy Pochoda

Blacktop Wasteland by SA Cosby

The Last Weynfeldt by Martin Suter

The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguin

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

Winter Counts by David Heska Wambli Weiden

Red Dust by Yoss

The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel


Enjoy!