Wake Up and Die, by Jack Lynch****

wakeupanddieThis book is the fourth in the series featuring Peter Bragg; the series was nominated for the Edgar Award and twice for the Shamus Award. I’ve read three others in the series already, so imagine my delight when I located this book, formerly published as Sausalito, among the DRC’s offered by Brash Priority Readers Circle.

And apologies to my readers: I originally published this review under a different title. I use my Goodreads account to organize my shelves, a lazy, easy way to keep track of what I am reading (usually 6-8 books at a time); what is waiting to be read next; what I have, own, and intend to read later; and even what books I don’t have and hope to get. The weak link, as was proven here, is that when a book’s title changes, Goodreads’s new owner, Amazon, is very restrictive about accepting new titles. In years past, since I am a Goodreads volunteer librarian, all I had to do to personally add a title and book jacket was either scan it physically, or send a relevant link to the superlibrarians (the ones that get paid), and they would drop it into the website.

Not anymore.

Before I knew it I was confused, and since I knew I had two Bragg titles to read and had just finished one, I assumed it was that of the single book jacket on my Goodreads page. There is a cost to letting someone else’s system organize one’s reading, and this is it. So this review was originally published on this blog as The Dead Never Forget, which is the first Bragg title and which I have not yet read. My apologies again to my readers and to Brash Books.

Like most Peter Bragg mysteries, this one is set in the Bay Area. A huge development is about to built on the waterfront, complete with a convention center and any number of hotels and restaurants. The problem arises when the residents of area houseboats protest the likelihood that they will be shut out. Bragg is working a different case, one involving pornographic photos that have been sent to the subject’s father, when he finds himself on the waterfront near his home helping to get people and pets to safety after a suspicious fire breaks out. A murder is discovered and before you know it, all hell has broken loose.

The setting is the 1990’s, shortly before the internet changed all of our lives. It is actually a contemporary setting because this is when the mystery was written, but now as it is re-released, it feels like a noir setting, because all of the telephones are land lines and all files are on paper buried in metal cabinets. In this sense, I think the series actually benefits from the time lag.

The novel is ambitious, bouncing us from one setting to another and introducing a large number of characters. I had trouble keeping track of them all. I might have wondered whether my mind was getting old and rusty but for the fact that I was reading a different galley at the same time with even more characters, and the latter left me with no doubt whatsoever who each one was.

On the plus side is not only our opportunity to meet the detective in his first criminal investigation, but I also like the way issues of race and gender are treated; appropriate and at times quite zesty without ever appearing to be self-consciously PC or awkward. There is a moment toward the end that made me want to stand up and cheer! This moment took what was about to be a three star review and bounced it back up to four stars.

On the downside, in addition to the confusion engendered by too frequently hopping between undeveloped characters and situations, there’s an over-the-top moment that some readers will enjoy, but that I found was too much for me: too much vigilantism, too violent, and over the top on my personal ick-meter.

Those that are fans of Jack Lynch will want to read this newly-republished mystery in order to introduce themselves to a kick-ass series. Those that love good mysteries and/or fiction set in the San Francisco area should also get this book and read it.

Why not spend a weekend curled up with Peter Bragg?

The Suicide Murders, by Howard Engel****

thesuicidemurdersThe cops said Chester killed himself. The gun was there, and he had powder burns on his head, powder on his hand. Everything tested out right. But he’d ordered himself a brand new bicycle just two hours earlier. Does a suicide do that? And then there was the very lovely wife that had been to see Cooperman, our detective protagonist, just before the unfortunate event, concerned that her man had perhaps been unfaithful. She’s caught him lying to her, and that makes a lady suspicious.

These things leave a guy like Cooperman with questions. True, he’s not a cop: “Me? I’m just a peeper. Divorce is my meat and potatoes.” But when something stinks, it’s in Cooperman’s nature to go find the source of the smell and air it out. And when others die after Chester, it makes Cooperman, who’s nobody’s fool, ask even more questions.

I received the DRC for this vintage novel, now available digitally, from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. It became available for sale August 24, so you can get it now.

Engel is an experienced writer, and as he plays the thread out, with murder upon murder integrated deftly into the everyday life of Benny Cooperman, he strikes an excellent balance, building suspense and driving the plot forward with the occasional humorous reflection to keep things from becoming too ugly to be fun for the reader. And his character descriptions are particularly memorable, as with this local politician:

“He was a big man by anybody’s scale. His face looked like a roast beef dinner with all the trimmings, with a huge portion of nose in the middle. “

There were a couple of moments when the predictable occurred, but it wasn’t so dead obvious—excuse the pun—as to be an eye-roller. Rather, I experienced the satisfaction of having seen it coming and been right. And to me, as long as there isn’t too much of it, and there wasn’t, that is a sign that the writer has been fair to his audience. There are no sudden introductions of new characters during the last ten percent of the novel that change the solution in a way impossible to predict, and a lot of us like working the puzzle as we read. There are a couple of sexist references—“the kind of girl”, “bimbo”—that were commonly used in 1980 when this was first published that I didn’t care for, but they were infrequent enough that I was able to make a note to myself, and then continue to read and enjoy the story. In the end, the wry humor and up-tempo plot line makes this one a winner.

Although there are vague sexual references and infidelity is part of the plot, there is no graphic sex that should prevent a parent of a precocious adolescent mystery maven from handing the book down once they have finished it themselves. It’s hard to call any story that contains multiple murders a cozy mystery, but this one is in or near that ballpark.

Altogether a satisfying read.

Gold Coast Blues: A Jules Landau Mystery, by Marc Krulewitch****

goldcoastblues“Tanya Maggio’s a missing person, and I got a feeling she’s missing on purpose.” This third entry of the Jules Landau series finds Landau searching for Eddie’s missing girlfriend. There’s a faded noir feeling in its pages as Landau bounces between Chicago and New Jersey trying to trace back the thread. Though confusing at times, a trifle overburdened by excess characters, it’s a fun, original story. Thank you once and thank you twice to Net Galley and Random House Alibi for the DRC. This title is available for purchase September 22.

The search for Tanya leads Landau to the mean streets of Irvington, New Jersey, where a crooked cop named Cooper explains that in their town, they don’t try stamp out crime…they manage it. So anyone that is hooked up to the criminal world is fair game; the idea, at least ostensibly, is that bystanders should not be caught in the crossfire.


Turns out the New Jersey people are running a scam. Those among the one percent that have more time and money than good sense invest in fine wine, wine that is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for a case of a dozen bottles. Hey, its value appreciates, and some liken it to gold or silver. If a bottle gets busted, then that’s what insurance is for.

With a bizarre scenario such as this one, it’s only to be expected that someone would come up with the idea of counterfeiting labels and brewing up some fake stuff. After all, no one is going to drink it anyway, right? Who’s to know?

The plot twists, and it turns sometimes enough to confuse me. Hold up…are we in Illinois, or are we still in Jersey? But when push comes to shove, this romp is too enjoyable to walk away from. “That little shit Spike”, an heir to the Irvington mob, is one character that shines bright enough to keep those pages turning. Another, of course, is Landau’s ridiculous cat Punim, for whom he sits down to compose a legal trust fund when he is depressed and in danger. His own life may be on the line, but by god someone has to be paid to feed Punim his chicken hearts every day. And then there is Amy. Is she an enemy? A spy? She sure as hell isn’t really a psychic, but she knows enough that she has to be something. Maybe she has Tanya tied up in her closet. You never can tell.

The originality of the plot is assisted by Krulewitch’s affinity for figurative language. I loved his description of the “horror hotel” and the “stunningly verdant” house located on…wait for it…Bunnybrush Lane.

September is a good time to curl up under the quilts with a good book, or for those in warmer climes, it’s not too late to stretch out on the beach with one. Either way, if you need an escapist beach read, or a good noir mystery, this might be the book for you.

Wings in the Dark, by Michael Murphy ***-****

wingsinthedarkMichael Murphy’s Jake and Laura series is both engaging and interesting, the best blend of historical fiction and detective fiction I’ve seen in a long time. Until I got halfway through, it was headed for the land of five stars, and I am not sure how objectively I’ve been able to review it since that point. But I went with my gut, and ultimately, when it comes to fiction, that’s what every reader uses to judge a book. Thank you to Random House, Net Galley, and the author for permitting me a sneak peek; this title will be available to the public August 31.

Jake Donovan, our intrepid detective-turned-novelist, is working on his latest Blackie Doyle novel, but he takes a break from work to honeymoon with his bride, the famous actress Laura Wilson. He has sworn off detective work at her insistence, and has decided he likes being a novelist better, anyway. Fate intervenes, however, when Laura’s good friend, Amelia Earhart, finds a man dead near her plane.

It’s shaping up to be a really great story. At this point, I am noticing the level of historical detail, and thinking of this as potentially great classroom material. A number of public schools teach language arts and history in a block simply titled “Literacy”, and since so many young folks have reading skills that aren’t up to snuff, sometimes the best way to teach history is by partnering it with historical fiction. The book is clean enough that no one is going to race to the nearest school board meeting to complain; no explicit sex. The possibility is exciting, for teenagers and perhaps also for the author and publisher. There are some wonderful, positive depictions of women, who were active in non-traditional roles during this time period. What a great book for teens as well as adults!

It was then that I ran into the “J” word. Here, once I got past the slapped-out-of-nowhere feeling that racist terms generally evoke, I asked myself whether the historical circumstances of the novel merited the inclusion of this term in place of the correct term, “Japanese”. I also reminded myself that the rest of the book might be free of the term, and I could just push past it, as sometimes one must, and return to an appreciation of the story’s period flavor and nicely woven plot.

The problem here is that the word kept popping up in nonessential places, as if it were a bit of window dressing, and it was accompanied by some rather nasty language about that group. And again, it was a word used commonly during the time period by Caucasians and some others. For that matter, so was a lot of racially and ethnically derogatory language; even in the early 1960’s, I can recall hearing casual conversations peppered with anti-Black, anti-Jew, anti-Italian terms when nobody was angry; it was just the way some white folks talked without even thinking. But most writers today would not choose to evoke that part of history in their writing. The harm outweighs the usefulness. In Wings in the Dark, the only place that it might have been contextually useful is when General Patton enters and leaves again, spewing his trademark xenophobic profanity behind him. But neither Patton nor his profanity is really key to the story line, either.

I think about what I like to read; here on the west coast of the USA, most cities have a fairly hefty number of Asians and Pacific Islanders, and this was true of the district in which I taught history and literature until my recent retirement. I could never put this in their hands. What a terrible thing to do to them. And it’s a shame, because they would have enjoyed reading about Amelia Earhart. In fact, there is a magnet school dedicated to aviation and partnered with Boeing. Less the anti-Japanese slurs, they might have made great use of this book; with it, I could see students looking down and away; I could see parents coming to school or to board meetings looking for an explanation.

Apart from the term—which hit me harder than it will most Caucasian readers—this is a strong piece of fiction. The pacing, dialogue, and character development are all strong. There are red herrings that I nibbled on and was fooled by, and the ending is about right; at least I think it is. Again, I struggled with objectivity. But I think without the four places that hit my ouch-button, I would have enjoyed the second half of this novel as thoroughly as I enjoyed the first half.

Die for Me, by Jack Lynch *****

dieformePeter Bragg, old-school detective, gets a visit from someone he used to know. She’s working as a psychic now, and the spirits are restless indeed. Not only does she see disquieting visions of dead people that haven’t been discovered yet, but she also sees a threat that is closer and more personal. She fears she may become a victim as well. Thanks go to Brash Books and Net Galley for permitting me to read this via DRC; originally written in the latter part of the 20th century, they are being re-released digitally now.

I confess that a few times, in reading this absorbing novel, my BS meter started ticking. This detective apparently has no income, yet he is spending plenty and refuses to bill Marianne, the psychic with the unsettling news. And as the hillside is combed by legions of cops, I wondered where the cadaver dogs are. Couldn’t they just bring them out to the site, once it is found, and let them sniff up the bodies?

But as I may have mentioned before (and before, and before), a really good writer can make me believe anything, and a lousy one can’t sell me a thing. And the fact is, Lynch is a good writer. So I set aside my snarky moment of disbelief and dove in to see where this story was headed.

Ultimately, there are a surprising number of unquiet spirits resting in the hills near Sonoma. Who could have a grudge against this many people? Is it possible Marianne is involved in it somehow? The suggestion that one person may have been the intended victim and the rest merely killed as window dressing is quickly laid to rest. That’s not it. And just wait till you see what’s behind it all!

Well my friends, the world is full of crazy folks. Fortunately, it’s also full of mystery and detective novel mavens. And as I gnawed voraciously at this episode in the Bragg series, I found myself wishing Lynch were still among us so he could introduce us to a few more fictional nut bars.

Sadly, he isn’t, and he can’t, but the good news is that you can get this one. If you love a good detective novel, you should snap up the whole series. It’s hard to put down once you begin! And it’s available in August. I’ll bet you could order it now. By the time it comes, it will be a surprise, one you gave yourself.

Are you still here? Go! Get this story. You’ll be glad you did.

Truth or Die, by Jack Lynch *****

truthordie“These fellows in their cammies offering their guns for hire would know about things like T-ambushes, wind drift and long-range rifle fire, and maybe a boobie trap or two. I knew about close-in fire, street work and fear.”

Originally published under the title “Monterey”, this is the sixth installment in the Peter Bragg series, and the pace is as taut as piano wire. Don’t count on falling asleep just after you finish it; allow time for your heart to stop pounding and your blood pressure to ease up a bit. It’s an outstanding thriller that left me breathless.

It’s a shame the writer is no longer living and can’t write a bazillion more novels for us to enjoy; he could wiggle a finger and I would follow him anywhere. His series does not have to be read in order; this one is great as a stand-alone novel. And by now I am also supposed to have told you that thanks to Net Galley and the lovely fellows at Brash Books, I read this free as a DRC. Had it cost me actual dollars, it would have been well worth it.

Bragg is back in California where he belongs, and he’s spending some time with girlfriend Allison Stone. Whilst on vacation, however, an old friend of Bragg’s is widowed, and is a suspect in her husband’s murder. She’s not a very nice person; in fact, she’s a pain in the ass. But Bragg is convinced of her innocence, and she has even gone to her relatives, hat in hand, in order to come up with his fee. He’s in it now, and Bragg always plays to win.

Though it’s set in the 1980’s, the lack of technology (no satellites; when you are stuck out there alone, you are seriously alone!) and Bragg’s hard-boiled demeanor give this series a strong noir flavor. I appreciate a detective that knows he needs to have his gun handy. This is the USA, for heaven’s sake! Bad guys always pack heat. We retired school teachers can stay inside, lock the door, and let the dog guard our homes, but Bragg is chasing bad guys, and he goes in prepared. It’s a good thing he does.

When things start to heat up, he tells Allison that the situation has become dangerous, and she should hop a plane to San Francisco. He’ll take her to the airport himself. And she says she’s not doing that anymore; she needs to know what it’s like to live with his vocation. They’re getting serious; he wants her to marry him. Let’s find out right now what this whole thing is like.

Turns out, that’s a terrible idea.

Bragg is such a strong protagonist, and the way Lynch bounces his street-smart persona off the smug, wealthy folk that live in Carmel, Bel Sur, and other hoity-toity beauty spots is masterful. The climax made me want to stand up and cheer. What a total bad ass! Way to go.

The best news of all is that this little hummer was released digitally in February, so you can have it right now.

Don’t leave home without it!

The Missing and the Dead, by Jack Lynch *****

themissingandthedeadJerry Lind is missing, which is especially strange, given that he knows he is about to inherit a small fortune. It seems unlikely that he would take off for a long time without letting someone know about it. He ought to be back by now. Moreover, the next people in line to inherit his share are also wondering if he is okay. Not that they hope he isn’t. Of course not! And at this point I have to break my narrative to let you know that I was fortunate enough to get this DRC free, courtesy of Net Galley and Brash Books. It was previously published in the 1980’s and is just now being released digitally.

Back to Jerry. No, never mind, forget him for a minute. Let’s talk about our assassin.

Our assassin is not getting any younger, and his wife is exhausted from all the moves. Every time he carries out a contract, they have to either abandon their stuff or get a truck, and over years and years of professional killing, it wears a woman down. She wants a garden. From now on, he needs to either make do with the significant amount he’s squirreled away from his successful if messy business, or he’s going to have to goddamn hide the bodies.

It’s the least he can do for her.

Peter Bragg is our man. Jerry’s sister hires him to go to Barracks Cove, where Jerry was supposed to be running a professional errand, and see if he can’t track him down. And Bragg goes in prepared. If you are sick of reading wussy narratives that give flimsy reasons for the intrepid sleuth not to carry a gun and make sure he has bullets, this is your guy, and this is your story. Has he ever fired that thing? Oh yes. But not just for practice…in the line of duty? Again, oh hell yes.

And it’s a good thing, as it turns out.

By the time the thing is over, a great deal of action has taken place, and though I am a six-to-eight book-at-a-time reader, the urgent, taut narrative (reminiscent somewhat of the Richard Stark detective novels from about the same period) grabbed me by the front of my shirt and held me there until the last page was turned.

It was nominated for an Edgar, and the clever juggling of setting and character development, along with a plot line that is unbelievably lean and compelling, will probably leave you wondering, as it did me, why he was denied and just who exactly did get it.

The consolation? If you have a kindle, you can read this book right now. Change the window on your screen and order it up. You’ll have an excellent weekend…if you can wait that long!

Yesterday Is Dead, by Jack Lynch ****

yesterdayisdeadPeter Bragg is a San Francisco private eye. He is originally from Seattle, but he left all that behind: the rain, the grey skies, the depression…and Lorna, his ex-wife. Now a case brings him back. He isn’t eager to make the trip, but an old friend is in a spot and needs his help. And for the reader, it is a trip indeed, since the story is set in the 1980’s, when it was originally published. This established mystery series is now available digitally, and I was lucky enough to jump on Net Galley’s offer to read it free. My thanks go to them, and to Brash Books, for the DRC. What a fun romp!

These are modern times alrighty. There’s a new Interstate connection to Bellingham; a guy can hop on the I-5 and be there in two hours. Neat!

Those that have been to Seattle lately understand how wry this is, since a person can sit that long in gridlock just trying to get to the outermost suburbs now, at least during rush hour.

In addition to a trip back in time, Lynch serves up all sorts of twists and turns that keep the plot moving nicely, but also keep the game fair for the reader.

When all was said and done, I found myself wishing I could read the whole series. Recommended to anyone that enjoys good detective fiction. You can get it for yourself May 5, 2015. And you should!

All That Glitters, by Michael Murphy*****

allthatglittersThis was a quick read, and a fun one. Don’t be left out in the dark when it hits the shelves in January!

Jake Donovan and Laura Wilson have left the Big Apple in their dust and gone to Hollywood, where Laura is about to enter a new phase of her career with a lead role in one of the new talking pictures. All That Glitters, the new episode of Michael Murphy’s Jake and Laura series, a cozy mystery  if ever there was one, is full of Depression-era flavor, complete with celebrities from the time and place in which is it set. The writing is tight and sassy. Murphy has penned a winner! My thanks go to Net Galley and Alibi Publishers for the ARC.

Jake has promised Laura that his risky gumshoe days are over; he is a novelist now, a new leaf turned over for the woman he loves. Who would dream that Blackie Doyle, the protagonist of his series, would have to solve a real-life murder to clear author Donovan of a murder charge that has been tethered to him by scant evidence and lazy cops? Louella Parsons, a real-life celebrity journalist whom Murphy has borrowed to add spice to his already spunky story, wants to see him behind bars; just think what a scoop it represents!

The story is enhanced by one detective who carries a torch for Jake, and another who creates all manner of ridiculous situations with his obvious, bumbling surveillance. Murphy peppers the narrative and dialogue with generous applications of Depression-era slang that sounded to this reviewer as if it had fallen from the lips of her late parents. In other words: it’s a doozy!

Cold weather has come, and now is the perfect time to curl up in your favorite warm hidey-hole with this extremely entertaining mystery. You never know; you may become addicted to the series.

Stranger things have happened!

Maxwell Street Blues, by Marc Krulewitch ****

Maxwell Street Blues is an entertaining first of a series by Marc Krulewitch. Set primarily in present-day Chicago, it has a noir flavor that takes the reader back about 60 years, despite the presence of meth as a key storyline component. Picture it all in black and white, the fog, the halo of the street light, the only thing missing are the fedora and the trench coat. We even have a mystery woman; no, make it two. And pay attention or you will lose track of which is which.

A brief change of setting, from Chicago to Los Angeles and suddenly the noir feeling evaporates and all is neon. Back to Chicago again; black and white, shadows and light.

The ghost of organized crime has come to call. Were it contemporary organized crime, it would be scurrilous, but it is from long ago in protagonist Landrau’s past. This struck a note for me; I have family mobsters two generations back. It’s rendered innocuous by the distance of time.

I very much enjoyed this read, which came to me free courtesy of Net Galley. There were a couple of moments that verged on the trite, and unfortunately they showed themselves in the climax. But as for me, I will cheerfully continue to read the rest of the series as it appears and becomes available. This is only the beginning, and it’s a very good one.