Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Watching the Detectives, by Julie Mulhern*****

“’There’s been an incident…Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

watchingthedetectives
Mulhern is on a roll. This is the fifth book in the Country Club Murders series, but I plunged in without having seen the first four, and it was still a treat. Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I snagged free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It is now available to everyone.

The story is set among the Caucasian upper middle class of the 1970s, and Mulhern renders the period—when this reviewer was a mere, blushing wisp of a girl—so well that I checked twice to see whether it was an older title being re-released.

Ellison Russell is our protagonist, and people keep dying at her domicile. It’s become a nuisance, and there’s a cop that thinks it’s too great a coincidence. Ellison’s in a jam, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Grace isn’t helping. She sulks when they are told they must leave the house for a few days because it’s a crime scene, exclaiming that people have died at their house before and they didn’t have to leave. It’s just not fair!

Ellison is a widow, and a merry one at that; she has a flirtation going with a local cop whose name is Anarchy—a guy who believes in rules– but her main man is Mr. Coffee. He’s always there for her.

I moan when Ellison’s mother is introduced—yet one more overbearing mother, I thought, and authors always blame everything on mothers, just like everyone else does—but then I am surprised by where she takes it. I won’t say more lest I ruin it for you. But I will say this: every overused or overworked plot element is here for a reason, either to take it apart, or to make fun of it. Mulhern considers every word in this dandy novel carefully, and the result is splendid.

As the story unfolds there are other witty tidbits tucked in here and there, such as a character named Margaret Hamilton who is such a witch. But the frippery and snarky humor aren’t the whole package; while the mystery is a romp, serving up the snobbery of the petit bourgeoisie with a sharp skewer, this excellent novel is also a nicely turned feminist manifesto. While the mystery is a fine 4-star beach read, the author’s purpose is a strong one that’s delivered well. It is for this aspect that the fifth star is given.
Highly recommended for strong women and those that love them.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler*****

TheBigBookofXmasNote to the reader: I originally posted this when my blog was just a few months old, and I was still struggling with basic issues, such as how to insert the book cover into the text. Now the holiday season is here again, and I am running my review–with some basic technical adjustments–one more time, because in the past two years, I haven’t found a Christmas book I like better than this one. It’s the only book I’ve found since I’ve been writing reviews that I found worth actually buying not just one but two copies at full price to give as gifts. For those that love Christmas stories and mysteries, this one’s for you!

I received this wonderful collection last year as an ARC from the “first read” program via the Goodreads.com giveaways. At the time, I didn’t have a blog; I reviewed it on Goodreads and because I liked it so well, I also reviewed it on Amazon. Then, while I was on the site, I bought two copies to give as gifts. I have never done that with an ARC before or since (so far), but it is so wonderful that I wanted others to have it, and I wasn’t willing to share mine.

Now the season is upon us. This blog will be punctuated by worthwhile Christmas books of a secular variety. I guess it is a typical retired-teacher behavior to decorate my home with brightly jacketed Christmas books when others are getting out their craft supplies and hot glue guns. At any rate, if you buy just one Christmas book for yourself or someone else, and if the reader enjoys mysteries, this is the best you will find.

The stories are organized according to category in a format and layout that is congenial all by itself. There are ten sections, starting with “A Traditional Christmas”, with the first entry being one by Agatha Christie; it is a story that has aged well, and I don’t remember having read it even though I thought I’d read everything by that writer. There are a few more, and range from just a few pages, double columns on each page, to 25 or 30 pp. Then we move on to “A Funny Little Christmas”. The first there is a story by the late great Donald Westlake, and I gobbled it up and then felt bad that I hadn’t saved that story for last, because I adore his work and he’s gone and can’t write anything more. But I perked up when I noted that yet another section, “A Modern Little Christmas”, has an unread (by me) story by Ed McBain. There are many others. The final section, “A Classic Little Christmas”, bookends the anthology neatly by finishing with Dame Agatha. All told there must be about sixty stories, maybe more.

The anthology, edited by the brilliant and acclaimed Otto Penzler, is billed as having a number of rare or never-published short stories, and I think it’s a true claim. There are many mystery writers I’ve read and enjoyed here, and others I had never even heard of, but found immensely entertaining. I haven’t skipped any yet, but even if I find something I don’t care to read, the book is worth owning. I know that already. It is also billed as an anthology to warm the heart of any grinch, and indeed, there has been at least one story with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

One of the charming things about anthologies is that one can read a single story in a sitting and not feel too bad when it’s time to put the bookmark in and go get something done. Then it waits there to greet us as we return from executing less pleasurable tasks, a reward that invites us to sit down, curl up with good cup of coffee or the dog or both and have a cozy read. It also makes the book a lovely thing to keep where guests can access it, because they can enjoy it even if they haven’t time to read more than a story or two in between other activities.

…but I’m keeping you. You could be reaching for your car keys, your bus pass, or even better, going to another window to find this book online and order it. Once you see it, you will most likely feel as I do…unwilling to part with your own copy, yet yearning to get at least one more for somebody else! Get the plastic out and do it right away.

Doubt in the 2nd Degree, by Marc Krulewitch*****

doubtinthesecondThis is the fourth and best installment to date in the Jules Landau series. Thank you Net Galley and Alibi for the DRC, which I scooped on the date of publication in exchange for an honest review. This title is for sale now, and if you like a good whodunit, you should get it too.

The shores of Lake Michigan are inhabited by rich white people, and Jackie Whitney is one of them. Once she is found dead and stuffed on the shelf in her own walk in closet, however, the good times are over.  Kate, Jackie’s girl Friday who hails from Appalachia, is arrested and the public defender asks Jules to look into the case. She doesn’t trust the state’s own people to find reasonable doubt without some outside assistance, but she cautions him that she isn’t going to pay him to find out who did it; all she needs is for him to muddy the waters enough to prevent conviction.

She might as well spit into the wind.

Landau is fired up, and he knows that Kate will be convicted if he can’t find another suspect. Partly this is because cops like to wrap up a case, and once they think they have someone they can convict, they stop looking anywhere else; but there’s another reason, too:

“Corruption and Chicago followed each other like conjoined twins.”

The more rocks Landau turns over, the more suspects he finds. It’s getting to the point where he hardly has time to get home and feed the cat. There are many wry remarks that give this story its kick; it’s a novel that’s part noir, part cozy locked-room-mystery, and whereas the author’s disinclination to settle himself neatly into one area of the genre may cost him in sales, I have to admit that I really like it this way. His clear eye on class divisions and his snarky sense of humor lit me up like Christmas, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Although this is the fourth book in the series, I think it works just fine as a stand-alone novel.  Highly recommended!

A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.

Two Miles of Darkness, by Earl Emerson****

twomilesofdarkness Fans of Emerson’s Thomas Black mysteries will be as pleased as I was to see this, the 14th in the series. Black took a very long nap and seemed to have all but disappeared for awhile, but then he was back with Monica’s Sister, followed by this title. There was no DRC for this one, so I picked it up free using my Amazon Prime digital credits. It was a good way to spend them. The book was released in 2015, so of course you can get it also.

We start out with one of my three most tired devices for a mystery novelist: Black and his sidekick, Snake are hogtied in the trunk of a car. I rolled my eyes in the way that made my second grade teacher caution me might make them stick that way forever—an outstanding science lesson that remained with me long after the legitimate curriculum had drifted away—but because I like this series so much, I kept reading anyway. And it was worth it.

Eventually of course Black stops discussing being stuck inside the trunk, and he remembers back, back, back to how all this came about. And that’s the story that is great fun and also well written.

Black grew up in the working class here in Seattle, but his father did errands and handyman work for a wealthy widow that went by the nickname Doda. Dad is long gone, but Doda is still there, and she hires Black to find Pickles, a dog she gave to Mick and Alex Kraft. The Krafts, by peculiar coincidence, had also tried to hire Black recently in order to find out who was harassing them; Mick had experienced a string of terrible luck that he believed was too sudden to be a coincidence. Black told him that sometimes bad luck really is just bad luck, but the next thing you know, they’re both dead. Police are calling it a murder and suicide; Doda just wants the dog back. She’ll pay a pretty penny if Black can find Pickles and bring him safely home.

In this matter, Black’s friend Snake, usually the irresponsible party where the two friends are involved, is the sensible one that points out the truth, a very good reason to turn the dog job down:

“You hate rich people. Think about these guys. The rest of the world works for a living, but these guys have nothing to do all day but drink Mai Tais and sit around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive in the mail. It burns you up. I know it does.”

 

Snake is right. Black hates the rich, and I have a sneaking hunch that Emerson does too.  So in this tale, we have a couple of spoiled men—no longer young enough to be called brats—known as Chad and Binky. One is Doda’s son, and the other is the son’s best buddy. Their massive resources coupled with a life of leisure and surfeit of free time give them the capacity to play elaborate pranks, and both show a solipsistic disregard for the effect their games have upon the lives of others. They fit Snake’s description to a tee.

Nevertheless, Black takes the doggy job, and so we have two mysteries, the official dog-finding mystery, and the unofficial mystery Black’s conscience requires him to tackle regarding the Krafts.

One small fact-checking blooper hit my I-don’t-think-so-button, and that was the widely-believed myth that all juvenile records are sealed once the doer of the crime turns 18. In reality, after a number of years, a hefty filing fee, and a ton of complicated paperwork, the person in question can have the particulars of their crime locked away, but if it was a relatively small offense, that may make matters worse, because anyone running the background check will see that the person did something in their youth that they want concealed. Most juvenile offenders never want to see a courtroom again when they are older, and most don’t have the extra money to throw at a court procedure anyway, so the misdeed stays on the record until they grow old and die. It never vanishes from the record, as some folks, sadly some of them juveniles looking for trouble, believe. At least, that’s the truth in Washington State, and that’s where Emerson lives and where his story is set.

Now back to our story. Emerson is a champ when it comes to pacing, and he’s one of the best there is when it comes to bouncing a straight man off a colorful sidekick like Elmer “Snake” Sleazak. The story would be no fun at all without Snake, but with him, it’s immensely entertaining. The sly banter and the unexpected, off-the-chain behaviors will put a smile on your face; if you don’t find him funny, check your pulse to make sure you aren’t dead.  Add another side character, a neighbor kid named Charlie that was friends with Pickles the dog, and there’s charm all over the place. People often underestimate kids, who are often our best observers: “Charlie knew the neighborhood like a cheating husband knew every creaky stair on his front porch.”

This is a page-turner that will make your own troubles seem oh so small, and for those that find themselves with a long weekend at hand, this book will provide the excuse you may need to just chill for awhile. One way or the other, this is a well written story, deftly handle with just the right balance of mirth and suspense. My records tell me I have read over 700 mysteries since 2012, and that doesn’t even take into account most of what I read during the previous decades of adulthood, and so I am picky. I see a device that I’ve grown tired of, and a star falls of my rating. But as for you, if you lean leftward and love a good private eye story, this could well be a five star read.

Recommended to those that lean left and enjoy detective fiction and comic capers.

 

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly*****

ATimeofTormentI had never read anything by John Connolly before, but this eerie thriller has made a forever-fan of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria books for the invitation to read and review.  Connolly cooks together a hair-raising thriller with a handful of horror, a smidge of fantasy and a dash of magical realism; the resulting brew is one that nobody else could possibly cook up. For those that write, reading this dark redemption tale is likely to produce both admiration and despair, because this novel is born of a talent that no creative writing workshop will ever be able to produce. You may write, and I may write, but nobody else will ever, ever be able to write like Connolly.

Our story is part of the Charlie Parker series, but I have not read any of the others and found I was able to hop into this story as a single read with no difficulty. Connolly provides just enough background to catch us up without dragging us through the book using promotional paragraphs some lesser authors might indulge in. I suspect not enough is repeated here to annoy his faithful readers.

Parker is a private detective that has been through a triple-death experience and come out the other end, but not unchanged. He’s hard enough to confront the ugliest nemesis, and it’s a good thing, because soon a trail of corpses will persuade him to leave his home in Maine for the dark place that is Plassey County, West Virginia.

The people of Plassey County have learned over the years—and centuries—to leave The Cut alone. Evil things are brewing there; it is there that the Dead King waits in an ancient building, and it is there that Oberon and Cassander struggle for dominance of this insular, cult-like community.  After all, “…the Cut looks after its own.”

This is a high voltage, hyperliterate read. Your middle-schoolers can’t read this, and it is so infused with violence that I’m not sure you’d want them to have it. But though I sometimes am put off from gory prose, I found that Connolly measured out these passages in small enough batches that my “ick” threshold, that little voice inside that tells me when a story isn’t fun anymore, wasn’t tripped. Spare but strong spots of irony and humor help lighten things up before they get dark, dark, dark again.

If I were to compare Connolly to any other writer, it would be James Lee Burke. The similarities that exist are a brilliant capacity to craft character, and the use of strongly resonant setting to reinforce character and move the story forward. The small but potent religious references are also similar. I highlighted the characters that were introduced throughout the course of this novel and found more than two dozen of them, and yet at the end of the book I still knew who each of them was without having to go back and reread. Connolly draws characters so real that by the time the book is done, the reader knows them as if they were family; yet thank goodness they aren’t.  This reviewer particularly enjoyed Parker’s assistants, Angel and Louis, as well as side characters Perry Lutter and Odell Watson.

Throughout the story, the pacing is swift and the plot absorbing. There is never a word that could be cut from the text and have the same result. If anything, the spare prose creates a sense of tension not only for that which is said, but also for that which is not.

This creepy tale was released this week, so you can have it to curl up with over the weekend if you’re quick about it. But before you commence, you’ll want to make sure that all the lights in your home are burning, and that all your doors and windows are locked.

Highly recommended.

Salvation Lake, by G.M. Ford*****

salvationlakeFord is the rightful heir to the late great Donald Westlake, a writer of monstrously amusing mysteries full of quirky sidekicks and kick-ass, zesty dialogue. There’s nobody like him in Seattle or anywhere else. I gobbled up the DRC when it became available via Net Galley and publishers Thomas and Mercer,  so I read this free in exchange for an honest review. But I’ll tell you a secret: if I’d had to, I’d have paid for this one had it been necessary. And so should you. It’s for sale today, and you can get it digitally at a bargain rate.

But back to our story.  We open at a bar called the Eastlake Zoo. The band of misfits to which detective Leo Waterman is tied through bonds of family history and quixotic affection are rocking the house in “well-lubricated amiability”. In fact, there’s a story being told right as we begin, and if it doesn’t hook you, check your pulse, because you’re probably dead. Here:

“Red Lopez was a spitter. When Red told a story, it was best to get yourself alee of

something waterproof, lest you end up looking like you’d been run through the

Elephant Car Wash.

‘So we was comin’ down Yesler,’ Red gushed. “Me and George and Ralphie.’

Everyone had found cover, except the guy they called Frenchie, who was so tanked

he  probably  thought it was raining inside the Eastlake Zoo…”

 

Right?

As it happens, Waterman, who’s inherited his old man’s ill-gotten wealth, has been lying low and enjoying the good life, but now his late father’s hideously distinctive overcoat has been found on a corpse, and  Timothy Eagen of the Seattle Police Department want to talk to Leo. Now.  There’s bad blood between them:

“…he hated my big ass the way Ahab hated that whale…Eagen was a skinny little turd with a salt-and-pepper comb-over pasted across his pate like a sleeping hamster.”

Since SPD has been under the eye of the Feds lately, Eagen can’t give full rein to his attack-Chihuahua impulses. SPD needs to provide “the kind [of law enforcement] that doesn’t look like Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York.” So Waterman doesn’t get shaken down or tossed into a cell, but his curiosity is piqued, and since he has no paying job and time on his hands, he finds himself checking into a few things. One thing leads to another.

What relationship does the victim, known as the Preacher, have to Mount Zion Industries, whose pamphlet is found among his effects? Before we know it, Leo is off and running, checking out Salvation Lake, located at the end of Redemption Road. Events tumble one upon the next, and I found that instead of reading in my bed that evening, as is my usual bedtime custom, I was reading on it, bolt upright and clicking the kindle to go a little faster please.

Waterman may have come into money midway through life, but his perspective is a working class perspective. His take on the city’s thousands of homeless denizens and the relationship that cops have to those in need strike a sure clear note that must surely resonate with anyone that’s been paying any attention at all.

Meanwhile, Salvation Lake is written with warp speed pacing, sharp insight, authority, and the kind of wit that can only come from a writer that has tremendous heart.

Don’t miss it. Get it now.

The Black Glove, by Geoffrey Miller*****

The Black GloveThe place is Hollywood, California; the time is 1980. Terry Traven is a private detective specializing in finding the runaway children of the wealthy. He is offered a job that appears to be more of the same; a local mogul’s son has disappeared, and Dad wants him found. But then the disappearance turns out to be a kidnapping, and the kidnapping turns out to be a murder, at which point all hell breaks loose. This story is fast-paced and though it’s set a generation or two ago, the issues with police brutality—otherwise known as “the black glove”—make it more socially relevant than your average piece of crime fiction. There are other components that will sit well with those with an eye for social justice, too. Thank you Brash Books Priority Reviewer’s Circle for the DRC, which I received in exchange for a fair and honest review. This book is available for sale right now.

The beginning of the book doesn’t appear to be auspicious. A guy walks into Traven’s office and presents him with a dossier that tells him all about himself, at least in the words of intelligence sources. The dossier is too lengthy–we see every word, pages and pages of italicized material– and is clearly a fast, easy way for the author to introduce us to the character. I was prepared to be let down.

Once we get past that sloppy introduction, however, the story is complex and fast paced enough to remind me of James Lee Burke’s detective series. Toss in some quirky names, like Senator Suspenders and a punk rock band called The Dead Cherries, and add a whole lot of action. And yet somehow we find ourselves discussing issues of race, gender, and gay rights without slowing the pace at all. I almost always take off at least a star for the use of the “n” word, but the way it is used here isn’t just some cheap stunt to show us that a bad guy is really rotten or ignorant; instead, the characters manage to embark on an abbreviated discussion of race and white privilege without ever becoming preachy or distracting from the main thread.  Some of it is very indirect, and it took me awhile to get a handle on it. In other places, it’s crystal clear, as when the visiting room at the jail is “gas chamber green…a cruelly subtle reminder to the inmate of his loss of freedom.”

The story’s subscript demonstrates how women and people of color are sometimes so overwhelmed by the racism and sexism that is inherent in US culture—and even more so when this novel was written than now—that we find ourselves internalizing that hatred. Likewise gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals; those from the Boomer generation will recall just how difficult this time period was for anyone that wasn’t straight.  And given that Miller wrote this during that time, I consider this story to be courageously written, a gutsy story by a writer unafraid to take a hard look at a controversial topic.

In fact, Brash Books hasn’t introduced a detective this brainy and complex, yet entertaining since they brought out Barbara Neely’s Blanche White series. What a tremendous find! I wish there was a whole series with this detective.

Meanwhile chances are excellent that you haven’t read this book yet, and if you lean left and enjoy a good detective novel, this is one you should scoop up right away.  It’s strong fiction with a progressive thread running through it. Don’t miss out.

Storme Warning, by WL Ripley****

stormewarningStorme Warning is the fourth and thus far final installment in a terrific series. I have read three, and will read the fourth if I can find it. The snappy patter and nonstop action and suspense make it hard to put down once you’ve begun. I rate it 4.49 stars, and thank Brash Books Priority Readers Circle for providing me with this DRC in exchange for an honest review. The book is available for purchase right now.

Wyatt Storme is retired from football. He divides his time between his cabin in Missouri and another cabin in Colorado; this story takes place in Missouri. He owns a considerable piece of land because after having the press follow him hither and yon for the duration of his NFL career, he craves simplicity and solitude. “Reclusive”, as his best friend Chick explains to an outsider.

Because all of a sudden, Wyatt’s land is chock full of outsiders. Hollywood director Geoffrey Salinger wants to shoot his hot new movie on location; his star has received death threats, and Chick has been tapped as bodyguard. Wyatt doesn’t like it much, but Chick wants the work, so he agrees to tolerate the intrusion, but he sets terms in a way that provide him with an unusual amount of control over industry hotshots that aren’t accustomed to leaving the driver’s seat. Combine this scenario with the smart, snappy patter between Wyatt and Chick; throw some 70’s song lyrics into the narrative as if they are merely part of the story; add some mobsters from out of town; and you have a really fun, fast-paced story.

The final .51 star is denied because of the way the author deals with race. He means well to be sure. But racist terms that are sprinkled in an almost nonstop stream throughout the book are going to make this a prohibitively painful book for most African-American readers. It’s true that Ripley uses the “n” word and other slurs (against other races also, but mostly Black folk) to determine who is a bad guy, but when one is close enough to the heat those terms create, all the fun stops as soon as the word appears. It’s like finding a rattlesnake in the cookie jar; you’re having a good time, expecting good things to continue happening, and then, bam, there it is.

Depending on who you are, it’s enough to take your breath away.

To be sure, I don’t know what it is like to be a person of color; I am not one. But for many years I have been the only Caucasian person in my house, with others here being either Asian, Black, or mixed, and I do know what it is to be the wife and mother of people that don’t enjoy white privilege. The “n” word and others like it are serious, serious things. And insult is added to injury by having the African-American character unable to enter a scene without race issues being the first to fall from his lips. Most Black people don’t really want to engage white people in discussions of race unless it’s in a formal political setting, and even then, it’s more comfortable to talk to another person of color, or a room that is mostly people of color. But LeBeau is clearly in this story for no purpose other than to be the Black character. He isn’t developed, and what is worse, he isn’t capable of much that is positive. As with the Black girl in the brief restaurant scene, a white guy has to come to the rescue. To depict all characters of color as victims and set them up to be saved every stinking time by Caucasian characters is inexcusable. (LeBeau tries to carry off a rescue once, but it doesn’t work out, and Chick emerges the hero once more.)

Should the writer continue the series, I recommend that he simply use white folks, if that’s his comfort zone, or include multiple people of color and develop them. Give them characteristics beyond coming into the room and making readers aware they aren’t white. And don’t diminish them by making them unable to stand up for themselves or others. I further recommend not using that word, ever again. It’s cheap and easy, but it costs some readers dearly. I would not give this book to my son to read. The pain would outweigh the enjoyment; in fact, I guarantee he wouldn’t finish it. There are more subtle yet unmistakable ways to demonstrate that a character is racist, if that is a key goal. There are other ways just to show that a character is a bad guy, too.

Hollywood and television have learned how to create actual characters of color, as opposed to casting someone to “be the Black guy”. Ripley has skill enough to do the same.

I’ve given the downside of this novel more space than the 90 percent that I enjoyed, but I have done so because no other reviewer I’ve seen so far has addressed it, and someone has to do it.

With the single clear caveat provided here, this fast-paced, mostly-funny detective story is recommended .