Category Archives: Reviews

‘Depth of Winter,’ by Craig Johnson

Sometimes titles are misleading. When you pick up a book called Depth of Winter, starring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, you assume you’ll get a story set in the Wyoming winter.

That’s not what this entry in Craig Johnson’s Longmire saga is, at all (the title’s from a quotation from Camus). It’s a quest story, in which old Walt heads down to Mexico (where it’s hot), all alone, to rescue his daughter Cady, who’s been kidnapped by a vengeful Mexican cartel boss. Instead of his usual cast of supporting characters, we have here a new group of people to help him out, and they’re pretty bizarre – a blind, legless humpback called “The Seer,” a young man with a pink Cadillac, a rancher, a mute Indian sniper. When a fictional series brings in a previously unknown supporting cast, you can be fairly sure those characters will suffer a high mortality rate, and that’s true in this case.

If I remember the first Longmire novel correctly (it’s been a while since I read it), Longmire was originally an overweight county sheriff who made a lot of jokes and was smarter than he appeared when it came to solving crimes. Now (probably under the influence of the TV series), he’s become a larger than life action hero, enduring and inflicting suffering beyond what’s plausible for a guy his age.

Depth of Winter was readable and rousing, with lots of action. But I had trouble believing in it. The final showdown was cinematic and completely unbelievable.

I bridled at a slighting comment on religious faith, though that comment was made in the context of Longmire giving thanks to… Somebody.

I want to read some of the earlier books, to verify my impressions about the evolution of the character, but for some reason I’ve only been able to find the more recent books available from my public library for KIndle. I find the Longmire books readable, but I’m not in love with them. This book struck me as uncharacteristic enough to qualify as extra-canonical.

Cautions for language and intense violence.

‘Depraved Difference,’ by J. Robert Kennedy

If you like your thrillers equipped with major plot twists, Depraved Difference by J. Robert Kennedy may be just what you’re looking for.

Me, I’m still thinking it over.

Aynslee Kai, an ambitious young TV journalist in Manhattan, starts receiving videos by e-mail, videos that might make her career. A year ago a couple thugs beat and kicked a young woman to death on the subway. Two more low-lifes videoed the murder and shared it on the net, where it went viral.

Now someone has started identifying the onlookers, the people caught on the video watching but doing nothing to help. Each onlooker is being hunted down and murdered, and each murder is filmed and sent to Aynslee. She is shocked, but also energized by this big career break.

She feels a little guilty, though, about not cooperating more with Detective Hayden Eldridge, a cop who’s asked to see the videos before they’re broadcast. She assists him to an extent, but her boss’s priorities come first. This bothers her a bit, because she’s developed a crush on the hunky Eldridge.

Author Kennedy is very good at surprising his readers, and there are several shockers in this story up until the very climax. There he blindsides you (unless you’re a lot smarter than me) with a twist so bizarre I’m still trying to decide whether he played fair with his readers or not.

Oddly, this book is labeled Number One in the “Detective Shakespeare” series. Justin Shakespeare is Eldridge’s partner, and he doesn’t even show up in the book until the 40% point (on my Kindle). Shakespeare is mentioned often before that, but only as a fat, lazy time-server just putting in his time until retirement. We will gradually learn that there’s more to him than that.

Depraved Difference was a compelling read, and one you won’t soon forget. I’m still not sure whether I approve of the final twist, though. I also thought the character psychology kind of implausible.

Cautions for lots of violence and disturbing situations, plus strong language.

‘Perilous Cove,’ by Rich Bullock

If you like Christian romances and Christian mysteries, Perilous Cove by Rich Bullock might be just your kind of book.

It’s not my kind of book, but I don’t know everything.

Natalie Clayton is a recent widow living in Missouri, contending with a hostile mother-in-law. When her house is torched by an arsonist and someone dies, she begins to suspect that somebody is out to get her. She doesn’t know the half of it.

Detective Addison Conner is a recent widower, trying to raise a teenaged daughter. When he investigates the arson at Natalie’s house, there’s a spark of electricity between them. Natalie has nowhere to go when her house is gone, so he takes her in to live with him and his daughter, temporarily. When a second murder attempt is made on Natalie, “temporarily” begins to look pretty brief.

Natalie knows what she has to do – disappear and relocate to California. But she and Addison are not out of each other’s lives yet.

Perilous Cove was an exciting read, and I’ll admit it caught my emotions.

But it was clumsily written, and heavy on romance novel stuff; the villains were over the top, the conflicts improbable (or so it seemed to me). I found the explosive climax less than credible.

If this is your kind of book, you’ve probably figured that out by now. You’ll probably love Perilous Cove. But I found it disappointing. Fortunately I got it on an Amazon deal.

No bad language, and no cautions except for garden-variety fictional violence.

‘Long Gone,’ by Paul Pilkington

A good race with a poor finish. That’s my reaction to Paul Pilkington’s Long Gone, the first in a series of mysteries about Chief Inspector Paul Cullen of the London Transport Police. (People tend not to take the Transport Police seriously, which is a running theme in the book. But lots of serious crime goes on on the buses and in the Underground.)

Inspector Cullen is riding the Underground on his way to work when he notices a young man apparently assaulting a young woman. He follows (pausing on the way to get the girl’s assurance that there was an assault), and chases the young man through the streets – until the fugitive comes to a sudden, ugly end.

Paul is placed on administrative leave, as is standard procedure when an officer is involved in a death. He’s heading home when he gets diverted by a call from his daughter Amy. Amy is his only family since the recent death of his wife, and she suffers from anxiety attacks, so he’s protective of her. She tells him she’s worried about her friend Natalie. Natalie had been selected for a major job opportunity – a reality show-style competition between six candidates for a job with a high profile new company. But she sent Amy a disturbing text message on her way home from the event, and then vanished completely.

Paul isn’t supposed to be doing any investigation while he’s on leave, but he’s willing to bend the rules for Amy. As we follow his inquiries, we also follow in flashbacks Natalie’s course through a very bizarre experience in corporate culture, one where she soon realizes that something is very wrong.

Long Gone engaged me and kept my interest all the way through. I was interested in the characters and curious what would happen to them. Unfortunately the plot lost all credibility at the climax. The final action was highly contrived and extremely implausible.

The theme of the book was “Me Too,” which might have put me off a little. However, the main offender was a hypocritical male feminist, so I didn’t mind. But that final “showdown” lost me completely.

‘Strange Tales of Scotland,’ by Jack Strange

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his own back yard, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely. Anyway it was a pretty safe bet to predict stormy weather in western Scotland; it would have been more impressive had Broichan said there would be a lasting spell of fair weather.

There are ancient ties between Scotland and Norway, which are next-door neighbors in maritime terms. That may explain why I’ve always had an interest in old Albion. Or not. In any case, Jack Strange’s book Strange Tales of Scotland caught my eye. I remember reading books of legend and folklore with great interest in my younger years.

Broadly speaking (though other kinds of tales pop up) the stories in this book deal with monsters like the Loch Ness monster (which is not the only one of its kind), supernatural beings like various kinds of elves or fairies, and ghosts. Ghosts are often associated with the histories of ancient castles, so you get the stories of the castles too.

I didn’t enjoy Strange Tales of Scotland as much as I hoped to. That may be partly the author’s part – I thought the book could have been organized better; it’s kind of a hodgepodge, jumping around the map at random. But more than that, all the stories seemed sadly familiar to me – folk tales tend to be repetitive. You have an infinite loop of abused and cast-off mistresses, innocent women convicted of witchcraft and guilty witches who escaped punishment, murdered babies, and bloodthirsty local Bluebeards. It all kind of depressed me after a while.

However, if you’re not familiar with the field, and appreciate the glamour of Scotland, you might enjoy this book more than I did. One could do worse.

Oh yes, he mentions the Fairy Flag of the McLeods (reputed to be Harald Hardrada’s banner). I appreciated that.

‘An Obvious Fact,’ by Craig Johnson

I read the first Longmire novel, The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, and reviewed it a while back. I wasn’t overwhelmed, partly because outdoorsy mysteries aren’t my favorite fare, and (probably) partly because it was so different from the TV series. But I’m borrowing more books from the library these days, and I figured I’d take a chance on another volume. This one is An Obvious Fact, a much more recent entry in the series. And it was pretty good.

In An Obvious Fact (the title is a reference to Sherlock Holmes, and there are Holmes references all through it), Sheriff Walt Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear are off to Sturgis, South Dakota and environs for the annual biker rally. Henry is a biker, and has been going back every year since his youth, trying to break a record he set in a dirt bike hill climbing competition.

It’s meant to be a vacation, but they get drawn into the investigation of an accident that sent a young biker to the hospital. Police suspect that the young man was smuggling drugs, but no traces of drugs have been found. The situation is aggravated by the fact that they run into the biker’s mother, who was once Henry’s lover. And – just possibly – her son might be Henry’s. Walt’s suspicions – along with those of his undersheriff “Vic” Moretti, who also shows up – turn toward a reclusive local tycoon who lives in a fortified compound.

It takes some adjustment to get used to the original literary version of this series. Walt is fatter and less handsome than the actor on TV, and also funnier. He does not suffer from existential angst. In fact these books are quite lighthearted, until they get to the violence part (and even some of that is rendered comical by Vic’s gung-ho aggressiveness). The characters are very well drawn, making one wonder why the TV writers felt it necessary to alter them. I enjoyed An Obvious Fact, and recommend it with only the usual cautions.

‘Saga,’ by Jeff Janoda

“It is good that you have industry, son,” Gudrid said severely. “But do not lower yourself like that. Your men will lose respect for you.”

“This is not Norway, mother,” he had said, patting her face gently. “All men must work here.”

Eyrbyggja Saga is not one of the very best Icelandic sagas, in the eyes of critics, but it’s definitely one of the top second-rankers. Aside from other points of interest, it intersects in several ways with Laxdaela Saga, helping to paint one of the broader narrative panoramas in the genre. It largely concerns itself with a long-running conflict between the two chieftain-priests (called gothis here), Snorri and Arnkel. You may recall Snorri the Chieftain as a character in my novel West Oversea.

Author Jeff Janoda has done a creditable job of turning one portion of Eyrbyggja Saga into a modern novel in Saga. By and large I’d say he’s made an artistic success of it, though he messes up his historical details now and then.

The story begins with Ulfar, a freedman (former slave) under the protection of the sons of Thorbrand, who are rather hostile neighbors to the gothi Arnkel (they are Thingmen of Snorri’s). Ulfar’s best friend Thorgils is one of Arnkel’s chief men (author Janoda does a good job showing how relationships and loyalties get entangled). It is Ulfar’s misfortune to own a farm that Arnkel wants, and to have a wife that every man wants.

After Ulfar goes out of the story (as the saga would say), the focus moves to his friend Thorgils, whose relationship with Arnkel is threatened by his own conscience – though trying to transfer his loyalty to Snorri only makes things worse.

It’s all quite tragic, in the saga style. The characters are complex and hard to categorize morally. I was particularly impressed with the way author Janoda made the heathens’ belief in the elves comprehensible – the supernatural saga elements are presented in a modern way, but with plausibility and no condescension.

Nitpicker that I am, I was annoyed by some failures in research. The author has trouble spelling Norse names – Hauk becomes Hawk, Haflidi becomes Hafildi. He speaks of Iceland as the Island – which is right but wrong. It’s spelled Island in Scandinavian languages, but that still means Ice-Land.

I suspect the author has read Daniel Serra’s An Early Meal (I’ve met Serra, by the way, though I’ve never sprung for his book, which I do want). But he doesn’t know much about Viking fighting – he thinks swords were stabbing weapons. And he makes the common movie mistake of giving them lots of leather clothing. With pockets, which (I say it sadly as a reenactor) they never had. He also doesn’t know how a Viking tent was constructed.

Still l found Saga a successful novel, all in all, though grim. It started a little slow but had me riveted by the end.

Recommended, with cautions for language and disturbing scenes.

‘Bloody Christmas,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Caimh McDonnell’s series of comic Irish mysteries, most featuring big, drunken detective Bunny McGarry, has been one of the delights of my recent reading life. Bloody Christmas, which fits into the series, is a special edition novella, available only until Christmas. Its sales support an Irish charity for the homeless.

Bloody Christmas is set way back near the start, just after the end of A Man With One of Those Faces. Bunny has been undergoing psychological evaluation after throwing a senior officer off a building, something he finds annoying and unreasonable. But now he’s managed to get his sanity officially verified, and is celebrating in his favorite pub, when a man tries to assassinate him in the men’s room.

Instead of beating the man bloody, however, Bunny listens to his tale of woe. The man (who’s there with his pregnant wife, named Mary [very subtle]), is the victim of criminals who’ve kidnapped their son. Well, it’s Christmas, a time for good works. Bunny has a few ideas on how to find the boy, and he puts a plan into motion.

It’s all completely implausible, and completely hilarious. Bunny is at his profane, selectively brutal best, and I laughed out loud more than once as he cuts a swathe through the underworld he understands so well. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that it all turns out more perfectly than anything has a right to in this naughty world.

Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and profanity.

‘The Rescue Artist,’ by Edward Dolnick

“The big-picture thefts are all motivated by bragging and stupidity. The crooks just move the things around until some sap gets landed with them, like the last guy with a chain letter. The paintings will always have great intrinsic value, so the saps will always dream on.”

In the early morning of February 12, 1994, while an excited Norway prepared for the opening of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, two burglars climbed a ladder to the second floor of the Munch Museum in Oslo, broke a window, crawled in and took Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of most iconic paintings in the world, out into the night (falling off the ladder twice in the process). The window was not alarmed, and though the thieves were caught on a security camera, the sole guard on duty was engrossed in paperwork and didn’t notice.

It was a moment of national embarrassment. The Norwegian police searched for clues, but there was little they could do except wait for a ransom demand. Weeks passed and none came.

All this caught the attention of Charlie Hill, star detective on Scotland Yard’s art theft squad. Unfortunately the case was not in their jurisdiction. But Charlie Hill was not a man to be put off by technicalities like that. Half American, half English, a former seminarian and sniper in Vietnam, he’d been a loose cannon in the police service until he found his niche – doing undercover work for the art squad. A natural actor and thrill-seeker, he lived for challenges like this.

So he found a pretext, and the Norwegians requested help, and he plunged in, traveling to Oslo to pose as an American representative of the Getty Museum of Modern Art. What followed was, apparently, more Keystone Kops than Thomas Crown Affair. The great danger in retrieving stolen art, we learn, is not from sophisticated criminal masterminds, but from stupid thugs who are easily spooked and might break something. Abetted, sometimes, by equally stupid policemen.

That’s what The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is about. I have to admit I enjoyed it less than I hoped. It’s true crime, after all, and that’s always less entertaining than the fictional variety. And I’m afraid that (although there are hints that he might be some kind of Christian) I got kind of tired of Charlie Hill. Hyperactive and mercurial, a man who favors instinct over logic, he’s not my kind of detective.

But it’s an educational book for anyone interested in the (apparently) booming industry of art theft. And it has an ironic coda.

Moderately recommended for those inclined. Cautions for language.

The ‘Nameless’ series, by Dean Koontz

“…In this world of computers, satellite tracking, and so many other government surveillance tools, all of them accessible to hackers outside the government, the truth can be found with enough effort. If sometimes local law enforcement doesn’t want to find it or if the courts don’t want to hear it, or if those who expose it might be ruined or killed for their efforts . . . Well, it’s now possible for justice to be delivered nonetheless.” (In the Heart of the Fire)

The man called Nameless characteristically arrives in a community to find preparations made. There’s a vehicle waiting for him, with a suitcase inside. There’s a large amount of money and necessary equipment, plus a gun. If he requires helpers, they’re waiting. He listens to a digital recording explaining his assignment. It’s always a case of some person or persons doing evil beyond the reach of the law – a serial killer, a serial rapist, an entitled psychopath. Nameless takes them down, protecting the innocent, avenging the dead.

Nameless has no memory of his past up to a couple years ago. He suspects this amnesia has been induced, and that he volunteered for it. He comes in like a classic avenging angel, then proceeds to the next assignment. That is his life. He doesn’t know who he works for, whether it’s an individual or a group or some kind of artificial intelligence.

In his previous series of novels, the Jane Hawk books, author Dean Koontz imagined a high tech dystopia, something like Skynet, where surveillance satellites and cameras were linked to super-computers to buttress the greatest tyranny the world ever knew.

In the six novellas of this new Nobody series, he turns that idea on its head. What if unlimited surveillance and data processing power were turned to the purposes of good? That strikes this reader as hubristic on a cosmic scale, but here it’s just a backdrop for the action and the mystery. Our focus is not on the shot-caller, but on the hero, a driven man haunted by premonitions and – perhaps – by inchoate memories. The reader’s questions on that subject will be answered – in a satisfying way – in the final book.

The first novella in the Nobody series is In the Heart of the Fire. I’m not going to link to the rest of the series, because you’ll want to read them in order, but here are the titles: #2: Photographing the Dead; #3: The Praying Mantis Bride; #4: Red Rain; #5: The Mercy of Snakes; and #6: Memories of Tomorrow.

Each volume is cheap, although when you buy them all (and I suspect you will), you’ll end up paying about what you’d pay for a full novel by Koontz. I found the Nobody series extremely satisfying, though the basic concept did bother me. Recommended.

‘Wet Debt,’ by Richard Helms

Reynard had hired some old white-haired shill to stand out front of the bar in a tuxedo and drag in the out-of-town pigeons. He thought it gave the place some class, the same way some people try to dress up toilet lids with fuzzy covers.

New Orleans jazz cornet player and occasional detective Pat Gallegher rides again in Wet Debt (which is, I think, the last of the series). Wet Debt delves into one of my favorite sub-genres – the very cold case, resurfacing from long ago.

The bar where Pat plays and lives takes up half of a building. His boss, Shorty, is having the other half renovated. But work stops when workmen discover a desiccated mummy buried in the concrete floor. It’s a man, and judging by the clothing he’s been there since the 1930s. Those were the days of Prohibition and gangsters, high times for New Orleans’s bottom dwellers.

Shorty’s in a hurry to get the property ready for a new tenant, but the police are in no hurry to close such an old mystery. Could Pat do him a favor, and look into it? Pat agrees.

His investigation leads him to a place where the city’s upper crust and its dregs once crossed paths, in the speakeasies of old. An old newspaper photograph displays two criminals in the company of two beautiful young society girls. Pat knows one of the criminals, a recently deceased gang lord with whom he had an uneasy relationship. Now he’ll learn how that man came to New Orleans in the first place, and what he did to earn his power. The dead man in the concrete was never greatly missed, and nobody alive could possibly worry about his murderer being unmasked… Or could they?

Not quite as suspenseful as the previous books in the series (though not without suspense), Wet Debt is an enjoyable and atmospheric cold case story. Cautions for the usual. I’m going to miss Pat Gallegher.

‘Juicy Watusi,’ by Richard Helms

“People see too many movies. They expect the bad guy to be some kind of evil genius. You and I, though, we know better. Most of the bad guys we run across have all the brains of wallpaper paste. The blinder the violence, the more likely it’s some kind of stimulus-response event that, given the opportunity, the perp would refer to down the line as just one of those things. You take some of the most prolific killers of the last twenty years, and toss them in a room, and it would look like just a bunch of dumb losers in a room.”

And the saga of Pat Gallegher, New Orleans jazz cornetist and avocational detective, continues with Juicy Watusi, in which author Richard Helms, himself a forensic psychologist, tackles a subject he knows pretty well – serial killers.

Pat’s bar-owner boss gets a new girlfriend – a stripper. Pat withholds judgment and wishes them well. But it turns out even worse than you’d expect – the girlfriend is found murdered in an alley behind the club where she works. And she’s not the only one. Somebody’s carving up strippers all over the city.

The local police request that the FBI send in a profiler to help them, but none is available just now. However, a noted profiler happens to live right there in New Orleans, teaching at Tulane. The trouble is, he’s burned out – he refuses to do that work anymore.

The police offer a compromise – the profiler can work with them incognito, and another local man with profiling experience can operate as a “beard” – pretending to be the profiler in front of the news cameras.

That other profiler is Pat Gallegher. He too quit the job, years back, when it started messing with his head. He doesn’t like the deal, but it seems a small price to pay for stopping this guy.

It gets tougher, though, when Pat’s girlfriend is kidnapped by the killer. Now he’s on a deadline, and faced by an impossible moral choice.

Juicy Watusi is another cool hard-boiled from a solid writer who knows his stuff. I figured out the big plot twist ahead of time, but I enjoyed it anyway, and recommend it, with the usual cautions.

‘Voodoo That You Do,’ by Richard Helms

“It’s like this,” I said. “I’m not mad at the world. I just see things that stink, and I feel like hitting them with a little air freshener. Most poor suckers have too much to lose, or a lot more of them would do what I do…. The average guy on the street has a family or a mortgage, or he’s six months from a peachy promotion he doesn’t want to risk, so he sees a punk muscling some old lady and he turns his head. I guess I just don’t have that much to lose. I see that punk, and I don’t mind jamming him up a little.”

Pat Gallegher, hero of these novels by Richard Helms I’m following right now, is (as I mentioned yesterday) a former Catholic seminarian who lost his faith. But that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned Catholicism. He still goes to mass occasionally, and makes confession to his friend, Father “Dag” D’Agostino. He and Father Dag understand each other – Pat’s a recovering gambling addict, Dag a recovering alcoholic. It seems to me that Pat’s struggles with God allow him to talk more about faith than a Christian character could get away with.

Though his main spiritual belief seems to be in karma. Voodoo turns up in this one too.

In Voodoo That You Do, the second book in the series, Pat is strolling down a New Orleans alley with a friend, an old mobster named Hotshot Spano, when Hotshot is murdered by Haitian gang members. Pat feels an inarticulate obligation to do something about it. He learns that the hit was ordered by a Vietnamese gangster who controls a number of Haitian gangs.

Meanwhile Pat discovers a little girl rummaging in the dumpster behind the bar where he lives and plays jazz cornet. Patiently he gains her trust with gifts of food – like a wild animal – until he’s able to take her to a shelter recommended by Father Dag. There he meets a lovely social worker with whom he begins a flirtation.

Turns out that the little girl, Louise, is not just any little girl. She’s connected to the very gangs Pat’s trying to bring to justice. And if he isn’t very careful, Louise may suffer for his windmill-tilting.

Fascinating, masterfully written, atmospheric and intense, Voodoo That You Do is a cracker jack mystery in the old hard-boiled style. Highly recommended, with the usual cautions, plus an extra for questionable metaphysics.

‘Joker Poker,’ by Richard Helms

Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Philip Marlowe notwithstanding, you don’t ship one off to that undiscovered land from whose bourne no traveler returns without paying the freight in sleepless nights.

Pat Gallegher is a big Irishman who plays jazz cornet in a seedy New Orleans bar. Once, long ago, he studied for the priesthood, until he lost his faith. Then he got his doctorate in psychology and became a forensic psychologist and then a college professor. Those jobs didn’t work out for him. Eventually he floated into the Big Easy and gave free exercise to his gambling addiction, until he joined Gamblers Anonymous. But a local loan shark still holds his note. To pay it off (which isn’t likely to happen in this lifetime) the shark sends him out now and then as a collector.

Pat doesn’t like being a collector, and so he does the occasional “favor” for friends. These favors generally involve recovering lost property or scaring off dangerous people. Pat feels these actions help balance out his karma.

All the above is not the plot of Richard Helms’s Joker Poker, just the back story. We’re talking dense back story here. Which all adds to a solid quality I appreciated in this book.

Doing a favor is how Pat’s lawyer comes to bring Clancey Vancouer, a wealthy society lady, to see him. Clancey has been having an affair, and her lover has disappeared. She wants to know that he’s alive and all right. Pat warns her that the guy was probably just a gigolo, but she doesn’t care.

Pat agrees to look into it, but has trouble seeing the point. His interest acquires fresh urgency, however, when he is set up for a murder, and has to figure out who among a large group of suspects (including a leggy redhead, a friend of Clancey’s, with whom he has an affair) is the real culprit. The climax will be explosive, shattering for some, and deadly for others.

I loved this book. I read it with a sense of homecoming, of old comforts. It occurred to me that this book (first published just before the turn of the millennium) represents a lost style of writing. In today’s books, even in the hard-boiled genre, political correctness has infected everything. The characters in Joker Poker use offensive language. There isn’t a kick-butt female sidekick in sight. And men are permitted to protect women.

Lots of cautions are in order for language and disturbing material, but I highly recommend Joker Poker to fans of the genre. I can’t understand why this series isn’t famous, and author Helms isn’t better known. The prose is vivid and original. The ambience is thick as New Orleans humidity. There are whiffs of all the old great hard-boiled writers in evidence, but I was particularly reminded of John D. MacDonald.

‘The Deep Dark Descending,’ by Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens is a mystery writer (and a Minnesota writer at that) with whom I hadn’t been familiar. But based on my reading of The Deep Dark Descending, I’m impressed with his work.

Max Rupert is a Minneapolis police detective, still mourning the death of his wife Jenni, who was killed by a car in a parking garage a few years ago. His sorrow has colored his life through the previous books in this series, but now it all comes to a head. He learns, in the course of one of his investigations, that Jenni’s death was a targeted hit. He’d always assumed she’d been collateral damage from one of his own cases, killed by some vengeful criminal to hurt him. But in fact someone very powerful and ruthless killed her for the sake of something she’d learned in her job as a social worker.

The book opens on a winter day in the Minnesota Boundary Waters, on the Canadian border. Max captures a man and ties him up, then forces him out onto a frozen lake. Methodically he begins boring with an auger, with the purpose of creating a hole large enough to drown a man.

In counterpoint with the scenes on the lake, we follow in flashbacks the course of Max’s investigation, as he follows information learned in a human trafficking case, slowly realizing that the man he’s chasing is the man who also killed his wife. All his life he’s been a man of the law, but the law can’t touch this killer. Could he live with himself if he were to take the law into his own hands? Could he live with himself if he didn’t?

That question is ever present in The Deep Dark Descending, and it will keep the reader riveted from start to finish, as it did for me. I’m not sure what I think about the final resolution, but there’s no question it was dramatic.

The writing was good – not outstanding, but very good. I might just read the earlier books in this series, based on this memorable novel. Cautions for the usual.