Category Archives: Reviews

‘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.

‘Birthday Girl,’ by Matthew Iden

There are books I approach knowing they’ll fascinate me, but also with a certain fear. Because I know they’ll push my personal buttons. Birthday Girl, by Matthew Iden, is that kind of book.

Amy Scowcroft is a woman with nothing in her life but a quest. A recovered drug addict, she lost custody of her daughter Lacey, who then – disappeared. Without a trace. People searched, the police investigated, but the girl had vanished.

One compassionate policeman gives her a suggestion… reluctantly. He knows a guy, a former forensic psychologist, who was pretty good at figuring out motives and identifying criminals. His name is Elliott Nash. The problem is, Elliott’s a homeless bum now. He too had had his child kidnapped. And murdered. But there’s a place he might be found.

Amy goes and finds him. At first he resists helping her. He can’t even help himself.

But then he changes his mind. This penniless woman and this homeless man, with no more resources than an unreliable car and a very few bucks between them, start tracing down a few facts. Old facts. Questionable facts. But they have nothing to lose, and are willing to go to whatever lengths they have to, to find Lacey.

Alternating with the plot thread of Amy and Elliott is the thread that tells us what’s happening to Lacey. Because she is alive. But she’s in the hands of a deeply troubled and dangerous person, one who keeps several children in a remote house. That person has a script and a plan for each of the children’s lives… and deaths.

Birthday Girl is compelling and heart-wrenching, with a ticking clock plot and a neat twist at the end. Also inspirational, in a spiritually generic way.

Birthday Girl grabbed me by the backbone and shook me up. It was painful to read, for personal reasons, but I couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, with cautions for intense material.

‘Nightmare City,’ by Andrew Klavan

Though I am not least among Andrew Klavan’s fanboys, I’m not a huge fan of Young Adult fiction, being a serious grownup and stuff. So I skipped Nightmare City when it came out. Now I find it on sale on Kindle, so I gave it a shot. I’ve got to say, it’s some ride.

Tom Jordan is a high school student, a reporter on his school paper. Along with his mother he’s still mourning the death of his brother, who died in service in the Middle East.

Then one morning he awakens to a world right out of a horror movie. His home is empty, his mother has disappeared, and the house is surrounded by a strange white fog, in which malevolent, zombie-like creatures wander. They attack Tom when he goes outside, but seem to be restrained from entering his house – at first.

A message from Tom’s dead brother is broadcast from a television set. There’s something he’s supposed to do, but he doesn’t understand. Then his girlfriend appears, urging him to go to an old ruined monastery above the town. There’s also a voice he hears from time to time, which he learns – almost at the cost of his life – not to trust.

His searching will take him out into the fog, to his school, and to the old monastery. Along the way he’ll realize that he’s dreaming – but it’s a serious dream. The choices he makes here will have life and death consequences. There’s a story to be reported, and only Tom can report it.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Nightmare City at first. The beginning read like a standard teenagers vs. zombies movie script – lots of scares and chases and gore, not a lot of substance. But that was just the hook. The story got deeper and deeper as it proceeded, and in the end it was profound and deeply moving.

Reviewers compare Nightmare City to Stephen King, but I’d say it’s more like Dean Koontz. And that’s a good thing. I highly recommend Nightmare City, for teens and adults both.

‘The Innocent and the Dead,’ by Robert McNeill

There are two novels in the DI Jack Knox police procedural series to date. However, this first volume, The Innocent and the Dead, also includes a prequel novella, Labyrinth.

DI Jack Knox, the hero, is an Edinburgh, Scotland detective. He’s divorced, and his wife and daughter have emigrated to Australia. He is now dating a female subordinate, which is technically out of bounds but nobody seems very concerned about it.

The first story, Labyrinth, involves an attractive young woman found strangled near a tourist landmark. She is found to have been working as a prostitute, though she also seems to have been a practicing evangelical Christian. The investigation is complicated, but gets wrapped up relatively quickly.

In The Innocent and the Dead, a wealthy distiller’s college-age daughter has been kidnapped. After initially cooperating with the police, her father opts to follow the kidnapper’s instructions and keep the detectives in the dark about the ransom drop. This makes it hard for the cops, trying to keep tabs on the father as he attempts to avoid them – it appears at times they would have done better to let him alone. And when the payoff is missed, and a girl is found murdered, it all looks very bad….

This is a new mystery series, and the characters are still not entirely in focus. I found the stories competently written and entertaining, though not highly memorable. At a couple points, I thought the narrative was veering into church-bashing, but the author avoided that.

Moderately recommended. Cautions for mild adult stuff. I might read the second novel.

‘The Bitter Fields,’ by Matthew Iden

Marty Singer, retired cop and occasional private detective, is invited down to Virginia’s horse and wine country, along with his girlfriend Julie Atwater, by her friend Ruth Colvin, who runs a boarding stable. They’re expecting a relaxing vacation. But Ruth has a reason for asking them. Her farm is in trouble. Someone has been sabotaging her operation – knocking down fences so the horses can get loose. In the competitive world of horse people, only a little doubt about the safety of her facilities could ruin her. That’s how The Bitter Fields begins.

Then murder intervenes. One of Ruth’s employees, a charming polo player named Freddie Farrar, is shot to death. Marty can’t help but suspect there’s a connection between the crimes. Who could hate Ruth so much? There are suspects – a bigoted old lady who wants some of her land for a burial plot, a rich young woman who’d been having an affair with Freddie, and that woman’s husband – who has been arrested, but whose guilt Marty doubts.

All this is played out against the backdrop of the changing south, where history is a living presence, opinions are in transition, and people often cover up their real thoughts. One thing I liked about this book was that although it seemed at first to involve a lot of tired southern stereotypes, those characters were treated sympathetically and allowed to have their say – and to change. It all got kind of heart-warming in the end. Except for the killing, of course.

Recommended. Cautions for the usual, particularly sexual matters, but not bad.

‘Alter Ego,’ by Brian Freeman

After borrowing this book from the public library, I found that I’d already read and reviewed an earlier novel in the Jonathan Stride mystery series. I said I found it well written, but I didn’t love it. That’s pretty much my reaction to Alter Ego, Brian Freeman’s ninth in the series. But I read it free, so why complain?

Jonathan Stride is a police detective in Duluth, Minnesota. His two chief subordinates are an Asian-American woman and his wife. Both, needless to say, are gorgeous. As is also his teenaged adopted daughter, a former prostitute whom he and his wife more or less rescued, and who is beginning to reintegrate her life.

It’s big news when a Hollywood film company comes to Duluth to make a movie. Jonathan is less happy than most of the locals, because it’s a fictionalized dramatization of one of his own cases. He is being played by Dean Casperson, one of Hollywood’s major players, but the whole business makes him uncomfortable.

Then a man dies in a freak collision with a deer on a snow-covered highway. His ID turns out to be bogus, and a gun is found in the car. Shortly after that, a local college girl who hung around with the movie people is reported missing. Putting two and two together, the police start searching the area near the auto accident, and sure enough – the young woman’s body is found in the snow, a bullet in her head.

And then she turns out to have been using an assumed identity too.

It’s all confusing, and it’s not about to get simpler. On top of the murder mystery, there are questions about certain behaviors on the movie set, behaviors no one will talk to the police about. Stride and his co-workers (along with author Freeman’s other series character, Florida PI Cab Bolton, who shows up for his own reasons) will have to move fast and smart to prevent very ugly history from repeating itself, not on film but in real life.

As stipulated above, I find Brian Freeman a good writer, and I can find no fault with his storytelling. I’m not sure why his books leave me kind of cold, except for a certain political correctness I sense in their construction. Most of the cops in this story are women, and they’re all beautiful. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that is not a statistically accurate portrayal of the Duluth police department.

Ah, but I’m probably just jaundiced. I note that my review of the previous Jonathan Stride book complained about excessively explicit sex scenes. I’m happy to report he seems to have toned that down.

I might even read another book in the series – if I can borrow it from the library.

‘The Innocents Abroad,’ by Mark Twain

Syrian travel has its interesting features, like travel in any other part of the world, and yet to break your leg or have the cholera adds a welcome variety to it.

The organizers of the “Great Pleasure Excursion,” which sailed from New York on the steamer Quaker City in 1867, must have come to regret their decision. I mean their decision to include in their party the journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who was traveling on assignment for a San Francisco newspaper. This was (I believe) one of the earliest international pleasure cruises in history – made possible by the capacity of a steam ship to travel on a more predictable schedule than a sailing ship. The notes Twain kept on that voyage would emerge as The Innocents Abroad, his most popular book during in his lifetime.

Although described as a pleasure excursion, the main purpose of the voyage was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. Along the way, however, they would take in parts of North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and Constantinople (still called by that name). On the way home they would see the sights of Egypt. It was quite a journey, and physically demanding by the standards of travel in our own day.

Mark Twain, only then becoming a celebrity, was prepared to subject everything he beheld to a typically American scrutiny. It seemed to him that in a lot of cases, when his fellow travelers exclaimed over the beauty or wonder of some piece of art or scenic vista, they were only parroting the responses their guide books had provided them. When Twain found something a disappointment or a humbug he said so – and seems to have delighted in shocking his fellow travelers. Which is not to say he lacked appreciation. When something impresses him, he says it. At some points he grows almost reverent.

Twain divides his fellow travelers into two parties – the “sinners” and the “pilgrims.” That doesn’t mean they broke up into cliques. He has a group of friends he keeps company with, and some of them are pilgrims. He confesses to admiring them in some respects. But when they appear hypocritical to him (as when they lengthen their overland journeys on a couple of days in order avoid traveling on the Sabbath, in spite of inconvenience to fellow travelers and cruelty to their horses), he seems to take satisfaction in pointing it out. The man is clearly keeping score. (He is also frustrated – rightly – by members of the party who insist of chipping pieces off monuments as souvenirs.)

The Catholic Church comes in for a great deal of criticism – he is appalled by the display of wealth in cathedrals, contrasted with the miserable poverty he saw in European streets. However, when he observes real virtue displayed by churchmen, such as the Dominican monks who cared for the sick during a cholera epidemic, or the desert monks who gave his party hospitality in the Palestinian desert, he does it justice. It seems to me (and this is my take on him in general, though I’m not an expert) that he was a man who wrestled with God. He could not be an atheist (in part because he’d have no God to be angry at), but he considered himself too smart to be taken in by any revealed religion. A very American attitude, that, and one that would grow influential.

The humor of The Innocents Abroad arises partly from Twain’s characteristic style – flowery Victorian prose constantly stumbling into premeditated bathos – and his Missourian “show me” attitude. He is not much impressed, for instance, with the artistic works of the Old Masters, but grants that he may have simply been overwhelmed by the numbers of them in places like Rome and Florence. He loves to describe the filth of European cities and is positively scandalized by the tiny size of the Holy Land.

Almost any subject is interesting when described by an interesting man. An expedition like this one, full of material fascinating in itself, can hardly fail to engage the reader when a man like Mark Twain chronicles it. And that’s what we get with The Innocents Abroad.

I read The Innocents Abroad in the linked Kindle edition, which is not a particularly good one. Although it’s described as illustrated, the illustrations in this version are not the ones that properly go with the book. They are images of 19th Century paintings with no particular connection to the text, and even those only show up in the first section. Also there are no proper paragraph breaks.

‘Shattered,’ by Jason Richards

I reviewed the first book in Jason Richards’ Drew Patrick mystery series the other day. I told you I thought the book not well written, but that I appreciated the spirit of the thing. I liked the hero and his supporting cast, and the positive atmosphere.

So I invested in Shattered, the second book in the series. I hoped author Richards might have learned a little with the passage of time, or perhaps got an editor to help him.

Alas, there’s been no improvement on the writing front.

I like it that Drew has a traditional PI’s office above a Cambridge, Mass. city street. Such offices in hard-boiled mysteries always give me a warm, homey feeling – and it’s nice having Drew’s beagle mix, Dash, there to keep us company.

A couple named Jeffrey and Cynthia Holland are the clients who come to the office this time out. Their daughter Ashley has disappeared, and they’re concerned. They don’t want to go to the police, because they fear publicity.

Alas, Ashley is dead already. Her murder seems to be tied to the deaths of some other attractive young women – young women who, it turns out, had been working for a high class escort service, and had been involved with the same man – a high-powered Hollywood studio owner.

There’s not much mystery in this one; author Richards identifies the guilty party early on, making the plot a race against the clock to prevent the next murder.

It seemed to me a lot of opportunities to raise the dramatic tension were lost here. The guilty party could have been concealed, for one thing. And instead of the cops loving Drew and being happy to have him pitch in, they could have resented him and blocked his efforts, in the more plausible tradition of cops in the hard-boiled genre. There could have been conflict between Drew and his girlfriend Jessica.

Also, dramatic opportunities were lost. The character of Cynthia Holland, Ashley’s mother, is intriguing, but we don’t get to know her very well.

And there were lots of writing problems. Mistaken use of homonyms. Spelling errors. Overwriting – Drew tells us more than we need to know, and explains himself too much. A good editor would have cut this manuscript down by thousands of words.

So my verdict remains the same. I salute and appreciate the author’s effort. But he’s not writing very good books at this point. I hope he ups his game.

YouTube film: ‘The Silent Passenger’

The other night, on a sudden whim, I went to YouTube and watched a film I’d only read about. It’s a 1935 English mystery called The Silent Passenger. It has the distinction of being the first cinematic depiction of Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Miss Sayers wrote the story especially for the film. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I’d heard bad things about this film, and it generally lived down to its reputation.

Actually, that’s kind of unfair. For its time and environment, it’s not a badly done film. It’s a clever, complicated story about blackmail and mixed-up luggage. It’s atmospheric, and the final showdown in the railroad repair facility is fairly exciting.

What’s wrong with it – and the reason Dorothy Sayers hated it – is the portrayal of Lord Peter. Peter Haddon, a well-respected actor of the day, seems appallingly miscast. He has a long nose – which is right – but otherwise he’s too tall and too dark – and kind of oily, like a gigolo. Instead of a monocle, he sports a repellant little mustache. And instead of playing Lord Peter as we love him – as an affected, amusing twit in the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he walks around with his mouth gaping open like the village idiot.

Still, it has its place in history. You might find it amusing.

‘Chasing Shadows,’ by Jason Richards

It isn’t often I like a book without considering it well written. But that’s the case with Jason Richards’ novel Chasing Shadows, first in his Drew Patrick private eye series.

Drew Patrick works in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He gets hired by a single mother named Bonnie Ross, who is concerned about her teenaged daughter Tina’s relationship with a young man named Aaron. Aaron is a college student and a promising football player, but Bonnie doesn’t trust him, and Tina has changed and grown distant since they started dating.

There’s nothing criminal about that, but Drew agrees to check the boy out. Turns out Bonnie’s concerns are justified. Aaron has been working as a collector for a loan shark, and is being pressured to commit murder. But Drew, assisted by his girlfriend Jessica (also a PI), a couple friendly sheriff’s detectives, and his faithful beagle mix, Dash, will do his best to get between the kids and disaster.

Okay, about this book. It’s not very well written. There are proofreading and spelling problems. The dialogue is often turgid – a lot more contractions could have been employed, for one thing. The author’s attempts at wit are hit and miss – more often than not he presses his jokes where a lighter touch would have been more effective.

But I appreciated what he seems to be doing here. He seems to be trying to recreate the magic of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books – Spenser worked not far away in Boston. The Spenser books were refreshing in their time. Unlike past hard-boiled shamuses, Spenser was optimistic in attitude and took care of his health. He also had healthy relationships with women, and eventually connected with a regular girlfriend. I really liked those books until Parker allowed Spenser to become totally whipped.

Similarly, Drew Patrick is a positive guy with a healthy attitude. He is devoted to his girlfriend, cheerfully rejecting all passes from other women. He even has a dog – something often useful in breaking the ice with people, and (for most of us) a sign of good character. Also, perhaps, a nod to the Thin Man.

But he isn’t entirely believable. He doesn’t seem to care much about paying the bills, and pursues “justice” even when not being paid. And the regular cops seem happy to have him meddle in their investigations (something I find hard to believe).

So I can’t give Chasing Shadows my highest recommendation. But I won’t deny I kind of enjoyed the book. You might too. Only mild cautions for adult content.

‘The Night Fire,’ by Michael Connelly

I’ve cut out buying the pricey books for the time being. But it turns out I’d pre-ordered Michael Connelly’s new Harry Bosch/Renee Ballard book, The Night Fire. So I read it, and now I’ll review it.

As you may recall if you’re following the books (not the Amazon Plus TV show), Harry Bosch is pretty old now (about my age), and is retired as an LAPD detective. But his old motto, “Everybody matters or nobody matters,” still drives him, so he finds ways to keep involved. Mostly by providing help (off the books) to the young detective Renee Ballard. Renee works the night shift, which she likes, because it allows her to work alone. (She can generally call on Harry if she needs backup.)

One night Renee gets called to a scene of death by fire. A homeless man has burned to death in his tent. It looks like an accident, but investigators say no. However, the case is assigned to Robbery-Homicide, and Renee gets shut out. But she doesn’t forget about it.

Then Harry Bosch receives a surprising legacy. An old cop, once his own mentor, died recently, and he left something behind for Harry. It’s a “murder book” – a ring binder containing all the case notes for an old homicide investigation. The thing was police property, and should not have left police custody. The case involves the murder of a drug addict in his car in an alley. For the life of him, Harry can’t figure why his old friend stole this book, or kept it. There’s no sign he ever investigated it on his own.

What follows for both Renee and Harry is a case of what I call “retro-telescoping prioritization,” a situation where you set out to do one thing, but can’t do that until you do another thing, but there’s something else you have to do before you can do that. The plot of The Night Fire gets fairly complicated, and I lost track of a few threads now and then. But it all comes together in the end, and there’s a suitably suspenseful payoff.

The Night Fire was not the best book in the Harry Bosch saga, but it wasn’t bad. Cautions for language and adult situations, and a brief public service announcement about gay rights. Connelly fans will enjoy this new installment in the series.

I am concerned about Renee Ballard, though. She’s surviving on a diet of coffee and surfing. If she doesn’t resolve some of her personal issues, she’s gonna crash hard.

‘The Last Gig,’ by Norman Green

Having now become a pretty confirmed fan of Norman Green’s novels, I figured I’d try out his series character, Alessandra “Al” Martillo. As you know, I’m no big fan of hard-boiled female detectives, but I took a flyer on The Last Gig, the first book in the series.

I’ll give author Green credit for facing honestly some of the inherent problems of the female action protagonist. “Al,” he informs us along the way, is a sort of genetic anomaly – a throwback to more ancient humanity. She’s stronger than most women and a lot of men, and she heals at an astonishing rate.

She’s also – of course – gorgeous. But she’s as emotionally maladjusted as she’s physically exceptional. Raised by an indifferent aunt after her mother’s suicide, and then taken in by a sympathetic gay uncle, she keeps to herself and pushes off every man who shows interest. She’s got a chip on her shoulder for the whole world – especially her distant father, whose only contribution to her upbringing was to teach her to fight.

She works for peanuts for a sleazy private eye, who keeps trying to get into her pants. She can handle him, and she needs the work.

Then her boss gets approached by “Mickey” Caughlan, an Irish-American gangster who has (he claims) gone straight. Somebody has been smuggling drug components in Caughlan’s trucks, and he wants to find out who.

As Al investigates, she grows curious about a part of Caughlan’s story that may or may not be related to the crime. Caughlan had a son who was murdered, and he seems oddly unconcerned about it. Supposedly it’s because the boy wanted to be a musician, a career choice Caughlan opposed. But Al thinks there’s more to it.

So she jumps into the case with both feet. She will deliver beat-downs and receive them, and be challenged to move outside her personal comfort zone. Very dangerous people will threaten her, but Al is the most dangerous character in the city.

I didn’t love this book as much as the previous Green books I read. It wasn’t a bad book, but I didn’t identify with Al as I did with other Green protagonists, and I didn’t find here the fine passages of writing I’ve so enjoyed in the other books. A small public service announcement for gay marriage was included in the plot, but there was nothing really unfair there.

I’d probably go on with the series, if the later books were cheaper, but for now I’ll hold off. Moderately recommended, with cautions for language, sexual situations, and mature themes.

‘Way Past Legal,’ by Norman Green

I could easily have gone my entire life without really noticing the night sky at all, let alone wondering if it had anything to tell me. We’re so smart now, we know at least something about everything, but still, nobody can tell you which of those pieces of information are important.

Mohammed “Manny” Williams, the main character of Way Past Legal, is not a Muslim, in spite of his name. He doesn’t know what he is. Abandoned in a garbage bag as an infant, he grew up in the foster care system and became a successful thief. He’s always been looking for that big score, but is not prepared when he and his partner Rosario knock a place over and find themselves with a cool two million on their hands. Then Rosey tries to cheat Manny out of his half, and Manny feels no compunction about stealing it all back from him.

One thing is certain – this kind of money will bring a lot of heat. So Manny has to get out of New York. But he makes one stop on his way out – he picks up his little boy Nicky, who’s been languishing in a group home like his dad before him. Nicky adores his father, and is just happy to be with him.

Manny knows everyone will expect him to run south, to someplace warm. So he heads north. He’s near the northern tip of Maine when their car breaks down. A kindly local farmer gives them a ride to a garage, and he and his wife put them up while they’re waiting for repairs.

This town is like no place Manny has ever known. He’s never met friendly, generous people like these before. He helps them and is helped by them, and grows fond of them. Nicky loves it there, and the weight of paternal responsibility begins to bear down on Manny – how can he give his son a secure future when he’s on the run? How can he help him to grow up when he’s immature himself?

And when outsiders start showing up in the area, hunting for the money, Manny will have to take big risks and make hard decisions, because it’s not just him now – and not just him and Nicky – but it’s him and a whole lot of people he’s started to care about.

Beautifully written, exciting, suspenseful, and wholly engaging, Way Past Legal is now one of my favorite crime novels . It’s as good as Shadow of a Thief, which I reviewed yesterday, and lacks the occult element. The main Christian character in Way Past Legal is a very sympathetic fellow. I need to caution you about a lot of obscene language, and there’s violence, of course, but no explicit sex. Highly recommended for adults.