Tag Archives: Rushmore McKenzie

‘Like to Die,’ by David Housewright

Like to Die

Another entertaining Mac McKenzie novel from David Housewright. Like to Die is the last book published to date in the series, and as it happens it’s the last I plan to read. The author tipped his hand at last. More on that further down.

Mac McKenzie, millionaire former St. Paul police detective, does investigative favors for friends from time to time. One of those friends is dating Erin Peterson, better known as “Salsa Girl” in spite of her blonde hair and blue eyes. Erin manufactures six highly regarded flavors of salsa in a factory in St. Paul, and business is great. But somebody super-glued her factory locks shut one night. Erin doesn’t think that’s worth calling Mac in for, but then someone does the same to the locks on her company trucks. So she agrees to let Mac look into things. But she’s strangely reluctant, and Mac realizes he doesn’t really know much about Erin at all.

Turns out Erin and her business have problems with a big distributor. Not to mention with a flaky partner, a Mexican drug cartel, and organized crime. Erin has deep, deep secrets.

I enjoyed Like to Die very much, for the most part. Mac is a splendid main character, and the cast of supporting players is vivid and fun – especially the enigmatic Erin.

But this time author Housewright reveals his politics, a topic on which he’s been pretty evenhanded in the past. A conservative Christian is portrayed in such a stereotypical manner that I wondered if I’d stumbled into a Saturday Night Live sketch, or a Lee Child novel. Also, the charge of racism, which Householder has aimed at Norwegians in the past, is now extended to Minnesotans in general. What’s up with that?

Anyway, I’m sure David Housewright doesn’t want my bigoted, conservative business, so I don’t plan to buy any more of his books.

Otherwise, it was great.

‘What the Dead Leave Behind,’ by David Housewright

What the Dead Leave Behind

Surprise! I have yet another review of a David Housewright novel for you tonight.

Well, actually there is a surprise. Here it is: I didn’t like What the Dead Leave Behind a whole lot. Definitely my least favorite of the Mac McKenzie series.

To some extent that’s because the author waxes political in this one. But that’s not the only reason.

Mac McKenzie is a millionaire former cop in the Twin Cities who does investigations for friends, just to keep his hand in. But when his girlfriend’s daughter Erica asks him to look into something for her college friend Malcolm, he’s not sure about it. He doesn’t like Malcolm that much on short acquaintance.

Malcolm’s father was found murdered a year ago in a park in New Brighton, a northern Minneapolis suburb (I was there on Sunday, as it happens). The police haven’t made any progress finding the killer. Oddly, Malcolm’s mother seems less than enthusiastic about Mac’s investigation. Mac learns there was another unsolved murder in New Brighton recently, that of a cosmetics company owner, and – oddly – Malcom’s father had worked for the same company. Mac starts looking into their connections, and is drawn to an apparently innocent group of friends – families of high school softball players who get together for “hot dish” (that’s Minnesotan for casserole, of course) dinners once a week.

I had two problems with What the Dead Leave Behind. One was that it seemed to be tailor-written for the Me Too movement – there’s lots of sermonizing on rape and rape culture. Mac’s breezy sense of humor sits awkwardly in a setting where he has to pause periodically to apologize for his sins. I could have told the author that there’s no point trying to write a book to show women that you understand their problems. They won’t believe you, and they’ll still condemn you by association.

A short trip to New Ulm gives Mac the opportunity to offer a one-sided synopsis of the Dakota War. On the other hand, he spends time in a bar there I visited once.

Also, all the female suspects – and there are a bunch of them – are very nice people, and physically beautiful whatever their ages. I found it impossible to keep them straight, which interfered with my reading.

What the Dead Leave Behind was disappointing to me. You may like it better. Cautions for the usual.

‘Stealing the Countess,’ by David Housewright

Stealing the Countess

A man came up behind Heavenly. He was young and blessed with the kind of good looks God gives to the extras in beer commercials.

I like David Housewright’s McKenzie novels, and Stealing the Countess is right there in the top two for me, I think.

It’s a cool heist mystery. On top of that, it prominently features one of the series’ most interesting continuing characters – a girl with the odd name of Heavenly Petzyk. Heavenly is, we are told, stunningly beautiful, and she takes shameless advantage of her beauty – using it to open doors that would be closed to common people. She describes herself as a “salvage specialist” (shades of Travis McGee), and skirts the borderline between legal and illegal. She’s sometimes been Mac McKenzie’s ally, sometimes his rival. But there’s just enough sadness in the background to allow the reader to like her. Cautiously.

“The Countess Borromeo” is a famous Stradivarius violin, currently entrusted to a renowned virtuoso, Paul Duclos, a native of Bayfield, Wisconsin (a town I visited a couple years back). A week ago, Paul gave a concert in his home town, and that night the violin was stolen. The problem is that the insurance company has announced that they won’t pay any ransom for its return. Paul wants Mac to find the thieves and get his beloved violin back – he’ll pay for it himself. The whole thing gets way more complicated than a simple property theft should be, and business, legal, and personal interests put Mac and Heavenly (in temporary alliance) in danger of their lives.

I liked Stealing the Countess a whole lot. Highly recommended, with the usual cautions.

‘Unidentified Woman #15,’ by David Housewright

Unknown Woman #15

“She’s a good person.”
“How can you tell?”
Nina tapped the center of her chest.
“The heart never lies,” she said.
“Of course it does. That’s what’s wrong with it.”

Coincidence is a very bad story element, if you resort to it to solve a plot problem within a story.

Coincidence can work just fine, though, if you make it the jumping-off point for a story, and build the conflict on top of it. Because coincidences do happen in life; just not generally when it’s convenient.

It’s a coincidence that criminals trying to kill a woman by throwing her out of the back of a pickup truck to be hit by a car, should toss her into the path of a private eye with a Don Quixote complex. But that’s how David Housewright starts Unknown Woman #15, the next book in the McKenzie series. The accident happens, by the way, on Highway I-94 where it passes from Minneapolis to St. Paul, a spot I know pretty well.

The pretty victim is injured, but not killed, thanks to “Mac” McKenzie’s quick thinking. But she suffers (or claims to suffer) amnesia from the trauma. She ends up staying in Mac’s condo, with him and his girlfriend Nina, after her release from the hospital. They both like her tremendously, but Mac can’t suppress his suspicions, which only increase when she suddenly vanishes, and people start getting killed. Following up a few clues she dropped, he begins to unravel her true identity – and the disturbing reasons why somebody wants her dead.

Unknown Woman #15 actually follows a classic Noir template (I won’t say which one). I found it riveting, though the story was fairly downbeat, like any Noir. Author Housewright once again takes a shot at Minnesota’s concealed carry laws (and again paradoxically carries a gun past a “guns forbidden” sign), which annoyed me. But all in all I liked Unknown Woman #15 quite a lot.

Cautions for the usual.

‘The Devil May Care,’ by David Housewright

The Devil May Care

The receptionist at the Lake Minnetonka Community Bank had green eyes that glowed like the numbers on an ancient calculator, the kind you used to be able to buy at Radio Shack.

A continuing character in David Housewright’s series of McKenzie mysteries is old Mr. Walter Meulenhaus, sometime ally, sometime enemy, sometime client of our hero, millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie. Mr. Meulenhaus, we are informed, is the eminence gris of Minnesota politics, the string-puller behind the scenes who makes everything happen in our state. Which has to be a joke, because we’re told he’s a Republican and there hasn’t been a Republican in a state office for some time now.

Anyway, in The Devil May Care, Mac is approached, not by the old man, but by his granddaughter, Riley Bodin. She has fallen in love – against her family’s wishes – with the son of a prominent Spanish family, Juan Carlos Navarre. Partly because he likes Riley, and partly just to twist Mr. Meulenhaus’s shorts, Mac agrees to help her.

And before long there’s murder and arson, and gang war, and federal investigators, and Riley herself in mortal danger. Turns out Juan Carlos was not who he said he was, and not who he’d claimed to be before that, either.

The Devil May Care is enjoyable and well-written, like all the other books in the series. I think author Householder can lay off the lesbian characters for a while now, though. He must have filled his quota to satisfy whatever PC regulation he’s trying fulfill.

Cautions for minor grown-up stuff.

‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

The Last Kind Word

Yet it was her eyes that I found most remarkable. They were warm and wide open and so honest that meeting them made a fellow regret his long-forgotten sins.

I had a weird moment while reading The Last Kind Word, another in David Housewright’s McKenzie mystery series. It occurred to me that this was kind of like a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Your classic Wodehouse confection involves a group of English aristocrats gathered in a country house. Their house party is intruded on by an Impostor – a guy who’s come to steal a silver cow creamer, or a manuscript, or a prize pig, or something. Humor rises through the impostor’s attempts (facile or clumsy) to put off the very reasonable suspicions of the (few) intelligent people (always women) in residence.

The Last Kind Word alters that scenario a bit – substitute a northern Minnesota fishing cabin for the stately country house. Substitute a group of lower-middle-class Minnesotans for the English gentry. And substitute our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie for the Wodehouseian impostor.

Aside from that, there are many similarities.

Federal agents have convinced Mac to help them locate some Mexicans who are selling automatic weapons connected with the Fast and Furious scandal (you may not remember it; the press sent it down the memory hole). Mac poses as a dangerous prisoner and is permitted to escape from custody, taking with him another prisoner, who has connections to the only known lead to the gun runners. Continue reading ‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

‘Curse of the Jade Lily,’ by David Housewright

Curse of the Jade Lily

Her smile reminded me of the promise on a package of lightbulbs I had recently purchased – “Lasts up to 10 times longer while using 75% less energy.”

Author David Housewright got on my wrong side near the beginning of Curse of the Jade Lily. He explained how to tell Norwegians from Swedes based on how they spell “son” in the names (and got it wrong), and then went on to discourse on racism, for no pertinent reason. But I persevered, and all in all the book was OK.

Housewright may be messing with us, though. Sometimes, for instance, he gets his directions diametrically wrong. In this book, for instance, he has Mac go east from Minneapolis to get to Theodore Wirth Park. It ought to be west. Maybe it’s a gag.

As you probably recall, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie retired from the St. Paul Police Department a few years ago, when he accepted a multi-million-dollar finder’s fee from an insurance company. That good fortune comes back to bite him in Curse of the Jade Lily. A rare Chinese sculpture (the eponymous lily) has been stolen from a small Minneapolis art museum. The thieves have offered to sell it back, but they have one condition – Mac has to deliver the money. Because the insurance company asks him for the favor, and because of a certain amount of pressure from various levels of government, he agrees. Then the suspected thief is found murdered, and someone else is murdered during the ransom delivery, and the whole thing turns into a complex mystery, with elements of international intrigue.

It’s complicated, and Mac gets hurt multiple times, but he figures it out in the end. Author Housewright put my back up a little with his Norwegian crack, but not enough to put me off the series. Recommended with cautions for language, mature themes, and anti-Norwegian bias.

‘Highway 61,’ by David Housewright

Highway 61

The saga of Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie continues with Highway 61. The title of the book refers to a semi-famous road going north out of the Twin Cities (it goes south too, but nobody cares). Did Bob Dylan write a song about it? I don’t know; I take pride in my ignorance of Bob Dylan.

Anyway, as you know by now, Mac McKenzie is a former cop, now a millionaire. For his own satisfaction, he does unlicensed private eye work as “favors for friends.” Jason Truhler is definitely not one of those. He’s the ex-husband of Mac’s girlfriend Nina, and he treated her so badly as to put her off marriage for life (or so she claims). But their daughter Ericka is a friend of Mac’s, and she begs him to help her dad.

So Mac talks to Jason, who says he was set up. He went up to a jazz festival in Thunder Bay, met a girl, got drugged, and woke up in what I’ll call here, for purposes of suspense, a “compromising situation.” Now somebody’s blackmailing him with a photograph, and he says he can’t afford it anymore. If the blackmailers release the photo, it will devastate Nina and Ericka, two people Mac loves. So he agrees – reluctantly – to look into it.

About the first thing Mac learns is – surprise! – that Jason didn’t tell him the whole truth. Further investigation leads to an extensive prostitution ring, with ties to Minnesota’s rich and powerful. People get killed, of course.

Highway 61 is a solid private eye novel, featuring an intriguing hero and a fun cast of characters. I enjoyed it. Cautions for the usual.

‘The Taking of Libbie, SD,’ by David Housewright

The Taking of Libbie, SD

Big Joe was standing in front of me, making a large hole in the sunlight. He looked like the guy that Jack met at the top of the beanstalk.

Implausibility is not necessarily a defect in a detective mystery. If the author manipulates his characters skillfully enough, he can make them do things way, way outside their comfort zones. In fact, that’s kind of what plotting is all about.

The Taking of Libbie, SD begins with home invaders breaking into detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie’s St. Paul home, dumping him in the trunk of their car, and driving him to the small town of Libbie, South Dakota. After some discomfort and embarrassment, the town fathers finally admit that the thugs they hired kidnapped the wrong guy.

But how were they to know? How many Rushmore McKenzies could there be in the world? Especially at that particular address?

Finally Mac gets the story out of them. A man using his identity went to the town and persuaded the civic leaders that he was planning to invest in a big real estate project there. Many locals invested. Then one day both he and their money disappeared. The local “big man,” the town’s mover and shaker, hired some guys to kidnap McKenzie, and the cops went along with it.

It takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to convince the reader that it makes sense for Mac not only to forgive the kidnapping, but to agree to investigate. Before he’s done, some of the locals will wish he’d left the mystery alone.

The picture of small town life in The Taking of Libbie, SD isn’t bad. I can say that as a small town boy. The description of rural economic desperation rings true. The number of beautiful women living in the town is a major exaggeration in my experience, but author Housewright makes it a running joke in the book, which is probably the best way to handle that sort of thing. He also does a good job of motivating Mac to take on a case for people he has no reason to care about.

Cautions for language and adult themes. A pretty good job of selling a highly improbable plot.

‘Jelly’s Gold,’ by David Housewright

Jelly's Gold

This one was fun. One of my favorite sub-genres is what I might call the “archive mystery,” where the detective digs into an old, unsolved crime, examining dusty documents and deserted buildings, and talking to old-timers (if there are any left).

Jelly’s Gold centers on Frank “Jelly” Nash, a legendary bank robber, who was rumored to have stolen gold from a South Dakota bank in 1933. That very night he was in St. Paul, hobnobbing with local society (St. Paul was an “open city” in those days – it was understood that gangsters could stay in town, spend their money, and not be bothered by the police, so long as they didn’t break any local laws). A few days later, Jelly was shot to death in Kansas City. But rumor persists that he left his gold with one of his rich St. Paul friends, and it’s never been found.

When this story starts, St. Paul millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie is approached by an old friend, a female graduate student. Her boyfriend believes he knows how to find Jelly’s gold, and they figure Mac can help them. He’s intrigued enough to start looking into it. He soon learns that others are on the same trail – and then someone is murdered.

I found Jelly’s Gold fascinating. I was annoyed by another snide reference to Minnesota’s concealed carry law (which has actually worked out pretty well, thank you). On the other hand, a student at Bethel University, a Baptist school, plays a part, and she’s treated with surprising respect. I thought I figured out whodunnit, but I was wrong, which is always fun.

Cautions for… well you know. But this was a particularly good one, to my taste.

‘Madman On a Drum,’ by David Housewright

Madman On a Drum

Ever since the Coen brothers film came out, I am quick to tell outsiders that no one in Minnesota actually speaks with the vocabulary and accents of the characters in Fargo. Only to to my embarrassment, I am reminded from time to time that some of us do.

I’m plowing through David Housewright’s St. Paul-based McKenzie mystery novels. Madman On a Drum seems to me the best of the series so far. It takes a already interesting cast of characters and goes deeper with them, under the most stressful of circumstances.

Wealthy, amateur detective (and former cop) Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie has no real family. He has a steady girlfriend, but she adamantly refuses to discuss marriage. The closest thing he has to a family is the Dunstons, the family of his childhood best friend Bobby, also a cop. Mac is constantly at their house and spoils the two daughters, Victoria and Katie, shamelessly. He’s made them his heirs.

So it’s not just another case to him when Victoria is kidnapped, in broad daylight. The kidnappers, by phone, demand a million dollars in ransom. It’s obvious where they expect it to come from – it will have to come from Mac.

Mac doesn’t mind that. He’d give everything he has for Victoria.

But he and Bobby both understand what must follow. The kidnappers must be found, and they must die.

They quickly identify the voice on the phone as that of an old childhood friend, a neighborhood guy who took the wrong road in life. But finding him and getting Tori back is only the beginning. There’s someone behind him – someone with a passionate hatred for Mac, someone who plans to make Mac pay for his own murder.

The dynamics of a family group faced with the kidnapping of a child are described with what looks to me like great sensitivity and insight in Madman On a Drum. There’s also a lot of discussion of our current prison system (it doesn’t come out very well).

I liked Madman On a Drum a lot. Hard to put down. Recommended, with the customary cautions for language and subject matter.

‘Dead Boyfriends,’ by David Housewright

Dead Boyfriends

There’s no special trick to conducting an interview. All it requires is a little patience, an ear for the important utterance, and the simple knowledge that to most people the sweetest possible music is the sound of their own voice.

I’m back, after a hiatus of reading other stuff for one reason or another, to working through David Housewright’s superior St. Paul-based detective series starring hobby investigator Rushmore “Mac” Mckenzie. Mac quit the police in order to accept a large finder’s fee from an insurance company, after locating a big embezzler for them.

Dead Boyfriends begins with Mac just trying to help out. He finds a woman, drunk and filthy, on her lawn, screaming about her dead boyfriend. Going inside, he finds the boyfriend several days dead, and proceeds to call the St. Paul police. The cop who shows up roughs the woman up, and Mac tries to cool him down. That earns him 36 hours in a police cell. When he gets out, he’s eager to help the woman’s lawyer, who thinks she can get her off and win a big damage suit from the city to boot.

Getting the case dropped is easy, but the repercussions are bloody, and the threads of the expanding mystery reach into the highest levels of state politics. At the end, Mac will face a hard choice, balancing his sense of justice against his respect for the law.

Good story. It got kind of convoluted at the end, but I’m liking McKenzie more and more. The political comments seem to strike right and left pretty evenly, but some statements are made about government that suggest to me that the author has some sensible opinions. Cautions for language and mature themes, but not too bad.

‘Pretty Girl Gone,’ by David Housewright

Pretty Girl Gone

Her smile was bright, but brittle. You could smash it with a word.

There is a town of Victoria, Minnesota. It’s a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities, and I was there for a community festival just a few weeks ago. However, in David Housewright’s third Mac McKenzie mystery, Pretty Girl Gone, the town (or at least its name) is transported to southwestern Minnesota. That’s where Jack Barrett, fictional governor of the state, grew up. He launched his career there as one of the “Victoria Seven,” a Cinderella basketball team that famously won the state championship.

Barrett’s wife is named Lindsay, and she comes from St. Paul where she was once the girlfriend of our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, pro bono private eye. She meets with Mac and asks him to go to Victoria to investigate a nasty rumor that’s going around – that Jack murdered his high school sweetheart, who died the night before the big game.

Of course Mac goes to check it out. He will turn over a lot of old rocks, and tangle with some local thugs, before he manages to discover the shocking truth.

So far so good. I’m enjoying this series. The politics sometimes seem to lean left, but there are interesting exceptions (as when Mac makes fun of Minnesota’s concealed carry law, and then carries his piece past a “Firearms Forbidden” sign anyway). One thing I like is that author Housewright seems to have a pretty balanced view of small town and lower-middle-class people, who tend to get treated pretty badly by liberal writers.

Pretty good. Recommended, with the usual cautions.

‘Tin City,’ by David Householder

Tin City

I felt as if I were committing four of the seven deadly sins just by walking with her.

I’m sticking with Rushmore McKenzie, private eye character created by Minnesota author David Householder, even in spite of the liberal virtue-signaling he seems compelled to inject into his stories. So far the stories have been worth the annoyance. So far.

In Tin City, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, gets a request for help from a friend. That’s what Mac does, after all. He came into a lot of money and no longer needs to work as a cop. So he helps friends. This friend is his late father’s best friend, a man who helped to raise him. Mr. Mosley is a beekeeper out northwest of Minneapolis, and he wants Mac to help him find out why his bees are dying off. It’s not the usual kind of mystery Mac investigates. It certainly doesn’t look to be very dangerous. But he wants to help Mr. Mosley.

Little does he know. Soon people are shooting at people, and people are getting raped and kidnapped and killed, and Mac finds himself in the center of converging whirlwinds of criminal and law enforcement plans and plots. And the price to be paid will be high indeed.

One thing I like about the McKenzie novels is that author Householder generally avoids the common trope of the Great Secret Conspiracy. He understands that big conspiracies don’t work very well in the real world, and what looks like some master plan generally turns out to be half-ignorant people making assumptions and stumbling against each other in the dark.

Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. There’s a church and a pastor in the book, and they get treated pretty well.

‘A Hard Ticket Home,’ by David Housewright

A Hard Ticket Home

After Minneapolis author David Housewright wrapped up his Holland Taylor detective series (temporarily, as it turned out) he moved on to create another Minneapolis PI with a slightly more Travis McGee flavor – Rushmore McKenzie, former St. Paul police detective. “Mac” didn’t leave the force because of a traumatic experience or a principled conflict with the brass. He recovered several millions of embezzled money, and the insurance company paid him a 50% finder’s fee – but only after he’d resigned. Now he lives in a big house and, like Travis McGee, just “does favors for friends.” Unlike McGee, he doesn’t care about being paid. Hard Ticket Home is the first book in the series.

The Carlson family of Grand Rapids, Minnesota needs a favor. Their youngest daughter is dying of leukemia and has to have a bone marrow transplant. They think their older daughter Jamie might be a compatible donor – but Jamie ran away several years ago. Mac agrees to try to find her.

This leads him to walk into – and partly set off – a murderous crime spree involving some of the most successful people in Minnesota – people hiding a very dark secret. They have dangerous associates who don’t like private eyes snooping around, and some of them have no scruples about killing Mac – or the people he cares about.

I enjoy Housewright’s stories very much, and I always relish a Twin Cities setting. My only concern is that as he goes on he comments more and more on politics. He’s fairly mainstream, but I think he hits the right harder than the left.

But he hasn’t lost me yet. Cautions for language, very ugly violence, and mature themes.