Neon Rain – James Lee Burke

neon rainI read the Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) paperback version.
Right off the bat we get poignant social commentary and we meet New Orleans homicide detective Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux who may just be the target of a hitman… seems he’s investigating the suspicious drowning of a prostitute in a parish in south Louisiana that ties back to the New Orleans mob. But its deeper than just the mob… soon South American gun runners are setting him up to take a fall for a federal agent’s death. Then, suspended from the force he continues his own investigation following it wherever it leads stepping over bodies as he goes.

From a Calloused parish sheriff and a pair of his corrupt deputies, to biased and apathetic Internal Affairs investigators, the mantle of Noir fiction rest well on this first Robicheaux novel. His life, from serving in Viet Nam to facing down crime in the underworld of New Orleans while battling the bottle and other demons from his past make for a character that is surprisingly introspective and takes the time to see the beauty around him. Burke takes the time to paint a visually lush and fertile environment throughout the novel. It’s a treat for the senses and an immersive experience.

This is the third novel of Burke’s that I’ve read…. I suppose its about time that I got to read the book that started the whole series. This came out in 1987; over ten years from the first Spenser novel and five years before the first Bosch story… which is now on my list to read. There’s something about the narration of the Robicheaux stories that jumps to life… I just wish that they came out with scratch and sniff pages!

   She sat beside me, wiped ointment on my cuts with a piece of cotton, snipped adhesive tape into strips with the scissors, and taped down two big, folded squares of gauze on top of the ointment. Then she rubbed her hands over my skin, down my shoulders and back, across my chest, her eyes looking over my body without embarrassment, as though she were discovering me for the first time. I leaned her back on the bed and kissed her mouth, her neck, unbuttoned her flower-print blouse and placed my head against the red birthmark on her breast. I felt her body stretch out against mine, felt the confidence, the surrender that a woman gives in that moment when she no longer hides her hunger and instead blesses you with a caress that is always unexpected and heart-rushing and humbling in its generosity.

This time I wanted to give her more than she gave me, but I wasn’t able. In seconds I was lost inside her, her hands right against my back, her legs in mine in almost a material way, and when I tried to tense and stop because it was too soon, she held my face close to hers, kissed my cheek, ran her fingers through the back of my hair, saying, “It’s alright Dave. Go ahead. It’s alright.” Then I felt all the anger, the fear, and the heat of the last two days rise inside me like a dark bubble from a well, pause in its own gathered energy and momentum, and burst away into light, into the joy of her thighs, the squeeze of her arms, the blue tenderness of her eyes.

Rising Sun – Michael Crichton

rising sunHow often is it that I read a great ‘who-dunnit’ and it comes with quite an extensive bibliography at the end. I’m sure plenty of people are familiar with the wonderful movie version of this with Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery. If you haven’t seen it… do so! It’s a great cop movie. The book is a bit more rounded, and it focuses more on the threat that the ‘Japanese model’ poses to America. Now, this was written in 1992 and back then it did seem that the Japanese ‘threat’ was real. The 80’s were a time of technological revolution, especially in tangible consular products. The case Crichton makes for caution is well reasoned and, for the most part, compliments the story being told and is presented, mainly through the discourses of Captain Connor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Initially, a murder has taken place in a conference room above a grand opening ceremony for a Japanese corporation. Since this is a sensitive situation, the building’s representative requests a special liaison officer from the LAPD be present. The story is told from the perspective of this officer, Lieutenant Smith… and right from the start, where Officer Smith is directed to pick up retired Captain Connor as a consultant, things are not what they appear. Someone is manipulating events, and people from behind the scene and as Connor points out repeatedly “their way of seeing things is not our way of seeing things”.

As the investigators continue through the obfuscation put in their path, powerful interests put their media agents to work. There is a newspaper reporter in their employ who works to dig up dirt or manufacture negative press, and potential character smears to threaten the investigators. Crichton really paints a compelling picture of how these tactics are actually being used in the current media.

Despite this, with the clock ticking and time running out, solid detective work wins the day. Buy not taking anything for granted, by questioning the underlying assumptions, and mostly by looking a gift horse directly in its mouth… the novel ends with a very Japanese display of ‘justice’.

After reading this, I want to read a couple of Crichton’s earlier novels. He wrote four novels between 1960 and 1970 under the name John Lange. These books have been republished as part of the Hard Crimes line, so I’ll get myself a couple of them…

   Every homicide crime scene has the same energy, and that finality at the center. When you look at the dead person, there is a kind of obviousness, and at the same time there is an impossible mystery. Even in the simplest domestic brawl, where the woman finally decided to shoot the guy, you’d look at her, all covered in scars and cigarette burns, and you had to ask, why tonight? What was it about tonight? It’s always clear what you are seeing, and there’s always something that doesn’t add up. Both things at once.

And at a homicide you have the sense of being right down to the basic truths of existence, the smells and the defecation and the bloating. Usually somebody crying, so you’re listening to that. And the usual bullshit stops; somebody died, and it’s an unavoidable fact, like a rock in the road that makes all the traffic go around it. And in that grim and real setting, this camaraderie springs up, because you’re working late with people you know, and actually know very well because you see them all the time. L.A. has four homicides a day; there’s another one every six hours. And every detective at the crime scene already has ten homicides dragging in his backlog, which makes this new one an intolerable burden, so ho and everybody else is hoping to solve it on the spot, to get it out of the way. There is that kind of finality and tension and energy all mixed together.

And after you do it for a few years, you get so you like it. And to my surprise, as I entered the conference room, I realized that I missed it.

Bitter End – Rex Stout

bitter endStout, Rex. Bitter End (Annotated): The First Nero Wolfe Novella . I read the Kindle Edition of the original story published in 1940. A classic who-dunit mystery. The clues are there to follow for the observant.

The story starts out where someone has evidently tampered with a jar of pate at the residence of one Nero Wolfe. Poison is suspected and an outraged Wolfe vows to find the dastardly culprit behind this assault on his palate. As fate would have it, Miss Duncan, niece to My Tingley of Tingley’s Tidbits who makes the pate, arrives to engage Wolfe to investigate the product tampering. Among the close knit circle of suspects is: Miss Yates, in charge of production; Mr Cliff, a VP of a competing firm; Philip, Mr Tingley’s adopted son; Mr Judd, a mysterious banker who is also looking to buy Tingley’s Tidbits; and Miss Murphy, assistant to Miss Yates.

The investigation takes a turn for the worse when Mr Tingley is found murdered in his office and Miss Duncan apparently struck unconscious at the scene. The homicide brings Wolfe’s foil Inspector Cramer into the story. With the looting of papers at Tingley’s office, the murder may not be related to the product tampering, but rather the curious birth and adoption of Philip who may be set to inherit the business.

But in the end, deductive reasoning and a careful examination of the facts presented soon turns up the guilty party. And the description, the narrative… its first rate!

It sure was a ramshackle joint. From a dingy hall a dilapidated stair went up. I mounted to the floor above, heard noises, including machinery humming, off somewhere, and through a rickety door penetrated a partition and was in an anteroom. From behind a grilled window somebody’s grandpa peered out at me, and by shouting I managed to convey to him that I wanted to see Mr. Arthur Tingley. After a wait I was told that Mr. Tingley was busy, and would be indefinitely. On a leaf of my notebook I wrote, “Quinine urgent,” and sent it in. That did it. After another wait a cross-eyed young man came and guided me through a labyrinth of partitions and down a hall into a room.

Seated at an old, battered roll-top desk was a man talking into a phone, and in a chair facing him was a woman older than him with the physique and facial equipment of a top sergeant. Since the phone conversation was none of my business, I stood and listened to it, and gathered that someone named Philip had better put in an appearance by five o’clock or else. Meanwhile I surveyed the room, which had apparently been thrown in by the Indians when they sold the island. By the door, partly concealed by a screen, was an old, veteran marble-topped washstand. A massive, old-fashioned safe was against the wall across from Tingley’s desk. Wooden cupboards, and shelves loaded down with the accumulation of centuries, occupied most of the remaining wall space.

“Who the hell are you?”

Last Breath – Robert Bryndza

Last BreathI’ve read the kindle edition of this thrilling British police procedural. This is the forth in the DCI Erika Foster series.

As this story begins, a body has been uncovered in a trash bin in London. DI Peterson is called to the scene. Erika tags along on this snowy evening despite the fact that she is no longer part of the Murder Investigation Team. Peterson reports to DCI Marion Hudson, who though not on the scene, is still in charge of this investigation. Erika in her fashion ‘crashes’ in on the scene. Her current duties have her compiling administrative reports in Bromley. But being at the murder scene, and seeing it run poorly, gets Erika’s inner detective sparked, that, and Superintendent Sparks chasing her off probably had as much to do with her motivations. But a behind the scenes police investigation and an unforeseen circumstance align in such a way as to promote DCI Hudson to Acting Superintendent and DCI Forster can work the investigation.

While investigating this killing, Erik, through her connection with the pathologist Isaac, finds out that sloppy police work caused a killing with the same signature markings from going unnoticed, these are slow killings where the murderer seems to torture his victim a few days before killing them. So, now there are two brutal homicides. The killer has both luck and skill in hiding his identity as well as his crime and a third killing takes place. But as clues turn up and connections are made, Erika and her team get closer to the truth… As news that a third victim has been taken. With an increasing sense of urgency and a ticking clock until this next victim is killed the pace of this story really starts to race. And luck won’t be on the killer’s side for long…

This story certainty has Erika at her most introspective. As a reader of this series we’re starting to see much more growth in Erika, especially in her interactions with her various superiors up the chain of command. She still shows her indignation at police ‘perception’ motivations. When called in by the Assistant Commissioner she stands her ground while not getting much support from Acting Superintendent Hudson. But through her outside interactions with former Assistant Commissioner Marsh and her nemesis Superintendent Sparks, she begins to see things from their perspective. Which is one of those areas we see Erika becoming more forgiving of those around her.

And towards the end of this story, through her interactions with Isaac, Peterson and Hudson, Erika is really starting to take stock of her life. The choices she herself has made, as well as the circumstances that life has dealt to her. It seems that a certain amount of healing is taken place within her, and I look forward to seeing her in the next thrilling case!

   She went on: ‘Getting over the loss, that bit people can sympathize with and understand, but moving on, trying to fill the gap the loss has left, is impossible… You know I’ve been seeing Peterson – James – since before Christmas.’

Isaac nodded. ‘You like him, don’t you?’

Erica nodded and got p, grabbing the box of tissues from the desk opposite.

‘He just wants to be with me, and I keep pushing him away. He’s such a good guy… Like Mark, he was the one everyone loved. I just don’t know why Mark had to die and I’m still here. He was a great guy. I’m just a bitch.’

Isaac laughed.

‘I am, it’s not funny.’

‘You’re not a bitch, but you have to act like one sometimes. It helps you get the job done.’

Erika laughed. ‘No, thank you, but I just want to be alone.’

‘No, you don’t… Every day I have to do post-mortems on people, and so many of them had their hole lives ahead of them. They probably died wishing they could have done things differently, wishing they has been nicer, loved more, not stressed so much. Go and see James. You could be dead tomorrow and lying on that slab in there.’

‘Brutal, but true,’ said Erika. ‘You should give advice more.’

‘I do, but most of the people I see at work can’t do anything with it. They’re dead.’

The Woman Aroused – Ed Lacey

woman arousedPublished in 1951 I read the PlanetMonk Pulps Book 8 Kindle Edition. This is the first novel by Ed Lacy who, up to this point was mostly a short story writer, and this does read a lot like an extended short story. Although a death by mysterious circumstance does take place in this novel, I wouldn’t consider it a mystery… nothing about the death is really investigated, and questions about the death are not formally resolved. However, like the protagonist George, we do have a strong circumstantial case against one of the other characters.

And that is really what this story has going for it, characters. Characters up the Wahoo as we would say; distinctive, quirky and varied. Though not a mystery its more a slice of life story told in a tight first person narrative that has a short story feel to it. You can almost hear George sitting across from you telling you this account about his fall from grace and possible redemption by means of a young woman, the widow of a childhood friend from the neighborhood just returned from overseas Army duty.

And its this friend who has George hold some money for him so that his wife wont get it should they divorce as he anticipates. However, he falls out of the window of his fifth story apartment before he can divorce his wife. Now, George finds himself entangled with this wild foreign woman.

I really did enjoy this story particularly for the realistic sense of New York City in the post world war two late forties with the experiences of the veterans, those who served during the war, The character Eddie (whose political views seem very autobiographical to Mr. Lacy) who is George’s ex-brother-in-law, and the experiences of those who served in the time just after the war Walt, the son of George’s friend and co-worker Joe.

And then of course, there are those classic ‘pulp’ descriptions peppered throughout the book:

   I went into the kitchen and I heard them kissing, then Joe told her,

“I’d best go in and help Georgie boy.” He came in and put a heavy arm around my shoulder, turned on the water in the sink so she couldn’t hear, said, “Jeez, what a night. I tied a big one on. Hey what do you think of Stella? Some sex-boat.”

“Not bad,” I said, pouring the beer. I knew all about Stella – all the Stellas: with a husband someplace in the background, maybe a kid or two, a busted marriage, a routine job during the week, and the frantic week-ends with any guy who treated her “nicely,” as she tried to regain her illusions of bright romance and youth over some bar; a dozen drinks fogging reality.

For a short Bio on Ed Lacy click here ED LACY

Blonde Bait – Ed Lacy

blonde baitPublished in 1959 I read the PlanetMonk Pulps Book 8 Kindle Edition published in 2013.

A brief pulp book coming in at 147 pages it’s a novella written in a first person narrative style , that really has an authenticity to its voice. A pulp from the late fifties, a guy meets a buxom blonde bombshell, with a suitcase full of cash and not big on telling us the wheres and whys of having it, not to mention a gun, out sitting on a deserted Florida key. The story has a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ but the clipped nature of the story still has a good bit of action and fisticuffs leading to its climax. I look forward to spending a little more time with this author… and of course, being Ed Lacy, the reason for the mystery behind the money… yeah, its political…

It’s a story about a vagabond guy living on a boat who comes across a woman apparently stranded on a deserted spit of an island. This woman it seems had baggage in more than one way, apparently she doesn’t want to talk about the suitcase full of cash she has, nor why she needs the gun in her hand bag. Eventually, as these two characters interact and get to tell each other their life’s story they forge a relationship and appear to live a rather idyllic life on a small island in the Bahamas. But although they are accepting of each other, there is this wall between them.

Micky has a yearning to return to the US, not permanently just an excursion to see the sights but Rose is on the run from people trying to kill her. As she begins to tell Micky more of her story and how she came to have the money. Micky thinks that, since its been two years, perhaps the people looking for her have giving up. So they set sail for Jacksonville and work their way up to Atlantic city. But it seems that while they were out and about, the people looking for Rose haven’t given up yet. She’s more on the radar than ever, and while Micky and Rose as having diner at a club, a person who claims to be a federal agent notices her. Rose is able to slip the agent as Micky creates a distraction. Now he’s become the ‘person of interest’ facilitating her escape!

The Keys were full of boats , big and small yachts , so I crossed over to the Bahamas , found myself a quiet little island . A hunk of sand and a couple of ragged bushes . No place to live and no way of getting there without a boat – a sea boat . I anchored late in the afternoon , about thirty or forty feet offshore . I didn’t do much of anything but fish for my supper , put in sack time . In the morning I saw this girl on the beach . I’d never seen anything like her before , except in the movies . A tall platinum – blonde , with a face and shape … well , you see the snap . She was calmly sitting on a suitcase , peeling off her stockings and a ritzy summer dress . There was a bathing suit under the dress . I went down into the cabin and put my little telescope on her – through a port hole . Up close she looked even better . She also had a cloth – bag pocketbook , and I could see the heavy outline of a . 45 automatic in the bag .

Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke

black cherry bluesPublished in 2011 by Mulholland Books, 288 pages I read this on my kindle at a very nice price.

This is the third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it seems to pick up right after the death of his wife. Her death, as well as her ghost haunts him through this story. But it’s a friend of his from College that brings the former New Orleans homicide detective to check into a pair of oil company men his friend Dixie seems to have gotten himself in bed with.

One thing leads to another as they say, and when thugs send a not to subtle threat involving his adopted daughter, its payback time. Then, when one of the oil lease-men turns up dead, Dave follows the leads to Montana to clear himself and finds that his old friend Dixie has taken refuge with a mafia family who’ve helped him in the past.

With missing Indian activists, oil company land deals and mafia drug transactions… well as picturesque as the landscape is, it may not be the healthiest place for an ex-lawman to be asking too many questions.

I’ve read this book having just finished his novel New Iberian Blues (2019). Its been thirty years between these two books and it’s a clear demonstration of something I’ve been calling the “Stephen King effect”. This novel has a fairly simple linear narrative with a limited number of characters moving through it… whereas New Iberian Blues has several narrative threads weaving through numerous characters over a sweeping story arc, and it shows how James Lee Burke has grown and developed as a masterful storyteller.

And, though this novel is smaller in scope than its latter novels it is no less dramatic in is descriptive landscapes:

“I headed for the Blackfeet Reservation, on the other side of the Divide, east of Glacier Park. In the early morning light I drove up the Blackfoot River through canyons of pink rock and pine, with woodsmoke drifting through the trees from the cabins set back in the meadows. The runoff from the snowpack up in the mountains was still high, and the current boiled over the boulders in the center of the river. Then the country opened up into wider valleys and ranchland with low green hills and more mountains in the distance. I started to climb into more heavily wooded country, with sheer rock cliffs and steep-sided mountains that ran right down to the edge of the road; the canyons and trees were dark with shadow, and by the time I hit the logging town of Lincoln the air had turned cold and my windows were wet with mist. I drove into clouds on the Divide at Rogers Pass, my ears popping now, and rivulets of melted snow ran out of the pines on the mountainside, bled across the highway, and washed off the dirt shoulder into a white stream far below. The pine trees looked almost black and glistened with a wet sheen.”