Saturday, June 24, 2017

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "White Cargo"

White Cargo is one of Stuart Woods rare standalone novels. It was published by Simon & Schuster as a hardcover in 1988, but the edition that caught my eye is a mass market published by Avon in 1989. The cover hits a few of my “I have to read this” buttons: a dense, dangerous looking jungle, a single prop airplane crashing into said jungle, and vibrant and exciting colors. The artist: Unknown (to me, at least).

The opening paragraph:
“Wendell Catledge sat up and squinted at the smudge on the horizon. It should not have been a surprise, he thought, but it was. The boat slid smoothly along in the light wind, and even the slightest movement made it hard to focus on the shape, but it wasn’t a ship or an oil rig, and in the early morning light, it seemed to be pink. He pulled at his beard and ran a hand through his hair, which was a good six months overdue for cutting. Hell, it just might be, it just might be what he guessed it was.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

COLD HIT by Stephen J. Cannell

Cold Hit (2005) is Stephen J. Cannell’s fifth novel featuring LAPD Detective Shane Scully and the second I’ve read. The first title I read, On the Grind (2009), was disappointing in its lack of depth, character development and over-easy plotting, but Cold Hit is a top-notch police procedural that renders a fully-realized Shane Scully. A complex plot with more than one surprise, and an alluring Southern California setting.
Shane Scully and his partner Zack Farrell are the primary detectives on a series of killings targeting homeless men. After the victims are killed with a bullet to the head, their finger-tips are removed and a symbol is carved into their chests. With the case going nowhere—no suspects, witnesses, clues, or the victims’ identities uncovered—the LAPD’s brass are threatening to remove Scully as the primary detective and form a multi-agency task force to continue the investigation.

Cold Hit is a nicely developed, finely plotted, character driven procedural. It has a sense of the believable from the police investigation to Scully’s relationships with his partner—drowning in alcohol and divorce—and his family. He is likable, something of a maverick who struggles against authority, and tough without being super human. The investigation deepens into the realm of national security and there is an interesting discussion about the post-9/11 world’s enhanced federal law enforcement powers without the story losing its appeal or momentum. Even better, it made me want to read another Shane Scully novel.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Thrift Shop Book Covers: "Owls Don't Blink"

Owl’s Don’t Blink is the sixth mystery Erle Stanley Gardner published as by A.A. Fair and featuring private eyes Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Its original release was as a hardcover by William Morrow & Co. in 1942, but the edition that caught my eye is a mass market published by Dell in 1970. An old school photographic cover isn’t my usual bag, but something about this one works. The artist: Unknown (to me, at least).

The opening paragraph:

“I was awakened at three o’clock in the morning by the sound of a garbage-pail cover being kicked across the sidewalk. A moment later, a woman’s voice, harsh and shrill, shouted, ‘I am not going with you! Do you understand?’”

Monday, June 05, 2017

McGRAVE by Lee Goldberg

McGrave is a stylish, action-packed, and downright fun novella written by Lee Goldberg. The Afterword explains it “began as a television pilot” and the plotting, pacing and vivid cinematic prose give it an episodic television feel. A good thing in this case.
John McGrave is an LAPD detective whose knack for destruction has yielded the nifty nickname, “Tidal Wave.” After foiling the attempted robbery of a 3,000 year-old chamber pot, McGrave is fired from the force. His termination is for a culmination of events, but the final straw is a soon to be filed $20-million lawsuit by one of L.A.’s wealthiest residents. Without a job, or even any prospects for a job, McGrave takes the first flight to Berlin trailing the only would-be toilet robber to escape L.A.

McGrave is a sterling action yarn, at a perfect length, with a nicely rendered Berlin setting. The dialogue is witty, the characters fit nicely and play well together. John McGave is something like Lethal Weapons’ Detective Riggs (Mel Gibson) searching for, and finding, his Detective Murtaugh (Danny Glover) in a very unexpected locale mixed with a classic 1980s Stephen J. Cannell television series.

Monday, May 22, 2017

JIMI AFTER DARK by Stephen Mertz

Jimi After Dark is the second novel in what I think of as Stephen Mertz’s musical mystery series, which isn’t an accurate moniker since the books are as much about the time and place of the tales’ setting as they are about the music and musicians. The first, Hank & Muddy (2011), was set in the 1950s and featured Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. Jimi After Dark is a 1960s novel set in 1970 London, near the end of Jimi Hendrix’s too-short life. Its genesis, as Mr. Mertz explains in his Afterword, is Jimi’s mostly disbelieved kidnapping claim by armed thugs and his ultimate rescue by other armed men.

From the start, Jimi is in trouble, legal trouble with his former manager Mike Jeffrey and another, more violent, trouble with more than one unknown source that may, or may not be related to the Kray Brothers—the East End crime syndicate brothers in prison when the story begins—and the Central Intelligence Agency. Jimi calls on his old Army buddy, unnamed in the story and simply called Soldier, for help. Soldier is fresh from his second tour in Vietnam with a tendency towards violence and a strong sense of duty and loyalty, which acts as an effective literary foil for Jimi’s hippie and gangster filled world.  

Jimi After Dark is an action crime novel with nicely executed action scenes, a few twists, and big ideas: friendship, loyalty, betrayal—the unexpected betrayal of friends and lovers and the more expected betrayal from governments—duty, honor, and the relationship between music and culture. The 1960’s culture war is dissected, Jimi on one side and Soldier on the other, wrapped inside a well-told, exciting story with the cleanest, strongest prose in the business. Jimi After Dark is Stephen Mertz’s best novel, and it should be on everyone’s reading list.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Gran Gato and Me

The National Weather Service database claims it was hot in Salt Lake City on August 5, 2004. 96-degrees; cloudless blue sky. A summer evening no different than any other. The difference, and what I remember, is the stadium, crowd, smells—distinctive sweetness of kettle corn, franks, beer, sweat—and a once great player who found himself with a minor league contract, and a desire to get back to the big leagues.

The player’s appearance was widely advertised in the local media and the fans came to see him. They lined up along the first base side against the low concrete wall separating seats from field; hoping for a glimpse, a word, an autograph. It was the final month of a disappointing season for the home team. The Salt Lake Stingers were in the Pacific Coast League’s cellar, but its parent club, Anaheim Angels, were set for another division title and an October appearance. The player was Andrés Galarraga and the Angels signed him to add depth, experience, and flexibility to its roster.
Andrés had a reputation for an unflagging enthusiasm. His demeanor was as much his trademark as his distinctive white hair, towering home runs, and dazzling defensive play at first. His nickname was “Gran Gato”—Big Cat—earned for his agility and quickness. Time had eroded the skills his nickname spoke of, but the name was still his, and only his. He started his career in Montreal in 1985, and on a hot August evening in 2004 he was in Salt Lake City trying to get back. It hadn’t been easy, either.

In February 1999 Andrés was diagnosed with cancer—non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—in his spine. The entire season was lost while he received treatment. Big Cat beat the disease, and came back strong in 2000, but the diagnosis made its mark. He said, in an interview with The Sporting News’ Jon Heyman:
“I felt like I’d be dying any time. The way everyone was looking at me, the way everyone knew.”
The cancer recurred in early-2004, and Big Cat beat it again, but he was without a team. In June he announced, in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, that he was ready to play. It was two long months before an offer was made. His first stop was Salt Lake City, and his desired destination Anaheim. He wanted two more major league home runs. He had 398 for his career, and 400 was an appealing benchmark. The clock was ticking. He was 43 with fading opportunity.

When the players began to appear on the field for pre-game warm ups a buzz of anticipation enveloped the crowd. The fans craned their necks as each player appeared on the field. A mellow roar built from scattered applause as Andrés came into view. His distinctive white hair shimmering in the thick evening light. The fans chanted, “Big Cat! Big Cat! Big Cat!” He stopped, looked at the fans, removed his cap.
Andrés was there to play baseball, but instead of continuing to the field to prepare for the game he went directly to the wall of fans. He stopped at the first in line, spoke a few words, and signed a ball. He steadily moved down the line, stopping at each person, speaking a few words, grinning, and signing a card, ball, or hat. I was there that night; waiting in line, anxious, and hopeful he would make it to my position, closer to the end than the beginning, before the players were called in for the National Anthem.

I had seen Andrés Galarraga once before. It was a spring game in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was playing for the Giants, and before the first pitch Andrés and Barry Bonds—along with Barry’s young son—wandered the edges of the ballpark; stopping frequently to talk, laugh, and interact with fans. Barry had an unfriendly reputation. The opposite of Andrés’, but on that overcast March afternoon everything was a smile and laugh. I didn’t participate in the dialogue, but instead watched with admiration.
In Salt Lake City my attitude was different. I came to see Andrés Galarraga; wish him luck, get an autograph, and be part of his comeback. I was nervous, my palms likely damp, when Andrés arrived at my position.

I handed him a clipboard, two cards attached, and a felt-tipped pen. I said, “Welcome back.”
Andrés looked up at me—with the help of the concrete floor I was a few inches taller—smiled his famous lopsided grin, said, “It’s good to be back.” He signed the cards, handed back the clipboard and pen.

It was a brief encounter. I wanted to talk to him. Tell him how much I admired his play, his courage, and his impending comeback. Maybe tell him I saw the grand slam he crushed in Miami in 1997, or his comeback home run on opening day in Atlanta in 2000, but I settled for “welcome back,” and “thank you.”  
The Stingers lost that night; outscored by the Omaha Royals, 6 – 1. I know because I looked it up. I don’t remember anything about the game, or Andrés’ performance. The box score is lost to me; seemingly unavailable online. I’m certain Andrés was the designated hitter, but how he played is a mystery. He spent all of August in a Stingers uniform, and he hit well— batting .304, with four home runs, and 19 RBI, in 111 plate appearances.

He played well enough to get a September call-up to Anaheim; it would be his last appearance in the Show, but his playing time was limited. Appearing in seven games with a meager ten at bats. He hit a single home run with the Angels, and never made it to 400. I hope it doesn’t bother him. He was a terrific player, and his appearance in Salt Lake City on that hot August night is one of my favorite baseball memories.

Friday, May 12, 2017

OVERFLOW by L. J. Martin

Overflow is the eighth novel in L. J. Martin’s The Repairman series featuring former Marine turned troubleshooter Mike Reardon. When a federal judge is killed on a public bus, destroyed by a deliberately set explosion during Las Vegas’ morning commute, the FBI’s first instinct is to blame it on terrorists, which seems accurate enough when an organization called Destroy Satan America claims credit. A Las Vegas casino owner, Alex Pointer, wants to hire Reardon and his pal, the very wealthy entrepreneur Pax Weatherwax, for a very special job:

“I want you to find, and kill slowly, with as much pain as you can stand to apply, whoever is responsible for the bus bombing.”    
Reardon isn’t a hitman and he doesn’t like to work where he lives, but with a few provisions, no cold blooded murder—for either he or Pax—and a big payday, he takes the job. It isn’t long before it becomes apparent the bus bombing is more complex than it appears, and even less time for the bullets to start flying.

Overflow is a blazingly fast novel. The action is relentless, the story exciting. A few nice descriptions of greater Las Vegas and a barrel of oddball characters give it color. Reardon and Pax have a symbiotic relationship similar to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk, and, also like Parker’s characters, they spar good naturedly with clever and often humorous dialogue. Overflow fits somewhere between the thriller, private eye and men’s adventure subgenres, and while it is the eighth in the series it is a good place to introduce yourself to The Repairman.