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For Everyman

Leader of the Pack: An Andy Carpenter Mystery by David Rosenfelt (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 362 pages)

Sometime attorney Andy Carpenter can afford just about anything that money can buy.   His inheritance has been invested well and it keeps growing, which allows him the flexibility to take on cases as it suits him.   Even though he doesn’t need to work, his conscience has prodded him to maintain contact with one of his past clients.   This client just isn’t any old guy; he’s the son of a mob boss.   Andy is convinced that the client, Joey, who was convicted of murder, is innocent.   While revisiting the case, he manages to get himself thoroughly entangled with the mob while stubbornly pursuing new information that might free Joey from prison.   Andy’s diligence is rewarded with a heart-stopping attempt on his life.

Rosenfelt always includes a part in the plot for Tara, the wonderful golden retriever that provides Andy with companionship and comfort.   This time she is playing the role of therapy dog when Andy needs an excuse to visit Joey’s ailing elderly uncle.   The uncle’s babbling makes just enough sense that Andy knows there’s a reason to follow-up on the murder that landed Joey in prison.

Readers of this delightful mystery series written by David Rosenfelt can be confident that the situations encountered by the characters are both dangerous and baffling.   Rosenfelt uses his quirky writing style to provide amusement regardless of the harrowing situations he creates for Andy.   The lack of pretense or exaggeration in these books is refreshing.   Well, maybe there’s a bit of exaggeration when it comes to the feats of strength performed by Andy’s bodyguard Marcus.   Marcus often comes in handy when villains are reluctant to tell what they know or Andy is trapped in a nasty predicament.

Andy is in some ways an everyman.   He doesn’t come off as a super hero or glamorous leading man.   Perhaps it is the down-to-earth nature of his observations that make Andy so likeable.

Laurie has just gotten on the treadmill, which is a device I completely do not understand.   I don’t like walking anywhere, and in a million years would not walk to nowhere.   This particular treadmill has a video screen that shows fake mountains, I guess under the very misguided assumption that mountain walking is an appealing concept.   It isn’t; in fact, it’s one of the reasons they invented tunnels.   I never really envied the Von Trapp family much.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Leader of the Pack was released on July 17, 2012.   “Rosenfelt walks a line between pulse-pounding suspense and laugh-out-loud humor…  One of the best in the business.”   Associated Press

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Here Comes the Night

Full Black: A Thriller by Brad Thor (Pocket Books, $15.00, 379 pages)

If Barry Goldwater were alive today, he might well identify Brad Thor as his favorite author.   For it was Goldwater who said, “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.   And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”   Thor’s action-thriller protagonist, Scott Harvath, lives by these words; Harvath’s a former Navy Seal Team 6 member who’s now a covert counterterrorism operative for a CIA contractor.   Harvath does not wear kid gloves to work.   He often goes “full black” – meaning that his undercover missions officially do not exist.   He not only hunts down and kills terrorists, he maims and tortures them to get the information he  needs, and may kill them after promising to spare their lives.

There are no shades of grey in agent Harvath’s world and there’s more than a touch of paranoia:

“The only way to disrupt the enemy, and beat them so far back that they couldn’t attack, was to relentlessly hunt them down like the animals they were and unceasingly take the fight to them.   That meant the gloves were off.   It also meant that certain operations had to be kept secret from grandstanding politicians…”

As Full Black opens, there’s been a deadly home invasion – seemingly involving former Russian secret policemen – at the residence of a Hollywood documentary producer.   This does not seem like a major development but interest on the part of the media builds when the producer suddenly disappears.   And the company that Harvarth works for sees this as the signal preceding a major terrorist attack – the largest since 9/11 – financed by a billionaire who hates the U.S.

“If we began hanging traitors, we’d lose a good many of our politicians, business and union leaders…”

Harvath is sent to Los Angeles to begin unraveling the mystery of the home invasion which he views as beyond the capabilities of the LAPD to solve.   He’s got several resources on his side, including a computer genius and a highly-experienced mentor, but it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad in Harvath’s world.   For Harvath, paranoia equals a very principled loyalty to the U.S., and he believes that the means are always justified by the end.

“…at some point in the last seventy-or-so years, the political class had become completely disconnected from reality…”

On its face, this may sound like Kill Shot by Vince Flynn and Red Cell by Mark Henshaw, but unlike those espionage thrillers, Full Black does not start out in overdrive.   Thor takes his time building interest in the story, making sure the reader’s fully invested in the tale before building speed.   Once Thor shifts into second, third, four, and fifth gear, you’ll see why his books are found in bookstores, airports and your local grocery store.   His writing style might occasionally be over the top, but as Mitt Romney might say, “You can’t argue with success.”

The end of Full Black is actually the beginning of Thor’s next thriller.   Get ready to put that one on your nightstand.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Black List: A Thriller by Brad Thor will be released by Atria Books on July 24, 2012.

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Secret Agent Man

Kill Shot: An American Assassin Thriller by Vince Flynn (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $27.99, 385 pages)

Stanfield had always understood the risk of ordering a talented, highly motivated man to kill for his country.   The cold, detached killers were easier to predict.   Rapp, though, was far from dispassionate about his job.   He couldn’t kill these men fast enough.   It was his hatred for terrorists that drove him to kill with such efficiency.

Mitch Rapp is this country’s most dangerous secret weapon, at least when it comes to the world’s terrorists.   Rapp has a list of terrorists and he’s authorized to kill them all, one by one, with a single shot to the head.   Rapp is such a fearful killing machine that even within the covert walls of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he’s “off the books.”   (Rapp makes both Jason Bourne and James Bond look like caffeine-free figures.)

Rapp, you see, has a score to settle with the bad guys.   His girlfriend of years ago was aboard an airplane that was bombed out of the sky by a Libyan terrorist, and once Rapp has assumed his role of The American Assassin, he finds its his life’s calling.   But his bosses at The Company are afraid that he’s eventually going to have a slip and if he does – since officially he doesn’t exist – they will have to make sure that he’s terminated.

As the story opens, Rapp is headed to Paris to kill a terrorist staying in a posh hotel suite.   It appears that this is going to be a very easy kill – except that no one on the CIA’s advance team has bothered to tell Rapp that there’s a group of four heavily armed killers waiting for him in the adjacent room.   They’ve got 90 or so bullet rounds with Rapp’s name on them…  Has Mitch been set up by his own spooks – jealous of his sudden success – or is someone else working with the bad guys?

How would (Rapp) react if he was pulled in and shut down?   Not well, was Stansfield’s guess.   How would he react if he found out that someone at Langley was selling their secrets to their enemies?   By definition, that individual would be a traitor, and Stansfield had little doubt what Rapp would want to do to such a person.

Flynn writes quite knowingly and convincingly about the world of spies.   To his credit, he populates the tale with strong men – and with women who are just as strong, talented and cagey as their male counterparts.   Rapp has a love interest which gives the telling some breathing room between killings, and the love/sex scenes are tastefully done.   Finally, Flynn presents us with Stansfield Turner, a real-life CIA legend who appears “as himself” in these pages.

At the conclusion of Kill Shot, secret agent Rapp has learned a lot about his true friends and enemies; something that surprises this hardened assassin.   As the story concludes, a new partnership has been formed, and readers will anxiously await the next overtly-exciting chapter in The American Assassin series.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Kill Shot was released in February of this year.

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This is the Day

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Delacorte Press, $26.00, 432 pages)

William Landay’s courtroom novel, Defending Jacob, is interesting and engaging, but is it – as per the hype – this year’s version of Presumed Innocent?   Sorry, but no, it’s not.   This is one of those novels that comes down to the fake ending, where there are usually one or two twists that the reader didn’t anticipate or see coming.   But, this time around, the reader has to deal with three feints and it all seems a bit much.   The author is a graduate of the Boston College of Law, and I presume that at some point he heard an instructor state that, “The game is not worth the candle.”   That’s a law professor’s way of saying that a lawyer’s or judge’s argument is far too clever to be convincing; which is precisely the way I felt about Defending Jacob.

This is a story about a Chief Assistant District Attorney who takes on a case involving the stabbing death of a 14-year-old student at his own son’s high school.   It turns out his son is the prime suspect and, before you can sing a song by the 80s band The The, he’s banished from the office.   The next thing he knows, he’s the second chair to a criminal defense attorney who’s defending his son on a charge of murder.

“After a thousand years or so of refining the process, judges and lawyers are no more able to say what is true than a dozen knuckleheads selected at random off the street.”

“…it was a little late in the day to be switching sides.   I was not sure I could bring myself to defend the same scumbags I had spent a lifetime locking up.”

What Landay does well – quite well – is to express in a firm and gruff voice his doubts (as a former prosecutor) about the workings of the American criminal justice system.   But his protagonist Andy Barber comes off sounding less like a lawyer and more like one of those grizzled former cops who becomes a hard-shoe Private Investigator.   There were times, in fact, when I felt the story – set in 2007 – turn from color to black and white.   It sometimes seemed that, except for references to personal computers, I was reading something set in the 1950s rather than in near-current times.

Defending Jacob has its moments, but a better read in this genre is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton, a taut courtroom drama that comes replete with “a surprise ending.”   That’s one surprise ending, not two or three.   Because when it comes to Scott Turow-style surprise endings, less is more.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Positively 14th Street

What It Was: A Derek Strange Novel by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, $9.99, 272 pages)

I live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecano’s gritty crime novel, What It Was.   Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.”   Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.

What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots.   The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s.   But life went on.   Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in.   And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one.

Red Fury wants to make a name for himself and is going on a crime spree across the city.   He wants to be remembered.   Hunting him is Frank Vaughn, a dinosaur in the evolving era, someone not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.   Also mixed up in the case is his friend Derek Strange, a cop who has left the force to become a private eye.

Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s.   He also resurrects a lot of old DC haunts, legendary bars and restaurants that are long gone in this gentrified city.   His knowledge of the city is encylopedic.   For example, Red hides out in Burrville, a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed.

I wrote my own crime novel about the city, Murder in Ocean Hall.   It’s set in many of the 14th Street neighborhoods of What It Was but during a time of rapid change.

What It Was is a fast, involving read.   Pelecano’s style is muscular, alternating perspectives as it advances towards an inevitably violent conclusion.   Interestingly, the novel is available on the Kindle for only 99 cents.   It’s a limited-time offer designed to generate new readers for this crime novelist.   Forward-thinking publishers are experimenting with new strategies and promotions to adapt to the world of e-readers.

What It Was is also the first book I’ve read on my iPad.   Using the Kindle app, set to sepia, it was a comfortable reading experience – though not as easy on the eyes as using an e-ink reader like the Kindle.   But the 99 cent strategy worked for me.   After dipping into the gritty crime world of What It Was, I’m primed to read the rest of Pelecano’s work.   Well recommended.

Joe Flood

 Joe Flood is the author of two novels, Don’t Mess Up My Block and Murder in Ocean Hall.   He is also a photographer and web content manager.   You can see more of  his writing – and his photographs – at: http://joeflood.com/ .

What It Was is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download for $4.99.

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Wild Thing

Wild Thing: A Novel by Josh Bazell (Reagan, Arthur Books, $25.99, 400 pages)

Eagerly awaited by fans of Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell’s caustic, damaged, mob hit man-turned-doctor is back – still running from the mob and marked for death.   This time, hiding out as Lionel Azimuth, a physician on a cruise ship, he’s tapped by a reclusive billionaire for a mercenary mission in the wilds of Minnesota.

Wild Thing is funny – loaded with footnotes in which the scientist in Dr. Azimuth documents his sources and explains his assumptions.   It’s also profane and raw, and the sexual tension between Azimuth and Violet, the beautiful paleontologist he accompanies on the junket to validate or debunk stories of a man-eating Loch Ness-type beast, is only partially due to his overly obvious attraction to her and to air so thick with pheromones that it crunches.   The flame is also fanned by their easy banter, which swings from Greek history to Scooby-Doo.

“How many people have you killed?” she asks, after he finally decides to trust her enough to reveal his past.

“I don’t know.   Around twenty.”

“You don’t know?” she asks.

“There were some situations where some of them might have lived.”

Azimuth is a hulking man whose physical size adds a layer of monstrousness that belies the funny, intelligent, sensitive man that he is at heart.   But Wild Thing has a tough act to follow.   Beat the Reaper, Bazell’s bestselling first novel, put the same protagonist (aka Pietro Brwna/Peter Brown) in the struggle that defines him: the quest to come to grips with the violent events that orphaned him both physically and emotionally.   Although the tension between good and evil is still present, the demons Azimuth faces in the sequel are cartoonish and played for laughs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder nightmares?   LSD-enhanced monsters?   Sarah Palin in a speaking role?   Bring on, as Azimuth would say.   But the despair that made him so compelling in Beat the Reaper – a brooding, misunderstood, pragmatically lethal Shrek who kills to stay alive – is missing in Wild Thing.

Wild Thing, an entertaining romp through contemporary U.S. politics and evolutionary zoology, is well recommended.   But if you haven’t read either of Bazell’s books yet, save Beat the Reaper for last.   That’s the one that will leave you wanting more.

Kimberly Caldwell

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Wild Thing was released on February 8, 2012.

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Barking Up the Right Tree

Dogs Tags: A Novel by David Rosenfelt (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 368 pages; also available in a Mass Market Paperback edition for $7.99)

Attorney Andy Carpenter is once again dragged into a criminal defense case that threatens to derail his laid back lifestyle.   This time his client is a former cop who is also a disabled Iraq war veteran named Billy Zimmerman.   But Andy actually sees his most important task as freeing Billy’s dog, Milo, from a cell at the animal shelter where he’s under 24-hour watch by an armed guard.   Milo is also a former badge-wearing cop who aged out of the canine division.   Just because a fellow is too old or disabled doesn’t mean he can’t use his skills in a new, second career.

Both Billy and Milo have turned to robbery to supplement Billy’s pension.   Milo’s police training in disarming suspects has been modified to include snatching valuables from the hands of their mark.   The serious trouble erupts when a simple robbery set-up goes bad and a shady figure is murdered.   Billy stays with the body until the authorities arrive.   Milo has grabbed an envelope and high tailed it away from the scene.   Since witnesses accuse Billy of the  murder, he is whisked off to jail.   The federal government plays a role in the ensuing investigation as do the local authorities.

Andy is drawn in deeper and deeper until everyone in his immediate life is involved in freeing Milo and Billy.   Helping Andy with the case becomes life-threatening for each member of the group.   The story can easily be dismissed as a light-weight mystery full of action and intrigue, but the reader will also come to appreciate the bonds of loyalty and friendship between the attorney, his investigator and the others in the group.   They form a family of sorts not unlike the ones that come together in tamer workplaces.

Author Rosenfelt is a master at understatement and the not-so-obvious.   He uses sharp wit and sarcasm to infuse his story with sentiment.   He also introduces new characters to keep the story fresh.   As is the case with his most recent Andy Carpenter mystery, New Tricks, he deftly avoids boring repetition to bring the reader on board.   These two books can easily stand alone.

There are multiple ruthless killings, savage attacks on kindly folks and an elusive villain who is known as “M.”   The reader will not suffer the pain inflicted by an author like Nelson De Mille who seems nearly sadistic in his long, drawn out scenes of torture and killing.   Rosenfelt knows his audience and he resists harming them unnecessarily just for the sake of shock value.

Dog Tags is the type of book to take to work in order to enjoy reading it during the lunch hour and/or quiet break periods.  

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Laugh-out-loud humor mixed with suspense.”   Associated Press

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