Tag Archives: New York Police Department

I Dig Rock ‘n Roll Music

Death in the 12th House: Where Neptune Rules – A Starlight Detective Agency Mystery by Mitchell Scott Lewis (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95, 225 pages)

The townhouse had been gutted and its contents piled into an ugly trash container on the street that took up two precious parking spots.

There’s good news for fans of New York City astrologer/detective David Lowell, whose first caper was the subject of Mitchell Scott Lewis’ debut novel, Murder in the Eleventh House: A Starlight Detective Agency Mystery.   (Murder in the Eleventh House was earlier reviewed on this site.)   Happily, Lewis has maintained the civilized and charming tone in this, his second mystery novel.   The story line revolves around a group of aging musicians who are dying off at an alarming rate.   The latest to die is Freddy Finger, lead singer of the group Rocket Fire.   His daughter, Vivian Younger, is an actress whose fame and beauty insure that her father’s death will be investigated thoroughly by the New York Police Department and their special consultant, David Lowell.

His chart does show that he has a temper, and he’s overly emotional, but then he’s a musician.

While the names of the various musicians are fictitious, their exploits are clearly taken from real life.   This site features the biographies of many famous musicians, both living and dead.   Any one of them will provide proof of this point.

Lewis is master of building plenty of fascinating information into his plots.   Although astrology in its purest form is a complicated discipline, detective David Lowell makes it almost easy to understand as he tutors the various members of his staff, family and Vivian Younger.

The names Lewis gives to his characters are clues in themselves.   The reader will most likely delight in the wealth of double entendres and the pun-like quality of his writing.   This seemingly innocent little book packs plenty of punch and entertainment!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Shootout in Chinatown

Red Jade: A Detective Jack Wu Investigation by Henry Chang (Soho Crime, $14.00, 248 pages)

“Killing two bad guys, taking a cold-blooded murderer home.   Not bad for a few days in Seattle, huh?”

Reading Red Jade by Henry Chang is like being on a diet of tasteless fiber before enjoying a fine helping of spicy Mongolian Beef.   The vivid cinematic ending is literally preceded by a couple of hundred pages written in a dull and plodding style.   In fact, make that plodding, plodding, plodding.

The reader will need to take a suspension-of-reality pill before accepting the story that’s told here.   New York Police Detective Jack Yu is an Asian quasi super-hero who can solve multiple crimes while spending a weekend in Seattle, Washington.   It’s so hard to believe that Yu can solve a murder that took place in New York City’s Chinatown while in Seattle that the author asks of his male protagonist, “How much destiny could he take?”   Indeed…  Wherever Detective Yu goes, the evil people he needs to find just happen to be right down the block.

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the book starts with the bloody murder of a young man and a young woman in the Big Apple’s Chinatown.   This precedes Jack’s traveling to Seattle with his sometime girlfriend (she’s there attending a legal conference), where he not only solves the case in chief, but another quite big one while he’s at it.   Yes, the world is just a convenient stage for Detective Yu.

One might be tempted to think that there’s going to be some interesting scenery covered in a tale set in Seattle.   Instead, except for a few walks on very mean streets, the majority of the tale involves Jack’s stay at the Marriott Courtyard near Sea-Tac, while his girlfriend beds at the far more impressive Westin downtown.   Jack has an entire extended weekend to work his magic, which sometimes involves beating up two foes at once using his very impressive kung-fu style skills.   Sometimes, though, Jack falls back on simply shooting the bad guys when he’s not getting the best of things.   Yippee Ki-yay!, as Bruce Willis might say.

Still, credit has to be given to Chang for fashioning a surprisingly energetic and involving ending.   It’s a shame it takes one such effort to get to it.   This reader felt worn down by the telling, as if the reading took away more energy from me than it could ever hope to repay.   Chang writes in small bits and bites (some chapters covering only a single page), which makes me think his skills might be better applied to very short crime stories.   Let’s just hope that he comes up with leads that are more reality-based than Detective Jack Yu.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Red Jade was released in trade paper form on November 8, 2011.   “Chang fails to make Chinatown engaging…  What started out as a promising series has devolved into something quite run-of-the-mill…”   Publishers Weekly

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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Hold the Line

On the Line: A Bill Smith/Lydia Chin Novel by S. J. Rozan (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 336 pages)

If reading a suspense thriller by David Baldacci is like driving in a new Porsche, reading a private investigator thriller by S. J. Rozan is like riding through the streets of New York City in a turbo-charged go-kart.   You never know what you’re going to bump into!

Rozan writes in a style that is part 1950s detective magazine, part retro (think of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move), part Miami Vice/Hill Street Blues and more than a bit of Batman and Robin.   In order to follow her story you will need to suspend reality or believe in – as does the main character – miracles.

As the story opens our protagonist P.I. Bill Smith receives a mysterious message on his cell phone telling him that his partner and love interest Lydia Chin has been kidnapped.   Smith doesn’t know who’s behind this but correctly suspects that it’s someone he helped put in prison.   He’s soon provided with a “clue” that leads him to an abandoned building in Manhattan in which he finds a dead girl.   This, naturally, is a set-up.   The NYPD officers arrive just after Smith does and suspect him of murder.   Smith has to fight with and escape from the cops just as he’s about to begin his frantic search for Lydia.

The person who has kidnapped Lydia has set a clock on this “game” of cat and mouse, life and death.   Smith must find Lydia before time runs out, because her kidnapper has promised to kill her once the clock reaches double-zero.   Smith needs to figure out who exactly has taken Lydia, and where she’s been taken while he hides from the police and, oh yes, as new crimes take place and the police suspect him of being the perpetrator.   Smith would have little chance of dealing with all of this by himself, but two young assistants come to his rescue and he’s also got a friend inside the NYPD who performs a few of the miracles he needs.

Rozan’s writing style is rapid and breathless.   As the story begins, the reader will likely feel (as with Nobody Move) that too much is happening too fast.   But if you accept the fact that dramatic events are going to happen every few pages, the read becomes a highly entertaining – and exhilarating – one.   If you’re like this reader, you will begin On the Line wondering if you will be able to finish it.   On doing so, you will be calling a bookstore to order one of the nine previously released Bill Smith/Lydia Chinn novels.

Recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   On the Line was released by St. Martin’s on September 28, 2010.

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Life During Wartime

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper, June 2010)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 527 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States’ involuntary entrance into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which literally provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   Claire eventually meets and falls in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission since her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a crime mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in almost 530 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it happened to be made into a film, most viewers would be far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out, not at all…  Instead she ends the story with a whimper rather than a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 500 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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A Numbers Game

Think of a Number by John Verdon (Crown, July 2010, 432 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the processes of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at the modern criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he is a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired Detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the two, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial killer case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope; this envelope contains the very number they thought of written in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to his mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed onto a  page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s ably assisted by Madeleine who often sees things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his numbers tricks, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, quite fortunately, will not come even close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style thriller.   It is easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and engaging story.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a number of hours on one’s schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin – as this reader has – to count the months until Mr. Verdon delivers his next very satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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