Tag Archives: Private Investigator

A Hard Day’s Knight

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books, $14.99, 384 pages)

It may be a shame that Marcia Clark spent so many years as a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles.   I say this because she’s such a talented writer, as is made clear by this fun romp of a criminal justice novel.   Because the book’s protagonist, Rachel Knight, just happens to be a Deputy District Attorney (DDA) who works in the L. A. County Criminal Courts Building (the beloved CCB) one would guess that there’s a bit of Ms. Clark in the character.   Maybe, maybe not…  Rachel Knight may be slightly more daring than Clark was in her real professional life.

One surprise will be noted up front.   This is not a courtroom novel.   No scenes take place inside of a courtroom, so this is not a Scott Turow-style read.   Basically, this is the story of a prosecutor who decides to become a covert criminal investigator, off of the time sheets and without the knowledge or approval of her supervisors.   As Guilt by Association begins, Knight is celebrating a victory with fellow DDA Jake Pahlmeyer and LAPD Detective Bailey Keller.   It’s not long before Pahlmeyer is found dead downtown, in a very seedy hotel room with a 17-year-old boy; and there’s a nude photo of the boy in his suit jacket pocket.   Rachel’s supervisors very quickly instruct her to keep her “hands off” of the murder investigation involving her best friend in the criminal justice system.

Being a bit of a rogue, Knight brings Bailey into her effort to clear the late Pahlmeyer’s name in a city where scandals are less than a dime a dozen.   And as she does so, she also has to take over one of Jake’s cases – one that involves the rape of a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a very prominent physician.   Could the two cases somehow be related?   Maybe, maybe not…  You’ll have to read this criminal justice system mystery to find out and to learn the meaning of the rather intriguing title.

You never know what’s coming around the curve with this one…  Reading Guilt by Association is like taking a ride down the virtually mythical Mulholland Drive in a new Porsche Cayman S.

I would like to offer a bold or not-so-bold prediction for the future of this protagonist.   My money is on Rachel Knight’s getting fired from the D.A.’s office, and going on to become an embittered and newly licensed private investigator – one who uses every contact in her old address book to solve some of the county’s toughest and meanest crimes.   Not only will it make a series of great reads, but quite possibly a new hit TV show.   Rachel Knight, PI – it somehow sounds just right!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Guilt by Association was released as a trade paperback book on March 1, 2012.

“Clark’s pace, plot and dialogue are as sharp as they come.”   David Baldacci

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Breakdown: A V. I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky.

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Gift Yourself

Thanks to Tyrus Books of New York City, we have a gift for all e-book readers.   Between now and Christmas Eve, you can use your Kindle, Nook or personal computer (or tablet) to download a free copy of Hurt Machine: A Moe Prager Mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman.   Publishers Weekly has already listed Hurt Machine as one of the the best novels of 2011, and The New York Times is publishing a major review of this gritty Private Investigator mystery on Christmas Day. But you don’t have to wait to get your copy – nor do you have to pay for it.   Just go now to Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other e-book selling sites, enter the title Hurt Machine and enjoy your free download.   Merry Christmas!

Joseph Arellano

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Ring of Fire

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books; $25.99; 368 pages)

It may be a shame that Marcia Clark spent so many years as a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles.   I say this because she’s such a talented writer, as is made clear by this fun romp of a criminal justice novel.   Because the book’s protagonist, Rachel Knight, just happens to be a Deputy District Attorney who works in the L.A. County Criminal Courts Building (the beloved CCB) one would think that there’s a bit of Ms. Clark in the character.   Maybe, maybe not…  Rachel Knight may be a bit more daring than Clark was in real life.

One surprise is to be noted up front.   This is not a courtroom novel.   No scenes take place inside of a courtroom, so this is not a Scott Turow-style read.   Basically, this is the story of a prosecutor who decides to become a criminal investigator, off of the time sheets and without the approval of her supervisors.   As Guilt by Association begins, Knight is celebrating a victory with fellow DDA Jake Pahlmeyer and LAPD Detective Bailey Keller.   It’s not long before Pahlmeyer is found dead downtown, in a seedy hotel room with a 17-year-old boy; and there’s a nude photo of the boy in his suit jacket pocket.   Knight’s supervisors quickly tell her to keep her “hands off” of the murder investigation involving her best friend in the criminal justice system.

Being a bit of a rogue, Knight involves Bailey in her effort to clear the late Pahlmeyer’s name in a city where scandals are less than a dime a dozen.   And as she does so, she also has to take over one of Jake’s cases – one that involves the rape of a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of a very prominent physician.   Are the two cases somehow related?   Maybe, maybe not…  You’ll have to read this criminal justice system mystery to find out, and to learn the meaning of the rather intriguing title.

You never know what’s coming around the curve…  Reading Guilt by Association is like taking a ride down the virtually mythical Mulholland Drive in a new Tesla roadster.

This reviewer does offer a prediction for the future of this protagonist.   My money is on Rachel Knight’s getting fired by the D.A.’s office, and working as an embittered newly licensed private investigator who uses every contact in her address book to solve some of the county’s toughest and meanest crimes.   Not only will it make a series of great reads, but quite possibly a new hit TV show.   Rachel Knight, PI – it somehow sounds just right!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Guilt by Association will be released on April 20, 2011.

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She Is Still a Mystery

The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (Avon; $11.99; 176 pages)

This novella is another flawlessly written story by award-winning author Laura Lippman that you will not be able to put down and in the end will leave you wanting more.

Tess Monaghan is  private investigator confined to her home on bed rest in the third trimester of her first pregnancy.   While longingly watching the world go by outside her window, Tess becomes intrigued by a lovely girl wearing a green raincoat who takes long walks with her dog at exactly the same time each day.   Then one day Tess witnesses the dog running outside her window, leash attached, the owner nowhere to be seen.

Tess’s investigator instincts heighten full force into the possibilities of what could have happened to the owner and is determined to get to the bottom of the story.   Ignoring the advice of her cautious boyfriend Crow, she plunges into an investigation that leads to a string of crimes and deceit.   Her obsession with this girl in the green raincoat and her unruly dog creates a delightful storyline including murder, mystery and more.   Her vibrant characters, descriptive dialogue and an unpredictable ending make it a story you can’t pass up!

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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What Goes Around Comes Around

On September 19, 2010, we posted a preview-review of On the Line: A Bill Smith/Lydia Chin Novel by S. J. Rozan (St. Martin’s Press).   The book was released 9 days later, and we’ve learned that the author posted this reaction to our review on her blog:

Success!

“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!”

Now that’s a review!   Seriously, since what I was going for was a whole new style – and exactly that one – it’s a gas to know that, at least for one reviewer, I’ve succeeded.

Read the whole thing here – https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/hold-the-line/ .

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Out of Time

Coming Back: A Sharon McCone Mystery by Marcia Muller (Grand Central Publishing; $24.99; 304 pages)

In this, the 28th mystery novel featuring San Francisco private investigator Sharon McCone, author Marcia Muller explores the collateral damage wrought by McCone’s experience in a conscious vegetative state that resulted from a bullet to her brain.   McCone’s chapters are in the first person and the reader is pulled along as she tries to resolve her need to get back in the action and maintain her relationship with her husband.

This reviewer’s lack of familiarity with the series made it difficult to appreciate just what sort of life McCone is struggling to maintain.   The references to flying her husband’s private airplane, a vintage sports car, multiple homes on acreage and a staff at her beck and call made McCone less than the pitiable victim Muller tries to characterize.

The theme of the book seems to be that interfering in other people’s lives is a rewarding activity.   Since there is no paying client, the reward must be purely emotional.   Although the loosely developed story is set in San Francisco, there are action scenes that take place in Muir Woods, Walnut Creek and along the east side of the Bay.   In each instance, the setting was well known to this reviewer and did not seem the least bit scary.   Maybe that was Muller’s point – scary things can happen in ordinary places.

Perhaps it’s time to retire Sharon McCone to one of her getaway homes?

Quirkly and a bit interesting, but not much more.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Town Without Pity

The Chaos of Order

Toby Ball’s debut novel,The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is a fine first work.   Fans of crime novels and/or the suspense/thriller genre will find this an enjoyable read.   Ball is true to the convention of short chapters and brief vignettes and anecdotes that keep the reader turning to the next page.

The Vaults are essentially a record (literally a criminal record) of one city’s depravity, and when the sole archivist, Arthur Puskis, notices that something is amiss with his detailed system of categorizing the files, the reader is led along a trail of corruption that reaches to the highest level, mayor Red Henry’s office.   Set in the 1930’s, the story involves tales of big labor, organized crime, political corruption, and journalistic heroes, somewhat reminiscent of a Doctorow novel.

The story is best when it does what it purports to do:  tell an action tale.   The plot is carefully constructed, and the pace is fast.   This reviewer’s primary criticism is that it became difficult to truly care about where the story was headed because it was difficult to actually care about the characters themselves.

In the first half of the book, character after character is introduced with little development and few clues as to what makes them tick or motivates their behavior.   The character one is inclined to be most attracted to at the outset, Puskis, essentially disappears for a good portion of the first half of the book, only to reappear more prominently toward the end to help tie the story together.   Frings, the reporter, who is the closest thing to a hero this book offers, is a rather shallow fellow and not overly likeable.   In the end, Poole, the Private Investigator whose travails run parallel to Frings’ throughout the book, probably comes across as the person with the most conviction and integrity in the story.

There are a few moments where there’s an attempt at social commentary, such as when Puskis contemplates whether the improved technology introduced to the Vaults will take away a layer of humanity from the information people receive or when Puskis and Van Vossen, who has set out to write a book about the tales hidden away, contemplate the significance of the collective humanity contained in the Vaults and come to the realization that order cannot be imposed on the natural universe by man.   Generally speaking, though, there is little of this.   That type of thought and discourse is not really the point of this novel.

Overall, the writing is strong and unforced.   The reader has to occasionally suspend belief to allow for some of the events to connect, but that is why they call it fiction.   This book is recommended.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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