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Category: Crime Fiction Review Page 1 of 3

THE CHICAGO WAY by Michael Harvey

One of the better PI novels I’ve read, I wrote this review about 5 years ago but the book is still relevant.

THE CHICAGO WAY by Michael Harvey. Everything old is new again, as the saying goes. But what if it was bad to begin with? Would it be better? That theme underlies the chaos of Michael Harvey’s first novel, but as for the novel itself it is, fortunately, a moot point.

Harvey uses just about every PI novel plot device you can think of, but he does two key things that make them work: first, he only borrows inspiration from the best, and second, he writes one wickedly good book. The Chicago Way starts about like you expect a book titled The Chicago Way to start, with protagonist PI Michael Kelly leaning back in his office chair, feet propped on his desk, having a drink; Raymond Chandler, anyone? Dashiel Hammett? Yes and no. Michael Kelly is drinking Earl Grey tea.

And who walks through his door? No, not a buxom blonde. Not yet, anyway. Instead, it’s his former partner on the Chicago PD, who is working on a case leftover from his days on the force and is seeking Kelly’s help. Before long the partner is dead and Kelly is the prime suspect. Sam Spade, anyone? And before Kelly’s bruises from the investigating Chicago homicide cops have really started turning purple, who drops by his office? Why, a blonde with a gun, of course.

But despite Harvey’s steeping in the lore of great crime fiction past, this is no mere knock-off of the all-time greats by a hack looking to sell a few fast books. From the opening sentence the astute reader can pick out the influences of other writers and not care less; the author is in command from the outset. Spare prose is a given, but nice turns of phrase and hidden surprises are not. Kelly reads Greek classics. For fun. And in the original Greek. He drinks, he smokes, he uses a computer. The style and construction are straight from the 40’s, and the villian(s) could be the grandchildren of some of Raymond Chandler’s best bad guys, but the viewpoint is 21st century bleak, with just a hint of optimism. Let’s call is 21st Century noir.

Kelly soon finds himself chasing leads that turn bad, people die, and it’s his fault. Who can he really trust in the gathering maze, and who is his client? It’s a mess, a bloody mess, and the surprise ending has the same shock value as with all great crime novels. Sam Spade wouldn’t really turn over his girl-friend, would he? Yes, he would. And a first time writer like Michael Harvey couldn’t really write this good of a book, could he? Yes. He could. And he did.

DEAD SILENCE by Randy Wayne White

One of the five favorite crime fiction series is Randy Wayne White’s ‘Doc Ford’ novels, and this book is indicative of why.

DEAD SILENCE by Randy Wayne White.

Marion Ford, aka ‘Doc’, had always led something of a schizophrenic life. That’s par for the course when your mainstream job, the one the outside world knows about, is that of a marine biologist, and your shadow job is that of a covert operative who is, more often than not, an assassin. Sometimes it can be hard to separate the two. And so it is in ‘Dead Silence.’

Doc is in New York City for a meeting with his covert boss and uses the occasion to see his new friend, with occasional benefits, the powerful and attractive Senator Barbara Hayes-Sorrento. Unfortunately, just as her limousine is pulling to the curb in front of the Explorer’s Club, where Doc is waiting, an ambush aimed at kidnapping the senator unfolds. Doc springs into action and saves her from the bad guys, but he can’t save the 14 year old boy who is her guest in the limousine, a displaced young Indian who won a writing contest (by cheating) and is taken instead of the Senator. It soon becomes apparent that the boy is to be buried alive unless the government forks over some documents taken from Cuba after Castro died. Of course, the bad guys don’t know it yet, but snatching the boy was the biggest mistake they ever made.

Will Chaser is no ordinary 14 year old, although that could be bad enough. Will knows how to do things, and Will gets mad. When Will gets mad, bad things happen. Still, he is only 14 and the kidnappers are very bad people. Doc feels responsible for his kidnapping and vows to get him back alive, and to make the bad guys pay. Don’t they always?

The 16th Doc Ford novel finds author White in comfortable overdrive mode. There is the usual solid plot, the insightful dialogue, the quirky but dangerous secondary characters and, not least, Tomlinson. Doc’s offbeat best friend plays a prominent part in this book, but in the end it’s all just an excuse to bring even more fascinating characters into Doc’s immediate circle. Despite the action, despite the dead-on descriptions, these books are at heart about the characters, their motivations and their stories. ‘Dead Silence’ is no different. Thank goodness.

Spade & Archer by Joe Gores – A Review

Here’s my take on this prequel to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammett

SPADE & ARCHER by Joe Gores

The Maltese Falcon is surely the greatest noir movie ever made, if not the greatest PI flick of all time. And the book is even better, fleshing out some of the movie’s necessarily brief references. They were so good that admirers might find themselves wondering if they were dreaming. Dashiel Hammett knew his subjects, knew their history and their relationships. His audience, however, did not. We could sense it in both the book and the movie, but we could not actually see it. That is, until now. Joe Gores has given us Spade & Archer, the Prequel to The Maltese Falcon. The stuff dreams are made of.

Bad puns aside, this is one fine book. Before beginning, the reader needs to remember that the book of The Maltese Falcon was set in 1928, while the movie was in 1940. Gores’ prequel starts in 1921, with World War 1 veteran Spade back at his old job with Continental Detective Agency, a Continental Op, and dreaming of having his own office. Moving from Seattle to San Francisco he quickly settles in and, soon enough, we meet the faithful Effie Perine and the slick but grumpy lawyer, Sid Wise. Miles Archer is already in the cast, too, and it isn’t long before Sam gets chummy with Miles’ wife, Iva. For fans of the Falcon, the background stories, the tying up of loose ends and filling in the blanks, are almost as much fun as the actual story. And a good story it is, too.

The San Anselmo is just another freighter plying the long Pacific route from California to Australia, until a shipment of gold sovereigns is stolen from her safe. Sam happens to be first on the scene, which makes him suspicious to plodding police sergeant Dundy, promoted by the time of the Falcon to Lieutenant Dundy, and his loyal partner Tom Polhaus. (I dare you not to picture Ward Bond when you see Polhaus on the page.) But wise-cracking Spade won’t be pinned down so easily and he soon knows the master-mind behind the theft: a mysterious man named St. James McPhee, who has conveniently disappeared. And when three guys try to take him down late one night on the waterfront, Spade knows he’s on the right track. Spade, being Spade, escapes danger. Others do not. Whoever McPhee is, he’s a ruthless killer.

McPhee is a slippery character, though, and Spade loses the trail. Years pass, other cases come and go, the firm of Samuel Spade, Esq., prospers. But in the back of his mind Spade knows there is still a killer on the loose, and he’s going to find him.

Those reading Spade & Archer to nitpick and compare it to the original might be able to do so. There will probably be some such. But those who read it wanting fast, hard-boiled fun, will have a much better time. Gores even let’s us know that he has a sense of humor: late in the book Spade uses a pseudonym that will be familiar to all Hammett fans. And the last page is, well, the perfect tie-in to the Falcon.

Bye Bye Baby by Max Allan Collins

BYE BYE, BABY by Max Allan Collins.

There are few figures in Hollywood history more iconic than Marilyn Monroe, and few Hollywood deaths more mysterious than hers. Even the most casual reader of her death and its subsequent investigation has to come away thinking that the LAPD of 1962 was grossly incompetent, at best; at worst, there is reasonable cause to think that they covered up her murder.

Enter Private Investigator Extraordinaire Nate Heller, hero of multiple novels in Max Allan Collins’ long-running series and no stranger to world-famous historical figures and their mysterious fates. Collins has created nearly the perfect vehicle for writing fascinating non-fiction books without actually writing non-fiction. Heller began his career in the Chicago of the 1920s, frequently walking the tight-rope between befriending Chicago’s mobsters while not (completely) alienating the honest cops. Along the way he has been involved in everything from the Lindberg kidnapping to being a bodyguard for Amelia Earhart, has met everyone from the real-life Charlie Chan to Frank Sinatra. His life has been interesting, to say the least.

But what makes a new Nate Heller novel so compelling is the often ground-breaking research Collins does for his topic. When Nate became involved in the Black Dahlia case, Collins’ research was so thorough that 2 new non-fiction books on the case had to be delayed to incorporate his new findings, and it is precisely this verisimilitude that drives the Heller series from being merely entertaining to the level of must-reads.

And so, when Heller is hired by Marilyn Monroe and begins to move in circles that include Bobby and John Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, the reader believes what he or she is reading, and so believes the incredible conclusion that Collins eventually reveals. This latest entry, 10 years in the waiting, is as good as any others in the series and comes highly recommended by this reviewer.

I, Sniper- A Review by William A. Webb

One of my favorite series is that of Bob Lee Swagger, Bob the Nailer to his friends (and enemies). A renowned Marine sniper, Bob Lee is not a man to be trifled with, being the son of Medal Of Honor winner Earl Swagger (who has a series of his own). Hunter is a terrific writer but the series has been somewhat uneven over the years. There is nothing second-rate about the subject of this review, however.

by Stephen Hunter.

The 21st century is a time in shades of gray. There is no black or white, no good or evil, just the in-between, the no-man’s land of flexible morality and sellable honor. Nothing matters except perception, success is defined by measures of things, of objects, of tangible goods far removed from the world of the spiritual. So when 4 radical leftists from the bygone protest era of the 60’s and 70’s are slaughtered in a matters of hours by someone with world-class sniper skills, the FBI almost immediately identifies one Carl Hitchcock, USMC (retired), the leading sniper in Vietnam, as the likely culprit. All of the evidence points his way, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that he is innocent. And when he turns up dead in a seedy motel room with the muzzle of a rifle in his mouth, it is almost a given that he died from a guilty conscience.

Almost a given. Because while the 21st century might be a time of bendable truth, a time of gray, not every man living in that time is of that time. Not the Special Agent in Charge of Task Force Sniper, Nick Memphis, and most definitely not his deux ex machina, Bob the Nailer, aka Bob Lee Swagger.

The wife of southern billionaire T.T. Constable, the lady who once sat on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft missile battery and encouraged them to kill Americans, Hanoi Joan Flanders, took one through the heart at a very long distance, as did three other similar leftists now living the cushy life regaling a whole new generation of star struck leftists with their exploits. Although divorced from Joan, pampered bully Constable wants the case closed immediately and when Hitchcock’s name comes up he jumps at the chance, pressuring everybody he can think of to issue the report and tidy up the mess. And with most of Washington, D.C., firmly in the narcissistic 21st century camp, it seems a foregone conclusion that hero Hitchcock will get the blame without a chance to defend himself. Nobody is going to go out on a limb just to save the reputation of some dead guy.

Except Nick Memphis, who knows better but doesn’t care. And where Memphis leads, Swagger follows. Asked just to give his opinion, Bob soon enough concludes that Hitchcock is innocent and vows to clear his name. That’s when bad people start trying to up the body count to include him. They make one serious mistake: you don’t hunt Bob the Nailer, he hunts you. They find this out soon enough.

This is the most satisfying entry in this series for quite a long time, perhaps ever. There are moral wrongs to be righted here and the aging Bob Lee is just the man to do it. There is plenty of sniper-jargon and technology here, plenty of covert stalking, plenty of action, along with the usual terrific dialogue and interwoven plot. Hunter is flat out good at this and isn’t afraid to show it. And there’s nothing gray about that.


Fall is fast approaching Memphis, bookies, and it’s time to start stocking up on the winter reading material. For those of you who love ancient history but want something more than dry descriptions of broken ruins, here’s a choice from one of my Top Ten favorite mystery series’.


This review was written for and first appeared at www.iloveamysterynewsletter.com

Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus has lived through some pretty dangerous times, always managing to steer clear enough of Roman politics to keep his head on his shoulders, while simultaneously enjoying the sumptuous life of a wealthy Roman. He has also achieved some notoriety with his unique investigative methods when it’s actually important to solve a murder or two. (Unlike most murders, which Romans aren’t really worried about) After a stint as Praetor Peregrinas in the last two books in this highly original series, a few years hav epassed and Decius finds himself back in Rome and out of politics. And a good thing, too! Because those missing years have not been quiet ones.

In the last book Pompey the Great made a cameo appearance. In this book Pompey is dead and buried, the loser in the war with Gaius Julius Caesar. Mining history, the author finds a little known tidbit around which to base his book: the re-ordering of the Roman calendar into twelve more or less equal months. It seems that Caesar is intent on many things, not just re-building Rome to his liking, or conquering the Parthian Empire, or even making himself Pharoah, but of re-working time itself. And the Romans aren’t happy about it. The old calendar might not have been very accurate but they were used to it and saw no need to change.

Enter a group of distinguished astronomers and astrologers, brought to Rome by Caesar to develop the new calendar. Enter Decius as Caesar’s pick to bring the new calendar before the public. And enter a murderer, who in no time murders two of the astronomers in a manner unknown to the Romans, who know a great deal about murders. For Decius this is a tricky matter. Not only must he solve two murders, he must do it quickly or risk angering the one man you didn’t want to anger, the Dictator of Rome.

As always, the author knows how to build suspense and give clues, to make the solving of the murders interesting to his readers. But, also as always, the reader gets the impression that finding the killer is secondary to the author’s desire to wander about Rome and its environs, to play with his cast and just plain have fun. Not only does he do that here, but he’s in rare form. This must have been a blast for him to write.

Just the cast alone would have been delicious to move about the chessboard of the case at hand: Julius Caesar, of course, Decius’ old commander from Gaul; Cleopatra (yes, THAT Cleopatra, who really was in Rome that year); Marcus Antonius and his scheming patrician wife Fulvia; Caesar’s old bed-mate, Servilia; his niece, Atia (and her young son and future emperor, Octavian); Crassus, Brutus, you name them, if they were famous during that last year of Caesar’s reign they’re probably here.

The real star, though, is Rome itself. The author skillfully interweaves daily life in ancient Rome so successfully that it’s almost as if the reader were there. He has obviously done his homework. For example, the old Senate meeting place, the Curia, still stands today, so when Decius eats at a tavern near there the mind’s eye can actually grasp the image using ruins that still exist. It’s verisimilitude, with a vengeance. All in all SPQR XIII: The Year of Confusion stands as being at least as good as anything else in the series, and that’s saying something.If we are grading these books, give this one the A and maybe the ‘+’, too.

CONGO by Michael Crichton

Good Monday morning, bookies. It’s wet and cool in Memphis, kind of nice after a delightfully scorching summer. Today’s book review is once again from early 1993, when I was gobbling up Michael Crichton’s backlist. I chose Congo because of the altogether wretched movie made from what was a terrific book. If you haven’t read it, check out he review and decide for yourself whether you need to; it holds up well, I think.

“Congo” by Michael Crichton. Adventure on a grand scale as a motley collection of scientists, mercenaries, marketing directors and African spear-carriers tromp through the Congo in search of a lost city of diamonds. Though an early book where the rough edges show in places, this book is so much fun to read you don’t care. Amy, the gorilla, is easily the best character. (And no, that’s not a slam.) Highly Recommended. A

RISING SUN by Michael Crichton

I’m feeling guilty for not posting more book related stuff lately, but at least I can post my reviews to keep my hand in. This one is from 1993, the 2nd book I read that year. Incidentally, that was the first year after I had quit my job with Pioneer Electronics to stay home with the kids, and 5 years before I started Bill’s Books. And so, from 1993…

“Rising Sun” by Michael Crichton. A fairly straight-forward murder mystery, entanglement in the morass of Japanese social custom. Once more Crichton’s research is deep and well-used. His personal prejudices against the Japanese, however, get in the way of what could have been another great novel. Like all of his works, Crichton teaches in an entertaining fashion. A lesser writer could not have done so well. Recommended. B+ (Note: The technology Crichton used in this book was, in 1992, cutting edge. Namely, manipulating computer data to change what was recorded on a hard drive to show a false reality. He did the same thing in Jurassic Park, only with different science. To enjoy the book today, in the 21st Century, try top put yourself back in the days of Bill Clinton’s first year in office, when cell phones were the size of your shoe.)

FREE AGENT by Jeremy Duns

It’s the weekend, bookies, what are you doing reading this blog when you should be outside enjoying the spring weather? Anyway, here’s another review for those of you who can’t get enough of my scintillating prose. If you like spy novels, this one should get your attention.

FREE AGENT by Jeremy Duns

Spy novels are supposed to be paranoid, claustrophobic affairs. Who do you trust? Who is lying, who isn’t? When is the author misleading you? Half the fun is trying to figure out what’s really going on. At least, that’s how spy novels unfold when they are done right. And so, it’s quite the compliment to say that with Jeremy Duns’ first novel, Free Agent, it’s quite a while before the reader has a clue to what is really happening.

Paul Dark is a young and eager officer in MI6 when World War II comes to a close; his father is also an officer, and while no longer young he is certainly eager to keep killing. When he recruits his son to help it seems like a straight forward proposition: assassinate Nazis before they can escape, a top secret assignment no one must ever know about. Then the father is killed, murdered, and Paul finds himself being recruited by the Russians.

Twenty-five years later a Russian KGB officer wants to defect, offering details of a British officer recruited by his forerunners right after the end of World War II. Is Paul the double agent? It certainly seems so, and in short order he is running from both the KGB and MI6.

Paul Dark is no knight in shining armor, however. He can kill without compunction, even those he has known and liked for years. And he does. Like the best of his predecessors, the author knows that in the shadow world of spies and counter-spies, no one is ever wholly good and no one wholly evil. So it is with Paul Dark. He’s the protagonist, but calling him a hero might be stretching things.

The author’s style is fast, dialogue clipped. The characters’ internal realities are all strictly maintained, meaning that the reader who pays attention will pick up small details that reinforce the reality and move the story. It’s a fast, well thought out debut. And fortunately there are more on the way.

WICKED BREAK by Jeff Shelby

Hiya bookies! Some books stick with you long after you read them, and so it is with today’s review. It wasn’t great literature or anything, but it was fast and well written. The author wasn’t trying to be Raymond Chandler, he was just trying to tell a story.

WICKED BREAK by Jeff Shelby

Noah Braddock is minding his own business in the surf off of Mission Beach, California, riding the swells and forgetting the stresses of life as a P.I. He sees the man on the beach watching him, feeling in his gut it’s about a case and not wanting any part of whatever the man wants. But money is money and bills don’t pay themselves.

Peter Pluto’s brother is missing. Linc Pluto is a college student who took their mother’s recent death from cancer quite hard and has dropped out of sight. Worried, Peter wants to make sure all is well. A mutual friend sent him to Noah. A missing person’s case doesn’t seem too threatening so Noah takes the money and the case. Bad choice.

Linc isn’t what he seems to be and Peter doesn’t survive long enough for Noah to question him further. Indeed, it’s when he tries to do find out what Peter isn’t telling him that he almost winds up dead himself, right next to what is left of Peter Pluto. Beaten to a pulp by the same skinheads who killed Pluto, Noah enlists the help his giant friend Carter, (think defensive end with more propensity for violence), and vows to find Linc and get even with those who attacked him.

The author is mining familiar territory in Wicked Break. The young, brash but reluctant P.I. who lives by his own rules; Carter, the tough, deux-ex-machina sidekick who does the dirty work and enjoys it; gangsters, gangsters’ tough-but-loveable women-folk, Nazis, shootouts, ex-girlfriends. All of the classic elements of the P.I. novel are here. And yet, as unoriginal as this all may seem, Wicked Break works beautifully because the author knows exactly what he’s doing. The prose is sharp and fast, the dialogue tough but real, the characters defined. In short, what has always made P.I. novels work well is on display in this book.

If you like other contemporary authors such as Steve Hamilton, Harlan Coben or Robert Crais, it’s almost a sure bet you’ll find Noah Braddock and Carter as welcome as old friends you’ve just never met before.

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