Second Wind

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dick Francis. I’m a big fan and I put him up there with with Grafton and Hillerman in that group of my top mystery and crime writers. This is the 21st book of his that I’ve read. He has like 40 I think.

I’ve said this before: these three writers really make me care about the characters. Francis is different because unlike Grafton and Hillerman, he very rarely (if ever) repeats characters. But that doesn’t detract from the character depth that he builds in each book.

His main characters vary widely and are usually not cops or private investigators. They are mostly just regular guys thrown into some sort of criminal situation that they have to get themselves out of. This book is about a meteorologist who gets embroiled in the illegal trade of plutonium with a surprising twist involving unpasteurized milk. C’mon, you gotta read it, it’s only 261 pages.

Despite Francis’ wide range of characters, there is plenty of Grafton-style continuity because each book is loosely related to the UK horse racing industry. Whereas Grafton has Santa Barbara and Hillerman has the four corners, Francis has Newmarket and the sport of kings. It makes for a fine backdrop.

I probably won’t read another one this year, but maybe.


Native Tongue

Here is what Hiaasen does better than anybody I’ve read: he combines hilarity and satire with relatively thrilling crime. He’s funny, and I’m not talking wry humor or subtlety, I’m talking over-the-top, laugh-out-loud funny. The crime is relatively light and is outshone by the humor, but still contains enough “thrill” to keep it interesting from a crime standpoint. This effort was worthy, although not as good as Skinny Dip, which I read last year.

Hiaasen lives in South Florida and he clearly loves it. Any encroachment on the purity of this region gets skewered maliciously. He takes no prisoners. The brunt of his attacks this time are:

  • Tourists
  • Theme Parks (especially with animal kingdoms)
  • Golf Course Developments

Other slices of Americana also get highlighted by Hiaasen; like steroid use and phone sex operations. He just kind of pokes fun at them. I’m not sure what his agenda is, but it’s funny as hell.

In this book, an ex-newspaperman named Joe Winder is now the public relations man for the Amazon Kingdom of Thrills in North Key Largo, which happens to be owned by a ex-mobster in the witness protection program. Everything is clipping along fine, until the ex-mobster decides he wants to expand his holdings by wiping out a huge chunk of natural Florida habitat, next to the Kingdom of Thrills, for a golf course community. This just happens to be the same natural Florida habitat that Winder goes to a few nights a week after work to engage in some catch-and-return fishing. All hell breaks loose.

I probably won’t read Hiaasen again until 2009 because of my backlog, but I’m looking forward to the next one. Maybe I’ll read his golf book next.


The Shape Shifter

I’m about a year behind on Tony Hillerman. My reading has really bogged down as of late. I’ve been busy at work and I’ve been consumed with uploading all my digital photos to flickr. I was unmotivated, so it was a no-brainer to bang through a short Hillerman that has been sitting around for awhile.

It was another great effort – crime fiction in a particular setting that I gobble up. Besides the mystery, Hillerman always tosses in some cultural surprises. He is clearly infatuated with the belief systems of all peoples and cultures. In this book the main character, a retired Navajo Tribal Policeman named Joe Leaphorn, uses his knowledge of the Hmong deity to befriend a potential enemy.


Let me back up a bit. The bad guy is a Vietnam vet and he has a Hmong servant named Tommy Vang whom he met while serving in Asia. At first you sense that Vang is an evildoer with special, far east killing skills. In the end it’s clear that Vang is an innocent who was taken advantage of for most of his life. The way Hillerman builds the rapport between Leaphorn and Vang after the two meet in a potentially contentious situation is pure genius.

Leaphorn uses a combination of kindness, firmness, and understanding (Leaphorn majored in some sort of anthropology) to break down the barriers between the two cultures and it really worked well. The slow, methodical, question and answer session between the two men as they make their way towards a potentially violent conflict with a third party is very rewarding for the reader.

The conversation was about their individual belief systems, basically their religions, and how they’re different but the same. It was about listening rather than telling – two adults from opposite ends of the world finding a common thread in a topic that few agree on, and the result was trust. In the end, they team up and emerge alive.

I need Hillerman to keep churning these out but he seems to be slowing down (no new hardcover in 2007). It’s difficult to explain why they’re so great. The cultural commentary, the human drama, or the seedy crimes on the reservation. It’s all good. Maybe I’ll just read crime dramas all year, screw it.


The Neon Rain

This is the start of another crime/thriller series with one main character, a genre that is my most reliable source of pop fiction. I start at book one and follow the character through each novel in succession. It’s probably my number one outlet for non-organized, brainless, leisure time. If I have a break, and it’s not long enough to think about what I should I do next, I just crack open a book like this.

The main character in this series is a New Orleans homicide detective named Dave Robicheaux and so far he is the main character in 16 books. In this book, Robicheaux is investigating the murder of a prostitute and stumbles upon a shady network of arms dealers and drug traffickers. He gets embroiled in their world and has to end up kicking some ass to extract himself from it.

It’s quite dramatic and over the top. A little too much so, that’s why I say the jury is still out on this series. Robicheaux encounters just about every possible bad guy in this book; a dirty cop that happens to be his partner, a retired general that still thinks he’s fighting a war, a Columbian drug lord, a Mafia kingpin, an ex-marine killer, an ex-CIA killer. You name it. At the same time, he falls in love with a woman he meets while escaping from two dirty cops (other than his partner), his brother gets shot in the head, and he revisits his alcoholism by going on a bender to end all benders. Wow.

It’s a good story though, but I didn’t read it under the best of circumstances. It took me a few weeks to read because I’ve been really busy lately. When this happens, I get confused and lost sometimes. I didn’t give the book much of a chance. But I will read the next few and decide if I’m going to press onward with the series.

The thing that will keep me in the series, in the short term at least, is that it has a lot of New Orleans character. This is important to me in the same way that Hillerman’s novels reflect the character of the Navajo reservation and Grafton’s novels capture the spirit of California’s central coast. I like the way Burke describes Robicheaux’s meals, all of which have a New Orleans flare. Descriptions of food always stick with me. Burke takes you to Cafe du Monde, out for oysters, and to a shack for a po’ boy sandwich, among other things. He paints New Orleans as a unique and beautiful place, albeit somewhat troubled and riddled with corruption. But it is Robicheaux’s home, and through his first person descriptions you get a feeling for the beauty and peace of the city.


N is for Noose

I’m 7 books away from being caught up to Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. I wonder if she’s just going to stop at Z. Anyway, I grabbed this one on the way out the door for a vacation in Santa Barbara wine country, which just so happens to be the heart of Sue Grafton country.

Kinda cool huh? I’m going to Santa Barbara, CA for a long weekend, so how appropriate is it to start reading a book by an author that lives in Santa Barbara and uses the city as the backdrop for her bestselling crime series? Well, I think it’s pretty damn appropriate. Plus, it’s a mangled paperback that I got on eBay so I’ll just leave it for another reader when I’m done and lighten my load for the trip back. I rule.

Not much to say. And what could I say that could possibly be interesting to a non-reader of the series or thought provoking 10 or 20 years down the road when I look back at this blog to figure out what was going on in my life in 2007? Well, I’m going to stray from my normal take on fiction and disclose some plot killers.


This book separates itself from the others for a couple of reasons. First, there are a few very intense assaults against the main character, Kinsey Milhone; more so than in the previous books. Second, I pretty much figured it out about mid way through the book; something I haven’t done yet in the series.

About the assaults; twice Kinsey is confronted by a mysterious man in a black ski mask. Even though neither occasion was an attempt on her life, they were still darker and more ominous than even the murderous attempts on her life in the past. Grafton’s descriptions of the events were right out of thrillerdom and made for good reading. And I might add, the perp in both cases gets his due when Kinsey goes on a PCP-induced rampage and kicks his ass, then drops the f-bomb. Out-of-character, but great stuff.

About me figuring it out, well, I didn’t necessarily have it wired in, but I can remember the exact moment where Grafton foreshadowed the perpetrator. During the second assault mentioned above, Kinsey said the the perpetrator “smelled of sweat.” I said to myself, “it’s got to be Brant because he goes to the gym all of the time.” Well, it was Brant, I was correct. Although I backed-off on my assessment so maybe I don’t deserve credit for figuring it out.

Was this a coincidence or did I really root out the killer? Not sure, but it didn’t impinge on my enjoyment of the book because my conviction was not that strong. I was left in doubt just about until the end.

I’m going to take a few months off from Grafton.


M is for Malice

One of the reasons I like Tony Hillerman and Sue Grafton so much is the continuity of the main characters. Almost all of their books have the same main characters and it’s fascinating to witness their development.

With Hillerman, I came along in the middle of the stories about Navajo tribal policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. I read them out of order, so even though Hillerman is the top dog as far as I’m concerned, it would have even been better if I’d started them in chronological order and went from there (something I will do before I die).

My experience with Grafton has been ideal. I started at the beginning, with A is for Alibi, and have grown with Kinsey Millhone, the main character, over the last 13 books. This book, M is for Malice, is probably the most in-depth study thus far of Kinsey’s emotional state. Grafton really digs into Kinsey’s familial relationships and dredges up some past loves, and the mystery at hand hits especially close to home for this single, thirty-five year old, female private investigator who loves fast food. I’m not going to dig into the plot but to say that it was another solid effort and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I think that Grafton sometimes tries to hard to make Kinsey kind of quirky cool. Kinsey is cool enough without hearing more about how she doesn’t care about her hair or only has one dress-up outfit (unlike your average woman I guess). I’m not sure why I perceive this, but it could be because I read so few books by women. I just noticed it near end of this book; in the last 34 books, I’ve only read two female authors, Grafton and Casey. And there are none in the hopper, save for more of Grafton. It’s not intentional, but what does that make me? An idiot? A chauvinist? Or are there just more male writer’s than female so I don’t have any choice?

I think of my taste in books as flexible, wide-ranging, varied, open-minded, but am I fooling myself? I gotta dig into this issue…


Skeleton Man

If you would have told me 20 years ago that my most enjoyable and anticipated reading experiences would be crime novels about two Navajo tribal policemen that take place in the area where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona meet, I would have called you crazy. I would have grabbed my Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel and laughed in your face.

But here I sit, having just finished another fine story about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and I can safely say that in my estimation, there is no other fiction writer that fires on all cylinders as consistently as Hillerman. Here are a few of the great things about Tony Hillerman’s writing.

  • The relationship between Leaphorn (sage, retired cop) and Chee (young cop that occasionally bucks the system) is pitch perfect. Nothing is overdone and it’s very believable.
  • You are transported into a fascinating world of unfamiliar Native American customs in the arid landscape of the four corners region of the western US. Each book invariably brings outsiders into this world and the ensuing clash of cultures is an added twist on how the mystery shakes out.
  • Chee’s ongoing struggles with finding the perfect woman provide some great character depth but are never too obtrusive in the mystery at hand.

This current adventure has all of the above ingredients. Chee is months out from marrying former police officer Bernie Manuelito and in the middle of investigating a robbery and murder where the accused is a young nephew of Chee’s good friend, Officer Dashee. Chee and Dashee set off to slot-canyon country to dig up some evidence and Manuelito convinces them to bring her along. What was expected to be a routine evidence-gathering turns out to be perilous, and all sorts of intrigue erupts.

You can’t go wrong.


Unplayable Lie

This tidy little mystery was a lot of good fun. It’s a police procedural that takes place in Scotland, where a murder was committed. Yikes, a mmmuuurrrrddddeerrrr. That’s scary. Alright, enough with the funnin’ around.

This has been sitting in my stack of stuff to read for a year or two maybe. It’s a mystery, which is a genre that I like, and it has a link to golf, which I like. So I was gonna get to it eventually. I kept thinking that I asked for it for Christmas or something. Then my wife sees me reading it and says, “Hey, how do you like that book? That’s the one I picked up at Jackson Park Golf Course for free.”

What? I take great care in picking out every book that I read, and my wife is telling me that she grabbed it for free from some writer with a card table and a Sharpie at a Chicago municipal course where you can play all you want for like $15. I think that is the case. Well, it turned out alright, even though it was not even signed. Maybe he just left a stack to give away or something, I don’t know.

Though short on golf-oriented sections, it was pretty long on golf insight. At one point, Inspector St. George and his cohort, Laurence Poole, have to go to historic St. Andrews to do some detective work. The inspector is a golf lover, and during some downtime he is describing his penchant for blowing big bucks at golf shops:

“Make no mistake, Laurence, I’ve spent many happy hours immersing myself therein [golf shops]. And if those various proprietors included my patronage in their annual budgets, then I must confess they did so with good reason.””Ah! In other words, you’re hooked.”

“Yes, I suppose you could say so. But that makes it sound rather pathologic. After all, it’s not like I’m a gambler.”

Always sensitive to his mentor’s sensibilities and moods, Poole hastened to add, “Of course not. Just sounds better than ‘compulsive’ or ‘addicted’.”

“Let’s just say ‘focused’ and leave it at that.”

“All right. Pathologically focused.”

Keen insight into a common malady with golf junkies like myself. You know when you start denying it, or comparing it to vices like gambling, drugs, or internet porn, that you really do have a problem.

I may grab the other Inspector St. George mystery at some point, who knows.


L is for Lawless

Recently my print selections have been pretty heavy and each took awhile to get through. The last book I read was some complicated sci-fi that I never understood; before that it was a depressing work of fiction by Philip Roth. Maybe that’s why I have been reading so little lately…coupled with the fact that my reading trails off a lot during the summer because I just spend a lot of time outside.

That brings us to Sue Grafton and the twelfth Kinsey Millhone mystery (I’ve read the first eleven in order). As I’ve stated, I’m a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre and Sue Grafton does not disappoint. If I am up for some mindless fiction, I just grab one. In fact, I bought seven of them (in paperback) on eBay about a year ago and I still have two or three left. Just a lotta good fun.

The main character is this surly, 30 something female private detective that lives in the fictional town of Santa Theresa, CA. The town, I think, is really Santa Barbara and Kinsey Millhone is Grafton’s fantasy life had she not gotten married and had kids. There’s all sorts of picking locks, eating fast food, catching bad guys, and other sorts of hooey. Did I just use the word hooey? What the $%*^ is going on?

Rack it up as another good one. You can’t go wrong with Grafton.