Pub Day Repost: The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman: Paradise, MA comes face to face with the Opioid Epidemic

The Bitterest Pill

Robert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone, #18

eARC, 368 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: July 31 – August 3, 2019

Well, it’s pretty clear that Don Winslow has left his mark on Reed Farrel Coleman—there’s a quotation from Winslow on the so-called War on Drugs as the epigraph to this novel. Jesse cites it and alludes to it later in the novel. It’s a good line—catchy and insightful (and, not that it matters, I agree 100% with it)—don’t misunderstand me, but I’m used to Robert B. Parker characters citing Shakespeare, (Edmund) Spenser, Shelley, and songs from the late 60s/70s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quote someone contemporary. The latest focus of most of our country in that War is the Opioid Crisis, in The Bitterest Pill, that epidemic shows up in Paradise, Massachusettes—partially fulfilling Vinnie Morris’ prediction to Jesse that Boston crime was on its way to Paradise.

A student at Paradise High—the daughter of a city councilman—dies of an overdose and the city is rocked. It can’t be the first drug-related death in its history, but this was a different kind of thing. She’s not an obvious user, cheerleader, from a well-to-do family, and so on. Not the kind of person that Paradise is ready to believe would be an addict or that would die of an O.D.

What’s obvious to Jesse and his team is that if they don’t shut down the supply chain that fed this girl her drugs, she won’t be the only death, she’ll just be the first. This sets Jesse on a Hunt through Paradise High School and Boston’s underbelly. There’s a moment that made me think of Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth (which just means that Connelly and Coleman have both done their research into the ways prescription drug rings work, not that Coleman’s copying anything)—but there’s a difference. Bosch is trying to deal with a situation, he’s involved in busting a ring as a means to an end. Jesse? He’s trying to protect his town it’s personal—and the ways that this particular ring is trying to invade Paradise are more diverse than what Bosch dealt with.

Skip this next paragraph if you’re worried about Colorblind spoilers.
I avoided talking about the new character Cole last time out, because, how could I? I’m on the fence with him, honestly. I don’t see where he was necessary—Jesse has Suit to father (although, at this stage, Luther doesn’t need much), he’s got the weight of the city on his shoulders, what’s added to the character by this relation? On the other hand, scenes with him are done so well, and Jesse’s different with him. I really enjoy him—he’s not the Paradise equivalent of Paul Giacomin, thankfully (nothing against Paul, we just don’t need another one), he’s a different kind of character (as Jesse was compared to Spenser and Sunny).

Speaking of Suitcase, I think I’ve loved everything Coleman’s done with him (every major thing, anyway, there might have been a scene or two that I forgot about), other than not using him as often as he could. But there’s a scene with Suit and Cole in this book that is so well done that it’s one of those passages I could read from time to time just to smile at. He’s come a long way. Molly seemed a little under-used, but she was good whenever she showed up and did get to shine a bit. I think Coleman overplayed the difficulty of Molly doing her job because of the way this case impacted Paradise’s children a bit (really not much), and, as always, he’s too dependent on bringing up the incident with Crow in relation to Molly. But on the whole, Suit, Molly and the rest of Paradise PD came off pretty well.

For awhile under Coleman and Ace Atkins, Vinnie Morris seemed more dangerous, more of a wild card—less “tamed.” But both the way that Atkins has used him the last time or two and here he seems to be tacking back to a friendly criminal who’s too willing to help out the non-criminal element. Frankly, I prefer the less-tame version, but as someone who’s enjoyed Vinnie since he worked for Joe Broz ages ago, I don’t care, I just like seeing him on the page.

After the very effective use of the mayor recently, I was surprised at her absence in this novel—not that there was room for anything like that.

There’s really one more supporting character that we should talk about—Alcohol. Jesse’s greatest foe (although, you could argue he’s the enemy and alcohol is the tool he uses to attack himself, but…eh, let’s make this easy and say alcohol). He may be clean and sober, but he’s still an addict, and his drug of choice is still a near-constant presence in his life. I love, respect and admire the way that Jesse (and Coleman) have dealt with this subject, particularly since Jesse stopped drinking. It’s so much more believable (and healthy) than Jesse’s attempts to manage his drinking before. I liked the approach in Colorblind, and continuing it in The Bitterest Pill made it stronger.

So, we’ve got Jesse battling personal demons (but with a clearer head), adjusting to a new personal reality, and dealing with a potentially crushing crime wave that’s leaving a trail of destruction through the youth of Paradise. Throw in the instability of a new romantic relationship? Jesse’s in a pretty healthy place, but given the pressures (and a couple I didn’t list)—it’s gotta be weighing on him, and Coleman does a pretty good job of balancing the health and precarious nature of Jesse’s state of mind.

As Coleman’s writing, it seemed frequently that he was trying too hard to make this something the level of Colorblind or Debt to Pay, and didn’t quite make it. Maybe because he was trying so hard? The topic he’s dealing with is important, so it’s understandable he’s taking big swings to hit this out of the park. But there are a few sentences that no one but Reed Farrel Coleman could have written. They were gorgeous and practically sang. I don’t want to sound like one of those anti-genre literary snobs, but Coleman comes close to transcending the genre and its easy to see the impact his poetry frequently has on his prose.

At the same time, he’s an effective mystery writer—there are red herrings all over the place for readers to get distracted with. As far as the main conduit for drugs into the school goes, I had a candidate I was sure of and a back-up, and another one, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong and had dismissed the actual perpetrator without much thought at all. While ratcheting up the tension, keeping me locked into the story, he pulls the wool over my eyes and manages a few lines that are practically lyrical. There are few in the genre who can match that.

The ending of this novel came as a little bit of a gut punch. Granted, there was a sense in which the last couple of pages couldn’t have gone any other way—I’ll leave the specifics out of it, but the last few paragraphs were hard to read. But they were so, so good. They might be the most effective few paragraphs in the book. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that just when you think the story’s done, it’s not.

Rumor has it that this is Coleman’s last Jesse Stone book—I hope it’s not true, but it’d make sense as he’s switching publishers. As I said when his first entry in this series came out, his was the best Jesse Stone since Parker’s early days with the series. Yes, he didn’t do things the way Parker would have (especially later), but what he did was honest and genuine to the spirit of the characters and series that Parker left. Stone has a complexity that Spenser lost in the mid-80s, and Coleman recaptured that. The Bitterest Pill might not have been Coleman’s Stone at his best, but I think that’s largely because he was trying too hard to say something about the societal impact of the drugs (whereas in Colorblind it seemed effortless). And, while it wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, it was very, very good, and will go down as one of the higher points of the series.

The Bitterest Pill would be a good place to meet Jesse Stone and the rest of the Paradise Police Department, and it’s a great way for long-time fans/readers to touch base with them. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—I thank both groups for this.


4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman: Paradise, MA comes face to face with the Opioid Epidemic

The Bitterest PillRobert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone, #18
eARC, 368 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: July 31 – August 3, 2019

Well, it’s pretty clear that Don Winslow has left his mark on Reed Farrel Coleman—there’s a quotation from Winslow on the so-called War on Drugs as the epigraph to this novel. Jesse cites it and alludes to it later in the novel. It’s a good line—catchy and insightful (and, not that it matters, I agree 100% with it)—don’t misunderstand me, but I’m used to Robert B. Parker characters citing Shakespeare, (Edmund) Spenser, Shelley, and songs from the late 60s/70s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quote someone contemporary. The latest focus of most of our country in that War is the Opioid Crisis, in The Bitterest Pill, that epidemic shows up in Paradise, Massachusettes—partially fulfilling Vinnie Morris’ prediction to Jesse that Boston crime was on its way to Paradise.

A student at Paradise High—the daughter of a city councilman—dies of an overdose and the city is rocked. It can’t be the first drug-related death in its history, but this was a different kind of thing. She’s not an obvious user, cheerleader, from a well-to-do family, and so on. Not the kind of person that Paradise is ready to believe would be an addict or that would die of an O.D.

What’s obvious to Jesse and his team is that if they don’t shut down the supply chain that fed this girl her drugs, she won’t be the only death, she’ll just be the first. This sets Jesse on a Hunt through Paradise High School and Boston’s underbelly. There’s a moment that made me think of Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth (which just means that Connelly and Coleman have both done their research into the ways prescription drug rings work, not that Coleman’s copying anything)—but there’s a difference. Bosch is trying to deal with a situation, he’s involved in busting a ring as a means to an end. Jesse? He’s trying to protect his town it’s personal—and the ways that this particular ring is trying to invade Paradise are more diverse than what Bosch dealt with.

Skip this next paragraph if you’re worried about Colorblind spoilers.
I avoided talking about the new character Cole last time out, because, how could I? I’m on the fence with him, honestly. I don’t see where he was necessary—Jesse has Suit to father (although, at this stage, Luther doesn’t need much), he’s got the weight of the city on his shoulders, what’s added to the character by this relation? On the other hand, scenes with him are done so well, and Jesse’s different with him. I really enjoy him—he’s not the Paradise equivalent of Paul Giacomin, thankfully (nothing against Paul, we just don’t need another one), he’s a different kind of character (as Jesse was compared to Spenser and Sunny).

Speaking of Suitcase, I think I’ve loved everything Coleman’s done with him (every major thing, anyway, there might have been a scene or two that I forgot about), other than not using him as often as he could. But there’s a scene with Suit and Cole in this book that is so well done that it’s one of those passages I could read from time to time just to smile at. He’s come a long way. Molly seemed a little under-used, but she was good whenever she showed up and did get to shine a bit. I think Coleman overplayed the difficulty of Molly doing her job because of the way this case impacted Paradise’s children a bit (really not much), and, as always, he’s too dependent on bringing up the incident with Crow in relation to Molly. But on the whole, Suit, Molly and the rest of Paradise PD came off pretty well.

For awhile under Coleman and Ace Atkins, Vinnie Morris seemed more dangerous, more of a wild card—less “tamed.” But both the way that Atkins has used him the last time or two and here he seems to be tacking back to a friendly criminal who’s too willing to help out the non-criminal element. Frankly, I prefer the less-tame version, but as someone who’s enjoyed Vinnie since he worked for Joe Broz ages ago, I don’t care, I just like seeing him on the page.

After the very effective use of the mayor recently, I was surprised at her absence in this novel—not that there was room for anything like that.

There’s really one more supporting character that we should talk about—Alcohol. Jesse’s greatest foe (although, you could argue he’s the enemy and alcohol is the tool he uses to attack himself, but…eh, let’s make this easy and say alcohol). He may be clean and sober, but he’s still an addict, and his drug of choice is still a near-constant presence in his life. I love, respect and admire the way that Jesse (and Coleman) have dealt with this subject, particularly since Jesse stopped drinking. It’s so much more believable (and healthy) than Jesse’s attempts to manage his drinking before. I liked the approach in Colorblind, and continuing it in The Bitterest Pill made it stronger.

So, we’ve got Jesse battling personal demons (but with a clearer head), adjusting to a new personal reality, and dealing with a potentially crushing crime wave that’s leaving a trail of destruction through the youth of Paradise. Throw in the instability of a new romantic relationship? Jesse’s in a pretty healthy place, but given the pressures (and a couple I didn’t list)—it’s gotta be weighing on him, and Coleman does a pretty good job of balancing the health and precarious nature of Jesse’s state of mind.

As Coleman’s writing, it seemed frequently that he was trying too hard to make this something the level of Colorblind or Debt to Pay, and didn’t quite make it. Maybe because he was trying so hard? The topic he’s dealing with is important, so it’s understandable he’s taking big swings to hit this out of the park. But there are a few sentences that no one but Reed Farrel Coleman could have written. They were gorgeous and practically sang. I don’t want to sound like one of those anti-genre literary snobs, but Coleman comes close to transcending the genre and its easy to see the impact his poetry frequently has on his prose.

At the same time, he’s an effective mystery writer—there are red herrings all over the place for readers to get distracted with. As far as the main conduit for drugs into the school goes, I had a candidate I was sure of and a back-up, and another one, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong and had dismissed the actual perpetrator without much thought at all. While ratcheting up the tension, keeping me locked into the story, he pulls the wool over my eyes and manages a few lines that are practically lyrical. There are few in the genre who can match that.

The ending of this novel came as a little bit of a gut punch. Granted, there was a sense in which the last couple of pages couldn’t have gone any other way—I’ll leave the specifics out of it, but the last few paragraphs were hard to read. But they were so, so good. They might be the most effective few paragraphs in the book. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that just when you think the story’s done, it’s not.

Rumor has it that this is Coleman’s last Jesse Stone book—I hope it’s not true, but it’d make sense as he’s switching publishers. As I said when his first entry in this series came out, his was the best Jesse Stone since Parker’s early days with the series. Yes, he didn’t do things the way Parker would have (especially later), but what he did was honest and genuine to the spirit of the characters and series that Parker left. Stone has a complexity that Spenser lost in the mid-80s, and Coleman recaptured that. The Bitterest Pill might not have been Coleman’s Stone at his best, but I think that’s largely because he was trying too hard to say something about the societal impact of the drugs (whereas in Colorblind it seemed effortless). And, while it wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, it was very, very good, and will go down as one of the higher points of the series.

The Bitterest Pill would be a good place to meet Jesse Stone and the rest of the Paradise Police Department, and it’s a great way for long-time fans/readers to touch base with them. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—I thank both groups for this.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Bullet Points about Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin: Another winner from one of the best in the biz

Even Dogs in the WildEven Dogs in the Wild

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #20

Hardcover, 347 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2016

Read: June 10 – 12, 2019

This post is overdue, and I can’t seem to find time to do it right. So, I won’t. Here’s a quick and dirty way to get it taken care of. I wish I had it in me to do a better job, but I don’t. Here’s the blurb taken from Rankin’s site:

           Retirement doesn’t suit John Rebus. He wasn’t made for hobbies, holidays or home improvements. Being a cop is in his blood.

So when DI Siobhan Clarke asks for his help on a case, Rebus doesn’t need long to consider his options.

Clarke’s been investigating the death of a senior lawyer whose body was found along with a threatening note. On the other side of Edinburgh, Big Ger Cafferty – Rebus’s long-time nemesis – has received an identical note and a bullet through his window.

Now it’s up to Clarke and Rebus to connect the dots and stop a killer.

Meanwhile, DI Malcolm Fox joins forces with a covert team from Glasgow who are tailing a notorious crime family. There’s something they want, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.

It’s a game of dog eat dog – in the city, as in the wild.

Even Dogs in the Wild brings back Ian Rankin’s greatest characters in a story exploring the darkest corners of our instincts and desires.

If I had the time to do this properly, here are the things I’d be talking about.

  • Rebus as consultant/PI — this is really the perfect role for him, he’s not that great at procedure anyway. Calling his own shots, following his instincts, going about things, he’s a better fit for this kind of thing than a certain retired LAPD Detective.
  • This proves to be the kind of case made for Rebus — the solution lays in the past, but the ramifications are in the present.
  • Cafferty isn’t the suspect here (he’s not innocent, he never is), but he’s the victim — and maybe a concerned citizen?
  • There’s little in Crime Fiction better than Rebus and Cafferty on the same page — that’s as true here as ever.
  • Clarke’s role seemed diminished in favor of Fox and Rebus (particularly the former), but maybe that’s just me — what she does, however, allows Rebus to do what he does best
  • The Clarke/Fox friendship is an interesting one — and different from the Clarke/Rebus friendship. I’ll enjoy watching this develop.
  • I’m already really enjoying the Fox/Rebus friendship/mentorship. That’s not something anyone would’ve seen coming the first time we met Fox, or the first time we saw the two of them cross paths. The fact that they’ve got a strange friendship/mentorship going on is just wonderful.
  • There’s more going on in Fox’s personal life than we’ve really ever seen with Rebus or Clarke on an extended basis.
  • Fox’s share of the story is really strong and displays the character we’ve come to know over the past few novels, but evolving to take on some of Rebus’ better traits, but none of his . . . well, worse.
  • For a period of time, through no fault of his own, Rebus takes guardianship over a small dog. This was just fantastic and one of my favorite things to happen to him in years.

Combine all of the above with Rankin’s consummate skill and you’ve got another winner — the twentieth Rebus book and the character, the writing, and the perspective is a strong and fresh as it ever was. A sure-fire win for old fans that would probably convert a newbie, too.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Paper Son by S.J. Rozan: Lydia and Bill in their most foreign setting yet — Mississippi

Paper SonPaper Son

by S. J. Rozan
Series: Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #12eARC, 352 pg.
Pegasus Books, 2019

Read: June 12 – 17, 2019

One thing I’ve said (possibly too often) as I talk about this series is how much I enjoy the conversations between Lydia and Bill — but I think one of the conversations between Lydia and her mother tops anything the partners have to say (until the last conversation, anyway), and the rest weren’t far behind. We start off with Mrs. Chin telling Lydia that she has to go to Mississippi — and take Bill along — to investigate a murder. Long-time readers of this series will be forgiven the need to re-read that sentence, I assure you that it’s correct. One of Lydia’s cousins (yes, she has cousins in the Mississippi Delta — she’s as shocked as you are) is accused of murdering his father. Her mother wants Lydia to go down and prove his innocence. That he’s innocent isn’t ever in doubt for a moment — he’s related to Lydia’s father, ergo, he’s innocent. Lydia doesn’t accept her mother’s logic, but feels obligated to try to help this cousin she’s never heard of before now, so she and Bill set off for the Delta. It’s simply a dynamite first chapter, and the hook was set immediately.

Upon their arrival, Lydia and Bill find themselves neck deep in a tangled web of history, race, meth, gambling (both your more traditional varieties and purely 21st Century versions), politics and a even more race (it is Mississippi). Lydia’s cousin Jefferson is in his mid-20’s, a computer whiz of some sort with questionable ethics. He’s called to come to his father’s grocery store for some reason — they argue, and Jefferson leaves to cool off. When he returns, he finds his father bleeding out from a knife wound. Naturally, that’s when the police arrive, taking him into custody immediately. He’s bloody, standing over the victim and weapon — and sure, his fingerprints are all over the knife. Seems like an open and shut case, right?

Jefferson’s uncle, Captain Pete, is at the front of the line of those who doubt this — which is why he called his cousin’s widow to get her PI daughter down to help. Pete’s a professional gambler — precisely the kind of person Mrs. Chin wouldn’t like to acknowledge, but is friendly, hospitable and charming. Lydia and Bill warm to him quickly and he becomes a source of comfort as well as a source of information for the duo as they dive in to the investigation. Soon after arriving in Mississippi, they also meet another of Lydia’s cousins — a nephew to Pete, who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Lydia can’t believe she’s related to a candidate for governor and she’s never heard of him. What else has her mother been keeping from her? Just from her conversations with Pete and Raymond Tam (the candidate), Lydia’s overwhelmed with family history that she didn’t expect to exist, much less be able to understand it all. It doesn’t derail the work that she and Bill are doing at all, but it threatens to distract her more than once. Adding the candidate into the mix guarantees that the water will get a lot muddier before it starts to become clear.

Lydia’s voice is as strong, engaging and entertaining as ever — possibly better than ever. I want to compare it to vintage Spenser, but that seems wrong (I’m not sure why I want to compare it to Parker at his best or why I shouldn’t — but that’s where I am). She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s insightful, she’s in a very alien place and is doing her best to acclimate. Bill seemed under utilized a little bit this time around — but (as he himself would point out), this was Lydia’s family, her case — he was just around for support. And he did come to her aid at pivotal moments — laying his native Southern accent on a little thick to help pave the way with some of the locals and to diffuse tense situations. Captain Pete is a great character, and I wish he wasn’t designed to be a one-and-done kind of guy, but I can’t see him coming up to Chinatown anytime soon to have tea with Mrs. Chin. Actually, I could easily read another novel or two with this cast — from the Public Defender staff to the people that hang out at the grocery store and all points in between. I’m not sure how Rozan could orchestrate those novels without feeling a bit contrived, but I’d be in for them.(*)

(*) Sure, I’d be in for Lydia and Bill Go Grocery Shopping or Bill and Lydia’s Day at the Recycling Center, but that’s beside the point..

I enjoy tea, but I’m no expert on it — I’m no where near the tea aficionado that Lydia is (even keeping Bill’s cupboards better stocked than he understands), but I loved her reaction to Sweet Tea (not just because I think she’s right). Using food is a great shortcut to revealing character traits, and Rozan does a great job throughout this book, but particularly on this point, of using that peculiar Southern version of tea to show us sides of Lydia.

Rozan’s at her strongest when in addition to the mystery, she’s using the circumstances around it to have Lydia and/or Bill explore another culture/sub-culture. She’s displayed this strength when helping her readers understand the Jewish refugees in the 1930’s who fled to Shanghai (The Shanghai Moon), Hong Kong (in Reflecting the Sky), Small Town High School Football (Winter and Night), the Contemporary Chinese Art scene (Ghost Hero), and so on. Here we get a Yankee perspective on Mississippi black/white relations (and a glance or two at how it differs from neighboring states), as well as a fascinating look at the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta in the late Nineteenth Century (which left me almost as shocked as Lydia). You give us that kind of history and commentary while delivering a solid mystery? It’s hard to ask for more.

As interesting as that is, the heart of the novel is in the idea of family. It’s a strong theme throughout the series, actually — whether it be Lydia’s strong sense of family, or the found family in the partnership of Bill and Lydia — or the many damaged families they encounter in their work. In Paper Son family shapes the warp and woof of the narrative — it’s Mrs. Chin’s confidence in the innocence of her husband’s relations, and Captain Pete’s call for help that brings the duo to the Delta. Lydia fights the impulse to believe Jefferson and Pete (and others) just because they’re family, yet wants thing to be the way her mother believes they are (even when — particularly when — the facts don’t seem to support it). Bill even encounters a fellow Smith, and while no one believes for a second they share anything beyond the name in common, there’s a connection. At it’s core, Paper Son is a story about the sacrifice, support, trust, and dysfunction that comes along from strong family (blood relation or found family) — not to mention all of the unintended consequences of that sacrifice, support, trust and dysfunction. I’m tempted to keep going, but I’d end up revealing too much.

The mystery itself is up to Rozan’s high standards — you may guess the identity of the killer fairly early on (and you may not), but you will not see the motivation coming until it’s past the point of inevitability. The ending feels a little rushed, but I can’t think of a way to improve upon it — and any rush was actually probably just me trying to discover how things would play out. The first half of the denouement with Lydia’s family is heartwarming — and, sure, borderline cheesy, but Rozan earned it. The second half is less cheesy and will fill even jaded readers with hope and joy. It’s just a great way to close the book.

If Paper Son isn’t S. J. Rozan and the series at their best, it’s hard to tell. For book 12 in a series to be this good almost defies the odds, the years that separated this book from it’s predecessor didn’t slow her down a bit (I honestly was afraid we’d be looking at something like Lehane’s return to Kenzie and Genarro in Moonlight Mile after 11 years). Long-time fans will be delighted in the return of this pair. I don’t know that this is the best introduction to the series, but it’d work just fine — you learn everything you need to know here. Fans of PI fiction starring smart, capable (and yes, mouthy) women will find a lot to reward them in these pages.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg: The Best-Selling Author/Hapless Hero Ian Ludlow Returns to Save the Day Again

I wrote about half of a post about this book to go up yesterday. But I realized I’d spent a lot of time talking about things I really didn’t care about, and hadn’t spent any time talking about the bits I did care about. But I couldn’t turn the ship around (much to my annoyance). So, I let one more day go without a post — a truly annoying trend for the week/month. This isn’t quite what I wanted it to be. But it’s done. So that’s a start.

Killer ThrillerKiller Thriller

by Lee Goldberg
Series: Ian Ludlow Thrillers, #2

Kindle Edition, 277 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2019

Read: May 21 – 22, 2019

           “…I want Ludlow under constant and total visual, audio, digital, and personal surveillance,” Yat added. If anybody in Beijing asked about it, he’d explain that it was part of his ongoing investigation into Wang Kang’s activities, which wasn’t far from the truth. Those were always the most effective lies. “Mobilize every resource that we have.”

“Including the assassins?”

“Especially the assassins,” Yat said.

In True Fiction, Lee Goldberg introduced us to Ian Ludlow — former TV writer, now thriller writer extraordinaire — who discovered (the hard way) that terrorists were using his fiction as a playbook. Then he had to go on the run for his life from these people who didn’t appreciate the fact that he’d be able to identify what they were doing. Running alongside him (frequently behind, more frequently ahead of him) was the poor girl who was supposed to schlep him from bookstore event to bookstore event in Seattle. Margo didn’t like Ludlow, but finding their fates bound together, she threw herself into surviving — and is very likely the reason he did survive.

Not only did they survive, they uncovered and defeated a group within US Intelligence that were actively plotting against the US. It’s a highly improbable story that didn’t feel that improbable — yet was told in a way that played up the tension, the suspense and the fun. It was one of the funniest and most enjoyable books I read last year.

Now it’s time for the inevitable sequel — Killer Thriller — and Lee Goldberg has somehow done what almost every good sequel strives to do (and few succeed) — he tells pretty much the same story with just a couple of differences, yet does so in a way that feels completely fresh and original — in most ways, superior to the original. I don’t think it’d be hard to take a semi-thorough outline of both novels to compare against each other and find that they’re freakishly similar. But I only thought about that when I sat back to think about the book and its predecessor. While reading, I didn’t care about True Fiction or any similarities the current book had to it. I just had too much fun while reading the sequel I couldn’t be bothered to compare it.

Which is a pretty neat trick, really. It’s like when Chandler Bing said, ” Oh–I think this is the episode of “Three’s Company” where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” Just because every episode of Three’s Company featured a few misunderstandings — it didn’t keep things (usually) from not being funny. The same kind of thing here — just because Ludlow and Margo are once again thrown in to the middle of things they’re not ready for, it doesn’t keep the action scenes from being riveting and the funny bits from being funny.

So, if you haven’t read the first book, let me tell you a little bit about Ian Ludlow. He’s overweight, doesn’t take care of himself in anyway, shape or form. He doesn’t seem to be attractive (and bounces between knowing it and forgetting it). His ego is pretty big, but he’s also realistic about himself. He’s lazy about everything but his writing — and he could likely be more disciplined about it. Okay, based on what we’re told about his greatest creation, Clint Straker — imagine the combination of Bond and Reacher — he’s pretty lazy. Still, he comes up with incredible plots (don’t take my word for it, take the word of people who based terror campaigns on his work). Deep down (Margo would argue very, very deep) he’s a decent guy. Especially for the 15-25 minutes a day he’s not hitting on some unwilling woman, or thinking about hitting on her.

Margo, meanwhile, is a would-be singer/songwriter, a former dog walker, and is really vocationally lost. She’s smart, she’s tough, and adaptable — even if she’s still trying to figure out how to adapt after the events of True Fiction. She’s picked up some self-defense skills along the way, which will prove to be handy.

Ludlow brings Margo with him to Hong Kong to act as his research assistant and hopefully relax a little from the stress that’s eating at her from her recent harrowing experiences (almost being killed counts as harrowing, right?). He’s going to Hong Kong to do a little promotion for the studio that’s turning his first Straker book into a movie. While there, he wants Margo to scope out some places and things he can use in his upcoming novel. In this novel, the Chinese government is waging a secret campaign to take over the US through political manipulation and selling us cheap products they can use to spy on us. Straker’s going to fight against them in Hong Kong, so he needs some local color.

Once in the hotel (and on the hotel’s wi-fi), a group of Chinese espionage agents tap into Ludlow’s laptop and make an unsettling discovery. The plot laid out in Ludlows “novel” is ridiculously close to the plan this same group has spent years devising and implementing to take over the US government through manipulation, cash, and fear. Clearly this man’s novels are just a cover story, he has to be the most wily of secret agents — using this preposterous writer character as a cover for his actual abilities and mission to stop this Chinese plot.

So the Chinese begin their dangerous game of cat and mouse with the “spy” Ian Ludlow. It’s more of a cat-and-clueless-yet-incredibly-lucky-mouse game. But you get the point. But hey, it works. Think Inspector Gadget and Penny — without the robotic arms and sentient dog.

Like Ludlow, Goldberg spent a lot of time as a writer/producer of television. And in both books he does a great job of lampooning the men and women writing, directing and starring in TV and movies. You can’t help but feel Goldberg exorcising some personal demons as he does so — particularly in the table read scene and everything that Damon Matthews (the actor playing Straker) says and does. Incidentally, I’m sure any parallels people might draw between Matthews/Straker and Cruise/Reacher are completely unintentional on Goldberg’s part. For my money, if doing this sort of thing helps Goldberg deal with the frustrations that seem to plague most TV writers/screenwriters, I hope he keeps pouring out his frustrations on the page — I love ’em.

Goldberg seems to have learned a lot from the Fox and O’Hare books he co-wrote with Janet Evanovich — there are huge chunks of this book that feel like they were originally planned for one of them. Whether Goldberg repurposed the scenes or was just influenced by his time with that series really doesn’t matter — the sensibility that made that series work so well is making this one work very well, too.

From the big things — like fight scenes or car chases — to the way he describes a Washington D. C. restaurant, to little touches like the way that someone smuggles information out of China, Goldberg is at the top of his game — which is an accomplishment. I think I’ve read almost 30 of his books and there are maybe one or two that are more satisfying than Killer Thriller. Thrills and laughs together — and maybe maybe a little surprising character depth and development (just a bit, we don’t want Ludlow to stop being a cad and a loser), this is a whole lotta fun. You can come into this one fresh, you won’t appreciate the changes in character (particularly Margo), but you’ll have just about as much fun as the rest of us.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge Humor Reading Challenge 2019

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin: Rebus’ Past Comes Back to Haunt Him

Saints of the Shadow BibleSaints of the Shadow Bible

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #19

Hardcover, 389 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
Read: April 15 – 17, 2019

           Rebus said quietly. “It made sense that we stuck up for one another back then–might not be so true now.”. . .

“. . . secrets and lies and all the other crap we’ve dealt out and been dealt. I didn’t see you owning up in there to singing your name to statements that weren’t yours. But we both know it happened a lot happened back then, and one crack in the dam might be all that’s needed . . .” Patterson paused, looking Rebus up and down. “So make sure you know whose side you’re on John.”

Rebus is officially un-retired, and very happy (at least by his standards). To be reinstated, he had to agree to be a Detective Constable again, instead of an Inspector. But he was willing (and usually still is) to take the rank cut so that he keep working. For anyone who’s read a Rebus book or two, this makes perfect sense. Buying books he doesn’t read, listening to his music collection, and police work — that’s all he has in his life. Well, okay, smoking and drinking, too. But those two can only occupy so much time.

Serving as a DC, he investigates a car that went off the road for no good reason on a straight stretch with DI Siobhan Clarke. It doesn’t take the two long at all to determine that what happened at the scene is as obvious as everyone else thinks (everyone but readers, because we all know that Rebus and Clarke together at a scene = more than meets the eye). They were called in because someone with influence exerted that influence at got detectives to investigate a seemingly routine auto accident that injured a young woman. Within days, there’s a more serious crime related to their investigation, and the two are plunged into a veritable minefield of money, politics, and family secrets.

Meanwhile, Malcom Fox is working his last Complaints case before being reorganized into detective work. He asks Clarke for help in approaching Rebus for some information related to the case. He’s looking into a murder case related to the group where Rebus served his first assignment as a rookie detective. Rebus is initially resistant to help Fox nab one of his old friends, but soon begins to think that Fox is onto something and works the case with him.

Watching the rapprochement between Rebus and Fox is great — at times it feels like things used to when Rebus was working with Clarke (in the latter stages, when they were more like equals). Fox and Clarke’s burgeoning friendship is a lot of fun to read, too. Basically, Fox’s addition to this world in general is something to be praised. I’m not 100% sold on Clarke’s rise, she almost seems more like Gill Templar than herself at times. Now, at one point, Clarke might have taken that as a partial compliment, but I don’t think so. She retains her sense of humor and instincts, but her commitment to the job might be more powerful than those instincts.

Over the last couple of books, one of the most interesting things is the rise of Darryl Christie in the Edinburgh crime world. He’s back in these pages. Not as Rebus’ target, but a presence — like Cafferty so often was. Time moves on and the young move up on both sides of the law. But as Rebus can’t let go, I can’t believe that Big Ger will roll over and let Christie take over the entire city without at least some resistance (something tells me that it’ll be very effective resistance).

I can’t think of another way to talk about Rankin’s skill. Here we are in the nineteenth Rebus book and things feel as fresh as ever — yet this is a world that the reader knows and feels comfort in. These characters and situations are old friends and Rankin’s Edinburgh is as real to me as Parker’s Boston, Connelly’s L.A. or Johnson’s Wyoming — I’ve never set foot in Scotland, but that city feels like a place I’ve frequented.

As you can’t help but expect, this is a completely satisfying mystery novel full of fantastic characters, tangled webs of lies and motives — and an excellent look at the ways policing used to be carried out and the changes it’s gone through. But more than that, it’s a little more time with one of the greats of Crime Fiction as he continues to try to stay active, an old dog learning a couple of new tricks (despite his best efforts) and not forgetting any of the old tricks.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

So, a couple of days ago, I re-ran the first batch of answers that MacMaster was kind enough to give. He f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶l̶y̶ generously agreed to answer some more questions for Fahrenbruary, which enabled me to focus more on the Kirby Baxter books. Hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. There is gold below, folks (maybe a little dross, too, but mostly gold)

Tell us about your background and road to publication.
Small town 80s kid, film school survivor, who spent an awfully long time doing crappy jobs and collecting rejection letter horror stories. I had written A Mint-Conditioned Corpse quite some time before it was published. Quite a few years in fact, and it was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers over those years. One publisher had said they liked it, but another book set at a comic convention hadn’t done well, so they were rejecting mine, even though it was a different genre.

For a long time it gathered digital dust in my computer’s files. Then I encountered Chris McVeigh and Fahrenheit Press on twitter. They started following me before I submitted to them, and then they participated in an open call on twitter for book pitches. I pitched them Mint, they and another publisher expressed interest. I sent a copy to both, and about a week later Chris emailed me, telling me that he was halfway through, and asked if I had any plans for a sequel. I said yes, and a day or so later he finished reading Mint and invited me to join the Fahrenheit family. Since then I’ve published two Kirby Baxter mysteries, Mint, and Video Killed the Radio Star, and a stand-alone thriller called Hack, all with Fahrenheit.

I’ve made no secret that I’ve become a giant Kirby Baxter fan — it took a whole 8% of the first book to make me one — where did Kirby come from?
Thanks for enjoying Baxter and his gang. As for his origins, it was mostly from frustration. I have a notebook in a box somewhere that contains a very rough outline for what was then called “Drawn To Death,” and it is a wildly different story. That version was more of a broad farce. In this version my lead character was a “comic book guy” stereotype. An overweight, obnoxious, socially awkward, all-together unpleasant character.

I looked it over, and it annoyed me. Because it was all just lame exaggerated situations and jokes built around that negative “comic book guy” stereotype. I didn’t want to build a book around negatives like that.

I then decided to start all over again from scratch. (Something I do quite often with projects) I decided to show that there’s more positives to geek culture than that guy you see on The Simpsons.

So I created Kirby Baxter.

I named Kirby Baxter in honour of Jack Kirby, and the Baxter Building from the Fantastic Four. I made him thin, geeky, charming, but in a slightly awkward way. Then I decided that he would need complete freedom of travel, so I made him accidentally rich. Then I realized that he needed some brawn to accompany his brain, as well as allies he could talk to, so I created Gustav, Molly, and then his pal Mitch. I also realized that it’s not easy for an amateur to butt in on a criminal investigation, so I made up Baxter’s status as a part-time “special consultant” for Interpol, which gives him some privileges, as well as many responsibilities.

The only thing I kept from that original outline was the setting of a comic convention, and “Dick Wilco” as the name of a reclusive comics legend who mentored Baxter.

Mitch is a very fun character (and I hope to see him again soon, hint, hint) — but I can easily see where he’d become “too much” and step over the line from “amusing comic relief” to “annoying secondary character” — how do you approach that kind of character? How do you keep him from becoming annoying?
Mitch acts as the Id to Baxter who is a very rational and sober character. Mitch blurts out the things Baxter will never say, make the mistakes Baxter would never make, and it’s a serious risk for someone like Mitch to go from being comic relief to a real pain in the butt.

One way to avoid that is to limit his appearances. Mitch is mentioned, but does not appear in Video Killed the Radio Star, but his role as the id of the story is taken up by a new character named Shelley Flugen. She’s a celebrity gossip blogger, and latches herself onto Baxter’s team in hopes of landing a big scoop.

While Shelley played a similar role to Mitch in her relationship with Baxter, she’s a very different person from Mitch. Where Mitch sees himself as a trickster, Shelley sees herself as a journalist and an investigator in her own right. Which leads to different situations and a totally different kind of comic relief.

Mitch will return, but it’s best to keep him in controlled doses.

I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I’m not trying to brag, but I don’t really get many bad reviews. The worst thing that was said, was that someone described my book as “wordy.” Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty ruthless when it comes to cutting out needless words.

I try to avoid that sort of trollish negativity, because it’s just not worth it to let them run your life. If they don’t like you, or your work, they’re not your audience.

Last time, you said something about “a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator.” Can you update us on that? Is there anything else your readers should be watching for?
My project about male archetypes and unreliable narrators is on the back burner right now, because when you write what I call a “puzzle box” story with multiple narrators, all contradicting each other, either by ignorance, or design, it can overwhelm you, and in this case another project jumped out and tackled me with incredible immediacy.

Right now I’m putting together a potential third Baxter novel that was inspired by recent documentaries that caused a lot of buzz on social media. This material is so ripe for satire, and for homicide. It was just too perfect for Baxter to pass up, and I have to act fast to capture that immediacy, that freshness. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

As this Q&A is inspired by Fahrenbruary, I figure I should give you another opportunity to say something nice about your publisher and the culture around it. Or heck, go full punk and say something horrible about them.
The most horrible thing I could say about Fahrenheit is that not enough people buy Fahrenheit books. Seriously, they are a publisher who has something for everyone, the sort of diversity and variety you just won’t find with most of the big publishers.

Get out there and buy Fahrenheit books. Not just mine, but they’re a good way to start, but check out the whole catalogue. You will find something to love.

Was that punk enough for you?

Thanks for your time, Mr. MacMaster — and thanks for the great reads, I can’t wait to see what you have in store.