Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dead Skip: Joe Gores

The DKA Files series by Joe Gores features a group of investigators who work for Daniel Kearny Associates, a firm specializing in repossessions of vehicles whose owners have defaulted on their loan payments. On the surface that sounds boring, but really it is not. There are six novels (plus one book of short stories) in the series.

Dead Skip (1972) is the first book in the series; Bart Heslip, a private investigator working for Dan Kearny Associates, is in a coma following a car crash. The police think he totaled the car while joyriding. His friend and coworker, Larry Ballard, knows that behavior does not fit Bart's character. Dan Kearney, his boss, gives Ballard 72 hours to work through Heslip's open files, looking for a clue to connect one of them to Bart's “accident.”


Joe Gores tells a  fast-moving story, with believable characters. He based the stories in this series on his own experiences as a private investigator in San Francisco, working for a firm very much like DK Associates. He provides a realistic, non-glamorous view of private investigators and their daily activities. The search takes place primarily in San Francisco and some East Bay communities.

One of the most fun parts of this novel for me was the crossover to the Parker universe. In this novel, Dan Kearney gets involved in the investigation towards the end, and along the way he runs into an old acquaintance, who turns out to be Parker, a series character created by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark). It is only a brief understated scene, but it was a kick to recognize who he was referring to since I just started reading the Parker novels this year. Parker's encounter with Kearny is told in more detail and from a different perspective in Plunder Squad, a Parker novel. Nick Jones goes into much more detail on that in his review (of both books) at Existential Ennui.

In his review in 1001 Midnights (1986), Bill Pronzini calls this book "an excellent private-eye procedural." He also says: "Even better are the other two novels in the series — Final Notice (1973) and Gone, No Forwarding (1978)." (At the time those were the only books published in the series.)

See Also reviews by TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and Rick Robinson at The Broken Bullhorn (Rick now blogs at Tip the Wink).

Publisher: Random House, 1972
Length:    184 pages
Format:    Hardback (book club edition)
Series:     DKA Files #1
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2016.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Rainbird Pattern: Victor Canning

The Rainbird Pattern (1972) by Victor Canning is the 2nd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. There is very little oversight of the Department's work and the agents are generally amoral, although they believe that their mission is important to the welfare of the country. The first book I read featuring this covert department was Firebird. The plot was complex and kept me guessing, but most of the characters were unlikeable.

In The Rainbird Pattern, there are two distinct plotlines. One deals with a kidnapping plot; the reader follows the agents of the Department as they investigate two previous kidnappings. The second plot involves an elderly woman's search for her sister's child, put up for adoption decades earlier. Although skeptical about spiritualists, she hires a medium to get in touch with her dead sister. Madame Blanche believes in her gift and her contact in the spiritual world, but also makes use of the detecting abilities of her boyfriend, George. The question, of course, is how will these two plots intersect?

This is a short book, under 200 pages, but the build up to the point where the two plots come together is handled well. The author provides just enough background for the participants; the ending is surprising and dark. The development of the characters is well done but, as in Firecrest, I could not really root for any of the characters. Some of them are either evil or amoral or both, but even those with basically good intentions are primarily self-serving.

This is reportedly Victor Canning's most well regarded book, and that does not surprise me. It won a Silver Dagger Award from the CWA. Firebird was thought-provoking with very good characterization, but The Rainbird Pattern is on a higher level, and moves faster, especially towards the end.

The book was adapted as a film, Family Plot, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, script by Ernest Lehman. The film treatment is very different from the book. The basic elements of the plot remain, but the story is turned into a comedy. The setting is also moved from the UK to Southern California. Initially I found the setting disappointing but in a way it made it easier for me to switch to a different mode. Although none of the actors were spectacular in this film, many of them are actors I enjoy watching: Bruce Dern, William Devane, Karen Black. I liked Barbara Harris as Blanche, the medium; I was not familiar with her before seeing this film. Family Plot is clearly not among Hitchcock's best films, but I enjoyed it.

Other resources:


Publisher:   Ostara, 2010 (orig. pub. 1972)
Length:       193 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Birdcage books #2
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Reading Summary for July 2017

July has been another good reading month. I read nine books, which is a lot for me.  I am making progress on my Twenty Books of Summer. Of the nine books I read this month, seven were from that list. The other two were read this month because I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie.

One of the books was not crime fiction: Their Finest by Lissa Evans, set in the the UK in 1940 and 1941. The story is about a young female copywriter who gets an assignment to the Ministry of Information, writing parts of scripts for a WWII propaganda film. That alone would be an interesting subject, but the story follows several other people associated with the filming. Each one provides a different view of the UK during the war. It is a lovely story, very humorous, and one of my favorite reads of the month. I much prefer the UK title: Their Finest Hour and a Half.

Now for my list of crime fiction books...

City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley (2010)
A story about a female private eye set in 1940 in San Francisco's Chinatown. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (2009)
Red Bones is the third book in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves; the books are all set on the Shetland Islands, which are part of Scotland. They feature Inspector Jimmy Perez. I read the first two books a few years ago; although I liked them a lot, I don't remember much beyond the basic plot. I read this book (at this time) because we wanted to start the Shetland TV series and Red Bones is the first book which was adapted. I liked the book just as well as the first two. (I just finished Blue Lightning on Thursday, and it is my favorite of the four.)

New Orleans Mourning by Julie Smith (1991)
During the Mardi Gras parade, the King of the Carnival is shot and killed by someone dressed as Dolly Parton. Skip Langdon is one of the cops working on crowd control for the event. She is a friend of the family,  and thus gets involved with the investigation. This book won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The setting was done well and it was interesting to see this view of New Orleans.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2003)
This is the first book in the Karen Pirie series, but she only shows up after 200 pages into the story and even after that only plays a small role in the story. Regardless, this was a very good tale of the investigation of a cold case, with close to half of the book taking place at the time that the crime is committed. I have posted my thoughts on this book HERE.

Bodies are Where you Find Them by Brett Halliday (1941)
I have a good number of the Mike Shayne novels by Brett Halliday, but I started with this one because the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was loosely based on this novel. I did not really expect there to be much similarity between the two, but the basic premise is the same in both. In the book,  a woman’s body shows up in Mike's bed but disappears; Mike and his friend, reporter Timothy Rourke, are searching for it. I enjoyed this book, but I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy my next Mike Shayne story even more now that I have a taste of the series.

Brothers Keepers by Donald Westlake (1975)
This is about a small, obscure Catholic order of monks who are in danger of being tossed out of their home. This summary from Goodreads is just perfect so I am going to use it.  
"When the order's lease on the Park Avenue monastery expires, sixteen monks face a greedy real-estate mogul, and Brother Benedict falls in love with the mogul's daughter."
I loved this book. Another of my favorite books of the month.

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett (1984)
This is a very different book by Simon Brett. Most of his books that I have read are humorous mysteries about Charles Paris, the actor. A Shock to the System is part dark comedy, and part thriller. Graham Marshall is an HR professional, a seemingly ordinary man, who kills a man in a fit of pique. Initially he is remorseful and fears retribution; when it does not come, he begins to see murder as a solution to his problems. (This was the 2nd book I read because we want to watch the movie again. It just came out in a new Blu-ray edition.)

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
The simplest description of this book is that Albert Campion’s sister, a fashion designer, is implicated in a murder, and Albert wants very much to find the culprit. The story is, of course, much more complicated than that. Amanda Fitton, from the earlier book Sweet Danger, shows up again and she and Albert stage a fake engagement. My thoughts on the book are HERE.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Fashion in Shrouds: Margery Allingham

I am rereading the Albert Campion books in order, aiming to get to Tiger in the Smoke (1952). The Fashion in Shrouds is the 10th book in the series, published in 1938. 

Margery Allingham described this book as "a satirical comedy contrasting the characters of two young career women who have fallen in love with the same man" in her remarks in Mr. Campion's Lady, an omnibus of three books which involve both Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton. The two young women are Georgia Wells and Val Ferris, Campion's sister. Amanda Fitton was introduced in Sweet Danger; Campion's sister shows up first in The Fashion in Shrouds

This may be my favorite Albert Campion book yet; it is almost perfect. Allingham's writing just gets better and better. The plot is very complex. As the story begins, Campion has found the body of a man, who had died over a year before. The man was the lover of Georgia Wells at the time he died. Georgia, a very well known and popular actress, is now married to Raymond Ramillies, the governor of a British colony in Africa. But not satisfied with one man at a time, she soon becomes attracted to the man that Val is in love with. Val is a famous couturier designing Georgia's costumes for the play she is in. 

But let's not forget Amanda Fitton, now an aircraft engineer employed by Alan Dell. Campion and Amanda meet again for the first time in six years. She enlists his help in finding out why her boss is neglecting his airplane business. The answer: Georgia has him under her spell. And that is just the setup. So you can see it is a complicated story.  

When the second death occurs, Val and all the people in her circle are suspects, an awkward situation for Campion. He works with his old friend Inspector Stanislaus Oates of Scotland Yard and assures him that he can be impartial because he wants to discover the murderer as much as anyone. In the most recent Allingham books I have read, the investigations tend to go on and on and I get tired of that. So maybe this book was a little overlong, but still so beautifully told I did not mind.

Allingham creates many interesting characters. Albert Campion is a wonderful character, of course, but there is also Albert's manservant, Lugg, who provides humor. The focus on the women and their relationships in this novel is very different. There are also many eccentric characters in the theater and the fashion industry.

Much as I loved this story, there were places where I winced at racist and sexist statements and ideas. As far as the attitudes towards women at the time, I can only say that I was born early enough to be raised to consider that a woman's place is in the home, and it was only by chance that I went to college and did have (still have) a career. And this story was written in much earlier times with much more pervasive attitudes about women.

Note: Belatedly I am adding a link to Moira's post on The Fashion in Shrouds at Clothes in Books. And don't miss the link in that post to a previous post on the book.


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2008 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length:      340 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Albert Campion #10
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

City of Dragons: Kelli Stanley

Summary from the publisher:
February, 1940. In San Francisco's Chinatown, fireworks explode as the city celebrates Chinese New Year with a Rice Bowl Party, a three day-and-night carnival designed to raise money and support for China war relief. Miranda Corbie is a 33-year-old private investigator who stumbles upon the fatally shot body of Eddie Takahashi. The Chamber of Commerce wants it covered up. The cops acquiesce. All Miranda wants is justice--whatever it costs. From Chinatown tenements, to a tattered tailor's shop in Little Osaka, to a high-class bordello draped in Southern Gothic, she shakes down the city–her city–seeking the truth.

Miranda Corbie chooses to investigate Eddie Takahashi's death. She does pick up a second, paying case investigating the suspicious death of Lester Winters, and the disappearance of his daughter, Phyllis.

The handling of the setting in time and place is fantastic. Kelli Stanley makes San Francisco of the 1940's come alive, and she describes the tensions within Chinatown due to the war in Asia and Europe very well. I learned much about Chinatown and the US attitude toward the war at that time. I always enjoy a story set in Chinatown (of any city) but I don't think I have ever read one that was set before World War II.

Due to the writing style we are privy to Miranda's thoughts at times, and get glimpses of her background as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, and the loss of her boyfriend in that war. She is clearly still suffering from these experiences, and seems to take out her pain on friends and foes alike.

Although the story is told from Miranda's point of view it is not in first person. Sometimes her thinking and reactions read like a stream of consciousness, with short sentences and choppy delivery. At other times, the writing is very beautiful, lovely descriptions and straightforward prose.

I will not pretend that this was the perfect reading experience for me. We are reminded too often about the unhappiness and confusion that Miranda is experiencing. Many readers complained about the many, many references to smoking, which did not bother me. And I should warn readers that there is a lot of profanity, although I felt it fit the context.

Nevertheless, I was involved with the story and admired the heroine. I want to follow her in her story and I plan to read the next book in the series. My husband has read all three books in the series and will be purchasing book 4 when it comes out.

Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2010
Length:    335 pages
Format:    Hardback
Series:     Miranda Corbie #1
Setting:    Chinatown, San Francisco, 1940's
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    I borrowed this book from my husband.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Man with the Getaway Face: Richard Stark

Under the pseudonym of Richard Stark, Donald E. Westlake wrote a 24-book series featuring Parker, a thief and hardened criminal. Almost all of the books center around a heist.

In the first Parker novel, The Hunter, the focus is on revenge. Parker's wife and his partner betrayed him; after a heist, he was shot and left for dead. Parker goes after them, trying to get his share of the money back. Thus the second novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, is the first real heist novel in the series.

This book gives the reader a picture of the mechanics of setting up a heist, in this case, an armored car robbery. There is a "finger" who finds the opportunity for the heist. There is a person who provides the bank roll, the money to carry out the heist. Obviously there is the planning.

This time Parker is partnered with a guy called Skimm. A quote from the book describes the differences between them:
Skimm, like most men on the bum, lived from job to job; he spent more in one year than most make in five and was always broke, dressing and looking like a bum. How he did it, where it all went, Parker didn’t know. 
He [Parker] worked it differently, spending the money and time between jobs living at the best resort hotels and dressing himself in the best clothes. There was no overlap between people he knew on and off the job. He owned a couple of parking lots and gas stations around the country to satisfy the curiosity of the Internal Revenue beagles, but never went near them. He let the managers siphon off the profits in return for not asking him to take an active part in the business.
One of the givens in a heist story is there will be hitches in the plan. In this one, there are two hitches (at least) and one of them Parker is expecting. The other is a surprise to Parker and to the reader. The entertaining part is seeing how the story plays out when Parker runs into the problems.

In this book, even though Parker sees the problems early on, he is committed to the heist because he needs money dearly. He just paid a small fortune to have his face restructured, because people in the Outfit (the organization that is his nemesis) know what he looks like. So now he needs to build up his capital.

My thoughts:

In my review of The Hunter, I described Parker as having no redeeming qualities, and I said that there was "nothing admirable or likable about him." That is not far from the truth, but if so, what does pique my interest in these books? I do find Parker fascinating as a character study and I am sure that is due to Westlake's writing, which is very plain and unadorned. Parker is a professional. He is pragmatic; he makes his decisions related to completing a job in an intelligent way. He does not kill unnecessarily although this is mostly because he realizes that this is not in his best interests.

This book is like "the anatomy of a crime" (or in this case, a robbery or heist). It does not glorify the crime or the criminal, but treats it more like a job. There is no back story for Parker, no discussion of how or why did he come to this point in his life. We learn that he did care for his wife and misses his relationship with her, but that seems to be the only thing in his life that he has any emotional thoughts about. And even that is only a one-paragraph digression. The book is a non-emotional, straightforward story about a crime and the fallout from the crime.

I also see comparisons here with some spy novels I read. It seems like espionage appeals to the type of person who is good at thieving and killing, but in that case they get to do it for a cause. Sometimes they enjoy it, sometimes they are conflicted. In Parker's case, he is never conflicted about his job. This isn't everyone's type of book, but I am continuing on through the series for a while.

Some other resources:


Publisher:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008 (orig. publ. 1963)
Length:     213 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:      Parker #2
Setting:     New Jersey, mainly
Genre:      Hard-boiled
Source:     I purchased my copy