Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cast Your Vote For 'Runoff'

From the very first paragraph of Mark Coggin's new novel, I was hooked. After all, it's not every day that you see a piece of construction equipment crash into the front of a bank at 2 AM. The latest in a series of mystery noir novels featuring Private Eye August Riordan starts off literally with a bang, and it's more than enough to keep the reader interested in the story.

The main problem PI Riordan tackles in RUNOFF, a slim but action packed story, is the theft of a local election through some electronic shennanigans. This is more than a little ironic, given that this technophobe PI has only recently discovered cell phones, and spends more time actually pounding the pavement questioning witnesses than he does sitting in front of a computer screen (imagine that). And the witnesses keep winding up dead, sometimes before August gets a chance to question them, and sometimes after he points his Glock 9 mm at them. But to quote Arnold the Governator, "They were all bad". Even Mrs. Lee, the Dragon Lady of Chinatown, has some dubious qualities about her, and she's the client!

Riordan entertains and solves the case with an interesting cast of supporting characters, some of whom we've seen in earlier novels, such as Chris Duckworth, a friend of August and a computer whiz whose talents prove indispensable in helping to solve the case. Riordan even gets some crucial help from an unlikely source in the criminal underworld, but I won't spoil the surprise by giving too much away.

The book can stand on it's own even if you've never read anything by Mark Coggins, but if you want to start with his first August Riordan novel, look up "The Immortal Game". Otherwise, run to the nearest bookstore or click on your mouse and buy a copy of "RUNOFF". It's more fun than a real election and makes a hell of a lot more sense. This story of money, crime and politics is even more relevant today than it was when first published in 2007.

But remember these words the next time you find yourself battling a John Deere...Don't bring rocks to a backhoe fight.

P.S. Check out the great map showing all the crime scenes in the novel.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A "Dirty Martini" That Will Satisfy Your Thirst

I discovered J.A. Konrath's blog after listening to a podcast interview with Chicago book critic Dana Kaye. She mentioned his blog, so I checked it out. If you're a fellow writer, you'll enjoy his advise about the writing life, and most of it's pretty useful.

But what about his books? I knew he could blog, but could he write a good mystery? I had to find out. The answer is, Yes.

His latest, Dirty Martini, is the fourth novel in a series featuring Homicide Detective Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels working in the city of Chicago. And it's a juiced-up thriller. A murderer is poisoning the food in Chicago's grocery stores and restaraunts. Jack is assigned the case by a reluctant police superintendent, not because she's the best qualified cop, but because she has a good reputation with the public.

If you've ever worked in a large, faceless bureaucracy, this actually makes perfect sense. But despite her own doubts, Lt. Daniels makes the most of it. She works the clues and pursues the killer in the face of numerous distractions, including an injured boyfriend, a reluctant partner, and a georgeous FBI agent that throws himself at her.

Then there's the killer. Nicknamed the Chemist, he is portrayed with cruel effectiveness. By allowing the reader to follow him in action as he poisons several spots around the city, our shock is multiplied by witnessing his callous disregard for human life. This is one sick puppy. And he wants a lot of money to stop the poisonings. But we don't discover his true motive until the end of the book.

Konrath keeps the action going with a diverse cast of characters that capture our attention and entertain us. I found myself laughing more than once, despite the growing body count, as the author uses a healthy dose of humor to lighten the subject matter. One fine example is Daniel's ex-partner, Harry McGlade, who comes to the rescue in several scenes. He's juvenile, obnoxious, and so funny he nearly stole the show from the main character. I wouldn't mind seeing him in a stand-alone mystery.

And for those of you who indulge in alcohol, the book contains a pretty good recipie for a Dirty Martini. I'd give it to you, but since I strongly recommend the book, why would you want me to spoil the surprise?

by Patrick Balester

Friday, August 3, 2007

This Dame Can Write!

Every once in a while, I stumble across a writer who excites me, and a few weeks ago, I tripped and fell over Sandra Scoppettone. And am I glad I did. Although she's been writing for decades, first for young adults, later branching into adult mystery, she's new to me. The first book I picked up was Beautiful Rage, a mystery set in a small town, with a missing girl stalked by an internet predator. Since I love small town mysteries and the internet, I had to read it.

Sandra writes with a great deal of empathy for her characters, despite the fact that most of them are flawed. This only makes them more appealing. You won't find any cookie cutter portraits in this novel. She does a good job of building tension, and although I felt for a moment that she was rushing to the end in the last couple of chapters, she did provide a very satisfying and believable conclusion.

Then I picked up another one of her mysteries, and I was hooked. The story I'm reading now, This Dame For Hire, introduces us to one of the most original characters seen in a crime novel in years! Faye Quick is a female private investigator. And what makes that so special? She's plying her trade in Manhattan in 1943. It's a fascinating setting for a mystery story. As a history buff, I can assure you that Sandra has done her research. Her use of slang, and understanding of home front conditions convince the reader that they're really in the setting.

Even Sandra's constant use of dialect doesn't impede the story, but in fact, adds to it, and never slows the reader down. Faye is a smart and sassy protagonist who is cynical enough to do her job, but not so cynical that she can't sympathize with the people she works for, or who work for her. In addition, it's refreshing to read a story where the case is solved by old fashioned detective work, and doesn't lean on advanced forensics or computer databases to solve the crime. Faye works hard to get every answer. She's a tough interviewer and a tough broad. And she's so interesting, I'd enjoy sitting down with her after the case is solved, just to share a cup of java and a slice of lemon meringue pie, so we could chew the fat.

I eagerly looking forward to reading the second Faye Quick mystery, Too Darn Hot. After that, I don't know what I'll do, unless Sandra intends to keep the character going, and I certainly hope she does. This character is just too much darn fun to let go of. If you like noir fiction, atmosphere with a flair, or you're just a history buff, pick up one of these books. You won't regret it.