December 6, 2010

The Gangbanger Life


In Not Long For This World, (ISBN 01401.52652) Gar Anthony Haywood’s second Aaron Gunner novel, the private detective reluctantly takes a job to prove a 22-year-old gangbanger did not kill the community leader who was trying to change the lives of some gangbangers.

Darrel Lovejoy, in partnership with flamboyant minister Reverend Willie Raines, is founder and CEO of Los Angeles Peace Patrol, an organization designed to try to persuade bangers to leave the gangbanging life. Lovejoy wants to change the life of the bangers. Raines wants to bring the gangs together for a peace conference and gain publicity for his church. The authorities believe Lovejoy was killed because he interfered with the gangs’ ability to recruit new members. The gangbangers believe it was one gang’s attempt to frame another gang.

Beautiful public defender Kelly DeCharme hires Gunner to prove that gangbanger Toby Mills was not in the car and was not the shooter in the drive-by shooting of Lovejoy. To prove Mills was not the shooter, he must find the driver, Rookie Davidson, the young gangbanger who often drives for the gang known as the “Imperial Blues.” The search takes him into the violent, dangerous world of gangbangers in South Central Los Angeles. Gunner hates gangbangers and is not happy about going up against them.

Imperial Blues gang member Smalltime believes Mills is innocent and helps Gunner navigate the world of gangbangers. He warns Gunner to be careful and not cross paths with Cube Clark, a 15 year-old gangbanger even other bangers fear.

Haywood uses the hardboiled structure to explore the troubling subject of the social conditions that cause young boys to join the violent gangs that eventually become their families. Gunner describes the environmental conditions that send boys into the gangbanger’s life to the Assistant District Attorney trying the Mills case and the detective working the case:

Take one kid, male. Put him in a fatherless family of eight that lives in a two-bedroom bungalow full of roaches and bad plumbing. Give his mother a problem with the bottle and a tenth-grade education, and send him to a school where the books are eleven years old and the teachers are too preoccupied with the prospect of getting shot to teach anybody anything. Give him a college-educated older brother who can't afford to buy a two-bedroom home in Lynwood and then move a gold-laden, Four-fifty SL-driving crack dealer into the house next door. What've you got, inevitably? Somebody that learns fast not to give a shit about tomorrow, that's what. A turned-off, tuned-out, full-fledged illiterate dying to take his dead-end future out on the whole goddamn world.

After his experience with the gangbangers, Gunner is unable to 

…revive the blissfully blind hatred he had held for gangbanging and all its participants only five short weeks ago. Deliberately, he thought about drive-bys and baby-faced wannabes, killers without conscience making hand signals for TV cameras, and walls and fences obliterated by overlapping layers of prideful, grotesque graffiti. He thought about crack and PCP, shotguns and Uzis and AK-47s, scars across beautiful throats and heavy black bellies-in short, every bleak, soul-crushing, and heartbreaking aspect of the L.A. street-gang culture could possibly imagine.  

And still the pure, uncomplicated abhorrence he had once known for gangbanging would not come.

The change in his attitude toward bangers reveals that Gunner is a tough private detective with compassion for some in the violent world of criminals, especially for those who are practically babies when they enter the world of gangbangers.

There are no surprises in the novel because Haywood so carefully prepares the reader for the revelations. He again goes against convention in his treatment of the detective’s relationship with women. In Not Long For This World, Gunner falls in love with Darrel’s widow, Claudia Lovejoy.

November 8, 2010

A Hot Day In L. A.


Mix politics with racism and black revolutionaries, and you get an exciting debut novel about an ex-private detective trying to solve the murder of two men killed in a bar on a hot day in Los Angeles.

Two years before Walter Mosley’s novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, was published, Gar Anthony Haywood published his first novel, Fear of the Dark, for which he received the St. Martins' Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel Award. He has written seven novels featuring Aaron Gunner, two novels featuring the husband and wife amateur detectives Joe and Dottie Loudermilk (Retired Couple), and two novels under the pseudonym Ray Shannon.

Fear of the Dark introduces private detective Aaron Gunner. In the violent opening scene, a White man, Denny Townsend, walks into a Black bar in South Central Los Angeles and fatally shoots Buddy Dorris, member of the Black revolutionary organization, The Brothers of Volition, and J. T., the owner of the bar. Dorris’s sister, Verna Gail, asks Aaron Gunner, former private detective, who now works as an electrician for his cousin, to find the White man with the crazy eye who killed her brother. Gunner doesn’t want to get back into the detective business. He quit the business after he was unable to safe the young daughter of Al Dobey, a pimp who had hired him to find her after she was kidnapped. He prefers continued wallowing in his self-imposed misery. But, the money she offers and her body convince him to take the case.

Gunner and J. T.’s wife believe J. T., not Dorris, was the target because she heard J. T. talking angrily on the phone to Jimmy Price, Sweet Lou Jenkins’s lawyer. Sweet Lou, a major drug dealer, wants an empty building J. T. owns.

Gunner realizes that whatever he has gotten himself into is deeper and more complicated than he at first thought when he wakes up in his car after being knocked out while watching a gym where Townsend worked out, and sees a dead Townsend in the passenger seat. Los Angeles Homicide detective Lt. Matthew Poole threatens to charge Gunner with murder unless he finds the killer. He gives Gunner 72 hours to be a detective again because he believes Gunner’s story that he was setup.

“You’re supposed to be a cop,” Poole reminds Gunner and advises him to act like one to save his “ass.”

The setup convinces Gunner that the shooting was random and maybe Dorris not J. T. was the target. Finding the killer pits him against members of the Brothers of Volition, Sweet Lou, and a white political operative who wants to start a race riot to help his boss win an election.

Fear of the Dark has two climatic scenes, though the final scene might be considered a wrap up instead of anticlimactic. Ordinarily, I would condemn two such scenes, but in this novel, they are appropriate.

Haywood shows his storytelling skills in a complex plot that maintains the rapid pace and respect for two of the hardboiled genre conventions: beautiful young women and plenty of violence and gunplay. Although he departs somewhat when he has Gunner sleep with his beautiful client.

His use of the third person omniscient point of view, with Gunner’s narrative voice predominant, gives the reader second hand knowledge of what the Gunner thinks and feels. Gunner’s is the predominant voice in Haywood’s use of the third person point of view. The only drawback to his use of the third person point of view, though I tend to favor it, is the reader sometimes can’t tell if the sociologic generalizations are the author’s or the detective’s.


October 5, 2010

A LOSS OF CREATIVE POWERS

"By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job" David Hewson, Welcome of Thrillers: 100 Must Reads.

Stephen L. Carter’s fourth novel, Jericho’s Fall  (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95 (hardcover), 355 pages, ISBN978-0-307-27262-I), a thriller about the danger of using secrets as  bargaining chips, lacks the heart pounding, fast pace, danger- around-every-corner of the thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Jericho Ainsley, a dying former Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence, is threatening to reveal either government secrets or secrets involving a scandal in the investment firm for which he worked after retiring from government service. He warns former colleagues and enemies in the United States and Europe that if “Jericho falls” or if any member of his family is harmed, including his  former lover, he’ll reveal their secrets. As a result some people (mysterious “they”) want to know what he knows and some want him dead.

Rebecca DeForde, the central character through whom the reader witnesses the unbelievable action, is his former lover. She has not seen or heard from Jericho for 13 years. Now 34, she first met him when she was a 19-year-old sophomore in Princeton, and he was one of her professors. He seduced her, and they had an 18 month relationship before she broke it off because of his cheating on her and his wife. When Jericho calls, she leaves her six year daughter with her mother in Florida and rushes to mansion-fortress in Colorado. Jericho tells her about the secret information and explains that he wants her to find where he has hidden it. He knows where it is but, because he likes to play games and manipulate people, tells her she must figure it out for herself, and she must not tell his two daughters why he summoned her. He does not tell her what she is to do with the information.

Jericho’s Fall is the worse of Carter’s four novels. Rebecca, with no experience in dodging bad guys and in using reason to solve puzzles, such as Jericho wants her to do, is an unbelievable character in an unbelievable plot.

The “Director of Everything,” as the author refers to Jericho, is a very sick man whose cancer has attacked his brain. Yet, he often has lucid moments, enough so that he can still scheme and manipulate people. Moreover, no one knows Jericho has the secrets until he reveals it. Carter apparently expects the reader to believe that Jericho was in one of his diseased-mind moments when he informed old enemies and friends that he had secrets which could destroy them. Yet, in one of his lucid moments, he certainly knew Rebecca and his two daughters were in danger and kept warning Rebecca but not his daughters.

With one exception, the characters in Jericho’s Fall are all white. This is not a criticism, for I believe that black writers can create white characters, and white writers are very capable of creating black characters. I merely note that Carter deviates from his integration of black and white characters in his three previous novels.

As I was reading the novel, I did not care if Rebecca found the secret information or what would happen to her when she did. Jericho’s Fall does not do what a good novel should, entertain the reader.

September 24, 2010

THE GRAND CONSPIRACY



I am skeptical of nonfiction writers who attempt to write novels. However, nonfiction writer Stephen L. Carter’s bestselling first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, convinced me that he has novel writing skills. He followed this success with the enjoyable second novel of conspiracy, New England White.
 
Sometimes a novelist’s quick success is followed by failure. This is not the case with Carter. Palace Council (2008, Vintage, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-307-38596-30), his third novel, is a political thriller about twenty Black and White men who in1952 met and devised a plan called “The Project” to take over the government of the United States. They called themselves the “Palace Council.”

The predominate voice in this complexly constructed novel is that of Edward Trotter Wesley, Jr. (Eddie), a successful Black novelist and essayist. The secondary, but no less important voice, is that of his ex-girlfriend Aurelia Treene Garner. She complements Eddie’s tendency toward physical action with her analysis and decoding of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the source of the Palace Council’s symbolism. Together, they try to stop the Palace Council.

We are taken immediately into the action when 30 months after the 1952 meeting, Eddie, leaving the party where Aurelia announces her engagement to Kevin Garner, stumbles over the body of Philmont Castle. In the dead man’s hand is an upside down Cross of Saint Peter. As a writer, Eddie is curious about the cross and why it is upside down, but his instinct tells him to run because it isn’t safe for a Black man to be found next to a dead White man in Harlem. His search for the significance of the cross is one thread of the action that drives the plot.

The main action is Eddie’s 20 year search for his younger sister Junie. She and a friend vanished on their way to the University of Chicago where Junie had planned to study law. Eddie’s encounter with the Palace Council begins when he learns that Junie may have joined the group in the 1960s, and that Perry Mount, a childhood friend, may have been the one who got her involved in the group’s plans.

Before he learns of Junie’s disappearance, however, Eddie draws the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover because of his involvement with two men whom Hoover suspects are Communists. The Black scientist Dr. Joseph Belt is found dead after Eddie tried unsuccessfully to interview him. A man calling himself Emil thinks Eddie knew Castle and asks him to retrieve some photos he took of Castle’s son for the Boy Scouts. When he interviews Eddie, Hoover reveals his real purpose: to persuade him to spy on some of the Black radicals.

Once Eddie starts looking for Junie, the FBI and Palace Council members follow him. The FBI believes she is Commander M, the leader of a radical group they call Jewel Agony that they suspect was involved in a car bombing that killed a White man following the death of the four little Black girls in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The Palace Council fears she knows too much and might reveal their plans to the authorities.

Aurelia’s marriage eventfully gives her access to information about the Palace Council she and Eddie later use to reveal its current leader. However, she doesn’t get deeply involved in helping Eddie until after Kevin is killed in a car bomb explosion, and she discovers he was heir to his father’s membership on the Palace Council. She realizes her son is now heir to the Garner’s membership. Thus, fear for her son leads her to join Eddie in the search for the “Testament” Philmont Castle left about the 1952 meeting.

Unknown to Eddie and Aurelia, a third party has taken over the Palace Council and is killing some of the older members. The third party is also searching for the “Testament.” Another danger the two face is the assassin someone has hired to follow them.

I enjoyed the Palace Council as much as I did Carter’s first two novels, but I had a feeling he was losing his inventive powers.

July 19, 2010

I AM SADDEN BY THE DEATH OF

ELeanor Taylor Bland (1944-2010), who died on June 2, 2010 in Waukegan, Illinois. She was one of the African American writers who helped bring African American mystery/crime fiction into the mainstream in her police procedural novels featuring Marti MacAlister, a wife, mother, and homicide detective. Bland left a modest body of work in 13 novels written between 1992 and 2005. She also edited Shades of Black, a collection of mystery and crime short stories by African American writers.

 A Dark and Deadly Deception, her last novel, the thirteenth in her Marti MacAlister series, published in December 2005, is about her favorite subjects, family and children.

The case begins for Lincoln Prairie homicide detective Marti MacAlister and her partner Matthew (Vik) Jessenovik when two boys swimming in the flooding Des Plains river discover the body of a woman snagged on a tree branch. The body is later identified as Savannah Payne-Jones, a minor actress with the film company making a movie near Lincoln Prairie. The case takes the reader into the history of two families, one Black and one White, in Lincoln Prairie. Savannah is connected to the Black family through Lincoln Prairie resident Delilah Greathouse, who doesn't know that the dead actress is her granddaughter, but suspects it when she sees that the picture in the newspaper looks like her long lost daughter Tamara. 

Thomas Newsome is the last surviving member of the White family for whom Delilah once worked. Through him, Bland is able to again explore another of her favorite subjects―orphans, this time in Romania. The Archbishop of Romania is coming to a town near Lincoln Prairie to raise funds for the orphans in his country. Thomas wants to return some jewelry that his  grandfather brought with him to America which belongs to Romania. His older brother Warren was killed in WWII, and his younger brother Edmund disappeared. 

The primary clue in the case is an earring made with a zirconia setting. Marti learns from Sara, Savannah’s daughter, that she also wore a brooch and wore her jewelry in all her movies and when she gambled. Marti’s research shows that the jewelry, though of little value, was made by a famous jewel maker from Eastern Europe, possibly Romania. How did it get into the country and in to the hands of Savannah and why would anyone kill for something of little value, unless they didn’t know its value are the questions Marti must find the answer to if she is to solve the murder. The identity of the murderer is creditable surprise for Marti, Delilah, and the reader.

Because the case is under the jurisdiction of the Northern Illinois Regional Task Force of which Marti  and  Vik are members, it is assigned to them. The assignment provides the new supervisor, Lieutenant Gail Nicholson, another opportunity to attempt to force Marti to quit by making her life on the job miserable. She pushes Marti and Vik (but mostly Marti) to work on the case of an unidentified skeleton found ten years ago in the sealed second floor of a building in Lincoln Prairie. The autopsy showed it was a male who died from a gunshot wound. Clues to identify the skeleton are otherwise nonexistent. Lieutenant Nicholson's efforts are thwarted by the task force case, which takes precedent because its supervisor outranks her.

I believe that had Bland lived, she would have continued the antagonism between Marti and Nicholson, which has given the series some snap in the last two novels that it is lacking in the other novels.

In A Cold and Silent Dying, the bad guy dictated the action. The investigation drives the plot in A Dark and Deadly Deception. I like bad guys, so, for me, A Cold and Silent Dying was more enjoyable. Some readers may not like that in the present, Delilah and Thomas have no connection to each other. However, once you know the history of the two families about half way through the novel, you can easily guess the what connects them. Bland also leaves it to the reader to guess the identity of the skeleton.

June 15, 2010

The Devil Returns

DeVonte Lutrell, the “Mr. Right” Marti MacAlister’s friend Sharon married in Whispers in the Dark, and who almost killed her and her daughter Lisa, returns to again terrorize Sharon in the twelfth Marti MacAlister novel A Cold and Silent Dying.  

Lutrell has gone from killing wealthy women after swindling them to killing homeless women while he tries to get money he feels Sharon owes him before he exacts revenge on her, her daughter, and Marti.

In the opening, he calls Sharon and tricks her into believing he has Iris, Marti’s sister-in-law from her marriage to Johnnie MacAlister, and Iris’s eight year old daughter Lynn Ella and will kill them if she doesn’t do what he tells her. He found Iris, who left home at an early age and was never seen again, living in an institution for recovering addicts. Her older daughter has been adopted. Lutrell bought Lynn Ella from her foster mother, and she lives in his apartment in Chicago.

The woman on the phone to Sharon is homeless. He kills her and leaves the body along with another one he has killed in an empty house next to Deer Woods in Lincoln Prairie. Detective Marti MacAlister and her partner Vik Jessenovik enter the case when the two bodies are found. Fred Reskov, a Desert Storm vet who sleeps in the Deer Woods, becomes the prime suspect when they learn he was in the house and has blood on his clothes. He is unable to explain the blood because of his alcohol-dulled memory. As he gradually regains his memory of that night, he remembers seeing two dead bodies in the house and a Black man leaving.

Fred doesn’t tell Marti and Vik right a way what he saw because he realizes that something is wrong with the water in Deer Woods and decides to confront Karl Wittenberg, the owner of Deer Woods. The second villain is thus introduced in the subplot. Wittenberg’s family has owned Deer Woods for many years. When he was a boy, his father dumped old car batteries and engine oil in the woods. Realizing Fred might know about the hazardous waste in Deer Woods, he bails him out of jail. The Deer Woods situation leads to the first dramatic moment in the novel when Fred confronts Wittenberg, who has a loaded gun in his hand. You know I’m not going to reveal what happened between them.

The main conflict between DeVonte, Sharon, Lupe, Vik, and Marti ends in thriller fashion in a cemetery in Chicago.

An exciting addition to the Lincoln Prairie police force is Lieutenant Gail Nicholson, who “could have passed for white were it not for her chestnut brown skin.” She takes over as supervisor when the former supervisor, Lieutenant Dirkowitz, is promoted to deputy chief after the chief is killed in a boating accident. What makes her addition exciting is the immediate antagonistic relationship between her and Marti.

From Marti’s perspective, “Nicholson would be just another black female cop who outranked her unless she discredited or got rid of Marti, or gained her own rep, or both.”

Nicholson feels that Marti, “After all the years on the force, ten years working the streets of Chicago...still believed in that stupid motto, To Serve and Protect.” For Nicholson, Police work is “a job, not a vocation.

“And it was a job that would be done her way by everyone on her watch. She was in charge here, not Marti MacAlister.” She never says a harsh word about or to Vik.

Bland attempts to make us sympathize with Lutrell by having him grow fond of Lynn Ella, whom he thinks may be some kind of conjurer. In his backstory, we are to believe his mother made him do it. But the only feeling I had for him is fear--he is the type of villain who keeps you reading, though you dislike him and fear for those he menaces. And you know he will lose, the only question is how.

A Cold and Silent Dying is the best plotted novel in the Marti MacAlister series thus far. In the previous novels, the subplots sometimes had only a tenuous connection to the main plots. Using Fred as a linchpin, Bland skillfully weaves together the main plot and subplot in A Cold and Silent Dying.

May 17, 2010

THE EVILS OF THE PAST

Fatal Remains, the eleventh novel in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAlister series, is about the exploitation of runaway slaves and the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral land.

Homicide detective Marti MacAlister and her partner Matthew Jessenovik are called to a site where a  vagrant has found the skeleton of a Native American on land near the estate of the prominent Smith family. They notice that Several holes have been dug on the estate and more are being dug.

The Smiths have hired Larissa Linski, a student archeologist, to search the holes and report what she finds. She finds four metal tags, gives three to an unnamed person, and keeps one. She is later found dead, apparently from an accidental cave-in. Expert evidence suggests her death was no accident.

Harry Buckner, the handyman who operated the backhoe to dig the holes, finds a Native American belt. He later falls to his death from the second floor of the barn. The detectives conclude that his death also was no accident.

Marti and Vik discover in one of the holes what appears to be a wine cellar but no wine bottles. The cave-in expert explains that the space wasn’t a wine cellar (to reveal what it was would spoil the surprise).

Dr. Gabi Kirkemo, an archaeologist, determines that the holes are not proper sites for archaeological digs. She finds the remains of Native Americans and concludes that the land is on a burial site.

The Smith land belonged to the Native Americans before the patriarch of the family, Idbash Smith, stole it from them. Based on Idbash’s journals, Josiah Smith, his grandson and the current patriarch of the family, learns how Idbash acquired the land and what happened to the slaves who were fleeing from slavery and stopped at Idbash’s place because it was supposed to be a way station on the Underground Railroad. Afraid the investigation might reveal the sordid history of how Idbash acquired the land and that Dr. Kirkemo’s findings will reveal it is a burial site, Josiah tries to use his nephew, a state senator, to quash the homicide investigation. When that fails, he tries to delay the investigation by refusing to answer questions.

The revelation that the land is a Native American burial site would complicate its sell to developers. In addition to Josiah, his daughter-in-law Eileen and Kat Malloy, his nephew’s mistress, also stand to profit from the sell of the land.

Isaiah Ben Mosheh, a Black man who converted to Judaism and changed his name to  from Irwin, has been studying his family genealogy for 20 years. He needs to find an ancestor named Samuel to complete his family’s history. He is to old to travel to Chicago to search the records, so his grandson, Omari, gladly helps. Omari locates Samuel in the records and is standing on a corner in Chicago waiting for a bus to take him to Lincoln Prairie to meet with Josiah, whom he had called earlier to arrange a meeting, when he is stabbed.

In the unrelated subplot, Assistant State Attorney Anne Devney is reviewing the case of murderer Hector Gonzales, apparently to get him out of prison because he fears for his life. Two men attack Marti in the basement of the state building where she has gone to meet with Devney. She wins the struggle. Her injuries: cracked radius on the left wrist. The two muggers: “One broken nose, two black eyes, fractured ribs, broken toes, a fractured tibia, and swollen testicles.” The mugging appears to be a foreshadowing for Marti’s confrontation with Gonzales, who attacks her when she, Vik, and Devney meet with him in prison. The meeting is a setup, but we are not told by whom and why.

Despite the distracting subplot, which shows Marti’s toughness, Bland’s attempt to tell the history of the relationship among the three races in the US--Native Americans, African slaves, and Europeans--is admirable and makes Fatal Remains a novel worth reading. 



April 19, 2010

“NOT YOUR TYPICAL KILLER”

In police procedural novels, the investigation usually drives the plot. Sometimes, however, the villain is so fascinating that you become more interested in him than in the investigation, and his actions, not the heroine’s, control what happens.
Adrian Quinn, an avenge-minded psychopath stalking homicide detective Marti MacAlister and other human prey, is the fascinating villain whose actions you follow in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s tenth Marti MacAlister novel Windy City Dying.

Adrian is a master of disguise and skilled at ambushing his human prey. He is, as Marti describes him, “not your typical killer.” He is an angry, educated Black man. He has several college degrees and graduated from Northwestern University at the head of his class. He also belonged to several humanitarian and social organizations in Chicago and received three humanitarian awards for community service.

Watching white men that he had trained get promoted over him and a white woman with less seniority and a lesser position get chosen over him at Wilburton and Associates, where he worked for 12 years, fueled Adrian’s anger. “Like any good black man, he smiled, praised the company, told everyone how pleased he was with is job, and accepted their praise, and even amazement, that he had come so far. Like any black man, he was angry.”

When a coworker revealed Adrian had embezzled money from the company, he killed the man and was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Two months after he is paroled from prison, he sets in motion his plan to avenge himself on the people who were involved in his arrest and conviction.

Adrian at first plans to kill the arresting officers, one of which was Johnny MacAlister, Marti’s deceased husband, the judge, jury foreman, and jurors. However, he wants to make them suffer, so instead of killing those who participated in his arrest and trial, he decides to kill the person closest to them. Even though Johnny MacAlister is dead, he still stalks Marti because somebody must pay for what Johnny did.

In the prologue, without leaving footprints in the snow, Adrian manages to get into the house through a window of Joseph Ramos, who handled his case on appeal, and kill Graciela Lara, a foster child living in the Ramos’s home, whom he believes to be Ramos’s daughter. Jose Ortiz, another foster child living in the home, is found kneeling beside the body with blood on his clothes.

Homicide detective Marti MacAlister and her partner Vik Jessenovik are investigating the death of an old man who froze to death because the landlord refused heat when they are ordered to the Ramos house. Soon after the investigation of the Lara homicide begins, they are called to investigate the stabbing death of a railroad conductor, which leads to cooperation with the Chicago police department that reveals several murders and violent attacks in Chicago. The Chicago police records show Adrian’s connection to Johnny and other victims involved in his arrest and conviction, and he becomes the prime suspect.

Adrian’s fear of dogs prevents him from getting near the MacAlister house because the guard dog, Trouble, patrols the outside. He bides his time, and the moment to attack presents itself when, coincidently, he spots Marti and Ben on the Expressway on their way to Chicago and rams their car, leaving Ben in a coma and Marti slightly injured. The deadly confrontation between him and Marti occurs in the hospital.

Marti recognizes Jose as one of the five throw away kids she rescued from a murderer four years ago (Dead Time). From her recognition is born the subplot: prove Jose is innocent and locate the other four kids. Bland’s concern for throw-away children is preachy but her use of Jose to kick start the plot is good plotting and provides the reason for the reappearance of the five throw-away children.

Because Windy City Dying is a whydunit, the suspense depends not on revealing the identity of the killer but on the gradual revelation of his motive and the dramatic confrontation between him and Marti in the hospital, a not entirely convincing scene.

March 22, 2010

THEIR MOTHERS MADE THEM DO IT


A recently frozen arm with the hand attached launches the main plot in Whispers In The Dark, Eleanor Taylor Bland’s ninth novel in her Marti MacAlister series.

Within an hour after the discovery, the coroner reports the existence three arms and hands were found in the past. The four arms and hands date back to 1979, 1980, and 1994, and all four have arsenic in them. Blue paint on two of the hands and silver that photographers use on one suggest the owners were probably artists. The case gives Marti a glimpse of the dark side of the artistic community in Lincoln Prairie and provides her the opportunity to solve her first cold case.

Once she and her partner Matthew (Vik) Jessenovik establish that the owners of the arms and hands were artist, they begin their search for clues in the Lincoln Prairie historical society to get the names of local artist. Historical society volunteer, Nan Conser, gives them the history of the Artist Guild of which Lucy Carlisle, Arlene Johns, and Nan are members. Three nonmembers, Jimmy Binslow (Native American), Dexter Penwell (African American), and Carrie Pinkham (deaf African American), were invited to show their works when the guild held exhibitions but were excluded from membership. Nan Conser was also excluded at one time because she was from the wrong social class. She is added to the suspect list when Marti and Vik learn how she became a member.

Based on what the brother of a deceased artist tells her about the guild, Marti’s thinks
"The art guild sounded like a close-knit group, one that protected its image of itself and didn't allow anyone in who did not conform to that. They also sounded competitive, perhaps even petty. Dexter Penwell was just a sign painter, a cartoonist; Carrie Pinkham was just an imitation Grandma Moses-, and Jimmy Binslow? An amateur shutterbug maybe. Insiders and the excluded."

The two things the Guild members have in come is the exclusion from the Guild artists belonging to the wrong race or class, and their mothers pushed each of them to excel, the consequences of which, for one of them, are fatal.

Marti’s friend Sharon’s problem with her new husband is a second plot that could stand alone as a deadly romance adventure story and is only thematically connected to the main plot through Sharon’s mother who rejected her.

Sharon, believing she has met “Mr. Wonderful,” marries DeVonte Lutrell after knowing him for only a month. Before she goes with him to his home in the Bahamas, we get the back story involving her mother, Rayveena, a prostitute and drug addict who had Sharon when she was twelve years old. The neighborhood people raised Sharon, especially Marti’s mother. When we meet Rayveena, she is dying from AIDS and wants nothing to do with Sharon. Thus, we are to believe that Sharon is irresponsible and sometimes fickle because of a lack of a mother’s love.

Unaware of the nightmare that awaits her in the Bahamas, Sharon leaves Lisa behind and doesn’t tell her or Marti she is married. What she doesn’t know is that she is the latest in a long line of women whom DeVonte has married and killed for their money. The excitement rises when he tricks Lisa into coming to the Bahamas without Sharon’s knowledge. To his surprise, DeVonte discovers Lisa is smarter than her mother and the cat and mouse game between them begins when she escapes from him. To heighten the suspense most of the action in the Bahamas occurs in a hurricane.

Whispers in the Dark is enjoyable, and the two plot lines are thematically connected in that both reflect how mothers affect the lives of their daughters. The slow pace of the four arms plot line nicely contrasts with the faster pace of the Sharon vs DeVonte plot line.

The novel however is not one of Bland’s best. The second plot line reads as if it is to be a TV movie.

February 22, 2010

THE CASE OF TOO MANY MOTHERS


Marti’s observation in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s eighth novel in the Marti MacAlister series on the case she and Vik have wrapped up is that “there were too many mothers involved.” The mothers are two who may be evicted from a nursing home, a mother who overindulges her son, a mother who is the victim of her son’s abuse, and a mother who is the heroine. The point of the novel is that women who are abused in one way or another often Scream In Silence.

Homicide detectives Marti MacAlister and “Vik” Jessenovik of the Lincoln Prairie police department are called away from their investigation of a mailbox bombing to the scene of an arson-suspected fire at an abandon house because a body has been found in the debris. The dead woman is Virginia McCroft, a gadfly to politicians in Lincoln Prairie who constantly wrote letters complaining about various projects. The autopsy shows she died from a gunshot. At first, a political motive is suspected, and the detectives are not wanting for suspects. However, the evidence fails to reveal a political motive for murder, and the suspects are subsequently reduced to two. Oona Amstadt, daughter of Andrew Thornton, a partner in a business with Virginia’s late father is a suspect. Thornton had been paying Virginia $500.00 a month because he had promised her father he would. Virginia asks for more, which angers Oona, and evidence places her at the scene of the crime on the night Virginia died.

Virginia supported her mother and the mother of her boyfriend, both of whom are in the same nursing home. The boyfriend becomes a suspect after the detectives surmise that maybe he became angry because Virginia, who was having financial problems, might have threaten to stop paying the bill for his mother.

The mailbox bombing brings in the bomb squad and the ATF. Vik and Marti’s supervisor, Lieutenant Dirkowitz, orders them to work with the other two teams because no one knows if the arsonist and the bomber are the same person or if he had anything to do with Virginia’s death.

One of the mothers is Eighty year old Opal Jhanke, whose vision and hearing are failing. She fears her son and thinks he doesn’t have enough money to take care of her and may put her in a nursing home. The son treats her like a child, forcing her to lie in bed for days without food. When Vik and Marti, searching for the son, discover her, she is in very bad shape with “displaced shoulder, cracked ribs, and dehydration.” However, they aren’t sure how the son fits into their case.

Geoffrey Bailey, the youngest, wastrel son of a middle class Black family, provides humor and is instrumental in setting up the exciting ending involving one of the mothers. When we meet him, Geoffrey is unemployed and living at home with his overindulgent mother. His two older bothers and his aunt convince the mother that her baby boy should move out and be on his own. Arrangements are made for him to move into an apartment owned by another mother and to work collecting rents for Deacon Evans.

To keep money in his pocket, Geoffrey chose the life of con man rather than work for a living “because it was...fun.” Geoffrey’s presence increases the tension of the plot when he crosses paths with the Opal’s son after he sells her a fake security alarm. The son vows to get the “colored” man who cheated his mother and stalks Geoffrey.

I prefer that the detectives in detective stories catch the villain. Sometimes, though, having a citizen confront the villain, especially with humor that provides relief from the shocking suffering of those who scream in silence, works. It works even better if the citizen is a mother.

January 18, 2010

DEAD WITNESSES TELL NO TALES


Bland’s novels are also about the milieu in which the crime occurred. The theme of Tell No Tales, the seventh novel in her Marti MacAlister series, is racial prejudice.

Homicide detective Marti MacAlister and paramedic Ben Walker are on their honeymoon when she gets a call to return to Lincoln Prairie to help identify a “mummy” found in the closet of an abandon theater. The medical examiner describes the “mummy” as a Black female. The discovery of the body and the murder of “an elderly, mentally ill recluse” opens their investigation into the 30 year old murders of the “mummy” and a Black woman named Dawn Taborn.

Barnabas Cheney, the recluse, is a member of the wealthy Cheney family who at one time owned several buildings in downtown Lincoln Prairie, including the theater where the body was found and the building in which Barnabas lived. Of Barnabas’s few possessions, only a silver picture frame containing a picture of his family and a watch that belonged to his grandfather are missing.

Evan Armstrong, an antiques dealer who had an office in the same building and coveted the antique picture frame, is a suspect until he is found murdered.

The key to Barnabas’s place and the missing watch are found on Ed Logan, a vagrant, leading the detectives to think he may have killed Barnabas. However, when he is found murdered, they wonder if they’re dealing with more than one killer.

The connection of Barnabas’s family to the theater where the “mummy” was found and the revelation that he liked Black women lead the detectives consider the possibility that he might have been involved in the murder of the two women. However, the investigation reveals James Farland, the Black janitor at the theater, was tried and convicted for the murder of Dawn Taborn and suspected of killing the “mummy” and that he was recently released from prison. The suggestion that Farland wanted to prevent Barnabas from telling what he may have seen thirty years ago makes him a suspect.

To Marti the lack of sufficient evidence in the arresting officer’s report convinces her that Farland was convicted because he is Black. Her opinion causes some tension between her and Vik because the arresting officer was Curly, now retired, who was a surrogate father to him when his own father started drinking. He refuses to believe Curly would have done a poor job investigating the murders and certainly would not have helped convict the wrong man.

Marti explains that she is “not trying to take anything away from Curly or his record as a cop. All I’m saying is that this happened at a particular time and within a specific social context, one vastly different from life as we know it now. That’s all I am saying. Can you accept that?”

She notes that in the culture context of the 1960s, no White person, not even cops, feared calling a Black person “nigger.” The polite term White folks used was “colored.”

Tell No Tales relates the history of African American settlers in Lincoln Prairie. Marti, knowing the moral authority of the church in the community, reasons that since adultery and fornication would get a member thrown out of church, and all the members supported Farland, he didn’t kill Taborn and didn’t have a sexual relation with her, as Curly’s report suggests.

This difference of opinion strains their relationship but Marti doesn’t ask for a new partner. She tries to make Vik at least look at Curly objectively. His review of Curly’s cases shows that the perps Curly arrested and got convicted were all Black, and the evidence was skimpy or nonexistent.

When he asks the prosecuting attorney about the Farland case, the attorney tells him “that was 1964. A colored woman was found dead in the janitor’s closet in a movie theater. A colored man was the janitor. He ran. Now you tell me who did it if wasn’t him?” The attorney admits collusion between him, Curly, and the judge.

The friction between Marti and Vik maintain the suspense as they try to find the real killer.

Bland gives the reader a little more of the domestic side of Marti and Vik. Marti’s mother comes to Lincoln Prairie to help with the children while Marti is on her honeymoon, but declines to live with them because she believes they should have some room to get know each other.

Vik, worried about his wife Mildred who has MS, stays on the job while his son and daughter and Mildred’s sister look after her.

The domestic stuff gives the story authenticity—the cops not only worry about the dangers they face on the job but also about their families.