Monday, August 19, 2019

Over the Edge

Over the Edge
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third mystery-thriller headlined by him, child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware is awakened in the wee hours by a phone call from a former patient in crisis. Nothing that young Jamey Cadmus says makes immediate sense. He seems to be in the throes of psychosis. But by the time Alex gets to the inpatient clinic where Jamey is being treated, the kid has escaped and turns up, not long afterward, at the scene of a grisly crime with the murder weapon in his bloody hands. Suddenly a troubled kid Alex treated five years ago is the prime suspect in a serial killer case.

While Alex wonders how he could have failed Jamey so badly, he also wrestles with several strange contradictions in the boy's case. In the first place, there's something really odd about the way Jamey's symptoms respond to antipsychotic drugs. For another, there's the fact that somebody as crazy as Jamey seems to be couldn't possibly plan and carry out such a highly organized series of crimes. They may sound alike, but psychosis and psychopathy are very different disorders, and those afflicted by them aren't going to kill people in the same way. But while Alex suspects that Jamey may not be guilty at all, his (Alex's) best friend, LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis, thinks the kid is good for the crime, and a couple of his more obnoxious colleagues believe it even harder. On the other side is Jamey's family lawyer, who wants Alex to testify that Jamey is not guilty by reason of insanity – a defense Alex doesn't really believe in.

So, from the very start, it's a case fraught with problems. Alex becomes isolated by his differences with the lawyer on the one hand and Milo and Co. on the other. As he probes deeper – at risk of being caught interfering with the case by one side or the other – he detects a connection between Jamey's disturbed ravings and a real estate deal in a remote desert valley. Something about the kid's family history is coming back to bite him, and it may bite Alex, too.

This series continues to present a fascinating and unusual side of crime-solving – a side that involves serious psychological research, that delves into history, anthropology, class warfare, sexual identity, the socialization of extremely gifted children and the finer points of treating a serious mental illness – including, perhaps, creating one on purpose. It is, no pun intended, a disturbing look at the child psych issues, and other things, that can lead to terrible things happening to complex people. And, of course, it's a straight-up sexy thriller featuring a sleuth who, by now, should get more credit than he does for how well he does what he does.

As for reading about him doing more of it, please see the next book in this series, Silent Partner, as well as the whole series of titles that follow it. The 34th and latest is The Wedding Guest, and another titled The Museum of Desire is expected in February 2020.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Running Blind

Running Blind
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 14+

Alternately titled "The Visitor," this is the fourth in about 24 Jack Reacher thrillers, featuring a guy who doesn't resemble Tom Cruise in the slightest. In this book, the FBI fingers him as Suspect No. 1 in a series of murders targeting women whose complaints of rape and sexual harassment he investigated back when he was an army MP. They recognize soon enough that he's not their guy, but they use some low-down, dirty threats to force him to help them investigate the crimes, all while ignoring every suggestion he makes. Nobody in the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (cf. Criminal Minds, The Silence of the Lambs, Unsub etc.) cares to hear Reacher's opinion that their psychological profile of the killer is complete bunk.

It takes all the resources of a, well, really resourceful guy to sneak around under the noses of the FBI, doing his own investigation that ultimately leads to – well, to be honest, I had this one figured out before Reacher did. But just to keep me unsure of myself, the author dragged a neon red herring across the track – a piece of deception so complete that I was tempted to go back and re-read parts of the novel to make sure it wasn't a cheat.

Jack Reacher is a fun character to follow. Not exactly a lovable type, he's a stone-cold killer who fixes problems that no one else seems able to fix – brutally, effectively, and permanently. In this book, he reveals a certain kind of vulnerability. For one thing, if you want to hurt Reacher, go after women he cares about – and on some level, at least, he cares about the victims of the crimes in this story. Then there's his wanderlust, an aspect of his character that feels pinched these days, what with a steady girlfriend waiting for him in New York City and a house of his own, inherited from a former C.O. who was all but a father to him. He feels the call of the road, and this adds tension to his romance with the lovely Jodie.

His compulsion to right wrongs also makes trouble for him, which is how the FBI gets its leverage over him. But watching him right those wrongs, to say nothing of how he gets out from under the Feds' thumb, adds zest to what would otherwise be just another crime procedural. It's also kind of refreshing, in a vaguely transgressive way, to experience a serial killer case from the point of view of a crime fighter who thinks behavioral profiling is a load of bull. Reacher doesn't have time for all that head-shrinking stuff. His more direct, hands-on approach to getting the bad guy is a refreshing break from head games, even in a case that clearly has some kind of psychological component.

Next on deck in my survey of the Jack Reacher novels will be Echo Burning. The latest book in the series, Blue Moon, is due to come out in October 2019.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Sacred and Profane

Sacred and Profane
by Faye Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the second of now 25 mysteries featuring police detective Peter Decker and his pious wife Rina Lazarus – well, she'll eventually be his wife (spoiler!) but they're not quite there in this installment. At this point, she's still a widow with two small sons from her marriage to a perfectly lovely Jewish divinity student who, sadly, got brain cancer. And he – well, he's exploring the possibility of converting to Orthodox Judaism, which would enable her to marry him. But things are complicated. Like, for example, the case he catches when one of Rina's boys stumbles on the skeletons of two young women during a camping trip.

Peter doesn't usually do homicide work – juvenile and sex crimes is more his beat – but the genres, as it were, overlap. At least one of the victims was a high school girl who disappeared out of an all but perfect teenage life. The girl strongly reminds Peter of his daughter Cindy, which just adds to the strain that eventually leads him to have a fight with Rina that left me, for one, cringing. At the same time, however, I have to admire a writer who is willing to show her hero in such an unattractive light. What remains to be seen (though the book gently hints at it, toward the end) is how Peter and Rina can possibly mend their relationship after this.

As for the case, well, it just has to do with some creepy old perverts who like to knock kids around (and worse), a chilling reconstruction of one sociopath's path to murder, a raid on a private viewing of a snuff film that takes a doubly gruesome turn, a novel approach to using dental records to identify remains, and some heartbreaking glimpses into the emotional wreckage wrought by child abuse, sexual exploitation and murder. Decker plunges into the moral cesspool of "Hollyweird" to wrest information out of prostitutes, pimps and pornographers. He risks career suicide to go after someone rich and powerful implicated in all this filth. He holds the hand of a dying girl and an emotionally ruined young man. And he draws a bead on a bad guy who's holding a gun to a hostage's head.

All that in the same book in which a secular man wrestles with faith – not only in God or in the power of prayer, but also in his love for a woman whose heart is already his. Amazing, right? While the mystery side of the book is unflinching in its look into the darkest byways of American society – producing plenty of sorrow and mayhem galore – the personal side delves into basic questions of heart and soul, with equal unwillingness to look away from the unpretty parts. This makes the characters seem to stand up out of the page in multi-layered relief, moving and breathing and feeling remarkably real.

Book 3, for those who want to join me in (gradually) working through the whole series, is titled Milk and Honey. Among Faye Kellerman's non-Decker/Lazarus titles are the novels The Quality of Mercy, Moon Music and Straight into Darkness.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
by Francisco X. Stork
Recommended Ages: 13+

Pancho doesn't plan to live much longer. He comes to St. Anthony's, a home for boys in Las Cruces, N.M., with only one plan: to find out who murdered his mentally vulnerable sister and kill him. After that, he doesn't care what happens. Unluckily for him, from Pancho's point of view, his arrival strikes a chord with a boy named D.Q. who faces another likely death sentence – brain cancer. Aided by a priest whom everyone calls the Panda, D.Q. prevails on Pancho to accompany him to Albuquerque for an experimental course of treatment, followed by a period of recovery at the home of D.Q.'s estranged mother, while D.Q. works on something he calls "The Death Warrior Manifesto." Meantime, a girl named Marisol – an intern at a guesthouse for child cancer patients and their families – fascinates both of them in ways that upset all their plans.

Through Pancho's point of view, this book affords a rewarding opportunity to experience a character's growth as D.Q., Marisol and others do their part to transform his heart. Their feelings come through with moving clarity, from a St. Tony's boy glimpsed sobbing in the rear-view mirror as D.Q.'s ride to Albuquerque departs to the little girl at Casa de Esperanza who becomes passionately attached to Pancho – and she isn't the only one. What he does (and doesn't do) when he finds the man responsible for his sister's death; how he assimilates his share in that responsibility; the extent of his self-destructive feelings and what comes of them; and how he finally proves to be the friend D.Q. needs, all make a difference to the reader's peace of mind – and so, therefore, does this book.

This review is based on hearing the audiobook read by Ryan Gesell. Again, like Marcelo in the Real World, it isn't a very big book; in fact, if there's one thing disappointing about it, it's how quickly it wraps up. I suppose it would qualify as a young adult novel, though I don't recall it being filed in that section at the library. It's an all-ages thing featuring young adults, sketching their journey in a few brief encounters and making economical use of thought-provoking material. For more like it, check out the Massachusetts based author's other titles, such as Disappeared, The Way of the Jaguar and Irises.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 13+

Originally serialized in a science fiction magazine, this mash-up of sci-fi, horror and spy thriller is the first book in a series called "The Laundry Files." It's worth noting that the author dedicated it to Neal Stephenson, Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft, and that it comes with a foreword (by another author) and an afterword by Stross explaining the book's place in literary history. However, with allowances for some references perhaps being over one's head, the novel (together with the accompanying Hugo Award winning novella The Concrete Jungle) speaks for itself. It's a novel novel, exploring the comic, cosmic and creepy possibilities of a world slightly off from ours, in which certain mathematical operations and computer subroutines are loaded with magical potential to open our universe to invasion by horrid things that live beyond the outer darkness.

Call them what you will – demons, aliens, Elder Gods, whatever – you don't want them possessing you or your friends, or sucking all the energy out of the world, or turning live cows into concrete ones. Various countries have their own lines of defense (or defence) against this kind of thing. In the U.K.'s case, it's a covert holdout of the World War II-era SOE that employs agents like Bob Howard – a dorky version of James Bond, who spends 40 percent of his time fixing his co-workers' computers, 50 percent attending mind-numbing meetings and punitively boring training seminars, and the other 10 percent looking existential horrors in the eye.

In his novel-sized debut, for example, Bob travels to California for his first stab at being a field operative. It's supposed to be a simple matter of asking a British scientist why she can't seem to leave the U.S. Before he closes the case, however, he must stop a group of Iraqi occultists from sacrificing the attractive boffin to open a rift in spacetime and whistling up a threat to all humanity. In spite of being an average guy (apart from his weapons rating with Hands of Glory and basilisk guns), everything finally depends on Bob surviving a trip to a version of earth where the atmosphere is gone, the heat death of the universe is almost complete, and an atom bomb is about to go off.

In The Concrete Jungle, Bob follows up his first success with an investigation of a phenomenon concealed by so many code names and levels of classification that at one point he is forced to put a tongue-twisting geas on his police liaison. To try to put it as simply as possible, somebody has highjacked the nation's closed-circuit TV cameras with a software app developed for the day brain-eating creatures arrive from outer space. All the app does is turn whatever the camera is looking at into stone – or rather, it turns part of it into stone, and cooks the rest of it at a temperature akin to the surface of the sun. Following this kind of clue trail is dangerous when Big Brother is watching everything you do, but that's why Bob Howard makes – well, whatever number of bucks a civil service IT guy usually makes. And also, if he goes outside his budget or forgets to file a flex-time request, there will literally be hell to pay.

These stories work on a lot of levels. On their own terms, they are funny, sexy, scary and packed with intrigue. On the level of getting what makes the reader tick and messing with that, it exploits all the insecurities of today's middle-of-the-crowd urban office drudge. Like the one about being paid next to nothing while the world is expected of you. Like the one that tempts you, if you dare, to post on your cubicle wall the cartoon captioned, "The meetings will continue until productivity improves." Like the sense that at some higher echelon of society, the true nature of reality is known but that knowledge is being withheld from you – perhaps for your own good. Like the all too experience-based suspicion that whoever thinks they are doing us favors by pulling our puppet-strings from behind the scenes, doesn't actually know or even necessarily care what is best for us.

If they fumble it and things get out of control, who will save our bacon? Maybe it would be comforting to think that somebody like Bob Howard will be there, to pop his head out of an obscure cubicle and save the world. Maybe the opportunity to laugh, a bit anxiously, at that concept is just the medicine we need.

Other Laundry Files titles include the novels The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, The Nightmare Stacks, The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index, plus such novellas or short stories as Pimpf, Overtime, Down on the Farm and Equoid. Stross, who lives in Scotland and has work experience as a pharmacist and a software designer, is also the three-time Hugo-winning author of the Singularity Sky trilogy, the Merchant Princes sextet, three Halting State books, two Freyaverse books, three Empire Games books (counting Invisible Sun, due for release in March 2020), Ghost Engine, Glasshouse, Missile Gap, Scratch Monkey, The Rapture of the Nerds (with Cory Doctorow), and more.