The Crossing by Michael Connelly

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It’s been a year since Michael Connelly‘s nineteenth Harry Bosch detective procedural, The Burning Roomcame out. I’ve been a giant fan of Connelly and his Bosch novels since the first one, Black Echo, burst on the scene in 1992, getting great reviews and garnering big-time sales.

It’s always a special treat to read these fast-paced, cleverly plotted thrillers featuring Vietnam veteran Harry Bosch, the iconoclastic LAPD homicide detective who had a rough childhood and who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War. Bosch’s service in the war is a theme in several of the books, and gets mentioned often in others. Lately, as Bosch has reached retirement age, his war service is only touched upon. And that’s as it should be.

In The Crossing (Little Brown, 400 pp., $28), which came out early in November and became a No. 1 bestseller, the war is mentioned only once. It comes when Harry is contemplating his worth as a father (something he does often). He ruminates on the fact that he’d never taken his teenaged daughter camping. “He had never been taken camping,” Connelly writes, “unless his time sleeping in tents and holes in Vietnam counted.”

While Harry’s Vietnam War service is not central to the book, Harry Bosch certainly is. His good and not-so-good traits that we have come to know over the years are on full display. On the good side: He is a relentless seeker of justice for those who have been murdered or harmed by criminals. He is a smart, brilliant, hard-driving crime solver. He has little use for ticket-punching, self-serving LAPD bureaucrats and politicians. He is a dedicated, if oftentimes baffled, single father of a teenaged girl. He is a survivor who skillfully has come through more than his share of post-war violent confrontations with criminals.

On the not-so-good side: His relentlessness often leads to serious rule-breaking. His disgust with the LAPD lifers often leads him into personal trouble–and trouble for the cops he works with. And lately, he makes a few crucial mistakes as he goes about his crime-solving.

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Connelly

In The Crossing—which I happily just binge-read—Bosch has just retired and reluctantly takes a temporary job with his half brother, Mickey Haller. He’s the flamboyant “Lincoln Lawyer,” who loves taking on difficult cases–and craves the media spotlight.

Haller’s representing a former gang member who is in jail for horribly raping and murdering a woman. The evidence looks extremely solid. Haller doesn’t care; he believes the guy is innocent and is ready to use any legal technicality to help his case. Bosch does care—and only agrees to investigate the case after he’s convinced the client is innocent.

Connelly spins out his usual convoluted but extremely clever plot flawlessly. Even though you know who the bad guys are early on, the pages still keep turning as Connelly puts one roadblock after another in front of Harry and things get exciting and tense as the book moves toward its inevitable violent conclusion.

If you like rapid reading police procedures that are a cut above in literary merit, you can’t go wrong with The Crossing–or any of the Harry Bosch books.

—Marc Leepson

 

Shandar: @killcongress.com by Wrigley Brogan

In Shandar @KILLCONGRESS.COM (Ink and Lens, 218 pp., $10, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Richard Baker, writing as Wrigley Brogan, offers up a noir-ish detective novel with a hard-boiled cop, Walter Checkers, at the center of the action. Most of the characters are Vietnam veterans (as is the author). A group of young Vietnamese women who work as prostitutes also are a big part of the action.

Somebody is blowing up bad people using C-4, making quite a mess in the city, and Detective Checkers is asked to figure out what’s going on. As the detective puts it, people are being blown to bits and there are no leads, nothing to go on, except a woman must be involved.

The book is filled with philosophical asides, many of which seemed priceless. For instance, “Anyone that believed we were fighting for American freedoms around the world was a fool at worst, and naïve at best.”

Later, Doc, a Vietnam veteran medic, says, “Don’t forget what we learned in the war.  Every decision we make in life is wrong. Do you shoot this person or that person?  Do you go down this trail or that one?  Do you save Bill or Jerry?  The decision is always wrong.”

There are many other references to the Vietnam War. The novel is permeated with the them. Keeping track of them was like trying to register snowflakes in a snowstorm. This is done with wit and intelligence, however, and is never cumbersome.

I highly recommend this mystery novel to all readers, especially Vietnam veterans who are hungry for a good read that is a salute to that dirty little war that most of us can’t seem to get out of our systems.

There’s lots to love in this book. At one point, it is said that the most worthy candidate for political office is the one who raises the least money. I immediately thought of Jim Webb.

Baker has respect for the American teenagers who trudged through the Vietnamese jungle during the war. Books that demonstrate that respect are needed in our literature.

—David Willson

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but my two absolute favorite detective fiction series feature main characters who are Vietnam War veterans. That would be Dave Robicheaux, the flawed Cajun detective hero of twenty smashingly good procedural/thrillers by James Lee Burke, and Harry Bosch, the complicated Los Angeles Police Department detective at the center of nineteen thriller/detectives by former L.A.Times police reporter Michael Connelly.

Which brings us to Connelly’s latest, just-published Harry Bosch, The Burning Room (Little, Brown, 388 pp., $28). It’s been two years since the last Bosch, The Black Box (Little Brown, 416 pp., $27.99). I was more than ready for the latest installment in the adventures of the smart and dedicated—but sometimes ornery and emotionally fragile—former Vietnam War tunnel rat, now nearing retirement working in the LAPD cold-case division.

I devoured the rapid-reading Burning Room as I had its eighteen predecessors. Once again I was impressed by Connelly’s story-telling abilities. The plot hummed along with plenty of twists (maybe one or two too many). The characters were well drawn and believable. The physical landscape of the greater Los Angeles area sketched vividly and convincingly.

The plot follows Connelly’s main Bosch formula: working with a new partner, Harry uses his brains and experience (and stretches legal limits a tad) to solve a perplexing crime. There are plenty of roadblocks, including the fact that the case is ten years old and it leads him to a related, second heinous crime to investigate. Harry runs into trouble from self-serving bureaucratic higher-ups and has to juggle work vs. family responsibilities, namely being the single father of a high-school-age daughter.

Michael Connelly

This is a police procedural with thriller elements, so we more or less know who the bad guys are fairly quickly. But that doesn’t hamper the page-turning quotient. Connelly keeps things moving quickly to a conclusion that including a surprise element.

Bosch’s service in the Vietnam War plays a very small part in the book. The first mention doesn’t come until about a third of the way in.

He’s discussing interrogation techniques with his young partner, whose grandfather (!) served in Vietnam. The topic of “enhanced” methods and “tools of interrogation,” Connelly writes, “threatened to trigger Bosch’s own memories and he didn’t need that now. He brought the discussion back on point.”

Later, Bosch comes across a Vietnam War-era M60 machine gun. “Those who carried the M60 through the Vietnamese jungle had a love/hate relationship with it,” Connelly writes through Bosch’s eyes. “They called it ‘the pig’ whenever they had to lug the heavy weapon out on patrol. But heavy or not, it was the best gun to be holding in your hands in a firefight.”

As usual, Connelly, who was in middle school during the height of the Vietnam War, does very well in the accuracy and verisimilitude departments when dealing with the Vietnam War and Harry’s service in it.

Connelly’s website is www.michaelconnelly.com/novels/burning-room

—Marc Leepson

Nightmare Range by Martin Limon

I can’t say it better than Lee Child:  “Martin Limon is one of the best military writers ever. His stories are addictive entertainment today—and valuable slices of history tomorrow.”  The two protagonists on the seventeen stories in Limon’s Nightmare Range: The Collected George Sueno and Ernie Bascom Stories (Soho Crime, 400 pp., $26.95, hardcover, $14.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle), and also of Limon’s series of gripping novels, are in their early twenties, full of juice, and self-described “rear echelon pukes” in early 1970’s Korea.

These Army CID agents are an odd couple; George was raised in a series of foster homes in East L.A. and Ernie is from an East Coast family with money and education, stuff he’ll have nothing to do with. Ernie Bascom is a Vietnam veteran who did two tours in Chu Lai where he acquired some bad habits. He has long since kicked heroin. But he’s still addicted to the U. S. Army—three hots and a cot, etc.—as well as the adrenaline rush of fighting authority and chasing bad guys. George is that rare American who can speak enough Korean to get along, and Ernie has a gift for fitting in with the dregs of humanity, no matter how low.

They are perfect for undercover operations as Army C.I.D. agents, mostly wasting their time chasing down housewives who do black market deals. But they also get the occasional murder. Limon’s peerless credentials include ten years in Korea and twenty years in the Army, as well as a singular talent for story telling, especially stories of the rough and tough, back-alley brawling type, with some occasional deep thinking and mystery solving by his super bright Agent George Sueno.

Martin Limon

I’ve loved every one of Limon’s novels and each of these short stories packs as much punch and excitement as most writers’ full-length novels.  If you are a reader who hungers for stories of an exotic and dangerous world where there are beautiful women and killers down every alley, these stories of Korea where a protracted war that has never ended continues to kill, maim, and soak up billions of dollars a year, this collection of stories is for you.

Martin Limon gets the U. S. Army right on every page: the language, the details of assignment and training, the subtle differences of rank, the drinking and gambling, all of it. If you are tired of authors who just don’t seem to know what Army life is all about, and you have yet to read the works of Limon, wait no longer. Martin Limon ranks right at the top, along with James Jones.

My favorite quote from these stories is: “In the Army, the less you know, the safer your career prospects.” You said it, Mr. Limon.

—David Willson

Light of the World by James Lee Burke

I’ve lost track of how many of James Lee Burke’s entertaining and literarily satisfying Dave Robicheaux detective thrillers I’ve read since 1993 when I was blown away by the sixth book in the series, In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead. In that book, Dave—a good-hearted and brave but troubled Louisiana Sheriff’s Detective—is haunted by (among other things) his tour of duty as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War.

Okay, I just counted. I’ve read all fifteen of these beautifully written (and bestselling) novels that Burke has produced in the last twenty years. I’ve continued to be entertained and impressed by his mastery of character and plot and his evocative, lyrical writing.

Light of the World (Simon & Schuster, 548 pp., $27.99) follows Burke’s highly effective MO: Dave and Clete Purcel (his close friend, former New Orleans Police Department partner, and Marine Vietnam War veteran) pursue some very, very evil people. Dave and Clete do so reluctantly, and only after the evil doers threaten them or their family members.

Much blood is spilled. The main themes are good vs. evil, the importance of family, the thrills and pitfalls of illicit sex, the evils of drugs, the varied forms of sociopathic depravity, the rapaciousness of robber-baron-like industrialists, and the legacy of serving in the Vietnam War. Plus, there’s a giant, complicated, tense, shoot-out at the end.

Not to mention a clever, careening, complicated plot filled with fully drawn characters and wonderfully evocative writing. This time the plot spins out in Montana where Dave and Clete, their adult daughters, and Dave’s wife are spending the summer far away from their native southern Louisiana. They’re staying with an old friend, a leftist novelist and former English professor.

The main bad guy is Asa Surrette, a mentally unstable serial killer who survived what everyone thought was a fatal prison accident and now is threatening to kill Gretchen and Alafair, Clete and Dave’s daughters. The subplots include the machinations of an ultra-rich, land-raping billionaire and his weak-minded, unstable son; the mounting troubles of the son’s philandering wife; the violent world of an ex-con cowboy who may also be out to get Dave and Clete’s families, and the fecklessness of the local Montana cops.

Plus, as always in a Dave Robicheaux novel, there are constant reminders of Dave and Clete’s tours of duty in the Vietnam War, mostly in the form of nightmares and flashbacks. It starts on page three, where Dave, who narrates this tale, provides background on his life and times. “I didn’t ‘serve’ in Southeast Asia,” he says. “I ‘survived’ and watched innocent people and better men than I die in large numbers while I was spared by a hand outside myself.”

James Lee Burke

In one flashback, Clete is “back in the Central Highlands, on the edge of a ville that stank of duck shit and stagnant water, the flame from the cannon of a Zippo track arching onto the roofs of the hooches, a mamasan pleading hysterically in a language he couldn’t understand.”

Dave, before he stopped abusing alcohol, often “saw members of my platoon crossing a stream in the monsoon season, the rain bouncing on their steel pots and sliding off their ponchos, the mortal wounds they had sustained glowing as brightly as Communion wafers.”

Then there’s Dave describing a recurring nightmare: Images, he says, “will come aborning in your sleep that you cannot deal with during your waking hours: shooting a man who is trying to surrender; firing your automatic weapon until the barrel is almost translucent and your hands are shaking so badly you can’t reload; lying paralyzed on your back in the mud when a medic straddles your hips as a lover might trying to close a sucking chest wound with a cellophane wrapper from a package of cigarettes.”

Those are powerful images convened in powerful language. There’s plenty more of that in Light of the World. I recommend it highly.

Burke’s website is www.jamesleeburke.com

—Marc Leepson

Expiation by Rudolph Pommer Saxon

In Rudolph Pommer Saxon’s novel Expiation (CreateSpace, 362 pp., $9.99, paper) the title is explained early on, well before the first chapter starts.  There is no biographical information on Saxon, nothing to indicate that he has been to Vietnam or even to Honolulu, where the novel begins. However, the biographical information on the book’s Amazon.com page says: “The author served with an infantry company and a recon platoon for six months in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam during his tour of duty in 1967-68.”

The novel begins on Saturday, May 1,1971, and ends on Tuesday, June 15. The hero and main character, Mr. Butler, is asked by a woman named Jennifer Sato to investigate the murder of her brother, Jim Sato, who was living a reclusive life in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Jim Sato was a friend and comrade-in-arms of Mr. Butler in Vietnam.  Mr. Butler is not a lawman, nor is he a private investigator.

When he arrives in the fictional Verus City in Medicine Trail County, Washington, Mr. Butler introduces himself to Sheriff Hackett as “acting on behalf of Jim’s family and for myself.”  He tells the sheriff that he and Jim served in Vietnam in “Second Battalion, Twenty-second Infantry, Twenty-fifth Infantry Division,” from “July of sixty-seven to July of sixty-eight.”

Mr. Butler is soon informed that Jim Sato was killed by twelve rounds from an AK-47. He died slowly, but he lived long enough to scratch the letters “VC” in the dirt under his body. It looked to this reader as though the Vietnam War had followed Jim Sato home.

When Mr. Butler makes the two-day trek to his friend’s primitive cabin, he spends three days systematically searching the area for clues. It is obvious to this reader that there is more to Mr. Butler than we have been told. He knows what he is doing and finds much more evidence than Sheriff Hackett and his men had found, which led me to wonder if Sheriff Hackett might be involved in the heroin trafficking that Mr. Butler found evidence of.

I recollected that early in the book Jennifer Sato had said to Mr. Butler in her pleas for his help in discovering why her brother had died that Mr. Butler had “done some sort of investigating on some assignments in the Army.”  That is a modest clue that Mr. Butler is a formidable investigator with a wide range of training and talents.

Saxon has written an engrossing mystery with much of the story connected to the Vietnam War, and I enjoyed reading it. It is a handsome, well-edited book with well-maintained romance and adventure and intrigue. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy Vietnam War-related mysteries.

—David Willson

The Black Box by Michael Connelly

Twenty years ago, I opened the pages of a first novel by a young former Los Angeles Times police reporter about a quirky, troubled L.A. homicide detective: The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. I was extremely impressed by Connelly’s taut writing, his careening, clever plot, and by the detective himself, Harry Bosch, a former Vietnam War tunnel rat.  Bosch came alive for me in all of his complexity; he was emotionally troubled by his war experiences, but was a strong, smart detective who did not rest until he solved a heinous murder.

In the intervening twenty years Connelly has written eighteen Harry Bosch detective procedurals. I’ve enjoyed reading every one of them, including the latest, The Black Box (Little Brown, 416 pp., $27.99).  This one started out slowly for me, but Connelly pushed the accelerator to the floor after a hundred pages or so, and I once again I found myself deeply drawn into a fast-paced, riveting novel with a twisting plot and believable, well-drawn characters.

Connelly includes many of the elements in the new book that he has used to great effect in the other Harry Bosch novels, including the previous one, The Drop, which came out a year ago. In Black Box, Harry—as always—is obsessed with solving a case. In this case it’s the twenty-year-old murder of a young Danish female photojournalist who was shot and killed in L.A. during the 1992 riots.

As usual, in his single-minded quest to solve this cold case, Harry Bosch butts heads with a slime-ball, ticket-punching superior in the police department. Also, as per usual, he bullheadedly steps over the procedural line more than once, jeopardizing both the case and his checkered career. He also faces a boatload of angst-induced personal problems, including daily frustrations with his head-strong teenaged daughter, and a less-than-satisfactory relationship with his putative girlfriend.

All the while, Bosch uses his brains and experience to unravel a complicated murder plot that goes back to the first Persian Gulf War. It spoils nothing to report that the bad guys get theirs in the end. The meat of the book is how Connelly gets Bosch to the final, bloody confrontation with the perps.

Michael Connelly

Along the way there are periodic references to Bosch’s time in Vietnam. The veteran detective is not obsessed by what happened to him in the war, but his experiences in 1969-70 remain an integral part of his life.

“His was a war of mud and blood and confusion,” Connelly writes as he describes Bosch looking at photographs the dead Danish journalist took in the first Persian Gulf War.

He “saw up close the people they killed, that he killed. Some of those memories were as crystal clear to him as the photographs now on his screen. They mostly came to him at night when he couldn’t sleep or unexpectedly when some everyday image conjured a somehow connected image from the jungles or tunnels where he had been.

“He knew war up close and [the dead journalist’s] words and pictures struck him as the closest he had ever seen it through a journalist’s eyes.”

Once again, in The Black Box (the title refers to Bosch’s quest to find the equivalent of a crashed airplane’s black box) Michael Connelly give us a page-turning detective that is several cuts above your average genre novel.

Connelley’s website is www.michaelconnelly.com/novels/theblackbox

—Marc Leepson