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Books: Shakethrus: 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001

August 20, 2005

One Shot
Lee Child
Delacorte, 2005
Rating: 3.8
In his ninth crime thriller starring nomadic former military policeman Jack Reacher, Lee Child carefully constructs a compelling mystery involving a cut-and-dried case against a sniper who kills five innocent civilians in a small, unnamed Indiana town. Despite tons of forensic evidence linking him to the crime, former soldier James Barr maintains his innocence -- until he falls into a coma following a beating in the local prison. Enter Reacher, who comes to town to offer his services to the local prosecutor before he begins to suspect that things aren't as simple as they seem. One Shot is the very definition of a page-turner, thanks to Child's brisk pacing and deft hand at building tension. For the most part, this sure-handed skill makes it easy to overlook a few obvious contrivances and the odd non sequitur (like Reacher's reunion with a former flame, which feels awkwardly dropped into the middle of the book to add a little sex). Child's antagonist -- an 80-year-old Russian thug called the Zec -- is intriguing, but he never quite exudes the level of menace to make the inevitable confrontation very exciting (a final revelation involving a corrupt associate is also numbingly anticlimactic). These bumps in the road are distracting, but ultimately all they do is pull us out of the moment, reminding us that One Shot is simply an impressively executed thriller. When it's issued in paperback, it'll be a perfect beach read.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 18, 2005

All the Flowers Are Dying
Lawrence Block
William Morrow
Rating: 3.8
As likable a character as Block's Matthew Scudder is, the recovering-alcoholic detective takes a back seat here. All the Flowers Are Dying is most engrossing when Block cedes the page to a sociopathic serial murderer whose clinical demeanor in the commission of his crimes -- elaborately framing an innocent man for some grisly child murders, torturing and killing a female victim -- gives the book its tingling charge. As a standalone tale, Flowers suffers, since the antagonist previously appeared in an earlier Scudder book, and spends a good portion of this tale exacting revenge for a wrong that's never fully revealed for newcomers. It's also less satisfying than past books involving Scudder, since the main character doesn't really progress: at this point in the series, happily living out a kind of semi-retirement with his wife, former prostitute Elaine, Scudder's days of heavy character arcs seem long past. In fact, Block's vivid attention to the murderer feels a bit like compensation for Scudder's increasing lack of spark. Plot-wise, Flowers exudes a lackadaisical air as well. An absorbing first half, cutting between scenes with our killer and a case involving Scudder tracking down a client's mysterious boyfriend, eventually gives way to a forced ending -- the climactic confrontation only occurs because both Scudder and his nemesis make impulsive decisions that seem to fly in the face of their otherwise careful planning. Still, Block's involving voices keep the reader interested when it's obvious that the plot is set on "coast." And Scudder is still one of the more intriguing characters in crime fiction. Flowers may feel more like a visit with a favorite uncle than a gripping thriller, but if you're looking for intense action or character development, there's always Block's back catalog with the character.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 04, 2005

Nothing's Sacred
Lewis Black
Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005
Rating: 3.6
As amusing as it certainly is, Daily Show commentator Lewis Black's Nothing Sacred lacks the punch of his weekly diatribes on Comedy Central's influential fake news program. Except, that is, for a chapter (if that's the right term for this book's brief segments) on "Corporate Greed," in which Black imagines the ultimate me-too perk for status-conscious CEOs: "personal ball washer." One can almost hear Black's spittle flying as he bites off the line (not too difficult, since I'm pretty sure the joke, if not the entire chapter, is lifted from his Black on Broadway special). The rest of Nothing's Sacred, however, finds Black mining his past, his childhood, his family, college years, etc., for observations that occasionally feel a bit forced in this bite-sized, attention-deficit format. While these vignettes (which don't cover his rise to Daily Show fame -- gotta save something for the sequel) elicit their fair share of giggles and wry smiles, the belly-laughs are few and far between. Nothing's Sacred is certainly engaging, and due to its length it's over before you can get bored with it. But one can't help feeling that something is lost in the translation. Hold out for the audio book version.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

 

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May 14, 2005

The Forgotten Man
Robert Crais
Doubleday, 2005
Rating: 4.0
The tenth Elvis Cole novel successfully carries on in the tradition of the previous two -- L.A. Requiem and The Last Detective. Crais handily provides the page-turning suspense of a well-crafted thriller, enhanced by a plot that offers fresh insight into his likable protagonist. The murder of a man who claims to be Cole's father places the detective in the path of an extremely paranoid killer, and it's the alternating glimpses into Cole's fatherless past and the mind of a disturbed sociopath that give The Forgotten Man its compelling rhythm. Crais' flashbacks (in which a tenacious young Cole doggedly hunts for the father he never knew) are believable and well-handled; a romantic subplot with Carol Starkey (the heroine of Crais' novel Demolition Angel), who also appeared in The Last Detective, less so. Starkey's deepening crush on Cole feels exaggerated and forced, pushing a character who's formerly been sympathetically bruised into potential-stalker territory. The reader does feel for her, given that Crais somewhat unfortunately decides to heighten the tension by bringing back Cole's ex, Lucy Chenier, to add a soap-operatic triangle element that seems destined to unfold in the next book -- assuming there is one. (It'll also be interesting to see if Crais decides to walk Cole through a post-gunshot recovery process like the one Robert B. Parker's Hawk fleetingly undergoes in Cold Service.) The Forgotten Man never quite lets you forget that it's a breezy crime thriller, but Crais deserves credit for further deepening the shadings, even just a little, of his franchise's main character.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

 

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March 13, 2005

The Good Guys
Bill Bonanno, Joe Pistone (with David Fisher)
Warner Books, 2005
Rating: 3.7
In theory, the odd collaboration at the heart of The Good Guys shouldn't work. The novel, set in 1980s New York, focuses on Bobby San Filippo (also known as Bobby Blue Eyes), a rising member of the Franzone crime family, and two FBI agents, wisecracking Connor O'Brien and his ambitious partner Laura Russo, and unfolds in alternating chapters. San Filippo's are written by Bill Bonanno, a former member of the Bonanno crime family (he claims his father was the basis for The Godfather), while the FBI chapters are handled by former agent Joe Pistone (on whose story Donnie Brasco is based). What's more, each writer frequently disrupts the narrative to offer his own first-person insight on what life is really like in their respective worlds. But despite the odds, The Good Guys is an engaging and even relatively seamless ride. Although the breaking-the-fourth-wall technique is initially jarring -- essentially reminding the reader that they're reading a work of fiction -- it's not critically overdone. And between them, Bonanno and Pistone construct an engrossing mystery involving a missing Russian linguistics professor both the agents and San Filippo attempt to locate. Oddly enough, although Bonanno's obvious affection for the mobster's way of life feels seamy (and more than a little unseemly; should he be profiting from his past involvement in a criminal enterprise?), San Filippo emerges as the most relatable character in the book -- in part because he undergoes a real change by the end of the story, and in part because O'Brien and Russo, by contrast, don't. (Pistone also doesn't attempt to romanticize the FBI the way Bonanno does organized crime, which is admirable but dramatically limiting.) The workable story builds to a satisfying climax, and both writers display a knack for characterization (or is that the work of co-author David Fisher?). Because of those plusses, and the grunt's-eye view it gives of life on both sides of the law, The Good Guys ultimately proves an enjoyable and diverting crime yarn, in spite of its distractions.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

 

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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