Friday, April 18, 2014

When Bad Guys Are Heroes

Our good friend Lady Jane Digby's Ghost is back with another guest post.

What happens when you, as a reader, find yourself rooting for the "bad guy"? That's the case in the first book of Richard Lord's quartet, The Strangler's Waltz.

Vienna homicide detectives Julian Stebbel and Karl-Heinz Dorfner are investigating a series of strangling murders, helped by Dr. Sigmund Freud, who was the psychiatrist of the first victim, and a young street artist who witnessed the first murder and draws a picture of the strangler that helps the police identify the killer.

Okay, here's the possible problem with the book. That street artist just happens to be Adolf Hitler. The "ick" factor of having Adolf Hitler as the character in a work of fiction as anything short of a mass-murderer is fairly strong. But is it a problem . . . or is it a sign of daring on the part of the author? I can't really decide, but I'm leaning toward interesting plot point.

The Strangler's Waltz is only one of many mysteries and police procedurals where the "good guy" is actually almost as reprehensible as the criminal he is seeking. I stress "almost" because, in some cases, there's very little difference between perpetrator and cop. One good example of this is the policeman in the Inspector Mock/Breslau series by Polish writer Marek Krajewski.

Eberhard Mock is a completely reprehensible man. "Wife beater," "prostitute habitué," "hard drinker" and "brawler" may be some of the kinder words to describe Mock, but he rises through the ranks of the Breslau police force despite, or maybe because of, his character flaws. Krajewski is such a good writer that the reader can put aside his qualms about Eberhard Mock to follow his pursuit of criminals who are even worse than the cop pursuing them. (Breslau, a large city in the region of Silesia, is now the Polish city of Wrocław.)

Another character who could be considered unsympathetic as a "good guy" is Spanish policeman Carlos Tejada in Rebecca Pawel's four-book series set in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s. (I wrote about this series earlier, here.) Tejada is a Nationalist––a police officer in the Franco government––and most readers would have been with the Republicans, on the other side of the Spanish Civil War. Rebecca Pawel writes with so much nuance that she makes Tejada a sympathetic character.

The question the reader may ask is why such an upright man is working for an evil regime, but that just makes the books all the more interesting. Tejada is a man who firmly believes in the Nationalist cause, and I think the reader can respect his beliefs, even if not agreeing with them.

And yet another example (of the bad good guy, or is it the good bad guy?) would be Wehrmacht officer Baron Martin von Bora, in British author Ben Pastor's three-book series. I am reading the third one, A Dark Song of Blood now, and am a bit uneasy about
wanting Bora to succeed in his duties. The big problem in any Nazi-as-possible-good-guy book is the difference in Gestapo duty and Wehrmacht army duty. The former were certifiable bad guys, while the latter were sometimes seen as regular soldiers. Believe me, the distinction is difficult to make, and the line between the two is sometimes razor thin. But Pastor gives her character just enough ambiguous qualities to make it acceptable to this reader to want to read on. (By the way, yes, Ben Pastor is female.)

There are other protagonists in crime fiction who may not be good, but their characters make––sometimes, anyway––more interesting books. What books/authors can you think of?

Note: Portions of this blog post appear in my book reviews on Amazon, which appear under my username there.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bits 'n' Bobs

 Well, it's finally here. After two years of looking and six months of schlepping ourselves back and forth several times a month, we are actually moving next week. Forty years of our own stuff, as well as boxes and boxes of family memorabilia, some never examined and sorted, will be wending their way to a little town in south-central Pennsylvania. Amish and Mennonite farm country, but not quite as rural as you might think, although the nearest Trader Joe's grocery store is 65 long miles away.

I've been thinking recently of a news story from years ago. Relations with China had loosened a bit, and a pair of Chinese women doctors had come to deliver a series of lectures in the US. A reporter accompanied them to a mall to get their impressions of the bounteous choices America had to offer. After wandering bewildered from store to store for a couple of hours one of them, proud of her mastery of English vernacular, asked wonderingly "Why would anyone need so much stuff?" I've been asking myself the same question quite urgently, but actually already know the answer. In every family some member, intentionally or accidentally, becomes the keeper of the stuff and the stories. In our families, both my husband and I are those members. I'm too busy and distracted right now to actually sit down to read and review a novel, but here are a few snippets I hope may amuse you.

The Unusual Investigations of Dr. Yao has been on my e-reader for ages, and browsing through the titles one day I opened it. What a treat! It is a most charmingly mistranslated (accidentally, I thought at first, but am not so sure now) collection of short stories about a Ming Dynasty Chinese doctor who solves crimes through his keen powers of observation and logic. The book was apparently translated first from Mandarin Chinese to German, then from German to English by Ludger Gausepohl. The slightly clumsy language might be exasperating for some readers, but if you are as delighted as I am with word play of all sorts, you may find yourself enchanted with these well-traveled tales.

Yao's first assignment was as court physician to the ladies of the royal household. He "visited several times a week in the morning, the royal ladies. Those led often a rather monotonous life, and very rarely had the favor to be together with his heavenly majesty or to perform other obligations."  When one of the ladies, who is pregnant––presumably by the emperor––is poisoned, she loses the child. Shortly after, she is poisoned again, this time fatally. If you can tolerate or even enjoy awkward passages like this one, these stories are decent puzzles and a lot of fun.

There is some interesting news for Louise Penny fans drumming their fingernails impatiently waiting for her latest release. Her publisher is sponsoring a community re-read of the series in virtual Three Pines, the setting of most of the stories in her prize-winning novels, starting on April 21st. The author will sometimes be present, and there will be discussions, giveaways, and guest posts; all in preparation for the release of her latest mystery, The Long Way Home (Macmillan, August 26, 2014.) Two weeks will be devoted to each of the nine already-released books in the series, culminating in a discussion of the new release. After each session, participants will be invited to adjourn to Oliver's Bistro (Alas, also virtual, so BYOB) for drinks and croissants by the crackling fire. If interested, you can sign up here: Re-read Gamache Sign Up. My paper copies of the books are all packed up in the 1800 pounds of boxes already shipped (OK, I'm officially embarrassed; bibliophiles should never move.) But isn't that just a perfect excuse to buy them for my e-reader? Now if they would only get cracking on that television series based on the Gamache books, I'd really be happy!

Most modern inks contain high levels of volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, making them very unfriendly to the environment. Typographer Collin Willems has designed a typeface he calls Ecofont, which can significantly reduce the amount of ink used in the printing industry and make it more sustainable as well as more eco-friendly. I find the larger typefaces a bit Broadway, but don't even notice it in the smaller sizes. What do you think?

I hope to find time to read something new to share over the next couple of weeks, if I can unearth my To Be Read pile quickly enough. Meanwhile, enjoy this lovely spring that has finally made an appearance––and here are a few moving tips I've gleaned from the pros.




Monday, April 14, 2014

Today We Celebrate Our Ex-Spouses

No, I am not making this up. Today, April 14, is Ex-Spouse Day, when we're supposed to acknowledge our ex-spouses. I'm not sure whether this special day was created by Congress––always working hard to be seen as improving Americans' lives––or the Hallmark card company. I'm also not clear about how we're to celebrate, although getting out the old voodoo doll and poking fresh holes or offering fervent prayers of thanks that the marriage is over are no doubt appropriate in some cases. In other cases, maybe dinner is on the menu, so you can raise a glass to being friends instead of partners.

Given that I don't have an ex-husband, I thought I'd celebrate the day by telling you about a pair of exes I've encountered in my reading.

Wade Chesterfield isn't a monster, but the ex-minor league baseball player is so irresponsible that his ex-wife had him sign papers relinquishing parental rights to their daughters Easter and Ruby, now 12 and 6. When their mother dies, the girls are placed in a foster care home in Gastonia, North Carolina. This isn't okay with Wade, who does love his daughters. He pulls the kids out of their beds in the middle of the night and they set off for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It soon becomes clear to Wade and the girls that the police and Brady Weller, a former cop who's now the girls' court-appointed guardian, aren't the only ones interested in finding them. Also on their trail is a scary ex-felon, Robert Pruitt, hired by a local crime boss who believes Wade stole a fortune from him. Pruitt is a very enthusiastic hunter, because he nurses a personal grudge against Wade from the days they played pro ball together.

Wiley Cash's This Dark Road to Mercy (William Morrow, 2014) is set during the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to topple Roger Maris's home runs record in 1998. This thrilling competition we know now was tainted by Big Mac's and Slammin' Sammy's illegal use of steroids, and it's a fitting backdrop for this book of country noir. There's always a suggestion of menace lurking just around the corner. No matter how hard these people run or chase, they're still dogged by their pasts and at the mercy of fate. Twelve-year-old Easter, who is both heartbreakingly naive and cynical beyond her years, takes a turn narrating, along with Pruitt and Weller. Unlike a lot of hardboiled books, most of the violence in this one happens off stage. This isn't to say I didn't close my eyes when Pruitt slips on his gloves because I didn't have to be clairvoyant to see what's coming. I was pleased that Wade goes to bat for his girls, and his ex would be proud of him.

Mrs. T. Lawrence Lamb has long considered her husband an unimaginative plodder and money grubber. She sees him as cramping her artistic and intellectual style; an unsatisfactory husband any way she looks at him. But Thorne Smith makes it clear from the beginning of The Stray Lamb (originally published in 1929) that Mr. Lamb is no ordinary man. On his commuter train, he gazes at a "perky shred of an ear ... ornamenting a small sleek head" and wonders what it would feel like to tentatively, delicately bite it. On the outside, Mr. Lamb is one of the more sober of his community's citizens. On the inside, he contains "a reservoir of good healthy depravity that was constantly threatening to overflow and spill all sorts of trouble about his feet." This depravity is tapped after a chance meeting with a man in the woods, and Mr. Lamb wakes up to discover he's a black stallion. And this isn't all. He's soon experiencing the world through the eyes of a succession of animals. As we all know, when you do this you can't help but create havoc. Soon, Mrs. Lamb has had more than enough.

James Thorne Smith, Jr. died at age 42 in 1934. Under the name Thorne Smith, he wrote the Topper books and other charming and hilarious books about booze, sex and fantastical transformations. They deserve a spot on your shelf next to books by P. G. Wodehouse, Tom Sharp, Spike Milligan and Jerome K. Jerome.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Is she seriously writing about Veronica Mars again?

Yes, yes I am. It was a year ago when I wrote here about my love for the Veronica Mars TV series, which ran from 2004-2007, and the Kickstarter campaign to fund a Veronica Mars movie.

You probably heard that the Kickstarter campaign was wildly successful, raising $5.7 million ($3.7 million in excess of its goal). Veronica Mars fans––who call themselves Marshmallows––have been anxiously awaiting the movie since the campaign ended. Producer/director/writer Rob Thomas and team posted twice-weekly progress updates to Kickstarter backers and sent out tchotchkes like stickers and teeshirts.

After the world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, on March 8, 2014, the big release day arrived; March 14, 2014. Warner Brothers had agreed to produce the movie if Rob Thomas could raise at least $2 million on Kickstarter, which put the movie in the unusual position of being financed by both the general public and a major studio. As a result, the movie opened in movie theaters and, on the same day, became available for on-demand streaming; a first for a major studio production.

I'll bet the green-eyeshade types at WB were biting their nails about the returns at the theaters, but they needn't have worried. The movie did very well and was an event almost like a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening. Marshmallows thronged the theaters in their Veronica Mars tees, talked back to the screen and sang along to the theme song, the Dandy Warhols' We Used To Be Friends.

The movie picks up nine years after the TV series ended, when Veronica was in college in that Raymond Chandler-esque sun-drenched Southern California Babylon called Neptune. Now she's in New York, a new graduate of Columbia Law School interviewing with a high-powered Manhattan law firm. (Look, it's Jamie Lee Curtis playing the firm's managing partner!) She lives with a nice-guy boyfriend who is a radio DJ. (Look, there he is at the radio studio talking with Ira Glass from This American Life!)

We're in New York for the approximately five minutes it takes for Veronica to give us a voiceover précis of her life and get a call from her bad-boy ex, Logan Echolls, who asks for her help. He's in a spot of bother, being suspected of killing his self-destructive pop star girlfriend Bonnie DeVille, who also happens to have been a high school classmate of Veronica and Logan. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, just when Veronica thought she was out, they pull her back in.

So, not only does Veronica drop everything to jet back to Neptune and help out Logan, it also happens to be the weekend of her 10-year high school reunion. She is absolutely, positively, no way going to go to that horror show, but her best friends, Wallace and Mac, virtually abduct her to get her there. The reunion scenes are a gift to Marshmallows, since they get to see so many of the characters from the series, but fun for others too. After all, who wouldn't get vicarious enjoyment out of seeing somebody like Veronica cold-cock the high school mean-girl-in-chief?

Though the original plan was for Veronica to just help Logan hire a criminal lawyer, you know this Philip Marlowe in a petite blonde body can't just leave it there. Soon, she's deep into an investigation of Bonnie DeVille's murder, uncovering tantalizing facts from a long-ago disappearance, dealing with the present-day intrusions of the 24-hour celebrity "news" cycle (look, there are those creeps from TMZ, and there's a very odd cameo of James Franco!), and tangling with Neptune's venal new sheriff (look, there's Jerry O'Connell!).

The murder mystery is satisfying, with a yelp-inducing climax and a couple of other rapid-fire surprises that had me levitating from my chair. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that Veronica decides her real mission in life is to stick around, renew her PI license and work on cleaning up Neptune, rather than be just another suit in New York. As a scarred veteran of law firm life, it was easy for me to applaud that part of the plot, even if it made Veronica's father, Keith Mars, want to bang his head with frustration.

Even if you're not a Veronica Mars series veteran, you might enjoy the film. I know some people who said they did, and it made them seek out the old series. The film review site, Rotten Tomatoes, says: "It might be a more entertaining watch for diehard fans of the show, but Veronica Mars offers enough sharp writing and solid performances to entertain viewers in the mood for a character-driven thriller."

If you'd like to see the film, it's possible that it's still at an AMC theater near you––as long as you live in a major metropolitan area. But you can watch it from the comfort of your couch, which seems like the right place to watch Veronica Mars, by streaming it from iTunes, Flixster, Amazon Instant Video, Xbox Video, Vudu and more. The DVD goes on sale on May 6.

The movie only made me want more Veronica Mars, and that clever Rob Thomas knew that would be the result for Marshmallows. So he launched a Veronica Mars book series on March 25, 2014, with the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (Random House), picking up a couple of months from where the movie left off.

There are nothing but crickets for Veronica at Mars Investigations, and the chances of her ever paying off her school loans look slim, until the Chamber of Commerce hires her to investigate the spring break disappearance of a college girl. The disappearance has become a national cause celèbre, bad for Neptune's businesses, and Sheriff Lamb is clearly not competent to do the job.

Just as in the series and the movie, Veronica dives in, calling on her cadre of friends, like Mac and Wallace, to help out with legwork and the high-level technical stuff. The mystery is on a par with what Marshmallows are used to from the TV series, with the added benefit of a major plot twist that Veronica runs into during the investigation and that rocks her back on her heels.

As a book, of course this was somewhat less heavy on the dialog than a film/TV script. That makes sense, but it did mean there wasn't quite as much of that snarky patter that typifies the onscreen versions. What made up for that for me was to listen to the audiobook version, read by Kristen Bell, who plays Veronica Mars on the screen. Naturally, she's excellent reading Veronica, but she's surprisingly good at giving voices to all the other characters.

I don't think the book would be of much interest to anyone who hasn't seen the series or the movie, but if you have, it's well worth reading and will pass the time while we're waiting to see if there will be a movie sequel.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Perfect Travel Companion

I laughed when one of my friends wished she had somewhere to go, so she could listen to an audio book in the car. I know exactly what she means, though. Sitting in a moving vehicle for hours can be a treat if you have the perfect travel companion: entertaining enough to merit attention, but not so demanding as to make your head spin. While this also goes for the human in the seat next to you, let's focus now on books along for the ride.

Max Kinnings's Baptism (Quercus, 2014) is a minute-by-minute account of a London Underground train hijacking. Tommy and Belle Denning, religious fanatic twins, kidnap conductor George Wakeham's kids and thereby force him to stop the train in the tunnel between Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road stations. The book is amazingly suspenseful. Initially, the 300+ passengers, with a few exceptions, don't know the train has been hijacked. Point of view varies among the Dennings; some of the Dennings' former associates; Wakeham and his wife, who is also on the train; MI5; and DCI Ed Mallory, the blind hostage negotiator. Unlike many thriller writers, Kinnings draws compelling psychological portraits of his characters. Graphic violence. Riveting; the hours will fly by.

There's a pleasing symmetry about reading a book involving a train while traveling by train. One of these days I'll devote an entire post to train settings, but in the meantime, let me tell you about I Married a Dead Man, William Irish's 1958 classic. Irish is one of the pseudonyms used by noir writer Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich was a master at creating an atmosphere of paranoia, and does he ever in this book about Helen Georgesson, a woman abandoned by her lover when she became pregnant. Helen is traveling across the country when she meets Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, newlyweds expecting a child. When their train crashes, only Helen survives. She decides to pass herself off as Patrice to Hugh's wealthy, grieving family, who have never met Patrice. Things get tough for Helen/"Patrice" when her old lover comes weaseling around.

If you like eccentric British characters, clever traditional mysteries, and witty language that makes you laugh out loud, Colin Watson's Flaxborough Chronicles are for you. In the first book, Coffin Scarcely Used, DI Purbright and Sgt. Love investigate a series of murders, beginning with unlikable newspaper editor Marcus Gwill, who is found electrocuted in his slippers, his mouth filled with marshmallows, and flower shapes burned into his palms.

All twelve books in this series are fun, but be sure not to miss Lonelyheart 4122, in which you'll meet lovely conwoman Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, who signs up with a matrimonial bureau.

On the weekend before Christmas, robbers shoot two super-mall guards and disappear with a whole heap of money in Silvermeadow by Barry Maitland. Scotland Yard's DCI David Brock and Sgt. Kathy Kolla investigate the robbery, as well as the death of a young girl, which is tied into disappearances from the mall. I like the chemistry between Brock and Kolla, and I also like the information that writer/architect Maitland adds to his books. In this one, the fifth of the 12-book series (you don't have to read its predecessors to enjoy it), we learn about how malls are designed to encourage consumption.

Ruth Rendell writes the excellent 24-book series featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. In the 2013 book, No Man's Nightingale (Scribner), Wexford has retired from the Kingsmarkham police force. Mike Burden brings him in as a consultant when the controversial vicar, Sarah Hussein, is murdered in her vicarage. This isn't among Rendell's best Wexford books, but it's still very enjoyable to spend time in the company of Wexford; Burden; Wexford's wife, Dora; and Rendell's other meticulously drawn characters.

When I'm traveling by plane or train with my husband, we often work on a crossword puzzle together. We alternate between impressing and amusing each other with our right and wrong guesses. A good book après-crossword puzzle is Ruth Rendell's standalone of psychological suspense, One Across, Two Down. It features a no-good named Stanley Manning. Stanley is addicted to cross-word puzzles, and he can hardly wait for the mother of his long-suffering wife, Vera, to die so he can spend the inheritance.

Happy traveling, and happy reading!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review of Vidar Sundstøl's The Land of Dreams

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Over time, I have enjoyed reading authors who slip with ease into a different nationality and convince me to the core that they are native born. Donna Leon always comes to mind when I think of this skill. She is American by birth, but she demonstrates that she has a Venetian heart in her Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries. Eliot Pattison is an American lawyer and author who has me totally convinced he is Chinese when he writes about investigator Shan Tao Yun, who began his fictional life imprisoned in a Himalayan labor camp after he displeased his superiors. I can't overlook Marylander Martha Grimes, who speaks with a distinctly British accent in her 22-book Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard series.

So I was exhilarated to come across The Land of Dreams, by Vidar Sundstøl (University of Minnesota, 2013). This is the first installment of his spine-chilling Minnesota Trilogy, and it is the flip side of what I was talking about. It is a book written by a Norwegian, telling an American tale with a Norwegian twist.

This is an account that begins on an ordinary summer day in the life of Lance Hansen, a U.S. Forest Service cop who patrols the area known as the arrowhead of Minnesota; the area located in the northeastern part of Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior, and it's so called because of its pointed shape.

Lance is better known to the locals as a historian and a genealogist with a great fount of knowledge about the origins and backgrounds of the local citizenry, who are predominantly Norwegian. Lance himself is of mixed ancestry, both Norwegian and French Canadian. He is a divorced man in his early 40s, who lives a solitary life. He sees his son, Jimmy, on alternate weekends and drives around with a picture of him taped on his steering wheel.

Baraga's Cross
There has been a report of a tent pitched illegally by Baraga's Cross on the shore of Lake Superior, and when Lance first gets there he comes across a lone white sneaker––and then a man covered in blood, whom Lance thinks is dead.

The man is actually in shock and when he speaks it comes out as gibberish, but Lance recognizes a Norwegian word–love. The man leads him to another man who had been bludgeoned to death. They are both nude.

Because this is federal land, the FBI agent, Bob Lecuyer, is in charge of the case. Eirik Nyland, a detective from the Norwegian police, also joins the team––bringing with him some Aquavit and lutefisk, which he has been assured is what everyone will expect as a gift from Norway.

This team approach is a good thing, because there has not been a murder in the area in recorded history. But Lance knows of the last man who disappeared in this same area about a hundred years ago. His name was Swamper Caribou, a well-respected medicine man of the time.

He was Ojibwe (known generally to the Europeans as Chippewa), and from what Lance has been able to piece together of the history, he is certain that Caribou was murdered, most likely by one of the small Norwegian community that existed at the time. But the secret of just what happened to Swamper Caribou has never been revealed.

Sundstøl spins a tale of Norwegian noir meeting Minnesota makeup––and by that I mean those qualities of Lance's that keep him evaluating all the threads tying his family, his community and his past and future together. He tries to balance what he knows with what he can tell.

There are some portions of this book that are somewhat historical and some that are entertaining travelogue, because the author incorporates real local eateries, bars, and activities such as a July Fourth celebration.

St. Urho
I loved being distracted by little historical vignettes, such as the one about a small town named Finland ensconced deep in the forest, which is inhabited by Finns, naturally. The first Finns who came to this beautiful area of the Baptism River Valley, uninhabited up until then, settled in. These early immigrants then sent home glowing reports to lure their friends and families to the north shore of Lake Superior. It was a fact that these letters contained not a single word of truth. The reality was that the land wasn't good for anything but growing potatoes, and even then there was no way to get the crops to market except piece by piece up and down steep slopes to Lake Superior.

Despite this, the Finnish community persists to this day and their main claim to fame is St. Urho's Day. Every year on March 16, the day before some minor saint is celebrated for driving snakes out of Ireland, St. Urho is celebrated for driving the grasshoppers out of Finland by saying "Grasshoppers, grasshoppers go to hell." According to Eirik Nyland, the people in Finland have never heard of St. Urho.

Some other parts of the book make us travel to some deeply troubled parts of the human heart and we may have to wait for our spirits to be lifted until the second part of the trilogy, The Dead, is translated by Tiina Nunnally. She does a wonderful job with The Land of Dreams.

While you are waiting, I recommend another taste of Minnesota which is just the opposite of noir, more like happy time. Take a side trip to Lake Wobegon (from the Indian "I waited all day for you in the rain"), Garrison Keillor's hometown, where the women are strong, all the men are good looking and the children are above average. Or slip down to St. Paul, where Keillor opened a bookstore in 2006 called Common Good Books and browse a bit there.

Keillor wrote this sonnet for the bookstore opening:
A bookstore is for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,

And find some common good – that's why we read.

Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.

You write and I read and in that moment I find

A union more perfect than any club I could join:

The simple intimacy of being one mind.

Here in a book-filled room on a busy street,
Strangers—living and dead—are hoping to meet.

skål

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review of Owen Laukkanen's Kill Fee

Kill Fee by Owen Laukkanen

People who say Kill Fee (Putnam, March 20, 2014) is implausible have a point. It's true that few already wealthy American businessmen will risk their necks moonlighting in violent crime, no matter how lucrative. But let's just assume only one greedy man among our wealthiest 1% seeks to fill the unmet demand for professional murder. That man could be much like Owen Laukkanen's Michael Parkerson, and he makes a dilly of a villain.

Parkerson is a dutiful husband and father at home, and an amoral executive who deals with "dollars, in and out" at his daytime workplace. He kids around with his secretary and attends a board meeting, even while sneaking in minutes on killswitch.com, the website forum for gun enthusiasts in which he anonymously and carefully handles orders for murder. Most of the time, Parkerson, who hates messes, manages to keep his own hands relatively clean. He does the organizing and planning while the dead-eyed "assets" do the actual work. (The despicable ways in which Parkerson recruits, trains, and manages these assets make a heck of a social statement.) Killswitch is several years old, and Parkerson is making a killing (sorry!) in profits. Things start to go wrong when Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere witness Parkerson's asset, Malcolm Lind, shoot billionaire Spenser Pyatt outside a hotel in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Stevens, of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and Windermere, a hotshot special agent for the FBI, have appeared in Laukkanen's terrific earlier books, The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise (see reviews here and here). They make an odd pair: Stevens is middle-aged, white, paunchy, and balding, while Windermere is young, black, and gorgeous. Because they work so well together at the exciting job of chasing criminals, they're attracted to each other. This is in spite of Stevens' happy home life as the father of two and husband of Nancy, a beautiful lawyer, and Windermere's fondness for Stevens' family. I am willing to buy this, but the extent to which they think about and discuss it in Kill Fee gets in the way of the plot and doesn't seem credible.

This is only a minor flaw, because Laukkanen writes thrillers whose action I can only liken to the completely head-spinning time I drove home from college in a Triumph Spitfire with a dachshund and a cat loose in the car. Shifting points of view crank up the tension: in Kill Fee, we follow Parkerson, unwilling to dismantle his profitable business, frantically trying to fix one Killswitch mess after another; several assets, including Lind, who attempts to avoid capture, yet stay on schedule, while trying to decide what to do about a pretty young Delta employee seeking to befriend him; and Stevens, Windermere, and her FBI colleague, Mathers, hot on the trail of the assets and trying to sniff out the man behind them.

This three-ring circus is made even more nerve-racking by the plot twists Laukkanen tosses in, his willingness to harm his characters, and the competing emotions generated by his villains. For the most part, they are ordinary Joes and Janes, who take to crime because they decide they need a lot of money, and then they find themselves in over their heads. Their human frailty, which Laukkanen emphasizes by showing how exhausted and beleaguered they are, makes us root for them despite our simultaneously rooting for them to be stopped. That said, I had little sympathy for the dastardly Parkerson, although no one could ever call that guy lazy, and a lot of sympathy for the assets, ordinary Joes in over their heads for other excellent reasons.

I also liked the people chasing Parkerson and his killers: Windermere, an attractive, ballsy woman who calls the shots; Stevens, a problem solver whose love for his family and fear of flying can't extinguish his excitement about the job; and Mathers, a young FBI agent who shows he can manage something other than Minnesota nice.

Like The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee is teeth-rattling suspense and top-notch entertainment. It would be a perfect companion for a vacation or a long train ride, because you'll want to devour it in one or two gulps. After I read it, it made my day to hear Laukkanen is working on the fourth in this series. I can hardly wait.