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Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

TERMINAL CITY by Linda Fairstein: Book Review

The young woman’s body was found in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the luxury Manhattan hotel that was home, over the years, to such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe and Cole Porter.  The suite was supposed to be unoccupied, but someone had entered with the victim, killed her, and left unseen. The New York City police are under a tight deadline to solve this crime–in less than a week, the president of the United States will be checking into the Waldorf while visiting the city to address the United Nations.

The corpse has no identification, and in addition to her slashed throat she has marks on her back and legs.  The marks look like “ladders” that were carved into her skin deliberately.  What could they mean?

Then a second body is found in an alley near the hotel.  This time the victim is a man, probably homeless, so initially there seems no connection to the first crime.  But a closer inspection shows that his body has the same “ladder” marks as the first one.  When the neighborhood patrolman sees the body, he immediately knows who it is.  The victim’s name is Carl, and he lived in the train tunnels under Grand Central Terminal. 

Grand Central was the brainchild of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt.  First there was Grand Central Depot, then Grand Central Station, but they weren’t large enough for all the trains entering and leaving the city.  Vanderbilt recognized that to maintain the city’s superiority it needed to be a major railroad hub, so the immense terminal was built and completed in 1913.  Sparing no expense, it has floors of Tennessee marble, wall trim of Italian marble, and ceiling tiles in the Oyster Bar that were copied from those in the cathedral of St. John the Divine in uptown Manhattan.  Stone statues adorn the building’s fasçade.

Now assistant district attorney Alex Cooper and her team, including police detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, are trying to find the connection between the first corpse and the second.  The people who live in the tunnels, like Carl, are called “moles.”  So Alex, Mike, and Mercer go underground in hopes of finding out something about Carl that will help them solve both murders.

Terminal City is a fascinating read because of its characters, its plot, and its sense of history.  Alex is a tough woman, a formidable prosecutor of sex crimes, but her history has made her vulnerable in her private life.  Her relationship with Mike Chapman is currently at its strongest point, or it was until Mike was out of touch for several weeks and then returned to the city without telling Alex.  Now she’s not sure where she stands with him, and he evades all her questions.

Linda Fairstein’s knowledge of New York City is encyclopedic, as she has proven in Terminal City and her other novels.  Here she takes the reader into every part of Grand Central, into places so removed from its elegant bar and historic Tiffany clock that it’s like traveling to another world.  Her characters are strong and believable, and the plot moves at a rapid pace.  And then, of course, there’s the delight in learning about the building itself, a National Historic Landmark since 1976.  No matter where you’re reading Terminal City, you’ll feel as if you’re in the Big Apple.

You can read more about Linda Fairstein at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CROOKED NUMBERS by Tim O’Mara: Book Review

Now a teacher at a public school in Manhattan, Raymond Donne was formerly a New York City policeman who changed careers following a tragic accident.  When one of his former students, now a student at a prestigious private school, is stabbed to death under the Williamsburg Bridge, Ray gets a phone call from the boy’s mother and becomes drawn into the case.

Douglas Lee was the perfect student for Upper West Academy in Manhattan to feature in its brochures in order to increase its number of minority students:  a bright African-American teenager with a slight learning disability being raised by a single mother.  Dougie was popular and well-liked, both in his neighborhood and at his school, but somehow he ended up murdered.  And when the police see that he’s wearing the colors of a local street gang and has bags of marijuana in his socks, they’re sure this is a drug-related death.  It seems as if there will be little official follow-up to this crime, so Mrs. Lee contacts Ray to see if he has any clout, as a former cop and Dougie’s former teacher, to try to keep the investigation open.

Crooked Numbers follows Ray as he meets with Allison Rogers, a journalist he met several months earlier when he was on the police force and who is covering Dougie’s death for her newspaper.  Also involved in the investigation is Dennis Mercer, a detective who graduated from the police academy with Ray and was formerly romantically involved with Ray’s sister.  Dennis wants to believe the investigation is over, minimal as it was, but Allison and Ray persuade him to keep it open a few more days by talking about negative publicity for the police force if nothing more is seen to be done.  “We both know how they love a good cops-screwed-up piece next to a picture of the victim’s grieving mother,” Ray tells Dennis.

There is a terrific sense of place in Crooked Numbers.  The differences between Williamsburg, the section of Brooklyn where Dougie and his mother lived, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan are brilliantly portrayed.  As the author says, the distance is slight.  “Five miles.  Geographically.  Demographically, the Upper West Side might as well be on the other side of the world.”

Tim O’Mara also writes some memorable characters.  In addition to the ones mentioned above, there is Tito, head of the Brooklyn gang the Royal Family, and he doesn’t like the fact that someone put those “gang” beads around Dougie’s neck; no way was that kid a member of his gang.  There’s Elliot Henry Finch, a classmate of Dougie’s at the Academy who’s also a serious birdwatcher and computer nerd.  There are the two friends of Dougie’s from the Academy, Jack Quinn and Paulie Sherman.  And then there are Angel Rodriguez, a student at Ray’s public middle school who is being harassed and bullied by some older kids at his bus stop, and Angel’s father, who takes steps to stop it.

Crooked Numbers is the second in the Raymond Donne series, and I’m going back to read the first book, Sacrifice Fly.  I have no doubt it is as engrossing and well-written as its successor.

You can read more about Tim O’Mara at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

 

 

SUTTON by J. R. Moehringer: Book Review

Could Sutton refer to anyone but Willie Sutton, bank robber extraordinaire?  Google “Willie Sutton,” and you get nearly four million hits.  His life has been the subject of a television episode on “Gang Busters” in 1952 and a documentary entitled “In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton” in 2011.  And now his life has produced a book, and an excellent one it is.

Sutton opens on Christmas Eve, 1969, when Willie was pardoned and released from Attica Correctional Faculty where he had been serving a fifty year sentence.  His unexpected release caused, in the author’s words, “a media frenzy,” but Willie granted only one interview.  J.R. Moehringer states in the Author’s Note that the published interview was a superficial one, and this book is his attempt to write what he thinks happened, or wishes had happened, on the day of the interview.

Willie was born into a poor Irish-American family, the fourth of five children, in 1901 in New York City.  According to the book, he was brutalized by his two of his older brothers, and that’s when he learned, at a young age, not to “squeal” or “be a rat,” the worst possible things one could do or be in his neighborhood.  Forced by family financial woes to leave school after the eighth grade, Willie turned to crime after he was let go from a series of dead-end jobs due to the Great Depression.  Starting out robbing jewelry stories, Willie soon was living the high life in a fancy hotel, dressing like a gentleman, eating in New York City’s finest restaurants.

The story is told both “in the present,” that being Christmas Day, the day after Willie leaves prison, and flashbacks to the past, when Willie thinks about his life.  He makes the two newspaper men, referred to only as the Reporter and the Photographer, drive all over the city so that he can relive his life in chronological order.

The romance in Willie’s life was Bess Endner, the daughter of a wealthy New York family.  When Willie was eighteen and Bess was sixteen, the two began a Romeo-and-Juliet romance that ended, as it could only do, badly.  The two of them, plus a friend of Willie’s, stole $16,000 from Bess’ father’s safe and fled to Massachusetts in an unsuccessful attempt to get married.  For the rest of Willie’s life he was haunted by his memories of Bess and the life they could have had together.

J.R. Moehringer has written a fascinating novel about a man who, as they say, needs no introduction.  Sutton, like Dillinger and Capone, doesn’t even need a first name to be identified; his incredible robberies, which netted him more than two million dollars over his lifetime, made him famous, or infamous, in the annals of twentieth-century crime.

All the characters in Sutton jump out from the novel’s pages:  Willie’s brutal brothers, his indifferent parents, the beautiful Bess, and the myriad accomplices who either remained loyal to Willie or betrayed him.  This is a beautifully written book, with its look into the heart-breaking poverty that many faced, even before the Depression, and Willie’s attempts to find happiness by accumulating immense wealth.

Mr. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, doesn’t have a web site, but there are many articles about him and this book on the Internet.

Special thanks to Lorry Diehl who recommended Sutton to me.  Lorry is the author of four books about Manhattan, her home town.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GHOST HERO by S. J. Rozan: Book Review

Lydia Chin and Bill Smith are together again. They are private investigators in New York City; given Lydia’s ethnicity, they do a lot of investigating in Chinatown.

Quietly drinking tea in a Lower East Side tearoom, Lydia is approached by a new client.  He introduces himself as Jeff Dunbar, a man interested in contemporary Chinese art.  Lydia is a bit put off by this, wondering if he has chosen her for her “Chineseness” or her knowledge of Chinese art; if so, she thinks, he’s in for a rude surprise.  Her lack of knowledge of art, most especially contemporary Chinese art, is profound.

Dunbar tells her it’s not her knowledge of the art scene that made him come to her but her reputation at finding people or things. What he wants her to look into is a rumor circulating around the city’s galleries that several previously unknown paintings by Chau Chun, a Chinese artist who was killed in Tiananmen Square in the 1989 uprising, have surfaced in New York.  Dunbar portrays himself as a new collector who wants to find out if these painting exist and, if they do, to get them, authenticate them, and sell them.

But Lydia isn’t taking him at his word.  After he gives her a retainer and leaves, she searches through the web for information about him–no hits.  He gave her a card with his name and cell phone number but no company name, address, or e-mail.  And his clothing and demeanor don’t shout money to her either.  Her suspicions are aroused.

Intrigued by Lydia’s description of and questions about Dunbar, Bill Smith brings her to a friend of his, another Chinese-American private detective, Jack Lee. After hearing Lydia’s story about her new client, Jack shares his own–he too has just been approached by a client to find these paintings.  But his client wants to find the paintings, if they exist, to declare them fraudulent.  The client, a Professor Yang at New York University, was a friend of Chau Chun’s in Beijing, and he knows there are no recent or undiscovered paintings by the artist because he was there when the artist was killed.

There’s a strong sense of Chinatown in this novel, with its winding streets and myriad restaurants; the food descriptions alone make the book worth reading.  There’s also a fair amount of humor in this novel, more than I remember in previous books in this series.  The art scene is portrayed as a dog-eat-dog one, with money being the prime motivator.  Lydia’s stereotypical mother makes an appearance, as does her cousin, a nineteen-year-old techie who can find out just about anything Lydia want to know.

The only problem I had with the book with the lack of a crime. It’s really a “cozy” in the sense that there’s little violence, little crime, and no deaths.  The mystery and the plot are strong, but I would have enjoyed a bit more tension than was present.

You can read more about S. J. Rozen at her web site.

LONG GONE by Alafair Burke: Book Review

Alice Humphrey has been unemployed for eight months, and she’s desperate for a job. Her career in the art world has been a rather undistinguished one, so when a chance meeting at a New York City art gallery produces a job offer from a charming stranger, she accepts despite the warnings of her best friend Lily.

Alice comes from a prominent, wealthy family, but not a particularly happy one.  Her father is an Oscar-winning director, her mother a former actress who also won an Oscar.  But their marriage has always been a rocky one, what with her father’s alcoholism and sexual affairs and her mother’s refusal to deal with anything that would disturb her life.  And Alice’s older brother, Ben, is a drug addict, perhaps recovering, perhaps not.

The gallery Alice has been hired to run will open under two conditions, according to Drew Campbell, the man who offered her the position. The first is that the man whose money is funding the gallery must remain anonymous; the second is that his young protegee must have a three week solo show of his photographs to open the gallery.  Alice is somewhat mystified by these conditions, but she agrees.  When she sees the photographer’s work she’s upset by his evident lack of talent, but she decides to make the best of it–after all, it’s only for three weeks, then she’s free to choose the art for the gallery.

But when the show opens, it’s picketed by the Reverend George Hardy of the Redemption of Christ Church because he says it’s showing pornographic photos of underage girls.  There’s nothing to be done, according to Alice’s call to the New York City’s 311, non-emergency, line; the picketers are entitled to express their First Amendment rights.

And two days later Alice gets a phone call from Drew, saying there are some problems and he has to see her the next morning at the gallery.  When she arrives and lets herself in, she trips over his corpse.

Alafair Burke does an excellent job of combining Long Gone’s various story lines. In addition to Alice’s problems, there’s the F.B.I. detective who has been following, against orders, the man he holds responsible for his sister’s death.  There’s also the teenage girl who’s gone missing from her New Jersey home.  When all three story lines converge, the entire picture becomes clear.  The sense of scene is excellent, whether the author is describing the Highline Gallery, named for the newly constructed High Line Park on the lower west side of New York City, or a suburban New Jersey high school filled with jocks and cheerleaders.

Alice Humphrey is a very appealing heroine. She’s led a protected, if not especially happy, life, cosseted by her family’s position and money.  She knows that her father’s money paid for her previous job, and now she’s very determined to make it on her own.  No more favors, thank you.

She been having an on-again, off-again romance for some time; at the moment it’s on, but there’s a very substantial stumbling block in the relationship just waiting for someone to trip over it.  Her relationship with her brother has its own difficulties.  He’s happy to talk against their parents, but he lives in a condo his father pays for and hasn’t had a real job for years.  And Alice’s fear of her brother’s drug use has added an additional emotional toll to every conversation they have.

Alafair Burke is also the author of two series; Long Gone is her first stand-alone. You can read more about her at her web site.

THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN by Rex Stout: Book Review

My definition of a Golden Oldie is a mystery I’ve read at least two or three times and can’t wait to read again. By that standard The League of Frightened Men is 21 karats.

Rex Stout, one of the absolute masters of the Golden Age of mysteries, wrote more than fifty mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. For the uninitiated, Wolfe was the quintessential eccentric detective–middle-aged, hugely overweight, handshake-avoiding, woman-distrusting, and agoraphobic.  Goodwin is his assistant–probably two decades younger, good-looking, a great dancer, and the “legs,” if not the “eyes,” of Wolfe.

The story opens with Wolfe telling Goodwin that while the latter was away on a job, a man named Andrew Hibbard had come to the office to ask Wolfe to protect him from assassination. However, Hibbard refused to give Wolfe the name of the man he was afraid of and insisted that he didn’t want the man arrested or punished, simply stopped.

Hibbard’s story is that there were a group of friends at Harvard more than twenty-five years before who inadvertently injured this man when he also was a student there.  As a result this man had had several operations and now, years later, still walked with a pronounced limp. The group had done whatever they could to help this man, financially and emotionally, for years, but the accident still burdened many of them.  Only recently had this man found his talent, and he was now a successful novelist and playwright.  However, in their guilty state, the men years ago had decided to call themselves The League of Atonement, a name which still stuck.

Recently, while at the Harvard graduation of the son of one of the League members, a group of these men and the injured man had been walking together along ocean cliffs late at night.  The next morning, one of the men was found at the bottom of the cliff.  And two days after that, the remaining members had received a poem which they all agreed came from the crippled man, which said he had killed the League member and was going to kill all the others.

Then, several months later, another member of the group died.  The police declared it suicide, but a follow-up poem allegedly by the injured man and saying that there would be more deaths had prompted Hibbard to come to Wolfe for protection.

Wolfe explained that he could not agree to be a bodyguard but would agree to remove the threat, but Hibbard vetoed this.  The meeting ended.  Then, when Goodwin returns to the office several days after Hibbard and Wolfe’s meeting, he casually mentions an article in the newspaper about a man who had written a book the district attorney wanted declared obscene.  This pricks Wolfe’s memory, and he sends Goodwin out to buy a copy of the book.  After he’s read it, he realizes that the injured man Hibbard was talking about is the book’s author, Paul Chapin.

Wolfe gets in touch with the remaining members of the League of Atonement and promises to remove the Chapin threat for a huge fee, payable only if he succeeds.  The majority of the men agree, although some are still hounded by their guilt and fearful of wronging Chapin again.  And then Chapin himself enters Wolfe’s office.  Talking to Wolfe, “he got into (his voice) a concentrated scorn that would have withered the love of God.”

Stout’s book is a masterful psychological study.  To those who know and love Wolfe and Goodwin, this book is absolutely one of the best in the series.  If you’ve never read Rex Stout, this novel is the perfect one with which to start.

You can read more about Rex Stout at http://www.nerowolfe.org/htm/stout/author.htm.

SNAKES CAN’T RUN by Ed Lin: Book Review

As much a snapshot of New York’s Chinatown in the 1970s as it is a mystery, Snakes Can’t Run by Ed Lin gives the reader an insight into the various factions of an ethnic community at a turning point in its history.

The snakes in the title are not of the reptile variety but rather snakeheads, what today we more commonly call coyotes.  They are Chinese American citizens who bring over illegal immigrants, in this case to lower New York City.   Not surprising is that both snakeheads and coyotes are the names of animals in that their treatment of the men and women they bring to the United States, whether it be via ships to New York’s Chinatown to work in restaurants and laundries or via trucks to Arizona to work in the fields, is inhumane.

Robert Chow is a New York City police detective whose late father was an illegal immigrant. Chow was a huge disappointment to his father when he decided not to go to college and joined the Army instead, then came home from Vietnam to become a policeman.  The elder Chow had higher aspirations for his son, aspirations that were out of his own reach as an immigrant with an incomplete grasp of English.

And Robert Chow has other demons besides his memories of his father.  He came back from Vietnam an alcoholic, and when the novel opens he’s only been sober for four months.

Now Chow is surrounded by illegals in his own neighborhood, where he’s the poster boy for diversity in the Police Department. Chinatown is split between two groups–the mainland Chinese and the Taiwanese Chinese.  Although Taiwan has been replaced by mainland China as a member of the United Nations, the United States still did not have full diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in 1976 when the novel takes place, and tensions among the Communists and the Taiwanese are running high.

Adding fuel to the fire is the increased number of illegals coming to New York from China, mainly Fukienese.  Like most immigrants, they arrived in America poor and uneducated and willing to do anything to stay here.  But by coming here illegally, with the help of Chinese Americans who owned businesses, they couldn’t object to low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of benefits.  And in order to pay back the money advanced by these merchants to the snakeheads, or owed by the immigrants themselves to the snakeheads, these illegal aliens were basically indentured servants, many working until their deaths trying to pay back what they owed.

Although there is a double murder early in the novel, I felt Snakes Can’t Run was more of a sociological study than a mystery.  There’s a great deal of history in it and a lot of background of Chinese and Chinese American feelings during the late 1970s, and the mystery takes second place to that.  But one of the reasons I love reading mysteries, as I have written before, is because they take me outside my own world.  I was pulled into the gritty world of Chinatown–its food, its superstitions, its people. And it made for very interesting reading.

You can read more about Ed Lin at his web site.

WALKING HOMELESS by Al Lamanda: Book Review

A man on the ground.  A policeman  stops to see if he needs help.  The man rises and two other men come out of the shadows.  One smashes the cop on the head, another grabs his wallet and his gun, and the third gets ready to give the order to shoot.  Then another man appears.  Seemingly without effort, he disarms the man with the gun and kills all three of the attackers.

Walking Homeless by Al Lamanda takes us on a trip through the Cardboard Box City of Lower Manhattan, the place where the homeless, alcoholic, and drug-addicted men and women went to live after they were removed from the newly upscale Times Square.  Among these is John Tibbets.  All he knows about himself is his name.  He’s been on the streets for about three years, brought by a doctor to a Catholic shelter where he sleeps, when he’s able to.  He spends his days stopping cars and washing their windshields for pocket money; he spends his nights having violent dreams that always end with people dying.  But why is John having these dreams?  He has no idea.

After saving the policeman’s life, John becomes a media sensation.  Newspapers, magazines, and national television stations all want a piece of him.  And so do several mysterious men.  They want him alive but will take him dead if that’s their only option.

The reader knows there’s something pretty scary about John.  The way he handles himself, his presence of mind under extreme pressure–this is not your average homeless man for sure.  Could he have been a military man before his amnesia set in?  A former policeman?  But his skills seem too extreme for that.  And what about his nightmares?  They are becoming more detailed, less fuzzy, although John is still a long way away from figuring out who he is and why men are after him now.  As we follow his dreams, we know that this is no innocent, that there are things in John’s background that are too painful to face.  But that still doesn’t explain why he’s being followed.

This is an intimate look into the dark side of Manhattan or, for that matter, any city that simply wants to forget its homeless, its mentally ill, its most vulnerable. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the motto of those in charge.  This novel has a strong sociological bent, even with all its violence.  And there’s plenty of that.

Walking Homeless is a stunning book.  Besides being an excellent thriller, its underlying message makes you think about how we, as a society, view the neediest, least capable among us.  It’s not a pretty picture.

Apparently Al Lamanda doesn’t have a web page.  Aside from the fact that the back jacket says he comes from Maine, I couldn’t find out anything about him.  There’s virtually nothing on the Internet.   Could it be that that’s not his real name?  Another mystery to be solved.