Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Raylan 02: Riding the Rap (Elmore Leonard)

Rating: 5
Year: 1995
Genre: Crime
Read Again? Yes

Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens drives up to Ocala to nab Dale Crowe on a warrant (Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution). He puts Crowe in the driver's seat and makes him drive them back to Palm Beach County.

He's alone with the man convicted of battery on a police officer. Being a Crowe, he tries something stupid and ends up handcuffed to the steering wheel, still driving.

On the way, they pick up a pair of carjackers (dumbasses tried to jack Raylan's car), so now the Marshall has three prisoners and feels pretty damn smug.

Meanwhile, Harry Arno, the bookie-in-trouble from the first book, hires a bounty hunter to ferret out a $16,500 gambling debt owed by Warren "Chip" Ganz up in Manalpan, Florida. Harry's retiring and wants to settle his accounts.

The bounty hunter, Bobby "the Gardener" Deogracias, finds Ganz at his mother's run-down 9,000 square foot home. Ganz' mother is in a different sort of home, dying alone of Alzheimer's. Ganz himself is hardly living large, since his mother controls the house and whatever money there is.
The Gardener offers to prune Ganz' ears, one at a time, if he doesn't pay up the $18,000 he owes (finder's fee). More anatomy to follow as needed for motivation.

Chip sees an angle and proposes a business opportunity: he and The Gardener could team up, take Harry Arno hostage, and squeeze him for the money he's had to be skimming in all his time as a bookie. They'll split the take three ways, since Chip's already got another partner, man named Louis Lewis.

Harry vanishes. Raylan reluctantly tries to find him, prodded by Harry's lady friend. He finds some interesting puzzle pieces: a young, attractive professional psychic; a robbery at a little Mom & Pop grocery (with strawberry Jell-O as part of the take); one of the robbers threatened one victim with pruning shears. Raylan suspects Bobby Deo, "The Gardener," but lacks all the pieces just yet.

The genius of Elmore Leonard's tale is that we're not dealing with criminal masterminds. You've got the financially embarrassed, desperate man-of-the-house (Chip Ganz) who once read a book about hostages and how they were treated. Chip wants the caper done By The Book, but the practicalities keep this from going to plan. Straw mattresses are hard to come by in Palm Beach County. Crappy food, chains, and squalid shacks are kind of hard on the jailors and the jailed, and Chip's partners refuse to go along. Harry makes do with being chained in a run-down 9,000 square foot mansion instead.

Then there's Louis, who almost immediately starts trying to undercut the other guys; and The Gardener, who's so obsessed with his gunslinger-badass self-image that he fails to think very far ahead.

Greed is the only thing keeping the trio of kidnappers together, and each of them is plotting against the other two.

Fast-paced, easy reading here. I really like that the bad guys are just regular, stupid human beings instead of evil geniuses. It really doesn't take much more than that and a little greed to drive a typical crook.

Dresden Files 14: Cold Days (Jim Butcher)

Rating: 4/5
Year: 2012
Genre: Fantasy
Read Again? Yeah.

Turns out Harry Dresden was only Mostly Dead after being taken down by a sniper in "Changes." He did a little time as a ghost in "Ghost Story." Now...he's baaaaaack!

Well, there's a hitch. He's not a freelance wizard anymore. He made a deal in "Changes" that bound him to Queen Mab, agreeing to become her Winter Knight, which makes him her enforcer, assassin, or whatever she wants.

The previous Knight was an evil, sadistic bastard. Now Harry wear the mantle. There's a constant struggle between keeping his own identity and allowing the cruel, hungry passions of Winter to take over.

Oh, and as in every previous book, he has to save the world from Armageddon. Again. This time he has a day to pull it off...and Mab wants him to kill her daughter Maeve, the Winter Lady.

Dresden has been speculating over several books about a sort of "Black Council," an evil counterpart to the White Council of wizards, shadowy hands manipulating events and people (and creatures) to trigger a new Armageddon focused on Chicago on Halloween. Turns out he's right, in a way: parasites. This angle is used to explain why nearly every previous book has a super-monster flocking to the Windy City to further their plans for Total World Domination (or at least the Utter Destruction of Everything): the baddies have been influenced by parasites. I don't like or dislike this angle just yet, since it's only now being introduced. If Butcher handles it well, it could be cooler than a "Black Council."

This book brings back Butters the Medical Examiner, Molly the former Apprentice, Murphy the ex-cop (and love interest?), Bob the talking skull, Thomas the White Vampire (and Harry's half-brother), and Mouse, Harry's humongous dog.

No one's particularly surprised Harry isn't actually dead, but now that he's the Winter Knight everyone's convinced he's a raging murderous bastard, or at least under the Winter Queen's sway.

The story moves well. No rambling. Good plot development, some revelations about the role of the Faerie Folk in keeping the evil Others at bay.

Airframe (Michael Crichton)

Rating: 4
Year: 1996
Genre: Techno-thriller
Read again? Yes

Everything's quiet aboard TransPacific flight 545 out of Hong Kong. Most of the passengers are asleep.

The plane starts to pitch violently, diving several thousand feet, then climbing sharply, then diving and climbing again.

By the time 545 makes its emergency landing at Los Angeles International, it's carrying 56 injured and 3 dead.

The captain claimed "severe turbulence" but radar shows clear weather for thousands of miles around the plane.

The flight crew leaves the country before they can be questioned. Everything seems to point to a failure in the aircraft itself.

The plane, a Norton N-22 Widebody--is shuttled to the factory for a complete inspection, but there's a catch: the team has one week. The boss wants immediate answers because Beijing is considering an $8 billion dollar purchase of 50 N-22's with an option for 30 more.

If the fault lies with the aircraft, Beijing will buy from Airbus instead.

Casey Singleton, Quality Assurance Liason and Press Spokesperson for Norton, is put in charge of the Incident Response Team. She'll be working with engineers and mechanics to either prove the N-22's soundness or condemn the company to a massive loss of business.

She's been saddled with Bob Richman, an assistant, some nephew of the Norton family who's being shuffled around the company to see where he'll fit in.

The boss is John Marder, the Chief Operating Officer, who was the program manager on the N-22.

Casey's team are a bunch of 2-dimensional off-the-shelf characters from Central Casting:
Marder is the Dark, Intense Company Man.
Doherty is the Mopy, Overweight Guy with a bad complexion.
Trung is the Industrious, Hard-Working Asian Genius.
Burne is the Angry, Truculent Red-Haired engine expert.
Smith is the Jittery, Fidgety Electrical Genius.
Wallerstein is the Efficient German Flight Simulation Operator.
Rawley is the Dashing Cowboy Test Pilot.

As soon as the investigation starts, everything hits the fan: one flight recorder is scrambled and will take some time to sort out. The strongly-unionized mechanics are angry because of a rumor that part of the big China sale includes moving wing fabrication to China, which would effectively kill U.S. production of the N-22 and thousands of jobs at the U.S. factory. Marder denies the rumors.

Bob Richman seems squirrelly. Casey starts giving him busy work and does some behind-the-scenes investigating into him. She finds that he did a lot of off-the-table flying when he was in Marketing. What's his deal?

The media gets involved: a tabloid TV show producer who fancies herself a Hard-Hitting Investigative Journalist. Shortly after the N-22 story breaks, an unrelated incident with a different airline makes her think she smells blood. She packs her hatchet and heads out to LA to get "the real story" about the N-22 DEATHTRAP!! She's already framed out the entire story, not caring about the facts, just the sensationalism and ratings, ratings, RATINGS!

Crichton frequently adds paragraphs or pages worth of technical or industrial information to explain things his principal characters should already know, such as the problem of counterfeit aircraft parts or how the government and industry actually interact versus how we would prefer it to be. Bob Richman is our surrogate. A lawyer, not an engineer or industry insider, he's someone for Casey to explain the technical stuff to.

Thick but not too hefty, and a page-turner. Crichton stays out of his own way, feeding you technical stuff as needed without straying from the trail. There's a lot going on--corporate intrigue, media hype, Casey's ex-husband who is convinced she's just breaking his balls, juggling all the engineers and mechanics without pissing them all off, trying to quell rumors about the wing sale to China. There's a Crowning Moment of Awesome when Casey puts the stupid, arrogant media woman solidly in her place during the Big Test Flight at the book's end.

The only real disappointment is the low-budget supporting cast, but that's only a momentary distraction near the beginning of things.