RONALD TIERNEY – The Concrete Pillow. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1995. Worldwide Library, paperback, March 1997.

   I purchased but never read the first four of the Indianapolis PI Deets Shanahan series when they came out in paperback, but there was a gap of nine years before the next one appeared, and I missed picking up any of those. It was not, in fact, until reading Kevin Burton Smith’s recent article in Mystery Scene about the series that I realized that Tierney had starting writing the books again, and that they have been coming out quite regularly.

   Save for the last one, Killing Frost, which has appeared after a time lapse of five years, and which I am told will definitely mean the end of the line for the series. I don’t know exactly what that means, but part of the ongoing focus of the Shanahan books is his age. In The Concrete Pillow, published some 20 years ago, he is 70. I don’t think he’s aged at the same rate as the rest of us, but he must at least be thinking of retirement.

   In Pillow, book number four, and the first one I was able to find in my collection when I went looking, Shanahan is already feeling his age, not so much physically, but mentally, worrying about forgetting things in particular.

   The case itself has to do with a dysfunctional family of some fame in Indiana, as the four Lindstrom brothers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were quadruplets and well-known stars of their high school basketball team. Since then, however, things have not gone well for them. One is dead, the other permanently disabled, and Deets (short for Dietrich) is hired by the third, strung out on drugs but convinced that someone is going to kill him.

   Deets has a 40-something live-in girl friend named Maureen, a former massage therapist, and a family crisis of his own to deal with. A son he has not seen in 30 years is coming for a visit, along with a grandson whom he has of course never seen before at all. He does not know how he will handle this but this aspect of the story becomes as important as solving the care he is hired to solve. Two families in turmoil, one unhappily, the other, well maybe there’s hope there.

   Unfortunately the mystery end of things winds up with Deets setting himself up for bait, waiting for the killer, still unknown, to make a move against him. The ploy works, but if you are looking for more detective work than this, you may not be satisfied. I think, though, that if you like Bill Pronzini’s Nameless PI series, where character as well the case solving comes into play, you might want to give this one a try.

The Deets Shanahan series –

1. The Stone Veil (1990)
2. The Steel Web (1991)
3. The Iron Glove (1992)

4. The Concrete Pillow (1995)
5. Nickel-Plated Soul (2004)

6. Platinum Canary (2005)
7. Glass Chameleon (2006)
8. Asphalt Moon (2007)
9. Bloody Palms (2008)
10. Bullet Beach (2010)

11. Killing Frost (2015)


TAYLOR McCAFFERTY – Ruffled Feathers. Haskell Blevins #2. Pocket, paperback original, 1992.

   This is a silly book. Silly. Haskell Blevins is an ex-Louisville cop (if it’s explained why he left I missed it) who now is the only private detective in his tiny (pop. 1511) home town of Pigeon Fork, Kentucky. How he makes a living there is mercifully unexplained.

   He’s hired by the town’s millionaire, a poultry raiser (shades of East Texas’ own Bo Pilgrim), to protect his daughter, for whom he has received a ransom note, but who hasn’t been kidnapped. The chicken magnate, an irascible and thoroughly repulsive sort, is killed, and we’re off.

   Off target and off base is what we are. The Blevins books are supposed to lighthearted and amusing. Not. Try dumb. The level of humor is indicated by the fact that the narrator, who nearly always speaks to you in a folksy (it’s to be queasy) but perfectly grammatical manner, four or five times over the course of the book throws in lines (directed to you, the reader) like, “Of course, you’ve got to watch them chickens…” Supposed to reinforce his country image, I guess.

   Stupid mystery, stupid characters, and an insult to the intelligence of all with IQs in triple digits. If you think this is funny, ABC sitcoms were made for you.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

      The Haskell Blevins series –

1. Pet Peeves (1990)

2. Ruffled Feathers (1992)
3. Bed Bugs (1993)
4. Thin Skins (1994)
5. Hanky Panky (1995)
6. Funny Money (2000)


BILL GRANGER – Drover. Jimmy Drover #1. William Morrow, hardcover, May 1991. Avon, paperback, May 1992.

   Bill Granger is the author of the four book Chicago Police series of quite a few years ago (originally published as by Joe Gash, and underrated in my opinion, though one won an Edgar), and the very successful November Man spy series, which now runs to twelve.

   This book introduces his third series, and is about a well-known sportswriter unfairly banned from sportswriting because of alleged contacts with the underworld. The second in the series, Drover and the Zebras, has already been released.

   Jimmy Drover now lives in Santa Cruz, and makes his living investigating various aspects of the sports world for the owner of a Las Vegas book As the story opens, he goes to the aid of an old flame whose husband has killed himself because of gambling debts. Shortly after, an old gangster acquaintance from Chicago contacts him with a story about someone planning a major fix in the NFL, and offering Drover help with his lady’s problem in return for assistance with his own. The plot thickens, bubbles, and boils over.

   Granger creates interesting characters, and tells their story in his usual highly professional manner. Drover and his friends are reasonably engaging (particularly the ex-fireman, Black Kelly, naturally), and the villains — who include professional gamblers, government agents, and Chicago commodity traders — are truly scuzzy. Good, but not great.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.

       The Jimmy Drover series –

1. Drover (1991)
2. Drover and the Zebras (1992)

3. Drover and the Designated Hitter (1994)

Note:   There were 13 books in Granger’s “November Man” series, one more than when Barry wrote this review.

SYDNEY HOSIER – Most Baffling, Mrs. Hudson. Avon, paperback original, January 1998.

   This was a nice idea, based on just the one in hand, but one that was only indifferently carried out. Other readers may have thought so too, as the series lasted a total of only four books, of which this is the third.

   Not that Most Baffling is bad, for it isn’t. The concept is that Mrs. Hudson, having had some success in solving mysteries on her own, has become an inquiry agent herself, independent of her boarder upstairs. Holmes himself does not appear, not does Dr. Watson, but one of the former’s discarded suits does play a small role.

   Mrs. Hudson has her own Watson, so the speak, although her friend and live-in companion Mrs. Warner, or Vi, short for Violet, does not tell the story. She’s there primarily for comic relief and of course to have someone on hand to bounce ideas off of, and vice versa.

   In Most Baffling, the two are hired by a lady whose husband was killed at a party under the most unusual of circumstances. In spite of a large number of people being present in the room, no one heard the fatal shot, nor did anyone see who did it.

   In terms of period detail, the setting as described is at least satisfactory, and the dialogue is mostly OK, to my tin ear. In terms of the mystery itself, Mrs. Hudson and her friend Vi do not do a lot of detecting. It is more a matter of serendipitous luck, shall we say. A neighbor down the street who Mrs. Hudson happens to meet and chat with for the first time, for example, connects her with another fellow who just happens to be intimately involved with the murder.

   A gathering of all the suspects in one room at the end gets us on familiar ground, to be true, but the “impossible” nature of the crime needs to be talked about, I think. I will discuss the solution to the case in more detail as part of the first comment, so please be warned in advance before heading there. All in all, enjoyable enough in its fashion, but I’m unlikely to read another.

       The Mrs. Hudson series –

1. Elementary, Mrs. Hudson (1996)

2. Murder, Mrs. Hudson (1997)
3. Most Baffling, Mrs. Hudson (1998)
4. The Game’s Afoot, Mrs. Hudson (1998)


RICHARD HOYT – Whoo? John Denson #5. Tor, hardcover, 1991; reprint paperback, 2000.

   This fifth (after a several-year hiatus) of the Denson books is set against the backdrop of the spotted owl-lumber industry conflict in the Northwest. Denson assists a stranded motorist who turns out to be a federal owl-counter, beds her that night, and goes on to the case that’s brought him to the area.

   She is murdered, he vows vengeance, and (surprise) Denson’s original case turns out to be connected. His sometime partner, native American Willy Prettybird, becomes involved and things move right along to a more or less satisfying finish.

   The owls or trees issue gets a lot of space; more, perhaps, than some readers would wish, even though the issue itself is integral to the plot The explanations are not one-sided, which is refreshing though the author and Denson make it clear where their ultimate sympathies lie.

   I enjoyed the book. Hoyt is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story, and create sharply defined and interesting characters. Denson is, as always, irreverent and witty. The plot, however, doesn’t bear thinking about very deeply while reading — there are simply too many elements that upon reflection are unlikely, improbable, or just plain silly.

   It isn’t one of Hoyt’s major efforts, but nevertheless recommended.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #1, May 1992.

       The John Denson series

Decoys (1980)

30 for a Harry (1981)
The Siskiyou Two-Step (1983). Published in slightly expanded paperback form as Siskiyou.
Fish Story (1985)

Whoo? (1991)
Bigfoot (1993)
Snake Eyes (1995)

The Weatherman’s Daughters (2003)
Pony Girls (2004)

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

JANET EVANOVICH & LEE GOLDBERG – The Heist. Bantam, hardcover, June 2013; paperback, February 2014.

   It used to be when writers collaborated they actually collaborated, but today more often than not mega-sellers like Janet Evanovich (the Stephanie Plum series and Lizzy & Diesel series) provide front names for original work by others — often well known even bestselling writers like Justin Scott, Thomas Perry, Eric Lustbader, and Lee Goldberg.

   Despite the picture of the two authors on the back of the jacket of the hardcover, there is little chance that Janet Evanovich actually wrote this, though she likely came up with the concept with her agent, publisher, and even Goldberg (a screenwriter, producer, and author).

   Clive Cussler, James Rollins, and others have these franchises as do deceased writers such as Tom Clancy, Harold Robbins, Robert Ludlum, and in the past Alistair MacLean.

   The Heist is a short book, under 300 pages, and basically reads like the pilot for a television series on one of the networks, loosely borrowed from Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight, though slicked up more like Remington Steele than Leonard’s gritty charming book and the film it inspired.

   Kate O’Hare is a gung-ho FBI officer with a special relationship with brilliant con man and criminal Nicholas Fox. As the book opens she is about to close in on Fox, and we learn some of their back story as she ponders catching him. The incident where he pulled off a heist and then hid in her hotel room plundering the mini-bar and even stealing the towels still irks her. But not as much as the Toblerones, her favorite candy bar, that he took.

   Fox makes a wild escape from that trap, but she does get him, literally driving a bus into his car in pursuit soon after. They meet, flirt, she wants to kill him, and sleep with him — and then he escapes, almost impossibly on the way to court.

   Kate flips out, and she reacts badly when she is not assigned the case. But she thinks she knows where Nick is; Mount Athos in Greece, where a priest calling himself Father Dowling recently arrived. Kate, a former SEAL (the authors acknowledge that Demi Moore aside there are no women SEALS, but they think there should be) whose father is a former SEAL, recruits him to help her, and she corners Fox, finally got him, a Federal fugitive. Done deal.

   One problem. Nick is sitting there with her boss Jessup, and the Deputy Director of the FBI.

   It will take a stretch of your imagination to bite on the next part, though it is one of those things in movies and television we shrug off with a smile depending on how much we enjoy the show (Castle is the best example). The major flaw here is this kind of thing is a harder sell in a book, and it is pretty much just dumped in your lap here. It seems the FBI is going to finance Nick’s swindles in return for freedom after five years, if he will help take down criminals they currently can’t touch. One of those handy secret funds Congress can’t trace will fund the thing.

   This gets dumped on the reader about as gracelessly as they dump it on Kate after one of those phony test missions that only happen in books and movies when they don’t have enough story to fill the time given.

   Meanwhile Nick will be on the Most Wanted list hunted by police around the world and Kate will be in charge of seeing he isn’t caught, unless he double crosses the FBI, which there is no guarantee he won’t do.

   Of course she hates the idea.

   He loves it. He can torment Kate, who is clearly interested in.

   And he can steal more of her Toblerones.

   Well, hard to blame her for her doubts, it is kind of stupid. You have to wonder they didn’t recruit G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt.

   I always found It Takes a Thief a bit of a stretch as much as I enjoyed it.

   Then again Sidney Reilly, the great British spy, was a serial bigamist who may have murdered at least one of his eleven wives, and Eddie Chapman, head of the Gelignite Gang in pre-War England, was one of the most effective British agents of the war, himself actually a handsome dashing womanizer who might of stepped out of a novel by Leslie Charteris written with Ian Fleming and Peter Cheyney.

   It isn’t as if the OSS didn’t recruit Lucky Luciano to help us invade Sicily.

   Not that any of that lifts this out of the realm of pure fantasy.

   I just don’t happen to mind the realm of pure fantasy once in a while.

   Their first big case fills out the second half of the book as they go after a corrupt investment banker hidden out on a private fortress island in Indonesia with a team that includes Kate’s dad, a wanted wheelman (have to have car chases), and a flamboyant actor, because two people can’t carry a series by themselves no matter how charming they are.

   At this point they have added Mission Impossible to their list of creative borrowing.

   Originality in Hollywood is stealing equally from everyone.

   There are no surprises here, not a lot of suspense either, since there really isn’t time for either the romance or any of Nick’s schemes to play out.

   Basically, like Goldberg’s books for the Monk series, this is a novelization of something that never got made.

   But wait, because I actually liked a good many novelizations, and surprise surprise, I like this.

   It’s fast, it’s fun, the characters are attractive, if cardboard, the action moves at a pace, and the writing, if cinematic, is literate, and the dialogue plays cute between Kate and Nick with at least what passes for sophistication on television. It’s not either version of The Thomas Crown Affair, but you can imagine Fox as Pierce Brosnan if you want.

   That’s what this is: a novelization of an unsold pilot that was never produced. But it’s also a quick read, and I bought it remaindered for under $5, so for the hour and an half it kept me entertained, and I recommend it highly. Add more detail, more depth to the characters, a few more high concept set pieces, and more plot, and you would have a damn good book.

   What you have anyway is a pleasant time killer on a level with the kind of books most of us readily devoured in the fifties and sixties in paperback originals and mid-list mystery fare. That’s not as faint praise as it may sound. Some of those were more pleasure to read than some better books, and this one is a light escapist work with a bit of charm, something sadly missing today.

   And its not bloated. Every page and every word goes right to plot, character, and action — a bit mechanically, granted, but there’s no side trips to distract you.

   If it is lying around or you run across it, read it, but don’t spend much looking for it.

       The Fox and O’Hare series —

The Heist. June 2013.
The Chase. February 2014.
The Job. November 2014


REED STEPHENS – The Man Who Risked His Partner. Axbrewder & Fistoulari #2. Ballantine, trade paperback, October 1984; mass market paperback, 1986. Forge, hardcover, revised edition, 2003; Tor, paperback, 2004.

   As the book opens, the main characters are recovering from the events in the first book of the series, The Man Who Shot His Brother. Ginny Fistoulari, the head of the agency, lost her left hand in an explosion, and is depressed and fearful to the point of real neurosis; Mick Axbrewder, who shot his brother while drunk, is now a recovering alcoholic with all the attendant problems. They are offered a job by an accountant, supposedly to protect him from a gang boss to whom he is in debt.

   Fistoulari, reasonably enough, doesn’t want to take the job, feeling that to oppose the gang leader is insanity. For reasons of his own, Axbrewder more or less shames her into accepting it. There is a subplot involving a Chicano youth befriended by Axbrewder who has been killed who was a numbers runner for the gang boss, who is known as El Senor.

   The plot is complex, as their client proves layered with deception after deception. What kind of man he really is, and why he needs their protection, change in definition almost from chapter to chapter.

   These are terribly damaged pe6ple. All of them. There are no characters in the book, even those sketched most lightly, for whom it was possible for me to feel any empathy, or any emotion other than a horrified or distasteful pity. The despair is unremitting. By the end my only feelings were relief and a determination not to subject myself to more such.

   It will come as no surprise to those who have read Stephen Donaldson‘s books that Reed Stephens is a pseudonym of his. Few if any authors are more adept than Donaldson at delineating pain and despair, and seemingly none more determined to explore them in all their myriad facets. More power to him, and to those who enjoy such misery. I am not among them.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #1, May 1992.

       The Axbrewster & Fistoulari series –

The Man Who Killed His Brother (1980)

The Man Who Risked His Partner (1984)
The Man Who Tried To Get Away (1990)
The Man Who Fought Alone (2001)

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