Saturday, October 15, 2016

Book Reviews: When The Thrill Is Gone, Assassin's Code

When The Thrill Is Gone
by Walter Mosley
When I call from work and the phone is busy/I never never never ask who was on the line
When I get home late she don't ask any questions/Cause she's got her thing going on and you know I got mine - One Big Unhappy Family Isaac Hayes
This Leonid McGill mystery novel reminded me of the above Isaac Hayes song about a married couple who stay together for some bad reasons. The book's title references the title of one of B.B. King's best known songs. That song tells the story of a man who informs his woman that her magic doesn't work on him any more. Although he's hurt by her infidelity and will be lonely without her he's leaving for good. In Mosley's book there's a great sense of weariness that the protagonist, a private eye trying with varying degrees of success to live a moral life, expresses. 

Leonid is thinking a lot about his deceased father. Leonid is constantly remembering things that his father told him and weighing them against how the world really works. Even though Leonid has stayed married to his beautiful blonde middle aged wife Katrina it's an open question as to why. Leonid tells himself that he stays with Katrina for the children but that's probably no longer true. The children, only one of whom is biologically Leonid's, are certainly old enough to realize that their mother and father don't have a happy marriage. Leonid knows that Katrina has taken up with a new man, someone who is only a few years older than her oldest son. Leonid even suspects that Katrina might be using some of the children to cover up her dalliances. Leonid might view his indulgence for Katrina's infidelity as well deserved punishment for his past evil acts. He might turn a blind eye to her running around because being old, short and stout he could struggle to find a woman of Katrina's beauty.

Or most likely Leonid doesn't care about Katrina's cheating because Leonid has his own extra-marital interests, most notably his on-again off-again girlfriend/friend with benefits/muse Aura. Regardless of his disconnect with Katrina, who paradoxically is very friendly with Leonid now that another mule is kicking in her stall, Leonid still wants to protect his family. His biological son Dmitri is pining for a foreign femme fatale. Leonid's favorite son, Twill, is getting involved in less than legit activities. Leonid tries to keep an eye on him but Twill is elusive. Twill may not share any DNA with Leonid but Twill definitely has his "father's" ability to shade the truth, keep numerous plans in the air all at once, manipulate people to his advantage, play rough if need be and avoid direct answers whenever possible. If he didn't worry about Twill so doggone much Leonid might admire him more. 

But Leonid must put all of that domestic unpleasantness on the back burner when a beautiful brown skin woman named Chrystal Tyler enters his office and tells him that she believes her husband, an old money billionaire real estate recluse named Cyril Tyler, has lost interest in her and will have her murdered. 

Cyril's previous two wives died under very mysterious circumstances. Chrystal has heard on the street that Leonid is the kind of man who can make things happen..bad things. Leonid tells her that he's not that kind of man any more but that he will go talk to Cyril, just to get the lay of the land as it were. Leonid needs the money that Chrystal offers. And he knows she's lying about something. He's intrigued. Leonid also gets involved in another case. An old family "friend" who just so happens to be a major power in the Chicago Outfit is asking for a favor. Leonid would normally decline as he's all too aware of what sort of man "Uncle Harry" has become. But having burned a few too many political bridges lately Leonid could stand to have someone powerful owe him one. Uncle Harry swears that this favor won't involve the sort of work Leonid used to do. Out of respect for Leonid's deceased father Uncle Harry is asking nicely...this time.

Leonid goes off into the netherworld where crime, politics and romantic needs all dance together. Many people are lying to him, something  which is normal in his line of work. The police would still like to put him in prison, some for good reason, others just because. Leonid is something of a knight errant. Having been bullied himself in institutions he hates bullies. Leonid often takes risks for strangers. He's secretly helping people he framed. Hurt a woman or child in front of him and you will wish you hadn't. Leonid's age, short stature and less than svelte physique cause opponents to underestimate him. 

But not every challenge can be overcome by Leonid's impressive boxing/street fighting skills. I really enjoyed Mosley's prose. An example reads: "I believed the young assistant but still had the urge to grab him and hold him over the side of the building just to hear him yelp and beg. This desire caused me, not for the first time, to wonder at my own motivations of late." Wrath and Lust are not only deadly sins but they can also blind us to other people's legitimate needs, something which Leonid will discover repeatedly. 

Although Leonid is a force to be reckoned with I appreciated his (boxing-derived) awareness of his own vulnerabilities. Walking down a dark street with his friend Leonid makes a joke at his friend's expense. However this friend happens to be a semi-retired assassin and serial killer with almost no sense of humor. Leonid suddenly and fervently hopes that his lethal buddy can see the absurdity which Leonid was trying to illuminate. This was a good read. It's not overly violent or crass. It feels real. Sometimes Leonid just sits down and thinks about nothing in particular. I haven't been to New York City in decades but the city feels like a character in this book. Ultimately this is not just a detective story but an examination of how we repair the hurt in our own lives and the lives of those we love. That's not easy to do, especially if we are trying to live morally.

Assassin's Code
by Jonathan Maberry
This book is number four in a series. I reviewed book two here. I don't want to repeat what I already wrote. This story started a little slowly but once it picked up I didn't want to put this book down. I wouldn't call it formulaic because people see that as an insult. But you know what you're going to get when you read a book in this series: a good solid bio-thriller in which there's usually, however convoluted, a plausible scientific explanation for things which appear supernatural.

Maberry tells the story in a mix of first and third person. The super secret executive branch agency known as the Department of Military Science or DMS is run by the icy man known only as Mr. Church and his second in command, the acerbic Aunt Sally. Both Mr. Church and Sally have secrets known only to each other. They each have many contacts throughout the world of intelligence and secret military operations. The first person portions of the book are told through the POV of Captain Joe Ledger, a relatively new recruit to the DMS and leader of the most effective strike team. To the extent that Mr. Church likes anyone, which isn't much, he seems to like Joe. Sally thinks Joe is a psychopath waiting to explode. Joe Ledger and his team have bloodlessly rescued some American hikers from Iran. Iran claimed the youngsters were spies. 

While Joe is preparing to leave Iran he's contacted by a leader in Iran's intelligence services and forcibly given information about a number of nuclear bombs hidden throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Someone is trying to start a nuclear holocaust by inciting the world's nuclear powers to start warring against one another. Or maybe someone else is attempting to make a killing in the energy market. Either way the Iranian spymaster hopes that Joe can use this information to find and prevent the bombs from going off. This man avoids answering Joe's questions about why doesn't he just take this information to his own government instead of coming to Joe. Joe and especially Mr. Church and Sally don't take anything for granted. If you told them the sky is blue they'd want at least five different independent confirmations. And they'd want them five minutes ago.

Joe's suspicions prove to be well founded. The DMS discovers or stumbles across an interlocking web of coincidences and conspiracies that go back to the First Crusade. Someone is trying to play them, even at the possible cost of a nuclear winter. There are a number of suspects, including a rogue DMS member, rival intelligence agencies, various governments and some super secret religious organizations with disturbingly pragmatic moral guidelines. 

Joe and his team will be stretched to their physical limits. There's real danger here. Although Joe is a well trained martial artist and former Army Ranger with a leashed hidden berserker side, he's dismayed to barely emerge alive from a knockdown dragout fight with a strange red eyed man who's far stronger and quicker than any man should be. Joe only lived because of a beautiful woman's intervention. This woman, Violin, may or may not be on Joe's side. She has her own interests. 

And when Mr. Church advises orders Joe to disengage and run away from fights where any red-eyed men or "Red Knights" are involved Joe wants to know why. Because the Ledgers didn't raise their son to run from any fight. And Mr. Church, a surrogate father as much as a boss, has never told Joe to run before. Joe is in a worse mood than usual throughout the book because he's still processing the death of his great love, Grace. And people are even trying to kill his white German Shepherd, Ghost. Joe doesn't tolerate that. 

Once you get past the first few chapters and the early 11th-12th century flashbacks, this story moves quickly. It will appeal equally to action junkies, mystery and history buffs and conspiracy theorists. It is not necessary to have read the previous books to enjoy this one though I suppose it helps here or there. There are a few missteps and stereotypes but nothing overtly malicious.
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