Thursday, July 24, 2014

Readin' Away

For several novels, C.J. Box has told the story of Joe Pickett, a Montana game warden who has had to deal with a number of things other than fishing and gaming licenses. With 2012's Back of Beyond, he switched gears a little with a new character, recovering alcoholic cop Cody Hoyt.

When Cody's AA sponsor is found dead, the evidence suggests that he had fallen off the wagon and taken his own life. Cody doesn't believe that, and his investigation leads to a wildlife outfitting firm that leads hiking tours of Yellowstone National Park. The problem is that the current tour includes his teenage son Justin, and has already left. Cody will have to track the group down before the murderer makes the next move and figure out how to protect his son and the other hikers.

Cody's alcoholism plays a role in the first act of the book, but once he is on the trail, it mostly fades into the background. Box does his usual deft job of handling suspense and action and paints a realistic portrait of the different hikers, even if more than a few of them are pretty stock characters. He handles Justin particularly well, especially when the boy begins a friendship with another family's teenage daughter.

Amazon lists Back of Beyond as the first of a series, but other books have yet to arrive. Cody's not Joe, and Box doesn't try to replicate all of the characters, which makes Beyond interesting enough in itself. If the series does continue and Box makes use of Cody's alcoholism as a way of exploring the character, it could be an intriguing set of novels with which to pass some afternoons.
Starting in the 1880s, major league professional baseball operated with an "understanding" that its teams would have no African-American players, a situation that lasted until Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. African-American players were mostly confined to the "Negro Leagues," teams with their own stories, superstars and legends. Although the different groups of athletes would often do battle with one another in off-season barnstorming tours and all-star squads, paid baseball displayed very few, if any, integrated teams.

Except in Bismarck, North Dakota. There, during the Great Depression, car dealer Raymond Churchill sponsored a semi-professional baseball team that featured not only a mixture of white and black players, it fielded several bona fide Negro League stars -- such as future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith and the legendary Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. The team, usually known as the Bismarcks but today sometimes called the Bismarck Churchills, won the National Semipro Championship tournament in 1935.

Freelance writer Tom Dunkel chronicles the highlights of the Bismarcks' history in 2013's Color Blind, detailing both the development of the team by Churchill and other community leaders and the seasons they played. Apparently realizing that when your book contains the larger-than-life character of Satchel Paige you can't get into the deep weeds of dry historical prose, Dunkel keeps the tone fairly light even though he's writing about issues of race during a time of economic deprivation and deadly racial crimes in some parts of the country. He explores how the African-American members of the team managed to fit into the northern plains life of North Dakota's capital, but not extremely deeply, as his story is more a story of the team itself.

Color Blind is an excellent "baseball book," showing how neither the history of the sport nor of our nation has said all they have to say as yet. Some fact-checking errors made it past the proofreader, as the book was in pre-production during Hurricane Sandy and communication about corrections was spotty. But those are easy enough to pick out and Dunkel has both acknowledged them and corrected them in the book's Kindle edition.
Tim Blake is a top car salesman whose ex-wife has a new man. His daughter Sydney is staying with him in the summer while she works at the front desk of a nearby motel. Then one day Sydney doesn't come home from work, and when Tom asks about her at the motel, people there claim they've never heard of her. The local police are limited in their ability to help, but Tom will not rest until he either finds his daughter, or finds out what happened to her.

The plot for Linwood Barclay's 2009 thriller Fear the Worst is not a new one, neither in terms of the missing person no one's ever seemed to have heard of nor in terms of a parent seeking a missing teenager (Harlan Coben's Hold Tight covered that ground about 15 months earlier, but neither author is the only one ever to do so). But then the possible plots of best-selling psychological thrillers and mysteries are not legion, and fans pick them up for the quality of the yarn and the enjoyment of the read.

The second of those is up to the individual reader to determine, but the first, in the case of Fear the Worst, is iffy at best. Tim is more of a prop for the plot than a character with whom we connect, and neither the situations that he encounters when searching for Sydney nor the villains of the piece have any more depth than the pages they're on. Barclay seems to try every now and again with Tim, as the car salesman notes details about most of the vehicles he encounters that many people wouldn't catch or be aware of. But those parts of Fear that aren't cut-and-paste standards are ridiculously contrived, and by the end scenes that are probably supposed to carry great emotion are lifeless and flat.

Fear the Worst is a dangerous title for an author to use, as it invites snarky commentary about how a book lives up to its name. Unfortunately, Barclay manages to match his output to the joke, all the way up a particularly soapy development on page 309 of the hardcover. After that, the reader need no longer fear the worst, as it has already happened.

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