Monday, February 8, 2016

Continuing Sagas

For most of the first two-thirds of Jonathan Kellerman's 31st Alex Delaware novel, Breakdown, there is a sense that he's doing something different. Zelda Chase, a minor blip on television in a momentarily hot sitcom, first met Alex when his mentor asked him to examine her five-year-old son. Zelda was very troubled and Alex's mentor was treating her, so it was his job to determine if the boy was OK. He did so and didn't think much about the case in the ensuing years. Until he gets a call that Zelda Chase has been admitted to a psychatric hospital suffering from a complete psychotic break. Alex never treated Zelda, but his mentor's gone and his name is the only one on the record.

Zelda's non-communicative, and there's no sign of her son. Alex sticks with the case because he wants to find out if the boy is safe, and then it becomes even more curious when Zelda walks away from a halfway house and is later found dead. Alex's efforts to find some clue about Zelda's son unroll her history as her psychosis left her less and less able to function in society. Her show's cancellation pushed her into homelessness, and from there further and further down a confused and dark path. This part of the story is a fascinating blend of psychology and detection, as Kellerman mixes plenty of real-life situations into his narrative. Zelda's hushed-up mental problems recall actress Margot Kidder's real-life struggle with bipolar disorder. The lack of treatment for seriously mentally ill persons is lived out on the streets of major American cities every day. The use of mental illness as a pawn to try to advance this or that personal agenda gets reported now and again as well. The subordination of a performer's health to the needs of public image may be a little more under the radar, but the real-life tragedies we've seen show its reality too.

Had Kellerman continued to run that string as Alex and his friend, LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis, look for clues to where Zelda's son might be and what motivated her, Breakdown could have been one of the best of this long series. For whatever reason -- perhaps because he's a murder mystery writer and he felt the book had to have some flesh-and-blood culprits -- he switches gears and tries to give us actual killers and some other victims. In order to do this, we get Chapter Eleventy-Billion and Two of "Rich Bastards Treating People Awfully Thinking Their Money Will Insulate Them." It's lifeless compared with the earlier section of the book and feels very stitched-on.

Kellerman writes the book he wants to write rather than the one I want him to write, and he's sold millions of books so his judgment is probably way better than my own. But I still can't help but see Breakdown as a huge missed opportunity, one that sinks to the middle of the pack when it could have stood head and shoulders above.
At the end of 2014's The Burning Room, Harry Bosch got pushed out of the Los Angeles Police Department by some supervisors that had been itching to get rid of him for years. He's out of sorts and mostly drifting until his half-brother Mickey Haller comes to him with the case of a man accused of murder. Haller is defending the man and wants Bosch to look at the case because he believes his client is innocent. Bosch wants nothing to do with working for the defense, brother or not, but Haller eventually talks him into it.

Once involved, Bosch's own sense of curiosity keeps him going. The prosecution's case is sloppy and the investigation has holes. But is he willing to completely cross the line and become one of "them," the people who help the criminals he's spent 30 years putting away? The Crossing outlines the struggles Bosch faces with this issue, both internal and external, and offers a good picture of a man trying to figure out which part of his driven nature will win out -- the search for the truth or loyalty to the side of the good guys?

Connelly is still humming alone in the Bosch series with only a few slowdowns over its history. The fan-pleasing double bill of Bosch and his "Lincoln Lawyer" half-brother offers some new angles to view both the crusty detective and the smooth-talking attorney. Bosch's own daughter has absorbed a lot of his "cops vs. the world" mentality and isn't happy with his decision to work for a man whose job is getting criminals freed, even if they're guilty. That conflict helps build her character more than has happened recently as well. All in all, The Crossing is a good addition to both Bosch and Haller series and a nice twisty suspense outing in its own right.
Last year, I noticed that the spread of electronic books and self-publishing was a boon for fans of genre fiction, as it made bringing titles in their preferred lines a lot easier to bring to "print" or e-reader. With reduced production costs, authors could put their work out there with their own resources, or publishing companies would recoup expenses early enough to risk some more titles.

Of course, that sometimes means some real crud gets published, but it can also mean, in cases like Christopher Nuttall's "Angel in the Whirlwind" series, some good finds and fun reads.

Falcone Strike is the second in the series about Katherine "Kat" Falcone, a young woman captain in His Majesty's Commonwealth Space Navy. Kat's homeworld is a colony whose founders transformed it into an aristocratic oligarchy and her position as the youngest member of one of the more powerful families has let her go pretty much her own way. She's relished the challenge of military service and loss of the cloying world of high society and whispering politics she previously had to look forward to, but the long arm of family influence may have done her in. In The Oncoming Storm, she found herself promoted to command many years ahead of other officers, and perhaps given a position for which she wasn't ready. Now, in Strike, she has earned some respect from her fellow spacers, but has quite a ways to go before she's looked upon as anything other than a privileged dilettante playing at war by the wider service.

And war has come to the Commonwealth, as it finds itself facing the world-gobbling religious fanatics of the Theocracy, a fundamentalist regime that believes all worlds must be brought under its particular religion. Nuttall carefully blends elements of current religions into the Theocracy to keep it from being too closely identified with any of them, and doesn't dig too deeply into its theology. While this makes for some confusion for the reader, it lets him focus on his story instead of defending his plot choices against charges of bigotry.

Nuttall's good with characterizations -- Kat herself may have more than a few hints of being an Honor Harrington clone, but she's branching out as her own person quickly. He's also good with space battles and action scenes. He's less adept with keeping his spatial geography clear to a reader and he stops his narrative for an expository lecture and once or twice a sermon more often than he should. But given the low expense involved and the interesting characters he's developing, that's not too much baggage to keep space-opera fans from signing on to sail with Kat Falcone.

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