Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Beware the Revenge of the Trees

Jeremy Fisk of the NYPD's Intelligence Division has a little problem -- an immense cache of secret government documents has been leaked online, and since it includes his home address, he's about to become vulnerable to all kinds of nasty folks he's helped put away. All of this happens in the middle of the city being placed under siege by a faceless assassin who wants the leaker freed and will kill one New Yorker a day until that happens. But worst of all? He's been ordered to accept being shadowed by a New York Times reporter.

The Ultimatum is TV producer Dick Wolf's third Jeremy Fisk novel, and it hums along quite nicely using its very interesting threat premise and Wolf's intimate knowledge of his city. Free to weave the locations, sights and sounds of New York into his narrative in ways he couldn't with his Los-Angeles shot Law & Order TV show, Wolf takes full advantage of the chance and gives serious depth to its sense of place. The story itself ticks along smoothly and builds some good suspense in several scenes, even if the romance it features is telegraphed from the title page and he relies on girlfriend-in-danger scenarios not once but twice. The plan to thwart the villain's murderous designs is ingenious and pretty spectacular.

Up until about page 356 (paperback edition), a reader could figure this as the best so far of Wolf's Fisk novels. But Wolf's insertion of a senseless and brutal murder - he adds some detail to maximize manipulative pathos, but the killing itself has less than no point in the story -- sends The Ultimatum straight into Ents-do-Isengard territory. Like a piano in an old Warner Bros. cartoon with a single key wired to explosives, The Ultimatum wrecks pretty much everything with this one wrong note.
G.P. Putnam and the Robert B. Parker estate pulled the plug on Michael Brandman's vision of Parker character Jesse Stone after three novels. Brandman's third was moving in the right direction, but not fast enough for Parker fandom, so he was replaced with Reed Farrell Coleman.

Which makes you wonder if Robert Knott, who's continuing Parker's "Cole and Hitch" series of Westerns, is somehow sneaking books out when someone at Putnam isn't looking. Because his quality curve is, to put it kindly, not upward.

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch don't think much of Boston Bill Black, but since the casino boss hasn't crossed the law in their town yet they'll live and let live. The arrival of a warrant for Boston Bill's arrest -- complete with the murder of the warrant bearer -- changes things. Now the pair must hunt him down, but even if they do, his arrest will only be the start of the trouble Appaloosa sees as a result of his crimes.

The core narrative of Blackjack is common enough, involving the hunt and capture of an outlaw, his subsequent trial and the many layers of skullduggery in which a variety of folks are engaged. Knott's clanky writing doesn't help it move smoothly, though, and his reliance on his file of Cole-Hitch Standard Scenes, Dialogue and Responses doesn't help. He introduces Virgil's brother for no apparent reason and proceeds to do nothing much with him. Knott probably intends to show something about Virgil by introducing a character whose surface appears to be his opposite while his substance is similar, but since he has to tell us this in an awkward shoehorned conversation instead of showing it, the impact is mostly lost and the character mostly a curiosity.

Blackjack's story resolution makes as much sense as putting three aces on the cover of a book named for a card game hand of an ace and a face card. A far greater mystery is why these books keep coming out, and why Putnam is putting Parker-level production values on Jake Logan material.

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