Hannibal by Thomas Harris

detail from ancient carving: dragon swallowing a man
The dragon has a mouthful.

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal is a Stephen King-like thriller without any supernatural effects.

The story opens with FBI agent Clarice Starling being suspended for an attempted drug arrest that resulted in five deaths, including that of a woman holding a baby, all captured by a TV crew tipped off by insiders.

While she’s suspended, Starling gets a letter from murderer Dr. Hannibal Leeter, who she interviewed in a hospital for the criminally insane before his escape seven years earlier. He’s never been found.

Starling begins looking for Hannibal, whose gruesome killings are at odd with his expensive tastes in food, wines, and the fine arts.

Unknown to her, Hannibal’s sixth victim, the only one who survived, is also looking for him. Mason Verger, head of a meatpacking empire, wants to see Hannibal suffer—literally—for turning him into an invalid. His body-builder sister has her own agenda that will require her brother’s presence for only a few minutes.

While Sterling’s investigation is being sabotaged by political considerations and male egos, Hannibal is pleasantly employed as a museum curator in Italy, under the name Dr. Fell.

Just when readers wonder how all these multiple threads will ever be resolved, Harris pulls out a surprising yet perfectly prepared final chapter.

Hannibal by Thomas Harris
Delacorte. ©1999. 486 p.
1999 bestseller #2; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

Night on city street during snowstorm, pedestrian barely discernibleIn the first paragraph of The Street Lawyer, novelist John Grisham puts hot-shot lawyer Michael Brock into an elevator with a pungent homeless veteran who minutes later threatens to blow up Drake & Sweeney and its 800 lawyers.

The lawyers survive.

The homeless man does not.

Mike is shaken up by his first-ever encounter with a homeless person. He begins doing research into the causes and responses to homelessness. In the process, he stumbles upon information that shows his own law firm benefiting financially from dumping poor people on the streets.

Mike visits a free legal clinic for the homeless and is fascinated by what he sees. He only has to be asked once to come make sandwiches one weekend, and Mike decides to quit Drake & Sweeney to work with Washington DC’s homeless.

Grisham does all the things writers of crime novels are required to do—bring in bad cops, have his client beaten up, get him a new girlfriend—but he does them in muted ways so they don’t become the whole story.

The story ends predictably but plausibly for Mike, who matures a lot in a few months.

Grisham produces a fast-reading, intriguing tale that leaves readers with a lot to think about.

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1998. 348 p.
1998 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Hornet’s Nest by Patricia Cornwell

a hornet substitutes for the apostrophen in hornet's nestPatricia Cornwell’s Hornet’s Nest is a police procedural that turns that mystery novel sub-class upside down and inside out.

Cornwell sets the story in “the hornet’s nest of America,” Charlotte, NC, where the two top cops are women. Chief Judy Hammer is cool, collected, 50-ish professional who job of running the department includes being its public face.

Chief Deputy Virginia West, 42, is less cool and collected but no less sexy or less committed to her job.

Hammer has gotten permission from the city to allow Andy Brazil, the new police reporter for the Charlotte Observer, to ride along on police calls. Hammer orders West to take Brazil with her and to make sure he gets to see action. There is plenty of action, including what appears to be a series of brutal murders of businessmen in town for short stays.

Cornwell has plotted her story so readers have all the clues they need to be prepared for every surprise she throws in. She keeps her focus on personalities and their reactions, which reminded me of cops I saw when I worked a newspaper police beat.  Parts of the story are laugh-out-loud funny, others tragic.

Hornet’s Nest feels true.

Hornet’s Nest by Patricia CornwEll
G. P. Putnam. ©1996. 377 p.
1997 bestseller #10; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Cat & Mouse (novel)

Two lights glow in a railroad tunnel above which a cat stands looking at the trackThe six-page prologue to Cat & Mouse opens with Gary Soneji entering the basement of the Washington D.C. home of Alex Cross and his family, whom he plans to murder. Then the prologue shifts to London where Mr. Smith, a serial killer, is dismembering the latest victim of murders he began in Cambridge, Mass., in 1993.

Cross, a widowed police detective raising two children with the help of his grandmother, is about starting to date his children’s school principal. Those relationships make him especially vulnerable now.

Cross and his partner kill Soneji in the tunnels under Grand Central Station.

Days later, Cross’s home is broken into, all members of his family beaten, and Cross himself battered so badly he’s not expected to live.

Who is the perp?

Is it possible Soneji didn’t die in the explosion? If he survived, why didn’t he kill everyone in Cross’s household?

Or did Soneji send a villian too softhearted to kill?

Readers of James Patterson’s previous three novels about Cross will follow the story easily. The rest of us must rely on the liner notes to untangle the relationship between the two serial killers.

What we eventually find is a formulaic, sex-and-violence tale for macho readers.

Cat & Mouse by James Patterson
Little, Brown. ©1997. 399 p.
1997 bestseller #9; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Malice by Danielle Steel

spider web covers front dust jacket of Malice by Danielle SteelMalice, Danielle Steel’s 37th novel, is a failed experiment with the crime-novel format. Unlike romance fiction, which requires writers only to prompt readers to imagine what happens, crime fiction requires writers to show in what happens.

Steel begins the story the day of Ellen Adam’s funeral. After the mourners have left and the house is silent, Ellen’s husband rapes their 17-year-old daughter as he’s been doing with his wife’s complicity since the girl was 13.

For the first time, that night Grace fights back, grabbing the gun her mother kept in her bedside stand, and killing her father with it.

Grace refuses to explain why she shot him.

She’s tried, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced to 2 years in prison plus two on probation.

Grace gets out of jail, gets an office job, and starts doing volunteer work with abused women and children. Before long, she’s working for a New York lawyer, then married to him.

They have three children and Charles is a candidate for Congress when the tabloid press uncovers her past.

Even though Grace’s abusive childhood experience is plausible, her several recoveries from subsequent abuse are too quick, and too dependent on flowers, banana splits, and deus ex machina techniques to feel true to readers.

Malice by Danielle Steel
Delacorte. ©1996. 350 p.
1996 bestseller #6 My grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Silent Night (novel)

broken Christmas ornament
A St. Christopher medal would be more fitting.

Mary Higgins Clark’s Silent Night is the sort of novel that used to be called a diversion.

A doctor with leukemia comes to New York for surgery, accompanied by his wife and two sons. While he’s in the recovery room, Mrs. Dornan takes the boys to Rockefeller Center to distract them and drops her wallet.

Although the wallet contains several hundred dollars in cash, it also contains a St. Christopher medal that the boys’ grandmother told them will keep their father safe. The younger boy, Brian, 7, sees a young woman snatch the wallet and follows her.

The woman, Cally Siddons, arrives home to find her brother, Jimmie, there. He has escaped from prison, shooting a guard in the process. Hot on her heels, Brian arrives demanding his mom’s wallet.

Jimmie appropriates the money and decides to take Brian hostage. He has a stolen car waiting near Cally’s apartment and a girlfriend waiting at the Canadian border. Jimmie bundles Brian into the car and they head north into a nasty winter storm.

If, in the spirit of Christmas, you can overlook the absurdities of the plot, the story will occupy you while you wait for Santa Claus, but Silent Night will never replace A Christmas Carol.

Silent Night by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon and Schuster. ©1995. 154 p.
1995 bestseller #8; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow

a $1000 bill in breast pocket of pin-striped suit
Love those pin-striped suits.

Scott Turow delivers Pleading Guilty as an unedited report dictated by Mack Malloy, an ex-cop turned lawyer, to his firm’s top management about their partner who disappeared along with $5.6 million.

That presentation lets readers find out about the crime and the characters in a manner that’s both shocking and, in retrospect, predictable.

Outside the courtroom, Bert Kamin, Mack’s partner at G&G, is caught up in sports betting with other macho guys who claim to have insider knowledge. Others of Mack’s associates in G&G have peculiarities that might mask unorthodox, possibly even criminal, behavior.

Mack and Emilia “Brushy” Bruccia, his associate and sex-partner, joke that their gossip is protected lawyer-client communication.

The first place Mack looks for Bert—the Russian Bath—he learns cops have already been there looking for a Kam Roberts, although the Bath pays the local watch commander to prevent such unpleasantness.

Who is Kam Roberts? And why are cops asking about him in Bert Kamin’s haunts?

Divorced, overweight, with an injured knee and booze-soaked psyche, Mack is about as attractive as Horace Rumpole and equally shrewd about crime. But unlike Rumpole, Mack is unlikely to appear in a second novel.

You’ll have to read Pleading Guilty to learn why.

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow
Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. ©1993. 386 p.
1993 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

All Around the Town

bloody handprint on a curtain on open sliding doorIf you’ve watched television in the last 50 years, you’ve seen pieces of the plot of All Around the Town many times in old movies.

The plot’s container is the tale of Laurie Kenyon, a college student accused of murdering her English professor. Her fingerprints are all over his bedroom.

Laurie was kidnapped at age 4 and sexually abused for two years before the kidnappers abandoned her. When she is arrested for murder, the four personalities she developed to cope with her trauma emerge.

Laurie’s sister, a lawyer, takes on her defense, aided by a handsome, unmarried psychiatrist.

When they abducted Laurie, Bic and Opal Hawkins were tavern entertainers. Laurie’s arrest coincides Bic hitting the big time as a TV evangelist. Using their TV names, Rev. Bobby and Carla Hawkins, they pose as buyers for the Kenyon sisters’ home, which allows them to wiretap it so the reverend can get rid of Laurie if one of her personalities names him as her kidnapper.

Mary Higgins Clark mashes all these implausible elements together, sweetening the mix with even more implausible elements.

In the end, the implausibilities don’t matter. No sensible reader could care about any of these characters. They’ll be relieved at the story’s end when Laurie goes off to play golf.

All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster. ©1992. 302 p.
1992 bestseller #10; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Presumed Innocent

A large red fingerprint is at center of “Presumed Innocent” book jacket
One bloody fingerprint

Scott Turow begins Presumed Innocent with Rusty Sabich, Kindle County’s chief deputy prosecutor, relating his usual opening speech to a jury in a criminal case.

It is their job, he always says, to determine “what actually occurred.”

When Carolyn Polhemus, another deputy prosecutor, is found raped and murdered, Randy’s boss, who is fighting for his job in a hot election, assigns the investigation to Randy.

The boss doesn’t know Randy had a brief affair with Carolyn, who dumped him a few months before.

When Raymond Horgan loses the election, the newly-elected prosecuting attorney acts swiftly to show voters they made the right choice.

Randy suddenly finds himself accused of Carolyn’s murder.

A lawyer himself, Turow uses his insider’s knowledge of the legal system to allow readers to get a close-up look through Randy’s eyes at the police, the prosecution, the defense team, and the judge.

We see even Randy’s most loyal supporters entertain suspicions about his guilt as as his case sometimes takes on the appearance of a political rivalry.

Readers, too, may wonder if Randy is guilty.

Turow gets details right without sacrificing a good story. He ends with Randy presenting his closing argument, not to a jury but to himself.

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ©1987. 431 p.
1987 bestseller #7; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

If Tomorrow Comes: A novel

An hour glass is art element on cover of “If Tomorrow Comes”
Carpe diem is thieves’ motto.

The dust jacket notes for Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes describe the book’s heroine as a “lovely” and “idealistic” young woman “framed” into a 15-year prison sentence.

Actually, Tracy Whitney buys a gun with deliberate intent to make New Orleans mob boss “pay for killing [her] mother,” who committed suicide.

Although her shot doesn’t kill the mobster, Tracy goes to jail, proving to her (and any mindless moron reading the novel) that the legal system is rigged against the innocent.

Moments before her carefully planned jail break, Tracy—who can’t swim—jumps into a lake to save a drowning child.

The publicity results in her being released before serving even a tenth of her sentence.

Once free, Tracy tries to go back to her old job in a bank. To her shock, the bank refuses to hire a convicted felon to work in its data processing department.

She does the only reasonable thing: She turns thief, using her “intelligence and beauty” to prey on bad, rich people.

Tracy meets a man her equal in intelligence, good looks, and pursuit of the thrill of profit-by-deception.

Sheldon manages to make this totally implausible story of a pair of amoral rascals as irresistible as a two-pound box of truffles.

If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon
Morrow. ©1985. 403 p.
1985 bestseller #4; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni