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BOOK REVIEW: Caper Crime Novels Come to Life with Steve Brewer’s ‘Whipsaw’, ‘Monkey Man’

Posted by kinchendavid on January 24, 2007

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV   One of my favorite sub-genres of crime novels is a caper mystery, where quirky characters populate a particular city and are constantly getting into and out of mishaps. One of the best practitioners of caper novels in the spirit of Donald E. Westlake, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard is Steve Brewer.

Brewer’s “Whipsaw” (Intrigue Press, Madison, Wis., 256 pages, $24.00) is set in the dot-com world of San Francisco, always a good venue for oddball characters, and his “Monkey Man” (Intrigue Press, 232 pages, $24.00) centers around murder and mayhem involving employees at the Albuquerque, N.M. zoo.

Two reviews in one column…first off is “Whipsaw.”

The title refers to a computer game geared to girls (I always though this was a guy thing, but a large percentage of gamers are female, Brewer points out) involving a Lara Croft-type character, strong and beautiful, wielding a bull whip like a female Lash La Rue.

Somebody has stolen the code for the game and is threatening to put the game on the Internet unless computer magnate David La Costa comes up with $3 million in cash. La Costa’s minions contact Matt Donahue, the former security chief of La Costa’s company, DelaTek, to deliver the money and retrieve the code.

The thieves have insisted that Donahue deliver the money in exchange for the code. (One question: What’s to stop the thieves from making CD copies of the code and keeping them?)

Ex-Marine Donahue has major issues with La Costa. For starters, Donahue’s wife Carol left him for the former geek, now living the lavish lifestyle in Hillsborough, a Beverly Hills-style suburb in San Mateo County south of The City — as everybody in the Bay Area calls San Francisco.

Donahue, to protect his investment in stock that he received as a buyout when he left DelaTek, reluctantly agrees to act as bagman. Naturally, things go horribly wrong with the plan and a cycle of deaths makes it evident that the “Whipsaw” title has taken on its meaning of subjecting someone – in this case, Matt — to two opposing forces.

Donahue teams up with the beautiful (naturally) Kate Allison at DelaTek in an effort to determine who in the company is involved in the extortion plan. It’s dead certain that it’s an inside job – with the accent on “dead.”

One of the conventions of caper novels is that a reader can follow the travels of the characters in the novel with a city map in a good caper novel. This is certainly true of “Whipsaw,” where Donahue lives in a nice – and very pricey — apartment in a Victorian building in upscale Pacific Heights and DelaTek is in the city’s dot-com district not far from what everybody in the compact (800,000 people crammed into 46.7 square miles) city still calls Candlestick Park.

I’ve been to San Francisco numerous times and I recognized many landmarks in “Whipsaw.” This is a standalone, but Matt Donahue is too attractive a character not to reappear in a future Brewer novel. Let’s hope so!

* * *

“Monkey Man” is another in the continuing saga of Bubba Mabry, a private investigator in Albuquerque, N.M. Bubba’s wife and the family’s principal source of income is Felicia Quattlebaum, ace reporter with the Albuquerque Gazette, a tough, finely drawn character who – with the oversized glasses and the long straight hair — resembles a lot of female reporters I’ve worked with in my adventures and misadventures on five daily newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times.

Slip and fall lawyer Marvin Pigeon is always after Bubba to do what most private eyes do in the real world, work as investigators for lawyer. But Bubba wants excitement….

Things go horribly wrong for Bubba when Albuquerque Zoo employee Jeff Simmons meets the private eye at a coffee shop to discuss weird goings on at the zoo. Seems that a lot of animals are dying or otherwise disappearing at the facility and Jeff wants Bubba to look into the matter. Before they’ve finished their coffees, Simmons is shot dead by a person in a gorilla suit.

Ignoring warnings from Lt. Steve Romero, his detective friend on the Albuquerque Police Department, Bubba gets involved big time in the ongoing police investigation of the Simmons murder. As anyone who has read even a small amount of detective fiction knows, it’s a major no-no for a private peeper to get involved in an open case. Bubba being Bubba, this rule is disregarded from the beginning after he’s hired by Jeff’s fiancée Loretta Gonzales, a lovely young fellow zoo employee whose father, Armando Gonzales is the fiercely protective and wealthy head of a food processing company.

Bubba begins to investigate what made a man – or maybe it was a woman? – shoot him Jeff Simmons in broad daylight. Was it the disappearing animals? Or was it something else? As in “Whipsaw,” the reader can follow Bubba’s travels around New Mexico’s largest city with a road map. As a map freak, I like this attention to detail.

Before he moved to Redding, CA. in the northern part of the state, Brewer and his family lived in Albuquerque, so he knows the town as only a former resident and former reporter can.

Film note: The first Bubba Mabry novel, “Lonely Street”, published in 1994, has been turned into a movie helmed by Peter Ettinger (“The Phoenix”) — starring Jay Mohr as Bubba. Other cast members include: Robert Patrick, Lindsay Price as Felicia, and Joe Mantegna, one of my – and David Mamet’s – favorite actors. Check out Steve Brewer’s web site: http://www.stevebrewerbooks.com, for more details. For more on the movie, scheduled for release this year, click on: http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2006/09/what-does-bubba-say.html

Observant readers of this web site will also recognize Brewer’s byline from the weekly humor column he writes for Scripps Howard News Service which we run every Friday.

“Monkey Man” and “Whipsaw” are excellent “entertainments”, as author Graham Greene called his crime novels. I look forward to more from Brewer.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.intriguepress.com

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