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Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Mystery Series - Butch Karp

Robert K Tanenbaum
Robert K. Tanenbaum (b. 1942) was a member of the District Attorney staff of New York City. From this experience, he found source material for his books. The series featuring Roger "Butch" Karp and Marlene Ciampi is snarky, smart and often raunchy (although this gets toned down a bit as the series progresses). However I find the books honest and engaging. The main players are not cookie-cutter caricatures. The character development over time is superb.

The first book was published in 1987 but is set in 1970 in New York City. The main characters all work for the New York District Attorney's Office. The first 15 books were ghost written by Michael Gruber. The character of Butch is somewhat biographical of Tanenbaum.

Recurring Characters of Note:
Roger Karp, "Butch"
Marlene Ciampi, "Champ"
Raymond Guma, "Goom" - ADA
Roland Hrcany - ADA
Vernon Talcott (V.T.) Newbury - ADA
Kevin Tighe - criminal
Clay Fulton - police detective
Harry Bello - almost retired/retired cop
Ariadne Stupenagel - reporter and long-time friend of Marlene
Tran Vinh - a Vietnamese with an interesting past
John Jojola
David Grale
Ned Blanchet

#1 No Lesser Plea (1987)
Karp is a young lawyer working in the District Attorney's office of New York City. He begins to learn the painful reality of bureaucracy vs. justice. Cutting plea deals is the way to keep the office running smoothly. However, there is one case that Karp can not let go of. Mandeville Louis and two other men were involved in the killing of a liquor store owner and his son during a robbery. Butch realizes that Louis has been committing similar crimes for a number of years and is determined to cut through the man's manipulations and bring him to punishment.

Marlene Ciampi joins the DA staff part way through the book, and she and Karp quickly become an item. He is rebounding from his wife's decision to leave him for another woman. Is his affair with Marlene just a reaction, or is it the real deal?

Butch respects the DA, Philip Garrahay, and fights for his reelection.

Then Louis sends a bomb.

#2 Depraved Indifference (1989)
The book begins with Croatian Freedom Fighters hijacking a plane. Their weapon is a homemade bomb that turns out to be a fake. However, a real bomb they left in a locker does go off, killing a policeman. This brings the full weight of the justice system to bear. At least it should, but Butch is finding that many different parties seem to want this case to go away.

Karp and Marlene are in a serious relationship, and Karp is now the Assistant Bureau Chief... until he gets fired by his ever political boss. Story date is 1976.

#3 Immoral Certainty (1991)
The title of this book comes from Butch's definition of "immoral certainty," the assurance that some criminals have that they never do anything wrong. The book begins with Felix Tighe being caught red-handed in a robbery. However he almost manages to turn the tables and get the police in trouble for hitting him even though he attacked them with a knife. He is convicted, but has jumped bail and is loose in the city.

A secondary plot deals with the murder of a small-time mobster.

The other primary case in the book involves a Satan-worshipping sex cult participating in the abuse and murder of children (well, this was set in the seventies, and there were a lot of such stories).

Butch and Marlene are seriously planning to get married, and Butch must get the consent to divorce his wife Susan who moved out before the series of books began.

Story date is 1977. Felix Tighe's first adult crime. Butch is Chief of the Criminal Courts Bureau. The recurring theme in all the books is the difficulty of bringing criminals to justice when there is no time for trials and almost every case is resolved with a plea bargain. This book is perhaps more violent and graphic than others in the series.

#4 Reversible Error (1992)
One of the two primary plots is that of a serial rapist who eludes identification because there is no way to track similarities. The book refers to a change in NY law (perhaps 1975 Federal statutes) which allows rapes to be prosecuted without a confirming witness, but requires evidence of force. This was a big improvement over the previous requirements for proving rape. Marlene works with a student who has been one of the rape victims to develop a computer program to identify patterns.

The other plot involves the systematic killings of city drug lords. One of Butch's friends, a cop, seems to be involved. Butch is being groomed to be the new DA, but things don't always work out politically, especially for Butch.

It looks like Butch and Marlene are actually going to get married, but city rules will not allow her to continue to work in the same department. She's not about to become a housewife.

#5 Material Witness (1993)
The book opens with the murder of a man who is left dead in a Cadillac. The two men who commit the murder think no one has seen them, but then they realize there was a trucker and his girlfriend in the parking lot who have to be dealt with.

Meanwhile, a mistake is made by a young ADA which releases a dangerous criminal whose conviction should have been a sure thing. Butch takes responsibility and resigns from the department.

Butch and Marlene are married, living in her industrial apartment, and their first baby is due in about four weeks. They are both free of career responsibilities. Butch takes up playing basketball again. He had been on the way to the pros when an injury permanently sidelined him.

However, it turns out that the murdered man was a pro player on the fictional New York Hustlers basketball team. The coach asks Butch to look into it, because the police don't seem to be taking things very seriously. Butch joins the team as their replacement player. Marlene stubbornly continues to investigate despite her advanced pregnancy.

Their daughter Lucy is born under interesting circumstances.

#6 Justice Denied (1994)
The Homicide Bureau of the DA Office has been reinvented with Butch as its head. Marlene is back to work as head of the Rape Bureau.

The book opens with the murder of a Turk who worked for the U.N. in New York. An Armenian is arrested for it- just one more bad story in centuries of strife between the two ethnic groups. The girlfriend and alibi for the Armenian disappears. Is this suspicious or not?

Marlene is cultivating a near-retirement, drunk cop who helped solve the Material Witness case. His name is Harry and he has cleaned himself up and becomes the godfather of baby Lucy. He begins working for her, helping to find the perpetrators of a supposed suicide that occurred after a rape.

Butch and Marlene are in danger of losing their "apartment" on one floor of an old industrial building in Manhattan.

In book time, it's still the late 1970s.

#7 Corruption of Blood (1995)
It's been 8 years the Butch has worked under Bloom so 1983 or 84. Lucy is 3, but it's supposedly 13 years since Kennedy assassination, so 1976. Thus the book timeline is pretty fictitious.

This is a straight-up fictional conspiracy theory book about the Kennedy assassination. Butch accepts an appointment to a Senate Committee to investigate the Warren Commission Report. Butch and his new boss originally think this is to be a legitimate investigation, but soon learn that what they are supposed to do is rubber stamp the original report. Butch has taken V.T. Newbury and Clay Fulton with him to staff the new investigation

Marlene is angry and refuses to go to Washington, D.C., but when D.A. Bloom pulls some of his shenanigans, she heads for D.C. and finds a legal adventure of her own, aided by Harry Bello.

They adopt a huge Neopolitan Mastiff dog abandoned by the neighbors and name her Sweety.

#8 Falsely Accused (1996)
Butch is working for a private firm where he is finally making a lot of money. He and Marlene have remodeled the loft into a beautiful apartment. Lucy is 7 and goes to PS1, where they must drop her off every day. She makes friends with a girl whose mother is being stalked. The mother hires Marlene to help her get this guy away from her. Marlene enlists the help of her policeman friend Harry Bello. They are so successful that they decide to open an agency to help women who are being stalked or abused. Marlene becomes pregnant again.

The Medical Examiner, Murray Stelig, is fired by the Mayor and the D.A. for reasons that seem completely bizarre to Butch. He hires Butch to bring a lawsuit against the city.

Meanwhile Ariadne Stupenagel is researching a story about gypsy cab drivers being held up and possbily murdered. Then she is seriously beat up.

#9 Irresistible Impulse (1997)
Butch is once again Chief of the Homicide Bureau of the DAs office. It's 14 years since he first became an ADA (stated to be in the late 60s, and the book says it is the "start of the 1980s," but book time does not flow quite like real time). James Keegan has replaced the corrupt Sanford Bloom, who was ousted in the previous book. Keegan was hoping for a judgeship, but was passed over, and is now the District Attorney of New York County.

The book opens with a doctor somewhat reluctantly issuing a death certificate for a womn when he is asked to do so by another doctor friend, Vince. Eventually, the death seems suspicious and the body is exhumed. Vince seems to be tied to Medicaid fraud, but proof is elusive

Meanwhile, Butch takes on the biggest trial of his career. A young white man has killed five elderly black women, but his family has hired the best defense attorney in the country, who is going to argue for insanity.

Marlene has expanded her security business, protecting celebrities from stalkers. With the funds these clients bring in, she can also protect low-income women who have no way to fend off unwanted attentions. She is simultaneously guarding a pro tennis player and a famous cellist. Vince turns up again, and reveals his true colors.

Marlene and Lucy usually stop at a Vietnamese noodle shop for her after-school snack. When the shop is burned by arsonists, Marlene learns that Vinh has many talents

#10 Reckless Endangerment (1998)

Karp is now the Deputy District Attorney for Special Projects. This position is a lightweight compared to his past jobs. However, he is currently content.

The book opens with the shooting of a Jewish couple by an Arab cell calling themselves Duhd el Dar al-Harb (Against the House of War). It looks like this group is nothing but four young men with a grudge and a lot of energy. However, things begin to heat up between the NY Arabs and Jews.

Two Mexican brothers are in jail for a murder related to a drug deal which also involves an Arab.

Lucy is 10, and the twins are 2. The year is given as 1981. Tran Vinh now works for Marlene, but Harry is getting worried about their near-illegal (and probably actually illegal) methods of protection. He goes to work for a bigger security firm and wants Marlene to follow. Vinh becomes something of Lucy's mentor and definitely her protector.

#11 Act of Revenge (1999)
Lucy is 12, and very much the pre-adolescent mother-hater. She's feeling particularly self-pitying because her ability to learn languages so easily has resulted in her being studied scientifically, and also because her figure hasn't begun to develop.

A double murder occurs in the back room of the Chen's retail Asia Mall. Lucy's friends witness the crime. Lucy is there but does not actually see it happen.

The alternate plot involves the mob-style murder of an upper-level member of organized crime.

When the two murders turn out to be related things get crazy.

We learn more about Tran's background. He is still serving as Lucy's protector, but he can't take too many more chances with the American's finding out who he really is.

#12 True Justice (1999)

At the beginning of the book, Marlene is forced to shoot yet another scumbag of a man, and she gives up her protection business. A rash of thrown-away newborns has hit the city and the media is in a feeding frenzy. Marlene agrees to defend one of these young mothers.

The parallel plot is the murder of the parents of a friend of Lucy, who is now attending Sacred Heart High School. The twins are 7.

#13 Enemy Within (2001)

The book begins with a police chase where the person being chased is gunned down when he flees. There is no question that that man killed is a lowlife, but there are a lot of forensic details that verify this was more of an assassination than a clean shoot. Race again becomes an issue as the policeman is white and the dead man is black.

Several street people are murdered. Again, there is no public outcry because these are invisible people. Lucy is now 17, and her fervent piety takes her into the deepest pits of despair where many of these people live. She also thinks she might be in love.

When a rich, white woman kills a person who she claims threatened her with a knife, Butch begins to believe there is a connection with the "bum slashings," as they have been dubbed.

Marlene makes a fortune when the IPO of the security company she works for rises in the market on the first day. However, she does not handle this well and may be teetering on the brink of a mental breakdown.

The best part of this book is a chase scene in the dark through the lowest levels of old subway and sewer tunnels.

#14 Absolute Rage (2002) This book is really a turning point in the series. The action becomes more violent. The title is fitting.

Lucy is now 18 and in Boston College. On the train, on the way home for vacation she is somewhat attracted to a boy, Dan Heeny, who is an MIT student. "Home" is now partly on Long Island. Marlene bought an old estate and fixed it up. There, she escapes the city and raises Neopolitan Mastiffs to be guard dogs. It turns out that Dan's family has the house next door. However, his family is from West Virginia, and they are only on Long Island to finish closing that house in preparation to sell it. The house had been in Rose's (the mother) family.

Dan's father, Red, is a mine worker in West Virginia. He has been fighting the "company union" for years, trying to get in a real union to help the working people. Dan stays on LI, and the rest of the family returns to West Virginia. Then he gets a call that real trouble has erupted at home because Red did win the election, but the company isn't going to accept that.

Marlene gets involved in the West Virginia mess as she tries to get a simple-minded patsy out of jail. Butch accepts an assignment to represent the feds in their attempt to clean up the politics of the coal-mining county. Before the end of the book, the entire family is in West Virginia.

This is an action-packed and sometimes shocking narrative, exposing many of the evil practices of strip mining in the mountain states.

The twins are ten, and Giancarlo becomes blinded at the end, but he handles it much better than anyone expected. Lucy has a crisis of faith.

This book is based on the true story of Jock Yablonski, and a labor crisis in Pennsylvania. The true crime book is also by Tanenbaum and is titled, Coal Country Killing.

#15 Resolved (2003)

Marlene is just barely sane and functional. She can't put the events of West Virginia behind her, and she is mostly living on Long Island, only coming back to their Manhattan loft occasionally.

Meanwhile, one of Butch's old nemeses, Felix Tighe (Immoral Certainty), is out of prison and determined to exact vengence. He get mixed up with a group of terrorists who plan to blow up the courthouse.

Butch becomes the District Attorney, filling out the term when Jack Keegan gets a federal judgeship.

Books from the beginning through Resolved were ghost written by Michael Gruber.

#16 Hoax (2004)

The next three books are a trilogy involving a maniac, Andrew Kane, who wants to control all of New York

You can definitely tell that the books from here on were written by a different person (Tanenbaum himself). There is an awful lot of backstory in Hoax. When the action finally gets moving, I think the story is comparable to the earlier ones, but it takes a while to get there.

As noted previously, book time is out of sync with real time. It is now past Sept. 11, 2001. The twins are eleven and Lucy is 20. Giancarlo has taught himself how to play several musical instruments, and he and Zac spend a lot of time on the streets busking for spare change. They sneak into a rap club to support a rapper friend of theirs. When the rival rapper is gunned down and their friend is charged with the murder, they become material witnesses.

Meanwhile, Marlene and Lucy have taken a trip to New Mexico to bond, and so that Marlene can try to recover from the accumulated trauma of the life she has led. Whle there, they become friends with a Taos native John Jojola, sheriff on the pueblo reservation. Four young boys have gone missing in the past six months. Marlene has no intentions of getting involved, but she seems to be a trouble magnet. Lucy falls for a young rancher, a man named Ned.

#17 Fury (2005)

This book is clearly the weakest in the story to date, although it doesn't lack for action. The use of language is not nearly so precise as in earlier books, and there is still a lot of backstory. In addition, there are many errors that no one would tolerate from an independent author. A punch to a victim later turns into a bite. Other bits of the story turn up later as something different. One event of the final courtroom scene is a blatant problem.

A rape and beating that took place ten years ago is one of the central plots. The Brooklyn DA is suing the city of New York for intimidating the confessions of the five young black men who were charged and convicted.

Two other disgruntled young men join up with an Islamist terror group, but they get more than they bargained for.

Marlene ends up defending a professor against a rape charge.

Throughout, Butch is accused of being racist, anti-police, of being soft on prosecuting crimes in his own office, but he doggedly clings to doing what is right.

The action is a bit over the top, but it includes all the interesting characters of the series, and another chase in New York's subterranean tunnels.

#18 Counterplay (2006)

The Neopolitan Mastiffs have suddenly turned into Presa Canario dogs which, though hard to believe, are even more ugly. This is not simply a change in the kind of dogs Marlene trains. Gilgamesh himself has changed breeds. Salt water taffy in the last book has changed to licorice. These are not major errors, but they are the kind of detail that I think should be caught in mainstream, best-selling books.

The earlier books, although action-packed, were somewhat believable. The three in this trilogy: Hoax, Fury, and Counterplay, have devolved into something more like a superhero comic book. They are not exactly bad, but they are quite a change from the earlier books. Characters have become more like characatures- the straight-arrow DA, the violence-loving wife, the mystical daughter, a cowboy, an Indian, a villian who seemingly has tentacles everywhere, and the mysterious shadow world of underworlders who live in the tunnels beneath New York.

Guma is persuing cold cases and decides to prosecute an unsolved disappearance that was probably a murder. The body of the missing person is found, but things are not quite that simple.

The Islamic terrorists who seem to be allied with the primary villian are planning another major assault on New York.

#19 Malice (2007)

Book year is 2006. This one is filled with political intrigue as the Karps try to figure out who has taken over the evil organization that was personified by Andrew Kane. The terrorist groups are still trying to cause havoc in New York City, and we begin to get an inkling of who is really behind all this.

Lucy is living in New Mexico with Ned, but that doesn't keep her from becoming involved when the Department of Homeland Security calls upon her to translate a message in an obscure language.

Butch is still recouperating from the attack at the end of the previous book, and he takes on a civil case in Idaho involving the brother of a college basketball friend. Of course, everything ends up being related.

From Hoax onward, the books are more like episodes in one continuing saga.

#20 Escape (2008)

One of the two parallel stories in the book is taken from the real-life case of Andrea Yates who drowned her five children in the bathtub. This part of the story does an excellent job of balancing the legal definition of insanity with the obviously deranged mother who thought God had told her to kill her children to save their souls.

The other story is the ongoing saga of the Islamic terrorists who are trying to bring down the United States, the Sons of Man who are attempting an economic control of the country, and the crazy cast of Butch Karp's family and friends who are constantly involved in preserving New York City and the country.

Although Tanenbaum (since Resolved) has written the books himself, this one is slightly less wordy, with more of the text to the point of action. I keep reading because I like the diverse and implausible cast of characters.

#21 Capture (2009)

The series continues very much in comic book mode with the unlikely cast of the Karp-Ciampi family, Ned the cowboy, Tran the Vietnamese who is now best friends with his old enemy the Pueblo Indian John Jojola, the ruthless reporter, the evil arch-enemy, the treacherous Sons of Man, David Grale with his army of homeless tunnel-dwellers, and don't forget the District Attorney's office. But it works!

The terrorists are still at it, having recovered from being foiled in their previous plot. Of course, they may only be tools of the Russians or the Sons of Man.

The courtroom secondary plot involves the trail of a Broadway producer. Did the girl in his room commit suicide or did he kill her?

#22 Betrayed (2010)

#23 Outrage (2011)

#24 Bad Faith (2012)

#25 Tragic (2013)

#26 Fatal Conceit (2014)

#27 Trap (2015)

#28 Infamy (2017)

#29 Without Fear or Favor (2017)

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