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New Cop on the Newport Beat : THE HIT MAN COMETH by Robert J. Ray (St. Martin's Press: $18.95; 357 pp.)

May 08, 1988|Mark Pinsky | Pinsky is a Times staff writer.

Like real estate, the finite and high-priced literary landscape in Orange County is being devoured, subdivided and parceled out at a rapid rate by local mystery writers.

The coastal strip from Laguna Beach to Newport Beach was the setting for T. Jefferson Parker's "Laguna Heat," and his next novel, "Little Saigon," is located in and around Westminster and Garden Grove. Irvine's Robert J. Ray has been working much of the same oceanside turf, with his two (and soon to be three) "Matt Murdock" mysteries, and now with "The Hit Man Cometh," introducing Newport Beach Det. Sgt. Frank Branko.

Anyone contemplating a roman a clef set in Orange County has to deal with the fact that there is an equally limited number of recognizable, larger-than-life plot elements: an unctuous televangelist with a large glass church; a near-psychotic politician ripped from the pages of "The Manchurian Candidate"; a savvy UC chancellor who comes across like one of the Marx Brothers; a large, privately held company, built on a swindled old land grant and now holding title on much of the county's choicest undeveloped coastal property; and a teeming, impenetrable community of Indochinese immigrants plagued by gangs and ripped by ideological crosscurrents.

Ray, who characterizes Orange County as "the Philistine Midwest plopped down on the edge of America," covers much of the field with his latest tale of an assassination attempt--at the Balboa Peninsula Fun Zone--of a nationally known evangelist running for Congress against an entrenched incumbent. The plot is littered with a full complement of dead bodies and live Newport Beach arrivistes, including a stunning rags-to-rich-bitch Spyglass Hill resident and a sexy Orange County Register reporter.

Branko, Ray's Volvo-driving, tennis-playing protagonist, is believable despite a weakness for dated tough-guy talk. And, apart from some description-by-product label and more than you need to know about small arms and explosives, Ray moves along this story of the ambitious evangelist's darker side. He has the most fun with the sociopath Col. Devane, a maniacal former mercenary bent on behind-the-scenes political power, and an elegant, highly professional female assassin.

What is best about "The Hit Man Cometh" is its insight into the machinations and back-room politics of a small police department in a wealthy beachfront community. There are overdressed departmental comers and bean counters who carp at Branko over the cost of ordering a SWAT mobilization, while at the same time planning an expense account lunch at Laguna Niguel's Ritz Carlton for pushy for self-important FBI terrorism experts who know a lot less than they think they do.

Advertised on the jacket as the first of a series, we can look forward to more of Frank Branko.

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