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Sunday Brunch | Book Shelf

Mysteries

April 05, 1998|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In this era when flashy first novels attract more attention than they usually deserve, proven pros like Robert Campbell often are taken for granted. Big mistake. Especially when it comes to the author's tales chronicling the life and violent times of Chicago politician Jimmy Flannery.

The latest tale, "Pigeon Pie" (Mysterious Press), finds Flannery poised for a quick climb up the political ladder to the top of the city's 10th District. On the plus side are his powerful backers; on the minus, an aggressive hit man who seems bent on keeping him from the alderman's seat the hard way.

On the face of it, "Pigeon" is a fast-paced yarn so smoothly written, in a style reminiscent of the best of John O'Hara and Damon Runyon, that it commands your attention from Page 1. But beyond that, Campbell is exploring the inner turmoil of an honorable man in a slightly dishonorable situation, explaining how urban power structures work and, in this instance, addressing the banning of books in public schools.

And still he has time to provide some lovely observations.

"When I walk through the door," Flannery tells us, "it's like every white-haired Irish political type in the city has stopped in for a bite and a beer. There's a lot of white-haired Italians and Polish, too, but it's the Irish way of not looking at you straight on but seeing everything about you that tells you they're mostly Irish."

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When novelist Evan Hunter writes about crime, he uses the name Ed McBain. Since crime is a big subject for him, the McBain pseudonym appears on a whole lot of books, somewhere near 70. The majority of these are about the police officers of New York's 87th Precinct. Lately, however, he has been alternating between the police procedurals and legal thrillers featuring Florida lawyer Matthew Hope. The 13th and newest of the latter, "The Last Best Hope" (Warner Books), offers something special for the author's fans--the introduction of Hope to some of the members of the 87th.

It's a gimmick, but McBain is such a good storyteller he could have added Batman to the mix and still made it credible. Here, he has Hope recovering from a bullet wound received in the last series entry. But he's mobile enough to allow himself to be hired by a woman who seems to have lost her husband. She says she wants him found so that she can divorce the scoundrel. Almost immediately, the body of a murdered man turns up carrying the husband's ID, but she insists he's not the man she married. The last place her spouse was seen was up north, in 87th Precinct territory, which is why Hope links up with Det. Steve Carella.

Corpses pile up. So do suspects. A legendary artifact, the Hemlock Cup, supposedly the one from which Socrates sipped his last gulp, plays a part in the complex plot. But when you've got two world-class crime fighters joining forces, what chance does a villain have? Well, with McBain, you never know until the end.

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In Dianne Pugh's fourth novel about Iris Thorne, "Foolproof" (Pocket), the Southern California investment counselor becomes the financial guardian for Brianna Cross, a 5-year-old girl who is the sole witness to her mother's murder. But the tyke has suppressed the traumatic image from her memory. So she can't tell the police whether her father is the killer, which is what the evidence leads them to assume. But, as Iris surmises, if Daddy isn't guilty, that means the real killer is eager to make Brianna a silent witness.

For Pugh, it's the same mixture as before--a spiky heroine, well-thought-out characters, a tricky (possibly too tricky) story line. There are also the expected little references to Los Angeles that the author likes to provide:

"He rapped his knuckles against the faux stone arch. 'Fiberglass,' he said proudly. 'You'd be nuts to install real stone in L.A. Besides, why bother with real when fake looks so good and is more practical? It's not going to crush you in a quake.' "

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The Times reviews mystery books every other Sunday. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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