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SUNDAY BRUNCH | BOOKSHELF

Mysteries

June 28, 1998|DICK LOCHTE | Special to the Times

Philip Reed's second novel, "Low Rider" (Pocket Books, 306 pages, $23), is so dependent on his first, "Bird Dog" (1997), that it's almost a continuation. In "Dog," Reed's hapless protagonist, auto expert Harold Dodge, agrees to help the stunning Marianna Parado, who has been ripped off at Joe Covo's car dealership. That good deed, fueled by Dodge's lust for the lady, sends him speeding off the straight and narrow into the murky, dangerous alleys of L.A.'s underworld. At book's end, he has been forced into exile with Marianna in Chile to avoid the law's long arm. The final pages find him optimistically concocting a scheme involving Covo's widow to give his own life with Marianna a jump-start.

In "Rider," that foolproof plan spins out of control, sending Dodge into increasingly more complex and perilous situations.

Both books are reminiscent of the late Charles Willeford's wonderful novels, hard-boiled but woozy tales in which minor problems escalate into nightmares for their Average Joe heroes. Like Willeford's novels, Reed's two books are rough-edged and reality-based, the violence and humor emanating from the human condition.

In "Rider," Dodge is trying to put his life back on track, get enough money for the future and save two beautiful women. At the same time, he has become so obsessed with recovering the pieces of his father's beloved '64 Chevy Impala SS--a cream puff that one of the book's villains has stolen for parts--that he's willing to risk everything: the damsels in distress, the money, his future. That sort of automobile devotion seems to be part of the Southern California package. It's that package, toughened by street smarts and brightened by black humor, that Reed wraps up so appealingly.

*

John Wessell's heavily promoted first novel, "This Far, No Further," took a Raymond Chandler-type private eye and placed him in the sort of grime-and-grit thriller milieu that is home to contemporary novelists like James Ellroy and Andrew Vachss. The result, narrated in the present tense by the unlicensed Chicago private eye Harding, was entertaining enough, if not blessed by brilliance.

In Harding's new caper, "Pretty Ballerina" (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $24), the detective's client is flaky retired porn star Cassie Rayn, who's convinced that her junk mail holds the key to the whereabouts of her brother, missing for, lo, the past 22 years. Twenty years ago, the rest of her family was murdered, presumably by her father, while she was hiding in a room upstairs. If this weren't plot enough, Cassie is about to go public with the news that she wasn't really underage when she made her first flicks (thereby lowering their value as collectibles).

Should this seem like your cup of literary hemlock, drink deeply. But trust me that no one in this seriously misguided novel--not the vague Cassie, nor the supposedly cute suburban porno collectors, nor the eccentric hit-men brothers, nor the pathetic defrocked minister, nor the Goth housebreakers nor Harding himself and his supercool, karate-expert girlfriend--in any way resembles a genuine human being. Just as vexing, Wessell writes in a coy style that is so elliptical, you often have to stop and reread to make any sense of it, a style that descends rapidly from bewildering to downright annoying. This far, no further, indeed.

*

Two investigations twist and turn throughout "Serpent Gate" (Scribner, 314 pages, $23), Michael McGarrity's third novel about New Mexico lawman Kevin Kerney. Case No. 1 involves the murder of a much-despised patrolman in a town called Mountainair, the main witness being a schizophrenic who rambles on about a terrible event at an uncharted location he calls Serpent Gate. The second, more complex case involves murder, art theft, drug-running and political maneuvering in Santa Fe, N.M.

McGarrity, a former deputy sheriff for Santa Fe County who also has worked as an investigator for the New Mexico Public Defender's Office, imbues his fiction with a good deal of authentic police work and local lore but doesn't stop there. Kerney and the other characters--among them, Mexican drug lord Enrique DeLeon, whom the hero first met in "Tularosa"--have size and dimension, and his plots are suspenseful and action-packed without suffering any lapse in logic or credibility. We can't ask for more than that.

*

The Times reviews mysteries every two weeks. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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