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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Book Shelf

Mysteries

September 06, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | Special To The Times

It takes a storyteller of immeasurable skill to serve up a plot as reheated as the one in Richard North Patterson's "No Safe Place" and still convince a reader to keep reading (Alfred A. Knopf, 497 pages, $25.95). Stop me if you've heard this before: Sen. Kerry Kilcannon is campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. Twelve years before, while trying to achieve the same goal, his older brother, Sen. James Kilcannon, was assassinated on the eve of the California primary. Kerry has an abusive Irish cop father who drinks (no fooling!), a habit of plunging into crowds to press the flesh, and a secret love affair in his past that threatens to torpedo his candidacy. What's more, a loner with a gun is on the prowl.

Amazingly, once I got past the irritating back stories--Kerry's devout Catholic mother; his relationship with his mentor, a New Jersey political boss (what, Boston wasn't available?)--Patterson's talent for characterization grabbed me and I actually began to care what happened to Kerry and even to wish he were running for office today. Unfortunately, after the summer of Monica Lewinsky's "love dress," Kerry's clandestine relationship with star reporter Lara Costello doesn't seem like much of a public relations challenge and even their deep dark secret is kind of a snore. The book may offer the most realistic backstage look at a presidential campaign since "Primary Colors," but wait till it comes out in paperback.

*

Julie Smith's new Skip Langdon mystery, "82 Desire" (Fawcett Columbine, 309 pages, $24), is a terrific read, meticulously plotted and long on local color and singular characters whose lives are as intertwined as a French braid. "The very name New Orleans," Smith notes, "conjures up the sins of another century: riverboat gambling, black marketeering, bordello revelry, wicked skullduggery, and relentless scalawaggery," and little has changed, judging from Det. Langdon's latest case.

Councilwoman Bebe Fortier's husband, Russell, an oil company executive, has vanished into thin air. Talba "the Baroness" Wallis, a part-time computer programmer, poet and fledgling sleuth, is trying to figure out why the private detective who hired her to spy on the missing Fortier has just been shot dead in his office. And Times-Picayune reporter Jane Storey is being fed anonymous tips about Fortier's love life and suspicious corporate activities.

What makes this book compelling is not that three interesting women are racing to put together an engaging puzzle. It's the puzzle pieces themselves. The reader can't guess where the author is headed. Each scene comes as an intriguing surprise; it's like wandering around an endlessly fascinating but unfamiliar city. The ending is agreeably suspenseful, and just for creating the Baroness, the author deserves a prize.

*

"Moon Music," by Faye Kellerman (Morrow, 424 pages, $25.50), may disappoint die-hard fans of the author's Pete Decker/Rina Lazarus series who have their hearts set on a realistic novel in a similar vein. Kellerman's latest, set in Las Vegas, is closer to a horror story or a fever dream with an aggressively eccentric cast and a psychotic villain with supernatural powers who gives Hannibal Lecter a run for his money.

Det. Sgt. Romulus Poe (yes, he has a twin brother named Remus, who happens to be a giant) is called on the scene when a young hooker is found mutilated in the desert. A 35-year-old Vegas native, Poe lives in a mud hut with no plumbing and when he's not visiting hookers or hanging around Alison, his married high school sweetheart, he has a relationship with forensic pathologist Rukmani Kalil. The grisly corpse reminds him of a similar slaying by a monster called the Bogyman that took place 25 years ago, and he is determined to track down the killer.

Kellerman is a marvelous writer, and she paints a picture of a Las Vegas so dark that all the neon on the Strip can't brighten it. As long as Poe is chasing down leads, or hanging out with his colleagues, or gambling, the novel zips along. It lacks the insights into human nature that illuminate her previous efforts, but a reader with a taste for gore will be satisfied. That is, until the climax, which is laugh-out-loud absurd.

*

Life & Style reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn reviews audio books.

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