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Labyrinthine Thriller About Detecting Lies

May 19, 1999|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Roy Johansen, a screenwriter whose first teleplay, "Murder 101," won an Edgar Award, makes his debut in print with "The Answer Man" (Bantam, $22.95, 341 pages), a labyrinthine crime yarn. The elements of the noir thriller are all here. The basically honest protagonist is a nice, hapless polygrapher named Ken Parker. The femme fatale is a stunning lady lawyer with the splendidly appropriate name of Myth. The tale also comes complete with a tough relentless cop, an assortment of colorful secondary characters, some shady, some helpful, and the inevitable succession of frames and double-crosses. Johansen has done a clever update, particularly when it comes to creating characters. Parker may be an expert with a lie detector (if his methods for beating them are not fiction, this book could become required reading for felons), but without his machine he's as gullible as a schoolboy. The lady who undermines his morals has a shadowy history that helps to explain her behavior. There's also an appealing female crime junkie-photographer nicknamed Hound Dog, who surfs police scanners and motorcycles to murder scenes, while her well-to-do parents rest blissfully convinced she's attending college.

Once Parker agrees to help Myth's client defeat a polygraph test, he heads down that slippery noir slope, chased by the cops and desperately trying to avoid joining an accumulation of corpses. The latter are the gruesome victims of a nasty knife-wielder of unknown identity. Johansen's a good enough storyteller to keep the pages turning, but he moves a little too fast. The physical abuses Parker endures--a severe beating and stomping, a slashed knee, second-degree burns--seem to heal rather miraculously. Usually, one McGuffin (or Maltese Falcon or Brasher Doubloon) is enough for any thriller; here we get at least two, a computer file and a hunk of metal. Both serve the least interesting (and the least developed) element of the plot--something about a business merger gone awry and its political consequences. The city of Atlanta, a relatively fresh one for mystery fiction, is barely mentioned. And in delivering his least-likely-suspect whodunit ending, the author has neglected to lay in any clues along the way. Parker is pointed in the right direction by a deus ex machina photograph that arrives late in the novel. This means that the reader is just along for the ride. As entertaining as that ride may be, mystery fans who like to figure things out for themselves may be a bit disappointed in the way "The Answer Man" arrives at its final answer.

*

With "Loot" (Morrow, $24, 320 pages), award-winning novelist Aaron Elkins momentarily deserts both his long-running series character, forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver ("Twenty Blue Devils") and the golf pro-amateur sleuth Lee Ofsted (in the books co-written with his wife, Charlotte) to introduce a new hero, Boston art maven Ben Revere. The novel opens in Austria at the wind-down of World War II, with an assortment of dead men left in the wake of a collection of Nazi-confiscated artworks. It then shifts to present-day Boston, with the likable Revere being asked by an elderly pawnbroker friend to appraise a painting left in his store. It turns out to be worth a fortune. But the broker doesn't get much time to celebrate. He's murdered, and Revere, recovering from a brutal beating at the hands of the assassin, rushes off on a far-flung quest to trace the painting's history since 1945.

Elkins' art expert essentially behaves like the private eyes of yore, collecting clues by going from character to character, but the European settings, an intriguing international cast, clever plot twists and the dark and troubling memory of that last great war do wonders in expanding the novel's contemporary appeal. "Loot" is definitely worth a look.

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

For more reviews, read Book Review

* This Sunday: David Rieff on Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," Benjamin R. Barber on the Information Age, John Gray on Russell Jacoby's "The End of Utopia," and Kenneth Silverman on "The Victorian Internet."

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