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Mysteries : Murder Investigation Reveals Family Secrets

September 08, 1999|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Darkness Peering" (Bantam, $23.95, 342 pages), Alice Blanchard's debut novel, confirms, in spades, Sir William Gilbert's lyric about a policeman's lot not being a happy one. In the mesmerizing thriller's short first section, set in the summer of 1980, Nalen Storrow, chief of police in a small Maine town with the deceptively peaceful name of Flowering Dogwood, investigates the abduction and murder of a mentally disabled teenager.

Plagued by memories of an abusive father, Storrow is a man determined to do better by his children, Billy and Rachel. But some things are unavoidable. With his hopes for a happy family rapidly dimming and with profoundly disturbing elements surfacing in his murder investigation, he is pushed beyond endurance.

The novel-length second section begins 18 years after the distressed lawman's suicide. The focus now is on daughter Rachel, a detective in the Flowering Dogwood Police Department. Not only is she following in her father's professional footsteps, she seems to have inherited his malaise. Lonely and unfulfilled, caught in a going-nowhere relationship with the very-married police chief, she is drawn by curiosity to the file of that still-unsolved murder case of long ago. Shocked to discover that her older brother, Billy, was one of the suspects, and seeking answers to family secrets as well as justice, she decides to reopen the investigation. She has barely begun when the little town is rocked by a new atrocity--the kidnapping and bizarre murder of a young woman with whom Billy worked.

This would be a strong enough backbone to support any contemporary crime novel, but Blanchard (who won the Katherine Ann Porter Award for her short story collection "The Stuntman's Daughter") goes a bit further by pitting the hapless Rachel against a serial killer as diabolical as, and considerably more believable than any Patricia Cornwell has devised for her dissatisfied heroine.

"Darkness Peering" is an engrossing, seamless mixture of several mystery subgenres--the psychological suspense thriller, the woman in jeopardy, the whodunit, the police procedural--and it does well by all of them.

*

In today's cruel marketplace, any mystery series that makes it to a 13th installment must be doing something right. Jeremiah Healy's "Spiral" (Pocket Books, $23, 360 pages) offers plenty of evidence about how the author continues gainful employment for his Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy. First, he keeps the sensitive sleuth emotionally on the ropes. Since his debut novel, "Blunt Darts," Cuddy has been mourning the loss of his wife, Beth. During the last few books, he's cut down on his visits to her grave, mainly because of his deepening involvement with an assistant district attorney named Nancy Meagher. The new novel begins with Nancy's death in a plane crash that sends Cuddy into his own personal tailspin.

Though immersed in mourning, he agrees to help his old Vietnam-era commander, Col. Nicholas Helides, come to grips with a family tragedy. This requires a change of locale (another key element in keeping a series fresh) from icy Boston to sunny Fort Lauderdale, where Helides' 13-year-old granddaughter was molested and drowned in the wealthy old soldier's swimming pool.

The unique victim (element three, if you're counting) was, despite her tender age, a coke-snorting sexual predator and all-around hellion. These excesses are somewhat explained by the fact that her father was using her natural singing talent to stage a Top 10 comeback for his once-popular heavy metal band. That brings us to element four, a well-researched, interesting milieu--in this case, the world of rock music.

Put these ingredients together, toss in some smooth interrogation sequences (a Healy specialty), solid deduction, a diabolically clever killer and a truly unusual and painful murder device and you have a model murder mystery, guaranteed to keep old and new Cuddy fans happily anticipating caper No. 14.

*

Some years back, I read Ridley Pearson's "The Angel Maker," the main plot of which concerned the harvesting of children's organs. Its hero, Lou Boldt, seemed a humanized version of the dedicated, driven protagonists who propel the action novels of Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy. The book was also filled with the sort of jargon and technical information at which those authors excel. It may have been a bestseller, but my overall impression, in spite of Pearson's stylistic superiority, was of Cussler Lite.

Intrigued by some rather remarkable dust jacket blurbs ("Better than anyone else in the business," says Publisher's Weekly; "Right now he is the best thriller writer alive," says Booklist), I picked up a copy of Pearson's latest, "The First Victim" (Hyperion, $23.95, 381 pages) to see if I'd missed something in that earlier sampling. Once again, I was disappointed.

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