Though it unfolds in Southern California, Robert Crais' "L.A. Requiem" turns out not very sunny. Crais, who has written scripts for "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues," is now on his 8th book about wisecracking Elvis Cole and his eloquently taciturn partner in the P.I. biz, Joe Pike. Only this time two or more plots are interwoven, and Pike moves front and center stage. One story is about how Elvis and Joe hunt for the missing daughter of a rich, powerful, sympathique Latino businessman, then for her murderer, who turns out more bloodthirsty and unremitting than expected. Another concerns Cole's problems when, barely reunited with Lucy, his ladylove who has moved her home, job and son to join him in L.A., Pike solicits his help, and a woman police detective, Samantha Dolan, develops a crush on him. The third strand is about Joe: Once a policeman, he left the LAPD under a cloud and still trails a legacy of hostile feelings among his onetime comrades.
Flashbacks designed to etch Joe's background and his early life chop up the yarn. But settings are convincing, and copspeak sounds authentic: vits (witnesses), vics (victims) and vicious perps abound, almost as vicious as some of Pike's previous LAPD associates. The cat's cradle of tensions that Crais weaves--between Pike and police; Cole, Lucy and Samantha; Samantha and her senior stooges; strong silent cops coping with cackling cowards--crackles along. And Los Angeles looms, an overflowing presence: "the treasure chest of hope" perpetually reinvented, where "next to riots and earthquakes, fires are our largest spectator sport."
In the end, the unsuspected killer gets his due, Pike is cleared of undeserved suspicions, Samantha goes out in a blaze of glory, Cole will make it right with Lucy. In the meantime, he will be consoled by his cat: "There isn't so much love in the world that you can turn it away when it's offered."
There's a lot of love too in Patricia Cornwell's "Black Notice"; but it is love let down, frustrated, baffled, bilked, bitter with bereavement, played false by death. Benton Wesley of the FBI, Kay Scarpetta's erstwhile lover, friend of her friends, is dead. He had appeared as a secondary and yet central figure in previous tales: murdered, his memory survives more pungently than his living presence. There is no finality to the slaughter of a dear one, and Cornwell's characters certainly act as if they're expecting none. So the action is less about tracking villains than about the sufferings of the sleuths, the book less of a thriller than a psychodrama.
Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia; her niece Lucy Farinelli, fast-shooting agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and grumpy, acerbic Capt. Pete Marino, their sidekick from the Richmond police, go through their paces in a state of exasperation barely contained or not contained at all--overwrought, distraught, depressed, angry, on the verge of losing control. And, while bereavement gnaws their souls and nibbles at their tempers, professional functions turn out more obstacle-strewn than ever. It isn't just that, as Lucy says, they get paid to fight wars already lost. It isn't just that, as Marino comments, "Assholes like this ought to fry." It is the snares and the delusions that assail them.
On a ship arriving from Belgium, the decomposed remains of a perhaps stowaway seep out of a sealed container. Identification of the corpse or of the cause of death is hindered by the fact that Scarpetta is being oddly harassed: her morgue and offices are plagued by thefts, leaks and impersonations that threaten the integrity of their operations; her staff, friends and her job itself are menaced when a new, scheming, perfectly awful female police chief turns up in Richmond, out to get'em all for nefarious reasons difficult to discern.
Story line matters less than the protagonists' bruised souls and obtrusive feelings. So, before everything works out in the end, everyone has to wind through expectable thickets of forensics and less satisfying mazes of seething sensibility and recurring accesses of soppiness. Yet there is hope. The evil police chief is unmasked and driven off; Lucy finds self-control; Marino recovers his grumpy equanimity; and Scarpetta meets a rich, handsome man who works for Interpol, flies on the Concorde, courts her and is finally accepted. One can see dawn break over the James River. Or maybe the other way.