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Harlan Coben Brings Characters' Baggage to 8th Bolitar Adventure

June 18, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Harlan Coben's "Darkest Fear" (Delacorte, $23.95, 290 pages) is book eight in the author's series about sports agent-sleuth Myron Bolitar and his aristocratic and sociopathic pal Windsor Horne Lockwood III. Readers familiar with Myron and Win's previous adventures will probably have no trouble navigating through this one. Newcomers may find the number of characters and their previously established relationships a bit daunting, especially when added to the numerous father-son variations that play an integral part in the plot.

Book-to-book continuity is the problem. Golden age mystery novelists didn't have to worry about it. Miss Marple and Nero Wolfe may have had their continuing supporting players, but their biographical twists and turns were limited to the way they served the case at hand. Once that was solved, Nero and his pals went back to square one to await the next murder. Today's detective heroes and heroines are in a perpetual state of evolvement, with constant references being made to milestones from the past.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 19, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Mystery reviews--The review of "Darkest Fear" in Sunday's Southern California Living should have stated that the book is No. 7 in the Myron Bolitar series. Also the protagonist in "Mortal Sins" is Damon Rourke.

"Darkest Fear" serves as a prime example of this trend. Myron's new crisis references his college days and a night of romance that led to the broken leg that put paid to his dreams of pro basketball immortality. Here, we get a brief shorthand account (enough for series followers but a bit enigmatic for newbies) when the lady in question reenters Myron's life. She informs him that their fling resulted in more than his ruined career. There's a 13-year-old son who's suffering from a rare disease that requires an immediate bone marrow transplant. It gets worse.

The only known donor with matching marrow has gone missing. Slightly dubious about his paternal status (the woman is not the soul of truth), Myron nonetheless convinces the even more doubtful Win to accompany him on a donor hunt that leads to one of New York's wealthiest and most private families, a disgraced newsman with a father complex, FBI agents and other assorted pompous types ready to be taught humility by the duo, and, eventually, to a genuinely chilling serial murderer.

The search for the "Sew the Seeds" psycho and the wait for the results of the hero's paternity test muster up enough suspense to fill any mystery-lover's plate, but there are other ponderables for the uninitiated. What's the deal with Myron's parents? Why are they moving out of their family home? What happened in the last book (or books) to make Myron desert his business and run off to the islands with glamorous anchorwoman Terese Collins? Why is she so afraid of commitment? So many questions. So many adventures to digest. So little time.

*

One would think that since Penn Williamson's "Mortal Sins" (Warner Books, $23.95, 416 pages) is the only existing novel about Daman Rourke, a homicide cop in 1927 New Orleans, it would avoid the problem of over-complexity faced by a late entry in a series. But the fact is, just about every player in this violent historical tableaux is harboring at least two secrets--most of which are generational.

These folks are so interconnected by blood, marriage and/or lust they make the begats seem positively short-handed. With all that, and with far too many of the sort of shootouts and bombings that work better on film than on the page, "Sins" nevertheless does a fine job of conjuring up the bawdy old Crescent City at a decade when lawlessness was even more prevalent there than it is today.

Williamson either grew up in New Orleans listening to the stories or she's a real research maven. Her hero, Rourke, is a pretty good creation too. Hard-boiled but not lost to cynicism, honest but humane, he's a cop with a motherless daughter to raise, murders to solve and a former lover to save. When he gets the chance to cut through the family ties, rivalries and broken friendships and get down to the business of solving those murders, "Mortal Sins" redeems itself quite nicely.

*

In "They Wrote the Book," edited by Helen Windrath (Spinsters Ink, $12, 134 pages) 13 female mystery writers from this country and Great Britain (among them Marcia Muller, Val McDermid, Abigail Padgett and Barbara Paul) offer insight into what it takes to make crime fiction pay. Designed primarily to provide information for aspiring authors, these essays on the writing life are entertaining and informative enough to appeal to readers as well.

*

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

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