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Suspenseful Thriller Introduces Policewoman With a Painful Past

May 21, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For his previous novel, "L.A. Requiem," Robert Crais ignored the conventional wisdom that you shouldn't fix anything that isn't broken. Though his series featuring private detective Elvis Cole had been steadily growing in popularity, Crais opted to give the formula a twist. He shifted narrative devices, toned down his hero's flippancy and pushed a supporting character, Cole's enigmatic partner, Joe Pike, into the spotlight. The result was a psychologically complex, mature novel that put the author onto bestseller lists.

Now, in "Demolition Angel" (Doubleday, $24.95, 323 pages), he eschews the series entirely in favor of a powerful, self-contained novel of suspense that has the compactness, velocity and effectiveness of a well-aimed bullet.

One of "Requiem's" pleasant surprises was a different sort of character for Crais, a troubled, hard-boiled homicide cop named Samantha Dolan, who came close to stealing the novel from both Cole and Pike. She may have been an early working model for the fully realized, painfully human policewoman at "Angel's" heart. Carol Starkey is a former bomb-squad technician haunted by the explosion that killed her partner and lover and left her scarred in mind and body.

Three years after that disaster, which is when we meet her, she is a self-loathing, burned-out, boozing bundle of neuroses struggling through a half-life as a detective in the LAPD Criminal Conspiracy Section. Her chance at redemption comes in the guise of a new bomb-squad death that she's tapped to investigate. The fatality appears to be the work of Mr. Red, a lethal explosives savant whose capture is the special project of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigator named Jack Pell.

Pell is a modern Capt. Ahab, so obsessed with harpooning Red he purposely neglects to tell Starkey that she's the bomber's next target. It's not exactly an auspicious start to a love affair, but while Pell waits for Red to start stalking the demolition angel, Cupid manages to get a clear shot at these walking woundeds.

Crais brings off an affecting bittersweet romance without putting the brakes on his pell-mell pacing or sacrificing one shiver of suspense. This is a thriller that works on every level, a pivotal work from a crime novelist operating at the top of his game.

*

The protagonist of Jane Goldman's "Dreamworld" (MTV/Pocket Books, $11.95, 322 pages) is a law woman of a decidedly different stripe than Carol Starkey. Sylvia Avery, in her mid-20s, is part of the security team that keeps things sunny and bright in a family theme park in (where else?) Orlando, Fla. Considering the novel's contemporary source (a blurb reads ". . . from the young, the hip, and the up-and-coming. Brought to you by MTV Books."), Avery is an oddly old-fashioned sort of heroine, a throwback to the type of girly-girl who loves the way she looks in uniform and gets all tingly at the sight of a guy's great forearms.

Even more retro, when an apparent murder-suicide occurs on her watch, she goes along with the executive decision to bury the bodies under a construction site, stonewall the local cops, and pretend that the victim and killer went off on a long trip together. Why? Well, you have to go along to get along. But also, she truly believes in Dreamworld and understands the importance of maintaining its image as maybe the second happiest place on Earth.

After meeting a few of the corpses' friends, however, she begins to think, Gee, maybe hiding those bodies was wrong. Well, duh. Against the wishes of her kindly boss and her live-in lover, who happens to be the chief executive of the theme park, Avery starts searching for the reason why a young man would kill his girlfriend and take his own life.

Joining her on this thankless and, as it turns out, dangerous search for truth and maturity is a college student preparing a thesis on urban myths. They have a lot of fun together, dodging a ruthless killer and, as befits an MTV novel, discussing the music tapes in her car. I can see the movie now, starring Britney Spears and one of the lads from 'N Sync, probably the dude with cornrows.

*

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

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