Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsFixme

Page 2 / IDEAS, TRENDS, STYLE AND BUZZ | Mysteries

Period Details Add to Adventures of Mentor Sleuth and Sidekick

November 05, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Color of Death" (Putnam, $24.95, 279 pages) is Bruce Alexander's eighth mystery novel about the blind British jurist, Sir John Fielding, who was instrumental in creating the Bow Street Runners, London's first police force. Like the previous entries in this outstanding series, "Death" is narrated by Fielding's young assistant, Jeremy Proctor. Jeremy is a bright and observant 17-year-old Georgian version of Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin, rushing about the city gathering information for his hard-to-please mentor. As in the Stout novels, the relationship of the two main characters is the key to the thoroughly enjoyable adventures.

But there are other pleasures: humor and smart dialogue. Alexander does a remarkable job of re-creating 18th century London and, better yet, unlike some other authors of historical mysteries, he's careful to let the period detail enrich the story rather than stop it cold. The particularly strong plot of the current novel concerns a murderous gang of burglars who are looting the stateliest homes of England.

What sets these robbers apart is that they appear to be black men. This leads Jeremy and Fielding to some rather surprising conclusions, not only about the crimes, but also about race relations in their country at a time when slavery was very much an accepted fact of life in the colonies.

*

Virginia author William Hoffman's "Blood and Guile" (HarperCollins, $24, 239 pages), like many of his works (including the Hammett Award-winning "Tidewater Blood"), is set primarily in his home state. It is very much a novel of character and place with Walter Frampton, a native of the close-knit Tidewater town of Jessup's Wharf, acting as our eloquent and perceptive guide to locations, people and events.

Frampton was present in "Tidewater Blood," too, but in the relatively minor capacity as the reluctant lawyer of that novel's protagonist. He's the main man here, a participant in a grouse hunt in the West Virginia mountains that goes fatally awry. His fellow huntsmen include his oldest and closest pals, dilettante Cliff Dickens, outdoorsman and gunshop-owner Drake Wingo and a relative stranger named Wendell Ripley, who owns the grouse-rich property that Wingo is hoping to purchase. Out of sight of the narrator and Wingo, Dickens shoots and kills Ripley in what is apparently an unfortunate accident. But the county sheriff and a shrewd prosecutor think they have enough evidence to convict him of second-degree murder, and Frampton winds up defending his friend, though his innocence is questionable.

As the lawyer searches for truth, secrets surface, none of them pleasant. Hoffman keeps his plot fairly basic, preferring to concentrate on the complexity of his characters. He provides a fair amount of back story delineating the longtime friendship of the three men, as well as Frampton's unrequited love for the beautiful Josey Lynn, another member of their clique.

The downside to downplaying the mystery is that the average reader will have no problem staying a few steps ahead of Frampton's investigation. More troubling is that the main characters can't stand the close scrutiny. Once we get to know Dickens and Wingo, it's hard to believe that these two types--aesthete and macho man--could have found a common bond.

As for Frampton, he is, as critiqued by Josey, "a tad short of being a stuffed shirt." In fact, he's a wimp. Although Josey, a self-centered, thoroughly unpleasant woman, has treated him terribly most of his life, he continues to idolize her. His closest amigos, Dickens and Wingo, don't hold him in such high regard either. He's the perennial outsider, a loner and a loser.

It's understandable that a novelist as skilled as Hoffman would want his protagonist to be as human as possible. But in creating the hero of a crime novel, respect is a fairly important ingredient. It's missing here.

*

On the subject of protagonists who lack reader respect, Lawrence Block's "Hit List" (Morrow, $25, 296 pages) features what should be a classic case. At its center is Keller, a professional assassin and not a terribly colorful one. Away from the job, he's a mildly depressed average Joe who collects stamps. It seems highly unlikely that such an immoral cipher could inspire even a short story. But Block is one-up on the alchemists: He can transform base material into literary gold.

He has written a number of stories about Keller and--here's the real magic--they're weirdly delightful. Keller made his hardcover debut two years ago in the aptly titled "Hit Man." Though billed as a novel, it was actually a collection of shorts edited to create a flowing continuity.

"Hit List" is a bona fide book-length work in which the slayer finds himself the target of a brother assassin who is determined to thin out the competition. There's a fair amount of action, nice twists and turns of plot, and even a bit of romance that ends rather badly.

But the real enjoyment of the novel comes from the sections when Keller reports to the very bright, focused woman named Dot who became his employer when her boss passed away. Their chats cover topics ranging from the mundane to the murderous. Much of it is witty, some laugh-out-loud funny.

As they natter away, their guards occasionally drop, providing glimpses of their real characters. In the case of Dot, it's not always a pretty sight. The lady is tougher than Keller and considerably more lethal. Block's magic is so potent that he raises our concerns for the future safety of his sociopathic hit man.

*

Dick Lochte reviews mystery books every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|