Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

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

Our Gumshoes Are Wearing High Heels

Mysteries

October 08, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year, Robert B. Parker interrupted his flow of bestselling novels about Spenser, a Boston private eye, to introduce a new series focusing on another Boston private eye, Sunny Randall. Sunny differs from Spenser in many ways. She's divorced. She has an elaborate history complete with ex-cop dad, clueless society mom and sister from hell. She has two names. She also has a dog, a miniature bull terrier named Rosie who's a darn sight more fun than Spenser's hound Pearl.

She takes Rosie with her on stakeouts; Spenser leaves Pearl at home. While Spenser's protector is a soulful African American hit man named Hawk, Sunny relies on a powerful, semi-sadistic gay restaurateur named Spike and her ex-husband Richie, possibly the most understanding and devoted former mate ever to appear in fiction. (Richie is also the son and nephew of Boston's reigning organized crime kingpins, who are old-school enough to consider his ex-wife as family.)

Sunny's new caper, "Perish Twice" (Putnam, $23.95, 293 pages), finds the beautiful and resourceful sleuth trying to assist three women in conflict. Her impossibly self-absorbed older sister, Elizabeth, driven bonkers by her husband's infidelity, is drinking too much and sleeping around. Her best friend, Julie, driven bonkers by her husband's impassivity, is, hmmm, drinking too much and sleeping around. And her paying client, Mary Lou Goddard, the lesbian CEO of a consulting firm with a "feminist perspective," is being stalked. It's Mary Lou's problem that qualifies the novel as detective fiction, especially when her assistant is murdered. Shortly thereafter, the stalker's body is discovered with a suicide note expressing sorrow for having killed the wrong person. The cops are satisfied. Sunny isn't, for several believable reasons, including an absence of extra bullets at the suicide's home.

Sunny is a terrific character whose conversation sparkles and whose unsentimental attitude is refreshing. However, whenever the novel shifts from the murder case to the matrimonial problems of sister and friend, it's like a good song pausing for an annoying refrain. And refrain it is. How can Sunny be divorced and remain so darned, ah, sunny, each woman asks. She tells them, but they don't seem to hear her, because a chapter or so later, they ask again. And again.

There's also a problem at the novel's end. One of the big attractions of mystery fiction has always been that it provides the sense of closure usually missing from real-life crime. The bad guys are discovered, exposed and removed. Lately, either as examples of attitudinal cool or, perhaps, authorial disinterest, there has been an unsettling trend toward endings with strings attached. "Perish Twice" answers the who-done-it and why-done-it questions, but it also leaves you with the queasy understanding that no legal consequences will be forthcoming. It's a testament to Parker's skill that his novel is as entertaining as it is maddening.

*

Parnell Hall's new female-oriented series, of which "Last Puzzle & Testament" (Bantam, $23.95, 352 pages) is the second entry, has its merry way with the cozy concept of the small-town spinster-sleuth. Hall's offbeat take features Cora Felton, the multi-divorced, vodka-swilling, crime-loving Puzzle Lady, whose popular syndicated crossword creations are actually the brain work of her often-exasperated, pretty but uptight niece, Sherry Carter. Their cottage is in Bakerhaven, Conn., a small town that, judging from the number of corpses that dot its landscape (accompanied or prompted by puzzle clues), may someday give Jessica Fletcher's Cabot Cove, Maine, a run for the title of Murder Capital of the U.S.

"Testament" concerns a wealthy dowager's will that stipulates that her heirs endure a scavenger hunt for clues to a puzzle that will unlock her fortune. Ten thousand dollars have been set aside for the Puzzle Lady, should she agree to oversee the contest. Indeed she will. Cora likes money and mysteries as much as she hates puzzles.

The fun comes not just from the Miss Marple-on-martinis concept, but from the style of the book itself, which is a sort of homage to the very entertaining, breezy mind-game mysteries of the 1930s and '40s. Cruciverbalists (a word not in my dictionary but which Hall informs us means puzzle fanciers) are provided a crossword grid to use in figuring out the clues before the characters do. The rest of us can just sit back and enjoy the show.

*

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|